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On the eve of his mother's funeral, Stephen, a middle-aged priest, sits down to write her eulogy. But as the evening creeps into night, he is haunted by memories from his childhood: birthday trips to the cuts with his father; the moment his sister slipped under the thick winter ice forever; and the memorable day his grandfather, Jeannot, came home after a thirty-year absence with a bundle of bones in his pocket and a mission to raise the dead. Masterfully weaving the stories from three generations of one family, Touch tells the founding tale of Sawgamet - originally a gold-mining village - where deep in the forest reign golden caribou drinking from a honey-sweet river. Yet also in the forest lurk malevolent shapeshifters disguising themselves as friends, storms raging against foolhardy settlers, and the forest taking back the land for itself, branch by branch and root by root. Touch is a singular, startling debut as enchanting as it is unnerving. In this darkly sinister fairy tale Alexi Zentner builds a magical world as distinctive as a grown-up Narnia, and marks himself out as a real talent to watch.
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Alexi Zentner was born in Ontario, Canada, and currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two daughters. He has had short stories published in various American magazines and anthologies, including The 2008 O. Henry Prize Stories, The Atlantic Monthly and Tin House. Touch is his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of headless trees jamming the river as far as I and the other children could see. My father, the foreman, stood at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on. “That’s money in the water, boys,” he yelled, “push on, push on.” I was ten that summer, and I remember him as a giant.
Despite his bad hand, my father could still man one end of a long saw. He kept his end humming through the wood as quickly as most men with two hands. But a logger with a useless hand could not pole on the river. When the men floated the trees my father watched from the middle of the jam, where the trees were smashed safely together, staying away from the bobbing, breaking destruction of wood and weight at the edges.
The fl oat took days to reach Havershand, he said. There was little sleep and constant wariness. Watch your feet, boys. The spinning logs can crush you. The cold-water deeps beneath the logs always beckoned. Men pitched tents at the center of the jam, where logs were pushed so tightly together that they made solid ground, terra firma, a place to sleep for a few hours, eat hard biscuits, and drink a cup of tea. Once they reached Havershand, the logs continued on by train without my father: either south for railway ties or two thousand miles east to Toronto, and then on freighters to Boston or New York, where the towering trees became beams and braces in strangers’ cities.
I remember my father as a giant, even though my mother reminded me that he was not so tall that he had to duck his head to cross the threshold of our house, the small foreman’s cottage with the covered porch that stood behind the mill. I know from the stories my father told me when I was a child that he imagined his own father—my grandfather, Jeannot— the same way, as a giant. He never met my grandfather, so he had to rely on the stories he heard from my great-aunt Rebecca and great-uncle Franklin—who raised him as their own after Jeannot left Sawgamet—and from the other men and women who had known my grandfather. My father retold these same stories to me.
I had my own idea of Jeannot well before I met him, before my grandfather returned to Sawgamet. And meeting him, hearing Jeannot tell the stories himself, did not make it any easier for me to separate the myths from the reality. I’ve told some of these same stories to my daughters: sometimes the true versions that Jeannot told me, sometimes the pieces of stories that made their way to me through other men and women and through my father, and sometimes just what I think or wished had happened. But even when I tell my daughters stories about my own father, it is hard for me to tell how much has changed in the retelling.
It is more than thirty years past the summer I was ten— my oldest daughter has just turned ten herself—and I would like to think that my daughters see me the same way I saw my father, but it is hard to imagine that they do; my father worked in the cuts taking down trees, and he ran the water when he was younger, poling logs out of eddies and currents and breaking jams for the thirty miles from Sawgamet to Havershand. I, on the other hand, have returned to Sawgamet as an Anglican priest, coming home to live in the shadows of my father and my grandfather in a logging town that has been drained of young men headed off to fight in Europe for the second war of my lifetime.
So many years I’ve been gone. I left at sixteen to Edmonton and the seminary, and then went across the Atlantic, a chaplain for the war. I came back in June of 1919, getting off the ship the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed. My mother would have liked me home, but with Father Earl, Sawgamet did not need a second Anglican priest. I ended up in Vancouver, with a new church and a new wife of my own. I’ve come back to Sawgamet to visit—infrequent though that has been—but now I have returned, at Father Earl’s request, to take over the Anglican church from him. He asked me to come even before it was clear my mother was dying, but still, I almost arrived too late. Soon enough—tonight, tomorrow—my mother will be dead and I’ll have to write the eulogy for the funeral.
I’ve had enough experience with telling others the tired homily that God works in mysterious ways, to know that there is no making sense of the workings of God. Though, if I were to be honest, I would admit that I think of my father and grandfather as gods themselves. I do not mean gods in a religious sense, but rather like the gods that the natives believe preceded us in these northern forests. In that way, my father and my grandfather were gods: they tamed the forests and brought civilization to Sawgamet, and in the stories passed down to me, it is impossible to determine what is myth and what is the truth.
There were only the last few weeks of sitting at my mother’s side, knowing she was preparing to die, and trying to sort out the truths from the myths. I talked with her and asked her questions when she was awake, held her hand when she was asleep. And yet, no matter how many times my thoughts returned to the winter I was ten, no matter how many questions I asked my mother as she lay dying, no matter how many stories I have heard about my father and grandfather, there are still so many things I will never know.
For instance, I never knew how my father felt about his mangled hand, and as a child I was afraid to ask. He did not talk about the dangers; the river was swift and final, but it was out in the cuts, among the trees, when each day unfolded like the last—the smooth, worn handles of the saw singing back and forth—that men’s minds wandered. Men I knew had been killed by falling trees, had bled to death when a dull ax bounced off a log and into their leg, had been crushed when logs rolled off carts, had drowned in the river during a fl oat. Every year a man came back dead or maimed.
When I was not quite eight, on the day of my sister Marie’s fifth birthday, I had asked my mother about my father’s hand. That was as close as I was ever able to come to asking my father.
“I was thankful,” she said. We sat on the slope by the log chute, looking out over the river, waving uselessly at the blackflies. My father had taken Marie into the woods, the preserve of men, a present for her birthday.
“You were thankful?”
“It was only his hand,” my mother said, and she was right.
That summer morning, Marie had carried her own lunch into the cuts, all bundled together and tied in a handkerchief: two slices of blueberry bread; a few boiled potatoes, early and stunted; a small hunk of roast meat. My father let her carry his ax, still sharp and gleaming though he had not swung it since his accident, and as they walked away from the house, I argued that my father should take me as well, that other boys helped their fathers on Saturdays and during the summers. I was old enough to strip branches, to help work the horses, to earn my keep.
“You’ve been enough,” my mother said, though she knew that I had been only twice, on my birthdays. “It’s too dangerous out there.” I knew she was thinking of the way the log had rolled onto my father’s hand, crushing it so tightly it did not begin to bleed until the men had cut him free. I must have made a face, because she softened. “You’ll go again next month, on your birthday.”
They returned late that night, the summer sun barely drowned, Marie still bearing the ax and crying quietly, walking with a stiff limp, spots of blood showing on her socks where her blisters had rubbed raw, my father keeping a slow pace beside her. My mother stepped off the porch toward Marie, but my sister moved past her, climbing up the three steps and through the door. My father shook his head.
“She wouldn’t let me carry her.”
“Or the ax?”
He kissed my mother and then shook his head again. “It’s a hard day for a child. She’ll go again next year, if she wants.” My mother nodded and headed inside to see to Marie’s blisters, to give her dinner, to offer her a slice of pie.
The next week, Charles Rondeau, bucking a tree, did not hear the yells from the men, and Mr. Rondeau had to carry his son, Charles, bloodied and dead from the bush. Charles was only a few years older than I was then, and a month later, when I turned eight, my mother gave me a new Sunday suit, hot and itchy, and my father went to the cuts without me. despite Charles Rondeau’s death, the season that I turned eight was a good one, the cold holding back longer than usual. My father kept the men cutting late into October. There had not even been a frost yet when they started sending logs down the chute from the mill into the river.
When the last log was in the water, my father waved to us from the middle of the jam, and Marie and I ran along the banks with the other children for a mile or two, shouting at the men. My father, like every man that year, came back from Havershand laughing. They all had their coats off, their long, sharp peaveys resting on their shoulders, and small gifts for their wives and children tucked under their arms. Even the winter that year was easy, and when the river did finally freeze up in December, the latest the ice had ever been, Marie and I had our first new skates. There was still tissue paper in the box. Christmas had come early.
Even though we wanted to be with my father in the cuts during the summers, the winters were better, because at least then we had him to ourselves. School days, he took to the mill, filing blades, checking the books, helping the assistant foreman, Pearl, tend to the horses, but he was home when we were, sitting at the stove at night, listening with us as my mother, a former schoolteacher at the Sawgamet schoolhouse, read from her books. He carved small wooden toys for Marie—a rough horse, a whistle—using his destroyed hand to pin the block of wood to the table. Mostly, though, he told us stories.
I know that out in the cuts he was a different man. He had to be. He kept the men’s respect and, in turn, they kept the saw blades humming through green wood. While their axes cut smiles into pines and stripped branches from fallen trees, while they wrapped chains around the logs, my father moved through the woods, yelling, talking, making them laugh, taking the end of a saw when it was needed. He pushed them hard, and when they pushed back, he came home with bruises, an eye swollen shut, scabs on his knuckles. He made them listen.
At home, he was gentle. At night, he told us stories about his father, how Jeannot found gold and settled Sawgamet, and then the long winter that followed the bust. He told us about the qallupilluit and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loupgarou and the blood-drinking adlet, about all of the monsters and witches of the woods. He told us about the other kinds of magic that he stumbled across in the cuts, how the sawdust grew wings and flew down men’s shirts like mosquitoes, how one tree picked itself up and walked away from the sharp teeth of the saw. He told us about splitting open a log to find a fairy kingdom, about clearing an entire forest with one swing of his ax, about the family of trees he had found twisted together, pushing toward the sky, braided in love.
Our favorite story, however, the story that we always asked him to retell, was about the year he finally convinced our mother to marry him. The last time I remember him telling the story was the spring before I turned ten.
“Every man had been thrown but me and Pearl Gasseur,” he said.
“Old Pearl?” Marie giggled, thinking of Pearl as I thought of him, riding the middle of the fl oat with his close gray hair bristling crazily from his scalp, yellowed long underwear peeking from the cuffs of his shirt.
My father had told the story so many times that Marie probably could have recounted it word for word by then, but like me, like our mother, she still laughed and clapped.
“Old Pearl? Old Pearl?” my father roared, his teeth flashing. “Old Pearl wasn’t always old,” he yelled happily. “Old Pearl could sink any man and would laugh at you while he spun the log out from under your feet.”
“And Mrs. Gasseur was happy to tell you about it,” my mother said. “She was happy as winter berries watching him dunk the boys.” My mother smiled at this. She always smiled. Logrolling in Sawgamet was a tradition. Every year the entire town came down to the river the day before the fl oat. They carried blankets and baskets full with chicken, roasted onions and potatoes, bread, blueberry pies, strawberry wine. My father—and before him Foreman Martin—would roll out a few barrels of beer, and the men took to the water. They spun logs, a man on either end, turning the wood with their feet, faster and faster, stopping and spinning the other way, until one, or sometimes both, pitched into the cold water to raucous cheers from the banks.
“Pearl won ever since I could remember,” my father said.
“He’d never been unseated, but I had to win.” He slapped the worn pine table with his mangled hand and winked at my mother. “Oh, your mother was a clever one.” He stood up from the table and hooked his arm around her waist, pulling her close to him and looking over her shoulder at Marie and me. “She still is.”
He kissed her then, and it surprised me to see my mother’s cheeks redden. Before she pushed him away, she whispered something into his ear and he reddened as well, pausing a moment to watch her take the plates from the table.
“Papa,” Marie said, demanding more.
“Oh, but you know all this already. She married me,” he said, turning back to us and waving his hand, “and here you are.” “Papa,” Marie said again, shaking her finger at him like our schoolmarm.
“Tell it right,” I said.
He smiled and leaned over the top of his chair. “She wouldn’t marry me.”
“But Mama,” Marie asked, “why didn’t you love Papa?”
My father stopped and looked at my mother. This was not part of the story. “Why didn’t you love me?” he said.
“You asked every girl in Sawgamet to marry you,” my mother answered.
“But I only asked them once,” he said, turning back to Marie. “Your mother I asked every day. All of the men had asked her to marry them, even some of the ones who were already married, but I kept asking. Every day for three years I called on her at the boardinghouse, and every day I asked her to marry me.”
“And she always said no.” Marie reached out and cupped the withered fingers of my father’s bad hand in her two hands. He sat down next to her. “Mama,” she asked again, “why didn’t you love Papa?”
“I always loved him, sweetheart,” she said, pouring hot water from the stove into the dish tub. She leaned in toward the steam, letting it wash across her face. “I just didn’t know it yet.”
“So I kept asking her to marry me, until one day she didn’t say no.”
“What did she say?” Marie could not stop herself.
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