Unraveling Arva Excerpt 


The water sang to me, you know. Of course that sounds just crazy, but it’s absolutely true.

Once upon a time I was just like you, only hear­ing the clat­ter of a wave. I would lis­ten to its salty tongue, how it frothed over a mil­lion rounded stones. Years ear­lier I sus­pected a mes­sage was dis­guised in those sudsy fin­gers, but I could not deci­pher it, and never thought to try.

Yes, yes, that was me. Every­thing was a mys­tery, the gur­gles and the gulps. Until one after­noon I caught the whis­per, a coded rumour trapped inside the ocean’s spray. It was a melody, a sooth­ing stream of poems, its ebb and flow a per­fect rhyme.

Some­one was there, you think. At first I thought so too. I glanced up to the edge of the cliff. My gaze roamed the jagged rocks, and I checked every inch of the path down to the water. Not a soul to be seen. There was only a mossy brush of lichens and those bit­ter black berries you often tried to eat, and they were both with­out a word to say. Then I heard a sec­ond sigh. Stronger now. It tick­led my ears like the tufts of cot­ton I stuff in dur­ing thunder.

At first, I was fear­ful. I marched right up to Bette Mackay’s bis­cuit box on the hill and rapped at her door. I knocked so hard, bur­gundy paint came away and clung to my knuck­les like flecks of dried blood. While I waited, a naughty gust teased through my hair, flut­tered my dress. Then that wind stole a peep at my slip. I knew instantly what it wanted. There were hints everywhere.

With­out hes­i­ta­tion, I asked Bette if it was nat­ural for a woman. The sheer force of it all, to have your mind filled with won­der. But the mound between her eye­brows only grew and sev­eral sil­ver hairs sprouted out from her mousy mop. ‘’Ave ye bin drinkin’?” she said. “Or else yer near gone mad. Don’t go ’round tellin’ no one dat, woman, or ye’ll be shipped to the Water­ford so fast yer shadow’ll crack off.” Poor Bette. What to expect from a woman who can’t hold onto the begin­ning long enough to grasp the end?

Water called me back day after day. When­ever I could, I went. There was much to know now, and with so many voices, con­cen­trat­ing was an hon­est hardship.

But the tide was patient. It told me how to move. And I lis­tened to every word.



Hook­ing her fin­gers between damp boards stained with fish guts and gull splat­ter, Arva House was able to lean out over a wharf in Upper Island Cove. She stared at her reflec­tion in the sea. Calm water in the dark­ness always made her cringe, but she did not look away. She was cer­tain her mir­ror image was obscur­ing a whole world of murky deal­ings just under­neath the pol­ished sur­face. Before her eyes, smooth-­edged shad­ows coursed through the depths, sliv­ers of bot­tle green flick­ered and dis­solved. Then a burst of gassy bub­bles rum­bled up and boiled her watery face.

From some­where well beyond the wharf, Arva heard the sound of her mother’s voice spit­ting hasty instruc­tions into the evening air. “If it budges, Arva, don’t bawl out. Fetch me instead.”

Arva remem­bered that night, how she fixed her sleepy eyes on the over­flow­ing slop bucket. Within it, a damp cop­pery mass remained motion­less, the attached bag­gage limp on the grass. The only move­ment came from copi­ous pock­ets of air slid­ing up behind the ears, pop­ping to release a stench of fer­mented sugar. The hair flut­tered, but every­thing else was still. So Arva had stood, chilled by per­va­sive damp­ness, and waited for her moth­er to appear at the edge of the cliff.

As the voice with­ered back into mem­ory, Arva watched the sea. For a moment, she expected to see a flash of ghostly skin rolling like a play­ful seal in the moon­light. But there was noth­ing. She was alone. Every­thing was rest­ful, except for the thin ropes of fog drift­ing out from beneath the wharf and tan­gling around her ankles.


The very next evening, the wind was still dor­mant, though it had not left the cove. Rest­ing just beyond a rocky ledge, it was rolling itself into a gust, build­ing strength, draw­ing up salt from the sea. And for the time being, it would stay there, wait­ing to tease knit­ted hats, sneak in around door­frames, tug at coat­tails, and tempt tears from dry eyes. Ear­lier that night, Lolly Young had prayed to God for calm, no wind to muss her hair.

Halfway up Main Road, jigs and reels could be heard, sweet ­talk­ing their way out of the worn build­ing and into the warm air. The local Legion, seated con­ve­niently at the foot of the moun­tain, was within walk­ing dis­tance for most. With paint flak­ing on the out­side, gray­ing every­where else, it had become a meet­ing place for old fish­er­men. When they were not out on the waters jig­ging freckled-­skinned cod or eat­ing a sup­per in their steamy kitchens, the men were found here, ample rumps planked on worn wooden stools, drinks at the tips of their fishy fin­gers, mouths talk­ing all kinds of talk.

Though tonight there was not a tired-­eyed fish­er­man in sight. Both doors were swung wide so the young ones could have a time.

Inside, young men dec­o­rated the walls, shirt­sleeves sharp, their hair locked in greasy com­bat with their scalps. Hard-­soled shoes tapped the linoleum and women’s dresses swished like stunned moths. There was a needy smell, cling­ing to the clothes in the way fried­-out fat­back per­me­ates a woolen coat hung on the han­dle of a pantry door.

Wear­ing a watery-­blue but­toned dress, Arva felt nei­ther par­ticularly con­fi­dent nor par­tic­u­larly ill at ease as she walked down the decline and stepped through those dou­ble doors. She had never been to a dance before, had no expec­ta­tions, and there­fore no rea­son to feel much in the way of excite­ment or anx­i­ety. Though Lolly knew this, she kept her arm slung loosely around Arva’s waist, coax­ing her for­ward like a reluc­tant child.

“We don’t bite ’round here, me dear,” Lolly said just loudly enough to prick up a few ears. “Ye needn’t be ner­vous ’bout this crowd.”

Peo­ple shuf­fled aside slightly, let­ting Arva and Lolly through. “What’re ye gawkin’ at?” Lolly said to one woman, whose mouth was gap­ing wide, her eyes on Arva with­out a blink. Then to Arva, “Ye’d think I was cartin’ in the Queen herself.”

Arva knew the reac­tion well, so it was lit­tle sur­prise. Peo­ple often stared at her, turn­ing as she strode past, speak­ing words in a whis­per. She sim­ply stood out, although she never really made a gen­uine attempt to blend in. “You’re no rav­ing beauty,” her moth­er had once said when she found Arva, hair piled atop her head, gaz­ing into a mir­ror, “and you’re not rock-­cod ugly. So you should let well enough alone and be sat­is­fied with that.”

Her mother had spo­ken the truth, Arva was some­where in between, but not reg­u­lar or ordi­nary by any means. Her hair, like a slash, was too black, and her skin just a few shades too brown, espe­cially after a sum­mer of sun­shine. But it was her eyes that often made peo­ple divert their glances. She had a stare that could cause indi­ges­tion, a look that was too close to that of a dam­aged animal’s, an old dog gone silent, its story swal­lowed down with its growl.

Most peo­ple Arva had seen in the har­bour and beyond were under-­a-­stone pale, red­dish almost. They had eyes that were a pleas­ing assort­ment of sea-foam green, hon­eyed brown, clean win­try blue. If their hair were dark, the sun would waste no time and flicker out light tinges. Strip-­of-­lawn side­burns, down the sides of most men’s faces, were almost always smat­tered with brown, gray, and tell­tale red whiskers. At one glance, it was an easy guess: Irish through and through.

“Hey Lolly Dolly,” Frank Smith called out when they were well into the Legion, smoke thick like the worst kind of fog.

“Hey Frankie Spankie,” Lolly replied, hand plump­ing her pin curls. Frank reached for her wrist, but with a quick twist, skirt fan­ning, she dodged his hand. “Jeez Frankie,” she said, smirk over her shoul­der, “can’t ye do any bet­ter than that?” Then to Arva, “C’mon, me love, let’s snag a nip.”

Lolly took Arva by the arm, and used a firm grip to guide her to the back of the room. There, the bar was not much more than painted lengths of wood nailed firmly in place, the boards smoothed from ever­-present elbows and being slapped so often with laugh­ter. Lolly ordered a gin and lime, no, two. One for Arva, here.

“Who’s yer pal?” Frank asked as he sidled up next to Lolly.

“Don’t even think about it, Frankie,” Lolly said, tak­ing a gen­erous swal­low. “She’s nowhere near that des­per­ate to be after the likes of a Smith.”

“Ye got more lip than a flat­fish,” Frank said as he was towed to the dance floor, waist hooked, reeled in, quick nod of his head to Arva.

Lolly leaned back, fore­arms behind her on the bar, dark crease of cleav­age catch­ing eyes. “Like I says,” she whis­pered. “Everyone’s askin’ ’bout ye. Sure as Hell don’t look nothin’ like the crowd ’round here.” She clicked pink fin­ger­nails against the glass in her hand. “Ye’ve been here for near three months now, me love. Cooped up at Old Man Crane’s. Not much of a man to have in yer life.” Lolly laughed, dis­play­ing her small stubby teeth. “Time the real men had a go.”