In the Land at the Edge of the Sea
Paul West Remembers a Newfoundland That Time Forgot
The following essay appears in the latest issue of The American Scholar.
My first teaching job carried me straight from the RAF and England to St. John’s, Newfoundland, when I was but 27. I still find my first impressions to be the overpowering ones: of fog or knocking sea. The town seemed nothing like the Oldest City in North America. It clutched and clung to the rocks like snails—perhaps the mist might have dissolved it or the sea gnawed it down. From the air it looked precarious; from the sea, as I sneaked in through the Narrows, as sheer a pair of nautical jaws as one could wish for a landfall, the effect was altogether different: still the shantytown with much rust and much gesticulating new paint, but also the settled center of a kind of commerce, silver oil tanks glittering in whatever sun there was. The harbor had the slack gape of a transatlantic Cardiff or Merseyside in miniature.
I was fortunate in my arrival because the rain was pouring. From the first I could catch a sight of the genius of the island, this place that has icebergs in June. It all looked Finnish, perfunctory, and sparse. Miles and miles of timber hemmed in smallish areas of shaggy rock. Settlements seemed few, roads fewer. After a swift ride through streets of sad houses, all wooden and flimsy, I was dropped off at Circular Road, where lodgings had been arranged for me. I did not know it, but I was on the threshold of a revelation—a symbol was to be vouchsafed for me.
Here was another house badly in need of paint, but the garden was neat and groomed. There was a cropped hedge, a lawn; I felt just a small bit at home as I trudged down the path. I rang. There appeared a timid little maid who, as I later found out, had a strident voice and keened dirges all day. I was led in through a door of stained glass that offered some Boy Blue idyll. Then I was in the museum: all around me were glass cases full of tattered taxidermy. Birds indignant in arrested flight leered at me from near the ceiling. A large engraving of a dying ox stared me in the face. The furniture was mostly of cast iron, especially the hallstand, a vast edifice of consummate ingenuity. This was festooned with furs, sticks, scarves, and old ladies’ hats. On the right was a sanctum, the door just a little open so that its air of dusty disuse could filter out into the hall. The floor was madly polished, the family prints were arranged altarwise on a little table, and several frail chairs seemed to be straining forward, as if to emulate the strength and purpose of the old toasting forks and spits that stood against the walls. I gazed, appalled.
Then my landlady-to-be emerged from the gloom: an old woman with a lively face and plenty of salty spirit. At once I was sat down to tea and currant cake. A large coal fire burned in the grate; everywhere in the living room there were roses—painted and two-dimensional; outside, the rain streamed across the glass; on the walls more engravings, all black-framed; under the radio a pile of library books. The time was four in the afternoon. And it was in this strange house of assorted bric-a-brac that I first put my finger on one of the pulses of the province. This was one of the better houses; large and roomy, twitching with stuffed foxes, with ferns and loose boards, it had survived from the days of prosperity through trade. Here, on this road, as on several others nearby, people tried to procure a maid, made a clear distinction between themselves and the arrivistes and parvenus of the TV era. Here the decencies and decorums that looked toward England held back the brash tide that swept in daily from the United States and mainland Canada. Here the people fiercely declared themselves Newfoundlanders rather than Canadians.
About five o’clock my landlady’s sister came downstairs. A small, gnomelike person of great age, immense cantankerousness, and clear opinions, she could see and hear very little. But she wasted no time in conducting me to her bedroom, there to show me a switch: this, she said, should be switched off if the house caught fire; thus there would be no risk of electricity to help the fire on. She then exhibited to me the rope by which I was to leave the house in case of emergency. Nominal head, she had permitted her sister to be the effective power, but from time to time she would take a firm but disastrous hand in the running of the house. Her favorite trick was to burst into strange little catches of a dark symbolism:
You’ll never get wet in the sea’s salty spray
If you never stray off the shore.
Or she would favor us with little fragments of hymns and, on her best days, with little jokes, like the one about the man who said his clock had been made by Tempus Fugit too; that’s what it said on the makers’ plate. At meals her conversation was limited to one phrase at three-minute intervals: “Have more tea!” This was more in the nature of imperative than invitation; a refusal put her off for three minutes only. Most of the time she sat in her rocking chair, drumming her fingers and making solicitous inquiries in the spirit of sheer malice. If you were working at the table, she would ask if you had enough light. If you said yes, she would fuss to see so much being burned. If you said no, she would fuss until the first fuss took over. Periodically she would tour the big house to check the lights; once she came down from bed at three in the morning because she thought she saw a light. This in her flannel nightgown. She was preternaturally sensitive to light, as to drafts, just as she never heard telephones, conversations, and the doorbell. On Sundays she went out to church in heavy coat and capuchin hat; on her return she would sing the entire service through, taking her own time and making her own pauses.
I remember one traumatic experience with her. Sleeping in late one morning, I woke to find the sheet being drawn over my head in slow, reverential manner. Never to see again … It was the old lady making the beds, guiding the sheets over any awkward obstacles. Her method was simple: she knocked at your door; if you shouted, “Come in,” she came in; if you kept silent or shouted anything else, she came in. I do not think of her as a typical Newfoundlander; but she is inseparable from my idea of the Newfoundlander’s tenacity, obstinacy, unimpressionableness, and ability to stick to blinkers once donned. She herself spoke with an English accent and could remember the days when they played cricket on the field at the back of the house. But her memory was increasingly selective, and she transposed as she thought fit. I think of her as the frail dynast of the province, full of history and always deploring the new age of TV, aeroplanes, and skittish maids whose main ambition in coming to St. John’s was to entrap an American airman for life.
For her, life had a clearly defined pattern: a fixed scheme of observances, rites, habits, timings, phrases, and penalties. She made immense fun of her old age; many a time, on dropping something, she would reprimand and parody herself by exclaiming, “Handy Andy!” This summed up all that could be profitably said about the situation. Having said it, she would look around her as at the conclusion of a long speech. For centuries to come she will be sitting at the table blindly presiding, admonishing young men at tea to “Take some yourself, and pass it on!” Several times she would ask her sister about a friend who had been dead for ten years; on learning he was dead, she would grin in triumphant reproof: “Well, well, now, he looked all right to me when I saw him last.” At eight o’clock each evening she would turn on the radio in the hope of catching an occasional word; an hour later, after much preliminary ahem-ing, she would recapitulate what she had heard. Occasionally she would produce a pun or a bit of sarcasm. More often she would drive her sister frantic with wild suggestions about banking matters and the possible fate of relatives.
Thus Miss Amelia, one of the last of the old guard, a woman evocative of the days when folk songs were the only entertainment. Emblem of a fast-fading ethos, she helps me to peg atmosphere and oral habits to a representative person. I can imagine her singing some of those old songs, wanting to entertain herself, judging entertainment by the amount she felt impelled to put into it—not by the amount offered. Much more than a tiny spinster matriarch, she makes abrupt confrontations in my own mind: old pale lace with nylon; an anecdote from round the bay with what Perry Como said about a rival; horse carriage with the new Chevy; button-up boots with thick campus stockings; family evenings at home with other evenings by the TV light. She was a bridge, not realizing her extent, neither recalling all she had come from nor comprehending fully where she found herself.
* * * *
Not all was idyll. Not all was repellent either. At the side of a pond a girl in red windproof swabbing down the family truck: this new 20th-century machine that startled people beyond the main cities. I remember the place now in snapshots: outdoor privies like enlarged telephone kiosks; two hens mincing carefully along a narrow plank; half a dozen swarthy laborers repairing a wharf in the most leisurely of ways but with modern drills; fishing boats at anchor, rocking in a thin sun, each a little wheelhouse that reminded me of a conning tower; chatty shoppers in the general store; root cellars below frost level; barns with neat stalls; the whole family out battering at the potato patch; white, scrubbed-looking churches; Orange Lodges with the district number painted boldly on the front; myriad children, some of them dark-skinned, most quiet; an older generation, all the girls in headscarves, promenading in the evening along the potholed roads; the shape of a split cod, its rough feel, the salt biting into its tissue; ancient iron stoves whorled and fluted into an extreme of decorativeness; the sound of clapboard being nailed—and this by the children who were helping to build a new house about 20 yards from the one in which they were living; barking dogs that called everyone to the door because a stranger, or a strange thing, was passing through the village; May snow collected and bottled as a lotion for sore eyes; the stinky liquefied jellyfish used as a cure for rheumatism; bleeding stanched by cobwebs; coughing stopped by kerosene and molasses; stabbing at fish with a pitchfork when the water was clear; men who bent iron bars in the kitchen fire and repaired impossible breaks with magical dispatch; men who took the porch off one house and fitted it onto another—without leaving it “squishy” (lopsided); men who crouched over the sides of small boats, dropping their jiggers among the cod; a cold, callous wind that discovered every part of you; love affairs recorded in red paint on the gray rocks; an unfailing courtesy when you asked directions; grinning faces three abreast behind the windscreen of a truck driven with delirious indolence; salt-encrusted fishing suit and boots; horses dragging capelin from the beach for fertilizing the vegetable patches; boatmen seining for capelin as the fish poured into shallow water to spawn; capelin piled high on primitive sledges; cod arriving to eat the capelin that missed the nets; capelin dead in furrows in the land, decaying to make a good potato; children shouting as the water was torn by any frantic fish—capelin or pothead whale; wool caps, shoulder bags, shining hooks; sandwiches, “excursion biscuits” that you took fishing, and all kinds of jam or jelly; squid-baited hooks dangling inches above the sea bottom; the dead eyes of live cod—yellow stones in sheathed brown meat; fish stew, diced pork, “bilin’ the kittle,” roasting capelin threaded on a wire; wooden anchors, with boulders caged in by stout battens; a fire made in the boat by shaving a lump of birch onto an iron plate rammed across a fish bin; fish stew cooking while the boat rocked; fish stew eaten with birchwood forks; seas both civil and choppy; fish being tossed from the boat up to the stage on a clifftop; men in caps and baggy sweaters holding three-foot fish by the jaws, and smoking their pipes while they did it; one woman, at a table, splitting open the fish and cutting round the heads; another woman hauling out the entrails and snapping the heads off; a scattering of severed spines round your feet; gutted fish in wheelless barrows; the triangular shape of cod stored away in salt with an archivist’s precision; fish on flakes of branches and boards, in the right amount of sun and wind, slowly “making”; slime, caked salt, tannic tea; small icebergs floating by, little noticed; fires made from fir and spruce “blasty boughs,” which crack in the flames; cliffs conquered by wooden platforms; fish flakes, for drying cod, which looked like funeral pyres awaiting their corpses; quintals of fish—112 pounds; cod cullers in the merchants’ storerooms, assessing complexion, texture, and weight; going out to turn the fish on the flake; racing out to cover them from rain; men bent double who seemed to be thatching rudimentary houses with dried cod; cod in austere barrels all ready for export; quick-freezing plants for halibut and other fillets; good luck if you saw the moon over your left shoulder; also luck in horseshoes, two black crows, clothes inside out, finding a pin or a white button, a rooster sounding off on your doorstep, bees blundering into the room; bad luck through coiling a rope against the sun, buying a broom in May, red-haired women, black cats, solitary crows, whistling while floating on water; death augured by banshees and broken clocks striking the hour; death heralded by a glaring cat that looks you in the eye; taboos about stepping over a child and the terrible power of a widow’s curse; trapped dead hares on sale in the streets; little carts drawn by horses at a brisk pace; genuine weather prophets who had to know when it would be safe to spread fish for drying; high gulls heralding storms; hoarfrost in autumn foretelling rain and southwinds; goats returning, far hills looking close, dreaming of horses, sharp-horned moons, soot falling, dogs sleeping all day, lively spiders, playful cats, mackerel skies, and mares’ tails—all telling of bad weather to come.
* * * *
Local speech, although increasingly affected by TV and radio, remained rich in injunctions: let no man steal your lines; praise the weather when you’re ashore; give her the long mainsheet (go off without intending to return); wait a fair wind and you’ll get one; cut a notch in the beam (well done!); “a noggin to scrape” for a difficult task. “Tom Long’s account” was a way of suggesting debts met and an empty account. “’Tis not every day that Morris kills a cow” seemed to mean that good opportunities were rare—or simply that some days were special. “The old dog for a hard road” explains itself, as does a piece of natural observation about the post-sunset hour: “When the snipe bawls, the lobster crawls.” Because a squid can swim forward or backward, it figures in the truism “You can’t tell the mind of a squid.” If you are utterly wrong, then “Your tawts are too far aft.” If your noise threatens my eardrums, then I might explain, “You are moidering my brains!”
A good deal of conversation not only manipulated esoteric truisms but also played with such lively figures as these: busy as a nailer, cross as the cats, wet as dung, smoky as Labrador tilt, old as Buckley’s goat, rough as a dogfish’s back, soft as a mummy, slow as cold molasses, deaf as a haddock, dirty as a duck’s puddle, hard as the knockers of Newgate, big as Munn, far as ever a puffin flew, foolish as a capelin, hard as the hob of hell, like a cat on hot rocks, like a birch broom in the fits, lonesome as a gull on a rock, mute as a mouse, proud as Guilderoy, round as the bung of a cask, stunned as an owl, wide as the devil’s boots, and soggy as lead. Where the land is barren, talk need not be so.
* * * *
Gray hills yielded to gray mountains. From the sea the land had an olive, alluvial look, but seen more closely, it was bare rocks, moss, agonized shrubs, and the fog coiling around. The icecap gave this land a crewcut and made spiritual stubble too. The coast was palisaded with islands, buffers that afforded shelter and sometimes a long “run” through quiet water. You could hear the tundra talk—wind whining and the earth creaking with rheumatism. Around Lake Melville, high trees, uninterfered with, reminded me of Keats’s tall senators—a cold, aloof parade. Grotesquely carved icebergs went planing past the low islands like swans carving a track through floating leaves. The huskies proclaimed an old code, hooting at the indifferent land and snarling at the awed human. The air was empty, high, thin-feeling. It offered minimum purchase. But the lakes were held down by fish; and wolves, bears, and beavers patrolled the slumped surface of the ground. Inland was the gauntlet you really had to run (or slap down): blackflies, mosquitoes, deerflies, and the sweat of vexation added to labor. And dogs: in winter they were not penned but wandered about predatorily, pulling sledges in a blaze of vocational madness. Drivers carried guns, just in case. Adding to the panorama were the neat, pink flowers, the hopeless-looking sand, the white reindeer moss, the blue (gun-barrel blue) of the mountains, lush golden and gray-purple fox pelts, the gray concrete triangle of Goose Bay runways, and the green of the military buildings there. An occasional white cottage stood out like a sugar cube. Above the Grand Falls on the Hamilton River a column of moisture supplied a damp beacon. The Northern Lights engaged in their own kind of quadrille—a silent movie reflected from Valhalla. Whenever the steamer Burgeo whistled, the sound was instantly swallowed up. Then it returned from a billion points in violining splinters of sound, which collected in my ears just about the same time as a medley of dog howls created a weird, hideous palinode. There were illusions, mirages called looms. Images of canoes, boats, icebergs came soaring out of nowhere to pose, upside down in the sky, making me marvel and think about the way sticks bend in water. In such ways, Labrador populated the lower regions of the air.
Winter was jail. We gathered in firewood, cans of food, booze, tobacco, and a thousand other things. After November there was precious little. Or at least we sometimes thought so, despite the airmail, iceboat sailing, snow soccer, hunting, and skiing. If you lived on an island, or wanted to get to an island, you had to force your boat through the forming ice of November, but you couldn’t drive a dog team over that ice until January. In such conditions a man could concentrate, and savor to the fullest the few objects round him: the sheen of a can; curlew berries, bakeapples, smelt, flatfish, cod tongues, seal flippers, tuna, whale and halibut steaks, a glass of rum and milk (walrus milk), rock tripe, pachyderm leaves, prone trees bent at right angles from their roots or just growing horizontally in sheer self-effacement; a black whaleback humping madly up from the leaden sea; the pyrotechnics in the sky at night; small waterfalls pouring down the sides of icebergs; icebergs wheeling round like a craggy parody of the whales; whale ears like white tin hats. It was to the quality of all this that I turned; but even so, I would have gone mad without the radio.
If you took the SS Burgeo to Goose Bay, you could then catch another vessel up to Hebron: more than 600 miles and five days. After Cape Harrison came Makkovik, announcing Eskimo country, as it was called then. At Makkovik there was a Moravian mission, elegant and colorful, stuck there like a taunt since 1896. There, where the soil seemed to have been spread out to make some kind of a show—covering the rock to keep up appearances—the buildings had a frightened, vulnerable look. The roofs were gaily tiled in blues and warm reds but seemed to be indulging in sheer bravado. Farther up the coast, Postville, founded by a Pentecostal pastor, epitomized the thriving beleaguered; Hopedale offered another mission, with a high, exulting cupola that defied the glowering sky, and a collection of Eskimo handicrafts. At Davis Inlet, I found the Nascopi Indians, tent dwellers who excel at making snowshoes, caribou-skin clothes, drums, and weightless canoes. Next came Nain, hemmed in by hills, and yet another mission; then, Black Island, Cut Throat, Moores Harbour, Nutak, and Hebron, where the Moravian church, the missioner’s quarters, the traders’ quarters, offices, and storerooms were all included in one edifice built in Germany in the 19th century and then exported piecemeal to Labrador for reassembly. Beyond Hebron (a dwindling settlement) there was nothing except Port Burwell on the tip of a spur pointing at the pole. This was the region of inspired desperateness. All was snap, twitch, blast, ice, maximum, and minimal; death had left a hoof print in the shape of Ungava Bay; it is a clenched, rigid, minerally ungiving land full of strange howls. One was reminded of a husky, padding into a pool, treading on and then devouring a flatfish.
* * * *
A Burgeo church was tied to the hill on which it stood; the cables were fastened to the roof. One radio station sang the time—every four minutes; how odd in that timeless fog. Who cared? In a lusty, iron voice straight from the damp caves of the primogenitors, a crooner rendered some pseudo-flamenco. Miss Amelia wandered around the boarding house, muttering, “the cares, that infest the day, / shall fold their tents, like the Arabs / And as silently steal away.” If she saw a crumb on the table, she’d carefully drop it in the fire. Fog poured in from the sea, the island was full of noises: majestic, dying, vulgar, fatuous, phantom, reassuring, lunatic, unique. I hear them still.