A little parable about race, narrow opinions, false assumptions and having your head so far up your own ass you can’t see the woods for the trees (to mix my clichés). Stephen Henighan is a world traveler, translator, activist, scholar and fiction writer extraordinaire. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I used to edit that estimable annual volume. The characters here are mostly low end manual labour doing the traditional low end Canadian job of pulling young trees for replanting. Grading is the act of evaluating, of deciding which trees to keep and which to leave behind. Ah, yes, but in life, with people, we are always deciding which to keep and which to leave behind — it’s an ugly aspect of human society; mostly we congratulate ourselves on not being too obvious (this is called being polite). In his fiction, Stephen Henighan has an awkward (brutally honest) habit of poking holes in that facade of politeness, culture and sophistication.
And me spit out by the city and slung down on my knees in the cold dirt. I thought I’d done everything right: got some education, learned some French – the whole nine yards. But no matter how tightly you latch yourself into the city, you can always end up back in the countryside you came from, pulling trees for quick cash.
They pay us fifteen dollars for a thousand trees. The cedar I’m pulling has roots matted tighter than the threads of my grandma’s old wool blanket. You have to rip and tear to get each tree loose. The grading—deciding which trees you keep for your bundle and which ones you toss—is supposed to go quickly since cedars are nearly impossible to kill. But by the time you’ve yanked the tree clear of its woven carpet of roots and checked for hockey-stick trunk, half the morning’s gone past. To top it off, they did a shitty job lifting the flats. The old bugger driving the International 84 Hydro shook each long flap of earth like he was knocking dust out of a blanket. The moment you walk into the field, you see the white flashes of split roots and slashed trunks. With that much grade in the furrows, you can forget about making good money.
There’s no escaping grade around here. I don’t know where they find these guys. Local high school drop-outs wearing baseball caps that say I Live for Chev; lads whose only basis for judging another member of the community is: “What’s he drive?” And girls, too. Gert, the roving-eyed young woman next to me, complains all day about the boyfriend who jilted her for a loose little hoo-er he met at the village’s new video arcade. The wedding is next month. Gert plans to get cut, swing into the church and puke on the bride’s wedding dress.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of these folks. A few short years ago I used to hang out with people like this. Then I moved into Ottawa and got a job and a modern efficiency apartment with garbage disposal and central vac. The people at the office came from all over the world, and on Fridays we all went out for drinks together after work. When the job disappeared, so did the apartment. Now I’m country-poor, still the proud owner of a Chevrolet, but boxed up in a spare room over the old fire hall that my uncle got me for free. I work in lowlife jobs. What I can’t get over is how I feel centuries away from my own home town. From a financial point of view, I’m no better off than anybody else in this field; but an invisible shield separates me from the grade. I’m not alone in this. There are women here paying the family mortgage, students saving for university. We all show up regularly and earn good money. The others put in a few days’ work, get smashed on their first pay cheques and never come back. Every Monday a fresh gang ambles in. The ten or twelve of us who are regulars run a jaundiced eye over them to pick out the one or two who might still be here at the end of the week.
“Too much grade!” the crew boss yells, closing the fingers of her work gloves around some of the white-slashed shit that the lads are dumping on the tables.
I bend forward, pulling like a piston. The odour of soil and fertilizer blends in my nostrils. You’re never so close to shifts in weather as when you’re hunkered down against the ground. It’s the beginning of April and we’ve worked in snow, in rain, in stinking heat that makes you peel off your shirt. The cold is the worst. It penetrates and paralyzes. Sitting on my knees, ripping apart trees at waist height, I spill cold soil down my legs and shiver as it trickles over my workpants. If I don’t brush the soil away, my teeth begin to chatter. Some days my toes freeze up in the early morning and stay cold and numb inside my boots until I get home, no matter how hard the afternoon sun beats down.
The cedar pulls like molasses: the totals the tallyman reads out are pathetic. On a good day I can make over a hundred bucks, but today I’m going to be lucky to hit sixty. The crew boss, a Forestry woman with ruddy cheeks, tightly curled blond hair and a hoarse, cackling voice, tries to calm the punters by promising that tomorrow we will be pulling white spruce.
“Yeah!” I say. But Gert, alongside me, groans. White spruce are tall trees, with short roots that grip the earth like leeches. A guy with big hands can whip them out of the ground as fast as picking up sticks. But for a woman, unless her hands are unusually large, white spruce hardly pulls any quicker than cedar. Red pine is the woman’s tree. It’s prickly and twisted and shelters close to the earth; the long roots fall together like horse hair when you clasp ten trees into a bundle. A woman with nimble fingers can pull eight thousand red pine a day.
“Tomorrow,” the crew boss shouts, “new pullers will be coming out from the city. Looks like we used up all the grade around here.”
Pullers from the city! The announcement combs through the crouched hordes like a ripple of unwelcome wind. What will these new pullers be like?
Next morning we see what they’re like: they’re black. Or at least two of them are. Husky young guys with an easygoing, jokey manner. The burlier, friendlier lad is called Reg; his thinner, quieter friend is Deon. Having been away from the country for a couple of years, I can’t believe the reaction they get. In this stretch of eastern Ontario you can drive forty klicks without meeting anybody who isn’t Scots-Irish or French-Canadian or maybe Dutch or German. For the first two hours the flats are silent. Only the croak of the tallyman and the honk of Canada geese winging home overhead break the scuffle and grunt of men and big-handed women feasting on the fast cash offered by a field of white spruce.
The spruce grows amid knee-high grass that ruffles like water when the wind kicks up. As the breeze reaches the edge of the clearing, it unveils the light undersides of the leaves in the groves of mature poplar and maple. There are moments when you can feel happy to be working outside. Glancing up, I catch the glint of Gert’s dark eyes seeking out mine. I turn away, exchanging grimaces with Reg. Gert has been sending too many long looks in my direction. I try to figure out how, without hurting her, I can make her see the differences between us. I’m not the same guy I used to be. When I was working in Ottawa I had a girlfriend, a big-city girl who screwed me purple for ten months without ever breathing the word marriage. Since I came home, the girls seem like grandmas in training, the wedding dress the main thing on their mind. Gert can’t be more than twenty; and even when I was growing up around here, would I have given a hoot about a girl who hung out in arcades?
Gert, meanwhile, is busy ignoring an admirer of her own. Kev is a lanky, long-jawed, red-haired lad who talks even more like a farmer than most of the people working here. He’s been smitten by Gert’s pushiness. The more mouthy she gets with him, the more he acts like her slave. He fetches her water bottle, he lobs spare trees in her direction; he’s even offered to carry her bundles to the table. I had Kev pegged as grade, expecting him to vanish after a week; but love has transformed him into a hard worker. He arrives at the crack of seven each morning, his watery blue eyes scanning the furrows for Gert.
We pick our way forward in closed formation, swabbing the field clean with hungry hands. The crew boss’s yells clang in our ears; her bright, laundered blue jeans glint in the corner of my eye. Gert and I lead the pack of pullers. Kev is closing in on Gert from the right; Reg and Deon head up the next row.
By mid-afternoon the silence is making me sick. I figure it’s time to set an example by acting naturally. I go back to teasing Gert. “I bet you’re getting thirsty, Gert,” I say. “What’ll you do if you need your water bottle?”
“If I need my water bottle,” she says, with a savage sidelong glance at Kev, “I’ll get my nigger to bring it to me.”
For five seconds not a single tree gets pulled. Everybody stares at Reg and Deon. Reg and Deon look at each other. In the distance, I hear Canada geese honking.
“That was a pretty ignorant thing to say, Gert,” I tell her.
“You go fuck yourself. You just think you’re hot shit ’cause you lived someplace else.” She bows her head into the chest of her jeans jacket, her cheeks shaking.
“Move it!” the crew boss shouts. “Anybody who doesn’t pull forty-five hundred today is outa here.”
I veer away from Gert and almost run into Reg. He and Deon are putting a broad patch of white spruce between themselves and the rest of us. As everybody else sinks into a silence even sicker than it was before, Reg and Deon can’t stop talking. They pull like fury, exchanging stories in a jargon we can scarcely follow. Within thirty minutes a wheel of clean-picked dark brown earth has opened up around them. Trussed bundles lie heaped at their heels. They pull barehanded, the only workers in the field not wearing gloves.
I glance across at Gert. She ignores me. Kev, put off either by Gert’s rudeness or her tears, has drifted away to the fringes of the field.
“Whoah!” the crew boss shouts. “You’re gettin’ way too spread out. You’re missing good trees– And you two,” she says, turning to glare down the laughing West Indians, “do you plan to shut your traps when I’m speaking?”
“No, we don’t, ma’am,” Reg says. “We work better when we talk.”
“You’re fired, mister,” she says. “It’s your fault this crew’s got screwed up today.” She plants her right hand on her hip and gestures with her left for them to quit the field. Red blush-points break out high up on her cheeks.
The two men shrug their shoulders and saunter away towards the poplar grove.
“You’ll be paid for the work you’ve done,” she hurls after them. “Now the rest of yous get back to work or you’re next.”
Silence splinters the crew. Nobody talks; nobody works close to anybody else. After more than a month of pulling trees six days a week, my body is aching all over. My joints creak and my kneecaps click when I walk. My tiredness has outrun my ability to sleep it off. At the end of the afternoon I stumble away to my Chev without saying goodbye to Gert. Kev has disappeared. The sight of Gert kicking across the field, her head lowered and her work gloves dangling from her fingers, tugs at my chest. But I recognize the tug as guilt, not love. I turn the key in the ignition.
My Chev rumbles over two kilometres of rutted dirt road winding between the fir plantations. When I turn onto the highway, Reg and Deon are standing holding their thumbs out. Reckoning that they must have been there for almost three hours, I pull over onto the shoulder.
“I’m only going ten minutes up the road,” I say, “but I’d be happy to give you a lift.”
“Thanks, but we need a ride into the city.” Big Reg has slipped a woollen hat onto his head. Behind him, Deon issues me a shy smile.
“I thought what she did to you was really shitty,” I say. I take a breath. “Actually, I thought it was racist.”
“Aw, we knew we were rubbing that lady the wrong way,” Reg says. “If we’d really wanted the job, we would have acted more docile. We just came out here today for fun.”
“Fun?” I say. “Don’t you need the work?”
For the first time Reg looks shy. “We’re grad students in biology in Ottawa. We’ve got internships at a lab but it don’t start until two weeks from now and we were kind of bored.”
“We’d never seen the countryside,” Deon offers. “We always lived in cities.”
“I can’t believe how lazy people are out here,” Reg says. “Don’t they care about making something of themselves?”
The two of them stare down at me with the stare you save for a furrow full of slashed roots. Deon shakes his head.
“No offence to you,” Reg says.
“None taken,” I reply. “I know who I am.” I roll up the window and shift my Chev into gear.
Stephen Henighan was born in Germany and grew up in rural eastern Ontario. He is the author of three novels, three short story collections and half a dozen books of non-fiction. His forthcoming titles include A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Linda Leith Publishing, 2013), Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014) and the English translation of Ondjaki’s Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (Biblioasis, 2014).