by Stephen Ground
I arrive at the end, park in a bait shop backlot and, pack-laden, hike across the street between trundling beaters and into the bush. I maneuver whipping branches and leaping stumps, follow to a clearing, a lake, sun prowling north country – morning, east. I drop my pack on a dune and plunk, slide a flask from a pocket, sip – surrounded by scrub pine, dense but sparing at once. An eagle circles, waiting; a fish leaps; moose track in shore mud.
I slip a fresh journal from my pack, purchased the day I got the news; flip to the first page, think better – not yet. I stand, stretch my chronic back, tug sagging pants, belt punched with a wobbly swath of divots; shoulder my pack and wander, marshy pits and fallen trees, towards a lodge, long-abandoned. I wonder if the beavers moved or just died – orange-toothed bogies, spectral slaps of water. I skirt it, reaching the opposite side of the lake out of breath.
On the far shore, a fixed-blade buck is jammed to the hilt in sandy soil, tortoise-shell handle tarnished by exposure. I yank it free, rinse it, affix it to my pack, then continue circumnavigating, keeping an eye on the sun as it do-si-does to the south.
Nearly back to my dune, I freeze – moose calf, splayed and torn, crumpled just inside the trees, a failed escapee. Flies swarm, ribcage ripped, feast for a wolverine or wolfpack, wriggling with maggots, left for the earth. I swipe flies from my face and back away, slide the journal out and loosely sketch the massacred calf, pointillistic flies; trudge back to my dune, lounge and watch the sun slide west.
My back aches – all the world’s poison can’t help. Doc told me to stay, but with no family, I chose to spare my friends – travelled weeks and miles, time ticking, permanent daylight a finite resource. I always wanted to head north for the summer, endless day, losing the desire to sleep; I’d stay up for weeks, do what I wanted when I wanted, and no one could stop me because I haven’t worn a watch since I got my first iPhone. Absolute sunlight meant absolute freedom. But, motivations change.
I was conflicted about not telling my friends – last they heard, I was doing better. They took turns driving me to appointments, wouldn’t let me go to the washroom by myself. I decided, though, I’d burdened them enough: years of picking fights at dinner parties; hitting on sisters, aunts, daughters; crashing on couches for weeks at a time after repeatedly messy break-ups. The thought of me on their plates was untenable, and I’d always longed for midnight sun, so I left, without announcement or fanfare. I was taking responsibility – my friends told me not to smoke, offered help. They all quit after high school, grew up, had families, but I chose yellow fingers and stale breath. I was too weak, stubborn – maybe my nihilistic streak sunk me. Oops.
Sun fully west, night descends. I fish for the hell of it, hand-casting, sunglassed and drawing whisky like venom, humming How the West was Won beginning to end, breathy exhalations as applause. Luckless, back howling, I rest my eyes, sun circling north.
Body crashes but my mind fights for life, burning, exhausted. Aware of stillness, both glassy lake and depth of rest, my eyes burst open – sun’s circuit complete. Pain a wet sponge on my hair, breath choppy, muscles tense and feign release, I close my eyes and drift, hoping for a manhunt, unsuccessful, on my behalf. I may not have been a great partner, ambitious or fatherly, but all I want is a hero’s remembrance, a service, balloons, the occasional kind word and tip of a glass, a toast, flowers on an empty grave.
Is that so much to ask?
I pop a triple-dose of Dilaudid and sit cross-legged on my dune, passing the knife between hands like one of Ali Baba’s thieves, bumbling jabs and slashes. I pause, blade trapping sunstreaks, then lift it to my throat, mimic slicing ear to ear – my back pulses, I moan, drop the knife, sob. The sun, embarrassed, hides behind a cloud, who calls a few friends – by evening, grey. By night, a deluge.
I don’t hide, don’t even move – lay flat, plump droplets splattering my face, saturating my clothes, rinsing a life’s worth of grime. The downpour spans the night, but splits with morning, Sun perched on its track in the east, wheeling slowly south.
I shiver, back zagged with agony, dig for journal and pen. I wipe my hands dry on soaked jeans, flip to the sketch, and scribble furiously, filling the page. After scrawling what needs to be, a jolt, and I cry, toppling stiff as a corpse. I recover slowly, tuck my journal away, then drain the flask like the bottom fell out, just enough and fast enough to guarantee a minor buzz – cocktailed with a few Dilaudid, I feel soupy. I wonder if I’ve stood for the last time.
On my side, folded, I gaze blearily across the lake – moose cow, perhaps mama to the departed, wades through shallows, grazing lilies and pondweed. It doesn’t see me, or knows I’m not a threat; the patient eagle screams. A rustle behind me – shots as three kids crash from the bush, rifles clutched to flannel. The cow drops, and they whoop – don’t notice me until they reach the dune, victory shifting to alarm. Two kneel, shaking me, shouting in my ear – I’m gone. The other runs for help, I assume; despite their best efforts, I’m with myself, unattached, the way we go, surrounded by four generations of kin or dangling from a garage beam. In an unwinnable game, I may have eked out a tie.
A graduate of York University’s Theatre and Community Arts programs, Stephen Ground now lives in his hometown after a seven-year retreat – first in Canada’s far North in a remote, fly-in community, then the prairies. His work has appeared in Coffin Bell, Typishly, Temenos Journal, and Flumes, among others.