About the Author

Steven Galloway

Books by this Author
Ascension
Excerpt

One

There is a steady wind, and it blows cold on Salvo Ursari’s face and hands but does not deter him. He dips a hand in the pouch he wears at his waist, pinching out a clump of baby powder that he rubs onto both of his hands. Beyond the practical purpose of preventing the slippage of the seventy-pound pole he carries for balance, the powder has a distinctive odour that reminds Salvo of the past, of walks done half a lifetime ago, of his twin daughters when they had been tiny, shrieking infants, of his wife after bathing.

Salvo smiles as one such moment floods into his consciousness. It is nearly forty years earlier, his daughters barely two years old, and his wife has just put them down for the night. Salvo is lying on his back, trying to stretch out a hamstring he has needlessly overexerted. Through a wince of pain he sees his wife’s legs as she glides by him, pale, ghostly apparitions, and his eyes follow her as she moves across the room and sits on the ledge of the window. The streetlight outside illuminates her from behind, makes her glow, and Salvo is reminded how breathtakingly beautiful his wife can be.

A gust of wind brings him back to reality. Now is not the time, he tells himself. You are not a young man and you had better keep your mind on the task at hand.

At sixty-six, Salvo has been told he’s out of his mind to attempt a skywalk between the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Salvo partly agrees with this assessment, but it makes no difference. Of course he’s afraid, of course he knows the danger -- few have suffered more than he as a result of walks gone bad -- but that is of no consequence. It is his fear that lets him know he’s sane; the day he’s not afraid is the day he won’t go out on the wire. He knows he can do this walk.

Salvo is standing nearly fourteen hundred feet above solid ground. It is the highest walk Salvo has ever done, but height is unimportant; you’re just as dead if you fall from forty feet as you are from fourteen hundred. Distance-wise, Salvo has walked two and even three times as far, which is tricky because the longer the wire, the greater the danger that it will snap. A very long wire will sag in the middle, and there are few things more difficult than walking the downhill slope of a wire. At least Salvo has the comfort of this being a solo walk. He alone is responsible for the outcome of today’s endeavour.

For his efforts Salvo will receive a sum of twenty thousand dollars, but the promoter’s insurance company has steadfastly refused to extend coverage to Salvo himself; the policy only covers damage caused should Salvo fall onto someone or something below.

The area beneath the wire has been cleared. From where Salvo stands with his toes curled over the edge of the building, the mounted crowd-control policemen are barely visible, the crowd itself nothing more than a dusty smear. He dislikes that the audience is such a distant entity. Without the immediacy of the audience, without their energy to feed on, the wire can be a lonely place. The only consolation Salvo has is that he has performed so many times he instinctively knows how the crowd will react, can picture the people far below as clearly as if they were fifty feet away.

Salvo receives the signal to begin. He takes a deep breath, collecting himself, and offers up a silent prayer. He’s seen enough on the wire over the years to know that skill and luck are not enough to get across. To survive he needs God on his side. At the very least he requires Him to be a benign presence; the last thing he wants is to have God against him.

Hoping that he’ll have only earthly challenges to deal with, Salvo picks up his balancing pole. The wind moving across the wire creates a sound not unlike that of the highest string on a violin. As he steps onto the wire, the weight of his body momentarily silences it, before it resumes its singing. Each step Salvo takes interrupts this one-note song, but between steps it always begins again. It is as if this wire is trying to play me a death march, he thinks, and each step I take forces it to start over. As long as I keep taking steps, it can’t complete its song, and everything will be okay.

The wire digs into his feet through the ballet-style slippers he wears, and he can feel the wind go right through the cotton of his jumpsuit. Salvo doesn’t wear conventional, tight-fitting costumes. He doesn’t mind them when performing under a roof, but on a walk like this one he prefers slightly looser clothing, the folds of his snow-white jumpsuit acting like antennae, a way to feel the wind’s strength and direction.

For a man his age, indeed even for a man half his age, Salvo is in exceptional shape. He is thin and lithe and undeniably strong, his slight form belying a muscularity that is rare for his body type. His hair has turned from the darkest brown to a peppery silver with the utmost dignity, even if his hairline has slipped back a little. Thick, leathery lips lie on top of a set of teeth that, despite a minimal regimen of oral hygiene, are almost unnaturally bright. His face, still handsome after being weathered and beaten by sixty-six years of hard living, is quietly inviting, trustworthy. A person would, if they were to meet him on the street, be inclined to like him. But the most striking thing about Salvo is his eyes. Set deep in their sockets and veiled behind thick, dark eyebrows, they are the colour of an emerald forest, capable of being cold and piercing one moment, calm and soothing the next. They can speak kindness or anger more loudly than words. Whenever people think about Salvo, they think first of his eyes.

The sky is grey, gloomy, not at all the sort of weather that is good for a Fourth of July, let alone a wire walk, but Salvo would rather have this kind of weather than the bright sun and sweltering heat the forecasters had predicted. Hot air rising off the streets can create nasty updrafts, which are considerably more dangerous than a slight breeze. Still, he would not want to be up here in a thunderstorm.

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Finnie Walsh
Excerpt

First Period
 
Finnie Walsh will forever remain in my daily thoughts, not only because of the shocking circumstances of his absurd demise, but because he managed to misunderstand what was truly important even though he was right about almost everything else. Finnie Walsh taught me that those in need of redemption are rarely those who become redeemed.
 
Finnie Walsh’s parents owned more than half of Portsmouth, the mill town of 30,000 where Finnie and I grew up. I still remember the startled look on my father’s face the first time he peered out the front window and saw me in the driveway shooting pucks with his boss’ youngest son. My father’s concern was not motivated by fear for Finnie’s safety; Finnie Walsh, a strawberry-blond, freckled boy with stubby fingers and slate-grey eyes, was not at all frail. He was of a sturdier than average build for a child his age, almost pudgy in a cheerful sort of way, and was only small when compared with his father and three older brothers, who were gigantic.
 
Mr. Walsh had felt that Finnie would benefit from some toughening up, so instead of sending him to the all-boys’ prep school that his brothers and most of the other children of Portsmouth’s wealthier citizens attended, Finnie was enrolled in Portsmouth Public School. It was there, in September of 1980, packed into Mrs. Sweeney’s third-grade classroom, that my friendship with Finnie Walsh began.
 
For four generations, the Walsh family had been Portsmouth’s main employer. My father was the most recent in a long line of men named Robert Woodward to work in the Walsh family sawmill. The older I got, the more I understood how much my father wanted me to break the cycle and work somewhere else. With this in mind, my father insisted that I not be named Robert. “Our family,” he often said, “is stuck in a rut.”
 
When I met Finnie Walsh, I was too young to realize that we weren’t supposed to be friends. It didn’t take long for Finnie and me, thrust together in the back row of Mrs. Sweeney’s alphabetically ordered classroom, to become inseparable. We each had substantial hockey card collections, although we were at odds about which cards were valuable and which were not.
 
My favourite player was Wayne Gretzky, who had just begun his second season in the NHL. Finnie’s favourite player was Peter Stastny, a Czechoslovakian rookie with the Quebec Nordiques.
 
“Gretzky’s okay, I guess, if you like that sort of thing. I think he’s flashy,” Finnie said.
 
If there was one thing Finnie Walsh didn’t like, it was “flash.” It was for this very reason that we ended up playing hockey in my driveway that day instead of the much larger and smoother driveway leading up to the Walsh estate. Finnie agreed that his driveway was in all ways superior to mine; he just didn’t want to play there.
 
The Walsh house was very flashy. It was situated in the middle of a seven-acre lot overlooking the river. Upstream from the mill, of course. The grounds were surrounded by an imposing wrought-iron fence. In many ways the house resembled the American White House, except that it was made of brick. Fountains, benches and a gazebo dotted a magnificently manicured lawn surrounded by an excess abundance of flowers. Mrs. Walsh had been an avid gardener. She had died when Finnie was a baby, but as a tribute to his late wife Mr. Walsh hired an extra gardener to maintain the flowerbeds.
 
The first time Finnie and I played hockey in my driveway, we didn’t even have a net. I drew one on our garage door with chalk and for a while we just passed the ball back and forth, taking the odd shot. My father was working the night shift that week and every time we scored the ball slammed against the garage door and woke him up.
 
Having had his sleep disturbed several times by a strange echoing thud, my father got out of bed and came to the front window to investigate. He peered between the drapes, watching me stickhandle, feathering a tape-to-tape pass between the legs of an imaginary defenceman. Through the window, I saw him frown and furrow his eyebrows. Finnie took the pass, went inside-out and shot one hard at the top corner. Thud! My father clenched his jaw. Suddenly it dawned on him exactly who had taken the shot. When he realized that Finnie Walsh, Roger Walsh’s son, was in our driveway, his eyebrows arched and his jaw unclenched. He disappeared behind the curtains.
 
Finnie and I celebrated the goal, a perfect combination of teamwork and individual skill. My mother appeared in the window. Her face changed from disbelief to shock as Finnie won the faceoff, beating the opposing team’s centre, and rifled me a pass. I took the puck on my backhand and, spinning around, gave it back to Finnie. He had gone to the net and was there to tip it by the goalie, who had no chance on the play. My mother vanished into the depths of our house.
 
Sometime, late in the third period, my mother opened the front door and told me that supper was ready.
 
“Can Finnie stay?” I asked.
 
She looked startled, even though I often had friends stay over for supper. “I’m sure Finnie has supper waiting at home for him already, Paul,” she said.
 
“Please?”
 
My mother hesitated, not wanting to offend Finnie. She didn’t know what to make of the situation. “Would your father mind, Finnie?” she said slowly.
 
“No, Mrs. Woodward. My father usually doesn’t get home until late.”
 
“Oh. Well, I suppose it would be all right then.”
 
We went inside. I caught my parents shooting each other questioning looks while my mother set an extra place for Finnie between me and my sister, Louise.
 
Louise squinted at Finnie; she was always squinting. Louise was two-and-a-half years older than me, a shy kid who didn’t really have many friends; she seemed content to keep to herself. She spent most of her time in the basement, where she had an impressive array of toys. Some of them most girls would never have wanted to play with. For that matter, some of them no one would have played with, boy or girl: an old ironing board, a tire jack, a collection of pine cones and duck feathers. What she did with them I never knew. I wasn’t much interested in toys then. Whenever I got a new toy for my birthday or Christmas, I would half-heartedly play with it for a few days before it was invariably relegated to the basement, a new fixture in Louise’s imaginary world.
 
Occasionally, when it rained or we were home sick, I would sit on the basement stairs and watch Louise rule her tiny empire. It was understood that I was not welcome to join her, not out of jealousy or spite or sibling rivalry, but because this world was hers and hers alone. She was indifferent to my presence, not ignoring me, but not paying me any special attention either. Louise’s  “kingdom,” as my father jokingly called it, was an interesting but perplexing place.
 
“Hi, Louise,” Finnie said.
 
She didn’t answer him. She looked at the ground, her fingers kneading the tablecloth.
 
“Louise, be polite,” my mother said.
 
“It’s okay, Mrs. Woodward. I understand. Louise is shy.”
 
My father, who apparently was not used to such candour from a seven year old, nearly choked on his coffee. Louise blushed and pulled more frantically at the tablecloth.
 
We had meatloaf that night, which was never my favourite dish, but since then I have liked it even less. Finnie, however, looked as though he had never eaten meatloaf before and he ate it with such obvious relish that you would have thought it was lobster and caviar instead of ground beef and ketchup.
 
This impressed my mother immensely. She was not used to people enjoying her meatloaf. “Would you like more, Finnie?” she asked him after he had wolfed down the contents of his plate.
 
“I sure would, Mrs. Woodward.”
 
“Anyone else?”
 
“No thanks,” my father and I said. Louise said nothing. She wasn’t really expected to answer. My mother piled Finnie’s plate high with a block of ground beef. My father was pleased; the more meatloaf Finnie ate, the less would wind up in his lunch box. Although he never complained, my father didn’t like it when he had to eat the same meal at work as he’d eaten for supper that night.
 
“Did you boys have a good day at school today?” my father asked us.
 
“Peter Bartram threw up at recess,” I said.
 
“Has he caught something?” My mother always wanted to know if there was a flu going around.
 
“No,” Finnie said. “Jenny Carlysle kicked him in the balls.”
 
“Peter Bartram is an ass,” Louise said.
 
“Louise!” my mother said, horrified.
 
We were all shocked. I was shocked that Finnie had gotten away with saying “balls” at the supper table; my parents were shocked that Louise had spoken in front of a non-family member.
 
“She’s right, Mrs. Woodward. Peter Bartram is an ass. He beats up kids way smaller than him and he put a firecracker under a dog’s collar and lit it.”
 
“He did what?” my father asked.
 
“He put a firecracker under a dog’s collar and lit it!”
 
“Was the dog hurt?” My mother looked like she was going to cry.
 
“Not physically,” Finnie said. “But I don’t think it’s quite right anymore.”
 
“Why did Jenny kick him?”
 
“It was her brother’s dog,” I said.
 
“If it were my dog, I’d have done worse,” my father said.
 
“If it were my dog, I’d have put a firecracker in Peter’s pants,” Finnie said.
 
“I’d have put a nuclear bomb in Peter’s pants,” my father said.
 
Finnie and my father laughed. He appeared to have forgotten who Finnie’s father was. The two of them were talking like they were old friends. Even after my mother cleared away the dishes, they made no move to leave the table. Finally my father looked at the clock and stood up. “Well, I suppose it’s about that time.” That was what he said whenever he had to go to work.
 
“What time?” Finnie asked.
 
“Time to go to work,” I said.
 
“Now?” Finnie apparently did not know that people worked at night.
 
My mother handed my father his lunch box and he left.
 
Later, as Finnie was leaving, he thanked me for having him over. “A lot of people don’t like me because of my dad.”
 
“Why?” I didn’t see why that should have anything to do with it.
 
“I don’t know,” Finnie said. “Your dad is nice. He looks awfully tired, though.” Finnie stepped out the door and got on his bike. He smiled and rode up the street toward his house.
 
I closed the door and thought about what he’d said. My father definitely was nice. He often looked tired too, that was true, but that evening he’d looked especially tired.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo
Excerpt

The Cellist

It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.

In 1945, an Italian musicologist found four bars of a sonata’s bass line in the remnants of the firebombed Dresden Music Library. He believed these notes were the work of the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, and spent the next twelve years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment. The resulting composition, known as Albinoni’s Adagio, bears little resemblance to most of Albinoni’s work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio’s beauty.

Nearly half a century later, it’s this contradiction that appeals to the cellist. That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope. A hope that, now, is one of a limited number of things remaining for the besieged citizens of Sarajevo and that, for many, dwindles each day.

And so today, like every other day in recent memory, the cellist sits beside the window of his second-floor apartment and plays until he feels his hope return. He rarely plays the Adagio. Most days he’s able to feel the music rejuvenate him as simply as if he were filling a car with gasoline. But some days this isn’t the case. If, after several hours, this hope doesn’t return, he will pause to gather himself, and then he and his cello will coax Albinoni’s Adagio out of the firebombed husk of Dresden and into the mortar-pocked, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo. By the time the last few notes fade, his hope will be restored, but each time he’s forced to resort to the Adagio it becomes harder, and he knows its effect is finite. There are only a certain number of Adagios left in him, and he will not recklessly spend this precious currency.

It wasn’t always like this. Not long ago the promise of a happy life seemed almost inviolable. Five years ago at his sister’s wedding, he’d posed for a family photograph, his father’s arm slung behind his neck, fingers grasping his shoulder. It was a firm grip, and to some it would have been painful, but to the cellist it was the opposite. The fingers on his flesh told him that he was loved, that he had always been loved, and that the world was a place where above all else the things that were good would find a way to burrow into you. Though he knew all of this then, he would give up nearly anything to be able to go back in time and slow down that moment, if only so he could more clearly recall it now. He would very much like to feel his father’s hand on his shoulder again.

He can tell today won’t be an Adagio day. It has been only a half-hour since he sat down beside the window, but already he feels a little bit better. Outside, a line of people wait to buy bread. It’s been over a week since the market’s had any bread to buy, and he considers whether he might join them. Many of his friends and neighbours are in line. He decides against it, for now. There’s still work to do.

It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expanded in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There was a moment before impact that was the last instant of things as they were. Then the visible world exploded.

When the mortars destroyed the Sarajevo Opera Hall, the cellist felt as if he were inside the building, as if the bricks and glass that once bound the structure together became projectiles that sliced and pounded into him, shredding him beyond recognition. He was the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. That was what he knew how to be. He made the idea of music an actuality. When he stepped on stage in his tuxedo he was transformed into an instrument of deliverance. He gave to the people who came to listen what he loved most in the world. He was as solid as the vice of his father’s hand.

Now he doesn’t care whether anyone hears him play or not. His tuxedo hangs in the closet, untouched. The guns perched on the hills surrounding Sarajevo have dismantled him just as they have the opera hall, just as they have his family home in the night while his father and mother slept, just as they will, eventually, everything.

The geography of the siege is simple. Sarajevo is a long ribbon of flat land surrounded on all sides by hills. The men on the hills control all the high ground and one peninsula of level ground in the middle of the city, Grbavica. They fire bullets and mortars and tank shells and grenades into the rest of the city, which is being defended by one tank and small hand-held weapons. The city is being destroyed.

The cellist doesn’t know what is about to happen. Initially the impact of the shell won’t even register. For a long time he’ll stand at his window and stare. Through the carnage and confusion he’ll notice a woman’s handbag, soaked in blood and sparkled with broken glass. He won’t be able to tell whom it belongs to. Then he’ll look down and see he has dropped his bow on the floor, and somehow it will seem to him that there’s a great connection between these two objects. He won’t understand what the connection is, but the feeling that it exists will compel him to undress, walk to the closet and pull the dry cleaner’s plastic from his tuxedo.

He will stand at the window all night and all through the next day. Then, at four o’clock in the afternoon, twenty-four hours after the mortar fell on his friends and neighbours while they waited to buy bread, he will bend down and pick up his bow. He will carry his cello and stool down the narrow flight of stairs to the empty street. The war will go on around him as he sits in the small crater left at the mortar’s point of impact. He’ll play Albinoni’s Adagio. He’ll do this every day for twenty-two days, a day for each person killed. Or at least he’ll try. He won’t be sure he will survive. He won’t be sure he has enough Adagios left.

The cellist doesn’t know any of this now, as he sits at his window in the sun and plays. He isn’t yet aware. But it’s already on its way. It screams downward, splitting air and sky without effort. A target expands in size, brought into focus by time and velocity. There is a moment before impact that is the last instant of things as they are. Then the visible world explodes.

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The Journey Prize Stories 18
Excerpt

Introduction
There’s always a whiff of mystery, and perhaps even duplicity, to the work of literary juries — at least when viewed from without. All three of us have been there: the writer, nose pressed to the wrong side of the looking glass, marvelling at the machinations of those charged with judging our work against that of our peers. So we could lay down a bunch of jive here about the almost sinister alchemy that transpires when three headstrong lovers (and writers) of fiction meet to thrust and parry over which handful of stories, out of a dizzying seventy-five submitted to the Journey Prize this year (read blind, of course), ultimately deserve the limelight.

We could tell you there was blood on the floor.

We could tell you what we were looking for, checklist firmly in hand: Stories with sentences that flaunt and swagger, that seesaw and flirt, sentences you just might want to curl up inside of for a week; stories savage with wit and wisdom; stories that startle; stories that know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em; stories with complex emotional undertow, that have that requisite “X” factor — compelling the emotions as well as the mind. Although, to be honest, we didn’t know what we were looking for until we actually stumbled across it — but shhhh.

We could wax academical about themes. Why so many stories about babies, or fear of babies? About death and near-death? And why are the guys in these stories so weird, the small fry so preternaturally intelligent, the women so bloody-minded? Is it just us? The state of CanLit? Something in the non-medicated, organic beef jerky?

We could. But why try to connect the dots? As American writer Jayne Anne Phillips once wrote, “Any piece of fiction that really works is a perfect example of itself.” In other words, all the best stories are sui generis — they have no evil twins. Any confluence of theme here is accidental; we were seduced by particulars rather than universals.

So why not let the stories speak for themselves?

There’s Lee Henderson’s “Conjunctions,” a “Metamorphosis” for the twenty-first century: “As I awoke one morning from uneasy dreams I found myself back in grade four.” Hard to resist a story in which a grown man finds redemption while wreaking havoc in the carefully constructed schoolyard pecking order of a bunch of ten-year-olds.

Equally at ease with their own slant logic are Craig Boyko’s two stories: “The Baby,” a clever work that is as much a paean to the power of storytelling as to fatherhood, and “Beloved Departed,” a tour-de-force recasting of the Orpheus myth.

Clea Young’s “Split” is spring-loaded with tension, its sentences taut enough to hold a tightrope walker, as two old friends — one a new mother, the other hugely ambivalent about babies — talk about sex (“The organic track of Jed’s tongue like snail-glue over her body was enough.”) and who they used to be.

With “Cretacea,” Martin West has created a fully three-dimensional world for his acerbic, politically jaded, historically savvy Luddite of a narrator to ride shotgun over. The smartest political satire ever set in the Alberta Badlands.

The world’s tallest free-standing structure hovers like a sentinel in the distance over Heather Birrell’s “BriannaSusannaAlana,” through which bright urgency surges like an electrical charge as three sisters try to reconstruct what they were up to the day a murder was discovered in their neighbourhood.

And just when you thought the second-person singular had outlived its rather short-lived welcome, along comes Nadia Bozak’s “Heavy Metal Housekeeping,” a wrenching ode to the travails of motherhood and to the surprisingly delicate T-shirts worn by concave-chested acolytes of Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth.

That’s just some of them — thirteen stories in all (we’re not superstitious). And no blood on the floor.

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