Smoke

August slipped over the rugged coast as expected with a driftnet of salty dampness laced with the scent of Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce and fertile decay. Cold air from the north flowing over the warmer water of the Pacific Northwest generated conditions producing a ground level layer of moisture that played with ones perception of time, distance, direction and perhaps reality. Making a distinction between mist and fog is a matter of visibility, a matter of inches, but this was clearly fog.

What the fog deprives the sense of sight it feeds the senses of taste and smell, at the same time amplifying anything auditory. Fog is as alive as any other of nature’s creations. It eats, sleeps and breeds thriving in an atmosphere satiated with water, resting, waiting for just the right temperature then bursting into billions of microscopic droplets scattering light in all directions like panic-stricken fairies. This fall morning as the sun rounded the shoulders of the jagged Olympics, crowning the ancient tree tops of the dense rain forest canopy, the fog was not the only thing fighting for its life.

Arriving late the night before the couple had not had a chance to observe the beauty of the coast and the surrounding woodlands. In fact if it had not been for the heart-stopping moment when they nearly hit the child standing in the middle of the road they would have missed their turn-off completely and continued aimless miles north lost and soon out of gas.

Slipping slightly sideways with the abruptness of hard braking the Subaru’s momentum ran out several feet from tragedy. Catching a profanity beneath a tight breath, the driver, a male thirty-something glanced sideways at his stricken passenger. Exiting the vehicle, the driver left his female companion in the warmth of the car’s cabin where she cautiously observed the dream-like scene unfold. Her husband and the child of perhaps eleven or twelve caught in a cone of weak yellow light that shaped and shifted with tendrils of smoke-like fog.

A young boy showcased in the car’s headlights. Black hair shoulder length, a child’s bright complexion, height mid-rib to the driver. Facing each other not quite at the edge of the road. Show of fingers pointing this way and that, more nods than words a pantomime of dialogue between two travelers.

*****

Wide smiles signaled the end of the conversation, a clutch of paper, some-kind of fabric, transferred from one to the other. Hands touched. Equal in swiftness to the youth’s appearance the child-like figure was gone, an apparition absorbed into the thickness of the cool night, the void filled by the piercing screech of a disgruntled owl.

“Everything ok?” the question coming from the passenger seat as her husband returned to the car.

“Better than ever, actually. We missed it, drove right by, back about half a mile on the right.” Power had gone out several hours earlier, a freak burst of wind, toppling trees, taking out power lines. Lights that would have indicated the lodge were dead.

“What about the kid?”

“Lives over there somewhere,” hand flipped in the general direction of the forest that encroached upon the dark road.

Settled back in the car the couple reversed direction intent on finding the lodge as quickly as possible. Alert now, keen eyes seeking, they spotted the lodge nestled comfortably thirty yards back from the road beneath a colonnade of Western Red Cedar. After parking the car, but before entering the office to register their arrival, the two weary companions snicked on the overhead reading lamp to check out the material passed from the young boy.

Unfolding a tired white sheath, smoothing creases, the two peered at a single page from either side of the console. A map. Roughly etched in faded ink the depiction of a hook-shaped bay. Waves indicated in the most northern section above where the hook pinched in from the south forming a natural breakwater. Additional markings suggested whaling or fishing, canoes, a sprawling village and a significant river emptying into the bay. What looked like a broken path snaking through a scrawl of dunes ended abruptly at an expanse of open beach.

Heads together in the lamplight, tomorrow’s agenda was set. Get gas, find the beach.

*****

Dawn awoke, its head buried in pillows of thick wet fog. News that the resort’s restaurant had burned down two years ago not a surprise. Needing gas and breakfast the couple shared the map with the bleary-eyed night auditor propped up all-elbows at the front desk.

“Jeez, I’m not familiar with this map at all,” puzzled lips, dull feigned interest. “Now if you go back ’bout thirty miles you’ll find the lake and another lodge. Restaurant there,” waking slightly.

“Or,” offering a different solution, sensing the pairs skepticism, “you could head twelve maybe thirteen miles that direction,” thumb bent north. “There’s a quick stop place, mostly bait, tackle, hunting supplies, but they should have something, some beers.”

Fog hung low, heavy near the ground, quicker lighter near things, swirled about. Leaving trace moisture on surfaces, droplets on leaves and dead petals, wisps prying at seals picking at locks, waiting at the car.

*****

Feeling more like fifty-seven miles fighting visibility the midnight blue Subaru was angling into the first of four crudely marked parking spots off the side of a silvered shed of smooth wind polished cedar. STO L crudely hand-painted in an arc above a tilted threshold. Front door refusing to close, refusing to open, undecided, buffeted by a new breeze.

Adjacent to the Subaru, but by two of four white lines, a black Ford F-150, mud encrusted, tailgate secured though not closed completely, the result of severe damage to the left rear of the vehicle. A thick wrought iron chain finished that business. Strapped down in the center of the truck’s black vinyl bed were four one-hundred quart coolers, stark white and in shocking contrast to the bottomless hue of the vehicle. Refrigeration assured with the addition of heavy silver duct tape strapping. Act complete with .308 Winchester racked across the rear cab window.

Exiting on the right between the Subaru and the truck, it happened before the woman had even closed the car door. Sound of cold iron chain raked against rigid steel, claws scratching seeking purchase on slick vinyl bed-lining, saliva flying, fangs bared, sick yellow breath. Jaws snapping tight within inches of her head at the furthest limit of the chain’s protection.

*****

“Six!” were the first words screamed, but not from the lungs of the startled couple. Rather a thick stump of a man, dressed in green-brown safari-flage and knee-high muck boots, whose appearance and command instantly settled the mad bull of a Mastiff that had been hidden from sight below the height of the coolers in the back of the Ford.

“Sorry about that guys, Six is really protective of his food.”

“Food,” from the man and woman in unison still stunned, thoughts spinning.

“The coolers, bears, nailed two of them this morning, butchered and packed on ice.”

“You feed it to the dog?” queried the man.

“Yup, all they’re good for.”

Hustling clear of the truck the beast and the stump the two crunched across newly laid pea-gravel that lead the way to the shop’s snapping door.

“Have a nice day, mind your self in this fog,” trailed after them and into the dimly lit store.

Half-stocked, thick wooden shelves caked with dust traced the same angle and slump as the floor. A touch of brine infused the stagnant air that filled the empty spaces between the rafters and aisles. What spaces were filled with cartons and cans held the promise of a junk food breakfast. Unseen was the old woman standing alone and silent behind the counter.

Upon closer inspection all the expiry dates on the prepackaged goods indicated months and days of seasons past. Outlines left in layers of dust. In the end Oreos and light beer in white cans were selected; if Oreos did expire stale weak beer would certainly mask it. While paying for their breakfast (Cash Only) and still a bit shaken, gas and the map about slipped their minds.

Spreading the map out on the thick glass counter top the woman inquired about the closest gas station while her husband studied a window behind the old lady. Reflected back a faint visage of the cashier and framed in a rough cedar casing an obscure view, a threat swaddled in gathering fog.

Placing the tips of her fingers on the map the old woman smiled and was able to seek out where they were now and without hesitation the nearest gas station. Seven miles down a dotted line, a line that began eleven miles from where they stood now. With what remained in the tank it would be close.

*****

They would reach the bridge that crossed over the Quinomish, a bridge that would lead to the Tribal Center. They were not to cross the bridge, but keep straight and a few miles further on they would find the gas station. Near the edge of the map the hooked feature was known as the Talon and protected the inner waters of the bay, the river the same Quinomish that passed under the bridge. Apprehensive when asked about beach access the old lady made it clear that once they went beyond the gas station they would be on the ‘Res’.

“Not where you want to be in this fog,” warned the shopkeeper.

With the old woman and her shop in the rear view mirror the couple broke into the beer and Oreos.

“Did you see that old lady’s eyes,” from the woman over a lick of hard cream center filling.

“Yeah, she was completely blind.”

*****

Driving on in silence, not noticing that as morning drifted along it was getting darker not lighter.  The fog was not burning off, but settling in, getting tight, getting cozy.

Thickening by the moment, the fog was moving faster now as it traced the course of the river. Moving faster nearer to the surface, peeling off in gauzy wisps that spiraled up into the cedars and firs, so many ghosts gathering in the treetops collectively weighing down the canopy. Bringing the car to a standstill the couple focused on the choice before them. 

At the crux, planted in a festoon of giant spiked fern leaned an old plywood signpost propped up from behind by a tangle of tree trunks and branches, epiphytes, plants feeding off other plants. The billboard itself raw unpainted wood. Two black symbols tattooed on the board; crude arrows, one pointing right, the other left.

To the right a bridge stretched out into the fog spanning the river below, the landmark noted by the blind shopkeeper. Dead quiet now, barely visible through the swirling fog, glimpses of movement, a menacing hide-n-seek of shape and formless dance as an owl sounded taking a bite out of the silence.

Bleeding out to the left, a dotted line on a map.

*****

Suspended in the sidereal, the winged horse was a welcome sight. Forty-five feet up caught in the diffused pink cast from a fluorescent incandescence, the proud red logo of Atlantic Richfield. They were not lost after all. Brief elation soured in an exhale of disappointment. Pulling up close, keeping a machine to the left, the price in the pump’s cracked window read .79/Gallon.

There had not been any gas here for at least thirty years. Rolling down the window to get a clear look, to make sure he was seeing the price correctly, the hum of electricity could be heard riding atop the ticking sounds of a gas pump meter as if fuel were actively being dispensed. Normal sounds, the sounds of life at a gas station.

“Lookin fo th beash…,” Janis Joplin like voice straining out of the mist.

“Hey there!” came the relieved reply from the Subaru, “Gas first, then beach, you work here?”

Floating out of the fog, a young woman appeared dressed in soiled clothing, face and arms speckled with painful looking scores. When she opened her mouth to speak, the gapped and fractured teeth explained her diction. A small malnourished looking dog cradled in her arms, shivering, burying its nervous little head to her chest.

“N ga hea…”

Nodding, he got it, no gas, understood.

Running on fumes, the afternoon drifting along with the fog, the couple discussed their options.

“Go back?”

“And run out of gas”

“Keep going then?”

“And run out of gas”

“And the beach?” the driver shouting, the window on its way up already half closed.

“Tha wa…” Janis straining her neck and pointing with her forehead, hands securing the small dog as if it would be snatched away at any moment and lost to the fog.

“Ca I geh a rye…” moments too late to be heard.

*****

Blind, no meaningful measure of orientation, the first house slipped into view, then one after another between loose herring bone fingers of fog, an endless parade of shambles.

Homes vacant, windows broken, fractured eyes staring, lawns un-mowed, unbalanced uneven, gardens untended, weeds wilting, paint peeling, scared and blistered, roofs collapsing, beams sagging, sections of siding stripped away exposing whale bones cracked and bleached. Boats scuttled with gaping holes, impromptu dry-docks where no one was working, registration numbers missing or sanded away. Cars, campers, trucks, no doors no wheels, no engines, dormant on cinder block chocks. The ‘Res’, abandoned except for the dogs.

Dragging a six-foot length of heavy gauge iron chain, the first of five thick-necked canines lay in the street directly in front of the car. Blood orange, blood brown and blood black with the soulless eyes of an empty shark. Two more born of the fog threw themselves at the passenger and driver’s side doors, clawing and biting at the glass, a fourth now on the roof unleashing a thunderous assault on the roof rails. The fifth launched itself on the hood focused menacingly on the two occupants, slobbering and spraying an iron colored viscosity across the windshield.

In the throes of escalating hyena-like laughter, jerking the car back and forth, slamming, grinding the stick-shift between gears to escape what seemed an inevitable breach in the security of the automobile, the car lurched to a grinding halt. Engine revving, wheels spinning freely, rotating and then not. Stalled, trapped and out of gas in the grip of dead silence. And now no dogs. Several minutes passed as the couple balanced precariously on the razor’s edge of terror.

*****

A thickness of trees to the right parted suggestively providing a glimpse of filtered light as the fog thinned, a momentary weakness in the armor. With caution and relief the couple slipped cautiously from the vehicle ready to retreat at the first sign of danger. Feet planted as firmly as nerves would allow the sounds and smells of human activity graced their senses.

Straining their sight as the moisture laden air began to gather once again they caught sight of an archway, a portal through the fog in the direction of light and sound.

*****

Compelled by the need for survival the couple made for the opening, ducking under what disturbingly passed for a dugout canoe suspended in mid-air the crew a scurvy looking raccoon bearing a pompous grin and a blue velvet tricorn. A cocktail of light, fog and fear playing tricks.

Time no longer existed as the couple followed the sounds and smells of hope across the rolling contours of the forest floor, a springboard of dead wood, dry leaves and pine needles. As the sounds became the beat of a drum and the signature of a voice, and the light became the heat of a fire and wink of burning embers, the curtain of fog withdrew presenting the awe-struck pair with a surreal imagery.

Several outsized shapes, each upwards of one-hundred feet in length and twenty-feet in height fanned out before them. Longhouses, made of heavy cedar planks, shallow roofs dusted with bark, smoke billowing from the chimneys.

With a calm brought on by the steady drum beat and meditative quality of the singing a map began to unfold. A village lay before the two, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Scattered before the longhouses were numerous cone-shaped fires, smoke curling and reaching skyward as it swirled about the salmon staked to cedar frames infusing the air with wisps of metaphysical quality. Tending the fires, natives cloaked in colorful robes, some wrapped in cheerful blankets.

Eye contact was made and even though no words were spoken thoughts were clearly heard, the two visitors were welcome, in fact needed for this ceremony.

The couple was gently escorted away from the smaller cooking fires and lead to the hub of activity. Central to a ring of dancers, singers and drummers was a flaming pyre casting spirit like shadows across all faces and form. Leaping and hooting about the fire was a giant gray owl features distorted by mask, smoke and contract.

A ceremony, a ceremony the couple knew to be honoring the life of a young son now gone, struck down the evening before. Silence, stillness, all merriment ceased allowing the circle to open. Eyes now clear and bright, the old lady from the convenience store reached out with forgiving hands, accepting the couple into the circle.

*****

Clear skies, not a hint of fog, broken dawn. Soon the sun would be shining down on the picturesque little tourist village as it prepared for the evening salmon bake, an annual celebration of the areas heritage. It was a neighborhood that beamed. Homes in spotless condition, lawns and landscaping precisely manicured. Cars washed, boats and trailers stored out of sight. Children and their dogs could be heard playing nearby.

Red and black whale totem patch proudly displayed on the left shoulder of his uniform, Chief Rithy Jims of the Quinomish Tribal Police was first to arrive at the vehicle. Fifty yards or so from designated public parking, the car sat askew the rough scrub of the gravel shoulder, resting on its undercarriage, rear wheels hanging precariously over a drainage ditch, front wheels in the street angled severely to the left in complete disregard for the ‘No Parking’ sign.

“No one walks anymore,” mumbled Chief Jims.

Inspecting the vehicle it was always the same, empty beer cans, junk food wrappers strewn about, full tank of gas. Sad state, but in his mind Jims smiled thinking about the five hundred-dollar impound fee that would be added to the tribes coffers. He made the call to dispatch requesting a tow truck stating that he would wait with the vehicle. It was a clear, warm and sunny morning with a hint of breeze through the trees, he would be happy to wait. He did not notice the map resting on the car’s dashboard.

West-facing, looking across the hood of the car, Chief Jims could see the trail-head, marked with an authentic cedar canoe propped atop two stumps carved with the likeness of paddles etched with elaborate xylography designed in such a way that in the fog the effect would be that of a canoe floating downstream. Youth of all shapes and sizes had manned the canoe with everything from garish department store manikins to a full-grown bull moose (stuffed), an odd capriccio. Today it was a raccoon dressed as a pirate. This landmark lead to the trail that would reach the ancient village site, a popular attraction, a place of numerous ceremonies, rituals and festivities.

Taking a deep breath the scent of salty dampness laced with Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce and fertile decay sweetened the breeze. And for a moment he imagined the smell of salmon pinned to cedar stakes cooking on an alder-wood fire just beneath the sounds of dancing, singing and drums. Rumbling up from behind the tow truck snapped the Chief from his reverie.

Within moments the car was hitched and as the winch pulled the nose of the vehicle upward, gravity took control of the map and it slid from the dash, floating gently to the carpeted floor mat, slipping silently beneath the driver’s seat coming to rest atop several forgotten coins, the feather from a young gray owl and a gas station receipt from 1979.

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