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With Kit’s Law, Donna Morrissey established herself as a gifted storyteller. Her chronicle of life in a remote Newfoundland outport was acclaimed by critics and embraced by readers worldwide. Downhill Chance is a captivating successor to Morrissey’s first novel. Set in a pair of isolated fishing communities in Newfoundland during and after the Second World War, this is the story of two families joined by friendship but torn apart by fear and sorrows.
Prude Osmond reads her tea ...
With Kit’s Law, Donna Morrissey established herself as a gifted storyteller. Her chronicle of life in a remote Newfoundland outport was acclaimed by critics and embraced by readers worldwide. Downhill Chance is a captivating successor to Morrissey’s first novel. Set in a pair of isolated fishing communities in Newfoundland during and after the Second World War, this is the story of two families joined by friendship but torn apart by fear and sorrows.
Prude Osmond reads her tea leaves and predicts dark days ahead. Meanwhile, an hour’s boat ride away, Job Gale leaves his wife and two young daughters behind to fight in the war, a cause neither they nor their neighbors understand. The war and the dark secrets it holds cascade over the Gale family, afflicting the sensitive yet resourceful Clair, an unforgettable heroine. Forced to restart her life in another place, she must forsake the family she loves and her community.
Morrissey blends drama, gritty realism, and a flair for the comic in this unique novel. At its core is the unravelling of secrets — and the redemption that truth ultimately brings.
It was a dirty old night that washed Gid O'Mara up on the shores of Rocky Head. Sheila's Brush, the old-timers called it, that late-spring storm that comes with the fury of February winds, transfiguring the desolate rock island of Newfoundland into a great whale soaring out of the Atlantic, shaking and writhing as if to rid itself of the shacks, wharves and boats clinging to its granite shores like barnacles. Yawning with the leisure of an old tomcat, twelve-year-old Luke scrooped open the bedroom window, letting in a blast of sea-dampened wind that near put out the burning candle stub that flickered yellow over his older brother, Joey, lying beneath the blankets in their double bed.
'The old woman's going to skin you,' Joey warned, the accordion he'd been lazily drawing a tune out of flattening back against his chest as he squirmed deeper beneath the blanket, pulling his brown worsted cap farther down over his ears. But Luke was already skimming his belly across the sill and dropping to the ground below. A swipe of rain cut across his face as he scurried to the lee of the house to break the wind, ducking below the lamplight spilling out through the window where his father, his cap rolled high above aging eyes, and his mother, a crown of greying braids besetting a brow forever etched with worry, sat watching the storm. A wave broke over the bit of bank that separated the string of six houses from the sea-pounded beach, and he gave a low whistle as seething white froth swooshed up around his feet, then slid back into the rioting black water.
Always he wondered what it would be like to live inland, away from the wet, wind and fog heaved at them by the sea, and for sure he would travel inland someday, as soon as he was old enough to get clear of his mother.
But nights like this, when the storms were at their fullest, he wished for nothing. Hunching his head into his shoulders and jamming his hands inside his pockets, he crouched down besides a woodpile stacked against the house, and inched underneath the canopy made by the water-sogged canvas that covered it. Sea shelters, he called them, those dry hollows sometimes found in the tuck of an overhanging bank, or beneath the eave of a chicken coop, or behind the glass prism of frozen cliff water. He loved it, he did, crouching in weather, his mind lulled by the wind gusting past him, and the sea swarming up over the shore. And the gulls, sifting white through the dark, cried differently at night: tremulous, haunting cries that only the solitary deserved to hear.
Oftentimes, when curled in the bow of a beached boat or crouched within the warmth of a bough-whiffen—those little dome-shaped shelters he often made by weaving boughs into each other—and with the rain plinking all around him but never a drop dampening his skin, he slept. And as he crouched now, and a couple of fair-haired youngsters, their curls made limp by the drizzle, appeared out of the dark and stood in the spot of light thrown out through the window by his mother's lamp, he thought surely he must have fallen off and that the divinity presenting itself before him was but a sweet-scented dream. Then another boy, about the same age, appeared in the light. Luke blinked, then blinked again as a woman with a blanket wrapped shawl-like around her shoulders and a babe curled in her arms and a man with dark hair and a beard flowing down his chest appeared too out of the dark—all huddling into the spot of lamplight as if it might reprieve them from the storm.
In a land where the only visitors were fogbound fishers or the scattered husband or wife brought ashore to keep the bloodlines clean, this apparition growing in numbers before Luke became more and more extraordinary, and with a frightened yelp he tore to his feet, racing around the side of the house, hollering that Christ had returned, bringing with him the lost children of Abraham, and they was right outside, standing in the light of his mother's lamp. In less time than it took to spit, every man, woman and youngster from the six houses that made up Rocky Head were crowding out their doors and piling warily onto the bank. Luke was in the lead, and his mother, Prude, her hands clasped anxiously before her ample bosom, brought up the rear. They were as Luke left them; the children like shivering elfs, standing quietly in a patch of light besides their mother and father, their yellow curls tangled by the wind, a dull curiosity in their pale blue eyes and a stooped indifference around their scarcely clad shoulders. And when the smallest of them, no more than a toddler, turned to his mother and asked in a lilting voice and with the most sweetest of sounds, 'Is this where we's going to live?' a gasp went through the outporters, and all eyes swung to Luke as they believed surely he must be right, and this bedraggled bunch were celestial creatures sent straight from the Divine Mother Spirit to land upon their God-forsaken shores—for such was the beauty in the melodic brogue of the child's Irish tongue, a brogue never before heard by anybody from Rocky Head. And when the father replied in the same sweetened tongue that it was up to the good people before him, because his boat had been lost to the sea, and everything they owned with it, the outporters stirred from their half-frozen states. Resisting their wariness of strangers, they reverently approached their God-given gifts, and divvying them up, half-carried, half-walked them straightaway into their homes and into their hearts.
Aside from Prude, that was. 'No good comes from a night like this,' she cried out as Luke ushered the boy the same age as he inside his own house behind Herb. And as was always with Prude's prophecies, it was met with a scowl from Luke as he nudged her, too, back inside. Standing on the stoop, Luke looked over to where Joey was following the bearded mister and his missus into Aunt Char's house and he wondered perhaps if it might not have been better to lead the young fellow into Aunt Char's house too.
Then he, Luke, could sit and listen to the elders talk as well. But the sight of his conniving cousin Frankie following tight behind Joey, yet dragging his step over Aunt Char's stoop as he looked back curiously at the young fellow treading over Luke's, spurned all such thoughts.
'Stay weaseling where you're at, my son,' he muttered, hopping inside and snapping the door shut behind him. And with a great might, he swung himself into the chair beside where his father was seating the young fellow at the table and, hauling it nearer, scrutinized more fully this token from the night's fury.
He wasn't as pretty as the younger ones, he thought, as his father turned up the wick in the lamp and his mother, crossing herself, scurried inside the pantry, reaching for a bottle of rabbit. What with his kinky brown-and-yellow hair plastered wetly to his skull and his eyes brown slivers beneath wide, heavy lids, he looked almost odd.
'What's your name?' Luke asked, and all hands stilled, listening for the brawling tongue.
The young stranger hesitated at first, his eyes rolling slowly onto Luke, then falling away timidly as he answered 'Gid' in little more than a guttural mumble.
When nothing else followed, Prude scooped the bottled rabbit into a bowl, draining the liquor over it, as Herb stirred a spoon heaped with black molasses into a cup of tea and placed it before the boy.
'My name's Luke Osmond,' said Luke, casting a discomfited look at his kindred as he gave his first ever self-introduction.
'What's your last name?' he asked.
All hands quieted once more.
'O'Mara,' said Gid.
'O'Mara. Not a namesake I ever heard,' said Prude, placing the bowl of rabbit and a slice of bread before him. 'And where's that talk from? I never heard tell of talk like that.'
'Go on, old woman,' said Luke impatiently, inching closer to the young stranger, 'you never been nowhere to hear nothing.'
'You mind, now,' warned Prude, then, noting the boy's eyes fixed hungrily onto the bread, she nudged the plate nearer him. 'Go on, take it,' she said kindly. 'Course, it's hard to eat with everybody staring at you.
Here—sop your bread in the juice,' she coaxed, pushing the rabbit breast floating in a bowl of liquor and pork scrunchions before him. 'And leave off your nosying till he's done,' she added sharply to Luke.
Luke watched as the young fellow dipped his bread crust into the liquor and then shoved it into his mouth. Aside from a queer head of hair, he had a face that was awful long and thin, and pasty in colour, and the eyes were threatening to shut at a second's notice as he struggled between chewing and staying awake.
'He's falling asleep in his tea, Mother,' said Herb quietly.
'Sure then, let's put him to bed,' said Prude, and Luke sprang to his feet, helping the young fellow up from his chair, leading him into his room. 'And mind you keeps them legs in bed this time,' warned Prude as Luke was closing the door behind him, 'else, I nails a piece of two-by-four across that window come morn.'
'Geez,' muttered Luke, snapping shut the door. 'Geez,' he muttered once more for the benefit of his guest as he turned towards him but was astonished into silence as Gid, his wet pants already falling to the floor and still wearing his wet shirt, fell into bed, rolling himself into the blankets, his face to the wall. Shrugging disappointedly, Luke fumbled with the buttons of his pants, glancing at the window, his thoughts straying to Aunt Char's, but the threatening clucking of his mother's tongue sounding through his door stayed the notion, and kicking his pants aside, he crawled in besides his now sleeping bedmate.
He was still awake when Joey came home a half hour later. 'They come from Ireland,' he reported, his voice muffled through the room door. 'They spent the last couple years down Harbour Deep and was looking for a new place to build when the wind hit. He says he was a carpenter back in Ireland.'
'What's he looking for a new place for when he already come from Ireland to Harbour Deep?' asked Prude suspiciously.
'Now, Mother, just because he landed in Harbour Deep don't mean he got to live out his days in Harbour Deep.'
'Nothing we got here they haven't got in Harbour Deep,' said Prude, 'unless he was looking for kin—and if he was looking for kin, why'd he spend two years in Harbour Deep when he found no kin there?'
'You're making a case,' said Herb, the finality of his tone bolstered by the scrooping of his chair as Luke pictured him turning away from the talk and back to the storm outside his window.
'Mark my words—no good comes from them that's always shifting about,' said Prude, her voice rising, and Luke, too, closed an ear. Ireland, he thought, his eyes beginning to droop, the place where men wears skirts and plays bagpipes—or was that Scotland?—and talks like they're singing. They never said nothing in the school books about people talking like they were singing. He flicked a dying glance at the back of Gid's head and felt a queer jealousy.
The next morning his eyes popped opened to the wheedling sound of his cousin Frankie's voice and the sweet lyrical sounding of Gid's as he said something about finishing his tay first. Scrambling out of bed, he hopped from one leg to another, hauling on his pants. It was just like Frankie, the sneaking, lying sliveen, to be the first one out this morning, trying to steal Gid away for his own, he was thinking, pulling a garnsey over his head. And leaving it riding high on his back, he tore out through his room door.
'What're you at, my son?' he growled, slewing his eyes from the knife-edged part of Frankie's slicked-back hair as he slouched against the doorjamb to that of Gid's mane as he sat at the table, chewing on a heel of bread. Gid's hair was fluffed off from his head like a seeding dandelion this morning, now that it was dry, but his eyes, noted Luke, were still drooping as if half asleep.
Frankie had straightened as Luke barged across the kitchen. 'Going down to see the shark,' he said.
'What shark?' demanded Luke, plunking himself down at the table and pulling his chair closer to Gid's.
'Back of the stagehead,' said Frankie. 'Uncle Jir dragged him ashore this morning—caught in his net, he was.'
'You stay put—I gets you some bread, Luke,' called out Prude from the pantry.
'How big is he?' asked Luke.
'Thirty feet,' said Frankie.
'Hope now, thirty feet.'
'Yes he is, my son; we was already down measuring him—two paddles long.'
'Here, mind your talk and eat,' said Prude, bustling to the table and pouring a cup of tea for Luke. 'And stay clear of that shark; the last one come back to life and near took the arm of young Jack Dyke.'
'You coming, Gid?' asked Luke, taking a loud sup of his tea. 'Come on, then,' he said as the young stranger nodded, draining back his cup. Taking one last sup, he clinked his cup alongside Gid's on the table and rose.
'What about bread, Luke—my oh my, have some bread,' said Prude.
'I'll have it with me dinner,' said Luke, shoving his feet into his rubbers and clumping around the kitchen. 'Where's me cap, old woman—hey? Where's me cap?'
'Blessed Lord,' whispered Prude. Luke screwed up his mouth at the look of fright on her face as she crossed herself, staring into the tea leaves stuck to the side of Gid's cup.
'Another flood coming?' he mocked. 'Geez, old woman.'
Snatching his cap off the foot of the daybed, he hustled Gid and Frankie out the door before him. 'Women! Always bloody worrying,' he muttered, slamming the door on Prude's cries. 'Your mother read tea leaves?' he asked, chancing a look at Gid.
Gid shook his head.
'What's your name?' asked Frankie.
'Gid,' answered Gid, his voice the guttural murmur of the night before.
'Say all your names,' coaxed Luke.
'Gid O'Mara,' said Gid, his eyes dropping shyly as both boys pierced him further with theirs, listening to each quavering syllable.
'Did you leave Ireland on a ship?' asked Luke.
'Yeah,' said Gid.
'Big ship?' Gid nodded.
'What was it like on the big ship?'
'Cold. We was sick.'
'Everybody?' asked Luke.
'Except Da and Ma.'
'Da and Ma? Is that what you calls your folks—Da and Ma?'
'Brothers! What do you call your grandmother?'
'Do everyone talk like you from Ireland?' Frankie snorted, 'Ireland!
He's not from Ireland—he's from Harbour Deep—just down the shore,' he muttered, leaving off Gid and sauntering towards the bank.
'Whadda you know?' sang out Luke, but Frankie had already ducked around the corner of the house and was letting out a sharp whistle.
'Ho—leee!' breathed Luke, lunging after him and coming up short, staring at the bank gouged out by the storm and littered with driftwood and countless clumps of glistening seaweed. Too, the tide was still in, and the grey, choppy water, muddied by the earth sucked from along the shoreline, seethed dangerously close to what was left of the bank. And no doubt the bulging offshore swells posed as much a threat to any poor mortal caught afloat its surface as did the wind-whipped whitecaps from the night before, thought Luke, looking out over the heaving body of water, half-mile wide to the hills on the far side, and as far out the bay as the eye could see—even on a good day. Today, a thick fog blotted out the horizon, and the banked sky rendered colourless what was visible in the dome surrounding them.
'You must've got some fright when ye lost your boat last night,' said Luke, as Gid came up besides him. 'You got sea like this in Ireland?'
'Yeah,' spoke Gid in a half whisper, and its quiet drew Luke's attention back to him. He wasn't looking out over the sea at all, but along the shore the way he had come the night before. He shivered a little and Luke noted a small reddish birthmark puckering like a raspberry from his lower jaw, close to his ear. Catching his look, Gid lowered his chin, hunching his shoulder a little as he was apt to do, till the birthmark vanished amidst hair and shirt collar. Luke shifted his glance onto Gid's eyes, and was startled at the intensity with which they were fastened onto him. And like the pull of the moon to the earth, they drew Luke's attention to a muscle flexing out of control in the corner of one of Gid's wide, flat lids, lending him a pained look, and striking Luke with an urge to place his finger upon the pulsating flesh till it stilled. Balling his hands into fists, Luke shoved them into his pockets, shrugging indifferently as Frankie threw him an impatient look.
'Dare say he was scared. Bet he never gets storms like this down Harbour Deep,' said Frankie.
'He's not from Harbour Deep, my son, he's from Ireland,' said Luke, kicking a clump of kelp back into the sea.
'Yes he is; you heard him talk.'
'So? He's still from Harbour Deep.'
'Then, how come he don't talk like the ones from Harbour Deep?'
'Because he used to live in Ireland.'
'If he used to live in Ireland, then he comes from Ireland, don't he?'
'Do he wear a skirt?'
'Geez, Frankie, they only wears skirts in marches.'
'Do you wear skirts?' asked Frankie, turning to Gid.
Gid shook his head, eyes faltering between Luke's and Frankie's.
'Like I said—only in marches,' said Luke, nudging Gid into a stroll along the bank.
'So, big deal,' said Frankie, taking up stride besides them.
'Listen to Frankie,' jeered Luke, 'jealous because you're not from nowhere.' Sauntering forward, peering sideways at Gid, he added, 'I'm going up the Basin soon. By meself.'
'Hope now, by yourself,' scoffed Frankie.
'Yup. Walking up along shore; soon as I gets around to it. I'm going to buy a bottle of orange drinks—you can come if you wants,' he said to Gid. 'You know where the Basin is? It's up there, look,' he said, turning and pointing to the opposite end of the bay that Gid had come from. 'Can't see nothing today for fog. But when it's not foggy, you can see some of the houses. Close on to fifty she got; with a road going smack down the middle of her. They says they're going to have cars and trucks up there soon. You want to come?'
'Hope now, you're going up the Basin by yourself,' said Frankie.
'Yes I am, my son. You'd be too scared to go.' 'Yup, right,' sneered Frankie.
'You can't listen to him, he's a liar,' said Luke, dropping his voice as Frankie fell behind, poking a stick at a dead crab. 'Real barrel-man, he is, and sly as a conner. Go on home, conner,' he yelled over his shoulder at Frankie, and taking hold of Gid's arm, he hurried him farther along the bank. 'Let's go see the shark,' he urged, 'and don't mind Frankie; his father drowned when he was a baby, and his mother's deaf as an haddock and don't come out her door and got him spoiled rotten. Do everybody talk like you in Ireland?'
'I was the one taking him down to see the shark,' Frankie bawled out, and the crab come winging past Gid's ear, near nicking it.
'Ohh, you just struck him,' said Luke, swinging around.
Then the sound of Prude's voice pierced the air as she came out on her stoop, singing out, 'Luukee, Luukee!' Taking to their heels, both boys snatched hold of Gid's arms and bolted with him down the bank towards a rickety stagehead, standing half on land, half on water. Prude came bustling around the corner of her house, wringing her fist, and the wind flapping her skirts as she sang out 'Luuke, Luuke, get back here, ye'll be drowned; mark my words, ye'll be drowned.'
But the broad of their backs was the most she or any of the elders saw of the three boys that morning and during the following weeks. And with school having closed since early April due to the teacher from St. John's having a gall-bladder attack, there was more than enough time to squander.
Climbing the hills, they took their new best friend to the top of the cliff that jutted out from the side of the hill, looking down upon the six painted houses, and the odd assortment of weather-beaten barns, woodsheds and outhouses that looped out from the base of the hill, circling back again, forming a communal backyard, webbed with pathways and overhanging clotheslines.
There the younger ones shrieked to each other, ducking amongst the flapping sheets, mindless of the scattered goat bucking before them, and the elder's warnings of a tanning if they dirtied a spot on the wash with the black of their faces. And too there was the cluck-clucking of Aunt Char's hens firking the dirt by her stoop, and dogs barking and cats snarling, and always, always, the screaming of the snipes as they fought over fish entrails near the stagehead, and the plaintive cries of the gulls as they glided overhead, gaining momentum for the downward swoop over the surf.
From there they took him to all the best spots: Molly the horse's grave, where the lone hoof stuck two feet up out of the ground; the gutted-out motorboat that Aunt Char had pieced around with chicken wire and kept her pig in; Aunt Hope's well with the fancy tiled roof; Uncle Jir's new outhouse, painted white and padlocked, with real toilet paper inside. It was always best to wait for the tide to go out and climb up through the hole and have a crap and wipe with the real toilet paper, and jump back down through the hole again when the wave washed out. And, too, there was Chouse Brook with the biggest, fattest saltwater trout in all of White Bay. And when they were able to persuade one of the elders to lend them a boat, and beg for permission to row up the bay to Miller's Island, there was the old graveyard with a mother and daughter buried in the same grave and with the two black firs grown on either side of the headstone, imprisoning it no matter how much wriggling was done to try and pry it free. And always while roaming from one place to another Luke plied his new best buddy with a thousand 'How big's Ireland,
Gid? What other names do ye have over there? What do ye call your dogs, your cats? And what about boats? Sheep? And squid— do ye have squid?'
And as Gid replied, Luke would pause, clinging to every guttural syllable that fell from his mouth, his eyes fixed intently onto the brown, drooping eyes as if willing them to open like mirrors, reflecting the journey that had spat this boy upon the beach before him.
But Gid's eyes held nothing. Partially opened at best, they would startle a little wider when called upon, as if having forgotten those around him. Coupled with his hesitant movements and halting speech, this habit proved him a rather dull companion. And on those occasions when he laughed, like when Prude's ram butted Luke in the arse, or when Frankie slipped on a wet plank and slid into his mother's well, it would burst from his throat in hysterical shrieks that would momentarily jolt Luke into wondering whether this favoured friend was laughing or crying. And while it was Frankie and his goading ways that caused Gid to grin the most, it was to Luke that Gid first looked, and Luke that he trailed behind like a lost pup.
'Yup, I thinks I might go to Africa in a couple of years,' said Luke one evening, a week into Gid's arrival. He, Frankie and Gid were on the far end of the beach, out of earshot of the houses, weaving boughs through skinned alder poles they had laced around three young birch saplings, limbed and leaning teepee-like at the top, making for a good-sized bough-whiffen.
Frankie snorted, crawling inside the whiffen, 'Yup, I dare say we'll go with you, b'ye. What you say, Gid?'
'If ye wants,' said Luke. 'Meet Bunga and the boys.'
'Cripes,' groaned Frankie, stretching out on the bough-padded floor, 'he's going to meet a picture in his school book.'
'Whoever's in the picture's not a picture, stupid,' said Luke, tossing a handful of spruce needles in through the opening onto Frankie's face. 'And it don't matter if his name's not Bunga; that's why you goes to places—to find out if Bunga's real, the same as we; or if he's no different than Daniel in the lions' den.'
'Oops, he's getting smarter now,' said Frankie, grimacing as he brushed the needles off his neck. 'Cripes, b'ye, Daniel's a bloody Bible story, not a geography lesson.'
'I knows Daniel's a Bible story,' groaned Luke. 'That's not what I means. Bunga's not a Bible story, but he don't seem much different from one. That's why I'm going to Africa—to make sure Bunga's not a Bible story.
Hah, you'd be too scared to leave home, anyway.' Holding out his hand for one of the boughs Gid was lodging on top of the whiffen, he asked, 'What'd you think, Gid? You wanna come to Africa with me? Or you going to stay home with Fraidy Frankie?'
'I'd go right now if you wants,' said Gid quickly, his breath scratching over dry, cracked lips.
Struck by this show of talk, Luke turned. As opposed to the indifference usually clouding Gid's eyes, there was a clarity to them at this moment and a fear that clung to Luke with the tenacity of a cat's claws skimming up the trunk of a tree. In time he would remember this moment, and think mostly to himself that surely it is in the light of the eyes that the soul shines forth, and that despite the previous three weeks of racing and playing about, it wasn't till this moment, staring through those two narrowly opened pathways, did he hold court with his friend Gid. But those were eyes reborn. For now, on this bright spring evening, he was struck once more with the intensity throbbing within the thinly built frame of this new friend, and as before, the little muscle to the corner of Gid's eye began flexing, striking Luke with the same crazy desire to lay a finger on the throbbing flesh till it stilled.
'Right,' he said in a tone much rougher than he felt. Ducking inside the bough-whiffen, he elbowed Frankie to one side to make more room.
As Luke and Frankie saw to Gid, so too did the women reserve the fattest fish and leanest pieces of meat for the mister and his missus, whilst the men heartily constructed a shack to bide them over till something better could be had by winter. And there was quilt-making for bedding, and garments sewn over for the youngsters, and as festive an air as ever there was at Christmas, for it was a good Christian thing to harbour a family from a storm and make them a part of your home, and the outporters were as Christian as the angels traipsing across the pages of their Bibles. And their reward was the intrigue offered up by the O'Maras' strange new tongue and stories the mister told as he stood watching the men smear tar on the roof of his newly built shack, or sat roasting squids near a bonfire at night about the mist-peaked mountains in a far-off land, enshrouded by the yellow-gold rays of a sun that burned red each evening in the fiery skies of Killarney.
'Yeah, I knew we were in for it when I seen the white horses,'
O'Mara was often heard saying about the storm that brought him to Rocky Head, the yellow of a beach fire casting around him again the same hallowed glow as did Prude's lamplight the night he washed up upon their shores.
'The white horses?' the outporters would chorus in return. 'Yeah, the white horses,' O'Mara would reply, 'that what looks to some as the curdling froth of the sea, but was made known to my father as white stallions belonging to the sea gypsies, making haste to cross the water before morn, and driving onto the rocks any poor boat happening to bear down on them.'
'Sea gypsies,' the outporters would murmur. 'From Killarney.'
'Aye, from Killarney,' O'Mara would say over a nip of shine offered by the men as the women hushed the youngsters and inched closer to the fire to escape the distracting sounds of the sea washing upon shore behind them and the snipes calling overhead, 'the land where your soul leaves your body at night and dances with the fairies upon the meadows, feeding upon the pollen. But then, there was no more pollen. And that's why we left our sweet Irish homeland, our house in the lee of the Sliabh Mish mountains—to find again the pollen for our souls to feed on, and keep us from becoming as barren as our dead piling up beneath the sod.'
'Aye, to fale our bellies and save our sauls,' mimicked Luke from up behind the stove one evening, peering out around at Joey, who was lying back on the daybed, idly playing a sea shanty on his accordion, and his father, who was sitting on the far end, mindlessly listening. The O'Maras had been living in their shack for near on two weeks now, and it was the rarest of evenings that Gid wasn't slouching up behind the stove besides Luke.
'You mind your mocking,' warned Prude, her weight sending creaks of discomfort through the joists as she trod out of the pantry, a ball of wool in one hand and her knitting needles in her other.
'Aye, I'm not mockin', I'm talkin',' drawled Luke, 'like the Irish, hey.'
'Like the Irish!' scoffed Prude. 'It'll be a fine day when you slips your tongue and mocks him to his face.'
'Aye and wut a sheame that would be.'
'It's more than shame you ought to be feeling,' grumbled Prude, sinking into her wooden armchair. 'I'd be wary of taking you around strangers, I'd be, for fear of what's going to come outta your mouth.'
'Strangers don't bother me none.'
'They should then, for there's more than one youngster that got lugged away by strangers.'
'You forgets the one from Green Bay,' Prude cried. 'No bigger than yourself and lugged away by the foreign boats— never seen agin.'
'Foreign boats,' mimicked Luke. 'You see any foreign boats around here, Joey?'
'Good thing you don't, else you'd be in her bowels by now, soaking in hot tar,' snapped Prude.
'Hot tar!' Luke poked his head around the stove, staring at his mother, flabbergasted. 'Now that's foolish, old woman; that's damn foolish.
Did you hear that, Joey? Soaking in hot tar. Have ye ever heard of such a thing?'
'And worse, hey Father,' muttered Joey.
'Yup—worse,' said Herb, scarcely audible over the strains of Joey's accordion. Luke twisted his head around to him, questioningly.
Mindful of Joey's closed eyes, his father tossed him a wink.
Luke grinned, winking back with a rush of affection for his kindly old father. 'Come to think of it, I bet that'd feel real good—a soak in nice, hot, soft tar. What do you think, Father?' he asked, and groaned along with his father as Prude leaned forward in her chair, finger pointing.
'Be the cripes, I shouldn't bawl if you was,' she warned, 'for the paths around here won't be big enough to hold you soon, the way you're getting on these days.'
'Aye, you'd bawl,' said Luke. 'Cripes, you bawls every time O'Mara tells his yarns—ye all bawls—even Joe.'
'Young bugger,' muttered Joey, shivering more deeply into his accordion and drowning out the rest of Luke's words, for indeed, Luke was right; each time O'Mara told his story, becoming more and more sentimental with each nip of shine, they all had a turn wiping a tear. As would O'Mara.
Turning soulful eyes upon his saviours (as he had taken to calling them), he'd nod slowly at each and every rapt face as he finished of his storytelling by saying 'And this is where the white horses brought me, amongst folks as blessed as the Saints of Ireland, and where strangers have become my neighbours, and neighbours have become my brothers.' A tear would wet his eye, and the outporters would dab at a tear in their own, and Luke would shake his head in disgust at their snivelling, willing O'Mara instead to speak more of the white horses and their fairies, and the fiery skies of Killarney. For since the O'Maras' arrival, his taste for that which was foreign had grown more and more sweet, like the peppermint knobs his mother passed around at Christmastime, and left him craving for more long after the sweet had been sucked from his tongue.
'We'll leave for the Basin not tomorrow, not the next day, but next—Saturday, right when the sun's up,' said Luke the next day, sitting cross-legged across from Gid and Frankie in the bough-whiffen. The strengthening May sun filtering through the boughs threw spots of light across the sceptical look clouding Frankie's shiny scrubbed face. Gid sat quietly, watching as Luke pulled a wad of rabbit wire out of his pocket. 'We'll start making snares,' he said, 'pretending we's going rabbit catching—'
'Yup, that's what we'll do,' said Frankie, pulling a pocket knife out of his pocket. 'We'll walk partways up and set out a snare line in by the brooks. Uncle Nate said the rabbits is thousands in there.'
Luke blinked, then burst out savagely, 'You sliveen, Frankie, always trying to change things and making out you're not!'
'What's wrong with you, my son—I wants to go rabbit catching.'
'Right, rabbit catching!' scoffed Luke. 'I said we's going up the Basin, not rabbit catching. Never heard that part, did you?'
'Yup, well, I'd rather be snaring rabbits than getting skinned like one.'
'See?' said Luke, turning to Gid, 'like I told you—he's scared.'
'I'm not scared—we'll get caught is all.'
'How's we going to get caught?'
'It's too far.'
'Too far. Two hours up, two hours down and two hours up there; six hours—no different than when we goes across the bay, trouting at Chouse.'
'They'll see us on shore from their boats.'
'See us? How's they going to see us if we hears the boat first and hides? Now you see here, Gid—you see how he does it? Every time you catches him, he comes up with something different.'
'Oh right, my son.'
'Oh right, my son; oh right, my son,' mimicked Luke. 'Fraidy Frankie. What about you Gid—you scared, too?'
'I'm not scared,' Frankie cut in, a dirty look at Gid.
'Why don't you just take Gid, then, you're so brave?'
'Because I'm asking you, too, scaredy Frankie.'
'Right, my son.'
'Well? You coming or not?'
'I said I was, didn't I?'
'Then you're going,' said Luke. 'And you?' he asked, turning to Gid.
'Then we's all going,' declared Luke. He grinned towards Gid. 'Bet you never went this far in Ireland by yourself, did you?' Gid shook his head, and it was then Luke saw the beginnings of a bruise purpling the skin beneath Gid's right eye. 'How come you got your eye hurt?' he asked, peering closer.
Gid put a finger to his eye, as if having forgotten it had been bruised. 'Da hit me,' he said quietly.
Luke blinked. 'Da hit you? How come your da hit you?'
'You must know why he hit you,' persisted Luke.
'I wouldn't listening.'
'How come you wouldn't listening? Was you listening, then?'
'Listening!' exclaimed Luke irritably. 'Was you listening?'
Gid shrugged, both shoulders falling back, baring momentarily the reddish birthmark before hunching his shoulder and screening it again amidst hair and collars. Luke stared for a second, then grunted, 'Lord, picking sense outta you is like picking knots outta wet rope. Let's get on with her,' he ordered, tossing the coil of rabbit wire at Frankie. 'We'll make a big pile so's they'll know we'll be gone for the day once we gets going. After you snips them, Frankie, me and Gid'll tie them.'
They worked steadily for the next hour, the wind singing past the door of their shelter, and the water washing up over the shore a scant five feet from them. Yet, try as he might not to, Luke's eyes kept creeping back to Gid's and the bruised flesh thickening beneath. Too, there was a scratch across his throat that Luke hadn't noticed before. And was that not the same shirt he'd been wearing for near on two weeks now? And what of his hair?
Wouldn't a good combing straighten some of the kinkiness?
Gid carried on, a studied look occupying his face as he slipped pieces of hay wire through knots, pulling nooses. Once, he looked up, catching Luke's scrutiny, and as was whenever anyone peered too keenly, his lids drooped, revealing the barest slivers of brown, causing Luke to question just how much of anything Gid ever really saw.
'Your da oughtna hit you like that,' said Luke, startling Gid with the suddenness of his words. And ignoring the questioning look from Frankie,
Luke uncrossed and crossed his legs against the prickling of the boughs beneath him, carrying on with his tailing as the sun began its descent beyond the hills.
That evening, eating supper, Luke looked to his father's gnarled hands as they wrapped themselves around a mug of hot tea. The worst he'd ever seen them do was rip apart a dead animal for supper, and even that was done in a careful, orderly manner, offering full respect, almost kindness, for the carcass about to be stewed and eaten. And when he saw O'Mara the next day, strolling along the bank, calling out liltingly to a couple of his youngsters, he looked at his small, almost womanish hands, gesturing fluidly as he spoke, and wondered how it was that such grace could bruise his boy's eye for not listening.
It was the following day—the day before they were to set off for the Basin—that the shine fell from the O'Maras like a cheap lacquer. Joey had taken himself to bed, and Prude was standing in her nightdress, unplaiting her braids before a mirror hung over the washstand, when the knock sounded.
'What's that—who's that?' she asked, her hand to her heart in fright. No one knocked on doors.
'Bide there,' said Herb as Luke poked his head out from behind the stove.
'No, Herb, wait—go see through the window, first,' said Prude, but Herb, was already crossing the kitchen, opening the door. Peering outside, he then quickly stepped back, opening it fully. The missus stood there, her dress torn, baring a bruised breast, her eye already swollen shut, a harsh burn marking the side of one cheek, and the blood spurting from her bottom lip, dripping thickly onto the crown of the babe she clutched to her bosom.
She stared wildly at Prude, her breathing short and rasping over the night wind. Two others, trembling from the cold and whatever else that had touched them on this night, clung tightly to her dress tail, whimpering piteously in their naked feet and half-clad bodies.
'Glory be,' cried Prude, one hand crossing her heart, the other reaching out to the missus. 'What's happened, what's after happening, now?'
Joey came out of the room, pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders, his cap rolled down over his ears. 'Shut the door, Father,' he ordered as Herb stood out on the stoop, ushering the missus and her young ones inside.
'My oh my, I waited for this night,' cried Prude, helping the missus into a chair. 'Joey, get the brandy from the cupboard. Show, here, I gets a clean cloth. Luke, take the youngsters in the room and warm them in bed. Blessed be the Lord, what thing, what thing is this?'
Luke faltered, holding tightly to the warmth of the stove. He felt his mother's urgency in wanting the young ones warmed, as if comfort might ease the hurt this night had inflicted upon them. Too, it would free the missus to speak more openly without the younger ears listening, for it was already sensed by Herb, as he went back to jabbing at the fire with the poker, and Joey, as he kept his head down while passing the missus her cup of tea, and by Luke himself, as he stared with a sickening fascination at the exposed breast and the torn dress, that there was no wild beast prowling their doorstep on this night, no driven lunatic, no haunt exiled betwixt heaven and hell; but, rather it was a beast of their own nature that had caused the missus's dress to be torn. And it was this debacle of one turning against one's own and sending women and babies fleeing from their doorstep that caused Luke to cling further to the warmth of the stove. A chill rolled through his belly as he looked again at the sight of the missus's torn dress, like the time he had come upon Aunt Char's cat eating her newborn kitten, and then spewing it back up onto the door place, a bloodied, bone-sharded pulp.
But the stove offered poor shelter this night. The missus had no sooner taken a sip of the tea Joey had passed her, when the door was thrust open, and O'Mara staggered in, his eyes bloodshot with moonshine, and his face contorting furiously in the wildly flickering lamplight.
'Home!' he snarled, tilting drunkenly on his feet and pointing a finger towards the missus and her youngsters. And then, when Herb, still holding the poker, took a step towards him, O'Mara lunged. Both men went down with a crash, Herb on the flat of his back and O'Mara on top, hands clenched around Herb's throat. Joey, as if stunned by what was taking place before him, moved towards the men, slowly at first, as if through water, then with lightning speed as a cry from Prude cut through his benumbed senses.
Grabbing hold of O'Mara's head from behind, he got him in a stranglehold, but O'Mara's liquor-skewed demonic strength was too strong for Joey's shocked, almost gentlemanly, defence, and Herb's eyes began to bulge, his face purpling from the pressure around his windpipe. Letting go of the stove,
Luke stumbled forward, colliding against Prude, and for a second, they both held on to each other, watching in silenced horror this assault upon the one they beheld most dear. Never—not even a dog—had turned a baleful eye upon this gentlest of souls. And now, the sight of him as he flailed weakly at O'Mara, choked, strained whimpers escaping his gaping mouth, forged a sight that would forever brand Luke's eyes.
A hoarse cry from Prude freed Luke, and throwing himself onto the floor besides where the men sprawled, he grabbed hold of the fingers that were dug into his father's throat, and not able to budge them, bit into them as would a dog. Joey heaved harder on his stranglehold, cutting off O'Mara's breathing and forcing him to slacken his fingers from around Herb's throat.
Shoving Luke to one side, O'Mara then grabbed hold of Joey's arm that was wrapped around his neck, and tried to throw him over. But with a sudden thrust of strength, Joey managed to topple O'Mara sideways off his father, then leaped to his feet, both fists curled. O'Mara staggered to his, and heaving drunkenly from one foot to another, stood wagging a finger at the lot of them.
'No one threatens me with a poker!' he roared. And then, jabbing at his missus and youngsters, 'And no one comes betwixt me and mine.
Now, get home!' Gathering the baby more tightly to her bosom, the missus rose from her chair and scurried out the door. The youngsters fled after her, and O'Mara, stumbling backwards, grabbing hold of the door jamb to steady himself, threw a murderous look at Joey, then lurched out behind them.
No sooner had the hinge snapped in place than Aunt Char, and others behind her, started running in through the door, having heard the commotion. 'He's a lunatic!' Prude cried out as they all gathered around, helping Herb to a chair, and examining the bruises starting around his neck. 'A bloody lunatic. The look on his face—ooh, he wore the devil's face, he did, bursting in through the door, and her sitting there with the baby in her arms, and the young ones too scared to open their mouths—the devil himself! And he was choking Herb, he was—with him pinned to the floor. The black stranger—I seen it, I did; on the first day they come, I seen it, for what's a decent soul doing with his family away from his kin, unless he was drove out? And he was drove out of Harbour Deep too, mark my words, and I allows there's more than one place on this island he lived till he got drove out.
My oh my, what are we going to do now, hey—we got the devil living amongst us, and his family needing us to keep 'em going? My oh my, I said it, I did; I said it.'
Early the next morning whilst all tossed fretfully in sleep, Luke rose from behind the stove where he had finished the night and snuck out the door. The sea was without quiet this morn, its glassy stillness giving way to the ragged blue of a choppy winter's wind, and he was thankful; for there was a mar in the ordinariness of this morning, and he was not wanting to be alone with it. Wandering onto the beach, he kicked at a stranded jellyfish, then stood with the sole of his boot pressed hard against the purplish face.
'Luke!' It was Frankie. Appearing on the bank, he leapt down onto the beach, face scrubbed shiny and hair slicked back as though the sun was already shining and the bell donging for church. 'What'd she look like, Luke, when she come to your door?'
'God, my son.'
'She had her dress tore off?'
'Why didn't you come see for yourself, if you're that nosy.'
'Mother caught me; geez, deafer than a haddock but she hears everything. Was her mouth bleeding?'
Luke jabbed at the jellyfish with the toe of his boot. 'She was bleeding,' he muttered, jabbing harder. The sound of a door slamming shut sounded from the O'Maras' shack and both boys swivelled their heads towards it. There was no one there. The heel of Luke's boot punctured the jellyfish and he jumped back, stomping it on the beach rock, freeing it from the dying flesh. 'Let's go now,' he said with a sudden urgency, turning to Frankie. 'Up the Basin—let's go get our snares and leave now.'
'Hope now, my son—we said Saturday.'
'Who cares it's not Saturday.' 'I already told Mother—'
'Tell Mother something else. I wants to go now— quick—before anybody gets up. Unless you's scared,' he added as Frankie picked up jabbing at the ruptured fish. 'Well—you coming or not?'
'What about Gid?'
Luke shrugged, his eyes fixed onto Frankie's. 'Get some bread for later and we'll meet up behind the point,' he said, tossing his head towards a curve in the shoreline a scant sixty or seventy feet up the beach. 'Come on, my son, make up your mind,' he all but shouted as Frankie stared back at him hesitantly, 'because I'm going whether you comes or not— Fraidy Frankie.'
'Right, my son. Better hope Mother's still in bed then, or she'll be up bawling out to Prude. Geez, my son,' he yelled as Luke grabbed him by the shirt, his face a scant inch before his.
'You better bloody hope she don't, then,' uttered Luke, his threat falling to the wayside as Frankie shoved him to one side. And muttering still, yet responding to the unspoken signal born out of familiarity, both boys turned, running towards their separate doorsteps. Letting himself inside, Luke quietly sliced off two pieces of bread, smeared them with molasses and, wrapping them in a piece of brown paper, shoved them into the baggy pockets of his cotton trousers. Scooping up the bundle of rabbit snares, he shoved them into his other pocket. Then he stoked up the fire to take the chill out of the house for when his mother got up, and snuck out the door.
He paused for a second, looking towards Frankie's house, then raced up the beach. Perhaps Frankie was already there. Rounding the turn, he dropped disappointedly onto his belly, staring back at Frankie's house, jiggling his foot impatiently. 'Come on, Frankie,' he ordered loudly, 'come on.' Pressing his chin onto folded arms, he stared unblinking at his cousin's house, willing him to appear around the corner. Aside from the thin trickle of smoke drifting out of Prude's chimney and the restless stirring of the wind and sea, the outport was quiet as death. Something moved near the O'Maras' shack and Luke squinted for a better look. 'A rat, most likely,' he muttered, then closed his eyes, allowing for the first time that morning the image of his father's face, purpling beneath O'Mara's hands and the half-bared breast of the missus as she sat bleeding and bruised with the baby in her arms and the smaller youngsters clinging to her dress tail.
A squawk went up from Aunt Char's rooster and Luke's eyes snapped open as Frankie came sprinting around the corner of his house, and alongside of him Gid, his father's .22 rifle bouncing awkwardly against his shoulder as he ran.
A flush darkened Luke's face as jumped to his feet, smashing his fist in his hands. 'What the hell are you up to, Frankie?' he yelled savagely as both boys came panting around the turn.
'I found him, Luke, sleeping outside your place. He got his father's gun.'
'You conner; you just wants to screw up our plan.'
'No I never, my son—ask him—he was sleeping outside your place, by the hillside. He woke up as I was coming out the door. Ask him—go on, ask him.'
'Ask him, go on, ask him,' Luke mocked angrily, and was twisting on his heel, about to march off, when Gid spoke.
'You can carry it, Luke.'
Luke turned then, looking first at the yellow-and-brown hair, more knotted than kinked, and the face, pale, splotchy, like day-old cream. He wanted to run, to shut himself inside his house and crawl up behind the stove and lay his head to its warmth. But his eyes found their way to Gid's and became rooted within the brown slivers, partially hidden beneath heavily padded lids. He knew now why they were thus, and as he stared, the sickening feeling came back again, the same as what he felt upon seeing the missus's bared breast and the half-eaten kitten.
'Come on, Luke,' coaxed Frankie. 'You can carry it like Gid says.
She got a bullet in her—you can shoot it—'
'How come you got your father's gun?' asked Luke, his eyes still implanted in Gid's.
'Ma throw'd it out last night.'
'After O'Mara went to sleep, right, Gid?' said Frankie. 'And he won't wake up for hours, O'Mara won't—even pisses his pants whilst he sleeps. Gid just told me,' added Frankie as Luke turned on him, suspiciously. 'By then, we'll be back.'
'We won't shoot it till we're on our way back—how's that, Fraidy Frankie?' Luke snapped. 'And it's his gun, so he can carry it. Better hurry up, my son,' he then growled at Gid, and falling back a step he beckoned for Frankie to start walking, and then Gid. Glancing back he noted the smoke spiralling darker and thicker from his mother's chimney. She's up, he thought, and more fancied than heard her crying out, 'No good comes from a night like this, mark my words, mark my words.' He then hurried after Frankie, who was taking the lead, and Gid keeping up from behind, the butt of the gun bumping against his knees, and the barrel glinting fiercely in the first rays of the sun.
Copyright © 2002 by Donna Morrissey. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.