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Governor General's Literary Awards 2013 (English)
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Governor General's Literary Awards 2013 (English)

By monnibo
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Each year, the Governor General’s Literary Awards (the GGs) honour the best in Canadian literature. As Canada’s national literary awards, the GGs represent the rich diversity of Canadian literature.
The Orenda

The Orenda

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Excerpt

CHASTISEMENT
 
They are beautiful people. I cannot ignore this fact. I write all of this down in the bound book I’ve carried tucked in my robe, one of the very few comforts I possess. To bring Jesus into the lives of these people is one mission. To report my findings back to my Superior in Kebec, who will in turn send it to his back home in France, is the other. Ultimately, I write of my journeys and my struggles and my suffering to glorify You. I will die here for You if this is what is requested of me.
These sauvages, they are shameless in their lack of modesty. When the fire burns hot, the children run naked around the longhouse and the women strip down to their waist. The men often walk around in simple breechclouts, and a number of times I’ve witnessed couples I am quite sure aren’t married embracing and then slipping away. The light of the fires, the thick smoke, the primal grunts of passion, the laughing children, the chatter of this language that I struggle so hard to master, I think I might very well be in one of Dante’s rings.
I record in my journal that each longhouse is the length and width of a small ship, and families related through the women reside within. As far as I can tell, eight or ten families, each with its own fire, fill these residences with the noises of humanity. I’ve estimated anywhere from forty to sixty souls in each longhouse, and I believe there to be at least fifty longhouses in this community. What’s more, I’ve been told that this village is just one of many in what I’ve termed Huronia, this land they call Wendake. While it’s possible to walk the length of Huronia in just a few days, I’ve learned that five separate and yet unified nations populate this fertile country, each with its own name. The people I reside with call themselves the Bear, and the other nations are named Rock and Cord and Swamp and Deer. Their sworn enemies, the Iroquois, also consist of five nations, but it seems that the Huron refer to them collectively as Haudenosaunee in their language.
The Huron are, as Champlain so duly noted a number of years ago, the key traders in a very large geography, controlling their business with the keen eye of a banker. They dominate the trade of tribes as disparate as the Montagnais to the north and the Neutral to the south. Their main currency is the vast quantity of corn that they grow each summer. I’m fascinated to watch how their different systems work as time allows, but from what I can see, they trade their produce with the Algonquin and the Nipissing for those hunting people’s furs, mainly beaver, which the Huron then paddle all the way to New France in the summer, where they trade those furs for staples such as iron axes and copper kettles and all form of glass beads, which to the Huron are as valuable as gold. They in turn bring back these treasures from New France and again trade them with their neighbours to the north and south. Yes, they are indeed the lynchpin to the economy of this new world.
Now that it’s winter, each family sleeps up off the ground on raised platforms, mother on one end, father on the other, children squeezed in between. They are smart enough to peel the bark from the wood they burn but it’s still sometimes so smoky that my eyes are often irritated. These longhouses are truly a wonder, like giant beehives woven together with saplings and covered in sheets of bark. Up in the rafters hang corn and beans and squash and tobacco and dried fish and all manner of food that I’ve never seen before. The Huron winters are clearly the time of relaxation and enjoyment. All day long the mothers play with their children, and the dozen or so dogs that wander through the longhouse are treated as members of the family as well, eating from their hosts’ kettles and sleeping in their beds, and all this madness of life surrounds me while the men stand in groups, taking turns visiting one another’s longhouses to talk and laugh and smoke pipes of tobacco.
The men are tall, some nearly my size. I’ve always towered over my companions in France. Wasn’t it the dear Bishop who nicknamed me the Brittany Giant? But these ones have a musculature that’s impressive, taut stomachs and strong arms, their brown, hairless skin in the winter firelight like oil paintings that have come alive. Some have their women pluck and shave the hair from both sides of their heads with sharpened and intricately decorated clamshells, leaving a thick brush of it running down the centre that they grease until it stands on end. An ancient sailor on the miserable voyage over from the old world to this new one regaled all of us with his experiences in this land, going so far as to claim he was the one to first name these people Huron, wild boars, for how he thought the men’s hair bristles like a pig’s. Other warriors grow their hair long and shave off only one side of it, which leaves them looking frightening and half-mad. On the warpath, Bird and his soldiers paint their faces in red and yellow and black ochre. I am sure this was meant to stir the same fear in their enemies that it did in me.
The women are as striking as the men with their long shining black hair, their white smiles flashing against brown skin. They go to great lengths to decorate themselves, sometimes spending hours chattering as they braid feathers and tiny painted clay beads into one another’s hair. Some of them have even tattooed their bodies with the images of animals, and these women seem held in high regard. Many of them love to flirt with me, regardless of their age. They smile coyly, and the younger ones think nothing of touching my hand or my arm, as if to prove to themselves that I’m indeed real. Word has gotten out that my vows prevent me from being with women, but obviously their simplicity prevents them from understanding the complexity of Catholicism. As I preached the other day, after much confusion in our mutual understanding, a man dared to ask me if I preferred boys, causing all the others to laugh hysterically. This childlike comprehension of the world will be both my greatest test and a wonderful tool. I’ll treat them as I once treated young children back in France when I was given the rather odious mission of teaching them the catechism.
These first ten days, I feel like a prisoner in this glowing longhouse filled with smoke. Bird is clearly an important man in this community. I’ve watched people bring him gifts and come to visit now that he’s back. And I understand the crowds come as much to see me as they do Bird. I take this opportunity to try to bring a little of God’s light into this dark corner of the world. For months last year back in Kebec, I worked on learning the Huron language, a converted sauvage with the Christian name of Luke teaching me its guttural intricacies.
He explained that I had to begin to grasp the natural world around me if I were ever to conquer the language. The Huron, Luke said, don’t live above the natural world but as a part of it. The key to their language was to make the connection between man and nature. I scoffed at this. A language doesn’t exist that can’t be learned by rote. And You, Lord, have given us the natural world for our use and our governance. Man was not meant to grovel in the dirt with animals but to rise above them. I make note in my relations to be sent back in due course to you, my dear Superior, that this is a lesson paramount for the conversion of the sauvages. I had long ago proved myself masterful with languages. Thanks be to God, I’ve been given the gift of Latin and Greek, a little English, some Dutch. In fact, dear Superior, did you not choose me for this mission to New France because of my ability to learn new tongues?
Just one more reflection for now, something I find both fascinating and appalling. In matters of the spirit, these sauvages believe that we all have within us a life force that is similar, if you will, to our own Catholic belief in the soul. They call this life force the orenda. That is the fascinating part. What appals me is that these poor misguided beings believe not just humans have an orenda but also animals, trees, bodies of water, even rocks strewn on the ground. In fact, every last thing in their world contains its own spirit. When I pushed Bird about this, he explained it to me in a rather odd way. He told me of a recent hunting trip in which he pursued a deer for a long time. Eventually he caught up to and killed it. “My orenda overpowered its orenda,” he said. “The deer’s orenda allowed me to take it.” He then looked at me as if his words might explain with final clarity this strange belief of theirs. I have to admit, dear Superior, that I’m still left confused.
Today, a dozen of them sit on the ground in front of me, staring and whispering amongst themselves, watching my every move and study- ing me with such intensity that I begin to sweat. Those closest to me hold their noses or fan their faces as if I’m the one who reeks, despite their overpowering smells of smoke and hide and what I can only describe as lustful intention. A couple of young women sitting at my feet try to peer up my cassock and then laugh as they mimic me blessing myself. An old man near the wall sits with a rigid back and his arms crossed, his thin lips scowling.
Like a child struggling for words, I slowly begin with the holy lamb. But there is no such thing as a lamb in the world of these people, and so Jesus becomes a fawn, a fawn whose blood is spilled so that we might live eternally. One heckler, an old woman, says loudly that the thought of fawn’s blood makes her hungry in this winter when fresh meat is scarce, and why do I torture her so? The others laugh at this. I’ve learned quickly that they laugh often, even at the most inappropriate times.
“If you take the fawn that is Jesus into your life,” I say slowly and then stop, straining for the words. “Your hunger. Gone.”
They scoff at this. “Not go hungry ever again?” one young man asks. “Does this mean we are dead?” Again there is more laughter and more discussion in their tongue, all of it too quick for me to understand.
When the crowd breaks down like this, usually after only a few minutes of my speaking, I know I’ve lost them. And that’s when I take my chalice and white cloth from my bag, and I use a bit of their sagamité, the horrid corn mush they call ottet that’s the staple of their diet in the winter and on travels. With this mush that I’ve flattened and dried and rounded into a small Host, I perform the most sacred of sacraments, lifting the chalice of melted snow water to Heaven so that it might become Your blood, raising the corn wafer to the sky so it transforms into Your flesh. This always silences them. They watch every little move with the eyes of hawks, all humour gone from their faces. Apparently, they’re more susceptible to my actions than to my words. I’ve made careful note of this, and wait patiently for the day when one of them will dare ask that he or she might also take a sip from the chalice, a nibble from my outstretched hand.
And yet there’s one who watches everything, who misses nothing, who doesn’t rudely interrupt when I preach. The young Iroquois girl hides beneath her sleeping robe, the girl I carried in my arms through that nightmarish day. In all the time we’ve been here, I can’t remember seeing her move from her perch above me in the bed beside Bird’s. I desperately hope that no ill intention exists in Bird’s loins. I find it very strange indeed that he’s the only one in the longhouse without a wife or family. Has the sauvage taken this girl to be a child bride? I will keep a close eye on this.
Early this morning I wake up in the dark, the wind blowing hard and Bird stoking the fire before sneaking out of the longhouse. Sleep beckons me back to its warmth and comfort, and it’s exactly this I know I must fight. I deserve neither of these as long as those around me remain heathen. Forcing myself up from my blanket, I kneel on the hard ground in the corner away from the fire in just my nightshirt, shivering through my morning prayers and contemplation. The girl troubles me. She troubles me deeply. The image of her stripping naked in the snow and offering herself to me is burned into my memory no matter how hard I try to erase it. It was her smile as she lay exposed there, asking me something I couldn’t comprehend. And then the wickedness of what she wished me to do dawned on me and forced my hand harshly across her mouth. I’ve already made careful note of this in my relations to dear Superior, which I can only hope will eventually reach him. The one conclusion I can draw from the depravity and brutality I’ve witnessed so far is that these beings, while certainly human, exist on a plane far lower than even Europe’s lowest caste.
I must remember, though, that all of us are God’s creatures. It is my mission to begin to help these poor souls rise up. The only way that their eternal souls might be saved is to accept Jesus, and to do this they must accept the Eucharist.
As if Christ Himself speaks directly to me on this frigid morning deep in this troubled land, I can see a vision materialize through the fog of my breath. The girl will become my first convert. I know this as surely as anything I’ve ever known. I remember her hand clutch- ing my crucifix as we walked the last miles and were accosted by the Huron sentries. The poor thing is in desperate need of redemption. Her tempting me is evidence. And I have been brought here to offer it to her.
When I am finished my morning vespers, I don my heavy black robe, noting that it’s saturated with my scent, the heavy stink of hard labour, the sour odour of sheer fear, and suddenly I feel self-conscious. I push this worry away. I must rise above the physical stains of humanity. My mission is more than the mundane facts of everyday life. I am more than that.
The sounds of sleep still echo through the longhouse as I climb the ladder to the young girl’s bed. It strikes me I don’t even know her name. No need. Soon enough, I will give her a Christian one. This will be a first for this territory, and word of it will travel far.
The girl lies on her back, tucked into a plush beaver robe. Her mouth is slightly open and I can’t help but smile to notice a thin string of spit runs from the side of it. She appears deep in sleep, and for this I’m thankful. She’s been through so much. We all have. Though Bird tied me to a tree out of sight of her family’s massacre, the sounds of struggle and screaming and slaughter still haunt me. The girl has gone mute for good reason. At her age she saw what no one should ever have to witness. The brutality these people are so willing to show their enemies astounds me.
I stare at the girl for a long time in the dim light, trying to understand her. I suddenly realize that I am trying to see her humanity. She’s not very beautiful, at least in comparison to the other children around her. She’d be better looking if not for the scars of some childhood disease that ravaged her face. Epidemics have begun to sweep through these people the last few years. I can only take this as a sign from God, a divine message. Any fool can see that when great change comes, the weak and the wicked will suffer. But the converted will live on.
I bless myself and whisper prayers of devotion and of gratitude and of guidance. I pray most fervently for the salvation of the soul of the young one sleeping in front of me. When I’m done, I raise the silver crucifix, a gift from my dear mother before departing on this voyage, and kiss it, then decide to lower it to the girl’s lips. After all, she’s already shown such fascination with the cross.
As Jesus touches her mouth, I’m shocked to see her eyes dart open. She raises her arms and pushes against my chest. Only now do I realize how closely I’m hovering over her. Her fists are a flurry of punches against me, and as I lean away, the crucifix in hand, she begins screaming. Panicked, I clap my hand over her mouth before she wakes the others. They’ll see me up here with her and will not understand. I plead with her in whispers to be quiet but her eyes only widen more. When she bites my hand, the pain shoots up my arm and I pull it shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face contorted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me. away. The girl’s screams pierce my ears, ringing through the longhouse, and just under them I can hear the sounds of people awakening abruptly all around me, of men scuffling for their weapons. A rush of cold air sweeps up to send chills down my back and I hear feet scrambling up the ladder, then feel a hand grab my cassock and yank.
Now I’m falling, and I close my eyes and grit my teeth just as my shoulder slams into the unforgiving earth with the crack of what must be a bone breaking, the dull throb followed immediately by a sharp pain that sucks the breath from me. Bird stands above, his face con- torted in anger, a knife in his hand. He raises it as he straddles my chest. I can see that he’ll do it, and my first reaction is regret that I’ve come all this way only to fail in converting a single sauvage. I close my eyes and whisper to Jesus for another chance, wait for the burn of the knife across my throat.
But it doesn’t come. Instead, I hear a strange voice, young but gravelly, speaking calmly, rationally, in Huron. It’s not quite human in tone, more like a small animal that’s learned to speak like a two-legged being. I pick up certain words. Spirit. Father. Illness. I slowly open my eyes. Bird stares at me, and, over his shoulder, up in the rafters on her sleeping perch, the girl peers down, talking to the back of Bird’s head, her thin face hovering above us in the early light that comes in from the smoke holes of the longhouse. Her face shimmers in the glow of morning and fire smoke so that I can’t help but think of her as a spirit, a ghost who’s appeared to intervene. Bird stands up, with one foot on either side of me. He says nothing, but his look tells me as surely as if he were screaming it. Never touch this girl again. He turns then and strides out. I look around and see the other families have risen from their beds and stand in a ring at a distance, staring. I look up to glimpse the strange sight of the girl once more, but already she’s disappeared.
For three days, no one visits or speaks to me. I assume this is Bird’s punishment. And so, unsure if I’m even allowed to leave the longhouse, I sit in a corner that offers some privacy and spend long hours in prayer and reflection. At least I attempt to, but a growing sense of isolation, of what by the second day I realize is malaise, sets in. Like snow built up on a roof too long, I fear I creak with too much weight. I fear I will col- lapse. My shoulder was dislocated in the fall, and the right arm hangs limply, now longer than the left. The pain is breathtaking. If only I had another Jesuit here to re-set it. If only I had another Brother here to speak with, another priest with whom I might seek confession and absolution. I try to sleep but it’s fitful, shot through with a deep-seated fear that I’ve gone so far into this bizarre and brutal land that even God has lost contact with me.
What of the others? I set out from New France with the plan of reaching Huronia late last summer. I was promised that a group of Jesuits who were due to arrive soon from Normandy would follow if the season still permitted.
In the best of conditions the trip from Kebec to Huronia is a three- week-long act of brutality, back-breaking work of paddling and portaging great distances, which means lifting everything from the canoes and making multiple trips, sometimes of miles, through bogs or up steep embankments, half the weight of a man strapped to your back. Living daily with swarms of insects that sting and itch and bite, hoping for the short respite of rain and, when it comes, shivering in the downpours, then wishing for some sun again, despite this meaning the return of the insects. Starving even as the sauvages seem to grow stronger from the scarcity of food, waking before dawn each morning and bending their backs against the currents in their flimsy, wobbly craft until dark, smoking their wretched tobacco in place of meals. They grew more muscular as I began to wither.
But the worst aspect of my journey was certainly the Iroquois, enemies of us French. To get to Huronia, one must pass through their country. Yes, being hunched from dawn to dusk on scabbed and bloody knees, the painful monotony of paddling into wind and rain, never resting or stopping to eat until light faded, this was simply crushing. The abject fear, though, that I tried to constantly quell was of being surprised by an Iroquois raiding party. I did all that I knew to do. I tried to place myself in Your hands. And I am so sorry that, for a time, I failed.
I’d left New France last year with a small party of Algonquin who promised Champlain himself that they would deliver me safely to the Hurons. I forgive them now, as I write this to dear Superior in my book. After all, I admit I’m a weak paddler and despite my size, couldn’t carry nearly as much as them. I remember them grumbling and complaining amongst themselves for the ten days. One heathen even began to loudly suggest I was a demon in human form. But it’s when we came across a barely cold Iroquois campfire that the Algonquin made their decision. That afternoon, after they inspected the camp, silent and cautious as wolves, and just as I was relieving myself behind a clump of willow, they climbed into their canoes. They’d deposited my black cloth bag containing my chalice and diary and few personal possessions on the shore, along with a small sack of food. I emerged from the bush and watched as they paddled away at speed.
The more I shouted for them to come back, the faster they worked to get away. I quit only when it dawned on me they wouldn’t return and that my shouts might very well alert the Iroquois, who couldn’t be far away, to my presence.
The terror consumed me those first hours as I huddled behind that same clump of willow, peering out at the lake in hopes the Algonquin might return for me, pleading to You, Lord, that this not be the way I was to perish. Might not dying alone, slowly starving and going mad, lost in the tangle of forest as the mosquitoes ate me alive, be even worse than to die the death of a martyr at the vicious hands of the Iroquois? This morning, as I sit ignored in the corner of the longhouse, I truly come to understand that my life, and my death, are preordained, and I come to the understanding that fretting over all of this will not aid my mission but cripple it.
This third morning of chastisement, I kneel on the hard ground shivering, and I finally feel the fear that’s consumed me release and begin to lift from my back, a fear that’s burdened me since I first set foot in this foreign and desperate place. With my left hand, I force my right arm up the wall until it’s above my head, my shoulder braying its anguish. I whisper now to You as I throw my weight hard into the wall. I feel the ball popping into its joint again as I collapse. I fall to the floor and bite my hand to stop a scream from escaping and awaking the house.
I will die. We’ll all die. How many times have I narrowly escaped it in the past few months? The last few days? My death most probably will happen here in this foreign world, away from my family, at the hands of these people. So be it, Lord. So be it.

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Why it's on the list ...
Finalist for GG Fiction
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A Beautiful Truth
Excerpt

5
What do you see when you look at me.
   The Girdish Institute had its origins in the 1920s, when William
Girdish made a trip to Buenos Aires. He had heard of a large private
zoo owned by a wealthy woman in that city, and it was there that
he saw his first chimpanzees. He was beguiled by them and endeavoured
to learn as much as he could about their nature and habitat.
   He heard stories from the staff and zookeeper and witnessed their
obvious empathy and charming curiosity, and he bonded with one
in particular.
   At dinners in the US he would tell stories from this place, like
the one about the chimp who developed an attraction to one of
the pretty cooks of the household. This chimp would watch her
in the kitchen from his cage with obvious desire, and over time
she grew unsettled by his attention. She asked one of the staff to
erect a barrier to his view, and boards were nailed to the outside of
his cage. The man with the boards who took away the sight of his
beloved was attacked a year later. The chimpanzee had harboured a
grudge all that time, and found an opportunity when the man was
doing repairs to the door of his cage.
   Girdish set about gathering his own collection of chimps and
other primates, bringing them over to one of his properties in
Florida, near Jacksonville. He was a gentleman amateur, the only
son of a land-owning family, and he had property throughout
the South.
   He believed that much could be learned from primates, chimps
in particular, that they were a link to our past and could explain
much of our behaviour. In this respect he was ahead of his time,
and there were few in the world who knew as much about apes
as he did. He travelled and sent envoys to Africa and housed a
growing collection of apes and monkeys in and around the greenhouse,
observatory and staff buildings of that property.
   He established the institute and started a breeding program.
   He developed a philosophy of what the ideal research subject would
be in terms of health, size and character. He and his colleagues
steadily developed tests, both mental and physical, which slowly
confirmed, in demonstrable scientific terms, how closely we were
linked to these creatures.
   When he died in the 1940s he left a large endowment and his
work was carried on. Through the development of breakthrough
drugs the institute attracted funding from the federal government
and from companies around the world.
   The old observatory and staff buildings were kept and it
was here that behavioural studies remained and the field station
developed. The new main building expanded and the biomedical
studies became the lucrative focus of the institute. But the beating
heart for many was the field station.
   The original buildings had an Art Deco quality, soon hidden
by various additions. There were the sleeping quarters, which had
expanded over time, a winter playroom and a large safe area where
cognitive tests took place. There were kitchens, offices, bedrooms,
a garden which supplied some of the produce for the chimps, and
numerous old rooms whose purposes changed over time.
   David Kennedy eventually became director of the field station,
and oversaw its expansion. Since the late 1970s you could say that
this part of the institute mimicked the life of a man. Its early days
were of directionless and unlimited enthusiasm and were shaped
over time by conflict, financial reality and the needs of others. When
David realized his personality, where his true interests lay, the field
station took its present shape. But while curiosity sometimes dies
and old enthusiasms seem foolish, the nature of the field station
prevented it from ever being static, and passion never diminished.
Even when the population settled, nothing was ever settled.
   In vivid memory, his family were Podo, Jonathan, Burke and Mr.
Ghoul. Bootie, Magda, Mama and Beanie. Fifi and her open heart.
All the names he didn’t want to give them and the sadness that he
didn’t want to see.
   David tells his assistants, when they first arrive, that they can
never choose favourites. Observe, but never judge. He knows that
it is an ideal—as if any ape can look without assessment: fruit is
never fruit, it is either ripe or rotten. People are never people.
He had an assistant once whose logs were always coloured by
her distaste for promiscuity. It was never simply Jonathan mounts
Fifi; there was always a hint of morality, a suggestion of wantonness
or assault. He sat her down and said do you have a boyfriend. She
was twenty-nine and had been married for seven years.
   He said when you go home tonight and you find whatever way
you find to encourage your husband to hold you, make sure that
you forgive him.
   His staff have come and gone in numbers. He has grown, he
hopes, more compassionate with age.
   It’s a guideline, a piece of advice that David repeats, despite
himself. Try not to choose favourites, try not to dislike some of
them.
   He brings prospective assistants out to one of the towers and
tests how quickly they can distinguish between the chimps. If
they have that rudimentary skill, he gives them twenty minutes to
observe a group. If the group seems peaceful and pensive and the
kids have fun, a bad observer will say they were peaceful and pensive
and the kids had fun. A good observer will say the alpha slept, as
did two of the females. Male chimp C sat near the moat as if on
guard, and the juveniles alternately rested and played. Male chimp
B, before he lay down, bowed to male chimp A (though asleep).
The females stayed closer to male chimp B as they rested. Female
chimp C would look towards sleeping male chimp B whenever the
juveniles made noise, instead of reprimanding them directly or
looking to the alpha, suggesting a possible shift in power.
   Small things are big, every movement matters, morals blind us
to seeing the bigger picture, and if you don’t have the empathy to
watch for these things, get out of here.
   But, at some level, it really was impossible not to judge. Their
talk over lunch was always about personalities. Who was mean and
what was wonderful.
   Do you have a favourite, David.
   He could rarely think of Podo without imagining some beloved,
long-reigning king.
   Something about Fifi, who weighed two hundred pounds,
made him think of Farrah Fawcett.
   And he had never met a chimpanzee as gentle as Mr. Ghoul.
6
Looee was quiet and still for over a month, waking only to feed
or if he felt Judy moving away. His lips quivered whenever she
put him down, though he was neither feverish nor cold. She knew
he needed the feel of her body and she felt his panic when she
saw him shiver. She rested him on her shoulder when she cooked.
Applesauce, candied carrots, everything warmed by stove, mouth
or hand till it held the heat of a body surprised by love. She crushed
bananas, scooped the purée with the tip of her little finger, felt the
tickle of his pink boy’s tongue as he sucked, the pull inside at her
feet, groin and heart.
   Walt got sick and said I think I caught whatever it was he
caught, and Judy looked after them both. Walt was ever brave
before the wailing train of life’s horrific surprises, but he wasn’t
good with the flu. Judy he said, and nnn he said, and I feel sicker
than, and he rarely finished a sentence. He wondered whether it
was right to be sharing a bed with a chimpanzee and he dreamt of
eating prunes on a wavy sea.
   New life was in the house. Two arms, two legs, grasping fingers,
inquisitive hunger, a shock from a dream that freezes the limbs,
subsidence into adorable sleep, and mouth on skin, he needs me I
need him to need me I need him. I’m tired. She slept.
   She kept the fire burning into May and the house acquired a
sweeter, nuttier smell that was unpleasant to visitors. The bedroom
grew layers of terry cloth and tissue and she kept the bathroom hot
in case Looee needed warmth and wet for his lungs. Walt was hot,
Walt was cold, Walt was grateful and uneasy and finally hungry and
better. He explored the changing house and watched her cook with
their new friend over her shoulder.
   He’ll hold your finger like a baby.
   I know.
   This house is hotter than inside a moose he said. Maybe it’s
time to crack a window.
   The cloud of rheum, the film of incomprehensible memories,
was lifting from Looee’s eyes, and looking down was Judy. The
more his eyes cleared, the more curious and intimate Judy got.
Walt bought some toys like a ball and a doll and a bone. He
wondered what the hairy little guy could do.
   These were the days that Judy, months later, remembered when
she sat on the living room floor and pondered the strangeness of
her life, how none of it seemed strange till now, and now there was
nothing strange, this was her little Looee. She fed him formula, not
plain old milk as Henry Morris had suggested. He was fifty percent
bigger in four months and Dr. Worsley was correct in figuring he
was smaller than normal when he had come to them. He figured he
was possibly a year, year and a half, who knows.
   The loss of a mother and the travel from Africa typically killed
most chimps his age, but Judy’s presence saved him. Questions
naturally occurred to them about where he came from, what
ground, what air, but Henry and the circus had moved on. When
you plant a sapling, sometimes you don’t care where the seed was
from. They decided that as far as Looee was concerned, this was
where he came from, right here.
   He slept in their bed for the first several months. Walt would
sometimes be awakened by Looee running his fingers through his
hair or playing with his lips and trying to pry his mouth open
with those little fingers of his, I’ll be darned. They always woke up
with him in the middle of the bed—he never liked anyone coming
between him and Judy.
   The difference between Looee and a less hairy baby was that
he could move a lot better. He could support his weight, hang on
to things and climb. He never left Judy, but she could usually rest
her arms.
   And he did enjoy a tickle.
   Walt thought back to the laughing chimp in the circus and
figured Looee’s laugh was different. Looee’s laugh was real. You’d
get him on the bed and when you’d wedge your fingers into his
little armpits he smiled with his lower lip more than with his upper
and then he started this little chuckle like the uck in chuckle or the
ick in tickle but softer and Christ it was funny and cute. And he’d
stand up and squeeze your nose then throw himself down again
and away you’d go with more of a tickle on his belly and thighs,
Walt and Judy’s four hands on their little hairy piano.
   He had pale hands, black fingernails, a pale face and feet, and
a little white tuft of hair on his rump that Judy liked to pat before
she put his diaper on. The hair on his body was a little wiry, though
Judy found ways to soften it up. There was a little boy’s body under
there.
   He was squirmy in their bed and they didn’t sleep well for
a long time. Walt set things up for the future. It was a large old
house, with a couple of spare bedrooms that Judy had long ago
decorated with insincere finality. Solid desks for future business,
beds that only existed to display her latest linens. Walt took a big
oak wardrobe, laid it on its back and made a sort of crib.
   They were happy to see that room change. Walt took a
chainsaw to the mattress and resized it so it would fit in the flatlying
wardrobe, and why they thought the walls of a crib would
contain a chimpanzee was part of a daily chorus of I didn’t think
of that.
   He caused quite a fuss later when he had to sleep in his own
bed. He jumped on the dresser and kicked Judy’s makeup, jumped
down and halfway up Walt to hit his chest, and sometimes he
removed his diaper, smeared his mattress and returned with a look
that said you can’t expect me to sleep there it’s disgusting. He would
walk to Judy with his palm up and whimpering, and she was quite
susceptible to that. But Walt prevailed and Looee later loved his
bedroom and bed.
   He hung around Judy’s neck or back throughout the day
watching everything she did. He slept a lot, but wouldn’t sleep
unless she lay near, and Judy cursed the noisy floorboards whenever
she snuck away. His screams when he awoke had a visceral effect
on her—she had no choice but to drop whatever she was doing
because it felt like either the world was ending or his noises would
make it end.
   Sometimes he played on his own, but never beyond the
bounds of whatever room Judy was in and not for very long. He
was a toddler with the agility of an acrobat, so his play was usually
spectacular.
   She had to think of him constantly—that’s what occurred
to her over the years as she looked back; that’s what soon made
him more than a pet. He wasn’t self-sufficient, he always needed
company—not just the presence of bodies, but society; he needed
the emotional engagement of others. There was no denying him.
   You could step over Murphy on your way to doing other things
or tell him to shush if he was barking. With Looee you simply
couldn’t ignore him, and if he was complaining about something
it would have to be addressed with just as much care as with a
child. When Judy first used the vacuum cleaner, Looee screamed
and leapt onto her face. She had to turn it off, show him how the
power button worked and how the hose sucked up dirt. He was in
a heightened emotional state whenever it came out of the closet,
but he was soon able to turn it on, pull it around the house and
vacuum in his own way.
   The truth was that Walt and Judy woke up most mornings
with the happy suspicion that something today would be new.
Despite her tiredness there was a new sense of vitality in Judy,
and as much as she sometimes yearned for peace she couldn’t
imagine returning to their old routines or waking up to days
without these fresh concerns.
   You look rosier in the cheek said Walt. Let me kiss that.
   There was a loss of spontaneity in their lives but it was more of
a shift than a loss. They couldn’t decide out of the blue to drive to
Stowe for dinner or make love on the couch with that surprise of
skin and heart. Looee had an especially uncanny knack for knowing
when they were getting close to each other, sensing the change of
energy between their bodies like a blind man knows that a flower is
red. He added a different range of surprises to their life.
   Looee wasn’t keen on going outside at first, but he ventured
onto the verandah. He was so attached to Judy that she was never
worried about him going far. When it was really warm the following
year she let him roam without clothes. She held his hands above his
head and stood behind him, trying to teach him to walk upright—
assuming that he would one day walk on twos despite his arms
seeming longer than his legs. They walked hand in hand to the old
apple tree which had just lost its bloom. He sat down and picked
up some dry blossoms, smelled them, scattered them, made a soft
noise and handed some blossoms to Judy.
   Thank you Looee.
   She didn’t know that he had ridden his mother’s back when she
had climbed trees and he didn’t remember himself, but one day he
looked up the apple tree and climbed it.
   He went to the top and she told him to come down. She tapped
on a branch that was just above her head. He came down and hung
from the branch and she couldn’t believe how strong and dexterous
his limbs had become.
   There was a long period of keeping to themselves, making
adjustments, enjoying the fact that sometimes family is society
enough.
   He understood a lot of what they said, and they were regularly
surprised. They sensed how he learned, and taught him the
names of body parts. The three would sit on the couch, and Judy
would say where’s daddy’s nose. Looee would point to Walt’s nose.
Where’s daddy’s eyes. Where’s Looee’s belly.
   Sometimes he stared off in space and sometimes he pointed to
his own eyes when Judy asked him to point to hers. He was either
getting it wrong or showing there was no difference.
   He was always watching, and aware of anything new. A wallet
in the hand, a hairpin, rubber boots on a rainy day—anything
unusual attracted his inspection. And he had unusual preferences
which might otherwise be called taste. He screamed at a La-Z-Boy
that Walt bought and was terrified when it reclined.
   The house was mapped in his mind, and he didn’t like change
unless it came from himself. Judy had a rubber plant which she
was very proud of, that she would move around the house at
different times of the year to find the right light and humidity.
   She moved it to the landing and found it later in the living room
where it had been for its first few months. She moved it again,
and again found it back in the living room. She asked Walt why
he kept putting her rubber plant back in the living room and he
said why do you keep stealing my toggle bolts. Looee rested on
Judy’s hip and stared at a pendant piece of amber as though it was
a caramel Shangri-La.
   Judy stared at Walt. I don’t think I know what a toggle bolt is
she said.
   The work required was staggering. For the first year or so Looee
stayed close to Judy, and even though his curiosity meant spills and
surprises, it was kept within a limited range. His constant presence
would have been a trial for any mother, and Judy was the tiniest bit
relieved when he got bored with her for a moment. But when his
range expanded, they had to be prepared.
   A padlock on the fridge was an obvious measure. The old high
doorknobs on most of the doors in the house were a boon to Walt
and Judy because he wasn’t tall enough for a while. But he had
quietly observed them in all their daily tasks and soon knew how
to deal with every handle, knob, lever, door, switch, clasp, plug,
button, tie or unlocked lock in the house. And because he was so
good at climbing there was little they could put beyond his reach.
Walt remembered the cage which Henry Morris used for
Buddy. He proposed it, and Judy said absolutely not.
   Judy made checklists all around the house and tried to keep
loose objects secured unless they were willing to sacrifice them as
missiles or toys. Walt put padlocks on most of the cupboards. He
tried to make the electrical outlets safer and always kept an eye over
his shoulder when he was manning the grill; but he also figured a
burn here and there was the surest way to learn.
   Looee had an insatiable appetite for playing. And because of the
weather in Vermont it often meant that diversions were required
indoors. He loved hide-and-seek, but sometimes played it when
others didn’t know he was playing. He climbed onto the mantel
one afternoon and watched as Judy walked around the house
calling his name. Looee it’s time to clean up the dining room, come
on my little man, my Looee where are you. When she came around
the corner he leapt from the mantel onto her shoulders and she lost
control of her bladder. He then walked to the bathroom, took toilet
paper and ran around the house, unravelling it and laughing.
   Judy’s concern was not her own emotional state so much as
how he reacted to it. When he saw her fear or anger he got frightened
himself and he would run around screaming, trying to find
comfort where he could until he felt he could touch her or get a
hug. It magnified the impact of simple frights and required massive
mental energy from Judy to feel calm almost before her fear.
   They usually found such delight in seeing how much he could
do, though, and, when they were in the right mood, they loved to
watch him play. He learned by observation, by staring and remembering.
   He learned to crack eggs. You sit up on the counter there.
   He held the electric beater. He could spread butter on his toast with
a knife. It was rarely done with grace or without a mess, but they
imagined he would one day be more careful.
   He loved to wear Walt’s ski-doo helmet, which was half the size
of his body. He wore it backwards and walked into furniture. He
laughed every time he hit something, and it was impossible not to
laugh when he laughed. Larry saw him do this, and Walt said do
other animals laugh.
   Sometimes he could sit still. He liked magazines, especially ones
that focused on home decoration and women. He loved pictures of
women sitting in family rooms and he would make his I like this
noise, that creamy repetition of ooo through his soft lip-trumpet,
and he would look at Judy and tap the page with the back of his
fingers. There were lovely minutes where she could settle him down
with a magazine and read one of her own or do some work in the
kitchen with the sound of I like this in the house.
   When he misbehaved they tried to be patient with him, but
they had their own ways of making him obey when patience was
exhausted. With Judy, the most effective was to make him feel
guilty. You’re going to make mummy sad if you do that. Do you
want mummy to cry.
   His natural way of apologizing was to come to you with his
hand held out, shrugging and bowing as if to acknowledge that,
while he had had no choice, what he had done was wrong.
   Walt found that shouts and threats were the best way to bring
him in line. He was never physical—he never had to be. Looee
instinctively understood that shouts were a prelude to something
worse. Shout at him, and be done with it. They always got on well
immediately after an outburst.
   At some level these negotiations and struggles for power meant
that Walt couldn’t help but see him as an equal—a child perhaps,
but certainly not an animal. There was never any sense of ownership
or mastery.
   Walt shouted and took Looee in his arms and they went out
for a drive, and Walt slapped his hands away whenever he reached
for the wheel.
   When it came to the artificial niceties of human life, he had his
own approach. He ate with cutlery. They never taught him or said
that he should; he just saw them doing it and wanted to do everything
they did. If they presented him with a bowl of food, he never
dug in without a fork or spoon. He only drank from a cup or glass.
   He wore diapers for the first couple of years and they tried to
train him to use the toilet. Looee had always been fascinated by
it; he would let neither of them go into the bathroom alone and
would flush for hours if he had his druthers—but getting him to
use it himself had been a struggle. Walt had placed a step up to
the toilet to encourage Looee to pee standing up, but he wouldn’t.
Walt demonstrated how it was done but Looee either tapped on
Walt’s penis or drank from Walt’s stream, and the two would
emerge from the bathroom confused for different reasons about
the significance of urine. Looee now went into the bathroom on
his own sometimes and otherwise used a portable potty. There
were accidents, of course, as with any other child, and sometimes
he was deliberately dirty.
   They learned that the ability to lie comes naturally to everyone.
   They never taught him to toy with the truth but they saw him do
it early and it was often potty-related.
   Judy had annoyed him by refusing to tickle or play with him,
having done so for two hours. He went into the living room and
shat on her sheepskin rug.
   She was very upset when she discovered it and said why did you
do that. He shook his head as though it hadn’t been him and he
gestured towards the garage where Walt was tinkering.
   It was daddy who did that, was it.
   He nodded.
   Walt put up a swing set in the front yard. Looee helped him fetch
pieces to put it together, and as soon as it was upright he couldn’t
get enough of it. He ripped the seats off and swung from the chains.
   Walt built a wonderland for Looee out front. Tires from tractors
and cars which he flipped, hid in, gnawed on and rolled. Looee
spent hours out there, not yet eager to explore beyond the property.
He and Walt would come in sweaty and hoot when Judy said we’re
eating Italian rice balls tonight.
   Judy bathed Looee and relaxed him with body lotion. She put
him to bed while Walt envisioned his next day’s work downstairs.
Conversations foreseen and successes planned, if this goes that way
and that goes that way.
   On the weekend Walt and Looee worked in the garage.
   Walt said get me the ballpeen hammer. The one with the black
handle.

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Why it's on the list ...
Finalist for GG Fiction
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The Polymers

The Polymers

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : canadian

The Polymers is a bold new work from one of our most ambitious poetic minds. Structured as an imaginary science project, the varied pieces in this collection investigate the intersection of poetry and chemicals, specifically plastics, attempting to understand their essential role in culture. Through various procedures, constraints, and formal mutations, the poems express the repeating structures fundamental to plastic molecules as they appear in cultural and linguistic behaviours such as argumen …

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Bite Down Little Whisper
Why it's on the list ...
GG 2013 English finalist for Poetry
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Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain

Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain

edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
GG 2013 English finalist for Poetry
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Shakespeare's Nigga
Why it's on the list ...
GG 2013 English finalist for Drama
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