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Great Ghost Stories

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Everything is orange and the trees are turning into skeletons—what better time to curl up with a spooky book?
Lost Girls

Lost Girls

A Novel
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Bartholomew Christian Crane is a criminal defence lawyer who wins. Thirty-three, silver-tongued and driven by a moral code that preaches, "There are no such things as lies, only misperceptions," Barth is ripe for the first murder trial of his career. Two fourteen-year-old girls have gone missing and presumably lie on the bottom of a lake just outside an economically depressed northern town. Though everyone believes the girls' English teacher is guilty, no bodies have yet been discovered and ther …

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The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

A Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback

SHORTLISTED FOR THE ROGERS WRITERS' TRUST FICTION PRIZE: An infectious and heartbreaking novel from "one of this country's great kinetic writers" (Globe and Mail)--Craig Davidson's first new literary fiction since his bestselling, Giller-shortlisted Cataract City

When neurosurgeon Jake Baker operates, he knows he's handling more than a patient's delicate brain tissue--he's altering their seat of consciousness, their golden vault of memory. And memory, Jake knows well, can be a tricky thing.

When g …

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As a boy, I believed in monsters.

I was convinced that if I said “Bloody Mary” in front of a mirror, a hideous witch-woman would reach through the glass with nails sharp as splinters. I considered it a fact that the Devil lingered at shad­owy crossroads and went to dance halls in disguise, where he’d ask the prettiest girl to dance and reel her across the floor while spectators stood terror-stricken at the sight of the Devil’s goatish shanks, until the girl fainted dead away and the Unclean One vanished in a puff of brimstone.

There was no falsehood I wouldn’t swallow, no quilt of lies you couldn’t drape over my all-too-gullible shoulders. But for a boy like me—chubby, freckled, awkward; growing up in a city where the erection of a new Kmart occasioned our mayor to announce, “This marks a wondrous new chapter in our town’s history”—imagination was my greatest asset. Not to mention my defence against a foe worse than the most fearsome monster: loneliness.

My ally against that foe was my uncle Calvin. If I told him there was a bottomless pit in my basement, he’d say, “Tell me, Jake, is the air denser around the mouth of the pit than in other areas of the basement?” Cocking an eyebrow: “Do ominous growling sounds emanate from this pit of yours?”

Uncle C was the ideal nursemaid for my paranoid fantasies. His knowledge of urban legends and folk­lore was encyclopedic—with the added bonus that he seemed to consider most of it true.
“Hey,” he’d say, “did you know there are crocodiles living in the sewers of our fair city? The poor suckers get smuggled up from Florida by dumb tourists. Sure, they’re cute as a bug’s ear when they’re six inches long.

But when they grow up and get nippy? Ba-whooosh, down the porcelain mistake eraser. They get fat ’n’ sassy down there in the pipes, where there’s plenty to eat if you’re not choosy. Every year a couple of sanita­tion department workers get gobbled up by sewer crocs. The press bottles it up, unscrupulous snakes that they are, but it’s a fact you can set your watch to.”

Uncle C would fiddle with the beads of his brace­let—each an ornate pewter Cthulhu head, mouths and eye sockets sprouting tentacles—and offer a wistful sigh. “And that, Jake, is why owning a pet is a big responsibility.”

Once, when I was six or seven, I became convinced a monster lived in my closet. I told my dad, who did what 99 percent of adults do when their child makes this claim: he flung my closet door open, rattled coat hangers and shoved shoeboxes aside, making a Broadway production of it. “See? No monsters, Jake.”

But monsters make themselves scarce when adults are around, only to slither back after dark. Every kid knew this to be an unshakable fact.

Uncle C arrived for dinner that night, as usual— Mom invited him every Sunday. He got an inkling of my worry as I sat picking at my Salisbury steak.

“What’s the matter, hombre?”

“We have an unwanted visitor in a closet, appar­ently,” Mom informed him.

“But we’ve established that there’s no monster,” my father said. “Right, buddy?”

“Ah,” said Uncle C. “I have some expertise in this area. Sam, with your permission?”

Mom turned to my father and said, “Sam,” in the tone of voice you’d use to calm a jittery horse.

“Of course, Cal, as you like,” my father said.

My uncle pedalled home to his house, returning ten minutes later with a tool box. Once we were in my bed­room he motioned to the closet. “I take it this is its lair?”

I nodded.

“Closets are a favourite haunt of monsters,” my uncle explained. “Most are harmless, even good-tempered, if they have enough dust bunnies and cob­webs to eat. Do you clean your closet?”

I assured him that it was hardly ever tidied unless my mother forced the chore on me.

“Good, let them feast. If they get too hungry they’ll crawl over to your clothes hamper and eat holes in your underwear. No need to check the seat of your drawers for confirmation, as I can see by your expres­sion that yours have indeed met this cruel fate.”

Calvin cracked the tool box and pulled out an instru­ment—one that today I’d recognize as a stud finder.

“It’s a monster tracer,” he said, running it over the closet walls, making exploratory taps with his knuckles. “There are token traces of ectoplasm,” he said in the voice of a veteran contractor.

“Monster slime, in layman’s terms. What does this monster look like?”

“Hairy in some parts, slimy in others.”

“What’s its shape? Like a snake, or a blob?”

“A blob. But it can stretch, too, so it can look like a snake if it wants.”

“We’re dealing with a hairy, slimy blob with uncanny stretching capacities.” He gripped his chin.

“Sounds like a Slurper Slug. They’re common around these parts.”

“A slug?”

“Correct, but we’re not talking your garden-variety slug.” He laughed—actually, he exclaimed ha-ha.

“A little paranormal humour for you, Jake my boy. These peculiar and particularly gross slugs infest closets and crawl spaces. You haven’t been keeping anything tasty in your closet, have you?”

“That’s where I put my Halloween candy.”

“Slurper Slug, then, guaranteed. They’re not dan­gerous, just revolting. They could make a mortician barf his biscuits. If you let one hang around he’ll call his buddies and before long you’ve got an infestation on your hands.”

He rooted through his tool box for a pouch of fine red powder. “This is cochineal, made from the crushed shells of beetles. It’s used in containment spells.”

He laid down a line of powder in the shape of a keyhole 

“This,” he said, pointing to the circle, “is the trap. The Slurper Slug will traipse up this path, see, which gets narrower and narrower until the Slug gets stuck in the Circle of No Return. There it will turn black as night and hard as rock. Now, you’ll have to pull one hair out of your head to bait the slug trap.”

I plucked a single strand, which my uncle laid softly in the trap.

“Go ask your mom if she has any chocolate chips.”

I went down to the kitchen to find my folks engaged in a hushed conversation. My father’s shoulders were vibrating like twin tuning forks.

“Chocolate chips, huh?” Mom said in a Susie- Cheerleader voice. “I’ve only got butterscotch.”
By the time I got back, the closet was shut. My uncle instructed me to lay a trail of butterscotch chips along the door.

“The sweetness will draw that Slug out of hiding. Now listen, Jake, and listen carefully. If you peek inside the closet, the spell will be broken. Under no circumstances can it be opened until tomorrow morn­ing. No matter the sounds you may hear dribbling through this door, you must leave it closed. Do you swear this to me?”

“Yes, I promise.”

“By the Oath of the White Mage, do you swear it?”

When I admitted I didn’t know that oath, he stuck out his little finger. “The pinkie variety will suffice.”

I linked my finger with his and squeezed.

“Cross your heart and hope to die?”

“Stick a needle in my eye,” I said solemnly.

I awoke to sunlight streaming through the window. I crept to the closet and opened it. Just as Uncle C had said, the keyhole was now only a circle and in the middle sat an object that was dark as night and hard as rock.

My uncle was taking off his boots in the front hall when I stormed downstairs.

“The trap worked!” I told him, dragging him up the stairs to show him the blackened slug.

“Pick it up,” he said. “It may still be a little warm but it won’t burn you.”

Queasy warmth pulsed off the slug, or so it felt to me.

“It’s not every day that you can hold a monster in your palm, is it, Jake?”

That lump of obsidian would rest on my nightstand for years. Then one day I noticed it sitting between my Junior Sleuths magnifying glass and a dog-eared reissue of Stephen King’s Carrie, the one with the art deco cover. Opening the drawer, I swept the volcanic rock inside, embarrassed that I’d once been fear-struck by anything so infantile as a snot-ball slug in my closet. . . .

An hour later I took it out and put it back where it belonged.

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Sodom Road Exit

Sodom Road Exit

edition:Paperback

Lambda Literary Award and Sunburst Award finalist; a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year

It's the summer of 1990, and Crystal Beach in Ontario has lost its beloved, long-running amusement park, leaving the lakeside village a virtual ghost town. It is back to this fallen community Starla Mia Martin must return to live with her overbearing mother after dropping out of university and racking up significant debt. But an economic downturn, mother-daughter drama, and Generation X disillusionment soon …

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Hysteria

Hysteria

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Paperback

One of The Globe and Mail’s “Favourite Books of the Year”

The closer she gets to the truth, the faster it slips away.

In the spring of 1945, fifteen year-old Heike circles in the mountains high above Switzerland. Pushed out the door by a worried mother, Heike and her little sister, Lena, have escaped Dresden only days ahead of the firebombs that will destroy that city, to cross a war-torn Germany on their own. But now, Lena is lost and Heike is alone, stalked by a feral dog.

Eleven years late …

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Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach

edition:Paperback

Monkey Beach creates a vivid contemporary landscape that draws the reader deep into a traditional world, a hidden universe of premonition, pain and power.” --Thomas King

Tragedy strikes a Native community when the Hill family’s handsome seventeen-year-old son, Jimmy, mysteriously vanishes at sea. Left behind to cope during the search-and-rescue effort is his sister, Lisamarie, a wayward teenager with a dark secret. She sets off alone in search of Jimmy through the Douglas Channel and heads …

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Excerpt

Six crows sit in our greengage tree. Half-awake, I hear them speak to me in Haisla.
La'es, they say, La'es, la'es.
I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they launch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its dark head.
La'es — Go down to the bottom of the ocean. The word means something else, but I can't remember what. I had too much coffee last night after the Coast Guard called with the news about Jimmy. People pressed cups and cups of it into my hands. Must have fallen asleep fourish. On the nightstand, the clock-face has a badly painted Elvis caught in mid-gyrate. Jimmy found it at a garage sale and gave it to me last year for my birthday — that and a card that said, "Hap B-day, sis! How does it feel to be almost two decades old? Rock on, Grandma!" The Elvis clock says the time is seven-thirty, but it's always either an hour ahead or an hour behind. We always joke that it's on Indian time. I go to my dresser and pull out my first cigarette of the day, then return to the window and smoke. An orange cat pauses at the grassy shoreline, alert. It flicks its tail back and forth, then bounds up the beach and into a tangle of bushes near our neighbour's house. The crows are tiny black dots against a faded denim sky. In the distance, I hear a speedboat. For the last week, I have been dreaming about the ocean-lapping softly against the hull of a boat, hissing as it rolls gravel up a beach, ocean swells hammering the shore, lifting off the rocks in an ethereal spray before the waves make a grumbling retreat. Such a lovely day. Late summer. Warm. Look at the pretty, fluffy clouds. Weather reports are all favourable for the area where his seiner went missing. Jimmy's a good swimmer. Everyone says this like a mantra that will keep him safe. No one's as optimistic about his skipper, Josh, a hefty good-time guy who is very popular for his generosity at bars and parties. He is also heavily in debt and has had a bad fishing season. Earlier this summer two of his crew quit, bitterly complaining to their relatives that he didn't pay them all they were due. They came by last night to show their support. One of my cousins said they've been spreading rumours that Josh might have sunk his Queen of the North for the insurance and that Jimmy's inexperience on the water would make him a perfect scapegoat. They were whispering to other visitors last night, but Aunt Edith glared at them until they took the hint and left.

I stub out the cigarette and take the steps two at a time down to the kitchen. My father's at the table, smoking. His ashtray is overflowing. He glances at me, eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed.

Did you hear the crows earlier?" I say. When he doesn't answer, I find myself babbling. "They were talking to me. They said la'es. It's probably — "

"Clearly a sign, Lisa," my mother has come up behind me and grips my shoulders, "that you need Prozac." She steers me to a chair and pushes me down. Dad's old VHF is tuned to the emergency channel. Normally, we have the radio tuned to CFTK. He likes it loud, and the morning soft rock usually rackets through the house. As we sit in silence, I watch his cigarette burn down in the ashtray. Mom smoothes her hair. She keeps touching it. They both have that glazed, drawn look of people who haven't slept. I have this urge to turn on some music. If they had found the seiner, someone would phone us. "Pan, pan, pan," a woman's voice crackles over the VHF. "All stations, this is the Prince Rupert Coast Guard." She repeats everything three times, I don't know why. "We have an overdue vessel." She goes on to describe a gillnetter that should have been in Rupert four days ago. Mom and Dad tense expectantly even though this has nothing to do with Jimmy.

At any given moment, there are two thousand storms at sea.

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Cloud of Bone

Cloud of Bone

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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From the bestselling author of Random Passage and Waiting for Time comes this masterful, engrossing story of the last surviving Beothuk, a World War II deserter and a recently widowed English woman at the end of the twentieth century.

During World War II, well into the Battle of the North Atlantic, Newfoundlander Kyle Holloway deserts from the Royal Navy. Now, hidden in a cave below St. Mary’s Church, the war-haunted young man remembers years of carefree friendship and petty crime in the narrow …

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I

They have been climbing forever–sea, sky, earth–even time itself has dissolved in fog. The road, little more than a ledge hacked into rock, is now so narrow that they are forced to walk single file, keeping to the left, reaching out to touch the wet cliff, reassuring themselves it is there, praying they will not step into air, plummet downward into the ocean they cannot see but can hear–a dull, repetitive heave of wave on rock, cut now and then by the razor wail of a foghorn far out beyond Fort Amherst.

They are sailors, a volunteer honour guard, though no one volunteers. “You and you,” some officer yelled, culling two ordinary seamen from each Royal Navy ship in port, marching them off to a memorial service for shipmates lost at sea. Sometimes there are bodies; thank Christ there are none tonight–there seldom are nowadays.

There are forty-six men in tonight’s guard–forty-eight if you count the English officer up front and the man lagging behind. The officer is a shag-bag, nervous away from his own kind. He’s only spoken once since the climb began, barking, “Dout it, Sailor!” at some poor sap stunned enough to light a smoke.

Only one man knows precisely where they are, the man at the rear, the one not conscripted, the one not reaching out to touch rock–the murderer. His name is Kyle Holloway. He has come this way a thousand times. Winter and summer, rain and shine, he and his friends roamed these hills, took shelter in the church they are climbing towards. Weak with fatigue, eyes shut, almost sleepwalking, his body still knows when to lean into the grade, turning as the path turns. In order to keep behind he must stop every few minutes, must stand still until he can no longer hear the laboured breathing of the man just ahead.

They come upon the church suddenly. The officer bangs into its stone wall, swears, then shuffles sideways, fumbling for the latch. One of the men snorts some vulgarity about officers never being able to find the hole, and nervous laughter trickles down the line, dying as one by one the sailors reach the church, sense it looming above them like the entrance to some dismal cave.

The officer pushes against the double doors. They give and the men crowd in. The vestibule, cold and dark as night, smells of dust, of wax and linseed oil–and now of tobacco and sweat and the woolly damp of melton coats. They stand quietly while the outside doors are closed and noisily bolted. Only then does the Englishman open the second set of doors, revealing the silent sanctuary, dark wood, a high shadowy ceiling, an uncarpeted aisle that leads to the pulpit over which someone has draped the Royal Navy ensign. On the altar below the flag, three tall candles burn, make a shimmering halo of the white silk.

The sailors walk towards the pale light, file into the front pews but remain standing. The murderer comes in last. He steps into the back pew, stays next to the aisle, shoving his duffle bag out of sight below the seat.

The very air is familiar, that chill mustiness of a place that is never properly heated, the faint acid smell he knows is a combination of coal smoke and bird shit. There have always been birds in St. Mary’s: seagulls, turrs, sparrows, ice partridges and pigeons; sometimes even Mother Carey’s chickens, strange half-birds that blow in on storms, cannot take off from land and have to be flung into the air to fly. Bad design on God’s part, Mr. Norman used to say.

Thirty years as a church verger has drawn Art Norman into the twin, and sometimes overlapping, studies of God and birds. Year after year he devises ever more bizarre ways to rid his church of the pests: shouting, pounding the organ, switching the newly installed electric lights on and off.

For the first time in days Kyle Holloway’s thoughts have veered from churning water, from loud noises and violent death. His body feels soft, rubbery, he longs to sit down but dare not; movement might attract the officer’s attention. So he stands and waits, reflecting on birds, almost smiling as he remembers Art Norman scurrying about the church waving a bamboo pole above his head, as if fishing in the vast dimness. Neither Kyle nor his friends had laughed back then–certainly not Cyril, although he must have been embarrassed by his father’s antics. Not even Gup laughed, not even when the birds, ignoring sunshine beyond the open door, simply flew out of the pole’s reach to roost on the high rafters.

So far as Kyle knows, Mr. Norman is still the verger here at St. Mary’s, but he’s gotten into the taxi business now, carting Yanks and their girlfriends around town. For the duration birds will have to escape on their own, starve, smash into windows or bash their brains out against the fluted glass of light fixtures. Birds have no experience of glass–another of God’s oversights, in Art Norman’s opinion.

Organ music drones suddenly upward, although no organist can be seen in the dark narthex. A man Kyle doesn’t recognize rises from behind the White Ensign. Some old bat brought out of retirement, so frail he has to use the pulpit to pull himself upright. His movement disturbs a pigeon; it flutters from behind the altar and glides up into the frost-glazed rafters. The church is bitterly cold; darkness presses against windows, which, in accordance with regulations, are draped in black cloth.

The dreary music ends. The man behind the pulpit murmurs a few words, a prayer perhaps. He stops speaking but remains standing–they all remain standing, uncertain of what to do. The old man gazes down on them as if he’s never seen their like before. His eyes move from face to face. Except for the officer they look identical; four rows of men, boys really, with short clipped hair, clean-shaven faces above navy blue jackets.

At last the minister nods and the sailors sit. The English officer holds his back stiffly away from the seat; the others slump down, sailorlike, making themselves as comfortable as possible on the uncushioned pews. Thankful for the security of walls they close their eyes, some even sleep.

The old man speaks. At first Kyle cannot make out his words, but gradually the quivery voice rises. He is telling them about land and inheritance, about all the continents, all the seas of the world, all the countries on earth–how England has dominion over them, dominion under God. He says this and much more. There is poetry, or what Kyle takes to be poetry, words following words, rolling down, making no sense.

Kyle feels light-headed, dizzy, then heavy-headed–one sensation following another before he can name it. He has not slept for three days–three days and two nights–not since that moment when the knife came down, moving as if it were something alive, something apart from his hand, his arm, himself. It is always there now. Like a coloured comic, Kyle thinks, each awful square caught inside his head, repeating over and over–the downward slice of the knife, its grey tip slipping into white flesh, a red line appearing just above the ink-blue collar of Gup’s guernsey. Gup’s eyes staring into his–the stunned incredulity, the closeness of that shared second, as if they were one person, him Gup and Gup him. Then Gup’s body crumpling, sliding under the rail and into the sea, Gup becoming what he will now always be.

Despite the cold Kyle is sweating, bent forward in the pew, head on knees, gulping air, panting like a dog. Stop! he tells himself. Stop or they’ll hear you, cart you away–hang you! He imagines being led to a high window, the thick rope around his neck, imagines dropping into that blackness beside the courthouse.

He clamps one hand over his mouth, grips the edge of the seat and forces his body upright until his shoulders again touch the back of the pew. He wills himself to be still, to breathe slowly. He has only to stay calm a little longer, to stay awake a little longer. He will listen, concentrate on the words, try to make sense out of what the old frigger is saying. But words are elusive, insubstantial things; they dissolve, blur, slide into silence. Kyle Holloway’s chin drops to his chest, his eyes close, he is asleep.

The organ wakes him in time to stand for the hymn:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

The singing ends, the minister bows his head: “Almighty Lord, in whom we live and breathe and have our being, who has recorded the names Marcus Dwyer, Edward Gill and Valentine Gullage . . .”

(“Gup! Gup! Gup! Me name’s Gup Gullage!” the child bellows. The teacher draws a line in the register, never again calls his name.)

“ . . . we commit these brave young men to Your keeping. Although their bodies have been lost to the sea, we rejoice in the knowledge that their souls rest in Your arms. We ask Lord, that You grant protection to their comrades gathered here. Place Your everlasting arms around them, keep them safe from terror by night, from the arrow that flyeth by day, the destruction that wasteth at noonday. May they go forth in the certainty . . .”

The old man falters, then stops. He opens his eyes and in a confusion of grief stares down at the young men–in the certainty of what? He can no longer remember. He is weeping, tears streaming down his face.

Even the likes of him knows we’re good as dead, Kyle thinks. Suddenly alert, he threads his fingers through the rope of his duffle bag and slides sideways towards the aisle. He stands and slowly, soundlessly, moves backward–fifteen steps to the inside door. He counted on the way in.

He does not hear the blessing, has already stepped into the dark vestibule, is feeling his way along the far wall, running his hand over a shelf of frayed hymn books, moving towards a dusty curtain behind which there is a trap door, steps and safety.

He wakes once during the night, heart pounding, thinking he is still at sea, thinking night on the North Atlantic, feeling the fear, the damp cold that seeps through cloth, through flesh and muscle into bone, so you can’t tell where cold ends and fear begins. He panics, thinking he is on watch, has stopped beside the ship’s warm funnel, to reassure himself that heat still exists–he must have fallen asleep, slid down against the funnel.

Minutes pass before Kyle realizes that the iron he lies against is cold. He feels no movement, no sting of sea spray and ice, cannot hear waves slamming the hull or smell the stink of bilge water and diesel–he hears only silence, smells only coal dust.

He has no memory of lifting the hatch or coming down the narrow steps. Yet here he is, in the furnace room below the Church of St. Mary the Virgin–the patron saint of sailors, according to Mr. Norman. All around are rock walls, solid granite quarried from the hill, rock rooted to rock–walls that will last a thousand years. Kyle Holloway has lived in fear for so long that safety leaves a gaping emptiness inside him.

He lies awake for some time, savouring the quiet, the emptiness of the church, thinking back on the service, the three candles, Gup’s long-forgotten name being spoken, the old minister crying, going on about death and terror. But that must have been hours ago. The sailors are long gone, all back aboard ship by now. Some may already be at sea, some may already be dead.

And he is not out there–not standing on an icy deck watching dawn gulch in over the North Atlantic, not searching the grey ocean for the black snout of a submarine, that frill of white when its periscope is raised.

I’m not out there, he thinks, and that is enough. Enough to make him forget for a time that Gup is dead, forget that he too will soon be dead. In the safe darkness he slumps back against the furnace and is instantly asleep.

When he wakes again the windowless cellar has brightened. Pale light coming from somewhere. It softens everything, causes coal dust to sparkle from the gritty floor, to glimmer gauzelike in the air. Even the giant coal-pounds looming in two corners of the room glow like polished marble, even tools lodged neatly against the blackened wall, the chisel and pick Mr. Norman uses for breaking up the coal, the long-handled scrapers and shovels, the worn broom–all are beautiful beyond anything Kyle has ever seen.

The furnace room is large and almost empty. Except for the tools along the wall, everything is arranged within reach of a three-legged stool that stands squarely in front of the furnace door. Beside the stool is a full coal scuttle, a shovel and two iron pokers. On the other side are two cardboard boxes, one containing splits, the other newspapers. An old-fashioned toasting fork lies atop the newspapers.

This is Art Norman’s work station, exactly as Kyle remembers it. He studies the familiar objects as an archaeologist might study the household goods of some lost civilization. The permanence of these everyday things comforts the young man, for whom the last eighteen months has seemed a lifetime.

Slowly, because he is stiff, he pushes himself to his feet and begins to pace the room–a sailor’s habit, to keep the blood from freezing, or so his grandfather maintained. Kyle remembers watching his grandfather pace, his father too, back and forth, back and forth, a path worn in the cream and green canvas.

Pace and mutter, pace and tally, licking a pencil stub, marking their lives down on the back of a calendar; how much wood hauled, cut and stacked, how many barrels of vegetables in the root cellar, how much fish landed, how many quintals dried, how much credit left at the store? Enough to cover this year’s flour? Next season’s gear? On and on. This lifelong litany of anxiety is what Kyle remembers from childhood, from the bleak place he lived in until he was ten, the place his mother has gone back to, the place she wanted him to go back to.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Afterlife of George Cartwright

The Afterlife of George Cartwright

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback

In this stunning and original novel, John Steffler has recreated a lost time and place, and has given life to an enigmatic figure from Canada’s 18th-century past. Described quietly by historians as “soldier, diarist, entrepreneur,” George Cartwright emerges in Steffler’s tale as a character of overwhelming appetite and ambition. Until this time Cartwright’s greatest legacy has been the place in Labrador named after him and the journal he wrote during his years there, when he lived amon …

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One

Nottinghamshire shimmers. Fragrant, dizzy with bees at the peak of May. Turning around in the saddle, George Cartwright squints at the scattered fields – no birds within range, no sign of another person. Never a sign of another person. He lets his horse carry him on at its own easy pace, following the Nottingham road out from Mansfield, the same route he’s taken every day since his death in 1819. His hawk, Kaumalak, is perched on his left fist. Sunlight pricks blue fire from the feathers of her wings, and
 
Cartwright smoothes her iridescence: this dainty mortar shell. Songs from invisible birds beckon him forward, stirring his appetite for the hunt. For the moment, his loneliness is nearly without pain. Sparrows splash in the puddled wagon tracks ahead, but he keeps his hawk hooded, scanning the pastures and groves, waiting for larks. Cartwright knows he’s dead, but death isn’t the way he expected – although after 170 years it isn’t something that troubles him very much anymore. In the last weeks of his life, riding this same well- known road, feeling his hawk unusually heavy on his glove, he had sensed the end coming and wondered what lay beyond. Not harps and angels, he suspected, but at least a brief audience with his Maker. Probably a reunion with family and old acquaintances who had already died – some he wasn’t so sure he wanted to face again, but even that he was curious about. Forgiveness and understanding would likely prevail. Maybe a new incarnation in a new world awaited him, something as unimaginable as Labrador. Certainly explanations and marvels, and a few rewards. He didn’t anticipate many punishments. God, he assumed, under his aura or robes or whatever, would be a manly gentleman who favoured a bit of push and gusto in his chaps on earth. But instead of any of that, he died in his room at The Turk’s Head in Mansfield and woke up there, and nothing had changed. Except time had stopped, at least in his immediate vicinity, and everyone was away somewhere. All he could think to do was go hawking.
 
This morning, for example, like every morning, he had sat on the edge of his bed in The Turk’s Head Inn – after a night of unspeakable dreams – and had thought about his unfinished affairs in Labrador, about Caubvick, the Inuit woman, and Mrs. Selby, his mistress, wondering how he might have kept them with him during his days alive. And as he sat picturing their beautiful, troubled faces, speaking to them in his mind, making them smile, and as he proved to himself once again that his bankrupt business might have been saved, his ruminations were mixed with a constant awareness of the smell of damp soot in the fireplace and of the soundlessness of the building around him, the deserted taproom downstairs, Mansfield’s deserted houses, deserted streets. And then, sitting hopelessly, he noticed Kaumalak on her perch. Her keen eyes and beak. Her economical movements. Her stern looks. And in his heart Cartwright felt, with a surge of gladness, the old desire to hunt, to feel the kick of his Hanoverian rifle or the push of his peregrine’s talons as she launched herself in a burst at the sight of doves. He looked out his window then at his horse, Thoroton, stabled across the courtyard, and began hurrying, whistling, getting into his boots.
 
Although time has stopped for Cartwright, he knows that just beneath the surface of what surrounds him it has been racing along at an insane speed. He’s discovered that time is like sound – that the past doesn’t vanish, but encircles us in layers like a continuous series of voices, with the closest, most recent voice drowning out those that have gone before. And just as it’s possible to sit on a bench in a city reading a book, oblivious to the complex racket all around, then to withdraw from the page and pick out from the cascade of noises the voice of one street vendor two blocks away, so for Cartwright it’s possible at times to tune in a detail from either the past or the ongoing course of time and, by concentrating on it, become witness to some event in the affairs of the dead or the living.
 
For the living, the past is always overlaid, made inaccessible by the present, but for Cartwright, both the past and the present are elusive background phenomena, subject to occasional capture. His experience as a hunter and his 170 years of practice have made him adept at nabbing rare moments by their whiskers or tails. He even stumbles into pockets of time unintentionally, the way he’s often stumbled into a rabbit hole during his rambles in search of game.
 
 
Right now while Thoroton plods and the saddle creaks, Cartwright’s eye is caught by a red glimmer ahead in the roadside grass. A ring dropped by some lady or gentleman? A berry? A beetle? The ruby gleam rapidly grows in size and hurtles toward him, pulling in its wake a black river of pavement and two wide wings of images: sharp- cornered brick buildings in rows on either side, poles and wires, smoke. The scarlet double- decker Trent Lines bus bearing down on him is a familiar sight. It rushes under or through him, at which point Cartwright sees it, feels its rush, but can’t see his horse or himself. Groups of cars plunge through him from both directions. He seems to whirl upward, enlarged on an eddy of turbulence, feeling a mixture of horror and admiration. To ride in one of those things! The inventor and sportsman in him are aroused. And yet he’s annoyed. He has spied enough on the present to know how small, how mechanical people there have become. Children of Edmund, he thinks, remembering his brother Edmund’s power- loom and gunpowder engine. This is where all that led. And then remembering his own attempted inventions, he admits to himself some blame for this state of affairs.
 
At certain periods Cartwright has been a fan of the present, though usually a rather grudging, critical fan, following it more out of idle curiosity than love. For a while the smell of the lichen on an oak tree in Averham Park was a reliable way of getting into the Robin Hood Tavern in Nottingham, and although the effort required to trace the smell into the tavern and keep himself there was extremely draining, Cartwright had spent many hours standing by The Robin Hood’s coat- rack watching television and reading the paper over the shoulder of a retired dry- cleaner who always sat nearby and whom Cartwright regarded as more dead than himself. He was actually quite interested in Nottingham Forest, the local football team, for a time – knew all the players and their statistics, laughed at the barbaric remarks of their manager, Brian Clough. But then the effort became too much, and he felt foolish, and went back to his hawk and the Nottingham road. It was lonely and predictable there on the whole, but at least it was his death, and there must be some purpose in it, he thought.
 
 
The red gleam, the Trent bus, had taken Cartwright by surprise. After a moment he recomposes himself and looks around from his elevated position over the countryside. He is out of the present again. The landscape he sees now is the familiar one, exactly as it was on the 19th of May in 1819, the day he died. To the east he sees the old family estate at Marnham and to the south, near Newark, his father’s famous bridge, far from any water, like a length of Roman aqueduct, the folly that had swallowed what little was left of the family fortune and had sent Cartwright into the army and to Labrador. Buttercups and grasses festoon its parapets. A small herd of cows enjoys the shade under one of its spans.
 
Perhaps he’s borrowing Kaumalak’s eyes. This ability of his to stretch up and scan the surface of the earth is getting stronger, he’s noticed. It works best, for some reason, on horseback from the top of a hill. He has seen as far east as Saxony, where he was injured by a boar for the sake of the ungrateful Marquis of Granby, and even to Minorca where he nearly died of fever. To the west he has seen Lizard Head and the Scilly Isles where more than once he came close to being shipwrecked returning from Labrador. He has seen as far as the mid- Atlantic, the same mountainous grey and yellow waves that had rolled clean over his leaking ships. But not yet as far as Newfoundland and the Labrador coast.
 
Cartwright rises slightly in his saddle and farts and searches the sky over the meadows for larks. No, the present causes him little envy. The past is what he can’t let alone.
 
He turns Thoroton to the left through an open gate onto a cattle track and immediately flushes a pair of pheasants from beyond a hedge. He deftly releases his hawk’s jesses and takes off her hood. She swivels her head once, unfolds her wings, and kicks back hard as he braces himself in the stirrups and throws up his arm, pushing with all his might against the amazing force.
 
Nottinghamshire slips from Cartwright’s lap like a quilt. He watches his hands shoot out far, fingers hooked for the pleasure of catching. For feeling the quick pulse burst into bloom, red petals scattering.
 
His centre melts, a current of hunger surging out of his throat and eyes in his hawk’s wake. His body forgotten on Thoroton’s back.
 
Diving into a pocket of blood in the sky. Pure fugitive treasure. The motherhood under everything, even rocks and ice.
 
 
Kaumalak has disappeared in the sun. Cartwright hangs suspended, waiting, hearing a pasture gate lazily striking its post in the light breeze, pausing, striking.
 
Like that knocking on board the Mary during his first voyage home from Labrador. The sound belonged to the part of his cargo he couldn’t understand; the most precious part, he now thinks, the most curious of all he carried from Labrador. The sound of beliefs fathered in people by icebergs and rocks.
 
Having lost sight of land east of Belle Isle, the Mary broke into her full ocean roll, creaking without restraint. Mrs. Selby had made a nest for herself on some bales of marten pelts by the window at the stern and was reading a book. Beside her a set of caribou antlers was lashed to the cabin wall. A tall willow cage containing an eagle swung from an antler point. Cartwright sat at a table making entries in his journal, pleased to be bound for home. Every inch of the ship was snug with cargo, the fruit of a two- year stay in Labrador.
 
“1772. November. Sunday 8,” he had written, “Wind N.N.E. fresh. At day- break we put to sea from Chateau, and set sail for Ireland. We found a great sea in the straits, and by mid- afternoon are two leagues to the eastward of the island of Belle Isle.” Pausing to match his hand to the ship’s movement, he became aware of repeated knocking in the next cabin, not in time with the pitch and roll. He rose, exchanged a questioning look with Mrs. Selby, then stepped out to investigate, opened the nearest door.
 
The smell of the Inuit: woodsmoke and old fat. Only slightly different from his own smell after being surrounded for so long by dried fish, furs, barrels of oil from the cooked blubber of seals. Ickcongoque was lying on her back on the small cabin floor. Her husband, Attuiock, knelt a few feet from her head, chanting slowly and mournfully. Using a musket’s ramrod as a lever balanced over a pewter jug, he was raising Ickcongoque’s head by means of a leather thong which hung from the ramrod’s end and passed under the back of her neck. Their four- year- old daughter, Ickeuna, was snuggled in Caubvick’s lap, both of them fixedly watching the rite. Caubvick’s husband, Tooklavinia, was asleep in one of the bunks. Caubvick turned her beautiful face to Cartwright and smiled when she heard him come in.
 
Attuiock chanted monotonously, his eyes shut, then opened them wide, hissed a couple of words with great intensity, and let Ickcongoque’s head drop to the cabin floor. Then he began his chanting again, raising Ickcongoque’s head.
 
Cartwright waited, watching intently, as he had done so often with these people, glad of their incomprehensible displays. Attuiock paused, looking proud and wise. “It is very good, very good,” he said, pointing to Ickcongoque and his device.
 
“That may be,” Cartwright nodded, “but pray, what is it good for?”
 
“My wife has got the headache.”
 
“Ah!” Cartwright raised his eyebrows and quickly withdrew.
 
Three strides up the companionway, hit by the tilting bite of the air, he gripped the rail and let his laughter explode. He was rich, he knew it. The old chief ’s solemn face! How he loved him, his childishness and wisdom – always what Cartwright loved: dignity and fantasy combined.
 
Cartwright could see his success. His cargoes wouldn’t completely repay his debts, but they would impress his creditors, bringing investment for his next trip out, for expanding his operations on the Labrador coast. He would speak about that with the Board of Trade. And the Inuit would bring him renown, audiences with curious grandees, people of influence – perhaps with the King himself. Some gifts of furs and curios for the men on the Board of Trade, and for Cartwright sole right to fish and hunt in the watersheds of the St. Lewis River and the Alexis River, and eventually Sandwich Bay. And Noble and Pinson’s territory as well – he would have to devour those rivals who were trying to squeeze him out. And better naval support – British law to hold it all in place. Tall doors opening everywhere to admit the adventurer- gentleman back from the Empire’s outposts with proofs of supremacy. He wanted that. Thick- headed George Cartwright, the sporting dolt. He knew what his brothers thought of him. A failed soldier, forever in debt, retired young on half- pay with nothing to do and not enough money with which to do it.
 
He felt himself grin at the prospect of showing off England to the Inuit, watching their faces as they rode in a coach through London’s streets. As they entered St. Paul’s. He liked their capacity for awe, and the thought of the tales they’d take back to their people in Labrador. They looked on the English as a small tribe of landless wanderers. He wanted to show them the true proportion of things, amaze them, make them willing subjects of his rule, to both their advantages. He needed to keep them working for him, bringing him whalebone and furs; he wanted them to see that they needed his knowledge and goods in exchange.
 
He imagined their comic conjectures and his explanations, their blunders in high society. He was eager for this, the disruption they’d cause. He felt they embodied a part of him self returning home. He had never fitted into London society. He was happier gutting a deer. He pictured himself in London walking his wolf cub on a leash, carrying his eagle, escorted by Inuit, and felt the power they gave him – not merely because of the spectacle, but because they were his natural company. They proclaimed what he’d always harboured inside himself.
 
His youngest sister, Dorothy, would be frightened, filled with wonder. His brothers would be speechless for a change. In their chairs in the parlour at Marnham. Political pamphlets, inventions, and sonnets would be swept from their minds as they watched him stride about with his unimaginable friends in their clothing of skins.
 
It was cold and nearly dark. The crew was hauling the ship about on its port tack. Cartwright waved to the helmsman, then heaved himself below to his cabin – a lighted lamp now swinging there from an antler – and flung himself down on the furs beside Mrs. Selby. Unbuttoned her jacket, reached under her clothes.
 
Laughing again he described what Attuiock and Ickcongoque were doing. “Listen,” he said. The knocking was still going on. “No doubt she would have a headache!” His fingers found more buttons, burrowed for warmth.
 
“Poor thing,” Mrs. Selby said. “It must be leaving her people, and the strangeness of all this has made her sick.”
 
Cartwright looked into her eyes and saw something as plain as water around rocks at the edge of a lake. Something sufficient in itself with which he could do nothing. There was also a tinge of amusement there. It seemed directed as much at him as the Inuit.
 
“Ah, most likely it has,” he said, “but they have such a quaint conception of medicine. If they’d only ask me to bleed her, she’d be up helping to trim the topgallant sails in a minute or two.”
 
Mrs. Selby put her book aside, a novel by Sarah Scott. It was one of the few books of Mrs. Selby’s that had survived Labrador, and she’d already read it six or seven times. She took his hand out of her clothing and bit it. “You’re more of a savage,” she said, “than any of them.”
 
 
By the Nottingham road he is conscious again of the gate swinging slightly in the breeze, tapping against a post. Cartwright whistles to Kaumalak. Watches her slowly spiral in.
 
Out to the east the Trent is a long placid smile in a green face. Marnham, where Cartwright was born, lies just to this side of the river at the top of a soft fold.
 
“The land is all made here,” Attuiock had remarked during his visit to Marnham. He and Cartwright were riding slowly side by side in the late- winter afternoon – meadows and hedgerows lay before them – when Attuiock turned to Cartwright with a look of embarrassed discovery on his face. “All made by man.”
 
*
 
George Cartwright, eleven years old, crouched and pushed his way through the willow thicket. His family’s house was in sight at the top of the rise. With his left hand he guided his small fowling piece through the branches ahead of him, careful not to let the trigger get caught. In his right hand he carried behind him four partridges tied by their feet with a cord. A twig stung his cheek. He stepped free into the meadow and started to run.
 
At the top of the meadow he followed the brick- walled trench, then climbed its steps and continued running over the lawn to the window of his father’s study. He peered past the reflection into the dim room. His father was there with John, Cartwright’s brother, younger than him by only a year. They stood at a table looking at drawings and maps. His father’s shaved head, showing a week’s grey stubble, was bare of the wig he sometimes wore. His long, unbuttoned waistcoat, his open shirt, hung loosely before him as he bent forward pointing at diagrams.
 
Cartwright waited and listened. His father was indicating how the red lines representing turnpikes and the arches representing bridges would join with the system of canals, shown in blue, to link ports and county capitals together.
 
“And who shall pay for the work?” John asked. “Will the King pay for it all?”
 
“No,” his father explained, “it will be the duty of landowning families in each district to underwrite the cost of the works, and they will then have the privilege of charging tolls to recover their expenditures and gather a profit.”
 
“Will the roads and canals not stand vacant for want of people with money enough to pay the tolls?” John wondered aloud.
 
“No.” His father spoke to John with gentle intimacy. “When the means are improved, the traffic in goods by land will be much greater than what it is at the present. The storehouses in Nottingham right now are filled with stockings and lace and malt that cannot be conveyed to those who would buy them. Habit is useless. There is great wealth, great wealth to be made by the man with the wits to improve the way things are done.”
 
His father turned to reach for his drawings of bridges, and Cartwright at the window called out and held up his partridges. His father and John looked up – their eyes, their expressions nearly identical. Both for a second seemed not to know who he was. His father opened the window. “We’re busy just now. . . . Well, what have we here? Oh, it’s a pity you didn’t have better luck. Your Aunt Elizabeth’s coming, you know. One or two birds more would have made a meal.”
 
 
His mother was crying, her mouth bunched and ugly as she gave him the basket, the twisted wicker handle thick in his hands, the basket heavy with plates and food for his father and brothers. Anne, his oldest sister, pale and silent, watched from behind the cluttered scullery table. The manservant who would drive the cart, at least until Cartwright insisted on taking the reins, stood by the light- filled door, waiting, a basket in each of his hands, a vague half- smile on his face, looking at nothing.
 
“He’s stolen your future to pay for his precious bridge. Do you know that, George?” His mother was looking into his eyes with frightening intensity, as though grabbing at him out of the ruins of her usual self. “There was a lawyer in here this morning from Nottingham. Your father sold him the Ossington house to pay for his bricks. That was my father’s house. And your father knew I meant it to go to you. There won’t be money for any of you for a tutor now. Army school or some wretched apprenticeship is all you’ll get.”
 
“But the bridge will bring money in, will it not?”
 
“Ha. That bridge is nought but one of his games.”
 
Passing out of the kitchen garden into the carriage- drive where the horse and cart were waiting, Cartwright glimpsed the younger children beyond the orchard leading a pony. His brother William, sixteen years old but smaller than George, was lying on a rug near the garden wall, reading a book. He didn’t look up from his reading. William was separate. In some ways he seemed freer, more adult than the other children; in some ways he was less taken into account than even the youngest one. He was sick much of the time, alone in his room, dining at odd hours. Because of his poor health, and perhaps because their father had once expected him to become head of the family, he was the only one to receive private lessons, although their mother was always talking of having tutors for each of her ten children.
 
Cartwright lifted the basket up to the servant in the cart. He wouldn’t miss the house in Ossington, which he had visited only a few times; he was glad to be spared the tedium of tutors. He couldn’t imagine anyone stealing his future. He was eager to drive the cart, see the country passing, and join the others down in the lowlands beside the Trent River where they were building the bridge. To be under the bright wide sky with the crowds of workers, the carters and piles of bricks.
 
Cartwright’s father, his wig askew, his waistcoat open, was showing a group of visitors over the site, gesturing with a rolled drawing to where the fourteen piers for the thirteen arches would be situated, extolling the values of sound engineering and public works. To the east, marsh birds rose in a glittering flock. Goods and traffic would flow between Newark, Gainsborough, and Mansfield all the year, untroubled by floods, he was saying. The air was loud with the echo of carpenters’ hammers. John was on top of a curved wooden form where one of the arches was being completed. He waved, called out, threw down a rope for Cartwright to tie to one of the baskets of food.
 
Edmund, younger than Cartwright by four years, was out at the last pier watching the engineers rigging a crane with block and tackle. Edmund had diagrams of his own rolled under his arm. In his seven-year-old voice he asked about their arrangements of levers and counterweights. The engineers paused in their work and answered him without condescension. Cartwright had set down a basket in their midst. While he listened, he took out a roasted partridge and handed Edmund a leg.
 
*
 
“You’ve got the makings of a fine officer in many respects, Cartwright.” Mr. Becher, Headmaster of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, paused to stretch his chin high and inhale through large, snuff- blackened nostrils. “You’re good in sports. The Academy Wrestling Champion. You get on well with the other lads. You’re admired by many; that’s clear. You could be a first- rate leader and find advancement in His Majesty’s service. But, look here, you’ve got to apply yourself to your lessons.”
 
“Sir.”
 
“Mr. Ryland tells me your knowledge of Latin is no greater now than when you began here.”
 
“Sir.”
 
“Mr. Langley tells me your knowledge of mathematics, and of the principles of gunnery, is not what it ought to be.”
 
“Sir.”
 
“Our officers cannot be ignorant men, Cartwright. You seem capable enough, but I’m told you daydream. I’m also told you were absent from parade three times in the last fortnight and that you are sometimes absent from your dormitory for the whole night. Those are grounds for expulsion, Cartwright.”
 
“Sir.”
 
“Now I could wink at a few fallings- off of that sort if your performance here in other respects were more satisfactory. If I receive any further reports of failures in mathematics and gunnery, or absences from your duties between now and Easter, a caning is the least you’ll get, in spite of your size. And I expect some progress in Latin. Think of your future, Cartwright.”
 
“Sir.”
 
“I don’t know what – if anything – goes on in your head.”
 
 
“They’re letting you stay?” Kellet leaned forward over his basin of porridge across from Cartwright. “Old Becher is soft on you. Anyone else he would have had flogged and sent down months ago.”
 
Cartwright shrugged. “He says I’ve got to learn Latin. Christ, I’m sick of this stuff.” He stood his spoon upright in his porridge; then, grasping it like a handle, lifted his bowl sideways off the table, turned it quickly upside down in a tight circle without any spill, and set it down again.
 
Kellet sniggered. “You know what cook puts in it instead of salt, don’t you?”
 
“Here, give me your handkerchief,” Cartwright said.
 
He spread Kellet’s handkerchief on the table, scraped his porridge onto it, and tied the handkerchiefs corners over the mass like a peas pudding. “They’ll be watching me,” he said. “Put this in your hat.”
 
Kellet whisked the moist parcel under the table into his hat. “What for?” He searched Cartwright’s face eagerly.
 
“You know those pigeons Madame Becher feeds on the porch roof under their window? I’ve got a plan to get us some decent food.”
 
 
The sound of boys cheering echoed up from the playing field on the other side of the building. Cartwright looked behind him awkwardly to each side. He was pulling himself upright through the leaves, clutching a vine branch with his left hand. His feet were on Kellet’s bony shoulders.
 
His face rose shakily over the eave of the porch under the Bechers’ bedroom window. Pigeons cooed apprehensively and fluttered up to the building’s main roof, sending a gust of feathers and oat husks into his eyes.
 
He checked the window, cautiously lifted the bundle of porridge onto the roof, and opened the handkerchief. It was possible to spread the porridge over the slates like a sheet of dough. He scraped his hand clean, took grain from his pocket, and scattered it over the porridge. “Keep still,” he hissed, turning his face toward Kellet.
 
“Oh God, I hope they’re starving,” Kellet moaned. “You’re breaking my back.”
 
Cartwright crouched under the eave, as deep into the vine’s leaves as he could get. From time to time he twisted his head, checking the courtyard. Everyone was still at the game.
 
He heard a soft rush of wings above him. Mild cooing, claws clicking on slate. He waited. Heard flapping and darted his face and right arm over the eave, snatched one, two, three pigeons before they could pull their feet out of the porridge.
 
 
The air in The Swimming Dog Tavern was murky with smoke, thick with the clatter of backgammon pieces and drinkers’ talk.
 
“The mushrooms were a good idea,” Kellet said, chewing, the light from the fireplace giving his left cheek an exaggerated glow. Two nearly empty wine bottles stood on the table between them.
 
“Mnh!” Cartwright agreed, dipping bread in his plate. “Astonishing what you can do with a wad of porridge. Just add some wine and onions and plenty of peppercorns. And Meg to cook it of course.”
 
Kellet and Cartwright laughed and clinked their glasses together. “To Meg! To Madame Becher! To porridge!”
 
Meg, who had just served them their pigeons, took the earthen baking dish back to the fireplace. “I’ll leave the last one here on the hearth to keep warm,” she said.
 
Then she returned and stood at Cartwright’s side, her hand at the back of his neck, her right hip touching his shoulder. Cartwright put his hand on her waist and looked up into her face.
 
“Do you think my friend Kellet here could stay the night too? What about Theresa? Will she be by?”
 
“Oh, I should think.” Meg smiled openly at Kellet’s red face. “We’ll see the young gentleman safely housed.”
 
*
 
A wide tilting column of smoke is jutting into the sky from just beyond the crown of the meadow he’s in. It must be a farmer burning old hay. He urges Thoroton forward. During his whole time since dying he’s never encountered another human, not one he could talk to. He’s looked in on the living, invisibly, often enough, but his own customary realm has always been empty of all but animal life. Where did his family go in their own deaths? His soul, or whatever he is, has lingered near home. Why haven’t theirs? In all his ghostly hunts and rambles through the familiar countryside he’s never crossed paths with his parents or with any of his four brothers and five sisters. Eventually he’s bound to find John or Catherine or one of them sitting under a tree or walking some lane as lonely and baffled as himself.
 
The smoke just over the rise mounts into the air with unusual volume and energy. Reaching the crest of the meadow he stretches up in his stirrups to see its source, and finds he’s been tricked into the present again. The smoke thunders up out of the five cooling towers of the power station that stands on the site of his old family home. There is a railway below him and a highway with windshields glinting in the sun. He should have thought of this. He’s seen those funnels often enough. As though some experiment of his brother Edmund’s lurched out of control, swallowing the house, pinning the landscape in its cogged and levered arms.
 
He strokes Kaumalak’s breast, then turns Thoroton back down the meadow, out from under the looming presence, into a sprinkling of birdsong.
 
 
In late December 1779, approaching his fortieth birthday, back from Labrador, exhausted, his business in ruins, his relations with Mrs. Selby at an end, Cartwright had made his way by carriage from London over the muddy roads to Marnham.
 
Passing through Newark, alone in the carriage, he looked for his father’s bridge in the distance. Dykes and canals had drained the Muskham marshes into the Devon and Trent. To make a shortcut and avoid the toll which the bridge’s current owner was trying to impose, the driver chose a humpy track to the east of the bridge, across what used to be swamp.
 
Cartwright counted thirteen vague arches in the evening rain. Already grass and brambles seemed to be crowning them.
 
At Marnham his father had embraced him tearfully, struggled to open Madeira wine, his hands trembling constantly, talked breathlessly of his latest financial schemes, plantbreeding, shares in Doncaster mills, his voice thin and brittle.
 
Since his father’s sister, Lady Tyrconnel, had recently died, only their daughter Catherine, their old servant Mary, and a cook were living at home with his parents now. His father led Cartwright into the conservatory, its floor and tables strewn with pots and boxes of earth. Whispering, he lifted a small potted plant and invited his son to stroke its leaves. The old man plucked a leaf, nibbled part of it, and offered the rest to Cartwright, whom he watched expectantly.
 
Cartwright’s mouth puckered.
 
He had bred it himself, his father said, blinking rapidly. A thornless, edible thistle. It would alter the course of history. He was weeping again. “It will release the poor from hunger and reverse God’s curse on Adam. It is a great step toward the recovery of Eden, which now must be the whole object of man’s endeavour.”
 
 
Black plumes pulled sideways in the wind. Cartwright has seen so many over the years, over the landscape, from chimneys and tall stacks. Coal mines, cloth mills, breweries. The cooling towers at Marnham, on top of his old house. These glimpsed billows and skeins often seem to detach themselves from their settings and come after him. Shapes like faceless banshee women, black rags streaming, hovering over his head. Reminders of Caubvick’s hair.
 
Even Kaumalak diving sometimes is a black plume.
 
“Give me your hair,” he had begged Caubvick. “It has to be burnt or thrown away.”
 
Her long black hair, unusually coarse and glossy, almost like a horse’s mane – he had loved to dig his fingers in it, feeling her body’s pull like a river’s current. It had seemed to spring not just from her skin, but from her whole history and the land that had made her. The fever had lifted it off like a wig. The potent mane was attached to a scalp- shaped layer of scabs and dried skin. “Give it to me, in the name of God,” he had pleaded repeatedly as they sailed toward Labrador. “It’s full of death. It will kill your people.”
 
But Caubvick, bald, hollow- eyed, her face pitted with sores, had locked her hair in her trunk and would not give it up. As though she were guarding all that remained of her beauty.
 
He should have forced her, weathered her screaming, her devastation, and taken the trunk, broken it open, and flung her pestilent hair into the sea. Except he knew she’d have thrown herself in after it.
 
He had taken so much from her already, and was grateful she had survived to spare him from having to face her people alone, explain alone what had swallowed their relatives, how he had let them slip. He wanted to handle her gently, not rob her of what little she had left.
 
It was like something fallen out of his hands from the brink of a cliff. He could see it falling, but could not snatch it back. The most precious thing. Falling down and down. His arms were not long enough.
 
 
Hawking and spying over the land, listening in on other periods in time, getting tangled in parts of his life and disentangling himself, finding himself back on the Nottingham road – this jolting process makes up Cartwright’s days. And then there’s the night, and his journal.
 
He never thinks of his journal until it’s dark and he’s in his room in The Turk’s Head Inn and Kaumalak is asleep. The loneliness, the immobility of time seem to be crushing him. He’s sure he’s about to implode, metamorphose into some horrible thing. And then the crisis of torment passes, and a dullness sets in, and his apathetic gaze passes over his journal on the table by the extinct hearth. He takes up one of its volumes for no particular reason, becomes intrigued by some old entry, and forgets where he is again. Sometimes an idea it triggers prompts him to take up his pen and add a new passage. Sometimes he sits up all night, filling his journal’s pages.
 
For a long time now he has continued to write in it, examining his peculiar version of being dead, recording his excursions into the current age, his luck at hawking, his memories.
 
It used to be, he now realizes, that when he was alive he enjoyed making entries in his journal almost as much as he did hunting. The sense of importance, the ritual gave him great pleasure, the times by the fire in the Lodge in Labrador when Mrs. Selby would hush the others because the master was writing. He enjoyed reassembling events, picking out some pattern in what had gone on, and capturing happenings in words. It was not so different from hunting, or so it used to seem.
 
Now, when he writes, he does so with much less order and purpose. Who will read it after all? How long will it go on? He finds himself rewriting passages almost word for word. Some evenings he only reads old entries. Sometimes he simply sits thinking with a volume in his hands and falls asleep. Is he pulling things together, making sense of his life? He can’t tell.

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