The seaplane flies over the tops of the Douglas firs at an uncomfortable altitude. Jay hears the pilot’s voice in his helmet, but isn’t really listening – the noise of the propellers drowns out every second word. Irregular, silver splashes sparkle on the ground below, but he doesn’t know which lake is their destination. They’re […]
Landscape with intruders
The seaplane flies over the tops of the Douglas firs at an uncomfortable altitude. Jay hears the pilot’s voice in his helmet, but isn’t really listening – the noise of the propellers drowns out every second word. Irregular, silver splashes sparkle on the ground below, but he doesn’t know which lake is their destination. They’re all so similar the question is mute.
“Did you get what I said ?”
The pilot has raised his voice. Jay grumbles in return.
“Alcohol. Your predecessor must have built a still. You all do. I don’t care. As long as your head is clear enough in the morning for you to climb up the ladders, everything else is your business. But you’re forbidden from selling it to the Natives. Makes them see things.”
“You might see a Cree or two pass by. Even if they offer to trade their little sister for a jar of booze, you refuse and play dumb. Whatever you distill, you drink yourself.”
Jay nods his head, because that’s what he’s expected to do. The conversation doesn’t really concern him.
“No, man, I’m serious.”
“Yeah. No alcohol.”
“No alcohol to the Indians. You…”
The pilot makes a broad sweeping gesture that takes in the trees, the jagged horizon and the lakes.
“…if you’re able to watch over all this and make your radio reports, you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself.”
Jay tunes out from the conversation shortly after that and lets the pilot’s voice, interrupted by static, describe yet again the call procedures, make the inventory of the equipment and try clumsily to encourage Jay to talk about himself. He’s going to spend six months several hundred miles from the closest human settlement watching over a forest that was already old when his ancestors were still squatting in caves. If he had anything interesting to say about himself, he wouldn’t be here.
He digs through his mind, looking for a question. Any question.
“What’s the fishing like ?”
“Shit, man, you kill me ! I may be the last guy you’ll see until the end of the fall and you’re interested in fish ?”
The seaplane starts to bank and the rumble of the engine deepens.
“You’re not going to miss us, eh ?” the pilot says as he starts his descent.
Jay nods his heads and, realizing that his gesture might be misinterpreted, says, “Things will be OK.”
When he watches the seaplane take off from the end of the tiny dock, it’s already late afternoon. They unloaded the crates and the bags of supplies, ran through the inventory, checked the radio and the wind generator. He noted the three watchtowers on the site map. Tomorrow, he’ll go and explore his kingdom. An area of four hundred square miles, south of Hudson Bay, covered with forests, lakes and bogs. It’s still a little early for forest fires, but there had been talk of unexplained lightning, at this exact spot. The dispatcher preferred to send him up early. Good timing. He was available.
Clouds of mosquitoes and black flies flit about him. A flock of Canada geese skims over the water before disappearing into the reeds along the shore. The light gradually turns orange and flames ripple over the surface of the lake. He looks at his hands, skin turning copper, and inhales the scent of peat and pine tar. Drowning in the slow northern twilight, he knows that he’s supposed to light a fire, make something to eat, then piss on the coals. A solitary life must be structured, set to the tempo of the daily appointments that hammer the hours into shape more certainly than the watch on his wrist. But this evening he lets the stars reflect on the lake at his feet. He ignores the mosquitoes, which leave him in peace. When he goes to slip into his sleeping bag, his mind numbed by his own silence, he thinks vaguely about the next day before sinking into darkness.
The watchtowers are in good condition, easy to find with the topographical map. Each of them stands at the top of a peak overlooking expanses of red pine and spruce. Along his way, he picks berries and disturbs wild geese. Their sharp honks accompany him for a long while, until he pushes his way into a glade that is too thick for them. The wind that dries his sweat carries the acidic odor of the bogs.
He climbs up each tower, observes the horizon a few minutes to get his bearings, then checks a box on the visit log. There are fresh claw marks on one of the wooden ladders, blackish wolverine excrement near one pillar. He lingers on the last platform, binoculars in hand. A porn magazine lies in one corner, wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it from rain and ants. The forest surrounds him as far as the eye can see, a mottling of green and gray that disappears in the mist. He is in the middle of a world that knows nothing of him, filled with birds and blood-sucking insects. The storm will come from the east, most likely before nightfall.
The lake will be covered with cross-hatching.
When it comes time for the radio report, he locates the frequency without difficulty and utters the ritual phrases. They don’t ask him anything else. The pilot has made his report; everything is where it should be. The hammering of the raindrops on the shingle roof, covered with a tar-coated tarpaulin, sounds just like radio static. White noise, the fraying of thoughts. He prepares his lines and his bait, decides to brave the humidity outside, thinks briefly that he should have brought the porn magazine back. Time flows on without erasing anything.
A light to the west, a streak of fire, perhaps a flash of lightning. Too far for him to be able to hear the thunder. The ground vibrates gently, but he is already asleep in the chair, head tilted sidewise as if he might be trying to find the inaudible frequency of dreams.
“What’s new ?”
“Nothing to report.”
A silence, some static. The antique cube-shaped radio is mottled with rust spots, but the mike has been replaced.
“That’s what you said yesterday. Did you try fishing ?”
The pilot’s voice is friendly, a tad insistent.
He shrugs, forces himself to answer, “I put out some lines.”
“And what did you get ?” (No answer.) “Well, they asked me to go over the instructions one last time: you report any fire that starts, even those you manage to put out yourself. You also report any abnormal movements, of anything… Indians or large mammals.” (Jay shrugs. This is the third time he’s done this job and the instructions change even slower than people do.) “You keep your alcohol to yourself, that’s important.” (Grunt of agreement.) “No trading with anyone, Native or trapper. You can use the radio to chat with anyone you want, but not during the reporting periods. Chanel 8 for medical emergencies. Someone is always listening. We take turns in the office; we settle our butts comfortably in our chairs while guys like you keep an eye on things. Call us from time to time so we don’t worry. OK.”
He figures that he’s expected to give some kind of answer, something more elaborate that his usual monosyllables. Over time, he’s developed a sort of sixth sense that enables him to feel this kind of thing. What he doesn’t know is what to say. Generally, he just turns away and that solves the problem. But you can’t do that with a radio.
“The area looks calm,” he finally manages.
“Yeah, there’s a serious shortage of babes. Or good looking guys, for that matter. I don’t know which way you swing and, frankly, I don’t care.” (A silence.) “Fine, I’ll clear off the frequency. Try to call more often, even if I’m not your mother.”
I don’t have a mother. That’s the kind of thing he’s learned never to say out loud. Orphans aren’t of interest to anyone, not even orphanages. He recalls the classroom walls, re-painted each year in cheerful colors, greyish, foul-smelling nooks where it was easy to be overlooked. The radio falls silent, next call due in 8 hours. Outside, it has stopped raining. It’s time to go out, to climb to the top of the observation towers, to look around. His eyes lose track in the distance of the infinity that surrounds him and never turn inward.
At nightfall, he’ll look for the still.
He finds the alcohol supply in a few minutes, in a woodpile outside. Two solvent containers and a black plastic jerrycan. Almost four gallons of booze with the characteristic odor of burnt wood, a gift from the previous occupant. He dips a finger into the jerrycan, tastes cautiously. Strong, tasteless, except for an almost imperceptible trace of kerosene. The basic product, to be mixed with crushed berries or swallowed neat during lonely evenings. He carries all of it into the cabin, wondering vaguely if it wouldn’t be a better idea to pour it into the lake. Drinking has never been a need for him, or a temptation. Just a way to accelerate the clock in his head, a throbbing ticking that never stops.
He washes his face in front of the tarnished mirror hanging near the door, making the most of the last rays of sun. He has to stand on tiptoe to see his entire face. He’s not tall enough to be respected, not short enough to be ignored. The ideal size for a victim, the orphanage chaplain told him, solid enough to be beaten, too frail to fight back.
When he finishes brushing his teeth, he rinses his mouth with a bit of booze and spits it back out. He’s not kidding anyone, least of all himself, but there’s a certain decorum to be respected before you get pissed. I start when I want to. The night will chase away the objections and erase the empty hours of the day. The rest will serve as compost for dreams.
The next day goes by without a hitch. He scales each watchtower at the required time, points his binoculars in all directions without noting anything unusual. Under the wooden bench in one corner of the last tower, he finds a few more porn magazines, soaked by the rain. The girls’ breasts have faded. Their faces have been reduced to monochromatic splotches. It’s impossible to read anything at all. Their eyes are as empty as the lakes surrounding him. He runs his fingernail along a back, the arch of a hip softened by the humidity. The pages tear beneath his fingers. He puts the magazines down carefully, so they can dry, and heads back to the cabin. The radio check will take place in an hour. After that he’ll light a fire along the shore of the lake, in the hole provided for that purpose.
And he’ll drink. With conviction. Trying not to grimace.
Before returning to the cabin, he raises his lines and collects two fish, which he cleans quickly. Translucent scales stick to the palms of his hands. He wipes his hands with a bit of paper, but the scales stick to him like stolen jewels. They gleam in the last rays of the sun as he waves his hands before his face.
The fire catches quickly despite the previous day’s rain. Before setting it, he expanded the circular hole near the dock, away from the bushes that could catch fire and placed two flat stones in the middle of the coals to cook the fish on. When the flesh sizzles, he sprinkles it with hot peppers. Then he eats, taking his time. Getting drunk on an empty stomach is a bad idea.
He puts the binoculars down next to him, undresses and folds his clothes carefully. He won’t need to wash anything when he wakes, apart from himself. He spreads a silver survival blanket on the ground, which is carpeted with pine needles, and places a water canteen close to where he’ll lay his head. Naked, he stretches, savoring the caress of the wind, before sitting down cross-legged. The hairs on his chest stand up like a pine forest in the light of the flames. A scar runs diagonally across his bare torso. Everywhere else, his skin is smooth, light brown, without any distinctive marks. He looks at himself without passion, from the top of his mental tower, looking for a harbinger of catastrophe. He’s not surprised to find none.
He can take a day off, the forest is too damp for any real risk of fire. After the second glass, he no longer feels the need for justification. The rotgut alcohol anesthetizes his throat; all too soon the taste of kerosene is no longer noticeable. After each mouthful, he tips his head back and looks at the sky. When the stars begin to spin, he knows he’s on the right path. Flashes of light surge quite close to him, his ears fill with white noise that drives him to drink again, almost without breathing, before lying down on his back. A streak of fire tears across his face. The burn extends to his belly, but he’s too drunk to make the slightest effort to protect himself. Then, he closes his eyes and lets the shooting stars cross through his eyelids and fill his dreams with moths.
He grinds his teeth while he sleeps.
He wakes several times, eyes fluttering, but immediately falls back to sleep. His tongue has swelled, filling his entire mouth, threatening to overflow. A thread of drool meanders down his chin. Because of the red veil burning his eyelids, he knows that the sun has been up for many hours. He keeps his eyes closed, palms pressed against them. The alcohol kept him from dreaming, no shred of a nightmare lingers in his mind. The morning is a clean slate and he feels as fresh as he can.
He shivers. A sharp pain in his belly tears a groan from him. He had wanted to get a tattoo, when he was a teenager, but not knowing what name to inscribe, he settled for drawing a line on his forearm with the tip of a red-hot compass. The suffering quickly grew abstract. Perhaps he hadn’t pressed hard enough.
He spreads his fingers, opens his eyelids. The light invades him. Eyes filled with tears, he looks at the lake and the grey sky, unable to separate the two. He has to make a conscious effort to trace the horizon, then falls back, tempted to go back to sleep. When he closes his eyes, he feels gigantic, like an entire universe colonized by bacteria for which he is almost infinite, with his organs orbiting around his heart, his drifting archipelagos of fat, and his constellations of nerves. He stretches out in all directions, like an expanding star.
The pain at the base of his navel nails him to the ground.
Under his shoulders, the survival blanket crinkles in offense. He feels like waving his arms and legs to draw an angel on the silver fabric. His ears buzz, a deep vibration that invades every nook and cranny of his skull. The nocturnal explosions have burst his eardrums. Despite himself, he feels a smile rise to his lips.
Getting drunk on napalm is a real bitch.
Cautiously, he raises himself up on one elbow. He looks down at his chest, then his stomach. His eyes slide along painful muscles, explore the familiar cartography of his tanned skin. A dribble of alcohol has dried between his breasts, like a runway. At the far end, a scattering of light dots extend to the end of his navel, forming a reddish semi-circle that pulses toward the sky. Incredulous, he feels his belly tense. The light suddenly intensifies and he screams before falling back, unconscious.
The sun, indifferent, drowns at the other end of the lake.
Dawn and his bladder wake him. The odor of damp soil fills his nostrils, mingled with something painfully familiar, the rotten stench of his own burnt flesh. The alcohol has numbed his tongue and palate. He stretches out his hand to pick up his canteen, takes a cautious swig, and spits it out. A five-string base is playing in the hollow of his chest, as if the fundamental vibration of reality has taken refuge there. Hurts like hell.
Overhead, the sky is gray. The alcohol has scattered his thoughts like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle beyond his reach. He recalls a gleaming semi-circle that burned his abdomen and groans before taking another swig of water. Drunken nightmares are never pleasant. But this one has left behind unheard of pains.
When he raises his head, the points of light are still there.
He picks up his binoculars, wipes his blurry eyes and clumsily tries to focus on his belly button. He has to wind the adjusting knob to the far end. The scar on his torso emerges from the forest of hair like a cliff. He follows it downward, toward the umbilical depression with its blistered edges. The spots of light are organizing in vaguely geometrical structures, incrusted in his flesh. The maximum magnification is not sufficient for him to see the details, so he uses an old trapper’s trick and places a drop of water on each lens, before once again looking through his binoculars.
Seen from below, his excessively magnified eyes must fill the sky.
The shrubs of hair wave under the impact of his breath. His skin is a piece of parchment, covered with chicken scratching. The scene magnified by the binoculars is reminiscent of an oasis in a desert. Some rain has accumulated in the depths of his belly button; he imagines hordes of wild animals gathering there to drink, frightened by the grumbling of his stomach.
In the middle of the fleshy landscape, the light structures look like all-terrain vehicles. He counts a dozen or so, in a straight line. The largest can’t be any thicker than a hair. He watches as they advance cautiously, working their way around one wrinkle after another. They are alive, possibly inhabited. They look like nothing he’s ever seen before.
“Shit !” he yells, as he keeps himself from running toward the lake.
With the strange clarity that follows a massive hangover, he recalls the streaks of light and the roar that accompanied his drunken binge. A rain of tiny shooting stars from space.
“Hey man, you’ve just been colonized,” he murmurs.
I’ve had crabs before, but this beats all.
A dragonfly flits insistently around his head, its transparent wings projecting rainbows on his retinas. He chases it away with the back of his hand and watches as it falls to the ground, destroyed. The binoculars weigh heavily on his chest. Moving with deliberate slowness, he points them once again at the oasis of his navel. The visitors have gathered at the base of a hair and minuscule appendages are trying to uproot it. The black stem wavers and then collapses. The sting that accompanies its fall enrages Jay. He sits up with a roar, and reaches out a finger to chase them from the garden. His index finger bursts through the clouds, like a divine curse about to fall, but he hesitates a moment too long.
Shivers run through him. The binoculars fall from his powerless hands. He can no longer control his legs. Before he collapses into unconsciousness, he comes to the conclusion that the invaders must have injected him with something.
He wakes at nightfall, his bladder pleasantly empty. Under the effect of the injection, he must have relieved himself during his forced sleep. His body emerges from the deluge of urine like a mountain. He finds it hard to move his head; his extremities are distant territories that no longer recognize his authority. He sits up with difficulty, scrunching the blanket.
Traces of dark red dot his belly. The visitors must have been drilling. Perhaps they even tried to cultivate him, to turn his body into a promised land. He wants to shake himself like a dog, to scratch until he draws blood. The binoculars have fallen next to them. He grabs them, but abandons the idea of picking them up.
Overhead, a wall of stars sparkles. The wind has driven the clouds away; the air is filled with the scents of the forest. Around him, all the animals of creation chatter in his honor, in a familiar cacophony. He recognizes the whistles of the plover, the mosquitoes with the particular way they buzz about his ears. An enormous lake trout breaks the surface of the lake, hunting its prey; the resulting splash provides a unique signature.
I know the names of everything surrounding me, he thinks, astonished, but not that of my visitors.
The canteen taps against the back of his neck when he turns his head. He grabs it, moistens his lips. He isn’t really thirsty or hungry. His naked body is lying on a slim piece of silvery metal that reflects the moonlight. The nocturnal breeze lifts the survival blanket, carrying with it the sound of storms and the end of the world. He has enough water left to cause a flood. To empty the canteen onto his belly until the visitors are carried away. The idea has crossed his mind, he has to admit that. To trigger the apocalypse, to ignite the alcohol and plunge them into a sea of fire. He has everything he needs within reach to create all the hells of the world.
A new swallow of water wakes his nerve endings and returns his mind to clarity. It’s not pins and needles, or even a simple pain, but something deeper, more intimate, that has pierced straight through to his soul. The beings that have colonized him belong to him now. They have fed off his blood; they have worked his flesh. He, who carries a name he never chose, has even thought of baptizing them. Do people with children sometimes think about killing them ? He knows nothing of this. He’s an orphan, he could as well have created himself.
A shooting star streaks across the sky overhead. He picks up the binoculars, aims them at his belly and carefully follows the progress of the light spots that are gradually colonizing him. In the forest of his hair, burnt areas mark the sites of future cities. Night has fallen over the gray dunes of his abdomen. Faced with his immensity, the tiny caravans have gathered in a circle and lights surge periodically, like prayers. He feels strangely serene, despite the rumbling from his innards. His anger has faded.
He keeps his eyes open as long as possible, finishes the alcohol, then feels the binoculars fall from his fingers.
The rest belongs to the night.
When he wakes, his erection casts a slender shadow stretching to his navel. The sun has barely risen; the area around him rustles with murmurs and cries. His flesh reminds him that he is alive, that he is capable of surviving his own explosion.
His thirst has returned, accompanied by the desire to race into the lake. Black spots dance before his eyes. He feels an urge to use the tip of a fingernail to scrape off the deposits left on his tongue by the rotten alcohol. With a groan, he grabs the binoculars, baptizes each lens with a drop of water and tips them toward his groin. The tower rooted in his flesh stands up in a desire to defy heaven.
Slowly, he moves up to the site of the previous night’s bivouac. His occupiers have broken camp, abandoning the traces of their passage. The strange buildings have worked his skin and filled each furrow with a serpent-like ink, black and shiny. Strange inscriptions, legible only at the maximum magnification of the binoculars, incomprehensible in any case, mark the site of their epiphany. Farther on, the tiny spots have reformed into a long procession winding its way to the base of the tower, through the foothills of his groin. He can feel them hurrying, divine in their determination. There seem to be more than when they first arrived; the dozen structures have grown into a hundred, frantically trading flashes of light. How many of them are hiding in the jungle of his pubic hair, or that on his chest ? With his binoculars, he can see everything. He should have imposed rules, commandments. Drawn impassable rivers with the water in his canteen, ignited burning bushes on his chest to force them to stop, to take him into account.
Then the obvious strikes him. They know he exists; the tower standing at the edge of their horizon is proof. It may be the sign they were waiting for, the means for contacting him in the required manner, of honoring his morning glory. They will climb his foothills and follow the paths of his swollen veins, carving steps in his flesh. Jay imagines them presenting offerings and their first born, carriers of prayers and supplications. Or perhaps they will plant a banner reading “We come in peace”, in large, luminous letters several microns tall, at the tip of his penis.
Overcome with the giggles, he drops the binoculars. His lungs whistle, his laugh is cavernous, his stomach growls, and he rears up toward the heaven, in a release similar to birth. His erection wavers and tips before bending over and collapsing in the forest of his hair.
Silence, followed by the cautious return of the birds. When he picks up the binoculars again, eyes still blurred with tears, he gropes around before focusing them. The landscape has changed. The folds of his torso, the small hills of his nipples, the rugged descent toward his lower belly… it all seems new. As if resuscitated.
He looks for the structures, sweeping over his immensity with a slowly, circular movement. Below his navel, the remains of last evening’s camp are clearly visible. Although he will never decode them, he will also never erase them. The routes along his flesh are countless; the hiding places are too. Yet, he knows that the visitors will never hide from him. He finds them quickly, gathered in a single circle, diameter growing smaller. Their light pulses slow, flowing into a joint message directed at him. He realizes that the lenses of the binoculars also cast sparks in their direction. The visitors are merely trying to answer.
He hopes their prayers will be answered.
Then, with a roar, the structures move together and rise up above his flesh, in an ascent that starts slowly and ends in a rain of fire. A burn forms at the apex of his navel. He closes his eyes with the pain, but a streak of light races across his eyelids, accompanied by the murmur of engines. He is no longer a universe and has become an isolated dot on a silvery stain, a naked, blurred body, details soon washed away by the storm.
When his limbs start to obey him again, he bathes in the lake.
Back in the cabin, he dries off, puts on some warm clothes to ward off the irrepressible shaking that has overtaken his body. The icy water purified him, but he almost drowned. The traces of the visitors are incrusted in his body for all time; the memories will never fade.
He chews a handful of dried fruit then sits down at the radio. It’s not the time for a scheduled report, so he connects to the common frequency.
“49-632. Are you receiving me ?”
Then he adds, “It’s Jay.”
“Is there a problem ?”
The question catches him off guard. He reaches for the disconnect button, then stops. Smiles.
“No, not at all.”
He takes a deep breath, feels the burns on his belly unfurl their message.
“I just felt like talking.”