About the Author

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod was born in Saskatchewan in 1936 and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He has published two internationally acclaimed collections of short stories: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986). In 2000, these two books, accompanied by two new stories, were published as Island: The Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod. In 1999, MacLeod's first novel, No Great Mischief, was published to stellar critical acclaim. The novel won the Dartmouth Book Award, the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, The Trillium Award, the CAA Award, and the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards for Fiction Book of the Year and Author of the Year. In 2001, No Great Mischief was awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes.

Books by this Author


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To Every Thing There is a Season

To Every Thing There is a Season

A Cape Breton Christmas Story
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Barometer Rising

Penny felt her heart beginning to labour. Of course, if Neil were alive and in disgrace he would be a deserter and would not dare wear a uniform…. Penny breathed deeply. Surely if Neil were in Halifax she would have heard from him. She could not endure the thought that he was alive anywhere and had not come to her.

Then the withering feeling returned as she remembered her father and the things people had whispered about Neil Macrae for the past two years. She remembered Murray’s unwillingness to talk and the sudden embarrassment of Billy Andrews only half an hour ago. But Angus, at least, would have told her if Neil was alive. He could never have brought himself to lie about a thing like that. She had been so sure of his sincerity that his answers had finally dispelled any lingering hope that Neil might still be living, in spite of everything.

The tram stopped at the foot of her street and she got off and began to climb the hill. It was silent and cold and empty on this street where she had lived all her life. The air cooled her brain and slowed her thoughts and her heart to a normal pace. As she began to calculate the situation she thanked God for this gift which never failed her, this merciful power within herself that enabled her to spill cold water over her brain and make it lucid in moments of crisis.

She moved slowly up the hill under the bare branches of the trees until she reached the red house at the crest….
She looked at the front door. That heavy rectangle of oak weighted with its brass knocker was a symbol. Her family had shut her in from the world when she was young; it had shut her out from itself when she had ceased being a child. Her body straightened, became erect and rigid, as though to counteract the trembling sensation in her spine which now was spreading to her hands, her knees, and her shoulders.

In that instant she knew unmistakably that Neil Macrae was alive and that she had seen him. She realized this beyond the power of any logic to confute it. Her eyes were trained to recognize what was placed before them; they had often tried to fool her, but after sober consideration, they had never cheated her in her whole life.

The quivering in her limbs subsided. She drew a deep breath of damp air, and slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. And then she felt saturated with anger and cold determination. No one had ever had the kindness to give her an honest account of what had happened to Neil that day or night in Flanders when they hinted that his cowardice had ruined her father’s career in the army. The family had whispered their obscure remarks, and after Jean’s birth she had been too shaken and apprehensive to ask many questions. But Neil was alive now and she knew it. He was back in Halifax, and not all the coldness and pride of her father could keep her from compelling him to answer her questions tonight. She closed the door loudly behind her as she entered the house.

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Lives of Short Duration

Child of mine
child of mine
Came the song.
Georgie’s girl was pregnant. She was going to pack her suitcase and leave forever, money or no money. But Georgie kept shouting: “We got her all – eh there Lois?”
The girl cursed. She kept looking at her feet. There were bugs about her.
Lois said: “Georgie, you just shut yer goddamnable mouth, we’re having a party.”
“Money or no money,” the girl managed to say. Lois looked at the girl, her undernourished body. She was three months pregnant, her thin arched back hooked so that the spine showed. It was late. Under the floodlight they’d set up the flies were buzzing. The men George had invited to the party had taken sides in the argument, a few for George and a few for the girl – actually a few more for George because it was his party. It was his house also, now. The roasting pit still crackled with flame.
One of the men said: “Georgie can burn the bridge if he wants – its not up to her. Well, let me ask a civil question, is it up to her or is it up to George? I say it’s up to Georgie – eh Georgie?”
Lois watched.
“No arguments,” she shouted. “We’re having a goddamn party.”
Her blouse was opened. You could see the rose tattoo above her left breast and her hair was up in twenty curlers. From her tight shorts. But George wasn’t going to argue. With a swing at his girlfriend, just to show who was boss, he walked onto the span that crossed the river carrying a canister of gasoline and a pig’s head impaled on a stick. Everyone was yelling. The pig’s head, with its relaxed grin impaled upon a spruce stake that Georgie had cut, had grinning eyes (as if it too was happy to have itself cooked and eaten – you might so think anyway). And then George with his medallion jiggling, singing:
Pearl Pearl Pearl – oh don’t you marry Earl, He will lay you on your back and he will twiddle with your ———
Oh Pearl you are a ——— girl.
On into the night.
“George, you jeeser, we’re tryin to have a good time,” Lois yelled.
The long span shuddered when Georgie walked on it, and underneath the river silent, still swelled with rain water.
The body of the girl shivering.
“Money or no money George,” she said. “You act crazy – I’m leavin.”
George waved his fist at her and poured gasoline over the span.
“Get back here George – or ya’ll get no more wine from me, boys oh boy,” Lois said.
“Yes – come on back here Georgie,” one of the men said. Donnie was running along the opposite shoreline. He was yelling: “Oh – Lester isn’t home he isn’t, Lester isn’t.” His voice, his arms waving.
“Lester isn’t home –”
The men all looked confused now. George himself looked confused. But he tried to light a match. The span swayed – you could hear the ropes. Leona, the youngest of Lois’ three children, ate a piece of pork, with her pretty party dress on, her hair in bows. Across the river, along the hollow, the American camps. The Americans had come up from the pools for the evening, one, a professor of theology from Maryland, having taken a four- pound grilse from Simon’s pool in the dying moments of the evening. You might think. It was dark. The rain that had sent them into the house had stopped, yet water still lay along the summer hedges, the smell of lilac.
“Get me some toilet- paper,” George said, as if he were angry.
“I have no paper to get ya,” Lois yelled. “And none of you jeesers make a move for paper,” she yelled to the men. Some were wanting to go for toilet- paper and others weren’t. George was at the centre of the span, the pig’s head tilted. Under the bridge the pleasant moving shadows of water.
“Some just like to take charge,” George yelled. “But I’m going to burn down this span if it takes till doomsday – doomsday, you hear me – doomsday.” And then the song, “Oh Pearl Pearl Pearl,” coming and going with the rhythm of the pig’s swaying head.
 “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted.
“But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that – you aren’t ruinin my fun.”
Slowly with a furl and then a bright purple rush along the walkway the gasoline caught, and Georgie laughed: “Got it done – got the job done boys.”
Lois herself gave a yell, lifted her left leg and kicked at the air. Georgie’s girl was crying. The fire brightened her hair, shone against her. George ran as the span caught, veering this way and that, his own shirt- sleeve on fire – him laughing, the pig’s grinning head swollen.
George stood with his mouth opened slightly. The spruce splay the pig’s head rolled on, careened in the centre of the span. All Lester Murphy’s buildings, his gazebo behind the brick wall with pagoda lights, took on in the flaring withering flame a dormant oppressive shape, and then eerily was blackened out as the fire grew. Little by little you could see the span swaying, fire creating wind, then sinking. Donnie waved.
George took his wine, picking it up out of the dirt behind the roast pit, and walked over to the porch. He giggled slightly, then became quiet. Donnie walked back and forth on the other side of the river.
“Fuckin retard,” George said when he noticed him. Then he looked at his grand- daughter, still sitting with a piece of charred pork in her hand, chewing unconsciously.
Georgie’s girl – a girl he’d managed to bring home when he came back from some city or other last summer – a girl who’d grown up in town 30 miles below here and whose own parents had kicked her out until Lois had won the $50,000 on Atlantic Loto and she’d invited them here for a champagne breakfast, stayed near the riverbed, her arms wrapped about her stomach, the faded beach- robe like the thousands of garments somehow boughten to be needless. At intervals, and quite suddenly, she’d look up at the fire, her face betraying a childish enthusiasm.
“And you went to technical school – and what in God’s name did you do in technical school except smoke dope?” George said under his breath, watching that roast pit that still somehow had the flavour of lukewarm blood. Lois stood, her hands on her thighs, her shoulders tilted backward, watching the fire and shaking her head. Four men stood at various distances from each other, but all somehow in close proximity to Lois.
“Bradley,” Lois yelled. “Bradley – you little jeeser, where are you?”
“I’m not doin nothin,” Bradley said.
“Ya – well get the hell away from those marshmallows – we aren’t going to have any marshmallows tonight.”
“Why not?”
“Because we aren’t – because we aren’t.”
She shook her head.
“Some span, eh boys,” George said watching it. He grunted, was quiet. There was a smell of grease; some plywood boards floated along the water like vessels in distress crying from bow and stern.
“Didn’t I say I was gonna burn that – didn’t I say when I moved inta this place I was gonna burn that?” George turned about, moving slightly on his hips. He kept mashing his hands together – looking at them they seemed like strange powerful things. He shrugged, picked up a strand of grass, blew on it, made a sound and turned to Leona, who was staring up at him. “That’s what ya do when ya fart eh,” he said. The little girl in her happy party dress, with the very words happy party dress written upon it, that Lois had picked up for her, chewed quietly and looked across the river.
“We got a fuckin arsonist across that river,” George said.
“You know what my teacher says, Uncle Georgie?” she said.
“No – what does yer teacher say?” George said, still looking at his hands, smelling them. He seemed confused and touching his leg quickly he took his hand away and looked at it.
“My teacher says – she says I’m the most wonderful little creature, I’m the most splendid little creature, and I got four stars.”
“Me hands Jesus near burnt,” George said suddenly. He grunted, shook his head.
The men stood like Toms in heat all at a distance from each other, staring at Lois, whose breasts were visible in the flashes of light, who still kept her hands on her thighs, one heel arched.
“Yes me hands burnt, dear,” he said to Leona. “And where’s that Packet,” he said suddenly, in fury. “Eh, where is your uncle Packet – ya know where he is eh, oh oh oh, I could tell ya where he is, off with the squaw Emma Jane Ward, who should be strangled she’s such a knowitall, strangled up, thumb prints on her, leave her on the road, what I say – and who did Little Simon get all mixed up with, follow around like a sick dog before he died – eh, boat- people girl, that’s right – boatpeople girl – oh, thought she was too good for him, much too good – for my son – yellow cocksucker, ya see her all yellow, stinkin yellow – yellow bum on her, dear – yellow everything – and that jeesless Packet wouldn’t come ta no party – too good ta come ta any parties, even though his own flesh and blood goes around throwin parties, just like when I was in Toronto and he passed right through there – oh for Jesus sure, and now who’ve we got? Ya see Little Simon that day after he went and bought the one a present and she laughed right in his face, right up his gob and then went to work at McDonald’s, which is good enough for the bastard, but I know – can’t help but know, ya know what ya know – how in cocksucker can we get jobs in this country if they’re lettin those no- nourished Pakistanis and Cambodian Jiggiboos in – I met a woman in TO – oh the very best of a place that cocksucker – makes disposable diapers, says they’re all up there now makin disposable diapers, every one of them and she got so screwed up listenin to them talk that she missed the handle on the press and cut about nine fingers off, and Packet – burnt my hand dear, smell it,” he said, holding his hand to her face.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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