Francie pulls over near a place called Skir Dhu. On the other side of a grassy strip of scrub lies open sea straight across the Atlantic. She gets out of the car and clambers across the ditch, gravel crunching underfoot, to a spot that seems right. There’s nothing here, just her and the wind tugging at her hair, carrying dust out over the waves. The light upon the water is shining like a scattering of stars.
Back in the car, the empty passenger seat. Francie pictures Erica beside her. You’ll know what to do.
When Francie and Erica drove around the trail that time before, they brought along a shoebox of cassette tapes for the road. The Graceland album was new that year and in heavy rotation. They knew all the words—who didn’t?
Loo-oo-oosing love is like a window in your heart, Erica sang, head tilted back, lips puckered around the oo-oo-oos, hair whipped by the open window. The wind skulked in the back seat, plucking at a sweater, stirring loose scraps of paper.
Francie flies into Sydney, the landscape laid out like a map below her. She rents a car and takes the Englishtown cable ferry, just a few minutes’ ride across St. Anne’s Bay. The ferryman says the roads are still in bad shape from the winter, that there won’t be many tourists this early in the season. Things feel rough and gaunt, stripped bare: rocks and scrub and earth. The leaves haven’t come in yet—just a faint haze of green. The beauty doesn’t come easy, but it’s still there in the bones, just as it will be after the leaves and the tourists have come and gone.
Departing the ferry, Francie pulls her car onto the Cabot Trail. It’s not really a trail, of course, but a paved highway—a loop running some three hundred kilometers around the north coast of Cape Breton Island. In most places it runs as near to the edge between land and sea as the terrain will allow.
There’s a rhythm to the road as it folds back and forth along the coast, snaking between the interlaced fingers of bulky, protruding hills and ocean inlets. The curves shift Francie from side to side in the driver’s seat. The colourful wooden houses are the same as Francie remembers—same postcard laundry crisp on the line. She’s even playing Paul Simon—but this time around, she’s got her music on her phone, feeding in to the car though an aux cable. Who could have imagined back then that you’d carry music in your phone, or even that you’d carry a phone? Who could have imagined that Erica would be gone.
Erica. Her brown hair—so thick, but silky. Back then, in her early twenties, she wore it long, brushed away from her forehead. Later she had it styled in an expensively simple bob just grazing the level of her chin—my helmet, she called it.
“It goes with my power suit—the armour I need to survive in the boardroom.”
Later she had her hairdresser crop it all off before the chemo took it. Shorn of her protection, she looked fragile, small.
“I’d have done it years ago if I’d known it would look this cute,” she joked when she saw Francie’s expression. “They’d never have known what hit them.”
Francie and Erica had first discovered each other in a second year geology class. They’d shared a place in the north end in third year, decided to stay on together in Halifax instead of going back to their respective homes for the month between exams ending and Erica’s Bay Street internship beginning, when Francie would also leave to visit family in England and then backpack in Europe. Erica already knew what she wanted—to go to law school. I was what she was meant to do. Francie wasn’t sure what she was meant to do.
The month was a brief still point before the force of their lives would spin them into motion again and take them in different directions. Late mornings, music, books, tea, Scanway shrimp sandwiches, Seahorse Tavern, Palm Lunch banana fritters. They walked arm in arm through the Public Gardens to the place where the paths converged.
“If you go in through one arch and come out through another one, you’ll have stepped into a different life,” said Erica, and she twirled in the center of the six leafy archways as if spinning a wheel. “Do you want to?”
“I don’t know,” said Francie. “How about we build a little house in the middle and live here forever—then we don’t have to decide.”
Which archway did they leave by? Francie can’t remember.
The road trip to Cape Breton had been Erica’s idea. Afterwards they called it “the pixie dust weekend.”
Further along the Trail is the General Store at Wreck Cove—did they stop here for coffee? Francie recollects that they filled the thermos and bought homemade butter tarts. Just beyond, the road skirting close to the rocky beach, headlands in the distance, seems like a good spot to pull over again. Francie gets out of the car, bag in hand.
Their friendship survived that final year of university and all the years that followed. Erica was Auntie Erica to Francie’s children, the youngest of whom has recently left for university: Auntie Erica who brought them exotic presents from her travels, always listened, treating them like small adults. It survived through work crises, achievements, deaths of parents, the end of Francie’s marriage. Through Erica’s moves, promotions, her various boyfriends over the years: every love, every ending.
They stayed close even when they didn’t see each other. Last October, when they’d met for tea at that little cafe on Queen West near Roncy, it had been the first time Francie had seen her friend in months. Erica had been travelling for work and afterwards out of touch. The sun was refracting through the leaded glass window, falling in pretty shards of colour on a linen napkin in front of Francie. Francie was looking at it when Erica told her.
“They don’t know for sure yet. The test results won’t come back till next Tuesday.”
Francie was with Erica at the doctor’s the following Tuesday. With her children grown and nearly independent, her parents both gone now, she could be with Erica and do what was important—appointments, food, simple presence. It was clear what she was meant to do. They moved some of Erica’s things into Francie’s house.
“It’s just like when we lived together before,” said Erica—“only no milk crates. Reminds me of when you split with that engineer guy.”
“I don’t remember his name any more—at the time it seemed like the end of the world. You took care of me and brought me ice cream.”
“Back then there were no nurses’ visits, and the only medications were donairs and red wine from a box labelled ‘Red Wine,’ remember?” said Erica.
“At least the wine’s improved since then.”
Some days, together in the house, it felt just like old times—some days not.
“The not knowing is the hardest part,” Erica said. “Not knowing what’s coming.”
It turned out the knowing was harder still. Erica, in the armchair with a blanket around her became, little by little, translucent. She gazed past Francie’s shoulder as if looking through the wall to something beyond. Then, from her bed, set up in the dining room, it was the ceiling that she gazed through. Then only Erica’s shell remained, hollowed out and pearly. The people from the funeral home came to fetch the shell and take it away. One of them took Francie into another room with a deft, professional hand while they did it.
It takes a while for your eyes to adjust when everything in your field of vision has changed. It had been just a few months by the calendar, but Francie couldn’t tell, because time had stopped. Afterwards it lurched back into function, gears grinding. Other people walked along the street as if nothing had changed, while in that bleak field on the other side of everything, her own heart was stone. Igneous: solidified and hardened from molten material. Metamorphic: changed into something else by heat and pressure. Sedimentary: cemented detritus.
On her way out here with Erica’s ashes, Francie stopped over in Halifax, visiting that same aunt whose car they’d borrowed for the trip those years ago. The Public Gardens were still there, come back to life after the ice storm. But so many of the other things were gone, moved, cleaned up. So many of the small wooden buildings downtown replaced by a giant construction hole. Erica replaced by a hole in Francie’s chest so huge and cold that at first she couldn’t understand why people didn’t stop and stare. She thought that everybody must be able to see that she was blown apart, just like the song says. But they couldn’t see it. Even to herself, in the mirror, she looked ordinary. So what did that say about all the other ordinary-looking people?
A lookout spot, the bulk of Smokey Mountain is up ahead—beginning of the Highlands, where the geologic past is written on the hillsides. Bedrock thrust up, valleys carved by water, then cut off by glaciers and left to hang in mid-air as the ice retreated, just like a geology textbook. The mountains are still ahead, the peninsula where they hiked at Ingonish—a long finger pointing out to sea, the creeping blanket bog on a mountaintop. Lobster rolls in Cheticamp—all the other spots they’d gone that long-ago weekend—lie on the road ahead. But here, just before the road doubles back to begin its steep ascent up Smokey Mountain, they’d stopped for what seemed like hours.
Francie pulls in.
She picks her way across the scrub and towards the beach. An object on the sand catches her attention, red and blue against the grey: a small buoy washed up on the rocky beach. The veins of colour that are so striking in wet stone soon turn grey and invisible. The sleepless waves keep moving even when no one is watching.
“If I ever…,” Erica had said as they’d sat here. It had seemed then a distant impossibility. On that perfect day, everything ahead of them, they were immortal—they would always exist in that strong, happy form. Bulky sweaters against the brisk air, plaid thermos with the nesting cups on a rock between them, they watched the waves and the birds, watched the wind blow. Birds hovering high above, seemingly motionless, rode the strong breeze until just the right moment. Then, a quick tilt of black-tipped wings to catch the force of the wind. Falling, flying, plunging down, they punctured through the waves like needles, then bobbed up to the surface again.
The birds aren’t here today. Anyway, it’s time to move on. A handful from the bag—they call them ashes, but a lot of it is small, stony granules, surprisingly heavy. The wind is strong, bringing water to Francie’s eyes as she opens her hand. The stony grains fall, but the wind grabs the ashy parts and throws them in her face. She sputters, tastes grit in her mouth. She stands for a moment, then opens the bag again. She holds it by the bottom. There on the beach, she spins around, as if turning a wheel. The ash traces a curve, briefly envelopes Francie then, rising up, heads out to the open sea