About the Author

Robert Hilles

Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island with his partner Pearl Luke. In 1994, he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Cantos from a Small Room. In the same year, his first novel, Raising of Voices, won the Writers Guild of Alberta George Bugnet Award for best novel. He has published fourteen books of poetry and five books of prose. His other books include: Finding The Lights On, Near Morning, Nothing Vanishes, Kissing The Smoke, Breathing Distance, Somewhere Between Obstacles and Pleasure, Higher Ground, Wrapped Within Again, Slow Ascent, and Partake. Wrapped Within Again, New and Selected Poems was published in the fall of 2003 and won the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for best book of poetry. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada in 2004 and now is in paperback. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. His second non-fiction book, Calling the Wild, was published in the fall of 2005 from Black Moss Press. His thirteenth book of poetry, Slow Ascent was published in the fall of 2006. He currently at work on a new novel titled The Smallest Detail, A short story collection tentatively called A Glimmer, and a new poetry collection called Thru and Thru. His latest collection of poems called Partake came out in Spring 2010 from Black Moss Press. Samples of his work are available on his website or Wattpad. His readings are available to watch at his Youtube channel.

Books by this Author
A Gradual Ruin
Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Tommy washed his hands and lay two slices of dark rye bread on the cutting board. He wasn’t sure that Judith would like such heavy bread, but the bakery — all the stores, in fact — were already closed and it was all he had. He was even less certain that she’d like whatever filling he chose, but it was too late now to ask her preference, and he’d only frighten her if he knocked with no better reason than a choice of sandwich.

At the commercial refrigerator he had installed the year before, he poked between several dozen bottles of cooling beer and wine to find the containers of sliced meat. He settled on hickory-roasted turkey, his own favourite and fresh only this past morning. From the bottom drawer he chose two crisp leaves of romaine lettuce. He fingered four or five tomatoes ripening on the kitchen sill and selected the perfect one for slicing.

He lifted the lid on his mother’s porcelain butter dish, one of the few items he had kept from his parents’ house, and spread a healthy portion on the bread, washed the romaine leaves, and trimmed them to fit. He smoothed the leaves flat and arranged turkey and tomato on top, careful to balance everything so that no large pieces of tomato poked out the edges. He added a dash of salt and pepper and carefully aligned the second slice of bread before he cut the sandwich in half diagonally, like his father had for his own lunches all through school. Not exactly the elegant sandwiches he often laboured over for his paying guests, but it would fill her stomach all the same. The way her eyes had lit up at the suggestion of a sandwich, she likely hadn’t eaten all day, possibly longer. He was sure the turkey would suit her just fine. He’d once eaten raw chicken, he’d been that hungry. He and Freda had both devoured thin strips of it. He’d have to be more careful with Judith, make no mistakes this time, but if he didn’t help her, who knew what would happen? He wouldn’t have her on his conscience too. Besides, he could use the company. Even when his house was busy he often felt alone.

He placed the sandwich on one of the china plates from the living-room hutch and filled a tall glass with milk. At the last second, he remembered some cookies in the cupboard and arranged three of them on the side of the plate.

A gust of wind ripped the screen door out of his hand, but Tommy caught it with his foot in a practised movement that prevented it slamming against the house. He ducked a low branch on the Manitoba maple at the back door and followed the sidewalk to the carriage house. He noted that the flowerbeds needed serious weeding. Perhaps if she needed work she’d be willing to start there.

Judith’s shadow behind the curtain stilled as his foot touched the wooden step. He lowered the plate to the stoop as he had promised and sensed Judith watching him. He knocked once and turned immediately back to the main house.

And the land shall mourn,
every family apart.
—Zechariah 12:12

ONE

The only doctor in town was Tailgate Smith. He rode his horse four miles through deep snow to deliver Shirley, who was a blue baby despite his efforts. Had he not turned his head against a gust of wind, he would have missed the kerosene lamp her father had left flickering in the kitchen window and would have arrived too late to save Shirley from the breech position. With some work, Tailgate turned her around and delivered her. When he held her up to the light, her mother gasped at Shirley’s colour — the other babies had been born without the least bit of trouble — but Tailgate put his mouth to Shirley’s lips a few times, and slowly she turned pink. While he rocked her, everyone watched, as if he could suck the devil out of any one of them and breathe something good in its place. When he finished, he pulled on his heavy fur coat, shook her father’s hand, and like a phantom finished with its earthly work, slipped back out to the snow and disappeared on his waiting horse.

From then on, whenever someone in the family needed a doctor, Wendell, their father, waited until it was absolutely necessary and then reluctantly yelled for one of his kids to get the Devil Doctor. To everyone else, he was still Tailgate Smith, the boy left by his unwed mother on the tailgate of his father’s truck.

For years, Shirley’s father called her the blue baby and said at first her colour nearly made his heart stop, no great feat since he’d had a heart attack at forty-two, only weeks after Alice’s birth, two years earlier, on the cusp of the Great Depression. He claimed that his second daughter brought the depression with her, and so he called her the depression baby. His eldest daughter, Claris, had had a nickname at one time, but Alice couldn’t remember it. As with Robbie, death protected Claris from their father’s teasing.

Shirley was a cranky baby who kept everyone up with her crying, and even when she grew older, she seldom sat still for long, as though what Tailgate had blown into her left her jumpy and anxious. In the summer of 1947, when she was sixteen, she ran off with the first boy from Dryden who took a serious interest in her. Every day, he drove up to her school in his old Ford half-ton, shirtsleeves nearly to his shoulder in a tight roll. Shirley watched for his dull red truck as she stood with friends smoking cigarettes, delaying the walk home, never in a hurry even when she knew she’d catch hell. She was accustomed to catching hell.

“Hey, Shirl,” he’d say, leaning out the window to smile at her.

Shirley would smile back. “Don’t he look good?” she’d say.

She liked it that Danny didn’t swear or yell lewd comments like the other men from the mill who drove by. He just revved his engine a few times to show off and drove away slowly as if he were in no great hurry to leave her behind.

The night before she left for good, Shirley didn’t come home at all. Without a phone to bring them news, her parents worried that something, everything, had happened, and Wendell paced the floor alternately raging and mumbling. Alice covered her ears and turned to face the moon, full and steady out the window.

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Angel In The Works

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Breath At A Time

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Partake

Partake

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Writing the Terrain

Writing the Terrain

Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets
contributions by Karen Solie; Rosalee van Stelten; Joseph Pivato; Charles Noble; Stacie Wolfer; William Latta; Christopher Wiseman; Cyril Dabydeen; Yvonne Trainer; Robert Boates; Monty Reid; John O. Thompson; Alexa DeWiel; Tom Howe; Leslie Greentree; John O. Barton; Tammy Armstrong; Doug Beardsley; Laurence Hutchman; Murdoch Burnett; Stephen Scobie; Aleksei Kazuk; Colleen Thibadeau; Colin Morton; Sid Marty; Greg Simison; Nancy Holmes; Vivian Hansen; Walter Hildebrandt; P. K. Page; Richard Woollatt; Gail Ghai; Kim Maltman; Joan Shillington; Robert Stamp; Wilfred Watson; Michael Cullen; Robert Hilles; Erin Michie; Deborah Miller; Jan Boydol; Robert Kroetsch; Miriam Waddington; Jon Whyte; Leonard Cohen; r. rickey; Tim Bowling; Ivan Sundal; Phyllis Webb; Weyman Chan; Bruce Hunter; Ryan Fitzpatrick; D.C. Reid; Cecelia Frey; Sally Ito; Bonnie Bishop; Ian Adam; Deborah Godin; Margaret Avison; Joan Crate; Rajinderpal Pal; Miriam Mandel; James M. Moir; Anne Swannell; Tim Lilburn; Pauline Johnson; Lorne Daniel; James Wreford Watson; Erin Moure; Ruth Roach Pierson; Stephan Stephansson; Aritha van Herk; Fiona Lam; Jan Zwicky; James M. Thurgood; Roberta Rees; E.D. Blodgett; Gordon Burles; Eva Tihanyi; Carol Ann Sokoloff; Jim Green; Dennis Cooley; Christine Wiesenthal; Vanna Tessier; Douglas Barbour; Richard Hornsey; Ken Rivard; George Bowering; Aislinn Hunter; Anne Campbell; Tom Wayman; Peter Stevens; Anna Mioduchowska; David McFadden; Gary Geddes; Rita Wong; Barry McKinnon; Tom Henihan; Michael Henry; Alice Major; Allan Serafino; Gerald Hill; Jason Dewinetz & Sheri-D Wilson
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