Hunting Down Home is the compelling story of an unusual family and their last year together. Morag lives with her grandparents on a remote farm in Nova Scotia. She sees her mother only in slides sent from Africa and illuminated at night on the white refrigerator door. With lyrical intensity, Jean McNeil captures Morag's dawning perception of the violent bonds that hold her grandparents together, making readers feel the tension when Morag must inevitably choose between them.
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The kitchen was a lung cancer sauna. Smoke from the three lit cigarettes mingled with the fuggy heat.
"Sure as I'm sitting here, that's what he did." She turned to her two sisters, who flanked her on either side like a crumpled imperial guard. "'You've got to get help,' I says. 'Will you ever act your age, man?' I says. I feel sorry for him." She shook her head. "But you either shit or get off the pot. And he's still sitting there."
"Waiting for you to come and wipe his arse," her sister Jessie said.
In her rocking chair my grandmother shrugged, and an ash dropped from her cigarette. "I don't know. He's never really known himself. He's just twisted himself into shapes. Who can blame him, with what he has for a mother?"
"Never you mind, Christine," her sister Maryanne counseled. "It's just some kind of crisis. It's a private thing between himself and himself. It has nothing to do with you."
The squeaking of the rocking chair punctuated their conversation. My grandmother took another drag on her cigarette.
"He knows very well she's coming back," she said, suddenly fierce. "He's known that since last fall. I told him myself. He knows Morag will go with her. Why shouldn't she?" she appealed to her sisters, stabbing her cigarette in their direction.
Jessie nodded. "But he has to put on a big production, as usual."
"I've given him a lot of latitude" my grandmother sat back in her chair, "and he knows it too."
"Well,he's been to the equator, so he must be better than us, right? Doesn't that just figure. He knows things we can't know just by sitting on our arses here in Cape Breton."
Their talk of men was always like this: bewilderment and reprimand mixed with an equal measure of contempt. Like they talked about children. Like they talked about me.
Every evening when I was supposed to be in bed I was in fact upstairs, poised over the register, the iron-covered hole in the ceiling which allowed the stove's heat to rise to the second floor. Hung upside down like a bat, my heart in my mouth, my ear a minute steak braising on the hot grille. I overheard entire conversations in this position. No one guessed why I was prone to earaches. Ever since I could remember, I had had to resort to the tactics of creatures who are simultaneously witness, spy, and pawn.
"I don't know. It's not the drink anymore." My grandmother's voice drifted up through the ceiling. "I think it's his mind."
They were silent for a while. Rum glasses were placed on the kitchen table with tiny raps.
Jessie snorted. "The situation he left you in. I've never seen the likes of it. What a bastard. If it were me, I'd never forgive him for what he did."
"Well it's not you, is it?" My grandmother rocked the chair back and forth on the balls of her feet. I could see her face in between the slats of the register. Her lips were set; she looked pleased, as if surveying her work.
"Well, I don't know." Maryanne fingered her rum glass. "We're not in your position. But I'm inclined to agree. We may have known him all our lives. But he's still a bastard."
Which was what they sometimes called me, too.
That summer was the hottest anyone could remember. It brought a quick-fire, scorching heat between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, which then faded desultorily into the mauve evening. At times we thought a southern current or a sirocco had drifted wildly off course and had slammed into the North Atlantic by mistake. The nights were alchemical, as if there was some transformative element at work. The traditional kitchen parties were moved outside to fields, or to the night-glittering shore where we built bonfires and went swimming in a water so warm that it was indistinguishable from the air, and so black we might have been swimming through melted chocolate or licorice, some sweet thick substance without boundaries or end.
For the field parties we arrived in trucks and parked at the top of the cliffs on the South Side, overlooking the water. Fifteen or sixteen trucks and cars would congregate at the cliffs or at the beach, headlights cutting the night in front of them like the eyes of saurian monsters. Raccoons and bears scuttled out of the way of our nocturnal onslaught. We spread plaid blankets in the back of the flatbeds, once all the hay had been swept out. Ham sandwiches and beer were laid out, radios were tuned to CBC in Sydney, and headlights were left on, illuminating a space of grass that doubled as a dance floor. Sometimes my grandfather tuned up and we had a dance right there in the middle of the field, the dry grass tickling our calves.
They drank prodigiously into the humid night. We kids lay on our backs and watched the stars gather above our heads. We would be found there fast asleep, four or five hours later, separated, delicately placed into our respective trucks and station wagons, then driven home into the blinding promise of another scorching morning.
"Let's go in, Morag."
We stood knee-deep in felled grass listening to the crows' caws fill the empty evening as we tied rough string on the last bales of hay with our calloused hands. The bales of hay trailed behind us like corpses on a battlefield. The light disappeared over the cusp of the horizon.
My grandfather and I had been haying for most of August. The grass was ready about two weeks earlier than usual, and we worked all day in the blinding heat. We had dealt with scores of stinging hay bales, decapitated the snakes, squashed the beetles and weevils. Our skin was covered in mosquito- and hay-bitten red welts, which looked like scar tissue and required sloppy applications of pink calamine lotion later, when the sun had finally sunk.
We heard a yelp and thought it was the dog, until we saw her come sailing out of the Big House in the distance, holding the screen door open with one hand and waving furiously with the other.
"Ignore her. She's just itching to eat supper."
"I'm itching, too," I complained, scratching my chest.
"Finish that bale, and then we can go." He chewed a blade of grass, and pushed his battered leather fedoraveteran of many salt-cold Atlantic crossings as well as the scorching sun of Sicilyback on his head. He looked full into the last orange flares of the setting sun, and his face caught the blue reflection of the mountain, which in turn had caught the violet hue of the lake between our field and the creased ancient Appalachian hills.
My grandfather looked like Hitler; there was no denying it. He was not nearly as ugly, but he had the same small square black mustache and dark hair brushed to the side. Still only in his late forties, he remained at the height of his physical powers. Small and wiry, like a twisted coathanger, with a slightly hooked nose and a perpetually mean expression. With his rigid intensity he had the manner of a trapped animal about to spring out of your hand once you think you have caught it. He had been a featherweight boxing champion in his youth, and years of shoveling coal into the burners of Norwegian merchant marine ships and the huge barges that plied the shores of the Great Lakes in the thirties had given him arms whose muscles knotted like a ship's ropes.
He sighed, waiting for her to stop gesticulating. He took off his hat and wiped his brow, and shouted in a guttural, hay-musted voice.
"Hold your horses."
Hor ... es, hor ... es. The echo filled the empty evening like cold water poured into a glass. My throat burned with hay dust and heat.
And then we saw her coming toward us. She was running, apron bouncing ahead of her churning legs, over the hayfield.
"What in the name of Jesus ...," he began. We had never seen her run before. In her long, loping ascent of the last field she came on like a Masai warrior drifting across the salt-bed of an evaporated lake.
She reached us, and stood breathless.
"She's coming," she breathed, rather than said. All her limbs were trembling. The sturdy shoes she wore were covered in hay dust.
My grandfather stopped chewing his grass.
"She's coming," she repeated, her voice rising. "In the spring."
The crickets started to hum in the ditch beside the fence. A mosquito bit me, and I scratched where the hay had cut my skin. I caught the mosquito between my finger and thumb and crushed it. My own blood spilled out from its body and stained my palm.
"Jesus," he breathed. "Are you sure?"
Why were they behaving so strangely? I wanted to go inside, away from the stinging bites of the mosquitoes and the blackflies. I yawned and scratched. I put my arms around myself; it was cooling off already.
I asked, "Who?"
"You've even got hay down your front." She pulled my T-shirt off. By then I had nearly fallen asleep on my feet and needed only a gentle push onto the bed.
"I thought only horses slept on their feet," she laughed, before scraping away the sweaty strands of hay which had given me blotchy bumps on the paint-white chest where my breasts would one day grow.
And then I fell into the deep trough of night.
I came down in the morning to find them squaring off against each other.
"What's going on?"
"Never you mind," she turned to me. "I'm just asking your grandfather to explain something to me, once and for all." She stood with her arms folded. She had seen the scythe leaning against the wall in the porch. "I'm going to ask you again," she told him, "because I want to know. What's that on the scythe, Sandy?" She pointed accusingly to it.
"No." He shook his head. He wanted to forget about it.
"The brown on the bladeI know it's blood." She peered at it more closely. "What did you kill? I have to go out in those fields too. I have every right to know."
He had seen that snake, a four-foot-long black cord swimming through the hay, a second before cutting it neatly in two. Its separate halves had squirmed grotesquely as if trying to meld again and go off in some singular direction, and then were still.
He never told her how big the snakes were. As far as I knew he wasn't afraid of anything, but he would shiver after these decapitations. Our land was swampy, with one of the fields separated by a heat-absorbing stone wall where snakes liked to breed and sun themselves as they grew to an unnaturally large size. That night he had nightmares that the snake was inside his head. He could see its tail poking out of his right ear, a black eel squirming on his pillow. I know, because we swapped accounts of our respective snake nightmares at breakfast every morning.
The strawberries were long gone with the departure of the livid days of June. The stolid beets, the thin quivering carrots, and the green peas had been pulled from the ground, which had held tenaciously onto their root fingers. The rhubarb patch at the back of the house had already flowered in its tropical, sinister manner; its edible stems ruffed by poisonous leaves. The spindly apple tree, silver with age, began to yield its annual five crates of windfalls a month earlier than usual.
Everything seemed to be happening too fast. The clouds raced across the sky in a hurry, as if being sucked out to sea. Grandma found her first gray hairs, even though she was only forty-five. Plums parachuted from the trees by the brook. All our fruit was ripening and rotting before we could get it into the shed, into the cellar, into the pickling jars that kept us going through the winter.
We stood outside watching the sun go down behind the black face of the mountain.
"It's against nature." He held his hand flat over his brow, squinting into the Bras d'Or Lakes, now gold and plated with evening.
"It's the end of the world," she said.
Then they laughed and each cracked open a beer. I listened to the liquid gurgle down their hot throats; it was the same sound I heard when we went to fetch the fresh-shot deer carcasses, hauling them up off the ground, still warm, as blood bubbled up their gullets.
* * *
These are the coordinates: 46°N, 60.30°W. This is the oldest part of the country, in terms of its recorded history. We were discovered more or less first. We are the first landfall on the long arcing sea route from the bony-fingered island homes of the great navigating kingdoms, just as these days Goose Bay on the northeast tip of Labrador is the first landfall for the jets that commute the North Atlantic corridor.
Prince Henry Sinclair, navigator, adventurer and laird of the Orkney Islands found it in 1398, closely followed or preceded (they left no traces, being interested only in offshore plunder) by Portuguese fishermen. Vikings had probably been there first, but unlike Newfoundland, no rib-caged longboat wrecks have ever mushroomed overnight on our shores, blooming from the sifting sands.
The island is a dying place that will never die, like Carthage smoldering for centuries in the Romans' wake. We have been ransacked as efficiently as if we had been visited by the Mongol hordes, floating on their tiny horses, sailing above the steppes like a giant hovercraft. But the island will survive because it is so remote it could be Samarkandthe waterless land where turquoise friezes stretch their lithe muscles into the equally turquoise sky. On a map of Nova Scotia it is the ungainly shape at the top, like an encephalitic head balanced on a bony body. It does not even look like an island. One mile of water is all that separates it from the mainland. But that one mile wide is also one mile deep, among the deepest guts in the Atlantic. It is formed by a trough in the North American continental shelf, a seam so deep that even when they had blasted away half a mountain to build the causeway, they could not fill it.
"See that cloud?" he pointed, squinting against the sun into a jagged-fingered cloud anchored in the sky. "That's what Scotland looks like." France was there, too, its huge bulk drifting over the west coast of the island, settling over Chéticamp and disgorging its cargo of emigrants like rain. The Micmac called it Wunama'kik: "foggy land," where clouds and mists the color of the white man's skin foamed up from the sea like boiled milk.
The names speak of no good portent, of a place metallic and pre-destroyed: Black Brook. Ironville. Wreck Cove. Blues Mills. Reserve Mines. North Gut.
We had come here from barren islands on creaky ships. Strange birds cried at night, and came to nest on the riggings when the sea was calm. And as we neared land we could smell it before the skipper could, because we were people of the sea and knew the thick, putrid and fertile smell of land.
"Smells like a cunt."
"Well," my grandfather shrugged, and lit his cigarette. "That's what I would have said."
The north: our mountain-scraped sea, the wolf's eye, molecules of dead navigators smashed on the rocks.
I have nightmares every night. I am seven years old.