Magical Realism

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Chapter One

The unopened envelope in Boy’s hands is thin and light. He’s not surprised. Lesser schools often pad their acceptance packages with welcome materials and pamphlets, a hopeful, last-minute attempt to sway undecided students. The best simply fold their letters twice, slide them into expensive envelopes, mail them to their selected few, and wait for the acceptances to find their inevitable way home. He turns it over a few times, inspecting every edge and seam, his eyes moving between the embossed Royal Military College seal and his laser-engraved name and address on the front. No question about what’s inside. One envelope, one offer of ROTP admission — the full ride, as they say — one acceptance form. Good news.

Should be, anyhow.

— Fuck.

He draws out the consonants at both ends of the word, soft and hard, trying to savour it. But as soon it passes between his lips and teeth it feels wrong, painful, like hot coffee sipped too soon. A scalded aftertaste. He never swears — it’s too much like giving in. His voice, along with the whisper of traffic on the Queen Elizabeth Way behind him, drops the short distance to the water and disappears.

Feels better, doesn’t it?

— Not really.

A half-hearted response to Charlie’s question, but not a lie. He won’t lie to her. She came back after her death eight years ago to watch over him — the least he can do for her is find the truth. A measure of it, anyhow.

So what now?

He doesn’t know. His grades have been in a steady decline over the past few months, sinking like a plane that has lost an engine. Soon, RMC will find out and the letter in his hand will become no more than a broken promise to himself. Lukewarm reality poured into the excitement he should be feeling. It’s impossible to savour the tepid. All you can do is spit it out. He lays the envelope on the stone beside him and watches it a few moments, waiting for the wind to carry the bright paper towards the water. If it goes, so does the dream, right? A sign from heaven or wherever. But there’s no movement, not even a flutter.

How can a single #10 envelope holding two printed pieces of paper contain the best and worst of everything? The letter was waiting for him when he got home from school, sticking out from the mailbox like an obscene gesture. He knew it was coming, knew that the board would have moved his application to the top of the pile for early selection. Impressed by the grades he carried at the deadline, the excellent essay he wrote on leadership and dreams, his exemplary volunteer and air cadet service over the past five years, and the numerous accolades and recommendations from the officers at the squadron and his teachers at school. He lined everything up just so, sending it all off with dreams of the full ride. He crushed the deadline. No one had doubted.

And it should be simple today, too. Complete the form, sign the declaration on the requisite line — I, Boy Cornelius McVeigh, accept the offer of entry to RMC — and send it back. Next, complete this school year, collect a high school diploma with honours, start training in July and classes in September, and sail through university towards a career in the air force. As a pilot, of course — he secured his private licence through cadets to streamline that requirement — although his six-foot-two frame will limit him to the larger, heavy-lift aircraft.

Would limit him. If only.

He looks out at the water. Lake Ontario is calm, a slate canvas under a cloudy, late-winter sky. He sits at the edge of a stone outcropping at its highest point, his pale, skinny legs dangling like an afterthought. Here, the QEW swings close to the shore, bent around the orchards and vineyards that once filled the ground between the Niagara Escarpment and the lake. His rocks — he likes to think of the knuckle of exposed dolostone as his — are part of a forgotten length of shoreline pinched between highway and lake and fringed on both sides by low trees and brush. His favourite place. No one comes here.

— What do you think I should do?

From her customary spot a few paces farther down the rocks, Charlie, too, faces the lake. Boy waits for her to speak again, but she remains silent, her expression as resolute as the stone itself. In life, even to her annoying brother two years her junior, she was the spectre of pre-teen chattiness; in death, she often drapes herself in wise, patient silence. Boy is almost grateful — it’s up to him, after all. One hand on the control stick, the other on the throttle. Still, he wonders what advice she might offer. Surely she’d supply more than the common sense nuggets he’ll get from everyone else when they find out. Work harder. Keep up the grades. Chin up. Et cetera.

— Well?

No response, just the same unchanging gaze out over the lake; the same defiant, folded arms; the same feet set shoulder-width apart, challenging. The same clothes she was wearing when she was killed eight years ago, a cream sweater and hip-hugger jeans both a size too large, as though she was hoping to fill them out someday. Hair in a perfect bun to impress the squadron officers and NCOs she never had the chance to meet. Their parents, Corny and Misty, had been shocked at Charlie’s declaration to join the air cadets. ,I want to do something different, she said. Misty said no, but Corny talked her into it, even offering to drive Charlie every week. Fine, Misty said, but you’re responsible. They never made it to the first parade — Corny swerved and flipped the car in front of a Niagara-bound truck. Charlie died. He lived.

Boy’s phone thrums in his pocket. A text from Mark, a former squadron mate and his best friend, asking if the RMC letter has come through. Boy glances down at the envelope, noting the expensive weave of the heavyweight paper. Elegant. Understated. Woven through with a million expectations. He taps out a response.

nada. maybe tmw

He lays the phone on the letter as a paperweight, moves his backpack behind him, and eases back into a recline against it. He feels the beginnings of a chill.

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Gods of Jade and Shadow

Chapter 1

Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets. Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament. She was eighteen, penniless, and had grown up in Uukumil, a drab town where mule-­drawn railcars stopped twice a week and the sun scorched out dreams. She was reasonable enough to recognize that many other young women lived in equally drab, equally small towns. However, she doubted that many other young women had to endure the living hell that was her daily life in grandfather Cirilo Leyva’s house.

Cirilo was a bitter man, with more poison in his shriveled body than was in the stinger of a white scorpion. Casiopea tended to him. She served his meals, ironed his clothes, and combed his sparse hair. When the old brute, who still had enough strength to beat her over the head with his cane when it pleased him, was not yelling for his grandchild to fetch him a glass of water or his slippers, her aunts and cousins were telling Casiopea to do the laundry, scrub the floors, and dust the living room.

“Do as they ask; we wouldn’t want them to say we are spongers,” Casiopea’s mother told her. Casiopea swallowed her angry reply because it made no sense to discuss her mistreatment with Mother, whose solution to every problem was to pray to God.

Casiopea, who had prayed at the age of ten for her cousin Martín to go off and live in another town, far from her, understood by now that God, if he existed, did not give a damn about her. What had God done for Casiopea, aside from taking her father from her? That quiet, patient clerk with a love for poetry, a fascination with Mayan and Greek mythology, a knack for bedtime stories. A man whose heart gave up one morning, like a poorly wound clock. His death sent Casiopea and her mother packing back to Grandfather’s house. Mother’s family had been charitable, if one’s definition of charity is that they were put immediately to work while their idle relatives twiddled their thumbs.

Had Casiopea possessed her father’s pronounced romantic leanings, perhaps she might have seen herself as a Cinderella-­like figure. But although she treasured his old books, the skeletal remains of his collection—­especially the sonnets by Quevedo, wells of sentiment for a young heart—­she had decided it would be nonsense to configure herself into a tragic heroine. Instead, she chose to focus on more pragmatic issues, mainly that her horrible grandfather, despite his constant yelling, had promised that upon his passing Casiopea would be the beneficiary of a modest sum of money, enough that it might allow her to move to Mérida.

The atlas showed her the distance from the town to the city. She measured it with the tips of her fingers. One day.

In the meantime, Casiopea lived in Cirilo’s house. She rose early and committed to her chores, tight-­lipped, like a soldier on a campaign.

That afternoon she had been entrusted with the scrubbing of the hallway floor. She did not mind, because it allowed her to keep abreast of her grandfather’s condition. Cirilo was doing poorly; they did not think he’d make it past the autumn. The doctor had come to pay him a visit and was talking to her aunts. Their voices drifted into the hall from the nearby living room, the clinking of dainty china cups punctuating one word here and another there. Casiopea moved her brush against the red tiles, attempting to follow the conversation—­expecting to be informed of anything that went on in the house in any other way was ridiculous; they never bothered talking to her except to bark orders—­until two shiny boots stopped in front of her bucket. She did not have to look up to know it was Martín. She recognized his shoes.

Martín was a youthful copy of their grandfather. He was square-­shouldered, robust, with thick, strong hands that delivered a massive blow. She delighted in thinking that when he grew old, he would also become an ugly, liver-­spotted wretch without teeth, like Cirilo.

“There you are. My mother is going crazy looking for you,” he said. He looked away when he spoke.

“What is it?” she asked, resting her hands against her skirt.

“She says you are to go to the butcher. The silly codger demands a good cut of beef for supper. While you’re out, get me my cigarettes.”

Casiopea stood up. “I’ll go change.”

Casiopea wore no shoes and no stockings and a frayed brown skirt. Her mother emphasized neatness in person and dress, but Casiopea didn’t believe there was much point in fretting about the hem of her clothes when she was waxing floors or dusting rooms. Still, she must don a clean skirt if she was heading out.

“Change? Why? It’ll be a waste of time. Go right away.”

“Martín, I can’t go out—­”

“Go as you are, I said,” he replied.

Casiopea eyed Martín and considered defying him, but she was practical. If she insisted on changing, then Martín would give her a good smack and she would accomplish nothing except wasting her time. Sometimes Martín could be reasoned with, or at least tricked into changing his mind, but she could tell by his sanguine expression that he’d had a row with someone and was taking it out on her.

“Fine,” she said.

He looked disappointed. He’d wanted a scuffle. She smiled when he handed her the money she needed to run the errands. He looked so put off by that smile, she thought for a moment he was going to slap her for no reason. Casiopea left the house in her dirty skirt, without even bothering to wrap a shawl around her head.

In 1922 Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto had said women could now vote, but by 1924 he’d faced a firing squad—­which is exactly what you’d expect to happen to governors who go around delivering speeches in Mayan and then don’t align themselves with the correct people in power—­and they’d revoked that privilege. Not that this ever mattered in Uukumil. It was 1927, but it might as well have been 1807. The revolution passed through it, yet it remained what it had been. A town with nothing of note, except for a modest sascab quarry; the white powder shoveled out was used for dirt roads. Oh, there had been a henequen plantation nearby once upon a time, but she knew little about it; her grandfather was no hacendado. His money, as far as Casiopea could tell, came from the buildings he owned in Mérida. He also muttered about gold, although that was likely more talk than anything else.

So, while women in other parts of the world cut their hair daringly short and danced the Charleston, Uukumil was the kind of place where Casiopea might be chided if she walked around town without her shawl wrapping her head.

The country was supposed to be secularist after the revolution, something that sounded fine when it was printed as a decree, but was harder to enforce once push came to shove. Cristero rebellions bubbled down the center of Mexico whenever the government tried to restrict religious activity. That February in Jalisco and Guanjuato all priests had been detained for inciting people to rise against the anti-­Catholic measures promoted by the president. Yet Yucatán was tolerant of the Cristeros, and it had not flamed up like other states. Yucatán had always been a world apart, an island, even if the atlas assured Casiopea she lived on a verdant peninsula.

No wonder in lazy Uukumil everyone held to the old ways. No wonder, either, that their priest grew more overzealous, intent on preserving morality and the Catholic faith. He eyed every woman in town with suspicion. Each diminutive infraction to decency and virtue was catalogued. Women were meant to bear the brunt of inquiries because they descended from Eve, who had been weak and sinned, eating from the juicy, forbidden apple.

If the priest saw Casiopea he would drag her back to her house, but if he did, what of it? It was not as if the priest would strike her any harder than Martín would, and her stupid cousin had given her no chance to tidy herself.

Casiopea slowly walked to the town square, which was dominated by the church. She must follow Martín’s orders, but she would take her time doing so. She glanced at the businesses bunched under the square’s high arcades. They had a druggist, a haberdasher, a physician. She realized this was more than other towns could claim, and still she couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied. Her father had been from Mérida and had whisked her mother off to the city, where Casiopea was born. She thought she belonged there. Or, anywhere else, for that matter. Her hands were hard and ugly from beating the laundry against the stone lavadero, but her mind had the worst of it. She yearned for a sliver of freedom.

Somewhere, far from the bothersome grandfather and impertinent coterie of relatives, there would be sleek automobiles (she wished to drive one), daring pretty dresses (which she’d spotted in newspapers), dances (the faster, the better), and a view of the Pacific sea at night (she knew it courtesy of a stolen postcard). She had cut out photos of all these items and placed them under her pillow, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of night swimming, of dresses with sequins, and a clear, starlit sky.

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