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The Cure For Death By Lightning

The Cure For Death By Lightning

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"The cure for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favourite oatcakes: Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more."

So begins Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s extraordinary first novel, a seductive and thrilling book that captures the heart and imagination, as filled with the magic and mystery of life as it is with its lurking evils and gut-wre …

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THE CURE for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother's scrapbook, under the recipe for my father's favorite oatcakes:

Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.

Beside this, some time later, my mother had written Ha! Ha! in black ink. The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going."

The scrapbook sat on my mother's rocking chair next to the black kitchen stove and was hers just as the rocking chair was hers. I didn't sit in her chair or touch her scrapbook, at least not whe she was in the room. My mother knew where to find a particular recipe or remedy by the page it was written on, because every page was different. She compiled the scrapbook during the Depression and into the Second World War when paper was at first expensive and then impossible to buy, so she copied her recipes on the backs of letters, scraps of wallpaper, bags, and brown wrapping, and on paper she made herself from the pulp of vegetables and flowers. The cover was red, one of the few bits of red that my father allowed in the house, cut from the carboard of a box of crackers. The book was swollen from years of entries. Pages were dusted with flour, stained with spots of tea, and warped from moisture. Each page had its own scent: almond extract or vanilla, butter or flour, the petals of the rose it was made from, or my mother's perfume, Lily of the Valley.My mother didn't keep the book as a diary. If she kept a diary at all, I never found it. But she wrote brief thoughts along the margins of at the bottom of a page, as footnotes to the recipes and remedies, the cartoons and clippings -- footnotes to the events of the day. She was always adding a new page, and it didn't matter how many times I stole the scrapbook from her chair and pilfered my few minutes with it, there was always some new entry or something I'd missed.

I still have my mother's scrapbook. It sits inside the trunk that was her hope chest. I sometimes take out the scrapbook and sit with it at my kitchen table, by the stove that is electric and white. Even now I find new entries in the scrapbook, things I've never seen before, as if my mother still sits each morning before I wake and copies a recipe, or adds a new page made from the pulp of scarlet flax.

My name is Beth Weeks. My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned fifteen, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again. Much of it will be hard to believe, I know. But the evidence for everything I'm about to tell you is there, in the pages of my mother's scrapbook, in the clippings describing bear attacks and the Swede's barn fire and the children gone missing on the reserve, in the recipe for pound cake I made the night they took my father away, and in the funeral notices of my classmate Sarah Kemp and the others. The scrapbook was my mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn't happen, or that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.

Excerpted from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.

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A Recipe for Bees

A Recipe for Bees

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International Bestseller

Shortlisted for the 1998 Giller Prize

A Globe and Mail Notable Book of 1998

Over 40,000 copies sold in hardcover

In A Recipe for Bees, Gail Anderson-Dargatz gives readers a remarkable woman to stand beside Hagar Shipley and Daisy Goodwin — but Augusta Olsen also has attitude, a wicked funny bone, and the dubious gift of second sight.

At home in Courtenay, B.C., Augusta anxiously awaits news of her dearly loved son-in-law Gabe, who is undergoing brain surgery miles away in V …

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From Chapter One

"Have I told you the drone's penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?" asked Augusta.

"Yes," said Rose. "Many times."

Before Augusta dragged her luggage upstairs to the apartment, before she checked on the welfare of her elderly husband, Karl, even before she hugged and greeted her seven kittens, she had made her way, with the aid of a cane, across the uneven ground to inspect the hive of bees she kept in Rose's garden.

"They won't mate at all unless they're way up in the sky," said Augusta. "The drones won't take a second look at a queen coming out of a hive. But when she's thirty, a hundred, feet up in the air, then she gets their interest. They'll seek her out, flying this way and that to catch her scent until there's a V of drones -- like the V of geese following a leader in the sky -- chasing along behind her."

"You were going to tell me about Joe," said Rose.

"As soon as the drone mounts and thrusts, he's paralyzed, his genitals snap off, and he falls backward a hundred feet to his death."

"I don't want to hear about it."

In late summer, hives full of ripening honey emitted a particular scent, like the whiff of sweetness Augusta used to catch passing by the candy-apple kiosk at the fall fair, but without the tang of apples to it. She should have been smelling this now, but instead the hive gave off the vinegar-and-almond scent of angry bees. They buzzed loudly, boiling in the air in front of the hive like a pot of simmering toffee. There were far more guard bees than usual, standing at attention at the mouth of the hive.

"Something's been after the bees," said Augusta. She took a step forward to examine them, but several bees flew straight at her, warning her off. "I'll have to look at them later," she said. "When they've settled down."

She turned to the balcony of her apartment, directly above the garden. "Do you think Karl remembers today is our anniversary?"

"He hasn't said anything to me," said Rose. Later that evening, though, Augusta would learn that Rose had hidden Karl's flowers in her fridge. He had walked up and down the roadsides and into the vacant lots, searching for pearly everlastings, sweet tiny yellow flowers with white bracts that bloomed from midsummer right on into winter, and held their shape and color when dried. They were the flowers Karl had picked for Augusta's wedding bouquet forty-eight years before. He had brought the flowers to Rose's apartment in a vase and asked her to hide them in her fridge until later that day.

"You'd think he'd remember, wouldn't you?" said Augusta. "Especially after everything that's happened these past three weeks."

"You'd think."

"You can hear it, you know."


"The snapping. If you're listening for it, you can hear a sharp crack when the drone's penis breaks off."

"Oh, God."

Rose followed Augusta as she headed through the sliding glass doors into Rose's apartment to retrieve her luggage. "Can you carry this one upstairs?" she asked Rose. "And this one? I can only manage the one bag with this cane of mine."

Rose took the bags, one in each hand. "But you were going to tell me the story, about seeing Joe again."

"Not now, Rose. I want to see if Joy's phoned with news about Gabe."

"But you promised."

"We'll have plenty of time later."

"You'd go and tell something like that to some strange woman on the train, but you won't tell your best friend."

"I like Esther. I think we'll be seeing a lot more of her. I promised to show her my hive."

"You'll be seeing a lot more of her. I don't care if I ever see her again."

"Well, since neither Esther nor I can drive, you'll have to drive me, so yes, you will be seeing her again."

"Oh, isn't that just great? Now I'm your personal chauffeur."

Augusta turned around at the doorway. "Rose, what's this all about?"

"Just tell the story. About Joe. I thought you never saw him again."

Augusta shook her head and started up the stairs to her apartment. "I'm sure I told you all that already. I can remember showing you the brooch he gave me. Ages and ages ago."

"Yes, the day we met. But you never told me the story. Are you really going to give that brooch to Joy?"

Augusta had met Rose five years before, on the ferry, just after she and Karl had sold the farm. Augusta and Karl were moving to the warmer climate of Vancouver Island. Rose turned the corner into the ferry bathroom and there was Augusta, sitting at the mirrored makeup counter they have on those boats, rummaging through her big purse. Augusta had looked up at Rose in the mirror, smiled, and said, "Do you have a comb? I can't seem to find mine."

Perhaps it was an inappropriate request to make of a stranger, she thought now, rather like asking to borrow someone's toothbrush. Rose said no. "They have them at the newsstand."

"Thanks. I'll get one from there. That's a lovely brooch you're wearing."

"It was my mother's," Rose replied, and Augusta promptly caught her in a web of conversation about the brooch a man named Joe had given her, a brooch Augusta pulled from her purse and showed Rose: a silver setting hemmed a real bee suspended in amber. When Augusta held it up, it cast a little pool of honey light on the floor. "It was the only lasting thing he ever gave me, in the way of presents," she said. "And that was decades after I'd stopped seeing him. I still dream about him, you know." Rose nodded and smiled and moved slowly backward, away, to a toilet stall. Augusta, seeing her discomfort, left before she came out again.

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The Beothuk Saga

The Beothuk Saga


This astounding novel fully deserves to be called a saga. It begins a thousand years ago in the time of the Vikings in Newfoundland. It is crammed with incidents of war and peace, with fights to the death and long nights of lovemaking, and with accounts of the rise of local clan chiefs and the silent fall of great distant empires. Out of the mists of the past it sweeps forward eight hundred years, to the lonely death of the last of the Beothuk.

The Beothuk, of course, were the original native peo …

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Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel

also available: Paperback

Walking out on a demoralizing second marriage, Maggie Lloyd leaves Vancouver to work at a fishing lodge in the interior of British Columbia. But the serenity of Maggie’s new surroundings is soon disturbed by the irrational jealousy of the lodge-keeper’s wife. Restoring her own broken spirit, Maggie must also become a healer to others. In this, she is supported by her eccentric friend, Nell Severance, whose pearl-handled revolver – the Swamp Angel – becomes Maggie’s ambiguous talisman a …

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Ten twenty fifty brown birds flew past the window and then a few stragglers, out of sight. A fringe of Mrs. Vardoe’s mind flew after them (what were they – birds returning in migration of course) and then was drawn back into the close fabric of her preoccupations. She looked out over the small green garden which would soon grow dark in evening. This garden led down a few steps to the wooden sidewalk; then there was the road, dusty in fine weather; next came the neighbors’ houses across the road, not on a level with her but lower, as the hill declined, so that she was able to look over the roofs of these houses to Burrard Inlet far below, to the dark green promontory of Stanley Park, to the elegant curve of the Lions’ Gate Bridge which springs from the Park to the northern shore which is the base of the mountains; and to the mountains. The mountains seemed, in this light, to rear themselves straight up from the shores of Burrard Inlet until they formed an escarpment along the whole length of the northern sky. This escarpment looked solid at times, but certain lights disclosed slope behind slope, hill beyond hill, giving an impression of the mountains which was fluid, not solid.
Mrs. Vardoe had become attached to, even absorbed into the sight from the front- room window of inlet and forest and mountains. She had come to love it, to dislike it, to hate it, and at seven- fifteen this evening she proposed to leave it and not to return. Everything was, she thought, in order.
Behind her unrevealing gray eyes of candor and peace she had arranged with herself that she would arrive at this very evening and at this place where, on Capitol Hill, she would stand waiting with everything ready. There had been time enough in which to prepare. She had endured humiliations and almost unbearable resentments and she had felt continual impatience at the slowness of time. Time, she knew, does irrevocably pass and would not fail her; rather she might in some unsuspected way fail time. Her look and habit had not betrayed her although she had lived more and more urgently through the last few weeks when an irrational fear had possessed her that she – or he – would become ill, would meet with an accident, that some car, some fall, some silly bodily ailment would, with utmost indignity and indifference, interfere; but nothing had happened to interfere. The time was now half past five. It was not likely that the unlikely – having so far held its hand – would happen within two hours, but, if it did, she was armed against revealing herself and she would build in time again, or again, like the bird who obstinately builds again its destroyed nest. So strong was the intention to depart.
She had been most vulnerable and desperate when, more than a year ago, she had taken a small box of fishing flies to the shop known by sportsmen up and down the Pacific coast.
“May I see Mr. Thorpe or Mr. Spencer?”
“There’s no Mr. Thorpe. I am Mr. Spencer.”
“Here are some flies, Mr. Spencer.”
He picked up each fly and scrutinized it. Turning it this way and that he looked for flaws in the perfection of the body, the hackle, the wings. There were no flaws. He looked up at the pleasant young woman with less interest than he felt in the flies. There were small and large flies, dun- colored flies, and flies with a flash of iridescent green, scarlet, silver.
“Who made these flies?”
“I did.”
“Who taught you?”
“My father.”
“Where did he learn?”
“At Hardy’s.”
Mr. Spencer now regarded the young woman with some respect. She was unpretentious. Her gray eyes, rimmed with dark lashes, were wide set and tranquil and her features were agreeably irregular. She was not beautiful; she was not plain. Yes, perhaps she was beautiful. She took no pains to be beautiful. The drag of her cheap cloth coat and skirt intimated large easy curves beneath.
“Would you like to sell us your flies?”
“Yes, but I have no more feathers.”
“We can arrange that. Have you a vise?”
“Yes, my father’s vise.”
“We will take all the flies you can make. Would you like to work here? We have a small room at the back with a good light.”
“I would rather work at home.”
“Where do you live?”
“Out Capitol Hill way.”
“And you come from . . . “”
“I have lived in Vancouver for some time.”
“Oh. You were not born . . . “”
“I was born in New Brunswick.”
“Will you come to the desk? Sit down.”
He took up a pen. “Your name?”
“Lloyd.” The word Vardoe died in her mouth.
He looked at her large capable hands and saw the ring.
He smiled. “You won’t mind me saying, Mrs. Lloyd, but I always back large hands or even short stubby hands for tying flies.”
She looked down at her hands as if she had not noticed them before. “Yes,” she said, “they are large,” and she looked up and smiled for the first time, a level easy smile.
“Your telephone number?”
“There is no telephone.”
“Oh, then your address?”
“I’d rather call on Mondays.”
He pushed his lips out and looked at her over his glasses.
“Oh,” she said, “I know. The feathers. Please trust me the first few times and then I’ll pay for my own.”
“No, no,” he protested. “Oh no, you must do whatever suits you best.”
“It suits me best,” she said, coloring a very little, “to call on Monday mornings and bring the flies I’ve made, and see what you want done for the next week and take away the material.”
“That suits me too. What do you know about rods?”
“Not as much as I know about flies. But I can splice a rod, and mend some kinds of trout rods.”
“Would you want to take the rods home too?”
She hesitated. “No, if I do rods, I must do them here. But I would like to do all the work you can give me . . . if I can arrange to do it.”
That was how it had begun and she had been so clever; never a bright feather blew across the room; vise, hooks, jungle cock and peacock feather were all ingeniously hidden, and Edward had never known. The curtains, drawn widely, now framed her in the window as she looked out and out over the scene which she had loved and which she hoped not to see again.
In the woodshed by the lane was her canvas bag packed to a weight that she could carry, and a haversack that she could carry on her shoulders. There was her fishing rod. That was all. How often she had lived through these moments – which had now arrived and did not stay – of standing at the window; of turning; of walking through to the kitchen; of looking at the roast in the oven; of looking, once more, to see that her navy-blue raincoat with the beret stuffed in the pocket hung by the kitchen door, easy to snatch on her way out into the dark; of picking up the bags and the rod inside the woodshed door as quickly as if it were broad daylight because she had learned their place so well; of seeing the light in the Chinaman’s taxi a few yards up the lane; of quickly entering the taxi on seeing the slant face of the Chinese boy; and then the movement forward. She had carefully planned the time, early enough to arrive; too late to be seen, recognized, followed, and found.
Now she advanced, as planned, along these same minutes that had so often in imagination solaced her. When, in the night, as had soon happened after their marriage, she lay humiliated and angry, she had forced her mind forward to this moment. The secret knowledge of her advancing plan was her only restoration and solace. Often, in the day and in the night, she had strengthened herself by naming, item by item, the contents of her haversack and bag. She would, in fancy, pack a sweater, her shoes . . . the little vise and some flies. . . . How many scores of times, as her hands lay still, she had packed these little bags. Each article, as she in fancy picked or discarded it, comforted her and became her familiar companion and support. And last night she had lain for the last time beside her husband and he did not know that it was the last time.
She had once lived through three deaths, and – it really seemed – her own. Her country had regretted to inform her that her husband, Tom Lloyd, was killed in action; their child was stricken, and died; her father, who was her care, had died; and Maggie Lloyd, with no one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity. She had married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes. Now she was to disappear from Edward’s eyes.
Mrs. Vardoe, still standing at the window, raised her left hand and saw that the time was now a quarter to six. She turned and went through to the kitchen. She took her large apron from the chair where she had thrown it, tied it so that it covered her, opened the oven door, took out the roast, put the roast and vegetables back into the oven, and began to make the gravy in the pan. These actions, which were familiar and almost mechanical, took on, tonight, the significance of movement forward, of time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past). Each action was important in itself and, it seemed, had never been real before.
The front door opened and was shut with a bang and then there was silence. As she stirred the gravy she knew what Edward was doing. He was putting his topcoat on its hanger, turning his hat in his hand, regarding it, reshaping it, and hanging them both up – the good topcoat and respectable hat of Eddie Vardoe, E. Thompson Vardoe. It’s a good thing I’m going now, she thought as she stirred the gravy. I’m always unfair, now, to Edward. I hate everything he does. He has only to hang up his hat and I despise him. Being near him is awful. I’m unfair to him in my heart always whatever he is doing, but tonight I shall be gone.
As he walked to the kitchen door she looked up from her stirring. He stood beside her, trim, prim, and jaunty in the little kitchen. He was in rare good humor, and excited.
“Well,” he said, “I pretty near bought it. Guess I’ll settle tomorrow. Four hundred cash and easy terms.”
She straightened herself and looked mildly at him. Was it possible that what she was about to do was not written plain on her brow.
“If you gointa show people real estate,” he said, “you gotta have the right car. Something conservative but snappy. Snappy but reefined. See.”
“Yes, oh yes,” she agreed. She had forgotten about the car.
He took off his coat, revealing a tie on which athletes argued in yellow and red. That tie, and other ties, were new signs of Edward’s advancement and self- confidence. What a tie, thought Mrs. Vardoe, stirring mechanically. When Edward took off his coat a strong sweet sour smell was released. He took a paper from an inner pocket, went to the hall and hung up his coat. He came back to the kitchen and held out the paper to her.
“Take a look at that, woodja,” he said with a smile of triumph. “‘E. Thompson Vardoe’ – sounds all right, doesn’t it!”
“Just a minute till I put the roast on the table,” she said, picking up the hot platter.
He turned and followed her into the room. “Well,” he said aggrieved, “I’d think you’d be innerested in your husband starting in business for himself!”
She went with her usual light deliberation into the kitchen again, brought in the vegetables, gravy, and plates, took off her apron and sat down at the table.
“Let me see it,” she said.
Mr. Vardoe, sitting down in his shirt sleeves before the roast, passed her a piece of paper with a printed heading. She read aloud “Weller and Vardoe – Real Estate – Specialists in Homes – West End, Point Gray and Southern Slope – Octavius Weller, E. Thompson Vardoe.”
“Oh it does look nice! I hope that . . .”
Say!” said Mr. Vardoe in an affronted tone, holding the carving knife and fork above the roast of beef. “Whatever got into you, buying this size roast for two people! Must be all of six pounds! Is it six pounds?”
“No,” said Mrs. Vardoe with her wide gentle look upon the roast, “but it’s all of five pounds.”
“And solid meat!” said Mr. Vardoe, striking the roast with the carving knife. His voice rose shrill with anger. “You buying six-pound roasts when I gotta get a new car and get started in a new business! Bet it wasn’t far off a dollar a pound!”
“No, it wasn’t,” admitted Mrs. Vardoe. She gave a quick look down at her watch. The time was twenty minutes past six. It seemed to her that time stood still, or had died.
“It’ll be nice cold,” she said, without self- defense.
“Nice cold!” he echoed. “Who wants to eat cold meat that cost the earth for a week!”
If you only knew it, you will, thought Mrs. Vardoe.
Edward Vardoe gave her one more glare. In annoyed silence he began to carve the roast.
As Mrs. Vardoe put vegetables onto the two plates she dared to give another downward glance. Twenty- five minutes past six. The roast was delicious. When Edward Vardoe had shown enough displeasure and had satisfied himself that his wife had felt his displeasure he began eating and talking of his partner Octavius Weller, a man experienced – he said – in the real estate business.
“Octavius’s smart all right,” he said with satisfaction and his mouth full. “Anyone have to get up pooty early to fool Octavius. I guess we’ll be a good team, me and O.W.” He at last pushed his plate aside. He continued to talk.
Mrs. Vardoe got up and took away the meat course and brought in a pudding. Her husband looked at her strangely. He took his time to speak.
“Well, say,” he said at last, “you got your good tweed suit on!”
“Yes, I have,” she said, looking down at it. The time was twenty minutes to seven. She had to control a trembling in her whole body.
“Cooking a dinner in your good suit!”
“I had my apron.”
“Well, what you got it on for! You never sit down in your good suit like that before! Wearing that suit around the house!”
She could conceal – how well she could conceal! – but she could not deceive and she did not need to deceive.
“I wanted to see Hilda and her mother. I went there and they weren’t in. So I walked around for a bit and went back there and they weren’t in, so I came home.”
And never took that suit off, and went and cooked dinner in that suit!” (That suit, that suit, that suit.)
Yes, but, her mind said, if I didn’t wear my suit I hadn’t room to pack it. That was all arranged. Long ago that was arranged, arranged by night, arranged by day. I won’t tell him any lies. I can stay quiet a little longer whatever he says. She ate her pudding mechanically, hardly knowing what she did or what he said. It all depends on me, now, she thought. If I can manage the next quarter of an hour? Oh God help me. Just this quarter of an hour. Time could kill a person, standing still like this. A person could die.
“Any more pudding?” she said.
He shook his head. Ill temper made his face peevish.
“Gimme the paper,” he said sourly.
“It’s here.” She passed it to him and her heart beat like a clock.
He turned himself from the table and seemed to settle to the paper. A weight lifted a little from her. She took out the plates, cleared the table, and went into the kitchen, closing the door behind her. She ran the water into the dishpan. Water makes more noise than anything but crumpling paper, doesn’t it, she thought. I must have things quiet, so that I can listen both ways. She piled the dishes, one on one, very quietly. It was seven o’clock. She began to wash the dishes, silently enough. The moments became intolerable. A person could die, waiting for a minute to come. She could not bear it. She dried her hands on her apron and threw off the apron. It dropped to the floor. She snatched the raincoat off the peg by the door. She slipped her arms into the raincoat and went out into the dark. If it’s not here, she thought in her fluttering mind, what shall I do. If he comes into the kitchen and I have to go back in, what’ll I do. The taxi might be two or three minutes early. It might. She walked quickly down the little back garden path to the lane where the woodshed stood. The air, cool and fresh and dark after the warm lighted kitchen, blew upon her face. She saw up the dark lane a car standing, its engine running. The absurd fear nearly choked her that this might not, after all, be her car. Some other car might be standing there. Ducking into the woodshed, she picked up the two bags and the thin fishing rod in the case, slung the haversack over her shoulder, and began to run. She reached the taxi and looked eagerly in. She saw the Chinese face. Before the driver could reach the door handle, she wrenched the door open, sprang in and closed it.
“Drive,” she said, and leaned back in the car with a relief that made her for a moment dizzy.

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The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel

tagged : literary, classics

The film adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, starring acclaimed actresses Ellen Burstyn and Ellen Page, and introducing Christine Horne, opens in theatres May 9, 2008.

This special fortieth-anniversary edition of Margaret Laurence’s most celebrated novel will introduce readers again to one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Hagar Shipley is stubborn, querulous, self-reliant, and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her, she makes a bold last step towards fre …

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Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.

Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.

Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
Regina Weese.
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.

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The Tent

The Tent


A collection of smart and entertaining fictional essays from one of the world's most celebrated authors, in the genre of her popular books Good Bones and Murder in the Dark, punctuated with wonderful illustrations by the author. Chilling and witty, prescient and personal, delectable and tart, these highly imaginative, vintage Atwoodian essays speak on a broad range of subjects, reflecting the times we live in with deadly accuracy and knife-edge precision.

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Life Stories
Why the hunger for these? If it is a hunger. Maybe it’s more like bossiness. Maybe we just want to be in charge, of the life, no matter who lived it.

It helps if there are photos. No more choices for the people in them — pick this one, dump that one. The livers of the lives in question had their chances, most of which they blew. They should have spotted the photographer in the bushes, they ­shouldn’t have chewed with their mouths open, they ­shouldn’t have worn the strapless top, they ­shouldn’t have yawned, they ­shouldn’t have laughed: so unattractive, the candid denture. So that’s what she looked like, we say, connecting the snapshot to the year of the torrid affair. Face like a half-­eaten pizza, and is that him, gaping down her front? What did he see in her, besides cheap lunch? He was already going bald. What was all the fuss about?

I’m working on my own life story. I ­don’t mean I’m putting it together; no, I’m taking it apart. It’s mostly a question of editing. If you’d wanted the narrative line you should have asked earlier, when I still knew everything and was more than willing to tell. That was before I discovered the virtues of scissors, the virtues of matches.
I was born, I would have begun, once. But snip, snip, away go mother and father, white ribbons of paper blown by the wind, with grandparents tossed out for good measure. I spent my childhood. Enough of that as well. Goodbye dirty little dresses, goodbye scuffed shoes that caused me such anguish, goodbye well-­thumbed tears and scabby knees, and sadness worn at the edges.

Adolescence can be discarded too, with its salty tanned skin, its fecklessness and bad romance and leakages of seasonal blood. What was it like to breathe so heavily, as if drugged, while rubbing up against strange leather coats in alleyways? I ­can’t remember.

Once you get started it’s fun. So much free space opens up. Rip, crumple, up in flames, out the window. I was born, I grew up, I studied, I loved, I married, I procreated, I said, I wrote, all gone now. I went, I saw, I did. Farewell crumbling turrets of historic interest, farewell icebergs and war monuments, all those young stone men with eyes upturned, and risky voyages teeming with germs, and dubious hotels, and doorways opening both in and out. Farewell friends and lovers, you’ve slipped from view, erased, defaced: I know you once had hairdos and told jokes, but I ­can’t recall them. Into the ground with you, my tender fur-­brained cats and dogs, and horses and mice as well: I adored you, dozens of you, but what were your names?

I’m getting somewhere now, I’m feeling lighter. I’m coming unstuck from scrapbooks, from albums, from diaries and journals, from space, from time. Only a paragraph left, only a sentence or two, only a whisper.
I was born.
I was.

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The Mountain and the Valley

The Mountain and the Valley


The Mountain and the Valley is an affectionate portrait of David Canaan, a sensitive boy who becomes increasingly aware of the difference that sets him apart from his family and his neighbours. David’s desire to write is the secret that gives this haunting story its detailed focus and its poignant theme.

Set in the years leading up to World War II and against the backdrop of the Annapolis Valley’s natural beauty, The Mountain and the Valley captures a young man’s spiritual awakening and the …

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Chapter 1
David Canaan had lived in Entremont all his thirty years. As far back as childhood, whenever anger had dishevelled him, or confusion, or the tick, tick, tick, of emptiness like he felt today, he had sought the log road that went to the top of the mountain. As he moved along this road, somewhere the twist of anger would loosen; a shaft of clarity would strike through the scud of confusion; blood would creep back into the pulse and pallor of the emptiness. He would take happiness there, to be alone with it; as another child might keep hidden for a day a toy that wasn’t his.
He stood at the kitchen window now, watching the highway.
The highway was irregularly noduled with whitewashed wooden houses. It cut through the Annapolis Valley; and on either side of it lay the flat frozen fields.
On the north side, the fields and orchards ran down to the big bend of the river, cut wide by the Fundy tides. Blocks of grimy, sun-eaten ice were piled up in Druidic formations on the river’s banks, where the tides had tumbled them. The North Mountain rose sharply beyond the river. It was solid blue in the afternoon light of December that was pale and sharp as starlight, except for the milky ways of choppings where traces of the first snow never quite disappeared.
On the south side of the highway, beyond the barn and the pastures, the South Mountain rose. Solid blue too at the bottom where the dark spruces huddled close, but snow-grey higher up where the sudden steepness and the leafless hardwood began. At the peak the gaunt limbs of the maples could be seen like the bones of hands all along the lemon-coloured horizon.
The mountain slopes were less than a mile high at their topmost point but they shut the valley in completely.
The afternoon stillness simmered soundlessly in the kitchen. The soft flutter of flame in the stove, the heat-tick of the stove itself, and the gentle rocking of the tea kettle with its own steam, were quieter than silence. The mat hook which his grandmother held in her right hand made a steady staccato like the sounds of seconds dropping, as it punctured the meshes of the meal bag, to draw up loop after loop of the rag she held in her left hand beneath.
His head was physically heavy. An ache fountained somewhere above the scar that sickled, like a smile-scar, from the corner of his mouth to his left temple. It never rose to actual pain, but it seeped through his whole head like the penetration of a night fog that crept up from the marshes.
Occasionally he moved his head from side to side, as a deer does that tries to dislodge, by the flick of tongue to flank, the bullet wound that hurts and puzzles him. His breath came smoothly, but as if it beat back and forth between two weights; one blocking the limit of inhalation and one the limit of exhalation.
Rain had taken the first snow on the fields. Then the sudden cold had come. Islands of milk-ice speckled the brown fields where the withered aftergrass held the snow longest, and in the ploughed land gravel was frozen into the lips of the brown sod like stones in a setting. Sockets of rocks which the plough had dislodged were frozen smooth as moulds. Honeycombs of ice stood white in the valleys of adjacent rows. In the flat dead furrows the ice shone enamelled and colourless in the glance of the sun that slanted, without warmth, from the bruised lids of the sky. The twisted arms of the apple trees and the bushes along the line fence looked locked and separate, as if all their life had fled its own nakedness.
Detail came clearly enough to David’s sight; but it was as if another glass, beyond the glass of the window pane, covered everything, made touch between any two things impossible. He saw the children skating on the flooded marshes, but the sound of their voices fell in the thin air before it reached the house. Their movements were like line drawings of movements. His eyes followed the peopled cars as they passed down the long straight stretch of road; yet when they disappeared around the corner there was no impression of severance.
He stood absolutely still. He was not quiet with thought or interest. It was simply that any impulse to movement receded before the compulsion of the emptiness: to suspend the moment and prolong it, exactly as it was, in a kind of spell.
At a first glance his face looked young. The tentative, blue-eyed look of a boy’s face still shadowed it. A touch of sun still lingered in the quick blond hair. The eyes and mouth were sober, but a trigger-readiness to grin lurked in them. At a second glance his face seemed old. The flesh was firm over the broad bones (so much broader than the tall slender body seemed to call for), but it had the cast of a bad night’s sleep. The longer you looked, the less you could be sure whether the face was young or old.
“What are you doing, David?” Ellen turned from the rug as she spoke. The patience in his face was his father’s; the quickness that disputed the patience his mother’s. Its fine graining was hers.
He didn’t reply. She scarcely noticed now, whether you answered or not.
“What are you looking at, child?” she asked again.
“Nothing,” he said.
She turned back to the rug.
She was so old that her face no longer held any trace of how she had looked when she was young. Only her eyes had no dustiness of age about them. The years that had washed away their colour seemed to have disclosed an original brightness.Neat, bright, delicate: that pattern was repeated everywhere—in the white hair caught back into a tight bun; in her hands, her feet; even in the black dress she wore, with the white piping at the neck. Her clothes had always stayed neat and clean, even if she had been transplanting cabbage plants on a wet day. She was the sort of woman whose daughters, if she had any, are delicate like herself, but who bears incredibly sturdy sons.
The pattern of the rug was not intricate. It had a wide dark border, then a target pattern of circles radiating from the centre of the canvas. David had marked them for her. Her eyes could no longer trace the outlines of scrolls and flowers.
She selected each rag carefully for texture and colour.
Rags were scarce now. These were the last she could find. The bag they were in had been tied tightly at the top, inside a trunk. They were good rags. All the garments were whole. She had torn them into strips herself.
The coat she’d used for the border was of sturdier cloth than the rest, but it felt rich and soft to pass her fingers over. It had been at the very bottom of the bag. Whose coat was that?
She stopped and thought: There is Joseph, my son—he married Martha; and there are the three children: Christopher, David, and Anna. She might have been writing the facts down somewhere, for reference. Her own husband’s name had been Richard. She didn’t remember him today.
But she remembered Joseph. The grey in the first lap of circle next the border was a work shirt of Joseph’s. She remembered Martha feeling it for texture the first day he tried it on, the day he went back to cut the keel. It still looked almost new. Where was Joseph?
The next ring of flowered gingham was an apron of Martha’s. Martha had sat that night with this apron to her eyes, but what night had it been?
She drew the last garment from the bag. It was a dress. Her fingers touched a bit of lace at the bottom of the sleeve.  It must have been for a wrist no larger than mine, she thought. The wrist was mine. But when did I wear that dress? There was music. It wasn’t here. It was some far-off place. She couldn’t remember where. She felt cold.
“David,” she said, “are you going to let the fire out?” There was a querulous note in her voice.
David caught his breath. He put a stick of wood from the oven, where it was drying, into the stove. Then he returned to the window.
“What are you doing, child?” she said.
“Child”! He winced now, just to feel it coming. There was a minute or two of silence.
“You’d better fix the fire,” Ellen said.
“I just fixed it.”
“That’s a good boy.”
Brown. She tumbled the little knoll of rags, searching for a strip of brown. Yes, that was brown. That was the stocking cap Chris had worn the day Joseph tied a bag of straw on the trailsled for a seat and took him back to the woods for the first time. She could see the tiny hatchet clutched in Chris’s own hand. He had been crying because they’d teased him about hauling Charlotte Gorman on her sled. She had spun that yarn herself, and knit it, and dyed it with alder bark. She could see the stain of brown on the kindling stick she’d stirred the salt into the dye with, to set it. Chris was two years older than David. Chris was ten. Is David only eight years old then? Where was Chris? David was there by the window, but where was Chris?
“What do you see, child?” she said.
“Is someone coming?”
Herb Hennessey was coming up the road, but he wouldn’t be coming here. He’d never gone into another house, as far back as when David was a child. He’d been the strangest creature in the world to the children.
There was music . . . Was it, “I’ll take the high road, and you take the low road . . .” — No. It was before that. Quicker music. She began to hum, in a high quavery voice. “But me and my true love will never meet again . . .” David’s fingers tightened against his palms. She hummed the tune over and over and over.
“Is someone coming?” she said.
Pink. That was Anna’s. That was the hair ribbon Anna had worn the Sunday afternoon she got lost trying to follow David’s tracks back the log road. They had found the ribbon first, caught on the limb of a tree, and then they had found Anna.
 “That sailor was here yesterday,” she said. “The one Anna married.”
Or was it the fugitive sailor she’d hidden in the hay loft once? But that wasn’t yesterday . . . was it? Or was it the man she couldn’t quite remember, the one who had worn that fine coat? She hadn’t dared to tell him about the sailor, even when she slept by his side that night. No, it was Anna’s sailor. They were married. But Anna was David’s twin, and David wasn’t married. Anna was only eight years old. She had on a flannel petticoat with red feather-stitching all around the hem. Where was Anna?
Red . . . Red . . .
Yes, that was red. That was a tablecloth. The neighbours had given it to Joseph and Martha, the night of the surprise party at the new house. It had tassels all around the edge. They used it only on Sundays. The blood stain was still there in the centre. They had laid David on the table that day they carried him into the house, without waiting to take off the cloth. No washing could ever get the stain out. They had all sat around the table yesterday—Joseph there, and Martha there, and Christopher and David and Anna, and the lamp in the centre by the sugar bowl. And was that other man there too, the one with the fine coat, the one she had danced with that time? Where were they all? Wasn’t his name Richard?
“Have you fed the hens, David?” she said.
“It’s only two o’clock,” he said.
“It will soon be dark. If you don’t feed them before dark, they won’t fly down to eat.”
“It’s not dark yet.” He said it as if he were repeating a lesson. He had said it yesterday and the day before and the day before that.
She filled the space between two circles with strips of the tablecloth, and clipped the loops close with her scissors. Blue . . . She searched for a strip of blue.
“Have you fed the hens, David?” she said.
He turned then, suddenly. His mouth twitched once, as if from a blow that can have no other response. In a single movement he took his cap from the row of hooks beside the window and put it on his head. He took his jacket from the next hook.
Ellen turned. “Where are you going, child, at this time of day?”
“Not very far,” he said.
“Will you be warm enough? You’re not half clad.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be warm enough.”
“Don’t fall.”
He put on his jacket and filled up the stove again. He hesitated. “The stove’s all right till I get back,” he said. He had to say something, because he had spoken to her sharply.
He opened the door and went quickly past the window, toward the road that went to the top of the mountain.
Blue . . . blue . . . Yes, that was blue. That was David’s. That was the blanket they’d wrapped David and Anna in the night they were born. But David is not a baby. How . . . “
She turned. “David,” she began, “how . . . “”
There was no one in the room. David was here. Where was David?

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Seaweed in the Mythworld

Seaweed in the Mythworld

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Coast Salish street cop Silas Seaweed is back in another West Coast noir mystery. Giant Thunderbirds are threatening the skies above British Columbia. A man is found dead in an abandoned church. Canada’s Governor General is dying and an aboriginal shaman is called upon to perform last rites. Add a violent gang boss, Chinese assassins, dangerous women and Coast Salish mythology and it all adds up to another suspenseful page turner.

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