Morris measured and sliced plastic sheeting to cover the last empty windowsill. It was mid-November, and the bunkhouse was punctured all over. The cold breeze carried pine needles through the absent front door and stovepipe, and it moved inside Morris’s cable-knit sweater. The sweater had fit snugly when he’d first arrived. Outside in the clearing, Morris thought he heard a horse’s quick exhale. He scratched at his throat and began stapling shut the hole.
This happened in the 1770s. It must have been the mid-70s because Samuel Hearne was Factor of Fort Prince of Wales when, one windy afternoon, the Chipewyan and Cree came up the thick mud road to trade. They were led by a savvy politician called Matonabbee. He – that is, Matonabbee – had been raised in the Fort as a child, before going on to unite all the tribes of the area into a single economic power. He knew the lay of the land. By mid-afternoon, almost everyone inside the walls was drunk.
One day, all those angels and mounties decided to pack away their pistols and make peace. That evening they came over to my place to celebrate. We sat around on my Oxford-grey sectional and drank tequila until Sgt. Noël started to cry.
“What’s the matter, officer?” I asked.
The sergeant blew his nose and told us that one week earlier he’d been involved in a running gunfight all the way from 96th avenue to Hawthorne Park on 108th. He described the crack of gunshots, and ducking behind the wheel-well of a beige Toyota, hopping fences in the rain, slapping on handcuffs, throwing gut-punches, and just being crazy and euphoric, and immortal, and now he suddenly realized that the last violent showdown between the Hell’s Angels and the RCMP had already come and gone, and of course he was happy that the killing would stop, but he sure wished he had known it at the time.
It was impossible to hang pegasus. All three ape-children heaved until they panted, but could barely lift the beast’s silver head from the deck. They spread their toes to steady themselves against the ship’s lurch. In the candlelight, their ape-father cut deeply into the tissues of the neck. The beast’s tongue hung almost to the floor. The children whimpered under the weight of pegasus‘s head as their father quickly sawed a ring through the muscles and tendons. They were hungry, he knew. He counted as he sawed: one-two-one-two, and tapped his toes on the deck of the ship: one, two, one, two. His hairy arm was slick to the shoulder with pegasus blood. His mate sopped at the blood pooling on the deck. She moaned quietly. It was impossible to hang the pegasus, the ape-father thought, because his family had been given the ship’s lower hold to make their butcher-house, and the deck’s clearance was barely three handspans above his own stooped shoulders. One, two, three. Continue reading
At my favourite Vietnamese restaurant, I always ordered a large beef soup with extra vegetables. The bowl it came in could be used to bathe an infant. One afternoon, the place was busier than usual, and I was hungrier than usual, and the waiter mixed up my order. I got a tiny bowl of thin soup. Worse, it was swimming with some coarse, white material that I didn’t recognize. My waiter had to mime deep gulps of air before I understood that the white stuff was cow lung. I almost sent it back. Then I thought, “There’s not much, anyway. Live a little.” I’m glad that I did. The lung soup was such a textural delight that now I sometimes order it on purpose.
People can stomach strange things in small quantities.
She sucked her allongé between the gap in her teeth and asked me, “What’s the first piece of writing advice you can remember?”
I had to think. “Eleventh grade,” I said. “An Irish author visited our class and read us one of his stories. It was about Ozzy Osbourne flying a kite. He’d been teaching creative writing at colleges for years, and he only had two rules. No coffee, and no metafiction. He was a real Irish author, so I took the rules to heart.” I swirled my espresso. “What about you?”
“Also high school,” she said. “No castles, no starships.”
Now that bugged me. Because once you axe castles and starships, then fedoras and revolvers can’t be far behind. Goblins and witches, magicians of all kind will be next on the chopping-block. Then corsets and dowries get tossed out the window. Jungles, bi-planes, whisky-slugging smugglers, magnifying lenses and drawing-room revelations, all gone, along with talking horses, heroic teenagers, war-rooms and stolen state-of-the-art army hardware, anything set underwater, datajacks, time-machines, wolves befriended to survive the winter, heaving bosoms and sexy Texans: once you cut, you must keep cutting until all you’re left with is coffee and metafiction.