Far North

A Novel

Marcel Theroux

Picador

Chapter One 
 

Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.

 

I’ve been doing it so long that I’m shaped to it, like a hand that’s been carrying buckets in the cold.

 

The winters are the worst, struggling up out of a haunted sleep, fumbling for my boots in the dark. Summer is better. The place feels almost drunk on the endless light and time skids by for a week or two. We don’t get much spring or fall to speakof. Up here, for ten months a year, the weather has teeth in it.

 

It’s always quiet now. The city is emptier than heaven. But before this, there were times so bad I was almost thankful for a clean killing between consenting adults.

 

Yes, somewhere along the ladder of years I lost the bright-eyed best of me.

 

Way back, in the days of my youth, there were fat and happy times. The year ran like an orderly clock. We’d plant out from the hothouses as soon as the earth was soft enough to dig. By June we’d be sitting on the stoop podding broad beans until our shoulders ached. Then there were potatoes to dry, cabbages to bring in, meats to cure, mushrooms and berries to gather in the fall. And when the cold closed in on us, I’d go hunting and ice fishing with my pa. We cooked omul and moose meat over driftwood fires at the lake. We rode up the winter roads to buy fur clothes and caribou from the Tungus.

 

We had a school. We had a library where Miss Grenadine stamped books and read to us in winter by the wood-burning stove.

 

I can remember walking home after class across the frying pan in the last mild days before the freeze and the lighted windows sparkling like amber, and ransacking the trees for buttery horse chestnuts, and Charlo’s laughter tinkling up through the fog, as my broken branch went thwack! thwack! and the chestnuts pattered around us on the grass.

 

The old meetinghouse where we worshipped still stands on the far side of the town. We used to sit there in silence, listening to the spit and crackle of the logs.

 

The last time I went in there was five years ago. I hadn’t been inside for years and when I was a child I’d hated every stubborn minute I’d been made to sit there.

 

It still smelled like it used to: well-seasoned timber, whitewash, pine needles. But the settles had all been broken up to be burned and the windows were smashed. And in the corner of the room, I felt something go squish under the toe of my boot.It turned out to be someone’s fingers. There was no trace of the rest of him. I live in the house I grew up in, with the well in the courtyard and my father’s workshop much as it was in my childhood, still taking up the low building next to the side gate.

 

In the best room of the house, which was kept special for Sundays, and visitors, and Christmas, stands my mother’s pianola,and on it a metronome, and their wedding photograph, and a big gilded wooden M that my father made when I was born.

 

As my parents’ first child, I bore the brunt of their new religious enthusiasm, hence the name, Makepeace. Charlo was born two years later, and Anna the year after that.

 

Makepeace. Can you imagine the teasing I put up with at school? And my parents’ displeasure when I used my fists to defend myself?

 

But that’s how I learned to love fighting.

 

I still run the pianola now and again, there’s a box of rolls that still work, but the tuning’s mostly gone. I haven’t got a good enough ear to fix it, or a bad enough one not to care that I can’t.

 

It’s almost worth more to me as firewood. Some winters I’ve looked at it longingly as I sat under a pile of blankets, teeth chattering in my head, snow piled up to the eaves, and thought to myself, Damn it, take a hatchet to it, Makepeace, and be warm again! But it’s a point of pride with me that I never have. Where will I get another pianola from? And just because I can’t tune the thing and don’t know anybody who can, that doesn’t mean that person doesn’t exist, or won’t be born one day. Our generation’s not big on reading or tuning pianolas. But our parents and their parents had plenty to be proud of. Just look at that thing if you don’t believe me: the burl on the maple veneer, and the workmanship on her brass pedals. The man who made that cared about what he was doing. He made that pianola with love. It’s not for me to burn it.

 

The books all belonged to my folks. Charlo and my ma were the big readers. Except for that bottom shelf. I brought those back here myself.

 

Usually when I come across books I take them to an old armory on Delancey. It’s empty now, but there’s so much steel in the outer door, you’d need a keg of gunpowder to get to them without the key. As I said, I don’t read them myself, but it’s important to put them aside for someone who will. Maybe it’s written in one of them how to tune a pianola.

 

I found them like this: I was going down Mercer Street one morning. It was deep winter. Snow every where, but no wind, and the breath from the mare’s nostrils rising up like steam from a kettle. On a windless day, the snow damps the sound, and the silence every where is eerie. Just that crunch of hooves, and those little sighs of breath from the animal.

 

All of a sudden, there’s a crash, and a big armful of books flops into the snow from what must have been the last unbroken window on the entire street until that moment. The horse reared up at the sound. When I had her calm again, I looked up at the window, and what do you know, there’s a little figure hang-dropping into the books.

 

He’s bundled up in a bulky blue one-piece and fur hat. Now he’s gathering up the books and fixing to leave.

 

I shouted out to him, "Hey. What are you doing? Leave those books, damn it. Can’t you find something goddamn else to burn?"—along with a few other choice expressions.

 

Then, just as quick as he appeared, he flung down his armful of books and reached to draw a gun.

 

Next thing, there’s a pop and the horse rears again and the whole street is more silent than before.

 

I dismounted, easy does it, with my gun drawn and smoking and go over to the body. I’m still a little high from the draw, but already I’m getting that heavyhearted feeling and I know I won’t sleep tonight if he dies. I feel ashamed.

 

He’s lying still, but breathing very shallow. His hat came off as he fell. It lies in the snow a few steps away from him, among the books. He’s much smaller than he seemed a minute earlier. It turns out he’s a little Chinese boy. And instead of agun, he was reaching for a dull Bowie knife on his hip that you’d struggle to cut cheese with.

 

Well done, Makepeace.

 

He comes to slightly, grunting with the pain, and tries to push me away from him. "Let me have a look at where you’re hit. I can help you. I’m the constable here." But his clothes are too thick for me to examine him, and it’s too dangerous to linger here, unarmed and dismounted, especially in daylight.

 

It’s not going to be comfortable, but the only thing for it is to move him. Better get the books as well, so the whole escapade hasn’t been fruitless. I toss them into a burlap sack. The boy weighs nothing. It’s heartbreaking. What is he? Fourteen? I lift him onto the saddle and he rides in front of me, drifting in and out of consciousness until we get back.

 

The good news is he’s still breathing. His arms reach feebly for my shoulders as I help him dismount. I know the pain is not so terrible for him yet. The body makes its own opium when it’s been hit. But in the middle of that feeling, there’s alsoa sensation of injustice. That you’ve broken something you don’t know how to fix, and you won’t be the same again.

 

Once down, the boy refused to let me near him. As much as I tried to explain that I was sorry I’d hurt him and I wanted to help, he’d just slap my hand away. It was clear that we didn’t have a common language. There are some tongues where you canget, say, one word in five or ten, and it’s enough to make some sense of one another. We had nothing.

 

I gave him a pitcher of hot water on a tray, and some long tweezers, and gauze, and carbolic soap, and left him to it. And I locked him in, just to be safe.

 

The books from the burlap bag I put on the shelves in the living room. They were all odd sizes, so they didn’t fit into neat rows like my parents’ books. Some of them were picture books. I wondered if the boy was going to read them or burn them. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

 

A burned book always makes my heart sink a little.

 

Every time I used a bullet, I made myself five more immediately. That had been my rule for a while. My bullets worked out pretty expensive, both in terms of time and the fuel it took to smelt them. It wasn’t really economical to make them in suchsmall quantities.

 

But what I figured was this: you can always find more fuel if you run out, chop out some hardwood and make charcoal— even burn the pianola, god help me, if you have to—but you must never let things slide, get casual, and run low on shells.

 

If you can find someone who’ll trade with you, sure enough, a bullet has a market price. But say someone picks a fight withyou, hunts you down with a posse of his friends. What price a bullet then? What price not to hear your gun go click on an empty chamber?

 

Plus, I liked making them. I like what happens to the metal as it melts down. I liked to crouch over the crucible, watchingthe flame through the smoked glass lenses that belonged to my father, watching the lead run like quicksilver. I liked the transformation and the cold, ugly slugs that I broke out of the sand in the molds in the morning.

 

The trouble, of course, is that my shells were none too clean. If I ever get shot again, I hope it’s with a nice shiny bullet of surgical steel, not with one of my ugly things that looks like something someone dropped on a farrier’s floor and carries god knows what dirt and germs in it.

 

After I’d made my five bullets, I carried up some food and water and a light for the spirit lamp by the boy’s bedside. He was plainly feverish. Eyes closed but flickering under the lids. Short, bristly black lashes. His blue-black hair on the pillow put me in mind of a crow’s wing. Muttering in that language of his.

 

The po was empty, but I took away the boy’s stinking blue one-piece. He could have some of Charlo’s old clothes if he lived.

 

At first light I took him up some breakfast.

 

There was nothing yellow about his skin. It was as white as bone. Faint black hair on his sideboards, but no beard or mustache to speak of.

 

He’d eaten all the food I’d left him, but as I cast around for the chamber pot he grew agitated. He was bashful. I knew then that I’d like him: I’d almost killed him, but he was shy for me to see his shit. How like a boy.

 

I tried to make clear as best I could in gestures that he was to stay in bed and rest. He still looked none too good. But I’d only just mucked out the horses when he appeared in the courtyard, looking even younger and smaller in Charlo’s plaid jacket and his slippers. He was unsteady on his pins, but he made his way over to the stall to watch me giving the mare her feed, and

 

the sight of the horse seemed to please him.

 

"Ma," he said, pointing at her.

 

I started to explain how I never named the animals, just called them the mare, the roan, the gray. It doesn’t seem right to give a name to something you’re going to kill and eat one day. And it goes down easier as plain horseflesh than as a chunk of Adamski or Daisy-May. But there was no way to make the boy understand, so from then on, the mare became "Ma."

 

And then he pointed to himself and the word he said sounded most of all like "Ping." That’s right. Ping. Like the bell on a shop counter. Like a button popping off your shirt. Or a snapped banjo string. I wondered what kind of heathen name that was, or if there was a Saint Ping that no one had told me about.

 

But Ping he was. A name’s a name. And so I introduced myself to him. I pointed to myself and I said my name. "Makepeace."

 

He looked all quizzical, squinted up his face as if he hadn’t heard right, and he wasn’t sure if he dared say the word. So I said it again. "Makepeace."

 

Now his face broke out in a broad grin. "Make a piss?"

 

I looked at him careful, but he wasn’t trying to poke fun at me, he just thought that was my name. And it seemed funny, since I had some laughs on account of his name, that he had made such a mess of mine.

 

There wasn’t any point in having Ping in my home and not trusting him. I’m ornery and solitary and suspicious and that’s how I’ve stayed alive so long. The last person other than me to sleep under that roof was Charlo, and that was more than ten years earlier. But it seemed to me then, it still does now, that if you let someone in, you should let them all the way in. Whenever I rode out of the courtyard, I took the view that everyone I met was, one way or another, planning to kill or rob me. But I couldn’t live like that in my own home. I decided to trust Ping, not because I had a gut instinct about him—I didn’t know him from the oriental Adam—but because that was the only way I could live.

 

And yet, I was still a little surprised when I rode back in at lunchtime to find my locks intact, and the firewood still stacked neatly, and the chickens pecking, and the cabbages and apples in the root cellar undisturbed. There was no sign of Ping, though, and I confess that at that moment, I felt sad at the thought that he might have left.

 

I clattered up to the second story in my boots, hallooing on the stairs. No sign of him. I burst into Charlo’s room and was taken aback by the scene I found.

 

There was Ping, with a looking-glass in front of him, and my ma’s old embroidery case, and the spirit lamp burning away, and he was taking the old steel needles one by one, waving them in the flame, and sticking them into the flesh of his ears.

 

He smiled to see me, and laughed at my consternation. His whole ear bristled like porcupine quills. It must have pained him dreadfully, but he didn’t seem put out by it. In fact, he just went right on sticking them into his ears. And when he’d done that, he put one or two in his nose, and one or two in his shoulder for good mea sure.

 

I’ve a strong stomach. I have to. But the sight of that made me come over a bit queer. Ping gave me to understand that he wasn’t crazy, that the needles were intended to do him some good for the wound in his shoulder. But what white or black magic that was, I’m afraid I can’t tell you.

 

Excerpted from Far North by Marcel Theroux.
Copyright © 2009 by Marcel Theroux
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

 

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