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Feel the Love!

By 49thShelf
0 ratings
tagged: Love, fiction, poetry
A list of Canadian books with powerful love stories in them. Criteria for inclusion? The love can end well, it can end tragically, but it must have made your heart beat harder or broken it at least a little.
Fall on Your Knees

Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.

Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.

Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.

Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.

So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.

Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.

There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.

Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."

And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.

But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?

But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.

All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.

Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.

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Why it's on the list ...
Some of the best love stories are sagas: full of torment and half-victories, relentless pain, excruciating longing, and horrible, wonderful tension for the reader. Fall on Your Knees is such a saga; it profoundly expresses the heartache, forever-ness, and complications of family love—and it's an incredible read.
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The End of the Alphabet

This story is unlikely.

Were it otherwise, or at the least more wished for, it would have begun on a Sunday morning. Early, as that was his best time of the day, and in April, that odd time between a thin winter and a plump spring.

He would have closed the door of his house and stood on his front step, eyeing the predawn sky. He would have given the neighbourhood stray a shove from its perch on his window ledge. The scruffy cat would have hissed and bolted across the narrow road to the park across the way. He would have hissed back, proud he had at last defeated the mangy beast, and set off. As he had every Sunday morning as far back as he could remember.

As he walked up the road, the woman from number eighteen would be retrieving the morning paper from her doorstep. The cool morning would have meant she had remembered to throw on a dressing gown. They would have traded pleasant, awkward good-mornings. He knew her to be the mother of two energetic children whose names he could never recall. She knew he worked in some sort of creative field. After a moment or two of searching for common ground, he would have asked after her children’s artwork. He and his wife had no children of their own.

Farther on, he would have seen the elderly man and his tiny dog that lived at number twelve, about to begin their morning walk around the park. The pair would be waiting to say hello. The man would have tipped his cap and launched directly into an eccentric opinion about something. The tiny dog would have begun yapping at the neighbourhood stray.

He would have worried about disagreeing with the old fellow and causing offence, or starting a discussion on a topic he knew nothing about, or the soundness of his own opinion. He would have forced an agreeing laugh, wished his neighbour a good day and eyed the dog with suspicion.

He would have made his way to Kensington High Street and grumbled about the winter that had passed. He would have wished he had taken his wife to Italy. But that would have been expensive or difficult or meant a bad time at the office. He would have sighed to himself, then smiled as the London sky inched from black to grey to yellow to blue.

He would have turned in at Kensington Gardens, up past the palace and on to Broad Walk. Here he would have been happiest. He would have paused near the Round Pond, looked towards the east and the swans, and squinted in his way to watch a girl of perhaps nine or ten, her hair dark and fine and in need of a trim or a ribbon, reading a book beyond her years. He would have closed his eyes in the warmth of a sun just clearing the budding treetops.

He would have checked his watch, counted his minutes and the day’s schedule in his head, and turned for home. He would have retraced his route down the Walk, past the palace, along the High Street, into his road, past number twelve and number eighteen and the cat now back on the window ledge, and through his front door.

His wife would have begun to stir in her sleep. Five minutes more, she would have mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear as he made her tea. As usual, a tepid cup with too much milk.

Ambrose Zephyr would have been content that it was Sunday and that spring had come again to that part of London and that there was no need to go to the office. He would have read a draft of his wife’s latest magazine column and (as gentle readers are obliged) made one or two enthusiastic comments.

He would have wondered about the days ahead of him and, as was his habit, dreamed of doing something else. And there it would have ended.

But that is not this story.


On or about his fiftieth birthday, Ambrose Zephyr failed his annual medical exam. An illness of inexplicable origin with neither known nor ­foreseeable cure was discovered. It would kill him within the month. Give or take a day.

It was suggested he might want to make arrangements concerning his remaining time.


Ambrose Zephyr lived with his wife – content, quiet, with few extravagances – in a narrow Victorian terrace full of books.

He owned two bespoke suits, one of which he had been married in. The other – a three-piece linen number with lapelled waistcoat – he wore whenever and wherever he travelled: on business, on the underground, on his Sunday walk. A pocket square, discreetly puffed, always in place. He collected French-cuffed shirts as others might collect souvenir spoons or back issues of National Geographic. He rarely wore ties but liked them as challenges in graphic design. His footwear was predominantly Italian, loaferish and bought in the sales on Oxford Street. His watches – of which there were many – were a range of silly colours and eccentric shapes.

When cornered, he claimed to read Joyce, Ford and Conrad. Rereads of Fleming and Wodehouse were a more accurate library. His opinion of Miss Elizabeth Bennett was not favourable (though he liked Mr B and held a wary respect for Darcy). Wuthering Heights, according to Ambrose, was the dullest book ever written.

He had not read a newspaper in some time.

Everything Ambrose Zephyr knew about cuisine he learned from his wife. He was allowed in the kitchen, but under no circumstance was he to touch anything. He was a courageous eater, save Brussels sprouts and clams. His knowledge of wine was vague and best defined as Napa good, Australian better, French better still. Kir royale was his drink of occasion. For an Englishman, he made a poor cup of tea.

He believed women to be quantifiably wiser than men. He was neither a breast nor a leg nor an ass man; hair could be any length, any colour. Ambrose preferred the complete puzzle to a bit here, a piece there.

He stood when someone entered the room. He walked to the street side. Opened his wife’s door first. He could be trusted.

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Why it's on the list ...
With love inevitably comes loss. And then what? And till then? These are the questions this brilliant, spare, and elegant book explores via the most seemingly unromantic of devices: the alphabet. A journey of love through the alphabet.
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Pulpy and Midge
Why it's on the list ...
Love doesn't have to be torrid or tragic, and it can make the cruel world out there seem that much softer. So when Pulpy's horrible new boss begins to come between him and his adored wife Midge, he knows it's finally time to take action.
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A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered …

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I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

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The Sea Captain's Wife

The Sea Captain's Wife

also available: Paperback Hardcover
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Growing up on the Bay of Fundy, Azuba Galloway dreams of going to sea. She watches magnificent ships slowly making their way into Whelan’s Cove, the sense of exoticism bursting from their holds along with foreign goods.
As a young woman, Azuba marries a seasoned merchant sea captain, Nathaniel Bradstock. Unwilling to have him away at sea for most of their married life, and anxious to see far shores, she extracts a promise that he will take her with him. But Azuba becomes pregnant soon aft …

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1. Noah’s Ark
It was the fifth year of her marriage, when her child, Carrie, was four years old. The bleeding began in the privy. Azuba wiped herself with a square of newspaper and found a red gout. She ripped newsprint from the nail. More blood came, thick, flecked with black strands. She mopped, mopped. She stood, bent with pain, settled her hoops, petticoat and skirt.
Wind snatched the door from her hand. She left it unhooked, gathered her cloak across her breast. The house loomed against a grey sky, the path a pale string in the headland grass.
Blood surged, trickled down her legs.
She began to run, one arm clasping her belly.
”Hush, now, could’ve been worse,“ the midwife said. ”You were only four months.“
She set a tin basin on the floor by Azuba’s bed, stooped and gathered the rags. ”Baby’s gone, but there’ll be more bleeding. Stay still.“
Azuba lay flat on her back listening to the midwife’s steps going down the stairs. Mother was in the kitchen, feeding Carrie her supper. Soon the whole town would know.
Azuba Bradstock lost a child, people would murmur. Years before she’ll have another chance. The next time she went into the village, women would lower their voices, clasp her wrist, touch her shoulder. Such a pity.
She rolled her head sideways to gaze at the candle flame.
Nathaniel. Oh, Nathaniel, my beloved.
She pictured her husband reading the letter she had recently sent. Perhaps he’d been in Cape Town, where he’d planned to stop for provisions. There he sits, she thought, at the rolltop desk in Traveller’s saloon, holding the letter over a mess of business papers. She pictured his fingers smoothing his moustache, wide mouth bent downward, studying her words. His eyes lighten, he smiles. He reads the letter again. Then he folds it, tucks it into its envelope. Presses it to his heart.
February 6, 1861
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I am with child. Carrie is excited to think she will have a brother or a sister. Oh my darling, if only you could be home for this child’s birth.
Nathaniel had left six months after their wedding, and had been at sea when Carrie was born. Once he received news that he had become a father, he’d written to say that he’d be home as soon as possible. One thing, though, had led to another: a cargo of coal to Bombay; a long delay in port; a consignment across the Pacific. His letters became increasingly frustrated. Carrie had been a sturdy little girl of almost three when he’d finally arrived home.
Azuba thought of the tiny nightgown in her workbox. It was a smocked nainsook, embroidered with a red rose, its stem unfinished. Her needle, piercing the fabric. Carrie’s finger, tracing it.
”May I name the baby, Mama?“
The candle flame licked the air, blue at its base.
Azuba watched it through tears. She felt the heartbreak of motherhood— sorrow, now, not only for herself and Nathaniel, but for Carrie.
Ah, the day he left. He had been home for a one-year furlough and had left again just after Christmas. He’d carved Carrie a Noah’s ark with all the animals and, before leaving, had clasped her to his chest, gruff voice in her hair and a rare tear glistening in his eye.
”I’ll be home soon,“ he’d said to her. ”Don’t worry.“
There Carrie had stood, waving to her father going out to his ship in a rowboat. Returning home in the carriage, she’d knelt to look back down the bay, too stunned to cry. And then, when they returned to the house, she had climbed onto his chair and made herself into a ball, pressing her face to the brocade, refusing to speak, eat or be comforted. For days afterward she had stood at the bow window, staring out over the headland pasture, asking for Papa. Expecting to see his sails, coming home.
And that night of his leave-taking. How I took his coat from the closet. She’d sat on the bed with her face buried in its black wool, breathing its smell of tobacco and cold air. And realized that her love for him had no expression now other than in words— scrawled or read.
Now she cried herself to exhaustion and lay staring at the ceiling. She longed to tell Nathaniel. Her shock, stumbling over the field. Her hired man, Slason, hurrying to the barn. How she’d waited, moaning, while the carriage went for her mother and the midwife. She longed to be held in his arms, to feel his hand on her forehead, smoothing, consoling. To feel the bitter comfort of shared loss.
Despair, she thought, was the inability to imagine. She pictured the nightgown she had been embroidering. The names she had thought to bestow on the new child.
I have no reason to despair.
The bedroom had two bow windows overlooking the Bay of Fundy with its spruce-cragged cliffs. At the age of nineteen, she had married Nathaniel Bradstock, who at twenty-eight was a seasoned captain. Her father had given them the house as a wedding gift, hiding it beneath a scaffolding strung with sails as it was being built. A big house meant to be filled with dogs, toys, music, guests, family. He had set the house high on a headland, fit for a sea captain’s wife, where Azuba could look down at Whelan’s Cove with its shipyards, hulls looming higher than the rooftops, gulls circling in clouds of sawdust; its harbour, crowded with fishing boats, coastal schooners, sloops— and farther out, in the deeper water, square-rigged merchant ships with their forest of masts and rigging. One of which might, on occasion, be Nathaniel’s Traveller.
She could look down at the farmstead of her childhood, set within fields of oats and buckwheat, and the ribbon of shore road. She could see the salt marsh where, as a child, she had run with her older brothers, Benjamin and William, and the dunes where compass grass scratched half-moons in the sand. She could see the beach where they’d chased stiltlegged sandpipers, jumped the ropes of froth, watched ships beating up the bay with billowed, patched sails.
She pictured herself as a child— dark-haired, impetuous, with black eyes, different from her fair-skinned cousins— and felt pity for her hope. Her innocence.
I thought I would sail away on one of those ships. Married to a sea captain. I’d be Mrs. Shaw, with her red-headed parrot.
Her days, now: as they would unfold tomorrow, and next week, and next month. She saw herself working with her hired girl, Hannah— planting, weeding, scrubbing— her own hair pinned back, sleeves rolled, scissors and knives jingling in the deep pockets of her wash dress. How she made her choice to work from the wearisomeness of its alternative: tea parties, visits, carriage rides. She pictured Slason, with his crooked leg and loose-lipped mouth. He tended the pigs, the horse, the cow. His voice, submissive. What do you need, Mrs. Bradstock? And the violent headland winds, different from the winds of her childhood. Clothes on the line, twisted into knots. Doors, pulled from her hand. Often, she paused on the porch and looked out at the blue line of Nova Scotia and the silver gleam in the southwest where the bay widened to the Gulf of Maine: the sea spread before her, thundered in her ears; and sometimes she loathed it, since Nathaniel was at its mercy. At other times, she closed her eyes, tossed back her bonnet and breathed deep of the world’s size.
Azuba drew up her knees, rocking from the ache in her womb, thinking of Carrie.
No brother. No sister.
The May wind blew onshore and there was a spring tide. Carrie was at her granny’s for the day.
Azuba sat in an armless chair, a Paisley shawl concealing the opening at the back of her dress; she had left her corset loosely knotted. She wore a brown dress with purple piping. Her black hair was unwashed, parted in the middle, caught up in a net at her neck. Beneath her eyes were blue shadows. After four days, she still felt a low cramp in her womb.
The new Anglican minister, Reverend Walton, had come to visit. He had heard she was unwell, but would not speak of the reason. He sat upright, his ankles crossed and his arms laid precisely along the chair’s carved arms. He was a slight, mild man, easily moulded by the parish women.
She and Nathaniel had paid a call at the parsonage when he had first arrived. He’d shown them his studio, a large room at the back of the house with an easel, drawing books and a table beneath a window littered with treasures he’d collected along the shore— feathers, shells, skulls.
Even when he’s old, she thought, he’ll still look eager, innocent.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, lit the carpet-draped table with its oil lamp and leather books; a japanned china cabinet; a pump organ.
”It’s a beautiful house, Mrs. Bradstock,“ he said.
His composure was disarming and she felt an impulse to tell him her real feelings about the house. How, when her father had told her he would build it, she’d exclaimed, ”No, no, we won’t need . . .“ And then had paused. Mother had looked up from her sewing, shocked, her face revealing all she hoped for in a married daughter: help, companionship, grandchildren. Father’s smile paled. ”What did you say, Azuba?“ His voice was awry, like Mother’s face, its tone incredulous. He’d laid down his pen slowly, his eyes had narrowed, and she had been caught by his prescient gaze. She saw that her intention to go to sea with her captain husband was so far from her parents’ expectations that her words were like a foreign language. And she had not dared refuse the house, or announce her plan. A house, she’d thought. Only a house. ”I meant that you needn’t do so much for me,“ she’d amended. ”Thank you, Father. We would be grateful for such a gift.“
Or how, on the day of their wedding, in the midst of an October gale, she and Nathaniel and most of the villagers had gone up the headland road in horse-drawn carriages. Father had lifted his arm, men had slashed the ropes, and the sails had fallen from the scaffolding, revealing a large white house that would forever be known as ”the sail house.“ It had gingerbread shingles, a porch and steep gables. In their enthusiasm, the men had cut the ropes tethering the sails and the canvas had risen like monstrous, demented gulls, flapping towards the horses. Drivers had stood, shouting, hauling on reins. Nathaniel had jumped from the carriage, seized their horse by the bridle, growling ”Whoa! Whoa!“ even as he stared up at the newly minted house with a complex expression—surprise, affront and then a dawning comprehension.
At that moment, she realized later, Nathaniel had glimpsed the implications of taking her to sea: the danger to her, the anguish of those left behind. Perhaps when the sails fell from the house, Nathaniel’s mind had shifted like ballast throwing a ship off true. A place he could safely leave me. She wondered if her father might have hoped for such an outcome.
”My father built it as a wedding gift, as you know.“
Reverend Walton leaned forward, picked a dead leaf from his pants. ”It must be a comfort to you to have such a house.“
He was studying the leaf, and she saw that he was unsure of his boundaries, as a minister and as a man.
She pressed her folded hands to the ache in her belly. She felt an upwelling of longing to be sharing the loss of the baby with Nathaniel, and it was borne upon her that she must learn to fold waiting into living, like a kind of stillness within motion.
It is the nearness, she thought, of his last visit. Only four months since he’d left. And then this loss. It made his absence more unbearable. And she wondered if the pain of parting, over the years, would increase rather than diminish.
She must begin again her work of maintaining love. Keeping Nathaniel alive in her memory, and now in Carrie’s. Reminding the child how he carved the tiny animals, one eye squinted, critical; or knelt on the rug with his muscled thighs, being a horse for Carrie. His lovely baritone voice singing Irish ballads. And her own, private memories: silky flesh, his hands cradling her face, the way he lifted her shawl from the floor and tucked it around her. And to compose in her mind an imagined life that dexterously shrunk the years he was away and expanded the time he was home.
She began speaking nervously, as if confessing. ”You know, Reverend Walton, I married for love. I wanted to be with my husband. I thought that I would go to sea with him. I’ve always wanted to sail; I still do. I’ve always wanted to travel, to see the world.“ She gestured at the window.
It came in a rush.
”I thought we would be a seafaring family, like so many others. Did you know that Captain Shaw delivered all three of their children at sea? They had a pet billy goat on board. Captain Shaw made a little cart for it. The children had a full-rigged model ship that they towed in the wake of their ship. Mrs. Shaw hung her wash in the rigging. She saw Buckingham Palace. The children rode on elephants.“
Reverend Walton tightened his arms to his sides as she spoke. His eyes slid to the clawed feet of the organ stool. He brushed hair from his forehead, as one would a fly.
”Well,“ he said, after a silence. ”Could you not? Go with him?“
”He changed his mind.“
When Nathaniel had first bent his eyes on her, she had felt a heat in her chest, fear mixed with elation. She had felt light as the wind, and as formless. Oh, and I asked him, Will I come with you, on Traveller? Yes, he said. He took me by the elbows and studied my resolve. Yes, he said, I could not bear to leave you.
Reverend Walton appeared agitated by her tone. His eyes flew to the window and remained there. ”It would be a life filled with peril,“ he ventured. ”For you and the children.“
”I’m sorry,“ Azuba said. ”I shouldn’t . . . I’m not myself.“
The minister rose. ”Mrs. Bradstock, please.“ He stepped forward, took her hand, held it for an instant before shaking it. ”I’ve tired you. Please come visit the parsonage. Bring your daughter. I’ll show her my collection.“
After he had seen himself out, Azuba rose and sought her sewing box. She sat on the horsehair sofa, lifted out a bundle of Nathaniel’s letters tied with blue satin ribbon.
My dearest Azuba,
I am at lat. 35 11,’ long. W. 126, in the vicinity of Pitcairn Island. We are in the S.E. trades and the weather has been beautiful.
She skimmed through the letters, seeking words.
Love. Sweet. My dear wife. Home, soon. Our wedding. Wish that I. Forever.
Azuba dropped the letter into the sewing box and replaced the lid. It was her secret, what she had told Reverend Walton. Everyone assumed her contentment. There was not a girl in the village who would not have married Nathaniel Bradstock. Sea captains’ wives were envied, whether they sailed with their husbands or not. Nathaniel was the youngest of three boys, all sea captains. When he was twelve years old, he had served as cabin boy on his oldest brother’s ship; at fourteen, he was sent away to the academy in Sackville. And was a second mate at nineteen. The Bradstock brothers, Nathaniel included, were renowned for their hard-driven voyages, extravagant items brought or shipped home, adventures spiced with rumours of ruthlessness. Their parents gave balls and dinners to celebrate their infrequent visits.
Azuba thought of her plaid silk wedding dress, hanging in her bedroom closet. Green and purple, with a shimmer of gold thread.
The following week, Azuba and Carrie drove to visit Azuba’s grandmother, Grammy Cooper. Slason offered to drive, but Azuba refused. She loved to collect the mare’s energy, tightening the reins, snapping the whip. And it was only five miles, through the village, up along the needle-softened road.
Far below, Whelan’s Cove was like a toy village, and off to the west, Grand Manan spliced the silver sea.
”I loved to come here when I was little,“ Azuba said. Carrie sat straight-backed with excitement. She held her doll, Jojo, face-forward to see the view.
They turned down the lane. Budding hardwoods held the light tenderly. Half-wild cats slithered away beneath the barn. Grammy was stumping lopsided towards the house. She clutched a bunch of parsnips by their tops.
”Come along in,“ she called. She waved her cane.
Azuba unhitched the mare, led her to the barn. Carrie squatted by the sill making chirping noises for the cats.
They crossed the hen-scratched earth. The poplar leaves funnelled the wind with a soft roar. They went up the wooden steps, holding their skirts.
The house was placid, vital: knitting needles spiked a sweater; carded wool was piled by the spinning wheel. Geraniums lined the windowsills. By the stove was a pail, a bucket of potatoes and a narrow, high-sided cradle.
Carrie took her doll to the cradle. It had been Grammy’s as an infant and had kept her warm during that first terrible winter in Saint John. Carrie had heard her greatgrandmother’s story, the words incantatory as prayer. Log house caulked with seaweed. The autumn fleet. Loyalists. Grammy, child of refugees.
Grammy made tea while Azuba poured cold water from a pitcher into a bowl, washed the parsnips. They sat at the table to chop them. Grammy’s fingers were twisted, the knuckles swollen. She held her knife by tucking it in her palm. It flashed in the sunlight, cut as fast as Azuba’s.
”Lost a baby. Probably something wrong with it, Azuba. Nature knows. Think it’s something you did?“
Azuba looked into the beloved face with its splotchy brown marks. Skin fanned beneath Grammy’s chin in parchment folds; her eyes were tucked deep beneath loops of flesh.
”Every woman thinks the same, Azuba. I began bleeding once after I’d lugged a bushel of potatoes.“
”Why—“ began Carrie.
Grammy raised a finger at her. ”Take these to the hens.“ She swept the peelings into a bowl.
Carrie went out to the sunshine and the cats. They saw her wandering towards the barn, strewing parsnip skin. The wind lifted her dress, revealed her tiny boots.
”No. I don’t think it’s something I did,“ Azuba said. ”I think it’s the way I was feeling.“
Grammy darted a look, but said nothing, only pursed her lips with their white waxy patches.
”Maybe wanting the baby so that Nathaniel would hurry back home.“ She laid the white, rubbery parsnips in a row and aligned the ends. ”When he was home, it was as if it was my house, or Father’s house. Not his. I could feel it. He was only a visitor. And I will never tell Father, but I have not yet reconciled myself to my life. I don’t live to fill my rooms with silver tea sets and satin cushions, delivered to me by my husband from Paris or Bombay.“ She lowered her voice, spoke as if to herself. ”I want to go to those places. With him.“
Grammy put down her knife. ”He’s a good man, Nathaniel.“ She spoke firmly, as if she had once doubted. ”Some say he’s too hard, or too blunt, or too used to command. But I’ve watched him look at you, Azuba. No one else except Carrie gets that look from Captain Bradstock. Do you think you made a bad choice?“
”No. Never.“
”Still. You’re not like those peacocks in their pretty pens.“
They both watched Carrie. She was skirting the rooster, whose yellow and black tail feathers fluttered.
”I could see you on that ship of his. Do him good.“
Azuba remembered her small, bright-faced grandfather and how Grammy had broken into a keening at his burial, her cries unfurling into the sky. She’d been urged to come down off the mountain when he died, but had refused. She said she would live her life the way she wanted.
After they had eaten dinner and washed the dishes, Carrie and Azuba said their goodbyes. There were deep, oval holes in the soil where hens had scratched out dust baths. Carrie held up Jojo. Nathaniel had carved the doll’s face, arms and legs. He had painted its cheeks red, given it a wispy smile. Azuba had stuffed the body with dried peas.
Grammy took the doll in her hand. ”Father made that for you?“
”Papa makes my toys,“ Carrie said. She spoke solemnly and as if her Papa were not far away, nor would be long in returning.
Grammy kissed the doll’s head. Carrie hugged her great-grandmother and Grammy put one arm around the child. She set her cane, looked deep-eyed at Azuba.
”Never let men frighten you, Azuba. They’re boys at heart. Just boys.“
May 16, 1861
The Sail House
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I have sad news for you, my dear. I am no longer with child. There was no fall or apparent cause. The baby slipped away, and I am left well but sorrowing. Carrie is heartbroken, for she had been hoping for a little brother, and had begun choosing names.
I am well. I am back at work with Hannah and Slason. I know you will think I should not be, but it is my wish to be outside and vigorous, and so we have begun breaking up the soil with the mare for a new garden.
Nathaniel, I missed you so during this misfortune. My heart ached for you. If I could have made a miracle, I would have lifted you from the seas and set you here in your chair. I hope you can find a way to make a shorter voyage, although I know it is not always in your control. This past year that you were home, although we had not agreed upon our future, was so blessed, not least the joy of seeing you and Carrie together. She misses you terribly and plays with her ark every night as she promised you she would.
I know that after you changed your mind about my coming with you, we had many discussions. I know that you tire of hearing my views on this, and hesitate to write them down, but I must say that I continue to believe Carrie and I would not be such a burden as you think. If you cannot find time to come home, please know that I am still ready to pack up and join you so that we may be a family. I am not afraid, as you know. No storm seems as bad as having to live day after day with no husband, and no knowledge of when he might return.
I am sorry; perhaps I should not write this letter, but these are my feelings at the moment, and were you here I would be telling them to you.
I love you, always. I miss you. I pray for your safety.
”Oh, Mr. Marr has ridden an elephant, too.“ Crumbs blew from Mrs. Marr’s lips. She was tiny. She patted her mouth with a linen napkin. ”He assured me he was not a bit frightened.“
Azuba and Carrie had been invited to tea at the home of Mrs. Black. Mrs. Holder and Mrs. Marr were present. All were sea captains’ wives.
Their skirts rustled, releasing the scent of lavender. They sat forward on their chairs to accommodate their bustles. Carrie’s feet did not touch the floor. She sat with a biscuit forgotten in her hand, staring at the cut glass chandelier, the fringed lamps, the stuffed pheasant, the clocks, mirrors and waxed fruit.
This house, Azuba thought, holding a teacup and saucer, was as large as hers, similarly ornamented with gables and turrets, set back from the main street on a slope overlooking the harbour. But it was so stuffed with possessions that its rooms seemed smaller, darker. Nor could she think of herself as similar to the other women. They were as overly decorated as the room. They wore rings on every finger, gold chains around their necks, dangling jet earrings, lace collars, ribbons, beads. They swept their hands in negligent arcs and talked loudly, without reflection.
Mrs. Black resumed her husband’s latest letter, lifting her chin to read from the very top of the paper. Fine silver chains looped from her pince-nez.
The cook baked tarts and gingerbread. I have a very attentive steward who brought me these with my tea. I passed the morning pleasantly, scarcely a ruffle on the ocean or a cloud to be seen. Today some handsome birds have been flying under our lee. I spied a brigantine standing to the westward but could not make her out . . .
Mrs. Black swept the pages with an ostentatious rustle.
Later in the day came a heavy gale from the northwest, attended with squalls of rain. I called the watch, but before we could get all sail in, the fore and maintop split . . .
Azuba leaned forward. She pictured the black clouds, the rain-stippled waves.
”Oh, bother that part. Let me find something interesting.“
”Oh!“ Azuba said.
Mrs. Black lowered the paper. ”What, Mrs. Bradstock?“
”No, I’m sorry. I just wondered what happened.“
”Well . . .“ She raised the pages, scanned them. ”He doesn’t say much more. They limped along, I suppose.“
Mrs. Marr set down her cup and saucer. She frowned when she spoke, causing a wedge-shaped furrow on her brow. ”I skip those parts too. They will go on about the storms.“
”I like to read about the storms,“ said Azuba. She glanced at Carrie. ”Although I always wonder what he’s feeling, and he never says.“
”Feeling!“ Mrs. Marr’s narrowed eyes slid sideways to Mrs. Holder, a stern-faced woman from Saint John. Mrs. Holder’s expression held a permanent state of affront, her mouth pinched down at the corners. The two women exchanged a glance. ”Don’t expect to hear about feelings, my dear.“
”Not a shred of fear in their bodies,“ said Mrs. Black, setting down the letter. ”Annie?“
An Irish girl dressed in a starched cap and apron circled the room with the teapot and a plate of biscuits.
”It’s not only his feelings,“ Azuba said, taking a biscuit from the maid. She wanted, suddenly, to needle these women. ”It’s the storms. He dismisses them in a word or two. ‘Storm last night.’ But I find them exciting. I always want to know what happened. Whether the sails shredded, or if they had to heave to.“
There was a silence. The room was overheated, the windows closed against the spring air.
”What really happens, we don’t care to know,“ said Mrs. Marr. She glanced at Carrie. ”It’s best not.“
Azuba turned to stare at the bright little woman. ”I wouldn’t be afraid to know.“
”Wouldn’t you? I suppose you would like to sail with your husband?“
Azuba saw that Mrs. Black’s mouth was opening, a change of subject in her eyes.
”Yes,“ she answered, quickly. ”I wouldn’t mind. I’d love to see London, Paris. Antwerp.“
The women laughed. They made clucking sounds, glanced at Carrie, who had not yet finished the biscuit she held in her hand and whose dress, Azuba noticed, was covered in crumbs.
”Have you met any of those women who sail with their husbands?“ Mrs. Marr hissed. ”Have you seen their skin? Observed their manners? And think, Mrs. Bradstock, of what we read in the papers.“ The wedge on her brow raised, hardened.
The voyages that went dreadfully wrong, Azuba thought. Fire at sea, women put off in lifeboats, captains shot dead by mutineers, dramatic rescues in icy waters. These landbound wives could not conceive of the excitement of such drama, or imagine the lives of the families who sailed without mishap. They saw no challenge, no thrill; only the evils of weathered skin, the pity of coarse manners.
”Will you grow your heliotrope this year, Mrs. Marr?“ Mrs. Black turned the conversation to Flower Sunday, in July, when the church would be decorated with blooms from their gardens.
” . . . lovely new rose. Mr. Marr brought some rootstock from England . . .“
” . . . Love-Lies-Bleeding. So foggy in Saint John, can’t grow . . .“
Azuba looked at Carrie and raised her eyebrows. The biscuit. Eat it.
She pictured Nathaniel sitting in a hotel parlour in San Francisco. Perhaps he was speaking to a woman with sunbrowned cheeks who was sailing with her captain husband, telling her about his own beautiful wife, Azuba, back home in New Brunswick, and of their fine house on the headland overlooking the Bay of Fundy, and of Carrie, his little daughter. Perhaps the sun-browned woman bowed her head demurely and then slid him an admiring glance. And Nathaniel was free to think of Azuba as privileged, safe, fortified by wealth, glorified by her absent husband.
Carrie nibbled nervously at her crumbly butter biscuit. Azuba felt sudden rage at the sight of her little girl, already burdened by the weight of expectation. Expectations. These tiresome women who clucked so disapprovingly expected her to come to their sewing circle. They expected her to grow formal flowers suitable for ornate vases or placement in the church. Like her parents, they expected her to spend Nathaniel’s money on carriages and dresses, and to stand proud at village events—ship launches, cotillions. Like Nathaniel, they expected her to produce children on whom a father might lavish attention when he returned on his infrequent visits.
Sun broke through a bank of clouds, quivered in the rainbowed daffodils. In the room, the light illuminated the stuffed partridge and the powder on Mrs. Black’s cheek.
Azuba leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on a table whose heavy cloth silenced the motion. She sat staring at the wrinkled pages of Captain Black’s letter, lying beneath Mrs. Black’s pince-nez.
Never again. Never again will Nathaniel set sail without me.
She glanced at Carrie.
Without us.

From the Hardcover edition.

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My Best Stories
Why it's on the list ...
@mpscala nominated it for one story in particular: "The Bear Came Over the Mountain."
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The English Patient

The English Patient

also available: Hardcover

With ravishing beauty and unsettling intelligence, Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Hana, the exhausted nurse; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burned man who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal,and rescue illuminates this book like flashes of heat lightening.

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She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill toward the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.

In the kitchen she doesn't pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.

She turns into the room which is another garden--this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky.

She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.

What? she asks, coming out of her concentration.

He turns his dark face with its gray eyes towards her. She puts her hand into her pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

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The Retreat

The Retreat

also available: Hardcover

Bestselling novelist David Bergen follows his Scotiabank Giller Prize—winning The Time in Between with a haunting novel about the clash of generations — and cultures.
In 1973, outside of Kenora, Ontario, Raymond Seymour, an eighteen-year-old Ojibway boy, is taken by a local policeman to a remote island and left for dead.

A year later, the Byrd family arrives in Kenora. They have come to stay at “the Retreat,” a commune run by the self-styled guru Doctor Amos. The Doctor is an enigmatic m …

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In 1964, at the age of ten, Nelson Seymour was taken from his grandmother’s house on the reserve near Kenora and placed with a Mennonite family in a small town called Lesser, south of Winnipeg. A white man and a white woman came to the reserve in a blue Ford Galaxy looking for two brothers, Raymond and Nelson, but Nelson was the only one home with his grandmother at the time. He was taken immediately. His grandmother tried to stop them but her pleas were ineffectual. The man was wearing a fedora and he took it off and held it at his hip and he said, “Where is the other boy, Raymond?” The grandmother looked at the floor. Then she lied and said that he was away, up north with his father. The man in the fedora looked around at the bicycles in the yard and the old swing. It was autumn and the leaves were gone from the trees and the wind was sharp and cold. The man looked down at a piece of paper that he held in his hand. “It says here that Raymond Seymour has been attending school. How is that?”

The grandmother turned her gaze to the sky and shrugged and said that the school people were wrong. The man looked at Nelson. “Your brother, Raymond, where is he?”

Nelson glanced at his grandmother, who regarded him and nodded. Nelson imitated her nod, and then began to cry. The man put his hat on and then turned away and walked out towards the car with a weeping Nelson, while the woman gathered up a few of his things. The grandmother called out that Nelson was hers and where were they going with him, but there was no answer.

Later that night, Raymond was back home and his grandmother told him that the government folks had taken Nelson, and she said that she didn’t know when he was coming back. She didn’t know where he was going, maybe to live with a white family because this is what had happened to Elijah Prince a month earlier. She said that Nelson was strong, stronger than Raymond. Her hands were folded on the table and they were shaking. The next morning she brought Raymond to stay with his aunt Donna, off the reserve about five miles away. Raymond remained there for two months. He did not attend school any more that fall, and no questions were asked, and it would be years later that he’d learn that he should have been taken with his brother, and might have been if the authorities had decided to come back for him.

Within the first month at his new home, Nelson ran away three times, once almost making it back to Kenora before the police picked him up. Another time, in the middle of January, his adoptive father found him walking on Highway 59, just outside Île des Chênes. Driving back to Lesser, his new father said that Nelson should start appreciating what he’d been given. “You have a mother and father who love you, you have a wonderful home, clothes, food, you have three sisters who would do anything for you. Your name is Nelson Koop, you’re my son now and I’m your father. No one’s going to hurt you. You understand that?”

It had snowed the day before, and the fields were blown over and everywhere there was a pure whiteness that was blinding in the sun. Nelson looked out the passenger window and studied the fields and imagined walking out into the emptiness. After this last escape he did not run again, though he often thought of it. At the beginning of the year he’d been placed in grade five and he’d done very poorly. Halfway through the term, he was sent down to grade four where the boys made fun of him, though they stayed away from him because he was known for having quick, hard fists. On the first day of school a boy named Benjamin Senkiew had hit him and given him a bloody nose. The following day, passing by Senkiew in the hallway, Nelson attacked him and pummelled his face until he was pulled away by the gym teacher. He was suspended for a week and returned to find that he was neither taunted nor talked to and he grew accustomed to the silence and the grudging respect and the hatred that surrounded him.

The fall he turned fourteen he joined the football team and quickly became known for his ruthlessness and his disregard for his own body. He came to be accepted, and for a time he went out with Glenda Ratzlaff, a tall, thin girl, but her father disapproved, and so all he was left with was the recollection of her soft hands sliding up inside his T- shirt as they stood in the cold night behind the curling rink.

As the years passed he relinquished the memories of who he was and where he had come from, though there were times, in the middle of the night, when he woke from a dream in which someone was calling him by the wrong name, and he would sit up and say, “My name is Nelson Seymour.”

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