Living Artfully

 

Living Artfully: Reflections from the West Coast is a collection of essays that uncovers the interrelationship of creativity and geography through intimate portrayals of the lives of artists.

The Key Publishing House Inc.
2012

Living Artfully

Wolf at my Door, non-fiction

by Joanna Streetly
(Feature article for BBC Wildlife Magazine, 2000.)

"The hatred has religious roots: the wolf was the Devil in disguise. And it has secular roots: wolves killed stock and made men poor. At a more general level it had to do, historically, with feelings about wilderness. What men said about one, they usually meant about the other. To celebrate wilderness was to celebrate the wolf; to want an end to wilderness and all it stood for was to want the wolf's head."
Of Wolves and Men  by Barry Holstun Lopez

It's hard to keep your sense of humour when you're running away from a wild animal on a wet, stormy winter evening. More than that, it's hard to hang onto your sense of self. That day in January, I went from being a witness of nature to being a fully fledged participant. My previously comfortable relationship to the wild underwent a paradigm shift.

Before that day I wouldn't have thought I harboured any illusions whatsoever about the wildlife in Clayoquot Sound, especially not about the wolves.

"Oh no," I would tell people. "The wolves would never harm me. They're afraid of me. But I never let my dog anywhere near them; they would attack her, maybe kill her."

 

Over the last four years I have seen a lot wolves – one of the privileges of a lifestyle which can otherwise be considered basic – even primitive.

My home is a floathouse – literally a cabin that floats –  moored in Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, twenty minutes by working speedboat from the small town of Tofino. At low tide the house is surrounded by eelgrass-covered shallows. A constant waterway keeps it afloat. At high tide, the water rises to the treeline.

I assumed the voyeur's role with gravity, observed and enjoyed many moments, but the pinnacle of that enjoyment came in June 1997, on the first day I saw the wolves.

I wrote about them at the time, describing how, at low tide, six wolves had spent two hours on the mudflats outside my house, playing affectionately with one another. It had been a beautiful morning, the rich, liquidy voice of a loon spreading across the low-tide landscape, echoing slightly in the quiet, wide-open space. Light from the rising sun glowed warm and yellow. And into this scene had trotted a wolf. Just like that – casually.

Clamping the binoculars to my eye sockets, almost bursting with excitement, I could see that it was truly a wolf, not a dog: tall and grey, with a moon-pale face and a reddish tinge behind the ears. Slim, but muscular, the understated power in its hind legs was apparent as it trotted, or rather, floated, across the beach.

Within twenty minutes four more wolves had arrived, and together they played in the sun, running down the mudflats, unconcerned by the openness. They swam across the channel; then swam back again. They seemed to be waiting for something. Eventually a much larger wolf appeared. The younger wolves then laid an ambush for him and I watched as they squirmed with suspense and gave the game away by pouncing too soon, smothering him with their enthusiasm.

Then one young wolf observed a seal in the water and followed it as it swam slowly in the direction of my house, the seal observing the wolf with an equivalent amount of curiosity. They were only 60 feet away from me when the wolf realized that the rest of the clan had left and that he'd better rush to catch up with them.

At the time, my notes were imbued with awe:

"They melted into the shadows of the forest that morning, in the place where, not long ago I had seen a bear. And they faded so sublimely that it's no wonder they seem mythical. Illusions come in many forms and on many planes, and this illusion – this two-hour illusion – had for some reason chosen the plane of my 'reality' to take place. The honour will stay with me."

Since that time, I have seen the wolves on many occasions. Once, at an extremely low tide, two of them squelched down to the water's edge by the house, barely fifteen feet from me as I squatted, motionless, on the doorsill. Other times they have appeared to me audibly as mournful songs in the moonlight.

Last winter, a nearby family lost a dog to marauding wolves; their other dog survived, but was badly hurt. Then, in the spring of that year, my neighbour's dog was attacked by a wolf.

The dog, Cleo, had been roaming the island behind the two floathouses, which were tied together at the time. A small dog of blue heeler and pitbull parentage, she obviously found the notion of survival challenging. I say this because she had spent the better part of that morning barking in the forest, the wilderness equivalent of announcing "Free Hot-dogs!" over a loudspeaker at a ball game. I had already shouted into the bush in the hopes of calling her back or quieting her, but that hadn't worked. When I heard a loud scuffle, I presumed she was chasing something, but it didn't take long to realize that, in fact, something was chasing her. Fortunately she maintained her homing instinct and I was already preparing the boat when she barrelled out onto the shore with a young-looking wolf biting the scruff of her neck.

The two of them screeched to a halt when I stood up in the boat and yelled, Cleo then managing to scuttle to the water's edge, a bare ten feet from me. For almost thirty seconds the wolf stood, hesitating, yellow eyes flicking back and forth between Cleo and me. Then my own dog spoke. It wasn't a loud bark, but it was deep and intent, similar to the warning bark that wolves themselves sometimes use. Standing up on the dock, Sitka was clearly larger than the wolf, a fact that seemed to tip the scales of decision. The wolf retreated, but reluctantly, looking back often as I pushed the boat to the shore and picked up its trembling domestic cousin.

Apart from a few scratches and being covered with saliva, Cleo was remarkably unscathed. As I examined her I kept an eye on the forest, following the crashing noises. The tide was low enough for the wolf to leave the way it had come, across the mudflats to the main shoreline. After it crossed over I continued watching, still waiting for another wolf that I felt sure was nearby. Sure enough. Ten minutes later, it too slunk across the mud, furtive and quick, like a curl of smoke.

They say it is a technique the wolves have: only one animal reveals itself at first. This lessens the threat, makes a dog feel bold, inquisitive, more likely to approach the wolf. This way the other wolves do not have to stray too far from cover. Once lured to the forest, the dog does not stand a chance if there is an entire pack waiting. A friend once observed two wolves interacting with several river otters across the bay near here. The otters easily escaped into the water, after which nine more wolves filed out of the forest and continued travelling along the shoreline.

Do wolves differentiate dogs from other prey animals – seek them out for some kind of vengeance? The matter is often thought to be an issue of rivalry or dominance. It does appear that domestic dogs trigger a definite reaction among wolves, but in Interactions of Wolves and Dogs in Minnesota, a study by Steven H. Fritts and William J. Paul, it was also discovered that in 14 out of 19 cases the dogs were partially or fully eaten, suggesting physical need. But something else sets the behaviour apart, because the study also notes that:

"While preying on dogs, wolves displayed a lack of fear of humans and buildings that is otherwise unknown except when they are diseased, disabled or preying on deer. In several incidents investigated, wolves evidently focused their attention on dogs so intently that they were almost oblivious to buildings and humans. Most wolf attacks on dogs occurred within the property owner's yard and, with only two exceptions, within a hundred metres of the owner's house. In one case, a wolf attacked a dog near the doorstep and would not retreat until beaten with a shovel. This incident occurred after the owner had recently lost another dog and neighbours had, allegedly, lost two dogs. Four fatal interactions involved dogs chained to a residence or a doghouse. In those instances, the dog's collar was broken and the dog was carried away. In one case the doghouse was dragged into the adjacent woods with the dog carcass."

Perhaps, to adopt the wilderness metaphor of Barry Lopez, by attacking tame dogs, the wolves are making a statement, casting their vote in favour of continued wilderness.

I knew that wolves often attacked dogs, and equated the rivalry to that of human street gangs – found it normal. Domestic dogfights are savage, too. But previously, wolves had always run away from me, never towards me. I didn't expect that they would overcome their fear of humans to get to a dog; that I would come between them, become the protector of my dog and thereby her reluctant proxy in the rivalry. I had yet to discover that just because I don't go looking for trouble, doesn't mean that trouble won't find me and that if I slip up and make myself vulnerable then I am nothing other than fair game.

Retrospectively, my earlier easy confidence in the bush was naive – ridiculous. Is there a single creature that does not constantly fear for its life? How privileged I must be to sleep without fear, eat without fear, play without fear.

It was rainy and windy, that day in January. I was on the mudflats cutting firewood, about half a kilometre from the floathouse. Because it was low tide I had paddled there by canoe, unable to take the motorboat through the now-shallow channels. It was late afternoon, a poor time of day to have embarked on such a project.

Unfortunately the log was resting on the divide between firm sand and sticky mud. When I'd hauled the canoe up to the log I'd had to pull each foot from the mud with my hands. And now each round of firewood was going to have to be carried across that mud, up the rocks of the nearest islet. That way I could come back for the wood with the motorboat when the water was deeper. The islet is a short distance from the main shoreline, but at low tide the mudflats connect them. It was just after I had carried up the sixth round that I noticed Sitka's behaviour: she was standing by the log staring fixedly at the main shoreline.

Sure enough, a large wolf was trotting intently towards us over the mud.

My heart sank.

The familiar grey fur blended well with the rest of the picture: the mud and the rain and the dimming light. I might not have seen the wolf without the sandy-red tint around its neck. Unlike mine, the wolf's feet moved easily over the mud, and they moved with confidence, purpose. This wolf was different from those I usually saw; it was more substantial – an easy match, visually, for Sitka's eighty-five pounds.

I considered firing up the chainsaw to see if it would frighten the wolf, but in reality the sound of the saw had probably drawn attention to us in the first place. I only had a limited period of time in which to leave, and really, that was what I had to do: remove the attraction; get my dog out of there. I didn't have time to play around with saws, I grabbed the canoe with one hand and the dog with the other. Miraculously my feet didn't stick in the mud this time and we moved smoothly, calmly down to the water.

The wolf was still approaching. The distance was closing. I pushed off, into the shallow water, but at that instant a gust of wind caught the canoe broadside and swept us into even shallower water. The canoe swished aground. This was silly. The wolf could trot through the water more swiftly than I could paddle.

I sighed. I would be a poor second in a fight and I didn't want the situation to reach that point. I stood up in the canoe, raising the paddle over my head to appear large and threatening. I stared at the wolf. His pace slowed. Then I stepped out of the canoe, turned my back to the wolf and started wading, towing the canoe behind me, Sitka standing up in it, motionless, staring at the wolf. By the time I reached a small sandbar, the wolf had lost his certainty and stopped.

I waded on, the wind throwing handfuls of rain into my face, muddy water sluicing down my gumboots, my breath coming heavily even though I was keeping my pace deliberately moderate: what if the rest of the pack decided to venture out? I would need more energy. My thoughts narrowed to a tunnel that saw the quickest route home, the behaviour of the wolf, the possible approach of other wolves. I waded, tried paddling, then waded some more. Not until I reached the lee of the floathouse was I able to paddle across the channel and thankfully tie up the canoe. The trip had taken about twenty-five minutes. In all that time Sitka had never moved.

When we got out onto the dock she continued her vigil, sitting in the rain, staring, as if by having turned around to look at the wolf, she had somehow been transformed into the legendary pillar of salt. I dried her off and locked her into the house. It was getting late and the tide was rising. I had to go back for the chainsaw or it would soon be submerged. It was pitch black when I got home the second time. There was mud all over everything and I was stiff with exhaustion. My expedition had been successful but for a few rounds of firewood. I had been fortunate to come out of such an important lesson so unscathed.

In the week leading up to this adventure, four dogs had been killed by wolves in the nearby village of Ucluelet. Fear and resentment had boiled over quickly. There were instant cries for the wolves to be "deported." In a letter to the local newspaper, the owner of one of the dead dogs wrote: "I am in the midst of taking appropriate steps to protect our residents, my new pup and myself. I will not for one second hesitate to shoot any or all of these wolves when they return, and they will." The hysteria had started.

I sat at home and felt my own fear, trying to come to grips with it. What had tipped the balance? Why did I feel afraid? I realised that it was a transferred fear: I feared for the non-wild animal that I love. I was never worried about the wolf being interested in me, but I knew I would have been unable to break up a fight between him and the dog – except maybe with the chainsaw or the axe. When I broke my thoughts down further I realised that I was uneasy about the fact that my presence had become insignificant to the wolf in light of the greater attractant, the dog. The canids were ignoring the homo sapiens. In my arrogant human way, it shook me that the wolf had been so bold. Didn't he know his place? It also bothered me that the wolf, or wolves, had been watching me without my knowledge, spying on me, ironically, just as I have spied on them: Are they watching me right now? If so, where are they? Will I ever feel comfortable in the bush again?

Added to this was the nocturnal howling that had started going on, loud and long just a stone's throw away, on the island behind the house. It was as if they were taunting me and it was making me angry. Go away and leave us alone! I felt like shouting, as their eerie songs penetrated my dreaming and my waking.

On one of those nights, clear as a bell, I could see why humans fear wolves, why they have persecuted them, made them out as wicked beasts. I could do that too. I could cry for the deportation of the wolves; I could get a rifle. . . .

Can I value living in the wilderness only as long as I am immune from it? No, to live out here, I have to live with wildlife, not against it; I have to experience the beauty and the violence; I have to be part of the circle – have to accept that at some moments, when the wheel turns, my position will be lowlier than that of others. I have to take care, guard my territory and myself, just like the rest of the animals do – every minute, every second. After all, there really is no big bad wolf, there is only life. And in life there is no free lunch.

Wolf at my Door, non-fiction

Playing God, postcard story

Playing God
(Or, the worst moment in a dog owner's life. In 300 words.)

I show him the beach one last time, let him gulp the salty air from the open door of the truck. After that everything changes. Smiles fade. No matter how slowly I drive, drift logs and sea foam shear away, too fast, out of sight. In my rearview mirror I see a pale fleet of gulls. They glare at me from their runway of shining sand.
They know where I’m taking him.
Maybe he knows, too. His warm white muzzle rests on my hand. He sighs, the long sigh of one who has endured too much. Rushing wind sweeps away the stench of infection.
At birth, this dog was a slippery grey ball, falling onto straw. I know. I was there.
I push some travelling songs into the stereo. Then I reach over to ruffle his ears. He pulls away from me. Empty Judas fingers hang in air. I shut off the music. In the new silence I imagine a cock crowing, once. . . .
The road to the vet is rutted and bumpy. One big clearcut. Stygian, fire-blackened stumps loom and creak.
Twice. . . .
I cannot stop cancer cells from running amok, but I can stop suffering. Humanity allows me this. My murderous humanity.
Thrice.
When the plunger goes down on the final syringe, pale liquid pushes the light from his eyes, leaving only the flat grey sand of the beach.
The seagulls rise and scatter. Their wings beat chaos in the freezing sky of my mind.

Joanna Streetly

Playing God, postcard story

Midnight at Catface, creative non-fiction

Midnight at Catface
by Joanna  Streetly
Writing the West Coast
Ronsdale, 2008

I could have stayed there all night, I think. Breathing deeply, I would have continued to stare around me, knowing that however long I lingered, my eyes would never be able to take it all in; my pores would never be saturated; my ears would still—even now—crave the windy quiet.
Does perfection have a time limit? When does one stop the clock on a sunset? Could a moonlit mountainside ever disappoint?
There’s a shushing across my face and the air is sharp with altitude. Falling away from my feet is everything that I love—the lands and waters of Clayoquot Sound, coloured in darkness and lit with silver. The moon is lumpy, fattening for the wane, and the sea is a viscous skin, deceitful in its limpid swirling. I’m tingling as I stand there. From this eyrie, I want to reach out my arms and read the landforms like braille.
I slide down the skirt of Lone Cone mountain with my eyes, pausing at the glimmer of God’s Pocket. On to Matleset Narrows and dreams of its waterfall—frigid green pools braved only in summer; small, snuffling black bears, casual on the beaches and distant wolves brightening an inky fall night. Closer now, past Bedwell, there’d been a morning of such softness that the sky in the water had been indistinguishable from the water in the sky, until the myriad porpoises had slicked up for air all around us. Down there, past the landslide was the pygmy owl in broad daylight, and over there, on Morfee, the cliff must nearly be yellow again with monkey flowers.
These shapes hum to me through the bright night. It is an indescribable language of personal connection and memory—the language of home.
I could have stayed there longer, I know. I could have watched the moon until it set. I could have stayed beyond the moment of perfection, whenever that would be. But it is better like this, I think, because now, as I gaze up at the mountain, I can feel the allure drawing me—enticing me. And I want to go there again.

Reprinted with permission of The Sound Magazine Vol. VI, No. 2

Midnight at Catface, creative non-fiction

When I Find William


When I Find William
by Joanna Streetly
Westerly News

(Written after the disappearance of an eight-year old boy
from a beach in Tofino. He was presumed to be swept out
to sea when an extensive search failed to find him.)

When I find William
he is standing on my street
in a misty orange pool 
of street light,
arms dangling, hair
curly with leaves
and I gather him
 up,
loving him as I
 try not to run

The candle burns 
nightly in my window
as if I can lure him
like a moth
as if I will find him
on my morning 
doorstep, crumpled
a modern-day match girl.

But he is never
 crumpled when I find him.
His eyes shine through 
the salal,
seeking out 
my eyes—a boy raccoon
red jacketed, same 
white stripes,
weight 
shifting hand to hand
assessing my intentions
my honour

At the beach 
I find him
in a cave, drawing pictures 
on the walls,
prince of a
 magnificent sandcastle,
not 
in a tidepool
 face down, jacket 
sodden,
surf grass
 for hair, anemones 
for a pillow

I will find him 
every day,
on every walk
and every night
he will come to
 my candle

And he will 
never 
be lost.

-- Joanna Streetly

When I Find William


Water In My Blood

Water In My Blood
by Joanna Streetly
Women & Environment international magazine

I. Iere Village, Trinidad 1975

Wet season, dry season, cricket season, kite season
I knew their names, their signs
knew the smell of the first rain
danced in it with my brother
by the giant mahogany
shirts no longer damp with sweat
held to our skins by monsoon pressure.
Later, in hammocks
under the galvanised tin roof
we’d swing without words, the roar of rain
a blanket around us.

I remember bright women
stately as ships
water on their heads as they sailed my skyline.
Coming home from the standpipe
I would try and try to balance
anything—a grapefruit, a pebble,
trailing in their dust, chin up,
the thud of my ever-tumbling objects
barely audible
above the voices raised in song.

II. Vancouver Island 2006

My task takes me by boat at high tide
ducking beneath evergreen branches
moss in my hair, twigs.
The waterfall froths and spills its sweetness
into salt, pushes the boat away.
On days when I get it right
I can balance in the perfect spot
fill a bucket quick as I fill my lungs,
hold out a girl-child, cup in hand
so she can do the same

Afterwards, we slip-slide among boulders
under branches, over slick logs,
hands held tight, to the deepest pool.
We gasp and shriek at the cold!
Slither in, leap out, laughing into the
thick wet air, breathing water and moss
and cedar and salmon.
Back in the boat, goosepimpled,
we cross the inlet, slow against the skyline
(mustn’t spill a drop)
blankets around us, and the motor
humming us home,
our voices raised in song.

Water In My Blood

The White Road

The White Road
by Joanna Streetly
Winner of the More Than Just Mud Poetry Contest
Westerly News

I cannot write the silence,
the sharpsmooth surface of
liquid, reflecting night
beneath me, slicing away into
unconcealed darkness, until
Mount Colnett reaches up skywards
etching the breathing back of a whale
against pale stars.

The tide is swimming me
home, a giant turtle, on whose
back I ride the stillness
sinking my paddle into
the white roadway of
autumn equinox full moon.

Far across the channel
the waterfall throws
sweet rainwater into salt
a muted pour, amplified
in the warm glass night.

I ride the edge,
the dark shadow of forest
looms, frightens me,
while the open plate
of moonlight
fills me up,
singing.

Quivering blades of kelp, fin
like salmon in a sudden surge
of current, scattering moonlight,
fingers of quicksilver
skittering
helter-skelter.
Mercury spilt.

Elsewhere, silken water palms
the unseen eelgrass.
Silence, so round and full, is
slapped into fragments
by the screech of a heron,
waak! waak! on and on
broadcasting my human
transgression to all: Beware
of danger.

A flock of mew gulls
takes heed, rises, in a flight of dark
shapes, swooping low
like bats, anxious to land again,
to rest, if only briefly, on
soft grey mudflat,
before it is lost
to the incoming tide.

I paddle on, that same tide
swimming me home.

The White Road

The Dark Water, non-fiction

The Dark Water
by Joanna Streetly
Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell The Truth About Motherhood
Key Porter, 2007

My niece Helen sank “down, down, down.” There she was, on the bottom of the pool, like a lost toy. She’s three years old now, but she still remembers that time, one year ago, when she jumped in after her brother. Her father turned to pick up her life jacket and when he turned back, she was gone. It happened that fast.

Children and water can be a lethal combination. I knew that, though I didn’t have children at the time Helen jumped in. But I couldn’t have imagined how much that vulnerability would affect me when I became a mother, even though nearly every aspect of my life revolves around water. I would never have guessed how often I would think of Helen sinking and imagine my own child sinking, too.

I consider myself a calm person, not given to dread or fear. When, I became pregnant, the last thing I worried about was my unusual living situation. I own a house in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but I don’t live there. I keep a small basement space for an office, with a shower, a bed and laundry facilities, but when I go home, I go to a little floating house anchored near an island in Clayoquot Sound. I’ve lived this way for more than ten years. About half of that time, I’ve lived alone; more recently, I have been living with my partner, Marcel. By motorboat from Tofino, it takes us about 20 minutes to get home and every time I walk through the door, contentment fills my lungs—a stirring mix of joy and peace, something I’ve never found anywhere else. There’s a woodstove for heat, a propane stove and oven for cooking, rainwater in the tap and solar panels for the lights and music. It’s quiet and rustic and deeply satisfying. An ardent sea kayaker and lover of the outdoors, this way of living has never stopped me from doing anything before; in fact, I have always found great comfort and inspiration in my wild home, where the water slips in and out of the bay outside my windows and the birds and the animals treat me as part of the scenery.
I discovered I was pregnant on my 35th birthday. It was near Christmas and I was in England visiting my family. Marcel was in Tofino feeling broke. I dreamed that I was standing on a pebble beach watching vast surges of water wash in and out. I was talking to a friend, who reminded me that I was going to have a baby. When I woke up my breasts were sore and I had to rush to the bathroom.

I took out my diary and counted days and hours, including jet-lag. No, I thought. It can’t be! A baby? Change? But I like everything the way it is!
I made a late-night overseas call to Marcel. He had never been interested in starting a family, whereas I’d seen it as something to discuss “next year.” Marcel decided there was no point being negative. “So,” he said, after a short silence, “Right on! We’re having a baby.”
As expectant parents we were confident that our relationship would endure, but we found it impossible to envision our future life. How could our tiny house accommodate the trappings of another person? We have 400 square feet of open-plan floor space downstairs, with just a little less than that in the loft. Large windows look onto the water and have always given the illusion of space. But illusions cannot house a growing family. We hashed out a plan, then reverted to a state of vague denial.
I imagined that I would maintain my outdoor activities by hopping into my kayak every evening after the baby went to sleep. I had no clue how much I would rely on naptimes to carry out the basics of survival like meals and cleaning. I didn’t think about the rain and the open motorboat and how often I might end up being confined to the floathouse during the winter. I fabricated a floatation device for an infant and I didn’t worry about anything. I was being positive.
I wrangled enough work at the front desk of the Tofino hospital to get maternity leave, security that my work as a freelance writer and illustrator could never provide. I wondered what would become of my latest book, a novel I had written, which was being reviewed by various publishers, none of whom had gotten back to me.
Marcel made lists of things to do before the birth: Make money. Cut firewood. Build the baby’s room.
When the doctor told me that the baby could come “any day,” I fell off my cloud of denial with a thump, panicked and waddled home to nail in the last boards. Suddenly the whole pregnancy became real. Suddenly I needed a real room to put a real baby in. Oh my God!

In the end, our daughter took four days to be born—an expression, perhaps, of her relaxed personality. The arrival of two of my sisters from England, and daily visits by the midwife, made this a joyous, stress-free time. Since Marcel and I had not been able to imagine ourselves as parents, we had no plan to conform to. We fell into step with Toby’s rhythms and marvelled at everything.
We were staying in a house on land, with the luxuries of a bathtub (hot running water!) and a washing machine and electricity. Two days after Toby was born my novel was accepted for publication, so we were doubly celebrating. Brimming with milk and hormones, I joked that I was suffering from post-natal euphoria. But I had another maternal condition developing, too. As I watched my little child grow, ounce by ounce, something else grew within me: one part universal mother; one part tigress; one part vulnerable woman with child. Like a second self, this new addition to my psyche was visceral and radical and she shadowed all my thoughts.
I remember picking up a newspaper and seeing photos of the Russian hostage crisis: 331 people killed by Chechen rebels, most of them children. Dead children! This was monstrous! Motherhood stripped me of the filters that keep such atrocities from piercing the heart. I wept and wept. I felt as if these were my children. What is war, I realised, but humans killing each other’s children? Would I be able to protect my daughter from this vile world? How could I protect a being so tiny?
A female salmon lays hundreds of eggs in the hope that just a few will survive. I imagined my daughter swimming down life’s river—danger everywhere: war, disease, car accidents, plane crashes, drugs, men. . . . How could I deliver Toby safely to adulthood? My mind reeled with the enormity of my task. Even breast milk has now been found to be laced with PCBs and other toxins. Was I poisoning my baby as I fed her? Or was I inoculating her against an already-poisoned world?
Over the phone, my mother referred to the “terrible responsibility” of motherhood. No kidding. The word “maternal” was taking on new meaning for me. How was I going to navigate my maternal course without using fear as a compass point? My own mother never let her fears interfere with her children’s lives. Could I do the same?

Small steps. I found that I could keep my anxiety hidden most of the time, even from myself. We arranged to move back to the floathouse, resuming a life that was normal to us. The thought of this helped—anything that could bring my old self to the fore. On moving day, the boat was loaded like a gypsy caravan and the September weather was glorious, the kind that makes you feel as if the best of summer has only just arrived. We all enjoyed the boat ride home: the slick water, so full of light, the sun so warm on our faces. We felt as if the day were a welcome in itself.
At home, I carried Toby out of the boat and stepped from the garden dock to the floathouse, a distance of about two feet. And I did what I have done every single time since. I looked down. Dark water swirled beneath me, nothing reflected in it, nothing revealed by it. I thought of the baby—my baby—falling, sinking, swirling, vanishing beneath that wordless surface.

In Clayoquot Sound the average tidal variation is ten feet. That volume of water is exchanged about every six hours. This means that the view from my house is constantly changing. At low tide, small, tree-covered islands are stranded in an expanse of tidal mudflat. At high tide, branches brush the water and the islands look as if they could pull up anchor and float away.
This same tidal change creates a constant waterflow under my house. Sometimes it’s like living on a river. When I think of Helen sinking in the shallow end of the pool, I imagine clear, turquoise water—everything in plain view. When I look overboard from my house, I see dark water, moving fast—twenty feet deep, but seemingly bottomless. Once, my cell phone accidentally slipped in. I watched its glowing green digits for about five seconds. After that, nothing.
As if it is my duty, I visit the dark water in my mind’s eye every night before I fall asleep. I try not to stay too long with my vision, but it’s always there, waiting for me. For a person who has never been particularly fearful, this is a new experience. I feel as if I am diving into the darkest part of my psyche and I don’t stay long. The water shows me how quickly my joyful, feverish love for my child can be destroyed. About five seconds. After that, nothing.

When I first came to Clayoquot Sound, I worked on the water seven days a week guiding whale watching and kayaking trips, camping on tiny islands, exploring wild, foam-strewn beaches. The water permeated my living in so many ways—a constant drip in my bloodstream. Never before had I felt so alive! Every time my work visa came up for renewal I considered leaving. But every time I thought of living away from the water—this water—I feared it would be like closing my eyes and living the rest of my life asleep.
And so I stayed, never losing my connection to the water; instead, progressing to a love of the wild places that the water took me to. I had many wildlife encounters, which I wrote about in glowing terms. I felt as if the land had welcomed me; that I was on special terms with it. Then, one winter evening, my dog and I were threatened by a large male wolf. I was so used to being a voyeur of wildlife, it was quite shocking to find myself a participant. Eventually, I recovered. In a feature for BBC Wildlife Magazine, I wrote that “To live out here, I have to live with wildlife, not against it; I have to experience the beauty and the violence; I have to be part of the cycle.”
That was before I had a child.
Now, motherhood had thrown me a new challenge. Now, I worried about protecting my child when we were on the beach, or in the forest. Now, my shadow self urged me to join the ranks of those who shoot innocent wild animals “to keep the children safe.”
“Don’t let anything get your child,” my shadow self whispered in my inner ear. I resisted her, clinging to my über-rational, pre-Toby intelligence.

Once a person has escaped danger often enough, risk becomes more real. I remember my father—renown for his feats of daring—telling an audience that he never felt fear until his first child was born. Then he went on a mountaineering expedition, a first ascent, and was overwhelmed by his first real experience of fear. Two firsts. As I child, I loved this story, but it didn’t prepare me for my own experience as a parent.
When I first came here I treated the ocean as my playground. I took risks and had many near-escapes. Now that I am a parent, I stay home when it is windy; I don’t drive the boat at night; I try not to travel in the fog. These are risks I avoid for Toby’s sake. But just by living on the water I am taking one of the biggest risks of all.

Coastal British Columbia is always susceptible to tsunamis, and is, by some estimates, overdue for a serious earthquake and tsunami combined. Until last summer I never paid serious attention to this threat.
Then, late one evening, after Marcel and I had finished supper, washed the dishes and were enjoying the summer twilight, my cell phone beeped a message alert. As usual, the noise was intrusive—an obnoxious antidote to the calm of the plate-glass, light-filled water. I sighed and checked my messages. And there was Dave’s quiet voice telling us that there had been an earthquake in California and a tsunami warning had been issued.
I took a deep breath. I could only think of one thing: Toby, lying asleep in her bed upstairs, eyes closed, arms flung wide. I pictured a giant wave sloshing through the floathouse, taking her away from me, from life. It’s an icy feeling—the paralysis of fear—and it’s the same feeling I get every time I glance down at the dark water between the docks.
Marcel turned on the VHF radio and we listened to the Coast Guard channel. Just then, the warning was cancelled due to lack of evidence. The earthquake had not spawned a tsunami.
This time.

I know a woman who believes that bad things only happen if you believe they will. Just thinking about these things will attract them to you, she says. She believes she will never have an accident with her bicycle and so her children never wear helmets when they are in the bike trailer. She birthed her second child at home—no midwife, no doula, no doctor, no problems. She exudes confidence and capability. Her technique seems to have worked for her, so far.
Perhaps, as a mother, I need to have more confidence in my fate. “Always trust in your luck,” my mother reminds me from time to time. And I do, in a sense. I trust that the general route of my life will be lucky. It’s important to be optimistic. But I don’t expect luck to see me through poor choices on a daily level. If I don’t put a life jacket on a baby, I shouldn’t rely on luck to stop her from drowning.

Toby fell into the water for the first time at fourteen months. She launched herself out of the rowboat and Marcel had to haul her back in by the handle on her lifejacket. Luckily, I was in town and was spared the whole episode. Marcel said the experience had been good for her and she would now respect the water. He proved his point by taking her rowing the next day. “She was so well-behaved,” he said. “She really understands.”
Because I was not responsible, this incident didn’t trouble me. Nor did it trouble Marcel. He doesn’t believe in worrying about things that have happened, or wasting energy on things that might happen. His personality has an undercurrent of serenity that is reassuring and infectious. Toby thrives as a result of it. And although I cannot deny my maternal anxiousness—in fact I have even decided to embrace it as a normal condition of motherhood—with Marcel as my example, I am inspired to project my old calm self. For all our sakes.

Sharon Carbone raised five children on a thirty-metre boat, the original North Vancouver ferry, anchored in the Tofino harbour. After Toby’s saltwater baptism, I asked Sharon how she coped with raising kids on a boat.
“Oh God, they were always falling in,” she told me. “And then they’d drift away with the tide and I’d have to row out to get them. The worst was when my eldest boy fell head-first into a kelp bed and his head got stuck underwater.”
She sounded so nonchalant.
“They always wore life jackets; that’s all,” she said.

There are men and women close to me, whose children have died. I linger over these stories, turning the pages in my mind, wondering how those parents survived such a loss. My sister lost a three-month old baby to SIDS; my stepson lost his four-year old son in a boat accident; his aunt lost her eleven-year old daughter to a stray pellet from a BB gun; my good friend lost his nine-year old son to a cougar. In a community this small, there have been many other calamities of course, all of them horrifying—a sudden ending of beautiful young lives.
But life is not beautiful if you live in a prison. It is all too easy for me to weave bars around my child, imprisoning her spirit with a filigreed criss-crossing of what-ifs.
So how shall I cope with the dark water and the lurking wild animals? I recognize that my undoing will eventually come at me completely out of the blue—unpredicted—but that does not mean that I can ignore the risks at hand. Nor does it mean that I should try to guard against everything.
Mundane safety measures are a start. We have permanent baby gates on the outer doors. There are safety nets stretched over the spaces between the docks. Toby wears a life jacket outside. But we are still surrounded by water and there are still times when we carry her outside spontaneously, to wave hello or goodbye, to watch an otter, or a bear, or a precious flock of shorebirds that will be gone in a second if we don’t see them now. Sometimes, when I wave good-bye as I drive off to my Tofino office, I watch Toby waving back at me from Marcel’s arms. I see the water below her. My shadow self rises and I shudder internally, then force myself to “let go.” We keep waving until I am around the point, out of sight.
Cell phones and radios are good safety measures, too. I use them to gauge the weather and to cancel appointments if I think it is not safe to travel. If I am alone, I take comfort in the fact that Marcel is just seven digits away.
One windy spring day, when Toby was seven months old, I took her to one of the little grassy islets in the motorboat for a picnic. She was at the age of sitting up, not crawling yet. We sat in the lee of some huckleberry bushes and enjoyed the sun, the mossy grass and an early, exuberant hummingbird. Suddenly, an extra-strong gust of wind whirled around the island and pushed at my boat. I had anchored the boat to the island by jamming a fifteen-pound lead fishing weight amongst the intertidal rocks. I stood up, just in time to see the lead ball roll down the rocks into the water—splash!—and the boat was drifting away, anchor and all. I was torn between retrieving the boat and returning to Toby, who was now just out of my line of sight. As I ran back up the hill towards her, she smiled and waved. I waved back at her. Then I saw that she wasn’t waving hello to me; she was waving goodbye to the boat! I laughed and pulled her onto my lap. Together, we waved and waved.
I used the cell phone to ask Marcel to come and get us. But before he arrived, a strange thing happened. Perhaps it was luck. At a distance of about 500 meters, the boat was caught by counter-gusts. It began drifting back to us. At 200 meters, Toby began waving again, a hello this time. At 20 meters, she was ecstatic, waving and burbling with glee. I put our life jackets on and put her in the backpack. At five meters I waded out barelegged to the boat and climbed in. As we began motoring back to the house, Marcel’s boat came flying around the point, charging to the rescue.

Before I was a parent I would have laughed at my situation and probably swum for the boat. Now, as a mother, I felt like a failure. I had been careless in my anchoring because it was difficult to do with Toby in the backpack. And we were marooned, and what was going to happen to my boat? It was a windy day; we shouldn’t have come. What was I thinking?
When I first saw that chubby hand waving, my sense of humour was still buried by guilt. But when I realized what she was doing, the guilt fell away and I was able to match her delight. And really, that is what a mother should fear the most—quashing a child’s delight. For it is children who remind us how to find joy in simple things and if we cannot encourage joy in our children, then perhaps we should call ourselves keepers, not mothers.
I want my daughter to share my love for the water and the wild, but I don’t wish to be her keeper. For this reason, I have to teach her well; I have to guard her without seeming to guard her; I have to watch the dark water in private; I have to be honest about my fears without burdening her with the guilt of them.

There is another way in which I can become Toby’s keeper: I can imprison her in my wilderness lifestyle. A social child, she babbles endlessly about her little friends. For Toby to be able to move fluidly in society, to have a full range of options in life, and to look forward to each day, I need to offer her land and water, wild and tame, family and friends; otherwise, she will resent her upbringing and reject the very things I want her to love.
Before I moved to this bay, another family lived in a floathouse here. April was eleven when she had to move closer to Tofino, to attend school.
“I was so shy,” she told me. “It was awful. Don’t let Toby get that shy.”

When the sun shines on the west coast, the open sky promises that anything is possible. Like labour pains, the months of darkness and rain are forgotten, replaced by the joy and ease of summer. Equally, when the rain returns, it dictates our lives. Toby’s second winter was a challenge for me. She was very active—walk-walk! run-run!—but storm after storm kept us at home, when previously I would have gone out anyway, rain be damned! Short daylight hours sent me scurrying up the inlet at 4:30, like a mouse bolting for its hole. A month’s travel in January provided a welcome break from the onset of cabin fever.
At my sister’s house in London, we went daily to Greenwich Park to see the squirrels and the deer. At Marcel’s family home in New Brunswick, we went toboganning under clear blue skies. We were active. Good electric lights at night allowed me to do so much after Toby’s bedtime. I could empty the laundry basket directly into the machine, instead of packing it into the boat and later carrying it across town (along with groceries and everything else). Hot running water meant that I could bathe at home, before bed, one of my all-time favourite luxuries. I felt as if I was being lured over to The Other Side. Motherhood became so easy!
My mother has always wished that I would live less remotely. She saw me weaken and took up her cause, “for Toby’s sake,” of course.

While I tend to resist change, I could see that the time was right and that it was necessary. Also, that it was essential to decide matters while winter was a reality. With difficulty, Marcel and I discussed the shortcomings of our beloved home. He reluctantly agreed that we should spend the darkest months of next winter in town. And while life may prove to be easier, things that are easy are not necessarily more satisfying. Also, with kindergarten in the not-so-distant future, this move felt like the first step of many that may have sent us catapulting towards normality.
The floathouse is handmade, with wood that I helped to salvage and mill into boards, funky kitchen cupboards and driftwood accents everywhere. My townhouse is a regular house on the street, with vinyl siding and linoleum and carpets and drywall and a little patch of grass out front. It is not what Marcel and I dream of. We grumble about the clatter of the electric fridge, the noise of cars and the glare of street lights. We pine for the sound of rain on the shake roof and feel lost without the tide slipping past our window.
But much as we love the water, there is a new drip in our bloodstream now, a new love that eclipses everything else. If we continue to make choices that suit only the two of us, then we will lose our daughter as surely as if she were to slip into the dark water. And that is worth worrying about.

N.B. After writing this essay, we towed the floathouse to a new anchorage at Strawberry Island in the Tofino harbour, where we still live.

The Dark Water, non-fiction

Nameless, short fiction

Nameless
by Joanna Streetly
The FED Anthology
Edited by Susan Musgrave
Anvil Press, 2003

 

She looks at his hands because they are so beautiful. Too large, but well proportioned. The curve of his fingers against the baby’s head. His hands. Her baby.
“She’s going to be fine, Louise. Don’t worry.”

She stares at this nurse, this improbable angel. Except for the hands he should be playing rugby. His shoulders are as wide as the bed her daughter is lying on – and she, so small, like a seed. The nurse has said that his name is Scott, but Louise cannot think of names. In her head he is the nurse; the nurse in charge of her baby’s life.
Outside in the hallway there is noise: clattering trolleys, snapping heels, the heaving of double doors, and in the distance, the circling whine of a floor polisher. In her head there is a pool of silence. Louise cannot allow disturbance – stones, ripples, waves. Even the nurse’s words float lightly, not penetrating.
She returns her gaze to the tiny mouth, the four pearly new teeth barely visible. Lips slack. Chest moving up, moving down. A mantra. She imagines a seabird, a storm petrel, dipping and flowing over steady grey swells, wings hanging lightly from air.

Louise is willing her child away from death. She has lost to death before. This time she wants a fight. But for now, there is stability. When she first scrabbled through the door, sobbing and incoherent, a thumb tack was blocking the trachea. A silent, rock-eyed baby, mouth like an o, paralysed with confusion.
The nurse was fast. He slapped her tiny back to no avail. Then, grey and quiet, she was on a stretcher, wheeling towards oxygen and other unknowns. They went too fast. The stretcher careened around a corner and slammed hard into the doorway – Bam! – and then the screaming, the baby crying, amazingly breathing. No more silence. Object dislodged, partially.

The baby is wheezing quietly now, not much needed to sedate her. “Doctor’s orders,” the nurse said as he slid the needle in. “If she moves around too much, it might happen again. We have to find out where it’s gone; what we can do.” The look of sedation is ghostly; like a premonition.
Another nurse arrives, grey haired and skirted. White stockings, comfortable shoes. They move the stretcher slowly now, out into the hallway, toward the X-ray department. Louise hovers like a horsefly, ready to bite. She walks distractedly, trying to keep her eyes on the baby's breathing. She remembers the seabird and wills herself back out to the ocean. The lilt of grey water carries her along.
“Louise!” calls a voice. The cavalcade slows as the admitting clerk, Margaret, hurries towards them, clipboard in hand.
“We need your baby’s name for the computer. We still have her down as ‘baby girl.’ I should have asked you last time, when you came in to have her weighed.”
Louise flushes cold and starts to shake. She loses sight of the seabird. Margaret waits, pen poised, head tilted in sympathy. The pause lengthens. No words emerge. The nurses look at her as they slide away – alert, curious, like deer. Louise looks away from Margaret.
“No name,” she croaks, then stumbles after the stretcher.
Margaret stands, staring, alone between walls, her reflection glowing dimly in the waxed, green floor.

The x-ray theatre whirrs and hums with latent danger. Louise thinks of it as a chamber, as if that name could better convey the sense of malice. She has always refused x-rays, preferred not to know. “Well,” she thinks to herself, “no moral superiority today.” Today is obviously a day for fear and humility. Today she has had to announce, in public, that her nine-month-old baby is nameless. She’s not quite sure why there should be shame attached to this, but there is. As if Sweetie, Missy, Love are not enough. She relives the moment. She should have invented a name and made it easier for everyone.They think differently of her now. Even Scott, with his hands so full of love. It’s bad enough that her baby has swallowed a tack. The lack of a name pushes Louise over an invisible line: normal mother; bad mother.
Louise imagines the tiny bones of her baby’s neck and the angular point of metal. Will the tack be a blur on the x-ray? she wonders. Does it move every time air goes in?
She resumes her watch of the breathing. Steady. She thinks of her other babies, the ones she jinxed by naming them. They never breathed this way. They took air from her body – well, Nina never took very much of anything. She was the first of the never-born babies, and the most short-lived. She passed through Louise’s legs at seven weeks, when Louise was just twenty. Hardly time to get to know her. And then she was blood. And pain. And Louise on her own, in the bathroom at the college library, hoping no one would notice. Hoping that the worst would pass before the library closed and the doors were locked.
January 20, 1989.

In a way it was a relief. She wanted to get her degree and she hadn’t told Stephen yet. He’d always been good to her, but she knew he’d freak at the idea of a baby. He was in the chemistry lab when it happened, one building away, doing an experiment.
She did well in her exams that year, as if the miscarriage showed her what she should want in life: a career, not a family – well, not yet, anyway. She could never explain why she had welcomed that baby so much. It didn’t fit any of her goals. It wasn’t as if she went to university to get pregnant. But from the start she had thrilled with the knowledge of her pregnancy, reached orgasm to the vision of an open cervix, warm womb, sperm meeting egg. Her hands obsessed about the baby they could not feel, sliding over her abdomen, in a constant figure of eight. She never considered an abortion. She never told Stephen. Not even afterwards. “Period pains,” she shrugged. “This month’s a brute.”
Mary-anne was Jeff’s kid. Or would have been. She was stronger, clung on for three months. Louise and Jeff were engaged at the time. Babies weren’t on the agenda, but it was okay. Jeff had a good job, could support a family. He didn’t mind about the baby. But he didn’t mind about the miscarriage, either. Not the way Louise did. He didn’t feel the pain or the hot clumpy blood.
“Are there any products of conception?” the ambulance man had asked her. As if she could respond to words like that.
March 17, 1993.

 

The nurse, Scott chats with the x-ray technician, keeping an eye on the little girl. He keeps an eye on the mother, too. She’s standing by the stretcher with shoelace strands of hair and zombie eyes. Shock. She hasn’t spoken much. It’s normal, but you have to keep an eye out. She could keel over any minute.
Earlier, while he was rushing around, Scott ordered up the baby’s chart. On impulse, he ordered the mother’s, too. The birth chart showed that this was her fourth pregnancy. She’d miscarried all the rest. This baby’s life was a long time coming. He thinks of his own boys, aged two and five, woven into his body fibres. Possessive love flows out of him. It’s easy to love this little girl, too.
Nursing has taught Scott to avoid emotional attachments to his patients, but from time to time the shield slips and he finds himself enmeshed. This is one of those occasions. He feels as if he has slipped into a multi-dimensional world, like a dream, where he cannot separate himself from the players. He is them and they are him. A voice instructs him, tells him how to act. He trusts the voice; recognizes his professional persona.
“You won’t lose her,” he tells Louise. “She’s an old soul. Strong. She wants this world.”
Louise stares at him, pupils slightly uneven.
“I should have told her father.”
“Do you want to use the phone?”
“I don’t know where he is.” Her voice has slowed. She speaks in a questioning tone. Scott wonders what kind of a relationship Louise has with the baby’s father. Love goes wrong so easily.
“You’ll be able to find him,” Scott reassures her. “This will be over soon. It’ll be fine, I know.”
"You don't understand."

•      •      •

In a city, worlds away, Jeff escapes from his office. He breathes in the sharp spring air and the sudden exhaust of a passing car. At the coffee shop, Hilda asks him if he wants the usual. He smiles, puts the coins on the counter. It’s good to be a regular.
He takes the cappucino over to the window seat, a plush chair that is seldom vacant. He’s lucky today. His body sags into the chair. Life has changed so much: new town, new job, new girlfriend, new image. He’s a corporate cowboy now, not a frantic, sweaty small businessman. Gone are the baggy sweaters, piles of bills, tiptoed steps around his home office. Living with Louise was like living in a morgue. After the miscarriages, she had never been the same. He couldn’t understand it, really. He wanted kids, too, but a couple of miscarriages weren’t the end of the world. They could have adopted.

Well, kids aren’t really on the cards for him, now. Jessica’s only 24, with a busy life of her own. They meet in the evenings for drinks, movies, the occasional night club.
Jeff breathes in the thick scent of expresso, almost better than the coffee itself. He slurps a mouthful of foam, but a hot splash of liquid hits the back of his throat and sets him coughing. Tears squeeze out of his eyes. He puts the cup down and dabs at his tie, hoping to escape a stain. The coughing fit raises looks of alarm from the other patrons.
“It’s okay!” he manages, between ragged breaths, to the woman next to him. She leans back and continues searching her briefcase, eventually pulling out a sheaf of papers. Something about her reminds him of Louise. Perhaps it is the reading glasses.
He’s breathing normally again now. Not quite ready for another stab at the coffee, but he will be soon. He looks at the woman again. She is radiating some kind of happiness, sureness, calm. He tries to pin it down, but he can’t. It’s how Louise seemed just before he left. As if she had been set to rights. The cloud of depression had lifted, revealing the sweet soul he first fell in love with. He was sure it wouldn’t last.
The woman next to him snaps her briefcase shut. Jeff realizes that it’s time for him to go, too. He’ll fit a lid onto his coffee and take it back to the office with him. He smiles at the woman as he rises and she smiles back, before bending to pick up her briefcase. As she stands, he notices the swell of her breasts and the curve of her belly. He’s amazed he didn’t see it before. She is pregnant, probably about half way through. He tries not to stare, but his mouth drops open.

He sits back down and shifts his eyes to the window. He'll be late back to work, but, suddenly, he's got a lot on his mind.

Nameless, short fiction

Crow By Crow, non-fiction

Crow by Crow
by Joanna Streetly
from Crowlogue (a light-hearted collection of crow-inspired poetry and prose)
Postelsia Press, 2010

5:00 am
Another summer morning begins with a swoosh of wings, followed by the clatter of crowclaws on the cedar-shake roof above my sleepy head. The culprits click their tongues in a rolling stutter, before pecking at the roof—staccato, fortissimo. They are so near to my face that my eyes flinch, despite the wooden barrier between us.
“That’s it!”
Eyes closed, I leap out of bed, braining myself on a loft beam. Sore head in one hand, I pick up my crowstick with the other. The window jams, but I force it open and lean out, banging the stick against the eaves of the floathouse.
Go away! Leave me alone!”

Back in bed, heart thumping, I squeeze my eyes tight as if this will make sleep return. Instead, I listen—annoyed—to the conspiratorial oohs and aahs of crows who have merely retreated.

7:00 am
My first cup of tea. The morning water is pale and calm, moving out to sea without a ripple. The sense of calm flows into me with each breath of tea-steam. I stand in my kitchen, looking out of the window and I see two crows, black against the primrose-yellow railings of the Tuffie, our tugboat. Each crow’s feathers are fluffed out, their eyes are half closed, their beaks touching, and they look—dare I say it?—adorable. My stone heart melts; my feelings of wellbeing spread, in a grandiose way, to include fluffy crows.

8:00 am
As I wash breakfast dishes, one crow hops down from its railing perch and drinks rainwater from the small hole in the stern gunwale. I smile. Crows are always drinking here. Is this three-inch-diameter reservoir on their list of the ten best drinking holes in Clayoquot Sound? What is so special about the water—high iron content perhaps? A dash of rust?

9:00 am
My daughter, Toby, and I wander out to our floating garden to see how the brown rice lilies are doing. Every year I hold my breath waiting for the lilies to unfurl and take pride of place in my spring garden.
“Why are the flowers over here, Mummy?” asks Toby, pointing to a spot on the deck, two feet away from the lily pot. Sure enough, all four neatly-clipped buds lie severed and dull against the weathered planks.
“NO!” I cry.
A crow hops up to the highest point of my windbreak, tilts its head and regards me with a glittering eye.
“RAAH!” I yell, throwing all my rage and disappointment into this one cry, as I lurch toward the crow. It flies off, unruffled by my fury, but perhaps pleased with the overall effect of its vandalism.

11:00 am
Toby and I head into town by boat. On our walk up Fourth street hill, we dodge a round of wet, white crowfire from the tall alders overhanging the road. These trees are the daytime home of the Mainstream Mafia, a large crow-gang obsessed with divesting the Mainstream fishplant of fishfood. We keep a corvid eye out for trouble from above.

12:30 pm
We buy two cheesebuns from the Common Loaf Bake Shop and walk, paper bag in hand around the corner to our lunch spot. Swoosh, a shadow darkens my peripheral vision—a crow winging its way up the road. It perches on the hospital railing—casual—as if it’s waiting for visiting hours to begin. But there is no doubt that this bird has our paper bag in its line of sight. I dangle the bag in a come-hither fashion. The crow flies off, only to land even nearer our prospective lunch spot. Its glance is bold, impish. This crow will take whatever crumbs we leave, but its real interest is larger in scope. It wants the bag.
“Tell me Irish Grannie’s crow story again,” Toby begs. She loves the tale about my step-grandmother who had her jewellery stolen by a trained crow.
“It flew through the porthole of a boat off the coast of Malaya,” I say. “Robber crows were common back then. They still are, so watch your bun!”

1:00 pm
Lunch over, I roll up the paper bag and tuck it away. I refuse to encourage thievery. At the sound of the backpack’s closing zipper, the crow flies off and we wander into town, back past the Common Loaf. Up in the hemlock tree at the corner of the lot, two ragged young crows dip and sway on a bright green frond, their impossibly-pink mouths open wide as they beg the parent for a mouthful. I smile at the young birds’ persistence, admire the bright colours: foliage, birds, mouths, sky. This nest interests me because I watched the pair build it when the new bakery building was under construction—both projects ready by spring; prime real estate for both species. I’ve always wondered how the crows knew. Did they follow the proprietor, Maureen, up the hill from the old bakery, when she came to look at the land?

3:00 pm
Toby is in the cedar tree at St Columba church. This tree’s wide, U-shaped branch is alternately a pony, a pegasus, a seahorse. The once-rough bark has been worn smooth by the seats of many children, all with similar fantasies. While Toby is soaring her skies, I notice a crow with a large white object in its beak. Somehow, it has stolen a thick round cracker from a nearby restaurant. The crow hops towards a pile of black soil at the corner of the church garden. The soil is midden soil, speckled white with clam shell fragments. The crow lifts a large clam shell and hides the cracker underneath. It sees me watching and its nervous eyes flick over to the restaurant, then back to me. I interrupt Toby’s flight to show her what the crow has done. Hide and seek takes on new meaning as a mechanism for survival. When is this crow planning to eat the cracker? We decide to come on a cracker hunt tomorrow.

4:00 pm
Back at the dock, a fresh cluttering of empty mussel shells is sprinkled over the deck of my boat. A large white splat of crow poop is sunbaked onto the windscreen. I sigh and pick up the washcloth I keep for just this purpose.

6:00 pm
As we enjoy the evening quiet in our floating garden, we watch the crows massing above Tibbs island. Their evening pilgrimage to a safe roosting-site brings each crow of my day, along with countless others, into the crow-fold—the murder of crows. After this pre-roost sunset gathering, they will fly out to Lennard Island, to exasperate Caroline, Jeff and Tony at the lighthouse. They fill the sky just as they fill my daily thoughts. Each airborne crow represents a different feeling: anticipation, suspicion, admiration, fury, humour, annoyance, and—at this moment—relief.
I don’t wish crow-mischief on anyone else, but I’m always relieved to see them go!

Crow By Crow, non-fiction
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