Montreal, October 6, 1998
Muddy drops rained from Peter's sweat-soaked face as he torqued down the last of the retaining bolts on the Jeep's alternator. The hot, sand-laden blasts of an unexpected ghibli stung the exposed parts of our shorts-and-tee-shirted bodies as we completed the repairs to our jeep and prepared to resume our trip to the Garyan oil prospect.
As I collected the tools, I could see Peter's eye's glaze as they tracked the approach of several girls of indeterminate age, who giggled and gestured suggestively from the safety and anonymity of their barrakans, letting the hot winds which whipped at their garments expose far more of their young legs than was within the Islamic bounds of decency. Moments before, the camel drivers had passed, their flapping wool bernooses opening from time to time to reveal the glint of ornate cutlery hanging from the sashes round their waists.
We had been working out of an isolated desert camp for several months and the 'targets' which now filled Peter's voyeur viewplane, like ducks through a gunsight, had him in a kind of hypnosis. The sweat which now sprung from his tendon-ribbed neck was coming from a source of heat other than the sun. As the bravest of the lot came over to inspect us along with our repair operations, a proud and defiant look in her exposed eye and the rising curvature in her bronzed calves left no doubt in our hungry minds that the body that warmed the inside of that cloth tent was 'to die for'.
The word 'faaaaak' formed softly and involuntarily on my lips as it dawned on me what Peter was about to do. Without dropping his gaze, he was stealthily setting aside the wrench he had been holding, and like a snake coiling in readiness for the strike, was preparing to discover whether the zig-zig resonances in our visitor's laugh and gaze, graced her full face as well. By this unveiling act, if Peter did indeed unshroud this spirited beauty and devour the naked imagery of her face, he might well convert the both us to vulture-bait in the process. Something in the authenticity of her gaze induced an upwelling of love and caring within me, and with milliseconds to spare, the latency which had been building was shattered by a yell, .. "Imshee!!" (go away!!). Our mystery visitor quickly broke off the engagement, scampering back to her friends who now giggled in satisfaction over this exciting if unexpected climax. I smiled at her one eye as she looked back at us and through it, she cast me back a knowing smile. Peter's wordless glance in my direction failed to reveal whether he was pleased or angered by my vocal intervention.
The geometry of this event was not unfamiliar to me, and my mind 'rewound' to an incident the year before, back in Saskatchewan. It had been closing time as our half crossed eyes rose up zombie-like over a sea of 'last call' beers the waiters had lined up before us, to hear and watch Gerry as he started to come out of his tree; .... 'I'm going fucking crazy in this fuck-assed town' he shouted to no-one in particular in a voice loud enough to jolt the terminally inebriated and blow a small lull in the side of the ceaseless din of drunken conversation. Gerry, a displaced quebecois who had grown up in Ottawa, was normally full of smiles and of a very gentle and gentlemanly nature. We had all recognized the familiar pattern taking form in his remarks but we said nothing, ... in tacit deference to the karma which was taking hold of him, and which seemed to insist on playing itself out without intervention on our part. Last week, a guy had died from stab wounds in this same pub, .... the bloodstains were still visible, their freshness of colour marking the vintage of yet another painful entry in the long and rough history writ into the stained floorboarding of this infamous dive.
Gerry's girlfriend was working in Calgary, and our unexpected crew move from Rocky Mountain House had been on the very eve of a peaking of their passions. And here we were out in nowheresville, with his cabin fever beginning to infect all of us.
I knew that disciplined work was what Gerry needed to save him from the fate of so many, ... and we were all exposed, .... by letting the explosive energies build inside of us, until our need for release was not likely to be peacefully satisfied. The kami-kaze pattern forming in Gerry's mind was dead familiar to us all. Pick out the combination of the most attractive girl in the pub in the company of the meanest looking animal, and then move in and come on to her in as blatant a manner as one could.
Everyday at work, we played a similar 'on the edge' game, gingerly connecting firing line to a bevy of detonating caps, their shiny heads thrust deeply into three inch fat sausages of explosive gel, fastening the blue fireline leads to the terminals of the detonator module, pulling the system arming lever down to 'red', and listening to the ten second 'tone' whose termination would be accompanied by a sickeningly heavy roll of the ground beneath our feet, a brain-rattling sonic blast, and rain from a fountain of drilling mud spewed into the sky as powerfully as the beer-piss from our bursting bladders on the way back from a bar-closing session. ... One wrong move and our body parts would be decorating the trees along with that drillmud. Not the pretty picture that we were being paid to get, of geologic structures miles beneath the surface we were walking on.
Most of us had seen how small mistakes could be amplified, and we all had a strange fascination with living on the edge of irreversible chaos, ... on the edge of detachment.
Mickey, our shooter, who normally swilled beer with us, was still hospitalized by an accident which had occurred more than a week ago. We were loading fifty pound charges into 200 foot deep shotholes, and running against a slimmed-down budget. As I loaded holes ahead of the shooting truck, I hit one where the charge refused to go deeper than 30 feet, because of hole collapse, and told Mickey to skip it since the drills were miles up the road by this time. Mickey said we couldn't afford a skipped shotpoint at this location, but said he could clear the 'bridge' by poling a small half-pound charge down to the blockage point and blasting the rubble out of there to re-open the hole. It sounded like a sensible plan to me and I nodded and moved two hundred yards down the seismic line to the next hole as Mickey cautiously pulled the fifty pounder out of the blocked hole, taking care to be gentle with the four detonator caps I had poked into the soft gel through the cardboard casing of its packaging.
I was preparing the next hole when I heard it, ... it didn't sound at all like a half-pound charge at thirty foot depth, in fact it just about broke my eardrums. I felt sick, ... I could read the text of the shooter's rule book in the air in front of my face, ..... NEVER have TWO primed charges at one location, ...... without looking up, I already knew what had happened, ... Mickey had hooked up the wrong leads to the blaster, ... he had mistakenly hooked up the leads to the fifty pound charge which was lying nearby him on the ground, instead of the leads to the half-pounder he had stuck down the hole to clear the blockage. I didn't want to look, .... I had heard too many stories, .... intestines strung across the branches of trees, .... searches for the still warm scattered bits, ...
I sucked in some cool fresh air, then turned my glance up the road, ... I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw Mickey still on his feet. As I ran towards him, a passing car on the road beside us slowed as the driver stared stupefied, watching Mickey drop his trousers and undershorts, to inspect the many streams of blood running down his bare back and buttocks. As I approached the shooting truck, I could see that several of its heavy truck tires had been flattened by rock fragments launched like rifle shots from the crater which now occupied the spot where the charge had lain, and I began to wonder about the depth of Mickey's wounds.
When I reached him, he was calm but in a weird way, talking in a continuous stream about what had just happened and then his legs just gave way beneath him and I grabbed him as he collapsed. Another crew member came from down the line and we took the pickup and had him to the hospital within twenty minutes. Still in and out of fainting spells, he was breathing strongly and had a good pulse, but we had no idea how deep his wounds were.
Gerry's voice, in an unusualIy aggressive state, broke me away from my reveries, and my mind quickly fast-forwarded to the happy knowledge that Mickey was going to be ok, although there was to be an inquiry and he was bound to lose his shooter's licence.
Gerry, in his drunken state, was either trying to woo the town's beauty queen, sitting a few tables over from us, or trying to bait the ugliest, toughest gorilla in the province, ... I couldn't tell which, in fact it appeared to be a package deal. I went over to him and suggested it was time we were getting back to our lodgings to get some rest so that we could go riding in the morning, Gerry's favorite recreation. I breathed a sigh of relief as he somehow tuned to the wisdom in this suggestion and came along peacefully.
Meanwhile, the tatoos on the gorilla's biceps, as he stood half in and half up out of his chair, bulged and flexed as he shook his fist and showered us with abuse. His beauty queen wrapped herself around his other tree-trunk arm as if to restrain him, .... a futile act which brought to mind the image of a strip-tease shinnying up a pole, ... an affirmation more of her love-slave status than her effort at restraint. Drunk as I was, I welcomed the chance to deal with a tangible issue, knowing that if it hadn't have been Gerry who had 'twisted off', it might well have been me.
I remember being struck in that moment, with the thought that our memories, good or bad, passionate or remorseful, are forever lurking and lingering in the background, in the 'negative space' geometries which envelope us, from whence they launch, with impunity, guerilla attacks on our current consciousness. And when we least expect it or want it, the emotions of the past come to life again and again, woven into the forms and shapes we encounter in front of us as we move on with our lives.
Sunday was a new day, and like a ball in a pinball machine, I bounced off the bar-room securing of Gerry's continued existence, through the horse riding ploy, into yet another experience which was to be as painful for the horse as it was for the rider, .... but this time it was an experience that would grossly and indelibly stain the space-time canvas of my life, like a glass of red wine splashed across a white cotton table-cloth.
Badly hungover, we reached the ranch that did rentals, ... it was a far cry from the standard 'dude ranch' where all the horses line up like burros when they see the riders coming. What waited for us on this ranch were 'the horses from hell' and it was not as if we were devilishly good riders.
On our prior trips to the ranch, and after several 'difficult' experiences including my being squeezed off against a tree and bitten by my own mount, the ranch owner had finally agreed to consider my request for a horse that would have some measure of respect for the bothersome bulk clinging desperately to its back. This time he brought me a palomino with eyes which seemed a little less hysterical than those of my prior steeds, and told me of the rave reviews it inevitably received from those who rode it.
Gerry, in a soul-searching mood better served by solitude, headed south as I headed north. As the ranch faded into the distance behind me, things continued to go well, my horse was responding to the subtlest of my knee and rein movements and my tensions soon gave way to an incoming tide of relaxation and enjoyment . When we came out of a wadi and hit the ubiquitous prairie flats again, I slacked off on the reins, gave him a bit of heel and he took off like a scalded ape. Soon, we were racing across the prairie looking like one of those old westerns where the film technology makes the most casual of behaviors look like Charlie Chaplin doing the jitterbug.
Suddenly and without a trace of a warning, my horse did a 90 degree right turn, leaving me in open space where I executed a 360 loop in the vertical plane before rolling along like the tumbling tumbleweed for quite some ways, ... until I finally came to rest and took a time-out to re-inventory my body parts. I was furious. This was the most devious and deceitful deception that any animal had ever perpetrated on me. There were no prairie dog holes, no snakes, no rocks, nothing but flat, continuous prairie. As I went to fetch him, he could see the hysteria in MY eyes and he avoided me. Ultimately, he relented and faced me with a knowingness that his time for penance was nigh. When I got hold of his reins, I did something I had no idea I was going to do, I punched him in the side of the schnoz, with all the force I could muster. He screamed and reared in the air, showing me the undersides of his hoofs, inches above my face, but he did not strike back.
I felt disgusted with myself, and couldn't quite believe what I had done in spite of his pernicious provocation. I mounted up, headed back to the ranch and began to refocus my anger on the rancher. But the wind had been taken out of my sails. My rage had been washed away by waves of regret for having so viciously attacked my four-legged brother, .... and by the memory of his baleful, submissive eyes reflecting back my devil gaze, which for some moments, tinted the air and smoldered the prairie grass between us.
It was a long ride back, and by now the sky was turning color, as if polluted by the events we now distanced ourselves from. When two hawks emerged from nowhere and passed directly overhead, the hair rose on the back of my neck, and thoughts of some secret signalling from horse to hawk crept into mind, making my muscles tense for a silent arrival, from the rear, of a pair of rib-rattling thuds, quickly unfurling into a buffeting of wings and a screeching, piercing and tearing of beak and claw until warm rivers of rich red blood spilled down my back and over the Palomino.
Minutes later, back in the secure reality of the ranch, I gave an account of the horse's behavior to the rancher. He was non-plussed, as this in no way jived with the palomino's behavioral history. Suddenly he had a thought, and asked me for the precise location of the incident. He nodded as I told him, and recounted that a few years ago, several of his horses, including the horse I had just ridden, had huddled together at that exact spot during a thunderstorm. Lightening struck and one of my horse's mates had been literally burned to a crisp. The others, including the Palomino, were stunned and traumatized but somehow managed to survive.
Shortly after this misbegotten equestrian adventure, Gerry moved back to Calgary and our crew moved camp several hundred miles to the north, ... I was spared the trauma of having to look again into the haunting eyes of the Palomino. But still they looked at me, with a heart-piercing silence which could not be answered.
Weeks later, working in the north country, the imagery was undiminished in its potency. Memories, ..... where the hell do they come from? Inside of us, outside? ... woven into the tumbleweed or the prairie grass? One night, sweating feverishly in my cold bed, struggling to find and deal with the roots of this memory, I stripped away the living detail in my mind's eye until there was just me on my sad golden steed, the two of us, now the size of ants on a melon, galloping around the curved horizon of the earth, and as we clitter-clattered our way to the top, I brought my mount to an abrupt halt and peered down over the slippery-smooth crest. Far below us, like two dark ladybugs drifting on hot summer air, were mercury and venus, weaving their orbital cocoons over and around the orange incandescence of their sun-queen. The mesmerizing effect of this stark perspective was interrupted as the ground beneath us began to heave and undulate. High above, the massive hulks of mars and jupiter, like two great ships, slid silently overhead, weaving their orbital cocoons around and over us and filling the intervening ether with orpheatic harmonies which were strongly felt but not heard. Now we were together, horse and man, ... now made brothers in this shared, resonating space. I leaned forward and rested my ear upon his golden mane, slipping my arm down and around his strong warm neck, but still he stood rigidly silent and aloof.
In the brightness of the following morning, loading shotholes, I felt much improved in spirit, and my mind, disciplined by an awareness of the potential dangers of my work, detached itself from this remembering. In spite of a sleepless night I kept my mind alert and in keen observance of the rules, ensuring the capwires lined up straight as they were sucked into the hole, and gazing into the burping fountains of rich brown mud which flooded over my boots, I poled the descending charges truely and surely home, to the bottom of their shotholes. These simple procedures were antithesis and remedy for the haunting memories, and greatly eased my tensions.
I discerned an interesting geometry here, ... if I looked only at the things and tasks in front of me, I was ok, things were 'out there', not only detached from me, but under my control. It was like looking down on mercury and venus in my sweaty dream. On their own, they were like fish in a bowl, open and exposed to my gaze and will and in no way threatening. In this mode of thinking, my horse was no more than an incidental, just another mount, an inconsequential object in my service. But when and if my mind opened to the ominous and hidden presence of things wrapping around and looking IN UPON ME, as mars and jupiter had, ... then the space around me wriggled and crawled with the snakes of living memory. Then could I no longer think of myself as being 'on top of things' but felt immersed in an endless connecting, living whole which informed and penetrated me through my pores and orifices that could not hide, and transformed the Palomino from its detached object status to an involuntary fellow-in-arms. In this shared-space state of mind, we both moved and were moved by etherial rhythm and flow, and through his muscular, pulsating body held firmly by my legs, ... I could feel the aching in his heart.
If only he could speak so that we could help each other towards a resolution of our soul-searching. It's this damned excruciating silence which is the curse of unwanted memories!, ... and I thought of Rilke's words;
Parfois les amants ou ceux qui ecrivent
trouvent des mots qui, bien qu'ils s'effacent,
laissent dans un coeur une place heureuse
a jamais pensive
Car il en nait sous tout ce qui passe
sans qu'ils creusent aucune trace
quelques-uns restent des pas de la danse.
Once again I shifted base camps, this time to Tripoli, with it's bustling bleu-marine harbour flanked by castle walls and the din of an ancient souk. A few months later, jeep-ing back out to our desert basecamp after a provisioning trip, our alternator died and we had to stop and make repairs. In the process, we had yet another 'on the edge' encounter, but it was somehow different this time, not nearly so cold, rational and 'detached' as preparing a charge for detonation.
We finished installing the new unit, packed away the tools, slammed down the hood, and fishtailed our way back up onto the sandy roadway where we quickly picked up speed. As the red Jebel of Garyan rose up to meet us, I turned and looked back into the billowing cloud of dust which spun from our wheels like a giant fin, rising high above the sandy flats into the ever-blue North African sky, and again my prairie memory flooded in, threading itself in and around the continuing fabric of my life.
Many more base camps have come and gone and still the memory lingers on.
Somewhere on the lonely plains of Saskatchewan, there's a patch of prairie ground which looks like any other patch of prairie ground, but is like no other, ... it's holy ground, ....... and looking down at every blade of grass, every stone, and every particle of silt on that patch of prairie will not unearth the sacred memory that marks this place. To understand the ground that lies before you, you must turn around and look back, ... towards the lone Palomino silhouetted on the horizon who whinnies and nuzzles the sky as if in search of answers. Look into his baleful eyes and you will connect with understanding which transcends a lifetime of rational explorations.
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