A Short Story; The Tick of the Engine
She heard the tick of the engine fading in the distance and a shiver went down her spine. Someone walking over my grave she thought as she walked the well-worn path back to the house in the semi-light early morning hours. The cold mist lay over the land, a shroud of stillness that would burn away with the heat of the sun. It was not foggy, not clear and too early to say what the day would be like. As with most Newfoundlanders she thought of the weather often and wondering what the day would be "like" meant fair or foul, rather than whether it was a successful day. A successful day meant a good catch of fish and that was up to providence.
She always walked Tom to the wharf and saw him off; she always woke when he woke and made sure his lunch was in the shabby blue grub box that had been his father's and his father's fathers in times past and it was she who carried it for him to the stage head each morning.
She also always cooked him a hot breakfast and made him strong tea as was her duty and Tom was a rare man, he saw it as a favour, not a requirement and the duty was easier for his goodness. She loved her Tom in the deep quiet way of the times and brushed away acknowledgment, the admission of this weakness of her heart with a brusqueness that belied the depth of her feelings.
She was bone-tired, a weariness she knew was a sign of the blessing to come and she sighed. The babies were coming regularly as was to be expected but they drained the energy from her body more each time. Only her fierce determination to continue as though nothing was amiss as though she were as hardy as Tom thought got her through. She refused to disappoint him with a sign of weakness, something that was not to be borne, and she carried on with determination and grit. He'd married a strong, hardy girl and she'd never allow weakness or frailty to show though sometimes she slipped off to their bedroom to nap while he was gone on the water.
She licked her lips as the wind picked up and the sudden taste of salt on them told her what the direction of the wind was. The tick of the engine faded completely and the pit of her stomach ached for a brief moment as it always did when that comforting sound was suddenly gone. She picked up her pace as the chill broke through her coat and made her shiver again.
It wasn't so cold though that she didn't stop and walk around the bridge that spanned the back of the house to look out over the water for signs of what the day would bring. It was still a bit dark and the shadows of the cliffs and rocks were ghostly in the distance. The water roared like an angry animal, disgruntled at being slowed by the cliffs it bashed against. She suddenly became aware of a storm in the air and a dull ache in her left hip confirmed it for her.
Tom counted on her for weather, she had an uncanny way of knowing when a severe storm brewed, but she'd not had any signs before he left and hadn't known to warn him. The fatigue from the pregnancy had made her head fuzzy and her senses dull. She quickly shook her head, nipping the sense of foreboding that suddenly came upon her, in the bud. She turned quickly to go around the house to the front door before she could give it further license
She entered the house to silence. This early in the morning there was not yet another up, the baby slept with her sisters now, where she slept the longest and the warmest between them. Annie was six and Mary was four. The baby, Rachel was almost two and the younger girls were her constant caretakers. Her mother was too busy with the work of the days to care for babies beyond nursing them while they still needed her milk. But Rachel was now weaned and Annie and Mary loved and doted on their little sister. Bigger sisters, each in her turn became caretaker of the new babies, adopting them as her own. It was the way it was in big families. Boys were different of course, boys learned outdoor work, not baby care, but there were no boys yet to share Tom's load. Maybe this time she hoped.
The older girls, Bessie and Margaret were able to work around the house now at ten and twelve. And at twelve, the eldest Margaret was proving to be quite the hard worker, a pride to her mother as much as a role model for her younger sister Bessie who struggled to keep up but was sickly and weaker and needed a bit more time and frequent rests though she tried hard to learn the skills to keep a good house. Her mother was harsh sometimes with no patience for sickness and weakness and her older sister often did more work to compensate for her closest sister. If the work was done, mostly mother was satisfied though everyone knew Margaret carried the load.
She rarely let her mind slip to the lost ones, the two babies that had come between Annie and Bessie, their only boy, too small to live who hadn't breathed at all and his sister who had lived for a day but also passed too soon to really have made any mark on the world. James and Patience, the boy not named after his father, they'd save that name for a living boy, and Patience, a name too frivolous to have ever been bestowed upon a living daughter, was given to the little girl who would be the only one in the family given a "pretty" name over a practical, serviceable one.
They were each quietly and solemnly baptized in her bedroom and were buried next to each other in the church cemetery, unmarked until one of their parents passed and a marker would be shared with them. She wept for each, the day of their deaths and then that was it. Tom looked at her with confusion each time a child was lost, his blue eyes holding a sad searching, as though he didn't know quite what to do about her or them and she'd stiffened her spine each time and bore up stoically for his benefit. She must be hardy for Tom, like the pitcher plants on the marsh that survived anything the cold north Atlantic winters tossed at them. It was what he liked best about her.
The work of the morning was a blessing for it kept her mind and her eyes off the blackening skies in the distance that coloured the cold waters of the ocean in the dark hue of mourning. She knew Tom would be late; his was always the last boat in. He fished alone, having no brother; he'd always done so though she knew he'd meet this man or that on the grounds where he'd go. It had been clear enough to make out the marks this morning or he wouldn't have gone but now the sky was threatening and dangerous.
She went quickly to bring in the small line of clothes she'd strung up in defiance earlier in the day. Her ears prickled at the sound of the tick of an engine only to be disappointed yet again. Not Tom, the silence between the ticks longer that of Tom's engine and it was that silence between the ticks of the motor that she knew so well. A little miss, a hesitation that distinguished it from Micky Hammond's boat or the Murphy boys' skiff. She watched the sky with quiet anxiety, knowing, were there were fish to be had Tom wouldn't leave that ground for home. She felt proud and frustrated all at once.
The wind picked up and she felt the first pecks of the rain as she dragged the last sheet off the line with a yank and pulled herself towards the house ignoring the increasing twinge of pain in her hip. She might have wrenched it somewhere and she couldn't remember. It meant nothing she thought as she denied every clue that a bad storm was brewing. Her heart refused to believe what her eyes told her because her ability to get through each moment demanded it.
The girls were about their work, bread laid out on the counter rising, potatoes and cabbage for dinner in the bowl waiting, salt beef, turnip, carrots boiling in the pot, the clock ticking off the minutes under Margaret's watchful eye, waiting for the exact moment when potatoes and cabbage would join them. Her stomach rolled at the smell of the aroma of Tom's favourite meal. She went to the pantry and pulled out the boiled raisin cake she'd made the day before. It was to be for Sunday but she thought Tom might want it today. She put the butter out too. He liked butter on his cake.
The table was set and minutes slipped away, one into another until the dinner was cooked. The wickedness of the wind could no longer be ignored and Bessie commented on it, wondering out loud if her father was safe to be out there. Her mother harshly snapped at her to get her lazy body to work, in a sharp tone, and to stop being so foolish over a bit of wind and rain as she rubbed a hand over the ever increasing pain in her hip. It was a bad one. The sea would swell and the wind would dance a deadly two-step. It would come seemingly out of nowhere in the harsh north Atlantic as these storms did, harbingers of death and destruction and more than one vulnerable little skiff had fallen to their sudden swift and malicious fury. While the ocean offered up a valuable gift sometimes it demanded a bounty and that bounty was a price too high to pay.
Yet again she shook it off and her ears strained to hear over the increasing volume of the wind outside. She felt a dread in the pit of her stomach, a deep and desperate dread, despair so sudden, so unexpected it almost took the breath from her bosom. She caught her breath loudly and walked swiftly to the door grabbing her coat as she went. She held it tight about her, the wind pulling and whipping her hair around her face. The ocean, angry and desperate, seemed to be trying its best to knock the granite off the rock-faces. She looked out at the angry water, her wrinkled brow, her sharp gray eyes searching for any sign that he was on his way in. Her anger matched the winds. Her worry was as deep as the ocean. Her desperation knew no analogy.
She looked along the horizon, scanning north to south, an endless, infinite stretch of black water, white only where it hammered against the distant islands and rocks. She fell to her knees in the sheltered corner of the house and prayed to her God in desperation that he bring Tom home safe and sound. She knew, though she wouldn't consciously admit it, that she'd be angered beyond sanity at God if Tom didn't come home today. She hoped he wouldn't hold it against her, for she'd be even angrier at herself.
The wind gusted and whirled, its strength bringing the tears to her eyes that wouldn't come to her in her fear. She wiped them away and stood up. She thought, maybe, the storm was calming and anyway, dinner was done. She walked back into the house, drunkenly in the path of the wind, and quickly she set the girls to getting some food for themselves. She wouldn't show them her weakness, her worry. Tom wouldn't like that.
She ate with them. She filled herself on the boiled dinner and chewed absently on the tasty salt beef that normally she ate with gusto. Her brain cursed her for letting her heart get to her. Weak, she berated herself. She was weak for worrying. She knew for sure the wind was dropping now and she had already heard the tick of Micky Hammond's motor, so different from Tom's that she hadn't even had that momentary quickening of her pulse that it might be him.
She rocked the baby to sleep after dinner, a rare treat for little Rachel who looked up at her mother with large gray eyes that matched her own and a soft smile at this unexpected attention. She loved her sisters but sometimes she wanted her mother, who rarely had the time to stop for her. She fell asleep quickly in the quiet solace of her mother's arms and her mother rocked her far longer than was needed until with a sigh she carried her to the bed, she'd dawdled long enough.
With a glance at the uneaten leftover food on the stove warmer, she went outside with the basket of still-damp sheets she'd pulled in quickly earlier on. She started to hang them back on the line with a defeated air when she heard it in the distance, so quietly; she barely dared hope she'd heard correctly, silently censoring herself for being so faint-hearted. But it grew louder until there was no denying it. That space, that miss, that little hesitation between the ticks as distinct as a fingerprint is on a man.
Each motor of each boat has its own tick and she knew his as well as any Newfoundland wife knew their own. That space, that miss, that little hesitation that identified her Tom's boat from Micky Hammond's or the Murphys' boat. Her heart beat gentler in her breast and the baby in her belly moved with a soft roll inside her as if to adjust itself to the new rhythm it now slept next to. It was then that she remembered to breathe again.
She slowly hung the rest of the sheets on the line and then stopped by and called to Margaret to make a place for her father at the table while she went to meet him at the wharf as she always did. She adjusted her face into its normal serious expression, tamping down the grin of happiness that lurked below the surface.
He brought the boat in closer and she saw as they approached each other, him on the water still, her on the land, that there was a hefty haul of fish in the boat and while she wasn't sunk to the gunwales she was well down in the water. A good days pay. She grabbed the rope he tossed her and tied the little skiff on with the painter as deftly as any man.
"Anyt'ing on da go missus?" Tom asked her with a grin. That bugger, he'd had fun out there!
"Not much" she said brusquely, irritated "dinner's on" and she stepped back as he climbed on to the wharf and took off his soaked rubber clothes and hung them on a nail on the side of the stage.
Then they walked up to the house in companionable silence, her heart beating again in the rhythm it was meant to, with a space, a miss, a little hesitation, a rhythm made by God to match the tick of the engine.
I wrote this a while ago and it is dedicated to my grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and all the women who waited for their men to come home from the sea. It was inspired by a memory of my father who told me about the tick of the engine.
Between now and my publication date anyone who comments on a post is automatically entered into a draw to win a copy of my poetry book, Wind Rhymes!. The book should be released somewhere around the end of October! No limit, every comment is an entry!
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