Writing – Fiction
Wickedness, a novel.
Sheltered behind a rock, high in the Canadian Rockies, sixteen-year-old Michelle Westergaard cannot see what the reader does: her father drops her mother off the mountain. Fast forward sixteen years to the summer of 2005, and Michelle — now a folklorist turned journalist — receives a chance commission to write about historic Abbot Hut. Its proximity to Lake O’Hara, former summertime haunt of the Westergaard family and location of their mother Elena’s fatal fall, prompts Michelle to orchestrate a reunion with her father, Carl, and brother, Marc. She wants some answers.
Marc can spend only the last day or two with them, so Michelle and her father meet at the lodge and make the steep scramble up to Abbot Hut on their own. On the descent Carl is injured and they are forced back up to the hut to await rescue, which stretches to seven hours due to poor weather.
The ensuing present-time conversation between father and daughter unfolds in parallel with the back stories of Elena’s family’s flight from Nazi Germany; her affair with her cousin Rainer, son of the family Nazi; Elena and Carl’s history of love and betrayal; Carl’s long-buried secret that Elena teases to light; and the paths Marc and Michelle’s lives have taken since the 1989 ‘accident.’ The sublime peaks surrounding Lake O’Hara create the perfect setting for memories both treasured and unsetttling, fairy tale dreams, and a final reckoning for the Westergaard family.
The novel explores the nature of wickedness, societal and individual, as well as in the daily news. At heart, however, this is the story of a young woman’s quest for truth, understanding and personal redemption.
Tales Told in Yoho brings together my long-standing interest in German and Scandinavian folk tales, and my passion for camping, hiking, and scrambling in the Canadian Rockies. The result is a collection of original stories that draw heavily on the history of the region—interwoven with a frame story—told in the spirit of the Romantic poets, but located primarily in the mountains of Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks.
Synopsis: Tales Told in Yoho
Against the backdrop of catastrophic natural disasters and a deadly global pandemic, a young girl, her three friends, and four others are trapped in a remote valley of the Canadian Rockies by a massive landslide triggered by record-breaking rainfall, which is unrelenting. For Kate, the protagonist of the frame story, the Yoho Valley is a place filled with both happy memories and the ghost of her father. This is her first visit to Yoho since his death three years ago, for which she blames her mother. Unable to hike, unable to communicate with the outside world except through the park warden, the eight trapped campers decide to amuse themselves by each telling a story that must take place in the Rocky Mountains and contain at least one element of magic. Through storytelling they all come to understand how human failure to steward the earth’s riches is chief among the root causes of these disasters—an understanding they are then bound to pass on. On a personal level, Kate realizes the cost of miscommunication and misplaced blame, and ultimately accepts the loss she shares with her mother.
Prologue. Mother Earth arrives in the Yoho Valley on high alert from her creator, Chaos—humans are failing as stewards of Earth’s riches. How will she help them understand what’s at risk?
“Adeline Link and the Royal Stag” brings to life the love and legacy of Adeline Link and her trailblazing husband Tommy at Lake O’Hara;
“The Mammoth of Athabasca Pass” is based on an excerpt from David Thompson’s journal about his search for a new pass across the Rockies in the early 1800s;
“The Secret of Trolltinder Mountain” relates the adventures of two children who encounter a troll family and ride a stream from inside the mountain to Angel’s Staircase;
“Rosalind and the Piano Player” tells of an aging jazz singer who falls in love with the ghost of the piano player whose likeness appears in a rock formation at Lake O’Hara;
“The Sinister Summer at Lake Magog” takes place in 1936 and tells the story of a young Austrian who brings with him a lurking evil that only the forest animals at Mount Assiniboine can overcome;
“The Castleguard Ice Cave” is a whimsical story about Mary Schaeffer and her friends matching wits with the East Wind;
“The Lone Pine Tree” warns how a life of harmony and bounty in the Yoho Valley can be lost when Nature’s trust is betrayed;
“Aurelia and the Burgess Shale” questions the loss of kind and generous species in Nature’s drive towards survival of the fittest;
“Where the Sun Sleeps” is a fantasy night hike to Cathedral Mountain where four children learn from Mother Earth about death and the eternal cycles of nature;
“The Spirit of Yoho” begins when the pandemic reaches the seats of power and Mother Earth unleashes further global catastrophe and unrest until the world’s leaders finally become unified in action.
“The Elevator,” Uproar Literary Blog, Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, https://lawrencehouse.ca/tag/k-l-shailer/
“Angels in the Snow,” “Lady Bird, Lady Bird” — CommuterLit, http://commuterlit.com/authors-by-last-name-n-z/authors-s-t/sa-sm/shailer-k-l/
Excerpt from “The Secret of Trolltinder Mountain”
Once the short days of winter grow longer and the extended reach of the sun’s rays loosen the harsh grip of frost and ice, there comes a moment deep inside the mountains when the first streamlets burst out of their rocky sanctuaries and begin to trickle down craggy cliffs toward the frozen river below. The gentle tapping of the streamlets wakens the spirit of the river, who yawns and stretches, and with a sudden heave, pushes the icy covering up and away.
There is no more beautiful example of this spring awakening than the Angel’s Staircase near the back of the Yoho Valley. Here the streamlets that winter deep inside Trolltinder Mountain push the first drops of meltwater through cracks in the ancient granite to join tiny rivulets under a tongue of the Fairy Glacier. Within a few short weeks, these pool together into a long underground streamlet that grows in volume as it spirals through the mountain until it emerges at a point just above the Angel’s Staircase. The frothy water bounces from step to step down to the slumbering Yoho and like an impatient child stands in the frozen folds of the mother’s coverlet until at last she awakens. And as she pushes back the ice with a loud crack, twelve eyes open like clockwork in the cozy bedchamber of Trolltinder after a long winter’s nap.
The family of Dagobert and Pendelita is one of only a few Troll clans resident in the Rocky Mountains. Arriving in North America with the Vikings many hundreds of years ago, they are descended from the great Mountain Kings of Norway and carry the lineage of both fairies and ogres. Indeed the child trolls are slender and delicate like their fairy cousins. Only at maturity do they take on the appearance of their parents who are large and hideous and resemble much more their ogre cousins. But in this troll clan, the aggressive nature of the ogre is tempered more than usual by the sweet gentleness of their fairy lineage. As a result they are pillars of the forest community, friends and protectors of all creatures alike—except perhaps the wolverine who likes to snack on fairies.
Now one of the favorite spring pass-times of Dagobert and Pendelita’s two sets of twins—Bilomar and Nesselrud age 78 but the equivalent of seven-year-old humans, and Clothilde and Harold age 53 but more like five-year-olds—was to ride the underground streamlet on a floe of ice. Bilomar called it the stream-coaster and led his siblings on the annual four-kilometer ride over and over and over. To be sure the twins spent the summer months, after the stream was reduced to a tiny trickle, playing in the woods and exploring mountain caves with great gusto. Nevertheless, each winter when Pendelita wanted to settle the twins for their long sleep, all she needed to do was remind them that when they awoke the tummy-tickling stream-ride would be waiting for them, and they instantly dozed off.
One spring, not too long ago, Bilomar and Nesselrud were so eager to try out the stream-coaster, that they wanted to go directly from their beds to the stream without even fully waking up and eating their first feast. This was unheard of and caught their mother by surprise.
Pendelita was firm: “Not until after tomorrow evening’s feast and not until all the large chunks of ice are clear from the river. You’ll have to wait a day or two.”
“But we could jump off on the Angel’s Staircase,” said Bilomar. “I don’t like going into the river anyway.”
But Pendelita leaned way down until her large face was even with her son’s and simply mouthed the word “no.” This nearly knocked him over and he knew she only did this when she was truly annoyed, so he stepped back and gave her a little bow.
“Why don’t you help your father gather willow bark and Labrador Tea from the woods? I have nice dried berries from the fall and we can make a lovely breakfast porridge.”
The four children followed Dagobert out of the large cave and into the nearby woods, while Pendelita began a little spring cleaning.
“Stay close together and do not wander off,” said their father. “All the forest creatures are waking up now and they will be very hungry.”
Meanwhile, in another part of the Yoho Valley, a different — and much newer — spring ritual was underway. Each Victoria Day weekend toward the end of May, the Warden of Yoho Valley opened the Warden’s Cabin at Takakkaw Falls and began combing the trails for signs of bears and other animals, as well as for fallen trees and rotted or washed away planking. In this particular year, Warden Bob brought along his young nephew, Alex, who was seven and niece, Claire, who had just turned five, for both were in need of a good dose of clear mountain air and open space.
“They are too free-spirited for our tiny apartment in the city,” Bob’s sister had complained. “A few weeks in the open wilderness will do them a world of good.”
Bob knew they were good children and did what they were told, but he could also see the pent up energy and longing in their eyes for a world beyond the confines of their little home.
Warden Bob and the children arrived at the park gate late on a Saturday afternoon. A soft, deep layer of snow still blanketed the hillsides and covered most of the asphalt road. Aware of his precious cargo, Bob guided the truck more slowly along the road than was his usual practice and stopped so they could watch a small group of mule deer pull bark from the trees. When they rounded the last bend, Alex and Claire pressed their faces against the window as a huge two-level cataract streaming down from a Great Divide glacier came into view. The Cree and their ancestors—who had hunted in this valley even longer than the trolls had lived here—named it Takakkaw, or Magnificent Falls. Within minutes Bob pulled the truck up to the Warden’s Cabin.
Alex and Claire ran to the edge of the Yoho River, enthralled by the huge blocks of ice knocking against one another as they rushed past.
“Don’t get too close, now,” said Bob. “That’s moving so fast you’d be half a mile downstream before you had time to yell for help.”
The children stared at him wide-eyed, then each stepped back a safe distance and sat down to watch the action. Some of the larger ice floes squeezed together, pushing upwards half out of the water, and then landed with a loud splash, jostling to be the first to reach the slower flats of the Kicking Horse.
Next the children ran down the trail to Takakkaw Falls. As they came closer, the roar of the falls was so loud they could hardly hear one another; they also realized their toques, scarves, and eyelashes were coated with frozen spray. “You look like a snowman,” Claire shouted. Still they pressed forward, hand-in-hand, to the end of the trail right next to the base of the falls. By now their jackets also were coated in ice, and feeling chilled they turned and began to run and slide along the path back to the Warden’s Cabin. A curl of gray smoke was rising from the chimney and when they pushed open the door, they found their uncle standing in front of a warm woodstove, stirring a kettle of savoury soup.
After supper, as Bob helped the children inflate their air mattresses and arrange their sleeping bags, Alex asked, “What’re we doing tomorrow? Can we go up into the mountains?” Without waiting for an answer he leaned his elbows on the sill of the window with a view up the valley and kept talking. “What’s that funny-looking mountain with the chimney on top?”
“Well, you’re full of questions,” said Bob. “That odd-looking mountain is Trolltinder—named by an adventurer from Norway where trolls are said to live. We’re not going there, but we’ll be closer to it, so you’ll get a better look. The plan for tomorrow is to accompany a horse train way back into the valley and up to the giant Twin Falls. You’ll like that. The owner of the little chalet there will be going in with supplies and checking for winter damage. I always go with her on the first trip in, to help with the horses and make sure everything is okay. I thought you’d both enjoy coming along.”
“Wowee,” shouted Alex.
“Can we ride the horses?” asked Claire.
“You’ll have to,” said Bob. “Between the wet snow and the knee-deep muck, the paths will be hard to hike on foot—especially since neither of you has the right boots.”
Claire looked puzzled. “But Mom just bought these for the trip.” She pointed to the two pairs of shiny red rubber boots lined up by the door.
“Well I’m glad you have those. But I’m also glad we’ll be traveling on horseback,” said Bob.
Cheeks flushed from the warmth of the sun, Alex walked along the river’s edge, watching the thinning number of ice floes speeding by. Where did these stragglers come from? Then he heard Claire call his name. He looked past the Warden’s Cabin to see his sister seated on a horse in front of Uncle Bob and a woman younger than his mother on a horse next to them.
As Alex ran toward them, he saw that there were three additional horses, each bearing saddlebags stuffed full, and one with a birdcage tied to one side.
“It’s for the pesky whiskey jack that won’t let me eat on my porch in peace,” said Fran, the owner of the chalet. Her face shone with a warm smile as she extended her hand to help him into the saddle behind her.
Their trek took them through the campground to a broad barren riverbed at the edge of which stood a single, lone lodgepole pine that was notable for its height amidst mainly scraggly wind-whipped willows and juniper bushes. The rocky pathway was hard on the horses’ hooves and the fast-flowing stream that crossed their path was tricky to wade across. The horse carrying Fran and Alex nearly lost its footing when a river rock rolled under its hoof.
“I guess it’s time to build that bridge we’ve been talking about for years,” said Bob, although Fran was well out of earshot by this time. Claire looked up at her uncle and shrugged.
Once past the rocky stretch, Fran with Alex and their one horse in tow made better time on the trail. Bob and Claire didn’t catch up to them until they’d stopped at the junction of paths leading to the Angel’s Staircase by the river and Point Lace Falls in the opposite direction.
“Let’s tie up the horses here and go see both falls. We could use the stretch of leg,” said Fran. Bob nodded and the children ran ahead down the trail towards the river, where they found a large flat rock to stretch out on.
“Take a good look at that falls, kids,” Bob said as he pointed across the river to the Angel’s Staircase. That’s as fulsome as you’ll ever see it. Most of the year, the water only trickles down and you can’t make out the individual steps.”
Claire stared at the delicate flow of water streaming down the staircase. Moss along the edges was beginning to turn a soft green and she imagined a group of fairies lounging on the moss and skipping from step to step. All at once the glint of a metal plate caught her eye and she thought she saw a small figure jump from the top step into the bushes. She poked Alex and pointed, but there was nothing to see.
“What?” said Alex.
Claire rubbed her eyes and blinked. “Nothing, I guess.”
When Nesselrud landed in the bushes she found herself face-to-face with one of the biggest, nastiest wolverines she’d ever laid eyes on. Fortunately—or maybe not—Clothilde and Harold followed less than a minute later.
The wolverine could scarcely contain his glee. “Mmmmm, fairies,” he muttered and smacked his lips.
… [End of excerpt]