Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World (Chapter 13)

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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, Chapter 11 and Chapter 12 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World.

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Chapter 13

The needles on the dials quake and twitch, sensitive to every motion of the aircraft as it speeds westward. Cordell watches the console, his body sensitive beyond the indicators to the nuance of his progress, his relentless retreat from home. Abandoning Marla is harrowing, and he has to keep reminding himself he’s broken contact to protect her. He looks at Tessa, jacked back in her chair, a languid expression on her face, hand on the steering yoke, eyes concealed behind aviator glasses. She might be sleeping. He wants to talk about it again, reason it out, why contacting Marla is bad, and why he’s moving ever further from her, but they’ve discussed it twice since taking off, and the third time he asked Tessa told him to fuck off. So he reviews it in his head. Contacting her from Virginia, or here in the air, or indeed from their destinations in Arizona or Mexico either reveals or reinforces Cordell’s connection to Luz, and doing so increases the risk that Viento Oscuro will use Marla as bait to flush Cordell — Doctor del Libro — into the open, to force his surrender. Yes, that’s it, he thinks, momentarily relieved at the clear reasoning. But then he thinks of Marla, wondering where he’s gone, despairing that he has perhaps left her, and vulnerable, not knowing of the potential threat to her safety, and no way for Cordell to warn her, for in doing so he might bring that threat to fruition. And then the simple question of when: when can he call her, or when can he go home? After Tessa’s mission, yes, but will it even be safe then? Will they ever be safe? And there again rises the despair, rising and rising, constricting his chest and throat. Oh, why did he ever agree to aid Luz de la Libertad? Folly, folly!

“Stop it,” Tessa says suddenly.

“What?”

“Just stop it. Mood like a pendulum. I wasn’t that bad during menopause.”

“I’m just considering the situation.”

“Consider it and shut up.”

“I wasn’t saying anything.”

“You were. Just not out loud.”

Cordell turns away, looks out the side window, and with the world to the north laid out in such exquisite detail that he can detect the tender bow of the horizon, he momentarily forgets, and the view continues to absorb him — fat billows of cloud, shadows thrown onto variegated pastureland, or that long grey escarpment of cloud to the northwest, its belly scraped by a spine of mountainpeaks. He settles into a tenuous truce with his emotions. Sometimes it’s best to admit one’s helplessness. After some moments of staring, his focus shifts to the window’s frame, the chipped and oxidized aluminum rail into which the glass is fitted, and his gaze pans to the instrument panel, those quaking needles, the bars transiting the VOR dials. This craft is a living thing, a great raptor. Though not a raptor at all, a Gooney Bird, no less noble for this sobriquet or the legion of others that roll through his mind: The Dowager Duchess, the Flying Vagrant, The Dizzy Three, The Bugless Douglas, Charlie Forty-seven, Doug, Dumbo, Skytrain, Tabby. The Brits and Canadians called her the Dakota or Dak. And in Vietnam she was Puff the Magic Dragon, or Spooky. Still flying, still, he hopes, bugless.

What history in this machine, what cargo has she carried, what places seen? Six decades aloft, which countries visited? She is, he muses, his antithesis.

“Nineteen forty-two,” Tessa says.

“What?”

“I see you looking. Wondering. The Duck was built in nineteen and forty two. Started as a C-47. Pacific Theatre. First posting on the Bataan Peninsula. About all I know. Got her moniker during service.”

“How did she become yours?”

“A goddamn inheritance, if you can believe it. Some people get gravy boats and pressbacks. I get a fuckin airplane. Kids out of the house. Yeah, I got kids, don’t look so amazed. Three, all grown. Seven grandkids.” She flicks a photo mounted above the artificial horizon, and Cordell leans and looks, sees a family portrait taken years ago, Tessa beside a Christmas tree, her arm around a beefy man about her age, two couples and a woman, plus a brood of kids of various ages arrayed on a sofa, beaming at the camera.

“That must be Cornelius. Connie,” Cordell says. “He looks happy.”

She meets his eye, looks away, says, “The Duck passed through hands after the war and eventually ended up in the care of my Uncle Clyde. Used it to run engine parts out of Detroit. Don’t know details, just that there was an accident. A box of carburetors fell out the door on approach to Milwaukee. Crashed through the roof of a Dairy Queen. He was 72 years-old and his blood alcohol was double the legal limit. Lost his license and still thinking he would fly again he shipped the Duck home to Arrowhead, where she was mothballed in the back of a hangar for seven years, until he died. I get this letter from my cousin Eddie, executor of the will, said I’d been bequeathed — I remember how weird that word looked on the page, “bequeathed” — a DC-3. Think I was pretty hammered myself when I got that. Connie and I, well, we were in a rough spot. He working all day, me drinking. So here’s this letter. Had no idea what that meant, a DC-3. I mean dc, what’s dc? District of Columbia, direct current, doodly-crap. Maybe I got me a denial of cash, class three. I don’t even know what I did with that letter. Had forgotten it when I got a call from Eddie himself, asking where he can leave my plane. ‘Well,’ I remember saying, ‘Have you tried a Buddhist temple?’”

She laughs raucously and slaps her knee, and Cordell smiles and nods.

“C’mon, it’s funny! Anyway, I get a call maybe a month later, feller telling me to move my airplane out the hangar it’s blocking a mothballed chopper they need to get at. I described to him the dangers of excessive drink, might’ve even used Clyde as an example. Persistent bastard this feller, managed to talk me into coming down to the airport. Rolled back the hangar door and there she was, under rotting canvas, cowlings wide, minus one prop, tires flat. Mothering instinct took over. Wasn’t so bad when they towed her into the sunshine. Spots where the skin sparkled, and I guess I’m a magpie the way silver things catch my eye.”

“But you didn’t know how to fly,” Cordell says emphatically.

“Can buy anything with credit, know that? Started lessons a week later in a Cessna 172. Got my private license in six weeks. Then night, IFR, twin. I’d never heard of a DC-3. Eight months later I was hunched in this cockpit pushing throttles.”

Cordell thinks about the hours he has spent flying computer simulators, reading, plotting routes, writing flight plans, drawing aircraft. Why didn’t he just drive out to Lemmox airport and sign up for lessons? Here it all is, arrayed before him, an aircraft cockpit, cradle of history. How many take-offs and landings? How many hours on the airframe? He sinks lower into the seat, shuts his eyes, feeling an abrupt and irrational envy for Tessa, who was handed an opportunity. A plane, someone gave her a plane!

“She was in bad shape,” he says after a period of silence. “How did you pay for repairs?”

“Well yeah, that’s where it gets sticky. Debt already banging on my door, and then I get a bill for seven years’ hangar rental for an unflyable airplane. Was tempted to sell her and walk back to my bottle. But something happened to me when I saw her. Something clicked. Or snapped. When I first saw the Duck I felt that if I took my eyes off her, even for a second, I might just die. She made me feel young. And almost right away, Connie and I, well, I guess we started to work things out.”

She takes a few readings to verify their course and Cordell looks through the side window into the blur of the starboard propeller, watches a town cradled by green hills drift beneath them.

“What about Luz?” he asks. “How did you get involved?”

“Just so happened that the feller showed me the Duck, name’s Bart Mercer, also restores aircraft. He’s got a business he runs with his brother and a bunch of guys, AVARS they call themselves, Arrowhead Vintage Aircraft Restoration Society. Sounds legitimate, don’t you think? It isn’t. avars was a cover for a smuggling operation. Used vintage aircraft to carry contraband. Border pilots in their wimpy SuperCubs and Cessnas are no match for a Spitfire scooting by at 380 knots. Not only that, these border flyers are mostly plane buffs on boring runs, and their first impulse when a restored classic zooms past is to waggle their wings in appreciation and neglect to consider that there might be sixty pounds of hash behind the seat.”

“What an idea! Does it work?”

“It did. For awhile. Trick was not to get spotted at all, but it happens, and by the second or third time a border pilot’s going to start wondering what that Spitfire is up to buzzing belly down across the desert. Anyway, Bart said AVARS would restore the Duck and I could work off the bill. Main thing a new pilot wants is hours, so I loved the idea. Didn’t know about the contraband yet. As soon as the Duck

“They didn’t tell you what was in it? And you still went?”

“Had to. The smuggling scheme was tapped out. The DEA raided AVARS, seized the planes, and grounded the pilots with a court order. Lucky Duck was in my name, and immune. And me green as spring grass.”

“Did you go alone? Or with . . . Vic?”

“No, Vic came later. Back then it was Ruben. Just a kid, twenty-five. An apprentice mechanic at AVARS. Not terribly bright, as it turned out, God rest his soul.”

“He’s dead?”

“I’m getting to that. So a package arrives with maps, a list of strategies for avoiding detection while crossing the border, a sealed envelope. And a Beretta 92.”

“A gun?” Cordell asks as he shifts, remember the pistol beneath his seat, wondering if it’s still there.

“Worried me. I’d never touched a gun in my life. Why include one if everything’s cool? Tried to get in touch with Bart, couldn’t reach him. Damaged my nerve.”

“Why’d you still go?”

“My beautiful Duck. I wanted adventure, right? So up we went, Ruben and me, heading for Mexico, scraping cactus all the way. The land is crazy hilly. And if that wasn’t enough, Ruben sat right there, your seat, caressing his gun, a gunblue revolver with a bore as big as a golf ball, talking about trouble the way my grandkids talk about Christmas.”

Cordell feels himself blanch when he considers the dead men who have occupied his seat, Vic, Ruben, others?

Tessa describes how she and Ruben landed on a concrete strip near a remote village in the Chihauhuan Desert, ninety miles northeast of Torreon, how they taxied to a cluster of steel hangars and from one of them emerged a mob.

“Indians, mostly,” she says. “You know, not what you usually think about when you think Mexican. Not spicks.”

Cordell bites his lip, says, “Hispanics. Not Hispanics.”

“Whatever. Yeah. Like Aztecs or something. Lots of kids in the crowd. Now Ruben, he was a spick, and he didn’t like seeing so many Indians. Made him uncomfortable. Well these were just the poorest, most destitute people I’d seen in some time. Harassed. That’s how they looked, harassed. And they were. By the people who were supposed to look out for them. God, the moon-eyed kids in their rags. Heartbreaking.

“Next thing we were led by an old woman, just this old crone came up to my belt, named Izel, into the village, if you could call it that, and to a little courtyard of a crumbling building. Town hall it turned out. And they fed us. These people with nothing crowded into this ruined courtyard and gave us a perfect little breakfast of burritos and cold soup. Wasn’t much but you could tell this was the best they had.

“I barely had a lick of Spanish back then, was relying on Ruben to translate. Wanted to tell them how much I appreciated the meal. Ruben stood up and babbled a few seconds, and then what, silence. Everyone looking shocked. Then the old lady told a girl something, and the girl took my hand and led me round the back of the building, to a shithouse, and pointed at the door while sticking her finger down her throat.”

“He told them you were ill?”

“Yeah, sick from their food, that bastard. I was pissed. Got back and tore a strip off him, managed to explain, some through him but mostly with hands and what English they knew, what I really wanted to say. And I sent Ruben back to the Duck. He was pissed.”

“But how did he die?” Cordell asks with the impulse of flipping to the last page of a suspenseful novel. “How did he die?”

Tessa ignores him. “Thought I better get going at that point, finish the business and go. Got out the envelope and handed it across the table to Izel. She took it, opened it, pulled out a wad of cash, hundreds mostly. And while she counted it got spooky quiet. She counted twice, squared the pile on the table, and handed it to a one-eyed guy I guess was the treasurer or whatever. Still quiet, then the woman, she looked almost pissed off, spoke. She said a word and it got quieter still. Said it again, louder, like she wanted everyone to hear. I was sweating bullets. Her eyes right in mine, intense. Me swallowing. Then I look around at the mob and people are crying. And all at once they come forward and there are pats on my back, people shaking my hand, I’m kissing babies, it’s like I’m running for president. I look and even Izel has tears on her cheeks. And goddamn it if I didn’t start bawling myself. Disgraceful. Wonderful.

“We got up then and started out of there, hard to move with the crowd still touching me, kids hugging me, making our way back to the airstrip, back to the Duck. Still remember seeing it there waiting faithfully, like a good dog. Shining. And along comes a pickup truck, a rustbucket on wheels, and behind it pulling an equally rotten trailer. And on the truck and trailer, crates. Everyone pitched in, old men, teens, mothers, kids, loading them aboard the Duck. Cocaine, Bechard, pure, honeysweet, Mexican blow. Loaded the Duck and ready to fly.”

“And Ruben?” Cordell asks eagerly.

“No Ruben. I was getting queasy. Wondering what he was up to. And with my plane loaded with coke I was pretty sure we’d better get out. Still, no one could find him, so we sat under the wing and smoked and Izel and I managed to discuss, through common words and hand gestures, the town’s struggles against the Mexican authorities, the police and militias and private interests. And that’s when I first heard the words ‘Luz de la Libertad.’”

“Light of Freedom,” Cordell says, hairs on the back of his neck rising while a blend of excitement, pride, and terror ripples through him.

“Is it so much these people want? Peace, a little autonomy.”

“You said it yourself. They threaten capitalism.”

Tessa snorts. “I know it. But these powerless, poverty-stricken people. How can they be a threat? How can they hurt Wal-Mart and Nike?”

“It’s what they stand for. Fair trade is the new communism.”

“Tell you what it’s like,” Tessa says. “It’s like the bum on the street. People hate him because they’re afraid of him. Most powerless person around. Afraid of what he represents, because he shows what can happen. But rather than help him they shove him out of sight.”

Cordell thinks about old Arnold who sometimes comes into the bookstore. How he’ll give Arnold a piece of his sandwich, but not out of charity. It’s to make him go away, he realizes with shame. Because he is afraid of old Arnold. Who has nothing, not even the ability to feed himself. He asks, “And what about Ruben?”

“Oh Ruben. Yeah. It was time to go. I figured any minute now a local sheriff or commander was going to show up. I started calling ‘Ruben,’ yelled his name over and over and pretty soon the kids caught on, joined in, adults too, everyone shouting ‘Ruben! Ruben!’ and wondering where he got to. That’s when we heard a gunshot from one of the hangars. Everyone dropped; they were used to being shot at, by Federales, by banditos. I stood beside the Duck and looked into the hangar and saw Ruben fall. Had that big gun in his hand, still holding it over his head, pointing straight up. Ran to him. Still alive when I got there. ‘See,’ he goes. ‘A trap. From above.’ Idiot. Thought someone had whacked him from the rafters.”

“But what happened? Who shot him?” Cordell asks.

“Shot himself! Fired into the roof of the hangar, to get our attention, to make some declaration or to demand the money back or I don’t know what. Hit a cross brace. Bullet ricocheted and got him in the neck.”

“Himself? He shot himself?”

“Pow,” Tessa replies, and mimes a gun against her neck.

Cordell stares through the windscreen. This person, Ruben, like Vic, also dead. By his own idiocy. Cordell rubs his face, wrings his hands. He shot himself. Dead by his own hand. There’s a moral, but other than try not to shoot yourself, he can’t at this moment fathom what it might be.

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Read Chapter 14 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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