about the author

Brandon Teigland—an emerging Canadian author—is part of an exciting new breed of speculative writers, one whose ecological focus, unflinching penchant for hard truth, and carefully imagined prose will be sure to garner attention inside and outside of the SFF genre. He studied Neuroscience, Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and Media Arts at Dalhousie University, King’s College, and NSCAD in Halifax, NS. His most recent fiction chapbook, The Weight of Skin, was published by The Blasted Tree in April 2019. He was both featured on My (small press) Writing Day for Rob Mclennan’s Blog and selected to read for the Flywheel Reading Series in May 2019. When not writing, he is either shooting night photography or volunteering as Art Editor and Assistant Fiction Editor for filling Station Magazine. He can be found on Instagram @brandon.teigland and Twitter @brandonteigland.

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Retreat After Retreat  

Brandon Teigland

The forgotten forget nothing. They only keep on with their retreat. With measured fury, Dyson Kornfeld would go away from here. He would leave this place and set out, take off, to see the reclaimed land for himself.

To be a walking nobody.

The safety meeting wasn’t safe. The protective helmet wasn’t safe. The polarized goggles, the respirator mask covering his mouth, the open-face ski mask—none of it was safe. And so he stood there at the morning safety meeting, with his helmet, goggles, respirator mask, and ski mask, already waiting for the day to be done.

After the safety meeting, he looked on without a thought in his head, as did the others, who were mostly strangers. For what was there to think about while looking at the giant machine? It was enough just to be in a permanent state of fatigue, just to be not thinking, only looking at the giant machine working in the sifting tar sands.

Whenever another pipe had to be connected to the drill string, Dyson Kornfeld kept an eye on the motors, the gens, and the pumps and headed up to the drill floor. There was currently a problem down the hole, which meant he might have to “trip”—pull all the pipe out of the hole and fix the problem. A drill bit might need to be changed, or he might need to adjust the setting on the tool that steered the drill bit. Tripping took a lot out of him. Extreme physical exertion followed by brief periods of rest, over and over, again and again, until all the pipe was out of the hole and the problem could be fixed. Then it was the same thing in reverse order, until the bit was back on the bottom and the driller could drill again.

The weather, the work, and the people were all depressingly common to Dyson Kornfeld. There had been several accidents in recent months. The company’s ownership had changed hands, and many of the new heavy-machine operators drank on the job. These new crewmates, moving from rig to rig, accepting less and less pay for more and more risk, were quickly earning a reputation of drinking on the job. Dyson Kornfeld had managed to stay rep-free all these years because he avoided the three cardinal sins on the oil rig: donrsquo;t drop anything down a hole, don’t harm others, and don’t get hurt. Until the increase in accidents, these rules had seemed stupidly obvious to him. How was it possible that in a militant environment such as this, where everything was supervised a thousand times over, a drunk was able to operate heavy machinery?

Dyson Kornfeld viewed each individual as a direct insult. No one wanted to be there anymore, but they did want to remain in what was familiar. No one wanted to make an irreversible decision. Because the misery, the depravity, and the many rough deeds would forge them into something like a mass of iron. Grimly they stared ahead. Grim, dull, unconscious anger, united them.

Needing to trip after all, he trundled the pipe a little further along. He adjusted his gloves, grabbed the pipe, staggered back until it was completely out of the hole, and then pushed it out and over to where the other crew members stood ready to take it from him.

Dyson Kornfeld had been doing this for nearly five years, with annual raises in pay. The company paid six figures for a derrickhand, more if you had your own accommodations outside the camp. Six figures. Not salary, like the brass, but hourly: $37/hour ($140 if you had your own accommodation, as he did now), eighty-four hours a week, and a living allowance. That was how much they used to pay him as a derrickhand. He perspired in the winter sun, the suffocating tar sands. When working overtime, he saw the Alberta sunset, the industrial night, and sometimes the northern lights. Fourteen days on followed by two days off. Eight months away at work and four months at home.

It’s time for a break, Dyson Kornfeld thought. Time for a break.

“You’ll never get paid six figures again, don’t even dream about it,” the new overseer at the tar sands had told Dyson Kornfeld. Since the company had been bought out, he’d had no choice but to accept a reduction in his pay and hope he wouldn’t be let go. “Be glad you ever got six figures, like the others.” All his crewmates had been dulled by a decrease in salary. All of them were becoming as useless as carts with no wheels.

The other crew wouldn’t show up for their safety meeting until six thirty p.m., at the cross-shift. After a brief rundown of whatever Dyson Kornfeld’s crew had been working on, the new crew would pick up where they left off. At seven thirty, Dyson Kornfeld’s crew would finally pile into the truck and head off.

On endless repeat.

Dyson Kornfeld left the line early and headed for the mine’s exit. No one called out after him. Perhaps no one even noticed. The city lay to the left. He had to keep away from houses. Meeting someone would instantly mess up the whole thing. Taking quick steps past the lower edge of the city, he soon found what he was looking for.

He was looking for Highway 63. It ran from Fort McMurray through the boreal forest to Edmonton. But he wasn’t trying to get to Edmonton. He just needed to get to his backpack.

He set out on the sparkling, crunching snow toward his empty hotel room. The ground was practically steaming in the cold—even through the thick soles of his boots he could feel it. He clapped his hands together to warm them, took a deep gulp of air, and was seized by a violent coughing fit. He breathed through his nostrils, inhaling the acrid smell of his perspiration.

A cousin had once told him that he’d have to sell his soul to make money at the oil field, that it would turn his soul the colour of oil. And sometimes, it seemed as though his cousin had been right. Throughout his childhood, seemingly the whole community of Cold Lake had said, “This oil has to be appreciated. It’s 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves—almost two trillion barrels—but only a hundred billion are recoverable, which is to say it won’t last forever.” He’d never understood what they meant.

When he was first hired as a derrickhand, Dyson Kornfeld was so intimidated by everything that he was supposed to learn all at once, and he had to muster so much strength in order not to collapse every hour from exhaustion, that it never occurred to him to pause in front of the oil just to see for himself what made it the most important oil in the world. And, anyway, the supervisor was watching him every moment. Dyson Kornfeld wouldn’t have dared to take a single step without the man’s authorization. Crude oil became for him just another black liquid—a black liquid he had to struggle with again and again, day after day. And now, the new overseer’s eyes were always on him.

I have no soul. No one here does. Dyson Kornfeld was therefore the man who’d sold his shadow, making him the shadow of the man who’d sold it. And there’s really nothing else you can do. You can’t work in the tar sands until you grow old. Not now. Not since a hundred thousand pink slips had been sent out.

He would live out his days in wretched drunkenness. A great shadow had been cast over everyone like him, and in this great shadow, his family life would fall to ruin. For, if he was no longer making six figures, how could his family life not fall to ruin? Dyson Kornfeld knew that he would never go back. He knew there was no place for him there, or anywhere in the world. He would go away now, no matter what happened. He would set out and go north and see the reclaimed land.

His feet were burning with fatigue, his waist and back hurt, his neck hurt, his shoulders hurt, his head was about to fall off, and something was stinging in his eyes. How long had he been walking? Dyson Kornfeld wouldn’t sit down because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He trudged on with haste, mindlessly and desperately. It was difficult to tell which was scarier.

It would have been untrue to claim that he didn’t know what crude oil was like, but had someone asked him, Dyson Kornfeld would have said, “It’s black.” He could see it in his mind, as if he were next to the scandalous, frothing scum of a surface deposit. He could see it: thick, leaden, sticky, filthy. Below the surface, light gradually withdrew from the world. The deposit became like blood. Millennia later, the oil would gush again from these sands. Like blood, he thought. Like dark blood. Laughing blood. I was already today living from that oil that will gush in millennia, Dyson Kornfeld thought, because in this millennium, I am already that oil.

Back in his hotel room, Dyson Kornfeld stood behind the thick curtain looking down at the whirling commotion on the street. For the first time, he was truly panicking. The panic screamed like sirens in his head. He leaned one shoulder against the wall, casting an occasional glance at the grimy bed, at his backpack. He had to think of his backpack. It had to be packed and ready to go, and so he started doing that. First, he collected his toiletries from the bathroom and tossed them in the backpack, not bothering to organize them. Same with the T-shirts, the library book on land reclamation in Canada, the change of long johns, the safety manual, the phone, the compass, the rain jacket, the medicine box, the wallet, and the map, one after another. And when everything was in the backpack, and he’d pulled the last zipper closed, Dyson Kornfeld looked up at the ceiling, at the plaster peeling in layers.

At 100 mg, secobarbital sodium treated insomnia and anxiety. At 200 mg, it could be used for preoperative sedation. Picking apart capsule after capsule, Dyson Kornfeld mixed 9,000 mg, a euthanasia drug, into a plastic bottle of whisky-sweetened water and put it in the bottle holder of his backpack.

Using the utmost caution, Dyson Kornfeld slipped out the door, not wanting to be seen by his crewmates, who would probably be returning from the mine soon, tiptoed downstairs, sneaked past the reception desk of the empty hotel, stepped onto the street, and turned at the first corner.

Dyson Kornfeld sat in his truck, which was idling in the hotel’s parking lot. He pulled out his map of Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories and spread it on his knees, placing a crooked finger on Fort McMurray. From Fort McMurray, he traced a line north along the Athabasca, passing between MacDonald Island Park and Tar Island, northwest to the Peace Region, and then continued on the south bank of Peace River, east to the town of Wabasca, past the industrial zones, and onto the Athabasca oil sands, north of the fort at McKay. There, he tapped the threadbare map. His finger had travelled so often from Fort McMurray to the reclamation sites that the blue line of the Athabasca had worn away.

The more than thirty kilometres ahead of him, because traffic was annoyingly slow, threatened to be unbearably tedious, weary as he was of the desolation rippling past his window: flatland, snow, trees, hamlet. It was thirty kilometres north of Fort McMurray that he was going.

The signs at the trailhead were in Cree: Matcheetawin (“the beginning place”) and Sagow Pematosowin (“living in peaceful coexistence with the land”). The four-kilometre interpretive-trail system wound through various types of reclaimed land: four thousand and sixty-nine hectares of reclaimed land. Fifty hectares of spruce, aspen, and jack-pine forests, grasslands, wetlands, nineteen hectares of bird-watching areas, and a herd of three hundred miserable wood bison on four thousand miserable hectares, all of which comprised the former tailing ponds of the oil-sands operations. That’s fifty plus nineteen plus four thousand, which makes four thousand and sixty-nine hectares of reclaimed land, of municipal woods. Measured, he thought, in the volume of material then, before the human disturbance, and the volume of material now, after the disturbance.

The swish-swash of his holstered water bottle was becoming a powerless horror compared to the articulated alienation he felt in this last place, in the horrid purple of his life. He would not reverse climate change by snuffing out his own existence, but he would at least become a good ground zero. He could say no to the recuperative habits of human beings, who always saw the world as theirs.

Dyson Kornfeld was a little late reaching his destination, a remote spot in the middle of the forest, deep in the overgrown industrial zone, now a realm of pines, firs, and spruces. And as time wore on, he felt a growing fear that some wolf was awaiting him there. An impenetrable wall of greenery blocked out everything but the path. It rose before his eyes like a cliff face. He was at what appeared to be a dark expanse of marshland at the heart of the reclaimed forest.

The fateful purple hour had come, and so he took careful hold of the water bottle and sipped the 9,000 mg of secobarbital sodium. Sickly sweet and yet still bitter, not just as he would have liked it. His hands shook, he couldn’t keep his lips shaped to the rim of the bottle, and the liquid dribbled out of the corners of his mouth. It began to go to his head. He stopped himself. Took a breath. Swallowed and continued, until it looked as if there was only a drop left in the shoulder of the bottle.

The brownish light of the liquid that had been inside the water bottle now seemed to surround him. He stood there for a long time, for there was something, something that he couldn’t quite understand. It felt as if he hadn’t yet been born. It was as if he was swimming in some element before birth.

That volume of material living in the horror of the human disturbance had come and gone, had been traded in for a before-and-after effect, traded in for the mysterious effects these restoration sites had on tourists. The province issued reclamation certificates to encourage remediation, not at all to discourage mining or drilling. The largest energy companies only needed to make it seem as if the death had been happy—the death of what had previously existed on these four thousand and sixty-nine hectares of reclaimed land, of municipal woods; four thousand and sixty-nine hectares of reclaimed land being the approximate volume of material then, before the human disturbance, and the approximate volume of material now, after the disturbance. But what about that volume of anonymous material before the disturbance? And the horrific fascination—obsession—humans had with its reduction into a black matter of oblivion, thick and opaque? Not so long ago, it had been a living material living in its own nonhuman time. Nonhuman material living in flower-seconds, tree-minutes, forest-hours, mountain-days, planet-years, solar-centuries, cosmic-millennia.

A breeze. The fidgeting of branches. A loon hooting.

Dyson Kornfeld imagined bodies of that anonymous material emerging out of mud, bodies between origin and death, embodiment and dissolution, composition and decomposition, and the convulsions in the convergence of these two points. Because a millennium later, the secret oil would gush again from these sands. Like a desire or a deadly infection, Dyson Kornfeld thought. An infection that spreads like a rotten black sun, an incomprehensible sun that rots as it rises from the black, meat-like decay of the earth. Yes, a kind of black sun of the crisis of the West, rising up and up, into those dreadful heights of desire, rotting our souls as it rises.

I was already today living from that oil that will gush in millennia, because in this millennium, I am already that oil.

Dyson Kornfeld felt somewhat idiotic for having thought about it in such an abstract way.

Rustling. Silence. Footsteps on gravel. Silence.

He knew exactly what products were derived from a barrel of heavy, sour feedstock—mostly gasoline, then of course diesel and jet fuel, heavy fuel and light fuel, and also propane or butane or some other consumer product, asphalt being produced the least. How could he not know this? For they had been giving Dyson Kornfeld nothing but this, this information on the oil sands, to read, and for five years he’d read nothing but what they’d given him to read.

Dyson Kornfeld recognized the overall process. Three basic steps: extraction, upgrading, and refining. Each step of the process needing bigger and bigger factories. Bit-u-men. He emphasized the weight in each syllable. Nothing but sand and water. Just 85 percent sand and just 5 percent water, the 10 percent residual being almost anything and so nothing useful. No more than a pumpable slurry, until it’s recovered.

The whole process was moving from shallow deposits to deep deposits. And Dyson Kornfeld and his crewmates were absent in this new scenario. They were an optional, intermediary step. Whether an old or new technique was used depended on the depth of the deposit. The operation could either mine the whole deposit and let gravity separate the bit-u-men or extract the bit-u-men in place (in situ) using steam, without disturbing the land. But they always placed the onus on the end user. As the brass put it: “About 80 percent of the GHGs contained in a barrel of oil [of which they produced several million per day, a hundred billion per year] are emitted by the end user during combustion.”

In symbolizing the Earth, we have already left the Earth behind, Dyson Kornfeld thought. These reclamation areas, in symbolizing the Earth, were not the Earth. It was customary to not speak of the death of animals if they could avoid it, but these creatures were what made the crude oil such a terribly complex hydrocarbon. Because the Earth’s biomass is stable. Everything that falls and dies becomes nourishment for that which comes after.

There was something so utterly poor about the quality of the restoration sites. And as high-profile an operation as the reclamation was, involving expert environmentalists and tree planters, it seemed to Dyson Kornfeld to be a very mixed success. In a book from the district’s small library, he’d seen pictures of what the area had been like before. There was an ugliness now, an ugliness, yes. Very ugly. A deeply symbolic attachment, the last meaningful connection, the one people claimed to have with nature, was absent.

And as Dyson Kornfeld followed the system of trails named after Cree words, one meaning “the beginning place” and the other “living in peaceful coexistence with the land,” he wondered what new beginning there could be. When and where had this new beginning started? And what exactly was peacefully coexisting with the land here? Us—the Cree, the tourists, foreign investors, scientists, politicians, rig workers, me—or them, whoever they are—the restored whatchamacallits of the area? It all seemed to be evidence of a sophisticated cruelty.

Dyson Kornfeld placed himself in the secluded beauty of the restoration site and felt, in a tangled way, that the green of the trees was already part of his blood. The only way to experience new sensations is to build yourself a soul, he thought. That was, after all, what the monsters of forward progress were so frantically obsessed with accomplishing. They wanted to construct something like a new soul, to unbody the old one and ensoul the new body. Because things are the way we feel them to be and people feel nothing for nature that is not human nature. And the only way to have new things is to feel in a different way. And the only way to feel new things is to find a new way of feeling them.

Retreating, to be a walking nobody on this lone and lonely walk
, Dyson Kornfeld thought. Retreating, to be a dead walker in these snowy municipal woods. Retreating, to be an eerie photograph of a dead man in the snow. And to return, he thought, in a millennium, as oil. Because in this millennium I am already that oil of the next millennium, and for the dead, a single day must be as a thousand years and a thousand years but a single day. And so centuries pass.

Life was retreating.

Before he could succeed in blacking out, Dyson Kornfeld put his finger in his mouth. He could remember, no, he could feel himself grabbing hold of his thick wet tongue and lifting it up in search of the pharyngeal reflex. The hairy knuckles of his thick fingers rubbed against his palate; a broad nail bumped against his uvula. He jabbed his gullet. Gagged then vomited. Left behind was a bitter taste of secobarbital sodium and whisky.

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