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Authors: D. R. MacDonald

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

Anna From Away

BOOK: Anna From Away
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ANNA
FROM
AWAY

A NOVEL

D.R. M
AC
D
ONALD

For Sheila, with love

Tri nithean a thig gun iarraidh—gaol, eagal agus eud

Three things that come without being asked—love, fear and jealousy

— Gaelic saying

The boat has slipped its moorings and is leaving harbour to trust to the open sea; and no boat needs so much trust to put to sea as it does for one body to go human and naked and vulnerable into the arms of another.

—John McGahern,
The Leavetaking

PART ONE
A Kind of Comfort
I.

S
HE HAD HAIR LIKE
R
OSAIRE’S
, a black braid, brilliant in the cold sun. That he could see. Down near the shorebank of his back field she sat, in snow, legs tucked under, a wide pad of paper in her lap, and whenever she glanced up, her hand moved in quick strokes. Her red parka was bright against the ice-flecked sea, winter-dark and restless. The day had a feathering of snow over the brittle fields, peppered with dun stalks of grass and bush. What was she drawing? His weary grey barn, shaggy with icicles? Would she spot his old mug in the back door window? She wouldn’t know that for a few moments he’d made her into Rosaire, that a flush of foolish joy passed through him, just out of a nap as he was, his head furzy, blinking at the raw snowlight. She must have come along the shore.

They had talked once by her mailbox at the road, a few words in a cold wind. Anna, was it? Anna something. She had to be mad to move here at the rear end of February.

He rubbed his breath off the window glass and then closed the curtain to a slit. He watched her. Behind him the green whisky bottle sat like an empty vase in the centre of his table. Another day shot in stupor, stumbling through his past with Rosaire, things they’d done together, so achingly particular now. Torture to think of her in his arms. But here he was, in his own fusty, painkilling cocoon. Sprawled on the old kitchen lounge instead of awake and working, he sipped whisky to push beyond the last, wasting days of her life. Whatever he could find of what they’d had he found best in sleep, in the torrents of dreams.

A gust of wind got the whirligig chattering on the porch rail, that piece of whimsy Rosaire had bought him, a blacksmith bringing his hammer madly up and down, his muscled arm on the verge now of flying loose.

The cat mewed for the outside, Murdock held open the back door and said, “Go on, get, but mind the beasts of the woods, pussycat, you a town animal and all—coyotes can get you, foxes and bobcats, they make their living out there and just might, in a hard and hungry time, take you down, Mr. Cloud, you’re getting old anyway, you’re on your own.” Murdock watched him through the window, the poised, fastidious steps, the subtle bearings, belly low to the snow, his body freezing instantaneously when crows scolded him. He was not a lion, he could be prey and predator both, but he did seem more alive out there, alert, not asleep or sleepy like Murdock in the kitchen.

Over the sink he slapped cold water to his face and towelled off. He ran a comb, wincing, through his reddish-grey hair. His hands shook. His clothes were soiled and rumpled, what a sight.

Still, he ought to have gone to that woman at the shorebank, she was a neighbour now. He would have once, easily. Why was he so angry? He needed blame, but nothing satisfied it. Crazy. Of course it was. His heart had unsettled his wits. He was simply tired of himself, not just his face in the shaving mirror or his voice wheedling the cat, but his thoughts, places where his mind kept going and going.

He stood on the back steps in a bitter breeze. The field lay white and empty but for two waddling crows keen on something bloody in the snow. The sharp sunlight hurt his eyes. Cloud’s tracks meandered below him, off on a hunt, an investigation. Rosaire’s cat, thick-furred like a little grey bear, but he hadn’t lavished on it the cooing, grooming lap time Rosaire had, though he fed and watered it, let it shelter in his own grief.

Had the woman seen him at the window, like some suspicious geezer?

A man could go mad grieving. Love was maddening anyway, the worst of it, and the best.

II.

H
OW CAN YOU LIVE ALONE
like you do, on the edge of that ocean? You couldn’t get any further east if you tried
, her friend Melissa had written. Anna did not yet know any women here, or how living alone by choice might be accepted. Regardless, they would not likely frequent this shore in a winter wind, fretting over an animal cruelly killed. Or be living by themselves.

Stiff and cold, unhappy with her drawings—distracted sketches of a lifeless barn and sheds—she turned her attention to flotsam. Anything material, interesting matter of any kind. On the frozen beach, stones grouted with ice, the footing was poor, but almost every morning she walked, in all weather, punishing or otherwise. She’d thought the man in the house might come out if he noticed her, they could talk, she might innocently tell him that she’d seen a dog tossed from the distant bridge one night, late. She needed a local perspective, she didn’t want that shocking sight to shade her feelings for this place so early. He was her only near neighbour, his weathered house hidden around a spit just east of her, a small conifer wood between them.

But only the tracks of crows stippled the man’s snowfield, looping through the furry pink bits of a rabbit. A movement of curtain? Maybe. Whatever she saw today seemed slightly unstable, shifting, uncertain. She would never have mentioned the dog to him any-way—she was new here, and hoping now that March would glide into the spring she’d expected. Winter still gripped everything hard, an east wind swept bitterly over drift ice far offshore. Harsh? She’d asked for it. A drastic relocation. Moods of a new landscape, while she struggled with an old one.

Anna glanced back at her odd, veering tracks in the shoreline snow: who would they mean anything to? Not her neighbour. No more than a gull’s, a crow’s, those of the fox she’d seen foraging.

She hiked on. Her first days here she had not wanted news from home, not from or about her husband Chet certainly or the familiar events of the college town that had so long been their life. But she’d awakened this morning to a simple need of conversation, another voice, someone who might feign an interest in her sufficient to tell them about a dog, to ask how aberrant that animal’s death might be. The warm letter from Melissa had been welcome, a treasure in the cavernous mailbox, but had no bearing on the present. These two weeks by herself had been exhilarating at times, at others unsettling, lonely, fraught with doubt.

The dog nagged at her now, she’d sketched it furiously before breakfast. Helplessness, cruelty, betrayal. Difficult to capture with just lines, white space, shadow.

The cutting wind numbed her face, her toes were little stones. Oh God, she couldn’t get sick, a bad cold or something worse would send her to that upstairs bedroom, feverish, alone, thrashing underneath quilts smelling of mothballs. Pneumonia. The sun was now a pale stain in thin grey clouds, and the strait, broadening out east into the Atlantic, was cold even to look at, grey as rock. Anna pulled up the hood of her parka, then yanked at a length of rusted chain the frozen stones held fast. A piece for junk sculpture when the weather improved? She’d wait for a thaw, whenever that would be. It couldn’t be soon enough.

Anna crossed over to the long, barachois pond that curved out of sight into the foothill trees. She poked among broken khaki stalks of grass and sea oats, cattail, wary of its disguised boundaries. Where wind had swept the ice bare, its grey translucence looked bruised. Would it take her weight? Her heart pumped harder, the risk was appealing somehow, and she ventured along the edges, stepping out here and there, further and further, far enough to make out a dead bird akimbo just under the surface, a black bird of some kind too splayed to guess at, head torn backward. There was a ragged clump of wood near to emerging, and a knot perhaps of blackened algae. Yellow rope snaking down, the corner of a board, the bottom of a green bucket—storm flotsam she’d noticed in a brief warming spell when the surface shimmered with meltwater. Further out, a dark gash (why unfrozen, a spring underneath?). She didn’t pursue a trail of paw prints, or check a black dollop of what might be scat.

Returning, she came upon a scrawl of dirty urine played out in the snow. What animal would pee like that? Boot prints, though they were not fresh. Okay, a man had relieved himself, left a bold signature. The shore was not private, after all, though so far she’d seen only wildlife. When was a man here, pissing?

The path home to the red house cut into the shorebank, through a thin patch of snow-draped spruce where she followed her tracks up the hill, coming out into her open field above the pond. At the back porch was the view she’d seized upon in a nature magazine ad—a wide, river-like stretch of water moving between the long mountain behind her, grey with winter now, too steep for trees at its highest here at the cape, and the long hills of St. Aubin, dense with forest, a mile across the water. The strait faded westward beyond a steel bridge, past distant, misty heads and was lost in the interior of Cape Breton Island, a great saltwater lake—she’d thought, yes, put yourself
there
and live and draw and sculpt in that far-off place. But of course the accompanying photo was a summer scene, sun-infused blues and dark greens.

After locating on a map Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—a large island, with an inland sea, that took up the northeastern third of the province—she’d written immediately to a Jenny Budd in Ohio whose family owned it, a woman who’d grown up on this cape, who said yes, she’d rent it to Anna for the year if she liked, it had been her grandparents’ house, but winter might be an uncomfortable time to move in, you might have to rough it some. I’m not after comfort, Anna said on the phone, although there were days when she would have welcomed a little more of it. She had expected a village, but instead it was the remnants of what they called a settlement, Cape Seal, at one time small subsistence farms strung down a long dirt road that skirted the strait to the south and the foot of the thickly wooded mountain to the north, a feature the magazine ad had boasted of, “You’ve got the high side and the water side,” as well as the Atlantic that yawned out to the east. No mention that the winding road dead-ended against the steepness of the cape not far from Anna’s house, ensuring more isolation than she’d imagined.

The cultivated land had returned largely to forest, the houses often no longer visible from the road or fallen away or turned into summer retreats, Willard Munro, handyman and caretaker of Anna’s house, told her when he came by to fix her water pump. He sat down expectantly at the kitchen table when his work was done, so Anna offered him tea and supermarket cookies and he talked away as if she were an old neighbour. We had a school and two churches, and I live in one of them, used to be St. David’s, that should tell you something. My old house burned to the stones, somebody set it. That bridge way up there on the highway? Cost us our ferry, the good traffic, killed my dad’s little store down there by the old wharf. We had a good life here, hard but good. Willard pointed out idiosyncrasies of the house—the electric water heater that had one of two elements burned out but you could still squeeze a bath out of it, the old fuse box and its coffee can full of fuses nearby like ammunition (I wouldn’t run, like, that kettle while the heater’s going), a register in the kitchen ceiling that wouldn’t open anymore (You’ll likely see it a little cool upstairs), the back door lock whose key needed jiggling in a certain way, and the old root cellar underneath the kitchen floor, hidden under a large hooked rug which Willard peeled back so he could open the trap door and let Anna see the short, crude stairs descending into a dank darkness (You won’t need it, he said, you have a fridge there, and Anna said, I’m glad).

BOOK: Anna From Away
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