About the Author

Michael Crummey

Michael Crummey is the author of four books of poetry, and a book of short stories, Flesh and Blood. His first novel, River Thieves, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, his second, The Wreckage, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His most recent novel, the bestselling Galore, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. Under the Keel is his first collection in a decade. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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Black Ice

Black Ice

David Blackwood: Prints of Newfoundland
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Flesh and Blood


When my father was assigned a home by the Company and moved out of the bunkhouse, we carried our belongings by cart and boat from Twillingate across New World Island and down to Lewisporte where we caught the train for Black Rock. Fourteen hours in the single passenger car at the end of a line of empty ore boxes and most of that time in darkness, the clatter of the rails carrying us deeper into the island’s interior, into the unfamiliar shape of another life. I woke up just after first light as the train leaned into the half-mile turn of Tin Can Curve. Out the window I could see a rusty orange petticoat of abandoned scrap metal poking through the white shawl of snow at the foot of the rail bed. Twenty minutes later we crossed a trestle and chuffed into town. My father met us at the red warehouse that served as a train station, his lean face dwarfed by a fur hat, his grin lop-sided, like a boat taking on water.

I’d never been away from Durrells before. Everything in this new place looked the same to my eyes. Streets as neat as garden furrows with rows of identical four unit buildings painted white or green or brown planted on either side. For the first three weeks after we arrived, my mother tied a kerchief to the door handle so my sister and I would be able to find our house in the line of uniform, indistinguishable quads.

Even my father got confused on one occasion, coming home from a card game at the bunkhouse. He’d been drinking and turned onto the street below ours, mistaking the third door in the second building for his own. Only a small lamp over the stove lighted the kitchen, the details of furniture and decoration were draped in darkness. He took off his shoes in the porch, hung his coat neatly on the wall and was about to have a seat at the kitchen table when Mrs. Neary walked in from the living room. “Can I get you a cup of tea?” she asked him.

He was too embarrassed to admit he’d made a mistake. “That would be grand, Missus,” he said. “I wouldn’t say no to a raisin bun if you had one to spare.”

“Carl,” Mrs. Neary shouted up at the ceiling. “We’ve got company.”

For years afterwards, my father dropped in on Mr. and Mrs. Neary for tea on Saturday evenings. My father and Mr. Neary hunted together, played long raucous poker games at the kitchen table with my Uncle Gerry.

My mother said that was just like him, to find his best friend that way—everything that ever happened to my father was a happy accident. She said it with just a hint of bitterness in her voice, enough that I could taste it, like a squeeze of lemon in a glass of milk.

When I turned thirteen, my father began taking me with him to check his rabbit slips on the other side of Company property. We’d set out before dawn, following the Mucky Ditch that carried mine tailings across the bog, the squelch of footsteps in wet ground the only sound between us. When we reached the tree line we struck off for the trails through the woods. My father grinned across at me in a way that he hoped was reassuring, but I didn’t understand why he invited me along or wanted me with him. Every winter he took twice as many brace of rabbit in the slips as Mr. Neary, for no reason but chance as far as anyone could see. Of ten hands of poker, my father won eight, sometimes nine. Mr. Neary swore never to play another game on more occasions than I could count. “That man,” he announced often and loudly, “has a horseshoe up his arse.”

My father smiled his lop-sided grin as he shuffled the cards. “One more before you go?” he asked.
It’s hard not to feel ambivalent about someone that lucky, and that casual about his good fortune. “How can you love a man,” I once overheard my mother confide to Mrs. Neary, “that you never feel sorry for?”

I wouldn’t have gone into the woods with my father at all if my mother hadn’t encouraged me, and it was mostly for her sake that I paid attention when he showed me how to tie the slips, and how to use boughs to narrow the run where the slip was set. He explained how a night of frost set them running to keep warm. He tied the paws of the dead rabbits together with twine. “Not that lucky for these little buggers,” he said lightly. I carried them over my shoulder, the bodies stiff as cordwood against my back.

Around noon we stopped to boil water for tea. “You’ve got a good head for the woods,” my father told me one Saturday. I suppose he was trying to soften me up a little. The enthusiasm in his voice suggested he’d just discovered something I had been hiding out of modesty. “Why don’t you see if you can find us a bit of dry stuff for the fire.”

I tramped off into the bush, annoyed with his irrepressible good humour, with his transparent praise. He had no right, I thought, and as I moved further into the spruce I decided not to go back, to keep walking. I wanted him to panic, to feel his world coming apart as he crashed through the woods yelling my name. I wanted him to feel the sadness my mother felt, the same sick regret. I kept my head down, not bothering to check my trail, working deeper into the green maze of forest. When I stopped to catch my breath I closed my eyes, turning three times in a circle before looking up. A light snow had started falling, stray flakes filtering through the branches of the spruce like aimless stars. I had no idea where I had come from, or where I was going. I was completely, perfectly lost.

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He ended his time on the shore in a makeshift asylum cell, shut away with the profligate stink of fish that clung to him all his days. The Great White. St. Jude of the Lost Cause. Sea Orphan. He seemed more or less content there, gnawing at the walls with a nail. Mary Tryphena Devine brought him bread and dried capelin that he left to gather bluebottles and mould on the floor.

—If you aren’t going to eat, she said, at least have the decency to die.

Mary Tryphena was a child when she first laid eyes on the man, a lifetime past. End of April and the ice just gone from the bay. Most of the shore’s meagre population — the Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance — were camped on the grey sand, waiting to butcher a whale that had beached itself in the shallows on the feast day of St. Mark. This during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens went to rot in the relentless rain and each winter threatened to bury them all. They weren’t whalers and no one knew how to go about killing the Leviathan, but there was something in the humpback’s unexpected offering that prevented the starving men from hacking away while the fish still breathed. As if that would be a desecration of the gift.

They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.

Halfway along the beach King-me Sellers was carrying on a tournament of draughts with his grandson. He’d hobbled down from his store to make a claim to the animal as it had gone aground below Spurriers’ premises. The fishermen argued that the beach in question wasn’t built over and according to tradition was public property, which meant the whale was salvage, the same as if a wreck had washed ashore. King-me swore he’d have the whale’s liver and eight puncheons of oil or the lot of them would stand before the court he ruled as magistrate.

Once terms were agreed upon Sellers had his grandson bring down his scarred wooden checkerboard and they set out flat stones for the pieces gone missing through the years. His grandson was the only person willing to sit through a game with Sellers who was known to change the rules to suit himself and was not above cheating outright to win. He owned the board, he told the complainers, and in his mind that meant he owned the rules that governed it as well. His periodic cries of King me! were the only human sound on the landwash as they waited.

Mary Tryphena was asleep when the men finally rushed the shallows, her father shouting for her to fetch Devine’s Widow. She left the beach as she was told, walking the waterside pathway through Paradise Deep and up the incline of the Tolt Road. She crossed the headland that rose between the two coves and carried on into the Gut where her grandmother had delivered Mary Tryphena’s brother that morning. The landwash was red with blood by the time she and the old woman made their way back, a scum of grease on the harbour’s surface. The heart and liver already carted up to King-me’s Rooms on fish barrows, two men harvesting chunks of baleen from the creature ’s jaw with axes, the mouth so massive they could almost stand upright inside it. Women and children floated barrels in the shallows to catch the ragged squares of blubber thrown down to them. Mary Tryphena’s grandmother knotted her skirts above the knee before wading grimly into the water.

The ugly work went on through the day. Black fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber to oil, and the stench stoppered the harbour, as if they were labouring in a low-ceilinged warehouse. The white underbelly was exposed where the carcass keeled to one side, the stomach’s membrane floating free in the shallows. The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.

For a time no one moved or spoke, watching as if they expected the man to stand and walk ashore of his own accord. Devine’s Widow waded over finally to finish the job, the body slipping into the water as she cut it free. The Catholics crossed themselves in concert and Jabez Trim said, Naked came I from my mother’s womb.

The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.

King-me Sellers prodded at the corpse with the tip of his walking stick. He looked at Devine’s Widow and then turned to take in each person standing about him. —This is her doing, he said. —She got the very devil in her, called this creature into our harbour for God knows what end.

—Conjured it you mean? James Woundy said.

It was so long since King-me accused Devine’s Widow of such things that some in the crowd were inclined to take him seriously. He might have convinced others if he’d managed to leave off mentioning his livestock. —You know what she done to my cow, he said, and to every cow birthed of her since.

It was an old joke on the shore and there was already a dismissive tremor in the gathering when Devine's Widow leaned over the body, flicking at the shrunken penis with the tip of her knife. —If this was my doing, she said, I’d have given the poor soul more to work with than that.

King-me pushed his way past the laughter of the bystanders, saying he’d have nothing more to do with the devilment. But no one followed after him. They stood awhile discussing the strange event, a fisherman washed overboard in a storm or a suicide made strange by too many months at sea, idle speculation that didn’t begin to address the man’s appearance or his grave in the whale’s belly. They came finally to the consensus that life was a mystery and a wonder beyond human understanding, a conclusion they were comfortable with though there was little comfort in the thought. The unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with.

There was no church on the shore. An itinerant Dominican friar named Phelan said Mass when he passed through on his endless ecclesiastical rounds. And Jabez Trim held a weekly Protestant service at one of Sellers’ stores that was attended by both sides of the house when Father Phelan was away on his wanders. Trim had no credentials other than the ability to read and an incomplete copy of the Bible but every soul on the shore crowded the storeroom to soak awhile in the scripture’s balm. An hour’s reprieve from the salt and drudge of their lives for myrhh and aloe and hyssop, for pomegranates and green figs and grapes, cassia and cedar beams and swords forged in silver. Jabez married Protestant couples, he baptized their children and buried their dead, and he agreed to say a few words over the body before it was set in the ground.

Mary Tryphena’s father lifted the corpse by the armpits while James Woundy took the legs and the sorry little funeral train began its slow march up off the landwash. There were three stone steps at the head of the beach, the dead man’s torso folding awkwardly on itself as they negotiated the rise and a foul rainbow sprayed from the bowels. James Woundy jumped away from the mess, dropping the body against the rocks. —Jesus, jesus, jesus, he said, his face gone nearly as white as the corpse. Callum tried to talk him into grabbing hold again but he refused. —If he ’s alive enough to shit, James Woundy said, he ’s alive enough to walk.

Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on. A man delivered from the whale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running for their homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.

Devine’s Widow turned the stranger by the shoulder, thumping his back to bring up seawater and blood and seven tiny fish, one after the last, fry the size of spanny-tickles Mary Tryphena caught in the shallows at Nigger Ralph’s Pond. Selina Sellers came down to the landwash while they stood over him there, her grandson dragging a handbar in her wake. Selina was a tiny slip of a woman and could have passed for the boy’s sister in stature, but there was nothing childlike in her bearing. —You can’t have that one in your house, Selina told them. —Not with a newborn baby still drawing his first breaths in the world.

Devine’s Widow nodded. —We’ll set him out in the Rooms, is what we’ll do.

—The cold will kill him for certain, Selina said.

They all stared at the stranger as they spoke, not willing to look at one another. His body racked up with tremors and convulsions.

—There’s only the one place for him, Selina said.

—I don’t think Master Sellers would be so keen.

—You let me worry about Master Sellers.

They hauled the stranger onto the fish barrow and started up the path toward Selina’s House on the Gaze. By the time they angled the barrow through the front door everyone in the harbour was watching from a safe distance. Someone sent word to King-me at the store and he was running after them, shouting to keep the foul creature out of his house. He’d sworn that Devine’s Widow would never set foot in the building and no one knew if he was referring to the old woman or to the stark white figure she was carting inside. Selina reached back to bolt the door behind them and they continued on into the house.

Mary Tryphena and King-me’s grandson stood back against the wall, lost in the flurry of activity as water was set to boil and blankets were gathered. King-me was pounding at the door with the head of his cane, shouting threats, and faces crowded at the windows outside. Mary Tryphena had never been inside Selina’s House but the grandness of it was lost on her. She had the queerest sensation of falling as she stared at the naked stranger. A wash of dizziness came over her and she took off her bonnet against the sick heat of nausea as it sidled closer. King-me’s grandson stood beside her and she clutched at the hem of his coat. —You’ll remember this day a long while, I imagine, he said. The boy had a fierce stutter — d- d- d- day, he said — and Mary Tryphena was embarrassed to find herself so close to him. She shifted away, though not far enough to be out of reach.

The man she would marry opened his eyes for the first time then, turning his face toward her across the room. Those milky blue eyes settling on Mary Tryphena. Taking her in.


There was nothing the like of Selina’s House anywhere on the shore. It was a Wexford-style farmhouse with a fieldstone chimney at its centre, polished wooden floors upstairs and down. Mullioned windows imported from the West Country of England, iron-latched doors. Selina was the daughter of a merchantman in Poole and the house was a wedding gift, a promise the girl’s father extracted before consenting to the match. She was newly married to King-me and only weeks arrived on the shore when the first signs of the big house appeared, the foundation laid when the frost lifted in June. But King-me lost interest in the domestic project once the fishing season began in earnest. The stones lay naked in the ground for years then, the lumber he’d imported on a Spurriers vessel going grey under layers of spruce boughs while stores and fishing rooms were built and expanded, while boats were scarfed out and floated in the bay.

Selina lived seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark. It had a dirt floor and a wooden roof sheeted with sod and was distinguished from the surrounding buildings only by a surfeit of windows, the one touch of grandeur King-me had managed. She birthed three children in the shelter while King-me promised to build next year, when the fish were yaffled and loaded aboard Spurriers’ vessels, when they came on a stretch of fine weather, next year.

On the morning of their seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. —I’ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house to close behind me.

Sellers let her lie a week before the depth of her desperation came clear to him. She wouldn’t even allow him to sleep beside her, in his own bed. It seemed a lunatic strategy, the logic of someone unhinged. And in a desperate act of his own he sent a servant to the widow woman, asking her to do something to set Selina straight.

Devine’s Widow was all they had on the shore for doctoring. Her Christian name passed out of use in the decades after her husband was buried and only a handful could even remember what it was. She’d seen every malady the fallen world could inflict on a body and seemed to know a remedy or a charm against the pain of them all. King-me waited down at the store to leave the two women alone at the stud tilt where Selina was staging her moronic protest. When he saw Devine’s Widow walking home along the Tolt Road he caught her up and demanded to know what was wrong with his wife.

—Nothing a proper house wouldn’t fix, she said.

—You were asked to put her to rights.

—If I was you, Master Sellers, she said, I’d set to work with a hammer and saw.

The frame of the building with roof and windows was assembled in the space of a month. The morning Jabez Trim hung the front door, Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home. Selina’s House is how it was known and how people referred to it a hundred years after Sellers’ wife was buried and gone to dust in the French Cemetery.

The stranger stayed only one night in those extravagant lodgings. An astonishing stink of dead fish rose from the man’s skin like smoke off a green fire, insinuating itself into every nook. Even with the windows left open to the freezing cold the smell kept the household awake. The following morning King-me ordered him out and Selina no longer had the stomach to argue. Two of Sellers’ servants carried him on a fish barrow past the houses of Paradise Deep and over the Tolt Road to the Gut, a train of onlookers following behind. The man too weak to do more than watch the sky as he was jolted along.

—He come right out of the whale’s belly, James Woundy announced, as if he had been the only one present to see it. —As God is my witness so he did. Just like that one Judas in the Bible.

—Not Judas, you arse.

James turned to look at Jabez Trim. —Well who was it then, Mr. Trim?

—Jonah, it was. Jonah was swallowed by the whale.

—You sure it weren’t Judas, Mr. Trim?

—Judas was the disciple who betrayed Our Lord for thirty pieces of silver.

—And he was thrown overboard, James said. —That’s how I minds it. Thrown into the ocean for betraying the Lord. With a millstone about his neck. And God had him eat up by a whale. To teach him a hard lesson.

—Jonah was fleeing the Lord God Almighty, Jabez insisted. —God chose him to be a prophet and Jonah had rather be a sailor and he ran from God aboard of a ship. And he was thrown into the sea by his mates to save themselves from a savage storm the Lord set upon them. And God sent a whale to swallow Jonah.

—That’s a fine story, Mr. Trim, James said. —But it don’t sound quite right to my memory.

—Goddamn it, James Woundy. Do I have to bring out the Book and show you?

—Now, sir, as I cannot read, I don’t see how that would go far to clearing the matter up.

—Well you’ll just have to take my word for it then, Jabez said.

There was no fuss made at the widow’s house. The old woman came out to receive the delivery as if she had ordered it herself, directing the servants through the door. She kept the man on the barrow near the fireplace and washed him down with lye soap and carbolic acid and a concoction made of spruce gum and ash, but the foul smell didn’t diminish. He hadn’t eaten a morsel since he first appeared and couldn’t keep down goat’s milk or the tea Devine’s Widow made for him. And Mary Tryphena’s infant brother, born healthy and famished, became colicky and inconsolable and refused to latch on to his mother’s nipple after the stranger was taken in. Everyone drew the obvious connection between one event and the other though no one dared mention it, as if speaking of such things increased their reach in the world.

Even Mary Tryphena fell into an uncharacteristic silence in those first days, spending as much time out of the house as she could. She walked up to the Tolt where she’d first spotted the stranger’s whale, trying to puzzle the bizarre events into sense. All her young life she had been ridiculed for asking questions about the simplest things, as if the questions put her childish greed on display. Don’t be such a nosy-arse, people said. Shut up and watch.

Mary Tryphena was four years old when her sister was born. She’d been told so little about life at the time, she didn’t even know her mother was pregnant. Her father walking her into the backcountry as far as Nigger Ralph’s Pond one morning, showing her how to catch spanny-tickles in the shallows with the dip net of her palms. The infant girl asleep in her mother’s arms when her grandmother came to fetch them back to the house that evening. —Who is that? Mary Tryphena asked.

—This is your sister Eathna, her mother said. —Found her in the turnip patch, naked as a fish.

It seemed too fanciful a notion to credit but she had to admit there was something vaguely turnip-like about the bruised and nearly bald head of the child, the vulgar purple and pale white of the skin.

Mary Tryphena understood the difference soon enough and felt she’d been made to look a fool. Watch and learn she was told a hundred times and she began following Devine’s Widow to the homes of the sick where the old woman treated fevers, impetigo, coughs, rickets, festering sores. Her grandmother said nothing to discourage the girl’s interest but she made a point of going out alone when a birth or death was imminent and the reality of those most elemental passages eluded Mary Tryphena. Entrance and exit. Eathna leaving them the way she arrived: suddenly and not a hint of warning.

There was no hiding Lizzie’s third pregnancy from Mary Tryphena and she was obsessed with the full bowl of her mother’s belly. She considered the entries and exits of her own body and there seemed no reasonable resolution to her mother’s predicament though she felt ready to stand witness, at nine years of age, to what promised to be an ugly, brutish struggle. But Devine’s Widow insisted she stay out of the birthing room when her mother went into labour and Mary Tryphena left the house altogether, wandering up onto the Tolt to sulk.

She felt she’d been delivered into a universe where everyone’s knowledge but hers was complete and there was no acceptable way to acquire information other than waiting for its uncertain arrival. She stared out at the water, the endless grey expanse of ocean below reflecting the endless grey nothing of her life. The nothing stretched for miles in all directions, nothing, nothing, nothing, she was on the verge of bawling at the thought when the humpback breached the surface, the staggering bulk rising nose first and almost clear of the sea before falling back in a spray. Mary Tryphena’s skin stippled with goosebumps, her scalp pulling taut.

The whale breached a second time and a third, as if calling her attention, before it steamed through the harbour mouth of Paradise Deep and drove headlong onto the shallows like a nail hammered into a beam of wood. Her throat was raw with shouting and running in the cold when she came through the door.

—You’ve a new brother, Callum said, trying to lead her to the bedroom where the infant was squalling through his first moments of life. But Mary Tryphena shook her head, dragging her father outside.

It was a childish conceit to think she was to blame that things stood as they did now, that her greed to know the world had brought the stranger among them and caused her brother’s illness. She felt her nose was about to be rubbed in something she’d have better ignored altogether.

The condition of both the stranger and the infant grew worse every hour, and the baby’s mother finally begged Callum to make away with the creature she considered responsible for the child’s turn, to take him out to open ocean and send him back where he came from. It was only Devine’s Widow that kept Callum from doing just that.

No one understood the old woman’s concern for the stranger except to say it was her way. In her first years on the shore, a chick with four legs was born to one of King-me’s hens. The grotesque little creature was unable to walk or stand and was thought to be a black sign by the other servants, who wanted it drowned. But Devine’s Widow removed two of the legs and cauterized the wounds with a toasting fork before daubing them with candle wax. She kept the chick near the stove in a box lined with straw while it recovered. Raised it to be a fine laying hen.

That story was offered up in the wake of every strangeness that followed in the widow’s life, as if it somehow explained the woman. And she was happy to let it stand in this particular case, telling no one about the dreams that troubled her before Lizzie went into labour, of delivering infants joined at the hip or the shoulder. She used a gutting knife to sever the children, slicing at the flesh in a panic and holding the two aloft by the heels, blood running into her sleeves. Both infants perished in her hands and she woke each time to the conviction that it was the separation that killed them.

The widow refused to let Mary Tryphena watch the delivery when Lizzie’s time came, expecting the worst. But the baby was born healthy and showed no obvious mark of her dream. And that absence disconcerted her. As if something more oblique and subterranean was at work in the child, something she was helpless to identify or treat. She couldn’t escape the sense now that the twinned arrival of her grandson and the salt-haired stranger was what she ’d foreseen, the fate of one resting with the other. And she was relieved to have the foul-smelling thing under her own roof.

It was the widow woman’s property and there was no arguing with her. But when Lizzie threatened to take herself and the children back to Selina’s House in Paradise Deep, Callum sacrificed an outbuilding that was used for hay rakes and scythes and fish prongs to make a bunkroom for the stranger. The change didn’t improve the condition of either the child or the sick man, and for a time Devine’s Widow doubted herself, seeing they might both starve to death.

Jabez Trim walked out from Paradise Deep and stood in the widow’s doorway to speak with Callum. The child was still unbaptized and there was no expectation of Father Phelan returning before the capelin rolled. There was little chance of saving the infant’s life, Jabez said, but they had still to consider the soul. He was a tree stump of a man, limited in his outlook but rooted and unshakeable in his certainties. A decent sort and no sober person had ever disputed it. —I’d offer what we have on our side of the house if you have a need of me, Callum.

—What about the other one? Devine’s Widow asked.

—He’d as like be baptized already I imagine, if his kind were so inclined.

—He don’t deserve to die out in that shed like an animal, Jabez.

Jabez Trim didn’t understand what was being asked of him, though he could see the widow was at a loss and grasping. —There’s not much else I can think to give him that you haven’t tried already, Missus.

—We could bring him to Kerrivan’s Tree with the little one, she said.

Jabez glanced up at Callum to see what he thought of the bizarre suggestion but the younger man only shrugged. —If you think it might be some help, Jabez said.

The dead on the shore were wrapped in canvas or old blankets for burial, but Callum couldn’t bear the thought of settling the child so nakedly in the ground, so unsheltered. He built a tiny coffin of new spruce before the baptism, tarring the seams with oakum, and the box hung from a peg in the children’s room to await its permanent occupant. Jabez Trim performed the sacrament in the house and they walked with their neighbours to the far side of the Gut where Kerrivan’s Tree stood. Lizzie carried the child while James Woundy and Callum carted the stranger on the fish barrow, James insisting on taking the head. —I’ll not stand below that asshole again, he said.

The apple tree was marked with a rock fence, the bare branches hanging low and reaching nearly to the circumference of stones. Sarah Kerrivan brought the sapling from Ireland a hundred years before but it had never produced more than crabapples too sour to eat. Last year’s frostbitten fruit still lay on the ground where it had fallen months before. The tree would long ago have been cut down but for the fact that Sarah Kerrivan and her husband William were never sick a day in their lives, sailing unafflicted through the outbreaks of cholera and measles and diphtheria that burned through the shore. Their transcendental health conferred an aura of blessedness on everything in their possession, including the tree Sarah had carted across the ocean. Every infant born in the Gut and many born in Paradise Deep during the last half century had been passed through its branches to ward off the worst of what the world could do to a child — typhoid and beriberi, fevers, convulsions, ruptures, chincoughs, rickets. No one considered youngsters properly christened until they had travelled that circle.

It was a ritual usually carried out with laughter and shouted blessings, but there was only a melancholy silence among the gathering as the sick infant made his way over their heads. Mary Tryphena stood outside the low stone fence with Devine’s Widow, watching Callum and Lizzie weep as if the child were passing from their hands directly into the hands of the dead. And then the awkward negotiation of the white-haired stranger among the branches, the man so much like an infant in his mute helplessness. Skin the white of sea ice. The fish barrow caught up on an angle that threatened to topple the stranger onto the ground and he had to be held by the shoulders while they disentangled his sickbed, the men shouting at one another and swearing. It seemed a travesty of something sacred and Lizzie walked away with the baby newly christened Michael in her arms. When the barrow was extricated from the maze of branches, the nameless man was carried back to his shed and set down on his bunk, Devine’s Widow sitting silent in the doorway to keep him company. To watch him die, is how she spoke of it afterwards, a note of satisfied wonder in her voice, to say how impossible it is to predict the direction events will run.

The summer that followed was uncharacteristically warm and dry and Kerrivan’s Tree produced apples sweet enough to eat for the first time in its purgatorial century on the shore.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Hard Light

Hard Light

Brick Books Classics 5
by Michael Crummey
introduction by Lisa Moore
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Little Dogs

Little Dogs

New and Selected Poems
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Most of What Follows is True

Most of What Follows is True

Places Imagined and Real
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River Thieves

The Face of a Robber’s Horse


have the face of a robber’s horse: to be brazen, without shame or pity. — Dictionary of Newfoundland English


It was the sound of his father’s voice that woke John Peyton, a half-strangled shouting across the narrow hall that separated the upstairs bedrooms in the winter house. They had moved over from the summer house near the cod fishing grounds on Burnt Island only two weeks before and it took him a moment to register where he was lying, the bed and the room made strange by the dark and the disorientation of broken sleep. He lay listening to the silence that always followed his father’s nightmares, neither of the men shifting in their beds or making any other sound, both pretending they weren’t awake.

Peyton turned his head to the window where moonlight made the frost on the pane glow a pale, frigid white. In the morning he was leaving for the backcountry to spend the season on a trapline west of the River Exploits, for the first time running traps without his father. He’d been up half the night with the thought of going out on his own and there was no chance of getting back to sleep now. He was already planning his lines, counting sets in his head, projecting the season’s take and its worth on the market. And underneath all of these calculations he was considering how he might approach Cassie when he came back to the house in the spring, borne down with furs like a branch ripe with fruit. A man in his own right finally.

When he heard Cassie up and about downstairs in the kitchen, he pushed himself out of bed and broke the thin layer of ice that had formed over his bathing water and poured the basin full. His head ached from lack of sleep and from his mind having run in circles for hours. When he splashed his face and neck the cold seemed to narrow the blurry pulse of it and he bent at the waist to dip his head directly into the water, keeping it there as long as he could hold his breath.

The kettle was already steaming when he made his way down to the kitchen. Cassie was scorching a panful of breakfast fish, the air dense with the sweet smoky drift of fried capelin. He sat at the table and stared across at her where she leaned over the fire, her face moving in and out of shadow like a leaf turning under sunlight. She didn’t look up when he said good morning.

“Get a good breakfast into you today,” she said. “You’ll need it.”

He nodded, but didn’t answer her.

She said, “Any sign of John Senior?”

“I heard him moving about,” he said, which was a lie, but he didn’t want her calling him down just yet. It was the last morning he would see her for months and he wanted a few moments more alone in her company. “Father was on the run again last night,” he said. “What do you think makes him so heatable in his sleep like that?”

O unseen shame, invisible disgrace!” Cassie said. She was still staring into the pan of capelin. “O unfelt sore, crest-wounding, private scar!

Some nonsense from her books. “Don’t be speaking high-learned to me this time of the day,” he said.

She smiled across at him.

He said, “You don’t know no more than me, do you.”

“It’s just the Old Hag, John Peyton. Some things don’t bear investigating.” She turned from the fire with the pan of capelin, carrying it across to the table. She shouted up at the ceiling for John Senior to come down to his breakfast.

By the second hour of daylight, Peyton was packing the last of his provisions on the sledge outside the winter house while John Senior set about harnessing the dog. He was going to travel with Peyton as far as Ship Cove, a full day’s walk into the mouth of the river, but both men were already uncomfortable with the thought of parting company. They were careful not to be caught looking at one another, kept their attention on the details of the job at hand. Peyton stole quick glimpses of his father as he worked over the dog. He was past sixty and grey-haired but there was an air of lumbering vitality to the man, a deliberate granite stubbornness. Lines across the forehead like runnels in a dry riverbed. The closely shaven face looked hard enough to stop an axe. Peyton had heard stories enough from other men on the shore to think his father had earned that look. It made him afraid for himself to dwell on what it was that shook John Senior out of sleep, set him screaming into the dark.

His father said, “Mind you keep your powder dry."

“All right,” Peyton said.

“Joseph Reilly’s tilt is three or four miles south of your lines.”

“I know where Joseph Reilly is.”

“You run into trouble, you look in on him.”

“All right,” he said again. There was still a sharp ache in his head, but it was spare and focused, like a single strand of heated wire running from one temple to the other. It added to the sense of urgency and purpose he felt. He’d come across to Newfoundland ten years before to learn the trades and to run the family enterprise when John Senior was ready to relinquish it. His father electing not to work the trapline this year was the first dim indication of an impending retirement. Peyton said, “I won’t be coming out over Christmas.”

John Senior had set the dog on her side in the snow and was carefully examining her paws. “January then,” he said, without raising his head.

Peyton nodded.

His father took a silver pocket watch from the folds of his greatcoat. He was working in the open air with bare hands and his fingers were bright with blood in the morning chill. “Half eight,” he said. “You’d best say your goodbyes to Cassie. And don’t tarry.”

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It hovered in the boy’s head pale
as a daylight moon

It lit him up like a field
under a hail of lightning,
it torched the buildings locked
and almost hidden under brush
in the unfenced backyard of his mind

It travelled in his blood like blooms
of silt stirred from a river bottom,
it ticked like a clock toward
some alarm his body
lay awake for,
it made him feel ancient and
unrecoverable and lonely
for his friends

It churned inside him
like the crankshaft of the planet,
darkness endlessly turning
toward a deeper darkness
he had no name for

It settled on him like squatters
claiming farmland lying fallow,
like summer dusk staining
the distant hills blue

A Word about the Poem by Michael Crummey
This one drives my mother crazy. What is the “it” that he carries, she wants to know, but I’m not telling. The “it” is a very particular thing to me, but I was interested in writing a poem that circled and circled the specific without nailing a name to it, which would allow a reader to make their own guess at what lies at the centre. I wanted the poem to have an incantatory feel, letting a progression of images build one upon the other with the hope that by the end something adhered. And I’m honestly not sure if anything does.

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The Innocents

The Driven Snow.
They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she’d sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.
     The ground was frozen solid when she died and even if their father had been well enough to shovel there was no digging a grave for her. He and Evered shifted the covering of reeds and alders away from the overturned boat and hauled it down to the landwash before they carried the corpse from the house. They set it in the boat along with half a dozen stones scavenged along the shore. Their father slumped against the gunwale to catch his breath.
     “Will I come out with you?” Evered asked.
     He shook his head. “You stay with your sister,” he said.
     The two youngsters watched him row away from shore and out beyond the shoal water with his dead wife. They saw him leaning below the gunwales for what seemed a long time, his head and shoulders bobbing up now and then. He was working at something awkward and unpleasant it seemed though neither could guess what it was. They watched him wrestling the weight of the corpse with his back to the shore. He was far enough off they couldn’t see that their mother was naked when she was tipped into the black of the winter ocean.
     Their father tried to hand the clothes to his daughter when he rowed in but Ada held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.
     “You’ll have need of these,” their father said. “Now the once.”
     Evered took them, folding the limp fabric against his stomach. The sour smell of a long illness and of his mother which he couldn’t separate in his head. “I’ll set them by for her,” he said.
     Their father nodded. He was too exhausted to climb from the boat and he sat there a long while. A dwy of snow had blown in across the bay and it turned the hair of his bowed head white as they waited.

Their father died in his bed before the new year.
     Without speaking of it they acted as if he was only asleep and they left him lying there for the better part of a week. Hoping he might wake up coughing in the middle of the night, complaining about the cold or asking after a drink of water. During the day they dawdled about in the store and spent as much time outside as they could stand, cleaving and stacking wood or hauling buckets of water from the brook, picking along the landwash for gull feathers and mussel shells and wish rocks to add to Ada’s collection. Inside they tended the fireplace and drank their bare-legged tea and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the man.
     On the fifth night of the vigil Ada woke from a dream of her parents. They were standing back on, holding hands and looking at her over their shoulders. Her mother was naked and soaking wet, her hair streaming water.
     “What is it you’re bawling over, Sister?” Evered asked. “He can’t stay,” she whispered.
     “Don’t be talking foolishness.”
     “He can’t stay there like that, Brother.”
     And he set to bawling with her then, the two helpless youngsters holding on to one another in the pitch.
     Before it was properly light he pulled back the one ragged blanket and hauled his father’s body to the floor. The heels smacking like mallets against the frozen ground. His sister moved to pick up her father’s legs but Evered wouldn’t allow it. The man of the house suddenly. “You sit there,” he said. “Until I gets back.”
     He gripped the shoulders of his father’s shirt. He expected it to feel like hauling a seine of fish but there was a rigidness to the corpse that made it surprisingly easy to drag through the door- way. Only once on the way down to the water was he forced to stop to catch his breath and shake the numbness from his hands.
     He rowed out to the deeps beyond the shoal grounds, as close to the same spot as he could guess judging by his distance from the shore. Their parents might be together down there was his thought or within sight of one another at least, though he knew nothing below the ocean surface sat still for long. He tried to strip off the man’s clothes for practical reasons but his father’s eyes were half-open and he lost his nerve for meddling.
     Before pushing off the beach he’d gathered a length of old netting and enough stones to keep the body under and he tied that improvised anchor around his father’s waist. The day was still and cold, the ocean flat calm. He did not want to watch once the body slapped into the water and the rocks were hefted over the gunwale to take it down. But he couldn’t make himself look away from that descent until long after his father had passed out of sight and into the black.

He stared out at the spot where the man sank from view as he rowed in through the skerries. His teeth chattering helplessly, his mind swimming. Even after the keel brought up in the shallows he kept rowing at the water like a headless chicken strutting around the chopping block. He didn’t stop until Ada called his name behind him.
     “I told you to wait where you was till I come back,” he said, trying to set the oars and find his feet.
     “I was watching for you heading in,” she said.
     He stumbled as he climbed over the gunwale, his face like chalk. “I needs to lie down for a bit,” he said.
     Ada did her best to haul the boat out of reach of the tide, calling after her brother as he staggered up the path to the tilt. By the time she came into the room he was already asleep in their bed. He slept so long and in such a stillness that Ada considered he might have died on her as well. She sat across the room until dark and then climbed into her parents’ bed where she lay whispering to her dead sister to keep herself company.
     Evered didn’t wake until late the following morning. He sat bolt upright in the bed and seemed not to know where he was before he caught sight of her. She stared at him a long time without speaking.
     “What is it, Sister?” he said.
     She pointed then and he reached up to touch his crown. “Your hair,” she said.
     She thought of their father’s bowed head in the boat after he had committed their mother to the ocean’s deep, the drift that had settled on it like a veil.
     “What about me hair?”
     “It’s gone all white,” she said.
     As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.

They were left together in the cove then with its dirt-floored stud tilt, with its garden of root vegetables and its scatter of outbuildings, with its looming circle of hills and rattling brook and its view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbour skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.
- The ocean and the firmament and the sum of God’s stars were created in seven days.
- Sun hounds prophesy coarse weather.
- The death of a horse is the life of a crow.
- You were never to sleep before the fire was douted.
- The winter’s flour and salt pork had to last till the first seals came in on the ice in March month.
- The dead reside in heaven and heaven sits among the stars.
- Nothing below the ocean’s surface lies still.
- Idleness is the root of all troubles.
- Their baby sister died an innocent and sits at God’s right hand and hears their prayers.
- Any creature on the earth or in the sea could be killed and eaten.
- A body must bear what can’t be helped.

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The Wreckage

He was never dry.

Every day they abandoned field guns mired in mud. The tires and axles of ammunition carts disappeared in sludge and the shells for the guns still with them were carried by hand. Half a dozen men at the front of the column slashed a trail with machetes, the rainforest so densely organic, so humid and rank, it felt as if they were forcing their way through the tissue of a living creature. Soldiers lost their footing on exposed roots, on the slick ground, and they collapsed under their packs like marionettes cut free of strings. There was only river water to drink, and everyone in the company was miserable with dengue and with dysentery, men stepping out of the column to relieve themselves in the bush. Nishino thought the reek alone would be enough to give away their position.

Animals he would never see or know by name called and cawed in the trees. Only the birds came into view, hallucinatory flashes of colour dipping through the branches. The parrots picked up words and phrases from the soldiers and mimicked them. Hikoki hikoki sent the entire company face down into the foliage, listening for American planes.

They’d out-marched their rice rations and the soldiers were fed a little dried fish and crackers and hard candy at midday. Nishino sat beside Ogawa as they ate, and they picked through each other’s hair and clothing for fleas and biting ants and chiggers. Then Ogawa lay his head in Nishino’s lap and slept until the officers ordered them on.

He heard a voice calling “Yes sir!” and crouched defensively, swinging his rifle up to his waist, staring left and right.

Ogawa tilted his head. “Are you all right, Noburo?”

He heard the phrase repeated twice more before he realized it was a parrot calling from the forest. He let the rifle come down by his side and looked around at the other soldiers.


No one else had noticed. “Never mind,” he said.

At the end of the day’s march he went to Lieutenant Kurakake, who was sitting under a fold of canvas with maps spread across his thighs. The charts glowing with a yellow bioluminescent substance smeared on the surface for light. He stood to one side at attention.

“Yes?” the lieutenant said finally.

He hesitated. Bowed deeply. “I heard a parrot,” he said.

Kurakake looked up at him. “We have all heard them,” he said. “Endlessly,” he said.

“It was an English phrase I heard, Lieutenant.”


“Yes. I am certain of it.”

“What is your name, Private?”

“Nishino, sir. Noburo Nishino.”

“And what did this bird say to you, Private Nishino?”

“It said, ‘Yes sir.’ Several times.”

The lieutenant nodded slowly. He called to a company sergeant and ordered him to double the number of soldiers on sentry duty through the night. He nodded up to Nishino, dismissing him.

All the way back to the spot where Ogawa lay sleeping, he could feel the officer’s eyes following him.

Shortly before dark the next evening the soldiers crested a hill, breathing in open air blowing off a long grassy ridge a hundred feet below. The officers walked through the ranks, whispering, ordering them to dig in.

Nishino woke to the sound of the Americans talking among themselves below, their conversation carried up to him on the wind. Ogawa was still asleep, and Nishino lay quiet next to him, trying to pick words from the drift. Eased away from the boy finally to relieve himself in the trees. Covered his face as he crouched, shivering uncontrollably, his skin slick with sweat as the stink ran from him.

Lieutenant Kurakake was standing over Ogawa when Nishino came back. “Lieutenant,” he said and bowed.

He could smell a hint of something sweet in the air, something refined and so foreign to the place and condition he was in that he sniffed the air like a dog. Lieutenant Kurakake smiled at Nishino’s confusion, brought his hands from behind his back and passed across a small crystal bottle.

“My wife’s perfume,” Kurakake told him. “I wanted to have something of her with me.”

Nishino nodded, unsure what to make of the revelation, wary of the unexpected intimacy. Kurakake’s hair was greying at the temples, the bags under his eyes so dark they were almost black. He was older than any other officer in the field with them.

“You are not married,” Kurakake said.

Nishino shook his head.

“There is a woman at home? Someone is waiting for you?”

He looked briefly into Kurakake’s face, shook his head again. He returned the bottle of perfume.

Kurakake watched him a moment. “A story for another time,” he said. He looked down at Ogawa still motionless on the ground. The young man’s face even more childish in sleep. The officer made a dissatisfied noise in his throat. “This boy,” he said. “Chozo. He depends on you.”

“We help one another.”

Kurakake nodded dismissively. “What is it that is wrong with him?”

“I don’t know,” Nishino said. Though he understood exactly what the officer meant. There was something simple about Ogawa that made him seem younger even than his age.

The lieutenant made the same dissatisfied noise and nodded. Then turned and left them.

Nishino dozed half an hour more, waking occasionally to shift on the ground. Catching the faintest scent of perfume every time he brought his hands near his face.

The soldiers were given the last of the company’s food that afternoon, one can of sardines for every two men. He and Ogawa cleaned the oil from the can with their fingers. Nishino was hungrier after eating than before, and he felt the hunger sharpening an edge in him.

Ogawa stared down at the Americans. They moved about in the open, wearing only undershirts. Sunlight glinting off the dog tags around their necks. “I wonder what they’re saying.” He shook his head in disgust. “Sssss ssss sss. That’s all it sounds like to me.”

Nishino had removed his shoes and socks, splashing his feet with river water from the canteen and wiping them dry with his shirt. All but two of his toenails had blackened and fallen off. He said, “They’re too far off to make anything out.” Quickly added, “Even if you could speak the language.”

Ogawa smiled. “We’ll hear them up close soon enough,” he said.

The drone of aircraft billowed in off the ocean, and men on both sides paused to scan the horizon. Japanese bombers. A scurry of movement among the soldiers below, orders shouted. The planes dropping their payloads on the grassy ridge to soften the American defences.

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Under the Keel

Under the Keel

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