Afternoon of the Sail-Makers
Dockyard Port comes into view from the ferry, like a jagged stone scar against blue sky, bluer water. Lexi looks over her shoulder to see if her husband has noticed, but he’s facing the other way, watching the scattered groups of people on the upper deck with them. Probably planning his next marketing paper, Lexi thinks, turning to view the land. He’ll spend hours at the tourist enclaves, chatting up shop owners, observing consumer likes and dislikes, leaving Lexi free to explore the former British naval base, swim with the dolphins.
She’s not surprised he won’t join her at the dolphin centre. Do your thing, he’d say. I’ll do mine. Maybe separate honeymoons would have been more appropriate. Maybe waiting to marry him, would have been better. Lexi smacks the guard railing with her palm. How much does he know about the first thirty-seven years of her life before they met this past winter? They’ve known each other for four months; anything before February is discovered through stories, questions seeking truths, soft-bellied lies.
She and Tophe disembark last from the ferry, stand awkwardly on the dock. Lexi knows Tophe wants to go in one direction, she in another. She kisses him on the cheek. “Meet me here in three hours for lunch,” she says, breaking the silence. She expects Tophe to sigh with relief, but instead he kisses her on the mouth.
“I’ll come with you,” he says, but she sees the glint in his eye, like newly minted money. He craves consumerism, obsessive behaviours, gluttony on a grand scale—not his own, but as a voyeur, quietly observing, making notes.
“Lunch will be good,” Lexi says, smiling, feeling a momentary sense of release. She waits until Tophe has disappeared into the Clocktower Mall with its single-armed high tide clock, and wanders amongst deserted limestone buildings instead. Tophe is patient with her; she acknowledges his kindness. He understands this about her—her aversion to being around large groups of people; her need to explore a new landscape alone; her fear that anyone who comes too close will be in danger, too.
When she slid into Tophe last February on Tunnel Mountain in Banff, tumbling through the trees to the switchback below, she had just sidestepped a large group of hikers snowshoeing down the path. Tophe was trekking ahead of fellow business professors, and she literally knocked him over, his body breaking her fall.
They climbed together to the summit, stood in silence, awed by the mountains rimming the valley, as if tucking it in for the winter, at the view of the Banff Centre below them where they were both staying—Tophe for a conference, Lexi for a sojourn in one of the Leighton Studios where she was working on a translation of a Russian play. Empowered by the exhilaration of falling, of climbing back up the mountain, of this boyish forty-year-old man standing beside her in cinnamon brown gortex, Lexi consciously boxed the last ten years of her life, condensed them into a few words, and offered them to Tophe, omitting the earlier twenty-seven years. She told Tophe about living in Montreal where she translated novels, plays, and collections of poetry from Russian into English and French, rarely leaving her brownstone.
“I knew I recognized you! You don’t live on Richelieu?” Tophe asked, “near Mount Royal?”
“Yes.” She felt exposed, raw. Too much information given to a stranger. She stepped away from the cliff’s edge, retreated towards the protection of trees.
“I’m on Crescent,” he said, following her. “You shop at l’épicerie Manon, yes? I tried to speak to you once—in front of the eggplants—but you turned away.” He dug a hole in the snow with his boot, leaned against the tree shaped like a horse with a long neck. “I teach marketing at McGill. I’m taking French classes so I can keep my job.” He grinned. “I was supposed to be fluent a year ago. We’re given five years, but apparently, I’ve received an extension. I’m getting good, though. Quite good. I’ve learned a lot of useful lines, like—Comme vous avez des beaux yeux—et des jolies chevaux. Completely appropriate for the workplace.”
Lexi smiled at this man’s teasing compliments of her eyes and hair—horses, he’d mistakenly said. She unstrapped her snowshoes and climbed into the tree, where she sat as if riding the trunk side-saddle. Tophe had been within her reach for over five years. She liked the relevance of them both having to leave their homes, venture half way across the country to meet each other for the first time. She thought of the picnic she’d packed in her knapsack: a thermos of mulled wine, Brie, a baguette, a Bosque pear, several squares of dark chocolate. She wondered if maybe she could trust this man, enough to sit in the snow and share food with him.
“I’ve heard that in northern Siberia,” she told Tophe as they ambled back down Tunnel Mountain after several hours of talking and eating, “the Chukchi women have no ‘r’ sound in their language.”
“But the men do?”
“Yes. The women aren’t allowed to make the ‘r’ sound; they must say ‘ts.’ It’s softer—more suitable.” She waited, feeling this was a crucial thing to say to the man she’d decided she was fated to marry.
“Rrreally?” he laughed.
“Rrrrrreally,” she said, relieved.
“All I can say is—too bad for the Chukchi men—they’re missing out.” He kissed her then, just as a group of high school students appeared on the path. She ignored their snickers and remarks as they tramped by; like a child she had closed her eyes and believed she was invisible to them.
Lexi takes a left, ambles past a fish and chips restaurant, up a deserted street towards a building perched high on the hill. The road is narrow and when several trucks rumble past, Lexi flattens herself against the rock face. She knows this feeling well: the need to disappear, dissolve unnoticed into the landscape. For over a decade she’s hidden behind other writers’ words, opinions, creativity—searching for nuances, subtle exchanges in meaning from one language to another.
She reads an information plaque secured to a rock wall, about the hill-top building being Bermuda’s high security prison until 1994. The uppermost level was filled with over ten feet of sand and rubble, supported by arched brick vaulting called ‘Royal Engineer Brickwork,’ designed to protect inhabitants from piercing mortar. She traces the words on the plaque, wonders at the openness of acknowledging one’s defences.
She turns abruptly and hurries back down the hill towards the marina as two men leer at her from a truck on their way by. She glances at her bare arms: she’s too exposed here.
Without a map, Lexi feels giddy-drunk, lost, even with plaques labelling the limestone buildings, as if naming rocks shaped into architectural structures could really ground a person, attach her to place. For ten years, Lexi has needed a visual confirmation of You are here *. The little star a code, a tether, a safety net attaching her to the brownstone in Montreal, to the little grocer’s down the street, the video store on the corner, the post office where she mailed her completed manuscripts. But when these parameters were violated, her door kicked in, her possessions fingered, selectively looted, she knew no mental map could protect her anymore, that it held no more power than the strength of her door. She fled to the mountains, to the sanctity of a tiny cabin spiralled like a shell, forest-sheltered at the Banff Centre.
With Tophe, she feels like Thomas Hurd, an early naval hydrographer, might have felt, after searching the waters around Bermuda for years, trying to find a safe passage through the reefs that tore apart so many ships. Decades later, ships still travel through the channel he discovered. She thinks of Tophe as her safe passage, not towards land, but away, into unchartered waters.
She had suggested Barbados for their honeymoon, but Tophe said no, they’d never get any privacy with her family spread out across the island. He wants to meet them, though, and after they have two weeks together on their own, they’ll fly to her mother’s home country, spend a week with her aunts and uncles.
He’d asked: Why not Russia? She’d shuddered, turned from him. How could he know what had happened to her? She had studied Russian and French in university; after graduating she went to St. Petersburg for three years where she lived with an elderly couple, distant relatives who treated her as their daughter. She knows they blame themselves, that the incident was in some ways far worse for them, than for her, because it happened behind their home. They still have the landscape surrounding them: concrete reminders of memories they can’t forget. No. She cannot go back to Russia.
She knows what Tophe’s doing, slowly, landmark by landmark—he’s erasing the map of familiarity, adding experiences to her life like pins on a globe. He wants to break her of the fears she won’t divulge, that wake her in the night in the form of Russian words pouring from her mouth as if from the mouths of a gang—hungry, hollow words that pierce and stab; guttural punches to the stomach, the mouth, the brain. And Tophe can only back away, let her flail against the rage trapped inside of her own body. He has no reference points as to what the words mean.
She glances at a plaque on a high limestone wall announcing the Victualling Yard, and enters a grassy courtyard with rows of palm trees, surrounded by brown and white stones walls interspersed with arches and columns. She looks closer: the walls are the remains of two buildings, one, its roof long gone, is a jumbled mass of fallen stones where once food was prepared and stored.
Standing in the middle of the yard, on an ordered path of square stones, surrounded by neat rows of squat palm trees, she feels the futility of trying to maintain control over the land. Eventually wind and rain will erode buildings to ruins. She spins around quickly, warily. The air is so dangerously bright, someone could find her here. She senses a change in the light breeze, a sudden calm, like a violent thunderstorm hovering, with this enclosure, its eye. The stillness seems absolute in the courtyard, as if the white-hot sunlight has desiccated sound, reduced breath to an internal murmur, encapsulated all living things within a motionless barrier. The silence terrifies her and she runs to a wall, sinks down low, gasping for breath.
Too familiar, too brilliant. The sidewalk that afternoon was blinding, disorientating. She had too many books as usual—her dictionaries, the collection of Russian poems she was translating, a French novel she was reviewing for a magazine in Belgium, several poetry books she had signed out at the library where she worked on her translations every weekday. Her weight was unbalanced, her thoughts distracted. She should have noticed them, the boys with the shaved heads, the Doc Martens, the black jeans, the mean mouths. Should have ducked into the butcher’s shop a few blocks from her host family’s home, waited for the bus instead of walking the rest of the way.
She always entered the house from the back, slipping through a gap in the fence, so she could smell the flowers and vegetables the Alekseevs coaxed out of soil so poor, their neighbours could only grow weeds. The boys ambushed her from behind, pushing her through the fence, ripping her blouse and scattering her books across the lawn. Her jaw broke as she landed full-force on the ground, her mouth a font of blood spurting in their faces as they turned her over.