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Past Winners: Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

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The finalists for the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize are being announced this week, and we're looking back at the winners over the history of this important award.
Fifteen Dogs

Fifteen Dogs

edition:eBook
also available: Audiobook (CD) Paperback

An utterly convincing and moving look at the beauty and perils of consciousness.

WINNER OF THE 2015 GILLER PRIZE

WINNER OF THE 2015 ROGERS WRITERS' TRUST FICTION PRIZE

FINALIST FOR THE 2015 TORONTO BOOK AWARDS

— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

—I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the g …

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All My Puny Sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback

SHORTLISTED 2014 – Scotiabank Giller Prize
Miriam Toews is beloved for her irresistible voice, for mingling laughter and heartwrenching poignancy like no other writer. In her most passionate novel yet, she brings us the riveting story of two sisters, and a love that illuminates life.
 
You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as …

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A Beautiful Truth

A Beautiful Truth

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Hardcover

Told simultaneously from the perspective of humans and chimpanzees, set in a Vermont home and a Florida primate research facility, A Beautiful Truthat times brutal, at others deeply movingis about the simple truths that transcend species, the meaning of family, the lure of belonging, and the capacity for survival.

A portion of this book's proceeds benefits Save the Chimps, the world's largest chimpanzee sanctuary.

A powerful and haunting meditation on human nature told from the dual perspect …

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Excerpt

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

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Siege 13

Siege 13

Stories
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback

2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — Winner
2012 Governor General’s Literary Award — Finalist, English-Language Fiction

 

In December of 1944, the Red Army entered Budapest to begin one of the bloodiest sieges of the Second World War. By February, the siege was over, but its effects were to be felt for decades afterward.

 

Siege 13 is a collection of thirteen linked stories about this terrible time in history, both its historical moment, but also later, as a legacy of silence, hauntin …

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The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback Hardcover
tagged : literary

Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Medal, the Prix des libraires du Quebec and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and a #1 national bestseller, The Sisters Brothers is a violent, lustful, hung-over and hilarious odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier.

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die: Eli and Charlie Sisters can be counted on for that. Though Eli has never shared …

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Room

Room

edition:Hardcover
tagged : literary

WINNER! 2010 Rogers Writers' Trust Award for Fiction

SHORTLISTED for the 2010 Man Booker Prize

SHORTLISTED for the 2010 Governor General's Award

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It’s where he was born and where he and his Ma eat and play and learn. At night, Ma puts him safely to sleep in the wardrobe, in caseOld Nick comes.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where Old Nick has kept her for seven years, since she was nineteen. Through ingenuity and determination, Ma …

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The Golden Mean

The Golden Mean

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Hardcover

On the orders of his boyhood friend, now King Philip of Macedon, Aristotle postpones his dreams of succeeding Plato as leader of the Academy in Athens and reluctantly arrives in the Macedonian capital of Pella to tutor the king’s adolescent sons. An early illness has left one son with the intellect of a child; the other is destined for greatness but struggles between a keen mind that craves instruction and the pressures of a society that demands his prowess as a soldier. 
 
Initially Aristot …

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Excerpt

Chapter One

The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey. On the ship she seemed comfortable enough, but this last overland stage is beyond all her experience and it shows. Her mare stumbles; she’s let the reins go loose again, allowing the animal to sleepwalk. She rides awkwardly, weighed down by her sodden finery. Earlier I suggested she remain on one of the carts but she resisted, such a rare occurrence that I smiled, and she, embarrassed, looked away. Callisthenes, my nephew, offered to walk the last distance, and with some difficulty we helped her onto his big bay. She clutched at the reins the first time the animal shifted beneath her.

“Are you steady?” I asked, as around us the caravan began to move.

“Of course.”

Touching. Men are good with horses where I come from, where we’re returning now, and she knows it. I spent yesterday on the carts myself so I could write, though now I ride bareback, in the manner of my countrymen, a ball­busting proposition for someone who’s been sedentary as long as I have. You can’t stay on a cart while a woman rides, though; and it occurs to me now that this was her intention.

I hardly noticed her at first, a pretty, vacant-eyed girl on the fringes of Hermias’s menagerie. Five years ago, now. Atarneus was a long way from Athens, across the big sea, snug to the flank of the Persian Empire. Daughter, niece, ward, concubine – the truth slipped like silk.

“You like her,” Hermias said. “I see the way you look at her.” Fat, sly, rumoured a money­changer in his youth, later a butcher and a mercenary; a eunuch, now, supposedly, and a rich man. A politician, too, holding a stubborn satrapy against the barbarians: Hermias of Atarneus. “Bring me my thinkers!” he used to shout. “Great men surround themselves with thinkers! I wish to be surrounded!” And he would laugh and slap at himself while the girl Pythias watched without seeming to blink quite often enough. She became a gift, one of many, for I was a favourite. On our wedding night she arrayed herself in veils, assumed a pose on the bed, and whisked away the sheets before I could see if she had bled. I was thirty-seven then, she fifteen, and gods forgive me but I went at her like a stag in rut. Stag, hog.

“Eh? Eh?” Hermias said the next morning, and laughed.

Night after night after night. I tried to make it up to her with kindness. I treated her with great courtliness, gave her money, addressed her softly, spoke to her of my work. She wasn’t stupid; thoughts flickered in her eyes like fish in deep pools. Three years we spent in Atarneus, until the Persians breathed too close, too hot. Two years in the pretty town of Mytilene, on the island of Lesvos, where they cobbled the floor of the port so enemy ships couldn’t anchor. Now this journey. Through it all she has an untouchable dignity, even when she lies with her knees apart while I gently probe for my work on generation. Fish, too, I’m studying, field animals, and birds when I can get them. There’s a seed like a pomegranate seed in the centre of the folds, and the hole frilled like an oyster. Sometimes moisture, sometimes dryness. I’ve noted it all.

“Uncle.”

I follow my nephew’s finger and see the city on the marshy plain below us, bigger than I remember, more sprawling. The rain is thinning, spitting and spatting now, under a suddenly lucid gold-grey sky.

“Pella,” I announce, to rouse my dripping, dead-eyed wife. “The capital of Macedon. Temple there, market there, palace. You can just make it out. Bigger than you thought?”

She says nothing.

“You’ll have to get used to the dialect. It’s fast, but not so different really. A little rougher.”

“I’ll manage,” she says, not loudly.

I sidle my horse up to hers, lean over to take her reins to keep her near me while I talk. It’s good for her to have to listen, to think. Callisthenes walks beside us.

“The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?”

“Did we bring olives?” Pythias asks.

“I assume you know your wars, my love?”

She picks at the reins, plucks at them like lyre strings, but I don’t let go. “I know them,” she says finally.

Utterly ignorant, of course. If I had to weave all day, I’d at least weave myself a battle scene or two. I remind her of the Athenian conquest of Persia under the great general Pericles, Athens at her seafaring mightiest, in my great­grandfather’s time. Then the decades of conflict in the Peloponnese, Athens bled and finally brought low by Sparta, with some extra Persian muscle, in my father’s youth; and Sparta itself defeated by Thebes, by then the ascendant power, in my own childhood. “I will set you a task. You’ll embroider Thermopylae for me. We’ll hang it over the bed.”

Still not looking at me.

“Thermopylae,” I say. “Gods, woman. The pass. The pass where the Spartans held off the Persians for three days, a force ten times their own. Greatest stand in the history of warfare.”

“Lots of pink and red,” Callisthenes suggests.

She looks straight at me for a moment. I read, Don’t patronize me. And, Continue.

Now, I tell her, young Macedon is in the ascendant, under five­wived Philip. A marriage to cement every settlement and seal every victory: Phila from Elimea, in the North; Audata the Illyrian princess; Olympias of Epirus, first among wives, the only one called queen; Philinna from Thessaly; and Nikesipolis of Pherae, a beauty who died in childbirth. Philip invaded Thrace, too, after Thessaly, but hasn’t yet taken a Thracian wife. I rifle the library in my skull for an interesting factling. “They like to tattoo their women, the Thracians.”

“Mmm.” Callisthenes closes his eyes like he’s just bitten into something tasty.

We’re descending the hillside now, our horses scuffling in the rocky scree as we make our way down to the muddy plain. Pythias is shifting in the saddle, straightening her clothes, smoothing her eyebrows, touching a fingertip to each corner of her mouth, preparing for the city.

“Love.” I put my hand on hers to still her grooming and claim back her attention. My nephew I ignore. A Thracian woman would eat him alive, tender morsel that he is, and spit out the little bones. “You should know a little more. They don’t keep slaves like we do, even in the palace. Everyone works. And they don’t have priests. The king performs that function for his people. He begins every day with sacrifices, and if anyone needs to speak to a god, it’s done through him.” Sacrilege: she doesn’t like this. I read her body. “Pella will not be like Hermias’s court. Women are not a part of public life here.”

“What does that mean?”

I shrug. “Men and women don’t attend entertainments together, or even eat together. Women of your rank aren’t seen. They don’t go out.”

“It’s too cold to go out,” Pythias says. “What does it matter, anyway? This time next week we’ll be in Athens.”

“That’s right.” I’ve explained to her that this detour is just a favour to Hermias. I’m needed in Pella for just a day or two, a week at most. Clean up, dry out, rest the animals, deliver Hermias’s mail, move on. “There isn’t much you’d want to do in public anyway.” The arts are imported sparingly. Pig­hunting is big; drinking is big. “You’ve never tasted beer, have you? You’ll have to try some before we leave.”

She ignores me.

“Beer!” Callisthenes says. “I’ll drink yours, Auntie.”

“Remember yourself,” I tell the young man, who has a tendency to giggle when he gets excited. “We are diplomats now.”

The caravan steps up its pace, and my wife’s back straightens. We’re on.

Despite the rain and ankle­sucking mud, we pick up a retinue as we pass through the city’s outskirts, men and women who come out of their houses to stare, and children who run after us, pulling at the skins covering the bulging carts, trying to dislodge some souvenir. They’re particularly drawn to the cart that carries the cages – a few bedraggled birds and small animals – which they dart at, only to retreat, screaming in pleasure and shaking their hands as though they’ve been nipped. They’re tall children, for the most part, and well formed. My men kick idly at a clutch of little beggars to fend them off, while my nephew genially turns out his pockets to them to prove his poverty. Pythias, veiled, draws the most stares.

At the palace, my nephew speaks to the guard and we are admitted. As the gates close behind us and we begin to dismount, I notice a boy – thirteen, maybe – wandering amongst the carts. Rain­plastered hair, ruddy skin, eyes big as a calf’s.

“Get away from there,” I call when the boy tries to help with one of the cages, a chameleon as it happens, and more gently, when the boy turns to look at me in amazement: “He’ll bite you.”

The boy smiles. “Me?”

The chameleon, on closer inspection, is shit­smelling and lethargic, and dangerously pale; I hope it will survive until I can prepare a proper dissection.

“See its ribs?” I say to the boy. “They aren’t like ours. They extend all the way down and meet at the belly, like a fish’s. The legs flex opposite to a man’s. Can you see his toes? He has five, like you, but with talons like a bird of prey. When he’s healthy he changes colours.”

“I want to see that,” the boy says.

Together we study the monster, the never­closing eye and the tail coiled like a strap.

“Sometimes he goes dark, almost like a crocodile,” I say. “Or spotted, like a leopard. You won’t see it today, I’m afraid. He’s about dead.”

The boy’s eyes rove across the carts.

“Birds,” he says.

I nod.

“Are they dying, too?”

I nod.

“And what’s in here?”

The boy points at a cart of large amphora with wood and stones wedged around them to keep them upright.

“Get me a stick.”

Again that look of amazement.

“There.” I point at the ground some feet away, then turn away deliberately to prise the lid off one of the jars. When I turn back, the boy is holding out the stick. I take it and reach into the jar with it, prodding gently once or twice.

“Smells,” the boy says, and indeed the smell of sea water, creamy and rank, is mingling with the smell of horse dung in the courtyard.

I pull out the stick. Clinging to its end is a small crab.

“That’s just a crab.”

“Can you swim?” I ask.

When the boy doesn’t reply, I describe the lagoon where I used to go diving, the flashing sunlight and then the plunge. This crab, I explain, came from there. I recall going out past the reef with the fishermen and helping with their nets so I could study the catch. There, too, I swam, where the water was deeper and colder and the currents ran like striations in rock, and more than once I had to be rescued, hauled hacking into a boat. Back on shore the fishermen would build fires, make their offerings, and cook what they couldn’t sell. Once I went out with them to hunt dolphin. In their log canoes they would encircle a pod and slap the water with their oars, making a great noise. The animals would beach themselves as they tried to flee. I leapt from the canoe as it reached shore and splashed through the shallows to claim one of them for myself. The fishermen were bemused by my fascination with the viscera, which was inedible and therefore waste to them. They marvelled at my drawings of dissections, pointing in wonder at birds and mice and snakes and beetles, cheering when they recognized a fish. But as orange dims to blue in a few sunset moments, so in most people wonder dims as quickly to horror. A pretty metaphor for a hard lesson I learned long ago. The larger drawings – cow, sheep, goat, deer, dog, cat, child – I left at home.

I can imagine the frosty incomprehension of my colleagues back in Athens. Science is the work of the mind, they will say, and here I am wasting my time swimming and grubbing.

“We cannot ascertain causes until we have facts,” I say. “That above all must be understood. We must observe the world, you see? From the facts we move to the principles, not the other way round.”

“Tell me some more facts,” the boy says.

“Octopuses lay as many eggs as poisonous spiders. There is no blood in the brain, and elsewhere in the body blood can only be contained in blood vessels. Bear cubs are born without articulation and their limbs must be licked into shape by their mothers. Some insects are generated by the dew, and some worms generate spontaneously in manure. There is a passage in your head from your ear to the roof of your mouth. Also, your windpipe enters your mouth quite close to the opening of the back of the nostrils. That’s why when you drink too fast, the drink comes out your nose.”

I wink, and the boy smiles faintly for the first time.

“I think you know more about some things than my tutor.” The boy pauses, as though awaiting my response to this significant remark.

“Possibly,” I say.

“My tutor, Leonidas.”

I shrug as though the name means nothing to me. I wait for him to speak again, to help or make a nuisance of himself, but he darts back into the palace, just a boy running out of the rain.

Now here comes our guide, a grand­gutted flunky who leads us to a suite of rooms in the palace. He runs with sweat, even in this rain, and smiles with satisfaction when I offer him a chair and water. I think he is moulded from pure fat. He says he knows me, remembers me from my childhood. Maybe. When he drinks, his mouth leaves little crumbs on the inner lip of the cup, though we aren’t eating.

“Oh, yes, I remember you,” he says. “The doctor’s boy. Very serious, very serious. Has he changed?” He winks at Pythias, who doesn’t react. “And that’s your son?”

He means Callisthenes. My cousin’s son, I explain, whom I call nephew for simplicity; he travels with me as my apprentice.

Pythias and her maids withdraw to an inner room; my slaves I’ve sent to the stables. We’re too many people for the rooms we’ve been allotted, and they’ll be warm there. Out of sight, too. Slavery is known here but not common, and I don’t want to appear ostentatious. We overlook a small courtyard with a blabbing fountain and some potted trees, almond and fig. My nephew has retreated there to the shelter of a colonnade, and is arguing some choice point or other with himself, his fine brows wrinkled and darkened like walnut meats by the knottiness of his thoughts. I hope he’s working on the reality of numbers, a problem I’m lately interested in.

“You’re back for the good times,” the flunky says. “War, waah!” He beats his fat fists on his chest and laughs. “Come to help us rule the world?”

“It’ll happen,” I say. “It’s our time.”

The fat man laughs again, claps his hands. “Very good, doctor’s son,” he says. “You’re a quick study. Say, ‘I spit on Athens.’”

I spit, just to make him laugh again, to set off all that wobbling.

When he’s gone, I look back to the courtyard.

“Go to him,” Pythias says, passing behind me with her maids, lighting lamps against the coming darkness.

In other windows I can see lights, little prickings, and hear the voices of men and women returning to their rooms for the evening, public duties done. Palace life is the same everywhere. I was happy enough to get away from it for a time, though I know Hermias was disappointed when we left him. Powerful men never like you to leave.

“I’m fine here,” Pythias says. “We’ll see to the unpacking. Go.”

“He hasn’t been able to get away from us for ten days. He probably wants a break.”

A soldier arrives to tell me the king will see me in the morning. Then a page comes with plates of food: fresh and dried fruit, small fish, and wine.

“Eat,” Pythias is saying. Some time has passed; I’m not sure how much. I’m in a chair, wrapped in a blanket, and she is setting a black plate and cup by my foot. “You know it helps you to eat.”

I’m weeping: something about Callisthenes, and nightfall, and the distressing disarray of our lives just now. She pats my face with the sleeve of her dress, a green one I like. She’s found time to change into something dry. Wet things are draped and swagged everywhere; I’m in the only chair that hasn’t been tented.

“He’s so young,” she says. “He wants a look at the city, that’s all. He’ll come back.”

“I know.”

“Eat, then.”

I let her put a bite of fish in my mouth. Oil, salt tang. I realize I’m hungry.

“You see?” she says.

There’s no name for this sickness, no diagnosis, no treatment mentioned in my father’s medical books. You could stand next to me and never guess my symptoms. Metaphor: I am afflicted by colours: grey, hot red, maw-black, gold. I can’t always see how to go on, how best to live with an affliction I can’t explain and can’t cure.

I let her put me to bed. I lie in the sheets she has warmed with stones from the hearth, listening to the surf­sounds of her undressing. “You took care of me today,” I say. My eyes are closed, but I can hear her shrug. “Making me ride. You didn’t want them laughing at me.”

Redness flares behind my closed eyelids; she’s brought a candle to the bedside.

“Not tonight,” I say.

Before we were married, I gave her many fine gifts: sheep, jewellery, perfume, pottery, excellent clothes. I taught her to read and write because I was besotted and wanted to give her something no lover had ever thought of before.

The next morning I see the note she’s left for me, the mouse-scratching I thought I heard as I slipped into sleep: warm, dry.

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The Flying Troutmans

The Flying Troutmans

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also available: Paperback Hardcover

The Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize-winning, #1 national bestselling novel by Miriam Toews is now available in a stunning new package.

     "Yeah, so things have fallen apart."

     Min is sick, Logan is going through some stuff, Thebes is trying to hold everything together (but she's eleven), and Hattie is trying to get over her breakup with Marc. When her stay in Paris is cut short by news that her sister Min is in the psychiatric ward, twenty-eight-year-old Hattie returns home to Winnipeg t …

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Excerpt

one

yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she’d been trying to take care of things but it wasn’t working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan) . . . basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only ­eleven.

I told her I’d be there as soon as I could. I had no choice. There was no question. Our parents are dead. Min didn’t have anybody else. And in just about every meaningful way, neither did I. Admittedly, I would have preferred to keep roaming around Paris pretending to be an artist with my moody, ­adjective-­hating boyfriend, Marc, but he was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically. I tried it a couple of days before he left. I love you, don’t go, I said silently, without moving my lips. He was standing next to me, trying to photograph a gargoyle. You’re a little in my way, he said. Can you move? No amount of telepathy worked with him, but maybe you have to be thousands of miles away from someone in order for your thoughts to work up the speed and velocity required to hit their ­target.

At the airport, Thebes came running over to me dressed entirely in royal blue terry cloth, short shorts and cropped top, and covered in some kind of candy necklace powder. The empty elastic was still around her throat. Or maybe she wore that thing all the time. She had fake tattoos all over her arms and her hair was intense purple, matted and wild, and she melted into me when I put my arms around her and tried to lift her off the ­ground.

Hey, you crazy kid, I said. How are you? She couldn’t talk because she was crying too hard. How are you, Thebie? I asked again. How are things? I didn’t have to ask her. I had a pretty good idea. I let her wrap herself around me and then I carried her over to a plastic airport chair, sat down with her sprawled in my lap, all arms and legs, like a baby giraffe, and let her cry.

How’s the songwriting going? I finally whispered in her ear. I really liked that line . . . take a verse, Mojo . . . you know? I said. She was always ­e-­mailing me her lyrics and cc’ing David Geffen on ­them.

She frowned. She wiped the snot off her face with the back of her hand, then onto her shorts. I’m more into martial arts now, and ­yo-­yoing, she said. I need to get out of my ­head.

Yeah, I said. Using your kung fu powers for ­good?

Well, she said, I feel good when I flip ­people.

Hey, I said, where’s your ­brother?

She told me he was outside waiting in the van because he didn’t know how to work the parking and also he didn’t actually have his driver’s licence, only his learner’s, he’s fifteen, he’s all jacked up on rebellion and whatever, he just wanted to wait in the van and listen to his ­music.

We headed for the exit and kind of stumbled around, falling over each other. Thebes kept her arm wrapped around my waist and tried to help me with my bag. All I had was one large backpack. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying but it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d lost my boyfriend and didn’t care about my job and there was no reason to go back to Paris. I didn’t own anything besides books, and Marc could keep those if he wanted ­to.

It was sunny and warm and the sky was a sharp, cartoony blue compared to the wet clay skies of Paris, and there was Logan sitting in their ­beat-­up van staring straight ahead at something, not us, music blasting from inside, like the van was a giant Marshall amp. Thebes ran up to the van and threw herself against the windshield. Logan snapped out of his rock ’n’ roll reverie for a second and smiled. Then he got out of the van and walked, glided, over to me and gave me a big hug with one arm and asked me how it was ­going.

All right, I said, how about ­you?

Mmmm, he said. He ­shrugged.

Hey, what’s this? I asked him. I grabbed his arm and squeezed his ­bicep.

Yeah, right, said ­Thebes.

And, dude, your pants! I said. Did you steal them from Andre the Giant? I snapped the elastic band on his boxers. Logan opened the door to the van and threw my stuff ­in.

How was Paris? he ­asked.

What? I ­said. Oh, Paris?

Yeah, he said. How was ­it?

Thebes turned down the volume on the music. Then she told me I should drive instead of Logan. She said she’d been planning her funeral on the way ­there.

I got dumped, I ­said.

No way! said ­Logan.

Well, yeah, I ­said.

You can’t get dumped in Paris, said Logan. Isn’t it supposed to be all–
By a guy or a girl? asked ­Thebes.

A guy, I ­said.

Logan stared hard at Thebes for a few seconds. He said you were gay, she ­said.

No I didn’t, said ­Logan.

You totally did! said ­Thebes.

Okay, Thebes, listen, said Logan. I didn’t–

Hey, I said. It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. Really. But it was a ­guy.

But you’re not that old, said Thebes, right? You can still find someone if you look hard. How old are ­you?
Twenty-­eight, I ­said.

Okay, ­twenty-­eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, ­though.

Logan ended up driving back to their house because I didn’t know how to tell him not to and because he hadn’t seemed interested in relinquishing control of the wheel anyway. Logan and Thebes yelled at each other all the way back, the music cranked the whole ­time.

Thebes: Stay in your lane, moron!

Logan: Don’t lose your fucking shit, man!

Thebes: I don’t want to die, loser! Use two hands!

Logan: Do NOT grab the steering wheel!

Then Thebes went into this strange kind of commentary thing she does, quoting the imaginary people in her head. This time it was a funeral director, I think. She said: With an impact this severe there is not a hope of reconstructing this kid’s face. She banged the back window with her ­fist.

What was that? I asked ­her.

The lid of my coffin slamming down, she said. Closed casket. I’ll be unrecognizable ­anyway.
It was great to see the kids again. They’d changed a bit, especially Logan. He was a young man now, not a child. More on his mind, maybe, but with less compulsion to share it. Thebes was more manic than the last time I’d seen her. I knew what that was about. It’s hard not to get a little hysterical when you’re trying desperately to keep somebody you love alive, especially when the person you’re trying to save is ambivalent about being saved. Thebes reminded me of myself when I was her age, rushing home from school ahead of Min so I could create the right vibe, a mood of happiness and fun that would sustain her for another day, or so I thought. I’d mentally rehearse what I thought were amusing anecdotes to entertain her, make her laugh. I didn’t know then that all my ridiculous efforts only brought her further down. Sometimes she would laugh or applaud ­half-­heartedly, but it was always with an expression that said, yeah, whatever, Hattie, nice try, but everything is ­bullshit.

––

My birth triggered a seismic shift in my sister’s life. The day I was born she put her dress on backwards and ran away towards a brighter future, or possibly towards a brighter past. Our parents found her in a tree next door. Had she been planning to jump? She’s been doing that ever since, travelling in two opposite directions at once, towards infancy and death. I don’t know exactly what it was about me. By all accounts before I existed Min was a normal little girl, normal enough. She could pick a direction and stick with it. Our family photo albums are filled, halfway, with shots of Min laughing and smiling and enjoying life. And then, suddenly, I’m in the picture and Min’s joy evaporates. I’ve spent hours staring at those photos trying to understand my sister. Even in the ones in which I don’t appear it’s easy to see by Min’s expression that I am just beyond the lens, somewhere nearby.

Min’s had good days, some inexplicable breaks from the madness, periods of time where she functions beautifully and life is as smooth as glass, almost. The thing I remember most clearly about Cherkis, Thebes’s and Logan’s dad, is how nuts he was about Min and how excited he’d get when Min was on the ­up-­and-­up, taking care of business and acting normal. I liked that about him, but it also broke my heart because he had no idea of the amount of shit that was about to fly. Eventually, though, he did come to understand, and he did what I did, and what so many others in her life have ­done.

He ­left.

Min had a vague notion of where he’d gone. At first it was Tokyo, about as far away as you can get from here without being on your way back. He moved around the Pacific Rim, and then Europe for a while, South America, and then South Dakota. He’d call sometimes to see how the kids were doing, how Min was doing, if she wanted him to come back. No, she didn’t, she said, every time. And if he tried to take the kids she’d kill herself for real. We didn’t know whether this was a bluff or not, but nobody wanted to challenge it. They were all she had, she told him. Cherkis wasn’t the type of guy to hire a lawyer and fight for custody. He told Min he’d wait until the kids were old enough to decide for themselves and take things from there. He didn’t want to rock Min’s boat. He didn’t want anybody getting ­hurt.

I moved to Paris, fled Min’s dark planet for the City of Lights. I didn’t want to leave her and the kids but the truth is she scared me and I thought she might be better off without me, too. Especially if I was the embodiment of her particular anguish. It had been hard to know whether to stay or go.

It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would ­be.

So the next best thing to being dead was being far away, at least as far as Paris. I had a boyfriend, Marc, and a job in a bookstore, and occasionally I’d go home, back to Manitoba, to Min and Thebes and Logan, for Christmas or the odd birthday, or to help with Min if she was in a really bad patch, but of course that was complicated because I never knew whether I should be there or ­not.

I wanted to be an artist, in Paris, or a psychiatrist. Sometimes I’d haul a giant pad of sketch paper and some charcoal pencils to the square in front of the Louvre or wherever the tourists were and I’d offer to sketch them for free. I didn’t feel right about charging anybody, because I wasn’t really doing a good job. In every sketch, it didn’t matter if I was drawing the face of a man or a woman or a kid, I’d include a detail from Min’s face, from what I could remember at that precise moment. Sometimes it was the shape of her eyebrows, or her wide lips, or a constellation of tiny freckles, or even just a shadow beneath the cheekbone. The people I sketched were always slightly confused and disappointed when I showed them my work, I could tell, but most of them were kind, especially because I didn’t expect any ­payment.

Our father died in a drowning accident in Acapulco when Min and I were kids. He drowned trying to save us. We’d been racing and had swum out farther than we should have and Min had started panicking, screaming for help. The current was strong and we couldn’t get back to the shore no matter how hard we pushed against the water. I remember yelling at Min to move sideways and to let go of me. After that, my memory of events is blurry. I have a feeling that Min was pushing me down, under water. I think that I remember her hand on my head, or on my shoulder, but maybe I’m wrong. Our mother told us that Dad had heard our screams and had swum out to get us, but that he too had got caught in the undertow and disappeared. They said it was a riptide. Other people on the beach eventually grabbed a boat from somewhere and rescued us, but by then Dad was gone. Min was fifteen and I was nine. They left us lying in the sun on the beach, crying and vomiting up salt water, while they searched for ­him.

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