Old Poets – Helen Moat

Sal and the boys thought they’d seen him that first time – although there was some dispute about that later on. They’d stumbled on the beach by accident as a result of the long northern days, the endless British Columbian summer holidays, boredom, a dare.
“50 dollars if you cross the gate,” Midge challenged.
Sal looked at the rusted gate. A makeshift sign warned: PRIVATE. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Then below, another hand-painted sign with the words: NO ENTRY BEYOND THIS GATE. The air hung iron-heavy.
“No way,” Sal said. “I’ve been grounded once this summer already. “
“I think the sign is only meant for cars,” said Midge, challenging again.
Sal looked doubtful. There was no reference to vehicles. She looked around the shipping terminus. Rows of grain silos stood sentry on the shoreline; tower-mounted loading spouts clawed the sea like monstrous robotic arms; metal sheds scraped the pale northern skies. The place was deserted, yet there were signs of recent activity: mounds of quarried stone; abandoned bulldozers; fresh caterpillar tracks in the soft ground. She felt uneasy. She knew they shouldn’t be there.
Sal hesitated, but the boys were already over the gate. She looked behind her one more time; then Sal too defiantly climbed the gate. The children trudged along the interminable potholed track lined with weedy shrub.
Sal peered into the misty middle distance, eyes glued for life, almost tripping over a brightly-coloured hummingbird that lay dead on the path, contrasting the grey mud-cracked earth. She thought the sea should be to the right of her somewhere but all she could see was shrubby bushes and trees that lined the track. Her uneasiness grew.
They almost missed it – the narrow half-rotten plank that bridged a babbling brook running aside them. It was Brad who spotted it out of the corner of his eye. The children pushed through dank undergrowth and onto the shore.
There in front of them was a sandy spit strewn with Herculean redwood stumps stretched out to a wooded islet. Sal made her way onto the tombolo, where she found a fishing-net hammock swaying in the Pacific breeze. Further in, a swing roughly fashioned from fishing rope and driftwood creaked to the slow rhythm of the tide. On the shore, a forty foot trunk bridged the maw of a jagged cove.
“This is a bit freaky,” Sal said, shaking her head. “It looks like someone’s playground or a seashore garden. I feel like I’m trespassing on someone’s private land.”
“Do you see anyone?” Midge asked. Sal did a 360 degree turn. There was no sign of life, yet all the while she had the feeling she was being watched.
The children spent the afternoon building abstract sculptures from giant logs on the beach. Time slipped away: the past, the future and the present too. And the pale sun hung frozen, suspended in the cool Canadian air.
It was only when Brad’s stomach began to growl with hunger that the children agreed they’d have to leave. When they turned towards the undergrowth, Brad said he was sure he’d seen a flash of orange in the bushes, somewhere near the makeshift bridge. Midge was convinced he had heard a deep male cough. The children stopped and listened but all they could hear was the whoosh of the surf.
They forgot about the beach – or at least the boys did. The fortnightly cruise ship had sailed into their northern town. It was the highlight in a place where nothing much ever happened. But Sal’s mind was on something else. She slipped away and walked the back roads to the edge of the town where the shipping terminus was. She climbed the gate and half-walked, half-ran along the dirt track until she came to the bridge. She pushed through the undergrowth onto the spit. Ignoring the beach, she made her way across the spit to the small wooded island.
She hadn’t told the boys about the tree house camouflaged with leaves and branches hidden in the copse close to the shoreline. She didn’t tell them about the words carved on the bark below:
Listen
To the language of the ocean
Watch
The flow and ebb of its words
Then he was there; the old poet, standing before her in his tomato-red cabled jumper, his head covered in silver dreadlocks like tangled fishing rope, his fingers gnarled and rough like an old peeling canoe.
“Hi,” he said peeping through a tiny window. “Come on up.”
She thought of her mother’s warning words about strangers and climbed the rope ladder to the old poet.
He opened up the tiny door into the shack. Sal squeezed through adjusting to the darkness.
“Welcome to the Old Poet’s Corner. I’ll make us a brew, girl,” he said, bending over a blackened kettle. He struck a match and lit the primus cooker. The light lit up his face, scaly like an old brown clover fish.
He handed her an enamel cup. The tea was black as treacle and as sweet as syrup but tasted of the sea; salty.
The old man read her poems. Not boring stuff like her teacher read on rare occasions, but funny poems. She closed her eyes and listened:
I wouldn’t like to be oneof the walrus peoplefor the rest of my lifebut I wish I could spendone sunny afternoon

lying on the rocks with them …

Sal peered through the dim light at the driftwood table and chairs, the jars of hooks and twine and other objects she couldn’t identify. The old poet continued:I suspect it would be similarto drinking beer in a tavernthat caters to longshoremen and won’t admit women.
Sal looked into the old man’s eyes. They looked watery, watery grey-blue, like the sea behind them. The old man’s eyes creased into ripples as he smiled before continuing:We’d exchange nocosmic secrets.  I’d merely say,”How yuh doin’ you big old walrus?”and the nearest of

the walrus people

would answer,

“Me? I’m doin’ great.

How yuh doin’ yourself,

you big old human being, you?”

Sal laughed at the idea. The poet laughed too. “Ever seen a walrus?”
Sal shook her head no.
“Ever seen a bear? You ain’t from around these parts, are yuh. Huh?”
She shook her head again. Just moved here a year ago. My Dad works at the ferry terminal.”
“Girl, what yuh bin doin? Walkin’ around with those pretty eyes closed. Jeez, we got more bears here than people.”
Sal giggled and followed the poet as he shuffled to the door. He hobbled across the tombolo and sprang the creek where it entered the sea. The old man leaned on one of the massive tree stumps. The light was fading, the sea whispering to them. The poet took her elbow.
“Look there,” he said pointing the far end of the shingle beach. Sal looked to where he was pointing and saw a mother and cub, two grizzlies. Sal watched the bears lumber to the creek and watched first one large paw, then one smaller paw dip into the water.
“Fishin,” the poet said. “Ever been fishin’?” he asked of Sal.
Sal shook her head again.
“Come back tomorrow,” the old poet said. “I’ll read you some of my poems and teach you to fish. Poems and fish, yuh know, they’re the food of life.”
And so Sal walked to the tombolo every day that summer, telling her Mum and Dad she was visiting Midge and Brad. That summer, the old poet taught her how to fish and build a shelter, how to mend nets and make traps. They feasted on fish and mussels; badger and beaver; chipmunk and coyote; marmot and mink; everything and anything that fell fowl of the old poet’s traps.
On the last night of the summer holidays, Sal’s mother called her down from her bedroom. Two police officers stood in the hallway.
“Charlie Prescott.” The male officer said. “You seen him?”
So that was his name, Sal thought.
“Don’t know anyone of that name,” she said sullenly.
“The old guy,” living on the beach near the shipping terminus. You’ve been spending time with him, haven’t you, Sal?”
Sal said nothing.
“Has he hurt you?” the female officer said softly. She said the word hurt in a funny way. Sal didn’t know what she meant by it.
The officer continued to ask Sal questions. Sal still stood there silent.
“Get in the car,” the officers said. “We’re taking you to Charlie.”
“Co-operate,” said the male officer. “It will be easier that way.”
They drove to the terminus. The female officer opened the gate whilst her colleague edged the four by four along the potholed track. The station wagon stopped by the bridge. The female officer gently took Sal by the elbow.
Out on the spit, Sal could see light in the shack shining through the trees on the tombolo.
“Ruuuunnn,” she cried through the black night. But the waves and the wind carried her voice away.
The male officer was already at the tree house. He pulled the old poet out of the hut.
“You are under arrest.” The old poet was silent. No words from him, just the rhythmic chunter of the tide.
“He’s done nothing wrong,” Sal cried, but the police officer wasn’t listening. He led the old poet over the bridge to where a second vehicle was now waiting with reinforcements.
Sal broke ranks and ran for the hut. Quickly she climbed the ladder and retrieved the old poet’s worn leather-bound book filled with his words. She stuffed it down her coat before the others reached her. By the time she reached the track the second police vehicle was gone; the poet too.
Time slipped away: the past, the future and the present. And the pale moon hung suspended in the cool Canadian night air. And Sal remembered the endless afternoons all that summer on the beach. She stood in the darkness listening to the language of the sea; until the bright lights of the station wagon brought her out of her memories. And time returned.
Over the weeks and years, the beach hut disintegrated; the netting on the hammock rotted; the driftwood on the swing seat too. The tree trunk bridging the chasm was smashed in a storm. But the book of poems remained safe at the back of Sal’s sock drawer.
Only later did Sal learn what had happened: a false accusation of rape from an acquaintance with an axe to grind, eventually thrown out of court. Too late for Sal as Charlie had moved on, leaving no forwarding address – although she doubted he had a ‘fixed abode.’
Twenty years later, Sal returned to the beach. In her hand, she was holding a book of poems. Not the old poet’s, but hers. The blurb on the back said she was the new Sylvia Plath but Sal liked to think of herself as the new Charlie Prescott. The sea ebbed and flowed, the seasons too. Charlie was gone now, deceased, but she was here. The sea spoke to her: Charlie’s language, her language, the language of poetry. Life was circular.  
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