When I was young and gawky I rode a bicycle everywhere I went and defaulted to happiness. In spite of midnight beatings for breaking my glasses, the threat of nuclear war, and revelations about the specter of a silent spring, my disposition remained relentlessly sunny.
“Stay out of the neighbors’ yard,” said my father.
“You’re trespassing. It’s their property.”
Trespassing was a moral sin requiring forgiveness from God, so I trespassed, and then repented on Sundays, kneeling on an orange vinyl rail designed for contrition. Forgive us our trespasses, a hundred voices resounded in church-emptiness. The priest held out his arms, as if supporting the broken, expired body of Jesus Christ suspended on his cross before a three-dimensional commissioned tapestry, writhing loops of artery-red wool that looked like entrails climbing ten meters from concrete floor to slatted ceiling.
On the drive home I was happy church was over. I stared out the car window at plastic NO TRESPASSING signs stapled to trees and fence posts. I wished it were the trees and flowers, rivers and rabbits who had posted the signs. The First People should have lined the shores of this continent with them.
A real estate development company bought the wetlands beside the lake where I used to live with my husband Brian and our two sons, Mitch and Felix. The company trespassed the hell out of those wetlands. They dredged, backfilled, poured gravel and concrete, and built a housing development called Red Wing Estates, named for blackbirds that sang there no more.
“Progress is inevitable,” said Brian.
“Destroying wetlands isn’t progress.”
Brian left when I was fifty-three. Relieved, I sold our house and bought a small rural property. Mitch and Felix, all grown up, lived in the big city on the coast with their partners, eschewing the pastoral after childhoods they remembered as cloistered and deprived. They called once in a while. Felix and his partner Teddy invited me for Christmas one year. They dressed up and made the downtown scene, went dancing at clubs, and hosted wild dinner parties. I sulked in a corner, frumpy and abrupt. Poor Felix made excuses for his taciturn mother while Teddy wrung his hands and cried into his apron.
“You’re having a terrible holiday, aren’t you? I’m so sorry, Hilda!”
Teddy, my sensitive son-in-law, started calling me by my first name after Brian left.
For seven years I survived on my savings and what remained of the house equity. I kept chickens and sold eggs, wove willow baskets and furniture, ate and preserved food from my garden, and spent as little as possible. My father died and then my mother, and they left me a small inheritance, which I invested.
I stopped following the news because it was always miserable. The easy happiness of my youth hovered over my shoulder like a mosquito, annoying and perennially out of reach.
I was sleeping when a bulldozer bumped up and down in the lily meadow adjacent to my two acres. The bulldozer’s mechanical grumble and whine entered my dream, taking the shape of a monster, part man, part steamroller, running down screeching children. The man-machine crushed purple strawflowers, lacy white yarrow, and brown-eyed Susans. In my dream, I was anxious about those flowers, and the tender, invisible lichens. The children could take care of themselves.
I woke up with the top sheet damp and twisted around my thighs. I had forgotten to pull down the blinds. The sun’s rays were filtered by smoke from summer wildfires. The bulldozer looked like a child’s Tonka toy, playschool-yellow, its bucket-shovel bouncing. It would have been funny, if not for the damage it was wreaking. The driver was clearly lost. I tugged a sundress over the splay of my breasts, repositioned the cat with a foot, and hurried downstairs, ignoring Tink’s friendly overtures. Tink, a ten-year-old German Shepherd, was meant to be a guard dog, but he was a coward, so I shut him in the house.
I stepped into rubber boots on the back step and waded through a tangle of pioneer species, yellow mullein and purple fireweed. The chickens massed in the closest corner of their yard, clucking indignantly. Like a grazing animal, the bulldozer roared aimlessly in the meadow, caroming toward the lake for thirty meters, then describing an awkward radius and trundling toward my house. I waved both arms overhead, semaphore-style.
“Stop, stop, stop!”
The bulldozer lurched and halted, but the driver left the machine’s diesel engine running, its chug-chug-chug accompanied by black smoke puffing from a rooftop exhaust. The driver’s door opened, revealing a boot and blue denim, like a stripper’s leg teasing from behind a red velvet curtain. A second leg hovered behind the first. Boots searched for stepladder. Those thick legs dragged a flabby belly in a t-shirt out of the bulldozer, and last came puffy jowls connected by a brown hyphen moustache. The driver wobbled and settled beside the thrumming vehicle.
I closed the distance between the driver and me. I was annoyed by the damage he had wrought, his insinuation our conversation would be short (the bulldozer’s engine was still running), the wildfire smoke scratching the back of my throat, and the disruption of a morning that should have been a shiny perfect circle, like a silver link in a necklace, matching all the days before it.
“Turn it off. Turn. It. OFF!”
I planted my fists on padded hips and watched him haul his bulk up five rungs, lean across a black Naugahyde seat, and silence the beast. He stepped down and considered me with close-set, blinking brown eyes.
“I don’t know where you think you are, but this field belongs to Verna and Bart Thomas. It’s part of a proposed ecological reserve.”
Spittle flew from my lips on the p’s of “proposed.” The big boy’s hands hung beside him, white and bloodless. His inflated lips parted to answer. I judged him an underling, a pawn, a follower of orders who plunked himself into his machine, enjoying the power and thrust, the maneuverability and inexhaustibility of his conveyance, so different from his prison of flesh.
“I work for the mine. My name’s Miles.”
“What mine? There’s no mine. You’re lost; turn that thing around, and get out of here.”
“Zenith Mine, copper and gold. I’m driving the perimeter stakes today. This is the perimeter.”
“The hell it is. Everything inside the fence-line belongs to Bart and Verna, and this is a threatened ecosystem. You’ve already killed hundred-year-old lichen, and four varieties of grassland lilies. Try to drive in your tracks on your way out.”
Miles shifted his bulk, distributing the load.
“Your neighbors must have leased their land to Zenith Mines. Is that your house?”
He indicated my home with a puffy finger. It had started as a hunter’s log cabin, expanded in the seventies when a hippie added the sleeping loft and a circular concrete-and-tile shower, and lengthened when I bought it and tacked on a sunroom and studio. Objectively the place was eccentric, like a child’s poor drawing, lopsided and askew. But it was functional, the garden was bountiful, and it was off-grid: my life depended on rainwater collection and solar energy, and in ten years I had never been thirsty or cold. Tink’s barks reached me, faint but audible. The chickens protested their snub.
“My house, yes,” I said. “I have cell service there. The signal’s weak, but we can call your boss, and sort this thing out. There’s raspberry scones.”
It was too easy, like getting Hansel and Gretel to follow a trail of crumbs to the witch’s house. He shrugged his great shoulders and lumbered downhill in my wake. The chickens erupted in clucks again as we passed, and ran indignantly along the fence to chastise me. Miles seemed scared of them, skirting the chicken yard as if it were populated with Hell’s own minions. I opened the back door.
“This your dog?” He extended a hand for Tink, the traitor, to lick.
“Yeah. There’s a cat around here somewhere too. Plato.”
“Do you want my boss’s phone number?”
“Yes, please. Did you say you liked coffee, or tea?”
He hadn’t said. He sniffed the air delicately, as if an aroma might help him decide.
“I’m having coffee,” I suggested.
“Okay, sounds good.”
I installed Miles on a kitchen chair. He seemed content; his bulldozer was out there, parked jauntily on the hillside. From a bulky, worn-leather wallet he selected a dog-eared business card and presented it.
copper & gold extraction & processing
Clint Bucker, CEO
While I made coffee I thought about burning propane gas to boil water, a ring of small blue flames substituting for an orange campfire. I thought about what it meant to be human, to heat and cook food before consuming it, and the centrality of this process in quotidian life. I considered the coffee beans, transported by truck to the store in the valley where I bought what groceries I couldn’t grow or barter for. I wondered if the pots and kettle and the stove itself were fabricated with metal from mines, and how long mines had been part of the human story. Copper electrical wires, gold tooth fillings.
“So, you’re a miner?”
Miles shifted and cleared his throat, as if the question were uncomfortably personal.
“Nah. I just drive the ‘dozer.”
“And this,” I consulted the card, “this Clint Bucker, he hired you to do what, exactly?”
“Drive the perimeter stakes, like I said, for now.”
I leaned into the French press and poured two steaming mugs of coffee. I felt Miles’ eyes on me as I uncovered the tray of scones, dusted them with confectioner’s sugar, and set them on the table along with two small plates. Miles waited for me to take a scone before helping himself to one. He ignored the cream, but shoveled three teaspoons of sugar into his mug and stirred, clink-clink-clink.
“Why do you need a bulldozer to drive stakes? Couldn’t you walk the perimeter, or drive in something smaller, like an ATV or a truck? Isn’t a bulldozer overkill?”
“I don’t have a truck. Just the bulldozer.”
I dialed the number on the card. Miles took a bite of his scone. The phone rang twice, and a man answered. “Clint here.”
I explained the situation to Clint as Miles took another bite of his scone, dusting his moustache with white powdered sugar, and chased it with a satisfied slurp of coffee. Tink, having identified Miles as a sucker, settled beside him on sleek black haunches and assumed the plaintive, sorrowful look of an abused and underfed foundling. Plato twisted around my ankles, his thin ribs bumping along my shins.
“There’s no mistake,” said Clint. “Bart Thomas invited me onto his property to do core samples last year. The newspaper’s been printing notices of the development for months now.”
“I didn’t know.”
I hallucinated a metal sign erupting from the earth in the lily meadow. NO TRESPASSING. I imagined pale, temperamental creatures that lived underground, protesting invasions of their lairs. Dwarves dug for precious metals and jewels to forge crowns, thrones, weapons and armor, interrupting their work only for war. Trolls wallowed in their own filth, hoarding gemstones in caves and crevasses. Gollum paid for his robbery of a belowground treasure with the erosion of his soul. Nothing was wrenched from the earth without a price. Steel, gold, silver, coal, oil, asbestos, diamonds, uranium: the woes of the planet are all linked to the mining of what lies hidden underground.
Miles levered himself up and asked to use the bathroom. I directed him to the outhouse. I kept it scoured and odor-free, a basket of wood chips beside the hole, the venting system swept clean of cobwebs. While he was gone I crushed two sleeping pills to powder and stirred them into his coffee. He came back and gulped it down.
I watched him waddle out through the weeds. He made it to the shady side of his bulldozer, sat down in the bunch grasses and strawflowers, and leaned his back against a big rubber tire.
The ambulance took forty minutes to arrive. I directed the paramedics past the chickens into the lily meadow. Miles was unresponsive. They loaded him on a folding stretcher with wheels and trundled him out, probably killing more lichen. I didn’t want to look at the bulldozer so I called up Steve, who drove a tractor, and asked him to get it out of my sight. He was reluctant, but I sweetened the deal with a dozen eggs and the rest of the raspberry scones.
I was sinned against, trespassed upon, and unconsulted in the matter of the mine. Bart and Verna had sold their neighbors out, and cut and run. I went to the next meeting about Zenith Mines in the Catholic church hall. There were a lot of paintings of anguished saints, but no gory tapestry. Tom Pigeon, his brown face craggy and serious, said his people weren’t going to sit around and let Zenith pollute the river that coursed through their reservation. I wanted to kiss him. I told them about the bulldozer and the crushed lilies and lichen, but not about the coffee and scones. I guess Miles didn’t say anything either. No one showed up to ask me questions.
At home after the meeting the sun was setting, and the yellow grass turned pink and orange. An easterly wind had dispersed the blur of wildfire smoke, and everything had sharp edges again. There were brown shadows in the meadow where Miles had driven the bulldozer. A hawk circled lazily on the horizon. I let Tink out and together we trespassed in the lily meadow, up and over the crest of the hill so we could spy on the old Thomas place. A truck was parked outside Bart and Verna’s log home, a shiny copper-colored Z on the passenger side door. Tink and I went home for a funnel and a bag of white sugar.
Felix and Teddy came to visit the following spring, the air loud with the chirrups of insects and songs of birds. I gave them the bed in the loft and slept on a foam mattress in the studio. Teddy is allergic to cats, but Plato was gone by then, picked off by an owl or coyote. I cleaned, using a lint brush on the fabric surfaces and washing the towels and linen, but like a shadow projected in a cave, Plato left an impression, and Teddy was stuffed up and sneezing the whole time.
Tom Pigeon and his friends won a stop-work injunction against Zenith Mines in provincial court not long ago. The lily meadow has been quiet. I feel a little guilty about drugging Miles and wrecking that truck, and I’m surprised I haven’t drawn any heat. It’s not like anyone else lives within walking distance of Bart and Verna’s place. When I think about my crimes, I feel a flutter of the old happiness.
I represent subterranean metals and delicate lichens. I am the hands and mouthpiece of what dwells underground. I lie in the lily meadow, and the earth rumbles and vibrates. I come home and look in the mirror. Grey streaks my hair, and my chin sprouts black bristles. I pull them out one by one with tweezers. Furrows in my face deepen, like fissures in dried mud, but my eyes sparkle with mischief and misdeeds.
Katie Welch is an author and musician living in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Her fiction can also be found in Déraciné Magazine, and in a self-published novella, Ursocrypha: The Book of Bear. In 2016 she was awarded a writer's residency at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity. An ecological thinker and former tree planter, she has been reprimanded for defending wilderness. Her website can be found here, and follow her @_katiewelch.