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My Favourite Canadian Books

By kingshearte
1 rating
Self-explanatory, I think.
Season of Storms

Season of Storms

also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : historical

In the 1920s, in a beautiful Italian villa called Il Piacere, the playwright Galeazzo D'Ascanio lived for Celia Sands. She was his muse and his mistress, his most enduring obsession and the inspiration for his most original play. But the night before she was to perform the leading role, she disappeared.

Some sixty years later, a theatre in the grounds of Il Piacere, Alessandro D'Ascanio is preparing to stage the first performance of his grandfather's masterpiece. A promising young actress - who …

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The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea

tagged : sagas

History has all but forgotten the spring of 1708, when an invasion fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. But when bestselling author Carrie McClelland is drawn to the coastal town of Slains and decides to base her new historical novel there, it's an opportunity for the past to come to life. She focuses her story on the inhabitants of Slains Castle and decides to place one of her own ancestors - Sophia Paterso …

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The Way the Crow Flies

The Way the Crow Flies


In The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald takes us back to the early 1960’s, a time of optimism infused with the excitement of the space race and overshadowed by the menace of the Cold War–-a world filtered through the imagination of Madeleine McCarthy, a spirited nine-year-old. Unaware that her father, Jack, is caught up in his own web of secrets, she at first welcomes her family’s posting to a sleepy air force base in southern Ontario.
The base, however, is home to some intriguing i …

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The birds saw the murder. Down below in the new grass, the tiny white bell-heads of the lily of the valley. It was a sunny day. Twig-crackling, early spring stirrings, spring soil smell. April. A stream through the nearby woods, so refreshing to the ear – it would be dry by the end of summer, but for now it rippled through the shade. High in the branches of an elm, that is where the birds were, perched among the many buds set to pleat like fresh hankies.

The murder happened near a place kids called Rock Bass. In a meadow at the edge of the woods. A tamped-down spot, as though someone had had a picnic there. The crows saw what happened. Other birds were in the high branches and they saw too, but crows are different. They are interested. Other birds saw a series of actions. The crows saw the murder. A light blue cotton dress. Perfectly still now.

From high in the tree, the crows eyed the charm bracelet glinting on her wrist. Best to wait. The silver beckoned, but best to wait.

Many-Splendoured Things

The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolour. Everyone had the same idea. Let’s get married. Let’s have kids. Let’s be the ones who do it right.

* * * * *

It is possible, in 1962, for a drive to be the highlight of a family week. King of the road, behind the wheel on four steel-belted tires, the sky’s the limit. Let’s just drive, we’ll find out where we’re going when we get there. How many more miles, Dad?

Roads are endless vistas, city gives way to country barely mediated by suburbs. Suburbs are the best of both worlds, all you need is a car and the world is your oyster, your Edsel, your Chrysler, your Ford. Trust Texaco. Traffic is not what it will be, what’s more, it’s still pretty neat. There’s a ’53 Studebaker Coupe! –oh look, there’s the new Thunderbird. . . .

“Let’s sing ‘This Land Is Your Land.’”

A moving automobile is second only to the shower when it comes to singing, the miles fly by, the landscape changes, they pass campers and trailers – look, another Volkswagen Beetle. It is difficult to believe that Hitler was behind something so friendly-looking and familiar as a VW bug. Dad reminds the kids that dictators often appreciate good music and are kind to animals. Hitler was a vegetarian and evil. Churchill was a drunk but good. “The world isn’t black and white, kids.”

In the back seat, Madeleine leans her head against the window frame, lulled by the vibrations. Her older brother is occupied with baseball cards, her parents are up front enjoying “the beautiful scenery.” This is an ideal time to begin her movie. She hums “Moon River,” and imagines that the audience can just see her profile, hair blowing back in the wind. They see what she sees out the window, the countryside, off to see the world, and they wonder where it is she is off to and what life will bring, there’s such a lot of world to see. They wonder, who is this darkhaired girl with the pixie cut and the wistful expression? An orphan? An only child with a dead mother and a kind father? Being sent from her boarding school to spend the summer at the country house of mysterious relatives who live next to a mansion where lives a girl a little older than herself who rides horses and wears red dungarees? We’re after the same rainbow’s end, just around the bend. . . . And they are forced to run away together and solve a mystery, my Huckleberry friend. . . .

Through the car window, she pictures tall black letters superimposed on a background of speeding green – “Starring Madeleine McCarthy” – punctuated frame by frame by telephone poles, Moon River, and me. . . .

It is difficult to get past the opening credits so better simply to start a new movie. Pick a song to go with it. Madeleine starts singing, sotto voce, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” – darn, we’re stopping.

“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” says her father, pulling over.

Utterly wrapped up in her movie, Madeleine has failed to notice the big strawberry ice cream cone tilting toward the highway, festive in its party hat. “Yay!” she exclaims. Her brother rolls his eyes at her.

Everything in Canada is so much bigger than it was in Germany, the cones, the cars, the “supermarkets.” She wonders what their new house will be like. And her new room – will it be pretty? Will it be big? Que será, será. . . .

“Name your poison,” says Dad at the ice cream counter, a white wooden shack. They sell fresh corn on the cob here too. The fields are full of it – the kind Europeans call Indian corn.

“Neapolitan, please,” says Madeleine.

Her father runs a hand through his sandy crewcut and smiles through his sunglasses at the fat lady in the shade behind the counter. He and her brother have matching haircuts, although Mike’s hair is even lighter. Wheat-coloured. It looks as though you could remove waxy buildup from your kitchen floor by turning him upside down and plugging him in, but his bristles are actually quite soft. He rarely allows Madeleine to touch them, however. He has strolled away now toward the highway, thumbs hooked in his belt loops – pretending he is out in the world on his own, Madeleine knows. He must be boiling in those dungarees but he won’t admit it, and he won’t wear shorts. Dad never wears shorts.

“Mike, where do you think you’re going?” she calls.

He ignores her. He is going on twelve.

She runs a hand through her hair the way Dad does, loving its silky shortness. A pixie cut is a far cry from a crewcut, but is also mercifully far from the waist-length braids she endured until this spring. She accidentally cut one off during crafts in school. Maman still loves her but will probably never forgive her.

Her mother waits in the Rambler. She wears the sunglasses she got on the French Riviera last summer. She looks like a movie star. Madeleine watches her adjust the rearview mirror and freshen her lipstick. Black hair, red lips, white sunglasses. Like Jackie Kennedy – “She copied me.”

Mike calls her Maman, but for Madeleine she is “Maman” at home and “Mum” in public. “Mum” is more carefree than Maman – like penny loafers instead of Mary Janes. “Mum” goes better with “Dad.” Things go better with Coke.

Her father waits with his hands in the pockets of his chinos, removes his sunglasses and squints up at the blue sky, whistling a tune through his teeth. “Smell the corn,” he says. “That’s the smell of pure sunshine.” Madeleine puts her hands in the pockets of her short-shorts, squints up and inhales.

In the car, her mother blots her lips together, eyes on the mirror. Madeleine watches her retract the lipstick into its tube. Ladies have a lot of things which look like candy but are not.

Her mother has saved her braids. They are in a plastic bag in the silverware chest. Madeleine saw her toss the bag in there just before the movers came. Now her hair is somewhere on a moving van, rumbling toward them.

“Here you go, old buddy.”

Her father hands her an ice cream cone. Mike rejoins them and takes his. He has chosen chocolate as usual. “‘I’d rather fight, than switch.’”

Her father has rum ’n’ raisin. Does something happen to your tastebuds when you grow up so that you like horrible flavours? Or is it particular to parents who grew up during the Depression, when an apple was a treat?

“Want a taste, sweetie?”

“Thanks, Dad.”

She always takes a lick of his ice cream and says, “That’s really good.” Bugs Bunny would say, You lie like a rug, doc, but in a way it isn’t a lie because it really is good to get ice cream with your dad. And when each of you takes a taste of the other’s, it’s great. So Madeleine is not really lying. Nyah, tell me anuddah one, doc.

Maman never wants a cone of her own. She will share Dad’s and take bites of Mike’s and Madeleine’s. That’s another thing that happens when you grow up; at least, it happens to a great number of mothers: they no longer choose to have an ice cream cone of their own.

Back in the car, Madeleine considers offering a lick to Bugs Bunny but doesn’t wish to tempt her brother’s scorn. Bugs is not a doll. He is . . . Bugs. He has seen better days, the tip of his orange carrot is worn white, but his big wise-guy eyes are still bright blue and his long ears still hold whatever position you bend them into. At the moment, his ears are twisted together like a braid down his back. Bavarian Bugs.

Her father starts the engine and tilts his cone toward her mother, who bites it, careful of her lipstick. He backs the station wagon toward the highway and makes a face when he sees that his rearview mirror is out of whack. He gives Maman a look and she makes a kiss with her red lips. He grins and shakes his head. Madeleine looks away, hoping they won’t get mushy.

She contemplates her ice cream cone. Neapolitan. Where to begin? She thinks of it as “cosmopolitan”–the word her father uses to describe their family. The best of all worlds.

* * * * *

Outside the car windows the corn catches the sun, leafy stalks gleam in three greens. Arching oaks and elms line the curving highway, the land rolls and burgeons in a way that makes you believe that, yes, the earth is a woman, and her favourite food is corn. Tall and flexed and straining, emerald citizens. Fronds spiralling, cupping upward, swaddling the tender ears, the gift-wrapped bounty. The edible sun. The McCarthys have come home. To Canada.

When you live in the air force, home is a variation on a theme. Home is Canada, from sea to sea. Home is also the particular town you came from before you got married and joined the forces. And home is whatever place you happen to be posted, whether it’s Canada, the U.S., Germany, France. . . . Right now, home is this sky-blue 1962 Rambler station wagon.

Having adjusted his rearview mirror, Jack glances at his kids in the back seat. Peace reigns for now. Next to him, his wife opens her purse – he reaches forward and pushes in the automatic lighter on the dashboard. She glances at him, small smile as she takes the cigarette from her pack. He winks at her – your wish is my command. Home is this woman.

The Trans-Canada Highway has been finished: you can dip your rear wheels in the Atlantic and drive until you dip your front ones in the Pacific. The McCarthys are not going that far, although they did start this leg of their journey at the Atlantic. They have been driving for three days. Taking it easy, watching the scenery change, fir trees give way to the St. Lawrence Seaway, the narrow cultivated strips of old Québec all along the broad river, the blue shimmer of the worn Laurentian Mountains, the jet-smooth ride of the modern highway, Bienvenus à Montréal, Welcome to Ottawa, to Kingston, to Toronto, extending the summer holiday they spent with Mimi’s family in New Brunswick – Nouveau Brunswick – salt swimming among the sandbars of the Northumberland Strait, and at night the winking lights of the ferry to Prince Edward Island. They rose early to watch the priest bless the multicoloured fishing boats on opening day, le premier jour de pêche. Lobster feasts and noisy card games of Deux Cents late into the night, neighbours arriving to squeeze in at the kitchen table, placing their bets with mounds of pennies and Rummoli chips, until the fiddles and accordion came out and Mimi’s mother thumped out chords on the piano, her treble hand permanently bent into the shape of the hook she had used to make every quilt and rug in the house. L’Acadie.

Language was no barrier. Jack basked in the French, in the food, in the celestial confusion of a big family. Mimi’s father had been lost years before, in a storm that capsized his lobster boat, and her brothers headed the family now. Big self-made men with a chain of seafood restaurants, who took to Jack from the start, when he and Mimi returned home after the war, engaged. Things happened fast back then, everyone understood, the brothers were barely out of uniform themselves. Jack was an anglais, but he was theirs and her family embraced him with a fervour equal to that which fuelled their mistrust of the English in general. They accorded him the status of a prince and extended him the consideration usually reserved for ladies. The best of both worlds.

Jack eats his ice cream, one hand on the wheel, and makes a mental note to start jogging again once they get settled in. Over the past month his sisters-in-law, les belles-soeurs, have fed him like a prize calf. Flour, maple sugar, potato, pork and clams – the possible permutations are dizzying, delicious. And fattening. It seems there is nothing that cannot be transformed into poutine. What is poutine? It is what you make when you make poutine.

He has only had to loosen his belt by one notch, but Jack has a beautiful wife. One who still runs into the water like a girl, bikini-svelte despite two children, breaststroking through the waves, keeping her head up so as not to spoil her “do.” Yes, he’ll start running again once they get to their new home.

Behind him, his son’s voice, disgusted. “Madeleine, it’s melting right down your arm.”

“No it’s not.”

“Maman,” says Mike, leaning forward, “Madeleine fait une messe!”

“I’m not making a mess!” Licking her wrist, salty skin and murky vanilla.

Mimi reaches back with a wet-nap. “Tiens.”

Madeleine takes it and wipes her hand. She tries to get Mike to hold her ice cream cone but he says, “No way, it’s all gobbed.” So Mimi holds it and, while Madeleine wipes her hands, licks the ice cream drips. It is also a characteristic of mothers that they don’t mind eating their child’s soggy ice cream cone.

Madeleine returns the wet-nap in exchange for her ice cream but feels suddenly unwell. It is the wet-nap smell. Pre-moistened for your convenience. Disinfects too. The smell reminds Madeleine of throw-up. That’s because, when you get carsick and throw up, your mother wipes your face with a wet-nap, so of course wet-naps come to stand for throw-up. They smell more like throw-up than throw-up. She passes the ice cream back to her mother.

“I’m full,” she says.

Mike says, “She’s gonna barf.”

“I am not, Mike, don’t say ‘barf.’”

“You just said it. Barf.”

“That’s enough, Mike,” says Jack, and Mike stops.

Mimi turns and looks back at Madeleine with the are-you-going-to-throw-up? expression. It makes her have to throw up. Her eyes water. She puts her face to the open window and drinks in the fresh air. Wills herself not to think of anything sickening. Like the time a girl threw up in kindergarten and it hit the floor with a splash, don’t think about that. Mike has retreated as far as possible to his side of the seat. Madeleine turns carefully and focuses on the back of Dad’s head. That’s better.

The back of Dad’s head. As seen from the back seat of the car, it is as recognizable, as much “him,” as his face. As unmistakeable as your own car in a parking lot. His head, squarish, clean. It says what it means, you don’t have to figure it out. His shoulders under his checked short-sleeved shirt. Elbow out the window, halo of light brown hairs combed by the wind, right hand on the wheel, glint of his university ring. Old Spice. Across the back of his neck, one faint line – a seam that stays paler than his sunburn. The back of Dad’s head. It’s the other side of his face. In fact, he has told you he has eyes back there. This is reassuring. It means he knows who starts most of the fights in the back seat.

“Mike, quit it!” cries Madeleine.

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Mike, don’t tease your sister.”

“Dad, I’m not teasing her, she pinched me.”

“Madeleine, don’t torment your brother.” Maman does not have eyes in the back of her head or she wouldn’t say such a thing.

Mike crosses his eyes at her.

“Mike!” Her eight-year-old shriek like a handsaw. “Stop it!”

Tenez-vous tranquilles maintenant, eh? Your father’s driving,” says Maman.

Madeleine has seen the muscles in her father’s neck contract at her screech, and she softens. She doesn’t want to make him have to pull over and face the back seat. That means a spoiled treat, and a good dose of shame for having ruined such a nice drive through such lovely scenery. His voice will be disappointed, his blue eyes bewildered. Especially his left one with the light scar that traverses his brow. The lid droops slightly, so that his left eye always looks a little sad.

Chantons, les enfants,” says Maman. And they sing “Swinging on a Star.” Madeleine ponders the nature of “moon beans in a jar.”

Billboards loom in farmers’ fields, Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and Be Saved, soldier rows of leafy beets that slow down or speed up depending on whether you focus on the dirt between the rows or on the blur of green, Kodak, Dairy Queen, The Wages of Sin Is Death. Barns, neat and scrubbed. The congenial whiff of cow-pies and wood fires reminds Madeleine of home – Germany, that is. She closes her eyes. She has just said goodbye to another house, on an air force base near the Black Forest. Say goodbye to the house, kids. And they pulled away for the last time.

Each house stands mute and innocent like a poor animal left behind. The windows wide-eyed, bereft of drapes, the front-door-mouth sad and sealed. Goodbye, dear house. Thank you for all the nice times. Thank you for all the remember-whens. The sad house left behind solidifies in memory to become a monument to a former time, a marker for the place you can never get back to. That’s how it is in the air force.

This is Madeleine’s third move, and Mike’s fourth. He insists that she can’t possibly remember her first move, from Alberta to Michigan, because she was only three going on four. Yet he claims to remember his first move, from Washington DC to Alberta, despite the fact that he was barely three. Such are the injustices of living with an older brother.

“Dad,” says Madeleine from the back seat, “I do so remember leaving the base in Alberta, don’t I?”

“Sure you do. Remember the skating rink we made in the backyard?”

She looks pointedly at her brother. “Yup.”

“There you go. But ‘base’ is actually an American term, old buddy. The correct term is ‘station.’”

“Yeah,” says Mike.

They left Europe in June and, for the better part of two months, Mike and Madeleine were indulged by their Acadian aunts and uncles, and ran wild with their cousins. Dozens of them: wild black-haired boys you are not supposed to have a crush on because you are related to them, sexy girls who shave their legs before they are twelve. They speak rapid French, just try to keep up, and if you’ve gone somewhere in a car with them, make sure you get in before it leaves again. Mike and Madeleine watched television for the first time in four years.

No one had a television set on the base in Germany. There were movies at the rec centre, reliably preceded by Looney Toons and Mickey Mouse. There were Friday night suppers with Maman, listening to Jack Benny on the radio before Dad got home from TGIF at the officers’ mess. But TV opened up a brave new world of pageboys, chiffon scarves and madras shorts, of carefree teenagers and surfboards. The cousins were more Connie Francis than Sandra Dee, more Sal Mineo than Troy Donahue, but they had roller skates, cars and Dentyne. And big fridges. Welcome to North America.

Madeleine accepts the idea that she loves them all, “parce que c’est la famille,” says her mother. “Family” has almost as mythic a ring to it as “home.” When they pulled away from Grandmaman’s old pink bungalow, Dad said, “Let’s head for home, what do you think, kids?”

Madeleine waved to Grandmaman, on the porch of the house that looked like a powdery peppermint. Big fat Grandmaman in her bungalow, brightly painted so Grandpapa could see it from his fishing boat out on the water. It was only the second time in Madeleine’s life that she remembered visiting her grandmother, but her eyes filled with tears because “Grandmaman” is another word for “home.”

“What do you say, Missus?” said Dad as they left behind the sea and dunes.

“Take me home, Jack,” said Maman, and wiped her eyes behind her sunglasses.

For a split second Madeleine imagined they were driving back to Germany. To the green lawns and white buildings of the air force base and, in the nearby town, cobblestones, and sidewalk cafés; the tightly stitched countryside, no patch of land unspoken for, no inch uncherished, a different country every couple of hours on a Sunday drive. The German language she had taken to, the language of fairy tales – Märchen – in which she felt wrapped up and safe, like dressing up in her mother’s mouton coat. The language that made people smile in surprise – women behind shop counters, delighted by her proficiency, teasing her parents about their bad Kanadische Deutsch as they offered tastes of cheese and, always, Schokolade für die Kinder. The first German words she and Mike learned: danke schön.

If your father is in the air force, people ask you where you are from and it’s difficult to answer. The answer becomes longer the older you get, because you move every few years. “Where are you from?” “I’m from the Royal Canadian Air Force.” The RCAF. Like a country whose bits are scattered around the globe.

Each bit, each base, looks like every other, so there is a consistency to this nation. Like walking into any Catholic church and hearing the Latin Mass, you can go to a base – station, that is – anywhere in the world and understand it: the recreation centre, the churches, the post office, bank and fire hall, the parade square, the library, the airfield, the building where your father works. And the PX for groceries and everything else – “PX” is another American term they picked up in Europe.

If you live in what are called PMQs – Permanent Married Quarters – your house will be familiar too. There’s a handful of designs, early suburban blueprints, mostly semi-detached, except for the tiny bungalows and the big house where the CO lives. Commanding officer. There is a flagpole on his lawn. By the time you’re eight years old, you have probably seen the inside of each type of house in the PMQs. Sometimes in mirror image. And yet, somehow, each house becomes unique once a family moves in. Unique smells, instant accumulation of treasures, pictures and lived-in mess, all of it emerges from cardboard boxes that kids make into forts and play in for days before they collapse, and by the time they do collapse, the house looks as though the family has always lived there, because an air force wife can put together a home inside a week.

Each regulation lawn bristles with individuality – bikes, strewn toys, a different car in every driveway, each refrigerator opening onto a world of its own. Some people’s fridges contain tins of Hershey’s chocolate sauce. Others contain Hershey’s tins that harbour lard and other horrible surprises; that is the McCarthys’ fridge. Madeleine’s mother wastes nothing, having grown up in the Depression. Although, considering that everyone else’s mother grew up in the Depression too, perhaps it’s an Acadian thing. Or merely Maritime – Canada’s “have-not” provinces. So, despite the uniformity of design, no two houses in the PMQs are exactly alike until that in-between time when one family moves out and the next one moves in. In that space of time the house is no one’s. It belongs to the taxpayers of Canada. During that no one’s time, the house is scrubbed, disinfected, painted white, stripped of blinds, invaded by echoes. It stands suspended, like a deconsecrated church. Not evil, just blank. Neither dead nor living. It comes alive again when a new family pulls into the driveway and says hello to it.

Madeleine reaches into her new Mickey Mouse Club knapsack for her autograph book. Everyone in her grade three class back in Germany signed it. She opens it. . . .

Yours until Niagara Falls, wrote Sarah Dowd, the last letters tumbling down the page.

Yours till the mountains peak to see the salad dressing, love your friend forever, Judy Kinch.

Roses are red, lilies are white, I love you dear Madeleine, morning, noon and night, your best friend, Laurie Ferry.

The book is full. All have sworn to write. Madeleine and Laurie Ferry have sworn to meet on New Year’s Day of the year 2000, in the playground of their PMQs in Germany.

The printed letters look lonely all of a sudden – gay pencil-crayon colours like party decorations after the party. She closes the book, puts it away and takes a deep breath of clover air. There’s no reason to feel sad on such a beautiful day when you have your whole life ahead of you. That’s what grown-ups say. She pictures her life rolled out ahead of her like a highway. How do you know when you’re actually travelling along your life that was ahead of you but is now beneath your feet? How many more miles?

It’s hard to move into a new house without thinking of the day when you will be leaving. Say goodbye to the house, kids. And you will all be that much older. Madeleine is eight going on nine now, she will be going on twelve next time. Almost a teenager. And her parents will be older too. She tries to remember that they are younger now, but she can’t help looking at it in the opposite way: they are older than they were in the last house. And that means they will die sooner. Every house is a step closer to that terrible day. Which house will be the last? Maybe this one. The one we are on our way to say hello to.

The sun warms the lump in her throat and threatens to set tears overflowing her lids, so she closes her eyes and rests her temple against the window frame, soothed by the vibrations of the road. The wind in her hair is swift but gentle, the sun through her closed lids a kaleidoscope of reds and golds.

* * * * *

Outside, the afternoon intensifies. August is the true light of summer. Thick tenor saxophone light. Unlike the trumpets of spring, the strings of autumn. Visible grains of sunlight fall in slow motion, grazing skin – catch them like snowflakes on your tongue. The land is bursting, green and gold and bark. The stalks sway heavy with corn, slowing the breeze. The countryside reclines, abundant and proud like a mightily pregnant woman, lounging. “Pick your own,” say handwritten signs. Pick me.

The Indians grew corn. This is the part of Ontario first taken from them by settlers. They fought here alongside the English, first against the French, then against the Americans in the War of 1812. Now there are reservations, their longhouses and villages survive as drawings in sixth-grade history books and life-size reproductions in tourist villages. Their tobacco is a big cash crop in these parts, but they don’t grow it. The ground is still full of their belongings and many places have been named for their nations and in their languages, including Canada. Some say “Canada” is Iroquois for “village of small huts.” Others say Portuguese fishermen named it Ca Nada: there, nothing.

Welcome to Stratford, Welcome to New Hamburg. . . . So many places in Canada where you feel as though the real place is in another country. If you come from London, Ontario, for instance, you might not say, “I come from London.” You might have to qualify it with “Ontario.” Having to explain this can sound apologetic even if you are perfectly happy to come from London. Ontario. New York was named after York in England, but no one ever thinks of York, England, when they think of New York. Mike would say, “That’s ’cause the States has better everything.”

Welcome to Kitchener. “Did you know Kitchener used to be called Berlin?” says her father, with a glance in the rearview mirror. “It was settled by German immigrants, but they changed the name during the First World War.”

They stop for bratwurst and crusty white rolls, just like home. Germany, that is. Madeleine knows she must cease to think of Germany as home. This is home now – what she sees out the sunny car window. Impossibly long driveways that lead to gabled farmhouses with gingerbread trim. Immense fields, endless miles between towns, so much forest and scrub unspoken for, Crown lands, shaggy and free. Three days of driving through geological eras, mile after mile and still Canada. The vastness is what sets it apart from Germany. Part of what makes it Canada. “You could take the whole of Europe and lose it here in the middle of Ontario,” says her father.

Madeleine leans her chin on the window frame. Picture the war in Europe, the planes and tanks and concentration camps, picture Anne Frank writing her diary, Hitler saluting the crowds. There is more than enough room for all of it to have happened in the province of Ontario.

“But it wouldn’t happen here,” says Madeleine.

“What wouldn’t happen?” asks Dad.

“The war.”

“Which war?” says Mike.

“The Second World War.”

Mike points at her, then at his own head, and spirals his finger to indicate that she’s crazy. Madeleine controls her anger. She wants to hear her father’s answer. He says, “That particular kind of war could never happen here, sweetie, Canada is a free country.”

“If it hadn’t been for the war,” says Maman, “Daddy and I would never have met” – Madeleine squirms – “and you and Michel would never have come along. . . .” Her mother has a way of shifting a subject into a tilted version of itself. Stories of bombs and gas chambers do not go with the story of the air force dance in England where her parents met – The Story of Mimi and Jack. Maman sings, “‘Underneath the lantern, by the barrack gate. . . . ’” And that’s it for any serious discussion of the war.

Madeleine’s father is not an actual veteran, but he would have been had it not been for the airplane crash. Most of her friends’ dads are veterans – pilots and aircrew. Her German babysitter’s dad was a veteran too, of the Wehrmacht. He had one arm and their family went everywhere on a motorcycle with a sidecar. Some Canadian families made trips to see the concentration camps. Laurie Ferry saw piles of shoes at Auschwitz. But Madeleine’s father says, “There’s a difference between learning from history, and dwelling in the past.” Her mother says, “Think nice thoughts.”

Madeleine found an old Life magazine in the dentist’s waiting room on the base. On the cover was a dark-haired girl not much older than herself. Anne Frank. She stole the magazine and pored over it guiltily for weeks, until it disappeared from her room. Maman had rolled it up, along with several other magazines, in order to line a pointed clown hat as part of Madeleine’s Halloween costume.

“My Lili of the lamplight, my own Lili Marlene,” sings Mimi, one hand lightly stroking the back of her husband’s head.

Jack relaxes behind the wheel. She sings the second verse in German. He is tempted to slow down, make the drive last, there is something so full about these suspended times. When it’s just the two of them and their little family on the road between postings. No neighbours, no relatives, no outside world except the one whizzing past the windows. Two drifters, off to see the world. . . . Benevolent unknown world. Full tank of gas. A good time to take stock. You can see who you are. You can see what you have. You have everything.

He says to Mimi, “Sing it again, Missus.”

* * * * *

Farms, wide and prosperous, red barn roofs painted with family names, Irish, English, German, Dutch. This is the southern Ontario heartland. “The Golden Horseshoe . . . ,” says Jack to his family. Bounded by three Great Lakes: to the south, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario; to the west, Lake Huron. And although on a map its shape resembles more the skull of a steer, Jack is correct in adding, “It’s also known as the Southern Ontario Triangle.” The two descriptions conflate for Madeleine and she pictures a glittering golden triangle on a map, their blue station wagon seen from high above, crawling across it.

“Like the Bermuda Triangle?” she asks.

Her parents exchange a smile. “Nope,” says her father

Mike turns to her and mouths the word stunned.

Jack explains that in the Bermuda Triangle things are thought to disappear mysteriously, planes and boats vanishing without a trace. The Southern Ontario Triangle is just the opposite. It is packed with people – at least by comparison to the rest of Canada. There are factories and farms, the soil as rich as the cities, orchards of soft fruit down in the Niagara Peninsula and, spanning the whole, vast fields of corn, tobacco, beets, alfalfa; dairy cattle, horses, hogs and high finance. Windsor waves across the water to Detroit; General Motors, pension plans, let the good times roll off the assembly line. The U.S. is, in some places, a stone’s throw away, its branch plants springing up to cluster on the Canadian side, reinforcing bonds across the world’s longest undefended border. As President Kennedy said last year in Canada’s Parliament, “Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.” The best of both worlds.

“How many more miles, Dad?”

“A few. Just sit back and enjoy the scenery.”

Cutting a swath through fields and woodlots are massive marching steel towers. Follow those mighty X-men and they will lead you to Niagara Falls – twelve million gallons per minute to power turbines that never stop, the engine of this province and the north-eastern United States. Pure power carried by those columns of upreaching steel, high voltage honour guard, girders of the golden triangle.

“Are we there yet?”


This part of the world was one terminus on the Underground Railroad, bordering as it does Michigan and New York state. There are still farms around here run by descendants of slaves who made that journey. People pass by and see a black woman driving a tractor and wonder where she’s from. She’s from here.

A certain amount of smuggling still goes on back and forth across the border – things and, sometimes, people.

Toronto is “the big smoke,” and there are major tourist attractions like Niagara Falls, but at the heart of the Triangle sits the medium-size city of London. There are a lot of insurance companies there. Big American corporations have regional headquarters in London, and products destined for the entire North American market are tested first on the consumers in this area. The manufacturers must think there is something particularly normal about the Southern Ontario Triangle.

* * * * *

“Dad,” Madeleine asks, “why don’t they change Kitchener back to Berlin now that the war is over?”

“Both wars,” he replies, “especially the last one, are still very much in living memory.”

In living colour.

“Yeah, but Germany’s not our enemy now,” says Mike, “Russia is.”

“Right you are, Mike,” says Dad in his man-to-man voice, parade-square clipped, “though you don’t really want to say Russia. Russians are people like anyone else, we’re talking about the Soviets.”

Soviets. The word sounds like a difficult unit of measurement: If Joyce has three soviets and Johnny has twelve, how many soviets would they have if. . . . Madeleine doesn’t press the issue, but feels that Kitchener probably knows that Kitchener is not its real name. The name change makes it seem as though bright shiny Kitchener has an evil secret: “My name used to be Berlin. Heil Hitler.”

Dad clears his throat and continues, “There’s an old saying: ‘Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.’”

Which is proof that, once your name is Berlin, you should keep it that way. But Madeleine says nothing. There is smart, and there is “being smart.”

There is a wall down the middle of the real Berlin now. It’s part of the Iron Curtain. Madeleine knows that it’s not a curtain but the Wall is real. Twenty-nine miles of barbed wire and concrete. The grown-ups say “when the Wall went up” as though it sprang up by magic overnight. “History in the making,” her father called it.

Before the Wall went up, the border ran down the middle of streets, through cemeteries and houses and apartment buildings and people’s beds. You could go to sleep in the U.S.S.R., roll over and wake up in the free world. You could shave as a Communist and breakfast as a free man. Maybe they could build a miniature wall through the middle of Kitchener if they changed its name back to Berlin. That’s not funny. Communism is not funny.

“Dad, are they going to blow up the earth?” she asks.

He answers with a laugh, as though it were the first he’d ever heard of the idea. “Who?” he asks.

“Are they going to press the button?”

“What button?” says Dad. What snake under the bed?

Mike says, “It’s not a button, it’s a metal switch and it takes dual keys, one for each guy, and one guy turns his key, then the other guy –”

“And the chances of that happening,” says Dad, in his my-last-word-on- the-subject voice, “are virtually nil.”

“What’s ‘virtually’?” asks Madeleine.

“It means it might as well be zero.”

But it ain’t zero, is it, doc?

They drive in silence for a while.

“But what if they did press the button?” says Madeleine. “I mean, what if they did turn the keys? Would the earth blow up?”

“What are you worrying about that for?” He sounds a little offended. She feels somewhat ashamed, as though she has been rude. It’s rude to worry about the earth blowing up when your dad is right there in the front seat driving. After you’ve had ice cream and everything.

“Would your skin melt?” She didn’t mean to ask, it just slipped out. Picture your skin sliding off after it has melted. Nyah, pass me a wet-nap, doc.

“What makes you think that would happen?” He sounds incredulous, the way he does when she is afraid and he’s comforting her – as if hers were the most groundless fear in the world. It is comforting. Except when it comes to melted skin.

“I saw a picture,” she says.


“In a magazine. Their skin was melted.”

“She’s talking about the Japs,” explains Mike.

His father corrects him. “Don’t say Japs, Mike, say Japanese.”

“Would it melt?” asks Madeleine.

“Can we talk about something nice, au nom du Seigneur?” says Mimi, coming to the end of her tether. “Think nice thoughts, Madeleine, think about what you’re going to wear the first day of your new school.”

Melted skin.

Maman lights a cigarette. They drive in silence. Refreshing Cameo Menthol.

After a while, Madeleine glances at Mike. He has fallen asleep. Maybe when he wakes up he’ll play I Spy with her. If she is very good. If she doesn’t act like a baby. Or a girl. They used to play together a lot, and shared baths when they were little. She recalls vivid fragments – boats bobbing, bubbles escaping from sinking ducks, “Mayday, come in, Coast Guard.” She remembers sucking delicious soapy water from the face cloth until he grabbed it from her: “No, Madeleine, c’est sale!”

A bit of drool at the corner of his mouth makes Mike look younger, less remote. Madeleine’s throat feels sore–she is tempted to poke him, make him mad at her, then she might stop feeling sad for no reason.

* * * * *

Welcome to Lucan. . . .

They are standing in an old country churchyard. Not old for Europe, old for Canada. Long grass obscures the gravestones, many of which have keeled over. One monument stands out. Four-sided and taller than the rest, still upright but chipped in places. Five names are chiselled on its sides, each name ending in “Donnelly.” They were born on different dates, but they all died on the same day: FEB. 4, 1880. And after each name, etched in stone, is the word “Murdered.”

The Donnellys were Irish. Jack tells the story of how they and their neighbours brought their feud with them from the old country to the new. “You have to ask yourself why,” he says, “with all this space in Canada, they chose to live right next door again.” There isn’t much to the story. Most of it is written right there in the stone. Murdered Murdered Murdered Murdered Murdered.

Mimi calls from the car, “Madeleine, come, we’re going, reviens au car.” But Madeleine lingers. “How did they murder them?” she asks her father.

“They came in the night and broke in.”


“With axes,” says Mike.

“Come on, kids, let’s go,” says Jack, heading for the car.

“Did they get the people who did it?” she asks, transfixed before the stone.

No, they never did.

“Are they still out there?”

No, I told you, it all happened a long time ago.

“I don’t know why you stopped here, Jack,” says Mimi, leading her daughter away by the hand. “She’s going to have les cauchmars.”

“No I won’t,” says Madeleine, stung by the implication that looking at an old gravestone might give her nightmares – she isn’t a baby. “I’m just very interested in history.”

Jack chuckles and Mimi says, “She’s a McCarthy, that one.” Madeleine wonders why anyone would want to be anything else.

Don’t look for that monument nowadays. It was removed years ago, because too many tourists left with fragments of the stone. The McCarthys don’t do that. They simply look and reflect, as is their custom. Rarely do they seek out “attractions” – mini-putt, go-carts – despite Mike’s pleas and Madeleine’s yearnings. Not only are those pursuits “tacky,” but the best things in life are free. The wonders of nature, the architecture of Europe. Your imagination is the best entertainment of all, writing is the greatest technology known to man, and your teeth are more precious than pearls so look after them. “‘Eat an apple every day, take a nap at three, take good care of yourself, you belong to me’ – come on, les enfants, chantez avec Maman. . . .” And Mike does.

Way up in the sky the moon is visible, a pale wafer. We intend to get there before the decade is out, President Kennedy has pledged it. Madeleine’s father has predicted that when she and Mike are grown up, people will take a rocket to the moon as easily as flying to Europe. They were in Germany when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Everyone was glued to the radio – the American Forces network with Walter Cronkite, “the voice of space.” The Russians are beating us in space because Communists force their children to study nothing but arithmetic. Madeleine closes her eyes and sees the imprint of the moon against her lids. At least the Russians sent a man up there that time and not a dog, the way they did with Sputnik. That dog smothered.

“What was that dog’s name?”

“What dog?” asks her father.

Think nice thoughts. “Nothing.”

When John Glenn orbited the earth last February, the principal played the radio over the PA system and the whole school listened to the countdown. They cheered, and when Lieutenant Colonel Glenn returned safely to earth, the principal announced, “This is an historic day for freedom-loving peoples everywhere.”

It is important to beat the Russians to the moon before they can send any more innocent dogs up there.

“How many more miles, Dad?” When Mike asks, it sounds like a question posed out of interest in maps and triangulated distances. When Madeleine asks, it sounds like whining. There is little she can do about this.

“Take a look at the map there, Mike,” says her father in his man-to-man voice. It is a different voice from the one he uses with her. The man-to-man voice makes Mike seem important, which annoys Madeleine, but there is also a note in it that makes her worry that Mike may be about to get in trouble for something even though he hasn’t done anything.

Voici la map, Michel.” Her mother turns and hands it to Mike.

Merci Maman.” He shakes out the map importantly, peers at it, then: “I estimate arrival at 1700 hours.”

“What time is that, Mike?” Madeleine asks.

“It’s Zulu time.”

“Mike, quit it.”

“Five p.m. to civilians,” he says.

“You’re a civilian too,” says Madeleine.

“Not for long.”

“Yes, you’re only eleven, you can’t join till you’re twenty-one.”

“Dad, you can join the army at eighteen, can’t you?”

“Technically, yes, Mike, but then who in his right mind would want to join the army?”

“I mean the air force.”

“Well, during the war. . . .”

During the war. When her father starts this way, it’s clear he’s going to talk for a while, and probably tell them things he has told them before, but somehow that’s the best kind of story. Madeleine leans back and gazes out the window, the better to picture it all.

But Mike interrupts, “Yeah, but what about now?”

“Well, now I think it’s eighteen,” says Dad, “but during the war . . .”

Mike listens, chin perched on the backrest of the front seat. Mimi strokes his cheek, his hair. Mike allows himself to be petted and Madeleine wonders how he has managed to fool their mother into thinking he is pettable. Like a fierce dog with bone-hard muscles that can only be patted by its owner, and its owner thinks it’s fluffy.

“ . . . you had fellas as young as sixteen training as pilots – they lied about their age, you had to be seventeen and a half. . . .” Her father was training at seventeen but he wasn’t in the war. There was a crash. Madeleine closes her eyes and pictures his aircraft.

But Mike interrupts again. “Could I train at eighteen?”

“Tell you what, Mike, when we get to the station, I’ll ask around. I know there’s a civilian flying club and I don’t see why we shouldn’t get you up in a light aircraft before too long, eh?”

“Wow, Dad!” Mike punches his thighs. “Man oh man!”

Mimi reaches over and caresses the back of her husband’s neck, and he returns a casual glance that says, “No big deal,” but really means “I love you.”

Madeleine is embarrassed. It is as though she were suddenly looking through a door that someone ought to have closed. Mike seems not to notice that sort of thing.

“Dad,” says Madeleine, “tell the story of the crash again.”

“Yeah, Dad,” says Mike.

“How about you settle back and enjoy the scenery, and when we get there I’ll show you exactly where it happened.”

Mimi sings “O Mein Papa.”

Mike allows Madeleine to put her feet on his side of the seat. They sing for miles, until they forget where they are going, until they forget where they have been, and the drive becomes a dream, and that’s what a drive could be back then.

Welcome to Paris, Welcome to Brussels, Welcome to Dublin, New Hamburg, Damascus, Welcome to Neustadt and Stratford and London. . . . Welcome to Ontario.

So many unseen companions in this countryside, so many layers of lives. A collective memory has risen from the land and settled over the Triangle like a cumulus cloud. Memory breeds memory, draws it out of new arrivals, takes it in. The soil so rich, water so abundant, the bounty so green it has absorbed us many times over, then breathed everything out again, so that the very air is made of memory. Memory falls in the rain. You drink memory. In winter you make snow angels out of memory.

Twenty-five miles north of London lies the Royal Canadian Air Force Station at Centralia. RCAF Centralia. Don’t look for it now, it has lost its memory. A temporary place, for temporary people, it was constructed so that memory would not adhere, but slip away like an egg from a pan. Constructed to resist time.

The station is named for the nearby village of Centralia, but there the resemblance ends. The village is old and getting older. Gardens change in the village, shops go in and out of business, houses age, are altered, people are born, grow up and die there. But everything about an air force station is new. And it will stay that way for its entire operational life. Each house, each building will be freshly painted in the same colours they have always had, the cadets who jog across the parade square will always be young and about to get their wings. The families in the PMQs will always seem like the first families to move in, they will always have young children of about the same age. Only the trees will change, grow. Like reruns on television, an air force station never grows old. It remains in the present. Until the last flypast. Then it is demobilized, decommissioned, deconsecrated. It is sold off and all the aging, the buildup of time that was never apparent, will suddenly be upon it. It will fade like the face of an old child. Weeds, peeling paint, decaying big-eyed bungalows. . . .

But until that happens, the present tense will reign. And were a wanderer to return after being lost in time, she could walk straight up to her old house and recognize it. Open the door and expect to see Mom with a pan of cookies – “I’ve laid out your Brownie uniform on the bed, sweetheart, where have you been?”

No, this part of the world is not the Bermuda Triangle. But from time to time people do come here in order to disappear.

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Fall on Your Knees

Fall on Your Knees


Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book

Following the curves of history in the first half of the twentieth century, Fall On Your Knees takes us from haunted Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, through the battle fields of World War One, to the emerging jazz scene of New York city and into the lives of four unforgettable sisters. The mythically charged Piper family--James, a father of intelligence and immense ambition, Materia, his Lebanese child-bride, and their daughters: Kathleen, …

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Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new vision of knights, dragons, and the fair maiden caught in between . . .
Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.
Seraphina has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she jo …

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Curse Of The Narrows


Finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction

National Bestseller

The events of the horrific Halifax explosion are well documented: on December 6, 1917, the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Belgian relief ship Imo collide in the Halifax harbour. Nearly 2,000 people are killed; over 9,000 more are injured. The story of one of the world’s worst non-natural disasters has been told before, but never like this.

In a sweeping narrative, Curse of the Narrows tells a tale of ordi …

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The Apprentice's Masterpiece

The Apprentice's Masterpiece

A Story of Medieval Spain
also available: Paperback
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Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake


Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future.

Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey--with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake--through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, …

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Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

"Calm down," he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoning is the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scales and tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree. After brushing off the twigs and bark, he winds his dirty bedsheet around himself like a toga. He's hung his authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap on a branch overnight for safekeeping; he checks inside it, flicks out a spider, puts it on.

He walks a couple of yards to the left, pisses into the bushes. "Heads up," he says to the grasshoppers that whir away at the impact. Then he goes to the other side of the tree, well away from his customary urinal, and rummages around in the cache he's improvised from a few slabs of concrete, lining it with wire mesh to keep out the rats and mice. He's stashed some mangoes there, knotted in a plastic bag, and a can of Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages, and a precious half-bottle of Scotch - no, more like a third - and a chocolate-flavoured energy bar scrounged from a trailer park, limp and sticky inside its foil. He can't bring himself to eat it yet: it might be the last one he'll ever find. He keeps a can opener there too, and for no particular reason an ice pick; and six empty beer bottles, for sentimental reasons and for storing fresh water. Also his sunglasses; he puts them on. One lens is missing but they're better than nothing.

He undoes the plastic bag: there's only a single mango left. Funny, he remembered more. The ants have got in, even though he tied the bag as tightly as he could. Already they're running up his arms, the black kind and the vicious little yellow kind. Surprising what a sharp sting they can give, especially the yellow ones. He rubs them away.

"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity," he says out loud. He has the feeling he's quoting from a book, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials running plantations of one kind or another. He can't recall ever having read such a thing, but that means nothing. There are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be. Rubber plantations, coffee plantations, jute plantations. (What was jute?) They would have been told to wear solar topis, dress for dinner, refrain from raping the natives. It wouldn't have said raping. Refrain from fraternizing with the female inhabitants. Or, put some other way . . .

He bets they didn't refrain, though. Nine times out of ten.

"In view of the mitigating," he says. He finds himself standing with his mouth open, trying to remember the rest of the sentence. He sits down on the ground and begins to eat the mango.

On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children are walking. They must have been swimming, they're still wet and glistening. They should be more careful: who knows what may infest the lagoon? But they're unwary; unlike Snowman, who won't dip a toe in there even at night, when the sun can't get at him. Revision: especially at night.

He watches them with envy, or is it nostalgia? It can't be that: he never swam in the sea as a child, never ran around on a beach without any clothes on. The children scan the terrain, stoop, pick up flotsam; then they deliberate among themselves, keeping some items, discarding others; their treasures go into a torn sack. Sooner or later - he can count on it - they'll seek him out where he sits wrapped in his decaying sheet, hugging his shins and sucking on his mango, in under the shade of the trees because of the punishing sun. For the children - thick-skinned, resistant to ultraviolet - he's a creature of dimness, of the dusk.

Here they come now. "Snowman, oh Snowman," they chant in their singsong way. They never stand too close to him. Is that from respect, as he'd like to think, or because he stinks?

(He does stink, he knows that well enough. He's rank, he's gamy, he reeks like a walrus - oily, salty, fishy - not that he's ever smelled such a beast. But he's seen pictures.)

Opening up their sack, the children chorus, "Oh Snowman, what have we found?" They lift out the objects, hold them up as if offering them for sale: a hubcap, a piano key, a chunk of pale-green pop bottle smoothed by the ocean. A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O'Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with a long wiry tail.

Snowman feels like weeping. What can he tell them? There's no way of explaining to them what these curious items are, or were. But surely they've guessed what he'll say, because it's always the same.

"These are things from before." He keeps his voice kindly but remote. A cross between pedagogue, soothsayer, and benevolent uncle - that should be his tone.

"Will they hurt us?" Sometimes they find tins of motor oil, caustic solvents, plastic bottles of bleach. Booby traps from the past. He's considered to be an expert on potential accidents: scalding liquids, sickening fumes, poison dust. Pain of odd kinds.

"These, no," he says. "These are safe." At this they lose interest, let the sack dangle. But they don't go away: they stand, they stare. Their beachcombing is an excuse. Mostly they want to look at him, because he's so unlike them. Every so often they ask him to take off his sunglasses and put them on again: they want to see whether he has two eyes really, or three.

"Snowman, oh Snowman," they're singing, less to him than to one another. To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman is, they've never seen snow.

It was one of Crake's rules that no name could be chosen for which a physical equivalent - even stuffed, even skeletal - could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adopt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman - existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.

For present purposes he's shortened the name. He's only Snowman. He's kept the abominable to himself, his own secret hair shirt.

After a few moments of hesitation the children squat down in a half-circle, boys and girls together. A couple of the younger ones are still munching on their breakfasts, the green juice running down their chins. It's discouraging how grubby everyone gets without mirrors. Still, they're amazingly attractive, these children - each one naked, each one perfect, each one a different skin colour - chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey - but each with green eyes. Crake's aesthetic.

They're gazing at Snowman expectantly. They must be hoping he'll talk to them, but he isn't in the mood for it today. At the very most he might let them see his sunglasses, up close, or his shiny, dysfunctional watch, or his baseball cap. They like the cap, but don't understand his need for such a thing - removable hair that isn't hair - and he hasn't yet invented a fiction for it.

They're quiet for a bit, staring, ruminating, but then the oldest one starts up. "Oh Snowman, please tell us - what is that moss growing out of your face?" The others chime in. "Please tell us, please tell us!" No nudging, no giggling: the question is serious.

"Feathers," he says.

They ask this question at least once a week. He gives the same answer. Even over such a short time - two months, three? He's lost count - they've accumulated a stock of lore, of conjecture about him: Snowman was once a bird but he's forgotten how to fly and the rest of his feathers fell out, and so he is cold and he needs a second skin, and he has to wrap himself up. No: he's cold because he eats fish, and fish are cold. No: he wraps himself up because he's missing his man thing, and he doesn't want us to see. That's why he won't go swimming. Snowman has wrinkles because he once lived underwater and it wrinkled up his skin. Snowman is sad because the others like him flew away over the sea, and now he is all alone.

"I want feathers too," says the youngest. A vain hope: no beards on the men, among the Children of Crake. Crake himself had found beards irrational; also he'd been irritated by the task of shaving, so he'd abolished the need for it. Though not of course for Snowman: too late for him.

Now they all begin at once. "Oh Snowman, oh Snowman, can we have feathers too, please?"

"No," he says.

"Why not, why not?" sing the two smallest ones.

"Just a minute, I'll ask Crake." He holds his watch up to the sky, turns it around on his wrist, then puts it to his ear as if listening to it. They follow each motion, enthralled. "No," he says.

"Crake says you can't. No feathers for you. Now piss off."

"Piss off? Piss off?" They look at one another, then at him. He's made a mistake, he's said a new thing, one that's impossible to explain. Piss isn't something they'd find insulting. "What is piss off?"

"Go away!" He flaps his sheet at them and they scatter, running along the beach. They're still not sure whether to be afraid of him, or how afraid. He hasn't been known to harm a child, but his nature is not fully understood. There's no telling what he might do.

"Now I'm alone," he says out loud. "All, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide sea." One more scrap from the burning scrapbook in his head.

Revision: seashore.

He feels the need to hear a human voice - a fully human voice, like his own. Sometimes he laughs like a hyena or roars like a lion - his idea of a hyena, his idea of a lion. He used to watch old DVDs of such creatures when he was a child: those animal-behaviour programs featuring copulation and growling and innards, and mothers licking their young. Why had he found them so reassuring?

Or he grunts and squeals like a pigoon, or howls like a wolvog: Aroo! Aroo! Sometimes in the dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! He feels better afterwards.

He stands up and raises his arms to stretch, and his sheet falls off. He looks down at his body with dismay: the grimy, bug-bitten skin, the salt-and-pepper tufts of hair, the thickening yellow toenails. Naked as the day he was born, not that he can remember a thing about that. So many crucial events take place behind people's backs, when they aren't in a position to watch: birth and death, for instance. And the temporary oblivion of sex.

"Don't even think about it," he tells himself. Sex is like drink, it's bad to start brooding about it too early in the day.

He used to take good care of himself; he used to run, work out at the gym. Now he can see his own ribs: he's wasting away. Not enough animal protein. A woman's voice says caressingly in his ear, Nice buns! It isn't Oryx, it's some other woman. Oryx is no longer very talkative.

"Say anything," he implores her. She can hear him, he needs to believe that, but she's giving him the silent treatment. "What can I do?" he asks her. "You know I . . ."

Oh, nice abs! comes the whisper, interrupting him. Honey, just lie back. Who is it? Some tart he once bought. Revision, professional sex-skills expert. A trapeze artist, rubber spine, spangles glued onto her like the scales of a fish. He hates these echoes. Saints used to hear them, crazed lice-infested hermits in their caves and deserts. Pretty soon he'll be seeing beautiful demons, beckoning to him, licking their lips, with red-hot nipples and flickering pink tongues. Mermaids will rise from the waves, out there beyond the crumbling towers, and he'll hear their lovely singing and swim out to them and be eaten by sharks. Creatures with the heads and breasts of women and the talons of eagles will swoop down on him, and he'll open his arms to them, and that will be the end. Brainfrizz.

Or worse, some girl he knows, or knew, will come walking towards him through the trees, and she'll be happy to see him but she'll be made of air. He'd welcome even that, for the company.

He scans the horizon, using his one sunglassed eye: nothing. The sea is hot metal, the sky a bleached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by the sun. Everything is so empty. Water, sand, sky, trees, fragments of past time. Nobody to hear him.

"Crake!" he yells. "Asshole! Shit-for-brains!"

He listens. The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest - clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.

"You did this!" he screams at the ocean.

No answer, which isn't surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash. He wipes his fist across his face, across the grime and tears and snot and the derelict's whiskers and sticky mango juice. "Snowman, Snowman," he says. "Get a life."

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