Monday, October 1, 2012

The Barefoot Walk

The interpreter was looking at the downy crown of his angel-faced child.  She was asleep, in the snuggly strapped to his chest.  Her tiny heart was beating next to his, which in his estimation was not as magical as it was supposed to be.  He wondered if something was wrong with him.  What was missing?  His ears filled with the sounds of a bubbling creek, which were unavoidably soothing and soon had him feeling better about himself.  They also made it impossible to hear the jingling collar of a large, off-leash dog.

He had rolled up his pant cuffs, and was halfway through a barefooted wander around the peculiar but spectacular property recently purchased by Stacey’s mother, who was a retired high school principal.  Apparently they are paid rather well, thought the interpreter. The previous owner had been a landscaper, and the property had been his showroom, three rolling, treed acres with manicured lawns lain out like a series of rooms separated from each other by cedar hedges, groves of conifers, and islands of rhododendron and azalea.  In the front, a series of stone stairs led down to a lower level, where there was a wishing well and a koi pond long ago cleared of fish by Great Blue Herons.  Beyond that, the lawn dipped to a shallow stream named Archibald Creek that snaked around to the backyard, and there became the boundary with another large property.  Archibald Creek was a minor headwater of the Serpentine River, whose watershed drained hundreds of square miles of suburb and farmland into Boundary Bay, south of Vancouver.  The park-like estate that featured a brief, winding portion of Archibald Creek was where the interpreter now lived.

Stacey saw what was to become their new home first, on a filming day for the interpreter wildlife expert.  “Wait till you see it,” she said that evening. “You’ll love it.  It’s surrounded by giant Douglas firs, and western cedars.   It has a stream.  And it’s a Swiss chalet.”

“What?”   To the interpreter, “Swiss Chalet” meant chicken, ribs, and delicious dipping sauce.

He wasn’t keen on the idea.  Who would want to share a house with your girlfriend’s mom, even if you liked your girlfriend’s mom, which he did.   But they drove there, into Surrey, along 64th Avenue.  “There! Turn there!  The big gate,” she said.

He turned, and drove up a long, curving driveway and parked next to a very large and genuine–looking Swiss Chalet, a postcard from Zermatt.  The ground floor was stucco, with large granite stones mortared at the corners.  A matching granite chimney went up the side.  The second floor was constructed of planed cedar logs.  At the front there was an open balcony that ran the entire width of the upper story.  The roof was gabled, its pitch shallow.  The large windows were framed by decorative shutters with Swiss things carved into them – a Saint Bernard, a man blowing an alpenhorn, edelweiss.  Below the windows were wooden flower boxes painted brightly.  A stone arch above a wrought iron gate connected the house to a similarly designed garage, which had big barn doors with black strap hinges.

“Okay, I get it, sort of,” he said.  “But why?”

“Why what?"

“Why here?”

“The original owner was from Switzerland.  He built it himself.” 

“He had an eye for detail,” said the interpreter.

“Wait till you see the inside.”

Stacey and the interpreter and their child lived on the ground floor, which had everything except a full kitchen.  It did have what the interpreter referred to as “The Oom-pah-pah Room,” a bare-beamed banquet hall with a bar at one end that had a refrigerator, sink, and microwave oven.  They added a countertop cooktop and convection oven, and could cook almost anything.

But the feature that was to lead the interpreter to the encounter with the dog was a labour of love imagined and created by the landscaper.

After showing him the house, where they would live, demonstrating how separate it would be from her mother’s suite upstairs, Stacey led him to the back door.  “Take off your socks,” she said, as she leaned to pull off hers.

“What for?”

“We’re going for a walk.”  She opened the back door. “Out here.”

“In that case, why don’t we put our shoes back on?”  It was late March, not at all balmy.  It had been raining.  “I’ll go get them.”

“Take off your socks!”

She took him by the hand and led him to the first part, the flagstones. They were faintly rippled, and cool.  They went on for about 30 meters.  Next they came to a stretch of pea gravel captured within a wooden frame, which was only about 15 metres long, and not as comfortable to step on.  The next section was egg-sized river rocks set close together in concrete, and after that, the path changed to smaller stones, pebble-sized, also set in concrete.  This part wound among tall cedar trees, and ended at a stretch of rounded landscaping ties set perpendicular to the path.

A series of limestone steps led down to a walk of silvery mineral sand, like sugar, and then a smooth metal mesh above a deep metal tray, where sand would fall off and could be recycled to the walk.  And then more eggs, more pebbles, leading to the stream, where in a bend, there was a triangle of fine, yellow sand the slowing current had deposited.  She pulled him onto it. “Now step in the water, come.” Stacey was pulling his hand. 

He yelled, “Ah, cold!” 

She was four months pregnant.  “This is what we do here.”  She stood on tiptoes and held his face to kiss him.

The walk continued on at the far end of the sandy bend.  More stones, more pea gravel, more landscaping ties, more pebbles, more sand.  She asked, “Notice how it’s the perfect width for two people holding hands?”  

The walk ended with large flagstones interspersed with equally-sized patches of soft, mossy turf.  This returned them to the back door. To one side was a hose bib jutting from the wall, set about half the usual height.  It had a swivelling lever, like a surgeon’s scrub station.  Stacey clamped a hand onto his forearm to steady herself and bumped the lever with her heel.  Water poured out. “It’s actually warm,” she said, rinsing one foot, and then the other. “Isn’t that a neat feature?”

It was his turn.  She held his arm.

“Why would someone invent such a thing?” He meant the walk, the path. “What an incredible amount of work.  There must be a million little stones set in concrete.”

“He built it as a present for his wife.  They have parks with barefoot walks in Europe, where they came from.  There was a famous one in their home town.  A couple of years ago she died.  That’s why he wanted to sell the house.”

The interpreter turned off the water.  He gazed back over the walk, and said, “That’s a heartbreaker.  He worked a hundred thousand hours to end up haunting himself.”  

“But now imagine a mom and dad and their little child walking the walk together, and with the grandmother, and then later on with the child’s friends, and their parents... It keeps it alive.”

He looked at her.  She looked hopeful.  He looked at the house, at the trees, at the walk. “Okay,” he said.   “We’ll sell the condo.  We can live here.”

The walk became part of the daily routine, and they walked it countless times over the months as the weather warmed and Stacey’s belly grew.  Stacey’s mom also daily used the walk, usually with Stacey, after dinner.  He would watch them out the window as he washed the dishes.
This day Stacey and her mother had crossed the border to go shopping in Bellingham.  The interpreter happily stayed home with the baby, who didn’t yet have a passport.  This was Stacey’s first day-long trip away from her child, and she pretended not to fret, but he could tell she was anxious.  

“We’ll be fine.  We’ll be here,” he said to her.  She had pumped.  There was milk in the fridge. “Keep your phone on. I’ll call if she starts walking or playing the piano or something.”

She kissed her baby’s head, and opened the car door.

He stepped into the stream. Cold water swirled around his ankles. He heard a deep growl, and curled his arms around his daughter.  He turned to face the beast.  

It was a Rottweiler, from a run-down house a few doors down.  The dog was usually chained to a tree in the front yard, and would bark angrily whenever anyone walked past.  People prayed the chain wouldn’t break.  Today it did.  There was about a foot of it, cheap triangular links, dangling from its collar.  Brilliant, the interpreter thought. Drive a huge dog insane by keeping it continually chained, but use a chain so weak that inevitably it will snap.

He had nothing to throw, no sticks, no weapons. He had a baby on his chest.  Shoeless, he couldn’t even kick. He would likely lose a foot.

He would curl into a ball and let the dog chew on him all it wanted.  He would protect this child with everything he was.  The dog approached, barking and snapping, but seemed hesitant to enter the stream.  The interpreter stepped backward into the middle, but could go no farther.  The pattern of flow responsible for the deposition of sand on the near side of the bend also caused a deepening of the channel farther out, where the current accelerated, and the bottom became a jumble of jagged stones.  He could easily tumble, and even if he didn’t, if he reached the far side, the bank was the edge of someone else’s large property, someone who perhaps had foreseen wayward crazed Rottweilers and had erected a five-foot chain-link fence.  The interpreter knew there was no way he could scale a chain link fence barefooted with a three-week-old infant strapped to his chest and a hundred-pound Rottweiler hanging from his thigh.  He stayed put.  He stayed calm.  The dog was barking its fool head off.  Its brain was an avocado pit rattling around in a shoebox.

The infant stirred, but didn’t wake.

The dog was gaining courage, sensing a win, and was about to leap into the stream.  The interpreter feared how Stacey would yell at him for putting their child in danger. 

The dog's paw slipped, and at that instant the water began to boil, to thrash.  A crimson wave, a parade, a twisting cluster of fish swarmed the interpreter's shins, and the dog freaked, alarmed by the suddenly angry river.  It doubled back up onto the bank, spun around, barked twice, and then bolted.  In  the distance someone was yelling its name.  Bruno.

The surface sloshed madly as coho salmon, returning to their natal waterway, bounced against his legs.  He stood still, not wanting to make their trek more difficult.  These fish had spent four years at sea, feeding, growing larger, growing stronger, avoiding death every day, every minute.  Here they were, almost spent, soon to die, striving to do what he had done, with what seemed like more forethought than he had used.  They had saved his ass.

His feet were numb.  Fish he could barely discern through the surface shine fluttered past, grazing his ankles with their fins.  Each touch was a blessing. 

His daughter slept on.  He too kissed her head and he said her name, which Stacey had chosen. “Marcie.”  He had agreed immediately.  He liked it.  It sounded like “mercy,” and in this bilingual country, it also sounded like “thank you.”


Patricia Lichen said...

Okay, now I want me a barefoot walkway...

Sweet story! Save the salmon (they may save your ass)!

Hugh said...

Thanks, Pat. And hooray for salmon. They are magnificent to the very end.

pattib said...

"Its brain was an avocado pit rattling around in a shoebox." Brilliant. Love this series!

Hugh said...

Patti, thank you. I don't know where it's going to go next.