For ten years I worked at the Syncrude plant site in Fort McMurray as a Pressure Monitoring Technician, where I was paid forty-two dollars an hour to stare at a small gauge that was never to deviate from reading exactly 15. I can tell you I excelled at my job because for ten long years the gauge never once read anything other than 15.
It was easy money and, due to a lack of people with my credentials, I had as much overtime as I could eat.
Any plans tonight, Jay?
None tonight, boss.
Feel like working another 12?
Sure thing, can you get switchboard to call my wife?
Things needed to change, or so I was reminded by the post-it notes I’d stumble upon hidden in various places around the house, inside the car, on my work boots, between slices of bread in my lunch.
Within three months we sold our home for the price of a private island off the coast of Portugal and bought a small acreage near Bonnyville. We had money in the bank and hope for a natural and holistic upbringing for our children. My wife was angelic in this setting. Floating like a pixie through trees and creek, working her garden, breastfeeding openly on the front porch. I was miserable and spent much of my time hurting myself around the yard, chipping cow patties with a 9 iron, getting drunk and passing out naked on the roof of the barn. I simply needed to work, and in time my wife’s resolve had begun to soften.
One morning I drove into town to pick up roofing nails and band-aids and I came across an advertisement. Ostrich Hand Wanted. Unsure of whether it was labor or an appendage that was being sought, I decided to call anyway, and before I knew it I was back in gainful employ. The farm was a ten minute drive from the house and I followed his directions to a tee. A mile west on the first road past the coulee, turn two miles north til you hit a leany grain bin that looks like sputnik, then a half mile east.
You got any ostrich experience? he asked as I made my way to where he leaned against a fence post.
No, I’m from outside the industry, I replied.
Cattle? he asked.
No. Pressure monitoring technician, actually.
No clue what that’s about but it’s prolly better than sittin’ on your ass. This way.
He led me to a barn with what seemed like an infestation of mutated turkeys.
These are them, he said while raising his arm to pet one of their ugly heads. The bird evaded him, swinging its neck as if avoiding a right hook. Just then I felt a hard abrasion to my scalp. I sidestepped, then turned in time to see my $200 prescription safety sunglasses disappear down the gullet of a creature whose eyes looked like my mother-in-law on too much lithium. I was in minor shock. I had forgotten how to blink.
What say we put you on egg duty for your first day? He patted my back somewhat condescendingly and led me back outside.
I was relieved. I imagined carrying crates of eggs from a pen and loading them into the backs of trucks. Good exercise.
See that hen out in the field? He pointed. She’s freshly laid, I need you to bring in the egg.
I took barely a step before he intercepted my eagerness.
Hold on there, son. You don’t think she’s gonna just give it to you, do ya?
Oh right. I paused. Do I have to fight her for it?
Jesus, no, you wouldn’t stand a chance in hell. You gotta sneak up after she wanders off for a hundred yards or so, grab it, then run like a bastard back to this side of the fence. And for the love of God, don’t look back.
I made my way, unsure of how to look inconspicuous to a bird in a sixty-acre field of dirt and fescue. I tried avoiding eye contact and just wandering. After nearly an hour the bird stood and finally walked away. By this time I had been laying on my back with a touch of sunstroke singing Lionel Ritchie songs at the top of my lungs, but within moments I had the cargo in my hands. Triumph. I examined the weight, the surprisingly perfect shape, the smooth exterior.
Git yer ass back here, you idiot!
I looked up to see the bird moving toward me with the stealth of a gryphon. I turned and ran awkwardly fast, cradling the egg like a newborn to my chest. I could hear her big leathery feet gaining, but the fence and the farmer were getting closer. I refused to look behind. Straight forward hoping for some semblance of encouragement from the farmer who stood there stiff, knees together, his eyes closed, hard. I could see every tooth in his mouth as he pulled the side brims of his hat further and further down over his ears. Then everything went quite calmingly black.
I was dead, or near to it. There was no sound, nor smell, nothing but the cliched white light. A luminous circle suspended in darkness. Unsure of the cards dealt to me by fate, I walked toward it, thought of the important things in my life; golf, my wife and the boys, my new job. The circle grew smaller as I approached and within moments I was close enough to discern that it wasn’t a pathway to the afterlife at all, but a glycol-filled, fully functioning, calibrated pressure monitoring gauge set at exactly 15 pounds per square inch.
I stopped. Took a deep breath and turned. Walked slowly back, carrying my body like a perfect egg, to face the giant birds.
Jadon Rempel writes in Edmonton, Alberta.