About the Author

David Adams Richards

David Adams Richards was born in Newcastle, New Brunswick. His celebrated body of work has earned numerous awards and accolades to date, most notably for his prose, poetry, novels, and screenplays. All examine the fundamental conflict between individual conscience and truth versus community, history, and perceptions.

Adams Richards recent novels include River of the Brokenhearted (2003), a depiction of a family whose fortunes rise and fall with the success of its movie theatres, The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), an exploration of the dying days of the lumber industry, which won the Commonwealth Prize (Canada and the Caribbean), and The Lost Highway (2007), a suspenseful story of greed, betrayal, and Murder. Lines on the Water, about fishing on the Miramichi, won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 1998, making Richards one of a very select group; he is only the third person to win Governor General literary awards in two different categories. The first novel in his Miramichi trilogy, Nights Below Station Street, received the Governor Generals Award for fiction in 1988. Mercy Among the Children was co-winner of the Giller Prize in 2000. It has also won the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for both novel of the year and author of the year in 2001.

David Adams Richards, né en 1950 à Newcastle, au Nouveau-Brunswick, est un auteur prolifique : il a fait paraître treize romans, un recueil de nouvelles ainsi que trois essais. Son succès critique et commercial ne cesse de s’accroître. Le roman Road to the Stilt House a été mis en nomination pour un Prix littéraire du Gouverneur général en 1985, et en 1988 l’auteur recevait cette même distinction pour Nights Below Station Street, premier volet de sa trilogie du Miramichi. Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace a été primé par la Canadian Authors Association en 1991, et trois ans plus tard, For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down a valu à Richards la récompense littéraire Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.

Les œuvres plus tardives de Richards sont tout aussi bien reçues par la critique. En 1998, son essai Lines on the Water sur la pêche à la ligne dans le Miramichi est honoré du Prix du Gouverneur général, et il se place dès lors au sein d’un groupe enviable : il est seulement le troisième auteur à obtenir la prestigieuse récompense dans deux catégories. En 2000, Mercy Among the Children [La Malédiction Henderson] remporte ex aequo le Giller Prize et, en 2001, la Canadian Booksellers Association récompense Richards du Prix Libris dans les catégories roman de l’année et auteur de l’année. Parmi ses romans les plus récents, on compte River of the Brokenhearted (2003), les hauts et les bas d’une famille au fil des succès et des défaites d’une salle de cinéma; The Friends of Meager Fortune (2006), qui explore de la fin de l’ère de l’industrie forestière, qui a valu à son auteur le Prix du Commonwealth pour la région du Canada et des Caraïbes; et The Lost Highway (2007), une intrigante histoire d’avarice, de trahison et de meurtre.

Books by this Author
Blood Ties

Blood Ties

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tagged : literary
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Excerpt

Mass was over now and they started up the road together with the heat coming down on them, pressing down, except Orville stayed ahead of them, his young spindly legs moving as quickly as they could. When they were halfway Allison stopped and offered them a drive. Orville kept on walking – a little quicker as if to get home before the car.
 
“I think it looks like rain,” Allison said.
 
“I think it will,” Maufat said. He sat in the back seat between her and Irene, his knees together, his hands on his knees. “I’m going to have to get a car I think.”
 
Allison’s wife had the baby on her lap.
 
The heat was a wet heat and could be felt in the car, could be seen out the car windows in the drain, the weeds slanted motionless, almost dripping with it.
 
“Do you have to serve the picnic, Irene – I had trouble with the baby – I didn’t hear because of him.”
 
“Yes your name was called; our name was called.”
 
“I don’t want to serve,” Cathy said.
 
Her mother looked around behind Maufat’s shoulder and stared at her. She looked down and across to where her father’s dirt- black fingernails were scratching at the legs of his pants.
 
They drove past Orville. He didn’t turn at all to notice them so they kept on driving. Cathy turned to wave but he didn’t answer it, and he turned his head to look along the side of the drain where the weeds were slanting and waiting in the thick heat, and where the thick smell of summer seemed to be. It seemed to be only there along the side of the ditch. Then it began to rain, slow at first but by the time they pulled into the drive it was raining hard.
 
The field looked black with it.
 
“He’ll get drenched,” Irene said.
 
“Now thank you,” her father said.
 
Because she ran from the gate into the porch she got wet, almost soaked through the blouse, it came that quickly, making the field slant under the weight of it. She felt the chill of the rain on her when she went into the porch, kicking from the door the case of bottles that leaned against it. The chill stayed with her when she went inside. Outside all was darkening, the trees blowing with the rain and the flat, rutted surface of the drive turning to puddles and mud. She ran upstairs unfastening her skirt as she went, singing to herself, the rain dripping down from her, and the small streaks of mud she had tracked in. As she sang the words came up from her throat louder and louder. She pushed open the door to her room and went to the small grey window that slanted at an angle at the side of her bed. Out there on the roadway she could see him coming, walking close to the drenched woodlot on the opposite side. He had his head down and his hands in his pockets and he didn’t run, not the way anyone would be expected to run in a rain like that. The sound of the rain beating and splashing and pumping from the broken clouds. Thunder – the roadway deserted except for him walking alone. She lay on the bed and pulled the magazine out from under her and began to read, her lips moving slowly with the words.
 
“Are you coming?” her mother said.
 
She looked up. Her mother stood at the doorway, unchanged, with her white sunless hand resting against the side of the wall.
 
“And put that away – it’s Sunday; you’ve just received – so put that away.”
 
She dropped the magazine to the floor and stood, changing out of her Sunday clothes with her back to her mother. He was coming up the drive now still walking in that manner – his long thin legs thrusting out, covering his shoes with mud.
 
“Not really,” she said.
 
“That woman has to be fed and changed.”
 
“I had wanted to go swimming.”
 
Out on the beach the sand would be black wet, the waves would come in and the seaweed would wash up saturated and grey. The waves would come up and splash the reef, and far down below it, the slip. The beach would be empty.
 
“You can’t go swimming now.”
 
She watched him coming and then he was gone around by the porch and she heard the door swing open and she heard her father grunting to him, but she heard nothing from him.
 
She turned around and with her throat filling that way she couldn’t speak for a moment. She didn’t want to go. They would roll her over and take her like a child and change her – time and again, every day, time and again. She had wanted to go swimming – the long hot beach, the water, the thick rich mill smell coming down over it, the sky purple- blue with heat and mist.
 
“He took my radio again – he has it in there every day – he took it again. It’s my radio. I should be able to keep my own darn radio. He takes it every darn day,” she said.
 
Her mother looked at her. Her sunless hand against the wall.
 
“She has to be fed and changed. No more than an hour – no more than an hour and a half. She’ll go to sleep then.”
 
They went down the stairway together, her mother a step ahead of her, the knee- length dress of her mother and her mother’s stockings with a run in both legs, the white calves bulging out. She had such thin little hands and such thick legs now, not the legs she used to have. There was a time before, a time when her legs were as pretty as her hands. Cathy watched her on the stairway moving down.
 
“He takes my radio all the time – all the time, so that’s it! That’s it! From now on you’ll see a padlock on my door. Even if we had ordinary doors I wouldn’t mind. So that’s it. Padlock on my darn door from now on.”
 
The rain wasn’t so hard now. After supper she would go to the beach because it would be clear by after supper. But the flies after a rain swarmed terribly. Even now she thought she saw a clearing in the far sky. To sit in her room all afternoon and wait for the clearing – reading and smoking cigarettes. He sat in the living- room staring at nothing.
 
“Padlock from now on, Orv; the heck with you. You put my radio back – and stop taking my stuff like that, that’s all I have to say.”
 
He turned his head away and his eye closed, and then in one motion he lay down across the couch, with his shoes still on dangling over the arm.
 
 “Did you track mud in here?” Irene said.
 
“No!” He never opened his eye.
 
“Well, be careful of tracking mud in here – I see some stains here – look, it’s all marked up. It is! Did you do that?” He didn’t answer.
 
“Did you do that?”
 
“No,” he never bothered to open his eye.
 
“Yes, well you better put my radio back – soon as you go upstairs put it back,” Cathy said, looking at the mud marks ground into the carpet, already spot- streaked and faded and dirty. “Are we going now?” she said.
 
“Soon, soon,” Irene answered going into the kitchen. Maufat was in the kitchen with his chair pulled up between the stove and the table. He had pushed the plastic fruit dish to the side, and at the side of it he had his beer placed, and on his left the ashtray and cigarettes. He had his cards dealt out and was looking in perplexity over them, grunting now and then to himself, and picking the beer up now and then to drink it.
 
“Five on your red six,” Cathy said coming over to him. He turned around with his mouth full and shook his head until he swallowed. His face soured.
 
“I know – I know; now you’ll ruin everything. I want to get it myself – if I can’t get it myself I ain’t gonna play.” She turned to her mother.
 
“When are you starting dinner?”
 
“After – when she’s fed and changed and comfortable. Laura can come over with me this evening. You only have to come with me now.”
 
The sky wasn’t clearing; it had been a mistake to think it was. Irene stood nearest the window waiting for it to abate, for it to draw back into itself. That is how Cathy thought of it all – she thought that the clouds drew closer together and then the rain drew back into it. Thunder came. Her father never picked up the five for the red six. Not yet. He kept flipping the cards in groups of threes over and over again. He put an ace up and then the deuce upon it. He would have to put them all up now. Lightning came. She counted; each second was a mile away and she counted seven seconds – thunder came. The lightning was in the forest above where the leaves were thick with the saturation; where the twisted sunless branches were black with the saturation.
 
“We could run over,” Irene said.
 
When the lightning came again it seemed to whiten the sky, making a pure white light out of those grey clouds from whence it came, making white the mud, the usually scum- red mud of the drive. She had walked over and stood beside her mother to watch it coming. If they left now and ran across by the field- path they would make it in a matter of minutes but it was the field high with the wet grass that would soak through her slacks.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Extraordinary Canadians Lord Beaverbrook

Extraordinary Canadians Lord Beaverbrook

A Penguin Lives Biography
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Facing the Hunter
Excerpt

I suppose the very first animal I saw killed and in the back of a truck was a bull moose, sometime in the early 1950s. The blacksmith who lived next door to us on Blanche Street shot it. My father at that time went hunting every year—and it caused much excitement when he left, and came back. I remember seeing his rifle standing in the hallway between the kitchen and living room. The fact that you needed to be strong to carry it around gave it credibility. And we knew instinctively that it was his rifle and not ours to touch.
 
He was a deer hunter mainly (he shot a deer on the day I was born, October 17, 1950). After a time, as it does with most people, hunting became a thing of his youth, and he put his rifle away, about the time I shot my first deer.
 
The men next door to us hunted until they were much older. A woman we knew, up near the first house I lived at, was a very great hunter. I remember the eight-point buck she shot. They took a picture of it for the paper with her standing alongside it. She went hunting mainly with her brother. Sometimes her brother went into the camp by himself for a week with no transportation. She was an unmarried lady, and of course much talking there was about her. But she was a good fisherman and a fine shot with a rifle. My aunt, my mother’s youngest sister, hunted birds in the fall. She too was an unmarried woman who lived up on a stretch of the Matapédia. She was away fishing in the spring of the year, and she could tie her own flies. She was not the fisher-person her brothers were, but then again she didn’t have to be. She could cast a good line and work a pool well, and she took her own rifle to hunt her own game in the fall, mainly partridge up on the ridges above her house.
 
All of these people were people of my youth whom I respected a good deal. The woods had secret places that laid the framework of the template of my life. There were here many famous New Brunswick guides, and a grand amount of wisdom about the hunt. But there was, still and all, a good deal of wisdom from those who did not guide, as well. When I was a child, the caribou were a distant memory, a grand animal of the barrens, drifting away like an image in an old photo. Or their racks were in houses I sometimes visited. Distant themselves now.
 
When I was a child, moose were scarce as well. There was a moratorium on the moose hunt for a number of years, and cow moose were not allowed to be taken. The moose population has grown again, after the 1950s, and they are now hunted on a draw. Most of my friends have been in on a draw at some time or another, and I too have hunted and killed moose. Moose is the extravagant hunt here. You need equipment to hunt, and a crew. It is hard hunting moose on your own. But in many respects it might be the greatest hunting there is on this land.
 
We now have white-tailed deer, game fowl, moose, and bear. There are also coyotes, lynx, bobcat, and another two animals—though no one lets on either exists—the eastern panther and the eastern cougar. Some see the tawny orange cougar, as I did in Gagetown in 1990, and others see the proud, black, slender panther, as my brother did when fishing with Ken Francis at the Stony Brook stretch a few years ago. Some say they are two different kinds of cats, and others say they are different colours of the same species. I think they are two different cats—a cougar and a panther.
 
What separates them both from the bobcat or the lynx are their tails, which forestry officials go to extraordinary lengths to deny they have. Because if they do exist it becomes our obligation to protect them. (It is a simple and collective stupidity to deny the obvious.)
 
The one that ran in front of my truck on a road in the hot July of 1990 was a tawny cat with a long enough tail to separate it from all the bobcat and lynx that made their domiciles here. The pure black cat is, for the old-timers, the true eastern panther, the mythical, wondrous animal that is seen almost as a vision of time gone by, usually by people alone. Peter Baker, a friend of mine, saw one when he was sixteen, standing behind his camp on the Norwest Miramichi. Another hunting acquaintance saw one across the main Miramichi River. My son John saw one last year.
 
When I was little we could get partridge behind a friend’s house, and at times deer could be seen in the ball field just above us. Now, as I write this in my farmhouse in Bartibog, a big buck comes to my apple tree in the front yard while a doe and her fawn are seen grazing. At night, just outside the window beside me, I hear a bear as it meanders up to the fallen apples, filling itself for winter. In the spring here, even now, bears can be trouble. Though few here want to shoot them, there are small children and hidden pathways that run to the river, so early on in spring it is sometimes safer to carry a gun down to the frozen beach.
 
Bears are to me the most problematic species. There is no reason to hunt them unless they are a bother to people. In the spring of this year—right on my lane, which I can see from my window—a huge she-bear with two small cubs meandered day in and day out. The fellow below me, nearer the water, was frightened for his dogs and thought of shooting them. But the bears won’t bother the dogs unless provoked.
 
Usually when I saw bears when I was young they had already met their demise at the hands of a hunter. I have a picture of a bear and three cubs taken in the early 1960s, and for some reason I never agree to it. If we needed or had a taste for bear meat it would be different. But I am not so certain that many of us have a taste for bear.
 
The main hunt here is deer, and deer brought the tick that almost took care of the moose. It is a way for the smaller animal to survive. But now the moose population is relatively healthy, and so too is the white-tailed deer. The white-tailed deer have been here a comparatively short time. The first one shot in New Brunswick was taken, I think, in 1884—mistaken for a caribou. This is the northern extreme of the white-tail range—their numbers are far greater farther south, but the deer here tend to be bigger and probably tougher than their brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania or Virginia.

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God Is

God Is

My Search for Faith in a Secular World
tagged : philosophy
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God Is.

God Is.

My Search for Faith in a Secular World
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Excerpt

A woman who recently started to read my books has asked me if I am a Christian. Strange how hard a question this is. If I say that I am not, the entire social fabric of my upbringing, of my parents’ and grandparents’ teachings and instructions, and the world and church in which I came to manhood, would make me a liar. But if I say I am a Christian, and a practicing Catholic, it very well might elicit a preconceived notion of what that means, which in itself is giving into a convenient falsehood.

So I could say that I am a Christian but not like those other Christians, or that I am a Catholic but not like some of those other Catholics. So already, I have hedged my bets and placed a stiff tariff on my own answer in order to be polite. It would be judging others, as I was afraid this very nice young woman would judge me. It would be judging in order not to be judged, to not willingly disclose who I am. Something like Saint Peter. (That, I suppose, is where our similarities end.)

But then I should not be so frightened of her question. And I should try to answer it this way:

“Do I believe in God? Far more now than when I was 20, far more than when I was 35, and I hope not as much as when I am 70.”

“And have you done serious wrong?”

“I have done serious wrong many times — but God, I’m afraid, had nothing to do with it.”

In our own time, in the century just ended, no one denied God’s existence more than Joseph Stalin. To my mind, the Soviet dictator is far more than anyone else the key, the lesson, for people to ponder when they doubt the existence of God.

State-enforced atheism existed in the Soviet Union for years. In fact, God was the last thing Stalin ever needed, until God was the last thing he had.

After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, Stalin opened the churches, knowing his army fought not only on their stomach. The political survivor knew the only way to save Russia was through the faith of its people. That no matter the square blocks of bleak buildings that came to be known after his own name, he could not erase their faith in a Being greater than himself. So cynicism won the day.

But to be fair to Stalin, it was only a stop-gap, a little glitch in his overall testimony against Christ himself. He had many more battles to wage against Christ. Still, in 1941 it was a wise decision. And completely self-interested. That is what is so brilliant about it. Church became his own vehicle to ride out the madness, while planes of the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed his people.

The churches were opened to save Mother Russia. Who wouldn’t do that? But then again, what choice did he himself have?

Stalin did quite well at coming to terms with his own peculiar brand of nihilism early in life — cynicism propelled him past every one of his comrades — yet what is important here is that he could never elude the presence of Something else. This Something plagued him from the time he was a boy. This was to become his greatest personal struggle. In a way, he took the entire Soviet Union into his confidence about his need to create nothing out of something. And it is fascinating to witness, for in so many respects it defines who we are as well. It tells us enough about our own dialogue with Something to make us thank Stalin, in a way, for showing us what not to question. For this Something was a painful presence to him, and it led him into areas of the human conscience where no man should dare go.

If we rely upon myth for just a second, he truly was like one of the great angels who in torment questioned the power and the grace of what could flick him like a gnat, yet he continued to believe in his own indispensability. In moments he almost confided in it like an older brother. The country was bled to death because of it. And still this Something persisted.

Stalin fought these doubts about the nothing of nothing all of his life. The entire Soviet Union was a testimony to his great battle against this Something.

Without the blink of an eye, Uncle Joe signed orders to have men he had dined with executed because nothing meant nothing. But still, what was behind it all? And more to the point, why do we need Nothing? Why do we seek it? What good will it do us?

How much better off will we be if we find it?

Nothing begets nothing. “Our nada who art in nada,” as Ernest Hemingway reminds us.

Hemingway, of course, believed in humanity. But humanity, as a stable of man’s divinity, still rankled Stalin. Stalin became ruthlessly proficient at deploring humanity, and tried his best to excise it from the common bones of the proletariat. His professed love of them was godlike except for one thing — forgiveness. Every man, woman, and child was under his thumb, and it was a big thumb. And every deficiency had something to do with the soul.

People who decry the crimes of Stalin tout the idea and even deity of his arch-enemy Trotsky, who Stalin managed to kill, the assassin arriving in Mexico with a Canadian passport. But if Stalin was the brutal arm of revolution, Trotsky was its cerebral death mask. Both by 1921 were mass murderers.

What both needed to rid Russia of was never called humanity. It was called treason, or counter-revolution, the kulaks, bourgeois, or priestly hypocrisy. It had dozens of names. By the end of the reign of Beria, Stalin’s number one executioner, maybe thousands. But looking deep into the soul, what Stalin hated all had to do with gentleness and humanity. It was even a snit at the possibility that people were stupid enough to believe him. As if to say, How dare the peasants be so gullible as to think this revolution had anything to do with them? That, in fact, was why his second wife, the one he loved, Nadia, shot herself. She was the real proletariat of the household.

A friend once said to me that the Eastern theatre was where the real war took place and the Battle of Britain was a sideshow. Yet, in some way, I have come to realize it was all a sideshow. Something much greater was going on. And that the battles we engage in as humans are a constant sideshow.

There is always something else far more important at stake. The human soul, in some ways like good helium, expands to whatever environment it has. Or conversely sinks into whatever ditch it is offered. That’s where the real battles are waged — and waged continually.

Stalin’s war was fought against the very presence of God. Goebbels might have said that Hitler was too great a man to be compared to Christ, but we think of Stalin as the man who needed to obliterate him.

It was a lonely war — against God. That is what makes Stalin fascinating to us. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, beating his wings as he flies through the great caverns toward the hopeful decimation of earth, a heroic figure. Yet at the last, faced with another pagan of equal force — an enemy at the gates so monstrous it was as if they were twins — he called on God to help his soldiers fight, granting them to call on Him. The great patriotic war was really the great holy war. And after allowing prayer and Communion, he then tossed God away again.

To eradicate God was not to make men equal — this is what many of us always pretend or are deluded by. The wisdom of those who have come to the conclusion that there is nothing but themselves have in the end usually little generosity to spare the masses. Even in the tavern talk of certain friends of the seventies, the new world, where we were all equal, where women were as capable as men of denouncing humanity (which was considered grave intelligence), there was always the idea that some would have to be eradicated, or left on the sidelines, or at least see our point of view. The secret we failed to grasp was that the only way we seemed able to have someone equal to ourselves was to diminish anyone who disagreed with us.

The great misconception of Stalin or anyone else is that equality finally rids one of the need for faith.

The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in all its frantic bloodletting shows us that man never considered men (or women) equal, just as the war against God in the 1930s and 1940s in Russia was done in the end to make Stalin God.

I wrote in one of my novels that Stalin, Koba the Dread, would never have stopped until there was no one left on the face of the earth but himself. He could never have been happy until this happened. Happy, of course, is relative. This internecine gorge and flicking off of the human substance was hellish in its design. The idea of human character was to be smashed to atoms, and the revolution was to end with Stalin as sole proprietor of the world. He threw his entire country into chambers in hell and watched as they writhed, like men on racks, trying to behold him. Letters from those dying men and women poured forth, begging for mercy, for exile, and for one more glimpse of his face.

They had made a choice and it was deliberate. At the last moment they knew they had killed easily and humorously for the man about to kill them easily and humorously. Suddenly they knew how intricately hell worked. But even if he had managed to eradicate all those other humans he would have been left entirely on his own, with that something he still spoke to. That something he refused to call God. Because that’s what it was all about.

Stalin’s final moments have been revealed to us by his daughter Svetlana and by his doctors and confidants. Suddenly at the end (or, just perhaps, the beginning), a look of terror and rage crossed over his face. He was looking up toward the far ceiling, and he lifted himself up and shook his fist at Something. It seemed that his seventy-four years of life on this “scrap of earth,” as Tolstoy called it, had not really prepared him for what was about to come.

However, as always, none of us knows.

Beria confidently prepared the state funeral, assuming the reign of terror would continue under his direction. But he was arrested, tied and gagged, put up on a hook, and, while trying to scream, shot in the forehead without the least mercy.

On Khrushchev’s orders.

After his wife congratulated him on becoming Supreme Soviet, Khrushchev simply said, “I am up to my armpits in blood.”

That is, he knew how it had all worked.

––
I mention this at the start of this little book because, to me, nothing proves the existence of God more. And in a way it provides a few answers. One, how easy man slides when he wishes to deny God. And two, how close Stalin and Beria are to us. They are archetypal figures for our recent global history — they were supreme. And evil, if evil can ever be fully described. Yet when you read their cant and posture, their sniggering, they are our neighbours and ourselves at our lowest moments.

When I read about these leaders and their subordinates — the pettiness toward those out of favour, the forced morality of those who hold reign, the obsequiousness of those wanting favour — they come very close to us. Even Stalin’s brutality is only that of a man frightened of losing.

Where do you say, Could we ever see this in ourselves? One only has to look at the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. It is a movie made in 1992 that deals with the cutthroat world of real estate in Arizona. The great line, when Jack Lemmon is refused a cup of coffee, “Coffee’s for closers only, ” is a line that could be used by any one of Stalin’s subordinates. Al Pacino’s character trying to con his mark into counting four days as only three, and almost succeeding, is much like the notion of lying to change the order of the universe. And Jack Lemmon, at the end, begging Kevin Spacey to take twenty-five hundred dollars that he has stolen as a bribe shows that they had become, in spite of themselves, a nest of vipers. And yet we still in some way have compassion for them because we see them in ourselves.

That is most of this behaviour can be seen on a daily basis — vying for attention and resenting and manipulating. For it wasn’t the great things that brought them to where they were, but the small day-to-day mendacities. Stalin forcing Khrushchev to step-dance at the dacha at two in the morning is somehow, in a strange way, proof of the demonic. And reverses Talleyrand’s assertion about Napoleon’s terrible mistake in killing a political rival: That it wasn’t a crime but a blunder to the mirror opposite; it wasn’t a blunder but a crime.

Banal? Absolutely. Trite? Of course. Apocalyptic? Certainly.

The banality of evil, Hannah Arendt suggested when looking upon Adolf Eichmann.

“She was talking not about us as being evil, but only the supreme characters,” an acquaintance of mine said.

People do believe that evil is always about the big deeds. And sainthood is almost always pious and absurd, with the accent on “absurd,” and most often caricatured or lampooned, with the accent on “lampooned.” As a general rule, this trivializing of religious edicts on good and bad is considered just because of some unknown personal injury that we manufacture continually within the hubris of moral relativism.

There are reasons for this, which the church is in some way responsible, for it browbeat us too much. It is of course what Stalin himself would consider as true. If anything, he was party to the big deeds — absolutely. Yet we might reflect that he punished all the little ones — even killed the parents of a girl who dared have her picture taken with him.

For the most part, we accept our opinion about ourselves, and not only believe it, but on a daily basis seem to prove it out. And by this, I mean, that it might be Stalin who is evil, not us.
To think about evil on a day-to-day basis is to question our own motives in certain things where we too would act like those seeking favour with demigods. Still and all, this is why I chose Stalin to start this book.

Nor am I at all asking us to look upon ourselves as evil! I am asking, however, to entertain the idea that evil does exist, and is not exclusive to the German or Russian, or the English or Dutch. Or the American or Pakistani, either.

For if we do not want to compare ourselves to those hopeless people, Stalin’s forlorn subordinates, then it is best we do not consider our flaws as being such as would consolidate us to them in any way whatsoever.

“Oh it is the same, but only to a degree,” my friends might say.

But I say, as Mortimer Adler does, that the degree does not negate the similarity — only a difference in kind can do this — and our actions, compared to millions before us, are not at all a difference in kind, but only a difference to a degree. And this is fatal when we try to dismiss it as being unimportant in a matter of faith or God.

But why did I decide to write this book in the first place? It will only get me in trouble with friends who think I am already far too conservative for my own good. And why would one want to think about it? Not thinking about it gets us along just fine. In fact much of what people on the left believe I believe as well. And much of what they desire I desire also. But I feel they cannot achieve these things without faith. And I believe most of them upon reflection realize this. Nor am I saying the left does not have faith — that would be profoundly stupid. But I will say there is a secular trend today to keep faith as far away from us as possible.

Most of the people I know do not consider a study of faith or believing in God to be very important. We have put those notions to rest, or at least recognize that they are safely beyond us now. And in many ways I do not blame them — for it is a quagmire.

Still most of us, myself included, have a little faith left. It clings to our deepest hopes, just a tad. But that is okay. For any degree of faith, any at all, tells us in so many ways that it is false not to think of faith as relevant. Faith tells us that the quagmire we are in has nothing to do with faith. Even bad religions have nothing to do with faith.

Then what does faith provide that helps us to make a start on achieving what we say we want to achieve? Anything? Well, maybe just one thing.

Faith allows us peace only from the active, complicit role of wrongful injury. That does not allow us much, it seems. Very little. But still, that is just about the only thing it promises. And I might add this: that guarantee is a good thing, even if we have to work at it on a daily basis. And even if we see many who give up faith and become complicit in wrongful injury. So my contention is that those of us who want to maim or kill in the name of faith have in fact given it up, and put their faith, even for a limited time, in their own hubris or in mimicking the hubris of others they admire.

That is, if we start by actually admitting that faith can help us overcome ourselves enough not to injure others — then faith can provide everything else, by and by. We couldn’t slaughter a million men, could we? Well, Strelnikov, the poor character in Doctor Zhivago, thought he could not either, until he realized that he had to give up notions of fairness (and faith — even faith — in what he once believed he was doing) or be crucified.

In fact, this is the place where I might say the Gospel hints at the same thing — that is, the choice given to us at birth. Hardly any of us have opted for the second option. And there are many ways to be crucified. All of us have faced some of these ways, and if you are like me, most of us have balked.

So we make up reasons why we don’t need to have faith. We have continuous self-explanations as to why our faith no longer matters. But if faith does not matter, no matter if we are conservative or liberal, our ideas and ideals (which in many respects are the same) cannot be achieved. If they could be achieved without faith, they would have been by now. We continually make the same mistakes, hoping for different results.

But if by chance faith does matter, then we might see it in startling ways. A man with his children in a small wagon moving through a battlefield seems more important to the vastness of space and time than the dragoons fighting the rearguard action.

Still, I suppose it is very hard to convince those who are fighting.

I believe that the main thing any of us has fought over throughout our history is God or the lack of God, or the reasons why God agrees with us instead of them. But, as the man with the children in his wagon might show, that is not at all God’s fault.

––
I decided to write this book because over the last number of years I realized I did not agree with the faithful (or at least all they said), so much as disagree with the unfaithful (or those who say they do not have faith). That is, sooner or later one has to answer those who make it a point of saying that you and most of those you love are wrong. What I believe cannot of course be proven, but there are some things that my life allows me to believe, and nothing anyone has ever said has done anything to change this. For instance, there is a scene from my life that I have held on to, even in my despair. My mother, years and years ago, was at the cottage alone with the children. She had made a fire and roasted marshmallows with us, on a Tuesday night. Then she put what she thought were the cold coals outside, behind the house. At eleven o’clock she went to bed. At eleven o’clock my father, in another town, woke, and suddenly decided to get dressed and drive to see us. That is something he almost never did that late. This is a very simple story — a complete coincidence, I know — like the ones we hear about, of knockings and portents. Yet his decision saved the life of his family. And it is that simple. We were allowed by Something beyond ourselves to live. And if we had not been, then it was willed or allowed that we were not. Why? Because we had absolutely no choice ourselves. Coincidences, as G.K. Chesterton tells us, are spiritual puns.

Faith, I know, is pretty simple, and that is why it is considered at times simple-minded. But it is not. Nothing anyone has yet argued has convinced me that what intellectuals consider simple-minded is not the clarity required for the sublime.
Some years ago a CBC commentator suggested to a Nobel Prize laureate that we ourselves had become God, or godlike, because everything was now possible, and we could reasonably assume we were superior to the silly superstition and blind ego that caused the church to maintain that the sun revolved about the earth. (This idea that the church had not progressed implies that God Himself had not passed basic geometry and did not know what Galileo did. It also implies rather smugly that our ideas are now much superior to the humanity that created Michelangelo and Leonardo, or for that matter, Galileo himself.)

The commentator believed he had said it to a receptive guest, a physicist.

Yet the commentator was surprised to discover that the physicist actually disagreed with him. With a good deal of humility not shared by his host, he said that he never felt that this was the case, that he believed in the existence of God, and that, for him, science actually proved it.

How? Well, for one thing, not a molecule in the universe seemed to him out of place, as random as that place appeared. That the astral belt prevented us from being decimated, as much as our peculiar distance from the sun. That the degree to which the world turned on its axis provided us with life, no scientist could ever imagine or impart without a greater design. That, in fact, if there was a degree of change in anything, the whole place would fall flat on its face. And since the commentator at the CBC had not himself ordered this, and, what is more, would never understand it, then just perhaps he might not consider himself God. “We are we, and God is God,” the gentleman said.
Hilarious? Probably. Refutable?

Well, you can refute a televangelist who believes his grandfather walked with the brachiosaurus, but a physicist who has given his life to the prospect that the universe might have soluble equations that has an intelligence as great as the cosmos we wallow in is a different kettle.

But there is another more subtle and less admitted strand here, because it is less admirable. The commentator was in certain respects giving into the standards, as changeable as they were, of the Soviet dictator himself — that we have the power to become God. (Stalin believed, a month before his death, exactly what his doctors told him: he would live at least 150 years.)

And this coincides with the views of some of our modern novelists and thinkers. That is, that our intellect invented God and not the other way around.

It is an egalitarian idea to believe that no one who wishes equality would ever admit God exists. God, throughout the centuries, persecutes. Well it is my belief that though life can be terrible it is not because God ever persecutes us. He persecutes no-one. And in fact there is as much persecution among our egalitarians as among anyone else.

But I am in a strange position as a writer.

God never fares at all well in work beyond the latter part of the nineteenth century, except perhaps for Solzhenitsyn whose work is looked upon with great skepticism now. Or in books that actually define and delineate the greater agony of the human spirit, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — as great and as funny as most books written, even those books that are considered funny first.
Lowry at one point writes that man’s tragedy is in that place once known as the soul. Here, Lowry is not giving the soul up, not at all, he is lamenting that the world has. But this is as far as most writers, even those I much admire like Lowry, are willing to take it. My point here is not to say one has to promote religion in order to create, my point is that so many artists now believe that the mention of God harms their creation, and that the dismissal or disrespect of that which is associated with God enlivens it. In the last three years I have read five novels by students of mine in which mocking irreverence is shown toward religious people (most often but not always Catholic). They think this is somehow revolutionary and inspired — rather than old hat and insipid.

In point of fact, it would be far more acceptable for some to hear they were like Joe Stalin, than for anyone to say that they were like an Anglican minister or, God forbid, a Catholic priest.

Still, why do some think (or, in fact, demand) there is no God? One reason is that because the universe is so incomprehensible to us, we cannot imagine how it could be organized with Intellect. So therefore to some of us, it is not organized with Intellect, and we use our intellect, which we fully admit is limited, to verify this lack of causality. But where did our own intellect come from? Nothing — which is the atheist’s belief. Yet he is the first to ascribe to the tenet that there is no intelligent design to the universe because, of course, nothing can come out of nothing.

––

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Hockey Dreams

Hockey Dreams

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Excerpt

If you think that you are a Canadian, then my boy I will show you I am a Canadian too—if they check me from behind I will get up, if they kick and slash I will get up. If we play three against five for fifteen minutes I will get up. I too am a Canadian. They will not take this away from me. Nor, can I see, will they ever take it away from you. At the moment they think we are defeated we will have just begun. I will prove forever my years on the river, on the back rinks, on the buses, on the farm teams. I will prove forever that this is what has shaped me.

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Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul
Excerpt

The day Hector Penniac died in the fourth hold of the cargo ship Lutheran he woke up at 6:20 in the morning. It would be a fine, hot June day. He could hear the bay from his window—it was just starting to make high tide—and far offshore he could see lobster boats moving out to their traps.
 
Hector hadn’t worked a hold before. He had bought new work boots and new work gloves, and a new work shirt that he had laid out on his chair the night before, and he had checked his jeans pocket ten times for his union card, five times last night and five times that morning. He was far too excited to eat, though his mother had made him a breakfast of bacon and eggs.
 
“I do not know if I will get on,” he said in Micmac, drinking a cup of tea. “They might think other men need the job more.” He stared at a robin outside on the pole, and then across the yard at Roger Savage’s house. Roger, the white man living just on the other side of the reserve’s line.
 
“You go on up and try,” his mother said. “Amos said you would get on. You tell them you are on your way to university to someday be a doctor.”
 
“Oh, I won’t say that,” he answered. But he felt pleased by this. Hector was not at all a labourer. He had rather delicate hands, and a quiet, refined face. But loading the hold with pulpwood was the best work he could do at this time to get some money, and he knew if the men would help him learn he would be a good worker.
 
His mother had put a lunch into a brown paper bag, but couldn’t find the Thermos for his tea.
 
“Don’t worry. They have a water boy at every hold—that’s all I need.”
 
Hector asked about his half-brother, Joel Ginnish, just as his chief, Amos Paul, pulled into the yard in his old half-ton truck. Joel once again was in jail.
 
“He’ll be back out soon,” his mother said.
 
Hector smiled. “I don’t know if he’ll ever forgive me for being born. I think in all honesty that’s where his trouble started.”
 
“You have a good day working,” his mother answered.
 
Then Hector remembered the cigarettes and gum he was going to take to the hold to treat the other men, and ran upstairs to get them. Amos Paul, his chief, the one responsible for helping him get this job, and helping him many times besides, had promised him a drive to the boat. It was because of old Amos that Hector was being allowed a union card. He ran back down and got in the cab. Amos’s fifteen-year old grandson, Markus Paul, was in the truck with him, on his way to fish mackerel off the lobster wharf at the end of the shore road. Hector would be working the Lutheran at the pulp wharf in Millbank, some seventeen miles away. Amos would go to early Mass to celebrate the anniversary of his wife’s death.
 
When Amos’s truck turned in the Penniacs’ yard, its throttling woke up Roger Savage, the white man who lived next door. Savage, planning to work the Lutheran as well, knew he would be too late to get into a hold if he didn’t hurry, but missed waving down Amos for a ride.
 
“Everything on you looks so very shiny and new,” Markus said in Micmac to Hector.
 
“You think I am too shiny?” Hector asked, worried.
 
“No, no—but you wouldn’t want to be one bit more shiny, Hector, I’ll tell you that!”
 
Those would be the last words they ever spoke together.
 
Roger Savage was one of those men who without realizing it would become cast in a brutal light. He was the kind of man other men call “a hard worker,” which means he always did a variety of jobs that required his strength to get them done. He had not graduated high school. But he had worked on and was about to receive his GED later that summer. That is not to say he was stupid, but it stipulated a kind of attitudinal demeanour that others, not so bright, could use to construe the type of man they were dealing with: that harsh labour meant a harsh man. But it was more than that. From everything, from television to books, Roger got the idea that he was the man who must change, that he was the man who must break out of the sod of anger and mistrust into the blossoming world that other men had supposedly gone into.
 
He had worked from the time he was thirteen, carrying buckets of water to the ships that came in. He had cut wood with his father— sometimes 120 cord a year. He was a carpenter in the winter and helped maintain the rink for other boys and girls to play a game he himself never did.
 
He stayed on the ice flats for smelt, the great nets mended by his own hand and the chainsaw blade sharpened by himself alone. He worked as a spare on lobster boats when he was needed. He’d been in storms and rough seas enough, which those who hadn’t been would at various times reenact in grand performance of Maritimes culture onstage. The house he lived in was ninety years old, and blackened by soot up one wall, and with tarred and speckled shingles that were put up by his father. It was sunken on one side, and so near the reserve as to have some say it overlapped the border. No one seemed to mind this, for Roger was not a bother to anyone. He was not at all odd, as others called him, just a loner.
 
Starting at seventeen he had got on in the hold of pulp boats, though he never sided with the union. He worked boats faithfully, taking the cuts and spills from the loads all in stride.
 
One day, the year he turned twenty-two, he was put out of a hold because he came too late to the yard. This was a union decision made because of who he was. But it was bad luck for the other lad who worked in his place.
 
An accident caused the death of Hector Penniac—a First Nations man from Amos Paul’s reserve. But within a short time the death came to be viewed as suspicious. And once it was, it came to be viewed as criminal. There were two possible motives for Roger to have caused this death, one bigoted and the other union-related—a retaliation for not being allowed to work that day by a man the union had problems with. “He had not wanted to be put out of the hold,” people said, “and made sure Hector and the two union boys inside paid the price!” The two other men in this hold were Bill and Trevor “Topper” Monk, president and secretary of the Stevedores Local 837.
 
You were supposed to stand along the edge of the hold when the pulpwood came down on the hoist. But Hector didn’t. Why, no one knew, but Hector did not stay there. Some believed he had walked over to the side to take a piss. This is what Topper Monk said the boy must have been doing. As he walked to the centre, the hoist operator lost the steel tether to the load.
 
What was special was this: Hector was “different” in a way in which most Micmac boys—or any boys—wanted little to do with. To the young men he was “a queer.” They left him on his own. Some said he had propositioned them in the gully where they used to drink, put his hand on their knees or even farther up their legs. Yet after his death many who knew him said this was false. They wanted to rectify their feelings towards him because of what they now considered a valiant death, and so he became, in a matter of days, a heroic figure to the boys on the reserve. Roger Savage lived close to this reserve and a certain number did not like him either. Or such was the thinking applied after this incident.
 
At any rate there was a good deal of excitement around this death, as there always is around any death in a small community where everyone knows one another. People could partake in this excitement, and even feel a kind of kindred remorse and love, without suffering greatly. But from the first, this death was special. It would in fact over this summer become an event that would encapsulate undercurrents that had been troubling the reserve for over thirty years: land reform rights, logging and fishing rights, and activism from the left in the guise of university pronouncements and paper editorials. It would put this Roger Savage in the media glare, like a man coming out of a whorehouse might hold up his hands against the fl ash.
 
They brought the body up from the hold, an old coat wrapped about the head and face, but the arms dangled. Someone on the ship had been sent down by the captain and had tried to wash away the blood. “Who was killed?” went up along the highway.
 
“An Indian.”
 
The news entered the reserve like that. That is, it entered the reserve as “An Indian was killed loadin’ the boats.”
 
That is how Markus Paul first heard of it while he was fishing mackerel on the lobster wharf. It had been a quiet, uneventful morning. He had got a drive up with Amos and Hector as far as the turnoff. He lived with his grandfather and his older sister in a small house on the bank side of the bay—beyond the first fields of the reserve. His life at fifteen was almost identical to Roger Savage’s at the same age. Markus’s grandfather Amos had been elected chief a year or so before—and until that moment nothing spectacular at all had happened.
 
They had had three marches during the year—one against prejudice and two to hopefully bring notice to the climb in suicides on their reserve, of which four had happened, six in total attempted.
 
“An Indian was killed today up in Millbank loadin’ pulp,” one white youngster said to another as they fished off the far side of the wharf. At first it didn’t register with Markus that it could be anyone he knew or that it was anyone from his reserve. But he knew saying “an Indian” meant for those whites that the death was not so grave or even noteworthy. It gave them a certain feeling of remoteness. So Markus stared at the green water as the waves undulated under the tar timber. Then suddenly he thought it might be Hector. Shaken, he picked up the four dried-out mackerel he had caught using his red devil lure, laced a string through the gills and carried them along the sunny and dusty shore road, walking in his bare feet.
 
Roger Savage himself did not know that the boy who had replaced him had died. He had run up to the ship minutes late and was informed that his place had been taken. But he sat on a pulp line and waited, thinking he might get on after lunch because the workers would shift holds. About ten in the morning he had a drink from a pint of rum to wait out the boredom. He said little to the other men about things he thought not worthy to speak of. In fact, he was almost always that way.
 
“Lucky the whole hold wasn’t done for, and all of us dead,” one of the men in the hold with Penniac said when he climbed the ladder. Topper Monk had not known Roger was in the yard, and was doubly surprised to hear that he had been hanging around where the loads were hooked for his hold. The hold he, Roger, was supposed to be in. So this looked like mischief from the start.
 
Around the time Markus heard of the death while fishing mackerel, three Micmac men were sent by Isaac Snow, perhaps the most forceful of the First Nations men, to guard the body of the boy, he being up there alone and dead in the pulp yard, lying on a fl at bit of grass among a group of uncaring white men. (In fact many of the white men did care, and Roger Savage, who had known Hector for years, was one of them.) This was an instinctive move by Snow to grab attention for a reserve that had other, hard-pressing needs; it was an opportunity to remind people of them. That is, he was sickened by the death of a member of his band, but it was also a political move.
 
Savage had not awakened that morning until he heard Amos’s truck turn in Penniac’s yard. The two union leaders were in the hold with Hector, who had been given, by the yard boss, the job Savage had been late for. This would prove bad for Roger later on. Because there was something else unknown for at least a few days, though rumoured from the start.
 
It was this: Roger had hooked.
 
That is, after lying about for three hours nursing a horrible hangover, wondering why he didn’t just go home, and taking a drink from a pint of rum being passed about by two men called the leaners—because they did nothing but lean against the pit props and watch the work— Roger was asked to hook the cable together as the load of pulp was raised. The men had laid the eight-foot pulp on the cable and brought it together above the last log; this particular cable was joined at the lifting point by a steel clamp.
 
This clamp had given way. And Roger had not been hired to hook on—the man who was hooking on that morning, George Morrissey, had left the yard for ten minutes. Just by chance all of this had happened without the least notice. Roger had wanted something to do. He shouldn’t have done the load, but he had. Now he felt responsible for hooking a bad load. It might have been his fault, but he felt he had hooked sound.
 
When people inspected the clamp later, it seemed as if someone had pried it open. That was either criminal negligence or malicious forethought. No one said this at first, however. It would all take time. Roger had wanted to use his money to finish building a room he had started in his old house and get staging up and attach new shingles in the summer. His little house was dropping, and he wanted to raise it up on a hydraulic jack and mend the back end. And he hoped he could use what he had from working lumber boats to buy out Cullen Savoy’s lobster licence the next year.
 
What was more intriguing was this—something that would haunt everything else: the dicey fact of riparian rights to three salmon pools on the North River that Roger Savage had inherited and that many Micmac, especially Isaac Snow, said belonged to them. The riparian rights were water rights to the salmon pools that bordered Roger’s land. He said he owned them, the band said they owned them, and as yet they had come to no meeting of minds.
 
Hector had been the only First Nations boy to graduate the year before. Two First Nations girls graduated, but boys from this particular reserve were usually less successful. But Hector had been determined. This would become an important point when discussing Roger and Hector: one a white boy living a rather traditional, and to some a pointless, existence—as Barack Obama might say, “clinging to guns and religion”—and the other a native boy, wanting to do something out of the ordinary for others, in fact a humanitarian.
 
Roger went home and sat at his table, saying nothing and listening to nothing. He looked numb, and on occasion he moved his hand up to his forehead and took it away. He put supper on—a pot for boiling potatoes, and some fried pork chops. But when it was ready he did not eat. He shook some salt on the potatoes and stared at them a long time. Then he stared out at his gravel drive and the damp yellow stalk weeds in the yard. He blinked impassively at passing cars. He did not answer the phone. And then others started to appear in the evening yard. It was a cool June night, but one that suggested great warm weather would come.
 
He sat at the table and drank his tea, moving the tea bag back and forth in his cup as he always did, and looking at the old crooked table as if he was mesmerized.
 
“An Indian was killed loadin’ a boat today!” Kellie Matchett yelled into him.
 
“It was Hector,” one of the men said.
 
“I know it—I was there. Now please go,” Roger replied.
 
“What?”
 
Roger did not like Kellie Matchett—and within ten minutes of his telling her to leave the yard, Kellie was phoning upriver to Roger’s girlfriend, May, explaining to her that something really terrible had happened on the wharf, and it involved Roger. Kellie Matchett was of course only relaying information to her sweet friend May. She was, however, quite happy the news was terrible.
 
Later, just before dark, the police came, and Constable Drew asked Roger out to the car. The officer was shorter than Roger and had a small bone structure, yet his disposition was pleasant enough. He had heard many things about this Roger Savage already—not of any substantive criminal nature, but of a man who kept to himself and did not like others, and who had threatened men to stay off his land.
 
Roger sat in the front seat, the window rolled down halfway. “Did you hook, or did George Morrissey?” Constable Drew asked, looking down at his notebook.
 
“George hooked—I was just wasting time,” Roger said. His voice was unusually quiet and powerful. Drew told him nothing was being suggested but not to leave the area until the matter was cleared up, because the leaners, the two brothers who were drunk, had said he had hooked. And there had been some confusion in the hold when the load dropped, and no one was sure at the moment if the load was hooked wrong or had hit the side—which meant that either the crane operator had made a mistake or the man who hooked on did. The Monk brothers did not want to blame anyone. But they themselves had been close to death, and Roger, some said, had been hanging around suspiciously.
 
“What do they mean, suspicious?” Roger asked.
 
“Well, do you think it was suspicious that you were hanging around?” Constable Drew asked.
 
Roger shook his head. “No, not at all,” he said. “I work there. The leaners are there every day, drinking and picking up what they can, and no one calls them suspicious.”
 
He should not have said that and he knew it. But the very word suspicious allowed him a glimpse into what was in store. That is, he knew in his heart it was really not at all suspicious, yet suddenly his answer had made it so.
 
He went back into the house, went to the attic and began to shake, violently. He was in a bad spot. He had always felt people did not like him. Now they would have reason not to.
 
Also, he had told them George had hooked, because it was George’s union card that was at stake, not his. But to say George had hooked, even to keep George’s union card secure, put Roger in a terrible light if George recanted and those two leaners told on him. So he realized what was now too late to take back. He could not now tell the truth, saying he was lying only to protect someone else.

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Lines on the Water
Excerpt

As a boy, I dreamed of fishing before I went, and went fishing before I caught anything, and knew fisherman before I became one. As a child, I dreamed of finding remarkable fish so close to me that they would be easy to catch. And no one, in my dreams, had ever found these fish before me.

I remember the water as dark and clear at the same time — and by clear I suppose I mean clean. Sometimes it looked like gold or copper, and at dusk the eddies splashed silver-toned, and babbled like all the musical instruments of the world. I still think of it this way now, years later.

As a child I had the idea that the trout were golden, or green, in the deep pools hidden away under the moss of a riverbank. And that some day I would walk in the right direction , take all the right paths to river and find them there.

In fact, trout, I learned, were far more textured and a better colour tan just golds and greens. They were the colour of nature itself — as naturally outfitted in their coat of thin slime as God could manage. They were hidden around bends and in the deep shaded pools of my youth.

I had the impression from those Mother Goose stories that all fish could talk. I still do.

My first fishing foray was along the bank of a small brook to the northwest of Newcastle, on the Miramichi. A sparkling old brook that lord Beaverbrook took his name from.

My older brother and a friend took me along with them, on a cool blowy day. We had small cane rods and old manual reels, with hooks and sinkers and worms, the kind all kids used. The kind my wife used as a child on the Bartibog River thirteen miles downriver from my town of Newcastle, and her brothers used also, at the same time that I was trudging with my brother.

It was a Saturday in May of 1955 and I was not yet five years of age. Fishing even then could take me out of myself, far away from the worry of my life, such as it was, and into another life better and more complete.

We had packed a lunch an had got to the brook about ten in the morning. Just as we entered the woods, I saw the brook, which seemed to be no deeper in places than my shoe. In we went (a certain distance) until the sounds of the town below us were left behind.

Leaning across the brook was a maple, with its branches dipping into the water. At the upper end of the tree, the current swept about a boulder, and gently tailed away into a deep pocket about a foot from the branches. The place was shaded, and the sunlight filtered through the trees on the water beyond us. The boys were in a hurry and moved on to that place where all the fish really are. And I lagged behind. I was never any good at keeping up, having a lame left side, so most of the time my older brother made auxiliary rules for me — rules that by and large excluded me.

"You can fish there, " he said.

I nodded. " Where?"

"There, see. Look — right there. Water. Fish. Go at her. We'll be back."

I nodded. I sat down on the moss and looked about, and could see that my brother and his friends were going away from me. I was alone. So I took out my sandwich and ate it. ( It was in one pocket, my worms were in the other. My brother doled the worms out to me a few at a time.)

I was not supposed to be, from our mother's instructions, alone.

"For Mary in heaven's sake, don't leave your little brother alone in the woods." I could hear her words.

I could also hear my brother and our friend moving away, and leaving me where I was. In this little place we out of sight of one another after about twenty feet. I had not yet learned to tie my sneakers: they had been tied for me by my brother in a hurry, for the second time, at the railway track, and here again they were loose. So I took them of. And then I rolled up my pants.

I had four worms in my pocket. They smelled of the dark earth near my grandmother's back garden where they had come from, and all worms smell of earth, and therefore all earth smells of trout.

I spiked a worm on my small hook the best I could. I had a plug-shot sinker about six inches up my line, which my father had squeezed for me the night before. But my line was kinked and old, and probably half-rotted, from years laid away.

I grabbed the rod in one hand, the line in the other, and tossed it at the boulder. It hit the boulder and slid underneath the water. I could see it roll one time on the pebbled bottom, and then it was lost to my sight under the brown cool current. The sun was at my back splaying down through the trees. I was standing on the mossy bank. There was a young twisted maple on my right.

Almost immediately I felt a tug on the line. Suddenly it all came to me — this is what fish do — this was their age-old secret.

The line tightened, the old rod bent, and a trout — the first trout of my life — came splashing and rolling to the top of the water. It was a trout about eight inches long, with a plump belly.

"I got it," I whispered. " I got it. I got it."

But no one heard me: " I got it. I got it."

For one moment I looked at the trout, and the trout looked at me. It seemed to be telling me something. I wasn't sure what. It is something I have been trying to hear ever since.

When I lifted it over the bank, and around the maple, it spit the hook, but it was safe in my possession a foot or two from the water.

For a moment no one came, and I was left to stare at it. The worm had changed colour in the water. The trout was wet and it had most beautiful glimmering orange speckles I ever saw. It reminded me, or was to remind me as I got older, of spring, of Easter Sunday, of the smell of snow being warmed away by the sun.

My brother's friend came back. He looked at it, amazed that I had actually caught something. Picking up a stick, and hunching over it he shouted, " Get out of the way — I'll kill it."

And he slammed the stick down beside it. The stick missed the fish, hit a leaf branch of that maple that the fish was lying across, and catapulted the trout back into the brook.

I looked at him, he looked at me.

"Ya lost him," he said.

My brother came up, yelling, "Did you get a fish?"

"He lost him," my brother's friend said, standing.

"Oh ya lost him," my brother said, half derisively, and I think a little happily.

I fished frantically for the time remaining, positive that this was an easy thing to do. But nothing else tugged at my line. And as the day wore on I became less enthusiastic.

We went home a couple of hours later. The sun glanced off the steel railway tracks, and I walked back over the ties in my bare feet because I had lost my sneakers. My socks were stuffed into my pockets. The air now smelled of steely soot and bark, and the town's houses stretched below the ball fields.

The houses in our town were for the most part the homes of working men. The war was over, and it was the age of the baby boomers, of which I was one. Old pictures in front of those houses, faded with time, show seven or eight children, all smiling curiously at the camera. And I reflect that we baby boomers, born after a war that left so many dead, were much like salmon spawn born near the brown streams and great river. We were born to reaffirm life and the destiny of the human race.

When we got home, my brother showed his trout to my mother, and my mother looked at me.

"Didn't you get anything, dear?"

"I caught a trout — a large trout. It — it — I —"

"Ya lost him, Davy boy," my brother said, slapping me on the back.

"Oh well," my mother said. "That's all right, there will always be a next time."

And that was the start of my fishing life.

That was a long time ago, when fishing was innocent and benevolent. I have learned since that I would have to argue my way through life — that I was going to become a person who could never leave to rest the idea of why things were the way they were. And fishing was to become part of this idea, just as hunting was. Why would the fish take one day, and not the next? What was the reason for someone's confidence one year, and their lack of it the next season, when conditions seemed to be exactly the same?

Or the great waters — the south branch of the Sevogle that flows into the main Sevogle, that flows into the Norwest Miramichi, itself a tributary of the great river, What infinite source propelled each separate individual fish to return on those days, at that moment, when my Copper killer, or Green Butt Butterfly — or anyone else's — was skirting the pool at exactly the right angle at the same moment, and when was it all announced and inscribed in the heavens — as insignificant as it is — as foreordained.

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Lives of Short Duration
Excerpt

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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Mercy Among the Children
Excerpt

The small Catholic churches here are all the same, white clapboard drenched with snow or blistering under a northern sun, their interiors smelling of confessionals and pale statues of the Madonna. Our mother, Elly Henderson, took us to them all along our tract of road — thinking that solace would come.

In November the lights shone after seven o'clock on the stained-glass windows. The windows show the crucifixion or one of the saints praying. The hills where those saints lived and dropped their blood look soft, distant and blue; the roads wind like purple ribbons toward the Mount of Olives. It is all so different from real nature with its roaring waters over valleys of harsh timber where I tore an inch and a half of skin from my calves. Or Miramichi bogs of cedar and tamarack and the pungent smell of wet moosehide as the wounded moose still bellows in dark wood. I often wanted to enter the world of the stained glass — to find myself walking along the purple road, with the Mount of Olives behind me. I suppose because I wanted to be good, and my mother wanted goodness for me. I wanted too to escape the obligation I had toward my own destiny, my family, my sister and brother who were more real to me than a herd of saints.

My father's name was Sydney Henderson. He was born in a shack off Highway 11, a highway only Maritimers could know — a strip of asphalt through stunted trees and wild dead fields against the edge of a cold sky.

He did poorly in school but at church became the ward of Father Porier. He was given the job of washing Porier's car and cleaning his house. He was an altar boy who served mass every winter morning at seven. He did this for three years, from the age of eight to eleven.

Then one day there was a falling-out, an "incident," and Father Porier's Pontiac never again came down the lane to deliver him home, nor did Father ever again trudge off to the rectory to clean the priest's boots. Nor did he know that his own father would take the priest's side and beat him one Sunday in front of most of the parishioners on the church steps. This became Father's first disobedience, not against anything but the structure of things. I have come to learn, however, that this is not at all a common disobedience.

Back then, harsh physical labour seemed the only thing generations of Canadians like my grandfather considered work. So by thirteen my father wore boots and checked jackets, and quit school to work in the woods, in obligation to his father. He would spend days with little to comfort him. He was to need this strength, a strength of character, later on. He had big hands like a pulpcutter, wore thick glasses, and his hair was short, shaved up the side of his head like a zek in some Russian prison camp.

He worked crossing back and forth over that bleak highway every day; when the June sky was black with no-see-ums, or all winter when the horse dung froze as it hit the ground. He was allergic to horses, yet at five in the morning had to bring the old yellow mare to the front of the barn — a mare denied oats and better off dead.

My grandfather bought a television in 1962, and during the last few years of his life would stare at it all evening, asking Sydney questions about the world far away. The light of the television brought into that dark little house programs like The Honeymooners, The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Untouchables; and glowed beyond the silent window into the yard, a yard filled with desolate chips of wood.

My grandfather Roy Henderson would ask Dad why people would act in a movie if they knew they were going to be shot. He would not be completely convinced by my father's explanation about movie scripts and actors, and became more disheartened and dangerous the clearer the explanation was.

"But they die — I seen them."

"No they don't, Dad."

"Ha — lot you know, Syd — lot you know — I seen blood, and blood don't lie, boy — blood don't lie. And if ya think blood lies I'll smash yer mouth, what I'll do."

As a teen my father sat in this TV-lightened world; a shack in the heat of July watching flies orbit in the half dark. He hid there because his father tormented him in front of kids his own age.

I have learned that because of this torment, Father became a drunk by the age of fifteen.

People did not know (and what would it matter if they had known?) that by the time he was fifteen, my father had read and could quote Stendhal and Proust. But he was trapped in a world of his own father's fortune, and our own fortune became indelibly linked to it as well.

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Murder

Murder

And Other Essays
edition:Hardcover
tagged : essays
More Info
River of the Brokenhearted
Excerpt

Prologue

The graves of the Drukens and the McLearys are spread across the Miramichi River valley. If you go there you might find them -- “run across them” is not the exact phrase one might want to use for graves -- in certain villages and towns. I don’t think we have hamlets here, but if we do, then in certain hamlets as well.

What is revealing about these graves is their scarcity. The scant way they are impressed upon the soil, dispersed here and there about the river. A river that stretches 250 miles from the heart of our province, a river of lumbering and fish and of forests running tangled to the water’s edge. Our ancestors came and founded communities, and over time abandoned them for the greater lumbering towns of Newcastle and Chatham, so that only graves are left. One might go years without stumbling upon one, and when one finally does, an immediate reaction might be to say: “Why in Christ is old Lucy Druken buried way out here?”

I suppose some of the brightest of my relatives have lain forgotten for decades in the woods, forgotten even by their own descendants, in fields that have become orchards or mushroomed into forests again, the descendants having moved on, first to the towns and then west to the cities of Montreal or Toronto, or south to the great and frantic United States. The graves’ occupants unremembered. Yet in what love and sorrow might they have been placed?

Two hundred years have passed to find what is left of us still here. Last October I came back from the train station in the debilitating gloom of a rain-soaked autumn day. He had demanded the key that morning, when I said I was leaving.

He spoke to me in his slightly limey way -- being the only memory he ever retained of his father, and so the thing he held onto, come hell or high water, for a memory gone over sixty years. A limey with a Miramichi brogue.

“Yes -- well, then -- you can just give me the key, can you not -- leave it here” His hand shook as he pointed to the table. “And we will think no more of it; I will not even call you a traitor -- just remember I could not leave people in the lurch -- as much as I wanted to -- if they were lurching I’d stay!” he said turning away at that moment.

I found it hanging upon a string outside the winter door, waiting. I came into our small house, with the broken mirror in the foyer, to find him sitting in his straight-backed chair in the absolute middle of the small den, equidistant from the memorabilia of both British and Irish roots -- the cross of Saint George and a broken Irish bagpipe, staring out at me in perplexity, his hair now thin against his fine head, his tie done up very properly, hankie in his breast pocket, dark high socks and well-polished shoes on his feet. Each shoe tied with a small bowed lace, which never really did anything but make my heart go out to him -- especially when I realized it took upward of fifteen minutes to get each shoe on. He was drinking some mixture of aftershave and vermouth -- a pleasant enough concoction, he said, to starve off his “dearth” of gin gimlet he might on occasion -- at two in the morning, or five in the afternoon–go searching for. I told him I did not have anything on me -- no Scotch or rum.

“Do you know,” he said to me, “you are absolutely right, my lad. I have been thinking of giving it all up.”

“What up?” I say, turning away so he will not see the gin I have tucked in my tweed jacket.

“This place -- this house -- sell it and go away! Is that a gin cap I spy --”

“Where?” I say, looking about the room. Trying to make no sudden moves, I pick up a cushion and hold it against my pocket.

“That cap?” He clears his throat.

“What cap?”

“Why, my son, the cap on the gin bottle -- you have glided a cushion over it.”

“Glided a cushion?”

“Is it glided -- I’m not sure --?”

His fingers tremble just slightly. He is looking around for something -- a cigarette, I suppose.

I take the gin out, hold it before me like a newborn infant.

“Yes -- there it is -- you are a saviour -- I always knew you were -- and foolish me in the process of changing my will -- wondering who to leave all of this to” -- he waved his hand abstractly. “You just went out to get me some gin --”

I go into the kitchen, get the glasses and pour out our libation.

“Gin’s the drink,” he says, smacking his lips and looking at the two glasses to see if they are perfectly symmetrical. He takes his, shakes just a bit getting it to his lip and, confident his immediate plight is over, downs it in a draught.

“You found the key all right?” he says.

“Absolutely.”

I came back once to find 223 newborn baby chickens in the house. I believe it occurred when he upset a crate of chicks somewhere in his travels. He was imprinted on them and they followed him home. He came in the house, the front door left ajar, picked up the letter opener to open his increasingly oppressive pile of bills, and saw 223 little yellow chicks staring at him. He opened the door and told them to go. They did not. He then tried to hide them in the dresser drawers, and keep this from me when I came in.

“Do not say one damn thing about what you see in this house,” he said.

I found them walking the halls, sitting on his lap, as he pretended not to notice. In fact, he remained until I bundled them up and took them away, ruefully dismissive of us all.

“I will not go,” I say to him after our gin.

“And why not?” he asks. “Why won’t you go wherever it is you are wanting to -- go?”

“Because you’re my father and someone needs to stay with you.”

“Oh -- well then -- I see -- very noble of you -- Wendell my boy. Lets drink to nobility.”

I guess I can drink to that as much as anyone.

My father Miles King once told me that some are damned by blood, by treason, by chance or circumstance, some even by the stars themselves, or as Shakespeare, denying that, said, by ourselves. This in a way is a journey back in time to see how I was damned.

My name is Wendell King, and I have looked for these forgotten places, and found them in their quietude and hope, and have gone to the archives, reading old tracts, deeds, family history, searching out what I can, to try to dislodge the secrets that have plagued my father’s life.

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The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree

Two Tales For The Holidays
edition:Hardcover
tagged : civilization
More Info
The Coming of Winter
Excerpt

Blood had dried to his hands by mid- morning, thin streaks of blood on his fingers and knuckles. He cradled his rifle, walking slowly over wet gully leaves, his jacket opened, his blond hair in sweaty knots. The stench of a headless yearling partridge, foot- strung and dangling, a splatter of its dried blood on his pants. He walked cautiously, almost awkwardly, hearing thin sounds in the quiet, sounds that became audible because he was alone and silent.
 
He hoped nothing would catch his scent or the scent of the bird. Another partridge perhaps fanning in the side gravel, digesting as he supposed this one had, uncertain whether to fl y or straighten, and so sitting startled waiting. He hoped for a spikehorn late to the spring, insensible to the conditions of survival. He hoped for a fawn, easy and tender, easy to ground.
 
A warm sun over the slanted coloured birches and a fresh autumn sky. A perfect Saturday. Not a stir. The wind only slight on his face bringing all the day to him, the cleanliness and purification of the season, rotting spruce cuts along the side of the road, the road twisting and overgrown. He concentrated, peering into the shaded growth with a pang of excitement, wishing, wanting something, knowing that something might be there watching him.
 
He moved from the path now moving toward the spring, hearing it before he reached it, and then crouching when he did, crouching and resting his rifle on the stones. The spring water numbed his hands, the cold clear spring, its pebbles and mud that he sank his fingers into. When he raised himself the tightened thigh muscles ached. He stroked the back of his neck, feeling the wetness of his fingers.
 
He stood there with his rifle once more cradled, with the dead bird once more bleeding in small drips. And he stood there watching. Maples on the top slope swayed. He looked past them because the day was so unclouded, the sky clean. Moments elapsed, erased themselves before he began to move again.
 
When he did, he noticed how stiffened his small kill had become. No longer a bird. Only some stiff cold thing. Earlier its warm breast to the sun, neck turned, feathers ruffled. And only the one. By now, late morning, he was unlikely to spot another. There would be little until dusk, and then he’d hunt the path again, slowly over the leaves and dead roots, watching the limbs of trees.
 
He moved uphill very quickly, his boots and pantlegs soaking from the water. But once the water warmed in his boots he would feel comfortable again. It was easier to wade the brook than walk the dam, he feeling unsure and clumsy on his feet. He hunched as he moved, grabbing limbs for support, decayed spruce gum sticking to his palms, frightened for his eyes, yet forever watchful. And once or twice he thought he heard a fanning, felt a pressure in his ears. He would stop to rest looking back over his shoulder, looking to right or left.
 
Stop to rest hearing only his heart, his breathing.
 
Once uphill he moved more slowly so that his breathing slowed, and at the edge of the density peered into the field. If only it was dusk and a buck standing close to the shadows in the other corner, or a doe feeding. He slipped between the wires, tilting the ancient fence logs, and stood in the open. It was a useless empty field even on this day. Enclosed by a dark quarry, the long greyish brown weed and hay unkempt. It had nothing of the colour or smell of the gully.
 
He moved to its middle and sat down. The dry October weeds. He sat down to the musty smell of weed and brownish turned- down grass. Deer had lain here the night before, moved with the dawn downhill to the brook, fed and watered and now were somewhere in the back woods lazy and fed and hidden. He noticed the half- fresh droppings. He unlaced his boots, taking them off to pour out the water. He wrung out his socks, leaving them off to dry. It felt good to have his feet naked to the slight breeze. And it was Saturday; he did not wish to think of lifting crates, nor did he wish to think of Sunday when there was never anything to do but wait for Monday’s shift. So for a while he thought only of the breeze, the white wrinkled skin of his feet.
 
He could feel sharp blades of undergrowth so he resituated himself once or twice, lying down finally and taking out his knife. The blade glinted in the sun, the sun with its faint autumn strength, and he severed in two some of the tall stems that rose around him, whistling to himself as he did. It was a poor kill for a morning’s hunt.
 
By noon he was up once more, retracing his steps over the pathways connecting the small irregular- shaped fields toward his truck, thinking that perhaps he might move from his position to hunt somewhere else, farther in perhaps. The day was turning cloudy, the breeze stronger, sharper on his wet pantlegs than before. But the tree colours seemed no less distinct, the day still carried in its breath all cleanliness and purification. He passed familiar morning markings, empty cartridges on the wet pathway, bootsteps at the edge of listless puddles. The squirrel he had shot lay belly down on a spruce stump, cold now, tail cut off. He inspected it again, its bloody head, gatherings in its pouch, and threw it aside into the alders and undergrowth.
 
Then he stopped, silent, stiffened. No movement, not even shouldering his rifle, not even that. And his pulse, he could hear his pulse as it rushed everything through him. The deadened pale excitement of his face. Everything at that moment was weightless, his whole body, the one step lightly on the tinted leaves, now the one step closer to the alders, as if he must see, as if it had to be there. That instant he craved for it to be there, noticing nothing of the day, the field in view, but only the brown hide of the animal, the black heaviness of it through the thin twigs.
 
He heard the sharp sound of his rifle before he realized he had fired and then he heard its sharp painful sound again, twice to the head. The smell of powder mingling with other smells that he did not notice. And he knew that it was a cow, not a doe. The thickness of a cow’s frame in the field bellowing and whining, not dead. He had realized it all before he had shouldered his rifle and now the rifle sounds were fading in his ears, replaced by that of the cow. At once he cursed himself for firing but he knew that it did little good to curse. And now it was bellowing, trying to stand again as if standing would heal the shot wounds, make the day as it had been before.
 
It was unexplainable but he knew he couldn’t help firing. He also wished the day to be as it had been. He must kill the thing, must kill it! And he was very afraid now, felt the heaviness of his body, and could not shoulder his rifle again, wished to run but knew he couldn’t. Couldn’t stand the sick whine of the animal.
 
He cracked the limbs, the twigs with his heavy body, stumbling with his heavy boots uncareful of where he trod, his eyes fixed on his destination, a flicker of angry desperation on his face.
 
He stood in the open field, the wind at his back, the brightness of the coloured day surrounding him, the strong flavour of autumn once again. The cow lay on its side, trying to jerk upright every so often, falling to its side again, kicking its thick hind legs. It was bleeding very little. Perhaps it didn’t notice he was there. Another cow stood a short distance away watching, not venturing any closer, its enormous eyes watching. He felt sick as he fired, shaking, uncertain of his aim.
 
And he fired four times rapidly and then only live nerves twitching in a dead hide and everything was quiet. He cursed and he could not stop shaking, could not stop feeling sick. But he felt he must leave it there, forget it. And then he laughed nervously as he turned away.
 
He turned to walk along the field- path to his truck, but as he did he noticed that someone was watching him from the shadows near the opposite edge of the field. The man came no closer yet but only watched him as the other cow did with its lazy morbid eyes. He stood still and his sickness was replaced by a throb of terror. If he turned to run he would have nowhere to go. He thought of running, thought of hiding in the gully. But of course the man must have seen his truck. Yes, how could he ever reach his truck if he ran? And the man seemed to be staring past him, staring at the carcass, or staring at everything at once. The man seemed very calm; everything in fact seemed very calm now.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Friends of Meager Fortune
Excerpt

ONE

I had to walk up the back way, through a wall of dark winter nettles, to see the ferocious old house from this vantage point. A black night and snow falling, the four turrets rising into the fleeing clouds above me. A house already ninety years old and with more history than most in town.

His name was Will Jameson.

His family was in lumber, or was Lumber, and because of his father’s death he left school when just a boy and took over the reins of the industry when he was not yet sixteen. He would wake at dawn, and deal with men, sitting in offices in his rustic suit or out on a cruise walking twenty miles on snowshoes, be in camp for supper and direct men twice as old as he.

By the time he was seventeen he was known as the great Will Jameson of the great Bartibog – an appendage as whimsical as it was grandiose, and some say self-imposed.

As a child I saw the map of the large region he owned – dots for his camps, and Xs for his saws. I saw his picture at the end of the hallway – under the cold moon that played on the chairs and tables covered in white sheets, the shadow of his young, ever youthful face; an idea that he had not quite escaped the games of childhood before he needed gamesmanship.

If we Canadians are called hewers of wood and drawers of water, and balk, young Will Jameson did not mind this assumption, did not mind the crass biblical analogy, or perhaps did not know or care it was one, and leapt toward it in youthful pride, as through a burning ring. The strength of all moneyed families is their ignorance of or indifference to chaff. And it was this indifference to jealousy and spite that created the destiny Jameson believed in (never minding the Jamesian insult toward it), which made him prosperous, at a place near the end of the world.

When he was about to be born his mother went on the bay and stayed with the Micmac man Paul Francis and his wife. She lived there five months while her husband, Byron Jameson, was working as an ordinary axman in the camps, through a winter and spring.

In local legend the wife of Paul Francis was said to have the gift of prophecy when inspired by drink, and when Mary Jameson insisted her fortune be read with a pack of playing cards, she was told that her first-born would be a powerful man and have much respect – but his brother would be even greater, yet destroy the legacy by rashness, and the Jameson dynasty not go beyond that second boy.

Mrs. Francis warned that the prophecy would not be heeded, and therefore happen. It would happen in a senseless way, but of such a route as to look ordinary. Therefore the reading became instead of fun or games a very solemn reading that dark spring night, long ago, as the Francis woman sat in her chair rocking from one side to the other, and looking at the cards through half-closed eyelids.

“Then there is a choice,” Mary Jameson said, still trying to make light of its weight.

“If wrong action is avoided – but be careful to know what wrong action is.”

“In work?”

“In life,” said Mrs. Francis, picking the cards up and placing them away in a motion that attested to her qualifications.

Mary Jameson had the boy christened Will, and had Paul and Joanna Francis as his godparents. During the baptism, the sun which had not shone all day began to do so, through the stained glass. Mary decided she would keep this prophecy to herself. But she told her husband, who as the youngster grew became more affluent, and spoiled solemnity by speaking of the prophecy as a joke.

Soon the prophecy was known by others, and over time translated in a variety of ways.

It was true Mary forgot about it until the second boy, Owen, was born, so sickly he almost died.

She forgot about it again, until her husband was killed in a simple, almost absurd accident on the Gum Creek Road, coming out to inspect his mill on a rain-soaked day in April.

Mary thinking that it was a strange way for her husband to be taken from her. She almost a grandmother’s age with two small boys. Worse, she had asked her husband to come out on that spring day–frightened that he would take to the drive and be injured, and he was killed by a fall on a road.

Mary and her brother Buckler took over the mill until Will came into his own, which was soon enough, and seemingly too soon for his competition.
***
It is a common misconception that people are as bright as their knowledge. Will Jameson was a boy far brighter than what he knew, which is an ordinary problem in a country like ours, partly in bondage to winter, where snow is a great blessing on the land. His father had started with nothing but a crippled roan horse – and Will now had camps and horses and men, and a sawmill he had to take care of.

He left school because of his father’s death, and said leaving school was the least thing he ever regretted.

“Holding him is like holding a current itself,” Old Estabrook said of the young man.

Yet his mother, Mary, warned him, he had his faults, could be cruel or uncaring, and laughed at his mother’s sentiment and superstition. These traits came gradually. That is, he believed, because it was what society believed, what his father had believed, that a stiff presence at church service was what constituted good behavior, and jokes were meant to be manly and told in private. He thought, even at seventeen, of children as a woman’s responsibility and a man’s ignorance of the offspring showed a healthy character

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The Lost Highway

The Lost Highway

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

Burton Tucker moved to the haystack and sat down in the brine of hay, and looked down across the barn and into the open, in the space beyond his house where in the sky was a cloud the shape and color of black gunpowder. The day was still murky and warm, and a feeling of oppressive, ragged heat surrounded him.

"What is hidden will be revealed,"Tucker said. This is what old Muriel Chapman said to him once when he was visiting her. She had smiled at him, when he said he had no idea what was going to happen if things did not get better - for now everyone was talking about a big war. And he heard this war would be closer than ever, perhaps as close as Fredericton. They would come in the night, and at night be like thieves. He had been to Fredericton once as a bat boy with a baseball team.

"What is hidden will be revealed,"she had said, simply. This of course implied nothing or everything depending on how one viewed it, but made her seem very wise to Burton at any rate. And he had heard of both night and nightly thieves from the Bible, which he kept together with his trophies and his pictures in his office drawer.

Mrs. Chapman had, as people said, lived an exemplary life. She did charity work for many people and it was known that she had baked for the community Christmas dinner for thirty-nine years. The problem in her life was her great-nephew Alex Chapman. She gave him everything, went to the principal's office in high school, and took up for him. Tried to do this for him, tried to do that.

He had had problems many times in his life, and things did not turn out. He had come home a few years ago, and worked for his great-uncle Jim off and on, disillusioned and ill tempered, for the great "turn of events" that he had hoped and longed for had not happened to him. Some day, as he often said, or said often enough, these great events would come and he would be recognized.

"Then the fools will be sorry," he had said.

"Yes they will," Burton said.

"The fools will be sorry, Burton."

"I'm sure of it," Burton acknowledged.

When Alex was young and small, his great-uncle put him to work after school in the junkyard, or back at the pit burning garbage. The boy would go to school, with three feet of snow on the ground, smelling of soot from a fire. Though they had money, the uncle was parsimonious, and sometimes he would clutch a dollar in his hand for an hour before he finally gave it to the boy.

Alex left work, went into study for the priesthood, and then left to wander the world. He went to university and worked with the anti-poverty league. He got very angry, and said things like: Why don't people give it away!

Then, abused and worn out, he came back and tried to fit in. For the last five years he had taught a course on ethics at the community college. He taught it from September to December and was paid $3500. That seemed to get him through the winter if his uncle helped him. Without his uncle's help there was no telling what would happen.

People - and there are gossips in the world - said that for a man who wanted to live like an ascetic, Alex hoped a little too much for some kind of inheritance. But others said he deserved something from his relationship with his uncle, who treated him too harsh for too long. Others, too, said his uncle would never leave him with nothing, that in the end the uncle had always been there for him.

Tucker had thought of Mrs. Chapman all day. The war as yet had not come. But perhaps it would soon. The highway drifted on below his garage - drifted away forever, to the east; a garage so out of the way the company had taken his pumps from him, and he had to make up his lost revenue by giving deals and working later every week. In the lonely, darkening stretch of country road the light of Poppy Bourque's sawdust truck could be seen rising and falling though the black, heavy trees. He remembered lights like these on a summer night long ago, when his friends and he came home from baseball games. But his friends eventually outgrew him, and he stayed as he was, with, it seemed, no real prospects or future. He called on them to come over, but after a time they had little to say to him, and got married, and his room filled with mementos from his youth, when they were happy together, did not seem to contain them.

He would go and sit with his cousin Amy, for an hour or two, and they would talk about all her plans that seemed nice and innocent. She played the guitar and had a box of CDs and was the kindest of all to him.

Burton wondered what would happen to the children like little Amy if there was a war. Well, who could say? No one wanted to bomb children. Almost every general said, "We are against the killing of women and children," and Burton would say, "Thank God," but then they proceeded to bomb them with great aplomb.

Burton was told by some people that he had to stop being so friendly to children - especially Amy, who they said now had her own boobs - and that many children didn't want him stopping them up on the highway to speak to them as they waited for the bus in the freezing January mornings. That it was a new age, and certainly he had a right to say hello, but there were a lot of mothers and fathers who were suspicious of people like Burton Tucker.

Then the police came one day, and took him aside - a young man and woman with blue uniforms and guns on their belts - and told him he shouldn't pick little girls up and swing them around so their underwear showed. The young female officer looked at him with a triumphant smile - as if all her life she had wanted to say something just like this. He started to cry as he always did, and told these officers he was an attendant at the open-air rink and at the community center dinners, and to prove this he showed them his hat, much like theirs, that said burton on the front.

Later, Markus Paul, the First Nations constable he liked, came in and told him not to worry and that things would turn out in the end, and wasn't the garage a place where everyone gathered, and didn't people look up to him, well there you go.

Last week Burton had been in his garage, and the door was opened and James Chapman came in. He walked now with a game leg and a cane, and his face, which could show almost immediate anger whenever he wanted, was gray. And he didnÕt like dogs. He asked abruptly for the oil to be changed on his truck, and Tucker did so while Chapman waited in the heat of the office. This was Chapman's roadway, a roadway he more or less thought he owned for the last fifty-five years. But the politics and the times had shifted, and he realized he was forgotten. His business was forgotten, his friends were dead. This had made him take to playing pool every weeknight at Brennen's, and having one too many drinks.

He told Burton he would write his great-nephew out of the will. But this was at least the twentieth time he had told Burton this.

"I asked him to bring my truck in and he said that he was too busy, so I've had it and he is gone from my life - he will not be allowed in my house, on my property, or have anything to do with my estate."

He had changed the locks on his doors, and for once he was going to use these locks.

Alex had been a disappointment, Mrs. Chapman had told Burton. She said nothing more than this.

"Oh, Alex has been a terrible disappointment,"she said. "He hates us, you see - that is the only way to think of it - deep, deep down his life has made him hate us. And the fact is that when you hate one person, you hate all mankind. Do you see - the instance that you hate one person, then you hate the world."

Old Chapman's business had failed, and he accused men of stealing, and fired them. He fired the one man who might have helped him keep his company: Sammy Patch. His wife, Muriel, had died, and now he was alone. It was all reckless, and all done within a year, and now his lifetime of work was a memory.

So he brought his truck in to have the oil changed, because his nephew would not.

"He's a ungrateful lad," the old man said, sitting in the office that smelled of gas and wire. "He was a creature left out of the world. Well, who brought him here? I did. Who gave him a name? I did. Who gave him money? Me. Who paid for his education? You are looking at him. Who hired him on again? Sitting here now! But we will see, won't we, Tuck, my boy - we will see what he gets up to - ha! - where will he go now - he's forty years old. Doesn't have no woman, has no kid, has no work, has no nothing. Talks big - anyone can talk big; reads books - anyone can do that; says the world is in bad shape - don't need books to know that -"

Burton said yes as he changed the oil (which was one of three things he knew how to do) that made his hands as black as squid ink, and thought of how Old Chapman had once ruled everything about him in an uncaring way that dull-thinking men have. He was an old man now, he talked with and smelled of the physical respiratory restraint of the old, and one might have the common enough decency to feel some sympathy for him at the end. That so many didnÕt was part of his legacy as well. They talked about him before he got to BrennenÕs tavern, and spoke about him after he left.

"He's a no-good bigot bastard,"Leo Bourque called Old Chapman one day.

"Yes he is,"Poppy Bourque agreed with his delightful, childlike smile - a smile far more childlike than Burton Tucker's, "and sometimes we can be said to be ourselves - and the Indians can be said to be too - and if there was a Dutch family here they could be too. Bigoted, my word. And the Lithuanians, have you ever in your life - and the Spanish and Portuguese, especially their fishermen - and of course one should not forget the Africans."

So how could Leo answer, except to spit and curse?

Alex and Jim Chapman had been warring off and on for twenty years, ever since the boy had left the priesthood under what were called suspicious circumstances, which only enlivened some against him, and so it had finally come to this.

Alex thought he would at least have the house.

That's what he had said to Burton one day last year: "I will never be rich - well, I wouldn't want to be - who would want to be rich - no, not me - but I will at least have the house."

"He won't have the house,"the old man had told Burton last week. "I will burn it before he ever sets foot in it again. I will tear it apart one board at a time before he sets a toe in it - or a toenail, if you ask me. I don't want him close enough to smell the chimney smoke. If he gets close enough to smell the chimney smoke, I will phone the police -"

So Alex lived in a small cabin that used to be the old man's icehouse, off the main shore. And the old man said he was going to kick him out of that. "Any day now - yes, any day -"

After changing the oil and wiping his hand on a piece of paper towel, Tucker did what he always did. He took Old Chapman's money and gave him a complimentary lotto ticket, as advertised on the office door.

The draw had been on Wednesday night, last night, just as it was every week.

Today, after Tucker walked to the garage and cleaned the backroom and took a mouse from the mousetrap near the door, he saw the numbers in the paper. He was going to phone Mr. Chapman, and ask him to see if he had these numbers: 11, 17, 22, 26, 37, 41 - for those were the winning lotto numbers.

Last week Chapman had taken the ticket along with the receipt, and Burton had copied the numbers in his small notebook that hung on a string from the glass counter. Still, he had copied them very hurriedly and might have gotten one or two of them wrong. But by chance if he hadn't, those were the numbers. And they were worth a lot of money. It was now August 10. He'd given out only one other ticket for this draw, to Poppy Bourque. But his numbers didn't come close. So it had to be Mr. Chapman's ticket.

But before he could phone the old man came in again, and asked for a carton of Players cigarettes and some oil for his chain saw.

"I will have to cut my own wood,"he said. He told Burton he wanted to have a cord or two done before he went fishing.

Burton only nodded and smiled. Burton was waiting for Chapman to say he was set, and had won the great prize, but the old man betrayed nothing about the ticket.

The dwindling summer air came through the door. It had been hot all summer - any squalls were soon gone. Just a dry, dead feeling in the air, and the plastic flags that ran up the poles as advertisement lay limp in the sun. Again the old man asked about Alex. Have you seen him, what is he up to, how does he manage to get by - you'd think gosh almighty this and that! Is he going to teach his course this year - what does he teach, have you heard him? Ethics? What is that! Is it about molecules or people -?

Once, when Burton was frightened because he had heard there was going to be a war, and actually started crying though he didn't want to, Mrs. Chapman had smiled and said: "Dear Burton - don't you know we have always been at war?"

"Where?"Burton had asked.

Mrs. Chapman had pointed to her heart.

Perhaps she had been thinking of the war between old Chapman and young.

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The Americans Are Coming

The Americans Are Coming

Reader's Guide Edition
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tagged : literary, humorous
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