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OLA Evergreen 2012 shortlist

By 49thShelf
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The shortlist was announced February 13. Great picks all around.
Bedtime Story

Bedtime Story

also available: Paperback
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Following his bestselling debut, Before I Wake, Robert J. Wiersema returns with this exquisitely plotted blend of supernatural thriller and domestic drama.
For novelist Christopher Knox, getting up early every morning to write isn’t bringing him the sense of fulfillment it once did. It’s been ten years since his first novel was published, to some acclaim, and he’s hit a wall in trying to write his next. His marriage to Jacqui isn’t doing much better, and it’s been months since he’ …

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David’s eyes gleamed as I set the package on the coffee table in front of him. I had wrapped it in the comics pages from last Sunday’s paper, the way my mother used to wrap all my birthday presents.
“I wonder what this could be,” he said, bouncing the package in his hand, teasing me.
“Only one way to find out.”
Jacqui was clearing the far end of the table, stacking the cake plates, crushing the torn wrapping paper into a Thrifty Foods bag.
“It feels like a book,” he said, running his fingers around the edges of the package.
“From your father?” Jacqui asked. “How odd.”
David giggled as he tore at the paper. He looked up at me when he saw the leather cover and a corner of a faded, silver-embossed seal, and I smiled. He pulled the rest of the paper off with a flourish, no longer able to bear the excitement.
Then his face fell.
“Oh,” he said, turning the book over in his hands. “To the Four Directions,” he read, furrowing his brow. “By Lazarus Took.”
I forced myself to keep smiling. Jacqui shook her head and plucked the comics in which I’d wrapped the book to tuck them away.
“He’s a good writer,” I said, leaning toward him. “I haven’t read this one, but I used to read his books when I was your age.”
He looked down at the book, then back at me.
“You’ll like it,” I said, hopefully. “There’s a quest, and—”
“Is it as good as Lord of the Rings?” He ran his fingers over the silver seal on the cover.
“It’s—it’s different.”
I probably should have expected this reaction. I probably should have bought him a copy of The Lord of the Rings, like he wanted.
“What do you say to your dad?” Jacqui prompted.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said weakly, coming over for an obligatory hug.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered into his hair.
“And this one’s from me,” Jaqui said, placing the last box on the table.
Separate gifts for David. Something else I’d never expected.
Under the bright paper was the box from David’s latest pair of sneakers. She had taped the edges of the lid down, and David grinned as he tore at them. There was nothing forced about his reaction as he worked the box open.
“A new glove,” he practically shouted. “Thanks, Mom!” He almost knocked her over with his hug.
“You’re welcome,” she said breathlessly, ruffling his hair. “I got some oil as well. It’ll need to be broken in.”
He looked at the glove, studying every stitch and seam. “Rob Sterling says that if you put a ball in it and put it under your mattress it helps.”
“Sounds like that would make it pretty hard to sleep,” I said, as lightly as I could.
They both ignored me.
“You can do that,” Jacqui said. “We’ll look up some other ideas on the computer.”
“Cool,” David said, before spontaneously throwing his arms around her again. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Davy,” she said, looking at me over his shoulder.
“Can we go out and have a catch?” he asked her, bouncing on the couch.
“Sure we can,” Jacqui said without hesitation. “Just a quick one, though. You don’t want to be late for your game.” He was already wearing his jersey.
David bounced to his feet and started toward the front door. He stopped partway and looked back at me.
“Do you want to come too, Dad?”
Both of them waited for my response.
“Not right now,” I said, feeling a little raw from his disappointment. “I’m gonna finish cleaning up in here. Maybe later, though.”
He didn’t look surprised, or particularly disappointed. Clearly he’d expected that answer.
Minutes later, listening to the sound of leather on leather through the front windows, I crumpled the last of the wrapping paper into the plastic bag and took it and the stack of plates into the kitchen. When I came back, I picked up the book, riffled through the pages.
Seeing it through Davy’s eyes, it really didn’t look like much: just a novel, no movie or videogame connection, nothing he could talk about at school. And it was used, at that: someone had written their name on the inside of the front cover.
Not much of a present for an eleventh birthday.
I turned the book over in my hands.
It was a thick hardcover, bound in brown leather, with a ding in the upper right corner, where it looked like someone had dropped it. The round symbol on the front cover was faded silver, with a band of strange lettering, almost Arabic-looking, circling a star in its middle. Within the star was another circle, which looked like it had been red at one time, but the colour had faded, leaving just a rusty mark against the brown leather.
The symbol also appeared, in miniature, on the spine of the book, separating the title from the author’s name.
To the Four Directions.
Lazarus Took.
I had found the book at Prospero’s on my way for my weekly lunch with Dale the week before. I had had to look twice at the spine when I first saw it: I had never seen a Lazarus Took hardcover before. The four books I had read had all been paperbacks: this was something new. Well, not new—the copyright page read: Alexander Press, 1951.
Turning to the first chapter, I couldn’t help myself: with the first sentence it was like I was eleven years old again, reading in the apple tree or the hayloft at my grandparents’ place in Henderson.
“I’ll get a beating if I am late to the stables,” Tamas complained. But that didn’t stop him from following Matthias through the winding alley in the dark.
“You worry too much, Tamas,” Matthias said. “You have time for a little food. The stable-master will be asleep for hours yet. Besides,” he said, hopping over the short wall into the back garden of The Mermaid. “I would be more worried about my mother.” Matthias flashed his best friend a sly grin.
“Oh, I am,” Tamas muttered, heaving himself over the wall. He almost fell on a stack of discarded bottles.
“Shush. We don’t want to wake—”
The water hit Matthias in the face as the back door swung open, soaking him from head to foot.
“What—?” he sputtered.
“Oh, I am sorry,” Mareigh, said, smiling sweetly. “I thought you must be a thief. No respectable person would be stealing through the yard at this hour of the night.” She passed the bucket to Arian.
Matthias tried not to stare at the serving girl.
“And you, Tamas, what are you looking at?” Mareigh demanded, glaring past her sopping son, hands on her hips. “Does your mother know where you are?”
“She knows I am with Matthias.”
“Sad thing for a mother to give up on her son like that.” She stepped back from the door. “Well, come on,” she said. “You’re better off inside. Someone has come looking for you.”
Matthias glanced at Arian, but she was already busying herself at the stove. He sat down at his usual spot at the table, Tamas across from him.
“So, would either of you know why I had Zekariah and Jarrett and their friends pounding at the door an hour after closing?”
Matthias hid his hands, with their scraped knuckles, on his lap.
“He said he was looking for you, son of mine,” she said. “And he seemed to have fewer teeth than when he was gracing us with his custom earlier.”
He tried not to look at Tamas, not wanting to give anything away, but his mother noticed something in his expression. “What did you do?” she asked, sounding defeated.
“Nothing,” he said. As Arian leaned past him to set cups on the table he became almost dizzy from her closeness, the sweet smell of her.
His mother brought her hand down on the table with a hard smack. “This is not funny,” she said. “If there are people looking for you in the middle of the night, I should at least know why.” She turned to his friend. “Tamas?”
Matthias almost groaned.
“There was a fight,” Tamas said quickly.
“And I suppose they had it coming.”
Tamas risked a nervous glance at Matthias, and Mareigh caught the look.
“Matthias,” she said, her voice dropping sternly.
“He did have it coming,” Matthias said weakly.
Arian had stopped her work, holding a cloth in one hand as she listened, ready to spring into movement should his mother happen to look her way.
“These are customers,” she said, not waiting for him to explain. “They put the bread on our table, and a little coin in our pockets.”
He looked at Arian again. His mother always claimed poverty, but one as poor as she claimed to be didn’t have a servant like Arian to jump at her every command, to keep the bar and the taps in the tavern shining. And she was the only woman to own one of the taverns on the island, close to the castle, safe behind the walls.
She sighed heavily. “You know what you need to do.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“You will,” his mother stressed, in the voice that had settled hundreds of tavern fights. “You’re fifteen years old—when are you going to learn there are consequences to your actions? You will give them a few hours to sleep off the worst of it and then you will apologize.”
“I will not,” he said, pushing back from the table. “They had no right—”
“Matthias, they are our livelihood.”
“And that gets them as much ale as they can buy. It doesn’t give them the right—”
Again his mother turned to Tamas. “What did they do?”
Tamas sank on the bench. “You know how they get when they are in their cups. Joking and bragging.” He glanced at Arian, who was making a good show of wiping the counter. “They started in on Arian. Saying she would make a good wife. Someone to come home to. And then Jarrett said that there was no reason to marry her, when you could just pay her by the hour.”
As Tamas spoke, Matthias watched Arian, the long, slow stretches of her arm with the cloth, the way the raven hair that escaped from her kerchief fell over one eye.
He and Tamas had been drinking at a table close by, had heard every word the fat drunkard had said about Arian, every piggish laugh that his friend had given in response. Arian had kept her head down, her eyes averted, but he had seen the scarlet on her cheeks.
He had almost come to his feet when Jarrett’s clumsy paw circled her waist and tried to pull her close. But Arian moved lightly away, made off to the kitchen, to safety.
Both men laughed, and Jarrett said, “It’s more fun when you have to chase them a little.”
That decided it for Matthias. He slapped Tamas’s arm as the two drunks left. Tamas did not even try to argue—he had seen that look in Matthias’s eyes before, and he followed his friend out the door.
They trailed behind Zekariah and Jarrett for a while, putting some distance between them and the tavern. They each picked up a good-size chunk of wood from in front of the butcher’s shop, and when the two men staggered into the noxious alley behind, Matthias simply nodded at Tamas.
The drunks were leaning into the alley wall, looks of hard concentration on their faces as they pissed, trying to keep their balance.
“So,” Matthias said, and both men started. “You think it’s funny to mock a bar girl, do you?”
With a glance between them, Zekariah and Jarrett straightened up, fumbled with their belts, and pulled themselves to their full height. “And what are you, then? Her prince come to her rescue?”
Jarrett laughed. “Looks more like the bastard cur of that tavern wench, come for a beating.”
His laugh faded when he saw the wood in the boys’ hands.
The fight was quick and dirty, and left the two men in sodden heaps in the muck of the alley.
“Is that true?” his mother’s question jarred Matthias out of his reverie, but she wasn’t talking to him. She had turned to confront Arian.
The girl paused a moment, not able to meet the older woman’s gaze. Finally, she nodded.
“You should have told me,” she said, in a voice as close to understanding as Matthias could ever recall hearing. “I would have taken a round or two out of them myself. You need never tolerate that, do you understand?”
Arian kept her eyes on the ground, looking more uncomfortable with the sympathy than she would have been with Mareigh’s temper.
Tamas sighed and deflated a little, obviously relieved.
Matthias, though, knew that it was not yet over.
“And as for you,” his mother said, rounding on him. “What business is it of yours if some customers have a little fun at the expense of the help?”
“She was—”
“That is her business. And mine. It has nothing to do with you.”
She took a long look at his face, and he willed himself to be stony, to give nothing away. But she had seen something. And she did not like what she saw.
A furious pounding at the front door seemed to shake the whole tavern.
“Open in the name of the King.”
“Matthias,” Mareigh whispered hoarsely, turning toward the front room.
“Mother, I didn’t . . .”
She shook her head. “I’ve told you your temper was going to be the end of you.” She looked at the serving girl, who shrank under her gaze, and back at Matthias. “You’ve brought this down on all of us.”
He could barely breathe.
Mareigh tied on a fresh apron. “I’ll get the door, and pretend that I don’t know exactly why they’re here. You two”—she looked at Matthias and Tamas—“take the back door. Don’t go home,” she said sternly to Tamas. “They’ll be looking for you as well. Find a place, maybe on the shore, to wait this out.”
Matthias was stunned; the idea of running from the King’s Men had not occurred to him, and now to have his mother suggest it . . .
“Go,” she snapped, pushing her way through the swinging door into the tavern.
He didn’t move. What was she doing? She had worked so hard to build this place, and now she was suggesting that he run. It could ruin her. If anyone even suspected that she had helped in his escape, the Royal Fiat that allowed her to run the tavern on the island, inside the walls, would disappear like a night of drink. How could he have been so stupid?
But then he looked upon Arian, and he realized that he’d really had no choice. He would do it all again, and damn the consequences.
Her eyes were wide and dark, shining against her ivory skin. She was looking at him as if she was about to cry.
Tamas tugged at his sleeve. “Matthias, come on,” he whispered frantically.
He could hear his mother shouting, “All right, all right, give a poor woman a chance . . .”
Matthias wanted to go to Arian, to say something to comfort her, but there was no time.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They ran out the back door and retraced their steps, again not bothering with the gate. It seemed like hours since they had tumbled over the stone wall. This time they pushed themselves over it—
—and into a small group of King’s Men, facing them in an orderly row.
Waiting for them.
The captain of the King’s Men stepped forward. “I command you halt, in the name of the King.”
The soldiers lowered their halberks toward the boys, backing them against the wall with the gleaming metal blades, then herded them into the tavern kitchen.
Mareigh was already sitting down, her hands on the table in front of her. Arian was sitting beside her; she bit her lip as Matthias walked through the door.
More of the King’s Men stood surrounding the table, their halberks at their sides.
When Mareigh saw her son, her face fell.
They had caught him anyway.
“Matthias,” the captain said, grasping the boy’s sleeve. “Take a chair.”
Matthias shook off the captain’s grip, then stumbled as the captain pushed him onto the bench across from his mother. How did the captain know his name?
The captain turned to Tamas. “You, boy.” Tamas wilted under his gaze. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the stables?”
Tamas looked blank at the question, then nodded.
“Then I suggest you hie yourself over there and not give the master further cause for a whipping.”
Tamas barely hesitated. Matthias watched his friend race out the back door—it was only right. Following the men from the tavern, the beating in the alley—it had all been Matthias’s fight. It was better that Tamas avoid the consequences.
And given the number of King’s Men gathered in the kitchen, the consequences would be dire indeed. He tried not to think of the stories he had heard of the dungeons, buried deep within the castle. The stories of men who went in and never came out.
The captain stepped to the head of the table, and with both hands lifted the bronze helmet from his head. His hair was long, damp with sweat. He had bright blue eyes and a short, well-trimmed beard.
He set the helmet carefully on the table, and nodded toward Matthias’s mother.
“Good morning, Mistress Mareigh,” he said.
“And to you, Captain Bream.” Matthias’s mother met the captain’s gaze and held it.
Matthias looked between them: his mother knew this soldier? Matthias had seen him in the street on occasion, but he wasn’t one of the soldiers who frequented The Mermaid’s Rest.
Arian shuddered next to him, close enough to touch.
“I trust you are well,” the captain said.
Mareigh looked pointedly at the men ringing the kitchen. “I’ve had better mornings.”
Matthias flinched at his mother’s tone. He expected the captain to lash out at her, with either words or, more likely, his hands.
Instead, he looked at the guards. “Gentlemen,” he said.
At the single word, the men broke rank and filed out through the swinging door.
“They’ll wait in the tavern,” he said. “Out of sight. I am aware that the sudden appearance of the King’s Men can be bad for business.”
Mareigh nodded. “I appreciate that.”
“We’re here about your son,” he said, turning to look at Matthias.
Matthias pushed back from the table, starting to rise to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t . . .” He glanced at Arian, then back at his mother. “My mother, she told me to wait here while she answered the door, but I was scared so I ran.”
The captain listened to him, his face set in a dark scowl that broke, surprisingly, into a smile. “What are you talking about, boy?”
The question stopped him. “About what happened this morning.”
The captain took a satchel from one of the men. He tossed the bag as if it weighed nothing, but it landed on the table in front of Matthias with a heavy smack.
“About Zekariah and Jarrett.”
“That is none of my concern. There are clothes in there. Boots. You’ll need to clean up.”
Matthias glanced at his mother; she seemed as puzzled as he.
“Clean up,” the captain repeated. “The Queen has summoned you.”
The sound of the door slamming brought me back to myself. Davy’s footsteps were already fading into the house, up the stairs toward his room. Jacqui was standing in the doorway, her keys in her hand, her purse under her arm.
“You’re not coming to his game?”
It wasn’t really a question, and I didn’t answer. I just closed the book slowly.
She shook her head. “You should have bought him The Lord of the Rings.”
She walked away before I could say anything.
Mareigh swept aside the heavy curtain and stepped into Matthias’s sleeping room without warning. He hurriedly finished pulling the new shirt over his head.
“I’m worried for you,” she whispered, so as not to be overheard by the guard at the foot of the narrow staircase.
Matthias was scared too, more than he would let his mother see. His insides had turned to water when the captain delivered his summons, and the feeling was only getting worse.
“You know the captain?” he asked.
“Captain Bream,” she said. “He served with your father.”
“But . . .”
She squeezed his arm so tightly it hurt. “Stop,” she said firmly. “We don’t have much time.”
He pulled his arm away from her and took a step back. His legs pressed against his low bed.
She moved closer to him. “You have to be careful,” she whispered. “The Queen . . .” She shook her head as if she had decided something. “She gets what she wants.”
Of course she gets what she wants, she’s the Queen. He didn’t dare say so; his mother’s face was white and taut.
“I’ll be all right,” he whispered, though he feared the words were a lie.
He hugged his mother close, holding her tight until Captain Bream called for him from the tavern below.
“Be careful,” she said, as he started down the stairs.
The captain looked at him appraisingly as he descended. “That will have to do, I suppose.”
Matthias had hoped to see Arian one last time, but the captain led him directly into the street, where the King’s Men formed a tight circle around him. There was nowhere for him to turn, no way for him to run, and he fell into step with them as they led him away, up the sharp rise of the island, toward the castle.
“Are your teeth brushed?” I asked, up to my elbows in soapy water. “Nolan fed?”
“Yup.” He was already in his pyjamas, and his face was red and shiny from a recent encounter with a washcloth.
“Okay. I’ll be up in a sec.”
I finished the dishes and opened a bottle of red wine, leaving it on the counter to breathe as I went upstairs to read David his story.
Jacqui and I passed on the stairs: she was coming down after kissing David good-night. I tried smiling at her, but her face displayed the same stony rigour she had maintained since dinner.
I tried to put it out of my mind before I got to David’s room.
Davy’s bedtime was my favourite part of the day, and we had stumbled into it by accident. When Jacqui had gone back to work at the ER after her maternity leave, we had talked about the importance of consistency and routine. Knowing how crazy her schedule was going to be—shifts all over the map, on-call so often—we had decided that it would be best if bedtime were my domain.
It worked for me, too. I was at home, busy with the new book, and finding routine was essential for both my writing and my sanity.
At first it had been easy. Babies don’t need much of a bedtime routine. As Davy got older it became more involved: fights about tooth-brushing, constant negotiations for extra time, arguments about TV shows.
That was before we discovered reading together.
Standing in front of the bookshelves beside his door, my back to him, I asked, “So, what shall we read tonight?”
“Daaaad,” he said, drawing out his exasperation. Playing along.
“All right . . .” I slid the hardcover of The Hobbit off the shelf and carried it over to the chair beside the head of his bed.
He was already nestled under the covers. Nolan the hamster was running merrily in his wheel.
The bookmark was leather, rough-cut and almost rectangular, with faded, painted letters, some of them backwards, that read, “To the best Dad in the world.” He had made it for me for Father’s Day when he was six, and we used it in all of the books we read together.
“We’re getting pretty near the end of this,” I said. “We’ll have to figure out what to read next.” I didn’t want to be the one to suggest the book that I had given him, still sitting on the coffee table in the living room.
The Lord of the Rings?” he asked. Again.
We had watched part of The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD, the parts before it got too violent and gory, and he had been wanting to read the book ever since.
“We’ll see,” I said measuredly. “Those are some pretty meaty books, so we might want to wait for a bit.”
He pouted deliberately.
“There are plenty of good books out there.” Not hinting. Not really.
David had always been a reluctant reader, only doing his Language Arts homework under duress. We learned why when he was eight and his teacher sent him for some testing: dyslexia. Reading was a struggle for him, and since then we had done everything we could to make it easier.
But our nightly ritual wasn’t about work, or learning, it was all about pleasure.
“Dad,” he said tentatively, before I could start. “None of my friends get a bedtime story every night.”
“Darren Kenneally says stories are for babies.”
“Do you think he’s right?”
He shook his head.
“Good. Because I know for a fact that he’s wrong.”
“Because you write stories. For grown-ups.”
I smiled. “Right. And you know what? Darren Kenneally doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
His face brightened.
After that he was quiet for so long that I was about to start reading when he said, “Dad?”
“When am I going to be too old for you to read to me?”
The thought brought a thickness to my chest. “Someday. That’s up to you.” Hoping silently that day would be a long time coming.
He watched me carefully for the first few minutes I was reading. Every time I looked up our eyes would meet, and he would grin a little and press himself deeper into the pillow. After a while he turned onto his back, folded his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. His breathing slowed.
He never fell asleep when I was reading, but he always closed his eyes. Once when I asked him why, he explained, “When I close my eyes I can see what you’re reading. It’s like a movie inside my head.”
Although it took more than an hour, we finished The Hobbit that night; there wasn’t really a good place to stop in the last few chapters.
I was slipping the book back into the space on the shelf by the door when he said, “Lord of the Rings next?”
I turned back to him, setting the bookmark on the edge of the shelf. “Maybe,” I said, trying not to sound hurt. “We’ll have to see.”
He snuggled more deeply under the covers. “Okay.”
“Time for sleep now, though.”
“Sweet dreams,” I said as I stepped into the hallway. “Happy birthday.”
I left the door open a foot or so, the way he liked it.
The soldiers marched Matthias quickly toward the castle, their boots echoing off the cobbles and the stone walls. Few people were out so soon after sunrise, but those who were gave the men wide berth, stepping into gutters or doorways to let them pass.
He gasped when they rounded the corner and the castle came into view.
The castle gates were closed.
For as long as he could remember, the gates had stood open, guarded, but swung wide onto the broad castle boulevard, the gardens within, and the towers that always seemed to shine against the blue sky. People would come and go freely. But this morning the entrance was blocked with towering wooden doors braced with iron.
Matthias stumbled slightly when Captain Bream stopped at a narrow iron door cut into a shallow recess in the castle wall, a short distance from the gates. The captain tapped three times on the door, and an eye-slit opened. The eyes behind the door surveyed them carefully, and after a moment a tumbler chunked into place and the door opened.
Matthias peered into the narrow opening, expecting to see the castle grounds on the other side of the wall. Instead, there was a dim tunnel, lit with torches, sloping into the depths of the castle. Armed guards stood inside.
“Come on,” the captain said, directing him through the door.
Matthias’s heart jumped into his throat as he stared ahead, his mind filled with his worst imaginings of the castle dungeons.
The captain dismissed his men, and they swung the heavy iron door shut as they left. The captain took a torch from one of the guards and started down the hallway.
Matthias followed silently, the torchlight wavering on the walls. The tunnel angled downward for a while, the walls growing damper, the air thick. Men stood guard at the openings of other tunnels, and they straightened as the captain passed.
Then the tunnel began to climb. In time, the air became fresher, cooler. The walls and the floor dried. Matthias had lost track of how long they had been walking when they came to a sudden stop at a dark archway, covered by what seemed to be a heavy curtain.
The captain pushed his torch into a bracket on the wall, then led Matthias through a barely noticeable seam in the middle of the curtain.
No, not a curtain, Matthias realized as he passed through it: a tapestry.
He found himself in a wide corridor, flanked on one side by a row of tapestries down the length of the stone wall through which he had just passed, and on the other by a series of high windows. A breeze blew cool from outside.
Matthias stopped in the middle of the corridor. The captain turned to him. His face was hard, and his mouth opened to speak, but he stopped himself.
Matthias was overwhelmed, and confused. To go from the backroom of the tavern to the heights of the castle . . .
He looked first at the wall.
The tapestries were all about the kingdom. He was standing in front of a weaving of his home: the island at the mouth of the Col River with the walled lower city rising toward the castle, and on the shore, Colcott Town. The next tapestry over was a battle scene, soldiers fighting, and falling, the Sunstone crest bright on their standards. One soldier was rising from his mount, driving his sword deep into the chest of a Berok warrior, the blade piercing the bearskins the savages wore instead of armour.
He took several steps toward the windows and looked down, first, on the castle and its gardens, then, beyond the castle wall, on the narrow streets of the lower city winding down to the protective wall at the shoreline. From this direction there was nothing but the sea beyond the outer wall; if the corridor had been on the other side of the castle, he knew, he would have been able to see Colcott Town on the shore.
“It is difficult to tell how far you’ve walked in the tunnels,” the captain said. He looked toward the windows. “Or how high you’ve climbed. Only the royal chambers and the battlements are above us now.”
The royal chambers? Matthias glanced down the hallway at the huge double doors, the pair of guards standing in front of them. His heart thrummed in his chest.
“The Queen’s receiving rooms. Come.”
The guards pushed the doors open as they approached.
Inside, the heady smell of spices and flowers and perfumes filled the bright, sunlit air. Without warning, the captain fell to one knee, bowing his head so it almost rested on his other knee.
“My Lady,” he said.
Not having any idea what else to do, Matthias copied the soldier. He didn’t dare look up. His stomach lurched, and he trembled with fear.
“Rise.” The voice, rich and melodious, had come from the far end of the room.
Matthias waited until Captain Bream started to his feet before he stood up. He kept his eyes fixed to the floor, knowing better than to look on the Queen unbidden.
“Come,” said the voice, and Matthias followed Captain Bream forward.
He glanced about surreptitiously, curious about his surroundings. The room was large, but seemed cozy, with tapestries on the walls, low couchettes in the corner, carpets over much of the floor.
He couldn’t help but look up.
The Queen was the most beautiful woman Matthias had ever seen, with long dark hair and pale skin that seemed to shine in the light. She reclined on a low divan on a raised stone platform, a small bowl of dried fruit and a goblet close to hand.
“Y-yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias choked.
“Has Captain Bream told you why we bid you come?”
He shook his head, conscious of every motion. “No, Your Majesty.”
He tried to look away as she stood up. Her blue-grey gown trailed behind her as she stepped down carefully from the platform.
“You’re here because we need you, Matthias,” she said, close enough that he could smell the sweetness of her breath.
He almost jumped when she reached out and took his hand, holding it warmly between her own.
“The kingdom needs you.”
When I got down to the kitchen, I poured Jacqui and me each a glass of wine. As I carried the glasses and the bottle into the living room, I pictured myself passing the glass to Jacqui, reminding her of what we had been doing eleven years ago right now, the night that David was born. I imagined a moment of shared history, of tenderness.
She had been flicking through channels, but she turned the TV off as I set her glass on the end table next to her.
She didn’t say anything.
“Davy’s to bed,” I said as I sat down. Anything to break the silence.
She picked up her glass.
“We finished The Hobbit.”
I wished she had left the television on, for the noise, the distraction. I lifted my glass toward her.
“Eleven years,” I said.
She smiled a small, sad smile, and sipped her wine.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Odds were the answer was going to involve me somehow, but I couldn’t bear the silence, the feeling of things hanging in the air.
She shook her head. “It’s the same old stuff,” she said dismissively. “Is it really worth getting into it, all over again?”
I could feel myself deflating. “Okay.”
“I mean, seriously, Chris. You couldn’t even be bothered to come to his ballgame? On his birthday?”
“And that book. It’s like you don’t even know him. You spend more time with him than any other dad I know spends with his kids, and it’s like it doesn’t even register.”
“That’s not—”
“Do you even know who Rob Sterling is?”
She was so quick with the question, I knew that she had been waiting to use it. And I couldn’t answer.
“I didn’t think so.” She shook her head and looked away. “He’s his coach, Chris. Coach Sterling. David talks about him every day. Do you even listen?”
I leaned forward on the couch. “Of course I listen.”
“Really? Then why didn’t you get him what he wanted for his birthday? Instead, you get him that . . .” She nodded toward the book on the coffee table. David had taken all of his other gifts upstairs to his room.
“He’s going to like it,” I said, aware even as I was speaking the words that they weren’t going to make any difference. “When I was a kid—”
“Exactly,” she said, so loudly I almost flinched. “That’s exactly it, Chris. When you were a kid. This isn’t about you. This is about David. It’s his birthday. And you couldn’t even be bothered—”
“Right,” I said, leaning forward to set my wineglass on the coffee table and pick up the book. “You’re right.” I stood up. “It’s probably not worth getting into it all again. I’m gonna go.”
“Chris,” she said to my back as I turned out of the room, but I didn’t respond.
I walked through the house and out the back door. I navigated the narrow path in the spill of light from the kitchen window and unlocked the door in the back of the garage.
He sat up slowly, listening to the faint sound of his parents’ voices as they rose up the stairs, drifted through the partly open door.
After a few moments, the voices grew louder, not really shouting but definitely upset. It was impossible to ignore them, to tune them out. He couldn’t make out actual words, just a texture of voices raised in anger.
Biting his lip, he stood up and walked across the room, careful to be quiet. He closed his door fully, and darted back to bed in the dark, pulling the covers up to his chin and burying his head in the pillow.
He could barely hear the voices, now.
I’m not gonna cry, he told himself. I’m not gonna cry.
The narrow staircase was dim with the light from my desk lamp, which I left on from four in the morning until I went to bed. In the shadows of the small kitchen, I filled a glass with vodka from the bottle in my freezer. I set the glass on top of the morning’s pages and sat down at my desk.
Why did it always have to go so bad so fast?
I pulled my cigarettes out of my pocket and set my lighter on the desk next to this morning’s work. The engraving caught the light. After tapping a cigarette out, I put it to my lips, savouring the feel of it there, its light presence.
For a long time, I had allowed myself a single cigarette each day, just before I turned in. It was a holdover from my days as a smoker, and was supposed to be a reward, a way of recognizing a good day’s work, a capstone to a productive time. Now, I was smoking compulsively again, my hands shaking as I flicked the lighter, as I held the flame to the paper waiting for that subtle crackle.
As I drew in the first smooth lungful of smoke, I ran my thumb across the lettering on the lighter.
Coastal Drift
Christopher J. Knox
Spring 2000
The Zippo had been a gift from my Canadian editor. He had lit my cigar with it at the launch party for my first book, then handed it to me with a broad grin and an arm draped drunkenly across my shoulders.
“To the first of many,” he had toasted me.
“Right,” I muttered to the memory, throwing the lighter onto the desk and taking a healthy swallow of the icy vodka. It chilled all the way down, and when the burn hit my stomach I shivered.
That had been a perfect night: my life was on track, unfolding as I had always dreamed it would. My novel was just out, and already on the best-seller lists. Jacqui and I had just bought the house, and every time I met her eye across the crowded bar, she smiled. The future was wide open.
And this was where it all led: me sitting in what once had been my office over the garage, trying to ignore the bed in the tiny adjoining room. There had been no more books, no more launch parties. And, over the last couple of years, precious few of those smiles from across the room.
I sat quietly for a moment, watching the shadows of the smoke play along the desk in the pool of golden light. As I opened David’s book to where I had left off—since I had started reading it, I’d been sneaking in a few pages whenever time allowed, and when it didn’t—I deliberately kept my back turned to the bookcase next to the desk, the top shelf with the different editions of Coastal Drift, the second shelf stuffed with bulging notebooks, stacks of loose-leaf, battered files. Ten years in the life, waiting for a match.
It felt like the floor had tilted beneath his feet. Matthias couldn’t think, could barely breathe, with the Queen so close to him, holding his hand, staring into his eyes.
“Let us sit,” she said, turning him toward a cluster of divans and chairs against the wall.
“That’s better,” she said, a smile of comfort softening her face as she settled on a divan. “Sit.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Matthias said as he sat, not sure of how to speak.
“Comfort is a fine, fine thing,” she said, almost to herself. “Save for the price that must be paid.”
Her smile disappeared as she looked at Matthias again. “Five days ago, the watchtowers fell. Three of them. All under cover of a single night. The Berok have taken them.”
Matthias stole a glance at Captain Bream; the man’s face was hard and still.
“Our most feared enemy is at the borders of the kingdom, less than two days’ ride from the city. From this castle—” She broke off as handmaidens entered the room with wine.
Matthias’s mind reeled: the Berok?
Matthias and Bream waited while the maidens tasted from each cup before serving them, and then until the Queen had taken a sip before they drank. The wine was cool and strong.
“The King has brought you here today,” the Queen said, “because we think you can help.”
Matthias bit back a protest. He knew only tavern fighting, and all he knew of the Berok were the stories his mother had told him when he was a boy. The country to the north was the stuff of myths and children’s stories, of blood-thirsty warriors and epic betrayals. Surely there was nothing he could do. He drowned the words he was tempted to say with another swallow of wine, knowing better than to argue with the Queen.
“I know you believe there is nothing you have to offer,” she said, seeming to read his thoughts and expression. “But others think differently. Loren,” she called, barely raising her voice.
From a doorway at the far end of the room a man appeared, a long, grey beard falling to the middle of his chest. Within the folds of his tattered robes, Matthias could see he carried a large, leather-bound book.
“Loren is an historian and a scholar. One of the King’s most trusted advisers,” the Queen said, not even glancing at the man as he took his place beside her. “He has been working in the libraries, both in the castle here and at the monastery,” the Queen said. “He has found some startling information.”
The monastery: the old man was one of the Brotherhood.
“I am a translator,” Loren said in a thin voice, “of the ancient texts. When I learned of the attacks on the watchtowers, I was reminded of a manuscript that I translated, some years ago. Not a book. Private papers, from the reign of King Harkness.”
“And why did it remind you of that?” the Queen prompted.
“Because of when the attacks happened,” he explained. “On a night when the moon was swallowed by the dark.”
Matthias remembered the night, almost a week before, when he had stood outside the tavern next to Arian as the moon seemed to disappear momentarily into the night sky. He sat forward to listen more closely to the translator.
“There is a prophecy,” the old man said. “In those scrolls. A prophecy which I am only now beginning to understand. It is mostly fragments, scattered within another text.” He opened the book in his hand, balancing it carefully as he turned the pages. “It begins:
The fall of man shall come,
As a fall comes to all things.
The mighty walls of Colcott shall crack
And bleed
On the night the moon dies in the sky.”
The old man looked up from the book and fixed his eyes on Matthias. “There is more. Much more. And it concerns the boy.”
“Me?” Matthias asked, before he could stop himself.
“You,” the translator said.
The old man shook his head, and Matthias closed his mouth. Loren continued speaking, but Matthias barely heard him over the rushing in his ears. It couldn’t be him. He was . . . nobody.
“Hidden as it was, the prophecy has long puzzled scholars. But the confluence of events, the attack on the watchtowers on the night of the disappearing moon . . .” His voice trailed off. “I believe I know what it means.”
Matthias shifted, uncomfortable in his chair.
“The prophecy describes a treasure, a relic so powerful that it was hidden away before the time of King Harkness. A relic that will save this kingdom. The Sunstone.”
“A sunstone?” Matthias asked. It was the symbol of the kingdom, on every flag, every gate, and sewn onto the shoulder of Bream’s tunic.
“Not a sunstone,” the scholar corrected. “The Sunstone. The first Sunstone, carried into battle by Stephen the Bold, before he was the First King.”
There was a long moment of silence before the captain said, “That’s just a myth. A children’s story.”
“It’s much more than that,” the old man said. “Do you know why the Sunstone is the symbol of our kingdom? Not because it was Stephen’s sigil, but because of what it could do. What it did, in our darkest hour.”
“What could it do?” Matthias heard himself asking.
“It is believed the stone held great power. How else to explain the victory at Corindor Field, when the brave five hundred broke the army of the Berok, more than ten thousand strong, turning them back and forging this kingdom in blood and iron?”
Matthias recognized the last few words from a poem that every child was taught, the chronicle of the founding of the kingdom.
“Tactics,” the captain said. “Bravery. Loyalty. As battles have always been fought and won.”
“You would believe that, of course,” the old man said. “But the truth is much stranger. The truth is that Stephen rode into battle with the Sunstone, the first Sunstone, on his breast, and a magus at his side.”
“Are you talking about magic?” Matthias asked.
“Indeed I am. A magic so powerful it can render an army unbreakable. A magic so powerful that King Stephen, even in the flush of victory, could see its dangers. After Corindor Field, he ordered the Sunstone hidden where no one, not even he, could find it. He entrusted his dearest friend Gafilair, the first of the Brotherhood to be paired with the king, the first high mage, to hide the stone. To wrap it in mysteries and magics such that no man could ever find it.
“The magus did as the new king instructed, hiding the stone away where it would remain for more than a thousand years, until the kingdom once again was in such grave danger that the stone’s powers would be its only salvation.”
“If it is hidden so well—” Captain Bream began.
“There is one who can find it,” the scholar said. “That is the reason for the prophecy. That the Brothers of Gafilair, his heirs and followers, might follow the signs, might find the right person at the right time to recover the stone and return it to the King. The clues to finding the stone are in here,” he said, gesturing to the book. “As is the information we needed to find the one who could retrieve it.”
“Me?” Matthias asked incredulously.
The captain nodded.
“Captain Bream has selected a troop of his finest men,” the Queen said. “His most loyal and true. You will ride out with them to find the Sunstone, and bring it back that it might protect the kingdom once more. Loren will ride with you to decipher the signs left by the first high magus.”
“But it can’t be me,” Matthias blurted.
The magus spoke slowly: “There are signs, portents, in this book. We have studied them. Studied you. The signs of your birth. Your parentage. There is enough for us to be sure.”
“Matthias,” the Queen said. “You’ll ride out at dawn in three days’ time. You’ll be well cared-for, well protected. And when you return with the Sunstone, you will receive a hero’s welcome. Do you understand?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He had no choice.
“Come,” she said. “The importance of this journey cannot be overstated.”
The Queen led the three men around the stone platform at the end of the room, to a double door hidden behind a tapestry. The captain opened the door, and stepped back to allow the Queen to enter. Matthias followed.
In the centre of the room stood a huge bed. The man lying on it was tiny, and clearly sick, his skin yellow and waxy, his hair missing in patches. He lay facing the door, considering his guests with pale, milky eyes.
Loren took several steps toward the bed before falling to his knee. “Your Majesty,” he said, almost in a whisper.
Matthias looked at the Queen.
“This,” she said, “is why we need the Sunstone so badly.”
The crumpled figure on the bed raised a shaky hand. “Loren,” he said weakly. “Loren, my friend.”
The mage rose to his feet and stepped to the bedside. The King took his hand.
“Have you found the boy?”
Matthias could feel his heart in his throat.
“I have, Your Majesty. He’s here.”
The King’s eyes searched the room, and prompted by a gentle push from the Queen, Matthias stepped to the old man’s side.
“This is him?” the King asked.
“It is, Your Majesty.”
A weak smile came to the King’s face as he took Matthias’s hand. The King’s grip was sticky and cool, and Matthias tried to breathe mostly through his mouth; the air near the bed was sweet and acrid with the smells of sickness.
“Yes, so it is,” the King said, as if finally able to see him. “It is all yours to do now,” he said to Matthias. He winced and strained with each word. “The future of the kingdom is in your hands.”
Dumbstruck, Matthias nodded. The King’s grip tightened, then fell away. His eyes sank shut. For a moment, Matthias’s hand hung in the air where the King had held it. But then a rough, wet breath brought a sense of relief. The King was only sleeping.
“The great secret at the heart of the kingdom,” the Queen said slowly.
Matthias turned back to face the Queen and the Captain of the Guard, both still standing in the doorway.
“No one knows of the King’s illness. Your mission, therefore, must remain a secret, known to as few people as possible. You cannot go home. Not now. Not before you leave. Do you understand?”
“I do, Your Majesty.”

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The Far Side Of The Sky

The Far Side Of The Sky

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On November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht—the Nazis unleash a night of terror across Germany that paves the way for Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Army continues to rampage through China and tighten its stranglehold on Shanghai, a besieged and divided city that becomes the last haven for thousands of desperate European Jews.

Dr. Franz Adler, an Austrian Jew and renowned surgeon, is swept up in the wave of anti-Semitic violence washing over Vienna and flees to China …

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Mennonites Don't Dance

Mennonites Don't Dance

also available: eBook
tagged : literary

This vibrant collection of short fictions explores how families work, how they are torn apart, and, in spite of differences and struggles, brought back together. Darcie Friesen Hossack's stories in Mennonites Don't Dance offer an honest, detailed look into the experiences of children - both young and adult - and their parents and grandparents, exploring generational ties, sins, penance and redemption.

Taking place primarily on the Canadian prairies, the families in these stories are confronted b …

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Various Positions

Various Positions

A novel
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Nuanced, fresh, and gorgeously well-written, Martha Schabas' extraordinary debut novel takes us inside the beauty and brutality of professional ballet, and the young women striving to make it in that world. Shy and introverted, and trapped between the hyper-sexualized world of her teenaged friends and her dysfunctional family, Georgia is only at ease when she's dancing. Fortunately, she's an unusually talented and promising dancer. When she is accepted into the notoriously exclusive Royal Balle …

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I found the envelope in a pile of letters on the hallway radiator. It was white, flat, ordinary as any envelope except for the strange look of my name across the front. I wasn’t used to getting mail. There was a logo in the corner, the curving, antique script of the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. I took the envelope up to my room. My fingers were stupid with adrenalin, and as I ripped off the top, I tore the letter too. I read the time and date of my audition aloud and recorded the information on the Gelsey Kirkland calendar above my desk, filling the March 27 box with tiny handwriting.
I observed what I’d written as though I didn’t trust it, staring, squinting, trying to look at the ink askance. I muttered patchy sounds under my breath, little words like yes and good. March 27 needed to be distinguished from its meaningless neighbours, so I drew a green border around the date and added jagged diagonal strokes that tied like a knot in the middle of the square. I stepped backward, examined my work. It all looked a bit like the kind of flammability warning you’d find on a hairspray bottle. I worried this was a bad omen. Symbols of explosions might not lend themselves naturally to good luck. But maybe it could be a kind of reverse jinx, like whispering merde before going on stage, or grabbing your partner in the wings and screaming
“Go to hell!” beneath the opening chords of the overture. That’s what they did in Russia.
Above the March grid of the calendar was a black-and white photo of Gelsey in rehearsal. She was standing with her back against a studio barre and bending at the waist to fiddle with the ribbon of her pointe shoe. Her oversized leg warmers crawled up to the middle of her thighs and she wore a leotard that reflected light like tinfoil. The material pinched at her chest in the shape of a tiny accordion. On either side of this accordion there should have been boobs, but there were no boobs; there was virtually nothing at all. Ha! It was a laugh in the face of everything.
I had been watching Gelsey on the Arts & Entertainment Network since my mom ordered specialty cable three months before. I had seen her in five different ballets and I loved her. She didn’t look wet and brainless like some other ballerinas, dancing across the stage as if they were lost in heavy fog. She attacked her steps as though she had something against them, pouncing ferociously from one to the next. These pounces were punctuated every few minutes by close-ups of Gelsey yearning into the camera. Sometimes her pale face would take up the entire frame and just hang there in a look of incurable distraction. Pain hammered deep around her crystalline eyes. A tenderness pillowed her lips. It was a beauty I had never seen before, too extreme for human beings. Somewhere along her vacuumed cheeks, inside the pout of her ruby mouth, Gelsey became less girl and more creature, so feminine she cancelled herself out.
I folded the letter back into the envelope and sat down on my desk chair. I would e-mail Isabel and tell her about my audition. I turned on my computer and waited for my e-mail account to load new messages. I had a separate folder for Isabel that I’d labelled sister. This wasn’t really necessary, considering she was the only one who ever e-mailed me. The file name also wasn’t technically accurate. But Isabel had told me it was tacky to always call her my half-sister in front of other people, and I wanted to make up for the mistake.
I imagined scenarios where Isabel would happen to see the title of the e-mail folder. She’d be home at Christmas and we’d be hanging out in my room. She’d be telling me about the stuff she usually tells me about, her most recent semester at university, about after-dark activities and theories on gender and meaning. At some point I’d have to get up to pee. Alone in my room, she’d glance at my computer screen, see the only folder in my e-mail account and smile to herself. When I came back into the room she’d poke me in the ribs and tell me how grown up I seemed.
My inbox loaded zero new messages. I clicked on the sister folder and scrolled through old messages instead. Isabel always filled in the subject lines, titling her e-mails things like “W’sup” and “Hola Infanta” and “Georgia on My Mind.” I clicked on one e-mail with the subject line “Gelsey.” It was from a few months ago, soon after I’d told her about my new idol. Isabel had written that she was “skeptical of a society so predicated on celebrity-worship.” I had typed “predicated” into and written back that I wasn’t trying to “derive, base, found, proclaim, assert, declare or affirm anything.” Isabel hadn’t been convinced. She’d done a little Googling and had written back that Gelsey was a cokehead who’d dated Pat Sajak in the eighties, and that her lips had been injected with an amount of collagen that Health Canada considered “unadvisable.” When I hadn’t believed her, she’d sent me Dancing on My Grave, Gelsey’s tell-all autobiography, via priority post.
I looked at the bookshelf across my room. I could pick out the spine immediately, the font reflective like a speed sign on the highway, the rose wilting onto the word Grave. The spine looked worn, even from a distance, with a deep wrinkle scarred through its middle. I had read the book three times now and knew the quotations on the back cover by heart: “the dark side of fame,” “a descent into drugs and madness,” “a tortured quest for perfection.” I loved Gelsey more with every read. Not only was she the most wonderful ballerina the world had ever seen, but she had suffered something horrifying and her face was brimming with poisonous chemicals.
Isabel had been e-mailing me approximately twice a week since she’d moved downtown for university. She lived in a three-storey house with six other girls, one working shower and no TV. Every time I visited I felt cold inside my knee caps and smelled old beer and Pantene Pro-V. Still, I loved visiting her. My dad had only been once, and he called the house Moldova. How are things in Moldova? he’d ask when Isabel came home for dinner and he wasn’t at the hospital. Have you girls managed to get a land line yet? Isabel’s mouth would fatten into a smirk. Moldova isn’t so bad anyway, she’d say. It has a thriving viticulture industry. It’s the crossroads of Latin and Slavic worlds. My dad would lift his hands on either side of his body, palms facing Isabel as if she were a bandit with a gun. I would stand absolutely still, do my best to embody neutrality so that no one could accuse me of picking sides.
Right before she’d left for university, Isabel had taken me to the park for a talk. We sat on the swings and I followed her lead, digging my heels into the gravel beneath us, engraving hearts and then wiping them clean with my soles. The kid swinging next to me was pumping his legs hard, trying to propel his body towards rooftops, but Isabel was unmoving, so I would be too. I watched a tiny bulge in the middle of her neck and then another, as though she were swallowing her thoughts.
Half an hour went by and she still hadn’t done any talking. Pins and needles fried the underside of my thighs. Finally she looked at me. The greyness of her eyes had deepened. They were the colour of the sidewalk after a thunderstorm.
“Things might be difficult when I leave, George. You’ll have to be extra grown up.”
“Just—” She paused, stabbed the rubber toe of her sneaker into the middle of a dusty heart so that a cloud of sand wafted up her ankle. “I know it’s difficult when Dad’s always—” She cut herself off and looked at the sky. “Just don’t let it get to you. They’re adults and it’s not your problem. And call me if you need anything. Like anytime, whenever.”
I nodded slowly, trying to put lots of meaning into it because I knew that’s what she wanted to see. Isabel generally talked about my mom that way, ran circles around the problem without ever stopping to look it in the face. In her last year of high school, Isabel had stayed with us less and less, and this had distorted her perception of what was happening between my parents. Isabel never saw my mom’s tiny provocations, the way she would stare out the window and announce the strangest things out of nowhere—that she missed smoking cigarettes in her old Ford Cortina, that she was curious about neo-punk. One time after dinner, I passed my mom the lasagna dish and she said she’d rather ram her head into the kitchen sink than wash it. Another time, when there was a segment on the radio about the fruit bat, she stepped out into the backyard and started to cry.
I swiped my finger on the trackpad to wake up the computer screen. I clicked on the Compose button and typed Isabel’s e-mail into the address bar. I told her about my letter and asked how things were going at Moldova. I paused over the subject line. Then I brought my fingers back to the keyboard and typed My Audition. I sat back in my chair and looked at the title. I deleted Audition and wrote Career.

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Bin Okuma, a celebrated visual artist, has recently and quite suddenly lost his wife, Lena. He and his son, Greg, are left to deal with the shock. But Greg has returned to his studies on the East Coast, and Bin finds himself alone and pulled into memories he has avoided for much of his life. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, his Japanese Canadian family was displaced from the West Coast. Now, he sets out to drive across the country: to complete the last works needed for an upcoming exhibition; to rev …

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also available: Hardcover
tagged : literary

A spellbinding and wise coming-of-age story, Shelter draws readers into the precarious world of two young sisters in search of their mother, and brings to life the breathtaking B.C. landscape through which they travel.
Maggie Dillon lives with her family in a small, roughly furnished cabin in B.C.’s Chilcotin region, where the land and the native peoples who’ve always called it home have taken in both pioneer settlers and latecomers like the Dillons. Her sister, Jenny, is the elder of the t …

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Jenny was the one who asked me to write all this down. She wanted me to sort it for her, string it out, bead by bead, an official story, like a rosary she could repeat and count on. But I started writing it for her, too. For Mom, or Irene as other people would call her, since she abandoned a long time ago whatever “Mom” once meant to her. Even now there was no stopping the guilt that rose up when we thought of her. We did not try to look for our mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return, and you don’t know if a coyote got her or a hawk or if she sickened somewhere and couldn’t make it home. We let time pass, we waited, trusting her, because she had always been the best of mothers. She’s the mother, that’s what we said to each other, or we did in the beginning. I don’t know who started it.
That’s not true. It was me. Jenny said, “We should look for her.” I said, “She’s the mother.” When I said it, I didn’t know the power those few words would take on in our lives. They had the sound of truth, loaded and untouchable. But they became an anchor that dragged us back from our most honest impulses.
We waited for her to come to get us and she never did. There was no sign that this would happen. I know people always look for signs. That way they can say, we’re not the type of people things like that happen to, as if we were, as if we should have seen it coming. But there were no signs. Nothing except my worry, which I think I was born with, if you can be born a worrier—Jenny thinks you can.
Worry was stuffed into the spaces around my heart, like newspaper stuffed in the cracks of a cabin wall, and it choked out the ease that should have been there. I’m old enough now to know that there are people who don’t feel dogged by the shadow of disaster, people who think their lives will always be a clean, wide-open plain, the sky blue, the way clearly marked. My anxiety curled me into myself. I couldn’t be like Jenny, who was opened up like a sunny day with nothing to do but lie in the grass, feel the warm earth against her back, a breeze, the click of insects in the air. Soon, later, never— words not invented. Jenny was always and yes.
As I say, there was no sign of anything that might go wrong in the small, familiar places that made up our world. The bedroom Jenny and I shared was painted robin’s egg blue and the early morning sunlight fell across the wall, turning it luminous, like an eggshell held to the light. I watched how it fell, and after a while tiny shadowed hills rose up and valleys dipped in the textured lines of the wallboard. Morning in that land came slow and slanted with misty light, waking into the glare of day.
Our house in Duchess Creek had a distinctive smell that met me at the front door: boiled turnip, fried bologna, tomato soup, held in the curtains or in the flimsy walls and ceiling or the shreds of newspaper that insulated them. It was a warm house, Mom said, but not built by people who intended to stay. The kitchen cupboards had no doors and the bathroom as separated from the main room by a heavy flowered curtain.
Electricity had come to Duchess Creek in 1967, the year I turned seven and Jenny eight. A saggy wire was strung through the trees to our house a few months later. But we had power only occasionally, and only for the lights.
The small electric stove had been dropped off by one of Dad’s friends who found it at the dump in Williams Lake. It was never hooked up and Mom never made a fuss about it, though her friend Glenna asked her about twice a week when she was going to get the stove working. Glenna said, “Hey, aren’t you happy we’ve finally joined the twentieth century?” Mom said that if she wanted to join the twentieth century, she’d move to Vancouver. Glenna laughed and shook her head and said, “Well, I guess you’re not the only one who thinks that way. There’s people who like it that Williams Lake is the biggest town for miles and miles in any direction.”
In the Chilcotin, where we lived, there were the Indians, the Chilcotins and the Carriers, who had been here long before the whites came. Their trails and trade routes still crisscrossed the land. And there were the white settlers whose histories were full of stories about pioneering and ranching and road-building. Then there were the late-comers, like our family, the Dillons.
Dad had left Ireland in 1949 for America and ended up in Oregon, then had come north. Others came to avoid marching into wars they didn’t believe in, or ways of life they didn’t believe in. Some came from cities, with everything they owned packed into their vehicles, looking for a wild place to escape to. They were new pioneers, reinventing themselves following their own designs. Dad had a friend named Teepee Fred and another named Panbread. When I asked Dad what their last names were, he said he’d never bothered to ask.
Mom didn’t care much about the electric stove because she had learned to cook on the woodstove. She cooked out of necessity, not pleasure, and stuck mainly to one-pot stews that she could manage without an oven. We didn’t have an electric fridge, either. We had a scratched old icebox where a lonely bottle of milk and a pound of butter resided.
There was a pump in the backyard where we got our water. Someone before us had made plans for indoor plumbing. There was a shower and sink in the bathroom, and a hole in the floor, stuffed with rags, where a pipe came in for a toilet, but none of these worked. We pumped our water and carried it in a five-gallon bucket that sat on the kitchen counter.
We had an outhouse, but at night we set a toilet seat over a tin pot and Dad emptied it each morning. Just at the edge of the bush behind the house, Dad had rigged up a heavy, old claw foot bathtub especially for Mom. Underneath he had dug a hole and in that he’d make a small fire. He ran a hose from the pump to fill the tub. The water heated nicely and Mom sat in there on a cedar rack he’d made so she wouldn’t burn herself. Some evenings we’d hear her out there, singing to herself, her voice lifting out of the dark on the steam that rose from behind the screen of fir boughs he’d wound through a piece of fence.
Sometimes I sat on a stump beside her, trailing my arm in the hot water. Bats wheeled and dipped above us, just shadows, a movement in the corner of the eye. Stars grew brighter and as thick as clouds of insects while the water cooled. I thought that if she needed any proof that Dad loved her, that bathtub was it.
There must have been a time when I sang myself awake, trilling up and down a range of happy notes as a beetle tracked across the window screen and cast a tiny shadow on the wall. But I don’t remember it. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look at the world and feel apprehension chewing at the edges. It wasn’t our mother I worried about, though. I felt lucky to have a mom who took us camping, wasn’t afraid of bears, loved to drive the logging roads and what she called the “wagon trails” that wandered off Highway 20 and into the bush. We found lakes and rotting log cabins and secret little valleys; it felt like we were the first people to find them. Our measure of a good camp was how far from other people it was. “No one around for miles,” Mom would say, satisfied, when the fire was built. She was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort. It was Dad I worried about.
He had to be approached like an injured bird, tentatively. Too much attention and he would fly off. If he was in the house, he was restless. He would stretch, look around as if he was an outsider, and then I’d feel the sting of disappointment as he went for his jacket by the door.
Sometimes he whistled, made it seem casual, putting his arms into the flannel sleeves. Then he’d go outside, chop wood for a few minutes, like a penance, then disappear into the bush. He’d be gone for hours. Worse days, he’d go to his bedroom and close the door.
I listened with my ear against the wall of my room. If I stood there long enough, I’d hear the squeak of bedsprings as he turned over. I don’t know what he did in there. He had no books or radio. I don’t think he did anything at all. When he came back from his working day in the bush, he liked to sleep in the reclining chair by the oil drum that was our woodstove. I wanted him to stay asleep there. If he was asleep, he was with us.
But sometimes he pulled the chair too close to the woodstove. One afternoon, I tried to get him to move it back.
“Don’t worry, Maggie,” he said. “I’m not close enough to melt.” And he fell asleep with his mouth open, occasionally drawing a deep breath that turned to a cough and woke him briefly. I wasn’t afraid that he would melt. I was afraid that the chair would burst suddenly into flames, as the Lutzes’ shed roof once did when Helmer got the fire in the garbage bin burning too high.
At the counter, my mother stood slicing deer meat for stew. I watched, waiting for his eyelids to sag, flicker, and drop closed again. Mom peeled an onion, then began to chop. Jenny and I had our Barbies spread on the sunny yellow linoleum. Jenny’s Barbie wanted to get married and since we didn’t have a Ken, my Barbie had to be the husband. I tucked her blonde hair up under a pair of bikini bottoms. Mom turned to us. Her eyes streamed with tears. For some reason, we found her routine with the onions and the tears very funny. We put our hands over our mouths so we wouldn’t wake Dad. Mom never cried. Maybe that’s why we found it so improbable that something as ordinary as an onion could have this power over her.
She moved to the woodstove. The sweet smell of onions frying in oil rose up and then Mom dropped the cubes of deer meat into the pot. A pungent, wild blood smell that I didn’t like filled the house. But it only lasted a minute, then the meat and onions blended to a rich, sweet fragrance and Mom sprinkled in pepper and reached for a jar of tomatoes.
She struggled with the lid and turned to look at Dad to see if he was awake. She wouldn’t wake him. She wouldn’t break the spell of all of us being there together by asking him to open a jar. Instead she got out a paring knife, wedged the blade under the rim and gave it a twist.
Smoky fall air spiced the room, drifting in through the kitchen window that was kept open an inch whenever the woodstove was going. The warm yellow linoleum heated my belly as I stretched out on the floor and Mom stood solidly at the counter, her auburn hair curled in a shiny question mark down the back of her favourite navy sweater. She wore her gingham pedal pushers, though it was too cold for them, and well-worn moccasins on her bare feet. Her calves were strong and shapely. Something about the knife and the jar made the easiness radiating through me begin to crumble.
Mom had tacked up cloth decorated with brown Betty teapots under the sink to hide the drainpipe and garbage. This became part of my worry, the flimsiness of it. Maybe it meant that we didn’t intend to stay, either.
Near the woodstove, black charred spots marred the washed yellow of the floor. Jenny teased me whenever I rushed over to stomp out the embers that popped from the stove when the door was open. Dad would tell her not to bother me about it. “Mag’s like me,” he’d say. “Safety first.” Dad worked with Roddy Schwartz on a Mighty Mite sawmill near Roddy’s cabin. Roddy had brought the mill in from Prince George on a trailer. It had a Volkswagen engine that ran two saw blades along the logs and could cut almost any tree they hauled out. They usually spent a few days felling and limbing trees, then skidded them out to where the mill was assembled. Dad didn’t like the skidding, because they couldn’t afford a proper skidder. Instead they had an old farm tractor with a chain that they wrapped around the logs to pull them out of the bush. Dad worried about the logs snagging on something and the tractor doing a wheelie.
I had listened to him talking to Mom about the work one evening when they were sitting out on the porch.
“I don’t trust Roddy when he’s hungover,” he’d said. “He gets sloppy like. Says I’m bitching at him. Like an old woman, he says. Claims he knows the mill inside out, could do it with his eyes closed. I keep telling him, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it. You let your guard down, one of those boards’ll take your fingers off so fast you won’t know what hit you.”
“Oh, Patrick,” Mom shuddered. “Don’t even say that.”
“I know, but he’s a law unto to himself. Cocky bastard, that’s what gets me. These are thirty foot trees we’re fooling with.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You don’t need to worry about me.” Dad raised his voice a little when he saw me standing at the screen door.
“Mr. Safety,” he said, and winked at me.
It was Dad’s nickname. It wasn’t just our family who called him that. His friends did too, irritated by his careful checking and rechecking of his guns, his gear, his methodical testing of brakes before descending the Hill to Bella Coola. The Hill had an 18 percent grade and a reputation for turning drivers’ legs to rubber. The local habit was to fuel up with liquor before making the attempt. But Dad was disgusted by that.
“You can’t rush Mr. Safety,” his friends teased, lighting another cigarette to wait while he put an air gauge to each tire in turn.
Now as he slept in his reclining chair by the stove, I went over to hold my hand flat against the green vinyl. It was almost too hot to touch. I didn’t know which I wanted more: to have him stay asleep and with us or to have him wake up and get out of harm’s way. I stood behind his chair watching the whorl of his red hair quiver as he breathed. At the crown where the hair parted, a little patch of ruddy scalp showed.
I pulled a kitchen chair over to the counter and got down the biggest glass I could find. Then I scooped water into it from the bucket and, as Mom watched me, took a little sip. I carried the tall glass of water over to the chair where Dad slept and I stood on guard.
A few minutes passed calmly as I pretended to be interested in the top of Dad’s head. Suddenly he drew one of his deep ragged breaths and his whole body went stiff, then jerky, with his hands pawing the air and choking sounds rising from his throat.
“Mom!” I called as she dropped her knife and whirled.
 “Patrick, wake up,” she said. She knelt by his knees and took hold of his hands. He cried out then, making the most un-Dadlike sound I’d ever heard. Like a baby. Like a cornered animal.
“Patrick!” Mom said again, then, “Give me your water, Maggie.”
I handed her the glass and she brought it to Dad’s lips.
“Take a sip, Patrick. Have a drink. It’s nice and cold. There you go, there you go.”
He opened his eyes and coughed as he swallowed.
Mom said, “It’s okay now, girls, he just had a terror.”
“I had a terror,” Dad said. That’s what they called them, these fits of Dad’s. Apparently, his father had had them too—seizures of fear that took possession of his whole body when he was on the edge of sleep. He drank down the water and shook him - self awake. His messy red curls were damp with sweat.
“Don’t look so worried, Mag,” he said and pulled me onto his lap. “Nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m Mr. Safety, remember?”
Dad smelled of tobacco and woodsmoke and the outdoor tang of fall leaves. I began counting the freckles on his arms. “Do you think I have as many freckles on my arms as there are stars in the sky?” he asked.
“Maybe more,” I said. It was what I always said and it was what he always asked. As long as I was counting his freckles, he was my captive.
Nothing bad had happened. It was only a terror. Still I worried.
As I walked to the school bus each morning, shuffling my boots along in the fresh snow to make my own trail, Jenny already a powder blue beacon by the power pole at the highway, I worried about leaving Mom at home alone, about the wild way she swung the axe when she was splitting kindling and the way Dad nagged her to be careful. One of these days she was going to chop off her own foot, he said. And when we got off the bus at the end of the day, just before we rounded the final bend by the bent pine tree and our little house came into view, I worried that I’d see it engulfed in flames, or already a smoking heap. And each time it stood blandly, paint peeling to grey, smoke rising from the chimney pipe, I felt my tight muscles loosen and I broke into a run.
We were a normal family; that’s our story. Our days were full of riverbanks and gravel roads, bicycles and grasshoppers. But you think a thing, you open a door. You invite tragedy in. That’s what my worry taught me.

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They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children

They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children

The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers
also available: Hardcover

"The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war." —Roméo Dallaire

In conflicts around the world, there is an increasingly popular weapon system that requires negligible technology, is simple to sustain, has unlimited versatility and incredible capacity for both loyalty and barbarism. In fact, there is no more complete end-to-end weapon system in the inventory of war-machines. Wha …

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When I was a child, my father set out to build a cabin in the bush in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec. The site was on a small cliff overlooking a violin-shaped lake, with virgin bush for tens of kilometres in nearly all directions around it. In the late fall and winter, the local farmers would go into the woods with their enormous horses and chains and tackles and sleighs to cut and then haul out spruce and cedar, and even the odd oak, to the provincial road where the logs would be piled sky-high until spring. I would marvel at these weather-beaten and muscle-bound farmers and their sons, who seemed to effortlessly wield enormous axes and bucksaws a hundred feet long.
My father was a staff-sergeant serving in the Canadian Army, with three children and a wife to support and no money to spare on any kind of a dream cabin. And so he brought down some of the huge trees around the site (he’d been a lumberjack before he joined the army in 1928), had them sawn into lumber at the village sawmill, and over the course of several years scrounged the rest of what he needed to complete what we not-so-affectionately dubbed the Slave Camp. Nothing really fit, be it window, plumbing or stairs. The dock regularly went astray, as the battle between man and beast (the beavers) kept the water levels in constant flux. A trip to the cabin meant steady work.
Beyond the need to constantly tweak the make-do materials of our shelter in the woods, there were other reasons for the unending labour. Dad was a huge man with a very powerful chest, heavily tattooed arms, and hands that could smother a pineapple. He was a veteran of the Second World War, and like many veterans was haunted by that experience, sometimes to the point of allowing that destructive world to invade our home life. When the brain injury we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) took hold of him, he was reliving, not remembering, the carnage he had witnessed, and perhaps caused. Sometimes he could damp down the horrors with alcohol, but often that didn’t work. The cottage turned into a therapeutic instrument that provided him with a healthier outlet for his demons. He essentially lived for the summer weekends and the two weeks of vacation each year when he could escape to the bush and work on “his” cabin.
Dad really needed to keep busy, and he expected his only son to act as his gofer. How I despised that job. Go get this, and that, and the other, for hours on end when the lake was beckoning me to swim, to fish. But no, that was play and there was no time for that when he was at the lake.
I lived for the summer days when Dad had to be in town, leaving my mother, my two sisters and me at the cabin. Although he’d pile enough chores on me to keep two men busy all week, I now had the lake to swim in without having to guiltily avoid him, and the nearby sandpits to disappear into, where I built grand fortresses and fought the greatest battles of all time on its plains using small plastic soldiers and Dinky Toy tanks. And I had the endless bush to discover.
The forest was dense and totally enveloping. I would roam at will, stopping often to idle, to listen for birdsong and animal rustling, and to dream in unadulterated freedom. I forded creeks and swamps, and climbed high cliffs to bask on large exposed rocks where the sun would soon cover me with sweat. Alone in my humanity, I shed all constraints, rules, hypocrisy, pain and sorrow, escaping from that intense childhood stress of living according to other people’s demands.
At a swamp’s edge between small lakes, birds fluttered, ducks and wild geese swam, and bugs skated on the surface of the water. There was abundance for all and no sign of calamity or friction. Life buzzed along in a sort of symphony of small sounds that soothed rather than worried or excited me.
I would daydream in the stillness, experiencing pure joy. I would tear my T-shirt into two pieces, mark it up with crayon and dirt, then string the pieces, front and back, like a loincloth. In that moment I had transformed into a Huron, an Iroquois, a Cree, a Montagnais. I was a warrior. I was a brave, skilled in the ways of the forest and free to move by instinct, by need.
The forest protected me. The canopy far above shaded me from rain and wind, and the soft forest floor cushioned my steps. I learned how to run swiftly and stealthily, without the rustle of a branch or the snap of a twig.
Among the trees I had no boundaries except what I could see and smell and touch and sense. I was alive and I was without limits. I would observe the chipmunks and marvel at the speed and adroitness of their skirmishing, neither hurting their opponent nor injuring themselves in their leaps and bounds from the forest floor to the ends of hanging limbs. I would listen to birds and wonder at so many disparate songs and screeches, and their mastery of communication. The rare deer I spotted would remain motionless to blend into the brush, but its big eyes would always give it away, for they sparkled. With a wave of its tail, it would eventually relax and move on, nibbling at vegetation as it went.
And then there were the bugs and bugs and more bugs: scurrying around old fallen dead trees and in the trunks still standing, or scuttling away from me in the mud when I lifted a mat of fallen leaves, or gliding on the surfaces and diving in the depths of the little streams. The rat-a-tat-tat of the occasional woodpecker punching holes in rotting trees and feasting on their tiny but abundant prey led me to imagine how it must have been for soldiers at the front facing murderous machine-gun fire. It seemed an unfair match.
The ants were busy and impatient, as were bumblebees, whereas friendly ladybugs would stop for a rest on my arm and look up as if to say something important before flying away. Butterflies were like that, too. They seemed to take the time to show off their magnificent wings, as if they were gracing me with a visit rather than working to survive.
One majestic insect stood out from all the others. The dragonfly did not seem particularly interested in me; it remained aloof even when lighting briefly on my arm, as if it didn’t matter that I was watching. By name alone, the dragonfly evoked images of a place that existed within and beyond my childish imagination: a magic world of castles and wizards, knights and fair damsels, dark forests and the evil that lurked therein. The other insects had their own exciting roles to fill. I was fascinated with their passion for survival. My forest friends, without exception, were obsessed with building, carrying, protecting. Their lives were perfect examples of Thomas Hobbes’s view of existence in the state of nature—“nasty, brutish and short”—and yet I saw a magic in their existence that I did not see in my own.
To me, the dragonfly was the leader of the insect world, superior in strength, beauty and skills but, I imagined, compassionate also. The dragonfly led me into a world I created for myself, far away from civilization with its pain and hardships. I built that world not from fantasies, but from the realities of my life. I would play out an experience that had frustrated me with my cast of insect characters, reworking it to my satisfaction. In my forest world, I could correct injustices and stand up for myself and other small, weak and young creatures. In this world of freedom and play, I was unconsciously creating my character as a human, and becoming a man.
At the end of a day of such play, when I stumbled back to civilization, with all its harsh realities and limitations, I carried my imaginary world in the recesses of my mind. It was there whenever I needed to escape. It was my refuge, my place to enjoy and learn, my place to settle my emotions and work out my inner battles to understand the confusing and difficult adult world around me.
No matter how I clung to it, however, I could never use it to resolve the anxious pain in my stomach I felt when I had to emerge from the freedom of the forest and return to the confines of the adult world with its clothes, chores and rules. At times, of course, the real world contained people who offered me genuine love and respect, but they were few and far between. I felt as if the adult world was a place where there was no time to play, too much work, and zillions of restrictions on how and why to do things designed to mould me to its will. This indoctrination was conducted without consent on the part of the child. Au contraire, it was done “for your own good.”
How I would come to dread the appearance of the long shadows made by the enormous maples of the forest, announcing that the day was coming to an end. As the sun made a fast getaway behind the hills, I would be plunged into semi-darkness. It often caught me by surprise, this darkness that brought me back to the adult world each night.
And, as the summer drew to a close, the shadows signalled a complete return to the adult world over the long winter months, without the respite of the forest.
With the hangover from the Labour Day weekend’s grand fete resolved with a last swim, we joined the great procession of city dwellers heading back home—into lives of opulence for some and into urban swamps for others. We lived in one of the swamps: east-end Montreal. I dreaded the stench of the petrochemical plants around which the government had built cheap and “temporary” wartime housing for veterans and their families.
You could smell my part of town from the other side of the city if the wind was blowing in the right direction. You could see my part of town from space due to the large flames from the oil refineries and petrochemical plants. You could hear my part of town for miles, as the massive mosaic of intertwining refinery pipes spewed gas and steam from their pressure valves. The air was too toxic for us to play outside for long. We never cut the grass, as it could not grow. There were no leaves to rake in the fall because they all fell, withered, by the third week of June.
But as my dad would say, over and over, the roof doesn’t leak, the furnace has fuel, the inside of the house and our clothes are clean, and there is enough food for three meals a day: what more do you want? You can survive the bad air for a few months.
And so, in the absence of a Laurentian forest in my backyard, I attempted to create a world of make-believe indoors. Grand battles with brave commanders played out on the large, reddish, living-room rug. By day, I was a student, a Cub Scout, an altar boy, a folk dancer, a flag carrier in the band and, later, an army cadet. But at night, with playing cards, plastic soldiers and metal Dinky trucks and tanks, I guarded fortresses and conducted great flanking manoeuvres in the semi-darkness of the living room. It was not unusual for my parents to find me asleep on the battlefield after three or four hours of intense activity in my own world, where soldiering was never eternally fatal: we always rose again to fight another day.
As the years passed, our family atmosphere became more tense, and increasingly I became isolated from my sisters, my harassed mother, and my strict and troubled father. School life was burdened by the ever-present Brothers of St. Gabriel, and the increasing French-Catholic/English-Protestant tension in the parish.
The ethnic and cultural mix in our part of town was dominated by French-Canadians, with a smattering of Anglos here and there. When I hit school age, I was sent to a French-Catholic school while our English neighbour’s daughter, the same age as me, was off to her English-Protestant school. From then on our daily schedules were different, our days off from school were not often the same, and I spent more time at school and in church than with the Anglo friends I had played with on the block. No adult explained why we were forced into these two camps or attempted to moderate the effects.
Disquieting ideas started to creep into our conversations at school, influenced by some of the older kids, who probably heard things from their parents. Negative intent, ill will, ignorance of the other, isolationism, disdain and, at times, envy. Nastiness soon festered in the alleyways, on the way to school and in the schoolyard, but only later in any overt way in the classroom. Gradually Anglo-Protestants became the historical and constant adversary, and despite my confusion I knew I had to adopt this new perspective on my neighbours, or else.
The small fields that survived around the wartime housing development, the alleyways behind each block, the skating rinks in the small asphalt playgrounds a few streets over, the sheds behind family homes: all these zones became confrontational terrain upon which hatred, anger, fear and even at times blood was spilt in the name of something we absolutely could not understand: they were the Anglos (les têtes carrées) and we were the French (frogs) and we had to be antagonists without question.
Blindly we learned to dislike, mistrust, hate, despise and ultimately denigrate old friends, to treat them as not as human as we were. Though I was often caught in the middle because I had gone to Cub Scouts where we spoke English, I never lost the desire to be on both sides and neither side of the cultural and linguistic divide.
We were kids being influenced by a world run by adults and orchestrated by their beliefs, disappointments, ambitions and fears. Our kid world was simply buried by the attitudes of the bigoted, by perceived and real inequalities, by historical and long-festering adult frustrations. That adult truth made our preschool world just “kid stuff.” And we forgot that once upon a time, we simply played with other kids, whoever they were, from wherever they came.
By the age of about twelve, I was wondering how I could escape from the looming, oppressive realities of home, of school, of street corner. There was the lake, which I could escape to, but which had the drawback of the constant toil for my father. When I went to high school, I was obliged to join the army cadet corps and take part in weekly drill parades. As the end of the school year approached, I volunteered and was chosen for army cadet summer camp. I had lived my entire life under the thumb of a firm disciplinarian who was a stickler for eating on time and being home by curfew. I was used to uniforms and shining boots. It was like I would be going from one institution to another, except for a major difference. Within the confines of the huge army camp, and among a couple of thousand other boys, I would be my own person. It seemed like a chance for a bit of adventure, a chance to fulfill my fantasies of being a gallant, noble and fearless warrior.
But I soon learned that many of the boys and young men at cadet camp were not there for summer fun, freedom and adventure. The older boys in positions of authority were playing for keeps and for the attention of the instructors. They were already aware of the criteria for advancement and privileges in the military, and had their eye on future opportunities in the escalating chain of command. They already fit into the regimented mindset of pride in the uniform, the team, the platoon. They could smell the prize of winning the commander’s weekly pennant and the prestige it would give them among the other junior leaders and lower camp dwellers.
They compelled the young campers to fit, as best we could, into uniforms tailored for the adult men of the last great war. They ensured we kept our quarters, our kit and our spit-polished boots as per the specifications laid out in the bivouac guide. They were always looking for ways to improve our platoon and company surroundings. As ravenous as beavers, they would send us out into the woods after supper to cut birch and poplar branches to bring back to our tented lines so that we could build fences with various geometric designs and an elaborate, yet fragile, archway to the orderly room, the centre of the company. The fences and the arch required near-constant repair, but the effort was designed to foster team spirit, to nurture pride and self-discipline.
And then there were the rocks. We were sent scurrying over the fields and into the woods looking for rocks to mark the boundaries of the walkways. We painted them all white. Where the paint came from remains a mystery to me, as the quartermaster’s stores were always out of everything and out of bounds. We ended up with white rocks all over the place in neat lines. We raked the sand and dirt of the paths inside these lines as if we were apprentice Japanese gardeners. And heaven help the cadet who walked beyond the rocks; his Saturday was immediately volunteered to freshen the yards for the Sunday church parade. Yes, we had church parades. Christian values were strong among the veterans who ran the camp, who had seen the worst that humanity could offer.
Like my peers, I was anxious to please and to avoid punishment. We were children in a very adult business, offering very small gestures to express our loyalty to our platoon, our company. Doing things better than the other groups of boys around us fostered esprit de corps: a sense of belonging that rested on excelling at activities and not on some specious air of superiority. Our cohesion had nothing to do with the evil expressions of ethnicity and culture that created so much hate back on my city streets, and everything to do with the positive sense of worth we were gaining in this very structured organization. Amazingly, the fact that we were learning warlike skills with weapons that were taller than us never really registered. None of our commanders pointed out that these weapons were made to kill other humans. They were purely for target practice on paper bull’s eyes at six hundred yards, conducted under the close supervision of qualified instructors.
The relatively few adults at the camp were either real soldiers and veterans of the wars overseas or officers of the reserve, many of whom were teachers during the school year. Some of them were members of the religious orders who ran the cadet corps in the Catholic schools and community centres across the province. Those Catholic brothers and fathers, some Jesuits, felt no hesitation at donning the khaki uniform and easily fit into the military life with its organized way of going about things. Were they the descendants of the monkish knights of medieval times who fought the infidels in the Middle East? Hardly, but they certainly were at ease with military discipline and order. And, in my observation, they liked to throw their weight around.
Maybe I would have become a good brother or priest. I liked the distinction of wearing a uniform that displayed who I was on its shoulders and breast. I was used to never having any money but still getting by. I was at ease in an organization that knew what it had to do and how to go about doing it. I could be me within an organization that created uniformity. I could wear the uniform but still be free inside this structured life that was clear, unambiguous and overt. The army was big and powerful and yet also welcoming and very human indeed.
In the vastness of the tented camp, among thousands of other boys, in the all-encompassing way of life, in a real expression of belonging, of supporting others and being counted on and supported by others, too, I found my soul. Unabashedly and generously offered such richness by the army—the institution, its ethos and its people—I responded with zeal. I found my vocation there: that world of the army cadet linked seamlessly—astonishingly—with the imaginary world of my childhood.
The vets gave the summer cadets the sense of being part of something much bigger, steeped in history and traditions, sacrifice and glory. They made and applied the thousand-and-one rules around the camps that ensured we remembered we were in the army now and not somewhere in upstate New York bunking down with a bunch of bored rich kids. Rain or shine, they never seemed to either sleep or waver in the maintenance of the “standard” of perfect order and good discipline, and heaven forbid if you dropped a candy-bar wrapper on the grounds. That wrapper went into the garbage pail, but not just any pail, as some were there just for show and were spotless inside and out.
Although all the veterans smoked like chimneys off duty, they had a particular aversion to finding cigarette butts dropped even on the grass. We wanted to learn to smoke in order to emulate these old sweats. We would roll our cigarettes individually with varying levels of success—I ended up smoking more paper than tobacco for the longest time. We would try to talk and do odd jobs with the cigarette in the corner of our mouths and the longest possible ash still attached. But either the smoke got into our eyes and nearly blinded us or the ash fell on our clean boots and made a mess. We were very careful where we dropped our cigarette butts.
Still, for the longest time, we were allowed to remain kids playing at a grown-up game. I was a boy soldier, an apprentice at some of the skills, but I had not yet acquired the ethic of the warrior class in our democratic and peaceful society. We were playing at soldiers. We never really believed we were preparing for war. We never really thought it could happen. The closest we ever got to a battlefield was the odd evening war story from a veteran, although as a rule they tended to be quite tight-lipped about their war experiences. But boy, did we love the stories they told, stories edited to stress the valour and not the horror.
We also loved Saturday movie night: black-and-white Hollywood epics featuring great First or Second World War battles were shown in the huge drill hall, with all of us sitting on the floor downing the only Coke and chocolate bar we were allowed to purchase each week. The echoing drill hall amplified the sound of the guns and screams on the soundtrack, and the brave words of the combatants. When the lights came up, we would be marched back to our tents, high on sugar and often still dazed by the scenes on the screen.
Dreams came easily once we’d quieted down and closed our eyes. On my favourite nights for sleeping, light summer rains beat on the canvas of our large, canopied tent. Some of the canvas walls bore graffiti from others who had slept on the top bunk, close to the roof, like I did. Were they soldiers of the war or were they last summer’s cadets? I never could read the faded scribbles, but this did not stop me from thinking about them each night as I entered my own secret, special, boy world.
Yes, my world. That totally imaginative place that was everywhere and nowhere would come to life when I closed my eyes against the reality around me, night or day. At times I would be reprimanded for daydreaming in the most unexpected places, such as when standing to attention during inspection parades, or on the rifle range firing point (waiting with my relay for the order to lay down and pick up five rounds of .303 calibre Second World War munitions), or walking in a column through the dark forest as we practised night orienteering.
In the poorly lit classroom tents where only an occasional breeze reduced the heat and humidity, I was an ace at escaping into my world. I amazed myself at being able to walk in file surrounded by comrades or to lay cold and shivering under my poncho in the wet grass at first light, and still cross into my world. With a flicker of thought, I would be back in the forests of the Laurentians and I would be free and wild and so very much alive.
By the time I was into my eighteenth year, I had been back to cadet camp several times and had achieved considerable success in leadership roles. During my last summer camp, the die was truly cast: I received my acceptance to military college. Attending the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean for five years and then the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, were my first steps to becoming a career officer and a university-educated citizen.

I passed from childhood and became a man—a soldier, an officer, a general—but the boy never really disappeared. My imaginative world remained alive, if often dormant, inside that evolving, professionally trained military commander who manoeuvred in the adult world. Marriage and kids of my own did not reduce my longing to escape at times into my own universe. And I tried to foster a similar imaginative space in the psyches of my children, or at least to help them realize that their life’s ambition was not simply to become an adult, but to become themselves, masters of their internal realm of freedom and imagination first and foremost. I believe that children must have room to protect that place in their brains that makes them different and unique for their short lives on this planet and for the eternal lives of their souls.
The adult soldier goes about the business of mastering the craft of controlled violence, of living and staying alive in far-off lands for causes that are seldom clear or even tangible. Keeping peace, upholding freedom, defending human rights, protecting the moderates and the innocents caught in the crossfire of conflict, creating the buffer zones of fairness and security—these are definitions of a soldier’s role that have evolved over centuries in which hundreds of thousands of people have suffered, paying the price for change, for reform, for a better way of life. The gallant old soldiers who taught me as a boy created a learning atmosphere that was serious yet very considerate, very human, inculcating lofty ideals and noble-warrior dreams in their charges.
The contrast between my path as a youth and the path of so many youths and children in war zones and failing states today is stark. We cadets knew all this military stuff would be over in so many days that we could strike off on the calendar. The child soldiers under the gun of inhuman adults see no end in sight. My teachers took care of us and understood we were only boys, but the men and women leading their contingents of child soldiers destroy the children and youth they indoctrinate, literally and spiritually—sacrificing them at the whim of their ambitions and perverse needs.
The world of the child soldier was not portrayed in any of the doctrine and tactics books that had been my soldier bibles before I arrived in Africa in 2003. I was completely unprepared to come in contact with an enemy who wore the trappings of childhood so familiar to me, but who was so different from the soldier I had become. I was so unprepared that for a long time I was blind to the implications of what I was seeing.

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Under An Afghan Sky

Under An Afghan Sky

A Memoir Of Captivity
also available: eBook Paperback

In October 2008, Mellissa Fung, a reporter for CBC’s The National, was leaving a refugee camp outside of Kabul when she was kidnapped by armed men. She was forced to hike for several hours through the mountains until they reached a village; there, the kidnappers pushed her towards a hole in the ground. “No,” she said. “I am not going down there.”

For more than a month, Fung lived in that hole, which was barely tall enough to stand up in, nursing her injuries, praying and writing in a n …

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