Tilly Macdonald 2019

Mac an Amharuis (1923)

My people have said for centuries that the sea will always eventually consume the souls of the men who have grown up on its shores. It was at a young age that I first saw the enormity of the sea’s capability to subdue. It was a summer afternoon after I had completed my chores for mother; my skin rubbed raw from the cleaning, the stench of manure and animal faeces was cemented in my nostrils, and the wind, which had spent the last couple days tearing at the aching wooden planks of our antiquated house, blew my hair upright as I rushed down to the docks to watch the boats bring in their hauls from the season. The men dismounted, almost stumbling down from the edges of their hoary boats, the docks and piers seemingly quivering under their heavy boots. There was a weariness originating from the weight the men carried, evident in their eyes; it was a glazed, almost distant view with shoulders hunched over from years of drudgery. The complexion of their skin matched that of tanned leather, with lines carelessly engraved along their foreheads and around their eyes from the monotonous exposure to the harsh sun’s rays. Thick bushy beards, used to keep their faces warm through the blustery mornings, concealed their lips; the remnants of that morning’s salt caught on the tips of their greying hairs. Their once unblemished hands now calloused, littered in small white scars, which had been inflicted from many years of a repetitive chafing and healing cycle. There was a rugged beauty about them. I remember the pier shivered under their every step- feeling the reverberations in my toes was enthralling, the breeze shifting slightly as they walked by, not even glancing my way, for I was just a curious young boy at the time, looking on in admiration at the soldiers of my town.

Growing up my head was often buried in books. I read of tales of hidden lands far beyond the Island of Cape Breton; that dragged me through constellations of stars and planets, through deep and far seas, across countries with buildings that touched the clouds; whole worlds revealed between the dusty, moth bitten pages read under the oil lamp in the midst of the night. My mother scolded me for the hours I spent hanging off the words from the borrowed books that I found in the dilapidated closet which rested against the back wall of my classroom; it’s door often locked but when the teacher left the room at recess, I was able to sneakily obtain these literary portals for my temporary possession. Forbidden treasures. The knowledge they supplied deemed frightening and frivolous to people such as my mother who used to curse their existence. “God will see to those who waste their lives reading useless books when they should be about their work,” she used to say with a tinge of spite in her voice. There was more than one instance where the books were ripped from my hands and I would leave the house to complete my chores with a bruise slowly forming along my cheekbone from where a book’s spine made contact.

As I grew, my tastes in literature evolved from the books buried within the classroom cupboard. I began travelling into town to find new sources to fuel my ever-growing inquisitiveness. The only place where books were found in the local community was at the general store, amongst the long forgotten sections that harboured wires and hooks that were of little use anymore; thin cobwebs had wrung themselves between the modest stacks, as dust coated the edges. With my mother working on the docks, boxing the mottled blue-green lobsters whose life sentences had concluded within the traps, there was no money to spend on what my mother believed a senseless hobby. As a result, I brokered an agreement with the general store’s manager, a strange man whose mixed accent tried to veil his traveller’s soul, which allowed me to borrow each book under the expectation that I was to help around the store occasionally. With that, every spare chance I got I spent sitting cross-legged on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the blue-tinged transparent water; it’s body breathing- rising and falling with rhythmic ease; waves pulsating against the harsh bank below causing consolidated water to detonate on impact. The borrowed books piled next to me and my mind wandering through the surreal worlds beyond my existence; alluring me towards them. It was one particular day when I was sitting there, the wind pulling at the pages of ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’, dark clouds forming on the horizon with sudden, random flashes of incandescence rippling through the intense dark grey, when someone singing drew my attention from my reverie. The voice was discordant and raucous, the strange lyrics battling against the fluency of the wind and waves. The face behind the voice was beautiful, a girl, around my age; light fearless eyes and umber hair, pale skin with cinnamon freckles splattered across her nose and rosy cheeks.

“Có a th’ann?” I asked in Gaelic. “Who is there?”

“Pardon me?” she responded, her accent was foreign to me but it reminded me of the general store owner and the way the word would  fall off his tongue in a timbre of warmth.

“Who are you?” I asked her monotonously, her presence disrupted the peaceful ambience.

“Whom is asking?” she retorted, her voice caused me to grind my teeth. It was a mocking, impolite and quickly hindered my state of mind.

“I am Alex” I responded courteously.

“Alex?” She pondered, biting the left side of her bottom lip. Her eyes shimmered as her mind delved from being consciously aware of her physical surroundings, her eyes momentarily retaining the same look as the fishermen at the docks; imprisonment. Then as quickly as the look appeared it was gone, the sharpness within her icy blue eyes returned as swiftly as lightning struck water.

“Well, the view from here is quite exquisite; I shall be joining you from time to time from now on. It has been lovely meeting you.”

With that, she strut back down the hill, humming to the same tune which disturbed my serenity in the first place, the tone raspy but somewhat stifled by her sealed lips.

As the pretty girl walked away my gaze followed her descent down the hill, confusion and bewilderment engrossed my mind about the way she had spoken to me. She was not from around her, her accent and crudeness made that obvious. The way her eyes shifted left my head reeling, so beautiful yet as broken as the men who had grown up on the Island’s shores. I was captivated in her obscurity. She upheld her promise and occasionally joined me whilst I read overlooking the ocean. She asked endless questions of the books I was reading, at first, it was irritable but the conversations lead to her memoir and the reason for her presence on the island. She had been born in London. She had come to the Island because her father had grown up on the waterfront of Canna, he had returned to work in the mines because his father was unwell, his lungs as black as the coal he had spent his life chasing. She was an articulate girl, captivating and fuelling my ever-growing desire to leave the confinements of Cape Breton. She shared tales of life growing up in London, enticing me with large buildings that were filled purely for the storage and sharing of books and machinery that did not need the assistance of horses or tracks. She left me dazed in the surrealism of the pictures she depicted in her stories.

Time went on and our friendship developed into something deeper, a dependency on her presence grew to the point of becoming an addiction, an addiction for my freedom. My mother disapproved of her and her family, often looking in distain and apprehension when we would sit speaking in hushed voices at the kitchen table; “they were not of her people and they were not of her sea.” We made plans to travel the world together, our journey mimicking the origins of our favourite authors.

At the age of seventeen illness swept upon her. Every breath rattled her frail body and I watched the fierce passion slowly seep from her eyes; her once vibrant skin paled causing the scattered freckles upon her nose and cheeks to standout further. I would read to her for hours, our favourite authors captivating her mind from the sickness consuming her soul. She was not to get better.

After the funeral, I packed what little belongings I had in a tattered bag, my ticket in hand, no planned course in mind and walked out the front door of my house. Not even glancing back at the shores I have grown up upon or my mother who stood glaring from the sloping doorway.