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I Wish I Was a Tunnel Bush: That Day at 100 Mile
By Ola Szczecinsk
One day was bad in particular. It began with the sun beating down on me, burning the back of my neck, top of my head and exposed forearms. The land was a giant slab of rock, into which I was forced to dig holes and plant, like in some cruel, ancient Greek afterlife. There were also the tunnel bushes, as I called them, that covered seventy per cent of my piece: long giant things, seemingly from the Jurassic era, that snapped at me and whipped me in the face, smacked me in my thighs and threatened to gouge my eyes out, as I struggled to plant in the rock from which they miraculously grew. “Evil weird bush things,” I said to no one, “I hate you so much right now.” There was also a hill that lumbered up towards the tree line, covered with puddles and potholes full of water from all the rain that season. The mosquitoes: no amount of DEET could save me from that buzzing, maddening, biting, swarming mass.
Beyond the tree line was an inscrutable dark, some kind of lurking silence. I stared into it, searching, trying to identify my predators behind it. (Suddenly I remember a story and the following words flash through my mind: You don’t know a cougar is following you until it’s right on top of you. And then it’s too late.) My heart quickens, my stomach dips, and I feel dizzy all over. I stand real still and listen, like a deer, my breathing the only sound in this moment. I hear a twig crack somewhere to the right, and my head swings towards it. My heart is pumping blood so fast that I think it will leap right out, I can feel it even in my eardrums, in my throat: my whole self has been reduced to a giant, bleeding, pounding heart.
But the darkness is total, and I see nothing. The crack in the trees is followed by an interminable silence, and I talk myself down. My shovel hits the dirt, and the standoff is broken.
And you were there with me, that whole time.
Before I left, you said I couldn’t do this. You said: “You are thirty-three years old, too old to be a rookie.” You said: “You’re tiny, smaller even than most women. How do you think you will carry all that weight all day? And besides, you already have a bad back from all those years of bartending, from carrying all those kegs and those two-fours. Speaking of which: you are so out of shape. You’ve spent the last two decades drinking and smoking your face off, how will you survive even one day of tree planting, never mind two whole months?” You paused then and allowed me to consider all this. You cocked your head to the side and watched me as it all sunk in, then you took a deep breath and continued. “Don’t forget,” you said, “you are scared of things, many things, like bears and like cougars. Don’t you realize that you are going straight into all that, into the dark opened mouths of the bears and the cougars? And what will happen when you hear a growl in the bushes, will you freeze like a deer? Yes, you will. I know you. And there are the lightning storms, you won’t even go outside in the city in one of those, or even go near the windows. You are afraid of things, you always have been.” You really had me there, at that point, and I think you saw that. You saw a small opening where my mind wavered, doubted. Your eyes flashed greedily and you pounced on me, moving in quickly for the kill: “You’re not cut out for this: you’re just a skinny bookworm weirdo who’s afraid of everything. What business do you have in the woods with the bears and the rocks and the storms, all that thunder and lightning? That is not your world.”
To this I said nothing.
That day the lightning came as well. The scorching sun left early in the morning and was hidden briefly behind a giant hail cloud. It was black and ominous, and it was coming straight for me. Powerless to stop it, I banged away at the rock with my shovel, eyeing it with dread as it sailed closer and closer. When it came near it unleashed all its fury and weight in a matter of minutes, throwing down its rocks in a massive hit and run campaign, emptying itself with one giant push. Then came the downpour, fat heavy drops, the lighting and thunder, terrorizing me, chasing me through those bushes behind which I cowered and trembled. The rain drops were freezing, and within moments my teeth were chattering. Had I ever felt any more fragile than in that moment? Alone and shivering behind some useless skinny branches, wondering if it would be the lightning or the bears that would finish me? “I guess it doesn’t matter,” I heard someone say, and noticed that it came from me.
That’s when you stepped out and saw me at my most vulnerable. You looked me up and down, knowingly, as though the sight of me shaking from the cold and the fear confirmed a deep seated truth that you already knew about me, tried to warn me about even: I’m not cut out for this. I don’t belong here.
For a moment I felt defeated, and I considered my options. I could stand here, I thought, for the rest of the day, just stand here and wait for the sun to pass from one side of the sky to the other. I could enter into a deep state of boredom and stillness and frozen misery. I could stand here forever, stand here until I turn into the very branches that cover me and no one will ever find me again. You nodded your head solemnly, suggesting that it is best for everyone involved that I do that, quietly fade away until everyone forgets about me. From behind my cloak of invisibility I would watch all the tired planters throwing their bags into the back of their trucks, or kicking at the dirt while smoking their end-of-day cigarettes. Maybe I’d watch with some boredom as they fought to pull one of the trucks out from the mud, its front wheel spinning and whirring and spraying everyone with brown sludge. The sun would be just to my right at this time, because I’d be facing south, and I’d watch—as silent as a tunnel bush—the trucks slowly making their way out from the block in a line, jostling up and down and to the side, until everyone was gone, including Graham, who takes a bit of extra time hitching up the quad.
Then I’d be all alone, indistinguishable from the branches that hide me, and no one—not even myself—would have to watch me failing. It would be quiet. Maybe an occasional rustle. And then the bears, well, I guess they could have their way with me.
You nodded your head slowly at all this. “Yes,” you said, turning to walk away as though it had been decided, “I think that would be best for everyone.”
And that’s when I did it. From some deep unknown darkness inside of me, I summoned the drive to smack you in the head with my shovel. I called out to you and you turned, not expecting it. Your face still wore the expression of a smug and certain victory: it enraged me all the more, your confidence. How do you know any of this, I wanted to ask you. How can you say you know me when you’ve never seen me here before? Never seen me working outdoors in a lightning storm, because you’ve never let me into one? How can you be so sure, I screamed, the rain dripping from my hair and my eyelashes. Your face then changed, quivering with uncertainty as you watched me raise my shovel to the sky. Your eyes flashed with outrage and fear, but it was too late for you. I wacked you in the head as hard as I could and I walked away, planting the spruce as I went, every 3.99 meters. More or less.