Mac took off his spectacles and the world around him became an impressionist painting, blurry yet somewhat recognizable. He tilted his head back. It was raining and he let the cold drizzle pelt his weathered face. It stung him a little, but felt good. Mac squeezed his eyes shut, knitting his thick gray eyebrows together and stood motionless letting the water purify him. Breathing in and out he allowed the salt air of Kingfisher Bay to fill his lungs. The distant cry of two gulls cut through the patter of the droplets on the pier as they argued over the ownership of a scrap of discarded fish bait. He returned his specs to the tip of his nose and flexed his arthritic hands. A sharp pain shot up his arm to his shoulder. Like an electric shock it cleared his mind and signaled him now was the time for action. The old man looked at the large burlap bag on the dock, his black Wellington boots straddling the object. Rainwater was soaking into the absorbent material, it was collecting and pooling in the crevices. The sack would be heavy. He stared, willing it to move itself. Mac swallowed hard as tears welled up in the corner of his eyes. If he permitted, they would roll down his cheeks and mix in his beard with the rain. A quick shake of his head cured that. He could not spare the moment to indulge in emotion. There was a job that needed doing.
As he bent to grab hold of the sack, a silver hip flask fell from the inside of his oilskin jacket. Hitting the bag the flask landed on the wooden dock with a clink. His body sank from a backbend to a knee crouch as he picked it up, both joints screamed at him in agony. Balancing on the balls of his feet he studied it, slowly turning the canteen over in his leathered hands. The amber liquid inside was sloshing back and forth, calling to him. In one swift motion, Mac unscrewed the cap, lifted the silver flask to his lips and drank deeply, just as he had done a thousand of times before this. The sharp bite of whiskey flooded his mouth and left a trail of fire into his belly. He closed his eyes and let the liquid work its magic, steadying him, comforting him. With his eyes still closed he sealed the flask and returned it to his inside pocket. Placing both hands palm down on the sack, he remained motionless for a moment, ignoring the pain in his knees. The euphoric relief from the booze was numbing them gradually. The pungent aroma from the bag was intrusive and reminiscent, familiar. The smell carried him back to memory from another rainy day, a lifetime ago when he was just a boy…
A young Mackenzie Patrick O’Leary was pedaling his bicycle through pouring rain along Mulligan St. He was soaked to the skin. His dungarees were saturated and heavy making it difficult to pedal, his light windcheater was also sopping wet. For the better part of the afternoon, he had been roaming up and down the local streets looking for Shane, the family’s black labrador. He had been calling his name and whistling, but it had all been in vain. Now he was cold and sore and heading home. Shane had escaped the confines of his kennel in the backyard again. The dog was a wanderer at the best of times, but now it was spring. He had been alright through the winter months, but at this time of year the neighbourhood bitches were in heat and their call was far too strong to keep him contained.
He wheeled his bicycle up the driveway of the small unkempt bungalow that he, his brother Michael and his father lived in. Mac was careful not to block his father’s pickup truck as he put his bike in the garage. He didn’t want to risk another beating. Out of habit, he pulled on the overhead door cord to close it. The metal groaned, but the door did not move. His father had smashed the truck into it one night a few months back, he had been very drunk, and the collision had bent the guide tracks. The garage door stayed open now, despite a half dozen slurred late night proclamations,
“Things are gonna change around here,…yep, gonna fix this dump up! You boy’s will see!”
Nothing changed, nothing ever changed. Mac went through the side gate into the backyard. He stayed on the crumbling patio stones as long as possible to avoid walking through the uncut grass. His Keds were already wet, but he didn’t fancy the idea of stubbing his toe on some discarded car part or rusty garden tool. Mac walked to Shane’s kennel, hoping beyond hope he may have come home, it stood empty. The door of the ramshackle four by eight foot shelter hung open. He looked at the faded red food dish in the mud, a handful of kibble was floating in the rainwater. A hastily built enclosure with a short half wall and five feet of chicken wire fence nailed to a wooden frame. Half the ceiling was open to the elements and the other half covered with a sheet of shed tin, the rain was beating on it now like an orchestra of tribal drums. His father had spread an open a bale of hay on the covered side of the kennel for a bed. Mac stepped into it under the makeshift roof and looked back towards the house. He could see his father looking at him through the kitchen window. Suddenly his mouth flooded with the sharp tang of fear. He knew he would be blamed for this. The latch on the door of the kennel had been broken for ages. He had tried to fix it himself by using a bent nail as a catch to secure the hook on the door, but the wood was old and splintering. One good shove and the nail popped out. He had told his dad numerous times it needed fixing. But he knew as he watched his father storm across the yard towards him in his wellies and work pants, this was not the time to mention that. He already had a leather belt in his hand; it swayed back and forth as he trudged towards him. Mac’s fate had been pre-determined in the kitchen and now it was best to just stay quiet, let it happen. Provoking his father would only make it worse.
“You let him get out again!” His father’s words slurred and ran together as he screeched. “Do you have $20.00 to git him out of the pound? Do YOU?” he screamed. ”Well, I ain’t payin to get him out this time, you stupid shit!” The first blow struck Mac across his left shoulder. The thwack of the wet leather on the thin nylon of his jacket rung out and he yelped in pain. The blow caused him to slip in the wet hay, topple and land in the pile. He curled up in a foetal position and closed his eyes. Repeatedly the lashes rained down on him, each one more vicious than the last. Mac closed his eyes even tighter, trying to block out his father’s voice. The smell of wet hay and his dog filled his nostrils as he cowered from the relentless stream of his father’s abuse.
How long had he been crouched on the dock? He didn’t know. The heavy smell seemed even thicker now, somehow intensified by Mac’s daydream. He opened his eyes and stood shakily, each of his knees protesting in agony. The rain had stopped and the daylight was fading fast; he had to move. Mac fumbled for the flask again, he took a long pull on it then slipped it back in his pocket. Looking east towards the end of the dock, he could see the fishing dory that his tiny rowboat was moored beside. It was rising and falling gently, bobbing up and down in the slowly increasing swell. The shrill squeak of the rubber bumpers against the slick wooden dock edge was audible over the wind. Yes, the rain had stopped, but there was an offshore breeze building and if he wanted to get back in from Bear Island later, he had best get a move on. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his back, he stooped slightly and grasped two handfuls of the burlap sack. He yanked it forward hard. One hand couldn’t maintain its grip on the sack and broke free with the effort. He stumbled on the greasy timbers of the dock and fell hard on his right hip.
“Rat shit balls!” he howled in pain. “Goddamn you Tipper, you are gonna be the end of me, you stupid mutt!” he shouted at the bag. He sat for a moment staring at it. Then resignedly shaking his head and half chuckling to himself, he got up.
“Stupid old man I am” he muttered. Glancing around, he spied a piece of discarded tie rope. It was lying beside an overflowing green garbage bin with ‘NO FISH GUTS’ stencilled on the side in white. He retrieved the rope and tied the end of the sack shut with a double davy knot. He tugged hard on the newly made lead.
“That won’t slip, nothing wrong with me knot making’” he smiled to himself. With the cargo secured to the rope and the rope over his shoulder, he now made short work of dragging the sack down to the end of the pier.
Gingerly he stepped on the top rung of the ladder fastened to the transom on the fishing dory. He descended the four rungs down to the rear platform slowly. Hand, foot, hand, foot, methodically picking his way. Standing on the platform, he placed one foot on the forward seat of the rowboat and pulled on the sack rope dangling down from the dock. The action caused the rowboat to dip and bob, but if nothing else, Mac still had his sea legs. The dock was shoulder level and he cradled the sack as it slipped over the edge. He was a strong man at one time, but now it took all he could muster to lower the bag to the floor of the boat. He stripped off his coat and sat in his black wool sweater on the tiny bench seat. Mac bent forward and unfastened the knot. The suspenders from his hip wader pants were digging into his shoulders; he shucked them and let them fall to his waist as he opened the sack. Reaching inside his hand settled on wet fur. It felt stiff and coarse against his weathered hands. No, no…he couldn’t look at him, not yet.
“Sorry Tipper, have to leave you in there a wee bit longer, boy.” he whispered. Mac was barely audible against the rising wind. Gulls continued to cry above as he clanked the oars in their guide rings. As he dipped them into the murky black water, Mac pushed the rowboat off from the dory and began to row out into the cove. It was easy enough work for now as the wind was with him. Slowly rolling with the swells, he edged farther and farther away from the pier. His mind wandered, drifting like his rowboat on a sea of sorrow and memories. He felt a sharp stab of remorse as he recalled the day, ten or twelve years back, when his son left home. That was the day he had lost him for good. Mac had only ever wanted what was best for the boy. But boys are wild and stupid and they live in the moment. Discipline was the only way to keep them on the straight and narrow, his father had taught him that. Mac spat over the side of the boat, trying in vain to remove the foul taste in his mouth that the memory had brought.
“That little shit” he whispered. “Just up and walked out on me, just like his mother. Seventeen years old and he knew it all!” As hard as he tried, Mac couldn’t keep his son’s voice out of his head.
“No Dad! No more! All you ever do is yell at me and berate me for helping. Screw this!” Jason was not shouting, but was loud enough to let Mac know he was serious. “You are going to lose your position on that fishing boat. You can’t expect to show up drunk and have them take you out to sea. It happens every week Dad, every week. And who comes to rescue you ? Who do they call? Me, the guy who gets yelled at for helping. The guy who takes all your shit. No more Dad, no more enabling!”
Mac was slouched in his old lazy-boy chair in the front room. Jason was standing in their kitchen with an empty whiskey bottle in his hand. He was shaking it at him as he spoke, like a judge with a gavel. Is that what was happening? Was he being tried? Sentenced? Mac just wanted to sleep, to slip deep into the theatre of his mind where he was a great man, a well respected man. Respected as leader of his community, loved as a father and admired at work, he didn’t need all this crap. In a murky background, Jason was still droning on and on.
“The only goddamn reason you stopped beating me is because you’re too drunk most of the time now and I started hitting back, didn’t I? But mom never did. Did she Dad, she never hit back!? No, mom just took it…right up until the day she vanished!”
What did that mean Mac wondered? His wife just took what? She left years back! That woman was a miserable old cow. He just wanted to sleep and let the blackness come, for God’s sake. Jason’s voice faded further away, into an echo and the warm blanket of intoxication carried him to the land where he was king. When he awoke, his tongue was thick and his head was pounding…and Jason was gone. He never saw him again.
He had stopped rowing. The small craft was spinning slowly in the strengthening breeze and deepening chop of the water. He dragged his mind back to the present and scanned the horizon. Less than 200 yards off shore, but drifting quickly. No matter if the worst came to pass, he could spend the night on Bear Island instead of rowing back. It wouldn’t be the first time. He grasped the oars a little more tightly and began rowing again.
The rain resumed, slowly at first but then with increasing velocity. He realized he had misjudged the weather situation. It was going to get very nasty, very quickly. He cursed himself, he knew better. Years at sea had honed his senses and he knew instinctively when a storm was coming. The only option now was to make the island before it hit. Mac tried to increase his pace, but his body was simply not willing.
“Dammit” he screamed into the thickening rain. The light was fading as well. This was turning into an extremely bad situation. The wet wood of the oars were like bars of hot iron in his fists. He began pulling harder, forcing the boat to climb through the waves. It felt as if a layer of skin was peeling from his palms with every stroke. After a considerable stretch, he could labour no further. Removing his flask, he drained what was left of the contents and tossed the it angrily on the floor of the boat. There was already four inches of water sloshing about. The rain, thankfully, was coming straight down, a good sign to be sure. Maybe, just maybe the storm wouldn’t worsen. Craning his neck, he looked over his shoulder and saw the dim outline of the bear skull shaped island in the twilight. It wasn’t far now. But the sun had slipped beneath the waves and soon it would be pitch black. He hadn’t brought a torch. Why the hell had he not brought a torch?
Refocused, Mac wrapped a handkerchief around his right hand and continued to row. He kept pace as best as he could against the swells. For the first time since seeing Tipper lying un-breathing on the kitchen floor he was second guessing his decision. This was a lot of effort just to bury a dog. But Tipper wasn’t just a dog, was he? He was a friend, his only friend. The only living thing that had stuck by him, that loved him. After Mac’s ex wife Laurie left, after Jason walked out, after being ostracized by the fishermen’s community, after losing job after job, Tipper was always there. Always! The goddamned dog had never betrayed him.
One morning, not too long ago, Mac had showed up on the dock on unsteady legs. The trawler Captain had sent him home and told him not to bother coming back. He had used his last chance. Mac went home in the pre dawn light and dealt with the news the only way he knew how. Mac was still very drunk from the night before and his body had not had time to detoxify. The ten or twelve hours he would have been at sea normally did that for him. Consequently Mac drank himself to the point of blacking out quite quickly once he reached the safety of his home and his body, in an effort to defend itself, started regurgitating everything in his stomach. Vomiting and choking, he lay on the living room floor. Tipper in great distress for his master began to bark and howl. Had it been the afternoon or evening, chances are no one would have noticed. But it was mid morning and Mrs. James was out in her garden. Thinking Mac was out on the boats, it sounded to her as if Tipper was alone and in distress, she went to investigate. The dog had literally saved Mac’s life.
He had stopped rowing again…the memory was tearing at him like some savage demon, ripping at his heart. Tears began to flow freely as Mac howled in anguish.
“WHYYY?” he collapsed forward onto the burlap bag and squeezed it tightly. This was his first real release of emotion since he found Tipper dead. In almost a frantic need to express his love, Mac pulled the dog’s corpse from the sack and held it to his chest, absently stroking his fur and rocking back and forth. He laid on the bottom of the boat, codling the animal, letting the rain hammer down on them. What was he going to do? How could he live without his dog?
Mac’s original plan had been to bury Tipper on Bear Island, so he could see him every time he left the harbour; if he could manage his way back onto a trawler that was. It stood out of the water, high at one end, then tapering to a rounded snout at the other, like a bear’s skull. But Bear Island was sparsely covered with only a few trees and was mostly rock. Mac had thought he could do a sea burial instead, just off the north end, at the bear’s snout.
“That’s what I thought” he whimpered, still rocking the dogs carcass. “That’s what I thought, boy”
The tiny craft was bobbing violently now, the rain was teeming down and the waves were steadily gaining height. Mac had been at sea too long to be scared of storms, however he realized he was in some peril. Once again taking the aft seat and grasping the oars, he started to pull. The strong wind helping a little, propelling him towards the outlet of the bay and Bear Island, the waves however had become a problem. As the swells increased, more water was splashing into the boat with each rise and fall. Mac couldn’t stop rowing to bail, besides he had nothing to bail with except his bare hands anyway. They would do little to stem the onslaught of collecting seawater. His only hope of not swamping was to make landfalls.
The situation had become desperate; three feet of water was now sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. Light had all but faded from the sky and the rain was so hard he could not see the lights of the mainland shore. Relentlessly the waves hammered the tiny craft. Mac was straining on the oars, like trying to row a cement block through butter. A larger wave rocked them so drastically it ripped an ore from Mac’s hand. Before he could recover, another wave popped from its eyelet and the ore fell into the sea. Mac screamed and cursed the storm just as the first bolt of lightning ripped open the onyx sky. Thunder clapped and rolled, making his damnation inaudible. He pulled the remaining oar inside the boat and secured it under the seat. He dropped to his knees, frantically trying to scoop water over the gunwale of the boat. Bobbing up and down, up and down,, the wind was howling, the rain was pelting them, the thunder continued crashing. Mac knew it was done. Succumbing to the inevitable, he collapsed beside the corpse of his only true friend with a splash and clung to him as he waited to drown.
“Pruned up pretty good, eh boy?” Mac was showing his white water logged fingers and blistered hands to Tipper. There was only six inches of water left in the boat. Mac had scooped the rest of it out. Sometime in the night, he had woken coughing and sputtering, spitting the salt water from his lungs. The storm abated. The boat was almost full of water but still afloat, it was a miracle they hadn’t capsized. So he had set about throwing the water over the side and fairly quickly had bailed most of it out. The sky was still dark, but he could tell the sun was lurking just over the horizon. Soon it would be dawn and he could start to paddle his way back to shore. He looked lovingly down at Tipper. The time had come to do what needed to be done. He knew it. It was time to say goodbye.
Mac pulled the body up onto his lap and smoothing the fur back from his eyes, “How the hell am I gonna get along without you, boy?” he asked. The unseeing eyes of the animal stared up at him. “You were the only thing that made me smile,” he tugged the carcass close and cradled the dog’s head to his chest. Rocking him back and forth he whispered, “You were the only reason to come home.” Mac sighed heavily. Damn it, he wished he had a drink. The tears came as he tenderly rolled Tipper’s body over the side of the boat. Mac was on his knees, holding Tipper’s tattered collar firmly, keeping his head above the water. Looking down and weeping as if he were a child, he realized now he truly was alone. What could he do? How could he manage? How could he possibly go on this way? Maybe Tipper dying was a sign for him. Some type of warning. Mac was an old man and in all likelihood had little time left. How could he the way he treated himself. Maybe he could give up the drink and beg for his job back on the trawler, even set about finding Jason and Laurie. Repair every last bit of damage he had done in his life and make what was left of his time worthwhile. Maybe Tipper’s death was telling him that. Mac’s crusty old face smiled through the tears. Ya, maybe, but deep down inside, Mac knew what he really had do.
Dawn broke over Kingfisher Bay. It seemed desolate, lonely, as most of the trawlers and Dories were out scouring the depths for their daily catch. The crisp pale sky was filled with sea birds dipping and soaring through the sparse clouds. A cold sun shone and there was no evidence of the previous night’s storm. A gentle breeze stirred the air as an empty rowboat bumped unnoticed against the rocky north shore of Bear Island and a lone gull cried out above for an old man and his dog.