I was born Olivia Marie Ducharme in a little fishing village on the east coast of Canada. The Island was beautiful, but I only realised that long after I had left.
Living close to the sea, I was forever in the cold Gulf water swimming with the other children, and the fish and the crabs and the lobsters. Afterwards, my penchant was to wander off alone along the beach seeking treasure washed up with the tide and collecting anything and everything that caught my eye—rocks, shells, bits of driftwood—and string them on old fishing line or the occasional piece of rope. Sometimes I would braid these necklaces through my long, dark hair or wear them around my neck and wrists and ankles. I so festooned myself with these marvels that I looked like flotsam moving on dry land. Flotsy, the other kids called me. I loved it; it made me feel like I belonged.
One morning, just after my thirteenth birthday, I woke with a burning need to stop the village from extending the old dock deeper into the bay; I had no idea how to do such a thing, I just knew it was a very bad idea. At breakfast I pleaded with my mother and father to help; they smiled and said that I had just had a bad dream. But I could not stop myself from talking about it with everyone I met until the school mistress called my mother and said how it was distracting the other children from their lessons and would she please, please, please make Flotsy stop talking about the bad dock. My mother stormed over to the school and dragged me out of the classroom to the stifled giggles and wide eyes of my classmates. I was ashamed and dreaded the beating when we got home—my mother was angrier than I had ever seen her.
The dock was to be lengthened so larger boats could sell their catch to the cannery that was considering our village as the location of its new plant. The village council thought that demonstrating how well the community worked together to attract their business would impress the cannery owners.
But I knew, just knew, that very bad things would happen if they disturbed the old dock. It haunted my dreams. I saw the new tarred
timbers being lowered into the water and the winch slowly working its way loose in the ancient planking. It had worked hundreds of times before, my father said to me, why would it fail now? He told me this over and over as I stood teary-eyed before him to tell him that I had had the dream again. He would pull me onto his lap, even though I was a newly minted teenager, and smooth my sleep-mussed hair with his callused hand and send me back to bed.
I begged my mother to make him stay home the day that the huge logs arrived but by now my entire family, and quite possibly the entire village, was very tired of my constant harangue.
I sat at my desk in school that day but heard nothing of what Mlle Blacquière said. The third time I was reprimanded, I blindly accepted my punishment and began cleaning the dusty, chalk-filled brushes, not even bothering to protect my good school clothes. When the alarm was raised and everyone rushed out the door to see what had happened, I just sat on the steps, tears streaming down my face. I knew exactly what had happened—the metal rivets that had been slowly working their way loose, had ripped from the dock in a sudden surge. The huge log cradled in the thick chain plunged down onto the two men who laboured at the pulley. They barely had time to look up before it shattered the planking beneath them, dragging them and the heavy winch mechanism into the water. It was over in seconds.
The foreman had his best divers in the water in moments, but it was already too late. I knew that my father’s skull had been given only a glancing blow, but it had been enough to kill him instantly. Gilles, his partner, was unconscious when he entered the water but was very dead by the time he was extracted from the wreckage.
My father’s body lay in the front room, but I could not look at him. Pain was etched deeply into my mother’s face and my two young brothers looked scared and bewildered. No one stopped me when I left the house and walked down to the beach; I could feel their relief pushing me further and further away. It was my fault. It was my crazy dream and my crazy talk that had made this happen. Premonitions were simply never discussed; people who lived off the sea knew that. To do so was just plain bad luck. That was what everyone thought—I had brought the bad luck and it had killed my father as punishment.
The new cannery was finally located in the next village over; they said it would take us too long to repair the damage to our dock. The fishing that year was bad; there was nowhere to easily put in for unloading the catch while the dock was being fixed. Of course, all of this was also my fault. I had cursed the village.
The next four years passed like a kind of torture for me. I felt slightly dazed a lot of the time because I made myself stay awake for as long as possible night after night. I would wander aimlessly around the village, which gave me a whole new air of weirdness that I definitely did not need. But, even more so, I did not want any more dreams.
“Mais non! T’as l’air d’une folle!” my mother yelled at me one day as I was leaving for another tedious day at school. Not very imaginative of her―she always thought I looked like a fool, and she always spoke French when she was mad at me, as if I didn’t understand her, as if anyone within earshot couldn’t understand her. The problem was that she didn’t understand me. She never saw how the other kids crossed the street when they saw me coming; she never heard the Gallant boys sneering their cruel words at me; she never witnessed the teachers manoeuvring me to the front of the class so that the other kids wouldn’t have to worry about me sitting behind them, making them twist around to look at me every two seconds, though what they thought I would do to them I couldn’t imagine.
My one friend, Jacinthe, thought that maybe it was because my eyes were a little spooky. When I studied them in the mirror to see what she meant, they looked like everyone else’s eyes to me. She was right, though, almost no one looked straight at me, not even my mother.
As was my usual habit when I wished to ponder something, I meandered down to the beach, stooping to pick up whatever caught my eye as I went. The finger-shaped translucent shells in my hand were quite lovely and I studied the beach in earnest for other bits with which to fashion I-knew-not-what. A pointy piece of driftwood looked useful as did the length of net webbing. I sat down and tried to pierce a hole in one end of a shell. Not surprisingly, it split, but right down the middle. The shell halves were about as long and wide as my index finger with small bulges at the tips where whatever mollusc who had lived in it had anchored itself. I picked apart strands from the net webbing and soon had a good length of the strong, thin material. I secured it around the bulges on the ends of the shells until I had a little curtain of dangling half shells. On impulse, I tied it around my head so that the shells obscured my eyes, and when I moved, they clicked and clacked. Through the translucent slices of shell my view of the world came and went in between the pearly light.
That was why my mother was mad at me that particular day. She hated the new fashion I had created for myself; she thought I had gotten over gathering bits of stuff from the beach and wearing it. I should have waited until I was out of sight of the house before I had tied it around my head, but I had forgotten. If my mother took it away from me, I would just make another one. She knew this.
“Vite! Je ne veux pas te voir.”
That stung, and I cried, but only a little. I guess I was getting used to people not wanting to see me.
The decision came upon me in a rush. I had had all the schooling I could stand, and I was old enough to leave home. Monsieur Arsenault would be making his weekly trip to town the next day; I would ask him for a lift to the bus station. When I declared my intention to my mother, I tried very hard not to see the there-and-gone relief in her eyes. My brothers shrugged and returned to whatever it was they had been doing; for my part, they had never been more than nuisances I cleaned up after. My friend, Jacinthe, gave me a hug and promised to write when I had an address.
With some clothes in a ratty old suitcase and a few dollars in my pocket, I boarded the bus. I was going off-Island to a city where nobody knew me or my curse, where nobody shunned me, and where nobody would care about me―that, sadly, would remain the same.