About the Author

Lynn Coady

Lynn Coady is a novelist and essayist whose fiction has been garnering acclaim since her first novel, Strange Heaven, was published and subsequently nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction when she was twenty-eight. Her short story collection Hellgoing won the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award, for which her novel The Antagonist was also nominated in 2011. Her books have been published in the UK, US, Holland, France, and Germany. Coady has been a journalist, magazine editor, and advice columnist, and is currently writing for television. She divides her time between Edmonton and Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @Lynn_Coady.

Books by this Author
Mean Boy

Mean Boy

edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

1.

He sat on his desk, positioned in front of this enormous window with the sunlight streaming all around his outline. I could barely look at him without going blind. He saw me squinting and shading my eyes and squeezing them shut when they started watering, but he didn't move, or close the curtain. He had a little teapot on the desk beside him and he kept picking it up and listening to it. He told me my poem should have a dead person in it.

"Maybe a murder or something," he said, "to make it more exciting."

I didn't know what to say so I talked about what was in the poem already. I said I thought that maybe it was a little wordy, that I hadn't figured out how to distill my ideas yet. I figured he could speak to this - none of his poems are any more than ten lines long, and half the time each line has no more than three or four words in it. He just sat there listening to his teapot as I rambled away, carefully using words like distill and cumbersome.

"I think maybe it's a little cumbersome?"

Everything I said went up in a question. I sounded like I was still in high school. I knew I had to learn how to stop talking like that, especially around this guy, but it got worse when I was nervous.

"No, no, it's not cumbersome. It just needs something to happen. Nothing happens in it. There's nothing wrong with a lot of words - I like words."

"But your poems are so..." I wanted a really perfect word for this. Terse. Brief. Scant. Scant? Scant was good. But did it have any negative connotations? Would he think I meant insubstantial?

"...short," I said, before the silence could thicken.

"Those are my poems," he said. "And my poems are great. I'm trying to learn not to insist that other writers write poems like mine. In fact I prefer that they don't. Listen to this for a minute." I thought maybe he was going to recite something, but instead he extended the little teapot so that I was compelled to get up out of my chair and come toward him.

I listened. It was full of tea. I could feel the heat radiating toward my cheek. It was making a buzzing sound, sort of like a horsefly.

"Hm," I said.

"It's buzzing," he said. "Why do you suppose it does that?"

"I think maybe air is trapped in there or something."

"Well, it's weird," said Jim Arsenault, the greatest living poet of our time.

I sit obsessing on this, fingers poised over my typewriter keys. Every time I blink, the silhouette of Jim outlined against his sun-filled window flashes inside my head, like it's been burned into my corneas. I hear him saying, Well, it's weird. I hear him saying everything but what I wanted to hear about my poetry. I hear more exciting, which means not exciting. It's hard to come up with something new, hearing that. It seems like it might be easier - more fun, more inspiring too, somehow - to tear the page from my typewriter's grip, slowly, without releasing the catch, so that it kind of shrieks as if in drawn-out pain.

I have a poem called "Poem Poem" taped to the window above my typewriter - by Milton Acorn, who is my hero because he is an unschooled genius who, like me, is from Prince Edward Island. The poem is about the good days and the bad days of writing poetry. The first stanza talks about a good day, how Poems broke from the white dam of my teeth. / I sang truth, the word I was... Heart and fist thumped together, it says, a line I love.

Then the second stanza describes the poem "I write today," how it "grins" at him while. It is truth,I chop it like a mean boy / And whittles my spine says Acorn with regard to this poem, the word I am not.

That's the poem. I look at it when I'm feeling lonely, and when I feel like a moron - a not exciting moron - for sitting in front of my typewriter thinking I'm a poet. Sometimes I love it, though - some days are as different from one another as the two stanzas of the poem. That's why I have it up there. Sometimes, even if I'm not writing, just the feel of being alone in my apartment in front of the typewriter is enough. I take off my shirt. I can see myself, I can see what I look like sitting here wearing nothing but jeans and glasses, me and my pale teenage limbs. I look like a poet. I know that I do. I believe in it, those days.

I, I'll type. And that will be enough.

Then there are the other days, when nothing is enough. The poem grins. It grins because it knows it is a terrible poem. It grins in embarrassment. It grins in pity. It grins in superiority. I may be a terrible poem, it grins, but at least I have one comfort. At least I'm not a terrible poet. At least I'm not the guy who sat in front of a typewriter for two hours coming up with the likes of me.

A girl named Sherrie is busy reading her work for Jim and the rest of us - mostly for Jim. I am busy being made uncomfortable by it. It's all about desire and sex, but there is nothing arousing going on in the least. I expected to not like it because it would be sentimental, but that isn't the problem. It's just Sherrie standing up there with her yellow curls going everywhere like a doll or a crazed cheerleader, semi-whispering about "folds in flesh" and "shimmering" this and "shuddering" that - it makes me queasy. It's only our second class, for God's sake. Meeting, Jim wants us to call it.

Jim doesn't seem to mind Sherrie's stuff. He stands with the same demeanour he has whenever anybody reads. He leans slightly against his desk, stares at the ground, and folds his arms way back behind his head, so that his elbows stick out on either side of it like huge animal ears, a rabbit man. He'll stand that way for as long as twenty minutes sometimes, depending on whatever anyone's reading. There is a guy named Claude from Moncton who writes villanelles. These villanelles go on forever sometimes, and Jim will just stand there all contorted until the very last line.

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Excerpt

Drinking

The father was drinking again, in celebration. John said it bothered him. He remembered being three, tooling around town in the green station wagon with fake wood on the sides, watching his father drink. He would drink and visit his friends, at their homes or at the boxing club. He would pull into the driveway, pause to smile at John, take a quick couple of swallows before reaching over to unbuckle the boy. And he would hoist his young son inside to show him off, both of them pink-cheeked. He showed her a picture of himself then, his little hands tied inside of a pair of enormous boxing gloves, his father perched behind him, holding them up to take aim at a smiling, sweaty man in trunks.

John was strapping then, and he was strapping now. One of the first things the father told her was that they used to have to pin John into three layers of diapers, he was such a big eater. It was obvious the old man and he were close. The second evening after she and John arrived, she stayed inside doing dishes with the mother, and saw the two of them sitting out in plastic chairs on the lawn, facing the shed with rums in hand. The mother said, “That should keep him happy for a while,” and the plastic chairs sagged and quivered from the weight of men. The father was built all of hard, stubborn fat, but John was just big. They sat quietly torturing their lawn chairs together.

He told her he used to be fat. He was very sensitive about it. He told her he had never told that to anyone. In high school he stopped eating and started taking handfuls of vitamins, which made him thin and absent-minded, but his mother stopped buying them and he had no choice but to go back to eating. In university he just gave in to everything and ate and drank until he ballooned. Now he was approximately in the middle, a big man with a thick beard. When he was fourteen, his father had him collecting UI for all the dishwashing he had done at the family restaurant, because the workers didn’t know any better from the size of him. She had thought, when she met John, that he looked like a lumberjack. He wore plaid shirts and work boots whenever she saw him in class, not because it was fashionable, and not fashionably, but because it was what he wore. She learned where he was from and imagined they all must dress like that, that it must be a very welcoming place, rustic and simple and safe, like John himself.

When his sister showed up, pasty and in leather pants despite the August swelter, the first thing she said to him was, “Hey, you fat shit.” Bethany knew that they had not seen each other in a couple of years. He reached over and grabbed one of the sister’s wrists. Her knees buckled at once and effortlessly he turned her around, already sinking. Then he grabbed the other wrist and held them together in one large paw while guiding her face-first to the kitchen floor, using her wrists as a sort of steering apparatus. Then he sat on her.

“Pardon?” he kept saying.

“You fat bastard.”

The father sat nearby, laughing. The mother saying, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny,” now, as she tried to move around them to the stove. Bethany and the sister were exactly the same age. She felt she should have something to say to her.

When the brother arrived, he at once began to beat and contort the sister in the same way, as if this were some sort of family ritual. She railed at him as he pulled her feet up behind her to meet her shoulders. Whereas John just used the sheer force of his bulk and his size, Hugh, smaller and wiry, was a dabbler in the martial arts. He said he used to box, like his father, but got bored with all the rules. Now he was interested in something called “shoot fighting,” which scarcely had any rules at all. He knew all sorts of different holds and manoeuvres, some of which he demonstrated on the sister for them. When he was finished – Ann yanking herself away, red-faced and hair awry and staggering towards the kitchen for a beer – he darted at John, head down and fists up. John responded in the way she had seen him do at bars whenever drunken men, maddened by his size, ran at him. The strategy was to reach out his big hands and simply hold the opponents at bay until they got tired and embarrassed.

Bethany thought of herself as an easygoing person and tried not to be nervous, but she and John were going to get married, and she knew that the family was striving to be civil in a way they were not used to. John kept cuffing his sister in the head whenever she said “goddamn ”or “cocksucker,” and quietly stating, “Dad,” when the father did the same. Bethany and the sister tried and tried to talk to each other, bringing up woman-things like belts and shampoo. She knew that the sister worked in theatre in Halifax and lived with a man who was thirty-five, and everyone was disappointed in her, but hoped she would soon turn her life around. It was touching the way the family spoke of Ann when she was out of the room. The father, overwhelming his armchair, ponderously clinking his ice cubes and turning to John.

“What do you think, me boy?”

“Well, who knows, boy.”

“She’s getting by,” the mother would say.

“But for how long?”

“We’ll talk to her at some point,” John promised, this being what the father was waiting to hear. The father was always turning to John and waiting to hear the right thing, and John always seemed to know what it was.

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Saints of Big Harbour
Excerpt

1982
Skin

All sorts of deals being made around here. According to Isadore, everything is working out "beautifully" for "everyone," meaning him. You'd think he'd planned on being arrested all along. So he is paroled to my mother for driving the truck not just drunk but without a driver's license or insurance. My mother pays the insurance now that she's got a job in Big Harbour. I drive the truck all around hell and back, chauffeuring the both of them. My mother into town for her job, Isadore into town (once my mother's gone as if she won't know) to the tavern. And what's Isadore's job in this great deal? Babysitting me, apparently. And Louise, who is seventeen and hardly ever around anyway. The judge was delighted, he said. "I'm just delighted at this prospect. What this man needs is the responsibilities of a home and a family. God bless his dear sister for her generosity."

But it was for the truck. She couldn't have taken the job without it.

Here is Isadore's idea of baby-sitting: he wakes up at seven when he smells the bacon I'm frying for breakfast. He staggers out of - whose bedroom? my bedroom - without even brushing his teeth or picking the crumbs out of his eyes and grabs the plate out of my hands just as I'm sitting down. Then he dumps a bottle of corn syrup all over the bacon so it's inedible for anyone except himself, and when I complain, he tells me to make my own. Make my own, like I hadn't just done it. He reeks. To cover up his bed head, he wears a cap that reads, Wine me, dine me, sixty-nine me!

"Don't forget to come get me at noon," he says when he's done eating, heading back to bed. So I get to take the truck to school, after dropping my mother off in Big Harbour, but so what.

My lunch hour is spent driving him into town. We stop at the bank first and he gives me money for gas. Isadore always has money these days. When he's not working in the tavern kitchen for Leland, he's getting welfare. When he's not getting welfare, he has his disability pension. This is Isadore's other job, according to the judge. Helping keep the truck gassed up. And paying for some groceries. "Contributing to basic household maintenance," said the judge. But I drop him off at the tavern and God knows when we'll see him again. He never arranges for me to pick him up, but he always ends up back at the house somehow. I get some fast food and then burn it back to school and am always late for first period. My history teacher goes insane every time. I haven't bothered explaining to him about my responsibilities, because I like it to look as though I couldn't give a shit. He always makes a big production about me coming in late, and I kind of enjoy it.

"Ah, Monsieur Boucher graces us with his presence at long last. Applause! Fanfare!" The history teacher is English, from Truro or somewhere, and thinks it's hilarious to call everyone Monsieur this and Mademoiselle that when most of us don't even speak any French. Sometimes when I make my entrance a few of the guys will clap and whistle just to be assholes. It's the only time I ever get any attention. Sometimes I bow.

After school I drive back into Big Harbour to get my mother, which is not so bad because I can hang around the arcade or the mall or somewhere while I wait for it to be five. The irony of this situation is my mother's job. My mother's job is being a housekeeper. She looks after someone else's house and someone else's kids all day while I fry bacon for her alcoholic brother. She works in a big old house, and the kids she looks after are very small and very cute. She loves it. She can't believe her luck, how circumstances came together so perfectly for us - that Isadore would drive into a ditch with his uninsured truck one night and be forced to live with us.

So my life is incredibly boring, driving into town and back. Guys at school think I have it made because I've got a truck, and I get to go into Big Harbour all the time by myself. It is a big joke. It feels like a big joke.

I get up some mornings, my English teacher's lying on the floor. He drinks with Isadore, which is enormously stupid because Isadore has been known to break the limbs of some of the guys he's drunk with. The English teacher doesn't know this, or else he's not concerned. Drunks aren't picky about the company they keep, as long as it's other drunks, people who won't make them feel bad about it. The smell of bacon wakes the English teacher up too, but he bolts to the bathroom instead of going for my plate. He always comes out after about a half hour or so, always smiling, his hair wet and combed back.

"Ah!" he says. "Guy!" Like it's a beautiful day and nothing short of having woken up on my kitchen floor could have made him happier. "How about a lift to school?" So I end up having to chauffeur him around as well. It's a stupid, embarrassing life.

The English teacher has a girl's name - Alison Mason - but he likes to be called Al, for obvious reasons. He is from New York, and everybody says he is a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander because anyone who would come here from the States always is.

"Are you a draft dodger and a back-to-the-lander?" I ask him one morning when I am pissed off at him for stinking up the truck with his booze fumes and the fact that I am going to have to listen to him talk about Flowers for Algernon all third period and the fact that I've just seen him sprawled across the linoleum.

"Back-to-the-lander I would need you to define," replies Alison Mason. "Draft dodger, yes. I answer without hesitation. It was an unjust war."

"I'd love a war," I tell him.

"You wouldn't, Guy."

"Fuckin Hitler!" I yell.

"Well - that was before my time..."

"Fuckin Commies!"

"Please don't yell," says Alison. "I had moral objections."

Yes, you strike me as an extremely moral person, I'm thinking. I would one day like to have the balls to say all the great things I think.

But Alison Mason didn't get where he is today by being dense. He sees me smirk at him and grins wide, like a guilty kid. It's a weird expression to see on the face of an English teacher, and I don't like it. He thinks now we are friends.

A lot of the girls at school think Alison Mason is incredibly hot. It's just because he's American. I should take a picture of him some morning at our house.

Girls are insane and for the most part I can't stand the thought of them. The ones at my school anyway. The girls in town are better, obviously. Last year I went to a dance at the vocational school in Big Harbour and it was like going to Disneyland. I didn't know anyone there, except the guys I came with. There was one girl who kept looking at me, and I danced with her three times. She kept yelling in my ear, "You're not from around here, are you? You're not from around here, are you?" because I think saying it made her feel sophisticated but it also made me feel pretty cool, because I realized I could've been from anywhere, instead of just out in the sticks, out in Frog-town. That's what she was thinking too. I could've been from New York for all she knew. Since the music was blasting, she probably never noticed my accent. She went to the bathroom with her gaggle of friends and after that I lost track of her.

They say in a year or so our school is going to be shut down, and we'll all be bussed into Big Harbour every day. I wish it would happen now.

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Strange Heaven
Excerpt

Chapter One

It seemed as if things were happening without much reason or point. There were no warning bells going off anywhere to announce: This is going to happen. And once things did happen, there was no discernible aftermath. Her mother often phoned with lists of people who had died, or else had contracted an infestation of some kind and for whom death was imminent. Most of them were old, some related. Bridget’s mother went with the ladies to say rosaries for every soul.

“It’s a shame, you know,” she would say to Bridget, “the way everybody is dying.”

At the end of a not particularly hot or bright summer, Archie Shearer killed Jennifer MacDonnell. Bridget’s mother called her up and told her that. Bridget herself was now at the end of a sick, uncomfortable time and had no trouble imagining it. Everyone was saying it was terrible. School was just starting, the school from which both of them might have graduated, and so vans and cars from the CBC and other local stations were parked out front for the first couple of days, distracting everybody. Bridget supposed that if you managed to position yourself just so in the main hall or out front, you might have seen yourself on the news that evening. Or heard yourself on the radio saying that it was just terrible.

They talked about it for a minute, Bridget getting her mother to recount details already given, for she was too used to her mother’s obituaries and hadn’t been paying attention at first. But after she had expelled her feelings of surprise and her mother had remarked on how terrible it was, they moved on to other things such as Bridget’s bowel movements and what had she heard from the social workers. And by the time Bridget hung up, she recognized that she had forgotten all about Archie Shearer and Jennifer MacDonnell during the last part of the conversation even though they were her neighbours and close to her in age. It was still like a thing on a screen. Now that it happened and she knew of it, it didn’t concern her any more. That was what other people’s dying meant.

She stopped at the nurses’ station on the way back to her room and said to Gabby -- a nurse, supposedly, although she didn’t look like one, she was all beads and bangles with a ring through her great nose -- “I think this medication is doing something to me.”

Gabby’s eyebrows were, or maybe just looked, painted on. She raised them. “Still constipated, my ducky?”

“Yes, but I mean I think it’s doing something to my mind.”

For such a whimsically dressed woman who sometimes danced down the corridor on her way to ask everybody whether or not they’d had a bowel movement that day, Gabby could project quite an air of sternness when she wanted to. “No, Bridget,” she said. “The medication doesn’t do anything like that.”

Then what are you giving it to me for, Bridget thought, heading down the corridor and listening to the bones in her bare feet crack across the tile.

* * * * *

She asked to watch the news on the plastic-encased television in the common room and saw that Heidi had managed to get herself before the cameras. Heidi had sent Bridget a big get well card and got everyone in their graduating class to sign it. Bridget had felt sick, reading all the names, thinking of herself in every head, of people passing their time in discussion of her.

“Did you know the two people involved?”

“Oh, yah, everyone knew ’em. I just think it’s terrible, though. People shouldn’t get shot.”

That was all of Heidi. Then photographs of the two of them, a prom picture of them together, which was pretty good, emphasizing the irony of the fact that he had killed her. Then a picture of the donut shop and the empty field behind it -- gone yellow from a sudden early frost -- that he had chased her across.

Bridget was thinking she might have been there that day -- if not for being here -- it would have been easy for her to have been there with Heidi or with Chantal or with Mark and his friends, or just by herself. Probably everybody was thinking that. One person who was there, she later learned, was Jason MacPherson, who hung out there all the time and had irritated everybody by saying he hadn’t been paying attention, although with him it was no surprise.

Everybody was talking about it, her mother had said. And there was a piece on the local news about violence in our schools, even though it happened outside of a donut shop. And a national news magazine included the incident and the prom picture in a story called “Killer Kids” and tried to understand it. Which Bridget’s father would find foolish because, he said, kids were killing each other back and forth up there in Toronto all the time, and there was no need to come down here and set us up to look like a bunch of backwoods freaks just like the Golers down there in Newfieland. Nobody within hearing distance ever corrected him about where the Golers were from.

What was happening to the young people? This, according to the news, was what people of the area were asking themselves. It was because of television, and music, and videos. It was getting as bad as the city. This is what people said. Parents fretted. Albert, Bridget’s uncle, who was now living in the city himself, came to visit Bridget a few days after she had heard about it, and said, “Horseshit. I remember when I was living up in Tatamagouche working at one of the sawmills up in the friggin hills there, all of sixteen years old, and Baxter Forsythe comes back from the war, what does he do? He knocks the goddamn bandstand down, that’s what he does. No place for Kisslepaugh’s brass friggin band to play, which is fine, because they was no damn good anyway. Oh, they say, so big deal, he knocked the bandstand down. You mark my words, I said, mark my words. That fella’s gone queer over there. Back then queer didn’t mean homosexual. Well, it did, but it also meant other things. Queer in the head. That’s what he was, and there I am, sixteen years old, the only one with any sense in that town. I’m the only one who knows it. Oh, get out, they say. You mark my words, I tell them, that fella’s a bomb waiting to go off. Oh, no, they say. Well to Hell with yas, I’m going back to the Island, that’s what I told them. And Frank Jollimore was sad, you know, because he needed me at the mill. Well Frank, I says, I’m sorry, but I can’t live in a town full of damn twits who don’t know when the Armageddon is on its way. So there I am back down at the Forks where I belong all snug as a pig in the old s-h-i-t working for John Campbell. I think it was John. He lost one of his arms. Anyway, there I am and doesn’t a letter arrive from old Frank Jollimore. By God, Albert, you were right. Last night old Forsythe burned the town to the ground. The whole goddamn town, gone, poof.”

“The whole town?”

“Well, the main friggin street anyway. Gone, poof. Burnt down by a crazy man. And then he shot himself. So there you go, it doesn’t just happen in the city, that there kind of thing. Happens all the time, everywhere you go. I’ve seen a lot, you know. I’m just like that song, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.’”

It was true. Albert would come to visit her regularly and talk all about his travels. He had worked in mills all across the Maritimes and then moved on through Ontario, completely eschewing Quebec. “Held my nose the whole goddamn way, going through on the train,” he said. He had even spent some time out West. For all his travels, he seemed to have enjoyed practically none of it. Ontario constituted “a pack of a-holes,” and westerners were a “pack of g.d. shit-kicking yahoos.” Only in Newfoundland was there to be found “any fucking civility,” although he had never gone out there to work, only to visit Newfoundland friends who he’d made working in the mills, and who, he said, could never stick it out for very long and always ended up fleeing the mainland in fear and consternation.

Only recently had she begun to notice that when Albert spoke to the likes of Bridget or her mother, his language was a pastiche of curses modified into their less offensive versions alongside other curses that he either forgot to modify or considered too commonplace to bother with. Every now and then he’d forget himself in his excitement and come to their house after a hunting trip in the Margarees exclaiming that he had shot a bird or a deer to fuck and back, and then he would look around quickly and blush and hurry to the bathroom.

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The Three Marys

The Three Marys

edition:eBook
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Who Needs Books?

Who Needs Books?

Reading in the Digital Age
by Lynn Coady
introduction by Paul Kennedy
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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The Whirlpool
Excerpt

At Halstead in England, during the last half of the nineteenth century, employees at Courtauld Limited wove secret cloth on secret looms in secret factories. Warp, woof . . . warp, woof. Like makers of Venetian glass they were devoted to their craft and frightened of their masters. They took, therefore, the coveted recipe for crape with them to their graves. The Courtaulds held the monopoly in mourning garb; it was the key to their immense fortune, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that they kept it.
 
The workers – mute, humble, and underpaid – spent twelve hours a day, in hideous conditions, at their steam-powered looms pounding black silk threads into acres of unpleasant cloth. In ten years, enough crape had been produced to completely cover the province of Quebec. In twenty, the whole empire could have been wrapped; a depressing parcel with a black sheen.
 
Still, death being what it is, there was often not enough cloth to go around. After major epidemics, or during wars, women would be forced to have their mourning attire made of less prestigious fabrics; bombazine or, in desperation, black cotton or wool. Men never had this problem. The same black hat-band did well for each bereavement.
 
Real crape did not hang down in smooth, graceful folds like cotton. It did not cuddle like wool. It encased the female body, instead, in a suit of crumpled armour, tarnished to a dull black. It scraped at the neck and dug at the armpits. It clung to the limbs and rasped at the shoulder blades. It lacerated the spine if that series of bones ever dared to relax. And it smelled, always, of grave mud and sorrow.
 
In Niagara Falls, Canada, the undertaker’s widow, Maud Grady, was forced to wrap herself in real Courtauld crape. No cheap, comfortable imitations for her; she felt duty bound to set an example. The perfect symbol of animate deep mourning, she wore crimped crape for two full years, adding, when the first few months had passed, some jet beads and a small amount of fringe to her costume. Much of her average day was spent organizing the paraphernalia of bereavement: black parasol, black stockings, underwear edged in black ribbon, black-framed stationery, black ink making black words, black sealing wax, black veil, black bonnet tied under the chin in a menacing black bow. The child, too, she dressed in crape for the first six months, moving to greys and mauves when that period was over.
 
It hadn’t been at all pleasant. Apart from the physical discomfort, there was the accompanying fear of weather; of heat and of precipitation. The smallest bit of moisture, fog, or even minor amounts of perspiration would cause the colour of the fabric to bleed through to her skin until, some nights when she undressed, her body looked as if it had been the victim of a severe beating. For a while she made use of a smelly concoction of tartar and oxalic acid in an attempt to remove the stains. Finally, however, despite a liberal sprinkling of rosewater, her whole bedroom reeked of chemicals. At that point she decided to let the black marks on her skin accumulate. Who would know? Who would care? She could fix it all later, if she survived.
 
At night, she dreamed dreams about her dead husband. Often he appeared in the very bedroom where she slept to announce that he had just died and would be busy for the next few days embalming himself and arranging his own funeral. He always had a black band wound around his hat out of respect for his own passing and a look on his face of profound sorrow. Maud would offer him a cape made of crape but he would reject it, outright, as if it had been something intended for the opera. Guiltily, in the dream, after this refusal, Maud would once again drape the heavy material on her own shoulders realizing, as she did so, where it rightfully belonged.
 
He walked through her dreams in a shroud of thick webs. There was nothing ghoulish about this, nothing even surprising. Apart from the art of embalming, his only interest had been in the habits of spiders. During his short adulthood he had studied them obsessively, collecting members of the species, recording their activities in a growing series of notebooks.
 
After two or three months of widowhood and strange dreams, Maud decided to have an elaborate brooch made out of a lock of her husband’s hair, his dead hair; an oval frame of gold would surround two desolate hairy willows which would, in turn, flank a hairy tombstone with his initials on it. All of this was to be placed under a bubble of thin glass; a sort of transparent barrier between that tiny hairy world of graves and weeping and the one that Maud walked around in every day. A barrier, but one that was easy enough to see through nonetheless.
 
Once the piece of jewellery was fabricated, she pinned it, after nightmares, at her gradually blackening throat each morning. Looking at herself and at the oval jewel in the centre of her collar in the mirror, she had to admit that one of the hairy willows looked remarkably like a spider that had been captured, chloroformed, and kept.
 
He had died on the same day as his parents. The epidemic, carried by him into the house after contact with a corpse, had spread like a fog into the three related sets of lungs, leaving Maud and the child (then two) completely untouched – not even a sniffle.
 
Maud, shock having cancelled fear, had nursed them all . . . had watched them die. She would always remember how the child stared from three separate doorways, his eyes widening when the convulsions set in. It simply had not occurred to her to remove him from the scene. Besides, there was no one to tend to him. The staff had decided to remain at home rather than risk the disease.
 
Oddly, she would also always remember the colours each of the dying faces had turned during the throes: Charles’ green; her mother-in-law’s red; and her father-in-law’s purple. Emotional, really, she had thought at the time, and quite in keeping with their personalities: Charles resigned; her mother-in-law flustered; her father-in-law furious with anything he couldn’t control. While one half of Maud’s brain turned to ice at the horror, the other remained curious and alert. Details, such as the way that hands picked at bedclothes or the way heads dented pillows, absorbed her. She found herself counting the number of seconds which passed between one dying breath and the next. Until there was no breath left at all.
 
All over town, behind shades drawn against the sun, people were dying. Maud knew the significance of the repetitive knocking at her door, knew parents and children were seeking the services of the undertaking establishment. She did not, could not, answer with three of her own dying upstairs and her heart inhabiting some other land where explanations were impossible. She found herself thinking of burial practices during medieval plagues; carts filled with bodies destined for huge, hastily dug pits. Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.
 
Charles died first. He inhaled deeply and smoothly, his first unlaboured breath for hours, opened his eyes, looked directly at Maud with an even gaze and, just as one heartbeat of hope reached her breast, he shrugged and disappeared, leaving behind a body that she hardly recognized.
 
His parents were more conventional. They gurgled and rattled appropriately before collapsing into absence. Maud left each of them alone, untouched, in their separate rooms with their eyes open.
 
Outside, the glorious weather of late spring continued as if nothing at all had changed – shadows of low, white, fluffy clouds on the garden and all the fruit trees in full bloom. For the first twelve hours after those dramatic morning deaths Maud spent her time at windows, the child near her skirts, silent, almost forgotten. She watched the yard all afternoon, noting how the sun moved, lending light to first one, then another of the flower-beds. The wind changed at some point and all the plants that had previously bent to the west began to bend to the east. Birds arrived and departed. A rabbit ate a third of the first crop of lettuce in the vegetable garden, unhurriedly, as if he knew he would not be disturbed.
 
In the early evening she walked into the sunroom at the opposite side of the house and looked down at the street, very empty now because of the epidemic. The breeze had picked up considerably and little whirlwinds of dust, mixed with a few petals from apple blossoms, moved quietly down Main Street. Most of the shops were closed and the rocking chairs on the verandah of Kick’s Hotel were all vacant. For a moment or two Maud wondered if she and the child were the sole survivors, if bedrooms all over town were filled with corpses. Then a streetcar rumbled into sight, occupied by three or four apparently healthy passengers.
 
She was still gazing through glass when the gas-lamps were lit. These sudden illuminations caused her to stir and stretch and begin to move around the house. Wandering from room to room of the building that had never belonged to her, lighting lamp after lamp, Maud stared at the possessions of her inlaws which, in their haphazard placement, had become a kind of testimonial to the rapidity of the disease. The account book open on the desk in the sunroom where Charles had left it, her father-in-law’s pipe resting in a bowl in the parlour, her mother-in-law’s unfinished embroidery, the needle halted in mid-stitch. She decided to visit, for the first time, the storage room at the back of the building where the strange, relatively new embalming equipment was kept. Just three years ago, Charles and his friend Sam had received an embalming certificate, each, from the school in Rochester. In order to avoid the inevitable loss of income that would be the result of Charles’ friend opening up his own business, the elder Mr. Grady had immediately hired him. Now Sam would be the only licensed embalmer in Canada.
 
In the small manufactory adjacent to the storage room, Maud examined coffins. She ran her hands along the smooth wood and downy velvet she had never dared to touch, wondering if Jas the carpenter had survived the sickness and, if so, what kind of boxes he would choose, or prepare, for her husband and inlaws upstairs. Humorous stories she had heard Charles repeat ran inexplicably through her mind: coffins too short or too narrow for certain individuals; dignified military officers with maggots crawling out of their ears; the time that Charles’ father had backed accidentally into a grave, smashing the coffin and causing even the most grief-stricken mourners to titter.
 
During that first long night, while the child slept, Maud brought every moveable source of light into the parlour and there, surrounded by scores of candles and several coal-oil lamps, she began to play the piano – loudly, fiercely. By four in the morning she had exhausted her entire repertoire; all of the Canadian Hymnal and the few pieces of classical music she had learned as a girl. At regular intervals she played and sang “God Save the Queen.” Once she rose from the piano bench to close the doors of the three rooms where her family lay. She didn’t, somehow, want to disturb them.
 
At six a.m., after playing the hymn “Unto the Hills” for the ninth time, Maud abruptly left the piano, washed her face, ran a comb hastily through her hair, and descended the staircase that led to the world. Soon she was at Sam the embalmer’s door, offering him a substantial raise in pay and a position as manager of the business. From there she went to the housekeeper’s, to Jas the carpenter, and to the home of the man her father-in-law had hired to help in the garden and in the stables. Her conversations with these individuals were terse, perfunctory. Everyone was dead, she said, except for her and the child. She intended to survive, and it was her wish that the business should continue as usual. If they did not want to retain their positions they should tell her now so that she could replace them. If, however, they wished to stay on they should report for work in exactly one hour.
 
The house looked entirely different to her when she returned, as if the colours of the upholstered furniture had deepened, as if the patterns in the wallpaper had become more pronounced during her short absence. When she entered the child’s room, vivid colour lithographs of harmless lambs and ponies seemed to leap at her from the walls in a menacing fashion. The child’s own little face among the bedclothes was so startlingly beautiful, so vehemently alive, even in sleep, that, for a minute or so, Maud was afraid to waken him. By seven-thirty, however, she had him dressed and in the kitchen. There she quickly located the utensils which, until that moment, had been touched only by the housekeeper. While the child attacked a plateful of toast and jam and swallowed mugfuls of milk, Maud fixed herself a cup of strong coffee.
 
Half an hour later she was walking down the long, dark hall, past the three separate doors, into the brightness of the sunroom. She situated herself at Charles’ desk in front of the open ledger. She flipped up the silver lid of his inkwell and lifted his pen in her hand.
 
When at the end of the morning she heard the men climb the stairs with their canvas stretchers, she leaned back exhausted in her husband’s chair and surveyed her labours. She was amazed to see that she had brought the account book almost entirely up to date.
 
Today, exactly two years after the fatal date, was her first of halfmourning. Maud was able, therefore, to dress herself in a black and white cotton stripe, with long sleeves and a high neck, not neglecting, of course, the special brooch. She sat now in the sunroom, surrounded by the pungent aroma of the tartar and oxalic acid, which she had been scrubbing into her skin for most of the morning. The results had not been entirely satisfactory but she had succeeded, at last, in turning her upper torso from mottled black to spotty grey. Short of removing two layers of skin, she knew she would have to stop there for the time being.
 
She leaned back in the chair and felt the uncorseted part of her back respond to the cool cotton. Her greatest joy would come in the afternoon when, veilless, she would venture into the streets to do a few errands. For the past two years she had looked at the world beyond her walls through the permanent cloud of her black veil, occasionally latticed, when the wind blew them to the front, by the black ribbons, or weepers, from her oppressive bonnet. Not that she had gone far. Crape was not made for strolling about in. It clung to her blackstockinged thighs (her petticoat was made of the same fabric), while the weepers stuck to the material around her shoulders, making it impossible for her to move her head. This, combined with the partial blindness caused by the veil, had led her, more than once, into the path of an oncoming streetcar or carriage. Had it not been for her acute sense of hearing she might have joined her husband in Drummond Hill Cemetery months ago.
 
Just as she had done for the past two years, she was spending the morning working on accounts. But now she held the pen as easily as a teaspoon in her hand, and the scratch, scratch of the nib was as familiar as the sound of her own breathing. The dreams had subsided; Charles visiting her bedroom, now, only once or twice a month. It was as though he was forgetting her, she thought, rather irrationally, for, in truth, she was forgetting him. Not their time together but his physical actuality.
 
She could no longer bring his face clearly into her mind. As time went by, in fact, Maud found it more and more difficult to believe that she had ever been married at all, more and more difficult to believe that the pen she held in her hand had not always been her own.
 
Disaster had not disappeared, but it had diminished in size, had become, in a sense, manageable; no larger than the words one might use to describe it.
 

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Stories
by Leo McKay, Jr.
introduction by Lynn Coady
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Paperback eBook
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