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Herstory/History

By LetterEm
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A contemplation of how perspectives and experiences of past people are influenced by gendered society.
Fifth Business

Fifth Business

edition:Paperback
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tagged : literary

Ramsay is a man twice born, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross and destined to be caught in a no man's land where memory, history, and myth collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood, he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious, influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of car …

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Cat's Eye

Cat's Eye

edition:Paperback
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Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal.

By turns disquieting, humorous, compassionate, haunting and mordant, Cat’s Eye is vintage Atwood.

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1.  
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.
 
It was my brother Stephen who told me that, when he wore his ravelling maroon sweater to study in and spent a lot of time standing on his head so that the blood would run down into his brain and nourish it. I didn’t understand what he meant, but maybe he didn’t explain it very well. He was already moving away from the imprecision of words.
 
But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.
 
2.
“Stephen says time is not a line,” I say. Cordelia rolls her eyes, as I knew she would.
 
“So?” she says. This answer pleases both of us. It puts the nature of time in its place, and also Stephen, who calls us “the teenagers,” as if he himself is not one.
 
Cordelia and I are riding on the streetcar, going downtown, as we do on winter Saturdays. The streetcar is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool. Cordelia sits with nonchalance, nudging me with her elbow now and then, staring blankly at the other people with her grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can outstare anyone, and I am almost as good. We’re impervious, we scintillate, we are thirteen.
 
We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends.
 
On the streetcars there are always old ladies, or we think of them as old. They’re of various kinds. Some are respectably dressed, in tailored Harris tweed coats and matching gloves and tidy no-nonsense hats with small brisk feathers jauntily at one side. Others are poorer and foreign-looking and have dark shawls wound over their heads and around their shoulders. Others are bulgy, dumpy, with clamped self-righteous mouths, their arms festooned with shopping bags; these we associate with sales, with bargain basements. Cordelia can tell cheap cloth at a glance. “Gabardine,” she says. “Ticky-tack.”
 
Then there are the ones who have not resigned themselves, who still try for an effect of glamour. There aren’t many of these, but they stand out. They wear scarlet outfits or purple ones, and dangly earrings, and hats that look like stage props. Their slips show at the bottoms of their skirts, slips of unusual, suggestive colours.
 
Anything other than white is suggestive. They have hair dyed strawblonde or baby-blue, or, even more startling against their papery skins, a lustreless old-fur-coat black. Their lipstick mouths are too big around their mouths, their rouge blotchy, their eyes drawn screw-jiggy around their real eyes. These are the ones most likely to talk to themselves. There’s one who says “mutton, mutton,” over and over again like a song, another who pokes at our legs with her umbrella and says “bare naked.”
 
This is the kind we like best. They have a certain gaiety to them, a power of invention, they don’t care what people think. They have escaped, though what it is they’ve escaped from isn’t clear to us. We think that their bizarre costumes, their verbal tics, are chosen, and that when the time comes we also will be free to choose.
 
“That’s what I’m going to be like,” says Cordelia. “Only I’m going to have a yappy Pekinese, and chase kids off my lawn. I’m going to have a shepherd’s crook.”
 
“I’m going to have a pet iguana,” I say, “and wear nothing but cerise.” It’s a word I have recently learned.
 
Now I think, what if they just couldn’t see what they looked like? Maybe it was as simple as that: eye problems. I’m having that trouble myself now: too close to the mirror and I’m a blur, too far back and I can’t see the details. Who knows what faces I’m making, what kind of modern art I’m drawing onto myself? Even when I’ve got the distance adjusted, I vary. I am transitional; some days I look like a worn-out thirty-five, others like a sprightly fifty. So much depends on the light, and the way you squint.
 
I eat in pink restaurants, which are better for the skin. Yellow ones turn you yellow. I actually spend time thinking about this. Vanity is becoming a nuisance; I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.
 
Lately I’ve caught myself humming out loud, or walking along the street with my mouth slightly open, drooling a little. Only a little; but it may be the thin edge of the wedge, the crack in the wall that will open, later, onto what? What vistas of shining eccentricity, or madness?
 
There is no one I would ever tell this to, except Cordelia. But which Cordelia? The one I have conjured up, the one with the rolltop boots and the turned-up collar, or the one before, or the one after? There is never only one, of anyone.
 
If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
 
Probably the latter. I still have that need.
 
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her – a shoulder, beige, camel’s-hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg – belong to women who, seen whole, are not Cordelia.
 
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint? All of these things are possible: we’ve both reached that borderline age, that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.
 
I think of Cordelia examining the growing pouches under her eyes, the skin, up close, loosened and crinkled like elbows. She sighs, pats in cream, which is the right kind. Cordelia would know the right kind. She takes stock of her hands, which are shrinking a little, warping a little, as mine are. Gnarling has set in, the withering of the mouth; the outlines of dewlaps are beginning to be visible, down towards the chin, in the dark glass of subway windows. Nobody else notices these things yet, unless they look closely; but Cordelia and I are in the habit of looking closely.
 
She drops the bath towel, which is green, a muted sea-green to match her eyes, looks over her shoulder, sees in the mirror the dog’s-neck folds of skin above the waist, the buttocks drooping like wattles, and, turning, the dried fern of hair. I think of her in a sweatsuit, sea-green as well, working out in some gym or other, sweating like a pig. I know what she would say about this, about all of this. How we giggled, with repugnance and delight, when we found the wax her older sisters used on their legs, congealed in a little pot, stuck full of bristles. The grotesqueries of the body were always of interest to her.
 
I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled with her only possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say. And she does, but pretends not to. She gets up and shambles away on swollen feet, old socks poking through the holes in her rubber boots, glancing back over her shoulder.
 
There’s some satisfaction in that, more in worse things. I watch from a window, or a balcony so I can see better, as some man chases Cordelia along the sidewalk below me, catches up with her, punches her in the ribs – I can’t handle the face – throws her down. But I can’t go any farther.
 
Better to switch to an oxygen tent. Cordelia is unconscious. I have been summoned, too late, to her hospital bedside. There are flowers, sickly-smelling, wilting in a vase, tubes going into her arms and nose, the sound of terminal breathing. I hold her hand. Her face is puffy, white, like an unbaked biscuit, with yellowish circles under the closed eyes. Her eyelids don’t flicker but there’s a faint twitching of her fingers, or do I imagine it? I sit there wondering whether to pull the tubes out of her arms, the plug out of the wall. No brain activity, the doctors say. Am I crying? And who would have summoned me?
 
Even better: an iron lung. I’ve never seen an iron lung, but the newspapers had pictures of children in iron lungs, back when people still got polio. These pictures – the iron lung a cylinder, a gigantic sausage roll of metal, with a head sticking out one end of it, always a girl’s head, the hair flowing across the pillow, the eyes large, nocturnal – fascinated me, more than stories about children who went out on thin ice and fell through and were drowned, or children who played on the railroad tracks and had their arms and legs cut off by trains. You could get polio without knowing how or where, end up in an iron lung without knowing why. Something you breathed in or ate, or picked up from the dirty money other people had touched. You never knew.

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Obasan

Obasan

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A powerful and passionate novel, Obasan tells, through the eyes of a child, the moving story of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Naomi is a sheltered and beloved five-year-old when Pearl Harbor changes her life. Separated from her mother, she watches bewildered as she and her family become enemy aliens, persecuted and despised in their own land. Surrounded by hardship and pain, Naomi is protected by the resolute endurance of her aunt Obasan and the silence of those around her. Onl …

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Itsuka

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback Paperback Paperback
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Emily Kato

Emily Kato

edition:Paperback
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On the 60th anniversary of the bombing that claimed Naomi's young mother in Obasan, Joy Kogawa revisits her second novel—Itsuka—now retitled Emily Kato

In Obasan, Naomi's childhood was torn apart by Canada's betrayal of Japanese Canadian citizens during the 1940s. Years later, living quietly as a schoolteacher in the prairies, Naomi suffers the passing of the dear aunt and uncle who raised her, and her wounds are reopened. But Naomi's other aunt—the feisty Emily Kato—convinces her to mov …

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The Gravesavers

The Gravesavers

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged :

“An odd shaped shell caught my eye. . . . I turned it over. . . . It was a tiny, perfect skull.”

In the wake of a family tragedy, twelve-year-old Minn Hotchkiss is sent to spend the summer with her sour grandmother in the tiny seaside town of Boulder Basin, Nova Scotia. Almost as soon as she arrives, Minn discovers the skull of a human child on the beach. She is swiftly caught up in a mystery that reaches back more than a century, to the aftermath of the most tragic shipwreck in Maritime hist …

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Excerpt

TODAY

My father says I know how to make a short story long. My mother says I was born with the gift of the gab.

Today, I’ve got five minutes to speak — if I can. My tongue’s all puckered up, like I just bit into a chokecherry, and my fists are clamped tighter than oyster shells. Minnows are swimming in my belly. As for my heart? It’s doing a tap-dance routine, beating faster than before the start of any race I’ve ever run. Ordinarily, I calm myself down by reciting the names of clouds or constellations or all the capitals in every province and territory of Canada.

Today, that’s not working.

There must be at least three hundred of us huddled around this gravesite.

What I want to say in my speech is: everything. I’ve got this hankering, as Harv would say, a notion to tell the whole story. I want to tell John Hindley’s story. He can’t tell it himself because he’s dead. Kaput. History. Long gone — in a manner of speaking.

But the truth whole truth and nothing but the truth cross my heart hope to die stick a needle in my eye is a slippery thing. That’s why, after I’m introduced, I’ll be telling all these good folks a big fat whopping lie. For their own protection.

If I can make it up those steps to the podium without tripping over my own two feet, I’ll do my five-minute spiel. Croak it out if I have to. But I’ll always know one thing for certain. It’s only one part of a story inside of many stories all twisted around each other like a tangled-up mizzenmast. If, like me, your nautical knowledge is almost zero, a mizzenmast is part of a ship. Picture a humongous rope ladder. It can save your life. John Hindley taught me that. How he managed that is the kind of secret that can only be whispered to the clouds: Cirrus. Cumulus. Nimbus. Stratus. Cirrocumulus. Altostratus.
YESTERDAYS

Proper Introductions

Next month, I’ll be fourteen and I don’t believe in ghosts. Nuh-uh. At least, I don’t believe in the kind of ghost that can jump out of a mirror and chase you out of a house or anything. But spirits? That’s a whole other story.

“The spirit of a person never dies as long as there’s someone around to remember them. And you never know who that someone might be,” says my grandmother.

It could even be someone as ordinary as me, Cinnamon Elizabeth Hotchkiss. Mostly I go by Minn, but yes, that’s Cinnamon like the spice except with a capital C and that’s Hotchkiss, not hopscotch or hog-kiss in case you’re even halfway thinking of making a joke. The name Cinnamon comes from the buns my mother ate waiting for me to arrive. Also, the song. The one my father sang to her belly in his best country-and-western twang:

O sweet little cinnamon baby
O baby we love you so
Sugar and spice and everything nice
Our sweet little baby-yoooo!
He yodels on the o. I know this song well because he still sings it to me. In front of my friends. Get the picture? Raymond — but hey, you can call me Ray — Hotchkiss is a real joker, all right. I think he really wishes he could yodel for a living. He’s a wannabe Wilf Carter — a famous singer “born right here in Nova Scotia,” he loves to boast. He seems to forget we live in New Brunswick and Wilf Carter is long dead. My father gets up every day, yodels in the shower like Wilf and dresses like a Canadian postcard. He’s a corporal in the RCMP. That stands for Royal Canadian Mounted Police, by the way, not Rotten Carrots Mashed Potatoes or Really Crazy Mental People. You might not know that if you aren’t Canadian.

Being a Mountie’s daughter means I get to spit every year on November the tenth. That’s when my father polishes his boots for the Remembrance Day parade.

I spit. Corporal Ray polishes. By the time we’re through, there I am, staring at my own reflection in the toe of each boot.

“Shinier than any mirror in the whole of Buckingham Palace,” boasts Corporal Ray.

But the best part? If I watch real close, I’ll catch his wink when he passes by next day in the parade. He’s supposed to be at attention and keep his eyes straight ahead like some kind of workhorse wearing blinders. Still, he always manages that wink.

Being a cop’s kid isn’t all about having fun spitting. It’s not all parades.

When I was in Grade Two, Davey Stevenson told me my father was a p-i-g PIG!

“Pig child eat dirt!” he said. I ran home crying and told my mother who told my father.

“Going to tell ya something, Minn,” he said that night after supper. “Next time Davey Stevenson tells you I’m a pig you look him right in the eye and say, that’s right, Davey, all cops are pigs. P-I-G-S. Stands for Pride, Integrity, Guts and Stamina.”

That’s exactly what I did next time Davey started in. Shut him up pretty fast, all right.

One night just last year Corporal Ray didn’t come home his usual time. When he got home my mother cried and hung on to him for dear life. They tried to spare me the details of what happened. Next day I found out anyhow, in the news. My father was the one who went in to get the bad guy. Buddy had a gun, too, and was holding his family hostage.

I still have nightmares about that one.

When I was little, Corporal Ray used to pretend he was a horse and cantered all us kids in the neighbourhood around the backyard. One at a time, he’d hoist us up on his shoulders, then gallop and whinny at the top of his lungs like some kind of idiot. Being a Mountie’s daughter means you know that the bad guys aren’t just on TV. You know that good guys are real, too.

My mother, Dory, is a consultant for a paint store in downtown Fairvale. “It’s a dream job,” she says, “the world is my crayon book.” Office buildings and kitchen cabinets are, too. She mixes the paint, and best of all, she gets to invent new names all the time. Sombrero Sun. Cattail Brown. Foxy Cyan. Gumball Blue. That last one was one of my suggestions, by the way. Her favourite television show is Paint It Great and her most prized possession is an autographed copy of the book written by the show’s host. My mother also loves gardening and music by the old British singing group the Ladybugs.

“Contrary to popular belief,” she says, “not all Maritimers grew up listening to fiddles and bagpipes.”

She’s nuts about Hardly Whynot, the lead singer. “Hardly, sing to me,” she says when she puts on a CD. Then she gets a goopy look in her eyes like he’s singing just for her. Leastways, she used to.

And I used to be the only child of Dory and Raymond Hotchkiss of 22 Redwood Drive, Fairvale, New Brunswick. E3B 1Z4. Eat three bananas, one Zamboni four.

Everything’s changed. I’m still the only child. But my folks — as I knew them — vanished for a while. In their place? Two people — Dory and Ray look-alikes. Not Dory and Ray the parents I used to know.

It wasn’t their fault. The winter before last, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, a baby died before it was born. Corporal Ray and Dory’s baby. Because of what happened that week, and what happened after that and what happened after that, I got to meet John Hindley the way I did.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Emily's Quest

Emily's Quest

edition:Hardcover

Emily knows she's going to be a great writer. She's as certain of that as she is that she and her childhood sweetheart, Teddy Kent, will conquer the world together. But when Teddy leaves home to pursue his goal of becoming an artist at the School of Design in Montreal, Emily's world collapses. With Teddy gone and her dream of publishing her first novel in tatters, Emily agrees to marry a man she doesn't love. But can she really forget her feelings for Teddy? And will she ever regain her desire …

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One  I "No more cambric tea" had Emily Byrd Starr written in her diary when she came home to New Moon from Shrewsbury, with high school days behind her and immortality before her. Which was a symbol. When Aunt Elizabeth Murray permitted Emily to drink real tea – as a matter of course and not as an occasional concession – she thereby tacitly consented to let Emily grow up. Emily had been considered grown-up by other people for sometime, especially by Cousin Andrew Murray and Friend Perry Miller, each of whom had asked her to marry him and been disdainfully refused for his pains. When Aunt Elizabeth found this out she knew it was no use to go on making Emily drink cambric tea. Though, even then, Emily had no real hope that she would ever be permitted to wear silk stockings. A silk petticoat might be tolerated, being a hidden thing, in spite of its seductive rustle, but silk stockings were immoral. So Emily, of whom it was whispered somewhat mysteriously by people who knew her to people who didn't know her,  "she writes," was accepted as one of the ladies of New Moon, where nothing had ever changed since her coming there seven years before and where the carved ornament on the sideboard still cast the same queer shadow of an Ethiopian silhouette on exactly the same place on the wall where she had noticed it delightedly on her first evening there. An old house that had lived its life long ago and so was very quiet and wise and a little mysterious. Also a little austere, but very kind. Some of the Blair Water and Shrewsbury people thought it was a dull place and outlook for a young girl and said she had been very foolish to refuse Miss Royal's offer of a "position on a magazine" in New York. Throwing away such a good chance to make something of herself! But Emily, who had very clear-cut ideas of what she was going to make of herself, did not think life would be dull at New Moon or that she had lost her chance of Alpine climbing because she had elected to stay there. She belonged by right divine to the Ancient and Noble Order of Story-tellers. Born thousands of years earlier she would have sat in the circle around the fires of the tribe and enchanted her listeners. Born in the foremost files of time she must reach her audience through many artificial mediums. But the materials of story weaving are the same in all ages and all places. Births, deaths, marriages, scandals – these are the only really interesting things in the world. So she settled down very determinedly and happily to her pursuit of fame and fortune – and of something that was neither. For writing, to Emily Byrd Starr, was not primarily a matter of worldly lucre or laurel crown. It was something she had to do. A thing – an idea – whether of beauty or ugliness, tortured her until it was "written out." Humorous and dramatic by instinct, the comedy and tragedy of life enthralled her and demanded expression through her pen. A world of lost but immortal dreams, lying just beyond the drop-curtain of the real, called to her for embodiment and interpretation – called with a voice she could not – dared not – disobey. She was filled with youth's joy in mere existence. Life was forever luring and beckoning her onward. She knew that a hard struggle was before her; she knew that she must constantly offend Blair Water neighbours who would want her to write obituaries for them and who, if she used an unfamiliar word, would say contemptuously that she was "talking big"; she knew there would be rejection slips galore; she knew there would be days when she would feel despairingly that she could not write and that it was of no use to try; days when the editorial phrase, "not necessarily a reflection on its merits," would get on her nerves to such an extent that she would feel like imitating Marie Bashkirtseff and hurling the taunting, ticking, remorseless sitting-room clock out of the window; days when everything she had done or tried to do would slump – become mediocre and despicable; days when she would be tempted to bitter disbelief in her fundamental conviction that there was as much truth in the poetry of life as in the prose; days when the echo of that "random word" of the gods, for which she so avidly listened, would only seem to taunt her with its suggestions of unattainable perfection and loveliness beyond the reach of mortal ear or pen. She knew that Aunt Elizabeth tolerated but never approved her mania for scribbling. In her last two years in Shrewsbury High School Emily, to Aunt Elizabeth's almost incredulous amazement, had actually earned some money by her verses and stories. Hence the toleration. But no Murray had ever done such a thing before. And there was always that sense, which Dame Elizabeth Murray did not like, of being shut out of something. Aunt Elizabeth really resented the fact that Emily had another world, apart from the world of New Moon and Blair Water, a kingdom starry and illimitable, into which she could enter at will and into which not even the most determined and suspicious of aunts could follow her. I really think that if Emily's eyes had not so often seemed to be looking at something dreamy and lovely and secretive Aunt Elizabeth might have had more sympathy with her ambitions. None of us, not even self-sufficing Murrays of New Moon, like to be barred out.

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The Diviners

The Diviners

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : classics, literary

The culmination and completion of Margaret Laurence’s celebrated Manawaka cycle, The Diviners is an epic novel.

This is the powerful story of an independent woman who refuses to abandon her search for love. For Morag Gunn, growing up in a small Canadian prairie town is a toughening process – putting distance between herself and a world that wanted no part of her. But in time, the aloneness that had once been forced upon her becomes a precious right – relinquished only in her overwhelming ne …

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The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.

The dawn mist had lifted, and the morning air was filled with swallows, darting so low over the river that their wings sometimes brushed the water, then spiralling and pirouetting upward again. Morag watched, trying to avoid thought, but this ploy was not successful.

Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag would be certain to find it.

Now please do not get all uptight, Ma. I can look after myself. Am going west. Alone, at least for now. If Gord phones, tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.

Well, you had to give the girl some marks for style of writing. Slightly derivative, perhaps, but let it pass. Oh jesus, it was not funny. Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time. That wouldn’t happen again, not like before. Morag was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Not sure enough, probably.

I’ve got too damn much work in hand to fret over Pique. Lucky me. I’ve got my work to take my mind off my life. At forty-seven that’s not such a terrible state of affairs. If I hadn’t been a writer, I might’ve been a first-rate mess at this point. Don’t knock the trade.

Morag read Pique’s letter again, made coffee and sat looking out at the river, which was moving quietly, its surface wrinkled by the breeze, each crease of water outlined by the sun. Naturally, the river wasn’t wrinkled or creased at all — wrong words, implying something unfluid like skin, something unenduring, prey to age. Left to itself, the river would probably go on like this, flowing deep, for another million or so years. That would not be allowed to happen. In bygone days, Morag had once believed that nothing could be worse than killing a person. Now she perceived river-slaying as something worse. No wonder the kids felt themselves to be children of the apocalypse.

No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie. Seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.

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