Best Canadian Book Titles of 2011Created by 49thShelf on April 19, 2012
Following in the footsteps of The Birth House, her powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami McKay's place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!)
"I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart." So begins Th …
I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.
My father ran off when I was three years old. He emptied the rent money out of the biscuit tin and took my mother’s only piece of silver—a tarnished sugar bowl she’d found in the rubble of a Third Avenue fire.
“Don’t go . . .” Mama would call out in her sleep, begging and pulling at the blanket we shared as if it were the sleeve of my father’s coat. Lying next to her, I’d wish for morning and the hours when she’d go back to hating him. At least then her bitterness would be awake enough to keep her alive.
She never held my hand in hers or let me kiss her cheeks. If I asked to sit on her lap, she’d pout and push me away and say, “When you were a baby, I held you until I thought my arms would fall off. Oh, Child, that should be enough.”
I didn’t mind. I loved her.
I loved the way she’d tie her silk scarf around her head and then bring the ends of it to trail down her neck. I loved how she’d grin, baring her teeth all the way up to the top of her gums when she looked at herself in the mirror, how she’d toss her shawl around her shoulders and run her fingers through the black fringe of it before setting her fortuneteller’s sign in the window for the day. The sign had a pretty, long-fingered hand painted right in the middle, with lines and arrows and words criss-crossing the palm. The Ring of Solomon, The Girdle of Venus. Head, heart, fate, fortune, life. Those were the first words I ever read.
It was my father who gave me my name. Mama said it came to him at a place called Pear Tree Corner—“whispered by a tree so old it knew all the secrets of New York.” The apothecary who owned the storefront there told my father that he could ask the tree any question he liked and if he listened hard enough it would answer. My father believed him.
“Call the child Moth,” the twisted tree had said, its branches bending low, leaves brushing against my father’s ear. Mama had been there too, round-faced and waddling with me inside her belly, but she didn’t hear it. “It was the strangest, most curious thing,” my father told her. “Like when a pretty girl first tells you she loves you. I swear to God.”
Mama said she’d rather call me Ada, after Miss Ada St. Clair, the wealthiest lady she’d ever met, but my father wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t care that Miss St. Clair had a diamond ring for every finger and two pug dogs grunting and panting at her feet. He was sure that going against what the tree had said would bring bad luck.
After he left us, Mama tried calling me Ada anyway, but it was too late. I only ever answered to Moth.
“Where’s my papa?” I would ask. “Why isn’t he here?”
“Wouldn’t I like to know. Maybe you should go and talk to the tree.”
“What if I get lost?”
“Well, if you do, be sure not to cry about it. There’s wild hogs that run through the city at night, and they’d like nothing better than to eat a scared little girl like you.”
My father had thought to put coal in the stove before he walked out the door. Mama held onto that last bit of his kindness until it drove her mad. “Who does such a thing if they don’t mean to come back?” she’d mutter to herself each time she lifted the grate to clean out the ashes.
She knew exactly what had happened to him, but it was so common and cruel she didn’t want to believe it. Miss Katie Adams, over on Mott Street, had caught my father’s eye. She was sixteen, childless and mean, with nothing to hold her back. Mrs. Riordan, who lived in the rear tenement, told Mama she’d seen them carrying on together in the alley on more than one occasion.
“You’re a liar!” Mama screamed at her, but Mrs. Riordan just shook her head and said, “I’ve nothing to gain from lies.”
Standing in front of the girl’s house, Mama yelled up at the windows, “Katie Adams, you whore, give me my husband back!”
When Miss Adams’ neighbours complained about all the noise Mama was making, my father came down to quiet her. He kissed her until she cried, but didn’t come home.
“He’s gone for good,” Mrs. Riordan told Mama. “Your man was a first-time man, and that’s just the kind of man who breaks a woman’s heart.”
She meant he was only after the firsts of a girl—the first time she smiles at him, their first kiss, the first time he takes her to bed. There was nothing Mama could have done to keep him around. Her first times with him were gone.
“God damn Katie Adams . . .” Mama would whisper under her breath whenever something went wrong. Hearing that girl’s name scared me more than when Mama said piss or shit or fuck right to my face.
The day my father left was the day the newsboys called out in the streets, “Victory at Shiloh!” They shouted it from every corner as I stood on the stoop watching my father walk away. When he got to the curb, he tipped his hat to me and smiled. There was sugar trailing out of a hole in his pocket where he’d hidden Mama’s silver bowl. It was spilling to the ground at his feet.
Some people have grand, important memories of the years when the war was on—like the moment a brother, or lover, or husband returned safe and sound, or the sight of President Lincoln’s funeral hearse being pulled up Broadway by all those beautiful black horses with plumes on their heads.
“Victory at Shiloh!” and my father’s smile is all I’ve got.
The rooms I shared with Mama were in the middle of a row of four-storey tenements called “the slaughter houses.” There were six of them altogether—three sitting side by side on the street with three more close behind on the back lots. If you lived there, there was every chance you’d die there too. People boiled to death in the summer and froze to death in the winter. They were killed by disease or starvation, by a neighbour’s anger, or by their own hand.
Mothers went days without eating so they could afford food for their children. If there was any money left, they put ads in the Evening Star hoping to get their lost husbands back.
My Dearest John,
please come home.
We are waiting for you.
Searching for Mr. Forrest Lawlor.
Last seen on the corner of Grand and Bowery.
He is the father to four children,
and a coppersmith by trade.
Mr. Stephen Knapp, wounded in the war.
I’ll welcome you home with open arms.
Your loving wife, Elizabeth.
They stood in the courtyards behind the buildings, pushing stones over the ribs of their washboards and sighing over the men they’d lost. Elbow to elbow they put their wash on the lines that stretched like cat’s cradles over that dark, narrow space.
Our back court was especially unlucky, having only three sides instead of four. The main attractions were one leaky pump and the row of five privies that sat across from it. The walls and roof of the outhouses leaned on each other like drunken whores, all tipsy, weeping and foul. Only one of the stall doors would stay shut, while the other four dangled half off their hinges. The landlord’s man, Mr. Cowan, never bothered to fix them and he never bothered to take the trash away either, so all the things people didn’t have a use for anymore got piled up in the court. Rotten scraps, crippled footstools, broken bits of china, a thin, mewling cat with her hungry litter of kittens.
The women gossiped and groused while waiting for their turn at the pump, hordes of flies and children crawling all around them. The smallest babes begged to get up to their mama’s teats while the older children made a game picking through boards and bricks, building bridges and stepping-stones over the streams of refuse that cut through the dirt. They’d spend all day that way as their mothers clanged doors open and shut on that little prison.
Boys grew into guttersnipes, then pickpockets, then roughs. They roamed the streets living for rare, fist-sized chunks of coal from ash barrels or the sweet hiss of beans running from the burlap bags they wounded with their knives at Tompkins Market. They ran down ladies for handouts and swarmed gentlemen for watches and chains. Kid Yaller, Pie-Eater, Bag o’ Bones, Slobbery Tom, Four-Fingered Nick. Their names were made from body parts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck. Jack the Rake, Paper-Collar Jack, One-Lung Jack, Jack the Oyster, Crazy Jack. They cut their hair short and pinned the ragged ends of their sleeves to their shirts. They left nothing for the shopkeeper’s angry hand to grab hold of, nothing even a nit would desire.
Girls sold matches and pins, then flowers and hot corn, and then themselves.
Hark! A Vagrant takes readers on a romp through history and literature - with dignity for few and cookies for all - with comic strips about famous authors, their characters, and political and historical figures, all drawn in Kate Beaton's pared-down, excitable style. This collection features favorite stories as well as new, previously unpublished c …
A finalist for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize, and named one of the best books of the year by Amazon, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star, The Antagonist tells the story of Gordon Rankin ("Rank"), a former hockey enforcer driven to seek revenge on a old friend who has published a novel revealing Rank's deepest secret.
The hulking Gord …
From the award-winning author of A Complicated Kindness comes a heart-wrenching yet wryly funny story about setting out on the road to self-discovery, and finding the strength to survive in the face of immeasurable loss.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite community in northern Mexico, surrounded by desert and both physically and cu …
Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
No, I really am, I said.
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
Questions about what? I asked him.
Anything, he said.
But about what? I said.
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
Some people are staring at us, he said.
No they’re not, I said.
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
I think so, I said.
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
So, he said. Why would you want to?
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
I don’t know, I said.
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
I’d rather not.
I was just saying stuff.
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.
From the Hardcover edition.