Thinking about incidents from my past I may write about brings up emotions associated with those experiences. When I write a story about an event in my life, it’s as important that I communicate how the incident made me feel as it is that I describe what happened. One way to accomplish this is to control the story’s mood.
Stories, like people, have a mood, be it fanciful, somber, ironic, angry, scary, etc. Often your story’s mood springs naturally from the emotions you’ve resurrected as you craft your story and intuitively influences your word choices, sentence structure, pacing, and decisions about what you call to the attention of your reader and the amount of detail you ascribe to it. All of these things contribute to your story’s mood. We need to be careful that the mood of our story conveys the emotional experience we attach to it.
As you read the marvelous story below, you will be captivated—perhaps mesmerized is a better word—by its mood. Indeed, our class felt mesmerized when it was read to us in the soft, lilting voice of its author, Molly Shelton. Molly is a careful writer, weighing the effect of her word choices, savoring the experience in her memory as she writes and sharing the details that are important to her. Molly could have told us this story in a variety of ways, but the mood she chose to create lets us experience her adventure the way she experienced it. As you read her story, notice what she does to sweep you along with her to a very special place.
The Tale of an Eagle and an Ego
by Molly Shelton
Jim and I are in Banff, British Columbia. We park our motorhome at the back of the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, just as did the year before, alongside the Bow River. There is still some tension in the air because at breakfast I’d flippantly said, “It would sure be great if you were as thrilled to be with me as you are to get on that golf course!”
Somewhat contritely, but still off-put, I replied, “I do…but you’re so excited I feel like I’m in second place when it comes to your golf.”
Jim looked at me. “I don’t even know how to answer that.”
And there it was left. He started asking me about my plans for the day and things were quickly smoothed over.
He has barely taken the key out of the ignition when I jump up and double-check my little backpack to make sure I have everything I need for the next four hours—six, if he decides to play all 27 holes: trail map, binoculars, bird book, a banana, and my
straw hat will take care of the first three hours or so. Later, I will need the post cards, Sharpie pen, colored pencils and, of course, a writing pad and a book for when I sit at the writing table next to the huge windows in the Rundle Room on the mezzanine of the hotel. Flipping the backpack over my shoulder, I eagerly pop open the door and step onto the river rocks. The cold, rushing water charges the air. Jim is just behind me, carrying his golf bag and putting on his cap.
We are frozen in place, stunned by the beauty surrounding us. I turn my head and look at Jim, and he drops his bag, comes up behind me, and puts his arms around my shoulders. We just stand there. We had remembered the beauty, yes, but you can’t “remember” the feelings of actually being in such a place. The noisy and rambunctious white water bounces off the boulders in the rapids just to our left, and in front of us the icy blue water of the Spray River is flowing down, scratching the sand spits as it melds with the Bow River. Centered in the background are glorious, snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks with flat wedges of ice and snow packed between them. The early sunlight of this crisp September morning has gilded the snow, reminding me of the gold caps of Egyptian pyramids.
Jim points up and to the right of the river toward his beloved Banff golf course, showing me how it curls between the water’s edge and the ragged foothills. “Just behind that stand of yellow Aspen, see how the course curves around those pine trees? That’s the 5th hole. A real beauty.” His voice has softened with such love in it.
I turn to him, “Yeah, yeah, get on your way! I need to hit the trails myself and scout out those eagles. If they’re here, I plan on seeing them today! And I hope you get to see a few birdies yourself, Luv.”
In one slow, smooth motion he wraps his arms around me, kisses me, and softly says, “I hope you have as much fun as I plan on having, Honey.” He picks up his bag and is off. Ten feet away he turns and, walking backwards, he calls above the roar of the rushing water, “I’ll see you upstairs at your table later, Babe. Have fun.” I watch him walk away. He’s so eager to get on that course, like a red pony wanting to break into a run.
I pull out my map of the area to get my bearings and head out to find that eagle’s nest I’ve been told about. My quest begins as I walk on the narrow path along the river, with the sounds and sight of the rushing water filling my senses. I reach the Spray River trailhead just as I pass the hotel, and the world quickly slips away. The woods are silent except for the squirrel overhead, telegraphing to the others that a stranger is coming their way.
With the fresh smell of the pines and firs and the sun dappling the path, it’s easy to walk a couple of hours. As I come upon a clear, swift stream, I stop and sit on a half-submerged log and take out my banana. Looking down into the water for fish, I jump back . . . there’s a bird walking on the sand down there! Ohmygosh, it must be a dipper! I scooch my whole body and legs upon the log and slowly peek over to watch it. I’ve read about dippers, but I’ve never seen one. Hopping along on the sand, perhaps five feet below, he stays for six minutes or so, longer than I would have thought possible, and then he just bursts up, feathers sleek and shining, and all around him droplets of water are rocketing. Mid-sized, his grey body is compact and he seems quite plain, but then he turns up his head and opens his long, thin beak and the air is filled with a lovely song, tit-tit-tit-whhh-whhh. I watch him, transfixed, as back into the water he dives. For a while time does not exist; I do not exist. There is only the river and the dipper entwined. The dipper pops up one last time, gives a great shiver to knock off the water, flaps his wings and flies away. I stay on the log, the sun on my back, with my fingers in the cold water. It takes me a couple of minutes to come back into this world and adjust to the sounds and light that I had stepped away from. I sit up and, like the dipper, shake a couple of times before starting my walk again.
The eagles’ nest, I was told, should be about a mile on the other side of this stream, so I get back on the trail and soon cross the footbridge shown on the map. I start looking in the tops of the trees and across the sky, hoping to see that regal bird in flight. As I walk around a huge boulder that a glacier long-ago swept up and dropped off in this open space, in front of me shards of sunlight pierce through a cluster of aspen, turning their yellow and red leaves aflame. I throw my jacket down onto fallen aspen leaves and pine needles and sit, rummaging through my backpack for my pen and colored pencils. Moving quickly, and with little thought, I do what I can to capture that shimmering moment. White and black tree trunks, blazing leaves, and then it is gone, leaving me, in my mind’s eye, with a perfect picture.
While sitting and looking at the aspen, I remember reading that the roots of all the aspen in a cluster are connected, and it’s really all one organism, each tree a clone of the other. A memory rises up and I can hear my older sister’s irritated voice chiding me many years earlier when we were running through the forest and I was holding her up, “For cryin’ out loud, Molly Jo, will you move it? A tree is just a tree.” Running behind her, I had straddled a fallen tree and was attempting to climb over it, when my attention was captured by the color of the lichen and the ants that were working in the sawdust below. I looked up to see her back as she disappeared into the brush, and as I scrambled off the log and ran after her, lest she leave me alone, I remember thinking, what a silly thing to say.
Relaxing now, I lie back with my hands under my head, looking at the sky and treetops and beyond the aspen and then, in a very tall tree just to the left, at the very top, spread across several branches, I spot the eagle’s nest! It must be about six feet across. My attention has been so focused on the aspen that I almost miss what I’ve been searching for. I scour the sky, trying to will that eagle to glide into its nest. However, I know an eagle covers a big territory in a day and I’m content that I’ve actually seen its nest.
After a while I head back toward the hotel, sometimes listening to the unfamiliar calls of the northern birds, then using my binoculars to spy them and read about them in the local bird book I bought. It has been a day of meditation.
I soon see the back of the hotel. Its tower, 11 stories high, and its outspread wings are magnificent, worthy of its grand setting. When I enter the lobby, I am very aware of my hiking outfit, but I fit right in with all the international travelers. I eagerly walk up the grand stairs to the mezzanine. As I step into the Rundle Room, the beauty just beyond those windows fills the room—and my spirit. I sit at “my” table, and start another sketch of the aspen, though their essence is escaping me. Still, I might capture them later. It’s no use now. The view of the golf course, the Bow River, and the mountains is too magnetic to focus on anything else. I just sit and absorb.
Although it appears I’m waiting for Jim to join me after his golf game, this is really precious time for me and I covet every minute of it. Sometimes I think I want to be jealous of the deep pleasure and satisfaction Jim gets from golf. I want to feel that golf is like his mistress. But here, right now, I understand that is just ego wanting to stir things up. The deep-down truth is that as much as he loves golf, I need to be alone in nature, to step out of the realm of time, to walk underwater beside the dipper, and to have no concept of any reality other than that moment.
Soon, as I’m gazing out the window, I watch a man in the distance walking in, pulling his golf bag. It takes a couple of minutes before I recognize Jim’s gait. He’s decided 18 holes is enough today. It seems strange now that at one time we both feared our different interests might eventually cause us to take separate paths. Instead, we seem to thrive by giving each other the freedom to do what we love when we’re apart. As I see him walking toward the hotel—toward me—I notice my pulse quickening.
As he enters the room, he stops at the bar and gets a vodka and tonic for himself and a lime and tonic for me, then comes over, clearly a happy man. I notice he’s taken the time to wash up and he looks fresh. Before he mentions his game, he asks me about my eagle. After visiting a bit, we return to the motorhome to rest and get cleaned up, then walk back to the hotel’s Rob Roy room for a very special dinner, lamb chops and a nice Bordeaux, then it’s time to go.
The sky is dusky blue as we drive up the canyon toward Lake Louise, where we’re camping. We are relaxed and quiet as we wind around a tight bend in the road, and just as we go around the curve, a great flurry of white feathers and brilliant yellow talons, a beak and a huge eye appear in front of our windshield! Jim slams on the brakes and swerves, barely missing it. With some effort he gains control of the motorhome and continues on. I have already popped out of my seat and run to the back window, just in time to see an enormous eagle, having just swooped down and grasped a squirrel in its talons, spread its wings, then soar across to the other side of the road and glide out over the canyon. I watch his tremendous wings disappear into the dusk as we drive around another curve.
I’ll bet if you’d asked Jim 10 years later what his golf score was on that day he could have told you, possibly hole by hole. As for me, all these years later, the exultant power of seeing that eagle’s talons and beak flash across our windshield, and then following his magnificent silhouette as it melded into the darkening sky remains a part of who I am today.