“This astonishing new novel has already turned heads in many foreign countries.” -Globe & Mail (Toronto)

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PUBLICATION DATES

Canada: Exile Editions, April, 2010

UKNo Exit Press, August, 2010

Turkey: Dogan Kitapcilik, Fall, 2011

Italy: Leone Editore, Fall 2011

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A MAN REGAINS consciousness to find himself naked in a mass grave, with no idea who he is. His thought is survival, but in a religious war survival depends on knowing which side you are on.

Donning another man’s military uniform, he drives off and enters a nearby town to discover that the occupying soldiers have been waiting for someone very much like him.

Suddenly, he finds himself in power.

His first act is to save a woman about to be murdered by soldiers. The woman, as it turns out, has a history with the man, and knows more of him than he knows of himself, or does she actually have the right man?

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EXCERPT (opening chapter)

HE FOUND  himself awake in blackness, his eyes coming open uneasily, as though his lashes were webbed together.

His cheek appeared flattened. He inched his head sideways to relieve the pressure on his nose and lips. They felt engorged, swollen out of shape. He discovered that his tongue was extended, and worked it back into his mouth.

It was difficult to move his dry eyes, to move his body against the chilled, hard smoothness that pinned his legs, back, chest, stomach, groin…

His breathing was hoarse and amplified in the close space. It lingered to return to him; the invasive stench of refuse left out in the sun for months on end.

He tried lifting his head. It butted against something above him, knocking him back down. The movement intensified sensation in his panging ear.

The reek was now a stain in his lungs, urging him to action. Incited, he took notice of his arms, bent and stretching away from his shoulders. The realization that he was trapped tingled and fluttered through him.

Fright cut short his breath, surging toward panic, but his body, weak and stuck as it was, could not shift.

He struggled to nudge his left foot free, his toes were bare. His right foot, jammed at the ankle, would not budge.

He became aware of light– pale white, filtered vaguely green and pink– as he noticed that his left arm was bare, that his entire body must be naked.

Why naked?

Then came the drone of buzzing, as though from beyond a wall.

He tried moving his fingers on each hand. The fingers on his right hand were pinned between two cool, smooth surfaces.

As he stirred the fingers of his left hand, they felt something mossy, cold and dusty dry. He rubbed the material between his fingertips, warming the texture to memory. The strands separated, and curled around his finger. Hair.

As he struggled, twisting and pushing, straining his muscles, he felt hard edges intrude upon his body, attempting to tangle with him as they shifted woodenly to become displaced.

The light closed over in one space and opened in bits in another.  The drone of buzzing became louder.

He felt what must be a foot with his foot. Sole to sole. Frigid.

The muscles in his neck went taut as he turned his head to see a stopped living thing unto itself, an orb, trained on him with vacuous intent.

Then—as though bared by a shadowed hint of dawn– a face became apparent.

A woman with her breathless mouth open. Stalled.

It was then that he found the strength.

He thrust his left hand upward. It smacked against flesh, his fingernails digging in, then plucking out, his hand pawing around, finding an edge, his fingers searching to discover space, the shallow depth of a hole.

The severe meeting of shapes beneath his back was atrocious.

He turned on his side, and pushed with his right hand, his arm forced straight, trying to bend his elbow in the confines, inching through the indefinite outline of the mass above him.

He squirmed with his shoulder, and kicked down to find a place for his feet, working his way into the irregular wedge of a gap between what he now knew to be bodies.

The strain had brought on a sweat, and the warmth of his body smeared against cold flesh to all sides of him.

Again, he reached up with his left hand; his fingers– while fearing touch– frantically hunted for space, and found a small, dry hollow, crowned by rough edges. Teeth.

He drew back his fingers, his elbow striking something bone-hard behind skin.

He pushed with his right hand, his fingers slipping, contours of the bodies becoming plainer to him now, his mind anxious to deny what was being touched.

A shoulder? A buttock? A breast? A knee? An elbow? All inflexible.

He scrambled in fits and starts, his throat making sounds.

Noise mounted in his head.

He was almost vertical.

He shoved with held breath, squeezing through the unwilling weight of bodies, while labouring to raise his left hand higher, his fingers desperately skimming over each cold surface.

Out. Out. Out.

Where?

With his head turned upward on an awkward angle— allowed by the settling pressure of the bodies—his right eye saw light. An illumination of grey with moving black specks, as though wavering and sparkling darkly at once.

He feared that he might go mad, and raged against the weight on all sides of him.

Gasping a breath, he held it trapped, and pushed with his feet and knees, pressed with his arms, elbows, hips and back.

At once, he stopped.

He retched, the pressure in his nostrils blooming.

With his left arm stretched upward, fixed above his head, and the right bent at his side, he could not wipe his eyes.

His fingertips, searching around contours, soon found unencumbered space. Cool, open air.

He struggled until he felt that he had gained an adequate vertical position. His heels and toes pried into edges, seeking a depression to support each step of his climb.

He was slipping free of the bodies; sweat greased everything to all sides of him. Hair matted to his forehead. Right elbow squat close to his side, he worked to extend that arm, to reach like the other.

He did not stop struggling until both arms were above his head, and the top of his scalp felt fresh air.

It was easier now, with the bodies for support, to rise inches at a time.

Flies batted off his forehead, off his nose, lips and ears.

Again, he retched, this time on account of sensation. Water filled his eyes, so that he had to swipe away the blur.

The spasm of a dry heave struck with such violence that he feared it might tear open his throat.

Buckled forward, with his torso still buried, he was stuck.

The bodies now seemed set on holding him to them, on preventing him from breaking loose, as he braced his hands against the cruel geometry of hard flesh to pry himself out of the hole.

Struggling as though in concert with his struggling, the bodies clung on, then eventually, in giving increments, released their grip.

He found it an arduously uneven task to stand, yet did not want to crouch with his hands touching dead flesh.

His knees trembled. His calf muscles flinched spasmodically.

A living man atop a heap of skin and bones.

Dizzy to the point of tipping toward unconsciousness, he knew that he had to walk or faint away, yet could not find the strength to take a single step.

The bottoms of his feet were unbearably sensitive. Itchy.

Again, his stomach knotted with revulsion.

He rubbed the tears away with the back of his arm, his head hanging. Then he raised his eyes to glance around for signs of life.

Chest clutched by a sob, he cupped his hands over his mouth and nostrils.

A grey sky overhead.

Two sheds nearby, a wide smear of black leading from the closest shed to the pile of bodies.

His knees continued shivering where he stood. The knobby shapes beneath his feet made him shift for balance. He thought of leaping into the air, to get clear of the corpses, but then imagined coming down.

He could not convince himself to step across this surface. He was naked, the air cool on his skin. He was relieved, yet terrified.

Was he free of this horror or a living part of it?

Flies.

What was this horror?

He tried not to look down.

The drone was deafening as he shut his eyes, and took his first step.

He continued, carefully stepping in bare feet across dead bodies.

He tried spitting the flies away, weakly swatting at them, snorting them out of his nostrils.

He opened his eyes. Where to step? On a back? A stomach? He avoided the rigid faces, the hands, the feet. What not to offend?

That sound of buzzing like a million tiny engines powered by mere drops of blood.

He slipped on the hard incline of a leg and fell on his backside, thudded against a child’s head, which bobbed beneath him, his hand having grabbed for the safety of a woman’s face.

So many spaces to lose his fingers in.

His yelping was its own erratic scramble as he rolled down the side of the mound, banging his knees and elbows against offence after offence.

He hit the ground, and hurried off, stumbling over.

He collapsed, crawled, shot a look back, scurrying away with his fingers digging into earth while he sat.

The pile of bodies was fifteen feet high.

He was free, yet he was confounded and horrified.

The drone of flies distantly filled his ears. Not so loud now. Regardless, he spat and spat. If he breathed through his nose, the flies went in.

He hawked and spat, trying to clear his tongue of the flies already drowned in his saliva. If he opened his mouth, the flies entered, troubled the back of his throat.

He kept hawking and spitting

Swatting, he slid away another two metres. Then stopped.

Stopped dead still with his heart alight.

There was movement in the heap.

Another body coming to life?

A noise of encouragement in his throat.  He made a motion to stand, was on his feet, when he saw a long thin tail slink after the movement.

He stopped himself.

He faltered, plunked back down and frantically checked his toes and fingers. He felt at his ears for ragged pieces. Nothing seemed tattered.

When he regarded the pile, he noticed other movements, which, again, brightened his outlook.

The grey fur and the flick of a tail.

He had come out of the centre of it. He had escaped, yet he had no idea why the pile of bodies was there, why he had been in it. Had he been dead? Or simply left for dead?

He glanced over his shoulder. Two small buildings.

Free from the abomination, he had no idea where or who he was.

***

A BLACK TRAIL led back to the first shed; marks gouged in the dirt. Flies were clouded along the smear, settling and rising in restless swirls.

Inside the shed, the floor was tacky. The feeling made him want to curl his toes upward.

There were clothes on the ground, rags bundled toward the corners. A smell in his nostrils came to him from the clothes, the same smell as in the heap.

He wiped at his nose. But the stench would not be dispelled. He squeezed his nostrils shut, held them that way. He was hungry, yet he was dizzy and appalled.

Again, he retched, then made a shuddering sound with his lips.

Hung on a number of hooks in the wall were clothes of a cleaner variety: a black shirt and black trousers, a jacket with shimmering insignias on the sleeves.

He swayed for balance as he carefully pulled on the trousers and fastened the hasp. Drawing up the zipper, he noticed his thin fingers, their sickly whiteness, the tremble in them. There was no profit in taking more notice, yet he could not help but wonder if he might be ill.

A disorienting buzzing rose in his ear. He shut his eyes and braced one arm against the rough wall, until the upswelling passed.

He slowly fit his arms into the sleeves of the shirt, fastened the row of buttons, and pulled on the jacket.

Then he saw the wide leather belt with the holster. He lifted it down. It was heavy. He admired the weight of it, knew what it was made for, how to buckle it around his waist.

He was not shivering so much now. He felt almost calm, confident.

There was movement against his toe. He flinched back, turned his foot on an angle. A rat, sniffing at him.

He backed away, while the rat chewed at a shapeless clump stuck to the floor.

There were boots stood toward one of the walls. He put them on. They were half a size too big for him.

To his left, there was a door. A man’s sound came to him, perhaps a mumble from sleep, followed by the creaking of bed springs.

He froze and was sweating at once; the living gap that was his stomach contracted.

He found that his hand was already on the holster, that his fingers had unfastened the catch and the abrasive handle was gripped in his palm, the weighty revolver swept clean of the holster, the barrel pointed toward the room.

The soles of his boots stuck and released as he approached the door, and quietly pressed it open.

Through the crack, he saw a man on the bed, sleeping on his side, his arm across the chest of a naked woman with snipped-short black hair. The woman was lying on her back, her arms stiff at her sides, while she stared at the ceiling.

The naked man’s feet were stained black-red.

He crept into the room, and the stickiness beneath his boots became pronounced. His boots made a sound that woke the naked man, who rose up on one elbow to look directly at him.

The man stared with surprise and then with confusion, as the man could have been his twin.