If I think about what I’m doing, I’ll never get off the plane. After all, it’s ridiculous to believe a computer program can predict two strangers will develop a meaningful relationship. It’s even more ridiculous to test that prediction by flying halfway across the country after a few dozen hours on Skype. And to Saskatchewan, no less, the one province I’ve never visited, never even had any interest in visiting. It’s possible I’ve spent a lifetime looking for love in all the wrong places. But it’s also possible I should abort this madness—take the first flight back home. I mean, WTF?
But there he is, and here I am, in the arrivals area at the Regina airport. The space between us quivers, as if some super heated prairie air hovers there, a force field I must pass through. I push aside all the expectations and disappointments of my thirty years and straighten my spine, reminding myself that it’s curiosity not desperation that has brought me here. Still, it says something about my confidence that in the back of my mind I’m thinking stock auctions, cows on display, the knowing eye of the farmer appraising girth, teats, the capacity to breed.
“Margaret?” My own pseudo-scientifically selected farmer has a bouquet of flowers in hand and more than a little doubt in his voice. “Margaret Dean?”
“Yes, it’s me, Maggie Dean.” I put down my pack and we share an awkward hug. “It’s good to finally meet you, Wyatt.”
We release and he holds me at arm’s length, as if our first hug has unnerved him somehow. I wonder if it was too much a city familiarity or whether I’ve disappointed him already—by breasts too large or too squishy. Back home, where jeans are tight, a surreptitious look down might have given me a hint, but here, jeans are loose, the package hidden. My own response is mixed. He’s a good-looking man and I’m feeling something. But it’s curdled with embarrassment and wrapped up in angst. I’m reminded of the drive to Pearson airport, my best friend asking, “Why are you doing this?” and me trying to explain. “When he talks to me, I feel . . . well, desired is the best way to put it.” At the terminal, Beth dropped my pack on the sidewalk and hugged me hard. “Honey, what you’re really feeling is deranged.”
Wyatt hands me the flowers and checks my expression to see that I understand the frivolity. We are on our way to a park in the southwest corner of the province to camp. The flowers will wither en route, but it is the gesture that counts. “Welcome to Regina,” he says, scooping up my pack and gesturing toward the exit. Online he said he wasn’t one for idle chatter and, in person, it’s clear that he’s not. I mentally give him a tick mark for being honest and wonder if I’ve got one yet in his book. For packing light, as he’d advised. Or for not making the predictable raw joke about what rhymes with Regina.
He walks half a step behind so I don’t get to check him out until we’re in the parking lot, loading my gear into the back of his truck. By then, he’s had a good look at my ass. He’s taller than I expected and narrower at the waist and hips. The computer screen had flattened his facial features but they are pleasantly angular, his cheeks clean-shaven, his hair shiny-black. His skin is browner than it appeared in his photo, but so is mine. It’s been a sun-filled summer in the east.
“All set?” he asks when we’re settled in the cab. I buckle up and nod. I’m aware that what I’m doing breaks every rule I’ve been taught as a woman. But I feel no edge of doubt. I’ve scrutinized the letters from Wyatt’s ex-commanding officer and a pastor (not his, he pointed out)—both glowing recommendations mailed to me at Wyatt’s instigation before he would let me agree to come. “All set,” I say, as he turns the key in the ignition and we head out on the road.
It’s not that I’ve never driven in a truck or seen an alien landscape or taken a risk. I’ve made my living by writing for organizations that require this of me—NGOs with projects in Sudan and Afghanistan and Laos. But I never expected to feel so disconnected to a part of my own country. For an Ontario girl, the lack of trees is disconcerting—unsurprising in an African desert, but just plain weird in the country I call home. And the old adage is true: pictures of the prairies don’t do them justice. Nothing prepares you for that dome of sky, that endless expanse of farmland. You have to drive through it.
Wyatt lets me take it in, his eyes on the road. There is no GPS in the truck but he hands me a folded map so that I can follow our route. West on the Trans-Canada to Swift Current, south from there to a big, green-coloured block that signals Grasslands National Park. The towns around it are mere dots—pinhead communities. Val Marie, Orkney, Bracken and, dear God, a place called Climax.
I chuckle. He chuckles. He knows what I’ve seen. “There’s another town called Love,” he says, “but they’re hours apart.”
“And so they should be,” I answer and we both laugh. It’s a good sign and the ice is broken. “It’ll be near dark when we get there,” he says. “Help yourself to coffee in the thermos, water in the bottles.”
Wyatt gets two more tick marks for thoughtfulness and competency. I settle in to the upholstery. Usually, when I have a driver, I’m being paid to be curious. What’s that? Please explain. But this trip, I can observe without comment. I don’t need to verify the facts. I’ve described the freedom I’m looking for in an email to Wyatt—explained that, as a writer, what I crave is a still place where my mind can wander. “I don’t know, Maggie,” he tapped out in response. “The prairies may be just a little too still for your liking. There’s a thin line between an empty mind and a crazy one.”
Lonely and reticent he may be, but Wyatt is not a man to mince words when it counts. Perhaps more than a test of our compatibility, this trip is a test of my mettle, my prairie readiness. If there’s any real chemistry between us, I’m the one who’d have to move here.
“I drove down to New York City recently,” I say. “The highways were littered with dead animals. Not just the occasional raccoon, but a veritable slaughter of hares and deer.” The tire debris on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada reminds me of this, hunks of rubber that look like shredded carcasses, crows standing by. “But I haven’t seen one dead animal since Regina. Why is that?” I could stay silent—it’s comfortable enough—but I ask the question. Old habits die hard.
“They get cleaned up pretty quick,” he answers. “I was a road kill collector once. But I got a promotion. Now I slaughter cattle.”
“You’re kidding.” I glance over to see if he’s pulling my leg. I can’t tell. He flashes me a small smile, but I still can’t tell.
The highway’s divided, no oncoming traffic. It’s easy driving despite the eighteen-wheelers speeding by. The brown faces at the wheels are both surprising and oddly comforting; I imagine them training on the harsh vagaries of the Friendship Highway in Nepal or the Karakoram. “Can you pull over at that rest area ahead?” I ask. The acid-yellow fields of canola have been broken up suddenly by an expanse of purple-blue flowers. It’s achingly beautiful. I want to take a picture.
“It’s not lavender,” I say, as Wyatt and I lean against the truck sharing a bottle of water. “Some kind of pulse, is it?”
Wyatt looks at the mouth of the bottle. We’re exchanging as many germs as if we’d kissed. “It’s flax,” he says, stretching out the muscles in his shoulders so that the tendons in his arms pop. Flax, he says, but what my inner ear hears is sex.
Our cards are mostly on the table. We’re both looking for something to last. But, as Wyatt says, it’s a rare woman “from away” who can stand the life he’s offering. “I don’t need another local farm-girl,” he’s emailed. “If I want the jam made, I can hire help. What I do need is someone to talk to who can keep her dark side at bay in mid-winter. A woman who has reason to travel for work and come back eager—well, that might be the ticket.”
We’re heading south now, toward the American border and the park. The road is rough in spots, the going slower. Where the gravel crosses a track to no visible destination, a chapel sits, its front door padlocked, its white paint peeled back to reveal flecks of black beneath.
What about religion, I wonder? We haven’t touched on faith in our correspondence. I don’t subscribe, but perhaps he does. His heritage, this land; both are ridden with ancient deities.
“True or false, God with a capital “G,” or gods?” I venture. After all, we’re here to explore the subjects that can’t be dealt with at a distance: religion, family, and enthusiasm toward the use of tongue.
“My mother would kill me to hear it, but I actually believe in the Furies. Once you’ve experienced a lightning storm out here, you’ll believe it too. Horses throw themselves against the stable doors and dogs cower under beds. No sane God would conjure that.” He reaches across the width of the cab, squeezes my hand, lets it go. His palms are calloused. I wonder if I’m meant to feel the rough times. “But mostly I believe in Fate,” he adds, “and today I believe she’s kind.”
Thirty minutes later, as we near the park boundary, the sky pinks up. The truck rumbles over a cattle guard and then another.
“Let’s stop a minute,” Wyatt says, pulling up alongside a fenced field. In the far distance, a combine plies a long row leaving straw in tidy piles to be baled later. I measure the number of rows, the distance the farmer has covered since daybreak, the distance yet to be covered. It must be boring work, that zigzag to infinity.
Wyatt hands me a metal tiffin box, its compartments filled with basmati rice and lentil curry, still warm, aromatic. Fresh naan spills from the bottom compartment when I unscrew it awkwardly. We sit on the fence’s top rail.
“Good,” I say, tipping curry onto rice, scooping both up with the soft bread. “What do you suppose he thinks about out there all day?” I ask, gesturing at the farmer.
“I don’t know about him, but I listen to podcasts—lectures and fiction that I download to my iPod. I need to be able to have the stuff for a conversation at the end of the day.”
“A conversation with whom?” I ask.
“Well, Maggie,” he says, tipping back his grubby Stetson and taking his first close look at my face before he winks. “There’s the rub, eh? You volunteering yet?”
The campsites are within a fenced paddock. I’m not insensitive to the irony of this, sing the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” under my breath as a joke. But when I get out of the truck, the sheer scale of the place makes my stomach drop. It feels like the hollowness of rejection, the ache of loneliness. Sure, there’s a bit of topography—some undulations in the distance halfway to the horizon—but I’d hardly call them hills.
“Shit,” I say, “there’s really nothing out here at all. Is this what it’s like where you live?”
“Not far off.”
“But there are towns, other farms within sight, right?” I think of the town names in tiny print on the map. Love and Climax.
He looks at me blankly. Wrong. I’ve got it wrong.
“There are a couple of prairie dog colonies in the park,” Wyatt says. “If we’re lucky, we might see one tomorrow when we hike. It might surprise you to know that those hillocks, or knobs as they’re known out here, are closer than they appear. If you walk for an hour and look back at this campsite, you’ll have covered more ground than you expected.”
I suspect he is giving me something to look forward to in the vast emptiness. There is not so much as an electrical line in sight. Prairie dogs are comical. I think Wyatt’s trying for a conversation that hides his initial disappointment in my reaction. Did he hope I’d love it right away? Not realize it’s the kind of place that has to grow on you? A person has to be given a reason to embrace all this. Hereditary roots, the hope of profit, true love. I don’t know what holds Wyatt here. I have yet to figure out his inner landscape.
“And I should mention the rattlesnakes,” he adds. I glance down at my sandaled feet, my bare ankles. He wears cowboy boots and jeans cut with room to spare. There is purpose to everything here, I’m finding. Words and actions—all intrinsic to long-term survival. I wonder if I can do this, both wanting to and scared at the same time.
The evening is warm. He has unbuttoned his shirt. He pulls stuff sacks from the truck. Two tents, I notice. “Wyatt?”
His answer is quiet. “I didn’t want to presume.” He sets up the tents efficiently, hammers in pegs to tighten the flies. “Join me,” he says when he’s done, and we stretch out side-by-side on the top of the picnic table. There’s just enough space that our bodies don’t touch. We’re like two figures on a sarcophagus, arms delicately crossed to protect our hearts, but in the faded light, my skin appears like white marble, his tends toward jet.
He reaches over, touches me gently. “Does the difference matter?” he asks, and I’m pleased that our minds have melded, that there is some connection between us. I straighten my arm between us and so does he. “I was born here,” he adds, “but my dad came from India. The prairies killed him eventually, but I’m bred to it. It’s who I am.”
“If it had mattered, cowboy, I wouldn’t have come this far. In the city, remember, I’m in the minority. Most people come from somewhere else.”
He presses his shoulder against mine. It’s dry heat on the prairies. The advantage is no sweaty palms. “Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above…” Wyatt sings in a sweet, melodic tenor. It takes all my self-control not to jump him and I wonder how to segue to the next moment, to tell him that I’m willing to try living in empty space but that I need something to hold on to. I can do without talk, but I do need touch.
“It’s late for you,” he says, when he’s finished singing. “Maybe it’s time to turn in.” He squeezes my hand but there’s no hug, no goodnight kiss. Just “See you in the morning, sweet Maggie Dean.”
I leave the tent fly open so I can see what’s outside. My sleeping bag is light but I unzip it, throw it over my hips so that my arms are free, my legs open, air cools my Regina. I am wound up tight, horny as an eighteen-year-old.
Is it inherited culture—no sex before marriage? Lack of attraction? I am waxed and plucked, clipped and creamed. I have never been accused of being cold or prudish. My single status until now has been my own choice. But Wyatt’s holding back. What gives?
Sleep is elusive, then restless. Even the silence here is different. It’s like listening from inside a vacuum. When I wake in mid-night, to the rhythmic sound of soft fist against pelvis—I feel broken. His tent is only a few feet from mine and yet this is the pleasure he’s chosen? Peering out through the fine mesh I wonder where else in the world I can turn from here. A near-full moon lights up the grasslands. It gives it an eerie, spectral quality and I think I finally understand the scope of the hurdle between us. It’s this landscape. It’s not just about getting used to it. It’s not for everyone. He knows that. It’s not nothing.
I’m up before he is. My internal clock is two hours ahead and the birds wake early. Quietly, I rifle through his gear until I come across stove, matches. I know my way around a campsite, too, and may surprise him yet. Coffee pulls him from his tent.
“Kiss me,” I say, demanding.
I want our kiss to be long, explorative, but I make it short. I draw his ass in with my hands, take the bull by the horns, as one might say. “What’s for breakfast?” I ask, pulling back as he leans in.
We eat. We pack up. Our second night together will be spent outside the paddock. Wyatt shoulders most of the load. He leads us out the gate.
What Wyatt does not appreciate is that my career has taught me to pay close attention. The mule deer paths, the mixed grasses and the smell of sage bushes are not lost on me.
“Watch out,” I say, and he suspends his foot in the air. “Not a snake. Look.” A dark songbird, rising from the ground, has left behind a half-hidden nest, two tender eggs. “Her attempts at distraction gave it away,” I say, pushing the light cover of wheatgrass back into place, helping her to keep her secret.
It’s easy walking. No bugs. No sweat. Small, dried flowers rattle and crunch underfoot. I begin to distinguish shades of brown and sand colour, tuck pebbles in my pocket as if exploring on the beach. My mind is wandering, my thoughts expansive, and I trust Wyatt fully not to get us lost.
He turns then. “You go ahead for a while,” he says. “Just aim for that height of land, okay?”
“Okay,” I say, making sure we touch as I brush by him. I’ve rolled up my shorts as high as they’ll go. From behind and below, my legs will appear longer. The top of the rise is as good a place as any to make a move. I run for it, feeling bold, even playful.
I don’t expect what happens next. “Wy-att,” I call out.
He must hear the fear in my voice.
The bison is just below us, just out of our sight as we’d approached the rise. It is a huge and hairy dark splotch on the tan-coloured landscape and pissed off at the disruption, I can tell. Its tail is high, its horns lowered, its hoof ready to paw.
Wyatt draws me back, pushes me flat to the ground. “Stay down,” he says, his body covering mine as he inches us backwards over rocks and small cacti. I feel the animal take a step toward us—it vibrates through the ground—and wriggle back faster, thinking shorts are stupid; I should have worn jeans.
We don’t move for ages but I don’t know how long for sure. When Wyatt lifts his arm from where it has lain protectively across my neck, I turn and kiss the fabric of his shirt. “It’s moved off,” he says.
“You didn’t think to mention the bison?” I say, despite the fenced-in campsite, the patties in the fields.
“I didn’t want to scare you off completely.”
I flip onto my back. He runs his hands down my legs, brushing off the dirt, the small pebbles that have pressed into my bare flesh. When his fingers reach my upper thighs, I grip hard with my muscles like a vice.
“Here? Now?” he asks, but I know he wants to.
I release his fingers and he places them on my arm. “What I love about this place,” I say, “is that there is absolutely no one within a hundred miles who can see us.”
I roll on top, press his butt and shoulders into the rocks. “Come on, Wyatt, I need to get a better sense of what I’d be committing to here.”
His eyes are closed, his pelvis arching up to meet me. We’ve found an oasis in this boundless place. But Wyatt is ever practical, even as he grips me. “Maggie,” he says, “you really need to see this place in winter first.”
Of course it will be cold, the grassland’s secrets covered in snow. But we’re two now so it can’t get lonelier. I sense no reservations about the future—in him, in me. I’ll book my flight. It will be stark in winter, to be sure, but now I’m wide open to it.
Jann Everard lives in Toronto and works part-time in health administration. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Room, as well as other Canadian publications including The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, Grain, FreeFall, and Coming Attractions 15 (Oberon Press, 2015). Jann is online at janneverard.com