These Old Flames: Pauline, Me, and the Great Fire of Main-à-Dieu
The light in the night kitchen is alive. It wavers and skips, emanating from two narrow candles that retreat into tarnished candlesticks as we work. Two empty wine glasses on the round pine table, rough where the nish has worn away, catch the pulsing light. On the wall hangs my grandfather’s old Canada Fisheries license plate, bold green numbers on rust-flecked white: 26704. Next to that is usually a framed broadside of the poem “Kitchen Floor,” by Susan Gillis, a homey but ominous piece about walking in from a late-summer outdoor meal to encounter a toppled vase, water pooling and flowers splayed, and to imagine the rush of wind—harbinger of a changing season—that blew in to create the scene.
The poem is actually resting on the kitchen floor. We’ve taken it down to make room for a few dozen small squares of blue, yellow, and pink paper that reveal, in Pauline’s galloping script, plot points, scenes, poems or images our story already contains or will require. We’re arranging them, tagging them with numbers. We’re hunting for gaps in back story, theme, motivation, ow.
- Dodie tells the beer boys it’s getting hot
- Clarence joins the anti-sealing protest
- Bird’s Eye View: Elias Gallant (barn swallows)
- Russell’s deliberation
- Kids banned
- Bikini girl loses wardrobe!
- Lucy looking for her children
Pauline sits with a flip pad of sticky notes cradled in her palm, pen poised, her body curled forward as she thinks. Above the far doorway, which leads to the side entranceway (the one we use), hangs a thin, metal crucifix. I can’t take it down; it’s too entwined with Nan’s lingering essence. Does it belong in our story, somehow? This bowed head of a miniature, suffering Jesus has looked down on life in this room from its vantage point, a foot above the nail holding the fly swatter, since before I can remember, likely since the day my grandparents moved into this house. That is, if they’d managed by then to replace the crucifix they lost in the fire.
This goes back to June, 1976, when a wild fire danced its way through Main-à-dieu, Cape Breton, burning down 16 homes and the century-old gothic Catholic church before wending its way out of the village, toward the shore. Nanny Beat and Grampy George lost the modest house my father, by then living in Ontario with a growing family (I was 4, my brother 6, our sister not yet 1), remembers helping to build as a teenager. Dad was the eldest in a family of eight. His three youngest siblings, my uncles Herman and Charlie, and my aunt Valerie, still lived at home. Together with Nanny and Grampy, they represented one of the many affected families that held no insurance, and boasted few resources (lobster was no kind of living in the 70s). Was the old crucifix, the one that succumbed to the ames along with the rest of their home and its contents, made with more solid materials than this manufactured knock-off? Was that former Jesus a hand-me-down from a previous generation of Laheys or Waddens? Did either Beat or George miss the reminder it offered of some beloved family member? Here is a familiar refrain: I never thought to ask when I had the chance.
You never know. Suppose the new crucifix arrived on a wave of goodwill and hope. This slim saviour was to grace the entranceway of a brand new kitchen, after all. A fresh start. A clean, bright house enclosed in the pressed-board siding considered the best bang for your buck at the time (it would soak up fog and rot the walls of houses up and down the island, but no one yet suspected its treachery). Valerie, who was a teenager back then, tells me the five-room, one-story house erected over a dirt-floor basement after the fire—the house Pauline and I are working in now, the materials for which Nanny and Grampy won in a draw, from a building company’s donation—was a huge improvement over their former cramped quarters. I’m taken aback, given complaints I’ve heard about the hasty, government-sponsored construction after the fire. Upside-down architectural plans, for starters, had the front door to Beat and George’s house opening into the small back bedroom. The chimney, built with a single, inadequate flue, was frequently blocked. George, I’m told, called the place “The House That Jack Built.” But Valerie’s eyes light up as she explains. For her, the new house was a prize: she was to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life.
I take this conversation with my aunt as yet another turn in the sprawling, confounding complex of facts and legends that have risen in place of all the structures, man-made and otherwise, swallowed in those long-ago ames. Valerie’s memory unfolds one more layer of an elusive truth—or maybe adds one more layer between me and truth—that I’ve been hunting since I used to crouch by our own replace as a girl, plant my palms on the cold grey stone, stick my head in over the dusty grate and twist, trying to see up past the flue, into the darkness there, where (I sensed) re lived out its life when we were not in need of it. So near the source of such power, I was afraid, but also determined to understand what had happened that three-day drive away in Main-à-dieu, to Nanny and Grampy’s house and the stunning landscape it had occupied, now arresting in a whole new way.
What was this supernatural force that had brought us a charred, skeleton forest, which had smeared my brother Sean and me with soot on our first visit after the event? We believed, and insisted to our alarmed mom, that our faces and hands had been blackened by the ruined trees simply by walking among them. We were awestruck by the jagged, burnt-up trunks. We were humbled and subdued. We couldn’t remember touching them at all.
Had the fire really gone into hiding in the boggy underground, only to spring back to life while everyone in the village prayed, unwitting, through Sunday mass? Did it jump willy-nilly over the road, landing like a bomb on this house or that? Did people haul their prized possessions down to “sandy beach” in the hopes of keeping them clear of the flames? Can the significance of the date of the fire, the 6th day of the 6th month of 1976, be discounted? Especially when considered in light of the fire’s behaviour? Here’s what it’s said to have done: it roared through bush, shot a ball of ames toward the steeple of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church—direct hit!—and, once it had reduced the community’s chief house of worship to ghostly beams, made a beeline for the tall, whitewashed crucifix in the cemetery across the street. Think that over and ask yourself: Can a fire of such magnitude, such cruel showmanship, such personality, really have been started by two boys playing with matches in the woods?
Whatever happened to those boys?
I’m getting ahead of myself. Or maybe going too far back too quickly. Outside, beyond the black square of night window, is our just-this-side-of-wild yard, which my dad’s cousin Ray mows each summer before we arrive. He rides up the hill around the pond and runs right along the alders that creep ever-closer to the house. Around them lie thick tangles of blueberry, blackberry, and fox berry bushes. For a time after the fire there wasn’t much else: alders and berries—berries love a post-fire landscape—punctuated by tall, waving angelica, like Queen Anne’s lace but more towering, a regal species reportedly brought over by the French during the heyday of the Fortress of Louisbourg. I’m told the French stewed the thick angelica stalks in soups, and sweetened their baking with its sugary white flowers. It’s been thirty-eight years since the local tree population was decimated; aided by community planting projects, the spruce and poplar and fir have re-congregated into something you could call a forest, skirting the spongy swaths of red and yellow and brown moss we move through on our way to the cliff-lined back shore on Mira Bay. The moss is punctuated with creamy reindeer lichens that form airy, earthbound clouds—until you step in and feel the crunch. According to a 2008 document by Gregory T. Munger of the U.S. Forestry Service’s Fire Science Laboratory, Cladonia, or reindeer lichen, provides “an easily ignitable surface fuel that aids in fire spread.” At the same time, periodic fires create open woodland spaces that lichens love to colonize. We also know that after a bad burn, lichens may take 30 to 50 years to regenerate. This mixture of facts only leads to questions. Do the snowy lichens behind our house predate the fire? Did their ancestors feed it? Are they thriving because of it? (I could almost be talking about people.) Pauline and I also wonder to what extent the fire made room for the angelica to flourish, or whether this plant that’s now considered invasive would have found its path to domination, regardless.
One day last summer, Pauline spent the whole afternoon with a single angelica plant. Pauline, a red Canadian Tire folding chair, a bottle of Keith’s, her sketchpad, a pencil. Her gaze on the plant, her hand moving methodically over the page. Pauline says the fields of angelica are, to her, the ghosts of the French. Now, when I look at the angelica, holding its widespread arms to the clouds, providing its striking backdrop for flitting gold finches, I see row upon row of bowed heads, gently shaking, wondering where they went wrong.
Right here: what has happened between Pauline and the angelica lies at the heart of this story—its changed heart, with the chambers it didn’t have or hadn’t revealed, before she stepped beside me, into the fire’s path.
Ray, the cousin who mows our lawn every summer, also ambles into the kitchen one morning and lays a plastic bag on the table. Inside I’ll find the year’s issues of the Louisbourg Seagull, a magazine printed on plain white paper, folded and stapled together, like the very first publication I worked on as a student in the nineties. I love the Seagull, with its unsophisticated yet easy-reading layout, its historical features and its reports on everyday goings-on in Gabarus, Catalone Gut, Marion Bridge, and of course Main-à-Dieu. In the April 2014 issue, Main-à-Dieu correspondent Muriel Forgeron marks the passing of Mary Connelly, who grew up in Little Lorraine. Annette and Ron Phillips attended the Bridgewater funeral for Louise (Lahey) Mosher’s husband. In other news, Theresa Spencer won the Friday jackpot at the Fortress Seniors’ Club, Easter baskets for the CWL are now available, and a granddaughter of the Hiltz family in Bateston presented flowers to Princess Ann in a Kingston, Ont. ceremony.
My favourite column in the Seagull is Bill Bussey’s “Bird’s Eye View,” replete with intriguing glimpses of local bird life, as well as of the lives of those who track it. The January 2014 column painstakingly details the local Christmas Bird Count (63 species and a total of 3,577 birds) alongside the usual sightings: the peregrine falcon seen in Main-à-Dieu by George Cromwell and his daughter Bev, visiting over the holidays from Glace Bay; a Great Horned Owl patrolling the grounds of the Fortress; several families of gray jays that livened up a re drill at Riverside Elementary; the blue jays knocking on Fran McKenzie’s window; a kingfisher flying over Ian Harte’s property, later spotted near the A&L Fish Plant.
Seagull editor Margo Patrick has promised to hunt down issues from 1976, but she tells me not to get my hopes up for content about the fire: in those days, the Seagull was purely a “gossip sheet.” In the meantime, I’ve imagined my own post-fire “Bird’s Eye View” column (made up of the poems that follow), which draws on re-related anecdotes, what knowledge I have of local bird species, and the lives of the characters Pauline and I have created for our modified graphic novel inspired by the Main-à-Dieu re, Clarence the Welder. The form marries our respective disciplines. Our textual base will be chiefly poetic (that’s my department), with dialogue and chunks of narrative mixed in. Visually (that’s Pauline’s) we’ll use, but also veer from, those comic-book style panels that tend to dominate the form. Clarence is our made-up hero who went off to work in other parts of the country, eventually the Alberta oil fields, which, for him, are the last straw. His mother dead, his father in mourning, he comes home to confront the past he’s been avoiding: the re he and his buddy Russell started as kids, that got out of hand and blew through the village. Here is where our story begins, with the return of Clarence, the more idealistic and volatile of the two culprits, like a long-buried ember surfacing to see what damage it can still get up to, or, conversely, what warmth or light it can bring.
I can’t tell you precisely what Pauline and I are trying to figure out, but it has something to do with the power of fire, to destroy and also renew, and with the powers of story and memory to do the same. No one died here; it wasn’t that kind of tragedy. But homes were lost, families cast into disarray, moments of bravery and kindness (and meanness) incorporated into the narratives of peoples lives, hundreds of the kinds of objects we invest with meaning reduced to smoke and ash. The day of the fire’s rampage, Main-à-Dieu was still a going concern. There was a local school, a credit union, a general store, a gas station, even a small sh plant. Nowadays, an energetic crew of citizens work extraordinarily hard to keep the old school building functioning as a community space where seniors gather to play cards, where a café and library branch operate, where a gem of a one-room museum is housed. Few children live here now. Most people from my father’s generation, as he did, moved away. The story is a common one throughout the Maritimes. It’s hard not to ask the question, which is worse? The quick annihilation, by flame, or this struggle to maintain a sense of vitality and place, when the major stories to rise out of this once-bustling pocket of civilization threaten to have already taken place?
I’m used to following my nose when I work. I write with intention, but not too much design. I like my expectations undefined, or at least ill-defined. I hope to land somewhere I didn’t exactly plan to go, but in a place that feels, nonetheless, inevitable. I want that landing to have all the hallmarks of discovery after gruelling exploration, to feel like a reward for the skills I’ve tested enroute, for having trained my ears on that ineffable voice none of us can ever really hear.
I have never before had a companion on such a journey. Delving into the re’s implications and narrative possibilities with Pauline has meant upping the “design” quotient in the creative mix. It’s meant hashing out plot possibilities all the way from beginning to end, which I’ve never done in advance of writing. It’s meant pinpointing potential symbols, parsing themes. Pauline’s process includes creating a “script” in which she lines up a poem I’ve written against descriptions of the corresponding image or scene she proposes to create. Her visuals don’t necessarily illustrate the text. Pauline gleans information from her reading of the poem—information that isn’t explicit—and builds that in. In the sample script included with the material following this essay, Pauline’s notes describe a poignant scene between Flossy and Ambrose, long-time husband and wife, that doesn’t play out in the poem. It’s a separate narrative that will literally under-lie the one thrumming through the words.
Pauline and I have a long history of spirited collaboration. We worked together for years as, respectively, managing editor and editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. But this whole business of the fire—the event, the history, the rumours, the legacy—has been haunting me since early childhood. Pauline has come to the fire only of late, through my telling of it, and through her own, more objective, roamings in Main-à-Dieu. To have found a co-conspirator so keen to join me in sifting these ashes, who brings a sense of inquiry that is every bit as urgent as mine but differently angled, as well as a perspective from within another medium, to bear on the questions those ashes reveal is game-changing. It’s forced me out of my private mulling. When Pauline asks a question we need to try to find an answer, and she doesn’t always ask the one I might. Or she answers mine in ways I couldn’t anticipate. I’m redirected, and so is the story. So, even, is the actual reach of those old flames. Our very efforts prove that, metaphorically speaking, that confounded fire’s still burning. It’s as if we’ve become a new form of kindling, a pair of branches way up in the bright green canopy of a regrowth forest, fuel for a force that was technically spent long ago.
In my mind, I step outside the night kitchen, the candlelit scene of our communion with those old flames.
How did I get here? And how did Pauline get caught up with me? What would Nan think of our meddling with the fire, fanning it, as it were? For years I had a vision in my head of her at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, seeing a vast wall of heat and smoke rise before her, over the hill it would barrel down, directly for the spot where she was standing. I saw her and Grampy and my uncles and aunt bolt from the house. There was bread in the oven, half-baked, left behind.
It bears pointing out that the window and sink I imagined existed in a kitchen that looked exactly like the one I knew, the one we’re now in, which of course came later. And that’s not how it all went down, either. They were at church, Beat once corrected me. They saw the fire on their way home, coming up the road. It had been put out the day before, so everyone thought, but it smoked back up through the spring growth while the Trinity Sunday hymns—that’s Pentecost, to people “from away”—were rising to the rafters, one-hundred-year-old rafters that, by the end of that day, would be cinders.
Pauline looks up and xes me with that animated gaze I so associate with her—bright, blazing, like the re that led us into this mad scheme. “Hang on,” she begins, “what if Clarence comes back and…”