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Authors: Thomas Wharton

Salamander

BOOK: Salamander
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BOOKS BY THOMAS WHARTON

Icefields
(1995)
Salamander
(2001)

ACCLAIM FOR
Salamander

“A vigorous, imaginative novel about the power of reading and invention.”


Quill and Quire

“Salamander
is the sort of book every reader hopes to find, earnestly passes along to friends, and returns to in their dreams.… A visceral, compelling novel that will reward both serious inquiry and reading for pure pleasure.… A beautiful, emotionally resonant postmodern novel.”


National Post

“This novel cannot help but connect deeply with its readers.…”


Edmonton Journal

“It’s all too rare that you pick up a book and find yourself inexorably swept into a different world, thoroughly absorbed in a realm far removed from the here and now.… 
Salamander
captivates its readers, holds them spellbound, and persists in memory long after you’ve turned the final page.… Thoroughly absorbing.…”


Vancouver Sun

“Wharton’s novel is both spellbinding and encyclopedic.… It is a book lovers’ book and a lovers’ story.”


New Brunswick Reader

“Salamander is
an extraordinary book of possibilities.”


Calgary Herald

“[Wharton] cement[s] his reputation as one of Canada’s most promising young writers.”


Maclean’s

Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Wharton

Cloth edition published 2001
First Emblem Editions publication 2002

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher — or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency - is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

Wharton, Thomas, 1963-
Salamander

eISBN: 978-1-55199-444-4

I. Title.

PS8595.H28S24 2002    C813′.54    C2001-903819-4
PR9199.3.W4277S25 2002

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

SERIES EDITOR: ELLEN SELIGMAN

EMBLEM EDITIONS
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Canadian Publishers
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9
www.mcclelland.com/emblem

v3.1

I restore life from death

– early printers’ motto

1759

A
burning scrap of paper drifts down out of the rain. A magic carpet on fire. It falls with a hiss to the wet stones of the street
.

The colonel dismounts from his horse and stands holding the reins, his eyes raised to the sky. The light rain that began as he entered the town has drawn off. The grey clouds are shredding away to reveal patches of deep blue twilight. Wind moans from within the black hole that was once the building’s entrance, like the sound from a shell held to the ear
.

There is a flicker of candlelight deep within the shadows of the bombed-out ruins. There shouldn’t be. Sheltering in such places has been forbidden by decree of the governor
.

The colonel ties his horse to a nearby rail and climbs a ridge of fallen brick to enter the building. The smoke, the drifting ash tell him that the bomb struck quite recently. Only a few hours ago, if his judgement of these things is correct
.

A wigwam of smouldering timbers fills the middle of the narrow main floor, and he has to walk along the wall to proceed any deeper into
the shop, for a shop of some kind it seems to have been, stepping carefully over wet and treacherous wooden wreckage. He feels a drop of rain on his face and glances up to see luminous patches of cloud through a cross-hatching of scorched and amputated beams
.

A bookshop. Three of four huge glass-fronted bookcases that once lined the long walls have been smashed open, the books they contained scattered about the room. The one case that remains standing now leans backward as if half-sunk into the wall, its glass panels gone but a few of the books still intact on its shelves. Along the side walls ancient stonework appears in the places where plaster has fallen loose
.

Two men are browsing through the books that remain on the shelves. They glance at the colonel, take in his uniform, put down the books they were examining and hurry out with furtive backwards glances. Looting has become a hanging offense in the abandoned town
.

In the waning light the colonel gazes in wonder at the bizarre volumes issued by destruction. Books without covers. Covers without books. Books still smouldering, books reduced to mounds of cold, wet ash. Shredded, riddled, and bisected books. Books with spines bent and snapped, one transfixed by a jagged black arrow of shrapnel. In one dark corner lies the multi-volume set of an outdated atlas, fused into a single charred mass. The gold lettering on the spines has somehow survived the fire and glows eerily from the shadows
.

Why is the world so made, the colonel wonders, that whatever is damaged shines?

As he steps forward the colonel’s foot strikes another volume, one without a cover. It lies splayed open, its uppermost pages lifting and falling with the gusts of evening wind. A huge grey moth, sealed in its unknowable moth self
.

Further back, where the roof is still intact, he finds the source of the light he saw from the street. Candles everywhere, in brackets, in crevices and holes blasted through the masonry
.

At the back of the shop, in the midst of the light, a young woman crouches amid a great heap of splintered wood, picking up and setting down one piece after another, as if searching for something. Above her on wires strung across the room large sheets of blank paper stir in the wind like ragged sails
.

The colonel watches her from the shadows. She is dressed in a tradesman’s clothes: worn shirt, breeches, a coarse green apron. Her pale russet hair is tied back: he can see the slender white column of her neck. A girl, really, who should not be alone in an exposed ruin like this, at night. He clears his throat
.

Mademoiselle? Do not be alarmed. I am an officer
.

She speaks without surprise, making it obvious she knew he was there watching her
.

I saw you come in, she says, turning. Well, I saw your wig, anyway
.

The colonel laughs, relieved. This may be someone, one of the few in this benighted land, that he can talk to. He steps forward, pleased with the smart sound his new boots make on what is left of the floorboards
.

Everyone wonders, he says, how I manage to keep powdered and polished in the midst of a siege. The truth is, I have a truly dedicated barber. Neither cannon, nor musket, nor dreadful scalping knife cows his spirit
.

The young woman tosses a jagged stick back on the pile, rises and turns to him, studies him with steady blue-green eyes that belie her youth. Her face and hair are streaked with dust. Her right wrist is bound in a strip of white cloth. Was she here when the bomb fell? For the first time in a long while the colonel finds himself awkwardly searching for words
.

I was riding through the town on my way to meet with the Marquis. I saw lights and thought I should investigate. Did you know there were a couple of looters in the shop just now?

They weren’t looters, she says. They’re old customers. They stare in the window every night after I lock up
.

He is vaguely disturbed at her casual response to everything. The bomb, the intruders, him. This encounter is not going quite as he anticipated
.

My name is Colonel de Bougainville, he says, doffing his tricorn
.

The name seems to have impressed her, he thinks. Or the rank. She looks at him more closely
.

You wrote a book, she says
.

I did indeed, but –

About the integral calculus
.

This is a first, he thinks. He’s known in this country for his military exploits, his friendship with the Iroquois, his conquests of the heart. He himself sometimes wonders who it was that wrote that forgotten book with his name on it
.

It’s true, he confesses. Don’t tell me you’ve read it
.

I had a copy here. It may still be in one piece, somewhere out in the shop. But I have read about the calculus. In volume seven of the Libraria Technicum, page two hundred and three
.

You’ve memorized an entire encyclopedia of science?

No, just volume seven
.

Remarkable. It must be terrible for you, what has happened to your father’s shop
.

This is my shop, she says
.

Bougainville smiles warily. This would not be the first lunatic he has encountered since arriving in the colony. War can collapse wits as quickly as buildings
.

Be that as it may, he says, you really should not be here alone
.

I’m not, any more. You’re here
.

She speaks French very well, he notes. He cannot place the accent. There is something strange in her look, the pale, translucent gleam of
her skin, but the girl is not mad. His instinct for people is certain on that point. And she is pretty enough. Riding through the wet streets his thoughts had been as bleak and cheerless as the charred, deserted houses on either hand. He weighs the matter and decides he will linger here, for a while, a diverting interlude before the heavy task of bringing the Marquis more bad news about the doings of the English
.

The young woman wipes her charcoal-blackened hands on her apron, pulls a chair towards her, and stands beside it as if waiting for the colonel’s permission to sit
.

There couldn’t have been a lot of business left here for you, Bougainville says. Most of the merchants have closed up and gone
.

This is my home. I have nowhere else to go
.

Bougainville unbuckles his swordbelt and hangs it from the back of a chair opposite the young woman’s
.

May I?

Please
.

He lifts the wings of his blue velvet coat, seats himself, and she does likewise. Her next words are another salvo from an unexpected quarter
.

Do you like to read, Colonel?

Certainly
.

What?

He shrugs
.

A little of everything, I suppose. I particularly enjoy narratives of travel. I confess I have an ambition, once this war is over, to visit faraway places. Perhaps even discover an unknown island or two. And you, mademoiselle? Do booksellers read their books?

I used to, she says. Now most of them will become fuel, I suppose
.

Yes, it looks like it will be a cold winter, Bougainville says. I’m sure, being of the nobility, you’re not accustomed to this kind of hardship
.

That surprised her, he registers with satisfaction. Once again, his intuition proves itself
.

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