Dispatches

Coming Ashore

Christy Ann Conlin

The dog turns his butt to the stinging spray and wind but my boyfriend and I face the water, watching the massive waves crash on the shore.

DAY ZERO

The dog turns his butt to the stinging spray and wind but my boyfriend and I face the water, watching the massive waves crash on the shore. We are drenched in seconds and we have to shout over the wind. It’s exhilarating. It’s 11: p.m., the time Hurricane Juan was predicted to come ashore. When the wind starts rocking the car, we leave Herring Cove and drive back to Halifax.

We listen to the radio news as we go. The mayor declared a state of emergency at 9: p.m., and mandatory evacuations were ordered for anyone living close enough to be caught by the storm surge. Wind smashes against the car, which lifts under us as the waves begin to break on the road. Rain and spray coat the windshield and we almost rear-end the car in front of us.

My boyfriend drops me at home— uphill, inland, on a tree-lined street— and heads to his downtown condo on the harbourfront. As soon as I am in my house I want to be with him, but when I open the front door, the wind yanks it away and I have to brace myself against the wall and pull it closed with both hands. I wait fifteen minutes and call him. He has just got in. The harbour is flowing into the city from the storm surge. We are cut off—his phone line has gone dead. The house shakes and the wind screams as my power goes out. I call my best friend in Vancouver. Reach her answering machine. “It really is a hurricane,” I shout over the wind. “Who would have believed it?” Now my phone goes dead. I can’t find my cellphone in the dark.

Out the window, trees bend like Plasticine and fall slowly, carefully, groaning as their roots heave from the earth.

DAY ONE

I stand on the front step in my pyjamas. The air is downright tropical and smells of crushed leaves and bark. The street is covered with branches, fallen trees and downed power lines, and my little blue car is a green leafy lump with a large branch lying across the back of the roof in a big dent, where it came to rest after tearing off the roof racks.

“Did a tree go in your house too?” a neighbour asks from the sidewalk.

A massive elm has crashed down on his house, thrusting one enormous branch through the living room window and another one into an upstairs window. He smiles and shrugs, then looks away. He is crying. Without warning, rain comes blasting down. In minutes the road floods and garbage cans float by.

The rain stops as quickly as it started. I walk over to my brother’s house, crawling under the massive trees that block the road. I hop over power lines and telephone poles. When I get there, my sister-in-law tells me he is down at the harbourfront museum where he works, helping the crew of a schooner that sunk in front of the museum. We light the camp stove. The propane flares blue and we make espresso, then sit on the front step to drink it. This block is worse than mine, strewn with leaves and uprooted trees—enormous ones, that survived the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and Hurricane Ginny in 1963.

My boyfriend arrives, having guessed where I am. We spend the day walking around the city, looking at the damage. House after house has been smashed into by a giant tree, and the storm has ripped up most of the boardwalk down at the waterfront. One bench has been thrown sixty feet. Power cables curl over the roads and sidewalks. People listen to their car radios as spokesmen for the police and the municipal, provincial and federal governments ask everyone to stay at home and off the roads. Hundreds of us stay out anyway, walking, driving and staring.

My roommate has come home. The phone is working again and we have cold running water, and candles and matches. No power. We have one flashlight and lots of food in the fridge but not much in the cupboard. We joke about how we shouldn’t have put off grocery shopping.

The entire city is without power, dark and quiet as night comes.

DAY TWO

The car radio tells my roommate and me that the army is coming. No newspapers are being printed and no stores are open. I spend the day walking around, visiting friends. No one has power. I eat barbecued salmon and asparagus at the Catholic church at the corner. Neighbourhood barbecues are underway on almost every street.

At night we sit on the front step with candles. For once we can see the stars in the sky over the city. It’s peaceful except for the grind of a neighbour’s generator. He and his wife are sitting in their hot tub. My roommate says isn’t it funny, but neither of us laughs.

DAY THREE

We see soldiers in the Public Gardens and at Point Pleasant Park. The neighbour tells us that the storm toppled more than fifty thousand trees in the park. Tempers soar. Why is the army cleaning up a rose garden when no one has power?

The radio news reports that citizens claim they weren’t properly warned. The weather people respond that they issued a hurricane warning, complete with the time the storm was expected to land, but no one took the warning seriously. People went to the seaside to greet the hurricane. I tell my roommate I was one of them, out at Herring Cove when the storm came ashore. “You’re crazy,” she tells me.

We sit there in the car, listening to the radio to find out what’s open: two Tim Hortons on the outskirts of the city. We arrive to find a five-block lineup.

DAY FOUR

Still no power. We throw out all the soggy food in the fridge and freezer. The garbage piles up on the street, but no one complains because it doesn’t stink—the temperature has plummeted. The house is damp and chilly now. I rinse off in a cold shower but can’t stand it for more than a minute. Soap doesn’t foam in the freezing water and I can’t get my hands or the dishes cleaned properly.

Parts of the city are running normally now but other parts are paralyzed. Bits of shattered trees still litter the streets, and drivers are slow and careful. The streetlights are down at many major intersections but we all take turns, polite and smiling, yielding to pedestrians. If someone goes out of turn, they wave apologetically and no one seems to mind.

I try to drive down my street to come home but it is blocked by a truck from Nova Scotia Power. They tell me I can’t go down and I hear myself yelling that I damn well have to. They remove the roadblock immediately and let me pass without a word. I park the car and start to cry and walk back to the roadblock and apologize. A lineman with bags under his eyes puts a hand on my shoulder and tells me it’s going to be okay, to keep hanging in.

DAY FIVE

I have a deadline and no computer, no email. I didn’t do laundry before the hurricane and have been wearing the same clothes now for the last four days. I can’t tell if I stink but it must be like camping, when you don’t know you smell like woodsmoke and sweat but you do.

A friend calls from my hometown in the Annapolis Valley, a hundred kilometres from Halifax, which is untouched. She wants to know if I’m okay. Her brother is an electrician and was called into Halifax to work nights to restore the power. I ask if he knows when the power will come back. She says he doesn’t know anything any more—he had a heart attack while he was working on the grid.

DAY SIX

I decide to leave Halifax and go to a B & B in Grand-Pr? in the Annapolis Valley. I don’t want to see my family or friends, just want to be alone in an electrified house. I head out in my smashed car, driving through the chaos. The city is like a video game now—some intersections with traffic lights, then some without. I hunch forward over the wheel, tensed for the unexpected. Traffic is heavy on all the main roads and people aren’t taking turns any more. Cars and trucks zoom into intersections, horns blaring, and drivers shake their fists. A man jumps out and runs at the car in front of me. I swerve around him and he bangs my hood with his fist.

The traffic is thinner on the highway. After a half hour there are no more toppled trees, no damaged houses, no signs of the hurricane at all, just fields and forests.

It’s almost sunset when I arrive. The B & B lady smiles as she opens the door and I stand there, grimy hands clutching printer and laptop. “Guess it was worse than I imagined,” she says.

Her house was built just after the Acadians were deported in 1755. From the window I can see the spire of the church in which the British locked the men and boys to read His Majesty’s deportation order. As the sun sets, I go for a walk down the country road to the French cross looming black against the orange sky. It’s in a meadow, train tracks on one side, a tidal channel on the other. If you aren’t from here, the cross is impossible to find. This is the true deportation site—men, women and children were loaded into long boats and rowed out into the Minas Basin to the waiting ships. I walk back along the tracks to the house. In the dusk, a soft breeze blows in the leaves and the first stars of the night appear in the sky.

My room is simple and clean, with seven lamps. I turn all of them on and get in the shower.

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Christy Ann Conlin

Christy Ann Conlin is the author of two books, Heave and The Memento. Her work has been a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. She lives in Nova Scotia.


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