From Days by Moonlight. Published by Coach House Books in 2019.

The Rebarbative Moose was done up in the faux-English or faux-Irish style of pubs across the province. The bar was stained wood, as were the bar stools and most of the tables. Behind the bar, there was a picture of Prince Charles and his consort, Camilla. Beside the picture was a clock that looked like an owl with its eyes wide open. The pub’s name was meant to suggest England. At least, it sounded English to its owner, a Flemish immigrant who was convinced the word rebarbative was Shakespearean.

We — Mr. Henderson, Professor Bruno, and I — sat at a table near the centre of the Moose. All around us, men and women drank a local cider known as ‘amber mole’ — so named because, according to the waitress, ‘if you drink too much of it, you won’t care what hole you’re in.’ Her words brought cheers from the tables around us. Mr. Henderson paid for our pints. But when the cider came, Professor Bruno pushed his glass toward me.

— I’m sorry, he said, but I’m not allowed alcohol. My kidneys are giving me trouble. Alfie’s young. He’ll be happy to drink mine.

He smiled at me, and, in that moment, I understood that it wasn’t the alcohol that troubled him but, rather, the cider itself. The professor had evidently tasted it before. And after my first mouthful I understood why he didn’t want to repeat the experience. The cider tasted as if apple juice had been strained through dirty socks.

— How do you like it? Mr. Henderson asked.

— That’s hard to say, I answered.

— Well, drink up, he said. I can’t stand drinking alone. It reminds me of my ex-wife.

I couldn’t decide how to drink the cider. The faster I drank, the faster I’d get over the unpleasantness. But when I drink quickly, I tend to get drunk, which makes it harder to turn down more. The thing is, I didn’t want to get drunk, because the Moose had an unpleasant atmosphere. It felt as if all the pub’s patrons were aware of our presence and weren’t happy about it. I drank slowly, though this meant, with every sip, I was haunted by the thought of someone rubbing their socks in my face.

As it turned out, our presence was irritating to the Moose’s patrons. Professor Bruno resembled a person who was disliked in Coulson’s Hill: Bob Grenville, a man from Nobleton who’d seduced and impregnated a number of young women in the town. The seduction and impregnation were not what people held against him. What they couldn’t forgive was that Grenville had, in a drunken rage, burned down the town’s post office — a nineteenth-century wooden manse that had been lovingly preserved — because he resented that the constant demands for child support he received inevitably bore the stamp of the Coulson’s Hill post office.

Still, all went more or less well until, after drinking a few pints of cider, Mr. Henderson went off to the washroom. As soon as he’d gone, a man approached our table.

— The hell you doing here? he asked.

The pub was quiet.

The man, who wore a red baseball cap that said Massey Ferguson, swore at the professor.

— You piece-a-shit building burner, he said. Go back to Nobleton.

— I’m from around Nobleton, said Professor Bruno, but I’ve never burned anything.

— Shut up, said Massey Ferguson, nobody’s asking you. We know what you did.

— I think you’ve got the wrong person, I said. This is Professor Bruno from the University of Toronto.

— Oh, said Massey Ferguson, that changes everything. He’s from Toronto!

Mr. Ferguson, tall and muscular, lunged at Professor Bruno and tried to pull him up by the lapels. I got up at once, reached behind me for my chair, and tried to bring it down on Mr. Ferguson’s back. I’d never been in a bar fight. My reaction, desperate and almost instinctive, was inspired by movies I’d seen, movies in which chairs shatter on people’s backs. In the movies, it’s fluidly and easily done. So, one can imagine how astonished I was when I realized I hadn’t grabbed a chair, as I’d meant to, but, rather, a large and very unhappy owl.

It’s understating it to say I found this moment astonishing.

A number of things had to happen for me to grasp the bird. To begin with: when we came into the Moose, I mistook the owl at the bar for a clock. It was, in fact, a real owl perched beside a clock. My misapprehension had been a trick of the mind. But then, it’s so unusual to find birds indoors, my first thought would naturally have been that the thing was a statue or a stuffed specimen. As a result, I was not on the lookout for an owl.

Then, while reaching for the back of my chair, I somehow managed to grasp the bird without looking at it.

Moreover, I caught the bird’s legs at the exact moment it had extended them in order to land on the back of my chair!

The bird was almost certainly at ease with human beings, being the pub’s mascot. But I think it must have been as stunned as I was by the turn of events. It began to screech as soon as I caught it and flapped its wings about wildly. Incongruously, in the midst of its screeching and struggle, the expression on the owl’s face was not of panic but quizzical dismay: eyes wide open, furiously blinking, as if it were trying to understand what I was doing.

I froze for a moment, holding the owl away from me as if it were a child having a temper tantrum. Then I let go and the owl flew up, its green siftings falling as it flew back to its place at the bar: near the picture of Charles and Camilla, beside the clock. There it preened, ruffling and unruffling its feathers, as if trying to recover its dignity.

You’d have thought the Moose’s patrons would be offended and angry, having seen their mascot manhandled by a stranger. And, for a moment, they did seem to collectively consider how to react. The place was so quiet that the only words I heard were those sung by Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian Railroad Trilogy playing for an nth time on an old jukebox.

Massey Ferguson still had a grip on the professor’s lapel with one hand. His other hand had been raised to fend off the owl. But then Mr. Henderson returned from the washroom and the atmosphere changed again. Mr. Henderson struck the young man’s head, as if slapping salmon from a stream. And, hands now up to protect his hat, Massey Ferguson meekly apologized: to Mr. Henderson, to Professor Bruno, to me, to everyone in the Moose.

Mr. Henderson glared at the man but let him walk away.

— Knob Grenville died last year! someone shouted.

And all around us there was mumbling, the sound like a pack of feral mothers soothing a child. Without any of us asking for them, several pints of cider came to our table, and the Moose’s mood was once again light, the main topic of conversation being, once again, the moral superiority of Coulson’s Hill over Nobleton.

Feeling obliged to drink the cider that had been bought for us, I was soon light-headed. One of the last things I remember clearly was a friend of Mr. Henderson’s telling us about the origins of Coulson’s Hill. The man told us the same story I’d heard. But he added a detail. Though the town’s founder, George Coulson, had refused to excavate the last bit of ground on his property, George’s son, Edward, had dug up the hill as soon as his father died. So, it was Edward Coulson who discovered a seam of gold that brought him great wealth. In fact, the seam ran deep, through all the property of present-day Coulson’s Hill. Though they wore baseball caps and dressed like unsuccessful farmers, everyone with property in Coulson’s Hill was, according to Mr. Henderson’s friend, immensely wealthy.

— I thought, said Professor Bruno, that the hill had been dug up and there was nothing there.

— You’re from Nobleton, aren’t you? asked Mr. Henderson’s friend.

— Near there, said Professor Bruno.

— Well, there you go, said Mr. Henderson’s friend.

After a bit more banter, Mr. Henderson and Professor Bruno finally began to talk about the subject they’d met to speak of: John Skennen. I heard fragments of their conversation, but by then I’d drunk too much and the last thing I remember before passing out was Professor Bruno admitting that, in the end, the place he’d come from, this dull patch of Ontario, was more mysterious and threatening than he’d remembered.

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André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His work has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2017 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads (Fifteen Dogs), and been shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award (The Hidden Keys). In 2017 he received a Windham-Campbell Prize for his body of work.



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