Dagmar's Daughter - By Kim Echlin

There. In the darkness a bony girl. She ties an oilskin pouch close to her waist and hides it under salvaged blue homespun. Her breasts leak milk and swell with pain. She dreams of cutting them off. The rest of her is hunched and thin. The skin under her eyes is smudged. She prepares to disappear into the hold of a ship heading down the coast to the gulf. She hides under a seine-gallows hung with newly barked nets. The sea crashes against the shore with neither joy nor remorse. Men’s skulls down there. Poisoned fish. Torn and tangled nets of bad springs. The girl will stow away in the home boat’s stale hold behind barrels of instruments. Now she waits.

Her name is Moll, though she was never baptized. The woman she called mother went silent before she was born. Her father was known as a fisherman, arms powerful as a machine. He sailed the great trawlers that swept the sea clean of fish. When he came back, men looked for him, asking, Where’s buddy? They wanted spruce beer from his root cellar. They were his friends. When he got drunk he fought them and went to his daughter’s bed.

Moll bore a blue baby, hardly knowing what was happening to her. She took it and tied it to a stone and dropped it into the sea. She was long-limbed and taller than any man in her village, too skeletal to show what everyone knew and didn’t speak. She couldn’t read. She signed herself into the world with drops of pee in a hole in the woods. This is her truth unconcealed. Even this will darken.

With the girl in its maw, the boat left the Labrador shore for the gulf. She took her father’s eyestone and wore it in the oilskin pouch against her bottom rib. He would not notice it was gone until a summer and a fall and a winter had passed, and when he found out he cursed nature. By then Moll no longer feared death, for death and dying are the very life of the darkness.

A storm cracked Moll’s ship in rough halves and everyone went down. She went down. She was whirled and spun below and divested of what she once was. Saltwater filled her mouth and throat and she became, in the lowest deep, a lower deep. There she achieved the silence that portends a new tongue. She came up again without hair and tied herself to a barrel of fiddles in the freezing salt waves. After two days and a night she washed up a blue meagre hag on the shore of a little island in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence called Millstone Nether.

Millstone Nether was a place first inhabited by rascals: merry-begots and hangashores, sleveens and slawmeens, some plain slackfisted, others eager to distract fate. From their couplings was born a settlement of people who subsisted on the sea’s fish and the shallow soil’s roots. There were many remote strips of land in the mouth of that great river, places that came and went with the tides and frail memory, places with poor harbours and treacherous shoals called by such names as Gulf Graveyard or Captain’s Concern and never marked on the maps. Only a seaman who could rote the shore dared Millstone Nether’s tricky western harbour, listening for the waves against hidden rocks. Off the northern tip was another tiny harbour, an hour’s row on a civil sea to a remote and sparsely inhabited stretch of mainland.

Each of the islands in the gulf had its own nature, some better for hay, some for lumber, some for coal. Their mongrel languages were cobbled out of French and Gaelic and English and Montagnais. With time, pride came to the rascal-infested places and some islands claimed the best fishermen, some the best woodsmen. Millstone Nether’s impractical claim for itself was music. Everyone there could play something or sing a ballad or dance a bit. Fishermen created a whistling language to talk between their lonely boats out at sea, and young girls clapped intricate rhythms invented from listening to the endlessly varied strophes of robins.

Sometimes ships went down off the north shore and barrels washed up from their splintered hulls. One year it was barrels of flour. In the year the people called the fat-spring, it was twelve barrels of whisky. But one miraculous year a barrel of fiddles in fancy cases blew up. And with it, another barrel full of whistles and guitars. There was