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BloodLines: "Dust" by Linda Spalding

We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards.

In Linda Spalding's BloodLines piece, a boy ponders a bloody act of revenge in a time of drought.

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“Dust” by Linda Spalding

The boy stands at the heavy door, making himself tall. There is a pane of glass that the old man will peer through to see who’s come. 

“Come in, boy. What’s on your mind? Come for my China tea?” 

The boy’s mind is on his father, who sits in a chair all day by the farmhouse window. 

“Or did you want to learn about the cupboard of curiosities?” 

The boy nods politely. A patient listener is sometimes rewarded with a thick piece of butter cake along with the China tea. “I always like seeing the weapons, sir.” Standing still on the Persian rug, he watches the old man, who was once a professor in a university, limp across the room, open a cupboard and pull out a small black rock. Maybe this story will be quick. Maybe he’ll answer all the questions put to him and then go home to his own front yard and lean into the rigging of his own oak tree. With all his concentration he can sail it across the dried-up fields, past the shut-up school and the locked-up courthouse and on into the far away. After a fat piece of butter cake.

“Pure lava!” the old man explains, rubbing the ugly rock. “From an active volcano out on the island of Hawaii. I told you about Madame Pele, the goddess who is said to protect that place? Well, the natives, being quite superstitious, believe that if you steal a rock from her, she’ll take her revenge, demand a sacrifice or put your land to the fiery torch.”

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The boy thinks of his father staring out at his blistered fields. As if maybe he’s hoping for a hawk. A storm. A cloud in the dirty sky. When the lakes still shimmered and the fields were green and they didn’t have dust in their clothes and hair, his father would get up and fix him something to eat in the morning. Eggs. Toast. Milk in a see-through glass. 

The professor places the lava back on its shelf as if relieved of a thing too hot to hold. “Look here at this, now,” he picks up a short wooden dagger. “More to your liking, isn’t it? The great Captain Cook described this weapon as unique because… look how it kills both ways.” He showed the boy the pointed ends. “Imagine. Killing with this! Blood everywhere!” 

The boy, who is thirteen years old, reaches out for the dagger, wondering how much blood it has spilled and whether it was spilled for good or evil. Or whether, as the old man claims, there is no such thing: only greed and revenge and sacrifice. 

“You want to take it back over there for me?” The professor gestures at the dusty window. “And relieve us of Madame Pele’s filthy tricks.” The rock sits mute on its shelf. “A little thing like me bringing home this chunk….” He laughs in his selfish old man way. “So what do you think? Is the rock more potent than the dagger?”

This is the question he must answer to earn his piece of cake. But what does potent mean? Then he remembers. “Of course not.” Then he wonders. “Is it? Sir?”

"Well if it is, how do I give it back?” The professor limps to a rocking chair, disheartened. “I need to sit. Mention of that fiery dame gave me a start. I must be growing senile.”

The dark windows are sealed tight and it is cooler in here than it is outside, but the boy’s eyes begin to sting and his palms begin to itch and he’s thirsty enough to beg for that cup of tea. Except the professor would consider it impolite. “Is it?” he asks again in a wondering voice as he wipes one hand on the front of his shirt and holds the shaft of the dagger in his other fist. He closes his eyes and imagines the weapon piercing the old man’s chest. How hard will he have to push? Blood everywhere. Even the Persian carpet and the nice rocking chair. Right at the old man’s ragged heart. The fiery dame will have her sacrifice. 

* * *

Linda Spalding's most recent book is The Purchase, which is a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Award and the 2012 Rogers Writers' Trust Prize. She is the author of three previous novels, Daughters of Captain Cook, The Paper Wife, and Mere, which she wrote with her screenwriter daughter, Esta. Her nonfiction work, The Follow, was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award and the Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Spalding is an editor of Brick, A Journal of Reviews and has been awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the Canadian literary community. 

Photo credit: Michael Ondaatje


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set count down final date: 11/01/2014
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