Authors: Stephens Gerard Malone
From watching the Brothers from her bedroom window on the other side of the tar pond, Elva knew a sexton usually worked the cemetery, raking leaves, setting stones, tossing out the flowers that inevitably showed up in violation of the strict no-clutter rule. Apparently, not today.
“Where is everyone?”
Jane didn’t care. Eating? Praying? Whipping themselves so they didn’t dream about women’s breasts? Elva was starting to wheeze again so Jane shushed her with a splash of green water from the wall fountain. It pissed out of the mouth of a woman’s face that had been chipped away in case any of the monks got ideas. The fountain had an upper bowl for people that drained into a lower bowl for cats and dogs, and the water always looked brackish so Elva said, Don’t!
They threaded their way through the mossy headstones to the stable, Elva the only one worried by the nearby casements, certain dozens of eyes were staring from them, fingers pointing, especially when Jane helped herself to a small shovel left by an open grave. When they reached the back of the red-tiled stable, Jane unhesitatingly jerked the handle of the shovel into the glass, stifling Elva in mid-wheeze.
“Don’t you start that! You wanted to come. Get in there and open the door.”
But Elva knew there was a dead man inside and, What if the devil is in there too with all those dead babies because the devil has them if they’re not baptized?
That meant nothing to Jane. Death was too abstract to mean squat. She dragged Elva close and, easily picking her up, boosted her through the broken panes. Elva clung to Jane’s neck, avoiding the sharp splinters around the sill, then dropped to the floor on the other side.
“Now open the door!”
Years of accumulated grime on the rows of glass squares diffused sunlight over squat cylinders of cheese stacked with mathematical neatness, going sweet. Elva huddled against the wall but no way was she going to look. Then a whisper, like an animal noise, came from the corner.
The voice was weary but
The memory of that whisper would dog Elva for years, rattling around inside her like the sea in a shell, always accompanied with the recollection of ripening milk. A strange way for the ghost of Alphonse Barthélemy to appear.
But the day when this terror became a sweet dream was a long ways off. A shadow darted against the lower window. Something was brushing against her leg, sniffing and cold and wet. Elva scratched the coolness of the dirt floor against her palms as she pushed herself up towards the door, away from whatever was circling her,
words struggling out in bits and pieces as she fumbled with the latch, until something too solid for a ghost gathered her from behind, enclosing her in wiry arms.
“Sweet jumpin’ Jesus, Elva! Not so much noise!”
Whoever it was smelled as strong and familiar as a man who had laboured a long day. Jane’s pounding against the outside door matched that from inside Elva’s chest, racing up to inside her head. He wrapped his arm around her face to quiet her while he pulled back the door latch and flooded the stable with light. Jane blinked, amazed, until the man dragged her inside, shutting the door behind them all. Only then did Elva’s ghost release his temporal grip. A dog, slick black with brown eye patches, wagged his tail by his side.
He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it and had it bouncing on his lips. The habit was new but he made it seem old.
“It’s not Dom, you idiot,” Jane said.
“Can’t fool you?”
“Never. Besides, you’re thinner now than he is.”
Not a word from him in five years and yet Jane could still tell Guillaume and Domenique Barthélemy apart in a heartbeat. Gil, like his twin brother, not overly tall, square of face, maybe even plain. And some people think the ocean is just water. Dom’s face expressed calm, reflecting an inner peace, ’cause he’s close to God. Or so his maman, Jeanine, claimed. Gil
was different. A funnel cloud just itching to form into a twister. Jane said Gil had an undertow and it could suck you down if you weren’t careful.
But you’ve come back!
Gil smiled and traced his finger around Elva’s face. “And you, my little marionette?”
Don’t do that, don’t look at me.
And Elva turned away.
He took her chin in his hand and pulled it towards him. “You still do that?”
Of course she did. What did Gil expect? What did any of them know? Elva certainly hadn’t forgotten it. Or him. How could she? Sure, it was just a comb, an old comb with some of its teeth missing. But Gil had remembered it was her birthday. Dom didn’t think about those things, and in later years, Elva’d attribute Dom not being considerate like Gil to his being busy with God’s work and all. Like everyone said, that was more important.
The comb thing happened on Elva’s seventh birthday. Jane, for her last birthday, had laid in the groundwork for her party weeks in advance, humming
Hap-py-loo-loo to me,
getting chafed in the hands scrubbing dishes without complaint, leaving out the flour tin on the table, even managing to be nice to Amos. The result, apart from Amos slipping Rilla fifty cents and telling her to get that girl something, if only to shut her up, was a tray of cupcakes from Rilla. Elva had seen them on top
of the icebox. Vanilla, with cocoa and cinnamon sprinkles on yellow icing. Yellow was Rilla’s favourite colour. Too bad Elva spilt tea at dinner and Amos said, Get out of my sight. She hated that she was always spilling things because that meant the closest Elva would come to those cupcakes was dreaming about them. But sometime during the night she awoke, like someone had shaken her. Elva hadn’t even noticed that Jane had crawled in beside her and was asleep. There on the side table in all its glory was a single radiant cupcake on one of Rilla’s best tea saucers. Elva would never know who put it there, surely not Jane, but she held it in her hands and stared at it for a full five minutes before she pinched off little pieces and let them melt in her mouth. She didn’t expect the same fuss for her own birthday, but she was secretly hoping someone would remember.
Amos said nothing to Elva on his way out to the foundry that morning. Rilla said, Happy birthday, Elva, and put her arms around her and kissed her head. Jane was sitting at the table eating toast and looking like she’d swallowed something that was tickling the inside of her tummy. No presents. No cupcakes on top of the icebox. Elva pulled her longest face ever as she sat down, too disappointed to eat.
Rilla didn’t like her girls to be around when the boarders came down for breakfast, so she hurried them along as she began to spoon out the eggs onto a row of
plates. That’s when Jane leaned over to her sister and said that Gil and Dom were waiting for them.
Really? She was being invited to spend the day with Jane and Gil and Dom, not running after them all like an afterthought? A genuine, honest to goodness, you’re coming too? To hell with breakfast! Elva beamed. Best present ever!
The boys were waiting in Dorion’s field that had been left fallow, next to the Barthélemy farm. It was already thick with spring clover. Dom was looking for the elusive four leaves. Gil was holding nets attached to long poles and gave one to Elva. His father used them to scoop minnows for bait and would skin him alive if he knew he’d taken them.
Gil said Dom had a school project so they were hunting for mourning cloak butterflies.
“I found one!” Dom studied the clover, then gave it to Jane.
Jane was picking off the four leaves, one by one. Oh Jane, said Dom. As Gil had only brought three nets, it was a given that she’d not been doing any work.
“They’re kinda black with white trim and little purple dots,” said Gil. “But they’re hard to come by and Dom’ll get a full ten points if we find one.”
Nobody expected Elva to catch anything. Jane said with that gimpy arm of hers she’ll scare everything from here right into town.
“I will not,” said Elva, and she tried her best to follow Gil and Dom, swinging her net after anything that moved.
Jane quickly got bored watching everyone run about for butterflies, and when Dom saw her sit in the clover and start weaving headbands from the mauve flowers, he set down his net beside her.
Elva’s breath caught.
“What is it?”
She was too excited to speak, to do anything but point. Gil laughed and took her net from her.
“Elva, you’ve done it! You’ve got a mourning cloak here! Dom! Jane! Elva got one!”
When the others joined them, Gil held up Elva’s net. Dom beamed as he opened his knapsack and took out a block of wood, a long darning pin stuck into it. Gil reached into the net and very gently secured the flapping butterfly in his fingers.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to mount it,” Dom said.
“No! You’re going to kill it!”
“C’mon, Elva. It’s just a bug.”
When Jane noticed her tears she said, “Couldn’t you put it in a jar or something?”
“Yes! In a jar, but don’t hurt him!”
Everything was a him to Elva.
“What’s the matter with you?” Dom said. “It’s a butterfly.”
“Yes, Elva,” said Jane. “It’s just a butterfly.” She let out a holler when it looked as if the pin was going to be driven home.
“Look, Dom,” said his brother. “Maybe not, eh? Let it go.”
“You know how hard these are to come by?”
“Just let it go.”
No way, and Dom made again to pin the insect to the wood. He would have succeeded had his brother not suddenly let it go.
“Yes, Gil!” said Elva.
He smiled at her, not seeing Dom fire up quickly and swing his knapsack, catching him in the face. Gil went down hard, and his brother stormed off home.
“Sorry, Elva. It being your birthday and all.”
She said it was okay, but the day was ruined.
Gil was twelve when this happened and still a year away from crewing on the
Amos was always saying about people like the Barthélemys, Don’t have two cents to rub together, that kind. Well, Gil didn’t have two cents for anything, let alone Elva’s birthday, but he’d found the comb in the patch of grass with the war cenotaph on it, next door to the Towne movie palace. Guess he thought now was as good a time as any to give it to her.
“Sorry, Elva.” He pulled it out of his back pocket, broken when he fell. He looked again after his brother. “Now you’ve got two instead of one.”
It was the most beautiful thing Elva had ever seen, even if it was smashed. A woman’s comb like the one Rilla used to pull up her hair behind her head. Only this one was shiny and full of colours like it was made from a rainbow. All Elva could do was hold the pieces in her hand and say,
Gil was suddenly embarrassed and not sure where to look.
Elva wanted to put them in her hair right there, but Jane grabbed the broken comb out of her hand.
Hey now, said Gil. Elva started to cry.
“Why’d you do that?”
Jane thought about being penitent.
“Because she’d want to take it up to her room and sit by the mirror and put it in. Then she’d see.”
“That she’s ugly and she’s better off not having pretty combs in her hair.”
But that’s not what hurt the most for Elva. That came next when Gil said, “I wasn’t thinking. You keep it, then.”
“Me? What do I want with some broken old thing you found?”
A gift too pretty for some, not fit for others. And only Elva remembered why she turned her face away.
“Why are you back now?” Jane asked, tucked in the gloom of the ripe stables.
“Heard my old man was dead. Figured there’d be a do.”
“You won’t be welcome.”
“So? I know what people think of me.”
“I hope you stay.” Elva had spoken very quietly, so it was doubtful she’d been heard.
“Well, don’t worry. I’ll stay long enough to make some money, get me out of Nova Scotia. Then the Major and I are gone for good.” Gil stooped to scratch his dog’s head. “He adopted me in Halifax. Figure he’ll look out for me at sea.”
“Don’t you know about the strike?”
“There’s always work.”
“Not now. Unless you want to, scab.”
He shrugged off the dirty word.
“Jane wants to see blood,” Elva suddenly said, finding her voice, wanting Gil to see her.
If Jane’s look could speak it’d say, Shut up!
Gil took no offence and led them deep into the shed. Elva didn’t care for the smell of things.
“Is that him?” Jane was whispering.
Gil nodded at the short bundle on the work table. “What’s left of him.”
Not much to see in the dusty, opaque gloom. Could have been anything wrapped up there. Bit of a disappointment.
“Is John still the sexton?”
Both of the girls nodded.
“It’ll be okay if I sleep here tonight. John won’t mind. And when it’s dark, I’ll soak the old man in tar from the pond and light him. Ought to fire up like a torch, a human torch.”
“You wouldn’t!” But Jane sounded hopeful.
It was not lost to Elva that Jane was touching Gil’s arm.
“Dom and Father Cértain have arranged—”
“The bastard’s better off in the pond. Save Maman the cost of burying ’im.”
You didn’t always think like that.
“It’ll put off your mother, you coming back.” Jane’s eyes were riveted to the coal-dust-stained funeral shroud, as were Elva’s. The air was getting sweeter, sickly sweet.
“Still down on her knees, praying for Dom to be pope?”
Jane’s face clouded.
Uh-oh. Foul mood acoming. Lately, all it took was saying stuff about Dom.
“And my good brother obeys her in all things?”
The air, thought Elva, so sweet, so thick.
Gil patted the swathed corpse. “Too bad you’ll miss your own party, Pappa.”
And Elva vomited quietly into her hands.
“Elva, you thing!”
The fresh air, the sound of water trickling into that fountain, was a godsend. Or was it that she had leaned
her head against his shoulder when Gil picked her up and carried her outside that made her feel better?
I always knew you’d come back.