FOLK SONG 35
Boyos, it’s too calm to feed you
In the folk song, the ship is sailing away to sea, to sea, a-sailing away to the sea. Meanwhile, on the wharf, she—at first, we only know her as she—is crying out her heart as though it were broken / tearing rags of her hair, for to send him with a token.
Sounds painful. And yet as it turns out, the hair-pulling is really no more than a gesture, the Grebe has already slipped her lines and weighed out into the Gut, while on deck, at the taffrail, I take one last look back, never to forget her / already on my way below to tell her in a letter.
That’s how it starts. For me, I don’t know, it all seems kind of rushed. Who are these people, and how old? Married or just sweethearts? Where are we, in what era? What’s the weather? But no, no time for that, the folksinger has his tempo to maintain, and it’s a brisk one he’s got going with his guitar, strumming lustily or maybe, better yet, stormily ahead. Brrrrung-da-da-dung-dung-dung-dung-da.
I, of course, isn’t me. I hope that’s clear. Is it the folksinger himself, singing out his own story? That’s what you kind of want to think. Would be nice. Would be easier. If you look at the CD cover, too, the singer does have a maritime look about him, a nautical haircut, plus those are lobster traps in the slightly out-of-focus background, I think. When you listen to him singing, he does sound very personally involved, as if the hawsers he talks about hauling are looped around his own heart.
Gazing back, never to forget her / already on my way below to tell her in a letter.
Big no-no, of course, because—do I even have to say this?—the ship hasn’t even passed the harbour light and you’re down writing letters? Captain Eli is a fair man, forgiving, has been in love himself, but even so, duty is duty. Unfortunately for I, it’s the mate who sees him going below, Clem, a shifty bastard, a bully and a schemer, always with an eye out for taking advantage. His price for keeping quiet? An IOU that I is quick to sign—actually thanks his blackmailer, apologizes: won’t happen again. Up on deck again, hauling away, away, haul away me boys, away, it’s hard for I to believe his luck, could have been so much worse. Though of course it’s just then, as Grebe makes open sea, that the cook comes on deck to say, fellas, it’s too rough to feed you.
Drums thunder where, before, no drums thundered. I guess they must have been there with the folksinger in the studio the whole time—obviously—but still, they come as a surprise. My guitar—the guitar of I—suggests strengthening winds. Somewhere a tin whistle begins to trill. All
hands on deck! Heave away! Even the seabirds are trying to get out of the storm’s way, petrels and gannets and scaups fleeing the lowering clouds. Like those birds, Captain Eli means to outrun the storm. The Grebe piles on sail.
The folksinger says—sings—he sings thems and thars and ain’ts. It sounds okay. It doesn’t sound forced. Them lonesome clouds, over thar, be blowin’/ ain’t no cure for no big green ocean.
Meaning the North Atlantic, of course. Obviously. Is anybody else interested in where, specifically, we’re talking about here? The horse latitudes is my hunch, the calms of Cancer. I’m a bit of a details man, I guess, not to mention (also) a map man.
A second guitar joins in here, briefly, with what you might call a Spanish signature—suggesting, maybe, that the Grebe has set course for southern seas? Could just be that it sounds great, though, spanishing along.
’Twas a witch in the wind
And she spake with a poisonous temper
Cap’n Eli stood up strong,
Advised she was wrong,
Told her, hurry back to hell, that November.
The cook, meantime, comes back:
Fellas, he says, it’s been good to know you.
Which seems kind of unnecessary—uncalled for. With all the hands on deck, it’s lost on no one that Cookie is the only one not even to be pretending to rush around in the effort to speed the ship from danger. And as far as feeding goes, what about sandwiches? When is it ever too rough for sandwiches? Wouldn’t a cook worth his sea salt have prepared sandwiches at the first whiff of foul weather for later distribution, maybe some trail mix and, you know, carrot sticks? You can see how the men, struggling at their work, saving Cookie’s skin as much as their own, would be strongly peeved. Talk about disappointing—talk about unprofessional.
Meanwhile, back at home, she’s weeping all the time. She as in Her—i’s sweetheart, whose name we won’t know for a few more bars yet is Leslie. From the sound of it, she hasn’t left the wharf since the Grebe disappeared over the horizon, at least not for long, maybe a few quick trips home to shower, rest up ahead of the next bout of sorrowing.
People do their best to console her though it’s easy to tell, just from the sheer volume of the weeping she’s doing, that now’s not the time for consolations. The tears and the vodka are, in a word, voluminous. From the sounds of it, reading between the folk-song lines, the weeping sounds more like full-on wailing, and while there’s nothing explicit to indicate just how distressing the sound of her torrential grief is for the people of the town to hear, we do know that there’s a general concern abroad regarding how nobody feels all that comfortable going down to the wharf now, due to the atmosphere of torment, and the ongoing rending of garments, hair, etc., not to mention every time she finishes a bottle of vodka, she smashes it on the stones of the breakwater.
Leslie, people say, please! Get a grip! Well, that’s what they mutter. Mostly what the people do is keep their distance, pretend not to see, even though of course they do see, from their remove, overcoming their born reluctance to stare—that’s the kind of town it is, very buttoned up, no big shows of emotions, it’s not as though there’s any bylaw against them, but there may as well be, any complaining or criticizing the people do is behind closed doors, a sob-stifling hand held to the mouth, eyes averted, there’s nothing they hate in this town so much as a fuss. They worry about Leslie scaring off whatever tourists might happen by, not that many ever do, because who wants to visit a cod-smelling buttoned-up seagullridden smugglers’ hideaway where the fishery is dying and women lie weeping by the hair-bestrewn breakwater that’s littered with the glass of smashed Absolut bottles? The people don’t want to go down there, so why would a tourist? Especially if that tourist happens to have seen their own love sail away to sea, and wailed, and soaked themself in vodka, before pulling themself together and going on vacation—only to have their sorrow hurled back in their face as they step off the bus.
Are they jealous? The people—of Leslie. They have always been a little in awe of her, her poise and beauty, her easy smile, her perfect nose, straight posture. Leslie’s hair is fantastic, and her smile has a radiance beyond anything an oil painting could depict, let alone a mere folksinger. So nobody is too surprised when her grief outstrips any of the grief they’ve known in the town, or have felt themselves.
So, yes, there’s resentment. It seems so easy for Leslie, everything does, always has. If only she didn’t take everything for granted the way she does. Example: people are happy to bring her more vodka, and do, that’s what neighbours are for—but a thank you would be nice. Would go such a long way. Could she at least offer to pay? A few coppers for the vodka fund? As a gesture? Or you know what would be a good enough gesture—not smashing the empties on the wharf so that somebody not so awesome as Leslie could return them for the deposit.
There's a bunch that goes unsaid in the fold song symptoms and yearnings, night fears, morning relief.
There’s a bunch that goes unsaid in the folk song: symptoms and yearnings, night fears, morning relief. Meals? There are next to no mentions of meals. There’s a lot of downtime that doesn’t find its way into folk songs generally, this one and all the rest, because if you included all the downtime, how long a folk song would that be? Also routinely left out of nautical folk songs in particular: all the St. Elmo’s fire; most of the livelier descriptions of the Sargasso Sea; many anecdotes involving bioluminescence.
In I’s case, the folk song has almost nothing to say about the studying he’s doing for his mate’s exams. Fair enough— you’d have to be a pretty confident folksinger to tarry long in a studious aside. I is a slow and open-mouthed reader, we do learn, and draws a finger across the words on the page as he goes, as though to smudge them into action. He drools, just a bit, in his concentration, and when he doesn’t understand something, hums. That’s about it, though, as far as mentions of I’s exams: mostly his study is silent.
The cook comes on deck to say, boyos, it’s too calm to feed you. Back home, other than the mess on the wharf and the wailing, people talk about what they’ve always talked re: Leslie, i.e. how did she ever end up with I in the first place? Nothing personal, everybody in the town likes him well enough, it’s with nothing but respect and fondness that they agree that Leslie was—is—never wasn’t—way, way out of I’s league.
Even his friends say so, if only among themselves. In the folk song, they tell Leslie that if there’s anything they can do—that she needs—anything, all she has to do is call. Anytime. Dinner, say. She has to eat. What about dinner? Nothing fancy. What about Francesca’s? Ever been to Francesca’s? Pick you up around 8?
Not interested. All Leslie needs right at the moment is maybe a little more ice for her vodka. I’s friends don’t need to be told twice to leave her alone, especially after Corey, I’s best friend, cuts his knee on the glass down at the wailing wharf.
Drum solo: tkkkka-tkk-tkk, tkk-tkkkka-tkk.
Far away, I swabs the deck he should be holystoning, a mistake that will soon land him in trouble with Clem, again. As he swabs, he starts on another letter to his love, in his head he writes his letters, never really stops, it’s how he holds on to Leslie, always with the drafting and the re-drafting of letters such that, when the time comes to sit down by the light of a guttering oil lamp below, it’s as if they’re spilling through his arm, into his pen, out onto the paper.
Always writing letters in his head is how he gets his reputation as a dreamer, absent in his mind, probably he hit his head on a spar, or fell out of the rigging, that’s what the crew decides, either way, best to yell at him if you’re trying to get his attention. Clem leads the pack on this, which is to say, the yelling; because he’s in charge of the mail, he’s also the one who oversees the systematic opening and reading of I’s letters. He’s a snooper, plain and simple: he reads the mail because he can, extracting money and keepsakes.
It’s here, just about halfway through the folk song, that I gets the terrible news: Leslie is dead. What? Dead dead? It’s a hammer to the heart, of course, or (as the folksinger puts it) a dagger forged of ice. His voice cracks and, if you listen closely, you can just hear a guitar string snapping from pure desolation. He feels like he’s falling, like he’s drowning, turning, burning, jabbed by a thousand needles. It’s unclear, in the folk song, how the news reaches him at sea, the Grebe not having seen a shore (and vice versa) in months. Maybe a friendly ship passing by reports the news, or is it conveyed by a brave long-range courier puffin—or on the freelance wind? Doesn’t matter. I lies in the scuppers, trying to find one breath amid the sobs, sluiced by waves, despised by gulls.
It’s at about this same time that word reaches Leslie that I is lost at sea. Washed overboard, struck down by scurvy, swallowed by a black squid, died with all his shipmates in a reef-wreck? Nobody knows. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t change anything. She’s stunned. She’s out with Dylan at the time, not a real estate agent so much (he says) as a manager of real estate agents. A man with a black turtleneck and a tidy beard. A good if not great kisser. As first dates go, this one’s going fine. Dylan is a fantastic cook who’s invited her over for homemade pizza followed by, after dinner, a spell in his little back garden.
Admiring Leslie’s laugh-lines, he wonders whether he might be permitted to touch them. That’s when she gets the stunning news about I, right then, somehow. “Take a minute,” Dylan says. Things are speeding up, now: it’s no more than a few minutes later that Dylan’s wife gets home, Rhonda. Oh, no! Hard to say whose distress is stronger, hers or Leslie’s, but they’re both extremely distressed. What a scene. Dylan churches his fingers and backs away slowly down the garden. “Sorry about your feller,” Rhonda tells Leslie with a grave dignity when the women are standing there by themselves.
“Don’t mind if I do,” says Leslie, just to be saying something.
It can be tricky, for a folksinger, to convey the passage of time. There are those who, hearing the folk song, get the wrong impression about this next part, where Leslie and Rhonda both ditch Dylan, Leslie refocuses, lets her hair grow long, takes up fencing, applies to business school, does some hospice volunteering, gets into biz school, packs up, leaves town all in the space of a week—but no, wrong. It’s months that pass. She feels good, healthier: the last we hear, in the folk song, Leslie is doing just great, with new blonde highlights, and talking about maybe training for a half-marathon.
Iwanders up steep streets that wind back on one another in the town he doesn’t remember coming to. The houses are steep, too, lean in, loom. It’s hard to see the sky. Brown rain surges in the gutters. The cobblestones slip under his boots. How did he get here? What happened to the Grebe? Whose very dangerous boots are these? He tries to write a letter in his head but it’s no good, the words won’t sit, they jump and jar, sink, dissolve. For a just a moment he can see Leslie’s name though he can’t speak it. Then: gone.
He sleeps in a hedge. Come the damp morning, an old tar passes by with a peg leg and a tote bag filled with library books, takes pity, helps I to his feet, shepherds him to a little seaman’s tavern down by the Custom House where he can get a feed and a drink and a talking-to from the innkeep about shedding old skin, heading for new horizons. Nobody knows anything about Captain Eli or the Grebe, but that’s okay, he takes a job sweeping up at the tavern—a sweeping-up job. It doesn’t last. At first he’s drinking only while he’s sweeping, tiny refreshing sips of whatever’s at hand, sherry, old beer, but that doesn’t really work, it makes for unsatisfying sweeping and drinking. In what he later will describe to a biographer as an epiphany, the recipe for what the rest of us know and enjoy as a bullshot comes to him, and that’s when he really starts to drink, plus the amount he’s drinking combined with the needing to brew up new drinks means that he’s not meeting any of his sweeping deadlines. It would be different if his drink were, say, vodka, but he’s picky, will only drink bullshots of his own devising, it’s really more of a soup than a cocktail, a boozy beef soup with a salted rim that he trusts no one but himself to concoct. The devil, he likes to say, is in the seasoning.
He’s supposed to register with the police. There’s some good reason for that, Lyle at the Yardarm Inn explains it to him, but due to the depths of his distress and drunkenness, I doesn’t take it in, fails to report, which makes him a wanted man in these parts—a change, at least, he tells his miserable self, from all those months of no one caring whether he lived or didn’t.
He thinks about hurling himself into the ocean, under a tram, from the roof of the Yardarm, doesn’t, can’t quite, what he does instead is he keeps drinking until he can drink no more, drinks to forget, drunk with regret, lost everything I had, nothing good you can say when it’s all gone so bad.
He starts to wander, and the wandering takes up a lot of the night. Down at the docks, where he’s well known for his very specific begging, no one can spare the allspice he’s after, the celery. Can’t, won’t—don’t. He doesn’t despair. Lying in muck, listening to wind, watching sky, he feels … not so bad.
It’s while laid out by the curb that I discovers, deep down in a pocket, a review booklet for the mate’s exam that once seemed so imperative. Later, testing himself with quiz questions, he falls in love with a mermaid. That’s a part of the folk song that actually would be worthwhile fleshing out, but the folksinger doesn’t seem too interested, or doesn’t want to slow down the momentum he’s built up, though it’s here, right in the middle of the verse, that the folksinger does clear his throat with a thick roar that many people find authentic even if it puts off an equal or slightly larger segment of folksong fans. What we can glean is that the mermaid, whose name is probably Erin though possibly Marian, is vivacious and soulful, a heavy smoker, a single mother, a tough bird. She doesn’t back down. She’s been around the block and back again, had her heart scorched, in and out of marriages, worked ten different jobs before she scraped together the money to buy the souvenir stand.
Wow, I thinks the first time he sees her. She has long red hair and leptoid scales, which, she explains, are highly unusual: most of her kind (she says) have the placoid scaling of sharks and rays. I smiles, Oh, yes, he nods, Uh huh. Erin is surprised. Most of the men she meets are interested in one thing only, and it’s not the finer points of marine biology.
I laughs. That feels good. Different, strange, new. Thinking about laughter, he misses most of what Erin says about applying for a licence, some kind of … snack licence? She wants to be selling snacks to the souvenir crowd and possibly … beer and coolers? I nods. That feels almost as good as the laughing.
Trouble is brewing. This is somewhere else, miles away, on yet another foreign shore, in a little coastal town. Stavanger’s cramped postal office is really no more than a corner carved out of a busy pharmacy, so it’s a real fight, every day, for the postmaster to assert his right to be there, which is maybe why they call him Tiger. He’s not a suspicious sort, or prone to persecution fantasies, but in the morning it’s not just that the prescriptions crowd his space like armies of occupation, the pharmacists definitely trying to screw with him with all those suggestive anti-psychotic pills they leave littered around, the ointments for embarrassing rashes and sexual sores.
He does his best to carry on, but he can feel himself starting to doubt himself, does he still have what it takes to be postmastering, for example, all of these dozens of ragged letters that have come in addressed to Ms. Leslie Dafforn, not one of them sufficiently stamped, really he’d be within his rights to toss them in the stove, why hasn’t he, what’s wrong with him, is it possible that he’s losing his groove?
He keeps them, takes them home. Let’s be clear that Tiger is no saint, not one of those benevolent old codgers you sometimes run across in stories who recognize the signs of true love when they see a pile of letters and, when they have no address, undertake to see them to their destination whatever the cost. Let’s say, instead, that Tiger is a practical man, a harried realist with a headache who
normally wouldn’t dream of breaking the sacred postal code of never opening someone’s letter except for the morning, one morning, when he strays.
He can’t get out of bed, is how it starts. The pills he’s carried home with I’s letters are powdery blue and drytasting and probably downing ten of them at once isn’t the wisest thing, not to mention he almost chokes and is instantly very hungry and unable to hold his point of view, which slips out of his body and rises up to the top of a high cupboard and looks down on himself as he reads one after another of I’s messy pages telling Leslie how much she’s missed, loved, the only one whose hand he wants to hold, whole paragraphs telling her about her own hair and skin.
Tiger laughs. He feels relaxed and cherished. His fear of heights is old history, forgotten. He wills himself up, high and higher, until he’s spidering his fingers along the ceiling. As the chorus comes up again, it seems like he may have melded, merged, become one with I. I’m not here to explain it. All I can say is that this is the part of the folk song where some listeners lose their way and, so to say, abandon ship, complaining later of confusion and disorientation, of queasiness and even wooziness, of having to lean their heads down between their knees, as if they themselves have gulped too many dusty blue pills, suffering a reaction not unlike the one Tiger/i experiences with the lofty laughing and the relaxing and the transmogrifying. Those of them who demand a refund on the download do so with maximum irritation.
A couple of fast chord changes, knuckles rapping out a beat on soundboard: that’s all it takes to get us back aboard the Grebe. She’s lying quiet, becalmed, sun baking the lines, her shrouded sails. I’m able to guide myself down to the deck with little paddles of hands: down, down, down. Captain Eli is pleased to see me, or at least—it may be that I’ve been telling a funny story. It’s clear—i become aware—that I’ve been promoted. It’s Mr. Mate and Lieutenant, sir, though I don’t know that I sat my exams, let alone passed them. They come to me, too, for Bible advice, the men do, that seems to me to be a role I’ve been cast into, where to start, they ask, what’s the best part, how does it end? I tell them, and they tell me the ship’s news, fill in my gaps, which are many. I make my peace with Clem, who apologizes if he was a bully. He’s a different man now, has been ever since Cookie died.
This is a disappointing part of the folk song where you think, Oh, no. Because—well, it can’t end like this, can it? I’m starting to flag. You can hear me falter, my voice has thinned, I’m holding my words a beat too long. The guitar, too, sounds weary, uncertain. Maybe a folk song was the wrong kind of song to have started to sing. Maybe a protest song would have been better, railing—a cappella?—at everything that’s wrong with folk songs. Or else the blues, the folksong blues, oh, Lord, got ’em bad.
A mandolin plinks, evoking rain that’s starting to fall or else maybe somebody creeping on tiptoe. Is that the right verb for a mandolin playing? I don’t know. I wonder. Starts to … stroll? Plod? Canter isn’t right. The notes sound lonely and cold, Octobery … plinking. So, so tired. What’s a body godda do to get a nighta rest in this life? A real, non-shrubbery rest. I’m at the end of my rope, if not of the song itself. I don’t know. Do I care? If I’ve lost the will to go on, when did I lose it? Do I want it back? Even more important, this letter I’m holding in my hand—where did that come from?
Has Leslie heard about Erin? That’s a big dread that’s been hanging over me that now seems to be dropping down, threatening to crush me, but no, there’s nothing in the letter accusing me of cheating on her with mermaids. I think it’s from Leslie—must be. It’s one of those letters that never really gets around to its point, and I avoid reading between the lines as much as possible. The pages are thin, frail, and the lines of ink seem to be paling as I’m trying to read them. It’s not easy to do, with a guitar in hand. The words are written big and, as best I can make out, they’re good words, fondness is one and there’s marsh and marigold and also Godspeed, but there’s something else too in those paragraphs that feels like resistance, a fight being put up, plus it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen a letter, I’m out of practice: my eyes water.
My heart is too full. Or … not full enough. Either way, I can feel its whole weight in my chest, all its sharpnesses, and minute twitches and squeezings.
In the folk song, right at the end, the buttons on the sleeve of my sportcoat knock on the guitar as I play, clumsy percussion that makes me play faster. There’s a dog that strays into the session here, too, you can hear it in the background shaking off its swim near one of the standing microphones. People always ask me, now, whose dog is that you can hear in the folk song, in the background, and what’s his name? I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of people’s pets in the studio, so I’m probably not the person to ask. I have no idea why they left it in the mix. Stephen Smith is a sometime contributor to Mcsweeney’s, Canadian Geographic and the New York Times, as well as the author of the book Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted, and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession (Greystone, 2014). He lives in Toronto.
I lies in the scuppers, trying to find one breath amid the sobs, sluiced by waves, despised by gulls.