Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Innocents Aloft

The eastern shore of Howe Sound is unforgivingly steep. Heading east, as the climbers were, the only level ground they got to walk on was the highway. They had to climb from the beach, after breakfast, and then attack an even stiffer slope once they'd crossed the blacktop. With a full stomach, Toby found himself short of wind by the time they were a mere hundred yards up the logging road, which at that point ascended entirely without benefit of switchbacks. Nor did his joints seem to be as limber as he was used to. True, he hadn't worked in the woods for almost two years, but he had been walking or biking for months. What was the problem?
"Damn," he said. "I thought I was in better shape than this. It's a gorgeous morning, but I feel as if I were ninety-five."
"You mean you're not warmed up," Willow said.
"You're not warmed up. None of us are. You set the pace and it's too fast for so early in the climb."
Willow's favourite subject was biology. The remark came out with authority. "Why are you in such a hurry?" she said. "We've got all day. And nobody really cares if we get to the top anyway. The poetry before the peaks, right?"
"Right," Gabriel said. "But at this pace we might not even get to the poetry. Or maybe we're there already. Iambic pant-ameter."
Toby slowed down, but he still wondered if there was something wrong with him. "What do you mean, I'm not warmed up?"
"It's literal. It's not just a figure of speech. Your body actually has to rise in temperature before it can take on a work load like this. Uphill, on a full stomach. Why did you take off so fast? And why were we stupid enough to try to keep up with you?" She was laughing. It was always fun to tease such a workhorse, and necessary, often enough, to take the edge off his intensity.
Toby went even slower. "Did you learn this in biology class?"
"Of course. Didn't you?"
"I never took biology. I took chemistry and physics. I didn't want to cut up frogs and do all that drawing. Nor the memorizing, either. I'd rather figure stuff out than memorize."
"But you memorize songs."
"That's easy. You just keep singing them till they stick. How long does it take to warm up? Did they teach you that too?"
"At least ten minutes. Longer for some people."
Toby looked at his watch. They'd been going for a little over six minutes. He suddenly felt much better and started to laugh. "Hemingway keeps showing up. He has a story about his little boy, who had a fever and thought he was going to die because he got mixed up between Farenheit and Centigrade. Poor little guy. I feel like him, after Ernie straightened him out."
"Imagine boiling to death," Gabriel said. "Without the aid of water."
"So your temperature actually has to rise? I never knew that. How much?"
"Just a degree or so."
"That would show on a thermometer. Son of a gun. Well. So I'm not sick after all, or terribly out of shape. Whew! Now I can enjoy the day. First the tides, now my muscles. Anymore lessons coming in this part of the world?" He turned around and walked backwards for a bit, looking down on the blue waters of the sound. "I should go out with you guys more often. It's like being back in school and we can still hike around."
"But I'm going away," Willow said. "This is probably our last hike. You and Jelena might be in Toronto when I get back."
"I have to finish the book first."
"But you're almost done."
"I have to finish it and then see if they'll publish it."
"What will you do if they don't?"
"Try again. I like writing too much to quit just because either a publisher doesn't catch on or I haven't got there yet. Somebody told me I was a novelist, so I write novels. And whatever else comes to mind. You do your work as best you can, like Van Gogt, whether they like you or not. It works out. Two years ago I quit an office job to write a novel, I got half-way through the manuscript and ran out of money so I had to get a job and I they got my marvellous job in the bush. One day at a time, like this hike. If I hadn't agreed to come I wouldn't have learned about warming up being something actually scientific. Even if I already knew that you can't sing without being warmed up. I never thought of that having anything to do with temperature, just feeling my lungs suddenly ready to go."
"You wouldn't have learned about tides, either," Gabriel said.
"Don't push your luck. That was the first time in my life I've ever been wrong about tides."
"And you've never been wrong about writers."
In the academic year, Toby had written some book reviews. Gabriel Franklin had not always agreed with him, especially over Jack Kerouac, whom Toby had found less than perfect, particularly in the characterization of Japhy Ryder.
"I'm right about Thomas Aquinas and Gerald Vann and Maritain," Toby said. "Neither Kerouac nor Japhy Ryder nor all the other lame brains in San Francisco know how to read either of them.
It's too friggin' bad, but that's how it is. De gustibus and all that, to a degree, and also not to a degree. You want to be an artist? Same as being a philosopher. Keep thinking and studying and practising until you get to the intuition of being . . . ."
"Now you're warmed up," Willow said.
"Thank you." Toby grinned. "But you must know that it's because I had the intuition of being long ago, and then recovered it by getting out of law school and doing what I was born for, that I appreciate you two so much. You help keep me in it. That didn't start with you, of course, but with Gabe and his sidekicks. But you finished it by taking me home with you that frosty night in October. And you both have always done so much to keep me in it."
"Right," Gabe said. "We saved you from drowning."
"In the work ethic, as well as in Howe Sound," Toby said.
"Oh, I don't think you'll ever be completely safe from the work ethic," Willow said.
"Once I've published a novel I'll be able to relax."
"Once you've published a novel you'll have to deal with fame," Willow said.
"And a biographer," said Gabe.
"The biography will be the easy part,' Toby said. "A holiday. We'll do it on that yacht you were talking about last time we were out, remember? The one you were going to anchor off Nanaimo with a hold full of whiskey you could drink yourself - very slowly - to death with. You'll be allowed one question per bottle. That way it'll be a slow death.
"It wasn't off Nanaimo. It has to be a quieter shore. No ferries or tug boats."
"Like where?"
"I don't know. We'll cruise around until we find a quiet place. Some beach where there's always a sunset.'
"On our coast? We're lucky to get sun two days in a row in this part of the world."
"You're exaggerating."
"Of course. But you know what I mean. You can't take a day like this for granted, even if you do remember the occasional spell where the clear skies went on for weeks." Toby said to Willow,
"That's literal weeks. Not a figure of speech weeks. Like the autumn we had a huge tomato crop and went hunting and I shot two grouse and a dog salmon trying to get up a creek so diminished by the drought that the fish had to wait until the tide came in to get up the little estuary."
"You were right about the tide that time," Gabe said.
"Yes, but not about the fish. It was spawning time and it had no taste. My Mom could have shot me. She baked it in the oven."
"You were very lucky to have the inlet," Willow said. "It must have been so quiet."
"I was and it was."
"How come you don't go there anymore?"
"I did go up there two years ago, just about this time of the year. But even then it wasn't ours anymore. My Dad had traded it to the man who developed the place where the family home is now, above Port Moody. There was no one around, and I drove over in my Grandpop's little inboard to have a look, just for old time's sake. It was the first time I was ever there all by myself."
"How was it?"
"Very quiet, and also telling me I wasn't really a hermit."
"Did you actually expect to find that out from just one return visit? You would have had to stay there for a while."
"I couldn't afford the time. I was leaving three or four days later for the bush and I still had stuff to do. My income tax for one thing, move out of our basement flat and take my stuff to my folks' place for another." He could have said that he had found out an enormous amount of information about his state of soul from just this one visit, as far as being in his grandparents' house was concerned, but neither of them would understand him now. Maybe later. Maybe years later. But not now. Now he didn't even really have the vocabulary to explain it to himself.
They plodded on a while. "Gabriel," Willow said, "Do you think we can really get to the top of the Lions at this pace?"
"Does it matter? It's the one step at a time that really counts. I'm just happy to be here and not on a boat. I don't object to the boat, but I enjoy the change."
"Then we might not get to the top of the Lions and it won't bother you?"
"Not at all. We're poets, not alpinists. and Toby has already got his mountain anyway. Long ago. We don't have to get to the Lions at all, we only have to spend the day as we actually want to spend it."
"Oh, good. That's what I thought. But then I started to wonder how dedicated you guys were."
"Profoundly dedicated," Toby said. "To the next turn in the road. At the very least, those peaks are a problem for after lunch. That's a long time from now, especially when you're going uphill."
But help came to their schedule, whatever that was. They heard the rumble of a truck in low gear, and soon were overtaken by three friendly loggers with an empty tail gate, going up to their day's work. Toby's appetite for goals returned. "Looks like we might get to the top after all."
The tail gate provide a full view of the sound and its neighbouring mountains for a good half-hour before the truck turned north and left them foot sloggers again.

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