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Fiction: The Story of Canada

Intermittent Warning

Intermittent Warning

Orion, my hunter-brother, is light: I’m sound.

“Robert!” he hollers as I lay me down in a wet gully with the whelks. This wasteland! “Robert Foulis! How’s your foot tonight?”

“Agony as always – yours?”

“Inflamed. Red. Same old scorpion bite.”

We each have a gammy leg. Every January night that clouds don’t block old Orion he shines his rime-sparks into Partridge Island’s tunnels and graves but fails to brighten us, will not bless us; shines only to highlight my long, low note, my A minor, my beautiful disease. Orion’s the limelight lad to my ghostly performance, my one note, my intermittent warning. I’ve a serviceable bed at grave-lot #1061 but prefer to roam Partridge Island now as I’ve done since my collapse that winter of 1866.

Presbyterians do not imagine this vestibule between living and the dead. That notion was for my poor friends of medieval faiths. But as pallbearers lowered my coffin into the plot on Juniper Path I rose over the snow and perceived the choice made plain to us all as we break the membrane. Not a moral choice, not even a personal one – it has less to do with individual behaviour than with mankind’s interconnected and living wheel. By the time St. Andrew’s bells rang in the new year of 1867 I understood the afterlife as the womb of science, algebraic source of light and sound. Through its labyrinth we can choose dissolution into primary motes or remain integrated to witness the repercussions of our recent actions.

In 1867 I chose to stay and watch over this land, a land in the process of gathering meaning unto itself by the kind of conquest long known to my European ancestors – carving a new country out of so-called wilderness. I met a youth, Taignoagny – also dead – and his brother Domagaya, who warned me Canada was hardly coming into being but was, even then, disappearing. Their father had been chief of the place named Stadacona. Canada, they told me, means headquarters in their language and was never the name of a nation. Nor, they said, did we roam Partridge Island but Quak’m’kagan’ik, a splinter off the doomed continent.

Now, 200 years after their warning, I continue to withstand fog and rain, shred and shroud, skeletons sticking out of mass graves in the mud whenever it rains. If rain abates I can’t tell rocks from skulls or old famine skeletons from recently dead snail-eaters. The eight or nine living holdouts are hardly healthy: derelict limpets sloshing on their house-raft. No one’s left in the towns. Not even a hermit villager. Nowt to drink unless they punt far enough from land to suck uncontaminated fog from their beards.

Had I really imagined my invention might bring life to a spot like this with man being what man is? Taignoagny and Domagaya were right.

Illusory hope! Nitwit of the ages!

In my lifetime I witnessed coal come in with cholera. Albertite with typhus. Kerosene and measles… a fuel for every disease and a disease for every fuel. Pretty green grass covered the mass graves early on. Since my death I have watched my descendants crack the albertite for dregs of gas deep in the shale, fill the tidal pools with chromium and formaldehyde, benzene and xylene… fracking, they called it.

I moan the low tone, my one dark note.

Was I young or old when this note first found me? I hardly remember any more – surely I was young – but no, I was in my 50s! What happened was – I think what happened was – the discovery must have made me feel quite young again…

Blessed note of my glorious invention!

I remember that night’s smells: 1853 – springtime—my pocket bulged with sausage Grand-Pieds Thibault wrapped as he shuffled through his sickly-sweet blood, suet and sawdust – I relished that fry-up, oh boy! Mouthwatering. I knew I had beer left, and an onion. I was starved after 11 hours battling my tide machine then half the night teaching Hyppolite Boudreau’s inartistic aunt and daughter to render a stiff hare lifelike. I’d run out of lampblack and had to use my umber which defeated my purpose moneywise… broke yet again! But walking helped. Walking pumped me full of possibilities. Harnessing Fundy! All that tide-power – same force that drove my ship on these rocks on my way to Ohio – such a softer place than this, but does a Glaswegian whine? He does not.

So many houses on Sydney Street that night and not one other person in any of those houses thinking about the power latent at all times in the bay encircling us all! What was the matter with everybody?

If only I could concentrate long enough I knew I’d conquer my tide machine. So help me fog, blessed muffler of harsh sounds. My brain jammed beside any screeching child or sudden doorknocker or drunken fight; a pup’s yelp assaulted me. I could not oversee men in my own foundry hammering ships’ knees without my homemade ear protectors.

But on that particular night fog silenced all of Saint John town – my head floated as if on cushions, not exactly contented but close enough – then I sensed the weird tones. Louder than the breath of Thibault’s mongrel following me out of the shop and wetting my knuckles with its snout. More insistent than St. Andrew’s bell asking faint and dreamlike through the fog if it might please yet be 11 o’clock. Oh silken fog.

I know now for certain man had no clue sound is life’s seed, but that night I was barely aware of it myself. Whenever Reverend Stevens reminded us that in the beginning was the Word I pictured that word Bible-silent.

How naive of me, for truly, in the beginning was a sound, a vibration that frightened yet enlivened man and for a while saved us from this tidal slime.

I felt the sound that night before I heard it.

A low tickle of vibration like a lover moaning into my belly: then, low in my ear, the notes. They belonged to each other, a family, but I couldn’t remember how they were related. They were tones I’d heard before in the same order but with something other between, something now missing. As I kept pace toward number 63 past the cracked lamppost, past Drusilla Aucoin’s Academy of Experimental Philosophy and Fish Rumboldt’s tavern and Raphael Bielli’s expired rose garden, I half-saw phantom missing pieces – herring scales, a few glittery remnants of high notes. They vanished! Only low notes remained. Dark and insistent, they dizzied my capillaries, struck clavicle and scapula till I reverberated from within like a gong.

In a flash I saw three things all at once –

First, I saw the great Liverpool bell that hung in the fog tower here on Partridge Island – hanging and tolling and crashing through fog that in no time sucked its peals fairy-thin, tentative and useless.

Second, I saw this future – anno salis 2067 – my brother Orion and I putting on our show for a vast and unresponsive audience of whores’ eggs and winkles – and I shivered.

Third, I comprehended from where that night’s long, low notes issued! Louder, louder, louder, as I neared my own house, with my own parlour in it, containing my own daughter, Euphemia, playing her stupid tune from The Bride of Venice, a piano tune I’d asked her to practice for her dead mother’s sake though I disliked it very much. When I reached our gate I once more heard the missing high notes the fog had pilfered. Kidnapper fog! So wily. But the instant those high notes rained on me again all late and silver, I comprehended what fog can and cannot do.

Oh, I well knew how fog ravened to swallow and wreck: fog and rain and wind, shroud and shred and dank rot, ever over us, hunkering over Fundy even now, with nothing warm to lick.

I perceived all fog’s devouring tricks and I divined, in that instant, how to outwit fog.

“Papa!”

I marvelled at how the notes seemed to vanish as Euphemia lifted her hands off the keys, though my dear Lavoisier and my even dearer Julius Mayer kept up their argument that sound, like matter and light, is neither created nor destroyed. Fog had swallowed the high notes as Euphemia played – and now as she halted space subsumed every note, high and low. Where had they gone?

“You’re drenched. Why is half a sausage hanging from your pocket? You’ve got paint all over your coat.” Euphemia bestowed on me my favourite glare, the one condemning my enthusiasm as pure lunacy.

Our house smelled of fresh coffee and burnt buttered toast.

I loved such smells and felt grateful to my daughter for generating them, though she also did things I failed to enjoy, like using my hankies for pudding bags and raiding my fly-tying box for yet more trendsetting modifications to her bonnets. Her mother was never slapdash or flashy: Liza had gone around in a fern-green cap the whole year of her death as if practising fading into Saint Helen’s field.

“What have you been doing? Your face is red as a tomato. I suppose you want me to get your whisky? Your eyeballs bulge like poached eggs!”

“Play that thing again…”

“Where are you off to now? What thing?”

“The thing from The Bride of Venice. Just play it over and over till I come back in, I’ll only be a few minutes but I need you to keep going, the same piece you were just…”

“You’re mocking me! You hate that, you called it the worst piece of sentimental…”

“But outside, outdoors, here, tonight – just do it, I need you to – for God’s sake humour me and play it! Play it and whatever you do don’t stop till you see me come in again.”

She pummelled the keys and began wailing the lyrics, which struck me as less foolish than they had done.

By the sad sea-waves I listen, while they moan A lament o'er graves of hope and pleasure gone…

I beat it back out the door and ran up Sydney Street and St. Andrew Street forward and backward and forward again to discern the distance certain notes travelled before fog engulfed them. The vapours rose and fell and lifted and dropped again, not co-operating at all. By the time I came back in, sweaty and irritable, I was confused. Euphemia pretended not to notice my return and continued pounding the piano until I retreated upstairs to bed with my eye-cooling mask and my eggcup of Bowmore. Euphemia had once again stuck her candle in my eggcup so now it had wax all over it. Thank you for that, Euphemia. Thank you very much.

I lay in bed and, so as to calm down enough to sleep, mentally catalogued a parade of my inventions to date: accomplishments of whose success I felt almost confident: my illuminating coal gas, my Hydro-Olifiant purifier, my Albertite mine-shaft diagrams, my map surveying all the beautiful levels in the St. John River from Fredericton to Grand Falls… but Euphemia’s notes crashed into the glories of my success and made a mad confusion that drove me bonkers. My whole head effervesced.

Outwit the fog!

I shot up again and bade her play the thing 10 more times while I strode out with my coat over my pyjamas and timed the disappearing high notes and their corresponding distances with my paces and my stopwatch. Then I rigged up the kettle and bent concentric bits of tin and leather that I punched with holes till I got the steam belting full tilt and the thing whistling like mad. When I glanced at the clock it was five in the morning and the fog was lifting in threads and fleeces all over the harbour, but I had my model. At half past seven I ran over to Rumboldt’s and hired his son Jim to take their dory across to Partridge Island, build a fire to keep the steam going, and wait for the fog to return.

Capricious fog! Where are you when you’re wanted?

Rumboldt gave up on me on the 14th day of full sun, his birthday, when he insisted on coming back to town to get drunk. I paid him twice over and added a side of Reg Sturdee’s bacon and he grudgingly went back for seven more days of blazing skies! What wouldn’t I give now for a place where the sun is spicy in my nose and makes me sneeze like pepper, like joy, like nutmeg.

Then, three weeks to the day after that night of my invention, fog rolled back in but wouldn’t you know it, so thick and fast I had no way out to the island to check on Rumboldt. I don’t always subscribe to Florian’s dictum – Chacun son métier, Les vaches seront bien gardées – but that night the fog was snot-green and opaque and I’m no boatman. I lay on the bed scratching scabs off my head and grinding my molars until a few bits crumbled and I spat them on the carpet. Finally I yanked my window open and let the stink from the shrimp plant sink into my quilt. Fog stole in with that soundless damp I’d come to expect of it, but then – from out in the bay came the curdling wail – chorus of saltwater constellations: Sea-goat, Whale, Dolphin and Sea-serpent – flailing over Sydney Street to Douglas Avenue as far as Main and Bridge streets, coming for us all as we lay on our beds vulnerable as plankton. Capricorn, Cetus, Delphinus and Hydra reared and lunged… Humans lay soft and small under the sky beasts’ devouring collaboration…

My sound!

Forth it roared, sea-bellow of ages. By it, the fog, assassin of innocents, compiler of shipwrecks, hoarder of rueful mysteries, lay uncloaked.

I couldn’t believe the sound’s intensity. My own tiny wish had somehow become stretched and aggrandized by magnitude of sea and sky. The booming moan was like a joke, and for half an hour I doubted anyone but me heard it: surely it was an auditory hallucination.

In the end it might as well have been, for all the good it did Euphemia or me or – if I look around me at this desolate island – for all it benefited anyone.

The city fathers heard my sound. They felt and feared it and diminished it, denied it and pretended to forget it and then they stole it, so that by the time the world’s first steam foghorn came to be built here on Quak’m’kagan’ik a little while later, do you imagine a soul remembered me?

Well, I hardly remember any of the city fathers now.

Orion, how’s it looking from up there? Any sign of life on the horizon?

People thought Partridge Island bleak in 1867, didn’t they, from their cozy hovels on the mainland. Nothing main about that land now, is there.

How far does man’s ruin extend?

Scan wide, Orion, tell me again – has anyone yet come home?

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

Author’s Note: In the mid 1800s Saint John, New Brunswick artist, scientist and inventor Robert Foulis was walking home one night in the fog when he heard a strange series of sounds. They led him to invent the world’s first steam-powered foghorn, which was built on lonely Partridge Island, a kilometre off Saint John in the Bay of Fundy. Off-limits today and abandoned but for adventurers who traverse its treacherous breakwater, the island was an immigrant quarantine station for a century and a half starting in 1785, and became a mass graveyard for thousands of perished souls, notably refugees from Ireland’s worst potato famine in 1847. Foulis had his foghorn patent stolen and died without reaping any reward, but his Canadian invention ultimately prevented untold numbers of shipwrecks around the world. His Partridge Island foghorn bellowed from 1859 until 3 p.m. on May 4, 1998, the day before what would have been its inventor’s 202nd birthday.

Kathleen Winter’s books include the novel Annabel, the memoir Boundless and story collection The Freedom in American Songs. This fall Knopf will publish her novel Lost in September based on the letters of General James Wolfe.

CREDITS: Illustration and animation by ISSEY ROQUET; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by MATT FRENCH