War & Military

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Take a time warp into the strange and painful life of men past, present, and future

"The first time I met my half-brother I was seventeen and he was fourteen. When I arrived at the airport in Virginia and saw the hale blue-jeaned boy and his mother, as thin and erratic as the menthol 100 she soon lit up, I knew I should have left my schoolwork behind."

The second time Andrew sees his half-brother, Hugh, is at their father’s funeral. Andrew has little interest in the father with whom he grew up, but Hugh, who looks like a country-rock star, is fascinated by the life and writings of the reclusive man he hardly knew. When Hugh finds a book in his father’s study, a mysterious work by Rafael Estrada, he is certain that it holds the key to his identity.

A Song from Faraway takes readers from 19th-century Prince Edward Island to modern day Iraq. An Irish-Acadian soldier carries his fiddle and folksong across the battlefields of the First World War. An orphan-turned-assassin pursues his target across the deserts of Mexico and Texas, using a novel as evidence for his location. Relationships are forged and broken, wars are fought, and trauma is handed down from father to son.

With whispers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A Song from Faraway pieces together "the stories that we tell about ourselves" in a picaresque novel of uncommon beauty and ferocity.

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Girl at the Edge of Sky
Excerpt

Prisoner

UKRAINE
August 1943

Her Fall
She bursts through the clouds and opens her eyes. The sound of engines is receding, the sky around her empty. There’s no one to see that her eyes are grey, that she wears a scarf made from parachute silk tucked inside her collar to keep it from chafing her neck, that her boots aren’t regulation, or that she is several kilometres above the earth on which human beings have evolved.

In this war, people are always falling from the sky. They’re flung bouquets picked up by the wind, which carries them over fields and forests and towns. The wind fans pretty flames, it blows ash and smudges the sky. It spits the smell of mud, moss, rot, and the forge. It skims creeks and rustles leaves, it gropes in the gaps between wood and skin and blackening metal. The skin of a plane, the skin of a man, anything loose, anything fluid—blood, water—are all of a piece to the wind, which is neither friend nor enemy, though if you’re the one in mid-air, you might feel otherwise.

Where is the wind taking her?

She has no other thought; the roar of air fills her ear. It presses her skin, and in its touch there’s no protest from wounds, only the pleasure of wingless flight. She has as much substance as a god reclining on a bed of air. Above her, threads of cloud separate, and sun turns the heavens blue, more blue than colour can be. Everything she surveys is exquisite. The sky is her secret retreat, her private sin. She doesn’t need a plane or time. She has no past. She floats without fear.

Her hand pulls the rip cord, knowing what needs to be done now. She feels the yank of straps as her parachute opens, capturing air, halting flight and sound. Her weight dangles from the harness. She comes back to what passes for reality. 

Her name is Lily—Litvak or Litvyak. Something like that anyway.She’s blond by peroxide. She’s small by nature. Her age depends onthe papers you look at. Nineteen is a possibility. This day, August 1 and about midday, she blacked out as she slipped into the clouds, regaining consciousness when warmer air struck her face. The wind is pushing her westward.

Smoke hasn’t left her nostrils, nor the smell of tarry residue, though she sees no trace of the aircraft that were chasing her. Looking down, she finds her bearings by water: the meandering tendrils of green to the left are the Don River and its tributaries; the vast blue pool to the south is the Sea of Azov. She’s over the Donetsk region in the eastern Ukraine, close to the border with Russia but behind enemy lines. Like anyone who still survives, she’s had narrow escapes, and she plans on another as she descends, thinking the wind might drop her in the long grass of a field where she could hide until night.

The Don River leaves her field of vision. Mottled earth surges into shapes, the map below reconfiguring as she descends, more detailed than the one in her flight jacket and yet the same, made by an uneasy alliance of hands, nature’s and men’s: undulating rivers, lumpy hills, tracts of green and gold in squares and parallelograms. Men like geometry. Nature throws herself at her materials with abandon, which is how Lily flew her plane and drove her commanding officer crazy. She wears men’s underpants because the army can’t seem to get the hang of making any for the million women in it. As the harness pulls on her, the underpants get into the crack of her bottom, and the tugging bothers her more than her injured shoulder and the burn on her hand.

A squiggle in the landscape expands to a twisting line closer than the Don. This is the Krynka River, marked on her aviator’s map. It’s small, narrow, a peasant of a river invisible from any higher altitude. The golden fields could be wheat or rye, the green must be corn. It’s been ages since she’s smelled an unburnt field. Her world has been a desert of grey and black and red, its odour of crushed tanks and half-buried corpses reaching a kilometre high.

The river snakes through and around the fields, stopping short of the ruler-straight grey line that is a road. She closes her eyes for a moment, hoping to God, if there is one, that she won’t go to a POW camp. Any other fate she’ll accept. And though she doesn’t pray, she recites a rhyme her grandmother taught her: Don’t give a fuck what people say, make your luck and make them pay.

As the wind dies, she stops moving in a westerly direction anddrops straight down toward shades of green along the peasant river. Colour takes on dimension. Trees spring up: a stand of woods near a stream, and she’s rushing into their humble leafiness, these steppe trees that hug the water, a refuge of sorts. A branch catches her parachute, the harness yanks her shoulders. Still damp from the clouds, she pushes up her goggles and takes stock.

She’s wounded, but not mortally. She has a knife and her pistol. The war is two years old. She doesn’t think she’ll live long enough to have children.

Nesting birds call and bring food to their fledglings as if she’s just a fruit or an oversized flower or even a large fungus growing out of the tree trunk. From here she can see the other bank of the Krynka River, steeper, rockier. Pasture without sheep, a ramshackle cottage and beside it a small garden. Beyond her sight, farther west, her grandmother is living under German occupation.

This side of the riverbank is dense with low vegetation where she can hide if she detaches herself from the tree, but she can’t move. Her muscles are flaccid, her brain rambling; all this peaceful greenery is sapping her will. Where the sun falls on her between the leaves, she feels patches of warmth. Shell fragments are embedded in the flesh of her right shoulder. She can bend her arm a bit, but lifting it is agony. Blood seeps into the sleeve, a slow leak, and as long as she stays still, nothing will hurt more. The harness holds her likea child’s swing, like the ones in the Moscow park where she climbed her first tree. She tore her dress and knew she’d get spanked for it, but she pushed herself to the high branches, where she stood as still as if bark grew out of her bare soles, eye to eye with a yellow-chested bird. It was only later, after the spanking and after the rip was sewn up, that she felt remorse over the scarring of her favourite dress.

In the fields beyond the woods, distant figures like cloth dolls bend and stand. If they come any closer, they’ll show themselves as human, and of all the varieties she knows, there are few she wishes to encounter while strapped to a tree. Unthinkingly, Lily moves her left hand, brushing its blistered back against some leaves. She can’t stop the odd sound that issues from the base of her throat, half gulp, half moan, and she clamps the uninjured palm over her mouth. She isn’t entirely alone; she hears voices, they’ve followed her from the plane.

You silly girl, what did you do to yourself? Don’t tell me you can’t get down. Am I talking to a wall? You need a smack to clear your ears? Pull the left strap high up. Like that. See how easy the hand goes through? It’s fine. Don’t make a noise. You want the neighbours to hear? If you’re so feeble, you have no business shooting down planes. How many today—two? My God, what am I going to do with you?

The left strap is off. Panting, head hanging, sweat pooling under her leather cap, Lily holds on to the branch with her burned hand, all the weight of the harness on her shot shoulder as she tries to slide out of its strap. Her grandmother can scold, but Lily is done. She’s going to fall. 

What a face you’re making. It isn’t time for a vacation, lazy girl. Forget the shoulder. Just pull the strap down. Get the arm out. So the parachute is stuck on a little branch. Pull. Again. Don’t sit with it in your arms like a wedding dress. Roll it up. Hurry. Stuff it into the pack.

Her grandmother’s approval was never easy to come by. Lily has to stand, relying on her left arm to support her, clinging to the trunk as she seeks a foothold on a lower branch.

Good girl. My beautiful Lil’ka.

The next thing she knows, she’s on the ground.

When she opens her eyes, she’s on her back and dizzy, long grass striping her view. An accelerating aircraft exerts on its pilot a force several times that of gravity, but a good pilot won’t faint under the pressure. Yet she toppled like a toddler. It’s embarrassing. A fly walks on her cheek, an ant on her neck, everything that’s earthbound creeping and scratching like capitalists. She hopes there aren’t any snakes.

As she rolls over, the sheathed knife in her belt knocks against her hip. She wants to put her hands on the ground and hoist herself up, but her hands have no class loyalty, the left rising to escape the biting grass, the right hanging at the end of a wet string of an arm that refuses to take any weight. Fine, then. She’ll manage without them. Leaning on her left elbow, she humps herself to her knees like a cripple sent home from the war. She slides the elbow up her thigh, moving her centre of gravity as she sits on her knees. Her right arm still dangles uselessly, but her flight jacket and uniform have soaked up its blood. Nothing’s dripped on the grass to mark her presence. Not yet. Softly cupping the underside of her left knee, she inclines right and pushes up from her buttocks and out with her left foot. Uninjured, dependable foot, a shock worker that meets and exceeds quotas. It deserves a medal, the Red Star at least. Shifting her weight onto it, she stands, triumphant at the exertion of her will, recklessly exposed. 

From her magnificent ground-level vantage point, she sees tree trunks. Thin-leafed and thick-leafed bush. A small bird flying up. She turns her head. The steep and rocky left bank looms, a miniature version of great river embankments like the Don’s and the Volga’s. And, in her peripheral vision, a flash of brown that’s offhue, a tint that doesn’t match the woods, like a glint in the sky that is the enemy coming in from the sun. Overhead, crows are chasing a hawk, their loud caws covering the sound of her belated dive into the closest cover.

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