The Hex-Man of Croaker's Hole
OUR STRIKER ripped another page from his tablet, crumpled it, and fired it through the cuddy port to join the fleet of spoiled-paper balls that bobbed against the swordfisherman's hull. "You're making a line gale out of a breeze," the skipper told him. "There you set, man, firing the pole at her when a hand jab will do the trick." "It ain't her," the striker protested. His brow was knotted and he flexed cramped fingers despairfully. "It's just that each time I'm primed to ask, I see her ma's big fat ugly face peeking over her shoulder!" The skipper curled a final delicate shaving from what three storm bound days earlier had been a woodbox billet of Cape Breton pine. "Why, you're getting a bonus," he said mildly. "A seasoned, well-rigged mother in-law is just about the Almighty's fairest creature. There's a mort of men will tell you that. Willie Doyle could, was he here." "Who's Willie Doyle?" I asked from my bunk. "A jack," the skipper said, and blew wood dust from the edge of
his knife. “An outport boy over to Faralong Bay in Newfoundland.” The striker pushed his tablet aside. He was a beefy, blackhaired lad, raised where the Nova Scotia South Shore looks across to its ancient friend and enemy, Massachusetts. He could poise on a sworder’s airy stand and drive the dart through a broadbill which was no more than a violet shadow, but a problem of the heart had foundered him.
“Newfie, eh?” he said. “I don’t have no dealings with them baymen.” “Your loss,” said the skipper. He had collected the slats of his pinewood fan and was tapping a miniscule peg through their butts. “Fine people, salt of the earth, but inclined to be pigheaded on account of the Irish in them. You take Willie Doyle, now. Willie looked enough like you to be your brother, and he must of been under the same dory when the brains was served out. That boy had everything—the handy little 20-ton schooner his dad left him money in the bank right pretty girl for his wife and a fine, fat mother-in-law to boot. But a week after that poor old widow woman come to live with them, what does Willie Doyle do but draw his money, sink it in gear and stores, order his wife on board and sail at 10 minutes to midnight of a Friday on a swordfishing trip.”
“He shoulda’ waited that 10 minutes,” the striker declared with scandalized conviction. “And a proper fool he was, taking a woman along!”
“So he learned,” the skipper murmured, hunched over his finicky work. “He begun to learn it right here in Croaker’s Hole, the day he tangled with the hex-man.”
“The who?” I asked.
“The hex-man,” the skipper said. “Take a run down to New Hamburg sometime, you won’t see a barn without the hex mark painted onto it. Old Gusdolph Shriever, him that pulled alongside them in his gopher that evening, is a seagoing hex-man. They say he used to be the worst hexer ever soured a trip for boat and crew.”
He gave the fan a flirt, and it opened with a light, dry rustle. Only then was the magic of his patient jackknife made plain. We saw bird and fish, vessel and dory, queer, stiff little figures parading in a fantastic lacework the length of each tapered, wafer-thin slat.
The cuddy was snug and warm. A pot of corned beef stew simmered on the tiny stove, cheek by jowl with a can of bake-apples picked that morning on the rain-drenched hills. Studying the fan, listening to the skipper’s mild voice, it wasn’t too hard to see a schooner bound in light ballast southeast across Cabot Strait toward Cape Breton Island, young Willie Doyle bold at the wheel and his outport wife beside him, resentment in her heart and the damp on her cheeks as much from tears as sea-spray.
THEY dropped hook in Croaker’s Hole, where soprano frogs sing all the night through and the daisies nod to their faces mirrored in the tide. A dozen Cape Islanders of the Nova Scotia swordfishing fleet nestled waist to waist in a companionable string, but the schooner rode alone, and that loneliness set pretty Peggy Doyle to weeping again.
She wept for home, and for the money Willie had spent with the baby coming, and most of all for her mother. The tears rolled down even
when Willie put his arm around her
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shoulders and promised her the moon on a platter.
“Us’ll kill 100 swordfish,” Willie said heartily, and a fine, upstanding boy he was, with his rubber coat thrown open and his cap pushed back on his curly head. “Peg, us’ll sail along home wid’ Glace Bay coal for ballast and a cargo o’ stores, and more cash money than the bank’s laid eyes on at one toime!”
That bringing no comfort, he tried a different tack. “Why, Peggy my love, Oi’ll buld a house for the old lady. Her can live there snug by her lone, and won’t that be better than in our ould lenny wid’ the rain and the snow water leaking through upon she?”
“Mama likes the lenny because it’s near m-m-me,” Peggy Doyle sobbed. “All it needs, Willie, is for you to plim up the roof.” The tears rained faster, for she had more than a suspicion why her man had snatched her so sudden from Faralong Bay. “I can see her now, cold and hungry, with her chilblains hurting and her shawl huggled round her shoulders—Oh, my poor, dear mother!”
“It’s July, not winter,” Willie told her reasonably. “Does it rain, there’s pots and kittles to catch the drip. And she’s got one cask o’ tom-cod and another o’ cheeks and tongues to keep her eating loike a seal. Oi’ve took this trip because o’ she,” he said, the Lord’s own truth in a nest of big black lies, “and it’s of yer ma Oi’ll think each time a broadbill comes under my iron.”
He gave his wife’s shoulder a pat and a squeeze, and told her most kindly, “ Now down below wid’ ye, Peg, and set the salt junk on to bile. When us comes home, her’ll be the happiest ould body on all the shore, the things Oi’ll do to please she.”
The tears stopped flowing then, and Peggy Doyle looked up at her husband with a tremulous smile. “I do believe you mean it,” she said, and gave him his first proper kiss since leaving Faralong Bay.
“Every word of it,” said Willie, and stood with the lie on his lips and devil a grain of sorrow in his heart while that deluded young girl took herself below.
HER yellow head had no more than bobbed down the hatch when Willie Doyle heard a scratting against the schooner’s side. He turned that way, thinking in his foolishness, “Here’s one o’ thim Bluenose boys pulled over for a gam. And Mike Finnigan telling Oi they was standoffish!”
He looked over, still pleasuring himself with thoughts of the house he hoped to build for his wife’s mother - six feet under with earth atop and what did he see but a gopher scarce bigger than a chip, and in it a little old scrunched-up man with a bald head that had the shine of a skull in that late light. The clothes to his back were rags and tags, and he raised a weasel face.
“Sheer off,” Willie Doyle ordered him, not liking what he saw. “Oi want no truck wid’ ye!”
“Pay me my due, Newfie!” the little man cried up to him, and from over his shoulder Willie heard the voice of big Mike Finnigan, who was all his crew, in a quavery echo. “Pay he, Willie. Pay quick an’ be done wid’ he!” “A case of beer,” said the little old raggedy man. “And since ye’ve been saucy to Augustus Adolphus Shriever, the beef out of the pot for my repast.” “Us has no beer aboard,” Willie told him with a grin, “and won’t have till Oi’ve ironed us a fish. But it just
so happens Oi’ve a little something to tide ye along.”
With that he stooped for a bucket of ash still hot from the galley, and upped it and emptied it over Gusdolph Shriever’s head.
The hex-man yowled like a scorched cat, a live coal having dropped down his shirt, and lept to his feet a-pawing and a-clawing, and out of the gopher he tumbled. When he popped up alongside, his head looked more like a skull than ever, with the wet streaming from it.
Not a word did he say, just hooked a skinny arm over the gopher’s gunwale and gave Willie Doyle a long and steady stare. It seemed to Willie, grinning down, that he showed more of his eye-whites than most, but otherwise there was nothing special about that stare.
“Now, mister,” said Willie, “Oi’ve given ye yer due, so off wid’ ye!”
Behind him he heard a tick-tack-tock like a halyard rapping on a mast. It was the sound of Mike Finnigan’s teeth chattering and his knees knocking together. For though he would fight Bluenoses three at a time if need be, Mike had sailed this way before, and knew what was like to happen to them that served Gusdolph Shriever so.
“He’s put the Look on ye,” was all big Mike could say. “ He's put the Look on ye, b'y."
“Hell, and the ould crow can look himself cross-eyed,” said Willie, “just so he keeps clear of me vessel.”
He turned with his mind on his supper, and a thing caught his eye and stayed him. The ash bucket sat upside down upon the deck. Now in all his time afloat, and he had gone his first trip when he lacked the heft of a steaker codfish, Willie Doyle had never dropped a bucket that lubberly way before. He crossed his fingers to patch the luck, and righted the bucket in a hurry, then swaggered off to see was his supper ready.
Peggy’s face was pink and her eyes were round, and she stood mighty puzzled by the galley stove.
“Willie,” she said, “look in that pot.”
He cracked the lid an inch or two and squinted through the steam. The salt junk was cutting didoes as if the pot had a little tide all its own. First that morsel of corned beef would be tap-tapping against the lid, then the water would ebb till it was near aground.
“It’s against nature, that’s what it is,” said Peggy Doyle. “You watch the pot, Willie, while I take it up with mother.”
She hadn’t been gone a breath when the salt junk was setting in a dry pot. Willie poured in more water, and it spun into a whirlpool that was uncommon like an eye staring up at him. Then the pot was dry and his supper burning.
He was batting smoke from in front of his face with one hand and sluicing water with the other when his wife returned. No sooner was she back when the tide in the pot came up like the Fundy bore.
Peggy pushed her husband away right smartly. “ Willie Doyle,” she said, “you clumsy man! You’ve got two left hands, I do believe, and six thumbs on each!”
Scolding at him so, she reminded him a sight too much of her mother—and that brought something to mind he had lacked the time to deal with.
“ Peg,” he said, “yer ma’s a long haul across the .Strait. Now how can ye be taking anything up wid’ she?”
His wife’s face turned pinker, and she drooped her lashes over her sweet blue eyes. “I hadn’t meant to tell you, Willie,” she said. “I was afraid you’d think me a silly goose. But when
anything happens to bother me, I go off by myself and think hard on dear mother, and it’s almost as if I could hear her voice telling me what to do.”
“And what did that—what did dear mother advise ye to do about a salt junk wid’ the devil into it?” Willie asked.
“Oh, I couldn’t tell you that!” said Peggy. “It’s a secret, just between us women.”
A LL WHILE he was munching his Jr\_ supper, Willie Doyle studied on what Peggy had told him. The longer he had it over, the less it pleased him. For one thing, he didn’t fancy his wife having secrets from him, and for another this hankeypank about Peggy conversing with her ma made it seem as if the old toad-sculpin was right aboard the schooner with them, shawl, chilblains, tongue and all. And for still another, he didn’t much like the way Mike Finnigan had took to treating him, cutting his eyes sideways at him and swallowing six times for each bite, as if he sat next to someone with smallpox.
Except for the schooner dragging her hook and ending up with her nose in the daisies, and Willie’s bunk tick being prickly as if stuffed with cockleburrs, the night passed quiet enough. Morn-
ing broke fair and off they went, out from Croaker’s Hole to hunt for broadbill swordfish on the wide blue sea.
They had run scarce an hour, sails furled and auxiliary engine ticking easy, when Peggy Doyle spotted a fin from her place in the crow’s-nest. Willie gave the wheel to Mike Finnigan and scampered out to the stand, and there he waited with the pike in his hands while the schooner crept up on the broadbill. He was traveling into the eye of the sun, cruising along slow and lazy with his gob full of herring. A proper brute of a fish he was, and young Willie Doyle shook out the bibby-line with a chuckle for the hundred dollars to be made so easy.
His arm was raised for a jab when the water began to spin in a little whirlpool. The whirl spun faster and faster, with the sun shining into it, and it seemed to Willie that an eye stared up at him, an eye that showed a deal more white than most.
He lowered his arm and wiped his sleeve across his own eyes to clear them. But when he looked again the whirl still spun and the eye still stared up at him.
“Strike him, Willie!” begged a voice in his ear, and there was his Peggy, down from the crow’s-nest and balancing on the narrow stand behind him. “Willie, are you daft? Strike him, strike him!"
“How in hell can Oi strike what Oi can’t see?” Willie cried.
That spunky girl snatched the pike from her husband’s hands. The whirl
flattened sudden as it had come, and there was the broadbill, 12 foot long and six hundred pounds weight, finning beneath their bows as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Peggy fired the pole over Willie’s shoulder, her that couldn’t put a worm on a hook without squeaking, and she ironed that broadbill fair and true, a foot behind the head. The fish sounded, the warp ran smooth as silk from its coil, and big Mike Finnigan grabbed the little red keg at its end and heaved it overside. Then Mike was off to launch the dory and chase the bouncing keg, for with the arms and back that big man had, it was his job to haul their fish when ironed.
Young Willie watched with his mouth hanging open. Peggy slipped her hand into his and gave him a loving squeeze. “I’m sorry, darling,” she said to him. “I only did what mother told me to.”
They ran up cautious on Mike Finnigan, where he stood in the dory hauling on the line. Of a sudden the warp took a sag. Then the dory lept in the water and Mike lept too, clapping his hands to his hinder parts with a cry could be heard clear over to Faralong Bay. He had hauled too hard, the fool. The fish had charged as broadbill will, and it had shoved four foot of sword through the dory’s bottom and big Mike Finnigan’s as well.
Right then, Willie Doyle begun to repent of his fun with old Gusdolph Shriever.
Ye shouldn't of done it, b'y, he told himself as they picked Mike out of the sea. Ye shouldn't of done it. Look what 's happened to Finnigan, and him only an innocent bystander, hike!
AS HE’D suspicioned, this was no x\. more than the start of it. They left Mike Finnigan in hospital rueing the day he’d gone shipmates with Willie Doyle, and out they sailed to try the consequence once more. But week after week, from Louisbourg all up along to Cape North, the story was the same. Did they raise a fin, there was that white-rimmed eye spinning and dazzling under the pulpit so that Willie couldn’t see was it shark or broadbill or even a fish at all. And did Peggy iron and Willie push off to haul, the hex-man’s spite still stuck like tar to his back. An oar would break or the dart pull out; or if that didn’t happen the quarter-inch warp would part like a whisp in Willie’s hands. It got so he couldn’t even land them a halibut for chowder, and he a lad had pulled in a double dory on Sambro and the Grand when still a tyke. Nor was that the full sum of their misfortune, because the word had got round among the fleet, and they had only to drop hook in any harbor or cove or pocket and the Bluenoses would cast off and run as if trapped on a lee shore with a tempest hauling down.
Now all this time they were eating up their stores and paying out of the cashbox for new gear or a cask of engine fuel, or for comforts to ease Mike Finnigan where he lay suffering, on his front, in his hospital bed ashore. There came a day toward the end of swordfishing season when their last dollar was spent and the vessel deep in debt for fuel, and a measly little harbor pollack had just stripped the hook off Willie Doyle’s line. He had tied that hook with the ganging knot which never slips, and when the knot did slip in spite of all, Willie slung his hat upon his deck and stamped on it. Then he rounded upon his wife, who was catching harbor pollack alongside him like billy-be-damned.
“Oi’ve no luck, Peg,” he cried. “No luck at all, I tell ye, and it’s her fault entoirely!”
“Whose fault, Willie?” Peggy asked him in great surprise.
“Why, yer ma’s fault, that’s whose,” he roared at her, and gave his hat a kick lifted it near to the crosstrees. “If it hadn’t been for she, us’d be snug home to Faralong Bay this minute —the scrimshankin’ ould witch!”
Peggy Doyle was one to stick by her man through fat and lean, but she loved her mother too, and what with her delicate condition and the bitter hard work and the worry and lonesomeness, she fair blew up in Willie’s face.
“William Doyle,” she cried at him with the tears starting up in her eyes, “don’t you dare speak of my poor mother so! Maybe she is a witch, but she’s a white witch that’s never done anyone aught but good!”
“Lot o’ good her’s done Oi!” Willie muttered. But his wife \vas no longer there to hear. She had taken herself off belowdecks—bound, Willie guessed, to take the matter up with her mother.
He turned, mighty grim, to Peggy’s fishing line, which hung down with a fish jigging and tugging at its end. He fetched it up hand over hand, and when he had that fat little pollack near in his grasp, the ganging knot let go. He scowled down into the spinning watereye that mocked him, but thoughtfully, for a notion had been drilling its way through the bone of his stubborn head.
At last he had begun to see why all that his wife touched was lucky. Her ma was looking out for her—that little old lady was setting home in her rocker at Faralong Bay with her shawl on her shoulders, guarding her daughter from the backwash of the hex-man’s spite. The way the water in the salt junk pot had seesawed from clam tide to spring tide was just one token of the tug-of-war between his mother-in-law and Augustus Adolphus Shriever.
That was the answer, and more fool he not to have found it before. He stood in bright sunshine thinking of Gusdolph Shriever cracking off the hexes like a man at work on his winter’s wood, and for all the heat of the afternoon, little cold shivers played a tune along his spine. He needed help, did young Willie Doyle, and he needed it right bad.
He picked up his hat and slowly he crossed the deck, and dropped down to where his Peggy sat with a dreamy look upon her face and her chin into her hands.
“Peg, me darlin’,” he said, twirling the hat on his finger, “Oi miscalled yer ma in anger, and it’s sorry Oi am. I’d take it kindly if while yer chatting wid’ she, ye’d just sneak in a word or two for Oi.”
“I’ve tried,” Peggy told him, sorrowful and low. “I’ve been trying for weeks, but it isn’t a bit of use. Every time I get round to you, it’s as if a fog had rolled up betwixt mother and me.” She gave him a sad ghost of a smile, and said, “But I’ll try this one last time if you want me to, Willie.”
She sat for the longest time, stirring no more than a mouse, but at last she sighed and shook her yellow head. “I can’t get through,” she told him. “It’s that fog again, and there’s the strangest buzzing in my ears.”
“Not in yer ears,” said Willie, with his foot on the step and his head cocked to listen the better. “It’s wind, that’s what it is.” He hearkened again to the breeze that hummed through their rigging. “Peg,” he said, “ye’d best make all fast below, then get to work on yer ma. Us is in for a dusting!”
HE SKIPPED up on deck, and the wind was something a man could lean into. The sky had turned the color of a lemon kept overlong, and by the clammy feel of the air, he knew the bottom was tumbling out of the
barometer. He squinted forward, and a Cape Islander was pitching and tossing toward the gut of the hole where they lay. Then the Bluenose skipper saw what schooner rode there, and he put his wheel hard over, near swamping in the trough, and headed out to sea. The sky rumbled and crackled with thunder, lightning both sheet and fork began to play, and Willie Doyle knew Gusdolph Shriever had brewed his biggest hex, and was out to finish him off.
But even in this pass, devil a bit did Willie’s heart soften toward his mother-indaw. He nursed his wicked spite still, just as he had nursed it even while asking Peggy to put in the good word for him, and when he thought of that old body cozy and safe in his house at Faralong, he wished thej-ocker might crack into flinders under her.
He paid the stern line into the dory and he pulled ashore through the bristling chop. He made the line fast to the butt of a stout pine tree, then he kedged out his anchor, a bower that would keep a liner safe, and dropped it where it would bite and hold through any weather. Then he rowed back lively to the schooner, grinning to thinfe how Gusdolph Shriever would huff and puff and vex and hex, and all in vain.
Night hauled down with the gale still roaring like the Bulls o’ Bashan. Many a fine boat would be hard aground by morning, but never his schooner, thought young Willie Doyle as he made a high supper of the pollack Peggy had caught. Maybe it was part of the hexing or maybe his troubles had addled his brain, for though this was a night for a deck watch if ever, what does the silly man do but tumble into his bunk after supper and off to sleep in a minute.
A most enormous crash woke him. It came again, and he knew the stove was adrift and trying to batter its way through the sides. The schooner rolled fit to show her keel, and fell off with a sideslipping lurch that fetched Willie from his blankets in a standing jump. The hair crawled on his head, for he knew by that ugly motion that his ground tackle wasn’t holding.
He rousted Peggy out of her sleep, poor lamb, and left her to start the engine while he boiled up to the deck in his small clothes. The hole was seething like a kettle; their anchor had dragged full 20 fathom; and he looked astern in time to see a lightning folk knock the pine that held his stern line into kindling wood. The surf was grinding its teeth under the schooner’s counter when the engine took hold, and inch by inch they pulled away.
But before he could unclench his teeth from his heart and draw a proper breath, the engine began to sputter. Right then, Willie Doyle remembered the tide in the salt junk pot, and he knew sure as if he could see into the tank that his fuel was ebbing that very way.
The shock of it drove the spite clean out of him. He opened his mouth against the gale and bawled like a calf with a bear about to grapple it.
“Ma-in-law!” he bawled. “Ma! Lend Oi a hand!”
The wind was his only answer. The engine sucked and chattered and the schooner fell back a fathom, and Willie cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed louder still:
With that a strange thing happened. He saw as if it were a picture before him the old lady stirring in her bed over home at Faralong Bay. She opened one eye, and the look it gave him shriveled his bones. Not a word did he hear, but a thought come flitting across the Strait to circle his head.
“Willie Doyle, ye’ve wished Oi in
me grave once too often. Oi’ll not stir a finger to save ye, ye whelp!”
“But it’s not just Oi,” Willie wailed in his terror. “Yer daughter’s aboard, Ma, remimber? Ye’d not let Peggy drown, now would ye?”
“Her will step ashore wid’out wetting a toe of her feet.”
Willie saw his mother-in-law hump her shoulder and turn back to sleep as best she could for the rain that dripped through the lenny roof, and his heart smote him with true regret.
“Ma,” he shouted, “it’s sorry Oi am for me unkind ways. Get us out o’ this and Oi’ll be a proper son to ye, I swear it! Oi’ll keep every promise ever Oi made on your account, and a deal more besides Oi’ll do for ye.”
His mother-in-law sat up in her bed and dashed a drip of rainwater from her nose. She fumbled into her slippers, and while the thought that reached him was a mumbling grumbling one, it did give him a speck of hope.
“Ye’ll plim the roof, Willie?”
“Ye shall have a new roof, Ma. A whole new lenny.”
“And treat me wid’ proper love and affection?”
“Oi’ll kiss ye each morning. Tea in yer bed ye’ll have, Ma, and a hot brick to yer feet when nights grow cold.”
“Me specs need fixin’.”
“Us’ll buy ye new specs,” Willie promised. The schooner dragged another fathom, and he shouted, “Wid’ rims o’ gold, Ma, if thim’s yer fancy!” “Oi’ve always wanted gold rims to me specs!” was the thought that came back to him.
Then the picture dimmed in a scud of rain, and the engine took hold strong and steady.
Through the rain Willie saw his wife staggering toward him. “Take the wheel, Peg,” he called to her. “It’s cut and run, me love, yer dear ma’s own wise word to Oi!”
So they cut and they ran, and they clawed past St. Paul Island with the hex-man’s gale still blowing, and they ran till they raised the shores of Newfoundland. Of a sudden, then, the schooner was out of those great seas, in a place of choppy water all torn and twisted by rips and whirls and eddies. And there before them were
half the broadbill of the oceans, finning and sporting and slashing into the herring schools with their swords. Willie Doyle ducked out to the stand and freed his pike from its lashings. Wherever he looked were great fat broadbill, and now there was no spinning white eye to dazzle and blind him. He ironed fish till their every keg was overside and not a dart was left in the vessel. He hauled fish till the moon rode high, and all the while the love in his heart for his mother-in-law kept growing till he could hardly wait to come home to her.
ONLY first,” the skipper said, “they went back to Cape Breton and sold their catch and paid their debt, Newfoundlanders being right honest people. They came home to Faralong Bay with a winter’s coal for ballast and the finest stores money could buy, and because he remembered the old lady set store by canned crushed pineapple, Willie Doyle loaded her a case for her own special eating.”
“How about the lenny?” I asked. “Did he fix that lenny?”
“Fix it?” The skipper closed his fan with a snap and tossed it to the striker. “Here, send this to your girl . . . Fix it? Why, mister, you can sail from Stormy Point clear round the Island and you’ll not find another lenny with knotty-pine paneled walls and indoor plumbing.”
The striker reached for his pencil and began to write. He wrote without check or stay till he had filled the sheet, and was licking an envelope when something scraped furtively against the hull. We went out, the skipper and I, and a gopher bobbed below us. In it was a little scrunched-up baldheaded man who tilted a weasel face.
“I’ll have me due, Captain,” he said without conviction.
“Fetch him a bottle of beer,” the skipper told me. He said kindly to the man below, “Been raining three days now, Gusdolph. Think you might do something about it?”
“I’ve tried,” said the hex-man, and his voice wabbled into a whine. “I’ve tried meself dizzy, Captain, but me powers ain’t what they used to be. I can’t raise enough blue sky to make a bayman a pair o’ pants!” ic