It had taken us the better part of the day just to get to the site. The work block was a frozen clearing some hundred-and-fifty kilometres down a forest-service road North of the fifty-ninth parallel. The clay road was only passable in winter, when covered in a thick layer of ice. For hours, we slid two trucks and trailers of equipment down that white line carved through the thick Boreal forest.
The gas had been sitting in the underground well for thousands of years until a pipe was drilled into it like a straw. It flowed under immense pressure from the well-head, into piping, into our two-ton testing trailer and, finally, to a vertical stack that directed the spewing fumes into the atmosphere. I tied a rag to a wrench and dunked it through the bung-hole in a drum of Methanol. The fifty-foot flare-stack was screaming toxic natural gas into the grey sky. I lit the rag with my lighter and checked closely for the waves of heat from the invisible flame. I lobbed the wrench over the stack and cringed as the gas ignited like a jet engine.
With a chipped-tooth smile, the boss stood on the sideboard of his truck and yelled over the constant blare of the stack, “Every thirty minutes, zippy. If you’re gonna jerk-off, keep it to under half-an-hour and don’t get any on the data-sheets. Tell Kelly not ta puke in the truck. See ya in the mornin’.”
His truck fish-tailed on the ice and turned South towards town.
I climbed into the cab of the other truck to the warm scent of sickness. I pushed my cold glove hard into Kelly’s face. “Fuckin cock-suckin motherfucker,” he coughed, and sat up in the driver’s seat. It was the first thing I’d heard him say all day and composed most of his vocabulary. His sunken face was still recovering from adolescence. He looked ten years older than he was.
I bowed my head to look up through the windshield into the clearing night sky. “First shift or last?” I said.
Kelly sat with his eyes closed and burped something marshy that blended with the air in the cab. A flush of white shimmered in the sky. I took Kelly’s open-mouthed silence as an answer. “See you in a coupla hours. Brush your fuckin’ teeth or somethin’, it’s sick in here,” I said.
Kelly pawed at the Hustler magazines on the dash and slid back onto the bench seat as I got out.
I climbed the wheel-well, positioned myself on the hood with my back on the windshield and set the alarm on my watch. The trucks ran twenty-four hours a day to keep the motors from freezing. The heat of the diesel engine under my legs forced to switch positions every few minutes. I crossed my arms and waited for my alarm to go off. Every half-an-hour for five hours the watch chirped and I slid myself off the bonnet of the truck, grabbed the data sheets from the trailer and recorded the pressure and purity of the gas in the petrified pocket beneath my feet.
The heat of the flare-stack had melted the ice into a thick mud, thirty-feet in diameter around the base. Every so often, the fire would spit and sputter a blue light with the impurities of the gas or flare so hard I thought the whole unit would blow. Staring into the flame led to a near blindness when you looked away. Everywhere the snow and metal glistened in the unflickering beam. The night was diminished for kilometres, rendering the stars barely visible in its wake.
Lying there, I thought of the night before, in the motel lobby bar, the only bar and motel in town. The boys indulged in rum, cocaine, big-screen hockey and the slap of the waitress’ ass. I had lowered my eyes and stepped outside for a smoke. Looking through the exhaust of the empty, running trucks that lined the street, I thought about how easy it would be to jump in and drive back down that only road heading South; I wondered how far I could get before they caught me. I had heard unforgivable language from the bar and wandered back to my room to lie awake all night.
The sound of the alarm startled me. I reset my watch and sat back with an hour left in my half of the shift. Staring into the fire of the giant torch, I couldn’t remember a day without it. Everywhere I looked there was only fire and shadow. My body felt deflated under the cold and burning, punctured by beauty and its ruin. I couldn’t have been transported far enough away from where I was. If I had had a button to sink it all, I would’ve pushed it. In the corner of my eye, a white light billowed from the Northern horizon. I tilted my head back on the windshield and looked up from the gurgling mouth of flames.
The white light quickly faded, but was replaced by tinges of tropical green and neon ocean blue, appearing first at mid-sky and then above my head. Descending like ghosts into the surrounding forest, it was as though the fire had been doused. The Northern Lights flowed into the distance with no end or beginning, creating and destroying itself continuously. My frosted eyes blinked slowly.
I began to hear a deep drone over the roaring of the stack. I knew the lights didn’t make sounds, but it seemed to get louder as the colours became more brilliant. I rolled onto my side, away from the stack, and listened. The sound became clearer and seemed to be coming from the ground, not the sky. Within seconds I heard what sounded like thunder coming North on the road. The noise grew until it was all I could hear. The ground started shaking and the truck began vibrating. It sounded like a large vehicle, but I couldn’t see headlights on the trees. I waited, motionless with fear, for what was coming fast up the icy road.
In a tangle of muscle, they appeared and stopped abruptly in the light of the flare-stack. Their dark manes, twisted and matted, fell on their grey and black sweating skin. They stood wild and brilliant, puffing clouds of thick breath; a row of black, marbled eyes burning orange in the fire-light. They held their heads perpendicular, transfixed. And as quickly as they arrived, they reared up in defiance with high-pitched whinnies, continuing North towards where the rivers of colour emptied into the sky.