Saira’s nose was buried deep in her book when the lady began tapping her shoulder like a woodpecker drumming against a tree trunk.
“Excuse me, dear — are you Saira Amara Lapierre?” asked the airline agent, her square face folding into a frown. “We’ve been calling you for ages now! Your flight to Comox is leaving.”
Saira yanked off her headphones and glanced up from her book, Great Animal Spirits of the Pacific Northwest. “Huh?” she said. The beats of Reik, a Mexican trio shared by her best friend Nakawe, came blaring out. “Ugh! I totally didn’t hear!”
Racing onto the plane, her backpack bumping up and down on her tiny frame, Saira felt her face burning up. By twelve years old, she’d already been on more planes than most people her parents’ age. Now she felt silly. Embarrassed, really. She felt everyone aboard watching as she weaved down the aisle like a salmon frantically swimming upstream.
Safely out of sight and buckled in, Saira closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. She began nibbling at her fingernails. Ok, so it was her first time traveling alone. Her mom or dad usually told her when it was time to board. It wasn’t entirely her fault. But imagine if she’d have missed the plane? What would her Grandpapa think? Saira didn’t know him all that well. It had been years since they last saw each other. But she wasn’t a kid anymore and she’d be staying with him for two whole weeks. Missing the plane wouldn’t be the best start of her trip to Vancouver Island.
Pulling out her phone, she saw two unread messages. One from Nakawe: Sooo jealous!!! TMWU chica
The other from her mom: Safe travels, sweetie. Say hi to Grandpapa and see you soon. We love you. xo Mom and Dad
Saira giggled silently at Nakawe’s text. “TMWU” was what Nakawe had started texting when Saira and her mom left Mexico to return to Canada two years ago. She quickly messaged back: Don’t worry, Nak, I’ll send mucho pics!
Saira began biting the side of her lip as she stared back at her mom’s text. Delete.
Across the aisle came a roar of laughter. There were two kids, around Saira’s age, and a man and woman, likely their mom and dad. The mom was pretending to be mad. One of the kids gave her a tickle, then they all burst out laughing. Saira swallowed hard and turned away.
The steward’s voice came on over the intercom. Saira normally loved this moment. She’d be nestled in her seat, a parent on each side, about to trade in one adventure for another. This time though, the sound of the safety instructions was twisting the divorce knot in her belly even deeper. She told her counsellor she thought knots were supposed to be good; that they kept things tight and together. Now she realized knots could also mean tough and hard to undo. Saira pulled her headphones over her ears and reached down for her book.
On the inside cover was a handwritten note: May the animal spirit live on in us all. She ran her fingers back and forth over the inscription. It was signed Grandpapa with the name Rinaldo Acosta, Ph.D typed below. It was funny to read a book written by someone she knew, let alone her mom’s dad. And even though it was a young person’s guidebook on symbols, it made Saira feel very grown-up to be reading something written by “a Ph.D”.
“That means he’s a doctor,” her dad had explained. Ren became Rinaldo’s nickname after his family migrated to Canada from Portugal. He was just a young boy.
Saira was sitting in the back seat of her parents’ Volkswagen van when he said this. They were headed to the airport. The book was her going-away present.
“He is not a medical doctor, Greg,” her mom snapped, shooting Saira’s dad a sharp glare across the console. “He’s an expert in anthropology — cultural anthropology,” she continued spitting out the ‘c’ like it was a bitter tasting berry.
Saira understood what anthropology was. Both her parents were anthropologists too. It meant they studied people and cultures.
Grandpapa was a really big deal in that world. When Saira googled his name, tons of results popped up. He had been a professor at Columbia University in New York City. That’s where he met his wife, Saira’s grandma. She knew basically nothing about her grandma other than she got very sick, then her and Grandpapa moved back to Vancouver Island, where she was from.
“Grandpapa studied the hidden meanings in objects, animals, dances and songs…even art and magic,” Saira’s mom explained one day. “He used these meanings and beliefs to help people when they were sick.”
This confused Saira. Whenever she got sick, her mom gave her medicine, like aspirins or that terrible purple cough syrup that made her gag.
“Any questions you have, you can ask Grandpapa,” her mom said in her telephone voice. This was the tone she used when she was upset or talking with strangers.
Saira snapped out of her daydream. The plane was positioning itself on the runway. She picked up her book and turned to the page where she’d left off. A single red envelope slipped onto her lap. Another letter from Mom, she thought.
Red was her mom’s favourite colour. “It means life and sacrifice”, she used to say. Saira didn’t see how a colour could mean these things. Saira reached down to grab the envelope. Her mom often tucked small notes or little trinkets, like colourful rocks or shiny feathers, in her daughter’s backpack, lunch bag or jacket pocket. She even made her own stationary with different animal crests sketched along the bottom. Saira loved seeing her mom’s designs. But even that wasn’t enough to make her open the envelope.
I will not let them divorce, she promised herself. I don’t know how, but I just won’t let it happen, she repeated stuffing the unopened letter back into her bag.
The pilot’s voice came on over the intercom. Saira’s throat tightened and her eyes started to hurt, like a volcano ready to erupt. The plane engines began to whirr, sending vibrations up into her stomach. She pressed her long black ponytail back into the headrest and pushed her fist deeper into the growing knot in her belly. As she closed her eyes, the plane took off with a sudden jolt into the pale blue Montreal skyline, the contrails behind them fading like a two-headed snake swirling in the wind.
Saira barely recognized Grandpapa as she walked through the automatic doors at the Comox airport. His face had thinned and paled and his nose was much longer and pointier than she remembered. It was starting to curve downwards, like a bird’s beak. His black hair, once thick and nicely coifed, now fell over his forehead like limp straw. His belly was also much bigger and bulged over this black cargo pants like an over-inflated balloon. If it weren’t for his black bucket hat with the rainbow sash, now faded from the sun, Saira might have walked straight past him.
He whipped off his horn-rimmed glasses and tilted his hat up. “There you are, my little traveller!” he cried. His voice was raspy. Little traveller was Grandpapa’s nickname for Saira. But it was also an Arabic meaning of her name. She was born in Syria's capital, Damascus, before the war broke out. Her parents were both working there when they had fallen in love — with each other and the language.
“Give me a hug, kiddo,” Grandpapa said, leaning down to wrap his lanky arms around her. He stumbled forward a moment before catching his balance. “Woooah, gosh these old bones! Or maybe it’s my belly? Haha! Not what I used to be, eh?” he continued with a throaty cough as he gave his stomach a couple of hardy pats.
Saira remembered the last time she had seen it Grandpapa. It was four or five years ago. All she remembered was walking along a trail in Qualicum beach, about an hour’s drive from Grandpapa’s place in Comox. It was cloudy that day and there was a large white raven flying overhead. Just as Saira went to pick some blackberries, the raven swooped down right in front of her and snapped up a small frog. She could have sworn the raven looked her straight on that day.
Grandpapa seemed very excited when she told him what happened. “Lots of mythical meaning in there,” he said with a mischievous grin.
Saira didn’t know what mythical meant, but she guessed it must be a good thing judging by his excitement.
“How’s my favourite granddaughter?” Grandpapa asked, reaching around to take Saira’s backpack. She smiled and rolled her eyes. She was his only grandchild. “Come on, let’s get the rest of your bags and head off. I’ve got a beautiful salmon ready to grill!”
“Oh, yes!” said Saira rubbing her belly. She loved how Grandpapa prepared the salmon. It was her grandma’s recipe, apparently. It was one of only three other things she knew about her: she was an incredible cook; she nearly died when she was a baby from eating some wild flower; and when she did pass away, many decades later, it was from an unknown sickness.
Grandpapa glanced over at Saira as he pulled his white truck out of the airport parking lot. “I’m sorry to hear about what’s happening at home,” he said. His hazel eyes looked much darker than she remembered, almost black. “That’s part of life though, kiddo. People grow — together or apart.”
“Meh. Whatever. It’s ok,” replied Saira, fiddling with the purple friendship bracelet around her wrist. It was a gift from Nakawe. She’d given it to her before she and her mom left Mexico to join her dad back in Montreal. Saira hadn’t taken it off since. Purple was her favourite colour. Her mom said it meant power and magic.
Grandpapa rolled the windows down, letting the West Coast breeze rush in. A familiar blend of fir, cedar and algae filled Saira’s nostrils. She felt happy to be there. Ever since they had moved back to Montreal, two years ago, her parents were constantly arguing. “You need to be honest with me, Alice. You’re searching for something…a sense of belonging…identity…I don’t know what it is.” This was all she heard her dad say through the muffled bedroom walls. It was their last fight before they told her: “This has nothing to do with you. We love you and we are still your parents. But families can change and evolve.”
Saira was not interested in her family changing. Why couldn’t they just make up? She felt like it was her mom’s fault. She was the one who had all this energy. She was like a little hummingbird who wanted to travel the world, sampling the nectars from different cultures. Saira’s dad was, in his own words, “tired of the constant up and go”. He was perfectly happy to stay in Montreal and continue teaching at McGill University. Rounding the traffic circle, Saira snapped out of her thoughts.
“Grandpapa, wait!” she said, pointing to an enormous totem pole towering from inside the grassy median. “This looks just like the one in your book.”
“Impressive, my little traveller!” he chuckled. “You’re right. That’s a totem pole from the 1940s. That’s back when I was just a few years old. Practically ancient, isn’t it?” He veered away from the traffic circle and headed down a leafy side street towards Filberg Park. “You might not remember, but you’ll see lots of these poles around town…some are new, some are old. Remember, we’re on Puntledge land here.”
“Pun-wha?” asked Saira, “I don’t really remember. What’s that?”
“PUNT-ledge,” Grandpapa pronounced slowly. “It’s the name of the Vancouver Island Northern Salish people. Remember, there are three different tribal regions here: Coast Salish, where we are; the Nuu-chah-nulth on the west side; and Kwakiutl, just north of us. The First Nations were here first. Though we didn’t call them First Nations back then. That was waaaaay before any white folk came around. Those white folks were called the settler population. They came to the Comox Valley in 1862. That’s nearly over 160 years ago! But the indigenous people had been here for some 8,000 years before that… We, settlers, changed everything pretty much. Yah… did a lot of bad things…” he continued, his voice trailing off as he turned down a small gravel road. “We’ll have lots of time to talk about all this over the next couple weeks. I can see you still have your inquisitive spirit!”
Saira was intrigued. She had learned a bit about the First Nations in her grade six social studies class. She knew there were different groups that lived across the country and some still lived on special areas they called reserves. They also seemed to be very attached to their land, nature and animals — all things Saira loved too. She wanted to learn more about these people. Maybe I’ll even get to meet some of them, she thought with excitement.
“We’re here,” said Grandpapa, pulling down the tree-lined driveway towards the back of the house. Slivers of the early evening sun trickled down through the branches, tap-dancing their way across the window shield. “Welcome to my little nest, kiddo!”
Saira looked around. His place was hardly little. The backyard was practically a forest of towering red and yellow cedars. They were surrounded by sprawling ferns, elder berry bushes and wild lily of the valley. One cedar was unusually tall. Its entire trunk radiated a gorgeous golden colour. The light cast shimmering halos above its branches, while the needles seemed to glow in rich yellow and green hues. A couple of the branches curved down nearer to the ground. They arched together as if waiting to whisper a secret to a passerby or lean in for a gentle hug. Around the base of the golden cedar were a bunch of ripe blackberry and Oregon grapes bushes. Saira made a mental note she’d come back later for some berries.
Behind the trees and off to the right, she could see what looked like Grandpapa’s garden. It was so jumbled and overgrown, she wondered if anything edible was actually growing in there. A heaping pile of soil sat off to the side. Wildflowers and weeds were sprouting up everywhere between there and the garden shed whose roof was starting to sag like a wet cardboard box. What was left of the olive-green paint was now started to curl and peel off like the shaved bark of an aging tree.
Around the front yard, Grandpapa’s two-storey house overlooked the bay. The front porch, with its large swing and wooden table, looked so calm and inviting in the evening light. Saira loved being near the water and was starting to feel excited about exploring the area. As she walked up towards the house though, she got this unsettling sensation that someone – or something – was watching her every step from the treetops above.
Saira stretched out across the porch swing after supper. Her stomach was ready to explode. They’d eaten barbecued pacific salmon, fry bread, sautéed seaweed salad and fresh salal berry ice-cream. Off into the distance, on her left, she could see Goose Spit Park. Families were out having a picnic along the shore and kayakers on the water just beyond the wharf dock. Mack Laing Nature Park was behind her where she could hear the faint chorus of crickets and the odd yelp from dogs out on their evening walks. And, directly in front of her, was the Comox Bay. It was glimmering like a freshly cleaned pane of glass. Across the bay was the small seaside community of Royston. She could see the outline of homes and the Shipwrecks pocking out of the water, just beyond the shoreline. Behind them, up to the right, was Queneesh glacier. Its perfectly white snowcaps sparkled under the final moments of the day’s sun. Grandpapa told her the creation story of how it formed, over supper. Saira loved hearing about how the Indigenous people were saved from a relentless flood by a great white whale named Queneesh. It was weird that her mom never spoke of these legends, especially since she grew up here.
“Kiddo,” said Grandpapa, his voice cawing through the kitchen window. “Don’t forget to let your mom and dad know you arrived. It’s late over there now and you know how anxious your mom gets when she doesn’t hear from you…”
Saira inched off the bench. “Sure, Grandpapa.” She wandered over to the door where she’d left her backpack, right next to her Converse sneakers, and sent off a quick text to her mom: Arrived. Had salmon 4 supper
Suddenly, a loud thud came from the back of the house. Saira jumped. What was that? Grandpapa was way over in the kitchen, wasn’t he?
“Hello?” said Saira, squeaking towards the noise. A slice of light stretched out from a room at the end of the hall. The door was slightly ajar and Saira could see the outline of cardboard boxes lined up against the walls. Some were open, their flaps agape. Others were firmly stacked.
“Is there… is anyone there?”
“Hey!” said a man throwing the door open and hopping out. A long piece of black duck-tape dangled from his elbow. He was short with piercing brown eyes, an olive complexion and long jet-black hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. His smile seemed familiar.
“Didn’t mean to scare you? Sorry ‘bout that. Dropped a few books in here,” he said slamming the cap down on a felt pen and extending his right hand. “I’m Tooan-tuh, your Grandpapa’s helper. You can call me Tooan,” he continued. “I guess he didn’t tell you I was here, did he?”
Saira shook her head. Her could feel her face growing hot. But what was she expecting? A burglar? This was hardly a place where crimes were around every corner. One of the safest places in the world, her mom often said.
“Just finishing up,” Tooan said swiping a few loose strands of hair from his face. He looked to be about her parents’ age and had a faint scar that cut through his left eyebrow. Behind him was a box labeled Animal Spirits. “Interested in mythology? Animals? Or maybe both,” he asked, following Saira’s gaze.
“Both, I guess,” said Saira. “I mean, both my parents are anthropologists and we’ve lived around the world… I’ve heard a lot about spirits. I totally love animals. I actually think I get along better with animals than humans,” she continued, before realizing she was rambling in front of a complete stranger.
“Exactly the same way,” said Tooan, tapping his chest. “What’s your favourite?”
“Animal? Frogs of course!” she replied. “I love how different they are all around the world. Did you know there are nearly 5,000 different frog species? I had a pet tree frog when we lived in Mexico. My friend Nakawe and I found him in the forest. But then he ran away, just before we moved. I never had the chance to say goodbye…”
“Saira?” called Grandpapa from down the hall. “There you are. I guess you two have met then?” he said from the doorway, shooting Tooan a tight smile. “That’ll be enough for tonight, Tooan. Saira, it’s late, my little traveller. Time to get ready for bed, then we can take our trip around the world.”
As they turned to leave the room, Saira’s shoulder brushed up against a long cord nailed to the wall. At the end was a lone golden key that sparkled as she walked by.
Global hopscotch was one of Saira’s favourite games of all time. She’d played it with Grandpapa every time they were together. After randomly choosing a place from his enormous atlas, he would then tell her a story about the people, culture or myths from that place. He had been to so many far-off lands that it was hard to find somewhere he didn’t actually know. He had more artifacts than Sarai had ever seen outside a museum. She loved hearing the tales of where these objects came from, what they were used for and who used them.
Sarai plopped herself down onto the living room sofa and nestled herself under an old wooly Chilkat blanket. She heaved the atlas off the coffee table and stretched the book covers open wide. When she opened her eyes, her chewed up fingernail was pointed straight atop northern Brazil.
“Excelente!” said Grandpapa, in a pretend Portugese accent. He pushed himself up off the couch. “Venha,” he continued, indicating for Saira to follow.
They walked past the stacked boxes in the hallway towards the room opposite where she’d met Tooan. This was Grandpapa’s office. He pulled out a small key from his side pocket and unlocked the door. Saira felt a tinge of excitement as the door hinges quietly creaked open. She’d only been in once before and entering this room was like walking into an entirely new world. A warm, pungent smell of sweetgrass, sage, tobacco and dust bunnies tickled her nose. The air felt hot and thick. There was just enough light streaming in from the hall to see the outline of a towering glass cabinet, a couple of wooden bookshelves and a giant desk overlooking his garden. Grandpapa switched on a floor lamp with the click of his foot. Saira looked carefully around the room. Her gaze finally rested at his desk. What a disaster! Heaps of crumpled papers, tattered old books, mounds of different coloured notepads, an assortment of pens, a desk light and a single bronze paper weight were all thrown across the top. The windows above his desk were covered with long and wrinkly sun-bleached, brown, linen curtains. Saira walked over to the cabinet and with her fingers smeared away lines of dust coating the glass. Inside were some tiny colourful wooden masks, a couple of bronze figurines and various sizes of brown and black leather-bound books. Grandpapa tugged the cabinet door open and took out a small, red pouch from behind an unidentifiable carved wooden disk.
“Here, my little traveller,” he said, pushing his glasses up. He delicately opened the satchel, his fingers trembling slightly. “I know you learned a bit of Spanish when you lived in Mexico. The name of these is very similar in Portuguese…”
He turned the bag upside down and gave it a couple of shakes. Out fell a small polished stone. It had a smooth and glossy black finish and was about five centimetres long. It was curved like a baby snake with two heads and had a small hole drilled through one end with a long and heavily frayed piece of brown leather string.
“This here is a pedra encantada — that’s Portuguese — or piedra encantada in Spanish,” he continued, emphasizing the “i”. His face took on a strange glow.
Sarai put one hand out to touch the cold, glassy surface and paused. “Umm…enchanted stone?” she asked, twiddling a strand of hair.
“Good!” he laughed. “When I was working with the Yagua shamans in the Upper Amazon — that’s in Brazil — they gave me this, and a few other rocks, as souvenirs. You wear it like this,” he continued, wrapping the leather strap around Sarai’s neck. “The leather is a bit old now so you might want to keep it in this medicine pouch instead. The pouch is traditionally from our Native American neighbours, down south.”
Sarai’s mouth went round like a saucer and a small chill crept up her back. “Cool! Is the stone magic? Like, does it have… special powers?”
“Course not,” he answered in delight. “The spirits have long since left…probably moved on to other stones. This one is unique though, because of its shape and colour,” he said tracing his finger along the curled stone.
He paused for a few seconds, lost in thought.
“I’m getting on in years now. I’m going through my stuff and, well, now it’s yours. You can tell all your friends back in Montreal that you have yourself a genuine pedra encantada!” he continued, gently leading her out of the office. “Ok, my little traveller, hop to it! It’s getting late. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow.”
Before Sarai crawled into bed, she sent Nakawe a text and picture of her new stone: Check it out, Nak! Got magic rock from Grandpapa!! Do you know these? I want to wake the spirits!!
After sending the message, she realized Nakawe would probably feel jealous. But at the same time, she was pretty sure Nakawe might know about these rocks. She was a Yaqui, born and raised in a village outside Mazamitla, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. Her people believed in the existence of many different worlds.
That night, Saira tossed and turned in bed. She kicked the covers and rearranged the pillows countless times. She couldn’t stop thinking about her parents’ divorce and the magic stone. What if…what…if? What if these spirits could help me? She began rubbing it softly as her mind raced. The lump in her throat grew tighter. How can I get them to stay together?
Laying there in the dark, she remembered it was the first time she’d been alone at Grandpapa’s without her parents. She pulled the duvet up snug around her neck and grabbed the stone off the bedside table clutching it in her palms. Spirits are you there? You can’t just disappear…I will get this magic stone to work.
Outside the sound of the wind blowing through the tall cedar trees grew louder. Saira clenched her eyelids shut and after a couple hours finally drifted off into a deep slumber, the stone falling gently from her fingers onto the cedar floorboards below.