Douglas & McIntyre

Book details:

April 2009
ISBN 978-1-55365-409-4
Paperback - Trade
5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
320 pages
$22.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre


Excerpt / Additional Content


Part I: The Key

Lila szach liked uphill paths. In life so many things—and life itself, in fact—go only downhill. She liked sunlit uphill paths, yet this one did not go uphill. It was heading darkly into a wall of dense trees, plunging into devious vegetable entrails from which one would most likely emerge half digested. Even now, darting, humming insects were hurrying toward their meeting point.

The owner of the country house was waiting for them down below, at the bottom of the abyss. Around him swarmed squadrons of black flies, but that did not seem to bother him. He was an old man. You have to be old to live in an abyss. From behind thick lenses, his raccoon eyes watched them draw near without a smile. All through their meeting, he did not smile except for one brief instant, when she mentioned that she had a cat.

She thought she had spotted a red rowboat next to him, lying on its side like a dying creature, and behind it an expanse of water, but she couldn’t be sure, so opaque was the curtain of carnivorous insects between them and the world. Deeper and deeper into the thicket he led them, hopping across slippery rocks, an aerialist dragging behind him two clumsy incompetents. Then he came to a stop with a ceremonial sweep of his arm. The lake lay before them, set among soft-topped mountains. A broad gray lake surrounded by green, everywhere green, uniform in its greenness. Yes, these were trees, but not the hospitable kind that lend shade and companionship to country luncheons. No. These were harsh, thin, long-necked things stretching greedily toward the light, so tightly knit that they surely concealed creatures driven mad by claustrophobia. The lake, he said. Then, raising his other arm: the camp, he said, and they saw the single cottage huddled there, at the far end of a bay, attempting to hide in the vegetation, as if frightened by its own audacity.

For thirty thousand dollars it was theirs: the exhausted rowboat, the kilometers of dense trees, the gray lake, the mosquitoes to be fed. And of course the camp, where they would finally wash ashore, all too happy to lick their war wounds—except him, who looked completely intact, and who brewed them black tea while they scratched their bites. The cottage smelled of field mice and moldy linoleum. What a pretty view they had, they could see the lake and the green on all sides—green, that most ecological color, which they say is restful for the eyes.

The man who was with her said: okay. She did not protest, for the money was not hers, and the suffocating summer heat had fallen upon them; they had to flee somewhere. But the summer would roar by like every other summer and they would sell again, everything is bought and sold, even the soul. The old man pulled a key from his pocket and asked, as he looked at her alone: Do you really like it? and his look had never been so unsmiling, so hostile, and he who was with her answered: Of course we like it. The old man put the key down beside her without touching her, turned his hard eyes toward the lake without looking at the two of them, and suddenly she realized that he did not smile because of some sorrow.

The camp and the lake were far from the village, and the village was not a pretty place. It had a church and a store of course, a place where you could buy sliced white bread and hamburger meat, and sometimes you would see flower boxes hanging in front of faded wood houses, but that was where the aesthetics ended. The two human specimens she met buying bread weren’t pretty either. The first one asked the second, whom he had obviously known a long time: Did you kill it? and the other man shot back: Hell no! with a wealth of sad details, and before long she’d learned all about bear hunting as it was gloriously practiced in this neck of the woods. All you have to do to attract bears is put out some stinky things, and the bears, nasty beasts that like stinky things, come running to eat out of one hand and be killed by the other.

She didn’t encounter that many bears on the first evening after they’d settled in, but bears were just about the only living species that made itself scarce. Their patch of lakefront was an open-air zoo in which insects were far from underrepresented. They would punch in for their shifts at scrupulously established hours, with mosquitoes following the black flies, which in turn took over from the horse flies in a relay where human flesh was the torch passed from hand to hand. Then there were the moths, great as bats, and enormous sightless June bugs whose overstuffed bodies continually collided with them, but at least they hadn’t come for a meal. Later, they discovered carpenter ants gnawing away at every single crossbeam in the cottage. But on their first night, the place seemed like a comforting refuge, a box seat from which they could observe, at little risk, the comings and goings of life in the wild. A family of skunks came to nose around in the bushes, trading grunts. Something amphibian made its way across the lake. Something winged let out a bloodcurdling cry just outside their window. Something bulky walked up to their door and knocked: a porcupine with a mangy pelt and an unwavering appetite for the glue that held their plywood together. She could not sleep. Her cat could not sleep either, excited by its thrilling safari among a colony of field mice. He who was with her snored on in the peaceful slumber of the guiltless. The night dragged on, ever more sleepless, and she could not close her eyes.

There was no place for her in all this writhing and swarming, she was an intruder cast into terminal insomnia, a disease beaten back by the antibodies of some monstrous organism.

The next morning she was on the dock, sprinkling herself with cool water, when the sun surprised her. It was June 10, and the June sun was a flaming arrow, and the forest had caught fire, along with the lake and every living thing around. In the light of the blaze it was impossible not to see. She saw yellow-tailed butterflies, symphonic birds, coupling fireflies, hovering dragonflies; she saw fresh spruce buds gleaming like jeweled rings, and so many colors, so much rustling in every direction, an orgy of triumphant lives. In the light of the blaze it was impossible to ignore that this bush-choked, elemental place was in fact a paradise, a sacred garden to which she had been mercifully granted the key. Moved by the sun, she stretched out on the dock on that June 10 and saw all that there was to see. She saw the track that, each morning, the moose followed to the shore to drink; the chanterelles and the boletuses mushrooming up through the moss, she saw the red rowboat that, each spring, they would surely patch up once more as if it were a part of themselves that leaked but stayed afloat, she saw all the cracks she might slip through to understand the world. She saw the old woman she would be one day, hopping light-footed from one slippery rock to another, surrounded by black flies that did not touch her.