Hand Playing Red Guitar DSC_9062_01
Endlessly Swept by the Sea
The morning Big Bertha went down, the household activity came to a standstill. There was no one to tend to her husband Little Mac or Noah her grandson (both already sick), Sir Barksalot could only make a racket (which was no help at all), and her daughter Delilah had not returned home.
The onset of her own discomfort was so sudden and severe that her only option was to make her way from her sewing room upstairs to the bedroom in as straight a line as possible, without stopping to get anything or check on anyone or even to feed Sir Barkie and thus quiet him down. She had to lie down before she fell down. She was so dizzy that going up the stairs a lurch sidewise almost sent her over the railing.
She had started work before dawn, disturbed by Delilah's absence, and now she was back in bed watching the effects of the sunrise through the skylight overhead, in particular the peculiar refraction of the light off the brimming cove across the lane that sent the breeze-happy dancing waves of luminosity up and then down through the slanted rooftop glass and onto the opposite wall where they shimmered and shattered and shone.
She wrote in her diary, barely able to handle the pen but determined not to let such a rascally little miracle get by her, "I see it. I admire it. It lifts me up anyway."
Then she shut her eyes and lay back, carried away by waves in her mind and body that seemed inseparable from the all-penetrating waves of the sea.
The two-lane led out of the low-growing woods past the two pocket cemeteries and on to the rise overlooking the island village and the glimmering sea being swallowed by a rolling bank of fog from offshore. There Delilah pulled over and stopped. There she contended with the skittishness inside her that made going home seem so hard. Hadn't she made a decision that would make her a stranger forever? Shouldn't she drop the word 'home' from her vocabulary for good and forever and forget it?
She sat through thirty minutes of a storm tide of emotion, holding fast to the steering wheel, before resuming her return. In that time the village had disappeared under the fog. Crossing the stubby one-lane bridge that separated the village from the mainland, she slowed as if she were driving underwater, with the scattered houses vague on each side of the road. Then she took her foot off the gas altogether and let the car coast to the old house on the rocky shore where her son and her parents awaited her.
"Mama," Delilah said, sitting on her mother's bed, "he was playing the guitar."
Big Bertha lay propped up on pillows. She did not appear to be awake. Her daughter's declaration failed to open her eyes or elicit any other response.
"It was a red guitar, Mama, and he was playing flamenco. You know what flamenco is, Mama? It makes your soul rise up and catch fire again just when you thought it had all gone to ashes.
"Yes, he is older. He is quite a bit older. Old as you and Dad, maybe. But that's not something you would badmouth, is it, Mama? I'm well over forty. If I want to go out to a cafe and dance, if I want to go home with a red guitar man with a wrinkle or two, that is my business, isn't it, Mama?
"Well, it looks like you are sick, and of course I should have called anyway. But Mama. Mama, mama, mama. He was playing that guitar. And then it was me that he walked over to. My table he sat down at. And he is still very handsome. And his eyes were shining.
"But that is not why I'm crying. Why I'm crying, Mama, is he offered me a job. This morning, when he made me breakfast, tea and toast and scrambled eggs ... as I was stuffing my fat face, he offered me a job. He offered, Mama, and I took it! I said yes! And that's why you and Dad won't love me anymore!
"Because he isn't always a guitarist, Mama. He's a ... he's a ... mainly he's a undertaker, Mama. There. That's what he is. And what he wants me to do ... what he wants me to do is ...
"I'm supposed to make them look good, Mama. That's all. You know, do their hair and pretty up their faces. Dress them. Pick their clothes out sometimes. Make them look like ... make them look like they're still living, Mama. Like they're still alive. Like will make their families not so sad. And what's so bad ... what's so bad about that?
"I know. I know. It isn't really you or Dad. It's me. Because they're dead. And once I start keeping their company, how will I ever get back?
"That's what it is, Mama. That's all. But that's everything! How will I ever get back? How will anybody ever want me back?"
Big Bertha heard. She heard every single word. But she kept mum for the moment. What Delilah needed back was not mere words. Nor any answer, really, that was not her own. But the boundaries between things are permeable, far from absolute, finally not even real, and that was a fact from her childhood that Bertha had never forgotten. There was an illusion of separation made of spaces between, but Bertha had come from her mother and Delilah had come out of Bertha, and it was quite plain to Bertha that no umbilical cords were required to unite what had never been parted.
Delilah could get from her world what she needed and at the same time it could come from herself. She just needed the right orientation, so that all the dominoes would fall.
Not till Delilah was done with her anguished declaration and reduced to sobs did Big Bertha stir from her feverish lethargy and lay a comforting hand on her daughter and say, "Let's start with you feeding Sir Barksalot. All that barking hurts my head."
They did look a little like death warmed over, maybe in the microwave where nothing gets browned. They were dough pale and sweaty, hair all over the place, bloodshot when they opened their eyes, their smiles when they managed them languid and bereft of anything but the merest appreciation.
Delilah took them in hand one at a time. She started with Big Bertha because Big Bertha was a woman and it seemed more natural, like when she had worked in a beauty parlour. All that was different, she brought the basin to the bed to wash her hair (and indeed her whole body), and Bertha never opened her eyes and she could not tell her mother to turn this way or that. She had to do everything just as her mother lay or could be manipulated. Bertha would not even move her lips to spread the lipstick properly. Little Mac brought the task home even more vividly. Of course, as far as lipsticks went, as a mortician's assistant she would have all the tints and shades and tones she needed to work with men. But he was also her father. And then there was Noah. To imagine her son as a corpse, even as a pretense, almost unnerved her.
Yet she knew - when she was done, and one by one each had opened their eyes (mother, father and son) and thanked her quietly and sincerely for her care - that she could do the job that fortune had conveyed and that her fears had been foundless and she would be all right.
In the twilight, as the land breeze swept the fog off the village and back out to sea, the tiny island in the offing known as Breakfast on navigational charts made a brief appearance. No more than a granite shelf, without soil or plants or any covering but a momentary one of excrement, it was thronged with seagulls and cormorants alternately perching and pitching forward wings beating to go after a fish. At one end a long-legged crane, apparently with no hunger in mind, slowly executed a number of intricate dance moves on the sloping rock, bowing at the end before ascending into the gloaming. As the tide rose, one by one all the birds departed, until finally, as darkness prevailed, Breakfast vanished in a white curl of foam, to be swept by the waves as before it arose, to be endlessly swept by the sea.
8 April 2018
Prospect, Nova Scotia