We pyred the jellies as high as we could, the tentacles slick, glistening, studded with sea-crumb and sand. I tended the joists with snaps of tossed ply that I’d dragged down from camp. You could see on a few of the laths little twists and stainings of rust where someone had plucked out the nails. I arranged these in a sort of canted lean-to-like fashion along the layers of frigid slop and bolstered down their ends with thick mucky stones and coiled in bits of newspaper and bark and clumps of dry seaweed frond that Jacob claimed wouldn’t catch on account of what he kept calling an inner damp but I doubted him.
The area of beach where we’d staked out our pyre sat away from the main campsites, just down past the viewing deck where the park people had installed a series of stern, quarter-fed telescopes for tourists to ogle out on the tide and wheeling terns and things, but where we were you’d want to step right down off the bluff to know about.
I sat with my feet kicked out wide on a slab of cold clammy shale, grinding match heads into a small black film canister. Spiders, thin and grey, cringed through the looser stones, a wan light catching on their brittle bodies, bellies no broader than the drip of a pen.
Setting aside my match heads, which I’d pestled down to a fine ruddy dust with my thumb, I looked out on the water where Jacob stood plying the reaches, prodding at the strands of sludge and wagging kelp. It was getting oily out. The sun was faraway and low and dented. Waves sucked and fled. Jacob was making do with two sticks—the fatter of these warped and bowled like a pelvis.
We had another hour yet before supper. I’d been invited along as Jacob’s friend from school for a weekend of camping with his family. My family didn’t believe in camping. Standing at the edge of my bedroom, watching me pack, my father said, “What do you need those for? You expecting snow?”
He was referring to my Sorels.
“Hiking,” I explained.
“Hiking?” he said. “What do you mean hiking?” He wore the high blotchy shorts that my mother called his indoor pair because she wouldn’t be caught dead with them in public. Ribbons of worn khaki drooped in rude plenitude, dangling down the fronts of his legs like reins. He studied my Sorels. “That’s not hiking,” he said. “That’s just wandering around in the woods in weird looking boots.”
I went back to my pyre. I took up a pinch of the match heads and sprinkled this quantity overtop the jellies, and fed in another layer of bark. Birch bark worked best for what I had in mind, but the park people didn’t want you skinning the live trees, so I’d spent the morning scurrying around the campground in a mad panic, foraging, gunning for tumbled flutes.
There were jellyfish—dead jellyfish—scattered all across the beach and I wanted to burn them. Jacob said they weren’t poisonous anymore since they were already dead but I wondered why, if this were true, why it was the gulls didn’t swoop down and gobble them.
Jacob stepped out of the shallows, idling his sticks over a dry, dingy fret of sand. We were full up on jellies but Jacob lurched anyway, hauling up to me with the guts of another—sauntering this haggardness in front of himself like a cauldron of sloshing broth.
“There’s no room,” I said.
He let go of his fat stick and slipped the jelly onto where the others lay huddled, a drool of tentacles like a slow yoke of spittle.
“We haven’t got enough matches.”
“Sure we do,” he said.
The top one was already starting to slither, so I fetched it down off the stack with my hands, letting the reeking, rubbery guts run right through my fingers. It felt wonderful. It felt like sinking your hands inside a cold, heavy sauce.
“Who’s that coming over there?”
I pitched the jelly to the ground and tracked Jacob’s gaze to the viewing deck, where a man in a strange hat was making his way off the embankment, clutching at the wisps of ridgy trees as he skittered down the slope. The hat was some sort of cowboy-safari deal, short-brimmed but with one of those tall, tightly dimpled puckers on top.
“What you guys up to?” he called out.
We didn’t say anything. Jacob brought up his long stick in one hand and gave the tossed jelly a handsome thwack, a shudder of frail, purple-white goop popping off the rocks, smutching us.
“What are those? Jellyfish?”
The man stalked around our pyre, nudging stones, poking laths.
“You shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “You shouldn’t be out here and you shouldn’t be doing this.”
The man took off his hat and rubbed his brow. He had thin hair, rusty, the colour of a peeling cut.
“Where’s your parents?”
A pair of young looking gulls had taken interest in our pyre. The birds had good size but their feathers were still blotchy and flecked. The man with the hat gave out a dry tsk and stomped his foot down loud on the rocks and the gull closest to him shrugged off. The other one kept at it.
In the woods I pretended to smoke a twig to my lips, puffing my lids shut as I dragged. “That’s good shit,” I said, presenting this wetted end to Jacob who would have none of it. “Be serious,” he said. “Treat this like a serious mission.”
Jacob wore his slicker cinched across his waist and the hood sagged. He walked with a new stick, gripping the whorled foot part and plucking himself forward with the tip. He kept his flashlight and Glock with the orange of his barrel painted black holstered to his hips and it looked realer than mine.
“You hear that?”
We dropped to the ground and I took up my binoculars and Jacob drew a bead with his Glock.
“That’s nothing,” I said, the knees of my jeans soaking in the moss. “That’s just a sound.”
Jacob let out his clip, and slipped in a roll of red paper caps. His was the realer one because of the paint but mine fired a louder sound. He fed the clip back into the butt and racked the slide slow and quiet like you see how the way they do in movies when the good guys go in somewhere secret and don’t want to get caught.
“There’s something out there,” he said.
There was nothing out there but burdock and tuck and mossed-over rocks, but I took out my small snubbed revolver with the bright orange cap still fixed to the barrel like a chump and drew back my hammer to please him.
“There,” said Jacob. “See that?”
“I see it,” I said.
“Take him,” said Jacob.
Jacob took a shot. His gun made a sound like a straw grabbing at the bottom of a near empty glass and then I shot. Jacob racked his slide and took another. A blue smoke thickened and lingered on the tuck. I pulled down my hammer and waited for Jacob to fix his slide and then we both shot, keening back our wrists at the kick that wasn’t even there.
That night we ate canned chili with burnt hotdog chunks over a bed of wild rice. The hotdogs weren’t half bad with a drizzle of ketchup stirred overtop but the rice was soppy and underdone. After we finished scrubbing our plates, Jacob and I went back to the fire, while the adults sat around the picnic table with their cigarettes and their mugs of wine, playing Trivial Pursuit. There was Jacob’s mom and Jerry and Uncle Nick, who was nobody’s uncle that Jacob knew, and Nick’s girlfriend, Megan.
Once we had the fire up and punting at a steady snap, we broke out the marshmallows. I liked to see how many I could squeeze onto one stick, crisping the sides pimply gold. Jacob preferred torching his one at a time, dangling his marshmallow directly inside a flame until the white went from a gold to more of a blistered grey and black. I’d snuck a stack of Trivial Pursuit cards away from where Megan was hoarding them, and in between bouts of roasting, read off questions and answers.
“Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is an autonomous region of what country?”
“I don’t care.”
“What’s the sleepiest animal in the world, sleeping nearly 22 hours each day?”
“Says here koala.”
A mosquito lighted on my wrist and I let it sit there a minute, bloating on a vein. I was ready to see if the mosquito would end up killing itself by accident but eventually it got sated or bored or wise to the plight of its own drunkenness and spun off.
Music clanged from the trailer camped down from ours, clunky tunes, familiar and lewd, but not known to me by name. At some point a woman yelled, “Why don’t you suck my dick, Wayne,” and when Jerry started up suddenly, Jacob’s mom said, “Jerry, it’s early. It’s fine.”
I rested the tip of my non-marshmallow stick inside a fold of ash, daubing at the low orange glow. Jacob said that burning your stick made the wood stronger and better for battle and I believed him. His cheeks were gaunt and crudded with soot.
When the adults were through playing their game, they came and joined us by the fire. Uncle Nick drew off his shoes and socks and popped his bare ugly feet with the nubs of chubby yellow callus crowning either ball up onto one of the warm stones near where my stick was grazing. Some of his toes appeared translucent and his nails where they shot over the flesh were hooked and bulbed like tabs of peeled glue and the fire showed strong and reddish through them.
Jerry laid in another log. A waft of smoke pivoted over my face. I ducked my chin but made a point of not blinking or shooing it away.
“Can I get a light?” Megan asked. An unlit cigarette protruded from her lips.
I tapped my stick against a rock to smudge its flame and held it up to her.
“That’s good, that’s good,” she said.
But I’d pressed the ember too long and the paper had blacked. When she took in a puff, a stripe of burn lurked crookedly along one edge.
“Save me a drag,” said Jacob.
“A drag?” said Jerry. He held a flask of something in his fist and when he spoke the light on the steel flinched. “No one’s saving anyone any drags.”
A spark kicked off the new log and Uncle Nick shied his feet away from the rocks. He was reaching at his ankles and grinning a little. “What are you supposed to be, anyway?” he said to Jacob. “Eleven? Twelve?” You could tell he was maybe somewhat drunk from the way he said one number louder than the other.
“We’re going into grade eight,” I told him.
Later that night, as we lay in our sleeping bags, our teeth brushed, and flashlights off, I asked Jacob if he wanted to play Sheila.
“The adults are still up.”
The insides of the tent were wet from the night before and shrank and flapped in the breeze. I couldn’t sleep. The way the moon slanted through the eaves I thought I could see ants crawling all along the inside of the tent but when I batted the sides to see if any would fall on my face none did. I drew my sleeping bag up over my chin and let out a long sigh.
The last time we played Sheila, I was Sheila, and Jacob played me.
I woke the next morning to more wet, to sobs of dew pilling on the tent walls. I scrubbed the sleep from my eyes and sat up. Strobes of dull grey light silvered through the misted screen, glinting, gaining luster. Jacob stirred but showed no real signs of waking, as I shuffled out of my sleeping bag and into the day, no noises doing but for the jaded plaint of crows. I put on my toque and zipped shut the tent, and made my way to the picnic table, where Megan sat alone with the Coleman and a book. There was no fire yet but Megan had the percolator cranked and a thin colour of coffee swirled and hung on the glass.
“Do you drink coffee?”
“I don’t know.”
“You ever try any?”
“Once,” I lied.
There was some clambering in the trees and Uncle Nick stepped out of the bushes. He had on one of those plaid woodsman jackets with the burly wool collars and was lugging two of the large white water jugs in either hand and there were needles and streaks of clayey dirt mucked on the bottoms of them. He set these on the other end of the picnic table across where the Coleman was wheezing and wiped his palms dry on his jeans. The skin under his eyes was bagged and spotty. He looked over at Megan. “Sweetie,” he said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”
The Coleman wheezed and hissed. Megan flicked a page in her book. You could see reaching up through the grates tidy leashes of fire tossing and darting away. Uncle Nick lowered the element.
“Women,” he said then, facing me. “Am I right?”
For breakfast Jacob’s mom made us pancakes which were short and heavy and done more like the biscuits British people take in Sunday afternoon dramas with tea. We didn’t have any maple syrup except for corn syrup which Megan said was cancerous but which I thought pretty good with a smear of butter. We all ate at the picnic table except for Jerry who was off somewhere in his spandex for a run.
After breakfast I asked Jacob if he wanted to go down to the shore to hunt up more jellyfish but he said he wasn’t into it. Said he just wanted to stay back at camp and read. This mystified me. The adults were all heading off for a hike—everyone but Megan, who asked me if I wanted company. I didn’t want company, I wanted to burn jellyfish, but I could see no easy way out of the situation without hurting her feelings, so I told her okay. I told her, “Let me just go get my things.”
We took the long way down, past the outhouses and playground and communal cookhouses, where drifts of smoke, inky, and stinking thinly of meat, lifted. There were faster paths if you stole headlong through the woods, but I didn’t want anyone else knowing about them.
To my chagrin, the tide had busted down our pyre, swept our efforts back out to sea. I took a minute to assess the wreckage, but there was nothing worth salvaging. A slim circling of stones, a few stodgy planks.
Megan took off her jacket and draped it over some rocks. “I don’t want my bum getting wet,” she said. I picked up one of the large cloudy-coloured stones that we’d used for a bolster and hefted it up onto my shoulder, chinning the slippery, kelp-girdled weight neatly in one palm, and hucked it into the water like a shotput. The lob had decent arc but landed short of the drop and didn’t make a near wide enough splash.
“So what do you two do when you’re down here?”
I didn’t say anything. I dropped to my knees and went hobbling around for more rocks.
“Come here,” I said. “And take a look at this.”
I’d found a survivor. An old rotten jellyfish pincered between two boards. Its centre was shrunken and red but of a duskier sort of red like a lump of partridgeberry jam. I opened my pocket knife to a corkscrew and tore a slow cut along the middle of it. Megan stood near.
“That’s disgusting,” she said.
That afternoon the talk all over camp was of the whale that’d washed ashore overnight. Some hikers, who’d been the first ones to happen on the carcass, said they figured it for a humpback on account of the size and the big moldy knobs cresting the top of its head. They said the smell was awful, like a big fish but with a kind of interesting sweetness to it, and that where the blubber had sloughed off all you could see was yellow.
“I’d be very surprised if it’s a humpback,” said Jerry. “I’d guess minke.”
The one hiker doing most of the talking wore a tight fleece vest with shimmery hoops on the shoulders and navy wind pants. The pants had neon zippers that peeled all the way up to his knees and the flaps of these shook viciously in the wind. A sound like startled pigeons lifting off a soggy pier. The other guy didn’t talk much. He was shorter than his friend and uglier. He had a sharp goaty face, hazed in stubble, and small, really tiny eyes. I didn’t trust him.
As to the whale, there was some discussion as to what might be done about it, irrespective of species. It had landed on the other side of the bay and Uncle Nick thought the best thing to do would be just to leave it for the park people, let them take care of their own mess.
“If we had enough people,” said the shorter hiker, “we could probably roll it back into the drink.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Jerry. “No one’s rolling anything.”
“But those things,” the man in the vest started. “When that thing bursts, it’ll go all over everything. It’ll stink everything up.”
Back past the water pumps was a narrow, curving brook. One side of the brook was ringed with naked white trees, scrawny and limbless, and rising up from the slack grass like stalks of flaking bone. I had a leftover chocolate chip muffin half that I’d bought with my own money from the Irving Big Stop on the drive up and I ate that and peered into the water which was shallower than a thimble in places where the sticklebacks wouldn’t go and the sand which was muddy was banked.
I took out what my father called my chattel box, which was a slender wooden box made to look like untreated pine, but which wasn’t pine, my father said. It had a thumb groove and sliding top that I’d opened and closed so often the runners were creased. You had to glide the top in at an angle in order to level everything all the way flush. I had all my private stuff in there: a sheet of good caps, batteries, a short greenish pill I’d found in the bathroom cabinet one time when my cousin who’d come back from the reserves was visiting, part of an agenda with pictures of people posing around in just their underwear taped over the days that I’d dragged out of a dumpster, a love note from Sheila, a cherished eraser in which my initials, R.J.D., were engraved, and the twist of paperclip I’d used for the engraving and the brittle pink crumbs left of my work, and an orange safety whistle for in case I was ever lost or fell out of a moving boat (such as a kayak or Grumman canoe) or saw bears.
The note was folded into elaborate tabs that I’d ruined with my opening, just like the box, and the ink was blue and the paper unlined. “This will probably be really boring,” it began. “I’m really bored.” The note went on to describe in some detail a science presentation she was then witnessing, something to do with nickel smelters (“How fascinating!”) and a question concerning the point of molecular redistribution (“that means when does it melt”). I didn’t think much of this but she’d signed it with love and shaded our names into a large heart that she’d arrowed and bundled up in thorns. That was the year it seemed like it was going to be April forever and she slid through the ice. They were a week finding her. Prowling the coves with their trawlers and nets. Everyone said it was done quickly. We were in different homerooms then. Ms. Fletcher sent a constable to come speak to us. He had clear, runny eyes and a face that came away in straight lines like the underneath of a peel. He held his hat askance and warned us about strafing the floes. Ms. Fletcher wasn’t interesting but she had a sense of humour. Everyone said she spoke many languages. She served us ham sandwiches the day we watched Babe in class. “Now that’s funny,” my father said. Sheila and I once sat under a table together at a birthday party. The blue poplin was darker on the inside than on the out and ran near to the tiles and we were hidden. She asked me if I wanted to practice hugging but I didn’t. There was down on the tops of her cheeks where they were reddest. We showed each other our cuts. She had fresh cuts running off one shin that were floppy and scaled like the gills of a trout. And there was a skintag on her collarbone that looked like a bit of cereal. I told her at first that I thought it was just a piece of food. She laughed. She said, “See, when you press it, the colour goes away.” I asked her if I could press it and she said yes and the tag was soft and depleted for a moment before the shading crept back.
The sky turned over to slate later that afternoon, a hard rain whipping in stinging gouts.
I helped Uncle Nick slant sheets of tarpaulin over our tents, fixing the sheets’ eyelets to the boughs of nearby trees with lengths of yellow twine. The twine was greasy and frayed but I cinched my corners taut and trussed the ends into the ground with the nifty skewer pegs Uncle Nick had left me, tilting these last at an angle the better to chip through the soil. The whole time we were doing this the others were hustling all our coolers and kitchen things to one of the cookhouses. Everyone helped, except Jacob, who sat in the Toyota with his notebook and satchel of colour pencils, scribbling.
He drew violent pictures, mainly. Unshaven men with tall cheekbones and long limber torsos shooting each other across shell-pocked balustrades with machine guns and pistols, the odd sword now and then figuring out the back of some poor bastard’s skull like a King of Hearts. Frequently these men gripped suitcases, though he was less accomplished with hands than with suitcases, which tended to bloom out of the hands, amoeboid and webby, like growths.
Dinner that night was nothing special. Fried bologna sandwiches with mustard and pickles, and a big tin of tomato soup that Jacob’s mom warmed over the woodstove and into which she stirred basil and rosemary and a smidgeon of Carnation milk.
The rain had let up some but an awful dampness still clung to the air and the night was cold and starless. We were driving back to St. John’s the following morning but you could tell everyone was ready to go home. I had no interest in going home. I felt the morning’s drive with its interminable scroll of fog like an impending loneliness, or loss.
We stayed the rest of the night in the cookhouse, huddled around the stove in a grim vigil. We didn’t roast marshmallows. We didn’t sip cocoa or play charades. The adults passed around a bottle of rum of which Jacob and I were not permitted one snort. There were grape drink crystals, and peach crystals, and still plenty of packs of apple juice left, if we felt the need, but neither of us did. The bottle killed, and stove coals waning, Megan asked Nick to bum a cigarette, but when, after a minute, he still hadn’t answered, she got up from the table and said she was headed to bed. After a while, we all did.
We’d been in our tent an hour or so, tossing back and forth, neither one of us tired in the least, when I asked Jacob if he wanted to see it.
“See what?” he said. “What are you talking about?”
“The whale,” I said. I’d seen dead mice. Dead insects, a dead cat. Plenty of capelin.
A sharp wind bit through the tarp overhead and Jacob turned over on his side. “Go to sleep,” he said. “Why can’t you ever just go to sleep?”
I waited another hour, two hours, twenty minutes, somewhere in there, before creeping out of the tent. I slunk along the grassy edges of our site, minding the darting, low-slung shrubs that bounded ours from the site adjoining. I kept to a slow huddle as I stepped around the picnic tables and onto the main road, skulking along the cable guardrails where the gravel was rutted but soft.
I knew these paths less well than I did the others but I did not think to flick my flashlight on until I was well abreast of the outhouses. The trail down to the water was narrow and steep, the footing knuckly. It crested onto a low cliff brimmed with swaying alders. The way the trees looked with the sky and water happening darkly blue behind them reminded me of the etchings done by Greeks and Romans on ancient vases, like scuffing pikes, I thought, or spars.
I crouched between the trees and sat with my feet slung over a ledge of soil, a weird weight dragging hard on the sides of my knees, so that as I gazed down on the water I imagined myself inside a ski lift, ascending some crisp and winking slope. A smell of rot, putrid but, as the man had said, strangely sweet, was gathering on my skin, enrobing me. I could see the whale out on the beach, a flattened mass, though smaller, and less significant, or original, than I had imagined. My teeth were going mad in the cold. I clenched my face but I could still hear every bone in my head.
The beach was quiet and eerily birdless, a slow shush of waves calmly recoiling, as I shimmied down off the bluff and onto the rocks.
I clambered up to its face, and passed my hand over its cold, pleated throat. It looked as if someone had tried to hack into its belly. A long bloated cut ran across the length of one side. I knelt down, and placed a hand on this cut, on the part where the yellow was seeping. I felt calmer now. My heart was still going but the chittering had ceased and the blood was no longer heavy on my skin. I lay down next to the whale with my knees hugged tight to my chest. If you looked close enough you could see where the sky and the water weren’t blurring. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The smell was no longer a part of my outside but a part of whatever I was giving back. It was a part of wherever I was going.