My Afternoon at Peggy's

 
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The first time I’d heard about Peggy’s Cove was during freshman art in high school. It was early April, watercolour season, and the deadline for reference photos was winding down. After an odyssey of Google searches, I had found the one. With its stately white-and-red lighthouse rising unbuffeted from an outcrop of veined stone, Peggy’s Cove was the picture of Maritime charm. My art instructor wasn’t the least bit charmed, however; almost a quarter of the class had submitted the same photo. It was like the Platonic ideal of a lighthouse scene—the stuff of all our amateur, watercolour dreams.

It wasn’t until last summer that the dream washed off and became reality.

We were driving along in our fat, tin tour bus when she appeared: Peggy by the sea, her craggy nose turned to the Atlantic. The rest of her a net of weathered buildings, salt-sprayed trawlers, and russet-coloured flotsam floating on seawater. It was a landscape that all the brochures in the world couldn’t capture.

The bus waddled from one side of the road to the other as we pootled up to the gift shop. A slideshow of local scenery passed us by. There were boats and cottages in technicolour, with salt-and-pepper shacks spaced in between. Fishing paraphernalia poked out from every crevasse like rusty, red-and-iron weeds. The tour guide was telling us about the young people and how they were leaving in droves. I wondered how many of the buildings were abandoned.

The locals watched us as we passed, their eyes remote and clear, as though casted out to sea. I pictured them boarding their trawlers at four in the morning, a wild, hard-etched resolution folded into their eyes. You don’t get this sort of clarity in the city, I thought.

The bouldery hillsides were scooped in grass and a resilient tawn moss. We climbed them to the top and disembarked. The tourists poured out in a packed, single order like a line of nursery fish. “Careful,” the tour guide warned, “don’t stray too far.” We were told to stay off the black rocks. I watched as the others crawled over the jagged, grey rock-quilt until they were miniscule as crabs, their selfie sticks clutched in excited pincers.

I never understood this innate tourist need to capture. Posing in front of some landmark or other wouldn’t impress your social circle. It all seemed like one big, socially-contracted sham. But, every once in a while, there was a landmark that resisted capture.

Peggy’s Cove was one such landmark. The photographs we took could only entrap a slice of her immensity. Like the Mona Lisa, another captive of tourist ogling, Peggy shifted and changed depending on the angle.

Even as we travelled up and down her smooth, granite curves, Peggy offered us no footholds. At any point, there was the risk of slipping and breaking open your skull. Then the rocks would run red instead of grey.

Out of nowhere, I felt the sinking dread that Peggy’s Cove was strangely yet insatiably hungry. I pictured myself on those slicked black rocks, breathing in the guano and sea-rot. The waves were licking at my feet. They were the tongues of Cerberus, about to drag me down into a blue underworld. The water cajoled me to step off. I shut my eyes and drowned it out.

We had made our way to the lighthouse—a prim, white column with a red hat. It was a heartening sight, standing there like a beacon amid all the sea-swept hullabaloo. They had snuffed out its light and turned it into a mailroom, taxidermied it full of lost letters and bills. Cut off its tie to the sea and tidied it up with red and white paint. They had lobotomized it.

I observed the once-proud structure, taking in the windows, the flaked and streaky whitewash. It wasn’t at all the immaculate tower from the photos. This comforted me, weirdly. Turning sideways, I noticed a bronze plaque that read:

WARNING INJURY AND DEATH HAVE REWARDED CARELESS SIGHT-SEERS HERE THE OCEAN AND ROCKS ARE TREACHEROUS SAVOUR THE SEA FROM A DISTANCE.

Clearly, I thought, a simple “KEEP BACK” had been inadequate. I wondered how many tourists Peggy had swallowed over the years. Fifty? Two hundred? A tendril of ocean breeze spilled down my back, causing me to shiver. All of a sudden, I realized that the other tourists had gone off far, far away. I barely made out their faces; they were no longer grinning, but blank and featureless. My feet came to a rut in the red dirt ground. A chilling fear came over me that I was going to be marooned on this crag forever—consigned to live out my days in a lonely, crumbling tower. The call of the Atlantic susurrated in my ears, lucid as a siren’s song. I bolted down the steps, past the thistles that gamboled in the stone crevices, past the sightseers with their queer, cubist expressions. Something had come undone. The clouds were gathering grey-green and livid.

I took refuge in the local gift shop. A home for petrified bric-a-brac and public washrooms, it was the natural habitat for our ensemble of tourists. I watched as they milled around the various objects, curious and undeterred as seagulls.

But as I gazed over it all, over the miniature ships and palm-sized lighthouses, there was one question that kept coming back to me: Who was Peggy? Was she a queen who had erected the first colony here? Did she arrive in a magnificent galleon? Or was she someone else? A little girl, perhaps, who had drowned long ago, so that now the cove had become her mausoleum? Certainly, Peggy’s spirit did not live among all these touristy gewgaws. She was out there in the headlands, in the stripped sea breeze, her tempestuous waves coiled around her like egg whites in a whirlpool.

The thunder cracked and resounded as we boarded our tour bus and left.

I never did end up using Peggy’s Cove as my reference photo. Even then, I knew that it was not something I could render, whether through my lack of skill or something else entirely. I ended up selecting a different landscape, pooled in sunlight and greenery, with a field of yellow flowers and a belt of poplars swaying in the back. It was dollar store-beautiful, pure and inoffensive.

Looking back, I accept that I had made the right choice. Peggy’s Cove had a wild, unbowed sort of beauty, dogged and barnacled, and ferocious as the waves that had drowned so many. There were some forms of beauty you just couldn’t capture.


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Jack Zhang (17) adores writing of any sort–from short stories to poems to the backs of shampoo bottles. He aspires to be a writer or an editor

Jack Zhang