About the Author

Donna Morrissey

Donna Morrissey (b. 1956) grew up in the isolated western Newfoundland community of The Beaches, where, she says, "There were twelve families and we didn't talk to six of them." She studied at Memorial University in St. John's, lived in various other parts of Canada, and makes her home in Halifax. Her first novel, Kit's Law (Penguin, 1999), the source of "Grieving Nan," won the National Booksellers Association Libris Award and garnered international praise.

Books by this Author
Downhill Chance

Crouching beside him Clair watched as her father, Job, pricked the tip of his knife through the hide of a young caribou, then drew it slow and easy across its belly, the hide singing back, and the blood spilling warm over his hands, staining scarlet onto the snow. Laying the knife to one side, he slid his hands inside the warmth of the carcass and pulled out the liver, pulsating purple in the afternoon sun, and threw it quivering upon a rock.

"Don’t drop it," he cautioned as she lifted the flesh, still trembling in her hands, and ran to the cabin door, trailing a bloodied path behind her.

"Wait, Clair; wait right there," her mother called out and, snatching a frying pan off the stove, met her at the door.

That evening, at supper, Clair turned to her sister, Missy, a good six years younger than she, and said, "Mmm, tastes like berries."

"No it don’t-do it, Mommy?" protested Missy.

"Yup; squashberries, partridgeberries, raspberries-all chomped together-like eating summer," said Clair.


"Pass me the meat, Sare, I haves a bite of winter," said Job, long and gangly, his oversized features sombre as he pulled into the table besides them.

"Landsakes, you’re going to drive her foolish, the both of you," said Sare over Missy’s rising protests, the lamplight colouring their faces like apricots as she sat at the table with them. "Here, come sit besides me, my dolly. I cuts up your meat." She fussed as Missy knelt upon the bench besides her, her face haloed with curls. "Sure, no wonder she’s always prattling about fairies when all she hears is her father and sister telling lies."

"Lies?" gasped Job, eyes popping. "I’ve never told a lie in me life."

"The banshees will take you," Missy warned, "and you won’t even know it because it’s winter and there’s no bluebells to ring that they’re coming."

"There, you’ve got her going agin," admonished Sare. "Eat your supper, child. You’re smaller than the fairies tickling your dreams. You too, Clair, and never mind your father’s foolishness."

Clair grinned as her father forked a piece of meat and pork scrunchions into his mouth and chomped down hard, his eyes widening with innocence as he turned them upon her. She didn’t know it then, supping back on a strip of fried onion and kicking his leg underneath the table, that winter, as she knew it, would never come again. Thus it was with the same comfort as yesterday that she scrabbled out the door that evening, dragging a piece of canvas up over the hill behind her mother, and sliding back down with Missy, her mother and father taking the lead, their shrieks echoing through the crisp night air, and the snow stinging the red of their cheeks.

It was what they did most evenings here in Cat Arm, their winter isolate till the ice broke, and their father, finished with his yearly logging, took them back up the bay to their home in the Basin. "Enough," groaned Sare, partways up the hill for the third time, dragging Missy besides her.

"Come on, come on, me b’yes, downhill chance, downhill chance," bellowed Job, walloping them on the behind much as he’d do with his old bone-wearied horse, Pearl, as he coaxed her, straining and snorting uphill, dragging a load of logs. "That’s the way," he said heartily as they managed the top and fell to their knees. "Chance to catch your breath on the way down-come on," he ordered, directing them to fall in line behind him as he plopped down on his piece of canvas. And leading the way, he swooshed back down the hill, digging his heels into the snow so’s to send it drifting back in their faces.

"Mercy," pleaded Sare as they landed in a pile at the bottom of the hill, and flopping back onto the snow, they stared up at the star-littered sky, listening as Job whistled shrilly up to the heavens, commanding the northern lights to dance.

"There they go, do you see them, Missy? See them, Clair? They’re dancing. Smile big-show your teeth, for he’s seeing us now, all lit up with his lights, and you wouldn’t want him catching you scowling, else he’ll think you’re not proud of the little small corner he’s given we."

"The foolishness of him," tutted Sare.

"Foolishness! You think this is foolishness!" exclaimed Job, expanding his arms as if to embrace the snow-blanketed evergreens, glowing white in the moonlight, and coating the hills that steepled two thousand feet above them. "Out of the garden with you, Mother-go on, out you go-that’s right, on your belly," he roared, buffing the powdery fine snow off his mitts onto her upturned face. Squealing with laughter, she shielded her face behind her scarf and crawled towards the cabin.

After cocoa and crackers, and with her father puffing on his pipe by the stove, her mother gathered her and Missy around her lap as she always did before bedtime, and read to them from the Bible, showing them pictures of archangels standing over dreaming men, while thundering clouds gathered grey in the sky behind, and a tunnel of golden light led the pathway to heaven. The reading done, she bade them to her knees and listened as they said their prayers out loud. "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; God bless Mommy, Daddy, Missy and all the starving children in the world, and the red men who died in the Congo." Then, with only the crackling of the fire and the creaking of the cabin beneath its snow-banked roof to hinder them, they recited the Lord’s Prayer in silence.

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Kit's Law

The savage was Margaret Eveleigh the next day in school when she hurtled a folded piece of paper on top of my desk with “GULLY TRAMP’S GIRL—I’M GOING TO KILL YOU” scratched across it. Turning around in his seat, Willard Gale, second cousin to Rube Gale, with clusters of sores crowding his raw, reddened nostrils and his dirt-grimed hair smelling as rancid as stale fat, snatched the note out of my hands and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Willard!” snapped the teacher, Mr. Haynes. Grabbing the leather strap off the wall with large, chalky hands, he stomped down the aisle, his chunky legs hitting against the sides of everyone’s desks as he come. Willard cringed back in his seat, his chin bowed to his chest, and I quickly ducked my head into a book.

“What did you put in your pocket?” asked Mr. Haynes.

Willard said nothing.

“Hold out your hand!”

Willard crouched deeper and . . . Crack! The leather belt smacked across the top of his desk.

“I said hold—out—your—hand!” Mr. Haynes ground out, and I knew without looking that his longish black hair had fallen over his forehead by now, and that the red bulb of his nose had changed into a livid purple.

Swish! The belt whistled through the air and thudded dully across padded flesh. Willard cried out, and he must’ve pulled his hand back because all I heard for the next savaged minute was the swishing of the belt smacking across the top of his desk, over and over and over, until Willard started bawling, more from the fright I allows, than of having the belt hit him. Then Mr. Haynes stomped back to the front of the room and, picking up a piece of chalk, scrawled across the board “I will not tell tales out of school” and ordered all of us to write the sentence one hundred times in our scribblers. Then, while we were writing as fast as our arms would let us, he marched up and down the aisle, ripping the pages out of our scribblers as we filled them up, and scrunching them into little balls, fired them into the coal bucket along the side of the stove at the back of the classroom.

The bell rung for recess, saving us from more writing, and flexing my fingers to get the cramp out of my hand, I ran out of the schoolhouse into the yard, savouring the fresh-smelling air. I had hardly filled my lungs when Margaret grabbed me by the collar and shoved me up against the picket fence.

“Your mother’s a tramp and your grandmother’s a loud-mouth pig and you tell her I don’t look like no tramp of hers—you hear me, Gully Tramp’s Girl?”

I stood still as anything as Mr. Haynes, his hair smoothed back over his forehead and his nose still flecked with purple, come up behind Margaret.

“What’s the matter, Margaret?”

Margaret dropped her hands by her side and give Mr. Haynes a pouty look.

“Kit called me a tramp.”

I gaped at Margaret like a guppy fish and tried to keep my face straight as Mr. Haynes bent over, boring heavily squinted eyes into mine. I stiffened as he laid a heavy hand on my shoulder and gave me a little shake.

“Apologize to Margaret,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” I half whispered.

“Say it agin!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Say—I’m—sorry—Margaret!” he stated slowly, lips peeling back over gritted teeth.

“I’m s-sorry, Margaret.”

He kept staring at me, his fingers digging into my shoulder, and my eyes wavered, not able to go far, as his face was a scant inch from mine, mostly to the bulb of his nose, and I saw that it wasn’t that his nose was purple, but that it looked purple from the dozens of tiny reddish veins meshing it.

“Is that all right, Margaret?” he asked, his eyes still searching out mine.

“Thank you, Mr. Haynes,” said Margaret, smiling sweetly. Then she ran off, leaving me struggling between the meshed, red veins and the boring, squinting eyes.

“Do you remember what I told you about reform school, girl?” he asked, his voice dropping lower, still.

I nodded.

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A memoir of a Newfoundland childhood and the raucous, terrible, amazing journey to becoming a novelist
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Sylvanus Now

Sylvanus Now

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A Man's Worth

Sylvanus now had just turned fourteen that morning when he burst through the school doors for summer, shoved his dory off from the calm shores of Cooney Arm, paddled through the narrow channel protecting the cove, and headed for the choppy waters of the open Atlantic. Tucked inside his pants pocket was a credit note for his confirmation suit, priced at thirty-two quintals of dried salt fish (on hold at the merchant's), and tucked around his feet were two coils of fishing twine, the end of each tightly knotted to a cod jigger.

Rowing half a mile along the rugged coastline, he anchored two stone's throws from where Pollock's Brook rushed out of a small estuary into the sea. Wrapping his fishing twine around each hand, he tossed the ends holding the jiggers overboard, their hooks more silvery than the underbelly of a herring as they sank into the sea. Rising, he planted both feet firmly on either side of his boat and began jigging: left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down. Thirty-two quintals of fish. A hundred and twelve pounds a quintal. He figured he could do it.

After scarcely five minutes of jigging, his left jigger hooked.

'Ah,' he grunted with satisfaction and, sitting back down, pulled in the fish. Ten pounds it felt. Fair size for drying and marketing. He grunted again. It was this, the immediacy of it, that fulfilled him. That even as he was twisting the jigger out of the cod's mouth, he was already tallying his own worth—unlike the hours spent over school books, studying letters and figures that made no sense.

Pulling a skinning knife out of his rubber boot, he cut the cod's throat to bleed it, cursing the gulls swooping and screaming overhead, one flapping so close he swung his knife at the yellowed eyes menacing him. Laying the fish aside, he tossed his jigger back into the sea and rose—left forearm up, right forearm down; right forearm up, left forearm down; up, down; up down—a sturdy figure in his father's black rubber pants and coat, unyielding to the rocking of his dory, his sou'wester pulled low, darkening his eyes as he faced into the sun and the gannets swooping black before its blaze as they dove into the sea a dozen feet below his boat, beaking back the caplin that were luring the cod to his jiggers.

Fourteen pounds. A day's jigging ought to land him half a quintal or more. With splitting, salting, and drying the fish on shore, it would take all three of the summer months, he figured, before he was able to dodge up to the merchant's and barter the price of the suit—for thirty-two quintal was the price he was figuring on paying, not the forty-two the merchant was asking. Perhaps he was poor at book learning, writing his numbers and letters backwards and trying the patience of his teachers and elders alike as they tried breaking him from the foolishness of his habit; but he could figure, sometimes for hours on end, about such things as how many cords of split wood to fill a twelve-by-twelve crawl space, or how long to leave a fish curing in brine, or, no doubt, how many hours it took to cut and sew a size-forty suit and how many quintals of fish to make a fair trade.

Another hook—a hard one. Real hard. Excitedly, he leaned over the side of his boat, pulled in his fishing twine, hand over hand, seeing a fathom down into the sea and the glazed eyes of a cod whose tail flicked confusedly as it was hauled from its brackish bed, up, up, up, breaking into the startling light of the sun.

'Whoa, now, who do we have here?' he asked in astonishment as he pulled the forty pounder half out of the water, the brown of its back glistening wet, its belly creamy as milk and swollen with roe. A mother-fish. Rarely would she feed off a jigger, busy as she was, bottom feeding and readying herself for spawning. Reverently, he unhooked the jigger from the mouth of the quietly struggling fish and watched the sun catch the last glimmer of her gills as she dove back into the deep, the sack of roe in her belly unscathed. He felt proud. The ocean's bounty, she was, and woe to he who desecrated the mother's womb. The gods smiled, and within the minute he was pulling another fish up from the deep, a twenty pounder, twice the normal size for a hand-jigged cod, and his heart pounded as he flipped it into his boat.

Two hours later, the twine was chafing his hands and his shoulders had begun to weaken. His father, before the sea took him (along with his eldest brother, Elikum), would've held out jigging till the tide ebbed. Come evening, he would've returned again, filling his boat for the second time that day, getting home late, late evening, working long into the night, gutting and splitting and salting his catch. And perhaps I might, too, row back out for the second tide, he thought. If I gets the morning's catch gutted and split and sitting in brine, and a good scoff of Mother's cooking filling me gut, I just might. And perhaps, by summer's end, I, too, might spend the whole day standing and jigging with nary an ache nor wish, like Father done.

Perhaps so. For now 'twas the most he could do to bleed the last fish, pull his anchor, and will his leaden arms to lift his paddles out of the water. Shoulders groaning, he rowed against a growing squall, plying harder on his paddles as he swerved back through the choppy waters that always choked the channel's narrow neck. One last long haul on his oars and he hoisted them inside, gliding toward the shoreline of Cooney Arm. Then, as he'd seen his elders do after making it through the neck in worsening weather, he rose, raising his eyes as if in salute to the wood-coated hills that cuddled the scant few houses of the arm from the wind and sea.

But Sylvanus's wasn't the salute of his elders. This morning's lop was a duck pond alongside the squalls they had survived. His was the salute of pride, for despite his having drawn ashore dozens of times before, sometimes with fifteen, maybe twenty pounds of cod for his mother's pot, today he was straddling a hundred and twenty pounds or more—a few pounds more than a quintal—from just four hours' fishing. A fisherman's catch, for sure, and to be bartered at the merchant's. And this thought cast his eyes anew upon the hills. Yet, unlike his elders', his sought more the rock gorge to his right and the thousands of fathoms of white foaming water crashing down its cut and spewing across the meadow into the embodying arms of the mother sea as she buoyed him and his bounty to shore. Water. God's blood, the elders used to say. And in his moment of pride, Sylvanus Now would've traded his last drop of red in gratitude.

Three months later, the thirty-two quintals of fish bartered and stored in the merchant's shed, he dodged home, a deep satisfaction filling his chest and the suit, carefully wrapped in brown paper, tucked under his arm. His mother, Eva, her aging hair bundled at her nape and her fading grey eyes bolstered by the black lustrous brows that she'd bequeathed to all of her boys, met him in the doorway. Proudly, he pulled the suit from its wrappings and held it before her—three sizes too big so's to allow for his last few years' growth—and announced he was quitting school and going fishing for good.

Eva sighed. His was the unsanctioned egg, the one who shuddered from her old woman's body long after the others had been born and grown, and a month after her husband and eldest had been lost to the sea. Too wearied was she to give chase when, the moment he found his legs, he was rattling doorknobs and gateposts and trotting along the beach, bawling to go out in the boat with her third eldest, Manny. And in vain were her protests when Manny, his own chin still soft with baby-down, yet his heart broader than his burly frame and sorrowing for this fatherless youngster, buttoned him inside an oilskin coat that fell below his knees, and hove him aboard his punt. Tying a length of twine with a jigger around Sylvanus's pudgy hands, he shoved off from shore, heading for the fishing grounds. Now, as Sylvanus filled her doorway, grinning foolishly over the suit he held before her, his glut of coarse, dark hair and brows exaggerating a stubbornness fossilized since birth, she merely ambled past him, pulling on her gardening gloves.

Hooking his suit to a notch below the mantel, Sylvanus left the house and sauntered down to his father's stage, untouched since the day of his drowning, and wriggled open the door. It was darkish inside and murky, the air sharp with brine. Filling his lungs, he stood, waiting, watching, as his eyes adjusted, giving shape to the bulks and bundles strewn around him.

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The Fortunate Brother

His father  was sitting at the table by the window, drinking coffee, when he came out of the shower. Addie was laying a plate of beans and runny egg yolks before him and Kyle’s stomach curdled and he lunged for the door. Holding on to the grump, he spewed into the water, his ribs spearing through his side like knives. He looked up, seeing two men in a boat paddling offshore from the outcropping of rock and cliff that blocked his view of Hampden. Hooker’s father, Bill, and his grandfather. They were standing now, tensed, looking ashore towards the rock face. Their voices grew louder, alarmed. Bill grabbed the oars and, still standing, rowed furiously towards the cliff, vanishing behind the outcropping.
Kyle heard his mother coming to the door, calling him, but he eased himself down over the wharf onto the beach and trekked across the shoreline towards the outcropping. As much to escape her attentions as to satisfy his curiosity.

During high tide the only way around the outcropping was by boat. This morning the tide was out. He climbed across wet rock made more slippery by tide-abandoned kelp. He’d been climbing around here since he was a kid, shortcutting it to Hampden. The front of the outcropping spanned a few hundred feet of rugged rock face, a small inlet forged into its centre. Hooker’s grandfather was holding the boat steady near a clutch of rocks before the inlet. Bill was out of the boat and hunched over, looking down at something amongst the rocks, his face scrunched up as though tasting some- thing nasty. Straddling the rocks opposite Bill was Clar’s dog, whin- ing and pawing at the head of a large pool of water left over by the tide. Something greenish was floating in it.
“What’s going on?” called Kyle. No one looked at him. He came closer and then went down on one knee, his breath sticking in his throat. Clar Gillard. Half submerged. Flat on his back, arms and legs strewn out as though he were basking in sun-warmed waters. Blue jeans suctioned like skin to his legs. Greeny brown seaweed shifting with the water over his chest and bobbing around a face that was grey and frozen like clay on a winter’s morning. His mouth was stretched open, his eyes wide and emptied. Clar Gillard did not look pretty in death.

“Teeth marks on his shoulder,” said Bill. “Looks like the dog dragged him ashore.”

“His truck’s over on the wharf,” said the old man. “Was there all night.”

“He must’ve fallen overboard,” said Bill. “Drunk, I suppose.” “Don’t think he could swim,” said the old man. They both looked to Kyle as if he might know.

“He ain’t never gonna learn now,” said Kyle.

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What They Wanted

What They Wanted

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