Douglas & McIntyre
In the Fabled East

Book details:

March 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-464-3
Hardcover
6" x 9"
416 pages
Fiction
$29.95 CAD

Awards

  • Nominated for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best Book Award

Douglas & McIntyre

In the Fabled East

A Novel

Excerpt / Additional Content

Prologue: The Fable of the Spring of Immortality

as told by the Sadet

Once a rich man was so miserly that he chose to live in the forest apart from other families. Leaving on a hunt, he told his son, “Watch over my jar while I am away, for it is our family’s wealth.” But the son fell ill with fever so that monkeys were able to enter the house and take great sport in rolling the precious jar out the door.

Because he was blustering and loud the rich man was a poor hunter and caught nothing, and so returned home in a rage, and was so angry when he discovered the jar stolen that he dragged his poor son into the forest and raised his knife. Because he was pure of heart the boy’s last words were not “I do not wish to die” but “I wish that no one would die.” Then his father left the little body unburned and unburied so that wild beasts would devour it. But instead the Spirit of the Water caused a spring to gush from the boy’s mouth.

That night the rich man’s relations, hurrying to invite him to a feast, took their rest beside the spring. They were surprised, for in all their years of travel they had never seen one in that place. They were no less surprised when they stumbled across the murdered boy as they made camp. They could no longer recognize him as their nephew, so they agreed that they would make no funeral but simply burn the little body in the morning.

They boiled water from the spring. They threw in their dried fish, and then the most surprising event of all occurred: live fishes leaped from the kettle! The water of the spring, the relatives suspected, was rife with spirits. They splashed water on the murdered boy and he sat up and through his mutilated lips described what his father had done.

The enraged travellers raced through the night to find the rich man. Hearing their cries, he ran out of his house—but because he was blustering and loud, he blundered into a tiger’s jaws, and afterward this tiger suffered incurable diarrhea.

Meanwhile the son discovered the jar where the monkeys had abandoned it, and with this recovered wealth he founded a village below the spring. Of course the rich man should have known that a family’s wealth is not its jars but its children.

from

The Last of Paris (1909)

“Why don’t you sit up beside me, Maman?”

“I can lean back,” Adélie whispered. “It’s better for me.”

She dared not raise her voice lest she reveal herself to the maternal audience as not just a feckless cripple but a dire consumptive, to be rolled into exile by the sword-wielding bathroom attendants. But her cheeks felt so hot, surely they—ah, Manu chewed his nails with excitement like the rest!

Suddenly the red curtains of the little theatre flew open and there stood Guignol himself, his burgundy coat flecked with brass buttons, black hair tied back in a ribbon, his long head square as a brick. The front three rows sat absolutely still.

“I’m so happy to see you all!” called the puppet.

Manu studied his mother for a moment, his mouth in a tight knot, then returned his gaze to Guignol as he flitted about the stage like a squirrel.

“So much to do today—do you remember what needs to be done? Pick up the cows’ eggs, sheer the hens—”

“No, no!” shouted the first three rows.

Manu smiled and Adélie saw his molars had gone yellow—they could buy tooth powder on the way home, certainly, but he’d have to make it last until they returned from Laos. Though who could say what the spring might do for one’s teeth?

Mother Bigoudis appeared—looking like a wooden Sabine with her hair in a bun, her grey dress surmounted with lace—and squabbled amicably with Guignol. Then each raced from the stage in pursuit of their own agenda. Out of sight a harpist produced a trill of lighthearted notes, then a dark, trembling melody. The little ones threw arms around their mothers’ necks. Borgne Baigne stalked onstage in a patched coat, his bald head bruised and battered, and glared out at the children from beneath his black brow.

“I escaped from prison,” he gloated, “now I’m looking for a place to stay. Maybe you have room at your house? Show me your hands!”

A flurry from the front rows.

“Drop those hands!” snarled the convict. “Let me see your feet.”

He stalked off just as brass-buttoned Guignol rushed onstage carrying a cudgel larger than himself. “And children,” the hero warned, “if you see the thief you must scream loudly for Guignol, understand?”

Borgne Baigne crept up behind him, bent on mayhem, but the gallant members of the audience leapt to their feet en masse, pointing and screaming—with the exception of Manu, who leapt to his feet only to study the unfolding drama with his chin between his fingers—until Guignol finally understood and turned to beat the villain insensible. He threw his weapon down and applauded the audience’s vigilance. Mother Bigoudis appeared to embrace the hero, all pettiness suddenly behind them.

Though he was an old man of nine Manu stood cheering with the rest. The status quo had been restored, after all, thieves and cudgels had been laid to rest and everyone would sleep in their own beds. The first three rows cleared out immediately so as to throw one another into the pond. Mothers and governesses gripped the little ones’ hands and helped them step precariously from bench to bench.

Mauriac steered them home via the Pont Royal. On the left bank bowler-hatted men buzzed around the booksellers’ stalls, scanning a few lines of each book, moving on to the headline of Le Figaro or Mois Parisien or even Culotte Rouge—what was the sense in such fluttering, when life was so short?

“I should like these clothes left out overnight,” rasped Adélie. “To recall the day we’ve spent. Leave Manu’s over his chair.”

The boy bit his white lip.

“I still think Guignol wasn’t telling something.”

Adélie lit one candle, then, much abetted by strong and silent furniture, made her way across to shut her door so that the pale light should not flicker in the corridor. As she gripped the knob she found her chest heaving and mucous rattling in her throat, though only because she was sobbing. She did not have the strength to carry herself to Laos, much less Manu too, yet she would not make an orphan as her own mother had!

To her relief she found her fingers as capable with buttons and clasps as they’d ever been, though the arrogant blouse had pearl buttons up the back—some kind soul in a Gare de Lyon powder room might fasten her up, she hoped, and in the meantime three other layers would cover her spine. Manu might have helped but she wanted him to sleep until the final moment, lest he cry for his grandmother when Adélie explained their plans. Only when the waistcoat was buttoned did she realize the blouse might have been worn backwards—what did she care whether it was, if she was already throwing her life away? But perhaps a backwards blouse would call greater attention to her fugitive status than burning cheeks or even haemoptysis—First-class travellers were not expected to recognize tuberculosis, after all, they were expected to read the fashion magazines!

There was nothing technically difficult about putting her arms into the coat, but the manoeuvres entailed were utterly debilitating. By the time she’d heaved the tailored shoulders over herself she had to scramble for the cuspidor, and an instant after the blood swirled in the bottom she was sprawled across the bed, face-down while dressed for travel like a fortunate train-wreck survivor, thrown clear onto a goose-down mattress!

She awoke in the dark. The candle had burnt down. She lit another and saw by the clock that it was nearly five. The train went at eight. She slipped her feet into the boots without lacing them, then tied hand towels around them to dull their clatter on marble stairs she’d once descended as Sultana Tremier. But first she lay down to await a cough; after so many months such cacophony from her room wouldn’t cause an eyelid to flicker, but echoing from the foyer it would bring the household on the run. She suddenly saw herself returning north to Paris, her coffin locked in a baggage car.

She awoke coughing, her hairline dripping sweat. She saw by the guttering candle that it was past six. She saw that she had hand towels tied around her feet.

She crept down the corridor without so much as a valise in her hand. She stopped to rest against the new sideboard before taking the additional step and grasping Manu’s doorknob. Without a sound she swung open his door.

A sliver of wan daylight lay across her boy’s cheek. He breathed silently through his nose, though his head was twisted backward on the pillow as though he’d sat up only to collapse again. Over the bed he’d tacked a watercolour of a rosebush that could not have been improved if he’d studied in Vienna for ten years. His fingers trembled on the blanket as he dreamed.

And as she watched those restless fingers Adélie changed her mind.

She hardly knew where she was going or how she’d survive from one hour to the next once she arrived. If she did not expire on the way and leave him alone mid-ocean, she would likely die in Indo-China to leave the boy ten thousand kilometres from home. For Manu she needed to go on living, but she had no right to take him.

His clothes waited expectantly across the chair.

She did not walk any nearer. She was too contagious to kiss him goodbye.

She sat on the first step to begin her long descent to the foyer. Tears ran down either side of her nose. Her behind dropped silently from one marble step to the next; the high arched windows reflected across each.

On the hall table she found stationery and a pencil, scrawled a note, then folded the page and wrote Emanuel on the back.

At bedtime Manu had been absorbed in festooning trains with flags, but he’d marched in distractedly to kiss the air, as tradition dictated, a half-metre from her cheek.

“Good night, Maman,” he’d said. “Don’t cough too much.”

And she’d long remember these phrases while he, poor boy, would be left wondering what he’d last said to his mother. If she recovered she would write to tell him, and if she did not then let that note be the end.

My darling, I must go away. You must believe that I can do or think nothing but what springs from my love for you.
Maman.

Through the gate she looked back at the house’s high windows, its balconies, its chimney smoke dispersing into the dawn sky. His was the fourth window from the left on the second storey. Perhaps at that moment he was waking from the dream, calling for her, and she truly felt well enough to climb back up those stairs and slip beneath the sheet with him, her cold cheek upon his warm one. But perhaps it was her mind only telling her she was well—her spirit, even, to draw Monsieur Roux’s distinction. The chimney smoke meant that at any moment Isabelle might slip from the kitchen door on some errand. Was that a light in the dining room?

She lifted her fingers from the gate and began to walk with great deliberation toward the boulevard and its cabs bound for the Gare de Lyon. Balancing the contents of her lungs in a champagne flute, she drew infinitesimal breaths.

She carried her money and papers in her coat pocket; in Marseilles she would buy anything else the journey required. She had to travel austerely, she would tell anyone who inquired, because she was hurrying to the side of her ailing father who was in the clutch of paroxysm. She paused beneath the gaslight to catch her breath and reminded herself that ordering a cab would have been pure folly. Yet the boulevard, five houses distant, was unattainable. A rag wagon heaped with rotten blankets creaked past.

When she boarded the Salazie in Marseilles she would declare, perhaps even describing in detail a road under construction on the Island of Khône, that she was joining her husband at last.

The messageries maritimes office in Marseilles loomed as vast and solid as a bank. She was still in France, of course, but outside the doors palm trees swayed and the air that settled in her nostrils was rich with spices and sea foam. She sat in a borrowed wheelchair and wrote her name in the register. The attendant across the table was so leathery he might have been raised on a date farm.

“Do you wish to book… a return voyage?” he asked.

She felt the heat in her cheeks as plainly as if candles were being held to them, and despite the long-rehearsed shallow breaths up her nose she didn’t doubt that the clatter in her lungs could be heard in the manager’s office. Perhaps on his farm the attendant had actually seen tuberculosis.

“Not just now,” she whispered.

He folded her tickets but did not immediately hand the back.

“Leukemia is not contagious,” she blurted.

His face fell. Adélie knew only that leukemia was a disease of the blood—could it be contagious?

“Of course not, Madame! But once you’re aboard I’ll have the doctor introduce himself.”

Sure enough, a white-tunic’d doctor, lean as a whippet, hurried into her cabin just as the steward wheeled her to a stop between bed and vanity. A stethoscope protruded from his hip pocket—aboard ship they evidently they took their roles seriously.

“I’m Turgot,” he intoned. “I’ll only be a moment, Claude.”

The steward set a mahogany stool beside her chair then sprang into the corridor.

“Leukemia, eh, Madame? Unfortunate.” The doctor must have attended a college where diagnoses were obtained by scrutinizing one’s toecaps. “Who attended you prior to this, might I ask?”

She rolled her glove down from her elbow while gazing covetously at the bed.

“Doctor Bonheur of Paris,” she whispered.

In the corridor, trunks scraped against metalwork and men laughed heartily, but she knew all that would sound quiet as snowfall if Doctor Turgot were to press his stethoscope to her chest.

“Bonheur? Ah,” he said, not raising his head. “In any case we’ll endeavour to make you most comfortable. You see the bell-pull?”

He helped her onto the bed then went out and shut the door, reducing the noise of the corridor to an intermittent grating. Her eyelids slammed shut like furnace doors. She still wore her boots and one black glove, but the power of spes phthisica had deserted her so entirely that even now she couldn’t remember which hand wore the glove. Yet something roused her, forced her eyes to open—Lord, there was no cuspidor!

Ah, but the lilies could come out of that vase.

That night she was woken by the baby bawling from its room. Why didn’t Suzanne go to the poor child? Adélie threw the blankets back, sprang to the floor and, astonishingly, felt it tilt beneath her. She’d never heard him so angry—could he be as hungry as all that? Her breasts did not feel ready. Not at all. A dull roar echoed through the house. She staggered forward until her fingertips touched the metal doorframe, then all at once she knew where she was and that the child crying so near at hand was not Manu. Would never be Manu—not for a long time.