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Sputnik Chick was a child of Atomic Mean Time, different from the past you think you know. (FYI, you’re living in Earth Standard Time, which you snobbishly regard as “Real Time.”)
Up until the middle of the twentieth century, time was simply time: a single arrow flying through upheavals, bloodbaths, renaissances, revolutions and all the boring bits in between.
Then, in 1945, that self-described destroyer of worlds, Robert Oppenheimer, split the atom. Pow, crash, bam! Sub-atomic cracks and fissures appeared, shattering time’s arrow into a quiver of alternate realities. Atomic Mean Time was calved during the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico — the first parallel world, but far from the last. Every detonation since then has created a new timeline, peeling away from the one before it like a stock car burning rubber at the start line.
In this vast spectrum of histories, Atomic Mean Time and Earth Standard Time existed side by side — weakly coupled worlds, the pipe-smoking quantum physicists like to call them — separated by the thinnest imaginable membrane of dark matter.
(How do I know this? Patience, true believer. All will be revealed in due course.)
Despite quirky differences from Earth Standard Time — rogue viruses you’ve never caught, odd hem lengths, the sour-apple taste of Neutron Coke — if you were dropped into Atomic Mean Time, you would not feel totally out of place. You might even find it pleasantly nostalgic. All of the cultural touchstones of the pristine, pre-atomic age carried on undisturbed into Atomic Mean Time — Superman, Buster Keaton, Blondie & Dagwood, jazz, Casablanca, Mickey Mouse, the novels of Virginia Woolf, The Wizard of Oz and the Great American Songbook. Even after the split, many of the same cultural milestones popped up in both timelines: The Silver Surfer comics. Fins on cars. Disco. Beetle Bailey. Those smiley-face buttons that told you to Have a nice day! Sean Connery as James Bond, until he was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Scottish Parliament.
Everyone on Earth — correction, almost everyone — existed in both worlds. Some lived very different lives, while others unconsciously thrummed to the same sympathetic harmonies as their alt-time doppelgängers. In moments of distress or ecstasy, a few sensitive souls, like my friend Bum Bum, could sense the actions of their alt-time selves, naively chalking up the eerie sensation to déjà vu. A select few, however, were keenly aware of their existence in parallel worlds, David Bowie being an obvious example. But of course, Bowie was an Exceptional. (Not the kind of degraded Exceptional portrayed by Crusty and Gooey, known as Twisties, but a shape-shifting mutant gifted with the ability to explore a full spectrum of diverse possibilities. How else could he be both the Thin White Duke and Ziggy Stardust?)
Suffice it to say that in Atomic Mean Time, we had many of the same hit TV shows, movies and comic books you knew and loved and most of the postwar world events that you slept through in history class, with one important exception: in Atomic Mean Time, the second great war of the twentieth century never ended, even after the surrenders had been signed. GIs segued from battlefields to factories. Their mission: the ceaseless manufacturing of nuclear weapons. As if the Cold War of Earth Standard Time was a flash-frozen fish stick that took thirty-odd years to thaw.
Atomic Mean Time saw no peace movement in its 1960s, except for a furtive, floundering one that wormed its way deep underground and stayed there. The few young radicals who attempted to organize a Ban the Bomb protest march in Washington, D.C., in 1965, were arrested as anarchists and swiftly exiled. Nothing would be permitted to get in the way of our world’s highly profitable march toward self-destruction.
Fortunately, in the event that the superpowers blew up Earth, we were prepared to colonize the moon. By 1969, unmanned rockets were sending geodesic domes and lunar life-support systems to the Sea of Tranquility, ready for the first batch of refugees from Earth.
I liked the idea of moving to the moon, even if it did mean my home planet had to be nuked first. I longed to be shaken out of the monotony of a childhood where the biggest challenge was deciding which flavour of Pop-Tart to warm up in the toaster oven. Whether on a flying saucer or an intergalactic surfboard, I was determined to escape from Shipman’s Corners. Population: 126,000. Economic activities: cross-border smuggling, the cultivation of local grapes into a sweet, bubbly wine known as plonk and the manufacturing of atomic bombs. Occasionally, rusty drums of radioactive leftovers heaved their way up out of vacant lots and construction sites where they had been dumped without much thought — until someone noticed things were a little off in those parts of town. Like kids being born with three ears and an extra set of teeth.
It was my father’s job to make sure nobody decided to build a school or playground or subdivision on the hot spots before the drums could be quietly whisked away to the deep, distant waters of Hudson’s Bay. Problem was, you couldn’t stop kids from playing hide-and-seek on contaminated land. Dad had barbed wire fences put up, but as he pointed out, there was only so much you could do.
Every year at back-to-school time, he took Linda and me on his sweep of a decontaminated landfill known as the Z-Lands, just before the annual Labour Day company picnic. Dad’s boss encouraged him to bring us along. Good public relations for the company’s community cleanup program, he said. People were comforted knowing that Dad wasn’t afraid to take his own kids to a former nuclear dumpsite.
The cleanup of the Z-Lands was one of Dad’s big successes. A year earlier, he had been promoted to Senior Decontamination Supervisor, a really important job. The local newspaper took a picture of him with Linda and me, smiling over bouquets of mutated wildflowers. The story’s headline read: “Z-Lands soon safe enough for underprivileged children to play in, ShipCo Decon Chief promises.” Dad told us later that he’d promised no such thing, but the company framed the story and stuck it in the foyer outside Dad’s office. His boss said that maybe now everyone would relax and stop writing letters to the big shots in Queen’s Park, who really couldn’t do anything about the dumpsites, anyway. We were answerable to a higher authority: the ShipCo Corporation, managing body of the North American federal jurisdiction officially known as the Industrial Nation of Canusa, a fertile peninsula that hung like a ragged tooth between two Great Lakes with the world’s most potent waterfall leaking out of its tip. Canusa was a murky grey zone where territorial and commercial interests merged. Canadian laws were observed, as long as ShipCo didn’t mind. When a new warfront opened up in Korea, quickly followed by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, New Guinea and New Zealand — a series of linked conflicts known as the Domino Wars — American draft dodgers were as welcome in Canusa as they were in Canada. ShipCo considered them useful. If they wouldn’t fight, they could still build bombs.
* * *
In the summer of 1969 (A.M.T.), I was a couple of months shy of my thirteenth birthday. Linda was sixteen. We arrived in the Z-Lands at sun-up, the daisies already turning their monstrous heads toward the sticky, honey-coloured sky. Dad’s plaid clip-on tie dangled like a noose as he ran his Geiger counter over the hard-packed dirt. Linda hovered beside him in her skort and Keds, her volleyball-hardened arms crossed. Waiting for the verdict.
While Dad and Linda watched for the jump of the red needle, I wandered through Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans the size of trees, to an iron ship’s bollard squatting pointlessly beside the abandoned canal. I didn’t need the bollard to warn me of the thirty-foot drop ahead. The stench of industrial chemicals floated up from the bottom of the canal, where wrecked cars sat half-submerged in a frothy sulfate soup the colour of day-old dishwater.
Despite a fence topped with barbed wire and a DANGER: NO TRESPASSING sign, a couple of new wrecks had been pushed over the edge since our last visit: a banana yellow school bus and a pickup with the truck bed ripped off.
Something else I hadn’t seen down there before: a trespasser, crouched on top of the bus in the glare of the rising sun. At first I thought I was having a vision, like those kids at Lourdes. The figure slowly came into focus like a television picture tube warming up. An old man, with white hair to his shoulders. He was stooped over, his hands on his knees. He straightened himself up slowly and, it seemed to me, painfully. He couldn’t catch his breath. As if he had been running a long, long way.
In the distance, Dad’s Geiger counter started to click, no doubt picking up background radiation.
The Trespasser looked up at me, chest heaving. He was tall and as skinny as a twig, his face pink and peeling with something like a bad sunburn. He was dressed in a silver shirt and tight trousers that belled at the hems like a flamenco dancer’s.
“Debbie?” As if he knew me.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” I told him.
“I’m not a stranger. We know one another very well.”
Weirdly, I believed him, even though I’d never met anyone who wasn’t from Shipman’s Corners. Weirder still, I noticed that parts of his body were starting to shimmer and run like watercolours. Pink globs of flesh fell from the end of one arm into the frothy scum at the bottom of the canal.
“You’re melting,” I told him.
He looked down at himself, his mouth falling open at the sight of his liquefaction. Lifting his remaining hand, he pointed at me.
“You’re it, Debbie. Never forget that.”
I didn’t know what to say so I stuck out my tongue. He responded by holding up two dripping fingers in the shape of a V — a lopsided one, because his middle finger ended at the knuckle.
Sunlight bounced off the roof of the banana bus, blinding me for a moment. When I could see again, the Trespasser had vanished. Mingled with the stench of the chemical soup, I caught a whiff of something pleasantly spicy. As if, in liquefying, the Trespasser had turned into cinnamon.
Before I could decide whether he was what Dad called “a Fig Newton of my imagination,” the Geiger counter went nuts, chattering away like a set of wind-up teeth. Dad’s voice came loud and sharp and even a little scared sounding, telling us it was time to get a move on.
“But Daddy, we just got . . .” I heard Linda say.
Dad was already striding toward the gate, windmilling his arms to hurry us up. Linda moved toward me through the field of flowers. No time to tell her about the Trespasser. The two of us sprinted after Dad, Linda dragging me by the hand.
At the gate, a tendril of barbed wire, draped over the fence like a forgotten scarf, snagged my ponytail. The barbs clawed at my scalp as I struggled to free myself. My yelp of pain brought Dad rushing back.
“Hold still, Debbie, you’ll only make it worse,” he said, tossing my sister the car keys. “Linda, start the engine.”
I could feel him breathing hard behind me, his fingers fumbling with my hair. He grunted a quiet swear as the barbs pricked his fingers. “You’re hooked like a fish. I’m going to have to cut you free.”
He gripped my scalp with one hand while he sawed at my hair with the jackknife he always carried in his trouser pocket. My ponytail, still in its elastic band, bobbed from the barbed wire like a foxtail. Warm air licked the back of my neck as Dad and I ran for the car.
In the driver’s seat of the Country Squire, Linda was singing along with the radio. Dad shoved her over into the passenger seat as I jumped in back.
“But you said I could drive home!” she protested.
“Not this time.” He threw the car into a fast reverse.
As we tore along the dirt track, kicking up a fog of probably radioactive dust, Linda said, “Mom’s going to kill you, Dad. You made Debbie look like a boy!”
“It’ll grow back.” The station wagon hit a rut, bouncing me to the car floor. “There’s no margin of safety for the levels I was getting. They’ve been going down steady as she goes, year after year. Now it’s higher than it’s been since ’55.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Linda.
“No, it sure as hell doesn’t — pardon my French,” said Dad.
I got up from the floor and draped my arms over the front seat, my chin on top of Linda’s elbow, while Dad tore out of the Z-Lands. I’d never seen him drive so fast. In the rear-view, I imitated the V sign that the Trespasser had made.
“Don’t do that,” said Linda, slapping my hand. “It’s rude.”
I stared at her through my fingers. “What’s it mean?”
“It’s how anarchists say hello to one another.”
I frowned. “Anarchists? Like spiders?”
“You’re thinking of arachnids,” said Linda. “No. Like Yammers.”
A drop of blood rolled off the tip of my nose and lazily hit the beige upholstery. Linda pulled out a crumpled tissue and spit in it. She dabbed at the bloodstain, then pressed it to my forehead. The tissue came away all bloody.
We were well away from the gate, bouncing along the dirt road at high speed, when we hit a pothole. A big one. The car listed to one side, engine revving and back wheel spinning.
Dad made a swear again — twice in one day! — then got out, slamming the door so hard it made my teeth rattle. He stomped around to the back of the car and groaned. When he stuck his head in the window, his face looked as saggy and white as a dead trout.
“Blew the tire right down to the rim. You’ll have to get home on your own. Debbie, tell Mom to draw you a decon bath right away. Linda, you scrub down over at Nonno’s. Use those emergency kits in the basement I bought at Canadian Tire during the last missile crisis.”
Linda groaned. “I hate that stinky old shower in Nonno’s cellar. And I just set my hair, Daddy.”
“Do as I say, for once, Linda. And make sure your clothes go in the incineration bags.”
“But Daddy, how are we supposed to get home? It’s five miles, at least. Debbie’ll never keep up.”
“Carry her piggyback if you have to. Now go!”
We got out of the car and started running, first on dirt, then on gravel. By the time we reached the second gate with its PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO TRESPASSING BY ORDER OF SHIPCO CORPORATION sign, we had slowed to a walk; Linda had a stitch in her side and I had a stone in my sneaker. Standing on one foot to shake it out, I looked back down the roadway. I could see the car but could barely make out Dad. I’d never seen him look so small before.
We started walking toward a hydro pole at the end of the gravel road, marking the beginning of Zurich Street — civilization, sort of. The pole reminded me of the lamppost at the entrance to Narnia. Maybe Mister Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be leaning against it, enjoying a cigarette and waiting for the floating craps game to start.
I rubbed the barbed-wire cuts on my head with my grubby fingers, trying to send germs into my skin to do battle. Linda slapped my hand away.
“Stop that. You’ll get infected.”
“I’m invulnerable, like Superman,” I told her.
“Says the doctor, after he gave me the Universal Vaccine. ‘This little lady’s generation might just live forever, if the Ruskies don’t drop the Bomb on us.’ That’s what he told Mom.”
Linda snorted. “He was making a joke, Debbie. The Universal Vaccine is just a polio shot with some immunizations for other stuff. That does not mean you’re invulnerable.”
“You’re just jealous ’cause you’re too old for the U-shot.”
“Change the subject,” she said. “Better yet, don’t talk at all. We should be saving our breath to find help for Dad.”
For the first time, it dawned on me that Linda was worried about him. That we actually should be finding someone to rescue him. That he was in trouble and so were we. It hadn’t occurred to me to be afraid for him, or Linda, or even myself. Nothing bad had ever happened to us before.
We had reached the cracked pavement of Zurich Street — or Z Street, as we liked to call it. End of the alphabet, end of the line. Wedged between the railway tracks and the canal, it was a neighbourhood of cottage-sized houses crammed haphazardly between grease-pit garages, butchers with skinned raccoon carcasses hanging in the windows and sad-looking groceterias with half-empty shelves. No trees, gardens or front yards. The houses squatted hard against the sidewalk, so that anyone passing by could look inside if the curtains weren’t shut.
Dad told me once that the tiny homes had been thrown up on swampy ground as temporary shelters for troops of ShipCo workers during the ’50s. After they moved on to bigger houses in the suburbs, poorer families moved in, insulating the walls with cardboard and sawdust and, if they had the cash, covering the wood frame exteriors with cheap aluminum siding.
Nothing was built to code on Z Street. If the city ever bothered to send in a fire inspector, most of the neighbourhood’s houses would be condemned. Luckily for the Z Streeters, the city couldn’t be bothered. There were even rumours that some of ShipCo’s waste was buried deep under the basements of certain houses.
Linda and I held our noses to block the stench of urine as we walked past leftovers from the night before: broken beer bottles, cigarette butts, a discarded bra, a few wrinkled plastic sleeves that looked like transparent leeches. It was just past sunrise.
In the distance, the dignified whitewashed facade of an old church marked the part of Z Street where Shipman’s Corners’ oldest families lived: the Sandersons, Kendals, Smiths and Bells, all of them descended from escaped slaves who’d come from the U.S. on the Underground Railroad, guided by Harriet Tubman herself. Shipman’s Corners prided itself on kindly taking in these refugees from the slave-owning Americans, then immediately pushing them to the edges of town.
Here, at last, we saw signs of intelligent life: a boy, sitting on the front stoop of a green-doored cottage, built in the narrow space between the big white church and a tiny wreck of a house, the front steps caved in as if karate-chopped by a giant.
The boy was reading a book, his head in one hand. As we clomped along the pavement, he looked up. That’s when I recognized him: Bea Kendal’s son, John. He came along with her when she visited our house once a week to sell Mom cleaning products and chicken soup base. Mrs. Kendal was a tall thin black woman who wore a plain grey dress with a little badge pinned to one shoulder and a matching hat that looked like a man’s fedora. She always arrived with a hefty sample case lugged around by fourteen-year-old John. I had the feeling that John Kendal noticed everything, although when Mrs. Kendal was taking Mom’s order over a cup of tea, he sat quietly at the kitchen table reading books that looked suspiciously like the Sunday colour comics.
“You girls are up early,” he said.
Linda paused in front of the stoop to push her damp hair off her forehead. Now that the sun had fully risen, the day was getting steamy.
“Could your mom give us a lift, Kendal? Dad got a flat on a back road.”
Kendal shook his head. “She left at five this morning to pick up her orders. Want me to ride out on my bike to help your dad? I’ve had lots of practice changing flats on my mom’s car.”
I could see Linda struggling with how much to say. She didn’t want to admit to what we had been doing or where. One of Dad’s rules was that nothing he did on the job was discussed with anyone but family.
“That’s very sweet, but Dad can handle the tire himself — he just wants Debbie and me to get home safely. Would you mind if I use your phone to call our mom?”
John Kendal shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
As he showed Linda into the house, I picked up the book he’d been reading: Tintin and the Shooting Star. I flipped pages full of flat, bright primary colours. Red, yellow, green. On one page a boy in short pants and his white dog were dancing around, singing, “Hooray! Hooray! The end of the world has been postponed!”
For someone born and brought up in Shipman’s Corners, John Kendal was unusual in a number of ways. First of all, he was black. And unlike most boys, he liked to read. Third, most people called him by his last name — Kendal, not John. And maybe most important of all, his father was dead. I only knew that last fact because Dad was summoned to the plant the night that Mr. Kendal fell asleep on the job and was pulled into a press by his shirtsleeve. He bled to death before they were able to get him out of the machine.
Dad talked about it afterwards at the dinner table, shaking his head and saying what a shame it was that safety mechanisms would slow down production. He pointed out that guys like Mr. Kendal, who were willing to work double shifts, often got sleepy and sloppy, and the next thing you knew, boom. They were minus an arm or hand. He said Mr. Kendal was a smart guy — maybe too smart for his own good, rabble-rousing among the other men, talking about banding together to start a union. He should have known better. Ever since then, Mrs. Kendal came around to our house once a week to sell bleaches and detergent and a powder made from chickens that had had all the water sucked out of their bodies.
While Linda called Mom, Kendal and I sat together on the stoop.
“Where were you with your dad at the crack of dawn, anyway?” he asked.
I was a notoriously bad keeper of secrets. “The Z-Lands,” I said, flipping through the Tintin book. “Ever been there?”
“Sure. I go there all the time,” said Kendal. “It’s one of the few places around here with enough space for football. Last week Bum Bum went for a pass and almost fell in the canal.”
He shrugged. “It’s not hard. The ground around there is like sand. We tunnelled under the fence.”
“I saw a trespasser in the canal, standing on a bus. Just before Dad’s Geiger counter went off,” I told him. “He must’ve gone in through your hole.”
Kendal frowned. “The Geiger counter went off? You mean, it’s still radioactive out there? I thought it’d been cleaned up.”
Violating Dad’s rule again, I nodded. “Yeah, Dad was surprised, too. That’s why we left in a hurry. He was driving so fast, he blew a tire.”
“I’ll bet the Trespasser had something to do with it,” suggested Kendal. “In comic books, it’s always visitors from some other dimension that cause gamma rays and solar flares and mutations and stuff. Maybe he ripped a hole in the time-space continuum and let in a blast of radioactive dust. Did he say anything?”
“He told me I’m ‘it.’ Like in a game of tag.”
Kendal thought this over. “Maybe you’ve been picked for something. Like he has a mission for you. I wonder if you’ll meet again.”
I shook my head. “Negatory. He’s dead. Melted away before my very eyes like the Wicked Witch of the West.”
“So you think,” said Kendal.
I put my head in my hands. “I shouldn’t have told you about the Geiger counter. I’m not supposed to talk about Dad’s job.”
Kendal leaned close to me. “It’s okay. You’re a kid. You shouldn’t be trusted with grown-up secrets.”
Linda was back, shaking her head. “No answer. Maybe Mom’s already gone to Plutonium Park to help set up for the company picnic.”
I looked at Kendal. “You going?”
“Natch. The ShipCo brass invite me and Mom every year. We get free hot dogs and everything.”
“That’s nice, Kendal,” said Linda. “I mean, after what happened to your dad.”
Kendal’s smile faded. “I wish they’d shove their hot dogs up their fat asses and give me back my dad.”
Linda’s face turned pink. Kendal picked up his book, pretending not to notice her embarrassment.
“Look, how about I ride the two of you home on my bike?”
Linda and I nodded, relieved we’d both worn skorts that morning. Kendal told us to wait out front while he grabbed some water to carry with us. Before he went inside, he squinted at me. “Want something for those cuts on your head, Debbie? Iodine, maybe?”
I shook my head. “I just got the U-shot. I’m invulnerable.”
“Delusional, more like it,” said Linda.
“Watch out for Red Kryptonite,” said Kendal. “It won’t kill you, but it’ll sure confuse you.”
“I think she’s already been exposed,” said Linda, circling her finger next to her ear.
Kendal grabbed a rusty CCM bike from the alley between his house and the church. With Linda in the saddle, me on the handlebars and Kendal standing up on the pedals, we started to wobble toward home just as a boy came out onto the smashed-up stoop next door to Kendal’s. I recognized him as one of the no-hopers who were bussed to my school out of a sense of Catholic duty: Pasquale Pesce, the bookie’s son, better known as Bum Bum because when he was a little kid, his mom dragged him from house to house, trying to use his skinny little body and pathetic starving-baby face to help her bum cash and food off the neighbours. Still deceptively baby-faced at fourteen, he had the sketchy reputation of a kid who spent a lot of time on the street and the lingering body odour of someone living in a house without a bathtub, Mr. Pesce having gambled away everything except the four walls around them. Bum Bum had come barefoot onto the stoop that morning with what I guessed was his breakfast: a slice of bread, a can of Neutron Coke and the end of a cigarette.
Bum Bum scratched under one armpit, squinting at us as we wobbled past. “Want I should take one of them girls on my bike?”
“We’re okay, BB. I just got us balanced,” said Kendal.
“Maybe I should ride shotgun?”
“Roger that,” agreed Kendal.
I swivelled my head to see Bum Bum toss his cigarette butt into the gutter and run to grab a child-sized one-speed from behind an overflowing garbage can beside what could generously be called his house. He quickly caught up with us, his knees pumping crazily on the too-small bike. He hadn’t bothered with a shirt and was wearing a pair of hot pink capris with a side zipper. Probably his mom’s.
The rest of Z Street was waking up, too. Curtains twitched aside. Blank faces stared at us from windows and stoops. An empty bottle flew over our heads, smashing on the road ahead of us.
“Watch out, someone’s trying to hit you, Kendal,” said Linda.
“Not Kendal they’re aiming for,” pointed out Bum Bum, who stood up on his pedals and shouted a string of swear words in our wake. A few more bottles exploded around us like grenades. I put one arm over my head, almost losing my balance. Kendal pulled my hand firmly back down onto the handlebar.
“Sons of bitches don’t know when to give up on a grudge,” he muttered.
“Probably just the fuckin’ special forces retirees carpet-bombing to scare the chicks,” said Bum Bum, glancing backwards. “Or one of them Twistie assholes. Don’t know friend from foe anymore.”
“Watch your language, gentlemen, please,” suggested Linda primly. “Can you go any faster, Kendal?”
With a grunt, Kendal pedalled harder, picking up enough speed to edge past Bum Bum.
“Eat my dust!” shouted Bum Bum, overtaking Kendal. The ride began to feel like a race.
At the end of Zurich Street, we sped around a corner onto Tesla Road, passing a graffiti-spattered billboard with the shadow of an ad for a cereal that hadn’t existed since the ’50s, the words SHIPCO KILLS a ghostly scrawl under a thin coat of whitewash.
We rode past an orchard where a woman and a man stood on ladders, filling quart baskets with plums. The couple looked as weathered and twisted as the branches around them. Grey faces, grey hair, grey clothing. They could have been man and wife, brother and sister, even mother and son. The woman said something to the man in a language I didn’t understand. The man nodded and spat on the ground. Their way of letting us know Linda and I didn’t belong there, tear-assing down their road with a couple of Z Streeters.
Shipman’s Corners was an old U.E.L. town — U.E.L. standing for United Empire Loyalists, New England settlers who stayed loyal to Mad King George and made their way to British North America after the American Revolution. We were in what was known as the ethnic quarter: giusta-comes, wops, Polacks, Lithuanians, Yugoslavians, Ukrainians, Displaced Persons (sneeringly known as DPs), what have you. Whoever washed up in Shipman’s Corners after the war, looking for work, ended up living in this end of town.
People tended to live with others who came from the same place. Italians, like my grandparents, settled on Fermi Road. The Ukrainians, Poles and other Eastern Europeans ended up on Tesla. Z Street took whoever didn’t fit in anywhere else.
Only one thing united the neighbourhoods: we were all outsiders, isolated on the far side of the shipping canal from downtown Shipman’s Corners. ShipCo believed in a certain order to its company towns. We were living examples of how their experiment was panning out.
Just beyond the plum orchard, we rode toward a dirty beige stucco bungalow with a scrap of a front yard covered by the roots of a giant peach tree. In the shadow of the branches, at a card table spread with bottles of various colours and sizes, a man with black slicked-back hair and a wide strong face sat in a white undershirt sipping clear liquid from a water glass — Mr. Holub, referred to as Mr. Capitalismo for his get-rich-quick schemes, the latest being a portable bomb shelter that looked suspiciously like an old-fashioned deep-sea diving suit with a Geiger counter stuck to it. Dad knew him from ShipCo. Nice enough guy, but a bit of a kook, he said.
As we braked to a stop, Mr. Holub ambled into the street, carrying his glass. I could smell something funny on his breath. Like onions mixed with rubbing alcohol.
“What you girls doin’ way out here this early in the morning?” His voice sounded mushy.
Linda slid off the back of Kendal’s bike and told our story in a rush — at least the part about Dad’s flat tire out in the Z-Lands. She skipped around what we were doing exactly, no mention of the Geiger counter or why our sudden need to leave.
I stood next to Kendal, who was holding his bike uncertainly while Bum Bum popped wheelies on the road, killing time while we sorted things out. With Mr. Holub taking charge, I was worried that Kendal would feel forgotten, until I realized that he was staring at the Holubs’ front door. A girl holding a broom was looking out at us through the screen, her long thick rope of black hair covered by a kerchief. I knew her from school: Sandy Holub, Mr. Capitalismo’s only child. Even though she was a year older than me, she was sent to our class because of her accent. Her real name was Oleksandra, but she changed it to Sandy because someone joked that her name sounded like a cat horking up a hairball.
Sandy and I got to know each other crouching side by side in the hallway during a surprise air-raid drill. As I faced the wall with my arms around my head, I sniffed a sudden bathroom smell and realized that she had peed herself.
“Don’t worry, it’s not for real,” I whispered, trying to reassure her.
When she turned to look at me, the fear in her pale blue eyes nicked me like a knife. As suddenly as it had started, the siren stopped, leaving a ghostly echo. “All clear,” our teacher called out, followed by rustling and laughter as kids readjusted to being among the living again.
“See?” I said.
We were officially friends after that. Not the kind who go to each other’s houses, but ones who stick together at recess and pick each other as partners for double dutch.
* * *
As Kendal stared up at Sandy, and Sandy stared back at him, I realized it wasn’t Kendal who had been forgotten. It was me.
Mr. Holub broke the spell by offering Kendal his hand to shake. “Thanks for the help, boy, I take the girls from here.” I could see Kendal wince at that word. Boy.
“See you around at the picnic, I guess,” he said to me, then glanced up at Sandy one more time before signalling to Bum Bum that it was time to pedal back to Z Street. I watched the two of them bike past the grey orchard, a dog in pursuit, while Mr. Holub backed his car out of his parking spot behind the house. He said he would drop us off at home, then drive back to the Z-Lands to help Dad. I could tell Linda was relieved to have everything in grown-up hands again, but I was disappointed not to be riding home on Kendal’s handlebars.
Sandy Holub stayed half-hidden behind the screen door. As the car pulled away from the curb, she lifted her hand to me in a wave, then turned away, vanishing into the darkness of the house with her broom.
It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.
When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle; the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm.
As the sun had turned its face away, they were all exhausted from the work that came with spring. For once, there had been no nighttime shadow stories, talk, or laughs—though when they had all settled, Him, the oldest brother, issued a tremendous fart. He could have split a log with the force. Runt replied with a messy blow of his lips to the back of his hand. Bent laughed, just once, and Girl let a smile curl her lips but was too tired for more. Big Mother said, “Hum.”
And then it was quiet in the hut; heavy breathing, slow.
Deep in the middle of the pile of bodies lay Girl and Wildcat. Girl usually slept soundly, but that night she woke too early and pulled her cramped arm out from under the large cat. Earlier Big Mother had shooed him away to the edge of the nest. The sneaky cat had waited and, once he heard a whistle of air running evenly through Big Mother’s large nose, crawled back in. Wildcat was gray with pointed black tips on his ears. He was thick-boned and robust and had a dense mat of fur. A set of black rings ran the length of his tail. He had made a single chirp, a sound he had trained Girl to know, and moved in to cuddle up to her. He rubbed his head and ears against hers. She made a faint chirp in reply. They were good friends and Wildcat was the softest thing she knew.
Girl scratched at a flea that was attempting an escape from her armpit. She ran her sleepy fingers across the skin to try to flick it off. A shift and a slight grunt and she couldn’t reach. A moment later a thick finger pressed on her back. It skimmed across the shoulder blade and pushed. It was her brother Him, she knew from the feel of the rough skin on the tip of his finger. A pinch and a pop and the bug body crushed between his teeth. Girl didn’t say thank you. There was no need. It was built into all the times that she would pick a flea or louse for Him. Words could be empty. It was the return of a gesture that held meaning.
And then it was quiet. Girl sighed and fell back and became part of the tangle of bodies again. The protective layer of bone and muscle blurred. The edges of their shapes melted into the warmth. Thick lashes hit cheeks, breaths came slower, and the weight of long limbs fell away. When one had a dream, the others saw the same pictures in their heads, whether they were remembered in the morning or not. It wasn’t just their bodies that connected in sleep; it was also their minds.
The family lay in a pile on top of two thick, stretched bison hides. Under those hides was a bed of fresh pine boughs, crisscrossed to lift the nest away from the cold dirt floor. Girl and Runt had just changed the boughs that day, so the air was heavy with the scent of pine. Over the bodies were hides that had been cured and chewed until they felt soft against the skin. A layer of furs was spread on top to keep the family cozy. This nest lay inside a hut that was tucked into the side of a granite cliff, a carefully chosen position, as it was perched on a ledge with steep rock above and a sharp slope below. They had to slink along a narrow trail to get to the hut. While not convenient, it limited the routes that a predator could use to approach.
When going to sleep, the family imagined that they were crawling into the belly of a bison. The hut was roughly the same shape as the bison they ate. It had a low, tight back end to hold the heat in close. The front was stronger and made with more support, horned and watching. A long tree limb formed the spine of the structure. It was propped up at one end with a forked branch and wrapped in place with twine made from strips of the inner bark of a cedar tree. Once these main supports were up, long sticks were laid across the center pole, like ribs. Thicker branches were secured with stones at the front and back to form legs for stability. A first skin, cured with brain oil, was pulled tight enough over the frame to quiver. Dead pine boughs were then placed on the skeleton, like a thick slab of fat. The outermost layer was rough hides made of the densest fur from the backs of two old male bison, thrown over and tied on with cured tendons.
With body heat, it was snug inside the hut. The strength of the animals remained in their parts and gave the family a special kind of protection. In a land full of peril, protection of any kind was precious. What comforted the body was also solace for the mind.
When Girl was inside the hut, she had a habit of murmuring a word: “Warm.” She craved the feeling of being connected to so many beating hearts, to ears that listened, and to all those pairs of eyes that would watch to ensure that something wasn’t sneaking up behind another body. It was how her blood spread heat to the bodies she loved. It was how she stayed alive.
And much later, when the family was all gone and Girl was alone, the warmth was what she would remember about that night. She would let her longing out in a lonely moan: “Warm.”
When Girl peeked her head out of the hut that morning, she could smell the struggle of spring. It was the first day of the hunt and the land had come alive. The sun worked hard to peel the winter ice away from the earth. As it did, it uncovered a deep hunger in the land. The same kind of craving lived in the bellies of all the beasts who roamed the valley of the mountain. Girl watched as the trees below swayed with worry. They could feel the vibrations from the growling bellies through the soil around their roots. Cold air clung to the pine needles and each sprouting cone at the end of each branch quivered in anticipation. The ground shifted in discomfort as the ice let it go. Spring brought life for some, but it brought death for others.
Down the slope at the hearth, Big Mother stirred the coals to rouse the morning fire. The old woman wore her bison horns, which were secured in a soft hide and tied onto her head. The two horns protruded straight out at the spot where her short forehead met a thick hairline. With only a glance, any beast could tell that Big Mother was in charge. She was old by then, which meant that there were more than thirty springs she could remember. She had lost count of them all, but her milky eyes could still pick out shape, light, and movement. Her nose could still catch the scent of a fresh green shoot from a hundred strides away.
As the head of the family, Big Mother would decide on the particular beast they would try to kill that day. Though her hunting days were over, she would still make the trip to the bison crossing with the rest of the family. Girl wouldn’t risk leaving Big Mother, or any of the other weaker-bodied ones, alone at that time in the spring. A young leopard had recently come slinking around near their hearth. He was new to their land and unsettled. In earlier times the family could have driven him away easily, but that spring their numbers were especially low. They didn’t dare allow the leopard a chance. Only some meat got to eat.
As Him, Girl’s brother, walked over to the fire, Big Mother started to laugh. It took Girl a moment to see why. Him often had an erection and, given the loose arrangement of his cloak, she could see that this morning was no different. Big Mother laughed with joy, as an erect penis signaled good health. It was happiness.
Many things had dropped away from Big Mother’s body by then, but not her smile. Her laugh came out as a sharp cackle and showed her missing teeth, all gone except for a few mid-teeth in her upper left jaw and two molars on the right. When she laughed, she put a hand to her cheek, and Girl knew the old woman wished those teeth would also fall to the dirt. The pain made her body feel like dry meat. A clutch of wiry gray hairs lifted from her chin, and large breasts lay proud and flat over her belly. The thick skin on her face showed the trail of a tear. Big Mother believed that the measure of a life could be reduced to such small things, a count of the wrinkles to see how many laughs versus how many frowns a body had produced. Because of this, Girl knew that the old woman made sure to laugh often.
The smells of spring and her aging mother mixed together in a way that caused Girl some unease. Realistically, she knew that Big Mother could drop dead at any moment. She often said her breath smelled like the hindquarters of a bison after so many years of eating just that. While the back end of a bison had a distinct smell, it wasn’t necessarily bad. Shit came out of it and stank of life in a sweet way. If mixed with sand, bison shit could be stuck around the pine poles of a hut to fill up the cracks and keep out the wind. There was nothing bad about stopping a damp wind from blowing down your neck, just as there was nothing bad about aging. If Girl was wise enough to live so long, she would also earn that breath.
Big Mother’s wisdom was needed. Only the best instincts could get a body to reach old age and she had taught Girl that living a life, riding the back of the churning seasons, meant that change was constant. Everything around them sprouted, grew, and, at some point, reached its peak. Its strength would start to recede when the thing was no longer able to renew itself. It would then die—be deadwood. A leaf that falls starts to decompose. It soon becomes nutrients for the soil. The rich soil will take in rain and become food for the tree. And in that way, in time, things didn’t really die. They only changed. But all changes came with discomfort and unease. And Big Mother did her best to give comfort to the family by keeping what she could the same. Over all her years, she made her tools with the same source of rock, ate the same kind of foods at close to the same time of year, and built huts in the same way again and again.
Girl looked at Him and admired the shiny brown hair on his head. Its glossiness was a sign of health. Raked back above his ears, the hair was pulled away from his sloped brow and tied with a lash. His back was broad and flared out wide from his waist. He had gone through a change of his own. It came later than it had for some, as the years before had been lean and his fat stores were low. The change included moods that alerted Girl to what might be happening. Given the close quarters, moods were endured in a fairly stoic way. Though she pretended not to notice, she knew he might catch the eye of a woman at the fish run that summer.
Just thinking of the bright colors of the fish run was enough to make Girl’s heart quicken. Saliva flooded her mouth. Her hunger deepened. She thought of the soft fish eggs in her fingers. The year before she had held one up close to her eye and it looked like the river was trapped inside. That small river held the next generation of fish and so she wanted their strength inside her body. She had put the eggs between her back teeth, crunched down, and listened to them pop. She imagined the slippery skin of the fish in her hands and eating the soft, orange flesh underneath, and her blood felt as though it boiled under her skin.
When the spring sun climbed high enough to kiss the cliff that stood behind their hut, the family would start moving toward the meeting place. Other families who lived on separate forks of the river would also make the journey. It was by a broad stretch of the water that flattened into a series of shallow rapids where the river’s branches came together.
At that time of year, it was also the meeting place for the fish. As they flung their bodies up rocky steps, some were smashed on the rocks, some found themselves in the waiting reed nets of the family, and some fell into the jaws of bears. And a few of the fish made it through. Each was as long as an arm and as thick and muscled as a thigh, with two fangs that protruded up from the lower jaw. They were as smart as crows and as quick as snakes. Their scales were speckled gray, but the tastiest ones wore a blaze of orange across their backs to show they were ripe. The family believed that those were the best fish. They were not necessarily the strongest, but their traits—cunning, strength, size, or eyesight—were best matched to the conditions of that particular year. They were the ones who continued on to lay their orange eggs in the shallows higher upriver. The new generation of fish would come from them.
Girl’s mind was full of inward thoughts of the meeting place, but she knew she shouldn’t be distracted. She quickly snapped back to the present as she looked at her family by the hearth—Big Mother, Him, Bent, and Runt. They were a small group and some of them looked weaker than other beasts. She knew from their previous visits to the meeting place that they might not be the most attractive of the bunch. But she didn’t let worry about their chances flood her then. Like the skills of hunting, repairing, and building, learning to hold some of her worries back was part of growing up. She had to focus on the hunt. She shouldn’t divert the attention of her body from the present moment; it could put them all at risk. The world was so easily lost.
Him had been the first to climb down the steep slope from the hut to their hearth that morning. The land of the family was still in the grip of the ice, but he didn’t mind the cold. He was driven by his urge to mate. He knew that he would mate only if he looked in good health at the meeting place, and health lay in the food he ate. In the spring, it was only bison meat that could fill the needs of his dense muscles and large frame.
Him didn’t stop working when Big Mother laughed. His erection stood for the desire to eat and mate and it only drove him harder. He smiled, kicked the embers of the fire to extinguish the flame, and scraped the ashes to the side with a stick. Using a hide to protect his hands from the heat, he lifted a slab of stone with a concave surface that was used for making sticky pitch from birch bark. Someone in the family long before had found the slab and it had since been passed down from one body to another. As they moved frequently to find or follow food, it wasn’t a practical thing to carry. They cached the slab each year near where the spring hut was likely to be. Him handled it like a treasure. It was one of the few objects that many generations of the family had used. That was how a thing was made precious, by how many hands of the family had touched it before. The work he did linked him to the family through time.
The day before, Him had put layers of bark from a birch tree into the concave slab of stone and let the heat of the fire coax black ooze from the bark. Once hot embers were added, he used this sticky pitch to seal a triangular flake of stone onto the end of a wooden thrusting spear. Him quickly worked the pitch before it set. He licked his fingers often. He pressed and molded the pitch to get it just right. Once happy with the shape, he dipped the new tip in cool water.
As Him waited for the tip to set, he watched his younger brother Bent, who had a forearm that was curved like the horn of a bison. The thumb pointed away from Bent’s body, and his wrist was fixed. He was attempting to tie a hardened hide onto his shin for protection in the hunt, and the guard was difficult to get in place with his crooked arm. He could turn his hand only by twisting his elbow. It looked like Bent’s arm was aching too, as it often did when the weather changed. Bent spat in frustration.
“Runt.” Him let out the word in a loud, piercing bark. His larynx was short, which gave his voice a high pitch. This shrill sound shot through his broad nose cavity with a nasal quality. At the same time, it resonated through his deep, muscled rib cage. When he spoke, his voice came out loud and it tired his throat.
But Him didn’t need to stress his throat with words very often. Big Mother had set the quiet tone of their social customs, and living in such a small group meant that many things didn’t need to be said. Big Mother’s throat was even more prone to strain and she discouraged too much chatter, though those who witnessed her occasional flashes of rage might question her commitment to quiet. She called a body that talked too much a crowthroat; with a hand out, she would flap her fingers against her thumb, a gesture that stood for the beak of the bird she despised the most. The crows squawked and shit with no regard for what lay around them.
Runt heard his name and followed Him’s eyes to see Bent’s struggle. Runt had lived through six or seven winters by then, though no one knew his true age. It was difficult to tell, given his frail appearance. Him was glad to see that the boy had started to look for ways to be useful. Runt scampered over and put a skinny finger on the middle of Bent’s knot and used the other hand to pull one strand through. Together they tied the hardened hide to Bent’s shin.
Him thought that Runt’s position in the family was still uncertain. The boy had been found along the river before the fish run began. Another family had brought him to the meeting place, but they had not treated him well and barely fed him. Soon they had kicked him out of their hut and he had been left to wander around like a stray wildcat begging for scraps. Big Mother had finally taken pity on Runt and given him a nice piece of fish. The boy had attached himself to her side and had managed to hold his position ever since.
But Runt wasn’t growing up and out like he should. Him often suspected that the boy was sick. The morning before, Him had made the boy stand in front of Big Mother so that she could sniff his breath. He was worried about sunbite. The family knew it started with a particular kind of stench on the breath. Soon after came a deep fatigue, pain in the joints and back, and vomiting. The next and often fatal signs were flat red spots that appeared on the face, hands, and forearms and filled with pus, then turned to blisters. The sunbite burned the body and consumed it—the body had got too close to the sun. But Big Mother didn’t think Runt showed any signs. There was nothing obviously wrong with him.
Still, Him wondered. Even this spring, the boy wasn’t taking on muscle. Bulbs of knees and elbows stuck out from thin limbs, his eyes bulged, and his skin was darker than it should be. Him did not know why Runt was so small or if more meat would help him grow. He knew that the boy was a risk to feed. Each piece of food they tossed his way might compound the loss. Life was a moving set of decisions. Even reaching to pinch a flea had to be worth the saved blood.
Him sensed that the balance of the family was off. Perhaps it was his strong urge to mate that made him feel it more acutely than the others, a constant pressure on his skin.
When Girl was ready, she made her way down the narrow path toward the hearth. She walked up just as Him was admiring their new spear. They all had a role in most of the things they made, and constructing this spear was no different. Bent had collected and shaped the shaft, Runt had prepared the tendon that was used to wrap around the spearhead before the pitch seal, Girl had made the pointed stone flake, and Him had assembled the parts into a tool. None of them could conceive of themselves as separate from the others.
Girl reached out her hand to touch Him’s shoulder. Him didn’t look back and didn’t need to, as Girl’s scent was so familiar. She felt his heart throb. All of them could feel the physical reaction of another body on the soft parts of their skin, the inside of the wrist, a cheek, the base of the neck. Girl noticed that Him’s penis stood up again. One whiff of her was all it took. She knew how she looked, dressed for the hunt with hardened hides strapped tight to her shins and forearms. The black ocher paint on her face showed the two streaks of the family on each cheek. A shock of red hair stood up from her head. She wore a single shell on a thin lash around her neck. Her skin smoothed over muscles and gleamed with hazel oil. She could feel the effect of her strength on him. He made her teeth want to sink in. But she kept her eyes down and pointing away. If Big Mother caught her looking, there would be trouble.
In the years before, after a hunt, they would spend time eating and digesting in the protection of the cave that was tucked into the side of the cliff near their spring hut. They would build up the fire so that the flames licked up into the dark. Big Mother would stand in front of it so that her shadow cast shapes on the stone wall and, with shadows and singsong yowls, she would tell them stories. She felt it was worth straining her voice.
The story she told most, the one they loved to see, was one that Big Mother meant as a warning. It was about a brother and sister who had developed a taste for each other. It was a time when there were many families at the meeting place. When the brother and sister wouldn’t leave each other alone and one man in the family was chosen to kill them. They managed to escape, but the only way they could get away was to follow the fish.
The brother and sister traveled out toward the sea, to a part of the land where the families did not go. There were no bison, and the water was not fresh. They drank only salted water and ate only creatures with pinching claws. All the salt poisoned their minds and they went crazy. They had babies that became the sum of their experience. The children grew with eyes that stayed open in their heads like the fish in the sea. Their lips became crusted with the salt water that they drank. They grew claws for their hands and started to look like the creatures they ate. Big Mother would crouch over and pinch her fingers to show their ghastly shapes in the shadow. It was a story they all loved, the horror and the delight twisted together tightly.
To reinforce the message, Big Mother had given Girl a shell from the sea the size of a walnut. Girl strung it on a lash and wore it around her neck. But passed down for generations, the story changed in texture through time. The telling of a story using shadows was not as precise as Big Mother might have wished.
Girl understood the tale in the context of when it was told. It had been after a hunt, when she had a full belly. And Girl also saw the story against the backdrop of the change that was happening to her body at that time. Big Mother’s narrative became a new thing in Girl’s mind. To her, it was a tale that reinforced their way of life. It reminded her of why they preferred to live the same pattern every year and why their ability to hunt bison made them the strongest beasts on the land. Staying close to her brother could get them through the hardest times. That was why she always wore the shell, which she called the Sea, around her neck.
“Girl,” Big Mother shrieked now when she turned to see that Girl had emerged from the hut. Big Mother had given each of them a name that was relative to her. It was a way of distinguishing one body from another but without separating them too much. She believed that anything elaborate in the way of naming put unnecessary strain on the throat. Rather than words, rituals formed the pattern that guided their lives, and it was time for the morning meal before the hunt. The shriek meant Big Mother wanted Girl to feed her. No more words were needed.
Calling Girl was also Big Mother’s way of showing preference. It was rare and special to have two generations alive at one time. Most of them knew they would probably not live to see three for long. In Girl’s time, she had rarely lived with more than eight bodies at once. And to Big Mother, she was the last girl. It was a position so precious that she felt especially protective of Girl. No more breeding females would come from Big Mother’s old womb. Her body had become like a smooth pan of sand. Nothing could grow there, but something could take root in Girl.
The time for a succession was coming. Ensuring the family would live was Big Mother’s most basic concern, and their survival strategy hinged on the fish run at the meeting place: The oldest male, Him, would try to entice a new woman into the family to become a new Big Mother for their group. The female, Girl, would try to win a place as Big Mother of a new family. If both these things happened, the family was strong, like the fish in a good year. Their kind would return to run with the river again.
Girl took a piece of dried meat into her own mouth and started to chew. The meat had to be worked just right to get it ready for the near-toothless woman to consume. Too much chewing would drain all the juice; it had to be just enough so that the meat could slip through gums and down a throat. Girl chewed until it felt soft and took out the pulpy mouthful. She knelt beside her mother and dangled the piece of meat, holding it up for inspection.
Big Mother glanced at the chewed strip, taking heavy breaths through her nose. The wiry hairs on her chin caught the sun. She nodded okay and opened her lips. The smell of her breath came out in plumes. Her lips pulled back, and she snatched the meat with her gums.
“Hum,” she said.
She sucked at it until she swallowed.
After the old woman had eaten, Bent gave each of the other family members a handful of roasted hazelnuts and a slab of dried meat from the cache. Girl hungrily gnawed her piece of meat. It was slightly bigger than usual, as she was important to the hunt, but to her eye, it was not big enough. No portion ever was. She was always hungry.
Girl had noticed a feeling under her skin too, like a chewing sensation. She tried to soothe her mind by picturing herself after the hunt, a warm hunk of meat in hand, sucking at it for juice, surrounded by the smell of a fresh kill; her feet with their light brush of hair on top would twitch with happiness as she licked and chewed, the blood dribbling down her chin. The memory of meat filled her with hope. Her memories weren’t necessarily of things that had happened to her; they might be the experiences of someone else in the family. They could be transferred through dreams or through a body she ate. They were for keeping the body safe in its present state, finding food, or making sense of something unfamiliar. So Girl closed her eyes and let the good feelings from the fresh meat flood into her body. She thought of all the times the hunt had been successful for both her and the members of her family who came before. This hunt might stop her hunger.
Behind her she could hear Big Mother sniffing. The woman’s old hand, strong like a claw, wrapped around Girl’s shoulder and held on. The sniffing was closer and the old woman scented something on her. “Hum.”
Girl quivered like a leaf too heavy for its branch. Big Mother was sniffing her like she was checking for the sunbite. Girl pressed her own hand to her forehead. She seemed slightly hotter than usual, but none of the other symptoms were present. She didn’t feel sick; quite the opposite. Her muscles were twitching with want. Maybe more hunger than usual, if that was possible. She didn’t yet sense what Big Mother had already discovered with a sniff.
Girl found out when she went to squat behind a bush, the final step in getting ready to go. She saw a line of mucus on her thigh. It made her giggle, as it looked more like egg white than something that came from her. She wiped at it with a leaf and found it surprisingly slippery. It wasn’t like the blood that had come in the year before. She didn’t feel pain, only a slight cramp inside her hip. A cold trickle crept down her spine as she realized that this was the heat. It was the first time she had got it. The heat gave out the scent that told others she wanted to mate.
Girl knew she had to wait until they were at the meeting place for that. Big Mother had given her extra meat over the winter and signaled that this year Girl might be fat enough for the heat to come in time for the fish run. With it, she would be old enough to win a family of her own. Big Mother wanted her daughter to make her proud. Just as Girl’s sister, Big Girl, had done before.
But even as Girl had eaten the extra meat that winter, she worried. She didn’t want to leave this family as her sister had. Big Girl was quick to laugh. They had played and whispered and picked bugs off each other’s backs. Many had thought the two were the same body, with their broad noses that flared and their shocks of red hair. There was one difference that distinguished them, though. When Big Mother was confused about who was who, she would tell them to smile. Big Girl had had a particularly hard collision with a rock, and she had not managed to keep her front teeth attached to her head. The gap made her smile all the brighter. When Big Girl wanted to make Girl laugh, she would stick her tongue through the gap and hiss like a snake. Girl was scared of snakes. They would duck and weave around the camp, shrieking and laughing until one of them fell. The body who was still standing would fall on the other and start tickling. Or sometimes it was Big Mother’s large foot that would end the game. The gap in the front of Big Girl’s mouth was a source of great fun.
From Girl’s perspective, Big Girl was the strongest kind of woman because she had won a family at the fish run. But now she was gone. Maybe she lived well with ample meat, but Girl had no way of knowing. With the exception of going to the meeting place, she had never lived away from the family’s land. She did not know what life elsewhere was like. When she tried to imagine Big Girl’s life, all Girl felt was the bite of bugs with no sister to pick them off. That’s also how the idea of leaving felt to Girl, like a flea that her fingers couldn’t reach. And now the heat had come and Girl would change too. What lay ahead was dark and shadowy, like the back of a cave.
Girl knew this feeling wasn’t useful to the family. Thinking forward was distracting. It left the body vulnerable in the present. All she wanted to do was push it away. But everyone in the family would know. With the heat, the eyes of beasts across the land would take in her snowy skin in a new way. If not immediately, then soon. The sheen of her hair would look deeper, to show the heat that came from between her legs.
Girl hoped to hide it for now. She quickly found moss to wipe with and lessen the smell. She kept her head low and flicked her eyes to the side, a new fear to stay alert for meat-eaters. She straightened and walked back out to join the others. She took her place at the front of the line, just like she always did. As many in the family had before, she tried to pretend that nothing had changed. She focused on what was the same.
Why does life exist? I’d been plagued by doubt about my purpose for much of my life. The day I found her, a Neanderthal long buried in the dirt, I was relieved of it. As an archaeologist, I knew that the essential difference between something living and something dead is heat. Only living things are able to capture energy from the land and use it, but somehow, more than forty thousand years after her death, that Neanderthal was able to capture me. I felt as though her big hand reached through time to grab me by my grubby T-shirt and pull my nose to the spot where she lay. When I found her, I finally knew why I was alive. I wanted to learn her secrets.
By that time, I had already discovered one male skeleton in the cave. The remains belonged to a modern human, one of the Homo sapiens (meaning “wise man” in Latin), who are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. One of us. Some kind of geological activity had resulted in his bones fossilizing. Based on his pristine condition, I felt it was worth draining my savings to extend my teaching leave and assess the potential of the site. Andy, my assistant, and I camped at the cave, carefully staked the area inside, and started the slow process of excavating one thin layer at time. Soon after we began, I brushed aside a coat of sediment and uncovered a rounded fragment of skull.
He pushed through the thick plastic that we had hung to protect the entrance from outside contaminants. “Rose?”
“I found her,” I said, my voice shaking.
The soft hiss of carbonation came from behind me. Andy carried a can of Dr Pepper most places he went. I had forbidden him to bring it into the cave, assuming that one splash had sufficient corrosive power to instantly dissolve the artifacts that had survived all other threats. But Andy had developed a survival strategy of his own over forty-odd years of marriage to his wife, recently deceased: his hearing was highly selective.
“It’s a second set of remains,” I said.
“Really?” Andy sighed and took a big slug. “I see a tiny piece of bone.”
We were in a small cavern that was attached to a cave network not far from the Gorges de l’Ardèche near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in France. It was part of a larger system that had become well known thanks to the Chauvet caves, where spectacular paintings made by modern humans had been discovered in 1994.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Andy said as he tapped his watch. “I’ll get your notebook, but remember, it’s quitting time. We’ll come back to work on it tomorrow.”
“Her,” I said instinctively.
“We’ll come back to her first thing in the morning,” he teased. “Does she have a name yet?”
“I need to keep working, Andy.”
“My vote is Patricia, but we’ll have to firm up the christening details tomorrow. You made me promise that I’d force you to stop working at five. Remember?”
“There is no way in hell I’m leaving the site right now.”
Andy let out a longer sigh. “Is Jane too plain?” He took another big swig from his can.
I leaned back to look at Andy and noticed that weariness had settled about his kind face. Perhaps I was driving him to his carbonated addiction? But he smiled his big, wide Oregonian smile to let me know he was fine. I did the same by giving the slight round of my belly a pat.
“Get yourself a fresh can,” I said. “And my notebook and the camera.”
“Does this mean we aren’t stopping?”
“I’m pregnant, not deranged.”
“Hum.” Andy shrugged and pushed back through the plastic.
“Andy?” I called after him.
“Jane is far too plain.”
I waited until Andy was gone to rub the sore spot in my lower back. I was well into the third month of my pregnancy. I wasn’t showing, but I hadn’t needed a test to know my condition. I’d had to tell Andy. You can’t hide the fact that you’re experiencing morning sickness when you’re sharing a tent with someone. My plan was to visit my doctor when I got back to London in two weeks. Then, after I had confirmation, I would break the news to Simon, my partner. He was holding down our fort in London, since the courses he was teaching went through the spring. Part of me wanted to grab the phone and shout the news to him, but another part of me felt it was premature. Simon had wanted a baby for a long time. I was thirty-nine and I knew that on some level, he had given up hope. Quietly, I’d watched him resign himself to a different kind of life than the one he’d imagined. If I was going to shift his life view again, I wanted to be completely sure.
At sixty-two, Andy had decided that life was short and had taken early retirement from a financial firm in order to pursue a PhD in archaeology—a late bloomer, he’d called himself. When I e-mailed around for help on a scouting expedition, he was the first to respond. He had been studying at Stony Brook University with a good friend of mine, Dr. Conn Bray, who specialized in Paleolithic technologies. I had been reluctant to take Andy on, as I’d assumed he was the sort of student who’d anticipate Indiana Jones–type adventures in snake pits and wouldn’t be happy with the usual slow-moving nonaction of archaeological dirt pits. Conn tended to make paleoarchaeology look like a great adventure and was prone to carving up goats with stone tools in class. But the more Andy and I had worked together, the more I realized that he was the best kind of student—one who listened and learned but had much to add. He quickly became my willing coconspirator in all things archaeology as well as a good friend. I didn’t know what I would do without him.
Andy pushed back in through the plastic. Holding my notebook, my camera, and a fresh can of soda, he twisted a wrist in an attempt to glance at his watch. “And Simon wants you to call when you’re back in camp. Your mother called too.”
I was listening, but not really. Andy knew. He tried again. “I’ll take a photo, plot it, do a sketch, and we’ll call it a wrap?”
“Who’s the boss of this site?” I lifted my chin teasingly.
“That’s a touchy subject.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Dr. Rosamund Gale, sir!” He tipped his Dr Pepper in a salute.
“And what time is it, Andrew?”
“Five thirteen p.m.”
“Take photos. Mark this find.”
“My boss will have me axed!”
“As your boss, I say put that damn Dr Pepper outside.” I burst out laughing.
I’d taken a leave of absence from teaching to follow up on a few interesting features I’d noticed while caving in this area with a surveying team in previous years. With Andy working as support and paid with the last of the money from my savings, I retraced the route that I’d taken. But this time, in the silence, with no pressure from the group, I found a vent. A cave vents air like a body. When the pressure changes, the less dense, cooler night air is drawn in, like an inhale. When the sun heats the air, the cave seeks equilibrium and exhales. I’d found the vent when I stopped to take a water break. I felt it first, like someone blowing gently on my cheek. It took two days to find a channel that led to this previously unmapped cavern.
Maybe I’d suspected then that I was pregnant, but I had managed to delay my internal discovery of it for a few weeks—a time-tested way of ensuring that plans are easier to hatch.
When I first accessed the cavern, it was through a narrow channel of rock. I had to wriggle like a snake to make it through. The cavern on the other end had remained undetected for years, possibly because the narrow channel prevented men of even average girth from entering.
After I’d wriggled through and dropped down, it was only an hour or two before I uncovered the edge of a stone hand ax. I later identified it as an example of the Châtelperronian industry, part of a toolmaking culture that I believed was shared by modern humans and Neanderthals. Andy and I were able to punch through a wall of the cavern to expose the outside wall and make the site more accessible. The cave soon became more like a proper dig site, though the money and glamour of Indiana Jones was missing. Andy said he provided the good looks.
Within a month, Andy and I had found the first set of bones; they belonged to an ancient male who was a modern human.
The moment I’d uncovered the fragment of a second skull, I had a hunch we had found something big. I couldn’t just put down tools because it was precisely five o’clock. We kept working, quietly and carefully brushing and plotting.
“Okay?” Andy asked.
“Yes, thank you.” I forced a smile to mask my exhaustion.
“Nice mustache.” He chuckled. I had an unfortunate habit of running my dusty arm along my face to wipe at the sweat. The result was that each day, I collected a thick line of dirt on my top lip. At least it kept Andy entertained.
Late afternoon stretched to evening. Before I knew it, it was dark outside the cave. Andy measured and charted while I slowly brushed away more layers of dirt. We had some nuts and granola bars on-site to keep us going. Somehow I found myself coaxed into taking a slug of Dr Pepper. I admit it gave me a little pep. As more of the skull appeared in the dirt, I saw that she seemed to be lying on her side with her head turned toward the modern human. They were clearly in the same stratum, or layer, of dirt.
I began to see that the skull was longer than expected. There was a distinct ridge of bone above the eye orbit. I looked up at Andy to see if he noticed too, but he continued to act like it was any other day.
“Should I switch?” he asked.
I realized that Andy had been talking while we worked, but about what? I was too absorbed by the visible bone to know. He easily decoded the confused look on my face.
“To diet,” he said.
“Dieting doesn’t work,” I answered. “Our bodies evolve much more slowly than our eating habits.”
“I mean to Diet Dr Pepper. I might switch to that.”
“Diet cola is for fat people, Andy.”
“I’m fat.” He patted his gut.
“Be thankful it’s not a baby,” I muttered and turned back to my brushing.
“You ever wonder if we could excavate—”
“Have you ever tried cherry Dr Pepper? Isn’t that a thing?”
“—your sense of humor.”
“Or go crazy and switch to Fanta—do you like that? Maybe you just need a change.”
“I was fishing, Rose.”
“What, you want to take up fishing for exercise?”
There was no need to bother trying to cover up my lack of attention since it was so readily apparent. I reached over and gave Andy’s belly a nice pat, which pleased him immensely. I was his favorite person to tease and vice versa, but he was no longer looking at me. He was staring at my breasts.
“Really, Andy.” I put a finger under his chin to lift it. “You are just like the rest of them.”
“Did you spill water?”
Andy had a confident enthusiasm that usually rippled all around him. It was part of what made me agree to take him on. This might have been the first time I had ever heard him sound unsure. “Ah, you’re leaking.”
I looked down. He was right. I had a wet stain on my T-shirt over my left breast. “Shit,” I muttered.
“Nope,” Andy said, regaining his swagger. “I’m pretty sure it’s milk.”
“Colostrum.” The word came out of my mouth as a wail. “It’s too early, isn’t it? How could I have already turned into a cow?”
“You’ll make a good cow.”
“I’m an angry cow.”
“Did I mention that you told me to make sure you stopped working at five p.m.?”
“Oh, wait.” I shone my headlamp on the spot on my shirt to take a closer look. “It’s only a drop of Dr Pepper. Phew.”
“Wow, you are jumpy, huh?”
“Well, quit spilling the good stuff or I’ll start panicking too.”
A few more sips of Dr Pepper kept me going. I would not have stopped for anything. This was the culmination of years and years of painstaking work; I’d sacrificed teaching money and time with Simon to explore this area. It was potentially the first big find that I could claim as my own. While I was considered old to be a first-time mother, I was too young to have made a significant mark on my field yet. Andy was right. I was jumpy.
As we worked, I let my mind run over the idea of having a baby. I had seen what happened to the women in my field who came before me. Most who had kids got sidelined, or sidelined themselves. Men who chose to be involved with their children tended to do the same. I had no reason to expect that my experience would be different. And if this was indeed an important find, timing was crucial. In archaeology, the discovery is important, but the person who interprets the find and publishes is the one who gets the credit. I knew that any absence from the dig could result in my name getting bumped to the end of the line of authors or, worse, dropped entirely. The list of female scientists whose contribution had been diminished or forgotten was depressingly long.
And then, with a few more strokes of my brush, in the dirt before my eyes, the story started to come together. It must have been about two in the morning when I uncovered enough of the skull to see the outline.
“Look.” The word came out in a choke. I pointed to show Andy the profile of a prominent brow, a larger nasal cavity, and a receding forehead. “What do you see?”
“One ugly dude.” He whistled.
Andy let his breath out of his lungs then. The length of the exhale spoke of just how unsure he had felt about my theories of where and how we might find artifacts. There were no jokes or fresh cans cracked. We were both too stunned. Andy grabbed my arm, mouth agape. Neither of us could talk. We sat in silence and stared.
As we looked, the implications of this find slowly registered. Maybe on some level, I had begun to doubt myself too. We knew well from the recent advent of DNA testing that many modern humans had inherited genes from Neanderthals and vice versa, but beyond the obvious method of transfer, we knew little about the relations between them. In my quieter moments, I doubted we ever would.
But in the cave, the remains of a Neanderthal lay with those of a modern human. It looked like they had died together, maybe in a volcanic event, as there were records of those in the area. Perhaps they had been placed in this position by someone who thought they would want to face each other in death. They might well have lived together. Whatever the case, their position was evidence of more complex communication between the two, something that I had always assumed would be lost to time. Now it was found. A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.
Their house had always been a wreck. The difference was that back then Rita assumed all houses were like that. Paint on the porch peeling, like old nail polish. Full of boarders, or “guests, ” as Lily liked to call them; everyone lined up in the cramped hall to use the bathroom at night. The floors of some rooms were so uneven that if Rita closed her eyes, everything seemed to spin gently, the feeling of drunkenness, she’d realize years later.
Cracks in the bricks up one side had gotten worse. Now the whole house looked tilted, about to sink.
It was a bright, hot morning in July. Under normal circumstances, she’d be out for a jog. Instead she was here, squinting up at her childhood home and lingering on the pavement, as if someone had stood her up. Through the yellowed curtains of the house across the street, an old lady peeked out, probably wondering what on earth Rita was doing here, for the second morning in a row, no less. Maybe Rita looked as though she were on a mission to scope the neighbourhood, one of those rich Asians in the slum landlord business.
A little girl ran by, her bright green T-shirt appearing to pulsate with the most amazing greenness, and it seemed impossible that normal life was continuing on — kids were out enjoying the nice weather.
For a blissful moment, Rita felt like she could press the rewind button and slip back, so easily, into thinking that everything was going to be just fine. Of course it was. Lily had antsy feet. And a whimsical heart. She’d wandered off before and had always come back. It was the trademark of women of her generation: despite their veneer of stoicism, deep down anger simmered. They were tired of doing everything for everyone, sick of life as doormats. So from time to time, they blew off steam, hit the road. All mothers did this — or felt like doing this — didn’t they? Rita was a mom and she’d felt that way before, as though she were destined to live like the little red hen. It was normal to go on strike, wasn’t it?
She closed her eyes and let the darkness take over, not the comforting darkness of sleep, but a deeper, more frightening blackness. The pep talk she’d just been giving herself lost all conviction, sounded as hollow as it was. While it was true that Lily had traipsed off before, she’d always been found within a few hours.
Someone had left a pile of old clothes on the curb. A faded mauve shirt with a crushed-in collar. Baby-doll pumps in dark cherry leather, the round toes scuffed and flattened, like they’d been stepped on. Lily had once worn shoes like that and carried a matching handbag.
A wheezing sound gathered force from somewhere, and it took Rita a moment to realize that it was her own breath — the air shortening, dying in hot bursts in her throat — and all she could think was that maybe it was already too late. A vision swept over her: a small, pallid face touched by a bluish tint, generic and expressionless, the way dead people appeared on TV. She squeezed her eyes tighter and refused to believe that face could be her mother’s.
Three days ago, Lily had gone missing. “Missing people with a history of memory problems often go back to the places they used to live, ” the police officer had said, handing over a FAQ sheet for family members. It seemed this sort of thing happened more often than you’d guess. The cop — a woman, wearing just a trace of nude lipstick — tried to be encouraging, but not overly so. She’d been through the drill before.
Bloor-Lansdowne. Not the poshest part of Toronto, that was for sure. The houses were crammed so close together that they appeared to be falling into each other at uneven heights. Translucent shower curtains turned front porches into makeshift sunrooms, every second house festooned with Christmas lights that never came down. Very little about the neighbourhood had changed since Rita’s childhood (beyond the opening of a new strip club). Even the humid air, mixed with the humidity of her own palpitating body, seemed too familiar, oppressive.
What was she supposed to be doing? It didn’t seem likely that her mother would miraculously stroll by. Yesterday Rita had knocked on the door of the old house. An old tawny-skinned guy had answered. “No, ” he’d said flatly, when she showed him Lily’s photo. He kept saying no in response to all her questions; perhaps he didn’t understand English. Over his shoulder, she could see someone shuffling in the shadows. Peering in, she half expected Grandpa or Aunt Haruko to come into focus, as though for all these years their ghosts had remained right here, keeping the home fires burning. But Aunt Haruko would have never let that grime build up on the windows. Now the place was inhabited by a hodgepodge of sad souls from far-flung, war-torn countries, the mysterious odours of all their foods clashing, blending together in an oily fug.
Yet that was what people had once said about her own family. Rita had never managed to forget the peculiar, withering sensation of being looked at that way. And now, a couple decades later, here she was on the other side of that pitying, judgmental gaze. Up and down the block and for four blocks in all directions, she’d plastered her bright yellow sheets on phone poles, telephone booths, mailboxes. MISSING PERSON across the top. The photo had been taken on Lily’s honeymoon last year. Although only the head portion had been cropped, Rita couldn’t help but see the larger image: smiling vivaciously, her mother was perched on the edge of a chaise longue, white foam waves crashing down behind her, pina colada in hand, the tiny pink umbrella as bright as her lipstick. Sixty, she could easily pass for ten years younger. Her dyed black hair fell in loose, permed curls, remarkably similar to the way Rita remembered it as a child.
An ancient heirloom wristwatch lay upon a rock in the middle of the creek like so many of the functionally deceased things the refugees carried with them—the washed-out photos and the obsolete or corrupted stores of memory and the keys to homes long since bombed out or otherwise demolished—it bore a vital link to some distant, happier past.
“Used to be my grandfather’s,” Ethan said. “My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t get it back.”
“So go in there and get it,” Sarat said.
“Don’t be gross. I’m not gonna step in shit.”
Another boy whispered something in Ethan’s ear. He liste3ned and nodded.
“Why don’ you get it, Sarat?” he said. “I’ll give you fifty bucks if you do.”
Sarat shrugged. “All right.”
Once more she pushed the boys aside and walked away from the creek, toward the nearest tents. A few of the children followed, among them Ethan, who held Sarat by the wrist and warned her against telling any grown-ups.
“I’m not telling anybody,” Sarat said, shaking the boy’s hand loose. “Stop being so scared of everything.”
She walked between two tents, where an unused clothesline hung. She unhooked the metal holders on either tent and rolled the line around her fist. Then she returned to the creek. The children followed.
At the banks she uncoiled the line and tossed it into the ditch. On her first try she fired too far left and then overcompensated. But on the third throw the hook landed just past the rock on which the watch was stranded. Slowly she pulled on the line.
“Careful, careful!” Ethan cried from behind her. “You’re gonna knock it in.”
“Be quiet,” Sarat said.
She tugged gently on the line until the metal hook rested on the rock just beside the watch. With surgeon’s hands she edged the hook closer until it dislodged the watch from its place. The watch began to slide down the polished side of the rock toward the stream, but caught on the edge of the hook. A couple of the children yelped in triumph.
“You got it!” Ethan yelled. “Pull it in, pull it in.”
“Hold on,” Sarat said. “Give me that bat of yours.”
One of the boys picked up a baseball bat nearby and handed it to Sarat. With the line still in her left hand, she lifted the bat with her right. She held it as far in front of her as she could without losing her balance. Slowly she began lifting it up underneath the line to create a pivot point. Then she reeled in the catch. The hook lifted, the watch rising with it. As it came off the rock the watch swung and skimmed across the surface of the creek. Coiling the line around her wrist, Sarat pulled the watch in and set it on the ground.
She turned to Ethan. “Pay up,” she said.
The boys stared at the watch on the ground as though it had landed from outer space. Finally Ethan pulled a wad of Redbacks from his pocket and paid Sarat what he owed her.
The children began to disperse. Some of the boys revived their baseball game, a little further away from the creek this time. One of the younger girls, whom Sarat did not know, offered to return the clothesline for her.
As she made to leave, Sarat was approached by another of the boys, a fourteen-year-old from Georgia named Michael. She knew him only tangentially. He was the older brother of a boy named Thomas, who as a toddler had suffered a shrapnel injury that had frozen his mind at the age of two. The older brother had been sleeping in the same bed the night the Birds came, but through blind chance had escaped uninjured.
“Hey, Sarat—wait, girl, where are you going so fast?” Michael said. He pointed at the creek. “I’ll give you another fifty if you go in.”
The departing children halted. Sarat eyed them, and then Michael. He was wiry and lanky, swimming inside his too-big Sinopec Solar T-shirt, a hand-me-down from the Augusta docks.
Sarat said nothing.
“C’mon now,” Michael said. “You ain’t scared, are you?”
He had pasted on his face a smirk with which Sarat was well acquainted. She’d seen the same look on so many of the other boys’ faces over the years. A self-satisfied grin. It was the smirk of knowing he’d left her with an impossible choice—step in the river of filth or be labeled a coward.
Even then, at such a young age, she understood that smile for what it was: a mask atop fear, a balm, for the crippling insecurity of childhoods deeply damaged. They were fragile boys who wore it, and their fragility demanded manage. Sarat knew the boys better than they knew themselves. And she knew there was no winning this dare. That was the point—for there to be no winning, only different magnitudes of losing.
“How do I know you’re not lying,” she said.
The past is that far
country you emigrated from
as a child.
A-bomb day —
not even Stevenson would’ve traded
his birthday for yours.
Mamma says don’t touch
the iron; you’re quick to learn
the meaning of hot.
Surprised by the burning
bite in the beauty of a rose-
Mamma hits you
with — what was it — a frying pan
for writing with your left hand?
You’re Shirley Temple
dancing in the piazza, but nobody
locks you in the closet.
If gypsies snatch children,
why does your mother dress you up
as one for Carnevale?
“Pull down your panties,”
trapped in the stairwell, you do it
so he’ll go away.
with Pappa, you learn to pee
squatting at urinals.
At the shooting range
Pappa wins you a kewpie doll
dressed in pink feathers.
Gone a year in America,
who is this man, and where is
your real father?
If hell is hot
then heaven’s not, you might as well
move to Canada.
too hard to say so teacher renames you
you buy The Prisoner of Zenda at Coles
for ten cents.
how you let him touch you there
until you pee.
The thing you do
for a stick of Doublemint gum,
Double your pleasure
double your fun, Double-
of Crayola, staying within the lines
God’s stuck on the roof
of your mouth, you daren’t peel back
the wafer with your tongue.
Catechism was taught first thing on the curriculum at
St. Thomas Aquinas elementary school . . .
Your inmost thoughts will
all be exposed on Judgment Day —
you’re afraid to think!
Reading the Narnia
story, you want to eat it too —
It’s a mystery,
when you dig up the mouse,
there’s no body, no bones.
your brother says you were just
too afraid to look.
Twenty-three cents saved,
you and your brother run
away from home.
Twenty-three cents buys
two chocolate bars, three gum balls,
hungry, you go home.
Your mother starved in a concentration camp during
the Second World War . . .
For spending your savings
on comics, Mother hits you
with a bread loaf.
Atomic warning system drills:
everybody ducks and hides
under the desks.
They announce it
over the PA: President Kennedy’s
Who are you really
when your birth certificate’s
written in pencil?
nose so close to the page, teacher says
you’ll need glasses.
In grade five you know
the boy who hits you with your Oxford Concise
At ten you have breasts
Philip pokes with the pointer
to see if they’re real.
You pronounce your name
Dee-mee-shell as if it were,
though it’s not, French.
You visit relatives
in Cleveland who have changed
their name to Mitchell.
your first job’s a page
in the library!
Your first paycheque
buys that blue silk blouse
with pearl buttons.
In high school
you stay home sick a lot and hit
Among the offspring
of Jewish doctors you’re known
as Miraculous Mary.
Shame in Dostoevsky
Dimitri’s feet, Brother Andre’s corpse
starting to stink.
“Get your nose
out of that book and wash the dishes,
dust the furniture!”
“Why go to university
when you can teach grade school
or get married?”
According to Pierre Bayard’s theory:
to every book you read you bring your idea of the book,
to every story you read you bring your story . . .
War and Peace is
that food fight in the kitchen —
ketchup on the wall.
Working at A&W
you don’t see the moon landing
broadcast in real time.
In the age of Twiggy
you’re size eighteen but hip
dressed in a muumuu.
You much prefer
food to sex, it doesn’t
La Belle Dame sans Merci —
you learn to speak the language
of the dark muse.
and nowhere, the white
In the crystal ball
you’re shown great fame while in life
All the professors
have British accents, so cool,
Ruth and Carlo,
you only ever have
You read loudly
scenes from Women in Love, not knowing
they’re about sex.
He’s as pretty
as Paul McCartney; love, love me do . . .
he does not.
The A+ student
skips lectures to read standing up
in the library stacks.
you’re stuck on props for Six Characters
in Search of an Author.
There’s no satisfying
hunger for that grilled cheese sandwich
with Christ’s face.
Miss Lanciano —
you read a poem as your talent
and come in fourth.
the Scrivener, you would prefer
not to . . .
Offering you a ride
the guy in the Porsche yells he’s doing you
Your life’s soundtrack:
short people got, short people
got no reason to live . . .
Not deserving love
you marry the man who doesn’t
It’s a girl —
giving birth you feel truly female
for the first time.
You’re an editor
at Toronto Life accepting poems
by the inch.
the chef’s knife is his and wants
One by one
your husband’s friends come to give you
what he would not.
Poems about birth
shut men out, you’re told
Your daughter falls out of the stroller and bashes her nose . . .
you were a baby
when Mamma tripped, she didn’t
push you down the stairs.
The eighties —
David Byrne in his big white suit;
you in your skin.
Obasan absolves you;
it’s not yours, it’s Old Man Gower’s fault,
You tack up bedsheets
for drapes still Mother no longer calls you
is it that golden gate shutting
against your writing?
The poems that come
most easily to you are written
by someone else.
Leo like Napoleon
you’re shorter than your stature and suffer
You and your daughter jump out the train window.
After the Brighton disaster Via Rail implements
procedures in case of fire on its passenger lines . . .
“La Muerte” on a burning train,
living to reread it.
Poems and semicolons
always on the next page;
vast vistas . . .
Bonjour, good day,
comment ça va;
how goes it?
what you can shout; write what
shuts you up.
(after Yannis Ritsos)
Your sister; your daughter;
then one Christmas your father
overdoses on Tylenol.
he dances with his wife, the man
you declined to marry.
An antique bust
serves both as bookend
and your hat stand.
glows on the tarnished silverware —
that’s why you write.
Mamma says: “Salute
la tua figlia”; Pappa says: “I would
but I’m not here.”
the word you use in your mother’s eulogy feels
no small praise.
Your mother’s blouse
in the memory box, does it still
smell faintly of her?
Out of Alzheimer’s
comes your father’s warning:
“Don’t you be a soldier!”
of meaning words fill up
(after Yannis Ritsos)
I like to hear the sound
of form, and I like to hear
the sound of it breaking.
Your madeleines are
Chiquita bananas Pappa would bring
home from work.
Mi manca l’italia
but when you return it’s as if you’d never been
born in that country.
Faulkner wrote: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Even the sunlight
warming your face now is
from eight minutes ago.
Mary, you can’t go
back to yesterday, you were
a different person then.
when did you start speaking of yourself
in the third person?
you’re still doing the moonwalk
to warm up.
walking the dog past a mirror
you recognize the dog!
all the windows in the house are
Swatting the half moon
on the calendar, what good are
those new glasses!
I (always) remember your birthday,
not your death day.
This living hand, now warm and capable
again and again, longing to take yours,
in Montreal, still the question,
the only surviving word of Khazar,
meaning: “I have read.”
One hundred sentences
just to say you’ve been on Earth —
Emotion distilled into ampoules, the inoculate
roaring at the head of the needle-who needs
depot when the body's flooded with feeble?
Perhaps the lobotomy was the right thing to do,
back when you said you understood me and, ha,
no-I understood you. In the car park, at Big Park,
Little Park, in grocery aisles, in community rinks;
past security checkpoints and through turnstiles,
it was all darkness. To the coasts, I roar:
When a man loves a woman, he can't keep his mind.
Oh needle of lonesome, here's my ass one more time.
Last night, you asked 'How does it feel?'
Percy? Sing for us? She can bring him such misery
if she plays him for a fool. This anthem serves the lost
in lieu of help; that's how it feels, old and good
bodies. Raise your right index finger and say
goodbye to the fool that points between your
eyes. The sensor never lies. It identifies.
Earth, Fire, Air, Water
The cry of pain is life -Bichat
Feel your cells.
They dwell in the drama you set,
that spell of forget and remember.
Cells are demented elephants,
atolls that move in storms.
Heaven or hell is the Brownian motion.
From the sky: portents and weather, the impetus.
In Hooke's eye, pain is an organelle.
Cells die together, as do we.
En masse, the telos is alone,
for me, that's never true.
I will die thinking of you. I will die thinking.
Of you, the pain says nothing. You are.
What I say, and sing, for I am in pain,
and have always been: I am alive.
Pain is not the cry.
The cry is that I think of you,
I think of life.
The project is Hugh’s idea. He sends me an email: “I hope you can see all the trouble your writing has caused.”
He wants to publish the stories I’ve been calling The Paradise Project. The pieces are slight. Whimsical. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t ask.
I’m touched that these stories have got their hooks into Hugh, although I don’t quite believe it. I feel like a teenager invited to a party by the most popular boy in class, a boy who can’t possibly like me. I suspect a mistake. Or worse, a trick.
Hugh Barclay introduced himself to me more than a dozen years ago, which sounds very civilized, a calling card on a silver salver. Not the correct impression at all. He showed up at my book launch for The Convict Lover, which took place in the Penitentiary Museum that occupies the old Warden’s House across the road from Kingston Penitentiary, then home to sex offenders and stool pigeons. Canada’s Alcatraz, although the architects clearly forgot that Lake Ontario freezes over in winter, a slippery expressway to the United States for anyone who could scale the high stone walls.
On the day of the launch, the museum is packed. The entire village of Portsmouth has turned out, it seems, and half of Kingston, too. During the eight years of writing The Convict Lover, I was convinced no one would want to read it. The story was too old-fashioned. Too odd. But here I am, standing at a limestone plinth chiselled by convicts, signing book after book, the room crowded with people bursting with stories of their own: the old man who had a convict as a nanny before he went to school (his father was chief keeper); a woman who, as a girl, passed peaches to the convicts as they marched through the village on their way to the quarry to break stone. The lineup is so long and discombobulating that when my sister hands me her book, I pause over the page, simulating a cough, as I try to remember her name.
I notice Hugh right away. Or rather, I notice his black beret. He’s short—something peculiar about the curve of his spine—but his rakish beret keeps bobbing into view until it is right beside me.
“Here!” he says, shoving a green bookmark under my nose. “I’m Hugh Barclay! This is my wife, Verla!” The man doesn’t speak, he proclaims.
“We made this!” Hugh taps the length of thick paper. It is the colour of mashed peas. “We have a printing press. Thee Hellbox Press.”
I make noises of gratitude and prepare to add the bookmark to the stack of photos and mementoes others have given me.
“You see. You see,” he says, tugging the bookmark back to the centre of the plinth, tapping it more insistently now. “You see? The C and T at the end of ‘Convict’? The bit that connects them? That’s called a ligature. We chose the type especially. It’s like the letters are handcuffed together.”
He is chuckling. So is Verla. They both stare up at me, delighted. Expectant. I look again, more intently, at the bookmark.
Verla’s wheelchair has cleared a space like a stage around the three of us. The room and the milling crowd fall away, and it is just the three of us, gazing down at this unexpected chunk of raw, ragged paper, visibly dented with words, letters joined by a curving line defined by a term I’ve never heard before.
“Amazing,” I say. And before I know it, I’m chuckling, too.
Hugh is a fixture about town. His beret, tilted at a dapper angle, can be seen at every literary gathering: book launches, readings, festival performances. He’s almost always pushing Verla’s chair. And then he isn’t.
Hugh is not young, although I can’t guess his age. Over sixty. Under eighty. His body is misshapen, as if wracked by some extended, torturing condition, yet there is something child-like about his face. Not innocence: the wisdom in his eyes is hard-earned. Delight, yes. Wonder, perhaps. Optimism, for sure. It’s his enthusiasm, I decide, that makes him seem so young. A frank and forthright zeal that cares nothing for propriety or convention, the accepted rules of adult intercourse.
I find myself watching for him at public events, edging over for a chat, craving a shot of his fervour, his wit unstained by irony, unmarred by the faintest glint of condescension or cruelty.
“You know, don’t you, that you haven’t really made it until you’ve been published by Thee Hellbox Press,” he says to me at a gathering of the Kingston Arts & Letters Club. My husband, Wayne, and I have just presented a talk on the art of collaboration, based on our experience writing a travel memoir together, Breakfast at the Exit Café.
“You should send me something,” Hugh says.
“I don’t have anything.” It’s a bit of a lie. I’m not a prolific writer, and it’s true that I don’t have stacks of unpublished manuscripts stuffed in a bottom drawer. But I do have a thin pile of stories, stories I can’t yet imagine releasing to the world.
The Convict Lover was my first literary book. Over the next fifteen years, I launched six more: a book of stories, a novel, a travel memoir, a book of essays, two anthologies. When Hugh sent me that email calling me a troublemaker, I was working on another novel, a long, slow exploration of solitude and refuge. From time to time, as I wrote the novel, bizarre short fictions would flash onto the page. The same thing happened when I wrote The Convict Lover, stories that I eventually gathered up and published as The Lion in the Room Next Door.
These new stories are different. Shorter. Stranger. Leftovers, of a sort. Like remnants of a dream that interrupts my consciousness long after I stir awake. For years, I had been writing about my garden. Not just my garden: gardens. My novel The Holding began as an exploration of the nature of control and the control of nature. When Alyson and Margaret work their plots, are they trying to make nature do what they want, or are they trying to sidle up closer to it, bring it into their too-concrete lives? A New Leaf carried on that conversation within the borders of my own gardens at The Leaf, the patch of woods and cleared land where we lived in Eastern Ontario. It was a gardener, I came to realize, who changed the course of human history, plucking a seed and planting it where she wanted it to grow instead of where it randomly fell. A gardener who made farming possible, and cities, and trips to the moon.
Neither the novel nor the essays contained anything like the lyric fantasies that were erupting now. I had never written anything like them. When I was writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, I tacked a few to the end of a reading.
“I don’t know what these are,” I said by way of introduction.
“They’re poems,” a friend said afterwards. She is a poet and a teacher; she brought her entire class to the reading. The students vigorously nodded their heads.
“They can’t be poems,” I protested. “I’m not a poet.”
Some were clearly stories—very short stories of a few hundred words or less. Others were lyrical: sixteen words, three lines, a single sentence that trailed down one page and onto a second.
I called them flash fictions and titled each one for an element in a garden—stone, leaf, petal, vine.
“Stone” was the first. It came out whole, each of its 265 words irrevocably attached to the next in ways I could not unlock, could only separate with commas, hitching a clump together here and there, setting a few on a line all their own.
A friend who was an editor at the Antigonish Review published “Stone” and a selection of others. More were collected in a special Canadian edition of Literature and Arts of the Americas. Both journals were sufficiently distant from me geographically that if critics threw rotten tomatoes, I wasn’t likely to know. I needn’t have worried: the reviews were kind. Maybe there was something in these stories after all. My youngest son, Erik, is a book designer, and we’d been tossing around the idea of self-publishing some of my out-of-print work as ebooks—and maybe these stories, too. When Queen’s Quarterly, the magazine of the local university, asked if I had anything they might publish, I emailed a selection of the flash fictions and, in a fit of confidence, copied them to Hugh.
It was a whim. An act of sharing, one literary weirdo to another. I have pressed Send a thousand, a million times. How was I to know that this time it would change my life?
“This should definitely be in a book,” Hugh says when I finally give in to his urging to visit him at his print shop.
Without saying a word to me, he has set the type for “Stone.”
“Super stuff,” he’d said in response to my email with the poem/story. “It starts movies running in my mind and takes me back to my childhood spent exploring stone hedgerow fences, expecting to find some great treasure hidden in a crevasse.”
The test proof he hands me is beautiful. Dark red ink on paper so creamy and thick it might be birchbark or a peeling of sandstone. I run my fingers over it, feel the physical texture of my words pressed into the page. I’m used to the feel of them in my mouth, invisible objects that force my lips into taut circles, a flattened gap, my tongue pressing up against my palate, stroking the inside of my teeth, humping at the back of my throat. But never this.
Hugh has given my words substance.
He takes the page from me and holds it flat, at eye level. Instead of reading the words, I look across the terrain of paper, shaped now into hills and valleys, pools of commas, fjords of t’s and f’s, rushing rivulets of s’s.
“Words make an impression,” he says.
Hugh’s print shop is attached to his house—almost. The house itself was designed and built specifically for Hugh and Verla, with wheelchair access and a courtyard plan that has every room opening through a large doorway to a central hall. The building that houses the print shop looks like a garage jutting towards the street, connected to the house by a wooden deck.
The shop is a mess. Hugh ushers me in past a counter heaped with paper. The walls are plastered with print projects. One shows a bank of words—Saffron. Fireflies. Baffle. Truffle—the lowercase f’s in scarlet ink. When I ask what this means, Hugh gets a little irritated.
“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a gorgeous ligature.”
There’s a block print of a dancing figure, various quotes, some handwritten, some set in type: Fragile as I am, I am strong.
I’m a quick study. I don’t ask where the quotes are from.
Once, this shop was hung was prosthetic body parts. Back then, Hugh was into orthotics. He was also writing poetry. In the early 1970s, he met a man named Bill Poole who taught at the Ontario College of Art. He sent Bill his first poem.
“Bill got back to me and said, ‘I solved your problem.’ I didn’t know I had a problem. ‘I bought a press so now I can publish your poem,’ he said. I told him I’d rather do a book.”
A New Respect, Hugh’s one and only book of poems was published by Poole Hall Press in 1972. He helped set the type and run the press.
“That’s how I got ink in my veins,” he says. He means it metaphorically, but it strikes me as literally true. I imagine the watershed of his body flowing red, yellow, blue. His fingers are perpetually smudged as if ink is leaking out through his skin.
Through the next couple of years, he and Bill produced a magazine called Symbiosis.
“People could only pay in kind, and we refused to say what it was worth.” Hugh is chuckling again. He seems to be perpetually chuckling, as if life is one big joke. A joke on him. A joke on all of us.
“We had fifty to seventy-five subscribers. We got sent wine, hand-knit mitts and socks. A woman in Newfoundland sent us cod and brewis. One fellow wrote a song about us, ‘The Press Gang Blues.’”
As he talks, I lean to look into the other room. The print shop is divided in two: the back room where Hugh does his typesetting and printing and this other room, which is tidier—one long table stacked with various sizes and colours of paper, each in its own neat pile.
Hugh is tapping the test proof of “Stone.”
“This should be a book,” he says.
I came to Hugh’s shop intending to dampen his fire, but I find myself nodding as if what he says makes perfect sense. Yes, these stories should be between covers. When there are enough, my saner brain says. When I hone them to something I understand.
“I mean now.”
“But I only have a dozen.” Printed on paper, the book would be so thin it would hardly qualify for the name.
“That’s plenty! It will be a handmade book.”
I imagine readers paying for the book with macramé hangers, out-of-date pesos, their children’s first drawings.
My saner brain tells me I should be appalled. I barely hear it for the chuckling.
Hugh asks to see all the stories, and I send him everything: those that have been published, new pieces, unfinished fragments.
“I’ve just sat down and read the manuscript and it is amazing. A lot of new pieces, at least to me. Some brought a tear to my eye, but you need to know that my bladder is too close to my eyes.”
We agree to meet for dinner to discuss the book.
To my alarm, almost as soon as I sit down, Hugh bursts into tears. We are sitting in the city’s finest restaurant, a favourite, we discovered, of us both. The owner, Zal Yanovsky, was lead guitarist in the Lovin’ Spoonful, a ’60s band I danced to (on tabletops, if I remember correctly). The first time I met Zalman he was on roller skates, scooting around his dinner guests, stopping at my side to ask if I had a cigarette.
“Do I look like a smoker?” I laughed. I was being taken to dinner by James Lawrence, founder, publisher, and editor of Harrowsmith magazine, the back-to-the-land bible of the 1980s, a magazine that was about to get into book publishing. They wanted me to write their first book. None of them smoked anything but weed. I wanted to make a good impression—my Du Mauriers were well hidden—but Zal had sussed me out. I opened my purse and offered him a fag, tossing smiles around the table in penance. Who can resist a man on roller skates?
Now Zalman is dead and Hugh is crying and we are at the worst table in the restaurant, the one in the middle of the room, where every waiter and diner has to pass us by to get in, or out, or serve a dish of Mediterranean stew. We might as well be onstage.
I lean close to Hugh and put my hand on his arm. “You okay?”
He has been telling me about the school children. Immediately after he published his first book of poems, he went out and bought a letterpress. It was a whim, he says.
Hugh, I am about to discover, is a great follower of whims. He set up the press at his daughters’ elementary school and worked with students to print their own magazine.
“Those kids! They wrote the stories. They set the type. They did it all!”
He dabs at his eyes with a flowered serviette.
“Don’t worry,” he says, picking up his fork to attack his stew. “Stupid Hugh cries a lot.”
Stupid Hugh has all the bad habits. He forgets the comma in the first line of type and doesn’t notice until the whole page is set. He prints the wrong text over an image. He leaves his fingerprints behind. Until I met Hugh, I didn’t realize that I, too, have an incompetent, wastrel twin. Stupid Merilyn was the one handing out cigarettes and dancing on tables. These days, she spends most of her time inserting misplaced modifiers and splitting infinitives in my carefully composed text.
When Hugh points out a mistake in one of the stories, I know exactly what to say.
“Sorry, Hugh. You’ll have to forgive her. Stupid Merilyn never learned to spell.”
Both Merilyn and Stupid Merilyn have a lot to learn. Hugh will be our teacher. Over the next year, he will rock our world, upend everything we think we know about writing, about paper, words, ink, and presses, and how they come together to make a book.
My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenberg printed books six centuries before.
When Hugh proposed publishing The Paradise Project, the process he had in mind would have been entirely familiar to Gutenberg: hand-set type impressed on handmade paper with a hand-operated press.
Meanwhile, Erik and I were discussing the production of the same manuscript as an ebook. His daughters were learning to read onscreen. The novels by my bed, as often as not, were ebooks.
We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughters can hold more books than that in just one hand.
“So,” says Hugh, embracing his print shop with outstretched arms. “Will we do this?”
I feel as if I am being invited to enter Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I know what will happen if I refuse: my life will go on pretty much as it has—writing, reading, observing the world from the sidelines, surrounded by what I know.
Stepping inside Hugh’s world will change everything.
“Sure,” I say, not understanding a thing. “Why not?”
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