From Rafael Has Pretty Eyes
Often, in short fiction, what is not said is as important as – if not exponentially more important than – what is said. The concision and brevity of a short story makes it the perfect vehicle for elision and ellipses, for inserting meaning into the spaces and interstices between words and scenes. A short story requires careful attention to what occurs between the lines; it is a location for mining secrets and unspoken truths.
“Little Green Men,” by Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, writer Elaine McCluskey, is all about unspoken secrets and unexplained occurrences. Its narrative scaffolding features one of the most bizarre incidents in Canadian history: the appearance, on October 4, 1967, of an unidentified object above the waters off Shag Harbour, a tiny Nova Scotia fishing village.
According to the Municipality of Barrington’s website:
The first indication of this mysterious occurrence would come from local residents who noticed strange orange lights in the sky … Most witnesses agreed that there were four orange lights that evening. Five teenagers watched these lights flash in sequence, and then suddenly dive at a forty-five-degree angle toward the water’s surface. The witnesses were surprised that the lights did not dive into the water, but seemed to float on the water, approximately one-half mile from the shore.
To this day, the event remains unexplained.
“We had some Americans in and they said we should be getting thousands and thousands [of tourists] a year,” says Laurie Wickens, the proprietor of a museum dedicated to the incident, in the early pages of McCluskey’s story. “Said we should be bigger than Roswell since that was disproved.” In the Americans’ conception, it is precisely the unanswered aspect of the strange happening that renders it so intriguing – the possibility that it might have been little green men visiting our planet that caused the strange apparition in the sky on that night in the year of Canada’s centennial.
Rumours and speculation are one thing; facts are something else. And it is indicative of McCluskey’s sly approach to her material that she begins not in the realm of unexplained possibility but of concrete, verifiable reality. The first sentence in “Little Green Men” reads, “Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, is two hours and forty-five highway minutes from Halifax, eighteen hours from Toronto, and 4,800 interplanetary hours from the red planet Mars.” The granular detail and po-faced recitation of fact here belies the mystery behind the possible alien visitation (testified to by the italicized conjunction in McCluskey’s opening gambit) and lays the groundwork for what will become a duelling dichotomy between the known and the presumed over the course of the story.
It is also germane that McCluskey begins with an instance of potential alien visitation. The protagonist of “Little Green Men,” Chuck, is a stranger in town, himself a resident of the U.S. and unknown to the tight-knit community in Shag Harbour. He is “from away” – in other words, an alien to the locals. In his first appearance, there is “something odd about him” – his preppy clothing clearly demarcates him as an outsider, as does the way he speaks, “fake sociable one minute and sharp as a raised elbow the next.”
His visit coincides with thick fog in the area; McCluskey uses this typical Nova Scotia weather as a way of distinguishing between various dispositions in the region:
The day he arrived, the fog was thick enough to shroud house numbers and signs, tragedy and joy. It was the kind of fog that when it rolls in from the Atlantic – an overlay of grey – bothers some people and provides others with relief. You aren’t supposed to do much when the fog is that thick. You can just be.
The enjambment of the things the fog conceals – “house numbers and signs, tragedy and joy” – is indicative of the way the “overlay of grey” consumes both the physical and metaphysical, that is, the verifiable and the felt. The entirety of “Little Green Men” exists in the liminal space between these two states.
Chuck is a stranger to the townspeople, though he is not without connection to the village. His father, we learn, was one of the men who participated in a five-day search for evidence following the mysterious 1967 sighting; in the story, it is Laurie Wickens who made the initial call that launched the frantic investigation.
“Who wouldn’t want to know what it was?” Chuck wonders about his father’s desire to participate in the multi-day hunt for possible answers or wreckage. “A disc-shaped Russian weapon? A meteorite? An alien spaceship?” The reference to a Russian armament recalls an earlier mention in the story of the microphones placed at the bottom of the ocean to detect the movement of Russian submarines: “It was the fisherman’s job to know [where the listening devices were]. They knew as surely as scientists now know that Mars is nothing but dry rocks and sand, that its atmosphere is 96 per cent carbon dioxide, 1.93 per cent argon, 1.89 nitrogen, with traces of oxygen.“ Once again, we are presented with the collision of scientific knowledge and a shared experience of unresolved provenance. “Is that all, Chuck wondered, that anyone knew?”
The question forms a central pivot for McCluskey’s story, and for its inquisitive protagonist. The chasm between what one knows, what one believes, and what one is told yawns large in Chuck’s experience, much of which is taken up with the secrets he has gleaned at his father’s elbow. Chuck’s father was the source of numerous fantastical stories about family ancestors and relatives – a grandfather who had to sleep beside a dead body during the Second World War and an uncle in Winnipeg who supposedly robbed a bank on Valentine’s Day. These are stories Chuck is sworn to silence about, especially where Chuck’s straightforward, credulous mother is concerned.
“Knowledge is power if you keep it to yourself,” Chuck’s father tells him. This becomes a central dictum in “Little Green Men” – one that Chuck questions the truth of – especially in regard to one massive family secret Chuck’s father passes along. It is this secret that brings Chuck to the small fishing hamlet on the east coast of Canada in the first place.
The landscape itself, in McCluskey’s hands, becomes an avatar of the nexus between truth and supposition. The neighbouring town of Shelburne, for example, has stood in for Puritan New England in a movie, while playing itself in the film adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes. Shag Harbour has also been the location of accurate representation and imaginative reinvention, truth and belief; this is underscored by the fact that Laurie Wickens’s UFO museum is located across the street from a Baptist church. When Chuck peruses the museum’s collection, he notices newspaper articles and videos that use words – “military divers, a cylinder, NORAD, and British commandoes” – that are “the same words used in books and films.” Travelling to the site of a nearby disused military base, the only signs of life are abandoned Tim Hortons coffee cups. The quotidian detritus abuts the location of a former top-secret headquarters that, we are given to understand, was part of the machinery investigating the possible UFO encounter decades ago.
All of this material, both narrative and metaphorical, provides grounding for what is most essential in McCluskey’s story: the truth about the family secret Chuck’s father, now deceased, once imparted. Though the reader is provided with sufficient information within the course of the narrative to divine the nature of this secret, McCluskey never spells it out explicitly, ending the story on a note of contingency that will lead either to confirmation or frustration for Chuck.
The author opens the story with possible extraterrestrials, then shifts to a close third-person perspective on Chuck, though these latter sections are equally significant for who they leave out: Chuck’s wife, who suggested they take a road trip across the U.S. instead of him visiting Shag Harbour alone; Chuck’s dead father; Chuck’s mother, who believes the lies her youngest – and favourite – son tells about her grandchildren. These characters end up filling the same space as the would-be aliens commemorated in the UFO museum: phantom figures in the background of a story that shuttles intriguingly between kitchen-sink realism and something much more fantastical and uncanny.