“Why don’t you just make orange rhubarb like Aunt Monnie?”
My mother is making Branston pickle. Romy and I watch as she chops onions and carrots, her knife slash-slashing the vegetables into small, even pieces. The onion makes her eyes water, but she keeps on chop-chopping. The onion makes my nose tickle, so I try to keep it out of the onion’s way.
“Why’s it called Branston?” Romy wants to know. My mother is used to Romy’s questions. She says Romy is on a “quest” and when I ask what that is, Mommy giggles and says Romy wants to learn absolutely everything in one easy summer. Romy is five; I’m older, nearly nine and old enough to know you can’t do that, but young enough to wish you could.
“There aren’t any Branstons in it,” Romy says. “Why’s it called that?”
My mother doesn’t miss a slash. “Don’t rightly know,” she says. “Probably named after someone named Branston. You know, like if you made it first, it might be called Perry pickle.”
Romy picks a perfect orange cube of carrot and pops it into her mouth, earning a dirty look from Mommy. “And why’s it called pickle, not pickles?” She swallows. “There’s dill pickles and mustard pickles and bread-and-butter pickles--and that’s another thing. Bread-and-butter pickles aren’t made with bread and butter, either. Why are they called that?”
My mother sighs and measures out the required cups of brown sugar. If she allows Romy to think up more questions, Romy will maybe, thankfully, forget the ones my mother can’t answer. She hands me a measuring spoon. “I need two tablespoons of cinnamon, Leila,” she says. “And two of cloves.”
I’m proud to be old enough to do the measuring of the spices. Mommy says she couldn’t make pickle now without me measuring.
My father clomps in from the woodshed, his back bent under half a cord of firewood. The wind is picking up, he says. Actually, what Daddy says is, “God damn nord-easter, Bert. Dere’s a Jeezly storm comin’.” He talks straight, not all fuzzy like when he’s had what he calls “one too many”, which is pretty often, I’d have to say. Whenever we eat biscuits (Mommy calls them “cookies”— like the mainlander she is, Granny says) or when Daddy brings home candies, I’m always careful to not have one too many. I always want to talk straight and not make “s” sound like “sh”, like my cousin Alice’s baby who’s just lost her front teeth.
Bert, my mother (Alberta. Really, not Bert, which sounds like a man), claps her hands over her cheeks. “Oh, Ken,” she says, her breath catching. “And he’s still not back. That Charles. I’ll kill him when he gets in, making me worry.”
She brings her hands back to the onions and carrots. A stray piece of onion clings to the side of her wavy brown hair. I love Mommy’s hair. It smells clean and fresh, with just a hint of Evening in Paris. I pick off the onion scrap.
“Oh don’t kill him, Mommy,” cries Romy.
“It’s just a saying, Romy,” I say, a bit disgusted that she’s so young.
“No one else’s mother makes Branston pickle.” Romy sounds as if she really means no one else’s mother is an ax murderer.
No one else tries to grow broccoli, either. Aunt Monnie and Aunt Mary stick to cabbages, carrots, turnips, beets and parsnips. They know what grows best in our gardens. Mommy is giving up, I think, because yesterday I heard her say to Romy, “I expect all I'll ever raise are you guys. Broccoli needs more sun and better soil.”
“It’s an old family recipe.” Mommy sounds as if she really means the devil made her do it. “I used to help my mother make it.”
“Shut up, Romy!” I sound mad. Charl and I absolutely love Branston pickle and I don’t want my idiot sister stopping Mommy’s pickle making. I have good reason to be worried. Look what happened when Granny stuck her long nose into our business. “Ye’re too old tuh be crawlin’ inta duh bed wid Charl,” she says and then, what happened to all those lovely Sunday mornings playing hide-and-seek under the covers and Charl telling us about Toronto and the Eaton’s Santa Claus parade? Phffffft! Gone, just like that.
Mommy muttered something about some people having dirty minds.
“Why don’t they wash them out with soap?” I asked.
Mommy laughed, kind of sad, I thought, and said wouldn’t it be nice if dirty minds could be cleaned like dirty mouths. “I’d rather tackle a monster oil stain any day,” she said and I know how much my mother absolutely de-tests oil stains.
I don’t want to risk it. What would a piece of cold chicken be without Branston pickle?
“Just be thankful,” I tell Romy, poking her in the ribs. “Branston pickle tastes way better than yucky mustard.”
I learned about being thankful from listening in on my grandmother. “....dat one from Arnett’s Cove wid duh child ready tuh wean,” my father’s mother whispered to Alice Warren. “Still an’ all, she’s not RC, like duh las’ one, Mike Lake’s daughter. I put duh kibosh on dat one meself, had a word wid duh priest. Dis one’s C of E, so I s’pose we should jus’ be thankful.”
I asked Granny what’s an RC and a C of E and she said we’re C of E, Church of England, and RCs are Holy Romans. They call themselves Catholics, but the whole Church of every Christian in the world is Catholic, said Granny, and the RCs are really Roman Catholics and swear their all...all...allegiance to the Pope in Rome and they believe in God different from us. They don’t eat meat on Fridays and they say anyone who does will fry in Hell, that’s what Granny said. They cross themselves with holy water, too. I said the minister uses holy water to baptize babies and he makes the sign of the cross, but Granny said that’s not holy water, that’s just plain old water from the well. And the minister blesses it. I guess holy water collects in that big drain by the RC church. I wonder if it cleans dirty minds.
“Just be thankful, Romy,” I repeat.
As the pickle boils down on the stove, gurgling and popping, making mesmerizing smells, Mommy clears the pickle mess from the kitchen counter. Unless you knew her really well, you’d never think she was upset. She can wring her hands and mix it right in with wringing the dishrag, like when Daddy’s had one too many and she has to take off his rubbers and put him into bed.
“It’s getting dark, eight o’clock,” she says, giving the counter a final swipe with a well wrung-out cloth. “He should have been back hours ago.”
My father clears his throat, a sure sign he is just as upset. When Daddy clears his throat, Romy and I run. “Yeahhhh,” he says, looking up from his book about Winston Churchill. who was some famous Prime Minister of England during The War. “Should’ve.”
“Ken, look at the trees, look at the water. There’s a hurricane brewing out there. And it’s sheeting rain.”
“Yeahhhhh. ’Spect he stayed in Arnett’s Cove.”
“No point in what-ifs, Bert. If me mudder hadda bin a man, she’da been me fahder.”
Speak of the devil, as Mommy says. The sounds of feet stamping on the front bridge cut off this interesting talk, as my grandmother Perry struggles to knock clumps of mud from her rubbers. “Duh road’s a muddy mess, Ken,” she says. “Dat rain’s comin’ down like God jus’ opened a faucet. Charl’s in duh middle a dis. What wuz he tinkin’ of, a-tall, a-tall?”
“Gettin’ hisself a piece a tail, I ’spose.”
Now it’s my father’s turn to get Mommy’s dirty look. Romy starts to ask what kinda tail, but my mother quickly shhhhhes her. I hope it’s a little fluffy tail like Uncle Ned got in his rabbit slips last winter. Soft, white fur. I saw Harriet, Granny’s maid, knitting a white cap with a brown stripe. I’m sure it’s for me for Christmas. I’ll ask Charl if I can have the bunny tail for a pom-pom.
“Dis is all her fault,” says Granny. This afternoon, in Sunday School, we learned about Mary Magdalene. I think Granny would have been right in there, slinging the first stones. “Dat Slade girl.”
My mother shakes her head and throws another junk of wood in the stove. “Not quite,” she says. “I’m certain Charles had a say in the decision.”
“She got her hooks in ’im, right good, dat one,” says my grandmother, nodding. “That”...nod... “one”...nod. “An’ her no better den she should be.” Nod nod nod.
“Barbara’s a nice girl, Mary. Charles could do worse. She made a mistake, that’s all. And she’s paying for it, the way her father treats her.”
“An’ so she should,” says my grandmother, eyeing my mother slyly. “An’ if Charles--” she says the word extra loud-- “CHARLES drowns, den I guess ye’ll be paying’ fer yers, too, hey? Duh sins a duh fahders--er, in dis case, mudders-- visited upon duh next generation.”
Mommy takes a long-handled wooden mixing spoon and stirs the boiling pickle, muttering that if we lived in a civilized place, Charles could have telephoned. Set her mind at rest. Delicious dark odours fill the damp air. Mommy says it’s always damp in Newfoundland. It’s got something to do with the island being smack in the middle of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, whatever those are. She says fog happens when cold meets hot— and bedclothes stick to your skin and everything smells a bit musty, but I don’t mind the smell of damp when it’s mixed with brown sugar and vinegar.
“Makin’ her fancy pants pickles agin, is she? Pickled beets not good enough fer her? Still puttin’ on her fancy mainland ways, is she? An’ on a Sunday, too.”
“Shut up, Mom,” says my father. “Stop tryin’ tuh stir up ol’ soup.”
“What soup?” asks Romy, who has been so quiet, I almost forgot she was there. “We’re not making soup.” Her eyes are droopy. It’s past her bedtime.
“Excuse me, Mary,” says my mother, gently elbowing my grandmother away from the kitchen table. “These are very hot.” She takes the lid off the ancient canner and removes the simmering Mason jars with tongs. She lifts out the bright reddish-orange rubber seals and sets the pot of pickle on a trivet. Carefully she ladles the pickle into the steaming jars, wipes away any spills and seals the jars. Slowly, she lifts one jar after the other back into the boiling bath. “Couple of minutes yet,” she says and disappears into her bedroom.
“Now look what ye done,” says my father. “Git on home, will ye?” He follows my mother.
“Well!” says my grandmother, as she flounces out the door. “’Tis a fine day when a person can’t say wot she tinks!”
Romy grabs her baby doll from the counter and lies down on the daybed. She holds the doll with one hand and shoves most of her other hand into her mouth. Within minutes she is sleeping. I pull a crocheted afghan over the little curl of her body, like Mommy does. Romy murmurs and stirs a bit, but she doesn’t wake.
It’s getting darker. I expect Mommy’s couple of minutes are up, so I try to lift the canner off. It’s too heavy, so heavy I have to pull it inch by inch to the far back of the stove. To be on the safe side, I throw on another junk of wood in case the pickle needs more boiling. Like Mommy showed me, I light an Eddy match and touch it to the trimmed wick of the oil lamp. Its glass bottom is heavy with kerosene; its glass globe is already polished free of soot. Soft yellow light fills the kitchen and throws scary shadows on the shiny, painted walls. I partly pull the curtains, slide behind them and look out at the harbour. Charl told me you can see so much more when there’s no light getting in the way. Like you can see more stars out here in the outports when there’s no Toronto lights shining brighter than the heavens. The sea is choppy and black, except for the tops, which flop over the waves like soft seven-minute icing. Granny lets me help her make seven-minute icing for birthday cakes. The fog or the mist or the rain is so thick I can barely make out the dark skiffs and punts moored away from the slips. The boats dance to the eerie, screeching music of the wind, chasing the whitecaps and never catching them. Every now and then, the wind whips a vicious spray halfway across the harbour.
Someone is coming, winding along the narrow footpath from my father’s fish stage to the main road. Uncle Ned. I can tell by the way his sou’wester is pushed back over his forehead.
He stamps his feet and heaves open the front door. The wind catches it and slams it back against the clapboard. Watery mud drips off his hip waders. “Godfersaken night out dere,” he says. “Where’s yer fahder?”
I nervously pad down the hall to my parents’ room and put my ear against their door. If Uncle Ned hadn’t been there, I would have taken along a glass. You can hear better with a glass pressed against the wall. Charl taught me that.
Mommy is crying. My father, the usual cause of her tears--him and his likker, whatever that is-- is comforting her. Or trying. I can hear just scraps. You can hear heaps better with a glass.
“....can’t believe dat... someting ...twenty year ago…..”
“She’s right... right,” Mommy sniffles. “What goes... comes around... God... punish me……”
I knock on the door. “Daddy, Uncle Ned wants to talk with you.”
He opens the door. My mother is sitting on the bed, tears spilling over her cheeks. Her eyes are red and swollen, but even so, I think she is beautiful. I always think my mother is beautiful and I’m always upset when Daddy makes her cry.
“Daddy, Uncle Ned is here.”
Uncle Ned gestures toward me and the back bedroom. “Go on, Leila,” says my father. His tone doesn’t make me want to argue. I do the next best thing. I leave the kitchen, but I slip between the chimney and the wall in the darkened hallway. I have to be careful how I move or the kerosene lamp shadows will catch me and then there’ll be hell to pay.
“Well, Ken, bye,” says Uncle Ned. “I hates tuh have tuh tell ye dis, but ye haves to expec’ duh worse. John Joe Warren an’ dem found yer boat driftin’ just outside Mouse Island. Took it in tow. Had a jeezly time a it.”
“Nary a hide ner a hair, bye. Dey tried tuh go ashore, tuh no avail.”
“We haves tuh go--”
“Naw, Ken. Best ting we kin do, bye, is wait till mornin’ and hope fer duh wedder tuh change. Just be puttin’ udder people in a bad spot tuh go out in dis shit.”
Uh uh, a bad word. Granny will wash out his mouth.
Uncle Ned places a big, burly hand on Daddy’s arm. “Ye can’t see yer hand in front a ye, hardly. Fifty mile an hour gale. Gusts up tuh sixty, seventy. Where ye goin’ tuh go in dis?”
“My son. Where’s my son?” Mommy stands in her bedroom doorway. She looks from Daddy to Uncle Ned. “Sweet Jesus, what’s happened to my son?”
“Our son,” says Dad.
My mother’s mouth drops open and big fat tears chase each other down her angel’s face. “Oh Ken,” she says, and I’ve never ever heard her use that soft, lovey-dovey voice with him. With us, yes. Him, uh huh!
“Oh Ken,” she says again and reaches for his hand.
“Where’s me boat?”
“Ken, ye’re not in yer right mind, now,” says Uncle Ned. “In any case, yer boat’s not goin’ tuh help ye. Duh engine’s shot.”
“Loan me yer skiff, Ned,” says my father. He grabs hold of Uncle Ned’s shoulders. He sounds like me when I want to stay up late. “Ned, I needs yer boat.”
Uncle Ned pushes away his brother’s arms. “Dis is madness, Ken. Madness, ye hear?”
“Ye knows I’d give ye mine.”
Uncle Ned throws up his hands. “OK, all right, by Jesus, go kill yerself if dass wot ye wants. Take duh shaggin’ boat!” Another bad word. Granny’s gonna be busy.
“Dear God,” says my mother and I can tell she’s doesn’t want to lose her husband, our father, but she dearly wants to rescue her son, my big darling half-brother, whole-hero Charl. My father holds her tight against his chest and mutters something about never throwing it up to her again long as he lives and if Charl gets out of this alive, he’ll take the pledge, honest to God, so he will, and barges out the door.
“Hang on, fer Christ’s sake,” shouts Uncle Ned. “I’m comin’ wid ye. Ye don’t tink I’d let ye go out dere alone, duh ye?”
Mommy sits in the rocking chair and buries her head in her lap. I kneel on a kitchen chair and watch my father and his brother pick their way through the waving grass and bushes. They’re gone, I think. I may never see them again. Suddenly, no matter what Mary Ellen Warren says about crybabies, I want to throw my arms around my mother’s neck and sob. Instead, I stay glued to the window, watching the mist collect into drops that slide, slide, slide down the windowpane, down the smaller and smaller backs of Daddy and Uncle Ned. As tears slide, slide down my face, I watch until the fog and mist swallow them.
“They’ll be dead,” says Mommy, lifting her head from her lap. “Charles. Ned. Ken. They’ll all be dead.”
I can’t see the harbour any more. Lightning sparks across the dark sky, like the flankers from Granny’s chimney when she throws on a fresh junk of wood, only bigger. One bushel of thunder, two bushels of thunder. God is kicking puncheon barrels across the sky and not empty barrels either. Barrels filled with tons and tons of beach rocks. The wind howls like a mad wolf. I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow--just like when the roof blew off Annie Mae Brown’s store
There’s a light moving along the jetty road. One light, no, two lights, trying to break through the thick fog, scary, like the moon when it has rings around it. The lights travel past the jetty, disappear under the high road hill, then shine again at the top of the hill. Past Uncle Ned’s house by the fish plant, past Mary Ellen’s house, past Rodney Smith’s shop next door.
“Mommy, look at the car.”
“Car, Leila? Who in his right mind would be out on a night like this if he didn’t have to be?” She answers herself. “No one.”
“But there is a car. It’s pulling into our lane. See?”
My mother pushes the curtains back. “Is it Jack Mann? Albert Simmons? They’re the only cars in Jassies’s Harbour, far as I know.”
A dim figure gets out of the strange car and my prim and proper mother bolts back from the window, hollering and screaming, dancing up and down, behaviour that would get Romy and me a smack on the behind. “It’s Charles,” she shouts. “Oh, my God, it’s Charles!”
“Charl? Where?” The noise has wakened Romy. “Is he back?” She yells at Mommy, don’t kill him, please, Mommy, don’t kill him and Mommy says don’t be silly, Romy, that’s just a saying.
My mother throws open the door, heedless of it banging on the clapboard. She is halfway down the slippery steps in her stocking feet when Charl reaches her. Romy and I are two foggy shadows, right behind her. Charl’s very wet, but he’s alive, we can tell. Ghosts don’t hug their mothers like that. Ghost don’t say, “Now, now, Mom, no need to cry. I’m all right.” Ghosts don’t throw their sisters up in the air.
“This is Mike Lake from Rannie Harbour, Mom,” Charl says, setting Romy on the bridge and pointing to the dried-up little man who has followed him from the strange car. “Give him a good stiff shot of rum, will you? He got pretty bloody wet pulling me out of Salmon Gulch. I could do with one myself. Like to catch pneumonia, the both of us.”
“Come on in, Mr. Lake. Thank God you were there. No, no, never mind the wet. Come on in.”
And I think, Rannie Harbour is where all the RCs live. Mike Lake is RC or at least his daughter is and Mommy just asked him in. Granny’s gonna have a conniption fit. Another of those queer mainland ways, she’ll say.
Charl stops. “What’s that lovely smell?” he says, scrunching his nose into a huge sniff.
“We made your favourite, Charl,” shouts Romy as if she’d cooked the pickle all by herself. And she didn’t even measure out the cloves.
“Branston pickle,” he laughs. “ Do y’know, it was the thought of fresh Branston that kept me fighting in that water. The wind gusted, knocked me overboard and I thought, I’m not ready to go yet, not till I tasted Mom’s first batch of Branston pickle.”
My mother laughs, a happy tinkling laugh. “Go on,” she says, shoving Charl toward the kitchen. “Get on with ye.”
Charl looks around. “Where’s Ken?” He raises his voice. “Ken? Ken?”
“Oh my Lord, Charl,” says my mother. Not Charles, mind you. Charl. “You’re wet already. Run down to the wharf and head off your father before he drowns himself and your Uncle Ned in the bargain. Tell him we’re celebratin’ wid a drop a Captain Morgan.”
Copyright 2002 Ev McTaggart