a homage to the rock
I could barely read then but even I knew how the story of the Old Sadogue began.
“Wherever he goes, the fish follow in his wake.”
They said he was fat like a walrus and had tusks like them too, hidden beneath a great white beard that put every other beard to shame. He sailed in a dinghy along the coast, stopping in each harbour only a few days. He would drink with the sailors, dance with their wives, settle disputes, and recite poetry of the North, where men fought bears and people lived in the ice itself. In his absence those comforting words were often repeated by everyone in the outport, a little prayer to our neighbour deity, filling a well otherwise caked with worry.
I looked up from the book of black leather and yellow paper and asked if the thing about the tusks was true. Da said words had a way of shiftin’ shape as they went from mouth to ear, but if it was written on the page it was the truth. I was only eight then and I believed him.
We were sitting on a wet shore just after dusk, the cold wind coming in off the water and following the river inland. Down a ways I could see the glow of the outport over a hill, silhouettes of the tall, empty trees winding like cracks in the sky. It would be my first time meeting the Old Sadogue and something wild and delirious beat within my chest.
“You think he’ll come?” I asked.
“We’re in need.”
“We needed last year too.”
“Not as much.”
I believed him. Da said he planted me in mum when the Old Sadogue last passed through because he knew the fishing would be good for that season and the next. When families could eat, families grew, and there were lots of boys and girls my age around the outport. But for the last three seasons the boats were coming back hollow and the sailors grew ever more sour. By the time the leaves turned and the ice collected in the harbour that year, they had spent more time in the pub than at sea, drowning in something other than the waves. Every kid knew the Old Sadogue would soon return and our eagerness to see him never faded even as we starved. Outside the schoolhouse, while our teacher slept, we took turns as the fat fisher king, holding court in the barn around back. The boys would come to trade sticks or rocks for cod, while the girls sought blessings to marry their crush. The older kids hogged the stage but we didn’t mind, for they said they had seen the Old Sadogue, and their excitement was something real and contagious. We knew we’d be older soon, our voices just as booming, our joy just as real. One time Little Eld McCoy said he didn’t exist, that it was all a dumb secret the adults kept. A group of us trapped him in the loft and ran home, laughing all the way.
Da was breaking down old lobster traps with his bare hands. He snapped the thin planks of wood over his knee and tossed them into a fire he lit with his lamp. He said the Old Sadogue would come in on a bout of fog, but when I squinted past the flame out on the ocean I could see the stars and the horizon and what mum called the Spilled Milk rushing over it. The fire grew tall as he added log and splint until it was our beacon on the shore.
“Mr.Batt said he could bring the Old Sadogue back.” I said.
“He said if I brought the older girls from class round his shack, the Old Sadogue would be here tomorrow.”
“Well,” he tugged at a stubborn bit of rope stuck in a trap, “You forget bout Mr.Batt, he’s a bad drunk and a liar too it sounds.”
“Oh.” It was supposed to be a secret. I felt bad for mentioning it and even worse that it was a lie. “Mac said he could help us, said he knew a sure way to get ‘im come round.”
“Maybe, but Mac don’t know what we know.”
I wasn’t sure what we knew and looked back down at the book in my hands. There was nothing on either cover save for years of scuffing and bend marks. It was thick, each page a torrent of loops and weaves spilling over each other and shoved in at all angles. I recognized a few capital letters, but others were written like waves, turning pages into storming seas of ink.
Da wiped his hands and came around the fire to me. “You hungry?” It was the first thing he asked me all night. When I nodded he smiled and said, “Not for long.”
He gave me his salt crusted pea coat to brace against the cold and took the black leather book. You could number the ribs through his shirt and trace the muscles weaving down his arm but he stood tall and proud as I ever seen him. He dove between the covers, deft fingers dancing over pages, mumbling the words in a venerable tongue for ritual and guidance. When finished he handed the book back and lifted his lantern from the sand. He walked down to the tideline with his pants rolled up then waded out further and stood there with the water lapping over his knees. He swung his lantern three times, the reflection like a wisp of ghost light rippling around him, bathing him in yellow glow.
We waited and the fire whipped with the wind, burning bright but slowly subsiding to the blowing cold. I watched Da just standing there, looking out on the water, until the fire was nothing more than a scab in the sand. I could hear dogs barking from the outport and the dark was creeping into my vision. He swung the lantern a few more times, just a speck now, and I could tell he was shivering and the tide was coming in. A curious moon peeked from behind some clouds overhead as he came plodding back up the beach. He was grumbling all the words he saved for sailors and bottles, the ones I wasn’t allowed to say. He kicked sand over the humble embers that remained and swiped the book from my hands, gripping it between his finger and thumb. It was the same way he held any small cod or crab before tossing it back into the sea and I saw him look back out over the water, judging the distance. I wanted to say something to make him laugh, but knew better than to say anything at all when he was like that, and instead buried my face in his coat sleeves. I listened for a distant plunk but heard only the wind and a choking sigh taken with it. When I looked up Da was looking down at me, his face full of worry in the lantern light.
“Lets head in,” he said, the book stowed under his belt.
“Not this season?” My stomach groaned like it knew.
“Next season.” He said.
And I believed him.