Tuesday, December 6, 2011

black snow falling on this halifax explosion anniversary

on this the 94th anniversary of the halifax explosion, Atlantic Books Today is republishing an extract of my 2009 novel Black Snow.

re-reading it reminds me of the emotional inspiration i found for it when writing in the winter of 2008. i had been back in halifax for 2 years after 7 years in europe and was settling back into a nice life with a good job right up until 11am on feb 11 - when i learned that my employer, the daily news, had shut down.

it was a shocking event and sent my life plunging into six months of chaos until things finally began to stabilize in the fall of 2008 and i decided freelancing could be more than just journalistic code for 'unemployed' and an actual way to make a living.

i had gotten the contract for Black Snow feb 6 when lesley choyce of pottersfield called and said he liked what he had seen of it so far and was eager to see the rest. the closing of the daily news not only gave me a template for tommy joyce's emotional life, but it also gave me an unexpected dump of free time. since nobody wanted to give me a job and i couldn't sell an article to anyone, i sat down and wrote the novel in a daze.

you can read the extract here, or below, and the novel is in the library, book stores or via online here. if you read all the way to the bottom you get a bonus photo of me when i had apparently decided to model my haircut on the soldier's crop tommy would have sported.

Black Snow

A naked sailor staggers through the smoking ruins, his charred skin feathered with peels of white blisters, a roof shingle nailed to his hand.
“Where am I?” he slurs through a broken face, eyes staring wildly at nothing. I shake my head, gaping at the suddenly birthed hell all around me. Buildings burn and hot black snow falls from the smoldering sky. I’m crumpled on my side, arm crushed under me, screaming in agony. I silence myself, but the screaming goes on.
An inhuman wailing, like a knife slicing through glass, pierces my ear as a flaming chunk of metal tumbles from the sky and cracks the sailor on the side of his head, knocking his white hat sideways. He stumbles, falls to the ground.
A young woman stripped to her corset pulls herself off the sidewalk and starts to run, but a gash in her leg sends her back down. She crumples to the ground and rolls, clutching her wound.
The house next to me collapses on itself. Someone shouts from the basement, trapped under the rubble. As I lurch to my feet to help, the coals from the tipped-over fireplace set the wreckage alight. The screaming intensifies with the roaring of the inferno. I run to the home, joined by the black ghosts of those still breathing, but the fire is devouring the building like kindling.
The front of the house is buckled in, punched back by the force of the blast. A decapitated corpse hangs out the second storey window, and I don’t know where to start. The screaming is coming from under the rubble, so I pull back the heavy timber. It’s red-hot, but my hands are cold with the winter chill. I hear a woman screaming, “My baby! My baby!”
The screaming loses language, becomes something primal. There are five of us in there now, but it’s like shoveling the ocean—debris piles up where we’ve cleared space. The howling is deep, raw.
It stops.
Other voices take up the cry.
I look around, trying to see where I am, but the sooty fog obscures the city. There arebodies everywhere, smashed together in the wreckage, hanging off lampposts and draped over the telegraph wires. It looks like the explosion in the harbour destroyed the whole world.
A young couple clutching a baby stand screaming on the second floor of a burning house. Flames have incinerated most of the first floor and are minutes away from the family. I pull myself in that direction but a young man gets there first. “Throw him down!” he hollers through cupped hands. The woman shakes her head and the man with her tries to grab the baby. Hysterical, she fights him off. The flames are poking through the floor now. The husband puts an arm around her, talks. She nods.
Locking eyes with the young man on the street, she says a prayer and tosses her baby down.
The man catches it cleanly, then holds it out like he’s never touched a baby before.
Atlantic Books Today BOOK EXCERPT
The man comes next, leaping out over the flames and crumpling on the street.
“Come on!” he shouts up to his wife, but she’s terrified, holding her belly.
The back of the house collapses under the heat and the front leans backward. She screams, leaps to the street. She hits and rolls. Her husband is there and she jumps to her feet to grab her baby. Everyone’s crying. The woman says she is pregnant. I try to stop myself hyperventilating and scan the devastation...
                                                  * * *
The windows of the new brick school are all kicked out, but the walls are mostly standing. Six horse-drawn wagons like ours are parked at a back door while soldiers unload a seventh, stacking the stiff corpses neatly beside a bent door heading to the basement. The drivers smoke and make low talk. A few civilians come and go. Out on the road, wagons thunder past blindly in the blizzard. I jump down from the wagon, walk past the soldiers, following the torches down to the basement.
It’s a grisly scene. It’s been converted to an emergency morgue and a low, dark ceiling hangs over a dingy floor, lit only by a few torches and oil lamps hanging on the walls. It’s damp, the concrete floor dirty, and stretching out among the pillars before me like small white crosses marking graves are hundreds of bodies. There’s easily room for a thousand, but it’s only a fifth full.
It’s an orderly apocalypse: rows and rows of corpses, most covered with white sheets. Some have little piles beside them: a girl’s body next to some school books; a watch and keys next to an old man; a baby next to a young woman. Soldiers keep bringing corpses in, dropping them on the concrete with a dull flap, leaving them to be washed and laid out in the hopes someone will be able to identify them. Nurses come with the white sheets. Others walk around with clipboards,compiling a list of the dead, noting their age, race, sex and any possessions that were found near them.
A woman asks if she can help me. She’s maybe twenty, blond hair tied back. Pretty in her starched uniform, but drained by her work.
“I’m looking for my wife,” I tell her.
I say it, and she checks her clipboard, then shakes her head.My heart stops.
“She’s not on my list. But most of them—” she waves her hand over the dead. “We don’t know who they are.”
I notice other people down in this Hades. An old man in a clean shirt and tie, leaning on his grandson, limps from one body to the next. At each one they stop, and the young man pulls back the sheet. The old man stoops, takes a long look, then shakes his head. The boy replaces the sheet and moves on. Collapsed souls searching among broken bodies.
“Why the school?” I ask the nurse.
“The morgues were full hours ago,” she explains. “We’ve got thousands of soldiers and sailors collecting the dead, and they need to bring them somewhere.
“They learned how to prepare after the Titanic went down a few years ago, and all those bodies came to Halifax. The man who oversaw that, he’s overseeing today’s recovery.”
I nod in the gloom. So that’s the scale of it: a poorman’s Titanic.A whole city sunk, and no lifeboats.
“Where do I start?” I ask the nurse.
A tear sneaks down her cheek. She rubs it away. “I don’t know,” she says, and turns fromme. She kneels at a sheet, pulls it back, and notes the details of the newly dead.

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and writer based in Halifax. His website is jontattrie.ca

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