I was heading my way up north, in slow but surly pursuit of the seasonal mallard migration, in the hopes that there would be some shooting at the tooth of Powder Mountain. It had proven one helluva long racket, both in physical mileage and in manifestation, from my outpost as Store Manager of the town of Whistler’s Timber Supplies and Woodwork Shop. I’d hung our sign reading “Closed Till after fall” in our shopfront window – knowing well that drifts of blue autumn snow would soon obscure the glass – and had bedded down early, with nary an eyeful of William Carlos Williams and a kick of gin before sleep stole on me. 4 am the next morning, and with a burning cigarette bummed from the deck of Red Devon quashed into my shirt-pocket, I’m surveying the lay of the country at the cabin of my Winnebago. Extinguishing the cigarette onto the sole of my boot, I crunch out of the caravan’s threshold into the snow, and of a sudden it’s falling freely onto my shoulders like the stoat-robe of a boggart-king, or the nuclear fall-out from some misbehaving hydrogen bomb. I’m breathing gin into the woodland air. The smoke hangs for a moment so that my eyes sting, and the song of a warbler resonates in the thick of the treeline. A star looms sharply at the height of the sky’s thermals, right above me, and I can still make the shape of a few others, night’s celestial survivors clustering to a raft in the wake of day. I do a hard and savage piss at the back of the truck, thrust the hood of my parka over my scalp, and shoulder the supplies.
Winter game, as a stoic sort, can be pretty timid and selective in when they choose to break hibernation: but like those possessed of even the best stamina, it ain’t wrong to anticipate the transgressions of deviants. It’s near to a koan what my daddy imparted to my childhood sister and I, before he suffered a heart attack and suffocated to death in the ore mine: You ever seen a caribou read? Nossir. And you know why? Because caribou harbour no concern for the theories of those animals who can. I wasn’t presuming to pretend that a population of buck elk would be fanging through the pine at Brandywine Mountain, especially not so early in the season. One evening at the shop, I just became consumed. A feeling of urgency descended upon me. My heart beat like the handshake of a Blackjack champion. Standing at the counter, I had to excuse myself. The sweat was streaming off me, lashes of it, and I retreated to the shed, out back in the frost, fists balled to my abdomen. Panting, I shut out the birdcall and the susurration of engines at the front of the store. I was being called. It felt like an invitation to fight, simultaneously mean and polite, and I knew the ghost of my daddy was calling upon me to forge my way northward. I’d heard tell of rogue black bear coasting like sludgetankers through autumn’s yellow revolt, and of a convoy of wapiti which made their claim of the maples in a clearing somewhere north-west of Brandywine Falls. A reverent people, elk. This herd was said to be decades old, the veteran phalanx of some lost generation, vaulting over river cascades and through bitter snowfall in a feeble plight to recreate the grandeur of a winter exodus. Either unprepared for or contemptuous of the commitment necessary to abandon the choreography of an annual migration, these elk took to the highest fucking climes of British Columbia in order to satisfy tradition, and the onus of their forebears.
I couldn’t much discern the point, not at the time, but it took me more than a few months after the event to realise that I wasn’t just seeking a trophy for validation to justify the beckoning which had begun to seize me up during the day, invading the mental refuge I’d established for nights of unaided sleep. It took me more than a few months, actually, to appreciate that I’d long been hibernating on my feet. I had yet to endure two different heartbreaks and confront the possibilities of unnegotiable catastrophe, kill a creature that wanted my future, and dispense with daddy’s 77 magnum over the smoking foundry of Brandywine Falls before returning home. Bullet cartridges blossomed from my fist down into the swell of the rapids, darting from beneath my presiding shadow like a shoal of red salmon into rhapsody, into deep water. For hours my hands would stink of gunpowder as I tramped back up the foothills, leaving prints for a flank of wolves to divine in the permafrost of afternoon.
At 7,700 feet, Powder Mountain prevails over the icefields which extend from the mouth of the Squamish River to the south of Whistler all the way to the furthest topography of Ganbaldi Provincial Park, devolving into a ridgeback annexe which wallpapers the frozen horizon, describing a circumference of caldera lakes and stone promontories which no hand of miraculous intent could properly sculpt. I’m fond to regard the summit as the centrifuge of some widespread storm front. Rolls of thunder descending in parabolas of molten basalt. Forks of lightning carved from granite, and wind-smoothed like striated glass. But I ain’t much of a proponent of narrative-fantasy, leastways not over a long-haul: I can’t seem to muster the longevity, nor maintain the lie which an athletic imagination demands. So I’m swift to calculate that Powder Mountain is really only as vertiginous and impressive as fable might protest, when it’s viewed in the bracing clasp of a chill violet dusk. Looking at it square, like I’m fixing to deter a returning shark, I can’t assemble the syntax, nor the breadth of wonder which that mountain provokes in me when I survey its implacable contest, ingest its scorn and tiger beauty. Hunching low to the undergrowth, I squat and exhale vapour. I’ve long been loathe to exchange parry or parlance in the language of the clock, but it takes me a sure ten minutes kneeling in the new lawn of snow to fasten the gas kerosene, like a bedroll, to the centre of my back. In seconds it’s aflame behind me, a fist or blade of orange light cleaving the conspiracy of forest blackness embroidering the pinewood canopies. The flame flickers as I walk, sending and disrupting silhouettes to the borderzones of my peripheries, fire-shapes like autumn leaves dancing on the canvas of a Canadian morning. Oil fumes escort my passage as though the jet of ink enabling a squid’s escape. My feet are breaking tiny icicles as they fall; and still the buoyant squash-racquet devices attached to the underside of my snowshoes erase these furrows which my progress leaves: like the ribbon of a typewriter spun from silence, quietly reclaiming words as it surfs across a page. This begins the lonely march. It’s an hour before I palm a cigarette into my mouth, striking the waxen match-head against an emery board I’d misplaced in my jacket pocket; another hour after that, as daylight intrudes with the welcome vehemence of an old pro, before I stop to gauge my bearings and refill my water-flask.
Sometimes all this snow, all this vibrant ice can make a man believe things his own blood would accelerate to disconfirm. It’s the violence of wind loping uncaged and luminous through the trees, or the sound of a branch snapping a pace of twelve feet behind you, or the illusion of movement at the height of the closest foxhole undergrowth when everything is disorientating and obscured by logpile mists that can converge to spook a man. I was being haunted by birds. At the outset of my trek there had sounded the occasioned warble of a thrush, the startled alarm of a wood-pewee as its red-breasted platitudes reverberated through the gaps of conifers, voices like bells from thoraxes of glass and throats of melody. It didn’t take six cigarettes to start hearing the whoop of a pride of kestrels hunting above me, or the manic chattering of magpies between the leaves and the opaque peat-like fog. I’d divined fresh rainwater after harvesting a bushel of ice from the edge of a snow-bank, malingering on my haunches and snapping like rabies at the wheel of a pocket-lighter with my thumb, melting the frost into the bottleneck of my flask, when I heard wind of the barks. It sounded like laughter at first, dark choleric laughter, a coughing that wheeled and escalated between the snowfall, the flakes tumbling too heavily to discern where the murder or merriment emanated from. A wing flapped. A cough, a bark. I shouldered my pack, the kerosene lamp curiously contributing no measurement of security to my passage. I forged through the snow, doubling my efforts, scaling higher ground, running, tripping, clawing without traction at the mantle of white death, forever judging and collapsing the mortar and marrow of men, snow above me, snow below me, snow sweeping into my fucking eyes, snow. The light was venomous, silvering, spangling through prismic sleet like chaos braiding chaos between strange attractors. It kept falling, would not concede, did not recede. It continued to blind me, and the voices were sharp now, viscid and insistent. When I couldn’t move any more I waved my arms about, sundering my umbilicus with the forest floor and its autumn graves. I shook off clover, snow, sky, ghosts, snow. An apparition formed before me, and I knew it was both the birds and not the birds: a scarecrow united through, and agglomerated by the forms of a parliament of ravens; black birds with red hearts and pupils, come before me to build the body of a man. The wraith engineered from this swarming, rustling roost of ravens was looking at me, manifest before me with two hundred persecuting eyes. He outstretched his arms, the forms of arms. The birds chittered like a Spanish monkeypuzzle tree, the tide of quarrelling, carolling laughter shivering down the scarecrow’s body. His arms were wings, and they were the assemblages of wings. I could not discriminate a face, if such a creature can be said to possess one, but he did have a chest because it rose and fell with the breath of two hundred others.
‘What the fuck do you want?’ I screamed, my face hot with tears. ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’
A voice as bright, as accusatory, as noxious as a firework held back the advance of day.
‘I need to know the state of my son. I need to know Babe Rockerfeller, my son, possesses the fortitude and gamble to devour this fucking mountain and all its power.’
‘Dad,’ I croaked, my voice hoarse, ‘I’m okay now. Just demonstrate me some fucking peace.’
I spun around wildly, stumbling in the snow, now succumb to the visor of blackness which had hooded me, screaming into the night, breathing hot pillows into the air, breathing lotuses. The warbling and politics and brilliant chatter of the ravens expanded, coalesced to seal me into an envelope of corvid speech and blue illumination, a realm of sound where no compass nor cartographer could have proven useful. I squared up into a boxer’s stance, my eyes and forehead lowered, the cleft of my chin sharp with my chest. I would fight the visions of the night, I decided: I would not allow the moon its crimson victory, I would violate, I would seize the hearts of ravens, still dark and beating; condemn them to lands leagues beneath our earthly wind. I would swing my fists. I would eat the ripest cries for mercy, never mind the bitterness, and spit out the pips. ‘I taunt you with a dare!’ I shrieked, my voice and its hoarse promise failing through the blanket of snowfall which cloaked my mouth and eyes. I spat out snow, but it did not abate: it continued to enter me, burrowing into my ears and nostrils, blinding me with a sharp frost which accumulated like glass-crafted dew over the lids of my eyes. ‘Reveal yourself, and I shall kill you without pleasure!’ I whispered, my throat strangulated by the deed of some unapologetic apocalypse. I could see nothing; the windows had been boarded from the outside, by swift and unholy hands, and I was trapped behind once-inviting walls, clawing like a feeble animal at where I guessed points of light used to penetrate. Blindness is like being in a condemned church that is about to be razed to its foundations. I couldn’t see the fire – my eyes were too fast-closed to afford me the luxury of witnessing my demise – but there was a flame forged by devils encircling me, I was compelled to admit to that much, and before the weapon of the night struck me its savage blow, I felt good about having seen my daddy, and my body exhaled like the chrysalis of a leopard moth until it was fit to rupture. Something sudden and wet and angry rustled beneath the schism of my chest, and I could feel the gin leave my stomach and exit my mouth in plumes of dragon breath, until my ears burned and my head pounded. There were sounds in my mind, somewhere, like a rage born in driving rain. I fucking hated this snow. I hated the moon, I hated the forest which had me skulking on my belly like a cornered fox, I hated the birds, conspirators on wings, I hated the witching hour and the dark which had flooded my body, burying me whilst I still yet breathed. I tore off my gloves, and scratched at my eyeballs, unvigilant and furious, shouldering the blizzard wind and all this molten ice, unending space-junk being shed from on high, to the hackles of my back, murmuring to myself, Get behind me, get behind me, give me only your blessing. My hands found their purchase, and my eyes graced the cold clearing, vision rushing back like sound through a wave-pounded ear.
I was standing alone, and it appeared the snow had long since stopped falling. The sun was banding the trunks and boughs of trees, emerging from between the thick of pines. The sky was light, unclouded, bearing the hue of a honeycomb city. I heard owls make off, their great wings thrashing, into the woodland’s barren centre, where the shadow of dawn retreated the slower. I stood within a cairn of volcanic stone, the surface and contour of each metamorphic rampart gleaming like an evil prize beneath the treeline. My eyes were bleeding, the trickle feeding into the apexes of my mouth, and though my lantern was extinguished, as dead as the world in a historical photograph, I could only smile. My breath returned, ragged and euphoric, like a dog pulled from the body of a river and reclaimed by its master. The morning was trembling between the teeth of conifers and the needles of powdered snowflake. I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing. As cool as new steel, the fist of my heart unclasped itself, wholly inviting the ebullience of this new event and embracing the sun as it gloried in my surroundings.
Not three metres from the pinnacle of my shade, at the centre of the cairn of stone beat the flesh and thresh of a giant monarch butterfly, with a span of orange wings more vast than the days of spring. The insect had to be a metre-and-a-half wide at the diameter if I’m to own up to my talent for the measurement-tape at all. It was labouring over an egg of ice, drinking its fill with the singular zeal of a fey thing, all proboscis and wisdom and iridescence and wing. I lay down beside the butterfly, unfastening my pack, and watched it open and close like a fist or a flower, until my head became heavy, and sleep smote me of reason.
‘There are some who sleep as though fearful that their indiscretions might surface in their slumbering behaviours, thrashing and shunning away from the rose-dark toxicity of dreams.’
The voice entered my head with a means to usurp me, upturning the furniture of fantasy to sit astride the throne of the black kingdom behind my eyes. It smoked sweet tobacco, and purred its witticisms with a face like that of the red astral tiger. ‘There are still others, however,’ the voice demurred, ‘who sleep with the abandon of escapologists. Succumbing to the night’s helm to evade eyes who might wish to ask discriminating questions.’ It paused to inhale deeply from its filterless smoke. Red Devon. My brand. My deck of cigarettes. ‘In theory, one such question could manifest itself as: “Who the fuck is it that I find sprawling in his own spew on country repatriated to the remaining ancestors of the Squamish Indian Tribe, and why does he carry nothing but books of William Carlos Williams and ten boxes of cigarettes?”’
I woke, then, all breath evacuating the fortress of my sternum. A man of Indian descent with deep-set eyes, a green so dark they appeared lapis lazuli, had the peak of his knee set with a violent mathematics squarely into my ribcage. I screamed soundlessly, my retinas casting their aspersions whilst I held clenched teeth. He observed these silent allegations with a quixotic amusement, and shifted the fullness of his weight so that my lungs could do nought but embrace the trespass. I choked, and I mouthed something from a Herman Melville novel or a Billy Zane flick. It made no impression: the blood of the Squamish ran through this man like centuries through the Squamish River. I couldn’t do squat to him that might lend an edge of malice to the drama of my ill-forged threats. He looked equipped to arm-wrestle the one-eyed Jack of Diamonds, least of all a carpenter from Whistler with a receding hairline and the scar of a car collision wrapping the bridge of his boarish nose. I ascertained the commonplace: the Squamish maintained the advantage.
‘What do you want me to say? What the hell do I have to say to get your carcass off me?’
He exchanged a stare with me that was a dazzling thing to behold. In the spangle of afternoon light, I could neither identify nor guess at where the whites might be. It was a gaze to shovel away the violet dusk. The Squamish was smiling. ‘Ah. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow.’ He withdrew his knee, and my lungs swelled to burst, pitching me forward until I was involuntarily possessed by a coughing rage, gulping in droughts of air, shuddering with jaw agape, sucking it in, all that damaged life. I watched him shrink back beside my pack, as I lay cradled like a foetus in the bower of surface snow. Laboriously, his face a crossword puzzle of scar-tissue, he sank to his ass and thrust his palm into the innards of my supply-pack. ‘Get your claw off my shit,’ I grunted, feeble enough not to mean it and smart enough not to try. I saw the coyote, then. It sat on vigilant haunches, the gums of its teeth bared and marbled-gold. It was calculating the arithmetic of a kill: how swiftly did it need to seize my jugular between its jaws before I might react, before I might demonstrate competition for my own life? Or maybe it wasn’t contemplating much at all. My daddy always said a dog’s as dim a specimen of creation as you’re likely to find during the prowess and on the plane of mortal man. Just what do you reckon a hound wants to ask of you, if it were privileged the intellect? I tell you, now, Babe Rockerfeller: Why does the master never have to lick his own balls?
‘Can you tell your ungovernable fuck-dog to go eat a deer or something?’ I groaned as I struggled to propel myself onto my elbows and sit upright, with daylight encircling my gin-fug forehead.
‘You whine like a bitch,’ The Squamish trilled. ‘You best be wary. White Wake is the duke of all coyote, and never neglects an opportunity to sow the seed of future pack-kings.’ The dog looked to its master, before returning to entreat me with a gaunt, funereal glare. White Wake’s teeth caught the phosphorous frozen light, his tongue lolling between its cage like a gladiator at the entrance to the field of battle. I might have chosen to say something dumb and cavalier, but I hadn’t evaded death by raven to suffer murder by a wolf’s basest and most primeval prejudice within half a day’s hoof from the crag of Powder Mountain. Instead, I encouraged within the Squamish his satisfaction. Instead, I rolled the die and entered the game.
‘Okay, okay now, River Phoenix. Light me up a Red Devon, and maybe prevent your coyote from raping me, and I’ll show you a like courtesy.’
An unsealed deck of cigarettes fell on my chest, followed by a pocket lighter. The Squamish’s head cocked quizzically toward my own, his lofty eyes divined my every moral measure, drinking my frostbitten uneasiness like it constituted the best part of the milkshake. I could almost imagine the appetitive slurps. His hard face slackened. The crow’s feet which had claimed sovereign territory of the topography around his eyelids started to conspire. The Squamish was grinning. ‘Those of the Squamish First Nation who still retain the Salishan dialect call me Blue Bluff Crow,’ the Squamish muttered with a voice that pirouetted between that of a horse-whisperer and that of a wharf-blown fishmonger. He extended me his palm, vice-like and skeletal. I took it, and using the grip like a fulcrum he pulled both himself and me wholly onto our feet. ‘Of course, today a name like that’s been disinvested of both its significance and power. And it’d seem prosaic of me to pretend like I live out here in the pinewoods – perpetuating an existence of diasporic mimesis – pitching fistfuls of flammable, iridescent dirt into the autumn wind like some hokey alchemist or huckster-shaman.’
The Squamish had yet to release my hand. Still, I felt it’d be somewhat insensitive to divorce him of the chance to deliver his reverie, by alerting him to the fact that my wrist had gone numb. I felt pockets of inspiration rise within me like pearls of helium. ‘But I gotta call you something. You understand: the colonial mission’s taxonomising instinct: 1066 and All That. If I’m remiss to classify you now that I’m within a bear’s-hug of you, I won’t ever get my name canonised in The Century’s Great Naturalists, along with those other genius-anthropologists John Ford and Al Jolson. This is my potential for being the Great White Hype we’re talking about. You’re not so savage as to refuse me that?’
I waited, indiscreetly searching the Squamish’s wan, cobalt face for an indication that his penchant for swift-footed banter and my self-deprecatory sarcasm had somehow converged to locate a common ground of expression. His face was inviolable, impassive, weathered with its tattoo-like network of skin depressions, heavy lining and scars by either fatigue or seasonal erosion. Observing the peninsulae of flesh rippling across Blue Bluff Crow’s face was akin to contemplating cloud forms: the longer you stared, the more you’d start to see. Islands warped and waned over his countenance, like the sundering of Pangaea. Fissures bisecting Blue Bluff Crow’s cheeks and mouth adopted weird, distorted shapes, not dissimilar to the effect of pareidolia associated with the knots and callouses of redwood trees. I could see ravens flocking east; a spring ascending the face of a mountain; my daddy whittling wooden birds with a pen-knife whilst standing by the sink and whistling; white perennials strewn by my ma’s burial plaque; my first fist-fight at school; the Toulousain broad who’d fucked me for birthday well-wishes before stealing off to leave me a heartless dandy; the interior of my shop devoid of occupancy, wood skeletons engineered into familiar shapes to afford me some semblance of company.
The Squamish broke out into riotous peals of laughter. ‘You fucking guy,’ he was repeating, his chest beneath its leather jacket shuddering with a private, pious mirth. ‘“The Great White Hype”. Hoo!’ I was on safe soil: the Squamish harboured a bellicose highwayman’s sense of comedy. ‘You want a name? For you, I’ll be Charlie Chinstrap. A colonised man of gentrified heritage such as yourself should feel right at home in saying that.’
‘Right on, Charlie,’ I baulked, retrieving my palm from his. ‘Like the brother I never had and always wanted.’
He hooted like a nocturnal visitor from out of the woodwork, directly beneath an unadulterated Canadian sky. White Wake took up chorus to Charlie’s chuckles, arching his lupine snout back and lowing with wanderlust at the distant image of Powder Mountain. It damn near sent my hackles astir, but I could still catch wind of my daddy’s voice telling me the best jokes are those that, upon hearing, give you the willies, just that itty bit.
I’d long since unfastened the ironwork kerosene-lamp from my pack like a limp and lurid thing, and had begun sculpting a tubular parcel of smoke-dried beef with the sickle of my hunting knife, acquiring a satisfaction and feel for the method. I was fixing to tuck in and palm a hemisphere of the preserved brown meat into my gob’s wet yawn, but White Wake wouldn’t suffer nor tolerate any of it. Fucking canine. His jaw and its legend of serrated teeth were mechanisms of unsurpassable architecture. I dispatched the log of charcoal-salted jerky directly into the coyote’s maw. Fucking asinine.
‘I know a good thing too many about coyote.’ I hazarded a philosophical leer.
Charlie, for whom I’d hastily developed a perplexing fondness for, was occupied in administering dimestore shaving foam in a lather to the crevasses of his cheeks, before sweeping them clean with the whetted filament of a single-edged razor. It reminded me of something; but the shape and veracity of the memory had been eroded and reconfigured by years of forgetting, so I pushed it away, and out it went again, a coracle departing the moor to be reabsorbed by a lingering fog. ‘I’m addressing you, Chuckles.’
‘And I’m maintaining my damndest to ignore your every squeal for favour.’
He was proud of that one: the vertices of his mouth contorted vaguely, a grey man emerging from a snowstorm of experience; an old man reunited with his dignity, remembering how to dress himself. Such were the gravity and relevance of Charlie’s linguistic victories. ‘Ho, now, Chuckles! Reveal your intention to deploy me one of your half-liners next time.’ I hunkered over my snowshoes, fingers steepled in the frost. I began to fastidiously relace my boots. ‘Otherwise you might blindside me. I’m lucky I’m even breathing after that last palaverlanche.’
‘Fuck your mother,’ was Charlie’s response, and I had to admit I was stalemated.
He encapsulated me, attended to me with those deepest, winter-woozy eyes. Charlie’s eroded, spider-vein face was shorn of its final vestiges of decay, irradiating the new moon’s lacklustre reflection. ‘What? No retort?’ He rotated to face me, and I understood, perhaps like I’d never understood before, that sometimes a person knows the exact moment when they’ll meet death, but even an agent of purpose, even a man of elegance and virtue will not betray that same confidence and slink with resignation to their venue of passing. I was staring at a boy, and I was staring at a ghost. Somewhere in the morphology between the two stood before me a regal fucking Charlie Chinstrap, and I held his gaze, because I was going to be privileged with witnessing something I sensed was both glorious and terrifying. I’d never been so scared in my life as in that unnavigable chasm of seconds prior to Charlie speaking his next endorsement. I don’t believe I’ve been ever so scared since. ‘We’re hunting, White Wake and I. If you know something of coyote that might work in my favour to possess, I’d be obliged to you, lumberjack from Whistler.’
‘I’m firstly compelled to clarify my means of employment,’ I croaked, placing a lit cigarette to the cushion of my lips. The longer and more persuasively I stalled, the more time I’d retain in preventing Charlie from whatever exigency or manufacture of death he was willing to surrender himself to. As I was standing right there, whole hours away from the snarl of mountain country I’d embarked four torrid days prior to embrace, I became sure: I would not allow this sad, time-crippled Indian man the leniency of a triumphant, allegorical death. It ain’t life’s duty – nor its responsibility – to convey the morality found in fiction. An honest man has no entitlement to demand a subtext for his plight, a meaning in the way or wend of a river. Boy: You’d be nought but a marvellous fool to hope for some final meaning, and your mother didn’t birth no fool I ever held. My daddy’s words, my saving grace. ‘I’m a carpenter: not a lumberjack. And, Chuckles, I can tell you this much, without a transitory invading doubt. Whatever the fuck you’re out here beneath the echelons of Powder Mountain to hunt, White Wake won’t be capable of taking down.’
Charlie Chinstrap became Blue Bluff Crow in the dance of heartbeats. There was no mirth here.
‘What is it that you think is out there, Babe Rockerfeller? What is it that you believe a senile old Squamish bastard and his slow-starving lap-mutt is committed to fighting? What are you convinced of?’
I extinguished the cigarette into the snow, and breathed deep from the constellation of smoke.
‘I’ve got a reasonable idea,’ I exhaled, sheathing my hunting blade to the kiss of its scabbard.
If this were any sort of mythopoeic quest narrative, I’d have expected nothing less than the following; but I couldn’t consider myself the idle construct of an author-god’s fable, the benefactor of some perverse, arduous fantasy – I stank of sweat too much, and wheezed too much from the altitude of the ascent to disprove the factual currency of my present situation. That’s why, when both Blue Bluff Crow and I heard the unearthly thunder bellow through the steaming bracken, we blanched perceptibly from the causal theatricality of the sound, and exchanged wary silences with our eyes. The noise repeated, this time accompanied by heartbeat echoes of throaty reverberence, and birds evacuated their canopied roosts, wingspans erupting near, far and away. It was the third call which reified my hunch that the entity making it was not of meteorological or geological persuasion. There was no possibility in hell, no way. An animal was advertising a challenge. It was recruiting for a purpose.
‘It wants us to find it,’ I said, withdrawing daddy’s 77 magnum from the holster on my back, and tightening my fingers around the weapon grip. ‘That’s no cautionary threat. It’s inviting us to go find it.’ I lunged around to confront the Squamish. ‘What the fuck lives out here in these blue mountains?’
‘Shepherd’s bane,’ Charlie grinned. ‘That song’s the fighting dirge of Powder Mountain’s very own Black Stag. And hoo-boy, White Wake and I’ve been tracking this thing from the mouth of the Squamish River two weeks tramping south of here.’ The Indian gripped me by the elbows, and breathed something rotten, tropical and sickly sweet onto my neck. His eyes were dancing pugnaciously, and I knew then that this was how he’d prepared to do it: Charlie Chinstrap would claim the hide of this illegitimate beast, or be killed beneath its head and hooves. ‘Don’t you see, lumberjack from Whistler? The Black Stag is the devil’s hand, incarnate. It’s a creature so rare and loathsome that any evidence attesting to its existence has warped into rumour, has faded into folktale. But I’ve seen it once before.’ Charlie’s face shone from within, made epiphanic by some secret and furious inspiration. He looked like a lunatic. I pulled away, but he clutched at my wrists, propelling me forward to hold his gaze. ‘It doesn’t take on the form of your private psychical horror – it manifests a new one. Your own father thought that if he could tame it, he might be able to locate solace in the feral eyes of the Black Stag. If you fish in the abyss for revelation, stare into that lonely chasm for some justification to continue living, the abyss fishes in you for every last hidden minnow of regret.’
‘What are you saying?’ Charlie loosened his vice-like hold. I seized my fists into the folds of his leather jacket, pulling him back, but he was lost to me; he was laughing giddily, giggling even, and I would have slapped him of all daylight with the open splay of my palm, if he didn’t artfully dart through my grasp, and make off in a half-bent run beyond the clearing into the thick of the treeline. ‘How did you know my daddy? What do you know about it?’
I was screaming into vacant space at the centre of a cairn of stone. Screaming with me, the raucous bray of the Black Stag exploded from amongst the conifers. His brazen silver coat flashing past me, White Wake was a fleeting lupine shape whole yards away, already the size of my thumb-nail.
This whole thing teeters on the cusp of cliché. I was breathing hard, my lungs pumping. Some quiet exultation burned in my chest. I blew oxygen into the night. The branches of trees thrashed against my running legs, leaving scars and gashes like a coastline breeze. I couldn’t see Charlie, or White Wake, but ravens were flying overhead, flitting like kites through the greenery, and I knew daddy was directing my vengeful hand. I had the rifle lashed fast to my sternum, and the snow was as soft and forgiving as heather. A full autumn moon hung billowing above me, luminous and melancholy. It cast shadows onto the surface snow. I could feel my feet quicken, swift as a kill. I began talking then, whispering things to myself which I can neither recall nor decipher. I was vaulting through forest vegetation, my ribcage churning, and the Blag Stag’s thunderous voice remained half a yard in front of me; quarter of a yard. I could do this without Charlie, without his coyote. This belonged to me – this was the destiny I’d authored. The Black Stag’s head was mine for possessing. Racing now, I capered through pine needles and tangles of maple, blood bubbling from bitter cuts to my forehead. I broke into an up-slope culvert of mountain-rock, breath smoking like a blade on a forge. Five metres away from my entrance, the Black Stag was champing the wind with its great fleecy head lowered.
An ash-black ewe with the red tufts of a fox’s winter-coat sprouting from its throat, the Black Stag of Powder Mountain snarled, stamping cloven hooves the hue of funeral soil into the plateau. I smiled recklessly, maybe the first time I’d felt closest to daddy since he’d left for that last ore-mine appraisal. I raised the sight of the 77 magnum to my right eye, caught the demon between my crosshairs. Hurriedly, I sought motivation, casting about for a hero’s sentiment. I remembered the words of the Squamish Indian.
‘Fuck your mother,’ I told the Black Stag as it cannonaded into me, squeezing the trigger, razing the mountain with a blast of gunpowder, the recoil and my adversary sending me without purchase wheeling into free air.
I was lying stunned and inert on my back, my head swimmy in a poetic breed of darkness. My blindness was total. I couldn’t discern the fingers of my hand, even when I pressed my palm to the tip of my nose. I had either lost my sense of sight irrevocably, was dead, was writhing in the abdomen of a leviathan, had departed the plane of mortal territory, or had fallen into a crack of torture’s making. My body ached; I felt afire, and my stomach felt like it had suffered the brunt of a prizefighter’s wrath. I pitched forward, throwing up the alkaline contents of my tiny, torn gut all down my shirtfront. A car had hit me. No, a freight train. A jetfighter, right in the eye of my chest. I vomited again, half-gagging when no new pre-digested remnants followed. Rocks of various shapes and classification rustled beneath my back, stabbing into the fleshy contusions between my shoulder-blades. I rolled, groaning, onto my side. There was a stave of light protruding through the implacable black vicissitude presiding above me on this side of my enclosure, and I could half-make out the ambiguous, geometric shapes of abandoned pick-axes and a coiled tether of horsehair rope. ‘A fucking mine-shaft,’ I growled, coughing a pulpy slurry of blood and phlegm into the charcoal beneath my chin.
I hauled myself upright, swearing, onto the balls of my knees, and squinted with bloodshot eyes into the unilluminated confines of this mine-shaft beneath the carbuncles of British Columbia. I knew where I was, though I’d never seen it before. It was like recognising the face of the stranger you instantly wish to wed amidst a thrall of anonymous, comingling people. My deceased daddy’s supply-pack lay crumpled a handspan away from my sluggish grasp. Through the visor of a belligerent headache, I identified it with my eyes without needing to debate the obvious. My hands hunted in it, squeezing the dirt-clothed baggage beneath my nose, wanting to inhale the history of a family legacy now long vanished. I came out with a compass-watch, a cylindrical flask of water, a paperback edition of A Voyage to Pagany, its pages gummed together by dew and fungus. I was breathing so hard. My heart was booming, here, beneath the surface of the snow-dappled universe. I held it. I’d been travelling doggedly, for five days, for five years, for five million tears to feel the shape of this ending, its rectangular form, between the cathedral of my fists. I held it. A reason for my daddy’s desertion. I couldn’t prevent myself from howling. I stared at the object more fragile than an infant love in the clutch of my fingertips.
I rotated the letter in my hands, exhaled, and tore open the envelope. A single page withered in my grasp. I made my way towards the light, scaling the rock, pushing against the underside of the mountain with my snowshoes until I could see that new day sky. It’s not a blue. It’s unclouded and azure.
I read daddy’s words.
Look. The thing a person needs to appreciate is that there forever arise trials to untether a strong, generous being, and sometimes there’s no method of evasion which you might hope to call up to benefit you whilst the world shrinks to hug you in a human-chain of calamity and the basest evil. But stories neither demand nor expect a hero of an immaculate cloth. That’s not what’s expected: what makes a man into a beautiful victor, what marks a man as an agent for certain justice all depends upon the pact he’s forged with the very guts which any reputable diviner will confirm contains the most forsaken future hidden to him. You can always tell a good one from the way he holds himself! Dignity resides not at the surface of tissue, muscle, or even bone. Goodness – that rarest and most cultivated fungus – a true man’s goodness proliferates like a cluster-fuck in the blood, in the marrow, and nowhere else. Like mushrooms chairing a committee in the dark. You can’t cast disputations. You can’t disregard the mane of a champion, no matter how gorgeous or mutt-ugly it veils his hard, blue eyes. You can’t blow smoke-rings around his visage. You can’t hope to thwart him, not by binding yourself to his fucking ankle. You mustn’t obstruct his passage. A hero is a thing of the greatest, divine and most violent of creative acts. It is a thing that casts constellations to the winds. He is a wonder. He is marvellous and ungovernable. Do not reckon with a hero. You will only weep later, when you recall the way in which you retreated to kiss his feet.
I cannot stress the importance of this thing I am about to tell you, son: When your mother died, I understood how desolate and tiny a man I was. For the first time, son. It was like squinting through the other end of a telescope to look at myself from a distance of kilometres, and I could only suffer the amazement of how so much love can diminish to something so broken and gambled and unshared. I walked down that hospital corridor. The tears were flooding my face. I fell to my knees. The wardens swarmed upon me, and my fingers hooked into the indistinguishable grooves of white adobe tiles. I probably called out names of people I hadn’t seen in decades. I know I cowered somewhere amongst a collusion of rubber-soled sneakers, spitting when I couldn’t cry and crying when I couldn’t utter the word “No” anymore. Losing your sweetheart is a wicked wound, boy. And fingers whispered over my body, kneading me into boozy reaction, but I can only accurately quantify the ache by establishing the following context: in fifty-eight scrofulous years, I’d never before been exhausted of light leaving me, like that, not ever.
They say – those bad, forlorn souls with foul hearts and corrupt hungers – that when you break a man, there’s one moment before his heart cavorts spastically into its awful descent. And it ain’t anything as graceful as a flock of swans bearing the newborn babes of God Himself falling without music or glory into the black watches of some silent wood. It’s the death-blow that misery anticipates. It’s the bullet to an innocent dream formed of colour and revelation.
I don’t think I ever explained, not to you or your tiny sister, what your mother meant to me.
A man is an animal, and he must exist in solitude, and it’s an artefact of his honour to keep that moment which broke him like a whip to himself. What I’m saying is that I ran underground. I’m a coward, boy. I sought escape in my Canadian mine-shafts; some place I could sculpt a foundation and prize jewels from the bedrock of disorder; torchlight so bright I would hope to go blind and forget the joy of your mother’s face. I’m a fool, understand? I might hope to succumb to the bloom of cataracts, but what I was rejecting was the fact that I had a happy ending. It was staring at me. Like two awesome trophies waiting to be remembered with faultless patience. You’re my hero, Babe Rockerfeller. Your sister is my hero. The trick of a hero is to exchange every endless kindness until an old, sad fucking fart fails to discriminate the meaning behind that sacrifice of self. You and your sister shouldn’t have had to suffer the collapse of someone you admired, whilst life had already robbed you of someone you loved.
I made a second marriage of my work. And that was wrong. I never told you that. So I’m sorry.
The moment I knew the break in my gut wasn’t irreparable wasn’t a momentous realisation.
Not even an event lambent with fortune, promise or resolution.
The hospital orderlies pushed me through the door, and there you and your sister were. Standing there. Your faces were already shining from the tears. But it was your hands, boy. Your hands were there to lift me up, right beneath the arms, and I’ve never known a hero who had such a hidden wealth of fortitude. You’re more than a man, Babe Rockerfeller. You’re a son. And I’m a father who forgot it. Maybe for a minute. Before you buried my face into your shirt.
What can I now say? I’m sorry I had to do this. I couldn’t wait any longer. Not for her. I will miss you.
But you know that. You were always smarter than your old man.
When I think back on my time searching desperately for a direction or directive at the foot of Powder Mountain, all those years and seasons ago, the memory that comes most readily to mind is standing over the cascade of Brandywine Falls after the rifle floated away from me, tumbling and pitching with the white-water swell. A rogue elk meandered up to the river on the far bank. Its kingly crown of antlers was host to hundreds of perched and staring ravens.
I cocked my head, with measured reverence, to the image of my daddy’s legacy, and turned my back on Powder Mountain, even though its peak vibrated with splendour and sunshine. I shook my daddy’s compass, turned south, and began the short, sublime march.
Somewhere not quite near, a coyote lowed at the starless morning sky. I wiped my palms onto the frost, and walked into the winter of Whistler, calling out the names of the trees as I passed.