Hard Crust- by Mark Hoffe

The smarting, purplish-blue mass compressing Father Dawson’s right eye reminded the doctor of the beached jelly-fish he and his fellow bay urchins once impaled on rough-hewn driftwood swords and spears. The local movie house was long ago converted into a rotting storage shed, but somewhere amidst all the bric-a-brac and rustling rodents can still be heard the rebellious war cries of Spartacus and his devoted warriors that, for a few brief autumn months, inspired the boys on their mock campaigns. Adorned with dried seaweed helmets and white, enamel pot covers, they were the scourge of the island.

That was the beginning of the end.

One movie after another failed to make its way up from Hollywood, across the Tickle, and onto the rickety projector. A year later the last reel spun out and the last audience filled the garbage bins with half-eaten bags of popcorn and empty cola bottles.

“It’s a terrible shame,” said Father Dawson, wincing under the doctor’s forceful threading of the final stitch.

“Sorry, Father,” said the doctor, quelling a shiver of nascent pleasure. “What’s a terrible shame?”

The doctor dropped his tools into a glass of sterilizing fluid.

“Well, Dr. McGrath, have you seen the church lately?”

“Every day on my way home,” said Dr. McGrath, removing and polishing his tools. “Which reminds me, I’d better get a move on if I’m going to catch the last ferry.”

“Very well, doctor. Have a closer look as you pass by,” said Father Dawson, dropping the doctor’s uneaten raisin tea bun into the garbage.

“I’ll be sure to have a glance.”

#

Dr. McGrath steered his sputtering clunker along Main Street. Now it was nothing more than the anemic artery of a once dynamic, throbbing being fed on iron ore and sweat, a being that swelled to its full strength in the early morning dawn and could still be heard guzzling a few cold beers under a midnight moon, a being whose language was made up of words with substance and density, words like bone, blood, chisel, and hammer.

When the being fell, it fell hard. It released its ghosts and clawed its way down through the rock and soil. Press your finger into the soil now and you can barely feel its pulse.

#

Dr. McGrath pulled onto the unpaved curb and hauled himself out of his car. He listened. Barely a breath of sound. A few gusts thrumming their way into the crow-black shaft. He hunched over, clawed at a pebble with his arthritic fingers, and slipped it into the pocket of his tan frockcoat.

A pile of thick, homemade bread crusts, like those Dr. McGrath was fond of dipping in a sugary cup of tea, lay at the entrance of the mine, picked at by a few gulls.

“Friggin’ gulls,” he mumbled. “Even they can’t get it right over here.”

A scuffing of rocks, like that made by burly men in thick boots, echoed within the shaft. It grew louder. And louder.

“Hello,” called Dr. McGrath, adjusting his slanted glasses.

A figure engulfed the darkness with its effluent blue eyes.

“I’ve got a rock,” said Dr. McGrath. Some bloody Spartacus now, he thought.

“Hello,” said a colossal man, clouting his dusty overalls, sending a black cloud swirling about. He squinted. Lines of black grime thickened in the folds of his skin. He extended his hand.

Dr. McGrath cringed under the man’s crippling strength.

“You call that a handshake?”

“Sorry. I’ve got a touch of the arthritis.”

“I’m just heading out to Grebe’s Nest. The sunsets out there could stun a bull moose.”

“I have to catch the last boat.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

The man left, scuffing up mounds of earth as he sauntered towards a red sky splintered like oldfangled planching fastened to the ragged, starling-fluttered cliffs of Grebe’s Nest.

#

A week later Dr. McGrath stood on the rusting deck of the ferry as it churned its way across the Tickle. His fingers ached on the cold iron railing. The thought of snipping a few stitches made him quiver. He felt small, inadequate, ill-equipped. He felt like a man lost at sea in a dory without any oars.

#

Dr. McGrath walked into the dilapidated fish and chips shop on the harbour and let the battered storm door snap shut.

“Hello, Skipper,” said Dr. McGrath to the grizzled man behind the counter.

“How’s she goin’, doctor,” replied the Skipper. “Anudder helpin’ of fries, dressin’, and gravy, is it?”

“Make it pan-fried cod today, Skipper,” said Dr. McGrath. “With extra scrunchions.”

“Are ya sure dat’s good for da ole heart, doctor?”

“No worse than the other thing.”

The Skipper grinned and dropped a paltry tail of cod into a pasty bowl of white flour.

Dr. McGrath peeked into the slipshod dining room. Seated at a table in a murky shaft of light, hunched over two thick slabs of toasted homemade bread smothered in blackstrap molasses, was the colossal man he saw a week earlier.

“So you’re a doctor?” said the man.

“That’s right.”

“Good with the body, huh?”

“Not bad. A little shaky these days.”

“And the spirit?” asked the man, chewing up a mammoth bite of bread and wiping a stream of molasses from his chin with the back of his hand.

“No comment, huh?”

The man chugged back his remaining half-bottle of beer.

“Come by the mining shaft this evening,” continued the man. “Or do you have a boat to catch?”

“I’ll come.”

The man stood up, smiled, and left, clutching some bread crusts.

#

Dr. McGrath removed the final stitch from Father Dawson’s eye and threw his tools into his bag.

“What’s the rush, doctor?”

“I have another appointment.”

“Well, you can at least tell me if you dropped by the church.”

“Quite the crook in the steeple, Father.”

“Yes, and we’ll be lucky to fix it with the paltry sums the congregation leaves these days.”

“You should be fine, father. But I’d lay off the rum,” said Dr. McGrath, rushing out the door.

#

When Dr. McGrath trudged across the field towards the mining shaft, he saw the man seated on a massive boulder, his cloths soaked in perspiration, the thick veins in his neck swollen with blood.

“What’s going on?”

“I rolled this friggin’ rock out of that god-forsaken pit,” said the man, pointing his thumb in the direction of the mining shaft.

“Why on earth would you do a thing like that?”

“Never mind that. Now we’re gonna roll it out to Grebe’s Nest.”

“I’m not sure I can.”

“I am.”

#

The rock still stands in the grassy knolls of Grebe’s Nest. Nobody knows who put it there or who chiselled the word WABANA into it. The doctor’s not so sure himself. Memories drift in and out like the fog on mauzy days, obscuring some things and giving other things a wan precision.

But as the doctor sits on his back deck, built with his own two crooked hands, and dips his bread crusts in a sugary cup of tea, glaring out over that rock and the ragged cliffs beyond, he imagines a man with enough strength, enough vision, to walk out onto that oldfangled planching and into the sky.

 

 

 

 

 

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