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Ragged Company

Ragged Company

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Is it you?
Yes.
Where have you been?
Travelling.
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.
Absolutely.
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.
Really?
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.
What?
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
Shelter

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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The Son of the House
Excerpt

Chapter One
1972

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna.

My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten. That morning, before it was fully day, I went by myself on a big bus, the kind that went to Lagos. I went to live with Papa Emma and his wife. I would do little chores around the house and I would be sent to school. That was what Mama Nkemdilim told me. I was excited to go, a little apprehensive too, but I knew that anywhere would be better than living with Mama Nkemdilim after my father had died. And Lagos was the biggest city in Nigeria — everyone knew that. Mama Nkemdilim said men who had gone from our village either married Yoruba women and never came back, or they came back smelling of money and comfort.

It was no surprise that Mama Nkemdilim would send me away at the first opportunity that knocked on our door.

“Amosu,” she would call me, a witch. “Why do you still hold out your hands for food?” she would ask, squeezing her face in puzzlement when I stood outside the kitchen, waiting for food. “Is all that blood you suck from me and my children not enough? Or does it all go to your big head?” she would wail, referring to my head, which looked huge on my thin body. Other children called me Atinga, giving proper due to my bony slenderness. Mama Nkemdilim did not think that the little food we had in the house should be wasted on putting extra flesh on my bones. Extra flesh would be a drag on the speed needed to run the many errands she sent me on.

Mama Nkemdilim blamed me for all her misfortunes. And misfortunes had visited often since she came to live with us, coming down like rain in July. When she could not conceive after two years of marriage to my father, she pointed fingers at me. A dibia, she said, had told her that I was responsible for her empty womb. Bad luck, she liked to say, followed me around like the mosquito sought the ear at night; like flies followed feces. After my father died, she would point out that he had survived the war where he had served as a soldier, had withstood poverty, had held on to life after I came along and killed my mother as I forced myself out into the world. My father had weathered all this. But how, she asked, did one survive a wicked child who had killed her mother?

“You will not kill me too,” she would cry, conviction ringing like a soprano alongside the alto of disgust. “Mbanu, you will not. I am not as foolish as your mother, not as soft as your father. I will kill you before you kill me,” Mama Nkemdilim would insist, as if I, a mere child, were a monster with seven heads like those spirits in fairy tales.

“I did not kill my mother and father,” I would say, my head turned away, waiting for her hard knuckles to rap against my almost hairless big head. A loud, painful koi.

Yet all her blows had not yet driven away the remnants of my defiance. If I could kill, the spirit in me said, Mama Nkemdilim would not be living while my father and mother lay in their almost forgotten graves, now covered by grass in front of my father’s house. When she approached with the cane she hastily broke off from the onugbu plant beside the kitchen, I did not stop for her hand to go up and down my body. I ran out to the road, screaming for my dead father, even though I knew my punishment would wait until I came back to my senses and returned home. When she starved me, I woke up in the night to creep to the kitchen and help myself to some of the soup and dry fish she gave only to her children, to prevent kwashiorkor, she would proclaim.

When I turned ten, Papa Emma, a distant relative of Mama Nkemdilim’s, came home to the village at Christmas. He said he needed someone to help his wife around the house. Mama Nkemdilim thought that I would be a good choice: it would get rid of me. But she also worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me.

“Do you not think that this is too good for her?” she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma.

I listened intently from outside the kitchen.

“Hmm,” Mama Odinkemma said, “do you want her living here, sucking your blood, sucking Nkemdilim and her sister’s blood every night, while blowing cool air on all of you like a rat?”

“Eh, that is true talk. Eziokwu. But what if she becomes a big person in Lagos?”

Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos, I heard her say. For once, I did not disagree with Mama Odinkemma, Mama Nkemdilim’s thick-set friend with the pointed mouth that made you wonder how food made it through to her belly. And yet she could often be counted on to be chewing something like a goat chewing cud. I silently agreed with her that it was laughable that I could become a big person by cleaning, cooking, and doing chores in a house, even if it was in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. Even a ten-year-old child, who had not gone to school for two years, knew that this was like the long tales the tortoise told the other animals he had offended by his greed so that they would not throw him down from the sky.

What sealed my fate was Mama Odinkemma saying, “Mama Nkemdilim, send this child away. That child has her mother’s blood. They are all witches in her mother’s family. You do not want her to initiate your children into the cult, or worse still, kill them?”

After that, Mama Nkemdilim satisfied the necessary obligation of informing my uncle Nnabuzo. I wanted to go to Lagos, climb mountains and swim seas, just to get far away from my stepmother. But I did not want to leave my uncle Nnabuzo.

My uncle did not like the idea of Mama Nkemdilim sending me all the way to Lagos. It should have been his responsibility to determine what happened to me, his brother’s child, but he appeared weak before Mama Nkemdilim’s verbal and emotional onslaughts. Sometimes her barbs were subtle, but more often they were blunt like the stone with which we ground pepper in the small mortar.

“Let me take Nwabulu,” he said to Mama Nkemdilim. “At least we will keep our eyes on her.” He rested worried eyes on my face, but his tone was gentle, as always.

“Did my husband, your brother, not say that what he would like most was for Nwabulu to go to school?” she asked. Mama Nkemdilim always knew the right thing to say.

“Yes, it is true,” Nnabuzo said.

“The people with whom she will live will send her to school. Emma told me himself. I cannot send her to school,” she moaned. “It is all I can do to feed myself and your brother’s children.”

Nnabuzo knew when he was defeated. My uncle could barely feed his own family with his palm-wine-tapping trade. His wife, Nnedi, had a baby every year. At last count, there were nine of them. Her thin frame was often to be seen with a protruding tummy as she was going about her duties. I had heard Mama Nkemdilim say that her baby-a-year habit was the result of my uncle Nnabuzo’s sickening inability to keep his own penis to himself. Mama Nkemdilim reminded him as often as possible of his neglected duties to his late brother’s family, always implying that, in the face of his failure to do so, she must continue to shoulder a man’s burdens on her frail woman’s shoulders.

On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thui> rhythmically.

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Brighten the Corner Where You Are

Brighten the Corner Where You Are

A Novel Inspired by the Life of Maud Lewis
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Excerpt

I've Been Everywhere

 

The first thing you need to remember is that I'm no longer down where you are, haven't been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I'm in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want. The wind's whistling carries me, takes me back, oh yes, to when the radio filled the house with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys singing "My Life's Been A Pleasure." Though I'm not sure I would go that far. Freed of life's woes, these days I see joys that, in life, I just guessed up. If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one's better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn't have gotten up to half of what I did in your world, I'd have spent my days doing what you do. Where'd be the fun in that?

The best thing about up here is the view. Now, I'm not so high up that folks look like dirt specks and cars like hard candies travelling the roads. Nor am I so low down that you can reach up and grab a draught of me in your fist. Up here, no one gets to grab on to anybody, or be the boss. No shortage of bossy boots down your way, folks only too certain they know best. So it was when I lived below, in a piece of paradise some called the arse-end of nowhere. I wouldn't make that kind of judgment myself. Mostly I kept to myself; for a long time doing just that was easy. Out in the sticks there are lots of holes to hide down, until someone gets it in their head to haul you out of yours. Next, the whole world is sniffing at your door, which isn't always a bad thing. Like living in the arse-end of nowhere isn't a bad thing, pardon this habit of speech I learned down your way. Habits die hard, even here. Except, here I get away with whatever I want, which is a comfort and a blessing. Comforts and blessings mightn't be so plentiful where you are. Here, for example, a gal can cuss to her heart's content and who is gonna say boo?

And that view! Now I can see backwards, forwards, straight up and down instead of sideways or tilted, I can look at things face on the way, before, I just guessed things up and painted them in pictures. When it suits me, I hover at gull-level where hungry birds cruise the shore for snacks, or at crow-level, where the peckish seek treats spilled by roadsides. Food aside, it's grand up here. I see the fog tug itself like a dress over Digby Neck and the road travelling south to north, pretty much tracing the route that took me from birth to this spot up here. Apart from the coastline's jigs and jags, as the crow flies north to south is a fairly straight line from the ridge where my bones lie to where I grew up.

Those who don't know better call this otherworld "glory." But, looking down at the green of Digby County stretching into Yarmouth County, a patchwork of woods and fields set against the blue of St. Mary's Bay, I'd call this part of your world "glory." If I were the churchy type, which I am not and never was. Though I did enjoy a good gospel song if it was the Carter Family singing it. Some days a good old country song was my lifeline to the world. Each melody crackling over the airwaves got to be a chapter of my life, its sweet notes looped in with the sour ones.

Churchiness aside, I know attention when I see it. Folks flocking to see my paintings, paying big dollars for them. Imagine if they'd paid me back then what they pay now, travelling from all over to see my home. Though that would be pissing in the wind, wouldn't it? For you can't take nothing with you. You land here as naked as when you land where you are. All the money in the world won't change it. Yet I wouldn't have minded being sent off properly. Wearing my ring, I mean, all polished and shiny and on the right finger, and everything right with the world. A badge of honour, say. Maybe if I'd heeded my aunt's Bible talk—not about turning the other cheek to have someone smite it too, but about being wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove—things would've played out different. My husband had serpent-wisdom galore, I was the dovely one. But if I'd got the serpent part down pat, who's to say I mightn't have turned half cur and bitten the hand that fed me?

But, about that wedding band. Marriage means where the one party flags the other party takes up the slack, making the couple one big happy serpent-dove. According to such logic my man and me ought to have been two sides of the same dime tucked in a jar for safekeeping: equals. I let on that we were. Why I did is for me to know and you to find out. Your world will always have folks who take advantage of those with no choice but to let them. Up here, things even out. No one owns a thing, not the earth, sunshine, rain, or fire, and most certainly not the wind.

And in the end, what sweetness it is to enjoy a blue moon, and just paint it in your mind's eye, no need to fumble with a brush! It's easy to love something named for a colour. Though other things about being up here mightn't be to everyone's taste, people don't exactly line up for tickets to get here, do they. If you're the type that's all go go go, the pace is hurry up and wait. As for reunions with loved ones, well, I am still waiting, but I haven't given up hope, no sirree. And there are other things to like about this so-called glory. The insects don't bite, unlike the no-see-ums that plague you every season but winter. And there are cats aplenty, don't let anyone tell you cats aren't allowed, as if up here is your chesterfield. You just can't see or pat them. Their purr might be what you hear when a motorbike goes by or a boat with a make-and-break puts out to sea.

Even better than the view is the moon's company, as steadfast as memories you cannot shake. The moon doesn't care who tramps over her face or journeys to her dark side. Let her keep her secrets, I say. Though she doesn't mind shining her light on ours, and under her shine things buried and thought missing come to light, even things we reckon are gone for good—with an exception. For I have been searching high and low for that ring, the gold band I once put on with pride. When I could still wear a ring. The ring that belonged to me, even if it wasn't always mine. What a shitload of stories it would tell if it could, if anyone laid their fingers on it. Where it got to is a mystery, the way here is a mystery. Then again, where you are might be a mystery too, memories the only things we have that are certain. Bearing a weight all their own, they wax and wane. Like my pal, they hang around, old and full-blown or new and shy, whether they are pictures we paint of ourselves or pitchers of us that others pour out.

If only I could put my finger on when and where I last saw that ring. Thinking of it takes me back to a bright March moon, a night more than fifty years ago now, a night so long ago those men that first walked on her still had three years to go before stepping foot there. The moon pouring down her light is what springs to mind first. Pretty as that March night was back in 1966, I've spent a long time trying to forget it, and to forget about mud and dirt and footsteps and things on and in the ground. Buried things. For, as you will learn soon enough, things buried and unearthed are the undoing of us all.

All around me that night the county slept sound as a bear in winter, so it was in the wee hours beneath that moon. It was one of those cold, clear nights after a thaw, when frost silvers the meanest buds and you think the pussy willows have got a jump on April—until a snowstorm blows in and covers everything.

One step forward, two steps back. That was spring in our neck of the woods, never mind where you found yourself.

To this day, I have no clue what time it was I awoke. My husband had brought me upstairs hours before. From the nearby woods an owl screeched, but that was the only sound. It was either too late or too early for the crows to be up, not just any crows but the ones setting up house in our yard. The lady crow had recently stolen my fancy.

My man got up. His sharp, sudden moves near pitched me from the bed. Wide awake, I listened to him scuttle across the floor and shimmy down through the hatch. The stairs shuddered under his weight. I heard him scuffling about below, heard the rustle of him grabbing his jacket and his boots left warming by the range. The door creaked open and banged shut behind him. His footsteps stirred the gravel out front, slouched along the side of the house before they grew faint. Off to wake the crows and lure my favourite with a crust of bread, set to win her affection? (I do believe Everett envied my friendship with Matilda, never mind she was just a crow.)

I thought with a start he must be off to the almshouse, was after taking the shortcut out back—see how the mind plays tricks in the dead of night? He had not worked over there in three, going on four years by this time, which was roughly the last time I'd seen my friend Olive, the warden's wife, when she finally realized it was no place to raise her boys. With a shiver of relief, I heard the creak of hinges from the shed nearest the house. It was where Ev liked to partake of his TNT cocktail, homebrew in the years before we had money, and then store bought later on.

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Daughter of Here
Excerpt

I'm wearing that same dress on the jetty in a photograph taken on the Black Sea, in the town once called Callatis, near the Bulgarian border. From that picture I remember every single detail of the dress. The drop waist, the fine texture of the trim, the simple cut and elegance of the neckline and sleeves, just the right height. The dress divides my body, continuing the white line painted on the asphalt of the sea wall. The photographer is behind me. I'm walking alone, and skipping along the white line as if I were playing hopscotch. White rocks on either side flank the slightly raised paved walkway. The jetty is where fishermen meet, where families come out for a walk at the end of the afternoon. In the evenings it's a place for lovers. I am right in the middle, on the white line. * Since childhood I'd noted my mother's extravagances--like drinking champagne out of empty Bonne Maman jam jars. She called it Bad Mama. What drew me most of all was her woman-at-the-window pose. All at once she was far away, staring into the distance. I used to catch her drawing in the air with her fingers. I would follow the sinuous trace of her index and try to guess the meanings behind the graceful arabesques of her arms. What was she writing, what was it she could make out in the blue screen of the sky? Was it a letter to Habib, the lost love she secretly hoped would return? Did she, like me, read clouds whenever she could? For a split second, she was off, travelling on a flying carpet woven of words. * This is the prelude to the daily film of my life, open to the outside. The lead actors are the sun, a stubborn bird, and various figures from my memories and my projections. The interior gets lively when Mo bounces in, out, in dress-up clothes, or with a question or something to show me. Then there is that other protagonist, that absence so present, hidden behind the window, just out of sight. Since the various scenes playing through this living window first caught my eye, I haven't been able to stop watching the countless transformations orchestrated by a hand that has stayed invisible during my time here. * I will leave you a photograph too: the picture with the white dress. A little girl stands on a jetty on the Black Sea. She's wearing a white dress, the same dress she'll be wearing soon at a concert in Bucharest. She's against the middle of the wall, her back to the camera, half in profile. Her skin is darker than usual; the summer has been unusually sunny. Her frizzy hair is cut short, and it's dry from the salt and the sun. It's her last summer in Romania. Who knows what's going through her head. What she doesn't know is that soon she will find herself on a night train barrelling through tunnel after tunnel. She is walking toward the lighthouse at the end of the jetty, her mind elsewhere. The fishermen haven't arrived yet, with their reels and their bamboo rods. To the left, the child's shadow stretches long, but not the photographer's, who stays a good distance away. Mo, one day I will show you that dike in person. I'll take a picture of you at the same place, on the white line that splits the grey cement tongue. You can tuck it away in your pink silk-covered photo album. * I will show you the little house in the mountains, with two rooms. The window where on weekends I would wait for hours for my parents to come back, my nose glued to the glass until night fell, counting the headlights. The rectangle of pine trees that wrapped around the garden, which smelled so good. I would lay on my back, watching the sky, the trees like dark green giants. I would fall asleep, intoxicated by the smell of healthy evergreens, hypnotized by the movement of the clouds, on a wool blanket, a little rough, scratchy. I played with a duck, and made it fly over my head like a helicopter. At night, the cows came back to the village and the air smelled like dung, and like milk, dripping off udders. That photograph of me on the grey horse was taken not far from the house with the pine trees.

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Seven
Excerpt

Two
August 2015, New York City

While I scan the sale racks, Zee bumps around the nearby plus-size section yelling, “Mom — this one!” every minute or so. I suppose little kids think all ladies’ sizes are the same. I yell back, “Thanks, but no!” The two of us are probably driving the saleswoman crazy with our bellowing.

I show her a polka-dotted dress with cap sleeves, the sort of thing I might have worn in the classroom on a hot September day. Its asymmetrical hem is whimsical, yet age-appropriate. Most years, I’ve done this shopping while in countdown-to-Labour-Day mode, both anticipating and dreading my return to work at Morrison High School. But I gave my resignation two weeks ago, and the year stretches ahead like a flat and deserted highway.

Last year, when Murtuza and I first considered spending his academic sabbatical in India, I applied for a much-needed unpaid leave while he investigated Mumbai teaching gigs. The same week my request was declined, he received an opportunity to teach the graduate course he’s been designing in his mind for years. Lenore, my vice-principal and mentor, suggested I quit, recover from my burnout, and work for her educational consulting business after Murtuza’s sabbatical. So here we are — Zee and I — searching for a dress I can take on our trip to India.

“Pretty,” Zee assesses, pushing a strand of her short hair behind her ear. Recently she’s begun to have opinions about the clothing I set out for her each day. Last week she rejected half of my choices, so today I’ve encouraged her to make her own selections. She’s wearing a yellow top with an emerald skirt and aquamarine socks, which doesn’t look as bad as it sounds. Me, I’ve matched my beige blouse to a pair of brown shorts. My sandals are a shade in between.

I try on the dress, Zee’s appraising eyes upon me. She cocks her head, her bangs falling into her face. “Mom, it fits, it looks good. But buy it in red, not black.” Her tone is slightly mocking, like a makeover show host’s. The sales clerk rushes to fetch one, taking orders from a girl just turned seven.

Later, on our way to the food court to share an order of Wong’s lemon chicken, Zee stops me at Forever 21. I protest but change my mind when I notice one of my students, Farah, behind the register. She just graduated, and used to walk the hallways like a fashion model. A few months ago, Principal Pereira stopped to scold her for showing too much cleavage. I’d disagreed with the judgment but couldn’t contradict Pereira. Farah reached into her backpack to layer a sweater over her blouse, but it was off again by the time she reached my classroom.

“Mom, look at these!” Zee points out a ten-dollar rack of frilly skirts. “Can I get one? You can get one, too, and we can match!” I call Farah over and she helps us find a size zero that fits loosely over Zee’s straight hips. Not even their largest size, a fourteen, can pass over mine.

“I just bought a size twelve dress at JC Penney,” I complain.

“Yeah, our sizes are super small. Sorry.” Farah shrugs.

“You can still get yours, Zee. It’s a good price.”

“No,” she pouts, “not if you can’t wear a matching one.”

“We’ll look for something while we’re in India,” I console, glad that my daughter still wants to look like me, at least sometimes.

* * *
In the evening, Murtuza and I meet on the couch for the married person’s evening ritual: TV. Along with a nightly bowl of microwave popcorn, we’ve been putting away two episodes of The Mindy Project after Zee is in bed. We guffaw and cringe in the same places; we are diasporic South Asian children of immigrants communing over the embarrassing life of a diasporic South Asian child of immigrants.

While the credits roll, Murtuza leans over, kisses my neck, and says, “Shall we turn it off now, or watch another episode?”

“Sure, Murti, we can turn it off,” I say, sensing his preference. After all, it is Saturday and 9:00 p.m. I’d prefer to hit play, to be distracted by someone else’s awkward world, but I appreciate my husband’s good-natured and consistent initiative-taking. My friends and I talk about our lacklustre sex lives and waning libidos, and I feel like I’m the lucky one amongst us. At least we can say we are still doing it, rather than being in couples’ therapy because we aren’t. Or breaking up because we aren’t. Or having extra-marital affairs because we aren’t.

* * *
I’d never cheated in my life, neither on a test nor a time sheet. When my naturopath directed me to eliminate sugar, dairy, wheat, and caffeine last year to improve my immune system’s functioning, I followed her instructions, to the letter, for sixty days.

How to make sense of the affair, then? It was just over four years ago, when Zee was three. Ian, a guy I once slept with, friend-requested me on Facebook. I recall experiencing a twinge of something, a flutter in my belly I could have interpreted as a prescient warning. I brushed away the sensation and thought, Nah, it’s just Facebook, and it’s been ages since we last saw each other. Plus, I’d heard from a friend in common that he’d moved to England. I thought we’d share a few likes, perhaps a little lurking. No problem.

At the time, I couldn’t admit to myself that it was cheating. There were no secret liaisons in two-and-half-star motels we’d paid for in cash. No late-night phone calls. No sexy photos. Leave it me to have an affair without ever really having an affair.

I layered on a thick foundation of denial until Murtuza found out. On a cool autumn evening, I returned home from Fresh Food Mart, lugging two heavy totes. When I saw his pained expression, I dropped the groceries, my fingers refusing to pretend that things were normal. Oranges rolled across the floor and I scrambled to collect them, glad for the small diversion of runaway citrus.

I’d left my computer on, my account open. Normally he wouldn’t have used my laptop, but he’d forgotten his at his office and needed to order a book online. That’s what he told me, anyway. I hope it was nothing more than that. I heard somewhere that eighty percent of betrayed spouses know when something is amiss and ambivalently search for evidence to the contrary. I don’t like to think about Murtuza being a part of that statistical majority. A part of me was self-righteous and indignant about the breach of privacy (“What were you doing snooping around on my Facebook account, anyway?”), but that fell flat when he looked at me beseechingly. “Why?” he asked, tears streaming down his cheeks. I wanted to dry his tears before they dripped off his chin onto the floor.

I sputtered a denial, “Nothing happened!”

He picked up my laptop and read aloud the latest message I’d sent to Ian. I went silent, and Murtuza continued reading, his voice growing louder, my indiscreet sentences to Ian booming and echoing off the kitchen tiles. I still said nothing, couldn’t form words, imagined Murtuza leaving me, our marriage ending over something so stupid. I felt like a failure, to both my husband and daughter.

He stomped down to the basement, and I crept upstairs to check on three-year-old Zee, who was fast asleep despite all the yelling. I watched her breathe and wept for the end of my good life. Then I headed to the kitchen, unfriended Ian, and turned off the laptop. I considered padding down the stairs to talk to Murtuza, but I knew it would be pointless. His questions and thoughts and feelings would swarm around me like angry wasps and I’d be unable to do anything but bat them away.

Murtuza slept on the basement pullout for three days. Each time he emerged to look after Zee or make himself a snack, I attempted impromptu explanations, wishing I was more articulate, had rehearsed a few repentant lines. I’ve never been good at communicating my feelings when overwhelmed. He moved back to our bedroom but wouldn’t talk to or touch me for another three days, despite my pleas and cajoling. Then, at last, on the seventh day, he threatened to end the marriage unless we saw a professional. He quoted facts and figures about infidelity and the importance of seeking immediate help. It was probably Murtuza who told me the statistic about cheated-on partners looking for clues.

Dr. Stanley met us together for the first session, during which Murtuza did most of the talking. I scanned the spacious office, which was mostly outfitted with Ikea furniture. Between nodding at Murtuza’s statements of why we were there, I mentally listed: Malm, Hemnes, Ektorp, Flöng, some of the items that fill our home. For years after we bought our bed, we referred to it as our Brimnes, our private joke. When had we stopped doing that?

During the following week’s one-on-one session that she called an “assessment,” Dr. Stanley wore her steel-grey hair in a single braid down her back, instead of loose, as she’d done during the couples’ session. She recommended that I break off contact with Ian, and I pouted and told her I’d already completed that act of contrition. She might have misinterpreted my stiff embarrassment as lack of guilt because she leaned forward in her seat and spoke loudly, perhaps thinking that her increased volume would help me comprehend the gravity of my situation. She insisted that I commit to owning the cheating, and I imagined it was like an expensive, later regretted, purchase. I understood what she was getting at but couldn’t help protesting, “But I didn’t even kiss him! I didn’t get to do anything! Nothing actually happened between us during those two months of messaging each other!” I was like a snot-nosed kid who’d been caught before tasting a shoplifted candy bar.

“Do you wish you had?” She puckered her lips and nodded, perhaps in an effort to look sympathetic. Had she ever cheated on the bald guy in the portrait on her desk? Maybe she understood my longing?

“Yes and no. I never wanted to hurt Murtuza.” I didn’t meet her gaze and instead focused on the hypnotic blue lines winding their way through her area rug. I wondered what its Ikea name might be. Then my hour was up.

Murtuza had his own individual session that week. I asked him how it went and he said, “Fine. You?” I said my session went fine, too.

A week later, Dr. Stanley began our session with a monologue mostly addressed to my side of the room. She suggested that I was seeking something lost, something left behind that wasn’t literally Ian, but a part of myself that I’d once expressed with Ian. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but my eyes welled up in response.

Murtuza took my hand, and his own eyes moistened, his black lashes made even prettier by his tears. I hated myself for hurting this man with pretty eyelashes. I hated myself for almost sabotaging my marriage to this man with pretty eyelashes.

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