The Great Migration (a short story)

Oh, I remember it well, the great migration, if that’s what you insist on calling it. That’s not the name they were giving to it back then, but these things change, I understand. Back then they called it an “opportunity” and that sounded better than “resettlement” so that’s what we called it. I guess there wasn’t enough opportunity for financial growth created by our little town of fishers so the ones in charge of things took the opportunity to stop providing shipments of food, goods, medical supplies… you get the idea.

The way up was out – or in, rather. In was where they wanted us all to be, not out. Goodness knows, out there on the fringes of everything, on the coastlines and shorefronts we must have cost the the folks in the city quite a bit of money. Those outside places – “outports,” they say nowadays – were a risk to a bigger and better and more comfortable way of life. The only trouble was for the boys in charge to get us in on the whole idea, and people tend to agree to things with a few extra dollars in their pockets.

And with that business sorted out, out, we must go.

The problem with resettling a settlement is this: settlements are more than just the people that settled themselves there, they are also made up of all the things that those settlers settled around themselves. We – being the sure set folk that we were – had naturally settled ourselves quite solidly into the setting, and to reset ourselves and our settlement was to set for ourselves a detestable task. One that we were sure to solve, though, having set ourselves to start.

So it was, then, that the entire community started to pack its things up and prepare to vacate the premises.

First? No, no, no. Goodness no, we weren’t the first to be resettled. That being said, I like to think that we approached the whole situation with a level of creativity that the others could only dream of. Yes, our little town wasn’t about to go quietly and simply disappear into the crowd. We didn’t want to go – of course we didn’t – but we had taken the money and we had agreed to vacate the premises in search of gainful employment in the city and we were – and I like to think, still are – true to our word.

Commotion? Well, I don’t recall us being difficult about the situation, but I suppose that’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I guess you could say we were stubborn, but that is to be expected when you ask – or tell, rather – a community of people to just go away. You see, most would take an instruction like “vacate the premises” to mean “vacate yourself from the premises.” That’s mincing words, in my humble opinion. My neighbors and I – being the very literal folk we were – took “vacate the premises” to mean “vacate the premises.” Doesn’t seem that controversial to me.

We started with the houses, thinking to tear them down and rebuild in the city once we could find some empty lots. This, however, presented a challenge. The ones in charge had only given us a month to leave in the contract, and to tear down a town’s worth of buildings for repurposing would take much longer than that, even with all hands on deck. It was old Aunt Islay, who came over from the old world, that suggested we avoid the trouble of tear-down altogether. So we decided to drag the houses behind us, floating them over water and sliding over land to resettle them in the city. Great barges, floats and skis were constructed to prepare, and like a circus caravan for giants, our homes were fitted to coast, slide and roll through the miles to the city. It wasn’t easy work, but we were used to that.

Some folk might have stopped there but we had spent years cultivating the land for our needs – sowing crops, growing hedges, stacking great stone walls – and it felt wrong to leave it all behind. After all, hadn’t we agreed to vacate the premises? We took them too. All of it. Every fence post, every wall, every woodpile leaning against an old rotten stump – it was all carried with us. The trees whose shade we had rested in, the nests of birds whose music we enjoyed, the fertile patches of garden soil, the spring that brought forth cold fresh water perfect for drinking, the rabbits and foxes and mink who we often trapped for pelts (they made such fine hats for winter, you wouldn’t beleive), the old log in the cove where we’d sit and watch the sunset, the swimming hole with the deep pool and waterfall that fell down from the mountains above and oh, the mountains! Goodness, we couldn’t possibly leave those mountains behind! The cemetery with all its tombs and monuments. The hollow in the woods where young lovers were apt to visit. That hillside overlooking the harbor with the most perfect, enchanting view. We packed it all up, and made our way into the city.

And what a sight we must have been. Ha! How those city folk must have laughed and shook their heads at us as we moved our things in, laden with the premises, the settlement and all that. How they must have turned up their noses when we couldn’t find a lot big enough for it all in that rolling expanse where the buildings chafe when the wind blows at night and neighbors stare out of windows, into windows. While the boys in charge had requested us, it became clear very soon that they hadn’t bothered to make room for us and our resettling of everything.

“There,” old Aunt Islay pointed, “by that bus stop. That’s as good a spot as any.” It was there that we laid our burdens down.

I suppose I can understand the fuss. Once we had unloaded our things we took up quite a lot of space, and naturally things didn’t fit quite right. There were houses atop houses, gardens on government buildings, woods growing out the tops of intersections and museums – there was a particular commotion that arose because we had set down our harbor in the middle of a city park, but we thought the place was much improved by the seabirds gliding and the marine sunsets in summer. The locals didn’t much share our thoughts on the matter. A difference of perspective, I suppose.

Despite our differences we lived with the cityfolk for a while. Days went by. Months, years. After a while the locals seemed to grow a fondness toward our way of life. There were times when we’d find teenagers climbing up the streetlamps into our market to haggle prices on pelts and fresh fish, offering to trade in their pre-torn jeans and hamburgers. Other times we would catch sight of passersby gazing up from the busy streets, goggling dreamlike at our simple daily tasks in the town above the city. A few of the locals even went as far as to settle themselves on our native land, raising homes and clearing land amongst the woods and grassy hillsides of our patchwork neighborhood. Things became, in time, rather good.

And, yes, we grew to enjoy the city life as well – I’ll be the first to admit it! After a hard day of hauling traps or fishing it made life easier being able to board our canoes and paddle downtown to pick up a pepperoni pizza for supper that night. We’ve always been a folk to enjoy a good party, and what a good many times we had with those city dwellers – kitchen parties, cocktail parties, festivals, raves. Over time we changed the way they lived their lives and, undoubtedly, they changed us as well.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, it seems, was the opinion of those in charge of life around the city. As it turns out, our stubbornness had thrown what one might call a wrench into their plans of economic development. We had angered the boys in charge by tangling up their idea of a bigger, better way of life by dumping our setting over the top of theirs, and they weren’t about to let us get away with it. I mean this in the most literal sense.

The day came when those politicians and investors came marching to our doors and – without as much as a day’s notice – evicted us from the premises.

“Out,” they said, “out!” And what choice did we have? We’d be painted as criminals, outlaws, disturbers of the peace and wellbeing of the city. Our town above the city was messy, unsightly, in the way. They weren’t having it. We hauled up our boats, gathered our children and animals and belongings. We scrambled to collect everything we’d brought with us but by then it wasn’t so easy as that. The roots of our trees had taken hold in their soil, and the branches of theirs had brought forth fruit from which we ate. Our worlds had become not quite one, but together. We had become settled.

We found our way home, or back to the place where home used to be, at least. Our flight back over land and sea was a hard one, plagued by sickness and danger and terribly dull reading material, and once we had set ourselves back down at our space by the sea, we set ourselves to making things the way they once had been. The mountains were slid into place, the harbor positioned, the houses and trees and fence posts restored. Our memory had faded over time, so it became difficult to get things just right, and even when we called to our elders – the ones with the greatest knowledge of our home – they had lost interest. Old Aunt Islay said “Just put it over there. There, by that… whatever you call it,” and waved her hand dismissively when we asked whether it was right before going back to her tabloids.

Some of the city folk had come with us, I think, but they were nice enough and took the places of those that must have hidden away and stayed behind. We tried our best to put it all back – every rabbit, every field, every subway station – but it seemed impossible to make it all as it had been. We came to accept that, and in time even came to forget the things we left behind. Slowly, with some reservation, our setting became settlement again, and whether it’s the same as before or not, that sunset is just as beautiful as I can ever remember it being.

The Definition of Fog (a short story)



1. [common noun] A thick(2) cloud of moisture in the atmosphere at low altitude near the earth’s surface that restricts visibility to less than 1km.

‘the flight was delayed due to thick fog’

2. [well that’s an understatement] Thick? You’re damned right it’s thick in these parts. I’ve got a sample of it sealed up in a jam jar around around somewhere that I could show you if you like. Thicker than frozen peanut butter, it is. I chipped it off the corner of a fog bank back when I was a bachelor and held onto it for safekeeping, just in case inquisitive folks like yourself came around and had questions. You can guarantee I like to be prepared for these sorts of things, being the expert that I am on the subject. The problem is getting it out of the jar to show it off, though. The bloody stuff is stickier(3) than wet glue. Now, it’s not quite as bad as it used to be in the old days, but it’s still enough to trip you up if you don’t mind where you’re walking when it rolls into town.

3. [that’s just the thing!] Nobody considers the stickiness of the stuff. My goodness, I remember walking back from the cobbler or the market on a damp morning and having to wash my hair three or four times to get all the fog out of it! It was like syrup – all gloopy and stringy – and sometimes you’d get it all jammed up behind your ears or clogged in the corner of your eye and it would take a dog’s age of digging around with a wet rag to get it all wiped off. I recall more than one embarrassing moment where I got caught with a finger halfway up my nose while I was trying to hook the stuff out. I shouldn’t have felt ashamed, though, because everybody and their mother-in-law was doing it in those days. It wasn’t uncommon to see – during a bought of particularly heavy fog – a crowd of your neighbours strutting down the road with one hand covering their eyes and the other picking away at their nostrils with wild abandon. It was a constant irritation – not that any of us had any time(4) to complain about it in those days.

4. [we just got on with our lives] Consider this: you are a fisherman who works every day. You want to get out on the water (assuming you are not an underwater fisherman) before daybreak to make sure you find a good spot. You could get up at 5 o’clock, dress yourself, eat, and make your way down to the harbour. By the time you loaded your lunch, your bait (all prepared the night before, of course) and yourself into the boat and rowed out to sea, you could probably get in position and be ready to start by sunrise at around 6 o’clock. Sounds reasonable, right?

Now, consider the following: in order to get yourself from your house to the harbour, you need to accommodate for the bank of fog that rolled into town the night before. You spend 10 minutes trying to shove the door open (and many people switched to inward-swinging doors to avoid this) only to be faced with a blinding-thick, sticky mass of fog all piled up against the side of your house and blocking the road downtown. What’s a sorry fisherman to do but grab the axe and shovel and dig yourself a tunnel(5) to get to work in the morning? And then, upon reaching the harbour an hour or so later, you find your boat piled 10 or 12 feet high with wet, sticky fog and need to dedicate another hour – at least – scooping the blasted thing out so it doesn’t capsize with all of the added weight. Most folks had to get up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning to make it out on the water on time, and some became partially nocturnal to accomodate for the extra planning and preparations.

5. [and it was dangerous work, mind you] Oh, I remember one poor fellow who – in the process of digging a tunnel from his front door to the market – found himself in a very unfortunate situation. A pickle, as they say. He had made it about halfway to the market – about 50 yards deep into the fog – when the wind picked up. Now, the wind is a wonderful thing when it’s foggy because it will blow the stuff away, but a seaward breeze can be a frightful thing when you’ve got yourself burrowed into a bank of fog the size of a small mountain. As a result, the whole mighty pile of fog – with that poor fellow trapped inside – blew itself about 10 miles offshore at 8 o’clock in the morning. Visibility being as poor as it was, he didn’t even notice he’d been carried away until he finished digging his way out the other side of the bank and nearly fell overboard. Luckily, another shift of direction in the wind carried the fellow to a small island, where he was treated to some fine hospitality by the local lighthouse(6) keeper. By the time he was able to hitch a ride back home, we’d given him up for dead. He was always bitter about that, and argued that a week was hardly enough time for his wife to remarry and sell the house in the process.

6. [the lighthouse keepers had it hard back then] Those poor souls had their hands full, that’s for sure. My great uncle – I’ll call him my grandfather’s brother from here on, to avoid confusion – used to work as a lighthouse keeper back in the day. He moved out there at the young age of 14 to work and stayed there until he was too old to look after himself any longer. At that point my father and my father’s cousins made arrangements and had the poor fellow put in a home so some nice nurses would blend up his food for him and give him a sponge bath once in a while. Before he went senile he used to tell me stories about things that happenned out there at the lighthouse. They would spend much of their time tending to the fog cutters as they used to call them – great, long blades that would be hoisted up on masts along the shoreline surrounding the lighthouse. These were used to slice up the fog bank as it rolled in and stop it from piling up against the lighthouse and blocking the beacon altogether.

According to my grandfather’s brother, sometimes sea creatures would get tangled up amongst the fog banks and be carried for days at a time through the air. The fog, you see, would graze the surface of the ocean and if a creature was near the surface of the water it ran the risk of being sucked up into the fog and whisked away with the wind. Taking advantage of this, my grandfather’s brother and my grandfather’s brother’s wife used to set up great butterfly nets behind the fog cutters, all in an effort to catch the fish as they fell out of the sky. It was not uncommon to see a school of mackerel or a sea turtle or even monstrous sharks gliding through the air on a particularly foggy day, basking on the wind like paper kites.

People today will tell you that much of the sea life has disappeared but my grandfather’s brother would disagree with their argument. In his final days of clear-headedness he would tell us stories of the many creatures that were lifted up by the fog. Fog, as we all know, rises away in time. Those thick banks that we used to curse did eventually lift up and drift off into the clouds, and the fishes and creatures trapped within must have risen up with them. My grandfather’s brother believed to his final day that after the many years of drifting and rising fog there was now a second ocean floating in the sky, above the one we know, and that if we were to explore above the clouds with a keen eye we would find the creatures that had been spirited away – the schools of fish, the turtles, the jellyfishes, the seals, the auks, the krakens, the sting rays, the schools of capelin and bait herring, the swordfish, the tuna, the great sea birds, the megalodon sharks, the long-necked sea reptiles, the last of the great whales – all safe, all still swimming and thriving and breaching on the wind under yet another endless sea of stars and constellations, far from the hooks and lines of fishermen far below. “Oceans under oceans under oceans,” he would say, staring out the window of his sterile little room. He would watch for hours on end at the long clouds rolling by, every now and then chuckling to himself and nodding his head, though I was never quick enough to catch whatever it was that he had seen.

All nonsense, I’m sure.

The Water’s Edge (a short story)

My grandfather showed me a trick, when I was a youngster, that he used to become the most successful fisherman in the world (so he claims). We were sitting on the end of the dock one hot morning while he sipped at his black tea and I asked him how it was that he caught so many big fish (and only big fish) when all the other fisherman used to bring home a wide variety of sea critters of many varying sizes. My grandfather only ever brought in cod, and no less than a half-fathom from nose to tail. They were always plump, strong-looking fish as well – the sort that were prone to untying jiggers and biting off lines and breaking the hearts of many young and boastful fishers.

The problem with fishing (he told me) is you can never get a clear enough view from the boat to tell where the big fish lie. To make things trickier, codfish like to lie near the bottom when they get lazy (as big, fat codfish are prone to do) and smaller, jumpier fish tend to get to the hooks before they have a chance to reach the big fish down below. What he would do first is go looking for a sharp stick. It had to be quite tough but also flexible, and needed to have a very particular wedge-shaped point. He would then walk down to the water’s edge and (very carefully, I might add) pry it up with the pointy end of the stick.

You had to be very patient, because the water’s edge is very slippery (an effect of it being so wet) and this made it very tricky to hook the stick under it, but if you drive it in at just the right angle with just the right amount of force, you could get some leverage and flip it up, creating a gap between the ocean and the ocean floor. The next step (and this part is key) is to work the stick in bit by bit (being careful not to break the surface tension) until you have an opening bug enough to slide into, and then drive the pointy end of the stick into the ocean floor to hold up the water’s edge like the flap of a canvas tent. Once you’d finished that step you were laughing, and the rest was child’s play.

My grandfather would get down on his back and wriggle his way under the water’s edge, sliding himself out under the ocean in search of deeper waters and bigger fish. Now, it was hard work crawling out under the water with all if that ocean pressing down from above because (as I’m sure you can imagine) it was very heavy, and also because the ocean floor could be very scratchy at times (I recall my grandfather often coming home at the end of a long day of fishing with friction burns on his forearms). You had to be careful not to get caught up on little pointy rocks or pieces of coral, because one could easily get one’s clothing torn or pulled loose while crawling and not be able to fix it while working in this awkward (but mostly manageable) environment. I recall my grandfather wriggling his way out from under the water one day with his pants across his ankles (much to the delight of his fellow fishermen, who laughed heartily at him and never let him live it down) after getting them snagged across a particularly jagged sunken log.

The view from the ocean floor was much clearer than from above, because there was no wind or waves to stir up the view, and everything was backlit by the brilliant sun from above, making the entire viewing experience quite pleasant indeed. Finding the schools of fish was easy, and once you had wriggled your way underneath them, it was as simple as pulling out your pocketknife, slicing a little cut in the oceans surface, and sticking in your arm to pull out whatever fish you desired. This little technique made picking out the biggest and fattest fish a walk in the park (a peice of fishcake, as they say), and once you had pulled the fish out (being careful not to get too wet in the process) you would simply lick the edges and stick the cut back together. One didn’t have to waste too much time licking the edges first because water (as a general rule) is already rather damp.

This practise served my grandfather well for most of his career, and he was able to retire at a young age while he still had his mobility and use of his faculties (for the most part), however, he did tell me about one experience he had that gave him a bit of a nasty shock. What you need to understand is that it’s very easy to lose your sense of direction down there under the water once you get away from the shore. Another thing to keep in mind is that codfish are very slippery when they are pulled fresh out of the water, and will even skip along quite well on the tricky and scratchy ocean floor when dropped. My grandfather found both of these points out when he dropped a prize fish in a moment of excitement and it went skidding and sliding away under the water off into a deep undersea ravine.

My grandfather (being the perfectionist that he was) couldnt bear to lose his catch of the day, and started off after it, crawling and scrambling along the ocean floor, occasionally stirring up confused flounders and scaring schools of sardines and generally being a nuisance to the variety of critters that lived in the area. Once at the ravine, he stopped to peer over the edge and could see the big fish down below, sliding at top fish speed over the rocks and bumps, deep, deep down into the darkness below, before promptly throwing himself in after it.

Now it’s one thing lying awkwardly under that big blanket of ocean at a depth of 15 or 20 feet, but it’s quite another thing when one finds oneself at a depth of 1000 feet and the weight of the water makes it impossible to move at all. This was the predicament that my grandfather found himself in, and lying there, staring across at his prize codfish (just out of arms reach), he decided that he might have bitten off a little more than he was capable of chewing at the present time, as they say. Lying down there, stuck in place, many brave fishermen would have given up and resorted to living under the water permanently, but my grandfather was a resourceful man (which is obvious, considering his discovery of the trick with the pointy stick at the water’s edge) and, seeing the jiggers of other fishermen bobbing up and down above him, he thought himself up a plan.

Taking his pocketknife and cutting a little hole in the ocean, he planted his lips firmly on the water surface and began to blow bubbles, sending up a little stream of Morse code to the surface where his fishermen colleagues intercepted the message and got to work in sending down a weighted rope. And so it was, on that memorable day, that my grandfather came to be pulled to the surface, holding the rope with one hand and his prized codfish with the other, and cursing gratuitously at his discomfort of having to get so terribly wet (the irony of the situation being he was much dryer and more comfortable when he was under the water than after he was rescued).

My grandfather carried on fishing the way he did for years and continued to be successful, but upon returning to the shore on that particular day, he couldn’t find the spot where he’d propped up the water’s edge, and that was disappointing to him because it had been an especially good stick (good sticks are hard to come by). Most people agree that the stick must have gotten kicked or blown over in the wind, but my grandfather was confident that he’d made sure it was good and sturdy before he went in.

So, if you find yourself walking the shoreline on a romantic excursion, and you should happen across a spot where the water’s edge has been propped up, it would be best (assuming you are not an experienced underwater fisherman) to avoid going in. And, if you and your date should happen to crawl in, in search of scenery that offers dramatic atmosphere and absolute privacy, always remember to carry with you a quality pocketknife (just in case).

The Forgotten (originally published on

While hiking alone during my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days. During this time, I encountered several phenomena which disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of my days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering thoughts and my words which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending imageries plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Perhaps now, upon reading this, you will begin to understand the reasons for my current condition. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.

A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens many times where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they used to hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had shown to him as a boy. The same paths those ancient folk used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before the Beothuk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimal clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at an early age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.

What I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language and few of their customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. They were referred to by my uncle’s elders as mythical beings, godlike in their stature and connection to the land. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence. I would have written this off in my younger years – no doubt – as mere circumstance. I no longer believe that this is the case.

It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to the region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps discovering the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. What could explain my forefathers’ reverence of those folk? What clues might remain that could help uncover their lost and forgotten history? To my constant dismay, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken. They called to me.

Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther away from the life I once knew.

That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I could just barely glimpse the flashes of light from cars reflecting the sun in the distance. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire. The crescent of broken glass glistened in the evening sun like a ring of stars, and knelt for a while to catch my breath and shake my head at the mess they had left behind. That night I slept beneath the moon in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.

The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly with the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.

I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.

I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.

And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.

The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcome into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.

In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.

I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.

With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.

Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.

I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.

From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focussing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.

Outside there was the unmistakeable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.

I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.

And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.

I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.

By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.

I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to do so. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?

My uncle would wake from the dead if he could see the mess I’ve made of my life. How often he had warned me, how often he had held me back as I started to wander from the path. How I wish I could take it all back and heed his words, to honour his wishes and the laws of our elders, but I must pay the price for my curiosity. From the moment I open my eyes, throughout the long hours of the sun, until I creep anxiously to bed for a night of sleepless writhing, I am plagued by visions of the forgotten ones and the horrors they performed on me during that night of desolation in the barrens. At times I can feel the ground beneath me moving, the winds outside splashing against the walls, and in moments when I pray that peace has finally found me, I can hear them again – those ancient, terrible things. At night when I lie staring at the ceiling with the taste of ash in my mouth and the sweat rolling thickly from my brow, I can hear their hooves and claws and sliding forms moving all around me. The halls are filled with the sounds of chanting, and the scent of fire and smoke and burning flesh sets me howling till morning, and the nightmare starts anew.

I tell myself that these visions are figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that once had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?

I’d rather believe I’m insane.

Uncle Jonathan’s Wake (a poem)

Of tales I’ve been told in my youth, years ago,
there’s a few that I really can’t tell anymore
if they’re stories of make up and yarns of pretending
or memories with almost all truth at their core.

It’s the ones that the parents of my parents told us
and the ones that they’d heard at the same age as me.
On the knee of some elder by kerosene lamplight
in houses in places where homes used to be.

While the wood in the stove crackled warm in the night
and brew in the kettle boiled blacker than tar,
they’d sit round the table in towns since forgotten.
So long ago now no one knows where they are.

No power for TV, no money for books,
no radio stations with top forties songs.
They lived off the land, off the sea and the shore,
and their muscles were sore, but their hearts were strong.

While the boys on the mainland were lining their pockets
and patching the elbows on suits that they owned,
they’d wake in the night with a terrible fright
of the frost driving nails through the cracks in their bones.

And they’d kindly recall, in tales that were tall,
of the things that men jigged from the waters so deep,
of horse-headed mummers, burned ships in the fog,
of fairies and worse that made away with the sheep.

Most of them are gone now – faded with time,
we never wrote any down, and now I wish that we did.
At this point the only ones I can remember
are the stories I witnessed firsthand as a kid.

But the thing that I wonder at most of it all
is my memory of Great Uncle Jonathan’s wake.
And I’ll tell you the best that my mind can remember
but I can’t guarantee how much sense it’ll make.

It was just after Christmas and my toys were still out.
There were just a few days left until the new year.
We had Uncle John’s wake in my grandparents’ kitchen
and Grandfather gave me my first taste of beer.

Old Johnny was flat on his back on the table
with his Sunday best on and brand new wool socks.
Aunt Maggie, his widow, was yarning with Grandma
lining bottles of rum by old Uncle John’s box.

Us kids were all wary round Uncle John’s corpse
cause he’d told us old tales that had filled us with dread.
But my father assured us: “Old Johnny won’t ‘arm yas,
not a ‘air on yer ‘ead, neither livin’ nor dead!”

So we laughed and we danced to accordion music
and chased ’round the kitchen like little kids do,
and Grandma caught Grandpa trying to give me some grog
and said “Only some beer! Just a small sip or two!”

And Grandpa obliged and opened a homebrew
as black as molasses and older than sin.
It tasted like earth, all murky and bubbling
and he clapped on my shoulder with a devilish grin.

The cold night rolled on and the wake came to life
with a stomping on planks and a musical roar.
Not a one cheek was dry, from crying or chuckling,
by the time a loud knocking rang out on the door.

“Oh mummers! T’is mummers!” Aunt Ellie announced
and the kitchen broke out in a cheer and a shout:
“Merry Christmas, good mummers! Come in, ‘ave a grog!
We’ll dance, take a look, and figger you out!”

There was one with a mask made of old burlap sack,
mitts on the wrong hands and pants stuffed full of straw.
A couple had bloomers on top of their heads,
but the one in the back was the strangest of all.

His old beaver hat hung down over his eyes
and from it, old feathers stuck this way and that.
His clothes were all colors, blue, yellow and green,
and his smile was wicked, like a sneaky old cat.

The rum flowed like water and the pot belly crackled
and the room got so hot Mother tied back the door.
Then the power went out so we fired up the lamps
and the mummers broke out in a jig on the floor.

When no one was looking, that feathered old mummer
took a flask from a pocket on his colorful chest
and drank back a swallow and passed it to Johnny
who sat up in his box and drank down the rest!

I jumped to my feet, and I let out a cry
but Mother and Father just laughed at the sight:
“Ol’ Johnny looks jealous that we’re havin’ all the fun!”
and my late uncle started to dance with delight.

Old Johnny was shuffling and prancing around
with his thick wooster socks slipping ’round on the boards
then the room started clapping and singing along
and not a tear in the place was sad anymore.

His toes flew a-tapping with his hands at his hips,
and we all started clapping along with the beat,
and poor Uncle George with his fingers a-fiddling
couldn’t match the lightning in Uncle John’s feet.

He swayed to the left and the right, all around,
and danced up a storm of a jig for the crowd.
His stocking-clad feet tapped a flurry of steps
as he jumped on the table to applause that was loud.

Then the door flew open on Grandpa’s wood stove
and flankers and smoke whirled out into the air.
While I rubbed out my eyes, I thought I could see
more shadows than just Uncle Johnny’s up there.

He jumped back to the floor without missing a step
and was joined by the mummers, laughing loudest of all,
then he finished the jig with a stomp and a bow,
but when the music had stopped, he appeared to grow small.

Uncle John asked the mummer for another good drink
cause his legs had gone stiff and his feet cold and sore,
but the mummer sighed “No, that’s the last of my grog,
but I’d say you’ve got time for just one good dance more.”

Then my poor Uncle Johnny took Aunt Maggie’s hand
and old George played a waltz that I haven’t heard since,
and the wife and her husband shared a good long embrace
as graceful as any princess and her prince.

And when it was over, they had tears in their eyes,
but they must have been happy – they were smiling too.
Then they sat with the rest, to call out the mummers.
That was my favorite bit – finding out who was who.

There was Una and Gord, from down ’round the Cape,
and Young John and Sadie and her cousin from town,
but the last of the mummers, the one with the feathers,
must have snuck out the door when we’d let our guard down.

Now by then it was late and the rum near all gone
and the parents said “Youngsters, you best get to bed,”
and we never found out who the sixth mummer was,
and if the grown-ups found out, they for sure never said.

You can laugh all you want and call me a fool,
say my story’s made up and my head’s full of rocks,
but the next day before we all buried old Johnny
Mom stitched up the holes worn through his new socks.

And that mummer? Well we never saw him again,
not one Christmas after, but we did hear some things.
Queer stories of things that happened in winter
when strangers with costumes came to dance and sing.

Now the mummers are gone, for the most part at least.
And Christmas is not like it was long ago.
As a child I know I’d have laughed at the thought
of a mummer come knocking, but the doorman saying “no.”

So much has been changed, and it’s not all for bad,
but I hope that some old ways still have a chance.
I know I’ll never forget Uncle Jonathan’s wake
or that stranger who let him have one final dance.