The yellow helicopter shrank to a bright speck against Needle Mountain’s sun-splattered ancient forest.
“Well, there go my tax dollars again.”
Charley watched from the doorway of Desire Inlet’s Marine Store, perched at the end of the town pier.
“Falling eagle population!” he continued to berate a sympathetic customer. “They should do something useful and find out why the duck count is down.” Duck hunting, his favourite fall pastime, was a big disappointment this year.
“The deficit will bring this sentimental spending on wildlife to an end, believe me. If it’s not eagles, it’s sea lions, or even shelters for hippies.”
“See you in the pub tonight, Charley?”
Below the open window, Vic Larson called up from the deck of his little pleasure boat. Like other local builders, Vic had prospered from world-wide publicity about Canada’s rainforests.
“No thanks, Vic, I’m beat today. It’s been a busy year. I must be getting old.”
It was six o’clock before the last chatty customer finally waved goodnight. Glad it was only a short drive home, Charley stood squinting in the cold evening rain for a moment before starting the van.
His bones felt colder every fall.
As he stamped into his cottage, droplets of rain flew from his shoes. Jip and Tip, the twin kittens, sleepily strolled in from some warm niche. Time for the can opener. Obligingly, he paused for an exchange of affection and filled their dish with the local Co-op‘s best.
What he needed, his buddies often advised him, was a nice woman to spend his evenings with. Well, Charley wasn’t getting into that kind of hot water. He’d seen enough marriages go up in smoke, the man left to pay out forever as punishment for having sought happiness. A man’s world? That was a joke! Taxes, sick eagles, Native land claims, and, to end it all, hockey and baseball strikes!
Thank God for whiskey and tobacco. He gratefully paused to light up his pipe.
The doctor wanted him to stop smoking. That last checkup. Blood pressure through the ceiling. Well, no wonder!
Ah, the mail. In his windbreaker pocket. Pulling out the rain-damp bundle, he groaned to see the familiar Receiver General stamp on a long brown envelope.
Wearily, he lay it aside and walked over to light the stove. Then, having mustered as much domestic comfort as possible, he opened the dread letter. He knew his last GST Tax return had been late.
It was notice of a fine, his second this year. Fourteen hundred dollars.
A huge sigh erupted from his chest. Head in hands, he tried to think straight. This recurring tax nightmare! His blood pressure…
There just wasn’t time for all the paperwork. Such a lot of money! And for what? For sea lion and eagle studies and inflated salaries of so called environmental protectors…
Greed. He no longer understood the world. How much sacrifice would it take to satisfy the hungry government mouth, the demands of all the do-gooders and hippies…
Untouched, his pipe smouldered to lifelessness in the ashtray.
Maybe, a part time person to do the paper work. At this rate it would be an economy. Nice to have someone around on the quiet days too, a bit of company, when winter stillness settled on the little town.
Charley stood to gaze out the small window. Against the rising moon a cedar snag stood, proud in its great age. Its uppermost branches were usually graced by the splendour of some majestic bird. Ravens, blue herons, eagles.
Lately a young eagle had claimed it for his private use. Early morning skirmishes were frequent as he defied all others to take the high branches. The unusual vantage point must have a reputation among the hunting birds, Charley figured.
And this stripling eagle had just come along and claimed it for himself.
Abruptly, he stiffened, eyes narrowing. The young predator, outlined in deep shadow against the lunar landscape, gripped the topmost branch, and, to Charley’s consternation, had fixed gleaming eyes directly upon him. The great bird seemed to hold his focus, drawing his mind away into the cold freedom of the forested night.
It slowly came to him that the eagle was alone.
Every morning the black, seven-foot wing span would circle the snag as shrill calls echoed high above the town. But there was never an answering call.
Like Charley, he fought his battles alone.
It almost seemed those moon-lustred eyes were communicating some cosmic sympathy far beyond language. Then, without warning, as cloud obscured the moon from sight, immense wings unfolded. The tree was empty, the stage dark.
The spell snapped like a broken twig.
His empty stomach bringing back reality, he noticed the kittens had finished their supper and were entangled in a warm bundle on the couch, asleep. Going to the fridge to prepare his own meal, he thought about that young eagle. They had a few things in common. Funny, that.
No one should be alone. His thoughts turned to Marjorie Johnson, the pleasant widow who helped out at the post office now and then. It seemed she was looking for a little regular work, and she lived within walking distance of the store. He wondered if she ever got lonely. People didn’t like to admit to being lonely.
Chopping raw onions for his steak, he firmly pulled his thoughts to supper. What you need, my man, is a good night’s sleep, he told himself, feeling embarrassed for some reason.
After a night spent on dreamslopes creatured by flashing wings and shadowed eyes, the mundane routine of his store was reassuring next morning.
Leafing through a stack of tax invoices, he heard the racketing noise of the yellow copter. He snorted. The return of the eagle study team. Throwing on his windbreaker, he locked up and strolled over toward the still-spinning blades.
“Hi there, Charley,” grinned the pilot, Jake. “I was just coming over to pick up some stores. These environmental flights keep me so busy, I’ve hardly got time to keep up.
“Have you met Al, from the Ministry? Al, this is Charley, the highway robber on whom we all depend for survival. Charley and I are duck hunting partners. Hasn’t been a great season, has it, buddy?”
“That it hasn’t, Jake,” he agreed.”How are you, Al? Good to meet you. How did you guys make out? I heard you were trying to figure out what’s going on with the eagle population.”
Al didn’t smile back. “I hate to have to tell you guys this. The fact is we have a big problem with lead shot out here. Tourists mainly, I guess, but a lot of hunters are leaving dead ducks all over the place. Eagles eat the carcasses. Result, lead poisoning. They die out there and never get to reproduce. You’ll see a lot of eagles without mates in the months ahead.”
Heaving his packsack onto his shoulder, he headed after his crew, leaving the two men to look after him in startled silence.
That night, Charley looked in vain for the eagle. The branches were empty.
After trying to get to sleep for an hour, he brought the twins in to sleep on his fluffy comforter. Some company might help. He lay for a long time, listening to warning winds whistle down from early-wintered hills.
Saturday morning, and the sun rose behind the snag like a firm, pale peach.
An early sound wakened the cats, who in turn licked his face and ear awake. He got up to put on the coffee. It sounded like the eagle was in full battle dress this morning.
Half asleep, he wandered over to the window to see what the noise was about.
A new song spilled over the forested valley.
In seven-foot wing sweeps, the white-headed bird circled the snag, his song of welcome rending the air. Perched upon the lower branch was another young eagle.
“Look Jip,” Charley murmured to the ball of fluff lying in the crook of his left arm. “It’s a she. You can tell. She’s giving him the top branch.” He watched the courtship all morning, aware of a lump in his throat.
Then he sat down, lit his pipe, and dialled Marjorie Johnson’s number.
You just never know. It was a long winter. Too long for anyone to be alone.