Ignoring a grey, rain-bulging sky I decide to go for a walk. I can’t say why as there is no question it’s going to rain, and soon, but there is no one to justify my choice to so it doesn’t matter. I shuck on my goretex and go.
The yard is still, omnipresent as if waiting for the deluge. No robins hopping, heads raised every second instant in wariness. Looking at the lake I see no ospreys fishing – gliding silently one hundred feet up, ready to accelerate downward instantly in a headlong bullet dive down three, four, even five feet into the glacial lake- then rising triumphant, a flopping anguished trout rapidly dying on those pointed talons, never ever imagining it could fly so high and far from the hiss of cold water embracing soft gravel and smooth rocks.
In a place of small constant motion throttled back by overriding stillness, I tighten my boots and walk away from the unsettling quiet. It must be the heavy weather I think.
Dew laps my boots through the grasses and then gives out to underbrush. I walk on decades of spongy forest rot; choose a stick, a path and a destination. Shard Lake. I’m already hot under the waterproof but I am walking into the mountains where it will be cooler. The weak sun that is momentarily with me is on my face and in my eyes and at first I see only a shadow, a shuffle of light at different intersects.
I squint – where is the slate sky of ten minutes past? – shielding my eyes and discern a man walking towards me steadily. An old man. Trotting beside him is a dog.
“Hello” I say, louder than necessary in the still of the intersection. “How are you?”
He is still a few paces off, walking slowly and steadily as if I were part of the path. A curly Santa Claus beard that is long and red tinged at the end, his ears full and jutting at angles beneath a stained and well-worn Tilley hat. His pants look corduroy, badly stained and well worn too. They match his boots, seams threatening to tear, but supple and fitting like a second skin as everything else seems to too.
“Hello miss.” We stand comfortably near but far enough to take him in. The dog squats just behind him, rheumy eyed, old, but loyal and willing. I see the sweat stained kerchief tied under the hat, take in the stout walking stick and the flannel undershirt mooned in sweat at the armpits. I’m swathed in layers of synthetics, all bright colours and high tech material. We are night and day, except for the implements and the purpose.
“Good day for a walk, isn’t it?”
In the quiet at the close trail edge, my voice is squeaky high and I shiver invisibly, the fine hairs on my nape standing. It is the unexpectedness of seeing another hiker in the cool grey late morning. That’s all.
“You’re going up the trail then, are you miss?” His voice is reedy, his eyes life-worn, smiling though. The dog slavers, rises stiffly and shuffles as if in signal. The moment breaks apart as he tips his hat, with just the slightest of movement.
“Enjoy your walk.”
“Thank you. I will.”
We pass each other awkwardly, almost touching, and then I turn to watch them as I ascend; they shrink gradually into the road against the fir green forest, two moving figures in a still landscape. When I turn again before climbing into the comforting shaded woods they are gone.
I go up steeply, purposefully, breaking into misted grey sunlight and then descend with care down to the bridge as the clouds lower. I sit gratefully, pondering who he is while staring into the white froth of the creek. I know almost everyone here after all.
Two hours later I’m back where we met, still no one moving except me as the fat drops of rain hurry me home.
I never saw him again but with every walk up that trail he came to mind. Where did he come from, looking like a caravan gypsy from forty years ago? Like a vagabond, with that companion dog?
I find out.
Riding our bikes on a warm and sun-drenched spring afternoon, Jack and I opt to take Constance Road for a change. He’s my biking partner, older than me and I think he likes me more than I do him. It’s still unspoken, and probably always will be. I know he calls wanting more than just an excursion though, using the exercise excuse to cover his shyness.
“See that place?” he points.
I see a forlorn little cabin, tarpaper flapping and a corner awkwardly tilting. No deck and small grim windows. I nod as we ride past side by side.
“Old Croyder’s place.”
I swerve to avoid a steaming pile of horseshit and shrug as he accelerates and rides ahead.
“The old prick was a pedophile.”
“Who was?” I ask, the wind and his speed pushing my words back at me.
I know though. The rest of the way we ride in silence, as if taint and something vile have somehow slopped over the sunny day, covering our bikes, our clothes, our thoughts and even ourselves.
It came out at a party. A bunch of us stood semi-circled around a surrendering fire, everyone too drunk or lazy to assist its dying or build it back up. That’s when I learned.
“See the blonde?” Jack motions, my head lolling on his shoulder.
“That was her old man,” he says, gently propping me upright, then slips away to talk bikes with two guys sharing a joint. I rise and shuffle around the glowing red ring, drunk, aware of the stars above me. Aware of her silhouette, the dangling cigarette, her beer close to her breast as if a defence.
“I think I met your dad once” I start, turning toward her profile.
She swivels to me and her face is vixen, and mad. Her body tenses visibly and her eyes are glints. She stares for what seems like literal hours, coldly appraising.
It’s a hiss, with a lingering, ringing hate behind it.
“You’re wrong. I lost him five years ago.”
“But I’m pretty sure from what some people tell me…”
She grabs me hard then, violent and scary.
“You KNOW…you stupid bitch, just like everyone else here does too. He ruined me, what he did to my boy…”
She looks at me full on, inches away from my face, eye to eye.
“You never met him!”
She stares fixated on my eyes. Her pretty face is shadowed by the dying fire, her fist bunching my jacket, and then she melts. She groans audibly as if kicked hard. She staggers away as I reel back, stumbles past the fire pushing hard through the crowd and then she is gone, swallowed by the darkness.
She’s right. I never saw him, never met him.