Dystopian

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Crosshairs

Crosshairs

A Novel
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The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales
Excerpt

Happy Birthday, Jesse Vanderchuck!

It’s been forty years since I’ve seen the ocean. I mark that moment, the one when I first witnessed that infamous vastness, as one of rebirth. Standing on a wet beach, as near the break of day as makes no difference, I felt no larger than a mote. And hanging there, weightless, waiting for the sea to speak, I knew that one day I was going to die.

We were on a rare cross-country trip to visit my mother’s family. A three-hour drive down to Toronto, followed by a four-hour flight to B.C. From our little patch outside of Trout Creek to a commuter town east of Vancouver. My sister, Olivia, having just turned one, spent much of the journey letting us all know her displeasure, her volume turned to eleven.

I remember a lot of tension: my father constantly cracking his loud farmer’s knuckles. My mother’s company laugh — the she did reflexively when burdened with keeping the peace. It was less like fakery and more like camouflage.

There were unfamiliar foods I was expected to try and, more importantly, to like. Big Hungarian-style dishes like cabbage rolls and sour cream and sweet pierogies. I mean, who’d ever heard of a sweet pierogi? I heard a litany of cajoling that trip. There was the try it, you’ll like it; the just a bite, for Grandma; and the final concession, you don’t know what you’re missing. Perhaps I didn’t, but that was for me to decide, wasn’t it?

I did my best — less out of familial obligation and more out of my understanding of social rules. Not to mention the certainty that I’d bear the brunt of my dad’s frustrations should I be too resistant. My father was not a violent man. I don’t want to give that impression. He was a man easily irritated, and he was known to lack discretion when it came to venting his ire. I found it best to keep my head down and avoid catching friendly fire.

Anyway, the trip to the ocean. Dad had bundled us all into the car before sunrise, groggy and confused. Our soundtrack was the warm drone of CBC morning radio, the perfectly smooth diction of trained voices punctuated by interludes of indie rock or Inuit throat singing.

Dad was beaming with excitement, rare enough to begin with and historically fragile. As sleepy as I was, I had a tingle at the back of my mind that signalled caution. Not enthusiastic enough and he’d be disappointed. Too over the top and he’d suss I was faking. Whatever we were up for, I needed to craft an appropriate response, lest the ornament of his enthusiasm be carelessly crushed.

My mother, in many ways, was too honest for my kind of calculated behaviour. As much as she loathed conflict, she just as frequently waded into it as avoided it. Brave faces only took her so far. In any pantomime, she inevitably hit some kind of wall, beyond which there was no room for dishonesty. She was especially vulnerable at times when her guard was naturally low. Like then, as dawn broke wide against the horizon, at the very crack of creation.

When we left the main road to take a rutted dirt track between a pair of high grassy dunes, she muttered something like, “Where are we?”

Innocent enough. Reasonable, certainly. Perhaps her tone was slightly too sharp, or maybe the words hit some particular structural defect in Dad’s buoyant mood. An underlying pessimism kept him expecting negativity, so he might’ve reacted the same way regardless of what was said or by whom. The air in the car seemed to seize up like stricken oobleck. I knew that the calm was over. Time for the storm.

I was in the back seat on the driver’s side. In the rear-view mirror, I could see Dad’s mild smile wrench into a deep frown. From the top of his plaid-flannel collar, a line of sunrise-red crept up the nape of his neck. He bounced his palm off the top of the steering wheel before replying.

“I thought,” he said, voice drawn taut with careful control, “we would all enjoy going for a little drive to the ocean.”

On the radio, DNTO signed off, thanking its producers and contributors. Mum squinted at the dashboard clock. “We’re on vacation. Why so early?”

Now the steering wheel was squeezed, thick fingers squeaking as they rotated over the leatherette. Dad’s habit of intermittently clicking from halfway down his throat intensified, a sure signal he was about to boil over.

“Well, we’re here now, but if you want, we can just turn around and go home.”

Mum sighed, resigning herself to the familiar situation. We passed a sign that told us we were Now Entering Porteau Cove Provincial Park, and that swimming in the ocean was forbidden here. Barely glimpsed small print specified acidification, plastic pollution, and hordes of Humboldt squid as reasons to stay out of the water. As I breathed relief that I wasn’t the one who had set Dad off this time, I wondered if the squid mentioned were the ones that had developed venom sacs filled with liquefied PVC.

“Don’t be like that,” Mum said. “It’s a bad example for the children.”

No, I begged silently. Don’t drag me into this!

I watched Dad’s eyes flash up in the rear-view, their distinct blue hue gone hard and icy, and felt a pang of sorrow. As much as I was in for self-preservation, I felt bad for him. It’s hard for a kid to see a parent unhappy, and my father was rarely happy. The only place that kept him pleased for any length of time was his woodshop. For him, the meticulous tuning of tools, the cleaning and maintaining of machines, were akin to raking a Zen garden. If only he could’ve found that meditative calm at times like this. Maybe I should have carried around a set of oily socket wrenches as a preventative measure, dosing them out as needed.

The car stopped. Outside the sky was a shade paler than the smoked salmon frequently splayed across a long white plate on Grandma’s breakfast table. Gulls wheeled like shreds of paper being juggled on competing breezes, their gurgling laughter bouncing between sea and sky.

Back home, beside the creek formerly laden with trout, early mornings were nearly silent. Silvered snakes of mist coiled out from between trees along the face of the distant forest. Ghosts of blue jay and chickadee calls drifted across hushed fields, and the whole world felt painted onto the inside of a blown-glass bulb: frail and ready to shatter at the first loud sound.

Here there was no shortage of noise. Instead the swelling roar of what turned out to be the ocean itself permeated the stillness of the car. There were the gulls calling down to the fleets of sandpipers, and the sandpipers chirping amongst themselves as they ran stifflegged, weaving in and out of the surf.

The instant the engine went still, I was out the door, so glad to be free of the stifling tension that I nearly leapt into the sky. The sand was wet and dense underfoot, more like semi-set concrete than the gravelly lake beaches I was used to. It slapped beneath my sneakers as I ran toward the great shifting roar, away from what was almost certainly now a full-blown argument between my parents. I imagined I could hear Olivia’s rising cry from her car seat, as much from being woken up as from any situational distress. Given her status as the beloved baby, her upset might well have quelled my parents’ ire, redirecting their energies to sooth her. I couldn’t know, because I was close enough to the waves that their noise was all-consuming.

And the winds — one blew out from across the land, the great bellowing breath of the rising sun, flattening the fields of sea grasses and thrusting fists of warm air into my lower back. Another gust crashed boisterously from the water itself, its clammy, saltcrusted arms wide and sweeping, forcing me to brace against being knocked over.

It really was too bad that Dad didn’t get to see my reaction when I first set eyes on the ocean. He’d have been so pleased to see my ten-year-old mouth gaped in utter wonder. My instinct was to head directly for the water’s edge, to place my feet along the shifting join where it met the land, the way I did at Wolf Lake. Thankfully, I had enough sense to hang back. Even so, about every fifth wave came in so hard I was misted by spray. The smell was overwhelming and alien — fishy and salty and ancient. It assaulted the senses until, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Deep in the oldest part of my brain, it was understood as familiar. Beyond familiar even, if such a thing exists. It was huge and terrifying and unmistakably vital.

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Savage Gerry
Excerpt

 

Orville, you in there? the barrel-shaped man called out.

Through the dust and the flicker of flies, his flashlight found Jules coughing into his arm.

You ain’t Orville.

No, Jules choked out. I’m—

But he was cut off by the man before he could continue.

God, don’t it reek in here!

Gerald could see that the barrel-shaped man was short, shorter even than his own five foot eight, and wore a beard a shade longer, its brackish curls straggling over a belly so big and round it’d be a miracle if he could touch the pads of his fingers together in front of him. He had one arm crooked over his mouth to guard against the stench and all Gerald could see of his face were his eyes, black pits winking against the dust.

Smells like something died, the barrel-shaped man was saying and that snapped Gerald out of his daze.

That’d be Orville, he said.

The moment he spoke the flashlight searched him out, striking upon what must have appeared to the other a strange and gnomic cave-dwelling creature cowering on the top bunk and squinting against its glower.

What’d you say?

I said, That’d be Orville.

He’s dead?

Five days now.

You kill him?

There was a hint of accusation in his voice and that and the way his free hand had searched out the stock of the automatic pistol slung on a strap over his shoulder had Gerald vigorously shaking his head.

No, he said. They never came by with his shot.

The flashlight had taken to darting about the cell, chasing the dark out of its corners. Finding no evidence of Orville’s remains, it again sought out Gerald.

What’d you do, eat him?

Last I saw he was lying on the floor, about where you’re standing now.

The barrel-shaped man looked down to his feet. The flashlight lit over a stain the colour of motor oil. He seemed to get the point and turned back to the gaping hole in the wall. The beam scanned over the pile of rubble just beyond and the man was just moving after it when Jules finally found the will to speak again.

You want to tell us what the fuck’s going on? he asked.

Well, what do you think? the barrel-shaped man said, turning back and flashing them an impish sort of grin.

It’s a goddamn jail break!

 

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The Centaur's Wife
Excerpt

PROLOGUE

In the beginning, a horse fell in love with a woman. Because magic was strong in the ground there, the horse dug himself a grave on his mountain and slept in it, buried in the dirt, on the one night a year when the stars are at their brightest. In the morning, he climbed out of the dirt as a man and made his way down the mountain. He stole clothes from a line when no one was looking and learned human language by watching men and women in the market square. The mountain’s magic was still with him, so he learned quickly, and by the time he reached the woman’s village you would never have guessed that he still had the heart of a stallion.

He’d been beautiful as a horse—black-maned and black-skinned, a white star in the centre of his forehead—and he was beautiful as a man, black-skinned and tall, a shock of white in his dark hair. The woman fell in love with him almost right away. He seemed wild to her but also familiar—she sensed a power in him that she wanted for herself, a different set of eyes with which to view the world. They courted and were married before the moon changed. The entire village came out to the wedding. After the music and the dancing were over, the villagers left them in the wedding tent—bright-eyed and flushed, two very-nearly strangers who were surprised to find themselves alone.

The woman was so beautiful he was afraid to touch her. She had lilies in her soft blonde hair and designs painted up and down her arms. The designs asked for happiness, health, children, an ever-loving husband—all of the good things anyone might wish a bride. The husband felt the symbols reach out and touch his stallion’s heart for the smallest of instants—felt them know, and pull away. A draft blew through the room, then the air cleared again.

In less than a month, the woman was pregnant. The pregnancy was hard but not unbearable, and the husband was so besotted with his wife, so fearful for her safety, that he carried her almost everywhere they went. In time she grew so big the villagers began to prepare for triplets. A neighbour fashioned a cart like a rickshaw, so when his wife became too big for him to carry, the husband could pull her around like a queen. Sometimes he gave the village children rides when they asked. Sometimes, when his wife was in pain, he did not.

She was pregnant for longer than usual. As her belly grew enormous, the rest of her became a shadow. When her time finally came, the panic in her blue eyes made the village midwives nervous, and so the elders sent for one of the doctors who travelled the countryside. Sometimes women left when children came into the world, and they weren’t about to let that happen. The doctor was also a woman. She was kind and gentle, with hands that were as strong as those of any man in the village, except perhaps the wife’s own husband.

The wife had gone into labour in the morning and struggled all that day and into the next. You could see the babies in her belly, trying to break through this last membrane, their sharp little fists and heels making bumps beneath her skin. But try as she might, she couldn’t push them out. After the second morning, the doctor placed a hand inside the wife and felt legs where a baby’s head needed to be.

“The first is breech,” she said, “and I can’t turn it. I’ll have to operate.”

No one in the village had ever seen an operation of any kind, and people crowded around the door and the windows. Everyone was worried. Would the babies survive? Would the wife? No one could bear to look at the anguish in the husband’s face.

But the doctor was the best, or so they’d been told, and she did not seem worried. She numbed the wife with drugs as best she could, then took her scalpel and made the first incision, quick and clean. Blood beaded up and ran down the wife’s belly.

As she worked, the doctor hummed a wordless song to calm the wife. “Three cuts,” she said, and smiled. “Three doors into the world for three special babies.” Her second incision pierced the fascia. The crowd had gone quiet, the only noise the doctor’s humming and the soft sounds of tissue giving way.

At the third cut, her scalpel gently slit the uterine wall. She did not stop humming. She set down her knife, pressed down and pushed in and scooped out the first baby.

The house went still for the smallest of moments. And then the screaming started.

The babies—and there were three of them—were red and squalling, one darker, two pale, all with the wife’s blue eyes and a perfect, plump little torso atop the body of a tiny horse. Each leg, slick with mucus, ended in a dark little hoof. A tiny girl, two tiny boys. The midwives all ran for the door. Monsters! they cried as they fell outside. They are monsters! Heaven help us. Get them away! When the villagers tried to rush inside, the husband roared with fury and blocked the way.

The doctor—whose hands didn’t shake, even now—laid each baby on the table, one by one. Then she turned back to the wife, still humming, and stitched up her wound as though nothing had happened. The wife, whose eyes were wide with terror, looked from the doctor to the babies and back, over and over. She didn’t look at her husband, who stood silent by the closed door. When she tried to speak, the doctor hushed her.

“You’ve been through so much,” the doctor said. She paused in her stitching and laid a hand against the wife’s cheek. “I think you should sleep now.” Perhaps the words were magic, perhaps it was the touch of her hand, but the wife fell asleep almost right away. When her breathing was untroubled and her stitches were done and the wound bandaged, the doctor moved to the crying babies and checked them over. They had strong lungs, she saw, and two hearts—one above, and one below—beating in sync.

“Lies will always come out,” the doctor said. “Even lies with the best of intentions.” She didn’t look up from the babies.

The husband didn’t say a word.

“You’ll have to leave,” the doctor said, “with the children. They won’t let you stay here.”

The husband swallowed hard. The doctor raised her head and watched him as the things he couldn’t say caught in his throat. “You aren’t from here,” she said. “You should take the children back to your old life.”

“My wife,” he said, finally. “What about my wife?”

The doctor, whose own mother had once been called a witch, knew of ground magic and could guess what had happened. She checked the babies over a last time—they’d all fallen silent—and considered a moment before she spoke. “Your wife won’t come.”

The husband shook his head. “No, she will come.” She loved him. Wasn’t he still a man, despite his stallion’s heart?

The doctor looked at the babies again—they were beautiful, in their strange, ungodly way—and sighed. Life and death went everywhere with her in her travels, hand in bloody hand. “If you do not leave tonight,” she said, “the villagers will kill them.” She’d seen enough of this to know—a deformed limb, a child born without a face. A child with no arms who’d been left outside to die in the snow. “They will kill you, too, if you fight them. If you love your children, you need to take them away.”

She could hear the pounding of his heart now, like a drum announcing its own end. He said, “I won’t leave without her.”

But when the wife woke up and saw the babies, she screamed with rage and hit the husband with her fists. “Kill them,” she told the doctor. “What monsters are these?” Who was he, this man she’d called her husband? He looked like a man but he wasn’t. She’d been deceived. Everything she’d
known was a lie. She had no husband now. “Get them away from me,” she said, and she covered her eyes in terror and disgust. “Get them away.”

When they heard her scream, the villagers began to pummel the house with shovels and sticks. The doctor swaddled the children as best she could, and when she placed them in the husband’s arms, he gathered each child numbly to his chest. He could barely understand what was happening. The doctor put goat’s milk in a couple of bottles, tucked them in her own satchel along with her provisions, and slung it over his shoulder. “It’s not a lot of food,” she said, “enough for a day, maybe two. Protect their heads,” she added, and then she swung open the door and stepped outside.

Such was her power—even now, after delivering these monster children—that the villagers fell quiet.

“They are leaving,” the doctor said, pitching her voice to reach all of the crowd. “They will not bother you anymore. Let them go.”

“They’re monsters!” someone cried. Inside the house, the wife began to wail. “We don’t want them here!”

“They are going and will not come back,” the doctor said, and the husband slipped out into the space that her words made. The villagers looked at the bundles in his arms and shrank back, and they let him walk past them and vanish into the darkness beyond their fires.

The man headed back to the mountain from which he’d come, grief and anger struggling in his heart. He fed the children the goat’s milk and soothed them when they cried, then found and milked more goats. When they reached his mountain, he climbed as far as he could, to where the magic of the mountain was the strongest, and he dug them a grave there, in the reddish-brown dirt beneath three weeping willows. It was not a night bright with stars, but he hoped the magic would still save them. The mountain—his home for so long—would save them. The magic of the trees around them, the roots that they pressed into the soil—all of these things had brought him to his love once, and they would do so again. They would make his children whole and human.

When the night deepened, he lowered the babies into the grave and, when they began to wail, settled himself in beside them and held them close. He pulled enough dirt over them to bury them almost but not quite. The babies, comforted by the closeness of his heartbeat, went silent. When he slept, they slept too. In his dreams, he stood beneath the sky and begged the mountain and the ground: Make them like me. Give them what you gave to me. In the dream he saw them all, two-legged and free, running in the village with the other girls and boys. Their mother smiled at them
as they played—everyone whole now, everyone happy.

In the morning, though, when the father pushed aside some of the dirt, he saw that the babies were unchanged. And when he stood up and looked down at himself, he saw his old black stallion chest and legs, though his arms were still the arms of a man and his human head still ached with
grief. Because, as the mountain knew, he had a stallion’s heart but a man’s love and longing. Like the babies, he belonged neither to one world nor the other, but somewhere in between. He wept then, for the first time. When he was done weeping, he woke the children, who’d grown bigger
overnight, and they crawled out of the hole to him. They stood on spindly legs and looked around at the morning, as though they had new eyes.

So it came to pass that the father and his children spent the rest of their days on the mountain. After a while the father stopped dreaming about his two-legged children running in the village, and eventually—long years later—he dreamed less of his wife. His children grew happy and strong; they’d known no other life. Though sometimes a rage would break in them and the father would be reminded of his wife, his human love, whose anger had erupted like a volcano, whose rage still burned bright at his betrayal. Other times, the fierceness of their anger would remind the father of himself, and the dark things he harboured, the grief that never went away. He tried to be gentle with them when they raged, but the children grew wary of their own anger, the same way they grew wary of their father’s love for them and the way he so jealously guarded their home.

When their father died, after many more years, they buried him beneath the three willows and wept over his grave, then slept there, sprawled beneath the stars. The next morning, when the sun came up, new beings pulled themselves out of the dirt where their father had been, beings that also had
the heads and arms of humans and the strong bodies of horses. When the children looked at all of these new siblings, they saw the mountain’s own glimmering anger in their deep and darkened eyes, and understood that though the mountain had taken their father back and given the children
companions so that they would not be alone, it had also not forgotten their father’s betrayal in leaving the mountain so long ago. It had given them a gift, but also a warning.

And that is how the centaurs came to be.

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