“If he’d gone on with the others he’d likely have gone into a miserable life. You ask me, Canada was built on the slave labor of those poor Home children, worked to the bone, treated like dirt, half starved and crazed with lonesomeness. See, my father kept in touch with three of the boys that lived, and they wrote back and forth. I’ve still got some of those letters—poor wretched boys whose families had cast them off, who survived a shipwreck and the freezing sea, and went on, friendless and alone, to a harsh life.”
Quoyle’s eyes moist, imagining his little daughters, orphaned, traveling across the cold continent to a savage farmer.
“Now, mind you, it was never easy at the Prettys’, never easy on Gaze Island, but they had the cows and a bit of hay, and the berries, the fish and their potato patches, and they’d get their flour and bacon in the fall from the merchant over at Killick-Claw, and if it was hard times, they shared, they helped their neighbor. No, they didn’t have any money, the sea was dangerous and men were lost, but it was a satisfying life in a way people today do not understand. There was a joinery of lives all worked together, smooth in places, or lumpy, but joined. The work and the living you did was the same things, not separated out like today.
“Father’d get those pathetic letters, sometimes six months after they was written, and he’d read them out loud here and the tears would stream down people’s faces. Oh, how they wanted to get their hands on those hard Ontario farmers. There was never a one from Gaze Island that voted for confederation with Canada! My father would of wore a black armband on Confederation Day. If he’d lived that long.
“One of those boys, Lewis Thorn, never had a bed of his own, had to sleep in the musty hay, had no shoes or boots and wrapped his feet in rags. They fed him potato peels and crusts, what they’d give to the pig. They beat him every day until he was the color of a dark rainbow, yellow and red and green and blue and black. He worked from lantern light to lantern light while the farmer’s children went to school and socials. His hair grew down his back, all matted with clits and tangles. He tried to trim it with a handsickle. You can guess how that looked. He was lousy and dirty. The worst was the way they made fun of him, scorned him because he was a Home boy, jeered and made his life hell. In the end they cheated him of his little wage and finally turned him adrift in the Ontario winter when he was thirteen. He went on to another farmer who was worse, if can be. Never, never once in the years he worked on the farms—and he slaved at it because he didn’t know anything else until he was killed in an accident when he was barely twenty— never once did anyone say a kind word to him since he got off the ship in Montreal. He wrote to my father that only his letters kept him from taking his life. He had to steal the paper he wrote on. He planned to come out to Newfoundland but he died before he could.
“The other two had a miserable time of it as well. Oh I remember our dad lying on the daybed and stretching out his feet and telling us about those poor lonely boys, slaves to the cruel Canadian farmers. He’d say, ‘Count your blessings that you’re in a snug harbor.’
“My father taught all his children to read and write. In the winter when the fishing was over and the storms wrapped Gaze Island, my father would hold school right down there in the kitchen of the old house. Yes, every child on this island learned to read very well and write a fine hand. And if he got a bit of money he’d order books for us. I’ll never forget one time, I was twelve years old and it was November, 1933. Couple of years before he died of TB. Hard, hard times. You can’t imagine. The fall mail boat brought a big wooden box for my father. Nailed shut. Cruel heavy. He would not open it, saved it for Christmas. We could hardly sleep nights for thinking of that box and what it might hold. We named everything in the world except what was there. On Christmas Day we dragged that box over to the church and everybody craned their necks and gawked to see what was in it. Dad pried it open with a screech of nails and there it was, just packed with books. There must have been a hundred books there, picture books for children, a big red book on volcanoes that gripped everybody’s mind the whole winter—it was a geological study, you see, and there was plenty of meat in it. The last chapter in the book was about ancient volcanic activity in Newfoundland. That was the first time anybody had ever seen the word Newfoundland in a book. It just about set us on fire—an intellectual revolution. That this place was in a book. See, we thought we was all alone in the world. The only dud was a cookbook. There was not one single recipe in that book that could be made with what we had in our cupboards.
“I never knew how he paid for those books or if they were a present, or what. One of the three boys he wrote to on the farms moved to Toronto when he grew up and became an elevator operator. He was the one who picked the books out and sent them. Perhaps he paid for them, too. I’ll never know.”
The new paint gleamed on the wood, the fresh letters black and sharp.
“Well, I wonder if I’ll make it out here again upright or lying down. I’d better have my stone carved deep because there’s nobody to paint me up every few years except some nephews and nieces down in St. John’s.”
Quoyle wondering about William Ankle. “What did it mean, what your father said about the tall, quiet woman. You said it about Wavey Prowse. Something your father used to say. A poem or a saying.”
“Ar, that? Let’s see. Used to say there was four women in every man’s heart. The Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman, the Tall and Quiet Woman. It was just a thing he said. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know where he got it.”
“You were never married Billy?”
“Between you and me, I had a personal affliction and didn’t want anybody to know.”
Quoyle’s hand to his chin.
“Half that stuff,” said Billy, “that sex stuff Nutbeem and Tert Card spews out, I don’t know what they mean. What there could be in it.” What he knew was that women were shaped like leaves and men fell.
He pointed down the slope, away from the sea.
“Another cemetery there. An old cemetery.” A plot lower down enclosed with beach rubble. They walked toward it. Straggling wildness. A few graves marked with lichened cairns, the rest lost in impenetrable tangle. Billy’s brilliant eyes fixed Quoyle, waiting for something.
“I wouldn’t have known it was a cemetery. It looks very old.”
“Oh yes. Very old indeed. ‘Tis the cemetery of the Quoyles.”
Satisfied with the effect on Quoyle whose mouth hung open, head jerked back like a snake surprised by a mirror.
“They were wrackers they say, come to Gaze Island centuries ago and made it their evil lair. Pirate men and women that lured ships onto the rocks. When I was a kid we’d dig in likely places. Turn over stones, see if there was a black box below.”
“Here!” Quoyle’s hair bristled. The winding tickle, the hidden harbor.
“See over here, them flat rocks all laid out? That’s where your house stood as was dragged away over the ice to Quoyle’s Point with a wrangle-gangle mob of islanders behind them. For over the years others came and settled. Drove the Quoyles away. Though the crime that finally tipped the scales was their disinclination to attend Pentecostal services. Religion got a strong grip on Gaze Island in that time, but it didn’t touch the Quoyles. So they left, took their house and left, bawling out launchin’ songs as they went.”
“Dear God,” said Quoyle. “Does the aunt know all this?”
“Ar, she must. She never told you?”
“Quiet about the past,” said Quoyle, shaking his head, thinking, no wonder.
“Truth be told,” said Billy, “there was many, many people here depended on shipwracks to improve their lots. Save what lives they could and then strip the vessel bare. Seize the luxuries, butter, cheese, china plates, silver coffeepots and fine chests of drawers. There’s many houses here still has treasures that come off wracked ships. And the pirates always come up from the Caribbean water to Newfoundland for their crews. A place of natural pirates and wrackers.”
They walked back to the gaze for another look, Quoyle trying to imagine himself as a godless pirate spying for prey or enemy.
Billy shouted when he saw the gauzy horizon had become a great billowing wall less than a mile away, a curtain of fog rolling over maroon water.
“Get going, boy,” shouted Billy, slipping and sliding down the path to the harbor beach, his paint cans knocking together. Quoyle panted after him.
The motor blatted and in a few minutes they were inside the tickle.