The Road In Is Not The Road Out
The road unravels, turning on the gears of the engine. The sound I imagine the mountain makes; a seismic rumbling like a volcano. I lost track of where we were miles ago, but never questioned my father’s ability to see us through. Dirt roads like ropes tied in knots, connecting small satellite communities and final outpost fishing villages. The truck rocks in and out of a muddy patch and makes a sharp vertical ascent, aimed at a strip of blue sky between tandem rows of trees.
Grace and B squeal in the backseat playing a game of pass, reaching across the seat to slap each other. I lean forward as far as possible, straining against the seatbelt as the vehicle crests the top of the hill. Nothing but blue, then a hazy splice where the pacific falls into the curvature of the earth, the wheels unraveling more of the terrestrial shore as we descend. The being that is me staring out through the eyes of another, each becoming aware of itself, alternately real and unreal. Like two pages that at first had looked like one as they are leafed, gathered, into a growing pile on the left—sorting read from unread as time relegates moments into the past, so the ‘I’ that I am now would later become just one of the other’s memories.
The girls gasp and lapse into a trough of silence, each gazing out their respective window.
My head at a precarious height from my body left somewhere far below. A fear of heights evoked by an unreasonable fear of falling, tingling in my extremities where my skin meets my shirt. I distract myself with the markings on the map, comparing the distance we’ve traveled against my own amassed experience, coming up miles and miles short. A revelation for which I would need an older person, my father’s, perspective to understand, asking, how many miles the earth is round?
He thinks for second, “I don’t know exactly, it’s been a long time since I looked it up. Probably something like 20,000.” Less than I had expected. I was worried that it might be something like a hundred thousand. Numbers I knew existed but did not feel comfortable using as measurements.
The road makes a final decisive descent along an easement carved out by a river. Turning several times before it flows beneath an arched wooden bridge connecting the mainland to an island peninsula. Rows of houses line the perpendicular shore, the larger ones in front to protect the smaller ones from wind and weather. High facades painted with traditional West Coast themes comprehensible only to their inhabitants, Coast Salish, who had lived here in unbroken occupation for upwards of fifteen thousand years.
Our father points at the houses as we pass them on the bridge, “you see the way they’re lined up along the shore like that? It’s a warning to boats that this is an inhabited place. From the pictures you can tell, if you know how, who the people are, what nation they’re from, their family and other things.”
On the other side is the ‘tourist district’; an open marketplace constructed of raw logs is the center of everything here, a semi-sedentary strip mall, selling seashells, candles, carvings, canes, shrunken heads, clay figurines and cedar basketry. The vibe neither ominous nor cheery, but neutral as if something has, or is about to happen. Or it might just be a slow day. The long narrow peninsula lined with ‘shops’, plain wood buildings, half of which look like a front for something else. The proprietors wearing smiles and machine-made native garb that appear as much of a facade as the stores they run.
In the courtyard a customer argues with a vendor. The customer shouts, “Don’t give me old salmon. I don’t want broken salmon.”
Grace and B wander off at some point. We find them oogling ceremonial masks in a glass display case. Grace wants a rattle, B, a soapstone bear. I want a drum. Father haggles with the shop owner. They reach an agreement under amiable terms. We stow the objects in the truck and proceed with our fishing gear to the delta of the river we had crossed on our way into town. Several deep, clear pools have been worn out of the rock by the action of currents. Father says we probably won’t catch anything, but we’ll try.
A few women are milling about on the beach cleaning the day’s catch and loading it into small driftwood huts. Then they light fires and the huts begin to pour out smoke.
After about a dozen casts father says he has something, reeling in a twenty-pound salmon, “How’d that get there?”
Grace and B are bent over tide pools, observing the oceans of life within. We find a small restaurant built on stilts and what looks like driftwood at the edge of a cliff just above the high tide line. The hostess, a young Salish woman in cedar skirt tells us in unaccented English to seat ourselves. Only a few of the thirty or so tables are occupied. We take a table by the window and order a communal supper of smoked oysters, salmon cakes, keish and berries with bannock. Grace and B negotiate themselves out of their chairs at some point and go out onto the deck. Telescopes mounted on the railings afford a 270-degree panorama. A few ships can be seen poised to drop off the edge of the Earth. They aren’t coming to shore and don’t appear to be moving at all. After a few turns each we become bored or satisfied and go inside where our food is ready. When we emerge into the webby near-dark the market is even quieter than before. The locals stare at us in a way unlike anything we had seen at home or in the city; where people are too numerous and too busy to pay attention to anyone else.
A look of consternation crosses our father’s face as we prepare to leave. We still need gas, but he hasn’t seen a gas station yet. “There’s got to be one somewhere,” he says, more to reassure himself.
At the supply store he barters with a middle-age Salish man in modern western attire. The stakes are raised when the shopkeeper wants to barter for us, pointing his finger in our direction. Father takes out his wallet and waves its contents in the air, imploring the man to take his money. The commotion attracts the attention of others. Father finally manages to secure five-gallons of gas for all the money in his wallet plus whatever’s in his pockets. He makes his way back to the truck, situating us in such a way that we can get inside without appearing like we’re about to flee. He empties the can into the tank and tosses it to the ground.
The vendor and his tribesmen approach with the slowness of receding light, matching their speed with ours so whenever we move they do. Reaching us at the same time that the truck lurches forward, their knives’ blades pinging off the metal body. We lose them on the bridge as father shifts into second, then third. A rock smashes the rear window. Grace and B scream and duck behind the seat until we’re out of range, later cajoled out of hiding with treats: granola bars and gummy bears. We ascend the way we came and down through the same forest corridor. Grace, B and I doze off as we enter more familiar climes. Lulled by the steady whoosh of wheels on gravel. Father wakes us every now and then to talk him up while he drives. We nod in the dark, responding with a tired grunt or yawn. Roused several times by the sharp escalation of his voice at the peak of action. Emerging from dreams into stories, stories into dreams so one is indistinguishable from the other. I tell my father about a dream I had with the spooky native people; their bodies painted red and white. They had the truck surrounded and were aiming at us with bows and arrows. He listens intently, relieved to hear someone else talk for a change.
“Spooky natives, eh. That’s quite an imagination you have, son.”
About the Author: Daniel is a graduate of the Creative Writing program from Vancouver Island University. He is a reader and contributor to the Tongues of Fire reading series and has appeared in The Birds We Piled Loosely, Clockwise Cat, Grey Sparrow and the Gyroscope Review. He has written several books (novels), all currently seeking publishers. He lives in Victoria, B.C.