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Canada Reads 2014

By kileyturner
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This year's theme is "the book to change our nation"; the five books in contention (three remaining at this writing) are on this list. The panel includes Stephen Lewis, Wab Kinew, Sarah Kinew, Samantha Bee, and Donovan Bailey.
The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood

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also available: Hardcover

From the Booker Prize–winning author of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MaddAddam Trilogy, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Internationally acclaimed as ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by, amongst others, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Village Voice
In a world driven by shadowy, corrupt corporations and the uncontrolled development of new, gene-spliced life forms, a man-made pandemic occurs, obliterating human life. Two people find they have unexpectedly surv …

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T H E G A R D E N
Who is it tends the Garden,
The Garden oh so green?

’Twas once the finest Garden
That ever has been seen.

And in it God’s dear Creatures
Did swim and fly and play;

But then came greedy Spoilers,
And killed them all away.

And all the Trees that flourished
And gave us wholesome fruit,

By waves of sand are buried,
Both leaf and branch and root.

And all the shining Water
Is turned to slime and mire,

And all the feathered Birds so bright
Have ceased their joyful choir.

Oh Garden, oh my Garden,
I’ll mourn forevermore

Until the Gardeners arise,
And you to Life restore.

From The God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook
1
TOBY

YEAR TWENTY- FIVE, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, so if she slips and topples there won’t be anyone to pick her up.

As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef — bleached and colourless, devoid of life.

There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier? Toby has no idea. Unlike some of the other Gardeners — the more wild-eyed or possibly overdosed ones — she has never been under the illusion that she can converse with birds.

The sun brightens in the east, reddening the blue-grey haze that marks the distant ocean. The vultures roosting on hydro poles fan out their wings to dry them, opening themselves like black umbrellas. One and then another lifts off on the thermals and spirals upwards. If they plummet suddenly, it means they’ve spotted carrion.
Vultures are our friends, the Gardeners used to teach. They purify the earth. They are God’s necessary dark Angels of bodily dissolution. Imagine how terrible it would be if there were no death!
Do I still believe this? Toby wonders.

Everything is different up close.

The rooftop has some planters, their ornamentals running wild; it has a few fake-wood benches. It used to have a sun canopy for cocktail hour, but that’s been blown away. Toby sits on one of the benches to survey the grounds. She lifts her binoculars, scanning from left to right. The driveway, with its lumirose borders, untidy now as frayed hair-brushes, their purple glow fading in the strengthening light. The western entrance, done in pink adobe-style solarskin, the snarl of tangled cars outside the gate.

The flower beds, choked with sow thistle and burdock, enormous aqua kudzu moths fluttering above them. The fountains, their scallop-shell basins filled with stagnant rainwater. The parking lot with a pink golf cart and two pink AnooYoo Spa minivans, each with its winking-eye logo. There’s a fourth minivan farther along the drive, crashed into a tree: there used to be an arm hanging out of the window, but it’s gone now.

The wide lawns have grown up, tall weeds. There are low irregular mounds beneath the milkweed and fleabane and sorrel, with here and there a swatch of fabric, a glint of bone. That’s where the people fell, the ones who’d been running or staggering across the lawn. Toby had watched from the roof, crouched behind one of the planters, but she hadn’t watched for long. Some of those people had called for help, as if they’d known she was there. But how could she have helped?

The swimming pool has a mottled blanket of algae. Already there are frogs. The herons and the egrets and the peagrets hunt them, at the shallow end. For a while Toby tried to scoop out the small animals that had blundered in and drowned. The luminous green rabbits, the rats, the rakunks, with their striped tails and racoon bandit masks. But now she leaves them alone. Maybe they’ll generate fish, somehow. When the pool is more like a swamp.

Is she thinking of eating these theoretical future fish? Surely not.

Surely not yet.

She turns to the dark encircling wall of trees and vines and fronds and shrubby undergrowth, probing it with her binoculars. It’s from there that any danger might come. But what kind of danger? She can’t imagine.

In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.

“Go to sleep,” she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone in this building. Sometimes she hears voices — human voices, calling to her in pain. Or the voices of women, the women who used to work here, the anxious women who used to come, for rest and rejuvenation. Splashing in the pool, strolling on the lawns. All the pink voices, soothed and soothing.

Or the voices of the Gardeners, murmuring or singing; or the children laughing together, up on the Edencliff Garden. Adam One, and Nuala, and Burt. Old Pilar, surrounded by her bees. And Zeb. If any one of them is still alive, it must be Zeb: any day now he’ll come walking along the roadway or appear from among the trees.

But he must be dead by now. It’s better to think so. Not to waste hope.

There must be someone else left, though; she can’t be the only one on the planet. There must be others. But friends or foes? If she sees one, how to tell?

She’s prepared. The doors are locked, the windows barred. But even such barriers are no guarantee: every hollow space invites invasion.

Even when she sleeps, she’s listening, as animals do — for a break in the pattern, for an unknown sound, for a silence opening like a crack in rock.

When the small creatures hush their singing, said Adam One, it’s because they’re afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.

2
REN

YEAR TWENTY- FIVE, THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD
Beware of words. Be careful what you write. Leave no trails.

This is what the Gardeners taught us, when I was a child among them. They told us to depend on memory, because nothing written down could be relied on. The Spirit travels from mouth to mouth, not from thing to thing: books could be burnt, paper crumble away, computers could be destroyed. Only the Spirit lives forever, and the Spirit isn’t a thing.

As for writing, it was dangerous, said the Adams and the Eves, because your enemies could trace you through it, and hunt you down, and use your words to condemn you.

But now that the Waterless Flood has swept over us, any writing I might do is safe enough, because those who would have used it against me are most likely dead. So I can write down anything I want.

What I write is my name, Ren, with an eyebrow pencil, on the wall beside the mirror. I’ve written it a lot of times. Renrenren, like a song. You can forget who you are if you’re alone too much. Amanda told me that.

I can’t see out the window, it’s glass brick. I can’t get out the door, it’s locked on the outside. I still have air though, and water, as long as the solar doesn’t quit. I still have food.

I’m lucky. I’m really very lucky. Count your luck, Amanda used to say. So I do. First, I was lucky to be working here at Scales when the Flood hit. Second, it was even luckier that I was shut up this way in the Sticky Zone, because it kept me safe. I got a rip in my Biofilm Bodyglove — a client got carried away and bit me, right through the green sequins — and I was waiting for my test results. It wasn’t a wet rip with secretions and membranes involved, it was a dry rip near the elbow, so I wasn’t that worried. Still, they checked everything, here at Scales. They had a reputation to keep up: we were known as the cleanest dirty girls in town.

Scales and Tails took care of you, they really did. If you were talent, that is. Good food, a doctor if you needed one, and the tips were great, because the men from the top Corps came here. It was well run, though it was in a seedy area — all the clubs were. That was a matter of image, Mordis would say: seedy was good for business, because unless there’s an edge — something lurid or tawdry, a whiff of sleaze — what separated our brand from the run-of-the-mill product the guy could get at home, with the face cream and the white cotton panties?

Mordis believed in plain speaking. He’d been in the business ever since he was a kid, and when they outlawed the pimps and the street trade — for public health and the safety of women, they said — and rolled everything into SeksMart under CorpSeCorps control, Mordis made the jump, because of his experience. “It’s who you know,” he used to say. “And what you know about them.” Then he’d grin and pat you on the bum — just a friendly pat though, he never took freebies from us. He had ethics.

He was a wiry guy with a shaved head and black, shiny, alert eyes like the heads of ants, and he was easy as long as everything was cool. But he’d stand up for us if the clients got violent. “Nobody hurts my best girls,” he’d say. It was a point of honour with him.

Also he didn’t like waste: we were a valuable asset, he’d say. The cream of the crop. After the SeksMart roll-in, anyone left outside the system was not only illegal but pathetic. A few wrecked, diseased old women wandering the alleyways, practically begging. No man with even a fraction of his brain left would go anywhere near them. “Hazardous waste,” we Scales girls used to call them. We shouldn’t have been so scornful; we should have had compassion. But compassion takes work, and we were young.

That night when the Waterless Flood began, I was waiting for my test results: they kept you locked in the Sticky Zone for weeks, in case you had something contagious. The food came in through the safety-sealed hatchway, plus there was the minifridge with snacks, and the water was filtered, coming in and out both. You had everything you needed, but it got boring in there. You could exercise on the machines, and I did a lot of that, because a trapeze dancer needs to keep in practice.

You could watch TV or old movies, play your music, talk on the phone. Or you could visit the other rooms in Scales on the intercom videoscreens. Sometimes when we were doing plank work we’d wink at the cameras in mid-moan for the benefit of whoever was stuck in the Sticky Zone. We knew where the cameras were hidden, in the snakeskin or featherwork on the ceilings. It was one big family, at Scales, so even when you were in the Sticky Zone, Mordis liked you to pretend you were still participating.

Mordis made me feel so secure. I knew if I was in big trouble I could go to him. There were only a few people in my life like that. Amanda, most of the time. Zeb, sometimes. And Toby. You wouldn’t think it would be Toby — she was so tough and hard — but if you’re drowning, a soft squashy thing is no good to hold on to. You need something more solid.

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Cockroach

Cockroach

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook

Cockroach is as urgent, unsettling, and brilliant as Rawi Hage's bestselling and critically acclaimed first book, De Niro's Game.

The novel takes place during one month of a bitterly cold winter in Montreal's restless immigrant community, where a self-described thief has just tried but failed to commit suicide. Rescued against his will, the narrator is obliged to attend sessions with a well-intentioned but naive therapist. This sets the story in motion, leading us back to the narrator's violent …

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The Orenda

The Orenda

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also available: Hardcover

A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda  opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation's great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the tro …

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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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Annabel

Annabel

edition:Hardcover
also available: eBook Paperback Paperback

Shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award for Fiction, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

In 1968, into the beautiful, spare environment of remote coastal Labrador, a mysterious child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor girl, but both at once.

Only three people are privy to the secret — the baby's parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbour, Thomasina. Together the adults make a difficult decision: to raise the child as a bo …

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Half-Blood Blues

Half-Blood Blues

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback eBook
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The brilliant, bestselling, Giller Prize–winning novel

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues took the literary world by storm when it was first published, captivating readers and reviewers with its audacity, power, and sheer brilliance. The novel won or was nominated for every literary prize in Canada—and many international ones, too, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was hailed as one of the best books of the year by Oprah, The Globe and Mail, Amazon, The San Francisco Chronicle and …

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