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Authors: Joel Thomas Hynes

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The crumpled twenty sweaty in my palm.

He’d be delighted.

Maybe we could pick up a case of beer or a draw.

I looked all over but couldn’t find him anywhere.

7. Joey Neill’s Lookout

Not much chance of anyone findin’ me up here. ’Cept herself, I s’pose. If she ever decides to grace me. Safe enough. Always felt like something watches over me up here. In the daylight anyhow. The Grotto. That’s all it’s called. One of three in all of Newfoundland. I’ve been comin’ here since way back. Sometimes though, sometimes if you comes through the Grotto in the nighttime, you’re likely to feel anything but welcome. There’s an old darkness here. I don’t come to the Grotto in the nighttime no more.

Rumour has it there was a time the Cove was mostly made up of dirty black Protestants and the handful of Catholics willin’ to risk practising their faith had to do so in secret, during the night. Representing this small band of rebellious practitioners was a young Irishman name Joseph Neill. No one knows for sure whether Joseph Neill was a real ordained priest or not, but it’s said that his sermons were so forceful that he even won over a few diehard Protestants in his day. Lookin’ out over his sleepy-eyed congregation, Father Joseph didn’t bark and roar and bawl with a blistering red face and streams of aimless saliva to hammer home the
word,
but whispered.
Whispered because not a sermon was given before the stroke of midnight and discovery meant, so they says, public hanging. Joseph Neill did hang eventually, but not by Protestant hands.

The Grotto marks the general area where Joseph Neill held his midnight masses. It stretches up through the woods just up behind the church. The Catholic church. There was no Catholic church back in the days of midnight masses, but there’s not a single Protestant living in the Cove today.

Lengthways at the edges of the Grotto are the fourteen Stations of the Cross, massive white monstrosities, seven up and seven down. The Grotto is closed in by evergreens and a few crabapple trees and on one side the woods slopes upwards for a good distance until they peaks at what’s now called Joey Neill’s Lookout. From up on the Lookout you can see for miles in any direction. They says you can see half the lights on the Shore from up there in the nighttime. But no one in their right mind is gonna climb up there after dark. There’s an unmarked grave up there somewhere.

Myself and Natasha sort of claimed the Grotto for our own when we first got on the go. Even did the deed here a few times. Right on the ground. No one ever comes up here. No one seems to show much interest in anything church related since all that shit went on with them faggot priests. That was a shock to the Cove. A shock to the whole Island. Our parish priest was the very first to go down for fuck sakes. I was in grade six. First day back to school after Christmas and we were all called into the gym where the nuns told us the news. Of course everyone already knew the gory details but the nuns had their own version of events. We were warned about gossip and hearsay and some nonsense about a stone in the devil’s garden. Certainly we couldn’t forget the good things the man
done for the community. And hadn’t we learned by now that a man is innocent until proven guilty? Didn’t we know that some people wouldn’t think twice about ruining a man’s life if they thought they could get something out of it themselves, how some people thrives on scandal?

I never listened to the fuckin’ nuns. I listened to my Gran. She gave me a new set of rosary beads every goddamn Easter and I can’t recall ever havin’ seen her without a set in her own hands, or at least dangling from her pocket. She went to church two and three times a week, every week. And she was always pinnin’ some medal, St. Jude or St. Christopher, to the inside of my jackets. But she was only one of countless devout Catholics up and down the Shore. She had it in her bones, force-fed the Psalms, Revelations, Job, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John since she was no more than a scrap. One time Grandfather sliced open his finger in the kitchen and muttered just a tiny little
Jesus
through gritted teeth. Well fuck, she gave him such a clout up the side of the head that he forgot all about his finger and wandered out into the yard in a daze without givin’ another thought to the half-gutted beast of a codfish in the sink. She gave him a clout for that too. But when all that shit came out about child abuse and drugs and pornography and homosexuality, her rosary beads vanished and she never set foot in the church again, not even for a wedding or a funeral. Neither did I, if only because no one forced me to go no more.

A strange thing about the Grotto is that sometimes on horrible, miserable windy days, there’s not a breath of wind in here. You can sit and blow smoke-rings while the trees whip and swirl and thrash all around you. And on cold days the
Grotto can make you feel warm, stable and safe. On rainy days you can always find a dry place to sit down. Other times, when the sun is splittin’ the rocks, you can walk into the Grotto and wonder what you were thinkin’ not to have brought your jacket. On calm, peaceful days there could be near tempest winds in here. Them are the times when you can’t stay long. Like something don’t want you to be there and pushes you out, some long-buried fury hibernating in the very ground beneath your feet. So many weary souls have passed through these Stations, dumpin’ their burdens and wanton confessions, beggin’ absolution for their vile, hypocritical ways. It makes sense, to me, that the place would grow resentful. All that doom and gloom had to have seeped in somewhere I s’pose.

I’ve been havin’ this horribly vivid, recurring dream about the Grotto. I first had it around the time I started seein’ Natasha. It’s always the same. I’m leadin’ her by the hand, up between the big white crosses in the woods at night. I feels double-jointed and ten times stronger. She’s whimpering and scared and beggin’ me to tell her what’s wrong, where we’re going. But the more upset she gets, the more she cries, the more powerful I gets. After an eternity of this, something more or less shorts out in my head and I seems to deflate. I becomes overwhelmed with love and compassion, tryin’ desperately to connect, console, make things good again. But she grows more and more distant each step we takes. When we gets through the crosses and deeper into the woods we comes to a menacing black wooden door. My instinct is to turn back at this point but she always insists on goin’ in. Now she moves with a real confidence ’cause she already knows what’s on the other side of the door. My body grows weaker, my move
ments sluggish and clumsy. She opens the thick black door with ease and we enters a squat, claustrophobic room that’s covered wall-to-wall, even the ceiling, with hard green carpet. Four church pews, polished to a shine, are situated at the end of the room closest to the door. The air is thick and musty with the stifling stench of that sickly Easter incense. Wax drips from a few ceremonial church candles, but their flames don’t give off much light. We can barely make out the outline of another door at the far end. Then
Natasha
takes
me
by the hand and pulls
me
through the room. I feels like a child bein’ drawn away by a stranger, far away from all things familiar and warm. As we’re approaching the door we passes a closed and battered wooden coffin. ’Tash makes it to the door first and yanks it open. There’s laughter on the other side, natural, uninhibited laughter like children on a playground. I tries to get a glimpse but Natasha pushes me out of the way and slips out the door herself. She closes it shut in my face with a deathly quiet. The door handle disappears. I’m left alone in the room. I turns around to find the coffin is now open, the interior worn and rotted through to the bare board in places. To my sheer horror I sees myself inside. But I’m not dead. I’m starin’ out at myself with a vacant, desperate look that seems to ask—
What have you done now?

Why I keeps comin’ back to the Grotto, I don’t know. It’s like the very force that pushes me out sometimes when I’m here, sucks me right back in when I’m not. There’re times that I simply arrives here, no recollection of havin’ made a conscious decision to come. Or I’ll find myself walkin’, look down at my feet, watch them move, one in front of the other,
knowin’ they’re leadin’ me to the Grotto. But today is different. Today I knows exactly why I’m here. I’m comin’ clean. If she wants to leave me she can go right ahead. She’ll have every right to by the time I’m done.

I’m gettin’ restless so I decides to take a walk up to the Lookout to see what I can see. If she’s out and about, I’ll spot her from up there. It’s gettin’ on in the day and I wants to get this over with before tonight. There’s a big bash down the Shore and I’d like to show up as a free man for a change.

The woods are steep enough that you can’t get away with regular walkin’, but are forced to utilize all four limbs the whole way up. I finds a dandy stick on the ground and uses it for a staff. It’s a long old haul. By the time I makes it to the top and steps onto the huge rock that marks the heart of the Lookout, I’m so out of breath it feels like my lungs might bleed. The smokes are takin’ their toll on me already. Handsome young fella like myself.

Now. Look out. What a goddamn view. I can see pretty much every house in the Cove from here. Streetlights are flickering over on the South Side. There’s a ghostly cargo ship slicin’ through the currents behind Stone Island, its red and green beacons flashin’ every so often. I makes a quick scan of the roads and spots Natasha comin’ out of her uncle’s woodshed. She’s headed this way, quite a view in her own right. How is it that I’m just not content to give it a go with her? There’s not many can hold a candle to her here in the Cove, that’s for sure. It’s a matter of loyalty I s’pose. I have a hard time with that one. Even when I’m dead sober, the notion of loyalty is, well, just that, a notion. And when I gets drunk it
goes right out the fuckin’ window altogether. Wherever I falls, that’s where I stays. I’m after wakin’ up in a lot of strange places with strange arms around me.

Natasha stops to lace up her boot. She’s gorgeous and gettin’ more so every year. But that’s just it. Every Year. We’re goin’ on two years now. That’s long enough to be fuckin’ around with the same young one as far as I’m concerned. I should be free while I’m young, and so should she…

A tree or a twig snaps somewhere nearby, startling me. I looks around and remembers where I am. My skin breaks out in goose bumps and, without thinkin’, I begins a hasty, fumbling descent back down to the Grotto. Branches slashin’ at my eyes.

The story goes that after twenty years of secret masses and midnight vigils, there was, all of a sudden it seemed, not enough Protestant presence in the Cove to keep the Catholics from practising openly. Around the end of the eighteenth century I think. So the Protestants just up and left one night, bound for New York and Boston, Canada, to start new lives and new families, and new churches no doubt. Mostly what you’ll hear around the Cove is that the Protestants couldn’t take the hard weather, that they were weak on the water and that the devil lured ’em off to greener pastures. Soon enough the Cove was all Catholic. A church sprung up. Turns out Father Joseph was a bit of a woodworker himself and played a good hand in the construction of it. A few years passed and word of Father Joseph’s powerful sermons, combined with the rumour that he’d managed to convert a town full of Protestants over to the Catholic Church, reached the big guys in the church in St. John’s. A letter arrived one day announcing the impending visit of Bishop John Blaney. The Cove went
into an uproar. A fresh coat of paint on every house, stable and outhouse was mandatory. Anything broken down had to be mended. No slack-arses, no exceptions. Jesus Christ himself might as well have been on his way to the Cove, considering the feverish panic of the preparations.

It was cited in the letter that Bishop Blaney would be arriving by boat. So Father Joseph took it upon himself to carve an archway under which
his holiness
could pass as soon as he hit the wharf. Try as he might though, he couldn’t get it quite right. Some minor detail, undetectable to any other eye but his own, always rendered the finished product less than perfect, and therefore, as far as Father Joseph was concerned, an embarrassment and shame to the entire community.

Again and again he carved it out and then chopped it down. Carve it out, give it a good sizin’ up, then the crack of his maul would echo off the cliffs from one end of the harbour to the other. Douse it with kerosene and light it ablaze in a fit of rage. Toss it out over the wharf, heartbroken.

As the weeks wound down and the day of Bishop Blaney’s visit drew closer, Father Joseph took to sleepin’ with his project down on the wharf. Some of his most devoted followers tried to intervene, to talk him back to his senses, but he wouldn’t hear a thing of it. Nothing they could say or do would convince him to give it up, to come home, or even to serve mass, which he’d neglected to do for almost a month. In the end they just let him go to it, and it became the common opinion that Father Joseph had lost his mind altogether.

On the eve of the big day Father Joseph was heard to remark that if he didn’t get it right this time, the devil could have him. For the most part, the people of the Cove were convinced that had already happened. Still, there was the hope that the arrival
of the bishop might somehow bring Father Joseph around. At dawn a shower of shotgun blasts from an incoming schooner told the Cove that Bishop Blaney had arrived on time. All hands proceeded down to the wharf in their best Sunday clothes to greet the bishop and pay their respects. There they were met, but not altogether surprised, by the grisly silhouette of Father Joseph’s body, hangin’ by the neck from the centre beam of his latest attempt at perfection.

Considering Father Joseph had taken his own life, Bishop Blaney ordered the body cut down and buried on the highest point in the harbour so that the devil would have to work at least that much harder to drag his tarnished soul down into hell. A small wooden cross was quickly constructed, but Blaney wouldn’t allow it placed at the grave site. There were no prayers, just a hole dug and then refilled with body and dirt. To this day the grave has gone unmarked.

Five more feet to the Grotto and I rips the leg out of my goddamn jeans. Always something. It’s after coolin’ down a bit. The light is fadin’ fast. I’m gettin’ a little paranoid as the woods slowly give over to shadow. Can’t sit still. I finally gives in and jump up to leave. Before I takes the first step, Natasha’s shadowy form comes trompin’ up the head of the path. I does my best to conceal the fright, my heartbeat all-consuming.

BOOK: Down to the Dirt
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