From the bestselling author of Random Passage and Waiting for Time comes this masterful, engrossing story of the last surviving Beothuk, a World War II deserter and a recently widowed English woman at the end of the twentieth century.
During World War II, well into the Battle of the North Atlantic, Newfoundlander Kyle Holloway deserts from the Royal Navy. Now, hidden in a cave below St. Mary’s Church, the war-haunted young man remembers years of carefree friendship and petty crime in the narrow streets of St. John’s. Starving, disoriented and tormented by his own act of betrayal, Kyle hears a low, persistent murmuring, retelling a story of distant, far-reaching betrayals.
Over a century earlier, Shanawdithit, a young Beothuk girl, spends her childhood in a place she thinks of as the safe centre of the world. As she grows into young womanhood, listening to stories, sharing secrets with friends and falling in love, she slowly becomes aware that Dogmen are taking over her world. Each season, her people are forced farther inland, away from their own hunting grounds, back from the rich seal beaches. Now the only witness that the Beothuk once walked the earth, Shanawdithit is forced to endlessly repeat the story of her doomed people.
In 1998, Judith and Ian Muir are in Rwanda as part of the United Nations team investigating a genocide site. A shot rings out and Ian falls dead. Overwhelmed with grief, his widow returns to England and the abandoned cottage where she grew up. There, an unusual discovery takes Judith on a quest that will inextricably connect her life to the lives of Shanawdithit and Kyle Holloway. In Cloud of Bone, three stories come together to make both an intriguing mystery and a meditation on lost innocence, brutality and the power of memory.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the author
Bernice Morgan (b. 1935), a life-long Newfoundlaner, lives in St. John's. Her stories have been published widely in literary journals, and in 1996, she was named Newfoundland Artist of the Year for her writing. Her novel Waiting for Time (Breakwater, 1994) won the Thomas Raddall Award for Fiction, and Random Passage (Breakwater, 1992) has been developed as a TV series. "Poems in a Cold Climate," which first appeared in The Fiddlehead, is from her collection, The Topography of Love (Breakwater, 2000).
Excerpt: Cloud of Bone (by (author) Bernice Morgan)
They have been climbing forever–sea, sky, earth–even time itself has dissolved in fog. The road, little more than a ledge hacked into rock, is now so narrow that they are forced to walk single file, keeping to the left, reaching out to touch the wet cliff, reassuring themselves it is there, praying they will not step into air, plummet downward into the ocean they cannot see but can hear–a dull, repetitive heave of wave on rock, cut now and then by the razor wail of a foghorn far out beyond Fort Amherst.
They are sailors, a volunteer honour guard, though no one volunteers. “You and you,” some officer yelled, culling two ordinary seamen from each Royal Navy ship in port, marching them off to a memorial service for shipmates lost at sea. Sometimes there are bodies; thank Christ there are none tonight–there seldom are nowadays.
There are forty-six men in tonight’s guard–forty-eight if you count the English officer up front and the man lagging behind. The officer is a shag-bag, nervous away from his own kind. He’s only spoken once since the climb began, barking, “Dout it, Sailor!” at some poor sap stunned enough to light a smoke.
Only one man knows precisely where they are, the man at the rear, the one not conscripted, the one not reaching out to touch rock–the murderer. His name is Kyle Holloway. He has come this way a thousand times. Winter and summer, rain and shine, he and his friends roamed these hills, took shelter in the church they are climbing towards. Weak with fatigue, eyes shut, almost sleepwalking, his body still knows when to lean into the grade, turning as the path turns. In order to keep behind he must stop every few minutes, must stand still until he can no longer hear the laboured breathing of the man just ahead.
They come upon the church suddenly. The officer bangs into its stone wall, swears, then shuffles sideways, fumbling for the latch. One of the men snorts some vulgarity about officers never being able to find the hole, and nervous laughter trickles down the line, dying as one by one the sailors reach the church, sense it looming above them like the entrance to some dismal cave.
The officer pushes against the double doors. They give and the men crowd in. The vestibule, cold and dark as night, smells of dust, of wax and linseed oil–and now of tobacco and sweat and the woolly damp of melton coats. They stand quietly while the outside doors are closed and noisily bolted. Only then does the Englishman open the second set of doors, revealing the silent sanctuary, dark wood, a high shadowy ceiling, an uncarpeted aisle that leads to the pulpit over which someone has draped the Royal Navy ensign. On the altar below the flag, three tall candles burn, make a shimmering halo of the white silk.
The sailors walk towards the pale light, file into the front pews but remain standing. The murderer comes in last. He steps into the back pew, stays next to the aisle, shoving his duffle bag out of sight below the seat.
The very air is familiar, that chill mustiness of a place that is never properly heated, the faint acid smell he knows is a combination of coal smoke and bird shit. There have always been birds in St. Mary’s: seagulls, turrs, sparrows, ice partridges and pigeons; sometimes even Mother Carey’s chickens, strange half-birds that blow in on storms, cannot take off from land and have to be flung into the air to fly. Bad design on God’s part, Mr. Norman used to say.
Thirty years as a church verger has drawn Art Norman into the twin, and sometimes overlapping, studies of God and birds. Year after year he devises ever more bizarre ways to rid his church of the pests: shouting, pounding the organ, switching the newly installed electric lights on and off.
For the first time in days Kyle Holloway’s thoughts have veered from churning water, from loud noises and violent death. His body feels soft, rubbery, he longs to sit down but dare not; movement might attract the officer’s attention. So he stands and waits, reflecting on birds, almost smiling as he remembers Art Norman scurrying about the church waving a bamboo pole above his head, as if fishing in the vast dimness. Neither Kyle nor his friends had laughed back then–certainly not Cyril, although he must have been embarrassed by his father’s antics. Not even Gup laughed, not even when the birds, ignoring sunshine beyond the open door, simply flew out of the pole’s reach to roost on the high rafters.
So far as Kyle knows, Mr. Norman is still the verger here at St. Mary’s, but he’s gotten into the taxi business now, carting Yanks and their girlfriends around town. For the duration birds will have to escape on their own, starve, smash into windows or bash their brains out against the fluted glass of light fixtures. Birds have no experience of glass–another of God’s oversights, in Art Norman’s opinion.
Organ music drones suddenly upward, although no organist can be seen in the dark narthex. A man Kyle doesn’t recognize rises from behind the White Ensign. Some old bat brought out of retirement, so frail he has to use the pulpit to pull himself upright. His movement disturbs a pigeon; it flutters from behind the altar and glides up into the frost-glazed rafters. The church is bitterly cold; darkness presses against windows, which, in accordance with regulations, are draped in black cloth.
The dreary music ends. The man behind the pulpit murmurs a few words, a prayer perhaps. He stops speaking but remains standing–they all remain standing, uncertain of what to do. The old man gazes down on them as if he’s never seen their like before. His eyes move from face to face. Except for the officer they look identical; four rows of men, boys really, with short clipped hair, clean-shaven faces above navy blue jackets.
At last the minister nods and the sailors sit. The English officer holds his back stiffly away from the seat; the others slump down, sailorlike, making themselves as comfortable as possible on the uncushioned pews. Thankful for the security of walls they close their eyes, some even sleep.
The old man speaks. At first Kyle cannot make out his words, but gradually the quivery voice rises. He is telling them about land and inheritance, about all the continents, all the seas of the world, all the countries on earth–how England has dominion over them, dominion under God. He says this and much more. There is poetry, or what Kyle takes to be poetry, words following words, rolling down, making no sense.
Kyle feels light-headed, dizzy, then heavy-headed–one sensation following another before he can name it. He has not slept for three days–three days and two nights–not since that moment when the knife came down, moving as if it were something alive, something apart from his hand, his arm, himself. It is always there now. Like a coloured comic, Kyle thinks, each awful square caught inside his head, repeating over and over–the downward slice of the knife, its grey tip slipping into white flesh, a red line appearing just above the ink-blue collar of Gup’s guernsey. Gup’s eyes staring into his–the stunned incredulity, the closeness of that shared second, as if they were one person, him Gup and Gup him. Then Gup’s body crumpling, sliding under the rail and into the sea, Gup becoming what he will now always be.
Despite the cold Kyle is sweating, bent forward in the pew, head on knees, gulping air, panting like a dog. Stop! he tells himself. Stop or they’ll hear you, cart you away–hang you! He imagines being led to a high window, the thick rope around his neck, imagines dropping into that blackness beside the courthouse.
He clamps one hand over his mouth, grips the edge of the seat and forces his body upright until his shoulders again touch the back of the pew. He wills himself to be still, to breathe slowly. He has only to stay calm a little longer, to stay awake a little longer. He will listen, concentrate on the words, try to make sense out of what the old frigger is saying. But words are elusive, insubstantial things; they dissolve, blur, slide into silence. Kyle Holloway’s chin drops to his chest, his eyes close, he is asleep.
The organ wakes him in time to stand for the hymn:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.
The singing ends, the minister bows his head: “Almighty Lord, in whom we live and breathe and have our being, who has recorded the names Marcus Dwyer, Edward Gill and Valentine Gullage . . .”
(“Gup! Gup! Gup! Me name’s Gup Gullage!” the child bellows. The teacher draws a line in the register, never again calls his name.)
“ . . . we commit these brave young men to Your keeping. Although their bodies have been lost to the sea, we rejoice in the knowledge that their souls rest in Your arms. We ask Lord, that You grant protection to their comrades gathered here. Place Your everlasting arms around them, keep them safe from terror by night, from the arrow that flyeth by day, the destruction that wasteth at noonday. May they go forth in the certainty . . .”
The old man falters, then stops. He opens his eyes and in a confusion of grief stares down at the young men–in the certainty of what? He can no longer remember. He is weeping, tears streaming down his face.
Even the likes of him knows we’re good as dead, Kyle thinks. Suddenly alert, he threads his fingers through the rope of his duffle bag and slides sideways towards the aisle. He stands and slowly, soundlessly, moves backward–fifteen steps to the inside door. He counted on the way in.
He does not hear the blessing, has already stepped into the dark vestibule, is feeling his way along the far wall, running his hand over a shelf of frayed hymn books, moving towards a dusty curtain behind which there is a trap door, steps and safety.
He wakes once during the night, heart pounding, thinking he is still at sea, thinking night on the North Atlantic, feeling the fear, the damp cold that seeps through cloth, through flesh and muscle into bone, so you can’t tell where cold ends and fear begins. He panics, thinking he is on watch, has stopped beside the ship’s warm funnel, to reassure himself that heat still exists–he must have fallen asleep, slid down against the funnel.
Minutes pass before Kyle realizes that the iron he lies against is cold. He feels no movement, no sting of sea spray and ice, cannot hear waves slamming the hull or smell the stink of bilge water and diesel–he hears only silence, smells only coal dust.
He has no memory of lifting the hatch or coming down the narrow steps. Yet here he is, in the furnace room below the Church of St. Mary the Virgin–the patron saint of sailors, according to Mr. Norman. All around are rock walls, solid granite quarried from the hill, rock rooted to rock–walls that will last a thousand years. Kyle Holloway has lived in fear for so long that safety leaves a gaping emptiness inside him.
He lies awake for some time, savouring the quiet, the emptiness of the church, thinking back on the service, the three candles, Gup’s long-forgotten name being spoken, the old minister crying, going on about death and terror. But that must have been hours ago. The sailors are long gone, all back aboard ship by now. Some may already be at sea, some may already be dead.
And he is not out there–not standing on an icy deck watching dawn gulch in over the North Atlantic, not searching the grey ocean for the black snout of a submarine, that frill of white when its periscope is raised.
I’m not out there, he thinks, and that is enough. Enough to make him forget for a time that Gup is dead, forget that he too will soon be dead. In the safe darkness he slumps back against the furnace and is instantly asleep.
When he wakes again the windowless cellar has brightened. Pale light coming from somewhere. It softens everything, causes coal dust to sparkle from the gritty floor, to glimmer gauzelike in the air. Even the giant coal-pounds looming in two corners of the room glow like polished marble, even tools lodged neatly against the blackened wall, the chisel and pick Mr. Norman uses for breaking up the coal, the long-handled scrapers and shovels, the worn broom–all are beautiful beyond anything Kyle has ever seen.
The furnace room is large and almost empty. Except for the tools along the wall, everything is arranged within reach of a three-legged stool that stands squarely in front of the furnace door. Beside the stool is a full coal scuttle, a shovel and two iron pokers. On the other side are two cardboard boxes, one containing splits, the other newspapers. An old-fashioned toasting fork lies atop the newspapers.
This is Art Norman’s work station, exactly as Kyle remembers it. He studies the familiar objects as an archaeologist might study the household goods of some lost civilization. The permanence of these everyday things comforts the young man, for whom the last eighteen months has seemed a lifetime.
Slowly, because he is stiff, he pushes himself to his feet and begins to pace the room–a sailor’s habit, to keep the blood from freezing, or so his grandfather maintained. Kyle remembers watching his grandfather pace, his father too, back and forth, back and forth, a path worn in the cream and green canvas.
Pace and mutter, pace and tally, licking a pencil stub, marking their lives down on the back of a calendar; how much wood hauled, cut and stacked, how many barrels of vegetables in the root cellar, how much fish landed, how many quintals dried, how much credit left at the store? Enough to cover this year’s flour? Next season’s gear? On and on. This lifelong litany of anxiety is what Kyle remembers from childhood, from the bleak place he lived in until he was ten, the place his mother has gone back to, the place she wanted him to go back to.
From the Hardcover edition.
Praise for Random Passage:
“Random Passage is a great Canadian story. It is a wonderful mixture of love, power, forgotten pasts and missed opportunities. An unforgettable and thoroughly entertaining book.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
From the Hardcover edition.