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2019/2020 BC and Yukon Book Prizes Finalists
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2019/2020 BC and Yukon Book Prizes Finalists

By 49thShelf
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tagged: book prizes
The West Coast Book Prize Society is thrilled to announce the finalists for the 2020 BC and Yukon Book Prizes. Congratulations to the authors, illustrators, and publishers! Winners will be announced on Saturday, April 25th, 2020, at the Pan Pacific Hotel in downtown Vancouver. Jurors for each category will be announced at the Gala.
Rebent Sinner

Rebent Sinner

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Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes
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Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes
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How She Read

How She Read

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Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes, Nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize
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Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian)
Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes
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Mistakes to Run With

Mistakes to Run With

A Memoir
also available: Audiobook (CD)

A devastatingly frank memoir that tears open the past to examine how circumstances--and the choices we make--dictate the people we become, for fans of Educated and The Glass Castle.

Mistakes to Run With chronicles the turbulent life of Yasuko Thanh, from early childhood in the closest thing Victoria, BC, has to a slum to teen years as a sex worker and, finally, to her emergence as an award-winning author. As a child, Thanh embraced evangelical religion, only to rebel agains …

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The previous year, in September 1987 when I was sixteen, a psychologist wrote to my probation officer in my case file: “Her responses on the Rorschach are the type of responses that might be expected from a neglected and deprived child and leave me wondering about the adequacy of care that has been provided by her parents, even in the most basic physical areas.”

In a city known for its trees, I grew up on a street with none. Victoria, 1974. My father, a Vietnamese national who spoke four languages and had a degree from a Parisian university, found work in a shoe store, a far cry from the financial industry and the bank he’d thought would employ him. Before immigrating to British Columbia and settling on the west coast he’d studied business management. He’d met my mother in Europe when he was twenty-seven and she was sixteen. Handsome as Bruce Lee, he promised a ticket away from her home in dour grey postwar Germany. They came to Canada in 1970, a year before I was born. My mother had fantasized about riding escalators in glamorous North American shopping malls, but what greeted her in Victoria during those heady days of Trudeaumania was more grey. Rain. A rooming house. More rain. My father found himself walking to the shoe store next to a bowling alley to sell pumps to women who couldn’t understand his thick accent and asked him to repeat “What size do you take?” My mother still spoke to me in German at home. During the afternoons, when the sun shone on our balcony, we played school. She practised the English phrases she’d heard on TV while I sat cross-legged next to her, writing “Mama, do you love me?” in an orange exercise book.

When my brother was born, in the winter of 1976, my parents gave him my room. I was relegated to a flip chair—Her responses leave me wondering about the adequacy of care—that unfolded into a kid’s bed a few feet from the front door. I didn’t understand why I had to give him anything, to share anything. Why didn’t they put him in the living room? Or in the kitchen? Better yet, why couldn’t they take him back to wherever he’d come from? I’d trade him in for a Barbie doll.

When my parents needed the living room to watch a movie or the news, they put me to sleep in their bed. I once squirted my mother’s nose drops onto her pillow to wet it the way tears would so she’d know I was sad. My mother didn’t notice the wetness; or, if she did, she said nothing about it the next day.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. Comfort was a foreign currency in my family. If I was upset, my father would splash my face with water cold enough to take my breath away. This much I knew: voicing unpleasant emotions made you unlovable. My craving for acceptance and my inability to express my need made me misbehave; my father would spank me with a thick wooden ruler. My mother’s slaps, they at least touched me. I must be a bad girl, I thought, yet I didn’t understand why. My parents’ expectations of me were as baffling as they were mutable. All day I would follow the rules to have my mother confront me at bedtime with a list of sins I’d committed without knowing it.

In the years to come I would give them perfect report cards, ribbons won at track, certificates of academic achievement. I went to church and volunteered, spoon-fed boys and girls crippled with cerebral palsy at the Queen Alexandra hospital. I’d bring home these offerings yet saw no reason to be proud of my achievements. Perfection was expected. Not praised.

For my entire childhood—and still, today, part of me waits—I’d needed to hear three simple words from my parents: You Are Good. Good. Worthy. Valuable. You are valuable to me. You are valuable to the rest of the world. Not because of what you do but because you are you, inherently important to us. You are not a bad girl. You are good.

I plotted revenge against my brother, and would pinch him to make him cry. But there was something else. I pinched him not to hurt but to comfort him, so that I’d have a reason to pick him up, dry his tears. Whisper, “Hush, hush, hush.”

To escape my confusion I’d often play outside our apartment building near where the grass ended and the road into our housing project began. There the grass grew tallest and the St. John’s wort was bushy enough to act as a forest.

I had one doll—my father had inexplicably thrown away all my toys when the rest of us weren’t home—and my favourite game was doctor. I inflicted Barbie with injuries, scrawled blood drops with red ballpoint. One day, when I was five or six, I decided to run away. Woolco would be a good, safe place to go, lots of toys, bright lights, a Popsicle machine. I knew the way down the road that circled our building toward a busy six-lane street. A friend’s mother saw me on the road, fiddling with my doll, and invited me to their apartment for a cup of tea. She felt sorry for me. I drank the tea instead of running away, enjoying how much sugar I could use, when helping myself, to sweeten my cup.

I finished the tea and went back outside. I found an abandoned construction site. Standing atop a pile of wood I became Queen of the Two-by-Four, Queen of Nails, Queen of Drywall. I picked out my bedroom and showed my doll hers. It was all there in plywood and rebar—the framework to a happy life.

Years passed. My parents’ tenacity and dreams gave way to disappointment—misfortune has a way of misering its victims. My mother did not get her promised yearly trip home to visit her six brothers and sisters; it was out of the question. Winter rains ushered in mud puddles and a road wet with oil slicks. My mother told me later that in those years she dreamed of running away across the rooftops of our neighbourhood, clutching a suitcase in one hand and my hand in the other, my brother on her hip as we escaped. It haunted her.

The nights my father worked late, my mother, brother, and I occupied the chesterfield, bolstered by pillows my mother had made herself. The awkwardness that blossomed between us as I grew dissolved when we watched TV. Sometimes I even pretended to fall asleep because when I did my mother would smooth back my hair and kiss me.

We didn’t live in absolute poverty, only the relative sort. My classmates had money for nail polish and velour sweaters from Woodward’s; they went to movies, slept in a bed, rode a bike. I did these things too, but much later than everyone else.

At eight years old I’d take the bus to the Y downtown. Every Saturday I saw other parents dropping off their children, but I never expected a ride. I’d sit in the seat to the right of the bus driver reserved for people with mobility issues. I’d look forward to chatting with him. He asked lots of questions.

Forty years have gone by since the two photographs were taken that I withdraw from a shoebox and place before me, their corners yellowed. It’s difficult to reconcile the images I see of myself in old photographs with how I felt at the time.

A crack runs through one of them: I’m nine or ten, turning a cartwheel on matted grass. I have on the red vest with pink crosses that my mother had knitted me. I remember disliking the vest but wearing it anyway, guilty about not loving it more. In the photograph my mother hunkers ten feet back, watching me from the front steps in sunglasses, a shiny blouse. She cups her chin—no, mashes it—against her cheek. It is the face of a general, grimacing, frowning.

My mother loved the idea of hope, feeding it with more dreams than it could swallow. By now she’d taken up with an evangelical God, telling the Christian stories of resilience—mouth painters who’d become quadriplegic in horrible accidents, Holocaust survivors—that filled my childhood. She inducted me into the Pentecostal army of God with a vengeance, and I complied enthusiastically.

My mother was like someone behind glass that divided her from me, froze her gaze. Yet I fantasized that beneath her cold blue eyes she had a fire, an inner Mrs. Brady, because I’d once turned my head to see her turn her own cartwheel. In that moment of laughter I saw her spirit. Somewhere in there another woman, the happy version of my mother, was trapped and trying to get out.

We moved from the apartment to a townhouse down the street. I was entering grade three, eight years old. I don’t remember packing. I don’t remember moving trucks. What I remember is walking through the empty new house followed by the echo of my footsteps. What legroom and breathing space smelled like. The dresser left behind in one of the rooms was antique—I took the drawers out, examining their workmanship. Why? Because that piece of furniture would reveal something about the earlier occupants. I found a handwritten receipt with a 1940s date on it.

The townhouse had three bedrooms, a tiny yard; it faced a playground with a concrete elephant covered in graffiti, a swing set on which older kids would sit after I’d gone to bed. I could hear their hoots and hollers through my window, their robust party yells. The sound of breaking glass after they’d lobbed an empty bottle—I imagined the high arc of some smooth, clear, exotic bird following its own trajectory through the night to inevitably, thrillingly, crash down to earth, strike the asphalt, and explode in a rainbow prism of glass that I’d sidestep the following day as I played. All I had to do was show my face in this community space separated from the adult world by an invisible force field, sacred ground preordained for small feet alone, and approach a kid. “Wanna play?”

For the next hour we’d pretend that only these swings, this gnarly apple tree, this concrete elephant existed. This tree is a fort. The ground is covered in snakes. You can’t go down or you'll be eaten. These apples are grenades. Launch them at the boys.

These days, having my own room means survival in a world that presses in. My own room is the bubble that surrounds me; I retreat there when the pressures of the world get to be too much as if into a diving bell under a hundred feet of ocean. If I sense a crack, I seal it up by halting communication with the outside.

Sometimes the space contracts around me, mordant, until the sound of my own breathing swallows me. The awareness that what protects me sanctions my survival doesn’t stave off the ensuing claustrophobia. The patient in an oxygen tent still hates her immobility. Her weakness. The sickness that put her there in the first place. She wishes she could get up and walk through the transparent walls—beyond them she can see others living their lives—yet what she’s suffered makes this impossible. Any outside contact carries the potential of a fatal infection. So the patient learns to live with her lot. Learns to appreciate her separateness.

Back then, before having my own room, my own setting to house the items symbolically meaningful to me, I’d choose a section of hallway in the apartment, between the living room and the bathroom, and lay out the books I’d withdrawn from the library earlier that day in a row. My own room meant I could do the same thing but in private, with more than books. I took meticulous care in arranging every object I owned. Tiny plastic animals the dentist gave away after an appointment, ceramic figurines from tea boxes, my stuffed animals, my dolls—each had a location, a private corner they didn’t have to share with anyone.

I also had my own closet, which, small as it was, stood for another world, separated from my room with its own door. Though not large enough for me to play in, I’d shrink myself to fit the space, contort enough to allow the door to at least shut behind me. In that sanctuary I’d fend off attacks from my little brother, who would often invade my room with the force of an advancing army. This was the universe’s way of preparing me for that haven’s forfeiture, not to my brother but to my grandparents, who will be sponsored by my father in a few years’ time. They will take my room. I’ll move in with my brother. Then, after another few years, they’ll move to France where my aunt and uncle live, where they will stay until they die.

A few weeks or months after moving in I got my first real bed, with captain’s drawers that slid out from under the mattress, all my clothes folded and placed inside. Like an interior designer I’d sit back and look at the tableau of my neatly made bed, my fluffed pillows. Ponder. Absorb. Rearrange. Able to stop only when it felt “right.”

It never did.

Even then the clash between the blue-painted wall and the olive carpet, between my mismatched bedding and the wall papered burgundy, disrupted the peace I was trying to cultivate.

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They come for the trees.

To smell their needles. To caress their bark. To be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.

From the world’s dust-choked cities they venture to this exclusive arboreal resort—a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia—to be transformed, renewed, and reconnected. To be reminded that the Earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that the soul of all living things has not come to dust and that it isn’t too late and that all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.

God’s Middle Finger

As first light trickles through the branches, Jake greets this morning’s group of Pilgrims at the trailhead. Today, she’ll lead them out among the sky-high spires of Douglas fir and Western red cedar, between granite outcrops plush with electric green moss, to the old-growth trees, where epiphany awaits. Given the forecasted rain, the dozen Pilgrims are all swaddled in complimentary Leafskin, the shimmery yet breathable new fabric that’s replaced Gore-Tex, nano-engineered to mimic the way leaves bead and repel water. Though the Cathedral has issued Jake her own Leafskin jacket, she seldom wears it for fear of damaging company property; she’s already deep enough in debt without having to worry about a costly replacement. Yet trudging through the drizzling rain that begins just after they set out on the trail, Jake wishes she’d made an exception today.

Despite the liter of ink-black coffee she gulped before work this morning, Jake’s hungover brain is taffy-like, and it throbs in painful synchronization with every step she takes. Though she’s woefully unprepared for public speaking, once they reach the first glades of old-growth she begins her usual introduction.

“Welcome to the beating heart of the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral,” she says in a loud, theatrical voice. “You’re standing on fifty-seven square kilometers of one of the last remaining old-growth forests on Earth.” Immediately, the Pilgrims brandish their phones and commence to feverishly thumb their screens. Jake never knows whether they’re fact-checking her statements, posting breathless exclamations of wonder, or doing something entirely unrelated to the tour.

“These trees act like huge air filters,” she carries on. “Their needles suck up dust, hydrocarbons, and other toxic particles, and breathe out pure oxygen, rich with phytoncides, the chemicals that have been found to drop our blood pressure and slow our heart rates. Just one of these mature firs can generate the daily oxygen required by four adult humans.” On cue, the Pilgrims begin to video themselves taking deep breaths through their noses.

While Jake is free to mention the Earth’s rampant dust storms in the abstract, it’s Cathedral policy never to speak of their cause: the Great Withering—the wave of fungal blights and insect infestations that rolled over the world’s forests ten years ago, decimating hectare after hectare. The Pilgrims have come to relax and forget about the Withering, and it’s her job (and jobs, she’s aware, are currently in short supply) to ensure they do.

Following her introduction, she coaxes the Pilgrims a few miles west, into a grove of proper old-growth giants, whose trunks bulge wider than mid-sized cars. These are trees of such immensity and grandeur they seem unreal, like film props or monuments. In the presence of such giants, the Pilgrims assume hushed, reverent tones. Official Holtcorp policy is to refer to the forest as the Cathedral and its guests as Pilgrims; Knut, Greenwood Island’s most senior Forest Guide and Jake’s closest friend, claims that this is because the forest was the first (and now, perhaps, the last) church. Back when air travel didn’t command a year’s salary, Jake once visited Rome on a learning exchange and saw only curving limbs and ropy trunks in its columns and porticoes. The leafy dome of the mosque; the upward-soaring spires of the abbey; the ribbed vault of the cathedral—which faith’s sacred structures weren’t designed with trees as inspiration?

Now some of the Pilgrims actually begin to embrace the bark for long durations without irony or embarrassment. In their information packages, the Pilgrims are instructed not to approach the trees too closely, as their weight compacts the soil around the trunks and causes the roots to soak up less water. But Jake holds her tongue and watches the Pilgrims commune, photograph, and huff the chlorophyll-scrubbed air with a reverence that is part performance, part genuine appreciation, though it’s difficult for her to estimate in which proportions. Soon they barrage her with impossibly technical questions: “So how much would a thing like this weigh?” asks a short man with a Midwestern accent. “This reminds me of being a girl,” a fifty-something investment banker declares, caressing a moss-wrapped cedar.

While most of the Pilgrims seem to be tuning in to the Green magnificence, a few appear lost, underwhelmed. Jake watches the short Midwestern man place his palm against a Douglas fir’s bark, gaze up into the canopy, and attempt to feel awed. But she can sense his disappointment. Soon he and the others retreat back into their phones for the relief of distraction. This is to be expected. Even though they’ve paid the Cathedral’s hefty fees and endured the indignities of post-Withering travel, there are always a few who can’t escape the burden of how relaxed they’re supposed to be at this moment, and how dearly it’s costing them to fail.

The Pilgrims are easily mocked, but Jake also pities them. Hasn’t she remained here on Greenwood Island for the same purpose? To glean something rare and sustaining from its trees, to breathe their clean air and feel less hopeless among them? On the Mainland, the Pilgrims live in opulent, climate-controlled towers that protect them from rib retch—the new strain of tuberculosis endemic to the world’s dust-choked slums, named after the cough that snaps ribs like kindling, especially in children—yet they still arrive at the Cathedral seeking something ineffable that’s missing from their lives. They’ve read that article about the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “forest bathing.” They’ve listened to that podcast about how just a few hours spent among trees triples your creativity. So they’re here to be healed, however temporarily, and if Jake weren’t mired in student debt and hadn’t embarked on such a pitifully unmarketable career as botany, she’d gladly be one of them.

When Jake notices a patrol of Rangers creeping through some cedars in the distance, she carefully herds the Pilgrims to the picnic area for their prepared lunches, dubbed “Upscale Logging Camp” by the resort’s Michelin-starred chef. Today, it’s artisanal hot dogs with chanterelle ketchup and organic s’mores. While watching them photograph their food, Jake’s eye snags on a particular Pilgrim sitting apart from the group, wearing large sunglasses and an unfashionable cap pulled low. He’s wealthy, some Holtcorp executive or actor no doubt, though Jake would be the last person to know. Because she can’t afford a screen in her staff cabin—her student loan interest payments don’t leave her enough for Internet access—she seldom recognizes the resort’s famous visitors. Still, the true celebrities can be identified by that glittery aura they exude, the sense that they’ve forged a deeper connection to the world than regular people like her.

After lunch Jake escorts the Pilgrims to the tour’s grand finale, the largest stand on Greenwood Island, where she hits them with a poetic bit she wrote and memorized years back: “Many of the Cathedral’s trees are over twelve hundred years old. That’s older than our families, older than most of our names. Older than the current forms of our governments, even older than some of our myths and ideologies.

“Like this one,” she says, patting the foot-thick bark of the island’s tallest Douglas fir, a breathtaking tree that she and Knut have secretly named “God’s Middle Finger.” “This two-hundred-and-thirty-foot titan was already a hundred and fifty feet tall when Shakespeare sat down and dipped his quill to begin writing Hamlet.” She pauses to watch a stoic solemnity grip the group. She’s laying it on thick, but her hangover has cleared and she’s finally found her rhetorical groove. And when she gets going, she wants nothing less than to wow the Pilgrims with the wonders of all creation. “Each year of its life, this tree has expanded its bark and built a new ring of cambium to encase the ring of growth that came the year before it. That’s twelve hundred layers of heartwood, enough to thrust the tree’s needled crown into the clouds.”

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Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize
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also available: Paperback
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Trucks rumbled along the gravel road in the dead of the night, vibrating like a line of ants, thick tarpaulins shaking as engines whirred and wheels lifted dust, fogging the cold February air. Behrouz Bakhtiar closed his eyes. A film of dirt coated the skin covering the thin bones of his face. He watched by moonlight as four eight-wheelers filled with young men from the provinces rolled away.

He would not be driving the young men home as usual. This was the first night of his four days off. He would instead place a cigarette in his mouth, light it with the last match he had in his pocket, and walk home down the red mountain, where earth min­gled with snow, then stride through the city from north to south. This was his Tehran, and he was its secret guardian, the angel perched on the mountaintop counting buildings, trees, lights, and people who walked about like insects, unaware of being watched.

Strange how people are, Behrouz thought, the cigarette between his thin lips. And he began his walk down and through the city just as he had planned, just as he had been anticipating all day. He slid down the slopes effortlessly, taking a drag from his cigarette every once in a while. He whistled when the mood struck him. He had walked this path many times, since he had first learned to drive up the mountain. How old had he been, seventeen? He was thirty-three now, so that made it sixteen years. With time off mul­tiplied by sixteen, that made about four thousand times he had walked up and down the slopes of Darakeh.

Sometimes, of course, the generals gave him permission to drive down and save himself the three-hour walk. And when Behrouz first got married, the general in command had not only encouraged him to drive, he’d let him off early to encourage hus­bandly duties—but not without reminding Behrouz how old his new wife was. “Think that wife of yours’ll be able to handle fresh little you?” the general had said.

Behrouz had married Zahra when he was nineteen, upon his father’s urging. “The Prophet was a boy, his wife was forty when he took her,” his father had said. But Zahra was no prophet’s wife. She was thirty-six, had never married, and had a son, Ahmad, who was the same age as Behrouz. Ahmad hadn’t come to the wedding. That night, when Behrouz asked his new wife where her son was, Zahra replied, “Somewhere in the prison halls.” Then she had forced herself on him.

When he’d first started driving trucks in the army, Behrouz had been more talkative. The soldiers liked him. They would reveal themselves, telling him about their lives on the farms or in small towns. If they were Tehrani boys, they talked about their schools and their girlfriends. The only one who had never opened up was a member of the royal family—a cousin of the king. But Behrouz supposed that was different. He had been ordered not to look the boy in the eyes.

Behrouz had begun learning to drive at sixteen because he wasn’t strong enough to fight, or smart enough to read. His father had taught him the basics. He could have sold bread on the streets like his father, or worked the oil mines like his uncles. But the one time he had suggested this, his father slapped him so hard, Behrouz saw stars for days. And that was the end of that.

Now, as he walked, the red dirt beneath his boots remained frozen. Three nights ago there had been a storm. But now the snow had settled and was packed along the path. The walk wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He swiftly made it down Darakeh, to the northern tip of Pahlavi Street. Here there were cobblestone roads and the houses were old. He’d heard that the king’s father once lived here.

He walked past the old car parked along the street, searching his pocket in vain for another smoke. A man was walking toward him.

“Could I trouble you for a cigarette?” Behrouz asked. He had learned how to speak politely, like the people did up here. The man pulled out a single smoke from his pack. Behrouz took it and placed it between his lips. The man held out a lighter, its flame flickering in the slight breeze.

“Thank you,” Behrouz said, and began to walk away.

“No money?” the man said.

Behrouz waited.

“No money?” the man asked again.

“You want money for the light?” Behrouz said.

“What do you think?”

Behrouz searched both pockets awkwardly.

“Only kidding. Stupid man.” The man laughed as he walked away.

Behrouz stepped up his pace and cut through alleyways. He knew he was somewhere in Youssef-Abad district, midway through the city. He normally walked the main street, but tonight he felt like a change. Streams of sewer water ran in the gutters, but blos­soming mulberry trees flanked the roads. This district was one of his favourites. He liked the corner shops and the cinema and cafés, which were old but patronized by rich people.

He was staring at the letters on the front of the cinema when he heard the cry—like a cat in pain. He walked closer to where he thought the sound was coming from, but water gurgling in the gutter muffled its location. He crossed into another alley—nothing there. He continued to move from alley to alley, jumping over gut­ters. The more he found nothing, the more urgently he searched. His only help was the moon; there were no lights in the nearby homes; it seemed the rest of the world was asleep.

He finally reached the mulberry tree, which was flanked by rows of garbage. Staring up at him was a pack of wild dogs. He imagined them tearing the tiny creature who had made the sound limb from limb.

He grabbed a stick from the ground and charged. But none of the dogs moved. How long had they been there? As he neared, the dogs sat and watched quietly. At last, Behrouz bent down and lifted the baby into his arms. The dogs sniffed his feet, turned and left.

He sped toward the edge of town, past abandoned buildings in which the poor secretly lived, past stacks of cardboard where the even poorer slept. He wondered how long the child had gone without food. The stores were still closed, but his wife must have bought some milk, he thought frantically.

The baby didn’t look more than three days old. His head hurt. The stars whirled in the sky. At last, not far in the distance, he saw the pale outline of his house.

For three hours, Behrouz sat in his living room, trying to feed the child. He had woken a sleeping neighbour, who had found some milk, though the baby threw up most of it. Now, once again, he dipped the cap of his fountain pen into the bowl of milk beside him on the floor. He held the tiny vessel to the baby’s lips, careful not to tilt it too far. The milk flowed onto her lips, but only a few drops got in. He wiped her face clean with the back of his pinky finger. In a minute, he would try again.

Zahra was sleeping. Her son, Ahmad, out of jail only two days, had left his dirty boots on the kitchen table. He’d landed in prison for cutting someone’s fingers off, and Behrouz knew he would already be back to stealing.

By morning, Behrouz was struggling to keep his eyes open. From the north-facing window, he watched the rising sun. The rays crept toward him, along the floor. In the bedroom, his wife still slept soundly. He got up, walked into her room, and stood at her bedside, the baby to his chest. Zahra lay tightly wrapped in her blan­kets. She was fair-skinned, with straight, fine hair that turned a shade of light brown in summer. She liked to curl it these days, using little plastic rolls.

He returned to the living room and laid the baby gently on the floor. Then he walked quietly back to the bedroom.

“We have to talk,” Behrouz whispered.

Zahra covered her eyes to block the sun. “You’re home. Figured you’d be killing yourself with opium all night.”

“Come with me.” He pulled her out of bed.

In the living room, the baby’s arms and legs shook and she struggled like an overturned insect.
“I think she’s hungry,” Behrouz said. “I gave her some milk, but she hardly drank. She needs to suck it, I think.”

Zahra backed away from the infant. “Where did you find it? Is this some mess of yours we have to fix?” Her voice was sharp.

Behrouz picked up the baby. “Nothing like that,” he said. “Last night in the alley, there was waste all around her. I found her in Youssef-Abad.”

“That’s the North-City,” Zahra said. “What were you doing with those people? Listen to me: You put that baby where you found it so the trash who are her people can take it back.”

“There were dogs around her. I don’t know what they wanted, but—”

“Get it out of my house. And I know you do your own nasty business. You never touch me—as if I were made of fire and would burn you. But men are men. You must be touching somebody.” Zahra grabbed the baby’s face. “Did you take a look at its eyes? They’re blue. I swear on Imam Hossein you’ve brought a blue-eyed devil into my house.”

“Her eyes are green,” Behrouz said.

“No. There’s blue in them. You’ve brought evil into this house, Mr. Bakhtiar.”

Behrouz listened silently as Zahra walked away and into the bed­room, still shouting at him. Fourteen years with her and the rage had only worsened. He looked at the baby. Zahra was right. There was blue in those eyes. He couldn’t think how to comfort her. It had been so easy when he’d been a little boy and would play pretend. He would rock his baby, feed his baby, just like the neighbourhood girls did. And he’d been careful to never let his father know. But now, here was a real baby. The only thing he could think to do was speak to it, human to human. Not human to doll or master to slave. Yes, he would do what humans had always done, from the first crack of life.

“Want me to tell you a story?” he whispered to the little girl. Her wrinkled eyelids were shut tight, as if she would never want to face the world. “Want me to tell you the story of the Tooba Tree?”
Behrouz said again. And so he began, hoping to drown out Zahra’s shouts. “Past the clouds and the sky, way up in heaven, there is a tree, the Tooba Tree, from whose roots spring milk, and honey, and wine.”

“I curse the day I married a boy,” Zahra yelled from the other room.
Behrouz kept on: “Milk to nourish you, honey to sweeten you, wine to take you to the land of dreams.”

Zahra yelled louder. “Think you were my saviour, Mr. Bakhtiar? You only made hell last longer.”
Behrouz lifted the baby closer to his lips and whispered in her ear. “The Tooba Tree belongs to the orphans of heaven, for there is nothing that matters more, my little one.”

He stopped and listened for Zahra again, but she had finished her rant. The baby had opened her eyes but was falling back asleep. “You sang to me from that alley,” he whispered to her, “and I heard your song. Yet if I hadn’t, and if you had not been saved, the Tooba Tree would have been waiting for you and you would have been all right just the same.” Behrouz paused. He wondered if saving the little girl had been the right thing to do after all. But, since he had saved her and forced her into this thing called life, there was one more thing he needed to do.

“I used to love music, you know, when I was a little boy,” he said, putting his pinky finger in the baby’s mouth so she could suckle. “I used to sing, in secret, so my father wouldn’t know. I used to sing arias. Know what they are? Little tales, cries in the night. If you sing an aria, the world will know all about you. It will know your dreams and secrets. Your pains and your loves.”

Behrouz heard Zahra throw a pillow against the bedroom wall, and paused. After a few moments, hearing nothing more, he kept on. “I’ll name you Aria, after all the world’s pains and all the world’s loves,” he said. “It will be as if you had never been aban­doned. And when you open your mouth to speak, all the world will know you.”

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Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
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Dual Citizens

Dual Citizens

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
Nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
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