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In the Places They Loved


“Tuco! Wait.”
The dogs must be leashed before they spill from the back of the truck. Feels like clipping onto a flood.
“Stay. Peanut, sit! Girls! Quiet! ” Her tough, deep voice keeps my sister’s two pit-bulls at bay.
I tell myself the decibels are temporary. This is not a time she can show vulnerability. At eight thirty a.m., dozens of nearby birds sitting soundless in the Serpentine Fen have listened and are taking flight.
It is a phenomenon when gentle folks like Teresa get good with macho, unforgiving tones. Safely at our feet, everyone is passed the scolding. Even Pit Bulls offer tender greetings and sincere kisses. I take black-haired Tuco’s leash. She yanks toward the river.
“Wet today,” Teresa considers, her and Peanut catching up. The two of us women take a choreographed moment to kiss hello and hug, avoiding getting the leashes crossed. “But not raining, yet.”
For a few minutes along the raised dyke, we all watch the high river swirl by, and stare back at the cormorants drying sable, spread- open wings, as they perch motionless on pieces of logs. Peanut barks. The rare blue- nose pit bulls are smaller, softer grey, but sensitive.
“Couldn’t be damper,” I agree. It’s a fen, after all.
Teresa wants to tell me not to let Tuco pull on the leash. I can see it in her. The problem is, I listen without listening. Siblings are champions at that. Let dogs do what dogs do, is where I come from.
We are in the 150 hectare triangle of wetland between Highway 99, the King George Highway and the Serpentine River, perhaps ten years ago. It’s a Surrey few know, so near the Pacific Ocean there’s a salt smell when the wind is right.
“How’d it go last night?” I begin.
I’m wondering if Aidan finished his essay. We’d both discovered a secret. Sit with kids while they write and their function and time improves. Just to have us beside them.
“Almost done. Rugby after school. He was bushed.”
The team heads up the steps of the first of three rustic wooden watchtowers that overlook the wetlands.
Kids take shelter in the look in our eyes. The top of the observation deck offers a long view, and sheltering behaviour stretches out in every direction, under the sedges, in thickets, on tree branches, between long marsh grasses and dug out in holes visible along the river bank.

Fens, essentially, need their open water. Birds can drink, eat, rest, hide, raise offspring and socialize here without peril.
From this high up, bits of a trail can be seen snaking easily around and in and out for almost the entire four kilometers. With the dogs, it will take us another hour. The landscape looks grassy green plus maximum slimy. Water pools in puddles and ditches. When the rain eventually does come in buckets they become ponds.
“What a quagmire,” Teresa says, breaking the pleasant boredom of looking at something wonderful for the hundredth time.
Now there’s a funny word. Just the kind of thing she’d surrender; old, rarely used clichés and childhood words come alive.
“Hah! Good one.” I look east to the farm. Corn grew thick and tall months ago. The chopped stocks remain in rows bent over and straw yellow. There’s a path going north that shoulders the field.
Teresa comes up with outdated words that everyone knows but no one uses. Surprise her and she’ll say, “Holy Dinah!”
“This is actually it.” I’m keen to return to our word. Wetlands and quagmires arise because of slow decomposition. I tell her what I’ve read. Whenever I’m reading, I think of discussing it with her on our next walk. Maybe it’s because she listens.
“All these leaves and grasses, any kind of organic matter, they grow here, and then die.” I had googled ‘fen.’ “But in a place like this, when vegetation loses its leaves, it is ‘drop and get water-logged’.”
I slow down for the good part.
“What’s key is that there’s not enough oxygen to break it all down.”
We make eye contact. Not enough oxygen to break old stuff down. That’s what it can feel like.
“Know what I like about fens?” She’s either listening, or pretending to.
“The snakes, the mud, the spider’s webs and the goose poop?” she replies, as the dogs are eating the last one.
This is what happens when they are left off leash. We keep coaxing with whistles, tongue clicks and calls. Carefully stepping over a makeshift plank, it is almost possible to avoid the surrounding sludge that has recently swallowed the worn track.
One mouth on each end of a long, old branch, Tuco’s and Peanut’s paws sink in the mud on both sides of the slick wood. The plan to stay on the grassy edge of the narrow field path doesn’t work as well for the soiled stick carriers, who together are at least a meter wide. They are welded to the bough, and so intent on not letting go before the other. Never mess with a pit bull’s jaw.
“Think about it. Quagmires exist mostly from biological rather than physical means,” I explain.
“So?” she replies.
“It’s not that they were caused by movements of the earth, like most places are,” I point out.
“A whole lot of lifeless stuff heaping up in a bunch of sitting water,” Teresa concludes.
Her new runners are covered in mud. Why does she have so many expensive runners? I credit a lot to the Tom Boy inside. All of a sudden she’s running to catch the hounds. Her calves are muscular and beautiful. The stick has been dumped for a rustle with something in the bottom of a ditch.
“Ladies! Out,” she demands from above. There’s that no-nonsense voice.
“Pick up the pace?” she then sweetly asks a recovered minute later, without waiting for a reply. We walk quickly. An hour goes by paying attention to the dogs and the exercise. We hear, but not see, others coming our way. It is time to leash up the stocky sisters close. Pit bulls that live together have their own sibling rivalry going on. Much of their life goes by, being distracted by their supposed fight for a place in the pack. One can’t help one’s DNA.
A morning in the Serpentine Wildlife Management Area can sweep the persistent fretfulness left over from last night with a soaked reassurance in no time at all. Lickety-split, Teresa might say.
The wind picks up, dank and moist. Breathing in is a bit like drinking.
All I can do now is remember. It’s August 2019. I’m dropped deep into the quagmire. Things that were growing are finished. There’s not enough oxygen to break it all down. Teresa passed away suddenly in her sleep 33 nights ago. She was 48 years old.
To find her, I return over and over to the places and words she loved.

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