They were up the Hart Highway outside of Prince George, past the old motels and laundromats with peeling, hand-painted signs and the new Tim Hortons with its large glass front. The camp convoy was fifteen vehicles: trucks and trailers, clattering camper vans, and multicoloured sedans that were always breaking down. Nothing like an army convoy—there was less oversight and more Mad Max chaos and duct tape. The party separated within minutes, and no one seemed to care. People were on the radio, talking about the last night down at the Generator, about who danced in rubber boots, who threw up, who got laid. When they finally left the highway and rumbled onto the gravel, the clouds over the forest were quieter than anything she’d ever heard, quieter even than the desert sky at night: the trees absorbed all sound.
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It was raining when they set up camp. The reefer was driven by a large man with a long ponytail. He stood under a poncho, drinking from a Thermos and peering at Michaela and the female assistant cook while everyone unloaded the camp gear. One of the boys peeled off his wet shirt and yelled at the sky, at no one in particular.
They were camped by the side of a dark lake, two hours up the logging road, ninety kilometres from the nearest of the small towns. In the distance and in every direction, a wall of trees; more distantly, soft green mountains. The lake was quiet, and the fish were small, with oblong mouths. The planting camp was made up of little more than sun-bleached tents, the portable eating tent, the dry tent, a shower trailer, the trucks, and the planters themselves, who were out on the cutblocks for most of the day. At the beginning of the season, they were sixty. Now, close to the end of summer, forty remained. Those who left had done so for a variety of reasons: broken bones, boredom, bad relationships inside and outside camp. The work itself was too much for some. For others, it was the black flies and mosquitoes and the food, the absence of reliable internet and cold beer. Lately, smoke from Alberta had started drifting into camp. Some people left because of that. Reasons for leaving were whatever you wanted them to be.
Every morning now, the remaining planters drove the logging roads north. They had been encamped here for two weeks. It was the fourth day of the shift, which meant a Prince George motel in the evening, laundry on the day off, a stop at the Value Village, and groceries at the Save-On. Michaela’s body was tired in a way that acknowledged only the physical—the tightening claw of her hand from clasping the shovel, the deep ache of her calves when she woke in the morning. But she was ready for the day. Three thousand trees was the goal. On fifteen-cent land, 3,000 was half a month’s rent. She leaned her head against the cool window glass and felt intermittent warmth from the sun, flashing through forest and tree trunk, on her face. Except for Bruce the foreman, who was at the wheel and drinking coffee from a dirty Thermos, everyone else in the truck was asleep. Dust from the log-heavy semis nearby filtered through the trees like light itself. A deer among the trees startled at the convoy of F-350s. She watched the white flash of tail as it disappeared into the green. The four sleeping planters surrounding her were grimy with the previous day’s dirt. And the dirt of the day before that too. The makeshift shower trailer of corrugated steel boards and plastic tarps was rarely used. The generators were often out of fuel. The mosquitoes and black flies slipped in through the gaps in the trailer. Most planters waited to shower until heading into a motel room in town. If they were close to a river or a lake, they’d just jump into the water, shrieking with pleasure and howling with cold. Something about this lake didn’t invite swimming, though—maybe it was the bugs or the mud surrounding the water—so the boys just walked into the forest in their dirty planting clothes and smoked bowls while the sun went down and the trees darkened.
The boy to her left, Kevin, had an open mouth and an uneaten bowl of porridge in his lap, a dollop of now liquefied Gatorade powder staring out from the centre of the porridge like an eye. The boy to her right, Dwayne, had scrambled egg in his beard. If she liked them at all, she liked them asleep. Shaggy hair and scraggly first attempts at facial hair. Often shirtless. Stick ’n’ poke tattoos of skateboards and cats and mountains and coniferous trees, which they administered with dirty hands made steady by Pabst and Coors and with sewing needles sanitized by Bic lighters. They were young but had already learned the words and ways of much older men: they already felt threatened by women who worked with their hands. Not one of them ever said, “I feel threatened.” But they were. Most men felt threatened by something.
Years earlier, on basic training, her fellow recruits and instructors had felt threatened by her being a soldier at all. “What in godholyshit are you doing?” the sergeant said when she dropped to the back of the platoon on one of the early physical-training runs. “Think you’re good enough for the infantry?” Yes, she thought but didn’t respond. “Only one week in,” the sergeant said. “Lots of time for you to fuck it up and get sent home.”
By the end of the summer, she had completed basic training—not only completed but finished top third among all the candidates, the only woman in the platoon. Her parents stood on the parade square, engulfed by blue sky, cracked asphalt, and flashing uniforms. They were not army people. Her dad taught chemistry at a north-end high school; her mom worked at Safeway. Nothing in their family history of Mennonite farmers, schoolteachers, and homemakers had suggested soldier—female soldier in particular—and her parents were surprised, as though they had planted potatoes in their garden in the spring and corn had sprouted up in the summer. They didn’t approve of the army or the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, any war, but they came to her graduation ceremony because parents were supposed to do that. After the parade, in line at the mess hall, with the newly minted soldiers milling about, cold beers in hand, back pats all around, the sergeant looked at the floor and shook his head, then shook Michaela’s hand. She looked around: her family had already left.
Grade twelve, the spring of 2006. Why had she joined? Captain Nichola Goddard had died in a Kandahar ambush. The news was everywhere. A month after Goddard’s death, shortly before graduation, a local regiment came to the mall next to her high school and set up a display table full of guns.
“How old are you?” the master corporal asked.
“Eighteen,” she said.
“That’s good,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“Michaela.” He picked up a gun and hoisted it over the table at her. It was chained to the table. He smiled.
“You look strong,” he said. “Ever thought of joining?”
Her cheeks flushed. All she could think about was the smiling face of Captain Goddard on the front page of the paper. Goddard’s face had made her sad, sadder than she could explain, sad like the leafless lilac tree in the front yard of her childhood home before the house was sold and they moved across the river. Mrs. Murray, her social-studies teacher, had talked about Goddard’s death in class: she had been the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat, the first artillery officer to perform a fire mission in combat since the Korean War—many firsts. Goddard’s big smile was on the front page of all the papers, and the way she led men into battle was praised in the news for weeks. She was brave. She was good. Michaela took the gun in her hand. She did not yet know the name of the gun, but the metal was cold, and her brain liked the way it made her hands feel. A grade-eleven boy whose name she didn’t know walked up, grabbed at the gun in her hand, and tried to pull it away.
“Holy shit, dude,” the boy said. “Is this real?”
“Real enough,” the soldier said.
“Sign me up,” the boy said.
“What about you?” the soldier said, turning his eyes on Michaela.
The humidity in Dubai turned out to be unlike anything she’d ever felt: like she was wearing a sponge. She wondered if Afghanistan would be this hot. Soldiers walked single file to the plane. Everyone was feeling something, but no one was saying what it was. She cleared her rifle. Every time you got on a plane, you had to clear your weapon—take the magazine off, pull back the cocking handle, check for a round in the chamber, fire off the action, and close the ejection port cover. The man ahead of her, a cook, didn’t take his magazine off. Crack—everyone flinched. He stood in the sun, staring at his rifle as though it had a will of its own. He just stood in the sun, blinking. The tour hadn’t even really started, and he’d managed to have a negligent discharge. The mechanics had to make sure that the bullet hadn’t ricocheted into the soft belly of the Hercules. Their flight to Kandahar was delayed, and the cook was taken away, maybe sent home. The powder smelled strange in the humidity, and the smell didn’t dissipate but hung low to the ground over the asphalt. Michaela’s desert CADPAT was dark with sweat.
When they arrived in Kandahar, no one was waiting for them, as far as she could tell. She followed the soldiers in front of her off the plane and onto the tarmac, towards the airport hangar. The hills were dusty and the sky was blue. In the evenings, she roamed the boardwalk in search of solitude, a quiet cup of coffee. A gauntlet of eyes followed her—American, Canadian, Romanian, Dutch.
Bruce the foreman turned up the music, signalling the planting block’s imminent approach. Kevin groaned in his sleep. The wall of trees on either side opened into the expanse of a 100-hectare, partially logged block. Standing dead everywhere. The bowl of porridge fell to the floor, and the truck slowed to a halt. The other boys grumbled awake and stretched their arms all over the place. One of the arms touched her shoulder. She stepped out of the truck and stretched her lower back. Steam rose from the F-350, and diesel exhaust cut the sharp morning air. Bruce the foreman stepped out, too, swung open the back door of the truck, and began throwing boxes onto the road—enough trees to last her most of the day.
“I’ll check on you in a few hours,” he said. With spare, practised motions, he covered up the boxes of trees with a tarp and drove off with the other planters still inside. Bruce the foreman didn’t talk much. Tree planting was a business, and he was a businessman. She was alone at the cache, and the closest person, a ten-minute walk down the logging road, was a planter from another crew. She could see him in the distance, kneeling by his cache, jamming trees into planting bags. Before loading her own bags, she took a moment for herself and stood in the road with her eyes closed. The only eyes on her were those of the sun. On this particular day, the sun and wind were such that, if she closed her eyes, she could open them and be in one of two places: a wadi in Helmand province, a logging road in northern BC. Flip a coin.
Gravel cut into her knees as she loaded up trees, but she continued packing until her bags were full. The seedlings were moist, no taller than a magpie. They smelled like Christmas trees that had been sprayed in bathroom cleaner. She took a mouthful of cold water and bit off half a granola bar. She grabbed her shovel and walked out onto the block. The trees on her piece of land were full height, much taller than any she had planted in before. Black spruce and beetle-killed pine. It was a fill plant. Once-bright needles had begun to rust, and the dying trees leaned into one another like old drunks at the pub on Remembrance Day. The earth smelled heavy and green, as if the smell itself possessed knowledge of what had come before. There was no smoke in the air today, no birds, only occasional gusts of wind that filled the forest like a lung, then departed again. The only sounds came from her body, from her breathing, from whatever she happened to be walking on. She walked over rocks and moss and dry, patchy grass. She walked over a stream that had dried to a trickle. She walked over fallen logs that had fleshy conks growing on the sides, and she scraped herself through young willow bushes. The soil smelled rich; devil’s club was growing somewhere nearby, and she could smell that too.
As she walked, she planted. Another tree every seven or eight feet. She forced herself into motion—the first bag up of the day was hardest. She had loaded up with 300 seedlings, and the weight pulled her down towards the earth, but it was a good weight—money weight. With each tree that went in the ground, she was lighter and her bank account was fifteen cents heavier. She wanted to be back at the cache in an hour to load up with more seedlings and start the process again. She transferred two bundles of spruce seedlings from the right bag to the left. The spruce rash on her left wrist was throbbing. She tucked the plastic wrappers between the planting bags and the mandatory silviculture inserts. She grabbed a tree and slammed it into the ground.
She was the fastest planter in camp, though it was only her first season and many of the other planters had been out in the bush for years. Rookies were not supposed to be the fastest planters in camp; the fastest planters in this camp were not supposed to be women. Here, almost all of the planters were men, though she had heard this was not the case in other planting camps. Life in the bush was not what she had expected. She had decided upon tree planting before Christmas, envisioning a world of green and quiet, where things were growing and alive, somewhere removed from the grey snow and thick slush of an Edmonton winter. This was not the world she entered. Yes, there were trees, thousands upon thousands of trees, and things were alive, but not in the way she anticipated. Entire sections of land were clear cut and flattened. She did not consider herself an environmentalist, and the clear cutting didn’t bother her as a matter of policy, but it was impossible to step into the fields and survey the casually tossed logs and the upturned earth and not feel some kind of devastation. When she had arrived, nothing much had grown at all: the terrain was grey and brown and beige. The loggers had only just left, and the slash piles were unburned. The towering remnants of logs poked thirty feet up towards the sky. The air was cold in the mornings, and frost covered the fly of her tent. It had snowed a week into the season, and when she awoke, her boots were filled with a rime of snow. She felt the cold the whole day, spreading from her feet up to her chest. Others had it worse. One planter woke with the roof of his tent covering his mouth: the weight of the snow had collapsed the poles. He had thought the collapsed tent was caused by a bear and cried out. The cook, who had been awake since 4 a.m., ran out of the kitchen brandishing a frying pan. When he discovered the planter’s tent covered in snow, he started to laugh, a dry chuckle—more relief than happiness—and walked back to the kitchen, holding the pan to his breast like a child.
On her first day in the bush, Michaela had planted 300 trees, the lowest total in the entire camp, rookies and vets included. Bruce the foreman had told her to start with five bundles, seventy-five trees, and those bundles took hours. That first day, the vets planted many times what she did. Her crew left the block early. As they bumped over partially deactivated logging access roads, she looked out the window and wondered what the hell she had gotten herself into. Bruce the foreman wrote her off after the first shift and stopped giving her advice or encouragement. Within a few days, four rookies had packed up and gone home, overwhelmed by a world without a ceiling. Michaela didn’t go home. She’d been written off before. Five shifts in, and she was surpassing the other rookies in camp and some of the slower vets, who had started glancing at her sideways in line at dinner. Her legs were thick, strong enough that she didn’t have to wear the shoulder straps of the planting bags, and she was tall. By the seventh shift, when she had watched how some of the vets worked a piece of land and followed a line of trees with flagging tape, some of the camp’s highballers were starting to identify her as competition.
She pushed till her heart rate increased and her body adjusted. Over the course of the season, she had seen lots of soil, but the planting here was hard; the topsoil was thick and full of roots. She screefed it off with her boots, dug into it with her shovel. Her shovel—once shiny, long, and bright—was now dull, cut short for ease of motion. Just over two and a half feet. Her shovel was now familiar, an extension of her arm. Her breath was steady, and she kept moving.
Ten feet in front of her, a large tree had fallen, and the root structure had splayed up the earth. The root ball was over ten feet tall and dark against the forest. She planted along the length of the tree, around its edge, into the creamy soil that had been exposed when the roots lifted off. She was planting fast now and almost thrust her shovel into an amber mass before realizing what it was: the body of a young doe, its fur mottled tan and cream. Eyes sightless and brown, gummy and black at the edges. A puncture wound by its neck, discarded bones all around. She took off her planting bags and sat on the forest floor. She held her head in her hands. She walked away from the body and lay flat in the grass. The earth below her felt and smelled wet.
The boy had been no older than six or seven. He stood in front of the compound, wearing bright clothing, bright as a box of pencil crayons. He didn’t ask for anything like all of the other kids did. He just stood there and smiled; Michaela smiled back. At night, when the muezzin called the city to prayer, she thought of him eating dinner, falling asleep. The musk was sweet in the air, and she stood on the rooftop, smoking cheap American cigarettes. A hint of piss on the edge of the wind, the river flowing beneath. A dog was barking in the distance. She thought she saw a tracer round arc across the sky, then disappear among the stars. Maybe a firefight in the distance. It could have been something else. The barking stopped, and silence closed around her. She fell asleep.
The following morning was bright and clear, and the road in front of the Afghan National Police compound was thrumming with the business of life. Jingle trucks drove up and down the road; children were running, pushing one another in wheelbarrows. The Afghan National Police were trying to keep the checkpoint clear by beating at the air with thin wooden rods, beating at the children too. An Afghan soldier was carrying a chestful of naan in his arms, and he stopped by the side of the road, tore off a chunk, and popped it into his mouth. They were expecting a resupply convoy at noon. The vehicles had already left from Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar city. She stood outside the gate, by the thick brown walls, held her rifle in both hands. She had seen this before, the road bustling with life like a Bruegel. She wore only a shirt, flak jacket, and tactical vest. Sweat ran down her back. Her arms were tanned and smudged with dust.
The boy was walking down the road with his sister. A dog was following the children, darting close behind them, then backing off. There were dogs everywhere in Kandahar province, most of them ribs and fur—so hungry looking it seemed like they’d turn and bite a chunk out of you if they thought they could get away with it. The kid and his sister laughed and waved the animal away. It kept following.
Michaela heard her foreman’s truck before she saw it. She got up from the forest floor and checked her watch. She had been out on the block for over two hours and hadn’t planted many of her trees. Not wanting to look like a slacker, she walked down to the cache and opened one of the boxes, grabbing a few more bundles and stuffing her bags. She popped a granola bar into her mouth and drank some water. The foreman rolled up and jumped out of the truck, pulled back the tarp, and checked how many boxes were left.
“What’s going on?” Bruce said. “You’ve hardly done anything.”
Michaela wiped her face and looked at her watch. The foreman was silent. He kicked at a rock on the road. There were many rocks. He pulled the tarp over the trees again and jumped back into the truck. The sun was hidden behind clouds now, and the wind had died down. The bugs had come out, and the whine of black flies and mosquitoes filled the silence and the space between trees. She snuffed the cigarette on the road and continued loading seedlings into her bags. The dust from the truck spiralled high into the sky as the foreman turned on the radio and drove down the road to check if the other planters had enough trees for the day.
That evening, on the drive into town, the boys were fully awake. She leaned her head against the window and felt its coolness on her forehead. The sun wouldn’t go down for a couple of hours. It was warm inside the cab of the truck, and she was tired. She woke as they hit the first of the traffic lights, outside of Prince George, and the sky was fading orange when they arrived at the Connaught. The four boys jumped out of the truck. “I have to piss,” Dwayne yelled. “Out of the way!” The air suggested the possibility of overnight rain. The boys grabbed their laundry and beer and headed to reception. All of them would end up in a room together, but she wanted a room of her own. Bruce dropped them off, then turned the truck around, heading to a motel up the hill, away from the other planters.
Michaela got a room on the ground level, and the toilet was running when she unlocked the door. She walked into the bathroom, and the curve of the bowl was streaked yellow. She flushed. It stopped running for a few seconds and started again, arrhythmically, like an old man with a wet cough. She lifted the mattress to check for bedbugs and found none, though she did find cigarette burns. The man at reception had insisted that the room was nonsmoking. She didn’t like being lied to. She walked out on the balcony and cracked a can. The balcony floor was covered in lime-green AstroTurf, also dotted with cigarette burns. She watched the drive-through at Wendy’s swell and diminish. When the planters in the room above walked out on the balcony, she walked back inside.
Semis were passing through town in the distance, humming against the hills and trees. She walked to reception. The front-office window glowed pale against the night sky. She wanted to check her email, and reception had a computer. A different motel manager was behind the counter and wearing a fedora, Indiana Jones–style. He was small with dark eyebrows. His hat seemed larger than his body.
“My wife and I were married for twenty years,” he said. “But she got everything. I heard she went to Cuba in December and Hawaii in January. She’s dating one of those real estate types. Big cash flow. Lots of parties. Didn’t like being married to a motel manager.”
Michaela was used to being spoken at by lonely old men. She pointed to the minifridge behind the counter.
“Can I get a Coke?” she said.
She pulled out her credit card and pushed it towards him. He looked at it.
“It’s a different company that does the pops, so cash only, please,” he said. She didn’t have cash.
“Oh, what the hell, just grab one,” he said. “I’ll put some of the change from behind the beds towards it.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Where’s the closest gas station?”
“What brings you to Prince George, young lady?” the gas-station attendant wanted to know.
“I mean the beetle. I hear that a spruce beetle is coming now. Gonna wipe out the rest of everything. First the pine, now the spruce. The fires are coming too.”
She wanted to be back in her room.
“Girls in the woods,” he said. “Huh. When I was workin’ the girls who made it into the woods were different kinds of girls, if you don’t mind me saying.”
She knew his eyes would follow her when she walked away. When she walked between the canvas tents in Kandahar, the same kind of eyes had followed her. The soldiers didn’t even try to hide it. Just the lingering stares of boys who watched a lot of porn and hadn’t gotten laid in months. In Fort Saint James, at the beginning of the planting season, a man outside the supermarket had asked her to participate in a weekend wet T-shirt contest at his bar. “Fifty bucks,” he said. “One hour of work.” When she said no and fuck off, he said, “No one would vote for you anyway,” then walked away without looking back. The gas-station attendant bagged the Cokes, touching her lightly on the wrist as he passed the plastic bag over the counter.
When she arrived back at the motel, five of the boys from her camp were rolling around in the parking lot, shirts off, adversarial, balled-up arms and legs like a nest of baby snakes. They might have been having sex. She wanted to laugh, then no longer wanted to. Boys from the other crews and other planting companies stood on the second-storey balcony and watched the fray: shirtless, cigarettes and beer in hand, cheering occasionally. “Want a fucking beer?” one of them shouted at her. “Catch!” The beer arced from the balcony. Michaela froze, and the beer exploded on the asphalt. The other planters laughed. “What the hell,” the guy on the balcony said. The can pooled on the warm cement. She walked back to her room, locking the latch and the deadbolt too. She sat on the bed. A trucker on the other side of town let off a jake brake. The moon was out, reflecting dully off the pavement. The dull thump and rhythmic bass of the upstairs partying came through the floor like a heartbeat. She touched her forehead and closed her eyes. The bed was soft. Her mind was tired, crawling towards a hole in the side of the road. A dog was barking. Her mind filled every corner of the room. A noise from the road. She heard the tires before she saw the car. She raised her rifle. She could see the driver’s face, and when the car did not slow, she flipped off safe. She fired a shot into the pavement. She fired again into the engine block, six feet closer, then she fired again. Afghan soldiers ran up the road. A burst of machine-gun fire. The Afghan soldiers fired. The car stopped. All the civilians had fled the street—only soldiers now. They pulled the driver out and threw him flat on the asphalt. A young man with pale blue robes. The soldier’s naan was scattered on the pavement. They searched the car. Not a suicide bomber or Taliban, as far as they could tell. Just a taxi driver in a hurry. She lowered her rifle and stood straight, lit a cigarette. Over the radio, she heard that the convoy was close. She walked down the road, and her eyes rested on a pile of bright clothes. She walked closer. The boy. A bullet had entered his neck, and his eyes were open. A ricochet—her shot, someone else’s. His eyes open wide. The boy’s sister was gone. The dog was off to the side of the road, looking at the boy.
She was back on the same piece of land, finishing what she hadn’t done on the last day of the shift. Michaela grabbed a seedling from her bag, shot her shovel straight through a patch of mossy duff, slammed the tree into the ground, and closed the hole. In the first three hours, she’d already planted close to fourteen hundred—she was on pace for a personal best and would need more trees soon. She followed her line of flagging tape up into the woods but cut a wide patch around the tree where she’d seen the deer. She stopped. Barking from somewhere in the forest. Bruce the foreman had recently acquired a German shepherd mutt. Initially, he had left it tied up to his trailer in camp, until the cooks complained about the barking. Most days now, it came to the block with them and roamed free, covering miles in a mindless search for new smells. It was brown and shaggy and looked like a wolf, though it was still young. When it rustled in the bushes or emerged from under the branches of a tree, she always assumed it was a bear or cougar and raised her shovel in defence, her heart hammering against her ribs in anticipation. She was generally ambivalent when it came to domestic animals, but the dog stressed her out. She stopped and rubbed her face. The smoke was bothering her eyes.
The day off in Prince George had been full of smoke too, as though the whole city were covered in gauze. She’d popped into the Value Village for the air conditioning and ended up buying a bunch of planting clothes. The old lady at the Value Village checkout was fond of tree planters and particularly fond of Michaela. The woman remembered her from earlier in the summer and gave her a conspiratorial smile. “I’ll give you a deal,” she said, turning to make sure that the manager wasn’t watching. “Fifty percent off.” She scanned every second item, bagged the clothes, and handed them to Michaela. “When I go camping,” she said, “I buy all my clothes at the thrift store too. When the weekend is over, I just burn ’em. Throw ’em in the fire.”
There was a town burning in the distance, a province away. The smoke had travelled a great distance and wasn’t done moving. Michaela continued planting. A rustle in the bushes; she wasn’t going to be surprised this time. It was just the fucking dog. Still, she raised her shovel. Out it burst from a clump of overgrown willow. It saw her and stopped, barking in excitement like it wanted to play, and sat down in a patch of moss, a stick in its mouth. She walked closer. The stick had fur; the stick was a bone, maybe from the doe. She walked right up to the dog and swung her shovel. The dog jumped up and into the bushes, taking the bone away.
Benjamin Hertwig is a painter, ceramicist, and National Magazine Award–winning writer.