The original opening was Danny taking stock of what was going on around him, what had changed over the past few years. As an author, I loved coming back to Danny’s character again.
Three lonely gravestones stood halfway up the slope, sentinel over an empty space. The granite cut the bitter shore wind so it whistled as it passed, shivering through the stubborn grass. Another stone would join them soon, once the engraving was done, but the land beneath it would not rise and fall over a newly buried body; they had never found it. The pale, grey stone would be the only change to the landscape.
The first stone was Johnny’s. Danny scraped off a small yellow lump of lichen which had crept in and adhered itself to the J and O, carved neatly into the granite. Johnny had been laid to rest here twenty-one years ago, on December 6, 1917. None of them would ever forget that cold, sunny morning when the Imo and the Mont-Blanc had collided in the Halifax Harbour. They’d ignited enough ammunition to flatten Halifax—which it did. In the blink of an eye, thousands died, hundreds were maimed or blinded—including Danny’s adopted son, Eugene—and thousands more had been left without homes. The explosion had slammed through Johnny’s hangover and buried him in the remains of the pier. Danny’d been only a few feet away, but it could have been miles for all the help he’d been. Even if Danny had both legs he couldn’t have gotten there fast enough. He had been fine—relatively speaking, at least. He’d rushed to the pile of rubble where Johnny had just been standing, not even thinking about what might happen next. He’d sliced his hands on the debris he heaved off his brother’s body, and the blanket of dust covering everything smeared with tears and blood.
Time had blurred Johnny’s face in his memory, but he’d never forget the cold, stiff weight of his baby brother as he’d carried him out of that place. And though Danny had added more of his own memories over time, thrown in experiences both good and bad, nothing could ever completely fill the gaping hole Johnny had left behind.
The second stone had been erected ten years later, and once again Danny had been there to see what had made it necessary. He and his father had been working at the plant, and Daniel Sr’s eyes had suddenly sprung wide open. He’d clutched at his chest then dropped to the floor of the fishing plant, as solid and lifeless as one of the hundred pound bags of salt they’d just brought from the train. For ten years Danny and Daniel Sr had slaved over this place, starting from nothing, building hope for the future one timber at a time. The plant had come into being because Daniel Sr had wanted to create a business that his crippled son could manage, and ever since they’d first started buying fish instead of just selling it, his father had been driven. Days were never long enough, nights were far too short. He’d spoken to his parish on Sundays, eaten with the family every night, but he’d returned to work bright and early every morning. “Be your own boss,” had been his motto, and he’d said it often enough Danny’d thought they should have put it on his gravestone.
After Danny helped lower his father’s casket into the hole that day, he’d stared down the shore. The endless water was emptied of the usual fishing boats. Those fishermen had been right here, paying their respects, offering what they could of comfort, and their families had crowded in as well. It had been a very powerful thing, seeing them all in this quiet place, each one diminished by the old man’s passing. Ever since the plant had opened, and even before that, Daniel Baker Sr had done so much for the families along the shore. He always had money owing to him, but he’d never mentioned a cent of it. Their presence at his graveside was about more than his generosity, though. The men standing in the autumn fog, heads bowed, had come out of love, out of gratitude, out of respect. Ever since then Danny’d done what he could to follow his father’s footprints.
Two years later they’d put up his mother’s stone. Danny never could quite come to terms with the idea that the morning she died was the only morning he’d ever known her not to get out of bed before the rest of them. Her passing hadn’t been much of a surprise to anyone, though it seemed more difficult to accept in some ways. She’d dwindled after her husband had gone, summoning strength enough to tend to her children and grandchildren, ensuring the light of love danced in her eyes when the little ones called for her to watch their latest accomplishments. When the children asked about her, he told them she was still watching from heaven.
He hadn’t figured out what to say to them this time, though. The Baker family had lived here for generations, breathing, eating, sleeping by the cold Atlantic. Hurricanes had battered their homes, but rarely did they shake off more than a shingle or two. Sometimes storms smashed the cribs and threw their docks onto the shore—if they were lucky. If the sea decided to take them away, well, then everything had to be rebuilt. But the weather always settled down eventually so they could return to the familiar unpredictability of the sea. They were fishermen, born and bred to the ocean. They all knew she could be a cruel, cruel mistress, but Tommy had loved her anyway. Maybe she just loved him back and couldn’t exist without him any longer, for she’d swept over the boat two days past and they’d never seen him again. Lost at sea, they called it. Lost. That’s a little how Danny felt, thinking of his absence. The family had buried the memory of Tommy under the fourth gravestone, but the grass would remain as flat there as it had always been.
“Grace!” Audrey’s voice carried up the hill, warm but persistent, and Danny turned back toward the house. “Grace, find Barbara, would you?”
Once upon a time, he and Audrey had landed at the dock by his parents’ home, and they’d brought with them three little boys who had become their sons. Grace had come along a few months later, but he had very nearly lost Audrey that day. There would be no more children for them. Nevertheless, they’d created a real family, and that family was now all grown up. Life just kept on moving, in and out, on and on. Like the tides.
Danny hobbled down the slope toward the house, not looking back. On his left the sea sparkled with deceitful innocence; the perfect blue above was dappled by a tiny bank of white. Audrey stood on her toes, stretching toward the line of wash in the yard, and he could see Grace walking toward Tommy’s house, her arm around her young cousin’s shoulders. Barbara was eight; Tommy’s first daughter. She was a quiet girl who had become practically mute since her father had died. Tommy’s new widow, Catherine, struggled with a brood of six. It was a blessing she and Tommy had stopped when they had. Now Lois, their youngest, was five, and their eldest—Tommy’s young namesake—was eleven years older than her. They looked after themselves pretty well and were well behaved, though they carried their father’s stubborn streak. Little Lois was the most willful person Danny had ever met.
Women were interesting to watch, and Danny was surrounded by them. He had sons, nephews, and brothers, of course, but the girls were more colourful. Like birds, constantly either flocking or fighting. Most of the men were gone now, though. Off to fight the faraway enemy. The place was a lot more quiet these days. Audrey would have been cooking for four families today, along with the other women. She’d be tired. He was glad it was Sunday; Grace hadn’t been at work, so she’d have been Audrey’s right hand. He’d be the first to admit he hadn’t been much help today, but Audrey would understand. Then again, Audrey was fragile these days. He supposed they all were. She had a soft heart, his girl.
Gail and Elizabeth were both big as whales these days, but they were good girls. He knew their feet hurt and their backs ached, that they were wanting for sleep, but they often waddled in and helped out in the plant when Danny was short on workers. Normally they stood side by side, cutting fish while their husbands did the heavy lifting. With the war on, he was missing those heavy lifters, and once the babies arrived he’d be short these two as well. And Audrey would most likely be tending to two-year-old Claire, Harry’s first. The plant would need a lot more workers. He’d let folks know he was hiring. Tommy’s little boys would have to grow up fast in more than one way, it seemed.
Danny was wearing the new wooden leg he’d fashioned—basically a thick cane with a cushion on top and a leather harness that fit snug around his thigh. He barely noticed it anymore. Just like he barely recalled the moment when he’d lost the original leg. Except that wasn’t true. Yes, his nights had gotten easier over the past two decades, but the darkness of sleep was never quite complete. Nor was it as silent as he knew it should be.
And now everything had changed. The whole world was upside down, and it was dragging them under with it. Danny thought he might never sleep again.
“Hey, beautiful. Need help with that?”
Audrey hugged a full basket of clean clothes, resting one side on her hip for balance. She paused, waiting for him, then gave him the smile he had never stopped loving.
“You’re not going to the plant?”
“I think we can all use a few days away from work, don’t you?”
Her smile became strained. She was lucky in a way. It was fine and good for a woman to cry when it hurt, and he knew full well how those tears could cleanse a person, if only for a while. But he couldn’t do it. Not unless he was alone.
“Come on,” she said, stepping around a couple of chickens. “I want to get this all done so I can sit for a while.”
He held the door open for her, and she set the basket on the dining room table. Her normal chatter was gone today, and he knew she was trying her best to avoid saying the wrong things. Maybe it was just easier if he said them first.
“Ever think what a coincidence it was that Tommy died this year?”
She stared determinedly at the pile of socks, her busy fingers sorting, folding. “What do you mean?”
“You know. He was the one who really wanted to go to war when I first got home. I had to shut him down, otherwise he might have run off to join. Now I have to shake my head at the timing. Think about it. If he hadn’t gone fishing that day, he’d be away with our boys.”
Heat roared into her cheeks, but she wouldn’t look at him. “Shh. Don’t, Danny. I can’t think about it.”
Neither could he. He put his hands on her shoulders, felt her muscles tense then soften under his warmth. “It’s their duty.”
She shook her head quickly, and he leaned in to kiss the back of her neck.
“They’ve been training for this kind of thing since they were small,” he reminded her, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Come on. They’re big boys. They’ll be fine.”
“You were their age once, Danny. You weren’t fine.”
His hands dropped to his sides. He felt a little like he’d just been punched in the gut. But he understood her fears all too well. “I’m fine now. They’ll come home to us. Don’t you worry.”