Alexander MacLeod’s most recent book is the short-story collection Animal Person.
In our kitchen, in a cupboard under the sink, there is a wicker basket that we casually refer to as our “emergency kit.”
It’s nothing, really. Some headlamps and a couple of flashlights, two or three unopened packages of batteries, a bag of tea lights, a box of matches, and the fire extinguisher. That’s pretty much it.
The cupboard is not exclusively reserved for the kit, so whenever the power goes out, usually in pitch darkness, before we can get down to the essentials, we have to sift through all the other stuff that is crammed in there: garbage bags and tape, scraps of old wrapping paper, Magic Erasers, tangles of string.
Our battery-operated radio also lives somewhere in this jumble. This is a device I have not touched in more than three years, not since Hurricane Dorian dropped a tree on our house in the early fall of 2019 and left us without electricity for a whole week.
Last Saturday morning, though, there I was again, fiddling with the dial and wandering from room to room, casting around for messages that I hoped would come falling out of the sky.
“What are you doing?” one of our teenaged children asked me.
“Trying to get the news,” I said. “They will have real updates by now, more detailed information, estimates on when we’ll get our power back.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” my son said.
He showed me his useless iPhone. Six-per-cent battery life and “no service.”
“Look. No WiFi, no data, no cell. Nothing is streaming yet. We just have to wait. It’ll all come back eventually.”
Like a dad, I thought I saw an opportunity in this moment.
“This here is a radio, buddy,” I said, and shook the little machine in front of him, an artifact from the distant past.
“It doesn’t stream anything, and you never need to plug it in. It’s just a receiver and it picks up on all the old-fashioned signals that are still out there, still being broadcast through the air, completely free of charge, every single day.”
I pictured one of those big-latticed towers, then a lightning bolt firing from the top, and all those concentric circles radiating outward. The exploding-pizza logo of CBC. This is where we turn in the worst of times, toward this one fragile frequency that we imagine will always be there to tell us what to do next.
Except, no. Not this time.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona, on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 24, for the first time in my memory, there was no radio on the radio.
Halifax, Sydney, Charlottetown: three of the biggest transmission centres in the region. All of them brought down and simultaneously battered out of commission. Rendered inoperable by nothing more than the basic movement of air passing over the water and the land at a ferocious pace. I couldn’t quite believe it.
In their place, we had a little music in the beginning, then the strange, disembodied sound of TV coming through the speaker, just an audio track without the pictures, the voice of a news anchor reporting from, I don’t know where, Front Street? Not exactly the front line.
I pictured her, Fiona, like an aloof politician or celebrity, refusing to answer any of our questions, as she quickly strolls past the crowds and the galleries of reporters. For more than a week, we’d done nothing but call her name, a word we made up to personify the wind, but when she finally arrived, she ignored us completely and never responded to anything we said. In her wake, our houses were washed into the sea, our fishing boats washed onto the highways, and our highways washed away entirely. Still nothing came back. Just this silence. The sublime power of nature touches all of us in such dramatic ways, and yet it wants nothing at all to do with us. I thought of the ancient Greeks and the way they often characterized their gods as arrogant, self-absorbed and petty. Zeus and Poseidon, stupid siblings, duking it out with their tidal waves while we are caught in the middle. That felt just about right.
Eventually, the situation with the radio improved a little bit – cobbled-together studio shows from Moncton, then Fredericton, cities that weren’t hit quite so hard. All they could do was take our calls, and even these kept dropping in and out at the strangest times.
“I think we lost you” was a standard refrain whenever the gaps got too long.
It seemed like there were hundreds of people waiting.
“I’ve been listening all morning,” a man said, “But I haven’t heard a single thing about Port Hawkesbury. When are you going to tell us about Port Hawkesbury?”
“You’re the first one to get through,” the host replied. “We need you to tell us, not the other way around.”
It was the strangest experience of mass media I’ve ever had, and the exact opposite of what I thought I needed. Barely any information was conveyed, absolutely none of it official, but somehow, as the day went on, hour after hour, voice after voice, I felt a weird kind of order being restored. A message really was falling out of the sky, something genuinely human to counter this massive abstraction. It felt like we were talking it through, finding our way, coming to terms. I remembered the old party lines we used to share, and the way people loved to secretly listen in as their gossiping neighbours kept going on and on.
“Just imagine if she’d been standing there five seconds later.”
“The poor little boy that wandered away in his shark boots.” (Thank God they found him.)
“It was a full-sized trampoline, right? And I saw it take off and go straight up into the wires. I’m telling you, like a friggin’ flying saucer.”
“Well, I heard Antigonish is completely underwater now and everything is ruined.”
“Tore the steeple right off the church. Isn’t it awful?”
“Unbelievable is what it is. Just unbelievable.”
“I don’t know what a person is supposed to do.”
I actually recognized some of these voices – of course she would call - but as these people kept talking, I started to hear my own internal monologue, maybe even a bit of my own hard-done-by longing, melding into this one larger incantation. All my inconsistent affections and jealousies, just like everyone else’s. The way my horrible brand of relief is so often directly tied to another’s loss. And how I can’t help it: When it’s been four days, and it’s my lights and my roof and my freezer full of rotting food, I do tend to lose perspective on the rest of the world.
Back and forth, up and down. Disasters and miracles, direct hits and near misses, complaints and celebrations.
I turned off the radio and went out into the street. Sirens in the air and chainsaws rattling. The cleanup under way. All my neighbours and some complete strangers, people who normally sleep in the park, temporarily brought together. What do you need? We cut through the clutter and got down to essentials. Coleman stoves for the coffee. Communal barbecues and a propane-powered pizza oven running full tilt. Everyone sitting on their front steps, lawn chairs in the driveway. For those first few days, we stretched the available light as far as it could go, our desperation mixed with appreciation.
I wasn’t sure if I was attending a party or getting a glimpse at what it will look like at the beginning of the end of the world. Probably a little bit of both.