Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World (Chapter 16)

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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, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14 and Chapter 15 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World.

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Chapter 16

Darkness and heat. Cordell lies on his back on an iron cot which sags deeply in the middle so the raw ticking cocoons him, augmenting the heat’s oppression. He can discern a clay ceiling buttressed with square timbers. Smells, bad smells, sweat and urine and shit saturate the air, inducing at the base of his throat a throbbing nausea which threatens to trigger a gag reflex, or worse. His head, back, wrists, jaw, all of these ache, and they ache because he saved Tessa’s life.

He swings his feet to the floor and sits on the cot’s edge, massaging his temples before he glances through the heavy bars which wall one end of the cell. A single candle illuminates a young corporal seated at a desk, beret crumpled in a sodden heap on the desk’s corner. He is fanning himself with a folded newspaper, chin upon knuckles, eyes shut.

Tessa is lying on the cot opposite, contemplating the ceiling, her mouth a grimace. Cordell leans across the gap and seizes the edge of her cot, shakes it.

“Hey.”

She rolls to face the wall.

Cordell watches her back, her furious breathing. He’s angry too, wants her to know it. He sighs venomously and rubs his stubbled chin. With both hands he probes his jaw, feels the bruise where she struck it. There’s a lump on the back of his head and he massages it, lets out another sigh, which Tessa obstinately ignores.

When he shuts his eyes he sees in his mind the Lucky Duck as they’d left her, nose and wings entombed in a wall of lime trees.

They’d been coaxed from the craft, had stepped from the ladder into a mob of sweating, cursing soldiers, rifles all around gripped by stock and barrel, some levelled at their chests, making Cordell twitchy and skittish, and as he and Tessa studied the plane he suffered a vertigo of despair. Crashed, it was crashed, his only chance of getting home. He’d held his hands high, imitating the saguaro cacti he could see crowding the hills beyond the orchard. Then they were brutally frisked, and Tessa squirmed and yelled, drawing brassy comments from their captors, until in a blinding motion she delivered with an elbow to the soldier behind her a blow to the sternum, and then instantly shot the same arm forward to drive a punch into the nose of a private leering before her. Cordell heard a collective intake of breath and braced himself for retaliation, but for some moments no one moved but the assaulted men, and their only action was to palpate their injuries. The punched nose was bleeding, and the soldier pinched it, cursing softly, while the other man rubbed his chest and grinned with shame. Shame, yes shame, that’s why she’d gotten away with it. If he had committed the same offence the response would’ve been different. The mob dilated around them, Tessa standing defiantly, arms akimbo. The troops muttered to each other without agreement, and Cordell noted by the insignia on the men’s uniforms that no one held commanding rank, an alarming fact. Eventually handcuffs appeared, and Cordell offered no resistance as they drew his hands back and manacled them, the bracelets sharp against his wristbones. Tessa was less compliant, and it took three men to bind her. Then they were boosted aboard the truck where they sat on benches constructed around the bed’s perimeter. A jeep pulled up and a middleaged captain in pressed fatigues and mirrored sunglasses disembarked and consulted briefly with his men before he approached the back of the truck. He lit a small cigar, sucked on it, and blew jets of smoke from his nostrils while he studied the Lucky Duck. Then the mirrored lenses swung back to the prisoners and he started to question Cordell in Spanish. Cordell remained mute, but Tessa soon spoke up, answering each query the same way without varying her tone, “No hemos hecho nada mal,” the captain’s exasperation increasing until he was shouting. At that point he broke off the interrogation and ordered his men into the truck before he strode back to his jeep, which slewed about in the dirt and sped away. Then the soldiers piled around them, jostling and shoving, some laughing, others glowering, but Cordell evaded their eyes, examined the truck’s corrugated floor. A spent rifle cartridge lay at his feet wedged between ripples in the steel. When the truck began to move he looked up, past them, as the Lucky Duck, wounded, stranded in the trees, faded into the distance.

The truck roared through streets lined with broken shacks and huts, raising behind it a fan of dust and diesel exhaust into which starving and half-naked children darted as they chased chickens or evaded feral dogs. He saw mothers hunched over cookfires built in shallow pits or rusting wheel rims, many of them carrying in pouches slung across their backs or breasts the tiniest of infants, some passive, others wailing. Older children clustered around helping or crying or fighting or playing. And then he spotted on the side of the road a child of perhaps eight hobbling along on one leg with a set of crude crutches, a filthy rag dangling from the stump of her missing limb and a look in her eyes so far removed from hope that it drained from Cordell’s spirit the last of his optimism. He was going to die here. They were going to find out who he was, and then they would kill him. And Marla would never know.

When he looked up again he saw that they were passing through a more developed area. There were trees now, acacia and mesquite, and small clay and brick houses, more solid than the shacks they’d left behind, still resonating with poverty, but showing some pride of ownership. A few even had gardens with flowering cacti, and in some instances bougainvillea, cannas, roses, and one little yard enclosed within a picketfence a nativity scene: an adobe manger, its shaded interior obscure in the glare, clay donkeys and camels outside, a trio of figures laden with gifts approaching. They passed a church constructed from clay brick, above the door a great mosaic of polychromatic tile depicting a heavylidded Christ. Despite the staggering heat there was activity, people gardening, or carrying groceries, couples strolling hand-in-hand, a group of schoolchildren gripping a rope drawn by a bellowing schoolmaster. Cordell watched a native woman lead a burro laden with saddlebags, and every few seconds she delivered a blow with a switch, which the burro ignored. The truck passed a restaurant with its name painted in a whorl of colour on a board above its entrance, and from the chimney poured a cloud of smoke and the hot scent of frying meat, peppers, onions, chillies. Cordell’s stomach stirred with unexpected hunger.

There were dogs here too, lean mottled mutts with ribbed flanks. A mangy hound pursued the truck, and the soldiers taunted it before one plucked from the head of a young private his beret and tossed it out. The dog seized the green hat in its paws and with two quick convulsions of its head sheared it in two. Before the private could fully articulate his outrage the truck turned into an alley and stopped. Cordell’s stomach constricted.

“I’m going to be sick,” he whispered to Tessa.

“On me and I’ll kill you,” she hissed, and Cordell heard the fury, was stunned that she was blaming him for their predicament. He should have let her fight back, a lone pistol against a dozen riflemen?

The soldiers standing now, chatter and laughter, the hatless private harassed and tormented, until the captain stepped into view behind the truck and barked a few words. Then Cordell was jerked to his feet by one of the guards, pulled to the lip of the truckbed, and pushed off. He hit the ground with knees bent, but with his hands restrained behind him his arms were useless and he tumbled, landed hard on his side in the dirt, tasted dust. There were people, townsfolk, watching from the mouth of the alley with expressions of outrage, of course, of course, for he was to them a criminal, clearly under arrest and deserving of this treatment. His shoulder and hip ached, one of the soldiers hopped down beside him and seized his arm, dragged him to his feet, shoved him towards an open door.

It was cooler out of the sun, and a relief to relax his squint. He’d expected to be questioned, was preparing his explanation, something to the effect that the smuggler Tessa had kidnapped him from his backyard in Canada and brought him to Mexico to sell as a slave to coffee growers. He imagined Tessa formulating an equivalent betrayal. He was conducted into the cell, the handcuffs removed. He thought Tessa would be held elsewhere, but she arrived moments later, soiled like Cordell from shoulder to knee with dust, and the guard unmanacled her, slammed the cage door, and sat at the desk. Cordell and Tessa stood facing away from each other, fidgeting, brooding. At last he grew weary and sat, then finally lay down.

“Don’t let me fall asleep,” he had hissed, fearful of concussion from the knock of his head against the plane’s floor.

That was hours ago.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” he now whispers to Tessa. “But I’m not dead.”

Silence. Is she asleep?

“Goddamn you,” he says. “You should’ve known. The police on the ground in Arrowhead? They tracked us, notified the Mexicans. They caught us red handed. A plane full of guns. I just wanted to make a plate of sandwiches. Tuna. Bologna. Egg salad. Send you on your way. Now I have to die for it? For wanting to make sandwiches. Since when is that a capital crime? I didn’t even make the sandwiches. I only wanted to make them.”

Cordell sputters on for some time until Tessa rolls over and shoots out a hand, seizes Cordell by the jaw, and hisses, “Shut up,” gripping him, glaring into his eyes, her pupils swollen. Her calm is terrifying.

He twists his head out of her grip, grunts, “Did you really expect me to let you leap into that fray of soldiers, gun blazing?”

“I expected you to leave it up to me.”

“And what did you think would happen?”

“I had a plan.”

“Explain.”

“It’s complicated.”

“I’m sure it is.”

“You’re bad luck,” she says.

“How do you figure that?”

“Been down here a dozen times. Never got caught.”

“Oh, nice sophism. Look, before I met you I’d never been in a Mexican jail.”

“That doesn’t make sense. You’ve never been out of your country.”

“Now I’ve faced a dead body, my wife’s under threat of death, I’ve been abused by Mexican militia, and I’m in jail. All since I met you.”

“You need to get out more.”

They are both silent. Cordell asks at last, “What will happen to us?”

“Don’t know.”

“Yes you do,” he answers angrily. “Are we going to die here? I mean I know Mexico has the death penalty, but they haven’t executed anyone since the thirties.”

“Not officially.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re not here, are we. No documentation. We could just disappear.”

Cordell blanches at that final word, the scourge of so many uprisings. Disappear. The disappeared.

“No one knows,” he whispers, imagining Marla hunched on their livingroom couch, hands clutched in her lap. Where is Cordell?

“All those retirement funds,” Tessa says, and Cordell jerks his head to look at her, sees a smile. “That’s what you’re thinking, huh? Why’d I sink so much into that damn 401(k)?”

He is searching for a phrase of incredulity at her levity when the door beyond the desk opens and the soldier jerks from his reverie and scrambles to his feet.

“Relájes,” the captain says, waving the soldier into the chair. Cordell sits up as the captain, whose expression lies in shadow, approaches the bars.

“Hungry?” the captain asks with a heavy Spanish accent. But his voice is not unkind. “Food?”

Cordell looks at Tessa, dumbfounded by the question. She gives him a shrug, waves her hand to the captain as if to say, answer him.

Hunger seems like an outrageous conceit at this moment, like a hankering for Mozart while one’s clothes are on fire, but Cordell wants to be polite, to accept this apparent kindness, and he nods.

“Teniente,” the captain barks over his shoulder, and the soldier jumps up, grabbing a ring of keys from the desk. He unlocks the door and pulls it open. “Sígame!” the captain says, waving Cordell forward. Cordell stands and follows, expecting Tessa behind him, but he hears the cage slam and when he throws a glance over his shoulder she is still on the bed beyond the gate, eyes shut. He wants her to come, is about to say so to the captain, but the man is already through the door, and Cordell must hurry to keep up. He follows along a narrow hallway lit by candles in sconces. The captain holds a door open and Cordell enters a small room. He glances about, confused, sees two chairs and a table of warped grey wood on which stands a wax-caked candelabra, the candles lit. He expected a mess hall of sorts, to be handed a tin tray, to join murmuring prisoners queuing for cold slop.

“Sit,” the captain says, hand extended like a maitre d’s, as if he might next offer the wine list. He is smaller than Cordell, a little terrier of a man, and for one mad instant Cordell imagines a kick and spin and punch, the gun yanked from its holster, turned on its owner. Cordell panting, triumphant. He sits.

“So,” the captain says.

“Listen,” Cordell replies. “I don’t know who that woman is. I mean she just landed behind my house and I trotted out and she —”

“Silencio!” the captain barks, but he struggles to soften his expression. He takes the other chair, crosses a polished boot across his knee, picks some lint from his trousers. Then he looks into Cordell’s eyes and says, “Metal.”

Cordell squirms in his seat, asks, “Metal?”

“Sí. Metal. What you knowing about it?” The captain examines his fingernails, then Cordell. “Please, señor. What you know of metal?”

Cordell looks at the clay walls, sees in the meek light that they are cracked and crumbling. The room has a mousy, mildewed scent to it. A crescent of debris has been swept into a corner.

“I apologize for this building,” the captain says, glancing about. “It is not our usual estación. And this town is without electricity much of the time.” He leans forward, elbows on his knees. “Please now. About metal.”

Is it a test? In this thought there is hope. “Metal,” Cordell says. “Yes. Electropositive elements, usually have a shiny surface, generally good electrical and heat conductors. Most form salts with nonmetals and basic oxides with oxygen. They create alloys when combined …”

During the description the captain has started twitching his head, the shaking becoming more pronounced until Cordell stops.

“No!” the captain shouts.

“Yes!” Cordell replies.

“No, señor, that no the answer I want. Metal!” He fumbles in his pockets, and Cordell panics when he thinks that the captain is groping for his pistol, which is right there at his hip. Instead the hand emerges pinching between thumb and forefinger a peso coin. Cordell stares. The captain juts his head close to the coin and says, “Peep peep peep!” Then he retreats and is silent. He repeats the gesture with the sound effect. Cordell watches as the captain does it again, this time increasing the volume of the peeps as he approaches the coin, decreasing as he retreats.

Cordell spreads his hands, palms up. His mind is racing; he wants to provide the correct answer. His life may depend on it. “Steel!” he cries.

“Sí?”

“Uh . . . iron!”

“Sí.” The captain is nodding.

“All right, all right . . . aluminum?”

“Qué?”

“Aluminum. Copper. Er, ah, beryllium!”

The captain is pinching the bridge of his nose, head down, eyes shut.

“How many syllables?” Cordell blurts.

“Abandono.”

As defeat grows apparent, Cordell flails desperately for some way to mitigate his failure. He sits upright in the chair and states boldly, “I want to speak to a lawyer.” Then he sinks back down, wanting to retract the cliché while knowing it’s true, he should have a lawyer here, is it not the practise of the Mexican court to appoint a lawyer to the defendant? But this is not court, it is a proceeding far outside the orbit of the country’s legal system. Beyond any legal system. He touches his forehead; he is sweating profusely which he is certain makes him appear guilty. Isn’t he though? Most of his sympathy for characters from literature trapped in legal quagmires — Franz in The Trial, Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India, Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird — rises from the fact that these characters are innocent. Any synthesis of his own behaviour in a similar predicament is based on the precept that he could only be wrongfully prosecuted. That he would be innocent. But he is not. He brought guns to Mexico to aid an insurgency. He’s never calculated how to respond to an incontestable accusation.

The captain climbs slowly, regretfully, to his feet, hand cupped across his forehead, massaging his temples. He looks at the coin in his hand, flips it onto the table, then shuffles to the door and goes out, shutting it firmly behind him. Cordell shifts in the chair. He swallows a few times; he is dreadfully thirsty. He hears a stream of Spanish from the hallway, the captain’s voice mingling with a woman’s. What could be next for him? The door opens and an old woman stands there with a tray, studying Cordell. Her body is round and bowed, hair streaked with grey and bound in a ponytail. She enters the room and kicks the door shut, approaches and sets the tray before him. A tortilla, a small bottle of orange soda.

He looks at it, mind racing. Poisoned? He looks at her face, at her puckered frown.

“I did it,” he says to her. “It’s all true.”

“Qué?”

He exhales slowly, then straightens, clears his throat, says, “Gracias,” and then, as the woman turns away, “Uh, momento.”

She pauses, staring at him through a sour expression. He plucks the coin off the table and holds it out to her. She shuffles over, takes it, and lays it in her palm, studying it. When she looks up her expression has transformed.

“Gracias, señor!” she whispers as she backs towards the door. She is about to open it, then returns rapidly to the table and retrieves from a fold in her dress a cigarette and a wooden match.

“No. Gracias,” he says, but she pushes them towards him. He accepts them and drops them into his shirtpocket and she gives him a wink before exiting and shutting the door.

Cordell gulps the soft drink, feels the fizz abrading the dryness from his throat. Then he eats the tortilla, too fast. It’s cold, shell soggy, with a chunk of sinewy beef at its core. He dips it into a dollop of pungent salsa, and in a moment it’s gone. He wants another, two more, a dozen. He licks his index finger, prods the crumbs on the tray, sucks them from his fingertip.

He sits back and listens. Very quiet. The building’s frame croaks softly, as if flexing itself, stretching before sleep. Cooling in the night air.

Footsteps approach and he shrinks in the chair, watches the door as fresh terror builds in his chest. The door opens and a young private enters, gestures, and Cordell rises. The private turns and Cordell follows slowly, the distance between him and his escort widening until the man turns around and darts back, grabs Cordell’s forearm, and tugs him along.

“Where are you taking me?” Cordell asks through a half-sob. The private thrusts him through a door, and Cordell stumbles into the room, his hands extended, palms out. But it is just the room with Tessa inside it. The guard at the desk rises, conducts him into the cell, slams the door. The two soldiers chat. They might be discussing the weather, sport scores, plans for his execution.

He lowers himself to the cot, presses his back to the wall, watching Tessa’s back. Tessa says, “Did you talk?”

“What would I say.”

“That I forced you to help.”

He snorts lightly.

“Thought so,” she says.

He remembers the cigarette, draws it from his pocket, puts it in his mouth. He strikes the match against the wall and lights it, draws a little into his mouth, blows a stream of smoke towards Tessa. It flattens and curls against the still air, dissipating. She lifts her head momentarily, drops it. Then she rolls to face him, sits up.

“Come on,” she says.

“What.”

“Gimme.”

“Never gets,” he says, draws again. The smoke hits his lungs and he doubles forward, hacking. During the fit Tessa plucks the butt from his grasp and takes a long drag.

“God almighty,” she says. She sucks on it again and puffs out a lazy cloud. “Sometimes, oh sometimes, it’s worth the wait.”

“Addict,” Cordell says, coughs again.

“You have no addictions?”

“None.”

“Not booze? The horses?”

“No.”

“Candy. Salty snacks.”

Cordell shakes his head.

“You’re a freak.” She takes a long drag, blows smoke around the cell.

“Air freshener,” she says.

It does repress the cell’s ambient odours, the smells of piss and crap from a board-capped bucket in the corner — which he has yet to use — and the stink from his own body, hers, the guard’s. He closes his eyes and imagines himself in the field behind the house, a kite aloft on a cool breeze. Tugging the strings, guiding it through a series of manoeuvres. And as he watches it cut gracefully through the air, sleep comes.

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Read Chapter 17 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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