Ucluelet ’94

— Daniel McLeod

“It’s too dangerous. You could get lost…” seeming unconvinced with herself, my mother added, “There are rocks.”

“Oh, let him go. It’ll be an experience.”

“There will be plenty of time for experiences in the future, where he can see.”

“Not like this!”

So it was pronounced that I could venture out into the whiteness, under the express conditions that I watch every step with utmost attention and do not stray from the paths.

Once outside, the fog closes itself around me completely. It shuts me out from the rest of the world and whispers quietly in my ear that this is all there is and everything is everything else. It obscures my vision to several feet in every direction and hangs in the air like a heavy thought. My steps are guided by a historical knowledge of the land as I follow the path along the south end of the peninsula.

For nine years, since I was three, we had come to this place in the first week of November when the summer season was over and the storm watching season had yet to begin. Never once since my father’s publisher offered us this retreat had we failed to take advantage. It had become our yearly holiday, our short-lived escape from a hurrying city life. For me this time signaled a return to my natural habitat: the wild, isolated forests of the Pacific West Coast.

When I was nine my parents took me to see the salmon spawning at a creek a few kilometers outside of town. For nights afterwards I dreamed about their hard, pink bodies swimming urgently upstream, leaping over one another when one was not swimming fast enough. It struck me as a strange and wondrous race. Around us grounded, eyeless fish spotted the rocks—their stench mingled with the rotting leaves on the creek side. Some distance downstream a black bear sat casually picking salmon out of the water with her hands. She’s fattening herself up for her winter torpor, my father leaned in and told us, and so we kept our distance.

Ucluelet means people of the safe land in Nootka, the language of the Nuu-chah-nulth aboriginals. For millennia, their ancestors have settled against its sheltered waters and gleaned the splendors of life in this quiet inlet. In ’94, Ucluelet remained known as one of the last remaining traditional fishing villages on the coast, though amongst its old growth trees the first cries of tourists could now faintly be heard. Still, the village sat peacefully in the harbour, and day to day life was a lossless memory of history mingled with the presence of island life.

I walk now in the still absence of wind. Around me the fog grows more and more complete until at one point the path disappears from under me. I hold up my hands, but cannot see them. Pulling them towards me, they reappear within inches of my face. Sounds intensify—the waves lap the shoreline, an invisible crow calls, its voice incomprehensibly close. As I wander on, a small disquietude breathes itself into my body. Where are you going to and why? Everything is everything else, a white voice repeats.

And then the path I know disappears and in confusion I find myself on a beach that by all accounts does not exist. How many times I have walked this route, never once to find anything other than a tortuous mess of crag which offers little to stimulate the imagination apart from visions of rogue waves washing you out to sea.

Yet the wet sand sticks to my boots as I cautiously step forward onto the beach. The fog lifts to a vague suspension through which I can see high walls of black, soaking rock demarking the far end of the sand and, to my awe, a house that stands tall and navy like a faded memory. Its windows aflame with incandescent light that shimmers in spheres towards my eyes. I stand mesmerized by its existence, its contrastive tone of timeworn transience.

On the drive up from Vancouver I stared out the window at the head­­lights of passing cars. The rain fell without limit against the windows of our van as we rolled along Highway 4. Inside we stayed dry and warm. An orange blanket draped over my knees and the radio spun fragile Canadian melodies through the bent metal speakers on the dashboard. As we drove along, the passing headlights formed a chain of transient souls, nomadic angels glowing bright then disappearing on a dark road towards, or perhaps away from, a frictionless paradise.

I skirt the deeper sand along the high tide line, approaching the house. The smell of smoke from a wood fire fills the air and I hungrily breathe in its wintry comfort. As I draw nearer a sound resonates from within and the front door bursts open. An old man stumbles out, carrying in his hands a spade and a burlap sack. He stamps his foot on the wooden porch as if to awaken a sleeping leg and shuts the door behind him. After fixing the wooden toggles on his coat, he removes a hat from the depths of its pocket and pulls it over long, unkempt silver hair. I watch from a hiding place behind a pile of star shaped rocks.

After dinner on our first night we had sat in silence. I listened to a night­­time radio play that broke me with laughter, while my father looked up occasionally with a raised eyebrow at my applause; my mother sat with one leg nestled under the other on the couch, reading a book. Our first night was always spent luxuriating in the cabin’s cozy living room, with the wood stove left open so we could gaze at the flames encased in iron. This particular year we sought above all else an escape from our regular consciousness—something that would have been impossible in the city, with inquisitive phone calls, news reports, comments on headings from the strangers in line at the grocery store.

The waves lap so regularly on the shore they seem a measure of time.

As the old man walks away from the house he taps rhythmically at the sand with the underside of his spade. Every few steps he stops and taps, as if he can comprehend the reverberations and know what lies beneath the surface.

His footsteps stop. The blade’s underside hits the sand with a dull thud, and then there is a silence. He thrusts the spade deep into the sand and the world dissolves around us. All that remains is this: an old man in a worn coat with silver hair, digging into a beach that cannot exist.

Two days had passed without event. My parents would rise early—in November, well before dawn—and hardly speak before half past seven. In the mornings directly after waking they would set to brewing coffee: flushing the cold water tap, boiling water, grinding beans, and dripping them evenly into two tall, slender cups. After, they would sit across from one another in silence and read, make lists, or stare into the distance. I always felt there was an incalculable tenderness woven into these morning moments of silence.

Early this morning I had watched as my mother heated stone-ground oats on the burner. The kitchen smelled of spelt toast and coffee. I watched the coil grow hotter, brighter, until it burned tangelo beneath the pot. In the early morning the windows had steamed mat black and I could see neither the darkness outside nor my own reflection.

The old man’s shoveling slows. He drops the spade and falls to his knees. His hands, adorned with fingerless gloves and shining silver rings, scratch at the base of the hole, tossing sand outside its perimeter. The hole is deep and as he leans in he disappears partially from view.

He emerges holding in both hands a weathered antique clock. It is roughly six inches in height; its body, rounded at the top and curving gently towards the base, is fashioned of dark cherry wood and encases a spherical white enamel face; the face is set within a golden frame. Even from this distance the gold numerals glow dimly through the mist.

The old man brushes away the sand that clings to the clock face and holds it close to his eyes, studying its movements minutely. He taps the clock, brings it close to his ear, stares out towards the sea.

I notice that the waves have slowed, such that seconds seem to pass between each one. The old man puts the clock in his sack, picks up his spade, and stands.

After this he collects six more clocks. Some he finds within moments, others seem to take ages. With each discovery the waves slow further, until at last are long drawn out pauses between each lap at the shore.

Apparently satisfied after the seventh clock, the old man carries the burlap sack, now full and heavy looking with moisture, back to the house, where he disappears behind the door. I come uncaught from my position behind the rocks.

I do not recall leaving the beach or how I returned, apart from that I ran. When I arrived at the cabin the fog had largely subsided. I had left at eleven o’clock and when I returned the time was a quarter after one. It seemed unbelievable to me that only two hours had passed since I had departed the cabin earlier that morning. The fire burned in the wood stove and my mother lay my wet clothes upon the backs of chairs and positioned them before the flame to dry.

Inside, the lamp in the living room glowed amber light against the wood interior and the radiators disseminated heat in rising thoughts of condensation upon the windows above. I listened as my mother’s movements in the kitchen reverberated through the cabin’s narrow spaces and settled into corners like dust on a fading draft.

“Where did you go to?” she asked.

“Just down the trail… around the point.”

“Did you see anything unusual?”

“Nothing special.” I replied, “I couldn’t see… I couldn’t see much… through the fog.”

“They say when one sense is dimmed others are intensified.” My mother looked at me inquisitively. Her hair rested over her shoulder and the fire cracked, sending a burst of sparks onto the floor.

“I could smell smoke… and the sound of waves was very clear… There was a… crow, very close… to me. It called. There was no wind,” I added.

That night we spent hours at the dining table. Deep in familial conversation, we tried hard not to think about what was happening, but in the silence between my father’s stories my mother sat too still, and it struck me that she was controlling each movement with concentration, as though if she let her mind slip it would slide away into whiteness and be lost forever.

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