Severed Branches

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Betty Dobson


I walked where Esther walked. We went where and when she said. Left to myself, I wouldn’t know where to go, much less how to get back. For the past week, we’d been exploring cemeteries. I’d used up a whole roll of film on family headstones. Only lost one day due to rain. That’s a pretty rare feat in these parts, I’m told.

Esther saved this cemetery for last. Maybe she thought I’d have to leave before we got the chance. Cut it pretty close, at any rate, since I’d be leaving in the morning.

She didn’t cry when she showed me her son’s grave marker. I figured she’d had forty-four years to accept the loss. Forty-four years of visits to a simple white cross. The paint was fresh and shiny. Crude black letters spelled out his name—Havelock Hendsbee, Jr.—and the year he’d lived.

“Seems foolish to me,” said Esther, “to keep calling him Junior. Never got to be nothing. Had to give him a name, but he’s just my baby. Always will be.”

I wanted to say something comforting. Or give her a reassuring smile. Unable to catch her gaze, I let the moment pass. We stood together watching the gray outline of Cape Breton blend itself into the darkening sky.

“Best be getting back,” she said. “Lockie’ll be wanting dinner.” She turned and headed for the road. Her feet cut a new path through the mud, parallel to our entry tracks.

“You’re awful quiet today, Peg.”

I stopped for a moment until I realized that Esther was still walking. She kept her head down, as if absorbed in watching the movement of her feet. I caught up to her with a quick jog. “Sorry. Just doing some thinking.”

She tipped her head in my direction. “And I’m just curious, is all. You been talking non-stop since you got here. Don’t got to say nothing you don’t want to.”

“Actually, I figured you’d want to do some thinking yourself.”

“That what’s called giving me my space?”

“Something like that.”

She raised both hands, pointing skyward with her index fingers. “I got all the space I need right here. Sometimes too much. I want people, I go to Halifax.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “when are you coming up to visit again? Paul’s been wanting to meet you.”

“Can’t say. Lockie’s getting whinier all the time. I swear, it’s like he stands by the door from the moment I leave till when I come back.”

“Consider yourself lucky. At least your husband misses you while you’re away.”

A whispered huff of breath left her mouth. “Sounds good when you say it like that.”

 

“You’re late.” Lockie sat at the kitchen table, bent over the Herald crossword puzzle. Exactly where he’d been when they left that morning. Doing exactly the same thing.

“It’s my fault, sir,” I said. “I wanted to see one more cemetery while we still had light.”

“Cemeteries. Don’t understand a hobby that gets into so much digging. Decent folks want no part of such things.”

“Ease up, Dad.” Noland came up from the basement, a basket of vegetables wedged under one flabby arm. “You’ve been singing the same song all week. If Peg’s not sick of it yet, I sure am.”

“Disrespectful.” Lockie grabbed his paper, rolled it and thumped it against the wall as he walked away. “Maybe I can still catch some of the news. Call me when dinner’s ready.” He turned and glared at Esther. “If you can trouble yourself to do some cooking.”

Noland set the basket in the sink and let the cold water from the tap run over the vegetables. He wiped his hands on his steel-blue work pants and smiled at me. “Don’t mind Dad, Peg. It’s not you he’s mad at.” He leaned down and kissed Esther’s high forehead. “I got everything under control here, Mum. You go sit with him.”

“Only way he’ll be fit company at the dinner table. You sure you don’t need my help?”

“Don’t worry, Esther,” I said. “I’ll give him a hand.”

Noland smiled again and smoothed his comb-over. Maybe I would’ve been better off going to the living room with Lockie. Whatever his faults, a roving eye didn’t appear to be among them.

“I should apologize,” said Noland.

“No need. It takes more than what your father’s dishing out to get me upset.”

“Oh, well, that too. What I meant was, I haven’t been around much while you’ve been here. Lots of work left to be done on this old place before tourist season.”

Oh brother. “That’s okay. Really. I think it’s great, what you’re trying to do. Have you got a vegetable peeler?”

“In the dish rack. You really think it could work?”

“What?”

“The bed and breakfast. Dad thinks I’m wasting my time.”

“How old are you, Noland?”

“Forty-six. Why?”

“No reason. How many carrots should I peel?”

 

“Lot of the old folks farmed to feed themselves, but they made their living off the sea.” Esther flipped through the file on the Nolands, her father’s family. “Course, when the soil’s mostly rock, you don’t got much choice. Ah, that’s the one. Promised you a copy and here it is.”

I took the hand-printed pages, feeling somewhat embarrassed. Esther had listed every descendant of her great-great-great-grandfather, John Knowland. Variations on the surname included Nowland, Nolan, and Noland. Her letters were neat and precise. She’d obviously spent hours preparing this list and would redo it all if new information came her way. And I used to complain about having to reprint my lists off the computer.

Genealogy is like a complex design. It seems random and chaotic at first. Little by little, though, patterns start to emerge. Certain names are repeated generation after generation. First-born sons bear the names of their fathers. And diseases flow through bloodlines like lava.
I flipped through a few pages and shook my head. “I can’t believe how much you’ve gathered in such a short time. I’m going to need another week’s vacation just to sort through it all.”

Esther reached over and held my hand, looking me in the eye for the first time since we’d met. “I don’t know if this will be much use to you, Peg. I’ve highlighted all the infant deaths, but there’s not much on miscarriages. Just what living relatives were willing to tell me.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s been the same on every line.” I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen. It stopped as suddenly as it started, and I wondered if it was just my imagination. Like the phantom pain of an amputee.

“Are you feeling okay? You’re so pale. Maybe a glass of water.”

“I’m fine.” I pulled my hand from her weak grip. “What about you? How did you and Lockie ever cope with losing the baby?”

“Can’t speak for Lockie. Keeps his own counsel except when you wish he would. Me, I still had my firstborn.”

“That would be Noland.”

“He’s a good boy. Takes proper care of me. Just wish he’d get on better with Lockie.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s all Noland’s fault.”

Esther stared down at her folded hands. “Might have been easier on everyone if I could have had more kids. Lockie deserved that much for standing by me.”

 

I couldn’t sleep, so I got dressed before dawn and went out to the chair swing in the back yard. The hum of the waves filled the night air. I had hoped that the sound, combined with the movement of the swing, would relax me enough to get a couple hours sleep. Instead, I watched the sun come up over the harbor.
I snapped a few pictures, then sat back and absorbed the scene. Fishing boats sat on blocks on the shore. Their hulls were faded and pealing. Stacks of lobster traps hid under thick plastic sheets, the corners of which were anchored by chunks of masonry. The traps looked as dry as the boats.

How long had it been since the sea last caressed those hulls?

I thought of Paul, of his growing indifference. Maybe he was entitled. Without some encouragement from me, he couldn’t be expected to keep caring. I was the one who moved into the guest room, after all.

“Mind if I join you?” Esther stood by the swing, a mug of tea in each hand.

“It’s your swing.”

“Actually, it’s Lockie’s. Like everything else here.” She passed me a mug and sat down beside me.

We rocked and sipped for half an hour before Esther spoke again.

“I hope Lockie didn’t offend you too bad.”

“What’s his problem, anyway? Afraid I’m going to take you up to the big bad city and keep you there?”

“In a way. Every time I go, he accuses me of leaving him.”

“Maybe you should. He doesn’t respect you.”

“But he loves me. That I’ve never doubted.”

“I envy you. I’m not sure of anything these days.”

“Comes with time. And more than a little determination. Kind of like doing the family tree. Some of the answers come easy, but then they just lead to more questions. You just got to figure out which questions really need answering.”

 

Three hours later, Esther and I stood side by side at the end of the driveway. She stared down the road, looking for the bus from Canso. I concentrated on the waters of the bay. The road could wait. That was all I’d be seeing for the next five or six hours.

The minibus lurched to a stop on the other side of the road, blocking my view. The driver shoved my suitcases in the back and opened the sliding door for me. Time to go. Esther hugged me and passed me a bag full of preserves. “I’d like to say I cooked every batch, but Noland had a hand in some. Keep the jars. We got plenty more. Be sure and share them with your husband.”

“I promise.” Esther smiled up at me and I started to cry. “I’m going to miss you.”

She waved her hand in front of her face and rolled her eyes. “You’ll forget all about me once you get back home.”

“Not likely. We’re family now, Esther. So you’re stuck with me.” I climbed aboard the bus and sat with the preserves on my lap. My fingers brushed the window as I waved goodbye. I pressed my hand to the glass.

Lockie came out and took hold of Esther’s hand. He didn’t let go until the bus pulled away.

pencil

Betty can be reached at inkspotter[at]hfx.eastlink.ca.

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