About the Author

Joan Clark

Joan Clark is one of Canada's most distinguished writers. She was born in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, grew up in Sydney Mines and in Sussex, New Brunswick, and lived for twenty years in Alberta. There, she began her literary career as a children's author and, with Edna Alford, founded Dandelion, Alberta's first literary magazine. Since the mid-1980s, she has made her home in St. John's, Newfoundland. In 1991, Clark received the prestigious Marian Engel Award. In addition to Swimming Toward the Light, she is the author of three novels. The first, The Victory of Geraldine Gull, won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Governor General's Award and the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Eriksdotter was a fictional account of the voyage to Finland led by Freydis, daughter of Erik the Red. Her most recent novel, Latitudes of Melt, is a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Caribbean and Canada region, and is a recent nominee for the international IMPAC Award.

Books by this Author
An Audience of Chairs
Excerpt

ONE

Picture a woman playing a piano board at the kitchen table on a late December morning. Her hands, warmed by knuckle gloves, move across the wooden keys as she leans into the music. Pedalling a foot against the floor, her strong, supple fingers pound the opening chords of a Rachmaninov concerto. As she plays, the woman imagines heavy velvet curtains drawing apart and lively notes rush onstage, where leaping and skipping, they perform a short, spirited dance. The dancers depart and, swaying from side to side, the woman plays slower notes and hums along, her voice mellifluous and soothing as she imagines herself beside a stream sliding through waving grass. Outside the window, the winter landscape is frozen and drab, but inside the farmhouse it is summer and music shimmers on sunlit water as notes flow from the woman’s fingertips, moving outward in ever-expanding circles. Except for the fire crackling inside the wood stove and the woman’s hum, no sound can be heard in the kitchen, for the painted keys of the piano board are as mute as the table beneath.

The music shifts and now there is a spill of high notes trickling down a mountain fell. The woman hears the lonely call of a French horn from an alpine meadow and the answering shiver of strings. Lifting her hands from the board, she begins conducting the orchestra, combing and parting the air, keeping time as she leads the musicians toward the finale, which she plays with a burst of energy, thumping her hands on the piano aboard, bringing the moderato to a satisfying end.

Having concluded the morning’s concert, the woman lowers her head and for a few moments rests, hands in her lap. The performance has exhausted her, but not for long, and soon she is on her feet, bowing to an audience of chairs. Over and over she bows to the thunderous applause that always follows a perfect performance. A benevolent smile illuminates her face. You are so kind, she says, attempting to be gracious and humble, but she is far from humble and is merely acknowledging the praise that is rightfully hers. Every audience has its limitations and shortcomings, but today’s has been particularly responsive. They know they have been listening to the gifted playing of Moranna MacKenzie, musician extraordinaire.

Tomorrow she will play the adagio.

Picture a glass globe of swirling snow. Inside the globe, at the end of a winding drive, is a low, wide house with three dormer windows above a veranda wrapped in clear plastic. The house is badly in need of repair, but most of the dereliction cannot be seen from the road, and at first glance it might be mistaken for a genteel country hideaway whose privacy is maintained by a thick stand of trees. Assuming the house has an interesting and possibly distinguished past, winter visitors approaching Baddeck by way of the Bay Road will sometimes pause between the crumbling concrete posts at the entrance to the driveway for a closer look at the old farmhouse, but the locals, well aware of its occupant, continue on without a glance.

Inside the house, Moranna, still basking in the satisfaction of the morning’s performance, goes into the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen and begins dressing in clothes laid out the night before. Until she knocked down the wall – who would have guessed whacking a wall with a sledgehammer could be so much fun? – her bedroom had been used as a dining room, but its proximity to the wood stove makes it more practical for sleeping.

Laying out the next day’s clothes is a strategy carried over from a time when Moranna was chronically depressed, but she still employs it as a way of avoiding an early-morning decision. There is the occasional day when she wakens heavy-headed and lethargic, unwilling to make a decision, and stays in bed as late as mid-afternoon. More often than not, these decisions concern what she will do today and in what order. Will she, for instance, work on a carving of the Brahan Seer or finish a sermon? Will she do her errands this morning or this afternoon? Will she write another letter to the Cape Breton Post castigating the government for its slowness in cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds, or will she put it off to another day? These decisions weigh heavily on her and, like choosing what clothes to wear, are better decided the night before. A creature of the moment, Moranna must constantly remind herself to follow the schedule she has worked out in an effort to keep herself balanced and sane.

As she pulls on a sweater and jeans, not for the first time she wonders if the poet Robert Burns laid his clothes on a chair before retiring for the night, in order to avoid having to decide if he should wear a clean shirt in the morning. His wife, Jean Armour, might have decided for him but, having so many children to look after, what her husband would wear the following day was probably the last thing on her mind. There was a time when Moranna regarded Burns as a confidante and friend, and although she no longer writes him letters, she still feels a strong kinship with him. Not only was Burns melancholic, but like her he was a musical genius, gifted with the ability to hear every note on the musical scale with the precision of a tuning fork.

Once she’s dressed, Moranna puts on her Army and Navy jacket, goes out into the snow and carries in two loads of firewood from beneath the tarp where she and her lover, Bun, stacked it before his return to Newfoundland. She stokes the fire, adds wood, then makes herself porridge and strong tea. While she’s drinking the last of the tea, she gets out the old portable Royal she once used to write a novel about Robert Burns and types the sermon she’s been composing for the new minister of Greenwood United Church, Reverend Andy Scott. Moranna has no patience for badly performed music and, because the choir cannot sing an anthem without going flat, rarely attends church. That hasn’t prevented her from pegging the minister as a thoughtful, unstuffy person, a breath of fresh air who, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t mind being given advice. She has decided she likes him and, because he saves his newspapers for her, intends to give him the sermon free of charge.

According to Lottie MacKay, Moranna’s neighbour and a regular churchgoer, Andy’s vague sermons ramble on far too long, and Moranna figures she can help him by providing a sample of a concise, hard-hitting, effective sermon. When he was alive, Moranna’s father, Ian MacKenzie, rarely missed a Sunday service and often expressed the opinion that sermons should be short and straight to the point. He wasn’t suggesting the United Church return to the dour agenda of the Presbyterians and Methodists, but he thought a good sermon should offer fare the congregation could sink their teeth into while they were eating their Sunday dinner at home.

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Eirkisdottir

Eirkisdottir

A Tale of Dreams and Luck
edition:Paperback
tagged : historical
More Info
Latitudes of Melt
Excerpt

Francis St. Croix spotted it first, a black dot floating in an ocean of water and ice. When he and Ernie rowed alongside for a look, they couldn't believe their eyes. There was a baby inside a makeshift cradle on an ice pan, bobbing like an ice cube on the sea. How had a baby come to be in the North Atlantic? Francis wouldn't have been out here himself but for having signed on to a Lunenberg schooner, the Maria Claire. The fishermen had been hauling trawl lines into the dory when a thick fog rolled in, obscuring their view of the schooner as well as her marker buoys. All day long the men had rowed through fog looking for their ship and that evening, when it lifted and there was still no sign of the Maria Claire, decided to head for Newfoundland and rowed all night. Early next morning they came upon the child.

The cradle was a basket on top of a wooden chair. Black rubber sheeting was wrapped around the basket and tied with some fancy gold rope. On top of the sheeting was a woman's veiled hat. While Ernie steadied the dory, Francis removed the hat and lifted the chair and the basket into the boat, noticing how the sheeting had been rucked up at one end to make a hood. When he pushed back the hood, he saw the baby's face, white as the Virgin's. A girl, Francis knew it was a girl. Her eyes were closed. Was she dead, or asleep? He held his hand in front of her face, felt a wisp of breath warm his palm. May the Holy Mother keep her asleep. If she awoke they had nothing to feed her except hard tack and a bit of cold tea.

An angel must have been guarding the child, for she slept until the next day, and when she awoke there was no cry, no whimper of discomfort or distress. It was as if she understood that the men were delivering her to land as soon as they could. The sea cradle was on the dory bottom between Francis's legs where he could see the baby as he leaned to the oars. How long had those eyes been open? Blue they were, a clear regarding blue. When he looked again, they were brown. After she had memorized his face-so Francis liked to think-the baby closed her eyes. By the time she opened them again, Ernie was at the oars and Francis was kneeling beside the basket. The baby poked a finger into her mouth and sucked. Francis groped among the cradle cloths to test her warmth and found a jar of sweetened water and a bit of bread wrapped in a lady's handkerchief. This in turn had been wrapped in two flannel napkins and tucked at the baby's feet then covered with rubber sheeting, well away from sharp-eyed gulls.

They were too far out for gulls. So far they had only seen puffins, a small flotilla riding the swell. Though the worst of the ice was behind them, the air was cold. Francis slipped the jar beneath his shirt to warm it. The child was wet. He bent to the task with chapped and calloused hands. When his sons were babies, he had occasionally changed their napkins but he had no skill with such things, much less with a female child. But it had to be done. He chucked the soiled napkin overboard and fumbled a clean one between her legs. Before he bundled her tight, he rubbed her vigorously to bring up the colour but her pallor remained. He softened a pinch of bread in water and slipped it into her mouth. She smacked her lips and swallowed. Then she smiled. She had teeth, four miniature accordion keys. Twelve month old she was, maybe more. She was so little, her age was hard to guess. He fed her more bread and she closed her eyes while they rowed beneath a sky where a celestial compass guided them home. It was a two-day journey to Newfoundland, with each of them taking a turn at the oars while the other dozed.

Francis put ashore in the Drook with the cradle and the hat, and Ernie continued to Trepassey where he boarded a schooner that took him back to Nova Scotia, leaving the dory and the chair behind. Albert Sutton claimed the dory and his wife the chair, a collapsible wooden frame with a woven cane seat. Her mother sat in the chair for years to watch passersby, until a fire destroyed both the chair and the house.

Because no one was expecting Francis, his family was doubly astonished to see him walk into the kitchen with a baby in his arms.

"Mother of God! What have you there?" Merla St. Croix put her hand on the baby's forehead. "Ice cold."

"I found her on a bergy bit."

"A girl, is she?"

"As pretty as you please."

Four sons crowded around while Merla unbuttoned a wool bunting.

"Her little legs are that thin, they're like candle sticks," Merla said.

"She's been without food for a time," Francis said. "She'll be hungry."

No one thought to ask Francis if he was hungry or how he'd happened ashore earlier than expected. All that was told later, after the child had been changed and bundled in the basket, which was put on the oven door like bread set to rise. Merla dipped a cloth in warm milk and squeezed it into the baby's mouth. The child swallowed the milk and went back to sleep. Three days later she opened her eyes, one blue, the other brown, and looked around.

They named her Aurora because Francis had come upon her in a gleaming dawn.

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Road to Bliss
Excerpt

1
Without his guitar, Jim Hobbs felt like the loneliest guy on the planet. Here he was on a sweltering August afternoon, parked on the running board of a transport truck waiting for the driver inside to wake up. Above him abc household movers was printed on a shiny white door. Not a lick of shade anywhere, not a tree in sight, nothing to shield him from the sun smashing down. Though he’d taken off the woollen tuque he wore winter and summer, sweat dripped from his forehead onto the pavement, where it sizzled like drops of water in a frying pan before being sucked up by the sun. Water. What he wouldn’t give for a drink of water. He saw a farmhouse way off in the distance, but if he hiked over there to ask for water he might miss a ride, and if he missed a ride he might change his mind, might turn around and go home. No way was he going home, at least not yet. It wasn’t the first time Jim had felt like leaving home, but it was the first time he’d made it this far, and he didn’t want to quit. He had something to prove, even though he wasn’t sure what it was. To pass the time, he drummed the empty water bottle against his knee before squeezing it until the plastic buckled and he tossed it away.

He glanced at his watch. Three o’clock. Six hours since he left the café forty miles back. It had taken six hours to travel forty miles, not what you’d call progress. The café was where he’d grabbed breakfast and used a pay phone to leave a message on the condo voice mail saying he was okay but wouldn’t be home again tonight. He didn’t expect anyone to answer the phone. His mother, Paula, was out of town for three days, and his sister seldom picked up the phone. He’d lost track of the number of times he’d watched Carla stand beside a ringing phone to read the incoming number before deciding if the caller was someone she was willing to talk to. Truth was, Jim didn’t want anyone to pick up the phone. He wasn’t ready for a conversation about why he’d decided not to go home but to clear out of the city instead. The situation at home was complicated in a way he couldn’t put into words. It was a normal family– parents split like Solly’s and Web’s. After six years he should be used to it, but he still missed his father. If Zack were around more often, maybe Jim wouldn’t get fed up living with two women. Maybe he wouldn’t feel so lonely. How could he explain all this stuff to his mother? If he said, I’m lonely, Mom. Paula would say, Why are you lonely? And he would have to tell her about missing Zack big time, and that would make her unhappy. The strange thing was he was lonelier at home than he was now, parked on the running board of a transit truck in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t make sense except for the fact that he had chosen to be alone, and there was no one around to make him feel like he shouldn’t be here. At home his sister often made him feel he shouldn’t be around. The night before the subway accident, after Paula had left with Ron and Jim had gone out for pizza, Carla had locked him out for two whole hours so she and her snorky boyfriend could make out without having a younger brother around. After hammering on the door until their neighbour told him to pipe down, Jim sat on the hallway floor when he could have been in his bedroom trying out a new piece on his guitar. When Carla finally condescended to let him in, she said, “C’mon in, bro,” as if lock ing him out was normal. No apology– his sister didn’t go in for apologies. No point telling her she was a bitch. Whenever he used the B-word to her face, he got a lecture about being sexist. According to his sister, the entire English language was sexist, and the words priest and God assumed to be male. Jim couldn’t be bothered arguing. Carla never gave up an argument until she’d won.

Another complication in Jim’s life was Ron, Paula’s on-again, off-again boyfriend who was sixty at least– way too old for his mother–and tried to seem younger by spiking his dyed-black hair. Pathetic. Whenever Ron turned up at the condo, he’d pat Jim on the back. How’re you doing there, buddy, he’d whisper. Scoring any chicks? Jim didn’t see what Paula saw in the creep. Luckily, she didn’t go away with him often, and whenever she did, she came home happier, so Jim kept his mouth shut.

If he’d still had his cellphone, Jim would have tried using it to call home. Unfortunately, his cellphone was inside his backpack, which for all he knew was still under the seat inside the subway car where he’d shoved it before the accident, when the subway had screeched to a stop, plunging everyone aboard into total darkness. Sometime during the accident, he’d lost his Walkman, too. He figured it must have fallen off when he and the other passengers were pitched sideways. Lucky for him he hadn’t taken his guitar with him on the subway; it was still safe at home in his bedroom. If it had been strapped to his back, it would have been smashed when he lost his grip on the slippery subway platform and fell backwards, hitting his head on the iron track. If he hadn’t knocked himself out cold, he might have remembered to go back to the subway car and look for his Walkman and backpack, but his head was so messed up, he wasn’t thinking straight. Concussion, the nurse in the subway told him. It’s important you not fall asleep. Stay on your feet as long as you can. If your head still hurts in the morning, see a doctor.

No problem, Jim told her; he was used to walking and used the subway only to get to his summer job. What’s your summer job? she asked. Gardening, Jim said. Mowing lawns and stuff.

Apart from his job, Jim walked just about every place his life took him– to school, to the city malls, to the Cineplex and video stores–so it was no big deal to keep on walking. He told himself he could walk all night if he had to. But most of his walking had been in the city centre, near the condo where he lived with his mother and sister. Yesterday, when he’d finally emerged from the subway after being in the dark so long, he was blasted by sunlight, and like some pale, weak-eyed creature, he blinked at what he saw. What he saw were streets jammed with buses and trams, cars and trucks, campers and trailers, vehicles of all kinds, none of them moving. But people were moving. Wandering back and forth through the glut of stalled traffic were people who seemed at a loss about what to do with themselves. There were thousands of people out there, some sitting on café chairs or the curb or standing alone. Most stood in huddles of three or four, chatting, gesturing, talking on cellphones.

Standing near the subway entrance was a bearded man in a pale blue business suit. He must have seen the lost expression on Jim’s face, because right away he began to explain. We’re in the middle of a massive power failure, he said. The entire electrical system in the city has crashed. There’s no electricity for miles around. No one knows why. Some fault in the system. Computers are down and elevators aren’t working. The traffic lights and gas pumps aren’t working either, so all these people on the street are stranded downtown waiting for some kind of transportation to take them home. They’ll be waiting a long time. Jim heard the defiance in the man’s voice when he told him he wouldn’t be waiting around– he was getting out of downtown. Jim watched in admiration as the bearded man, holding his briefcase over his head, plunged like a swimmer into the crowd.

The electricity wasn’t working, but the sun sure was. The blinding light hurt Jim’s eyes and he tugged his tuque lower to shield them. “It’s a frigging party out here,” he grumbled. “A big noisy street party I don’t want to join.” His head and eyes hurt, and like the bearded man, he couldn’t clear out of downtown fast enough. Head down, eyelids shuttered, he shouldered his way through the crowd and kept on shouldering until the crowd gradually thinned out and the sidewalks were clear enough for him to hit his long-legged stride. He’d gone more than twenty blocks before he noticed that the office and apartment build ings were gradually becoming shorter and less important-looking, and that there were vacant lots and playgrounds with kiddy swings and slides. Every few blocks the streets were bordered by rows of shops and boutiques, each one with a Closed sign hanging in the door. All this Jim passed with barely a glance.

It wasn’t until the sun had slumped out of sight behind a stand of trees, colouring the sidewalks a chalky grey, that Jim awoke as if from a trance, and stopping to look around, realized he was in the suburbs, where low-roofed houses had tidy fenced gardens and there were small strip malls and gas stations on street corners. By now the business centre of the city, with its banks and skyscrapers, its crowded streets and grubby alleyways, was far behind, so far behind that when he turned around, he couldn’t even see the tallest skyscraper of them all, a needle thrust into the sky. The landscape had entirely changed.

He knew then that he was a long way from home. It was the first time in his life that he’d been this far from home on his own. The aloneness excited him, gave him a sudden thirst for independence. He felt the faint stir of rebellion. Maybe he wouldn’t go home tonight. Maybe he wouldn’t go home tomorrow night either. With Paula away with Ron and Carla getting it off with her boyfriend, Jim didn’t see a reason for going home, except for his guitar. Why should he? Why not give himself a break and head out on his own? His mother and sister were doing what they wanted, and now that the pain in his head had eased and he was ordering his thoughts more clearly, he couldn’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t do what he wanted. What he wanted was to head somewhere different. He’d never been west of the city, and going by the pink blush of the setting sun lighting the sky behind the houses, he knew he was heading in that direction. Why not keep going west? He began walking again, more purposively now, driven not by the nurse’s instructions to stay on his feet, but by the adrenalin rush of adventure.

As the miles behind him lengthened, so too did the shadows, and gradually the unlit streets deepened to charcoal grey and then to black. Without the spawn of city lights, the stars stood out sharply in the night sky, but their flickering light was so distant it barely touched the sidewalk, and Jim began to stumble over unseen cracks and concrete shards. Still he kept on, walking slowly, groping his way through a canyon of darkness. Exhausted, he stumbled on, passing no one, though occasionally a vehicle drove past, its headlights casting houses and lawns in ghostly light. It was close to midnight when a car pulled into a driveway directly ahead of him, and in the wash of headlights Jim saw a low rambling house off to one side, with candles lighting two windows and a chaise longue on the lawn. As soon as the driver shut the front door behind him, Jim felt himself being pulled toward the chaise longue. Soon he was stretched out on it sideways, hands pillowing his head, feet hanging over the end. He was asleep within seconds.

It wasn’t until the stars were disappearing into the dawn sky that he shifted onto his back and the tender bruise at the base of his skull woke him. By then the pain in his head was completely gone and the bruise was the only reminder of yesterday’s subway accident. He got up at once and moved on before the owners of the chaise longue even knew he’d been there. Hungry and bleary-eyed, he made his way through the city’s fringes, walking in the direction of the freeway. Now that it was daylight, cars and trucks were on the road, and he had hopes of thumbing an early ride. The café where he stopped for breakfast and used the pay phone was a couple of miles from the freeway, but close enough for Jim to hear the distant thrum of traffic.

Leaving the café, he headed for an overpass he saw in the distance. In less than an hour, he was standing on the highway with his thumb stuck out. He tried to look harmless, which wasn’t easy, given his size– like his father, he was six feet tall and broad shouldered. Zillions of drivers zoomed past without a sideways glance. The glass face of Jim’s watch had cracked in the accident, but it still worked, and at first he checked it at fifteen-minute intervals. But with the prospect of a ride fast fading, checking the time only discouraged him more, and he soon gave it up.

Four hours dragged past. It was noon, the sun beating down hard. Jim was beginning to think that maybe heading west wasn’t a good idea, and he felt his sense of adventure leaking away. Still he walked on. Finally, when defeat seemed inevitable and he thought he’d have to turn around, a battered station wagon pulled over and the driver, a housepainter wearing splattered overalls, offered him a ride. Going far? the man asked. The nearest truck stop, Jim told him– a truck stop was almost as familiar to Jim as home. It’s thirty miles on, the housepainter said. I’m only going twenty-five, so you’ll have to walk the rest of the way. Sure, Jim said. He’d never been to the truck stop ahead, but he already knew what it looked like, just a big flat lay-by alongside the road. Though the truck stops where he’d stopped with his father had all been to the east, Zack said they were all more or less alike.

It had been years since Jim had been on a trip with his father, and except for a fishing weekend last summer, they hadn’t spent much time alone. Jim missed going on short hauls with his father. So why was he heading west and not east? Because if he headed east, there was an off chance Zack would pick him up on the road, and then Jim would have to tell him he was leaving home and Zack would want to know why. Jim wasn’t about to tell his father that Paula was away with Ron– he’d rat on Carla, but he wouldn’t rat on his mother. He wouldn’t do anything to spoil the chance of his parents getting back together. So he was heading west. But to reach the West he’d need to hitch a ride with a long-distance driver, which was why, thirsty and hot, he’d parked himself on the running board of the abc household movers truck, waiting for the driver to wake up.

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