I can see her coming down the street. More accurately, I can hear her companion yelling at her.
“Where’s ma bottle? You don’t have it?”
“I dun know where it is.”
“I swears you had it.”
“I dun have your bottle!”
Their voices echo through the freshly rain-cleansed street. It’s that calm hour you get this far up north, when it’s no longer day but not quite dark enough to turn on the lights. No sunsets up here in British Columbia, just dull descensions into darkness.
My eyes dance to follow their movements up and down the sidewalk: he stomps ahead then turns back towards her, she does the same. I wonder if this is how they’ve made their way up Cleveland Avenue, in many steps with little progress. They repeat their conversation in the same manner they retrace their steps.
“I thought you had’et in your backpack,” she says.
“It’s not in there. You have it!”
I avert my gaze subtly so the guy talking to me doesn’t think I’m rude. Actually, I don’t really care if he finds me impolite for showing signs of boredom at his small talk and thinly-veiled attempts at flirtation; what I really don’t want is him to see my fixation on the drunken play in the street as a sign that I am not desensitized to it. That I’m too sheltered to shrug off such displays as background noise.
“Don’t worry,” the voice in my head squeaks, “I’ve seen the world. I’ve sat across from men with black-gummed smiles falling asleep on bar tables littered with bottles in La Paz. I’ve fanned my keys between my fingers and clamped down in a white-knuckled fist to pass drug addicts on the bitter cold streets of Reno at 6 a.m. Don’t worry, I’ve seen the world.”
It’s insincere to pretend that the more I witness, the less sensitive I become. Quite the opposite. I only perceive more depth, see more shades than just gray and intoxicated.
I survey the street wondering where the boisterous duo is headed. I realize the coffee shop where I'm sitting and watching their evening unfold is one of the few open doors downtown at this hour.
The realization makes their presence on this street in this town even stranger.
From the cushioned bench of the café porch I see the final tinges of alpenglow fading from the glaciers on Mount Garibaldi. The familiar shapes of the Tantalus Range beyond. Bright city banners hanging from the lamp posts, each depicting a graphic rendition of the Stawamus Chief.
We’re in Squamish. The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, as they like to call it.
A place where all the shiny V6-engine trucks come standard with a few full-suspension, top-of-the-line mountain bikes perched over the gate. Where gravel parking lots are packed with Ford Econolines, Mercedes Sprinters and Chevy Astros with meticulously built out interiors, complete with cedar paneling and household items strung up on carabiners. Where a Thule box, a carbon-frame road bike or a whitewater kayak graces the roof of every other Subaru.
Rivers teeming with rapids, perfect breezes for wind surfing, singletrack crisscrossing the forests, dirtbag-worthy rock climbing, mountains to summit every direction you look.
This is meant to be paradise.
Collectively everyone on the patio stops breathing as the short woman nears. Maybe if we all sit still, she won’t notice us.
She comes right up to the café bar and snares the espresso-sipping friend of my drab conversation partner into her world. She sets her plastic water bottle two-thirds full of caramel colored liquid next to his glass mug. She lifts her brown arm up so she can rest an elbow on the bar that’s almost as high as her shoulders.
“Do you know about the Lillooet?” she asks.
The boy responds in hushed tones, knowing all too well that the rest of the patio patrons have their ears perked to eavesdrop – relieved that they weren’t the chosen ones.
I abandon feigning interest in the chap with the perfectly parted hair and his mundane chatter about his engineering studies. I close my laptop and fix my eyes on the Lillooet woman.
She starts to sing. Her voice bellows as long, low notes emerge from the tiny woman. Rhythmic rising and falling. No vocal gymnastics, just soothing, timeless notes that carry on as long as the braided waters of the Squamish River.
It’s beautiful. Entrancing. I find myself wanting to close my eyes and escape into the melody, to ride the long, clear notes as far as they’ll carry me. Far away from this eclectic-chic café, into the woods and the riverbanks where the song originated.
“That’s a gift from the Lillooet people,” she says upon finishing. She circles her arms and opens the palms of her nearly child-sized hands in a gesture of sharing – as if her movements solidify her gift giving to young man in the chair.
“This is our land,” she says, staring straight into his eyes. Pauses. “All of it.”
“Everything you see from here up to the Lillooet River. This belongs to the Lillooet people, my people.”
Her speaking voice carries the same rhythmic camber of her singing. She gently grasps her bottle and takes a sip. Smiles softly. For a moment I think she’s having fun, as though she might do this every Friday night.
“It’s an accelerated program, so I’ll…” the blonde with the pointed chin drones on. I almost audibly grunt my annoyance at his interfering with the sound line between myself and the tiny woman.
“Did you go to school around here?” I blink back to the blue eyes smiling hopefully at me.
“No, I’m from California.”
I finish out the conversation, answering the prerequisite questions of why I’m in Canada, how long I’ve been in Squamish, what I’m doing here.
I ask myself guiltily, honestly: Why do I come here? Why do I deem it okay, or even admirable, to insert myself in this community for months at a time by parking my van on their forest service roads, climbing their sacred rocks with my unappreciative hands, bathing in the rivers that I know the First Nations people consider demigods? Because someone called Squamish a good place for traveling climbers to spend the summer, a good place to swoop in and call home for a while, regardless of the people who really make it their home?
I can’t bring myself to restart work on my Tips for Backpacking with Your Dog article. I feel a tinge of shame at the articles I write for a paycheck. I was trained as a journalist. Why don’t I write about this woman’s story? Or even a simple exposé on the Lillooet culture?
The tiny woman leaves without my noticing. By then dusk has given way to night, so I find a spot inside to finish my work before deadline.
Sometime in the span of typing out a few paragraphs, the tiny woman returns. I glance up from my screen to see that she’s standing right in front of me. She wears a faded blue T-shirt with an equally faded logo. The fabric is stretched tight across her upper abdomen, showcasing one of those sturdy beer bellies normally reserved for men.
She looks straight into my eyes and I see that hers are strikingly round with little blue rings around her black pupils. A milky sheen coats her unblinking eyes.
“Do you know which bathroom I can use? They dun say which is ladies.”
“Oh, you can use any of them. They’re not separated by gender.”
“I can use any of ‘em?” she sways in tiny circles.
“Yeah, whichever one is empty you can use. Just go in any door and you’ll be fine,” I say, trying to sound cheerful. A warm smile spreads across her beautifully round face while she paces back and forth a few times.
“Yeah, yeah go ahead. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you!” She spins to face the other bathroom door, pauses, and goes in.
She struts out shortly after, walking straight through the café and out the door onto the street once more. A new song emerges from deep in her belly, echoing throughout the empty street as she meanders away in the direction of the park.