This is a story about a young couple hoping to put an uncertain future on hold while taking the summer to travel on bicycles from Edmonton to Canada's west coast. Along the way they go to a music festival where an ephemeral figure warns them about the error in looking for Paradise on Earth.
Brilliant hues were drawn out of the evening sky as the man placed the final stone atop the inukshuk, and he watched the shadow of the human shaped structure elongate, then vanish, while the sun sank once more below the horizon of his vantage. It had been the third sunset James had witnessed since last he slept, which was a fact that the sun passed over with indifference, though the sky was coloured no less beautifully for it. Nestled underneath this warm blanket of reds and golds, the sleepy traveller sat upon the cusp of a rocky, thirty foot drop, high above the shored sand deposited along the coast of his homeland, to which his back was now turned. The question of, 'why sand on a beach?' had arrested his attention for a few moments upon reaching the Pacific for the first time in his life, three days prior, and after a pause during which his lungs and senses opened under the ocean breeze like the first sails caught up in its primeval wind, he smiled, and figured it must be the eroded residue of other lands perhaps nonexistent for millions of years, now left behind for everyone to walk on once more when the tide regressed. He managed to pull out the nail that had sunk into his left foot—and it too with indifference, like the sun—while he had been cleaning the floor of the abandoned shack in which his bike and his backpack—his only belongings—were now tucked away from the elements, so far pleasant and welcoming. Sitting in the wet muddy sand, he had taken off the cloth bandage to let the wound bleed out once more into the ocean, his face pinched against the sting of the salt water. He then climbed back up the steep hillside, around the cliff, and made himself comfortable upon the precipice. His foot dangled over the edge, bared to the cool evening wind, as he looked to the horizon to admire the passing of another day, and when the sun had set he lay back on long green grass and waited for stars to emerge from beyond the cloudless sky. Back in his home town, if he had seen five stars from his apartment's balcony, he considered himself lucky. Within the sky above his city's lights he saw more airplanes than stars, slowly drifting above him and blinking red then green incessantly behind a foreground comprised of monotonous and weary concrete office buildings. Upon the roofs of these buildings were red air traffic control lights, ever shining through his windows during the dark hours of night so as to make their height known to the planes flying into the small downtown airfield. From this scene James would turn around, disenchanted, letting go of his balcony's railing and stepping through the sliding glass door, into his living room, to find something else to occupy himself with: sometimes a book, more often television. After embarking upon the seven week excursion on his bicycle which had brought him here, to the coast, he had not been able to keep his eyes from the night sky long. This was in part the reason why he now found it impossible to sleep.
Shifting slightly his supine form, away from a bit of hard, uneven ground, he settled once more, contentedly, with a smile on his lips. After a time during which he actually started to feel his consciousness ebb with the lapping waves down below he heard footsteps approaching, but he did not stir—at least, not until they reached his side, and then his eyes turned away from the twilit atmosphere to look upon the face peering down at him.
“It looks like tonight might finally be the night you get some shut eye. You look almost asleep already—just one good gust of wind to push your eyelids down, and you'll be off to dreamland.” Isabel said, settling herself down beside him so that they lay shoulder to shoulder. James turned to look at her: her eyes, like his, were quick to venture upward. He took a moment to enjoy the supple charm of her profile, made slightly more angular from the two month long stretch they had spent out of doors with minimal food and much sun and bike pedalling. Her chest rose and fell with a sort of pride that lent itself to the grace with which she carried herself, even then, in repose, gazing with an unwavering surety toward infinity, confidently drinking in that part of the world she had been yearning to experience for so long as he had, now finally able to: the timeless part of an ever changing planet; the part which reminds one that nothing really ever changes.
“Back home, I used to sleep way more than I should have, for I didn't want to ever leave 'dreamland'.” James said. Isabel nodded, and murmured,
“And now I don't want to sleep for fear I will miss a second of this life we have been so bold to imagine.”
“It will be here when you wake up. I promise.” she said, averting her gaze from the universe above them to look into the eyes of her love.
“What if it isn't?” James said, only half-jokingly and the other half quite serious. Isabel giggled. “What if I allow the wind to close my eyes, as you say, only to discover that this was the dream, and I'll never get it back?”
“If that happened and you really longed for this night's return, you'll get it back. One day, and sooner or later. I know you wouldn't let it just slip through your fingers, like the sand of an hourglass.”
James turned back to the sky, now beyond that boundless blue it assumes in the moments before night falls completely; now dark enough so clusters of stars and even entire galaxies were bursting forth into existence second by second. Despite his desperate wish, it was not long before he did indeed fall asleep.
When he awoke the morning was a light grey. A mist had drifted in from the waters. Isabel lay beside him, hugging his body tightly underneath two sleeping bags opened up one on top of the other. A shirt had been folded and placed under his head. His breath billowed from his mouth as a gentle cloud of vapour added to the morning's damp chill, and the grass around him seemed to hum with dew. He had not moved even a finger from the position in which he fell into his slumber, and his rest left him with a dream he could not recall save for a fuzzy impression of delicate contours moving, perhaps, as if set to dance by music which had not faded upon his waking but instead blended into the ever present sound of the waves spilling over one another and upon the shore, and seagulls cawing somewhere unseen. He felt like he was sitting upon the edge of the world; or, at least, some enchanting realm in between two worlds. The coasts of Earth, of course, have always been a place where worlds collide, where East meets West, and North meets South, and little islands where cultures birthed with the peculiar qualities of the isolated are found by explorers not quite able to define what they see by comparison to anything known on the mainland, where history is more widely felt, and thus more formative.
James looked out across the waters and, as he concentrated, the mist parted before him to reveal a horizon steadily moving farther and farther away: nothing one might have seen hundreds of years ago, when much of the globe remained uncharted, was coming toward him now. He caught sight of not a single ship loaded with exotic goods, with sails billowing and sailors with heroic stories accrued from months spent out at sea. Those types of vessels had long since arrived. Instead he was confronted by a vast, ghost-like presence: a phantom clout marking the shore as much as it marked his thoughts, this morning, as it had the previous three. James had no idea what was inspiring such a feeling within him, but he was not one to turn away from the mysterious and, welcoming the influence, he let the spirit linger.
Isabel stirred behind him, letting out a squeal as she stretched away the stiffness of her sleep.
“Oh, it's so cold!” she said, sitting up while trying to remain under the blankets. She quickly grabbed the top sleeping bag in front of her and pulled it up and over her head, letting it fall upon her back and shrouding herself with it up to her shoulders. She pinched two corners of the comforter below her neck, and held tight. “What are you standing there thinking about?” she asked.
“I suppose I was looking toward the past.” James said. He thought about it a moment, and then added, “And the future.”
“Oh, don't remind me…” Isabel’s countenance pinched. She looked up at him. “You know, we went on this trip to put the future on hold, and yet I feel like we’ve talked about nothing else.”
“But it is an interesting path we've embarked upon” James said. “I can't help but wonder where it might lead.”
“Or whether we will be welcomed when we get there.” Isabel added. James nodded thoughtfully, as if he hadn't considered this.
“Can I come in?” he asked, walking toward her, away from the cliff's edge. Isabel nodded but gave him a look which meant 'quickly', holding her arm out to her side and pulling his body in close as he sat down. He grabbed the blanket’s corner from her right hand and brought it in front of them both and to her left, so that the sleeping bag was held closed to the morning air where their hands met and were clasped to each other.
“So,” Isabel said through chattering teeth, “are you ready for the festival today?”
“Definitely.” James answered. “The moment we have been waiting for has finally arrived, and it really is amazing what a fresh rest can do to leave a person feeling unconquerable. Indefatigable! Capricious and iconoclastic!”
“Well, you certainly seem to be in the perfect spirit for a three day dance party.” Isabel said. She yawned. “So, we head to town, grab a bite for breakfast, and from there bike to the festival grounds?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. And the grounds are about two hours away, I think—given the pace we've been travelling so far. Though, the gates to the festival don't open until two this afternoon, so there's no rush.”
“I heard last year people were waiting in line, in their cars, for a full twenty-four hours before getting in. You know, tickets are sold out again. Ten thousand tickets! Ten thousand people are going to be there!”
“Yes, and we'll be arriving ahead of most of them, I’m sure. People only had to wait that long if they showed up a day late. We'll be early: we’re getting there before the stages even open. I'm sure we'll be pitching our tent in the grounds before sunset tonight.”
“Oh, I hope so.” Isabel said. With a sudden burst of energy she jumped to her feet, throwing the blanket off hers and James’ shoulders. “Let's get going! I'm too excited to wait!”
James smiled and nodded. “Okay.”
The bike ride warmed their limbs and ignited their appetite. Isabel and James hadn't been living on much more than meal replacement bars, powdered vitamin blends, and granola as they travelled between towns. Sometimes they didn’t see so much as a gas station for three or four days at a time as they meandered down country back roads. The clouds had dissipated, ensuring another hot day, and when they arrived in N—— they pulled around to the back of the only diner situated along the highway and, after a quick scan of the parking lot (shared also with a gas station), they opted to tuck their bicycles away behind a dumpster, for there was no bike rack to be found. In between the slabs of black asphalt that formed the diner’s parking lot and the next lot over—onto which the tenants of a moderately occupied motel opened their bedroom doors—there was a rather steep ditch, sided with gravel: small tufts of grass sprouted through the loose rocks, here and there, where it could. And as for the rocks themselves, and the asphalt too, a shimmering heat disrupted the air directly above them; this year’s summer, like the last one, was sweltering.
The door to the diner had a bell above it that tinkled merrily as they walked in, and a young woman moved around the front counter to invite them to take a seat at any table available, which gave the bright-eyed, rubicund and well-travelled couple two choices in the otherwise full restaurant, and they opted for the red cushioned booth alongside the front window. The lady serving them dropped off two menus and took their drink order before whisking away to a family of five at the next table over, who were polishing off their plates. Another bell rang out—a single, piercing note, different from the one above the main entrance—announcing that the chef in the back had put up an order ready to be delivered. A different girl dropped off their waters and took Isabel and James' order. Isabel ventured to guess that the two servers were sisters. Both were young; both had dirty blonde hair that fell in waves down past their shoulders. Both had big brown eyes that smiled easily.
“Maybe a family owned place. They seem pretty casual here.”
“Well, allow me to point out that as far as eating establishments go, it doesn't get much more casual than a diner.” Isabel said.
“I guess since their clientele is showing up to eat a meal they normally enjoy in pyjamas, they're just happy to see people coming in with proper pants and shirts on.” James ceded. With a slight tilt of her head, Isabel indicated a table just to her right, behind James, and said,
“Those two girls are wearing pyjamas!”
James turned to see for himself: two girls, twenty-something years old (around the same age as he and Isabel), sat at a table with mismatched wooden chairs, opposite the booths along the front window. Both girls wore tank tops and loose fitting pyjama bottoms: one sporting stripes, and the other large, neon polka dots. He overheard a snippet of their excited conversation. They too, were on their way to the festival. “So they are.” James said. “They probably spent the night at the motel.”
“Kind of a mixed bunch in here.” Isabel said, taking in the restaurant as they waited for their food, her elbow resting on the window sill and her head in her hand. Her legs she crossed underneath the table.
“A small town diner next to a highway must see all sorts of folk passing through.”
“Mhm. All sorts of folk.” Isabel agreed, nodding thoughtfully. She liked the idea. The kitchen’s bell rang out again, and plates piled high with breakfast staples were soon sitting in front of them.
“Looks delicious.” James said.
“I'm surprised they had so many vegan options.”
“Well, I suppose this is a more liberal part of the country.” James said, shovelling a fork full of buckwheat pancake into his mouth. While chewing he added, “Whatever that means.”
“I guess it means more vegan options. Which is fine by me.” She doused her tofu, pepper, and home fry scramble with a liberal amount of ketchup.
James took a moment away from his feast to gulp down his water. He had taken out the straw that had come in the glass and it lay on the table neglected and surrounded by water droplets. “Ah! You know, just the fact that the food is hot satisfies me. I've had too many dried meals lately.”
Isabel, carefully stabbing individual food bits in an effort to curate the perfect bite, paused for a moment to give James a look. She said, “I'm surprised by such a comment coming from you. You're not one to complain about such things.”
“Oh, I'm not complaining. I can continue to eat as we have been for the next month, no qualms.” He looked down at his food, already less than half the amount it had been when his plate first arrived. He made a conscious effort to slow down and enjoy what remained. “But what I mean to point to—” (as he spoke he pointed and gestured with his fork, waving it in the air between them) “—is, well… just that I wasn't expecting to specifically enjoy the hotness of this meal so much. That it tastes good is merely a happy accident.” He shrugged, took another bite, then added, “Hopefully the heat doesn't go to waste—may it warm something within me that will allow life to flow from my fingertips and from my pen. Something real. How satisfying it would be if something I've written down on an otherwise useless bit of paper might warm someone's soul in times of enduring cold.”
Isabel listened, and as she did she passed over this bit of chopped pepper, or that dab of ketchup, which didn't fit with the assortment already on her fork. “Is that a prayer, then?”
He nodded. “It is a miracle to create paper that warms but never burns.”
“It's quite a lot to ask of pancakes." Isabel smirked across the table, and James made a show of rolling his eyes. “Who are you directing this prayer to, may I ask?”
Now a bit serious, James replied, “At this point in time, I feel like we have only ourselves to count on.”
Isabel considered this. She said, “Despite our relative poverty, what little we had in our lives before which was actually certain, we kept with us.”
“I don't think poverty is the right word to describe what our state has been, thus far on the road—it suggests desperation. And though we are tested in such times, it is not when we shine.”
“Nevertheless—” as she spoke there flashed in Isabel's eyes something of that past life she and James had meant to leave behind, “I must admit that I do feel impoverished, because right now I feel desperate to remain free as we have been these past two months; however my spirit is clouded because I know that in four days time we will find ourselves back in the very centre of what it was we were trying to outrun. I don't know how to shake off this feeling of foreboding.”
“Do you really feel like we are still running? Last night, with me, did you not finally stop to take a breath?”
Isabel considered this. Her lips traced a small smile. “Maybe.”
“And yet this morning you feel like you are on the run again?”
“Perhaps it is a matter of perspective; maybe I'm not running away, but running forward.”
Isabel shrugged. She reconsidered and said, “Maybe I'm just running.”
James nodded. “Either way, the pangs in your chest are to be embraced, because if it is breath you need and yet you continue to run, then it is passion, born from discontent, which urges you forward. And that, when understood, reveals our truth. But try to breathe deeply, my dear Isabel, this weekend at the festival—for three days and three nights we have the opportunity to satiate the hunger which has impelled us to take this journey.”
Isabel nodded, and then, struck by a certain thought, she said, “You have made sure to feel these pangs of hunger often, on our trip, with the belief that they may reveal to you what you lack. Now that we are nearing the end of our adventure, let me ask you, my love: what is it, in this life, that you hunger for?”
“Everything!” James said, and loud enough to have a few patrons peer round at him. A little quieter he added, “That is, so my spirit replies, now that I have food in my belly.”
This was what Isabel had hoped he would say, and so she persisted playfully, “What of your heart though? Is it not full—not satiated—with love for me?”
James rose in his seat with a ready retort, his eyes twinkling with mirth which was, a moment later, calcified by surprise when the paradox in the question donned on him—sure, he had more love for Isabel than he could hope to measure; but if love was the reward for understanding, did the strength of their relationship ultimately quell his desire to understand others? What then would drive him forward if not such passion to feel empathy, as he had forgiveness from his love waiting to relieve him should he fail? Could he become passive, even careless, in such comfort? His mouth snapped shut as he paused to think. “What a silly string of words!” he finally said. “Love is a process of opening oneself up, and such a sentence suggests a closing of oneself down. Love does not know an end, if there is nothing to oppress it. My capacity for loving you—and loving everything and everyone—is infinite.”
Isabel smiled. “Good. You answered just like the Romeo I know you to be.” James grinned sheepishly, waving his fork again as if bashfully waving away this sentiment Isabel delivered so frankly, as only a person with nothing to doubt could, when saying such a thing. Isabel slowly finished chewing another carefully arranged mouthful, swallowed and said, “I wanted to ask on the bike ride: how is your foot doing? You made no mention of it this morning.”
“It didn’t hurt at all when I woke up. When I stepped on it, it felt good as healed.”
“That’s because you’ve been treating it well since getting the nail out. And I’m glad to hear this. It would be most unfortunate if you were kept from enjoying yourself this weekend on account of an infection.”
James announced that he had never entertained the thought. “I didn’t come all this way to be taken out by a nail.” he said. He winked, perhaps to emphasize his resilience. Isabel smiled again, appreciatively. It was not the first time during their seven weeks on the road that James had shown the strength of his resolve. Reflecting on this, she felt a deep affection toward him that caused her eyes to brighten as she looked to him, her love; seeing this, James smiled too.
--end of prologue--
'James and Isabel' is a work in progress. Check out 'Chapter One' of the same book, found through my profile.
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