A soft April rain drenched us as we walked along the seawall. Gusty winds brought the sharp green scent of tidal flats and a chill that made me ache for something warmer than my nylon rain jacket. I had to hustle to keep up with Humber, my nine-year-old traveling companion. He ran along the narrow wall at an alarming speed. Twice he stooped down to pick up a handful of sand and gravel from the beach. Then, with an untrained grace, he adopted his favorite warrior stance — the set position of a baseball pitcher — pulled his arm back and fired his bullet of sand and gravel at two seagulls resting on a nearby sandbar.
“Are you mad at those gulls?” I said after the second salvo.
He glanced back at me. “Don’t matter,” he said.
“Matters to me. Probably matters to the gulls too.” He shrugged and ran ahead, expanding the space between us.
Humber had been living with us for a little more than a year. He came to us after his mother, a single parent, jumped from the roof of the six-story apartment building where she and Humber lived. She survived, but as a mute quadriplegic.
The first time I met Humber, he was seven, almost eight, but he was so small it was easy to think of him as a five-year-old. He careened from one activity to another, from one mood to another, from terrible child to wonderful child — like the ball in a pinball machine. His vocabulary and grammar were poor. He spoke with a lisp, put an extra “n” before every “ing” in a word, and mixed up his consonants. So that “My Mom will be here soon. She was going to the hospital” became “Me Mom here thoon thee was go-ning to the hopthital.” Despite the warnings from friends about growing too attached to the children we fostered, I fell in love with Humber. His brown eyes told the world the state of his heart.
As captivating as he was, Humber’s arrival was hard on our family as we all had to redefine our familial relationships. Our eldest boy was no longer the only foster child in the family. Our youngest son found himself bumped from the position of “baby of the family” overnight. And the newcomer was in fact not a cuddly baby, but a smart-mouthed, sometimes aggressive boy of seven. I decided we all needed a break. Humber and I were off to Vancouver Island for a week-long road trip while the rest of the family had a respite from the sadness and anger which Humber was far too small to contain.
When the low and loud whistle of the ferry called us back to our car, Humber turned, raced toward me, and stood close at my side. He was trembling. I knew he had never been on any kind of boat before.
I’d always found Vancouver Island to be a magical place, and getting there on the ferry was just the beginning of the adventure. We parked our car on the lowest level of the boat, and I took Humber for a tour of the outside decks. He didn’t say a word until we made it to the highest deck in the prow. There he found a place on top of a curved metal pipe that sprouted out of the deck so he was tall enough to see over the railing and hold on comfortably. “Me thay here, kay?” he said. I was still cold. I wanted to get out of the rain and wrap my hands around a hot cup of tea in the snack bar.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked. He shook his head, laced his fingers through the wire mesh of the railing, and pouted. I was certain that five minutes out from the terminal he would be shivering and anxious to go inside. I was wrong. After 20 minutes, Humber still had a white-knuckle grip on the railing. His black hair was soaked, plastered to his skull. His chin was tilted up as he sniffed wildly at the sea air. I was doing jumping jacks in the doorway, trying to stay warm. The ferry passed through a riptide of foam and seaweed and driftwood. A flock of black and white seabirds swooped down and skimmed along the top of the swell, pecking out tiny fish from just below the surface. Humber began flapping his arms, shrieking at the birds, a fierce and feral call that prompted me to rush to him and wrap my arm around his waist, fearful he was about to leap off the ferry to join the feast. But as I held him, he slackened, lolled his head against me and said, “Me like thith boat.”
After the ferry, nothing in my itinerary engaged Humber. For the first two days, he spoke only to complain. He didn’t like staying in a motel. The water tasted funny. The TV didn’t have the right channels. The Bug Zoo was boring. The Wax Museum was boring. The go cart track was boring. At the entrance to Undersea World, he stopped, folded his arms across his chest, and refused to move. He wanted to go home. I’d had enough. I struggled to swallow my disappointment. Afraid that anything I said would betray my feelings, I let a heavy silence settle between us as we drove back to the motel. I made a stop at the corner grocery where we stocked up on our favorite junk foods. All afternoon, we sat on our separate beds and watched cartoons on TV, while washing down caramel corn, Junior Mints and Jelly Belly sours with chocolate milk.
I was half-asleep by the time the TV announcer said the cartoon coming up was Pinky and the Brain. Humber jumped up and started bouncing slowly, rhythmically on his bed. The cartoon began with the two white mice speaking their opening lines; Humber spoke in unison with them.
Pinky: Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?
Brain: The same thing we do EVERY night, Pinky, try to take over the world.
We both woke early. Still in my pajamas, I went out to the car to retrieve my file folder of maps. Humber was sitting up in bed, slack-mouthed, staring at the door as I came back in.
“Me thinkning you wath leavning,” he said.
“I wouldn’t leave without you.” I tossed the maps onto his bed and told him he was in charge for the rest of the trip. He stared at me. His tongue slipped out between his closed lips in an expression I recognized as concentration. “I’m Pinky, you’re the Brain,” I said. “Gee, Brain, what are we going to do today?”
He giggled, and in his best impression of the Brain’s deep baritone said, “The thame thing we do EVERY day Pinky, try to take over the world.”
Humber hurried me along in packing up and checking out of the motel. He studied the maps over breakfast. But once in the car, he abandoned them as useless to his cause after navigating us through repeated circular routes. Perhaps, he had been confused or perhaps he had been testing my commitment to follow his lead. I balked only once at his instructions, when he asked me to do a U-turn on the highway. He didn’t argue. He had me take the next exit then turn off onto a side street. He rolled down his window, sniffed the air, and pointed to his right. I was to drive north, always north.
The main Island highway turned inland a few hours north of Victoria, but Humber insisted I take the coastal road, a route I had never taken before. We were treated to spectacular views of tropical-shaded turquoise water pushing up on to sandy beaches and, in the distance, the mist-shrouded Gulf Islands. We reached the small fishing and resort community of Deep Bay around suppertime.
Humber decided we would stay at an older motel on the waterfront road. We checked in, unloaded the car, then took a walk in search of food. He headed straight for the government wharf where many fishing boats were tied up. I tried to tell him there would be no restaurants there, but as he reminded me more than once, he was now the brain of this mission. After the complaining and the sharp silences of the days before, I found myself enjoying this self-assured, indomitable boy. We walked the length of the wharf slowly as he stopped to admire every boat.
At the end of the wharf, he hesitated. He seemed to be listening for something, or seeking something in the fading light. Finally, he turned around, smiled at me and said, “Thith way.” Back in the parking lot, he followed a zigzag path through the cars until we were standing behind a rusted half-ton truck, dark-colored fishnets spilled out across the open tailgate. A man and woman, their skin as wrinkled as the bark of red cedars, sat on wooden stools, fine mesh fishnet spread over their laps. Their hands moved quickly, threading broad needles in and out of the net. Humber, a bright light full of unaffected seize-the-day confidence, said “Whatcha do-ning?”
The old man looked up from his work. “I see we have a very special visitor. Come closer, little buddy, let’s have a look at you.” Humber stepped forward. They studied each other. “Those are some colors you’re wearing,” the old man said. I had grown accustomed to Humber’s outrageous color choices for his clothing. That day, he wore his favorite velour striped shirt, his orange shorts and his red and blue baseball jacket. “You make me think of a rainbow. Been some time since we’ve seen any rainbows around here, don’t you think so, Mother?” The old man spoke in the unhurried cadence common to many Aboriginal Canadians.
“I see Indian in you,” the old woman said.
“Me?” Humber shrugged, traced circles with his foot on the asphalt.
“It’s the truth. You ask your Mother. I have a thought you are part Indian.”
“Thee’s not here. Thee’s thick,” he said. Then he lifted his shirt to show his belly. He looked down and poked his finger in his belly button. “Me thinkning thith part ith Indian. In thummer ith the thame colour ath you.”
The old woman set down her net and needle and reached out for Humber. “You better tell me your name, little one,” she said as she pulled him into her ample arms. “Because I’m going to be telling that story for a good long time.”
So began our friendship with Mike and Mary Daniels. They wouldn’t direct us to a restaurant. Instead, we walked together to the local café where we ate steaming bowls of spicy fish chowder and homemade bread. They told us stories about their lives fishing for salmon and herring, about their grandmothers, about their sons and daughters. They asked gentle questions until Humber told them stories of his life, stories I’d never heard before, sad stories. We parted with an agreement to meet them on their boat, “Moonlight Bay,” the next morning at six.
“The Loomnight Bay?” asked Humber.
“Yes, little buddy, the Loomnight Bay’s been waiting for you,” Mike said.
I woke up with the alarm at 5:30. Humber was already dressed, full of energy, pleading with me to move quickly, barking at me like a drill sergeant. He set a rapid pace to the wharf. I was gasping for breath by the time Mike and Mary ushered us below deck on their old gillnetter.
I spent most of the next six hours retching, heaving and shivering on my knees in front of the toilet on the Daniels’ boat. When the seasickness didn’t overwhelm me, the combined smells of years of dead fish, salt air and diesel would push my stomach up my throat. When there was nothing left for me to spew, Mary urged me outside, pushed my arms into a thick woolen Cowichan sweater, and pulled a toque over my head. I huddled at the back of the boat, wondering how my family would survive without me. Humber, also now wearing a Cowichan sweater under his life jacket, shadowed Mike around the boat, talking non-stop. He stopped once to sit with me, stroked my hand. His dark eyes spun magic. This was a Humber I had never seen before: radiant, relaxed.
* * *
Five years later, again in the rain but this time snug in the Cowichan sweater that Mary Daniels had given to me, I raced to keep up with Humber as he strode quickly down another dock. He was anxious that he was late, and they would miss the tide. With approval from his school counselor, Humber was leaving Grade 9 early to spend the spring and summer as crew on a fish boat that belonged to Mike and Mary’s oldest son, Gary.
Broad across the chest and shoulders but still not very tall, Humber had outgrown his Cowichan sweater. It hung in his closet, though, the sleeves proudly displaying all of his swimming and baseball badges. He had grown in other ways too. He could tell you everything you might ever need to know about the life cycle and habitat of salmon and herring. Although he still spoke with a lisp, he had become a skilled storyteller. He eagerly memorized native myths, funny anecdotes, even the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” to tell to anyone who would listen. He was a friendly, happy teenager who hated every minute in school.
He couldn’t get on board the boat fast enough. He disappeared below deck and I found myself standing alone on the dock, biting back tears. But two minutes later, he jumped off the boat and wrapped me in a hug.
“You thmell good, like winter,” he said.
“Damp wool,” I said. He smiled. “Listen to Gary. Be safe.”
“I’ll miss you.”
He kissed me on the cheek, then turned quickly, and joined the two other men who were already unknotting the lines. As the boat pulled away from the dock, Humber moved to the side of the boat and waved.
“Love you, Mom,” he said. “I’ll bring you a great big fith.”