Assignment: A travelogue
The thing about traveling is that one’s experience of any given journey largely depends on who one is. If one is a child, than the most mundane journey can be imbued with breathtaking wonder. And if one is an adult in desperate and overwhelming trouble, a time among the most glorious of landscapes can be like a season in hell.
What if these two perspectives are represented on the same journey, with one holding the hope of escape for another? This story starts off with a fatherly promise of a journey into a fantastical wonderland, and ends up as a trip to the underworld instead.
It started in the gloom of an early morning in 1975. The moonlight streamed through the window and threw slabs of hard-cut, ghostly illumination on the wall in my room. I was six years old, just a little girl in my pajamas and staring up at my father from my bed. He wore his overcoat, a valise in his hand, his face hidden in shadow under his hat.
My father spoke in a hoarse whisper that I suppose if I heard now I would judge as being pregnant with desperation.
“Sweetheart, wake up! It’s Daddy. We’re going on vacation starting right now, just you and me!”
“Where are we going? Where’s Mommy?” I replied in a whisper of my own. My own voice sounded small to me in that moonlit room.
“Your mother can’t come with us on this trip. She’s too busy, Sweetheart. It’s just you and me this time!”
“But, it’s dark. It’s nighttime! I’m sleepy!”
“It’s the perfect time to go where we’re going – to Fairyland!”
“Yes. We’re going to the land of fairies, just you and me.”
“Is it far away? How will we get there?”
“It’s up north from here. But, we have to leave now. Here! I’ve already packed your bag.”
The case he carried was not his, but mine. He helped me get dressed, and we left the house together.
Outside, the world was dark, but for the streetlights and the rim of warm light that flared on the edge of the sky at the end of our street. The wind found the material of my clothes beneath my coat and began to play in an out of the folds mischievously. It was Spring. The air smelled cold and clean.
I was in the front seat of the car, and I saw the corpulent moon against the cool blue of an ever-paling sky. It sat there like a wizard in a voluminous cloak, looking down on our world. My father was not with me for that instant. He’d perhaps gone back into the house, then, into the room he shared with my mother, maybe to kiss her gently goodbye.
They never kissed. They were never gentle with each other.
Soon, we were on our way, backing out of our driveway slowly, and as quietly as it was possible to do.
The landscape of our neighbourhood slid by as if I were watching a movie of streets, street lights, roofs, and darkened windows. It looked strange and haunted at that hour, like the end of the world. I couldn’t see the road as we drove. I kept my eyes on the moon. Then, I got sleepy and closed my eyes just for a minute to shake it off. I didn’t want to sleep. I didn’t want to miss anything.
I woke up as “Sister Golden Hair” played on the car radio, rousing me. My eyes were still closed. Golden light filtered in past my eyelids, and I savoured that warm orange world for an instant. When my eyes fluttered open, the moon was gone, replaced by a sun that shone happily down through the windshield of the car. I rubbed my eyes to get used to being awake. And then I felt the rush of a feeling that was a combination of excitement, fear, and another feeling I couldn’t quite place. I suppose I missed my Mother.
But I was on my way to Fairyland.
My father may have greeted me while I woke up. I can’t remember. Most of what I remember of him in the car during that whole journey was grave silence, and determined, steel-eyed resolve. I didn’t understand it, and it frightened me. But, I was sad for my father too, which I also didn’t understand. Even through my six-year old eyes I could see that he was lost, vulnerable, and haunted by his own mind. I couldn’t bear to see it, not because I was repelled by it, but because I loved him so much. I spent the time in the car looking out of the window, watching the landscape grow more and more unfamiliar, with these conflicting feelings of love and fear churning and roiling inside me.
The grey highway stretched out before us, and we passed a long row of low industrial buildings. The car rocketed under the rectangular green signs that pointed the way out of town, adorned with hieroglyphs for me as I couldn’t read them fast enough. Under bridges, and out into the sallow fields on the edge of the place I knew as my home, my father looked steadfastly forward. He clenched his jaw, and the shadowed impressions in his temples pulsed. Even then, I knew that his mind was racing twice as fast as our car.
The highway seemed to narrow, taking us into the countryside, with silos and barns passing left and right. I felt a leap of joy upon seeing a stable of horses; chestnut, grey, mottled, muscled, their manes quivering in the mid-morning breeze. Then, they too were gone, swallowed by the flowing, everchanging landscape. Other cars passed coming the other way, punching the air towards us, and making a whoosh! as they flashed by. I wondered if the people in those cars had ever been to where we were going. I wondered if they’d ever been to Fairyland.
When we drove into a sudden rainstorm, I felt a hot, unpleasant pressure on my bladder.
“Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.” I said softly.
The exchange between us is fuzzy in my mind after that, remembered mostly as emotional impressions. He did not want to stop. I cried. He begged me not to. I cried anyway, not to spite him, but because I didn’t want to have an accident. He got angry, and then remorseful almost all at once. And still our car careened into the uncertain future, the white lines of the road coming towards us like a succession of arrows narrowly missing our hearts. I cried some more, although this time not because I had to go to the bathroom. It was something else.
Why did my father not want to stop?
The signs of a town began to fade into view; a billboard in a field, a low shack, a group of trailers, a traffic light, and then a hearty “Welcome to…” sign. “Pick Up The Pieces” played on the radio as our car slid into the parking lot of a roadside diner. Before my father got out of the car, he put on a pair of sunglasses. I had never seen him wear them before.
He smiled wanly at me just as he got out of the car, circling around and then letting me out of the passenger side. The rain stopped and the sun came out again.
The diner was full of people, noise, and thick grey cigarette smoke. It was a riot of mundane colour, the clatter of cutlery against porcelain, the musical rattle of orange juice glasses and coffee cups, the sound of an AM radio blaring out a news update, and multi-toned conversations of truckers, salesmen, drifters, transient workers, and waitresses who yelled out orders to the mysterious fry cook in the back.
The cook’s partially obscured identity could only be revealed by a set of hard eyes and a fringe of grey hair underneath a paper cap viewed through a slot in the wall. He moved like a fiend, his head bobbing this way and that, dissappearing and re-appearing in a blur, his hand delivering plates of eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, with the steam off of each plate rising delightfully into the smoky air.
My father leaned over the counter to talk to the head waitress. And soon I found myself in an ill-smelling bathroom, the stink of the place being instantly forgiven as I felt the pressure of a full bladder release as I sat. But with one bodily need satisfied, then I realized that I was very hungry.
I convinced my father to stay for breakfast. He seemed frightened when I asked him, but he seemed tired too. He did not want to see me cry again, and I loved him for it. I really was very hungry. He somehow found two seats side by side at the counter. Soon, one of the plates of starchy and fatty breakfasts was in front of me. My father drank coffee. The waitress who served us wore a pink and white polyester uniform with a large, plastic nametag: Marie. Her face was lined with middle-age, too much make up, and marked by the ravages of cigarette smoke, both first-hand and second-hand. Her smile was uneven, but kind.
My father spoke to her in a low voice, his eyes averted and still hidden behind his sunglasses. She asked him a question, which he avoided. She asked him another, and he spoke roughly to her. And then, like he’d done with me, he was instantly remorseful. He apologized to her, his voice wavering. She answered him coldly, and he was silent. Marie turned to me as I put spoonful after spoonful of ketchup-laden scrambled eggs into my hungry mouth.
“Where are you and your daddy going today, honey?” she asked in a raggedly gentle voice.
Without hesitation, I said “Fairyland.”
Marie smiled at me quizzically. A large man who sat beside me turned and smiled too. He let out a grunt that I suppose was a laugh. Marie’s eyes shifted back to my father and her expression cooled. Then, she looked back at me and the warmth in her smile returned. But, it was tinged with something else, too. She felt sorry for me, although I don’t know why. I smiled back anyway, not knowing how to ask her why she would feel pity for me. After all, I was on my way to Fairyland.
I watched her as I ate, as she served other customers, and as she talked to the fry cook, whose face I still couldn’t see but for his hard eyes and fringe of grey hair under his paper hat. She whispered something to him through the slot in the wall, and those hard eyes drifted to meet my own. I looked away and down at my plate, then at my father. He was looking at the fry cook.
He placed a ten dollar bill on the counter, took my hand, and soon I was in the passenger side of the car again, my father gripping the wheel, and the engine starting with a choke and a roar, and “Jackie Blue” played almost from the beginning on the radio. Fairyland wouldn’t wait.
We left the town behind us and a number of others too, and soon it was as if we’d left the boundaries of the world itself. If there was any doubt about where we were going in my six-year old mind, it was completely banished. The highway cut through high gorges and low craggy rocks, and the colors of the dusty scrub and moss ranged from purple, to orange, to pink.
We would reach a rise, and find ourselves in the middle of a wide lake, the highway slicing it in two before climbing a rise between two rounded hills. And then, we’d dip down into a shadowy valley, with the shapes of the branches reaching outward on either side of the road. Then, it was out in the sun again in a land that stretched on an on.
“Is this Fairyland, Daddy?”
“Almost, honey. Soon.”
We stopped again that day, this time at a gas station on the edge of the highway. He put his sunglasses on again as the attendant leaned in and asked “fill ‘er up?” My father mumbled something, and once again the attendant asked him something he didn’t like. This time, he was just silent, gesturing to the attendant nervously, and looking away. I was hungry, and I had to go to the bathroom again. My father took me around the side of the station to the bathroom. As we walked, he held my hand, gently, with a weak grip as if he could barely hold on to me. I held his hand tightly then, tight enough for the both of us.
We went inside to get food for the road; potato chips, Smarties, a handful of strawberry Twizzlers, a large-size box of Good ‘N’ Plenty, a bag of Bits ‘N’ Bites, some Slim Jims. The woman at the counter eyed us suspiciously, but said nothing. A TV blared in the corner of the room, mounted on the wall. A policeman was being interviewed on the news. My father glanced at the television, and then back at the woman. He paid for the food and the gas, took my hand roughly this time, and we were back in the car again.
The sun was going down.
The rocky, colourful land decorated by shallow lakes and bogs was even more otherworldly as the warm melancholy of twilight painted it in hues of gold and orange. I imagined the Fair Folk creeping out from behind the rocks, taking to flight, dancing in time together in bright clothes, singing in Elven languages, casting a spell on the land to make it even more beautiful, melting away its troubles, melting away whatever it was that haunted my father, transforming him into the man I knew him to be in my mind.
But, soon the light was gone, and that world got dark. The magical landscape out of my window disappeared. It was swallowed by shadows. When I turned to look at my father, his jaw was still clenched, his face lit up only by the greenish tinge of the dashboard. He looked sick and sorry.
And then as we rounded a corner, there were more lights. The wall of trees that bordered the highway were lit up red and white. The police cars spanned the road.
My first thought was that there had been some kind of accident, and that it would delay us from getting to where we were going, to where we would finally be happy. I felt impatient and angry. But, then I felt the weight of something that I couldn’t define. Somehow, I knew that we would never get to where we were going.
My father stopped the car a fair distance away from the barricade. I turned to him. And at that same moment, he turned to me, his jaw unclenched. He looked at me, and some of the softness I cherished in his face had returned, even if it was lit by the sickly light of the dashboard. He turned off the engine, and all was dark but for the whirling red lights and cold white headlights from the police cars ahead. The shapes of the men waiting ahead drifted in front of the lights. They walked slowly towards us.
My father’s voice was strong, and sure.
“Sweetheart, do you know what I wish? I wish this world was a better place than it is. I wish that we didn’t have to worry so much about money. I wish it wasn’t so hard to be a dad. I know I haven’t been the best dad to you, and husband to your mother. I wish I had chosen different things for myself, and for you too Sweetheart. I’ve got mixed up with some bad people, and they left me behind. I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have done, honey. I’m sorry … I wish we could go to Fairyland together, like I promised. But, now I have to go alone.”
Then, he cried.
Perhaps I should have been frightened by that, knowing that if my father was crying then all was lost. But, I put my hand on his shoulder. I tried to conjure up that vision of Fairyland I’d imagined on our journey that day. I imagined the delicately featured fairies pouring urns of fairy dust on me, so that I could channel their magic through my hand and into my father, to make him feel better.
He touched my hand, and looked into my face. “Goodbye,” he whispered.
The car door opened into the cold night, and he was gone.
I stared ahead out of the dark windshield as the silhouettes of the RCMP officers ran passed the car. I felt like crying, but somehow I didn’t. In the course of a day, I had moved past sorrow.
There were shots.
Then, I was in the front seat of another car with the door open; a cruiser. The officer put a blanket around me, and told me that my mother had been called, and that I’d be taken to the nearest station where my mother could get me. I was told that I wasn’t in trouble, that the police officers were my friends.
I asked him where my father was.
He just smiled, sadly.
I asked my mother the same thing when I was home days later, and an eternity away. I asked her if she thought that he had ever reached Fairyland.
“He never left Fairyland, Sweetie.” And she kissed me.
Years later, I came to live in that north country. At twilight every Spring, I take my annual long walk along with my iPod loaded with AM radio hits. I find my magical place, and sit there on an outcropping of rock, with the colourful moss lit up in the gold and orange of the sinking sun laid out before me.
I close my eyes and play my tunes.
My father dances in the light.