Friday, March 30, 2007

Small Rocky Mountain Mammals


“Come in,” the voice suggested, and the tone was inviting, so I opened the door.

I pushed the door into the room and took a step but the first view halted my progress almost as abruptly as if I had walked into a wall.

A huge black man, naked apart from boxer shorts that looked brilliantly white against his skin, sat hunched over on a wooden chair beside a bed. The double bed was askew in the middle of the room, with only a white sheet tussled in the middle. No head or foot board for this bedroom suite.

“Sparse, plain, but functional,” I thought.

A young girl, too young, but with the caution of experience in her manner, was pulling a sheet around her body as she moved slowly and silently towards the opposite corner of the room, her guarded eyes glued to mine like a wary cat.

“Come in,” the black man beckoned again with an outstretched hand that he moved towards his chest in a welcoming gesture. The hand held a large brown bottle of Tusker beer. The floor was strewn with empty bottles. The room smelled like beer and sex. He was modestly drunk.

“Oh . . ., no, I won’t disturb you,” I replied, and I took a step back through the door. “I’m sorry, wrong room.”
“No, no, please come in, please,” he implored, with an air of melancholy that drew me in.

This was a dangerous setting. I was in a run-down hotel in one of the most violent cities in East Africa. I had not been in the country more than a few hours. Nothing had seemed safe since the moment I'd stepped into the Iqbal, a dilapidated hotel renowned as a cheap haven for travelers. Now I was offered an invitation to enter a room with a man I didn't know, who was drunk and still drinking, twice my size, and almost naked.

I took a step in, glanced behind the door, and then paused to look around the room.

The girl had found a spot in the furthest corner, where she crouched on the floor and struggled to light a cigarette. The lighter would not work and after shaking it a few times she gave up and leaned into the wall. Her hair was long and black, with some tight braids that fell intermittently around her head. Her delicate features and beautiful skin didn’t fit the roughness of the hotel. She did not look older than sixteen and I shuddered with the thought that she was much younger.

My quick survey of the room was reasurring, so I focused a friendly smile on my host. I picked my way between the beer bottles on the floor and offered my hand in a manly greeting.

He didn’t get up but he did extend his right hand. His grip was gentle not firm, and certainly not aggressive, rather like that of a fellow who had relaxed into a state of alcoholic inertia. The prostitute, by comparison, looked very nimble. I kept her in the periphery of my vision.

I counted a half dozen large bottles of beer on the floor and presumed he had drunk the lion’s share. His speech was remarkably precise for the amount of alcohol and for his physical state.

There were beads of sweat on his forehead and several longer drips that streamed from each armpit. His boxers were wet with sweat around the waist band in in the groin. I wondered whether the perspiration was due to the heat or whether he was out of shape. I knew he wasn’t anxious; when I shook his hand, his palm had been bone dry.

“In his early- or mid-thirties,” I thought.

He was a big man, just over six feet, and close to 220 pounds. Likely he had been a muscular young man; his chest and shoulders were broad and looked strong, and although he now sported a paunch, he was not otherwise flabby; his arms and legs had still displayed the muscle memory of former fitness.

He motioned with the Tusker hand for me to sit down. There was no other chair, only the bed, and the floor. I choose the bed, which looked clean enough, and I sat about 5 feet away from him, out of quick reach, and at an angle such that I could still see the girl.

“How did you find this place,” he asked?

His accent suggested a British education, which meant that his parents were wealthy and likely influential. He would have been in his late teens in 1963 when Kenya won independence. Jomo Kenyatta was still alive and I wondered if this man’s family was Kikuyu and therefore of the privileged class that emerged when Kenyatta became the first Prime Minister.

“I read about the hotel in a student travel guide.”

“Remarkable,” he responded! “You found the Iqbal. I come here to get away.”

I presumed he meant away from his wife, and since the hotel catered to the poor travelers of the world, and not to the wealthy or educated Kenyans, this made sense to me, but I could not understand what was remarkable about me finding the place. The hotel was filled with international travelers. Did I appear somehow more like him than the usual hotel patrons? Did he consider himself a traveler like me?

“Why did you knock on my door?”

“I’m looking for some Dutch travelers who have a Land Rover and are going to the Serengeti tomorrow. I want to find out if they have room for two more people.”

Now reminded of my original mission, I stood up to leave. “I should keep looking for them. I was told they had a room on this floor.”

“Please don’t go. Speak to me for awhile. I’m lonely for conversation,” and with this last statement he glanced briefly at the prostitute. His look suggested that she was chosen for skills that did not involve speech.
I sat back down.

“I live in New York with my family. I’m a Kenyan diplomat at the United Nations.”

He paused long enough for me to realize that it was my turn to introduce myself. He had not mentioned his name and his discretion impressed me. He was not drunk enough to compromise his personal identity.

I saw no reason to conceal mine. “I’m Billy Mckenzie. I’m Canadian and live in Toronto. I’m a doctor.”

“I knew it,” he smiled happily. “You’re smart.”

His sunny smile suddenly turned sad as if a curtain had come down on his thoughts. Tears welled up in his eyes.

I grew worried about this abrupt change in emotion.

“Would rage be next,” I wondered? I thought again about leaving, but his next words transfixed me.

“Black people are not as smart as white people.”

“Ouch,” I thought. “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t think my sons are as smart as white boys. They will start school in the fall. I don’t think they’ll do well in an American school.” A tear fell down the left side of his cheek. He moved his left hand up as if to catch the descent of the drop but the beer bottle made this move difficult, so he brought up his right hand and brushed the moisture aside with his fist.

“I don’t believe this,” I interjected, believing that the moment and this horrible racial confession demanded a quick and positive alternative view, a denunciation.

“You’re an intelligent man and your sons will be too.”

He smiled graciously but sadly, as if to thank me for kind words that he did not believe.

“You should look for your ride to the Serengeti,” he replied, and I knew he wanted to spare himself any further embarrassment.

I left quickly. As the door closed, I glanced back to see him tipping the last of the Tusker into his mouth. I heard the bottle fall on the floor as I walked down the hall.

That was 1978, three years before the world discovered HIV. Several years later, I read a report in the New England Journal of Medicine on the high prevalence of AIDS in Nairobi prostitutes. The diplomat is probably dead, likely within a few years of our meeting, and his wife too. The prostitute is surely dead. His melancholic tears were prophetic.

Friday, March 23, 2007


When Summer Played with Winter

The warm puff of wind came out of nowhere.

I was hiking through a stand of poplars along the brow of a hill and the change in temperature overwhelmed me. Compared to the ambient autumn air of the canopied trail, the change was startling. With the warmth came a verdant lushness as if the wind were wet and alive.

After a few seconds the warm zephyr was replaced with a cool breeze that chilled the perspiration on my back. The cold air dissipated as quickly as the hot.

I stopped and looked, thinking I might see some cause, but I didn’t.

The forest wasn’t dense and sunlight filtered into small alcoves of grass-covered ground, but there was no sun where I stood, and there wasn’t a cloud in the Alberta blue sky.

Thereafter the warm puff continued to visit, always accompanied by her chill counterpart, as if summer were playing with winter in autumn’s forest. The blithe winds disappeared when the trail emerged into a wide expansive meadow.

I kept looking back into the forest, somehow expecting to see something.

“Little pockets of dense hot air, hovering over the sun-exposed alcoves, and pushed into my path,” I thought.

“Yes. That must be it,” I decided.

“And the chill counterpart was the ambient autumn air that only felt cold by comparison and then dissolved into itself.”

The explanation made sense but didn’t satisfy.

What I’d really felt was the presence of a playful forest spirit.
She met me on the path and watched as I walked lost in my thoughts. Forest spirits like to tease. She kept some distance ahead while she planned her mischief, and then slowed down and allowed me to catch up. She let me come so close that we almost touched. Then she stopped, turned abruptly, and exhaled. Her warm lushness enveloped me like a womb. When I stopped, perplexed, she skipped ahead and left a chill giggle in her wake.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Grizzlies, Most at a Safe Distance

Where the Primal Pebble Fell

This tenderness, this mental caress,
Is for your mothers;
But also for mine, for you, and for all your children.

This shudder in my soul,
This tiny touch point;
Is the reason why.

What joy! This growing sense
With who and why, and especially
With They, who breathe; that so may I.

Visualize my grandmothers and your grandchildren
In such a space and time;
And you will know yourself and why.

We miss our image in the crowded mirror,
Till distracting dreams and fears disolve,
To leave the truth for us to show.

We stumble by the reason why,
Till humble vision shows us guides;
The salmon and the geese who know.

How marvellous! This homeward flow,
This autumn-life-experience;
To spring of fresh found innocence.

But neither back nor in a circle go;
But rather through the timeless ripples,
To the pebble's primal glow.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Snow and Ice

Shasta and Her Cubs

Beginnings are Important

She could feel one of the cubs snuggling towards her. They were ready to suckle and made their way based on smell rather than sight. They were only a few days old and their eyes were still closed.

“Which one,” she wondered?

A moment later her question was answered when she felt the latch.

“Kodiak, my boy cub,” she realized with a satisfied thought.

She shifted her body to allow him to suckle more directly and then a moment later adjusted her body once again when she felt the softer pull of his sister Koda at the other breast.

Shasta could hardly believe how small they were now, compared to how big they would become. They were so tiny, half the size of a chipmunk, without much if any hair, and no teeth.

The den was cozy, but pitch black because it was still night. During the long winter days sometimes the only light was from an air hole, which at the surface was as small as the entrance to a mouse den. The air hole had developed naturally along the path of her exhaled breaths as she slept during the long winter.

Now that spring had arrived, some of the snow that covered the entrance had melted and a diffuse light now filtered though the thinner layers of snow crystals, especially when the sun was setting and shining more directly on the den.

Shasta smiled as she considered the choice of such a good den to give birth to her first cubs. She had watched her mother and had learned to choose a location with an entrance that faced towards the cold winter winds and away from the midday sun. This choice insured that her den remained snow covered and invisible for longer into the spring. She chose a hillside covered by a stand of evergreen trees that partially sheltered the entrance from the wind. The steepness of the slope under the forest canopy allowed melting water to run off without accumulating, but was not so steep as to restrict a heavy accumulation of winter snow over the entrance. She had spent a trouble free winter.

“A good beginning,” she thought.

First Kodiak and then Koda disengaged from her breasts and rolled over and into an immediate deep sleep. Shasta repositioned herself so she could attend to their daily bath.

Koda had her back nestled against her mother’s soft warm tummy but Kodiak had rolled away and was already a bit chilled. She gathered him towards her head and nuzzled him gently before she used her tongue to gently wash his tiny naked body. Afterwards she washed Koda in a similar fashion and then nestled them both inside the downy fur of her chest. Just before she drifted off to sleep, she remembered back to the day of their birth.

At first light, she had awakened to the sensation of wetness between her thighs.

“Good,” she thought, “dawn, the start of new day; just the right time for the start of a new life.”

This was her first pregnancy and although happy and excited, she also felt a sense of unease.

“Would everything be ok?”

She had also wondered how many cubs she would deliver. She knew most bears had only two but she had hoped for three.

“Why not,” she thought? “I’ve always been strong and healthy, and I was especially fit and fat when I entered the den, and the father was the strongest grizzly in the region. Why shouldn’t I be blessed with three cubs?” Three would almost guarantee that at least two would survive. Mountain life was harsh at the extremes of age.

Only two cubs had emerged from her womb, but her disappointment was fleeting. The cubs were both healthy. She recollected her happiness during those first few minutes as she licked away the fluid from their bodies so they wouldn’t get a chill, and then nestled them against her breasts. They had both suckled immediately.

“Another good sign,” she remembered contentedly, as she fell into a deep sleep, just as she had on that first day.

As deep as she slept, she awakened immediately when she felt Kodiak roll away from her chest. It was now daylight and she could see the faint outline of Koda still nestled in the fur of her chest and that of Kodiak a little distance away, lying on his back with his tiny paws in the air. His legs were moving as if he was running and she wondered if he might be dreaming.

“What would he dream of,” she wondered? “He has never seen anything to know what to run towards or away from. Is he chasing something we dreamed together when he was still within me?”

Gently she rolled him back into her fur before his body temperature could fall. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she hadn’t awakened and had later found Kodiak against a snow covered wall. The area immediately around the earthen walls was chilly enough to freeze a newborn cub. She didn’t know how she knew this, but she did. Otherwise the den was very warm, even hot at times.

She had chosen and fashioned the den to be big enough for up to three newborn cubs. At the time she had hoped the den might even be suitable for a second winter. That would depend, she knew, on how many cubs she delivered and how big they grew. She had known from the outset that the den would not be suitable for more than one more year at the best. She had also known that it was better to build as small a den as possible so that her maternal body heat would be enough to keep the space cozy.

When she next awoke, she could hear the wind in the trees above. The winds were coming from over the mountain and behind the den and she knew these winds would be warm and dry. They would melt the snow and pick up and carry the moisture out of her valley.

“Where do the winds go,” she wondered?

”The winds must visit with other bears in other valleys,” she decided.

She wondered which bears the winds above might already have visited.

“Perhaps the winds had already visited with Ursus, the father of my cubs. His valley is that way.”

Warm winds and hot days meant the snow would melt and eventually they would need to leave the den.

“But when,” she wondered.

She didn’t have any way of knowing a specific day, but she had a strong sense that she would know when the time was right.

“We will leave before the snow has completely melted away the entrance. Perhaps we will leave as soon as the cubs open their eyes.

“When will that be? Will they be strong enough by then?”

“We will wait until their eyes are open and they are strong and steady when they walk,” she reconsidered.

Both cubs started to suckle again and even as they fed, she fell back into happy sleep.

As the days lengthened and the sun set progressively further up the valley, the thickness of the snow that covered the entrance thinned until Shasta could see the green outlines of the trees that were around and above the den.

Koda’s eyes had opened several hours earlier, and this event was followed shortly after, as if in sympathy with the birth order, by the opening of her brother’s eyes.

Her daughter’s eyes were cinnamon brown and immediately full of curiosity. For several days prior to their opening, Shasta had gently licked the eyes of both cubs every hour, as if to encourage the lids to separate. Her tongue was huge, almost as long as the cubs, and heavier, but she was very gentle; she used only the tip to delicately massage the tiny eyes. Courtesy of this almost constant attention, she was fortunate to witness the precise moment when Koda first saw her mother. Shasta had just finished a tongue caress and was looking to see if the lids had separated at all, when both eyes opened with a suddenness that was as special as it was startling. Koda’s eyes fixed on her mother’s for several glorious moments before they wandered and took in the fuzzy details of her first home. Although Koda’s eyes remained open for only a minute, to Shasta, the time seemed like forever. With her daughter’s eyes open, she redoubled her licking efforts with Kodiak and was rewarded when his lids flickered open a few hours later. There was a sticky substance between his lids that had not been present in his sister’s eyes. She didn’t like that there was a difference, but she was reassured as soon as she looked into his handsome eyes. They were a much darker brown, like those of his father. They positively danced around the den before he too slipped back into infant slumber.

With their eyes open, Shasta felt impatient to leave the den.

“I have a forest world to share with my cubs.”

But she restrained her new mother enthusiasm. “Best to wait until they can keep their eyes open and stay awake for longer periods of time; best to wait until they are strong enough to walk with me down to the valley bottom.”

Both cubs had grown impressively over the three weeks before their eyes opened. They were now as large as a mature red squirrel. Their weight gain however, had come at the expense of their mother’s, and this was a concern for Shasta. She had lost a lot of weight since she had entered the den; her eyes were hollow and her skin hung over her sides in loose folds that spread over the floor of the den like a furry blanket. She was hungry and felt the need to eat soon, very soon if she were to continue to nurture her cubs properly.

Shasta knew that beginnings were important. Growth lost at the beginning was unlikely to be caught up.

Although the cubs were active while they suckled, for the first month they had mostly slept whenever they weren’t feeding. Recently though, they had started to stay awake for a little while before each feed. Both cubs had learned to support themselves on their legs and had taken their first few tentative steps. Now they walked for short times, back and forth in front of their mother’s tummy and chest, but the relatively confined space of the den didn’t really allow much more than stretching. Still, Shasta noted with satisfaction that their legs were steadier with each passing day.