Chapter XXVI – Lillian Gets A Letter

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXVI 

Lillian Gets A Letter

Lillian paced in the dining room as her uncle talked in the parlour with the Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Convent in Sydney. Her bruise was still visible but not longer as vivid. She was dismayed to see how quickly it faded away but she resisted the temptation to pinch it in an attempt to make it last longer. She was grateful that she had not been confined to the rectory as she first feared. With the miner’s on strike her uncle had more pressing matters to attend to but made it clear she would be sent to the Convent as soon as it could be arranged.

As she paced she plotted. If he thought she would go into some cloistered life willingly he was mistaken. She would see to it that he regretted any further action to punish her in any way. She had hoped the sight of the bruise would result in his parishioners losing respect for him but other than being mildly surprised at it, they were mostly indifferent. No one had asked how it happened. 

The women had been more sympathetic but even they were not shocked. It was acceptable to them that a man would raise his hand to a woman if her behaviour called for it. Even if than man was a man of God. Even if her behaviour didn’t call for it.

“Lillian if you would care to join us?” her uncle said softly as he opened the door of the parlour.

She stepped resolutely into the room. The first thing that hit her was the smell. It was of something unwashed but wet at the same time. It made her think of dogs coming into her house in Boston after the rain. She had to restrain herself from sniffing. She kept he face as placid as possible.

The Mother Superior was larger than she expected. She was nearly as tall as her uncle but with a more ample figure. Clearly the nuns ate well. Lillian had the impression that nuns were small, thin women in big black cloaks.

“It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Sister Claire. Sister Claire my niece Lillian McTavish.”

Sister Claire stood and took Lillian by the hand. Lillian shook the sister’s hand. The nun’s hand was as rough as hers. Nuns didn’t have soft dainty hands after all. The Mother’s nails were uneven, some broken along the edge. Her knuckles red, rough and the back of one was mottled purple.

“Happy to make your acquaintance, Lillian. The lilies of our community do both grow and toil. We spin not, mind you, but we make easy the lives of those around us. It is propitious that we finally have a Lillian join the lilies.”

The Mother gave a small laugh and pushed her wimple back. The dark habit framed her oval face. Her eyes were a clear blue nestled in creases. Lillian was used to wrinkles but these marks were deeper. The right eyelid was lower than the left.

“Thank you … Sister. Mother Superior?” As an adult Lillian had never been introduced to a nun before. 

“Sister will do nicely if I can call you Lily?”

“Yes. Sister.” She hadn’t been called Lily since she was a child. Insisting on having her full name used had been one of the first things she was adamant about when she turned sixteen.

“Your uncle has been telling me that adapting to life here has been difficult for you.”

“At first.” Lillian stepped back. Her hands, now hidden under her apron, were restlessly squeezing each other. Would her hands look like the Mother Superior’s in a couple of years. 

“Did you find it that easy, Father Patrick? When you first arrived at St. Agatha’s parish?”

“I was quick to adapt, Sister, but … well … after the seminary it was a bit … of a challenge to be amongst ordinary folks again.”

“It is so much easier for a man to adapt isn’t it Father. Particularly one who feels, as you have demonstrated, that it is a natural part of his calling. A sacred vocation.”

“Yes, but Sister Claire, we’re here to discuss Lillian’s future prospects.”

“I know that but I wanted to make it clear that we are all aware of the challenges any new life will present.” She smiled. “What is easy for one may not be as simple for another. Now I wish to speak with Lillian.”

“Of course.” Father Patrick sat in his usual chair.

“Alone.”

“Ah …” He stood.

Lillian looked from Sister Claire to her uncle. She was amused at his discomfort. She had seen no one disconcert him this way since she arrived.

“Surely, you, of all men, must understand there are some things that require privacy.”

“Yes … uh … I do have matters to deal with at the church office. If you’ll excuse me.” He shook hands with the Mother Superior and left the room.

Sister Claire went to the window and waved to Father Patrick as he went down the front path.

“I had to make sure he was actually going.” She said. “before we spoke. I’ve learned never to trust a man.” She tittered and sat heavily in the chair the father had vacated.

Lillian was once again struck by the smell as the Mother’s habit unfolded around her. The hem of the tunic was dusty and frayed. The sleeve cuffs had been mended and there were square patches of a nearly matching serge on the elbows.

“I see you looking at my habit.” The Mother Superior said. “I know it has seen better days but those days have so full of grace I have found it hard to … replace it with a newer one. As you see I wear the double veil that represents my consecration to God.”

“Yes, I know. We had visiting sisters come to our school to explain some of these things.” Lillian served tea.

“Please sit Lily. There is no reason to be uncomfortable with me. I do have your best interests at heart.”

“Yes, Sister.” She sat in one of the side chairs. 

“Father Patrick is most concerned about your position in life.” Sh reached over to take Lillian by the hand.

“I know that but …”

“Hear me then I’ll listen to your ‘buts.’ He wants to protect you from the temptations of the world that are around us all. You may feel this is unreasonable on his part but your past indiscretions make it clear you are not a girl who can be trusted to make the wisest decisions on her own behalf.”

“So he has told you about Mr. Dunham?” Lillian stood.

“Yes, but that is not most concerns him. It is the attentions of Mr. O’Dowell that causes him the most concern.”

“But …”

“I told you no ‘buts.’ I have also spoken with Anthea O’Dowell and am fully aware that you have not sought such attentions. It has always been unfair to me that the pretty are blamed for how others respond to their prettiness. Yes, it is clear that often men are the victims of their own longings and hungers and it is up to us women to protect them from acting in unwholesome carnal ways. Their longings can be even more crippling than the chains that bound Christ.”

“How can we control hungers that we have not caused? Women have to live in this world with these men.” Lillian sat.

“Not necessarily so Lily. Which is why your uncle has asked me to speak with you today. He is concerned with your very soul. If you are incapable or unwilling to armour yourself then action must be taken.”

“Is that why you are in the convent Sister. To hide yourself from the eyes of men.” Lillian asked.

“We are the Brides of Christ. Some, to be sure, have hidden themselves with us, but most of our order does not hide. We have decided to surrender our human desires to confirm our dedication to spiritual fulfillment. We seek our protection from Christ so that we may work among His children. Although we are female, men stop seeing us as such but come to recognize us as emissaries of grace. Our very garment signifies taking on a new life in Christ.”

The idea of being protected from the unsavoury, and unwelcome, attentions of men appealed to Lillian. “I understand that it would be a blessing not to have to worry about pleasing mean or living one’s life at their beck and call. But if the price is to remove myself from the world around me I don’t know if I am strong.”

“What is it you have missed most of your life in Boston since coming here?”

“My family.” Lillian didn’t hesitate. “Being able to see my mother or father when I wanted to. To be able to come and go from my house as I pleased. To listen to my brother talking about his business affairs.”

“But those are sacrifices all women must make as we get older. If you married you would have to leave your family home, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything you don’t miss.”

Lillian sipped her tea and thought for a minute. “Yes! Here I no longer have to concern myself so much with how I look. There is no need to prepare my hair in the morning to do my chores, to face my uncle. I don’t have to select the right dress to wear. Those were things I once enjoyed, looked forward to, but now that I don’t, my life is much easier.”

“Then perhaps you have already heeded part of your calling?” Sister Claire said.

“Calling?”

“To be a sister is a calling, an avocation. It is to be free of …. adornment. Father Patrick didn’t become a priest on a whim. He knew he was making certain sacrifices to serve Our Lord. Sacrifices he gladly made.”

“I understand that. Being here isn’t a sacrifice I wanted to make. How would he have reacted if the priesthood had been forced upon him?”

“What is that you want Lily? What do you see in your future?”

“I expect to return to Boston, of course. To return to my family. Their intent in sending me was to spare my father any embarrassment in his political career.”

“How long do think he expects to be spared?” She took an envelope out from a fold in her habit.

“I … I had hoped to be home before Christmas. For my bother’s wedding.”

“Father Patrick had two reasons he wanted me to talk with you. One was to get a sense of your willingness to consider our vocation. The other was this …” she handed Lillian the envelope.

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Chapter XXV – Birk In The Mud

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXV

Birk In The Mud

Birk and Clancy went into the back garden and Clancy sat on the bench, Birk sprawled on the ground leaning against it. He took off his work boots and socks.

“You see how she looked?” Clancy asked. “That weren’t no bump on anything.”

“Yep.” Birk knew Clancy meant Lillian. He had watched her on and off all night to see if there was some indication of who had struck her. “At the end there. When she come up into the light in front of all of us.”

“Oh yeah that look o’hers at the good man of the cloth, that uncle o’ her’s. I figure everyone there saw that and knew who she got beat by.”

Clancy began to push his boots off. Birk yanked them off for him and then his socks.

“Blue Lake smell still on’ em.” he laughed.

“It was good day fishin’?” Clancy said.

“Yeh. You pleased with what we caught?”

“I’m pretty happy with it, if you are?”

“Yeh. It’ll be a week or so ‘fore we can go up there again to there.” 

“Figured.” Clancy ruffling Birk’s hair. “It’s been a long day though. More tired now than when I raked behind you all day.”

“What’s that?” Birk stood. “Sounds like singin’.” He began to pull his boots and socks back on.

“Coming from the docks?” Clancy pulled his socks and boots back on. “Could it be those micks drunk and singing to the Holy Ghost?”

They walked to the lane that lead to the colliery and followed the singing to the dock. A group of the miners we’re sitting around a bonfire on the dirt road that lead to the pier.

“Join us lads?” Jim McKlusky came over to them with a bottle in his hand. “Someone has liberated some of the good father’s wine.”

Birk recognized some of the miners from the other collieries. They had just started a ragged verse of Rule Britannia with some of miners supplying their own words:

“Rule BritCan Co BritCan Co rules the coal

Miners ever ever ever shall be slaves

The miners not so blest with greed

Must take their turn in Hell

While you eat great meals for free

On the blood and sweat of all miners”

On the chorus all the miners joined in, adding their own bits to it. ‘Rule rule rule but never feed,’ ‘To Hell Hell Hell with their command.’ 

Different bottles made the rounds. Some with mild wine and others with potent home brews that sung Birk’s eyes and one that he spat out as fast as he could.

The miner with a squeeze box started in on Mademoiselle from Armenteires who you couldn’t kiss unless you’ve had forty beers. As they went through the verses and choruses locations changed, what the mademoiselle would do became more dirty and her body parts more detailed.

“You blushing?” Clancy grabbed Birk in a headlock and rubbed his hair. “Too much for your innocent ears?”

“Get off me!” Birk pushed him away and sent him reeling into a couple of miners swinging each other round in a step dance. This sent the dancers sprawling on the ground to great whoops and applause from the others. The shift signal whistle silenced them all.

“Well men,” the miner with his fiddle stopped. “Looks like its time to face the real music.”

 Birk helped Clancy up and dusted him off. 

Birk’s mother was sitting in her armchair by the stove when they went in. She took a deep breath as they splashed water on their faces at the sink.

“Someone’s been playing in the mud have they.” She said. “Mud and homemade by the stink.”

“I’m sorry Ma.” Birk couldn’t look her in the eyes.

“At’s okay son, your about a man now and it’s time you started to learn about some of those men things.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him Mrs. N.” Clancy said.

“So what’s the word on the strike boys?”

“Strike Mrs. N.” 

“Pa’s gone to check the boilers. He’ll be back soon.” Birk leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

Is was raining heavily in the morning. Birk couldn’t see past the back fence. The lane in front of the house was muddy.

“Better wait till we get to the main lane before you put yer boots and socks on Clancy. Yer about to find out why this is called Mudtown.” Birk said as they were getting ready to set out. “After a heavy rain last year Billy McLean lost a kid. Wanted to cross over to play with cousins across the way there. Got caught in the mud and couldn’t get out and got pulled under somehow.”
“Yer joking.”

“Not a bit of it. No matter how much of the slag gets dumped on the road it sinks to somewhere when the rains fall.”

The rain slickers they wore kept them dry but all the laneways had all become rivers of mud. Thick, cold mud. They sank up to their knees at some points as they struggled to the colliery gates. Even the main lane was pitted with bogs of mud.

There were several other miners there when they arrived. A couple of them had trimmed some thick branches they intended to use as weapons if need be.

“Ya think the company will try anything?”

“Maybbe not.” one of them said “But best be prepared. If we show them we mean business right off we already have the upper hand.”

The rain didn’t let up. At different times during the day other miners would show up, some would go home. The union rep visited with them for an hour or so bringing hot tea with him. Then Reverend Brown came by with a roast chicken for them to share.

The men were too cold and wet to joke amongst themselves or talk for long. They stood on either side of the gate glaring into the rain, looking into the mine yard to see who they might see. 

Two of the managers showed up. The miners crowded around the gate to impede them from going in but didn’t do anything to directly hold them back either.

“It’s all fer show these first couple of days.” Jake told them. 

It pointless to Birk. He’d rather have been going underground to work than wallow around in this cold wet muck. Although he knew that the unions helped make sure that the men had some benefits from their jobs – the wash-up rooms, a doctor, that sort of thing; he didn’t feel they did much for him in the long run. They got his dues right off his pay every week but never saw them active in the lives of the miners.

At least Father Pat or Reverend Brown came into their homes when they were sick or hurt, but they only saw the union rep when there was need for more money for the union.

The rep hadn’t even told them what the strike fund was going to do for them. They’d been paying something into for the last three years since the last strike. Was there going to be enough between him and Clancy to keep food on the table? Blackie would still get his full pay to tend the boilers but the most of that would go for the house and that wouldn’t leave enough for their needs.

Maybe they’d have to go fishing sooner than they planned. That idea pleased him. He hadn’t dwelt on what he and Clancy did sliding on each other. Now the memory made him happy.

“You got something to smile about?” one of the men asked him.

“Yeh getting home and into dry clothes.” He said.

“Sure it isn’t that priest’s gal.” Clancy asked.

“Not a bit.” He hoped they wouldn’t see his cheeks burning as they questioned him.

“Sure wish she’d come by with that tea trolly now.”

“She’s need a dory to get through to us here ya know.” Birk said.

“Maybbe she can walk on mud as Jesus did on the water.” One of them said.

“Time you two went home.” Jim McKlusky appeared out of the rain. “Before yer house gets washed away.”

“Right, Thanks Jim. See ya in the morning.” Clancy said.

“If we find a place to dock the house, that is.” Birk said.

They set off to the house and stopped at the rise at the top of the laneway, leaned against the fence, pulled off their boots and socks and slogged down the lane.

“You think much about what we did t’other day up at the lake?” Clancy asked. 

“When we was fishin’ ya mean?”

“Yeh then.”

“Not as if I forgot it b’y but there’s a lot goin’ on too. Why?”

“Just wondering. I didn’t mind it.”

“Me neither.” Birk shook rain off his shoulders.

“Ya think that Lillian might …”

“Get those evil thoughts outta yer head Clancy.”

“Only thing keeps me warm in this rain.” Clancy wiped the rain off his face.

“I’d warm the arse of whoever done that hurt to her.”

“Me too, but if’n I found out who did harm her and I did him a harm, she might be very grateful.”

“How many time’s do we have tell ya she’s not going look twice at some orange arse.”

“I’d convert.” Clancy laughed.

“No doubt you would. What would yer ma think though?”

“She wouldn’t care. She was a mick herself, you see. When she married me paw her family turned their back on her. When m’pa died they wouldn’t forgive her till she went to confession and the priest said she was penitent. She only did that so we’d have a place to live.”

“So you think this one would be different, eh? Not as if she’s your regular mick either. The priest’s niece. She’s almost a nun.”

“Never thought of her that way.” Clancy laughed tipping water out of his boots.

Clancy lost his footing the the muck and staggered into Birk and they both fell into one of the deeper ruts. Birk’s work boots went flying.

“So much for trying to spare them.” 

Clancy crawled over the mud and got the boots then pushed himself to his feet. He turned to help Birk up.

“What a pair we make!” Birk laughed. “Can’t even walk home in the rain.”

“Yeh. All we are is a couple of dirty, filthy Mudtown mine rats.”

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Chapter XXIV –  Birk Steps Up

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXIV 

Birk Steps Up

Birk and Clancy stopped to chat with the miners gathered out side St. Agatha’s hall. There were various groups of them from the different pits in the area. Some had their wives and children with them. None of them were eager for a strike and some expressed that it was downright foolishness and were there to make sure their voices were heard.

“Is your Da going to be here Birk?” Jake came over.

“Depends on when get away from the boilers.” Birk said.

“Loves them more than anything else.” Jake offered Birk his tobacco pouch and papers.

“Nah.” Birk said. 

Clancy reached over and accepted it. “Thanks. Might as well enjoy a smoke when we can.” He spread a thin line of the tobacco and studied it and glanced at Jake before rolling the paper around it. “Looks a bit stretched.”

“Yeah well there’s some ground up hay in there. Something my pa used to do. Don’t taste it much though.”

Clancy lit the cigarette and took a tentative draw on. “If the strike goes on long well have to get used it.”

William Gregory, the union rep, opened the hall doors. “Not much space in here so I’ll have to ask the women to wait outside.” 

Birk and Clancy were separated as the men pushed in rushing to get seats. Birk ended up sitting with Jake Malone near the back with another of their laneway neighbours Jim McKlusky. 

Father Patrick started meeting with the Lord’s Pray. Not all the men knew all the words and Birk mumbled along as best he could. The moment it was over Jim started O Canada and the men got louder as they went along. he could hear the women outside singing too. 

The men sat and began talking amongst themselves. Birk was never at ease when there were so many people talking at the same time. Seeing all these men here and not in the colliery wash up was like seeing some of them for the first time. So Digger Johnny didn’t always wear that same denim coverall and canvas coat all the time. He was a different person in a clean white shirt and grey trousers, held up by striped suspenders. If it weren’t for the heavy work boots Birk would have taken him for a store clerk.

  Two of the union men were going along the aisles and talking to miners quietly. 

“Good to see you here tonight b’ys” one of them shook Birk’s hand. “We’re feeling that this time we can make a difference.”

“We’ve heard that before.” Jim McKlusky said. “Birk here might be too young to remember the strike of 1918. What the fluenza didn’t kill starvation nearly did.”

The meeting got started with William Gregory reading off the contract demands, none of which, he claimed, the management was willing to discuss. “As far as BritCan is concerned there is nothing to discuss.”

The men in the back row around Birk whispered furtively back and forth with comments about what was being said on stage. Having Alf Landon there added to the seriousness of the situation. No one was pleased to hear that there’d be no government support for strike action. 

The air in the hall was thick with the smoke from the miners’ cigarettes and the cigars the union men where puffing on. His eyes were watering. He looked around for Clancy but didn’t spot him through the haze. His side of the room was the most restless and resistant to the fact that the strike would commence at midnight that night.

“Let’s get some fresh air.” Clancy suddenly appeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

They went out to the front steps of the hall and there were several men out there smoking. and passing a bottle around. He and Clancy shared the last of the Manny cigarettes.

“No hay in these.” Clancy took a long drag on his.

“You know what burns me up?” said one of the miners outside the hall. “The fact that we have to meet here in this Papist hall.”

“Not as if we have anything this size over our side of the town.” one of them said. “Fraid they’ll get their boots dusty in Mudtown.”

“Can’t expect to do this at the pluck me either.” another said passing the bottle to Birk.

Birk took a fast swing and nearly spit it out. It was some of the home made beer he’d tried at Geo’s wedding. He wiped the bottle neck and passed it back.

The men laughed. “If’n they did they would dock our pay for the wear and tear on the floor boards.”

“Yeh, I know that but it’s not as if we get anything from Rome to keep up appearance the way the good Father does.” the first man said.

“Or that niece o’his. Looks good even with that bump on her face.”

“Who you think did that t’her.”

“Maybe she did to herself.” Clancy said.

“Yeh. Tripping in the church on those things they kneel on and hitting her face on one of Jesus’s bleedin’ feet.”

The men laughed.

“I know a smack when I sees one.” Another of the men said. “Gives my missus enough of them.” He added knowingly. “Only way to keep ‘em in line.”

“Shows you care enough for ’em, too.” Another said. “They makes out that there isn’t enough for food ‘cause we stop for a pint or two on the way home from work.”

“So you think she’s … got some bloke from around here?” Clancy asked.

“I heared she has a past, you know, from Boston. Maybe the good Father had to keep her from going back. Y’ know bring the hand of God to bare.”

“The priest? Nah.”

“Remember Father Peterson. Coached us in hockey one year. Man, he wouldn’t hesitate to give any of a good kick in the arse if we didn’t do what we was told. He didn’t care if was orange or mick either. We have more bruises from him than we ever got on the ice.”

“Yeh, but that was b’ys.”

“Doesn’t matter to me now. Who cares how they treat their women. I only want them at the mine to play fair by us.” the first guy said. “No more playing favourites with the micks. Right Birk.”

“What?” Birk had been listening but not paying heed. From where he and Clancy stood they had a clear view through the window of Lillian standing by the tea trolly.

“You happy getting left in the pit while that Manny O’Dowell gets set up in the rake yard?”

“No!” Getting above ground was the hope of many of the miners. Didn’t matter where they worked or even the work was harder.

“Better get back inside.” Clancy said. “They’re finally getting to the important stuff.”

“Only important stuff is how much strike pay we can expect when we goes out.”

“An if there’s enough tea left for us.” 

When they went back in Birk saw that Blackie had arrived. Men were standing to ask questions about the strike or make statements of their particular concerns.

Jim jabbed him the ribs and whispered. “Say something about playing favourites.”

Birk stood. All eyes the room where on him. He feet got hot and he was slightly dizzy. He didn’t recognize his own voice as he spoke and when he finished he didn’t even know what he had said.

“Good on ye, lad. That’ll get those micks in a stir.” Jim said.

There were angry responses from the other side of the room. If there was an answer from any of the speakers to what he said he didn’t hear them. He did hear Seldon from the company store say there’d be no credit if they wasn’t working. When Father Patrick forced them to say the Our Father again he got up walked out with Blackie and Clancy.

The rest of the men followed shortly.

“Blackie!” one of the men shouted out. “You better be careful walking to work these mornings. Man could slip in the mud and hurt hisself.”

“Gerry Dunlop, if you show yourself on our side of town I’m not the only one’ll beat the crap out of you.” Blackie replied to the laugher of some of the men. “That is if there’s any o’you left that wife gets through beatin’ you.”

“We have to stand together.” someone else said.

“If you want a mine to come back to when this strike is settled you better stay out of my way and let us engineers do our job.” Birk and Clancy followed Blackie as he walked on.

A handful of dirt showered them. It was quickly followed by rocks and clods of grass. The three men stopped and turned to face the whom ever was behind them.

“Manny didn’t you get enough on the Dingle t’other time?” Birk raised his fists.

Manny was with several of the Catholic miners. The gang took a step back.

Blackie pulled Birk’s arms down. One of the men stepped past Manny to take a swing. Blackie reach out and the the man’s fist and held it in his hand.

“Look son.” Blackie said as he squeezed the man’s fist. “This isn’t how we stand together. Same goes for the rest of you.” He let go of the man’s hand

The man stepped away rubbing his fingers.

“Any of you on the midnight stand?” Blackie asked. “You best sober up some .”

The men turned and walked away grumbling.

As Birk walked past the company store he saw that windows had been boarded over. 

“They must have put those up while we were at the meetin’” he said.

“Seldon’s not taking any chances.” Blackie knocked lightly on one of the boards. “Last time we broke in and emptied the place. Casey Thomas was running it in those days. Mean cuss was only to happy to cut us off. The women dragged him out, tore his clothes off and chased him off the pier. Coldest February we remember. Bastard deserved it.”

“What?” Birk said. Blackie was always fairly calm around the house. Nothing his sisters, or even he, ever did unsettled him.

“Yep. Cut off credit, then cut off even selling to those who had cash to pay. Five weeks we’d had enough of no food, no coal to heat our houses in February. After we smashed into the store they brought in the troops.”

“From where. The base in Sydney?”

“Some, but mostly from the mainland. Too many in Sydney had kin here.”

“Y’ went to back to work with rifles on you?” Clancy asked.

“Pretty much. We didn’t get what we wanted and had to go back with less than we started out with.”

“Same as now?” Birk spat.

“Uh huh. Not before we did a bit of damage mind you. But not as much as they did riding their horses into the crowds in the Bay. We were marching on the mine office and they charged at us. Snipers on the roofs picked off a couple of guys, wounding them. Then church was getting out at the same time so those got caught up in things too.”

“The micks?” Birk snickered.

“Some. Most of the people that got hurt had nothing to do with the strike. That ended it. Priest then told all his congregation they better get back to work or go to Hell. They went and the rest of us had no choice but to follow.”

“This time’ll be different.” Clancy said.

“How’s that.” Blackie asked.

“What I hear is the the guys in the steel plant might go out in sympathy with us. That’ll bring things to a halt.”

“Don’t count it.” Blackie said. “Government won’t stand for that for long.”

“Lest we don’t have to worry about keeping warm.” Birk said pulling off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. “Can’t remember a hotter summer.”

They came to the lane that lead to their house.

“I’m goin’ to drop down to the boilers before I go to bed. All this talk makes me a little fearful.”

“You think they’d so something to them do ya?”

“Nah, but best to be sure or I won’t sleep right tonight.”

Blackie kept on his way. 

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Transcendence 

Transcendence 

one rainy afternoon I was struck

with an inexplicable fever 

of home sickness

I Googled my village

thousands of possibilities 

were there is less than five seconds

I glanced down the list 

to my surprise they were all linked 

to the same site

hoaxxbusters.org

 

I looked at the next page of possibilities

they were all linked to the same site

there was nothing from our local tourist board

the cathedral reconstruction foundation

nothing that originated from my village

so I clicked on the hoaxxbusters link

to my surprise

there was post after post

exposing my village as a hoax

 

it was a place that didn’t exist

I went to Google Maps and sure enough

my village didn’t come up 

on any satellite photos

try as I might for that county

it wasn’t there

 

I typed the word moose into wikipedia

and all that appeared was a single sentence

‘a nonsense syllable meaning nothing’

my heart was racing 

as I checked other information

to see what I might be able to find

and came up with nothing real

it was all fabrication

 

not that I believed those tales 

of how the moose came from the moon

but I certainly believed that moose existed

yet according all reliable sources they were a myth

started by one Mikke Nordstrom 

some 300 years ago

when he came to this continent

even his appearance was in doubt

he was legendary figure not a  real person

 

everything I had come to accept 

as quaint truths about my past

my village 

was washed away by a few clicks of a mouse

I sat dumbfounded in front of my monitor 

wondering what to do

 

I typed in my own name into 411.ca 

to see if I was actually living here in the big city

and was questioned for more details

was the name spelt correctly 

even the street my condo was on couldn’t be found

my employer didn’t exist

 

when I went to the firm’s web page 

that site couldn’t be found

a connection couldn’t be established

with the grand academy 

where I was taking creative writing

I called my sister

and got a pre-recorded message

that the area code didn’t exist

 

my feet were rapidly disappearing

and I was just a stifled gasp

from my cubical

that was empty

when the coffee guy came by 

to see who ordered a no foam latte

Some of this was sparked by a friend of mine who did what my hero does. She used Google maps & then street view to go back home. She found the school, which apparently, had changed over the decades, found her old house, she even took a street view walk to school, except she couldn’t take the short-cut through the laneway – it was gone. She said it was better than physically going there & cheaper.

When I’ve visited, Sydney, where I grew up, I have taken those walks that I used to take to the various schools I went to. But Sydney is still there, as is the high-school I went to.

I’ve also had that search engine experience of typing in something & getting millions of possibilities & giving after three pages of them when what I was searching for exactly wasn’t really there. It seems every word in the English language is part of some porn site 😦 

The piece takes, I hope, an unexpected science-fiction/horror turn. I’ve seen/read stories about people driving in a fog & finding a town not on the map so pushed that to the town that vanished. I know some places have become so unpopulated they are no longer large enough to be considered villages. I’ve seen towns for sale. Here I have the town that never was or perhaps it was just a figment of someone’s over-heated imagination. hoaxxbusters.org is a fabrication, though the link will lead you somewhere fun (& non-pornographic). 

So in the end my hero transcends. Reluctantly this brings an end not only my hero but also to the Village Stories series. Editing, rewriting & even creating some new stories has been fun & productive. Next step is to gather them all together, with my discussion of them, into some sort of eBook. My attempts at real ‘publishing’ them have been futile mainly because they were too whimsical & hence aren’t literary enough for the real poetry world.

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Lillian Bakes Revenge

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXII

Lillian Bakes Revenge

Lillian watched the two young miners walk down the lane. What would life be to have a day with nothing pressing to worry about? From their reaction, the bruise on her cheek must appear much worse than she thought. Without a mirror she had no way to tell how bad it looked. It was tender to her touch. She hoped it would be there  for a while as a reminder to her uncle.

During the night, between fitful moments of sleep, she was caught up in thoughts of what to do. Miss O’Dowell had offered a refuge but that wasn’t the escape Lillian wanted. What was she going to do there? Become a house drudge to some local family? She could return to Boston but would her family allow or even welcome her back? How could she afford passage home? She wasn’t going to beg anyone for funds.

In the house she wrapped the broken pieces of the mirror in newspaper before putting them into the dustbin. One shard was large enough for her to see how bruised she was. It covered most of her left cheek and was darkest on the cheekbone. Her eyelids were darkened and her left eye was redder. Much redder than the right eye. She touched it but there was only tenderness but little pain. The bone was solid. There were no fragments she should sense.

Her Uncle would have to pay for this. It was bad enough to be banished here but this wasn’t penance. It was suffering. This was …. an abomination. Yes, that’s what the Bible called things that were an offence to God. She couldn’t recall if striking a woman was included in that Leviticus list, but if it wasn’t it should be. Yes, her uncle would have to suffer for his actions, too. Even if he was a man of God he had no right to mete out such punishment. None.

Later in the afternoon her uncle came into the house.

“Lillian?” he said meekly as he stood in the kitchen door.

“Yes Father Patrick.” she kept her back to him as she washed potatoes in the sink.

“I trust you had a productive day?”

“Yes, Father Pat.” She merely glanced over her shoulder. “I did the washing. I’ll be bringing it in soon. Then there be the ironing, of course. Dinner will be ready at the usual time. There will be rabbit thanks to one of the parishioners.”

“I wish to say once again that I deeply regret …”

“Think nothing of it.” She turned then, knowing the full sun would be on her face.

“I …” he gasped. “I didn’t know that I had injured you that severely. Should I have the doctor visit?”

“No, Uncle. I will be fine.”

“I remember that you do have some hats with a veil. You will wear one when attending mass. I wouldn’t want my parishioners to see you looking thusly.”

“I may have something suitable. The black one you liked?” A hat she abhorred when he said he liked it because it wasn’t too frivolous but she could absent-mindedly remove it, or possibly forget it, the next time she attended mass.

“Very good. I received word from Mr. Gregory,  that there would be another of those union meetings at St Agatha’s Hall this evening. In all likelihood there will be a strike.”

“A strike?”

“Yes, miners across the Island have voted to stop working because of these recent company changes to the tonnage rates.”
“Yes, but how will a strike help their cause?”

“If they stop producing coal the company will have nothing to sell.”

“But can’t the company hire other miners?”

“They won’t, at first. They will save some capital by not having to pay the miners. They also have stockpiles of coal that will satisfy their customers for a some weeks. No, the miners are not in as strong a bargaining position as they think.” 

“Oh. I can’t say as I fully understand all this union and company conflict. I do know the miners find it hard to feed their families though.”

“That has always been the way of the world. Jesus says ‘For ye have the poor always with you.’”

“Didn’t He also say that they would inherit the earth?” she asked.

“Not exactly. He said ‘the meek shall inherit.’ These people are far from being meek, my dear.”

“Shall I prepare some refreshments for the meeting?”

“Yes. I think an urn of tea and some biscuits will be adequate. The women will provide some food as well, so be restrained with the biscuits.”

“Am I to serve tea as I did at the last gathering in the hall?”

“I think not. Not with your …” He brushed his own cheek.

“Yes. Wearing a veil to serve tea might attract attention.” She laughed as a plan formulated quickly in her mind. “But I do have cosmetics in my trunk that would easily cover this. I believe the corner in the hall we usually use to serve tea isn’t that well illuminated.”

“Cosmetics?”

“Yes.” she longed to get at her toiletries, particularly to the hand lotions, if it wasn’t too late to reverse the damage that had been done to her hands. “May I try?”

“Very well.” Father Pat said reluctantly. “We can’t confine you to the house.”

Lillian dashed to the cellar where her trunk was stored and eagerly opened it. The damp that rose from it made her want to hang her remaining dresses before they become too mildewed to wear. She tugged her cosmetics case out and brought it up to the kitchen.

She put it on the table and opened it.

“I can use this as base.” She took out her hand mirror and a jar of face cream. Opening the jar brought back a clear memory of her Boston life. She spread the cream over the bruise. “Then,” she opened a container of pale rose talc. “I pat some of this on over it.”

She dabbed at her face with the pale blue power puff. The smell also brought back nights of preparing to dine, to go out to visit with her friends.

“Amazing?” her uncle said. “It is as if I …” he stopped and looked away.

“Yes, it is.” Lillian couldn’t quite believe her eyes either. The bruised cheek appeared redder than the other but the bruise itself was almost unseeable.

“Very well, you can serve the tea this evening. I’ll go now to make sure the hall is ready for the meeting. I don’t think the venting windows have been opened since the last rain storm.”

When her uncle left she stepped out of the dim kitchen into the sun. In the direct light the disfigurement didn’t look as bad in the mirror but it was still visible. She tried a bit of pink rouge and another few dabs of the power puff and it became much less distinct. If her uncle thought her devious then she would prove to him that she was.

Humming to herself she breezed through her household chores. She caught herself singing while dusting the the chairs in the dining room. She couldn’t wait to see her uncle’s reaction if her plan unfolded as she hoped.

For dinner she had prepared the rabbit with spring potatoes. She was grateful that the parishioner who donated the rabbit had also cleaned and gutted it. A job she had done twice now with reluctance. She had found the smell of the blood impossible to clean off her hands.

She made sure the house would smell of baking bread as well. Suppers would be eaten in the dining room. The one meal of the day her Uncle said a family should eat together.

As she was taking the bread out of the oven her Uncle came in the back door.

“You have had a productive day, Lillian?” her uncle asked.

Over the weeks she come to hate his questions. It was his way of checking on her, to make sure she was learning whatever it was she was to learn about being a good Catholic woman, one that might make a good wife for the right man.

“Yes uncle. I even had time to bake some bread fresh for this evening.”

“I told you we would be serving them biscuits with the tea.”

“The bread is cheaper.”

“Hum.” Father Pat nodded. “Quite right.”

“Were you of service at the church office?” She had learned this was the best way to have him tell her a bit of what he did during the day.

“Yes. After I saw too it that the women did the cleaning of the hall, I went to my office there and have been writing a sermon on the importance of honest work, of how difficult it can be to balance one’s energies between spiritual and material demands. In this way I trust I can prepare the congregation for the hardships to come if there a strike.”

“You can’t tell them not to strike?”

“Not directly. God’s will is for his children to be happy. I can tell them how to do that spiritually, but it is not fitting for me to go any further than that.”

“You can tell them what the Scriptures say about the evil of drink but you cannot tell them not to drink.” 

“Yes.”

“They are unhappy as things are and will be unhappy if they try to change them by striking.”

“Quite perspective of you Lillian. I doubt if they will be happy once they get their way. The solution to their bodily hunger is spiritual not material. If they satisfy that spiritual need they are sure to receive the sustenance they need.”

“Until then we have bread for them.” she forced herself to sound cheerful. Would her revenge bring her happiness or not.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International LicenseHey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Identity

For the summer I’m going back to the series of pieces mythologizing my growing up in Cape Breton.

Identity

I was one of the first from my village

to come to the big city

I was unprepared for my reception here

people would gawk at me on the streets

stare at me on the subway

as if I were some sort of freak

at my cubical in the office

people would walk by and observe

as I went about my ordinary duties

they gave each other small sly nods

as if they saw something me in me

that assured them I was as human as they were

 

strangers approached me on the street

and ask if my shit stank

if I were here to promote some art film

my classes at the Grand Academy

fell silent when I shared my writing

as I told them stories of my village

and of the routine of our lives

shock dismay or disbelief would play

across their faces

even the teacher would turn away 

face red 

as he tried not to laugh at me

 

all of which made me depressed unsure

perhaps coming here was wrong

the only solace I found 

was in undressing men

one skill I had 

that others held in some respect

 

I also found some gratification in latte

after a day of being hounded 

by small gangs of children

my fingers numb 

from working at my keyboard 

either at the office or doing assignments 

for my creative writing seminars

it was such a blessed relief to sit in a 

coffee shop and sip on an extra large latte

I could feel my troubles just rush away

 

gradually my presence became unnoticed

I discovered ways of fitting in to metropolitan life

I no longer greeted strangers 

with a smile and a hello

I no longer tapped hymns 

on my keyboard at the office

I took down the few reminders of home

that I had put up in my cubical

gone where the crystal moose 

and the miniature sacred stripper pole

I adopted the city ways of talking and slouching

of smiling with indifference

of turning aside when someone offered 

more than I wanted at that moment

it was a relief to slip into the formless stream

my mind was free to roam 

to dream of things beyond village life

a place that became abstract illusive

I was no longer the man from away

I was free of identity

Before I moved to Toronto my mother warned me not to wander around, staring up at the tall buildings with my mouth open awe. She felt it would tip people off that I was new in town & someone would rob me, or something. I was never sure what that something meant. About the only ‘you’re from away’ I got was because of my accent.

My hero experiences many of things that immigrants often experience: such as co-workers checking to make sure you are competent. I had been cat-called, or rather queer-slurred by passers-by & from cars – my first year or so here then is topped noticing it if it did continue. These were adults doing this – not a far cry from small children dogging your heels.

My writing workshop experience hasn’t been as harsh as my hero’s. Though I have made people shoot coffee out of their noses with some of my work – I took that as a good thing? I did get that silence response a few times though when no one knew what to say – usually because the piece was perfect 🙂 

 

Fitting in was an issue though – to do that without losing a sense of self was the real challenge. I did have, still do, a few relics of my Cape Breton past. The piece is a bit of a list poem of things I’ve seen, heard or experienced myself as I adjusted to Toronto. ‘Smiling with indifference’ is skill worth developing.

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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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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Graduation Secrets

For the summer I’m going back to the series of pieces mythologizing my growing up in Cape Breton.

Graduation Secrets

at my highschool graduation

in my village

I was sworn to secrecy

to never reveal the names

of those men & boys

whom I learned to undress

some whose names I never did know

 

many had faces I had never seen

doing my sacred ceremony

in garages with no lights

even the windows were blocked

not to permit any glimpse

as with the strip clubs

the men were allowed pleasure

without identity

there were times

when all that was allowed

was the undressing

there could be no kissing

fondling

my hands were allowed

to close enough

for the over heated warmth 

of our bodies to be felt

the rest was only for the imagination

to fuel our dreams of what could be

but would never be

 

we sacrificed the joy of actual confirmation

to the will of the moose

not to give in

was a testimony to our belief

 

yet there were times

when the darkness was dispelled

faces were clear in the street light

that shone on the back seats

of abandoned cars

were I would sometimes meet

those whose need was great 

to be undressed by me

they would send me notes

tied to a robin’s leg

requesting my services

even then visual contact

was kept to a minimum

 

with the seal of the moose

burned into the instep of my left foot

I was always to remember the vow I took

to respect the sanctity

of other men’s fear

In high school I became a member of DeMolay, as sort of Jr. Free Masons group. The ceremonies associated it with were secrets we were sworn to keep as part of the induction process. The ceremonies were banal to the extreme & I can’t remember any of them, not even the secret handshake. So some of the ‘secret’ here comes from that memory.

There was also this secret knowledge that I supposed I would learn when I left high school. The key to being an adult – like the secret to success. As if finally being old enough to buy booze without a permit would uncork adulthood. There is also the secret of ‘don’t tell anyone.’ Then there’s the sexual secret of being queer with no one to tell it too.


This piece looks as some of the myths of secrets & the power they hold over our futures. What sex I had before coming out was always cloaked in being hidden, sometimes under the excuse of ‘we were so drunk’ Here my hero indulges in sex-capades in which anonymity is part of the ceremony, because in the village sex is a ceremony performed in the dark. If neither party sees the other the sacred is maintained, as well as the secrecy. Those secrets often scar us, a brand on the foot, in ways that are often near seen by others, or even ourselves.

It ends with a respect for secrets – no not respect buy for a willingness to keep them without judgement. I’ve seen & see married men who have this secret life. Yes, even today there are active gay/bi men who are in the closet – who for their own reasons don’t want to be out or outed. I don’t think it is a positive thing but I don’t judge them either. The sanctity of their fear is up to them to break.

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Chapter XIX – Lillian Bruised

Chapter XIX 

Lillian Bruised

“Lillian!” He was shocked. “What is the meaning of this?”

Mr. O’Dowell released her and moved quickly away. “Father Patrick I … invited myself along with my sister to learn more about the Catholic Missions in Africa. Miss McTavish had no idea I would be here.”

“You will kindly remove yourself from my house at once, Mr. O’Dowell. And as for you Lillian go to your room at once.”

Lillian ran up to her room, yanked off her smock and threw herself on her bed pounding it with her fists. She could hear Mr. O’Dowell’s protestations as her uncle lead him and his sister out of the house. Miss O’Dowell apologizing as she explained that her brother had foisted himself upon her.

After a few moments there was knock at her door.

“Come in.” she said. She didn’t know what to expect from her uncle. The news that Mr. O’Dowell knew something of her past had stunned her. It was supposed by her family that she would be safe here from any rumours.

“I had hoped you were changed Lillian.” Her uncle began quietly. “It appeared to me for a time that you were repenting and atoning for your untoward actions that hurt your family extremely deeply. But to see you practicing those same wiles under my roof disappoints me.”

“Wiles uncle? I … I did not know Mr. O’Dowell would be here. It was you who invited Miss O’Dowell, not I.”

“Lillian, explanations do not further your case. I am aware of the subterfuges you indulged in to play the sham with your family. They may have worked on the simple men in Castleton Mines but they will not work here in my house. They will not be allowed. There will be no more callers at this house. Do you understand that. I have a reputation to maintain even if it means nothing to you.” He went to the dresser and removed the mirror. He stepped into the hall with it and she heard it smashing as he threw at the wall.

“I will send a message to the Mother Superior. It is clear to me you must be placed where your wiles will not gain foothold. You will leave this house tomorrow whether she agrees to take you or not.”

“Father Patrick.” Lillian was on her knees. “Please. You must believe me I did nothing …”

“Nothing! I saw you! In his embrace. In my home.”

“That was none of my doing.” She was wringing her hands.

“That is why you must be removed. If you are as unaware as you claim I must make sure others are protected from you.”

“Uncle! Father Pat.” She began to stand and reached out to him.

“Do not come near me.” He smacked her across the face with his open hand. She stumbled back to the window. His next smack sent her sprawling on the bed. 

She rolled over to protect her face. There was stinging across her legs. 

“All women are vessels of deceit. You are vessel of deceit.” Her uncle said. “This is something that brother of mine should have done a long time ago.”

She glanced over her shoulder to see that he was holding the old bamboo fishing rod she would use with a cloth on one end to reach corners in the house for dusting.

“He thought his money would be enough. Thought it made him better than me.” With each statement he brought the rod down across her back and shoulders.

“All the money a man has cannot buy his way into grace. He bought disgrace through you. But you will not bring that same disgrace into the House of the Lord.”

The rod whizzed through he air as it cut down on her. It was tearing through the crepe of her dress

“This will beat the devil out you. You hussy. As bad as the whore of Babylon. Temptress.”

“Father Patrick!” a woman’s voice came from the door way. “What in the name of God are you doing.”

It was Miss O’Dowell.

“My brother confessed to me your niece’s innocence in his attentions. I … knocked at the door and when no one answered I came in and could hear your accusations.”

“These are not accusations.” Father Patrick turned to face her.

Lillian painfully sat up on the edge of the bed.

“Irregardless this is not the way of the Lord either. It says clearly in Deuteronomy ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ Not your’s Father Patrick.” She took the now frayed bamboo rod out of his hand and went over to Lillian. “Are all right my girl? My foolish brother has never been capable of much decorum where his interests are concerned.”

“I …” Lillian faltered. “I am willing to face ….” she wanted to explain that in some way she was deserving of being punished but not to this degree.

“Miss O’Dowell your interference in private issues of a family matter are most unwarranted.” Father Patrick said.

“They are proper when a member of my family is the cause of this conflict between you and your niece. Come my dear.” She helped Lillian to stand. “You will come with me. I cannot allow you to remain under this roof.”

“Thank you Miss O’Dowell but …” she would not be driven out of another home. “But this is my home now. I’m sure you understand.”
“Very well. But if I hear of any further … abuse, I will pursue what channels I have available to me.” She looked Father Patrick in the eyes. “We have powerful connections.”

“I’m sure you do but I too, have connections. More powerful than yours.” Father Patrick glanced upward.

“Perhaps you are unaware of my mother’s maiden name Father Patrick. Before marriage she was Madeline DuPont. Sister to His Eminence Georges DuPont. The Bishop. A word to him about your behaviour Father Patrick and I can have you removed from this diocese. Is that clear. Perhaps you would be happier in the African Missionaries.”

“Is that a threat?” Father Patrick said.

“The O’Dowell’s do not make threats Father.” Miss O’Dowell said coldly. She turned back to Lillian. “The next meeting of the Catholic Ministries in Africa will be this Monday night. I hope to see you there Miss McTavish.”

“Yes, Miss O’Dowell.” Lillian replied.

“You may see me out, Father.” She reached out and took Father Patrick firmly by the forearm. “These steps are rather steep. Watch out for the broken glass.”

Alone Lillian took a few tentative steps but each movement rippled painfully across her calves and back. She heard the front door shut.

“Lillian.” Her uncle called from the bottom of the stairs. “There appears to be sufficient prepared for your luncheon that didn’t get eaten. I will have that for my supper. You can remain in your chambers for now.”

She removed her dress. She teared up to see that the back of the dress was in shreds but she was grateful to see that there as no blood. Even her own father had never raised a hand to her. Perhaps her uncle was right, that she might have been better for a firmer upbringing. She didn’t know.

She rolled off her stockings and there were red welts along her calves but once again the skin hadn’t been broken. As she looked at her wounds she found it difficult to connect the bruised flesh with her. With the her who had once lived such a carefree life in Boston. 

She carefully pulled her usual pinafore over her head and wrapped her apron around once again. She stepped over the broken mirror and slowly made her way down the stairs. 

She glimpsed her uncle on his knees in the parlour praying on front of the crucifix there. In the kitchen she saw that he had cleared the luncheon tray away and left it on the sideboard by the sink.

The tea was no longer hot but as she was now accustomed to the cold tea she didn’t mind. As she washed the sandwich tray she heard her uncle picking up mirror pieces on the stairs. He took the pieces to the trash bin behind the house and went to the church. With a small broom and a damp cloth she cleared up the the remaining shards.

The rest of the evening was spent in silence. Her uncle said nothing as he ate his dinner. He did look to her once and she held his gaze. If he was looking for a sign of forgiveness from her she wouldn’t give it.

The morning also passed with the same somber silence. She heated water for laundry and had filled the tub on the back veranda. It was a sunny and already warm day as she fried his one egg, piece of bacon and toasted his one piece of bread to go with it. If the cold tea was good enough for her then he could enjoy the same this morning.

“Lillian?” he broke the silence. “I’m shamed by my actions of yesterday.”

“Are you Father Patrick?”

“I forget that you haven’t had the same kind of up-bring as the families here.”

“I am aware of that. Father Patrick there may be something amiss in me, some lack in the eyes of our Lord. I do not fully understand but accept that is so.”

“Then you forgive me?” he asked.

“No.” she replied. “As you have said in your sermons. Only the Lord can forgive. Seek forgiveness there. Not from me.”

She went into the back garden. As the weather warmed and greenery started growing this had become her refuge. This was the day to wash the linens. The work allowed her mind to clear itself as she concentrated on the tasks at hand. As she worked the soreness in her back began to lessen as well. After hanging sheets on the line she sat at the small bench at the rear of the garden. 

Her uncle came out. “I will be at the church office Lillian.”

“Yes, Father Patrick.” It was only when she was sure he was gone that she allowed herself to weep. Whatever female weaknesses he thought she was a vessel to, he would never see her sorrow.

“Why miss! What is the matter?” a male voice asked from the lane that ran behind the house.

She looked up and there were two young men with fishing poles over their shoulders.

“Ah tis her.” said the shorter of the men. “The gal looking for the colliery after the gas.”

“So it is.” Said the taller of the two.

“What has happened to ye?” The shorter one asked.

“Happened?” Lillian stood to see them better.

“Yer face?” he continued.

“Oh!” she covered her cheek where her uncle had first hit her. Was there a visible bruise?

“Some man been putting his hands on you?” The taller one asked angrily. “Isn’t fittin’ ”

“That’s right. No man should … ” the shorter one had put down his fishing rod and raised his fists. “If I caught someone hurting a lady I’d learn him different.”

“No. I … dusting the other day … stumbled …”

“I see miss.”

“Come on, Clancy we best be on our way.”

“Hold yer horses Birk. Good day to yer miss.”

Birk’s shirt was unbuttoned, untucked so that the light morning breeze caught it. Her eyes were caught by the sun’s gleam in the curly black hair on his chest. 

The men continued down the lane. 

It took Lillian a few moments to connect these faces with the two that had given her direction a few weeks ago. Today these faces were clean. What names they had … ‘Birk’ … ‘Clancy’ … How carefree they were too. Free to fish. To do what they pleased. Did they have wives at home who were tied down to children, who were, as she was, washing and cooking, while they were off on a lark.

She went back to the laundry tub saying their names over to herself Clancy … Birk … Birk. 

She was comforted that there were men who would want to protect her. Not shunt her off, not blame her, but want to look after her.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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The Great Fire

For the summer I’m going back to the series of pieces mythologizing my growing up in Cape Breton.

The Great Fire

we were awakened

but the resonant howl

of the harbour foghorn

deep endless 

blasts so rapid they overlapped 

 

away to the window I flew like a flash

the black of night was blacker

than the print in the red bible

no stars or moon to be seen

then

at the edge of my vision

I saw the flames

scatter sparks like leaves

into the sky

‘fire fire’

someone below was shouting

‘the great cathedral is aflame’

 

my father dashed out of house  

men from other houses followed suit

‘fire fire

we must save the relics’

I had this terrifying image

of the Moose at the foot of the cross

melting into a golden puddle

at the feet of the blessed one

everyone in our village

gathered to watch and pray

as the firemen did their job

the choir spontaneously burst into song

singing ‘The Moose and The Saviour’ 

 

the hoses were attached to the hydrants

only a trickle of water appeared

this was also the hour

the fission plant

was flushing out the their flow valves

when contacted

they refused to stop

because if the flow valves

were not flushed 

there would be hell to pay

 

we stood and watched

as our beloved

centuries old cathedral 

paid the price of prosperity

while the acolytes 

darted in and out of the flames

rescuing all they could

up and down the 10001 steps

like an army of ants

 

then from out of the smoke

the men from the Whistling Wood appeared

they danced around the fire

chanting

arms linked

the flames flickering & illuminating

their private parts

as a group they coiled up the steps

stopped

faced the flames

holding their flame framed privates 

began to piss on the fire

 

the stench of their burning urine

made many vomit

the naked men

began to pelt the fire

with moose dung

the stench of the burning shit

made many vomit

the flames began to die down 

in the steaming smother

of piss and moose shit

that oozed down the 10001 steps

 

the fire stopped

the naked men 

vanished into the mist

 

the next day

when the water pressure returned

the fire department

hosed down the ashes 

to wash it clean of the shit and piss

to reveal

no scorch marks

only glistening golden surfaces 

 

the cathedral

was whole again 

In Sydney we lived one street away from a fire station. We were occasionally awakened by sirens. There were a few big fires but none that we ever saw, unlike my hero. The worse, which happened after I left, was when Moxham Castle burned down – actually it was gutted by flame & then the brick shell collapsed. My experience of fires comes from movies. 

This entry in the Village Stories pulls on many threads of the mythology: the choir, the moose, the 10001 steps. I recently saw a documentary on the Windsor Castle fire in which people were rushing in & out of galleries saving the art. They weren’t regarded as reckless but as heroes. Oh no not the Faberge egg collection! 

I also had to take another poke at the fission plant and water. I have read of cases where, in some cities, the water pressure was so low thanks to ‘industry,’ fires couldn’t be put out – hence the invention flame suppressant foam. Yes I know fire engine pumpers supply the pressure but if there’s not enough water they are useless.

The praying & singing villagers make me think of those politicians who sent their thoughts & prayers at a time of crisis but that’s it until they tell people to be strong: i.e. don’t moan & bitch about your losses because we’ve done all we can by praying for you. Cheer up because your unhappy faces won’t make things better, neither will we.

I was happy to see a reappearance by the naked men of the Whistling Wood. They present a facet of male magic that isn’t destructive while at the same time isn’t pleasant. Often the things that rescue us have a cost one doesn’t expect. Like the dentist’s freezing – slurring & drooling for an hour is a cost. I also couldn’t resist that image of male private parts illuminated by the fire.

I love the way this ends with a miracle. The Villagers prayers were answered by the outcasts of the Whistling Wood. These men pissing on the cathedral have magically restored it. 

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