About the Author

Annabel Lyon

Annabel Lyon is the author of two books of adult fiction, Oxygen and The Best Thing For You. All-Season Edie is her first work for children. She lives in New Westminster, British Columbia, with her husband and two children.

 

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All-Season Edie

All-Season Edie

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We're hot and red-faced and breathless and when we see Dexter we both start to laugh.
"You too, Dexter," Mean Megan says. "You have to dance too."
I say, "Dex too."
Maybe Dexter is too stunned to say no, because she starts making her pretty swan movements while I snap my fingers and stomp my feet and Megan grooves and swerves her head around and makes her hip-hop moves. Mom and Dad stand in the doorway of the den, watching us and saying nothing.

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Chapter Two
 
October 2011
 
At the funeral, Mattie and Sara held hands. They accepted condolences together with a grave grace. Many of the mourners told them they had never seemed more alike, or like their mother. Afterwards they hosted a reception at the house, Sara offering drinks and Mattie methodically approaching each guest with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, vegetables frilled with cream cheese that she herself had piped.
 
After their guests had left and they had tidied the house, Sara asked Mattie if she would like to watch one of her movies.
 
“Will you watch with me?” Mattie asked.
 
It was dusk. Sara stood by the arm of the sofa, watching the men and women on the screen sing and dance in their flounced dresses and fancy pants. Every night for the past week she had stayed in her old room, listening to Mattie cry herself to sleep. Sara wanted wine. She wanted salmon sashimi. She wanted her laptop on her lap—her work—in her own chair in her own living room, with her own view into the lit, stacked living rooms of the high-rise across the street and the other single lives being profitably led there. She would have to sell the house, soon, and find Mattie somewhere to live. A group home, with staff to care for her, and friends who liked the same things she did.
 
“You’re hovering,” Mattie said. “You’re making me nervous.” This was something their mother used to say.
 
Sara perched on the edge of the sofa.
 
“Sit back.”
 
Sara stood up. “Will you be all right on your own tonight?”
 
The musical number concluded with the entire cast striking an exuberant pose. Then everyone relaxed and the dialogue resumed as though it had never stopped. Mattie turned away from the television and met Sara’s eyes with a bleak look in which neither intelligence nor the lack of it had a place.
 
 
 
 
Robert was the handyman. He did odd jobs around the neighbourhood: replaced the furnace filter, unstopped the antique upstairs toilet, cleaned the gutters, put up shelves. When Sara had helped her mother with the household accounts at the end of every month, there had always been some little sum for Robert, nothing she had ever questioned. Now her mother was gone less than a month and Mattie had phoned to say she and Robert were married.
 
“No, Mattie,” Sara had said. “You’re not married.”
 
Mattie had invited her for supper, to come see.
 
You are unkind, their mother had told Sara, not long before her heart attack. I am not trying to smother you. You would have your own rooms here, your own office, everything you could want. You can even have your meals on a tray when you are busy with your work. You know what is coming as well as I do. Why do you fight it?
 
As Sara parked her car in front of the big old house, she recalled the only time she had met Robert, the previous spring. She had been getting out of the car just as she was now when he had come around the side of the house with a mangled squirrel on a shovel.
 
“Sara Landow.” She stepped onto the lawn, extending her hand. He set the shovel down and they had shook, both of them stronggripped, wary. He was her age, late-thirties, with ginger hair cropped close to his skull, thin lips, pale blue eyes. She intuited a dark, bitter sense of humour, and a matching strain of intelligence.
 
“Ms. Landow.” He nodded. “The older sister, the professor.”
 
She suffered his clear, pale-eyed look, conscious of her silk shirt, suede skirt, wool coat, French perfume, Italian leather boots. She wondered what else he knew: about her failure to marry; about her work, and the long, steady ascent of her career; about her ongoing refusal to move “home” and help with Mattie’s care. He had not offered his own name. He explained about the squirrel, that Mattie and Mrs. Landow had found it that morning on the back deck, blood everywhere, and called him in a bit of a tizzy. His word. A cat had got it, he thought. A coyote wouldn’t have left so much behind. She watched him add it to the curbside trash can. “Now for the blood,” he said, and for the next hour or so, while she drank tea with her family and received a fuller recapitulation of the discovery of the poor, poor squirrel, she was aware of him whistling and scrubbing the back deck, occasionally stopping to sip from the mug Mattie had carefully carried out to him. When he was done he rapped on the kitchen window and waved to let them know he was leaving. The deck—Sara had checked—was spotless.
 
Now it was November. She parked next to five clear plastic bags of leaves, and when she got out of the car smelled smoke in the air, pleasantly. Then she noticed it was coming from the Landow chimney.
 
“Mattie!” She ran through the front door. She could see her sister squatting on her heels in front of the hearth, firelight dancing on her face. “Mattie, get back.”
 
Mattie looked up at her, astonished.
 
“You must never—”
 
Robert came through from the kitchen in sock feet, holding a drink. “Sara. Don’t worry about the chimney, I had it swept last week. Dinner won’t be long. We made roast beef to celebrate, didn’t we, Mattie-Battie? Roast beef?”
 
Mattie stood up and put her arm around his waist. He kissed her hair and looked back at Sara, waiting to see what she would do.
 
 
 
 
“She showed me the marriage licence,” Sara told the lawyer the next day.
 
Mattie was fine by herself at night and could do simple meals and baking, tea and toast, soup from a can, grilled cheese, salad, pudding, cookies even. She had her bus pass. During the day she had her job at the workshop and her crafts at the drop-in centre. At night she watched movies and talked with her workshop friends on the phone. Sara usually called her once or twice each day to make sure she was all right, and visited three or four times a week to help with cleaning and shopping, and to keep her company now that their mother was no longer there. Mattie couldn’t drive a car or concentrate on a book and she needed help with bigger sums of money, but in a short interaction with her you would not necessarily know these things. She was sweet and friendly and wore expensive nice clothes chosen by Sara and their mother.
 
Robert, though, she told the lawyer, would have known.
 
Mattie Landow had become Martha Dwyer. She had done it last week, while Sara had been at a three-day conference in Seattle.
 
The lawyer, a woman her own age, asked what kind of conference it was.
 
“Medical ethics,” Sara said. “I’m an ethicist.”
 
The lawyer asked if Sara or her mother had ever had Mattie declared legally incompetent.
 
“No. We would have had to go through a judge. We thought it would be humiliating for her. She can do so many things. We didn’t see any reason to define her by what she couldn’t do.”
 
Sara explained that she had got Mattie on a wait-list for assisted living and was hopeful she’d get a place early in the new year. After that, she was planning to sell the house and use some of the money to take Mattie somewhere extra nice for vacation. California, maybe. Mattie would enjoy Universal Studios.
 
The lawyer would later tell her Robert Dwyer had a petty criminal record going back to juvie. Shoplifting, DUI, bad cheques, marijuana, like that. She explained that if Sara had her sister declared incompetent they could get the marriage annulled. Criminal charges were another matter.
 
“You mean fraud, theft?” Sara was thinking of her mother’s assets. Mattie had her own bank account, enough for groceries and DVDs while their mother was ill, which she could more or less manage on her own, but the larger financial picture—investments and property taxes and so on—Sara handled. She was pretty sure everything was still all right there.
 
“I mean assault,” the lawyer said.
 
 
 
 
After dinner Robert had taken her aside. He had said he knew the situation was a shock, and if it helped ease her mind he would be happy to leave the sisters alone and return in the morning. Mattie’s face had fallen when they had told her Robert had to be away overnight.
 
“Where does he sleep?” Sara had asked when he was gone and she had locked all the doors and windows behind him. Mattie had blushed and laughed and hidden her face in her hands. Sara had never seen her so happy, so—that unavoidable word—radiant.
 
“Sexual assault,” the lawyer said.
 
 
 
 
“You cannot love her,” Sara said.
 
She sat with her sister’s husband in her mother’s kitchen. Mattie was watching a Danny Kaye movie a couple of rooms away. They could hear the regular, inarticulate burble of voices and the odd burst of music when Mattie boosted the volume for a song she liked.
 
“No,” Robert said. “I won’t pretend. But I like her a lot, and she’s fond of me. We get along better than most couples, I’ll guarantee you that. I don’t mind how she is.”
 
Sara said nothing. Those eyes again, pale and canny. Intelligence like an intimacy between them.
 
“I’m going to guess you’ve been a busy girl,” Robert said. “I’m going to guess you’ve found out a few things about me. That’s fine. Clean and straight for the last eighteen months—that’s on my record too—but I’m guessing that’s not foremost in your mind right now. That’s fine. It’s good to get these things out in the open. Mattie knows what kind of person I am, I’ve told her as much as she can understand. If it doesn’t bother her, I’m going to suggest it shouldn’t bother you.”
 
“I could have brought the police with me today. That would have been my right. It was recommended to me, in fact.”
 
“Jesus.” He shook his head. “Why?”
 
“Why? Because she has the capacity of a child. She can’t consent to any of this, not legally. Not to marriage. Not to—”
 
Mattie came into the kitchen and asked if anyone else wanted juice.
 
“Just for you, I think, Mattie-Battie,” Robert said. “Good movie?”
 
“It’s my favourite. Next time you have to watch with me.”
 
“You know I will.”
 
“I know,” Mattie said.
 
When she was gone, Robert said, “You think I raped her? You think I’m a violent man? Look around. Do you see a mess in this house? Do you see anything missing, anything out of place? I cleaned the toilets this morning. I raked the lawn, I made the beds. In a little while I’m going to start dinner. I’ve helped Mattie comb her hair and cut her toenails. Clean and straight, it’s all clean and straight.”
 
Sara told him about the possibility of an annulment and a restraining order.
 
“You think I should get a lawyer, Sara? Is that what you would do, if you were me?” He seemed genuinely to want to know.
 
Sara shook her head, then nodded.
 
“Can you recommend someone?”
 
She said nothing.
 
“Sure you can. I’m sure you know more than one lawyer. I’m sure that’s the kind of friends you have. I’m sure you get together with your lady lawyer friends for cappuccinos.”
 
Lattes, Sara thought.
 
“All right. I’m not going to make fun of you. I’m not stupid, though. I want you to know that.”
 
“No, you’re not stupid. Mattie’s the stupid one.”
 
 He leaned back in his chair. “That’s an ugly way to talk.”
 
From the TV room they heard Mattie laugh.
 
“Can I tell you a little bit about myself, Sara? Can I? You’ve established some things already in your mind, I can see that. That I have a criminal record. That I waited to get married until you were out of town. That I’m living here in this beautiful house and maybe that’s fouling it for you. Am I warm?”
 
“It’s not the house.”
 
“All right! It’s not the house. Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me, Sara, tell me what it is. Let’s talk about it and see if we can work it out. I can tell you I didn’t go to university. Is that it? Do you hate me because I watch the Discovery Channel?”
 
“Stop.”
 
“My first wife had a master’s in social work. I have a sister in the Kootenays and two nieces. Information, information. What else can I give you? I have high blood pressure. I take pills for it. When I was a kid I had a cat named Leo and a dog named Booker. My trade is carpentry. My favourite wood is cedar. I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had because I can’t stand being told what to do. My bosses were always genuinely regretful. They knew my work was good but they didn’t like the way I talked back and made them look bad in front of the crew. That’s not trouble, that’s self-respect. Drinking is what gets me in trouble, and I don’t drink anymore. I’ve been to jail three times, the longest time for five months. I’ve had seven girlfriends and eleven cars. But I don’t have to fight with Mattie, to prove myself to her every minute, like I’m doing with you now. That’s why I want to be with her. What else?”
 
“Mattie’s girlfriend number eight?”
 
“Number seven. Wife number two. What else?”
 
“The fact that there is an outstanding warrant for your arrest in Saskatoon?” Sara said.
 
He took a breath, then let it out. Sara held hers. “I borrowed that car from its rightful owner. It was a legitimate misunderstanding but she turned vindictive for no reason. I don’t want to go to jail again. I don’t deserve to.”
 
Sara allowed herself no expression.
 
“You would, wouldn’t you? I mean, you really would. I can see that. All right. I respect that, I do. You fight hard and you win.”
 
She whispered, “Please leave.”
 
He went upstairs. She knew this was the dangerous time, the time when smashing sounds might begin. A few minutes later he came back down with a backpack. “Don’t be scared,” he said, when he saw her face.
 
He went into the TV room and a moment or two later came back, pursued by Mattie in tears.
 
“I hate you!” she told Sara.
 
“No, Mattie,” Robert said, “you don’t.”
 
 
 
 
Mattie had cried for days, had blamed Sara no matter how many times Sara tried to explain. Their appearance before the judge, Mattie prettily dressed and uncomprehending, was a gentle horror: everyone so understanding, so respectful of Mattie’s dignity. The judge had spoken earnestly to Mattie, and Mattie had liked him, Sara could see. Mattie had become confused by her own emotions— loving Robert, loving Sara, loving the earnest judge with the funny big nose—and when they asked her if she wanted to say anything she had gotten tangled in her own thoughts, and blushed and shaken her head. So easy, Sara had thought, hating herself then.
 
Thus came the end of the privacy Sara had sought so fiercely and protected for so long. She sold the house—too big, too lavender-smelling—and moved Mattie into the second bedroom in her West End apartment, which had been her office. She would work from now on at a small desk in the hall. Mattie learned new bus routes, learned to manoeuvre in Sara’s tiny galley kitchen, learned to operate the coin laundry machines in the basement, learned to manage two house keys—for the building, for the apartment door—instead of just one.
 
Sara learned more about Robert in the months after he had left their lives forever. She realized he had spent a lot of time with Mattie even before the marriage, enough to have remoulded Mattie to his own shape. He had been a good cook. “Too soft,” Mattie said now of Sara’s indifferently stir-fried vegetables, and she asked more than once when Sara was going to bake some muffins or roast a chicken. Robert had been a tidy man, and thrifty. Mattie counted the money in her beaded wallet every night now before she went to bed, and when she couldn’t afford some treat she wanted, she said, “Never mind,” instead of begging from Sara. She folded her laundry now and put it away, packing it into the drawers of her new, smaller dresser with thoughtful intensity, like she was packing for a sea voyage. Sara learned that Robert had been a man who liked to touch, casually, affectionately: a pat on the back, a kiss on the head, a head on her shoulder during the TV news on the sofa before bed. There was no one else from whom her sister could have learned this behaviour. There had never been anyone else at all.
 
Sara learned how Robert had been in bed. Late every night, after Sara had turned her light out—long after Mattie had closed her own door—Sara would feel her sister slip into her room, slip under the covers beside her, and press her body against Sara’s until Sara put her arms around her. They would lie this way for a long time, until Mattie turned away, backing herself against Sara so that Sara would hold her that way, and then Mattie would sigh and busy her hands between her own legs. The doctor had assured Sara weeks ago that Mattie was healthy and her hymen intact. “You,” Mattie would mumble after she was done, but Sara would only hold her. Every night after Mattie had fallen asleep Sara would promise herself to put an end to these intrusions: a gentle but firm talk, a lock on the door, a sharp, unequivocal word in the night.
 
But night rolled into day rolled into night and she said nothing, did nothing. She had taken the sun and the moon from Mattie, as the old words went; they would not come again. Skin on skin, and not to be alone: didn’t she owe her this, at least, if her own love was true?

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The Golden Mean

The Golden Mean

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Chapter One

The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey. On the ship she seemed comfortable enough, but this last overland stage is beyond all her experience and it shows. Her mare stumbles; she’s let the reins go loose again, allowing the animal to sleepwalk. She rides awkwardly, weighed down by her sodden finery. Earlier I suggested she remain on one of the carts but she resisted, such a rare occurrence that I smiled, and she, embarrassed, looked away. Callisthenes, my nephew, offered to walk the last distance, and with some difficulty we helped her onto his big bay. She clutched at the reins the first time the animal shifted beneath her.

“Are you steady?” I asked, as around us the caravan began to move.

“Of course.”

Touching. Men are good with horses where I come from, where we’re returning now, and she knows it. I spent yesterday on the carts myself so I could write, though now I ride bareback, in the manner of my countrymen, a ball­busting proposition for someone who’s been sedentary as long as I have. You can’t stay on a cart while a woman rides, though; and it occurs to me now that this was her intention.

I hardly noticed her at first, a pretty, vacant-eyed girl on the fringes of Hermias’s menagerie. Five years ago, now. Atarneus was a long way from Athens, across the big sea, snug to the flank of the Persian Empire. Daughter, niece, ward, concubine – the truth slipped like silk.

“You like her,” Hermias said. “I see the way you look at her.” Fat, sly, rumoured a money­changer in his youth, later a butcher and a mercenary; a eunuch, now, supposedly, and a rich man. A politician, too, holding a stubborn satrapy against the barbarians: Hermias of Atarneus. “Bring me my thinkers!” he used to shout. “Great men surround themselves with thinkers! I wish to be surrounded!” And he would laugh and slap at himself while the girl Pythias watched without seeming to blink quite often enough. She became a gift, one of many, for I was a favourite. On our wedding night she arrayed herself in veils, assumed a pose on the bed, and whisked away the sheets before I could see if she had bled. I was thirty-seven then, she fifteen, and gods forgive me but I went at her like a stag in rut. Stag, hog.

“Eh? Eh?” Hermias said the next morning, and laughed.

Night after night after night. I tried to make it up to her with kindness. I treated her with great courtliness, gave her money, addressed her softly, spoke to her of my work. She wasn’t stupid; thoughts flickered in her eyes like fish in deep pools. Three years we spent in Atarneus, until the Persians breathed too close, too hot. Two years in the pretty town of Mytilene, on the island of Lesvos, where they cobbled the floor of the port so enemy ships couldn’t anchor. Now this journey. Through it all she has an untouchable dignity, even when she lies with her knees apart while I gently probe for my work on generation. Fish, too, I’m studying, field animals, and birds when I can get them. There’s a seed like a pomegranate seed in the centre of the folds, and the hole frilled like an oyster. Sometimes moisture, sometimes dryness. I’ve noted it all.

“Uncle.”

I follow my nephew’s finger and see the city on the marshy plain below us, bigger than I remember, more sprawling. The rain is thinning, spitting and spatting now, under a suddenly lucid gold-grey sky.

“Pella,” I announce, to rouse my dripping, dead-eyed wife. “The capital of Macedon. Temple there, market there, palace. You can just make it out. Bigger than you thought?”

She says nothing.

“You’ll have to get used to the dialect. It’s fast, but not so different really. A little rougher.”

“I’ll manage,” she says, not loudly.

I sidle my horse up to hers, lean over to take her reins to keep her near me while I talk. It’s good for her to have to listen, to think. Callisthenes walks beside us.

“The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?”

“Did we bring olives?” Pythias asks.

“I assume you know your wars, my love?”

She picks at the reins, plucks at them like lyre strings, but I don’t let go. “I know them,” she says finally.

Utterly ignorant, of course. If I had to weave all day, I’d at least weave myself a battle scene or two. I remind her of the Athenian conquest of Persia under the great general Pericles, Athens at her seafaring mightiest, in my great­grandfather’s time. Then the decades of conflict in the Peloponnese, Athens bled and finally brought low by Sparta, with some extra Persian muscle, in my father’s youth; and Sparta itself defeated by Thebes, by then the ascendant power, in my own childhood. “I will set you a task. You’ll embroider Thermopylae for me. We’ll hang it over the bed.”

Still not looking at me.

“Thermopylae,” I say. “Gods, woman. The pass. The pass where the Spartans held off the Persians for three days, a force ten times their own. Greatest stand in the history of warfare.”

“Lots of pink and red,” Callisthenes suggests.

She looks straight at me for a moment. I read, Don’t patronize me. And, Continue.

Now, I tell her, young Macedon is in the ascendant, under five­wived Philip. A marriage to cement every settlement and seal every victory: Phila from Elimea, in the North; Audata the Illyrian princess; Olympias of Epirus, first among wives, the only one called queen; Philinna from Thessaly; and Nikesipolis of Pherae, a beauty who died in childbirth. Philip invaded Thrace, too, after Thessaly, but hasn’t yet taken a Thracian wife. I rifle the library in my skull for an interesting factling. “They like to tattoo their women, the Thracians.”

“Mmm.” Callisthenes closes his eyes like he’s just bitten into something tasty.

We’re descending the hillside now, our horses scuffling in the rocky scree as we make our way down to the muddy plain. Pythias is shifting in the saddle, straightening her clothes, smoothing her eyebrows, touching a fingertip to each corner of her mouth, preparing for the city.

“Love.” I put my hand on hers to still her grooming and claim back her attention. My nephew I ignore. A Thracian woman would eat him alive, tender morsel that he is, and spit out the little bones. “You should know a little more. They don’t keep slaves like we do, even in the palace. Everyone works. And they don’t have priests. The king performs that function for his people. He begins every day with sacrifices, and if anyone needs to speak to a god, it’s done through him.” Sacrilege: she doesn’t like this. I read her body. “Pella will not be like Hermias’s court. Women are not a part of public life here.”

“What does that mean?”

I shrug. “Men and women don’t attend entertainments together, or even eat together. Women of your rank aren’t seen. They don’t go out.”

“It’s too cold to go out,” Pythias says. “What does it matter, anyway? This time next week we’ll be in Athens.”

“That’s right.” I’ve explained to her that this detour is just a favour to Hermias. I’m needed in Pella for just a day or two, a week at most. Clean up, dry out, rest the animals, deliver Hermias’s mail, move on. “There isn’t much you’d want to do in public anyway.” The arts are imported sparingly. Pig­hunting is big; drinking is big. “You’ve never tasted beer, have you? You’ll have to try some before we leave.”

She ignores me.

“Beer!” Callisthenes says. “I’ll drink yours, Auntie.”

“Remember yourself,” I tell the young man, who has a tendency to giggle when he gets excited. “We are diplomats now.”

The caravan steps up its pace, and my wife’s back straightens. We’re on.

Despite the rain and ankle­sucking mud, we pick up a retinue as we pass through the city’s outskirts, men and women who come out of their houses to stare, and children who run after us, pulling at the skins covering the bulging carts, trying to dislodge some souvenir. They’re particularly drawn to the cart that carries the cages – a few bedraggled birds and small animals – which they dart at, only to retreat, screaming in pleasure and shaking their hands as though they’ve been nipped. They’re tall children, for the most part, and well formed. My men kick idly at a clutch of little beggars to fend them off, while my nephew genially turns out his pockets to them to prove his poverty. Pythias, veiled, draws the most stares.

At the palace, my nephew speaks to the guard and we are admitted. As the gates close behind us and we begin to dismount, I notice a boy – thirteen, maybe – wandering amongst the carts. Rain­plastered hair, ruddy skin, eyes big as a calf’s.

“Get away from there,” I call when the boy tries to help with one of the cages, a chameleon as it happens, and more gently, when the boy turns to look at me in amazement: “He’ll bite you.”

The boy smiles. “Me?”

The chameleon, on closer inspection, is shit­smelling and lethargic, and dangerously pale; I hope it will survive until I can prepare a proper dissection.

“See its ribs?” I say to the boy. “They aren’t like ours. They extend all the way down and meet at the belly, like a fish’s. The legs flex opposite to a man’s. Can you see his toes? He has five, like you, but with talons like a bird of prey. When he’s healthy he changes colours.”

“I want to see that,” the boy says.

Together we study the monster, the never­closing eye and the tail coiled like a strap.

“Sometimes he goes dark, almost like a crocodile,” I say. “Or spotted, like a leopard. You won’t see it today, I’m afraid. He’s about dead.”

The boy’s eyes rove across the carts.

“Birds,” he says.

I nod.

“Are they dying, too?”

I nod.

“And what’s in here?”

The boy points at a cart of large amphora with wood and stones wedged around them to keep them upright.

“Get me a stick.”

Again that look of amazement.

“There.” I point at the ground some feet away, then turn away deliberately to prise the lid off one of the jars. When I turn back, the boy is holding out the stick. I take it and reach into the jar with it, prodding gently once or twice.

“Smells,” the boy says, and indeed the smell of sea water, creamy and rank, is mingling with the smell of horse dung in the courtyard.

I pull out the stick. Clinging to its end is a small crab.

“That’s just a crab.”

“Can you swim?” I ask.

When the boy doesn’t reply, I describe the lagoon where I used to go diving, the flashing sunlight and then the plunge. This crab, I explain, came from there. I recall going out past the reef with the fishermen and helping with their nets so I could study the catch. There, too, I swam, where the water was deeper and colder and the currents ran like striations in rock, and more than once I had to be rescued, hauled hacking into a boat. Back on shore the fishermen would build fires, make their offerings, and cook what they couldn’t sell. Once I went out with them to hunt dolphin. In their log canoes they would encircle a pod and slap the water with their oars, making a great noise. The animals would beach themselves as they tried to flee. I leapt from the canoe as it reached shore and splashed through the shallows to claim one of them for myself. The fishermen were bemused by my fascination with the viscera, which was inedible and therefore waste to them. They marvelled at my drawings of dissections, pointing in wonder at birds and mice and snakes and beetles, cheering when they recognized a fish. But as orange dims to blue in a few sunset moments, so in most people wonder dims as quickly to horror. A pretty metaphor for a hard lesson I learned long ago. The larger drawings – cow, sheep, goat, deer, dog, cat, child – I left at home.

I can imagine the frosty incomprehension of my colleagues back in Athens. Science is the work of the mind, they will say, and here I am wasting my time swimming and grubbing.

“We cannot ascertain causes until we have facts,” I say. “That above all must be understood. We must observe the world, you see? From the facts we move to the principles, not the other way round.”

“Tell me some more facts,” the boy says.

“Octopuses lay as many eggs as poisonous spiders. There is no blood in the brain, and elsewhere in the body blood can only be contained in blood vessels. Bear cubs are born without articulation and their limbs must be licked into shape by their mothers. Some insects are generated by the dew, and some worms generate spontaneously in manure. There is a passage in your head from your ear to the roof of your mouth. Also, your windpipe enters your mouth quite close to the opening of the back of the nostrils. That’s why when you drink too fast, the drink comes out your nose.”

I wink, and the boy smiles faintly for the first time.

“I think you know more about some things than my tutor.” The boy pauses, as though awaiting my response to this significant remark.

“Possibly,” I say.

“My tutor, Leonidas.”

I shrug as though the name means nothing to me. I wait for him to speak again, to help or make a nuisance of himself, but he darts back into the palace, just a boy running out of the rain.

Now here comes our guide, a grand­gutted flunky who leads us to a suite of rooms in the palace. He runs with sweat, even in this rain, and smiles with satisfaction when I offer him a chair and water. I think he is moulded from pure fat. He says he knows me, remembers me from my childhood. Maybe. When he drinks, his mouth leaves little crumbs on the inner lip of the cup, though we aren’t eating.

“Oh, yes, I remember you,” he says. “The doctor’s boy. Very serious, very serious. Has he changed?” He winks at Pythias, who doesn’t react. “And that’s your son?”

He means Callisthenes. My cousin’s son, I explain, whom I call nephew for simplicity; he travels with me as my apprentice.

Pythias and her maids withdraw to an inner room; my slaves I’ve sent to the stables. We’re too many people for the rooms we’ve been allotted, and they’ll be warm there. Out of sight, too. Slavery is known here but not common, and I don’t want to appear ostentatious. We overlook a small courtyard with a blabbing fountain and some potted trees, almond and fig. My nephew has retreated there to the shelter of a colonnade, and is arguing some choice point or other with himself, his fine brows wrinkled and darkened like walnut meats by the knottiness of his thoughts. I hope he’s working on the reality of numbers, a problem I’m lately interested in.

“You’re back for the good times,” the flunky says. “War, waah!” He beats his fat fists on his chest and laughs. “Come to help us rule the world?”

“It’ll happen,” I say. “It’s our time.”

The fat man laughs again, claps his hands. “Very good, doctor’s son,” he says. “You’re a quick study. Say, ‘I spit on Athens.’”

I spit, just to make him laugh again, to set off all that wobbling.

When he’s gone, I look back to the courtyard.

“Go to him,” Pythias says, passing behind me with her maids, lighting lamps against the coming darkness.

In other windows I can see lights, little prickings, and hear the voices of men and women returning to their rooms for the evening, public duties done. Palace life is the same everywhere. I was happy enough to get away from it for a time, though I know Hermias was disappointed when we left him. Powerful men never like you to leave.

“I’m fine here,” Pythias says. “We’ll see to the unpacking. Go.”

“He hasn’t been able to get away from us for ten days. He probably wants a break.”

A soldier arrives to tell me the king will see me in the morning. Then a page comes with plates of food: fresh and dried fruit, small fish, and wine.

“Eat,” Pythias is saying. Some time has passed; I’m not sure how much. I’m in a chair, wrapped in a blanket, and she is setting a black plate and cup by my foot. “You know it helps you to eat.”

I’m weeping: something about Callisthenes, and nightfall, and the distressing disarray of our lives just now. She pats my face with the sleeve of her dress, a green one I like. She’s found time to change into something dry. Wet things are draped and swagged everywhere; I’m in the only chair that hasn’t been tented.

“He’s so young,” she says. “He wants a look at the city, that’s all. He’ll come back.”

“I know.”

“Eat, then.”

I let her put a bite of fish in my mouth. Oil, salt tang. I realize I’m hungry.

“You see?” she says.

There’s no name for this sickness, no diagnosis, no treatment mentioned in my father’s medical books. You could stand next to me and never guess my symptoms. Metaphor: I am afflicted by colours: grey, hot red, maw-black, gold. I can’t always see how to go on, how best to live with an affliction I can’t explain and can’t cure.

I let her put me to bed. I lie in the sheets she has warmed with stones from the hearth, listening to the surf­sounds of her undressing. “You took care of me today,” I say. My eyes are closed, but I can hear her shrug. “Making me ride. You didn’t want them laughing at me.”

Redness flares behind my closed eyelids; she’s brought a candle to the bedside.

“Not tonight,” I say.

Before we were married, I gave her many fine gifts: sheep, jewellery, perfume, pottery, excellent clothes. I taught her to read and write because I was besotted and wanted to give her something no lover had ever thought of before.

The next morning I see the note she’s left for me, the mouse-scratching I thought I heard as I slipped into sleep: warm, dry.

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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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