TINTO by Catherine Parnell
CALUM CAMPBELL'S SUMMER PLACE was on the other side of the island, separated from us by a long stand of hemlocks my aunt planted twenty years ago. Calum’s place was a mess. The cottage, painted corn worm green, listed to one side, having been built on stacked rocks where the terrain was uneven; the cedar shingles on the boathouse and the rest of the outbuildings had faded to a sad gray. A tattered Canadian flag flapped from a white pole cemented into a hole drilled in the rock. The yellow and orange lilies barely obscured the boat graveyard, and on occasion rattlesnakes slithered over the rocks and into the brush around the hedge because Calum wouldn’t kill them; he preferred to bag them and haul them back into the bush in the tractor wagon, where he’d let them loose. My aunt never hesitated to grab the hoe when a rattler was around. She’d chop off its head and cart the squirming remains out back beyond the outhouse. My uncle, he had a fear of snakes. No hoe for him. He’d grab his old shotgun and blow them to bits. He’s older now and his vision isn’t the best. The last time he shot a snake my aunt and I took cover in the cottage. Even then he blew a hole straight through the kitchen screen.
It bothered my aunt and uncle when Calum’s snakes found their way onto our property, but not as much as the noise Calum and Jinty made when they fought, which was all the time. Calum used to say his marriage was shit, and if what we heard was any indication, he was right.
But when Jinty was diagnosed with cancer things changed. She decided against treatment – the idea of radiation and chemotherapy terrified her more than death itself. She wanted to end her days where she began them, in Georgian Bay. She’d grown up in a nearby harbor village, but her marriage to Calum brought her into our midst. About fifty families had cottages that were more than a hundred years old, far away from roads and neat civilization. You had to have a boat to get out where we were, and so there was an air of seclusion in our rocky, pine-swept bays. Our own company was good enough for us, and we didn’t go out of our way to welcome strangers. We made an exception for Jinty, and most of the time we were sorry we had. Just because she had cancer didn’t change much, but we stuck by her because of Calum.
That last summer of Jinty’s not a voice was raised over at the Campbell place; the only sound that floated over to us was that of Calum playing the harmonium for hours on end, the reeds wheezing as his feet pumped. We got to hate that as much as we hated their cursing and shouting, but none of us dared say anything. My aunt started visiting the Campbells’ to help Calum out; she read to Jinty, and once we even brought her down to the water where Jinty looked at us and said, “I can’t swim, you know. I never learned.” So we got in the water with her and held her up, and Jinty looked up at the blue-tinted sky, probably wondering precisely where heaven was, and if she had any chance of getting in, although she never said a word. We knew it had to be on her mind. Late at night when the stars stared at their reflection in the lake we could hear Jinty praying out through her window. “Jesus Christ,” she said night after night. “What the hell did I do to deserve this?”
And one night, to our surprise, Calum said, “You killed Dina. That’s what you did, you stupid bitch.” Without missing a beat, Jinty shot back, “Well you killed Bran, you bastard.”
After that, nothing. Not a sound, unless you counted the persistent buzz of mosquitoes, or the sad cry of the loons.
It wasn’t as if we didn’t have problems of our own. My ninety-year uncle had been hostage to a portable dialysis machine for more than eight years, which was like some kind of miracle. My aunt’s arthritis got worse each year; she walked from side to side as much as she did straight ahead. I was on the verge of leaving my husband, a man my uncle persisted in calling a loser. I didn’t mind; I felt the same way myself. There was a time when Terry took me all the way to heaven, but the last few years? I couldn’t say. So I packed up my bags and made the trip to the cottage like I always did, only this time I planned to stay the summer. I used to do that when I was a kid, too, only that was because my parents sent me up north so they could go off on one of their long and expensive vacations. I guess you could say I wasn’t exactly the daughter they’d wanted, but hey, they weren’t my first choice either. We let it go at that.
I suppose if my aunt and uncle had kids of their own I’d have been less likely to take up with Calum. He always said my aunt and uncle were like parents to him; he imagined I understood that. I didn’t. I never could figure out why Calum, who was twelve years older than me, needed another set of parents. His were perfectly fine. They were the quiet type, never said a word to anyone, and they never interfered with Calum’s ways. Maybe that was it – Calum wanted someone to notice him, direct him, and when I was a kid my uncle was more than happy to work side by side with Calum on his projects. The two of them were right at home in the workshop Calum set up in his boathouse, Calum in his grease-stained and torn green work uniform, my uncle in an old pair of jeans and a blue work shirt. I’d sit on the bow of one of the many boats, watching them tinker with engines. Around lunchtime Calum and my uncle would step over to the refrigerator Calum had hooked up in the boathouse and pour themselves yeasty mugs of beer. Calum kept a plentiful supply of Coca Cola for me; he’d pop a bottle open and pour it into a mug, being careful to avoid building up a head of foam. As soon as the mugs were drained and rinsed in the lake we left.
“That Calum,” my uncle used to say. “He won’t go far, but he won’t starve either. You just watch.” My uncle was big on earning a living; a man was his work. He and Calum were teachers back then, a perfect job for two men as devoted to summer cottage life as they were. I knew I’d be like them one day, and that is just how it turned out, only I teach at the university. They taught high school. They were proud of me in a way my parents weren’t, and that counted for something. Like I said, my parents had a life I could never understand. They were all talk and no work. My aunt used to tell me to be more accepting, but how could I accept people who wouldn’t accept me? I’d made my bed and I was prepared to sleep in it for a good long time. I didn’t need a mattress stuffed with money. That’s not to say the cottagers in our bays were poor. They weren’t. They just weren’t fancy about it. It wasn’t what you had. It was what you did.
Sometimes after our mornings in the boathouse I asked Calum to go swimming with me, but he said he’d rather be my lifeguard. “Fair’s fair, Little Kid,” he said. “Your uncle helps me out, and there’s not much I can do for him except keep an eye on you.”
No matter how much I splashed him, Calum wouldn’t get in the water. Being on an island like ours, and it being as hot as it was, you’d think he’d at least stick his toe in. Not Calum. He watched me with those big brown eyes of his, and when I was done swimming he’d practically run back to his boathouse. All he ever did was fix boats. All the families in our bays brought their boats to him. He cut the same deal with everyone. If he fixed the boat in less than a week, they didn’t have to pay him. If not, he kept the boat. Parts were extra.
That’s how the boat graveyard came into being. There were some things even Calum couldn’t fix.
By the time I was in middle school he wasn’t just repairing boats. He was building them. And that’s how he met Jinty – she was the daughter of the lumber shop owner in the harbor, a good half hour away by boat. You’d think she fell for him because he was a master boat builder, but that wasn’t it at all. She liked his music, especially the way he played the harmonium her daddy had in the lumber shop.
Back then, that was nothing special. We all played the harmonium; there wasn’t a cottage in our bays that didn’t have one. And each harmonium had a story behind it, which made the music romantic and spooky. Calum’s harmonium belonged to his great-great-aunt Jeannie, the organist at a church further north than we were. She dropped her kerosene lamp and her skirt caught fire; if it hadn’t been for an Ojibwe who stopped to make water on the other side of the road who knows what would have happened. As it was, Jeannie died, and her husband left town with the harmonium, which one-hundred years later wound up in Calum’s cottage.
It may well be that’s what Jinty fell in love with-– the story. The idea that the harmonium was saved by an Ojibwe. Jinty herself was half Native; her mother made those birch bark baskets that were nothing special until the tourists and art collectors got hold of them. Now they’re worth a fortune. Jinty’s mother never knew that; she used to give them away. Jinty never had any use for them; her artistry was in her voice. To hear her sing was to fall into the world her mother wove into those baskets: sweet and full of the North Country. Her voice picked up the deep song of the wind and sun, and we heard seasons pass when she sang, the same way our fingers felt a history we’d never understand when we touched those birch bark creations Jinty’s mother crafted.
My aunt and uncle have more baskets, napkins rings and place mats than they know what to do with – my inheritance, they like to say. Each piece is signed and dated by Jinty’s mother; each one smells like sweet grass and birch bark. Back in the day, when the cottagers made the trek from the city to the cottage, they’d stop if they saw a dead porcupine at the side of the road. They’d pull out their shovel, stuff the creature in a sack, and bring it to Jinty’s mother. She plucked and cured the quills and then she’d dye them and weave them into the baskets. Calum gave me one when I got married; he said it was for my jewelry. It’s oval with a loon on the cover. He said that way I’d never forget where I come from.
Everyone lived in and around Toronto during the winter. No one made a point of keeping in touch, but still, news got around and people showed up for funerals and memorial services. I went to Gravenhurst with my aunt and uncle when Calum and Jinty’s oldest son died. Bran had been walking home from school when a transport swerved on the ice and knocked the boy into a snow bank, and Jinty took it hard. What mother wouldn’t? Their three other boys looked like they wished it had been them, especially when Jinty started smacking Calum, who should have, she screamed, driven Bran home from school like he was supposed to. I stood to the side holding Dina, Calum and Jinty’s newborn. She was a spindly thing, all arms and legs, with none of Jinty in her. That baby had Calum’s big, unblinking eyes, hair as black as a bear’s. Calum handed her to me before the service started. “Here,” he said. “Practice.” He patted my belly.
I was five months along, due in April, around the same time Bran would have turned twelve. That seemed ominous to me, but my aunt assured me that I was suffering from nothing more than nerves. My husband laughed at me, said Calum couldn’t keep track of all his kids. He was bound to lose one or two. It was a cruel thing to say and I winced, even though I knew Terry thought he was being witty. But there’s nothing witty about death, and my uncle took exception to Terry’s comment and turned on him even though he remained polite. The situation had been building up for a long time; Terry considered himself a writer, but he had a sorry track record – a few publications in minor magazines and a novel he’d been working on as long as I’d known him. His work kept him from holding down a real job for any length of time. My work kept us going, bought us the little house in Toronto, paid the bills. My uncle had no use for Terry after his remark about Calum. “You be careful,” he said. “That man lacks heart.”
Calum was all heart; anyone could see that. When Jinty whaled on him at Bran’s service, Calum just held her tight until she sputtered out. Those three boys of theirs crowded around Calum and Jinty like cows standing under a tree. Little Dina flailed and cried, but I rocked her back and forth, quietly singing “Hush Little Baby.”
When the service was over we all went back to Calum and Jinty’s house. It was as messy as the cottage, without the boats. Calum had been working on enclosing the front porch, but he’d only gotten as far as framing the walls. A blue stroller with a hood sat in the corner, loaded up with blankets. My aunt shook her head. “I don’t like the look of that.” I had no idea what she was talking about until Jinty snatched Dina out of my arms and plopped her down in the stroller. It was below zero, and the tree branches above the porch creaked and popped.
Seeing my aunt’s worried face, Jinty said, “Don’t you look at me like that. Babies need fresh air, especially this little weakling.” My own baby did a flip-flop in my belly, where it was nice and warm. When Jinty went into the house I doubled the blankets so Dina wouldn’t freeze. My aunt shook her head. “You pick that baby up right now, bring her inside.” I did as I was told.
I carried that baby around until I thought my arms would fall off. Funny thing, she smelled like sweet grass right down to her soft breath.
Two months later, she was dead. Some said the baby froze to death – Jinty had left Dina out on that porch of theirs for fresh air. Other said it was just plain tragic, because after all, losing one child was devastating, but two? No one deserved that. Whatever it was, Dina’s passing was the end of Calum and Jinty. The screaming and hollering started and didn’t stop until Jinty’s illness struck. For twenty-one years we’ve listened to it. That’s a long time. Long enough for my boy to grow up and move away. Long enough for Terry to get on my nerves, but I never shouted at him the way Jinty shouted at Calum.
Maybe I should have. What stopped me was the way my parents fawned over him. I’d married an artist. “An artist?” my uncle said. “That’s Terry’s misfortune. Don’t make it yours.”
The summer Jinty was dying was hot and dry. When Calum wasn’t playing the harmonium he was in his boathouse. I took up my old spot on the bow of a boat and watched him for a few mornings, not saying much of anything. Finally he told me if I was going to hang around I might as well make myself useful. He’d hauled an old wooden boat out of the boat graveyard. We stripped the interior, and then Calum replaced the stringers and the floorboard. While he did that, I worked on the engine. One day we went down to the harbor and bought two big cans of dark green marine paint to paint the boat, rechristened The Dragon Lady. Painting her was some project, and I slapped more than a few flies as I painted the twenty-footer. There was a fat old rattlesnake in the corner of the boathouse that Calum ignored in spite of my entreaties to get rid of it. Leave it be, Old Girl, he said. I don’t know how he stood it. Whenever we stepped on a loose plank in the boathouse the snake would coil up and rattle. One night when Calum was playing the harmonium I snuck into the boathouse and killed it with a paddle. The next day Calum acted like nothing had happened, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that he knew I’d killed it.
Some mornings my uncle joined us in the boathouse while my aunt sat with Jinty. We worked together like there’d been no such thing as the passage of time, except when we stopped for the day, I’d get a beer while my uncle got a tall glass of water. We never asked Calum about Jinty. We knew all we needed to know, which was that it was only a matter of time. My uncle told me he hoped it wouldn’t be much longer – he didn’t like seeing Calum suffer like that. He’s already put in his time, he said, and I agreed. But Jinty couldn’t seem to let go, even though my aunt told her it was ok. That’s what you’re supposed to say when someone is dying, but Jinty never listened to anyone.
One morning Calum announced that his three grown boys were coming up for the week. My aunt said it was because Jinty was fading. That was true. But my uncle and I knew Calum was up to something, and it had to do with The Dragon Lady. We just didn’t know what. Calum went down to the harbor to pick up the boys, and after that we didn’t see Calum, although the sound of banging and hammering at the boathouse continued. The harmonium music stopped. My uncle fretted and worried about Calum, and by the fourth night of the commotion he said if he didn’t know any better he’d think Calum was building a coffin. My aunt told him to hush up, or she’d build one for him and how would he like that?
He said his time would come soon enough, that he was worried about the boy.
I wanted to tell him the boy was sixty years old. Instead I said: Hey, you could worry about me.
No point, he replied, pulling at his long white hair. You’ve got your aunt for that. Calum doesn’t have a soul in the world to look to his side of things. He gave me a meaningful glance, and I kept quiet. I admit I was a little hurt, but I saw his point.
When the sun went down that night my aunt lit the candles on the table and we watched the flames blow in the wind from the open windows. It was peaceful, the moon round as an open mouth, the stars staring straight on till morning. My uncle was nodding off in his white wicker chair; my aunt was playing solitaire. I heard the noise over at Calum’s place before my aunt and uncle did, and I set my drink down on a birch bark coaster on the table.
The Dragon Lady’s engine sputtered and caught. Listen, I said. Someone’s taking Calum’s boat out.
My aunt handed each of us our flashlights. My uncle’s eyes widened. Dear God, he said. Jinty must be going at last. I followed my aunt and uncle out onto the rock in front of our place. The red and green lights on The Dragon Lady threw an elastic glow over the rippling water, enough so we could see a big square set in the center of the refashioned boat, which motored out to the center of our little bay. Someone cut the engine. Out of the dark and over the water came the sound of the harmonium, wheezing at first like a fat angel, then settling into the music we hadn’t realized we’d missed. Somehow it sounded better echoing off the water, and we stood on the rock hearing what we’d heard all our lives, only we hadn’t known it. It was the loud breathing of the water, the wet lungs of all the fish, turtles and snakes, the chanting of the ducks, loons and ospreys, and it was heaven. Calum gave it his all, mixing in snatches of hymns and Scottish ballads, even a bit of the Beatles. The harder he played, the more I cried, because I felt like something besides Jinty was slipping away. With music like that in your heart there’s more than enough room left over for forgiveness, and there were plenty of people who never even got a chance to say sorry.
But Calum – he said he was sorry with his music, and I felt the lift of loss, and when he was done playing he turned on the motor and said Shit, because it wouldn’t turn over, not the first time or the seventh time. He was stuck out there until I rowed out to tell him Jinty was dead. He looked me straight in the eye and said, How about that? He pulled his shirt over his head and stepped out of his pants while I watched. He dove off the side of the boat like he’d been doing it all his life, but he really didn’t know how to swim so I jumped in after him and swam him to shore, leaving The Dragon Lady unmanned.
When I pulled Calum out of the bay and up onto the dock, he shook like a dog, his black hair flying, his shoeless feet stomping the old wood. The dock creaked and moaned against his weight. By then my uncle had found his way to the dock, and Calum’s three grown boys were stumbling through the hedge of hemlocks, each one holding a lit kerosene lamp. I knew my aunt was with Jinty, and that I should go to them, but Calum choked up and grabbed me by my wrist while my uncle smacked him on the back. Calum spewed water, and my uncle fussed over him, and those three kerosene lights got closer.
Go get the boat, my uncle told me, and just as I was trying to figure out how I was going to do that, Calum patted my shoulder.
Let the old girl be, he said to no one in particular. Just for a little while. She’ll be fine.
The night filled up with a miraculous tranquility as those three kerosene lamps stopped and held as steady as stars. Calum walked towards his boys.
Calum? I called.
He turned around. What I wanted to ask seemed selfish and inappropriate, and my uncle clapped a hand on my shoulder.
But I had to know. I just had to. Did you ever love her? I asked. One of the boys raised his lamp high enough so I could see Calum’s resigned face. His shoulders drooped a little.
Sure, he said. I sure did. But she didn’t love me. She didn’t love anyone, not even the kids. What do you do with a person like that?
One of the boys coughed.
You bury them, said my uncle. He turned and looked at me. You hear that, Missy? You bury them and pray for their rotten souls.
CATHERINE PARNELL teaches writing and literature at Suffolk University in Boston. She’s the fiction editor for Salamander, an associate editor for Consequence Magazine, and one of six editors for Anomalous Press. Her non-fiction chapbook, The Kingdom of His Will, was published in 2007; recent and forthcoming publications include stories and reviews in roger, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Fiction Daily, Dos Passos Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Salamander, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Consequence, The Poetry Dress Project 2011 and Another Book, as well as various newspapers and newsletters.