Read an Excerpt
By Gil Adamson, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2011 Gil Adamson
All rights reserved.
The train was unable to stop until after the man named Verken was struck. Humming on its track of snow stars, it burst open the unhappy man, scraped up a new nightfall for us all.
Mrs. Dumont has slashed herself across her withered thigh. Two young people recently married are now indifferent to one another. The oldest trees on our main street are dying, all five together. Half the mines are closing due to extreme cold. The men cry over their starved children, bludgeon their wives out of sheer pity, bury them in barrels and pillow cases.
No man or woman is so dear that Ashland will suffer for long or that the townspeople will be convinced to think as one. Vigil as you like, old age takes care of itself. Violence does the rest.
On Easter of last year, Mr. Verken's mother died, followed by his entire herd of cattle and a wife. He is survived by no one.
Brother and Me
It's a mad day to run away from home, brother. Trees fall drunk in the orchard, heads swarming with bees. Finally, the river has slapped the fields away, so no harvest, no singing, the roads all gobbled up.
Down in the city, women shoot darts, fed up with their lives, or so we're told. They drown men in the river, sleep in movie theatres, sing the same song over and over until someone gets murderous.
Today wind rushes the empty house, licks the dinner bell inside and out. We settle down to wait.
Our lives are not what we expected.
We eat little crisp buns under the awning and peep out at the sun, the big white fury booming around in heaven.
We're waiting, eating bread and beer by the gate while, inside, he tears at her clothes, demands reckless things.
All day ash floats in the air, coming from the brushfire.
He's broken down the barn door, waved the horse out into the burning field.
He's cut his arm open, shouting, "Look at it!" and we shuffle away, leave them to their drifting ship, pass a dry bit of meat from hand to hand.
Soon, he has exhausted himself, fallen asleep, and she comes out. Her hands search our bodies, shaking with urgency. She moans, and we hold ourselves still, hold our breath, look away.
My grandmother is on my back, her glamorous hands slapping at my cheeks like soft gloves. I am her legs. I see forward with her eyes, while she buries her face in my long, wild hair.
When I was young, she tied small gold bells to my bed to keep me awake. She ignored the neighbours like they were a truckload of pigeons. On the blackest evenings she took me to the railway tunnel to watch the burning eye of God coming.
"There are no stories," she warned me. "Everything is true."
Have you noticed how the air grows; dark, cold, and animals come out in you? Swaying ground, lurch in frost-red muscles.
I am a limited intelligence, certainly, faint and gauzy and lost in branches too dark to see. Ground is not here, snaps out like a flag somewhere else, somewhere better, because I float, and cannot face life down here.
This listless family, breaking into the church, eating fish sandwiches by the shore, flicking pieces of the host at the swans. My brother has lost his service revolver. All our sweaters are mossy. We sleep together and dislike strangers and walk backwards to erase our worries. Our ancestry goes back, we feel, to other planets, the melting of rock, the big bang.
My father keeps journals. He sketches our wounds, records our memoirs. In one entry, we wander into ambush and are wiped out. In other chapters, not so much blood.
We cruise the pages slowly, hiss with laughter, slap each other saying, "Look here, it's you dying in this church," or, "Ha ha, my horse got bit by a snake." We each see our own grim dispatch, demented and reeling or severed clean, our faces wavering in history's dim flashlight. My brother takes the book from me, sighs and blinks. And then he thumps it closed.
In survival dreams I am bullet-proof, running. I resemble a cave, I go through myself. I tell myself that I exist, but basically: Ha! There is no bone in my arm, no maharajah playing god in the hallway, no dark toothpick in the thigh. There is no point even trying. Selling chocolates in the furls of a child's brain, I'm a fine, evil thing, adoring hands reaching out to me from doorways. At night, the moon comes down like a sickle and does its savage work and the gloved historians rush in, with terrible whoops of joy.
Uncle Enters Politics
The future sleeps out of you like a cloud of flies. How proud you are, going down to the soap shops and bakeries, shaved to a waxy sheen! You're a plaster shrimp strutting across a blue plate, shouting, "Bite away!"
A beer in the alleyway before you declare a ban on drinking. A packed lunch forgotten on a wall. Never mind, you'll shake some merchant till he rains. Time for a change of gears in this town, you think, and you'd be right. How many children are raped in the movie houses, their insides gone black? How many infants left outside to wander alone? Why, even the mayor has sacked his own intellect, sits in the cemetery singing, stuffing grass into his pockets. You smile into the sun, begin to compose a new anthem of strength, with yourself in the message. You totter past the famished churches, your little monkey convention in tow.
The story starts with a strangled girl. A boy standing alone on the road, seeing outraged citizens come at him.
But in this story, a voice came from heaven, or perhaps the woods, and obediently the mob released the boy, straightened his collar. A woman came forward with a licked hem and daubed his raw places. Everyone went home and drew the blinds.
The boy grew up to be a doctor. Evenings he sat in the park and hummed, certain that when he talked to himself, she heard him. There was very little money. The doctor grew old in his house, and one quiet summer afternoon, he died. At that moment, of course, he heard it again, the voices, the terrible roaring, and then all these hands letting go. Weightless at last.
He murmured, "The compass pointed in all directions at once, which irritated the hell out of me."
Uncle was telling another tale of the sea; wooden women floating on the waves, sole survivors of shipwrecks; giant squid; icebergs; the sexual antics of penguins. They drive lonely sailors mad. Deliberately, some say.
Many years have passed unnoticed. His beard has grown out the door, round the corner, tripping old women in mourning as they stagger from the church door.
Old men matter less and less, throwing off balast until they float. Uncle's eyes see nothing but black waves. You could light a match in his face, strike it on his ruined knuckles. He wouldn't know.
I have an alias I have never used. Under my pen-name I have produced nothing. This is the way it has been for years, the children mocking me as I take my leash for a walk. And now you come to knock on my door! Well, you may be lovely — you are lovely — but I cannot change now, not after so long. The only thing I will divulge is the name of the dirty coward who used to live here.
The New World
It's a welcome emergency, with fist-prints in the host's birthday cake. Wash your hands, thinking: Champagne, luscious, fashionable women. You must have kept lovebirds once, melancholy in their wax-cold mess.
You knew there were better parties, trundling over cobblestones with a real Australian hangover, but Oh, this lighted hall, the gold-throated doorbell, everyone's grave marker propped up in the lobby! A dead man sits in the ossuary, thinking of nothing. Don't wake him — he'll just become huge.
There's light from the burning question, so you haul anchor and make your way across the living room to the Lonely Strangers Club. Pretty ladies and a gastronomic gold mine.
You're a ghost dunked in smoke, an apparition to live by. You smother the early morning sun with your hairstyle. Help yourself to our orchard. Cocktails in the sky and famous poets going down in sailboats, wasting their luminous glub-glubbing on the deep. Fantastic world! The palm-readers are in shock, the animal kingdom turning blue. You've always had a head for commerce. We can't imagine this new world without you.
Finally sleeplessness, our tormentor, giggling up and down metal staircases, settles for the little jail cell we have constructed of paper and glue. How silly and trusting the givers of pain can be.
Monstrous crickets occupy the hallway, run drills and panic. They shush each other when they hear us coming. This is part of their charm, an unwise faith in invisibility.
Insomnia, still blowing in our ears, rattles its toothpick bars. Its long black lashes are wet with crying, and it pleads, "Wake up! Wake up!"
The barber's favourite subject is the di Medicis, he says they were myopes, adulterers, chicken sacrificers. He has made a study of the rich. Customers duck away from the brandished scissors. The di Medicis have hypnotized the Pope, he says, and it's time for every citizen to take a stand.
The newspaper says miners have burned down three local businesses and entered private homes with revolvers drawn. They congregate by the mine's open mouth at night, drunk, their helmets still alight.
In the taverns, all the peas fidget in their twisted pods. Someone mutters, "Blessed children, blessed children." Someone frolicks mindlessly in the dusty street.
On One Side
My ancestors lived on boats. Barking, hairy people, they slept and dreamed of farming and elbowed each other aside. Crying babies washed around the decks like minnows.
Papa what's-his-name did equations, memorized the cities of Europe, cultivated green leafy vegetables — a cock in duckland standing on the sunny, racing prow.
The boom comes cackling, a riffle of mainsail; that is the quickest way off a boat.
Let's say I am a map erased by other maps. Can you see these crooks in their floating zoo? A speck. A yawn and burst of light. You can see the palsied draw of shoreline. Then roads, towns, farms.
Cabbage and Milk
These mountain-climbers, wrecking the furniture with their boots. Wooden canoes blocking the halls. Snow queens wailing in the bathroom, singing their foreign ice-bitch songs — which stop, suddenly, where no song should end.
I cook every day: pigeon, crickets in cheese, little tender things called bikinis. The mountain-climbers bring them back in triumph, humping up the steps like frosty mules, yawing at me to get the soup on.
Later, after cabbage and milk, the snow bunnies nod off by the fire and, in the quiet, Erik takes down his pants. We lean forward, eager to see his little, stunted graveyard.
A little dog in his search for food, legs furious under the hungry belly. He finds only bloody arms and legs, a hissing snake in the dry sand under the porch. Finally, he smells a buried pistol.
He gives it to a small boy who shoots his bossy sister. Hysterics in the courtroom, the boy is driven out of town, naked. Neighbours collect the girl's doll, grubby underpants stitched to its thighs.
But the little dog waits in the hearse's shade, still hungry, looking up to the lip of heaven. A man has come to photograph the wall-angled coffin, the girl sleeping in a lacy slouch. And perhaps there, on the glass plate, a wan soul that peeks out at freedom, a wisp.
This child is missing, like the two before. He is full of lists of names. I know his shallow clanging heart, I know my own.
Children come and go through us so fiercely. They are ghosts; I shut the window against them and still they blow in, unsure how to proceed, wanting explanations. But I have none. What is there to do but have more children? So the others, these old ones, must wait, always waiting, putting cold fingers to their lips.
My father has been insulting priests, laughing at obituaries, heaving garbage into cemeteries to make a wish. He's sleeping with a bust of the much-loathed Cézanne and my mother is furious.
Many times we've put scented handkerchiefs to father's brow, lowered the lights. But it's as if he can no longer stand us.
"Some gorgeous day," he tells us, "I will be in my coffin, and you will all be ghosts to me."
A double agent is his own worst enemy. Having delivered the eulogy, I'm knocking through the orchard, apples falling around me like padlocks. Not one of them will be remembered. Winter: trees fall, grass flows over them, everything descends.
Summer nights. The nests we find in our clothes. The weather causes rail lines to shrink. A coffee-pot sinking into the flames; kitchen songs forgotten by a woman and never sung again. Someone throttles the poor lady and her hands beat a floury tattoo on the basement window. All her little biscuits gone hard.
What is so suitable about a midway point? There are two sides, and the sun shines on whichever one it wishes.
End of the World
Waiting for my father, I fell asleep in a sunny orchard. "Blah-blah" said the big clock. Dreams of ice and stars.
When I awoke it was spring. Trees had grown up beside me, grey ones, black ones. My clothes were hopelessly caught, I was being dragged into the air. It was spring and I was already lost. My father strolled past below, humming, tapping his cane.
"Father!" I called out, but he kept walking upside down, the sky like a hammock, ready to catch him should he stumble.
The hotel woman and all her taxidermy looked down at me, my spotless hat, my hand trembling.
For six days I took only water because I wished to punish my overweening pride, and because the number would also please God.
Foxes outside in the dark as I lean on the windowsill. In the mornings, torment in the form of a girl walking by in torn stockings. The room around me motionless, a waxen lung. On the fifth day a colourless liquid issued from my bowels. I took this to be tears of self-pity. Goodbye, goodbye.
I heard singing, though there was none. A brilliant wind coming, I knew, a moment of greatness foretold to me alone. And then I forgot all that, and lay insensible with my face against the wallpaper.
On the eighth day they took me to the street and threw me in an alley, dumped some garbage after me, and kept my hat as payment for the extra days.
A lettuce leaf on my chest as green as the heart of Eden. I struggled dryly with my wasted tongue.
But happy, yes. Contented now. See how empty the soul is, how it floats?
Excerpted from Ashland by Gil Adamson, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2011 Gil Adamson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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