There was a shy knock at seven-thirty. When I opened the door, I recognized immediately a young woman I’d seen in the church each Sunday since I’d arrived. Unusually pious for her age, I’d thought. Her name was Sally. A MacIsaac. She said I knew her father and I agreed, although I didn’t. I still have trouble keeping the names and faces straight.
“You’re originally from around here, aren’t you?”
“Yes and no,” I said.
She laughed. “How can it be both?”
“It isn’t the same place now. The place I’m from is gone. Buried under all the new stuff.”
She seemed satisfied by that.
“So what brings you out on a cold night?” I asked.
She passed a slim hand through her hair and looked away. “I have a boyfriend. He’s not from the parish. He wants to get married someday.”
“Okay. When did you have in mind?”
“Oh. Not for a couple of years,” she said.
“Okay. So … is your … boyfriend a Catholic?”
“Well then,” I said, “I can’t imagine any big impediment. You know they insist these days on some premarital instruction. I don’t know why. What would I know about marriage?”
We both laughed.
“And anyway, a lot can happen in a couple of years.”
“Sure. That’s why I wanted to talk now.” She was sipping at a cup of tea, fidgeting a bit. I asked her if she wanted more. “No, no,” she said, then stared at me for what seemed like a long time.
My face was probably showing the confusion that I felt.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” she said, and smiled.
“Okay,” I said, waiting.
“But sometimes I’m not sure what he’s really thinking … or that I know him well enough for … for a life.”
“How long have you known him?”
“Oh. Forever. All through school. But he’s changed in the last couple of years. People say I’m making a mistake.”
“My folks. My girlfriends.”
“I thought maybe I could get some advice from you. I heard what your job was at the university. Dean or something. Maybe you know guys better than I do.”
“Everybody changes during their teens,” I said.
“I never had another boyfriend, so I can only go by him.”
She seemed embarrassed then, and I knew she was sorry she’d come.
“Maybe I’m just making too much of it.”
“Look, any time you want to talk, I’m always here. Even if it’s just to have a cup of tea. Bring him with you sometime.”
“Yes,” she said, standing. “They say something happened to him. Some bad experience. It affected him.”
“What kind of experience?”
“I don’t know. But I thought … maybe he’d talk to somebody like you. Somebody he could trust.”
“He’d have to make that call.”
“I don’t suppose I know this fellow?” I said.
“Actually, you do. I think you bought a boat from him today. From his dad, at least.”
For a week I’d drive down to the shore and just stare, until I grew conscious of people watching me. Eventually I started the motor, but the thought of untying the ropes and abandoning the land filled me with terror. So I just stood there gunning the diesel engine in ecstasy and fear. There were usually two or three men standing on the far side, watching silently, hands in pockets.
“One of these days,” I said as I was leaving.
“For sure,” they replied. “No rush.” They were smiling.
After about ten days, young Danny called and asked about the boat and I told him I thought everything was fine. Engine seemed to be running well. Everything as it should be.
“You should really take her out for a run,” he said. “Charge up the battery. And before you put her away, maybe change the oil. I’ll show you how.”
“Put her away?”
“For the winter.”
“Actually, Dad was saying I should give you a few tips on driving her.”
“That would probably be wise.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
I was up early and the day was warm. I took my coffee outside and stood at the top of the driveway looking out over the bay, which was black and seamless for as far as I could see. I noticed a car near the tennis court and walked down.
The woman was in her mid-thirties, trim and I suppose pretty. Honey-brown hair, searching grey eyes, a spray of fading freckles. She was wearing flimsy wind pants and a dark V-neck sweater over a white shirt, and she was bouncing a tennis ball lightly. When she spotted me standing by the tall chain-link fence, she called out a greeting and walked toward me. That’s when I remembered her from August. White blouse, playing tennis with the fence.
“I think I’ve been stood up,” she said. “I was expecting somebody. Do you want a game?”
I laughed. “I wouldn’t know how.”
“It’s simple. I hit the ball toward you and you hit it back. If I hit it more often than you do, I win.”
She looked familiar. Something about the eyes, but I was sure we’d never met.
“I’m Duncan MacAskill,” I said.
“Father MacAskill,” she said.
“Call me Duncan.”
“In that case, call me Stella.”
I laughed. Stella. Stella Maris.
“I know,” she said, looking up toward the church. “It’s an old joke. Distant cousin of Roger, the old baseball player.”
“Stella what, then?”
“It’s a long story,” she said, rolling her eyes. And I thought, My God! And went silent for a while.
Finally: “I haven’t seen you—”
“No,” she said quickly. “The Stella is as close as I get to identifying with the Church lately. The gender thing, I guess. I don’t feel … welcome.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I’m sure you hear that all the time.”
“But you live here.”
“Yes,” she replied. “Up the mountain road. The new place. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”
“Should I have known?”
“My tennis partner is a friend of yours, I think. Sextus Gillis.”
“We knew each other years ago, in Toronto. Then we met again, in town, at a social for the divorced and separated. The walking wounded.”
“He goes to those?”
“We both did. Once. We’re both … single. At least, he said he was.” She laughed.
“I’m fairly sure of that,” I said, although I wasn’t.
There was another long silence as we looked each other over. The fence between us gave me comfort. I realized that I was out of words and wanted to leave but didn’t want to seem abrupt.
“What do people normally call you?” she asked.
“Father. But I’m trying to break that habit.”
Her face was full of questions, but she said, “Okay, then. Duncan.”
“I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“If you’re ever up the mountain, drop in for tea.”
“I’m always there in the evenings and on weekends.”
She smiled then, and I could feel the awkwardness that always sends blood rushing into my face.
“By the way,” she said, “I think you know my sister.”
“Jessie MacKay, in Hawthorne. Married to Danny. I hear you bought their old boat.”
I smiled. “No secrets here, I guess.”
“You better believe it.”
As I walked up the hill, I heard her car engine starting.
jan. 24. it looks like i’m going to have to stop the spanish lessons. or get another teacher. something in alfonso’s manner. i think he suspects something or he’s jealous. i’m not sure how to handle it. and, god forgive me, part of me enjoys his speculations.
Young Danny was waiting at the harbour, the engine already running. He released the ropes and shoved us away from the floating dock.
“Okay,” he said. “Put her in forward.”
I hesitated, shoved the wrong lever. The engine roared, but there was no movement. I imagined crowds at dockside, smirking.
Then he was beside me, hauled the throttle back and shoved the gearshift ahead. The boat moved gently forward. I tried to steer, but she balked momentarily, as if aware of a stranger at the controls. Then she grudgingly swung her bow … too far. And we were heading toward the side of someone’s large, expensive boat
He gently reached past me again and corrected the wheel then stepped back, arms folded. I was sweating as we moved slowly along the line of docked boats toward what seemed to be an impossibly narrow channel out of the harbour.
“You’re doing great,” he said.
Once outside, I shoved the throttle forward again and my heart accelerated with the diesel. The boat surged.
“Excellent,” he said. Then turned and walked toward the stern and just sat there, looking around.
We sailed toward an island that seemed to be about five miles out. “Henry Island,” he called out, pointing. The roar in the cab was deafening. The boat was determined not to follow a straight line, and when she’d veer away from the wind she’d pitch violently against the frothing waves. After about half an hour I turned back. The ride became smoother. Danny took the wheel and I went outside, then climbed toward the bow, clinging to a rail above the cab.
I was startled by the near silence there. The wind was icy and my teeth were chattering. Perhaps to reduce my exposure to the chill I lay flat, head over the side, watching the rush of water. Sluicing, foamy furrows fell away cleanly from the flared bow, the sea opening behind like a ploughed field. I thought I heard a strange, sad murmur, a voice I hadn’t heard for years. What are you saying to me?
Approaching the mouth of the harbour, Danny opened a window and shouted up, asking if I wanted to take her in. I shook my head. I’d hardly got her out; I couldn’t imagine manoeuvring my way back in and docking. He managed to do everything at once without hurrying. Turned and tucked the boat smoothly alongside the dock, stepped ashore and secured both lines, then turned off the engine. I just watched.
Ashore, my ears were ringing, my face was on fire. I was chilled to the bone, but I just wanted to laugh.
Just before he left, I said, “So you knew Brendan Bell.”
He shrugged. “Sort of. Everybody sort of knew him. Where did he eventually end up?”
“I heard that he’s in Toronto. I think he’s left the priesthood.”
We stared at each other for a while. Then he said, “That doesn’t surprise me. I always thought he was more cut out for a place like that.” He was smiling and it disarmed me.
“Were you in the youth club?”
“So what was your impression of Father Brendan?” I asked.
He shrugged, looked away briefly, then asked me, “What was
“I hardly knew him. Met him once in Antigonish. A couple of times here, when I’d drop in on Father Mullins.”
“Mullins,” he said dismissively.
I decided to make a small investment. “Well, Mullins can be a bit of a
Do you know what that is?”
He laughed. “An old woman. I suppose so, though for my money he’s a bit of an asshole, Mullins.”
I felt the sudden heat in my face. “Let’s say I didn’t hear you say that,” I said.
“Let’s say I don’t give a shit if you did or not.”
I had looked away, but I could tell from the tone that he was staring at me still. So I faced him, locked on his eyes, fashioned a chilly smile. This, after all, was my specialty. “Maybe you’ll elaborate. Maybe you’ll tell me what your problem is … with Mullins.”
The fire in his eyes flickered then died. And he looked down, cleared his throat and spit. “I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t really have a problem with Mullins. It probably isn’t about Mullins.”
“Is it anything you want to talk about?”
“No,” he said, too quickly.
“If it isn’t about Mullins, who?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, moving away.
“Is it about Brendan Bell?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said, focused on his foot, which was scuffing a rut in the dirt. “Look, I better mosey. I got things to do, and you probably do too.”