Tash Aw

Tash Aw was born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents and grew up in Kuala Lumpur. He moved to England in his teens and studied Law at the University of Cambridge and Warwick. After working as a lawyer for four years, he studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific Region Best First Book). His subsequent novels include Map of the Invisible World (2009) and Five Star Billionaire (2013). In 2019, Aw published We, the Survivors, with Fourth Estate. His work of short fiction Sail won the O. Henry Prize in 2013 and he has been published in A Public Space and the landmark Granta 100, amongst others.

Megan Gail Coles

Megan Gail Coles is a graduate of Memorial University of Newfoundland, National Theatre School of Canada and University of British Columbia. She is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Poverty Cove Theatre Company for whom she has written numerous award-winning plays. Her debut short fiction collection, Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonesome, won the BMO Winterset Award, the ReLit Award, the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award and earned her the Writers’ Trust of Canada 5×5 Prize. Her debut novel, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a contender for CBC Canada Reads and recently won the BMO Winterset Award. Originally from Savage Cove on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Megan lives in St. John’s where she is the Executive Director of Riddle Fence and a PhD candidate at Concordia University. Megan’s debut poetry collection is forthcoming from House of Anansi this fall.

Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris is the author of three previous novels, Then We Came to the EndThe Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and a collection of stories, The Dinner Party. He was a finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers in 2010. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His short stories have appeared in The New YorkerGranta, and Best American Short Stories. Ferris lives in New York.

Zalika Reid Benta

Zalika Reid Benta is a Toronto-based writer. Her debut short story collection Frying Plantain won the 23rd annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in literary fiction. Frying Plantain was shortlisted for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards, the 2020 Trillium Book Award and longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The collection is currently nominated for the 2021 White Pine Award and was shortlisted for the Forest of Reading Evergreen Award presented by the Ontario Library Association. Reid Benta is also the winner of the 2019 Byblacks People’s Choice Awards for Best Author. Frying Plantain has been on numerous “must read” lists from Buzzfeed, Bustle, Refinery29, Chatelaine Magazine, Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, and was also listed as one of Indigo’s 50 “Best Books of 2019”. Reid Benta was the June 2019 Writer in Residence for Open Book and she was listed in CBC’s “6 Canadian Writers to Watch in 2019”. She received an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, was the 2019 John Gardner Fiction Fellow at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and is an alumnus of the 2017 Banff Writers’ Studio. She is currently working on a young-adult fantasy novel drawing inspiration from Jamaican folklore.

Joshua Whitehead

Joshua Whitehead is a Two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). He is the author of full-metal indigiqueer (Talonbooks 2017) which was shortlisted for the inaugural Indigenous Voices Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry. He is also the author of Jonny Appleseed (Arsenal Pulp Press 2018) which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Indigenous Voices Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award. It won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. Whitehead is currently working on a third manuscript titled, Making Love with the Land to be published with Knopf Canada, which explores the intersections of Indigeneity, queerness, and, most prominently, mental health through a nêhiyaw lens. His work has been published in such venues as Prairie FireCV2EVENTArc Poetry MagazineThe FiddleheadGrainCNQWrite, and Red Rising Magazine.

Fight Night

By Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is the author of seven previous, bestselling novels: Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows, The Flying Troutmans, Irma Voth, A Complicated Kindness, A Boy of Good Breeding, and Summer of My Amazing Luck, and one work of non-fiction, Swing Low: A Life. Her books have been widely published internationally, and adapted for stage and film. Among other honours, she is the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Writers’ Trust Marian Engel/ Timothy Findley Award. She lives in Toronto.

The Listeners

By Jordan Tannahill

Jordan Tannahill is an internationally acclaimed playwright who was born in Ottawa and is currently based in London (UK). Two of his plays have won a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. He has written one previous novel, Liminal, which was published to much acclaim and named one of the best Canadian novels of 2018 by CBC Books. CBC Arts named him as “one of sixty-nine LGBTQ Canadians, living or deceased, who has shaped the country’s history.” He is a regular columnist on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter

Website: https://www.jordantannahill.com/

Twitter: @cruising_utopia

The son of the house

By Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a lawyer, academic, and writer. She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children. Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

Twitter: @Cheluchi_O

Glorious Frazzled Beings

By Angélique Lalonde

ANGÉLIQUE LALONDE was the recipient of the 2019 Journey Prize, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and was awarded an Emerging Writer’s residency at the Banff Centre. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Victoria. Lalonde is the second-eldest of four daughters. She dwells on Gitxsan Territory in Northern British Columbia with her partner, two small children, and many non-human beings. 

What strange paradise

By Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad is an author and journalist. His debut novel, American War, was an international bestseller and has been translated into thirteen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Twitter: @omarelakkad

website: omarelakkad.com

Fight Night

Dear Dad,

How are you? I was expelled. Have you ever heard of Choice Time? That’s my favourite class. I do Choice Time at the Take-Apart Centre, which is the place in our classroom where we put on safety goggles and take things apart. It’s a bit dangerous. The first half of the class we take things apart and then Madame rings a bell, which means it’s the second half of the class and we’re supposed to put things back together. It doesn’t make sense because it takes way longer to put things back together than take them apart. I tried to talk to Mom about it, and she said I should just start putting things back together sooner, before Madame rings the bell, but when I did that Madame told me I had to wait for the bell. I told Madame about the problem with time but she didn’t like my tone, which was a lashing out tone, which I’m supposed to be working on. Mom is in her third trimester. She’s cracking up. Gord is trapped inside her. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she said a cold IPA and a holiday. Grandma lives with us now. She has one foot in the grave. She’s not afraid of anything. I asked her where you were and she said that’s the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. She said she misses Grandpa. She said that by the time she gets to heaven he’ll probably have left. Men, she said. They come and they —

Today marks the beginning of our neo-realist period, Grandma told me this morning. She plunked down fried potatoes on the table, and a bottle of ketchup. Fun and games! she said. She told me I have blue Nike swooshes under my eyes. She said I need to get more sleep. What’s the problem, Swiv? Bad dreams?

Grandma’s writing a letter to Gord, because that’s the assignment I gave her and Mom at our Editorial Meeting yesterday. She gives me assignments, too. We are co-editors. Our family therapist was the one who told us to write letters, but Mom says we can’t afford therapy anymore if all we’re supposed to do is write to missing people. Grandma says she thinks it’s useful. She says we can be like reporters and have our own news desk. She says letters start off as one thing and become another thing. But Mom mistrusts them, like photos. She hates photos. I don’t want to be frozen in a moment! 

Grandma says fragments are the only truth. Fragments of what? I asked her. Exactly! she said. She asked me what my dream was last night. I told her I dreamt that I had to write a goodbye letter using the words one and blue. Na oba! Grandma said. That’ll be your assignment for today, Swivchen! She has a secret language. She didn’t even ask me who the letter was for. Grandma skips over pertinent details because she’s got five minutes left to live and doesn’t want to waste it on the small picture. What if I had a dream that I was naked and locked out of my house? I asked her. Would that be my assignment? Na jungas! she said. It’s happened to me many times! Grandma loves to talk about the body. She loves everything about the body, every nook and cranny. How can it have happened to you many times? I asked her. That’s life! she said. You gotta love yourself, regardless. That’s not life, I said. Being naked and locked out of your house all the time? Fun and games! she said. She was counting out her pills and laughing.

After that we had Math Class. Pencils ready! she yelled. If you’ve got a two thousand-piece puzzle of an Amish farm and you manage to add three pieces to the puzzle per day, how many more days will you need to stay alive to get it done? Math Class was interrupted by the doorbell. Ball Game! yelled Grandma. Who could it be? The doorbell ringer is set to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which Grandma forces me to sing with her during the seventh-inning stretch even if we’re just watching the game in our living room. She makes me stand up for the anthem at the beginning, too. Mom doesn’t stand up for the anthem because Canada is a lie and a crime scene.
It was Jay Gatsby. He wants to tear our house down. I went to the door and opened it and told him, It’s yours for twenty million dollars.

He said, Listen, can I speak with your mother. You said the last time— Twenty-five million dollars, I said.
Sorry, said Jay Gatsby, I’d like to speak with—
Thirty million dollars, capitalist, do you understand English? I slammed the door shut. Grandma said that was a bit overkill. He’s afraid of death, said Grandma. She said it like an insult. He’s lost his way! Jay Gatsby wants to tear down our house and build an underground doomsday-proof luxury vault. Jay Gatsby bought a house on a tropical island once and then forced every other person living on the island to sell their house to him so that he had the whole island to himself to do ecstasy and yoga with ex-models. He forced all the models to take pills that made their shit gold and sparkly. Mom said he’s had fake muscles put into his calves. She knows this because one day she saw him on the sidewalk outside the bookstore and his calves were super skinny and three days later they were bulging and had seams on them. Mom said he went to a place in Cleveland, Ohio to get it done where you can also have your vag tightened up if you feel like it. Then you can just sit around with your S.O. vaping all day with your giant fake calves and stitched-up wazoo and be spied on by your modern thermostat which is a weapon of the state they just call “green” because of sales and Alexa and shit and practicing mindfulness hahahaha and just be really, really, really happy that you don’t have half a fucking brain between the two of you.

That’s how Mom talks. It’s probably not true. She lies. She hates words like modern and creative and sexuality and she hates acronyms. She hates almost everything. Grandma told me she doesn’t know how Mom was able to stop ranting long enough to get pregnant with Gord. She compared impregnating Mom to creeping up to the edge of an active volcano that you accidentally thought was inactive. She says Mom does the emotional work for the whole family, feeling everything ten times harder than is necessary so the rest of us can act normal. Grandma doesn’t believe in privacy and thinks everything private is hilarious because she was the youngest kid to be born into a family of fifteen people. Na oba! she’ll say when you’re in the bathroom. Look at you sitting all by yourself in this little room with your pants around your ankles, that’s priceless! Grandma’s dad forgot what all his kids were called and accidentally gave Grandma the same name as one of the older kids. Grandma’s mom used her as a form of birth control by putting Grandma next to her in bed for seven years. After seven years Grandma’s mom entered menopause so she was safe, and Grandma could go sleep for the rest of her childhood in the hallway.

Remember that woman, that friend of mine, who donated her head? Grandma said yesterday. Well, she’s dead. Almost every day Grandma gets a call about someone she knows being dead. This morning Grandma was watching the Blue Jays highlights and she said Vladimir Guerrero reminded her of a good friend of hers in junior high, Tina Koop. She’d just stand casually at home plate, not in a batting stance or anything, and hit a homer every time. I said Wow, what is she doing now? She’s dead, said Grandma. That’s how Grandma talks about her friends. She doesn’t scream about it. She doesn’t even cry. The only thing she and her friends talk about on the phone is dying. Grandma’s friend Leona called her yesterday and said, You’ll never believe this but Henry Wiebe has agreed to be cremated. What! said Grandma. That’s priceless! You know why? said Leona. No, why? said Grandma. Because it’s cheaper! They laughed their heads off. And more stylish! They laughed even more. Leona said Henry Wiebe was always secretly wanting to be stylish and then he found out that everyone he knew was getting cremated. When Grandma got off the phone she told me it was funny because Henry Wiebe preached to everyone for more than fifty years that cremation was a sin, but then he came into direct contact with his mortality and notorious cheapness and need to be stylish and realized that he could save money and be stylish by having himself cremated. But he’ll be dead, I said, so how can he be stylish and save money? Grandma said, You just gotta know Henry.

You can tell when she gets phone calls about her dead friends because she pours herself an extra schluckz of wine to watch the Raptors and she stares at me for long stretches and quotes poetry at me even though I’m not doing anything, just sitting there watching the game with her. Dead men naked they shall be one / With the man in the wind and the west moon. On the days she gets the death calls she grabs at me when I walk past her and I know she wants affection, but I hate always having to be the embodiment of life. When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone. Usually I deke to the right when I pass her chair and she misses because she’s really slow, but then I feel bad and I walk really slowly past her again so she can grab me. But then she feels bad about having tried to grab me when I don’t want to be grabbed and so she doesn’t grab me and I have to sort of just plunk down in her lap and put my arms around her. She says she’s knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door and she is at 110 percent peace with that. She says when she kicks the bucket I should just put her in a pickle jar and go outside and play already.

Our next class was How to Dig a Winter Grave. Grandma said when she was a small kid she went to a funeral in North Dakota and discovered that all the people who died in the winter there had to wait around until the spring to be buried. I was horrified! said Grandma. She heckled the undertaker. They didn’t know how to dig a winter grave?! Here’s what you do, she said. Heat up coals and lay them on the ground until it melts. Dig up that layer of dirt. Reheat the coals and lay them down on the ground again until another layer of dirt melts. Dig it up.

Keep doing that until you’ve got a six-foot hole. Done! You don’t wait until the spring to bury people. What nonsense! Let’s phone North Dakota to see if they’re still making people wait until the spring to be buried, I said. Let’s do it, said Grandma. I called the North Dakota Board of Funerals. The man said, Yes, that’s just how it is here. Delayed burials are a necessary evil in North Dakota.

Grandma likes to sit on the top step of our front porch and water the flowers and fall asleep in the sun. She tilts her head way back to feel the warm sun on her face. The instant she falls asleep she loses her grip on the hose and it flips all over the place and sprays her awake and then she knows she’s had her nap and also accomplished a household task. She sprays cops when they have their windows down and are cruising slowly past our house because she hates them after what they did when Grandpa died, and just period. When they get out of the car and walk up to her she says things like, Here comes Rocket Man! Send in the clowns! The cops smile because they think she’s just a crazy old lady. But she really means business. She hates them. She doesn’t want to hate anybody but she can’t help it and she isn’t even going to pray about it because she thinks God secretly hates them too. When they ask all the usual questions, she doesn’t say a word. She points the hose at their little armoured feet if even one inch of a boot is on our yard and forces them to back onto the sidewalk.

Grandma likes to tell Mom we’ve accomplished household tasks every day because Mom is having a complete nervous breakdown and a geriatric pregnancy which doesn’t mean she’s going to push an old geezer out of her vag, it means she’s too old to be up the stump and is so exhausted and when she comes home from rehearsals she’s all, God, what a mess, god you guys, what a dump, you can’t pour fat down the drain, these pipes are ancient, you can’t overload the toilet with toilet paper, why are there conchigliettes everywhere, can’t you two pick up a dish or put this shit away or have you ever even heard of household tasks? Mom’s latest domestic freak-out is that she always has to put all the food that’s in the fridge at the very outer edges of the racks so that it’s entirely visible to Grandma, otherwise Grandma thinks there’s no food because she can’t see it, and she doesn’t move things around to see the food in the back of the fridge and then she orders take-out or just eats ice cream or bacon or handfuls of cereal from the box. So now Mom lines everything up in a row on the outer edges of the fridge racks with labels like THIS IS LENTIL CHILI! EAT IT! THIS IS KALE SALAD! EAT IT! Grandma doesn’t eat anything green. Not a single thing, ever. It’s like Samson and his hair. He can’t cut it or he’ll lose his strength. Grandma can’t eat green things. She can detect green things in her food when Mom tries to hide them in there. I’m not going to spend my last five minutes on earth eating rabbit food! She takes a long time, like it’s an opera or something, after she’s detected the green things, to slowly pick them out of her food one by one and put them on the table beside her plate. Mom sighs and takes the pile and eats it herself but she never stops trying to trick Grandma and Grandma never stops not being tricked. Grandma won’t eat red soup. Mom made borscht for us and Grandma said I am not eating red soup. Why not? Because I don’t eat red soup!

Mom says to me, Don’t say up the stump, don’t say that thing about a skunk’s asshole, don’t say vag, don’t say shit tickets. And Mom says to Grandma, Use the subtitles or top volume when you watch Call the Midwife, not both. Why would you use both! What difference does it make to you if I use both? It’s using too many of your senses at once! Na oba! It’s up to me how I use my senses! Grandma loses her hearing aids in the exact same places every day. I try to keep all her dead batteries in an old thyme tin to bring them to the right part of the garbage dump but yesterday Mom was so exhausted from her rehearsals and carrying Gord around 24-7 that she mistakenly shook the batteries into the spaghetti sauce and we had to pick them out at dinnertime and make tiny piles of them next to our plates, which in Mom’s case is next to piles of Kleenex from blowing her nose constantly.

At dinner Mom said she doesn’t know why she’s so tired all the time, the third trimester is supposed to be one of renewed energy. She doesn’t even have the energy to play Dutch Blitz. She said she’s supposed to have a burst of energy to clean and organize the house in preparation for Gord’s arrival. The burst is called the nesting instinct. I have it! I said. I’m the one who cleans everything! Mom rubbed my hair around and said, Oh, that’s so cute, you’ve got the nesting instinct. Which is obviously not cute. I don’t want to have instincts. I said Grandma, listen to this. First try, mister. Second try, mister, third try, mister, and . . . you’re out! Grandma didn’t hear me. She pretended to. Don’t try me, mister? she said. I shouted it again. Na kjint! said Grandma. She was still pretending. I shouted as loud as I could, and Mom said Swiv! Jesus fucking Christ!

There is the sound of continuous screaming coming out of Grandma’s bedroom from women having babies or from the babies themselves being forced to be born or from people being murdered or from people discovering the bodies of the murdered people. Grandma says British women sure scream a lot when they discover dead bodies. I would too, I told her. No, no, she said. It’s a body. It’s nuscht! Grandma rides her Gazelle for fifteen minutes while she’s watching her shows. She says hoooooo in between strides and afterwards, Goot, goot, goot. Gownz yenook. Only her dying and dead friends know her secret language. She takes lines from her shows and practices them on me all day with a British accent. Swiv, darling, we must make a dash for the continent!

Grandma said in Editorial Meeting that I should say “plug your piehole” silently to myself, if I have to, so I don’t get Mom riled up because Mom is city now and with Gord and everything. Grandma says that when Mom goes scorched earth our only hope for survival is to take cover in a different room and wait for it to blow over. For Pythia to stop ranting at Delphi. Grandma says I should try to turn Mom’s oracling into elegant hexameters like the Greeks did. She said a hexameter is a poem with a curse built into it.

Grandma has known Mom since Mom was born on the hottest day in history before the invention of fans and AC. The room was a furnace! said Grandma. Blood and fire! She said when Mom was born the doctor was so useless at removing babies from women that Grandma had to say to him would you please get your hands out of me and let me do this myself. Mom finally popped out angry and crimson-red, like a tiny Satan. When Mom goes scorched earth she swishes oregano oil around in her mouth to prevent her from saying horrible things she’ll regret and to boost her immunity even though there’s no scientific evidence that it does. Grandma told Mom today, before Mom went to rehearsal, that I hold it in when I’m doing the Sudoku in the morning and then I miss the boat. Mom said, What are you talking about, boat, and Grandma told her I have a fixation about finishing the Sudoku before I do anything, including Editorial Meeting and having a bowel movement, and then my stool retreats back inside me and colours my outlook for the whole day and is probably the thing that causes the Nike swooshes under my eyes. Swiv is sponsored by Nike? said Mom. Slay me. Mom stared hard at me like she was trying to see right through my skin to the piles and piles of built-up stool inside me. Then she said, Hmmm, just keep trying, Swiv. Just try to relax, sweetheart. She slid her thumbs along my Nike swooshes. She hugged me and then she left.

I don’t know why saying bowel movement and stool is better than vag and piehole. It doesn’t matter what words you use in life, it’s not gonna prevent you from suffering.

Two weeks ago Grandma gave her Winnipeg Jets sweatpants to a guy who came to the door and today when Mom and I were walking home from therapy we saw that guy sitting on the curb outside the 7-Eleven wearing them and singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Then we looked even closer and we saw that Grandma was sitting on the curb too and also singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Grandma wasn’t wearing her track suit or cargoes, she was wearing a short skirt and sitting with her legs apart because it was hard for her to sit on a curb and I could see her underwear, which gave me my nervous tic of coughing. Grandma loves to be naked. She proudly tells the same story to every new person about how she inadvertently did a strip tease for a guy in Mexico City and he really, really enjoyed it. Grandma and Mom argue about Grandma giving things away, but Grandma says after the doctors killed almost everyone she loved she had to ask herself how she would survive grief and her answer was Who can I help? Grandma says doctors killed her family. Doctors killed my husband. Doctors killed my sister. Doctors killed my daughter. When she says that, Mom quietly tells me not to say anything except yeah, it’s true. Or, I agree with you, Grandma. You’re right. If Mom or I say anything else, like how can that be or that’s an exaggeration or anything like that, Grandma will erupt and probably have a heart attack because she already has so much obsolete hardware in her chest and a long scar that runs down almost her entire torso like a zipper. Grandma says doctors killed everyone when she’s mad or when she’s drinking Mom’s special rum from Italy, which is just ordinary Canadian rum that Mom poured into a special Italian bottle. Sometimes Grandma cries. She feels guilty. Then Mom has to sit down and hold Grandma’s hands and run through every scenario with her to make her see that she’s not. Grandma only loves Dr. De Sica. He’s young and handsome and Italian. He’s keeping her alive. He checks in on her. When the phone rings Grandma says oh, is that my De Sica? When she goes to his office she acts tough. She lies. So De Sica has to guess what’s wrong with her.

When I help Grandma get undressed for her shower I run my finger down her scar and go zzzzzzzzip! Step out of your skin, ma’am! She sits on a plastic shower chair that Mom found in someone’s garbage—when Mom brought it home Grandma said ha ha, obviously someone around here bought the farm—laughing and laughing and I lather her up with lavender French soap her friend William gave her for helping him fight his landlord and write a letter to his arrogant brother. I have to lift up her rolls of fat to get in the creases and even wash her giant butt and boobs and the bottoms of her hard, crispy feet and her toes which twist around each other. Then I have to soak up the three inches of water on the bathroom floor so she doesn’t slip and fall because that would be the end, my friend, she says. Then I dry her off and brush her soft white baby hair and put the bobby pins back in to pull it away from her face because Mom gave her a ridiculous pull it away from her face because Mom gave her a ridiculous fashionable haircut called a Wispy Silver Bob that goes in her eyes, and put her hearing aids back into her ears which I hate doing because you really have to push them in there hard and I think I’m hurting her even though she says I’m not. And I have to help her get dressed in clean cotton underwear—I always have to tell her to put her hand on my back for balance so she doesn’t tip over when I’m scrunched around her feet trying to get them to go into the holes of her panties—and her track suit or her cargo pants which she likes because they can carry all her painkillers and her nitro spray and her whodunnit, which this week is called FOE, and extra hearing aid batteries around with her. Then I find her red felt slippers and her glasses which I clean with my breath and the bottom of my t-shirt and put a fresh nitro patch on her arm which blasts dynamite into her veins and I hold her hand all the way to her bed taking slow, slow steps because she’s dizzy from the heat of the shower and the exertion of laughing so hard.

When she starts snoring I sometimes smoke a Marlie from Mom’s pack that she stores in the top drawer of her dresser for the goddamn glorious day she’s not pregnant with Gord and not so exhausted. I go out on the back deck and take just a couple of puffs and I look at the sky. Or I throw clothespins into a pail and try not to miss. If I miss, you’re not coming back. If I get them all in, you’re coming back. I started with the pail in my lap so it was really easy not to miss but then it seemed too easy a way to make you come back and then you didn’t come back anyway, so now I keep moving the pail further and further away.

Grandma is supposed to sleep with this machine on her face that has a tube and a box filled with water so she doesn’t stop breathing, but she hates it. Grandma doesn’t move when she’s sleeping but Mom flings her arms and legs around and talks and yells in her sleep. Grandma says Mom has a tiny bit of PTSD still, plus she’s searching. I asked Grandma what Mom’s searching for and she said, Oh, you name it. PTSD and searching don’t end when we’re asleep. Mom and Grandma know things about each other that they just have to contend with because that’s how it is. They don’t mind. They know each other. I found a letter that Mom wrote you six hundred years ago about the way she likes to sleep but obviously you never got it or maybe you got it but left it behind because you’re travelling light. In case you want to know about how Mom likes to sleep I’ll copy it out for you. (Mom doesn’t know how to spell so I fixed the mistakes.)

I don’t want to talk about this or argue about this cuz time is too short, but there were a bunch of things leading up to this . . . First of all you were so annoyed that I was up so late texting. I was texting with Carol about the very exciting news of Frankie’s new baby! The details. That’s Lidia’s granddaughter! Then you pretended that you weren’t annoyed but I could tell you still were cuz you yanked things around on the bed angrily. You said that I was rejecting your “tender” gesture of making the bed into something I hate. You making the bed was not tender! You know I don’t like to sleep stuck rigidly in an envelope unable to move around and the air pockets make me cold! Is it tender to force a person to sleep the way you want to sleep even when she hates it like that? Is that “tender”??? No, it’s not. You know it’s not. Then you stomp upstairs to sulk and sleep alone in your freezing cold envelope. Okay, hope you’re over it. I’m gonna sleep the way I want to sleep. It’s really not too much to ask to have my blanket and sheet a certain way. Have yours tucked in who the fuck cares! xox

Even when Grandma is fast asleep and snoring, if I put one finger gently on her shoulder she’ll burst to life and stretch her arms out to me and smile and say, Sweetheartchen! I ask her every time, Did you detect my presence? But she never hears me because she takes her hearing aids out to sleep and she just laughs and holds on to my wrists like they’re reins on a horse. She can’t believe she keeps waking up alive and is really amazed and grateful about it which is what all the pamphlets at therapy say we’re supposed to be feeling about every new day.

Naturally there’s a fucking conchigliette in my shoe! Those were the last words of Mom this morning before she slammed the door on her way to rehearsal. Grandma said, That’s a family classic, Swiv, write that down. Then Grandma shouted, Good luck! Have fun! Don’t work too hard! She says that every single time a person leaves. She says that where she’s from it’s the most subversive thing you can say because they didn’t believe in luck and fun was a sin and work was the only thing you were supposed to do. Almost every day Mom finds a conchigliette in her shoe or stuck to her script or somewhere else. It’s Grandma’s favourite food but when her arthritis is bad it’s hard for her to open the box and then when she finally gets it open the conchigliettes fly everywhere and I sweep them up but not very well because Mom always finds them in her stuff. The conchigliettes go into everybody’s stuff but Mom is the one who freaks out about it. Grandma loves them because they’re small and if she’s having one of her trigeminal neuralgia days she doesn’t even have to chew them, they just slither down her throat. Grandma is trying to find someone who will drill a hole in her head because she’s heard that’s the most effective way of getting rid of trigeminal neuralgia, which is nicknamed the suicide disease because it’s the most painful physical experience a human being can have and you just want to kill yourself. But nobody wants to drill a hole into Grandma’s head because of her age. They stop drilling holes into people at around age sixty. Remember that, Swiv! Grandma said.

After Mom left, Grandma asked me to write a list of her medications. Not in cursive, she said, print it out.

None of those young ambulance drivers can read cursive, they think it’s Arabic, they’re just tap tap tap all day on their cameras. She means phones. I can’t read your old cursive either, I told her. She read the medications out loud to me so I could print them out.

Amlodipine 7.5 mg OD
Lisinopril 10 mg OD
Furosemide 20 mg OD
Pravastatin 20 mg OD
Colchicine .6 mg OD
Omeprazole 20 mg OD
Metoprolol 50 mg b.i.d.
Oxcarbazepine 300 mg OD

It’s funny that it says “OD” after every drug, I said. That’s my back-up plan, she said. Just pulling your leg. She said it means One a Day. 

What’s b.i.d.? 

Bis in Die, she said. It’s Latin for twice a day. Grandma used to be a nurse. She got hazed by the older nurses in her first week of being a nurse. They threw her into a stainless steel tub and poured ether all over her until she began to pass out and freeze to death. She begged them to stop. She thinks this is one of the funniest things that’s ever happened to her. She organizes her pills into little groups, one of each, and puts them into the days of the week in her plastic pill box. Grandma says she has to keep doing this and not ever get so confused that she has to go to the bubble pack system, which costs money, so forget it. When she drops pills on the floor accidentally, if she notices she drops them, she says, Bombs away, Swiv! When I hear her say that, I come running and drop down onto the floor and scramble around by her feet picking them up and also picking up hearing aid batteries and conchigliettes and pieces from her Amish farm puzzle.

Today Grandma finally remembered I was supposed to be in school even though I’d already been home for fiftynine days. Why aren’t you in school? she asked. I didn’t say anything because she sounded like a cop and she never answers their questions so why should I. Fighting? said Grandma. I didn’t move. Then I did what Grandma does when the cops come, which is she holds up an imaginary cellphone like she’s recording them. She said she already knew it must be about fighting because I kept coming home with dried blood on my face and bruises on my neck and tufts of hair ripped out of my head and my jacket missing an arm. Then we were quiet for a long, long time, just sitting there making small noises, not words. I put my fake phone on the table with a big swooping gesture like I was doing her a favour by not recording her anymore. I smashed breadcrumbs on the tablecloth with my thumb. Grandma shook her pill case a few times and lined up her mouse and pad and laptop in a straight row. I watched her fingers moving around on the table. Her nails needed clipping again. I couldn’t remember where I’d left the nail clipper. I looked at her face. She was smiling. I’m glad you’re here with me, she said.

Madame said I had one too many fights, which if I knew the exact number of fights I was supposed to have then there wouldn’t be this bullshit, I said. Hmmmmmmmm, said Grandma. They said we’re communists which is why dad is being tortured somewhere. He’s not being tortured anywhere, said Grandma. Who said that? The kids I fought, I said. How do you know he’s not being tortured? I picked up my cellphone again and aimed it at her. Grandma asked me if I wanted to continue our Editorial Meeting but I didn’t answer. Then she asked me if I knew what bioluminescence was. I smashed breadcrumbs with my thumb and kept my piehole shut. It’s one’s ability to create light from within, said Grandma. Like a firefly. I think you have that, Swivchen. You have a fire inside you and your job is to not let it go out. I’m too young to have a job, I said. There are fish that have it too, said Grandma. Ostracods. I clamped my mouth shut and folded my arms. First try, mister, she said. Okay, second try, mister: let’s go onto the roof instead. She said she wanted to go onto the flat part of our roof, the roof that’s over the kitchen and dining room upstairs and spell out the words REBEL STRONGHOLD with rocks or whatever we could find that wouldn’t blow away. She said Jay Gatsby will be able to see it. I had to go behind Grandma and push her up the stairs and remind her to keep breathing. She stopped on every stair and turned around to look at me and made big exaggerated breathing sounds to prove to me she was still alive. We don’t have rocks, I said. When we made it to the roof she said, How about we use those clothespins lying all over the back yard? I need them for other stuff, I said. Plus it would take a million of them. 

How about we use books instead? That was not a good idea, holy shit.

Mom came home from rehearsal and noticed that her books from the special shelf on the third floor—which are supposed to be tight, no breathing room, and perfectly upright—were not on the shelf at all and she went into full-on scorched earth. What the holy hell! she yelled from up there. I hadn’t expected her to go to the third floor at all because of Gord and her exhaustion but she’d heard some beeping coming from a smoke detector and said for fuck’s sake, guess this is on me, because she knows I can’t reach it even if I stand on a chair, and then went stomping up there with a new battery. Now she was yelling that if I had pawned books from the special shelf she’d fucking lose her mind! Which I wanted to tell her was too late. She said this because one time I had pawned six of her reject books—not ones that came from her special shelf, but ones that were already in a fucking box to go to the diabetes foundation—so I could buy one goddamn Archie Digest which she disapproved of because of female stereotypes and would never give me money for! I yelled back from the bottom of the stairs. She yelled from upstairs, Those are books that help me to live! Those books are my life!

Get down here! I yelled back. I’m your goddamn life! When she came downstairs I held out her oregano oil. Take it, take it, I said, so she could calm down but she threw it at the living room wall and the bottle broke and oil trickled down over that Diego Rivera print I got her in Detroit for her birthday with money from Grandma. Then she started to cry and told me she was so sorry, so sorry. I hugged her and said it was okay because the dripping oil added character to the print which is what she always says about things that get damaged. Like if I scrape an entire layer of skin off my face from falling on the ice in King of the Castle, which I am the champion of, she tells me having one less layer of skin adds character, and also her books weren’t gone, they were just out on the roof. When Mom climbed the stairs and looked at the words on the roof spelled with her books, she put her hand on her mouth. She told me quietly from behind her hand that she would be downstairs and that I could gather up all of the books and put them back alphabetically on her special shelf, tight and perfectly upright. She was so eerily quiet. I wondered if Gord was afraid inside her. Right then I wanted to tell her that it was Grandma’s idea to spell out words on the roof but you don’t rat on a comrade. It was dark by the time I got all the books back into the house and alphabetical and tight and upright on her shelf. I went downstairs and Mom was making dinner and laughing with Grandma. I don’t understand adults. I hate them. I don’t know if Grandma took responsibility for her actions and confessed to Mom. Probably not. Grandma was the one who got me kicked out of school in the first place because she was the one who told me that people sometimes have to be punched in the face to get the message to leave you alone and not bully you, but only after double-digit times of trying to use words to no avail and only up to the age of ten or eleven. Don’t tell Mom I said any of that, she said. Because she’s a Quaker now or something. But you have to defend yourself.

After dinner, me and Grandma helped Mom with her lines which made Mom laugh so hard she peed a small amount, a teaspoonful. Grandma drank two glasses of William’s homemade plonk. I was nervous that it would make her start talking about the doctors killing everyone but it just made her dramatic. When she read Jack’s lines she stood up from the table while Mom was laughing her head off to say: “I kiss you, but it’s as though my kisses hurtle off a cliff. You take off your clothes, but you’re not naked. What can we do, then? What will happen?” Then Grandma said, Oh that reminds me, that reminds me! She had another story of epic nudity. One Christmas centuries ago Grandma was young and squatting on the sixth floor of an auto parts warehouse in West Berlin that was right beside the Wall. You know the Wall, Swiv, the Wall! (No, I don’t.) And she looked out the window into East Berlin and saw a young German soldier all by himself marching around with this giant coat that was too big for him and his giant rifle dangling awkwardly off his little shoulder. Grandma watched him for a while until she could get his attention and then she waved and he waved back and smiled and stopped marching. Grandma breathed on the glass and wrote Fröhilche Weihnachten in the steam backwards for the soldier to read and then the soldier hastily spelled out a message of his own to Grandma in the snow which was Ich bin ein Gefangener des Staates and then she slowly took off all her clothes while he stood there by himself in the dusky square with light snow falling and all his heavy artillery and coat and little shoulders. When she was totally naked she curtsied, and then the soldier blew her kisses and clapped and they waved goodbye. Mom said, Oh my god, that is INSANE! I thought so too but not in the way the two of them thought it was but in the way you go to a locked-up hospital with guards. Well, I was young, said Grandma. I’m young and I don’t do that, I said. Not yet, said Grandma. It’s a memory now. I wonder if the soldier remembers that night. Mom got up and hugged Grandma. I’m sure he does, she said.

Excerpted from Fight Night by Miriam Toews. Copyright © 2021 by Miriam Toews. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

The Listeners

THE CHANCES ARE THAT YOU HAVE, AT SOME POINT, stumbled upon the viral meme of me screaming naked in front of a bank of news cameras; a moment of sheer abandon forever rendered as a GIF, pasted in comment threads and text messages the world over. The chances are that you have also seen the coverage of the tragic events that unfolded thereafter on Sequoia Crescent. And the chances are that you probably think of me as some brainwashed cultist, or conspiracy theorist. I wouldn’t blame you for believing these things, or any of the other wildly sensationalized stories that have circulated in the days, weeks, and months since.

The truth is that I am a mother, and a wife, and a former high school English teacher who now teaches ESL night classes at the library near my house. I love my family fiercely. My daughter, Ashley, is the most important person in my life. You read about parents disowning their transgender sons, or refusing to speak to their daughters for marrying a Jew, or not marrying a Jew, and I think—well that’s just barbarism. Faith is basically a mental illness if it makes you do something so divorced from your natural instincts as a parent. I remember holding Ashley when she was about forty-five seconds old, before she had even opened her eyes, when she was just this slimy little mole-thing, nearly a month premature, and I remember thinking I would literally commit murder for this creature. As I held her I imagined all of the joy and pleasure she would feel, all of the pain that I would not and could not protect her from, and it completely overwhelmed me. I imagined the men who would hurt her one day, and I imagined castrating them one by one with my bare hands. All of this before she was a minute old! So no, I have never understood how anyone could ever put any creed or ideology before their love of their child—and yet, this is precisely what Ashley accused me of doing in the year leading up to the events on Sequoia Crescent.

I have attempted to recreate the events in this book as faithfully as my subjective experience of them will allow. I wrote these words myself. I did not have a ghost writer. I did not write this book to cash in on whatever minor and temporary notoriety I might have accrued, or to somehow exonerate myself. I wrote it as a way of making sense of my circumstances.

I have always turned to books for this. I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a girl. I was raised by a single mother and a television. There were no books in our apartment growing up, so I would take out as many as I was allowed from the library, and sometimes a few more which weren’t returned. I’ve always been drawn to stories of women pushed to the brink, living through extraordinary times, and enduring remarkable hardship. I have no time for stories about people mired in self-pity or self-destruction, who flounder around helplessly and hopelessly, I mean who cares, just get on with it. Even though my life really goes down the shitter in this one, I hope that you’ll take me at my word when I say that I truly fought every second of the way, and I did not, and still do not, see myself as a victim. In fact, I’m sure many people see me as a villain in this story, but I try not to see myself as that either.

In high school, I was an aspiring essayist in the mould of Joan Didion. I had visions of postgraduate nomadism, smoking half a pack a day and driving my way across America, stumbling into the eye of the zeitgeist with my notebook and pen in hand. I used to wear a big army jacket with deep pockets stuffed with dog-eared copies of Rimbaud and Pound. All I wanted back then was to see my name in print. That was before I got pregnant at twenty-two, married Paul, and enrolled in teacher’s college. I never harboured regrets, though. I enjoyed being a young mom. When Ashley was growing up, we used to finish each other’s sentences. People would joke we were telepathic, and sometimes I half believed we were. I’d be thirsty and she’d bring me a glass of juice. Or I’d wake up knowing that she’d had a nightmare and walk into her bedroom

before she even cried out for me.

All that to say, I never expected I would wind up writing a book after all these years, and certainly not under these circumstances. It just got to the point where I couldn’t bear to hear another person’s take on my story, another pundit or talk-show host weighing in on the events of Sequoia Crescent like they knew a damn thing about it, or making light of the tragedy for a late-night-show laugh. And trust me, I can take a joke. I’m sure I laughed harder than most of you at my frazzled hair and flopping boobs in that meme. But if you want to know the full truth, that requires digging deeper than an easy punchline.

The thing I still struggle to wrap my head around is how did something so small, so innocuous precipitate the complete unravelling of my life. How all of this soul-searching, transcendence, and devastation could begin with a low and barely perceptible sound.

Do you hear that?

I was lying beside Paul in bed. He was reading the New York Times on his tablet, and I was marking student essays on Twelfth Night.

Hear what? he asked, still reading his article.

I put the essay down on the comforter. It’s like a—humming, I said. Paul looked up, and we both listened for a moment.

A humming?

Like a very low hum, I said. He frowned, shrugged, and returned to his tablet.

I don’t hear it.

I picked up the essay and tried to get back into it. After a minute or so, Paul asked me if I enjoyed myself at dinner. I nodded, noncommittally. The evening was supposed to be just another monthly meeting of my all-women’s dystopia book club, but it turned into me cooking an overly involved tagine to celebrate Nadia’s birthday— and then husbands were invited. Paul pointed out, rightly, that this was just my way. He was drafted into the role of sous-chef for the evening, bless him. The nine of us spent most of the dinner talking about Trump, and the Mueller report, which then mutated into an intense and wide-ranging discussion about ethics and faith which had half the table speaking animatedly, and the other half in silence.

Paul turned his head on the pillow, and said, You know, I wasn’t totally comfortable with you calling us atheists.

It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about. I looked up from my essay. I’m sorry?

At dinner. You said we didn’t believe in God.

What else could I’ve said? Tara asked me point-blank.

Well I would say that, maybe, I actually do, he replied. Paul held my gaze until I laughed.

Which god?

What do you mean—?

Like Jesus Christ?

Paul looked at me like I was an idiot. Yes, he said.

And his dad?

I studied Paul’s face, wondering if this was all a set-up for one of his laboured jokes. He then told me that ever since his father died in the fall, he had found himself thinking about faith.

Well not just thinking about it, but—   



Praying? When?

In my head, in the car sometimes.

He told me that he found being back in the church for the funeral strangely comforting, and that it stirred something in him. He said he knew I would diminish it, which was exactly why he hadn’t told me, and I said no, I wasn’t diminishing it, as I tried to compose my face. He said that he’d been considering trying to find a church in our area that he could try visiting, even just once a month or something. That’s when I figured this was probably a test and that he was baiting me, perhaps because he was still a bit drunk and wanted to square some argument from earlier in the evening, but I certainly wasn’t going to bite. I just opened my eyes wide and nodded. He then reminded me, as if I need reminding, that Cass and Aldo are Evangelical.


So, you were quite rude about it.

I wasn’t.            

Yes, you were. You were being forceful and dismissive.

Well I certainly didn’t mean to be, and if Cass thought so, she can tell me herself tomorrow.

I was hoping that was the end of it, but I could tell it was still working on Paul as he lay there, staring up at the ceiling. For such a giant man, he could be like a little boy when he stewed on something.

I actually think I’ve buried this part of myself for years because of you, and now I—

Oh please.

—no I do, because of your atheism, but I think if left to my own devices my tendency might actually be towards faith.

Left to your own devices your tendency is also towards microwave dinners and The Wire on Netflix.

He turned his head towards me again and smiled, then reached over and gently pushed my face with his big paw.

If you want to start going to church, you can knock yourself out, I said. But leave me out of it.

I never suggested otherwise, he replied.

Paul knew better than to talk to me about God. I had invested twenty long years in un-fucking his head with that stuff. I’d seen what the church had done to people like his mother, and there was no way I was going to live a small, mean life under the thumb of the patriarchy. My feeling on the matter was: I had my shit together, I didn’t need God. That’s pretty much how I’ve felt since I was sixteen, when it suddenly struck me that God was no different than every other guy in my high school; he wasn’t interested in me unless I was down on my knees.

Paul and I had actually done a pretty good job at synchronizing our belief systems for two people who were only together because one inseminated the other when they were both just a couple of years above the legal drinking age. When we met, I was a polyamorous riot grrl teaching English to Latin American refugees, and he was an unskilled labourer building the kind of tract housing we’re living in now. He was a hulking six feet four. Shy and polite, who danced purposefully with his shoulders. Not the kind of guy who’d normally finger a young woman on public transit, or join her at migrants’ rights protests. Acid, avocados, personal grooming, Tarkovsky—I kicked open a lot of doors for him, quickly. He was always a bit dazzled by how I carried myself socially; how I always seemed to be the linchpin in my group of friends. He once told me I made being important look like making a sandwich.

In those days, even his absence in the room could turn me on; his underwear on the floor, his sweat on the bedsheets, his smell on the pillow. We were full of the unreasonable happiness of a new couple. Sometimes I would be in the shower behind him and think, Remember what water looks like on his neck, with his thin gold chain and freckles, remember always, because maybe I knew these communal showers were a temporary thing, a chapter in our love, and they were, of course. But thankfully I did remember. I still remember what the water looked like on Paul’s young neck.

Paul had a beauty that begged to be remarked upon on a regular basis, and to not do so, to treat his beauty as something I could take for granted, felt luxurious and extravagant. What’s more, he had no idea he was beautiful, and no idea that I thought so, and I got an almost erogenous thrill at withholding those facts from him. I once told him he had a face like a cornflake—open and sunny, with dimples. This wasn’t received with the spirit in which it was intended. He looked his best when frustrated or concentrating intently. Whenever he bit his lip, I thought of a little toy train I used to have as a girl. The train had a face on it, and I used to pull it around on a rope.

We’d been seeing each other about six months when the pregnancy happened. It was my decision to keep the baby, but we needed Paul’s family’s help, which came with the proviso that we get married. Paul was poor but secretly harboured dreams of being rich, whereas I was poor and secretly harboured dreams of being glamorously poor. Poor with taste. Jean Genet poor. Paul ended up starting his own contracting business when Ashley was twelve, and it took off, and ever since then we’ve found ourselves in a totally different stratum of life. But when you grow up with nothing, it becomes a pathology. Paul teases me that I wear out my underwear so much I need a belt for them. I’m perfectly content to repair a snapped-off rear-view mirror with duct tape, or use a hair dryer that sparks. I’m clumsy and break things all the time, which I sometimes think is because I’m still not used to having many things, things not made of plastic, things like delicate vases perched on bookshelves and lamps on end tables.

I grew up urban poor, but Paul was a proper redneck, sharing a bedroom in a plywood-floored bungalow with three brothers a half-hour outside of Amarillo, where you could write your name in dust on the windshield of a car if you left it un-driven for more than three days; a gentle and earnest redneck who’s happy to fall asleep to a woman reading poetry to him. Everything about Paul is oversized. Hands, ears, face, heart. If I had to describe him in a word, it would be ‘concerned.’ Concerned about me, my happiness, if I’m too cold, too hot, too quiet, concerned about Ashley, about her grades, her friends, her haircuts, concerned about the future, our finances, global warming, concerned about what his neighbours think of him, about his mother getting older, sick, dying, his alcoholic brother, concerned about being good, being right, being on time. I am decidedly unconcerned.

As Paul climbed out of bed and padded over to the ensuite to pee, I picked the turgid essay back up, but before I could find my place in it, I stopped. It was still there. I could still hear the sound. It wasn’t my imagination. There was a very low, reverberating tone, only just perceptible below the echoing of Paul’s urine in the toilet bowl, the soft din of the air conditioning, and the muffled Face-Time conversation coming from Ashley’s room down the hall. It was quite possible that the sound had been there all along and I had just never noticed. But now that I had, it struck me as peculiar.

Paul flushed and walked back into the room. What’s wrong? he asked.

I pointed into the air. It’s still there, I said. He sighed and shook his head, but we both listened, this time for ten whole seconds, scanning the room with our eyes.

I don’t hear anything, he said eventually.

It’s almost like a vibration, I said.

Paul asked if I left the hood vent on in the kitchen. I couldn’t rule it out. I groaned, peeled myself from bed, and pulled on the nightgown I’d left bunched on the floor. I trundled out into the hall, passed Ashley’s room, and descended the stairs into the darkness of the ground floor, where a constellation of red and green LED lights signified security alarms, fire detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, Wi-Fi, thermostat controls, all of the systems animating the body of our house, unnoticed and unappreciated like breathing or circulation. I entered the kitchen and listened. The hood vent was off. The fridge sounded normal. But the hum was still there, just as loud as it had been in the bedroom.

I walked into the dining room, and again, the sound remained unchanged, which I found unnerving. I wondered if I was suffering from some sort of tinnitus. I raised my hands and pressed them over my ears, and the sound was dampened. It wasn’t in my head. The sound was coming from somewhere. I stood in the dark beside the table, where the plates from dinner were still piled, abandoned until the sobriety of morning, and I began to turn my head slowly, hoping to detect some variation in volume or direction. I then began to pace around the room. The moment I felt certain the sound was coming from one direction, and moved towards it, it suddenly seemed like it was coming from directly the opposite direction, behind me. I wondered if it might be our neighbour Farhad working with a power tool in his garage; he’s been known to mow his grass at ten o’clock at night. But that noise would have a clear direction. Whatever this was seemed completely diffuse.

Ashley? I called upstairs. I waited for a reply, then walked into the front hall, to the foot of the staircase. Ashley?

Yeah, she shouted down from her room.

Can you check—? Did someone leave the bathroom fan on up there?

There was a pause, and then the sound of her door opening. She appeared at the top of the stairs in plaid boxer shorts and a baggy white t-shirt, scratching her scalp through her post-gender haircut. Ashley once said her spirit animal was Sinéad O’Connor, circa ripping up the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.

What? she asked.

The bathroom fan. Did you leave it on up there?

She disappeared for a moment and then returned, shaking her head. I described the sound to her. She listened for a moment, and then shook her head again. Guess I’m just losing my mind, I said, shrugging.

Perimenopause, she replied.


It happens.

You’re such a little wench. I’m forty.

Old wench.

Wench betch.

Feigned cruelty was our preferred mode of address. I can’t remember how the wench thing began; just another inside joke that kept transmogrifying over the years. Other nicknames included Momma Wench, Momma Claire, Claire Danes, and Dame Wench. My top names for her included Ash Wednesday, Ashton Kutcher, and Ashscratcher. Paul joked only the NSA could decipher the encryption on our communication.

Ashley looked down and brushed her shoulders. Or maybe it’s the solar storms, she said. Apparently they’re the largest ever. Did you hear about this?


They’re going to mess with our electronics, and some scientists said maybe even with our moods and basic cognitive functions, so . . . She widened her eyes and then slipped from view, like an imp returning to her bottle.

I wandered back into the dining room. There was something about the noise that seemed almost atmospheric. I looked up at the vent in the ceiling, walked over to the thermostat and turned off the air conditioner, but the hum persisted, all the more clearly. It occurred to me that it could be a vibration in the walls, or in the foundations of the house, perhaps from a micro-tremor. We’ve been known to get small earthquakes in the area from time to time. I walked over and touched the nearest wall but felt nothing. I put my ear up to it, and the sound didn’t change. I then knelt down and pressed my ear against the cool hardwood—again, nothing.

Bear? Paul called from upstairs.

I should have just left it then. I should have stood up, fixed my hair, and walked back up to bed. I should have folded myself into Paul’s warmth, closed my eyes, and put it out of my mind. That would have been the end of it, and my life would have stayed as it always had. But it was already too late. It had gotten under my skin. And believe me when I say that I’m not an obsessive person. I don’t fuss about details. I’m not a perfectionist. I couldn’t give a shit if the house is spotless, even for company. I’m usually very laid-back, in fact too much so sometimes for Paul’s liking (or the liking of his parents). But for some reason I just couldn’t let it go. A part of me was probably thinking that the sound indicated some issue with the house, which was still relatively new, and slapped-up quickly like all tract housing, and Paul was constantly finding problems with the pipes, or the air ducts, or the seals around the windows, which drove him crazy as he was always fastidious with his own work. But, if I’m honest, it went much deeper than that. The sound unnerved me. There was just something about it that wasn’t right, that wasn’t like any other bit of white noise I’d heard before, and I knew it would keep me up until I figured out what it was.

I’ll be up in a minute, I called back.

But I wasn’t. I stalked around the house for another two hours, long after Paul had given up on me and fallen asleep. I moved around in the dark, navigating furniture through muscle memory, stopping every so often to hold my breath and make myself as quiet as possible. The noise persisted, low and droning, with very little variation or modulation. Sometimes I thought I detected a slight bend in pitch, but then I think I was simply focusing on it too intently. I searched the living room, the basement, the garage, unplugging every appliance, the Wi-Fi router, the microwave, the TV, the hot water heater, gutting the smoke detectors of their batteries. At one point I even flipped the breaker. As I did, I suddenly remembered being six, and losing power in a lightning storm. There was something revelatory about the silence that followed. I never considered that our apartment had a nervous system, or that it whined so loudly. I marvelled that there were sounds we could only perceive in their absence, and found it unsettling to realize how much I had managed to condition myself not to hear. How much I had to tune out just to get by.

Eventually I took two Ambien and crawled into bed, my heart pounding out of frustration. I stuffed a pillow over my head. After half an hour I fished a set of earplugs out of the drawer below the sink in the ensuite—but they did nothing. I lay there trying to meditate. I did some stuff with my chakras. I opened my eyes and saw the clock turn three. Then four. The noise wasn’t at all loud, in fact I’m sure most people would have had to strain to hear it, but to me, in the silence of the house, it began to feel all-consuming. It was a bit like overhearing a couple’s whispered conversation behind you at a restaurant and then being completely unable, for the life of you, to focus on anything else—not the noise of the other diners, not the waiter, not the person sitting right in front of you.

By half past four, I couldn’t lie still a moment longer. I took out my earplugs, walked back downstairs, and out the front door. The night was warm. There wasn’t a breath of movement on the street. No wind disturbing the leaves, or planes tracing the sky. Just the smell of creosote and ionized air; of rain amassing somewhere in the distance. The stillness lent everything the uncanny feeling of a film set. Perhaps one of those horror films where some infernal force kills off the teenagers of the neighbourhood one by one. Those always seem to be set in suburbs like these—catalogue homes, young trees, driveways lined with SUVs. My eyes were scratchy. Raw. I felt cloudy from the Ambien. I crossed the front yard, walked out onto the street, and listened. It wasn’t in my head, or the house—it was there. It was coming from somewhere outside, maybe from next door or down the street, or maybe somewhere beyond our neighbourhood altogether; it was impossible to gauge its distance.

Just then I noticed a shadow moving almost imperceptibly down the street towards me. I strained my eyes against the dark and watched as it drew closer. It slinked into the glow of a nearby streetlight and I realized it was a coyote. White-tipped ears and a white triangle of fur on his neck. He seemed too slight to be adult. He looked more like a teenager or a tween coyote, if there’s such a thing. It made me smile to see him. I often hear the coyotes as I lie in bed, barking and yipping out there in the night. But this one made no noise as he slipped back into darkness. I waited for him to reappear in the pool of light nearest me—but he didn’t. He was gone.

I felt sorry for the coyotes. My neighbours hated them, because they dragged dogs and cats out of backyards and ate them. But that was just their nature. I had always felt a certain kinship with them; mangy interlopers in middle-class suburbia. My neighbours somehow forgot that the wilderness was just a block away. At the end of our street, the city gave way to badlands. The bottom of an ancient, inland sea where a vertical mile’s worth of sea creatures settled atop one another over millions of years, condensed, and liquefied into crude—which explained some of the three-car garages and grotesque McMansions in neighbouring subdivisions. If you looked at our city at night, from space, our suburb was like a little finger of light, poking out into the dark. We were at the far northern edge of the sprawl; of civilization. And the edge wasn’t sharp. In fact, it seemed to be getting blurrier. Sometimes the wild crept in and overturned garbage cans after sunset, or shat on your front step. Other times it was the neighbourhood boys going feral. Howling and smashing beer bottles against garage doors or firing Roman candles down the street.


I startled and turned. Paul emerged from the shadows holding a golf club. What the hell is going on? he asked. I was standing in the middle of the street, barefoot and in my nightdress. I couldn’t imagine any neighbours were up at this hour, but we would’ve been quite the sight—me standing there below the streetlight, and my husband advancing towards me with a long iron.

Bear, we’ve been tearing the house apart looking for you.

Ashley’s up too?

Yeah, we’ve been beside ourselves. The power’s out.

I apologized and rubbed my face. I hadn’t meant to turn this into some big production. It was nothing, really, just a barely audible noise, and now all of us were awake at four in the morning, and Paul was holding a golf club, a golf club? I finally registered this and started laughing.

I woke up and couldn’t turn on the lights, he said, drawing closer. I couldn’t find you anywhere. I thought someone was in the house. The front door was open, the furniture was all—It’s not funny, why are you laughing?

So you thought you’d grab—

It was what was at hand!

Paul wore his emotions large and naked on his face; it’s something I’ve always found endearing, and sometimes teased him about when we watched movies. I laughed at the sheer panic on his face, but I also found it very touching. Paul had a rather rare heart condition for a man his age called compassion. He looked like ‘a big bruiser,’ as he would say, but when it came to his emotional intelligence, I would’ve put him in the upper one or two percentile of men I’ve encountered in my life. I’m sure his brothers characterized him as whipped and put upon, but then I would rather be waterboarded for eternity than married to any of them. I liked that my husband took up a nine-iron when he found me missing from bed. I recommend everyone find themselves a partner who picks

up a nine-iron when they’re missing.

What the hell is going on?

I composed myself and shook my head wearily. I couldn’t sleep, I said.

So you thought you’d wander outside at four o’clock in the morning in your nightgown, he replied.

I didn’t know what facial expression I should be wearing, and I was too tired to even tell which one I currently had on, so I rubbed my hand over my face like an eraser. I’m trying to figure out where it’s coming from, I said. I told you—twelve, one, two o’clock I couldn’t sleep, I told you.

Paul closed his eyes, stuck his thumb and index finger into the sockets, and said, I can’t believe you’re still talking about this fucking hum.

And I can’t believe you can’t just shut up and listen.

Did he seriously not hear it, even now that we were standing outside in the quiet of the night? He said I could use his earplugs, and I pulled them out of my nightgown pocket and tossed them on the ground.

So what, you’ve just been out creeping around in the dark?

I chuckled again at the absurdity of it all, I couldn’t help it. A bit sinister, isn’t it? I asked.

Uh yeah, like a lot sinister, he said, softening.

He was standing right beside me now, his eyes glistening in the streetlight. I realized, in the surprise of his approach, that I had forgotten about the coyote. I considered telling him about it, but decided to keep it as a private revelation. He wasn’t in the right headspace. I looked down at the ground for a moment, and then back up at him; his face was still a big, sweet drawing of concern.

My hands were shaking, and I suddenly wished I had pockets to hide them in. I crossed my arms instead. Don’t dismiss this, I said.

I’m not.

Or think I’m exaggerating.

No, I just—

Then what?

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

I’m telling you.


I’m more sensitive to these things.

He made to rebut but swallowed and closed his eyes. I know, he said.

You didn’t believe me before about the gas leak.

That was a smell.

Which I smelled and you didn’t and could’ve blown us up. I’ve felt earthquakes you haven’t felt. Twice I’ve heard when the radiator in the car was broken before you.

Those things exist, Claire. This isn’t a thing.

The shadows from the streetlight fell harsh on Paul’s face and made him look haggard. Old. He was standing an arm’s length away, but I felt very far from him. I told him I was sorry about the power. I didn’t mean to keep it off for long, I said, I just flipped the breaker for a moment to check.

Wait, what? You cut the power?

I told him I hadn’t intended to leave it off, I just needed to know, I needed the silence.

You cut the power? Paul repeated, his disbelief giving way to anger.

I just had to know it wasn’t in my head, and now I know it’s not, it’s—I gestured down the streetit’s out there.

Where? Over there? The Campaneles’ yard? he said, pivoting around and pointing at our neighbours’ house. I knew he was being facetious, but the thought had actually occurred to me that the sound might be coming from the Campaneles’ pool pump, and I told him as much. He said no, there was nothing coming from their yard, stop being ridiculous, and I informed him that their new pool was, in fact, absolutely huge, as in practically a lake, and that I bet they needed a massive pump for it that probably ran throughout the night. I was always shocked, when I flew out of the city, just how many people had pools. In the desert! This landscape was never meant to sustain cities, let alone personal swimming amenities.

Paul put the head of the golf club down on the asphalt and leaned against it like a jaunty cane. And what, are you going to pole-vault over their fence to investigate? he asked. I suggested walking over to their yard and at least seeing if I could hear it getting louder. I knew I was pushing it. Paul had a long fuse, but it wasn’t endless.

And what if they see someone snooping around their backyard? he asked. They’ll call the police.

Then when else am I going to?

Leave it.

I could just go over to their gate.


I can’t afford to lose sleep over this.

Paul looked astounded and replied that neither could he. The truth was the sound could have been coming from any of the houses or yards around us. I turned on the spot, taking in the street.

Claire, it’s four-thirty in the morning, why’re you doing this to me?

I’m not doing anything to you, I’m trying to figure this out.

This? This is you doing something to me. Look at where we are. You’re not even wearing any goddamn shoes.

As he continued to talk, I became aware of a slight pressure in my head. It wasn’t particularly painful; it wasn’t a headache, per se. It was more like a thickness. A fullness. As I focused on it, I realized I could feel it in my chest as well. It took me several moments to connect it to the sound. I realized that I was actually feeling the sound. Like waves of pressure. I felt it resonating in the cavities of my body; my skull. Permeating my empty spaces. As I thought this, I felt a tingling in my nose. I wiped it with my hand, and when I looked down, I noticed my hand was glistening with blood.

Oh my god.


My nose—

I saw Paul see the blood. Jesus Christ, he murmured, and I told him to leave Jesus out of it. What’s wrong with you? he asked.

Maybe you should try an exorcism.

I think a Kleenex will do for now. Just hold your head back and let’s—

Don’t—touch me. I took an unsteady step back. You’re just completely dismissing this, this, I said, holding out the bloodied back of my hand.

The sound is giving you a nosebleed?

Don’t say it like that.

How am I supposed to say it?

And what if it is, what if it’s pulverizing my brain, Paul, and you’re offering me earplugs and Kleenex.

Just come inside. Please.

Do you believe me?


Look, I said, wiping a fresh smear onto my hand, as if that were proof enough. The nosebleed, the pressure, the sound, they did feel connected, and at least the blood was something tangible Paul could see. Say you believe me, I said.

He bucked his head back, as if he was worried I was going to touch him with it. Frankly, I would’ve loved to have smacked a big red handprint on his face like a cave painting in Lascaux. He just couldn’t bring himself to say it. He insisted it was all stress induced, as in made up, as in stop being hysterical, and I said wow, shaking my head and smiling without joy. Wow.

Okay, he said, defeated. I believe you.

That I hear something?


And you believe that thing, that sound, really exists?

He raised and dropped his arms, and asked, How can I possibly know whether the sound only you can hear—?

Because I’m telling you, and that should be enough.

He just looked at me like a dumb dog, and I turned and started walking away.

Hey. C’mon. Where’re you—? What do you want me to say? You’re being completely insane.

I stopped walking and yelped in frustration. It just burst out of me. I was shaking, with adrenalin. Am I throwing a little tantrum, I thought, yes, I think I am, right here in the middle of the street. I laughed at myself. Christ on a cracker. I was beyond the reach of even Paul’s compassion. Was that really it? Was that all he was capable of? I wanted to tell him I know what I fucking hear and it’s your deficiency, Paul, not mine, that you don’t believe me. I turned around to shout, but found him already beside me, reaching out, and enfolding me in his arms. I let him hold me for a long, still moment, until he said, with tenderness, I believe you.

I wiped my nose. No, you don’t.

I do. He whispered it into my ear and held me tighter. I do, I believe you. I believe you, and I love you. He pulled away, and I turned around to look at him. I love you, he said again.

That’s when I noticed the sky beginning to lighten. A moment later, I heard the first trill of birdsong.

Did you hear that? I asked.

He sighed and shook his head. No.

It’s morning.

Excerpted from The Listeners by Jordan Tannahill. Copyright © 2021. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

The son of the house


I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten. That morning, before it was fully day, I went by myself on a big bus, the kind that went to Lagos. I went to live with Papa Emma and his wife. I would do little chores around the house and I would be sent to school. That was what Mama Nkemdilim told me. I was excited to go, a little apprehensive too, but I knew that anywhere would be better than living with Mama Nkemdilim after my father had died. And Lagos was the biggest city in Nigeria — everyone knew that. Mama Nkemdilim said men who had gone from our village either married Yoruba women and never came back, or they came back smelling of money and comfort. 

It was no surprise that Mama Nkemdilim would send me away at the first opportunity that knocked on our door. “Amosu,” she would call me, a witch. “Why do you still hold out your hands for food?” she would ask, squeezing her face in puzzlement when I stood outside the kitchen, waiting for food.

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe–Onuobia

“Is all that blood you suck from me and my children not enough? Or does it all go to your big head?” she would wail, referring to my head, which looked huge on my thin body. Other children called me Atinga, giving proper due to my bony slenderness. Mama Nkemdilim did not think that the little food we had in the house should be wasted on putting extra flesh on my bones. Extra flesh would be a drag on the speed needed to run the many errands she sent me on. 

Mama Nkemdilim blamed me for all her misfortunes. And misfortunes had visited often since she came to live with us, coming down like rain in July. When she could not conceive after two years of marriage to my father, she pointed fingers at me. A dibia, she said, had told her that I was responsible for her empty womb. Bad luck, she liked to say, followed me around like the mosquito sought the ear at night; like flies followed feces. After my father died, she would point out that he had survived the war where he had served as a soldier, had withstood poverty, had held on to life after I came along and killed my mother as I forced myself out into the world. My father had weathered all this. But how, she asked, did one survive a wicked child who had killed her mother? 

“You will not kill me too,” she would cry, conviction ringing like a soprano alongside the alto of disgust. “Mbanu, you will not. I am not as foolish as your mother, not as soft as your father. I will kill you before you kill me,” Mama Nkemdilim would insist, as if I, a mere child, were a monster with seven heads like those spirits in fairy tales. 

“I did not kill my mother and father,” I would say, my head turned away, waiting for her hard knuckles to rap against my almost hairless big head. A loud, painful koi. 

Yet all her blows had not yet driven away the remnants of my defiance. If I could kill, the spirit in me said, Mama Nkemdilim would not be living while my father and mother lay in their almost forgotten graves, now covered by grass in front of my father’s house. When she approached with the cane she hastily broke off from the onugbu plant beside the kitchen, I did not stop for her hand to go up and down my body. I ran out to the road, screaming for my dead father, even though I knew my punishment would wait until I came back to my senses and returned home. When she starved me, I woke up in the night to creep to the kitchen and help myself to some of the soup and dry fish she gave only to her children, to prevent kwashiorkor, she would proclaim. 

When I turned ten, Papa Emma, a distant relative of Mama Nkemdilim’s, came home to the village at Christmas. He said he needed someone to help his wife around the house. Mama Nkemdilim thought that I would be a good choice: it would get rid of me. But she also worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me.

“Do you not think that this is too good for her?” she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma. 

I listened intently from outside the kitchen.
“Hmm,” Mama Odinkemma said, “do you want her living here, sucking your blood, sucking Nkemdilim and her brother’s blood every night, while blowing cool air on all of you like a rat?” 

“Eh, that is true talk. Eziokwu. But what if she becomes a big person in Lagos?” 

Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos, I heard her say. For once, I did not disagree with Mama Odinkemma, Mama Nkemdilim’s thick-set friend with the pointed mouth that made you wonder how food made it through to her belly. And yet she could often be counted on to be chewing something like a goat chewing cud. I silently agreed with her that it was laughable that I could become a big person by cleaning, cooking, and doing chores in a house, even if it was in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. Even a ten-year-old child, who had not gone to school for two years, knew that this was like the long tales the tortoise told the other animals he had offended by his greed so that they would not throw him down from the sky.

What sealed my fate was Mama Odinkemma saying, “Mama Nkemdilim, send this child away. That child has her mother’s blood. They are all witches in her mother’s family. You do not want her to initiate your children into the cult, or worse still, kill them?”

After that, Mama Nkemdilim satisfied the necessary obligation of informing my uncle Nnabuzo.
I wanted to go to Lagos, climb mountains and swim seas, just to get far away from my stepmother. But I did not want to leave my uncle Nnabuzo.

My uncle did not like the idea of Mama Nkemdilim sending me all the way to Lagos. It should have been his responsibility to determine what happened to me, his brother’s child, but he appeared weak before Mama Nkemdilim’s verbal and emotional onslaughts. Sometimes her barbs were subtle, but more often they were blunt like the stone with which we ground pepper in the small mortar. 

“Let me take Nwabulu,” he said to Mama Nkemdilim. “At least we will keep our eyes on her.” He rested worried eyes on my face, but his tone was gentle, as always. 

“Did my husband, your brother, not say that what he would like most was for Nwabulu to go to school?” she asked. Mama Nkemdilim always knew the right thing to say. 

“Yes, it is true,” Nnabuzo said.
“The people with whom she will live will send her to school. Emma told me himself. I cannot send her to school,” she moaned. “It is all I can do to feed myself and your brother’s children.”

Nnabuzo knew when he was defeated. My uncle could barely feed his own family with his palm-wine-tapping trade. His wife, Nnedi, had a baby every year. At last count, there were nine of them. Her thin frame was often to be seen with a protruding tummy as she was going about her duties. I had heard Mama Nkemdilim say that her baby-a-year habit was the result of my uncle Nnabuzo’s sickening inability to keep his own penis to himself. Mama Nkemdilim reminded him as often as possible of his neglected duties to his late brother’s family, always implying that, in the face of his failure to do so, she must continue to shoulder a man’s burdens on her frail woman’s shoulders. 

On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thu rhythmically.

When I stepped out, I shivered from the cold. Nnabuzo took my hand and drew me to him. I hugged him tightly. He put a few naira notes in my hands. I curled my fingers closely to hide the money from Mama Nkemdilim, who would snatch it away if she had any idea. 

“Ezechitoke will take care of you,” he said, referring to the God of all the earth. “Remember your father. Remember where you come from. We do not steal. We do not lie, nor do we cheat. We are content with what we have, be it big or small. Do not shame us.” I nodded solemnly. Later, I would remember hugging Nnabuzo, holding on tight, memorizing his thin frame and the tobacco-snuff smell of him, before Mama Nkemdilim pulled me away, saying that we had a long way to go to get to the bus. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Looking back at him as we left in the dark that day, the first tears of uncertainty had run down my cheeks, leaving white marks that the large-hipped woman beside me in the bus later wiped off with her fingers, moistened with spit. In the two years that had gone by since Papa’s death, Uncle Nnabuzo had tried his best to play the role of father to me. It was he who told me stories of my father and my mother, stories of my birth, stories he said I must not forget because my father would want me to remember. He was the one who told me how Papa, his elder and only brother, had come to name me “Nwabulu” after my mother died while pushing me out into the world.

A child was still profitable, Nnabuzo said he told his brother, who was beside himself with grief at the death of the wife he loved deeply. Even if her mother had died pushing her out into the world, a child was still gain — the supreme prize. Why did men marry and procreate? To have children. Why did a father toil from sun-up till sundown? For children. Why did a woman marry? To bear children. Why did she stay even if her husband was lazy, or a wife-beater? For the children.

So, my father, exhausted from grief, unanticipated burial expenses, and unforeseen single fatherhood, chose the name from his brother’s words, Nwabulu. And I was truly gain, my uncle told me, a benefit to the world, bearing my mother’s beauty — that beauty that had made my father swim seven seas, climb seven mountains, fight off seven monsters in seven evil forests to marry her.

My father’s dearest wish was that I would go to school and perhaps become a nurse or teacher. Some of the nurses he saw during the war had been sent by God, Ezechitoke himself, he told me. Teaching was good too, he said. As soon as I was old enough, he put me in the village school. Every morning, he would wake me up and we would walk to the school, one of the few houses in the village built with cement and a good roof. Every evening, he would ask what I had learnt that day. And I would recite the ABCs and sing “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat …” to him.

He would nod and smile happily. He would take me to the river to swim sometimes. It was our special thing. There, he would become the man my mother married — a light would come into his eyes, and his slightly sunken cheeks would rise into a smile. There, he would show me the spot where he first saw my mother. She had been swimming with her friends. He never failed to say that she rose up like Mammy Water, a mermaid, beautiful like no woman he had ever seen before, enebe eje olu, a woman you could admire all day, for whom you could miss going to work just to gaze at her. He always added that I looked very much like her, and that I would be just as beautiful when I grew up. In these times, it seemed to me that my mother came to the stream too and we were a family again. Until Mama Nkemdilim came along.

People would often tell my father that he needed a new wife, a woman who would be a mother to me and give him a son. One day, he listened to them and brought Mama Nkemdilim home. From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy. And, after she had a son, her feet became firm on the soil of our home, and her evil began to grow. 

I was eight when my father died. He had not been sick a long time, just a few weeks. He had not even seemed seriously ill: a fever and a cough. Not ill enough to die. Nnabuzo was sure that he had been poisoned by enemies of our family. Mama Nkemdilim, with the same degree of certitude, knew that I was the one who had killed him.

With his death came changes. Some things stopped immediately. Like school. Mama Nkemdilim did not see the point when she herself had not gone to school and had still been able to marry a good man. She had not gone to school and yet knew how to do all that a woman of Nwokenta could do — clean, cook, fetch firewood, make a fire, make palm oil, farm, buy, sell, and bear children.

Other changes took a little more time. Like going to swim at Amata. More than school even, it was being unable to swim in the river that reminded me that, when one’s father dies, things change. Things that told me that love was not just food and shelter. 

Mama Nkemdilim gave me a little food and shelter. In the morning, my broom went up and down our compound, creating neat lines on the red earth while Mama Nkemdilim’s children slept. My head bore pots of water from the stream. Then I warmed last night’s soup over the firewood I had fetched the day before. I went with her to the farm and we worked until she was tired or the children began to scream from the heat of the sun. I could do everything — peel egwusi, pound palm nuts for oil, fry garri. She made delicious, moist, palm-oil-reddened okpa and I sold them at Eke Nwokenta. Sometimes, when I had sold the okpa fast, I would stay and play oga with some of my friends at the market. Mama Nkemdilim did not like this, and if she found out, she sometimes made me go without food.

In the beginning, after my father died, I dreamt about him often. He came to me and took me to our river. But when the chores began to grow like storeyed buildings, one on top of the other, I would sleep as soon as my head touched my mat and stay dead to the world until Mama Nkemdilim shook me awake, calling me Amosu and asking me to come back from bloodsucking journeys. I mourned the loss of my dreams as I went about my duties, sometimes chanting my ABCs so as not to forget them. 

But this was all before I went to Lagos. As I sat in the shaky bus, jingling this way then that way like an ichaka, I tried not to be too excited. Yet excitement took up residence in my heart; living in the city could not be worse than living with Mama Nkemdilim, I thought. My belly threatened to pour its contents on my neighbours — on the woman who wiped my dried tears with her spit, and the dry-looking man who slept most of the way, his mouth wide open, dripping saliva. Even that could not blunt the edge of my excitement.

Things were not as I imagined they would be in Lagos. Papa Emma and his family lived in a flat in Apapa, and they had neighbours from all the parts of Nigeria who spoke different languages — Edo, Yoruba, Itsekiri, and pidgin. Living with them was different and yet it was the same. They did not send me to school, as Mama Nkemdilim had led me to believe they would. I worked as hard as I had when I’d lived with Mama Nkemdilim. I was cleaning, cooking, washing, and helping Mama Emma at her shop in the market. But I did not have the relief of laughing with other children at the stream, or singing to my baby sister, or playing oga in the market after selling okpa as I’d had back home. Despite the fact that we were from the same village and that Papa Emma was my stepmother’s relative, Mama Emma insisted I call them Oga and Madam. To emphasize the distance between us — them at the top, me at the bottom.

The tension between Papa Emma and his wife, palpable and constant, overshadowed the home from morning to evening. In the beginning, when I first started to work there, I felt sorry for Papa Emma. He worked all day at their shop in the market and was welcomed home by Madam’s thundering bellow. Like a lion, she roared at him often, spewing reminders and threats, her generous neck, arms, and buttocks jiggling. In the midst of my endless chores, I pitied the quiet, hulking man, whose lot seemed little better than mine. His shame was pitiable, shown only in a jaw clenched tight, wide eyes that looked upon the world in barely suppressed anger, and an uncomfortable quietness of being. In the compound, Adaku, the other Igbo housemaid — a rude, large-breasted girl from Anambra — called Papa Emma “ewu,” a goat, because he stared mindlessly at everyone. “Maaaaaaaa,” she would bleat, and I would laugh as we drew water from the well. We would stop our laughter quickly and chorus, “Good morning, sir,” when he passed by, still staring. Yet, when I brought his food to the side table in the sitting room, where he often sat by himself after work while his wife sat counting her money at the dining table, he murmured, “Dalu,” without looking at me. Adaku told me that the shop was Madam’s, provided by her rich family.

“Why is this only nine naira?” Madam wanted to know one day in the kitchen, waving the money he had passed to her in front of him. Her voice was low, dangerous. I flinched a little where I stood before the sink, washing plates. 

“Em …” He fumbled for words to explain monies missing at the shop, his long arms trembling beside his big, tall body. 

I was looking down into the dirty dishwater when a loud crack came to my ears. I glanced up. His hand held his cheek, his face turned away from his children and me. Why did he allow this, I wondered. Was he not a man? 

He kept his face turned away from me, as if he did not want to acknowledge I could see his shame. That is, until months into living with them, when he began to come into my bed at night to pass that shame to me. 

The day it began, the children had been playing, I had been massaging Madam’s back, and Oga had just returned from work. Where had he been when she called this afternoon? Madam had demanded. The slight pause as he foraged through the day’s doings for an answer had earned him an angry slap. His hand had again gone up to his cheek. And his eyes, glancing away from his wife, had this time fallen on my face. What had he seen there? 

That night, Oga crept into the store where I slept amid yam tubers and bags of rice and beans. He pounced with the force of the three-storey house that had fallen in on itself down the street. He clasped my neck with one hand, fumbling with his zipper with the other, and whispered threats when I tried to shout, to struggle, to move my not-quite-eleven-year-old body from beneath him. Madam would kill me, I thought, gritting my teeth, biting down the pain. “Don’t tell anyone,” he ordered.

Who could I tell? The two young children? Adaku in the other flat, whose ears had never heard anything that she could keep from the rest of the world? Or perhaps the new neighbour, a young woman who taught in the primary school nearby — the one I should have been going to — who had stopped to help me carry one of the gallons of water upstairs last week? That had annoyed Madam. Why had I spoken to the neighbour, she had asked, punctuating each word with a slap. Was I too hungry slap, too tired slap, to carry a gallon? Slap. I dared tell no one that the night had become my enemy, just as it used to be a friend longed for amid the day’s endless chores.

Hurry, I often thought as he knelt down. I lay quietly, trembling, my heart beating into my eardrums, thinking that he grunted like a he-goat, and smelt like one too. I no longer pitied him. 

One night, I lay still on the mat, as usual, as Oga pulled down his trousers. My stepmother said she had sent me to Lagos to go to school to learn new things, I thought, as Oga grunted away. Was this one of those things? That thought had no sooner come than Oga yelped loudly. He rolled away, and there stood Madam, a kitchen knife in her hand, her face contorted with rage, looking not at Oga but me.

She advanced towards me and struck my shoulder, slicing into it like the neck of a Christmas chicken, red blood spurting onto my wrapper. The knife went up and down quickly, striking, slashing at my arms and hands. I shrieked and Oga moved belatedly, catching hold of Madam’s hand midair. Unutterable hate shone through Madam’s eyes, almost as terrifying as the slashing knife. It electrified my nerveless legs and sent me half-naked to the door. 

Even as I fled down the steps of our flat, escaping certain death, my screams reverberating through dark long houses in which our neighbours slept peacefully, I knew that I would never return there. Even if I had to go back to my stepmother. 

A kind neighbour, the fat madam in the flat downstairs — the one Mama Emma often called a husband-snatcher on account of the men who came at all hours to see her — opened her door to me. She drew me in and only asked questions after she had put some iodine on the gashes. I yelled out loud at the burning of the iodine, the shame of what Papa Emma had done to me, and the fieriness of Mama Emma’s fury. 

Fat Madam, alias Husband-Snatcher, gave me food, a bed to sleep on, and, in the morning, went upstairs to talk to Mama Emma. She did not tell me what Mama Emma said but I was sure that Mama Emma did not want me back in her house. Nor did I want to go back there. 

When the gashes Mama Emma had given me had healed a bit, Madam Clara — that was my benefactor’s name — made arrangements to send me back to Nwokenta on another long bus. I had not even lived a full year in Lagos.

Mama Nkemdilim welcomed my return to the village with anger and curses.

Excerpted from The Son of the House. Copyright © 2021 by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia. Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

What strange paradise

Chapter One


The child lies on the shore. All around him the beach is littered with the wreckage of the boat

and the wreckage of its passengers: shards of decking, knapsacks cleaved and gutted, bodies frozen in unnatural contortion. Dispossessed of nightfall’s temporary burial, the dead ferment indecency. There’s too much of spring in the day, too much light.

Facedown, with his arms outstretched, the child appears from a distance as though playing at flight. And so too in the bodies that surround him, though distended with seawater and hardening, there flicker the remnants of some silent levitation, a severance from the laws of being.

The sea is tranquil now; the storm has passed. The island, despite the debris, is calm. A pair of plump orange-necked birds, stragglers from a northbound flock, take rest on the lamppost from which hangs one end of a police cordon. In the breaks between the wailing of the sirens and the murmur of the onlookers, they can be heard singing. The species is not unique to the island nor the island to the species, but the birds, when they stop here, change the pitch of their songs. The call is an octave higher, a sharp, throat-scraping thing.

In time a crowd gathers near the site of the shipwreck, tourists and locals alike. People watch.

The eldest of them, an arthritic fisherman driven in recent years by plummeting cherubfish stocks to kitchen work at a nearby resort, says that it’s never been like this before on the island. Other locals nod, because even though the history of this place is that of violent endings, of galleys flipped over the axis of their oars and fishing skiffs tangled in their own netting and once, during the war, an empty Higgins lander sheared to ribbons by shrapnel, the old man is still, in his own way, right. These are foreign dead.

No one can remember exactly when they first started washing up along the eastern coast. But in the last year it has happened with such frequency that many of the nations on whose tourists the island’s economy depends have issued travel advisories. The hotels and resorts, in turn, have offered discounts. Between them, the coast guard and the morgue keep a partial count of the dead, and as of this morning it stands at 1,026 but this number is as much an abstraction as the dead themselves are to the people who live here, to whom all the shipwrecks of the previous year are a single shipwreck, all the bodies a single body.

Three officers from the municipal police force pull a long strip of caution tape along the breadth of the walkway that leads from the road to the beach. Another three wrestle with large sheets of blue boat-cover canvas, trying to build a curtain between the dead and their audience. In this way the destruction takes on an air of queer unreality, a stage play bled of movement, a fairy tale upturned.

The officers, all of them young and impatient, manage to tether the fabric to a couple of lampposts, from which the orange-necked birds whistle and flee. But even stretched to near-tearing, the canvas does little to hide the dead from view. Some of the onlookers shuffle awkwardly to the far end of the parking lot, where there’s still an acute line of sight between the draping and four television news trucks. Others climb on top of parked cars and sweep their cameras across the width of the beach, some with their backs to the carnage, their own faces occupying the center of the recording. The dead become the property of the living.

Oriented as they are, many of the shipwrecked bodies appear to have been spat up landward by the sea, or of their own volition to have walked out from its depths and then collapsed a few feet later. Except the child. Relative to the others he is inverted, his head closest to the lapping waves, his feet nestled into the warmer, lighter sand that remains dry even at highest tide. He is small but somewhere along the length of his body marks the sea’s farthest reach.

A wave brushes gently against the child’s hair. He opens his eyes.

At first he sees nothing, his sight hampered by the sting of salt and sand and strands of his own matted hair in his eyes. His surroundings appear to him as if behind frosted glass, or on the remembering end of a dream.

But other senses awake. He hears the sound of the sea, tame and metronomic. And beneath that, the hushed conversation of two men, inching closer to where he lies.

The child blinks the silt from his eyes; the world begins to take shape. To his left the beach curves in a long, smooth crescent until it disappears from view behind the rise of a rocky hill lined with thin, palm-like trees. It is a beautiful place, tropical and serene.

For a moment he doesn’t register the dead, only their belongings: ball caps and cell phones and sticks of lip balm and forged identification cards tucked into the cheapest kind of waterproof container, tied-up party balloons. Bright-orange life vests, bloated as blisters, some wrapped around their owners, others unclaimed. A phrase book. A pair of socks.

The boy’s neck is stiff and it hurts to move, but he turns slightly in the direction of the sea. In the shallows sits a rubber dinghy outfitted with police lights. Farther out, the water sheds its sandy complexion and turns a turquoise of such clarity that the tourists’ sailboats seem to float atop their own shadows.

Two men approach. Baggy white containment suits cover their bodies and white gloves their hands and white masks their faces, and vaguely they remind the boy of astronauts. They move slowly around and over the bodies, occasionally nudging at them with their feet and waiting for a response. Some of the corpses they inspect wear small glittering things around their fingers or necks. The boy watches, unmoving, as the masked workers bend down and carefully pocket anything that sparkles. They speak a language he doesn’t understand. They move toward him.

The boy doesn’t take his eyes off them. His clothes, soaked with salt water, hold fast to his frame; he flicks his toes in the tiny puddles collected in his shoes. His jaw aches. He lifts his head from the sand. He rises.

Seeing him, one of the two workers takes off his face mask and yells. The words mean nothing to the boy but by the gesticulations he gathers that he is being ordered not to move.

The man turns, first to his colleague and then, his voice even louder now, to the officers stationed at the edge of the beach. Once alerted, they begin to sprint in the boy’s direction.

The boy looks around him. To his left, past where the beach ends at a small gravel road packed with police cars and ambulances and trucks with large satellites affixed to their roofs, there stands a dense forest of the same palm-like trees that bookend the far hillside, their crowning leaflets like the skeletal remains of some many-limbed starfish, or a firework mid-burst. Everywhere else the sun shines brightly, but in the shade of the canopy there is a darkened thicket, perhaps a hiding place.

The men rush closer, yelling alien things. Pinned between the water and the land, the child turns toward the sheltering trees. He runs.

Excerpted from What Strange Paradise. Copyright © 2021 by Omar El Akkad. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Glorious Frazzled Beings

Lady with the Big Head Chronicle

The lady with the big head is out there in the misty morning. Is she wearing a veil? What is she doing in my garden? The mist is sitting on the river, slightly spread over the land. I see the mountain beyond, and the lady with the big head stooped over my onions. Not like yesterday when the mist was so thick I wouldn’t have seen her if she had been there.

Was she out there yesterday, picking calendula seeds to save for next season? She didn’t ask me if she could tend my garden while I was in the house doing other things. She’s never talked to me at all. She avoids me if I try to approach her, floating off into the mist or the memory of mist, then reappearing later doing different things in different places. I saw her digging at an anthill with the bear that has been hanging around our yard. She used a stick and the bear used her big broad paws.

The lady with the big head was helping the bear, or the bear was helping the lady with the big head, I’m not sure which. Either way, they were digging up the anthill near the apple tree. I didn’t mind that. I had noticed the ants were in the sickly tree crawling all around and that probably was not a good sign, so maybe the lady with the big head and the bear were helping the apple tree too.

She might be taking some onions, or weeding, or eating slugs. I can’t tell exactly what she is doing because the veil that hangs down from her big head drapes over her body to the ground and hides her movements. Also the light has not yet come, only a faint blueness and all that mist. I could offer her a hot tea but if I walk out there she’ll float away from me.

Later I’ll go look and see if she has taken onions or left any knick-knacks. Once I found a spool of golden thread so strong, fine, and shiny, I knew it was magical. The kind of thread that could be used to build spiderwebs that are always visible no matter the light. Visible but still translucent, an ephemeral quality of there and not quite there, only gold instead of silver. It might be what she makes her veil out of, or at least what she uses to mend the veil, because now that I think of it the veil is not golden, it’s more of a purple-grey shadow. Sometimes she has it pulled back and I can almost make out her features as she goes about doing things ladies with big heads do. She looks a little bit like me and a little bit like Rod Stewart, which is an odd mix for a lady. A couple of times I’ve glimpsed her looking like my dog, John Black, who died last winter. She might have taken her skull from the forest, where we left the dog’s body, to use as a mask; it seems like something the lady with the big head would do.

Lady with the big head and the weight of her head

The lady with the big head is having trouble holding her head up. It’s dipping forward this week, jutting at the chin. A chiropractor would look at her and shudder, thinking of her unhappy spine, contorted and compressed by the heaviness of gravity. He would want to brace her somehow, crack her in all sorts of places, and have her do little exercises with devices of his own making to relieve the pressure on her neck.

Who can she consult for this, living as she does in the forest? Being only partway real? Who would book her in for an appointment with her lack of proper name and no address to speak of? No email or phone number to confirm a correct time? Who would make a call to the forest, following her trail to find where she is sleeping and wrench that crook from her neck? How would she pay them? Would a chiropractor accept dried mushrooms in payment for his services? Would he treat without an X-ray showing the insides of the lady with the big head’s troubled bones?

Instead we build her a device from which she can hang upside down, with a long flat back that inverts once she’s strapped herself in. I hang there a lot when she’s not using it, feeling the blood pool in my head, imagining my spine unkinking so more of my life can bubble up through that crazy central nerve cluster that sends messages all through my body, making it so I can know.

Lady with the big head has a dream

She had a quiet dream, the lady with the big head. It was quiet so she kept sleeping. If it had been a loud raucous dream she would have startled herself out of it. She does not want to dream raucous dreams. Still, sometimes she does. She seeps in my window and makes me dream them too.

She dreams she is living in a musty apartment where the shower runs straight onto the carpet and there are old patio umbrellas stacked in the storeroom. Enough of them that there is no room to store her own things. There are also a few toilets side by side, some of them with equipment attached to them for various kinds of disabilities. The lady with the big head does not want to live in this apartment. She wipes up dust and pubic hair gathered around the toilets that was not cleaned away before she moved in. She wonders why she is paying rent here when it has not been cleaned of other people’s pubic hair, and the landlord is storing things in her storeroom. There are two bathtubs side by side in another part of the apartment, one slightly lower than the other. The lower one has a rack in it like a water-bath canner and is very dirty. The lady with the big head pours two baths and gets in the cleaner one. She seems happy to have a bath in the dream. She is in the bath with a friend who is living down the hall and tells her not to get in the lower bath because it is filled with other people’s filth.

Later the lady with the big head wakes up and goes around the forest. She doesn’t live in a musty apartment. She doesn’t have a bath and there is soil everywhere. It does not seem soiled. She goes down to the cold river and washes her face. Some of it washes right off. The lady with the big head is going around with only part of a face today, refreshed to be kept so clean by the world. A new face will grow back; it always does. Who knows what it will look like. Part of her face will look like her old face and part of her face will be her new face. She follows the cycle of the moon. As the moon wanes the rest of her old face will peel off in fragments. In the darkest night of the new moon she’ll be wiped clean of that old face and her new face will be there, coming to fruition over the next few weeks toward some kind of whole. During full moon she glows with the fullness of her features, distinct for such a short window of time. If you didn’t already know her by the size of her head, you’d know her then by the flicker and fullness of her face.

Lady with the big head knits

The lady with the big head has started a new knitting project. She has gathered mycelia from the undersides of leaves, dried it, weaving in lichens hanging from pine trees, grasses dried before they harden too much to be malleable, licks of the thinnest birch and hazel branches. All strung together and rolled into balls. The lady with the big head is knitting a fine gown and a warm blanket. She is knitting a scarf and toque for the mangy squirrel that lost much of its coat to mites this summer. She gathers bits of feather and tufts of fur scattered in the forest from fresh coyote kills, along the roadside from smashed-up deer and grouse. These she loops in for warmth and softness amongst the brittle structures of plant and fungus parts.

Lady with the big head pilfers garlic

The lady with the big head is digging a hole for the winter. Last year’s burrow collapsed because of all the rain. She has borrowed our shovel, which we had hoped to use to prepare the ground for garlic. The lady with the big head mostly leaves the garlic alone. We put out a few bundles in the barn so that she will not dig up our seed. One year we lost almost our whole harvest to her, but we learned that if we made an offering she would leave the stuff in the ground alone.

She wants us to have our garlic but if there is not enough to go around she will pilfer. She needs the garlic to keep her belly warm over the long winter. To spice up the plain roots she keeps stored in her caches and the cambium she munches in leaner times.

The lady with the big head knows how to make fires. Probably she knows how to start them from flints, but she also takes matches and lighters. Either it’s her or our son William, who is trying to hide his pyrotechnic activities. William assures us he’s seen her smoking whatever brand of cigarettes she can get her hands on and tossing the butts under the pine tree where she thinks no one will see them. When we buy a three-pack of strike-anywheres from the hardware store we always leave a pack sealed in a zip-lock out in the barn in the cubby set aside for offerings, to make things a little easier for her.

Sometimes she leaves things for us in return — bits of woven grass or the skeletons of small animals, any garbage William tosses out in the bush with his friends when they’re out there being dickheads. Probably they think it’s funny that the lady with the big head will pick up after them. But we warn them to be careful, as she’s not a custodian. She has a streak of righteousness to her, and one way or another, we tell William, something bad will come of his carelessness if he keeps goading her.

Lady with the big head reads poetry

Does the lady with the big head suffer from heartburn? It is hard to say because her body is such a mystery. Perhaps that big head weighs down on her organs, making acid rise up her esophagus to burn her throat. Or perhaps because of her healthful diet of herbs, roots, plants, and small animals, she is safe from such refluxes. One thing we know is that the lady with the big head is a big admirer of poetry. We leave volumes for her in the barn because she knows better than to accept gifts from us directly. In the beginning when we left books out she would take them and not bring them back. We lost several of our favourite poets that way and are still uncertain where they’ve gone. There would be no way for her to keep the books from rotting out there with all the dampness. Without insulated walls and ongoing fires or electric baseboard heaters things out there won’t keep. They’ll rot and rust and be taken over by mosses, their original words and functions becoming unreadable. So even if she has kept them, they are still lost to us, and will become lost to her also. Unless of course she is able to commit them to memory, which is highly possible with that big head of hers that must have so much room in it for stories about the world.

We have long discussions in our home about what volume to offer up next, how to pick poets for the lady with the big head’s attunement to the literary world. William writes out pages of his favourite hip-hop rhymes so that she’ll be in the know about different kinds of verse, not just filled up with the tender shit his mothers are into. She leaves us the spectres and voices of the nonhuman to learn as we leave her the weavings of those who play and build with the language the colonizers left us. Who knows how many misunderstandings pass between us? And truthfully we have no education in poetry. Only the internet and the suggestions put forth by the surveillance of our previous choices to offer us other things we might like based on the things we have chosen before. Also a pitiful section of poetry in our local library, which nonetheless we are grateful for. Sometimes our friends will send us things from the cities in which they live where human words sprawl over the landscape. Here many of those words are washed away or covered in brush as soon as they arrive, unable to convey the poets’ observations about human-scale landscapes and being. The land here eats everything. There are after all so many intact spirits roaming, and they are hungry for knowing. The lady with the big head is a little bit like a medium between us and this world. We fumble toward knowing one another with our gifts and intentions, undaunted by our failures to understand — thrilled by the revelations that come.

Lady with the big head shares her kill

It is unclear whether or not the lady with the big head has children. Many creatures follow her around and participate in her doings. Two ravens perch in a poplar to watch her handiwork as she cuts across the grouse’s neck and holds its feet to rip the skin off. She keeps the breasts and feathers and tosses the rest of it to the ravens. She’s not greedy, makes sure to share what she is gifted from the world.

After ripping as much flesh as they can get, the ravens get wind of another kill, take off in the direction of death. The lady with the big head continues wandering, tomorrow she plans to spend all day at the river reading rocks, testing the words of lichen with her practised tongue.

Lady with the big headís sexuality

The lady with the big head was not human before she became a partway ghost, which is why I chide Alma, calling her “my prudish wife,” when she is disgusted by the lady with the big head’s sexuality. This morning after licking dew from cabbage fronds, the lady with the big head fornicated with a giant raven in the yard, making us think maybe she consorts with gods. Her screams had us rushing outside, thinking the cat had been attacked by coyotes. William got out his smart phone, trying to make a video, but luckily we were on him before he could make it to the cell booster for a signal. We confiscated the phone and erased any traces of an encounter that was never meant to be made into media, then had a good talk about respecting people’s boundaries. He argued that the lady with the big head and the raven were not really people and if they were they should be a little more discreet about where they decided to fuck.

We reminded William that despite legal title, we’re encroaching on territory that has boundaries chronicled in stories that have never been told to us, and maybe the lady with the big head is part of that world. Or maybe she isn’t. There is so much we cannot know because of the knowledge we have been born into, passed down through the direct or banal violence of our immigrant ancestors. It may be that she has been here so very long, as ancient as the land. Or perhaps she came with us or with some other settlers from another part of the world, got marooned here, and goes on living even though the humans that once knew her are gone or dead and their children do not remember. We do not know how to ask, or who to ask, and the lady with the big head is not telling. But William is fourteen and immersed in dominant cultural values (despite our best efforts) so he doesn’t get these discrepancies. He’s all over what’s mine and not mine, thinking you can really own things, that legal possession gives you alienable rights that exclude other truths from the land.

Alma isn’t sure how the lady with the big head’s sexual life will affect William’s burgeoning sexuality. This morning it was the raven and last week we saw her sensually stroking a vixen’s back, the purr from her throat unmistakable. Alma’s been keeping William inside lately because of the birchbark etchings that have been popping up on the trails. The kind of images that make me shiver down there, making me so uncomfortably aroused that shame clamps me down before the pleasure can spread any further. The lady with the big head depicts the erotic life of forest creatures in ways that enliven our human erogenous zones. We find ourselves arguing in bed about whether she is being vulgar or artful out there in the forest all around.

Lady with the big headís perspective on identity

The lady with the big head does not really care about technologies of identity construction and the limited dialectics of culture inherent in dominant practices of person-­making. Meaning comes to her through languages of texture and heeding. Quick-sight-and-categorize is not the primary way she has learned to become among others like or unlike her. Therefore she categorizes differently.

There are so many ways of likeness.

The lady with the big head interrelates intimately with many beings and because of this the plain sufferings of humans fall in line with the plain sufferings of salmon, hummingbird, lichen, salamander, and snail.

Watching her out there limping I can see that the lady with the big head has become very angry that the plain sufferings of salmon have become so much less plain through the grasping patriarchy of capital and conquest, as we go on taking and taking and taking from this world in the drive to constantly remake ourselves.

The lady with the big head is listening for silenced voices. Sometimes I wish she would start yelling in a big ghost voice that causes terrible reverberations to frighten away surveyors who fly around in helicopters trying to decide how to pipe bitumen and gas under the land to put in big leaky ships across oceans so that more cheap plastic goods can be manufactured to accumulate dangerously in the world. That her voice had the power to change this.

But maybe that’s just me, inventing motivations and capabilities for her. Maybe in my looking I am like others like me — an accident or designed outcome of the generations that came before. Left here with garbled stories because each generation tries to efface or correct the stories of the last in our attempts to settle ourselves. The stories that bind us to place transformed with each displacement. Solid as we claim ourselves to be, we are deeply unsure what to do with the buried stories that froth forth into our fields of perception. Stories that link us uncomfortably to the violent displacements that have made this home. We writhe with our inability to make meaning as the lady with the big head voyages along the dendritic trails of her manifold histories.

Lady with the big head intuits ice

The lady with the big head intuits ice as a long pause in the body of the world. She knows it’s not really like that because ice is dynamic, changing itself constantly as the world around it fluctuates, loosening its bonds and flowing away or tightening toward itself and heaving into space. Marching to cover land masses and bust open rock. Not really a self at all, able to exist as water or vapour. Becoming forceful and epic, becoming vastness, becoming the body of the world, breaking the body of the world into infinitesimal fragments which it devours or gestates. Always in flux with the stuff that makes land.

The lady with the big head tries to parse out the spirit bits. The enlivened elements. She sticks her hand into ice and has to pull back because it’s just so cold! She sticks her hand into water and animalcules cling to her, blotching her skin, nibbling her cells. The water is so inviting she plops herself in, grateful for a big head that floats like a buoy. Her limbs fall below, but her breathing hole must be kept out or water will clog her and push out her spirit, turning her body to fodder. She cannot live in water, cannot live without water. So unlike salamander, who doesn’t need to keep constant temperature, and like salamander, too — rhythmically heaved by breath. She reaps the benefits of pulse. But because she is only somewhat alive she can pause herself like ice for eons, fragmented, covering up the cities we made that we thought would last forever, turning them into questions for future creatures that come after the ice.

Lady with the big head tells me to shut the fuck up

I think I hear the lady with the big head whispering. Maybe she is telling me to shut the fuck up? Not for just one hot second, or three timed minutes registered in my meditation app and logged online to be compared with others like me who have become so aware of their mindfulness? Maybe she just keeps saying shhh, shhhh, shhhh, like we used to whisper to William when he was a baby and crying all the time, needing to be soothed by his mothers’ warm soft breaths? Maybe she is saying that it is so hard to hear when we are always stating things, crashing about the multi-voiced world with our so-loud authoritative claims and combustion-engine machinery?

then it goes that you get real quiet for a real long time,

no one knows how long, and there are a lot of things you hear,

and then maybe after a long time

there is a sound that moves you.


not like moving in your limbs to get things done, but another kind of moving

— one that comes from inside the body, real deep in there.


maybe a little bit close inside between the lungs and heart

where there is all that breathing and blood pumping

and there you get moved, still real quiet

because you’re trying not to make it about

your words and your knowing

make place for another kind of being

like moving with instead of moving about.


you’re out there in her garden and she’s making a hole with her fingers in the soil.

you’ve got to respect her veil but it’s hard not to want so much to peek inside.

you tease apart the root bulb, hand her one piece

then another. she is asking you only to break up the bulb

and hand her the parts one by one.

she is not moving away from you

as long as you break up the bulb

and hand her the parts one by one.

(without pressing your narratives in,

assuming you might know

how to know her world.)Excerpted from Glorious Frazzled Beings. Copyright © 2021 by Angélique Lalonde.  Excerpted by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

2021 Shortlist

Browse the selection below of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated shortlisted books and discover unique stories and perspectives from across Canada ahead of the winner announcement on November 8, 2021.

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Join our authors for an intimate discussion of the novels to connect with readers at our Between the Pages event on November 4th, 2021 at scotiabankgillerprize.ca/live

The Scotiabank Giller Prize is pleased to announce the award-winning, five-member jury panel for the 2021 Prize


Megan Gail Coles

Joshua Ferris

Zalika Reid Benta

Joshua Whitehead

Scotiabank Giller Prize


  • Longlist Announcement: September 8, 2021
  • Shortlist Annoucement: October 5, 2021
  • Between The Pages Event: November 4, 2021
  • Winner Announcement: November 8, 2021

Location: Toronto, ON


We’re proud to celebrate the very best in Canadian fiction, through our sponsorship of the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

In November 2020, Souvankham Thammavongsa won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her collection of short stories How To Pronounce Knife, published by Penguin Random House Canada.

Follow the excitement of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize as it builds to the announcement of both the Longlist and Shorlist, culminating with the winner announcement on November 8, 2021 via a live broadcast on the CBC (9PM E.T.)

The Longlist, Shortlist and Winner will be selected by an esteemed five-member jury panel: They are Award winning Canadian authors Megan Gail ColesZalika Reid-Benta (jury chair) and Joshua Whitehead, Malaysian writer and Whitbread and Commonwealth award winner, Tash Aw and American author and winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize, Joshua Ferris.

This year’s Longlist and Shortlist will be announced virtually via webcast at scotiabankgillerprize.ca with Shortlisted authors connecting with readers at the Between The Pages event. The winner will be announced at the nationally televised live broadcast on November 8, 2021 on the CBC at 9PM (ET).

Visit www.scotiabankgillerprize.ca for more information.

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