The water sang to me, you know. Of course that sounds just crazy, but it’s absolutely true.
Once upon a time I was just like you, only hearing the clatter of a wave. I would listen to its salty tongue, how it frothed over a million rounded stones. Years earlier I suspected a message was disguised in those sudsy fingers, but I could not decipher it, and never thought to try.
Yes, yes, that was me. Everything was a mystery, the gurgles and the gulps. Until one afternoon I caught the whisper, a coded rumour trapped inside the ocean’s spray. It was a melody, a soothing stream of poems, its ebb and flow a perfect rhyme.
Someone was there, you think. At first I thought so too. I glanced up to the edge of the cliff. My gaze roamed the jagged rocks, and I checked every inch of the path down to the water. Not a soul to be seen. There was only a mossy brush of lichens and those bitter black berries you often tried to eat, and they were both without a word to say. Then I heard a second sigh. Stronger now. It tickled my ears like the tufts of cotton I stuff in during thunder.
At first, I was fearful. I marched right up to Bette Mackay’s biscuit box on the hill and rapped at her door. I knocked so hard, burgundy paint came away and clung to my knuckles like flecks of dried blood. While I waited, a naughty gust teased through my hair, fluttered my dress. Then that wind stole a peep at my slip. I knew instantly what it wanted. There were hints everywhere.
Without hesitation, I asked Bette if it was natural for a woman. The sheer force of it all, to have your mind filled with wonder. But the mound between her eyebrows only grew and several silver hairs sprouted out from her mousy mop. ‘’Ave ye bin drinkin’?” she said. “Or else yer near gone mad. Don’t go ’round tellin’ no one dat, woman, or ye’ll be shipped to the Waterford so fast yer shadow’ll crack off.” Poor Bette. What to expect from a woman who can’t hold onto the beginning long enough to grasp the end?
Water called me back day after day. Whenever I could, I went. There was much to know now, and with so many voices, concentrating was an honest hardship.
But the tide was patient. It told me how to move. And I listened to every word.
Hooking her fingers between damp boards stained with fish guts and gull splatter, Arva House was able to lean out over a wharf in Upper Island Cove. She stared at her reflection in the sea. Calm water in the darkness always made her cringe, but she did not look away. She was certain her mirror image was obscuring a whole world of murky dealings just underneath the polished surface. Before her eyes, smooth-edged shadows coursed through the depths, slivers of bottle green flickered and dissolved. Then a burst of gassy bubbles rumbled up and boiled her watery face.
From somewhere well beyond the wharf, Arva heard the sound of her mother’s voice spitting hasty instructions into the evening air. “If it budges, Arva, don’t bawl out. Fetch me instead.”
Arva remembered that night, how she fixed her sleepy eyes on the overflowing slop bucket. Within it, a damp coppery mass remained motionless, the attached baggage limp on the grass. The only movement came from copious pockets of air sliding up behind the ears, popping to release a stench of fermented sugar. The hair fluttered, but everything else was still. So Arva had stood, chilled by pervasive dampness, and waited for her mother to appear at the edge of the cliff.
As the voice withered back into memory, Arva watched the sea. For a moment, she expected to see a flash of ghostly skin rolling like a playful seal in the moonlight. But there was nothing. She was alone. Everything was restful, except for the thin ropes of fog drifting out from beneath the wharf and tangling around her ankles.
The very next evening, the wind was still dormant, though it had not left the cove. Resting just beyond a rocky ledge, it was rolling itself into a gust, building strength, drawing up salt from the sea. And for the time being, it would stay there, waiting to tease knitted hats, sneak in around doorframes, tug at coattails, and tempt tears from dry eyes. Earlier that night, Lolly Young had prayed to God for calm, no wind to muss her hair.
Halfway up Main Road, jigs and reels could be heard, sweet talking their way out of the worn building and into the warm air. The local Legion, seated conveniently at the foot of the mountain, was within walking distance for most. With paint flaking on the outside, graying everywhere else, it had become a meeting place for old fishermen. When they were not out on the waters jigging freckled-skinned cod or eating a supper in their steamy kitchens, the men were found here, ample rumps planked on worn wooden stools, drinks at the tips of their fishy fingers, mouths talking all kinds of talk.
Though tonight there was not a tired-eyed fisherman in sight. Both doors were swung wide so the young ones could have a time.
Inside, young men decorated the walls, shirtsleeves sharp, their hair locked in greasy combat with their scalps. Hard-soled shoes tapped the linoleum and women’s dresses swished like stunned moths. There was a needy smell, clinging to the clothes in the way fried-out fatback permeates a woolen coat hung on the handle of a pantry door.
Wearing a watery-blue buttoned dress, Arva felt neither particularly confident nor particularly ill at ease as she walked down the decline and stepped through those double doors. She had never been to a dance before, had no expectations, and therefore no reason to feel much in the way of excitement or anxiety. Though Lolly knew this, she kept her arm slung loosely around Arva’s waist, coaxing her forward like a reluctant child.
“We don’t bite ’round here, me dear,” Lolly said just loudly enough to prick up a few ears. “Ye needn’t be nervous ’bout this crowd.”
People shuffled aside slightly, letting Arva and Lolly through. “What’re ye gawkin’ at?” Lolly said to one woman, whose mouth was gaping wide, her eyes on Arva without a blink. Then to Arva, “Ye’d think I was cartin’ in the Queen herself.”
Arva knew the reaction well, so it was little surprise. People often stared at her, turning as she strode past, speaking words in a whisper. She simply stood out, although she never really made a genuine attempt to blend in. “You’re no raving beauty,” her mother had once said when she found Arva, hair piled atop her head, gazing into a mirror, “and you’re not rock-cod ugly. So you should let well enough alone and be satisfied with that.”
Her mother had spoken the truth, Arva was somewhere in between, but not regular or ordinary by any means. Her hair, like a slash, was too black, and her skin just a few shades too brown, especially after a summer of sunshine. But it was her eyes that often made people divert their glances. She had a stare that could cause indigestion, a look that was too close to that of a damaged animal’s, an old dog gone silent, its story swallowed down with its growl.
Most people Arva had seen in the harbour and beyond were under-a-stone pale, reddish almost. They had eyes that were a pleasing assortment of sea-foam green, honeyed brown, clean wintry blue. If their hair were dark, the sun would waste no time and flicker out light tinges. Strip-of-lawn sideburns, down the sides of most men’s faces, were almost always smattered with brown, gray, and telltale red whiskers. At one glance, it was an easy guess: Irish through and through.
“Hey Lolly Dolly,” Frank Smith called out when they were well into the Legion, smoke thick like the worst kind of fog.
“Hey Frankie Spankie,” Lolly replied, hand plumping her pin curls. Frank reached for her wrist, but with a quick twist, skirt fanning, she dodged his hand. “Jeez Frankie,” she said, smirk over her shoulder, “can’t ye do any better than that?” Then to Arva, “C’mon, me love, let’s snag a nip.”
Lolly took Arva by the arm, and used a firm grip to guide her to the back of the room. There, the bar was not much more than painted lengths of wood nailed firmly in place, the boards smoothed from ever-present elbows and being slapped so often with laughter. Lolly ordered a gin and lime, no, two. One for Arva, here.
“Who’s yer pal?” Frank asked as he sidled up next to Lolly.
“Don’t even think about it, Frankie,” Lolly said, taking a generous swallow. “She’s nowhere near that desperate to be after the likes of a Smith.”
“Ye got more lip than a flatfish,” Frank said as he was towed to the dance floor, waist hooked, reeled in, quick nod of his head to Arva.
Lolly leaned back, forearms behind her on the bar, dark crease of cleavage catching eyes. “Like I says,” she whispered. “Everyone’s askin’ ’bout ye. Sure as Hell don’t look nothin’ like the crowd ’round here.” She clicked pink fingernails against the glass in her hand. “Ye’ve been here for near three months now, me love. Cooped up at Old Man Crane’s. Not much of a man to have in yer life.” Lolly laughed, displaying her small stubby teeth. “Time the real men had a go at ye.”