James and Isabel — The Festival, Chapter One



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.

This chapter follows the Prologue of James and Isabel, which can also be found on Scriggler, through my profile page. Be sure to read that first.


The Festival



It was obvious it hadn’t rained in weeks. The grass was yellowed and all other plant growth was stunted and parched. It wasn’t a normal thing to see so much brown in a valley of British Columbia, usually so verdant and positively brimming with the sound of life—insects, water, the brush of vegetation in a warm wind. James was lying flat on his back on sun baked earth, the dirt red and cracked like ill prepared kiln bricks. He had tripped through the door flap of the tent, toppling out—a knot of sleep-filled limbs—into his current position about a half hour ago. There he remained prostrate, squinting at the sun filtering through stiff branches, swaying only slightly in a thin draft which did not sink low enough for James to be able to appreciate. The heat had been unbearable in the confined space of the tent. He had awoke drenched in sweat and had unzipped the canvas door desperately gasping for moving, breathable air. The heat would serve as their alarm clock over the following three days and, even more than what he went through this morning, always the first few moments upon his waking would be disorienting and unfathomable: a result of his mind and spirit urging him not to be outdone by the more humble limits of his physical body.

James was waiting for Isabel to finish dressing so that they could go to the festival’s opening ceremony, scheduled to begin in twenty minutes. He called to her, noting that he couldn’t understand how she remained inside the tent.

“It has become an oven in the past hour since the sun has climbed.” he warbled, and from his back he stretched toward the door flap to flick it open and observe Isabel’s progress. The tent proved beyond his reach, and he relaxed his efforts. He added, “The ceremony begins in fifteen minutes, and I still have to get in there after you and get dressed myself.”

“Ah, and here I thought we could surely get away from the inconveniences of time—here, if anywhere.” Isabel called. He could see her form occasionally nudging the canvas walls as she shuffled around inside.

“You would think so… I wouldn’t mind. And yet the one thing they handed to us at the gates as they waved us through was the schedule for the weekend. Every performance listed by time slot: seven stages, and between them there are new musicians coming on every fifteen minutes.” James pulled out the schedule from his pocket and unfolded the laminate pamphlet once more, glancing over all of the sets he and Isabel had circled as ‘must sees’. The list of performances was extensive, wrapping around the front side of the pamphlet and onto the back, and he flipped the schedule over repeatedly as his eyes scoured the names, searching for artists he knew and liked that he may have missed. With each pass he was only confirming again and again that their design couldn’t be accomplished: the performances were too crammed in, one after the other and often overlapping each other. “And now I can’t stop thinking about how much there is to see and do in only a short three days!”

Isabel emerged from the tent and she stepped slowly toward him until her silhouette blocked the sun and interrupted the shadows of the stiff, bristling leaves dancing upon his face. James turned his attention away from the schedule to see her frowning down at him.

“Remember what we decided last night: we’ll just follow our ears, and enjoy the performances and the music we happen to stumble upon. There’s simply too much to see and do to worry about what it is we’ll miss.”

“You’re right. Sometimes I forget that… too often, even, in this life.” He smiled up at her. “Even so, I do want to see the opening ceremony.”

He jumped to his feet and began to gambol toward the tent, but he was made to pause by a voice sounding from a few tents over, and the voice interrupted his enthusiasm. James and Isabel turned to find a man, hitherto unobserved, sitting on one of eight collapsible chairs unfolded in a circle underneath a canvas roof supported by steel rods. The man wore a fedora pulled low down on a head of long, shaggy hair, his face made to look unkempt by a scruffy beard. He appeared to have been sleeping until only a moment ago, and now they watched as he slowly regained an awareness of his body—his stretches and his yawning seemed somehow exaggerated. All the while, during this emergence from a seemingly deep sleep, he regarded the two people before him. They were the only ones active in a clearing which had, quite quickly, become home to an overflow of tents of all sizes and colours as people arrived during the night and snatched up whatever bit of grass they could find by flashlight, clumsily stumbling in the dark over the unfamiliar terrain. These late night arrivals were still fast asleep, some of them having been lucky enough or experienced enough to set up camp underneath the shelter of branches blotting out the morning sun.

“You’re going to the opening ceremony?” the man asked. A small smile had appeared under the scruff of his beard.

“Yes.” Isabel answered. James ducked into the tent to find something to wear. Looking around, he saw that he didn’t have much of a selection: only what he had been carrying in his backpack the last month, of course, though everything had been freshly washed in the ocean the day before yesterday. He grabbed the white tee shirt nearest him, and shrugged into a loose fitting vest, which used to be a rather ugly sweater he had found at a thrift store: somehow it had been improved when he removed the sleeves and cut open the front of the torso from the waist to the neckline. The underlying fabric was dark purple, grey and white, and could be seen as slits through a sort of black knit sewn on as a second layer; as a vest, he likened it to something a jungle rebel might wear, and he was always made to feel a little more reckless, a little wild, when he put it on. He slipped into faded cargo shorts, also personally tailored to his liking from a pair of pants from the thrift store, and pulled his belt to the farthest notch, which he had had to poke into the cloth only recently, during their bike trip—he must have lost weight he hadn’t needed to lose. He reached into the pocket of his shorts to pull out the vial of desert sand Isabel had given him, which he wore around his neck on a black string. She had asked him once if he would sacrifice himself to any element of nature, and if so which one would it be, and after a few days of intermittent reflection he had landed on ‘the desert’ for an answer. At the time he wasn’t quite sure why the desert stood out to him—it wasn’t even an element, of course. But now when he felt the vial dangling upon his chest he felt also the dry heat of the sand burning his skin, and many images which he didn’t feel the need to put into words would pass in a flurry in front of him, of parched wanderers searching for oasis in a scorched and yellow void.

He exited the tent and moved to stand beside Isabel. His hair had grown long during the time they had been on the road, and he tucked it behind his ear, though a few strands always seemed keen on falling loosely around his face. The man in the fedora was still sitting in the chair, the small smile remaining almost lazily upon his lips. His gestures were slow.

“You’re not going to the ceremony?” James asked. The man stirred and looked to James.

“Well, I did go the past two years. This year, however, I suppose I intend to mosey around the tents to see what the people who aren’t going are up to. I intend to do that a lot, this time around: poke around behind ‘The Main Event’. Behind the scenes.” He took a long sip from a water bottle propped against his chair leg.

“It’s our first time here, so we want to get the full experience—everything this festival has to offer.”

The guy nodded. “I get it. I was the same my first time.” The two watched as he put on sunglasses and leaned back as far as the fabric of his chair allowed. After a few moments in which his lazy motion ceased completely, it became apparent that he might have closed his eyes underneath the dark shades and fallen back asleep. Isabel looked to James. He shrugged and with a nod of his head suggested that they get going.

A heavy silence had fallen over the clearing. What little wind had been drifting wanly through the trees overhead had dissipated entirely. The campsite around them was still, and it was so quiet one could hear snoring gently rising from relaxed forms hidden inside the tents. If they were to look back, Isabel and James would entertain the idea that this moment was like the calm before a storm: after the opening ceremony the grounds would not know the silence that was now suffused in the space around them for three days and nights. Soon, wind or no wind, even the leaves of the highest branches would be set to reverberating by the bass of music turned up so loud it would rumble through the earth underneath twenty thousand running and jumping and stomping feet, sending shivers to the uppermost tips of the valley like a necessary release of abundant energy. Rumour had it that car windshields had been cracked during sound check, and that those cars had been parked quite far from the stage and speakers when it had happened. In the sweeping shallows of the ice-capped Rocky Mountains, a village equipped with cutting edge technologies designed for one purpose only had swelled to a population of ten thousand overnight: an amount that, if found in nature, was understood in ancient history to be equivalent to an amount innumerable, for a force so large, mobilized with a single aim—as this village was—could do anything.

James turned to zip closed their tent. His movement was hushed. They did not want to disturb the tranquility and thus they spoke and gestured in whispers. The silence was exciting, even nerve-racking. They made their exit, stepping over tent ropes and pegs. Food coolers vainly employed to keep the campers’ meals fresh were losing out to the summer’s heat as the shade of the woods, intermittent at best, receded ever more as the sun climbed higher. Glancing back at the guy in the fedora, one last time before following behind James, Isabel noticed him moving once again. She suddenly became aware that he had been watching them since falling silent, his eyes hidden under cover of his sunglasses. The small smile had returned, but she felt it to be an open smile; a friendly smile. The sun was now high enough that the only bit of shade in the clearing was the area covered by the tent roof the man sat under, and the contrasting brilliance from which they looked upon him made his form grow darker, as if all the shadow had been squeezed under that canvas roof and condensed, and from within this the man continued to speak, now leaning toward them. His voice, not much louder than the whispers James and Isabel had been communicating in, easily cut across the silent clearing.

“Yup, soak everything in you can this time around. There’s no time like the first time. Only…” He paused. He leaned in even closer, as if he were concerned the distance between them was growing as the dry heat of the sun continued to flood the clearing while the darkness around him grew so dense as to be impermeable. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but from the way people talk about this place, you can’t help but expect to find… I don’t know—Nirvana, or something. Only… don’t expect to find Nirvana. I’ve been to many places around the world, and I have yet to find Heaven on Earth.

“Well, maybe I have…” He stopped to muse over this possibility, seemingly quite intrigued by the thought. He shook his head. “If I have walked through Eden, I didn’t recognize it. I wouldn't have been able to appreciate its simple wonder—the beauty of the Garden would have been lost on me, for what is beauty without wonder? The moment we took a bite out of that most infamous and forbidden fruit must have been the point wherein we learned the two were intimately connected. And though I'm sure the bite was as delicious as it was bitter, the garden was never the same; Eden became dull to Eve, like I fear the world has become dull around us. She grew tired of it and she sought something more—something beyond her lot... or so the story goes, anyway. Capable of all else, we've never been able to deny ourselves anything, and it was as if we had been set up to fail: the fruit was bitten, and its core discarded along the path we now tread.” He paused, stirred from his leaned in posture and looked around as if suddenly wary that there might be others listening. “Look at me, the preacher man.” He laughed. James and Isabel did not, but only continued to stare at him, his silhouette shrouded in that heavy blanket of shadow. He sat back in his chair again, still chuckling. When he finally did turn his lackadaisical attention back toward them, he became a bit more serious and said,

“And people expect to find Paradise, here, thinking it must be somewhere. Because we're forever bound to try to impress the Eve inside of us, and we want only to bring the beauty back for her. In so many words, we want to bring the Garden back. After three centuries of so-called enlightened thought, we seem to have convinced ourselves that we can—it is a simple matter of mechanisms, we say. And I wonder: is this true? But I can't decide. I really, really can't.” He leaned forward in his chair and reached down, running his fingers over the blades of grass around him. As if thinking out loud, he concluded, “I think that we're prone to forget, in our illusions, that Eve is never fooled for long by things that are only ever, well, approximately, divine.” He looked up at them, put a finger to his head, just under the brim of his hat, so that it tilted slightly at his touch; then he put his hand over his eyes and chuckled once more—a bit conciliatory now, having seen their expressions. “Ah, but where am I going with this?” he said, removing the blind to look at them. “Go—you’ll be able to catch the second half of the ceremony. And enjoy yourselves this weekend. Enjoy the music, and the people, and the lights. Onlydon't try so hard to figure out what it is you’re a part of these next few nights. Just… bask in the wonder, you know what I mean? I think that's the key to this whole thing.”

There was a silence during which Isabel's expression fell, transported as she was by the stranger's words. Her eyes had narrowed and she was staring—quite unconsciously, but with no small intensity—at the man before her, her thoughts encumbered with heavy momentum as they raced this way and that. The man noticed her attention, but he did not seem perturbed by the intent focus she placed upon him. He remained seated, as relaxed as ever, and smiled candidly to James, and the two shared a bemused silence as they waited for Isabel to speak. Before long she said, “Come with us, then.”

“To the opening ceremony?”

Isabel nodded.

The man's eyes drifted to the left, and his head tilted the same way. He rolled the idea around, weighing it carefully. As if he had been waiting for nothing more than this invitation to motivate his otherwise lethargic spirits, he jumped up and said, “Ah, what the hell,” and his thoughtful and even slightly gloomy expression was broken by a slow, gregarious grin, which infused his countenance with a warm and unexpected kindness.

“Great!” Isabel said. The man made his way over to them, and they realized then that he was quite a bit shorter than his seated posture had suggested: standing before them now, his eyes weren't even level with Isabel's. Still smiling, he said,

“I'm Reid, by the way.” and he extended his hand first to Isabel, then to James.

“Come on, then.” James prompted, and without further ado the trio took off running toward the ceremony, united in a merry, hurried stride, for James' sake, for he was the one most looking forward to the performance.

Isabel, for her part, felt like she had already been regaled with the perfect festival introduction, thanks to Reid. And while Reid had been speaking, his words caused an otherwise unobserved entity to animate somewhere in the back of her mind. Somewhat bashfully, she had realized that something like... well, Paradise, was exactly what she had been hoping to find, here. But then she quickly assured herself that this expectation wasn't born out of naivety, merely: every music festival she had ever been to had always presented to her a space in which she felt wonderfully free, and thus, finally, at peace. Here, she expected to find nothing less. But—so that unknown entity in the back of her mind, now seemingly gifted with speech, asked—was she looking for something more, now? If so, Why?

Or—and this was interesting—Why not?

And so she invited Reid along, hoping to probe him further.


                                                      --end of chapter--


'James and Isabel' is a work in progress.

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