by Darren Gibson
The three of them travelled west along the baron flats of rural Saskatchewan in a used Honda CRV with the headlights dimmed and the taillights smashed in. It had been several weeks since they left the rotten core of the east, a land none of the three men would ever set eyes upon again, leaving behind lives never lived again. Resting his head against the window, Ginseng peers out into fields that were once a vibrant green and yellow reaped for canola oil; endless rows of sprouting life now shrivelled and breathless like the uniformed corpses of snakes. And surrounding all of this ceaseless nothing was the almighty din of bees carrying their workload back and forth, back and forth between orange boxes laid out by men no longer there, the giant buzz rising and falling across the landscape like waves on shore. Ginseng reaches into his pocket and pulls out paper lined with marks and doodles and the hope of an unknown location, he stares into the drawings, a giant X marking the spot, a pirate marking his treasure.
- A couple more miles, Hubbard calls from the passenger seat, a couple more miles then it’s north. In Hubbard’s hand he holds the same map, covered in pen and dried blood. Frederick, the driver, reclines further into his seat, his red beard jutting out in acknowledgment.
- Yeah, we’ll find some. The dull thudding heat of the sun pounds down onto the car, Frederick pushing one-twenty an hour across the black concrete.
- Still holding out hope back there Ginseng? his eyes flashing into the rear-view mirror. Ginseng crumples the paper back into his pocket. For Ginseng, there is nowhere and nothing else to hold out hope for, a final chance handed to them through a brief encounter with a dying man in a bar in rural Ontario, a vague light that has carried them thousands of miles across a treacherous landscape so easy to succumb to.
- Still holding out hope aren’t ya Ginseng. And just what are you going to say to those dear old loved ones? How about you tell ‘em we need food.
- After we turn north. There’ll be food and gas.
- Oh yeah? It says that in your little papers there?
- He’s right, says Hubbard, that road north goes on forever, it’ll be there at the start of it.
- The sooner all this is over, this little road-trip, Frederick raises his voice, we’re turning south. The miles pass and the CRV careers north. Frederick’s foot lifts from the floor as they turn into a torn-down gas stop marking petrol at 2 bucks a gallon.
- I’ll be damned if there’s gas here. Give me the gun, Frederick tells Hubbard.
- I’ll keep a look out.
- Yeah? A goddamn look out? Frederick exits and lifts the canister and plastic hose from the boot. He moves over to the rusting cars parked at the side and begins opening the fuel-hatches. One by one, he sticks the hose into the hatches and syphons. Hubbard retains the only gun found over the last few thousand miles – a rusted up Smith and Wesson model 686 and gets out of the car. Ginseng sits alone and still in the back, watching them mouth inaudibly to one another. Hubbard bringing the gas-filled containers to the boot whilst Frederick heads into the gas station; Ginseng now out and following.
- Nothing, there’s nothing here. Frederick kicks and flings the empty boxes lining the aisles before sitting on an empty beer container. He looks up as Ginseng enters. Ginseng watches him light a cigarette with his eyes transfixed on the empty aisles. Plodding through the remnants of the gas station, Ginseng finds a few tins of out of date tuna and a can of peaches. He takes the peaches to Frederick, Frederick taking them from him in resignation, their eyes meeting briefly and with content and for a moment Ginseng noticed Frederick for the man that he is, his beard masking the engraved lines of tired and hopeless prominent on his skin underneath, he knew Frederick was thinking of his son, and his wife, never to be looked upon again.
- We’ll find it and fix this, Ginseng tells him. Frederick grips the can of peaches as he watches a bug crawl across the rotten and brown plastic shelves. In the back of the gas station Ginseng breaks into the office and studies its walls scrolled with certificates of contract, health and safety regulations and photos of a rotund man standing side by side with his daughter. The table sat below the browned window covered in spray-paint spelling - “HEAD NORTH” He moves to the desk and prods at its drawers in search for what was uttered to him as the old man lay dying in Ontario – that it was the old mans gas station, that it was the old mans key. Inside the bottom drawer under piles of stained letters he pulls the clunk of wood on the end of a tied piece of string. Studying its rustic appearance Ginseng notices the letters “S” and “K” scribed into its side. Tucking it away in his pocket, he looks up to notice the large painting transfixed on the wall. Framed in red, the letters “S” and “K” jut out from the brown smear of art like a puzzle waiting to be answered. Frederick moves in the doorway.
Ginseng almost refrains from divulging the key but chooses against it, holding its queer shape aloft for Frederick to see. Ginseng nods at the painting.
- It’s the same initials as on the key.
- Just like the old fella said, Frederick turns to Ginseng, you might be right after all, boy. Frederick moves in front it and gripping its vibrant frame, pulls it off the wall, uncovering a metal hatch instilled in the brick.
- Give me the key. Ginseng doesn’t move. Frederick grows louder still -
- Ginseng, give me the key. Ginseng couldn’t see the eyes under Frederick’s black baseball cap, but was sure it was what held him there in his captivated seizure. He holds the key up to the failing light breaking through the window cracks and resigns it to Frederick, Frederick slotting it into the slit in the wall and turning, the metal hatch opening and uncovering a dust-riddled scroll of paper snatched by the callused hands of the bearded man and placed in his back pocket, letting Ginseng know who’s in charge. Hubbard sits in the driver’s seat, the gun nestled in his side door within easy reach in case of any volatile passers-by and in case of Frederick’s temperament becoming too much to handle with words. Frederick climbs into the passenger seat followed by Ginseng clambering out of the gas station doors, wiping dust and sweat as he goes. For a moment in their tense state of inquiry inside the gas station they had forgotten the immense humming drum of the bees in the distance, becoming louder and louder now, working its collective way into a crescendo. Ginseng jams his hands into his ears and kneels onto the concrete, the setting sun in the far west acting as a reminder and a pinpoint as to where they must go to reverse this still and lifeless world. Frederick and Hubbard watch Ginseng from the car as the song of the bees settles once more, watch as he looks to the rotten and dank fields of nothing that were once something, watch as he yells and howls into the still of its core like a hound would call at the moon after the death of its master. They carry on across the west-bound death road. By nightfall Frederick was already sleeping as Hubbard pressed on into the dark, Ginseng awake and still in the back seats, his silence broken every now and then by a murmur or cough.
- Was it in there? Did you find it? Hubbard prods. Ginseng flashes a glance at Frederick, making sure he’s sleeping.
- He’s got it.
- What did it say? Are we almost there?
- When he wakes, ask him. They fall back into their silence again, the car bursting on
through the night aimless and unfaltering, not looking for any physical place in particular but instead for the rise of the morning, the breaking of light into the distance and the dawn of another day’s hope that they may find the location and fix what has been put wrong and if they did not then perhaps another day would not come with glowing bright but with a vengeful and fiery sun, evaporating all breath left on this cold and distant planet known as Earth. Ginseng pondered that for a moment before falling into a light and restless slumber. He rose to Hubbard’s raised and excited voice calling out into the morning.
Hubbard sticks his head out of the window. Aha! He screams into the break of the day in jubilation. Ginseng sits upright, Frederick pulling the cap from his face, searching wildly with gazing eyes for the root of the commotion.
- Look boys, look! Hubbard yells.
They peer out into the vast and sprawling green and yellow fields of Saskatchewan, its stinking, cold death now gone and reborn with vibrant colours and with the giant gold of the sun pounding life upon it from above, its land stretching on for aeons and epochs, the curvature of the earth perhaps even visible in the distance. Hovering over the roof of the canola fields were all sorts of life – gigantic hummingbirds shooting this way and that in search of sugar, butterflies of all colours and shapes fluttering and jotting with the wind and below in the dirt of it all - the ceaseless crawl of insects working together in colonies building new homes. For a moment, Frederick was sure he saw a great bald eagle hang in the sky before retreating below tree cover. Life! Oh, great and joyous life once more!
- Stop the car! Frederick calls to Hubbard. The car slams to a halt, the black ink of its tyres screeching along the road. Frederick hoists himself out of the car and onto the road-side, his eyes locked on the family of deer, their brown heads and eyes full of wonder amongst the field, the call and sway of the field glimmering amongst them and across the landscape. Ginseng and Hubbard join Frederick at his sides.
- I never thought I’d see one of those again, says Hubbard.
- Where’s the gun?
- Frederick, you can’t, replies Ginseng.
- We haven’t eaten properly in weeks. Hubbard, where’s the gun? Hubbard stands unwavering looking out and upon the deer as they frolic, the sheer sight and wonder of it all enough to moisten his eyes.
- Hubbard. Frederick steps towards him.
- There’s no bullets left, Hubbard whispers, his eyes transfixed. We fired the last one getting out of Winnipeg. I’ve been saying it’s still loaded to stop you two from killing each other. Look at this though, look at this life, we could never kill it. We’d never thought we’d ever see such a miracle ever again. We could never kill it. The three of them watch as the deer prance their way north like a mirage, blending into the green and yellow of it all - a dream instilled not in the dark pitch of night but in the strong and welcoming light of a new day. And behind them still, the death of a vast country left behind to rot and perhaps one day also be born again.
Ginseng realised he could hear the bees no longer.