Short story The Retreat

Cape Spear in St-John's
Cape Spear in St-John's | Photo (detail): Zach Bonnell

Walking around, feeling and observing the distance that separate us from objects, loved ones, life and time. Paradoxically, this distance can create a sense of closeness with our surroundings and help us to remember. "The Retreat", a short story by writer Lisa Moore, living in St-John’s, Newfoundland.

The daffodils on the traffic island across from the Anglican Cathedral are anaemic, as if the fog leeched the yellow out the flowers. The stalks are short and the pale petals are folded shut. I am walking to Fixed for a coffee and then up Signal Hill to see if there are any icebergs. 

A gob of phlegm on the sidewalk, glaucous spit, and a single, dark clot of blood. 

I almost stepped in it.

A man on the hill outside the courthouse welds a weed trimmer. He pulls a cord and the thing roars. A shrill note, when the blade hits a stone, rings out against the South Side Hills. The smell of gasoline and mowed lawn.

I’ve heard there’s an iceberg grounded near Cape Spear. I can feel the cold breath of it in the fog. My mother and I drove past here a couple of weeks ago.

I’d like to exhume your father, she’d said.

Exhume him?

Because I want to mix our ashes together.

My father died thirty-four years ago, at this time of year, in May. Even in good years, when the weather is at its best, it takes so long for things to warm up in May. We don’t really have a Spring.

How do they do that, my mother asked. Exhume people?

I’m thinking it’s expensive, I said. Can’t you just be buried beside him?

It’s not the same, she said. I want our ashes mingled together. He’s probably gone anyway.

What do you mean, gone? I asked.

Washed down that bloody hill, she said. My father is buried in a cemetery in Portugal Cove, high on a hill, a half hour’s drive outside town. We don’t visit very often.

Duckworth Street in St-John's Duckworth Street in St-John's | Photo (detail): Zach Bonnell They are doing a lot of construction on Duckworth Street this morning. There are men in orange work vests with fluorescent safety stripes in an X across their backs. They are tossing wood from a building they’re renovating

Sometimes I feel like I can almost taste that fluorescent colour, the luminous stripes on safety vests. The lemon glow, low-watt in daylight, flashing at night. I imagine that if a colour could have a taste that the unnatural, alien yellow of those iridescent stripes would taste like the candy necklaces my father sold at our convenience store for a quarter a piece when I was a kid. Lifting the necklace’s elastic string, wet with saliva, up from my neck and over my chin, between my teeth, crunching the candies one by one. Or pop rock candies that explode on your tongue. Or sour keys.

My sister takes care of my father’s grave every year, but a week ago she said to me: Your turn.

She said: There’s a sack of grass seed on my doorstep you can pick up. Bring it down there. Just pour it over the grave.

The concrete border around the grave had been cracked, pieces broken off. The big burlap sack was very heavy. I pulled the twine at the top, and the mouth of it gaped. It was so hard to lift. I tried to rest it against my hips while aiming the loose mouth at the grave. Then the seed gushed out. I put one foot on what remained of the concrete border of the grave, and tried to jostle and shake the stream of seed in different directions by bouncing my raised knee beneath the sack. Dusty and green smelling seed, the bag at first unwieldy, but getting lighter and lighter, the seed pouring over the cracks in the broken concrete border and onto the bare soil of the grave. Until there was only a thin trickle, and the sack was empty. I phoned my sister on my cell and the reception was very good. It was like we were standing side by side. My hands were numb because it was still so cold.

Is that all? I asked.

My mother had one hand on the dash of the car, as if to stop from flying through the windshield, should I have an accident, though I was going at a reasonable speed and I’m a careful driver.

I wish to God, my mother said, we had cremated him. Nobody cremated anybody back then.

After a silence she said, Aunt Darlene is in love.

My mother’s sister. She’s eighty years old. They have both been widows together since my Uncle Kevin died sixteen years ago. They have travelled to Florida together, around this time of year, every year, since Kevin passed away. They’d go to the beach and drink rye and coke, watch the sun go down. Sometimes they’d get in the water. Sometimes they’d both just lie there, all day long, in the sun, turning as black as those mummified bog people they dug up in Denmark.

Just drinking in the beauty, my Aunt Darlene would say.

But this year my mother couldn’t go, and Aunt Darlene went with her new man.

My mother put down the makeup mirror and judged her lipstick. It was fine, I guess, because she flipped the visor back up.

She told me then that she had been invited to lunch with Aunt Darlene and her new man the day after they’d come back from Florida. Darlene wanted to see me right away, my mother said. Darlene’s new friend told my mother that Aunt Darlene had arrived down there, in Florida, dressed in black.

He made her take it off, my mother said. He said to Darlene, put on some colour. And that’s what she did. She wore bright colours down there. She’s still wearing them.

What do you think of that, I asked.

I think that’s wonderful, my mother said.

We’d had an argument after that, about whether I should have gone through the yellow light by the university or not. I said I had plenty of time to get through before it turned red. My mother said there was no rush. She asked me why we were in such a goddamn hurry anyway? We had another brief argument about the best way to get to the hospital. I said I was happy to take her there whatever way she liked. She said she didn’t want to go at all.

Then we were quiet. She had picked up her purse from the floor of the car where it had been sitting next to her leather boots. She had removed the road salt from the leather with vinegar, a method she’d read about on the net. The car smelled like French fries, but her boots were in perfect condition. She held the purse close to her chest.

I asked if she had been up to see the icebergs. And she brightened: Aren’t they gorgeous!

The truth is I had seen the big one calf yesterday. I had been up on Signal Hill when it happened. It’s slow. It’s very slow, at first. You notice the sound, like a cry. It sounds like someone in agony. Or maybe there’s nothing human about it. The cracking apart.

One part slides off the other. It slides away. They uncleave, the two parts, and one half slides under and while it’s sliding down, it also tumbles backwards. It sends up big splashes, two storeys high. The ocean boils around it as it sinks.

My mother said: They are really smitten. He said to me, Darlene is afraid she’s going to lose you.

What did you say, I asked her.

I told him that was just nonsense.

Inside Fixed it smells like bread and espresso. The windows are steamed. I order my coffee to go, and head up the hill, past Dead Man’s Pond and the Geo-Centre and new Interpretation Centre. There is a very thick fog rolling in. But I can see the iceberg out by Cape Spear.

The blue of the iceberg is the blue of icebergs. Nothing else is that colour. Nothing on earth. It has an intensity of hue that must have something to do with age. The ice is very old, of course, and it’s melting, dissolving. There’s the massive retreat of ice. The colour might have something to do with that. I can’t imagine what that colour would taste like.