Read an excerpt from Giller Prize finalist Here the Dark by David Bergen
The $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature. The winner will be announced on Monday, Nov. 9.
In Here the Dark, Bergen delivers short stories that interweave across space, exploring faith, loss and complex moral ambiguities. From Danang, Vietnam, to Honduras and the Canadian Prairies, the book collects narratives about place and heart.
Read an excerpt from Here the Dark below.
The deacons were most fearful of books, specifically fiction, and if they had asked Lily, she would have agreed, for novels set forth her imagination and took her to places she had never experienced, and they offered characters and descriptions of characters, but of course it was Lily who painted the final image of those characters. The possibilities were endless. Lily twisted the words and gave them new meaning and she twisted the descriptions of characters and she embellished their lives and the meaning that might be made of those lives. For example, she read that the young man who kills the old woman with the axe was "well-built with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair." But in her mind he was small and blond and dirty and not good-looking. He was Russian, and if he was Russian he must be blond, for her own descendants were Russian and blond, and her own descendants were stocky and they had rough faces and odd physical deformities. Like Frantz Gerbrandt, Johan's older brother, who was ugly, and who was, according to legend, wild and untamable. And so she created images that weren't at all faithful to the intent of the author. Did that matter? Not at all.
One day, in early fall, Marcie gave her a novel and told her that it was crazy and weird. She said there was a lot of sex in it, and she smiled.
Lily didn't mind sex, but she thought that too much was made of it, and she thought that the word itself was vulgar. She preferred "having love," or "intercourse," which was like a conversation. She had liked the Russian story best of all, and this was because there had been spiritual love rather than sex. She didn't say any of this to Marcie. She took the novel home and she read it through the night. She finished as the morning light was opening up the sky. She heard her father downstairs. She heard her mother's voice. She got up. She had in her mind now images of children drowning, and women sucking on penises, and men wearing dresses. The world of the book had been so foreign, so opposite, that she had been absolutely repelled by it and at the same time absolutely drawn to it. That morning, she left the book on the floor beside her bed.
The world of the book had been so foreign, so opposite, that she had been absolutely repelled by it and at the same time absolutely drawn to it.
All that day she made jam with her mother. They picked strawberries and they hulled and washed the berries and then Lily crushed the berries by hand and boiled them with sugar and pectin and poured them into sealer jars and poured hot wax over the jam in order to seal the jars, and then they screwed on the lids and wiped the sticky jars with a hot soapy cloth and dried them, and set the jars in rows on the kitchen counter. Late afternoon, she came in with fresh baskets of strawberries and on the dining-room table she saw the book. It was lying face down on the oilcloth. Her heart went wild and she paused and then, uncertain of what would happen next, she entered the kitchen. Her mother was skimming the foam from a fresh batch of jam. Spooning it into a white bowl. Lily carried on. Her mother said nothing. At supper, the book had disappeared. And still, nothing was said. She washed the dishes after supper, and then took her baby sister, Karen, out into the yard. Karen was three, a miracle baby she was called, and everything that could be done for her was done with awe and love. It was still hot and so Lily sat in the shade on an old wooden chair and she watched Karen toddle circles around her, her brown fat ankles sticking out from her dress. Lily has sewn the dress for Karen earlier that summer, from leftover cloth that Lily had used for one of her own dresses. The colours were a pale yellow and off-white and there were pastel bouquets of flowers in the pattern.
Lily's mind was scattered. She suspected that her father would open the book and study it. Her mother, she knew, would not touch it, and for this she was glad. Her mother was the harsher of the parents, more worried about the impressions of others, concerned about gossip and finger-pointing. Her father was more forgiving, in a rueful manner, but she also knew that her father couldn't overlook this trespass.
Dusk came. She gathered up Karen and carried her inside and boiled water for a bath. She poured hot water into the metal tub that sat on the kitchen floor. She added cold water and tested it with her wrist. Then she undressed Karen and sat her down in the tub. She scrubbed her back and soaped her little feet. Karen giggled and pulled away. She washed Karen's face and behind her ears. Karen fought. Lily persisted. Normally she would have made a game of this, the washing, the bath, the scrubbing, but on this evening she had no desire. When she had finished the bathing, she scooped Karen into a large blue towel and dried her. Carried her up to her bedroom and set her down and let her run naked around the room. It was too hot for pajamas. She considered the nakedness of childhood and she thought about the nakedness of adults, and she wished that she was once again a child. She tucked Karen into bed. They prayed together, Karen kneeling on the bed, Lily kneeling beside the bed. In the evening, in the night, holy Jesus keep us light. If we pass before we wake, we pray thee please our souls to take. When they were finished praying, she kissed Karen on the forehead and said goodnight.
Her parents were sitting at the dining-room table when she came down the stairs. Her Uncle Hans was there as well. The book was face up on the table. Lily paused in the doorway. Her father told her to sit with them. She did so. Her father pointed at the book and said, "What is this?"
"It is not mine," she said.
"Where did you get it?"
She did not answer.
Her mother sighed.
Her father picked up the book and opened it and read. The passage he had chosen was sexual and frank. Lily wondered how he had found that passage. Had it just opened to that page? When he finally halted, he placed the book on the table and he said, "How can this be edifying?"
Lily shrugged. She had no answer, or no answer that would have satisfied him.
"Have there been other books?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Are you lying?" he asked.
She shook her head.
And then she realized that her mother was not referring to the book, but to her, Lily. She was filth.
And then Uncle Hans spoke. His voice was softer than her father's and he said her name, "Lily," and then he said that ideas and images from the outside were forever dangerous, because those ideas worked from the outside to the inside and then back to the outside so that what were our thoughts now became our actions. "These are thoughts that seep into your soul," he said. "And it is impossible to remove them. They are like ink stains. They sit inside you and cannot be scrubbed away." He said that he would go outside and he would build a fire, and he wanted Lily to come out with the book, and together they would burn it.
"It's not mine to burn," she said.
She didn't answer.
Her father and her uncle rose and left the room and this left her with her mother, whose face was hard. "Filth," her mother said.
Was this true? Lily did not know. She wondered how it was possible to enjoy reading filth. For she had. And she hadn't. And then she realized that her mother was not referring to the book, but to her, Lily. She was filth.
In time, Lily stood and picked up the book and walked outside. The sun was setting. The light was soft and the sky was grey blue and the clouds were few.
The fire was burning in a half-barrel close to the barn. She approached her uncle, who stood alone and who gestured at the fire. Lily stepped forward and dropped the book into the flames. It did not burn immediately, for it was tightly bound, and even when it did begin to burn, the interior pages remained untouched, and so her uncle took up an iron rod and prodded at the book and he opened it so that the fire might attack all of it. During that time no words were spoken. There was just the action of her uncle spearing at the pages, and turning them, and offering them to the fire. Then it was finished, and only ashes remained. Her uncle turned and walked back to the house. Lily remained. She closed her eyes and when she opened them she looked for a sign that might perhaps arrive in the physical world around her.
And here the clouds like many dark sheep gone astray, and here the orange sun burning the world, and here the hare that hides from the circling hawk, and here the stretched singing of water-logged frogs, and here the light, and here the dark.
This excerpt is taken from Here the Dark, copyright © 2020 by David Bergen. Reproduced with permission from Biblioasis and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.