Speed of Mercy

1 month ago 3
Big River, from the Rancherie, Mendocino, California, by Carleton Watkins, via Art Institute of Chicago

Mal was covered sweat, bits of twigs and bark sticking to her skin, bits of lichen caught in her curly black hair. She stood at the edge of the woods looking out at Mercy Lake, listening to a loon call from the water, and then the honks of the Canada geese floating on the lake. Mal felt primeval, not just-turned-thirty.

The burned-out remains of the lodge were barely visible from where she stood. Nature was slowly purging and reclaiming the site, absorbing and concealing what had happened here in 1980. Fireweed in the meadow in front of the burn-out ended at a crescent-shaped white sandy beach. At the other end, ten miles across, the lake broke into estuaries and streams, which led to a bog, from which flowed the Mercy River. It cut through the Acadian forest for miles, then snaked across meadows and fields, bending by the tiny town of Seabury, emptying into a bay before flowing into the Bay of Fundy and, finally, the vast Atlantic Ocean beyond. It was very different from the coastal forests at home in Northern California. A seagull cried overhead and Mal looked up at the white bird floating through the blue of the late afternoon sky, a sky that seemed closer over the short trees than above the sequoia, the soaring redwoods, in California.

She had never been to this far-western part of the Annapolis Valley. Her grandmother had lived two hundred miles away, outside of Bigelow Bay, on land given to Black Loyalists coming up from the American South in around 1775. The Valley was dotted with these satellite communities northward off the small main towns that no one, hardly even locals, knew about. A few wealthy white loyalists had made an effort to recreate their plantations, but winter in this northern climate destroyed that antebellum dream. Mal had visited her grandmother numerous times when she was a child, and then later when Gramma Grant was in the final years of her life in a nursing home. Mal’s mother had left Nova Scotia when she was eighteen, making her way to art school, meeting Mal’s father on vacation, never looking back. Except when they came to visit. They would just see Gramma Grant. Grampa Grant had died before Mal was born. He was buried in his kilt, Gramma said. The auburn glints in Mal’s hair and the Grant clan motto, Stand Fast, Craig Elachie, were her Celtic inheritance. Mal’s mother hadn’t kept in touch with any of her childhood friends.

Mal began taking photos of the meadow. It was almost dinner time and it had taken longer than she’d anticipated, hiking the overgrown road to the lake after finally locating the dirt road off another back road that connected to a secondary road she’d taken when she came off the main highway. She would have to hurry back to her car. She didn’t want to be here when it got dark. Not that she knew exactly what she was supposed to do here. If this excursion to the lake were a short story, Mal knew it would end with something popping its head through the dazzling surface and making its way towards the beach, towards Mal. There might be a canoe, previously hidden in the deep shade cast down by the woods. What moved towards her might be something that had come up from the bottom, something she couldn’t quite see because the sun was in her eyes. It would be the truth coming for her, slipping towards her, a canoe in the shadows. Riding in the canoe would be the lies she’d told her mother about why she flew from California to Nova Scotia, their ancestral home.

Mercy Lake was in the center of a vast stretch of old growth Acadian forest owned by the Seabury Estate. The remains of the Seabury family now lived in Florida. Mal had already been down there, interviewing an old woman in a nursing home, a painter named Sarah Windsor. Mal’s mother had thought Mal was interviewing Sarah Windsor about a retrospective of her early paintings of disturbing domestic scenes, for her podcast. She had lied about that too. Her mother knew Sarah Windsor. Not well, but they’d served on some prize juries together. In fact, her mother had called and talked to the nursing home staff so Mal could actually get in. Security was tighter these days, people more paranoid. When she got back from Florida, she told her mother the old woman wasn’t able to talk. But that wasn’t true. She had managed a few words, a few sentences. Enough for Mal to decide to go to Nova Scotia.

“Mal, rural Nova Scotia was not a place for me, and it certainly isn’t a place for you,” her mother had told her. “It’s the Georgia of the north. Why do you think I left?”

“You say all the time that your inspiration for painting comes from the natural world—from all the stages of your life. Why can’t I find inspiration for my writing and podcast through the natural world of my maternal ancestry?” But it wasn’t a spiritual pilgrimage to the land of her mother’s childhood that Mal had in mind.

Mal’s mother had been quiet for a time and then smiled. It wasn’t surprising she believed Mal. She’d always encouraged her to follow her passions. Be the best version of yourself, Mal hears her mother say. When she was younger, Mal had loved this. But by the time she was in her early twenties, without any sort of “real” career, she blamed her mother. Her father, before he died, said her mother was making up for what she saw as the deficiency in her own upbringing, how Gramma Grant had always said no. Mal’s father had a way of being very direct while always being kind. No judgement. They were poor. Life was hard. You had to be practical. You had to stay on the safe side. Life was dangerous. Her mother wanted Mal to know a different life, her father explained. He was the son of immigrants from Gujarat and shared her mother’s desire to provide a different future for his family, the tricky business of both protecting and encouraging your daughter in a society rife with racial discrimination.

Mal wanted to prove she was more than a thirty-year-old podcaster and obscure short-story writer living in her mother’s garage apartment gobbling mango lassi and Doritos. This was not her best self. She had stumbled onto something secret—a real-life crime, a cold case—and she would break it on her podcast. But she needed a smoking gun. She needed evidence.

Her podcast was about mental health, and mostly the people she interviewed talked about how they managed theirs. They told their stories, gave tips on how to navigate depression and anxiety, how to have hope. Until she interviewed Flora, that was. The woman was in her late twenties. She was pale, winter-white. Flora had a floral arranging business and talked about gardening as a way to manage mental health. It was Flora who had brought up Mercy Lake, in their off-the-record conversation after the interview. The two women found it impossible to avoiding exploring their shared Nova Scotia connections. “Oh, mercy,” Mal had said, when they were talking about the East Coast, like she was a country girl. Flora, hearing that word, mercy, paused, and then dropped her story out of the blue. It was a confession of sorts. Mercy seemed a code word and Flora’s story was sealed inside her, waiting for the right person to call it out of hiding. Mal was that person. Flora’s tone was matter-of-fact but her voice was hushed, and Mal’s unease grew with every detail, her breath quickening. What had happened to Flora when she was fifteen? Flora claimed there was a link between a place called Mercy Lake in Nova Scotia and a group in New York that hid under a cloak of business, billions, and blackmail—money and power providing an impenetrable shield for traditions, beliefs, and rituals going back hundreds of years. A company called Cineris International. An old family named Jessome, in New York. Mal remembered how Flora’s voice trembled as she spoke, trailed into a whisper. The woman was terrified. What they did to her went way back. There were others, lost in time.

Two days after she spoke with Flora, Mal got a phone call. It was from a private number. She answered anyway. A low male voice. He knew her name. Malmuria, don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Mal reached in her shorts pocket and pulled out her copy of a 1980 article about a Seabury Summer Barbecue, with a photo of Franklin Seabury and William Sprague, arms around shoulders: Fellows United, read the headline. And their daughters, Stella Sprague, twelve, and Cynthia Seabury, thirteen, holding hands, with bright smiles: Cynthia half a foot taller, teased wild hair, and Stella in her old-fashioned dress with a pixie cut. Mal had made copies from the microfiche at the archives in Halifax before driving out to Mercy Lake. But it had been a mistake to stop at the Jericho County Care Centre on her way, to try to speak to Stella right away. Mal was never going to get near her again with the crazy old lady guarding her. It was so much more complicated than she ever imagined. She folded up the article and put it back in her pocket.

The confidence that had billowed through her while traveling from San Francisco to Halifax, and then all the way through the forested trail to the lake, was sagging. Mal was alone, deep in the woods in a strange place. There was no signal on her phone, and the GPS had been useless once she turned off the main highway. The fire roads and dirt roads were obscure, lost in the past. She had a paper road atlas that did have the small roads marked, tiny thin lines, almost unbelievable.

When Mal had stopped at the Jericho Centre just after lunch, before driving west to find Mercy Lake, the first thing she’d done was hand her business card to the tall old lady outside smoking on a bench and ask if she knew Stella Sprague. The old lady had bolted up with such speed that Mal jumped.

“Why are you looking for Stella?”

Mal had tried to think of a smart answer, but nothing came.

The old woman had no shortage of words.

“Why do you want to talk to Stella? Do you know her? Are you some cousin?”

“I just want to talk to her.”

The woman was obviously a resident. A loon called from the lake. Mal couldn’t believe how naive she was, that she should have known right away the old woman was a resident. But it was hard to tell. She was very old and stood very straight. She had clicked her dentures and globs of white spit dotted the corners of her thin lips.

“About what?”

The woman’s voice had been so suspicious, her eyes so narrowed.

“About something that happened way back.”

Mal hadn’t been prepared for what the lady asked next.

“Is danger coming?”

It was such a strange question that Mal had nodded before she could catch herself, before she could stop the words pouring out of her mouth.

“Yes. Danger is coming. Danger is already here. I think people are looking for me, and probably because I’m looking for her. Does Stella have something that might incriminate someone?”

The loon called again, and Mal remembered how she’d immediately wished she could take back what she said.

The old woman had shut her eyes for a moment and then opened them again.

“You go away from here. They don’t want visitors coming ’round unannounced. Didn’t you see them signs inside? You go away. Don’t bring any trouble here. I’m late for yoga.”

The old woman had then marched in through the main doors. Mal had hurried to her car, aware that security guards might come out to ask her what the hell she was doing. She was lucky no one else had been outside. She didn’t have journalistic instincts—that was very clear now she had come all the way to the lake alone.

Mal was already making a mess of this trip she never should have come on in the first place. She walked around the site of the old lodge, holding up her phone, taking a video as she circled the area before walking back to the north side, just to the east of the trail. There was a patch of mint near the tree line, pungent in the heat. And just beyond, rosemary plants spiked out from the overgrown grass, the heat amplifying the sharp aroma. It was strange, this wild herb garden. She took pictures of the unexpected flowers. There was nothing intentional about it. Maybe someone many years ago had tossed a bouquet that had rotted and decayed and seeded. In the high meadow grass to the side of the trail were tiny true-blue starflowers. Borage.

Mal knew all of these from her mother’s garden in Los Gatos. And about ten feet to the south of this, in the bright sun and sandy soil, were lavender plants growing up through the weeds, purple flowers bright in the pale green dry grass near the beach.

If this were a short story, Mal would know it was a story that started with a lie, a lie that led to all her problems. It was the truth of how her trip from California to Nova Scotia had begun, with a lie. Her mother was a famous oil painter. She was just emerging from her grief over her husband’s death, and Mal was living with her. Mal’s mother had decided she’d spend the end of the summer on a painting retreat in Big Sur; she was doing a series of paintings on grief for a show at the Triton Museum.

Mal told her mother she too was going on retreat, a pilgrimage to the place her mother was from: the backwoods hick land, as her mother called it, of rural Nova Scotia—a place of primal beauty, of seafood and fecund fields and orchards, a place where racism ran like an eternal current just below the polite surface. It might not be as blatant as it was in other parts of the world, but it was more durable in its disguise, embedded in the society of polite.

Her mother said that Silicon Valley used to be much like the Annapolis Valley, a place of traditional farming, rural communities, but it changed and became a place of innovation and reinvention. Mal could hear her mother’s voice in her head now.

“The Annapolis Valley isn’t a woke place, as you say, my darling. It’s sort of lost in time, and that’s not always a good thing, you know, a place where there is a lot of misremembering.”

Mal knew there were Black people, multiracial people, addressing racial inequities in Nova Scotia. She had read online about Black Lives Matter protests and GameChangers902, a Black activist group. Her mother made it sound like a place where no one was doing anything. Mal put it down to her mother’s age, being old and resigned.

“All the more reason to go to Nova Scotia to find my roots, Mom.”

But Mal didn’t actually care about her roots. She wanted to figure out the mystery of Mercy Lake. When she researched Nova Scotia—the seascape, the lakes, the forests—it seemed welcoming. No massive forest fires. “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” they called it. Compared with California, it was a haven. Except for Mercy Lake. Mal knew her mother would have worried if she’d told her the truth, what Flora had said. She would have made her call the police, as scared as her mother was of the police.

A series of sharp snaps and cracks rang out from the woods behind the ruins of the lodge. Mal was still, holding her breath. Had someone been watching her? A loon called out again and the geese honked. Another crackle and another. Something, or someone, was coming through the tangled trees.

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