Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea, and Hong Kong. He has been shortlisted (in 2016) and longlisted (in 2018) for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has published two story collections, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad, a 2009 ReLit Award finalist) and Brunch with the Jackals (Thistledown, 2015). More at donmclellan.com.
HE STUMBLES BUG-BITTEN and foot-sore into the blinding glare. He’d been travelling for many years, and he’s eager to get home. A fisherman mending nets offers directions, lowering his voice to add, “There’s trouble up ahead. Move fast, watch your back.” He walks on, undeterred; trouble, his travels had taught, is the way of the world. For the last leg of the journey he empties his rucksack of all but the essentials. He had nothing when he left home, and he intends to return with the same.
He sleeps soundly that night on the beach, close to the fire, but he’s roused before dawn by what sounds like a series of explosions. The trouble the fisherman spoke of? No. The pounding of a troubled heart. The next day, back on the road, he meets up with a schoolboy who repeats the fisherman’s warning. “Follow me,” the boy says. “There’s another way.”
They sink back into the sunless jungle where the heat greedily sucks the oxygen from his lungs. The humidity is ferocious, drenching his clothing. They come upon an open-air market where a blind man and his wife flog household wares, saucepans and scrub brushes, cleaning fluids and insect repellent swinging like decorations from the branches of a jackfruit tree. At the edge of the clearing, forest dwellers squat naked in the dirt, eating worms.
“I must get back,” says the boy. “Good luck.” He’s passed like a baton to five men, their dark faces obscured below wide-brimmed straw hats and evening shadows. Two or three of them are bandaged: hands, feet, a neck. They look to him like the survivors of a terrible struggle. One of them presents him with a straw hat. “It will discourage the mosquitoes. They dislike the oils.” He follows the men as they skip wordlessly along a well-trodden path. A cabal of monkeys follows in the trees, hissing and jeering.
Where the trail splits they are surprised by a military checkpoint; soldiers rise like apparitions from the darkness. His new companions form a protective ring around him, herding the traveller to the centre as dogs guide wayward sheep. A soldier lifts his torch to better identify them. The traveller is taller than the others and fair, yet after cursory inquiries they are permitted to proceed. Afterward, at rest, he says to the others, “The soldiers seemed afraid of us.”
“If we were smaller in number,” he’s told, “we might have been robbed.”
They make the coastal highway in a few hours. He wants to acknowledge their assistance, but his companions seem reticent. At dawn they are collected by a van, a pre-arranged taxi service of some sort. He’s dropped off at an inn, his offer of a contribution declined. In the morning, filling his water bottle in a stream, a passing cyclist, an old man, dismounts. “Best be careful around here,” he says. “Don’t dally.”
“I know about the soldiers,” says the traveller. “But I thank you, sir.” “It’s not the soldiers I speak of,” the old man says. “It’s the lepers.”
2 First thing he did the day after matriculating was catch the tram downtown. The enlistment office closed at six, and he was keen to help his side win. His father, an uncle, and both grandfathers had helped win theirs. He’d been raised on their stories, stories of victory and valour, of grit and loss. As a boy he’d marched around the yard singing the battle songs, sniping at the enemy along a whittled length of hickory. A glass case in the hallway preserved their dusty commendations.
When informed he’d failed the physical, he thought he might be sick; it just couldn’t be, not him. He’d lost the baby toe on his right foot working with a stone mason. A metal prosthesis mitigated the limp, but could not disguise it. “A bloke tipped a load of bricks, sheared it clean off,” he told the army doctor. “But you have to let me fight. I’ll make my country proud.” “I would if I could,” said the doctor.
After his mates shipped out he bought a second-hand motorcycle and toured the backcountry, camping in the woods, trying to forget. He followed developments of the conflict in newspapers, idling under open farmhouse windows for the latest radio dispatches. He worried about his friends. In his dreams he saw limp bodies sprawled in open fields, arms and legs snagged in the crook of tree branches. He could summon the inconsolable faces of their mothers.
He was at a roadside pub seeking directions when the press gang burst in. Patrons scattered, crawling under tables, dropping from windows. He followed those stampeding through a side door into the night. When they stopped to get their bearings he asked the man closest the reason for the raid. “They need bodies,” the man said. “Our side must be losing.”
He hobbled back to the pub. “Arrest me!” he shouted, raising his arms, and the press gang accommodated, no physical exam necessary. He was soon in uniform and rushed through an abbreviated training. The day he shipped out to the front was the happiest day of his foolish young life.
For the first few weeks he didn’t hear a weapon fired, a profound disappointment. His unit was instructed to dig a trench. “The deeper, the better,” said the sergeant. “It’s going to be home.” Opposite, against a wall of coniferous trees, the enemy dug its own.
And then one brisk morning in October it began for him: war. It was not all like the make-believe skirmishes in the yard, what he’d seen in the newsreels. Real bullets screamed overhead, the earth rumbled. A bloody discharge oozed from his perforated eardrums. He learned to sleep standing up, to shit into helmets vacated by the enemy. One curious soldier poked his head up like a groundhog the very moment he shouldn’t have. When the stretcher bearers passed it sat on his hapless chest, a twisted expression on cold, blue lips.
Many of his rounds found their targets: husbands and fathers fell to his aim, brothers and sons. When the barrel of his carbine became too hot to hold, he pried another from the hands of the wounded man to his left. “Why are we fighting?” the dying soldier asked him. “What did they ever do to us?” “What did we ever do to them?” he replied.
Orders arrived to overrun the enemy’s trench “at any cost.” Artillery rounds pounded both positions at dawn. Heads were tossed like juggling balls into the brittle autumn air, limbs lay splintered in the fields, swollen bodies burst in the sun. “Charge!” the sergeant cried, and ten minutes later, twenty-eight days after his induction, before he could legally drink spirits or vote, he was blown like confetti into thousands of pieces. A kind French whore was the only woman he’d known biblically.
Both armies claimed victory, but the conflict, when it ended, changed little. No matter, reasoned those paid to do so. The people didn’t need truth; they required cultivation. Patriotism, the motivation to wage war, wanes without the roll of a drum. War calls for rousing anthems, inflated speech, lively parades. There was an insatiable appetite in the land for heroic fictions. The young soldier’s family wrote service authorities regarding his remains, but they never received a reply. An unofficial source familiar with the campaign said many of the combatants of both sides had fled. The family suspended further inquiry, fearing their lad might be exposed as one of them.
Years passed; so, too, did the young soldier’s folks. A museum was erected near the battlefield. On the anniversary of the war’s end thousands joined group tours for wreath-laying ceremonies. A rousing marching band entertained visitors. A local man, a mute sweeping the area with a metal detector, unearthed a boot deep in the earth; inside the boot was a foot; strapped to the foot was a rusty metal prosthesis. The man took his findings to a military historian. The historian had a map; the location of the two trenches was marked. “Where did you find the boot?” he asked. The man stabbed the table. “Which way was it headed?” The mute indicated the direction. “Are you certain?” He was.
The historian reviewed eye witness accounts and scrutinized official reports. He questioned a survivor of the campaign in a care home. The man had lost his mind, but others remembered a young soldier with a limp. It took several years to obtain the necessary verification of some details, and his health was failing, but the historian persevered.
When he’d verified what had happened that fateful day he tracked down a nephew of the young soldier; he was living at the original family residence. “We know your uncle volunteered to lead the charge,” the historian wrote. “He carried the flag. He was killed by a land mine that detonated a few steps from the enemy position.”
Days before his own death the historian received word that based on his research, the young soldier had been posthumously awarded a medal of bravery. It’s in the glass case in the hallway. Alongside it rests the boot. 3 They unloaded their gear at the cabin and hopped back into the car. They needed a few things, and the general store closed early. On the way back they decided to stop at the Lookout Hotel; it was built into a bluff, its windows angled for a favourable view of the harbour. A decade earlier, in a room above the bar, he’d proposed to her.
In the restaurant off the lobby they slid into a booth that looked out at half a dozen workers framing an extension. Every few minutes one of them would come into the main building to fill a water bottle or use the washroom, and to ogle her. “I haven’t had so much attention since high school,” she said.
“Whatever happened to the discreet glance?” he mused. “The peek.” “Don’t take offence,” the hotel manager, overhearing the exchange, said. “There are two hundred permanent residents on the island. Only seven are women.”
The construction crew took a break, squeezing around a table nearby. When she stood to leave, the tease of sharp heels on a tiled floor, six hard-hatted heads swivelled in unison. As they crossed the parking lot she imagined the excited cocks like eels squirming inside their overalls.
He had pitched the getaway to her as one last effort to make the marriage work. A return to the island where they had committed to each other. The kids were turned over to grandparents. “We’ve invested too much not to try,” he’d said. “Where have I heard that before?”
On the ferry they’d kept the conversation light; after disembarking, they hardly spoke at all. It reminded him of a first date: all nerves, moist palms, a dry mouth. He believed they had allowed their careers to take over their lives. They no longer talked of joy and happiness, but about how much they earned, the toys and trinkets accumulated, their exalted job titles. “We have become,” he lamented, “the people we once mocked.”
As students they had spotted the cabin from the beach and vowed to stay there someday; it was nestled beneath towering old growth, the branches flapping like hair taking the wind. Rollers detonated on the rocks below the cliff with a soothing certainty, each wave leaving something in its wake, each return stealing away with something. When the undertow was strong, with someone.
Once the wine began to flow, the arguments followed; it’s the way it was with them. Their union had survived a decade; there was no shortage of disappointment; they could have squabbled forever. Afterward, their usual method of resolution, they screwed mightily. “We should fight more often,” he said, and she would have laughed once.
After he’d dozed off she rose and boiled water for tea. The wind howled, tree branches pawed the window. She heard it just as she was settling in: a chorus of voices, men’s voices, a rising, melodic entreaty.
On their second night at the cabin they consumed more wine and resumed the power struggle the marriage had become. He was thankful she never learned of his fling with a new hire. When he broke it off the woman had threatened to inform their employer, but nothing came of it.
She turned in early. He retreated to a hammock on the porch and finished his drink. When he went back inside, she was sitting up. “I wasn’t going to say anything,” she said, tossing him her phone. “Your little tramp sent these a few days ago.”
He couldn’t remember posing for the photos, and he was too wasted to mount a defence. The woman had come on to him at an office party, and he went along for the ride. There had been others; he couldn’t remember most of their names, and now he can’t endure her despondency. “I need a shower.” He wanted to scrub the past, to rid himself of guilt, but she seemed far away. “I hear something outside,” she said.
He circled the cabin and walked to the edge of the cliff. The wind blew angrily, the sea roiled. He made sure the windows were locked, and pushed the sofa up under the doorknob. While he was showering, she heard it again. The thrashing branches, the pleading. When he came out of the shower, he told police, the sofa had been shoved aside. The cabin door was ajar. 4 The farmhouse sat at the end of a steep incline, a row of swaying poplars shielding it from the road. There was a battered truck up on blocks in the yard, and no lights shone inside despite the hour. That far out, a spread this size, most people have a dog, yet none responded to his approach. He made his way around back to the barn, to the hayloft, sinking easily into a sleep just as the rain began.
In the morning he noticed the rear entrance of the house had been left open. The place had been looted, the dank air reeked of abandonment, every room in darkness. He felt his way through the home, arms extended like a man new to blindness. When he turned to leave, he bumped into something, or something bumped into him. He lit a match: a boot, a body swinging from the rafters.
In town, at the Maple Tree Cafe, he falls into conversation with fellow-transients. Two are heading east, and two, like him, west. They had just been released from the city jail, a two-day sentence for boarding a freight. “The train is the only way out of town,” says Luke, an Indian from up north. “We’ve all tried hitching out, but most of the cars are full. We’re stranded.” A kid from Alberta tells him of the hostel where they’ve been staying.
“The doors open at five. You’re not supposed to stay more than a few days, but the guy who runs the place is a good shit. He was one of us once.” The train heading west leaves the station at midnight. The eastbounder comes through two hours later. A few evenings a week, no one knows which, just beyond the town limits and after the freeloaders have jumped aboard, the train makes a sudden, unscheduled stop. The railway’s security trainees surround the boxcars, arresting whomever they find. A boy in the top bunk says, “I heard the railway recruits are given points for the number of bodies they bring in. Those with the most arrests are given their choice of job placements when the training is over.”
“So that’s why those guys are so keen,” says Eric, from Montreal. “A company incentive plan.”
Every morning they leave the hostel early and hike to the highway, spacing themselves out fifty metres apart. Most days no one is offered a lift, and they return to the hostel. The mood in the country is changing. There is a despair in the world; people are wary of each other. Some days a lady from a local church distributes ice water and fruit, and some days she doesn’t. Afternoons they shuffle aimlessly along the town’s empty streets, waiting for the hostel to open. They nap on the grass in the town square. There’s a chill in the air; winter is nigh. Those with coin nurse a coffee at the Maple Tree Café. The waitress, who earns only tips, frowns when she sees them coming. A shopkeeper sweeping his sidewalk curses as they pass.
Friendships form and expire quickly amongst the travellers. He hears for the first time about the wolves who rule the prairie and the hitchhiker who was stranded so long he married the police chief’s daughter. Versions of the tale are told coast-to-coast. “I heard he was elected mayor,” someone says.
Steve, a maternal homosexual, manages the hostel. He sees to it there is a jar of Dutch rolling tobacco in the sitting room, one handful per day per guest. Chow is usually mac and cheese with bread and a boxed juice or something out of a can. Tonight Steve ladles out wieners and beans. The beverage is a watery fruit juice. A stack of bread crusts circulates. “One slice each, my darlings. Go easy on the margarine.”
A guy named Dalton checks in. “Anyone up for c-c-catching a f-f-freight?” he says. “I know a w-w-way to f-f-fool the b-b-bulls.” “The city jail isn’t any fun,” Luke replies, explaining the lack of enthusiasm. “The mattresses stink, and the food is crap.” “They’re always sh-sh-short of fruit p-p-pickers out west. M-M-Most of the orchard managers kn-kn-know me. I might be able to g-g-get some of you on.”
When the lights are out, half a dozen hostellers, Luke and Eric among them, grab their gear and follow Dalton. At the last minute, he decides to join them. They’re sequestered behind a dusty blackberry bush when the westbound leaves the yard. Just as it picks up speed, sparks flare and the train abruptly stops. Trainees charge the boxcars, the dogs gagging on their leashes. The freeloaders are strung together with plastic bracelets and hauled away. The hostellers file out of the darkness and hoist themselves into an open car. They close the door, stretch out on their bedrolls. “W-W-We should arrive in the n-n-next town about s-s-sun-up. I-I-I know where we can get a g-g-good breakfast.”
Just as they’re about to drift off, the door slides open. Lanterns sway in the dark, hounds bare their fangs. “Gotcha,” Dalton says, jumping to his feet, flashing a badge. “Nice try, fellas.”
From the darkness in the rear of the boxcar, one of the transients replies: “C-c-cocks-s-sucker.” 5
All the woodcutters really know about him is his name, Arnie – Arnie the arsehole, they’d whisper behind his back – and that he was from one of the snow countries. On payday he’d push his way to the front of the line and smash the face of anyone who objected. After the evening meal he confiscates the desserts of the weakest. Arnie splits twice the volume of wood as his closest competitor, so the bosses look the other way. A rumour circulates that he’d killed a man for no reason at all.
“He’ll get his,” the kid hears it said around camp. “Guys like him always do.” But he’s a new hire, just passing through, so he doesn’t mention he’d known plenty like Arnie, and most of them are still out there, smashing faces. When the chainsaws start breaking down and axe handles begin to snap, the boss orderes new supplies, but the shipment is delayed, and the woodcutters are furloughed until it arrives. Some of the cutters decide to head for town; the kid is invited to join them. They like the stories he tells of his travels. “Don’t tell Arnie.”
At sunrise six of them rendezvous behind the bunkhouse. Their destination is a four-hour trek. They are almost off the mountain when footsteps are heard behind them. They crouch in the tall grass, machetes unsheathed, as bandits work the hills. “It’s just me.”
They arrive at midday, renting a room in a flophouse. The port is crowded with freighters waiting to unload; the streets bustle with idle sailors, with grifters and thieves and whores. Everyone but Arnie takes a nap. He wants to begin partying right away. “I’ll catch up later.”
It can be dangerous, a town like that: moneybelts stuffed with cash, all that booze, men famished for love. The kid sticks close to his workmates. They’d cruise one side of the street, sip their drinks slowly, hungrily studying the women slouching against a wall like unappreciated oil paintings. A few of the fellas dance a number or two before disappearing upstairs. “Every man has his urges,” Len, the oldest of the woodcutters, says, “They can’t be denied.”
They are waiting for the others to finish up when a party of rowdy merchant seamen descends on the adjacent table. They look like pirates with their tattoos and gold earrings, with their chains and ivory-handled knives poking out of their boots. One of them chats with old Len in another language, and soon they are encouraged to join the two tables. “We have to leave,” Len whispers. Why?” he asks. “They’re asking a lot of questions,” Len says. “Like what?” said the kid. “Like how much for the boy.”
He’d planned to abstain, to hang on to his money, as he would resume his wandering soon, but the drink goes to his head and a woman in a dance hall, a large-boned Mandingo, catches his eye. Before a man could finish a cigarette his seed is dribbling down her thigh.
At dawn the woodcutters regroup for the walk back to the flophouse. They take what they believe is a shortcut but find themselves at a dead end. When they seek an exit the seamen who had been following them block their path. “Hand him over,” says one. Their blades glint in the moonlight.
As the woodcutters consider their options, a figure appears at the head of the alley, a menacing silhouette offset by the incoming dawn. “Who’d like to die first?” The seamen flee like schoolgirls.
The woodcutters stagger back to the flophouse in groups of two and three. The first to arrive drink a toast to their guardian angel. They want to present him with a gift, a tradition in that part of the world, but they have nothing suitable – nothing until the door swings open, and in walks old Len. The kid is right behind him.