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On Salt Spring, Playing with Death

I just wanted to poke around nature with my toddler. Be careful what you wish for.

By Elee Kraljii Gardiner 13 Nov 2003 | TheTyee.ca
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A little while ago Robert and I took our two-year-old daughter to Salt Spring Island for a weekend. We stayed in an old-fashioned log cabin that was empty and only semi-finished. He went out to buy food and paper towels, so Beatrice and I crawled into bed for a nap. It was nasty and cold and rainy outside and we snuggled down whispering stories to each other while our toes warmed up. I had this homesteading fantasy that he'd come back with provisions and find us all nestled and pink-cheeked and smiling.

Nothing is cozier and warmer and sweeter than having a toddler's even breath pull you into a deep sleep while her arms are around your neck. I know this from hearing other parents talk. Our attempt at a nap, however, went like this:

"Shh, sweetie."
"Mama? Mama!"
"Lie down."
"Lie down right now."
"Don't poke me."
"No licking, Beatrice."
"OK, Lie down. Close your eyes and sleep!"

She continued to play a one-sided game of "pinch mama's nipples," and as you can imagine there was no way I was going to sleep. We didn't have a phone and I couldn't call one of those parent support lines, so I called it quits instead and took her outside for a walk in the rain.

So off we go, after the 20-minute procedure of stuffing Beatrice into her rain suit -- we call it her "haz mat" suit because it's neon yellow and even has a little visor. There was petulance and contrariness, and that was just on my end. But the minute we stepped outside, the parent-child battle of the wills evaporated into the deep forest air. And it's rocky and gleaming and the mosses are deep and soft and the forest is glowing with about 63 different shades of magical green. We slip and waddle among the trees. It's a miracle her shoulder doesn't dislocate because I'm basically carrying her down the slope by one wrist, and she's dangling beside me like a twisting plastic bag. I pause and lower her pink rubber boots down on top of a stump. Beatrice steadies herself on the orange, slippery bark of an Arbutus tree and beams up at me and says "Beauty tree?"

Nature has restored us. We wiggle down the rocky hill and Beatrice is reverently silent. When I tell her how good it feels to take a deep breath of that clean, wet air, she inhales as deeply as her little tender lungs let her. For a minute we're two Zen travellers just standing there looking at the glinty little raindrops hanging off the moss on the trees. This is my perfect moment - I'm opening the gates for her to something good. And then, like that -- boom -- the moment is gone.

Among the rocks I see something butchery and mutilated and I pull her back half a step. She asks in this existential little way of hers, "What is it?" And then there we are, looking down at the remains of a dead thing caught in the nook between two rocks. It's mostly decomposed and its skeleton is ivory-white except at the joints, which are still a little pink. The back of the animal is covered with a tent of hairless skin. I'm sickened; she's delighted.

"What is it?" she asks again, leaning over it. "Can I touch it?" she asks, reaching for a hoof.

"It's a poor, dead thing," I say, as I begin to recognize the shape of a baby deer.  In an effort to downplay my horror I end up inadvertently making it seem kind of cute. I look around for Robert the way parents do when they need their partner's complementary skills. Not a bone is out of alignment and it looks so lonely and young, like Beatrice if something happened to her, and I picture her knocking her curly orange head against one of these wind-roughened boulders and lying right down with the poor, poor thing. Which is actually what she wants to do. She thinks it looks cold. I imagine the discovery of her tattered clothes and leaf-covered body and pull her back, just as she's about to drop down upon the nest of bones for some cuddle time.

She has no fear of it, no idea that it could be filthy with maggots, or lice or hidden organisms that could infect her. These things only increase the allure, anyway. I want to show her the beauty of 100-year-old oak trees and curling fiddleheads, she wants to return to the site of a slasher film. We compromise and meander a bit, stumbling over logs and fondling caterpillars, and revisit the deer three of four times before heading inside.

And for the rest of the weekend Beatrice ignores the books and toys I've brought with us in favour of a game she makes up, called "Poor, poor thing." A simple yet compelling game that involves her lying on her back with her eyes closed waiting for me to discover her and cluck and marvel at the "poor, poor thing." Which is exactly the opposite of what I'm thinking she is. On Salt Spring, where predators, poisonous plants and snakes are relatively absent, she can flop around in puddles and chase bugs and collect sticks without heading to the emergency room afterwards. Well, there goes one of my childhood rites from New England, where poison ivy, oak and sumac are practically everywhere.

Robert and Beatrice take little excursions together the next day and come back quietly, companionably silent and smelling of adventures. They have muddy hands and cold lips and I figure out they've been playing with the deer because the next time Beatrice pulls me back to visit the poor dead thing, I see that it's a jumble, out of order. She happily points out that when the leg wiggled, the skin on the back came off. So we both turn away and find broken, fallen branches and give that little thing a poke.

Vancouver based Elee Kraljii Gardiner has written for Western Living, brownsugaronline.com, The National Post, En Route and Vancouver Magazine.  [Tyee]

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