Monday 28 October 2013

A "Things Fall Apart" for Canada: Joseph Boyden's "The Orenda"

When I finished reading Joseph Boyden’s new novel, The Orenda, I immediately felt that the book  was not only a fantastic read, but also an important contribution to Canadian literature as a whole. Set in 17th-Century Upper Canada, The Orenda follows the first-person narratives of three characters: a French Jesuit priest named Père Christophe, a Wendat (Huron) warrior named Bird, and a young Haudosanee (Iroquois) girl named Snow Falls. Seeking revenge for the death of his wife and children, Bird opens the novel by murdering a group of Haudosanee and forcefully taking one of their daughters, Snow Falls, to be his own child. At first, he rationalizes his actions by thinking this adoption might eventually end the cycle of violence between his people and the Haudosanee. But ultimately, his unwillingness to return Snow Falls to her people leads to all-out war between the two groups. Meanwhile, a missionary named Père Christophe comes to live in Bird’s village in an effort to “civilize” the Wendat by converting them to Christianity.

The premise of Boyden’s novel is one that, in the hands of a less skillful writer, could have gone terribly wrong. To write about early contact between Canada’s indigenous peoples and European explorers is a complicated task. But as I trekked through The Orenda, I was repeatedly impressed by how well Boyden was able to depict Canada’s aboriginal peoples in an empathetic, yet utterly unromantic way (there’s no hint of Last of the Mohicans or Dances with Wolves in this book). The characters were likeable and three-dimensional, yet also capable of horrific brutality. As I read on, I eventually concluded that Boyden’s success in this regard emulated that of another classic story of early contact between European colonizers and an indigenous population, Chinua Achebe’s Things Falls Apart.

One of the most widely celebrated novels of all time, Things Fall Apart takes place in the region of Africa that is today known as Nigeria. That said, I by no means wish to conflate the distinct histories of Canadian and Nigerian colonization. I make my comparison between The Orenda and Things Fall Apart based on the tonal balance that Boyden (like Achebe) strikes between brutality and beauty, depicting both Canada’s indigenous peoples and its white colonizers in a manner that manages to be both poetic and starkly unsentimental at the same time. Like Things Fall ApartThe Orenda centres on a time when the balance of power in North America still swayed in favour of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Yet as I have mentioned, Boyden never waxes nostalgic about pre-contact life. Instead, he describes – nay, dwells on – some of its most brutal aspects, while always being sure to remind the reader that a similar brutality exists in other cultures, as we find when Père Christophe compares the torture practices of the indigenous peoples to those of the Spanish Inquisition.

One aspect of the book that left me scratching my head, however, was the monologue (spoken by the pronoun “we”) that opened each section of the book. The “we” that speaks this monologue seems to be the collective ancestral voice of Canada’s indigenous peoples (although I’m certain that an informed scholar of Aboriginal culture and literature would point out that the identity of this “we” is very unclear). While reading through this monologue, I was especially intrigued by the following passage:

“The world must change, though. This is no secret. Things cannot stay the same for long” (153).

I could not help but compare the content and rhythm of this passage with the following lines from W.B. Yeats' “The Second Coming,” which provide the basis for the title of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

“The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Only a few lines lower than Boyden’s statement about the world needing to change, I found the following provocative passage:

“It’s unfair, though, to blame only the [white people], yes? It’s our obligation to accept our responsibility in the whole affair” (153).

In this section and in several others, Joseph Boyden speaks of the necessity for Aboriginal peoples to acknowledge the extent to which their ancestors might have been responsible for (and even complicit in) certain aspects of Canada’s colonization by white Europeans. I am not the first person to single out this passage for further discussion, as the Globe and Mail’s Jared Bland asked Boyden to comment on it in a recent interview. When Bland asked Boyden expand on this passage (and others like it), Boyden responded:

I carefully put that there, because I don’t want to present First Nations as always being victimized. No one’s purely the victim. Actually, I shouldn’t say that. My wife was purely a victim when she was horribly raped and left for dead. But when it comes to big cultural movements, the Huron played a role in their demise, and they know that. The English and the French and Dutch all did, too. Just the acceptance of responsibility is really important.”

Boyden’s mention of his wife’s rape demonstrates the importance of acknowledging the horrific (yet often invisible) ways that colonial power continues to be played out through present-day acts of violence against women. Once he makes the (potentially dubious) distinction between this type of violence and that of “big cultural movements,” Boyden returns to his initial point about not wanting to portray First Nations peoples purely as victims. However, while The Orenda speaks to the general responsibility that First Nations peoples had (or still have) for colonial violence, the book remains fairly vague about what specific aspects of colonial violence the First Nations people were (or still are) responsible for. If we look to the plot of The Orenda for an answer, the text seems to imply two main areas in which First Nations people bear responsibility for European colonization: 1) the brutal intertribal conflicts that allowed Europeans to play one aboriginal group against another, and 2) the inability of indigenous peoples to truly understand the world-destroying potential of the Europeans’ early presence. After all, the book suggests, how could Canada’s aboriginal peoples haven taken the Europeans seriously when the latter were utterly incapable of surviving in the harsh North American climate without help?

This last question ultimately leads to my one major quibble with The Orenda: the story’s fatalistic tendency to speak about European dominance as an inevitable outcome of North American history. The book might not state this point explicitly, but there are hints of profound stoicism throughout Boyden’s descriptions of the decimation of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, as we find in the prophetic visions of a character named Gosling who can foresee the horrors that await Canada's aboriginal peoples.  It is hard to tell if this determinism is a meta-commentary coming from Boyden’s narrator – the aboriginal “we” that has already seen how history is going to play out – or if it is an unfortunate suggestion that Canada’s colonial history could not have played out any other way than it did. Wars were fought over Canadian land, treaties were signed (or not signed), and it took centuries for complex political processes to manipulate Canada’s ethnic landscape into what it is today. But I felt that this knowledge was sometimes lost in this book’s stoic, ethereal tone. 

For all of that, I have little doubt that The Orenda will become a staple in the study of Canadian literature for future generations. It walks the kinds of ethical and narrative tightropes that are sure to stimulate endless discussion. On top of that, the book is also an incredibly well-crafted and compelling read. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

Remembering Seamus Heaney

On August 30, 2013, the world lost a man who was arguably the greatest living poet of the English language. Seamus Heaney was 74 years old, and he had won nearly every major English poetry prize in existence, including the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006), The Nobel Prize in Literature (1995), and the E.M. Forster Award (1975). By critics and popular readers alike, Heaney is recognized today as the greatest Irish poet since W.B. Yeats, and there are even many (like myself) who consider his work better than Yeats’. During his remarkable life, Heaney’s words impacted the cultural landscape of Ireland in a way that hearkens back to medieval times, when the country was governed by priests and poets. Yet beneath the hype and poorly concealed envy that followed Heaney throughout his life, his poetry retained a much more elemental significance. 

When I was younger, Seamus Heaney was always that one writer in all of the English literature and poetry anthologies whose date of birth was not followed by a date of death. This was of course a cause of great wonder and jealousy for me and for any school-aged writer with ambitions of one day making it into the literary canon – while still being alive to enjoy it. So far, however, everything I’ve written about Heaney strikes me as cold and informational. To truly do justice to what his words meant to me, I can only reproduce his poem “Digging,” which remains for me one of the most perfect poems I’ve ever read…


Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

In addition to being one of my favorite poems, “Digging” is also one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of Ezra Pound’s famous statement that, “Poetry must be as well-written as prose.” Seamus Heaney’s poetry is quite prosaic in its own right. The man does not create any music that is not already an organic part of his descriptive diction. Whereas many poets would use verbal pyrotechnics to convince the reader of their literary worth, there is a modesty and practical wisdom to Heaney’s language that is both inspiring and bittersweet.  And for the poetry nerds out there, I’d also like to point out how much I think Heaney’s simple use of spondee makes this poem such an excellent piece. Phrases like “squat pen,” “coarse boot,” and “good turf” help give a stolid rhythm and structure to the piece, thus allowing the rest of the somewhat prosaic phrasing to let its inner music express itself by virtue of its contrast with each of these spondees. Simply put, if one were going to teach a class on how to write engaging, accessible poetry, I would start with “Digging.” 

Tomorrow, Seamus Heaney will be buried in his home village of Bellaghy. It is impossible to know where Heaney is now; but what we do know is that it’s time for a new generation of poets to grab their pens and start digging. 

Friday 24 May 2013

Without Consent: A Haiku

"Without Consent"

She called herself she
but the mortician said he.
Buried in a suit.

Friday 17 May 2013

Elaine Benes, Homerpalooza, and the Modern Evolution of the Exclamation Point

It's been twenty years since Elaine Benes fought with her boyfriend and got into hot water with her boss over the proper use of an exclamation point on NBC's Seinfeld. At the time, Elaine was worried that her boyfriend (and perhaps American culture in general) was too hesitant to show genuine enthusiasm, be it either written or spoken. And for those who remember the irony-loving, endlessly sarcastic early-to-mid nineties, she might have had a point. Fans of the landmark television show The Simpsons will no doubt remember this classic exchange between two apathetic Gen Xers in the episode titled Homerpalooza.

Teen 1: Oh here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen 1: (Hangs head) I don't even know anymore.

The episode aired in 1996, and many cultural observers could say that it sounded the death knell for the nineties' obsession with sarcasm. Mind you, the late nineties would continue to beat this dead horse for some time. But keen viewers could already identify with teen #2's question. By 1995, the widespread use of sarcasm had created a social sphere for youth in which genuine feeling couldn't be expressed without being met with sharp suspicion (or at least a confused grimace). Irony had established itself as the norm to such an extent that speaking genuinely and directly to a person (i.e. through a compliment) would require follow-up, explicit assurance that you were not being sarcastic.

By the time the new millennium rolled around, sarcasm was still a staple of pop culture. In the 2001 film Ghost World, for example, the main character Enid (played by Thora Birch) responds to a high school acquaintance's idea of hanging out some time with the line: "Yeah. That'll happen." The remark contains all the cutting irony of the mid 90s. But by 2001, the effect of this line had already become tinged with sadness. As the movie continues, we learn that Enid's sarcastic distance from the world of genuine expression alienates her from people and contributes to her malaise. She comes across as a female version of Holden Caulfield, endlessly criticizing the world for being full of phonies, then turning around and complaining of loneliness in the same breath.

So what does all of this have to do with the evolution of the exclamation point, you ask? Well it's pretty simple, really. Somewhere around 2005-2006, with the rise of instant messaging and mobile texting, the exclamation point became a form of punctuation that firmly said "I am not being sarcastic." Where ten years earlier, you might have met a comment like "Great job today" with suspicion, the inclusion of the exclamation point became a visual cue to accept the comment as genuine. In other words, the exclamation point could still convey enthusiasm or excitement; but this was no longer its primary function. Its primary function was to signify sincerity.

Today, a quick scan of Facebook profiles, Tweets, and mobile phone messages will reveal an explosion of exclamation points. The importance of this evolution in punctuation should not be underestimated. It does not mean that all young people have suddenly started taking Prozac (the last major rise in the use of antidepressants, ironically, came around 1993). Rather, it is a clear historical effort (maybe an unconscious one, in many cases) to distance oneself from the age of sarcasm-as-norm and to usher in a world of neo-sincerity.

It might seem strange to suggest that sincerity was something the mid-2000s needed to rediscover through the repurposing of a punctuation mark. But if you were to draw up a list of the ten biggest ways in which new communications technologies have influenced the emotions of today's youth, you would be wise to include the changing role of the exclamation point.

Saturday 13 April 2013

A Writing Lesson (and Life Lesson) from Jack London

American novelist and essayist Jack London was not born a great writer. He made himself into one through years of work, and his rise to literary fame should be an inspiration to any aspiring writer. For years, Jack spent 16 hours a day writing, yet failed to receive even a hint of consideration from literary magazines, journals, and publishers. At one point, he even resolved to quit writing altogether. But his mother believed so strongly in his abilities that she begged him not to take a job and to continue devoting day and night to his craft. Many present-day writers can only dream of receiving such support. But Mrs. London's gamble eventually paid off, as her son Jack would go on to become one of the richest and most adored writers of his generation.

There might be no better example of London's prosaic mastery than his 1908 short story "To Build a Fire." In it, an unnamed young man attempts to hike 9 miles across the Yukon tundra through a temperature of 107 degrees below freezing. He strives to reach a cabin "on the left fork of Henderson Creek," where several of his male companions are waiting for him with a warm bed and warm meal. London did not choose this location at random, as Henderson Creek was also the site of the same cabin he lived in while working as a prospector in his early twenties.

"To Build a Fire" is a piece of masterful writing not only because of its hard, glacier-like prose, but also because of the incredible catharsis it's able to produce in its readers. And when I say catharsis, I mean it in the classic Aristotelian sense. London's story does an amazing job of making us respect the main character as a tough and resourceful person. Yet as the story unfolds, we begin to understand that no amount of toughness or resourcefulness can save the man from his fatal error of traveling alone, despite the warnings of an older, more experienced peer.

On its own, "To Build a Fire" has many elements that are worthy of praise. But I believe that our appreciation of the story is greatly enhanced when we compare it with an earlier version that London published in the magazine Youth's Companion in 1902. In their basic plot, the two versions are the same. Yet the second demonstrates just how much of a difference six years can make to a writer who is still honing his craft.

While the earlier version of "To Build a Fire" gives the main character a name (Tom Vincent), the latter strips the man of his name, thus rendering him anonymous in the face of the Arctic void that surrounds him. The earlier version portrays only the lone man, while the latter provides the man with a traveling partner: a mongrel wolf-dog. Last but not least, the main character of the earlier story survives his trip to the cabin, thus rendering the story as a standard tale of robust masculinity overcoming nature. The latter story, however, portrays nature as a cruel, uncaring, and abysmal force that destroys the unnamed main character. London's changes between the two versions give us an incredible example of how editing one's writing and honing one's style and ideation can bring a story from something forgettable to one of the greatest short stories of the twentieth century.

Below, I have included links to the two versions of "To Build a Fire," and I strongly encourage you to read both. In addition, I would welcome any comments anyone might have about the difference (or similarities) between the two versions, and what writers and critics alike might learn from them.

Original 1902 version:

Anthologized 1908 version:

Tuesday 19 February 2013

"Ill Humour" Now Available in US Trade Paperback

I just found out that "Ill Humour" has clawed its way to no. 1 on Lulu's Fiction & Literature charts. Glad to see that everyone is enjoying the book and telling their friends!

Paperback Time. For a free preview and/or to purchase the book, go to the following link:

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Monday 18 February 2013

"Ill Humour" Ebook Now Available on Lulu and Amazon Kindle for $3.99

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or on Amazon Kindle:

Hi everyone,

It took a while, but I've finally gotten around to publishing my medical/history mystery "Ill Humour" in ebook format. If you just can't get enough wry humour, mystery plots, medical history, and romance, this is the book for you. Think Stephen King meets Dr. House. In any case, the book is only $3.99, and I'm sure it would go lovely with your next latte (which costs the same). It will be available shortly through online retailers, but can be had right now in epub format at the following link.

Or on Amazon Kindle at:

Spanning over fifty years, Ill Humour follows Dr. Anna Mercer as she struggles to treat a patient named Adam Renfrew, whose sickness makes no sense within the terms of modern medical knowledge. But a chance encounter brings Anna into the company of Donald Firkin, a divorced English professor who soon discovers that Anna’s patient makes all too much sense, just not according to modern science. Through a series of manipulations, Firkin convinces Anna that her patient’s internal organs have travelled backward through medical history, taking on the properties of the “four humours” of medieval science. What ensues is a sometimes wry, sometimes passionate story of blackmail, family, and romance.  And time-travelling organs. 
Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Thursday 14 February 2013

On Metonymy and Metaphor

The link between two things in a metonymy is associative. For example, "The White House has recently come out and said..." The White House stands for the office of the president based on the conventional association between these two things.

The link between two things in a metaphor is based on a perceived similarity between two unlike things. For example, "Love is heroin." In this case, love is compared to heroin not because heroin is associated with drug addicts being in love, but because love itself is like an addictive substance in its very nature.

But this difference between metonymy and metaphor raises an interesting question about clichéd metaphors. Basically, it stands to reason that a metaphor like "love is a rose" is not a metaphor at all, but a metonymy. This is because over time, the phrase has become so overused that people have forgotten whatever first inspired the comparison, and now know only that love and roses are connected on the basis of conventional association.

The point of all of this is to say that metaphor is a living, breathing thing. A metaphor that becomes a cliché actually demonstrates the organic principle of language. If the link between love and roses shifts from perceived resemblance to conventional association over time, then it stands to reason that any frequently used metaphor will degenerate into a metonymy over time. In their essence, all clichés are metonymies. That's why writers must endlessly come up with new, fresh metaphors. Their poetic effect has an expiration date, and metonymy is what they turn into when their once-nourishing milk has curdled.

Metonymy is rot and death.
Metaphor is freshness and life.

For a more in-depth look at my theory of "The Genealogy of Metaphor & Metonymy," see pages 31 to 50 of my doctoral dissertation, titled "Feeling Better: The Therapeutic Drug in Modernism":

Thursday 7 February 2013

Second Excerpt from "Ill Humour"

For those of you who enjoyed that last excerpt from my forthcoming novel, I though I'd add two more. The first one gives you a look at one of the book's co-protagonists, Dr. Donald Firkin. The second comes from later on when Anna's struggling with her patient, Adam Renfrew.

Toronto 2011

Come on, heads my darling. Let me see heads.
Professor Donald Firkin slapped the coin on top of his hand and discovered that once again, it had landed heads’ side up. That made it twenty-four times in a row, the odds of which happening were – he tallied the number on his computer’s calculator – nearly seventeen million to one. It would’ve been an extraordinary feat, had he not been using a trick coin that showed heads on both sides. When he was twelve years old, his father had made a rare appearance at his mother’s house and given him the coin for his birthday. For months afterward, he’d used it to swindle his brothers and sister into losing bets and surrendering their favourite toys. After a while, though, his siblings sniffed out the deception and demanded that they be the ones who chose heads. So that was that.
Firkin heard a knock behind him. He recalled that he’d scheduled an appointment with a student, but didn’t immediately turn away from his computer. Instead, he played a round of Solitaire, knowing that the game’s lame green backdrop lay fully within his visitor’s view. Only when he’d finished did he finally turn and face his student – a blonde girl named Danielle who was enrolled in his second-year English Literature class. Her outfit consisted of black spandex leggings, a tan leather bag, and what looked to be a poorly tailored tanktop, which hung properly over one shoulder while sliding lazily off the other. The girl bore a term paper in her hands. As her email had suggested, she wanted to “discuss” – or in other words, argue – the grade she'd received on it. Already, Firkin could see her bottom lip quivering.
“Hello,” he said, waving at a chair. Danielle dropped her bag to the floor and sat down. She held her paper in front of her chest and stared down at it, shoulders hunched, trying to steady her fingers. Firkin pushed his bold, rectangular glasses up his nose and ran a hand over his bald pate.
“Yeah, like, I dunno.” Danielle glanced up, but finding him silent, dropped her eyes back to the paper. “It’s just like, you know, like, I don’t see what’s wrong with this.”
Firkin steepled his fingers and nodded. “Okay… Well have you read over the comments I wrote in your margins?”        
Danielle nodded several times and brushed some hair out of her eyes. “Yeah, but I mean, you know, like – How come you gave me a sixty-two?”
Firkin repeated his question about whether she’d read his comments. Danielle titled her face toward the ceiling, trying to keep the wet cups of her eyelids from running over. When she lowered her gaze to him again, she used the back of her hand to dab one eye. “I just don’t think it’s fair,” she insisted. “I mean, like, I think your comments are right and everything. But I was a straight-A student in high school.”
Firkin sighed. “I understand that university can seem difficult, Danielle. But this is not a first-year class and I cannot raise your mark. Your paper has many problems with both its writing and its argumentation, and I have tried to point them out in my comments. I’m sure that if you consider my notes carefully, you’ll show a lot of improvement on the next assignment.”
Danielle was shaking her head before he'd even finished speaking. “But this one mark will kill my GPA! It’s already over.”
Firkin knitted his brows and leaned back in his chair. If Danielle expected an exceptional average on her transcript, then yes, there was no avoiding the fact that a sixty-two would require her to shift her expectations for the coming semester. When he told her this, she fell silent for a moment. But a transformation soon overtook her features. Her face darkened. Supplication turned into anger when she realized how useless it would be to appeal to his sympathy. She flipped her paper around and fwapped it with her index finger. “But look at the comments!” she shouted. “You say here that my ideas are vague [fwap] and over here that my phrasing is awkward [fwap!]. What does that even mean?” She threw her hands up. “I mean, your marking is so subjective.”
Firkin could barely keep himself from laughing. It was wonderfully predictable for a student like Danielle to challenge the “subjective” nature of English grading when things didn't go her way. When Danielle realized how little of an effect she’d had on him, she wept openly.
“Danielle,” Firkin said. “You need to understand that – ”
“That what?! That English isn’t subjective? That’s crap and you know it. It’s just your own stupid opinion.”
He sighed and glanced at her over the top of his black frames. “So what, Danielle?”
The girl’s jaw fell as she drew her hands away from her face. What did he mean, so what? His personal opinion was about to wreck her GPA and ruin her future. Firkin interlaced his fingers and dropped his hands between his knees. He continued to hold the girl’s eyes, even when she couldn’t hold his.
“Danielle,” he said, “I know you think that your GPA is going to determine your future. But trust me, it won’t. When you get out of here, your prospects will be determined by your letters of reference, your interviews, application letters, and quite frankly, the people you know. All of these things are ten times more subjective than the marks I put on your English papers. And you know what? All of them will have ten times more of an impact than your GPA ever will.”
Danielle shook her head as fresh tears gushed from her eyes. “You’re not allowed to say this,” she protested. “It’s…” she searched for the word. “It’s evil.”
Firkin nearly laughed again, but steadied himself out of respect for the girl’s condition. After all, what could she know of the world outside school? It must have been nice to think that the grades on her assignments could entitle her to a bright career. “I’m sorry to tell you this, Danielle,” he concluded, “but the world is subjective, and it’s better you learn that now instead of later. If my English class has been able to teach you this much, then consider it the most important course you’ll ever take.”
“You can’t say this.”
“Life is not a math test you can feed into a machine, Danielle. And thankfully, neither is an English Studies paper.”
Upon hearing this, Danielle rose from her chair and stuffed her term paper back into her bag. She didn’t bother to shoulder the bag, but jammed it under her armpit and fled from the office. When she was gone, Professor Firkin spun back to his computer. He opened his internet browser and spent the next five minutes scrolling through the most popular videos on YouTube. One clip showed a young man breakdancing inside some sort of community centre. He was performing all of the usual tricks, wriggling his limbs in a gelatinous fashion, spinning on the ground with his legs splayed in a wide V. But suddenly a little girl wandered into the young man’s path and paff! – was struck in the chest by one of his whizzing feet. She soared a full five feet into the air before landing on her back. Firkin clapped a hand to his mouth and smothered a squeal. He paused to take in what had happened, then watched the clip again from the beginning. He scrolled down to read the comments that other people had posted about the video. The very first entry assured him that the child had miraculously escaped this incident without any major injuries. He was happy for that.
There was another knock at his door.
“Hi there, Don.”
Firkin recognized the voice as that of his young colleague, Joseph Werth, and swivelled to face him. The man wore a grey suit paired with a white shirt and sky-blue tie. He’d recently won a tenure-track appointment in the department, and his entire body buzzed with a fresh and irritating enthusiasm.
“So how are things?” Werth inquired.
“I’m afraid I’m swamped with work,” Firkin answered, reopening the Solitaire program on his computer screen. Werth forced a collegial laugh.
“Taking a break from your research, eh?”
“Not really. You don’t do so much of that stuff once you get tenure, unless you’re desperate to impress people.” He waved at the empty bookshelves that covered his office walls. All the other professors in the department had made certain to fill theirs to the point of overflowing.
Werth maintained his smile and nodded. “Well,” he said, “I think that your book on the history of western medicine is really wonderful, Don.”
“It feels like a lifetime since I wrote that.”
“Quite an argument, though, to say that we don’t know any more about human health today than we did a thousand years ago.”
Firkin shrugged once more and half-stood to pull the tail of his coat from beneath his corduroyed rump. “Well let me ask you this, Joseph. What would you say is the cause for most forms of cancer?”
Werth pursed his lips and considered the question for several seconds, but eventually shook his head with a snort. “Well, obviously there are different causes for different types. But as a rule of thumb, I don’t trust anything made of plastic, or anything petroleum-based, for that matter.” He paused again and glanced up at the ceiling, trying to choose his words more carefully. “In the end, I guess I’m suspicious of any chemical substance that’s artificially synthesized.”
Firkin nodded and explained to Werth that most of the North American middle class would agree with him. That said, there was no denying how idiotic this opinion was going to sound two hundred years in the future. It was not poor Joseph’s fault, of course. He was a smart young professional. It was simply a fact that all scientific theories, by definition, would eventually become outdated. Firkin’s book had merely tacked one more crucial observation onto this point – that if scientific “progress” was something that went on infinitely, every new breakthrough was infinitely small. And if so, how could anyone rightfully call it progress?
When Firkin had finished, Werth tilted his head from side to side and noncommittally answered, “Good point.”
“So what brings you to entrance of my lair?” Firkin added.
“Oh, well I’ve heard around the department that you’re quite the poker player, Don.”
“Practice.” Firkin jerked his thumb back toward his computer.
“Yes. Well I was thinking about putting together a poker night just for the profs, and wanted to gauge your interest.”
Firkin glanced about his office and drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “What night of the week would it be?”
“Any night that works for you.”
 “I’m afraid not, Joseph.”
Werth scratched the back of his neck and rested his elbow awkwardly against the office doorframe. “Okay then. Well I’m sure I’ll see you at the party coming up next week.” He offered one last smile and disappeared into the corridor.
Firkin spun back to his computer and opened his email account, where he was happy to find a message verifying what Werth had just told him. There was going to be an interfaculty party that week. He flipped open a leather-bound agenda on his desk and scribbled a note about the party. There were some professors, he fondly recalled, whose banter could make him nearly vomit with laughter, especially after he’d gulped down a few glasses of the free alcohol these parties always provided. It would be an enjoyable time, so long as no one talked about any articles they’d recently published or prestigious grants they’d just landed. At this last thought, Firkin felt his breathing become shallower. He dug at the horseshoe of grey hair that wrapped around the back of his head. Joseph Werth’s grinning face suddenly appeared in his mind, and Firkin watched in horror as the young man lay down a handful of cards at a poker table. A full house, straight flush, and royal flush descended in dizzying succession. Other professors from the department materialized on either side of Werth, snickering as Firkin squirmed in his chair, helpless as a worm pinned to a dissection board. They all wanted to see him defeated at something. But he would never give them that sort of satisfaction.
Clutching his chest, Firkin stood up from his chair, pulled his corduroy coat over his shoulders, and exited the English faculty’s building by the quickest possible route. Once outside, he drew a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one. The smoke encouraged him to breathe deeply. He tried to focus on the sound of the wind rustling through the municipal maples decorating the sidewalk.
Yes, he thought. The party could be good.

The squelching and squeaking of wet rubber soles echoed through the linoleum hallway. Not a single patient or staff member lay in sight. Anna had just come in from the rain, and the evaporating moisture was igniting her scalp with a maddening itch. She tried to ignore the sensation, but not a minute passed before she started clawing at her irritated skin. Flakes of dandruff leapt from her digging nails and vanished into the shoulders of her white lab coat. When the itch had finally abated, she glanced over her shoulder, fixed her hair, and ducked into one of the hallway’s many rooms. 
“Hi there. How are things today?”
Adam Renfrew grimaced as she entered. His face glowed beet-red and looked swollen – a very strange turn from the ashy pallor he’d shown just a day earlier. Anna suspected a fever, and quickly confirmed with her thermometer that Adam’s temperature had run to 104 degrees. 
“Would I ever love to stick my head out there right now,” Adam said, inclining his head toward the rain pattering against his window.
“Okay,” Anna said. “I’m going to set you up for a few more tests, and we’re really going to get to the bottom of this, okay Adam?”
 “You mean you haven’t really tried up ‘til now?” Adam gave a half-choked laugh. It was the first time he’d laughed in front of her. The sound was deeper than his young voice seemed capable of.
“I was just being positive,” Anna answered. “A good attitude does more for your health than you might realize.”
Adam waved a hand at her and let his eyes fall to his lap. “Yeah, I was just messin’ with you, Babe. I know what you mean.”
 Her mouth tightened into a frown. “Babe?” she demanded. “Please Adam, how about we stick to Doctor Mercer?”
Adam stared at his feet and wiggled his toes beneath the bed sheet. “Seriously, though,” he said, “D’you got any clue what’s wrong with me?”
“We’ve narrowed it down to a few things.”
He lifted his gaze back toward the window, where drops of rain clung to the pane and dribbled downward, zigzagging toward the bottom like rival skiers. The grey sky beyond glowed with a leaden intensity that stung the eyes. “You know,” he finally said. “I think you’re the only person who comes in and out of this room, Anna.”
            “Hasn’t your nurse been by?”
            “Yeah, but she just gives me my food and stuff. I think she’s a little afraid to come near the bed, since none of you know what’s wrong with me.”
            Anna glanced down at her clipboard. She had little more to say, but didn’t feel right leaving so quickly. There was something particularly disquieting about Adam today: a devilishness that animated his laugh, and which now seemed to be twisting his mouth into an unnerving grin.
She laid her hand on the bed’s guardrail. Adam met her eyes as she peered down at him. “Do you really have no one we can inform about where you are? Not even a friend?”
            Adam’s grin flickered. But like a rebounding flame, the thing swiftly returned and engulfed his entire mouth. His lips curled backward, baring his teeth. Farther up his face, his pupils glowed like two searing black coals. “Tell you what,” he suddenly answered. “I’ll call my people when you tell me what’s wrong with me.”
            “So you do have people in your life,” Anna said, striving to keep a steady voice. “Why won’t you let us contact them? Are you afraid of something?”
Adam turned his head from her again, though his burning eyes lingered on her face for a few extra seconds. Massive pearls of sweat rolled down his forehead and dripped from his nose.
“I’m going to double-check your temperature,” Anna said. She bent over the bed and reinserted her thermometer into his mouth, making sure to watch his eyes, which were turned toward the window. When two minutes had elapsed, she pulled out the thermometer and checked it, finding that his temperature had risen even higher to 105. When she glanced up from the thermometer, she found Adam glaring at her. She recoiled, but he caught her by the wrist and held her with an unnatural strength. The veins distending up his forearm looked as though they could leap from his body.
“You know what?” Adam hissed, “I find it really weird that you don’t know what’s wrong with me. How long have I been in here, anyway?”
            His hot breath stung her face. Nonetheless, Anna met him with a glare of her own. “Let go of me,” she ordered.
            Adam held fast and peered into her eyes. As the two of them remained in this embrace, Anna sensed she was no longer looking at the same Adam Renfrew she’d committed to the hospital a week earlier. She reached forward and pinched the hand that was holding her, but its grip only tightened around her wrist. “Let go of me now,” she ordered again.
            “You know what would bring the fever down? A little kiss, Honey. Maybe a little…”
“Adam!” Anna drove her nails into his hand until they punctured the skin. When blood flowed from the hand, Adam relaxed his grip. His smile disappeared and his eyes fell half shut. In the half-second before she tore herself from his grasp, Anna could feel his temperature plummet.
            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I did that.”
            Anna rubbed her wrist and cast him an unforgiving glance. “This is a pretty drastic shift in behavior, Adam. I’m going to have to call in a psychologist.”
            His eyes popped open again. “You mean I’m going nuts?! How can you tell when you don’t even know what’s making me bleed black stuff out of my face?”
            “The two things might be unrelated. And in any case, we’ve got to try and look at what’s happening to you from every possible angle.”
            Adam lifted his head from his pillow and threw it back down – hard – several times. “Why don’t we know already?! I thought you docs were supposed to have all this stuff figured out.”
“We’re narrowing it down, Adam. We really are.”
            “The folks in charge are going to come get me soon. So you’d better hurry.”
            At the mention of the “folks in charge,” Anna stepped forward again. “Adam,” she said. “Your fever might be making you delusional. Can you tell me if you see any colored threads or popping lights right now?” She noticed at this same moment that Adam’s hand was bleeding far too much for such a small cut. She turned to retrieve a bandage from the metal cabinet behind her.