Waiting Out The Storm
Monday, September 28, 1914 started out with clear skies and barely enough wind to blow out a match in the little settlement of Femme, Newfoundland. The inshore fishermen were already at sea, having started their day well before daylight. Now, as dawn was breaking, the rest of the residents were starting their busy days.
Harriet rolled over and swung her legs over the side of the bed, her feet coming to rest on the warm poked mat. After getting dressed she went to the kitchen and lit a fire in the old wood stove. While she waited for the kettle to boil she opened the door and looked outside. It was cool but nothing unusual for the time of year. It would be a perfect day on the barrens, Harriet thought, as she quickly ate her breakfast and prepared for the day.
A few houses away, her sister, Sarah had just finished breakfast and was picking up what she needed for their outing. Partridgeberries could not be picked before the middle of September and this would be their second trip. So there would be plenty of berries for pies and jam this winter. They would be able to have partridgeberry pie for supper every Sunday for the whole winter.
At the agreed-upon time Harriet, Sarah, and the young family members who were going with them all met at Chubby’s Cove. From there they set out on the familiar, well-worn path for the barrens where they knew the partridgeberries were plentiful. Each member of the group carried something for a mug-up at mid-day, while the women also took a Robin Hood flour sack to bring the berries home in and a small dipper to use as a ‘picker.’ Harriet and Sarah walked briskly while the children jumped and skipped ahead of them.
‘Will you have enough for the winter after today?’
‘If I can fill the bag today I’ll have enough to make do but I’ll make one more trip. You can never have too many partridgeberries,’ Harriet replied.
Sarah chuckled. ‘Amen to that, sister. How about Wednesday? That’s if the weather stays good.’
‘Sounds good to me. I’ll have to get another barrel to put them in but that won’t be a problem.’
The journey, which took nearly two hours, was mostly uphill and as they reached the barrens, Harriet paused a moment to catch her breath. It was beautiful in here, quiet and peaceful. Only the sound of water bubbling in the many little streams nearby could be heard. There were no birds singing up here because there were no trees for them to perch in.
‘I don’t know about you, but I have to take off my sweater.’ Sarah folded her sweater and laid it on top of a rock. Harriet and the children did the same. They knew that once they got busy, they would be warm enough. The early mornings and evenings were chilly at this time of year but the middle part of the day was usually fairly warm.
‘The walking warms you up,’ Harriet said as she looked around. The berries were plentiful this year, showing up like bright red jewels among the dark green leaves. She remembered hearing her father say that lots of berries meant it would be a long winter, so extra berries might come in handy.
They scattered over the area as each one found a spot of his or her own and set to work. Each time a picker was filled it was then emptied into the flour bag. They worked steadily until around mid-day and then stopped for a mug-up. Thick slices of homemade bread spread with molasses or partridgeberry jam was washed down with fresh, cold water dipped from one of the streams with their pickers. When they had finished eating they resumed their berry picking activities.
A little while later, Sarah looked around as she pushed her arms into her sweater sleeves and noticed that most of the children were already wearing theirs. Until now she had not noticed that there was enough cloud cover to block the warmth of the sun. ‘It’s cooled off a bit,”’ she said. ‘Looks like it might be working up for rain.’
Harriet adjusted her bonnet. ‘I don’t like the look of those clouds and there’s more wind. I think it’s time to go and we can clean the berries after we get home.’ Her sister agreed and they called the children to pick up their things.
Meanwhile, back home in the village, the change in the weather was causing some concern there too. The inshore fishermen had returned because of the rising wind and choppy seas. Seasoned fishermen knew the signs of an approaching storm and they knew this was going to be a bad one. They could feel it in their bones. People began to watch out the windows for the berry pickers, hoping and praying they were on their way home. Surely they had noticed the change in the weather, hadn’t they? These were sensible women.
And yet, there was a nagging doubt that the storm had struck too fast and that the barrens were too far from the village. If they had got caught by the storm somewhere between the barrens and home they could very easily have gotten lost.
As the children scampered ahead of them, Sarah spoke quietly. ‘I don’t like it, Harriet, the wind, the heavy clouds, and tis a lot colder than it was.’ She buttoned her sweater all the way, knowing it would not provide any protection from the wind.
‘I know,’ Harriet agreed, ‘and if that’s a bank of fog I see moving in it won’t be easy to see the path. Looks like tis moving fast too.’ Then she called to the children, telling them to stop running and stay in sight.
Within seconds they were enveloped by swirling snow and visibility diminished drastically. The children were mere shadows as they ran towards the women. It would be impossible to find their way home like this and the children were afraid. The snow probably wouldn’t last long, but they needed shelter. ‘The rock! That big one!’ Harriet shouted to make herself heard over the howling wind as she tried to guess its position.
‘On our right,’ Sarah shouted back. The group moved slowly, keeping very close together. After going just a couple dozen steps they found it. Brushing away what snow they could, they sat on the ground with their backs tight against the rock. It wasn’t much but at least they were mostly out of the wind. The two women sat at the ends with the children sandwiched between them, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around each other.
The women tucked their long skirts tightly around their legs. Harriet’s black skirt had been patched and mended many times over and was so faded the colour was more like charcoal grey. It had been fine for kneeling on the ground picking berries but there was very little warmth left in it. The hem was so badly frayed that the edge of her long white petticoat could be glimpsed in places. Her long-sleeved blouse was faded almost as much as the skirt but, thankfully, had no patches yet. The heels of her stockings were darned but they kept her feet warm and comfortable in her black lace-up boots, though she didn’t know how long that would last in these conditions. Even her new sheep’s wool sweater wasn’t wind-proof. None of them were prepared for this weather. It was only September, after all – not December.
People back home in Femme looked out their windows and shook their heads in disbelief as the little coastal village was engulfed in one of the worst snow storms they’d ever seen. Darkness closed in early, bringing with it a feeling of helpless despair. They quietly gathered up the supplies they would need to take with them – blankets and things for making tea – which they stuffed into heavy canvas knapsacks.
Some thought they should have gone to find the berry pickers but others reminded them that there hadn’t been time. It would have made no sense for them to go missing as well. And deep in their hearts they knew they’d had no other choice. All they could do now was to wait and it looked like it was going to be a very long night.
Meanwhile, out on the barrens the little group of berry pickers were also waiting out the storm, huddled as close to the rock and each other as they could get, shivering uncontrollably. The two sisters silently prayed that they would make it all through the night, especially the children.
They’d heard people talk about being so cold their teeth chattered but now they knew how it felt. So they mostly kept quiet. After a while the shivering stopped and they didn’t seem to be so cold.
‘Do you think the temperature is going up a bit?’ Sarah’s voice was hushed. ‘I don’t feel so cold.’
‘Hard to tell but my teeth aren’t chattering anymore,’ Harriet replied. ‘Still a good breeze of wind but maybe it will soon be over.’
‘I s’pose the youngsters at home will be alright. They could go to Sarah Jane’s place for supper I guess, be with their sister and little nephew.’
‘Ah, they’ll be fine. But we should get some sleep because we can’t walk home till daylight.’
‘I think we’ll be alright too,’ Sarah said.
‘Me too,’ Harriet agreed. ‘If we sleep now, we can leave for home as soon as it gets light. At least we got our berries.’ And with that, both women closed their eyes, hoping to get some sleep before the morning. Neither of them noticed that their voices sounded strange, that their words were slurred as if they’d been drinking.
Time lost all meaning as the snow swirled and the wind howled incessantly around them and the little group was quiet, all occupied with their own thoughts. Sarah started mumbling but Harriet couldn’t understand what she was saying and thought she was talking in her sleep. It sounded like she was asking her mother for a hot junk to warm her feet. Then Harriet peered around the rock and felt sure she could see the path. I’m pretty sure I could find the way home now, she thought, but the little ones are all asleep. I’ll let them sleep a bit longer before we leave. And she closed her eyes for the last time.
They had kept watch all night, with a kettle on the stove and the teapot constantly being refilled as they paced the floor and listened to the storm raging outside. Many silent prayers were said for the safe return of the little group. Finally, they noticed a difference as the wind began to lose its intensity. Hope soared as shouts were heard throughout the village, making sure all potential searchers were awake. There would be no fishing done this day.
Kitchen windows showed signs of life as kerosene lamps were lit or had their wicks turned up. Those joining the search bolted down a hasty breakfast of tea and leftover potato pork cakes spread with partridgeberry jam. Pulling on heavy jackets, hats and rubber boots, they grabbed up their knapsacks and were out their doors in record time. There was no time to waste.
It wasn’t daylight yet but they knew the way and the snow-covered ground was no obstacle for them. They didn’t run but walked with a fast and steady pace in order to reach their destination as quickly as possible while still conserving their strength and energy for the return trip.
A sense of urgency fell over the community as the searchers were swallowed up by the pre-dawn darkness. Those left at home would be saying silent prayers as they waited, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
Dawn was breaking as they reached the barrens and every heart was filled with dread, wondering what they would find. Some began calling out the names of the missing persons while others called out ‘Hello.’ At the edge of the berry grounds they paused momentarily, collectively drawing a deep breath as they mentally prepared themselves for the worst. They moved forward cautiously, looking around them carefully so as not to miss anything. Their heartbeats were like drums in their ears.
‘Look! What’s that?’ The words were spoken in a hoarse whisper.
‘Over there. By that rock.’ Fingers pointed.
‘Looks like… a heap of something?’
‘Could it be…?”
There was a flurry of activity as they sprang into action and hurried as fast as they could over the spongy ground, now covered with several inches of wet snow. At first glance, they feared the worst. Closer inspection revealed that while the two women and one boy had perished, the remaining children were alive and in need of immediate attention. Knees began to wobble and sobs were choked back as some of the searchers reached out and gathered the children close, tears streaming unheeded down their faces.
Some got busy starting a fire to make hot tea, while others wrapped the children in blankets and held them close to the warmth of their own bodies. Several of the younger boys had been dispatched to deliver the news to the village – both good and bad. They also had instructions to bring the heavy handmade quilts that had been collected and ‘hand bars’ from the fishing stages, one for each surviving child. They would need canvas tarps to wrap the deceased for transportation but that would be done later in the day.
As the warmth slowly seeped into their bodies, so did the pain of awakening nerves. The children whimpered and clung feebly to their rescuers. After several long hours they were ready to be moved so they were bundled up warmly and carefully placed on the hand bars. They were tied down to prevent them falling off during the trip home.
By the time they reached Femme, with the surviving children snugly wrapped and secured to the hand bars, the people at home were ready for them. The ‘daybeds,’ which most families had in their kitchens, had been moved close to the wood stove where they were piled with the beautiful quilts that every outport woman was skilled at making. Junks of wood were heating up, ready to be wrapped and placed beside the children under the covers. Some had hot water bottles waiting to be filled for the same purpose while all had hot tea steeped and ready.
While the children were being settled in their homes, other families prepared and served food to the rescuers who would soon make the sad trip back to retrieve the dead. The entire community was in a state of shock, not knowing whether to laugh with relief for those who had survived or cry with grief for those who were lost. It is likely that they did a little of both. Some people had come from Harbour Mille to collect the young boy’s body for return to his family.
Making preparations and tending to the dead was no easy task but those living in small communities such as this took it in stride. They didn’t think about it. It was just something you did for a deceased loved one. When everything was in place, the homemade coffins were laid out in their homes, usually in the parlour, a room reserved for special occasions or deaths. Family members sat up with the deceased throughout the night, sometimes accompanied by friends. Window shades were pulled down, creating a very sombre atmosphere, and everyone was dressed in black.
Mourning was a very serious thing that would last for a while. Voices were hushed, eyes were red-rimmed from crying and lots of hugs were exchanged. Friends and neighbours came to visit, bringing food or doing whatever tasks they could to help out. At such times the entire community came together like one big family, just as they did for baptisms and weddings.
Several days later the seats were removed from two row dories and their painters attached to the stern of two empty dories which would lead the procession. The coffins were brought out, settled in the dory bottoms and covered with large canvas tarps. The designated rowers then took their places in the lead dories. Everyone else in the settlement that was able to go boarded all available dories for the trip to Harbour Mille. Those towing the coffin-laden craft led the sorrowful little flotilla that moved slowly away from the shore.
With favourable weather conditions, 90 minutes later they landed on the beach just below where the church and cemetery were located. Upon arrival, they were met and helped ashore by the waiting residents of Harbour Mille. The coffins were taken to the church, already filled with mourners and sympathetic people from that settlement. Still, they somehow managed to make room for the new arrivals. Men and older boys stood around the sides and at the back, making sure all the women and girls had seats.
After the service, the family members followed the coffins to the nearby cemetery, with everyone who had been in the church walking behind them. Three freshly-dug graves in a corner of the cemetery became the final resting place for the victims of this horrific tragedy: Harriet (Evans) Paul, age 64, Femme; Sarah (Evans) Dodge, age 54, Femme; and Leslie Pardy, age 13, Harbour Mille. The date of death was September 29, 1914.
Archived news reports reveal that other communities had also felt the effects of storms that Monday. Stages with their stacks of salted and dried fish were swept away, small boats had been damaged or lost, and some people said it was the worst storm they had witnessed in many years. No wonder, then, that inadequately-dressed people on the open barrens perished.
© 2016 Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Jun/Jul 2017