By Jennifer Falkner
The river was frozen over. When the ice thawed steamers, barges, canoes and scows filed through the locks all day and into the night on their way up from Kingston to Bytown. But now there was no movement, nothing to occupy the lockmaster’s heavy hours. There was no game either and the fish beneath the ice of Baker’s Pond eluded him. And if he had to sit down to one more of Kitty’s dinners of veal cutlets and greens, he might go mad. She called them veal cutlets and greens but they looked and tasted like salt pork and potatoes.
Kitty dumped the plates onto the table. Sean made no comment. It was the same every winter. Kitty and Sean bickered and sulked from Christmas till Easter.
At least he had Archie Stewart’s wake to look forward to.
The wooden tavern at Singleton’s Landing was heaving. Men pressed together in the small room, creating a heavy fug of tobacco smoke, beer fumes and sweat. The windows ran with condensation. Sean wasn’t late but the drinking seemed to have begun several hours earlier. Even the lately departed Archie Stewart was at it; some wit had propped him up at the bar with a glass at his hand.
Sean wasn’t enormously popular in Singleton’s Landing. The inhabitants there tended to look at his scarlet-trimmed uniform and peaked cap with a combination of jealousy and derision. He didn’t blame them. Being lockmaster meant that his rent was free, he had a steady paycheck and his uniform lent him a degree of authority. Not bad considering just a few years ago he was one of the men living in huts by the river, digging out the riverbed, constructing dams and canals for less than a dollar a week. He was surprised to have his back slapped a few times and a drink shoved in his hands almost as soon as he entered.
Alec Brown’s voice rose above the general noise of the tavern. “I can tell you. I brought him over from Ma Stewart’s myself. Fifty pounds and not an ounce more!” There were guffaws and shouts of “No! Impossible!”
“At least seventy! My money’s on seventy!”
Sean moved over to Murphy, his old neighbour, leaning against a far wall. “What’s going on?”
“They’re betting on how much old Archie weighed. After eight months of consumption, there weren’t much left at the end. Barely more than a sack of bones,” said Murphy. Sean refused to look back at the bar, where the deceased sat in state. The thought of poor, putrefying Archie was doing funny things to his guts.
Fists banged on tables, coins dropped and Sean found himself, as the most sober and most literate present, recording bets on a scrap of paper the barkeeper handed him.
“Better you than me, mate,” the barkeeper had said.
There seemed no way to end the betting except by finding out exactly how much the corpse did weigh. The barkeeper quickly said he had only regular kitchen scales, so not to even think of taking Archie back there. Besides, he ran a hygienic establishment.
“Taggart’s got a set of scales,” someone volunteered. “The general store would need one.”
A whoop went up and there was more drunken backslapping. Archie was hauled off his stool and dragged into the frosty night.
Taggart’s General Store stood only a few doors down from the tavern on Singleton Landing’s main street. The clapboard building was dark, obviously closed, but Sean could see a soft light glowing through the shaded windows of the second storey. While Brown hammered at his door and yelled up at the window for Taggart to open up, Sean watched two men set to work pouring a bottle of something down Archie’s throat. Whether it was out of a desire to send Archie on his merry way into the afterlife or an attempt to tip the scales in their favour was unclear. Sean wondered if he would actually be better off at home, ignoring Kitty’s sulks and pretending to read Dombey and Son.
Upstairs the sash flew up and Taggart stuck his head out one of the windows.
“What the devil is going on?”
“We need the use of your scales, man,” Murphy called. “Open up, will you?”
“Scales? Whatever for?” But before anyone could answer, Taggart pulled his head back inside, conferring with someone.
“Who’ve you got in there, Tag?” came a new round of taunts. “Who’s your new girl?”
Taggart slammed the window down and the shade fell back into place behind him. Two minutes later he was fumbling with a fat ring of keys at the shop door.
“There’s no way you’re bringing that in here. I got foodstuffs.”
“Aw, Tag, have a heart. I got ten dollars riding on this. I’d be able to pay you back for the hayseed. And the bolts of turkey stripe the missus bought last week.”
“Alright,” he said. “Bring him round back. Murph, help me drag the scales out. We’ll do it by the shed.”
Sean didn’t follow the rest behind the store. He stood in the middle of the empty road staring up at Taggart’s second storey. He felt like a buffoon. Bile burned his throat. For he thought, just for a moment, when the shade was pushed aside, he saw a familiar face peering down at the commotion.
A face he last saw over a plate of veal cutlets and greens.
Jennifer Falkner’s previous writing credits include Vintage Script, The Nassau Review, THEMA and The First Line. She also edits Circa, an online journal dedicated to historical fiction.