The Proper Ting
This story was recently published in The Galleon, a literary journal out of Moncton, NB.
The Proper Ting
A little girl saw it first. She had been roaming the beach gathering shells, dancing along the water's edge every time a wave hit. Then a leap of sea stuff blocked her path. Strange it was, a bundle of something wrapped in crackling dulse as if ready to be shipped. Under the dark stringy layers were smooth pink limbs that had spent the night tumbling over themselves back towards the shore. It stunk of maggoty fish heads. The girl screamed.
The next morning Mrs Wilcott comes over and knocks. I freeze at the toilet, my stomach siezing up in mid retch.
“Hallo, hallo,” she says through the cracks. “Are you home, my dear?”
I wipe my mouth. “Mrs Wilcott, I'm a little busy. I'm leaving soon and...”
“Oh I know, but some awful news there is, I'm sure you heard, oh I thought she knew better, really I did,” she says in one breath. “Shall I pour us some tea?”
She pretends that we are only gossiping but I wonder if she came out of mercy because she knew I'd be grieving alone. That's how they are. I make the tea and try to distract her by apologizing for the piles of clothes, dirty dishes, boxes.
“She should have known better,” she says again, “going out in that sea alone. She must have been missing him some bad. Trying to meet him up the bay she was.”
We both know that wasn't true. By the time she leaves the sky is purple and the tea long cold. I tape the last box and stack it with the others in the car. Most people probably expect me to stay, but they are the same people who want me to leave.
I knocked on her door to start my interviews and she told me to just call her Sinjin. It was her husband I would be wanting, she said, but he wouldn't be back for at least a week or two. Then she told me Sinjin was short for Saint John.
“Isn't that a boy's name,” I ask, trying to be polite.
“True enough,” she said. “My parents were playing tricks wouldn't you know. That's the last one, she kept telling him, the last one. My dad didn't see the naked me for weeks. He was right surprised when he did, I tell you.”
“That's quite a story.”
“It gets better,” she said, stepping aside to let me in.
But I had been warned about how people will go on and on if you let them, as if time was just another fish that got away. It was only my first week and already my goal of starting one case study a day had evaporated. “I think I should go,” I looked at my watch. “I can come back another time.”
“Come now,” she said. “Who leaves in the middle of stories?”
“Okay, here's another. First off, you're pronouncing it all wrong. You don't say it like hope. It's pronounced despair. Bay d'Espoir – bay despair. The exact opposite of what you think.”
But the exact opposite of what I think was that it wasn't normal for her eyes to close in on me like that, like she was both trawler and net.
I went back the next day. “You've been keeping accurate records of your catches, I assume?” I should have been asking her husband. There was protocol for that.
“Of course,” she said, with a curtness I hadn't been expecting. Then: “How about that tea?” She moved back and forth through the kitchen door frame, her body heavy and strong and lithe all at once. She moved like a dancer, I thought. No, a fish.
I stayed where I was, on the threshold. I was more comfortable with distance. Life should be looked at through binoculars, I wanted to tell her. It is important to stand off, to stay outside the circle. That way you can sort everything out in your own time. You can make your own decisions and draw your own conclusions. Otherwise, otherwise – I don't know.
“Autumn's not halfway started and already you look like three layers of wet wool,” she said, sipping. I pulled out my notes but they fluttered in some breeze. I couldn't take my eyes off her fingers curling around the cup.
“Is this your first time to Newfoundland,” she asked.
“Yes. Never came this far before.”
“Well, there's a first time for everything. Don't you think so?”
She squinted at me and I just wanted to say no. No, some things I can wait on. Some things I don't need to do or to see. She nodded her head slowly, to herself, bobbing it up and down like the rest of her was under water, her thick, dark hair almost floating away. “Maybe I can show you around.”
“Sure.” But I didn't mean it. I knew what it really meant to be a stranger and it had nothing to do with being in Newfoundland.
She showed up a couple of days later with two bicycles. She liked the warm days of September. Driftwood days, she called them. Newspaper-grey days imprinted with the smell of salt. The half-awoken wind through her hair reminded me of the day I had stepped off the ferry, sea breeze meeting the rock breeze like two abandoned lovers. When she told me her husband had been piloting the ferry my front wheel skidded on the gravel and I fell on my hands, scraping the skin clean off them. She ran me down to the water's edge and plunged them into the cold stinging water, laughing like it was nothing. I held back my tears, even after the physical pain had long passed. She mentioned him again and I realized that it had been he I stood beside on the ship's deck in the morning smoke. He said something about patience, something about waiting and catching and just as I was about to join in, to respond with something polite and empty, a voice on the other side of him spoke up. And then he and the other man left the railing and went inside. I stayed at the railing to watch the sun burn away the fog.
After the news settles, I leave the way I came. This time another captain is at the helm and the sky is clear all afternoon. The sun sets slowly back on the mainland, sometimes reflecting off the asphalt into my eyes, other times strobing from behind the trees. I drive south from Sydney one-handed, shielding my face from the end of the day.
Just outside of Truro I check into a motel called the Red Sky at Night. I had driven past it at first but turn around when I realize I'd been saying sailor's delight over and over. I start the next day early and get sucked into the passing current of logging trucks until I reach another coast, where half-salted shores begin to narrow and the tides cease. I cross the border into Quebec and slowly I go this time, no faster than the current.
My job was to work with the fish. Not like a proud fisherman, not dredging the sea between here and Norway, lofting the creatures high overhead and smiling for pictures, filling the hold with enough to last a season, carrying them home in a bucket, gutting one in the sink and laying it on a plate. Instead, I visited outports, wharfs and processing plants all along the southern coast, as far away as Ramea and Burgeo to the east then down along Fortune Bay to the west. I was to count them down and round them off, scrutinize catches and ensure adherence and monitor compliance. Take names, issue quotas, report my findings. But I found myself counting curls instead of quotas and reading her expressings instead of Ministry guidelines. I started to hear her laughter in the shy morning tide and see the curves of her hips in the hummocks behind the village.
She took to banging on my door at sunrise. “Let me show you what this rock is all about,” she'd say. “Just so you know who it is you're messing with.”
Monday she brought me to the beach. Tuesday she showed me old photographs while a bare hour of sun burnt the dew off the grass. On Wednesday she took me up the hill behind the village. She wore big boots and the nettles crackled when she walked. I inhaled details like bakeapple berries, the green grey matchsticks of moss, the ruddiness of her cheeks, the shoulder where the sweater fell, the long, hard lines of her thighs as we climbed. Birds screeched and she followed the sound, thinking we might have to rescue an animal. I couldn't care less about the animals but followed her higher over the ridge, following, just following. She stopped in her tracks and I wondered if she had seen a rabbit or a moose. But she turned around and ran her hands inside my jacket. That was the first time.
The next morning she took me on her boat. I thought that maybe we should talk about him, that maybe we should address this new current, this tidal wave, this growing squall. He was still plying the channel waters, not knowing a storm was brewing in the bay. But I ran out of metaphors.
“Not a word from you,” she said. “He has his summer and I have mine. Does it even matter?” She threw the last of the mooring line off the deck, then softened. “Come. This one is my boat.”
The Proper Ting was small, rusted in parts, its white paint decorated with streaks of brown, bouquets of barnacles under the water line. But I was amazed at how big it was once we boarded. I was amazed at how endless the sea was once we were released from land.
I don't know what kind of summers the Indians had. How the fishing was when the English fired at the Beothuk from off the shore. Their boats snuck into the bays at night and lobbed delirious cannon shot at anything that moved. The last Beothuk died two centuries ago. They went inland but the English followed, dragging and drowning them like kittens. That's what she said to me.
“No one is innocent here. Everyone smells of either fish or blood.”
“Maybe the cod moratorium will bring new life to the province,” I offered. “Maybe it's a chance to break with this legacy?”
“You think?” she said. “And are you here to tell me what we're supposed to do, then? Is that your job too?”
She rose with the cresting wave. She felt too big for me, my line was taut and shaking. The boat lifted and fell in an insistent cadence, like a pulse. I tried again. “There are other things you can do. Other places you can go.”
“No,” she said. “And no.”
The day always comes when there is one last Indian and then that Indian dies.
“Oh come here,” she said. “Stop your pouting. Let me show you something.” She turned the engine off and, leaning over the side, pulled up a buoy. “I'm going to give you a real job.”
She taught me how to pull the net and hold the wheel and watch the waves. She showed me where the knife goes and just how hard you have to slice. “Hold down with your other hand, don't let it slip and don't be afraid of pushing. And quickly, you don't want to lose time.” Then she laughed. “You don't want it to remember your face.”
She stuffed their white ribbed holds with summer savory and saved the soft cheeks for me, laughing when I ate them. Afterwards, I staggered at the warmth of her mouth in the wet and spitting wind. The bow rose higher and higher with every wave while the seagulls pretended not to look. That was the second time. After that we lost count.
It's not a long drive from Rivière du Loup to Montreal but it seems to take me all day. She couldn't even swim. Like most sailors and fishermen, she never touched the water. Had I been there I would have caught her, my fingers spreading like a net. I would have stationed myself at the edge of the shoal and herded in the schools of herring and the remnants of cod and the odd trout. Caught in my squid jigging ground I would have hauled her up over the side of the dory and gutted her in the dark, one red lantern swinging through the fog.
There is nothing to report now. We dredged the sea, we drained the sea, we emptied it and made it lifeless. That is your report, Minister, spin it how you will. Me, I find a cheap hotel near the Metropolitain highway. It feels odd to speak French, words skirting out of my mouth like tiny crabs. I sleep through checkout time. I sleep all day, voices in the corridors squawking like seagulls. The bed bashing me like a dead carp against the rocks. Nothing hurts in this salty bed. But the fish have teeth and they tear my liver out. If I had known that she was mortal I would have cooked her skin in a frying pan with porkfat and onions. We would have eaten it with a bottle of wine and only when she glanced at the shore would she be reminded of what I had done for us. If I had known that she would die I would have smashed the boat myself.
An outport is a town with only one way out and that is the sea. Roads were eventually built, but not where it counted, not in her psyche. So when he came back into the harbour he blocked her way.
“Take the road. Come with me,” I said to her. “There's no more fish anyways. And you're doing what you shouldn't be doing.”
“Ah, you've noticed,” she said. “You're smarter than you look.”
“Come with me,” I said again, floating in a lagoon of hope and promise.
“So you can add me to your findings? Will you take me all the way to Ottawa? Like the last Beothuk? Ah my dear, you're sly.”
“The last Beothuk?”
“They captured her and took her to Ottawa. She died of disease and despair, you know. They all did.” She walked away, her boots galumphing in a way I had grown to associate with wild mornings. She stopped and turned around. “I need to think. I'm going to go think on the sea.”
What could I say? I went home and waited. But far off a black wind picked up and lightening breached the darkening sky. Shouts ricoheted off the edge of the harbour as a handful of men reeled in their boats and tied them to. I couldn't see The Proper Ting.
The wet whoosh of the cars wake me before dawn. I get up and walk, following St Laurent boulevard all the way down into the city, past the mountain, through downtown then the old port, till I see the morning sun reflecting off the dull fittings of a ship at dock.
Montreal is an island but it feels nothing of the sea. I buy a sandwich and sit in the park, skeletons of the leafless trees casting shadows. The bag is heavy on my shoulder, a printed draft of my report weighs it down so that it cuts into my skin. Did I mean to bring it? Seagulls and pigeons, bastard family to their east coast cousins, squawk noisily above me. I throw the end of my sandwich over the rail and watch how the birds dive; they fight each other for bits of the bread. Obnoxious birds, they come closer. I pull the first page out of my bag and, crumpling it, throw it over the railing. They dive like greedy bombers but spit it out when they don't taste blood. Waterlogged, it opens up and floats back and forth in the frigid swell. This is a game we are going to play. I crumple the next page.
And then the next until the harbour is carpeted with the story of cod. Like at the very beginning, when ecstatic English and Portuguese fishermen could cross the bay just by walking on the backs of fish. It changes nothing, the end is the same, but at least the birds are distracted.