by Kellie Underhill
A Midnight Swim
Moonlight reflected on the Bartibog River. Sammy felt energized, filled with excitement like a kid at Christmas. He sensed something magical had happened and he didn’t want to waste another minute. He ran down to the shore and dove into the dark water. It was cold but refreshing. He pushed off and followed the current. In the moonlight he could see the shoreline, the outline of trees. He swam past a pillar with what looked like a piano on top. That’s weird, he thought. Why would anyone put a piano in the middle of a river? He wondered how it had been placed. He swam under a bridge and then the Bartibog River ended and Sammy entered the mighty Miramichi. This river was much wider, and even in the moonlight if he strayed too far toward the middle it was difficult to see the shore. He swam past an island where children were singing songs around a campfire. The further he went, the wider the river became.
He looked for the light but other than the moon he couldn’t see anything. So he followed the moonbeams, swimming into the Bay. Maybe the old woman was right. He hadn’t felt this content since Rachel kissed him goodbye. Swimming into the Bay felt like the right thing to do. The sky clouded and the moon disappeared. Sammy slowed, unsure. And then like a beacon through the pre-dawn fog he saw a light and it beckoned him. As daylight began to dawn he made a beeline for the light in the fog. He had almost reached his destination when the water started trembling and waves crashed over him. Sammy couldn’t see which was up. His head broke surface for a minute and he was staring into an onslaught of fishing boats heading his way at high speeds. One, two . . . ten, twenty . . . fifty—there had to be nearly a hundred barrelling down on him.
Sammy swam as fast as he could toward the last place he thought he saw the light. He dove under the water and swam below the crashing waves, surfacing just as all the boats raced past him. That was close, he thought. And there was the light. Within minutes he hauled himself out of the water and climbed the beach. The light turned out to be nothing more than a lighthouse. He walked around it calling out hello, but nobody answered. There wasn’t even a keeper to question. Exhausted and demoralized Sammy collapsed into the long grass and fell asleep. Many hours later music drifted on the wind and tickled Sammy’s ears waking him. He rolled over, stretched, yawned and then walked along the beach toward the sound. A country music band, voices singing, laughing and talking; and another sound too, a snapping he didn’t recognize. The further he went, the louder the voices and music got until he came upon a campground on the beach with many campers gathered listening to music and watching a huge pig spin on a spit. The snapping was the sound of grease sizzling as it dripped onto the open flame. Sammy licked his lips and sidled up to the group to see about getting some supper.
Escuminac Beach Party
“Hello young fellow!” The woman patted the seat beside her. “What can I get you? A drink? Some food?”
Sammy smiled and sat at the picnic table beside the lady. “Yes, please. If it’s not too much trouble,” he said.
“Not a bit of trouble.” She patted Sammy’s lap. “Gladys! Gladys!” she yelled and looked around at a girl who was running all over the campground. Gladys stopped and turned to the lady. “Get this fine young man some food and a drink, eh.”
“Sure. Just a minute dear.” Gladys smiled at Sammy and his stomach flopped. She reminded him of Rachel with her long hair and big eyes. He thought he saw sparkles glittering on her face but she was so quick and busy he didn’t get to stare. Within minutes a feast was laid out on the table in front of him.
“My name’s Mabel,” the lady said. “Gladys is my granddaughter. Where might you be from?”
Sammy swallowed hard. “I don’t know.” He sighed. “I’m lost and trying to find my way home. Someone in Russellville told me to swim and follow the light. I did. I swam all night in the moonlight and nearly got run over by a hundred boats this morning. Then I was lost in the fog. I followed the light and it was just a lighthouse with nobody around and I was so tired I fell asleep in the grass. Then I was starving and I could hear the music and—”
“Hold’er now, my goodness, take a breath.” Mabel chuckled. “Finish your supper and then you can start from the beginning and tell me everything. There’s no rush. Relax for a minute and enjoy.”
Sammy nodded and threw himself into the task of eating. As soon as he finished one plate, Gladys replaced it with another, until finally he felt content. Then sitting between grandmother and granddaughter Sammy told his story. When he finished Gladys squeezed his shoulder. “Oh you poor thing,” she said, and Sammy blushed.
“Indeed,” Mabel said. “Gladys, I want you to show this boy around and introduce him. See if anybody recognizes him.”
“Yes, Gram.” Gladys grabbed Sammy’s hand and tugged him into the crowd. They moved from one cluster of people to another with Gladys doing most of the talking. There were many ideas about why Sammy might be in Escuminac or Baie Sainte-Anne. Perhaps he had been a fan of the Fighting Fisherman, Yvonne Durrelle, and hoped to visit his home. After all, thousands had come for the boxing legend’s funeral. Perhaps he had hoped to go lobster fishing with one of the boats leaving the Escuminac Wharf every morning. Maybe he wanted to get a tour of a peat moss plant in operation. Maybe he heard about the annual pig roast at the Escuminac Beach and Family Park. Everyone had a theory, but none felt right to Sammy.
Night fell and people really started partying, singing, dancing and whooping. “C’mon,” Gladys said giving him a tug. “Let’s get away for a sec, give you a chance to catch your breath.” They walked to the wharf and strolled around the docks. The breeze caressed his face and helped Sammy relax. They loped along in comfortable silence until they came upon a statue and Gladys sprawled on the grass to rest. “In honour of the fishermen who lost their lives in the Escuminac Disaster, June 20, 1959,” Sammy read.
“My grandfather was on the water that day,” Gladys began. “Everyone here had someone die or knows someone who lived.” She rolled onto her back and fiddled with a dandelion as she closed her eyes. “Two days and nights of terror. Nobody knew a storm was coming. Twenty-two boats sank. Thirty-five men drowned. Their names are written on the memorial. My grandfather wasn’t one of them, but the disaster changed him. It changed everyone, everything. Baie Sainte-Anne and Escuminac, we’re a small community. When something that big happens here, we don’t ever forget.”
Sammy studied the names engraved on the monument. He recognized none of them but something about a storm surge nagged in his gut. The feeling was fleeting and he couldn’t quite grasp on.
“Of course, something like that couldn’t happen today with all the technology. Yes, we have bad storms, but it’s not likely that the fleet will be out in them,” Gladys continued. She laughed and sprang to her feet. “But today is a day to laugh and dance! So, let’s show them how it’s done!” She pulled Sammy back to the beach. They danced and laughed into the night, then collapsed on a bed of sleeping bags on back of a half-ton truck and fell to sleep immediately.
Sammy woke to find the truck on the move. Morning had come and he didn’t know where they were going. Gladys and three of her friends were still asleep. There were three guys in the truck cab.
Gladys yawned and sat up, smiling. “We’re almost there,” she said.
“So you know where we’re going?”
“Yep!” she laughed. “You’re going to love it!”
“I am?” Sammy was skeptical.
“For sure!” she said. “This will prove whether you’re a true Miramichier or not.”
Sammy shrugged. “Okay, I guess.”
“We’re going to a big party. It’s an annual festival, Bay du Vin Days, or as we call it Bay du Vin Summer Survival, because you’ve got to be made of good stuff to keep pace from Friday night to Monday morning.”
“Friday night to Monday morning!” Sammy wailed. “I don’t know if I have time for that! I’m homeless! I’m lost! I need to get into the city and figure this out!”
Gladys shushed him. “That’ll keep. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this,” she said. “This is a once in a lifetime experience . . . unless you come back again next year.” She smiled, batted her beautiful eyes and Sammy’s resistance melted.
He gulped and nodded. “Okay, there’s no rush.”
… to be continued …