Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Volunteer

The interpreter was dragging a twelve-foot wooden folding ladder from a shed.

“I help you,” said Cyril the volunteer, materializing out of nowhere.

“No, that’s okay, no, let go, Cyril, OW!” His hand was mashed against the doorframe. The ladder fell on his foot. “OW!”

“Sorry,” said Cyril. “I help you carry it.”

“No!” said the interpreter.

Cyril was a young man who volunteered at the park on Saturday mornings. He was from Macau and although had lived in Canada for almost a decade still struggled with English. He had started at the park as a high school student, hoping to perform 30 hours of volunteer service, a requirement for graduation. He finished his 30 hours within two months, and four years later was still volunteering. He liked the park and had an almost worshipful fondness for the interpreter, which other interpreters found amusing. The interpreter found it annoying.

The interpreter had never liked supervising volunteers. He never knew what to do with them. There wasn’t much that needed to be done that didn’t require specialized knowledge, and he believed that one thing you should never do with volunteers was waste their time with meaningless tasks. He felt that if you couldn’t find something genuinely useful for volunteers to do, you should at least have them do something that interested them. Cyril, his most ardent volunteer, seemed to like birds.

“Maybe we’ll do nest box maintenance,” the interpreter said to Stacey that morning.

“Just think about that,” she said. “Think of all the ways he could possibly hurt you. Hammers, nails, heavy wooden things...” There was a well-known history of Cyril unintentionally inflicting bodily harm on the interpreter. He had fastened his hand to a bulletin board with a staple gun. He had dropped a steel cross-piece from an exhibition tent on his head. He had dumped a carafe of hot chocolate in his lap.

“Ladder,” Stacey said. “You’ll be remembered for perishing in a hilarious slapstick accident.”

“Bah,” said the interpreter. “He’s been improving lately." Cyril would prove her wrong. “I'll see you this afternoon, still in one piece.” The conversation played in his head as he pressed the bleeding heel of his hand against his thigh.

The interpreter explained to Cyril that the plan was to remove the old, squirrel-chewed and flea-infested nest boxes and put up new ones that had been constructed and donated by a troop of cub scouts. Six or seven of the twenty or so were usable, having sides and tops and bottoms that came together without large gaps. The interpreter had preselected these and added an additional piece of wood to each, which he cannibalized from the shoddier efforts. The extra piece he nailed to the back so that it extended above the bird house. He then tapped two more nails into, but not through, the extensions. The nest box would be placed against the tree and the nails would be hammered in—simple.

“I’ll carry the ladder, you push the wheelbarrow,” said the interpreter.

“Okay,” said Cyril.

They grunted along into the woods, the interpreter occasionally bumping into tree trunks and then backing up into Cyril, Cyril hitting roots and dumping the load. Eventually they arrived at a tree that already bore a nest box. The interpreter decided to check its condition. He struggled to position the ladder, fighting gravity, fighting Cyril. “It’s okay, I’ll do it! Cyril, Let go!”

The ladder had to be leaned rather than spread open so that its top rested against the trunk. The legs were then ground into the soil to achieve stability. The presence of roots meant this was not always possible.

“I go up,” said Cyril.

“Yeah, well, you be careful,” said the interpreter.

Cyril quickly reached eye-level with the box.

“How does it look?”


“What’s inside it?”

“Oh. It is empty.”

“No dried grass or moss or anything?”

“No anything.”

“Great, just leave it there,” said the interpreter.

“I pull it off,” said Cyril.

“No, don’t bother.”

Cyril wrenched it from the tree. The interpreter had to throw his weight against the ladder. The nest box landed in dense salal beside him.

“Good job,” said the interpreter as Cyril climbed down.

“Easy,” said Cyril. He seemed ready to move on.

“Shall we put up a replacement?” the interpreter asked. “That’s basically the point of this.”

Cyril considered. “Okay,” he said. “I do it.”

The interpreter held the nest box against the trunk and showed Cyril how to drive the nails. “Put it as high up as you can,” he said.

“Okay,” said Cyril. He tucked the hammer into his belt and climbed one-handed, holding the nest box against his chest.

The interpreter divided his attention between keeping the ladder steady and watching for falling objects. Cyril hammered tentatively, swinging from the wrist.

“You’ll have to hit it harder than that,” the interpreter said.

Cyril repositioned himself, leaning into the ladder. It took a long time, including the bending and unbending of nails, but eventually the box was secured. Cyril sighed from the effort and stepped back down. He rubbed his neck.

They looked at the tree. “Oh. It is wrong,” said Cyril. The nest box tilted strongly to one side.

“It’s a bit crooked, but it’ll do,” said the interpreter. “We can always adjust it later.”

They continued along. “We might put one on that tree,” said Cyril.

“That tree’s too small.”

“Maybe this one.” It was a pine, alone in a clearing.

“That’s too exposed. But we don’t want deep in the woods either. You have to think like a chickadee. They like to flit across open spaces, but not live in them. They like to have a nest where they can see danger coming. Find one at the edge of a clearing.”

“There!” Cyril pointed. It was a young spruce with a patch of clear trunk at ladder height, and with no confounding lower branches.

“Perfect,” said the interpreter. “That’s thinking like a chickadee. Do you want to do this one?”

“My neck hurts. You do it.” Cyril handed the interpreter the hammer, and the interpreter climbed the ladder, cradling the nest box like a football.

“Hold the ladder firmly,” he said. “It’s a bit wobbly.” He got to the top, but then backed down a step. It wasn’t steady.

“You can think like a chickadee? How can a human think like a bird?” Cyril called up.

“I can think like a lot of things,” said the interpreter. “Lately I’ve been thinking like a giant, dog-sized salamander.” He closed his eyes, imagining lurking in cold, oxygen-rich water. He was in a dark, shadowy place, beneath a log, or within a cavern in a river bank. He was waiting for motion, a passing fish, the leg of a wading bird, a frog. He would lunge.

Cyril watched. The interpreter wasn’t attaching the nest box. He was smiling at the branches above. Cyril asked, “Ah, are you going to hit the hammer?” He then turned his face downward and rubbed his neck.

“Hmm?” The nest box slipped. The interpreter yelled, “Heads-up!”

Cyril lifted his face as if to kiss the falling box. The nest box bounced, and Cyril fell to the ground, silent.

He had killed him. The interpreter slid several feet, and then jumped from the ladder, which went crashing down in the opposite direction.

When Stacey arrived at the nature house, Cyril was leaning back in a chair with a bag of frozen cranberries across his face. The interpreter was filling out an accident report.

“What happened?” she asked. “Cyril, are you okay?”

“Vengeance is mine,” said the interpreter.

Cyril pulled the cranberries away. “It was a little accident,” he mumbled.

“I think he just has a fat lip,” said the interpreter. “I told him he should go get checked out, but he’s being stoic.”

“Let me look at you,” Stacey said.

Cyril allowed her to examine his injuries. “He dropped a bird house on my head from a tall ladder,” he said.

“Shame on you,” Stacey said to the interpreter. She moved Cyril’s face from side to side. “Show me your teeth,” she said.

They went outside to look at a canoe that was strapped to the top of a sport utility vehicle. Both were owned by Stacey’s cousin Randy, who was on a month-long vacation in Europe. This vehicle and boat were to provide transportation during The Great Quest.

The canoe was yellow, with black foam sponsons on the sides. It was low and wide, the keel almost concave. The interpreter was somewhat of a canoeing purist. This thing was not a canoe. He thumped it with his fist. “Is it plastic?” he asked.

“Fibreglass maybe?”

“It’s a banana,” said Cyril.

“Good one,” the interpreter said.

“Why don’t you take it for a spin,” Stacey suggested.

The interpreter said, “Yes. I would rather it sink here than out in the middle of nowhere.” He reached to release the bungee cords.

Cyril was instantly in his way. “I help you,” he said.



Karen said...

Funny! Didn't realize your job was so dangerous, especially concerning volunteers... hope Cyril and you are both able to survive future encounters without too many further injuries!

Dave said...

Um, Karen, you know this is fiction, right?

spinyurchin said...

heh heh
"Cyril watched. The interpreter wasn’t attaching the nest box. He was smiling at the branches above."