The following is an excerpt from Michael Crummey's novel. Michael Crummey was born in Buchans, a mining town in the interior of Newfoundland. He has taught ESL in China and worked at the International Day of Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. He is the author of eight books of poetry, a book of short stories, a book of nonfiction, and four celebrated novels. Crummey’s depiction in his work of harsh lives is illuminated by compassion and rich language.
They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she’d sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.
The ground was frozen solid when she died and even if their father had been well enough to shovel there was no digging a grave for her. He and Evered shifted the covering of reeds and alders away from the overturned boat and hauled it down to the landwash before they carried the corpse from the house. They set it in the boat along with half a dozen stones scavenged along the shore. Their father slumped against the gunwale to catch his breath.
“Will I come out with you?” Evered asked.
He shook his head. “You stay with your sister,” he said.
The two youngsters watched him row away from shore and out beyond the shoal water with his dead wife. They saw him leaning below the gunwales for what seemed a long time, his head and shoulders bobbing up now and then. He was working at something awkward and unpleasant it seemed though neither could guess what it was. They watched him wrestling the weight of the corpse with his back to the shore. He was far enough off they couldn’t see that their mother was naked when she was tipped into the black of the winter ocean.
Their father tried to hand the clothes to his daughter when he rowed in but Ada held her hands behind her back and shook her head fiercely.
“You’ll have need of these,” their father said. “Now the once.”
Evered took them, folding the limp fabric against his stomach. The sour smell of a long illness and of his mother which he couldn’t separate in his head. “I’ll set them by for her,” he said. Their father nodded. He was too exhausted to climb from the boat and he sat there a long while. A dwy of snow had blown in across the bay and it turned the hair of his bowed head white as they waited.
Their father died in his bed before the new year.
Without speaking of it they acted as if he was only asleep and they left him lying there for the better part of a week. Hoping he might wake up coughing in the middle of the night, complaining about the cold or asking after a drink of water. During the day they dawdled about in the store and spent as much time outside as they could stand, cleaving and stacking wood or hauling buckets of water from the brook, picking along the landwash for gull feathers and mussel shells and wish rocks to add to Ada’s collection. Inside they tended the fireplace and drank their bare-legged tea and spoke in whispers so as not to disturb the man.
On the fifth night of the vigil Ada woke from a dream of her parents. They were standing back on, holding hands and looking at her over their shoulders. Her mother was naked and soaking wet, her hair streaming water.
“What is it you’re bawling over, Sister?” Evered asked.
Evered sometimes woke in the dark to the sound of Ada whispering aloud but he was never able to decipher what she was saying.
“He can’t stay,” she whispered.
“Don’t be talking foolishness.”
“He can’t stay there like that, Brother.”
And he set to bawling with her then, the two helpless youngsters holding on to one another in the pitch.
Before it was properly light he pulled back the one ragged blanket and hauled his father’s body to the floor. The heels smacking like mallets against the frozen ground. His sister moved to pick up her father’s legs but Evered wouldn’t allow it. The man of the house suddenly. “You sit there,” he said. “Until I gets back.”
He gripped the shoulders of his father’s shirt. He expected it to feel like hauling a seine of fish but there was a rigidness to the corpse that made it surprisingly easy to drag through the doorway. Only once on the way down to the water was he forced to stop to catch his breath and shake the numbness from his hands. He rowed out to the deeps beyond the shoal grounds, as close to the same spot as he could guess judging by his distance from the shore. Their parents might be together down there was his thought or within sight of one another at least, though he knew nothing below the ocean surface sat still for long. He tried to strip off the man’s clothes for practical reasons but his father’s eyes were half-open and he lost his nerve for meddling.
Before pushing off the beach he’d gathered a length of old netting and enough stones to keep the body under and he tied that improvised anchor around his father’s waist. The day was still and cold, the ocean flat calm. He did not want to watch once the body slapped into the water and the rocks were hefted over the gunwale to take it down. But he couldn’t make himself look away from that descent until long after his father had passed out of sight and into the black.
He stared out at the spot where the man sank from view as he rowed in through the skerries. His teeth chattering helplessly, his mind swimming. Even after the keel brought up in the shallows he kept rowing at the water like a headless chicken strutting around the chopping block. He didn’t stop until Ada called his name behind him.
“I told you to wait where you was till I come back,” he said, trying to set the oars and find his feet.
“I was watching for you heading in,” she said.
He stumbled as he climbed over the gunwale, his face like chalk. “I needs to lie down for a bit,” he said.
Ada did her best to haul the boat out of reach of the tide, calling after her brother as he staggered up the path to the tilt. By the time she came into the room he was already asleep in their bed. He slept so long and in such a stillness that Ada considered he might have died on her as well. She sat across the room until dark and then climbed into her parents’ bed where she lay whispering to her dead sister to keep herself company.
Evered didn’t wake until late the following morning. He sat bolt upright in the bed and seemed not to know where he was before he caught sight of her. She stared at him a long time without speaking.
“What is it, Sister?” he said.
She pointed then and he reached up to touch his crown. “Your hair,” she said.
She thought of their father’s bowed head in the boat after he had committed their mother to the ocean’s deep, the drift that had settled on it like a veil.
“What about me hair?”
“It’s gone all white,” she said.
As the driven snow, their mother would have said of it.
They were left together in the cove then with its dirt-floored stud tilt, with its garden of root vegetables and its scatter of outbuildings, with its looming circle of hills and rattling brook and its view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbor skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.
—The ocean and the firmament and the sum of God’s stars were created in seven days.
—Sun hounds prophesy coarse weather.
—The death of a horse is the life of a crow.
—You were never to sleep before the fire was douted.
—The winter’s flour and salt pork had to last till the first seals came in on the ice in March month.
—The dead reside in heaven and heaven sits among the stars.
—Nothing below the ocean’s surface lies still.
—Idleness is the root of all troubles.
—Their baby sister died an innocent and sits at God’s right hand and hears their prayers.
—Any creature on the earth or in the sea could be killed and eaten.
—A body must bear what can’t be helped.
For weeks after their father died the youngsters did little but sleep, lying in bed all hours for the warmth, for the comfort of the other’s breathing beside them. The days were short and the one glassless window was shuttered against the weather and their time passed in cold twilight and bottomless dark.
Every day Evered put in a fire after the sun was up. Once it had taken off the sharpest edge of the cold he lifted Ada out of bed as he did when she was but a piss-ass maid of two or three, sitting her on the slop pail and standing close enough she could lean shivering against his leg. She wasn’t far off his height but thin as the rames, still a child in every respect but for her hands which had been put to adult work years since and looked like the asperous hands of a crone. She clutched a doll she’d made of rags for their baby sister and clung to now as a relic of a blessed time irrevocably lost. She leaned her head against her brother’s thigh until she was done, then he carried her back to bed where they held one another against the smothering silence.
Mary Oram was the only person not related to them by blood they’d ever kept company with.
Neither child had an appetite to speak of or the heart to make a proper meal. Evered each day rewarmed a scurfy pot of pea soup and offered a bowl to Ada but he couldn’t convince her to eat it. She subsisted solely on cakes of hardtack that she gnawed to a paste as she lay in bed. They barely spoke. Evered sometimes woke in the dark to the sound of Ada whispering aloud but he was never able to decipher what she was saying or to who and he was afraid to ask.
He ventured outside to empty the slops or haul up water from the brook or to split an armful of firewood. The woodpile closest to the tilt diminished steadily and he felt something in him waning at the same irremediable pace. He was lightheaded and unsteady from lack of food and lying in bed for so long and from a pooling sense of dread he could not shake. It sent him looking for his father’s flintlock, a rifle he’d never loaded or fired and had been sitting so long unused in the store that the iron works shone with rust. He set the derelict weapon in a corner near the hearth as if its presence alone might offer some protection or comfort.
He stoked up the fire before he crawled back into bed, Ada lifting the covers to the heat underneath, tucking her arms around him. Every day it was harder to leave that cocoon. It struck him one evening as the light was failing that they might die there in each other’s arms and he said, “Do you think it might be we ought to shift over to Mockbeggar?”
They’d never left the cove where they were born and neither could say if Mockbeggar was fit to eat. They knew Cornelius Strapp’s schooner sailed from Mockbeggar to anchor off the harbor spring and fall to drop supplies and load in their season’s catch of fish. They knew their father rowed over to fetch Mary Oram when their mother was near her time. Beyond that it might have been located in the Holy Lands or on the moon.
“I don’t know,” Ada said. “You think we might bunk in with Mary Oram?”
Just the mention of the woman was enough to put a misgiving in Evered’s mind. “I doubt she’d bother with the likes of we,” he said.
“You think Mary Oram’s some kind of witch,” Ada whispered.
“No more than you do,” he said. He regretted bringing the subject up at all.
“I figures we can muck it out here we puts our mind to it,” he said. And a moment later he said, “I idn’t afraid of her.”
Ada shook her head against his chest. “You’re an awful liar, Brother.”
He pulled her into his neck. “Go to sleep out of it,” he said.
Mary Oram was the only person not related to them by blood they’d ever kept company with. This was during the last stages of their mother’s pregnancy when she was just able to get around the property, following behind her swollen belly like a cart awkwardly hauled about by a goat. She could barely reach around the bulk of it to set the kettle over the fire, she was out of breath taking the slop pail to the landwash in the mornings. She couldn’t sit or lie in any position for more than a few minutes at a time. A month before Cornelius Strapp’s schooner was due with the spring’s supplies their mother woke with cramps that made her keen.
“It’s your time,” their father said.
Those periods of dead sleep seemed to be the only time Mary Oram was quiet.
Another contraction ripped through her and she shook her head as if trying to clear her mind of some flash recalled from a nightmare. “It’s nothing,” she said.
“I’ll have to go for Mary Oram,” he told her.
“There’s no cause to be bothering Mary Oram,” she said through her teeth. “You can manage if it comes to that, Sennet.”
“God’s nails,” he said. “What good am I going to be lying a cold junk on the floor? You’d have perished in the bed if Mary Oram wouldn’t here to look out to you last time.”
“It’s nothing,” she said again.
Their father turned away from her to gather up his coat, pocketing three cakes of hardtack for a lunch.
“If you goes off in that boat today, Sennet Best, I swear to God,” she said.
Evered followed his father down to the landwash. “Should I come with you?” he asked.
“You watch after those two,” his father said as he set the oars and pulled away from the shoreline. He glanced over his shoul- der toward open water where an easterly breeze was blowing up chop. “It’ll be a bit of a haul if the wind don’t shift,” he shouted. “I’ll be back late tomorrow or next day, God willing.”
Evered watched his father lean into the steady cross-handed stroke. “I don’t know what to do,” he called. “What do I do?” “You stay with them,” his father said. And he said a few things more that Evered couldn’t hear over the wind and the rut of the surf against the shoreline.
Their father made it back to them before dark the following day. He’d refused even to lay his head for an hour before starting the return leg and rowed through the night and he ran up from the shoreline ahead of Mary Oram, half expecting to find his wife or the new child dead. But she was sitting calmly next the fire with a mug of tea resting on the plateau of her stomach. He turned in a circle as if a full view of the little stud tilt might help him make sense of things.
“Hello, Sarah Best,” Mary Oram said behind him. She had come in the door unnoticed and everyone turned to look at her. She was an imp of a figure, no taller than Ada, dressed in clothes made of calico and wool and a colorful knitted hat on her bald head, a leather satchel over one shoulder. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were so blonde and sparse her face seemed bald as well. She had the air of a badly made doll stuffed with sawdust that had suddenly come to life. Her hands were delicate and colorless and without fingernails. She nodded toward the youngsters sitting together on the edge of their bed. “You two is both mine,” she said and they were too terrified by the sight of her to ask what she meant. It occurred to Ada to wonder if everyone in Mockbeggar looked and moved and talked like Mary Oram.
“I told him it wouldn’t me time,” Sarah Best said.
The contractions had forced their mother from her bed after their father left them. She paced the length of the tiny hovel a hundred times and then she had Ada kneel to put on her shoes so she could walk outside. Within an hour the cramping had subsided enough she was able to eat. By the afternoon it was clear nothing would come of it and she spent the rest of the day hauling seaweed from the landwash to the farm garden on the Downs.
Mary Oram crossed the room and slipped a hand under their mother’s clothes to prod at the baby. “Do you know how far along?”
“Last September month,” their mother said. “That was the last time I had my visitor,” she said in a whisper.
Their father walked past them and fell into his bed, covering his head with a blanket.
“You’re not far off your time,” Mary Oram said. “No more than a fortnight, I’d say, unless this youngster has other ideas.”
“I’ll be cutting it out with a fish knife if I has to carry it much longer.”
Their father was already snoring under the blanket. Mary Oram said, “It’s just as well I stays on now I’m here. Spare the man another night’s rowing.”
“Yes, maid,” their mother said. “You’ll share a bunk with the youngsters till we gets this thing settled.”
“I can sleep up to the store,” Evered said and Ada dug her nails into his wrist.
“Sure I don’t take up no room,” Mary Oram said. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
For the next five nights the woman slept next them in their single bunk, Ada against the wall lying head to tail beside Evered and he head to tail beside the midwife. She wore her knitted cap and her shoes and she lay still as a corpse to morning.
Those periods of dead sleep seemed to be the only time Mary Oram was quiet. Evered spent the days helping his father raise the fishing stage where the cod would be cleaned and salted the coming season, up to his bawbles in the bitter cold of the Atlantic setting footings for the platform where the cutting table and salt shack would stand, holding the poles in place as his father worked above. And still he chose it over hearing Mary Oram prattle on about the proper cure for chilblains or how a good fright to a pregnant woman left a permanent sign on the baby, listing the dozens of birthmarks and disfigurements she’d encountered alongside their likely causes.
She could talk the bark off a tree, their father said, a note of awed disbelief in his voice.
It made Evered think of how little his parents spoke of anything other than the work at hand or the vagaries of the weather. He’d assumed that was the way of adults and there was a suffocating weight on his chest in Mary Oram’s presence. It felt as if half the world had mobbed into the tilt in her wake and he was being trampled beneath that seething occupation.
Ada avoided Mary Oram as well, sitting up on a thwart of the boat to watch her father and brother work, fetching them tools or holding longers in place as they were nailed down. There was something eerie about a figure that was in every particular a match for her own size and shape though the face and demeanour belonged to another creature altogether. She couldn’t avoid thinking she might suffer a similar fate, to grow old in her child’s body. She kept clear of Mary Oram for fear it was a condition that was catching, insisted Evered sleep between them.
Down on the landwash Ada asked how long Mary Oram would be staying in the cove.
“Till the baby comes,” her father said.
She nodded over that non-answer a minute. “What if the baby don’t come?”
He laughed. “Then she ’ll be here till the world ends won’t she.”
She didn’t know if her father was being serious but it was a novel notion to her, that the world they knew might not be constant and everlasting but something creaturely, something perishable. Ada glanced at Evered to see if this was news to him as well. But he was bothered by something else altogether.
“Could the baby not come?” he said. He was thinking of his mother up and pacing the length of the tilt when they crawled from their bunks to start the day, heaving massive sighs and chewing viciously at her bottom lip, one hand supporting the girth of her belly. He was thinking of her threat to take a knife to herself if the child delayed its arrival. “Why would the baby not come?”
“God’s reeving nails,” their father said, “can we just get on with putting the stage in shape?”
He looked past his children suddenly, squinting up the rise, and they both turned to see Mary Oram outside the tilt. “It’s time,” she called down to them.
“All right,” their father said.
“Send up the young one,” Mary Oram said before she disappeared back into the house. And an unfamiliar voice reached them in the stillness, a sucking guttural complaint that seemed not quite human.
“What is that?” Evered asked.
“I imagine that’s your mother,” their father said. “Go on now, Daughter,” he said.
“What do Mary Oram want me for?”
“Whatever it is needs doing up there I expect.”
Ada looked to Evered but he wouldn’t hold her eye.
“Go on,” her father repeated and she turned to make her way up toward the tortured sound of her mother’s voice.
The door was propped wide as was the single window’s wooden shutter but the daylight barely touched the permanent dusk at the back of the tilt. Mary Oram had water on to boil in the fireplace and had lit the lamp and set it near where her mother was lying with her skirts lifted high around her thighs. The dirt floor was covered in a layer of dry sand and Ada could see where Sarah Best had used a stick to draw a pattern near the fireplace, an elaborate series of interconnecting circles at the hearth’s edge. “Come hold the lamp close,” Mary Oram said when she caught sight of Ada in the doorway.
Ada had never seen her mother’s bare legs or the black patch of hair between them or the pulpy slash of flesh where it looked for all the world like the woman was coming apart.
“Closer now,” Mary Oram snapped. “There’s nothing here will hurt you.”
Ada stepped nearer with the light though the reassurance offered no comfort. She tried to look over the massive belly but her mother’s face was beyond the lamp’s reach.
“Did you know you was having a sister?” Mary Oram asked.
Ada gaped at her. She had forgotten for a moment there was a child at the centre of the bizarre state of affairs. She shook her head.
“Well then,” Mary Oram said. “A sister you’ll have. I knew it the minute I come through the door and seen your mother sitting there. Please God this one don’t take her time like yourself now.”
“Two days we was strapped up in here like this, waiting on you. Me with only your father for help. And he fainted dead away in the midst of it all.” She reached out to guide the lamp in Ada’s hand to one side where she had laid out her utensils. A straight razor, Ada saw there. Mary Oram said, “I allow this one is some terrible size though.” She took up a needle and held it to the lamp to pass a length of thread through the eye. “Sarah Best,” she said, “next time you wants to have a youngster, have a youngster. Not a bloody cow.”
Her mother came up on her elbows, rising out of a pool of darkness into the lamp’s dark light. Her face was half-hidden by her hair which lay plastered to the skin with sweat. “Shut up, Mary Oram,” she said. “For the love of God just be quiet.” And she descended into the black again. The look of the woman so wild and unfamiliar that it seemed to Ada a stranger was lying there in the approximate shape and form of her mother.
“That’s just the baby talking,” Mary Oram said quietly. “She said some cruel things to your father the last time she was in the throes of it.”
Her mother shouted out something wordless and profane, then set into keening again. Mary Oram laid the needle and thread back on the bed and when the contraction passed she forced the nailless fingers of one childsize hand inside Sarah Best’s body, her face turned to the ceiling as she rooted blindly.
“You’re coming along, Missus,” Mary Oram said.
“Is it almost over,” Ada whispered.
“She’s coming along,” she said again.
But nothing apparent happened for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, the recurring contractions like knots in an endless string unwinding through the day. They ate nothing and Evered and their father didn’t venture inside to check on them or to look for something to eat themselves. Mary Oram periodically sent the girl to throw out a basin of dirty water and refill it from the pot kept hot in the fireplace and Ada leaned in over the bunk with a cloth to wipe her mother’s tormented face. It was coming on to dark when some stay shifted and the day went sudden, Ada’s mother leaning into the weight of the unborn creature with a new resolve and Mary Oram calling for the light to be brought closer as the crown of the child’s head appeared, a sliver of pink skin and slick dark hair. Ada had guessed at the absurd truth of what was meant to happen hours earlier though it seemed a physical impossibility still. She felt a pressure on her bladder, acute and rising, but the urgency in the events at hand forced her to stay at her post.
“We ’re going to have to help it along some,” Mary Oram announced and she reached for the razor. The horror of what the blade was meant for passed through Ada’s body like a burn- ing coal and she pissed onto the dirt floor, the liquid running down her legs and soaking her bare feet. But she did not cry and she managed to stand her ground as Mary Oram went about the awful business.
After it crowned the baby came in a rush of blood and fluid and Mary Oram knelt at the bedside to catch the slippery infant in her lap. Ada staring at the ugly thing cabled to her mother, the eyes clenched tight against the new light, against the room’s chill. It looked like something not halfways completed, the tuberous head three sizes too large for the body. Mary Oram reached a finger into the tiny mouth to root out a plug of yellow mucus and lifted the child by the ankles to slap her behind. She set the bawling youngster on her mother’s stomach, then took up the straight razor to cut the umbilical cord and she knotted it off.
“We wants a fresh pan of water,” Mary Oram said.
Ada was afraid she would fall if she moved. Mary Oram glanced at her and turned to take the lamp from her hands.
“You done fine,” she said. “Go get us some clean water.”
Ada carried in the pan on her quivering legs, her feet wet with cold urine and the floor of the tilt a mess of blood and after- birth, and she was careful not to spill a drop as she went as if some additional calamity would befall them if she did. She set the water on the bed beside her mother who was murmuring to the infant on her chest, then she sat on the opposite bunk listening to her sister bawl while Mary Oram carried on with her ministrations, lifting each of the baby’s limbs in turn, counting to make sure she had all her fingers and toes.
Ada had no idea what she’d just witnessed. It didn’t seem possible what her mother had suffered was the normal course of things and not a drawn-out catastrophic accident from which she would likely never recover.
“Bring in the light,” Mary Oram said over her shoulder and Ada got up to hold the lamp close to her mother’s traumatized flesh. Mary Oram took up the needle and thread and for a moment Ada thought she planned to stitch her from stem to stern.
“Is it always like this?” she whispered.
“Like what, child?”
Ada gestured with the lamp as Mary Oram made three tidy stitches then tied off and broke the thread. “Like this,” she said.
Mary Oram got to her feet and smiled across at the girl. “No, my love,” she said. She rinsed her hands in the pan of water and wiped them in the filthy skirt of her apron. “Sometimes it don’t go well at all.”
Excerpted from The Innocents. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Crummey. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday/Penguin Random House, New York, NY. All rights reserved.