He is sitting back in his chair, and suddenly he looks impossibly frail. He seems as light as a paper kite, as though he might suddenly just rise up and float out the window. He is not the figure I remember from my childhood. He is not the man who slammed the back of my skull against the kitchen wall, who abandoned me in the waiting rooms of government offices, nor who threatened to choke the life from me with his strong bare hands. He is not the man whose anger became a terrible shadow mushrooming up the gold veined wallpaper of my childhood bedroom wall. It is impossible to believe now that he was ever the bringer of all those storms, those thunder clouds the colour of bruises and depression that darkened for years and years the skies of my world.
He settles back in the overstuffed green velvet chair. He seems so small and pale in the late afternoon underwater light. He seems like a child who has been sent to sit alone in the corner and ponder some mysterious offense he cannot begin to fathom. I sit there spellbound by the words that come from his mouth. I cannot take my eyes from his face.
“It must have been fifty years ago, now. Long before you were born. I worked on the Antelope copper mine then, back in Luanshya in Northern Rhodesia, what they call Zambia now. Your mother was back in Ndola, twenty-five miles away. She was there with your brothers and sisters. She worried about me all the time. There were plenty of accidents underground in those days, and she would read about them in the newspaper. I never told her about any of them, but she would always find out and then she would worry. Every Friday night, I would take the train from Luanshya to Ndola so I could be with my family. The others from the mine would all go drinking in the bar, but I always wanted to be with my family. I always took the train that left at ten o’clock at night.
“Well, one Friday night I was late getting to the train, and I missed it. It never even crossed my mind not to go home. I just started walking down the road, twenty-four or maybe twenty-five miles. It didn’t matter to me. It must have been a full moon that night, because it was bright enough to read a newspaper by. It was a long straight road, freshly paved with black tarmac. On both sides there was thick forest, and I could hear the sounds of things moving around in there. Back in those days, in that part of the country, there were plenty of leopards. There were so many leopards, they were classed as vermin, and there was a reward for shooting them and bringing in the skins. There were lots of stories of these leopards dropping onto people from the branches of trees. I could hear them moving around in the trees, but I stayed in the middle of the road and tried not to think about them. If I don’t bother them, I thought, they won’t bother me. And that was true, because I made it home okay. I got to Ndola at daybreak, maybe five or six o’clock in the morning. My feet were blistered and bleeding from my boots. Your mother was standing in the living room window. She had been up all night, worried sick about me. It was good to be home that day.”
After he told this story, my eighty-four-year-old father got up from his chair and went to the fridge to get a chocolate bar that he had bought for my eight-year-old daughter. As the afternoon turned into evening, we sat in his Chilliwack apartment, listening to his stories about man-eating sharks, shipwrecks, depth charges off the coast of Malta, and political intrigue in the British War Department. My daughter sat on his knee, eager for more bloodthirsty details. She showed him how to knit with a spool made from a toilet paper roll. With a length of rope, He showed her the complicated knots he had learned in his seafaring days: the bowline, the sheep shank, and the monkey’s fist. I sat there thinking about the mysterious ways that things somehow hold together.