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Atlantic Books for the Holidays

Thistledown Press

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Raft Baby

Excerpt #1


It was slow going, and messy too, but the baby was amazingly intent, watching him with ancient eyes. She sucked hard on the knot, indicating with a tiny whimper when she’d sucked it dry and it was time for him to reload.


“What in bloody blue blazes will I do with a scrap of humanity like you?”


The rising colour in the aspen leaves had confirmed his hunch that, this year, winter would be closing fast. He couldn’t travel far hampered by a baby.


The Dene? They had invited him close to their fires. Shared their caribou stew, and finally sent him on his way with a pouch full of achee and two pair of soft moccasins. Maybe the Dene?


Trapper John held the baby to this chest, the heft of her as light as the down of a duck. His roughened hands were gentle on her back. Pat, pat, pat. Pat, pat, pat.


His efforts had further exhausted him and the sun was still warm on his back. And although he’d been sure he would never, in his lifetime, fall asleep with a baby cradled in his arms, he slumped, his eyes became heavy, his breathing measured and slow. The baby felt it, and matched her breath to his.


Snuggling deeper into the wiry nest of grey that fronted his massive chest, the Raft Baby slept, her lips curved in a secret smile.


Excerpt #2


Dear Ones,


I am writing by the light of a snapping birch fire, and my long hair, of which I must admit, I was just a smidgen proud, now smells like old moccasins and looks much worse. The first thing to go is vanity, which may not be so bad.


This land is so beautiful and so incredibly vast. It’s hard to imagine it, back home, where all you can see is another house across the street and a little patch of the sky. It’s the stars I would stay for, dotting the huge black bowl of the universe. Silence so absolute you could hear the beat of an angel’s wing.

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Nothing You Can Carry



Every flower


that opens is a hosanna


a prayer heard


that only needs


be answered






prayer is not asking


not supplication


prayer is dwelling


in the rapture


common as weeds


swarming so close


upon us




beyond the fear of being




by wonder


you are carried


deep within


to the fuse


that made you


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The Manãna Treehouse

Kish has a state-of-the-art bullshit detector. It’s finely tuned and has kept me on my toes over the years. I know that it has been activated when she cocks her left eyebrow and shifts into her Gallic shrug. What gives this detector extra clout is that it speaks pidgin French. It’s another inheritance, along with the voice and the Gallic shrug, from Grandmamma Constanze. After settling in Victoria, she made the transition from French to English with the aid of such expressions as c’est le gros boo-ul shee-it. She also Anglicized the word grand-mère into grandmamma, pronounced grandma-MAH, and wanted to be addressed in that way. I never met the woman but from photographs of her that I’ve seen and what Kish has told me about her, I know that she was a proud, somewhat aloof old dame and that when she said C’est le gros boo-ul shee-it it had the weight of a royal proclamation


Kish wants me to give her the name of one person I know who tries using their phone as a TV remote. As everybody knows, the rule of holes is that when you find yourself in a rapidly deepening chasm, you stop digging. And yet here I am, madly shovelling away, making the point that these contraptions on the table look much alike. They’re black, hand-held and have rows of buttons. Kish saves me from myself, coming up with another way of minimizing the lapse with her phone.


“What would be involved?” she asks. “I’d say it was no more than sixty seconds before I realized my mistake.”


Well, yes, as far as we know, the confusion over her phone was her only lapse of the day. So that would be sixty seconds over the course of the day that she was off kilter. The rest of the time, say for sixteen waking hours, she was functioning normally. It’s been that way for most of her lapses into dementia. They’re sad little glitches, bouts of Alzheimer’s Lite, a matter of seconds off the beam.


“We’ll call it the sixty second rule,” she says, tapping into the magic of the Mañana Treehouse. “If a spell of forgetfulness lasts sixty seconds or less, well then we don’t have to worry about it now do we? And where’s my notebook? I want to make a note of this.”


This is the disease of remembering by writing things down and then being unable to find the note you’ve made or being unable to read what you have written down. What we’re looking at is the effect that Alzheimer’s can have on handwriting. I’ve seen it once before on the website about Dr. Alzheimer’s pioneer work in the field with Frau Auguste Deter. The case file has samples of her handwriting, a trembling scribble with the lines slanting haphazardly. Kish’s handwriting, although not that muddled, has become more compressed and spidery. But I can read it easily enough and it seems to me that if she wasn’t so exasperated with herself, she could read it if I coax her into it, sounding out the first few words.

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Ivy's Tree

“Mother? You sound tired.”


Ivy tried to sound not tired. “I’m not tired. I was out on the porch, and.”


“I hope you remembered to lock the front door when you did that. Remember that time you.”


“I know. Yes, dear, I did lock the front door. It’s locked all the time when I’m home. And how are you? And the boys, ah,” Ivy pauses, realizing she has yet again mixed up the names of Cynthia’s sons. Fortunately, Cynthia interrupts her.


“Well, how was the doctor? Did you get something for sleeping?”


“No, I didn’t. I seem to be sleeping quite well. I’m.”


“Did you ask about your knee? I still think it’s time to consider a replacement. Lots of people have a knee replacement in their mid-seventies and then do very well into their eighties. Are you still able to walk well enough?”


While Ivy listens to her daughter, she extends her right leg and looks at her knee. Covered in bright pink cotton, her knee looks fine. She touches the knee cap and then looks at the photograph of Jack she has set on the kitchen window ledge. She had been dozing in the sun on the porch. She was tired these days; maybe Cynthia was right. About what, Ivy does not know.


“Mother, Mikio and I have been talking, and we wondered, if you would come to stay with us.”


“In Tokyo?”


“Well, of course in Tokyo. That’s where we live. Mother, are you sure you’re alright?”


“Yes, of course. Tokyo. Are you inviting me for a visit for?” Ivy pauses and tries to think when the most likely holiday is. Remembrance Day? Seems unlikely. Ivy smiles at her extended right leg. Do Japanese people celebrate American Thanksgiving? Seems even more unlikely.


Ivy was thinking Japanese holidays when she tuned into Cynthia again.


“Mother, what do you think? You could sell the house and come to stay with us. Mikio and I think you would find Tokyo interesting, and the boys would be happy to see you. They could practise their English with you.” Cynthia laughed, the breathy laugh she began to use when she was a teenager. Ivy has retrieved “sell the house” from the words churning down the lines toward her.


“Mother? Mom? I contacted Bill, and he has a realtor all set to help you. Bill said the house would sell quickly, you always kept it so beautifully, and the land itself would be worth a fortune. Probably the house is a tear-down, but you never know. Anyway, he will be in touch. What do you think?”


Ivy slowly lowers her foot to the floor, acknowledging it hurt more going down then it did going up and staying there. She rubs the knee carefully, as if consoling it. Sell her house? Sell?


Visit Cynthia and Mikio and the boys in Tokyo? What would that be like? Ivy stands at the kitchen sink and looks out the window into her garden. Cynthia is right about the garden; Ivy keeps it well. The bird feeders were catching the light of the evening sun, and the finches were about. The gray squirrel sat in the neighbour’s tree, chattering his indignation because Ivy had finally purchased a squirrel-proof feeder that was, indeed, squirrel proof. Perhaps, though, the squirrel was yelling at Ivy’s cat, sitting as he often did directly under the bird feeder, hoping, apparently, a bird would just fall into his mouth. Ivy knew that cats were supposed to be responsible for millions of song bird deaths every minute, but her cat had, as far as Ivy knew, not once contributed to this declining population, not for want of many hours of patient vigilance.


Would Bill, or this friend of Bill – for a moment Ivy could not remember who Bill was anyway – be able to organize a sale of this house with this lovely garden and make a covenant so that the squirrel, the birds, and the cat could all remain, just as they were, on this sunny late winter evening in North Vancouver? Covenants. What an odd word to use for protecting that which we have to leave but still want to keep.

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P align=left>My father could pull a plough
you used to say P align=left> Like a giant he was, with a chest this broad—
your two arms spread wide, to show me
and I'd imagine this colossus of a man
working the field in the rain
cooing to his Gypsy Cob mare while the old ridging plough cut furrows
through the heavy soil P align=left>morphing from a sodden field in Blackwatertown, Co Armagh
collective memories encoded in bone and sinew,
passed down from him to you and to me,
to quark through my hands like premonitions,
and into the clay loam of this dry garden (all of us labouring,
while Rome falls seven times)

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Travellers May Still Return

“I wonder what life will be like, every day made of prayers, worship. Prayer. It’s like listening hard for something you’ve never heard before or like working your whole life in silence trying to figure out whether beauty comes from outside or inside.”




“This stone contains the village’s fortune, if only I could read it. Before tragedy, before I began to know where I could and could not go, I held onto this stone. The stone is cold, even on a summer’s day, until I curl my fingers around it and it warms in my hand, a single thought with red veins.”


“What we do without children is artifice; what we do without art is natural. That time won’t bend around me indefinitely, that the civilizing cocoon will not last till morning, that meaning will only help me through daylight hours and when night comes will swallow its subjects – means I can’t sleep.”


“Adventure is an interruption of habit, and those who stay expect news from those returning. But they only tell what we can’t hear – and to kill time we tame the old epics.”

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An Honest Woman

“That night she dreamt that familiar dream. The one about pulling up to a house in the country. A sweeping double staircase, a dog barking, someone awaiting her up on the landing, the high porch. Like always, the dream ended before she found out what was behind the door at the top of the stairs.”


“This is her story, JM’s story. This is what happened when a final not flicker but conflagration of desire engulfed her, as the last hormones flared and fled. Fiery desire to love and make love and write and rise and triumph and and and — ”

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The Eater of Dreams

“She was most comfortable in transit, on buses, planes, trains, shuttling between points. In constant motion, she didn’t have to solidify into one person. Looking out the train windows, she saw bright-green rice fields. The flat mirror of the window reflected her back. No sign of the fractures within. Past. Present. Her old self from ten years earlier, all those lost dreams.”


“I can’t look back. If I had a thousand origami cranes, I would wish for my old life, but now it’s just a dream I once had.”


“In a claustrophobic bar with black walls, she listened to fables about gangs of head-hunters, about vampires in the flesh-pits of Bangkok, about haunted houses absorbing lonely seniors. A few smudged columns of type in any newspaper would reveal atrocities as unreal, love stories as strange, dreams as unlikely. Fact and fantasy blended together, a potent brew of ‘this is’ followed by a ‘what if’ chaser. She had dreamed it; therefore, it would come to pass.”

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