The day after my boy almost made it through the pasture fence, I had a lot of thinking to do. For all my sleepless nights, it had never occurred to me they might come in the daytime. Nor that he would go out to meet them. How the hell did he know they were out there?
Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe my wife was right on that score; maybe he just decided to go for a ramble, and that laid his scent more strongly on the uphill breeze and drew them in. Maybe. Even though I slept damn little that night, there was no way I could sleep after she left for work. I couldn’t stop pacing and fulminating.
Finally I loaded our son and Harry in the truck and drove around to where Spiketon Road goes toward the foothills and dead-ends at Carbon Creek; the bridge from the coal-mining days long since vanished. On the far side of the creek, a muddy two-track is all that was left of the road on that side, climbing into second-growth Doug firs. A little over two miles up the track, the vanished town had been named after a coal man named Spike, of all things. Later the town’s name was changed to Morristown for another coal man who came later. But the locals, nothing if not averse to change, still called our end of it the Spiketon Road.
I parked facing the creek and stayed in the truck, looking into the dense woods across the sun-sparkling ripples. The big Casull was a comforting bulge under my leather jacket. I was long-bodied enough the long barrel didn’t protrude beneath the jacket, and barrel-chested enough an extra lump under my left arm wasn’t noticeable by town clowns. Not that it mattered; my concealed-pistol paperwork was all in order.
If I could get across the creek, would I find giant naked footprints coming down the muddy track? Probably not, if those things had the habit of stealth. Too much chance of some guy in a Jeep coming down behind them.
The Bonneville Power maintenance road cut across the foothills to White River, and local Jeepers liked to ford the creek here going to and coming from the power-line road. If I was really curious I could go up to Burnett, cut back on the power-line road and scout the two-track. I wasn’t that curious. I rolled down the window to see if I could catch a trace of skook stink. All I smelled was resin from the firs.
“Goin’ fishin’, Dad?” In the last almost two years my son had mastered the second D.
“No, son. Why?”
“Big fishes in there.”
“There are, huh? How do you know?”
He pointed. “See ’em. See?”
All I saw was sun-glint on dark water. I stared hard — and suddenly I could see log-like shapes in the shallows, pointed upstream. Then I couldn’t again.
“See?” he said.
“I did — for a minute. Boy, you’ve got sharp eyes.”
“Sharp eyes? Like a knife?”
“It means good eyes — means you can see really well.”
“Salmon, I reckon,” I said. “Looks like some speared by those wild men down under the Burnett Bridge.”
“Wild men?” He thought about it. “Norgus porkus?”
“No, son, not those kind of wild men.”
“But Raff said!”
“You remember Ralph, do you?”
“Sure! Ne-o-poln!” He was gaining on pronunciation of his favorite dessert. “Raff likes it!”
“Your memory’s good as your eyes.”
“Gonna see Raff?” He clapped his hands.
“Not today, son.” I thought about what he said for a minute. “Say, son? You weren’t headed off to see Ralph by yourself yesterday were you? When Harry got you by the seat of your britches?”
He scowled. “Hawwy bad! Stop me ‘splorin!”
“That’s why you were out there, exploring?”
Still scowling: “Mom said! ‘Splorin.”
“Yeah, little guy, she did say that. But you didn’t say. Not a word.”
“Mad at Hawwy. Mad at you. You told him good dog!”
Harry was curled on the floorboard beneath my son’s booster seat. I could see those fine antenna-like hairs above his eyebrows flicker as he followed the conversation.
“Harry is a good dog.” I drew a deep breath. “That’s the second time he’s found you for me. I don’t suppose you remember the first time.”
“Wanna see Raff!”
“Okay, okay. I’ll call Mildred and see when we can go see Ralph.”
“’Kay.” His brief thunderstorm was past. “Play cheggers!”
I backed around to head out. The change in angle brought the breeze that was whipping down the creek through the open window. Harry uncurled and put his forepaws on the seat, nose working. His lips wrinkled back from his teeth and he growled. Well, he had a way-better nose than me.
“Quiet, Hawwy!” my son said firmly.
Harry’s ears drooped. But he didn’t stop growling.
“It’s okay, Harry. We’re leaving,” I said. “Good dog. I thought they must have come this way.”
“Dad? How come you tell Hawwy good dog when he gwowl?”
“He smells something he doesn’t like,” I said. “He’s warning us.”
“Smell ’zat bad smell back there?”
Icy fingers played my spine like a xylophone. “What bad smell, son?”
“Hawwy smelled it too. Ugh. Be-uh, Dad? Be-uh come eat the fishes like on TV?”
I drove back up the Spiketon road. “We don’t have a TV. Where’d you see bears fishing?”
“Mattie does!” Mattie was the Montessori teacher my wife had found for our boy. “We see nachur shows!”
So much for a TV-free household; I had to smile. “So you know bears fish for salmon,” I said. “That’s in Alaska, which is far away from here. I don’t know if bears around here catch salmon that way.”
“Different sort of bears.”
“How many kinds is there?”
“You know, I don’t rightly know. Maybe you can ask Mattie.”
“’Kay. Where to now, Dad?”
“I’ve been craving a hamburger and a milk shake. Wanna go to Enumclaw, see what we can find?”
I didn’t have to ask twice.
We were skating pretty close on finances, but I figured we could afford burgers and shakes. After we finished our food at a worn little Enumclaw eatery whose food was way better than its décor, we walked around the little downtown park in the bright mild July sunshine. I pushed our finances a little harder and paid $12.95 for a Chinook Jargon Dictionary at an independent bookseller’s, among one of the most eclectic I’d seen anywhere; of course he had the dictionary at his fingertips.
A dozen or so artists and artisans, including a small independent coffee company, were showing their wares along one edge of the parking lot. I bought a cup of strong Costa Rican and sat to page through the dictionary for a few minutes before my son got restless and wanted to look at everything.
I was struck by some oil paintings done by a woman that depicted totem poles chopped off at the base, lying in crushed ferns in front of what looked like a long house. In one of the paintings, the poles were on fire. The juxtaposition of splintered, bright-colored faces with the black blistering of the flames as they consumed the wood was startling.
“Kind of grim topic,” I said to the painter.
“Even worse in reality,” she said. “Good Christians did this, to break the natives of their superstitions.”
“Oh, yeah.” She surveyed her work. “A tribesman came by once when I was showing these. You know what he said?”
“They thought they had the right. That’s all he said: they thought they had the right.”
The salmon-river tribes of the Northwest had been developing their myths and culture and trade lingo for more than thirty centuries when Europeans showed up to set them straight, based on a Johnny-come-lately religion from the other side of the world. Somehow she had captured that whole tragic culture collision in her paintings.
My book said the various tribes addressed the strange pink men in trade jargon, of course. They were strangers and that was what Chinook Jargon was for: to interact with strangers. The jargon adapted quickly, and Americans became “Boston men” from Boston Illahee, meaning Boston Land, an unwitting tribute to far-roving sailors from New England. The English were “King Chautsh men” for King Charles. Every other brand of white-eyes but the French were called Dutchmen. French were Pasiooks. The artist lady got a kick out of that one.
“I’ve often thought the same thing myself about the French,” she said with a smile.
She was a nice lady, and her rendition of the Christian destruction of the totem poles spoke to me strongly about follies of religious hubris. I was wishing I had the wherewithal to buy one of her paintings for my office when my son let out a whoop: “Dad! Look!”
He dragged me in front of another portable awning where a little old grandmotherly type was busily at work on a large canvas back in the shade. My son planted himself in front of another big canvas, and stared.
It was a god-damn skook, tromping through the salal.
“Don’t be afraid, son,” I said. “It’s just a picture.”
“Not afwaid! Look! Must be eatin’ bewwies!”
The gray-haired lady bestowed a fond smile on him. “That’s right, sonny, they just love those big blue berries.”
She wasn’t a poor artist; you could see dew glisten on the plump salal berries. The skook was faithfully reproduced but for one thing: somehow she had made its alien mug as open and guileless as a child’s. As this child of mine, staring at it in fascination.
“You painted the thing as harmless,” I said.
“Why of course they’re harmless. Just big old softies, that’s all they are. Berry-eaters.”
“You sound like you know them personally.”
“Well…no.” She looked at me strangely. “Of course not. They’re just legends, you know. From all the way back to superstitious Indian times. But the Indians like salal berries, so I figured why not?”
“Different kind of be-uh, Dad?” He held his nose. “Kind that smell bad?”
“Why bless your heart, honey, it’s a Sasquatch!” the little old lady said.
“Smell bad!” he told her, still holding his nose. “Pee — you!”
“Well now, that is part of the legend,” the little old lady said, surprised. “Aren’t you the smart one, to know that about Sasquatches?”
I was shocked how quickly I had relaxed after the burgers and shakes and mild sun in the slow pace of a small peaceful town: for a few moments I had almost forgotten Enumclaw was the last stop before Chinook Pass, on the edge of the vast Cascade Wilderness, where our personal trouble came from. Even though our trouble had come calling just yesterday.
I noticed my son was trying to pronounce the strange word, trying to sound it out. My throat tightened just to watch him. “Try skook,” I said.
“What is that, that word you used?” the grandmotherly artist reacted to the tone of my voice; her lips pressed together.
“Skook,” I said. “Short for skookum. Chinook Jargon for evil spirit.”
“Oh, my — you can’t call a Sasquatch evil!”
“Let’s go, son,” I said. “Time to be headed home.”