EXCERPT: Away by Jane Urquhart

Each day this week, CBC Books will present an excerpt from one of the Canada Reads 2013 contenders. Today's passage is from the book representing Ontario: Away by Jane Urquhart. Biographer and historian Charlotte Gray will be defending Away during the debates in February. In the excerpt below, you'll discover how Mary, one of the women from the unusual family around which Away revolves, come to be "away" in the first place.


By Jane Urquhart

A hundred and forty years before and thousands of miles away, the girl Mary had been the first to witness the beginning of the miracle. Stumbling across the new stones whose texture made walking difficult, she had turned to face the ocean which had robbed her of her favourite boulders. She had been, in those early days, cursed with the gift of eloquence — a gift that would be taken from her forever one hour later. The sea responded to her rant by turning an odd shade of whitish green and swelling up as if it were about to reveal a hidden volcano, and Mary watched, stunned, as thousands of cabbages nudged one another towards the shore. Soon the vegetables completely covered the new stones while behind them the ocean was divided into bands of colour; darks and lights separated by ribbons of glitter. The glitter, it turned out, consisted of a large quantity of silver teapots, so perfectly designed against spillage that they proved very seaworthy as they bounced cheerfully towards the beach. The darker bands revealed themselves to be barrels of whiskey — enough barrels of whiskey to keep any who might want to be, drunk every Saturday night for decades. Flung across two of these barrels was, as Mary gradually perceived, a human form; its head thrown back, one half of its face hidden by a profusion of dark, wet curls. As the barrels that carried it approached the shore, Mary waded through fifty clanking teapots to meet it, and found an exhausted young man who, when she grabbed his shirt in her fists, opened two sea-green eyes and spoke the name Moira before falling once again into semi-consciousness.

Esther knows that at that moment her red-haired great-grandmother would not have wanted to go on living, or at least to go on living in the way she normally had. Time would have frozen, her childhood would have disappeared, and the present would have descended upon her like the claws of a carnivorous bird. "Landscape," Old Eileen had said to Esther, "shrank to a circle that could be measured by Mary's arms, and in that circle the only familiarity was her own brown skirt swaying in a sea that had transformed itself into an undulating carpet of precious metal and wrinkled leaves."

Mary heard the barrels creak as they touched and separated in the current. She heard the surf pant. But mostly she looked at the young man whose sodden shirt she held firmly in her hands — the dark curls pasted to his left cheek, the eyebrows like ferns, the lashes resting on the bones beneath his eyes. She absorbed, in these few moments, more knowledge of a man's body than she ever would again. One of his arms rested, palm upwards, in the water, the sleeve torn open at the spot where his elbow bent. She saw the fortune lines on his hand, the blue rivers of veins under the marble skin, the creases on the vulnerable places of wrist and inner elbow. She saw the Adam's apple and tendons of his exposed throat and the hollow between his collarbones just above his chest. By grasping his shirt she had revealed one of his nipples; the sun had dried the dark hairs around it so that they moved like grass in the breeze, as did the similar hairs that grew down from his belly towards the mystery that his trousers held. Fabric was glued by sea water to his legs and Mary could see the shape of the hard muscles of the thigh and the sharp slice of shinbone, and then the marble skin and blue veins of his bare feet. In the time that it took the sun to travel from one cloud to the next, Mary had learned so much of him that she would have been able to scratch the details of his features on a rock or mould an exact replica of him from clay. She recognized, immediately, that he came from an otherworld island, assumed that he had emerged from the water to look for her, and knew that her name had changed, in an instant, from Mary to Moira.

Excerpted from Away by Jane Urquhart. Copyright Jane Urquhart, 1993. Reprinted with permission of McClelland & Stewart.

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