The Rocks at Middle Cove Know My Name

By Sally Cunningham


The beach is empty when we drive up. Middle Cove. I used to drive to the lookout above our heads on my worst days, but I don’t tell my mom that part, only that there is a lookout. There are fewer worse days now, anyway. Tiny bug-bodied seagulls cackle from atop the cliff.

We’ve missed the walrus, but we keep a sharp eye out for her just in case. If she (my mom, not the walrus) had planned her trip a week earlier, they could have coincided. A grand reunion: my mom from the west, this beast from the north, and me, from nowhere. Alas, walruses and mothers are not always great communicators. If it had all lined up, we would have been part of the crowd held back by the officials. Witnesses to the lump of wrinkles swum too far south.

In the pictures posted online, I had seen stumpy tusks that left bloody impalements on the walrus’s shoulders. Streaky brown and rust coated the ends of the teeth. Sea-carved scrimshaw. In walruses, I learned it’s called morse, not ivory. Pleased to have an opportunity to share anything about this new province of mine, I’d texted my friend back in BC about the occurrence: You just know that breath smells bad, she’d fired back. Our first exchange in months. I didn’t text her that I, myself, feel adrift – out of climate, not spoken to. Riven by my own growth, even if the picture looks beautiful from afar. I don’t tell my mom this, either.

We get out of the car now, my mom and I, passenger door groaning against the wind. I parked as close as I could to the warning signs: This area prone to high waves and strong ocean currents. Please respect social distancing. We have the beach to ourselves.

The sheltered cove is shaped like a perfect U, with everything painted diluted shades: grey water, grey rock beach, tall grey cliffs with tiny grey gulls and their tiny grey screams. Out past the mouth of the cove, the ocean glitters a clean blue, the sky strung with wispy clouds. It’s a surprisingly beautiful day for the Avalon in May. My mom takes a picture straight down of her feet on the rocks.

“Look how flat they are!” she exclaims about the stones (not her feet).

I tell her to lean down closer to get a clearer picture. It is a reminder, though, that this is not our ocean, not the peaceful Pacific I grew up with. This beach is populated with rocks pounded flat, fist-sized. We don’t have cliffs like this where I grew up, where the trees grow right into the water. Sky into sea. Here, the cliffs tower over us, pinch us into a moment of sunlight, funnel us toward the open ocean. Slick slabs of stone looking like black teeth rise jaggedly at the base, devouring the waves that toss themselves at the rock wall.

In looking at the cliff, thinking about the walrus, I’m reminded of a video clip. David Attenborough gently narrates a herd of walrus in Russia. The rocky shores they rest on look, to me, like the entryway in my old apartment: fur coats piled knee-deep, knotted sleeves stepped on by guests spilling in from the bitter winter. Everywhere a highway. Hundreds of these walruses scale impossibly tall cliffs to find space away from the crush of bodies. Their forms ripple with blubber and muscle lurching up the embankment. The precarious view from the top must be unlike anything they’ve ever seen. Can you imagine a walrus’s first sunset from atop a seaside cliff? Their poor, out-of-water vision blurring like tears, making the colours sing together, a palette of Wildness. It must look something like the sunsets I watch from my car at the lookout point above us now. The kind of sunset you want to be a part of – that I want to drive into, just to feel the oranges in my teeth, the teals and indigos in my bones.

The walruses in this video have never scaled cliffs before. Their bodies were meant for the sea, for the ice. Not for unforgiving rock at the edge of the world, and yet, they attempt to adapt. They make it work. Hundreds of walruses heave their gigantic bodies up, up, up, to find space – to see the sun.

I was never good at rock climbing. I would clamber up the bunny hill at summer camp, then look at where I’d left. I could swing up any complicated tangle of tree limbs and then have to be talked down, one handhold at a time, through wracking sobs. I hated heights. The absence below, feeling ungrounded.

These fearless walruses at the sky’s edge don’t have a camp counsellor standing below them to whisper encouragement and sound rock-climbing knowledge. From eighty metres up, when they want to come down again, they try to descend the way they came up: hurling their bodies in the direction they wish to travel. Masses of scarred skin thrust forward. Towards ocean, towards clams and the quiet lull of the water – they don’t know that height kills.

I watched the video of these thousand-pound animals known for heft and bulk as they launched into the sky. Whale-horses. They turned end over end, flailing into the sunsets. Suddenly airborne and careening towards the waves. It played in slow motion as boulders broke under their weight, as they crashed back into the cliff face. The camera zoomed in: those few who survived the fall were often crushed by the cascading landslide of the other walruses.

I think about the twist and snap of their bones, the gashes reopening in their wrinkled skin. How thousands of pounds of blubber can’t save you when you give yourself to the wind.

My mom is standing with her eyes closed, feeling the breeze on her face. She has an easy smile, grateful and open. I’m sure she’s thinking about the peeking sun, the smell of the salt, being here with me after all this time on separate coasts. Her thoughts spin cartwheels in happier directions than mine, generally speaking. My mom’s eyes open and she sighs, a soft exhale that comes right from her heart, and the sound is swept into the crash of a wave behind her. After months of living here, I am still afraid of the Atlantic, full of sharks and cold as it is. I won’t turn my back on the ocean even on a calm, sunny day at sheltered Middle Cove Beach.

I grew up swimming in the ocean. My favourite was when we’d go to the Gulf Islands and hang off Emily Carr arbutuses, their sweeping red limbs tossing us into the cerulean bay. Sun pouring heat, waxy green leaves dappling the beach with shade; the whole summer stretched before us. Arbutus trees can only live within eight kilometres of the coast, basking in the salt of the wind and the unfiltered sun. They are rooted to the sea.

Once, when I went home for the summer, my mom and I packed the car up and took the convoluted ferry route to Saturna Island. As I was splashing just to see the glimmer of sunlight through water, just to hear the coordinated smack of the drops falling back down again, my mom spotted orcas. Around the point of the bay, barely visible as travelling black flags against the endless blue reaches of the horizon, the pod passed us by. We stood in the shallows, clear water eddying around sunburned ankles, and breathed in the boundlessness of that day.

There’s nothing but us and the fisty stones on the shore today. No shells or signs of life. All traces of walrus blood are long washed clean by waves. As we pick our way along the beach, the pull and suck of the tide to my right won’t let me forget its magnetic power. Like water through teeth. The stones rattle under the pressure of the granite waves. Flattening, flattening. It sounds like they are calling my name: ssssally, sssssally, sssally.

When I glance back towards the car, two men are on the beach. One is on the phone and lags behind the other man, who seems to glow against the grey of the cove. The man in front is dressed in a blue pinstripe suit jacket, red tartan pants, and a baby-pink tie. His tweed flat cap lists to the left over tightly wound curls. He strides towards the water on red-and-black spidery legs. I look back at the ocean; it stays put.

“Queer as a three-dollar bill,” my mom says quietly to me. I dutifully pretend I don’t hear her; I just watch the water as it wets the rocks and bubbles back down. My mind flits to my secret ex-girlfriend, Isla, the one I left behind on the mainland. To morning light and ginger hair fanned out on a blue pillow, the imprint of curling arbutus and summer sky.

Across the windswept beach, the spider-legged, tartan-wearing man calls out:

“You have fabulous hair!” He moves surprisingly fast on the ever-shifting stones. “But you need to redo the roots!”

I’ve been box-dying my tangly hair in varying shades of deep red for three years, and he’s right; the roots stand quite neglected right now. I’m unsure how to respond, so I wave it off with a half-hearted shrug and hope that’s the end of the interaction.

He’s made it over to us. Wide eyes rimmed by thin metal glasses rove over my hair, which is unkempt, wind-combed, and oily.

“Just fabulous. So wild. The perfect colour, I couldn’t have done it better myself. I won’t even give you my card; it’s just perfect. But you must promise to do the roots.” He scuttles in perpetual motion, grey stones clacking. I try to remain facing the ocean, herding him to take the spot nearest the high tide line by angling my body. I am not so nimble on the rocks as he is.

“Yours is good too,” he shoots to my mom, who just paid for a $250 cut-and-colour back in Vancouver.

“Tell me you’re an actress,” he says to me, “that people get to see this hair.”

“I am!” my mom cuts in, not exactly competitive, but as though remarking upon the coincidence of it all.

“I’m not, actually,” I say, and I steel myself. “I’m a writer.” I pretend it doesn’t feel like a lie.

“Well, gee!” His pink tie cranks sideways at his throat before diving under peaked pinstripe lapels. He yanks on it a little, while he thinks.

Towards the parking lot, the second man is still on the phone and has barely reached the rocky part of the beach, lingering at the dirt embankment of solid ground. Behind him, my little white car pins down the parking lot’s edge to stop it from blowing away in the wind. It is a lone white thumbtack in the empty lot; encroaching fog starts to smudge its pale edges.

“What’s your name?” says the Tartan Spider.

“It’s Sally,” I tell him. I notice how odd one’s own name tastes.

Oh!” He pauses and considers it for a mere moment before saying: “You’re going to be famous.”

He sounds so sure, as though channelling some sort of energy. There is no room for uncertainty. I’m thrown off guard, but his conviction is hard to fend off with self-deprecation.

“Thank you, I hope so someday!” I offer in return. I pretend that that, too, doesn’t feel like a lie.

My mom beams beside me, the haircut brush-off momentarily forgotten. She looks at me as if to say I told you so. If I told her I wanted to build a boat and sail it solo from St. John’s around the world to Vancouver, she’d throw her hands in the air, toss some confetti, then throw a party in support of my new venture. She’d say I was born to do it.

Our party of three has been slowly waltzing a circle. I angle myself again to keep the tide line in my peripheral. As the waves roll ever closer, I step towards the orbiting man on the phone. He’s too far away to make out clearly against the colourless beach. The tide is coming in. It pulls over the rocks, reaches forward for our ankles. Flattening, flattening.

“See, that’s the thing about beaches.” The Tartan Spider finally speaks again. “You never know who’s on ’em.” I won’t argue that I am not yet someone, but only because he says this with the same conviction as before. I almost believe him. That he knows something, maybe. He’s engaged my mom in conversation, finally realizing the film link between them.

“I cut hair for film and TV people,” he says. “Do you know a Scot with shoulder-length brown hair?” he asks.

“Scott?” my mom asks, “What’s the last name? Scott Turner? Or maybe Mary-Ellen Scott?” she lists people she knows from the other side of the continent. She knows many people. This could go on for a long time, so I’m grateful when the man jumps in.

“No, she is a Scot,” he says, waving his exceedingly long arms. “I’m from the bay; she’s a Scot.” The tide laughs its way up the beach behind me.

I can’t help this discussion. My mom will play this game of Remember the Name far longer than I can stand to listen, so I detach. I twirl a strand of hair around my finger, convincing the ringlets to stick together rather than disband in the rising wind. The ever-present Newfoundland breeze is picking up, and the gulls are returning to the relative safety of the cliffside in loopy dips and plunges. They scream out their homecoming.

One seagull leaves the flock and swoops overhead. It weaves a thin dark shadow over the rocky terrain. The trail of the flight path on the stones cuts a line between me and the other two, pushing me back towards the surf.

“Someone Scottish? Brown hair? What have they been in recently?”

I’ve heard a group of seagulls can be called a screech. I think briefly about a screech-in ceremony with people I never spoke to again. I see online that they meet up regularly at that same bar, but I haven’t been invited back.

“Yes! A Scot! I have no idea what she’s been in or if she’s even an actress. She could be crew for all I know but has mid-length brown hair. Gorgeous texture. And a Scot.” For the first time, I notice that his boots have pointed tips and hand-painted embellishments. They tap out dull clattering noises.

“Hmm. I’ll think if I know anyone.” My mom is still invested in finding the answer, the common ground.

I can’t listen to this topic circle one more time. “Alright, well, have a good day!” I insert. I nod at my mom, telepathically reminding her of the hike we had planned for this evening. The hike up above the greyscale of the cove, in the full colour of the windswept cliffs.

“I used to be a pastor,” the man says, looking at me, that certainty, that channelling energy arising again.

He looks into my eyes. His eyes are watery, the only part of him that looks like it belongs on this beach. His face, creased with years of laugh lines, looks down at mine, which stings in the wind.

“Leap long and leap fast and leap far, but if you ever come to a decision, you independent soul, when you have to ask if it’s the right choice . . . Then you already know it’s wrong in your heart. You will achieve it all if you remember this.”

He says it in a measured, captivating tone. I take the words in. I don’t know how he’s seen, read, and recorded me so quickly. Perhaps more of him belongs on this beach than I gave him and his pointy shoes credit for.

On these rocks so far from home, the tide rising behind me, I believe him.

“And dye your roots.” With that, he looks back at his distant companion and starts walking away from us, flared tartan pants snapping in the wind, ankles never buckling on the rocks.

We watch the Tartan Spider stride back toward his friend, who is still on the phone. As though he feels our gentle wondering, he tosses over his shoulder: “I promised I’d drive him around to all the beaches today; he just got here. He’s on the phone with his wife, who couldn’t make the trip. Now that’s a sad story.” A story we won’t learn today, as he turns away for a final time, a beacon of riotous colour against the grey.

It should be hard to hear him over the snickering rush of the waves, the stones under his boots, the overlapping screams of gulls coming home, and the wind tousling the wiry tuckamore at the top of the cove bowl, but his words carry clearly, somehow:

“Best of luck to you both, now. Toodle-oo.” And he’s gone.

My mom and I look at each other, bewildered, confirming. She is no stranger to epiphany, to strangers with answers; I’m the one who needs reeling in. I have been seen. I have been witnessed. A walrus, recognized. A girl reminded she is more than a walrus.

 A gull screeches out overhead, then gently coasts onto the roll of a wave. It tucks its wings underneath itself with a flutter. Its body a loaf of white bread on gentle slate waves, the yellow moon of a beak tilted cannily towards us. It is fearless. The wind rattles through me, and I shiver. Both men are gone when I glance back from the water’s edge. Only my little car stands in the last stall of the lot, a gash of white against grey land. 

Originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Sally Cunningham completed her creative thesis MA in English literature at Memorial University. She is a member of the Poverty Cove Theatre Company Playwrights Unit, and her work has been published in Riddle Fence, the Mitre, and Bishop’s Alumni Magazine. She currently lives in Montreal.