Utterly done in, everything ached. Francis
sat at the small square dinner table heavily, the crisp fall
air following him into the kitchen from outside like a familiar
guest, a neighbor, carrying with it the smell of exhaust and
woodchips. "What have you got on?" he asked his wife,
June, putting his oily saws up on the linoleum placemat-she'd
curse him royally if he stained her tablecloth.
Facing the sink, she washed her
hands, dried them in her apron. She said, turning, "Vegetables
and salt-beef. There's a bread pudding put up to have with your
She brought him his supper, fed
him. Watching his jaw chew in slow, deliberate movements, his
eyes flat like dull light bulbs: "My son, what's wrong?
You look bothered."
A deep sigh came up from the bottom
of his gut. "They've closed her down."
"Closed what down?"
"Everything, maid. Everything.
We'll be put out before the winter."
"Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus."
She got up from the table, holding her face in her hands, pacing
in tight circles. "We're done in then, Francis."
Staring at his saws, he hated them,
wanted them smashed. He wished that inside the greasy yellow
boxes, at the part where the metal latches clasped tightly around
his wrists, that he had hands again, that he'd never given them
up to begin with. "They called us into the shed first thing
and told us. The company's hauling up to Labrador. Didn't say
why, just that we're finished up. Cheaper up there, I suppose,
like everything. They're taking it all with them, too, everything-even
the harbor. They're leaving us bare."
June took several small splits
from the dusty wood-box and fed them to the stove, watched them
get eaten up, transfixed. As if she'd forgotten everything else:
"We're done, my son."
"We'll have to move down around
the cape, somewhere in town, maybe. That's all I can see."
She gasped. "What, the house?"
"A few of the boys were saying
that's best. Haul her up and put her on a barge. Who can afford
to start up new here? Not us, by Christ. I'm too old for that.
And even if we do stay, there won't be a soul left."
"They can't do it. They can't.
It's criminal, Francis. Criminal. But thank Jesus we got no
He looked at his arms. Thick and
muscled, veins snaking over tight skin, larger than the rest
of him, they ached from lugging his saws around. "I can't
go blaming them now."
For a moment, they were quiet and
listened to the wind wail and rip at the storm door, the aluminum
In one smooth motion, Francis undid
the latches, slid his arms out from inside the saws and unhooked
the cords using his teeth. He got up and placed them on the
porch mat. His calloused stumps were sore. Several new blisters
had formed, which were filled with fluid and ready to burst;
they never did heal right. But June would soak and bandage them
later, like always.
"There's a meeting down at
the club the night after next. A few of the lads said a man
from the government will be there to talk resettlement. Are
He noticed she seemed to be sinking
down into the linoleum canvas of the floor, her knit sweater
bunching up around the shoulders. "Better than not going,
"Get us a cup of tea then,
maid. I'm worn down from the goings on."
* * *
The bar was filled with stale cigarette
smoke, dour and desperate faces. Hard, stern eyes stared up
towards the company men and the government representative lined
up at the front like the Last Supper.
"We wish that there were positions
for you in Labrador," the short bald man said, seated to
the far left, his voice squeaking, nervous. He was sweating,
too, carefully adjusting his glasses every few seconds with
his thumb and forefinger. "But I'm afraid that just isn't
possible. However, the severance package we're offering you,
we feel, is fair."
The government man to his right,
small in his cheap tweed jacket, hair uncut around the ears,
The town barked in disgust, loud
and raucous. Tools shot forward accusatorily-saws, clamps, drills-slammed
down, rattling beer glasses, sending some to the thin and worn
carpet that was dotted with salt-stains.
Standing, waving his arms to hush
the crowd, the mayor said, "Keep her down, boys, and let
the man speak. You'll get your chance."
Knit hat gripped tightly in his
fist-one of the few fists still left in the town-choking the
life from the hat, one of the older men stood up, beating it
off the edge of the table every few words, like an exclamation
point. "Lord Christ, you've left us to the sharks."
"Please, calm down, sir,"
the small government man said, rubbing his hairy nose.
"We'll be a town of paupers
and rags! And what are some of us going to feed our youngsters
with, hey? I'm sure yours will have their bellies full, though,
won't they? Won't they!" His wife, frail and wrinkled,
looking beaten, defeated, sat him down.
"And with the harbor,"
coughing, Hairy-nose started, staring at his hands, as if they
held some answer as they danced with one another on the table,
"although the company will move it north, the government
has already begun plans to replace it within the next five years."
Someone shouted something unintelligible
from the back of the bar, high, piercing, slurred: drunk-talk.
The crowd turned, hushed for a moment. A man with cant hooks
for hands, arms around his wife's shoulders, leering side to
side, snorted. "That there's the nail in our coffin. We've
got no chance. None. God knows the souls of men, sir, and yours
is a goddamned rocky one."
Francis was there in the far-right
corner, listening, heart sinking, taking long draws from his
cigarette, bringing the smoke deep into his lungs, letting the
ashes fall to his lap. "You think we'll be left here in
five years? There won't be a dog on the streets in five years.
And even if we did stay, eh, who's going to haul in what we
need to get by? No one from the city, I tell you that. It won't
be worth their time; too expensive. If they can't bring it up
the bay, like that man said, we're done in."
The men at the front listened,
shifting their feet and hands in a nervous two-step.
Francis held up his saws. His voice
shook. "So this is all for nothing then, is it? Tell me
it's for something."
June, next to him, touched his
leg. Poor man. Can he even remember what it was like to have
hands? Can he remember what they looked like, how to even use
"And it's not just me,"
Francis continued, eyes wet. "The whole town gave up a
hell of a lot to keep you running. Now all we get is a kick
in the hole. You're thieves, simple as that!"
Applause roared through the small
As if passing sentence, the five
men rose, pushed their chairs in and put on their coats. They
wanted out, fast, before things got ugly, confused. "On
behalf of the company, we'd like to offer our sincere thanks.
Over the years, you've all been model-"
"Sincere thanks, eh? Eh!"
Winny Murphy, old and back-bent, arms and legs crooked with
arthritis, on her feet, her toothless mouth slid into a gummy,
hate-filled snarl. "You see these?" She held up a
pair of gray, worn spikes, dirty, the leather mottled, soles
cracked, white fiberglass prosthetics still attached, rusted
buckles hanging like umbilical cords where they had once been
attached to a knee. "They were my mister's. You poisoned
him, you did. He had them for less than a year then did away
with himself. I got nothing-same as they'll get."
She threw them towards the front,
hideous things, looking like real legs, legs severed at the
The crowd gasped.
Hairy-nose turned away, hands covering
Winny started to the front, gripping
chairs for support. "Here, they're poison, like the company."
She turned to the crowd. "And you know what you're supposed
to do with poison, eh? Cut it out. Too late for that, though.
It's too late."
* * *
The party line was buzzing, the
operators dizzy with reconnects. Two-hour waits for outgoing
calls. Nothing could get in from the city.
Conversations were filled with
venom and hate, but no tears. The women of the town, the wives,
they were past that.
An open line. Two of them on: June
and her cousin's wife, Maud.
"He's already at it. He'll
be sat at that television staring at his saws. Pains the nerves.
I feel right helpless." June was tired, and the skin around
her eyes looked like deep bruises. She wanted to sleep hours
ago, her future, their future, a dark and oppressive burden.
"Frank's the same," Maud
said. Her husband had agreed to let them have his legs. The
decision haunted them regularly. "I'll find him out there
in the shed with the bottle to his head almost polished off.
He's too proud to drink in the house."
Voice cracking, June: "We'll
all be finished soon enough, sure. They'll have the haulers
in at the harbor in a few days; lumber's already gone. Only
a matter of time, now. Last ship with supplies is due in Tuesday,
I heard. Have they come up with something else?"
"Truck will be in once a month,
not every other week."
"Times will be tight, girl."
June: "Tight, yeah
She had watched the news and had seen the segment on them. Audio
inserts insinuating a mild contempt for the small community,
like what they were left with was a blessing, a sacrament: the
Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. The reporter was from
the out-ports, accent bleached. "Wouldn't know now, but
we were all sitting home, waiting for our checks. That's the
way the crowd in town likes to see it." Lately, she kept
revisiting her mother's death in her head, something she hadn't
done since her adolescence. She'd dreamt it, accompanied by
a soundtrack of screaming. Her mother's splayed legs, midwife
hunched down between them, blood reaching up past her elbows.
Other women standing around the kitchen clutching at each other,
their faces stiff with concern. Standing in the doorway, June,
a child, watched between their legs, anxious to see her new
brother, or sister. Then the baby was free, covered in blood
and bits of membrane, but limp and quiet-so still-her mother
pushing out the placenta, crying mad for her baby. Fast forward.
Then her mother was still, head tilted to the side, staring,
eyes wide and vacant. The midwife had something wrapped in a
clean blanket, something small. She said something, something
about the doctor. The doctor was away, in town, and unable to
come. But he knew she'd be ready any day. It was at that point
that she woke, disoriented, confused, angry. Filled with anger.
Maud: "Heard there's a bonfire
planned. Mister's been going on about it."
"Where? I haven't heard nothing
"The boys, they're burning
their tools," she said, hoping that as they watched the
fleshy plastic blacken, twist and melt, they'd all find their
true selves again. "But I don't think much good will come
out of it."
"Neither do I, maid."
"They should take their tools
to that barge, before the job gets done."
"Yes, take them to something,
For a moment, a silence came over
the line, the faint white hum of static.
"The three of them down to
the club to start with," June said contemptuously. "By
Christ, be done with the whole lot."
* * *
The house was quiet: radio off,
small television on the counter muted, news anchor mouthing
the weather. An empty flask of rye was left on the table, a
drop unfinished, left in the glass next to it. The heat was
turned down. She touched the wood stove: cold, unlit, probably
dead for hours. "Francis?" June called out. Her voice
He was asleep, up in bed, surely.
In the living room, two small patches
of oil were on either side of his recliner, which looked like
black holes. He'd been sitting there, drinking, his saws leaking
drips onto the floor.
Anxiety began to creep out from
her gut in webs.
She went upstairs. Frost had collected
on the windows, thick. She could see her breath, icy.
The bed was made, not slept in,
the blankets still tight and tucked beneath the mattress.
"Francis?" she yelled.
The rough cough of his saws choking
to life came from outside, in the shed. It sounded like he couldn't
haul on the cords, too drunk, too sluggish to snap them out
from his hips where they were attached at his belt. Then a loud
buzzing roar ripped through the house as they came to life,
June dashed down the stairs.
Accidents were not unknown to him,
and his leathery arms were roadmaps of ragged scars and skin
grafts. He was clumsy when he drank, thought he still had hands,
thought he was still a young man and the saws were some dream,
The shed door was open, smoke billowing
out in a greasy trail of iron grey, stinking of exhaust.
"Francis, Jesus!" At
that moment, the image of her father came to her, that image
of meeting him at the harbor when he came home from Europe,
dirty and tired from two weeks at sea, skinny, wasted, and sick
from a bout of influenza. His face looked slack, dark, shadows
hiding in the lines around his eyes and mouth. She'd barely
recognized him. He'd died later that year, from a broken heart,
not from the influenza. The war had never left him.
That was her husband: defeated.
Francis was on the large stump
he cut junks on, tiny flecks of vomit clinging to his beard.
Drunk, his arms were crisscrossed, swaying some, elbows resting
on his lap and about to bring the spinning metal teeth down
on his wrists, to do away with himself, to have it all over
She grabbed him by the shoulder.
"My son, what in the name of Christ are you at? What?"
Head low, too low: "I'm not
worth much. Not much at all. Best leave me to it. You'll be
She slapped him, hard, jerking
his head to the side.
Ashamed, he looked up at her.
And that was it for her-the look,
not the slap. It was a look no man should ever have, a look
reserved for widows. It made her feel weak, abused.
The saws slowed, gurgled once,
twice, and coughed out. Francis undid the latches. Between the
tools he could no longer use-hammer, bench saw, level-two large
hooks were nailed high above his chipped workbench, beneath
them dark and distinct shapes, like A-bomb flash burns on the
sidewalk. He hung up his saws. "They're there for good
now, my dear," he mumbled.
"Good thing," she sighed,
wrapping her arms around his thick, square shoulders. "It's
been too much for you lately. Go in the house and sit down,
and I'll fix you a plate of something. We'll watch the news."
"I've got that to go to tonight,
down the cove. I don't want to be going. But they all look up
He saw something in her eyes that
wasn't there before, ever-hatred, maybe
?-like a skinny,
devilish beast, lurking, starved. "Yes, you'd best. It'll
be good for you."
* * *
The fog had come in, swallowing
faces, erasing features, blotting out the sky, the sun-sea fog,
thick and soupy, the color of dirty silver dollars, smelled
and tasted of saltwater. Two dozen men were there, all loggers,
men with tight, dour faces with coarse beards and shaggy eyebrows
that curved down in consternation, stoking-caps that were smeared
with the grease of work. Standing around in a semicircle, some
in wheelchairs, on crutches, others with no arms or hands, like
Francis, they piled their tools-their limbs-and doused them
with gasoline. It was a large pile, a heap of fiberglass and
metal latches, steel teeth and hooks, arms and legs poking out.
The harbor, behind them, down past
the grassy bluff and over the short cliff, growled and churned.
The wind had come in, bringing ocean spray. The fog carried
sounds, too: machines taking the harbor, placing the dismantled
pieces on barges. These sounds would be familiar to them soon,
the sounds of houses being placed on barges and towed out to
sea. They would be painful, torturous sounds.
The final transport ship would
be here soon: their last rites.
"I'm here to support what
you're doing," Francis said, stumps buried deep in his
jacket pockets, "but I won't put me saws in there. Me and
the wife decided. They're all we've got, boys." As a young
man, deep in the dark years of the depression, there had been
a hollowness to his soul, an emptiness, contagious; the whole
town, the province, was infected with it. His saws had filled
that hole. He thanked the company for that, but he hated them
now, more than he thought he could ever hate. And still, his
wife, June, hated even more. Goddamn that company. Goddamn them!
Spitting out the words, like poison. That's our harbor out there,
and they'll just walk away with her and leave us with nothing!
A voice called over from the other
side of the heap, "That's fine, Francis, boy."
Jack Trask, a camp bull, there
next to him, patted his shoulder. "You're a good man. Damn
good man. Don't worry."
A final splash of gasoline, a baptism,
the flick of a lighter, and the pile ignited in a flash. Dirty
black smoke, choking and toxic, billowed up. Flames licked the
plastic, quickly melting it. Cracks and pops came out of it
Someone pointed and screamed at
the conflagration, cursing the company, the bastards.
A horn blew, once, twice, a bellowing
horn, a death call. Their death call. It was the last barge,
early, down from Labrador, coming in from around the bluff.
But the fog was too thick to see through, erasing everything.
* * *
Just past dawn, the sun was not
The tools were a melted mess, charred
and sludge-like, almost flat, indistinguishable from one another
and no longer bubbling and coughing flames. There were just
a few of the men left; the rest had gone, to continue drinking
somewhere else, to forget. Empty beer boxes littered the ground
like debris from an explosion. Francis was there, sitting, smoking.
The fog was thinning, too, rolling out in thin wisps. The machines
had stopped. It was quiet, and no one spoke as they listened
to their own strangled breaths.
Francis stood, starting for the
cove. "I'm heading down the way to see her off."
A few followed him. The rest stayed,
staring at the last embers of flame.
At the bottom, out past the wharf,
where it disappeared, they could see the outline of two ships
poking out of the soupy grey: hull, bridge, the massive crane,
but nothing else, just vague shapes: ghost ships. For years,
this had been a hub of activity. Trucks would cart in timber
from inland to be shipped upriver. Logs would carpet the river,
men-chaulks for feet-dancing a strange dance, twisting and turning
quickly, directed them with pike-arms. It was dead now and devoid
of life-motors shut down, lights off, and the whole lot inoperative.
Standing on the beach, scanning
the bay, the rocks slid and repositioned themselves beneath
their feet. The wharf would be gone in a few hours, history,
memory, quickly and efficiently dismantled and loaded onto the
Flocks of sea birds were out, cawing,
circling low, diving down. It was common enough to shoot them
while jigging, to load up a .12-gauge and blast them right out
of the sky. Francis saw himself doing this when he was young,
gripping the barrel while he stood in his boat, an explosion
of feathers spiraling down.
Paul Russell, on crutches, trying
to steady himself, peered forward, listened to the fifteen-
and twenty-footers knock off the wharf with the steady rhythm
of the waves. It was a familiar sound, like logs knocking off
one another, like the tick of a clock. "She's quiet out
"Quiet, yeah," from behind
him. Francis couldn't tell who; they all seemed to speak in
the same dead, flat tone.
Francis went to the edge of the
beach. There, moving in the tide, swaying with the driftwood
and garbage, was a piece of cloth, dotted with patterns of tight
circles of lavenders, reminding him of a lady's Sunday dress.
Still a little pissed, he wondered,
What is that there for?
Instinctively, he bent and touched
it. Reeled back. Fell against the rocks, face white and slack
like dead skin. A grunt of pain: "Almighty Jesus."
Fingers-white, bloated, pecked
at-clutched the cloth and poked out of the froth of the water.
The tide drew back slowly and revealed an arm, a man's arm,
skin ragged and hacked off where it had once met a shoulder,
a cheap digital watch still around the wrist, ready to snap.
The wind blew, and, for a moment,
the fog peeled back in places, revealing portions of the bay.
The water was littered with limbs, dozens of them: arms, legs,
hands, feet, bobbing like so many buoys, still wearing sleeves
of shirts and legs of pants, rings, feet budging against laced
shoes and green rubber boots, reminding them all of the cold
deck. Patches of gulls floated amongst them, getting fat. He
wished he had his rifle.
He'd seen corpses before, they
all had: split, sawed, crushed. But not like this. No, not like
Francis stood up, put his mouth
to his front pocket where he kept his cigarettes, like he'd
done a thousand times, like he'd learned to do with no hands,
like June had showed him. Shaking badly, unsteady: "Jesus,
someone give me a light."
Jim Karate, eyes like dinner plates,
head following the motion of the water: "Oh, dear God.
They've had an accident. Francis, you've got the best legs.
Get up over the hill, man. Get some help down here!"
Starting out to the wharf, Francis
said, "Don't be foolish. Get out in the boats before the
fog lifts. Forget the help. There's no need. We'll use the nets
to haul them in."
"Think there might be someone
alive in the water?"
The reality of it all had bit deep
into him. "Christ, no one's alive in the water. They're
all dead, sure. Don't be stupid; someone did them in. They've
got themselves killed."
* * *
Stinking of saltwater and smoke,
still tasting the water, Francis came home. June was at the
stove, hovering over it, cooking. He was tired, more tired than
he thought he could ever get, which reached deep into the fiber
of his muscles and seemed to expand like a balloon. He sat at
the table. "Get us a cup, will you, dear?" he asked
her, thinking of the men casting sprawling nets and the continuous
dead thud of limbs as they hauled in pieces of men, half-men,
bits of men, torsos of men, while he worked the motor. The boat
had quickly filled up, and they burned them on the beach, erasing
and reducing it all to ash.
Before he went into the house,
he had gone to the shed. His saws were there, hung up. He knew
them like any other man knows his hands, each bump, blemish.
He had touched them expecting to find them warm, out of gas,
the blades worn just a little from cutting. But they were the
same as he had left them, as he remembered them. She'd cleaned
them well, June.
"Are they done?" she
Someone did them in. "Done?"
"The company, boy."
"I don't know. Didn't bother
to go down. No point, I suppose."
She brought him his cup. Her hair
up in tight curlers, he saw her forehead was wind-burned, her
lips and skin drawn. And there, in the creases of her knuckles,
raw from scrubbing, like dark laugh lines, fault lines, were
faint grease stains, oil stains, not unlike those that were
now permanent stains on the skin of the men he had worked with,
men with hands. He had never scrutinized any part of her before
like he did now. Maybe, when they were young, when he lusted
for her, he had, but now it was as if he were seeing her for
the first time. Her fingers, though slender, had been worked
hard, ground down and abused: nails chipped, knuckles callused.
These hands had been worked-no resemblance to kitchen hands.
She brought the cup to his lips,
and he took a sip, testing it. He thought of watching her sleep,
of her sweating and turning. She was dreaming of her mother
again, he knew. She was a good woman, the best. But he wondered,
in all that goodness, if maybe those dreams had brought on a
personal darkness. "Out in the garden this morning?"
He could not hate her if she lied to him now.
?" She held
up her hands, her dirty hands. He looked at her face, her wide,
intelligent face, her lovely face. Her eyes seemed to hang,
tired, exhausted, and for a second he thought he saw fear and
confusion take form. "Yes, I was out digging. I should've
gotten to it before. But now is better than never. Besides,
I didn't want you out there, the way you are lately."
Francis held her hand, kissed it.
"Maid, you do too much already. Too much, my dear."