Authors: Alistair MacLeod
was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1936. He lived on the Prairies until the age of ten when his parents moved back to the family farm on Cape Breton.
After obtaining his Teacher’s Certificate from the Nova Scotia Teachers College, MacLeod took his B.A. and B.Ed. (1960) from St. Francis Xavier University, his M.A. (1961) from the University of New Brunswick, and his Ph.D. (1968) from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Indiana University from 1966 until 1969, then moved to the University of Windsor, where he was Professor of English and Creative Writing.
MacLeod’s fiction roots itself in carefully delineated and haunting settings, only to transcend the settings in humane explorations of the personal struggles that challenge and often defeat men and women of all time.
Alistair MacLeod resides in Windsor, Ontario.
THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY
General Editor: David Staines
Copyright © 1986 by Alistair MacLeod
Afterword copyright © 1992 by Jane Urquhart
First published in 1986 by McClelland and Stewart.
New Canadian Library edition 1992
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher - or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency - is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
As birds bring forth the sun and other stories
(New Canadian library)
I. Title. II. Series.
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
All of the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
The following dedication appeared in the original edition:
To the memory of my parents,
Alexander MacLeod and Christena MacLellan.
now, towards the end, and the weather can no longer be trusted. All summer it has been very hot. So hot that the gardens have died and the hay has not grown and the surface wells have dried to dampened mud. The brooks that flow to the sea have dried to trickles and the trout that inhabit them and the inland lakes are soft and sluggish and gasping for life. Sometimes they are seen floating dead in the over-warm water, their bodies covered with fat grey parasites. They are very unlike the leaping, spirited trout of spring, battling and alive in the rushing, clear, cold water; so electrically filled with movement that it seems no parasite could ever lodge within their flesh.
The heat has been bad for fish and wells and the growth of green but for those who choose to lie on the beaches of the summer sun the weather has been ideal. This is a record year for tourists in Nova Scotia, we are constantly being told. More motorists have crossed the border at Amherst than ever before. More cars have landed at the ferry docks in Yarmouth. Motels and campsites have been filled to capacity. The highways are heavy with touring buses and camper trailers and cars with the inevitable lobster traps fastened to their roofs. Tourism is booming as never before.
Here on this beach, on Cape Breton’s west coast, there are no tourists. Only ourselves. We have been here for most of the
summer. Surprised at the endurance and consistency of the heat. Waiting for it to break and perhaps to change the spell. At the end of July we said to ourselves and to each other, “The August gale will come and shatter all of this.” The August gale is the traditional storm that comes each August, the forerunner of the hurricanes that will sweep up from the Caribbean and beat and lash this coast in the months of autumn. The August gale with its shrieking winds and crashing muddied waves has generally signalled the unofficial end of summer and it may come in August’s very early days. But this year, as yet, it has not come and there are only a few days left. Still we know that the weather cannot last much longer and in another week the tourists will be gone and the schools will reopen and the pace of life will change. We will have to gather ourselves together then in some way and make the decisions that we have been postponing in the back of our minds. We are perhaps the best crew of shaft and development miners in the world and we were due in South Africa on the seventh of July.
But as yet we have not gone and the telegrams from Renco Development in Toronto have lain unanswered and the telephone calls have been unreturned. We are waiting for the change in the weather that will make it impossible for us to lie longer on the beach and then we will walk, for the final time, the steep and winding zig-zagged trail that climbs the rocky face of Cameron’s Point. When we reach the top of the cliff we will all be breathing heavily and then we will follow the little path that winds northward along the cliff’s edge to the small field where our cars are parked, their hoods facing out to sea and their front tires scant feet from the cliffside’s edge. The climb will take us some twenty minutes but we are all still in good shape after a summer of idleness.
The golden little beach upon which we lie curves in a crescent for approximately three-quarters of a mile and then terminates at either end in looming cliffs. The north cliff is called Cameron’s Point after the family that once owned the land,
but the south cliff has no name. Both cliffs protect the beach, slowing the winds from both north and south and preserving its tranquility.
At the south cliff a little brook ends its journey and plummets almost vertically some fifty feet into the sea. Sometimes after our swims or after lying too long in the sand we stand underneath its fall as we would a shower, feeling the fresh water fall upon our heads and necks and shoulders and running down our bodies’ lengths to our feet which stand within the sea.
All of us have stood and turned our naked bodies unknown, unaccountable times beneath the spraying shower nozzles of the world’s mining developments. Bodies that when free of mud and grime and the singed-hair smell of blasting powder are white almost to the colour of milk or ivory. Perhaps of leprosy. Too white to be quite healthy; for when we work we are often twelve hours in the shaft’s bottom or in the development drifts and we do not often feel the sun. All summer we have watched our bodies change their colour and seen our hair grow bleached and ever lighter. Only the scars that all of us bear fail to respond to the healing power of the sun’s heat. They seem to stand out even more vividly now, long running pink welts that course down our inner forearms or jagged saw-tooth ridges on the taut calves of our legs.
Many of us carry one shoulder permanently lower than the other where we have been hit by rockfalls or the lop of the giant clam that swings down upon us in the narrow closeness of the shaft’s bottom. And we have arms that we cannot raise above our heads and touches of arthritis in our backs and in our shoulders, magnified by the water that chills and falls upon us in our work. Few of us have all our fingers and some have lost either eyes or ears from falling tools or discharged blasting caps or flying stone or splintering timbers. Yet it is damage to our feet that we fear most of all. For loss of toes or damage to the intricate bones of heel or ankle means that we
cannot support our bodies for the gruelling twelve-hour stand-up shifts. And injury to one foot means that the other must bear double its weight, which it can do for only a short time before poor circulation sets in to numb the leg and make it too inoperative. All of us are big men, over six feet tall and near two hundred pounds, and our feet have at the best of times a great deal of pressure bearing down upon them.
We are always intensely aware of our bodies and the pains that course and twinge through them. Even late at night when we would sleep they jolt us unexpectedly as if from an electric current, bringing tears to our eyes and causing our fists to clench in the whiteness of knuckles and the biting of nails into palms. At such times we desperately shift our positions or numb ourselves from the tumblers of alcohol we keep close by our sides.
Lying now upon the beach we see the external scars on ourselves and on each other and are stirred to the memories of how they occurred. When we are clothed the price we pay for what we do is not so visible as it is now.
Beside us on the beach lie the white Javex containers filled with alcohol. It is the purest of moonshine made by our relatives back in the hills and is impossible to buy. It comes to us only as a gift or in exchange for long-past favours: bringing home of bodies, small loans of forgotten dollars, kindnesses to now-dead grandmothers. It is as clear as water, and a tea-spoonful of it when touched by a match will burn with the low blue flame of a votive candle until it is completely consumed, leaving the teaspoon hot and totally dry. When we are finished here we will pour what remains into forty-ounce vodka bottles and take it with us on the long drive to Toronto. For when we decide to go we will be driving hard and fast and all of our cars are big: Cadillacs with banged-in fenders and Lincolns and Oldsmobiles. We are often stopped for speeding on the stretch outside Mt. Thom, or going through the Went-worth Valley, or on the narrow road to Fredericton, or on the
fast straight road that leads from Rivière du Loup to Levis, sometimes even on the 401. When we say that we must leave for Africa within hours we are seldom fined or in odd instances allowed to pay our speeding fines upon the spot. We do not wish to get into the entanglement of moonshine brought across provincial lines and the tedium that accompanies it. The fine for open commercial liquor is under fifteen dollars in most places and the transparent vodka bottles both show and keep their simple secret.
But we are not yet ready to leave and in the sun we pour the clear white fluid into styrofoam cups and drink it in long burning swallows, sometimes following such swallows with mouthfuls of Teem or Sprite or Seven-Up. No one bothers us here because we are so inaccessible. We can see any figure that would approach us from more than a mile away, silhouetted on the lonely cliff and the rocky and treacherous little footpath that is the only route to where we are. None of the RCMP who police this region are in any way local and it is unlikely that they even know this beach exists. And in the legal sense there is no public road that leads to the cliff where our cars now stand. Only vague paths and sheep trails through the burnt-out grass and around the clumps of alders and blueberry bushes and protruding stones and rotted stumps. The resilient young spruce trees scrape against the mufflers and oilpans of our cars and scratch against the doors. Hundreds of miles hence when we stop by the roadsides in Quebec and Ontario we will find small sprigs of this same spruce still wedged within the grillework of our cars or stuck beneath the headlight bulbs. We will remove them and take them with us to Africa as mementos or talismans or symbols of identity. Much as our Highland ancestors, for centuries, fashioned crude badges of heather or of whortleberries to accompany them on the battlefields of the world. Perhaps so that in the closeness of their work with death they might find nearness to their homes and an intensified realization of themselves. We
are lying now in the ember of summer’s heat and in the stillness of its time.