A Story of travelers from the Canadian Maritimes to the jungle of Costa RicA


this is for my hiking friends on the east coast trails I used to hike, and on the west coast trails where I now hike with friends, who may have wondered about the little faces peering at them from my back pack  above, BOOSTER and BO below, BO, bearlet author   Searching for our Roots , by Bo Bearlet and Afiena Kamminga Hi! My name is Bo, and I’m a backpack bearlet – you know, one of those little guys who make a career out of traveling in people’s backpacks to see the world. My pal, Booster – another backpack bearlet, to my mind – likes to think he isn’t a bearlet at all. Because, you see, Booster has spots. And that, he says, is how you can tell he’s really a jaguar shrunk to bearlet size after a voodoo-sorcerer took a dislike to him. Our human companions, He and She, tend to snicker when Booster comes up with this tale. They think (and so do I) that Booster is a common bearlet, who happens to have spots. Still, She (who reads books on wildlife as well as domestic bearlets) suggests there might’ve been a spotted rainforest cat of some sort, a small one, involved with Booster’s genetic blueprint – no jaguar of course, but a margay perhaps, she thinks, or an ocelot. In any case, the three of us – me, He and She – decided to take Booster to Costa Rica to find out about his exotic roots, or, in case we found no proof of it, to make him face the truth – that he’s just a bearlet, be it a nice looking one – with spots. And so, late February a few years ago, in the thick of another bi-weekly snowstorm, the four of us drove away from our home in eastern Canada. We waved goodbye to our two horses standing beside the barn stoically waiting to get buried in snow. I thought the horses looked anxious – judging from those little worry wrinkles under the fur around their eyes. Perhaps they wondered if anyone would come by after this snowstorm to dig a passage for them through the drifts into the riding ring, and clear in there the circles and serpentines needed by horses to practice daily free style Dressage routines. Well, never mind them – the four of us were headed for Costa Rican sunshine. It took some doing to find our town’s tiny rail station obscured by blowing snow. Good thing we hadn`t decided to fly to Montreal from our local airport, closed all day on account of the snow. After an arduous train journey – crawling till well after dark behind the plow struggling to push four feet of snow off the track ahead of us – we arrived at Montreal’s Gare Central. “Where’s the plane, where’s our plane?” shouted Booster hopping up and down in our travel home, a netted bearlet den that keeps us safely attached to the daypack She uses to carry us in. She hollered at him (reaching behind to push him back into the net), “Calm down! Sit! Be patient!” We used the next few hours to make our way to the airport hotel (He nor She believe in using cabs if they can help it). I suffered a sleepless night because Booster, too excited to sleep, kept scratching and kicking my unmentionable body parts – don’t tell anyone, but I have a pair of fleshy wings growing from my back. Few people know this because She folds them kindly out of sight to save me embarrassment. I mean…a bearlet with wings, ugly wings too, so shapeless that no one is able to tell me what they’re supposed to resemble – not angel wings, for sure; bat wings perhaps? Next morning we took to the air soaring across land and sea to Costa Rica, all without touching ground on US soil, because, He said, “It takes only one US border official with a thing against bearlets with spots – not to mention one fitted with wings– to get us all arrested.” They forgot to take us out of our nets before stuffing the pack overhead, and so we sat in the dark sobbing through the entire flight – we had so looked forward to She holding us up in front of the window to watch the clouds drifting way down below our feet! After dinner She read out the message in her fortune cookie. “You’ll see amazing things soon,” it said. That buoyed up our spirits. Back on earth, in San Jose, we boarded a taxi. “We’ve no other choice,” He said, “in a place where we don’t know our way around.” Sure enough, we suffered a tour of the entire city, taxi meter ticking, before we got to the pre-booked hotel.  Booster, soaking up the local lingo, (‘Tico Spanish,’) demanded that we refer to him as ‘El Tigre,’ the name he was given at birth, he claims, in what he believes to be his ancestral homeland. I laughed so hard, I almost tumbled out of the net – for once grateful to have those awkward wings helping me to stay put.   We saw no jaguars, nor any ocelots or margays in San Jose. “Perhaps your spotted relatives are hiding out in the rain forest,” we tried to comfort Booster, and the next day we moved on. All through that day our spotted pal stared out the bus window looking for rain forest. First we visited a coffee plantation and next a banana packing plant. Clusters of bananas destined for the processing floor kept chugging by, shrouded in people sized blue plastic bags suspended from zip lines. There were plenty of snakes living in these plantations, the workers said, but no jaguars. The day after, Booster got a chance to pursue his quest in a real cloud forest on the slopes of a volcano named Arenal. We made our way across the forest canopy in a suspended tram car towed by means of steel cables above the tree tops. For once it felt good to have wings tucked against my back, ready to deploy in an emergency. So much to see! Even Booster forgot for a while his obsessive search. There were scary looking bullet ants on the prowl, monstrous mandibles raised to tackle anything straying into their path, and there were cute little leaf cutter ants in orderly columns carrying green umbrellas home. We saw many birds, a few orchids, lots of bromeliads and other epiphytes (She helped me to spell this – any spelling mistakes are hers!). Twisted cables of moss-covered vines called ‘monkey ladders’ ran every which way. So much to see! But no spotted cats, big or small! Sick of Booster’s whining, He/ She decided to head for Costa Rica’s ‘mini Amazone.’ Tortuguero National Park is a maze of waterways and rain forest on the Caribbean coast. No better place than here, She said, to find some sort of spotted cat for Booster’s peace of mind. My bearlet pal was beside himself with excitement. We traveled by fast motorboat on waterways lined with lush looking raffia palms. Booster, on his hind legs, ears flattened in the wind, swiveled his head from side to side, sure to spot a jaguar any moment. We didn’t.     We saw lots of other things along the Tortuguero water ways: brown pelicans diving, stilts in the shallows, scores of other fish eating birdsherons and egrets, bitterns, anhingas and cormorants. Nothing with spots – not even a spotted bird. At day’s end we docked at the riverside jungle resort and sat by the swimming pool after sundown watching monstrous toads quietly squatting under the spotlights waiting for fat flying insects to flutter within reach. Behind us a Calypso band in the restaurant hammered out a lively beat. The toads, perhaps taking it personal, responded with a defiant and deep-voiced ‘ro-ro-ro.’ These epic-sized toads, twice as large as a bearlet, put an end to my desire to sneak out to the pool after dark to test my wings in solitude without being exposed to anyone’s ridicule.  That night Booster and I slept curled into little furry balls, nothing a toad could possibly wish to eat. Next morning we were boom-boomed awake shortly before dawn by a resident troop of howler monkeys tearing across the roofs of the guest cabins. A noisy sight-seeing plane took off from the airstrip behind the village across the river. The noise seemed to rile the burly howler chief. Surrounded by half a dozen attentive females, he gave it his best, booming full force in an effort to drown out the roar of the plane. Back in the boats we drifted all day through a maze of canals spying for spotted cats and other wildlife.   We saw spider monkeys frolicking in leafless tree tops, slots more howler monkeys, and thoughtful looking capuchins.  Here and there we were peeked at through curtains of leaves by the smiley face of a two-toed sloth. We watched a family of energetic river otters and too many birds to count. Once I nearly fell out of my net bag, stretching tall for a closer look at a curious neon-green reptile”basilisk,” He said, checking his list of local wildlife. Frightened by our boat, the lizard rose up on its hind legs and bounced like a marathon runner on long green shanks across the canal, barely touching the water. Our guide grinned. “Jesus lizard.” He pointed up to a tree and clapped his hands. “Tucan.” Two sets of mega-mandibles took to the air, propelled by two undersized feathered bodies flapping short but sturdy wings – like my own… And so there were three of us that day having a wonderful boat trip, and one who came home thoroughly discouraged.  Still no tigre for Booster…   Concerned for our pal’s mental health, He/She decided to make one last effort before we headed for a town named Alajuela right next by the airport to stay the night before flying home. A local bus dropped us off at a small wildlife rehab zoo out of town – Booster’s last chance to find an ancestor. We learned that the zoo had no resident jaguar on the premises – to my relief. Imagine Booster insisting we take a picture of him with the big cat and demanding we call him ‘El Tigre’ from then on. The zoo, it turned out, did have the next best thing, an ocelot of medium size waiting to be returned to the wild. Booster settled for having his picture taken with her, a genuine spotted cat if not the size he had hoped for. The spots on her face though, he pointed out, were patterned exactly like his – a perfect mirror-image. He now remembered, he said, that he was born and raised as a svelte ocelot, until he got into a tiff with an evil witch doctor. “Brujo, I think is the word,” She said looking up from her Spanish textbook. “A vengeful brujo I suppose, who used down-sizing magic to shrink poor Booster to the size of a bearlet.” “Ocelot-let,” I whispered into Booster’s ear.  “Right,” said He, patting the little spotted head. “Why don’t we call you ‘Ocelito’ from now on? You okay with that?” Booster turned to me with a smug grin, mouthing ‘o-ce-li-to’. He raised a spotted paw and beat his chest in standard bearlet fashion, not like an ocelot in the least… Still, what more can I say? ‘Ocelito’ is one word, easier on the tongue than ‘El Tigre.’ We’re nearly home, both of us gazing through the steamy train window at the sparkling splendor of Canada’s icy winter land. Not a speck of snow has melted here in our absence.  Somebody’s pulling my wings. “Your turn, Bo,” says the new-fangled Ocelito. “Let’s go find your roots next.”      Oh boy. Haven’t we traveled enough for a while? Besides, our local black bears (my own humble ancestors, I have a hunch) are still asleep, tucked away in smelly dens.  That leaves me off the hook for a while. Though, come to think of it, aren’t there white bears somewhere in the rainforest by our Canadian west coast? “Spirit Bears, I believe they’re called” She says – Kermode bears.”        I perk up my ears. “And do they have wings?” “Oh please,” He says, “don’t YOU get

started next!”   _ __________________________________________________


[an earlier version of this story was published in Short Story International, and re-published in From a Chosen Land, 1986] By Afiena Kamminga     Part ONE // -A better life?- He stands in the meadow, stroking the moles he has caught in his traps, marveling at the smooth texture caressing his fingertips – nature’s satin. The tiny limp corpses look vulnerable in his large bony hands. He wonders not for the first time how hard it must be for a mole to die in a trap.  He loves moles, always has; and he kills moles, always has. He fingers the shiny unblemished fur of the largest mole caught today. ‘You’re a fine one – a few more like you, and she’ll have her coat.’ For three seasons he has saved the best of his moleskins for the coat he is piecing together for Anneke. When finished, he will wrap it in newspaper, tie a string around it and take the parcel to town, where he will board the bus to Montreal and another one to Oakville, Ontario. He will walk the quiet lanes down to the lake to the two-story house where he left her, fifty-two years ago. He will ring the doorbell and stand on the doorstep waiting for her to open the door. He will hand her the parcel and tell her it is a gift from one she used to know a long time ago. “I think you will like it.” He will take a good look at her face to update the grainy half century old image of her which he has carried around in his mind. He will nod goodbye, turn around and leave to catch the bus back.                                                                          *** Anneke had never considered mole trapping a proper way for a man to make a living. Back home under the clouds scudding over the Friesian pasture lands by the North Sea shallows known as the Wadden, he used to leave daily before dawn with his sack and bicycle and head for the freedom of the grass lands, windblown except where sheltered by the sea dike. They were twenty years old and newly married when the Nazi occupation of their homeland ended and the world opened up. ‘Let’s go elsewhere,’ Anneke insisted. ‘Let’s go to some place where a man can earn a living without ever skinning another mole.’ She never did understand that he was a mole trapper by choice. One day, caught up in the flow of war-weary emigrants , they left the Netherlands and sailed for the wide open spaces of Canada mentioned in glowing testimonies during information sessions well attended in villages all over the province of Friesland. They traveled from Halifax to Ontario and stayed there like many other newcomers. He worked at odd landscaping jobs and Anneke found work cleaning houses. Together they earned enough money to live, though not to save up for a house, not enough for building a future, for starting a family. Anneke ran out of patience. She decided to leave him and move in with a truck driver hauling long distance, a man with his own house and a large enough paycheck to offer the security needed to start a family. It didn’t occur to him to contest the divorce. Part TWO// -Might as well – ‘Might as well go trapping again,’ he thought. But moleskin was not in demand in this country with its abundance of valuable fur bearing animals. He decided to head north and settle in a place where he could make a living trapping for fur. He took the train to Hornepayne in Ontario’s Algoma district, bought a canoe, traps, some tools and supplies, and hired a local to guide him to a small remote lake. There on a narrow tongue of forested land jutting out from the lake shore he built a cabin with a woodshed attached to one side. In those days he thought, like most young people, that he could make himself at home anywhere. He hardly noticed the years slipping by while he made a steady, though modest, living in the tree-studded wilderness of northern Ontario marked by lakes and streams. He gave little thought to the future and rarely thought of the past, of his life together with Anneke. Over the years he seemed to catch fewer animals in his traps. Each year the fur dealer next to the rail station in town paid him a lower price for his skins. After fifty two years of living his life in contentment by the lake, it dawned on him that the world was changing, and the old days would not return. His annual harvest of furs had dwindled to a trickle and he received barely enough cash for them to pay for the yearly supplies he purchased in town. Not that it worried him much. He had learned to live off the land and kept paring down his purchases to the minimum of flour, salt, sugar, canned cooking oil, some odds and ends of hardware and occasionally a few spools of sewing thread. He had no debts and no obligations to anyone. Yet there was something on his mind. Part THREE// -Taking leave from the trees- During the long winter nights he spent in his cabin by kerosene light repairing clothing, snowshoes, traps, fishing and boating gear, old memories began to stir. At first they were mere pictures, faded images stored in dormant corners of his mind. Gradually the images took on colour, and sounds began to creep in. The cries of shorebirds brought back to mind the low-lying pastures and windblown shores of his youth.  At night inside his cabin, protected from the deadly winter cold by a glowing wood stove, he remembered the salty smell of the breeze, the melancholic evening calls of cows anxious to keep in touch, and the outlines of Texel sheep on the dikes, growing dim in the twilight. He began to feel restless in this landlocked country surrounded by spindly spruce, a menacing army in black that seemed to advance on him slyly, little by little when he wasn’t looking. He felt anxious to escape to a land with clean horizons unmarred by trees. One balmy spring morning when winter’s icy stranglehold had lost its power and gurgling streams rampaged all over the bedrock of the Canadian Shield, he loaded the old patched up canoe with the slim pile of furs collected that winter.  He walked back to the cabin to fetch a bundle of clothes and the precious string of tiny mole traps wrapped in oilcloth, stashed away for so long.  He stepped into the old canoe, planted his birch pole firmly down and pushed  away from the pebbled beach, looking straight ahead, bequeathing the cabin and its stack of seasoned firewood, his traps and other gear, to whom it might concern. He sold the canoe to the manager of the new hunting lodge on the other side of the lake and hitched a bumpy jeep ride into town with one of the cooks.  He sold his furs as always to the dealer who lived beside the railroad track. The man seemed reluctant to buy, pawing through the furs and shaking his head.  “All right then,” he said at last. “I’ll take these off your hands, for old times’ sake.” Times were tough he explained, and it wouldn’t be easy to find a buyer for the small motley assortment of hides. “As a favour to you after all these years, I’ll give you enough for the lot to cover the train ticket you’re talking about. It’ll be enough to buy you a one way ticket to Amherst, Nova Scotia – if that’s really where you want to go, old man.” He nodded. ”That’s all the money I need to get from you. I’ve saved enough to cover my other expenses for a while.” He fished in his pocket for the crumpled page torn long ago from an old atlas left behind in Ontario. It showed with little detail the sweeping width of Canada from coast to coast with a few main roads here and there running in red, and a skimpy web of black spidery lines indicating the main railroads. His calloused index finger traced the trans-Canada rail route creeping east through Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, to the isthmus of the Tantramar, the lowlands connecting New Brunswick to Nova Scotia while separating the waters of Fundy Bay from the Northumberland Strait. He showed the map page to the fur dealer. “See that? That there’s all diked-in grassland with few trees. There will be seabirds and shorebirds and meadow birds in the spring and fall, and there will be moles …” Part FOUR// -The Tantramar- In the New Brunswick sentinel town of Sackville on the edge of the Tantramar Marsh, he left the train and continued on foot along the Trans Canada Highway into the marshlands.  He tied his sacks – one holding his clothes and the other holding his mole traps – to the old birch pole he had been unwilling to part with, and swung it up on his shoulder.  When he came to Aulac, a wooded ridge of land elevated above the sweep of flat grassland, he decided to abandon the highway turning right, climbing the ridge that pointed into the marsh, and follow the tree-lined road on top of it to the end. There he stood for a while gazing down on the single track railroad below, and across the expanse of pasture and hay fields behind it to the dike relied on since Acadian times to keep the Fundy tides at bay. He turned and walked back in the fading daylight to the abandoned farmhouse he had seen from the road, a dilapidated structure with doors and windows boarded up. He walked around the house and back to the front, looking inside through a window that had lost its plywood cover, into what  seemed to be a large kitchen with bare and uneven floorboards visible between peeling strips of drab linoleum. It began to rain. He moved on to a large shed or workshop behind the house. Like the house, the shed had been sided and roofed a long time ago with cedar shingles now turned a rustic black. He squeezed in through the half-open door and looked around with a smile. In the corner farthest away from a horse-drawn cultivator that took up much of the floor space, there was a pile of musty old wood shavings, enough to serve as a makeshift bed. He would sleep out of the rain tonight. Part FIVE // -Making arrangements- The next day he called on the people next door to ask who owned the abandoned house. The middle-aged man and woman who lived in the mobile home next to the farmhouse, turned out to be siblings born and raised in the now crumbling structure next door. They had, after the death of their parents, opted to move into the mobile home rather than fixing the farmhouse and go on living there. But they still owned the place and mowed the yard. He asked if he could move into the old place. “I’ll take care of the house and the yard, keep down the weeds and the brush.  I could save you a lot of time and bother.” “I don’t think so, “the brother said. “The house isn’t fit to be lived in. There’s no power right now. It would need a whole lot of re-wiring.” “And there’s no water,” his sister added. “The well has been out of use for so long. There’s an old hand pump in the mudroom, but I don’t remember we packed it before we moved out.  By now it must’ve frozen to pieces.” They seemed eager to see him leave. But he had taken a liking to the old farmhouse and he insisted. “I’ve lived without power for longer than I care to remember, and I’m pretty sure I could get the pump going again.” The brother shook his head. “The water would need to be re-tested.” But his sister put her hand on his arm. “Now wait a moment,” she said. “Don’t be hasty. If this fellow wants to live in the house and do some fixing and yard upkeep, why not let him try? He could come here and get a regular supply of drinking water from our well here.” That seemed to settle it. He moved into the old house, took the plywood sheets down from the windows and fixed up the kitchen and part of the roof.  Down by the highway in the convenience store annex to the truck stop, he found some hardware and other items to make repairs. The day his money ran out, he walked along the highway to town to sign up for social assistance. When his first OAS check arrived, he walked into town to cash it, buy himself a change of clothes in the thrift store, and ask where he could get a bicycle. The store clerk pointed around the back to a workshop where volunteers were busy fixing up donated bikes, offered free of charge to those in need. The took a long time looking over the offerings before he decided on a sturdy black bike equipped with front and back carriers. The following week he cycled to town early Tuesday morning ahead of the garbage trucks coming by for the monthly collection of large discarded items. He cruised slowly through the streets looking for things he could use. Soon enough he came across a children’s bike with sturdy wheels and good tires, small enough to take home on his bike carrier.  Behind the town’s pastry shop he spotted a pile of discarded pallets with a sign that said:  ‘feel free to take us home.’ He selected two sturdy pallets, lashed one to each side of his bike and walked home pushing the bike with its unwieldy load. With the pair of small bicycle wheels and lumber salvaged from the pallets he built a sturdy bike trailer, sufficient he reckoned to serve all of his hauling needs. Part SIX// -Rebuilding a life- He scouted the grasslands looking for well-drained pasture lands, the kind of places where moles choose to live. At first, when he passed by other houses on the ridge road with his bike and his sack, people looked up from their garden or out through the window to stare at him. After a week they concluded he was a harmless eccentric, not deserving any special attention. Local children home after school followed him to the mole fields to begin with, until the silent stare from his pale blue eyes scared them away. Twice a day he made his way to the trapping fields riddled with mole runs. On some days when the fog rolled in from the bay he lingered to savour the smell of the sea and taste the salt on his lips. On Saturdays after collecting his traps, he did not reset them but took them home instead for cleaning and oiling.  On Sundays he would stay home, or take a walk on top of the dike to look at the birds breeding in the wetlands in summer, or, later, gathering in flocks preparing for fall migration, skimming over the water or feeding on the mudflats at low tide.  Sometimes he would lie on his back in the grass atop of the dike watching the twirling, spiraling clouds of sandpipers trekking along the coast, and sometimes he fell asleep up there, revisiting in his dreams the dikes of his childhood — much higher than here — and flocks of birds much like these commuting back and forth between the rich grasslands and the Wadden Sea mudflats. He rarely needed to make purchases in town. Sometimes he rode to the gas-station store by the highway to cash a check and buy some odds and ends. Twice a year he cycled to town with his trailer to stock up on salt, sugar, oil, milk powder and flour. The kitchen garden provided for most of his meals –- fresh greens and all manner of vegetables in summer, cellar-stored root crops and dried beans in the winter. To feed the kitchen stove for cooking and heating, he cut elder stems in a poorly drained corner of the property and stacked them behind the tool-shed to season. Part SEVEN// -A coat for Anneke- Moleskin, he learned, didn’t sell in this town, and so he decided to turn the delicate little skins into blankets for his own use. He selected the best pelts to make a sleeveless vest he could wear in the house on cold mornings before the stove heated up. He made a few moleskin vests to sell at the farmers’ market in town.  One satisfied customer asked that he make her a jacket with sleeves. He made another one, found it sold easily, and became caught up in a one-man cottage industry producing and selling moleskin jackets. With each piece of clothing he learned a little more about tailoring. One day an idea popped into his mind and refused to leave. Soon the new project took over much of his life, consuming every last bit of effort and time he could spare. This, he decided, would be his life’s big accomplishment. He would create the ultimate moleskin garment, a lustrous fur coat expertly crafted from delicate mole hides, a dazzling number of them,  for Anneke. Only the best and largest mole skins found their way into Anneke’s coat. The others he used to make blankets and rugs piled high on the bed, or used to pad the hard wooden back and armrests of his old rocking chair. Surplus bits and pieces of skins he stitched into sock-shaped inserts to use as winter lining in his rubber boots. He saved all skins rejected because of blemishes until he had enough to make curtains and wall hangings. These went a long way to keep the icy drafts of winter from passing through the old house. Part EIGHT// -Moles, birds, cats and foxes- He likes to keep the same daily routine – except on Sundays.  Just after dawn he goes out to collect last night’s catch. Moles don’t seem to waste time sleeping.  In his mind he pictures them tunneling on day and night without relent, munching insects, grubs and worms as they go and pushing head first into the first mole trap they encounter. Slowly, gently, he releases the dead moles from the traps, brushing away the dirt to reveal the velvet shine of the dense short coat.  With vague regret he lowers each one into his burlap sack.  His gaze sweeps across the mole fields riddled with tunnels close enough to the surface to show up as rounded ridges of brown loose soil a few inches high snaking through the grass. The morning haze is lifting and he remembers the mole fields back home dotted with hundreds of small mounds – those freshly thrown up still steaming — each one in the low morning sunshine casting a shadow twin sibling attached to it in the grass. Mole hills on this side of the ocean, he reflects, seem to be fewer and smaller than he remembers from the fields back home. The moles here in the Tantramar don’t look the same either as those he used to catch in the old country. About to put away the last one of his catch this morning, he turns it around in his hands, touching a finger tip to the pink fleshy whiskers that grow in a circle from the blunt little mole snout — like sprouts emerging from a seed potato. They have a rubbery feel to them. The skins themselves are as they ought to be, same as back home – black, ultra-short fur with a silken sheen and, when touched, smooth-textured like velvet or satin. He sits on the bench near the tool shed scraping blood and flesh from another prime skin for Anneke, oblivious to the feline stares from two pairs of emerald eyes by his feet. He goes to the base of a rocky outcrop to bury what’s left of the moles after skinning – a suitable place for dead moles to return to the earth and remain undisturbed – except for a while in early spring, when a pair of breeding foxes carry away freshly thawed carcasses with shreds of flesh left on them. If only Anneke could have seen the mole fields this morning glowing in the hazy morning sunshine. She never did understand about moles, never understood his fascination with moles and their blind, efficient way of making a life. She will change her mind at last, he feels sure, after she has opened the package to reveal the master piece he has created for her. Each new day strengthens the pleasure he finds in living his life once again a mere walking distance away from the sea. It has been four years since the bus dropped him off on the road at the foot of the ridge one drizzly afternoon.  Since that day he has lived through more than a thousand days – almost one thousand five-hundred  – nearly all of them saturated with strong wind, chasing clouds, and rippling grass below skies alive with birds playing and pitching, hurled about, fighting the wind.  Each of those days has been one to remember. All the days of his fifty some years in the woodlands and bogs of northern Ontario seem by contrast merged to a blur of uncounted seasons, a  timeline of dreams and events briefly re-surfacing in his awareness now and then, before slipping for good from his conscious mind.     Part NINE// -Mail delivery- No less than three hundred moles have bequeathed their skins to Anneke’s coat. After he puts in the last stitch he drapes his creation over a coat hanger and hooks it to the winter clothesline running overhead across the kitchen, not far from the stove. He pulls up a stool and sits down in front of it, imagining her surprise when she opens the package and unfolds the glorious garment. After a while he gets up to open the top kitchen drawer. He takes out the pre-paid postcard he brought back from town a while ago. He sits down at the table, flips out his pocket knife to sharpen a stump of pencil, and writes his message on the card. ‘Lieve’ Anneke, I hope you and your family are in good health. Is your husband still in trucking? I have something to give you, something I have always wanted to give you from the day I first saw you in church.  Call it a belated wedding gift. I would like to come down and hand it over in person. Two weeks from now, if that suits you?’ No need to sign. Next morning he waits by the road to wave down the mail woman in her small SUV. She stops in a cloud of gravel dust. This is the first time on her watch that she’s asked to stop at the crumbling house halfway her mail route, to pick up a piece to be sent. He hands over his message to Anneke. Back in the house he pours himself an instant coffee and sits down at the kitchen table. Nothing left to do, except waiting. He looks at the floor and the walls and the bed, all blanketed in moleskin, enough to keep him warm for the rest of his life. He cannot justify killing more moles now that the coat is completed, and he decides to stay home the following days cleaning traps and putting them away. The red tomcat will have to subsist on milk from now on, or catch his own meat. He busies himself around the house, unable to sit down for long, restless, anxious to receive word from Anneke. On the sixth day, another rainy morning, he is out in the toolshed feeding milk to the cats when the brown SUV with the mail sign on its roof turns into the muddy driveway. The mail woman pulls up right by the kitchen door this time. He hurries back to the house, wiping his glasses clean of rainwater. “Oh, there you are,” the woman says through the one-inch window crack she has opened. “I meant to save you having to come out in the rain.”  She lowers the car window further and hands him a familiar looking postcard. “They’ve returned your mail I think.”” He stares blankly at her, at the card, and back to the woman. She waves the card back and forth. “Here, take it! You had better check the address.” He reaches out for the postcard and turns away without a word.  The mail woman shrugs.  “Well, thank you, Susan, for driving right up to the house,” she mutters, stepping on the gas to get out on the road.  “Cranky old geezer.” Back in the toolshed he sits on the upturned bucket staring at the postcard — pure white when he last saw it, now dog-eared, stained, bearing a black ink stamp that declares:  ‘Undeliverable.’ Next to it, in blue handwriting, ‘moved to unknown address.’   Part TEN// -Returned to the earth- Later that day he cycles along the ridge road, carrying a rake and shovel and pulling his trailer.  He makes his habitual rounds through the mole fields, pausing at the familiar locations where active moles have left their marks.  He rakes up loose soil from the mole hills and runs, and shovels it onto the trailer to take home. Three times he makes the trip between the field and his house on the ridge, each time with half a trailer load of dirt, enough for one man to push up the ridge. growing dirt pile next to the toolshed.  After he has dumped the third load, he is satisfied with the size of the dirt pile next to the toolshed.  He puts the bike and trailer away and goes to work with shovel and digging fork. He clears thistles and quack grass away until there’s a strip of bare earth the length and width of an average human body. He digs out enough soil to make a shallow trench. He goes into the house and returns, arms stretched in front of his chest, carrying Anneke’s coat like an offering. He sinks to his knees and lowers the soft luxurious folds into the trench, arranging them to best advantage so they catch the afternoon sunshine – no better light than this to bring out the sheen of moleskin in its full splendor. He uses the shovel for support to raise himself back on his feet. Slowly, he refills the trench with soil, one shovelful at a time, returning the skins to the earth, the same moist, crumbly soil that sheltered and fed the moles they came from, until the time of harvest. He smiles and nods to himself. It feels so right. With his rake he shapes the pile to a conical mound, a super-sized molehill, the equal of which cannot be found on either side of the Atlantic.     The End             _______________________________________

What life was like in 10th century Iceland, the world of Thora Thorvinnsdottir, protagonist of my novel, The Sun Road  NOTES ON THE PLACE OF THE HORSE IN ICELAND’s HISTORY AND CULTURE History// Iceland was settled during the 9th an 10th centuries, mostly by settlers from Norway, disgruntled folks who had ran afoul of the powers that dominated old Norse society at that time. Iceland had virtually no roads till the 20th century. Travelers made use of ships (most communities were at the bottom of a fjord) while overland they journeyed on horseback between isolated farmsteads. Raising hardy livestock, sheep and horses mostly, was and still is the main farming pursuit on this island in the North Atlantic where few crops other than animal fodder are able to thrive due to the short and cool growing season. Scandinavia was the last place in Europe where Christianity gained a foothold and Icelanders were possibly the very last people in the world to abandon the old Germanic gods. Well before royal dynasties ruling elsewhere in Europe were forced to share some power with early forms of parlement, Iceland ruled itself as an early democracy in which free farming folks — males only — voted in periodic Thing gatherings or decided on major issues once a year in the central Althing gathering. In 1000 AD, the Althing accepted Christianity as the faith of the land, though it was ruled that conversion would not be mandatory. Icelanders remained free to worship the old gods as they wished. Pre-Christian customs such as the practice of sacrificing horses to the gods, survived in Iceland well into the Christian era, and Iceland was never subjected to church-inspired strict prohibitions on horse flesh consumption as was the case in the British Isles. Visitors from English speaking parts of the world often express unease when confronted in Iceland with displays of cured horse hides sold as rugs. To this day horse flesh is widely consumed. This – sad for a horse lover to admit — makes good sense in a land where an estimated 20 000 horses live side by side with roughly 300 000 human citizens. In the 9th and 10th century, Europe’s north lands including Iceland generated infamous waves of seasonal raiders referred to as viking, (Norse label for seafaring folks lurking about in inlets.)  Men went abroad in the summer to trade and/or raid in wealthier lands to the South and East while the wife kept the farm going with the aid of servants, bonded or free. Not surprisingly, martial qualities in the menfolk were highly valued and male pride was closely linked with the horse, considered throughout human history to be the most glorious brand of domestic animal.        Horses// Horses were important in the scheme of things not only for practical reasons. They also served as a vehicle to carry the pride and honour of Icelandic men, as illustrated by numerous tales in Icelandic sagas.    Sagas// Iceland is famous for its large body of early medieval literature. As soon as Christianity had produced a class of literate people, some of these scholars set out to write down a treasure trove of traditional tales passed down orally for hundreds of years — some of them tall tales, others surprisingly accurate in historical details. The sagas illustrate, among other things, the social importance of horses and horse fights in ancient Iceland. Male horses were largely selected for fighting spirit and talent which could be exploited in stallion fights, a major form of entertainment in those days. Fortunes were made or lost by placing bets on the outcome of horse fights. Above all else, these fights served as proxy battles between boastful, hot tempered men attempting to maintain or raise their personal honour. Oftentimes the outcome played a major role in the endless feuds stirring traditional Icelandic society, ultimately destroying entire families by decimating its male members. *here’s a Icelandic saga description of a stallion fight [from the saga of Grettir, a mischievous folk hero].     The stallions were led out and the mares tethered together in the front on the bank of the river. There was a large pool just behind the bank. The horses fought vigorously and there was excellent sport. Odd managed his horse pluckily and Grettir gave way before him, holding the tail of his horse with one hand and with the other the stick with which he pricked it on….Grettir ducked beneath the flank of his horse and drove his stick into Odd’s side with such violence that three of his ribs were broken and Odd fell into the pool with his horse and all the mares that were there by the bank. The next quote describes how one famous Icelandic feud was helped along by a certain horse fight. It also highlights the role of an ambitious, ruthless woman goading her man into challenging other men. Gunnar is described as a man both brave and peace loving, who is doomed to lose his life in a feud fueled by his wife’s excessive need to assert herself in confrontations with others. This woman, Hallgerda, says somewhere earlier in the saga, ‘Little good does it do me to have the bravest man of all Iceland for a husband, if you will not seek retribution for the insults which I, your wife, are made to endure.’ The horse fight summarized below shows how horses ended up sacrificed for the sake of human ego building, another step in the lengthy chain of fateful decisions and events which eventually lead to Gunnar’s death. *[from the saga of Burnt Njal]      Starkad had a good horse of chestnut hue, and it was thought that no horse was his match in fight….(enters the ambitious wife of the other guy, Gunnar/AK)…. Gunnar has a brown horse, she says, and he will dare to fight his horse against you, and against everyone else…. (now the other side addresses the unfortunate Gunnar/AK), …we are told that thou hast a good horse, and we wish to challenge thee to a horse fight…..(Gunnar tries to wriggle out of this/AK)….he (the horse/AK) is young and untried. In every way…. Most sagas are tales of tragedy and fate and this one keeps with the formula – Gunnar, the unwilling hero, is egged on to take up the challenge, so as not to lose his honour which in the old Norse value system was considered to be more precious by far than a man’s life.     Then the horses ran at each other and bit each other long, so that there was no need for anyone to touch (that is, goad/AK) them, and that was the greatest sport….they (Starkad’s gang, Gunnar’s enemies/AK) would push their horses forward just as the horses ran together, and see if Gunnar would fall before them (and get trampled/AK)…Thorgeir, Starkad’s son smote Gunnar’s horse such a blow that one of his (the horse’s/AK) eyes started out. Gunnar smote Thorgeir with his riding rod and down falls Thorgeir senseless; but Gunnar goes to his horse, and says to Kolskegg (one of his lads/AK) ‘cut off the horse’s head; he shall not live a maimed and blemished beast’ So Kolskegg cut the head off the horse.  My last quote doesn’t involve fighting horses. It illustrates yet another way in which horses, and men’s handling or mishandling of them, could generate a feud between men.    Now Otkell had 2 horses, dun colored, with a black strip down the back; they were the best steeds to ride in all the country round, and so fond of each other, that when one went before, the other ran after him.   Otkell rode one of the dun horses, but the other ran loose by its side….and now Otkell gallops ahead, and now the horses race against each other….Gunnar sows his corn there (the piece of land they are galloping on/AK)…now Otkell goes faster than he should….he had spurs on his feet, and so gallops down on the plowed field….just as Gunnar stands upright, Otkell rides down upon him and drives one of his spurs into Gunnar’s ear, and gives him a great gash. _______________________________________________________