“Stunning originality and lyrical brilliance.” —Vancouver Sun
“Radiant with energy.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“A constant source of pleasure.” — Quill & Quire
Dance the Rocks Ashore, a milestone in Lesley Choyce’s leaps-and-bounds career, attests to almost twenty years of continuous invenitveness and craftsmanship in the art of the short story. It’s a powerful mix: “Dance the Rocks Ashore,” a bittersweet account of an elderly couple’s decline; the hilarious and bizarre “My Father Was a Book Reviewer”; “The Third or Fourth Happiest Man in Nova Scotia,” with a peculiar hero reminiscent of Noah; and “The Wreck of the Sister Theresa,” in which spring fever hits like “a handshake in hell.” Favourite stories from previous books include “Losing Ground,” the pivotal chapter in Choyce’s acclaimed 1989 novel The Second Season of Jonas MacPherson, as well as “The Cure,” “Dancing the Night Away,” and the complex and disturbing “Conventional Emotions.”
Other books by LESLEY CHOYCE
Eastern Sure (1980)
Billy Botzweiler’s Last Dance (1984)
Conventional Emotions (1985)
The Dream Auditor (1986)
Coming Up for Air (1988)
Margin of Error (1992)
The Second Season of Jonas MacPherson (1989)
Magnificent Obsessions (1991)
Ecstasy Conspiracy (1992)
The Republic of Nothing (1994)
Trap Door to Heaven (1996)
Reinventing the Wheel (1980)
Fast Living (1982)
The End of Ice (1985)
The Top of the Heart (1986)
The Man Who Borrowed the Bay of Fundy (1988)
The Coastline of Forgetting (1995)
Edible Wild Plants of Nova Scotia (1977)
An Avalanche of Ocean (1987)
December Six: The Halifax Solution (1988)
Transcendental Anarchy (1993)
Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea (1996)
For the memory of Alden Nowlan
The Third or Fourth Happiest Man in Nova Scotia
From the Second Season of Jonas Macpherson Losing Ground
Muriel and the Baptist
Dance the Rocks Ashore
From The Republic of Nothing Eye of the Hurricane
The Wreck of the Sister Theresa
It All Comes Back Now
The Reconciliation of Calan McGinty
Coming Up for Air
An Easy Winter
Dancing The Night Away
Rose and Rhododendron
My Father Was a Book Reviewer
The first time I saw Ray Doucette he was climbing up a thirty-foot spruce tree out by the mouth of the inlet. The top of the tree had been sheared right off by the lightning, and just below the damage was a giant nest. Ray was climbing up to that nest, his boots slipping on the wet branches and his hands clutching each new hold like vice-grips. He was carrying something in a red handkerchief pouch that dangled from his mouth. Inside the pouch was some frightened creature that was screeching like a banshee.
I was afraid to say a word. Finally, Ray looped one arm over a lightning-splintered branch and lowered his head until his package sat snugly back in the nest. Then, just as the screeching subsided from one source, it rose again tenfold from out of the sky. Ray lost his footing and hung by one armpit as his feet kicked the empty air.
The mother eagle made a lunge for Ray and knocked his hat off. Then it flew upward, hovered, tucked its wings, and dove straight for Ray’s face. Ray didn’t flinch. I just closed my eyes and heard one god-awful shriek. Then nothing.
When I looked up, the mother eagle was sitting perfectly still on her young one returned to the nest. Ray was smiling eyeball to eyeball with the giant bird, and his one free hand was petting it on the neck. I could just barely make out that he was singing something. Rock-a-bye baby.
Ray Doucette lived with his wife, Adele, in an old crooked house near the head of Tom Lurcher Inlet. He had a tumble-down wharf, and every day of the year when the seas allowed, he went out fishing in his boat.
It was such a deceptive little inlet, with jutting rocks and an incorrigible channel, that more respectable fishermen had given up on the place long ago. I once asked Ray about the problems with negotiating the inlet. He said, “Well, the channel’s just like a snake that’s got its back broke in maybe twenty-five places. And, when you get to the mouth, if you don’t plant the boat dead between the gull rock and the Cannonballs, you’ll run aground.” The Cannonballs, he explained, was a hidden shoal of perfectly round rocks that shifted around with the storms and the seasons.
“Did you ever think of moving to another inlet?” I asked.
He looked at me like I just told him that he should try eating arsenic for breakfast. “This is one of the deepest, cleanest, most interesting channels on the Eastern Shore,” he told me.
Altogether, twelve families had lived in the ramshackle houses on either side of Ray in years past. But the families were all gone. The men had taken city jobs or moved off to fish inlets less interesting than Tom Lurcher.
It was around the time of the exodus that Ray had married Adele. She had grown up in the house next door. Adele, so the story goes, just moved in with Ray when everyone else moved away. Ray said that it was Adele who had made him the third or fourth happiest man in Nova Scotia. All you had to do was look into her blue, summer-sea eyes and feel better about living. Adele entered Ray’s life with a rooster and a hen.
Aside from Adele moving in with him, I don’t think Ray paid much attention to all the other families moving out. He always paid more heed to wind direction than neighbours, anyway. He hauled in his fish, checked the oil in his engine and went about his life as usual.
Then the rooster got sick. “I hadn’t thought that much about living things up till that. I guess he was mean the way roosters are, and he was always underfoot. But I couldn’t stand to see him die.” So Ray nursed the rooster back to health by feeding him fish oil and corn flour. After the rooster recovered, Ray sometimes took the bird out to sea with him on calm days. The rooster recovered so well that Ray had thirty other chickens by the end of that first year. They gave the chickens the Slaunwhite house to live in and the chickens seemed to like it fine.
By the time I met Ray, the rooster was gone, dead, but his descendants roamed freely up and down Tom Lurcher Inlet. It was impossible to walk across Ray’s yard without stepping on eggs. Adele could never keep up with which ones were fresh and which ones were old, so most of the eggs got fed to the gulls.
The first sea gull came into Ray’s life when a hunter arrived at the inlet from the city. The hunter couldn’t see any ducks, so he started shooting at a couple of Ray’s chickens. The chickens were too quick for the hunter and took cover in the mossy rocks. But the gulls weren’t as wily. Pretty soon the hunter had shot the wing off one herring gull. Ray was just snaking his boat back in from the sea when he saw it fall out of the sky. He steered towards the wounded gull, knowing full well he might tear the bottom out of his boat.
Sure enough, Ray’s boat plowed into something and she started to leak. But he fished the gull out of the sea and got his boat back to his wharf before it sank and settled on the bottom. The gull, of course, was big and mean as only three- year-old herring gulls can be, and it tore into Ray’s wrist like a chainsaw into softwood.
The hunter saw Ray at his wharf in the sinking boat and came over to see what was going on. There was Ray dripping blood from the wrist, standing waist-deep in the cold water that had sucked up the deck of his boat. The hunter asked Ray what happened. When Ray explained that he had saved the seagull, the hunter just laughed, called him a fool and then drove off.
Adele had to stitch up Ray’s wrist with twenty-pound test fishing line, and Ray had never been prouder of his wife. The one-winged gull lived, and, once Ray got his boat seaworthy again, it fed happily every day on cod heads and mackerel guts.
News seemed to have leaked out to the gull community up and down the shore because injured birds kept turning up. One gull had swallowed a fishing hook, another had lost a leg. Some had broken wings that could be set with splints and tape. Others arrived with no outward signs of injury but stayed on nonetheless. Many of the creatures that arrived could live outside, but some seemed to want housing, so the empty village was turned into a rest home for injured animals.
By the time I met Ray, he had maybe twenty-five sea birds. His arrival home from sea each day was heralded with raucous, enthusiastic approval. Ray loved it. He had also taken to hiking the shoreline with Adele looking for creatures that needed help. Together they adopted a porcupine without teeth, an anorexic heron, a blind otter, wild rabbits that were missing body parts from snares, and an assortment of small birds crippled in various ways by the cruelty of men and nature.
When Adele died, the doctor told Ray, “It was something she was born with. There was nothing you or I could have done about it.”
Ray said, “But that’s not right.”
The doctor just shook his head. “Sometimes it happens that way.”
Ray told me that he just sat at the kitchen table with a cold cup of tea in his hand and didn’t move for four days. “I’d of sat there like that, too,” he said, “except that the gulls began to swarm all over the roof. And the heron kept staring at me through the window. And when I opened the door, the yard was a sea of hungry chickens.”
Then, one day, a planner from the government drove the rutted lane down to Ray’s house. He’d never seen so many one-winged gulls and maimed creatures in his life. When Ray walked over, the planner rolled down his window and tried to explain something. But the words just went in one ear and out the other. Whatever it was the man was talking about, Ray decided to pay no attention.
When I read about the harbour development program in the paper, I knew Ray was in for big trouble. Somebody had determined that Tom Lurcher Inlet had one of the deepest, cleanest, most interesting channels on the whole shore. The channel would just have to be dredged and straightened, the article said, and they’d blast the cannonball shoal to smithereens if they had to.
Ray was heaving fish heads to his gulls on the morning I told him the news. He didn’t believe me. “What do they want this place for?”
“They want to put in a new wharf and bring more boats back.”
“But nobody lives here.”
“They will,” I explained.
Ray received notices in the mail, but he refused to read them. Then the planner drove up again, this time with a Mountie.
The man pointed to Ray’s house. “We’re willing to make an offer . . .” But Ray didn’t listen to the rest.
He got in his boat and headed to sea. The tide was wrong and he barely squeaked past the Cannonballs without ripping the engine out of her. I hired Bill Mannette to take me to sea to look for Ray. We saw Ray’s boat beached at Riley’s Island. When we came in close, I jumped out and ran up and down the beach, finally finding Ray sitting alone on a drift log.
“This one’s not right, either,” Ray said. “But I’ll keep looking.” Ray pulled a wad of two-dollar bills out of his pants and shoved it into my hand. “Feed my creatures. I’ll be back in a while.” I tried to talk him into coming back now, but he’d have none of it.
I kept an eye on Ray’s creatures, but I couldn’t get any of them to eat. I was sitting on Ray’s back step looking to sea when his boat appeared. The chickens and gulls exploded into life. I held my ears and covered my head. The gulls that could fly made a beeline toward the boat. Ray pulled up tight to the dock, cut the motor.
“I found it,” he said.
He’d say nothing more. He fed his creatures from a boatload of fresh cod and over the next week built a barge out of wood from Adele’s first house. I offered to help, but he wouldn’t let me lift a finger.
Ray took his time about what he was doing. I checked in every day, but he had little to say to me. It was about a week later that I heard the bulldozer thundering down the lane to Tom Lurcher Inlet. I ran down the path to Ray’s wharf, but I was too late.
Ray’s boat, towing his barge full of animals, was on a slow, zigzag path to sea. A whirlpool of sea gulls swirled above the boat in the bright blue sky. I waved, but I don’t think he noticed me. I wanted to see his face, but he was too far away. I wanted to know if he was smiling, but I’ll never know. The boat and the barge passed by the Cannonballs and on beyond the lightning-splintered tree at the mouth of the inlet. Ray turned neither east nor west but went straight south until he was lost in the squint of the sun and the swell of the sea.
When I was thirteen, my best friend was John Kincaid. In late spring the lifeblood of the planet began to run free, and the gaspereau were making their way up inside the land. John was a hard knot of a kid, with chipped bones from falling off back steps and close-cropped hair over a skull that suited the Reaper himself. He was always unhappy, dissatisfied with everything, primed with so much anger it shot out his arm like electricity. He threw things — rocks, wood, fists — because his father had hit him so often, pounded fear and hate into him in the evenings so that he would come out into the world and throw it around at everything. He always wanted to teach me how to kill things, and I hated him for that, for his private unbent cosmology of crippling living things and siding with the blatant burning death wish of all things that moved. But there was a kind of love between us, although I could never have called it that. The emotional economics of our ageing had dismantled what little love we had and sent it off to scrapyards where we would have to go looking one day for the rusted remains, so that we might rehabilitate the engines of childhood and translate love into sex and sex into love and believe again in girls and women. It would not be impossible, but for now the corrosion was effective, and we were all but lost.
So John Kincaid and I were by the brook where it swept soft curves of cold water light up into the sky and sped unsalted freshness into the sea forever. This tiny stream went miles inland to find its source at a stagnant, weed-choked pond that grew mosquitoes in summer and hatched dragonflies the size of toy airplanes and spawned frogs free and restless for Kincaid killings. But here at the edge of salt, the last instant of fresh water about to salt down its blood for good, we sat on a rare sunlit afternoon waiting for gaspereau to come flapping up the shallow brook so that we could do what? Catch them to eat? We had tried that once. “Better to eat razors,” John had said. “Better to sit down to a plate of hot sewing needles and chew hard, better to swallow fried radio tubes and wire.” The gaspereau were hopeless fish to us. Somebody’s mother (it was reported at school) cooked the fish for three days straight until all the bones were dissolved and a cord of softwood consumed, and then you could sit down to a plateful of mush which almost still tasted of fish, while you could be assured your house would stink of gaspereau until Christmas. No, I don’t think we had hope of catching them to eat.
I didn’t even care to catch one. It was too easy, too pointless. To Kincaid, it was as if they hovered offshore all winter waiting for a chance to slap themselves out of the deep into the thinning waters of an unnamed brook looking for his stones to club them to death. Each year I hoped Kincaid would be different, that the death lunatic in him would die out so that he could go on with life, but I always expected too much of him.
Then they appeared. I always felt my own blood race to my head to see a still and shining surface go mad with an avalanche of life, a vast churning orgasm of fish splashing about in a fevered dance to snake themselves up the stream, to swim between rocks and trade up salt for fresh. They were there on this late afternoon in May. It was so beautiful that I almost forgot to see the damn boulder that blasted John was holding over his head ready to go, ready to get in the first bash at the first flawed creature who found his way inside the rock’s shadow. But as I turned and saw him ready to pound, I decided this was the year he had to change.
So I tackled him, and the rock came down hard on my back as we poured down into the wet moss. He let go a flock of curses learned from a professional, his father, a man with the devil’s own dictionary under his skull. I could feel the weight of the pain drive down my spine from John’s ancient weapon, but I didn’t care. He tried to grab a dead branch to skewer me, and, had I not known him. I would have run for my life, figuring he would kill me instead of fish, death having its warrant out and willing to settle for spilled blood, cold or hot. But I kept him busy. I knew his spirit and knew he could fight, but so could I for different reasons. We were so equally powered that there could never be a winner. John had an easy temper to strike, but his hate could only drive him so far. I simply had a stupid sort of stubbornness that wanted me to finish whatever I started. So we both fought till we bled enough to satisfy our pride. Then we quit. The fish were gone, the first wave of the year safely upstream in deeper pools for the coming night. And Kincaid didn’t care then. A fight was as good as a bucket of bloodied fish, and we were friends as usual. John said he’d kill me next time, and I said, “Try.”
Later that spring a man from Halifax came out with a pickup truck and a pair of pitchforks. Kincaid and I were walking up the road to the railroad bridge, and this guy pulled over and asked us if we wanted to make a few cents shovelling fish. We both said sure and got in the truck, where we had to sit on bare springs that had torn free of the seat. The radio was on, but there was nothing but static. Mr. Otto Bollivar, the man said his name was, and that we could call him Mr. Boliver, but we didn’t call him anything. And then he asked where he could find a good gaspereau run, and I knew enough to shut up.
But John spoke up sharp, ready to give out time-honoured secrets that sent us straight to the spot. Mr. Bollivar was pleased and started coughing like maybe he would die or something if he didn’t quick light a cigarette that he had to roll first. That seemed to stop the coughing. He threw me a pitchfork that would have gone through my boot if I hadn’t moved quick. He told John, “Here. Use this net, it’ll do.”
“I ain’t helping you with the fish,” I said. Mr. Boliver looked at me like I said I was born on Jupiter.
“I’m paying you, ain’t I?” He hadn’t said how much.
“How much?” John wanted to know.
“Twenty cents apiece. Now shut up and let’s get to work.” I could already see that the stream was wrestling with itself the way that it does when the gaspereau are running.
“Look, you can’t eat the damn things anyway,” I shouted at him. He was a townie, a stupid city-slicker who probably didn’t know. Instead of thanking me for saving him the work, he dropped his pitchfork, bit down on his cigarette and angled over to me.
“You know that. And I know that. But them stupid buggers in Halifax don’t know cod tongue from coffin hinges. They’ll buy it if it’s the right price. And it’ll be the right price.” He coughed up something and spit a wad of yellow, awful phlegm on the ground.
“Forget it,” I told him, “twenty cents or no twenty cents,” and I walked on home. I knew Kincaid would stay, and he did. Later, he told me that he got the full forty cents, which was a lie because he only got a dime, if he got that.
A couple of years after that , John Kincaid and I had our own boat. It was a boy’s boat because no man would ever have set foot in it, at least not in the condition that it was in. It wasn’t what you’d call a skiff and it wasn’t a dory and, as far as we could figure, it wasn’t anything that anybody had fixed name for.
We found her right side up in the wide marsh at the foot of Rigger’s Lake in the winter. When the lake froze over, you could go walking out there and feel the arctic wind bear down until it made you feel good, all cold and clean inside like someone had just taken lye powder to your soul, and you wanted to just suck in that cold frozen air, let it paralyze your nose hairs, then knife down into your chest. It felt that good. Kincaid and I didn’t have ice skates, but we liked to slide our feet out across the glazed wilderness. No one ever felt as free as we did then, and it didn’t catch up to us until the north wind drove white teeth marks into us with frostbite. Then we’d have to run back home and sit in front of the cookstove, where our faces bloomed beet-juice red, and our legs, Lord, how they’d itch, but we knew for sure we were alive.
I think it was hunters who had lost the boat or simply left the damn thing. It was half-rotten, poorly made to begin with, and filled with brown tide frozen up to the oar locks. Ironically, it was me who was the first to pick up a rock and want to bash in the sides just for the hell of it. But Kincaid, God, the light of Jesus took over his eyes because he had before him a boat , a rotten, dull and worthless thing, but a boat, a miracle, a frozen revelation from on high, the possibilities of life-ever-after and the means he had been looking for. He stopped my hand and let the rock fall at our feet, sending out a giant crack in the ice that shot northward halfway to Truro. “We’ve found a frigging boat,” was all he said. Water seeped up from the crack, and I worried that we had split the whole bloody planet in two, that it would turn inside out and the devil would present himself out of the depths and thank us for setting him free for good. He would have ice for a beard and icicles for hair and white blinding stones for eyes, for we knew that the Bible had gone through a number of translations and was all wrong. Hell was cold, frozen place, damp and bone-numbing like a winter fog.
But nothing happened, save the setting free of one devilish spirit. The boat. I had never seen John so dedicated and so gentle. First we used dead limbs cracked off marsh spruce, then we tried chipping away the ice like Indians with sharp stones, and finally Kincaid ran off all the way to Baylor McNulty’s chopping block to confiscate Baylor’s double-bit axe for the rescue, while I stood guard as if there were hordes of other half-wits out wandering the frigid wasteland wanting to salvage the carcass of this pathetically contrived duck hunting boat, fragile as an eggshell and rotten as the politics in Halifax.
But Kincaid made good with the axe and chipped away like a sculptor until it was free and all the worse for it. Then he let out a long, maniac yelp in triumph. “We got our boat, Joney boy,” he repeated three times over, and I knew what it meant to him, and I wanted it to mean as much to me. I knew it would always be Kincaid’s, but we’d have to do it together, whatever was to be done with that ice devil. So we dragged it home across two miles of frozen grass and paper-ice shelving left high and dry by a retreating tide. The blasted thing was heavy as lead over the rough little hillocks of chumped-up ice that had corrugated in the shallows. She was still weighted down with the freight of her own brown ice, and Kincaid wouldn’t let me touch the inside, fearing I’d split the gunwale and destroy whatever mysterious vortex of spiritual energy held the boat together. There we were, human flesh hauling dead, brown frozen water two miles over a pitiless lake in a gale come down special delivery from Hudson Bay. So of course we made it. All the way to Kincaid’s back step, and sure he wanted to haul the thing inside to thaw, only we would have had to remove the door frame, then chase out his father, propped up like a mannequin with a bottle in the kitchen listening to a near-shot radio playing opera.
You have to understand that John’s father had lost the boat he owned to the bank and the government, he wasn’t sure which, but the boat was gone. Not a boat like ours, but a real Cape Islander with a German engine of some kind and a couple of sails. It was just about the biggest boat that anybody had seen on this shore for one man to own and to fish with, and you wanted to see that pile of cod it would deliver. Only something was frigged with the way the world worked because one day the people wanted to eat cod, the next day, so the buyer said, you couldn’t give it away with pitchforks for a penny, and what do you do with a boat with an engine yet and a hungry bank and a government that has made promises for you? Inevitably, the boat was lost, sent to Halifax and set up in dry-dock, where it would rot until the economy improved or until folks got their tastebuds back for cod or mackerel but none too soon at that.
George Kincaid galvanized himself with illegal rum and swore to God Almighty that he should have become a runner of rums himself like his father had suggested and used that German engine for some good business and let the fish go to hell. But he had been stupid. Here he already owed Lance Inkpen more money for his booze, what with nothing coming in. And what could you do but sit around in your own venom and get good and angry at everybody and nobody and forget about ever being the man you once were? John’s mother had become a ghost. She was there but she wasn’t. She always made the meals, and then it was like she slipped into a trance and waited for George to cancel himself out for the day. Late at night, John said, she waltzed around the kitchen alone with the radio on and hummed. This didn’t make damn bit of sense to him. He thought she was cracked. But he believed in his old man.
John couldn’t wait for spring to loose the chains on the boat of his, so he set to carving out the ice with a hand axe ever so slow and painstakingly, and once I tempted him to pour hot water on her, but he shot the idea down, fearing it would crack the moulded ribs and the boat itself would melt into the soil. Maybe it would just drain away in the spring rain or simply self-destruct, evaporate or dissolve.
Finally, a tense winter sun in late February began to burn holes through the snow piled on the roof, and Johnny hauled out some old framed windows to set over the boat. By the end of the afternoon, she was dry and sound. Sound and solid as cork. You could have put your fingernail through her just about anywhere, but this didn’t bother John at all, and what the hell, I was getting excited. “She’ll take a little paint. That’s all she needs,” I said for no good reason. Good God, then I had to turn away, because John Kincaid was about to cry, and for once I realized I loved him. I didn’t know up until that time that you could love a friend. But I let it be at that. I couldn’t say a word, knowing that it was the same sort of love John felt toward me for saying something so foolish in his favour and believing that this pitiful gathering of planed spruce was more than a memory gone sour.
* * *
Sopping spring again. Cold, damp and angry with life there just beneath the surface ready to break the locks and sweat itself into summer. The ground cracked finally one day and was about to swallow up the cars and the horses and pull man back to mud at last. The boat had been glazed to lightning gloss with stolen green paint, so that when the sun broke like warm champagne on our navy she sang bright chords of sea shanties locked up in her rotten wood. We had to carry her half a mile to Rigger’s Lake, then farther down the shore to where the ice had given up and salt water lapped fresh. The gulls still sat on the ice in favour of winter, and they watched as we slid our hopes out into the blue-green water. Kincaid was in a trance, a spiritual ecstasy, a man of water at last. To hell with land, such a sad substitute for the floating world. A man arrived, a child acquitted, a soul saved.
“Sit down before we both drown,” I told him as he danced about lightly as a sandpiper and crazy to boot. He sat. We were floating, oarless, the obvious tools forgotten, left on the shores. What did we know of reason? Left to himself, John would have let the current slip him out to sea as soon as it was able. He didn’t care. I did.
“Dig, damn it!” I chastised him, meaning to use his hands. We had to quick paddle back to shore, retrieve the ends to our means. It was like pulling Lucifer out of heaven. But I made the lunatic dig.
Each leaning over a side, we plied the water up to our elbows, in slow painful strokes. God Himself had performed a dirty miracle and allowed this body of water to stay liquid well below the freezing point. It was like dipping your arms full-length into a barrel of razor blades and stirring them up. The cold was magnificent, absolute and horrendous. John howled from the pain. My arm cramped up and I had to switch. It was maddening and wonderful. The logic of boats, of currents, was not with us, and we lost ground, only to be saved by a sunken trunk that nabbed the boat just as we were about to slip into the channel itself and make ready for the sea, where the waves were cracking like fireworks over the rocks at the shallow mouth of Rocky Run. I jumped for shore and landed on a wafer-thin shelf of ice left from another tide, then danced through sheets of glass and jeweller’s mud until I was on the bank with the rope.
“Good work, Joney, good work,” Kincaid rattled, not shaken a bit. Death and life were all the same to him now he had the boat. Either way he was saved.
In the summer that followed the salvation of the boat, we were at it. Fishing. Making real money. Not much, but our own. Cod, hake, haddock, mackerel. Sold to women for half its worth and only the best fish. Independence. John, a changed creature. Self-respect, pride, the ability to endure the world forever. In August the sun turned benevolent and peeled our shirts off, then painted our skin red. Even the water warmed against its better judgement. By our own tiny wharf, we gutted and scraped and heaved heads to gulls and pretended it would go on like this forever — blue sky, mica-mirrored fish scales electric with light; it was like some wonderful balloon was bursting in my chest. There was nothing to do but wait till Kincaid had put down his knife for an instant to wipe snot, and I launched at him and we arced off the wharf through a cloud of herring gulls and into the inlet, slapping down on the afternoon chop like tandem divers. Ten feet of water, hardly more. Green-blue, with seaweed at the bottom and crabs in miniature armies shuttling away from the invasion.
The miracle of ignorance is always a wonder to behold. John’s ignorance in not being able to swim a stroke and my own at never once realizing the obvious fact. Kincaid held on around my throat with a wresting hold and tried to pull me down to where it seemed he wanted to writhe upon the rocky bottom. I understood his curses even below air and feared for us both. I had often noticed my inability to remain civilized when deprived of oxygen, and John obviously shared that affliction. Kicking him in the gut to free the elbow bent around my Adam’s apple, I pushed away and shot up for air, only to be hauled back down by a lead anchor around my feet. John, somehow refusing to even flap his way up to kiss air, preferred death for us all, but a man without legs is not without arms to whip about and fight for lung privileges. So I, too, cursed and hauled and hoped that, in fact, Kincaid held on, which he did, knowing nothing else below the waterline but my socks and the kick of my shoes in his face. And even after I had regained shore, it was like he didn’t want to give up in the shallows till I crawled up across the stones and busted glass, at least one of still human. John finally heaved himself up on a stump and coughed and vomited and let go of the blue in his skin. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
“You can’t swim, you bastard,” I swiped.
“In a boat you don’t need to swim.”
“In our boat you do. You could kill us both.”
“Seemed like you were the one out for killing.”
“The hell I was. Look, you stupid fisherman, if you want to fish, you bloody well better learn to swim.”
“My father don’t swim and neither does any man on this shore who fishes.”
“Stupid, God Almighty. I’ll teach you to swim.”
“Never in a million years.”
I didn’t have that much time, but I knew damn well Kincaid was going to do nothing but fish for the rest of his days, and if he couldn’t swim he might be getting a sad discount on his career.
“I’m not going back in that damn boat with you until you can tread water.”
“Go to hell with you.”
I left fifty pounds of fresh cod on the cutting table to rot and walked home.
I stewed over it for three weeks, until the first hurricane cut loose from Barbados and made unwholesome threats outside my windows on an evil, dark night. I wondered how many days John would wait for the swell to die off before he would try to run the inlet. He seemed to have no fear of waves and was masterful at rowing our frail little craft right out through ten-foot breakers, then on our way home skate us down the face of a wave nearly into the railroad bridge. I couldn’t let him continue alone. Besides, I missed the boat myself, so I joined him the next day, and we tempted eternity once on the way out and once on the way in with a haul of fish that should have sunk a boat twice our size. John was cocky and corrupted by his victory, his ability to cheat fate, and the fact that I had given in.
Only I hadn’t. I waited until the first of November, knowing that we’d have to quit soon anyway. The water temperature was still less than cauterizing. On a dead calm sea, just beyond the shallows of the run, I waited for John to start untangling a hand-line, then quickly hauled the hand axe out of my pack and, with a single swift blow, chopped a hole through the bottom of the boat that sent the axe diving toward a mussel bed. It was only a matter of seconds before the boat was swamped, and I made a dive for it over the side, away from my panicked partner.
Maybe some boats don’t sink, but ours was not one of them. The sea was greedy, and I knew soon it would want Kincaid, but it wouldn’t be today. I let him curse and let him flounder and stayed close enough so he would fight hell itself to get his hands around my neck, but good God, he swam. He swam like a dragon breathing fire, a runaway water-wheel, a venomous roiling inhuman thing, but he swam.
We landed ashore on fresh clean sand, white and fine as snow, Kincaid out of breath and boiling in the blood. He thought I had gone mad but wanted to kill me before I had a chance for a cure. He found a rock the size of a marker buoy and charged at me, wanting my skull. I was ready and moved off, waited for him to change weapons and come at me with fists. I let him plant two angry jabs in my face before I made my exit, knowing I had done good and realizing we could never be friends again.
The boat was not to be saved. But Kincaid had enough money laid by to put a payment down on a larger vessel, something close to a real fishing boat. He set out to double, then triple our old catch while I went back to school, where I learned to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets and read books by other dead Englishmen until I dreamed them in my sleep. John Kincaid didn’t speak a word to me for over fifty years.
And then the year came for all things to die, the year for me to rant against death, to establish eternity once and for all and to quiet forever all losses. November. The months are very important to me. Name a month and it rings inside me like a sound, a colour, a package of emotion and smell. Eleanor gone. November, pulling out the rocks from beneath the foundation of the hill, waves catapulting up the sheer dirt cliff and spiralling pirouettes of spray around to boil with the wind on a wild, grey night. Kincaid, finally dead. The news on the radio. Not one, but three boats from the harbour out at sea in late afternoon on a senseless, stupid ocean, blinded by instinct. Kincaid himself, refusing as usual to give it up, the tides good and high, the catch thick and heavy, no more debts to pay on any man’s boat or mortgage, and his greed thick and running full-stream for a man my own age. Sixty-nine. Sixty-eight, actually. The reporter on the radio said he was sixty-eight. All those years. I could never have believed him to be younger than me. Kincaid. He never really spoke to me again since the hatchet work. He had walked the shore waiting for the boat but found only splinters with the right paint. The hand axe, by some uncommon, messianic whim of the sea, had made its way to the beach, and John Kincaid found it, planted it in the side of our house like any Indian.
It would have been the right night for John to die. A monster sea, the highest of tides and him a couple of miles out from here, tangled in kelp, a chance for the catch to get back at him. And my bloody trick had probably done nothing more than increase the agony, make it harder to die, which is to say give death more power. How many other blunders had I done in my life? How often had a well-meaning gesture caused a sufferer more pain?
I switched off the radio and calmed the kettle on the wood stove, then sat in dark silence staring again at completion. The tidiness of it all. Too simple, too easy. And I could at that moment fall on the floor and writhe if I wanted, alone on a sea cliff with my private hell. The loss. Eleanor, then John. The desire so great to wail, to pound my head against a wall or do myself in, to complete it once and for all. Yet I could also do quite the opposite now. And did. I could set it all outside of me and look it dead in the dark face and not be mad and not be terror-struck and not be unhappy at all. And I turned on a light and made room in the warm kitchen for us all.
It was then that John Kincaid ripped open the door and barged in, wanting blood.
“I could swim, you bastard. Look at me, MacPherson. The man saved. Twice saved is twice to many.”
“Get over here by the fire, John. You’re alive, I don’t believe it. Thank God.”
Instead of thanking God, he tried to kill me.