Conor Murphy’s brother Flynn was living with his Japanese girlfriend in a trailer parked beside the barn. They spent some of their time at Sandy’s Surfside Inn. They spent the rest of their time at Conor’s house, where they usually had breakfast and dinner. They were helping resurrect Sandy’s place. The trailer was small and only fit for sleeping. After dinner Conor and Flynn often shared a joint, sitting on the side porch. Mariko didn’t smoke, weed or tobacco or anything else, staying straight, sitting up straight with a book in her lap.
She looked over her shoulder to where the dead woman had been found. She was still disturbed about it, especially since the woman had been in the ground frozen stiff all winter. None of them knew it then, but they knew now, and it clouded the memory of her first year on Prince Edward Island. She had been told before she came from Osaka that there was little crime on the island and murders were almost unheard of. Yet, a murder had been committed in her own backyard.
Flynn was planning on building three cottages that summer up the slope from the cove and living in the first cottage, which would be winterized. The other two cottages were going to be seasonal. He would start taking reservations for them in the winter once he knew how far along he was. If all went well, he would build two or three more in the next couple of years and live off the fat of the summertime.
In the meantime, he ran Sandy’s Eatery in town, next to the post office, where they made man-sized sub sandwiches, poutines, and pizza baked in a brick oven. A drunkard delivered phone-ordered pizza pies on his bicycle, one hand balancing the box which never went out of whack and the other hand on the handlebars. When it rained, he wore a windbreaker and slipped the boxes into a 30-gallon black trash bag for safekeeping. When he was done for the day, he rode home, put the trash bag away, and got juiced for the rest of the night.
Conor’s oldest brother Danny operated the Blue Mussel, a seafood café at the far end of Harbourview Drive. He opened it in the morning and closed it at night. He was the cook and bottle washer. He carried out the garbage and cooked the books. He had a pack-a-day habit and a motel tan. Conor’s sister Fiona left the family home the day she turned eighteen and moved to Charlottetown, got married soon enough, and bought a small bakery in the capital city, where she was keeping her nose to the grindstone trying to turn it into a thriving concern.
Hugo was Conor’s other older brother. He lived in nearby Rusticoville. His lobster boat was one of forty-some in the harbor at North Rustico. “It will bring tears to a grown man’s eyes,” he said. He was talking to Mariko about lobster claws. They were all on a big blanket at a picnic she had laid out. Flynn was rubbing her neck. “The bite force of a dog is about 500 pounds. A good-sized lobster’s crusher claw is about 1000 pounds. I had a claw on my hand one morning, he was squeezing my finger, and not letting go. He’s got you and you think, that’s it, he can’t go no more, but then he’ll squeeze some more. My stern man Paul had to take a screwdriver to it. Paul is a big man, and he had a big screwdriver, but it still took him a few minutes to pry it off my finger.”
A 27-pound lobster was caught off the coast of Maine a couple of years earlier. The feat was widely written up in Atlantic Canada. The claws were so large they would “break a man’s arm,” said Elmer Bezos, a Down East man. Louie the Large laughed when he heard the news. He was at least ten pounds bigger. “We don’t catch those kinds of monsters here,” Hugo said. “The biggest one I ever caught in my traps was maybe 7 pounds. But that’s a whopper, a foot-and-a-half long.”
Tens of millions of pounds of lobster were harvested on Prince Edward Island every year. The province accounted for more than half of all Canada’s landings, just like Maine accounted for more than half of America’s landings. Most of the catch ended up in the United States, anyway, some shipped live by air, the others live by land. It was a one-way ticket either way.
Many of the shellfish were pulled up from the north shore, ranging from Malpeque to St Peter’s. The Rustico fisheries were roughly the axis of the lobster world on the island. Besides North Rustico, there were the towns of Rustico, South Rustico, and Rusticoville, all named after a pioneer by the name of Rene Racicot, a French Norman who came to Prince Edward Island in 1724. Racicot became Rustico among the settlers.
The reason the north shore was settled in the first place was fishing. After the deportation of the French by the British in 1758, and the eventual return of those who had made themselves scarce, survived drowning and shipboard epidemics, living to tell the tale, fishing was what meant life or death for their families.
“We cook lobster on the boat sometimes,” Hugo said. They were a fast boiling fast-food late breakfast.
Although fishing in North Rustico dated back more than two hundred and fifty years, groundfish stocks fell sharply by mid-century. “I’m no fortune teller, but a moratorium is coming, mark my words,” Hugo said. “No more white fish. All we’re going to be allowed is crawlers, although I hear we’ll still be able to catch our own bait, like mackerel and herring.”
Lobster got the blue ribbon. Their landings almost tripled in the decades after 1960. Except for a dozen he dropped off at his brother’s eatery, Hugo took all his takings to Doiron Fisheries in town. “I come in, pull up to the wharf, and they unload every lobster I’ve got. I might start to buy my bait from them, too.” Doiron Fisheries got its start when Aiden Doiron bought his first fishing boat in 1957. One day, when a man asked him for a cooked lobster, he said, “I’ll be right back.” He grabbed a lobster, a pot, and cooked the lobster on the spot. The Doiron’s sold fresh fish to townsfolk out of a shanty on the wharf.
Hugo usually bagged his own bait for lobstering, late at night. “There’s a freshwater run about 2 or 3 kilometers down Cavendish Beach, where the gaspereau come up from the ocean, smell the fresh water, and spawn there. When they come back down, we catch them in nets.”
Alewife is a herring called gaspereau in Atlantic Canada. Catching them meant waiting for them to swim back to the ocean with the tide at night. “We net them by hand, in waist-high water. When we get them on shore they flap around and there’s sand flying everywhere. We fill up 40 or 50 boxes and carry them back to our pick-ups.“ No motor vehicles nor horses were allowed on the National Park dune lands, which is what Cavendish Beach was. “We ice them up for the morning, get home by 2 o’clock, and then back up out of bed a couple of hours later, 6 days a week in the season.”
Some of the boats in the harbor were wood and some were fiberglass, the hull of choice for more than a decade. Hugo co-owned a state-of-the-art boat fitted with a diesel engine and electronic gear with Paul Doucette, a man he’d known since first grade. They dropped out of high school on the same day of 9th grade.
“The word boat is really an acronym,” Hugo said. “It means break out another thousand.”
All lobster boats were once wood, ran on 6-cylinder gas engines, and most of them didn’t come with a cabin to stand inside of. It wasn’t until about the same time that John Glenn orbited the planet that windshields were added for protection against the elements.
“In the winter in the old days motors were removed and taken home,” said Norman Peters, who everybody called the Bearded Skipper, even though plenty of skippers had beards. “Boats were hauled to a field and turned upside down to keep rain and snow out. I remember playing under the boats and finding bits of fishing line to use for flying kites.”
“Our boat is the Flying Squid,” Hugo said. “It was built in Kensington, so it’s called a Provincial. It’s a great boat, very dependable, although a little on the rocky side. It’s good going into it on the water, but it doesn’t like being turned. It throws you around a bit. The best thing about fiberglass is it don’t leak. Except, if it does leak, it won’t float, not at all, not like wood. If you put a hole in the hull, it will sink pretty much instantly.”
Lobstermen start their day early. “He gets up at 4:20 in the morning,” Hugo’s wife Kathleen said. “He’s gone before 5. I go back to bed and sleep a little more.”
Hugo captained the Flying Squid and Paul was the stern man. Both were in long johns through May and sometimes into June. “On top of that I wear insulated overalls and when I get to the boat I oil up,” Hugo said. “We put on oilskins, a full bib, and a jacket. It’s so you can stand in the rain for hours.”
After clearing the North Rustico harbor the first thing Hugo did was turn on his electronics to locate their traps. “The guy I fished with before I got my own boat only had a compass,” he told Mariko. “But it never really worked right. They fished by strings back then, by their compasses and landmarks. You would probably find your buoys, but on a dirty morning, no. They’re only so big floating in a bigger ocean out there.”
Mariko took a bite on a fried scallop. She came from her own island where there were plenty of fish and shellfish. She could shuck oysters. Clams opened when she said, “Open sesame.” She had bled and gutted fish when she was a girl.
Lobstermen were limited to several hundred traps by the law of the land. It wasn’t always like that. In the early 19th century lobsters were so abundant they washed up after storms. Islanders used tongs to pick them up, although many were ashamed to be seen eating them because it was thought of as a poor man’s dinner. There used to be no rules about harvesting lobster. But, by the 1890s there were problems with less and less of them in the land of plenty.
“Many fishermen had more than a thousand traps,” the Bearded Skipper said. In the second half of the 20thcentury the fishing season was shortened, lobstermen had to be licensed, and taking spawners wasn’t allowed anymore. Old traps were put out to dry and sold to tourists.
The island’s coastline is mostly ledge and sand. When the frozen waters thaw in April lobsters move in from the deeper ocean. They come back to warm shoal water for egg-bearing females to hatch and release in springtime and early summer.
Once out on the Gulf of St. Lawrence the Flying Squid looked for its traps. “We’ve got 37 bunches of 8 traps and one of 4,” Hugo said. Traps are connected by a line, eight of them on a stringer, and attached to buoys with a unique color for easy identification. “There’s 8 traps between buoys and that’s called a set, or a full trawl. They’re all numbered, and we pick them up every morning.”
“How do you know where the lobsters are going to be when you go after them?” Mariko asked.
“Hard rock is what you want for lobsters, rock that looks like mountains,” Hugo said. “Sometimes they’ll cross sand. Most of the time the sand is full of crabs and crabs hate lobsters. When lobsters cross it, they bully the crabs away and you can have a tremendous catch the next day. You’ve got to think like a lobster, about the depth of the water, how warm it is, and when you think they’re going to be there.”
When the fishing was good, they hauled one lobster after another out of the ocean, slipped rubber bands over the claws of the keepers, loading them into onboard tanks, and re-baited the traps. As they were lowered back into the water the most important rule for stern men was to not step on rope, get caught in the rope, and get dragged overboard.
“Lots of guys will get caught for a second, but the last guy who drowned out of this harbor was Jackie Arsenault twenty years ago. He got his leg caught and was gone, just like that, and stayed gone overnight. He was a goner. The tide worked him loose the next day.”
Lobster fishing on Prince Edward Island could be but usually wasn’t dangerous, but it was always hard work, in more ways than one. Everything on a boat is hard. “Everything’s hard as steel,” Hugo said. “Or it is steel. No matter, whatever you bounce off hurts. I come out of the cabin one morning, coming up the steps, when something came off the sea and threw me out of the cab. The momentum of the boat picked my body up like it was weightless. I banged on the bulkhead and just like that you’re on the ground, hurting, black and bruised.”
Boats bob and toss on the water since the ocean is never steady like dry land. “I’ve been hurt every year I’ve fished, banged up like an old man.” Working on a lobster boat means working on a moving wet platform in weather that is bad as often as it is good. Men sometimes drown in bathtubs. Fishermen are faced with open water as far as they can see.
Unlike most fishermen on Prince Edward Island, the Murphy’s didn’t come from a fishing background. The first Murphy came to the north shore from Ireland on an errand for the Prince Consort. When he got the job done, he was given land on the cove. They raised horses and later the family bred black silver foxes for their pelts. When fox furs went out of fashion Conor’s grandfather and father both farmed mixed crops, turnips, barley, and wheat.
“I have three brothers and they all became fishermen, even your boyfriend,” Conor said. Mariko blushed in mid-bite of a scallop. “We weren’t fishermen, but it might have been in our blood. We were all at ease on the water. None of us got sick. Still and all, Hugo is the only one who still fishes. It can be hard on you.”
In season the Flying Squid went after lobster every day it could. Some days, like after a storm when the 7 kilometers of line they carried was tangled and needed to be untangled, they were out for up to 12 hours. “Gear starts to move. Before you know it, everything is all snarled, mine and everybody else’s. You’ve got to pull it up, bind it up, and that’s some donkeywork.”
Lobster cages weigh about 20 pounds without the 44 pounds of concrete ballast in them. When they are wet, they are more than 100 pounds. “Thank you to the man who invented hydraulics,” Hugo said. “Years ago, it was all hauled up by hand. The forearms of those guys in Rustico back in the day were like Popeye. I was out of fishing for a year. The next year I thought I was going to die. It was a tough spring. There was crappy weather every day. I was bouncing around like a cork and going to bed at 7 o’clock, just all beat up.”
Ancient oceans are more ancient than anything, including mountains. Men have fished for more than 40,000 years, from about the time modern men and women wandered into Europe. More than a 1,000 kilometers of shoreline ring Prince Edward Island, some of it sand beaches, some cliffs, all of it surrounded by the deep blue sea.
“I’m going to keep fishing, at least as long as I’m on this side of the sod,” Hugo said. “If I die, I hope it’s out there, not like that poor lass up the hill.”
Mariko gave a start, dropping a scallop which was halfway up to her mouth. She was suddenly down in the dumps. “Ittari nani ga okotta nda?” she whispered. She waved her hand back and forth in front of her face. Something felt like an evil spirit was nearby.