Friday, March 22, 2013

IMMORTALITY (and other short stories)

From the back cover: "The twenty-two short stories in this collection are at turns tragic, funny, cringe-worthy, transcendent, and more. But though they range widely in content and scope, they are unified in this affirmation: that life, despite its inherent and inevitable tragedies, is beautiful."

Available on mulched-up trees or kindle at: AMAZON DOT COM
Give it a Goodreads review at (go figure): GOODREADS


True Facts about IMMORTALITY from josh barkey on Vimeo.

A couple of notes:

* See the two posts below to pre-read "Fear: A Love Story" and "Immortality," absolutely free. 

* Yes, I did indeed do the art and design for the cover, myself. So you're not just getting my words, you're getting a print of my art, as well. Bonus.

* While there is a rhyme and reason to the way I organized the stories, you can read them in any order you like. Here's the TABLE OF CONTENTS, to give you an idea of what to expect:


1
Immortality                                     
 A Canadian tree-planter becomes a legend.
1
2
Horsefly                                                                              
 The pain of a horsefly is a tree-planter’s final straw.
15
3
Loyalty                                                                         
 Four Hutterite boys learn a lesson while shoveling pig manure.
22
4
The Hunt                                                               
 Fantasies become reality when a boy receives his first gun.
32
5
Epiphany                                                                        
 A little boy bored in church gets a welcome reprieve.
39
6
Sanctuary                                                                           
 A man revisits a church experience he still can’t quite swallow.
47
7
A Man You Can Count On                                               
 A young rail-rider tries to return to the home he never knew.
54
8
Last Dance                                                                     
A teenage farmer tells the private story of a public tragedy.
62
9
Into That Good Night                                                    
An English teacher meets his greatest schoolroom challenge.
72
10
Conventional                                                                
 Political rhetoric collides with a stage manager from the sky.
80
11
Love, In a Taxi                                                                
 Three lives entwine for one final taxi ride.
91
12
Fear: A Love Story                                                       
Potential soul-mates are thwarted by fear and a dead gopher.
96
13
The Parrot                                                                           
An old priest gives a wounded man advice he can’t stand.
107
14
A Thinly-Veiled Gray                                                           
Past meets present, and a fight breaks out at a class reunion.
121
15
The Hookup                                                                      
 The inexorable tide of history changes a farm family forever.
127
16
Red Gold                                                                               
A young tribesman rages against the dying of his way of life.
129
17
The Apple and the Oak                                                      
An unlikely inter-species friendship ends in hope.
137
18
Thurman Bellweather and the Morning Paper                
An alcoholic wakes up one morning to the next day’s newspaper.
142
19
Control                                                                                     
A billion-heir and an old professor struggle with fate.
153
20
Perspective                                                                      
Reality meets fantasy as a gut-shot fight-club wannabe fades away.
163
21
When Twice Again They Died                                         
The story of a cherished bear’s life, love, and loss.
169
22
It Has No Future but Itself                                                
 During a cold day in hell, a tree-planter finds unexpected peace.
176

A PEEK UNDER THE COVERS... ABSOLUTELY FREE!


FEAR: A LOVE STORY
  
Madeleine Beauregard was afraid, but you would never know it from looking at her. In fact, most who met her would say that she was one of the most confident, the most self-assured, the most put-together women they had ever encountered.
            Little Joe Cockerel, on the other hand, was a terrified mouse of a man, and no one ever doubted it. Nor did he give them much of a chance to do otherwise. For he lived a simple life cloistered away in his workshop apartment, a quiet place tacked-on and tucked-under the back of the old brownstone at 36 East 3rd Street in New York, New York; a place accessible only through a faded and barely-trafficked red door at the bottom of a narrow flight of concrete steps.
            Little Joe was a diminutive fellow. Not short, really, but hunched in on himself and a little nervous, as though he were always expecting to be scooped up by some wind-borne predator. He was thirty-two years old. No one in his life actually ever called him “little.” But I will, because it suits him.
            Madeleine was thirty-one, and possessed of librarian good looks and a breezy savoir-faire that could easily drive a man to distraction... and often did. She wouldn’t exactly be called a raving beauty—not exactly—but there was a voluptuous, organic wildness about her that spoke the kind of promises that men find irresistible. As a result, there were many men who pursued her, and Madeleine fell quickly into and out of love.
            Therein lay her fear. For in the passage of the loves that from time to time lit the air around her with an incandescent shimmer, never once had she found that one, boundless love that could consume her, envelop her... drive her to strip off the caution of years and plunge unreservedly into marriage.
            Madeleine had been fortunate, at the age of twenty-two, to fall into the inheritance of one of those eclectic clothing boutiques that combine a wild, bohemian sensibility with the subtle refinement of haute couture, and had such a deft touch for both the aesthetics and practicalities of the store that she had quickly grown her business to the point where she was free, as a woman of somewhat leisurely means, to follow her whims around the sleepless city, writing poems and exploring the possibilities of a steady stream of suitors. None seemed quite satisfactory.
            On the morning our story begins, in the summer of two thousand and ten, Little Joe Cockerel mounted the steps that climbed sharply from his door to the street and proceeded to walk toward the post office, hugging the alleyway wall and bearing two large burlap sacks, which were filled to overflowing with the smallish, cardboard packages that were his trade and (it depresses me even now to say it) his life.
            Madeleine and Joe were about to meet, but they did not know it. Nor did they know that they were as close to what you might call “soul-mates” as is humanly possible. Which is to say that their unique proclivities and personalities were such that, should all have gone well, they would have been capable of giving each other such a love. They also did not know that, ultimately, this would not matter in the least; because, in addition to being soul-mates, they were also that most pedestrian sort of human couplings, a pair of fear-crossed lovers.
            It was a seven-block trek to the My Village Postal Store from Joe’s apartment, but although there was a much closer place where he could have mailed his packages, he never went anywhere else. He was a creature of great habit, and had a stubborn streak that made him resent the looming impersonality of any large organization, government or otherwise. Over the years, he had practically worn a rut into the sidewalk between his home and the little post office. And so it was that he had his head-down and was deep in thought when he came to the corner of East 3rd and First Avenue, where he walked directly into Madeleine Beauregard—who had paused, in that lilting manner of hers, to gaze up at a small, bright blue bird that was singing down at her from the branches of a leafy Ginko tree.
            Madeleine, who had been standing directly next to the chain-link fence holding back the shrub that hemmed in the Ginko, managed to grab hold and remain upright; but Joe flailed every which way and fell to the sidewalk, dropping his bags and scattering his packages.
            Although Madeleine was a creature of intense passions, capable of quick, fiery anger, there was something in Joe’s forlorn, supine figure that drew her compassion, rather than ire. So prolific and sincere was he in his mumbled, eyes-diverted apologies, that she completely forgot his rude bump and the still-singing bluebird, and instead bent to help him retrieve his packages, replacing them one-by-one in the burlap sacks.
            She could tell he wanted nothing more than to retrieve them and get away; but by this time, she was immensely curious. Why burlap sacks, she wondered? And why, despite the obvious excitement he evinced at her proximity, was he so eager to escape? A long familiarity with the process of the making of loves had attuned her to the attentions of men, and although she could feel his immediate attraction on a pheromonal level, she was intrigued to note that his eagerness to be rid of her was as genuine as it was atypical.
            “So... what’s in the packages?” she asked.
            Joe hemmed a little at the trap he felt her words presented. But before he could speak, she lifted the last box (which, unbeknownst to her, had torn open in the fall) and out slid a stuffed gopher on a polished wooden pedestal. It was dressed in the uniform of a confederate soldier and carried a miniature, bayoneted rifle. When it hit the ground, there was a sharp “plink,” and the bayonet snapped completely off, just like that.
            “Hey!” he said, losing his typical relaxed demeanor in a flash of consternation at seeing one of his, his... babies damaged.
            Madeleine reached over to pick up the gopher and saw that it was, in fact, the actual carcass of a dead animal. She paused, simultaneously repulsed and, oddly, attracted by the sheer bizarreness of it. Joe quickly recovered the gopher, picked up his burlap sacks, and proceeded off once more in the direction of the postal store, throwing another apology over his shoulder as he went.
            It is not that he was unaware of the strangeness of his burden, or of Madeleine’s effect on him. Quite the contrary. Joe was horrifically embarrassed by the experience and for this reason continued on his way, flustered and only marginally more attentive to his passage than before.
            Madeleine followed after him. She was used to men of all kinds, and had no qualms whatsoever about directly interpolating herself into the lives of the more retiring among them who’d caught her fancy. Some might see this as overly forward, but the truth is that this proclivity of hers came directly from the intense compassion and curiosity she bore for all of life, everywhere. She was something ephemeral, really—by nature in love with everything and everyone who crossed her path. She felt for these shyer men in their discomfort, and therefore it made perfect sense to her to make it easier for them.
            “I’m Madeleine,” she said, when she had at last drawn parallel. Joe nodded and apologized again, but when he kept walking and did not offer his own name in return, she put herself even further forward by grabbing his sleeve and asking him outright. “So... what’s your name?”
            He stopped. Paused. Considered the long, tapered fingers tugging at his shirt, and her eager, questioning face. And it was then—glancing into the shining, bottomless depths of those limpid brown eyes—that he knew that he, too, loved her. In that moment of all moments, the steady, rational momentum of his life completely abandoned him; and he knew that nothing mattered more than that she never stop looking at him in this way. Now, and for the rest of his days.
            He forgot the careful resolutions stacked against the walls of his heart like thousands of tightly-sealed cardboard boxes, and abandoned, for that moment, the suddenly-hazy memories of his anguished romantic past, of the woman he’d buried himself in for so long that he’d lost track of what he could be without her. He forgot the way she had left him in his cave of an apartment; alone, he’d thought, forever, with only his gophers and the smells of borax and sealing wax for company. The thought of that empty apartment and the cavernous air he’d breathed for so long came back to him in a rush, bearing with it traces of all he’d suffered and—he feared—was bound to suffer forevermore, on until his last, lonely breath (he could at times be insufferably melodramatic).
            Madeleine watched as the shutters that had cracked tentatively open drew closed and, in crowbar desperation, she spoke the words he would never, not in a million years of serendipitous collisions, have had the courage to say himself: “So, um, I’m sorry about your gopher. Can I buy you a coffee to make up for it?”
            The shutters slapped back open and Joe—who suddenly felt the urge to cover every inch of Madeleine’s face with grateful kisses—could only say, “Thanks. Yeah, sure. Uh... I’m Joe,” so overwhelmed was he with the instant, absolute assurance that, if nothing else, he could trust this woman.
            He was not wrong.
            For although Madeleine was always careful not to over-extend herself into expressing an absolute commitment she was not fully ready to give, she was nonetheless always passionate in her self-giving loyalty; and had allowed herself on more than one occasion to love and give herself to a man well beyond when he’d stopped deserving it. She had not yet given all of herself to a man, no, but what she had given; she had given with open un-reserve.
            Together they walked the two blocks south on First Avenue, away from the postal store and his precious routine, toward the coincidentally-named Bluebird Coffee Shop where Madeleine had been headed when a contemplative moment had smashed her world into his. It was one of her favorite places (although she had a great many) not necessarily for the simultaneously warm and airy decor, but also for the open floor plan and the worn-wood stools where she could sit sipping her fair-trade coffee as she wrote the poetry of the day in one of her many leather-bound notebooks. Sometimes, though, she would just watch, waiting for another inevitable connection with yet another of the fascinating patrons of the place: a man, a woman—whomever they were, they would become her friend, and she would sink with them down into a conversation of knowing... of the growing of another love.
            Madeleine and Joe walked side-by-side down the street and into the coffee shop, finding an easy camaraderie and a facility of speech that surprised them both. Joe, for his part, felt himself cementing into an absolute, inscrutable confidence in his companion. He talked openly and warmly of his childhood out West, and of the circumstances that had brought him to this mad, fracturing city.
            He found himself wanting to open up to this woman, and to perhaps talk his way free of the pain that had for so long condensed him in upon himself and away from the un-predictabilities of love.
            In no time they were seated, drinks in hand (tea, for him, with plenty of cream and honey), and he was sharing with her a rough outline of a life stymied by a love lost. She was a good listener (a great one, actually) and as he spoke, he felt a dripping away of half a decade of accumulated hopelessness.
            Madeleine watched him as one watches a parading cat, enraptured by his sudden grandiloquence and intent on not missing out on one little piece of what he might say or do next. She had known a great many men, yes. But never one quite so transparent, a man who spoke with the measured, pensive eloquence borne of years of contemplation, alone with his thoughts and wounds. She found her poet’s heart quickening to the rhythms of his speech. Most of all, though, she felt herself falling down into an ever-growing understanding of the deep kindness of this man, and knew without knowing that she, too, could trust in him.
            As he spoke, though, he held in his hands the object of their relational demise—the damaged gopher—and her disconcertion grew and grew until at last she had to ask, “So... what’s with the stuffed gophers?”
            Joe breathed sharply, sensing that this was the source of the slight perturbation she had been evincing. He knew instinctively that his next words were very, very important—perhaps the most important of his life—but he could not, somehow, bring himself to focus on their formulation.
            Instead, he thought back to her. He remembered the smell the first time he had gone with her to her father’s taxidermy shop, a place that had suddenly become nothing more to her than muffled, absentee memories. He remembered sitting by her side at her father’s bench, both of them touching for the first time the worn, forbidden tools her father’s aged hands would no longer hold. And he remembered taking up those tools... for her. Joe remembered reading late into the night her father’s books, and seeking out the mentors who would help him learn the trade. All in an attempt to mold himself into... into what? A replacement? All those years, the growth of his business—all of it came flooding back at once, along with the memories of moving, here, for her.
            And so it was that Joe, drawn once more by the wounding of his relational past toward the fear he knew, deep down, that Madeleine could help alleviate, spoke at last not with the confident ease of trust, but rather with a blunted edge of passive-aggressive self-protection.
            “You ever eat a hamburger?” he asked, with enough of an edge that she felt compelled to say,
            “No. Not really. I’m a vegetarian. But even if I wasn’t, I’d be willing to bet you aren’t regularly chowing down on gopher-burgers, either.”
            Joe heard her laughing tone and understood it for what it was—an attempt to diffuse the tension of a loaded moment. But still, he felt a need to explain and defend himself against an irking little voice that was snittering to him a fearful tale of the fading of the love-light he had at first seen burning in her eyes.
            In reality, she was merely being cautious. She had decided instantly about him, but had seen enough of life and love that she was aware of the need for patience... for time.
            “Well, you do eat bread, right?” he plowed on, seeing (he imagined) his own fear mirrored in her eyes.
            She turned, suddenly wary, to face the window. He went on.
            “Because it doesn’t matter how eco-organic a farmer tries to be. When you turn over a field with anything other than a horse or a hoe, gophers get hurt. They wreck crops, too, so all I do is...“ Joe went on, digging into the desperate comfort of knowledge; explaining how, on his trips out West, he only ever trapped gophers by farmers’ fields. How he hated doing it, and how he was always looking for a way out of the grisly business. Madeleine smiled, and was kind.
            Time trickled by. They spoke of other things, and it was good and beautiful, yes—because they were, after all, true soul-mates. But something imperceptible had shifted between them; and because of his fear, Joe was not able to understand that if only he could have been vulnerable enough to have told her about his ex-wife’s father, her compassionate heart again would have softened. As it was, she was unable to hear the gentle sorrow in Joe’s voice as he realized, somehow, that their perfectly-shared moment was slipping away.
            Instead, she heard his quiet desperation.
            She knew she needed a man in whom she could find the security to drop her strong facade and rest; and so she looked ever more frequently away from Joe to the window, and to the patrons of the Bluebird Coffee Shop. She did not know it, but even then she was scanning their faces... wondering. She had not given up on Joe, no, but that first, curious absorption had faded, and she had become the cat itself. Watchful. Wary.
            At last, she had to go. She told him so, and Little Joe Cockerel read into it all the rejection he had ever felt from any woman, ever. Although he knew he should relax, thank her for what she had given him, and dare to ask for her number; instead he flailingly extended the broken gopher. She took it awkwardly, and after she had left he knew that it, and she, were gone forever.

            Now it may seem rude for me to intrude, like this, at the story’s ending; but despite the fact that there isn’t really anything else that need be said, I would nonetheless like to wonder if perhaps there is nothing particularly remarkable in this story at all. If we are in fact all the soul-mates of us all—if, perhaps, the only thing that keeps us from each other is the criss-crossing strands of our many fears... and if the only thing that will ever draw us back together is the impossible miracle of infinitely-patient love.


- - -

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please head over to AMAZON for a copy.

SOME IMMORTALITY FOR THE TREE-PLANTERS

immortality


Nobody ever blamed me for it, but love can kill you just as quick as anything. He was there, after all, because of me.
            Let me back up, though, to the drizzling Vancouver winter that came before. It was cold for a couple boys like Joey and me, fresh from Peru’s capitol city of Lima. When the school year ended and the sun at last broke free to pull new life from a cross-work of branches, there was no way you were going to find us doing anything but working outside, eagerly sucking up sunbeams as if we were the long-dormant trees. I guess that’s the main reason we ended up in one of the most hellish occupations on earth, slogging through rain, hail, sleet, snow, and firestorm weather to poke one tree after another into every kind of ravaged terrain you probably couldn’t imagine. Well, that and the money. If it wasn’t for the money, the only people out doing industrial reforestation would be a few hippies too stoned to notice how bad it really was.
            Tree-planting was about bottom lines, though. Logging companies needed millions of seedlings in the ground fast so they could reclaim their stumpage fees from the government and keep cutting. Those millions could only be planted by scores of young, poor college students like us, lured by the promise of a piecework job that could pay three to four hundred dollars a day if you were willing to bend over thousands of times and take it for The Man. That was me and Joey.
            My Junior year of high school, dad’s import-export business had dried up and I’d gone from a carefree young ex-pat living the high life at Roosevelt—the swankiest international prep school in Lima—to flipping burgers through my homeschooled Senior year in Vancouver, just to help my parents squeak by. Joey did construction all that year. But after I’d finished up my schoolwork he decided he was done with tying re-bar, so off we went to the bush to pound in some trees and pay our way through University.
            Joey and I were wiry and tough, having earned our athleticism the hard way in hardscrabble games of street futb├│l, games where everybody anted up and, with money on the line, played vicious and unforgiving ball to the last second. While I was actually a little bigger than my older brother, Joey had the advantage in being the most cussedly competitive person you’ve ever met. I’m not saying he was ever one of those guys who gets all riled up and yells when his team falls behind, but he drove himself like a banshee out there to ensure that no matter what, his team would win. So when it came to planting trees, Joey had an upper hand. In no time he emerged as the front-runner of the rookies, every day beating out planters twice his size to claim the title of “rookie highballer.”
            Topping out the rookies and beating a few vets wasn’t enough for him, though. He wanted to be the best there was, and wouldn’t stop until he’d made it. You should have seen the laser-focused way he watched the top planters move, fill their planting bags with trees, eat—everything. He didn’t say much, but when he did it was to ask flint-sharp questions. Soon he was improving on their techniques, area-planting more efficiently than even the most seasoned guys. By the end of the summer he was highballing the entire camp, beating out the rookies and the vets every day. When it was over and other rookies were burning their boots and bags—loudly proclaiming that if they went within ten miles of a cut block ever again, we were welcome to come break their kneecaps with a shovel—Joey was sitting off by himself, all quiet-like. He said a few short goodbyes, caught a bus home, and started training.
            He’d heard online about some PhD at Selkirk University who’d created a nutrition and exercise program for tree-planters as her doctoral thesis, and he started following it religiously. He was still working his nuts off at school and on the soccer pitch at the University of British Columbia that year, but there was an extra, obsessive intensity to the way he threw himself into training for planting. When the next summer came he was ready—perhaps more ready than any other planter, ever.
            See, a typical planter burns the caloric equivalent of a half-marathon every day, and the general thinking was that a wise planter would ease into their season, giving joints and unused muscles time to get accustomed to the grueling pace of the work. Not Joey. Joey hit the ground running. It didn’t matter that there was ice on our tents when we groaned out of our sleeping bags and shoved our feet into frozen boots to tromp down for a before-sunup breakfast. He was up a half-hour before anyone else for a warm-up jog and ten minutes of stretching. It didn’t matter if the ground we had to plant was rocky, steep, boggy, or piled three-feet-high with slashy logging-debris, and so overgrown you could get lost walking twenty feet away from your tree-cache to relieve yourself. Joey tore through anything like it was a tilled farmer’s field. When the mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, and three-cornered deer flies got so thick the days dissolved into an endless droning carnage and planters were waking up in the morning with their eyes swelled shut, Joey just dabbed a little high-Deet bug dope behind his ears and worked through it. When the ravaged countryside started us off with freezing rain, burned into hallucinogenically high temperatures, and then topped it all off with a mid-afternoon hailstorm, Joey set his jaw and worked through it. His training stood him in good stead, too. When all around him other planters were taking workman’s comp days for repetitive-strain injuries, Joey worked through it.
            Like everyone else, he suffered. But instead of worrying about what he couldn’t change (the land, the weather, low tree prices), he focused on what he could. “I don’t want to highball by a hundred trees today,” he’d say to me on ten-cent ground, “I want to highball by a hundred dollars.” And then, sure enough, he would go out and plant a thousand trees more than the next-best planter... and that was just at the start of the season.
            After the first week, the nicknames started coming. They tried “The Beast,” “Joeytron,” and “Tiny Tank,” but nothing stuck. Nicknames last because you respond to them. That wasn’t Joey’s way, so even though people talked in hushed tones and reverentially deferred to him in the eating tent and around camp, it was always just “Joey.” By halfway through the season, folks were starting to throw around comparisons to Franz Otto, a planter of similar temperament who was so famous, you’d be hard-put to find a planter in all Canada who hadn’t heard of him.
            And me? Well, in any other camp or on any other crew, I’d have been holding my own. As it was, I was stuck being known as the much slower younger brother. It hurt a little at first, sure; but I was proud of him, too. Tree-planting is a world all its own: a brother/sisterhood of pain, and a subculture thick with its own tales of glory. It was exciting to be there for a star-birthing moment, when a meteor of my own flesh-and-blood was burning its way across the northern wastelands.
            He and I usually worked out of the same cache. But then our foreman would cut him a five-to-ten hectare piece all his own, and he would disappear into the land, falling swiftly into the rhythms of the shovel, the soil, the tree. When I did see him he didn’t say much, as the pace of the work and woods took his normally taciturn nature and fed it an augur of silence. He never sat down, never-ever seemed to stop moving. With wildcat-smooth footsteps he ate up the ground, leaving swaths of fresh-planted seedlings wherever he went. That was normal for a highballer, but with Joey it was something else, too, a ballet-smooth, poetic fluidity.
            Something about it clicked for Joey... The raw, unmitigated communion with the wild woods. The daily battle against the land, the sky, and most of all, himself. It was like he was born to put trees in the ground. Joey sank into that world. He became planting.
            By the end of our sixty-five day season, Joey had stuck in over three hundred thousand trees, on ground that was priced an average per tree that grossed him nearly thirty-five thousand dollars. It was unreal.
            Sure, there were legendary planting companies out there with high tree-prices and an organizational set-up that made a season like that possible every once in a while. But ours was a bit of a rookie mill: the sort of place you came to cut your planting teeth—not become a legend. Ours was a company of nearly three hundred planters, and the best anyone had ever done before Joey was just over twenty grand. After the first payroll papers were submitted, the main office had even sent a guy out to confirm. They just couldn’t bring themselves to believe it.
            Do it once, and they call it a fluke. But the next year he did it again... and then some. We found an extra five days’ work at the tail end of the season, and Joey grossed over forty grand. Top planters were knocking off an hour early to come watch. Not even to learn, at that point—just to say they had seen it. The story began to spread as crews from different companies mingled with ours in town on days off, and our company owners started bragging to their peers.
            That next winter, offers poured in for Joey. Not only are highballers more efficient, saving piles of money on transportation and the like by doing the work of two or three weaker planters; but they also tend to set a higher bar, dragging the rest up with them. All the elite companies wanted a piece of him.
            Zanzibar called. The Zanzibar that never hired anyone with less than five year’s experience. The Zanzibar where, legend had it, planters with half my brother’s drive were making closer to his wage than anyone, because a long tradition of excellence meant they could demand higher tree prices. It’s not enough to work fast, see. You also have to work well, and Zanzibar always managed to pull this off on the ragged, wild and dangerous coastal terrain they mostly planted.
            Joey said no.
            He said if they didn’t have a spot for me, he wasn’t interested. Besides, they got their longer season by starting earlier and further south. Zanzibar was for lifers, not college kids. Joey would have had to skip out early on his Senior year at UBC, where he had a pretty decent shot at Valedictorian. So chalk one down for brother-love. Love, and academics.
            The next season we were back at the rookie mill; but starting later, because for some reason our company had decided to send us further north than usual to a contract out of Tumbler Ridge, where the snows took longer to melt. T.R. was a quaint little mining town, built by a coal company and largely abandoned by the time that summer rolled around because the coal was getting too expensive to extract. Isolated and dying, it was nonetheless a place of savage beauty, with breathtaking waterfalls nearby and a ring of snow-capped peaks all around. It also had some of the gnarliest non-coastal planting you could find, and Joey was chomping at the bit for what promised to be another step to planting immortality.
            On the first day, Joey and I were sent to a heli-block, a piece of land so steep and burly it could only be logged by helicopter. The rest of our crew was going heli-planting, too, but we were on a special mission to a block all our own. The trees were twenty-five cents each, and there were thirty-six hundred of them to go in. On a decent day on flatter land, Joey alone could have gotten that many trees in by mid-afternoon. But this was ugly, ugly ground. Helicopters are expensive to keep in the air, so it’s not cost-efficient to use them to pile slash and logging debris out of the way like they usually do. This means heli-blocks aren’t just steep, they’re a nightmare.
            That wasn’t what made me groan, though. From ten miles out—as soon as we’d bumped up over the first plateau—we could see the craggy rocks of our block, so steep and barren it was hard to believe they’d actually gotten trees out of it. Exposed rock means not a lot of soil, which meant we were in for a litany of jarring, painful shovel-strikes. For about ten seconds, I clung to the hope we were going somewhere else. Then our foreman, who was seated up front with the pilot, pointed it out and said over the headset, “That’s you, boys... the one I showed you on the map. Think you can get it today?” Joey grunted and I reluctantly harmonized, so he said, "Good... because you have to. Canfor’s not paying for another chopper, and it’s about a three-hour hike one way to get in to finish it."
            He leaned back over the seat, “Here’s the map and a hand-held. You’ve got your high-viz in your pack, right Joey? So just put it on and tell Chad here where you want your slings. He oughtta be able to drop ‘em anywhere. He’s a bona-fide Australian looney.”
            Chad grinned and his throaty Aussie accent crackled through our headsets as he did a quick, banking fly-by to let us get a feel for the topography of our own personal hell-for-the-day. “I don’t like the look of some of those branches there, mates, so I’m just gonna hover in close. Get out your side doors onto the skids and jump off at the same time, so I don’t slip a millimeter on the stick and chop us all to bits.” He started dropping down into the block. “All right, ready to give it a burl?”
            Joey and I glanced at each other as Chad stopped, hovering, about ten feet above a particularly nasty-looking patch of slash. Then he laughed and said, “Ah, I’m just havin’ a go at you blokes. Boss hates it when I throw out the passengers while we’re still flying.” He side-slipped over a few yards and set his left skid down, light-as-a-feather, on a massive stump. “Just stand on the stump there to empty the cargo, and make sure you give a thumbs-up when you’re done. Bonzer!” He started cackling again, so we took off our headsets and did what he said.
            As the chopper flew off, I stood up to stretch on the over-sized stump, breathing in a great gulp of the crisp morning air. The sun was just beginning to rim a few snow-capped peaks across the way, and I forgot for the moment the job and the thicket of devil’s club I’d noticed edging the stream that cascaded down the north side of the cut block. Those snaking, pricker-thick ground plants had yet to see their first spike-encrusted leaves of the year. Without them they tended to act like coiled springs, bouncing off one leg and into the other, leaving behind hundreds of welt-raising prickers that would have to be picked out one-by-one. There was a reason they called it the devil’s club.
            For the moment, though, there was just the wilding sensation of being alive in the far woods as the familiar cornucopia of smells welcomed us back to primal, brutal planting reality. And somewhere down beneath that layer of logging debris the frost-dimpled black earth awaited our spade-thick shovels; the schwip-scrape of a blade striking true, then wedging back soil and stones to receive another tree. There was pleasure in that—joy, even—and I reflected for a moment on the irony that in a world where most human energy is expended in pursuit of comfort and ease, it was here at my most bruised and battered that I would often feel most alive.
            Joey had of course already picked up his gear, and was side-slipping toward the lower end of the block. Personally, I preferred to start high and work low, reasoning that our tree bags would be heaviest on the way down. After we’d planted a lot of them sideways across the hill at the bottom, it would then be easier to work our way up the hill and back to the cache, having lost the weight of so many trees. But Joey did not care about easy. He cared about planting, and insisted we could better tell where we’d already covered by looking up above our heads than below our feet. He was right, of course, but bagging up sixty pounds and climbing a slick cliff face was a sucky way to start a day and a season.
            I guess I got lost for a while there in my reverie, because the next time I looked, the helicopter was inbound with a sling full of tree-boxes clipped to its underbelly on the end of a ten-foot lanyard, and Joey was down below in his high-viz, talking into the hand-held. By the time I’d scrambled down, he had off-loaded the boxes, gift-wrapped them with a silvacool tarp, and was half-bagged up already. “Is this all?” I asked. “I thought there were two slings.”
            “I told him to hold off ‘til the afternoon, so they don’t bring any extras,” he answered.
            Joey was better than anyone at eyeballing block coverage. Moving from one block or piece to another mid-day cost time and money, so he was forever working it out in his head and making the minute density adjustments necessary to exactly fill a piece, right at the end of a day. The logging companies didn’t tolerate much variance in our tree-density; but part of Joey’s planting genius was that he almost always hit day’s-end perfectly, while still planting to the correct, contract spacing. I was going to ask him where he thought he’d cut the line, but he was already off, planting his way up the first steep section.
            One complaint I had about my brother was his lack of ceremony. It bothered me that he never once paused to recognize the exceptional beauty of what he was doing. He just did it. So I bagged up quickly, then carefully extracted a lone seedling from its bundle and placed it gingerly on a nearby stump. And then, with a quick prayer to whatever tree gods there might be, I chopped it into tiny bits with my shovel. The season had begun.
            The day wore on. The trees went in.
            What else can I say? Planting trees is grinding work. To do it well, you have to spend your first long while applying every available brain cell to the problems of efficiency and quality. But once you nail that, a lot of it is just muscle memory and a weird, un-focused focus. There isn’t a lot of drastic variation to interest the casual observer, at that point. Just a lot you can screw up, and an unlimited number of ways to get distracted and lose time.
            Joey always seemed to be aware of everything on the block, but at the same time managed to focus on a fifty-foot-diameter circle all around him—planning his trees three, four, sometimes ten ahead, so he could use the natural lay of the land to move gracefully across the cut-block. Time really is money in tree-planting, and Joey was doing necromancy with the hands of time. At some point, though, it had stopped being about the money for him. It was love. He loved it. He was an artist in search of the purest shovel-stroke.
            All morning we slogged up and down that mountain, at times scaling cliffs and working across hazardous ledges to slit a seedling into places where falling dirt had caught a lip and stayed. Mostly we passed each other in silence. But one bag-up, Joey called out that he’d seen a lot of bear sign up on the bush-line, and that some of the claw marks on the trees were pretty high up... fresh, too.
            The block was filling up nicely and the trees were diminishing to a point where Joey felt confident to call in the other sling. By mid-afternoon, the end was in sight. Joey had, of course, cut himself a much larger portion of the block off to my left.  I’d kept up all right, though, and had filled my way down to a shelf at the top of the last cliff. The ground was less steep, down below. We were going to get it.
            As I bent over to put a particularly satisfying spruce into some creamy, exposed soil, I heard him scrape over a log behind me. “What’s up, dude?” I asked. He didn’t say anything so I turned, to find myself face to face with a sight that almost stopped my heart—a massive male grizzly: ears back, head down... obviously stalking me.
            I know I’m supposed to say that everything slowed right down and I saw my life and all that; but it didn’t, and I didn’t. I hardly had time to register anything at all, when the bear billowed forward in a rolling mass of muscle. I was dead, of course, but hadn’t even had the time to acknowledge it when something deflected the grizzly’s trajectory a fraction, and he was scrape-sprawl-scrambling sideways, over the cliff in a roaring flash of fur, deathblack eyes, and an orange-and-yellow safety vest.
            It wasn’t until I heard the crunch-grunt-snapping thud that I was able to let out a strangled cry and look to see my brother lying thirty feet below, next to the bear that had almost been my death.
            I don’t know how I scrambled down that cliff as fast as I did without falling. On the way, I heard movement and looked, hopeful… but it was the grizzly. He rose, fell, and then half-rose again to limp-drag himself off toward the stream at the edge of the block. About halfway there he slumped again and did not rise. It was all very quiet. Surreal. The radio Joey’d been carrying all day was silent, too... broken in the fall.
            Joey was not moving when I got to him. There was very little blood. But one of his legs was bent wrong, and a thin trickle of crimson from one of his ears and the corner of his mouth made my heart sink. I tried to say something as I fell to my knees at his side, but it came out a choked sob. His eyes opened for a moment and he glanced over.
            “I did it, didn’t I?” he whispered. He smiled. “Hey little bro,” he went on, his voice growing so weak I could barely make out the words, “Have a great season, all right? You show ‘em what we’re made of.” I started to tell him to shut up—that he’d be back planting in no time, but all that came out was, “Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up,” over and over.
            I held him there through the waning hours of the day, until the sun started to sink and the helicopter swooped in to check on us. It was too late. Joey was gone. Chalk another one down for love.

            Sometimes I wonder, you know? What if I’d had the radio crackling away in my back bag as the foremen talked to each other and the pilot from block to block? Would it have been Joey the bear would have stalked? Would I have noticed before it was too late? Would it have made a difference?
            I never planted another tree. And even though it was the last thing he said to me, and even though I still can’t smell a fallen evergreen without feeling the pull of the un-planted earth, I never will again.


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