Every morning Captain Sterling rose at dawn, strode through the waking streets of Halifax and came to settle behind his desk amongst the hulking crates of the warehouse. There he remained, back bent, eyes roving over yellowed pages until the sun reached the middle of the sky. Then, he would push from the desk and step through the doors.
“Good day to ya, Cap’n.” Mrs Maclaren flashed her dimpled smile, her hands already busy packing the bundle, even as she asked, “The usual?”
“Yes, thank you.” Captain Sterling returned her smile, tamping down the bloom of warmth in his chest. “Tis a fine day.”
“Isn’t it?” Ms Maclaren freckle kissed face tipped to greet the warmth before she passed his dinner over. “Here ya be. I hope you enjoy the view.”
“I always do.”
The rhythm of those days, the rise and fall of life, was his comfort and his prison. The ridge where he ate every afternoon allowed him to peer past the corner of his world. For a sliver of time, the ridge harboured Captain Sterling while he allowed himself to dream.
The summer sun graced the land with heat and Sterling carried the memory of those beams caressing Ms Maclaren’s upturned cheeks as he walked. An image he would cling to with avarice until he returned home where Margaret waited to greet him from her place on the wall. At the door, he would tuck away thoughts of green eyes and step inside his home with a faithful heart.
This day was different. A boy was perched on the weather-smoothed boulder where Sterling always sat. Knees protruding as sharply as a cricket’s, the youth huddled with his back to the wind. The threadbare cloth of his shirt, too thin to keep secrets, stretched across shoulders as bony as the ridge itself.
The thought flitted through the Captain’s mind, to turn and leave. Make his way back to the noise-choked docks and his smothering office. The lingering fug of man and beast in his nostrils stayed him. “Good afternoon.”
The boy on the rock jerked, hands rising to scrub at wind ravaged cheeks as he turned from the cloud pillowed expanse. “Go–Good af’ernoon.” Blue eyes blinked up at Sterling, so large they threatened to swallow the rest of the thin face.
Sterling took a step forwards and thrust out a hand. “I’m Captain James Sterling.”
The lad glanced down at Sterling’s palm then down to his grubby fingers. A crab-apple sized lump bounced its way down the column of his throat, but he scrubbed his hand against the leg of his equally dirty trousers and took Sterling’s.
“Hamish, Sir. Hamish Macdonald.”
“Enjoying the weather?”
“Aye, I suppose.” Hamish flapped a hand in the direction of orange mass, “No’ mucha tha’ at home.”
“And home is Scotland?”
“Did your parents bring you to Canada?”
“Ma was gone afore The Clearance; Da did’nae make a fortnight on the boat.”
“I’m sorry.” Sterling stared down at the pale nape bent before him.
The boy trembled, his smooth jaw bulging with the effort to quell the tremors. Reverberations of grief echoed in Sterling’s chest. “I wonder, would you share my meal? I’ve more than I can eat.”
The mention of food brought the boy’s head up. Blue eyes met grey, full of trepidation, and something richer. Determination. Hamish unfolded himself from his stony perch.
“I would like tha’ verra much.”
“What’s this?” Sterling jerked his chin towards the boy’s chest. Pressed to the nearly concave expanse was a smudged sheaf of paper.
“A wee drawin’ of Ma.” He held the paper to Sterling. The greedy fingers of the wind snatched at the sheet. It fluttered like the battered wings of a moth.
Eyes as large as Hamish’s burned from the parchment with fierce intelligence, stark lines assembled a rough sketch of sharp features and full lips.
Sterling took the paper and held it so the sun might brush illumination over the charcoal strokes. “You drew this?”
Those eyes. Sterling’s heart ached to know the light had faded from those eyes. Words of comfort fell short, and his throat was too thick to utter them. Sterling unwrapped the food and passed most to the boy, hiding his share in the cloth. Instinct assured him Hamish wouldn’t appreciate the excess generosity. For a time they ate in silence, consuming the spectre of the land along with their sustenance.
“It’s beautiful. I was aboard tha’ ship so much time, yet I did’nae realize.”
Sterling bobbed his head, chewing as he stared over the expanse. The sea sparked light with all the blinding intensity of an infinite gem. “You’ll come to love this place, near impossible not to.”
“Da dreamed of our lives here for so long–” The boy’s voice broke. He drew a breath, stretching the material of his shirt across his shoulders. “Soaked up every story anyone was willing to tell him.”
“Stories tend to expand over time and distance,” Sterling remarked. “Though I’m certain they bloom from seeds of truth.”
“Is it as large as they say?”
“Larger. Vast and so wild she’ll make you understand your insignificance while convincing you, you were put here for something important.”
“And if I don’t ken why I’m here?”
“Your father saw what he wanted for you; now you must also. Freedom, opportunity, a man must not fear to reach out and seize what he wants.”
Hamish nodded, incomprehension and imagination warring across his features. “Tis true then, a man can do what he wishes? Even purchase his own land?”
“I’ve never thought much about what I want. Someone always did tha’ for me.” Hamish’s long nose wrinkled at the effort of contemplation. “Is that what ya did when ya came, Sir?”
“I…” Sterling glanced at the boy and wondered when he forgot the dreams and ideals he’d carried from England. After Margaret’s death? She’d believed more passionately in this country than anyone. “No. I lost my wife, and I think she took my aspirations with her to the grave.”
Hamish digested Sterling’s words for a moment. “I did’nae know her, but I believe she would’nae want ya to feel tha’ way.”
Sterling stared at Hamish, wondering at the ability of youth to see so deeply into the soul. At the Captain’s unease, Hamish bounced to his next question.
“Have ya visited all of it?”
“No,” Sterling broke a blade of grass and placed it between his thumbs, “And I doubt I ever shall. Canada wears a hundred faces.” He brought his hands to his lips and blew. A piercing squawk tore the dusk air. Hamish laughed and plucked a blade of his own, inspecting it.
The pair sat in thoughtful silence while the sun melted into the ocean, lending the waters a molten glow. A breeze, crisp as the waves reached out to slap their cheeks.
“I’m afraid I must return.” Sterling folded the squares of cloth from their dinner and tucked them into his jacket. It was long past the time he usually returned to work. Hamish remained quiet. Sterling stared at the boy as an idea flickered and ignited.
“You’ve nowhere to go?”
Hamish shook his head, avoiding Sterling’s gaze.
“Do you think you could trust me?”
Hope, brief and hot as Hamish glanced up. “Aye, Sir.”
“Come with me.”
Mrs Maclaren was hooking her cart to a sway back donkey when they approached. “I help ya, Cap’n?” She pressed a hand to the back of her hips as she straightened.
“Mrs Maclaren, there’s someone I wish to introduce you to.” Sterling placed a hand on Hamish’s back and urged him forwards. “This is Hamish Macdonald.”
Bowed lips curved and she held a chapped hand to Hamish, “Mara Maclaren, pleased ta meet ya.”
Hamish glanced up to Sterling once, uncertain. At the Captain’s nod, he placed his palm in Mara’s. “Hello, ma’am,” he stood straight, delivering his greeting with great formality, “Tis nice ta make yer acquaintance,”
“Hamish has had a painful time,” Sterling began, alarmed at the thickening of his voice as he stared down into Mara’s face, “The thought occurred…well, you’ve more work than you can do on your own. I don’t suppose–”
“Aye, I’ll take ‘im.” A smile split Mara’s face. She turned to Hamish, gathering his hands into her own. “I’ve plenty of hard work laddie, but I’ll put a roof over ya, and food in yer belly.”
“Thank ya, I…” Hamish looked up once more to Sterling, eyes luminous with tears he refused to shed, “I can’nae possibly repay ya, Sir.”
“No need.” Sterling clasped the boy’s shoulder.
An hour later, Captain Sterling sank back into his chair. The bowels of the empty warehouse loomed around him, cavernous.
“Hodgkins?” Sterling called out.
A mussed blond head appeared, “Yes, Captain?”
“I won’t be in tomorrow, please see to it everyone is informed.”
Hodgkin’s’ brows surged upwards, “Truly, Sir?”
“Truly. I’ve a social call to make.”