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CDNs for '12 International IMPAC Dublin Award

By 49thShelf
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Tell It to the Trees

Tell It to the Trees

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary

One freezing winter morning a dead body is found in the backyard of the Dharma family’s house. It’s the body of Anu Krishnan.
For Anu, a writer seeking a secluded retreat from the city, the Dharmas’ “back-house” in the sleepy mountain town of Merrit’s Point was the ideal spot to take a year off and begin writing. She had found the Dharmas’ rental through a happy coincidence. A friend from university who had kept tabs on everyone in their graduating year – including the quiet …

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One of the searchers spotted two ravens yanking at something and walked over to investigate. I watched as he squatted and peered down at the ground, raised his arm and waved the others over. They had found her.
The birds, they told us later, were tugging at her red and gold earring that was glinting up at them. We also heard she’d taken her jacket off even though it was thirty below that night. Sounds like a crazy thing to do, but I know it’s true. It’s what happens before you die from hypothermia, the blood vessels near the surface of your skin suddenly dilate making you think you are on fire and so you tear off your clothes to cool down. It’s quite a paradox really: the body starts to feel too hot before it dies of cold.
But by that time your brain is hallucinating, creating images of longed-for warmth, making you believe all kinds of weird things. I think it would be right to assume she died happy, believing she was in the tropics, warm as toast.
She was lying not too far from our door, past the spot where in a few months, when all the snow has melted, five rose bushes with bright pink flowers and giant thorns will mark the boundary between our land and old Mrs. Cooper’s. Several years ago, before she went off to live with her son in Vancouver, Mrs. Cooper sold her house to some developers who planned to turn it into a set of holiday homes, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s shuttered and falling apart and I know ghosts live in it. I used to like hanging out in that whispering house, but some of the dumb boys from school discovered it and decided it was the perfect place to drink beer, smoke pot and giggle like fools and ruined it for me.
“Why on earth did she have to go out in such horrible weather?” my stepmother Suman asked for the nth time since the discovery of the body. She was stationed at the dining room window which provides almost as good a view as the one Hem and I had from the living room.
“Didn’t she know how dangerous cold can be? Hanh? Do you know why she did such a thing?”
She looked stricken. That’s the word for it, the exact one. As if a giant hand had smacked the joy out of her. Not that she’s a very cheerful person to begin with, but for a while this summer she’d gone back to being the way she was when she first came to Merrit’s Point—young and happy. I almost feel sorry for her.
I shook my head. “We were asleep, Mama,” I said gently, again. “I’ve no idea why she had to go out. If I was awake maybe I could have stopped her.”
Beside me Hem pushed his small, warm body closer. I hugged him hard. Hemant is my half-brother, Suman’s son, but entirely mine. I love him more than anything and anybody, more even than air and water and food, and just a bit more than Papa.
Out there things were winding down, the searchers loading the wrapped body onto a stretcher. We watched them carry it carefully to the waiting ambulance. An ambulance seemed kind of pointless since she was already dead, but people always hope for the best. Not me. I know that disaster lurks around every corner.The ambulance churned away in a spray of snow and
beside me Hem began to sob.
“Stop crying, you wuss,” I whispered, poking his cheek with my finger. He worries me sometimes. He is too much like Suman—no backbone, all emotion and weak. I have to make sure he doesn’t remain that way. For now, though, I can take it—he is only seven years old after all.
“I’m scared,” Hemant said. “I wish Akka was here.”
“Well she isn’t, is she?” I said, even though I too miss our grandmother. She’s in the hospital and not coming home. She’s too old and too sick.
“What will happen now?” Hem whispered.
“Nothing. They’ll take her to the morgue and a doctor will sign a certificate saying she’s dead, then Papa will notify her family. That’s all.” For the first time it occurred to me that she also had family. Just like us. A mother and brother and two nephews and a sister-in-law and cousins and aunts and uncles and maybe a grandma like Akka.
“What if they ask us questions?” Hem’s breath made a patch of mist on the windowpane.
 “What if they do? We were asleep, how are we supposed to know what happened, you noodle? Now stop crying all over me, I’m here, nothing will happen to you.”
He pressed closer to me, wrapped both his arms around my waist and held me tight. I love the smell of him—milky and sweet. I am not a sentimental sort of girl, but with Hem I turn into everything I do not wish to be. “Will you always be here with me, Vashi?” He gazed up at me with his big brown eyes that unfortunately always remind me of Suman. Like a puppy begging for love, for approval, soft and silly.
“Of course, where else would I be?”
“When you’re grown up also?”
“Well, I do plan to go away to university, Hem. But that isn’t for five whole years.”
“What if I feel like talking to someone when you’re away at university?” Hem asked anxiously.
“You’ll be a big boy by then—you won’t need me around so much,” I said.
“But I might still feel like talking to someone, then what?”
“You can always call me.”
“If you aren’t there?”
I knelt and wrapped my arms around him. “Talk to Tree, that’ll help, won’t it?” I felt his heart jumping against mine, in sync—thump-thump-thump—almost one.
“Tree will always be here, Hem. It’s ours and it will never tell on us.”
I am Varsha Dharma, granddaughter of Mr. J.K. Dharma, late, and his wife Bhagirathi otherwise known as Akka. Daughter of Vikram and Harini (or Helen as my mother preferred to be called—she liked disguises). Stepdaughter to Suman, and sister to Hemant.
I am thirteen years old, almost fourteen. I love reading. I love my family. I prefer to have no friends. I plan to go to university. When I grow up I will be a lawyer. Maybe a writer. A scientist even. I can be anything I set my mind to be. I am super smart. Even Miss Frederick the English teacher who takes us for art as well and who is not fond of me concedes I am precocious beyond my years. She and the other teachers also feel I have an attitude issue—of course I do—and anger issues, according to reports they send to Papa citing complaints from the town mothers and their stupid children.
“Gene problem,” Akka says. “Like your father and his father. I am telling you, Varsha, learn to control that temper. Don’t turn into your Papa. Don’t turn bad like him.”
And I come from a long line of dead people. I know everyone in this world does, but our family tree is knotty with folk who died in odd ways, almost all of them on my grandfather’s side of the family.
“We all die quietly in our own beds of old age or boredom,” Akka claims. “But Mr. J.K. Dharma’s people— ho, you won’t believe how some of them died. I tell you, enough to fill a book!” Then she counts off her favourite deaths on her fingers. “First there was your grandfather’s oldest cousin Ranjini the Raving Beauty, she who got bitten by a rabid dog before her wedding, didn’t tell anyone, showed up at the marriage hall in all her finery, foaming at the mouth, had a seizure, fell into the sacred fire and terrified the groom so thoroughly that he ran out of there and never got married. And since he was an only son, his parents died without grandchildren, calling down curses on the head of Ranjini the Raving Beauty.
“Then there was that other cousin on your grandfather’s side again—the one who finished a satisfying and forbidden dinner of mutton biryani at the military hotel in the Muslim area of the town in which he lived, was crossing the road to finish things off with a betel leaf stuffed with sugar beads and betel nut shavings and a touch of opium, when he stepped right into an open manhole and drowned in filth. And your grandfather Mr. J.K. Dharma, small man with a big ego, froze into a pillar of ice right outside our front door when he was forty-seven years old. He forgot his keys, came home really late, really drunk one winter night, couldn’t wake me and turned into an ice sculpture. He deserved what he got, the drunken lout. He brought me nothing but tears.”
He was too young to die, Akka adds quickly of her frozen husband. But I can tell she’s not sorry about it. He was a blot on the family name.
Last but not least is my own traitor mother Harini, who called herself Helen and hated living here with me and Papa and Akka, so she just took off without explanation one fine morning.
I don’t think Papa has forgiven my mother for leaving him even after all these years. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother, he said after she was gone. She deserved her death.
You were a bad husband,” Akka shouted at him.
“She didn’t deserve the misery you brought her and she certainly didn’t deserve her death.” She held me close to her and glared at Papa, who looked like he wanted to hit her the way he did my mother and sometimes me too when I am naughty.
My father controlled himself then, but he had torn up all of my mother’s photographs and burned them in the fireplace. He told me I was to forget her absolutely. I was never to talk about her. Ever. She was a traitor. She had abandoned us. She was a bad wife and a wicked mother. She was an Unmentionable. We’ve not forgiven her, Papa and me.
But it’s hard to forget. And she refused to leave me. She was everywhere in the house. I would wake up at night sometimes, sure she was sitting in a corner of my room—a loud and strong and beautiful ghost. I tried to hate her but I couldn’t. I wanted to reach out and hold her tight, I wanted to rub my face against her belly, and kiss her and feel her softness. And then I’d remember that she’d left me without a backward glance, and the rage would come rushing in. I’d push her away. Not needed here, she is not. Go away monster mother, leave us alone, I’d yell, we’ve found somebody else to love, a new mother who will always be here, for as long as ever.
 “It was your father’s temper that chased your poor mother away,” Akka said once. “And if he doesn’t watch out, your stepmother might leave as well.” She paused for a bit and then added, “Poor thing. Poor thing. She must be cursing the gods for bringing her here to this Jehannum.”
I always became anxious when Akka talked like this about Suman running away. When Suman first came here, she tried so hard to fit into the space my real mother left behind, but failed every single time. That made Papa mad. And that made me worry—what if she too went away like Akka said she might. Would she take us with her? Or would she leave us behind with Papa? What if she left me and took only Hemant? After all, he is her son, I’m nothing more than her stepdaughter. Then I’d tell myself she would never do such a thing: she loves me. She is mine. Papa brought her for me all the way from India. I am grateful to her for giving me my brother and for keeping the house clean and for cooking yummy food. I try hard to make sure she has no reason to leave—I am good as gold, I help her with chores, and I hug her every morning and at night before bed. I try, I do try to make her feel loved. It is my job to tie her to me tight so that she will never ever leave.
So that’s it—our family—Akka, Papa, me, Hemant, and Suman—three generations of us, crammed together, typical Indian-style, in a small house built by my grandfather on five acres of land on the edge of a rotten little town called Merrit’s Point. It’s in the middle of nowhere and is full of gossips and bores and kids with snotty names like Celia and Mason. If land in our town is cheap now, Akka says that when Grandfather bought it about forty-five years ago it cost less than a handful of dirt. He was dead before I was born and Akka says she has no idea why he moved all the way up here into this back of beyond. He didn’t even leave a record of his thoughts—I know because I looked everywhere—just a few words scratched with purple ink in an empty little notebook: “This is all mine. Silence at last.—J.K. Dharma.” What was he claiming? I asked Akka. But she couldn’t tell me.
“Who knows, and why should I care?” she said. She never wanted to speak of him anyway, the frozen husband who’d robbed her of her happiness. So I have to imagine it. I imagine him living in a crowded place in India—I haven’t been there yet, but I read in one of Papa’s books that there are millions and millions of people there. Maybe Grandfather was tired of all those people. Maybe it didn’t matter to him that he was in a place where hardly anybody else wanted to live unless they had to—like the people in town who came here to mine copper and then to work in the lumber mill. I think what mattered was that he owned this piece of the earth, paid for by him with his first savings, and when he opened a window he could hear the wind instead of a thousand chattering voices, he could see the starry sky instead of dust, and all around him his eyes landed only on quiet mountains and giant trees standing in silent clusters, bearing in their wooden hearts the secrets of all the creatures that live here.
 “We are cursed,” Akka wailed. “We are cursed with the family we have, and the family we have lost, we are cursed because we have to live in this town. We are cursed because we are who we are.”
“If you hate it so much, why did you come here?”
I demanded. Sometimes my grandmother confuses me with her contradictions. She loves my father, but she blames him for my mother leaving. She is fiercely protective about our family and hates “prying eyes,” as she calls them, but she says my grandfather was a demon and my Papa is one too. She shoots a fist up in the direction of the sky. “It’s their fault, those fancy-dress monkeys up there, those gods your silly father loves so much these days! They’re blind and deaf all of them.”
But even though Akka says these things about Papa and Grandfather, it is only in private, to me or to Suman. She’d never let our family down in public. Neither would I or Hem or Papa. Tight as a fist, we are, and as hard if you get in our way. Suman is the only weakness, the little finger, but Papa and I knew right away we’d have to hold her hard in our grasp. That way she wouldn’t have a chance to do anything silly.
That’s how we were until Anu Krishnan moved into our lives. Then everything changed.

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Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone. Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.
He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent fathermade fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money. He’d told them that this was, at best, all they would ever accomplish.“Whereas,” he’d said, “I will write a book that will put in their places everyone who has ever lived. It may take me as long as a month, but I will not falter.”
It was five years since he’d made the boast and he’d yet to write a word that he could resist the urge to burn.
He’d had but one real friend at Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, who went by Van. They’d met while Landish was sitting on one of the benches that ran along both sides of the path that led from the centre of the quad to the steps of Nassau Hall, smoking a cigar under a gauntlet of oak trees from which a steady shower of leaves fell despite the lack of wind. Van had sat down beside him.
Landish’s first impressions had been vague ones—pale, thin, elegantly dressed. He turned and saw his benchmate in profile: a pale, unblemished face, the sort of vein-marbled temples Landish had always associated with fragility and even weakness in men. Removing a cigarette case from inside his coat, the young man opened it and offered it to Landish until he noticed his cigar. His hands shook so badly he almost dropped the case.
“You’ve chosen the only occupied bench on the quad,” Landish said. The fellow held his cigarette between his third and fourth fingers, pressing his whole palm against his face as he inhaled. His body shook and his lips trembled though the day was unseasonably warm. Landish wondered if he might be ill.
“I’m Padgett Vanderluyden,” he said as he looked away from Landish. “Van, I like to be called. And you are Landish Druken. I hope you don’t like to go by ‘Lan.’ That wouldn’t do. Van and Lan.” He attempted to laugh but wound up coughing smoke out through his nose and mouth. Landish, the back-of-beyonder who scored unaccountably high grades in all his courses but was not, and was never to be, affiliated with any of the clubs, had been sought out by a Vanderluyden. Vanderluyden. Landish felt like demanding that the fellow prove it by presenting his credentials.
But then Van made the first of several odd admissions: he had stayed up half the night rehearsing what he would say to Landish. “I didn’t want to come unarmed. But I’ve forgotten everything that I rehearsed.”
“You stayed up all night preparing to meet me?”
“Yes, I did.”
“It was smart of you to choose a battle of wits. If you’d used your hands, you might not be nearly so gracious, or conscious, in defeat.”
 “You see? How am I supposed to answer that?”
Van’s voice quavered so badly that Landish felt a tinge of regret for having spoken to him as he had. He extended his hand and Van shook it. Van next told him that his sister, Vivvie, had died just shy of the age of two. “I had a breakdown over it. I’m thought by everyone, including my father, to be inherently given to breaking down. My father once told me that I would be presumed guilty until I was pronounced dead. Here you are now conspicuously sharing a bench with me in front of witnesses.”
“Guilty of what? Witnesses to what?”
Van told him he was joking.
“Well, at least you acknowledge having parents. Most of the fellows here never speak of whatever predecess pool they crawled out of.”
“All night I tried and could not come up with one line as good as that. I am not only not quick-witted—I have no wit at all.”
“You’re very forthright,” Landish said. “Sometimes it takes more nerve to be forthright than to be wittily ironic. I keep people at a distance with my wit and wind up in solitude—that is not always as splendid as it seems.”
Van smiled and blushed.
Noticing his embarrassed expression, Landish was again about to amend his remark when he noticed a man sitting on a bench on the opposite side of the walkway, six benches along perhaps. He sat side on, smoking a cigarette, staring at them. Not even when Landish’s eyes met his did he look away. He wore an overcoat and gloves and his hat lay on the bench beside him. He seemed to squint appraisingly at Landish. Even now, on Dark Marsh Road, eighteen months since Princeton, Landish found himself looking over his shoulder, especially at night, to see if he was being followed by Van’s bodyguard, Mr. Trull. “I don’t need a bodyguard,” Van had said. “But my father wants people to think I do. Mr. Trull used to be a Pinkerton.”
Mr. Trull, who carried two pistols, stayed out of eavesdropping range but followed Van and Landish everywhere, unselfconsciously conspicuous, a cigarette-smoking sentinel, staring at the ground. Landish imagined him running towards them, a pistol in each hand.
Van had declared himself. How odd. I want us to be friends. Landish knew that he would have graduated Princeton without ever having made a friend if such a declaration had had to come from him. For most of his time at Princeton, he had thought he would remember their meeting as one of the great events of his life.
The closest thing to work Van had ever done was ride a horse. He said he was a good rider and asked what sort of rider Landish was. Landish said he would let him know as soon as he found out.
Landish sat alone, in silence, in the taverns of St. John’s, spending the hundred dollars in “compensation” that had recently arrived from Van. Other than that word typed on a piece of paper, there had been no note of explanation, nothing but the money. He had thought of— and then thought better of—sending it back.
He drank and considered the bargain he had made with his father: send me to Princeton for four years and I will return and give you the balance of my life. The real terms of the bargain were: send me to Princeton so that, for four years, I can pretend that I am not the son of a sealing captain, pretend the man who paid my way does not exist, and I will come back and follow in your footsteps, low though my opinion be of where they lead. Four years of hoping against hope that something will come up so that I don’t have to do for a living what the father I’m ashamed of did to pay my way through Princeton.
When Landish told his father that he wished to be a novelist instead of the skipper of a sealing ship, his father said that a novel was about people who never lived and all the things they never did.
Captain Druken had first taken his son with him to the hunt when Landish was twelve. Landish had sailed on the Gilbert many times by then. Short trips, mostly in the summer. His father began to teach him about the sea long before he stepped on a boat. Landish’s maiden voyage was in a dory that the boy rowed out to the Gilbert. He still remembered how it felt, an inch or two of wood between the water and his feet. It was like standing on a sea-surrounded seesaw.
He’d never been swimming. His father had forbidden it. He said that knowing how to swim would do him no good if he fell into what he called “real water.” It would only make him less afraid of it and someday that might lead to carelessness and mean his death.
“The water is your enemy,” he said. “It has things you want that you will have to take from it by force. It will give you nothing and no matter how little you take from it, it wants nothing in exchange except your life.”
When Landish finished high school, he had come to imagine for himself a life other than the one that he was born to.
“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You could stand eye to eye with any horse.
Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it should be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”
Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud.”
“My father thinks I’m one,” he said.
Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud among his children?
But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.
Landish had doubted it. He guessed that not every graduate from Princeton would practise the modern form of alchemy. It was true of some that the more generations removed they were from the source of their wealth, the less able and inclined they became to increase or maintain that wealth. Landish called it the Law of Layabout Descendants. Van said he was going to build, “cause to be built,” a great house in North Carolina.
Landish told him that, when he was nine, he had caused a campfire to be built and then caused it to be lit.
Van said, “I discovered the site of the house in 1887. The excavations are completed. I plan to live there, alone if I have to, far enough from Manhattan to forget the place. It may sound morbid, but I have to wait for my inheritance to begin the main work.”
It was 1893. Van was building Vanderland now. Landish had read about it in a week-old edition of the New York Times. The Carolina Castle, it was called in the article. There had been a picture of Van reclining on the forest floor at the feet of a team of famous architects and engineers. Van, his elder by several years, looking his age at last. Landish bought drinks for those of his tavern mates who were not afraid to ask him to. They must have thought he was spending Druken money, that his father had relented.
By the time Landish’s story had made it back from Princeton to St. John’s, there were many versions of it, in all of which he had cheated, not to help a friend but to keep from flunking out.
The full four years at Princeton and he came away with nothing, people said. The Druken who imagined he was born to a better fate than captain of a sealing ship. After so many Drukens went scot-free for greater crimes, their name was ruined because it was proved that the family’s first intellectual, the would-be man of letters and refinement, had cheated on a test. The shame was that so many Drukens had died of old age in warm beds before the boy that brought them down was even born.
“You have been played for a fool,” his father said. “Come back to the world in which you count for something. It doesn’t bother me that you didn’t graduate. It doesn’t bother me why you didn’t. If cheating at school is the worst thing you ever do, you’ll be the first saint in the family. I gave you your four years. You said that you would give me the balance of your life.”
But Landish told him he would never set foot on a sealing ship again. “So it doesn’t matter that you cheated your own father. It only matters that some rich man cheated you. Because I deserve to be cheated and you don’t?”
His father was right. That was how Landish had squared it with his conscience. A necessary transgression by a son against his ignoble father to achieve a noble end—which might never be achieved. But he could make amends only by relenting to a life that would destroy him. Even had he been inclined to look for one, he could not have found a job aboard a ship or on the waterfront. Neither his father’s associates nor his enemies would have anything to do with him. His father was the last Druken who could afford not to care what people thought of him. He applied to every newspaper in the city for a job. He sent in samples of his writing and they sent them back.
He found employment in a beggars-can’t-be-choosers kind of school. One day he went there drunk and fell asleep. He woke up to find that all his students had left, his classroom was dark and empty, and a note of dismissal was pinned to the pocket of his coat. Van had told him of the rhyme which other boys used to chant when they saw him: “Padgy Porgie, pudding and pie/Killed the girl who made him cry/When the boys came out to play/Padgy Porgie ran away.”
 “Killed?” Landish said.
“One of the rumours is that I so hated my infant sister for supplanting me as the baby of the family that I did away with her and that it was all hushed up by my father. It’s absurd, but there you are.”
There you are. The under-built, slender-built Vanderluyden who his father said could not look their lowest servant in the eye, the dud with the long, pale, slender fingers that bent back to touch his wrists, was said to have killed his sister out of spite.
When Van’s father died, he left Van six million dollars, as well as stocks and properties worth about four million. Each of his three older brothers got ten times as much.
Ten million. Henry Vanderluyden’s notion of disownment. “I get it after I graduate. I will sink all of it into Vanderland if I have to.”
“I should marry for money,” Landish said. “No worries then about making a living as a writer. Matrimoney.”
“My mother married for it.”
“Your grandfather made a name for himself. Your father bought one.”
“As I suppose I shall have to someday.”
In the attic on Dark Marsh Road, Landish calculated that had he been thus disowned, he could have given his landlord a seven-hundred-andfifty- trillion-year advancement on the rent.
Though Van had all his life been mocked and hectored by his father, his death left Van so dejected that Landish thought he might fall ill. One day, as they passed a haberdashery, he pointed and said: “Full fathom five thy father lies/those are pants that were his size.”
He was ridiculously pleased when Van, finally, could not suppress a smile. In the middle of his junior year in the spring of 1890, Landish moved out of his dorm room and into Van’s house in town. They were inspired by Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters” to call the hilltop house and its spacious grounds Lotus Land. Van insisted on paying all the rent for a house that was bigger than the Drukens’.
“You could fit this house into one room at Vanderland,” Van said.
“Is the idea of building this Vanderland all that keeps you going?”
“Isn’t that enough? The greatest house in the world?”
They each had a storey of the three-storey house, Van the upper one, Landish the middle. Mr. Trull lived in three rooms on the ground floor. He had his own entrance and there was no connecting passage between his rooms and theirs. “He keeps an eye and ear out in case I leave, I suppose,” Van said. “I doubt he ever really sleeps.”
Van chose as his bedroom the one at the opposite end of the house from Landish’s so that, he said, he wouldn’t be kept awake all night by the footsteps of “a stomping insomniac who can’t compose a word without roaring it out loud.”
“And then I burn the words,” Landish said. “So far, I haven’t left a single word of my book unburned.”
“You really are writing a book — I thought you were kidding and just reading your assignments out loud. What’s the book about?”
“I can tell you it will be a novel. I know little more than that about it myself.”
“You speak so often of Newfoundland, I’m maddened by your infatuation with the place. It’s just your childhood you miss, not Newfoundland,” he’d say. “Your childhood when everyone was nice to you, when you had no enemies and there was no one who was out to bring you down.”
“Perhaps,” he’d say, and then start in about Newfoundland again. He told Van that he remembered the smell of ripening crabapples borne up by the wind from the street below his house in late September.

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Town That Drowned

Town That Drowned


Winner, Commonwealth Book Prize, Canada and the Caribbean, Frye Academy Award, and Margaret and John Savage First Book Award
Shortlisted, CLA Young Adult Book Award, Red Maple Award, and University of Canberra Book of the Year
Longlisted, IMPAC Dublin Award and Canada Reads

Living with a weird brother in a small town can be tough enough. Having a spectacular fall through the ice at a skating party and nearly drowning are grounds for embarrassment. But having a vision and narrating it to the assem …

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The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table

also available: Hardcover

In the early 1950s in Ceylon an eleven-year-old boy is put alone aboard a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the insignificant "cat's table"--as far from the Captain's table as can be--with two other lone boys and a small group of strange fellow passengers: one appears to be a shadowy figure from the British Secret Service; another a mysterious thief, another seems all too familiar with the dangerous ways of women and crime. On the long sea voyage across the Indian Ocean and th …

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He wasn’t talking . He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony’s Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.
He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns—watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.
He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet—nothing ahead of him existed—and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cordials.
He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.
He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on the stroke of midnight and the pilot’s tug waited at the waterline. The crew had been struggling to force him down the rope ladder, however as there was a danger of his falling to his death, they were now capturing him fishlike in a net, and in this way they lowered him down safely. It seemed to be in no way an embarrassment to the man, but the episode clearly was to the officials of the Orient Line who were on the bridge, furious in their white uniforms. The passengers cheered as the tug broke away. Then there was the sound of the two-stroke and the pilot’s weary singing as the tug disappeared into the night.
What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea. The longest journeys I had made were car rides to Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, or the train to Jaffna, which we boarded at seven a.m. and disembarked from in the late afternoon. We made that journey with our egg sandwiches, some thalagulies, a pack of cards, and a small Boy’s Own adventure.
But now it had been arranged I would be travelling to England by ship, and that I would be making the journey alone. No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear. I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than six hundred people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans. The departure date was marked casually on the calendar by my aunt, who had notified the school that I would be leaving at the end of the term. The fact of my being at sea for twenty-one days was spoken of as having not much significance, so I was surprised my relatives were even bothering to accompany me to the harbour. I had assumed I would be taking a bus by myself and then change onto another at Borella Junction.
There had been just one attempt to introduce me to the situation of the journey. A lady named Flavia Prins, whose husband knew my uncle, turned out to be making the same journey and was invited to tea one afternoon to meet with me. She would be travelling in First Class but promised to keep an eye on me. I shook her hand carefully, as it was covered with rings and bangles, and she then turned away to continue the conversation I had interrupted. I spent most of the hour listening to a few uncles and counting how many of the trimmed sandwiches they ate. On my last day, I found an empty school examination booklet, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a traced map of the world, and put them into my small suitcase. I went outside and said good-bye to the generator, and dug up the pieces of the radio I had once taken apart and, being unable to put them back together, had buried under the lawn. I said good-bye to Narayan, and good-bye to Gunepala.
As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was not the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.
And if she would be there.
I heard a note being slipped under my door. It assigned me to Table 76 for all my meals. The other bunk had not been slept in. I dressed and went out. I was not used to stairs and climbed them warily.
In the dining room there were nine people at Table 76, and that included two other boys roughly my age.
“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”
It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius. I had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him. He had been notorious and was even expelled for a term. I was sure it was going to take a long time before we spoke. But what was good about our table was that there seemed to be several interesting adults. We had a botanist, and a tailor who owned a shop up in Kandy. Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”
This was Mr. Mazappa. In the evening he played with the ship’s orchestra, and during the afternoons he gave piano lessons. As a result, he had a discount on his passage. After that first meal he entertained Ramadhin and Cassius and me with tales of his life. It was by being in Mr. Mazappa’s company, as he regaled us with confusing and often obscene lyrics from songs he knew, that we three came to accept one another. For we were shy and awkward. Not one of us had made even a gesture of greeting to the other two until Mazappa took us under his wing and advised us to keep our eyes and ears open, that this voyage would be a great education. So by the end of our first day, we discovered we could become curious together.
Another person of interest at the Cat’s Table was Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who was returning to England after a patch of time in the East. We sought out this large and gentle man often, for he had detailed knowledge about the structure of ships. He had dismantled many famous vessels. Unlike Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Nevil was modest and would speak of these episodes in his past only if you knew how to nudge an incident out of him. If he had not been so modest in the way he responded to our barrage of questions, we would not have believed him, or been so enthralled.
He also had a complete run of the ship, for he was doing safety research for the Orient Line. He introduced us to his cohorts in the engine and furnace rooms, and we watched the activities that took place down there. Compared to First Class, the engine room—at Hades level—churned with unbearable noise and heat. A two-hour walk around the Oronsay with Mr. Nevil clarified all the dangerous and not-so- dangerous possibilities. He told us the lifeboats swaying in mid-air only seemed dangerous, and so, Cassius and Ramadhin and I often climbed into them to have a vantage point for spying on passengers. It had been Miss Lasqueti’s remark about our being “in the least privileged place,” with no social importance, that persuaded us into an accurate belief that we were invisible to officials such as the Purser and the Head Steward, and the Captain.

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