Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World (Chapter 12)

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Night is a Shadow Cast By the World by Brian Panhuyzen

Toronto writer Brian Panhuyzen's ambitious new novel, Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, is a gripping literary adventure about books, aviation, travel and love. We will be serializing a portion of the book on Open Book: Toronto, with a new chapter posted every Tuesday and Thursday.

Read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10 and Chapter 11 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World.

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Chapter 12

Cordell awakens slowly from a deep and viscous sleep, but before his eyes open he knows by the smells of cigarettes, old leather, and aging rubber that last night was not a dream. His heart quickens. When he cracks his eyelids he sees in a blinding glare of sunlight a battered console, and all hope that this scene will replace itself with the stucco spirals of his bedroom ceiling evaporate. He turns to exclaim his panic to Marla — he’s not entirely convinced — but faces instead the empty pilot’s seat. He shouts and seizes the wheel before him, ready to wrestle the pilotless craft back under control, but the yoke turns and pivots with little resistance. A glance through the side window reveals a forest of birch and white pine. He sits up for a better view, meets the restraint of the shoulder harness, and unfastens the belts. “All right Cordell,” he whispers. “Where are you?” Grass below and trees all around. He looks at his bare wrist, remembers his watch resting on the windowsill above the kitchen sink where he put it when he began to dry the dishes.

A stir of panic and he struggles out of the seat and stands, begins to exit the cockpit until his head snaps back as the headset pops off his ears. He turns to see it dangling by its cord from the seatback and he sets it into the chair. Then he walks, head cocked to one side to evade the low ceiling, down the slope of the cabin, between the seats and crates, to the rear of the aircraft, the strange scenery hazy through his sticky eyeballs and humming disbelief. The bathroom door is slightly ajar and before it stands a galvanized pail full of water and russet foam. A mop rests against the bulkhead and the air stinks of antiseptic. He hesitates, then pulls the door open. Empty. He squats to study the scrubbed floor, the only evidence of what happened here a faint brown crust around the baseboards.

He rises and approaches the crates, examines the Cyrillic word stencilled on each. He fingers one of the padlocks and reckons the box’s dimensions — a metre and a half long, forty centimetres deep, the same high. Not ready to acknowledge the most likely contraband such a crate might hold, he steps to the open doorway.

He sees a wide clearing, and among all manner of junk a squat barn and a single-storey cabin constructed from pale logs as thick as his waist. Beyond them, a swell of trees rises to a cliff of dun stone ascending to a peak of glittering schist, which appears in the haze to be both touchably near and impossibly distant.

Before the house stands a pine mast, and on it stirs an American flag.

Cordell swallows.

He begins to descend the plane’s steps, imagining Neil Armstrong approaching the moon’s surface. At the base he inhales deeply before pressing his foot to the grass. Not unlike Canadian ground. Maybe squishier. He brings the other foot down and stands, staring at his feet in the crabgrass, recalling his shoes last evening in the grass and weed of his own field in his homeland, far from here.

In a moment he is sprinting, not towards the cabin but away from it, rounding the aircraft’s tail, heading for the treeline, propelled by blind panic. He veers and runs parallel to the bush, hears a shout from the direction of the house but doesn’t turn, and after a hundred metres he finds a narrow footpath through an archway of brush and bolts into the murk, hands upraised to parry low branches. He runs until he reaches a narrow river, and he makes his way upstream along its bank until he meets a sheer rockface and a waterfall. He stops and rests with his hands on knees, panting, examining his surroundings. A deep pool at the waterfall’s base, its skin rippled by the cascade, soft light from the open sky above.

He steps into a snarl of kudzu and pees for a long time, eyes brimming with tears. Calmness arrives with the relief, augmented by the peace of the forest, the white murmur of the waterfall, the smell of greenery and decay. A mild ache in his back from slumbering in the aircraft seat. His blood pressure rises at the thought of the DC-3, and he glances in the direction of the plane, hidden by distance and brush. Is he really here, in the woods of some foreign nation far from home, carried by an ancient aircraft through the most harrowing and exciting night of his life? And how did he sleep in that co-pilot’s seat after all that terror and wonder, why didn’t adrenaline sustain him? Probably because it had been utterly depleted.

And why did he run?

Easy. He ran because he was scared. Is scared. And now, he thinks as he zips his fly, lost. Because he raced an errant route through the forest with no inkling of the way back to the field — and his ticket home.

Follow the river, he thinks. Back the way he came; he can perhaps find the path which led him to the river.

But he does not move. He finds as he stands there taking in the little clearing and the tidy pool filling at one end and draining at the other a kind of equilibrium, one that he has certainly not felt in the last twelve hours, and even for some time before that. This windless green place.

Motion at his feet catches his eye and he looks down and watches something thick and brown cross the path and slip into the water, then propel itself with a flutter of its body across the pool, moving itself like liquid to the reeds at the pool’s far side.

Snake. Big snake. Venomous snake? The thought sheds an entirely new light on the surroundings, for he is no longer in the familiar realm of a virtually harmless Canadian forest, but in the U.S., south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He tries to remember Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston; what threats await forest interlopers of the southern U.S.? Snakes and spiders and poison oak and encephalitis and Lyme Disease. Oh my.

“Moccasin,” a voice says, giving Cordell such a start that he staggers backwards and catches his heel on a root, and for one perilous instant stands flailing his arms to maintain balance. By a miracle he remains upright, and the figure who spoke, a short, grizzled man of seventy or more, says, “Apologies. The snake, it was a water moccasin. Cottonmouth. Not astonishingly venomous, though you’ll want to avoid a bite.”

“All right,” Cordell replies, studying the man. He wears a baggy tan shirt which appears in the forest’s dimness to be made entirely from pockets . . . striped overalls of blue and white and what looks like a railroad conductor’s hat, and his eyes below the brim are a surprising blue. He steps through the understory towards Cordell.

“There’s a jake up by the house.”

“A what?” Cordell replies.

“An outhouse. No need to scramble into the woods. Come back now. I’ll fix you something to eat.”

Cordell is about to ask about Tessa when the man turns and begins to make his way rapidly through the forest, stepping easily through the heavy brush. Cordell follows less gracefully, wading through shrub and ducking branches, until they reach a path which rises until he can see light through the trees. In moments they are on the field’s threshold, and there is the Lucky Duck and just beyond it the cabin, a rag of smoke hanging from the chimney. Cordell smells woodsmoke, coffee, bacon. As he follows the man towards the cabin he gazes at the DC-3 gleaming in the sunlight and it occurs to him that other than the moniker and logo emblazoned on the nose, she bears no markings or identification. A yellow tanker truck, “Shell Aviation Fuels” painted on its flank, is parked behind the Duck’s right wing, and the plane stands facing east, contemplating a long, grassy field, halfway down which a windsock of fluorescent orange droops from a wooden pole.

The rest of the lawn around the cabin is littered with junk, engine parts, smashed cars, trucks, tires, and a chilling monument: a wingless Cessna resting on its nose, propeller blades twisted and chewed into the earth, tail aimed skyward. This object stops Cordell in his tracks, and he is about to ask about the circumstances of this mishap — specifically, was Tessa the pilot? — when the man mounts the cabin’s steps and disappears inside.

Cordell follows, hesitates on the porch and notices on a chair beside the door a blind cat, its pupils shining like coins. Cordell scratches its head and steps through the doorway.

Dim after the sunlight, but the smells of food and coffee are stronger and they rile his appetite. Under it all the soft tang of wood, for little here is not made from it. Bare log walls, like ribs, Cordell thinks, like they’ve entered the thorax of a living thing. Furniture constructed from the same stuff, a couch and two frame and burlap chairs, coffeetable the size of a wagon wheel, and there’s a fieldstone fireplace. To the right a modest kitchen with an enamel sink and a woodstove on a pad of grey tile, tin coffeepot percolating on the stovetop. An antiquated fridge. Kitchen table surrounded by mismatched pressbacks. Two placesettings, breakfast scraps, crusts of toast, bits of egg.

“Something to eat?” the man asks. “Oh, I’m Julius.” He steps forward and wipes his palm on his overalls and sticks out his hand. Cordell shakes it.

“Cordell,” he says.

“What?”

“Cordell,” he says louder.

“Pleasure to meet you, Gordy.”

Cordell inhales to correct him, asks instead, “Where’s Tessa?”

“Wut?”

“Tessa?” Cordell repeats loudly.

“She’s aslumber,” Julius says, nodding towards a wooden door. “It was some night.”

Cordell wants to ask about the dead body, what’s been done with it, but he realizes that he doesn’t want to know. He stands uncertainly.

“Set yourself down,” Julius says, indicating the table. “What you like, Gordy? You like eggs?”

“Please.”

“Coffee?”

“All right.”

Cordell sits tapping the tabletop with fingertips, glancing around the cabin when his scrutiny grows focussed on finding in the room a telephone. He investigates the obvious places — beside the couch, on the walls, on the table beside the door — and finds none, and then says to Julius’s back, “Your phone.” Julius is pouring coffee, does not respond, so Cordell calls loudly, “Hey, where’s your phone?”

Julius turns, his brow wrinkled. “Tessa tell you to ask me that?”

“No, why?”

“Aw. She always bugging me about my phone. She got me one of those cellular phones. Hardly works out here. Plus I forget to charge it. Lost the charger, to be honest. Anyway, people just call you. People call when they want stuff.”

He sets a mug before Cordell, a sugarpot. Cordell ladles in the sugar, stirs, and Julius returns to the counter, sets an iron frying pan on the stovetop. He starts chopping vegetables, humming tunelessly as the blade knocks against the cuttingboard.

“How far to a payphone?” Cordell asks.

“What?”

“Payphone.”

“Sure. At the Piggly Wiggly in Kemptville. It be seven mile. Don’t go nowhere though. Tessa be awake soon, says you leave directly.”

“Taking me home? Is she taking me home?”

“Oh yuh.”

“When?”

“I wake her up.”

“When’s that?”

“Oh,” he says, pulling a timepiece of considerable diameter from his pocket. He puts it to his ear, shakes it, winds it. “Forty minutes.”

Cordell checks his watch, finds a blank wrist. “What time is it now?”

“Eightish.”

He studies the bubbles in his coffeecup. He imagines Marla at home in the kitchen. Is she drinking coffee too? He has to call her.

Julius lays slabs of backbacon into the skillet and they begin to sizzle. He opens the fridge and lifts out a carton of eggs.

“Eggs. How you like em?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, poached.”

“Wut?”

“You know, poached. Poached eggs.”

“Come again?”

Cordell is about to repeat the request, says instead, “Scrambled?”

“Right. For a minute I thought you said poached. Where’d you say you’re from?”

“Canada.”

“Aha.”

He cracks eggs into a bowl, adds milk from a pitcher and whips them with a fork, his eyes distant and contemplative. Then he pours the mixture into the pan beside the bacon, the eggs sizzling in the hot grease. Cordell sips the coffee, it’s thick as river silt. He stirs in more sugar.

“You’ll want to warsh up fore you eat.”

Cordell nods and Julius waves him to the sink. Cordell moves before it, turns on the tap. The water is glacier cold and he swings the handle to the left, waits.

“Oh,” Julius says with a chuckle. “No. I could heat you a kettle.”

“That’s all right.”

He leans over the basin and cups his hands beneath the spout, and as he’s about to splash his face he smells a mildly sulphurous odour in the water. He studies the filling bowl of his hands but the water looks clear. He senses Julius’s eyes on him so he throws the water into his face, refills his hands, and splashes a few times, grunting and sputtering with the cold. He is about to finish when he remembers the blood on his forehead. He lifts a bar of soap from a copper dish, wets it, and closes the tap. He lathers his hands, his face, and scrubs vigorously, focussing on his forehead. He gropes for the tap, fills his cupped hands, splashes away the soap. When he opens his eyes Julius is pressing a towel into his hands, and Cordell dries his face as he makes his way back to the table. He hangs the towel over a chairback and sits.

Julius sets the plate in front of Cordell. From a loaf on the counter he carves slabs of bread, brings them to the table.

Cordell eats ravenously, feeling more alert after the icy water.

The old man consults the pocketwatch and looks towards the closed door.

“Is it time?” Cordell asks.

“Not yet.”

Julius fills his own mug with coffee and takes a seat at the table. From one of the shirt’s pockets he withdraws a pipe and a scroll of tobacco, and while Cordell eats he sets to filling the pipe’s bowl, his eyes mildly crossed as he watches his handiwork. Cordell sips the coffee, conscious now of a sulphurous undertaste.

Julius lights the pipe. Rich tobacco smell, and Cordell remembers his grandfather’s ramshackle cottage, the humic scent of pipesmoke soaked into the walls.

“What you do for Luz?” Julius asks suddenly.

“For Luz?” Cordell replies, his heart racing. “Nothing. Well, nothing much. I ship things.”

“Do yuh. Like Tessa does?”

“Oh no. Not like that at all. I just put stuff in boxes and send them on.”

Julius gives him a suspicious look. “What kinds of things?” he asks.

Cordell purses his lips. “I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”

“Well. That’s up to you.”

They are silent for some time and Cordell looks at his bare wrist and thinks again of his wristwatch sitting there on the kitchen’s sill in the light of this new day, how far away? Marla, can you see it there, are you missing me? It’s Saturday morning, she’ll be getting ready to go grocery shopping. Marla pushing the cart, dispatching Cordell on little missions from the list, mayonnaise, honey, celery. Who will do that for her? A great whirl of longing rises in his breast. He inhales deeply, thinks, just a few hours. Tessa will awaken and fly him home and he will have a story to tell, an adventure! He will of course have to let her know about Luz. At least a little about Luz, not the whole story. Or maybe he can convince her that he had no idea about the plane, that it just landed and he, curious, climbed inside. He considers this explanation, imagines the increasing disbelief on her face. This will require some thought.

“So what do you do?” Julius asks.

“Sorry?”

“With your time. Outside Luz. What’s your job?”

“I run a bookstore.”

“A bookstore?” Julius asks, a hint of surprise on his face.

“Yes, it’s just new and used, some rare items as well but mostly –”

“You run a bookstore.”

“Yes.”

“And you ship books?”

“Well, we have a storefront in town and a fair portion of our business is foot traffic and buying and selling used —”

“And you’re from Canada.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re a doctor.”

“Oh, no. Well yes, technically, but there was a bit of a misunderstanding. My Ph.D. is in the area of English Literature, chiefly early twentieth-century British . . .”

Julius is looking at the watch again and puffing mightily on the pipe, filling the room with blue haze. Cordell gets to the bottom of his mug and swallows a mouthful of coffeepulp.

“I best wake her,” Julius says, rising slowly and making for the bedroom door. He knocks lightly and calls loudly, “Tessie? Tess hon? It’s time to wake up.” Then, louder, “Tessa!”

A shout penetrates the door, and Julius takes a half step back before he says, “Time to wake up!”

Cordell cannot hear her words, but from the syllables he suspects that she’s cursing. Julius winces, but steps forward to knock again. “Get up!” Again the shouts, growing louder, until the door flies open and there stands Tessa, dishevelled, groggy, and furious.

“I know!” she yells. “I know goddamn it.” She shoots a look at Cordell. “And what the hell are you looking at?”

Cordell opens his mouth to reply, closes it, turns back to his plate and finishes his eggs. He hears the door slam.

Julius returns to the table and begins to collect the dishes and Cordell leaps up, but Julius declines his help. After a few minutes Tessa emerges in a white t-shirt and bluejeans, her hair tied back. She still looks exhausted and she moves wordlessly to the table and sits down. Julius sets a coffee before her.

“Aw, fuck,” she says to no one in particular.

Cordell draws a breath to speak, to try to placate her, to ingratiate himself — he needs her to get him home, but Julius fixes him with a look of warning, and Cordell remains silent. He begins to hum a tune which sounds like a variation on Yellow Submarine, and Julius raises a hand to silence him, but it’s too late.

“Shut your fucking goddamn fucking humming fuckmouth,” Tessa says. She takes a long draught of coffee and closes her eyes, swallowing. Julius sets a pack of cigarettes on the table before her and steps back. She opens her eyes, takes a cigarette from the pack, and lights it, smokes silently.

I’ll have to explain why my clothes are smoky, he thinks, conjuring Marla’s response to his smell. Not only that, she’ll have to understand that he’s suffered some sweaty and stressful moments and has had no opportunity to shower.

“What’re you sniffing?” Tessa demands.

“Nothing,” Cordell replies.

“Daddy, was he sniffing?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“I smell bad or something?”

“Not at all,” Cordell replies. “I think maybe I do.”

“You do.”

Cordell looks at Julius, who raises his hands. “On your own, friend. Best just to keep your mouth shut.”

“And you,” she says, stabbing a finger at Julius.

“Shutting up,” Julius says. “Just going out to the barn to finish that box.”

“You do that.”

Julius rises and goes out, muttering around the stem of his pipe.

Cordell stares at the silt in the bottom of his mug. When he looks up she is smiling at him. “What?” he says, and she laughs.

“He expects that,” she says, nodding towards the door. “I wake up nice he gets confused.”

“Why?”

“Was like that as a teenager. Raging bitch. I don’t act like that he thinks I’m an impostor. He’s gotten nervous. About Luz.”

Cordell winces at the mention. “I need to call my wife,” he says.

“So call.”

“No phone. I mean Julius says he has a cellphone but it’s dead.”

“I figured. We’re leaving soon.”

“Thank you, oh thank you. Do you think you could get me home by supper?”

“Supper,” she replies carefully. “By supper? I don’t know. Why supper?”

“No particular reason. Just an idea.”

“You won’t be home by supper,” she says, knocking ash into the ashtray, studying him through a squint.

Cordell nods and looks at his cup, feels her eyes on him. From outside he hears the shriek of a saw cutting wood and he stiffens. Tessa snorts and tamps out her cigarette.

“Guess I could take you into town. Probably safe for you to call your wife.”

“Thank you. Oh thank you,” Cordell says. “When? When can we go?”

“Now,” she replies, rising. Cordell scrambles to his feet, follows her out the door into the sunshine. “Wait here,” she tells him. She walks to the barn from where he can hear hammering.

“Daddy!” she calls, and the hammering stops. Julius steps out and shades his eyes as Tessa approaches. They converse for some moments, casting glances his way, and something Julius says makes her stand abruptly erect and throw an extended gaze at Cordell. She responds excitedly, her arms flailing. Then she runs her palms over her face and approaches the house wearing a pained expression.

“Sit down,” she says, indicating one of the porch chairs.

“Aren’t we going to make that call?”

“Sit down, Bechard.”

He backs reluctantly into one of the chairs.

“You didn’t tell me you sell books.”

“It didn’t come up.”

“Is that what you do for Luz?”

“Not exactly.”

“You ship books. For them.”

Cordell shifts in the chair.

“And the books are coded. Each one contains a message.”

Cordell sits forward, back again. “How can you know that?”

“I know there’s someone who does that for Luz.”

“There must be others.”

“No. Just one.”

“You’ve heard of me?” Cordell asks, sitting forward again.

“Yeah, in a sense. Almost no one at Luz knows your name. Or even where you come from. But what you do, well, it’s legendary.”

“Stop it,” he says, feeling his face flush.

“It’s true. You’re a hero, Bechard.”

“I am? I am not.”

“Yes. And, unfortunately, an outlaw.”

Cordell laughs, a percussive bark, and grips the chair’s armrests.

“Me. Outlaw!” He laughs again, but Tessa’s frown perturbs him.

“Not everyone appreciates what you do.”

The smile fades. “What do you mean?”

“Luz has enemies.”

“Yes. Of course they do.” Cordell had in fact read only a few months ago in Harper’s an article criticizing the U.S. and Mexican governments for their harassment of Luz, an egalitarian organization of local political and religious leaders and their constituents lobbying for fair payrates, universal healthcare, and improved sanitation. The piece speculated on the existence of a belligerent counterforce with affiliations to Mexican — and possibly American — authorities. Luz’s attempts to defend themselves against human rights offences committed by this force had led to talk of declaring Luz de la Libertad a terrorist organization . . . all for wanting clean water and a fair paycheque. It was outrageous.

“Doctor del Libro,” Tessa says.

“What?”

“That’s what they call you.”

“Who?”

“Luz. The authorities. They’re looking for you.”

“No.”

Tessa turns and looks out at the field, at the Lucky Duck.

“What about that phone call?” Cordell asks.

She turns back. “Yeah. Let me think a minute.”

She paces away from him, stops, stands motionless for some seconds, still eying the aircraft. She turns, looks at him, then back at the plane. Cordell sits anxiously watching her until he can no longer. He rises and approaches and when she looks up to see him standing there she looks resolute.

“That call,” he says softly, imagining Marla pacing through the house, throwing glances at the telephone, wondering why it refuses to ring, thinking, this is not like Cordell.

“No,” she says gruffly.

“What?” he says, a little amazed at her tone.

“You can’t call.”

“Why not? You said I could!”

“No,” she repeats.

“Why?”

“We have to go.”

“We’re leaving?”

“Soon. When my dad finishes.”

“And then I’m going home?” he asks.

“No.”

“I’m not — I’m not going home?” Cordell stutters.

“Not yet. I have a delivery to make first.”

“You mean this wasn’t your destination?”

“Stopped here for a breather. And that.” She nods towards the fuel truck. “Still gotta get those crates where they’re going, and soon. Late.”

“And where would that be?” Cordell asks through gritted teeth.

“A little to the southwest.”

“Then how long before I’m home?”

“Can’t say. A few days.”

“A few days? And I can’t call my wife to tell her where I am?”

She shakes her head.

“This is absurd! Am I a captive?”

“Bechard, no. You’re not a captive. You’re Luz. You’re with us. But that means keeping secrets. That means laying low.”

“I just want to call her. To tell her I’m all right.”

“You can’t.”

Cordell walks away from her. When he’s a dozen paces away he stops, looks around, at the plane, the cabin, the barn, and finally a pickup truck parked in the barn’s shadow. He makes for it at a determined clip, listening behind him for Tessa’s pursuit. It’s an old Ford, arched fenders spraypainted with primer, the bed lined with weathered planks, patches of yellow paint on the flanks. Virginia plates. He opens the driver’s door and slips into the ragged front seat. The speedometer like a wideopen mouth, teeth of what’s left of the lens fringing its perimeter. The key is in the ignition. Cordell reaches up, turns it. The engine cranks and shrieks with a sound like tearing metal, and Cordell lets it grunt for some seconds before he releases the key.

He climbs out and sees Tessa and Julius watching him, muttering to each other. He walks away, following the dirt driveway to an opening in the trees, expecting at any moment to hear footsteps behind him. He is going to make that call. Seven miles, Julius said. Eleven kilometres. He walks down a driveway framed by trees and bush, walks in the growing heat until he reaches a dirt road. The mountain he saw when he first emerged from the aircraft looms above him. He stops, listening, waiting for Tessa to arrive to bring him back, but he hears nothing but wind through the trees, crickets, the high whine of cicadas. Which way, he wonders, looking left and right along the road for a telltale of the direction to town. The ruts at the foot of the driveway run deeper on the left, so he follows this course.

After ten minutes he turns to gauge his progress, expecting Tessa to be tailing him, but the road is deserted, and he turns back and continues. It’s hot. Dust films the inside of his mouth and he longs for a cold drink. His shirt is sweatstained at the chest and armpits. Wonders how long he’s been walking, what distance he’s covered. A deerfly orbits his head, refuses to land long enough for him to swat it. The weeds clotting the ditches dusty brown, the gullies dry. It hasn’t rained in some time, and he shares his thirst with the flora. A cloudless sky. He looks into the sun and considers that this is the same burning orb that illuminates Marla. Then he calls into the silence, “Marla!”

He stops suddenly, thinks, what if Tessa leaves? How will he get home? He looks uncertainly the way he came, but he has rounded a bend and the driveway’s entrance is gone. This town, if it has a supermarket must have a train or bus station or at the very least a bus stop. Ride to the nearest city with an airport, buy a ticket home. Though he’s not sure of the credentials he’ll need to re-enter Canada. Passport maybe, but he doesn’t own a passport. Drivers’ license? “And what was the nature of your visit, sir? Any liquor, cigarettes, affiliations to anticapitalist organizations to declare?”

He hears a vehicle approaching from beyond the bend, and on impulse sticks out his thumb. Julius’s pickup rattles into view with Tessa at the wheel. Cordell lowers his thumb and turns, continues walking. Tessa pulls up beside him and calls across the passenger seat, “Need a ride, honey?”

Cordell walks, looking straight ahead.

“Oh come on now, sweety. I don’t mean in this ole thing. My other car’s a airplane.”

Cordell walks on. Tessa revs the engine and passes him, spins the wheel until the truck’s nose presses into the weeds at the roadside, blocking Cordell’s path. He could round the vehicle and continue, but he stops at the passenger door and waits.

“You stubborn bastard,” Tessa cries. “Don’t you know I’m trying to protect you. Protect your wife?”

“How? How does leaving her in the dark about my disappearance protect her?”

“You call her they kill her.”

Cordell opens his mouth to reply but is dumbstruck. The Earth tilts beneath his feet, canting precipitously. When he looks into the weeds, at the treetops, the sky, nothing has changed. Yet the world is capsizing. He asks, “How?”

“Get in and I’ll explain.”

Cordell looks through the truck’s cab, past her, and down the dry road, then looks at his dusty shoes before he sighs and climbs in. Tessa grinds the truck into reverse, stalls it, cranks until it starts again, but instead of turning back to the house she starts in the direction he was walking, towards town. Cordell is puzzled but says nothing. He reaches for the seatbelt, finds none, and presses into the seat, feeling naked and vulnerable.

After a few moments, Tessa says, “There’s a counter-organization. Anti-Luz. Called Viento Oscuro.”

Cordell works the translation, says, “Dark Wind?”

“Probably backed by the Mexican government, with the approval of Washington. We know a lot of their goals parallel those of the DEA, FBI, CIA.”

“What does this have to do with me calling my wife?”

She squints into the distance and drives for some moments before saying, “I called my husband.”

She pushes the chrome button of the cigarette lighter, sticks a cigarette into the corner of her mouth.

Cordell waits for more, finally says, “So?”

She drives silently, and when the lighter pops she presses the glowing coil to the tip of the cigarette, takes a long drag, and says through the smoke, “Seventy-two hours later he was dead.”

The truck rolls over a small crater in the roadbed and Cordell grabs the dash. He stares straight ahead and as Tessa drives he does not let go.

“About a year ago I was at a diner in Arrowhead receiving instructions for a cargo drop from someone turns out was known by the FBI to be working for Luz. I flew to Caborca, in Mexico, made the drop. Called home. That call. It was just a call. They’d wiretapped our home phone.”

“The FBI? Or this Viento Oscuro?”

“I don’t know.”

“How did you find out about the tap?”

“Wasn’t just a tap. It was two-way. I called Connie, we were chatting, this and that, how are you, how’s the dog, I’ll be home soon, can you pick up some eggs. Then this voice comes on, starts giving me instructions. Thought we had a buggy line, but the guy’s saying my name, first and last, talking like he was reading a script, go here, do this, do that, you will surrender to such and such authority, you will not contact your associates, and so on. Then he said if I wouldn’t . . .” She takes a long drag on the cigarette. “That if I wouldn’t they’d . . . Well. What I told you.”

“Come on,” he says, watching her.

“Yeah,” she says. She finishes the cigarette, flicks the butt out the window, says again, “Yeah. And after all that they cut the line. When I tried to call back I couldn’t get through.”

Cordell looks out his window, feels an inexplicable smile waxing on his lips, a laugh building in his chest. He leans his elbow on the door, hand cupped over his mouth.

“What?” she asks.

He can’t answer, smothering the smile in his palm. It takes a long time, and when finally he’s composed his features he says, still without turning, “Why would they do that? Seems pretty extreme, don’t you think?”

She drives fast, lighting another smoke, says, “You think there’s no consequences for what you do? Think there aren’t people who hate Luz and what we stand for? Worker rights, egalitarianism, cultural autonomy, environmentalism . . .”

“But Luz is peaceful.”

“Have been till now. Though not everyone thinks so. We wage a war on profits, war on the wealthy. You think no one’s ever been killed to protect profits?”

Cordell stares into the distance, his head throbbing, thinking of tobacco companies, union busting, Kuwaiti oil.

He looks at her and she watches him through a tight squint. Then she looks forward, takes a drag, and says in an even tone, “His name was Cornelius. I called him Connie. Sixty-four years old. A Capricorn. Built like a biker. Technical manager for copper extraction for the Tymindar Mining Corporation of Duckworth, Virginia. Into model sailing ships, you know, wooden hulls, string rigging, linen sails. Had a special pair of glasses for the close work. I thought they looked effeminate. Never told him that. Liked bourbon, pro wrestling, and Scientific American. Oh, wearing ties, he loved that. Thing he most dreaded about retirement was the end of the ties.” She flicks ash out the window, says nothing more.

After a minute Cordell says, “But surely he’s not . . . ?”

When she still doesn’t reply he says, “Is he . . . I mean what happened to him?”

“Hit by a van walking home with a sack of groceries. It ran a red. Driver never caught.”

“Well then, he was hit by a van. I mean I’m sorry for your loss, but people get hit.”

“Yeah.”

“All the time.”

“Sure. Jim Bonnard, you know him.”

“No.”

“He works for Luz. Worked for Luz. His wife hit by a van. Ran a red. Driver never caught. Angela Perez, how about her?”

“No. I don’t know anyone from Luz.”

“Her daughter. Hit by a van. Ran a red. Driver never caught. Both these people called home. Both warned to surrender.”

Cordell bends forward, one hand clutching the dashboard. He is suddenly queasy and lightheaded, dimples of light fluttering at the periphery of his vision.

“You okay Bechard? You sick?”

He breathes deeply, trying to control the nausea. Then he states, “But they were known to be working for Luz, right? I mean no one but you knows about me. They can’t tag me. What could possibly tie me to Luz?”

“Well, think about it. They know about me. Know about the Duck. I landed behind your house and you climbed aboard. Plus there’s the bookstore. The mystery of Doctor del Libro. Put it together.”

“So it’s your fault,” he says through gritted teeth.

She tilts the cigarette towards him, says, “No one made you join Luz.”

“I didn’t think it would put anyone in danger. Not Marla. Not Marla.” He brandishes his open palms. “What do I do? Tessa, what do I do?”

“Don’t call.”

“But she’s worried. She’s crazy with worry!”

“Worry is her protection. Worry keeps her alive. No contact means they can’t reach you. No contact means you don’t care about her. So harming her accomplishes nothing.”

“I’ll never see her again?” he asks in a stricken voice.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then when? How?”

“You don’t call. You especially don’t call from here. Or anywhere else associated with Luz. I get you home within the next few days it might go unnoticed. You can always claim I picked you up by accident. Maybe you keep on shipping books for Luz, maybe you don’t. Your life resumes.”

“Except now I’m in danger. Now Marla is in danger.”

“You were always in danger.”

Cordell stares through the window, a hand on his breast. They are passing houses now, squat bungalows, rickety cabins, some fronted by cars on cinderblocks, broken harrows, smashed tractors. One with a massive treehouse. Then a broad garden planted in red, white, and blue, among the flowers a girl in a shaded swing. And in front of every house a flag, or flags: on flagpoles, on wire stems bracketing the driveway, as porch bunting. After a few minutes they pass a sign erected by various service clubs welcoming all to Kemptville, pop. 850. There’s a laundromat, and a psychic’s parlour, and a savings and loan, and churches, and coffeeshops, and a few old mansions, faded, ramshackle. Something deflated about it all, as if the town has just let out a doleful sigh and is deciding whether or not to inhale. They cruise the deserted strip until they reach the Piggly Wiggly, its porcine mascot waving gaily from a sign above the entrance. Tessa draws up before the greasy glass of the storefront and Cordell looks through his side window at a payphone mounted on a pole not five paces away. Tessa shuts off the engine and sits back, smoking. Cordell passes a hand over his sweating face.

“Well, Mr. Bechard,” she says. “Said you had a call to make.”

He looks at the phone, lets his eyes ascend the pole, following the cable to its junction with the overhead wires. Through these wires, a cascade of digital switches, instantaneous, and then, Marla’s voice.

But feeding upon this wire, what parasite? Probably none, he thinks. He’s just harmless Cordell. It seems a dreadful misapplication of manpower to monitor his communications.

But what if he’s wrong? If he’s right, Marla worries for a few days. But if he’s wrong . . .

“Let’s go,” he grunts.

“You sure?”

“Of course I’m not sure,” he says. Tessa pauses and he cries, “Go, let’s go!” And as Tessa starts the engine and they back out, Cordell can say no more, for he fears that he’ll sob. Marla, Marla. I’m sorry. He closes his eyes and with complete cognizance of its irrationality attempts to broadcast telepathically to Marla some kind of mental assurance of his love and loyalty.

He sits on a porch chair with a glass of springwater forgotten in his fist, staring at the chair’s armrest. What was momentarily exhilarating — the significance of his contribution to Luz — has suddenly become a grim liability. Had he ever suspected that his activities could endanger Marla he would never have agreed to participate. His eyes shift to focus on the glass in his hand, condensation beading its chilled surface, sliding down and wetting the rim of his hand. Tessa in the barn with Julius. She has spared him participation in an unpleasant task, but in a few minutes he will be needed, and then they will take off. To precisely where, Tessa has yet to reveal. The hammering he heard some moments before has ceased.

He drinks, tasting the sulphurous taint of the water, wondering vaguely if it’s harmful. Such threats now trivial. Ramón should’ve known, should’ve explained the risks. Ramón Chávez, visiting professor of history from a university in Mexico City. Cordell recalls the fateful day he stayed after a lecture to ask the man a question which had something to do with Steinbeck and the Depression’s westward migration of workers, not appreciating until he reached the lectern the professor’s advanced age, his hairless scalp speckled with agespots, the white delta of his moustache shading lips that were chapped and peeling. Despite his decrepit appearance the man exuded a bewitching exuberance, and after a brief chat Cordell accepted an invitation to meet the Campus Collective for the Democratization of South and Central Americas. Not an invitation for sometime, not in a few weeks, but now, right now, walk with me, we’re meeting in the Arbour Room in five minutes . . .

“Bechard!” Tessa calls from the door of the barn, and she waves him over. He sets the glass down and walks out to meet her. She turns and he follows her into the darkness of the barn. Smells of sawn wood, hay, something else, spoiling meat. Across a pair of sawhorses lays a pine box, its lid nailed shut. No one speaks as he moves to an end while Tessa and Julius take position opposite. They lift it from the horses, amend their grips, carry it through the door and into the sunshine. A mismatched trio of pallbearers. The box is lighter than Cordell expected — he suffers a brief computation regarding the mass of spilled blood — and they are soon at the rear of the pickup truck, lifting the coffin’s head — or feet — through the truck’s open tailgate. Together they guide the box into position in the truckbed. Tessa steps up and lashes it down with nylon cord. When she’s done she pauses, squatting beside the box, studying her hand where it rests on the lid. She closes her eyes for maybe five seconds, then steps down, meeting no one’s eye, before she moves purposely towards the airplane. Cordell and Julius follow. She lights a cigarette and mounts the steps and disappears inside. As Cordell reaches the foot of the steps she reappears in the doorway holding the mop and pail.

“Bechard. Stow these in the barn. Five minutes.”

Cordell steps into barn’s darkness, sets the bucket on the dirt floor, leans the mop against the wall. He squats, resting in the cool dimness, studying the corona of sawdust around the sawhorses. He suffers a mild nausea, closes his eyes. Homesickness, fear, concern, dread. But in the background of his mind he feels a low but smouldering thrill. A DC-3. Outlaws soaring above the landscape with their contraband. He puzzles over the contents of those crates in the Duck’s cabin. By their size and shape he guesses: guns? Problematic, because the trajectory is all wrong. Why fly guns into the U.S.? Talk about taking coal to Newcastle. And guns for Luz? That’s not right.

A vision of Vic’s corpse enters his mind and fresh despair washes over him. He misses with a crushing ache Marla and Galina and his dear sober life. He presses his face into his palms. He wants to go home. He has to cut the grass.

The crank of an aircraft engine launches him through the door and into the sunshine where he expects to see the Lucky Duck retreating down the field. The plane stands poised, one engine sputtering and then roaring to life, the second beginning to whirl, Julius at the port wing gesticulating. Cordell sprints across the grass as the second engine catches. He rushes through the propeller’s backwash, struggles up the steps, hauls shut the door. Then he runs up the aisle to take the co-pilot’s seat.

“Took your sweet time!” Tessa yells from behind aviator sunglasses as she runs the checklist, testing rudder and elevators and ailerons. Cordell watches the co-pilot’s wheel pivot and jerk in unison with Tessa’s yoke as he buckles himself in.

She looks out her side window and gives a thumbs-up. Julius return the gesture, his expression not without concern. She finishes the checklist: pitot heat, magnetos, booster pumps, gyros, altimeter setting.

“See that thing right there?” she calls, pointing to a knob above his right knee labelled ‘Cowl Gills.’ “Set it to Trail.” Cordell reaches up gingerly, gives it a twist, slightly overshoots the marker, rotates the knob back so it rests precisely against the line. Tessa smiles, shaking her head, continues through hydraulics, flaps, trim tab. She adjusts the fuel mixture, dons her headset, and nods at Cordell to do the same.

“Here we go,” she says, reaching into the instrument cluster to grab the throttles. “Off the pedals,” she grunts, and Cordell withdraws his feet. The plane surges forward and picks up speed. A small turbine of panic begins to turn in his gut, accelerating with the plane’s speed. As he watches the approach of the distant trees he has to clutch his thighs to keep from snatching the wheel and pulling it into his chest. At last the plane lifts from the turf and skims the treetops. Tessa retracts landing gear and flaps, and the craft climbs.

Cordell looks through the side window and watches the retreating forest. Below them the dirt road twists through the trees. The forest around the property is considerable, and when he glances through Tessa’s window he sees at their own level and falling away the peak he saw when he emerged from the aircraft that morning. He checks the altimeter.

“We’re still climbing?”

“Today we’re legit. For all the FAA knows this is the first time the Lucky Duck has lifted from that field in three months. Been flying around illegally for that long. Good to have air instead of treetops under the wings.”

Cordell starts as a male voice sounds in his headset: “Lafayette tower, foxtrot-alpha-one-seven-niner clearing the zone.”

“Roger fox-alpha-one-seven-niner. Have a good one,” another voice responds.

Now Tessa’s voice fills his headset, her tone formal: “Lafayette tower, this is DC-3 November Charlie 21788 at 2100 feet, heading two-six-zero, requesting permission to transit the zone from the east.”

“Lafayette tower to November Charlie 21788, clear to enter the zone from the east. Hello, Tess, it’s been awhile. How are you, girl?”

“Hey Robert, that is you. I thought you retired last month.”

“I retire every month. They keep asking me back. Will you be filing a flight plan?”

“Roger, you got it on file. It’s the usual run to Arrowhead. Two souls aboard.”

“Roger that November Charlie, calling it up now. Looks fine, I’ll put your ETA at 2330 zulu. Advise tower when you’ve cleared.”

“Roger that Lafayette tower. November Charlie out.”

As the radio goes quiet Cordell shifts in his seat, struggling with the thought that they could ask this controller to contact Marla. A simple message: Cordell is all right, your husband is alive and well. But he recognizes the potential danger. The controller is a federal employee, and if the United States government is collaborating with Viento Oscuro, the information of the plane’s type and position will not go unheeded.

“Where’s Arrowhead?” he asks after some minutes. The heading indicator shows 250 degrees. Westbound.

“Arizona.”

Cordell takes a deep breath.

“Then Mexico,” Tessa adds.

He hears a whimper in the headset, realizes that it’s his own voice. He bites his lip and looks out the side window.

______________________________________

Read Chapter 13 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World by Brian Panhuyzen.

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World is available as an ebook priced at $2.99. To purchase it, please go to www.nightisashadow.com/acquire.php.

Brian Panhuyzen’s first book was a collection of short stories entitled The Death of the Moon, published by Cormorant Books. He has worked as a publisher, magazine editor and as a typesetter for House of Anansi. His new book, a novel entitled Night is a Shadow Cast By the World, is available exclusively as an ebook. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two boys.

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