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Adult Fiction

By Aparna Kaji Shah
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tagged: Moving, Brilliant
Amazing Literary fiction
Hum If You Don't Know the Words

Hum If You Don't Know the Words

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Perfect for readers of The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, a perceptive and searing look at Apartheid-era South Africa, told through one unique family brought together by tragedy.
Life under Apartheid has created a secure future for Robin Conrad, a ten-year-old white girl living with her parents in 1970s Johannesburg. In the same nation but worlds apart, Beauty Mbali, a Xhosa woman in a rural village in the Bantu homeland of the Transkei, struggles to raise her children alone after her husband …

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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Bianca Marais

 CHAPTER ONEROBIN CONRAD13 June 1976Boksburg, Johannesburg, South Africa  I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big ‘10’ in the top square. It gave me a thrill writing the age I’d be on my next birthday because everyone knew that once you hit double digits, you weren’t a child anymore. The green chalk, borrowed from the scoreboard of my father’s dartboard without his knowledge, was so stubby that my fingers scraped against the concrete of the driveway as I put the final touches to my creation.“There, it’s done.” I stood back and studied my handiwork. As usual, I was disappointed that something I’d made hadn’t turned out quite as good as I’d imagined. “It’s perfect,” Cat declared, reading my mind as she always did, and trying to reassure me before I washed the grid off in a fit of self doubt.  I smiled even though her opinion shouldn’t have counted for much; my identical twin sister was easily impressed by everything I did. “You go first,” Cat said. “Okay.” I pulled the bronze half-cent coin from my pocket, and rubbed it for luck before launching it into the air from my thumbnail. It arced and spun, glinting in the sunlight, and when it finally landed in the first square, I launched myself forward, eager to finish the grid in record time. I finished three circuits before the coin skittered out of the square marked ‘4’. It should have ended my turn, but I shot a quick look at Cat who was distracted by a hadeda bird making a racket on the neighbour’s roof. Before she could notice my mistake, I nudged the coin back in place with the tip of my canvas shoe and carried on jumping.“You’re doing so well,” Cat called a few seconds later once she’d turned back and noticed my progress. Spurred on by her clapping and encouragement, I hopped even faster, not noticing until it was too late that a lace on one of my takkies had come loose. It tripped me up just as I cleared the last square and brought me crashing down knee-first, my skin scraped raw on the rough concrete. I cried out, first in alarm and then in pain, and it was this noise that brought my mother’s flip-flops clacking into my line of vision. Her shadow fell over me.“Oh for goodness sake, not again.” My mother reached down and yanked me up. “You’re so clumsy. I don’t know where you get it from.” She tsked as I raised my bleeding knee so she could see. Cat was crouched next to me, wincing at the sight of the gravel imbedded in the wound. Tears started to prickle, but I knew I had to stop their relentless progression quickly or suffer my mother’s displeasure.“I’m fine. It’s fine.” I forced a watery smile and gingerly stood up.“Oh, Robin,” my mother sighed. “You’re not going to cry, are you? You know how ugly you are when you cry.” She crossed her eyes and screwed up her face comically to illustrate her point and I forced the giggle she was looking for.“I’m not going to cry,” I said.  Crying in the driveway in plain sight of the neighbours would be an unforgiveable offense; my mother was very concerned with what other people thought and expected me to be as well. “Good girl.” She smiled and kissed me on the top of my head as a reward for my bravery.There was no time to savour the praise. The trill of the ringing phone cut through the morning and just like that, one of the last tender moments my mother and I would ever share was over. She blinked and the warmth in her eyes turned to exasperation. “Get Mabel to help clean you up, okay?” She’d just disappeared through the back door into the kitchen when I became aware of whimpering and looked down to see that Cat was crying. Looking at my sister was always like looking into a mirror, but in that instant, it felt as though the glass between my reflection and me had been removed so that I wasn’t looking at an image of myself; I was looking at myself. The misery etched onto Cat’s scrunched-up features was my misery. Her blue eyes welled with my tears and her pouty bottom lip trembled. Anyone who’d ever doubted the veracity of twin empathy only had to see my sister suffering on my behalf to become a true believer. “Stop crying,” I hissed. “Do you want Mom calling you a cry baby?”“But it looks like it hurts.” If only it were that straightforward in the eyes of our mother. “Go to our room so she won’t see you,” I said, “and only come out when you feel better.” I tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. She sniffed and nodded, and then scurried inside with her head bent. I followed a minute later and found our maid, Mabel, in the kitchen washing up the breakfast dishes. She was wearing her faded mint-green uniform (a coverall dress that was too tight on her plump frame, the buttons gaping apart where they fastened in the front) with a white apron and doek.My mother was on the phone in the dining room using the carefree, happy voice she only ever used with one person: her sister, Edith. I left her to it, knowing that if I asked to speak to my aunt, I’d be told either to stop interrupting grown-ups’ conversations, or to stop being so in love with the sound of my own voice. “Mabel, look.” I said as I lifted up my knee, relieved that it wasn’t one of her few Sundays off.She cringed when she saw the blood, and her hands flew up to her mouth, sending suds flying.  “Yoh! Yoh! Yoh! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as though she’d personally caused my suffering. To me, this litany was better than all the plasters in the world and an immediate balm to my pain.  “Sit. I must see.” She knelt down and inspected the scrape, wincing as she did so. “I will fetch the first aid things.” She pronounced it ‘festaid’ in her strong accent and I savoured the word as I savoured all Mabel-English. I loved how she made regular English words sound like a totally different language, and I wondered if her children (whom I’d never met and who lived in Qua-Qua all year round) spoke the same way. She fetched the kit out from the scullery cupboard and knelt down again to tend to the graze, the cotton ball looking especially white against her brown skin. She soaked it with orange disinfectant and then held it to the wound, murmuring words of comfort each time I tried to pull away from the sting of it.  “I am sorry! Yoh, I’m sorry, see? I am almost finished. Almost, almost. You are a brave girl.” You arra brev gell.I basked in her focused attention and watched as she blew on my knee, amazed at how the tickle of her breath magically eased the pain. Once Mabel was satisfied that the broken skin was clean enough, she stuck a huge plaster over it and pinched my cheek. “Mwah, mwah, mwah.” She placed lip-smacking kisses all over my face, and I held my breath waiting to see if this would be the day I finally got a kiss on the mouth. Her lips came as close as my chin before returning to my forehead. “All better now!”“Thank you!” I gave her a quick hug before heading out again, and I’d just stepped out the back door when my father called me. “Freckles!” He was sitting in a deck chair next to the portable braai he’d set up in the bright patch of sunlight in the middle of the brown lawn. “Get your old man a beer.”I ducked inside again and opened the fridge, pulling out a bottle of Castle Lager. My inexpert handling of the bottle opener resulted in a spray of foam across the linoleum floor but I didn’t stop to wipe it up. Mabel clucked as I made a run for it, but I knew she’d clean it without complaint.“Here you go,” I said handing the still-foaming bottle to my father who immediately used it to douse the flames that had leapt up beyond the barrier of the grill.“Just in time,” he said, nodding for me to sit in the chair next to him. My father’s blue eyes twinkled out at me from a handsome face that was mostly hidden behind a thicket of hair. Wavy blonde curls flopped over his eyebrows in the front, and grew long at the back so that they dipped over his shirt collar. He’d also cultivated long mutton chop sideburns that just fell short of meeting up with his bushy moustache. Kissing him was always a ticklish undertaking, and I loved the bristly texture of his face against my skin. I sat down and he handed me the braai tongs as if he was passing me a sacred object. He nodded in a solemn way and I nodded back to show I acknowledged the transference of power.  I was now in charge of the meat. My father smiled as I leaned into the smoke rising from the grill, and then he glanced at the plaster on my knee. “You been through the wars again, Freckles?”I nodded and he laughed. My father often joked about having a son in a daughter’s body. He especially loved to tell the story of how I’d come home from my first and only ballet lesson when I was five years old with ripped tights and my leg covered in blood. When he’d asked me how in the world I’d managed to get so roughed up in a dancing class, I confessed that I’d injured myself falling out of the tree I’d climbed in order to hide away from the teacher. He’d roared with laughter, and my mother had lectured me about wasting their money.Teaching me how to braai was something my father should’ve taught a son. If he felt cheated that he never got one, he never said so, and he encouraged my tomboyish behaviour at every opportunity.Cat, on the other hand, was a sensitive child and in many ways, my complete opposite. She was also squeamish about raw meat. There was no way my father would ever have taught her the subtleties of cooking meat to perfection, or how to hold your fist when throwing a knockout punch, or how to bring someone down with a rugby tackle.“Okay, now turn the wors. Make sure you get the tongs under all the coils and flip them together or it’s going to be a big mess. Good. Now, nudge the chops to the side or they’re going to be overdone. You want to crisp the fat but not burn it.”I followed his instructions carefully and managed to cook the meat to his satisfaction. Once we were done, I carried the meat in a pan to the table Mabel had set for us on the flagstone patio. The garlic bread, potato salad and mielies were all already there, protected under a fly net that I sometimes used as a veil when I played at being a spy disguised as a bride.“Tell your mother we’re ready,” my father said as he sat down. He didn’t trust the giant hadedas with their long beaks not to swoop down and steal the meat; they often swiped dog food left outside in bowls, and had been known to go for bigger prey like fish in ornamental ponds.“She’s on the phone.”“Well, tell her to get off. I’m hungry.”“We’re ready to eat,” I yelled around the doorway before stepping back outside again.I’d just sat down next to my father when Cat trailed outside to join us. She’d washed all evidence of tears from her face, and smiled as our mother sat down next to her.“Who was that on the phone?” My father asked, reaching for the butter and Bovril spread to slather over his mielie.“Edith.”My father rolled his eyes. “What does she want?”“Nothing. She’s got some vicious stomach bug that’s going around and she’s been grounded until it clears.”“I suppose that’s a huge crisis in her life? Not being able to serve shitty airplane food on overpriced flights to hoity toity passengers. God, your sister can make a mountain out of a molehill.”“It’s not a crisis, Keith. Who said it was a crisis? She just wanted to talk.”“Wanted to suck you into the drama of her life, more like it.”My mother raised her voice. “What drama?” Cat’s eyes were wide as they darted between our parents. She pulled her gaze away from them and stared at me. Her meaning was clear. Do something! “Everything’s a drama with her,” my father said, matching my mother’s increased volume. “It’s never just a small hiccup; it’s always the end of the world.”“It’s not the end of the world! Who said it’s the end of the world?” My mother thwacked the serving spoon back into the salad bowl. She glowered at him and the vein in her forehead began to bulge, never a good sign. “God! Why must you always give her a hard time? She just wanted to -”The doorbell rang. Cat’s expression of relief said it all. Saved by the bell! “Oh, for God’s sake!” My father threw down his cutlery so that it clattered across the table. “Look at the time. Who has no bloody manners rocking up at lunchtime on a Sunday?” My mother stood to go but my father held her back. “Let Mabel get it.”“I told her to take the afternoon off and said she could come in tonight to do the dishes.”As my mother disappeared into the house, my father called after her. “If it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell them to piss off or I’ll shoot them. Tell them I have a big gun and I’m not afraid to use it.”“I wonder who it is.” Cat asked and I shrugged. I was more interested in the gun. When my mother returned a few minutes later, she was flushed and carrying two books which she thumped down on the table in front of Cat.“What’s that?” My father asked. “Who was at the door?”“Gertruida Bekker.”“Hennie’s wife?”“Yes.” “What did she want?”“To complain about Robin who’s apparently corrupting her daughter.”“What?” My father looked at me. “What did you do, Freckles?”“I don’t know.”My mother nodded at the books. “You gave those to Elsabe?”“I didn’t give them to her. I borrowed them to her.”“Lent them,” my mother corrected.“Yes, lent them.”My father reached across the table to pick up the books. “‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Famous Five’,” he read. “Books by Enid Blyton?”“Yes, apparently Gertruida took exception to the character’s names and told me, in no uncertain terms, that Robin is a bad influence and she doesn’t want her playing with Elsabe anymore.”“What names? What is the bloody woman talking about?”My mother paused before answering. “Dick and Fanny.”“Are you being serious?”My mother nodded. “Yes, she said they’re disgusting names that shouldn’t be allowed in a Christian household.”My father guffawed and that set my mother off. They were both in fits of giggles and it was my turn to look to Cat in mystification. I didn’t know what was so funny. I hadn’t meant to upset Elsabe or Mrs Bekker; all I’d tried to do was start my own secret society like the children in the books. I wanted to solve mysteries and have hidden clubhouses; I wanted to think up exotic passwords about cream buns and jam tarts that no one else would ever guess. Unfortunately though, all the other girls in our whites-only suburb of Witpark in Boksburg were Afrikaners, and from what I could tell, were only interested in playing house. All that cooking, knitting, sewing, baking, looking after screaming babies and yelling at drunken husbands who came home late from mine parties didn’t appeal to me. I wanted, instead, to broaden their horizons, and introduce them to a whole new world they were missing out on.“I just wanted her and the other girls to read the books so they’d join my Secret Seven Club,” I said. “So far, it’s just me and Cat and we need five others.” “Bugger them,” my father said, reaching over and fluffing my hair. “You girls can have a Gruesome Twosome all on your own. Or better yet, forget the girls and go play with the boys.”            My mother rolled her eyes again, but she was still in a good mood and I didn’t want to ruin it by complaining about how none of the boys would play with me. She didn’t like whining and always said that instead of dwelling on the negative, I should try to think up solutions. Which is what got me thinking about what my father had said earlier.“Where’s your big gun, Daddy?”            “What?”            “Your big gun? The one you said you’d shoot the Jehovah’s Witnesses with?”            “I was just joking, Freckles. I don’t have a gun.”            “Oh.” This was disappointing. I was hoping to use it as a conversation starter with the boys. “Maybe you should get one.”            “Why?”“Piet’s dad said the kaffir black bastards are going to kill us in our sleep because we’re sissies. He said if we don’t own guns, we may as well just bend over and take it up the backside like the moffies do.”“Oh yes, when did he say this?” my father asked just as my mother told me not to say ‘kaffirs’ and ‘moffies’.“The other day when I was there playing with the dogs. What do the moffies take up the backside?”“That’s enough questions for one day, Robin.”“But -”“No buts.” He shot my mother a look and they both snorted with laughter. “End of conversation.”It had been an ordinary Sunday in every way. My parents fought and then made up and then fought again, switching from being adversaries to allies so seamlessly that you couldn’t put your finger on the moment when the lines were crossed and re-crossed. Cat perfectly acted out her part of the quiet understudy twin, so I could take my place in the spotlights playing the leading role for both of us. I asked too many questions and repeatedly pushed the boundaries, and Mabel hovered like a benevolent shadow in the wings. The only difference was that, without my knowing it, the clock had started ticking; in just over three days, I’d lose three of the most important people in my life.       CHAPTER TWOBEAUTY MBALI14 June 1976Transkei, South Africa  My daughter is in danger.This is my first thought when I awaken and it spurs me on to get dressed quickly.  Dawn is still two hours away and the inside of the hut is black as grief. I can usually move around the room and skirt the boys’ sleeping mats in the darkness, but I need a light now to finish the last of my packing. The scratch of the match against the rough strip of the Lion box is grating in the confines of the silent room, and my shadow rises up like a prayer when I light the candle and place it next to my suitcase on the floor. The lingering scent of sulphur, an everyday smell that has always made me think of daybreak, feels portentous now. I breathe through my mouth so that I do not have to inhale the smell of fear. I am quiet but there is nothing to help muffle my movements. Our dwellings are circular and entirely open within the circumference of the clay outer wall. No ceilings crouch above us, bisecting the thatch roofs from the dung floors. No partitions cut through the communal space to separate us into different rooms. Our homes are borderless just as the world was once free of boundaries; there would be no walls or roofs at all except for the essential shelter they provide. Privacy is not a concept my people understand or desire; we bear witness to each other’s lives and take comfort in having our own lives seen. What greater gift can you give another than to say: I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?This is why, no matter how quiet I try to be, both my sons are awake. Khwezi watches as I roll up my reed mat; the reflected light of the candle’s flame burns in his eyes. Thirteen years old, he is my youngest child. He does not remember the day, ten years ago, when his father left for the goldmines in Johannesburg, nor the agony of the months of drought that came before. He does not remember the gradual slump of a proud man’s shoulders as Silo watched his family and cattle starve, but Khwezi is old enough now to be fearful of losing another family member to the hungry city. I smile to reassure him but he does not smile back. His thin face is serious as he reaches up absentmindedly to rub the shiny patch above his ear. The mottled pink tissue, in the shape of an Acacia tree, is what remains from a long ago fall into an open fire. There was a reason God placed the scar in a place where Khwezi cannot see it but where I, from my height as a mother, cannot overlook it. It serves as a reminder that the ancestors gave me a second chance with him; one I was not granted when I failed to protect Mandla, my firstborn son, from harm. I cannot fail another of my children.“Mama,” Luxolo whispers from his mat opposite his younger brother. His grey blanket is wrapped around him like a shroud to ward off the morning chill. “Yes, my son?”“Let me go with you.” He posed the same plea soon after my brother’s letter arrived yesterday. The crumpled yellow envelope bearing my name, Beauty Mbali, has travelled a circuitous route to get here from my brother Andile’s home in Zondi, a neighbourhood in the middle of Soweto. Our village is so small that it does not have an official name that can be found marked on a map of the Transkei, and so there is no direct mail delivery to the foothills of this rural landscape in our black homeland. Once the letter left my brother’s hands, the postal service carried it out of the township of Soweto - on potholed and sandy roads - into Johannesburg, the heart of South Africa, and then south across the tarred arterial highway out of the Transvaal, over the Vaal River, and into the Orange Free State. From there, it travelled south still over the fog-cloaked Drakensburg Mountains and then down, down, down zigzagging through hairpin bends to reach Pietermaritzburg, after which it branched off into the veiny, neglected side roads that would officially deliver it to the post office in Umtata, the Transkei’s capital city. Its journey not yet complete, the envelope still had to be passed hand-to-hand from the postmaster’s wife to the Scottish missionary in Qunu — a distance of thirty kilometers that would take six hours for me to walk, but takes the white woman forty minutes to drive in her husband’s car — and then onwards still from the missionary’s black cleaning woman to the Indian spaza shop owner. The final leg of its journey was made by Jama, a nine-year-old herd boy, who ran the three kilometres over dusty pathways to my classroom to proudly hand it across to me. I do not know how long the envelope took to travel the almost nine hundred kilometers from black township to black homeland to bring its warning; the post stamp is smudged and Andile, in his haste, did not date his letter. I hope I will not be too late.“Mama, take me with you,” Luxolo entreats again. It is only his desire to prove himself as the man of the house that spurs him on to challenge a decision I have already made. He would not risk disrespecting me for any other reason. Only fifteen years old, Luxolo fulfils the duties of a grown man in our household. He believes that protecting the womenfolk is as much his responsibility as tending the cattle that is our livelihood; by accompanying me on the journey, he will help keep his sister safe from harm and ensure that we both return safely.“The village needs you here. I will fetch Nomsa and bring her home.” I turn away from him so that he cannot see the worry in my eyes and so I cannot see his wounded pride.My bible is the last of my possessions I pack. Its black leather cover is careworn from hours spent cradled in my hands. I slip my brother’s letter between its hope-thin pages for safekeeping though I have already memorised the most worrying parts of it.You must come immediately, sister.  Your daughter is in extreme danger and I fear for her life. I cannot guarantee her safety here. If she stays, who knows what will happen to her. I blink away the vision of Andile writing in his cramped scrawl, the wave of ink blowing back over his sentences like ash from a veld fire as his left hand smudges over the words he has just written. With it comes the memory of our mother superstitiously hitting him over the knuckles with a sapling branch every time he reached for something with the wrong hand. She could not torture his left-handedness out of him no matter how hard she tried, nor could she quench my thirst for knowledge or my ambition. Just as I could not rid Nomsa of her obstinacy. Once I’ve wrapped a doek around my head, I slip the shoes on. They are as unyielding and uncomfortable as the Western customs that dictate the donning of this uniform. Here in my homeland, I am always barefoot. Even in the classroom where I teach, my soles connect with the dung of the floor. However, if I am to venture out into the white man’s territory, I need to wear the white man’s clothes.I unzip my beaded money pouch and check the notes folded inside. There is just enough for the taxis and buses as I journey north. The return fare will have to be borrowed from my brother and it is a debt we can ill afford. I slip the pouch into my bra, another constrictive Western invention, and say a silent prayer that I will not be robbed during my journey. I am a black woman traveling alone, and a black woman is always the easiest target on the food chain of victims. A cock crows in the distance. It is time. I hold my arms out to my sons and they rise silently from their beds to step into my embrace. I hug them fiercely, reluctant to let go. There is so much I want to say to them. I want to impart both words of wisdom and remind them of trivial matters, but I do not want to scare them with a protracted farewell. It is easier to pretend that I am leaving on a short journey and will return before nightfall. It is also important for Luxolo to know that I have complete faith in him to take care of his brother and the cattle while I am away; I will not belittle his efforts with entreaties for caution and vigilance. He knows what needs to be done and he will do it well. “Nomsa and I will be home soon,” I say. “Do not worry about us.”“And you, Mother, must not worry about us. I will take care of everything.” Luxolo is sombre. He wears this new responsibility well.“I will not worry. You are both good boys who will soon be great men.”Luxolo steps out of my embrace and nods as he accepts the compliment. Khwezi is reluctant to let go. I kiss his head, my lips touching his scar. “Try to get another hour of sleep.” Like the good boys they are, they obey me and return to their mats. I step out into the dawn with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders and make my way down the narrow hillside trail. The scents of wood smoke and manure rise up to say their farewells. Crickets chirp a discordant goodbye. My breath is visible in the cold moonlight; ghostlike puffs of air lead the way ahead of me, and I trail them just as I trail the phantom of my daughter down this sandy path. My feet fall where hers did seven months ago when she traded our rural idyll for a city education.  I try to recall how she looked on the day she left but what comes to mind instead is a memory of her at the age of five. Our thatch roof needed repairing and for that, I would have to use the panga to cut the long grass. Fearful of the children getting in the way of the blade, I sent them to the kraal to see the lamb that had been born in the night. Three-year-old Luxolo ran off trying to keep up with his sister and I set to work harvesting the thatch.Later when the cry tore through the fields, setting a flock of sparrows in flight, I dropped the panga and started running. By the time I neared the kraal behind two other women who were racing ahead of me, the cry had turned to shrieking. Another more ominous sound threaded through the noise though I did not register what it was until I cleared the last hut.There Nomsa was standing with her stubby legs apart in a fighter’s stance. She had inserted herself between Luxolo and a low-slung jackal that was snapping and snarling at her with foam frothing from its muzzle. The jackal was rabid and out of its mind with aggression as it tried to get to its prey: my son. Nomsa’s small fist was raised and she shook it while shouting at the beast that was sloping towards her. Before I could begin running again, Nomsa reached for a rock and threw it with such force that it hit the jackal square in the head, sending the animal staggering off to the side. When I got to them, I grabbed both Luxolo and Nomsa and pulled them up into my arms while the village women chased the jackal away. Nomsa was trembling with fright. My daughter, only five years old, had bravely fought off a predator to protect her younger brother. I expected to see tears in her eyes but what I saw instead was triumph.I force the memory and the accompanying uneasiness from my mind. There are still six kilometres of dusty paths to walk before I reach the main road near Qunu. A rural village like ours, sunken into a grassy valley surrounded by green hills, Qunu is inhabited by a few hundred people which has accorded it a proper name. It is rumoured that Nelson Mandela grew up in those foothills so the soil is said to foster greatness. Perhaps touching it along my journey will bring me luck.From Qunu, I must catch the first taxi to take me out of the protection of the Bantustan of the Transkei into the white man’s province of Natal, specifically four hundred kilometers northeast through sugar cane and maize fields to Pietermaritzburg via Kokstad. After that, I will need to make my way north past the Midlands, through the Drakensburg Mountains and then on to Johannesburg. My journey will take me from this rural idyll where time stands still to a city that is rocked from below its foundations by the dynamite blasts used in the mining of gold, and assaulted from above by the fierce Highveld thunderstorms that tear across its sky. Almost a thousand kilometres stretch out between here and Soweto in a thread of dread and doubt, but I try not to think of the distance as I hold my suitcase away from body to stop it from drumming into my thigh.I follow the morning star and look forward to sunrise which is my favourite time of day though Nomsa prefers sunset. There is no lingering twilight in Africa, no gentle gloaming as day eases into night; a tender give and take between light and shadow. Night settles swiftly. If you are vigilant, and not prone to distractions, you can almost feel the very moment daylight slips through your fingers and leaves you clutching the inky sap that is the Sub-Saharan night. It is a sharp exhalation at the closing of day, a sigh of relief. Sunrise is the opposite: a gentle inhalation, a protracted affair as the day readies itself for what is to come. Just as I now must ready myself for whatever awaits me in Soweto.I have just turned into the valley to follow the meandering path of the river when a thin voice calls out to me.“Mama.” The word expands in the hushed sanctity of the morning and is absorbed by the mist blanketing the riverbed. I think I have imagined it, that I have conjured up my daughter’s voice from across the country calling to me for help, but then I hear it again. “Mama.”I turn and look back upon the trail I’ve walked and a figure bounds down the path towards me. It is Khwezi, sure-footed as a mountain goat. Within a few minutes he is next to me, our breaths mingling in puffs of exertion as we face one another.“You forgot your food,” he says, holding up the bag in which I wrapped the roasted mielies and chicken pieces the night before. “You will be hungry.”He looks so much like his father — the boy his father was before the goldmines took his joy and crushed it — and he smiles an unguarded smile, proud of himself for having spared me from hunger. My hearts swells with love.“You will bring Nomsa home?” he asks and I nod because I cannot speak. “You will come back?”I nod again.“Do you promise, Mama?”“Yes.” It is a strangled sob, a fire of emotion robbed of air, but it is a promise. I will bring Nomsa home.  

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The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories

The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories


The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories is a collection of four short stories about strong female characters dealing with difficult life-changing situations. The turmoil that they face is, often, the result of a social structure that discriminates against women. Through these powerful women characters, the stories reflect attitudes and ways of life in a village in India, and in modern day Mumbai; they highlight the values of an older generation, and the dreams of a new one. Beneath all their differ …

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The Boat People

The Boat People

also available: Paperback

By the winner of The Journey Prize, and inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada – only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land.
When the rusty cargo ship carrying Mahindan and five hundred fellow refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia, the young father is overcome with relief: he and his six-year-old son can finally put …

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July 2009
Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes. He heard the whistle and thud of falling artillery, the cries of the dying. Mortar shells and rockets, the whole world on fire.
     Then another sound. It cut through the clamour so that for a drawn-out second there was nothing else, only him and his son and the bomb that arched through the sky with a shrill banshee scream, spinning nose aimed straight for them. Mahindan fought to open his eyes. His limbs were pinned down and heavy. He struggled to move, to call out in terror, to clamber and run. The ground rumbled. The shell exploded, shards of hot metal spitting in its wake. The tent was rent in half. Mahindan jolted awake.
     Heart like a sledgehammer, he sat up frantic, blinking into the darkness. He heard someone panting and long seconds later realized it was him. The echoing whine of flying shrapnel faded and he returned to the present, to the coir mat under him, back to the hold of the ship.
     There were snores and snuffles, the small nocturnal noises of five hundred slumbering bodies. Beneath him, the engine’s monotonous whir. He reached out, instinctive, felt his son Sellian curled up beside him, then lay down again. The back of his neck was damp.
     His pulse still raced. He smelled the sourness of his skin, the raw animal stink of the bodies all around. The man on the next mat slept with his mouth open. His snore was a revving motorcycle, so close Mahindan could almost feel the warm exhales.
     He put his hand against Sellian’s back, felt it move up and down. Gradually, his own breathing slowed to the same rhythm. He ran a hand through his son’s hair, fine and silky, the soft strands of a child, then stroked his arm, felt the roughness of his skin, the long, thin scratches, the scabbed-over insect bites. Sellian was slight. Six years old and barely three feet tall. How little space the child occupied, coiled into himself, his thumb in his mouth. How precarious his existence, how miraculous his survival.
     Mahindan’s vision adjusted and shapes emerged out of the gloom. The thin rails on either side of the ladder. Lamps strung up along an electrical cord. Outside the porthole window, it was still pitch-black.
     Careful not to wake Sellian, he stood and gingerly made his way across the width of the ship toward the ladder, stepping between bodies huddled on thin mats and ducking under sleepers swaying overhead, cocooned in rope hammocks. It was hot and close, the atmosphere suffocating.
     Hema’s thick plait trailed out on the dirty floor. Mahindan stooped to pick it up and laid it gently on her back as he passed by. Her two daughters shared the mat beside her; they lay on their sides facing each other, knees and foreheads touching. A few feet on, he passed the man with the amputated leg and averted his gaze.
     During the day the ship was rowdy with voices, but now he heard only the slap of the electrical cord against the wall, everyone breathing in and out, recycling the same stale, diesel-scented air.
     A boy cried out in his sleep, caught in a nightmare, and when Mahindan turned toward the sound, he saw Kumuran’s wife comfort her son. With both hands grasping the banisters, Mahindan hoisted himself up the ladder. Emerging onto the deck, inhaling the fresh scent of salt and sea, he felt immediately lighter. From overhead, the mast creaked and he gazed up to see the stars, the half-appam moon glowing alive in the sky. At the thought of appam – doughy, hot off the fire – his stomach gave a plaintive, hollow grumble.
     It was dark, but he knew his way around the ship. A dozen plastic buckets were lined up along the stern. He squatted in front of one and formed his hands into a bowl. The water was tepid, murky with twigs and bits of seaweed. He splashed water on his face and the back of his neck, feeling the grit scratch his skin.
     The boat – a sixty-metre freighter, past its prime and jerry-rigged for five hundred passengers – was cruising through calm waters, groaning under the weight of too much human cargo. Mahindan held on to the railing, rubbing a thumb against the blistered rust.
     A few others were out, shadowy figures keeping silent vigil on both levels of the deck. They had been at sea for weeks or months, sunrises blurring into sunsets. Days spent on deck, tarps draped overhead to block out the sun, and the floor burning beneath them. Stormy nights when the ship would lurch and reel, Sellian cradled in Mahindan’s lap, their stomachs tumbling with the pitch and yaw of the angry ocean.
     But the captain had said they were close and for days they had been expecting land, a man posted at all times in the crow’s nest.
     Mahindan turned his back to the railing and slid down to sit on the deck. Exhaustion whenever he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past. He yawned and pressed a cheek to raised knees, then tucked his arms in for warmth. At least here on the boat they were safe from attack. Ruksala, Prem, Chithra’s mother and father. The roll call of the dead lulled him to sleep.
He awoke to commotion and gull shrieks. A boy ran down the length of the ship calling for his father. Appa! Appa! There were more people on the deck now, all of them speaking in loud, excited voices.
     The man they called Ranga stood at the railing beside him, staring out. Mahindan was dismayed to see him.
     Land is close, Ranga said.
     Mahindan scanned the straight line of the ocean, trying not to blink. Nearby, a young man stood on the rail and levered his body half out of the boat. An older woman called out: Take care!
     After all this time, finally we have arrived, Ranga said. He grinned at Mahindan and added: Because of you only, I am here.
     Nothing to do with me, Mahindan said. We all took our own chance.
     Mahindan kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. At first he saw the head of a pin, far in the distance, but as he kept watching, the vision emerged. Purple-brown land and blue mountains like ghosts rising in the background. The newspaperman came to join them as the slope of a forest appeared. Mahindan had spoken to him a few times but could not recall his name. Someone said he had been working for a paper in Colombo before he fled.
     We will be intercepted, the newspaperman said. Americans or Canadians, who will catch us first?
     Catch us? Ranga repeated, his voice rising to a squeak.
     But now there were people streaming onto the deck, squeezing in for a view at the railing, and the newspaperman was jostled away. Mahindan edged aside too, relieved to put distance between himself and Ranga.
     There were voices and bodies everywhere. Women plaited their hair over one shoulder. Men pulled their arms through their T-shirts. Most were barefoot. People pressed up around him. The boat creaked and Mahindan felt it list, as everyone crowded in. They stood shoulder to shoulder, people on both levels of the deck, hushing one another, children holding their breath. The trees, the mountains, the strip of beach they could now make out up ahead, it all seemed impossibly big, unreal after days and nights of nothing but sea and sky and the rumbling of the ship. Nightmares of rusted steel finally giving way, belching them all into the ocean.
     Sellian appeared, squeezing himself between legs, one fist against his eyes. Appa, you left me!
     How to leave? Mahindan said. Did you think I jumped in the ocean? He picked his son up in the crook of one arm and pointed. Look! We’re here.
     The clouds burned orange. Mahindan squinted. People shouted and pointed. Look!
     There was a tugboat in the water and a larger ship, its long nose turned up, speeding toward them, sleek and fast, with a tall white flagpole. The wind unfurled the flag, red and white, majestic in the flaming sky. They saw the leaf and a great resounding cheer shook the boat.
     The captain cut the engine and they floated placid. Overhead, there was a chopping sound. Mahindan saw a helicopter, its blades slicing the sky, a red leaf painted on its belly. There were three boats now, all of them circling the ship, a welcome party. On the deck, people waved with both hands. The red-and-white flag snapped definitive.
     Mahindan gripped his son. Sellian shivered in his arms, from fear, from exhilaration, he couldn’t tell. Soon Mahindan was shaking too, armpits dampening. His teeth clattered.
     Their new life. It was just beginning.

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The Dead Husband Project

The Dead Husband Project


Perfect for readers of George Saunders, Jennifer Egan and Heather O'Neill, a rich and inventive collection of exquisite short stories by a major newcomer to Canadian literature.

In this deeply felt, compulsive and edgy work, Sarah Meehan Sirk shines a distinctive light on love and death in their many incarnations, pushing against the limits of the absurd while exposing piercing emotional truths about what it means to be gloriously, maddeningly alive.
     In "The Dead Husband Project," an artis …

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The Dead Husband Project
Sweaty, limbs entwined, blankets kicked to the floor.
     Maureen Davis had married Joe McGovern five days earlier in a gown she’d made herself and pinned with flowers that had wilted before midnight. The ceremony bare in an unadorned gallery, the guests unsure whether it was real or performance art or something else altogether until the wine came out and the mini spanakopitas were passed around and Phil dumped a pile of blow on the altar, and then no one seemed to care one way or another. She’d been buoyant that night, her feet hovering inches off the ground as she bobbed along at her new husband’s side through the riotous guests and the churchy scent of burned-out candles.
     Joe rubbed his bare foot against the arch of hers. She shimmied closer over the sheets and pressed her back against him; he wrapped his arm around her waist. They were sticky and hot and smelled of fermented wine and smoky hair and they couldn’t get close enough to each other.
      “Everything enmeshed,” he said, kissing the back of her neck. “Eating, working. Fucking, sleeping. Everything together.”
     Noise from the narrow cobblestone street below wafted up through the heavy, shifting curtains: male voices barking in rapid French, café chairs scraped along time-worn stones, laughter at the expense of someone. Impossible to tell if it was day or night.
     “You say that now.”
     “Now. Always.” He reached for a cigarette and lit it. “Forever and ever, amen.”
     He sat up and clicked on the radio, the ladder of his vertebrae pressing through his freckled back. Something unknowable beneath the surface. But she knew, knew each bend and curve and divot and mole. She traced her finger down the lowest part of his spine.
     He took a long drag. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I’ve got this idea. It would be collaborative.”
     He passed her the cigarette. His hair was flattened to his skull in parts, sticking up in others. Everything he did made him think. Everything he did made him want to create. Red creases from the sheets crisscrossed between the moles on his shoulder blades. She could feel his excitement, the heat of it. A furnace roaring to life. He was always coming up with new concepts, brilliant concepts. More now, it seemed, and she liked to think that she was his muse.
     She took a drag and gave it back to him, rolling onto her stomach. She knew whatever it was would take him
away, for a time. But that was who he was. And he was hers.
     “What time do you think it is?” she asked, faking a yawn.
     “Eight-thirty. The announcer just said it. Vingt heures et demie.”
     “Oh. I wasn’t listening.” She was. Her French sucked. “We should eat something.”
     Joe stood, dropped the butt into a glass of water and swivelled his hips so his penis circled around and around. He kissed her before going to the bathroom to pee.
     “It’s that ‘until death do us part’ line,” he said over the tinkle of his urine in the toilet bowl. “I’ve been thinking about what that means. Like, imagine if when one of us died, the other one—”
     The rest of his sentence got lost in the flush, the blast of water in the sink. He gasped as he splashed his face.
She watched him sashay to the window and throw open the curtains to the Paris night, naked, his body stretched out like a star. Hoots and whistles up from the street, a woman shouting a cascade of incomprehensible words.
     “I don’t want to think about you dying,” Maureen said.
     He turned his face to her with his arms and legs still splayed, framed by the window. His expression draining of performance, his eyes quieting. He looked back out onto the street and over the rooftops.
     “It’s not about that.” His voice almost tender. “It’s about permanence. Love. What endures, what doesn’t. What’s left in the end.”
     He yanked the curtains closed and used his teeth to pull the cork out of the bottle of Bordeaux. “Anyway, it’s just the start.” He poured mouthfuls into each of their glasses. “Seeds. Nothing yet in the ground.” He placed the bottle back on his nightstand, lit another cigarette and lay down beside her. “Decades to go before I sleep.”
     Miles, she thought. Miles to go.
     She watched the smoke rise to the cracked ceiling, her hand searching for his in the wrinkled sheets. Such beauty in a crack, the patternless zigzagging of it, this scar of decay. The possibility that the floor above could give way and fall through, plaster and wood and frayed wires collapsing onto them mid-fuck.
     She started to have ideas. Things falling apart often gave her ideas. He rolled on top of her, pressing her body into the soft mattress, blocking her view of the crack.
     “Doesn’t inspiration make you horny?” he asked. He took one last drag and dropped his cigarette into her wineglass.

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A novel
also available: Hardcover Paperback

From the internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just afte …

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In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in their absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while our mother, in a summer dress just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth.

Neither Rachel nor I said a word. We stared at our father, who was expanding on the details of their flight on the new Avro Tudor I, a descendant of the Lancaster bomber, which could cruise at more than three hundred miles an hour. They would have to land and change planes at least twice before arriving at their destination. He explained he had been promoted to take over the Unilever office in Asia, a step up in his career. It would be good for us all. He spoke seriously and our mother turned away at some point to look at her August garden. After my father had finished talking, seeing that I was confused, she came over to me and ran her fingers like a comb through my hair.

I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him. They referred to him as a colleague. We had already met him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of dis- guises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was hap- hazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.
I suppose there had once been an attempt to make us a tightly knit family. Now and then my father let me accompany him to the Unilever offices, which were deserted during weekends and bank holidays, and while he was busy I’d wander through what seemed an abandoned world on the twelfth floor of the building. I discovered all the office drawers were locked. There was nothing in the wastepaper baskets, no pictures on the walls, although one wall in his office held a large relief map depicting the company’s foreign locations: Mombasa, the Cocos Islands, Indonesia. And nearer to home, Trieste, Heliopolis, Benghazi, Alexandria, cities that cordoned off the Mediterranean, locations I assumed were under my father’s authority. Here was where they booked holds on the hundreds of ships that travelled back and forth to the East. The lights on the map that identified those cities and ports were unlit during the weekends, in darkness much like those far outposts.

At the last moment it was decided our mother would remain behind for the final weeks of the summer to oversee the arrangements for the lodger’s care over us, and ready us for our new boarding schools. On the Saturday before he flew alone towards that distant world, I accompanied my father once more to the office near Curzon Street. He had suggested a long walk, since, he said, for the next few days his body would be humbled on a plane. So we caught a bus to the Natural His- tory Museum, then walked up through Hyde Park into May- fair. He was unusually eager and cheerful, singing the lines Homespun collars, homespun hearts, Wear to rags in foreign parts, repeating them again and again, almost jauntily, as if this was an essential rule. What did it mean? I wondered. I remember we needed several keys to get into the building where the office he worked in took up that whole top floor. I stood in front of the large map, still unlit, memorizing the cities that he would fly over during the next few nights. Even then I loved maps. He came up behind me and switched on the lights so the mountains on the relief map cast shadows, though now it was not the lights I noticed so much as the harbours lit up in pale blue, as well as the great stretches of unlit earth. It was no longer a fully revealed perspective, and I suspect that Rachel and I must have watched our parents’ marriage with a similar flawed awareness. They had rarely spoken to us about their lives. We were used to partial stories. Our father had been involved in the last stages of the earlier war, and I don’t think he felt he really belonged to us.

As for their departure, it was accepted that she had to go with him: there was no way, we thought, that she could exist apart from him—she was his wife. There would be less calamity, less collapse of the family if we were left behind as opposed to her remaining in Ruvigny Gardens to look after us. And as they explained, we could not suddenly leave the schools into which we had been admitted with so much difficulty. Before his departure we all embraced our father in a huddle, The Moth having tactfully disappeared for the weekend.
So we began a new life.


The Moth, our third-floor lodger, was absent from the house most of the time, though sometimes he arrived early enough to be there for dinner. He was encouraged now to join us, and only after much waving of his arms in unconvincing protest would he sit down and eat at our table. Most evenings, however, The Moth strolled over to Bigg’s Row to buy a meal. Much of the area had been destroyed during the Blitz, and a few street barrows were temporarily installed there. We were always conscious of his tentative presence, of his alighting here and there. We were never sure if this manner of his was shyness or listlessness. That would change, of course. Sometimes from my bedroom window I’d notice him talking quietly with our mother in the dark garden, or I would find him having tea with her. Before school started she spent quite a bit of time persuading him to tutor me in mathematics, a subject I had consistently failed at school, and would in fact continue to fail again long after The Moth stopped trying to teach me. During those early days the only complexity I saw in our guardian was in the almost three-dimensional drawings he created in order to allow me to go below the surface of a geometry theorem.

If the subject of the war arose, my sister and I attempted to coax a few stories from him about what he had done and where. It was a time of true and false recollections, and Rachel and I were curious. The Moth and my mother referred to people they both were familiar with from those days. It was clear she knew him before he had come to live with us, but his involvement with the war was a surprise, for The Moth was never “war-like” in demeanour. His presence in our house was usually signalled by quiet piano music coming from his radio, and his current profession appeared linked to an organization involving ledgers and salaries. Still, after a few promptings we learned that both of them had worked as “fire watchers” in what they called the Bird’s Nest, located on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel. We sat in our pyjamas drinking Horlicks as they reminisced. An anecdote would break the surface, then disappear. One evening, soon before we had to leave for our new schools, my mother was ironing our shirts in a corner of the living room, and The Moth was standing hesitant at the foot of the stairs, about to leave, as if only partially in our company. But then, instead of leaving, he spoke of our mother’s skill during a night drive, when she had delivered men down to the coast through the darkness of the curfew to something called “the Berkshire Unit,” when all that kept her awake “were a few squares of chocolate and cold air from the open windows.” As he continued speaking, my mother listened so carefully to what he described that she held the iron with her right hand in midair so it wouldn’t rest on and burn a collar, giving herself fully to his shadowed story.

I should have known then.

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A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

tagged : beautiful, tragic

Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whose job prospects consist of slaughtering chickens at the Happy Family Farms abattoir or churning butter for tourists at the pioneer village. Ministered …

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I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.

Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.

I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.

One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.

I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.

It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.

Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.

From the Hardcover edition.

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also available: Hardcover

A Penguin Book Club Pick
Winner of the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, David Chariandy's Brother is his intensely beautiful, searingly powerful, and tightly constructed second novel, exploring questions of masculinity, family, race, and identity as they are played out in a Scarborough housing complex during the sweltering heat and simmering violence of the summer of 1991.
          With shimmering prose and mesmerizing precision, David Chariandy takes us i …

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The world around us was named Scarborough. It had once been called “Scarberia,” a wasteland on the out­skirts of a sprawling city. But now, as we were growing up in the early ’80s, in the heated language of a chang­ing nation, we heard it called other names: Scarlem, Scarbistan. We lived in Scar-bro, a suburb that had mush­roomed up and yellowed, browned, and blackened into life. Our neighbours were Mrs. Chandrasekar and Mr. Chow, Pilar Fernandez and Clive “Sonny” Barrington. They spoke different languages, they ate different foods, but they were all from one colony or the other, and so they had a shared vocabulary for describing feral children like us. We were “ragamuffins.” We were “hooligans” up to no good “gallivanting.” We were what one neighbour, more poet than security guard, described as “oiled crea­tures of mongoose cunning,” raiding dumpsters and garbage rooms or climbing up trees and fire-exit stairs to spy on adults. During winters we snowballed cars on Lawrence Avenue, dipping into the back alleys if the drivers tried to pursue us. A Pinto Wagon once shaving past my face, its wake tugging hard upon my body, Francis’s hand upon my shoulder pulling me safe. 

During the day, we had more formal educational opportunities. Our school was named after Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation. But we the stu­dents of his school had our own confederations, our own schoolyard territories and alliances, our own trade agree­ments and anthems. We listened to Planet Rock and carried Adidas bags and wore stonewashed jeans and painter caps. You could hear us whenever there were general assemblies in the auditorium, our collective voices overwhelming whatever politely seated ceremony we were supposed to be attending. 
Hey Francis, homeboy, my man. 
Rudebwoy Francis! Gangstar! 

Francis and I each served out long sentences in class­rooms beneath the chemical hum of white fluorescent lights, in part out of fear of our mother, who warned us, upon pain of something worse than death, not to squan­der “our only chance.” But Francis actually liked to learn. He read books, and he was a good observer. 

And after class was out there were other institutions to learn from. A dozen blocks west of the towers and housing complexes of the Park, at the intersection of Markham and Lawrence, there lay a series of strip malls. There were grocery shops selling spices and herbs under signs in foreign languages and scripts, vegetables and fruits with vaguely familiar names like ackee and eddo. There were restaurants with an average expiry date of a year, their hand-painted signs promising ice cream with the “back home tastes” of mango and khoya and badam kulfi, a second sign written urgently in red marker promising that they’d also serve, whenever asked, the mystery of “Canadian food.”

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The Last Neanderthal

The Last Neanderthal

also available: Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Bear, the enthralling story of two women separated by millennia, but linked by an epic journey that will transform them both.

     40,000 years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard winter, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate.
     But the unforgiving landscape takes its toll, and Girl is …

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It was the warmth that Girl would remember. The night, the specific one she often thought about later, the one that turned out to be among the last they had together, had been filled with warmth. Spring was in the night air, though the ground was still hard with frost. Cold nipped at exposed skin.
     When they slept, they were the body of the family. That is how they thought of themselves together, as one body that lived and breathed. The forms curled into one another in a tangle; the curve of a belly rested up against the small of a back, a leg draped over a hip, and a cold set of toes found heat in the crook of an arm.
     As the sun had turned its face away, they were all exhausted from the work that came with spring. For once, there had been no nighttime shadow stories, talk, or laughs—though when they had all settled, Him, the oldest brother, issued a tremendous fart. He could have split a log with the force. Runt replied with a messy blow of his lips to the back of his hand. Bent laughed, just once, and Girl let a smile curl her lips but was too tired for more. Big Mother said, “Hum.”
     And then it was quiet in the hut; heavy breathing, slow.
     Deep in the middle of the pile of bodies lay Girl and Wildcat. Girl usually slept soundly, but that night she woke too early and pulled her cramped arm out from under the large cat. Earlier Big Mother had shooed him away to the edge of the nest. The sneaky cat had waited and, once he heard a whistle of air running evenly through Big Mother’s large nose, crawled back in. Wildcat was gray with pointed black tips on his ears. He was thick-boned and robust and had a dense mat of fur. A set of black rings ran the length of his tail. He had made a single chirp, a sound he had trained Girl to know, and moved in to cuddle up to her. He rubbed his head and ears against hers. She made a faint chirp in reply. They were good friends and Wildcat was the softest thing she knew.
     Girl scratched at a flea that was attempting an escape from her armpit. She ran her sleepy fingers across the skin to try to flick it off. A shift and a slight grunt and she couldn’t reach. A moment later a thick finger pressed on her back. It skimmed across the shoulder blade and pushed. It was her brother Him, she knew from the feel of the rough skin on the tip of his finger. A pinch and a pop and the bug body crushed between his teeth. Girl didn’t say thank you. There was no need. It was built into all the times that she would pick a flea or louse for Him. Words could be empty. It was the return of a gesture that held meaning.
     And then it was quiet. Girl sighed and fell back and became part of the tangle of bodies again. The protective layer of bone and muscle blurred. The edges of their shapes melted into the warmth. Thick lashes hit cheeks, breaths came slower, and the weight of long limbs fell away. When one had a dream, the others saw the same pictures in their heads, whether they were remembered in the morning or not. It wasn’t just their bodies that connected in sleep; it was also their minds.
     The family lay in a pile on top of two thick, stretched bison hides. Under those hides was a bed of fresh pine boughs, crisscrossed to lift the nest away from the cold dirt floor. Girl and Runt had just changed the boughs that day, so the air was heavy with the scent of pine. Over the bodies were hides that had been cured and chewed until they felt soft against the skin. A layer of furs was spread on top to keep the family cozy. This nest lay inside a hut that was tucked into the side of a granite cliff, a carefully chosen position, as it was perched on a ledge with steep rock above and a sharp slope below. They had to slink along a narrow trail to get to the hut. While not convenient, it limited the routes that a predator could use to approach.
     When going to sleep, the family imagined that they were crawling into the belly of a bison. The hut was roughly the same shape as the bison they ate. It had a low, tight back end to hold the heat in close. The front was stronger and made with more support, horned and watching. A long tree limb formed the spine of the structure. It was propped up at one end with a forked branch and wrapped in place with twine made from strips of the inner bark of a cedar tree. Once these main supports were up, long sticks were laid across the center pole, like ribs. Thicker branches were secured with stones at the front and back to form legs for stability. A first skin, cured with brain oil, was pulled tight enough over the frame to quiver. Dead pine boughs were then placed on the skeleton, like a thick slab of fat. The outermost layer was rough hides made of the densest fur from the backs of two old male bison, thrown over and tied on with cured tendons.
     With body heat, it was snug inside the hut. The strength of the animals remained in their parts and gave the family a special kind of protection. In a land full of peril, protection of any kind was precious. What comforted the body was also solace for the mind.
     When Girl was inside the hut, she had a habit of murmuring a word: “Warm.” She craved the feeling of being connected to so many beating hearts, to ears that listened, and to all those pairs of eyes that would watch to ensure that something wasn’t sneaking up behind another body. It was how her blood spread heat to the bodies she loved. It was how she stayed alive.
     And much later, when the family was all gone and Girl was alone, the warmth was what she would remember about that night. She would let her longing out in a lonely moan: “Warm.”
When Girl peeked her head out of the hut that morning, she could smell the struggle of spring. It was the first day of the hunt and the land had come alive. The sun worked hard to peel the winter ice away from the earth. As it did, it uncovered a deep hunger in the land. The same kind of craving lived in the bellies of all the beasts who roamed the valley of the mountain. Girl watched as the trees below swayed with worry. They could feel the vibrations from the growling bellies through the soil around their roots. Cold air clung to the pine needles and each sprouting cone at the end of each branch quivered in anticipation. The ground shifted in discomfort as the ice let it go. Spring brought life for some, but it brought death for others.
     Down the slope at the hearth, Big Mother stirred the coals to rouse the morning fire. The old woman wore her bison horns, which were secured in a soft hide and tied onto her head. The two horns protruded straight out at the spot where her short forehead met a thick hairline. With only a glance, any beast could tell that Big Mother was in charge. She was old by then, which meant that there were more than thirty springs she could remember. She had lost count of them all, but her milky eyes could still pick out shape, light, and movement. Her nose could still catch the scent of a fresh green shoot from a hundred strides away.
     As the head of the family, Big Mother would decide on the particular beast they would try to kill that day. Though her hunting days were over, she would still make the trip to the bison crossing with the rest of the family. Girl wouldn’t risk leaving Big Mother, or any of the other weaker-bodied ones, alone at that time in the spring. A young leopard had recently come slinking around near their hearth. He was new to their land and unsettled. In earlier times the family could have driven him away easily, but that spring their numbers were especially low. They didn’t dare allow the leopard a chance. Only some meat got to eat.
     As Him, Girl’s brother, walked over to the fire, Big Mother started to laugh. It took Girl a moment to see why. Him often had an erection and, given the loose arrangement of his cloak, she could see that this morning was no different. Big Mother laughed with joy, as an erect penis signaled good health. It was happiness.
     Many things had dropped away from Big Mother’s body by then, but not her smile. Her laugh came out as a sharp cackle and showed her missing teeth, all gone except for a few mid-teeth in her upper left jaw and two molars on the right. When she laughed, she put a hand to her cheek, and Girl knew the old woman wished those teeth would also fall to the dirt. The pain made her body feel like dry meat. A clutch of wiry gray hairs lifted from her chin, and large breasts lay proud and flat over her belly. The thick skin on her face showed the trail of a tear. Big Mother believed that the measure of a life could be reduced to such small things, a count of the wrinkles to see how many laughs versus how many frowns a body had produced. Because of this, Girl knew that the old woman made sure to laugh often.
     The smells of spring and her aging mother mixed together in a way that caused Girl some unease. Realistically, she knew that Big Mother could drop dead at any moment. She often said her breath smelled like the hindquarters of a bison after so many years of eating just that. While the back end of a bison had a distinct smell, it wasn’t necessarily bad. Shit came out of it and stank of life in a sweet way. If mixed with sand, bison shit could be stuck around the pine poles of a hut to fill up the cracks and keep out the wind. There was nothing bad about stopping a damp wind from blowing down your neck, just as there was nothing bad about aging. If Girl was wise enough to live so long, she would also earn that breath.
     Big Mother’s wisdom was needed. Only the best instincts could get a body to reach old age and she had taught Girl that living a life, riding the back of the churning seasons, meant that change was constant. Everything around them sprouted, grew, and, at some point, reached its peak. Its strength would start to recede when the thing was no longer able to renew itself. It would then die—be deadwood. A leaf that falls starts to decompose. It soon becomes nutrients for the soil. The rich soil will take in rain and become food for the tree. And in that way, in time, things didn’t really die. They only changed. But all changes came with discomfort and unease. And Big Mother did her best to give comfort to the family by keeping what she could the same. Over all her years, she made her tools with the same source of rock, ate the same kind of foods at close to the same time of year, and built huts in the same way again and again.
     Girl looked at Him and admired the shiny brown hair on his head. Its glossiness was a sign of health. Raked back above his ears, the hair was pulled away from his sloped brow and tied with a lash. His back was broad and flared out wide from his waist. He had gone through a change of his own. It came later than it had for some, as the years before had been lean and his fat stores were low. The change included moods that alerted Girl to what might be happening. Given the close quarters, moods were endured in a fairly stoic way. Though she pretended not to notice, she knew he might catch the eye of a woman at the fish run that summer.
     Just thinking of the bright colors of the fish run was enough to make Girl’s heart quicken. Saliva flooded her mouth. Her hunger deepened. She thought of the soft fish eggs in her fingers. The year before she had held one up close to her eye and it looked like the river was trapped inside. That small river held the next generation of fish and so she wanted their strength inside her body. She had put the eggs between her back teeth, crunched down, and listened to them pop. She imagined the slippery skin of the fish in her hands and eating the soft, orange flesh underneath, and her blood felt as though it boiled under her skin.
     When the spring sun climbed high enough to kiss the cliff that stood behind their hut, the family would start moving toward the meeting place. Other families who lived on separate forks of the river would also make the journey. It was by a broad stretch of the water that flattened into a series of shallow rapids where the river’s branches came together.
     At that time of year, it was also the meeting place for the fish. As they flung their bodies up rocky steps, some were smashed on the rocks, some found themselves in the waiting reed nets of the family, and some fell into the jaws of bears. And a few of the fish made it through. Each was as long as an arm and as thick and muscled as a thigh, with two fangs that protruded up from the lower jaw. They were as smart as crows and as quick as snakes. Their scales were speckled gray, but the tastiest ones wore a blaze of orange across their backs to show they were ripe. The family believed that those were the best fish. They were not necessarily the strongest, but their traits—cunning, strength, size, or eyesight—were best matched to the conditions of that particular year. They were the ones who continued on to lay their orange eggs in the shallows higher upriver. The new generation of fish would come from them.
     Girl’s mind was full of inward thoughts of the meeting place, but she knew she shouldn’t be distracted. She quickly snapped back to the present as she looked at her family by the hearth—Big Mother, Him, Bent, and Runt. They were a small group and some of them looked weaker than other beasts. She knew from their previous visits to the meeting place that they might not be the most attractive of the bunch. But she didn’t let worry about their chances flood her then. Like the skills of hunting, repairing, and building, learning to hold some of her worries back was part of growing up. She had to focus on the hunt. She shouldn’t divert the attention of her body from the present moment; it could put them all at risk. The world was so easily lost.
Him had been the first to climb down the steep slope from the hut to their hearth that morning. The land of the family was still in the grip of the ice, but he didn’t mind the cold. He was driven by his urge to mate. He knew that he would mate only if he looked in good health at the meeting place, and health lay in the food he ate. In the spring, it was only bison meat that could fill the needs of his dense muscles and large frame.
     Him didn’t stop working when Big Mother laughed. His erection stood for the desire to eat and mate and it only drove him harder. He smiled, kicked the embers of the fire to extinguish the flame, and scraped the ashes to the side with a stick. Using a hide to protect his hands from the heat, he lifted a slab of stone with a concave surface that was used for making sticky pitch from birch bark. Someone in the family long before had found the slab and it had since been passed down from one body to another. As they moved frequently to find or follow food, it wasn’t a practical thing to carry. They cached the slab each year near where the spring hut was likely to be. Him handled it like a treasure. It was one of the few objects that many generations of the family had used. That was how a thing was made precious, by how many hands of the family had touched it before. The work he did linked him to the family through time.
     The day before, Him had put layers of bark from a birch tree into the concave slab of stone and let the heat of the fire coax black ooze from the bark. Once hot embers were added, he used this sticky pitch to seal a triangular flake of stone onto the end of a wooden thrusting spear. Him quickly worked the pitch before it set. He licked his fingers often. He pressed and molded the pitch to get it just right. Once happy with the shape, he dipped the new tip in cool water.
     As Him waited for the tip to set, he watched his younger brother Bent, who had a forearm that was curved like the horn of a bison. The thumb pointed away from Bent’s body, and his wrist was fixed. He was attempting to tie a hardened hide onto his shin for protection in the hunt, and the guard was difficult to get in place with his crooked arm. He could turn his hand only by twisting his elbow. It looked like Bent’s arm was aching too, as it often did when the weather changed. Bent spat in frustration.
     “Runt.” Him let out the word in a loud, piercing bark. His larynx was short, which gave his voice a high pitch. This shrill sound shot through his broad nose cavity with a nasal quality. At the same time, it resonated through his deep, muscled rib cage. When he spoke, his voice came out loud and it tired his throat.
     But Him didn’t need to stress his throat with words very often. Big Mother had set the quiet tone of their social customs, and living in such a small group meant that many things didn’t need to be said. Big Mother’s throat was even more prone to strain and she discouraged too much chatter, though those who witnessed her occasional flashes of rage might question her commitment to quiet. She called a body that talked too much a crowthroat; with a hand out, she would flap her fingers against her thumb, a gesture that stood for the beak of the bird she despised the most. The crows squawked and shit with no regard for what lay around them.
     Runt heard his name and followed Him’s eyes to see Bent’s struggle. Runt had lived through six or seven winters by then, though no one knew his true age. It was difficult to tell, given his frail appearance. Him was glad to see that the boy had started to look for ways to be useful. Runt scampered over and put a skinny finger on the middle of Bent’s knot and used the other hand to pull one strand through. Together they tied the hardened hide to Bent’s shin.
     Him thought that Runt’s position in the family was still uncertain. The boy had been found along the river before the fish run began. Another family had brought him to the meeting place, but they had not treated him well and barely fed him. Soon they had kicked him out of their hut and he had been left to wander around like a stray wildcat begging for scraps. Big Mother had finally taken pity on Runt and given him a nice piece of fish. The boy had attached himself to her side and had managed to hold his position ever since.
     But Runt wasn’t growing up and out like he should. Him often suspected that the boy was sick. The morning before, Him had made the boy stand in front of Big Mother so that she could sniff his breath. He was worried about sunbite. The family knew it started with a particular kind of stench on the breath. Soon after came a deep fatigue, pain in the joints and back, and vomiting. The next and often fatal signs were flat red spots that appeared on the face, hands, and forearms and filled with pus, then turned to blisters. The sunbite burned the body and consumed it—the body had got too close to the sun. But Big Mother didn’t think Runt showed any signs. There was nothing obviously wrong with him.
     Still, Him wondered. Even this spring, the boy wasn’t taking on muscle. Bulbs of knees and elbows stuck out from thin limbs, his eyes bulged, and his skin was darker than it should be. Him did not know why Runt was so small or if more meat would help him grow. He knew that the boy was a risk to feed. Each piece of food they tossed his way might compound the loss. Life was a moving set of decisions. Even reaching to pinch a flea had to be worth the saved blood.
     Him sensed that the balance of the family was off. Perhaps it was his strong urge to mate that made him feel it more acutely than the others, a constant pressure on his skin.
When Girl was ready, she made her way down the narrow path toward the hearth. She walked up just as Him was admiring their new spear. They all had a role in most of the things they made, and constructing this spear was no different. Bent had collected and shaped the shaft, Runt had prepared the tendon that was used to wrap around the spearhead before the pitch seal, Girl had made the pointed stone flake, and Him had assembled the parts into a tool. None of them could conceive of themselves as separate from the others.
     Girl reached out her hand to touch Him’s shoulder. Him didn’t look back and didn’t need to, as Girl’s scent was so familiar. She felt his heart throb. All of them could feel the physical reaction of another body on the soft parts of their skin, the inside of the wrist, a cheek, the base of the neck. Girl noticed that Him’s penis stood up again. One whiff of her was all it took. She knew how she looked, dressed for the hunt with hardened hides strapped tight to her shins and forearms. The black ocher paint on her face showed the two streaks of the family on each cheek. A shock of red hair stood up from her head. She wore a single shell on a thin lash around her neck. Her skin smoothed over muscles and gleamed with hazel oil. She could feel the effect of her strength on him. He made her teeth want to sink in. But she kept her eyes down and pointing away. If Big Mother caught her looking, there would be trouble.
     In the years before, after a hunt, they would spend time eating and digesting in the protection of the cave that was tucked into the side of the cliff near their spring hut. They would build up the fire so that the flames licked up into the dark. Big Mother would stand in front of it so that her shadow cast shapes on the stone wall and, with shadows and singsong yowls, she would tell them stories. She felt it was worth straining her voice.
     The story she told most, the one they loved to see, was one that Big Mother meant as a warning. It was about a brother and sister who had developed a taste for each other. It was a time when there were many families at the meeting place. When the brother and sister wouldn’t leave each other alone and one man in the family was chosen to kill them. They managed to escape, but the only way they could get away was to follow the fish.
     The brother and sister traveled out toward the sea, to a part of the land where the families did not go. There were no bison, and the water was not fresh. They drank only salted water and ate only creatures with pinching claws. All the salt poisoned their minds and they went crazy. They had babies that became the sum of their experience. The children grew with eyes that stayed open in their heads like the fish in the sea. Their lips became crusted with the salt water that they drank. They grew claws for their hands and started to look like the creatures they ate. Big Mother would crouch over and pinch her fingers to show their ghastly shapes in the shadow. It was a story they all loved, the horror and the delight twisted together tightly.
     To reinforce the message, Big Mother had given Girl a shell from the sea the size of a walnut. Girl strung it on a lash and wore it around her neck. But passed down for generations, the story changed in texture through time. The telling of a story using shadows was not as precise as Big Mother might have wished.
     Girl understood the tale in the context of when it was told. It had been after a hunt, when she had a full belly. And Girl also saw the story against the backdrop of the change that was happening to her body at that time. Big Mother’s narrative became a new thing in Girl’s mind. To her, it was a tale that reinforced their way of life. It reminded her of why they preferred to live the same pattern every year and why their ability to hunt bison made them the strongest beasts on the land. Staying close to her brother could get them through the hardest times. That was why she always wore the shell, which she called the Sea, around her neck.
     “Girl,” Big Mother shrieked now when she turned to see that Girl had emerged from the hut. Big Mother had given each of them a name that was relative to her. It was a way of distinguishing one body from another but without separating them too much. She believed that anything elaborate in the way of naming put unnecessary strain on the throat. Rather than words, rituals formed the pattern that guided their lives, and it was time for the morning meal before the hunt. The shriek meant Big Mother wanted Girl to feed her. No more words were needed.
     Calling Girl was also Big Mother’s way of showing preference. It was rare and special to have two generations alive at one time. Most of them knew they would probably not live to see three for long. In Girl’s time, she had rarely lived with more than eight bodies at once. And to Big Mother, she was the last girl. It was a position so precious that she felt especially protective of Girl. No more breeding females would come from Big Mother’s old womb. Her body had become like a smooth pan of sand. Nothing could grow there, but something could take root in Girl.
     The time for a succession was coming. Ensuring the family would live was Big Mother’s most basic concern, and their survival strategy hinged on the fish run at the meeting place: The oldest male, Him, would try to entice a new woman into the family to become a new Big Mother for their group. The female, Girl, would try to win a place as Big Mother of a new family. If both these things happened, the family was strong, like the fish in a good year. Their kind would return to run with the river again.
     Girl took a piece of dried meat into her own mouth and started to chew. The meat had to be worked just right to get it ready for the near-toothless woman to consume. Too much chewing would drain all the juice; it had to be just enough so that the meat could slip through gums and down a throat. Girl chewed until it felt soft and took out the pulpy mouthful. She knelt beside her mother and dangled the piece of meat, holding it up for inspection.
     Big Mother glanced at the chewed strip, taking heavy breaths through her nose. The wiry hairs on her chin caught the sun. She nodded okay and opened her lips. The smell of her breath came out in plumes. Her lips pulled back, and she snatched the meat with her gums.
     “Hum,” she said.
     She sucked at it until she swallowed.
     After the old woman had eaten, Bent gave each of the other family members a handful of roasted hazelnuts and a slab of dried meat from the cache. Girl hungrily gnawed her piece of meat. It was slightly bigger than usual, as she was important to the hunt, but to her eye, it was not big enough. No portion ever was. She was always hungry.
     Girl had noticed a feeling under her skin too, like a chewing sensation. She tried to soothe her mind by picturing herself after the hunt, a warm hunk of meat in hand, sucking at it for juice, surrounded by the smell of a fresh kill; her feet with their light brush of hair on top would twitch with happiness as she licked and chewed, the blood dribbling down her chin. The memory of meat filled her with hope. Her memories weren’t necessarily of things that had happened to her; they might be the experiences of someone else in the family. They could be transferred through dreams or through a body she ate. They were for keeping the body safe in its present state, finding food, or making sense of something unfamiliar. So Girl closed her eyes and let the good feelings from the fresh meat flood into her body. She thought of all the times the hunt had been successful for both her and the members of her family who came before. This hunt might stop her hunger.
     Behind her she could hear Big Mother sniffing. The woman’s old hand, strong like a claw, wrapped around Girl’s shoulder and held on. The sniffing was closer and the old woman scented something on her. “Hum.”
     Girl quivered like a leaf too heavy for its branch. Big Mother was sniffing her like she was checking for the sunbite. Girl pressed her own hand to her forehead. She seemed slightly hotter than usual, but none of the other symptoms were present. She didn’t feel sick; quite the opposite. Her muscles were twitching with want. Maybe more hunger than usual, if that was possible. She didn’t yet sense what Big Mother had already discovered with a sniff.
     Girl found out when she went to squat behind a bush, the final step in getting ready to go. She saw a line of mucus on her thigh. It made her giggle, as it looked more like egg white than something that came from her. She wiped at it with a leaf and found it surprisingly slippery. It wasn’t like the blood that had come in the year before. She didn’t feel pain, only a slight cramp inside her hip. A cold trickle crept down her spine as she realized that this was the heat. It was the first time she had got it. The heat gave out the scent that told others she wanted to mate.
     Girl knew she had to wait until they were at the meeting place for that. Big Mother had given her extra meat over the winter and signaled that this year Girl might be fat enough for the heat to come in time for the fish run. With it, she would be old enough to win a family of her own. Big Mother wanted her daughter to make her proud. Just as Girl’s sister, Big Girl, had done before.
     But even as Girl had eaten the extra meat that winter, she worried. She didn’t want to leave this family as her sister had. Big Girl was quick to laugh. They had played and whispered and picked bugs off each other’s backs. Many had thought the two were the same body, with their broad noses that flared and their shocks of red hair. There was one difference that distinguished them, though. When Big Mother was confused about who was who, she would tell them to smile. Big Girl had had a particularly hard collision with a rock, and she had not managed to keep her front teeth attached to her head. The gap made her smile all the brighter. When Big Girl wanted to make Girl laugh, she would stick her tongue through the gap and hiss like a snake. Girl was scared of snakes. They would duck and weave around the camp, shrieking and laughing until one of them fell. The body who was still standing would fall on the other and start tickling. Or sometimes it was Big Mother’s large foot that would end the game. The gap in the front of Big Girl’s mouth was a source of great fun.
     From Girl’s perspective, Big Girl was the strongest kind of woman because she had won a family at the fish run. But now she was gone. Maybe she lived well with ample meat, but Girl had no way of knowing. With the exception of going to the meeting place, she had never lived away from the family’s land. She did not know what life elsewhere was like. When she tried to imagine Big Girl’s life, all Girl felt was the bite of bugs with no sister to pick them off. That’s also how the idea of leaving felt to Girl, like a flea that her fingers couldn’t reach. And now the heat had come and Girl would change too. What lay ahead was dark and shadowy, like the back of a cave.
     Girl knew this feeling wasn’t useful to the family. Thinking forward was distracting. It left the body vulnerable in the present. All she wanted to do was push it away. But everyone in the family would know. With the heat, the eyes of beasts across the land would take in her snowy skin in a new way. If not immediately, then soon. The sheen of her hair would look deeper, to show the heat that came from between her legs.
     Girl hoped to hide it for now. She quickly found moss to wipe with and lessen the smell. She kept her head low and flicked her eyes to the side, a new fear to stay alert for meat-eaters. She straightened and walked back out to join the others. She took her place at the front of the line, just like she always did. As many in the family had before, she tried to pretend that nothing had changed. She focused on what was the same.
Dr Pepper
Why does life exist? I’d been plagued by doubt about my purpose for much of my life. The day I found her, a Neanderthal long buried in the dirt, I was relieved of it. As an archaeologist, I knew that the essential difference between something living and something dead is heat. Only living things are able to capture energy from the land and use it, but somehow, more than forty thousand years after her death, that Neanderthal was able to capture me. I felt as though her big hand reached through time to grab me by my grubby T-shirt and pull my nose to the spot where she lay. When I found her, I finally knew why I was alive. I wanted to learn her secrets.
     By that time, I had already discovered one male skeleton in the cave. The remains belonged to a modern human, one of the Homo sapiens (meaning “wise man” in Latin), who are the only surviving species of the genus Homo. One of us. Some kind of geological activity had resulted in his bones fossilizing. Based on his pristine condition, I felt it was worth draining my savings to extend my teaching leave and assess the potential of the site. Andy, my assistant, and I camped at the cave, carefully staked the area inside, and started the slow process of excavating one thin layer at time. Soon after we began, I brushed aside a coat of sediment and uncovered a rounded fragment of skull.
     He pushed through the thick plastic that we had hung to protect the entrance from outside contaminants. “Rose?”
     “I found her,” I said, my voice shaking.
     The soft hiss of carbonation came from behind me. Andy carried a can of Dr Pepper most places he went. I had forbidden him to bring it into the cave, assuming that one splash had sufficient corrosive power to instantly dissolve the artifacts that had survived all other threats. But Andy had developed a survival strategy of his own over forty-odd years of marriage to his wife, recently deceased: his hearing was highly selective.
     “It’s a second set of remains,” I said.
     “Really?” Andy sighed and took a big slug. “I see a tiny piece of bone.”
     We were in a small cavern that was attached to a cave network not far from the Gorges de l’Ardèche near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in France. It was part of a larger system that had become well known thanks to the Chauvet caves, where spectacular paintings made by modern humans had been discovered in 1994.
     “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Andy said as he tapped his watch. “I’ll get your notebook, but remember, it’s quitting time. We’ll come back to work on it tomorrow.”
     “Her,” I said instinctively.
     “We’ll come back to her first thing in the morning,” he teased. “Does she have a name yet?”
     “I need to keep working, Andy.”
     “My vote is Patricia, but we’ll have to firm up the christening details tomorrow. You made me promise that I’d force you to stop working at five. Remember?”
     “There is no way in hell I’m leaving the site right now.”
     Andy let out a longer sigh. “Is Jane too plain?” He took another big swig from his can.
     I leaned back to look at Andy and noticed that weariness had settled about his kind face. Perhaps I was driving him to his carbonated addiction? But he smiled his big, wide Oregonian smile to let me know he was fine. I did the same by giving the slight round of my belly a pat.
     “Get yourself a fresh can,” I said. “And my notebook and the camera.”
     “Does this mean we aren’t stopping?”
     “I’m pregnant, not deranged.”
     “Hum.” Andy shrugged and pushed back through the plastic.
     “Andy?” I called after him.
     “Jane is far too plain.”
     I waited until Andy was gone to rub the sore spot in my lower back. I was well into the third month of my pregnancy. I wasn’t showing, but I hadn’t needed a test to know my condition. I’d had to tell Andy. You can’t hide the fact that you’re experiencing morning sickness when you’re sharing a tent with someone. My plan was to visit my doctor when I got back to London in two weeks. Then, after I had confirmation, I would break the news to Simon, my partner. He was holding down our fort in London, since the courses he was teaching went through the spring. Part of me wanted to grab the phone and shout the news to him, but another part of me felt it was premature. Simon had wanted a baby for a long time. I was thirty-nine and I knew that on some level, he had given up hope. Quietly, I’d watched him resign himself to a different kind of life than the one he’d imagined. If I was going to shift his life view again, I wanted to be completely sure.
     At sixty-two, Andy had decided that life was short and had taken early retirement from a financial firm in order to pursue a PhD in archaeology—a late bloomer, he’d called himself. When I e-mailed around for help on a scouting expedition, he was the first to respond. He had been studying at Stony Brook University with a good friend of mine, Dr. Conn Bray, who specialized in Paleolithic technologies. I had been reluctant to take Andy on, as I’d assumed he was the sort of student who’d anticipate Indiana Jones–type adventures in snake pits and wouldn’t be happy with the usual slow-moving nonaction of archaeological dirt pits. Conn tended to make paleoarchaeology look like a great adventure and was prone to carving up goats with stone tools in class. But the more Andy and I had worked together, the more I realized that he was the best kind of student—one who listened and learned but had much to add. He quickly became my willing coconspirator in all things archaeology as well as a good friend. I didn’t know what I would do without him.
     Andy pushed back in through the plastic. Holding my notebook, my camera, and a fresh can of soda, he twisted a wrist in an attempt to glance at his watch. “And Simon wants you to call when you’re back in camp. Your mother called too.”
     I was listening, but not really. Andy knew. He tried again. “I’ll take a photo, plot it, do a sketch, and we’ll call it a wrap?”
     “Who’s the boss of this site?” I lifted my chin teasingly.
     “That’s a touchy subject.”
     “I beg your pardon?”
     “Dr. Rosamund Gale, sir!” He tipped his Dr Pepper in a salute.
     “And what time is it, Andrew?”
     “Five thirteen p.m.”
     “Take photos. Mark this find.”
     “My boss will have me axed!”
     “As your boss, I say put that damn Dr Pepper outside.” I burst out laughing.
     I’d taken a leave of absence from teaching to follow up on a few interesting features I’d noticed while caving in this area with a surveying team in previous years. With Andy working as support and paid with the last of the money from my savings, I retraced the route that I’d taken. But this time, in the silence, with no pressure from the group, I found a vent. A cave vents air like a body. When the pressure changes, the less dense, cooler night air is drawn in, like an inhale. When the sun heats the air, the cave seeks equilibrium and exhales. I’d found the vent when I stopped to take a water break. I felt it first, like someone blowing gently on my cheek. It took two days to find a channel that led to this previously unmapped cavern.
     Maybe I’d suspected then that I was pregnant, but I had managed to delay my internal discovery of it for a few weeks—a time-tested way of ensuring that plans are easier to hatch.
     When I first accessed the cavern, it was through a narrow channel of rock. I had to wriggle like a snake to make it through. The cavern on the other end had remained undetected for years, possibly because the narrow channel prevented men of even average girth from entering.
     After I’d wriggled through and dropped down, it was only an hour or two before I uncovered the edge of a stone hand ax. I later identified it as an example of the Châtelperronian industry, part of a toolmaking culture that I believed was shared by modern humans and Neanderthals. Andy and I were able to punch through a wall of the cavern to expose the outside wall and make the site more accessible. The cave soon became more like a proper dig site, though the money and glamour of Indiana Jones was missing. Andy said he provided the good looks.
     Within a month, Andy and I had found the first set of bones; they belonged to an ancient male who was a modern human.
     The moment I’d uncovered the fragment of a second skull, I had a hunch we had found something big. I couldn’t just put down tools because it was precisely five o’clock. We kept working, quietly and carefully brushing and plotting.
     “Okay?” Andy asked.
     “Yes, thank you.” I forced a smile to mask my exhaustion.
     “Nice mustache.” He chuckled. I had an unfortunate habit of running my dusty arm along my face to wipe at the sweat. The result was that each day, I collected a thick line of dirt on my top lip. At least it kept Andy entertained.
     Late afternoon stretched to evening. Before I knew it, it was dark outside the cave. Andy measured and charted while I slowly brushed away more layers of dirt. We had some nuts and granola bars on-site to keep us going. Somehow I found myself coaxed into taking a slug of Dr Pepper. I admit it gave me a little pep. As more of the skull appeared in the dirt, I saw that she seemed to be lying on her side with her head turned toward the modern human. They were clearly in the same stratum, or layer, of dirt.
     I began to see that the skull was longer than expected. There was a distinct ridge of bone above the eye orbit. I looked up at Andy to see if he noticed too, but he continued to act like it was any other day.
     “Should I switch?” he asked.
     I realized that Andy had been talking while we worked, but about what? I was too absorbed by the visible bone to know. He easily decoded the confused look on my face.
     “To diet,” he said.
     “Dieting doesn’t work,” I answered. “Our bodies evolve much more slowly than our eating habits.”
     “I mean to Diet Dr Pepper. I might switch to that.”
     “Diet cola is for fat people, Andy.”
     “I’m fat.” He patted his gut.
     “Be thankful it’s not a baby,” I muttered and turned back to my brushing.
     “You ever wonder if we could excavate—”
     “Have you ever tried cherry Dr Pepper? Isn’t that a thing?”
     “—your sense of humor.”
     “Or go crazy and switch to Fanta—do you like that? Maybe you just need a change.”
     “I was fishing, Rose.”
     “What, you want to take up fishing for exercise?”
     “For compliments.”
     There was no need to bother trying to cover up my lack of attention since it was so readily apparent. I reached over and gave Andy’s belly a nice pat, which pleased him immensely. I was his favorite person to tease and vice versa, but he was no longer looking at me. He was staring at my breasts.
     “Really, Andy.” I put a finger under his chin to lift it. “You are just like the rest of them.”
     “Did you spill water?”
     Andy had a confident enthusiasm that usually rippled all around him. It was part of what made me agree to take him on. This might have been the first time I had ever heard him sound unsure. “Ah, you’re leaking.”
     I looked down. He was right. I had a wet stain on my T-shirt over my left breast. “Shit,” I muttered.
     “Nope,” Andy said, regaining his swagger. “I’m pretty sure it’s milk.”
     “Colostrum.” The word came out of my mouth as a wail. “It’s too early, isn’t it? How could I have already turned into a cow?”
     “You’ll make a good cow.”
     “I’m an angry cow.”
     “Did I mention that you told me to make sure you stopped working at five p.m.?”
     “Oh, wait.” I shone my headlamp on the spot on my shirt to take a closer look. “It’s only a drop of Dr Pepper. Phew.”
     “Wow, you are jumpy, huh?”
     “Well, quit spilling the good stuff or I’ll start panicking too.”
     A few more sips of Dr Pepper kept me going. I would not have stopped for anything. This was the culmination of years and years of painstaking work; I’d sacrificed teaching money and time with Simon to explore this area. It was potentially the first big find that I could claim as my own. While I was considered old to be a first-time mother, I was too young to have made a significant mark on my field yet. Andy was right. I was jumpy.
     As we worked, I let my mind run over the idea of having a baby. I had seen what happened to the women in my field who came before me. Most who had kids got sidelined, or sidelined themselves. Men who chose to be involved with their children tended to do the same. I had no reason to expect that my experience would be different. And if this was indeed an important find, timing was crucial. In archaeology, the discovery is important, but the person who interprets the find and publishes is the one who gets the credit. I knew that any absence from the dig could result in my name getting bumped to the end of the line of authors or, worse, dropped entirely. The list of female scientists whose contribution had been diminished or forgotten was depressingly long.
     And then, with a few more strokes of my brush, in the dirt before my eyes, the story started to come together. It must have been about two in the morning when I uncovered enough of the skull to see the outline.
     “Look.” The word came out in a choke. I pointed to show Andy the profile of a prominent brow, a larger nasal cavity, and a receding forehead. “What do you see?”
     “One ugly dude.” He whistled.
     “It’s Neanderthal.”
     Andy let his breath out of his lungs then. The length of the exhale spoke of just how unsure he had felt about my theories of where and how we might find artifacts. There were no jokes or fresh cans cracked. We were both too stunned. Andy grabbed my arm, mouth agape. Neither of us could talk. We sat in silence and stared.
     As we looked, the implications of this find slowly registered. Maybe on some level, I had begun to doubt myself too. We knew well from the recent advent of DNA testing that many modern humans had inherited genes from Neanderthals and vice versa, but beyond the obvious method of transfer, we knew little about the relations between them. In my quieter moments, I doubted we ever would.
     But in the cave, the remains of a Neanderthal lay with those of a modern human. It looked like they had died together, maybe in a volcanic event, as there were records of those in the area. Perhaps they had been placed in this position by someone who thought they would want to face each other in death. They might well have lived together. Whatever the case, their position was evidence of more complex communication between the two, something that I had always assumed would be lost to time. Now it was found. A relationship, a feeling, or a glance—it’s the things that don’t fossilize that matter most.

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