Short Stories

47 William Dempsey Valgardson (1939–)

William Dempsey Valgardson


William Dempsey Valgardson (b. 1939) is an Icelandic-Canadian fiction writer and poet. He was a long-time professor of writing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Valgardson was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, of Icelandic descent, and raised in Gimli, Manitoba. He completed his B.A. at United College, B.Ed. at the University of Manitoba, and his M.F.A. at the University of Iowa.

His writing often focuses on cultural differences and involves irony and symbolism. His short stories involve normal people in normal situations who, under certain circumstances, lead unusual and surprising lives.

Valgardson has won numerous awards and accolades, including the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for The Girl With the Botticelli Face (1992) and the Books in Canada First Novel Award for Gentle Sinners (1980). His short story “Bloodflowers” was included in Best American Short Stories 1971. His most recent novel is In Valhalla’s Shadows (2018), a gothic crime novel.


Published in 1971

Danny Thorson saw Mrs. Poorwilly before he stepped off the freight boat onto Black Island. He couldn’t have missed her. She was fat and had thick, heavy arms and legs. She stood at the front of the crowd with her hands on her hips.

“You the new teacher?” Mrs. Poorwilly said.

“Yes, I’m-‑”

Mrs. Poorwilly cut him off by waving her arm at him and saying, “Put your things on the wheelbarrow. Mr. Poorwilly will take them up to the house. Board and room is $50 a month. We’re the only ones that give it. That’s Mr. Poorwilly.”

Mrs. Poorwilly waved her hand again, indicating a small man who was standing behind an orange wheelbarrow. He had a round, red face, and his hair was so thin and blond that from ten feet away he looked bald.

Danny piled his suitcases and boxes onto the wheelbarrow. He was tired and sore from the trip to the island. The bunk had been too short. The weather had been bad. For the first three days of the trip, he hadn’t been able to hold anything down ex­cept coffee.

When the wheelbarrow was full, Mr. Poorwilly took his hands out of his pockets. They were twisted into two rigid pink hooks. He slipped them through two metal loops that had been nailed to the handles of the wheelbarrow, then lifted the barrow on his wrists.

At the top of the first rise, Mr. Poorwilly stopped. As if to reassure Danny, he said, “Mrs. Poorwilly’s a good cook. We’ve got fresh eggs all winter, too.”

Danny glanced back. Mrs. Poorwilly was swinging cases of tinned goods onto the dock. Her grey hair blew wildly about her face.

They started off again. As there were no paths on the bare granite, Danny followed Mr. Poorwilly. They walked along a ridge, dropped into a hollow. The slope they had to climb was steep, so Danny bent down, caught the front of the wheel­barrow and pulled as Mr. Poorwilly pushed. They had just reached the top when they met an elderly, wasted man who was leaning heavily on the shoulder of a young girl as he shuffled along.

Danny was so surprised by the incongruity of the pair that he stared. The girl’s black hair fell to her shoulders, making a frame for her face. She looked tired, but her face was tanned and her mouth was a warm red. Her cheeks were pink from the wind. She stopped when she saw Danny.

The man with her made no attempt to greet them. His breath came in ragged gasps. His dark yellow skin was pulled so tightly over his face that the bone seemed to be pushing through. His eyes protruded and the whites had turned yellow. He gave the girl’s shoulder a tug. They started up again.

When they had passed, Danny said, “Who was that? The girl is beautiful.”

“Sick Jack and his daughter. It’s his liver. Mrs. Poorwilly helps Adel look after him. She says he won’t see the spring. He’ll be the second. How are you feeling after the trip? You look green.”

“I feel green. It was nine days in hell. The boat never quit rolling.”

“Good thing you’re not going back with them, then.” Mr. Poorwilly twisted his head toward the dock to indicate who he meant. “Sunrise was red this morning. There’ll be a storm be­fore dawn tomorrow.”

Mr. Poorwilly slipped his hands back into the metal loops. “Sorry to be so slow, but the arthritis causes me trouble. Used to be able to use my hands but not anymore. It’s a good thing I’ve got a pension from the war. Getting shot was the best thing has ever happened to me.”

Danny noticed a small, red flower growing from a crack in the rock. When he bent down to get a better look, he saw that the crack was filled with brown stems. He picked the flower and held it up. “What is it?”

“Bloodflower,” Mr. Poorwilly replied. “Only thing that grows on the island except lichen. Shouldn’t pick it. They say it brings bad luck. If you cut your finger or make your nose bleed, it’ll be OK.”

Danny laughed. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

“Mrs. Poorwilly says it. She knows quite a bit about these things.”

When they reached the house, Danny unloaded his belong­ings and put them into his bedroom. Mr. Poorwilly left him and went back to the dock for the supplies Mrs. Poorwilly had been unloading.

While the Poorwillys spent the day sorting and putting away their winter’s supplies, Danny walked around the island. What Mr. Poorwilly said was true. Nothing grew on the island ex­cept lichen and bloodflowers. Despite the cold, patches of red tilled the cracks that were sheltered from the wind.

The granite of the island had been weathered smooth, but there was nowhere it was truly flat. Three‑quarters of the island’s shoreline fell steeply into the sea. Only in scattered places did the shoreline slope gently enough to let Danny walk down to the water. To the west the thin blue line of the coast of Labrador was just barely visible. Two fishing boats were bobbing on the ocean. There were no birds except for some large grey gulls that rose as he approached and hovered in the air until he was well past them. He would have liked to have them come down beside him so he could have touched them, but they rose on the updrafts. He reached toward them and shouted for them to come down, then laughed at himself and continued his exploring.

Except for the houses and the fish sheds, the only other build­ings were the school and the chicken roost behind the Poor­willys. All the buildings were made from wood siding. Because of the rock, there were no basements. Rock foundations had been put down so the floors would be level.

Most of the houses showed little more than traces of paint. The Poorwillys’ and Mary Johnson’s were the only ones that had been painted recently. Danny knew the other house be­longed to Mary Johnson because it had a sign with her name on it. Below her name it said, “General store. Post office. Two-­way radio.”

Danny explored until it started to get dark, then went back to the Poorwillys.

“Heard you’ve been looking around,” Mrs. Poorwilly said. “If you hadn’t come back in another five minutes, I would have sent Mr. Poorwilly to bring you back.”

“There’s no danger of getting lost.” Danny was amused at her concern.

“No,” Mrs. Poorwilly agreed, “but you wouldn’t want to slip and fall in the dark. You’re not in a city now with a doctor down the street. You break a leg or crack your skull and you might have to wait two, three weeks for the weather to clear enough for a plane to come. You don’t want to be one of the three.”

Danny felt chastised, but Mrs. Poorwilly dropped the sub­ject. She and Mr. Poorwilly spent all during supper asking him about the mainland. As they talked, Mrs. Poorwilly fed her husband from her plate. He sat with his hands in his lap. There were no directions given or taken about the feeding. Both Mr. and Mrs. Poorwilly were anxious to hear everything he had to tell them about the mainland.

When he got a chance, Danny said, “What’d you mean `one of the three’?”

“Trouble always comes in threes. Maybe you didn’t notice it on the mainland because things are so complicated. On the island you can see it because it’s small and you know every­body. There’s just 35 houses. Somebody gets hurt, everybody knows about it. They can keep track. Three, six, nine, but it never ends unless it’s on something made up of threes.”

“You’ll see before the winter is out. Last month the radio said Emily died in the sanatorium. TB. Now Sick Jack’s been failing badly. He’s got to be a hard yellow and he’s lost all his flesh. He dies, then there’ll be one more thing to end it. After that, everything will be OK.”

Mrs. Poorwilly made her pronouncement with all the as­suredness of an oracle. Danny started on his dessert.

“Mr. Poorwilly says you think Adel’s a nice bit of fluff.”

Danny had started thinking about the book on mythology he’d been reading at summer school. The statement caught him off guard. He had to collect his thoughts, then he said, “The girl with the long dark hair? I only caught a glimpse of her, but she seemed to be very pretty.”

“When her father goes, she’ll be on her own,” Mr. Poorwilly said. “She’s a good girl. She works hard.”

“Does she have any education?”

“Wives with too much education can cause a lot of trouble,” Mrs. Poorwilly said. “They’re never satisfied. The young fellows around here and on the coast have enough trouble with­out that.”

Danny tried not to show his embarrassment. “I was think­ing in terms of her getting a job on the mainland. If her spelling is good and she learned to type, she could get a government job.”

“Might be that she’ll go right after her father. No use making plans until we see what the winter brings.” Mr. Poorwilly turned to his wife for confirmation. “It’s happened before.”

Mrs. Poorwilly nodded as she scraped the last of the pudding from the dish and fed it to her husband.

“What you want is what those people had that I was reading about. They used to ward off evil by choosing a villager to be king for a year. Then so the bad luck of the old year would be done with, they killed him in the spring.”

“They weren’t Christians,” Mr. Poorwilly said.

“No,” Danny replied. “They gave their king anything he wanted. A woman, food, gifts, everything, since it was only for a year. Then when the first flowers bloomed, they killed him.”

“Must have been them Chinese,” Mr. Poorwilly said.

“No. Europeans. But it was a long time ago.”

“Have you ever ridden on a train?” Mrs. Poorwilly asked. “Mr. Poorwilly and I rode on a train for our honeymoon. I remember it just like yesterday.”

Mr. and Mrs. Poorwilly told him about their train ride until it was time to go to bed. After Danny was in bed, Mr. Poorwilly stuck his head through the curtain that covered the doorway. In a low voice, he said, “Don’t go shouting at the sea gulls when you’re out walking. Most of the people here haven’t been anywhere and they’ll think you’re sort of funny.”

“OK,” Danny said. Mr. Poorwilly’s head disappeared.

The next day Mrs. Poorwilly had everyone in the village over to meet Danny. As fast as Danny met the women and children, he forgot their names. The men were still away fish­ing or working on the mainland. Mr. Poorwilly and Danny were the only men until Adel brought Sick Jack.

Sick Jack looked even thinner than he had the day before. The yellow of his skin seemed to have deepened. As soon as he had shaken Danny’s hand, he sat down. After a few minutes,  he fell into a doze and his daughter covered him with a blanket she had brought.

Mrs. Poorwilly waited until Sick Jack was covered, then brought Adel over to see Danny.

“This is Adel. She’ll come for coffee soon, and you can tell her about the trains and the cities. She’s never been off the island.”

Adel blushed and looked at the floor. “Certainly,” Danny said. “I’ve a whole set of slides I’m going to show Mr. and Mrs. Poorwilly. If you wanted, you could come and see them.”

Adel mumbled her thanks and went to the side of the room. She stayed beside her father the rest of the evening, but Danny glanced at her whenever he felt no‑one was looking at him.

She was wearing blue jeans and a heavy blue sweater that had been mended at the elbows and cuffs with green wool. It was too large for her so Danny assumed that it had belonged to her father or one of the other men. From what Mrs. Poorwilly had said, Danny had learned that Adel and her father were given gifts of fish and second‑hand clothing. When the men went fishing, they always ran an extra line for Sick Jack.

In spite of her clothing, Adel was attractive. Her hair was as black as he had remembered it and it hung in loose, natural waves. Her eyes were a dark blue. Underneath the too‑large sweater, her breasts made soft, noticeable mounds.

She left before Danny had a chance to speak to her again, but he didn’t mind as he knew he’d see her during the winter.

For the next two weeks, busy as he was, Danny couldn’t help but notice the change in the village. The men returned at all hours, in all kinds of weather. Mostly they came two and three at a time, but now and again a man would come by him­self, his open boat a lonely black dot on the horizon.

Most of the men brought little news that was cheerful. The fishing had been bad. Many of them were coming home with the absolute minimum of money that would carry them until spring. No‑one said much, but they all knew that winter fish­ing would be necessary to keep some of the families from going hungry. In a good year, the winter fishing provided a change in diet for people sick of canned food. This year the fishing wouldn’t be so casual.

By the end of September the weather had turned bitterly cold. The wind blew for days at a time. The houses rocked in the wind. Danny walked the smallest children to their homes.

The few days the fishermen were able to leave the island, there were no fish. Some of the men tried to fish in spite of the weather, but most of the time they were able to do little more than clear the harbour before having to turn around.

The evening Sick Jack died, Danny had gone to bed early. The banging on the door woke him. Mr. Poorwilly got up and answered the door. Danny heard the muttered talk, then Mr. Poorwilly yelled the news to Mrs. Poorwilly. They both dressed and left right away. Danny would have offered to go with them, but he knew that he would just be in the way so he said nothing.

Mrs. Poorwilly was back for breakfast. As she stirred the porridge, she said. “She’s alone now. We washed him and dressed him and laid him out on his bed. She’s a good girl. She got all his clothes out and would have helped us dress him, but I wouldn’t let her. Mr. Poorwilly is staying with her until some of the women come to sit by the body. If the weather holds, we’ll have the funeral tomorrow.”

“Why not have the funeral while the weather stays good? It could change tomorrow.”

“Respect,” Mrs. Poorwilly said. “But it’s more than that, too. I wouldn’t say it to her, but it helps make sure he’s dead. Once just around when I married, Mrs. Milligan died. She was 70. Maybe older. They rushed because the weather was turn­ing. They were just pushing her over the side when she groaned. The cold did it. She died for good the next week, but since then we like to make sure.”

Danny went to the funeral. The body was laid out on the bed with a shroud pulled to its shoulders. Mary Johnson sang “The Old Rugged Cross.” Mrs. Poorwilly held the Bible so Mr. Poorwilly could read from it. Adel sat on a kitchen chair at the foot of the bed. She was pale and her eyes were red, but she didn’t cry.

When the service was over, one of the fishermen pulled the shroud over Sick Jack’s head and tied it with a string. They lifted the body onto a stretcher they had made from a tarpaulin and a pair of oars. The villagers followed them to the harbour.

They laid the body on the bottom of the boat. Three men got in. As the boat swung through the spray at the harbour’s mouth, Danny saw one of the men bend and tie an anchor to the shrouded figure.

Mrs. Poorwilly had coffee ready for everyone after the ser­vice. Adel sat in the middle of the kitchen. She still had a frozen look about her face, but she was willing to talk.

Sick Jack’s death brought added tension to the village. One day in class while they were reading a story about a robin that had died, Mary Johnson’s littlest boy said, “My mother says somebody else is going to die. Maybe Miss Adel now that her father’s gone.”

Danny had been sharp with him. “Be quiet. This is a Grade Three lesson. You’re not even supposed to be listening. Have you done your alphabet yet?”

His older sister burst out, “That’s what my mother said. She said‑-”

Danny cut her off. “That’s enough. We’re studying liter­ature, not mythology. Things like that are nothing but superstition.”

That night Danny asked about Adel. Mrs. Poorwilly said, “She’s got a settlement coming from the mine where he used to work. It’s not much. Maybe $500 or $600. Everybody’ll help all they can, but she’s going to have to get a man to look after her.”

During November, Danny managed to see Adel twice. The first time, she came for coffee. The second time, she came to see Danny’s slides of the mainland. Danny walked her home the first time. The second time, Mrs. Poorwilly said, “That’s all right, Mr. Thorson. I’ll walk with her. There’s something I want to get from Mary Johnson’s.”

Danny was annoyed. Mrs. Poorwilly had been pushing him in Adel’s direction from the first day he had come. Then, when lie made an effort to be alone with her, she had stepped between them.

Mrs. Poorwilly was back in half an hour with a package of powdered milk.

Danny said, “I would have got that for you, Mrs. Poor­willy.”

“A man shouldn’t squeeze fruit unless he’s planning on buy­ing,” she replied.

Adel walked by the school a number of times when he was there. He got to talk to her, but she was skittish. He wished that she was with him in the city. There, at least, there were dark corners, alley‑ways, parks, even doorsteps. On the

island, you couldn’t do anything without being seen. At Christmas the villagers held a party at the school. Danny showed his slides. Afterwards they all danced while Wee Jimmy played his fiddle. Danny got to dance with Adel a good part of the night.

He knew that Mrs. Poorwilly was displeased and that every­one in the village would talk about his dancing for the rest of the year, but he didn’t care. Adel had her hair tied back with a red ribbon. The curve of her neck was white and smooth. Her blouse clung to her breasts and was cut low enough for him to see where the soft curves began. Each time he danced with one of the other women, Danny found himself turning to see what Adel was doing. When the party was over, he walked Adel home and kissed her goodnight. He wanted her to stay with him in the doorway, but she pulled away and went inside.

Two days before New Year’s, Mrs. Poorwilly’s prediction came true. The fishing had remained poor, but Michael Fair­weather had gone fishing in a heavy sea because he was one of those who had come back with little money. Two hundred yards from the island his boat capsized.

Danny had gone to school on the pretext of doing some work, but what he wanted was some privacy. He had been sit­ting at the window staring out to sea when the accident hap­pened. He had seen the squall coming up. A violent wind whipped across the waves and behind it a white, ragged line on the water raced toward the island. Michael Fairweather was only able to turn his boat halfway round before the wind and sleet struck.

Danny saw the boat rise to the crest of a wave, then dis­appear, and Michael was hanging onto the keel. Danny bolted from the room, but by the time he reached the dock, Michael lead disappeared.

The squall had disappeared as quickly as it had come. Within Half an hour the sea was back to its normal rolling. The fisher­men rowed out of the harbour and dropped metal bars lined with hooks. While one man rowed, another held the line at the back of the boat. As Danny watched, the boats crossed back and forth until it was nearly dark.

They came in without the body. Danny couldn’t sleep that night. In the morning, when a group of men came to the Poor­willys, Danny answered the door before Mr. Poorwilly had time to get out of his bedroom. The men had come for the loan of the Poorwillys’ rooster.

Mrs. Poorwilly nestled the rooster in her jacket on the way to the dock, then tied it to Mr. Poorwilly’s wrist with a leather thong. Mr. Poorwilly stepped into the front of the skiff. The rooster hopped onto the bow. With that the other men climbed into their boats and followed Mr. Poorwilly and the rooster out of the harbour.

“What are they doing?” Danny asked.

Mrs. Poorwilly kept her eyes on the lead boat, but she said, “When they cross the body, the rooster will crow.”

Danny turned and stared at the line of boats. In spite of the wind, the sun was warm. The rooster’s feathers gleamed in the sun. Mr. Poorwilly stood as still as a wooden figurehead. The dark green and grey boats rose and fell on the waves. Except for the hissing of the foam, there was no sound.

Danny looked away and searched the crowd for Adel. He had looked for a third time, when Mrs. Poorwilly, without turning, said, “She won’t come for fear the current will have brought her father close to shore. They might bring him up.”

All morning and into the afternoon the boats crossed and re-­crossed the area in front of the harbour in a ragged line. No­one left the dock. The women with small babies didn’t come down from their houses, but Danny could see them in their doorways.

As the day wore on, Danny became caught up in the crossing and re-crossing of the boats. None of the men dragged their hooks. The only time the men in the rear of the boats moved was to change positions with the men at the oars.

When the cock crew, the sound caught Danny by surprise. The constant, unchanging motion and the hissing of the spray had drawn him into a quiet trance. It had been as if the boats and he had been there forever.

The sound was so sharp that some of the women cried out. The men with the iron bars covered with hooks threw them into the sea, and shoved the coils of rope after them. They didn’t want to pass the spot where the cock crew until the hooks were on the bottom. The bars disappeared with little spurts of white foam. Danny could hear the rope rubbing against the side of the boat as it was pulled hand over hand.

“It’s him,” Mrs. Poorwilly said. “God have mercy, they’ve got him.”

Danny turned back. It was true. Instead of a white shroud, the men were pulling a black bundle into the boat.

The funeral was bad. Marj Fairweather cried constantly and tried to keep the men from taking the body. As they started to leave, she ran to the dresser for a heavy sweater, then sat in the middle of the floor, crying and saying, “He’ll be so cold. He’ll be so cold.”

In spite of Marj, the tension in the community eased after the funeral was over. People began to visit more often, and when they came they talked more and stayed longer.

Adel came frequently to the Poorwillys. When she came, she talked to the Poorwillys, but she watched Danny. She wasn’t open about it, but when Danny looked at her, she let her eyes linger on him for a second before turning away. She had her colour back and looked even better than before. Most of the time, Danny managed to walk her home. Kissing her was not satisfactory because of the cold and the bulky clothes between them, but she would not invite him in and there was no privacy at the Poorwillys. In spite of the walks and goodnight kisses, she remained shy when anyone else was around.

The villagers had expected the weather and the fishing to improve. If anything, the weather became worse. Ice coated the boats. The wind blew night and day. Often, it only stopped in the hour before dawn.

Then, without warning, Marj Fairweather sent her children to the Poorwillys, emptied a gas lamp on herself and the kitchen floor, and lit a match.

This time there was no funeral. The entire village moved in a state of shock. While one of the sheds was fixed up for the children, Marj’s remains were hurried to sea and dumped in the same area as her husband’s.

The village drew into itself. The villagers stayed in their own houses. When they came to the door, they only stayed long enough to finish their business. The men quit going to the dock. Most of them pulled their boats onto the island and turned them over.

A week after the fire, Danny arrived to find his room stripped of his belongings. Mrs. Poorwilly waited until he had come into the kitchen. “Mr. Poorwilly and I decided to take two of the Fairweather children. We’ll take the two youngest. A fourteen-­year‑old can’t take care of six kids.”

Danny was too stunned to say anything. Mrs. Poorwilly continued. “Some of us talked about it. We hope you don’t mind, but there’s nothing else to do. Besides, there’s going to be no money from the mine. Adel needs your board and room worse than we do. We’ll keep the Fairweather children for nothing.”

When Danny didn’t reply, Mrs. Poorwilly added, “We got help moving your things. We gave Adel the rest of this month’s money.”

Danny hesitated for a moment, but there was nothing to say. He went outside.

He knocked at Adel’s door. She let him in. “Mrs. Poorwilly says you’re to stay with me now.”

“Yes, she told me,” Danny said.

Adel showed him to his bedroom. All his clothes had been hung up and his books had been neatly piled in one corner. He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to decide what to do. He finally decided he couldn’t sit in the bedroom for the next five months and went back into the kitchen.

The supper was good, but Danny was too interested in Adel to pay much attention. In the light from the oil lamp, her eyes looked darker than ever. She was wearing a sweater with a V-­neck. He could see the soft hollow of her throat and the smooth skin below her breastbone. Throughout supper he told her about the mainland and tried to keep his eyes above her neck.

The next morning when he went to school, he expected to see a difference in the children’s attitudes. Twice he turned around quickly. Each time the children had all been busy writing in their notebooks. There was no smirking or winking behind their hands. At noon, he said, “In case any of you need to ask me something, there’s no use your going to the Poor­willys. I’m staying at Miss Adel’s now.”

The children solemnly nodded their heads. He dismissed them and went home for lunch.

Adel was at home. She blushed and said, “The women at the sheds said I should come home early now that I’ve got you to look after. Since the men aren’t fishing there isn’t much to do.”

“That’s very good of them,” Danny replied.

Danny and Adel were left completely alone. He had expected that some of the villagers would drop by, but no‑one came to visit. Danny and Adel settled into a routine that was disturbed only by Danny’s irritation at being close to Adel. Adel shied away from him when he brushed against her. At the end of the second week, she accepted his offer to help with the dishes. They stood side by side as they worked. Danny was so distracted by Adel’s warmth and the constant move­ment of her body that the dishes were only half dried.

Danny put his hand on Adel’s shoulder and turned her to­ward him. She let him pull her close. There was no place to sit or lie in the kitchen so he picked her up and carried her to the bedroom. She didn’t resist when he undressed her. After he made love to her, he fell asleep. When he woke up, Adel had gone to her own bed.

Danny took Adel to bed with him every evening after that, but during the night she always slipped away to her own bed­room. At the beginning of the next week, they had their first visitor. Mrs. Poorwilly stopped by to see how they were doing. They had been eating supper when she arrived. Normally, they would have been finished eating, but Adel had been late in coming from the fish sheds. The weather had improved enough for the men to go fishing. Mrs. Poorwilly accepted a cup of coffee and sat and talked to them for an hour.

It was as if her coming had been a signal. After that, villagers dropped by in the evenings to talk for a little while. They nearly always brought something with them and left it on the table. Danny had wanted to protest, but he didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t embarrass their visitors so he said nothing.

Adel stopped going back to her own bed. Danny thought about getting married but dismissed the idea. He was com­fortable with things the way they were.

The day Danny started to get sick he should have known something was wrong. He had yelled at the children for no particular reason. When Adel had come home, he had been grouchy with her. The next day his throat had been sore, but he had ignored it. By the end of the day, he was running a tem­perature and his knees felt like water.

Adel had been worried, but he told her not to call Mrs. Poorwilly. Their things had become so mixed together that it was  obvious they were using the same bedroom.

For the next few days he was too sick to protest about anything. Mrs. Poorwilly came frequently to take his temperature and to see that Adel kept forcing whisky and warm broth into him. All during his sickness Danny was convinced that he was going to die. During one afternoon he was sure that he was dead and that the sheets were a shroud.

The crisis passed and he started to cough up phlegm, but he was so weak that it was an effort for him to lift his head. The day he was strong enough to sit up and eat in the kitchen, Mrs. Poorwilly brought him a package of hand‑rolled cigarettes.

“Nearly everyone is coming to see you tomorrow. They’ll all bring something in the way of a present. It’s a custom. Don’t say they shouldn’t or they’ll think you feel their presents aren’t good enough.”

Danny said that he understood.

The school children came first with hand‑carved pieces of driftwood. He admired the generally shapeless carvings, and after the first abortive attempt carefully avoided guessing at what they were supposed to be.

After the children left, the McFarlans came. Mr. McFarlan had made a shadow box from shingle. He had scraped the shingle with broken glass until the grain stood out. Inside the box he had made a floor of lichen and pebbles. Seagulls made from clam shells sat on the lichen.

His wife stretched a piece of black cloth over the end of a fish box. On it she had glued boiled fish bones to form a picture of a boat and man.

Someone brought a tin of pears, another brought a chocolate bar. One of the men brought half a bottle of whisky.

Each visitor stayed just long enough to inquire how Danny felt, wish him well and leave a present on the table. When the last visitor had gone, Danny was exhausted. Adel helped him to bed.

He felt much better by the end of the week, but when he tried to return to work, Mrs. Poorwilly said, “Mary Johnson’s doing a fine job. Not as good as you, of course, but the kids aren’t suffering. If you rush back before you’re ready, every­body will take it that you think she’s doing a poor job. If you get sick again, she won’t take over.”

Adel returned to work at the sheds, but the women sent her home. The weather had held and there was lots of fish, but they said she should be at home looking after Danny.

At first it was ideal. They had little to do except sit and talk or make love. Danny caught up on his reading. They both were happy, but by the end of March their confinement had made them both restless.

To get out of the house, Danny walked to Mrs. Poorwilly’s. While they were having coffee, Danny said, “I guess everyone must have got the flu.”

“No,” Mrs. Poorwilly replied, “just some colds among the children. Adel and you making out all right?”

“Yes,” Danny said.

“Her mother was a beauty, you know. I hope you didn’t mind moving, but these things happen.”

“No, I didn’t mind moving.”

They sat for five minutes before Danny said, “Could I ask you something? I wouldn’t want anyone else to know.”

Mrs. Poorwilly nodded her assent.

“Mary Johnson is doing such a good job that I thought I might ask her to radio for a plane. Maybe it would be a good idea for me to take Adel to the mainland for a week.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Yes. If she wants, I’ll marry her.”

“Haven’t you asked her?”

Danny shook his head. It had never occurred to him that she might say no.

“Wait until you ask her. The superintendent will want a reason. You’ll have to tell him over the radio and everyone will know. You wouldn’t want to tell him and then have her turn you down.”

Adel was standing at the window when he returned. He put his arms around her. “You know, I think we should get married.”

Adel didn’t answer.

“Don’t you want to marry me?” he asked.

“Yes. I do. But I’ve never been off the island. You won’t want to stay here always.”

“We can stay for a couple of years. We’ll go a little at a time. We can start with a week on the mainland for a honeymoon. We’ll go somewhere on a train.”

That evening he went to Mary Johnson’s. Mary tried to raise the mainland operator, but the static was so bad that no contact could be made. Danny kept Mary at the radio for half an hour. He left when she promised to send one of the children with a message if the radio cleared.

Danny returned the next night, but the static was just as bad. Mary promised to send for him as soon as the call went through.

A week went by. The weather continued to improve. Danny checked the thermometer. The temperature was going up a degree every two days.

At the end of the week he returned to Mary’s. The radio wasn’t working at all. One of the tubes needed to be replaced. He left. Halfway home he decided to go back and leave a message for the plane. The radio might work just long enough for a message, but not long enough for him to be called to the set. When he came up to the house, he was sure that he heard the radio. He banged on the front door. Mary took her time coining. When she opened the door, he said, “I heard the radio. Can you send a message right away?”

Mary replied that he must have just heard the children talk­ing.

Danny insisted on her trying to make the call. She was an­noyed, but she tried to get through. When she had tried for five minutes, Danny excused himself and left.

He walked part‑way home, then turned and crept back over the rock.

The windows were dark. He lay in the hollow of rock be­hind the house until the cold forced him to leave.

In the morning, he went to the dock to talk to the fishermen. He offered to pay any one of them triple the normal fare to take him down the coast. They laughed and said they would bring him some fresh fish for supper.

When he had continued insisting that he wanted to leave, they said that a trip at this time of year was impossible. Even planes found it difficult to land along the coast. A boat could be crushed in the pack ice that was shifting up and down the shore.

Danny told Adel about the radio and the boats. She sym­pathized with him, but agreed with the men that it was hope­less to try and make the trip in an open boat.

“Besides,” she said, “the freight boats will be coming in a month or so.”

True to their word, the fishermen sent a fresh fish. Danny tried to pay the boy who brought it, but he said that he had been told not to accept anything. Danny had put the money into the boy’s hand. The boy had gone, but a few minutes later he returned and put the money in front of the door.

Late that afternoon, Danny walked to the dock. After look­ing around to see that no‑one was watching, he bent down and looked at the rope that held one of the boats. He untied it, then tied it again.

He returned to the house and started gathering his heavy clothing. When Adel came into the room, she said, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Is the plane coming?”

“I’m taking myself. I’ve had enough. I’m not allowed to work. You’re not allowed to work. Everyone showers us with things they won’t let us pay for. I try to use the radio, but it never works. He turned to face here. “It always worked be­fore.

“Sometimes it hasn’t worked for weeks,” Adel replied. “Once it was six weeks. It’s the change in temperature.”

“But it works. The other night I heard it working. Then when I asked Mary Johnson to call, she said it was just the children talking.”

“Mary told me,” Adel said. “You made her very upset. She thinks you’re still not feeling well.”

“I’m feeling fine. Just fine. And I’m leaving. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m getting out. I’m going to get a plane and then I’m coming back for you.”

“You said we could leave a little at a time.”

“That was before this happened. What if something goes wrong? Three people have died. One of them died right before my eyes and I couldn’t do anything about it. What if we needed a doctor? Or a policeman? What if someone took some crazy notion into his head?”

Danny took Sick Jack’s nor’westers off a peg. He laid out the clothes he wanted and packed two boxes with food. He lay awake until three o’clock, then slipped outside and down to the boats.

The boats were in their usual places. He reached for the rope of the first boat. His hand closed on a heavy chain. Danny couldn’t believe it. He jumped onto the boat and ran his hand around the chain. He climbed out and ran from boat to boat. Every boat was the same. He tried to break the chains loose. When they wouldn’t break, he sat on the dock and beat his hands on the chains. When he had exhausted himself, he sat with his face pressed into his hands.

In the morning, Mary sent one of the boys to tell Danny that the radio had worked long enough for her to send a message. It hadn’t been confirmed, but she thought it might have been heard. For the rest of the day, Danny was elated, but as the days passed and the plane did not appear, he became more and more depressed. Adel kept saying that the plane would come, but Danny doubted if it would ever come.

The weather became quite mild. Danny walked to the dock every day. The chains were still on the boats. He had spent an hour on the dock staring at the thin blue line that was the main­land and was walking back to Adel’s when he noticed that the snow had melted away from some of the cracks in the granite. The cracks were crammed with closely packed leaves.

He paused to pick a leaf. April the first, he thought, April the first will come and we’ll be able to go. Then, as he stared at the small green leaf in his hand, he realized that he was wrong. It was weeks later that the first freight boat came.

The rest of the day he tried to make plans for Adel and him­self, but he could not concentrate. The image of thousands and thousands of bloodflowers kept spilling into his mind.

Granite Point

Published 1983

The salt and pepper shakers were not quite aligned so Mathew grasped the salt shaker between his thumb and index finger, pushed it forward, then edged it back a fraction of an inch. “Pass the cream, please,” he said.

Ellen reached the pitcher across to him. It was not real cream that he trickled over his oatmeal, but sweetened, con­densed milk thinned with water. It was the twenty‑eighth of May and they hadn’t had fresh milk or cream since they had arrived at Granite Point the previous August.

They had dropped all pretence and Ellen never spoke unless Mathew asked her a direct question. Except for the small, sharp sounds of their spoons touching their bowls, they ate their meal in silence. Ellen would have preferred to eat when Mathew was gone but he insisted that they take their meals together so she ate mechanically, either looking at her food or studying the space just to the left or right of his head but never meeting his eyes. His eyes were small and grey and were the kind that never looked at things but peered into them as if to ferret out their smallest secrets.

Mathew was tall and angularly handsome, with black hair, a thin black moustache and an ability to look impec­cable even in overalls and a red checkered shirt. Anyone seeing him for the first time with his straight posture and finely boned, patrician face would have assumed he was a young diplomat or, at least, an officer in the RAF rather than a Hudson Bay agent. Today, because it was Sunday, the store wasn’t open and he was going to start building a new ice‑house. The old one had been allowed to deteriorate until it would no longer keep ice over the summer. Rather than pay the Indians to help him cut and limb trees for beams, he was going to do it himself.

Ellen watched him stride to the nearby tractor and fill the gas tank from one of the red 45‑gallon drums that stood in neat rows, the empty ones to the left, the full ones to the right. Only four full ones remained. Beside them, methodi­cally arranged in ranks, were the black drums of fuel oil.

The tractor started with a series of jarring explosions that quickly ran together into a grating rhythm. Mathew jolted away and was suddenly enveloped by the dark wall of forest. The company had allotted him $3000 for a new ice‑house but by building most of it himself after work and on week­ends, he intended to keep the cost below half his budget. It was the type of zealousness he hoped would bring a promo­tion to a larger centre like Snow Lake or Flin Flon where there were roads and streetlights and fresh food all year around.

Ellen slowly cleared the table. From the window over the sink, she could see the charred outline of Kloski’s house. There were the ragged edges of walls, the floor of charcoal and ashes, the buckled and rusting oil heater, the stove with one leg broken so that it leaned steeply to one corner, the brown, twisted frames of the couch and bed. She had hoped someone would clear the rubble and carry it to the dump behind the trees but no‑one had and she knew that no‑one would. Gradually, the burning nettle and purple fireweed would engulf it, and, later, perhaps, a thick tangle of rasp­berry canes would spring up.

For weeks after the fire she had washed the dishes in an enamel pan on the other side of the room so as to avoid look­ing at the black rectangle in the snow. There had only been a slight wind the night Kloski had splashed fuel into the stove to get the green wood started but the fire had spread so rapidly they had been unable to do anything but let it burn itself out.

There had been water, a whole lake full of it, but it was locked under four feet of ice. Even if they had chopped a hole, the water would have had to be dipped out with buck­ets. Conditioned to accept the inevitable, nearly the entire village stood in a semi‑circle on the side of the house away from the wind. They might, except for their stillness, have been revellers around the bonfire at a winter carnival.

Not that it really mattered, the mountie who flew in to investigate had said, for Kloski was probably dead within a minute or two after the explosion. The mountie had been brisk, even impatient. He wrote his report from interviews with Mathew and Chief Albert, wrapped up the remains and rushed away before the weather closed in. Later, chil­dren playing in the debris had found melted Coke bottles. Ellen had seen them marvel as they traced the awkward shapes of slag with their fingers.

Now, the snow was gone in the open space, lingering only in the deep shade. In England it would be green but, here, everything was still yellow and grey and brown. The morning before, someone had left her a handful of willow with silver catkins just breaking their glossy casing, but, afraid of the questions Mathew would ask, she had thrown them all away except for one that she had carefully hidden beneath her side of the mattress. Ellen washed the bright blue bowls and began to scrub the sticky layer of oatmeal from the pot.

In a community as small as Granite Point, and with Kloski living next door, she had seen him several times a day but, already, without a picture of him to act as a remind­er, his image was softening and fading.

When they first arrived, she was disappointed with the Indians. She had hoped they would be bright and colourful. Instead, the men and women, in their rumpled jackets and pants and ankle‑length dresses, were as formless and drab as last year’s leaves swept into a corner by a cold, spring rain. Behind them, the piece of granite that gave the settlement its name, thrust sharply into the lake like the prow of some massive battleship.

Behind the bare, exposed point, where they were protect­ed by a wall of tamarack from the wind that swept down from the Arctic, was a scattering of houses. There was no break in the tree‑line. It ringed the town, solid and heavy as a wall of carved slate. The sky was white and empty.

Mathew was still in the Otter, reaching out luggage. He skidded a suitcase along, accidentally striking the back of her leg. Startled, she had made a sudden movement forward, caught her toe on the rough boards and would have fallen if Kloski hadn’t caught her.

“Careful,” he said, his hand on her arm. “No fair getting killed before you are here a week.”

He was not handsome. His face was too full and his com­plexion too pink. He was about 25 but his long, blond hair, his pink skin and his full, drooping moustache speckled with red hair, instead of making him look older, merely made him look like a little boy masquerading as a grownup. He was big and broad and just enough overweight that another ten pounds would have made him fat.

As Mathew stepped onto the dock, Kloski released her. They introduced themselves, then Kloski picked up a suit­case in each hand.

“Follow me. I’ll show you to your place. Never mind that, Mrs. McDougal,” he said when she went to lift a box. “I’ll have all your belongings brought up. Everything that ar­rived on the boat is at your house.”

He preceded them down the dock with his odd toe‑out walk that made her think a little of a pregnant woman. The wall of Indians parted before him as if by magic. Without slowing down, he threw out directions in Cree.

“I asked them to bring your belongings,” he explained. “See, over there? We’re way over to the north side. There’s my house, then your house, then your store.”

All around them, like blocks dropped at random, were small, one‑storey houses. Some were clapboard shacks, others were layered with tarpaper and a few were made from logs and chinked with mud. Kloski’s house and their two buildings were neat, white frame structures that looked like they should have been sitting in a suburb.

“You’re certain that our belongings will be safe?” Math­ew asked, looking over his shoulder.

Kloski studied him a moment, then in a measured voice, said, “I’ve been here over two years and I’ve never locked my door.”

“Well, I’ll lock mine,” Mathew replied.

They were speaking in undertones for the crowd was breaking up, some going onto the dock to ask news of the pilot, others starting to follow them back to the village. There were more huskies than people and they swirled through the crowd, evil tempered and aggressive, snarling and snapping as the larger dogs drove the smaller ones out of their way. Suddenly, with a cry of rage, a short, stocky brown dog turned on a gaunt grey with a scarred face.

Like a flock of frightened sparrows, the crowd scattered, leaving a cleared space into which the other dogs rushed to form a solid, seething mass that ebbed and flowed with the combatants. The two dogs lunged and rolled over so furi­ously that it was difficult to see what was happening.

“Oh, stop them!” Ellen exclaimed and impulsively started forward.

Kloski dropped a suitcase and roughly dragged her back.

“Leave them be,” he ordered.

“Just who do you think you’re manhandling?” Mathew demanded, his voice indignant.

Kloski ignored Mathew and pulled Ellen onto a porch so they would be out of the way and Mathew, his face rigid with outrage, followed. Kloski rescued the dropped suitcase.

“Once a fight begins, one or the other has to win. There’s no place else to go and if you stop it now, they’ll just finish it later. That grey’s been bullying the other dog all summer. If he’s going to be free of him, he’s got to do it himself.”

Below them, the crowd had formed a circle outside the pack and, as the dogs flowed first one way, then another,advanced and retreated with them. The crowd and the dogs who were fighting were silent but the air was filled with the excited yipping of the pack.

After a flurry of attacks, both dogs pulled away and cir­cled each other warily, their sides heaving. Their muzzles were smeared with saliva and blood. They crouched low to the ground, their legs bent; then, at the same instant, they lunged forward. The grey caught his opponent’s shoulder but his teeth slipped as the brown twisted to one side and caught the grey’s leg close to the body. With a vicious jerk, the brown dog knocked his enemy down and crushed his leg.

From the grey, there was a scream of terror that rose to a keening wail. Spontaneously, the pack surged forward and tore him to pieces even as he tried to pull himself free. The brown dog leaped straight into the air, turning half around, then scrambled to safety over the backs of the pack. Within minutes it was all over. The dogs barked madly and milled about before stones and sticks dispersed them. The grey dog’s mutilated head was carried off by a member of the pack and all that was left were pieces of fur.

“They’re half‑starved,” Kloski explained emotionlessly. “All they get to eat is what they find or kill or steal. If you had got in there and been knocked off your feet, there wouldn’t be any more left of you than that.” Although he looked at Ellen as he spoke, his words were a reprimand for Mathew.

Ellen shuddered. She thought she was going to be sick but Kloski didn’t give her time. He started off so abruptly that they were both caught unawares and had to hurry after him like children. He left them and their luggage at the front door of their bungalow.

Mathew thanked him curtly. Kloski didn’t quite suppress a grin.

“Insolent beggar!” Mathew exploded when they were alone. “You would think he owned the place, the way he takes charge.”

Ellen leaned against the doorframe. “It was so cruel,” she said.

With a start, Ellen realized she was staring out the win­dow. It took her a moment to remember what she was supposed to be doing, then she put away the dishes. There was less than a loaf of bread left and she had to make more. She carefully wiped and dried the table, then dusted it with flour.

As she worked, she wondered what her mother would think if she could see her making bread. Before she married Mathew she seldom made her own meals. She had worked in a tobacconist’s and as she lived at home, room and board cost her very little. Mr. Dowling, her employer, considered her blond hair and trim shape an asset to the store.

They were a nice class of customers he had, mostly middle-­aged, and they liked a pretty girl to take the gloom off a winter’s day when they stepped into the shop. She always made a point of remembering a customer’s name and the brand of tobacco he liked. Each of the two Christmases she worked at Dowling’s, many of the regular customers had dropped by to present her with a box of candies or cookies or a pound note. She gave most of the candy and cookies away but she added the pound notes to her savings account.

Mathew had come into Dowling’s for directions. He was from Newcastle and didn’t know the city. It was near closing time and since his destination was on her way, she told him to wait a moment so he could come with her. He had visited the shop the next afternoon to thank her and, at the same time, he asked for permission to call on her at home. She had agreed and he had seen her frequently after that. He was working as a clerk for one of the unions but was waiting on an application for a job in Canada. When it came, he immediately proposed. Her parents were horrified at the idea of her going so far away but his being five years older than her and his assurance that he would send her home for a long vacation the next summer, even if he could not come, had made them agreeable.

The neighbours had been unsettled by her plans to leave. The people of the area were as solid and permanent as their square brick houses. The farthest away any of the daughters of the families who lived nearby had moved was to Ireland and that, to most; seemed much too far.

At the reception, Mr. Cummins, who lived two houses away and was a special friend of her father’s because of a shared passion for roses, said, “It’s very isolated up there, you know. You’ll have to take along something for enter­tainment‑besides the ones newlyweds have, you know.” He winked and she blushed appropriately at his being so risque. He had gone to Canada with the army before the Second World War so he considered himself an authority on the country.

“There’s canoeing and hiking and I’m going to learn ice skating,” she replied. “Where we’re going is right on a lake.” They had a large map taped to her parents’ living‑room wall with a gold star at Granite Point so everyone could see where it was. Mr. Cummins had a large red nose and gout in his big toes. It was, his wife was fond of saying, the conden­sation of the sherry he drank.

“You’ll have to learn to use a rifle and hunt and fish and all that,” he advised her.

Ellen had been horrified.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t do that. When a moth gets into the house I try to catch it in a jam jar and let it go outside. I couldn’t kill anything.”

“It’s going to he quite savage,” Mr. Cummins had teased before his wife dragged him away. “You’ll have to be careful you don’t go native.” In the first letter Ellen received from home, her mother told her that Mr. Cummins’ toes pained him so much that for a week after the reception he couldn’t move from his chair without his canes.

“Every Sunday,” Ellen had confidently said to those who had been listening, “I’m going to set a full table of china so when we come to visit we’ll remember our manners. I’ve got pictures of Mum and Dad and all and it’s only ten months before I’ll be home again. It’ll be as if I’ve never been gone.”

When they left, her father, who had never been very demonstrative, surprised her by hugging her fiercely, then going quickly into the house. Her mother cried and was still waving a sodden handkerchief to and fro like a distress sig­nal when their taxi rounded a corner.

“Where have you been all day,

My boy Tammie?”

“I’ve been all the day

Courting a lady gay;

But, oh! she’s too young,

To be taken from her mammie!”

Because of the oven heating, the kitchen was stifling, but the wind from the lake was too bitter to have the door open. Remembering one verse started another. Her hands moved mechanically, spreading flour, pulling and kneading at the pale dough, but her mind raced away.

London bridge is failing down, falling down, falling down,

London bridge is falling down, my fair lady.

Build it up with sticks and stones, sticks and stones, sticks and stones,

Build it up with sticks and stones, my fair lady.

She couldn’t remember the rest of it. She desperately wished she had a book of children’s verses. Not to remember made her head feel squeezed tight. It was, she remembered, about the fire of London. All the houses had burned. She wondered if they had burned with such intensity as Kloski’s.

The flames made a large pillar in the darkness and the crowd rippled under the wavering light like objects seen under wind‑touched water. Those who were closest were outlined starkly-‑their eyes and buttons gleaming—while those farther back were alternately exposed and hidden like rocks in surf. Except for the dogs, which poked here and there through people’s legs, nearly everyone was as stiff and unmoving as granite.

Mathew and a few others had concentrated on saving his house and store from the clouds of sparks that whirled into the air. They worked to the point of exhaustion, some bank­ing the endangered walls while others flung snow onto the roofs where it was spread into a deep, protective layer.

Kloski was such a fool. That was what the mountie had called him for using gasoline to get his fire going. But he would have known the remaining verses. Nothing ever got him down for long. He was an encyclopaedia of trivia. Officially, he was supposed to be developing some type of steady industry to take the place of the fishing and fur trapping.

The price of fish was rising but the catch was falling. The muskrat were multiplying but the price was falling. No‑one in Winnipeg or Ottawa had any specific ideas. The best they were able to do was to offer vague suggestions about devel­oping local resources and local initiative. The local resources, besides fish and muskrat, were tamarack trees and muskeg. If he could sell someone muskeg at ten cents a foot, Kloski had said, they would all be millionaires.

Mathew found Kloski’s casualness annoying. Mathew said he had no sense of propriety. Rules, Kloski replied, were made to be broken by fools like me.

Mathew ran the store with absolute efficiency, never vary­ing from prescribed procedure. He set hours and kept a tight hand on credit purchases. The last agent had let credit too easily, depending on the bills to be paid on government day when the welfare cheques arrived. 80 per cent of the fami­lies were on welfare. When Kloski had complained about the hardship Mathew’s policies were causing, Mathew re­plied that Indians, like anyone else, could learn to budget. He also refused to cash cheques unless ten percent of their value went to clear any unpaid balance.

In spite of their differences, Mathew and Kloski saw a lot of each other. Mathew refused to have anything to do with the Indians socially so he was happy to have Kloski come over in the evenings to talk or listen to the radio or play three‑handed cribbage. After Kloski left, the house always smelled of canned hide for he wore a deerskin jacket some of the women had made for him. The hood was fringed with timber wolf fur and the front and back were extravagantly beaded with brilliant, intricate flower patterns in red and blue and white. He also wore mukluks that someone else had made for him. The mukluks came half way to his knees and besides being encrusted with beads they were trimmed with fox fur and decorated with orange pompoms and small, circular bells that jingled whenever he moved. On still days you could hear the bells as he scrolled by.

“Oranges and lemons,” say the bells of St. Clement’s.

“You owe me five farthings,” say the bells of St. Martin’s.

“When will you pay me,” say the bells of Old Bailey.

“When I grow rich,” say the bells of Shoreditch.

“I don’t know how you can stand working with them,” Mathew said over cribbage.

 Here comes a candle to light.

“You work with them all the time,” Kloski replied. His moustache had grown to outrageous proportions and his hair was so long that he had begun tying it back with a leather thong. Except for the area around his eyes where he was protected from snowblindness by home‑made cardboard goggles, his face was burned brown. The two circles around his eyes were pink.

“No, I don’t work with them,” Mathew answered. “I deal with them. You associate with them. You’re in one house, then another, having coffee here, bannock there. I can’t imagine what you talk about.”

“I’m convincing them to make mukluks and moccasins. There’s a market for handicrafts. I’ve got to keep track of how things are going.”

They alternated visits. The first time they were playing cards and having whisky at Kloski’s, he went to start his wood stove to make them coffee. The wood was green and wet and didn’t catch right away so he picked up a red can with a flexible nozzle and splashed some coal‑oil onto it. A black twist of smoke curled up.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Mathew cautioned him. “You could have an explosion.”

Kloski had just laughed. He had a deep, complete laugh. “I always get my fire going that way. It’s coal‑oil, not gaso­line.” He shook the can. They could hear the oil slosh about. “Got to fill it before I go to bed tonight. I don’t want the heater going out on me. I’m not like some people. I don’t have anyone to keep me warm.”

Mathew had taken three drinks and was more outspoken than usual. “Not during the night maybe. But I’ve noticed all those daytime visits while the husbands are away. You’re into one house, then another. Come spring, you might have some personal handicrafts produced.”

Ellen could no longer stand the heat. She pulled open the kitchen door. The wind off the lake was stronger. Patches of grey rock rose from the yellow and brown grass like the backs of playful dolphins.

The ice was no loner landfast. Where a large pressure ridge had built up during the winter, ice still remained, but between this eroding rim and the pack ice that reached to the horizon, there was 300 feet of indigo water. The floes would soon be gone. All day and night they ground upon themselves.

To the right, the line of tamarack was so dark that it seemed to have gathered into itself all the shadows of win­ter. Ellen pulled her cardigan more tightly about her shoul­ders. The houses that had been so closely joined by the snow, now that it was gone, were isolated within the circles of their own debris‑empty barrels, snowmobiles, fish boxes, the spilled remnants of woodpiles. No one was outside, for the wind was bitter. Except for two who were scavenging along the shore for dead fish, the dogs were curled in the shelter of buildings and machinery. 

“The north wind Both blow,/And we shall have snow,/ And what will poor robin do then,/Poor thing?” Ellen thought as she shut the door. The cold knifed to the bone. With a shiver, she moved back toward the heat.

It was right after New Year’s Eve that Mathew asked Kloski to quit coming over during the day while he was not at home. Ellen had not known about it until one afternoon when, as she was brooding and wanted cheering up, she heard the jingle of Kloski’s bells and had rushed to the door to ask him in.

“Coffee?” she asked eagerly.

He never turned down the offer of coffee. Mathew said it was because he was a loafer and had even suggested that it might be because Kloski had native blood.

“Not right now,” he replied.

Her disappointment was so great that she felt her face crumple.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized in a quiet, almost shy voice, and went on his way, leaving a trail of toed‑out footprints in the snow.

She was so hurt, she cried. At supper, hoping that Mathew might fix whatever was wrong, she told him what had hap­pened.

“I asked him not to come,” Mathew said matter‑of‑factly.

“But why?” she asked.

Mathew never liked having to explain things. Somewhat stiffly, he answered, “Because it doesn’t look right. There’s talk all over the village about how he stops to visit with the women for hours on end. That may not matter to the others, but I won’t have that kind of talk about my wife. We have our positions to uphold.”

“But he’s the only person I see besides you,” she protested. “I’ve got to see someone. I can’t just sit here as if I was in prison.”

“It’s my house and he won’t come unless I ask him.” Mathew’s face had become flushed.

“Then I’ll go to his house,” she retorted, her lips trem­bling.

He hit her. His hand caught her on the mouth. She touched the corner of her lips. When she looked at her fingers, the tips were smeared with blood.

“When I go home, I won’t come back.” She rose from the table and went to the sink to soak a cloth in cold water.

Defiantly, she added, “I’ll visit whoever I want.”

That had been after New Year’s. They had all spent Christmas and New Year’s together. At Christmas, Kloski had supplied a venison roast. She made Yorkshire pudding and plum pudding with custard sauce. Kloski gave Mathew a cribbage board made from the prong of a deer antler. For her he had a pair of beaded doeskin slippers. In return, they gave him a bottle of rum and a box of English toffee. For New Year’s they had gone to his place. He had a hot rum punch ready for them. Mathew brought his new cribbage board and she brought her slippers to wear around the house.

Christmas had been fun but New Year’s was melancholy. To make it good, they needed more people. They sat up until midnight, not saying much and drinking more than they should. At twelve, Ellen had kissed Mathew. Kloski had clumsily pecked at her cheek. She had thrown her arms around him and, laughing at his embarrassment, had refused to let go until he kissed her properly.

At the door, as he said goodnight to them, Kloski repeated his old joke by shivering and saying, “I’ll have to be sure the fire doesn’t go out. What’ll I do if it gets really cold?” It was twenty below.

“He’ll sit in the barn/And keep himself warm/And tuck his head under his wing,/Poor thing!” She was staring at the remains of the house again. The charred foundations rose like black mountains seen from a great distance. She turned away.

She fitted the dough into a large, yellow bowl, covered it with a clean white towel and left it to rise. She looked at the clock. It was noon hour. Mathew should be back soon. She took the rest of the bread, sliced it, then cut slices from yesterday’s roast and made sandwiches. She put on water to boil for soup.

There wasn’t going to be any money for going home this year. She had no idea how much money Mathew made or had saved but all she had were two one‑pound notes that she had brought as keepsakes. Even if she had a thousand, they wouldn’t have done her any good. No one here knew what they were. Anything she needed, Mathew brought from the store but she never saw any cash. Not a penny. And her mother’s letters and her own all had to pass through Mathew’s hands for the store was also the post office. When her mother’s letters arrived, they were always open.

In defiance of Mathew, she had gone to visit Kloski the next day. He was not at home but his door was always open so she went inside and waited till he appeared. Her mouth was swollen and the tea he made for her hurt but Kloski didn’t comment on her swollen lip. They silently played double solitaire. Mathew had burst in without knocking and ordered her home. She was terrified but she refused to budge. When Mathew grabbed her arm and tried to drag her to her feet, Kloski, like a large, clumsy bear, caught Mathew’s arms just below the shoulders and shook him until he was helpless. Then Kloski sat Mathew down in a chair beside the door and returned to the card game. When Mathew recovered enough to stand, he stumbled outside. Neither of them looked up.

Lunch, Ellen thought, Mathew should be coming home for lunch. When she looked out she saw that something had drawn the dogs from their shelters. She was too restless to sit so she pulled on her parka. She couldn’t see any sign of Mathew so she started walking toward the trees, following the ruts made by the tractor.

She was afraid of the forest. It was like a dark tunnel with no ending. Where the land was high, it was closely packed with tamarack, with their sharp, jutting branches that threatened your eyes. Where the land was low, muskeg shivered underfoot. She went slowly for the granite was slippery with moss and lichen and the muskeg sucked at her feet. Twice, she stumbled. As she walked, dogs dashed past her, crossing and recrossing the path made by the trac­tor. The farther she went, the more dogs there were and the more excited they were until it seemed as if all the dogs of the village were hurling themselves in a frenzy through the bush.

Just ahead, on a rise where there was a grove of birch, there was an excited, expectant yipping. Four trees had been felled and limbed. The yellow tractor stood in the middle of the small clearing. Mathew’s head protruded above it.

Ellen circled around to the far side of the tractor. Mathew had been doing something with the motor and had caught his hand in the machinery. Blood had caked in long streaks down his arm. With his free hand, he held a length of branch. Some dogs were running excitedly back and forth but others were lying patiently in a semi‑circle just out of reach of his club. As she watched, one of the dogs lunged forward and slashed at Mathew’s leg. His club thumped awkwardly to the ground and he cried out with the pain. His pants were torn half‑way to his knee.

He saw her then.

“Ellen!” he called with sudden hope. “Ellen!”

The dogs, aware of her presence, began to watch her.

“Get the axe,” he cried, “and cut the belt.” He was bound to the tractor by a taut, wide belt that had crushed his hand. The axe lay on the ground just out of reach of his club. Its head gleamed as brightly as polished silver. All around, the trees pressed close, making the clearing smaller.

She felt as if she was going to fall and stretched both arms out from her shoulders to keep her balance. She could see Mathew so clearly that the veins of the hand with which he gripped the tree branch stood out like ridges and the dark hair rose stiffly over his knuckles. At the same time, he seemed distant, beyond her reach, constantly shrinking. She pushed one foot toward him, craning her neck forward, then stopped, squinting suspiciously.

“Ellen,” he pleaded, “help me.” His voice was small with pain and fear and his lips worked convulsively even when there was no sound.

Where Mathew’s pants were newly torn, she could see the line of bright blood. There was a rat, a mouse and a little froggee, she remembered. She concentrated intensely, trying to remember why she had come. Lunch, she thought, he won’t be able to come for lunch. She studied the red smear where his hand disappeared beneath the rough‑textured belt. The blood was brighter than she had ever imagined blood being, as bright as the gasoline barrels.

“Lift up the axe. Cut the belt.” He was pleading with her as he might with a child. “It’s just a little thing. Please.”

She had thought that much blood would be darker, nearly black. Like the oil barrels. Like what had been left of Kloski. They had stood in front of her so she could not see but they had not been quick enough.

The dogs had slowed. Their movements were no longer so abrupt. They still circled and twisted but they moved more rhythmically, their eyes on her, watching her every movement. Their barking had become muffled. She could see the strength in their legs and shoulders. Their muzzles were wet.

Mathew reached the branch toward her with the gentle­ness of an offering. It did not touch her. To gain her atten­tion, he flicked it, striking her cheek with the tip of a twig. Involuntarily, she jerked back and clasped her hand to her cheek, her eyes momentarily focusing on her husband.

“Ellen!” he exclaimed hopefully.

She swayed back and forth, in danger of losing her bal­ance. Catching herself, she turned and hurried away without looking back.


Granite Point

Study Questions

  1. The story uses flashback. When did Matthew and Ellen arrive in Granite Point?
  2. What is the setting of the story (time, place)?
  3. How long have Matthew and Ellen been residing in Granite Point at the time the story begins in May?
  4. Who is Matthew’s employer, and what is his job?
  5. Describe Kloski. Who is his employer?
  6. What is Ellen’s age?
  7. Why is Mathew so set on building the ice house under budget?
  8. How does Canada’s Arctic fail to live up to Ellen’s romantic expectations?
  9. Describe Mr. Dowling and his understanding of Canada’s north.
  10. Make a list of the various excerpts from nursery rhymes or ballads. What purpose do these allusions serve?
  11. Try to find all the words to the children’s song “Oranges and Lemons” about London’s church and other well-known bells. Where does George Orwell use this allusion in Nineteen Eighty-Four?
  12. Historically, what was the cause of London Bridge’s falling down? When did this calamity occur?
  13. Contrast Mathew and Kloski’s attitude to the Indigenous Cree people.
  14. Why is Mathew late for lunch?


Study Questions

  1. Where is the story set?
  2. What kind of community is Black Island?
  3. Why is Danny in Black Island?
  4. Mrs. Poorwilly is described as being like an oracle. What is an oracle?
  5. What kind of book was Danny reading at summer school?
  6. What kind of myth seems to structure the events in Black Island?
  7. What is Mardi Gras?
  8. Look up “the fisher king” archetype.
  9. What might bloodflowers symbolize?
  10. Is Danny a scapegoat?


Look up Mardi Gras and Fisher King in a good encyclopedia. How does Danny fit into such myths?

Danny’s surname is “Thorson”. Why is this significant?

Look up James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1890–1915), and the Roman Saturnalia. How does Danny’s probable fate parallel that of Frazer’s sacred king?

Text Attributions

Media Attributions

  • Valgardson © University of Victoria Archives, Historical Photo Collection, Acc#2008-007-6.5.1. Used with permission.


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Composition and Literature Copyright © 2019 by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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