NFAID # 1006


It is a surreal drumbeat that supplies the subconscious soundtrack for my dream, thudding exotically while I search in desperation beneath endless layers of grey woolen blankets for my dead grandfather. Finally I find him, and he’s angry with me — frustrated but crying, as he did so often after the strokes when he was still alive. Yet he embraces me with those thin, frail arms, those trembling, arthritic hands with their twistknot fingers, and then in his old-man way, he stabs me in the back with something dull and jagged, again, again, again. Haltingly, weakly, his other arm pulling me in close against him so he can tell me something — a thing I know will be weighted by an immeasurable profundity — but it’s all drowned out by that drumbeat, that slow cymbalic whisper, the mournful, ululant thrust of it rising, falling.

And I wake up. It’s exactly 4:00 AM, and ten seconds later there is a rising rush, the whisper-howl of pebbles cast from a vast sky and it suddenly begins to hail. It lasts for forty-five seconds and stops just as suddenly, as if someone has simply turned it off, leaving me in my post-dream half-haze wondering if it has even happened at all.

My back hurts where he struck me with his unspeakable wisdom, dead-center between the shoulder blades, a message from the dead lost amid the fading thrumdrum of a bone-dry sonorism.


As I’m driving, I’m telling her about saving the goldfinch — the one that flew into the front window of the house earlier in the day and fell, stunned, into the junipers below. How I went out to make sure it wasn’t dead, worried one of the cats might find it so close to the ground and fill the garden with its feathers. How I picked it up in my hand, and how it sat there in that post-collision stupor that birds go into: fully-conscious, looking around itself, but unable to break free and fly away. It just sat there in my hand, clinging with its tiny talons to the flesh of my open palm, inert and dazed. I took it around back to the deck, sat down at the table with this little female goldfinch still in my palm, watched its little black-pearl eyes blink, watched the pulse beneath its dully-plumed throat flutter with steady life.

I checked it for broken bones, stroked its head, sat there in the sun for awhile, studying it, enjoying being so close to such a tiny bird. I imagined I could almost hear the quick and subtle flux of its breathing. I could tell part of its mind was occupied by the fear it would naturally feel for me, yet it stood unmoving, locked into its strange inertia, unable to follow through on the impulse that must have felt so tremendous within it, the survival command to flee this captivity and uncertain fate and return to the wind, the branch and seed, rough bark and green shade, and the soaring, exhilarant freedom that awaited in the endless blue beyond that.

I understood. Or believed I did.

But I followed it around after its first tentative escape attempts, plucking it up and letting it try again, not wanting to leave it on the ground where any number of perils awaited it. It fluttered clumsily from my palm and landed upside down on a stem of the tomato plant. Flew down from the deck onto the lawn a few times, unable to achieve enough lift to become truly airborne. And then, caught a little updraft, perched on the lower branches of an oak, trembled with either the rejuvenation finally pulsing through its system, or the thrill of having actually escaped me. It chirped at me, studied me from its low branch with those mysterious bead-eyes. Thanking me or cursing me, I’d no idea. I left it to fate then and when I checked back an hour later, it was gone.

I’m telling her all this as I’m driving and just as I’m finishing my eyes catch against the blur of the passing landscape a quick glimpse of a swooping bird, a tiny finch, in wide, flailing arc of flight directly into the path of our velocity. I feel my heart drop into my stomach with the weight of inevitability and ludicrous irony and there is a sickening thump, an ashen smudge upon the windshield, four tiny feathers stuck fast, and the afterimage in the rear-view mirror of something delicate and broken tumbling into our slipstream and disappearing into the weeds at the side of the road.

All that time spent examining the little bird in closeup, and I look now at the feathers on the windshield — each in turn rapidly losing its oily contact with the glass and being swept away by the speed of our passage — and I know they’re goldfinch feathers. Brown and grey, a yellow-white stripe near the tip. Female.

At the crest of the next hill, there’s a car accident. A rear-end collision, crumpled vehicles, and humans standing around in shock. A police car passes us a little further on, heading back toward the accident, roof lights kaleidoscoping wildly. The rest of our journey is spent in silence.

That same night, returning home in the darkness and fog, wiper blades flicking drizzle from the dirty windshield — something ahead, on the side of the road. Dim lights shimmering vaguely in the moisture. Three vehicles parked. Many shadowy figures standing around, indistinct in the gloom. But more evident as we draw near: someone is sitting on the gravel shoulder, slumped, legs splayed wide and they are holding another person in their arms — that one limp, prone. In the thick fog, they are both but the mere suggestion of humanity, tangled and obscure, an unfinished sculpture in dull clay, from which only the barest outline has so far been carved.

The vehicles don’t appear damaged, though it’s hard to tell in the dark, swirling haze. We have no idea what’s happening, what personal tragedy is unfolding upon the damp shale of the road’s shoulder. One person waves us past and we roll by slowly, continuing upon our way, headlights searching the fog, free hands searching for each other and clasping. We move past it all in silence. Bodies in motion. Bodies at rest. Bodies trapped somewhere between.

A black and white photograph of a female goldfinch partially obscured by the leaves of the tree in which she is perched.

The Hobo Superhighway

A photograph of rusty, abandoned and overgrown railroad tracks vanishing into a horizon of yellow prairie grass with dramatic sky overhead.

A rusty, crumbling railroad track — one of the few remaining sections of the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s abandoned Lomond Subdivision line — vanishes into the prairie grass near Mossleigh, Alberta.

The 235 km branch line that comprised the Suffield and Lomond subdivisions was constructed during the years spanning 1913-1930 and stretched from Suffield in the east to Eltham in the west. It was abandoned in the late 1990s and today survives in fragments only, its level crossings obliterated and vast sections of the line ripped up entirely. The towns that were served by the line have, for the most part, followed suit.


A photograph of the green wooden grain elevator in the prairie town of Herronton, Alberta, Canada, bathed in later Winter sunlight and surrounded by yellow grass and an abandoned railroad track.

The lone, surviving Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator in Herronton, Alberta, burnished by wind and late winter sunlight.

The railroad tracks in the left of the frame belong to the same abandoned line that also served the elevators at Farrow and Mossleigh, featured in the preceding two posts.

Previously: Shadowland – view this elevator from another angle.

Mossleigh Trio

A photograph of three decaying, old, yellow wooden P&H grain elevators and an abandoned, rusty railroad track in the prairie town of Mossleigh, Alberta, Canada.

These distinctively yellow wooden P&H grain elevators have marked the location of the town of Mossleigh, Alberta, since the early 1930s. They’ve taken a beating from the elements of late, but hopefully they will continue to stand for some time to come.

Farrow, 2008

A photograph of the abandoned wooden grain elevator in the ghost town of Farrow, Alberta, Canada, as it appeared in the Spring of 2008.

This is the United Grain Growers (UGG) grain elevator in the former town of Farrow, Alberta, as it appeared in the Spring of 2008. The elevator, which was built in 1930, apparently burned to the ground in late December, 2011. It was predeceased by every other building once remaining in the town, the last few of which were demolished a year previously. Farrow now lies fallow, its ashes scattered by the wind.

Previously from Farrow: The Centre of the World

Photos in my Flickr Photostream tagged as “Farrow.”

NFAID # 1005


They x-rayed his skeleton, and the doctor shook his head at the canvas exposed. Why son, you’re naught but a vast and terrible scrimshaw in there. Life is writ hard upon your bones. Why? He opened his mouth to reply, and vomited colour. Understanding, the Doctor nodded and made a note in his file.

Storm Crow

A storm crow, blown out to sea by the unforgiving maelstrom of its namesake, lost, exhausted and failing, looked down at the black void of water and endless night below itself for what it thought would be the final time. And there, almost innocuous amid the thrusting current: a shape — bobbing, tossing, fighting the waves and the sucking depths in much the same way the drained bird was fighting gravity. In desperation, the storm crow folded its wings behind itself and dropped like a wraith wrought from iron. It fell, swooped, circled and finally landed on the shape with a braking flutter of its aching wings.

The waves heaved and broke around the storm crow, soaked its blacksheen feathers with stinging saltwater, but for the moment it allowed itself to feel safe. It closed its eyes against the brine spray and had just tightened the grip of its talons to prepare for sleep when it heard a weak and guttural sound from the heaving mass beneath it. The sound was barely recognizable as that which is made by a human, and it said: ow. And then it croaked, hoarsely: hello there. I guess I’ve been expecting you.

The storm crow then realized that the voice was coming from the shape upon which it was resting. The shape moved beneath its talons, causing the storm crow to flutter feebly up into the air above. It hovered there for a moment, taking stock. The shape moved again, and the storm crow finally understood that the shape itself was a man, floating in the water, a strange orange-colored device wrapped around his chest keeping him adrift.

The man lifted his limp head and turned a blister-blue face up to the circling crow. It’s all right, he said in a voice that rattled like stones in a gourd. Please, come back down here. I won’t hurt you. The storm crow landed gracefully back upon the man’s shoulder, grateful for the shelter and the minute heat emanating from the man’s neck.

They bobbed together for awhile in the surge, silent until the man cleared his throat as best as he was able and said I’m afraid I can’t offer you much time. I’m almost finished, you see. But I expect you know that. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? The storm crow looked at him and opened its beak. It cocked its head. It did its level best to project a feeling of gratitude and sympathy. It wished with all its crowpower for its pearl-black eyes to relay something other than their usual reflective mystery. The man seemed to understand. He closed his own bleakly red-rimmed eyes, and let his head drop forward onto the life-jacket again.

I’ll give you a bit longer to rest, he whispered, and they sailed on together some more, until the immense expanse of the ocean sky above them cleared of clouds and the stars were allowed to knit the fabric of eternity. The storm crow would be able to find its way home now, once it was rested.

The stars rotated. The quarter moon bounced across the edge of all visibility and finally dipped below sight. At one point the man took a soggy crust of bread from inside the remnants of his clothes and fed it to the bird, piece by tiny piece. The storm crow reflected that it had not been fed so delicately, or with such tender attention, since it was a nestling taking the offerings of its mother.

Finally, just as the eastern sky was beginning to turn pink, the man lifted his head one final time, seemed to scan frantically the diminishing stars and cried out: I can’t wait any longer! With stiffened saltcrack fingers he unfastened the buckles of his life-vest and shrugged it off. Startled, the storm crow flapped up into the air and hovered above him, black, vast and iconic. For a final time, the man cast his eyes upon the dark-winged forbearance of his witness, pulled his split and whitened lips into a manic grin and then slipped quickly beneath the surface of the waves.

Its strength renewed, the storm crow circled the bobbing empty life-jacket for several moments and then, as the sun bloomed ebulliently upon the tilting horizon, struck out in search of land, and home.

A black and white photograph of a painting of a crow on a cracked and aged stucco wall.