THE FAR KINGDOMS OF BLUE NIGHT
I was born when my father was 38, the first child. He did not become more cautious because he had a son to provide for. Within a few months of my birth he decided he must finally begin to ski down the slopes of mountains. He also was determined to climb them with rope and ice axe and crampons biting into snow and rock. He went hunting, not to kill - he never did shoot anything - but to draw as close to the animals as he dared, to cougar and moose and grizzly. He wanted to do everything that he had imagined himself doing but had never done because the risk intimidated him. Mother told me it was as if one life concluded at my birth and another began minutes after I began to cry and my flesh began to brighten with red and pink. She said it was because he wanted to be a young father for me, someone who could keep up with the other fathers in their twenties. He wanted me to be proud of him, wanted me to see him strong and full of new mornings.
“That’s not all of it,” he told me when I was twelve. “Yes, I do want to be young for you, not some fat wheezing parson who can only cheer you on from the sidelines. But I want to live a few more lives with you too. Why did we wait until I was 38 to have you?”
I shrugged. We were sitting in a nature park by our home, leaves like cornflakes all around us, and our two dogs yipping and leaping up a pine tree after a squirrel.
“I was afraid of your mother dying in childbirth. Then I was afraid of you growing up and getting into drugs or into a gang or hating me or hating God because I was a minister. I loved the mountains, always hiked in them. I wanted to press my heart against them and let it beat into the stone but I was afraid of getting that close. What if I fell? I wanted snow from my skis to burn my face and melt like a rainfall. I wanted to slash down through the pines and all the cold whiteness. What if I fell? So I stayed at a distance from all the magnificence. You were born. I wanted us to go into the splendor together. I had to try. There were too many fears. I had to plunge into them like a mountain river, feel all the fire and the cold and the sting, and climb up on the other bank, having got somewhere. I’m talking too much. Do you know what I’m trying to get across?”
I did not know then. It bothered me when he used so many words so quickly like that, as if he were speaking faster and faster and might fall apart.
“Forget it,” he said. “Let’s go see Mom.”
Then he was silent and sure and strong, walking back with me through the forest, yes, and into the mountains, onto the slopes, pitching in the great sea in a small kayak, building a fire with no match in wilderness where we knew no one could protect us. I did not know what he meant about facing fears. What did my father fear? Surely he had always been like that, always skiing and climbing and hunting deep into the manless earth. He could use his body as well as anyone. And when words came from him, they came many times like shooting stars blistering a constellation.
To earn a living he preached and counseled and led people - he hoped - into the presence of God. And he wrote stories and published them and the money fed us and clothed us and sometimes mother nursed at the hospital and the moon was full and the world turned round and round. He did not have to worry about us running from him or mother or their God. Why would you hate a God my father compared to a pond, or to a cataract, or a massive cornice of snow and flickering ice? Who would flee a God who fashioned eagles and fox kittens and the far kingdoms of blue night? There was no fear.
We lived, my brothers and sisters and I, and grew up on an island in the North Pacific where there was an infinity of shores and where we could watch the seashells crackle into sand. There were huge waves that thumped like a thudding heart under your feet and mountains bristling with lion and bear and roaring with glaciers and their rapids. Yet my father always looked restlessly over the sea to the mountain range you could spot on the mainland, white peaks that floated above the waters like the high towers of a fantasy.
“Out past those are the real mountains of the earth,” he would say. “The Himalayas are beautiful, as heavenly as the white stars. But the Rocky Mountains are the true stuff of earth, rugged and solid and crammed with light, impossible to ignore. Somehow they are rooted in the centre of everything that matters, they are fastened to God. We have to go to them.”
We always did go to them. Camping in southern Alberta. Riding horses in the foothills west of Calgary. Wandering along the Bow River near Canmore looking for flat stones. Standing in our skis on the razor peaks scattered about Lake Louise. Yet he seemed most excited when he could draw us into the mountains and long fields of Banff.
He ignored the fact that Banff was a tourist town and he never considered himself a tourist. He enjoyed the bookstore, mother the shops and restaurants, we often hiked up past the graveyard to the School of Fine Arts at the Banff Centre to listen to musicians or to watch the plays. But it was really those tall grey monoliths he came for and, sparkling at their feet, the red deer.
He swore the elk would sense his true intentions and allow him to come close. He was not reckless but he felt the animals would understand him and not run. Mother would get upset because this was the same way he acted in grizzly or cougar country, hoping one would pop up at his elbow and begin to converse with him about the vagaries of heaven and earth.
One year the elk were particularly numerous in Banff and he was anxious that he and I walk out from the Banff Springs Hotel towards the forest and have a long day’s communion with the huge beasts. But I was a sophsticated thirteen-year-old and would not go.
“Animals don’t talk, Dad,” I said. Period.
“Of course they talk. Let’s go. The others can swim in the pool.”
I wanted to swim in the pool. “They’re just animals.”
“No animal is just an animal. It will only take an hour. Soon you’ll be in university and long gone.”
From the time I was ten he constantly informed me I was going to be in university soon. I put on my jacket and followed him past the outdoor pool and the steam rising from its surface. One of my brothers hooted at me and splashed. I decided to enjoy being the eldest, the one privileged to go on dangerous adventures with Dad, and I merely showed my brother my back. We followed a path down to the Spray River, then crossed a bridge and walked through a spattering of spruce trees. I was slouching, no longer needing to put on a show for my brothers and sisters, wishing I could be with them in the pool or banging away on the spangled video games in the hotel’s arcade. Father had stopped and I looked past him.
An elk herd was grazing on a field surrounded by trees on three sides. The field was actually one of the hotel’s fairways but it was autumn and the course was closed. One of the elk had a large rack of antlers that swung like a pair of swords whenever he glanced up and swiveled his head and neck. There were fifteen elk cropping grass. Even though it was November no snow had fallen. Their breath was like white smudge marks in front of their nostrils.
We were about one hundred and fifty yards away. Father wanted to get closer. He knew elk had charged persons who came too close but he was in a mood. God would reach out and touch us somehow through the animals. So we crept nearer. A few of the females began to squeak back and forth, like seals by the Pacific.
“What do you think they’re saying?” father asked me.
I was still sulky. “They’re not saying anything.”
“Of course they are. They’re probably talking about us.”
His eyes were rippling with light, the sun leaping in and out of balls of cloud over our heads. He decided we should not get any closer just then but go farther on and follow a trail into the woods. It was littered with elk pellets and mud churned up by large hooves. A musky scent lay over the trees and bushes. I scrunched my shoulders against a sudden feeling clattering up my back.
“Dad, let’s go back.”
“We should go back. The elk are too big.”
“You don’t have to be afraid. The elk will sense our intentions.”
“What if they don’t?”
“They will. I want you to think that way.”
Two shapes suddenly appeared ahead of us on the trail. They were large and moving at a slow trot towards us. Father stopped.
“We’ll head back,” he said.
I turned and began to stride, my long legs carrying me at a lope.
“It’s all right,” father called, “they won’t hurt us.”
“How do you know?”
We emerged from the trees and struck out across the fairway. The herd did not pay us any attention. I was heading for the bridge over the river. The more distance I put between the elk and myself, the better I felt.
Six elk broke across the river in front of my father and I. They had smelled us and become alarmed, chopping through the shallow water in a thunderclap of spray and gravel. The herd on the fairway lifted their heads. The six elk ran up to them and the herd began to pace back and forth. The two elk from the trail burst out of the woods at a gallop and the herd grunted and began to run towards us and the river.
“Don’t move,” father ordered. “They’ll outrun you to the bridge and go right over you.”
My heart twisted and a jolt made my whole body tighten. The elk bore straight down on us. There was a buzzing in my head and I began to experience a sense of detachment, that somehow the elk were not pounding across the grass at us, that I was watching it all from such a great distance I was safe, these were only vivid images. The herd roared past us, balked at the river, then raced back up to the fairway, passing by us on the other side. Their necks were straight up, their noses thrusting, their run became more like fast prancing, but they did not stop. Once they reached the top of the fairway they twisted and hammered towards us again. Father put his arm around my back and shoulder. I could smell them as they banged past, swung on the gravel at the river bank, and pelted alongside us back to the field.
The circle they had created around us became tighter each time they hurtled back at us. I could see the grass splitting under their hooves. My heart cracked at my chest and I opened my mouth. Father’s grip was tight. He pulled me to himself. The herd flew around us again and again. Their eyes became larger and larger, like monstrous black marbles. The bull elk jumped out of the swirl and faced us, antlers chopping from side to side. As he confronted us, the herd began to slow, a few stopped, they all stopped, poised, their legs ready to fly again, their heads up, watching us and their master, their profiles strong and dark.
The bull elk reared his head and trumpeted at us, that powerful and frightening call with its staccato climax of gusts and wails, frightening because it seemed to us a scream, because it seemed a pent-up screeching of wildness. Twice more he cried out, stamping a front hoof, snapping his rack in the cool air. Then he ceased.
For several minutes he watched us, standing utterly still, surrounded by his herd. Finally he dropped his head and began to eat. The others began to graze too. The circle became looser, some of the animals drawing closer to us, others moving a bit further away into the field.
After awhile, father said we could sit down. We squatted on the grass. No one paid us any attention. Elk moved past us, practically stepping over us, but we were no longer threatened. Yet we did not feel free to go. Once I jerked my hand because a stone suddenly pricked it and the bull elk glared at me and snorted, throwing up his head. He stared me down, then resumed his eating. But he never moved any distance from us.
“I feel like we’re prisoners,” I whispered to my father.
He was not smiling. “We can see it that way or we can see it as a privilege. He could have charged us and he didn’t.”
“I’m afraid, Dad.”
“Try to see that they’re accepting us.”
“But how long do we have to stay here?”
“They’ll move on. Bit by bit. They’ll spread out.”
“I thought you said they could understand our intentions?”
“What makes you think they haven’t? How many people are allowed to sit in the ring of a wild elk herd?”
The clouds had disappeared and the sun ran over the mountains, slewing light. The herd gradually broke the ring that had clasped us. A few crossed the river. Others drifted up by the forest to nibble. Two or three grunted and nestled down only a few yards from me. An hour went by. The bull elk finally turned his back on us and stepped carelessly and powerfully up to the far end of the field, at least 200 yards away.
“All right,” father said in a quiet voice. “It’s time to leave.”
We stood slowly. The elk that had bedded down near us merely glanced as we walked carefully past. We reached the bridge, which was a place of safety, a quick passage to the hotel and its high stone walls. But once I reached the bridge I did not want to go any further. I looked back at the herd and I looked at the bull, his antlers sparring with the sky as he bent to feed.
“Did he talk to us, Dad?” I asked. I no longer felt fear. I knew the bull elk was a mighty animal, but I also felt I had been special to it. I had been close enough to touch it. I had sat in its presence.
Father leaned his hands on the side of the wooden bridge. “I suppose he did talk to us.”
“So can you tell me what he said?”
The tip of the sun was fastened to the sharp slant of a mountain.
“You can get close,” Dad answered. “Close enough to get over your fear. Close enough to get rewarded. But the awe never leaves. The adrenaline never stops. When you get that close it’s always a miracle. You can hear them. They can listen to you. But you can’t be them.”
We walked up past the pool. My brothers shouted.
“What’d you see?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
“Didn’t you see any elk?”
“Didn’t you see anything?”
“You’ve got to take us to the arcade now. Mom said.”
“I’m too old for that stupid stuff.”
I did go to the arcade and the video games though. Not just then but later, when my brothers and sisters had to stay in their beds, I went down and thumped furiously on the machines, the lights bursting like firecrackers. I tried to bury the hour in the field, it was too strong, I didn’t want to think about it. But later I had words to understand it, rhythms to make sense of it, and father did too, the man who had faced all his fears when his first son was born, and now let his words of Christ flash like stones under fast water, and I alone in the pews understood. I alone heard the truth of God in a running circle of elk, in a slash of curving antlers, in a cry unknowable, yet impossible to misunderstand or refuse love.