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8 X 10

8 X 10

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Excerpt

1
By the time he was sixteen his thighs had become so developed from speed skating his father had to make his trousers for him. These were the days when trousers were pants, made of denim or twill. Fashionable pants fit tight at the waist and loose below the knee, where they flared like muskets, swallowing the clogs that were also in fashion.

The pants were called bell-bottoms, and they were made by the newer companies, the most popular brand having an explosion on the right back pocket. Older companies remained competitive, but they serviced the uniforms of bikers and greaseballs–those who preferred their legs straight, their pants jeans.

With money saved from his paper route, he purchased a denim pair, asking that they be let out here, he pointed, and here, too, Dad.

His father bundled up the denims and left for work.

That evening, while preparing supper, something caught his eye. His first thought was to collapse, curl up in a ball, like he did as a kid when his father came at him.

He turned to find his father hovering in the hallway. His father had been doing that a lot lately–hovering–and it was beginning to get on his nerves.

Hey, Dad.

His father stepped forward, unfurled the denims.

He did his best to look thankful. His father had taken material from the bottom of the legs and reapplied it to the tops, thus defeating the purpose of bell-bottoms.

The next time he bought bell-bottoms he took them apart himself. Using newspaper, he made a pattern, then added the inches needed.

Again he showed his father, and again his father left for work. Only this time, instead of alterations, his father returned with a modified version of the template: stovepipes, not bell-bottoms.

As before, he did his best to look thankful.

He knew his father was frustrated, so he asked if he could help. Together they would make his pants.

His father nodded.

By day’s end, both men were satisfied. The only things missing were the pockets.

His father picked up some scraps and began cutting.

Let’s just use the store-boughts, Dad.

His father eyed the store-boughts, the one with the explosion.

I mean, why waste the material?

Why waste the scraps? his father shot back, grabbing the pockets and pinning them to the seat of his pants.

A few months later his father made a new pair, recycling the pockets from the last ones, now faded. The reproach was not lost on him.

That summer he gave up speed skating. By winter his legs had returned to normal. Bell-bottoms by then were passé.

His father continued to make his trousers. Not denims but wool dress pants, the kind he wore to work, like everybody else.

2
She hated the city. Hated everything about it. The people, the buildings. Everything.
It had been ages since she spoke to someone. That kid with the dog, its head the size of a boulder.

Spare some change, ma’am?

Fuck off.

She would have slapped him if not for that dog.

She spent her days at the kitchen table, a co-operative building just east of the downtown core. She drank tea, read the paper, wrote poems in the margins. Children ran past, screaming, grabbing what they could off the counter. Not even hers! No idea whose.

(Hers had grown. But they were not hers either. Not really. Not legally. Plucked from her breast the day they were born.)

She pined for the north. The mountains, the forests, the slow, winding rivers. And the old plank store, where everything hung from the ceiling. Point and they would take it down for you, wrap it up nice in brown paper.

She bought her mother’s housecoat there. White flannel, with red and yellow roses. Her best day ever was walking home with that bundle under her arm, the snow in the mountains, the afternoon sun igniting its peaks.

Pink tits, she wrote. And the sky behind it/ a light blue shirt.

It was marriage that brought her here, a marriage that lasted just long enough to disqualify annulment. Nine months is too many, said one expert. Think of the child, said another.

She shut her eyes, let her pen drop.

And the sky behind it/ a faded denim shirt.

It had been wartime. The northern landscape was changing. Forests were being razed, fences unspooled, roads imposed. Even the newspaper looked different: the type was larger, and every day more pictures than words. She noticed these things. Then the soldiers.

They started showing up at dances. Always a big commotion, people rushing to the windows, the bus that brought them as clean and shiny as they were.

She did not care for them at first. (Nobody cared for the soldiers, least of all the men.) But one stood out, and he pursued her, convinced her she was different.

(That appealed to her–being different. All her life she had been told she was beautiful. But how beautiful? And to whom?)

He was by far the most handsome man she had ever seen. And it startled her, her feelings for him. So she left the dance hall early, walking home with the woman who sold pie.

For the next six days he was all she could think about. The width of his shoulders, his long, wavy hair. When she saw him again, he offered her his arm. Without thinking, she took it.

He was a good dancer. Graceful as a river/ solid as the oaks that lined its shore. After their second dance he asked if she would join him outside for some air.

Until then she had only kissed two boys. The first a stiff peck, more innocent than clumsy, a cousin. A year later, the cousin’s friend, someone she met on a hike. The pack out of sight, he lunged at her, his tongue splashing in her mouth like an eel. Unbearable.

But the soldier’s kiss, his was like the ocean fish swim in–rolling, flowing, abundant. She could feel herself sinking, taking on water. She reached for his shoulders, pulling him towards her, her feet off the ground, dangling.

The last time they met he was waiting for her behind the hall. They had decided to skip the dance and walk to the river, together.

She had been rehearsing the moment for weeks. Everything–every move, every breath–had been imagined. He would tell her he loved her, and that he wanted to be with her, forever. She would take the pendant from her neck, the one her mother gave her, and drop it over her shoulder. Then, taking his hand in hers, place it on her breast. He would kiss her first, before squeezing.

Which he did.

How she ended up over that rock is a mystery, a consequence, she later wrote, of a poor imagination. Not a bad feeling, but not a comforting one either. For it is the sequence that baffles. His lips where his hand had been, his hand in new places. Then hers detaching, turning animal. How he took it, wrestled it, pressed himself against it.

She opened her eyes, squeezing.

A flashlight to someone who had only known matches.

But there was no penetration.

When he came, the volume was so great she thought for sure she was pregnant.

But how? There was no/ penetration.

The next day he shipped out.

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A Breath of Snow and Ashes
Excerpt

DUTCH CABIN
March 1773
No one had known the cabin was there, until Kenny Lindsay had seen the flames, on his way up the creek.
“I wouldna ha’ seen at all,” he said, for perhaps the sixth time. “Save for the dark comin’ on. Had it been daylight, I’d never ha’ kent it, never.” He wiped a trembling hand over his face, unable to take his eyes off the line of bodies that lay at the edge of the forest. “Was it savages, Mac Dubh? They’re no scalped, but maybe—”
“No.” Jamie laid the soot-smeared handkerchief gently back over the staring blue face of a small girl. “None of them is wounded. Surely ye saw as much when ye brought them out?”
Lindsay shook his head, eyes closed, and shivered convulsively. It was late afternoon, and a chilly spring day, but the
men were all sweating. “I didna look,” he said simply. My own hands were like ice; as numb and unfeeling as the
rubbery flesh of the dead woman I was examining. They had been dead for more than a day; the rigor of death had passed off, leaving them limp and chilled, but the cold weather of the mountain spring had preserved them so far from the grosser indignities of putrefaction. Still, I breathed shallowly; the air was bitter with the scent of burning. Wisps of steam rose now and then from the charred ruin of the tiny cabin. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roger kick at a nearby log, then bend and pick up something from the ground beneath. Kenny had pounded on our door long before daylight, summoning us from warm beds. We had come in haste, even knowing that we were far too late to offer aid. Some of the tenants from the homesteads on Fraser’s Ridge had come, too; Kenny’s brother Evan stood with Fergus and Ronnie Sinclair in a small knot under the trees, talking together in low-voiced Gaelic.
“D’ye ken what did for them, Sassenach?” Jamie squatted beside me, face troubled. “The ones under the trees, that is.”
He nodded at the corpse in front of me. “I ken what killed this puir woman.”
The woman’s long skirt stirred in the wind, lifting to show long, slender feet shod in leather clogs. A pair of long hands
to match lay still at her sides. She had been tall—though  not so tall as Brianna, I thought, and looked automatically for my daughter’s bright hair, bobbing among the branches on the far side of the clearing. I had turned the woman’s apron up to cover her head and upper body. Her hands were red, rough-knuckled with work, and with callused palms, but from the firmness of her thighs and the slenderness of her body, I thought she was no more than thirty—likely much younger. No one could say whether she had been pretty.
I shook my head at his remark.
“I don’t think she died of the burning,” I said. “See, her legs and feet aren’t touched. She must have fallen into the
hearth. Her hair caught fire, and it spread to the shoulders of her gown. She must have lain near enough to the wall or the chimney hood for the flames to touch; that caught, and then the whole bloody place went up.”
Jamie nodded slowly, eyes on the dead woman.
“Aye, that makes sense. But what was it killed them, Sassenach? The others are singed a bit, though none are burned like this. But they must have been dead before the cabin caught alight, for none o’ them ran out. Was it a deadly illness, perhaps?”
“I don’t think so. Let me look at the others again.”
I walked slowly down the row of still bodies with their cloth-covered faces, stooping over each one to peer again beneath the makeshift shrouds. There were any number of illnesses that could be quickly fatal in these days—with no
antibiotics to hand, and no way of administering fluids save by mouth or rectum, a simple case of diarrhea could kill
within twenty-four hours.
I saw such things often enough to recognize them easily; any doctor does, and I had been a doctor for more than twenty years. I saw things now and then in this century that I had never encountered in my own—particularly horrible parasitical diseases, brought with the slave trade from the tropics— but it was no parasite that had done for these poor souls, and no illness that I knew, to leave such traces on its victims. All the bodies—the burned woman, a much older woman, and three children—had been found inside the walls of the flaming house. Kenny had pulled them out, just before the roof fell in, then ridden for help. All dead before the fire started; all dead virtually at the same time, then, for surely the fire had begun to smolder soon after the woman fell dead on her hearth?
The victims had been laid out neatly under the branches of a giant red spruce, while the men began to dig a grave
nearby. Brianna stood by the smallest girl, her head bent. I came to kneel by the little body, and she knelt down across from me.
“What was it?” she asked quietly. “Poison?”
I glanced up at her in surprise.
“I think so. What gave you that idea?”
She nodded at the blue-tinged face below us. She had tried to close the eyes, but they bulged beneath the lids, giving the little girl a look of startled horror. The small, blunt features were twisted in a rictus of agony, and there were traces of vomit in the corners of the mouth.
“Girl Scout handbook,” Brianna said. She glanced at the men, but no one was near enough to hear. Her mouth twitched, and she looked away from the body, holding out her open hand. “Never eat any strange mushroom,” she quoted.
“There are many poisonous varieties, and distinguishing one from another is a job for an expert. Roger found these, growing in a ring by that log over there.”
Moist, fleshy caps, a pale brown with white warty spots, the open gills and slender stems so pale as to look almost
phosphorescent in the spruce shadows. They had a pleasant, earthy look to them that belied their deadliness.
“Panther toadstools,” I said, half to myself, and picked one gingerly from her palm. “Agaricus pantherinus—or that’s
what they will be called, once somebody gets round to naming them properly. Pantherinus, because they kill so swiftly— like a striking cat.”
I could see the gooseflesh ripple on Brianna’s forearm, raising the soft, red-gold hairs. She tilted her hand and spilled the rest of the deadly fungus on the ground.
“Who in their right mind would eat toadstools?” she asked, wiping her hand on her skirt with a slight shudder.
“People who didn’t know better. People who were hungry, perhaps,” I answered softly. I picked up the little girl’s hand,
and traced the delicate bones of the forearm. The small belly showed signs of bloat, whether from malnutrition or postmortem changes I couldn’t tell—but the collarbones were sharp as scythe blades. All of the bodies were thin, though not to the point of emaciation.
I looked up, into the deep blue shadows of the mountainside above the cabin. It was early in the year for foraging, but there was food in abundance in the forest—for those who could recognize it.
Jamie came and knelt down beside me, a big hand lightly on my back. Cold as it was, a trickle of sweat streaked his
neck, and his thick auburn hair was dark at the temples.
“The grave is ready,” he said, speaking low, as though he might alarm the child. “Is that what’s killed the bairn?” He
nodded at the scattered fungi. “I think so—and the rest of them, too. Have you had a look around? Does anyone know who they were?”
He shook his head.
“Not English; the clothes are wrong. Germans would have gone to Salem, surely; they’re clannish souls, and no inclined to settle on their own. These were maybe Dutchmen.” He nodded toward the carved wooden clogs on the old woman’s feet, cracked and stained with long use. “No books nor writing left, if there was any to begin with. Nothing that might tell their name. But—”
“They hadn’t been here long.” A low, cracked voice made me look up. Roger had come; he squatted next to Brianna, nodding toward the smoldering remains of the cabin. A small garden plot had been scratched into the earth nearby, but the few plants showing were no more than sprouts, the tender leaves limp and blackened with late frost. There were no sheds, no sign of livestock, no mule or pig.
“New emigrants,” Roger said softly. “Not bond servants; this was a family. They weren’t used to outdoor labor, either;
the women’s hands have blisters and fresh scars.” His own broad hand rubbed unconsciously over a homespun knee; his palms were as smoothly callused as Jamie’s now, but he had once been a tender-skinned scholar; he remembered the pain of his seasoning.
“I wonder if they left people behind—in Europe,” Brianna murmured. She smoothed blond hair off the little girl’s forehead, and laid the kerchief back over her face. I saw her throat move as she swallowed. “They’ll never know what happened to them.”
“No.” Jamie stood abruptly. “They do say that God protects fools—but I think even the Almighty will lose patience
now and then.” He turned away, motioning to Lindsay and Sinclair.
“Look for the man,” he said to Lindsay. Every head jerked up to look at him.
“Man?” Roger said, and then glanced sharply at the burned remnants of the cabin, realization dawning. “Aye—
who built the cabin for them?”
“The women could have done it,” Bree said, lifting her chin.
“You could, aye,” he said, mouth twitching slightly as he cast a sidelong look at his wife. Brianna resembled Jamie in
more than coloring; she stood six feet in her stockings and had her father’s clean-limbed strength.
“Perhaps they could, but they didn’t,” Jamie said shortly. He nodded toward the shell of the cabin, where a few bits of
furniture still held their fragile shapes. As I watched, the evening wind came down, scouring the ruin, and the shadow
of a stool collapsed noiselessly into ash, flurries of soot and char moving ghostlike over the ground.
“What do you mean?” I stood and moved beside him, looking into the house. There was virtually nothing left inside, though the chimney stack still stood, and jagged bits of the walls remained, their logs fallen like jackstraws.
“There’s no metal,” he said, nodding at the blackened hearth, where the remnants of a cauldron lay, cracked in two
from the heat, its contents vaporized. “No pots, save that— and that’s too heavy to carry away. Nay tools. Not a knife, not an ax—and ye see whoever built it had that.”
I did; the logs were unpeeled, but the notches and ends bore the clear marks of an ax. Frowning, Roger picked up a long pine branch and began to poke through the piles of ash and rubble, looking to be sure. Kenny Lindsay and Sinclair didn’t bother; Jamie had told them to look for a man, and they promptly went to do so, disappearing into the forest. Fergus went with them; Evan Lindsay, his brother Murdo, and the McGillivrays began the chore of collecting stones for a cairn.
“If there was a man—did he leave them?” Brianna murmured to me, glancing from her father to the row of bodies. "Did this woman maybe think they wouldn’t survive on their own?”
And thus take her own life, and those of her children, to avoid a long-drawn-out death from cold and starvation?
“Leave them and take all their tools? God, I hope not.”
I crossed myself at the thought, though even as I did so, I doubted it. “Wouldn’t they have walked out, looking for help? Even with children . . . the snow’s mostly gone.” Only the highest mountain passes were still packed with snow, and while the trails and slopes were wet and muddy with runoff, they’d been passable for a month, at least.
“I’ve found the man,” Roger said, interrupting my thoughts. He spoke very calmly, but paused to clear his throat. “Just— just here.”
The daylight was beginning to fade, but I could see that he had gone pale. No wonder; the curled form he had unearthed beneath the charred timbers of a fallen wall was sufficiently gruesome as to give anyone pause. Charred to blackness, hands upraised in the boxer’s pose so common to those dead by fire, it was difficult even to be sure that it was a man— though I thought it was, from what I could see.
Speculation about this new body was interrupted by a shout from the forest’s edge.
“We’ve found them, milord!”
Everyone looked up from contemplation of this new corpse, to see Fergus waving from the edge of the wood.
“Them,” indeed. Two men, this time. Sprawled on the ground within the shadow of the trees, found not together, but
not far apart, only a short distance from the house. And both, so far as I could tell, probably dead of mushroom poisoning.
“That’s no Dutchman,” Sinclair said, for probably the fourth time, shaking his head over one body.
“He might be,” said Fergus dubiously. He scratched his nose with the tip of the hook he wore in replacement of his
left hand. “From the Indies, non?” One of the unknown bodies was in fact that of a black man. The other was white, and both wore nondescript clothes of worn homespun—shirts and breeches; no jackets, despite the cold weather. And both were barefoot.
“No.” Jamie shook his head, rubbing one hand unconsciously on his own breeches, as though to rid himself of the
touch of the dead. “The Dutch keep slaves on Barbuda, aye—but these are better fed than the folk from the cabin.” He lifted his chin toward the silent row of women and children. “They didna live here. Besides . . .” I saw his eyes fix on the dead men’s feet. The feet were grubby about the ankles and heavily callused, but basically clean. The soles of the black man’s feet showed yellowish pink, with no smears of mud or random leaves stuck between the toes. These men hadn’t been walking through the muddy forest barefoot, that much was sure.
“So there were perhaps more men? And when these died, their companions took their shoes—and anything else of
value”—Fergus added practically, gesturing from the burned cabin to the stripped bodies—“and fled.”
“Aye, maybe.” Jamie pursed his lips, his gaze traveling slowly over the earth of the yard—but the ground was churned with footsteps, clumps of grass uprooted and the whole of the yard dusted with ash and bits of charred wood. It looked as though the place had been ravaged by rampaging hippopotami.
“I could wish that Young Ian was here. He’s the best of the trackers; he could maybe tell what happened there, at least.”
He nodded into the wood, where the men had been found.
“How many there were, maybe, and which way they’ve gone.”
Jamie himself was no mean tracker. But the light was going fast now; even in the clearing where the burned cabin
stood, the dark was rising, pooling under the trees, creeping like oil across the shattered earth.
His eyes went to the horizon, where streamers of cloud were beginning to blaze with gold and pink as the sun set behind them, and he shook his head.
“Bury them. Then we’ll go.”
One more grim discovery remained. Alone among the dead, the burned man had not died of fire or poison. When
they lifted the charred corpse from the ashes to bear him to his grave, something fell free of the body, landing with a
small, heavy thunk on the ground. Brianna picked it up, and rubbed at it with the corner of her apron.
“I guess they overlooked this,” she said a little bleakly, holding it out. It was a knife, or the blade of one. The wooden hilt had burned entirely away, and the blade itself was warped with heat.
Steeling myself against the thick, acrid stench of burned fat and flesh, I bent over the corpse, poking gingerly at the
midsection. Fire destroys a great deal, but preserves the strangest things. The triangular wound was quite clear, seared in the hollow beneath his ribs.
“They stabbed him,” I said, and wiped my sweating hands on my own apron.
“They killed him,” Bree said, watching my face. “And then his wife—” She glanced at the young woman on the ground,
the concealing apron over her head. “She made a stew with the mushrooms, and they all ate it. The children, too.”
The clearing was silent, save for the distant calls of birds on the mountain. I could hear my own heart, beating painfully in my chest. Vengeance? Or simple despair?
“Aye, maybe,” Jamie said quietly. He stooped to pick up an end of the sheet of canvas they had placed the dead man on. “We’ll call it accident.”
The Dutchman and his family were laid in one grave, the two strangers in another. A cold wind had sprung up as the sun went down; the apron fluttered away from the woman’s face as they lifted her. Sinclair gave a strangled cry of shock, and nearly dropped her.
She had neither face nor hair anymore; the slender waist narrowed abruptly into charred ruin. The flesh of her head
had burned away completely, leaving an oddly tiny, blackened skull, from which her teeth grinned in disconcerting levity. They lowered her hastily into the shallow grave, her children and mother beside her, and left Brianna and me to
build a small cairn over them, in the ancient Scottish way, to mark the place and provide protection from wild beasts,
while a more rudimentary resting place was dug for the two barefoot men.
The work finally done, everyone gathered, white-faced and silent, around the new-made mounds. I saw Roger stand close beside Brianna, his arm protectively about her waist. A small shudder went through her, which I thought had nothing to do with the cold. Their child, Jemmy, was a year or so younger than the smallest girl.
“Will ye speak a word, Mac Dubh?” Kenny Lindsay glanced inquiringly at Jamie, pulling his knitted bonnet down over his ears against the growing chill. It was nearly nightfall, and no one wanted to linger. We would have to make camp, somewhere well away from the stink of burning, and that would be hard enough, in the dark. But Kenny was right; we couldn’t leave without at least some token of ceremony, some farewell for the strangers. Jamie shook his head.
“Nay, let Roger Mac speak. If these were Dutchmen, belike they were Protestant.”
Dim as the light was, I saw the sharp glance Brianna shot at her father. It was true that Roger was a Presbyterian; so was Tom Christie, a much older man whose dour face reflected his opinion of the proceedings. The question of religion was no more than a pretext, though, and everyone knew it, including Roger. Roger cleared his throat with a noise like tearing calico. It was always a painful sound; there was anger in it now as well. He didn’t protest, though, and he met Jamie’s eyes straight on, as he took his place at the head of the grave. I had thought he would simply say the Lord’s Prayer, or perhaps one of the gentler psalms. Other words came to him, though.
“Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry aloud, but there is no judgment. He hath fenced up my way
that I cannot pass, and He hath set darkness in my paths.”
His voice had once been powerful, and beautiful. It was choked now, no more than a rasping shadow of its former
beauty—but there was sufficient power in the passion with which he spoke to make all those who heard him bow their
heads, faces lost in shadow. “He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head. He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone: and my hope hath He removed like a tree.” His face was set, but his eyes rested for a bleak moment on the charred stump that had served the Dutch family for a chopping block. “He hath put my brethren far from me, and mine acquaintance are verily estranged from me. My kinsfolk have failed,
and my familiar friends have forgotten me.” I saw the three Lindsay brothers exchange glances, and everyone drew a little closer together, against the rising wind.
“Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends,” he said, and his voice softened, so that it was difficult to hear him, above the sighing of the trees. “For the hand of God has touched me.”
Brianna made a slight movement beside him, and he cleared his throat once more, explosively, stretching his neck so that I caught a glimpse of the rope scar that marred it. “Oh, that my words were now written! Oh, that they were
printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever!”
He looked slowly round from face to face, his own expressionless, then took a deep breath to continue, voice cracking
on the words.
“For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body”—Brianna shuddered convulsively, and looked away from the raw mound of dirt—“yet in my flesh shall I see God. Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold.”
He stopped, and there was a brief collective sigh, as everyone let out the breath they had been holding. He wasn’t quite finished, though. He had reached out, half-unconsciously, for Bree’s hand, and held it tightly. He spoke the last words almost to himself, I thought, with little thought for his listeners.
“Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment.”
I shivered, and Jamie’s hand curled round my own, cold but strong. He looked down at me, and I met his eyes. I knew what he was thinking.
He was thinking, as I was, not of the present, but the future. Of a small item that would appear three years hence, in the pages of the Wilmington Gazette, dated February 13, 1776. It is with grief that the news is received of the deaths by fire of James MacKenzie Fraser and his wife, Claire Fraser, in a conflagration that destroyed their house in the settlement of Fraser’s Ridge, on the night of January 21 last. Mr. Fraser, a nephew of the late Hector Cameron of River Run Plantation, was born at Broch Tuarach in Scotland. He was widely known in the Colony and deeply respected; he leaves no surviving children. It had been easy, so far, not to think too much of it. So far in the future, and surely not an unchangeable future—after all, forewarned was forearmed . . . wasn’t it? I glanced at the shallow cairn, and a deeper chill passed through me. I stepped closer to Jamie, and put my other hand on his arm. He covered my hand with his, and squeezed tight in reassurance. No, he said to me silently. No, I will not let it happen.
As we left the desolate clearing, though, I could not free my mind of one vivid image. Not the burned cabin, the pitiful
bodies, the pathetic dead garden. The image that haunted me was one I had seen some years before—a gravestone in the ruins of Beauly Priory, high in the Scottish Highlands.
It was the tomb of a noble lady, her name surmounted by the carving of a grinning skull—very like the one beneath the Dutchwoman’s apron. Beneath the skull was her motto: Hodie mihi cras tibi—sic transit gloria mundi. My turn today—yours tomorrow. Thus passes the glory of the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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A Good Day's Work

A Good Day's Work

In Pursuit of a Disappearing Canada
edition:Hardcover
tagged :
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A Gradual Ruin
Excerpt

PROLOGUE

Tommy washed his hands and lay two slices of dark rye bread on the cutting board. He wasn’t sure that Judith would like such heavy bread, but the bakery — all the stores, in fact — were already closed and it was all he had. He was even less certain that she’d like whatever filling he chose, but it was too late now to ask her preference, and he’d only frighten her if he knocked with no better reason than a choice of sandwich.

At the commercial refrigerator he had installed the year before, he poked between several dozen bottles of cooling beer and wine to find the containers of sliced meat. He settled on hickory-roasted turkey, his own favourite and fresh only this past morning. From the bottom drawer he chose two crisp leaves of romaine lettuce. He fingered four or five tomatoes ripening on the kitchen sill and selected the perfect one for slicing.

He lifted the lid on his mother’s porcelain butter dish, one of the few items he had kept from his parents’ house, and spread a healthy portion on the bread, washed the romaine leaves, and trimmed them to fit. He smoothed the leaves flat and arranged turkey and tomato on top, careful to balance everything so that no large pieces of tomato poked out the edges. He added a dash of salt and pepper and carefully aligned the second slice of bread before he cut the sandwich in half diagonally, like his father had for his own lunches all through school. Not exactly the elegant sandwiches he often laboured over for his paying guests, but it would fill her stomach all the same. The way her eyes had lit up at the suggestion of a sandwich, she likely hadn’t eaten all day, possibly longer. He was sure the turkey would suit her just fine. He’d once eaten raw chicken, he’d been that hungry. He and Freda had both devoured thin strips of it. He’d have to be more careful with Judith, make no mistakes this time, but if he didn’t help her, who knew what would happen? He wouldn’t have her on his conscience too. Besides, he could use the company. Even when his house was busy he often felt alone.

He placed the sandwich on one of the china plates from the living-room hutch and filled a tall glass with milk. At the last second, he remembered some cookies in the cupboard and arranged three of them on the side of the plate.

A gust of wind ripped the screen door out of his hand, but Tommy caught it with his foot in a practised movement that prevented it slamming against the house. He ducked a low branch on the Manitoba maple at the back door and followed the sidewalk to the carriage house. He noted that the flowerbeds needed serious weeding. Perhaps if she needed work she’d be willing to start there.

Judith’s shadow behind the curtain stilled as his foot touched the wooden step. He lowered the plate to the stoop as he had promised and sensed Judith watching him. He knocked once and turned immediately back to the main house.

And the land shall mourn,
every family apart.
—Zechariah 12:12

ONE

The only doctor in town was Tailgate Smith. He rode his horse four miles through deep snow to deliver Shirley, who was a blue baby despite his efforts. Had he not turned his head against a gust of wind, he would have missed the kerosene lamp her father had left flickering in the kitchen window and would have arrived too late to save Shirley from the breech position. With some work, Tailgate turned her around and delivered her. When he held her up to the light, her mother gasped at Shirley’s colour — the other babies had been born without the least bit of trouble — but Tailgate put his mouth to Shirley’s lips a few times, and slowly she turned pink. While he rocked her, everyone watched, as if he could suck the devil out of any one of them and breathe something good in its place. When he finished, he pulled on his heavy fur coat, shook her father’s hand, and like a phantom finished with its earthly work, slipped back out to the snow and disappeared on his waiting horse.

From then on, whenever someone in the family needed a doctor, Wendell, their father, waited until it was absolutely necessary and then reluctantly yelled for one of his kids to get the Devil Doctor. To everyone else, he was still Tailgate Smith, the boy left by his unwed mother on the tailgate of his father’s truck.

For years, Shirley’s father called her the blue baby and said at first her colour nearly made his heart stop, no great feat since he’d had a heart attack at forty-two, only weeks after Alice’s birth, two years earlier, on the cusp of the Great Depression. He claimed that his second daughter brought the depression with her, and so he called her the depression baby. His eldest daughter, Claris, had had a nickname at one time, but Alice couldn’t remember it. As with Robbie, death protected Claris from their father’s teasing.

Shirley was a cranky baby who kept everyone up with her crying, and even when she grew older, she seldom sat still for long, as though what Tailgate had blown into her left her jumpy and anxious. In the summer of 1947, when she was sixteen, she ran off with the first boy from Dryden who took a serious interest in her. Every day, he drove up to her school in his old Ford half-ton, shirtsleeves nearly to his shoulder in a tight roll. Shirley watched for his dull red truck as she stood with friends smoking cigarettes, delaying the walk home, never in a hurry even when she knew she’d catch hell. She was accustomed to catching hell.

“Hey, Shirl,” he’d say, leaning out the window to smile at her.

Shirley would smile back. “Don’t he look good?” she’d say.

She liked it that Danny didn’t swear or yell lewd comments like the other men from the mill who drove by. He just revved his engine a few times to show off and drove away slowly as if he were in no great hurry to leave her behind.

The night before she left for good, Shirley didn’t come home at all. Without a phone to bring them news, her parents worried that something, everything, had happened, and Wendell paced the floor alternately raging and mumbling. Alice covered her ears and turned to face the moon, full and steady out the window.

From the Hardcover edition.

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A Great Feast of Light

A Great Feast of Light

Growing Up Irish in the Television Age
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

A Flickering Signal

On a blossom-bright May morning in 1961, my father took me to school. It was my first day at school and although it was just an experiment to get me registered, sitting at a desk and familiar with the idea of school, it almost unhinged me. I remember tears and laughter. My father, who sold insurance policies and collected premiums, had an inspector working with him that day. The two of them took me into the schoolhouse and they followed as a teacher took me to a desk. Grasping the situation, I looked up at the rafters and howled. Hot tears flooded down my cheeks, but nobody stepped up to wipe them away and murmur something soothing to me. I looked over at my father and the inspector. Dad was frowning, as if he wanted to help me but couldn’t. The inspector was laughing at my rage. After a pause, I stared up at the rafters of the schoolroom again, saw only pitch-black darkness high up in the criss-cross wooden beams, and howled once more.

Whatever else happened that morning is gone from my memory now. But this much I know–at lunchtime I legged it home. Out the schoolyard gate I raced, turned right and ran. Down Church Road, past the girl’s convent school, the high-pitched roar of playing girls ringing in my ears, then with a faster sprint past the arched entrance to the old jailhouse where everybody knew the Cormack boys had been hanged in 1848 for a crime they didn’t commit and their ghosts still haunted the old archway to mock the judges and lawyers who came and went, and turning right again but picking up a stick to clatter along the iron railings of the court house clang-bang-clang-bang to keep all ghosts away, running and panting for the sight of home. I raced across Wolfe Tone Terrace past the new houses with the doors newly painted in bright baby blue and yellow, catching the sun, with the scent of new-mown grass following me faintly from the court house grounds as I ran and ran and ran, heart pounding, looking for the gap in the stone wall that would lead me through long furrows of potato plants and beets to my own back yard.

I found the gap, climbed the big stones, stomped on small nettles growing there and raced in a straight line through the furrows to the gate of our yard. I wanted to call out, “Mam, Mam, I came home!” but I was breathless and stood there, panting. My mother was hanging out the washing on the clothesline and it took a minute before she noticed me.

“In the name of God, John Doyle, what are you doing here?”

“I came home.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, did you run across the whole town of Nenagh and tell no one where you were going?”

Mam sighed, took me inside, sat me in a sugawn chair – an ancient country thing made of battered old wood and hay ropes – and told me to keep an eye on my sister, Máire, who was sleeping in her cot. Mam went down the street to ask Mrs. Moylan, who was going over to the school to fetch her son Michael, to tell the teachers that I was safe and sound in my own kitchen.

Later, Mam stood me on a barrel in the back yard, and I helped her take down the washing. I was happy in the yard, a boy safe inside walls on a street inside an old walled town. From inside the walls of my back yard, and standing on the barrel, I could see the church spire asserting itself high into the sky while the tower of Nenagh Castle stood there beside it, solid as the past in which it had been built. Looking south toward Limerick, all anyone saw, always, were banks of grey clouds stacked on the horizon, usually obscuring parts of the soft-rolling hills of Slievnamon. It was a vista of greys, soft greens and subdued browns, a dull haze of colours from the clouds, the mist, the bracken and the brambles that seemed to cover the hills.

In the countryside around Nenagh, the people called the town “Nayna,” not the proper pronunciation, “Neena,” which was used in town. They said “Nayna” with a shrug and a ghost of an exclamation point beside it. They were amused by Nenagh, its old, insular ways, and they thought it was a peculiar place compared with the countryside.

I’d heard Mrs. Moylan say “God made Nenagh.” And I thought that was true then. I was getting on for nearly four years old and Nenagh was my world. First there was the walled-in world of our back yard and then the walled-in town of the winding streets, the castle, the church, and now the school. All of it was small, by any standard, but I was small too, and safe in its snug embrace. The streets and lanes were as familiar to me as my own knees and elbows. People would say “God is good” all the time, even if it was only because the weather changed and it stopped raining when mammies were going to hang out the washing on the line to dry. God made things nice and he’d made Nenagh nice.

All that afternoon, I played and hung around Mam in the kitchen. I practised lifting a ball with a small hurling stick and hitting it against one of the walls in the back yard. I raced up and down the furrows of potato plants, beets and cabbages, sometimes pretending I was being chased and diving down to hide. There was no fear of that. I could see my back yard from everywhere. If I wanted to see Sarsfield Street outside, I snuck down the alley and peered around the corner. Nenagh was all walls and alleys, a bound-in town and safe for a small boy who stayed inside his boundaries.

There would be nothing to surprise me on Sarsfield Street, anyway. If it was the first Monday of the month, it was Fair Day, when the farmers brought in their cattle and lined them along the street to buy and sell. If it was the last Friday of the month, it was the pig farmers’ Fair Day, and the street would be full of pigs, the air smelling heavily of dung until the county council men came and swept and washed it all away. On any day, Monday to Saturday, Willie Heaney, the writer for the Nenagh Guardian newspaper, would be cycling endlessly around the town, talking to people, taking notes about their doings. Around five o’clock on any day except Sunday, the men who worked at Mrs. Burns’s coal yard across the street would be walking home, their hands and faces blackened by the coal they’d hauled all day. Near six o’clock, the men who worked at the sugar beet factory would be cycling home in twos and threes, and if it was raining and they had no hat, they’d wear part of the heavy paper sugar bags on their head, cut like an army cap, to keep their heads dry.

From the Hardcover edition.

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