About the Author

Shaena Lambert

SHAENA LAMBERT’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Walrus, and have been chosen three years running for Best Canadian Stories. Her first book of stories, The Falling Woman, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year and her first novel, Radiance, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Award and the Ethel Wilson Prize. She has been a fiction mentor with Humber College and The Writer's Studio of Simon Fraser University. She lives in Vancouver, B.C., with her family.

WEB: shaenalambert.com

Books by this Author
Petra
Excerpt

1.     Night
 
Petra was soaking in the bath, reading the newspaper, when she called out from the bathroom: “Manfred! You simply won’t believe it!”
 
This was at the farmhouse, our hub for political organizing, thirty kilometres southwest of Bonn. The house was just outside a village whose name was never important to us. Picture a few desultory cows. A pile of tires in the field next door, unmoved for the five years we occupied the space. We were here for the cheap rent and the large kitchen under heavy blackened beams. The thick walls smelled of yeast and were cool even in the height of summer. We organized, talked, yelled sometimes; the bedrooms were often covered in mattresses for the itinerant activists who came and went as we built our movement.
 
I was bent over my cast-iron skillet like an old grandmother in a fairy tale, cooking a lamb stew. I’d browned the cubes of meat, adding wine, then stock and vegetables, scraping the good bits from the bottom. A piece of mushroom had found its way into my beard. When Petra called, I glanced up to see frost on the window. It looked like a towered city capped by blazing stars.
 
That city of frost has stayed with me long after other memories have died. Ice is important to this story. Petra, when she finally decided to flee, would flee to a land of ice. But in my memory it is mixed with another image: that night I wore an apron that Katrina (ex-girlfriend) had left behind when she stormed from the house, banging the walls, kicking the door with her big black boots. It showed a jovial chef brandishing a barbeque fork on which was affixed a beaded bratwurst sausage. He himself wore an apron with another chef also brandishing a bratwurst, and so on and so on, the chefs and their sausages becoming tinier and tinier, to infinity.
 
January 1980. Exactly two months after the announcement that rocked Europe. NATO planned to station intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany. An ultimatum to the East, to Russia and its satellite states: remove your own nuclear missiles, the SS-20s, from East Germany, or in less than three years we roll ours in. A faceoff across the Iron Curtain; the United States spoke of fighting a “limited nuclear war” in Europe; everyone was afraid for the state of the world. As now, it was hard to think about the future without feeling a profound sense of Total Despair. These nuclear weapons were like sick boxes of death, each one full of a firepower that could destroy the world a hundred times over. The esteemed Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its nuclear clock two minutes closer to midnight.
 
But at the centre of this dangerous world, our little band of sisters and brothers—led by the charismatic Petra Kelly—had a counterplan. It focused on the new political party we were building.
 
The stew was bubbling. I stirred in a bit more broth, and then picked my way through the many shoes in the hallway to the bathroom.
 
I should say that Petra and I hadn’t been lovers for over a year. This wasn’t my choice, and I still had hopes. In the last year, the Irish trade unionist had fallen away (too possessive), and the Hamburg artist had been tasted and dismissed (his art was minimalist, but he was a cluttered mess of needs and recriminations), and it was me, Manfred Schwartz, pushing open the bathroom door. Petra shook the newspaper at me. The pads of her fingers had softened from the water. Her short, wet hair lay flat against her face.
 
“Just listen to what this NATO general has done!”
 
Gone from her face was what I thought of as her scissors look—pinched and pale, stripped of humour. She started to hand me the newspaper, then grabbed it back and read out loud: “Commander of the 12th Panzer Division of the Bundeswehr!
 
The gist was this: at a much-publicized Rifle Club banquet in Marbach the night before, a NATO general had made a scene. “A black-tie event! You can imagine! The women must have all been in long gloves, gowns covered in sequins. But here—listen. There’s a tradition in the club of bringing a massive roasted pig into the hall, a Spanferkel on a platter, with an apple in its mouth, while the military band strikes up a ceremonial march. Well, the military band chose to play the ‘Badenweiler Marsch.’”
 
She looked at me pointedly, and yes, I understood. This was Hitler’s march, played whenever he entered a public rally. This fact was well known to us, and it underlined, without further words, how fused the present Bonn elite was to the old system— ancient Nazis recycled and turned into judges and politicians. For non-Germans it might have been possible to listen to the “Badenweiler Marsch,” with its whistles of flutes and piccolos followed by the three distinctive horns, and not hear the darker resonance of Nazism, but not for people of my age, children of the Nazi generation.
 
Petra shook the paper straight and continued to read: “No sooner had the band struck up the tune, then General Emil Gerhardt, Commander, etcetera, etcetera, pushed back his chair, crossed the room and tapped the conductor on the shoulder. ‘I would prefer it,’ said the general, ‘if that particular march was not played. Neither here nor on any occasion.’”
 
I could picture it: the banqueting generals surrounded by their jewelled wives, the room fat with satisfaction; two men holding aloft the pig, basted in dark beer and with an apple in its mouth, a display of headcheese, pomegranates and roasted peaches around its haunches and cloven feet. A yelp of appreciation bursting from the grey beards in the room, and then this general requesting the conductor’s attention, while he glares in surprise and keeps waving his baton, and the tuba and the bassoonist begin, with mounting discord, to lose control of the music, until at last the whole thing founders with a final bleat of the trumpets. “I say,” says the general, “would it be possible for you to play another song?”
 
Petra dropped the paper on the floor and stood, sloshing water. “Pass me a towel, Manfred. I’m going to write him a letter.” She was dripping; little breasts so pretty, hip bones framing the dark patch of hair.
 
“No, you are not! That’s ridiculous.”
 
“I am.”
 
I handed her the towel and she began to dry herself vigorously. “He could be an important ally.”
 
“Unlikely.”
 
“Yes, is that so? You know the mind of this general already?”
 
“I know he can’t help us, if that’s what you mean.”
 
I went back to the kitchen, where the stew had cooked down too much. Bits of potato and lamb were stuck to the frying pan. I poured in some wine, but the whole thing now had a slight burnt flavour.
 
Petra came in towelling her hair and wearing her customary loose pink sweatpants and a T-shirt—SWORDS INTO PLOUGHSHARES. She tossed the towel onto the back of a chair, went to her room and came back with a couple of postcards, one of Rosa Luxemburg, the other an innocuous vision of the Rhine in springtime. She chose the latter, sat down and scribbled quickly, then read aloud: “Dear General Gerhardt, I heard of your act of conscientious objection to call attention to Hitler’s odious march. Well done! If you have other values of this sort, come! Be part of our movement! Join the Green Party of West Germany! What do you think?”
 
I placed a bowl of stew in front of her. “It got burnt,” I said.
 
“It smells good.”
 
As I handed her a spoon, she took hold of my hand and kissed the back of it. “We need everyone,” she said.
 
I sat.
 
“We must believe in human goodness—isn’t that our job, as people on this earth?”
 
“I don’t think so.”
 
“You’re angry with me,” she said.
 
“Why would I be?”
 
She was silent, chewing a piece of meat. “We need more allies from the centre.”
 
“A NATO general? Is that the centre?”
 
She shrugged.
 
“And what? You will write him a postcard and tame him? Gentle the general?”
 
Watch out, I wanted to say. He’s old enough to be your father. She had a father thing; it was well known. She and I even occasionally laughed about it: her proclivity for older men. Her father had disappeared when she was five, without a word or note. He left her with a father-shaped gap in her chest, a place where the wind blew in, and a Pez container he’d bargained for in the American sector, shaped like Mickey Mouse.
 
Watch out for fathers, I wanted to say. But I didn’t.

 
 
2.     Strangers from Another Time
 
This was West Germany, 1980. In other words, you couldn’t throw a stone on any university campus without hitting students who felt like they were carrying the ghosts of Auschwitz on their backs. And the silence of our parents’ generation, up on our backs, alongside the ghosts. They handed us their abominations without a word, in homes soaked with the good smells of apple pie cooling on the windowsills, happy times in front of the fire. They just forgot to mention the piles of bones, the whitened corpses buried in the backyard behind the trees, and we, detectives and prosecutors, had to dig them up ourselves.
 
What’s this, Daddy? Holding out a collarbone, a breastbone. I found it behind the shed.
 
A metaphor. But it felt like this, just under the skin of our daily lives.
 
At the Freie Universität Berlin in the late sixties, my friends and I had spent hours in mental agony: Who were these people, our parents? We knew them intimately and yet we feared them, and we distrusted ourselves, because we were their offspring.
 
But for Petra Kelly it was different. She’d moved to the States when she was twelve, after her mother married Commander Kelly, a US soldier, and stayed there until her mid-twenties. This long sojourn away protected her from the self-disgust. She was from the land of Coca-Cola, had campaigned for Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and had marched on Washington for civil rights.
 
These things made her clean, made her attractive to our movement.
 
She didn’t have a Marxist bone in her body, and the politics of the sixty-eighters—the ardent politicized students of Germany, with our fury at the duplicity of our parents—was quite foreign to her.
 
We are all interconnected. This was what she loved to say, loved to think. And she’d quote from Gregory Bateson: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?”
 
As for the use of force, she opposed it utterly, because (I hear her voice speaking) we all have a core of goodness in us. This is what she thought. Even the most unhallowed criminals. Even the man who sits in the pit of the missile silo with his finger flexed on the button. My Marxist self would take umbrage at her belief in human goodness. But him? Petra would say. Why, he’s just a child following orders!
 
And what about the man who gives the orders? I would ask her. And the man who gives the orders to the man who gives the orders? There they were, lined up like the chefs on my apron, one inside the other, and yes, according to Petra, they were all interconnected, and all redeemable.
 
The only real evil in this world came from reducing a person to the status of evil. That was what Petra Kelly thought.
 
 
 
 

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Radiance
Excerpt

1.

When the Hiroshima Project was long over and all the dust had settled, Daisy discovered that she could close her eyes anywhere, in a crowded room or doing the dishes, and see the girl getting off the plane. She would always think of Keiko as “the girl,” though she had been eighteen when she came to stay, old enough to be called a woman. The press seized upon the name Hiroshima Maiden – such an odd way to describe an A-bomb survivor: as though Keiko might have stepped out of an Arthurian legend, wearing a cone-shaped princess hat; as though being ravaged by the bomb might have transformed the girl, giving her, along with a history of suffering, some fairy-tale virtues. Purity perhaps. Or maidenly goodness.

Daisy Lawrence had stood in a small roped-off area on the tarmac of Mitchell Air Force Base, waiting for the airplane to land. Irene Day, one of the Hiroshima Project’s principal organizers, stood beside her. The rain was stiff that day–stinging pellets that flew at them sideways out of the gauzy marsh east of the air base. A few feet away a dozen journalists huddled in a grey group, hats pulled low.

Irene Day had dressed appropriately – she always did – in a mannish little fedora and matching kid gloves. She was the sort of woman, Daisy thought, who would choose the right outfit for a hurricane. Next to her Daisy felt dowdy – blond hair frizzing in the wet, feet aching in tight patent-leather pumps.

Of course she knew better than to be thinking about her shoes at a time like this. This was an important moment in history, this chill March day of 1952: she was about to greet a Hiroshima survivor, the first ever to set foot on American soil. Daisy pulled in her stomach, already held tightly in place by her girdle, and did her best to adopt a look of calm expectancy. She moved closer to a freckle-faced young photographer, so that his broad back blocked the rain, which seemed to come from all directions now – stinging her chin and cheeks and the backs of her knees.

At last the gleaming plane hove into view above their heads. It headed out to sea, then banked and came in low, bouncing at the end of the runway, rising like a bird, landing, hissing, skipping. It hung poised for several seconds on one wheel before righting itself with a bump and coming to a stop, emitting black exhaust in a rather alarming fashion. For what seemed an inordinately long time the airplane engine thudded and the propellers churned and thumped. But at last the propellers stilled, the plane gave a final shudder and several air force cadets rolled the steel stairs into place.

The airplane door, massive and unyielding, seemed to need some battering knocks from the inside before it swung open. The pilot, a wing commander in a navy uniform complete with epaulettes, stepped jauntily down the steps, shook hands with the cadets, then walked across the runway. He was followed by two stewards and twenty tanned, robust soldiers – the plane seemed endlessly to disgorge them – men returning from military duty in Hawaii, where the plane had touched down for refuelling.

Then at last Keiko stepped onto the platform. She lifted one gloved hand to straighten her hat. How strangely it glowed in the overcast air, whiter than white. Even from this distance Daisy could see the mottled rhubarb stain on her cheek. The famous atomic scar. She tottered on the platform, looking as though the hard rain might blow her away. The purse Keiko clasped–Daisy learned later–had been picked up in a Honolulu gift shop. It was encrusted with tiny iridescent nautiluses.

Daisy felt an urge to say something to mark the magnitude of the occasion. She turned to Irene, but she was already up ahead, arguing with one of the cadets guarding the gate. He clicked the metal latch with his thumb in an irritating manner, then shook his head severely.

“But I’m the chief organizer of this project,” Irene was saying. She wasn’t, but how was the cadet to know? He shrugged. Irene raised her hand, as though intending to knock the boy’s cap off. “Let me by,” she hissed, but all at once the freckle-faced photographer, the one whose broad back had sheltered Daisy from the rain, strode forward and leapt the rope. The cadet cried out for him to stop, but the photographer had an agenda of his own: he dashed towards the plane, leaping puddles, soaking his trouser legs, letting his hat blow off, not even turning to see it roll wildly away. And now the rest of them followed suit, and Irene and Daisy were picked up and blown, or so it felt, over the trampled rope and across the runway. They were no longer the official welcoming delegation, not by a long shot: they were part of a mob.

That was Keiko Kitigawa’s welcome to America.

The girl turned towards the advancing stampede. With one hand she groped behind her for the banister. The other hand she held up, fingers spread in an ineffectual fan, attempting to shield her face, with its bubbled scar, from the repeated flash of the cameras.

2.
Imagine a girl to whom you can attach any stereotype.

Imagine her stepping off a plane, holding up a hand to keep her prim round hat in place.

Imagine her as inscrutable.

Imagine her as incomparably damaged.

Imagine her as carrying the seeds of something entirely new – radioactive seeds – lodged in her bones, skin, hair.

Imagine her as the first of her kind to come to America: children of the atomic bomb. Children who are asked, repeatedly, in letters that arrive each spring, to donate their bodies to science, so that when they die – six years later, or forty – their hearts can be examined, their cells studied, their kidneys filled with turquoise dye, placed in a Petri dish.

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The Falling Woman
Excerpt

Resistance

The day of Daniel’s confession started in an ordinary way, with a call from Kaye’s mother – a beginning that Kaye would examine in detail later (poking at it, parsing it), trying to find clues to what she had known and what she hadn’t. In the morning she hadn’t known what was going to happen, but by the time she went to bed she knew everything. In between she found out that her husband was sleeping with a girl of twenty-six, a master’s student of his from the environmental studies department, a girl who might have been a younger, shabbier, messier version of Kaye herself. Or at least one part of herself – the lean, uncompromising self she had been at one time.

But the day had begun as those days usually did, with the scramble to pack a lunch for Sarah, the hasty goodbyes at the door, the moment of silence – then the call from Kaye’s mother.

“Kaye!” Margaret exclaimed lavishly, making Kaye wince.

“Mother!” Kaye exclaimed back. “Why do you always sound surprised when it’s me? You’re the one phoning.”

Kaye’s mother threw back her head and laughed richly. What a lark her daughter was. What a perfect straight man. Kaye knew her mother had thrown back her head and laughed even though she couldn’t see her, she was that present in the room. Like a very large ghost, she filled the area above Kaye’s head with her dyed ash-blond hair, her burgundy nails, her legs stubbled with persistent growth. She had yards and yards of female pulchritude. A hideous word, yes, but one that Kaye had chosen long ago to describe her mother’s particular kind of beauty.

“Now listen, honey, have you got a minute? Has Daniel left? Has Sarah left for school?”

They had left, it was true. And it was also true that no matter how irritated Kaye sometimes felt at the sound of her mother’s voice, she liked these calls, she waited for these calls.

They were close, mother and daughter. They had stuck together through thick and thin. Thick mother, thin daughter, Kaye thought – because sometimes it felt like that; as though her mother, that plentiful and immense woman, cast such a shadow, and contained so much, that she contained even Kaye herself.

People noticed their closeness. They compared Margaret with their own mothers, in their late fifties or early sixties, and said that Kaye was lucky, because her mother was so interesting, so alive. Other mothers had receded, becoming pale, or frosty, or diffident; or taking up causes. Daniel’s mother had become a pro-choice activist in Sudbury, defying the church, defying her husband. Interesting, of course – but nothing to match the livid, arresting quality that Margaret gave off.

At fifty-nine she was in her prime, magnificently in her prime, like a full-blown moon – carrying all her past selves inside. Retired actress. Radio host. Now she and Kaye’s father had bought a sailboat, and they headed up the coast each summer scouting for northwest coast sculptures, bartering, collecting. She had become known for her talent, her eye. Someone famous in Ketchikan had even given her a Tlingit name.

Now Margaret was telling Kaye a story about Kaye’s father. He had become a source of bafflement and amusement to them since he had retired. They watched him as though he were a peculiar and interesting bird – something, perhaps, with a rare, proboscis-like beak. Last month he had started reading Proust – five pages a night. “He always hated Proust!” Margaret said to Kaye. “His mother made him read Proust to her in that ugly room she never left, with aspidistra hanging from the bedstead. I can’t believe he’s reading Proust.” But this was nothing compared with what he had done the day before on their yacht. It had been a suddenly warm day for October, an Indian summer day, and Margaret, in a mood of celebration, had peeled off her shirt, slathered her breasts with baby oil and stretched out on the foredeck. Giles had slipped away from the wheel to get his sunglasses, forgotten why he’d gone below deck and settled in for a little nap.

“Kaye – picture it – all at once we’re careening towards an enormous freighter from Taiwan. I had to crawl across the deck, throw something over me, grab the wheel. Meanwhile, about fifteen deckhands had caught sight of me, and they were all cheering madly.”

As was so often the case, once her mother got going, Kaye felt something dark stirring inside her: a feeling that her mother had escaped scot-free, gotten away with the gold or some such thing, while she – Kaye – was caught. Punished.

“Listen,” Margaret continued. “I read something in the Sun this morning and I thought you’d get a kick out of it. Apparently there’s this real estate agent in Topeka, Kansas – and guess what he’s doing.”

“Mother, I couldn’t possibly.”

“He’s buying up abandoned missile silos all over the Midwest and he’s turning them into houses. Can you imagine! And apparently people are buying them like hotcakes.”

“Perfect for the nuclear family.”

“Oh, honey – when I read that, I couldn’t help thinking of you, back in your anti-nuclear days. You could be so ornery.”

“Not precisely how I remember it, Mother.”

“Oh, come on. You were damned ornery, you have to admit it. Do you remember that time you destroyed our dinner party?”

Kaye’s heart was beating slightly faster. Of course she remembered. It was a frequent memory, a talisman, something she carried with her even now, almost twenty years later.

It was back when her parents lived in Shaughnessy and she was in first-year university. She had plunked herself down on the burgundy couch in the living room and one of her mother’s friends had asked her, just casually, what she was doing to keep herself busy. Kaye had answered that she and some other students were organizing a viewing of If You Love This Planet.

“Oh, Helen Caldicott,” Lena Marsden had shrieked. “She’s ghastly.”

“A ghoul, darling. She’s a ghoul!”

“She’d be more bearable if she got her facts straight.” This was from one of the straight men – an accountant, like her father. One of the dull spouses.

It was then that Kaye had risen into the air – or so it had felt – springing out of her seat to float above them, an angel of vengeance and light. Then she had described, point by point, what the effect would be of a nuclear bomb dropped on Vancouver. Yes, she had done this a bit breathlessly; yes, with a red face and palpitating heart; but nevertheless she had recited the whole thing – the sacred litany of destruction – from the fallout floating up as far as the troposphere, to the lack of burn beds, the disease, the lacerations, decapitations, wind fires. “And if you did survive in a fallout shelter,” she had said, “when you came out, there would be rotting corpses everywhere – because ninety percent of Vancouver’s population would be dead – and the survivors would soon die too, from a synergistic combination of starvation, radiation, sunburn, infection and grief.”

At which point – at least in Kaye’s recollection – her mother had stood up and said, in her rich actor’s voice, that she did hope everyone was ready for dinner.

“You were the absolute death of dinner parties,” Kaye’s mother said now, always thrilled by a spectacle, even in retrospect.

And what could Kaye possibly say in response? She looked out the window at the clear sky and a plane high up, like a toy, heading towards the airport.

She wanted to say that perhaps her mother should rethink her attitude. Had the prospect of nuclear war really been all that funny? In the old days that’s what she would have said, and for a second she wished that she could still be that single-minded. The insistence of the young. We are born once, they had sung. Born for a purpose. And they had circled the weapons, singing and crying, throwing
their bodies again and again against this huge dark wall, this impenetrable thing.

But that was over now. She wasn’t that person any more. And people were living in the silos that she had prayed in front of. Turning them into condos.

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