Chapter LVI – Birk and Clancy Go Fishing

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk

and Clancy

Go Fishing

The unusually mild fall day warmed Birk and Clancy as walked along the lane that passed behind St. Agatha’s manse. Leaves had changed and were starting to gather on the laneway.

“Sad about her.” Birk stopped to look at the garden.

“Yep. Strange how things happen. Who would have thought what her future was going to bring her.”

“She was pretty one.” Birk said.

“Guess that isn’t enough to make a happy life. Good thing that isn’t your problem.” Clancy started back up the lane.

“What you saying?” Birk gave him a playful shove.

“Birk, let’s face it no one is ever going to call you pretty or even handsome.”

“Goes for you too.” He took off running keeping a grip on the fishing poles.

Clancy followed suit.

Birk ran a few hundred feet then stopped to see how far Clancy was behind him. Clancy had stopped running only after a few yards and was walking and breathing hard.

“The ribs won’t let me keep up with you.” 

“Didn’t think. When you can’t see the hurt you forget that it’s there.”

“When I breath too heavy I know it’s there.” Clancy touched his ribs.

“Mac’s taking that job at the steel plant in Sydney.” Birk said. “We’ll be moving there. He thinks probably something there for me too.”

“Yeah, so I heard. I figure I’ll go back to my Ma’s for awhile and then decide what to do. Go west I suppose. Sudbury perhaps.”

“Many have.” Birk said. 

Over past few weeks while they both recovered from their injuries they had spoken often about what lay ahead. Birk didn’t see himself leaving the island the way his brother George had.  With the mine officially closed many had already moved out of Castleton Mines. Some went to relatives else where on the island. Those that could were going back to school or looking to get trained in other trades. The Vocational School in Glace Bay offered courses in auto repair, electric engineering that Birk had considered. But the small size of the print in the their material scared him.

They came to the cliffs that led down to the beach along Blue Lake.

“I’m not sure I can hop down as easy you can.” Clancy stopped a few feet away from the first one.

“There is another way, you know.” Birk laughed.

“What!” Clancy said. “You never told me that, you bastard.”

“Yeah, but this one is faster. But we’ll take the t’other one this time.” He lead Clancy around the thicket and there was rocky path that coiled through the firs and down to the bottom of the drop. 

When they got to the bottom, Clancy stopped to catch his breath and to look back the way they had come. “You never said a thing! I’d never seen it either. Not from here anyhow and it is right in front of me.”

“Forest can be that way. You ready to keep going. Not much further.”

The walked up a sandy hillock and stood facing the lake.

“There’s the rocks over there?” Clancy pointed to a low shelf of flat rock near the lake.

“That be them. Last time I was here was with Maddy and Sal.” He had a lump in his throat. “Was hard to say no to Maddy today. She sure wanted to tag along. She’s been that way since Sal passed.”

Clancy reach over and put his arm around Birk’s shoulder. “It’s been tough times for everyone hasn’t it.”

“We can stand the gaff.” Birk tried to joke.

“Sure we can, but that don’t mean we have to enjoy it.” Clancy hand slid down Birk’s arm and he took one of Birk’s hands his own and lifted it to look at it. “This is healing pretty good. Sort of soft though.”

“What you expect.” Birk pulled his arm away. “That medicated stuff don’t harden the skin none.” He flexed his fingers. “But the ache is pretty much gone from what I put them through.”

“There’ll be scars, too.”

Ma says I’ll have man’s hands.”

They went down to the shore, baited their hooks and cast them into the water.

“You never say much about what happened.” Clancy said.

“Happened?”

“When you climbed up to the cage.”

“Don’t hardly want to remember that much.” For a moment Birk could feel that help[less sensation of hanging in the air, nothing but a black bottomless pit beneath his feet.

“Weren’t nothing to put m’feet on. When Red dropped so sudden I was dangling there same as …. the last leaf on a tree in the wind not knowing when it was going to be pulled off. My heart about stopped and I thought I was going to throw up.”

“Jez but I’d a crapped my pants for sure.”

“Not sure I didn’t do that myself. My coveralls were pretty much a mess when I did get up. Mud and grease from the cables and blood from who knows where.”

They cast their lines again.

“Worse moment was when I saw the the damn trap had to be pushed up, not dropped down. I had no way to get a grip to push it.”

“You could’a used your head. It’s hard enough.”

“Not as hard a something I can think of.” Birk nodded at the rocks where they had dried in the sun before.

“So what did you do?” 

“For some reason I thought of Sal’s bean plants, How they’d cling to anything and pull up and up. I acted a monkey and swung me feet up at it. A couple of swings and it popped open enough for me to crawl though. That’s what ripped me fingers up so bad. The grate was made to stand on not hold on to.”

“Christ! I wish I could have seen you from down there. When you went up we didn’t think we’d ever see you again, you know. Some thought you was brave and other’s thought you was a damned fool.”

“Not much choice. Did I want to die down there, waiting to be plucked up or do what I could? You know it was thanks to you I finally made it up.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. I began to sing-song to myself the way you would when we were working.”

“This is a pole, this is the fish, this is a wish, soon a trout for my dish.” Clancy sang.

“It was more this way, ‘This is the hand, this is the hold, this is the hand that finds the coal, this is the hand that finds the hold.’” Every word of the song came back to Birk.

Clancy put down his fishing rod, reached over and took Birk’s free hand in both of his and sang the song back to him. “ ‘This is the hand, this is the hand I hold, this is the hand that found the light, this is the hand that finds the hold.’” He gently pressed Birk’s fingers open and kissed the palm of his hand.

“What the …” Birk yanked his hand out of Clancy’s.

They looked into each other’s eyes. Birk broke the gaze.

“This isn’t catching us much fish.” he said.

“Then let’s get to it.”

They re-baited and cast and over the next hour caught several sizeable fish.

“Ma’ll be happy with these.”

Clancy cleaned two and put them on branches to roast over a small fire.

“Won’t be doing this much once we move.” Birk said. “Too far a hike from where we’ll be in Sydney.”

“You Dad already found a place?”

“They showed him a few when he was over to do what paper work had to be done. He says the windows are properly caulked. No more winter breezes. Plumbing too.”

Clancy walked over the the flat rock and laid down on it.

“A little warm from the sun.” He stretched his arms and legs out as far as he could.

“Usually is.” Birk stretched out beside him. “The sky sure is blue today. Not a cloud. I wonder how far I’m seeing when I look right up into it.”

“As far as you do a night. No stars to catch your eyes.” He slid his arm under Birk’s neck.

“There could be something for you at the plant too, Clancy.”

“Might be, but I’m for one of those mechanics courses. I’d want some job that is not dark and wet all day, like the pits, nor hot and burning all night the steel plant is.”

“That makes some sense. I’m not sure about all the readin’ though.”

“I can help some with that, if you’ll let me.”

“I figured you would.” Birk rolled to his side so he was facing Clancy. “How the ribs?” He swung himself straddled over Clancy with his arms extended and on his toes so their noses almost touching.

“Try.”

Birk lowered himself.

“Ow. Off.” He pushed Birk away. “I can’t take that much weight, yet.”

“How about you on me?”

Clancy rolled on top of Birk. “Not as bad” 

They moved their groins together.

“No!” Clancy winced and gingerly moved off Birk. “We’re going to have to wait a bit longer before we can do anything.” 

“Least ways we can have that bit of fish.” Birk pushed himself up to his feet and helped Clancy stand up.

“Yer little fella says it be wanting for something.” He playful brushed his hand over the bulge in Clancy’s pants. He let it linger there.

“Yours too?” Clancy squeezed the bulge in Birk’s pants.

“Swim?” Birk stepped back and quickly shed his clothes and splashed into the lake. “Water isn’t too cold.”

“I’ll be right there.” Clancy moved the cooked fish away from the fire, then pulled off his clothes to chase after Birk.

“It’s freezing!” Clancy shouted splashing Birk.

They swam away from the shore to a point where the water was about neck deep for Birk. They splashed, shoved and pulled each other under the water. Brushing closer and closer, stopping at times to press against each other from the front, from behind.

“Ribs hurting?” Birk asked with Clancy hugging him around the shoulders from behind.

“Not a bit in this cold water.”

“Birk reached behind and grabbed Clancy’s privates by the root. Clancy pushed himself in and out in the the tight grip and quickly exploded. As Birk felt the small warm jet on the back of his hand his own flashed out into the water.

They swam back to the shore.

“Think the fish’ll enjoy that?” Birk asked.

“Not as much as we did. Didn’t hurt your hand much?”

“Nay.” Birk opened and closed his hands. “I … we never did anything such as that before.” 

“Such as what?” Clancy pulled the fish off the spit and handed one to Birk.

“I never held your little fella. Never felt it in my hand.”

“You mind?”

“Nah. Shh … look!” Birk said.

A doe with two fawns came out of the wood around the curve from them.

“Beauties.” Clancy said. “True beauties.”

They watched in silence while the deer drank from the lake and then suddenly scampered back into the woods.

“They must heard something?”

“Yeah, you breathing.” Birk said. “Best be heading back.”

Birk stood and went back to the edge of the water. “Got leave a little something behind.” He held his hands in front of him and pissed on them

“You still doing that!” Clancy said.

“Have to get ‘em toughened up after being so medicated.”

“Here let me give you a little more.” He stepped beside Birk and pissed on Birk’s hands as well.

Birk splashed some of his piss at Clancy. Clancy stepped back.

“Hey.”

“Good for you, too!” He rubbed the urine into his hands then kneeled to dipped his hands in the water.

“As good as this.” Clancy aimed the last of his urine to Birk’s face.

“You bastard.” Birk jumped up and splashed Clancy with water he had cupped in his hands.

Clancy was laughing. “You should have seen the look on your face.” He reached out and took Birk’s privates in his hand. “I’ve never done it before either. I’ve handled my little feller enough times but never another one.”

“Your hands are cold.” Birk said. He cupped Clancy’s privates in his hand. 

“So are yours. But your member is warming up fast.”

“Yours too!”

“What are you men doing?” A woman shouted down at them.

Birk stepped away from Clancy looking around to see where the voice had come from.

It was Lillian McTavish coming toward them from the part of the path that was hidden from their view.

The two men gabbed for their clothes and quickly got dressed.

“Indecent. Shameless animals.” She was nearly shrieking. “Fornicators. Abominations.”

“We were swimming, ma’am.” Birk said.

“Decent God-fearing men don’t swim unclad.”

Birk had never seen a look so piercing in anyone’s eyes before. 

“No harm in it.” Clancy said.

“No harm! You weren’t swimming. You were … in contact with each other … you were touching each other in the most unwholesome, unnatural way. I saw … disgusting. How could you …”

She turned from them and started back to the path.

“Ma’am!” Clancy said. “I don’t what you think you saw but it was … it’s an old miner’s trick for the hands. To use piss to toughen them. That’s what you saw.”

 

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Chapter XXXIII – Birk Gets A New Shirt

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXIII

Birk

Gets A

New Shirt

They got their fishing rods & a net basket for holding their catch from the side shed. 

“Think we’ll try the Blue Ridge Trail to the lake this time. We can check the rabbit traps on the way.”

“Faster?” Clancy asked.

“About the same but avoids the town.”

“Don’t want to see the damage, eh?”

“There’ll be time enough to see that m’sure.” Birk wanted to skirt the town to avoid possibly running into Lillian. “Sides I … Ya saw how my sisters acted.”

“You mean about you playin’ hero?”

“Yeh. I don’ need people comin’ up to say anythin’ to me about that. It was something any man’d do.”

“What’s wrong with people taking notice of ya in a good way.”

“That’s not why I did it. When I get a good word about my work in the pits don’t want it. I hate to think people are watching me. Not that I want to be cussed out. The less notice I get the better.”

“Yeh I see what you’re gettin at.”

Even though of the snares had been tripped there was nothing in any of the rabbit snares other that bits of fur. 

“There’ll be more when they start to have babies.” Birk adjusted the snares. “In a few weeks we’ll have more than enough.”

The ridge took them through the fields of the near by farms. They bypassed one that had a black and white bull in it. The bull walked over and stopped a few feet from the fence to paw the ground and snort at them.

“Smell that.” Birk took a deep breath. “Cow shit.”

“Yeh.” Clancy took a deep breath. “Almost gets rid of that smoke smell.”

“Must be in our clothes. Same way the coal dust is. It’ll take a day or so for it to go. Unless it rains.”

“I’d rather smoke than mud.”

The less-used ridge trails were overgrown as they hiked though them to the lake.

“Good sign.” Birk said. “Means not many’s been up here.”

Low lying branches whipped at their faces as they made they way through the woods. Brambles caught at their pant legs. Every now and then a flock of startled pheasants flew up to their left echoing through the trees.

“Too bad we didn’t bring a rifle.” Clancy said.

“Yeah. I’ll remember where they were for the next time.”

“Y’ sure y’ know where yer going’?”

“Pretty sure.”

They came to a low hill clearing and stopped.

“Take another good breath” Birk said. “I can smell the water. Can’t you?”

“No. I can still smell that cow shit though.” He rubbed the soles of his boots on the ground. “You got a better nose than me I suppose.” Clancy said.

“Jus’ through here.” Birk lead Clancy through another thicket of maples and alders until they came out at a rocky outcrop about halfway beside a waterfall.

“These the Blue River Falls. This is where the the river makes that turn. Over there’s where we fished the first time.”

The elevated ledge gave them a clear view of the expanse of the lake. 

“You can follow along t’other side to where it narrows again.”

The descent along the rapids involved two drops. The first was about three feet but the second was nearly ten. At the top of the second Birk tossed the rods down, handed his lunch tin to Clancy and jumped.

“Drop the tin down to me. Gentle. Don’ want to break that bottle o’tea, do we?”

He caught his pail and then Clancy’s.

Clancy stood at the edge of the drop.

“Come on b’y, s’not that far. Yer taller ‘n me so you don’t have to far to go either.”

“Easy fer you to say.” Clancy paced along the the rocky ledge. The shale was solid underfoot. One side was splashed by the rapids. The other hooked back sharply into the wooded area and then became even steeper.

“Come on Clancy b’y. I’ll catch yer.”

Clancy sat on the rock edge of the precipice. He turned so his belly hugged the rock and he lowered himself with his arms. His feet got what grip he could on the uneven rocky face of the drop. The rocks under his left hand gave way and he fell into the air. 

Birk caught him around the waist and they both collapsed to the ground.

“Oof. Man yer eatin too much of ma’s cookin.” Birk said pulling himself out from under Clancy.

“Yeh.” Clancy stood and brushed debris from his pants. “You’re making a habit of savin’ people.”

“I suppose so. You only had a few feet to fall anyway. More important to save this though. Them cookies are precious cargo.” He picked up his lunch tin. “We’re almost there.”

The rapids fed directly into the pool that then flowed into the lake. They took off their boots and socks and waded along the shore to were they had been fishing before. From there one couldn’t see the rapids.

“Looks as if no one else has been here since us.” Clancy toed the dark ashes of their previous fire. “Not even that rain washed it all away.”

Birk baited his hook, pulled off his shirt and pants and waded into the lake in his underpants. He cast his line.

Clancy followed suit. 

“I thought this would be a popular spot for fishing.” Clancy said.

“Most don’t think to come over them bluffs the way we did last time. None cares for that climb down along the rapids either. Fishermen keep good spots secret.”

“Land belong to anyone?”

“County as far I know.”

“Ever thought of owning a piece of property?”

“A farm?”

“Yeh. Where you didn’t have to worry about where yer food was comin’ from. You could go into your own field and pick what you wanted to eat.”

“Like them apple trees behind our place?”

“Sure why not. That’ ad be grand.”

They caught a dozen or so fish each over the next couple of hours before they stopped for lunch.

“Sure is getting warm.’ Birk said. “Guess that rain’s holdin’ off fer now. Think I’ll set for a spell in the sun.” He rolled his pants into a pillow, pulled off his under-drawers and stretched out on the warm rocks.

“That orchard all you thinkin’ about.” Clancy said as he did the same.

“Nope.” Birk said softly. “I think about what we did the last time here. Rubbin’ on each other.”

“We did that to avoid the sins of self-pollution.” Clancy teased.

“Yeh. Only this time I don’ want no rock scrapes on my knees and elbows. I get enuf of them in the pits.”

“Happy to oblige.” Clancy lay on top of Birk.

“Uh.” Birk gasped. “You a mite heavier than I was.”

“Don’ want to hurt you.” He began to roll off

“S’fine though.” Birk put his hands on Clancy’s behind to keep him in place. He tried to respond with hip movements to Clancy’s grinding. The hard rock under him made it awkward.

He turned his head to face away from Clancy. Clancy was breathing in Birk’s ear. They pressed at each other for several minutes. Each trying to anticipate movements by the other.

“I’m going to …” Clancy gasped. He raised himself with his left arm and with his right hand he forced Birk to look him in the eyes.

“Me too.” Birk tried to resist looking Clancy in the eyes but Clancy held his head firm. Clancy’s warm spurt oozed around his member. He spent himself seconds afterward. 

“You closed your eyes.” Clancy said. “When you spewed.”

“So did you.” Birk replied. 

“Wonder why that is?” Clancy continued to hold Birk’s gaze.

“So as we won’t see what’s in t’other soul.” He returned the gaze even though Clancy had let go of his head. “Ma say the eyes are windows to the soul.” 

They lay a few moments with eyes locked. 

Clancy licked his lips and pushed himself off Birk and rolled on to his back.

“Yer not so heavy after all.” Birk said. “I think’s time we did something about that bed at home though.”

“Get rid of the squeak, you mean?”

“I’m thinkin.” Birk rolled to his side, head propped on his elbow. “We don’t want to keep waiting till we come up here. Not when the snow flies, at any rate.”

“Or till we’re both covered with rock scrapes!’ Clancy jumped up and ran into the lake.

“That’s right.” Birk followed, leapt on Clancy to push him under the water.

They dried off and fished until the rain clouds darkened the sky.

“Let’s get these fish cleaned. We can take the town trail home.” Birk said. “It’ll be a lot faster.”

They were passing St. Agatha’s rectory when the rain started. Light drizzle at first and then a heavy downpour. They were drenched by the time they got to Birk’s house. 

“Don’t bring that wet in here.” His mother said as he handed her the fish they had caught.

“Can’t come bare skin into the house Ma.”

“Go on with ya.” She handed them two of her aprons. “These are big enough for ya till ye can get decent again. I’ll keep yer sisters in the parlour till yer upstairs.”

They stripped down to their under drawers and hung their clothes on the clothes line. 

“That’ll save us having to wash’em.” Birk said.

“Hope the rain takes that smoke out of them.” Clancy haded Birk of of the aprons.

They tied them around themselves, went into the house and rushed up to their room.

“We’re in Ma.” Birk shouted down.

“Barely covers yer arse.” Clancy laughed.

“Lest my little feller isn’t nosing about.” He pointed to Clancy privates. He’d put his apron on so hasty that the hem had been caught in the waist of his under drawers. 

“Thought it was a might breezy when I rushed up here.”

“Want to come out and play some more?” He reached out and touched Clancy’s member.

“Hey.” Clancy pulled back. “Not till we fix that squeak.”

“What’s this?” Birk noticed a package in brown paper on the bed. His name was printed on it. He tore it open and it was a couple of white shirts with a pair of dark grey pants under them. On top of the shirts was a handwritten note.

He glanced at the note and handed it to Clancy and put on the pants and one of the shirts.

“What’s it say.”

“I th’ot you could read?” Clancy squinted at the note. The handwriting was frilly.

“I can when ‘tis printed but this writing stuff I can’t make head nor tails outta it.’

“You know whose it from don’t ya.” Clancy sniffed the letter.

“No!” Birk buttoned the shirt. The white dazzled him. It was a large on him. He’d never touched such a fine linen.

“It’s from her who you plucked out of the fire last night.”

“What?” The pants were too large. The waist would need a belt and the legs were so long there was a good three inches beyond his toes. He sat on the edge of the bed and rolled the cuffs up.

“Dear Mr. Nelson,

Please accept these items to replace the clothing of yours that was damaged in the fire last night. They are apparel of my uncle’s that no long suits him. I trust they will fit you. If not I will be happy alter them.

My uncle, Father Patrick and I dearly wish to express our gratitude in person if you would kindly join us for a luncheon this Monday at the rectory. 

Sincerely

Miss Lillian McTavish.”

“I’ll be fused!” Birk said. “She wants to meet with us?”

“Just you.” Clancy grunted. “Shame you don’t fancy the gal as much as I do.”

Birk bounded down the stairs to show his mother the clothes.

“When that package come? Who brung it? Did you speak to her?” He blurted before answers could be made.

“I answered the door when the lady come.” Sal said. “She had a pretty face but dressed no better’n Ma. Called you Mister.”

“Made us laugh.” Maddy said. “Told her there was no Mister Birk living here only a plain old Birk.”

“She asked us our names.” Sal said. “I read to her from the good book too. Ma made me to do that.”

“I had to ask her in for a cup of tea.” His mother said. “Not every day we get one of them calling on us. Told us how you have been so brave at the fire. Very pretty she is.”

“I think she’s sweet on you.” Sal teased. “But that babby isn’t hers.”

“Sweet on me! You know ma’d kill me if I ever took up with some girl when I have the two of you to look after.”

“Yeh particularly a Catholic.” Clancy said. “The priest’s niece she is.”

Birk paraded around in his new clothes. 

“This is how I’d look if I were a priest.” He crossed himself. The pant cuffs refused to stay rolled up. “Guess the Father counts on God to keep his pants up.”

“Birk!” his mother laughed as she swatted at him with her wooden spoon. “Show some respect.”

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Chapter XX – Birk Catches A Fish

Coal Dusters

Chapter XX

Birk Catches A Fish

“The crying’s coming from over there.” Birk nodded to a nearby back garden.

They walked over to a fence covered with sweet pea vines. A woman sitting on a bench in the corner of the garden was sobbing.

“Why, miss, what is the matter?” Clancy asked.

When she looked up Birk recognized her. “Ah tis her.”

He saw the bruise on her face and though she explained it as some sort of accident she caused herself he didn’t believe her.

“Come on, Clancy we best be on our way.” Birk didn’t feel comfortable in this part of the town and especially talking with with someone in the priest’s yard. After the way they had led on Manny last night he didn’t want to add anything to that fire.

 

They continued on their way.

“Burns me up,” Clancy kicked a stone on the path. “See a woman treated that way. Any man that’d do that don’ deserve to live.”

“We sees it often enough around though don’t we. Ma says it’s a sin but a good man’s fault too. Some wives can’t keep their mouth shut when a man needs a bit of quiet. I hear that in the house next to ours. He says ‘Give me a bit of rest’. She says ‘Rest! I got them kids all day, I needs the rest.’ And the next thing you know – bam.” He hit the palm of his left hand with his right fist.

“Not right.” Clancy shook his head.

“Another reason fer me not to get married. You see how fast I can be with m’ fists.”

“Yeh but who’d want to hurt her? Surely not Father Patrick, a man of God would never do that sort of thing.”

“True. Maybe she was speaking the truth. Ma slipped in the kitchen once’t and hit her face some hard on the table. Most knocked herself out. Bruise was bad for days after that. Everyone thought Blackie done give her a whooping.”

“Yeh but …”

“Funny thing to see her right after Manny jumping to defend her honour against us.” Birk said.

“It’s a sign or something do you think?”

“A keep away sign, if you ask me.”

It took them another half hour to get to Blue Lake.

“It isn’t a full lake, ya see. River starts somewhere in the hills there.” Birk pointed to some distant mountains. “There’s rapids along not too far that cuts it off, makes it swells up here before turning back into the river. Best place for fishin’ is along here.”

They went along the rocky shore of the lake. Then walked through a patch of purple wild flowers and scared a rabbit into the open. Some ducks squawked and swam away from the shore.

“Gramp Dusty used to bring me and Geo along t’ here. Dusty lost an arm in the mines and two fingers off’n his other hand – wasn’t much he could do after awhile but he kept busy lookin’ after us boys. He always said we was more than a handful. That’d alway make us laugh ‘cause he didn’t have hands. But he could sure catch fish.”

“Gramp Dusty was your father’s father.”

“That’s right. Lost the fingers when he was about my age. Crushed in a rock fall. But didn’t stop him from becoming the best fuse man they had. Then one shift he’d set the fuse and it didn’t go off. They waited long enough and he went back to check and boom!” Birk had held his hands apart as if he was holding a ball then threw them apart when he said ‘boom.’ “Not a chance to think of gettin’ away.”

“Don’t expect I’ll want to be a fuse man any time soon.” Clancy scratched his forearm. “Even it does pay more.”

“Company pensioned him off with hardly anything. He taught us all how to cast and fish though.”

They climbed over a small rocky bluff above a cove that was sheltered by maples and willows. There was a trail that lead down to the lake.

“This is best spot.” Birk pulled off his boots and socks. Slipped a basket across his chest to hold the fish he caught. He rolled up his pant legs and waded into the lake. 

“Cold?”

“No worse ’en the wash tubs at the mine.” he said. He cast his line, pulled it back, cast it again. “Gramp Dusty taught us this way to give the impression of a fly flying.”

Clancy waded out a few yards to Birk’s left. “Ya think she’ll remember who we are?”

“She? Ya mean that Boston gal. Maybe.” There was a yank on his line. “Got something.”

He let the line play a little then pulled it back. The fish darted up into the air trying to escape. Birk let it have its head then begin to pull it back in again. 

“Just a brook trout but got some fight, eh?” Birk grinned as he dropped the speckled fish into the basket around his belly.

With an hour they had caught a dozen fish between the two of them. Birk catching the most. Most were trout but here were a couple of smallmouth bass.

“How you tell ‘em apart?” Clancy asked.

“Can’t till we lands ‘em. Bass shaped a different. Trout’s got spots. Ma’ll be pleased with these. We’ll save the bass for her.”

“I’ll be pleased with these. Don’t care what yer mother thinks.”

Clancy found some dry scrub brush and started a small fire. 

“Let’s see if I’m a better cook than a fisherman.” He gutted and cleaned two of the smaller trout and speared them with a branch and held them over the fire, a little out of the flames.

“A grand day.” Birk laid back on the rocks and shaded his eyes with his forearm.

“Yes.”

“How did you end up here in Castleton?” He rolled over to watch Clancy turning the fish carefully to cook them.

“Took the train.”

“Yeh, I know that, but why here? You could a gone anywhere, Halifax even Montreal.”

“When my Da died I knew I had to something. I was still in school, you see, doing pretty good.”

“School? How far did ya get.”

“Grade ten. Graduated that but with my Dad gone and us needed something, I knew I had to do something for my mother and sister. Not that they needed much. My mother comes from good folks. She went back to their farm. I didn’t see myself working in some farm so I set out.”

“Yeh, but with schooling you could be doing more than raking coal. You could be one of them clerks, even an engineer like Blackie. Why break your back.”

“I had to prove to myself that I could do it.”

“I sees that. Wished I stayed for more schoolin’ though.”

“Suppose it was different for you though. Not much opportunity for anything else, eh?”

“Once a miner’s son always a miner. I knew I was going to follower me Dad as he followed Gramp Dusty into the pits. Not the same pits mind you but coal’s in the blood. No need to decide anything.”

“These are ready.” He pushed one of the charred fish onto a piece of bread and handed it to Birk.

Birk took a bite. “Not bad.”

“Nothing beats fresh air and sun to make a bad cook job taste the best thing you ever ate.” Clancy laughed. He took off his shirt. “Sun feels good.”

“Yeh.” Birk finished his fish. “Yer right about sun being the best salt.”

“You saying you didn’t enjoy my cooking?” Clancy swatted at Birk’s bare back.

“The branch might’ve tasted better.” Birk joked.

“You …” Clancy rolled on top of Birk and they wrestled each other.

It started playful but became serious as each refused to surrender to the other.

“Think you tough, ya mine rat.”

“Tougher than some soft arse like yourself.”

Unaware they rolled into the embers of the fire.

“Ouch. Ouch. Yer burning the hair off m’back.” Birk shoved Clancy off himself and jumped up. He dashed to the lake and dove in.

Clancy followed suit.

“Whoa that’s cold water.”

“Not too bad once you get ducked under.” Birk jumped on Clancy and pushed him under then released him.

Clancy surfaced sputtering water. “Guess I had that coming. Turn around I see how bad the burns are.”

Birk turned. He could feel Clancy’s fingers as they pushed his hair.

“A bit red.” He shivered. “Too cold to say in this water though.”

He went back to the rocks and peeled off his pants and under drawers and put them to dry in the sun. Birk did the same. They lay back on the sun warmed rocks using their dry shirts as pillows.

“This is the life.” Birk sighed. “Can’t remember having a quiet day away from the mines.”

“Think I’d rather be spending it with that priest’s niece though.” Clancy said.

“You got that gal stuck in your mind. You never seen a pretty gal before or what?”

“Sure but there’s something about her. I can’t say what though. She goes from my mind to down here.” Clancy put his hand between his own legs.

Birk glanced over and saw that Clancy was handling his manhood.

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XVIII – Birk Saves A Life

Coal Dusters

Chapter XVIII

Birk Saves A Life 

Birk and Manny shoved roughly against each other as they went up the gangway to board The Dingle Dandy. He and Clancy went to the aft with some of the miner they knew. Manny and his friends went to the prow. Their drunken shouting then singing echoed over the water.

“Too bad the engine can’t down ’em out.” Birk laughed. “He’s in for it though. Coming home drunk as a … I don’t know what. Won’t please his folks none. Sure goes to show how good them Godly Catholics are, eh.”

“Shows they know where to get Holy hooch.” Clancy said.

“Where’s those mine rats. There they is.” Manny and his friends clambered over the decks to them. “You know I could always smell you a mile away.”

Manny turned to his buddies. “Man was I glad to get away from this one. My prayers were answered.” He took a swig from a bottle he was carrying in a pocket inside his jacket.

“Surprised ya could smell anything with all that stink ya burns in church.” All Birk knew about Catholic services was the incense they burned.

“Funny ‘nuff.” Manny leaned close to Birk and breathed deep. “Ya don’t smell all that bad tonight. Though may be the fish rot on the docks has covered ya.” he laughed. “Or wuz you meeting some gals?”

“Nah,” said one of his buddies. “No decent gal from around here would want a hairy mine rat in her bed. Bad enough to find ‘em under the floorboards.”

“Could be a gal.” Birk nudged Clancy. “Right Clancy?”

“Lots of gals. Well one in particular.”

“Not from around here is she?” Manny persisted. “They prefer their men fully growed. Not half-sized hairy buggers.”

“Nope.” Birk  held himself ready to fight at any moment.

“He’s bunkin ya Manny. There’s no new gals here, less you count that teacher in Waterford.”

“He’d haf to know what a school was before that could happen.” Manny bellowed.

“Then who?” One of Manny’s friends said. “Not that one living with Father Pat?”

“What!” Manny turned to his friends. “No good Catholic gal I’d look twice at an orange rat. None. Especially that one. Did ya see her blush when the Draeger man stepped outta his suit.”

“Don’t be so sure of yourself.” Clancy said.

“What you mean?” Manny pushed his face at Clancy.

“She sure can tote a basket, eh, Birk.” Clancy nudged Birk.

“Yeh.” He saw that Clancy was talking about the woman they had seen going to the colliery.

“Pretty she was. Nice figure too.” Clancy went on. “Even under that apron.”

“You down low fu …” Manny staggered and swung at Clancy.

Clancy stepped aside and Manny fell over the side of the ferry and into the harbour.

“Stop the boat! Man overboard!” one of his friends shouted and ran to the helm where the captain was. “Man overboard!”

“Help!” shouted Manny from the water. “I don’t swim that well. Help!”

“Then try walking on water?” Clancy shouted back. “Or isn’t your faith deep enough.”

Without thinking Birk pulled his boots off and was about to jump.

“Gimme yer coat, lad.” Clancy said. “No use ruinin’ it for that fat arse fool.”

As he handed Clancy his coat the boat stopped. He launched himself into the water. It took a few strokes to reach Manny. Someone threw them the line with a life ring attached to it and pulled them back on to the boat. The ferry started up again.

Manny’s friends brought them blankets to dry off with.

Manny was shivering. “Thanks Birk.” he stuck his hand out. “You know I was joshin’. Hope you were too.”

“Savin’ you was no joke.” Birk said refusing to shake Manny’s hand. “Twas the decent thing to do.”

“Besides no one wants to be eating a lobster that ha’d been fed on your insides.” one of the other miners said.

Manny and his friends went back to the prow of the ferry which was docking to let the New Castleton passengers off. 

Birk and Clancy headed directly to the road that would take them to their section of the town.

“You still thinkin’ on that gal from the other day?” Birk asked.

“Not thinking but dreamin’.”

“What?”

“Yeh, I had a dream about her a few times since that morning. Some ‘at about her sticks with me.”

They stopped in front of the catalogue office to admire the goods on display in the window.

“Sure wish I could get a couple of those pretty dresses for m’ sisters. They would go crazy over them.” Birk said.

“I bet they’d go crazy over anything other than that calico you mother uses.”

“Twas cheap and she did buy a lot of it. Had to keep her from making me a shirt out of it.”

“I dunno, you might look better in calico?” Clancy laughed and darted away.

“You tuilli.” Birk chased after him. 

They stopped at the front of Birk’s house. No lights were flickering.

“Best quiet down some Clancy.” He dropped his voice.

They slipped quietly round the house to the back yard. Clancy sprawled on the bench by the back fence with his legs stretched out in front of him. He lit a cigarette.

“Hey!” Birk said. “When did you start to smoke?”

“Since that Manny dropped his cigs takin’ a swing at you back on the docks. Good thing you jumped in after him before I could or these’d be ruined.” He passed the cigarette to Birk.

“Makes you feel yer a proper man.” He held it in his hand the way he’d seen men around the mines do. He took a few puffs and coughed. “Not as if we don’t breathe in enough slag when we’re there.” He handed it back to Clancy.

“You ever think of getting hitched same as you brother Geo?”

“Nah. Ma says I’m all she got when Dad passes on. That’s my sacred duty, she told me, to look after the family I have now, not to start another one. She was some unhappy when Geo got married too. Though she understood why.”

“Sheila going to have a baby?” he handed the cigarette to Birk.

“What! Nothing of the sort. Someone had to look after them, that’s all. Ma saw the sense in that.”

“You mean they wasn’t in love?”

“Love! That’s foolish talk. If you marries everyone you loved, there be more married to their dogs than their wives, ya know.”

“That’s truth.” Clancy laughed.

“You thinking about getting hitched?” Birk passed the cigarette back.

“Me! Not much, but I know it’s one of those things that happens. Same as dying. Sometimes I wonder how it’d feel.”

“Dying?”

“Yeah that and getting married. I wonder if there’s a difference.” He laughed and stubbed out the cigarette.

“Guess we best turn in if we expect to get some fishin’ in tomorrow.”

Birk paused at the bottom of the stairs, flexed his knees and ankles for a little leap that let him catch the bottom of the railing. With a quick jerk he flipped himself up over the bannister and onto the second floor landing outside his room.

“Birk! How many times I told you I don’t want of that foolishness in the house.” His mother scolded him. “One of these days that rail’ll give and you’ll be on the floor with a broken back and I’m not going to look after you.”

“Yeah ma. You know we fixed that bannister so only a . . . a hurricane will budge it.”

“Don’t give me no excuses. One of these days you won’t be looking and you’ll land on one of your sisters. How you think that’ll make you feel.”

“It’ll give us one less mouth to feed.” Birk did a little step dance. “You comin’ up or enjoying gawking at me!” He said to Clancy.

Clancy stood where Birk had for his jump and measured the distance with his eyes.

“Think you can do it?” Birk asked.

“Not if I don’t want go through the ceiling.” He walked up the stairs. “You do that a lot?”

“Not anymore. Used to as a kid though. Knew it would drive Ma crazy. It was always a good way for me to get out her way when she had the spoon to tan me hide for something.”

In the morning Birk stood by the bed looking down at Clancy. He flicked some water from his tea mug on Clancy’s face.

“Get a move on, soft arse. Gotta get to the lake before the fish wake up. Easier to catch ’em that way.”

“They’ll be there when we get there Birk.” He pulled the blanket over his head.

Birk went downstairs. Sharing with Clancy wasn’t as bad as Birk had expected. His sisters took to him pretty well too. The first two mornings when Maddy came in to wake them she thought it was Geo come back.

Unlike Geo, Clancy didn’t move around in his sleep. Birk felt that he had the bed to himself after all. Geo was a restless sleeper. Thrashing about at night; rolling over and pulling the blankets, at times pushing Birk out of the bed to the floor without knowing what he was doing. Clancy hardly moved once he laid down on the bed. 

Though the friction between them hadn’t fully cleared up as Birk lost his temper more than once over some slip ups at the mine. He also refused to hear any of Clancy’s talk about the various girls in the neighbourhood. That wasn’t the way one was supposed to think of them. As some sort of object to pleasure a man. When he made it clear to Clancy that he wasn’t going to indulge in that kind of talk it became less. But he could always see when Clancy’s eyes were on some gal.

Plus having his ma overhear some of Clancy’s remarks. That sent her into a rage in which she threatened to send Clancy back to Mrs. Franklin’s if she ever heard that kind of diseased talk under her roof.

Birk often heard the men in the mines making coarse remarks about women that he tried to ignore. But in his home they were harder to bear.

He checked the fishing gear in the back yard. A couple of old bamboo poles with homemade spinners and reels that his granddad had fashioned. Nothing store bought for them. 

“Got anything for us to eat?” Birk rattled his lunch pail to get his mother’s attention. “Fishing builds a hunger.”

“Ya can have a bit of that cheese and some bread. That better turn into bread and fishes for us.”

“Yeh, I know bread and fishes. There’ll be some early berries up by the lake too.”

They set out to Blue Lake which was about mile beyond the edge of the town.

“We’ll go around town and the take short cut past St. Agatha’s.” Birk lead the way. “You’ll be happy up there.”

As they passed the backs of the houses along the lane Birk shared stories about the various families who lived there now or who had in the past. They forded the stream that ran off into the harbour. The next leg took them through the richer part of the town. The morning became warmer and Birk unbuttoned his shirt and then pulled out the tails.

“Feels better.” he said.

“How is it you became such a hairy one?” Clancy asked.

“Can’t say for sure. Geo hardly hairy at all. Ma says her Dad was thick with it, not as much as me though. Same with Blackie, his father was a scruffy one. Guess it skipped Geo and all that hair landed on me. Ma calls it my in-hair-itance.”

The houses here were bigger, gardens were bigger too. As they walked down one lane they were stopped by the sound of someone crying.

A woman sitting on a bench at the back of her garden was sobbing.

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Waiting for the Boats

Waiting for the Boats

most of the village had gathered

at the dock to await

the return of the fishing boats

wild storms the past two days

worry has made the nights even darker

the usual distractions

offered brief respite from our concerns

none could take the choir seriously

no one wanted to listen

to the moose bone prognosticator

even his words of good cheer

felt flat and hopeless

the village elders could read the clouds

with greater accuracy

than any of the soothsayers

reading those tumbling moose bones

 

we had being on the dock since early morning

since before the dawn of time it seemed

anxiety rippled through the crowd

as each cloud became clearer with the rising sun

‘that one looks like a grand piano’

which meant to some a grand catastrophe

and to others a rhapsody of a catch

by noon there wasn’t a cloud in the sky

and there was no sign of the fleet

some of the older boys had been sent as scouts

to the hill that overlooked the far side of the inlet

to see if they could see anything

their tiny ant arms signalled

that nothing was seen

this was not a good thing

no one was willing to leave the dock

 

some of the women started weeping

till they were told to get back to the washing

with that the crowd began to disperse

aimlessly we went back our normal routine

which for us children was

skulking and malingering

thinking of ways to get out growing up

and having to face the fishless future

we knew the fleet would never come back

that our way of life was now ended

all the prophecies were coming true

life was pointless struggle only made painful by hope

 

there were two suicides before night fall

the spirit had left our village so quickly

the leaves on the maple trees

in Whistling Woods shuddered

with no breeze

 

as the sun dipped beneath the horizon

a wisp of smoke scuttled across the sun

the first of the boats was returning

I wrote the Village Stories many years ago & although they are familiar for many of them I have no recollection of actually writing them. These versions have been checked for typos once or twice but were then left to simmer. Some where performed, collected into a sequence & some, like this one, were kept but ignored. I’m looking at them with fresh eyes.

I am working with some standard East Coast tropes in this one – the waiting for the boats to come in is real enough – though I never did it. Storms could wipe out a fleet overnight. I knew of men & women who would look at the sky & predict what the weather would be like the next day & sometimes they were right.

‘that one looks like a grand piano’ comes from Chekov’s The Seagull – seagulls the sea side cliche – so it was fitting to use it here in an attempt to show off my deep literary roots without distracting from the scene 🙂 Of course no Village Story is compete without a mention of the moose.

The sense of waiting also reflects families waiting after a coal mine accident – the deep concern for whose husband was not coming back to the surface. The fishing & mining families lived with this fear constantly. A sudden rough sea could swallow fishermen on event the calmest days. It couldn’t be predicted. There’s also sense of the loss of the fishing industry on the east coast – lobster is still harvested but the industry was destroyed by corporate greed & then the fishermen were blamed.

It’s also a lateralization of the cliche ‘waiting for one’s ship to come in’ – the kids questioning the value of the cargo of the future, the women getting on with routine rather that waiting, people unable to enjoy what they have because of their anticipation of the ship, giving up before it arrives. So, for me, the piece succeeds on several levels as all good mythology does.

Hello sailor.

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