Running wildly, grasshoppers jumping on all sides to avoid my trampling feet in the tall grass, I feel the blades rip, cut my skin. Countless thin red lines appear all over my legs. Sweat from the heat of the day, from running, pearls on my forehead, drenches the middle of my back. Dark stains on my shirt. Purple. The same colour I have been wearing these past twenty days. A long time. I circle back toward the encampment, where my fellow travellers stand watching me.
George stands tall. His dark eyebrows, one raised slightly above the other, question me. George is heavier than he once was, but our adventure is kicking in. His body is hollowing out every day. Tall, but not outlandishly so. Broad-shouldered. Fred is unloading the canoe, pulling it up on the bank for the night, turning it swiftly over on its front. Seamus’ dirty blond head is nowhere to be seen.
“What was that?” asks George.
“I’m feeling restless. I need to lose some steam,” I reply, breathing heavily.
“Try lugging the canoe next time. You’ll be tired enough then.”
“I am tired. But also restless.”
He does not comment.
Cedar and crooked fir trees everywhere stare at our little troop. Our community of four. Darkness and a starry sky are taking over. It must be late. The darkness is still. If it weren’t for the swarms of flies around my head it would be quiet. Silence. But if it weren’t for the flies it would also be peaceful and comfortable. They stick together and they stick to my skin. Sucking red drops of blood or biting off small parcels of it, always leaving an itch. The itch makes me restless.
For now it’s heat and sweat as we set up camp. One tent peg at a time. I’m on supper. I’m always on supper. With Seamus. We always sneak in bites before serving the others. Also, I’m no good with the saw. Better at adding spices.
Darkness comes late so far north, but it comes fast. Sudden coolness announces its arrival. I reach back behind me and pull out my sweater from my pack. Warmth, pleasure, desire. It is so soothing to sit by the campfire staring into its depths. There are slightly fewer flies near it. Only slightly. Red, blue, orange, white, and yellow flames are running. The fire is restless as well. Dark comforts are fleeting.
“Maybe a bit of hot pepper flakes, what d’ya think?”
“Sounds good, let’s just not make them cry tonight.”
Same smiles exchanged. Seamus glances quickly over his shoulder at George pulling the tent they share taut. When Seamus smiles, his whole face lights up. Eyelashes, dimples, and everything.
“Oh my god…”
“Yeah I guess the spices condensed when I dehydrated it.”
“Or maybe they fermented over the last two weeks!”
George gasps and clenches his throat in mock agony. Or maybe it’s real.
“Add more cheese, it will dilute it a bit.”
George nods, tears streaming through the corner of his eyes. That’s what’s really hurting him. The tears.
“Well this is definitely the first meal you don’t swallow in one bite.”
I laugh. “What? It’s true! You eat incredibly fast.”
“It was pretty funny to watch him suffer over food.”
“Yeah. But people get crabby when they don’t eat enough and I do not want a crabby guy in my canoe.”
“Since when are you so reasonable?”
Quick smile before he returns his attention to the paint can. The paint can is a contraption he made that works just as fast as my little gas stove but only needs twigs to feed it. And there are twigs everywhere so it’s easy to use. Seamus is inventive. Seamus is creative. Seamus doesn’t really belong out here. I’ve never asked him why he said yes so quickly, so enthusiastically, when I invited him.
Fir trees and Labrador tea ubiquitously surround us. The vegetation almost never changes and it’s very sparse, not in quantity but in diversity. I spotted a mother moose with her baby moose today. Her calf? Not quite sure. Legs knee-deep in water on either side of the river. Mine a lot closer to shore because of their comparative smallness. I whipped my head around. “Shhhh!” I pointed to the other shore. Fred nodded and patiently watched with the canoe on his shoulders. Eventually the moose left us with our loneliness and went to seek their own elsewhere.
Silence. Food-induced silence. It is a full silence, unlike the lonely silences that fill our days out here in the wilderness. A communal moment of sharing and filling our bellies. I try to make it last but of course my exhausted body won’t let me. My spoon keeps piling food into my mouth of its own accord. My teeth barely close on the mush of pasta-cheese-and-canned-unknown-fish before my tongue reacts, my throat opens wider, and the abyss engulfs the food. Inside I imagine soothing darkness and a balm on the rumbling of my stomach. No more thunder. Inevitably, my spoon reaches the bottom. Plastic against plastic that makes not the familiar urban scraping sound but a soft thud. The silence of the bowl is suddenly empty.
Later, once the dome of night has overtaken the sky, I creep into the tent. The noise of the sleeping bag irks me. Outside sleepy sounds of Labrador tea being pushed about by the nighttime breeze; inside, down-filled sleeping bags rubbing against each other, zippers closing quickly, everything noisy, reawakening my restlessness. I came so far out in the world, isolated myself with this company of fellows for a long trip with ourselves and the wilderness, but I can’t escape the upheaval in my mind. Unquiet of night. Unquiet of synthetic sleeping bags. The coziness of the tent is considerable, but the only warmth I feel is from Fred’s eyes. I close my own. Inhale. Undress. Unzip. Get in. Zip up. Open eyes. Done. Exhale.
The moths in my stomach have stopped fluttering. Warmth, pleasure, desire flow through my veins, through my mind once more – finding comfort in artificial cloth.
I mumble a reply.
Fred sighs, turns onto his side, and noise invades the tent once more. My fingers twitch.
“Have you been restless all afternoon?”
“Since we left.”
“This morning… or two weeks ago?”
“Sam…” I can hear the tenderness in his voice. But I don’t know how to respond. Fred curls up against me, wraps his arm over my body and pulls me toward him. Lots of noise. Blue sleeping bag, next to red. Unzips his bag. I don’t move. Close my eyes. Unzips my bag. Zips them back together. One big bag. His hand is on my stomach. It trails downwards to that hairy spot between my legs. I don’t know how this is helping anything. I don’t know how it’s not.
Eyes open once more. Daylight overhead and all around. I get dressed and make pancakes with Seamus. He smiles.
There is nothing lonelier than Labrador tea and jagged firs under a grey sky, and a canoe on an untamed river. And still knowing you are less alone out here than in your head.