“A weight will lift.” My father has a big cup of crushed ice that he keeps tilting side to side. It hasn’t melted enough yet. “A weight will lift,” he says.
He’s tired of having to say “I know” in that reassuring voice, again and again. “I know, Sunday. I know.” So he’s found this new way of saying it. “A weight will lift. A leaf will fall. Fresh white snow will blanket this whole sleepy town.”
“That’s very poetic,” I tell him.
He tilts his crushed ice again.
“Sunday, you are my daughter,” he says, holding out his hand for mine. I take it. “You are my daughter,” he says, “and it breaks my heart that the day has finally come for you to learn this hard and simple truth.”
His face is very serious, which is one of the ways my father smiles. He pauses, as though he’s searching for just the right words. He isn’t searching, of course. Nothing comes easier to my father than teasing me.
“The truth is that we, each and every one of us, get old and frail, Sunday. We, each and every one of us, lie down in the winter of our lives,” he tilts his ice, “to make way for the baby skunks and the excitable little porcupines which are born in the spring.” He says this in his hospital bed, wearing a flimsy bathrobe. His face is deadly earnest. He thinks he is so funny. “Poking their heads up through the frost, because it is their time now, my darling daughter. It is their time now to glitter in the sun.” Squeezing my hand like on TV.
“That’s very poetic,” I tell him again.
“You said that already,” my father says.
“Very poetic,” I say.
It’s my own fault for saying the same thing every day. I don’t want you to die. I don’t want you to die.
“Snow will blanket the town,” he says, solemnly.
“Snow in the middle of July?” I say. “Oh wow, like in a metaphor?”
“Sometimes the winter comes earlier than we want,” my father says. “Sometimes the sky—”
“Okay, enough with the—” I stop myself. This is infuriating. It is meant to be infuriating. My father smiles at the crack in my voice, takes a sip from his melting crushed ice. And once again, I can see that I am arguing against death itself. A stubborn child. A little girl. I don’t want a weight to lift. I don’t want a leaf to fall.
It doesn’t matter how stupid my father’s arguments are, how clichéd his metaphors. He’s on the winning side. The cancer is everywhere. In two weeks, maybe a month, we’ll have reached the end of this twisting garden path. And he will prove me wrong. A weight will lift. A leaf will fall. Fresh white snow will blanket this whole stupid town.
I thought Malagash would be a small town, but it is not even that. One long road, a twisting red paved loop around the north shore of Nova Scotia. There’s a tractor sitting in a field. A dirt bike leaning up against a shed. We pass a pen of llamas, who look bored as hell. The Atlantic Ocean itself comes right up to drive along beside us. Then it slips away.
In the front seat I have my phone out again. The glass and metal object that was once my phone. I’ve got nobody left to call. Which is a relief, because I’ve got no energy left to pretend. There are only so many condolences a body can sit through. Only so many updates on what you’ve missed before you don’t miss it.
I use my phone to record my mother. The thunk of potholes. Shaky video glimpses of the cottages slipping past. The waif humming to himself. The trees rushing. It records everything it can while we drive through my father’s hometown for the first time. Prim little houses spaced for privacy, each sitting on its own beautiful view of the sea. There’s an old general store with a dying neon PIZZA sign.
My mother’s voice plays over the mud. The mud stretches out to the green-grey ocean.
“A community is the polite term,” she says. “An elephants’ graveyard for people.” Laughter in her voice, like when she teases us. This place is family to her. Neither Simon nor I have ever been here, but my mom and dad had a whole life. They lived here together, before Simon or I were born. With the phone up to the window, I record what I can. There is a church, a vineyard, an abandoned salt mine somewhere beneath us, a bible camp, a wharf where lobster fishermen once set out to sea. Maybe they still do? Another wharf. Another. Wharves always look abandoned. There’s a real graveyard on both sides of the church. “Those plots are as far as some of these people ever go,” my mother says as we pass.
Some facts my mother remembers:
“The road is red like this from clay. They used what they had. Look how red the dirt is, too.”
“When the tide is out, you can walk forever and only ever get up to your waist.”
“Those cottages there belonged to your father’s aunt Edie and uncle Harry. Separate cottages right next door to one another. Isn’t that perfect? It saved their marriage.”
There was no need to convince us to move here. We didn’t plead or fight. Our father wanted to go home to Nova Scotia, to die near his mother and his childhood memories. We wanted to be with our father. The math was simple enough. Take us anywhere, as long as we can be with him. Good riddance to the rest of it.
Everything we need is here. We have our clothes. Simon has his puzzles and toys, and I have my computers. We won’t be here forever, I guess. Just for the rest of my father’s life.
I record my father’s voice on my phone. Audio, but no video. I’m too worried about the slightness of his arms, the paleness of his skin. I record his voice because his voice still sounds right. He sounds like my father, and it is my father I want to remember.
I record him on every visit. His jokes and laughter. His calm acceptance of death. His puns. The creak in his words when he talks about my little brother, the waif. When he talks about my mother. About me. I have never listened to anything as closely as I listen to these recordings. The ups and downs of tone. The reason for every small inflection. There’s so much meaning in every stupid little thing we say.
Sometimes I hold the phone in my hand. Sometimes I set it on the table, or on the bed beside him. So the sound quality varies. It can make him feel far away, when I listen at home. Like his voice is coming to me from behind a thick hanging curtain. But that is only because he’s still alive. When he is gone, these recordings will sound closer.
I record everything. Then I copy everything to a laptop that I’ve spray-painted gold. On the laptop’s lid, I’ve stencilled an old-fashioned cross in white. I know absolutely nothing about religion. This has nothing to do with religion.
I am thorough with my recordings, but organization is a struggle. I divide them into phrases, sentences. Each recording sliced into its parts. Sometimes just single words or sounds. Sometimes just a laugh. I have so many variations of his laugh.
But the most important thing is my father’s voice. The words.
“A weight will lift,” he says. “A leaf will fall.” I am collecting my father’s words. “Fresh white snow will blanket this whole sleepy town.”
I built a database to keep track of it all. Every file gets an entry in the database. Each filename was associated with a written transcription and with a text field where I tried to describe the context. But that wasn’t enough. So I added text fields for content, for tone, for facial expression. There’s so much that needs to be remembered. Bemusement. Mock outrage. Metaphor. It is an unusable mess of data.
At night, I play long nonsense loops of his voice to myself before I fall asleep. Like a bedtime story. Like a lullaby.
Our room is lousy with flowers. They’re on the wallpaper, the ceiling. Carved into the doorframe. They’re painted on the too-small chairs set in front of the bookshelf. This whole room feels so strangely lost in time, like an old photograph.
The waif and I share a bunk bed. He prefers the bottom bunk, worried that he might fall in his sleep. But it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t mind the top bunk. When I am up there, it feels cut off from the room, more private. And I don’t care if I fall.
If I had a choice, I’d prefer an actual bed, and my own room. And there are two more bedrooms on this floor, but they’re not for us. One is for our uncles, when they arrive; the other is for our mother. This room is ours.
I am a bit too big for the bunk, though. My feet push against the footboard, and there is no room for a computer. Let alone three. That was going to be a problem. So I cleaned out the closet. I made it mine. The door is not soundproof, but it is dark in there, and private, and I even sort of like that I need to hug my knees to my chest to fit. So now, while my brother sleeps, I curl up in front of the machines and upload my father’s voice. I make new entries in the database.
“Good morning, Sunday,” he says. “How was the flight?”
“Who’re you typing to on that thing? A boy? Does he know any knock-knock jokes?”
“How come the cat never comes to visit? Is she mad at me?”
“You are so wonderful, Sunday.” His voice is very quiet and serious on that recording. I have a whole special tag for the recordings where he says my name. And for the ones where he says he loves me. Sometimes serious, and sometimes laughing happily.
set tone = 'laughing happily'
where filename = wonderful.wav;
“Don’t tell your mother or Simon, but I love you way more than either of them,” he says.
set tone = 'dead serious'
where filename = loves_me_most.wav;
The small flowers on the closet’s wallpaper flicker with computer light.
There’s an abandoned farmhouse across the road from my grandmother’s house. The wood is bleached grey, and its roof has caved on the right side, like the house has stumbled to the left. There’s no sense of desperation to the house. It doesn’t struggle. It doesn’t thrash, or fight against its collapse. It is an elephant that has come far enough and can go no further. The proud grey husk of an animal that has earned each crease in its hide. That has lived long enough. Here is his reward.
It’s getting dark now. The sky is the only thing you can see clearly.
I’ve been sitting and watching. I want to touch the side of that old house. To put my hand on its flank and feel something creak in those big hollow lungs. But when I stand up to walk down there, the dark dissuades me. The sky still has colour, and the stars have begun to show, but the ground and shrubs along my grandmother’s driveway are gone. Vanished.
The stumbling old farmhouse is just a silhouette against the stars now. That wouldn’t be such a bad way to die. To finally stumble and fall in a field, and to accept it. To be your own gravestone. It would be childish to struggle. Childish to thrash, or fight against your collapse. Childish to try and live forever. I can see my father out in that field, calm and quiet. I am the one still thrashing. I am the one who wants him to live forever.
“Sunday, dear, are you out there?” my grandmother calls from behind me. Inside the orange glow. “Sunday, how much potato salad do you want?” Another late supper. The clatter of cutlery on flowered plates.
Look at that house, so quiet and willing. If there is a good way to die, that’s it out there. Graceful and calm in the face of inevitability.
It feels generous, almost. Beauty and reassurances are not for ourselves. Of course death will come. And of course there is no good way to die. There is no peace. A weight will not lift. A leaf will not fall. But we can pretend.
“Malagash is a poignant snapshot of the wonder, joy, sorrow, and reckless daring of being alive. With it, Joey Comeau cements his place among Canada's most talented and original writers. I loved this cleverly tender and unforgettable heartbreak of a book and I know you will too. A Monster Calls for a plugged-in age.” — Courtney Summers, author of This Is Not a Test and All the Rage
“Known primarily for darkly comic novels and the webcomic A Softer World, Comeau effortlessly switches gears to expose the trauma, heartbreak, and humor in loss. . . an immensely touching tribute to a very human struggle with mortality.” — Publishers Weekly
“Graceful images, scenes and dialogue blossom, meaning Malagash rings with authentic emotion. . . Comeau gives readers a spare novel that feels real when it counts.” — Toronto Star
“Malagash offers a contemporary narrative about grief and the complex emotional struggle it engenders . . . Comeau creates his own kind of virus with his prose, something I haven't been able to shake off since reading.” — Strange Horizons
“Malagash is a unique take on death in the digital age. Comeau presents a forthright yet eloquent story about life, death, and what we leave behind. Highly recommended.” —Atlantic Books Today
“Witty and poignant. . . It perfectly captures the all-too-relatable feeling of dealing with loss. . . Comeau's fragmented sentences and short chapters provide a darkly humorous yet thoughtful read — one that will leave you feeling melancholy long after you're done.” – THIS Magazine
“Malagash is an unexpected little book, a slim novella by Joey Comeau, full of wit and punch and wisdom. . . Comeau's writing is pithy, and filled with flashes of delight and sadness. The characters, even when overheard from a distance, inspire affectionate and knowing smiles from the reader. Malagash lets air and light – and laughter – into the room of grief.” – Scene Magazine
“A glimpse into Sunday's family was all it took for me to be invested in this pre-teen girl and her introspective journey through the pain of a parent's illness.” – CanadianLiving.com
“Comeau's style is sparse but powerful. . . . Malagash is a darkly humored exploration of death, family, and grief, eloquent despite its short 183 pages, devastating despite its simplicity. Highly recommend.” — BumbleBookBee blog
“Comeau resists sentimentality, and, given his subject matter, that's no small feat . . .” — Publishers Weekly
“A spare, ice pick-sharp look at coping with death. . . A fine fable for all smart readers.” — Library Journal
“It’s an escape for these characters that is explored to touching effect by Comeau’s tranquil, lyrical prose...Comeau’s novel lingers with its small pithy truths, its big pithy truths and all the stuff in between.” — The Coast
“[A] sly and affecting novella . . . Mr. Comeau grasps a crucial truth that the most important characters in fiction about death are the survivors, and this book ends not with visions of the deluge but the promise of the rainbow sign.” –- Wall Street Journal, Best New Fiction
“A glimpse of Sunday's family was all it took for me to be invested in this preteen girl and her introspective journey through the pain of a parent's illness.” – Canadian Living
“Original, tender, and tightly-written, Malagash is funny and smart, but also deeply moving.” – Open Book
“Giving us a glimpse into small town Nova Scotia, Comeau's story of a teenage girl who refuses to accept her father's impeding death is beautifully crafted and darkly funny.” – CBC Books
“The biggest strength of this novel is the way Comeau masterfully develops the relationship between the family members . . . As with his previous novels, Comeau's prose is masterfully simple. In simple words and short sentences, he conveys big emotions.” — Cultured Vultures