Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Night is a Shadow Cast By the World (Chapter 9)

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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 and Chapter 8 of Night is a Shadow Cast By the World.

The launch for Night is a Shadow Cast By the World is on Thursday, February 9th at the Lazy Daisy's Café. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

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Chapter 9

Cool dawn. Flocks of cloud soar past at high speed, lit from beneath by a sun that has risen but not yet cleared the hills. Marla eats a bowl of cereal. On the table rests Cordell’s keyring and an envelope containing his photo. She is groggy and agitated, short on sleep, and anxious about today’s chores. Her face is carefully made up and she wears a kneelength skirt and a white blouse with an embroidered vest. At the foyer mirror she wonders if she looks too composed, and unbinds her ponytail. She feels a twinge of guilt for contriving a look to reflect her downcast state.

The driver’s seat is all the way back and the mirrors beam their reflections to a point high above her head. Signs of Cordell. She reluctantly rolls the seat forward and adjusts the mirrors. When she turns the ignition the radio comes on playing Shostakovich’s Symphony Number 10 in E minor, the third movement’s flute solo. She listens, eyes shut, fingers twitching, reliving the ecstasy of play, until she visualizes with guilt that poor instrument locked in the dark of its case 12,000 kilometres away. She twists the dial to CBC, listens to outrages local and international as she backs into the street. In ten minutes she reaches the centre of town. She parks in front of the bookshop and studies its handpainted sign, BECHARD’S BOOKS, spelled out in crisp, white capitals. “New and Used” is stencilled on the front window, and the display is cluttered with books. She feeds the meter and walks down the block to the police station, delivers the envelope containing the photo.

Marla returns to the bookshop, tests several keys before finding the correct one. She goes in and relocks the door and moves tentatively inside. The front window, grimy and obscured by books, provides meagre illumination. She smells paper and binding glue, reminding her of her father’s library. Every house or apartment her family occupied for six or ten or twenty-four months always included a study (to which she was granted limited access) which preserved her papa’s precious books. She inhales indulgently.

She doesn’t know why she hasn’t visited Cordell more often, come into town to have lunch with him.

She studies the crammed shelves, dark varnished wood, leather bindings, racks of shining jackets, ruffled paperbacks, hardcovers in cellophane, some library discards still with their Dewey decimal stickers. Literature, Mathematics, Computers, Politics, Poetry. Her head twitches around, taking in the labels penned in Cordell’s elaborate chirography. Books are stacked on the floor, atop the steam radiators, on the checkout desk with its computer and ancient cash register. A few are piled on the transom above the entrance. She ventures deeper, inhaling the odour of bibliographic decay. The floor creaks as she steps behind the desk and sits on the wooden chair. She looks at the dark computer screen, turns and examines a book on the checkout desk, its cover shrouded in brown craft paper.

She flips to the title page. Enormous, elegant letters declare the title: Desert. Beneath it an illegible blue scrawl, a signature. She turns the page to reveal a photograph of a snowdrift against a cerulean sky, but bending closer she discovers that it is not snow at all, but sand. A pile of sand. A train of divots meanders down from the top, probably from a bug, but when she follows them she discovers their source: a robed man on a camel. Marla inhales and sits back, bewildered by the shift in scale. She wants to show this to someone. Did Cordell see it? On Friday, before he left for the day and climbed into an aeroplane and flew away?

The sun slices through a gap between the bank and the yoga studio across the street and pours through the window. Dust motes drift in the beam and Marla rises and glides through the fresh light. She enters a narrow aisle and sidles down it, head tilted to read titles. Books about the vegetation of an entire country (Flora of Costa Rica) and books about a single species in a specific region (The Iris in Southwestern Ontario).

The adjacent aisle continues the Literature section, starting with the Ns: Nabokov, Naipaul, Narayan.

She enters an alcove crammed with books where a large label declares, “Deserts.” She touches spines thin and thick, amazed at the quantity of volumes on this topic. From the buxom dunes of the Sahara to the obstinate bush of the Kalahari to the broad mesas of the American southwest. She pulls a fat volume on the Thar Desert of northwestern India and flips and reads until she hears a knock.

It’s Daniel Crawley, wearing a fedora and a brown corduroy jacket and when he sees her through the glass he appears muddled and uncertain. Marla opens the door but the slight man stands resolutely on the sidewalk.

“Hello Ms. Bechard,” he says softly.

“Hello Daniel. Are you coming in?”

He enters and sets down a portmanteau of orange leather. He hangs his fedora and jacket on a peg behind the desk and opens the back room door, stopping it with a fat book. Marla hears running water. He returns and searches until he finds his teacup on the top step of a ladder used to service the taller shelves. He is trembling and the cup clatters on the saucer as he descends. At the checkout he collects a mug which Marla recognizes as a gift she gave to Cordell, on it a quote by Amy Lowell:

For books are more than books, they are the life
The very heart and core of ages past,
The reason why men lived and worked and died,
The essence and quintessence of their lives.

Daniel is halfway to the kitchen when he turns.

“Will Mr. Bechard be in?”

“I’m afraid not. I have to explain something to you about Mr. Bechard. Why don’t you finish making tea and we’ll discuss it.”

“Will you be having tea, Ms. Bechard?”

“Yes please. Will you put it in Cordell’s mug for me?”

Scandalized at the request, Daniel retreats to the back room. Marla sits at the checkout, realizes that she has left open the book with the astonishing photograph, snaps it shut. Daniel emerges with the cups, a stainless steel teapot, a pot of sugar, and a carafe of milk on a tray. He sets the tray on the floor and clears a stool of books and places it there.

“It certainly is a mess in here,” Marla says.

“Oh. I was in on Saturday when Bill Calway came in with a few cartons of books but I didn’t finish putting them all away before I left but I was planning on doing that today. Cordell lets me.”

“I apologize. I wasn’t criticizing.”

“Cordell lets me finish up whatever comes in on Saturday. It’s usually busy with books coming in.”

“Do you like Saturdays, when you run the shop alone?”

“Yes, it’s okay. I mean aside from all the people. Shall I pour?”

He fills the mug and carries it to her. “Don’t put it on that book.” He points to Desert. “That’s a Cordell favourite, $17,000.”

This startles Marla and she almost tips her tea onto the book.

“Signed limited first edition. Only fifty printed.” He shelves it behind the desk, then pours his own tea, splashes in some milk, and stands before her, stirring and stirring.

“Daniel,” Marla says, and he pauses. “I need to talk to you. Will you sit down?”

He sits on a ladder rung and looks into his cup as he continues to stir.

“Cordell is missing.”

He bolts up, sending a rain of tea onto the floor. “You mean abducted? Ms. Bechard, do you mean he’s been abducted?”

“It appears that way.”

“Aw, I knew it, I just knew it.”

“Knew what?”

“He, I mean Cordell. I mean not he, the guy, the guy. A guy. Ms. Bechard, a guy!”

“Daniel, please just relax. What guy?”

He sets down his teacup. “Okay, zoom back. Flashback, two weeks ago. Cordell and I are here, I mean right here. Like you and I are. Cordell there behind the desk drinking tea. Tea with sugar though. Drinking tea with sugar and me here. Cordell is talking about something. Lightning arresters or genitive nouns or physiocracy. You know Cordell.”

Marla misconstrues the statement as rhetorical, but after a long pause she blurts, “Yes! Please, go on.”

“When in comes this weird guy. Just walks right in, if you can believe it.”

“Go on.”

“Well that’s it. That’s the story.”

“A man walks in? What did he do? What did he say?”

“He just walked in.”

“Did he walk out again?”

“Nope.”

“Ever?”

“Oh, well ya. Of course. I mean if he didn’t walk out he’d be standing right there, right there on that very spot.” Daniel glares at the floor, looks up.

“What did he look like?”

“Pretty tall. Huge head. So he has a knapsack and he drops it to the floor and pulls out . . . guess. Guess what he pulls out.”

“A book?”

“Ping pong! Yes! The guy yanks out a book. And the name of the book? The name of the book?”

“I give up.”

Alien Abductions and other Strange Phenomena, a Primer for Unbelievers. Uncanny. Uncanny, don’t you think?”

“Why uncanny?”

Daniel looks disappointed. “Think. Oh god just think! Guy walks into bookstore. Pulls out a book about aliens written specifically for unbelievers.”

“Yes?”

“Cordell! Cordell is an unbeliever! You knew that, right?”

“Knew?”

“That Cordell is an unbeliever! That he doesn’t buy this alien visitation nonsense. Cripes, what do you two talk about? So it turns out the guy is the author of this book he has written for unbelievers. Which is naturally a marketing disaster because unbelievers aren’t going to buy it and believers sure as hell aren’t going to buy it, so who’s left?”

“No one?”

“Ping pong! No one. He’s got a bag of zero gee paperweights. Barbecue-flavoured yogurt. Stringless yo-yos. It’s garbage. Cordell sees this right away.”

“How did the man respond?”

“He said, ‘You sure?’ Just like that, ‘You sure?’”

“And?”

“Cordell said, ‘Yes, thanks.’ And the guy shrugs and walks out.”

“That’s it?”

“Huh-huh. That’s it.”

“He didn’t threaten Cordell?”

“Nope. Not their style.”

“Daniel, let me get this straight. You’re claiming that Cordell was abducted by aliens because he didn’t buy the man’s books?”

“I want you to know something Ms. Bechard. I want you to know something about me: everything, everything I say, no matter how firm, no matter how committed I appear to be, is just a theory. So if I say, ‘What a lovely sunny day it is,’ what’s your first thought?”

“That it’s a lovely sunny day?”

“No! That Daniel Crawley has just theorized that it’s a lovely sunny day.”

“But it is.”

“Wha? Oh, well, yes. I’m not talking about today. I mean on another day. A foul day.”

“Daniel, do you want to hear what happened to Cordell?”

“Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about?”

“Oh. Please listen for a few minutes.” Marla rises and paces, describing to Daniel everything that has happened, the plane, the police, everything, overriding his interjections until she is finished.

“Now I want you to consider for a moment, Daniel, other than the man with the big head, were there other customers who seemed suspicious to you?”

“Everyone seems suspicious to me. As I’m paranoid.”

Marla takes a deep breath. “Daniel, I need to ask two things of you.”

“All right. For Cordell, anything.”

“The first is to consider what has happened to Cordell, what I have told you. Think: does Cordell deal with someone who may be involved? Anyone with an aeroplane, or anyone who wishes him ill? Telephone me if you come up with anything.”

“I will begin to ratiocinate immediately. What’s the second thing?”

“I need you to run the shop, like on Saturdays.”

“I see. For how long?”

“A few days, a week. Until Cordell comes home.”

“What if he never comes home? Oh. Oh, I’m sorry Ms. Bechard. I’m sorry.”

“He’ll come home. Cordell always comes home. Do you think you can handle it?”

“Certainly. It will be like a string of consecutive Saturdays.”

“Thank you Daniel. Keep regular hours. Conduct business as you always do, or as Cordell does. I think there can be a bit more pay this week.”

“Ooh. I’ll need to install more bookshelves at home.”

“More . . . what?”

“Bookshelves. For the extra books.”

“You buy books with your wages?”

“Oh no. My wages are books. Cordell pays me in books.”

“He pays you . . . he pays you in books? That doesn’t sound fair.”

“It’s not. But he insists on compensating me.”

Marla coughs, says, “But how do you live?”

“You’ve heard of the Crawley Fast Neutron Reactor? My dad invented it.”

“Your father was Brett Crawley? The celebrated physicist?”

“Looney-baloony physicist. My trust fund prohibits me from earning a cash wage from any employment. My dad was obsessed with the balance of forces and quantities in the universe. He said he’d worked hard enough in his life for two people. So to restore balance, his son must not work at all. A book wage, though: he never thought of that.”

“I see. Well, then yes. More books. We’ll work it out on payday. Cordell can when he returns.” Marla finishes her tea and rises. She is exhausted. “You have keys?”

“Yes. For Saturdays though. Just for Saturdays.”

“I believe the locks are the same every day.”

“Of course,” he says, blushing. “I knew that. I did, I knew that. I’m just flummoxed.”

The phone rings and they exchange glances. On the fourth trill Marla answers, “Bechard’s Bookstore!” She is surprised at the phrase’s flavour. “I’m afraid Mr. Bechard is out of the shop today. Would you like to speak to Mr. Crawley? One moment.” Marla hands the phone to Daniel and heads for the door.

“Crawley here. Oh, Kinch, Jimmy Kinch, I’ve been waiting to hear from you, you fearful jesuit!” He gives Marla a thumbs-up and she exits to the street, where she draws a breath of morning air. The town is flushed with cheery light, and for a moment she considers doing some shopping. Absurd, she thinks as she scurries to the car and speeds for home.

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Read Chapter 10 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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