An intimate yet wide-sweeping story of a marine biologist working to save ocean ecosystems from climate change.
With the world’s oceans ravaged by climate change, Émeraude, a young marine biologist, works to preserve aquatic ecosystems by recreating them for zoos. When her work earns her a spot aboard a research vessel with an extended mission in the Arctic, it is the inescapable draw of the ocean that will save her when the world she leaves behind is irrevocably changed.
Stories of Émeraude’s ancestors — a young sailor abandoned at birth, a conjuror who mixes potions for her neighbours, a violent young man who hides in the woods to escape an even more violent war, and a talented young singer born to a mother who cannot speak — weave their way through her intimate reflections on a modest life, unknowingly shaped by those who came before.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the authors
J.D. Kurtness won the Indigenous Voices Award for French Prose in 2018 for De vengeance. She lives in Montreal.
Pablo Strauss’s previous translations for Coach House Books are The Country Will Bring Us No Peace, The Supreme Orchestra, and Baloney. He is a two-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation, for Synapses (2019) and The Longest Year (2017). Pablo grew up in Victoria, B.C., and has lived in Quebec City for fifteen years.
Excerpt: Aquariums (by (author) J.D. Kurtness; translated by Pablo Strauss)
My first memory is a fantasy: I’m thigh-deep in a layer of flour that stretches to the horizon. It’s a pillowy world of white, dampening all sound. Solitude.
In my fantasy, I get to roll around in this flour for all eternity. I can see my compact four-year-old body, my underwear, my fine hair, and nothing else. It’s a small heaven made for me alone, a thousand miles from that other dimension overcrowded with pious people I’ve never met, strolling along on the clouds. For a moment I swim, suspended in my desert of flour. It’s softer than silk.
I return to this fantasy whenever I’m alone and before I fall asleep and again when I wake up. Whenever they leave me alone, basically. As soon as I get the chance, I dive right into this powdery realm of imagination. I become a worm, as tiny as a grain of rice, and tuck myself away in a bag in the back of the cupboard.
My mother dies. I’m not surprised. I’ve had time to get used to the idea. She was sick. One day she’s there, loudly emptying the dishwasher; then she’s in the hospital, and then comes the funeral home. I know it took her four months to die. That’s what the grownups say anyway. But the mom I knew had already been gone for a long time. I’ll never again visit that room with the light-blue paint and the machines. That frail body in the centre of the bed. That naked skull, those sunken eyes surrounded by purplish circles. The acrid smell of her medication. Where is she now, the smiling woman I see holding a baby in that photo in the kitchen hallway? I overhear someone telling my father I’m already done mourning.
I emerge from my white haze to find my father crying. We’re in the car. He’s driving; I’m strapped into my car seat in the back. I come out of my inner world and listen to the strange sounds he’s making. My woollen tights are uncomfortable, and the label on my dress scratches my neck. It’s cold in the car. It’s raining. My new shoes are covered in mud. I was careful, but I wanted to throw a handful of earth on the coffin, to be like the others. I fight off the urge to wipe my hand clean on my clothes. It stays dirty.
We’re parked in front of our house. I wait in silence for my father to pull himself together and come help me get unbuckled. Then I’ll be able to take off my shoes, wash my hands, change my clothes, and watch TV.
My favourite toy at five is a miniature blue-and-yellow stethoscope. It’s part of a medical kit, a set of scientific instruments that rest, each in its assigned place, inside a beige plastic case. I check the heart rate of everything: the floor, the walls, the cat, the dogs, my legs, my hands, my chest, my head. I check the ground to hear the earthworms wriggling beneath the surface. I check the trees to hear the sap flowing, but the little scratches I hear are birds walking along the upper branches. I press the stethoscope’s drum on our appliances and our doors. My favourite test subject is, of course, my father. And I have to face facts. A broken heart beats exactly like an unbroken one.
I decide I’m going to be a veterinarian. I make bandages for my stuffed toys out of rags and fashion an IV drip with drinking straws that draw from an apple juice bottle filled with water. I care for my dolls as best I can. They cough. They give birth. They catch the flu, cancer, chicken pox, cystic fibrosis. I pat them on the back for minutes on end so they can expel their secretions. They get better.
I start kindergarten at the same time as my neighbour. Valérie Lagueux has brown hair and is a full head taller than me. I spend a lot of time at her house after school, waiting for my dad to get home. But I don’t really like it at the Lagueux’s house. They have too much stuff. It feels as if all the furniture in the house is conspiring to target my shinbones with its sharp corners. Valérie’s mom is constantly angry, and she snaps at us. Everything we do seems to annoy her. She’s constantly asking us to go play outside so she can do the cleaning. And she never lets me take her heart rate. Maybe she doesn’t want me to find out that she doesn’t have one?
Mrs. Lagueux is a nurse. I imagine her ripping out IV drips, pressing down hard on patients’ bruises, shaking them, yelling at them. A scary thought occurs to me. What if all nurses are like this the second visitors leave the hospital room? What hell did my mom have to go through? I can’t ask my father, because talking about my mother makes him sad, and I hate seeing him cry.
Valérie doesn’t seem bothered by her mother’s attitude. The same goes for her little sister. Andréanne is only sixteen months old — still a baby, really — but I don’t like her. She wears glasses that give her fish eyes, slobbers copiously, and eats dirt that collects with the uneaten bits of food on her chin and cheeks, forming little crusts. She’s got a perpetually snotty nose. She may not talk yet, but she sure screams, staring right at you, with her mouth agape. And Valérie and I are the ones who get stuck playing with her and looking after her. I think she might have a mental disability, but don’t dare ask. Thank God I’m an only child. No one gets to choose their siblings.
Mr. Lagueux works a lot, just like my dad. I leave when he gets home. He has a Mister Potato Head moustache, black hair, and pale white skin, even in summer. He usually wears a green tie. He’s very tall and smells like perfume, more strongly than a woman even. The air in Valérie’s parents’ room is saturated with it. When I get back home, I sometimes feel like the scent has infused me as well. Mr. Lagueux also has hair plugs. Sad, lonely hairs have been sown in rows like saplings, from his forehead over the top of his skull. They gleam under the kitchen ceiling’s halogen bulbs.
When I’m six, I ask my dad for a dog. The answer is no. No cat either. No rabbit, no parrot, no hamster. I swear up and down that I’ll take care of my own pet, but nothing makes a difference. I’m jealous of the boy whose mother comes to meet him every day after school with a black dog. When he gets off the school bus, the dog wags its tail. His mother tries to kiss him, but he pushes her away in annoyance. I must make a weird face as I watch them, because Valérie’s convinced I want to go out with him. Maybe I do. I mean, just to play with that dog. And get a closer look at this woman who caresses her son’s neck with her thumb.
Reading, counting, learning new things? Easy-peasy. Valérie resents me and calls me a nerd. I tell her she just has to concentrate. That’s the secret: you just have to look straight ahead to keep an eye on what’s happening and listen to the teacher’s explanations. It’s beyond me how anyone could fail to get this or forget what the teacher told us just the day before. When I ask my dad, he tells me not to be mean to my classmates. I do my homework on the bus and let Valérie copy it. I always make a few mistakes, on purpose, and then correct them once I get home.
All through primary school, my dad isn’t home much. And when he is, he’s tired. We’re getting by, one way or another, but he knows he should be more present. And he feels guilty. He wants to send me to boarding school. That would mean going away to a new school, since the one in our small town doesn’t take boarders. The one in the city won’t have me because I’m too young. My dad tries telling them I’m mature for my age, and I’d be better off there than here with him. Nothing doing. Boarders have to be at least eleven. No exceptions. In the meantime, he’ll just have to keep working the same long hours. Money doesn’t grow on trees. I get it. Maybe next year.
Aquariums is a luminous, touching and comforting book, written with great clarity. In other words, a healing read. It can be read in a single sitting, and picked up again when one’s soul needs soothing.