Tofino

Andrew Neil Gray


Ahead of them, people fall from the bridge supports. They are visible as black dots from the roadway as it leaves Stanley Park and resolve clearly into the figures of men and women by the time the van is crossing Lion’s Gate. They blur past the sides of the bridge and out of sight. Bram catches a glimpse of streaming blonde hair before he pulls his eyes back to the road ahead of them. The sun is low across the Georgia Straight and long shadows flicker on the bridge deck as the jumpers flap past to land back on the supports, ready to dive again.

“Night’s coming,” he says to Rachel. She’s perched on the back of the seat beside him, grooming her feathers. She makes a murmuring squawk but doesn’t look up. Sometimes she’ll run her beak through his hair, sit on his shoulder and nestle herself in the crook of his neck. But it distracts him when he drives, which is especially dangerous with the state of the roads here.

“We’ll need to find a place to sleep before we make the crossing in the morning. There used to be that motel on the way to Horseshoe Bay. Wouldn’t it be nice to sleep in a real bed, maybe have a shower, too?”

Someone has planted sunflowers in the grass beside the off-ramp onto Marine Drive. Two crows perch on a fallen head, pecking at the seeds inside, and Rachel watches them intently. “I know, love,” he says. “I know.”

By some miracle the motel still operates. Bram holds a sheaf of red and white bills hesitantly towards the clerk. Rachel is in the van pecking at the leather covering on the steering wheel. He doesn’t know if there’s a policy about animals in the rooms, but he’s not about to leave her out overnight.

The clerk is covered in silver scales. They glitter in the fluorescent light of the office. There’s a TV on the desk, and Bram can see little moving images reflected in some of the scales. He can’t tell the sex of the clerk at first glance, tentatively guessing male.

“We do take new dollars, sugar.” The voice is that of a smoker in her fifties.

“They’re lovely,” he says somewhat awkwardly. “The scales are.” It’s so hard to tell how compliments will be received; he’s had bad luck before.

The clerk shrugs. “Lovely don’t buy dinner.” She slides a key in exchange for more of the money in his hand than he thinks the room should be worth. “You’ll be looking for the ferry in the morning, then.”

He’s startled for a moment and forgets to protest about the price. “The ferry?”

“People stop here for the ferry. Don’t try and tell me you’re going skiing.”

He considers lying but can feel his face reddening; he’s never been very good at it in the best of times.

“Rumours are getting around.” The clerk looks at the crisp bills in her hand, puts them in the till. “They won’t take any of this for the ferry. No paper money.”

“I heard maybe they would,” Bram says.

“I’m sure you heard lots of things.”

* * *

The motel room is a motel room. Lime-painted cinderblock walls remind him of a high school gymnasium; the tub is stained and the faucet leaks. But there’s a shower, and hot water, and he remains until the ache of driving fades from his shoulders and his neck, until his skin crinkles into a relief map of itself. When he leans his head against the tiles under the shower head, he sees the stain of mildew in the grout. Enough things have remained themselves that they sometimes throw the strangeness into focus.

He and Rachel eat perched on the side of the bed. Their food is running low. The money belt under his shirt is getting thinner. He doesn’t want to think about how far they’ve come on a journey sparked by rumours, by the word of someone so obviously askew. He falls asleep with the image of falling bodies in his eyes, of their wings skimming the water of the harbour past the rusting hulks of bulk haulers and container ships.

* * *

They pick up a couple of hitchhikers on the road outside the motel in the morning: two children with a hand-lettered sign reading ‘ferry’. He is initially hesitant to stop, but from the way Rachel bobs up and down on the seat back and taps the glass he knows she wants the company. She’s always liked children.

“I’m Hilda,” the girl says as she hops in the side door. “And this is Dick.” They look to be ten or eleven, but their names are the first clue to their real ages. Another clue is the pair of knitting needles tucked into the side of her backpack. She looks around the interior of the van, at the clothes and water jugs, the half-empty flat of canned soup, a sack of birdseed. “No fish? You’ll need fish for the ferry.”

Bram notices they have a cooler with them. It sloshes as they haul it up and onto his floor. “I’d heard they take new dollars now.”

Hilda looks at the boy. He shrugs. “Not that I know,” she says, “But it’s been a couple of months since we came over to the mainland. Maybe they’ve changed things.” She looks at Rachel, who has been following the conversation with her head tilted sideways, black eyes glinting. “Who’s this?”

Rachel croaks, flashing her dark tongue. Her feathers have a violet shine in the morning light. “It’s Rachel,” Bram says. “You two buckle up, the roads have been rough.” He can’t help thinking of them as kids, though they’re likely decades older than him.

The seatbelts fit awkwardly on their small bodies. The boy is looking out the window, uninterested. He has yet to speak. There’s a pipe in his hand and he unscrews the stem, blows to clear it. The girl is still looking at Rachel. She holds her hand out and Rachel gives it a small peck. “Was she a person before or has she always been a raven?”

Bram starts the van and looks ahead. “Not really your business, is it?” Roots have pushed through the road in places and as he heads towards the Upper Levels highway he bumps over the cracked asphalt. He puts a disk in the van’s stereo, a Latin folk album he’d swapped some classic rock for back in Mission, and the conversation is over.

At the ferry exit a school bus blocks the road. A man with long ragged blonde dreadlocks and a tie-dyed shirt gets out of the bus as they pull up. On the side of the bus are the rules of ferry passage written out on brown cardboard.

Bram asks about new dollars, one in his hand as if showing the money would make it less like the shaky promise it actually is. The man makes a complicated shrug-like motion, as if miming the removal of an elaborate costume.

“Depends,” he says. He looks at the kids in the back, at Rachel. “Dollars might buy passage for three, but not the van.”

Hilda pipes up. “Don’t worry about us son, we’re paying our own way.”

“We need the van,” Bram says. “We’ve a ways to go yet.”

Dreadlocks laughs. His hair moves like the coat of some woolly dog shaking out the water after a swim. “Well dollars won’t do it then. Let’s have a look at what else you’ve got.”

In the end he wants half the food, a bottle of vodka, a pair of jeans, the cooler of salmon Hilda and Dick brought aboard and the remainder of the new dollars in Bram’s wallet. At least the money belt still has something, but the food is a loss.

Bram took the ferry from Horseshoe Bay years before, remembers lining up in the sun on a hot summer day with RVs and minivans, kids and tourists running around on deck as seagulls flapped past, the wind smelling of ocean. This is a much smaller boat, big enough for only four or five vehicles, the rest of the deck filled with people standing, sitting, nursing babies, crammed in around boxes and bales of unidentified objects. They’ve painted flowers over the old ferry logo, a graceful portrait of a breaching orca. Drummers drum in a grubby group; an improbably tall woman gracefully folds her legs to sit beside them, making room in a crowd of backpacks and sniffing dogs. Another woman stands by the ramp, folding her wings and unfolding them again absently as she talks with one of the passengers.

“You know,” Hilda says, looking up from the knitting she’s taken from her backpack. “It’s really not so different than it was before. The Gulf islands always looked something like this, didn’t they, hon?” Dick snorts, the first sound he’s made since Bram picked them up.

Voices buzz from the front of the boat, then Bram sees the shape of a fin cutting through the water. “Finally,” Hilda says.

Dreadlock and a couple of his companions are dumping buckets of salmon into the water. More fins arrive; the water churns around the fish. Hilda claps her hands. “Come on, Dick, let’s go watch them get ready.” With a little wave she and Dick slip through the crowd to the front of the boat.

The ferry isn’t fast, but the passengers seem used to it. The pod of killer whales pulls steadily at their harnesses. Gulls rise and fall behind them, plucking salmon fragments from the water, fighting loudly. Someone’s making bean tortillas over a small gas stove and Bram buys one with a new dollar. Rachel sniffs the salt air and flaps her wings with what he takes to be pleasure.

He’s approached for rides by a dozen people offering jewelry, food, the laying on of hands as payment. One man even offers a fat bundle of old hundreds and Bram shakes his head at the worthless paper, amazed that the man would even try. When Bram tells them where he’s heading some look at him with sympathy, but a few brighten – “yes,” they say, “we’re going, too.” They ask him what he knows, but it’s the same muddle of rumour and speculation they already have.

Before it all happened, he’d sneered at the horoscope readers, those who heard ghosts in the settling creaks of old houses and saw the hand of fate in every simple coincidence. Now he lives in a world that makes no sense at all. In the faces and voices of the people he’s giving rides to—he and Rachel need the supplies, he’s told himself—he sees a mirror of his own need and bewilderment.

“Is this foolish?” He’s in the van with Rachel. She has tucked her head beneath her wing, the slow rocking of the ferry putting her to sleep. She looks up at him, inscrutable. Makes a quiet clicking sound. Perhaps she is being reassuring.

At some point in their past Rachel would have smiled at him and said, “Have faith.” At another point she would have been less indulgent. Far less. Now he can only imagine. Still, she always had some sort of faith—faith that things would work out, that a benevolent force was keeping an eye on them. He wonders where her faith is now.

* * *

There is a dead giant in Departure Bay. He has fallen next to the ferry docks, splintering pilings and twisting the metal supports of the gangway. But the docks were built for larger boats, and the small ferry is able to come closer to shore where a space has been hacked into the remains of the old dock and a ramp rigged together from metal supports and plywood sheets.

Crows and turkey vultures wheel around the giant’s head and chest. When he fell, he fell face-forward, and his arms are splayed beside him, the remains of a trailer crumpled beneath one hand. His body is half submerged, and several sea lions rest in the hollow of his back. His head is turned away from the ferry dock and Bram is glad of it; from the cloud of birds he can imagine the ruin of the man’s face.

One of the passengers is staring at the giant. Jerry, Bram thinks, or Jim or something like that. “You know how he died?” he says.

Hilda puts down her knitting needles, frowns. “He tripped?”

Jerry shakes his head. “Starved to death. Or at least to the point where he fainted and gravity did the rest of the damage. I think they all do, eventually. Can you imagine how much food a giant needs?”

Hilda looks sadly at the fallen body as they bump up the ramp and onto the roadway that leads out of the ferry terminal. “I bet he was heading to Tofino like the rest of you,” she says. “I bet he swam from the mainland, but he just didn’t have the energy to make it past the shore. Poor soul.”

Bram is not interested in the giant. He has seen one before near Banff, also dead. It’s just as stupid a thing to become as a billionaire in a world where suddenly every second person was a billionaire. Or a raven.

“God played a strange joke,” Hilda says. It’s a saying Bram’s heard before. She’s still looking back at the docks, though by now as they near the turnoff to the highway only the top of the giant’s head is visible, along with the column of birds.

“People say that,” Jerry replies. “Or that God is testing us. But there’s so much we don’t know about the world. Quantum mechanics, and string theory and the like. Maybe something happened in another dimension we can’t even see. Isn’t the world supposed to make sense in eleven dimensions?”

Bram speaks then, surprising himself. “I think it was God,” he says. “Nature doesn’t care what happens to people. You’d have to be cruel to think something like this up.”

He supposes that the men and women flying from the Lion’s Gate might disagree with him, but then they were the smart ones. Rachel is riding on the seat back behind him. She pecks his ear hard enough to hurt. He pretends not to notice.

Hilda and Dick get off at their house in Parksville. The place is a tidy bungalow overlooking the beach. Someone waves from the front door and Hilda smiles and waves back. The tide is out and a few figures wander across the long stretch of sand. A holiday postcard made surreal by the castle high above the water, perched atop an enormous floating boulder. Hilda stands beside the driver window for a moment looking up at Bram. Her voice floats up. “It’s not all cruel,” she says, and gestures to the castle. “Just look at that. What a thing to wish for!” She hands him the result of her knitting, a single small sock.

Dick sits on his backpack on the front lawn, lights his pipe. He has the high voice of the child he appears to be. “Remember,” he says. “It could always be worse.”

Road signs give them three hours to reach Tofino, but it takes more than a day. Trees have blown down across the highway, rocks have fallen in more than one spot, and it’s slow going. There are other vehicles on the road, and people on horseback, hikers with backpacks and water bottles out for what could be a weekend jaunt save for their haggard expressions, and for the direction they’re heading.

Late in the afternoon Jerry speaks up. He and Bram have just finished siphoning gas from a car they found in the garage of an abandoned house. Bram’s other passengers are scouring the house and the garden for food. “Isn’t it strange how few are coming the other way?”

Bram nods. He’d noticed too. “Almost all the traffic is going towards Tofino.”

“And those coming the other way don’t want to talk about it. Is that a good thing?” Jerry frowns, screws the gas cap back on the van. Bram realizes he doesn’t know a thing about him other than his name. But then he doesn’t know much about any of his passengers. They’ve only spoken to him of practical matters—food and water, map coordinates, finding gas. The reasons for their journey, and for the people they see on the road, carefully avoided. As if mentioning it would be dangerous somehow.

“It’s a bit late to change our minds now,” Bram says. Rachel sits on the roof rack, surveying the land around the house. “Quork,” she says. She clicks forward across the roof of the van and launches herself into the air. She flies carefully up into a fir beside the road, flaps from branch to branch, pecking at pine cones.

“You don’t ever worry she’ll just fly away?”

Bram is watching Rachel intently. He shakes his head.

They overnight in another abandoned house and set out early. When the highway ends and they turn towards Tofino the road is lined with vehicles. They drive past cars and trucks, minivans, motorcycles, all empty. Finally, after they pass the national park and are nearing the town itself, they see signs of life. A wisp of smoke from the beach, someone rooting around in the trunk of one of the cars. There’s a man on the road wearing an orange safety vest. He waves them to a stop.

Bram rolls down the window and the man – enormous, tattooed and bearded – hands him a ticket for each person in the car. The ticket says Beer. On the back there’s a time and date stamped. The man notes their names on a log book then waves them through.

“What’s this for?” Bram asks.

“You should know what it’s for if you’ve come here,” the man says. “Ask in town.”

There are more people closer to town, but Tofino is still eerily quiet. Campers and RVs and tents speckle the woods and lawns, but most are empty. A woman in another orange vest directs them to a parking spot near Long Beach. “Take a tent or a camper,” she says. “The empty ones have a blue tag on the door—just pull it off when you decide which ones you want.”

Jerry spends a few hours in town as Bram sets up camp on the edge of the beach with the others. There’s a new-looking RV parked where the forest edges into the sand of the beach, and some of his passengers take it over. He takes a large tent, and removes the sleeping bags that are neatly laid out inside.

Jerry returns with a bag of apples. He hands everyone two. Bram hasn’t tasted an apple for months. He feeds slivers to Rachel, perched on his shoulder. She plucks them carefully from his fingers.

“Seems that this is the place, alright,” Jerry says.

“So she’s still here?” Bram asks. “It’s true what they say?”

Jerry nods. “Apparently. There’s a few more folk in the orange vests in town. Sticking around to help out.” He takes a bite of his apple. “I talked to a couple. Though nobody would tell me why all the empty cars. Say nobody really knows. Everyone gets their turn, eventually. Five minutes, stamped on your ticket.”

“What will it cost?” Bram asks. “Did they tell you?” He’s thinking of the dwindling supplies, the few new dollars he has remaining. The only thing of value left is the van.

“Couldn’t quite get a straight answer on that, either. Someone said it cost nothing. Someone said it was everything. But it must be worth it, don’t you think? How often in life can you have a mistake erased, just like that?”

That night the sparks from a few scattered fires float into the air above the beach. They can hear singing from far away, just audible over the voice of the surf. The stars are the same as they always were, casting down their cold gleam. Bram sits on the ground by the tent with Rachel. She’s almost invisible in the dim light. She makes a soft sound, tock, and he strokes her feathers. “It’s almost over,” he says. “You know I’ve forgiven you, don’t you?”

* * *

The woman they’ve come to see lives in a house in the forest just off Chesterman Beach. There are more people in town than Bram had thought, or more came in the night, as there’s a small crowd in the front garden of the house. The way is blocked by orange vests, scrutinizing tickets.

Bram is only a little nervous. He waits on a low wall in the front garden, Rachel quiet on his shoulder. Someone by the front door periodically calls out ticket numbers. He’s reminded of the lineup at a deli and almost laughs. Now serving salvation. He considers saying this to one of the people who waits with him, but nobody will catch his eye: they’re focused inwards, like patients in a doctor’s waiting room awaiting their diagnoses. He wonders if they have doubt at this late moment, doubt about what their lives will be like afterwards. At least, he thinks, I’m not in their shoes.

When it’s his turn he hands his ticket to the gatekeeper and walks into the house. A tree-trunk winds its way up through the foyer to the second floor. Skylights let in a wash of daylight. There’s a kitchen ahead, opening up to a living room dominated by a stone fireplace, treelike posts and massive beams. On a stool by the kitchen island there’s a young woman, maybe twenty, sitting with a mug in her hand and a magazine open in front of her. He’s not sure what he expects to see—an altar? Some inner sanctum and a sage in a rocking chair?

The woman pats the stool beside her, not looking up from the magazine. “I’m Marie,” she says. “You’ve got your five minutes. Don’t waste them.”

He blinks. “You’re her?”

She looks at him then. “Did you not read the rules?”

In the garden they’d handed him a photocopied sheet of paper, grubby from many hands. The Rules, it read. Don’t waste her time. Tell the truth about everything. She doesn’t know why it happened any more than you do. Maybe they really were Angels, come to save us or test us with their promises. Maybe we failed. It doesn’t matter. You only get one visit, so be sure this is what you want. And no, we don’t know where people go afterwards. Please leave by the rear door and you will find out for yourself. Just walk towards the ocean.

He nods.

“So tell me the truth. What it is you want annulled.”

He holds his hand out and Rachel steps onto his wrist from his shoulder. She looks around the room, tilts her head. “My wife,” he says. “This transformation, whatever you call it. It was a mistake. She needs to be a person again.”

Marie touches Rachel’s head. Rachel opens her mouth then closes it again with a gentle croak. “I can’t annul someone else’s wish for you.”

Bram frowns. “It was a mistake,” he says. “She never would have wanted this permanently. She was depressed. We had some problems, it’s true, but they were getting better. It was just bad timing, that’s all. If it had happened earlier, or later, on a different day—”

“Nevertheless, I can only change someone if they ask me. This is what I can do, nothing else.”

“Fine,” he says. “Rachel, ask her to annul your wish.”

Marie looks at him with what he only later understands is an expression of deep sorrow. He feels something start to shift inside him. “You do realize,” she says gently. “That this is a raven.”

“Christ, of course I realize it. This is why they call you the wisest woman in the world?” There’s an edge to his voice. He notices a movement from the corner of his eye and a burly someone steps out from the shadows behind one of the posts.

Marie shakes her head minutely. “It’s fine, Carl,” she says. She holds out her finger to Rachel who pecks at it. “She is not in there as the person you knew, looking out and understanding what we say. This is a raven, not some raven-shaped person. She has become what she wanted.”

“You’re wrong,” Bram says. “Look at her. She’s standing right there. She listens to what I say, she follows me everywhere, she doesn’t fly away. What normal raven would behave like that?”

Marie looks at the two of them for a moment. “What was your wish?”

“It’s not relevant,” he says. He’s starting to feel sick. Prickles of sweat appear on his forehead and his face.

“You don’t lie well.” She gives him a look that he can’t bear to see and he looks away. “This bird has a connection to you, but your wife is gone. You have to accept that. If you tell me your wish maybe I can help you both find some sort of release.”

Rachel dips her beak in the mug on the counter and laps at the liquid inside. Bram smiles weakly. “She likes her coffee.”

Marie touches his hand. “It’s water,” she says. “What was your wish?”

“I wished for money. Just like half the world did. You don’t need to cure me of that, do you?”

She looks at him for a long moment. “No,” she says finally. “That one took care of itself.”

Rachel is looking outside the window at the beach, through the trees and salal. Gulls glide over the water and Bram watches her follow them with a tilt of her head. “Perhaps it’s time to consider letting her go,” Marie says.

Bram looks back at her. He’s not really sure what he feels. Through the windows by the front door, barely visible from his seat, there is movement outside, a suggestion of the crowd of people waiting in her front yard. The slats of her fence like the bars of some prison. “Can you do it to yourself?”

She’s puzzled. “Do what?”

“Annul your own wish.”

She touches Rachel’s feathers lightly, leaves her hand there. She doesn’t speak.

“Five minutes,” Carl finally says from the shadows. “Time’s up.”

* * *

He drives away from Tofino. People on the road ask him about what they’ll find. “Is it true?” they ask. “Is she there? Will she make everything back the way it was before?” Sometimes he shrugs and keeps on driving. Sometimes he lies to them. Lies seem to come much easier, now.

When the moment had come to wish his one true wish he hadn’t had to consider his choice for a moment.

Rachel sits on top of the passenger seat, watching the scenery go by. “Now you love me again,” he says to her. She watches the trees. In the sky other birds fly around. “You do. What could possibly be wrong with that?”