by Alexis MacIsaac
The house sits on a hill, far from the dirt road, partially obscured by half-dead appendages of once mighty trees. A wooden structure: large, square, and battered. Cavernous when unlit. Inelegant in its rusticity. I see this image as might a stranger. But my detachment is always disturbed, because what I also see, as I drive my car along the unwieldy dirt road which leads me back to the familiar, is a swarm of spectral, half-remembered memories—memories that are vital and dying, memories that form a past searching in vain for a home that will birth it into the future. It is a ritual that causes me great pain. Though this time, it is different.
There is no moon. Not even a fingernail hangs suspended in the dark. My steps are heavy and slow in the uncut grass, sodden with the day’s rain. The door, heavy and rusted, barely yields. I stumble into a pair of my mother’s old leather boots in the cramped entrance, startling the silence, and then I walk past a stack of firewood long since rotted to where I know she will be sitting in her rocking chair, her face frosted with starlight.
“A Mhàthair. Tha mi dhachaigh.”
“You’re speaking Gaelic, Alasdair.”
“You are home.”
The house was built by my grandfather after his excommunication from the Hebrides. My mother told me her father had barely survived the journey from the Isle of Eigg to Cape Breton, contracting pneumonia on the boat that carried him and his wife across the howling Atlantic to a land overrun with trees. It was, I imagine, like being evicted from one island only to be marooned on another. My mother would tell me that it was a miracle any of them had survived. “How could he have known the land would be so ruthless? He must have been born under a bright star. The man could will vitality, he could.” I suppose that I believed her, for who else but a man like that could build a home with his bare hands under threat of entombment from a Canadian winter. My grandmother soon swelled with a baby whose birth would christen the advent of the home. A baby girl, my mother, heiress to a plain palace.
“Had you ever thought about leaving, Mother? When you were a little girl, did you ever wonder about the rest of the world?”
“Leave? What good would that do me? No trust to be found on the mainland. No trust at all.”
We were two, my mother and me. Always two. My father a ghost before I had even been born, not dead of blackened lungs or a coal mining accident, but lost to the open waters—the other cruel way so many young men died back then as they tried to make a living fishing. “Your father was as devoted to me as he was to the sea. Two marriages ended that day.” I used to wonder if he ever broke the surface to lunge for air or if he sank into those weepy Atlantic waters like a bullet. “Did he know about me?” I asked her once when I didn’t know any better. She closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them, they stung with tears. “Of course, he did. He used to rest his ear on my belly and listen for you.”
I always felt his absence. As a child I would look for him, standing at the edges of the ocean, searching—searching for a shadow, a thread of hair, a whisper. The waves mocked me with an otherworldly tongue. He’s gone. We’ve swallowed him whole. Goodbye now.
“Don’t ever fish, Alasdair,” my mother used to say. “Don’t step one foot in that water, you hear me?”
She needn’t have worried. I had no use for taunting waters. The geography of the island dictated that we lived in isolation, but I was keenly aware of the world that lay just beyond my reach. I had read about Montreal and Toronto, brimming with bright lights and brighter ideas. I desired the anonymity that those urban dwellings would afford me—to feel out of place, to not belong, to be safely cradled in obscurity. I wanted most of all to separate myself from those who threatened to relegate me to a life of obsolescence.
“What’s going on in that head of yours, Alasdair?”
“Nothing, Mother. Nothing at all.”
But she knew, of course. She sensed that I was planning my escape, for I had grown to resent our house—its ugly, imposing structure which, in spite of its perceived enormity to my child’s eye, encroached upon me with its clumsy chronicle. My grandparents’ paraphernalia littered each room: a rocking chair; woollen blankets; prayer books; a wretched violin, sunken and stringless.
“I’m leaving,” I had proclaimed to her, at seventeen. “I will visit.”
I recall no expression on her face, only the strong scent of stoicism.
Toronto. Pulsing, heartbroken, writhing Toronto. Parasitic, dirty, ecstatic Toronto. A balm for my misspent youth. The women—my god, the women—and the blaring streetcars and serpentine cigarette smoke and the people, everywhere the people, marching along the streets alive with invisibility. But the past cannot be ejected so easily. Toronto, for all its scummy glory, was remarkable in reminding me of where I came from. “Forget Not.” In my middle age, I would turn those two words—our clan’s motto—over in my mind, believing them to be foolish for stating something which cannot be helped.
“Where are you from?” A date had asked.
“Oh. I’ve never been. I hear it’s quaint, that you can go for miles without seeing a person. Is that true?”
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask.”
“My sister visited once. She described the people as earnest, simple. Kind of like stepping back in time.”
“Is that so?”
Time seemed to me to be a circuitous thread, binding me to flashes of memory I wasn’t even sure belonged to me. My mother, my mother. Where art thou, my mother? I had not spoken with her since I’d left two years prior.
“Who are you?” A friend had asked.
I laughed, thinking it was a joke.
“What are you going on about? I’m Alasdair.”
“Yes, but who are you?”
“This is you,” my mother once said to me, as she pointed to an image of my grandfather. “This is you,” emphatic, no questions asked. “And this house is you. It was made from your blood, from your bone.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I’d replied. “I don’t think any of that is me at all.”
The doctor called me on a Sunday morning in February, three years after I’d left the island. I sat at my window, stained from my fingerprints and foggy with my breath. He spoke as I studied the street below, dirtied from the driven snow.
“I’m sorry to say that your mother has passed away, Alasdair. She died of a heart attack. It was sudden. I’m confident she felt no pain.”
A silence before the breath.
“Can a person know that? Whether someone felt pain?”
“A person can know what he’s told. She’s not in pain now anyway. You should come back as soon as you can.”
So I travelled back to that place I’d not called home for some time. “Scatter me over the sea, Alasdair,” she’d written in her will. “I want to float in death, not be buried in it. Feel no sadness. You’ve always been a good boy. My boy.”
My orphan hands screamed as I tossed those ashes across the sharp waters, and I knew then that I had joined the flock of men who gained wisdom far too late.
“Do you see it now?” She asked me in my dreams. “Can you see?”
Cape Breton. Poignant, heartless, painful, Cape Breton. Soiled, timeless, devastating Cape Breton. I am a pilgrim to your shores.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Mairi. I was born here, in this house. When I was nineteen I met a man named Donald, a fisherman. He had ropey shoulders and eyes so dark they were almost black. We were married as soon as we could; the priest blessed us with holy water and the sign of the cross. Donald had forgotten the rings, and we laughed afterward that he’d only had one job but didn’t follow through because he couldn’t cope for his nerves. It poured rain on our wedding day, a sign of good luck; and I think we were lucky, too, because you were conceived that night. But Donald died so soon, taken by a sea he loved and mourned by a woman who loved him more. I always had you though.”
“Did you wonder who I’d become? Did it scare you?”
“No, I was never scared. You had a mind on you just like your father. The difference between you and me was that I liked who I was. I knew my land and my people. You were always searching. Like your father out on the sea every day, looking for a bigger, better catch than before. We are driven by primal needs and tricked into thinking otherwise.”
“Who was he?”
“Look at yourself in the mirror, and you’ll see him. You both felt things so deeply but never could find the words to make sense of it all.”
“I’ve always missed him though I never knew him”
“Of course you did, Alasdair. Of course. Why do you think you ever moved away?”
We would converse like this, the two of us, a third shadow lurking but never appearing, shape shifting with our recollections.
“Who am I?” I asked always. “Who am I?”
I am Alasdair, without wife and without children. I have money in the bank but no need for it. I am a city dweller and a third generation Scot who speaks Gaelic with a Canadian accent, who can recall the briny scent of the sea even in the most putrid subway station, who knows this home—this island—with regret and with sadness.
“Were you lonely when I’d gone?”
“A child can never truly leave their mother.”
What is the past if not the palimpsest of our present and future? What of a discarded loyalty, now rekindled, to something that is now dead and gone? No matter how tenuous the thread that binds us to our parents, it is a thread that clings unrelentingly. I was a sad, breathing, living, contradiction who self-flagellated and self-medicated with concocted conversations. Such guilt.
“I am without family.”
“I am always here.”
“My house is in Toronto. It is narrow and threadbare. I had a cat once.”
“You are old now, Alasdair.”
“I have come home. I don’t think I will be leaving.”
“You have come home.”
“I never really left.”
“I know, Alasdair. I know. I’ve always known. Rest here with me.”