When spring came to Gitanmaax, the snow went away of course, and there were pussywillows budding down by the Skeena. Pussywillows produce neat little balls along a branch. Cottonwoods unleash their cotton like unraveled cotton batting. It dangled from branches, hung everywhere near where the cottonwoods stood (which was also down along the Skeena) thick enough on the ground around to sometimes resemble a light spring snowfall.
When summer came, I learned to swim in the Slough, dog-paddling about in the pond, graduating to an overhand stroke. The Slough, the little pond produced from the meeting of the Skeena and the Bulkley, irresistibly comes to mind whenever the term “swimming hole” is used.
My stay in Gitanmaax produced a number of personal firsts—or onlys. I first ate rabbit and bear. (Unlike rabbit, I liked bear—it resembled a strong-tasting beef roast.) I first went skating and swimming. I also rode a horse my one and only time. I suppose then was the only instance where my life had any proximity to horses.
You must only mount a horse from the left, I was told. I’ve learned that this is because horses don’t like change and aren’t particularly adaptable. Modern lore says a horse should be taught to accept riders from—as the horsey set puts it—both the “near” side and the “far” side—meaning from the left and from the right. Even that advice accepts the primacy of mounting from the left, so far as I can see.
My experience at riding was confined to riding double. I don’t know what difference it would make if I sat in the place where the saddle sits. The chief thing I remember about sitting behind the saddle is that horses, while they look fleshy and meaty and rounded out and as welcoming as a stuffed chair to sit on, are in fact all spine along that seam on the top, and that the experience of a horse’s spine bouncing against tailbone was likely one of the very good reasons folks had for inventing saddles.
In May, with my birthday, my father came to visit. I remember somebody telling me that my father had arrived during the night and that he was in the attic. I had no idea that the log cabin we lived in even had an attic, but going around to the side of the house I saw my father poking his head out of the loft, which couldn’t have been any higher than a pup tent. I suppose there wasn’t enough floor space in that well-populated cabin to house him on the main floor.
My father’s birthday present for me that year showed signs of being purchased on the run. It was three bottles of some kind of toiletries which stacked up to resemble a rocket ship. I’m not sure who the prime target would be for such an item, but not likely boys turning 10. I didn’t care. I stacked them up like a rocket ship.
Near the end of the school year, in Hazelton as in other places, they had sports day. I entered myself into the 100 yard dash, and did occasional spurts of running here and there in practice. Sports day in Hazelton was, in 1960, combined with sports day in Kispiox, and the students from Kispiox came down to Hazelton to compete with us. Kispiox is a Gitxsan community, less than 10 times north of Hazelton, which I never personally went to visit. Until sports day, it was nothing more to me than a sign at a crossroads saying that Kispiox was that way. North.
I don’t know exactly how many came down from Kispiox that day, but I remember that Hazelton students outnumbered them considerably. That is why, when they nearly-but-not-quite scored as many points as we did in the various races and events, I hardly considered that a victory. On a per person basis, those kids from Kispiox whipped us–and our overwhelming advantage in numbers was the only thing that kept that from showing.
Many years later I met someone from Kispiox who said they had a strong tradition of athleticism in her home village. I told her that I’d had personal experience of that.
As for my own race that day, I lost. I don’t think I was exactly last.
With summer, the days in Hazelton grew incredibly long. I suppose that is as far north as I’ve lived, and I never understood how long the days can grow in the north. Round about June I remember one evening the woman who was taking care of us—the mother of my companions—calling us all in to go to bed. It’s still daylight, I complained in my head, but was flabbergasted to find out that it was eleven o’clock at night.
With the long days and the end of school came my time to leave.
I pretended to cry when I left. We stood on the road outside the cabin, my father, me, and the family I was leaving, and I pretended to cry. It was a poor sort of joke, making fun of the sentimentality of parting, but it was really quite the opposite of what I was feeling. Aside from the matters I have brought up regarding my fourth grade teacher, there was really nothing wrong with staying in Gitanmaax, except that it wasn’t with my father.
I admit that one time I tried to run away. Temporarily angry, on my way back to Old Pop in Prince Rupert, I believe that I got further than 2 Mile, a little community half-way between Hazelton and New Hazelton, before my excursion ended. My geography was good enough to know the way (turn right and follow the highway down the Skeena from New Hazelton–about 175 miles) but Teddy was a little naïve about distances and the issues of solitary travel. I have no idea what prompted me to run away that time, since the principle issue memory raises against my caretaker is that she spread the butter on my sandwiches too thick. I don’t think that was it.
In fact, as a substitute home, the home in Gitanmaax was as kind and fine a place for a boy to grow up as anywhere. But always, irrevocably, my heart belonged with my father. Where he was, was my real home.
I would never cry to go with him.