Friday, 30 November 2018


These are stories of the life and work of a park interpreter (park naturalist) in British Columbia. They evolved from the Interpreter Stories, which I posted in what was mostly a nature blog (Rock Paper Lizard), back when, well, blogs.  The earliest Interpreter Stories were short and spare, more vignette than story, and were stand-alones, featuring an anonymous protagonist.  

Readers wrote of those:

L: "Got stuck, for hours, reading the interpreters stories, which was the next best thing to any bestsellers!" 
CS: "Poor, poor interpreter...our hearts bleed...while we chuckle, chuckle, chuckle!"
TM: "Marvelous! Simply marvelous!"
BB: "I love your interpreter stories.  They are so funny, and often a bit sad, too."
AD: "I read the first sentence and thought 'goody goody, another interpreter story.'  I really enjoy the interpreter stories."
DC: "If you ever publish the interpreter stories in book format, please do let me know."
TM: "I love the interpreter stories!"
SL: "I love these stories."
NS: "My officemate thinks I'm insane and given to fits of unprovoked laughter.  But how bittersweet."
CT: "I keep meaning to tell you I love these interpreter stories.  Keep it up!"
KH: "I feel I've made this wonderful discovery-the interpreter stories!"

At some point the stories became a serial of increasingly longer episodes that wandered away from the original idea. The interpreter began to have a life, a partner, perhaps even a future. I removed those stories from the blog, but felt that after being reworked they deserved a new home. New versions of some are posted here. They can be read as individual stories, but are linked by character and circumstance.

These stories are of suitable length for reading while riding public transit, hiding in the supply room at lunch, or cowering in a bunker, remembering when small, personal problems were what kept us awake at night.

Thank you for visiting. I hope your commute is tolerable, your lunch pleasant, your bunker cozy, and that you are sleeping okay.


(Publishing dates were altered to create a desired sequence.) 


Tuesday, 6 November 2018


Dan was on his knees, reaching to lower the trap next to the boardwalk.  Satisfied with its placement, he stood up, used a tissue to wipe orange powder from his fingers, balled up the tissue and tossed it toward a trash can, missing by a mile. Before he could retrieve it, a woman spoke.


He turned around. It was the tree woman. Leanne? Lenore? Eleanor? 

He said, “The park has rats-a-plenty, thanks to the bird feeders.”  There were bird-feeding stations, leaking seeds, spaced along the boardwalk that ringed the pond.  It would be harder to devise a rat-friendlier arrangement.

“I’m Ellen Kelsey,” said the tree woman, “from Onondaga College.”  

He said, “I remember you from last year.   I’m Dan.”   As proof, he wore a white plastic nametag, which said:

Park Interpreter

Ellen stepped aside to introduce two young people behind her. She said, “These are my students, Brandon, and Melissa.” Brandon was roundish with red-framed glasses and short spiky hair. He was holding tree calipers with orange plastic jaws. Melissa was pale and thin with long sandy hair parted in the middle. She held a narrow-gauge, blue metal tube, which Dan recognized as a tree-corer.  “They’ve chosen to do their honours independent projects in dendrochronology,” said Ellen.  

“Good choice,” said Dan. “It’s helpful to know how old your trees are.”

Melissa smiled, a bit.

Ellen asked, “What do you use?  Warfarin?”

“I beg your pardon?”  

“The poison.” She pointed at the trap.

“Oh,” he said. “No, not that.  Something else, orange stuff.”   

“An anti-coagulant?”

“And more.”

“It’s an icky way to die.”

“Yes, and not my idea,” said Dan.  He changed the subject. “Where are you planning on working?”

She extracted and unfolded a photocopied map from a deep, inner pocket of her raincoat, and said, “There’s a relatively recent burn somewhere along the middle loop. She held the map for Dan to see.  The burned area was indicated by an irregular polygon, shaded grey.

Dan knew of the burn, its exact location, and that it wasn’t recent.  He said, “That fire was twenty-five or thirty years ago.  It’s all grown back.”

“That’s why we’re taking a look at it. The survivors are now mature trees. We can see how the fire affected their growth.”

Dan imagined blackened, slender trunks amid clearing smoke. Some would die, some would live on. There was a story in that.

“Care to join us?”

He had nothing pressing to do. He could save lying to the park supervisor for later. 

As they stepped from the boardwalk onto the bark-mulch of the loop trail, Ellen asked, “How long have rats been a problem?”

Dan was tempted to say, “Since the dawn of time,”  or, “as long as we have,”  but instead said, “Here?  If we got rid of the bird feeders, they would mostly disappear.  They ‘re really not much of an issue in my opinion, not worth the trouble of poisoning.”  In addition to the slow cruelty of rodenticide on its target species, Dan worried that the poison might enter the food chain and harm raccoons, hawks and owls.

“Rats are pretty remarkable, actually,” said Ellen. 

“They are,” he agreed.  Dan had a soft spot for Rattus norvegicus, humanity’s modest wingman. His first real pet, not counting goldfish and an unfortunate red-eared slider, had been a rat named Daisy. She was sold as a “hooded rat.” Her body and legs were white, and her head and shoulders were beige, but she was the same species as the basic-brown seed-scroungers at the park. Dan received Daisy when she was four weeks old, as much head as body. When he was home from school she lived in his shirt pocket. When she grew too big for his pocket she learned to ride on his shoulder, nestled beneath his collar. She came when he called and scooted up his arm. She would strain to cling to him if another tried to lift her away.  She loved Cheezies.  She made him want to learn as much as possible about rats.  They weren’t horrible animals. They were intelligent and clean. They were sociable  They were gentle, to each other and to people. Where others saw vermin, scurrying, and filth, he saw warmth, intelligence, and gentleness. The tail?  Would fur make a difference? Yes—it would look silly.  Daisy died when Dan was eleven, his first death of a loved one. His mother let him stay home from school and he cried for half a day.

Thus he wasn’t altogether disappointed in failing in the day’s primary objective as specified by his supervisor—to poison the park’s rats. As a park interpreter, lowest rung on the ladder, it fell to Dan to do pretty much the opposite of what he had signed up for.  He had wanted to share his understanding of and affection for animals, not kill them. Not that the supervisor was keen on the project either. As Dan understood it, the supervisor was under pressure to get the rat situation under control from someone higher up, perhaps much higher.  Apparently a city councillor had brought a group of visiting dignitaries to the park, intending to show off something or other, and a rat or rats ran across a foot or feet. And so Dan, arriving at the park this morning, had been dispatched to Crown Hardware on a dubious mission. Cheezies had seemed a reasonable stopgap compromise, the only flaw being the lack of a receipt for rat poison.

“Here we are,” said Dan. They had arrived at the grey polygon, which didn’t look significantly different from the rest of the forest. The canopy was about fifty percent open, the same as the rest of the forest, and the understory was dominated by a thigh-high tangle of leather-leafed salal, also much the same as everywhere else.

Ellen unfolded the map and spun it around. “You sure?”

“I know my woods. This is the place.”

Ellen shrugged, and then said, “Okay you two, pick a tree, any tree.”

Brandon waded off-path to the trunk of a tall, grizzle-barked pine. He looked it up and down. “Is this one okay?”

“A fine choice,” said Ellen. She moved easily in salal, floating past woody stems and coarse leafage.  Melissa followed in tentative, crunching steps.  Dan kept encountering stubborn shrubs, veered farther and farther off to the right, and had to circle back to the tree.

Ellen demonstrated how to use the calipers to measure the DBH, diameter at breast height.   They needed to bore half that distance to the center. Ellen unscrewed an end of the blue aluminum tube and hardware slid out. One piece was the core drill, which screwed into a threaded hole halfway along the tube, which became the handle of the drill. A second was the spoon, trough-shaped half-tube that slipped inside the drill to cup the core sample. Ellen showed them how to center and level the drill using the calipers as a square, and then screwed the core into the tree, palming the blue tube, hand over hand, speaking in bursts. The students took turns. Eventually the radius was reached. Ellen inserted the spoon into the core drill as far as it would go and back-turned twice  The core creaked and snapped off within the tree.  She pulled spoon back out, cradling the core, the diameter of a standard pencil but twice as long.  “Voila,” She said.  “The life of a tree, written in these stripes.” She handed the spoon to Melissa.

Brandon crowded close. “Cool,” he said. Ellen asked him to screw the bore back out of the tree, which he did with a sudden, knowing confidence.    

Ellen stored the core sample inside a paper straw, and once it had been properly labelled and placed in Brandon’s backpack, she said, “Now we nail a marker onto the tree.” She reached into an outer raincoat pocket and produced  a galvanized roofing nail and a numbered, red plastic tag.  She asked, “Who has the hammer?”

Melissa unzipped her pack. “Here.”

Ellen nailed the tag to the tree, and then asked, “Who has the flagging tape?”

The students looked at each other, and then at Ellen.

She smiled. “It’s a good thing you’re the driver today, Brandon. Do you think you could run back to your car, go to Crown Hardware and buy two rolls of flagging tape, one green, one orange?  Or any two colours, it doesn’t really matter.”

“Okay,” said Brandon.

“You’ll be reimbursed for mileage.”

“Okay,” he said again. 

It seemed to Dan that Brandon didn’t comprehend mileage, its meaning and how it related to him personally. He was simply being agreeable.

 “Why don’t you go with him, Melissa, you have a phone, right?


“You have my number.”

“I do,” she said.

Before they could bolt, Dan asked, “Ah, would you guys mind also buying a box of rat poison for me?  I’ve run out.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and handed it to Brandon. 

The student asked, “Is there a particular brand?”

“I forget the name. It’s in the garden pesticide section next to the bug sprays, about the third shelf up. It’s a green box with a bad drawing of a psychotic rat.”

“Green box, psychotic rat,” said Brandon.

“Thanks,” said Dan. He added, “When you get to the cashier, make sure you remain straight-faced when they make a big deal about telling you it contains poison. Whatever you do, don’t snicker or roll your eyes or say, ‘well, duh’ when they tell you rat poison contains poison. No smiling.”

“Okay,” said Brandon.

“Please pay for it separately and keep the receipt.”

The students disappeared around a bend. Dan was now alone in the forest with a tree woman who had insisted her students abandon her. Was she going to happily stand here in the forest, doing nothing for an hour? He said, “It could take a while for them to return. Check-out at Crown Hardware can be kind of complicated.”

Ellen said, “They’re very shy and hopelessly in love.”


“We don’t really need flagging tape. Brandon and Melissa are in love, but too shy to do anything about it. I thought they needed some time alone.” Her head was tilted, her expression dreamy. “I try to make a love-match at least once a year. I met my husband in undergrad. We were introduced by a prof. I want to pay it forward.”

Dan wasn’t sure this was a good idea. He had been an undergraduate in love, had his heart broken, and almost lost a year. He still dreamed of that person, and always woke up sad. He said, “Isn’t that risky? What if it doesn’t work out? College is a hard time to deal with heartache.”

“No,” she said. “That’s negative thinking, not my style. You’ve helped out too, sending them to search for rat poison. More chance for them to bond, although perhaps not the most romantic of quests.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t briefed.”

“What was that about not smiling at the cashier?”

“I didn’t want them to make the same mistake I did.” He told her what had happened that morning.

He had gone to Crown Hardware and quickly found a box of rat poison. He carried it to the cashier, a young man in a blue vest. His nametag said Fred.  Fred scanned the box and a window popped up on the POS screen. He went bug-eyed, said,“Whups,”and quickly moved the box of poison out of Dan’s reach.

“What is it?” asked Dan.

“The poison control officer has to advise you.” Fred picked up a wall-mounted phone and pushed a code.  Someone answered. “Poison consult on four,” he said. He turned to Dan and smiled uncomfortably. “It’ll just be a minute.”

Several minutes later a compact, gray-haired woman, also in a blue vest, bulled through a queue of customers and rounded the counter. Planting her hands on either side of the green box, she said to Dan, “You want to buy a box of rat poison.” 

Dan nodded. “That’s my plan.”

The woman said, “By law, before you’re allowed to purchase rat poison, I have to inform you, as a provincially certified poison control officer, that rat poison contains poison.”

After a few seconds, wondering if he had missed something, Dan asked, “Isn’t that the point?”

She clamped a hand over the lid of the box. “Do you understand? This is poison.”

“I understand,” said Dan. 

She said, “Do you understand that this poison, although meant for rodents, is poisonous to humans too?”

“Yes,” said Dan. He should have stopped talking at this point, but instead asked, “When someone buys a bag of lawn fertilizer, do you have to tell them it contains fertilizer?”

“No, of course not.”

“Just wondering,” he said.

“Lawn fertilizer is not a poison.”

“It could be if you ate enough. Probably not even a lot.”

The woman inhaled deeply. “Sir. You wish to purchase a poisonous product. It is my duty to make sure that you understand the possible consequences of your purchase.”

Dan said, “Oh for gods sakes. I’m buying this stuff for my boss.”  

The woman inhaled. Clutching the box to her bosom, she said, “Sir, I cannot permit you to acquire this product because I cannot be sure that your intended use of it is not a risk to yourself or to others.” She wheeled about and vanished among the checkout counters and rows of shelving, into the Staff Only depths of Crown Hardware.

Dan was confused. “Where’s she going with my poison.?”

“You‘ve been refused,” said Fred.

“What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t buy rat poison here, at least not now.  There’s no appeal until the next poison control officer comes on duty at 2 PM.”

 “Is this for real?”

“Please, there are other customers.” Fred lowered his head and extended his arm.  The Exit, sir.

Dan left Crown Hardware empty-handed. In consolation, he bought a bag of Cheezies at the drug store across the parking lot.

Ellen said, “There are poison control officers?”

“I always have to say something. I should know better. It’s like crossing the border.”

“So what were you using as bait? What was the orange stuff?”

He extracted the crinkled plastic bag from his pocket and unrolled the top. “Cheezie?”
She took one, laughing. “That’ll get ‘em.”

“They’re highly addictive, and probably more toxic than Warfarin.”

“Yeah, they are.” She plucked the bag from his fingers, took the last two, and handed it back.  She said, “Now, guess which is the oldest tree here.” 

He surveyed the forest.  “That one’s the thickest.” He pointed at a hemlock about 30 meters away, the tallest of a group of four.

“Not always a sure indicator, but we’ll give it a try.” 

Dan took the GPS reading, helped with the DBH and the positioning of the bit, and took a turn cranking it into the tree. It didn’t take long. Ellen inserted the spoon and pulled out the core. She handed it to Dan.   

“Count the rings,” she said.

He counted.  He said a number, surprised. It seemed low. A tree this big had to be older than that.

“Almost, but you missed the first year.” She stated the actual age.

“Really?  Do you know what month it, uh, started?”

“Year is as close as we get.”  

He peered up through the spokes of branches. “I would have guessed a lot older. It looks older.  Look at the bark.”  He ran his hand from left to right.  His fingertips bounced on the ridges.

“Hemlocks grow pretty fast,” she said.  “Hey, look here, this black smudge.”  Her finger was poised about a third of the way along the core sample.  “That’s the fire.  We lucked out and hit a burn scar. That year the tree would have been...about eleven.  We can count backwards to find out what year that was.”

Dan already knew what year that was.

Laughter filtered through the trees, accompanied by colorful flashes of clothing. 

“They’re back,” he said.

Ellen called, “Brandon, Melissa, yoo-hoo!”  They bounded through the salal, flush-faced and beaming.

“Success,” said Brandon.  He held out the stretching handles of a plastic bag about to sprout green corners. “The receipt and your change are inside.”

Dan took it. “Thanks so much. No trouble?”

“Be careful, it contains poison,” Melissa said, grinning.

“It’s also poisonous to humans,” said Brandon.

Dan said, “You have passed the test. You may cross the bridge.”

Ellen recorded the data from Dan’s tree, and then she and the young lovers, trailing two colours of flagging tape, ventured deeper into the forest, out of sight.  When he could no longer hear their voices, Dan stepped up to the tree of his birth year and wrapped his arms around it.  Straining, he walked his unseen hands toward each other with no sense of the distance between opposing fingertips. He hugged the tree hard until ridges bit into his face.  He let go and stepped away, his eye snaking up, around broken spurs and sapsucker pocks.  He said to the tree, “You’ve still got a lot of good years left.” He placed his hand back on it, level with his heart.

Heading back to the park office, Dan retrieved the tissue ball that had missed the garbage can. He stuffed it into the empty Cheezies bag, and disposed of them. He then detoured to the storage shed and hid the rat poison on a top shelf behind a weighty plastic ice cream bucket splayed oval by salvaged door hinges that would never be reused.

Arriving at his work station, Dan draped his jacket over his chair.  He opened the locked drawer of a filing cabinet and withdrew a white envelope that contained a memory stick.  It was his thumb-sized shoebox, containing pictures of people, places, plants, and animals he had known and loved.  He plugged the stick into his computer.   Among the folders, “Birds, Mammals, Inverts, Plants,” was “Family.” He found the image, a skinny, pink-cheeked boy, his hair summer-fair.  On his shoulder was a hooded rat, leaning out myopically, sniffing the air.    

There was a coffee ring on Dan’s desk, next to the mouse pad.  It was the diameter the tree would have been the day his mother had taken that picture, before the fire, when the bark of the tree was smooth and paper-thin. He was fitting the curl of his hand to the ring when his supervisor walked in. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Counter Duty

A thin man in a red & black plaid shirt entered the nature house, walked directly to the counter and said, “What do you know of the black alligators?”

Dan said, “The what?”

“The giant salamanders, the size of alligators.”

Dan knew a lot about salamanders.  He knew there were salamanders almost a meter long in Japan and in parts of China. They were in the family Cryptobranchidae. He said, “You mean the Asian ones?  I’ve never heard them called that.”

“No, here, in the Fraser River.  Look it up.”

“Okay,” Dan said, rolling his chair to the computer terminal at the end of the counter. “Let’s Google it.” He began to type, which required he look down.  Dan was not a touch-typist.

“Good luck,” said the man. A second later the door clicked shut. 

Dan looked up. The man in plaid was gone. He came, he asked, he went. Odd, but, in Dan's experience, nature house encounters were often odd. He minimized the window without scanning the search results, and rolled back to where he had been, facing the door and the slow-moving clock. He dropped his head to his arms. No one else came in for a long time.

According to Dan, nature house counter duty consisted of long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of confused miscommunication, which generally occurred whenever anyone came in and often had the appearance of an embarrassing mistake--oh my goodness, where am I?  This was followed by focused avoidance of eye contact with the person on counter-duty, and feigned interest in the exhibits.  The person would walk the circuit: the rat-eared taxidermy...the faded diorama...the feely box of broken items...the table of disintegrating nests...the unoccupied lamprey tank with its bubbler. Often, there, at the bubbler, instead of continuing on out the door, the visitor would freeze, transfixed. This single source of motion and sound delayed their exit.  Eventually, Dan, or whoever else was on counter-duty, would call out,
Unfortunately our lamprey has died. We hope to get a replacement soon.”  This startling announcement would do the trick.   Dan had multiple times considered unplugging the bubbler, keep the shufflers shuffling, but suspected he lacked the authority.  

By mid-afternoon, he was fighting sleep. There had been no visitors for the past two hours, with yet three long hours to go. He needed a task, something to fill the time. He remembered the plaid man and the abandoned google search. He rolled to the computer and maximized the window. The results were surprising.  Man in Plaid hadn’t invented them. Black alligators were a thing. There were web pages documenting sightings going back more than a century, accounts of black creatures sprawled on muddy river banks, or lying in wait in shallow oxbows, in one case attacking men seining for salmon. The creatures also existed in indigenous lore, which to Dan lent more credibility than stories stemming from early Europeans, who, in old photos, posing with massive tree stumps and the tools used to create them, looked drunk and undisciplined.  Several recent authorities, identifying themselves as “cryptozoologists,” had already decided that the creatures were relatives of the well-known Asian giants.

"If they exist," said Dan.  The “black alligators,” at least those accounts from drunken lumberjacks,could probably be discounted as misidentified river otters. Still, he felt annoyed in not having heard of them, even as myths.  He dug deeper, looking for more history, but came to endless loops of web sites citing each other and providing no additional information. He glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes to closing time. He might as well start packing up. He unclipped his nametag and dropped it in a drawer.

That’s when the door bumped open and a red-faced, middle-aged man in a baseball cap, toting a large cardboard box with the bottom reinforced by many strips of packing tape, danced his way inside and staggered to the counter. He hefted the box high, above his belly, and dropped it squarely in front of Dan.  The computer monitor jumped.

“Hello,” said Dan, waving his hand through the cloud of dust. 

“Hi,” said the man.  “This is actually my first time here.  I’m not a nature person.”

Dan said, “You’re not a nature person?” People would claim that, but never explain what it meant.

“I mean, like you.”

“Oh,” said Dan.

“Do you accept donations?” 

Not this late in the day, thought Dan.  And not another set of encyclopaedias. 

The man said, “These are from the estate of my aunt. She left them to me. I used them a lot when I was a kid, for all my school projects, when we lived next door, but got no use for them now. It'd be a shame if they were just thrown away.”

Dan folded back the flaps to take a look. The spines said Canadian Schoolbook Encyclopaedia. They were old, but not old enough to be of antiquarian interest. The volumes were thin and cheaply bound, from the early 1970s or so.  “Maybe you could sell them on eBay,” he said.

“Oh I tried. No takers.”

“Well, how about giving them away on Craigslist?”

“For nothing?”

“At least they might get some use that way.”

“I was thinking I could donate them somewhere, at least get a tax receipt.”

Dan said, “I don’t think we do that. This isn’t a non-profit; it’s governmental. Besides, about the last thing this place needs is a stack of outdated books no one will ever look at. When we want to find information we do what everyone else does, a web search.”

The man had come prepared for this argument: “What would you do if the power went out?”

“Close the building and go home.”

“Or, you could take the encyclopaedias outside, into the sunlight.”

“True,” said Dan, “but then what? We can get deeper, broader, much more current information from the internet. We cut and paste and print what we need.”

“You should know that Wikipedia is full of inaccuracies,” said the man.

“Here, look,” said Dan. “I'm presently looking for information on species of salamanders of the family Cryptobranchidae. I type in Cryptobranchidae, and boom, endless links, and lots of images too.” He swivelled the monitor.

“God, what are those things? Are they real?” The images showed seemingly eye-less, flat-headed, rubber-handed amphibians being subdued by human arms a fraction their size.

“Giant salamanders from China,” said Dan.

“Okay, well, alright, let’s see what old reliable low-tech has to say about those things. What’s the name again? Cr-something...” He pulled the fourth volume from the box.

“Cryptobranchidae. If there at all, it’s probably under ‘amphibian’.”

The man opened the volume, and several one hundred dollar bills fluttered down onto the counter.

The two men stood, frozen, staring at the money. These were bills from the late 1980s, the Birds of Canada series. On one side was a long dead Prime Minister few could name. On the other was a lone Canada Goose, flying low over a choppy lake, with additional geese in a disciplined V above and behind.

“I’ll admit, Wikipedia doesn’t do that,” said Dan.

The man jammed the book back into its gap, and fell on the money. He swept it into himself in a shameless flurry of greed. He squeezed the bills into a pile, which he folded in half and stuffed into his pants. Without saying anything, he pulled out a second volume, somewhere in the Ps. He backed away from the counter and opened it, pages downward. He shook it back and forth, freeing the pages. Again, hundred dollar bills drifted down, onto the floor. He dropped the book and fell on the money.

Dan reached to another random volume, to play along.

“No you don’t! Deal’s off!” The man lunged at the heavy box and pulled it away. As he lurched backward toward the door, oblivious to the bubbler, he shouted, crazy-eyed, “You’ll never know how much money you just lost. That’s what you get for looking a gift horse in the mouth!”

“I don’t think that saying applies in this situation,” said Dan.

“Hah!” said the man, and with a final backward bump, shoved his way out into daylight.

“Seeya,” said Dan. This was the first time an annoyance had bribed itself back out the door.

Once certain the man was gone, Dan lifted his foot. “Hello,” he said to a hundred dollar bill that had fallen in the first cascade.  He tucked it into his wallet, and slid his wallet back into his pocket. He turned off the computer, and locked the door. Before leaving the nature house, he unplugged the bubbler.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Next story


Dan was shivering beneath the roof of a picnic shelter with his eyes closed. He was sitting on the top of a table with his boots on the bench. He was wearing cheap nylon rain pants and an old Gore-tex jacket that had long ago forgotten how to repel water.  He also wore his ranger hat, the one he had been forbidden by a manager to wear in the rain. It wasn’t a rain hat!  The Parks Department could not afford to replace rain-damaged ranger hats!  Dan didn’t care what the manager or anyone else from the Parks Department said about hat-wearing.  They would have to pry his hat from his cold, dead head.  

He was also shivering because he had a fever.  One of the truths of working with children was the constant exposure to virulent viruses.  One of the truths of being an interpreter was the non-existence of sick-pay. 

Seated with him were two other interpreters, Monique, who was young and French-Canadian, and Caroline, who was the only active interpreter older than Dan.  She had immigrated from Hong Kong as a teenager, became an interpreter as a summer job during her college years, married young, and became a stay at home mom.  Her marriage fell apart and her husband moved back to Asia, leaving her to support two young children.  She worked part-time at a provincial liquor store and returned to interpretation to make ends meet.  It was Caroline who asked Dan, “Are you asleep?”

“No.  I'm in Singapore,” he said.

“I hate to tell you, you're not,” said Monique.  “You're in a regional park in British Columbia, waiting for a class of Grade 5 students to arrive for a program about frogs.”

“No.  I'm in a mangrove swamp, somewhere along Singapore’s north shore.  It's forty degrees Celsius and two hundred and ten percent humidity.   I'm stuck in the mud and beset by mosquitoes, and I left my chloroquine tablets back in Toronto.  I'm waiting from the tide to rise so I can wriggle free and swim back to my hotel.  It's very, very hot.  Forty-seven degrees Celsius and three hundred and twelve percent humidity.  I have a fever, probably malaria, and am dehydrated.  I desperately need water, a cold drink, but the shallow puddles in the mangrove swamp are warm, saline, and writhing with intestinal parasites.  I’m about to pass out and fall over.  I'll be swallowed by the mud, and disappear forever.  Oh look, a hornbill.  I’ve always wanted to see one of those.”

“What's he talking about?” asked Caroline.

“One of his flash-backs,” said Monique.

Dan opened his eyes.  Monique and Caroline were staring at him.  He said, “I was trying to remember what it feels like to be desperately hot, to forget how it feels to be so frigging cold.”  He looked at his watch.  “They’re 12 minutes late.  Maybe they won’t come.   Maybe they had the sense not to come to a program in pouring rain.”  His eyes lit up.  "Maybe they were in an accident!"

“They always come,” said Caroline, “No matter what.”

Dan said, “One time they didn’t.  One time I said a prayer for them not to come, and they didn’t.  I got paid for two hours of doing nothing.  It was like working at Head Office.”

Monique said, “Ha! You? Pray? You’re an atheist.”

“There are no atheists when grade fives are approaching.”
“Please, say your prayer,” said Caroline.

He re-closed his eyes.

Almost immediately Monique jabbed his arm.  “Trop tard.  Ils arrivent.”

The mini-vans and SUVs coiled into the parking lot.

“Hell,” said Dan.  He descended from the table and the three walked through rain to meet the group.  Students sprang from the vehicles and jostled each other.
"Where’s this school from?" Dan asked Caroline.

"Surrey," she said, grimly.

“Which part of Surrey?”

“You don’t want to know.”
He asked, “Why for once couldn’t we get Yorkies or Crofties?”   These were well-known nicknames for students from a pair of posh private schools in Vancouver.  The students from those schools were reputedly angelic.

The teacher emerged from one of the SUVs.  She had an expensive purple rain suit and short red hair. "Hi, I’m Valerie Styviklstic," or something, she said.  “Sorry we’re a bit late.  We took a wrong exit off the freeway.”  The interpreters pretended to be happy to meet her.  Monique asked Valerie to divide her class into three groups, which could be a good stalling tactic if the teacher was disorganized.  Many were, but Valerie wasn’t. The children even had nametags, which they were expected to have, but often didn’t. Nametag creation was another classic stall.

Dan, Monique and Caroline maneuvered to avoid a group that included both a Colton and a Cody. Those were danger names.  A decade earlier, the names to avoid had mostly been Js—Jason  and Jordan in particular.  Every experienced interpreter knew about danger names. Monique ended up with the group, but then outflanked Dan by whispering in his ear, “Tu es le plus aimable, plus intelligent homme que je connais. Je te remercie beaucoup d'avoir pris le groupe avec les démons. Je vais te marier si tu les prens."


She had spoken quickly.  She knew Dan liked when she spoke French to him. She also knew that after a couple of moderately long sentences his translating ability went sideways. Colton and Cody were stomping in a puddle, sending sheets of muddy water at the girls in Caroline’s group, who screamed and frantically gripped at each other, but didn’t run away.  Valerie Something was heading to her Starbucks in her SUV. The girls were shrieking as she drew in her legs and slammed the door.

The words finally computed. Dan turned to ask Monique, who was sidling away, “Did you just offer to marry me?  You know I live with someone, right?”

She said, “You don’t say. Too bad,” and with that, quickly took charge of Dan’s group, leaving him with Colton and Cody.      
Dan gamely led his charges through the prescribed activities: a description of metamorphosis, utilizing cheap plastic toys, a frog-fly-heron wink-murder game—meant to fun things up—and, of course, a frog hunt, which would no doubt be a pointless charade. Any ectotherm would be rendered unconscious at the current ambient temperature, a hair above freezing.  He became bogged down in simple tasks, his fingers fumbling, his hands cramping—the repeated opening and closing the backpack to extract and return props, the creation of ersatz rain-ponchos from garbage bags, the manipulation of the tape recorder to play frog calls. Keeping the tape recorder dry was probably the most difficult thing. As he led the children around the island, all becoming wetter and colder, Dan became increasingly angry at Colton and Cody, who wouldn’t stop punching and tripping each other or other children, especially a silly girl named Karina who seemed to welcome their attentions while pretending to protest. Then, during the frog hunt, something totally unexpected happened.  A frog. It was a tiny Pacific Chorus Frog, hunched half-way up the thigh-high, moss-green leaf of a skunk cabbage, reaching from the muck-filled ditch at the base of the dyke.

"Where is it?" Most couldn’t spot it, but, as a group, the children were fully engaged for the first time.

"Stay here, I’ll catch it," said Dan. He knew what would happen if anyone else tried. 

But then Colton saw the frog, and jumped down the slope.  "No!" Dan yelled.  Colton stopped just short of the foul-smelling mud that grows skunk cabbages so well.  Then Cody was beside him.  They were both reaching, pushing each other...... "Get back up here!" Dan yelled, but words were useless on this pair.  He freed himself from his backpack and leapt, landing solidly behind them, but then he froze.  They were slipping on the wet grass at the brink of bottomless ooze.  One started to go and grabbed the sleeve of the other, who turned with terrified eyes and reached for Dan, who raised his arms above his head.  In slow motion he watched them slide into the muck and sink up to their waists, to the delight of the other students on the dyke above.  He could easily have prevented them from falling in, but had chosen not to.  Worse, once they were floundering, he found himself fighting an urge to gently step on their heads. 

The frog was gone.

Another student found a branch and handed it down to Dan.  He used it to haul the boys out.  Briefly they were angry and embarrassed, but soon were back to their previous antics – although now soiled, and in danger of soiling Karina and the others, who ran away screaming.  The program had descended into mayhem.  Dan plodded after the group through a wooded section of the park, slowed by the heavy pack bumping on his back.  The clamminess inside his jacket and rain pants was making him nauseous.  He eventually found them paused on the trail, surrounding a man who was accompanied by a very large but skittish-looking Bernese mountain dog, which they were endeavoring to group-pat. 

“Don’t crowd him,” the man was saying.  “He spooks easy.”

“Onward!” said Dan.  The children turned in surprise, apparently having convinced themselves they had lost him.

There was relatively little discord during the remainder of the trek back to the parking lot.  Monique and Caroline were already there, their groups disbanded and piling into vehicles.  They were speaking with the teacher, Valerie, who didn’t seem surprised at all at the sullied state of Colton and Cody.  Or it didn’t matter to her.  They weren’t riding in her car.

Dan narrowed his eyes.  She knew they were demons but hadn’t warned them.  He was hypothermic and soaked to the skin and this woman with her spotless rain suit and hot coffee lacked the sense or consideration to place the troublesome boys into separate groups, or accompany the group in which she had placed them together.   Dan walked to Valerie and pointed at the boys.  “When there are pains in the ass like those two, responsible teachers go along on the walk to keep them in line.” 

Valerie said, “Teachers need a break now and then too, you know.  Plus, I'm not really a nature person.”  She smiled at Monique and Caroline, and climbed into her SUV. 

“Not a nature person?  What does that even mean?"  He yelled, "You’re a terrible teacher!” 

Caroline scowled.  “Are you trying to get fired?”

Dan rubbed his forehead, and said, “I feel like hell.  I need some water.”  The teacher’s SUV was backing toward him.   His legs wouldn’t move.  He was stuck in the mud.  The SUV kept coming.  Valerie Something was not checking her mirror.  She was also a terrible driver.

“Daniel, move!”  Monique ran at him.

The hornbill swooped and stuck him between his shoulder blades, providing enough momentum to lift his foot from the mud.  She struck him again, and then again, until he was slogging out, toward solid ground.  He sat, his back against the trunk of a tree. An open water bottle was in his hand.  He drank, shivering, spilling half down his front. He closed his eyes. A hand was on his forehead.

“Tu as de la fièvre,” said the hornbill.

He opened his eyes.  Monique and Caroline were crouched down, staring at him. He was at the edge of the parking lot, his back against a wooden post. The SUVs and minivans were gone. 

“You’re okay?” Monique asked.  She jiggled his wrist.

He said, “I forgot to take my pills.”

Caroline asked, “Do you know where you are?”

He looked around.  He took off his sodden, misshapen, ranger hat and held it at arm’s length.  “Yes,” he said, “but I honestly don’t know why.”  He put his hat back on.