Retreat

A fairy tale in pieces.

Winter, 2019–2020 / No. 44
Matthew Daley
Heart’s Haven

The week before this happened, someone torched a Jeep two blocks from my apartment. The sound of the explosion woke me up, and I smelled gasoline and burnt rubber on the breeze all morning. It had been hard enough to concentrate before the riots. Once the looting started, I didn’t do much but sit on the floor, look out at a sky gone the colour of a furnace flame, and try to pretend it was all going to be O.K.

I was like this when Chris called to tell me about the retreat.

“Sally Von Sann,” he said. “From the nineties. She calls it Heart’s Haven.”

It was in Caledon, an hour or so north of the city. As more and more infrastructure failed, the rich had decamped to rural areas to hide out on their compounds, estates, and ranches. Chris’s parents had a property on the same road as Sally Von Sann, the movie star. She had converted an old Bavarian-style chalet into an artists’ refuge as a way to support creative work in chaotic times. In her action-film heyday, Sally Von Sann had rescued the world from nuclear destruction and robot enslavement, and ended up married to one of the richest men in Hollywood. Now she was trying to save something in real life, and who could blame her?

“Why me?” I asked, even though I already knew I’d accept. A lot of neighbourhoods in the city had intermittent power. I was lucky to live near the core, where supply was more consistent. There had to be hundreds of artists whose work was more disrupted by the riots than mine. Besides, Sally Von Sann was an unlikely aficionado of my writing.

“I put in a good word,” said Chris. “Told her we need voices like yours in these times.”

“Has she read my book?”

He sighed.

“Does it matter? Take the place, Sam. The city’s not getting any safer. It’s a good opportunity, a good connection to have. Besides, what else are you doing?”

It was true: you had to get on with things. And if there was an antidote to the chaos, it was nature. The same thing that was killing us, sure—but only because we’d stopped paying attention. You had to get out to nature, avow your sins.

“Of course,” I said. “Of course, I’ll take the place.”

Any escape was welcome. This? It was divine luck. Of course: I’d work my way through the rupture. I would breathe spruce and goldenrod, liaise with whatever bees were left.

Forbidden Paths

My first day at the chalet, I spent the morning reading: Wilderness Tips, the Brothers Grimm, a magazine article about flooding in the States. I ate a lunch of boiled eggs and cured ham, a grapefruit seltzer, and strong black coffee to gear up for the day. Out front, a huge deck faced a valley that sloped down to a glimmering pond. I stood and inhaled the clean air, savouring the vegetable scents and the sounds of burbling water. Birds swooped and twittered. It felt like a kind of physical remembering: I was tucked away in a green universe, part of a past that was already gone.

Before settling down to write, I wanted to go for a run on the property’s trails, a network of looping paths that ran through the lush meadows and wooded hills of the backlot. Instructions taped to the fridge told me that the trails abutted private property and that the owners of the farm next door sometimes rode horses on them, so I should stick to the path marked with orange ribbons. If I heard a horse coming, I was to call out to avoid spooking it off into the bush.

I tied my laces and thought about the times when I was young and my grandparents would take me to the park near their house. It was beside a ravine, one of the first places I ever came into contact with real nature: moss and loam, raccoons and wet bracken. That’s where I felt I was heading to as I set off at a trot down the sloping path. My muscles were buzzing with caffeine as I passed the pond and jogged into the mouth of the enveloping woods.

At first, the forest was like something out of a fairy tale. Jays leapt in the treetops. The ground was alive with scampering squirrels and chipmunks. The maples were beginning to turn, and sunlight glinted through reddening leaves, making flame-hued gems in the foliage. A great blue heron burst up from a hidden pond. Every so often, I caught glimpses of the cottage through the pine and cedar boughs, its gabled roof haloed in sunlight.

As I ran, dodging ferns, breathing hard, it struck me how little I’d thought about the city since arriving at Heart’s Haven. The daily tension of wondering whether today was the day you’d get caught in a fight over territory or cash, wondering if it might all blow over, even though you knew this was just beginning—it had dissolved the minute I’d stepped out of my car and felt the soothing calm of the retreat, the curative essence of the rural air. As I ran, my mind drifted, up through the trees and down among the dark berries clustered on the soil.

For a while, the orange ribbons were easy to see, and I counted them carefully. But at some point, jarred from my reverie by a twinge in my calf, I realized it had been a long time since I’d passed a trail marker. My stomach soured a bit. It’s fine, I said to myself, just a long stretch without a marker. I kept running, making turns, climbing hills, convincing myself that I’d soon turn a corner and see another orange flag or the silhouette of the cottage in the distance.

Instead, I found myself low on energy, thirsty and light-headed in the heat, turning and turning in an endless upward spiral of uneven turf, tall grass, and brambles. Finally, I had to accept that I was lost. A ringing anxiety set in. My phone was back at the cottage. I had no water, no idea where I’d gone off the path. This was like a fairy tale, too—except not the ones with lush meadows and doe-eyed woodland creatures, but a story in which children lose their way in woods that get more haunted as they go. The thought hit me that maybe riders would come and I could ask for directions. But, despite the piles of horseshit I passed, the thought was naïve: most of the droppings had been there long enough for mushrooms to grow, days or weeks. I didn’t even know if I was still on the same path the farm used. A shrub ahead quaked and sent my heart into my throat. I stopped short, imagining the appearance of a troll with drool-dripping fangs and a necklace made of apple-cheeked children’s heads. Still panting, I picked up a big pine branch to wield like a scorpion’s tail in case it came to a fight and stood shaking in the heat, suddenly aware all over again how things that had once seemed simple and comforting could turn deadly in an instant if you didn’t heed to the warnings.

Reconnaissance

I wasn’t totally lost: I could see fencing and other houses not far in the distance. Shame kept me away, though. After all, I’d been told to stay on the marked trails, and look where my carelessness had landed me. I checked the sun to try and orient myself. My head throbbed. Blood pounded in my temples. I stank like a rotten onion in a mushroom patch. Over the hills, I heard the whooshing of cars on the highway. I followed the sound, turning and turning back again, looping toward it.

Finally, branch lolling in front of me like the neck of a skeletal dragon, I popped out onto a long gravel drive winding up among the trees, leading up to some gated manor hidden far back from the road. Not far up the drive, two people, a man and a woman, stood pruning an evergreen hedge along the black iron fence. They were dressed in formal whites, as though headed to Sunday Mass, but I could see the bulk of body armour under the fine cotton. When they noticed me, they tensed visibly, their faces puckering like blanched prunes. The man was holding long shears and the woman a small but vicious-looking pitchfork. They held their tools before them, talismans of threat.

I dropped the branch and put my hands out, coming forward slowly, anxiety pinging like a hit pinball.

“I’m really sorry to bother you,” I said, aware of how delicate I needed to be with strangers in these times. “I’m staying at Sally Von Sann’s cottage. Heart’s Haven. I went for a run and got lost on the trails. Do you know how to get back? It’s on, uh, Cozy Lake Road.”

The man looked at me as though I was a feral Chihuahua, both harmless and repugnant.

“What are you doing on this property?” he demanded, his tone sharp and agitated.

Suddenly I was hyperaware of the No Trespassing signs posted at regular intervals along the fence.

“I just ended up here,” I said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how. Wrong turn, I think. I lost sight of the trail markers.”

“You can’t be here,” said the man.

He held his shears at waist height, blades open like the beak of a ravenous bird. Behind him, the woman stood, silent as stone, eyes flashing the black of a lacquered coffin.

“I don’t want to be,” I said. “It was a mistake. I’m sorry. Can you help me get back?”

They glared at me, and I could feel the rage, the defensiveness, radiating from them. Whatever they were protecting, whomever they served, was not open to disruptions from the failing world. I imagined what it would feel like to get the woman’s pitchfork in the stomach, how strong she’d have to be to twist my guts out in a sloppy coil. The man stepped forward, shears open.

“Go back on the main road, toward town,” the woman said from behind, iron voice pausing the momentum of the man’s rage. “Turn on Dullahan Side Road, by the cemetery. Then left at the cottage road.”

“How far is that?” I asked.

“Ten, twelve kilometres,” the woman said.

“I’m on foot,” I said, eyes bugging. “In this heat!”

The light reflecting off their white shirts was dizzying. In the distance, the muffled echo of a siren rode on the grit in the breeze.

“Better get on, then,” said the woman, talking to the hedge but waving the pitchfork toward the road. “You’ll want to be back before dark. And be sure to tell Ms. Von Sann she can expect a follow-up on this.”

I nodded.

The man snapped his shears, and the matter was closed.

Complicity

If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say it started when the insurance companies collapsed. Some put it as early as the 2008 financial crisis. But for me, the fall of insurance was the moment when the social safety net got bested by haywire weather you knew wasn’t going to improve any time soon—was, in fact, going to get a lot worse.

Once insurance went, it was infrastructure. The money and time needed to keep things in decent repair was impossible to sustain in conditions that amounted to ongoing assault. Most things still work sometimes—less and less, though. The cascade of failures happens slowly enough that you don’t realize what’s going on around you until you can’t go back. Then one day, a Jeep explodes two blocks from where you live and you can feel the shockwave inside your apartment. Suddenly you’re worrying about what will happen if a window shatters and you have to live exposed to the ash-filled sky. And already you’re looking back and thinking, We should have seen it. We should have known.

But we didn’t. We still don’t.

First Function
of the Donor

On the sunbaked shoulder of the highway, I swallowed again and again to try and calm the knives in my throat. Cars rushed by, chucking up pebbles and dust. Turkey vultures mused overhead. My feet dragged along the pitted asphalt. All the wonder I’d felt in the forest had burned off in the brutal heat. I thought about what was happening back in the city—days ticking toward some irreparable breach—and cursed myself for wasting the precious time I’d been given at Heart’s Haven by not sticking to the marked trail, not turning back when I should have.

Ahead, I saw the shapes of two vehicles parked by the side of the road. Maybe, I thought, someone could tell me if I was actually headed for Dullahan Side Road, or if the furious gardeners had sent me marching toward death. As I got closer, the silhouettes resolved into a big pickup, outfitted with a steel trailer, and, further from the shoulder, a huge military transport vehicle painted in green camouflage, a For Sale sign hanging askew in its window. Beside the truck, two men stood talking, one average-sized with thinning black hair and a Hawaiian shirt, one tall and thick with a blond buzz cut, squared-off muttonchops, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “x-force tactical products” in red text under a logo shaped like an assault rifle.

“Um, excuse me,” I said, walking over. Their talk stopped and they both turned to look at me. “I’m looking for Dullahan Side Road.”

They sized me up in silence. I was wheezing and dressed in torn and faded clothes, too-skinny jogging pants, and a shirt with a stylized dove on it, soaked with sweat.

“Where you headed?” said the bigger man.

His eyes were like blue glass singed by the heat of an explosion. A huge, finely detailed wolf tattoo bulged on his bicep.

“Heart’s Haven,” I said. “It’s a . . . cottage. On Cozy Lake Road.” I realized how ridiculous I sounded. “I went running on the horse trails around the property and somehow got turned around. Ended up having to follow the traffic noise. I came out of the woods about a kilometre back. There were some people—”

The man in the Hawaiian shirt coughed, frowned.

“They told me to take Dullahan Side Road, ten kilometres this way. I just want to know I’m going the right way.”

The big man eyed me. I figured he was deciding on the best jab at my weakness, the best way to point out the sad state I was in.

“I’m going back that way,” he said, instead. “I can give you a lift. It’s this one.” He jerked a thumb at the pickup, as though there might be some confusion that he’d arrived in the military vehicle to begin with. “Gimme a minute.”

I nodded and stood, breathing heavily, while the men finished up their business.

Receipt of a
Magical Agent

What you are given isn’t always enough. To work with what you have, to do what you can: sometimes these things fall short, dwarfed by the tidal movements of the bigger picture. We wonder, how far can our dreams take us? How deep into the unknown will we go before our minds warp and our skin peels off in the sun? How much of our dreaming must we mobilize for rescue, and how much will we allow ourselves to take away from the work of memorializing a world that’s still trying to teach us how to save it?

At the park near my grandparents’ house, I used to pick up pine cones and prickled chestnuts and arrange them like artifacts in the sand. They were coded keys to a world that lived beyond the chain-link fences, treasures borne up from the ravine. But I misunderstood what they were giving me. Or it failed to take somehow. I lost the ribbons, time and time again.

Guidance

The cabin of the big pickup smelled heavily of rubber and engine oil. As we pulled away, I looked back out the rear windshield and saw the transport vehicle parked by the roadside like a huge, inert turtle. The bars of a steel rack cut across the truck’s window, the silhouette of a rifle hovering on the bottom rung. It rattled with the growl of the engine.

I nodded my head back toward the transport vehicle.

“Don’t see too many of those for sale,” I said.

“Not enough, anyway,” he said. “Fuck. I should buy it.”

We drove for a while, silent. Sweat streamed in rivulets down my back. I was afraid, but that was nothing new—fear lurked in every interaction now.

“Guy wants fuckin’ a hundred and eighty grand,” the man said. He let the number hang there for a few seconds. “Those things’ll go anywhere, though. Impregnable tires, perfect suspension. Got an air chamber up top, you can clear eight feet of water. Even got hooks on the roof, so you can attach that thing to a goddamn aircraft, drop it wherever you want. Middle of the fuckin’ jungle. Middle of the fuckin’ desert.”

“What was that guy doing with it?”

“He just bought it one day, fuck knows why. He has the money, does what he wants. Realizes it was a stupid idea because he has no idea how to deploy the fuckin’ thing. Me, though. I know these vehicles. I should buy it.” He tapped his hand on the steering wheel and frowned. “It’s not getting any better, you know?” he said, voice rising. “Fuckin’ Texas, Florida, Alberta, California, B.C. Now here, down in the city. All this madness.”

For a minute, he sounded like he might break down sobbing.

“I live in the city,” I said.

“I fuckin’ know that!” he barked. “So do I.”

The cab was stifling and I had a sudden urge to put my head out the window, to let the rushing air blast away my lingering headache and dry the sweat on my back.

“One of those vehicles, no matter what happens, you got a way to get around,” the man said. “Help people.” He glanced at me sideways. “You understand?”

I nodded, but couldn’t look at him. In truth, I wasn’t sure anymore.

Liquidation

The road hummed beneath us, cracked and searing. Outside, the fields glowed gold, burnished by early autumn sunlight. The highway sloped downward and I could see the gnarled shrubbery, swamped ditches, and crooked stones of the cemetery up ahead. I waved my thumb.

“This is the road I need to take,” I said.

He nodded and pulled over, the pickup’s tires crunching on the gravel.

“How far over does that go?” he said, pointing a thick finger down the road I’d be taking. “I’m headed to the next town. If that goes all the way, I could drive you to the cottage lane.”

“Don’t know,” I said, without geography. “I’ve only been as far as the first left.”

He gave me a look a sheepdog might give, deciding whether to trust an ewe to cross the highway alone.

“O.K. then,” he said, finally. “Anyway, you don’t have too far to go.”

“No. Thanks. I appreciate the ride.”

“Maybe stick to the trails next time,” he said. “Or bring a fuckin’ phone, at least.”

I nodded, acknowledging sound advice. He pulled away, the pickup’s engine gunning. I wondered how long it would take for him to come back and to try bargain for the army vehicle, and how long after that until he might put it to use as he imagined. How long before its eight-foot clearance wouldn’t cut it anymore, because the roads were down too deep.

Return

I crossed the highway, to where the road dipped past a cluster of tamaracks on the cemetery’s edge before curving up into the bush. I still had four or five kilometres to go up Cozy Lake Road, back toward Heart’s Haven. Slowly, I started running again, feet slapping the tarmac in a steady rhythm. My calves burned and my chest ached with the pressurized thumping inside. I already knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up the whole way—that by the end, I’d be walking, slowly.

I kept thinking about the trails, wondering if I’d have it in me to go out again tomorrow. Whether it would ever be possible to recover the feeling I’d had during my first moments in the woods, when I’d forgotten myself in the beauty. How closely I’d watch for orange ribbons this time, if I’d watch for them at all. Whether I’d see horses and have to call out—and what voice I would summon to let them know I was no threat nor boon to them, just an artist and a runner, easily lost.

J. R. McConvey has had stories short-listed for the Journey Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and the Matrix Lit Pop award. His work has appeared in the Malahat Review, Joyland, the Puritan, and the New Quarterly. Last updated winter, 2019–2020.