Authors: Alistair Macleod
Tags: #General, #Literary, #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Cape Breton Island (N. S.), #Cape Breton Island (N.S.), #Short Stories
was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1936. He lived on the Prairies until the age of ten when his parents moved back to the family farm on Cape Breton.
After obtaining his Teacher’s Certificate from the Nova Scotia Teachers College, MacLeod took his B.A. and B.Ed. (1960) from St. Francis Xavier University, his M.A. (1961) from the University of New Brunswick, and his Ph.D. (1968) from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at Indiana University from 1966 until 1969, then moved to the University of Windsor, where he was Professor of English and Creative Writing.
MacLeod’s fiction roots itself in carefully delineated and haunting settings, only to transcend the settings in humane explorations of the personal struggles that challenge and often defeat men and women of all time.
Alistair MacLeod resides in Windsor, Ontario.
THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY
General Editor: David Staines
W. H. New
Copyright © 1976 by McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Afterword copyright © 1989 by The Ontario Review, Inc.
First published in 1976 by McClelland & Stewart
New Canadian Library edition 1989
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The lost salt gift of blood
(New Canadian library)
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have to sell him,” I remember my mother saying with finality. “It will be a long winter and I will be alone here with only these children to help me. Besides he eats too much and we will not have enough feed for the cattle as it is.”
It is the second Saturday of November and already the sun seems to have vanished for the year. Each day dawns duller and more glowering and the waves of the grey Atlantic are sullen and almost yellow at their peaks as they pound relentlessly against the round smooth boulders that lie scattered as if by a careless giant at the base of the ever-resisting cliffs. At night, when we lie in our beds, we can hear the waves rolling in and smashing, rolling in and smashing, so relentless and regular that it is possible to count rhythmically between the thunder of each: one, two, three, four; one, two, three, four.
It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its
own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.
We are in the kitchen of our house and my mother is speaking as she energetically pokes at the wood and coal within her stove. The smoke escapes, billows upward and flattens itself out against the ceiling. Whenever she speaks she does something with her hands. It is as if the private voice within her can only be liberated by some kind of physical action. She is tall and dark with high cheek-bones and brown eyes. Her hair which is very long and very black is pulled back severely and coiled in a bun at the base of her neck where it is kept in place by combs of coral.
My father is standing with his back toward us and is looking out the window to where the ocean pounds against the cliffs. His hands are clasped behind his back. He must be squeezing them together very tightly because they are almost white – especially the left. My father’s left hand is larger than his right and his left arm is about three inches longer than normal. That is because he holds his stevedore’s hook in his left hand when he works upon the waterfront in Halifax. His complexion is lighter than my mother’s and his eyes are grey which is also the predominant colour of his thinning hair.
We have always lived on the small farm between the ocean and the coal-mining town. My father has always worked on his land in the summer and at one time he would spend his winters working within the caverns of the coal mine. Later when he could bear the underground no longer he had spent the time from November to April as an independent coal-hauler or working in his woodlot where he cut timbers for the mine roof’s support. But it must have been a long time ago for I can scarcely remember a time when the mine worked steadily or a winter when he has been with us and I am almost fourteen. Now each winter he goes to Halifax but he is often a long time in going. He will stand as he does now, before the window, for perhaps a week or more and then he will be gone and
we will see him only at Christmas and on the odd weekend; for he will be over two hundred miles away and the winter storms will make travelling difficult and uncertain. Once, two years ago, he came home for a weekend and the blizzard came so savagely and with such intensity that he could not return until Thursday. My mother told him he was a fool to make such a journey and that he had lost a week’s wages for nothing – a week’s wages that she and six children could certainly use. After that he did not come again until it was almost spring.
“It wouldn’t hurt to keep him another winter,” he says now, still looking out the window. “We’ve kept him through all of them before. He doesn’t eat much now since his teeth have gone bad.”
“He was of some use before,” says my mother shortly and rattling the lids of her stove. “When you were home you used him in the woods or to haul coal – not that it ever got us much. These last years he’s been worthless. It would be cheaper to rent a horse for the summer or perhaps even hire a tractor. We don’t need a horse anymore, not even a young one, let alone one that will probably die in March after we’ve fed him all that time.” She replaces the stove-lids – all in their proper places.
They are talking about our old horse Scott who has been with us all of my life. My father had been his driver for two winters in the underground and they had become fond of one another and in the time of the second spring, when he left the mine forever, the man had purchased the horse from the Company so that they might both come out together to see the sun and walk upon the grass. And that the horse might be saved from the blindness that would inevitably come if he remained within the deeps; the darkness that would make him like itself.
At one time he had even looked like coal, when his coat was black and shiny strong, relieved by only a single white star in the centre of his forehead; but that too was a long time ago and now he is very grey about the eyes and his legs are stiff when he first begins to walk.
“Oh, he won’t die in March,” says my father, “he’ll be okay. You said the same thing last fall and he came through okay. Once he was on the grass again he was like a two-year-old.”
For the past three or four years Scott has had heaves. I guess heaves come to horses from living too near the ocean and its dampness; like asthma comes to people, making them cough and sweat and struggle for breath. Or perhaps from eating dry and dusty hay for too many winters in the prison of a narrow stall. Perhaps from old age too. Perhaps from all of them. I don’t know. Someone told my little brother David who is ten that dampening the hay would help, and last winter from early January when Scott began to cough really bad, David would take a dipper of water and sprinkle it on the hay after we’d put it in the manger. Then David would say the coughing was much better and I would say so too.
“He’s not a two-year-old,” says my mother shortly and begins to put on her coat before going out to feed her chickens. “He’s old and useless and we’re not running a rest home for retired horses. I am alone here with six children and I have plenty to do.”
Long ago when my father was a coal-hauler and before he was married he would sometimes become drunk, perhaps because of his loneliness, and during a short February day and a long February night he had drunk and talked and slept inside the bootlegger’s oblivious to the frozen world without until in the next morning’s dehydrated despair he had staggered to the door and seen both horse and sleigh where he had left them and where there was no reason for them to be. The coal was glowing black on the sleigh beneath the fine powdered snow that seems to come even when it is coldest, seeming more to form like dew than fall like rain, and the horse was standing like a grey ghostly form in the early morning’s darkness. His own black coat was covered with the hoar frost that had formed of yesterday’s sweat, and tiny icicles hung from his nose.
My father could not believe that the horse had waited for him throughout the night of bitter cold, untied and unnecessary, shifting his feet on the squeaking snow, and flickering his muscles beneath the frozen harness. Before that night he had never been waited for by any living thing and he had buried his face in the hoar-frost mane and stood there quietly for a long, long time, his face in the heavy black hair and the ice beading on his cheeks.
He has told us this story many times even though it bores my mother. When he tells it David sits on his lap and says that he would have waited too, no matter how long and no matter how cold. My mother says she hopes David would have more sense.
“Well, I have called MacRae and he is to come for him today,” my mother says as she puts on her coat and prepares to feed her chickens. “I wanted to get it over with while you were still here. The next thing I know you’ll be gone and we’ll be stuck with him for another winter. Grab the pail, James,” she says to me, “come and help me feed the chickens. At least there’s some point in feeding them.”
“Just a minute,” he says, “just a goddamn minute.” He turns quickly from the window and I see his hands turn into fists and his knuckles white and cold. My mother points to the younger children and shakes her head. He is temporarily stymied because she has so often told him he must not swear before them and while he hesitates we take our pails and escape.