Gabriel rarely makes eye contact. His eyes are usually too focused on whatever is in his hands—a patch of moss, section of root, bushel of rhizomes, chunk of bark, piece of quartz, nest, feather or egg; often insects, usually dead. It’s a compulsive habit, and the habit doesn’t quit when nature finds are unavailable. In a grocery store Gabriel will grab cans from the shelves or roots from the produce stand. He’ll grab merchandise of any hand-sized kind from any store he walks through and examine it in just the same way, turning it in his hands, never raising his eyes, until he eventually returns it to a passing section of shelf.
A large selection of picture books sits on the bookshelf in Gabriel’s room, and he traces their images with his fingers and eyes in just the same way as he does objects. He has a particular fascination with black and white photography, an obsession with the contrasting lines of light and dark that moves his fingers just as the bends and groves in physical objects do. The walls in his room feature black and white prints of Gabriel’s absolute favourite subjects—old, wrinkly people. “Wrinkles,” he once said to James, “are my favourite thing in the world.”
Gabriel walks into James’s apartment and, before he even says a word, fits himself between the pinned up blanket and the living room window (Gabriel’s perch, as Cecilia describes it), experiencing the 23rd floor view in the most complete way possible. It gives James shivers up his spine just to think about it.
When he reappears, he sits on the mattress next to James and places the leather satchel he uses to collect his nature finds from Taylor Creek Park in front of them. He looks at James and says, “There are five finds I want to show you today, and I’m going to save the best for last.”
The main pouch of the satchel is separated into three large pockets, and additional pockets are sewn into the side and cover flap, all held closed by buckles. A small pocket holds the first find Gabriel shows James—a stone. “It’s quartz, which is no big deal, I have lots. This one I grabbed just because nobody would have noticed it except me. It was glittering beneath a bolder sized rock in the middle of the creek where I was looking for fossils, and since I didn’t find any I just took this.” James holds it in his hands for a moment then gives it back to Gabriel. Gabriel takes a while with the quartz, which he is already familiar with, turning it in his hands, staring at it in meditative silence, before returning it to the satchel.
From one of the main pockets Gabriel pulls out a long, black feather. “I have plenty of these too, but this feather fell at my feet while I was walking through the woods. I saw the bird that it fell from, a vulture, flying above the canopy and heard it land way up on a tree along the valley ridge. What are the chances? I made up a rule right there: Anytime a feather lands at your feet you have to take it, even if you already have a bunch, even if it’s a seagull feather, but not if it’s a pigeon feather, they don’t count. You never see pigeons in the woods anyway; they stay in the city streets with the rats.”
Gabriel pulls out an old and worn field guide from one of the centre pockets, a field guide he carries in the satchel always, even though it’s outdated and not for the region. “You know how I press flowers in this book? It’s fun, but I kept pressing the same ones, the same three, so I made up another rule: Only one of each kind of flower can get pressed each day. It kind of became a game because I kept trying to beat the record, but when I got to ten I figured that was the most I’d ever find. Then I was up the valley wall in this part of the forest where there’s a clearing with lots of tall grasses. I was just sort of walking circles, not expecting to find anymore flowers because I had ten. All of a sudden I see a patch of red flowers, bright red, like they were from Hawaii or some place and that was eleven. Look at them, I don’t even think they’re from here; someone threw some seeds maybe.”
Next, Gabriel hands James a piece of gnarled wood from the flap pocket. “It’s root, actually.” The piece is elbow shaped and smaller than hand-size. It has the shade of driftwood. “Guess why I picked that up?” The piece doesn’t look like anything special, but James turns it in his hand anyway, and looks at it thoughtfully. “Come on, look,” says Gabriel, “look at this side,” and he traces the grove lines in the wood. “Don’t you see?” James does. “Ha,” he says, recognizing a now obvious face in profile, the bend in the elbow making the nose and a tiny knot surrounded by swirling groves making the eye. It looks like a very sad, very old man with a very large nose.
“Are you ready to see my ultimate find James?” “Yes.” From his satchel he carefully pulls out a stick. He holds it with both hands, his eyes wide, monitoring the progress of the stick from satchel to mattress. The stick is delicately placed on the surface, and his hands are slowly removed. James is confused. Gabriel blows on the stick, breathes in, blows on it again, and the stick starts to move. All of a sudden James is staring at a very large insect. “It’s a stick insect,” says Gabriel.
“Just watch him, watch how slow he is. Seriously, it’s so funny because it’s hard for us to watch him too long, to watch something move that slowly, it can drive you crazy. But it’s like a game: just keep watching as long as you can. Well he’s going to escape, but we’ll play again when I get him into an aquarium. I’m going to try and feed him leaves.” The insect, walking around the mattress with the most tentative of footsteps, calmly goes back to his mimicry when Gabriel scoops him back up for the satchel.
Heading for the door, Gabriel says, “Cecilia and Kitty want you to come over for dinner, it’s been too long…they said.”
“Okay,” says James, as Gabriel closes the door.