James pictures this scene: a metamorphosis and he becomes the hawk, perched just outside the apartment window. Nothing is visible, just rain and white. Dropping off the ledge, keeping his wings tucked in, he dives down twenty-three floors plus the valley wall to the wide open field below. The blur of apartment windows passing fades quickly into the thick rain, and the field appears only just as it’s about to meet with James’s beak. He pushes out his wings, their ridges catching in the air, and glides above the field. The field is flooded—a lake, rather than grass; a broad sheet of glass perpetually shattering beneath the downpour.
Where the field meets the creek, the creek bleeds into the field, so it’s difficult to see the creek itself. James flaps heavy rain soaked wings to the end of the field. Rows of trees reveal the now submerged banks of the creek. He flies between them and above the creek going with the current. The valley walls close in, making the trees of the forested banks visible through the rain. A wall of trees appears ahead, too, and James sees that it’s a sharp turn in the valley. He banks with it.
Despite the heaviness of his rain soaked wings, James flies with a speed that blurs the trees into a mosaic of grey, green, and brown, while staying just above the rushing current. The smell of muddy water is overpowering.
Brown lines ahead…wood two-by-fours crossing the creek…the bridge. A person to the side…a girl, wearing a long terry-cloth dress. Red and white…a life guard ring, attached to a rope, held by the girl. Splashing in the centre of the rush…desperate, grabbing, brown hair bobbing at the surface. A miss, and Gabriel rushes away from the ring and Cecilia.
James quickly gains some height then pulls in his wings and bullets towards the desperate splashing at twice the speed of the current, aiming the curved hook of his beak at Gabriel’s neck. He throws out his wings and slows to a hover just above him. The point of his beak jabs down at the skin, but only close enough to pierce his t-shirt from the inside, driving nearly the whole beak through it.
Hard, desperate, straining flaps force more air on to the river than rain, making the muddy water push out in ripples. It takes a mountain of effort, but Gabriel is lifted from the flood. As soon as no part of his body is dragging in the current, James banks a turn back to Cecilia, carrying him to his distraught sister. Only when he is almost upon the landing at the bottom of the stairs does she see him. She screams when James the hawk with a body hanging from his beak appears, but calms when she sees him slowly release Gabriel to the ground then disappear into the rain.
James opens his eyes and stares again at the blanket that blocks out his window. With his pupils still dilated from the realness of the flight, but the sharp imagery fading from his mind, he sees every stain and blemish on the blanket. An impulse to tear down the blanket suddenly overcomes him, but the immediate effect of the thought is as if he imagined throwing himself off a cliff. He recoils in fear, throwing himself on to the mattress, covering his face.
It only takes James a moment to calm down, to open his eyes and see the blanket still there, to see that despite the emotional ups and downs of the past few moments, he is still just a man in his apartment with an intense fear of heights, sights, and views. He goes to the kitchen, microwaves a frozen burrito, and considers what to do next.
James goes to the PATH, but instead of walking through the maze of corridors, he goes straight to the long fountain and sits at a marble bench.
Directly in front of the bench, two ladies are surprised to find each other while walking in opposite directions. They greet each other with excited voices and hand gestures, exchange recent histories, and spend a long time talking about mutually known characters. There is one particular person—and James is not eavesdropping, but the two ladies are directly in front of him speaking in these loud and excited voices—they talk about this man who is of great interest to both of them, though clearly neither has seen the man for quite some time. His name is Jeffrey and his history is one of entrepreneurial ventures that go back to high school. Despite his business promise, however, his twenties and thirties were marked by extreme debt and failure. Somehow Jeffrey has managed to spend much of his time on continents outside North America, hence his absence from the lives of either of the two ladies in front of James.
At one point James can distinctly hear the voice of the bag store’s retailer behind him, standing outside his store and greeting people as they walk by. Some stay and chat with him for a bit, and after a few conversations James hears one move into the store, and shortly after he hears the sounds of a sale.
A group of high school boys loiter at the bench next to James’s. Their voices are loud, their language crude, and they make James nervous. He imagines the hawk appearing at that moment and ripping off one of their scalps with her talons. Instead a security guard appears and shoos them along.
People move in front of him, crossing back and forth, disappearing and appearing from the adjoining walkways, or pass behind him, their footsteps and voices echoing from the other side of the fountain. Some are traveling, subverting the ground to reach their destination; others linger at the stores, or drink at the lounge. The abundance or lack of pedestrians changes in an ebb and flow that’s impossible to predict.
There’s a moment of quiet, near dead quiet, that lasts an abnormally long time. Even the server in the empty bar-lounge looks up and down the corridors for an explanation. The silence at first has James anticipating a visit from the hawk, as if it’s the obvious prelude to an encounter. Someone appears from the doorway and James looks, waiting to see the hawk bullet through above; instead another person follows through, and then another, and soon the same ebb and flow of pedestrians continues.
James again imagines his perfect rabbit hole. If he stopped going to the PATH, stopped going to the house for dinners, made only occasional trips to the convenience store to buy as many frozen food supplies as possible for the apartment, his apartment could be that rabbit hole. A rabbit hole does strike him as the perfect habitat, so it confuses James that the thought makes him feel even sadder than the corridor, fountain, and fake plants are already.
Just when James is about to stand and leave, a familiar face appears from the walkway—the baker, carrying a brown bag, walking with that same youthful bounce, smiling with those same deep wrinkles around his eyes.
“Hey big man,” he yells enthusiastically, “look at you, just sitting on a bench not walking anywhere for once.” He sits down on a bench facing James. “How’s your day?”
“I don’t know.”
“You look a little glum, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Can I suggest something that might cheer you up?”
The baker walks over and hands James the brown bag. “Danishes, made today. Go ahead, they’re all yours.”
“Thank you,” James says, embarrassed by the brightness he can feel forming on his face as he inhales from the bag. “The others were delicious.” He pulls out a danish and bites in, taking a good portion of custard. “How are you?”
James takes another bite, finishes it, then tries to think of something else to say, since the baker is looking and smiling right at him, comfortably settled into the bench with his arms and legs spread wide, just looking and smiling. James tries to think of something inconsequential, but nothing comes to him. Instead he says, “Do you ever wish you were something different then what you are?”
The baker’s smile lessens to something more thoughtful. “I’m going to assume you don’t mean something other than a baker?” James nods. The baker looks at him inquisitively, then nods too, but to himself. “You know big man, we’re a lot more alike than you probably realize. There’s some differences: I’m a talker, and I’m always looking for my next conversation partner; that’s the way I am, meeting different people all the time makes me happy, and you can see I’m a happy guy, right? Well, you might be surprised to know how alone I am. That’s right, I live alone in an apartment, and I never married or had kids. I was an only child. My parents, God bless ‘em, were my only family. So what makes me smile, you probably wonder; that’s where our similarities are. I’m a walker, you see, not inside, like you, but outside, where there’s more territory for people like us than you can ever imagine. Streets, trails, parks, courtyards, alleys, boardwalks, beaches, and neighbourhood after neighbourhood after neighbourhood; I’ve walked just about all of them at one point or another. Never have I been anywhere else, but I can still look back on my life and see a journey of epic proportions.
“Guess how much of my free time I spend walking? You couldn’t imagine, but go ahead and guess. Nope, you’re wrong. That’s right, I can say that before I even hear you answer, because I can tell you’re thinking, you’re trying to think of a number, but that’s already wrong. Here’s the answer: all of it. If I’m not working, and I’m not sleeping, I’m out walking. Can’t remember the last time I cooked a meal for myself, I just eat on the go, wherever I am, whenever I’m walking. Ha, imagine, eh?
“That’s just the way I am though. All my desires, hang-ups, disappointments…well, every time I turn a corner—and that’s what I do when I walk, turn corners as often as possible, zigzag as much as I can, because every time I do I move my body deeper into a labyrinth, further from a straight line, which is what normal life is, just a straight line from beginning to end, a straight line of desiring and suffering from birth to death, and if you want it to be anything different, you have to turn corner after corner until your body and mind are so dizzy and confused they think they’re living something else—well, that’s what I do, until all those desires and hang-ups of normal life become lost in my labyrinthine journey. Ha, I’m a walker big man. I’ve never wished to be anything else.”
James says, with a warm smile, “My walking of the PATH is for similar reasons, but there’s a problem. I think the labyrinth down here is too small. My mind is on to the trick, is becoming too familiar with it all, and now I’m just living the bland, straight line of life.”
“I’m going to describe for you the most interesting place I know in the city, and when I say interesting I mean interesting like you. Really, I mean it. Is that okay? Okay. It’s a huge place. There’s a sailing club, trails, islands, enclosed wetland systems, forests, and a steady flow of dump trucks going there every weekday between nine and five, know why? Don’t worry, they’re not dumping garbage, they’re building a spit, Leslie spit. They’re building it with the same stuff they have been since the spit’s beginning—fill from demolished buildings, isn’t that something? The concrete and re-bar of the old.
“First it’s a pile of rubble out in the lake, then plants start growing on the rubble, colonizing the rubble, dying on the rubble, decomposing on the rubble, turning into soil for new plants, and in the oldest sections, for trees. Then the animals come, and then the birds. Now it’s a full blown forested archipelago. There’s birds from all over the world that stop there on migration routes, a world class bird watching spot, no joke.
“That’s my favourite spot, but I don’t go right to the spit. You can see the whole thing from Cherry Beach, that’s on the mainland, and man I tell you sometimes you can’t even see the spit itself. There are so many birds—seagulls and cormorants mostly, but like I said ones from all over the world too—there’s so many it’s like a thick cloud blacking out the whole archipelago. Tell me big man, how does that strike you?”
James thinks about the spit and its birds, and the baker walking Cherry beach hour after hour just to watch the place, and year after year returning to see the migratory birds, and he says, “I’d like to see that cloud of birds, that archipelago, and for no reason except to see it.” Then he goes quiet, and the only sounds are the trickle of the fountain, the echoes of scattered footsteps, the crumple of paper bag, and crunch of pastry as James thoughtfully eats his danishes.
The baker says, with a sudden energy, “Yes, I knew you’d say that. What are you really scared of big man? You’re scared of your love for the world, your need to explore it. The world and all its places beckons you so strongly you tremble, but you also tremble with fear. Why? Perhaps you’re afraid of disappointment, or that the excitement will overwhelm you. You’re true fear is not what you think it is.” He looks at James, but James can only eat danishes in contemplation of what the baker has said, so the baker asks, “Do you feel any other kinds of fear?”
James thinks seriously about this, and then says, “My niece told me recently that my nephew almost drowned in a flood. That scared me, and I guess you could say I have a fear, especially now, of anything happening to him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but it does, no disrespect intended, provide a perfect example for my next question: Did you experience as much fear for your nephew’s life as you do of sights, heights, and views?”
James is completely struck by this question. After a moment, surprising even himself, he says, “No, not even close.”
“That’s the thing. Don’t worry, I can easily tell you value the life of your nephew more than your escape from heights, sights, and views, but this shows something. Your fears don’t line up with your values. And again, I don’t mean any disrespect, but that really interests me. People’s fears should line up with what they’re most afraid of losing, but you do not seem afraid of losing the safety of a closed in world, quite the opposite, the way you walk around here, with that sun-shiny-day look in your eyes, you can see what you want more than anything is to go and explore. I don’t think your fear is of what you think it’s of.”
And at this moment the baker sits back with his legs spread and smiles at James, just as he did when he first arrived. “What’s The Fear of?” James asks, but the baker just keeps smiling and shaking his head. “Big man, I have to go, walk me to the escalator.”
They walk towards the end of the corridor, which splits left to the escalator and right to a subway station. “You need to go to Cherry Beach and see Leslie Spit; I don’t know what your fear is really of, but I think you’ll find out soon—I can see you’re a man in the midst of change. When you do you’ll see all the places I’ve seen; you’ll go beyond even.” The baker offers his hand. They shake and James watches him step on to the escalator and rise towards the lobby above, brightly illuminated in natural light from the walls of glass that surround it, busy with people who are only thin black silhouettes in the bright shine from the glass walls. The baker turns and faces James, and he shouts down, “By the way, exactly what something else do you wish you were?” James is hesitant to answer, conscious of the scattered people around him, entering and exiting the subway station, rising and lowering on the escalator. He looks up at the baker, rising to the light, smiling, his smile soon to disappear as he too becomes just a thin black silhouette. “A red tail hawk.”
“Ha—ha…a red tail hawk, isn’t that interesting. It will come true big man, you’ll see the world just as you wish.”