Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World (Chapter 17)

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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.

For the past several weeks, we have been serializing a portion of the book on Open Book: Toronto, with a new chapter posted every Tuesday and Thursday. Today, we are posting the last chapter in that section of the book. Like us, you're probably keen to find out what happens next. 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.

Read Chapters 1–17 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World by Brian Panhuyzen.

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Chapter 17

A rooster’s crowing rouses Cordell from a fitful slumber. The cell is dark; the candle on the guard’s desk is out. He is shivering atop the blanket, he claws it aside, crawls beneath it, clutches it to his chin, listening to the coarse snore of the corporal mingled with Tessa’s wheezing. He gradually perceives grey light from the window. The rooster crows again and is answered by another. He shifts, the cot’s springs wow and creak, he’s got to get more sleep but the crowing goes on and on and before long he is entertaining an image of a rooster’s skinny neck crushed between his palms. He pushes off the blanket, rises and steps onto the cot’s edge to raise himself to the window. He can make out a wall and a clay roof, and beyond it the rim of a hill growing distinct in the early twilight.

The desert air is nourishing against the cell’s miasma. He tugs and twists one of the bars, finds it embedded resolutely in the baked clay. He notes a spider’s web in the corner, centimetres from his head, and as the light swells he sees the spider herself, a fat blob with hirsute legs, poised, unmoving, at the web’s hub. He steps down and sits on the cot, listening to the roosters crow again and again. He has no problem theorizing how birds came to be killed and eaten by his prehistoric ancestors. That first meal of fowl was undoubtedly breakfast.

He falls sideways and concentrates on the sound and mechanics of his own breathing, following the air into his nostrils, through his sinus cavity, into his esophagus, bronchial tubes, just about to enter his lungs when a rooster materializes in the duct, constricting the airflow, making him choke awake. He clamps his forearms to his ears and grits his teeth. And for an instant he imagines Galina, chasing them down, roosters scrambling out of her path, but she turns, her jaws opening, clamping onto a frail neck . . .

And then he is waking. The cell is flushed with light, a ram of excruciating sunshine projecting a banded rectangle onto the opposite wall.

A slam of panic. Tessa’s cot empty.

Another guard sits at the desk, a private, a fat fellow with a face like a butternut squash. He is hunched over the little desk, writing furiously on a square of notepaper, his expression zealous. He stops suddenly, looks into space while tapping the fountainpen against his bottom lip.

“Señor,” Cordell calls. The man looks up, blinks.

“Sí?”

“Um, where is my friend?” He points at the other cot. “My . . . uh . . . amigo?

“Amigo,” the private repeats. “Amigo? Ah, ton amiga,” he says, nodding, a grin cracking his face.

“No, what?” Cordell replies. “What’s funny?”

The private utters, a high, sceptical whine, says, “Oh, amiga. Ma amiga.” Then he makes kissing sounds. He wraps his thick arms around his shoulders, continues with the sounds, repeats in a sensual tone, “Amiga, amiga.”

“No,” Cordell says. “No, you’ve got it wrong. She is just an amiga. Really.”

But the private’s eyes are closed as he continues the taunt, the kisses, the gyrating hug, “Amiga, o amiga.”

“No!” Cordell cries. “Look, look at this.” He pushes his left hand through the bars and points to his wedding band. “I’m married. See? I have a wife.”

The guard stands, pushing out the chair with a loud scrape. As he begins to approach the cell something occurs to him. He stops, turns, and hastily gathers the papers from the desk, folds and tucks them into his shirtpocket.

Cordell has by the time the guard arrives at the cell door retrieved his hand, and the guard waves his hand in a drawing motion, babbles in Spanish. “Déjame ver tu anillo.” He makes a circle with his fingers and Cordell reluctantly pushes his hand through the bars. The guard lifts Cordell’s hand delicately, bends as if he’s going to kiss it, but he studies for some moments the gold band. Cordell can feel hot breath on his fingers, resists the urge to snatch his hand back. Then the guard pulls off the ring. It happens so fast that by the time Cordell can respond by closing his fist, the ring is already off, pinched between the guard’s fingers. He buffs it against his shirt, holds it to his eye. When he turns it to study the inscription inside, Cordell cries loudly, “Sir. Señor!

The private’s focus shifts to Cordell’s face. He speaks loudly and rapidly, but Cordell catches none of it except the word “amiga” a few times.

“Please,” Cordell says.

Now the private’s tone is chiding, accusatory, and is accompanied by broad hand gestures and stern pronouncements, and Cordell abruptly understands: if he is married, what’s he doing flying all abroad with this woman, this amiga? Where is his wife? For clearly he has one (the ring held high, the word esposa repeated) and Tessa is not she. Upon apprehension of the guard’s supposition, Cordell begins to passionately explain the situation from the beginning. The guard responds by augmenting the volume of his voice, and soon Cordell is shouting to be heard, Spanish and English blending in a heated cloud of misunderstanding. And then the guard pivots, his voice ceasing so suddenly that Cordell hears his own voice bellowing throughout the cell before he too is silent. The guard returns to the desk, he is extracting from his shirtpocket the letter, unfolding it, and now, to Cordell’s horror, placing upon the page his wedding ring, then folding, folding again, to contain it within, and stuffing the letter and its precious contents back into the pocket. Despite the terrible heat in the cell, Cordell suffers a chill at the base of his spine, climbing, climbing. What has he done? His wedding ring. Marla.

“Um,” he says, and his voice draws the guard from a reverie which has brought to his chubby face a distant smile. Cordell doesn’t know what to say, a feeling exacerbated by the fact that he won’t be understood anyway. His arms are each pushed through the bars in the classic pose of the wronged convict. He opens his palms in a shrug.

The private taps the pen against his lips, says at last, “Ah! Tiene hambre?”

“Yes. I mean, what?”

The private rubs his paunch. “Hambre?”

Cordell withdraws his hands, disconcerted by the topic change.

“Yes.. A little,” he says, trying to be agreeable.

“Momento.”

The guard rises and exits. Cordell stands, trembling, pinching the base of his finger, realizing that not since Marla seated the ring there at the moment of their matrimony over a year ago has he been without it. The flesh there is pale and tender, like the skin of a newborn. He wants to cry.

The guard returns carrying a tray with a hard taco, a fried egg, and a mound of refried beans, along with a bottle of orange soda. He opens the cell door and proffers the tray. Cordell’s eyes are fixed on the guard’s shirtpocket where an edge of the letter is visible, enough, he thinks, for him to reach out and grab. The guard follows his gaze, looks up, then he lifts the tray a little and says with the hint of threat, “Señor. Por favor.”

Cordell accepts the tray, backs into the cell, and sits on the edge of the bunk, contemplating the food. The guard slams the cage and returns to the desk, and Cordell lifts the soda bottle. It is warm. He tries to twist the cap and the crimped edges scotch his fingers. He needs a bottle opener, is about to ask, when instead he presses the cap’s edge against the cot’s frame, clubs the top with his palm. The cap pops off and clacks to the floor and a surge of soda rises in the bottle’s neck. Cordell bring the bottle to his mouth, sucks the bubbling soda down his throat. It is hot and sweet and fizzy, the flavour barely approximating that of oranges, but the fizz pours down his dry gullet, cleansing away the dryness. He raises the bottle, finishes it in a few seconds, burps discreetly. He sets it on the floor, picks at the cold food, snaps a shard from the taco’s shell, chews it. Where is Tessa? The guard begins to hum something in a maddening falsetto, his boots on the desk, eyes shut, arms folded across his chest, across the letter and Cordell’s ring.

Some time later the door is jerked open, bringing the private to his feet. Tessa is shoved through, hands manacled, and she curses the soldier behind her, who looks amused by her imprecations. The private rises and grabs her arm, guiding her to the cage. The other soldier removes the manacles and opens the door, and the fat one pushes her firmly inside. The resistance she offers is only a formality, and soon the cage is shut, the guard that brought her gone. Tessa stands by the door, watching Cordell.

“Do you want some?” he asks, indicating the tray.

“Get the runs and you’ll never get off that bucket,” she says.

He stops chewing, glances at the lidded pail in the corner. She sits across from him and they look at each other before she makes a kind of defeated grunt and reaches across, cracks off a triangle of taco, scoops some beans onto it, eats it.

“This sucks,” she says, chewing. Then she takes another piece, dips it, eats it. “This sucks!” she shouts at the guard.

“Qué?” the guard replies, dropping his boots to the floor.

“Suciedad. Mierda. Basura.”

“Sí. Quieres un poco?”

I want some,” she replies. The guard rises, goes out, returns with another tray. He is wary now as he opens the cage, and Cordell feels shame that the threat he himself represents is apparently inferior to Tessa’s. The guard sets the tray on the floor, backs away, shuts the door. He stands for a moment at the bars, watching Tessa collect the tray and knock the bottle’s cap off and drink. But she drinks only half before she begins to eat, and Cordell, now wanting something to wash down what he’s eaten, berates himself for his lack of foresight.

“Tu ‘amigo’ sabe del amor,” the guard says, and Tessa stops chewing, looks at Cordell.

“What did he say?” Cordell asks.

She looks at the guard, back at him.

“You know about love.”

“What?”

“He says you know about love. What have you two been up to?”

“I . . . nothing! I mean he doesn’t even speak English.”

“Universal language.”

Cordell is about to mention the ring, but feels abashed for the inexplicable way he surrendered it to the guard.

She fans herself with the hem of her shirt. “Getting hot in here. And I don’t mean all the love.”

She finishes the rest of her soda, reclines, wipes her brow with a palm, shuts her eyes. The rectangle of sunlight has crept down the wall and hovers above her bunk like a picture which has been nailed there.

She sits up. “This whole situation smells bad,” she says. “And I don’t just mean you or this cell.”

“I know,” Cordell replies. “Why this rotten treatment?”

“You insane? This is the Casa Grande Hilton! Could have thrown us into a prison with every cutthroat and assassin in the province. Could’ve buried us in a hole somewhere and forgotten us. This,” she says, casting her arms about the tiny cell, “This is luxury!”

She stands, paces to the wall, still ranting, “We’re being fed, they’re providing soft drinks instead of forcing us to drink the water. We can smoke in here, at least when you kiss ass and get cigarettes. We are enemies of the state of Mexico! It’s wonder we’re still alive.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m a Canadian.”

Tessa stares at him and Cordell draws in his knees, looks at the floor.

“Canadian?” she hisses. “Canadian? Even if they knew, and how would they know? Your say so? You’re a liar and an insurgent. A foreign combatant intent on destabilizing the government of Mexico. How do you think Canada would treat a couple of Mexicans flying to Winnipeg with a planeload of guns intended to aid an insurrection? Care to speculate? Think they’d feed them Peak Freans and Coffee Crisps?”

Cordell shifts on the cot.

She is inhaling to say more when there’s a knock. The guard opens the door to reveal the old woman who served Cordell the night before. She is hunched in an attitude of humility, and she speaks softly with the guard, waving towards Cordell. Then she offers the soldier a cigarette and he accepts it, waves her to the cage. “Buenos días,” she says, regarding Tessa warily, as if Cordell has been locked inside with a panther.

“Hello,” Cordell replies.

She moves closer. “Tengo algo para.” She reaches into her shirt and retrieves three cigarettes and holds them at the bars. Cordell stares and she gives them a shake. “Para usted.”

“Thank you. Gracias,” he replies, then pats his pockets. “But, uh, no pesos.”

She shakes her head, holds the cigarettes up. Cordell takes them. “Gracias.”

“Any for me?” Tessa demands, moving forward, forcing the woman to retreat a step. “Tiene algunos cigarillos para mí?”

The woman frowns, gives her head a stiff shake. Then she turns and is gone.

“What? Because I don’t kiss ass?” Tessa barks.

The soldier strikes a match on the wall, lights his cigarette, and approaches the cage with the flame. Cordell puts one of the cigarettes in his mouth and pokes it through the bars.

“Gracias,” Cordell says as the private lights it. He feels momentarily buoyant, turns and catches Tessa’s rolling eyes. But then he looks back at the guard who is returning to his chair with Cordell’s wedding band stuffed into his pocket, and Cordell’s whole fate rushes towards him like a zooming camera, expanding to the width of his terrible fate: unacknowledged foreign national incarcerated in a Mexican jail for arms smuggling. His wife utterly unaware of his predicament. Hopeless.

He fights his despair by adopting a cocky pose, the cigarette on his lip. “Because I’m Canadian,” he says, and inhales. The smoke is a caustic, oily vapour in his lungs, and he folds forward and coughs deeply, in a rough fit that feels like men beating his back with canes. At some point the cigarette is snatched from his mouth, and as he begins to recover he sees through watering eyes Tessa, drawing heavily on it and watching him with a triumphant expression.

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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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