Strange happenings await an Indian family on a holiday in the Canadian Rockies.
Dozens of times in the last seven years I have woken up in a pool of sweat. I owe that miserable state of my being to the repeated recall, in my dreams, of some incidents that took place during my maiden visit to Canada. A family excursion in Alberta in the Summer of 2014, which was expected to be fun and adventure, had turned out to be anything but. One can pop pills to take care of disturbed sleep or the occasional loss of it, but there is no remedy for people relating your behaviour to the lunar cycle and the oceanic tides.
The ordeal began soon after our touchdown in Calgary. We had joined our son, Mudit who was then working with Jacobs. We, meaning: Chhaya, my wife; Renu, her sister and her husband, Squadron Leader Devendra Goyal; another sister, Seema and her chirpy daughter, Shivani and, of course, I––the six of us. As was the plan, Mudit was driving us through the exotic countryside. We had traversed more than a thousand and five hundred miles of the wilderness––driven across Jasper and Waterton National Parks savouring some of the most awesome landscapes on the earth. The beautiful Waterton Lakes almost waylaid us into putting aside our itinerary and camping for longer than we had planned. It had been a fun packed tour until we entered the Banff National Park, and things took a gentle turn in a different direction without anyone realising.
A cable car ride had landed us at the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. The view from the gondola was awesome––the Bow River meandering by the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course was picturesque and a treat not only to the eyes but to this golfer’s soul as well. Far in the north, the Ghost River Wilderness dominated the landscape. It was scenic, albeit with a dash of unattributable eeriness.
The Observatory––a room merely ten feet square––was perched atop Sanson Peak. Its walls made of stones of irregular shapes and sizes seemed incapable of withstanding a gust, let alone a mild tremor. Cold mountain breeze caressing the walls made shrill whistling sounds of varying pitch as it encountered gaps in the structure. There were large glass windows for tourists to get a good look at things on display.
Inside, on a water-stained wooden floor, was a crudely assembled cot. A casually popped pillow on a ruffled blanket and crumpled linen, gave the impression that someone had been sleeping in the bed until a few minutes ago. An unvarnished wooden table and a cane chair were the other items of furniture vying for the crammed space. An old newspaper dated September 10, 1926; a roll of measuring tape; a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling; a bucketful of charcoal; an empty pail; a pair of worn-out ankle boots without laces; a large axe and some gardening implements and tools; casually hung garments, and a slouch hat and a lantern pegged on wooden pillars––everything in the cabin, and the manner in which they were laid out, bore a stamp of frugality and rusticity. There was a characteristic musty smell quite similar to the type one experiences in the masonic lodges and museums. Shivani was quick to name it: “Sanson Odour.”
Separated by a few miles from the nearest human habitation, that dwelling with its odds and sods was clearly a century behind the present times. It could well have been the location for the shooting of a Rudyard Kipling film; just waiting for, “Camera!” and “Action!”
Until we had gotten a glimpse of the objects inside the room, I was invested in the idea of seeing the usual paraphernalia that one finds in any observatory––barometer, maximum-minimum thermometer, weather cock, plotting charts, pencils, erasers, pens, inkpots, rulers and the like. What we saw was a tad less expected. Besides, the dated objects, and items of clothing and furniture, the Observatory had an engaging history which we were to discover next.
“Hello, I am William Sanson. You can call me Bill.” A bespectacled man in his mid-seventies introduced himself as the caretaker of the Observatory. His appearance and demeanour suggested that he had followed a toilsome routine in life. His enthusiasm contrasted his wrinkled face and his tired eyes peering from behind thick cylindrical lenses held in place by a broken frame balanced on his bony nose.
“This Observatory is dedicated to Norman Bethune Sanson.” Bill announced with verve. “Sanson was the curator of the Banff Park Museum from 1896 to 1932. During his tenure, he travelled extensively through the several National Parks in this area collecting specimens for the museum. His love for animals made him take additional charge of the Banff Zoo. The weather station on the peak was erected at his behest and later, in 1948, named in his honour. He made more than a thousand trips to the peak in his capacity as the park meteorologist until 1945, when he was 84 years old.”
“Are you related to Norman Sanson?” Mudit asked Bill when he paused for a breather.
“Oh yeah! I am his grandson. I was nine when I first climbed this peak with him.” Bill’s chest swelled and his voice brimmed with pride. “Like him, I too have served the Queen’s Own Rifles, and ever since I retired, I’ve been looking after this place.”
Bill spoke with great reverence for his grandfather. He almost sang, “Norman Sanson was fully devoted to this Observatory. His work, and the flora and fauna of this area, meant a world to him. Everything here, living and inanimate, reciprocates his love to this day. And, lemme tell you, some of them animals and birds still call on my grandpa and spend time with him.” There was a core of weirdness in the way he referred to Norman Sanson as if he were still alive.
“In the twilight years of his life, Sanson went visiting people he cared for, and presenting them his cherished belongings as souvenirs.” Bill pulled out a gold chain from the pocket of his waistcoat. “This was his parting gift to me.” At the other end of the chain was a gold watch. Engraved on the cover, in cursive was the name: “Norman B Sanson.” It was a covetable antique.
“Working alone all the time, didn’t he get bored? No telephone, no radio, no television––how did he spend the parts of his days when he was not recording any observations?” Shivani was curious.
“Sanson had a lot of other things to do. He used to read technical journals, and write reports and articles for a local newspaper. Besides, he did take occasional breaks from his work. One of his favourite pastimes was to run down the slope to a location called Point Bravo. He used to boast of completing a round trip to Point Bravo in exactly 87 seconds. It is interesting how he timed those shuttles … oops (there was an interruption). …just watch out!” A squirrel appeared from nowhere and distracted Bill. It started frolicking on the window sill.
“Lisa! You are up to your tricks again!” Bill admonished the squirrel as a father would, an errant child. The little thing was unmindful of Bill’s scolding; and, as if to tease him, she stood on its hind legs and began dancing.
We clapped for Lisa, for providing us unadulterated entertainment. Left with little choice, Bill condoned her behaviour with mock annoyance. She came running when Chhaya waved a bread crumb at her. We were enjoying her antics when she suddenly leapt and cowered into a crevice to evade a large bird that had swooped down to prey on her.
“David! Stop it! Will you!” yelled Bill. It sounded like a military word of command. Then he snapped his fingers and twisted his tongue and twittered in an unusual way. His utterance can at best be reproduced on paper as: “Tschulk! Tschulk! Tschulk!” And, lo and behold, the bird glided down and landed on his outstretched arm. It was massive with scary eyes that glistened in the sun.
“He’s David, the raven. He’s a big bully, keeps scaring Lisa and plays pranks on people. He lives here; guards the Observatory and gives company to my grandpa. He even does errands for him.” Bill introduced the raven to us as though he were a member of the Sanson family and turned his head to address him, “Come on baby, now stop being naughty. Last week when you did something funny, you lost a talon and broke your neck, almost.” With great care, Bill inspected David’s bandaged foot. He brought his mouth closer to the bird’s head and pretended to speak in his ear, “Now, say hello to our Indian friends. If you are well behaved, they might show you the Great Indian Rope Trick.” He winked at us and tittered, baring the gaps in his decaying teeth.
“Caw! Caw! Caw!” David obeyed and nodded several times. He seemed to be trying to get acquainted with each one of us, individually. It was fun. We thanked Bill and prepared to leave. I continued to engage him with questions while we waited for the cable-car. I stopped only when Mudit drew my attention and said in our mutually understood sign language, “Hey Bro, how about sparing poor Bill. He has other guests to attend to.”
Our next halt was at the Bear Mountain Motel where we had planned to spend the night. It was going to be a long three-hour drive to the Motel. When the wheels rolled, Squadron Leader Goyal recalled the visit to the Sanson Peak, “What a man! Sanson performed his duties with utter disregard to his personal comfort. I am mighty impressed. We hardly come across such dedicated people now a days. The Observatory had Sanson’s aura; I could almost feel his presence inside it.”
“It used to take several hours to cover the treacherous trek; and he used to make it to the top two to three times a week. Hats off to him,” added Seema.
“It must have been so difficult during the winter season with snow all around,” wondered Renu.
“Lisa amused me… she was so cute,” came in Chhaya. “Poor thing had to run away…. And that crow… hey Bhagwan (Oh my God), it scared me too; his eyes were as big as golf balls.”
“Mom, it was a raven… same family as a crow, but much bigger,” Mudit corrected Chhaya.
“Masaji (uncle), as always, you were in your element. With the interest you displayed, I thought you were working on a scholarly paper on the Observatory,” Shivani nudged me naughtily.
Chhaya poured hot coffee for all of us when Mudit pulled up by the roadside to take a break. Shivani found time to copy Bill’s bird call: “Tschlack, Tchhuluck.” Instinctively rest of us followed suit. It spread like a contagion with everyone trying to reproduce the sound. Although hardly anyone succeeded, we had fun taking turns.
What happened next was not something very unusual. A raven landed on the bonnet of our Volkswagen. We were half amused and half amazed because David was still on our minds.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! It’s David! Look there! A talon is missing on his left foot, and… and there’s the bandage too” Shivani shrieked.
It indeed, was him. It was David! Now, this was extremely unusual and intriguing––how and why would David fly a hundred odd miles behind us? Flabbergasted and not knowing what to do, we tried wooing David with our versions of Tschulk. Some of us even raised our arms for him to come and sit on, but our collective efforts did not impress the raven. He appeared rather, rankled. Then, with clear disdain for our overtures, he walked a few steps on the bonnet and, very lazily spread his large wings, which must have measured close to five feet from tip to tip, and beat the air with them. Despite his massive body, he took to the air effortlessly. Through the sun-roof, we saw him orbiting overhead for some time before he was gone.
David remained the subject of our discussion until we reached the Bear Mountain Motel.
Once there, at the Motel, everyone rushed to their suites to freshen up. I stayed back in the lobby to complete the arrival formalities. A few tourists were waiting for their turns at the reception, so I picked up an information brochure with a road map of Alberta from a kiosk to put my time to good use. I had barely opened the glossy pamphlet when I saw someone walking towards me. He was a mountain of a man, reminded me of Richard Kiel, who has played Jaws in many a Bond film. His face was partly covered by the visor of his baseball cap. His eyes were masked by large sunglasses. Salt and pepper stubble covering the rest of his face and the speed at which he was closing in on me, eliminated the remote possibility of recalling a past acquaintance or encounter with him. I thought, in fact I was almost certain, I didn’t know the man from Adam. He stopped inches from me. I could smell butter chicken in his breath.
“Jai Hind Sir-jeee!” He stood erect and saluted. “What a pleasant surprise seeing you here in Kneda (Canada),” he beamed. “Sergeant Dhillon… Logistics Squadron, Jalahalli, Sir. Do you Rumember (remember) me?” With the answer beautifully embedded in the question, he saved me the trouble of sifting my memory to place him.
“Of course, I remember you, Dhillon,” I spoke a half truth and held his extended hand and shook it. His appearance had changed so much since we were together in Jalahalli a dozen years ago that there was no way I could have recognised him. The warm hug that followed was long enough for me to travel back in time and return with some vivid memories.
“I am delighted to see you, Dhillon! We are visiting our son in Calgary. Just been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. And, what are you doing here? Visiting your brother?”
“Sir, after hanging my uniform, I moved to Edmonton with my family when my brother-in-law found me a job as a manager at a gas station. With the blessing of Vahe Guru and your good wishes, now I own two gas stations and have stakes in a couple of motels in Alberta. I am here with Flies with Falcon.” Dhillon introduced me to his business partner who belonged to the first nations community. His forefathers had lived in Canada for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Flies with Falcon, Falcon for short, had a good build; his body was oozing out of his tight-fitting tee. He wore a Buddha-like smile and appeared to have attained Nirvana.
“How has been your trip, Sir? You must be enjoying the long drive?”
“Of course, of course! Being on the road with Mudit has been a dream come true. We have been stopping off and on, savouring the landscape and clicking pictures––it is awesome countryside. The drive from the Sulphur Mountain Observatory to this place was particularly interesting––a raven that we had come across at the Observatory followed us, and re-joined us, when we took a break en route.”
“A raven followed you? Is it? Sir, do you know, such animal behaviour portends something?” Dhillon was at his mischievous best, “It could be auspicious or ominous.” He failed to hide his impish smile.
“Puttar, are you trying to scare me?” I joined Dhillon as he burst out laughing.
“You know Sir, I don’t believe in such things,” Dhillon took a step back. Then he tried to involve Falcon who was sitting quietly, “But Falcon’s grandfather reads animal behaviour and foretells events. Maybe Falcon too can analyse this raven’s actions.”
I knew Dhillon was joking but Falcon’s countenance changed. His smile vanished and he went into some deep thought. Before he could say something, Dhillon hailed a waiter he seemed to know personally, “John!”
John greeted us with a smile, “Hello Mr. Dhillon and Mr. Falcon! Long time! I see, you have an Indian friend today.” Then looking at me, he said, “Welcome Sir! What can I get you?”
Dhillon ordered coffee for the three of us, and before John left, introduced him to me, “Sir, John is the oldest staff on the rolls of this Motel. He serves people heartily, and he knows this place like the back of his hand.” Dhillon continued after John was gone, “This guy is in his late seventies, and like most men his age, a bit talkative. He is notorious for hallucinating. And, he claims that he is visited occasionally by his dead wife and some other people.”
It was the same old Sergeant Dhillon I had known back in the Air Force––working like a horse, but not missing an opportunity to tell tales and to gossip.
“Raven… yes, yes raven! So, Falcon, why don’t you tell us something interesting about this raven’s behaviour?” Dhillon returned to where he had left.
Falcon began without a preface, “As Dhillon has told you, it is true that this type of interaction with a raven portends a meeting. It is a meeting with an absolute stranger. It’ll leave a lasting impression on you. Stay calm if, and when, it happens.” He saw the puzzled look on my face and allayed my anxiety, “But, don’t you worry, I don’t see no harm coming your way.”
Hardly a word was spoken over coffee. Dhillon and Falcon left me with a cluttered mind.
I remained quiet at the dinner table. I didn’t feel like talking to my people about Dhillon and Falcon. I didn’t want them, the ladies in particular, to have a sleepless night in anticipation of a possibly ominous meeting with a stranger.
“Masaji is so quiet. He’s missing Bill, David and Lisa,” Shivani noticed the change in my behaviour in the span of an hour. I responded with a feeble smile.
After dinner, we congregated in Mudit’s suite to spend some time together before retiring for the day. The idea was to talk about the day gone by, and discuss the itinerary of the following day. We were enjoying Italian Fish, a card game introduced by Mudit. That’s when I excused myself for a routine after-dinner walk, “I’ll be gone for about a half hour. Would anyone like to join me?”
Just as I had intuited, none accepted my offer. Shivani came up with a counter, “Come on Masaji, it has been long since you hung your uniform. Why don’t you take life easy now? Just chill! You are on a holiday. You can resume your military routine when you are back in Delhi. Isn’t spending quality time with the family more important than sticking to mundane routine?”
“No rain, no hail, nothing can stop him from following his routine, and that’s what keeps him going,” Chhaya came to my rescue. Then, addressing me, she said, “Shona, we are all tired and want to crash now. Please return soon.”
“Bro, did you realise, lately the SUV has been pulling to the left? Have you checked the air pressure in the tyres? And what time do we plan to leave tomorrow?” I asked Mudit as I prepared to leave.
“Aye Captain! I have got the tyres charged and have cleaned the SUV. We plan to leave by eight if Shivani is up by then,” Mudit took the opportunity to pull Shivani’s leg. “All okay, Dad. Don’t worry, enjoy your walk.”
I stepped out of the suite, not knowing that adherence to my routine that evening was going to buy me anxiety of a lifetime.
The Bear Mountain Motel is a classic 1960’s style motel. The wood and masonry architecture and drive-up parking is a favourite with the travellers. The drive-way is lined with street lights which stand ten feet tall. They are there mostly for decoration; they also provide a little illumination.
I had taken barely a dozen paces into the walkway when Bill, David, Dhillon and Falcon forced a re-entry into my cranium. My mind strayed in an altogether new direction. And, if that was not enough, I saw John, the waiter, returning from room service with a tray balanced on his gloved palm.
“So, John, what’s up?” I said when he drew near. It was meant to be a polite stand-alone question. I had no intention to go further than that.
“Yep! Doin fine! Thanks Sir,” he replied. but didn’t stop at that. “Going out for a stroll at this late hour?” He continued softly but with falling inflection which made me think that his question was loaded with more meaning than conveyed by the words he had spoken. And sure enough, he cleared my doubt, “Beware Sir, we are close to the Bear Mountain. It’s home to the grizzly bears. Occasionally an inquisitive cub strays this side, followed by caring papa and mama bears. Normally they don’t do no harm, but they scare the living daylights out of people. And, sometimes…(pause).” John remembered something and stopped in his track. “Sorry Sir, I left the oven on in the kitchen. I can smell over-baked bread. I must rush before it burns.” He pirouetted, the tray still balanced precariously on his palm, and sauntered towards the cookhouse. I could hear the clinking of cutlery in his deep pockets until he turned the corner at the end of the building.
John wanted to say something more before he ran back to the kitchen. Perhaps he wanted to say something more about the wildlife. Or, did he have something else to share? Or, was Dhillon’s opinion of John, about his habit of hallucinating, playing on my mind? Did this guy want to tell me about his dead wife? I wasn’t sure.
It was a creepy feeling. I continued walking regardless.
Two days to the full moon, the moon was shining brightly. Constellations of stars were moving innocently on their assigned paths and yet, were contributing to the coffers of the godmen all over the world. I had not seen so many stars in the Delhi sky in the twenty-five years since I dropped anchor in India’s capital city. The LED screen near the gate flickered; it indicated, “40º F.” There had been a drop of about four degrees since I had stepped out. I could feel the cold air touch the inside of my lungs. A thin layer of mist had started forming and it hung lazily a few feet above the head. I pulled the collar of my leather jacket and adjusted my balaclava to mitigate the chill that I was experiencing. My hands dug deeper in the pockets of my grey flannels, seeking warmth in their cosy corners.
With the fall in temperature, the layer of mist thickened and obscured the moon and the stars. The sky was now the colour of wet aluminium. There was no indication where the moon was. And although it was still quite bright, the shadows had disappeared. Street lights too, appeared dimmed.
Mind, as is its wont, began revisiting the day’s events. In the process, it awakened the child in me. I couldn’t resist, and blurted out fairly loudly, “Schulk.” It was an inadvertent utterance. I looked around shyly and then made an attempt, a deliberate one this time, to improve upon my previous performance, “Tskuck! Tschulk! Tschulk!”
I thought, I had got it correct and was celebrating the little success with ecstasy when rustling of leaves in a nearby tree drew my attention. It was not just any bird; it was a raven gliding towards me. I froze when it landed a few feet from me and, even in that poor light, I could see its bandaged left foot.
It was David yet again!
He released something that he was holding in his claws. It made a soft metallic sound as it hit the concrete surface. I stepped back and started observing his next move. He nudged and rolled the metallic thing towards me. Not knowing his intentions, I took another step back. At this, he nudged the thing towards me several times more; and with greater force each time. When it was very close to me, he hopped back some distance, and cawed softly. Out of sheer curiosity, I picked up the object. It was kind of an hourglass, much smaller, though. Delicate glass bubbles filled with sand were encapsuled in a slim brass cylinder with a window. More appropriately, it was a Sand Timer rather than an Hourglass.
Mystified and unsure, I put back the thing on the road and rolled it towards David who, very promptly, nudged it back towards me. I saw him nodding his head when I picked it up again; his eyes glowed in the ambient light. I was uneasy holding the Sand Timer. I took a deep breath to get a sense of control over my body and mind. I thought it would be the end of the matter.
I couldn’t have been more off the mark on that count.
In the deep breath that I had just taken, I got the whiff of a very familiar odour––it was the masonic-lodge-and-museum kind of smell. “Sanson Odour!” Shivani’s words reverberated menacingly in my head. I realised, that the palm of my hand holding the Sand Timer was wet. I consigned the little thing to my pocket and removed my glasses that had become foggy due the sweat that had evaporated from around my eyes.
I was rummaging my pockets to find a tissue to clean my glasses when the eeriness and the uneasy calm of the night was broken by approaching footsteps. My glasses still in my hand, I could only see the silhouette of a man in the distance. The decibel of his patter rose as he neared me. One hand in pocket; he didn’t move the other as he walked; his feet hardly left the ground as he kept closing in. Having cleaned the glasses, I could see more clearly. He was tall; must have been a few inches over six feet. He wore a slouch hat and a military kind of tunic with brass buttons and patch pockets with flaps and a broad leather belt; his trousers were tucked into his long boots. He toted a natural leather bag slung across his shoulder. In that sorry state of mind, I forced myself to believe that he was a Motel guard on the beat. That thought gave me a false sense of relief which didn’t last long.
I said, “Hello,” and found myself groping for words to continue.
“Hello, how’s been your trip to Canada going?” That question from that stranger didn’t surprise me because, I guess that-I-was-a-foreign-tourist–in-Canada was writ large upon my face.
“It has been going great; we have been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory this morning. It was a memorable experience.”
“I go there often. In fact, I was there this afternoon too. I reached there after you had left. Bill told me that some very inquisitive Indians had been to the Observatory. He was floored by your keenness. Are you from the forces?” He spoke in a low toneless voice as he sat down on the culvert by the side of the gate.
“Yes, I’m an Indian Air force Veteran. Now I write for a living.” I said proudly. “Do you also have a military background?” I enquired.
“Yeah, kinda quasi-military. I retired long ago. And, I too used to write. They know me as Seer Altitudinuos.” He spoke slowly and was unintelligible in parts.
He fumbled in his tote bag and dug out a crumpled packet of cigarettes. He tapped it so that a filter-less cigarette popped out. He offered it to me.
“Thanks, I don’t smoke.” I declined politely.
“Hope you don’t mind if I do,” he said and started looking for a light in his bag.
I was momentarily blinded when he struck the match to light the cigarette held in one corner of his mouth, Gregory Peck style. Then, in the illumination caused by the match held in his cupped hand, I got a glimpse of his face for the first time. In the darkness surrounding it, his bearded face looked like a dangling Guy Fawkes mask. And, in it there was an uncanny resemblance to a face I had seen in many pictures through the day.
He looked exactly like Norman Bethune Sanson and that resemblance stunned me into disbelief which lasted a coupla seconds.
Was I hallucinating?
Not knowing how to proceed, I became quiet. I could feel beads of sweat appear on my forehead. Inside my balaclava, my scalp felt wet. Then on, each minute became something heavy and tangible trying to push the one before it. The man’s eyes, and those of David, glimmered every time he took a drag on his cigarette. Both looked sinister. In between, he took a deep swig from his hip flask and swirled it in his mouth. In that foggy night, the only thing that could be heard was his laboured breathing and my heart thumping against my rib-cage, struggling to break free.
It may have been five minutes or, maybe fifteen; I don’t know how long. I had lost the sense of time. I guess, the man was able to divine my thoughts, because he did make a conscious effort to involve me in conversation. But my mind was elsewhere and my entire body felt deprived of sensation.
Just then, I heard a soft “Tschulk” and at the same time saw David trot and take a small flight to perch on the man’s shoulder. I stood like a statue watching everything. I felt hypnotised.
A gentle tap on my shoulder jolted me out of my trance.
It was Mudit, and by his side was Shivani. “Dad, are you alright? We’ve been watching you sitting alone, quiet and motionless, on this culvert for the last ten minutes. You came out for a half-hour walk but you’ve already been here for more than an hour.”
“I’m fine. I was just enjoying the quietude of this place,” I lied as I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. I found that everything around had been swallowed by the fog. There was no trace of the man, or of the raven with the bandaged leg.
I collected myself as the three of us walked back to our suites. The Sand Timer felt heavy in my pocket. I secured it in my shaving pouch before slipping into the bed by a blissfully sleeping Chhaya.
For obvious reasons, I have a very poor recollection of the rest of our trip.
On the first opportunity thereafter, I googled for Seer Altitudinuos, and discovered that that was Sanson’s pen name. My curiosity led me to take a closer look at the Sand Timer. Inscribed on it, in neat cursive, was the name “Norman B Sanson.” My surprise knew no bounds when I timed it with the stopwatch of my iPhone, and discovered that it clocked exactly 87 seconds––the time Norman Bethune Sanson used to take to make a round trip to Point Bravo.