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Great Fiction Set in Cape Breton

By kileyturner
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Oh, the names on this list! This little island has inspired some big stories – some of Canada's most unforgettable.


also available: Paperback
tagged : literary, humorous

Shortlisted, Margaret and John Savage First Book Award, Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award, and Leacock Award for Humour
This Crow will ruffle a few feathers.

When Stacey Fortune is diagnosed with three highly unpredictable — and inoperable — brain tumours, she abandons the crumbling glamour of her life in Toronto for her mother Effie's scruffy trailer in rural Cape Breton. Back home, she's known as Crow, and everybody suspects that her family is cursed.

With her future all but sealed, Crow deci …

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Anna From Away

Anna From Away

also available: eBook Hardcover
tagged : literary

“Subtle, powerful, seductive and suspenseful, this is anovel that will steal your heart away.” —THE CHRONICLE HERALD

When Anna Starling flees a dissolving marriage in California to save herself and her artistic career in Cape Breton, her life intersects with that of Red Murdock, a cabinetmaker who has recently lost the great love of his life, Rosaire. Surrounded by old ghosts and echoes of those who once lived in this isolated, depleted community, Anna and Murdock discover that the present …

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Fall on Your Knees

Fall on Your Knees


Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book

Following the curves of history in the first half of the twentieth century, Fall On Your Knees takes us from haunted Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, through the battle fields of World War One, to the emerging jazz scene of New York city and into the lives of four unforgettable sisters. The mythically charged Piper family--James, a father of intelligence and immense ambition, Materia, his Lebanese child-bride, and their daughters: Kathleen, …

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Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.

Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.

Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.

Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.

So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.

Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.

There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.

Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."

And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.

But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?

But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.

All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.

Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.

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Strange Heaven

Strange Heaven

tagged : literary

Winner, Atlantic Independent Booksellers Choice Award, Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award, Dartmouth Book Award, and Thomas Head Raddall Award
Shortlisted, Governor General's Award for Fiction

She's depressed, they say. Apathetic. Bridget Murphy, almost eighteen, has had it with her zany family. When she is transferred to the psych ward after giving birth and putting her baby up for adoption, it is a welcome relief — even with the manic ranting of a teen stripper and come-ons of anot …

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The Bishop's Man

The Bishop's Man

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Something about the boat, perhaps its name, and the posture of that boy caused me to defer my anxieties for the moment. It was so rare to see someone that age stationary, somber. I was more accustomed to a rowdy adolescent enthusiasm. This young man, I realized, was exceptional only because of time and place. Maybe any one of them in those circumstances would have been the same. Quiet. But he caught my attention nevertheless and linked the moment to tender places in the memory. Doomed boys and …

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{ 1 }

The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home.

I was a priest in a time that is not especially convivial toward the clergy. I had, nevertheless, achieved what I believed to be a sustainable spirituality and an ability to elaborate upon it with minimal cant and hypocrisy. I had even, and this is no small achievement, come to terms with a certain sordid obscurity about my family origins in a place where people celebrate the most tedious details of their personal ancestry.

I am the son of a bastard father. My mother was a foreigner, felled long before her time by disappointment and tuberculosis.

I was, in the most literal sense, a child of war. I’ve calculated that my conception occurred just days before my father’s unit embarked from England for the hostile shores of Italy, on October 23, 1943. There is among his papers a cryptic reference to a summary trial and fine (five days’ pay) for being AWOL on the night of October 17. I was born in London, England, July 15, 1944.

Isolation? I had, though perhaps imperfectly, mastered celibacy, the institutional denial of the most human of transactions. I was and am, to a degree, excluded from my peer group, my brothers in the priesthood, for complex reasons that will soon become apparent. But at the time I thought that I’d discovered an important universal truth: that isolation, willingly embraced, becomes the gift of solitude; that discipline ennobles flesh.

In that evanescent moment of tranquility, I was feeling okay. I see it as another life, the man I was, a stranger now.

I’d spent the weekend in Cape Breton, in the parish of Port Hood, filling in for Mullins, who had gone away with his charismatics or for golf. Escape of some kind. Mullins likes to pace himself. I’d planned to extend my visit by a day, to spend that Monday reading, meditating. The village of Port Hood is a pretty place and restful. I grew up in the area, but my personal connections there were limited. I could pretend to be a stranger, a pose I find congenial.

Mullins and the good Sisters up the road had given the glebe a comfortable tidiness. Anyone could feel at home there, as in a well-maintained motel. It has a remarkable view of the gulf and a small fishing harbour, just along the coast, called Murphy’s Pond. It was a pleasant change from the incessant noise and movement at the university an hour or so away, where, normally, my job was dean of students. In truth it was, as my late father used to say in a rare ironic moment, not so much a job as a position. Others did most of the real work. I was, in fact, in a kind of pastoral limbo, recovering, ostensibly, from several years of hard, unsavoury employment.

The phone aroused me on that Monday morning in Port Hood and launched the narrative that I must now, with some reluctance, share.

“The bishop needs to see you.”

“What does he want now?” I asked.

“He didn’t say. He said to come this evening. To the palace.”

I know now that I was stalling when I drove to Little Harbour, which is another, smaller fishing port just off a secondary road on the southern edge of the parish.

The harbour seemed to be deserted. Among the vivid particulars of that October morning in 1993 I remember a blue heron, knee-deep, transfixed by something in the quiet, oil-still water. Then I heard a throbbing diesel engine and at that moment observed a tall radio antenna mounted upon what might have been a crucifix. It was moving slowly above the crest of a low ridge in the near distance. The transient cross and the gentle rumble seemed unrelated until a boat suddenly appeared around the jagged end of a breakwater. It was a fishing vessel, about forty feet long, bristling with aerials and with a broad workspace behind the cab. The name, the Lady Hawthorne, might have been an omen, or maybe I just think that now, in the clarity of hindsight.

The boy standing on the bow was about eighteen years old. A rope dangled casually from a large left hand. He wore the uniform of the shore — jeans, a discoloured sweater unravelled at the elbows, knee-high rubber boots. He had a thick mop of unfashionably long hair obscuring his brow and neck. His face was tanned. He stared straight ahead but then turned and nodded, a moment of distracted curiosity as the boat slipped down the long throat of the harbour, stem turning a clean, whispering furrow.

It was about eight o’clock. The blood-red sun hovering behind me lifted a flimsy mist and held it just above the surface of the water. I felt the first stirring of a breeze. Something about the boat, perhaps its name, and the posture of that boy caused me to defer my anxieties for the moment. It was so rare to see someone that age stationary, sombre. I was more accustomed to a rowdy adolescent enthusiasm. This young man, I realized, was exceptional only because of time and place. Maybe any one of them in those circumstances would have been the same. Quiet. But he caught my attention nevertheless and linked the moment to tender places in the memory. Doomed boys and men: in retrospect they all have that stillness.

The man at the controls was probably my age, tall and heavy-set. They were, to my mind, almost reckless then, rushing through the narrow passage, past a nestling line of sister boats. But just before the wharf there was a roar of reverse acceleration and the Lady Hawthorne seemed to pivot in a tight circle then drift gently into a space between two others, bow pointing seaward. The boy stepped casually ashore with the rope. The older man was already at the stern, gathering another line into a coil, which he tossed up onto the land.

The two fishermen were winching some large plastic boxes onto the dock as I was walking back to my car. Father and son, I assumed. They didn’t seem to notice me.

I was almost at the car when the older man spoke. “Wicked morning, eh, Father.”

I turned.

“I never forget a face,” he said. “Father MacAskill, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.

He walked toward me then, holding out a large hand. He seemed a bit unsteady. The boy was back on board the boat and out of sight.

“Dan MacKay,” he said. “I think I heard you’re from up around the strait.”

“Yes. And you?”

“I’m a shore road MacKay.”

His hair, the colour of sand, was streaked with wisps of grey. A name stirred in the memory.

“Danny Ban,” I said. “They used to call you Danny Ban, I think.”

He blushed. “Years ago. I’d hate to think of what you heard. Danny Bad was more like it, probably.”

I laughed.

“But I don’t live here now. I’m up in Hawthorne. Been there for years. Built my own place after the young fella came along.”

“Hawthorne,” I said. “I noticed . . . the name on your boat.”

“You know the place?”

“I’ve heard of it. But I’ve never been there.”

“You should drop in sometime. Visit the house.”

“Maybe I will.”

The boy was walking toward their truck, ignoring us.

“The name is on the mailbox at the lane,” his father said. “MacKay. We’re the only ones up there.”


He turned then and walked toward the truck, where the boy was already waiting at the wheel. The engine roared impatiently to life. I wondered again about the unsteadiness in his pace. From being on the boat, I thought. Sea legs.

He’d hardly closed the truck door when they were off, rear wheels spinning in the gravel. The truck stopped briefly where the wharf road meets the pavement. You could tell by the angled heads that they were talking. Using their secret language, the dialect of intimacy. Single words and obscure phrases conveying volumes.

“I’m a shore road MacKay,” he’d said. A brief biography and, for those who know the place, a genealogy, all you need to know summed up in a single phrase. Once, I might have felt a little envious. But somewhere along the way identity has ceased to matter, where I’m from, inconsequential. I have become the cloth. That’s enough for anyone to know.

“Come by any time,” he’d said. “For a visit.”

And that’s how things begin. Needs dressed up as hospitality.

There was a rusty freighter in the canal that technically sustains our status as an island. The swing bridge at the end of the milelong causeway was open, the road lined with cars and trucks impatient for their mainland destinations. I welcomed the delay. The bishop always has a reason when he calls; he always has a “special” job.

I’ve often tried to remember how it started, how I became his . . . what? What am I? I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ll put it this way: for other priests, I’m not a welcome presence on the doorstep.

The first summons by the bishop had seemed innocuous enough. The particulars are almost lost now, obscured by far more troubling memories, but I remember what he said: “I’ve asked you to come here because you have a good head on your shoulders.”

He wanted me to handle a delicate matter. That was how he would describe them all. Matters that were delicate. Issues that required a good head and a steady hand. It was probably the late seventies. I’d only just returned from my two years in Honduras.

“After what you’ve been through down south,” he said, “you’ll probably consider this kind of Mickey Mouse. But things are getting out of hand here. Dear old John the Twenty-third, God rest his soul . . . he had no idea what he was getting us all into.”

I remember listening carefully, trying to anticipate where he was heading.

He sighed deeply. “There’s a young priest . . . You probably know him.”

I probably did, at one time.

I’d prefer not to name the place specifically. Just imagine one of many threadbare little communities clinging to the hundreds of bays and coves that once had integrity by virtue of their isolation. The priest in question and his young housekeeper had become a source of local gossip. I do remember that she had a pretty face with warm, frightened eyes and a full mouth that trembled when I asked her if Father was in. But mostly I remember the culprit’s attitude. It was his smugness, his unspoken sense of superiority. It was his obvious certainty that he’d transcended the lies and postures that had trapped the rest of us, we lesser priests, in our barren inhumanity. I’ve heard and seen it all many times since then.

I said: “Your housekeeper seems to be putting on weight.” I smiled, coldly, I hoped.

He laughed. “I already know why you’re here. Let’s not beat around the bush.”

“You go first,” I said, sipping at my tea.

He told me that “in all sincerity” the situation made him a better person. He actually believed it. I confess I felt like hitting him. I think I arranged a period of reflection in Toronto and he was gone in a few weeks. I persuaded her to lie low for a while. Life is full of temporary absences, I told her. It was that simple. But it was only the beginning, a sad rehearsal for the challenging assignments yet to come.

I was rattled by the time I reached the campus. It’s difficult to say for sure why. The reference to Hawthorne? The boy on the boat? Given what I now know, it could have been either, but it was, in part, almost certainly the summons from the bishop. The bishop only calls when there’s a problem.

“You know about the bishop?” Rita reminded me.


“And you have an appointment at three this afternoon. An incident on the weekend.”

“Incident? What kind of incident?”

“Campus police found a fellow on the roof of the chapel. They think that you should handle it.” She smiled, sympathetically, I thought.

I guess by then a part of me accepted that I’d become a specialist in discipline. Technically it’s part of the dean’s job, and I was officially a dean. In truth I had neither the academic nor the occupational background for such a post. Just the temperament and, by default, the practical experience. I was a clergyman posted to a small, nominally Catholic university because my bishop didn’t really know where else to put me. At the peak of my usefulness I was attached to the diocesan chancery, but I soon became too controversial even for that busy place. Toxic, I suppose, is not too strong a word. My colleagues know about my history, my experience rooting out perversions, disciplining other priests, and sometimes students, when the cases are particularly sensitive. The Exorcist they’ve called me. Behind my back, of course.

A student on the chapel roof?

“He had a handsaw.”

“A saw?”

“Go figure.”

The bishop was expecting me at seven. I decided to walk. The town was quiet. On Monday nights the students usually stay in because they’re broke or hungover or both. Bored waiters stood outside the silent pub, the smoke from their cigarettes curling like fog around them in the still October air.

“Winter’s not far off,” I remark, walking by.

Once, the reply would have been swift and respectful. Yes, Father. Hand raised quickly to the cap. You can feel the snow in the air already. Good evening to yourself, Father. Now they stare. They’re just suspicious. Burly boys in baseball caps, arms folded. We are a fallen species. Strange men in black, stunted by the burden of our secrets. I smile. What if they knew the whole story?

I try to remember all the times I’ve made that walk through town to see my bishop. Past the looming cathedral, the bowling alley, the pub. Past what was, in my student days, a restaurant called the Brigadoon. We had rules back then. Lights out at eleven. Up and out in time for Mass at seven. No alcohol or women in the rooms. Virtue was the essence of the status quo. Virtue was the norm, they taught us.

Times have changed.

I fumble for the rosary in the pocket of my overcoat. The mindless recitation always helps subdue anxiety.

The first sorrowful mystery. The agony in the garden. The smooth, small beads are soothing on the fingertips. The bishop’s palace is set back from Main Street, among dark chestnut trees. I don’t know why they call it the palace. It’s just a house, large to be sure, and elegant. The designation “palace” probably had more to do with the authority of the old man inside than the architecture.

He met me at the door. I anticipated the welcoming aromas of cooking, but the place seemed clean and empty, vaguely like the cathedral on St. Ninian Street.

“I forgot,” he said. “Herself had the day off. I’m hopeless in the kitchen. You didn’t eat, did you?”


“Well, I’m starved. You order up a pizza. It’ll be on me. You’d have a dram?”

“I would,” I said, “if you coaxed me.”

“Help yourself. I’m on the phone. There’s a take-out menu on my desk.”

He disappeared again and I headed for the sideboard in his study, where the whiskies were lined up in crystal decanters. I poured a drink. Picked up the phone, heard someone talking far away, quickly opened up another line and dialed the local takeout. Then sat down to wait. Our Saviour, hanging on the large crucifix above the desk, was staring down at me. He seemed to be saying: You again? What now? I wish I knew. I could hear the bishop’s voice faintly in another room. He was speaking loudly. But then I heard what seemed to be a laugh.

I’m sure he wasn’t that informal for everybody. I had special status because of my unusual history. My adult life, I suppose, could be measured in the spaces between my visits to that little office. How many years since I first sat there, a student, earnest in the throes of my vocation, oozing piety and purpose? I can see him now, sitting serenely beneath that crucifix.

“I think I want to be a priest,” I told him, heart pounding.

He listened quietly, but in the manner of one who already knew far more than I was telling him. He was smiling, but the eyes were not encouraging. “Why would you want to be a priest?”

I wasn’t ready for the question. I assumed the Church was like any wartime army, always looking for recruits.

“I might need time to think before I answer,” I said carefully.

“Good. Take all the time you need. The answer is important. It could one day save your soul.”

He never asked again, which is just as well, for even now I’m not sure what I’d say.

My eyes drifted back to the crucifix. The Saviour’s face exhibits a kind of weariness that I can easily relate to. When all is said and done, I thought, I don’t really have the stomach for this anymore. Disciplining wayward priests and drunken students.

The door opened suddenly. I want to say he “swept” into the room. You could imagine the swish of vestments, medieval dust rising around sandals. He was wearing running shoes, cords and a cardigan. His silver hair was disorderly. He went straight to the sideboard and poured himself a stiff drink. The bishop grew up in a place called Malignant Cove and clearly loves the reaction this disclosure always gets. You laugh as though you haven’t heard it a hundred times before.

“You were in Port Hood for the weekend.”

“Yes,” I said. “Mullins called out of the blue.”

He was pouring generously. “Coincidentally, I was just on the phone about a matter indirectly concerning Port Hood. And you.”

I was trying to imagine what it was.

“You remember Father Bell . . . the notorious Brendan Bell?”

“Yes,” I said warily, thinking to myself, So that’s what this is all about. Brendan Bell. What now?

“One of your former clients,” he said.

“I remember.”

Bell was supposed to be the last of them — “the last station on our via dolorosa,” was how he phrased it. The bishop actually promised. This should be the last of it, he’d said. Maybe that’s why I recall that particular encounter with such clarity.

The first time I met him, Bell was sitting exactly where I was sitting at that moment. It was in the winter, 1990. He made quite an impression, an Anglo-Irish Newfoundlander, a little shorter than I am, but most people are. Dark brown hair pulled back tightly into a tiny knob-like ponytail, a brilliant smile that seemed genuine, and nothing whatsoever in his manner that might reveal the miserable circumstances that sent him to us. But I soon found out that he was in a spot of trouble. The bishop of St. John’s was asking for a tiny favour.

I suggested Mullins in Port Hood.

“You’ll like Port Hood,” I said. “But they won’t put up with any bullshit there.”

Bell smiled at me and nodded. “I hear you loud and clear.”

“You probably knew he was in Toronto,” the bishop said, now sniffing at his drink.

“That’s where he was heading after Port Hood,” I said.

“Your Brendan has applied for laicization. That was Toronto on the line just now. Wondering if we’d put a word in. He wants to be fast-tracked.”

“What’s his rush?” I asked.

“He says he’s in love.”

“In love with what?”

“He says he’s getting married.”

“Married? Brendan?”

The bishop nodded, a tight smile causing the corners of his mouth to twitch.

“Marrying a woman?” I said, incredulous.

“That’s what they do, though you never know, up there in Toronto.”

“So what will you do?” I asked.

“I said I’d help. Brendan married — good for the optics, don’t you think?”

The pizza arrived and we moved to the kitchen. The bishop was carrying our glasses and a fresh bottle of Balvenie. He arranged two places at the table, tore sheets from a roll of paper towel.

“You’ve been ordained, what, now? Twenty-five years, I think.” He was speaking with his mouth full.


“Are you planning anything . . . some little do to mark the special anniversary?”


“I suppose,” he said, chewing thoughtfully, “you have no family to speak of. I suppose it would be different if you were in a parish.”


“You must sometimes wonder why you’ve never had a parish of your own.”

I shrugged. “You’ve told me more than once. I think you used to call it my ‘asymmetrical’ family history.”

“You were a curate once.”


“Well, never mind that. I sent you down to Central America. In 1975, wasn’t it?”


“Those were the days, when I had manpower to spare.” He shook his head and studied me for a moment.

“But it wasn’t exactly a ‘manpower’ decision, was it?”

I thought he’d ignore the comment.

“You went through a hard patch, true enough,” he said. “But it defined your special gifts. I’m loath to quote Nietzsche . . . but . . . you know what I mean. You’re a strong man. A survivor. I always knew that.”

I nodded uncomfortably.

“I consider that period a little . . . hiccup . . . in an otherwise exemplary priesthood.” He sipped the drink, reflecting, I assumed, upon my exemplary service. “Ministry takes many forms. Tegucigalpa revealed yours. The Lord’s methods aren’t always obvious to us mortals.”

“I suppose,” I said, attempting a wry smile.

I had three drinks in and more than half the pizza was already gone when he got around to what I was really there for. He said he wanted me, after all these years, to take over a parish. A little place. Nothing too strenuous.


“Time to settle down,” he said. “I figure you’re ready for some new challenges. What would you think of Creignish?”

“Creignish,” I repeated.

“Yes,” he replied.

“I can’t see it. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do there. And I’m perfectly happy at the university.”

But I knew his mind was made up. He had that sorrowful look he sometimes gets when exercising God’s authority.

“Having priests semi-employed at the university became a luxury we can’t afford a long, long time ago. There’s no shortage of lay professors and administrators. Look around you.”

“But the Catholic character of the university? People from all over send their kids here for what they expect to be a Catholic education.”

“We’re more concerned about the Catholic character of the countryside, the solid places like Port Hood and Creignish. Malignant Cove.”

I knew I was supposed to laugh. “But—”

He raised an apostolic hand for silence, then stood and paced the room. “Look,” he said finally. “I regard you as a clone of myself. So I’m going to be frank.” He took the bottle, splashed both our glasses. “I thought certain . . . matters . . . were all behind us. But there have been developments.”


“Nothing to concern yourself about just yet. But next year could be tough. Big time.”

Instantly, half a dozen names and faces flashed before my eyes.

“Not Brendan Bell?”

“No, no, no,” he said impatiently. “That’s old history. We seem to be entering phase two now. The lawyers are getting into the act. I’d like to get you out of the line of fire.”

“What line of fire?”

“I just want you out of the way. You never know what lawyers might come up with. I think Creignish is perfect. Off the beaten track.”

We sat in silence for a full minute, the old house creaking around us.

“You’re going to have to tell me who it is,” I said. “Which one they’re talking about.”

He reached for my glass, which was still half full. “Let me freshen that.”

“Look, I’d appreciate just a clue . . . just to know how worried I should be.”

“It’s none of them and all of them. You can relax.”

The face and tone were unconvincing. We sat and stared at each other.

Finally he said, “You’ve been mentioned.”

“I’ve been mentioned.”

“You know how it is these days. Everything a conspiracy. Cover-up. You, me. Now we seem to be the bad guys. Whatever happened to trust and respect, never mind the faith?”

“Mentioned by?”

“The damned insinuating lawyers.”

“What are they insinuating?”

“It’s only speculation about how we handled certain matters. They keep going on about something called ‘vicarious liability.’ Did you ever hear the like of it?” He tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling, lips puckered. “Vicarious my foot.” Then he sighed and sipped his drink. “You’ve turned out to be my rock. It was as if providence revealed your strengths to me exactly when I needed you. But now it’s time for you to get lost in parish work and pray that this thing blows over without bankrupting us.”

“But Creignish?”

“You’ll have no trouble settling in. You’re from around there. They’ll know the kind of man you really are, no matter what they might or might not hear.”

I stared at him. I thought: He’s dreaming. But argument was futile.

“For how long?”

“As long as necessary.”

At the door, when I was leaving, his mood became enthusiastic. I was going to love parish work, he said. “Especially Creignish. Good old-fashioned people there. You’ll do a bang-up job. You’re going to be a real priest for a change. Anybody comes looking for you, that’s what they’re going to find. God’s shepherd, tending the flock.”

“When do you want me to go?” I asked.

“The sooner the better.”

“I’ll go in the spring,” I said.

He looked dubious.

“Unless, of course, the bailiff is on the way already.”

He didn’t react to my irony, just said, “Suit yourself . . . but keep your head down in the meantime.” Before he shut the door, he said, “I heard about the kid on the roof of the chapel the other night. What are they doing about him?”

I shrugged and waited.

“They say he had a saw or something, that he was heading for the cross . . .”

“I’m giving him a break,” I said.

“Good. You know who his father is.”

And he shut the door.

† † †

Walking home on that cold October night, I was barely conscious of the town, the small clusters of subdued youngsters straggling along the street. A fine drizzle filtered through the low-beam headlights of a passing pickup truck. A fluorescent light flickered in an office and another window filled with darkness. I felt disoriented. It was his mood. The heartiness was false. Something large has rattled him. He’s sending me away again. Where did this begin?

And then it is 1968 again and I am on this street, walking full of purpose in the opposite direction, toward the railway station, with a suitcase and a briefcase, the sum of all my secular possessions. Walking tall, bound for a place that I now dare not name for fear of stirring best-forgotten trauma. It is June, an evening sweet with early lilac and the hum of hopeful voices talking politics. June ’68, a renaissance of sorts, at least for me. I was reborn, a priest.

Oh, yes. He told me that time too that I was going to love the place, the place I dare not mention now, in middle age. And by the way, he said, you’ll be with an old pal of ours.

“Surely you remember Dr. Roddie . . . your old philosophy guru. He’ll be there with you. He said he’ll keep an eye on you. The two of you can spend the long winter evenings reading the Summa to each other.”

“Father Roddie?”

“I knew that you’d be pleased. He’s taking a little sabbatical. Teaching college students burned him out. He could have gone anywhere . . . I offered Rome. But he insisted on helping out in a parish for a while. Isn’t that just typical?”

The street was almost empty. The drizzle warmed below my eyes, ran like tears beside my nose. Father Roddie. I’d almost forgotten him. A dormant apprehension glowed within me, then, just as swiftly, dimmed. It can’t be Father Roddie this time. He’d be nearly eighty now. I laughed aloud.

“Father Roddie. Wherever did you get to?”

A student shuffled by, stopped and turned. “Excuse me?” he said.

I hurried on.

The campus was quiet but for the throb of music from the residences. I was near the chapel, so I turned toward the stone steps leading up to its double doors. They were unlocked but yielded with reluctance. I dipped my fingers in the holy water then slid into a pew near the back. The gloom flickered near the altar. Somewhere in the basement auditorium someone was practising scales on a clarinet. A tuneless wail of notes gave substance to the shadows around me until I felt that I was wrapped in a suffocating shroud, lost in the endless carnage of days since I first embarked upon this journey into ambiguity. It’s ironic when I think of it: the beauty of the priesthood used to be the promise of its certainties.

The clarinet faltered. A music student struggling with a hard passage from Rhapsody in Blue. The wind rose outside, tapping at a window.

Tap tap tap.
“Hello . . . are you in there?”
Tap tap tap.
“Father Roddie?”

The door is ajar. I hear a sound. Someone moving.

Just walk right in, he’d said. The hearing isn’t what it used to be.

I walked right in.

An old priest’s sanctuary, drape darkened, sound muffled by reams of books, ancient tomes promising the wisdom of the ages.

“Father Roddie?”

He’s at his desk, expression calm and cold. “And what can I do for you.”

Not a question. A comment.

“I had a question . . .”

“What about?”

And then I see his visitor, the boy, stricken. Pale with guilt.

I think I must have slept there in the chapel for a while. It was late when I returned to my room. Then I remembered: Creignish. I had a mental picture of the place, the side of a low mountain of the same name, a few miles from where I grew up. Oh, well.

My eye moved to a bookshelf, stopped at a black book spine. John Macquarrie / Existentialism. I removed it from the shelf, turned to the neat handwriting on the title page: Tragedy and limitation are part of what it means to be human . . . Then: Welcome back from your sabbatical. Found this in Boston. Perhaps our paths will cross ere long. RM.
And then the scrawled signature: Roddie MacVicar. December, 1977.
I closed the book, and then my eyes. The images were overwhelming.

“I don’t care what you think you saw.”

The bishop’s neck is pulsing, a purple swelling throbbing at the centre of his forehead, outraged roseola nose aglow.

“I know what I saw.”

“You think you know.”

“I know.”

“Our eyes play tricks.”

“I know.”

“We know nothing. We believe. We have faith. It is our only source of hope. But that isn’t the point. You had no goddamned business spying.”

Spying? I just stare.

“I sent you there to help them out, not to snoop.”

I turn away from his outrage. Study the crucifix above his desk.

“You’re talking about a saint,” he says, quiet now, the rage replaced by injury. “A saint. A prince among men. I know him well. I’ve known him since we were students. You should aspire someday to be his equal.”

The bishop, finally calmed, declared that it was my “asymmetrical upbringing,” my “dysfunctional home life” that was at the root of my deficiencies. It caused me to see the worst in everyone, he said, and to be too inclined to read things in then jump to wrong conclusions. I don’t understand the family dynamic, and until I do, I’ll never be a parish priest. A parish is the ideal family, he said.

“What are you trying to tell me?”

He waved an impatient hand. “Let’s not get analytical. Let’s just say you need some special on-the-job experience. Which is why we’re thinking of sending you away for a while.”


“We’re thinking of somewhere in the Third World, where things are simple and straightforward. A good place for you to experience the richness of family and parish life and the undiluted faith of the common people.”

The Third World?

“We happen to have an arrangement with the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa . . .”


“They’re expecting you next week.”

I poured a whisky, sipped it straight. It was Tegucigalpa then, Creignish now. In a way it’s easier this time, I thought. Nothing in my life, since then or yet unlived, could ever be like Tegucigalpa. And this time I’ll have months to make the mental adjustments. And who knows? Things change. By spring we could all be different people.

I surveyed my tiny room. And if I go, I won’t have much to pack. Mostly books. Some photographs. A frugal wardrobe. One of the advantages of my calling: we travel light.

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The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod has been hailed internationally as a master of the short story. Now MacLeod’s collected stories, including two never before published, are gathered together for the first time in Island. These sixteen superbly crafted stories, most of them firmly based in Cape Breton even if its people stray elsewhere, depict men and women living out their lives against the haunting landscape that surrounds them. Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relation …

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The Boat

There are times even now, when I awake at four o'clock in the morning with the terrible fear that I have overslept; when I imagine that my father is waiting for me in the room below the darkened stairs or that the shorebound men are tossing pebbles against my window while blowing their hands and stomping their feet impatiently on the frozen steadfast earth. There are times when I am half out of bed and fumbling for socks and mumbling for words before I realize that I am foolishly alone, that no one waits at the base of the stairs and no boat rides restlessly in the waters by the pier.

At such times only the grey corpses on the overflowing ashtray beside my bed bear witness to the extinction of the latest spark and silently await the crushing out of the most recent of their fellows. And then because I am afraid to be alone with death, I dress rapidly, make a great to-do about clearing my throat, turn on both faucets in the sink and proceed to make loud splashing ineffectual noises. Later I go out and walk the mile to the all-night restaurant.

In the winter it is a very cold walk, and there are often tears in my eyes when I arrive. The waitress usually gives a sympathetic little shiver and says, "Boy, it must be really cold out there; you got tears in your eyes."

"Yes," I say, "it sure is; it really is."

And then the three or four of us who are always in such places at such times make uninteresting little protective chit-chat until the dawn reluctantly arrives. Then I swallow the coffee, which is always bitter, and leave with a great busy rush because by that time I have to worry about being late and whether I have a clean shirt and whether my car will start and about all the other countless things one must worry about when one teaches at a great Midwestern university. And I know then that that day will go by as have all the days of the past ten years, for the call and the voices and the shapes and the boat were not really there in the early morning's darkness and I have all kinds of comforting reality to prove it. They are only shadows and echoes, the animals a child's hands make on the wall by lamplight, and the voices from the rain barrel; the cuttings from an old movie made in the black and white of long ago.

I first became conscious of the boat in the same way and at almost the same time that I became aware of the people it supported. My earliest recollection of my father is a view from the floor of gigantic rubber boots and then of being suddenly elevated and having my face pressed against the stubble of his cheek, and of how it tasted of salt and of how he smelled of salt from his red-soled rubber boots to the shaggy whiteness of his hair.

When I was very small, he took me for my first ride in the boat. I rode the half-mile from our house to the wharf on his shoulders and I remember the sound of his rubber boots galumphing along the gravel beach, the tune of the indecent little song he used to sing, and the odour of the salt.

The floor of the boat was permeated with the same odour and in its constancy I was not aware of change. In the harbour we made our little circle and returned. He tied the boat by its painter, fastened the stern to its permanent anchor and lifted me high over his head to the solidity of the wharf. Then he climbed up the little iron ladder that led to the wharf's cap, placed me once more upon his shoulders and galumphed off again.

When we returned to the house everyone made a great fuss over my precocious excursion and asked, "How did you like the boat?" "Were you afraid in the boat?" "Did you cry in the boat?" They repeated "the boat" at the end of all their questions and I knew it must be very important to everyone.

My earliest recollection of my mother is of being alone with her in the mornings while my father was away in the boat. She seemed to be always repairing clothes that were "torn in the boat," preparing food "to be eaten in the boat" or looking for "the boat" through our kitchen window which faced upon the sea. When my father returned about noon, she would ask, "Well, how did things go in the boat today?" It was the first question I remember asking: "Well, how did things go in the boat today?" "Well, how did things go in the boat today?"

The boat in our lives was registered at Port Hawkesbury. She was what Nova Scotians called a Cape Island boat and was designed for the small inshore fishermen who sought the lobsters of the spring and the mackerel of summer and later the cod and haddock and hake. She was thirty-two feet long and nine wide, and was powered by an engine from a Chevrolet truck. She had a marine clutch and a high-speed reverse gear and was painted light green with the name Jenny Lynn stencilled in black letters on her bow and painted on an oblong plate across her stern. Jenny Lynn had been my mother's maiden name and the boat was called after her as another link in the chain of tradition. Most of the boats that berthed at the wharf bore the names of some female member of their owner's household.

I say this now as if I knew it all then. All at once, all about boat dimensions and engines, and as if on the day of my first childish voyage I noticed the difference between a stencilled name and a painted name. But of course it was not that way at all, for I learned it all very slowly and there was not time enough.

I learned first about our house, which was one of about fifty that marched around the horseshoe of our harbour and the wharf that was its heart. Some of them were so close to the water that during a storm the sea spray splashed against their windows while others were built farther along the beach, as was the case with ours. The houses and their people, like those of the neighbouring towns and villages, were the result of Ireland's discontent and Scotland's Highland Clearances and America's War of Independence. Impulsive, emotional Catholic Celts who could not bear to live with England and shrewd, determined Protestant Puritans who, in the years after 1776, could not bear to live without.

The most important room in our house was one of those oblong old-fashioned kitchens heated by a wood- and coal-burning stove. Behind the stove was a box of kindlings and beside it a coal scuttle. A heavy wooden table with leaves that expanded or reduced its dimensions stood in the middle of the floor. There were five wooden homemade chairs which had been chipped and hacked by a variety of knives. Against the east wall, opposite the stove, there was a couch which sagged in the middle and had a cushion for a pillow, and above it a shelf which contained matches, tobacco, pencils, odd fish-hooks, bits of twine, and a tin can filled with bills and receipts. The south wall was dominated by a window which faced the sea and on the north there was a five-foot board which bore a variety of clothes hooks and the burdens of each. Beneath the board there was a jumble of odd footwear, mostly of rubber. There was also, on this wall, a barometer, a map of the marine area and a shelf which held a tiny radio. The kitchen was shared by all of us and was a buffer zone between the immaculate order of ten other rooms and the disruptive chaos of the single room that was my father's.

My mother ran her house as her brothers ran their boats. Everything was clean and spotless and in order. She was tall and dark and powerfully energetic. In later years she reminded me of the women of Thomas Hardy, particularly Eustacia Vye, in a physical way. She fed and clothed a family of seven children, making all of the meals and most of the clothes. She grew miraculous gardens and magnificent flowers and raised broods of hens and ducks. She would walk miles on berry-picking expeditions and hoist her skirts to dig for clams when the tide was low. She was fourteen years younger than my father, whom she had married when she was twenty-six and had been a local beauty for a period of ten years. My mother was of the sea, as were all of her people, and her horizons were the very literal ones she scanned with her dark and fearless eyes.

Between the kitchen clothes rack and barometer, a door opened into my father's bedroom. It was a room of disorder and disarray. It was as if the wind which so often clamoured about the house succeeded in entering this single room and after whipping it into turmoil stole quietly away to renew its knowing laughter from without.

My father's bed was against the south wall. It always looked rumpled and unmade because he lay on top of it more than he slept within any folds it might have had. Beside it, there was a little brown table. An archaic goose-necked reading light, a battered table radio, a mound of wooden matches, one or two packages of tobacco, a deck of cigarette papers and an overflowing ashtray cluttered its surface. The brown larvae of tobacco shreds and the grey flecks of ash covered both the table and the floor beneath it. The once-varnished surface of the table was disfigured by numerous black scars and gashes inflicted by the neglected burning cigarettes of many years. They had tumbled from the ashtray unnoticed and branded their statements permanently and quietly into the wood until the odour of their burning caused the snuffing out of their lives. At the bed's foot there was a single window which looked upon the sea.

Against the adjacent wall there was a battered bureau and beside it there was a closet which held his single ill-fitting serge suit, the two or three white shirts that strangled him and the square black shoes that pinched. When he took off his more friendly clothes, the heavy woollen sweaters, mitts and socks which my mother knitted for him and the woollen and doeskin shirts, he dumped them unceremoniously on a single chair. If a visitor entered the room while he was lying on the bed, he would be told to throw the clothes on the floor and take their place upon the chair.

Magazines and books covered the bureau and competed with the clothes for domination of the chair. They further overburdened the heroic little table and lay on top of the radio. They filled a baffling and unknowable cave beneath the bed, and in the corner by the bureau they spilled from the walls and grew up from the floor.

The magazines were the most conventional: Time, Newsweek, Life, Maclean's, The Family Herald, The Reader's Digest. They were the result of various cut-rate subscriptions or of the gift subscriptions associated with Christmas, "the two whole years for only $3.50."

The books were more varied. There were a few hardcover magnificents and bygone Book-of-the-Month wonders and some were Christmas or birthday gifts. The majority of them, however, were used paperbacks which came from those secondhand bookstores that advertise in the backs of magazines: "Miscellaneous Used Paperbacks 10¢ Each." At first he sent for them himself, although my mother resented the expense, but in later years they came more and more often from my sisters who had moved to the cities. Especially at first they were very weird and varied. Mickey Spillane and Ernest Haycox vied with Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, and the Penguin Poets edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins arrived in the same box as a little book on sex technique called Getting the Most Out of Love. The former had been assiduously annotated by a very fine hand using a very blue-inked fountain pen while the latter had been studied by someone with very large thumbs, the prints of which were still visible in the margins. At the slightest provocation it would open almost automatically to particularly graphic and well-smudged pages.

When he was not in the boat, my father spent most of his time lying on the bed in his socks, the top two buttons of his trousers undone, his discarded shirt on the ever-ready chair and the sleeves of the woollen Stanfield underwear, which he wore both summer and winter, drawn half way up to his elbows. The pillows propped up the whiteness of his head and the goose-necked lamp illuminated the pages in his hands. The cigarettes smoked and smouldered on the ashtray and on the table and the radio played constantly, sometimes low and sometimes loud. At midnight and at one, two, three and four, one could sometimes hear the radio, his occasional cough, the rustling thud of a completed book being tossed to the corner heap, or the movement necessitated by his sitting on the edge of the bed to roll the thousandth cigarette. He seemed never to sleep, only to doze, and the light shone constantly from his window to the sea.

My mother despised the room and all it stood for and she had stopped sleeping in it after I was born. She despised disorder in rooms and in houses and in hours and in lives, and she had not read a book since high school. There she had read Ivanhoe and considered it a colossal waste of time. Still the room remained, like a rock of opposition in the sparkling waters of a clear deep harbour, opening off the kitchen where we really lived our lives, with its door always open and its contents visible to all.

The daughters of the room and of the house were very beautiful. They were tall and willowy like my mother and had her fine facial features set off by the reddish copper-coloured hair that had apparently once been my father's before it turned to white. All of them were very clever in school and helped my mother a great deal about the house. When they were young they sang and were very happy and very nice to me because I was the youngest, and the family's only boy.

My father never approved of their playing about the wharf like the other children, and they went there only when my mother sent them on an errands. At such times they almost always overstayed, playing screaming games of tag or hide-and-seek in and about the fishing shanties, the piled traps and tubs of trawl, shouting down to the perch that swam languidly about the wharf's algae-covered piles, or jumping in and out of the boats that tugged gently at their lines. My mother was never uneasy about them at such times, and when her husband criticized her she would say, "Nothing will happen to them there," or "They could be doing worse things in worse places."

By about the ninth or tenth grade my sisters one by one discovered my father's bedroom, and then the change would begin. Each would go into the room one morning when he was out. She would go with the ideal hope of imposing order or with the more practical objective of emptying the ashtray, and later she would be found spellbound by the volume in her hand. My mother's reaction was always abrupt, bordering on the angry. "Take your nose out of that trash and come and do your work," she would say, and once I saw her slap my youngest sister so hard that the print of her hand was scarletly emblazoned upon her daughter's cheek while the broken-spined paperback fluttered uselessly to the floor.

Thereafter my mother would launch a campaign against what she had discovered but could not understand. At times, although she was not overly religious, she would bring in God to bolster her arguments, saying, "In the next world God will see to those who waste their lives reading useless books when they should be about their work." Or without theological aid, "I would like to know how books help anyone to live a life." If my father were in, she would repeat the remarks louder than necessary, and her voice would carry into his room where he lay upon his bed. His usual reaction was to turn up the volume of the radio, although that action in itself betrayed the success of the initial thrust.

Shortly after my sisters began to read the books, they grew restless and lost interest in darning socks and baking bread, and all of them eventually went to work as summer waitresses in the Sea Food Restaurant. The restaurant was run by a big American concern from Boston and catered to the tourists that flooded the area during July and August. My mother despised the whole operation. She said the restaurant was not run by "our people," and "our people" did not eat there, and that it was run by outsiders for outsiders.

"Who are these people anyway?" she would ask, tossing back her dark hair, "and what do they, though they go about with their cameras for a hundred years, know about the way it is here, and what do they care about me and mine, and why should I care about them?"

She was angry that my sisters should even conceive of working in such a place, and more angry when my father made no move to prevent it, and she was worried about herself and about her family and about her life. Sometimes she would say softly to her sisters, "I don't know what's the matter with my girls. It seems none of them are interested in any of the right things." And sometimes there would be bitter savage arguments. One afternoon I was coming in with three mackerel I'd been given at the wharf when I heard her say, "Well, I hope you'll be satisfied when they come home knocked up and you'll have had your way."

It was the most savage thing I'd ever heard my mother say. Not just the words but the way she said them, and I stood there in the porch afraid to breathe for what seemed like the years from ten to fifteen, feeling the damp, moist mackerel with their silver glassy eyes growing clammy against my leg.

Through the angle in the screen door I saw my father, who had been walking into his room, wheel around on one of his rubber-booted heels and look at her with his blue eyes flashing like clearest ice beneath the snow that was his hair. His usually ruddy face was drawn and grey, reflecting the exhaustion of a man of sixty-five who had been working in those rubber boots for eleven hours on an August days, and for a fleeting moment I wondered what I would do if he killed my mother while I stood there in the porch with those three foolish mackerel in my hand. Then he turned and went into his room and the radio blared forth the next day's weather forecast and I retreated under the noise and returned again, stamping my feet and slamming the door too loudly to signal my approach. My mother was busy at the stove when I came in, and did not raise her head when I threw the mackerel in a pan. As I looked into my father's room, I said, "Well, how did things go in the boat today?" and he replied, "Oh, not too badly, all things considered." He was lying on his back and lighting the first cigarette and the radio was talking about the Virginia coast.

All of my sisters made good money on tips. They bought my father an electric razor, which he tried to use for a while, and they took out even more magazine subscriptions. They bought my mother a great many clothes of the type she was very fond of, the wide-brimmed hats and the brocaded dresses, but she locked them all in trunks and refused to wear any of them.

On one August day my sisters prevailed upon my father to take some of their restaurant customers for an afternoon ride in the boat. The tourists with their expensive clothes and cameras and sun glasses awkwardly backed down the iron ladder at the wharf's side to where my father waited below, holding the rocking Jenny Lynn in snug against the wharf with one hand on the iron ladder and steadying his descending passengers with the other. They tried to look both prim and wind-blown like the girls in the Pepsi-Cola ads and did the best they could, sitting on the thwarts where the newspapers were spread to cover the splattered blood and fish entrails, crowding to one side so that they were in danger of capsizing the boat, taking the inevitable pictures or merely trailing their fingers through the water of their dreams.

All of them liked my father very much and, after he'd brought them back from their circles in the harbour, they invited him to their rented cabins which were located high on a hill overlooking the village to which they were so alien. He proceeded to get very drunk up there with the beautiful view and the strange company and the abundant liquor, and late in the afternoon he began to sing.

I was just approaching the wharf to deliver my mother's summons when he began, and the familiar yet unfamiliar voice that rolled down from the cabins made me feel as I had never felt before in my young life, or perhaps as I had always felt without really knowing it, and I was ashamed yet proud, young yet old and saved yet forever lost, and there was nothing I could do to control my legs which trembled nor my eyes which wept, for what they could not tell.

The tourists were equipped with tape recorders and my father sang for more than three hours. His voice boomed down the hill and bounced off the surface of the harbour, which was an unearthly blue on that hot August day, and was then reflected to the wharf and the fishing shanties, where it was absorbed amidst the men who were baiting lines for the next day's haul.

He sang all the old sea chanteys that had come across from the old world and by which men like him had pulled ropes for generations, and he sang the East Coast sea songs that celebrated the sealing vessels of Northumberland Strait and the long liners of the Grand Banks, and of Anticosti, Sable Island, Grand Manan, Boston Harbor, Nantucket and Block Island. Gradually he shifted to the seemingly unending Gaelic drinking songs with their twenty or more verses and inevitable refrains, and the men in the shanties smiled at the coarseness of some of the verses and at the thought that the singer's immediate audience did not know what they were applauding nor recording to take back to staid old Boston. Later as the sun was setting he switched to the laments and the wild and haunting Gaelic war songs of those spattered Highland ancestors he had never seen, and when his voice ceased, the savage melancholy of three hundred years seemed to hang over the peaceful harbour and the quiet boats and the men leaning in the doorways of their shanties with their cigarettes glowing in the dusk and the women looking to the sea from their open windows with their children in their arms.

When he came home he threw the money he had earned on the kitchen table as he did with all his earnings but my mother refused to touch it, and the next day he went with the rest of the men to bait his trawl in the shanties. The tourists came to the door that evening and my mother met them there and told them that her husband was not in, although he was lying on the bed only a few feet away, with the radio playing and the cigarette upon his lips. She stood in the doorway until they reluctantly went away.

In the winter they sent him a picture which had been taken on the day of the singing. On the back it said, "To Our Ernest Hemingway" and the "Our" was underlined. There was also an accompanying letter telling how much they had enjoyed themselves, how popular the tape was proving and explaining who Ernest Hemingway was. In a way it almost did look like one of those unshaven, taken-in-Cuba pictures of Hemingway. My father looked both massive and incongruous in the setting. His bulky fisherman's clothes were too big for the green and white lawn chair in which he sat, and his rubber boots seemed to take up all of the well-clipped grass square. The beach umbrella jarred with his sunburned face and because he had already been singing for some time, his lips, which chapped in the winds of spring and burned in the water glare of summer, had already cracked in several places, producing tiny flecks of blood at their corners and on the whiteness of his teeth. The bracelets of brass chain which he wore to protect his wrists from chafing seemed abnormally large and his broad leather belt had been slackened and his heavy shirt and underwear were open at the throat, revealing an uncultivated wilderness of white chest hair bordering on the semi-controlled stubble of his neck and chin. His blue eyes had looked directly into the camera and his hair was whiter than the two tiny clouds that hung over his left shoulder. The sea was behind him and its immense blue flatness stretched out to touch the arching blueness of the sky. It seemed very far away from him or else he was so much in the foreground that he seemed too big for it.

Each year another of my sisters would read the books and work in the restaurant. Sometimes they would stay out quite late on the hot summer nights and when they came up the stairs my mother would ask them many long and involved questions which they resented and tried to avoid. Before ascending the stairs they would go into my father's room, and those of us who waited above could hear them throwing his clothes off the chair before sitting on it, or the squeak of the bed as they sat on its edge. Sometimes they would talk to him a long time, the murmur of their voices blending with the music of the radio into a mysterious vapour-like sound which floated softly up the stairs.

I say this again as if it all happened at once and as if all of my sisters were of identical ages and like so many lemmings going into another sea and, again, it was of course not that way at all. Yet go they did, to Boston, to Montreal, to New York with the young men they met during the summers and later married in those far-away cities. The young men were very articulate and handsome and wore fine clothes and drove expensive cars and my sisters, as I said, were very tall and beautiful with their copper-coloured hair, and were tired of darning socks and baking bread.

One by one they went. My mother had each of her daughters for fifteen years, then lost them for two and finally forever. None married a fisherman. My mother never accepted any of the young men, for in her eyes they seemed always a combination of the lazy, the effeminate, the dishonest and the unknown. They never seemed to do any physical work and she could not comprehend their luxurious vacations and she did not know whence they came nor who they were. And in the end she did not really care, for they were not of her people and they were not of her sea.

I say this now with a sense of wonder at my own stupidity in thinking I was somehow free and would go on doing well in school and playing and helping in the boat and passing into my early teens while streaks of grey began to appear in my mother's dark hair and my father's rubber boots dragged sometimes on the pebbles of the beach as he trudged home from the wharf. And there were but three of us in the house that had at one time been so loud.

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Lauchlin Of The Bad Heart

Lauchlin Of The Bad Heart

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There was a time, at 22, when Lauchlin MacLean was a promising welterweight and the Cape Breton gyms were full of fighters; that was a time when his heart was strong and fit. Maybe if he'd become a ranked fighter, he might have moved on clearly and fluidly with his life. Maybe that might have swept him off this island of safety, sanctuary and family roots that run as deep as the surrounding waters. He might even have followed Morag to Boston.

Now in his fifties, Lauchlin is disturbed from his lif …

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An Audience of Chairs

An Audience of Chairs


Like beauty, madness altered perception, but instead of offering illusion, it offered delusion. Moranna leaned the tricks madness played on perception the hard way as experience showed her how persuasively madness distorted reality. Experience also showed her that if she hung on long enough, the panic would subside and the delusions would pass. There were many dawns on the ferry when the sight of the ugly smoke stacks reassured her. They were proof that once again she had won the showdown with t …

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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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