Freak of Nature
By A.T. Balsara
The Toronto News Weekly
April 14, 2017
The paper industry giant, Cold Comfort, had its logging operations in northern Ontario closed today, pending an investigation into the death of photographer Edward Frickley, from environmental group ACTION NOW. The group, responsible for numerous protests and boycotts against the corporate giant for its policy of clear-cutting northern boreal forest for virgin tree pulp, is demanding a full investigation. An ACTION NOW spokesperson said, “Eddie died because corporations like Cold Comfort think they can come in and do anything they want, pay people off, take these ancient trees and make them into toilet paper. Eddie Frickley fought back. His loss is deeply felt. We hold Cold Comfort responsible, and we’re going make sure the world knows it.”
In the face of public scrutiny, Cold Comfort released the following statement: “While we are deeply saddened by the accidental death of Mr. Frickley, we remain confident of our safety record. We pride ourselves on providing jobs and industry to North America in these troubled economic times, and in our role as model corporate citizens. While the environment is one of Cold Comfort’s highest priorities, we remain committed to supplying our loyal consumers with the extraordinary affordability and quality that is uniquely Cold Comfort.”
The wheels of their car crunched up the driveway. His mom shut off the engine. For a split second, Sam thought of making a run for it, but where would he go? The house in Orangeville where he’d grown up had been sold—he had nowhere else.
He glanced over to his mom. She smiled at him, but her smile quivered at the edges. “You ready, baby?” she asked.
Three months ago, Sam’s father, Ed Frickley, had died in an accident up north. Taking photographs of a logging protest, he had stumbled into the path of an oncoming bulldozer. Sam still couldn’t believe he was gone.
Grandpa and Grandma Frickley’s house stood before him: a white clapboard house tucked into the woods near the Credit River, forest-green shutters, a bird feeder and a split-rail fence; a facade that betrayed nothing, like the face of a seasoned poker player.
The screen door opened. Grandma stood in the doorway, her thinning salt-and-pepper hair pulled back in a ponytail. In a faded tank top and shorts, she scrutinized them, lips pursed. She wasn’t the easiest person to be around. Perhaps it was from years of protesting everything from nukes to whaling, but Liz Frickley, aging hippie, was as easy-going as a case of hives.
Once, for Sam’s seventh birthday party, as his mom tied a balloon to each child’s wrist, Grandma said, “You might as well give them each a gun and tell them to shoot a sea turtle.”
“Huh?” his mother had said.
“The turtles think balloons are jellyfish,” said Grandma, now addressing the children directly. “They eat them. And then they die.”
Sam didn’t get invited to anybody’s birthday party for the next year.
“We’ll only be here a little while, baby,” murmured his mother, her eyelids fluttering to blink back tears as she undid her seat belt. Unbuckling his seat belt, he slowly opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravel driveway.
The car was crammed with boxes. Sam stood in the front hallway holding a box of books. His mom squeezed through the door with a box that dwarfed her petite frame, her face purple with effort.
“Hold on, Amy,” said Grandma. “I’ll get Bob to help you.”
“NO! No, it’s okay, I can manage,” said Sam’s mom, a hint of desperation in her voice.
Ignoring her, Grandma cupped her hands around her mouth and bellowed, “BOB!”
“I’m fine, really—”
“BOB! GET UP HERE!”
From below them a voice yelled, “Yeah, yeah, Liz. Keep your shirt on.” Footsteps clumped up from the basement.
Shooting a look of alarm at Sam, his mom stammered, “Really, Liz, I—I can do it myself…”
But before they could escape, Grandpa appeared. With a thinning beard and grey hair down to his shoulders, he looked like an Old Testament prophet in Birkenstocks. Seemingly harmless, Bob Frickley wore away at a person—a comment here, a comment there—like water bores through stone.
Sam’s earliest memory of Grandpa was of sitting at his kitchen table as he thundered on about the evils of civilization. Glaring around the table, his white, bushy eyebrows hovering over his eyes like trained caterpillars, he’d railed, “Dolphins snared in tuna nets…global warming, and oh baby, when those polar ice caps melt!” Grandpa had shaken his head and whistled long and slow, a gleam in his eye as if he were looking forward to it. It was one of many sermons Sam had received.
“Prickley” would have suited him and his wife better.
“Hello, all,” said Grandpa, taking the box from Sam’s mom and marching down stairs. Over his shoulder he shouted to Sam, “Follow me, kiddo. Your digs are down here.”
Sam’s room was plain: a few posters on the wall of ancient rock stars, a bed frame with a thin mattress, and a small closet that smelled like old socks. A damp spare bedroom/storage room that hadn’t been excavated since the ’60s. The row of stacked sagging boxes edging the room gave evidence to the fact that
Sam’s bed had recently been unearthed. His mom was staying in Dad’s old room upstairs.
“Yay,” he muttered, and plopped the box down on his bed, making the springs squawk. He hadn’t thought things could get worse.
Sam went back out to the car. As he wrestled with one box in the back seat, he heard his mother muttering as she rooted around in the trunk.
“Just a little while…we’ll only be here a little while…when I find a job, we’ll move out and—” She hauled out a box and trudged up to the house. Sam could still hear her talking. The screen door slammed behind her.
His mom’s parents were divorced, remarried, and living on the opposite side of North America. Living with them had been out of the question.
He’d overheard Grandpa Frickley asking Grandma once, why “Eddie would marry such a twit.” Maybe they didn’t approve of her because she wore make-up and dyed her hair and his grandparents’ idea of high fashion was sweaters knitted from yak hair. After his dad’s death, the three of them had driven up to the accident site in two separate cars. Sam hadn’t gone.
Suddenly tired, he leaned against the car, gazing up at the trees.
Their tops waved gently. It appeared to him as if they arched, to meet over his head. An optical illusion, he knew, but it felt almost as if they were aware of him. Dust motes floated, lingering in swathes of sunbeams that wound through the trees. As he stood there, a tingling feeling came over him—he wasn’t alone. Soft light filled the crevices, filtered through the curled leaves.
Something, or someone, was with him.
“Dad?” whispered Sam. He peered into the woods.
The house, the cars in the driveway, the problems, everything else disappeared. He could almost touch whatever it was…almost see it…
“Dad?” His heart pulsed in his temples. “Are you there?”
A lawnmower started up in the distance.
The trees pulled back. The moment was gone.
The screen door opened. His mom came out. “Who were you talking to, baby?” She hoisted out a box from the trunk, holding it out to him. Grabbing it, Sam ran up the walk and into the white clapboard house.
Ed Frickley had been a great dad. While the “Prickley” vision of the world terrified Sam, his dad’s made him fall in love with it. Under Eddie’s guidance, Sam learned the names of various songbirds, identifying them by sight and by song. Going on long hikes, his father would bring along a bag to collect the bottles, cans, and wrappers others had discarded, teaching his young son to do the same. As they went, he would show the interrelationship of plants with animals, how they all depended upon each other. If you took one thing out, the rest fell like dominoes.
When visiting his grandparents, Sam and his dad would investigate the river that ran alongside their house, searching for tadpoles, studying the intricate lace of dragonfly wings as sunlight shimmered on them, hiding out and watching for the spring’s first babies to appear, sleepy-eyed and woolly.
“You hear that, Sam?” his father would whisper. “That’s a cardinal’s song. If we look…yes! Look there…see the male? Flaming scarlet with a magnificent crest…!
“That frog you’re holding is a leopard frog. Gently! Hold him like you’re holding an egg….Those disks behind his eyes are what he hears with…they’re called ‘tympanum’…eardrums….” His dad pushed his glasses up his nose when he found something particularly amazing, chortling with glee.
Sam missed the little things his dad did the most, like always pushing up his glasses. Eddie’s glasses had never been found. And now, with his father dead, the gentle light that had filled Sam’s world had dimmed. After waiting for Sam to finish the school year, his mom had packed them up, sold the house, and driven to Port Credit to live with Grandpa and Grandma Frickley.
Dinner that evening was awful: sprouted lentils with brown rice. But that wasn’t the awful part. It was the silence. Oppressive, sticky, clinging to every bite, every movement; all Sam could hear was the sound of his own self-conscious chewing and a clock ticking on the mantel. He watched his mother peck at her food, raising her fork to her mouth in timid, quick movements, her eyes darting nervously from Grandpa on one side to Grandma on the other, like a tiny bird watching for predators.
“Any news on the investigation?” asked Grandpa.
Sam’s mom shook her head. “No. Nothing.”
“Hmmph. How many months now?”
“Damn idiots, all of them. You should make a stink about it, Amy, not sit here chewing your cud like some prize cow—”
Amy’s sudden glare stopped Grandpa’s tirade. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. They ate in silence.
The food stuck in Sam’s throat.
He realized Grandma was staring. “Something wrong with the food?” Her ice-blue eyes bore into him. Sam blushed and hurriedly jammed a bite into his mouth, but it wasn’t enough to stop what came hurtling down the rails like a freight train.
“You’ve got to pardon the kid, Liz,” started Grandpa. “If it doesn’t come out of a plastic wrapper and a box, he doesn’t know what to make of it.” Jabbing his fork at Sam’s plate, Grandpa stabbed a lentil and waved it under Sam’s nose. He said, “It’s called food, kiddo, real food.”
“I know—” said Sam.
“He eats real food, Bob,” snapped Amy.
Grandpa snorted. “Pop-Tarts and pizza do not constitute the diet needed for—”
“Stay out of it, baby. He doesn’t eat Pop-Tarts and pizza! Well okay, sometimes, but—”
“Yes,” interjected Grandma, “they do taste great, but sadly, Amy, they’re not actually food!”
“Would you all just shut up!” yelled Sam. The three adults gaped at him. Smacking his fork to the table,
Sam wrenched his chair back and stood up. Pushing open the screen door, he stepped into the summer dusk, his heart thumping in his ears. Bits of conversation trailed behind him.
“Almost stopped my frigging heart…”
“Eddie never mouthed-off like…”
Sam escaped out of earshot and sat on a stump, his head in his hands.
He felt hollowed out; like someone had taken a knife and scraped out his insides. As he sat slumped over, a memory of Eddie came to him. Whenever his father passed a tree, his fingertips would brush gently against its bark. Sam once asked him why. His father had said, “It’s because…because I feel them.” Gazing into Sam’s eyes, his own clear and deep as a mountain lake through his round John Lennon glasses, he’d said,
“I feel their life, Sam.”
Sam felt a sudden spark in the air, a buzz, just like he had earlier. Something was there. Something was around him, surging through him, filling him, from the forest, from the stump whose still-living base grew tender shoots.
“Dad?” Suddenly the image of a bulldozer bearing down on his father flashed through Sam’s brain. He jumped up, staggering back. The trees leaned over him, reached for him. Sam bolted back to his grandparents’ house and ran down the stairs.
Back in his room, Sam fumbled for the light switch, finally finding it. The naked light bulb burned overhead. Sitting on his bed, Sam ran his fingers through his hair, taking deep gulps of air. He looked around the room with its puke-green walls. Jimi Hendrix stared at him narrow-eyed from a poster. Sam ripped it down.
At the memorial service everybody had said all the right things. They’d called his dad a “Hero,” a “Man With Vision.” The head of ACTION NOW had approached Sam, his eyebrows knit together with concern and care, eyes brimming with tears. But Sam knew it was crap. They’d gotten what they’d wanted. Their precious trees had been spared. They had all the free publicity they could ask for—a godsend really, all courtesy of Eddie Frickley. Sam had turned on his heel and strode away. He’d sat in the car for the rest of the reception. His mom tried to coax him out, but in the end she’d been forced to leave him and go back in.
Sam’s eyes fell upon one of the boxes stacked along the wall. Sagging under another box, this one had a lone “E” written on the side.
Pushing aside the one on top, he hefted the box over to the bed and opened the flaps. His dad’s photography gear was jumbled inside: a couple of cameras, lens caps, a tripod, and miscellaneous photographs.
On the very bottom of the box, Sam found a photo he’d never seen before.
Standing next to an enormous tree, his father looked like a sasquatch that had just walked out of the woods, unshaven, grimy, smiling a smile bigger than the northern sky. The only things in the photo that brought Eddie Frickley into the modern age were those glasses, round circles glinting in the sun, perched on the end of his nose, waiting to be pushed up yet again. The “man of vision” had been buried without them when they couldn’t be found. One of life’s little jokes.
Sam remembered the day his father died…the police officers at the door. “…a freak accident…bulldozer tipped over…crushed him…died instantly…”
Grief that seemed bottomless rushed up at him. His father had died for a tree. A stupid, useless tree.
Shouting, Sam crumpled up the photo and threw the box against the wall where it crashed on its side, scattering camera gear across the floor.
Hot tears filled his eyes as he sat blinking stupidly on the bed.
Over the next few days, uneasiness wrapped itself around the Frickley household.
Every morning Grandpa hunched in front of his computer screen, probing every corner and cranny of the Web, and when he found an update on the investigation he’d bellow it out like the town crier while they ate breakfast: “COURT ORDERS FURTHER SUSPENSION OF LOGGING WHILE CORPORATE ENVIRONMENTAL RECORD PROBED.”
After every headline, Grandma would add in her own commentary. “It’s about time they hauled in those idiots and probed them further…”
Grandpa: “CORPORATE GIANT COLD COMFORT’S SALES DIP AS CONSUMER OUTRAGE GROWS”
Grandma: “What? People don’t want to wipe their arses with toilet paper made from ancient, irreplaceable boreal forest? What is the world coming to?”
Grandpa: (cackling) “ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS DEMAND MORATORIUM ON BOREAL CLEAR CUTTING. ACTION NOW LEADING THE CHARGE.”
And so on.
Amy would grip her coffee cup, circling want ads with grim determination. Sam would retreat to his room.
Evenings were no better.
At the Frickley house dinners were quiet, strangulating affairs, until one evening. Sam’s mom poked nervously at her food. “I’ve been thinking.” Grandpa looked at her, his eyebrows raised. “I…I want to go back up,” she said. “Up where Eddie…you know.”
The mention of his name sent a ripple through the air. The food in Sam’s mouth turned to sawdust.
Grandpa sat back, chewing his mouthful thoughtfully, nodding. “Hmm.”
Grandma breathed out slowly. “Oh. Would we even be allowed?”
His mom looked back and forth between them. “I don’t see why not. The site’s been investigated already, so…so maybe we could have a little memorial or something–”
The rage that turned Sam’s gut spewed to the surface. He smashed his fist on the table and leaped to his feet, sending his chair flying backwards. “NO! NO! I’m NOT doing it!”
His grandpa gasped, clutching his chest. “You gotta stop doing that, kiddo.”
“What did you say?” asked Amy. She stared at Sam, her face pale.
“He’s GONE,” Sam shouted, his lips quivering. “DEAD! Because of those stupid trees. I’m not going up there. As far as I’m concerned, they can chop them all down!”
For once the Prickleys were speechless.
Amy’s eyes grew wide. A vein pulsed in her forehead. “Is that right?” she said, her voice low.
“Yeah, that’s right. He died for NOTHING! NOTHING!”
His mother grabbed his arm, steered him to the front door. “Get in the car. Now.” Over her shoulder she shouted to Sam’s grandparents, “You too!”
Eddie Frickley’s family was on its way to the boreal forest up Highway 69; the tension was so thick you could’ve served it in slabs.
After Sam’s outburst, his mother hadn’t said a word. She gripped the steering wheel, her jaw jutting out.
Grandpa sat in the passenger seat, a map in his lap, watching the road. He had been silent since they left home. Grandma sat in the second seat with Sam, but stared out the window with vacant eyes.
“Mom,” Sam said, “I—”
“Quiet!” she snapped. Grandpa said nothing. Grandma looked like she hadn’t even heard.
The car hobbled its way along the logging road toward the accident site. Trees as big around as their car dwarfed the road. Sam felt like an ant crawling through the feet of giants. Finally, they came to it, a shred of yellow police tape still flapping from a broken stump. Carved into the side of the ancient forest was a bald patch of clear cut. Trees the size of skyscrapers ringed the lunar landscape of upended tree trunks, gouged earth, and tree stumps as numerous as tombstones in a cemetery. At the far end of the ring another swathe of police tape.
One by one they got out of the car. All except Sam. Tears ran down his cheeks.
His car door opened. “Come on, baby.” His mother’s cheeks were wet too. She held out her hand to him.
“We’ll do this together.” He stared at her hand for a moment, watched his own hand reach for it, clasp it tight.
Hand in hand, they walked the perimeter of Eddie’s last stand. The police tape far ahead of them fluttered in the breeze. Where he died. On one side where the bulldozers and chainsaws had stopped, the ancient forest stretched high overhead. On the other, tufts of grass already sprouted, healing the wounded earth. A few clusters of deep blue wild flowers were sprinkled across the clear cut, sparkling cerulean blue when the sun winked through the clouds.
Amy squeezed Sam’s hand. He nodded, his throat tight. Grandma and Grandpa walked behind them, drawn to the same point of fluttering yellow, holding hands as they gazed upwards at the mammoth trees.
All around Sam, the tingling feeling that had overwhelmed him in his grandparents’ backyard now lit through his limbs, lifted his hair from his sweaty forehead, filled his lungs. I feel their life…
On the far end they reached the ribbon of police tape. People had left notes, bouquets of flowers, even a few teddy bears, heaped at the base of the biggest tree Sam had ever seen. He brushed his fingers on the tree’s cool trunk and leaned his forehead against it. Life buzzed around him. Cicadas whirring, songbirds, squirrels scolding. Beneath his forehead, the slow, timeless surge of life.
A shaft of sun pierced the clouds, glinting off something that poked out from under a teddy bear on the makeshift memorial. Sam crouched down and lifted up the bear. Round clear circles flashed in the full sun. His father’s glasses.
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About A.T. Balsara
I am a children’s author and illustrator, and a hopeless optimist about the goodness in people…especially in children! My stories and art reflect my belief that we are all ONE (yes…you too!) and that no matter where we’ve come from, we are linked together.
The characters and critters that inhabit my stories get put through all sorts of mishaps and adventures. By the end of it, as they emerge blinking in the sun after the long night, they decide that life is good. They may be weary and lucky to be alive (thanks to me) but they are able to see that the sun still shines, and that the stars are always there, even when you can’t see them.
My stories and art come from questions I have, or ideas I want to explore…kind of like digging for buried treasure. I write between genres, and for different age groups (from picture books to young adult), and even switch between illustrating and writing. I believe We ALL have our own treasury of ideas and possibilities, that there is no limit to who we (YOU) can become. It is my hope that as you read my stories you will feel the excitement that comes when you reach for the stars!
Check out A.T.'s website