He ended his time on the shore in a makeshift asylum cell, shut away with the profligate stink of fish that clung to him all his days. The Great White. St. Jude of the Lost Cause. Sea Orphan. He seemed more or less content there, gnawing at the walls with a nail. Mary Tryphena Devine brought him bread and dried capelin that he left to gather bluebottles and mould on the floor.
If you arent going to eat, she said, at least have the decency to die.
Mary Tryphena was a child when she first laid eyes on the man, a lifetime past. End of April and the ice just gone from the bay. Most of the shores meagre populationthe Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenancewere camped on the grey sand, waiting to butcher a whale that had beached itself in the shallows on the feast day of St. Mark. This during a time of scarcity when the ocean was barren and gardens went to rot in the relentless rain and each winter threatened to bury them all. They werent whalers and no one knew how to go about killing the Leviathan, but there was something in the humpbacks unexpected offering that prevented the starving men from hacking away while the fish still breathed. As if that would be a desecration of the gift.
Theyd scaled the whales back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on Gods progress.
Halfway along the beach King-me Sellers was carrying on a tournament of draughts with his grandson. Hed hobbled down from his store to make a claim to the animal as it had gone aground below Spurriers premises. The fishermen argued that the beach in question wasnt built over and according to tradition was public property, which meant the whale was salvage, the same as if a wreck had washed ashore. King-me swore hed have the whales liver and eight puncheons of oil or the lot of them would stand before the court he ruled as magistrate.
Once terms were agreed upon Sellers had his grandson bring down his scarred wooden checkerboard and they set out flat stones for the pieces gone missing through the years. His grandson was the only person willing to sit through a game with Sellers who was known to change the rules to suit himself and was not above cheating outright to win. He owned the board, he told the complainers, and in his mind that meant he owned the rules that governed it as well. His periodic cries of King me! were the only human sound on the landwash as they waited.
Mary Tryphena was asleep when the men finally rushed the shallows, her father shouting for her to fetch Devines Widow. She left the beach as she was told, walking the waterside pathway through Paradise Deep and up the incline of the Tolt Road. She crossed the headland that rose between the two coves and carried on into the Gut where her grandmother had delivered Mary Tryphenas brother that morning. The landwash was red with blood by the time she and the old woman made their way back, a scum of grease on the harbours surface. The heart and liver already carted up to King-mes Rooms on fish barrows, two men harvesting chunks of baleen from the creatures jaw with axes, the mouth so massive they could almost stand upright inside it. Women and children floated barrels in the shallows to catch the ragged squares of blubber thrown down to them. Mary Tryphenas grandmother knotted her skirts above the knee before wading grimly into the water.
Excerpted from Galore by Michael Crummey. Copyright © 2011 by Michael Crummey. Excerpted by permission of Other Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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