New Books and Featured Reading Lists

Each week on the 49th Shelf homepage, we highlight new releases. We also make theme-based lists and showcase lists from guest contributors and 49th Shelf members. This page archives these selections so they are always available to our members.

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New Children's for the week of January 27th : New Middle Grade Fiction
The Lost Scroll of the Physician


THE COBRA HISSES IN STRIKE POSITION, forked tongue flickering, hood flared wide. Its icy, flat stare remains unbroken except for the vertical blink of its eyes. My fingers move up and down the long wooden reed, covering some holes and releasing others, as the notes float up and up. Gaze locked with mine, the snake slowly undulates from side to side and my body relaxes a fraction as our spirits entwine. A crowd has formed.

This is what I want.

Vendors walk toward the spectacle, attention drawn. People point and laugh, momentarily distracted from the oppressive heat of midday as they move in closer for the show. My eyes don’t leave the snake’s, but I know Ky is weaving through the carts, lifting a plum here, palming a fig there, taking whatever is most easily on offer. Hopefully he’ll find some bread, maybe some nuts and fruits, though there hasn’t been much variety of late. My ears strain for shouts, an exclamation of “thief!” over a rumbling stomach, but the crowd is as mesmerized as the serpent.

Snake charming is not common knowledge here. My father taught me the art, just as he taught me to read and write, also not so common — especially for a girl. But he believed that learning and knowledge bestow power on their possessor. Unfortunately, all his knowledge and power were not enough to keep him and my mother from being killed.

Pain blooms raw and fresh, as if the cobra has struck my heart. Has it only been one moon since they were stolen from us?


I need to focus or the snake’s Ka will break with mine. Then I will not be so safe. Though safety is mostly an illusion, I think.

Higher and higher, the snake rises in the air, out of the basket woven with grasses picked from the banks of the Nile by my own hands. Ky’s and mine. His are much faster. I pray to Amun they are fast now and try not to think what will happen if they are not. A fruit vendor, bald and fat, clothes stained with the juices of his wares, thrusts a finger in my direction and jeers.

“The snake is drugged. See how slow it moves.”

I do not stop playing to tell him the snake is moving slow because it is entranced. Also, the heat of this day would make any creature sluggish. My heckler himself is sweating, a hairy, meaty arm coming across his dripping brow. Others begin to murmur, debating the state of the cobra’s consciousness, attention wavering.

This is dangerous.

I move the reed in dizzying circles, notes coming faster. The snake follows the instrument, not taking its eyes from the wand, regarding it as a predator. It does not matter what tune I play, as the reptile can sense the sounds but not the individual notes. Those are for the audience, and so I try to make them as pleasing as possible. Unlike the fat man, I do not want my clothes splattered with rotten fruit.

There is a noise at the back of the crowd. My body tenses. A dog barks, then barks again. Time slows as the fat man turns, upper body twisting as he cranes neck over shoulder, double chin coming last, pointing in the direction of the commotion.

Please don’t let it be Ky, please don’t let it be Ky.

But Amun must be sleeping because there is my brother, scrawny arm held tight in the grip of an angry woman, dark hair frizzing around her shoulders like pregnant storm clouds. She is yelling and my brother’s face is pinched and scared.

My foot shoots out, kicking the basket over. Screams erupt from the crowd as Apep goes slithering off in search of cooler and calmer surroundings. The flash of regret at the hours of now-wasted training is quickly replaced by an intense fear that my brother could possibly lose the arm the woman is clutching.

Or worse.

Running through the panicked crowd, Ky and the screeching woman disappear in the churning masses. Frantic, I whirl in all directions, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the pair.

A dog barks again and I look in its direction, eyes landing on the fat man.

“Don’t let him go!” he shouts, enraged. Following his gaze, I see the woman with my brother.

“If you were not so lazy and distracted, thieves could not steal so easily!” she yells back. I realize she is my heckler’s wife. He thunders toward them, one hand on the large knife at his side, sun glinting off the deadly blade. For a fat man he is quick as a crocodile, with a grin twice as evil. I dart under arms and around unwashed bodies, coughing on dust kicked up by sweaty feet.

“Sesha,” Ky cries, catching sight of me.

“Release him,” I say. The woman sneers at me in perfect imitation of her husband, who is only seconds from reaching us.

“I don’t think so.” Her lips twist in a cruel smile as her nails dig deeper into Ky’s arm, making him cry out. “He is going to pay for what he took.”

“He has nothing.” I pray she will not lift his tunic where the cloth sack is tied around his skinny waist. The fat man is almost upon us, knife gripped low. My mind races for a way out and comes up with nothing. I cannot leave Ky.

Then the dog is there, growling deep in its throat. It stares menacingly at the woman.

She takes a step back, unsure, pulling Ky with her. “Call off your dog.”

“He is not mine to call.”


And then the man is also there, lunging for me. I go boneless like Apep, and slip through his hands. He lets out a roar, rotten breath enveloping me as he fumbles for the knife. Reaching my brother, I grab his arm and pull with all my strength in the opposite direction. The man is on his knees, scrambling for his knife in the dirt. Tugging harder, I yell again at the woman to let go. She will not. She is too strong.

The dog lunges forward, jumping up on her front, teeth snapping. She screams, hands coming up to protect her face, releasing Ky so suddenly that I stumble backward and we fall hard to the ground. But only for a second.

Jumping to his feet, Ky extends a crescent-marked arm to help me up. We race through the market, dodging around stalls and people too preoccupied with their own lives and the possibility of a snake underfoot to pay much attention.

I hear both the man and the woman shout behind us, but we are lightning, darting into shadows that even the sun’s rays cannot dispel. When at last we are sure of our safety, we stop, hands on knees, breath coming fast and hard, tracks of sweat running down our dusty faces. It is several minutes before we speak.

“I’m sorry, Sesha,” Ky says, distress in his dark brown eyes. “My hunger made me careless.”

“Do not apologize for being hungry, little brother.” I ruffle his brown hair, curly like our father’s was. He brightens.

“Look.” Untying the cloth satchel at his waist, he lets the tattered sack fall to the ground. Out rolls a fig, some grapes, a few berries, and one overripe plum, conjuring with it the smell of the man’s decaying teeth. My stomach turns.

“Well done.” I gesture to the food. “Eat. I am not hungry.”

“Are you sure?” Picking up the fig, he has it in his mouth before I can nod. He needs it more than I. Noting the dark circles under his eyes and the pallor of his face under skin coloured by the sun, I gesture to him to sit as we lean back against a pitted wall behind one of the temples.

“Apep?” he says between ravenous bites, juice dribbling down his chin.

“Gone,” I say, and he lowers his eyes. “Back to the riverbank where she’ll be much happier.”

“But … all the time we spent with her …” There’s a slight tremor in his voice.

“I can find another snake.” I pat his back and smile to let him know I’m not upset. “Another brother may not prove to be so easy.”

He holds out some bruised grapes. “Have some, Sesha, they are delicious.”

I oblige, knowing he will not relent until I eat something. We finish the food together, leaving only the mushy plum, which Ky pockets. A rustling sound to our left has us on our feet, heads swivelling in its direction. The dog from the market trots around the corner and we relax, slumping back against the wall. It walks up to Ky and licks his face, making him giggle. It nudges me next with a wet nose and I scratch its pointy ears. There’s a chunk missing from the left one, an old injury leaving the skin soft and smooth.

“Do you know this dog?” I ask, curious as to where it came from.

“He saved us,” my brother says, laying his head on the lean torso. “He is ours now.”

“Just what we need.” I sigh. “Another mouth to feed.” The dog barks and a hind leg comes up to scratch vigorously behind his torn ear. “And fleas.”


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The Jigsaw Puzzle King

“How’s it going, Warren?” asked Mom, that first day in our new house.

“I’m bored,” I said, picking at the scab on my knuckles. I got the scratch the day we left the old farmhouse in Smiths Falls when I was trying to make Jelly, my cat, go into her kitty kennel. Looking at the orange furball now curled comfortably on my bed, I figured I’d been forgiven, because she looked as if she didn’t have a care in the world. Life was like that for cats — simple. As long as they had their people, a bowl full of food, and a place to sleep, that was enough. “I wish I had a friend to play with.”

“Now that you’re unpacked, why don’t you go outside and play with your brother?”

“Aw, Mom. All he wants to do is play make- believe. I need a friend who likes to do the same things I like. Bennie can barely kick a soccer ball — and forget about hockey.”

Mom smiled. “Well, maybe he’ll grow into those things one day. But as for make-believe, he’s outside with a bunch of kids right now and they sound like they’re having loads of fun playing one of his games.”

“He is?”


“Mom,” I sighed, “you let him out alone? You should’ve told me.”

“Well, I’m telling you now. Besides, he’s not far.” She was almost laughing at me. “So what are you waiting for?”

Outside, I followed the sounds of laughter and screams coming from the empty lot two houses over. There was Bennie, moaning and staggering after some boys and girls who darted in and around him, laughing hysterically. They urged him to catch them, but they were much too quick. My guts twisted into a knot as I watched my plan for a carefully crafted fresh start melt away in the late August sunshine. Sometimes people who didn’t know Bennie thought he was weird. I liked to ease him into new situations slowly so we might avoid that.

Just then, Bennie saw me.

“Hey, everybody, that’s my big brother, Wart. Can he play, too?” Blood rushed to my cheeks when some kids snickered at my dreaded nickname. I wished I had arms like Plastic Man so I could reach out and whack him for that. Instead I pretended I didn’t hear him and tried to sneak away. Of course, Bennie had a different plan, and before I had time to leave he wagged his chubby arms at me and shouted, “C’mon, Wart, it’s all right. You can play, too. Don’t be afraid. These guys are nice.”

Shoot. I was stuck. “Ha. I’m not afraid,” I said as I shuffled over to the group, pretending not to notice all the stares.

“We’re playin’ The Walking Dead, and I’m the zombie,” Bennie said. That explained all the moaning and staggering. “If I tag you, you’ll be a zombie like me.” He started up his act again, and the kids scattered in different directions, screaming. When he staggered toward me, I darted past him and joined the others running and hiding behind shrubs.

Bennie chased us as quickly as his flat feet could carry him. I knew he would be a lonely zombie if I didn’t help him. It had always been like that, ever since I could remember: me helping him and keeping him from getting hurt. I was just about to step out and let him tag me when someone tapped my shoulder.

“Quick, hide behind here,” said a girl, who ran behind some trees. I followed her and found some other kids were hiding there, too.

“Hi, Wart. I’m Maya. This is my brother, Taylor, and that’s Luke,” the girl whispered.

I picked at the bark on the tree and tried to act casual. “Actually, my name’s Warren. Only Bennie calls me that.”

“Well, that’s a relief. It’d be seriously unfortunate if that was your real name,” said Maya, giggling. The two boys sniggered.

“Bennie’s funny. Does he always call you that?” asked Taylor. My stomach muscles tightened and my mouth suddenly felt parched.

“He’s not supposed to call me that in public, but he forgets. It started when we were little.” Just then Bennie stomped past our hiding place and moaned some more. Again Taylor and Luke laughed like it was the funniest thing on earth, and again it felt like someone was squeezing my gut.

“What grade are you in?” Maya asked, taking no notice of them.


“Oh yeah? Me, too. Going to Rosemary Brown Elementary?”

I nodded just as the zombie tripped and fell. I heard him whimper in pain. I would have gone to help him, but Maya grabbed my arm. “Wait for a second,” she whispered. “There, you see, he’s all right. He’s getting up now. Sometimes little brothers just have to learn to manage on their own.” Maya laughed lightly as Bennie got up and stumbled after some kids, who darted around him like sparrows. “How old is Bennie?”

“Eleven,” I said, peeking through the branches. I hoped he’d catch at least one kid and turn him into a zombie.

“Eleven?” Maya looked confused. “Well, then, how old are you?”

“Eleven.” I glanced over at Taylor and Luke. They looked baffled, too. “But he said you were his big brother,” said Maya, now looking suspicious.

“Technically, I am his big brother … by four minutes.”

“No way!” declared Taylor. “Twins? That can’t be true. He’s so small and so weird —”

“No, no, no. You mean different,” Maya corrected. I shrugged, hoping they would let it drop. And they did, but it was an awkward silence. Finally, Maya said, “Well, he’s a neat kid, and look, he’s doing great.”

“Right. He hasn’t even tagged anyone,” I said. “I should go and help him.”

“Aww, he’s doing fine. And he sure looks like he’s having fun. So is everyone else.” She was right. Bennie did look happy.

“He sure has that creepy zombie act down pat,” said Taylor. “Hey, he should be a zombie for Halloween!” Ouch. And then it came, the question someone always asked. “So anyway, what’s your brother got?” Instantly my upper lip felt prickly from beads of sweat.

Maya swatted her brother on the arm. “Shut up, Taylor,” she said. “Sorry, Warren.”

Taylor sneered at her. “What? I’m just asking —”

“Never mind.” Maya cut him off.

“You’re not my mother, Maya. I just want to know what’s wrong with the kid.”

I tried to laugh it off and change the subject. “Wrong with Bennie? Well, for starters, he takes my stuff without asking. And calls me Wart in public, which is pretty embarrassing. And —”

“No, not like that,” Taylor blurted. “His face is weird and he acts different. Is he a retardo or something?”

Maya gasped and her cheeks turned beet red. “Just ignore him, Warren. That’s what I do.” She glared at him. “Sometimes I even pretend I don’t have a brother.”

It was too late, though. The question hung in the muggy summer air like the smell of dog poop stuck to someone’s shoe. Before I could say anything, Bennie staggered across the field trying to tag some kid who was running circles around him and laughing.

“Bennie, you run like a duck,” the boy teased. “Quack, quack, quack!”

That’s when I snapped. “It’s called Down syndrome, and yeah, maybe he’s slow, but he isn’t stupid! Not like some people, Taylor.” I stepped out from the trees and shouted, “Bennie, come on. It’s time to go. Mom needs our help with the unpacking.”

Bennie stopped running and let out a sigh of relief. “Good, ’cause I’m pooped.”

As we walked back to the house, I heard whispers and giggles. My fists clenched. Then someone yelled out, “See ya, Bennie. Bye, Wart.”

When we got to the end of our driveway, Bennie turned back and shouted, “See you guys later! And you better watch out, ’cause next time I’m gonna catch ya and eat your brains. You’ll see.” Then he chuckled and waved goodbye.

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New Non-Fiction for the week of January 20th : New and Fascinating


Stories about Life in Plus-Sized Bodies
edited by Christina Myers
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All Things Being Equal

All Things Being Equal

Why Math Is the Key to a Better World
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Nothing comes easily to me.

I’m a mathematician, but I didn’t show much aptitude for math until I was thirty. I had no idea, in high school, why I had to turn a fraction upside down when I wanted to divide by it, or why, when I wrote a square root sign over a negative number, the number suddenly became “imaginary” (especially when I could see the number was still there). At university I almost failed my first calculus course. Fortunately I was saved by the bell curve, which brought my original mark up to a C minus.

I’m also a playwright. My plays have been performed in many countries, but I still won’t read a review unless someone tells me it’s safe to do so. Early in my career I made the mistake of checking the papers to see what two of the local critics thought of my first major production. It seems unlikely that they consulted each other before writing their reviews, but one headline read “Hopelessly Muddled” and the other “Muddled Mess.”

I often wish I was more like my literary and scientific heroes, who seemingly could produce perfect poems or solve intractable problems in a blinding flash of inspiration. Now that I’m a professional mathematician and writer, I console myself with the thought that my ongoing struggles to educate myself and the strenuous efforts that I needed to make to get to this point have produced an intense curiosity about how we achieve our potential.

A Slow Learner

From an early age I became obsessed with my intellectual capabilities and with the way I learn. When I started to teach in my twenties, first as a graduate student in philosophy and later as a math tutor, I also became fascinated with the way other people learn. Now, after teaching math and other subjects to thousands of students of all ages and after reading a great deal of educational and psychological research, I am convinced that our society vastly underestimates the intellectual potential of children and adults.

During my undergraduate studies, I showed as little promise in writing as I did in mathematics: I received a B plus in my creative writing class—the lowest mark in the class. One evening, in the first year of my graduate studies in philosophy, I began reading a book of letters by the poet Sylvia Plath, which I’d found on my sister’s bookshelf while babysitting her children. It appeared from Plath’s letters and early poems that she had taught herself to write by sheer determination. She had learned, as a teenager, everything she could about poetic metre and form. She wrote sonnets and sestinas, memorized the thesaurus and read mythology. She also produced dozens of imitations of poems she loved.

I knew that Plath was considered to be one of the most original poets of her time, so I was surprised to learn that she had taught herself to write by a process that seemed so mechanical and uninspired. I’d grown up thinking that if a person was born to be a writer or mathematician, then fully formed and profoundly important sentences or equations would simply pour out of them. I’d spent many hours sitting in front of blank pages waiting for something interesting to appear, but nothing ever did. After reading Plath’s letters, I began to hope that there might be a path I could follow to develop a voice of my own.

I imitated the work of Plath and other poets for several years before I moved on to writing plays. By that time, I’d taken a job at a tutoring agency to supplement my income from writing. The women who owned the agency hired me to tutor math because I’d taken a course in calculus at university (and I neglected to tell them about my marks). In my tutorials I had the opportunity to work through the same topics and problems again and again with my students, who ranged in age from six to sixteen. The concepts that had mystified me as a teenager (such as why does a negative times a negative equal a positive) gradually became clear, and my confidence grew as I found I could learn new material more quickly.

One of my first students was a shy eleven-year-old boy named Andrew, who struggled in math. In grade six, Andrew was placed in a remedial class. His new teacher warned his mother that she shouldn’t expect much from her son because he was too intellectually challenged to learn math in a regular math class. In the first two years of our tutorials, Andrew’s confidence grew steadily, and by grade eight, he had transferred to the academic stream in math. I tutored him until he was in grade twelve, but I lost touch with him until recently when he invited me to lunch. In the middle of our lunch, Andrew told me that he had just been granted full tenure as a professor of mathematics.

When I was growing up I would always compare myself to the students who did well on math competitions and who seemed to learn new concepts without effort. Watching these students race ahead of me at school made me think that I lacked the natural gift I needed to be good at the subject. But now, at the age of thirty, I was surprised to see how quickly I could learn the concepts I was teaching, and how easy it was for students like Andrew, who had never shown any signs of having a “gift” for math, to excel at the subject with patient teaching. I began to suspect that a root cause of many individuals’ troubles in math, and in other subjects as well, is the belief in natural talents and natural academic hierarchies.

As early as kindergarten, children start to compare themselves to their peers and to identify some as talented or “smart” in various subjects. Children who decide that they are not talented will often stop paying attention or making an effort to do well (as I did in school). This problem is likely to compound itself more quickly in math than in other subjects, because when you miss a step in math it is usually impossible to understand what comes next. The cycle is vicious: the more a person fails, the more their negative view of their abilities is reinforced, and the less efficiently they learn. I will argue that the belief in natural hierarchies is far more instrumental in causing people’s different levels of success in math and other subjects than are inborn or natural abilities.

In my early thirties, I returned to university to study mathematics (starting at an undergraduate level) and was eventually granted one of Canada’s highest post-doctoral fellowships for my research in the subject. In the meantime, I’d also received several national literary awards for my plays, including a Governor General’s Award. I don’t believe I will ever produce work that compares to that of my artistic and intellectual heroes, but my experience suggests that the methods I used to train myself as a writer and mathematician—which included deliberate practice, imitation, and various strategies for mastering complex concepts and enhancing the imagination—could help people improve their abilities in the arts and sciences.

When I was taking my degree in math, I often wondered how my life would have gone if I’d selected a different book from my sister’s bookshelf the night I discovered Plath’s letters. I felt lucky to have regained the passion I’d had as a child for creating and discovering new things and lucky to have been encouraged to follow my passion by my parents and family. Watching my students become more engaged and successful in math, I began to feel that I should do something to help people who’d lost faith in their abilities, so they could regain their confidence and keep their sense of wonder and curiosity alive.

In the final year of my doctoral program, I persuaded some of my friends to start a free, after-school tutoring program called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) Math in my apartment. Twenty years later, 200,000 students and educators in North America use JUMP as their main math instruction resource, and the program is spreading into Europe and South America. Its methodologies have been developed in consultation with and guided by the work of distinguished cognitive scientists, psychologists and educational researchers, many of whom you will meet in this book. These methods are easy to understand and apply, and they reinforce confidence in your abilities rather than assigning you to a particular skill level. They can be used by adults who want to help children learn any subject more efficiently or who want to educate themselves and pursue a new path in life, the way I did.

Before I describe these methods and the research that supports them, I will look more closely at some myths about intelligence and talent that prevent us from fully developing our intellectual abilities and that create an extraordinary range of problems for our society. Because people have so much trouble imagining that they could be good at subjects they struggled to learn in school, they also have trouble imagining what the average brain can accomplish or understanding the magnitude of the losses our society incurs when we fail to educate people according to their potential. This failure of the imagination creates a self-fulfilling cycle of frustration and lost opportunities for many people; to escape from this cycle we need to re-examine our most basic beliefs about what it means for people to be “equal” or to have equal opportunities in life.

Invisible Problems

Every society is plagued by invisible problems that are particularly hard to solve—for no reason other than because they are invisible. Sometimes a society has to collapse before the problems that stopped it from progressing can be seen. And sometimes this process can take centuries.

The ancient Greeks were remarkable innovators. They established the first democracies and produced a staggering number of mathematical and scientific breakthroughs. But this great, progressive society was hobbled by an insidious problem they could not see. Even the most enlightened thinkers of 400 BC were convinced that women were inferior to men and that slavery was as good for slaves as it was for their owners. Aristotle wrote, rather chillingly, that some people are born to be masters, while others are only fit to be “living tools.” The Greeks couldn’t begin to solve the most serious problems of their time because they couldn’t conceive of a more equitable society.

Over the past three hundred years, the idea that every person is born with the same inalienable rights and privileges, regardless of their race, gender or social status, has slowly taken hold across the world. In theory, in most nations, we have all been granted these same rights.

In practice, however, these rights are not always upheld in the same way for every person. And in many parts of the world, the impact of these rights on people’s quality of life is still rather limited. Even in Western democracies, people who are born with the same inalienable right to vote don’t necessarily enjoy the same social or economic opportunities.

Half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1 percent of the population, and tens of millions of people still don’t have enough to eat or proper access to health care or sanitation, even in the developed world. We are confronted by an array of threats—including economic instability, climate change, sectarian violence and political corruption—that have a greater impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged people of the world. In such a world, it’s hard to imagine a society in which people are born “equal” in any material sense or in which they can exercise their basic legal and political rights in the same way.

The laws and constitutions created to give everyone a fair chance in life have only partially succeeded in levelling the playing field. That’s because the most serious disparities in our society are not simply the result of legal or political inequalities but are also caused by a more subtle and pervasive form of inequality that is difficult to see. This kind of inequality might seem to be a by-product of social and political forces or of the deficiencies of capitalism, but I believe it is primarily caused by our ignorance about human potential. In the developed world, this inequality can affect the children of the rich as much as it does the children of the poor (although wealth does help mitigate its consequences). In many ways, it is the root cause of other inequalities. I call this kind of inequality “intellectual inequality.” And I will argue that it can easily be eradicated, particularly in the sciences and mathematics.

In this book I will sometimes use examples from JUMP Math to illustrate various principles of learning and teaching. But this is not a book about JUMP. My claims about human potential and the methods of teaching and learning that can unlock that potential are backed by a large body of research in cognitive science and psychology that is independent of JUMP. One day this research will be more widely known, and we will all be compelled to set much higher expectations in mathematics and other subjects for ourselves and our children, whether or not we use any particular math learning program. When we have understood and absorbed the full meaning of this research, our present beliefs about our intellectual abilities will seem as antiquated and as harmful as the belief that some people are born to be slaves and others masters. And the problems we have struggled to overcome since antiquity—which originate in our failure to foster intellectual equality—may finally be addressed.

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Find Your Pleasure

Find Your Pleasure

The Art of Living a More Joyful Life
also available: eBook
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How to Die: A Book About Being Alive

No one forgets their first time. It’s the other first time, the one that darkens the mind rather than delights the body, that isn’t always as instantly memorable. But it’s there—somewhere—along with the initial recognition that our parents aren’t the wisest, most powerful people in the world who will always be there to protect us, and that people don’t have to love us back just because we want them to, and that the game of life doesn’t come with a set of inviolable rules that everyone is obliged to follow in the interest of fair play. Not that it’s difficult to understand why we don’t always remember the precise time and place when we first became aware, however dimly, of death. That everyone is going to die. That I’m going to die. Human beings tend to hide from what hurts. Or at least attempt to. But Grandma’s funeral or the family pet’s last visit to the veterinarian or a flattened frog in the middle of the street remind us of what we try to forget but never entirely can.

Novelists aren’t good at much. Busy describing how the world lives, there isn’t much time or inclination left over to do much worldly living oneself. But remembering things—in particular, the seemingly inconsequential but singularly significant minutiae of daily existence—is an occupational necessity. I remember my first whiff of nothingness. Wrote about it in my novel What Happened Later:

Let’s go around, I said.

An August afternoon Sunday when I was six, an idling '69 Buick Skylark with power windows but no air conditioning, a train that wouldn’t end like Christmas will never come and summer vacation will go on forever. I was hot and bored and thirsty and there was cold pop at home on the bottom shelf of the bar fridge in the basement.

We can’t go around, my dad said.

Why not?

Because they’ll put you in a box and put you in the ground and they won’t let you out.

I thought about what he said. It didn’t make sense. I said the only sensible thing I could think of.

But you’d let me out, I said.

My father leaned against the steering wheel and craned his neck left, looked as far down the railroad track as he could. Sweat rivered down the back of his neck. He looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure there was no one behind us; put the car in reverse and gave the steering wheel a sharp tug to the right. We weren’t going to wait around anymore. Finally, we were moving. Looking in the mirror again, this time at me in the back seat:

I don’t want to see you fooling around when there’s a train coming, he said.

I won’t.

You either stand back and wait for it to go by, or you walk around to where it isn’t, you hear me?

I know.


I’ll wait for it or walk around.

My mother sucked a last suck from her Player’s Light and pulled the ashtray out of the dash, crushed out her cigarette on the metal lip. It was full of mashed cigarette butts crowned with red lipstick kisses.

Because when they put you in that box in the ground, boy, that’s it, nobody can help you.

But, I wanted to say. But . . .

But I didn’t say anything. And my dad, I waited, but he didn’t say anything either.

Not that I consider myself as having been particularly thantosophically precocious; death-consciousness simply comes to some early, while others don’t attend their first class in Introduction to Eventual Personal Extinction (a.k.a, Death 101) until they’re well on their way to graduating from life. When I asked a friend of mine from high-school, now a successful dentist in his mid-fifties with a much younger wife and three small children and a vacation home in Arizona neighbouring a private golf course, if he ever thought about his eventual non-existence, he answered, “I’m too busy to think about death.” His response might seem glib, even for a dentist with a three handicap, but is typical of most people’s attitude if asked the same question.

And why shouldn’t it be? Not just because there are other things more pleasant to contemplate or because considered rumination isn’t as common a human activity as, say, envying, lying, or over-eating, but because, as Freud argued, it’s virtually impossible for human beings to imagine their own deaths. “Whenever we attempt to do so,” he claimed, “we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators . . . At bottom no one believes in his own death. . . [I]n the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” And not just when we’re young and ontologically unsophisticated. Consider the seventy two year old writer William Saroyan’s last public words (in a phone call to the Associated Press announcing his terminal cancer): “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” (Perhaps understanding that we must die yet not really believing it is merely a helpful evolutionary trick, a pre-programmed delusion that allows us to live more secure, hence more adventurous lives—and therefore be happier, more aggressive procreators. It wouldn’t be the first time biology got caught calling the shots.)

But even if we’re simply not psychologically capable of fully comprehending death (ours or anyone else’s we care about), we are able to feel its presence, however dimly sensed or no matter how imperfectly we might be able to articulate it. Even without staring directly at the sun it’s possible to point to its place in the sky. Literature is humankind’s best record of who it is—most everything else is, at best, either reality-corroding clichés or, at worst, egocentric self-advertising—and the most compelling evocations of death in literature (whether in the form of novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, et cetera) approximate Mallarme’s Symbolist poetic dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” We might not possess the psychological equipment to take a clear and definitive photograph of death, but, by snapping away at its varied effects, we can, by implication, know the unknowable a little bit better, just as the mystic doesn’t speak directly of “God” but, instead, of God’s manifestation in nature, music, or the experience of love.

It’s because impression, metaphor, and inference (and their employment in literature) are superior to purely conceptual thinking in disclosing some of death’s mystery that philosophers tend to obfuscate more often than illuminate. Art is empirical—what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell—and therefore the ideal tool for handling something that is understood, to whatever degree, on a primarily experiential level. “No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel . . . is going to believe anything the . . . writer merely tells him,” Flannery O’Connor counseled. “The first and most obvious characteristic of [good writing] is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”

Even philosophers who make a point of differentiating themselves from other thinkers deemed cripplingly logocentric tend to double death’s riddle by obscuring it in a mess of twisted syntax and near-meaningless nouns and verbs. Here’s Martin Heidegger taking a crack at the subject with characteristic Heideggerian clarity and linguistic grace: “The existential project of an authentic being-toward-death must thus set forth the factors of such a being which are constitutive for it as an understanding of death—in the sense of being toward this possibility without fleeing it or covering it over.” And, yes, many German thinkers do seem to believe that it’s an intellectual virtue to construct prose that goes down about as well as a tinfoil sandwich, but here’s a sample sentence from Being and Nothingness, France’s most well-known twentieth-century philosopher’s, Jean Paul Sartre’s, magnum opus: “Death is not my possibility of no longer realizing a presence in the world but rather an always possible nihilation of my possibles which is outside my possibilities.” Got that? Have the scales begun to fall from your eyes? One immediately thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche, one German philosopher who did write with lucidity, elegance, and even (rare for his profession) wit: “They all muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” No matter how seemingly impressive their academic credentials or how long their list of prized publications, as the nineteenth-century man of letters Jules Renard avowed, “So long as thinkers cannot tell me what life and death are, I shall not give a good goddamn for their thoughts.”

More than our opposable thumbs and consequent ability to create such contemporary wonders as microwave ovens, shoot-and-splatter video games, and reality television, foreknowledge of our own mortality is humankind’s defining characteristic. We may not know when we’ll die or how or why or what happens afterward, but we do know we are going to die. It’s ironic, then, that many individual’s first encounter with death is achieved through the loss of the family pet, who, lacking our gift (curse?) of self-consciousness, is denied this bitter wisdom. Our beloved cats and dogs may have felt pain and loss of vitality preceding their expiration, but not anxiety or sadness or fear at their impending annihilation. Those feelings are left for us to experience, often for the first time.

My first pet was a bushy-tailed grey Persian cat named Pepe, as in Pepe Le Pew (she came with the name—we inherited her from an elderly neighbour who couldn’t care for her any longer), who died when I was nine years old. Unlike children who are raised on farms and see the life cycle up close on a daily basis (“Don’t get attached to the animals, they’re not your friends, they’re food”), those of us who grew up in suburbia or in the city tended to be shielded from death’s glare. One day Pepe seemed to be lying around more than usual and wasn’t interested in her toy mouse as much, and the next day, when I came from school, she was gone. My mother told me that she and my father had taken Pepe to the vet because she hadn’t been feeling well, and the vet said she was very, very sick, and it would be cruel to let her suffer, so they’d had her put to sleep. It was then that I noticed that her food and water bowls were gone from their usual place on the kitchen floor and that the living room wasn’t littered with her balls, toys, and the long piece of silver tinsel she’d claimed as hers from the Christmas tree a couple of months previous. My mother then told me that dinner would be in about half an hour. We were having pork chops and canned green beans and boiled potatoes.

I’d heard the expression “put to sleep” before, when our next door neighbour’s beagle had been euthanized. I was friends with the family’s younger brother, who was my age, but it was his older brother by a year who I overheard saying, “I wonder what Molly is dreaming about today” when the subject of their recently deceased dog somehow came up. My friend smiled and said, “Squirrels, probably,” and his brother smiled too. “Yeah, probably,” he said. I didn’t know what happened to Pepe or Molly or anyone else’s pets once they made their only one-way trip to the veterinarian, but I knew they weren’t sleeping. Not what we called sleeping, anyway. People who said that their pet “had to be put down” seemed closer to the truth. Put down wasn’t much more helpful in aiding my understanding of what actually occurred behind the veterinarian’s walls, but the polite violence of the phrase felt right, if uncomfortably right. Poor Pepe: she’d been put down.

I felt sorry for her, that she wouldn’t get to slap at her piece of tinsel again. I felt sorry for me because I wouldn’t get to tease her with it again, holding it in front of her face then pulling it away, the way she liked. I missed her because other people’s cats weren’t her, were different colours and different sizes and didn’t like to play the same way—weren’t my cat. I felt funny because someone who was here all the time suddenly wasn’t here anymore. She was just a cat, I knew, but she was Pepe, and now there wasn’t a cat called Pepe anymore. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem fair.

Still, it’s not in old age, but in our youth that death is most common as a voluntary topic of conversation. A pet’s loss excepted, because death is usually so far removed from childhood or adolescent experience, it’s easy to talk about. (Why would a senior citizen want to be reminded of death when one goes to bed at night wondering whether or not one will wake up in the morning?) Further, because it’s, if not forbidden, at least discouraged as a topic of conversation (like sex), it’s even fun, feels slightly scandalous, to talk about. Who didn’t toy around with the “Would you rather be shot or stabbed?” question, the “If it had to be one or the other, would you rather drown or suffocate” game? It’s easy to whistle past the graveyard when it’s difficult to believe that such a place really exits.

The desire to be scared in the form of watching horror movies is another one of youth’s ways of flirting with the enticingly unfathomable. In my case, “watch” isn’t the appropriate verb. “Gorge” would be more apposite. Not just because it’s quantifiably more accurate, but because it better captures the tang of my cinematic gluttony. I couldn’t get enough of vampires who bit, mummies who choked, werewolves who clawed and tore, prehistoric monsters risen from their frozen tombs by hydrogen bombs (and man’s nefarious hubris) and driven to stomp, smash, and skewer. Granted, the thrill of the fright was often diluted by the implausibility of the plots or the wooden acting or the dead (and not in a good way) dialogue—or, frequently, all three—but underneath all of the amateurishness there was still the tingle of good old terror. In retrospect, this more than occasional improbability likely aided in maximizing the films’ fright values. If I hadn’t been intermittently reminded that the werewolf looked more like a college football team’s overly furry, frowning mascot than a half-man, half-wolf killing machine or been made suspicious of those flying saucers that resembled the tinfoil pie plates my mother used for her baking, I might not have been able to stay plunked in front of the television until movie’s end. A little bit of laughter—especially derisive laughter—help makes the terror go down.

With films that featured ghosts, exorcisms, or the occult, however, things could be more complicated. There was still a fair share of cinematic clunkers, spirits that went boo-boo instead of Boo! in the night, but there were also movies like The Changeling, The Exorcist, and The Haunting, films where the production values were high, the acting was professional, and, most importantly, the writing was generally first-rate. (First-rate for a horror film—any genre film or book is necessarily limited by existing within a genre, with all of its stylistically restrictive conventions.) Because the movies seemed real, so did the terror. In addition, the fright value of a satanically possessed child or a haunted house wasn’t generated by “look-out-behind-you!” suspense or blood-and-guts shock and gore, but by things, for the most part, unseen. Unseen and therefore impossible to unequivocally deny. Dracula and zombies and pissed-off mummies were fun to pretend to believe in, were the paranormal price one paid for a ticket on a day-trip aboard the supernatural express, with stops along the way at Death, Decay, and Dread, but no one believed in vampires and the resurrected recently deceased. Not really. But demons and lost souls . . .

Aside from absorbing the usual amount of Christian conditioning that goes with growing up in North American society, religion-wise, I was raised working-class, small-town Canada circa the 1970s: God means Love and be nice to other people and they’ll (probably) be nice to you and beware of all those spouting Holy Joe hocus-pocus. For the most part, I was a contented believer in non-belief. But one couldn’t really know for sure, could one? Not 100%. That just because we don’t see something—particularly something chill-inducing—it wasn’t real. That the fear brought on by a dark room at the top of the stairs, a strange sound in the middle of the night, a well-told ghost story that someone claimed actually happened, wasn’t rooted in a strange, inexplicable, but bona-fide reality. Hamlet wasn’t on my reading list until Mr. Rose’s Grade Thirteen English class, but “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could have appeared on the television screen prior to the start of every Saturday night horror film and I would have nodded away in at least partial understanding.

Later on, as one gradually grows more cognizant of death and the genuinely frightening, as opposed to cinematically-fabricated, consequences of mortality (that’s it, that’s all, there ain’t any more), there’s even an appealing logic to the likely illogicality of ghosts and demons and three-day exorcisms. On the one hand, a gleefully sadistic, projectile-vomiting, profanity-spewing possessed person can ruin your entire day (my parents saw The Exorcist when it was released over forty years ago and remember one viewer vomiting in disgust in the aisle and two couples having to flee the theatre out of fright). On the other hand, if the devil exists, ergo, God (however defined) does too. If there’s evil on the other side, that means there is another side. Monsters make metaphysics possible. Because there’s something even more terrifying than heads spinning around on their owner’s necks and houses that want you to vacate them strongly enough that blood flows from the shower faucet and the walls whisper your name: nothingness. Confronted with death’s promise of never-ending nothing, the devil can be a comforting thought.

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The Real Lolita

The Real Lolita

A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece
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I FIRST READ LOLITA at sixteen, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. It was something of a self-imposed dare. Only a few months earlier I’d breezed through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some months later I’d reckon with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
Those iconic opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta,”sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known from the foreword, supplied by the fictional narrator John Ray, Jr., PhD, that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her freedom
is short-lived.
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita. Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
It happened to the writer Mikita Brottman, who in The Maximum Security Book Club described her own cognitive dissonance discussing Lolita with the discussion group she led at a Maryland maximum-security prison. Brottman, reading the novel in advance, had “immediately fallen in love with the narrator,” so much so that Humbert Humbert’s “style, humor, and sophistication blind[ed] me to his faults.” Brottman knew she shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile, but she couldn’t help
being mesmerized.
The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “He’s just an old pedo!” A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words. I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to thelower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting
a little girl.”
Brottman, grappling with the prisoners’ blunt responses, realized her foolishness. She wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be seduced by style or manipulated by language. Millions of readers missed how Lolita folded in the story of a girl who experienced in real life what Dolores Haze suffered on the page. The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.
Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.
WRITING ABOUT VLADIMIR NABOKOV daunted me, and still does. Reading his work and researching in his archives was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
Nabokov loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers and I hate Tom-peeping over the fence of those lives,” he once declared in a lecture about Russian literature to his students at Cornell University, where he taught from 1948 through 1959. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time—and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life.”
He made his public distaste for the literal mapping of fiction to real life known as early as 1944, in his idiosyncratic, highly selective, and sharply critical biography of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story,’ ” Nabokov chided. “Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
The Gogol biography was more a window into Nabokov’s own thinking than a treatise on the Russian master. With respect to his own work, Nabokov did not want critics, academics, students, and readers to look for literal meanings or real-life influences. Whatever source material he’d relied on was grist for his own literary mill, to be used as only he saw fit. His insistence on the utter command of his craft served Nabokov well as his reputation and fame grew after the American publication of Lolita in 1958. Scores of interviewers, whether they wrote him letters, interrogated him on television, or visited him at his house, abided by his rules of engagement. They handed over their questions in advance and accepted his answers, written at leisure, cobbling them together to mimic spontaneous conversation.
Nabokov erected roadblocks barring access to his private life for deeper, more complex reasons than to protect his inalienable right to tell stories. He kept family secrets, quotidian and gargantuan, that he did not wish anyone to air in public. And no wonder, when you consider what he lived through: the Russian Revolution, multiple emigrations, the rise of the Nazis, and the fruits of international bestselling success. After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Nabokov also abandoned Russian, the language of the first half of his literary career, for English. He equated losing his mother tongue to losing a limb, even though, in terms of style and syntax, his English dazzled beyond the imagination of most native speakers.
Always by his side, aiding Nabokov with his lifelong quest to keep nosy people at bay, was his wife, Véra. She took on all of the tasks Nabokov wouldn’t or couldn’t do: assistant, chief letter writer, first reader, driver, subsidiary rights agent, and many other less-defined roles. She subsumed herself, willingly, for his art, and anyone who poked too deeply at her undying devotion looking for contrary feelings was rewarded with fierce denials, stonewalling, or outright untruths.
Yet this book exists in part because the Nabokovs’ roadblocks eventually crumbled. Other people did gain access to his private life. There were three increasingly tendentious biographies by Andrew Field, whose relationship with his subject began in harmony but curdled into acrimony well before Nabokov died in 1977. A two-part definitive study by Brian Boyd is still the biographical standard, a quarter century after its publication, with which any Nabokov scholar must reckon. And Stacy Schiff’s 1999 portrayal of Véra Nabokov illuminated so much about their partnership and teased out the fragments of Véra’s inner life.
We’ve also learned more about what made Nabokov tick since the Library of Congress lifted its fifty-year Restriction upon his papers in 2009, opening the entire collection to the public. The more substantive trove at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection still has some restrictions, but I was able to immerse myself in Nabokov’s work, his notes, his manuscripts, and also the ephemera—newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, diaries.
A strange thing happened as I looked for clues in his published work and his archives: Nabokov grew less knowable. Such is the paradox of a writer whose work is so filled with metaphor and allusion, so dissected by literary scholars and ordinary readers. Even Boyd claimed, more than a decade and a half after writing his biography of Nabokov, that he still did not fully understand Lolita.
What helped me grapple with the book was to reread it, again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Nabokov himself believed the only novels worth reading are the ones that demand to be read on multiple occasions. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other . . . were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude himself. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of preadolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these signs of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
OVER THE FOUR OR SO YEARS I spent working on this book project, I spoke with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
I can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader. Given that the story moves so quickly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. But I would argue that even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare. Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction. What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.

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Looks Can Kill

A Doctor's Journey through Steroids, Addiction and Online Fitness Culture
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The Winter List

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New Fiction for the week of January 13th : New Fiction for January
Bury Your Horses

To a northerner’s eye, this corner of the Chihuahuan Desert looks desolate, like some vast empty lot forsaken and left to sprout weeds and scrub brush. If you look more closely, though, you’ll see it’s not barren. Here, too, the ageless struggle to survive continues. Gaze up into the faded blue sky and you’ll see a turkey vulture circling lazily with the patience of death itself. Down on the ground, lizards and rodents, scorpions and snakes scurry and slither in the unrelenting dance of hunter and prey. If you sit and wait patiently, which is not easy to do in the brain-baking heat of a spring afternoon, you might even see one of the larger denizens — a puma, or a mule deer — moving through this deceptively bleak environment, exploiting the niche Nature has afforded it.
There is a perfectly straight black line down the middle of the thorn scrub landscape, showing that the ultimate predator has also staked a claim. But although humans have been industrious enough to place a highway here, it seems at first they are not so foolish as to inhabit the place.
But then, as the asphalt shimmers in the sun, a lone figure crests the horizon. Riding a motorcycle that costs several times more than most inhabitants of this New Mexico county earn in a year, the man is racing at full throttle, achieving speeds approaching two hundred miles per hour. It’s unclear whether he is momentarily taking advantage of the straight and deserted stretch of highway to test the vehicle’s capabilities, or is really in such a hurry to get to the small border town at the end of the road. In either case, he is pushing both his own limits and the machine’s.
A desert box turtle begins crossing the highway. Having waited out the winter in hibernation, the creature has been coaxed it out of its burrow by the late-April warmth, and evidently it has business on the other side of the road. The creature is, by nature, in no hurry, and steadfastly crawls toward its goal. The rider of the motorcycle spots the reptile traversing the road, and for a few seconds it appears he is planning to run over the turtle, but at the last moment, he veers abruptly out of the way.
This is a mistake. At such high speed the rapid jerking movement interrupts the motorcycle’s gyroscopic stability and causes its rear to fishtail violently. The man fights desperately to steer his machine, and as he rides the thin edge between control and calamity, the adrenalin-soaked battle for balance feels very familiar. The motorcycle leaves the road. While this reduces the speed, it also makes any chance of control impossible as the machine bounces over the rough terrain. Separated from his bike, the rider becomes a projectile, passing through and obliterating two large yucca plants before landing in a patch of creosote bushes. He is fortunate to be alive, though he feels far from it as he lies on the ground, awash in pain.
“Fuck!” he screams. “You stupid asshole, Shane!”
Self-recrimination is nothing new for Shane, but since it is currently counterproductive, not to mention historically ineffective, he abandons the exercise and instead inventories his injuries. On top of sundry contusions and sprains, his left arm, he realizes, is broken.
With his operable hand, Shane removes his motorcycle helmet, then pulls the glove off his right hand using his teeth. Slowly, he struggles to his feet, but when he places weight on his right leg, the knee buckles and almost sends him back to the ground. He does a frantic little dance on his uninjured leg, his fractured arm dangling at his side, and manages to retain his balance.
It feels to him, from experience, that the kneecap has popped out. He looks around for his motorcycle, which is fifty yards away, lying on its side and still idling.
“This ought to be fun,” he mutters, and hops toward the machine. He is halfway there when his foot catches on something in the soft soil, and he trips. He twists in mid-air to ensure he doesn’t land on his broken arm, and with practised expertise keeps his head forward, allowing his back and shoulders to absorb the impact.
As he lies there, summoning up the energy to rise again, he notices there are now three buzzards circling overhead, gliding in and out of the sun’s glare. The scavengers’ presence actually causes him to laugh.
“How about that. Just like in the movies.” Not much of one for reading, Shane loves cinema — especially old Westerns — having devoured film after film during the extensive travel involved in his past profession.
He watches the lazy aerial display until its significance hits home, then he rolls over and struggles to stand up again. By now glistening with perspiration, he manages to hop over to the motorcycle without losing his balance this time.
Despite his injuries, his first priority is to turn off the idling engine and examine his bike. He’s obviously not in any condition to try to right the motorcycle and ride it, but he loves the Ducati nevertheless and regrets any damage it has sustained. He ascertains that, in fact, the motorcycle has fared far better in the accident than he has. Relieved, he turns his attention to the saddlebags.
“Shit. It figures.” Shane realizes that the motorcycle has landed on the side where his cellular phone was stowed. The easiest thing to do now is sit and wait for help, but based on the paucity of vehicles he has encountered on this particular highway, it could be a while before someone happens along.
He decides to try moving the motorcycle, reasoning that he need only raise the bike far enough to access the saddlebag underneath. He looks around for something to use as a lever, but the scrub brush of the Chihuahuan Desert offers no usable timber. Shane opts to use his head like a bull — an animal which, coincidentally, he has been compared to in the past. The best spot for leverage seems to be the seat, so he tries to get his head under it. Unable to achieve good purchase, he decides to make a hollow in the ground to allow for a better angle of leverage, and begins scooping out the soil with his good hand.
His digging dislodges a striped bark scorpion from its burrow. Unaware that this particular arachnid’s sting is almost never fatal, Shane lurches backward in a panicked reflex, jolting his fractured wrist. The pain — which had previously subsided to a tolerable throbbing — spikes beyond endurance, and he passes out.
When he regains consciousness, the scorpion has disappeared. He climbs to his feet and pats himself down with his one operable hand to make sure the creature has not crawled inside his clothes or some bodily crevice. Satisfied he is in no immediate danger of being stung, he is nevertheless reluctant to resume excavating. He looks around for something to use as a digging tool, cursing when the search proves futile.
The heat is oppressive, and Shane feels his face beginning to burn, so he picks up his motorcycle helmet, puts it on, and lowers the tinted visor against the glare. This reminds him of his resistance to using a visor in his former profession, and that remembrance makes him smile, despite his dire situation.
He looks down at his hole and pokes around with his boot to unearth any critters that might lie in wait. Even so, he has no desire to stick his hand or his head into the depression. Finally, he uses his teeth to pull on his glove, trusting the thick leather will protect him against scorpions, and cautiously resumes digging.
Nothing crawls out to disturb Shane’s excavation, and soon there is adequate space for him to get his bare head beneath the motorcycle seat. Removing his helmet, he pulls his broken arm against his belly, distributes his weight as evenly as possible, and — emitting a grunt — lifts with his head and shoulders.
He is elated to feel the motorcycle lifting, but it is evident that he will only be able to raise the bike a foot or so. Still, he can see that the flap of the trapped saddlebag is now clear of the ground. Straining to support the weight, he uses the elbow of his injured arm to shove his discarded helmet underneath the vehicle’s frame before relinquishing the weight and exhaling with a loud whoosh.
“Woo-hoo! You the man, Shane,” he hollers, permitting himself a little horizontal victory dance. Pivoting onto his good shoulder, he reaches underneath to unfasten the flap of the saddlebag and fishes through his belongings, retrieving the cellphone by touch alone.
When he looks down at the phone’s screen, he realizes there is no signal in this remote place. All his effort has been for nothing. He erupts in a scream of rage, but manages to refrain from hurling the offending phone into the scrub brush — no small feat, for Shane’s rage-filled attacks on inanimate objects are well documented. Instead, he covers his face with his good hand and begins to sob.

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A Strange Kind of Comfort


The chudesnytsia blends a tea of burdock root, raspberry leaves, and honey, then rests in her rocking chair by the wood stove while she sips. Usually the bitter brew eases the pain deep in her bones but today it does little to relieve her suffering. Instead, the pungent odour rising from the steam carries her off to a murky, twilight place where she drifts between wakefulness and dreams.

She is home again in the village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the beloved grandmother she left behind trudging slowly up the path to a whitewashed hut, clutching the hem of a crisp white apron. It droops like a hammock with the weight of a cabbage the size of a grown man’s head. And there is her mother, long dead, retching in agony as the SS Bulgaria rocks on an angry, endless sea. She sees herself, a small and frightened child wearing a grimy dress, woollen stockings sagging at the knees, peering up from a wooden bunk in the hull of the ship. She feels the crush of women’s rough skirts against her cheek as soiled babies howl and anxious women fret over their husbands’ decisions while waiting, waiting, at the port of Halifax for papers to be looked at and documents filed.

She wakes with a start to a muffled tapping she thinks might be the barn door, unhooked and flapping in the wind, or perhaps the child upstairs, not yet asleep, bumping her feet against the wall. As she comes fully awake she realizes it is someone knocking at her door. She hoists herself up, shuffles over, and opens it to find on her stoop a young, round-shouldered woman holding the hand of a child. The boy is thin and pale, with hair the colour of acorns and haunted brown eyes she senses he is afraid to close at night. The woman’s face, too, bears the strain of sleepless nights. She takes a step forward as a lone wolf howls in the distant hills, a keening cry that startles the boy. “I was told you could help my child.” She falters over the Ukrainian words and the chudesnytsia thinks for a moment how like her own daughter this young woman is, the words so unforgiving on her tongue.

The chudesnytsia ushers them in and gestures to the table, inviting them to sit. The boy looks around the room with wary eyes, taking in the small jars of garnet-coloured jam lined up on the cupboard, the wooden print of the Last Supper hanging on the wall, the flickering candle on a small side table.

“It’s a’right. You tell to me in English. What it is wrong with this little one?”

The young woman seems relieved she does not have to struggle to explain her son’s condition and she speaks slowly, taking care with each word. “He doesn’t sleep. He can’t go a night without waking, screaming out for me. I rush in to his room and he is so scared he can’t stop shaking, yet when I ask, he says he doesn’t know what scares him.”

In hushed tones, the old woman probes, wanting to know if the boy had been ill before the nightmares began. Had anyone died? A grandparent? A beloved dog? Had he been frightened by something? The boy’s mother tells her how difficult these last months have been, lights blazing in every room throughout the night, the sheets tangled at the foot of his bed. The child has begged his mother not to leave him and cries when she does. The old woman nods, trying to make sense of it. She is familiar with such cases and has had success in the past. A cleansing read with her wax and holy water to determine the source of his buried fear together with a tincture from her wildflowers, berries, or bark should rid the child of whatever torments him.

The boy drifts to the small table with the sputtering candle and fingers a linen cloth, embellished with red and black cross-stitch, draped across a holy icon of the Virgin Mary. The boy leans in, as though for a closer look, and, with a gentle puff, blows out the candle.

“Oh,” his mother says, bringing one hand to her mouth, “I told you not to touch anything.”

“It’s a’right,” the old woman says. “We light again.” She picks up the candle and a small wicker basket from the floor next to the table and holds it out to the boy. “You help me to carry?”

In the basket are a black-rimmed white enamel cup and bowl, a packet of matches, a smooth-edged knife, a small vial of water, and a lump of amber-coloured wax. The boy carries the basket, gently, as though it holds eggs he might break, and places it on the table. From a pail next to the sink, the old woman scoops a dipper of water, hand-drawn from her well, and fills the bowl.

“I ready. We start,” she says, cupping the boy’s chin with her right hand. The sign of Jesus had appeared on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. She had awakened to find three crosses on her palm, pulsing brilliantly red, as though they had been carved there with a pocket knife during the night. Her mother took their appearance as a sign her daughter was ready to learn the incantations for cleansing and healing that she had learned from her own mother — the same rituals handed down through generations of women in her family and brought with them to Canada. The crosses are barely visible now and she wonders if her power has diminished with them, but she reminds herself the healing comes from God’s grace and the unwavering faith of those who come.

“Do you believe?” She must ask the question, but she knows the boy is too young. What does a child of six know of faith or God? He says nothing and averts his gaze so she turns to his mother, whose eyes brim with hope. “And you. Do you believe?” The young woman nods, although the look in her eyes is wary, as though she has come not because she truly believes in the power of the Holy Spirit but out of a deep and troubling desperation. The old woman shifts the boy’s chair, scraping it across the wooden floor, and arranges herself in front of him, facing east to harness the power of the rising sun as the ritual demands, although night has almost fallen. A sudden, heavy rain begins to thrum against the roof as she lights the candle and places a lump of beeswax in the enamel cup. Holding the cup over the candle, she adds a single clove of garlic and a few drops of holy water to the bowl. The scent of the melting wax brings to mind golden honey dripping from a comb and the hum of a hundred buzzing bees.

Vo im’ia Otsa, I Syna, I Sviatoho dukha, amin.In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three times she makes the sign of the cross, preparing herself to receive God’s grace. A whisper of doubt troubles her mind and she steels herself against it, grasping the knife in her left hand. She picks up the bowl and holds it over the boy’s head. He glances up at her and she senses his misgivings, too, but she closes her eyes and begins the ancient Ukrainian incantation. “I take to the head, to the blood, to all the joints, to adjure, to summon this fear of fears; From the north and from the south, I summon you with God’s lips, with God’s words; And the sister-stars …”

The sacred words spill easily from her lips. The power of the Trinity is within her — she feels it pulse with each pounding beat of her heart. The knife glints in the candlelight as she thrusts it toward the heavens, slicing the air and casting out the child’s fear with the same swift strokes she uses when scraping the skin of a butchered hog.

She continues to chant in her mother tongue. “I release you beyond the mountains, beyond the seas … disappear and vanish. I release you where people do not walk, where roosters do not crow, where the wind does not blow. Be gone! May you be buried and disappear.

“Chrevonu krov ne pyi, bile kilo ne sushy, zhovtu kist ne lupai.”
Do not drink red blood, dehydrate a white body, or strip a yellow bone.

The knife clatters to the table as she reaches for the melted wax. The candle flame barely flickers as she pours the thick wax and watches it move like something alive across the surface of the water, spreading until it blooms into shapes she must read. After a few moments, the shapes reveal themselves. Flames. Little greedy tongues of fire. Easy enough to see. But what confounds her is the tendril curling up and away from the heart of the blaze, stretching up toward the ceiling, unlike anything she has ever seen. Neither smoke nor flame, but separate. A tether, she senses, connecting the child to her in some way, to an event yet to happen in the distant future.

There is a sudden loud thump from upstairs and the boy and his mother look up, startled by the sound. The girl has fallen out of bed, the chudesnytsia thinks, and is about to explain the presence of someone else in the house when she notices the boy. His brow is smooth, his eyes clear, free of anguish, as he gazes up at the ceiling, restored.


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