In the Cypress Hills
– Fiction by Harrison Kim –
Clouds under stars, and the stars move superior to the clouds. I open my eyes to the sound of horses, peer up from a slit in my blankets. It’s the whinny of the wind. I’m awake to cumulonimbus and the milky way racing each other across day dawning sky. There are branches black and bent, twisting leaves. Under my back, solid rock. Horse head shadows pushing time above me. Beyond the dark clouds, a gap. Four a. m. and light rising. There’s sleet mixed with rain, another June day born. I let the drops fall to my face, and down.
Frost on June mornings, but by afternoons the heat can become so warm on these flat rocks where I lie that the rattlesnakes slither out to sun. The weather’s changing that fast these days. I must rise up soon, my upper blankets are soaked, though I’m warm in my dreamtime cocoon.
Yesterday, my middle-aged brother Cal and I entered a huge shopping mart in the middle of Alberta. On the hills around, giant wind turbines turned. Low mountains funneled close there, on two sides, so the rain, when it fell, slanted close to horizontal, forced by the wind. One windshield wiper broke off, and we rolled into the huge mart to find another. The bright lights took us from the night to the modern rush, to a cashier girl with green hair and a nose stud taking our money for coffee. Cal fixed the new wiper on. I pushed the car down a slope, Cal jumped in and jammed it into first, the motor started and we took off again, towards Saskatchewan.
In the afternoon we arrived at the Cypress Hills. We were born nearby, in Senate, back in the early sixties. Senate remains only as part of a foundation and green hollows along a fence line. “Over there’s where the old dance hall stood,” says Cal.
The closest inhabited locale to Senate is Consul. There’s an empty brick school, a weathered church, two or three houses, a tiny knick knack store and hotel with bar. The store looked closed, but outside the bar sat a cell phone surfing, toothy fellow in a yellow baseball cap, pouring a vodka and orange. He stood up as we walked over, exclaimed he was glad to see us, very glad to have customers, he’d been sitting there all day.
“I’m Charles.” he said. “Waiting for the tourists. Busloads of Japanese will come through for the solstice.”
“I’m Cal,” my brother grinned under his cowboy hat. “This is my little brother Carson.”
Charles shook our hands, motioned us to sit. Behind him, at the door, stood a young, petite dark haired woman holding a baby.
Charles grinned. He told us that a pilgrimage began last year. Internet spread the news, the best sunsets in the world from the Cypress Hills. Born from this, a new Japanese superstition. Conceive a baby during the solstice sunset week here, and it will be a fortunate and wise child.
I told him both Cal and I were conceived pretty close by.
“Hey,” he said. “Maybe you’ll bring me good luck. Stay for a drink. Only five bucks for you.”
We can only imagine the past, fill it in from memory, recreate it in reminiscence. Forty years ago, I was 3. My family left the plains that year, and I have few memories. Cal, four years older, says he remembers a Chinook wind from the West, melting the snow. Cal recalls hearing that at a midnight dance, lovers wandered hand in hand out into the new warmth from the Rockies. They strayed farther from the dancehall, and the wind changed. A blizzard from the north slanted in. The lovers, dressed only in light clothes, hurried back to the hall. But the wind and snow, closed in. One couple didn’t make it. They should’ve stopped for a moment, pulled their coats on.
It’s all about impulse. I’ve been following impulse all my life. It’s taken me over the edge, and it’s never boring. But it doesn’t get me anywhere, just the excitement of the moment, and experience.
I tell Cal “I think you saw that Chinook story on TV,” but he says he remembers Mom rushing out with neighbours to search for the missing pair. He describes two shadows twirling at the edge of a coulee, hand in hand until they disappeared in a sheet of whiteness.
That was the old Saskatchewan. The one of legendary hardship, the one many people left behind. As I watch Charles googling on his phone, those times seem vanished, like they never occurred, or counted.
The three of us spent a long afternoon drinking in the shade outside the store. Charles leaned into the distance, holding his glass. “I’m still watching for the tourists,” he chuckled.
Charles immigrated to Vancouver with his Mom and Dad at age 3, same age I moved with my folks out of the Cypress Hills, only he’s a generation younger, and his parents came from Korea. He attended Simon Fraser University, studied business management just down the road from where I recently camped in my hammock.
As he and Cal spoke, Charles refilled our glasses. A generous man with the liquor.
Cal’s lips moved, talking old stories, family tales, though I don’t remember the sounds he spoke. It was like when he was 7, I was 3, I recall the essence. But not the particulars. Then the floor tilted under me, and when I staggered outside, the prairie tilted too, then righted itself, and I collapsed in the back seat of the car until dusk.
From the vehicle, I witnessed Charles and Cal’s cracked lips moving. I burped up vodka. Rolled down the car window. Charles talked on about he and his wife being pioneers, opening the Cypress Hills with a vibrant economy based on Japanese tourism. His parents fronted him the property investment money. Cal told him how our parents moved West to cattle ranch, the winters too frozen and the summers full of drought.
Two different outlooks, two different generations. I sat nauseous, there in the car, Charles came over, gave me a couple of pills. “They help you sleep.”
After dark, and still no tourists. I don’t remember much, but Cal motored the car to the top of the hills. We missed the sun set, but camped to watch it rise.
Now I’m within my blanket womb, up on the high rocks, wakening in the dawn, my conscious mind risen from a previous moment of experience. An hour ago my body slept and I had no awareness of identity. Something else from the wind seeped in, with the sound of horses. A hundred and fifty years ago Sitting Bull and his Sioux crossed here, refugees from America. Last night, in my sleep, I felt them ride again. My great great grandfather lived in these hills. He claimed to be part Blackfoot, or Piegan. During that time, Crowfoot, the peace leader, negotiated friendship between Piegan and Sioux. Now all their bones lay beneath us. Maybe those sparks, those souls, fly by this space, together, every night. Perhaps that’s what I heard, before awakening. It’s the romantic in me, trying to find meaning, because meaning is all that matters.
This introspection has held me back my whole life. I can’t break new ground, with all the history behind. The past fills my mind. Yet, I can never settle in one physical place, and my head does not stay in one historical time.
A few days ago, I ran into Cal by coincidence, in Vancouver. I lived in a hammock in the park forest near Lake City, left my camp each morning to work at the salad factory, cutting lettuce, assembling mixed greens. Forty-three years old, and moving from year to year in randomness. I’d worked every warehouse and value-added wood products job known in British Columbia. Finished up for the day, I took an hour at the recreation centre showers and hot tub.
Cal was shopping for pants, checking out threads at a discount value store across the street. I happened to drop in, thinking of picking up a shorter belt, I was losing weight. But who’s that thumbing through the used jeans, a fellow resembling myself. Black hair, black shirt, black baseball hat and pony tail. My brother Cal.
“I turned myself around,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
His original destination, Calgary. Purpose, gaining casual work fixing trailers. He’s a trained trailer mechanic. But just before Kamloops, he noticed a rugged senior hippie woman hitchhiking on the other side of the highway, in the Vancouver direction. A friend of his from school, or the Leland Hotel bar. He turned the car around by the Petrocan station, “couldn’t let her stand in the heat like that,” and picked her up, drove her to the coast. They talked history all the way, and how to live off the grid, and how coincidence works. Cal dropped her off a few blocks from Lake City mall, then wandered into the store to browse.
“That’s one way to meet a woman,” he said. “I’ll pick her up again some day. We’ll have another car date.”
I tell him he must be using a brother tracking device. It’s like a genetic finder, but you don’t have to send away for the results.
He says if I owed him money, he’d buy one of those trackers.
Cal does have strange ways of connecting. He says his hippie lady friend pointed him towards me, with her hitch hiking thumb. Cal let the moment take him, and the wish to help, and wheeled his car around.
“One decision tells all,” he says.
After we met, I booked off a week from work, gathered the blankets from my camp. I suppose I’m a nomad, living all over the land like our Celtic and Piegan ancestors. I chose Vancouver this spring. It’s warm, and I like to hear the rain pour on the plastic roped above me, between two trees, where I hammock swing. Too expensive to live inside, 15.20 an hour, twenty hours a week on the salad assembly line. Lots of free time. Free time is what I live for.
Cal still lingers in the heartland. At forty seven, living on the old property with all his used trailers and their parts, taking care of Mom, in her mobile home on White Mountain.
We drove to the Cypress Hills in one of Cal’s dozen or so three hundred dollar cars. The alternator cut off and on, so after dusk we drove slow, over the Mt. Kobau road to the Okanagan.
After gassing up at Osoyoos, we rolled the car downhill to start it, I jumped in, jammed the gears into first, the engine caught and we motored halfway up the big hill above town with the lights out. We camped on a pull-in by one of the big switchback corners. I fell into a deep sleep, awakened to magpies calling, and the late spring green of the wide valley. Dryness here, cactus under my blankets, wind up from the south. I let the air rush over me, picked a couple of spines out of my ankles, breathed in the scent of sage. I could be waking up two hundred years ago. I always drift back in time in these morning imaginations. A morning should be impetus to move ahead. I’m heading home today, with mixed feelings.
We’re riding to our birthplace, Cal and I. Mutually and pretty much silently decided, because of our synchronistic Vancouver meeting. “It must’ve been a message,” Cal said.
I grinned. “The present and future are all random coincidence.”
The only thing without chance is the past, because the cards have already been played. From history comes meaning and identity.
A day later, I’m rising in Saskatchewan. The wind blows away all the bugs, and the clouds. Indeed, blue sky sweeping overhead already. It’s a day full of possibility. Almost the first day of summer. Everything grows faster now, with all the light. I’m still a bit groggy. Cal’s still asleep in his cocoon. He always sleeps late.
I try to look out, beyond the hills, rather than inside myself in dreamy reflection, and I think I can hear voices. They’re coming from down the slope downwind, there’s laughter and whooping.
In a few minutes, I see them. Wheels flashing in the morning sun. A real noisy bunch, on bicycles, they pedal contrary to the wind towards my bluff edge camp, and Cal’s upright in his sleeping bag, bleary eyed and bewildered, the rolling band of leg pumping tourists shouting by him, “hello,” says one, mostly they’re talking their own languages. There’s two blonde acne faced lads and three or four eager Japanese peddlers, a few winsome ladies of varying hues, one carries a baby in the back. With them, Charles. He waves everyone over to the edge. They lean their bikes on the tiny aspens. They phone photo one to the other, then in groups. It’s picturesque to be presentesque under the endless sky, as advertised in all the brochures.
They smell perfumed, and salty, perhaps many from sea places. Their heads tip back as they suck on cold drinks. I smile and tell them yes indeed I spent the night here and several say “what about the bears?” and I retort “well, what about them?” and make shy, growly play.
Cal staggers around boiling up coffee on his gas burners, a few smiling ladies want to take their photo with him, and Charles takes one of me and several helmet heads. Then they start waving their hands in front of their faces, I don’t understand at first, but yes there’s quite a few black flies rising in the morning warmth, and the buzz of a horsefly or two.
“So many insects!” exclaims a straight haired girl.
Indeed, winged pests are the first thing a person notices after heating up on a great summer view. Everyone pulls out sprays, repellents. The hiss of released deet sounds above the calls for selfies.
For me, this is the original land, from where I birthed and wandered. For the tourists, it’s a fresh experience and a stopping point on a series of highs. I admire them for their cycling tenacity. One of the blonde boys says he’s travelling to visit the Buffalo jump next, and then the Writing on Stone, he’s from Germany and terribly interested in indigenous sites.
I’ve been moved from my nineteenth century dreams to the twenty first from one simple awakening.
After the group leaves, Cal and I pack up and take a last look. Below us, rolling hill upon rolling hill, aspen covered and browny green grey, black are the tips of my fingers from pushing them into the wet dirt that filters down to root bottoms and into the rocky underlay. Maybe they dug just out of energy from the tourist fun, they seem to wriggle away on me for a while.
Cal and I drive back into Alberta. After about an hour we’re out of the hills, and approach a small shining tin roof town. We stop on the main street, it’s the central one because there’s a Cafe sign. Cafe closed, but in the near distance there’s music. Cal unbends, stretches. I stand in the afternoon heat, gaze up and down the street.
“Where’s this sound coming from?” I ask. “It can’t be right out of the earth itself!”
“Let’s take a gander,” grins Cal, who’s never in a hurry.
We explore along by small single houses, towards a long wooden building with a steep sagging roof. The music’s pouring out of its door mouth, an open gap. It’s a kind of fiddle and folk-dance sound. Around us, a few cars parked, the street lines straight back through the prairie in both directions.
I come to the door and my ears adjust. There’s canned music from speakers, and old folks square dancing. Big old women in sizeable polka dotted dresses and skinny ancient guys with checkered shirts, partnering each other and a woman calling the moves, it’s too mathematical for me so I concentrate on the tone, and the unity. A small guy in a bow tie and glasses comes up and says “you are welcome to join us,” and we nod, “Sure.”
While we’re all smiling, Cal receives a text from Charles. I don’t like talking with someone I can’t see in three dimensions, so I don’t have one.
Cal says the message is for me. Charles offers employment. He says a guy who knows what I know about the area would be good for business. The bike tourists liked me very much, I seemed so friendly and helpful, telling them about the history, all the Cypress Hill stories, up there on the bluffs.
“Carson looks like a person who would enhance my local image concept,” Charles texts. “Carson can stay upstairs in the old hotel, talk to the guests, work in the store. It’d be a summer job, at least.”
“You’ll fit in well,” Cal laughs. “Just don’t cut your hair.”
This makes me think. What’s that about the hair? And why does he say I’ll “fit in” well?
The tourists are on a two- or three-week wander. I’ve been roaming my whole life.
And after he’s danced awhile in the hall, and I’ve stood waiting outside, listening and watching the day go by, Cal says “I can drive you back to Consul.”
“That’s ok, brother,” I say. “I’m already on the westward track.”
He nods, turns the car away from the East, and faces it towards the hazy, far off Rocky Mountain dusk.
About the Author – Harrison Kim
Harrison Kim lives and writes in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is recently retired from many years working as the teacher at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Kim has had some stories and travel articles published in a few magazines over the years. This story is loosely based on an actual trip to Saskatchewan that was full of similar coincidences. Harrison Kim has just begun serious writing again.
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