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Ragged Company

Ragged Company

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Is it you?
Where have you been?
Yes. Of course. Where did you get to?
Everywhere. Everywhere I always wanted to go, everywhere I ever heard about.
Did you like it?
I loved it. I never knew the world was so big or that it held so much.
Yes. It’s an incredible thing.
What did you think about all that time?
Everything. I guess I thought about everything. But I thought about one thing the most.
What was that?
A movie. Actually, a line from a movie.
Yes. Funny, isn’t it? Out of all the things I could have thought about over and over, I thought about a line from a movie.
Which one?
Casablanca. When Bogie says to Bergman, “The world don’t amount to a hill of beans to two small people like us?” Remember that?
Yes. I remember. Why?
Because that’s what I think it’s all about in the end.
Well, you live, you experience, you become, and sometimes, at the end of things, maybe you feel deprived, like maybe you missed out somehow, like maybe there was more you could have–­should have–­had. You know?
Yes. Yes, I do.
But the thing is, at least you get to finger the beans.
Yes. I like that–­you get to finger the beans.
Do you ever do that?
All the time.
Me too.
Let’s do that now. Let’s hear all of it all over again.
Okay. Do you remember it?
All of it. Everything. Every moment.
Then that’s all we need.
The beans.
Yes. The beans.

Book One

One For The ­Dead

It was Irwin that started all the dying. He was my eldest brother, and when I was a little girl he was my hero, the one whose shoulders I was always carried on and whose funny faces made me smile even when I didn’t want to. There were five of us. We lived on an Ojibway reserve called Big River and our family, the One Sky family, went back as far in tribal history as anyone could recall. I was named Amelia, after my grandmother. We were a known ­family–­respected, ­honoured–­and Irwin was our shining hope. I was the only girl, and Irwin made me feel special, like I was his hero. Love is such a simple word, so limited, that I never use it when I think of him, never consider it when I remember what I ­lost.

He was a swimmer. A great one. That’s not surprising when you consider that our tribal clan was the Fish Clan. But Irwin swam like an otter. Like he loved it. Like the water was a second skin. No one ever beat my brother in a race, though there were many who tried. Even grown ­men–­bigger, stronger ­kickers–­would never see anything but the flashing bottoms of my brother’s feet. He was a ­legend.

The cost of a tribal life is high and our family paid in frequent times of hunger. Often the gill net came up empty, the moose wouldn’t move to the marshes, and the snares stayed set. The oldest boys left school for work, to make enough to get us through those times. They hired themselves out to a local farmer to clear bush and break new ground. It was man’s work, really, and Irwin and John were only boys, so the work took its ­toll.

It was hot that day. Hot as it ever got in those summers of my girlhood, and even the farmer couldn’t bear up under the heat. He let my brothers go midway through the afternoon and they walked the three miles back to our place. Tired as they were, all Irwin could think about was a swim in the river. So a big group of us kids headed toward the broad, flat stretch below the rapids where we’d all learned to swim. I was allowed to go because there were so many of ­us.

There was a boy named Ferlin Axe who had challenged my brother to race hundreds of times and had even come close a few of those times. That day, he figured Irwin would be so tired from the heat and the work that he could win in one of two ways. First, he could beat Irwin because he was so tired, or second, Irwin could decline the challenge. Either way was a victory, because no Indian boy ever turned down a ­race.

“One Sky,” Ferlin said when we got to the river, “today’s the day you lose.”

“Axe,” Irwin said, “you’ll never chop me down.”

Now, the thing about ­races–­Indian races, ­anyway–­is that anyone’s allowed to join. So when they stepped to the edge of the river there were six of them. At the count of three they took off, knees pumping high, water splashing up in front of them, and when they dove, they dove as one. No one was surprised when Irwin’s head popped up first and his arms started pulling against the river’s muscle. He swam effortlessly. Watching him go, it seemed like he was riding the water, skimming across the surface while the others clawed their way through it. He reached the other side a good thirty seconds ahead of Ferlin ­Axe.

The rules were that everyone could rest on the other side. There was a long log to sit on, and when each of those boys plopped down beside Irwin he slapped them on the arm. I’ll never forget that sight: six of them, young, vibrant, glistening in the sun and laughing, teasing each other, the sun framing all of them with the metallic glint off the river. But for me, right then, it seemed like the sun shone only on my brother, like he was a holy object, a saint perhaps, blessed by the power of the open water. We all have our sacred moments, those we carry in our spirit always, and my brother, strong and brown and laughing, shining beside that river, is ­mine.

After about five minutes they rose together and moved to the water’s edge, still pushing, shoving, teasing. My brother raised an arm, waved to me, and I could see him counting down. When his arm dropped they all took off. Ferlin Axe surfaced first and we all gasped. But once Irwin’s head broke the surface of the water you could see him gain with every stroke. He was so fast it was startling. When he seemed to glide past the flailing Ferlin Axe, we all knew it was over. Then, about halfway across, at the river’s deepest point where the pull of the current was strongest, his head bobbed under. We all laughed. Everyone thought that Irwin was going to try to beat Ferlin by swimming underwater the rest of the way. But when Ferlin suddenly stopped and stared wildly around before diving under himself, we all stood up. Soon all five boys were diving under and I remember that it seemed like an hour before I realized that Irwin hadn’t come back up. Time after time they dove and we could hear them yelling back and forth to each other, voices high and breathless and ­scared.

The river claimed my brother that day. His body was never found and if you believe as I do, then you know that the river needed his spirit back. But that’s the woman talking. The little girl didn’t know what to make of it. I went to the river every day that summer and fall to sit and wait for my brother. I was sure that it was just a joke, a tease, and he’d emerge laughing from the water, lift me to his shoulders, and carry me home in celebration of another really good one. But there was just the river, broad and flat and deep with secrets. The sun no longer shone on that log across the water, and if I’d known on the day he sat there, when it seemed to shine only on him, that it was really calling him away, I’d have yelled something. I love you, maybe. But more like, I need you. It was only later, when the first chill of winter lent the water a slippery sort of blackness, like a hole into another world, that I allowed the river its triumph and let it be. But it’s become a part of my blood now, my living, the river of my veins, and Irwin courses through me even ­now.

My parents died that winter. Those cheap government houses were dry as tinder, heated by one central stove that threw an ember through the grate one night and burned our house to the ground. Those who saw it say it looked like a flare popping off. I hope so. I hope my parents slept right through it, that there was no terror or desperation for either of them. We kids were with my Uncle Jack and Aunt Elizabeth at a winter powwow that night. Standing beside my uncle’s truck the next day looking at the burnt and bubbled timbers piled atop each other, I felt a coldness start to build inside me. A numbing cold like you feel in the dentist’s chair, the kind you’re powerless to stop. I couldn’t cry. I could feel the tears dammed inside my chest but there was no channel to my ­eyes.

We lived with Uncle Jack for a while but he was a drinker and it wasn’t long before the social workers came and moved us all to the missionary school fifty miles away. I was six and the last sight I ever had of Big River was through the back window of the yellow bus they loaded us into. We moved from a world of bush and rock and river to one of brick and fences and fields. There we were made to speak English, to forget the sacred ways of our people, and to learn to kneel before a cross we were told would save us. It didn’t.

The boys and girls were kept apart except for meals and worship. I never got to speak to my brothers at all except in mouthed whispers, waves, and the occasional letters all the kids learned to sneak across to each other. It was hard. Our world had become strange and foreign and we all suffered. But it was hardest on my brother Harley. He was eight and, out of all of us, had been the one closest to our parents. He’d stayed close to the house while the rest of us tore around the reserve. He’d cooked with our mother and set snares with our father. Quiet, gentle, and thinner even than me, we always treated Harley like a little bird out of its nest, sheltering him, protecting him, warming him. In the tribal way, change is a constant and our ways teach you how to deal with it. But we were torn away from that and nothing we were given in the missionary school offered us any comfort for the ripping away of the fabric of our lives. Harley wept. Constantly. And when he disappeared over the fence one February night, I wasn’t surprised. From across the chapel the next morning, John and Frank nodded solemnly at me. We all knew where he’d gone. I still remember watching from the dormitory window as the men on horses came back that evening, shaking their heads, muttering, cold. If they couldn’t figure out how an ­eight-­year-­old could vanish and elude them, then they forgot that they were chasing an Indian boy whose first steps were taken in the bush and who’d learned to run and hide as his first childhood game. They looked for three days. Uncle Jack found him huddled against the blackened metal of that ­burnt-­out stove in the remains of our house, frozen solid. Dead. All he’d had on was a thin wool coat and ­slippery-­soled white man shoes but he’d made it fifty miles in three days. Uncle Jack told me years later in a downtown bar that Harley’s eyes were frozen shut with tears and large beads of them were strung along the crossed arms he clutched himself with. When I heard that I got ­drunk–­real ­drunk–­for a long ­time.

Life settled into a flatness after we lost Harley. But all three of us rebelled in our own ways. Me, I retreated into silence. The nuns all thought me slow and backward because of my silence but they had no idea how well I was learning their ways and their language. I did everything they asked of me in a slow, methodical way, uncomplaining and silent. I gave them nothing back because all I knew was the vast amount they had taken from me, robbed me of, cheated me out of, all in the name of a God whose son bore the long hair none of us were allowed to wear anymore. The coldness inside me was complete after Harley died, and what I had left of my life, of me, I was unwilling to offer up to anyone.
I drifted through the next four years as silent as a bank of snow. A February ­snow.

John and Frank made up for my absence. They were twelve and ten that first year, and when they refused to sit through classes they were sent to the barns and fields. John rejected everything about that school and his rebellion led to strappings that he took with ­hard-­eyed silence. The coldness in me was a furnace in him and he burned with rage and resentment. Every strapping, every punishment only stoked it higher. He fought everyone. By the time he was sixteen and old enough to leave on his own, the farm work had made him strong and tough. It was common knowledge that John One Sky could outwork any of the men. He threw bales of hay effortlessly onto the highest part of the wagons and he forked manure from the stalls so quickly he’d come out robed in sweat, eyes ablaze and ready for whatever else they wanted to throw at him. It was his eyes that everyone came to fear. They threw the heat in his soul outward at everyone. Except for me. In the chapel, he’d look across at me and his eyes would glow just like Irwin’s used to. He’d raise a hand to make the smallest wave and I would wonder how anyone could fear hands that could move so softly through the air. But they did. When he told them he was leaving there was no argument. And when he told them that he would see me before he left there was no argument ­either.

We met in the front hallway. He was big. Tall and broad and so obviously strong. But the hand he laid against my cheek was tame, loving. “Be strong,” he told me. “I’m going to get you out of here, Amelia. You and Frankie. Just as soon as I can. I promise.” Then he hugged me for a long time, weaving back and forth, and when he looked at me I felt like I was looking into Irwin’s eyes. Then he was ­gone.

Frank tried to be another John. But he wasn’t built of the same stuff, physically or mentally, and he only succeeded in getting himself into trouble. No one ever feared my brother Frank. In those schools you learned to tell the difference between courage and bravado, toughness and a pose, and no one believed in Frank’s imitation of his brother. That knowledge just made him angrier. Made him act out more. Made him separate from all of us. He sulked and his surliness made him even more of a caricature and made him try even harder to live up to what he thought a One Sky man should be. He got mean instead of tough and, watching him through those years, I knew that the river, the fire, and the cold ran through him, drove him, sent him searching for a peg to hang his life on. It was a cold, hard peg he ­chose–­vindictive as a nail through the ­palms.

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Home of the Floating Lily


She was a divorcee. After her husband left her for an old flame, Rubina became a hot topic of discussion for people in the building. She was beautiful, pulling off leggings and kameezes as elegantly as she sported her jamdani saris, making her look, at the age of fifty, like a thirty-year-old. Some speculated it was her overly friendly nature that destroyed her marriage. Perhaps she was a little too generous with men, they said. Others wondered why she couldn’t tie her husband down with her good looks.

Shumi would overhear these comments by her neighbours while she washed her clothes in the common laundry room on the first floor, before she got her own personal washing machine. Sometimes, they’d stop as soon as she walked in. Other times, they would continue, not realizing she could hear them. They used all kinds of adjectives for Rubina’s family — they said that it was a broken home, a disturbed family, that she should have worked harder on her marriage for the sake of her daughter.

Shumi had told Asif only once, in passing, that some women from the building washed less and gossiped more in the laundry room. So, with the landlord’s permission, he’d immediately bought a portable washing machine for her and had it delivered all the way up to their eighth-floor apartment early one morning. She was relieved, of course, to be able to do her laundry in privacy, away from the congregational discussions of Bengalis about other Bengalis. But it was Asif who’d seemed thrilled as he cut open the box and flipped through the manual. “There you go! Now you don’t have to worry about being around those petty people.” It was the first time her husband had expressed his distaste for their neighbours. On most occasions, he spoke too little for her to be certain of what he disliked and what it was that excited him.

So, this morning, when he phoned from the office and said he’d like to have biryani for dinner, Shumi wasted no time. Within half an hour, rice was washed, spices were ground up, meat was marinated, and by noon her stovetop was hot and crowded with various pots and pans — bubbling chicken curry, rice boiling in cinnamon water, and onions browning and burning in a pool of oil.

Outside, sunrays were tearing through the clouds after a morning downpour. Finally, blue was bleeding back into the sky, exposing the Toronto skyline from beneath a film of darkness. Shumi ran to the washroom, pulled out her laundry, and carried the pile to the balcony. A chilly autumn wind blew toward her. One by one, she hung the jeans and T-shirts, saris and salwars on the laundry wire, struggling to secure them with clips as they flapped rebelliously. She was in no mood to battle. The kitchen needed her attention, and in no time she would have to come back out to check if the clothes had dried — her routine excuse to watch Asif ’s white Honda pull into the parking lot. Again and again, she thought about his phone call, feeling the butterflies each time. “Can you make biryani tonight?” he’d asked. “I want to celebrate. I have a surprise for you.” Surprises from her husband were also rare.

She stepped back inside, keeping the balcony door open. Turning off the flame, she assembled the rice and chicken, finishing with a sprinkle of fried onions and a prayer. “Please, Allah, let it be perfect.” The biryani was ready to go into the oven for the final bake. Cooking still made her nervous, a skill she was never asked to acquire when she was an unmarried woman in Dhaka. How foreign those times seemed now, when life was all about studies and badminton games and shopping sprees with girlfriends. Not that Asif ever complained. She could feed him the blandest food and he’d eat it without any fuss. She was lucky that way. But a request brought more pressure.

Only Rubina could help her now. It was her recipe, after all. Rubina ran a home catering business from her apartment on the sixth floor, supplying food for birthdays and dinner parties for Bengalis all over Toronto. This woman had a recipe for everything, a quick fix for every occasion.

Shumi reached for her phone and dialed.

“How’s it going?” Rubina said.

“It’s ready to go in,” she replied. “But I feel like something’s missing.”

“Want me to come up?”

“Sure, that’d be great. If you’re not too busy.”

* * *

“Oh, it smells great!” Rubina announced as she paraded into Shumi’s kitchen.

Shumi handed her a teaspoon. Rubina dug into the mixture, picked up a few grains, and began to chew. “Everything’s perfect. Salt, spice, everything.”

“Something isn’t right,” Shumi said. “What if Asif doesn’t like it?”

“Just wait till it comes out of the oven. It will be just fine!”

That was all she needed to hear.

The way Rubina said, “It will be just fine!” — animated, bright-eyed, smiling — instantly put her at ease. Shumi remembered the day they first met, a few days after she’d arrived in Canada as Asif ’s sponsored, immigrant wife. They were in the elevator, pressed against the wall behind a crowd of sweaty men and women. That exact same smile. Warm and welcoming. Like a gush of cool air through an open window. What would she do if Rubina hadn’t started the conversation that day, if she hadn’t asked her name and how long she’d been in Toronto and what her apartment number was? Who would she talk to, or visit for a cup of tea on lonely afternoons, if Rubina hadn’t shared her phone number? To find a parent figure in a foreign country, one had to be fortunate.

Rubina pushed the pot of biryani into the oven.

“Okay, darling. Must go now,” she said, hurrying toward the door. “Lots of work to do.”

“Aunty, why don’t you join us for dinner?” Shumi asked.

“Oh, my! No way. Two big orders today. You know how it is. Aaliyah’s not here to help me.”

Shumi looked at her as her smile faded. Rubina never accepted invitations. About two years ago, when her daughter, Aaliyah, took up a new job as a mechanical engineer and moved to Calgary, Rubina’s workload doubled. Aaliyah was a fantastic cook, too, Shumi’d heard, and helped her mother with her business while she was in Toronto. With Aaliyah gone, Rubina worked around the clock on weekdays and weekends alike. Nowadays, she was preoccupied with finding a husband for Aaliyah.

“Have you found someone for Aaliyah yet?” Shumi asked.

“Nope, no luck. There are barely any proposals.”

Shumi took her hand and placed it between her palms, pressing it tightly.

“I’m sure you will find someone soon, Aunty,” she said. “You mustn’t worry so much.”

“I cannot help it, Shumi. It’s how we mothers are. We worry for our children’s future as soon as they start breathing inside our wombs.” She paused and let out a sigh. “Especially me. I have a lot to worry about. You know how it is. Our family’s not the most popular.”

“But it’s not your fault,” Shumi said.

“It doesn’t matter, believe me.”

Shumi felt sorry for her. With so much grief, so many responsibilities to carry, of course she’d be least bothered about invitations. Asif had said the same thing, when she told him about all the lunch and dinner offers Rubina had declined. “Let it be, Shumi. One needs to be happy to enjoy such things.” Though Rubina always welcomed Shumi into her own home, it was Shumi who would leave after a short time, seeing how busy she was. Whenever she visited, after a quick cup of tea, Rubina would begin attending to the large aluminum pots that always occupied her kitchen and living room floor, checking the taste of the many curries she made in bulk, transferring them one by one into trays and containers of all sizes.

Standing by the main door, Rubina scanned Shumi’s living room as she put on her slippers.

“Oh, you have put on the cushion covers from Aarong!” she said, looking at Shumi’s couch.

She’d teased her once, Shumi remembered, for bringing cushion covers and coasters and bedsheets all the way from the popular handicraft store in Dhaka. She didn’t think it would go well with the Ikea furniture Asif had bought.

“It looks beautiful, actually. What did Asif say?”

“He didn’t really say anything,” Shumi answered.

“You’re very talented, Shumi. You really know how to bring harmony to a place. Asif is a lucky man.”

She’d never thought of it that way. Back in Dhaka, they all spoke about her good fortune. How many girls were lucky enough to find a handsome, well-educated, and decent suitor from Canada? After Rubina left, Shumi pondered her words as she sank into the couch and observed all her little touches in the living room — embroidered rugs framed on the wall, miniature rickshaws and boats from Aarong on the bookshelf. They actually looked nice. She picked up her telephone receiver, dialed her own home phone number, and let it ring until Asif ’s voice message popped up. Crisp. Clear. Each word reaching her ear as though it wasn’t a recording, as if he was sitting right next to her, stating he was unavailable, promising he would get back in touch as soon as possible. She listened to it over and over again. His Canadian accent, the way his r’s and t’s and l’s rolled off his tongue, made her heart flutter. Normally it embarrassed her, reminding her of her own flawed English. Not that her English was poor. In Dhaka, she had friends who went to English-medium schools, and she watched American TV shows and read English books here and there. But her grammar could use improvement, her vocabulary needed a boost, and her accent — it was nowhere near Asif ’s. At the end of the day, she had a bachelor’s degree in history. She’d studied in Bangla-medium all her life. He was an IT graduate of Ryerson University, a Canadian man. But none of it seemed so bad at that moment. It felt just fine.

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Kiss of the Fur Queen

Kiss of the Fur Queen

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback
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