It all began when Jerry chopped down the power pole.
Why anyone should have been remotely surprised by his act, I have no idea. He’d been talking about doing it for weeks. He talked about doing it every night, over every beer, over the Internet, over the phone and over the buzz of his neighbours’ chainsaws.
Why did they ignore him? Perhaps because it seemed such a silly and inconsequential threat: chop down a power pole? Big deal! There’s a thousand more where that came from! Who would even care?
Or perhaps it was because it seemed such an audacious and impossibly daring threat: chop down a power pole? Belonging to a multimillion dollar company from the Island? Who would ever dare!
Whatever the reason, Jerry was ignored in all his bluster and outrage and spittling condemnations. He was ignored when he ranted about the power company; he was ignored when he raged about them flooding the land; he was ignored when he wailed about the company stealing their resources; he was ignored when he rumbled on about colonial masters from across the sea and ignored when he roared about the end of the environment. After all, what could any polite rational person do in the face of such impolite and inopportune nay-saying? Particularly in this era when hope, hurrahs and hydropower are back in fashion. So he was ignored. They ignored him; we all ignored him.
And then one day he came up over the shore in a boat, Labrador flag flying proudly over one shoulder, axe slung over the other. He tied up his boat, marched into the field where they were felling the trees to build the power dam, laid his flag on the ground and hauled out a hand-written sign – a manifesto, boldly challenging politics and grammar alike – which he slung about the pole. And then he swung his axe, with a couple dozen onlookers staring alternately in astonished shock or broad admiring grins.
And he chopped down that pole.
Somebody cheered in the background: it seemed the thing to do when a finely chopped tree goes down under an axe. Only it wasn’t the company axe, and the tree was affixed to a power line affixed to a meter ticking off cash by the minute somewhere in St. John’s, and so it turns out a cheer wasn’t the appropriate sentiment, however much everybody felt the urge to join in. Under different circumstances – the good old days – Jerry would probably have been offered a cup of tea and a biscuit for his troubles before being seen off to his boat. As it was the cops came instead, and they put Jerry in irons. A cop was still a sight to be seen in these parts: most tourists could sneak off with a load of moose antlers or cull a whole herd of caribou without a license and you wouldn’t see a single one. But chop down a pole strung up by the power company and there’s a dozen you never knew were even in the neighbourhood.
Times have changed, that much at least is true.
I never really knew Jerry, before or after the event. I’m not from Labrador of course. I’m an Islander through and through; a townie, what’s worse. Labrador was just a temporary posting for me; an exile, vacation, and worldly adventure all rolled into one. Can’t say I minded my time up there. The place was gorgeous. I’ll never forget my first day. I was being driven along the shore for an orientation session, and Corporal Higgins who was driving the jeep – just me and him that afternoon – stopped by the side of the road for a cigarette. I stepped out of the car and stared out over a vista of trees as far as the eye could see. The trees were short and stubby like back home, and the air had a chill bite to it, but the reddish hue of the sky was the purest thing I’d ever seen. It was like the rosy breath of God breathing down over the forest: not a power line to be seen, nor a road besides the one we were sitting on. The clouds arched under the haze of red and you realized that pretty much anything could lie in those endless woods. The black flies were upon us the instant we were out of the car – hordes of them forming little black tornados – but they were a pale irritation in comparison to the majestic expanse of golden-red crowning the trees.
Well, that was my little bit of romance: the towns were a lot shabbier of course. But I understood for the first time why people live here: whatever the winters, whatever the struggle, being surrounded by the chance to catch a fall vista like the one I’d just seen made it all seem worthwhile.
But what happened after Jerry felled that tree, well that I will never forget. I saw most of it first-hand, given that I was interning with the Department of Justice at the time. I got to see the entire case go to court, in fact. Seeing poor old Jerry go to court was something else. He was no saint, but the man had pride. You don’t see that much anymore, at least not in the hovels I come from. People in the capital walk around either with their head up their arse or buried in the sand. Now I’m just a townie, so I got no problem with either the former or the latter, but there’s something to be said for a man who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and chop down a pole with an axe to prove a point. I mean I got to be honest: I giggled when I first heard the story. Who didn’t? It’s either a touchingly out-of-place romantic anachronism, on the level of George Washington’s chopping down a cherry tree, or it’s a silly bit of laughable foolishness. And what should the friggin’ power company care? When you’re raking in millions a year, what’s one foolish old pole?
But they cared all right, cared to the tune of $8000. Now I may just have been a lowly apprentice in the ways of justice, but even I didn’t get that. I mean, it’s a wooden pole. I’m no economist, but I do know that if every pole were to cost the power company $8000, they wouldn’t be building no power lines in Labrador. I guess they were trying to teach poor old Jerry a lesson, sorta like how back in medieval times they’d chop off yer hand for theft, but really now. If you’re trying to eke out a living in Labrador, what judge in their proper mind would think you’ve got $8000 kicking around in your pocket to pay for a lesson in mainland morals? Especially to a company that’s come to break your river and flood your lands to line the pockets of investors on Water Street? Isn’t the ruination of your homeland punishment enough?
But as I said, I’m a townie and I’m wise to the ways of justice. I wouldn’t be interning with the Department if I wasn’t. My dad was a deputy minister before me, and he taught me well: justice is only partly served in the courtrooms; the rest is served on gilt trays and fine china at an array of annual events. The tea party at Colonial Building, the Christmas Party at the former premier’s house, the summer barbecues at Clovelly. You don’t get anywhere in this field by brains alone my son. And I’m a good aspiring justice official, if you won’t mind me saying. I try to be as fair-handed as I can: I give equally to the Liberals, the Tories, and lately the NDP as well. I attend all their fundraisers, and I don’t discriminate. Objectivity is key in our field: justice is served by impartial ingratiation, as one of my mentors at the law firm used to say. And sure, the first judge I ever worked with was married to the sister of one of the officers of the power company (so it was the power company that basically paid for his wedding, as well as the mortgage on his law office). So I learned early on that taking on power means taking on justice, and vice versa too I s’pose. Point of the lesson: don’t be at it.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of admiration for poor old Jerry as he sat there listening to the verdict. Funny thing about court-rooms: it often seems gravity lies heavier in the halls of justice than elsewhere. When a verdict is read out that subordinates pride and liberty to power, it seems heads hang lower than usual. Eyes are averted and lowered; glasses slide low over the bridges of noses as verdicts are read to the floor and necks crane at vertical angles. Only Jerry stood tall: integrity might not hold up much these days, but it holds up straighter than a crooked judge.
Can’t blame the judge though: just doing their job. Uphold the law, which means upholding power.
Anyway, the story I’ve got to tell only just began with the verdict. Jerry disappeared – never saw him again, in fact. I suppose he’s off in the woods earning his $8000 fine.
But a week after the verdict, I had dinner with my supervisor. After a glass or two of wine, he leaned in as though to say something confidential. He hesitated a moment, so I topped up his glass. You learns these things at law school.
“Have you seen anything…odd lately?” he asked me.
I reflected for a few moments. In Newfoundland, and Labrador, you see plenty of odd things. The key is identifying what the other person feels is odd. Odd is a sentiment rarely shared in this place. It’s best to be clear and exact as to the precise parameters of your oddity.
“Yes,” I said.
“I knew it!” said he.
“You too?” I asked, still not having a clue what he was talking about. Dinner discourse in these parts, of course, generally involves multiple levels of bluff. Eventually somebody’s got to accidentally slip up and let on what they’re talking about.
“Yes!” says he. “I mean, I told him it couldn’t be, but deep down, I did have this feeling something was up.”
“What do you think is behind it?” I asked.
“Well that’s the question,” said he. “Has he got accomplices?”
“Do you really think so?” asked I, sensing I was on the verge of a breakthrough.
And then in barreled a bunch of our buddies from work, and the subject was aborted.
The following Friday night, I found myself at a small dinner party with none other than the Minister himself. Although I mostly reported to my supervisor in the Justice Department, the Minister was nominally the fellow in charge of our joint office. Which Minister, you’re wondering? Why the Minister for Public Order and Natural Resources, of course. As a junior intern, it was a lucky posting. This was just shortly after the government cobbled that ministry together, asserting that in order to have natural resources we needed public order, and that public order of course necessitated the extraction of natural resources, and that since the end goal was to increase public (and private) orders for natural resources, the best approach, naturally, would be to resource public order therewith. Anyway, you get the picture. We shared a lot of resources with the Department of Justice so our offices were located in the same building. This was right after there’d been some local unrest in response to the hydro development, and the destruction of traditional lands, and the underfunding of regional aboriginal communities, and the clawback of worker salaries and benefits in the mines – all things that could only be resolved with natural resources, of course – so government decided to unite the two ministries. Sinergy, they called it. Or something like that. Word had it that it was The Minister who had pushed for the charges against Jerry, as part of enforcing public order (or was it natural resources?). Anyway. I was just a junior intern, so I’d hardly be the one to know.
Anyway, back to the party. It was a pleasant little event, and after a couple glasses of sherry I found myself, unexpectedly, face to face with The Minister. I hoped to ask him for a reference at some point, so I tried to gather my wits as best I could.
“How’s your evening?” I asked him politely. He looked a bit paler than I recollected.
“The evening? Oh, fine,” he said, as though slightly distracted. He looked at me more closely. “You’re H—‘s son, aren’t you?”
“I am,” I replied, feigning both humbleness and pride simultaneously. “My father spoke very highly of you sir. I have to say, I’m really enjoying working here this year.”
“What? Oh, yes, yes, I suppose that’s good.” His eyes darted about; he seemed ill at ease. Glancing over his shoulder, he directed me toward the far wall, where there were less people.
“I knew your father well,” he said. “Tell me, have you noticed anything…odd…around town?”
“Odd?” I asked. “Well, I’m from the city, so everything’s a bit new to me here.”
“No no,” he responded, impatiently. “I mean, anything…anything out of the ordinary?”
I fumbled awkwardly at my sherry glass.
“I mean,” he leant in, whisper turning to a hiss. “Anything chopped down?”
I jerked up unexpectedly: no real idea how to respond to that.
“Well anyway,” he said, as though he’d said too much. “Keep your eyes open. Let me know if you see anything.”
I nodded, and was about to extend my hand, but he was already gone, disappearing furtively into the shadows.
Anything chopped down? Whatever could he mean by that?
The funny thing is, once he mentioned it, I did in fact begin to see it.
The very next day, quick-walking to the store in an effort to shake off the hangover, I paused at the cross-walk outside the computer repair shop. It was an intersection I walked by almost every day, and as I waited for the light to change, I noticed something odd about the light pole. It was dented: as though somebody had taken an axe to it. I studied it absent-mindedly for a few moments, wondering who would do such a thing, and why. It occurred to me that in these parts, the fact it merely exists is often reason enough to test one’s mettle against it – particularly if a gun or an axe lies close at hand – but then the light changed and I moved on, forgetting about the whole matter.
The following Monday, however, as I was walking to work, I came upon a group of students standing along the side of the road by the crosswalk. It was almost 9:00am, so they would surely be late for school. I felt the need to investigate.
“What’s going on here then?” I asked officiously, pausing at the edge of their circle.
“Somebody’s chopped down the crossing sign!” young Billy, a fourth-grader whose parents I knew, announced proudly.
I peered through the ring of children and sure enough, a small wooden pole lay on the ground in the centre of their circle. One end of it appeared shredded, as though by an axe.
I shoo’ed the children on to school, and informed the front desk when I arrived at work.
Karen, at the front desk, shook her head disapprovingly. “Fourth one today!” she proclaimed.
“Fourth call?” I asked.
“No, fourth crossing sign chopped down!” she replied.
I would have puzzled over that, but had important work to do instead. If The Minister didn’t have his tea at precisely 10:15am, there’d be hell to pay.
When I brought him his tea, The Minister seemed even more rattled than he had the night of the party.
“You’ve heard?” he demanded, the moment I entered his office. I ticked my head noncommittally: affirming and declining any knowledge of what I should or should not know, depending on the case.
“They’re everywhere,” he said. I offered him some sugar.
“Rascal locals. Well they’d better bloody well learn their place. Us educated Islanders won’t stand for it! I’ve a law degree from Toronto!” he said, with a sudden surge of defiance. Then he sank back into his chair, defeated again. “How many of them do you think there are?”
I shrugged. “Behind the crossing signs? It’s probably not a big deal sure.” I went for the jocular. “Just a few kids having a laugh.”
He looked at me in distaste. “They’re after me you know.”
I handed over the cream.
“They never did like me, from the moment I landed.”
“You’re The Minister! They’re not supposed to like you!” I said with a tick and a grin. I would’ve slapped him on the back, but he’s my boss: even while offering fake confidence, it’s important to maintain some workplace boundaries.
“You watch it or they’ll be after you too,” he replied. I could see his hand rattling under the teacup.
By the end of the day, it was the talk of the office. A dozen crossing signs chopped down.
“Is it a conspiracy, do you think?” one of the other officers asked. Nobody replied. In a land where everybody owns an axe and chopping something down could equally be a sign of defiance or of boredom, blame is a difficult thing to commit to.
“Do you think they’re against us?” asked another recent mainland recruit.
A local-born officer, from Happy Valley Goose Bay, shoved him gently. “Who’s this ‘us’?” he asked.
Islanders, Labradorians, and mainlanders all stared at each other warily. Our supervisor, sensing trouble, ordered us to disperse and go home out of it.
That was it for a couple of days. But on Thursday it all started again. I was out escorting some American business tourist type around; he was flown in for a few days to look at sites for building a resort lodge, so the orders came from Confederation Building to make sure he was shown a good time. I never quite understood why the government in St. John’s thought public servants would be good guides for wealthy investors. But in their infinite wisdom they did, and as it turned out, the investor had good taste in wine (which he’d brought with him), and seeing as neither of us were responsible for flying the Search and Rescue helicopter he’d been loaned to shop for sites for his resort lodge (and thus had no good reason for sparing the wine) I didn’t get back to the office till late afternoon, having done my part for economic growth (and oenophilia). By then, everyone was lurking around the main office and it was abuzz with gossip. A gas station map was taped up on one wall with little X’s marked all around it.
“Signs hacked down along the highway,” Corporal Higgins explained when he saw me examining it in curiosity. “All within the past 12 hours.”
By the end of the day, 20 signs hacked down. The office staff had largely abandoned any pretence at work, and lurked around the office instead, eagerly awaiting each newly phoned-in act of property destruction. Whoever was closest to the phone got to put up the X. Small joys.
As usual, opinions on the matter varied.
“Conspiracy!” said one.
“Drugs!” said another.
With such an array of scenarios unfolding, we could hardly be expected to focus on our work.
Each week, for the next four weeks, events unfolded much the same. At least once a week, there would be a spate of axe attacks, seemingly random yet consistent in their style. It was as though a secret army were orchestrating a guerrilla campaign to make us paranoid, if nothing else. Sometimes it would be local infrastructure chopped down; other times it would merely be dents in the woodwork. It was debateable whether these last were even the acts of an axe, but The Minister was convinced they were (without even witnessing them), and such sure confidence as we heard in his voice convinced the rest of us that a dissenting opinion was not what the moment called for.
And then it came time for me to be reassigned, earlier than I had expected. I was to be transferred to a government office in Corner Brook, and as the day of departure approached, I found myself meeting it with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was growing very attached to both the people and the place here. On the other, I had a boss who was becoming increasingly erratic.
One day, while returning from the bathroom, I found him scrutinizing the fixtures in the outer foyer of the office.
“Do you think,” he asked, gesturing me over, “Do you think these scratches might have been caused by an axe?”
I sniffed the air for booze; sadly, not a scent.
“Possibly…but I don’t really think so, sir.”
He ignored me and continued pressing his hands over the tiles. I looked at my watch. Get him back to his office, or while away the time till I could clock out for the day?
I was rescued by a call over the PA, and took refuge in responsibility.
Events continued, and eventually reached the point that the local city council asked to meet with us, a week before my departure. We suggested to The Minister that he need not attend – he had in fact just come back from a couple days’ sick leave, so rattled were his nerves – but he insisted, and my supervisor asked me and a couple other officers to attend with him.
City council was hopping, as they say, over the property damage.
“See here,” said the councillor who appeared to be in charge. It’s a bad sign when they put a regular councillor in charge of an official delegation. A mayor or deputy mayor has to maintain a polite relationship with the powers that be; a councillor from a rural constituency, on the other hand, probably owes their seat neither to the money nor the influence of Prestigious Politicians. They can, in other words, go as rogue as they want (and be explained away as such, should the occasion later require). When a regular councillor is in charge, it means the gloves are off.
“We can’t have these axe attacks continue,” he began, firmly. “They’re cutting into our infrastructure budget in a serious way.”
“Yes!” took up another fiery fellow. “Whoever’s behind it, it’s got to end. We took a tally earlier today and the damage is up to…why it’s up to almost $8000.”
A few heads perked up at that. We’d heard that figure before, somewhere.
“Why haven’t you apprehended the culprit?” demanded another councillor. “After all, you’re the ones responsible for starting it all!”
“We?” asked the police chief, incredulously. “What did we do to start it?
“You arrested poor old Jerry when ye could have just let him go!” declared a councillor. “These attacks are pretty clearly a response to your heavy-handedness. Why didn’t you just release him? What would it have hurt you? One friggin pole!”
“It’s about respect,” replied the chief. “If he didn’t respect the private property of the power company, how are we supposed to uphold the rule of law?”
“Well while you’re at it,” said a councillor crammed in toward the back of the room, “How about ye respect the private property of the rest of us? I got a cabin due to be flooded by the friggin development down yonder.”
An awkward silence ensued. This was not an entirely uncommon sentiment, but everybody knew that the Islanders – those with the power – generally didn’t understand it.
“Let me repeat my initial question,” the lead councillor stated eventually. “Why haven’t you apprehended the suspect? Do you even have a suspect?”
The delegation of councillors glared expectantly at us, the delegation of government officials.
The police chief cleared his throat.
“Well,” he began, glancing awkwardly at The Minister. The Minister nodded, encouragingly. “We have a clear sense of who the culprit is. He’s done this before. The problem is finding any evidence linking him to the crime.”
“Do you mean old Jerry?” asked one of the councillors. “I knows Jerry well enough. If he’s gonna chop an axe into something, he’ll bloody well say so. What makes you think he’s behind this?”
“Well…” the police chief ruminated on this for a few moments. “You see, we haven’t any actual evidence that Jerry is behind this. Of the factual sort, that is. But evidence is not merely a matter of proof. It is also a matter of circumstance.”
The council delegation – and myself, I might note – collectively raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the chief. The chief, in turn, looked awkwardly toward The Minister.
“What do you mean?” asked a councillor.
“See here,” The Minister took over. “There’s two possibilities, really. Either Jerry is doing this, or there’s a broad-based conspiracy among the general public to chop things up with axes as a conspiracy to, well, to challenge the general prevailing political order! Perhaps out of some misguided loyalty toward…toward Jerry. And even if the latter is only a distinct possibility, then it is important – in the event it might be true – that we deny the rebels any chance to gain political sympathy by catching them. So regardless of the dictates of proof, circumstances dictate that we find Jerry guilty of the crime. Because the alternative is worse!”
He looked at us with an air of proud satisfaction after this little speech. The room was silent for a few moments, as we scratched our heads over it all.
“There’s only one problem,” interjected a councillor.
“What’s that?” asked one of the fellows on our side.
“Well, last we heard, Jerry’s off in the woods three hours’ plane ride, two days’ hike and a short boat ride from here. On a good day! So it’s not really plausible that he was behind this. After all, it was you crowd that drove him off into the woods with a big-ass fine to work off in the first place!”
Silence gripped the room for a bit. Eventually the deputy chief spoke.
“The fact he is not here, it has been noted, is insufficient argument to presume he is not behind this. Nor that he does not have accomplices.” He paused; the councillors glared. “Nonetheless, it is also noted that the geography of Labrador, being what it is, makes it unlikely he was physically present when the crimes took place.” He looked toward The Minister for support.
“We must therefore assume,” continued The Minister confidently, “that he has, if not psychic powers of the most unexpected sort, then earthly accomplices of the most undesirable sort.”
“And I,” he continued, “as the primary representative of Island justice, which may not be impartial, and may seem inconsistent, but is at the very least not inconsequential, insofar as a certain impartial interest in the…investments, of the…itinerant interests of Island investors is concerned…I do hereby commit my professional reputation to rooting out any challenge to the prevailing order which may be presented by those whom, owing to their origin in this place, their connection to this place, or their care for this place, might misguidedly choose to levy an axe in support of this place, in opposition to the great Island projects which transpire here. After all, Island Justice may not seem fair, and it may not seem logical, and it may not even seem remotely desirable, but by da Jeesus, it is what it is, and that being what it is, let us respect what it is. For if we have not that, then what have we?”
And with a fine speech such as that, there was little alternative but for our little room to applaud in cheer. Whatever it might mean.
And then, as suddenly as they began, the attacks ceased.
No, the matter never was resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. Some – the police chief, for instance – maintained that Jerry was behind the matter all along, no matter where in the woods he might be, and no matter how many hours off by plane and foot and boat the spot might be.
Others maintained that it was local supporters of Jerry, silently making a statement against the rule of Island justice here in the hinterland of the province, where Island justice had never been very much welcomed.
A few – locals, mostly – maintained that it was all in our heads, that it was neither crime nor conspiracy, and that beyond a few harmless accidents, it was all the product of our own paranoid imaginations.
What do I think? Well I try to be an objective sort, and given that there was no real evidence one way or the other, I tried not to make guesses. But to this day whenever I think back on the incident, I cannot help but hear in my head the words of my old landlady during that time, and what she said when the puzzle came up in a moment of idle conversation.
“No use trying to figure it out,” she said.
“Around here, the land looks after its own.”
And what of The Minister? A couple years later, when I was finally appointed assistant deputy minister in the Department of Environment and Mines, I ran into a fellow I’d met during that time in Labrador. We got to reminiscing, and I asked him whatever had become of the ol’ Minister, whose name I hadn’t heard mentioned in quite some time.
“The Minister? Poor old feller,” he said. “He went from bad to worse. Became obsessed with the idea somebody was after him. Insisted somebody was gonna come and chop him up with an axe. He flipped out in court one day, insisted we stop the proceedings and search the court room since he was convinced somebody had snuck an axe into the building. A week or two later, they found him out on the ice. He was crawling around on all fours, and said somebody was chopping holes in the ice with an axe, and he could prove it. Well, shortly after that he went on sick leave. Nerves were shot, poor feller.”
“Did he recover?” I asked. “Is he back in Labrador?”
“Are you kidding?” asked my companion. “Things are tense enough up there with all the hydro construction. They had to bring in another squad of officers, given all the tension with the locals. The gall of them – think it’s their land, just because they live there. Can you believe the gall of it?”
“The gall!” I repeated, with what I hoped was a tone of shock, for one does not argue with an indignant public official when one is hoping to run for election on the Island the following year. One can never open too many doors, however draughty the end result. “So what happened to The Minister?”
“Him? Oh, he got the axe.”