On the crest of a fast moving miracle, I have been carried far away from the city to Nelson, a small valley town just beyond the Rocky Mountains. I am in my second month of housesitting for a childhood uncle, from whom I had been estranged for more than 20 years. Each passing day spent in this fierce, beautiful landscape, I wake up a little more – as if from a dreary, lifelong sleep.
The sky has been moodier since September arrived. It jags of grey and tries to rain, but the sun always gets its way in the end. The fruit trees on my walk are too numerous to count; plums, red and yellow, apples, cherries, Anjou pears. It is harvest time and the branches are heavy with fruit, hanging ripe almost to the ground. It doesn’t even seem possible to go back now that my ceilings have been raised, having glimpsed a life of daily magic.
When I first see George and Elvina, they look asleep, surrounded by the junk they are hoping to sell off on their drive by the highway side, bundled in their afternoon chairs. With the exception of their colorful mismatched outfits, everything has that same dark, metallic hue, the color of neglected stuff, dreaming of being made useful again.
Elvina stirs first. She’s a broad woman in her 50s, layered in practical gear, with big, square, yellowing glasses, a patchwork cap and painted lips. I can see that she has that thing I love about the locals here, an unwavering in the eyes for nothing to hide.
“Most of the good stuff’s gone,” she says, not really apologetically.
I try to imagine the droves of neighbours buying them out, but there isn’t a soul to be seen for miles.
“Oh – I was kinda hoping you might have a stovetop percolator for sale,” I reply, eyeing the dusty boxes, wondering who would ever buy cobwebbed suitcases or foam-sprouted couch pillows.
“I just sold one not an hour ‘n a half ago,” Elvina chuckles, reaching out her strong hand to me for a shake. “I’m Elvina and this here’s my husband George.”
George sits stretched out in a lawn chair, his bushy white beard tucked down on his chest, a floppy canvas hat pulled over his eyes.
“Most of the good stuff’s gone,” he grumbles, pushing up his hat, surprising me to be awake. I can see he’s quite a bit older than Elvina, maybe in his early 70s but still sprightly in the eyes behind an identical pair of his wife’s glasses.
I eagerly shake Elvina’s hand, which is warm and relaxed, and she holds mine for quite some time trying to figure out how to say my name. When she’s convinced she’s got it right, she lets me go.
I love them right away.
“George used to be a championship downhill skier. Isn’t that right, George?” Elvina says, giving her husband an encouraging nod. That’s when I notice that just a few feet from where George sits, a shiny pair of downhill skis are propped up in his view.
“That’s right,” George agrees slowly. “Had to stop for my knees. Two surgeries and one replacement. Did them in, from one too many jumps off that 90-foot drop at the Crow’s Nest Pass.”
“Wow,” I respond, suitably impressed. “So there’s a spot on the hill where you just free-fall for like 10 seconds?”
“Yep,” Answers George matter-of-factly. “Lots of good cliffs ’round here. There’s one spot I go to think, ’bout 10 miles into the mountains, then another three-quarters of a mile hike into the bush. There’s a cliff there with a 6-inch precipice that I sit on and look down over a two-thousand foot drop.” He looks over his glasses at me now for my reaction.
Elvina quickly pipes in, folding her arms across her chest, “I don’t go there with him.”
I can tell she worries about his old knees. “Whoa. That sounds amazing! Maybe you’ll take me with you one day when you go,” I venture, hopefully.
“Nope,” George says without pause. “That’s my spot.”
I smile, knowing just how he feels. “It’s good to share your secret spots sometimes,” I say gently, a little teasingly, “…with the right people.”
“I’ve been going there for 19 years,” he says with sudden gravity. “That’s where I met my old friend Joe, the grizzly.”
At that precise moment I felt my ears grow about three sizes for the stories that were pulsing in George’s throat. I am always listening for moments like this, for the sound of an entryway appearing, for the invitation to listen into someone’s most intimate mythology. If you aren’t quiet enough, or if you are interested for the wrong reasons, the path will close up again like a secret aperture. It takes a special quality of silence, the listening that only the heart can perform.
George, smelling out my silence, decides to go on.
“Saved his life, I did. Found him when he was just a tiny cub, stuck on a rock in the current. Musta gone out too far, all shivering and wet. So I picked him up in my arms, wrapped him in my jersey and set off to find his mama. Turned out she was several miles up the valley. I could hear her calling him.”
George imitated the sound then, a kind of nervous alarm of a growl. “So I left him nearby, sure she’d find him. About four years later, I came to the same spot on the side of the river and sat down to eat my sandwiches when I heard rustling in the nearby bushes. Turned ’round to see a huge grizzly head poking out through the trees, a few yards away, watching me. Was ready to jump in the river when I noticed his left ear had a cleft in it and four distinct white hairs growing out there. I recognized him as the very same bear I had rescued from the current, ‘cept he was about 800 kilos bigger, I figure.”
I heard myself gasp. Elvina sucked her teeth with worry. George went on.
“Joe was what I called him on that day and every visit since. ‘Wanna come help me eat my sandwiches?’ I asked him, and surely enough he obliged. We sat like that for hours, him just a few feet away from me. And so long as I was upwind from him, and he could smell me, he came to visit me every time I went to that river until he was about 8. Reached sexual maturity I s’pose, and then I never saw him again.”
George looked momentarily wistful. I couldn’t imagine any friend having more of an impact on a man’s life than an 800 kilogram grizzly bear.
“We were good friends. One day, we walked for hours together through the valley. He took me up to his cave. By the time we got there, it was already dark and real cold. I was about 10 miles from camp and hadn’t brought even a sweater. I tried to sleep but I was shivering too hard. That’s when Joe got up from where he was, opened up his arms, and wrapped them around me. We slept like that all the night long.”
As George spoke, his voice becoming ever more tender and broken, I felt my sinuses and eyes sting hot with emotion. And so did his. Before either of us knew what was happening, the tears were flowing out of him alongside with the memory. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything more beautiful than this gruff old man in his steel-toed boots, crying over the love of a bear.
Elvina fetched George a fresh J-cloth, which he used to mop his cheeks. “It’s real personal for him,” she explained. “Most people don’t believe him.” She quietly motioned to her husband, who was slowly regaining his composure.
“Oh,” I finally breathed, “it’s obviously real. I mean, you must be part-bear for Joe to look after you so well.”
George chuckled a little now.
“Well, it sure is nice to talk to you,” Elvina said, holding my shoulder affectionately. “I do hope you decide to move here. Y’know, everything fits in Nelson.”
George and I smiled at each other then, and I set off with a wave to the end of the loop, where I started, but not before plucking a ripe apple off a heavy branch and letting out a few joyful squeals for the swelling of my heart.
This story was originally published in the December 5th, 2006 edition of Common Ties