In the late afternoon they went ashore to gather wood. He nosed the zodiac up onto the bank and when they heard the familiar scrape of sand and gravel beneath its hull the others jumped ashore.
‘There’s nothing to tie the painter to,’ one of his ship mates said. Looking around he saw this was true. There were no trees anywhere to be seen. He tilted the out-board engine up and he too splashed ashore, and together they dragged the small craft away from the prying hands of the rising tide. There was nothing but long grass and boulders pillowy thick with peat moss and a gentle grade rising to a formidable tabletop hill in the distance that grimly overlooked the ragged coast. They crested the bank and got their first glimpse of Henley Harbour. Small clapperboard houses randomly dotted the landscape, loosely surrounding a small salt-water inlet. There was a church on the other side and what looked to be a large village hall next to it. It was august but chilly out, a mercy in these parts where the mosquitos and black flies could pick your bones clean.
‘I don’t know where we’re going to find wood in a place like this,’ he said, ‘but we may as well look.’
They fanned out in different directions. He walked to the nearest house, more of a cabin really. A perfect square as they often were in this part of the world and raised up on small stilts. Up close he could see it was thick with rot and he could not make out the colour it had once been painted. The front steps were slick and green with algae and he made his way up them carefully. He could see the door was ajar and without knocking he went inside.
The town had been abandoned for twenty years. Ever since the cod fishery went belly up and the coast guard said they’d no longer clear ice for a supply boat to come in once a week. Apparently, all the residents had been offered a handsome sum to up sticks and leave. Inside the house was still and musty as a mausoleum. There was just a main room and two small bedrooms. All the furniture was still there. A simple wood table, a few plain chairs scattered about the room. The beds still had linen on them. It looked like the place had been packed in a hurry. There were condiments in the kitchen cupboards and a salt shaker stood alone on the counter. In the moldy bathroom he saw a cup with three toothbrushes beside the sink, beneath a mirror, tarnished to the point of yielding almost no reflection. Everything was thick with dust. He was reminded of a time in Ireland a few years before when he had visited a faery fort. He was familiar with what they were. The remains of Bronze age defensive housing built in a time before history began. The millennia having hidden them and only recognizable today by the tell-tale circle of trees growing around their circumference. In the pagan era they were thought to be the home of faery’s or spirits, the entrance to magical underground realms and to cut them down was a sure means to invite misery and even death upon yourself or your family. This notion has not eroded with time.
He had been visiting Ireland with his girlfriend one Christmas. Their relationship was down to its dying embers and they both knew this but neither wanted to be alone over the holidays in London, so they took the ferry across the Irish sea and went to her family’s farm in Limerick.
Gosh but it was dark there at night. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face when he stood outside smoking a cigarette. One morning he made his way down to one of the bottom fields and he sloughed his way through thick mud and sedge in air so pregnant with moisture to step outside in it was to be soaked to the skin. There was a ditch around the fort and crossing it he came upon the remains of a cow that had wandered in there years ago and gotten stuck. Inside the ring of trees it was still and smelled like a damp basement. The trees were so tightly knit together that he could barely make out sky above. The ground was mulchy with decaying leaves. There were the thick trunks of fallen trees arranged as if for an audience. The temperature changed noticeably. Strewn on the ground were odd pieces of clothing, a Wellington boot and an old flannel shirt and the fabric of other unidentifiable garments. He felt an eerie pervasive presence, it pressed down on his chest, it was heavy and inarticulate like a suppurating grief. It alarmed him and he made his way back out into the open, sumpy fields and to his girlfriend’s ancestral home and the warm hearth within.
And now, he was in a different relationship that was also hanging on by the flimsiest thread. And it seemed to him then, that his problem was that he either felt too much or he didn’t feel enough and fresh love is a fine thing, but it is fleeting, and sometimes it fades like the paint on those clapperboard houses and without care it can turn into something else. He looked around the empty room, at the dust and the abandoned tools of everyday life, and he felt a sudden shame, like he was witnessing something private, something deeply personal that he had no business seeing and it drove him outside into that weird half-light.
He found the others. They had discovered woodpiles behind some of the houses and they were bringing armfuls of it back to the shoreline. It was twenty years old and most of it was rotten through, crumbling in their hands like wads of soil, but some logs were usable and in this sub-Arctic tundra it would have to do. One of them suggested using furniture from the homes but they quickly and decided this would be inappropriate. There was no beach to speak of and so they placed the wood in the flattest area they could find beside the water. He was scavenging another wood pile when he looked up and saw a small cemetery. It was set a short distance from the outskirts of the village, surrounded by a knee-high picket fence and it sat in the shadow of the large flat-topped hill. The graves stood at imperfect angles and seemed to catch the grey light in a manner at odds with the time of day. He grabbed an armful of logs and tread lightly through the mushy loam back to the advancing shore.
That evening, they brought the passengers ashore. They tried to set up deck chairs around the fire, but the soft ground and the slight incline made them impractical so instead they laid blankets and people huddled atop them. As the northern sun procrastinated on the horizon they looked out on the ship. With its tall masts and its sails loosely furled, it looked like a snapshot from a hundred years before. The wood, being damp, hissed and crackled and sent up billows of pungent smoke when the fire got going. Little was said, as though the desolation of the place had tainted everyone there.
For many weeks after, at random moments, washing the dishes, furling a sail, ferrying passengers ashore, he would find himself thinking about all the different ways life will break your heart; it can be your lost loves and loved ones lost, sure, but sometimes it can surprise you and it’ll be a mirror with no reflection above a grimy sink, or a single saltshaker on a dusty counter top in an abandoned house. Or maybe it’ll be a small cemetery, beneath a large, looming hill, and the thought of the dead interred there. Their graves troubled by no kind words or flowers laid. Not even the hushed footfall of a passing friend.