If Arnie was honest with himself he would admit the fish farm job had saved his life and probably kept on saving it. Toba Inlet was an ocean dead end with no road in, no power, nothing. At night or in the sudden middle of a day it could get so quiet you could stand there—just stand there—and hear your heart beat.
It was just guys. Women need not apply. Arnie didn’t know how they got away with that these days: no women, and no alcohol allowed. Almost like it was designed by someone with his best interests in mind.
The one link to the outside was a VHF radio, good only to call nearby boats or the company office thirty-nine miles by water on Campbell River, a one-room piece of shit across the road from the government dock. Hired there, Arnie could still picture that edgy guy at his metal desk, blaming him when some government papers didn’t match up with what was on his stupid screen.
Some days were more isolated than others, no water taxis, no feed barged in, no fry barged out. Arnie called them Robinson Crusoe days, after one of his favorites. At low tide he’d walk the shore, out of hearing range of the bunkhouse, the guys yelling their video-game deaths. Away from gulls swarming the mort bins like junkies on a spilt bag. Away from the thump of the buried generator, the camp’s beating gasoline heart. He’d walk until he could see and hear nothing but what had always been here. Toba was a mountain valley filled with ocean, dramatic if the clouds lifted and you could actually see above the trees, the mountains’ rock shoulders and snow way up top. But even the cloud was natural, and a big part of the isolation. Socked in, was the expression. He’d stand on a barnacled rock, sometimes hearing his heart, still mostly glad he’d left the city, the bad kaleidoscope of people. It was easier here. At his feet, a simple current kept seaweed flattened to a rock. A stone’s throw out, the sleek black dome of a seal’s head. Then he’d be bored and walk back. He always had a book going, and industrial headphones for the bunkhouse noise.
The only real work happened by itself, in the salmon pens, under water. Arnie swore he could feel the fish down there, barely finning as they digested their food and swelled heavier with milt or eggs. Doing their job. They had no eyelids, and it was funny thinking of them down there big eyed in the darkness.
That was camp, and that was his life, until Kiint came to wreck things.
He arrived in the drizzle of late May, a newbie stepping off the water-taxi with two other guys back from their days-off. He was medium height and thin. “Nondescript,” would be the word. From the way he didn’t pause on the dock to gaze up at his new home you could tell he knew this country. It wasn’t just Arnie watching from the bunkhouse; only nine guys lived here at any one time and a new face in camp was news. Soon he’d be shoving food into his face across from you. Five feet from your head his nostril might whistle all night. You might get to know the smell of his towel.
He ate a prepackaged sandwich alone at the corner table, and they let him because he could have come to them. From his efficient chewing and the way he gazed at something far off but definite, Arnie saw he was different. Who knows why but he thought of a fox waiting in a den of mice. “Sated,” for now.
When the guy finished and sat sipping coffee, Arnie wandered over. Arnie was both the biggest and the oldest here, forty-five to their twenty-five, which is maybe why he did the Walmart greeter thing. Or maybe he still wanted to think loneliness was a simple fix. The newbie’s hair was oily and he looked tired. He was on the frail side for general labour, resembling more the pencil-neck university type who dipped test tubes in the pens or syringed juice from a salmon. But he was dressed in shit so general labour he must be. Arnie could swear guys wore the dirtiest crap on purpose, as if to show how hard they worked. If these camp guys paused at a downtown corner, people would drop change at their feet.
He shook Arnie’s hand limply, but Arnie knew that meant nothing. When he said his odd name it brought to mind another guy here, a First Nations fellow who introduced himself as “B. Paul,” leading to confusion he never cared to correct:
“Pleased to meet you.”
“That’s an odd name.”
“No it’s not.”
Quizzical looks gained nothing and only later would you learn his name was Bob. Arnie didn’t know if Bob found dignity using an initial or if he was just pissing off another white guy. He’d always been alert to names, because growing up a Bacon wasn’t fun. He always wanted people to think of the actor Kevin, or even Sir Francis, who might have been Shakespeare, but everyone just thought of bacon, and in his school years he answered to Pig. When by some huge fluke he was the first in his crowd to get laid, for a while he was happy being called Makin’.
Introducing himself, the new guy had a faint accent, maybe German. Arnie predicted correctly to himself the jokes that would be made about him being a Norwegian spy. Every operation along the coast was Norwegian-owned, so all new guys were of course Norwegian company spies.
The spy said his name was ‘Sint.’ Arnie saw that he wasn’t drinking coffee. The tea bag was red, and you could smell its herbal sourness.
“That’s it.” Now he looked up. “Like Madonna.” Arnie asked him to spell it and he did.
“No way. A ‘K’?”
“That’s right.” He was falsely smiling now.
“But can a K be, you know, an S?”
“The two ‘I’s do it.” He held Arnie’s gaze. His eyes were the light blue that feels too active. He was barely willing to be liked. “That kind of hard,” Kiint said, “can’t take that much soft.”
Arnie waited a bit, but that was that and it was his turn. He got Kiint to smile for real at “Arnold Bacon.” He said his folks were from the old country and couldn’t have known what names might be hilarious in a new one.
Kiint asked, “Do you think you ended up here because of your hilarious name?”
Out here meant two grey buildings in a clearing hacked into the trees thirty-nine miles by boat from a wifi signal, flush toilet, or woman. For basically minimum wage. It was a job any guy could get. Arnie snorted at the question but wondered if it was five percent true. It didn’t bug him that Kiint might be right. It bugged him that this newbie thought he could know, in one minute, something about him that he didn’t know himself. He was about to say, You probably chose your Eurofag name so fuck off and die—but he took a breath instead, an infantile temper being one of the actual reasons he was here.
A finger tapped his shoulder. It was Clarke, the super. “Arnie? Since you’re already sort of doing it, show him around.”
It was a bit of a rebuke since he should have been outside brushing down E-pen ten minutes ago. Clarke told Kiint to come by his office when they were done. The office was a closet where timesheets were kept, but Clarke liked saying “my office.” It wasn’t easy being bossed by a guy twenty years younger than you.
In the mudroom they donned rain gear. Kiint shrugged off the offer of a spare floppy hat in favour of his own weird little cap, and as they walked past the land tanks and out the ramp to the first floating pen, the wind hit and Arnie could see him pretend not to feel the cold drips down his back. The rain came so hard Arnie had to shout the age and size of the stock. Shouting that there were females topping a hundred pounds over there in D-pen, he was surprised to feel his pride. Shoulders up and stiffly listening, Kiint had no reaction to any of it.
Then they stood in the nice quiet of the feedhouse with the various pellet bins along all four walls. It smelled like ripe pet food and gave off a red dust that was hard to breathe. Centering the room was a computer station covered with plastic sheeting, which Arnie grabbed up to flap like a bedsheet and get the dust off. He’d heard it was red dye to turn their flesh salmon coloured, which made sense. He watched Kiint take it all in.
Arnie took him through all the programs. He was mostly just avoiding work, but guys liked to hear about stuff. It was impressive gear. They had the new compressed air system where a computer key chose what food to blow down what pipe to what pen, where a carousel sprayer, like a robot spinning to feed a thousand pigeons at once, showered the water with pellets until the fish lost interest. Too much feed would sink through the fish and out the pen and be lost, like dimes through your fingers. Kiint stood patiently while Arnie scrolled through the codes that troubleshot clogs and spills. Arnie joked about salmon gluttons that fought their way up the dry pipes to gorge here in the bins, and Kiint either wasn’t listening or didn’t find it funny. “Wanna see the morts?” You could smell the mort bins from anywhere. Morts were dead salmon and they were knee deep in them even here at a brood farm. At the market farms it was way more. Guys pretended the deformities were entertaining—fish with shoulders, or plaguey bumps; “buboes” was the word, which B. Paul called boobs. Some fish were skinny, little more than swimming spines that somehow stayed sort of alive. You didn’t go out of your way to look at them. And it was nice to know they were working on that stuff, looking for answers. Fish farms really could maybe someday feed the world.
Before Kiint could answer, they jumped to the roar of a shotgun, not twenty feet from the door. A surprise for the newbie. Ha ha.
“That would be MacLeod,” Arnie said. “He just fed a crow to the crabs.” His heart was still going. “A headless crow.” He looked out the window, but couldn’t see MacLeod. “Or crowless head.”
“Scared me,” Kiint admitted. Rocking faintly, he gazed into neutral territory.
The fact was, guys killed birds. Next to video games it was the main fun. But only the noisy ones, the crows and gulls. A shotgun got used rarely because it made gulls disappear and not dribble back for a week. Guys got expert at slingshots. He once saw guys have a go with a paintball gun, hitting only the odd bird but screaming like little kids when they did, the gull flopping there, splotched yellow or blue. He saw guys invent DaVinci-like machines, and even for a non-birdkiller it was cool to watch an innocent-looking net fly down as hidden weights released, taking to the sea floor twenty gulls stupid enough to swarm a pile of morts magically served up to them.
Kiint didn’t want to see the mort bins. He put his cap back on like they were done here, and fair enough, they pretty much were. Arnie reset the computer and yanked the plastic sheet back over.
“You have any questions about anything?”
Kiint looked around as if for a piece of gear he hadn’t understood. “No.”
It was strange that Kiint didn’t ask a single question about the place. Not one. Newbies loved hearing about stuff. The predator cage, steel mesh that kept seals, whales, otters and sharks away from the soft-mesh pens, and how some, seals mostly, got stuck and drowned trying to get through. Or the bubble curtain that kept toxic plankton out. Or how algae and fish shit clogged the mesh so fast that each pen needed oxygen diffusers bubbling away down there at all times or the fish would suffocate. A fish farm was like a giant dirty aquarium.
“So this your first farm, or—?”
“Didn’t that one shut down because of the—?”
“They cleaned it up, they said. Now it’s expanding.”
“Really.” The politics of aquaculture were beyond him.
Before leaving, Arnie opened the antibiotics closet to show him the arsenal and Kiint didn’t even look—in fact he thought he saw him shudder. Arnie understood how, for some people, even fish disease might feel like their own.
Back in the rain, slogging up to the bunkhouse, Arnie was moved to shout a last fact, one Kiint probably knew.
“So this is one of five brood sites on the west coast of North America. All the salmon, for all other farms, for restaurants, groceries, everything—it starts right here.”
Kiint said, “Cool.”
Arnie wanted to yell that here was better than the market sites. All that butchering, all those morts. Humping all that bad meat to the bins, to be barged away under a spiky bonnet of screaming birds and dumped who knows where. Here there was less of that. Here it was all eggs and milt and helping a million silver darters grow.
Arnie did yell, “It’s okay here.”
At the bunkhouse door they smelled weed. Arnie turned.
“You know it’s a dry camp, right?” He tried to say it in a non-revealing way. When the time was right Arnie might tell him he sought out dry camps for a reason.
“So everyone compensates by being high all the time. Everyone except me.” He added, “Especially weekends.” It was hilarious that even out here and in a job with no weekends they still used weekends as an excuse. They had a giant carved octopus hookah they called Mr Saturday Night.
He showed Kiint the showers and DVD players and whatnot, and now Kiint was smiling sideways at him because, sure, anyone with a brain could figure out this stuff for themselves and, sure, he was taking work-avoidance too far. But he still found it strange that Kiint didn’t have a single question about the place. Simple ones, like, Does it always rain like this here? Or, How do you claim fridge territory or dib the stove? Or, especially, This is grizz country, right?
Kiint did pause to scan the books stacked in three towers beside Arnie’s bed. Except for Bob Paul, who tackled an occasional thriller, he was the only one who read. And he was proud of it, though no one gave him reason to be. If anything they found it uppity. Kiint’s eyes caught on several titles but Arnie couldn’t tell which. His taste was eclectic and his aim was to educate himself. He saw he’d left in plain view his notebook for jotting his new words, and if Kiint bent to touch it he would get his hand stomped.
But Kiint wasn’t curious and still had no questions. Now Clarke was in Arnie’s face and hooked his thumb at the general outdoors, wordlessly ordering him back to work, wise enough to smile as he did so.
Kiint said an obligatory thank you and met Arnie’s eyes for the second time that day. It felt like an icy insult. Kiint didn’t exactly look through him. He saw him as part of the problem.
Arnie had no real suspicions until Labour Day itself, when Kiint went into action. Maybe he did have suspicions, but they were of the vaguest kind. One was Kiint’s early request to stay onsite and work the Labour Day weekend, which besides Christmas was the one time the place all but shut down, only a barest skeleton crew staying on to make sure the stock got fed. When Arnie heard of Kiint’s request, his eyebrows went up; it was the kind of request he made himself. Some people like to avoid holidays and go into hiding. In any case, it would be just him and Kiint working Labour Day.
There was also the way Kiint wouldn’t talk about fish farms. He just wouldn’t. Later it was funny for Arnie to recall telling Kiint the nasty secret that their salmon might be iffy, and that in fact one grocery chain was going to stop selling it, and Kiint, eyebrows up, saying, “Really?” And the time Kiint said “Yikes” when Arnie told him he’d read somewhere about mercury in the feed.
There were other small clues. As when Kiint came back from his first days-off with a wet suit, and the next time a scuba tank, but then never used any of it. Also the lack of an air compressor was stupid, because it would limit Kiint to a single dive. But Arnie figured Kiint wasn’t getting around to it in the same way the rest of them weren’t getting around to trap prawns or invent bird machines and ended up smoking weed and playing vids instead. Arnie would glance up from his book and watch them slumped there, bodies rigid only in the arms, faces an ugly blend of tense and dead, stabbing and jerking their controllers like what was left of their zombie lives depended on it. It made him think of, “Boredom is rage spread thin,” from one of his quotation books. Sometimes they did go on hikes, but only after lots of “cajoling,” and only in groups, shouting and singing to warn bears of their approach.
Kiint hiked by himself. He had been onsite a month when Arnie followed him. Not followed, exactly. The mountainside was impassable with underbrush and there was only one path, so he couldn’t help it. Ten minutes out of camp he emerged from the dark tunnel of forest onto a mossy rock knoll and stumbled on Kiint just sitting there, cross-legged, some sort of yoga thing. Kiint looked irked to see him. Arnie said sorry and spun and turned back, which of course made it worse, and he thought he heard Kiint sigh. He felt like some sort of creeper, which is probably what he looked like. After a minute he heard, “Bacon.” He stopped and turned and Kiint trotted up.
“Starting to rain,” he said, short of breath, explaining himself.
“You ever see Spirit Bears up here?” he asked.
“They aren’t in Toba. They start next inlet up.” Arnie waited. “There’s grizzlies here, though.”
Kiint shook his head. “No no no, they’re here. I was just wondering if you’ve seen any.” He glanced at Arnie, the brief ice of those eyes.
“The grizz will show up in about a month, right? At the river mouths? For the salmon?” Kiint snorted quietly. He might as well have said “for the real ones,” this sort of sarcasm the closest he ever got to humour.
They walked. Arnie was angry-quiet because Kiint was walking with him like he was doing some loser a favour. Arnie had his own brand of humour and he asked Kiint if he was Norwegian. Kiint smiled but probably just thought this Canadian was stupid about accents. He said he was from Holland but he had lived all over, most recently New Zealand.
And so they became friends. Or “friends.” Arnie knew it was more a case of two soloists falling warily into each other’s orbit.
It wasn’t like they didn’t know there was something wrong with this business they were in, and days off be accosted in some bar by a health-foodie or commercial fisherman accusing them of sins against the world. Arnie used to live in these bars; he knew what yelled beer-spit looked like when it flew out a mouth a foot from your face. You know your farm spreads disease and kills wild runs? What idiot works for minimum and the profits go to Norway? Why you raising Atlantic salmon in the Pacific? Don’t you know they’re escaping, they’re spawning wild, they’re taking over?
This last one was definitely wrong and the guys knew it. If one of their fish blundered out a hole it wouldn’t have a chance in the real ocean, let alone muscle miles upstream, get laid in the gravel and reproduce itself. The slobs in their pens were barely fish. If you had any doubts, troll up a fall coho and battle a twelve-pound silver bullet hard as a sprinter’s thigh.
But so what? Arnie had imaginary arguments with Kiint even now. He considered writing him in jail. Fish farms might still feed the world. There were way worse jobs and way bigger sins. It was a job. Teachers keep teaching even though most kids don’t learn a thing. The landfill is overflowing but garbagemen do their rounds. Are the workers part of the problem? It’s a debate worth having, Kiint. Not that he ever said an accusing word. But Arnie had seen that look, more than once, saying he should know better.
When Arnie first got there he actually thought he was doing something good. And he hadn’t done much of that, historically. Proof of this lay mostly in what wasn’t: no friends, no family. No skills he could bank on. No credit rating. He wasn’t even allowed a passport. He had told Kiint enough of this to imply that he was in Toba Inlet not just because his name was Arnold Bacon.
Anyway, after, the more he thought about it, the more he thought that Kiint had been only obvious. It was strange that more guys didn’t suspect him. Or maybe they did, and just didn’t care. Or forgot. Or were pleasantly puzzled by whatever unfolded. Weed could do all that.
Everyone worked ten days then waited for the aluminum taxi to come and roar them through waves and rain to five days of real life in Campbell River. The boat’s arrival back was a spectator sport because guys climbing out told a story. Knowing he was watched from the bunkhouse, a guy might grab his crotch and hunch, feigning the rawness from epic screwing. Or mime a fatal headache, the epic drinking. Arnie saw guys wave bulbous bags of weed, hump the new porno vids in their backpack, wield a Canucks-signed hockey stick and fake slap-shots out to sea, or wave a chub of venison pepperoni they intended to auction. Mostly it was that: meat. They’d hoist heavy coolers onto the dock, give a thumbs up to say they filled the orders for chops and steaks and burger.
Except for Kiint. Unloading his cloth bags of salad and quinoa and whatever, he might flash a salute to their equally ironic hoots. He wasn’t liked. Which was fine by him. They ignored him and he ignored them back. The point is, he was a card-carrying vegetarian. More than that, he was vegan—what sort of vegan worked for minimum at a meat farm? A tainted meat farm?
His oddities seem glaring now. He was a visitor from a wider world. He knew things no one else did. Things about this place. Things about them.
On one of their hikes together Arnie learned something about what Kiint knew. From the start they had wordlessly agreed to walk in silence, with only functional talking—Was that a marten? You sure that’s a morel? This walk had begun in sunshine; now it began to pour, and Arnie had had enough.
He stomped and shouted in rhythm with his feet, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, rain.”
“No!” Kiint said. He stopped and he grabbed Arnie’s shoulder. Eyes crinkled up in pleasure, Kiint yelled, “It’s rainforest!” He laughed shaking his head, like they were in the arctic and Arnie had just complained about the snow.
“No! It’s a treasure!” He put his head back, arms out like Jesus on the cross, and let the rain fall into his eyes.
As they walked on, Kiint described where it was they were. He was “sanctimonious” but Arnie let him vent. Pointing at the mud on the path he said they were at the southernmost edge of the largest temperate rainforest left on the planet. Almost chanting, he detailed how much it rained, why it rained, how that tied in with ocean currents, how it all might change and how the change might be gradual or “silent-spring sudden.” There was still hope if governments were made to work together. It all came flying out as if under pressure. He described how the rain—this rain, he said, and he rolled his face under it to make sure every inch was anointed—created the icepack, which fed the rivers, which bore the tiny salmon out to sea. He spoke of a tightly-knit drama. At one point he shrieked a single note of incredulous joy, describing something Arnie thought he’d heard before, which was that the sheer quantity of salmon dragged off by bears and eagles and wolves had over millennia fertilized the trees hundreds of meters up either side of the riverbanks, and today salmon was in the trees’ DNA.
A minute after he’d finished talking and Arnie had said nothing to fill the gap, Kiint said, “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay.” He was stunned to hear a silent man talk in paragraphs.
“I love this place,” Kiint added, unnecessarily.
This love might have been enough reason for this guy to be here, but Arnie sensed there was more.
In the bunkhouse, keeping mum, Kiint had managed to become a piece of furniture. He’d been onsite two months and it was another month till Labour Day. One evening a young guy, Kenny, was frying up some salmon he’d scooped from B-pen. It was verboten to steal stock, but if guys were too spaced out to get their meat order together, there it was swimming right outside the door. Clarke wouldn’t do anything, since one salmon was so much less than a drop in the bucket.
As it sizzled, poking and worrying it non-stop with the spatula, Kenny asked no one in particular, “So when’s this shit safe?”
He meant when were the antibiotics flushed out. The medfeed had ceased in B-pen months ago, and a few guys mumbled that it was okay. Bobby Paul joked that Kenny should go ahead and eat it and cure the gonorrhea he probably had.
This kind of talk was always floating around. So who knows why, but that night Kiint, quietly munching on his bowl of roots and fronds, lost it. He dropped his fork on the table. His hand hovered over it, his eyes closed.
“It’s never okay.”
No one said anything. Kiint didn’t deserve a response. They were going to let it pass but Kiint wasn’t. He actually smacked the table with his palm. You could hear the spice of his accent climb into the rest of what he said.
“The antibiotics are gone, Kenny.” He waved his arm in the direction of the water. “The antibiotics are now in the crabs and shrimp and sea urchins. What’s still in your piece of shit is mercury, lead, and dioxins. The Ruhr Valley is in your piece of shit.” Shaking his head, he grabbed his fork and stabbed his greens. “Enjoy, Kenny.”
It was Clarke who laughed, and then sang, “Whaaaat?”
Others were laughing too and Bobby Paul asked Kenny if he knew there was a valley in his dinner. Kiint ate quicker, wanting to get out of there. Clarke waved an arm at the same water and in the same way Kiint had, mocking him, and proclaimed there was no way any of that crap was in the air up here in Toba Inlet.
Kiint put down his fork down gently. “Where does the feed come from?” he asked.
“The big blue barge?” said Bobby Paul, who hadn’t stopped grinning.
Kiint said it came from Norway. AquaCo bought it from themselves so they didn’t have to pay taxes on it, but our country being stupid was beside the point, the point was that the feed was from North Sea plankton and fish waste that had absorbed “the air-borne hell of industrial Europe.” In a gesture as theatrical as it was bizarre, Kiint pointed at Kenny’s sizzling fish and listed off Mercedes Benz, IKEA, Volkswagon (saying the W like a V) and ten other companies no one had heard of. A guy playing video games yelled at Kiint to go back to fucking Norway if he didn’t like it here, and Clarke shouted back that it was Norway Kiint appeared to be mad at.
Clarke added, “Well what the fuck.” He seemed to think that, as boss, it was his job to win this argument, if that’s what this was.
“No one’s making you work here, right?”
Kiint appeared to come to his senses. “No,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry.” Then, “Eat your fish. It’s good fish.”
Emboldened, pulling on his coat, Clarke added, “Keep it to yourself for fuck sake. This place is bad enough without your shit in the air.” He made a show of almost slamming the door. Being the boss, he pretended he didn’t smoke weed by always going outside to smoke it. Kiint wolfed his bowl. He looked angry, but Arnie wondered if he didn’t also look afraid. Arnie was waiting but Kiint didn’t look his way. If he had, he might have seen that Arnie knew something was up. There was just no way a guy like him was here by accident.
In the remaining weeks leading up to Labour Day Kiint kept his distance from Arnie, other than a few silent walks, and even then it seemed he was being careful not to show how much he loved the inlet, or the rainforest. When he returned the two Farley Mowatt books he’d borrowed he wouldn’t even say if he liked them or not when Arnie asked. Arnie had to admit that he was a little hurt to be lumped in with the rest of them. It was difficult to admit to wisdom in a man so much younger, but Arnie did. Kiint hinted at a vaster, more intelligent world, one that Arnie had apparently let slip by. Something he saw in Kiint made him regret the puniness of what he’d chosen for himself. So it hurt to be shut out like that.
On what turned out to be their last walk, a week before Labour Day, when they stopped at the apex of Bald Head Rock and finished catching their breath and taking in the vista, Arnie was angry at the silence, angry at being shut out. One thing about fish-farm life was that he didn’t get angry much, so when he did, it was easy to see it. And now he was angry that he was angry. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. It sounded corny, like something a lover would say, so he hated himself now too and was about to stomp back down the trail.
Kiint turned to face him. Arnie sensed he was being read. But Kiint must have read him wrong because he answered a different question than the one Arnie asked.
“It’s just a job. Right, Bacon?”
“Right,” Arnie said, not knowing what he was agreeing to.
The Friday of Labour Day weekend, at low tide Arnie trudged the rocks to his Robinson Crusoe spot. It had been a year since he’d bothered coming out here. He stood and breathed. He held his breath and tried to hear his heart. Then didn’t care if he heard his heart or not. He was surprised by his restlessness. He couldn’t settle. Maybe it was the looming fall. Fall was when you started school again, and hockey. It was the time to stop screwing around, stop partying, time to get in shape, start projects. Arnie could feel the outside world beyond these mountains—big and busy, rumbling, buzzing, working, and though he hadn’t forgotten that it was mostly bullshit, there was something out there he was missing. His life was easily half over and he had to admit he’d blown this half, first with trouble and then with hiding. He wasn’t sure how but it was Kiint who had prodded him, who had lit this fire. Kiint who had checked him out and decided he wasn’t worthy, lying here reading stupid books.
He scanned Toba Inlet. Its water, mountains and muffled sky were so familiar that he could be standing anywhere. He unzipped and pissed into the calm water at his feet. A slow and ignorant current moved the foam to the left. A crab the size of his thumbnail crawled back under its rock. Arnie laughed at himself, more sad than angry. No good book was pulling him back to the bunkhouse. For whatever reason, he didn’t like fiction anymore. And he understood he’d been restless for years.
And that afternoon, not a minute after the water taxi picked up the crew and disappeared around the point, Kiint destroyed the camp radio with a hammer. This was so nobody—that is, Arnie—could call for help, or whoever it was you called when the guy you were stuck with in camp methodically began smashing the equipment to pieces and burning everything else to the ground. Arnie liked to think Kiint did the radio first not because he thought Arnie would call, but because he knew Arnie would get into trouble for not calling. Arnie still wasn’t sure if he would have called or not.
The following week in whatever newspapers he could buy in Campbell River Arnie read all he could about it and he learned Kiint’s real name. All five brood sites on the Pacific coast were attacked that Labour Day Friday. One of the five “eco-terrorists,” Andres Vandover, hailed from Amsterdam, so that had to be him. One was a New Zealander and another an actual Norwegian, which Arnie found funny because that made him a kind of double agent, and you could only imagine the weird ironies he’d endured, the bunkhouse jokes about Norwegian spies. The other two were women, a Canadian and a Brazilian, and how they got hired on, he could only guess. They were at the sites further north and maybe they were more progressive up there.
There was mention of a “manifesto” that authorities weren’t making public, in the spirit of not dealing with terrorists. Nor did the authorities reveal much else, since court cases were pending, and the news stories were littered with the word “alleged.” The attacks were coordinated, but why terrorists would target fish farms was still a mystery. So ignorant and unclear were the stories that Arnie wanted to call and tell them that the only reason to attack just brood sites was to destroy how the salmon farm industry replenished itself. There was no other reason—it was appalling that they couldn’t decide on even that much. Also, they said his site was located in Toba Strait, there being no such place. There were comma errors too, and more than one wrong “it’s.” Journalism had really gone downhill, and it was all the more obvious when you knew some of the truth of things yourself.
The reports said damage to the Toba Inlet site was the most severe. So Kiint had done the best job. The New Zealander had managed only some computer system damage, “fish mortality was minimal,” and he got badly beaten up by the skeleton crew. (Arnie tried to picture the guys jumping on Kiint, and it was easy). The other three sites were badly damaged but would “in all likelihood be made operational again.” Toba could not.
In the manner of today’s media they were dubbed the Fish Farm Five, another piss off, because somehow it cheapened what they did, and tried to cheapen the regard Arnie had for Kiint, for Andres Vandover, though Arnie wouldn’t let it.
It had been truly amazing to watch this young guy work so hard, and nothing selfish about it. Because whatever Kiint believed—was he protecting the environment? Protecting the world from bad food? Chipping away at capitalism?—it was for others that he did it. This is what Arnie couldn’t get over. In the outside world there were people like this. Sometimes they found their way up Toba Inlet.
Watching Kiint hustling to finish the job before they came and put a boot on his neck and took him away, Arnie wondered what Kiint’s damn hurry was, he had all weekend. But unlike Kiint he didn’t know about the other four attacks underway or that Kiint knew they would be putting two and two together soon and sending in the troops. As it turned out the cop boat didn’t arrive up Toba until dawn. Followed by the coast guard—Arnie was surprised those guys were allowed to carry guns—and then, he couldn’t believe his eyes at the overkill, a hovercraft. It was when they were putting the cuffs on Kiint that Arnie rethought the selflessness business. He was standing well away, in the first line of trees, pretending to be afraid, going with Kiint’s advice to avoid resembling a friend. But the look in Kiint’s eyes, amazing. He didn’t know what to call it. It wasn’t selfless. Kiint was just absolutely proud and loving everything he’d done, he was loving the cuffs, he loved that cop’s shove, and he was loving it all so much that it had to, it just had to be selfish. It was a feeling Arnie recognized and wanted. He had no word for it yet.
He had run to the noise of Kiint smashing the radio, and hammer in hand Kiint came striding out the bunkhouse door, saw Arnie coming, and flashed a palm.
“Bacon, stay out of my way.”
Kiint broke into a trot up the path to the generator hut, bouncing the hammer, testing its weight for a job bigger than the radio.
Arnie stayed out of his way. But he was thrilled and he had to move so he got himself away from there, and once up the trail and into the trees he couldn’t hear anything from camp. It took only a half hour to get up to Bald Head Rock and when he reached the clearing, breathing so hard he brought his hand to his heart, he stood agape at the mushroom of black and brown smoke tumbling up from where he’d come. In this vista of giant things—mountains, ocean, sky—the smoke was a new creature that held its own. Arnie stayed up there as long as he could stand it. He wasn’t scared of Kiint at all. Something spectacular was going on and he was missing it. He set off back, finding it hard not to run, enjoying the luxury and speed of the downhill stride. He did wonder if there’d be anywhere to sleep tonight.
He didn’t know why he chose “Waltzing Matilda” but he broke into song when he emerged from the woods, not wanting to surprise him. But Kiint wasn’t there and Arnie felt foolish and hoped he wasn’t being watched from the woods. The feedhouse and generator shack were off the peak of their flames and were two collapsed heaps of hissing orange embers and metal, heat mirage throbbing over them. A grand old cedar next to the feedhouse was scorched halfway up its length. The feed bins were still releasing an odd smoke, the hint of black suggesting the gasoline poured in to help things out.
Arnie yelled, “Hey Kiint. What’s up?”
Nobody answered, and Arnie could hear that silence behind the embers’ hissing. It was that intense calm of aftermath, that stillness of a morning house that had been violated in the night. Kiint’s absence was a presence.
He would tell Kiint to get over it, he was going to help. Or watch. Arnie didn’t know what he wanted. But he was a lot bigger than Kiint, if it came to that. Arnie was still happy with this most basic of laws.
The sun was behind the mountain now and in the blue dim he walked past the dryland pens and, in their thousands, all the tiny fish were belly up. The pump was dead but they wouldn’t have suffocated this quickly— he must have thrown some kind of poison in. Who knows what else Kiint packed in those bags of salad? The odd light helped make it stranger still, the tiny luminous pearl bellies forming an unbroken floating layer, a carpet of identical glowing shapes. “Tessellated.” He ventured out on the ramp to the pens, flanked on either side by still, deep water. Maybe Kiint had made a run for it. Maybe he’d stashed a kayak and supplies somewhere, though how he’d done that in this fishbowl was anybody’s guess.
He walked the ramp to its limit, to D-pen, where the big ones were. With the bubble curtain off it was quieter than ever, so quiet he stood still and tried to hear his heart. He couldn’t. He thought he could feel the monsters under his feet, down deep, the hundred-plus pounders. On the east coast they used to grow that big in the wild and he’d seen grainy black-and-whites of rich Americans on guided trips standing beside their tail-hung trophies. As big as the ones below his feet. He stood over the black water, feeling the unseen gliding shapes, swollen with eggs and milt, bursting with so much future life. It was almost fall and they were ripening with the one thing they existed for.
Certain he could feel the immense parents gliding beneath him, something felt off. He could feel it. They felt badly alive. It tipped his guts. It was like seeing a turd on your mother’s head. It was like a warm worm turning in your ear. Dumb giants bumping into each other down there. The giants had been brought here, from a foreign ocean, so we could grow and eat their sick babies.
The bubble curtain was off but he could hear a faint bubbling. Then he saw it, a green light, deep under- water, moving slowly. There was a moment when it might have been a sea monster, a demon, and then he knew it was an underwater lamp he hadn’t seen Kiint unload. And there, scuba bubbles breaking the surface out along the rim of D-pen, slowly burbling his way.
He laughed, he hooted, he stomped his boot then caught himself. Kiint must be down there taking care of the oxygenators, so they couldn’t be repaired. He had really thought things through.
That light, that little green light far below. It was like a quiet, tiny invasion from another planet, it was brilliant unlike anything else around here.
The bunkhouse had been left intact. Arnie went in and stood in the middle of it, in the coolness in front of the blank TV, and it all felt new and different. He couldn’t stand still. There was no longer electricity but he knew of a propane campstove out back. It was unlikely that any of the guys would be returning now but he felt the thrill of theft as he helped himself to their food. He unwrapped the rest of Clarke’s venison jerky and gnawed on it as he worked. He primed the campstove, lit it, and fried up two burger patties, one of them Kiint’s nutblend kind, which didn’t smell half-bad as it cooked, and he built up two Mexiburgers, being mindful of melting no cheese on Kiint’s. He toasted the buns on the blue propane flame, then plated them up surrounded by a decent salad. His he deposited on the table.
Arnie draped a white towel over his forearm to lighten the mood and walked Kiint’s down to him, but stood off a ways to let him finish hacksawing the metal feed pipe. He was barefoot and had his wetsuit top off, but still wore the black pants. He grabbed a sledge to mangle the freed piece so it couldn’t just be welded back on.
Arnie called his name from twenty feet away. Kiint turned bug-eyed, exhausted, head hanging forward off his neck. He gave Arnie a good stare before nodding that, yes, he wanted the food.
He took it and said only, “Don’t tell them you did this.” He waggled the burger.
“It’s cool.” Arnie unfolded the chair he’d dragged over and Kiint sat down with a gasp.
“Don’t tell them we talked at all.”
“Not to worry.”
He wolfed his burger after first checking its contents. He smelled of extreme sweat, fish, and wetsuit rubber. As he chewed he quickly surveyed the damage he’d done, and what he had yet to do.
He seemed to remember Arnie standing there. “Bacon. You have to leave.” Kiint looked at him philosophically. “It goes bad for you if they know you didn’t try to stop me.” He nodded with a new thought. “And they think we’re friends.” He stood and thrust the plate at back to him, salad untouched. “Thank you, but.”
Arnie hesitated taking it. When he did, he said, “Hey, I can help.”
Kiint turned away, put the palm up again. “Don’t joke about it.”
“Who says I’m joking?” Arnie said, regretting it because it sounded whiny. And he had just understood what Kiint had said. They think we’re friends. Kiint ignored him again, trudging off toward the ramps wagging his finger in the air, remembering something.
In the bunkhouse Arnie pulled someone’s blanket over his legs and sat down to a solitary dinner, while starting Ken Kesey’s Demon Box, apparently an unfinished novel plus other stuff he didn’t publish before he died. The blanket smelled harshly of somebody’s deodorant. The book wasn’t that good and Arnie was bored by it. Fiction. And it was getting dark to read. He tried a flashlight for exactly five seconds before he threw Demon Box in one direction and the flashlight in the other, making a fantastic wobbling strobe in the room before it crashed through the window and fell out into the dark.
And then down from the ramps the clang of a hammer, the sound of which still made Arnie’s heart race. He wondered where it was he should go, and if a city, what city it might be, and now Kiint’s hammer sounded comical, a puny tink tink tink in the face of a world of steel and cement and big government. Arnie started to laugh, bouncing in his seat, mouth full of burger, ready to help take it on.
Photo by Flickr user Rosewoman