Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange. So sings Ariel in The Tempest. So speaks Shelley’s grave, where the lines are etched on his headstone. I carried the words in my own head from English classes and drama clubs. But the words would not stay in my head, they refused. Through heart and soul and marrow they made their way. And they carried me with them.
The change began at a graveyard but I did not know it. Hundreds of headstones. Like white and grey stalks chopped close to the earth. Like a field of stubble. Many of them indecipherable, the inscriptions obscured by rain and wind and the whip of the sea. Every third or fourth grave LOST AT SEA. An hour of raking storm. Clouds sagging into the grass, saltwater scraping and scouring, dark green trees erupting. A battlefield cemetery. An Atlantic Flanders. The drowned fishermen beneath their stones, row on row. Or not under the stones. Their bodies streaming kelp or blossoming with red coral.
At the house all the windows faced the highway. The sea flew blue and ecstatic from the bluff the house was built on, but the entire wall facing it was white and windowless. Clapboard from bottom to top. Unless you opened a door and stepped out, all you could see from inside the house was a brown wall with its cupboards and crockery and a framed print of grass amber and tall in a meadow. The house might have stood in the middle of Saskatchewan or the Dakotas.
The uncle was much shorter than my gangly six foot, glasses, bald, the swell of a paunch, not needing to stoop when he entered through a side door into the kitchen. It was night. He had tied his boat to the dock below the house. Uncle Berwin shook my hand firmly and smiled, the glasses fogging - “You’re welcome here, Andrew.” He never bothered to remove the glasses, simply washed his hands and sat down at the table while the lenses cleared. He prayed over the food in a voice that was comfortable with giving instructions, even to God. He opened his eyes that first supper and stared at the food, his wife sitting across from him.
“What’s all this?” he demanded.
Aunt Hazel, wishing to celebrate my visit, had spread the table with new dishes: fish deep fried and coated with a fancy herbal butter, potatoes sliced up like coins and baked in a cream sauce, raw vegetables whirling in an orange-green-red circle about a bowl of dill-flavored dip, wedges of Camembert cheese on a cutting board along which crackers were splayed like playing cards.
I chewed with the hunger of the rainy day and its blustery winds. Uncle Berwin ate bits and pieces with the flat eyes of a dead fish. He spooned out as little as possible, so that his plate remained a huge whiteness with daubs of colour. I had almost finished when he laid down his fork and spoke: “Hazel, when I come in to eat, I don’t want no surprises.”
I had bought a book of sea prose and poetry as a gift for Uncle Berwin. I gave it to him that night as the three of us sat and talked around the woodstove in the front room. He thanked me, flipped through the pages, glancing at black and white photographs of combers and sailboats and gulls. I was excited because I felt I was opening an incredible window into his own world for him. He’d grown up on fishing boats, the swells under his feet, the sky sprawling over his head. Now he could read some of the great writers of the sea, Conrad and Masefield and Hemingway. All the dawns he had been unable to articulate, the storms, the joy of riding out a gale, whitecaps exploding against sky and wind, the mystery of fogs shrouding coves and islets, these would boil up out of his blood and burn through the veins of words and stanzas. The poetry would capture the sea’s majesty and power for him, express in haunting tones the sensations his years on the Atlantic must have aroused in him. I spoke and thought like a fool. Uncle Berwin never read the book. It sat under layers of Halifax dailies and bright copies of TIME and THE FINANCIAL POST. I would dig it out and place it at the top of the pile but it was aways smothered once again, never thumbed.
An odd pair to be going handlining for cod together. I with a copy of Conrad’s short stories in my lunch bucket, he with his newspapers and nautical charts. I pointing out dawn splendour, he peering at the depth sounder, the glow fastened on his face. Stripping, I might strike into the blue and green waves on a smooth yellow evening. But he didn’t know how to swim. Before bed, I would try to write my own poetry about the sea. Uncle Berwin snored in front of the TV.
I had grown up dreaming of breakers and sailing ships and islands. People were confused by this. “You grew up on the prairies, why are you interested in the sea?” The prairies don’t have one. Go through the homes of a hundred families in Winnipeg or Calgary or Saskatoon and twenty of them will have posters of sailboats on the walls or framed sea prints or plastic models of square riggers. You hunger for what you never knew. As a boy my imagination had been volcanic with TREASURE ISLAND, ROBINSON CRUSOE, Sir Francis Drake and the Golden Hinde. I went to the shores of Lake Winnipeg and saw the grey rolling ocean. I longed for the day I might place a foot in the Pacific, then later dip that same foot in the Atlantic. Should I keep a jar of water from each? At eighteen I came to Nova Scotia and the graveyard of fishermen in Lunenburg, the clapboard house on the South Shore, Uncle Berwin walking up from his Cape Island boat. And radiating out azure and jade behind all of them, like the spread of a peacock’s feathers, the Atlantic.
I had anticipated the furious breakers, the blood gashes of dawn, the reek of salt, the honed wind, the holocaust of cloud and light, and I exulted in all of it. The storms that pinched the good humour from Uncle Berwin’s mouth broke mine wide with laughter. When rigging screeched and snapped at metal stays in the blasts of wind, I stood in great peace while he moved restlessly about the boat. Saturday night, a week’s fishing behind us, I impulsively grabbed a cousin and spun her about the pier, shouting a sea shanty to the stars and moon. Uncle Berwin came by to check on the boat and smiled at us, unsure, his mouth frozen in an upward jerk of his lips.
The idea had been that I meet the Maritime side of the family, spend the summer working for Uncle Berwin, who needed a hand anyway, fall in love more deeply with the sea, and make some money for university, as I would receive a share of the profits from the fishing. I smelled the water as soon as the Greyhound hissed and opened its doors in downtown Halifax. All around me, in that May dark, were lappings, and gurglings, and what sounded like wet kisses, and strokings, and sighs. The ground did not seem stable or dry. There was a movement, a rocking, a dampness. Lights floated out there, tiny yellow lights on black viscous fluid. I boarded a smaller bus for Lunenburg. Night poured through my open window. It was warm and scented and full of distances.
I stood on the sea as a fisherman at four in the morning, scant hours after the Camembert cheese and the raw vegetables, only a few minutes after hurriedly swallowing bacon and toast and Gravol. Uncle Berwin supplied the Gravol every morning. I was determined to stop using it as soon as I was certain my stomach would not betray me.
It was icy. The stars nicked my eyes. The throb of the engine seemed somewhere else, part of another experience. I skinned my knuckles casting off, my hand movements awkward and jerky, the rope taut as steel and unyielding, but I scarcely noticed, absorbed in our passage across the sea, letting every pitch of the deck move up my leg to my mind, every gleam of light pin itself to my eye, every cold breeze shear my cheek, every breath of wetness, of gasoline, of fish scales and old blood storm into my brain and take utter control. I moved with the ship, my hands in the pockets of my jeans, rigid, unspeaking, flowing in a trance of ultimate sensation and liquid sensuality.
But the sea was harder than a poem, more brutal than Hemingway’s blunt, thudding prose. It opened me to the bone. Uncle Berwin would knock on my bedroom door every morning, reaching with his fist into my shoal of sleep and hauling me out half-dead: “Andrew. Time to get up.” Three o’clock. I thumped downstairs, too tired to stop my legs from hurling all my body weight into each foot. Aunt Hazel was there in a purple flannel housecoat, eyes puffy, but her dark hair clean and calm. She stirred eggs with a fork, brewed coffee, pinched bread out of the toaster. I drank juice, ate the eggs without ketchup, swallowed the Gravol pill. “Have a good day, Andrew,” she smiled, patting me on the shoulders. Early that summer, in all those dark mornings, I saw she was beautiful, as lovely as the warmth and security of sleep, as strong and splendid as the red and black sunrise. But once through the door stars stabbed, cold gnawed, fingers were shaved by hemp that rasped down my hands like a bastard file. The engine thumping into your body. Lines dropping over the side, dawn at the shoulder a welt, the yellow of a bruise, hauling up, tossing the cod into a box, rebaiting the hook, grabbing for another line, and tugging. Ten minutes for lunch. Sandwiches, a thermos, some fruit, candies, peanuts, blessed Aunt Hazel, as if we were opening a Christmas stocking. More of the hauling, the baiting, the tossing, the thick slapping of tails, like a kid flicking a garden hose. Rain or shine. Water striding along neck and spine or sun cooking your cheek and ear. Sometimes a breeze of talk, sometimes nothing. Your mind empty most of the day, maybe images from a TV show, usually the most irritating ones, or of a girl’s strong face. The rest of the time sea waves, surging blue steel, exuding cold at your face and hands as if it were a wind instead of an ocean. Back again, the sun low, almost lost, the planet rinsed in gold, a sonnet in every wave, but after the cleaning, the blood and slime, the fish heads and iron eyes, the whole mess cast into the water at the dock, the filets packed in salt like shovefuls of snow, Aunt Hazel’s soup and beef and bread, no strength in the fingers to hold a pen, no flat calm in the head for words to flow out of, only a spinning of flotsam, standing to wash your hands and the room dipping from one side to the other, the sensations you were oblivious to all day rising like swells to dominate your consciousness, forcing you to adjust to the pitch of a deck as you stood on the kitchen floor, splash and towel your face because it is burning off, stare at the TV and see lines running from your hands, or the ghost images of the depth sounder, dream of rattling water, fish jaws closing and opening, blue sky yawing into blue fields of ocean and the bright snapdragons of whitecaps.
But the cold, even on the hottest days, the waves chopping into your arms as you lean over the hull, the gouging of the wind, your pants soaked, your shirt splashed, your socks curled up in your boots, rain crackling onto your head, light scrabbling over it, chill one moment, scorching the next, as if you had the flu. Often the sun seared you in such a way that you felt cold from the burn, not heat. And to the cold, the weeks piled on the drudgery of the routine, the exhaustion of going to bed at eleven and getting up at three, the sense of isolation from the rest of the earth in a summer that consisted only of fishing, eating, and sleeping.
By the middle of June I did not see the early stars and I did not lift my head to scan the east for that thumbnail of light. Blue became as monotonous, as encircling, as entrapping as grey, and the mighty globe-straddling wind, that sighing, roaring thing that could set the sea ablaze in a white heat for a thousand miles, it became chisel and hammer, no more. The Cape Islander moving out into the open again Monday morning, my head aching for more sleep, my whole body screeching for more warmth, the water peeling back pale on either side of us, I stared back at the yellow drops that were the lights of the house and realized the sea had become a tedious chore and that I had come to loathe it.
But it was impossible to curse. Uncle Berwin, at fifty-five, took sharp sun on his face and arms, hooks in his fingers, cruel wind chopped at the back of his neck. Still he steered the Cape Islander into the exploding Atlantic, found the cod, baited a dozen lines and jerked them up one after the other and rebaited them, his glasses flecked as if with spit, his fingers, large and round and brown as cooked sausages, pushing chunks of squid onto the barbs. At home he seemed no more than a retired teacher, drooping over his paper in a well-stuffed armchair, his glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. On the water, I did not notice his baldness or his paunch or his mild round face. I saw a fisherman performing one task on top of another, his lips flat and still, hands jumping like the strong wings of a Bonaparte gull. Steel was all through the man, working itself out against careening wind and tumbling sea. I felt I must stay beside him, fumbling with hook and line, ripping the iron through bleeding mouths. Like him, straddling a few planks of wood on a leaping ocean, I must endure.
Each day became a load to be borne with objects digging into your back as you heaved the whole mess onto your shoulder. To gain strength, I closed off every extra room in the house of my mind. I focused on fighting the cold, jerking up the lines, splitting the cod. I ate and watched TV no matter what was on. Glossy Penguin paperbacks, chosen for their artistic covers, famous authors, and profound subjects, remained stacked on my bedside table. No creases grew along their spines. I only had enough in me to survive the bludgeoning of the sea.
Sunday was different, alone of all the days. I had no use for churches and boisterous ministers, but I made up my mind not to offend my uncle or my aunt. Just before eleven in the morning I walked with them along a gravel road to a white clapboard Baptist church with a solid square steeple like the turret on a fort. We sat still as rock. Hymns with old English words were sung at precisely timed moments, men in dark navy suits passed gleaming plates along each straight pew, the Bible was read in monotone, the minister rose in a black robe. His voice was firm and quiet, like sea and shore on a sultry day, and it carried with it that same sort of hypnotic rhythm. I listened to him every week despite my intention to daydream. His head seemed small and clownish emerging from such a voluminous robe and the steel-rimmed rectangular glasses on his white face added to the sense that he was out of his element - many of the scarlet and orange necks, cracked with fissures, belonged to men I’d seen on the open water. But the minister continued to speak in his steady manner and they continued to sit and I came away every Sunday with the sense of having indulged in a dry, overcooked, but substantial roast beef dinner. I grew to like the solid order of the service, the measured beat of its predictability, the sturdy plainness, and I counted on the stability it offered me as much as I counted on Aunt Hazel’s meals - the Camembert never returned - and the luxury of being able to sleep in until nine each Sunday morning. I wanted reliable pleasures, things I could trust to make me feel sane and happy. A steady, uninterrupted flow of normality. If for some reason the usual Sunday pattern was disturbed, or those few precious hours after fishing each evening were scattered, I felt a toppling inside my brain, a loss of balance, and it was difficult to prepare myself to grip the heaving, tossing sea the next morning. I would become depressed, sit grimly over my eggs at breakfast, slump like fog as the boat headed out.
Sleep was no help in the battle. Waves continued to erupt like massive dark towers into my dreams, looming over my head and over the boat. Cod slapped themselves into lifelessness. Their bloody entrails drifted down to where the pilings of the dock drove down into the muck. Lines sawed into my palms. The horizon swung one way and then the other as swells rolled their backs up under the keel of the boat. Uncle Berwin’s knock came like a gunshot, something I was never prepared for, and I clambered awkwardly out of the black deep and into the other, lightless under the light of a hundred thousand stars.
I began to think of the cemetery in Lunenburg, of the men never buried there, no skeletons under the stones that bent chiselled with their names, their skulls leering out of splintered timbers bristling with barnacles and weed, down under my feet, hundreds of them, mile after mile, as we rumbled into the peeling night. The cod had eaten their limbs and hearts and passed on the stuff of this scavenger’s feast in their spawning. At the house I was certain my thoughts were nonsense, but in the cool, groping hours of dawn, leaning over the dark, churning water, I became confused and apprehensive.
One afternoon Uncle Berwin came alongside another Cape Islander. He knew the two men and they called back and forth a few minutes. The one in green overalls and a New York Mets cap tossed some pollock over to us for bait. We pulled away and left them to their fishing ground. Uncle Berwin was at the wheel and I was standing behind him. He jerked his head.
“The man with a baseball cap. He’s had a hard go. He comes in from a day’s fishing two year back. Supper’ll be ready in another ten minutes, his wife says. So he goes to his shed to look over some of his gear. She takes a bread knife and pulls it across her throat. I don’t know where she got the strength. She might as well have cut his throat too and be done with it.”
The acres and acres of sea that sprouted only fog and wind and damp. Her entire life it had caged her in, her husband a fisherman, until she smuggled defiance into her cell and lifted the knife. I cried in the bathroom, running the tap so neither of them could hear. I’m sorry, I kept saying to this dead woman, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. For the silver-crested poems and my long hours of worship, creamy foam curling at my feet, while I stood in a prairie field under a rising wind. The minister with the quiet voice had buried her. With his steady, conventional words, not a shred of magic in any of his sentences, he had the stamina to do it. I crumpled the few poems I had written. I scarcely glanced at sunrises or sunsets over the water though Aunt Hazel often tried to draw my attention to them. I stayed in the house and was grateful it was impossible to glimpse the spreading expanse, the blue-eyed killer. I went to bed as early as possible and tried to concentrate enormous amounts of strength there in the dark. I pulled it up by the fistful from somewhere inside. Perhaps there was a God. I was going to survive. I would not be taken.
But my loathing degenerated into fear. A whiteness when I thought of the sea wind uprooting the green trees that shaded drowned men’s graves. A panic that yanked me awake and forced me to bang open the window in my bedroom and swallow air rapidly. The only refuge was the routine, the food, Sundays, the words of God, the bank of light we three sat in, the electric lamp burning, as Aunt Hazel sewed and Uncle Berwin slept in his chair. The days writhed around me and tightened, but I could draw in Uncle Berwin’s blandness and Aunt Hazel’s beauty like strong, hot drink. And there came the night I pulled an old Bible from a shelf, full of envelopes and pressed flowers, and listened for God in the pages. So I withstood the disintegration of my romance.
The seas of August rose up like granite walls and smashed into our boat. In his yellow slicks, Uncle Berwin pulled up cod, flipped them into the wooden boxes, glanced at the depth sounder, threw me some bait, yanked at another taut line. The sun had coloured his face like a ripe pear. When he talked to me his eyes were obscured behind misted lenses and splotches of water. Yet he spoke more often when we were at the house. He even began to tell me jokes, and he laughed, like a burst of hammering on a steel pipe. When we were slashing off the heads of broccoli and cabbage one evening in the garden, he grunted: “You see how she reaches down into your guts like some godawful hand and yanks up whatever she can get ahold of.” But back at sea he said very little. He asked a few questions, scarcely responded to my answers, moved constantly back and forth. He became a backdrop, like the regular throbbing of the engine, the thrust of the swells, the swoop and shriek of the gulls. I was distinct, set apart and isolated from sky and sea and boat and Uncle Berwin and the troughs of dying cod, only the charcoal needles of rain and storm impinging on my solitude while they smudged out the horizon and made all things the same.
I kept at my work, almost savage with energy. The fishing itself seemed to pour strength into me. It was a way of resisting. I moved with greater sturdiness and power than I had in May or June or July. I willed my imagination to cease and the handline and its thrashing victim became heaven and earth. I thought I began to pray. And it was in the middle of this flow of intensity I hauled up one afternoon and my arms seemed detached, part of the stone waves that nicked them, the crisp sweating line, the cod with its throat full of sharp iron. My legs and feet, planted on the deck, were one with the roll of the waters, obeying that rhythm. It was living and breathing around me, wet, whirling, gushing, hurtling, beating, groaning.
Sunlight flared like the thin blade of a fileting knife and laid open a dense clot of cumulus, slitting my sight. A surge upward, a dip, a descending. The crests of the waves, flicked with clarity, rushed on with me and the world was bright as nickel and in a great hurry of beauty. The ocean budded and blossomed as if it were an immense leafy oak and, as the gap in the clouds widened and the light spread, the whitecaps littered the sea like thousands of petals. The water shed from my fingers like sparks and the summer ended on a cry.
Waves still pounced at the boat, clouds dropped onto the Atlantic like sticky clumps of clay, the wind bit and scratched, but layer after layer sloughed off me, I felt exposed to air and light and vast distances of water, the sensation I had as a boy when I rose up from the cold of my baptism, streaming from hair and head and arms, and gazed at the people in the church as if they or I had suddenly come into existence. There was an avalanche of saltwater teeming with strength but void of sexuality and intellect and malevolence. Uncle Berwin struck my door. I dressed swiftly and thudded down into the kitchen. On the porch, I pulled the stars into my chest with deep breaths and their sharp, icy points pricked my lungs.
“What’s got into you?” asked Uncle Berwin as we were cleaning cod just before Labour Day. “You’re soon on your way, is that it?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I believe in God.”
Uncle Berwin stared at me. “This is something new, boy?”
“This kind of God? Yes.”
“What kind of God?”
“A God who isn’t a monster I have to appease.” With a stroke I slit open a final fish. There was the copper blood. There was the silver blade.
I stood in front of the old bureau in the hallway, one with a wooden frame within which the mirror, shaped like an hourglass, swung loosely. A vein had grown high up on my arm over a muscle. Aunt Hazel was as dark and natural as soil. Uncle Berwin appeared as sharp as a splinter.
The grey monotony of the sea had ground down all my edges, even the keen blade of fear and the glimmering thrust of illusion. The perpetual rhythm of the ocean and the eternal beat of the fisherman that matched it exhausted all my foes and dragged me through to the other side. I did not see, my soul nicked by brand new September mornings, that the monotony which had saved me in its killing splendour could as easily pierce the bones of another. Instead of birth, waves and their roaring and the shoals of darkness.
“Put in a window,” I teased the night before I left. “You’d like a window, wouldn’t you, Aunt Hazel?”
Uncle Berwin did not smile or take his eyes from his newspaper. “The wall is as it is. You’re a free man now and you see it another way. But I’m staying and you’re leaving.”
“If I could stay I’d still want it up. I’d help you. We could fill the whole house with light.”
“We got plenty of light. We don’t need any of that other. You’re quick to forget.”
“It’s just an ocean, Uncle Berwin. Just water.”
“You come out for the summer from where? And you’ll tell me what it is? I grew up here. I stood by enough caskets. What’s in the sink is water.”
“It’s not alive. It’s not a god.”
He put down his paper. “You learned nothing. You lost all you should of kept. Now you’re going back with your head full of the same foolishness you brought with you. A brain stuffed with poems. What you’re good for is staying there on the prairies. You’d sure die if you stayed out here.”
“You’re completely useless.”
“Don’t you want a window, Aunt Hazel?”
Uncle Berwin got to his feet. “Shut up, boy.”
Aunt Hazel puckered her lips and her eyes were black and narrow as thread. I shrugged, swallowed, and walked upstairs to my bedroom. The TV blasted suddenly through the house. Outside my window the round September moon had risen. It burned in the dark water like a candle wick.