Over the last two years most of the space in the house has degraded to somewhat of an organized disaster. All the non-essential rooms are covered in piles: piles of books, magazines, and piles of newspaper; piles of gardening equipment, art pieces, and piles of craft supplies; piles of floor mats, baskets, and piles of pots; piles of pillows, sheet sets, and piles of blankets. There are many piles of shoeboxes: some are filled with screws, piping, and old burnt out light bulbs and batteries; some are filled entirely with recipes on cards. There are piles leaning against the walls: paddles, skis, ski poles, camping equipment, exercise equipment, inflatable pool things (though strangely no pool in the backyard), and unused furniture. Some of the furniture still has the plastic and Styrofoam packaging from the store, never removed, as the furniture was purchased by Kitty, but not actually placed somewhere by Cecilia on the ever shrinking floor space.
The piles fill all rooms except the ones Cecilia fights them back from: the kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The dining room, living room, and hallways are all a maze of piles. The attic is Kitty’s private office. Nobody but her knows what state the piles are up there, but it’s presumed critical. Kitty has purchased shelving for Cecilia to put together, but Cecilia refuses, preferring to preserve only her chosen rooms. Even the old shelving, through spontaneous deconstruction, has begun to form its own piles.
The pile rooms are a good example of why James’s diagnosed phobia is not quite accurate; nothing in the house can count as an open space, yet the details, corners, and figure eight paths that are littered through the pile rooms feel equivalent to some panoramic views.
James is standing outside a pile room with Kitty, listening to Cecilia toss objects on to piles. Cecilia had called James earlier: “Come over. It’s Gabriel. He’s…I’ve asked Kitty to come home from work too. You guys need to…just come over.”
Kitty walks into the room. “Okay, we’re here; I don’t know what you’re freaking out about, but I had to cancel two meetings this afternoon. So what is it, and what are you doing in this decrepit space?”
“I’ll show you.” Cecilia leads James and Kitty to the backyard. “Remember your great idea about Gabriel becoming a naturalist, the one he overheard?” Kitty shrugs. The grass is littered with objects from the shed. “He’s emptied the entire thing”—Cecilia snaps her eyes to Kitty—”to make way for his nature hut.”
Kitty laughs. “Wow, he’s really serious about this.” Cecilia doesn’t laugh. “Come on, this is too much. Talk to him.”
Gabriel appears from the shed with an aquarium and walks to the border of the forest. He walks along the edge, inspects small branches and leaves, then breaks one off and puts it in the aquarium.
Kitty says, “Hey kiddo.”
“I hope you’re not taking what I said about becoming a naturalist too seriously, you can’t actually spend the rest of your life in the shed.”
“I know, but I’m still going to use it as a nature hut, not to show people from the trail like you said, but just for fun.”
While Gabriel adjusts the sticks and leaves in the aquarium, Kitty shrugs at Cecilia, silently communicating a why not, what’s the big deal? Cecilia, in response, widens her eyes, drops her jaw, and with her hands motions a can you please keep talking to him. Kitty points her palms upward and, through furrowed lips and eyebrows, expresses, what do you want me to say to him? Cecilia throws her hands out in an I can’t believe you, points at him, then circles her finger next to her temple. Kitty sucks in a breath and covers her mouth in shock, then puts her fists on her hips and scowls a he is not crazy. Gabriel suddenly turns away from the forest, and just as suddenly both Cecilia and Kitty drop their hands to their sides and look casually away from each other.
After Gabriel walks back into the shed, Cecilia whispers, “You know we’ll never see him now. He’ll either be down in the creek or in the shed. Basically you’ve told him he can become as reclusive and weird as he wants, and that that’s okay.”
“You have such a narrow perspective on everything. Gabriel is just trying to be comfortable and enjoy the places he spends time in. If that house wasn’t such a disaster he probably wouldn’t need the shed.”
“Dear God Kitty, please stop complaining about the house. The house is just a house, let it be; I’m talking about a living breathing person who you should, according to evolutionary theory, have more interest in.”
“I’m not telling him he can’t have his nature shed, okay? You know I can’t be mean to Gabriel, and anyway it will be easier to talk about him if he’s out here all the time.”
“Fine! But since this was your idea in the first place, you have to help move all this stuff on the lawn…Don’t look at me like that. I’m not doing this by myself. You’re helping me move this stuff into the house and on to the piles.”
“Me? Ugh…you can’t be serious, those pile rooms drive me nuts.”
“Those pile rooms are necessary for all the meaningless, useless, unusable crap that accumulates around here, most of which comes from you or your ideas, case in point,” says Cecilia, picking up a load of items littering the backyard. The shed is no small structure, and it was full of items. Almost every object was purchased at auctions, some for use, but many as decorative antiques. So along with a lawn mower there’s a scythe; along with tool boxes full of bolts and screws there are old jars full of hardware unrecognizable to James; along with spring loaded hedge clippers and pruners there’s an array of curved knives wrapped in oak handles; and along with the paint cans, gas canisters, and clay pots are old pop bottles, rusted signs, and out-dated garden sculptures.
After Cecilia and Kitty walk into the house with their arms full, James walks into the shed to see what now fills it. The inside has changed dramatically. There are only a few things he recognizes from before: work tables at the back and to his left, benches in front of both, the large stump cut to be a circular table to his right, and a pull string light hanging in the centre. The work tables, window sills above them, and stump are all covered in rocks, oddly shaped roots, bones, pressed flowers, dead butterflies, dead beetles, and aquariums filled with living plants, mosses, and insects. There’s even more hanging from the rafters: a collection of skulls and bones, which has James pausing at the door until Gabriel grabs his hand and leads him to the table. “I don’t know the names of any plants or insects or anything, can’t identify them, never tried, I just don’t care, but look at this. There has to be fifty different kinds of mosses here. Get close, then you can see all the different kinds. You have to get right down and look at all the tiny stems sticking up from the green parts, or look right at the green stuff and see how many parts there are to each tiny piece. See how different they all are? You don’t, that’s okay, but if we could shrink to microscopic size the differences would be so obvious because it would be like looking at trees.”
They move along. “Okay, look in this aquarium. See all those cocoons? Each one is going to become a different kind of butterfly. Each time I found a different caterpillar I put him in a container with some leaves and a branch and waited for him to cocoon. I don’t know what they’ll think when they turn to butterflies and find themselves in a tank with a bunch of strange species, but it will be interesting to watch.
“That’s a hornet’s nest, but don’t worry, there’s no hornets in it; it’s abandoned. These eggs were still in this robin’s nest when I found it, but the eggs are completely empty. They all have tiny holes in them, so something came and sucked the yoke right out. Good way to get a meal!”
Then Gabriel draws James’s attention to the mobiles. This is the spookiest part of the shed, as most of the mobiles are skulls. Not only are there skulls hanging from the ceiling, but they’re actually decorated with feathers. Gabriel says, “Like I said, I don’t know how to identify any of this stuff, but I don’t think it matters. What matters is noticing the particular details to each one. I like this one because of the fangs, it must have been a killer. All the small ones on that string are flat, so I think they must be salamanders or snakes, and these are either chipmunks or squirrels, or muskrats. It’s easy to tell which skulls are birds, and there’s one that I can identify because it’s just so obvious. See the really big bird skull hanging above the stump? It’s a hawk, you can tell by how the beak turns down into that point; that’s how it rips open prey. Anyway, it’s not just a hawk, it’s a red tail. You know it’s a red tail just by how big it is. They’re the biggest anywhere in the city, but I bet most people have never noticed one. I’ve seen them a few times, and found their feathers, like those hanging off the back of the skull; they’re from a red tail. The whole thing is molted red, brown, black, and white just like those feathers.”
James is mesmerized by the skull. “I’ve seen one too.”
“What? Where have you seen one?”
But James is suddenly self-conscious about saying the PATH. Thinking about the hawk, a bird that spends most of its time high above the city, while standing with Gabriel, who spends every day in the outdoors, he starts to wonder whether what he saw was even real. “It’s hard to explain exactly where,” says James, “but Gabriel, why are all these skulls hanging from the ceiling?”
“Oh, let me show you.” Gabriel drops the wood board shutters for each of the windows latched up inside the shed so that the inside goes completely dark. James hears Gabriel stand on a chair, then hears the jingle of the pull chain light. The light turns on and casts shadows of the skulls across the walls and table. Even the insects seem to pause for a moment at the sight.
The shadows of bird skulls all over the walls, most notably of the red tail hawk’s, which finds a centre place on the wall next to the stump table, and the eeriness of the whole set-up motivates James to ask about the flood. He tries to think of the best way to approach the subject with Gabriel, which in itself is hard, because he has never approached a difficult subject with him before. He decides to take the direct route. “Cecilia told me about the flood,” he says.
Some silence follows, then much silence follows. Gabriel picks up a piece of slate and starts turning it in his hands, and James understands that he didn’t exactly ask a question. “Maybe you want to tell me what happened…just because Cecilia…um…seems upset.” Again, James has not asked a question, but he hopes his suggestion is enough.
Gabriel walks over to the aquarium with the stick insect inside and tries to feed him leaves, and eventually says, “The water was brown, really dark like mud, and it moved so fast that there were whirlpools, big ones and small ones, appearing and disappearing everywhere. They kept appearing and disappearing all over the creek, which was really more like a river at that point. The whole park and valley was like some fantasy water world. We’ve never had rain like that before, and so, well, I’ll tell you what happened:
“I was in the park and it was filling like a lake. I walked to the stairs, not intending to go down at first, but I went to the stairs just to watch the water overflow from the lake filling the park. There are one-hundred and forty-two steps down—I counted once—and a concrete gutter built in beside them, not even visible because there was so much water. When does that ever happen? So I went to go see what it was like at the bottom, just to see quickly then run back up.
“There’s a landing before the bottom of the stairs where the hydro towers are and when I got there the rain doubled, so guess how much of the hydro towers I could see? Almost none, just a few steel beams of one disappearing into the rain, and none of the one just behind it.
“Then the river: even though it’s usually just a creek, the banks are pretty high and wide, and the water was already more than half way up, the whirlpools already appearing and disappearing everywhere. The creek was dark and brown, it smelled like muddy water, and it sounded like a waterfall. I should have run back up the stairs, but something drew me on to the bridge. I walked on to the bridge, leaned on the railing facing upstream, and watched the rush come towards me. Then I learned what flashflood means, because from there I could see the water rising to the banks like a glass filling with water.
“I was looking upstream, and when the water reached the top of the banks it started coming in these wide sheets, sheets that waved over the grass on the sides, sheets that waved between the trees. The sheets hit the bridge and splashed up in a big wall. It’s crazy to look back on now, but for some reason, at the time, I wasn’t scared at all. I crouched down, grabbed the handrail, closed my eyes, and let it all flood around me; the water felt so warm and so fast. Then it got higher, more powerful, and I had to hold on stronger to keep from going with it. But then this thought hit me, where does the water go? It joins with the Don River, then it joins with the lake, then it drifts out to the islands. I saw myself floating to the Don River, then to the lake, then to the islands, and for some reason felt like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I should do too.’ It was like the creek convinced me to go with it, so I let go.
“When Cecilia yelled and I saw her throw the life ring, I got scared all of a sudden, like she suddenly woke me up to the real world, so I swam for it and got out.”
James walks up to the skull of the red tail hawk, spins the mobile with his finger, and says, “I can’t believe you weren’t scarred to let go.”
Gabriel, still holding a leaf near the stick insect, says, “There’s an encounter I’ve never told anyone about: an encounter with a wolf in the city. It happened one time when I walked Taylor Creek to the Don Valley, so I’d get in trouble if Cecilia or Kitty knew. No one believes there’s wolves in the city anyway. They’d think it was just a coyote, but I know the difference. I’m going to tell you about it, because you look like you won’t have any trouble believing me right now.
“It was right where Taylor Creek joins the Don River. She was as tall as me, and she was panting so I could see her fangs. I was scared, but I just kept sitting where I was, frozen. She walked to the edge of the stream, right across from me, and sipped from the water. Then she sat down and just stared at me, just sat and stared for probably an hour.
“I never moved, at first because I was frozen, but slowly that went away. She never looked at me aggressively, but always with drowsy eyes, like animals do when they feel comfortable with you. Slowly I started to feel comfortable too.” Gabriel drops the leaf and raises his eyes to James.
“That was the same day as the funeral, after we got back. It was dusk when I sat there with the wolf. It’s strange when you lose your fear of something that could so easily kill you, when you become calm in a situation that is supposed to put you in a panic. That kind of experience changes you. I haven’t been scarred of much since then. That’s what animal encounters do James, they change people.”
“You can say all this to James, but you can’t tell me anything,” says Cecilia, appearing at the door.
Gabriel startles at her voice, but quickly looks away from her; he walks to a table with some larger rocks on top and inspects them with his eyes and fingers, turning his back to Cecilia.
Cecilia shakes her head. “I should have let you go.”
“You don’t mean that,” says Kitty, appearing behind Cecilia. “Listen, I have to go back to work. Those pile rooms are driving me nuts, okay?...and I have to go.” She turns and walks away from the shed. “You’re going to have to finish this on your own, I have to go. I’ll see you at dinner.”