The Sky Manifest
With nothing left to lose, Nathan Soderquist is moving west; his wife is dead, his infant daughter too, all because of a kiss and a snowstorm and his failure to prevent distant consequences. In his desperate isolation, he commits acts of violence, cowardice, nobility, and bravery as he passes through vacant landscapes and encounters beguiling characters.
A road accident leaves his body broken, and his convalescence plumbs the depths of addiction. Relentless in his need to bridge epic distances, his journey moves from car to bicycle to foot as his anger grows, spurring a desire for revenge. Ultimately, a midnight confrontation spirals out of control, and from its extraordinary violence Nathan is presented with two final paths: one ends in destruction; the other could lead to redemption.
Written in taut, muscular prose and punctuated by brief poetic journal entries that document the ever-changing sky, Panhuyzen’s debut novel recounts one man’s story in a world revved with suspense and alive with wonder.
The Sky Manifest
Nathan pulled the car onto the narrow shoulder. He drew from beneath his seat a spiralbound notebook, plucked a pencil from the steel coil. Every few seconds the wipers swept across the windscreen, cleansing away a spatter of rain. He wrote quickly, trying to capture the scene before it transformed, as it always did, as it already had.
Plump cloud cruising westward across chinablue sky, churned from the ruffled face of the Atlantic, summoned by the howl of an autumnal gale. In the east, fixed between sky and earth, a curtain of rain and sleet turning the distance to jelly. Clouds the colour of bleached denim, fissured with light. In the northwest a sunbeam has punched through, a searchlight trolling the landscape beside the road, slicing across a paddock, powering the grass an electric green. Two horses near the fence. Nuzzling in the sunshine.
Imagining Lisa’s eyes drifting across those words, Nathan felt lightheaded and almost weightless. Momentary lucid connection. He brought the chewed pencil-end to his mouth and listened to the rain, watched the scene blur before the wipers sawed past, restoring the view. A tanker roared by, shook the car, retreated into the distance, its wheels skirted with spray. He rested his fingertips on the base of the steeringwheel and closed his eyes. The pain almost obscure through this padded hush, like thunder beyond the horizon. But a car horn sliced through the quiet and he seized the handle, rammed through the door, stumbled onto the road, fist aloft, shouting curses at the escaping taillights. The car slowed and he felt a gush of adrenaline behind his breastbone, felt the need to twist and smash, wanting that sensation of ribs collapsing beneath the concussion of his fists. A hand emerged through the window, finger extended, and then the car accelerated beyond a rise, leaving Nathan within a quilt of silence pleated by the patter of rain and the periodic sweep of the wipers.
He looked at the horses, sun gone, rain falling harder. The larger of the two, a sorrel stallion with a broad chest and ivory pall, seemed to nod at him, and the mare pressed her cheek to the stallion’s throat and nickered.
He slid into the car and lifted the notebook, leaned across the gearshift with an elbow on the passenger seat to better study the sky, and the rain surged, a frothing deluge against the windshield. He tossed the notebook onto the heap of foam cups and muffinbags on the floor and sat up, pondering the cascade on the glass, the view momentarily reopened by the swab of the wipers. Clarity every seven seconds. Twin diamonds approached, hard and bright, scooted past, a van’s wheels hurling a gout of rainwater against the car’s door. The sky dimmed. Night falling earlier every day.
Nathan saw his own sad eyes in the rearview mirror. Recalled a woman in a Yarmouth roadhouse, a slurring, halfdrunk nymph with butterscotch hair. You know, she’d said, You’re a bit like an animal you find bleeding on the roadside. You stop to help, but it snarls and tries to chew your fucking hand off. She cackled, and Nathan turned to study her, his cheek pressed to his fist, and she averted her gaze, let it fall to the bulge of his bicep, which flexed involuntarily, as if awakened by her attention. He excused himself to use the washroom and slipped away into the stormy evening, letting the chill rain drench him.
Nathan’s body, which in his teens and twenties was doughy and pale, had transformed. He’d developed limbs like twisted wire, his frame defined by flat, taut muscles built by relentless exercise, the jerk and pump of freeweights and the Nautilus. He didn’t know what had pigmented his skin, age or sorrow or fury, but he now appeared mildly tanned, at times almost sunburned, face flushed, the backs of his hands brown and sprung with coarse tendons, knuckles scabbed from a punch he’d thrown into a man’s teeth on the sidewalk outside the Split Crow pub in Halifax three days before. He touched the welt on his ear where the man’s wife had bitten him. She’d pounced on Nathan’s back and chomped down there as he’d wound to strike again. He’d been defending her from her husband’s assault.
He clicked the wipers to fast mode and stepped on the clutch, rocked the stick into first. The clouds were rushing dusk down and he needed a place to sleep, but first something to eat, a diner-motel combo would be best, eat and then crash into bed. He accelerated along the slick pavement.
An oncoming truck flashed headlights and he switched on his own, punched and punched the radio seek button, caught the tail of the CBC news. Weather next, a cold front tearing through, ploughing away cloud, polishing the sky to opaque azure, so familiar he could almost write tomorrow’s entry now: blue blue blue, cooling to hazy aquamarine against the horizon, bleached by pale aerosols. He’d read somewhere that pre-industrial skies curved in unfettered blue from rim to rim. If we saw that today we’d sense something was amiss and panic. Our familiar poisons.
Nothing but forest and gas station towns here, the car’s broken antenna an impotent stub, so he hopped along an archipelago of CBC transmitters, stations snuffed by the horizon, leaving him in barren troughs of reception, the digital display careening through the FM band, bottom to top, pausing before repeating the trek at 87.5 megahertz. He tuned to the AM band, found it bloated with signals, cranky parades of 50s and 60s tunes, the hoarse shout of a football commentator, and there, crystal clear among the abrasive frequencies, the cool twang of a preacher somewhere in the mid-western U.S.
. . . keep thee from the evil woman, from the flattery of the tongue of a strange woman. Twenty-five: Lust not after her beauty in thine heart;neither let her take thee with her eyelids. Twenty-six: For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.
Nathan stabbed the power button and tried to unravel the relationship between bread and whorish women.
A car on the roadside, hood open. He slowed, saw a figure huddled in the cabin, drew onto the shoulder ahead of the vehicle. Stepped into the rain and walked to the driver’s door, tapped the window which cranked open a few inches, a young woman in a handknit toque peering through the gap.
You need help? Nathan asked.
Are you CAA?
I was just driving by and thought you might need help.
I already called CAA. They said they’re backed up some but should be here shortly.
Nathan heard a voice from the backseat and peered past the woman to see two boys, one about five, the other two or three, both strapped into boosters, watching him. Nathan felt a sting of grief, had to swallow before he could say, Hey there, boys.
I appreciate your kindness, the woman said. But CAA will be here any minute.
Pretty dark and lonely out here, Nathan replied. You alone and just your little ones.
He saw the immediate panic his words struck in her, was searching for a phrase and tone to reassure her when she cranked the window shut. He heard the thunk of the powerlocks. He spread his hands in a helpless shrug, but she turned away, stared straight through the windshield. Nathan stepped backwards onto the blacktop, looked up and down the deserted highway, then called loudly, Listen. I’m going to get into my car and just sit there. Wait for the towtruck. Okay? She ignored him and he strode to his car, stepped in, shut the door. Gripped the steeringwheel, rainwater trickling onto his neck. Hating that his presence was terrifying to the woman and her children, but unable to drive away, to leave them unprotected in this dark night. Wanting to help. Not helping. He bent until his forehead rested against the steeringwheel. Clenching his eyes shut. Listening to rain pound the car.
A hard rap on his window. A man in his twenties, wearing a Canadian Automobile Association jersey, smoking. Nathan rolled down the window.
You want to move your fucken car, bud? Can’t get the truck in place to hook er up.
Nathan glanced back and saw a white towtruck idling on the highway beside the disabled car.
Did you – does anyone need help? Nathan asked.
It’s all under control, bud. You can screw off now.
A wave of anger swept over Nathan. In a flash he’d calculated the next moments of action: launch open his door, catching the man in the knee, and while he was staggering back Nathan would be out of the car, swinging a fist into the man’s face . . .
All right, Nathan replied, crushing the steeringwheel in both hands to prevent them from acting. Though I believe I’ll stick around until they’re safely on their way.
The driver put a hand on the roof of Nathan’s car and bent to eyelevel. He shot smoke from his nostrils and said, Bud, she says you’re freakin her out. Best to screw off now and leave her be. Bud. Hey bud, you listenin? My next call is 911.
Nathan looked straight ahead into the night, felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead. He could put this guy down in seconds. Assessing the situation. She’d made a call to the CAA. There’d be a record of the dispatch. The greatest risk for her was being ripped off by the garage to which the car would be towed. And then, without taking his eyes off the road, he started the engine, revved it hard, and peeled away, spraying the grille of the disabled car with gravel. He fought to bring his car under control on the slick pavement, then shot away.
He drove too fast, raindrops slamming into the windshield, the grip of the old tires tenuous in every curve, oncoming headlights flying at him with alarming speed, and still he kept on, converting rage into fear, wanting, begging for the ecstasy of destruction, until at last the car entered a sharp bend with too much speed, quartering away from true and drifting. Nathan steered into the skid, swearing as the car slewed, pressing the brake lightly, and the car still moving without regard to the tires’ orientation. He cranked the wheel, overcorrecting and skidding onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane, ballast pelting the undercarriage, steep drop to a gutter along the treeline and the car raking the edge and somehow remaining atop the berm, spurring avalanches of gravel. A transport truck was oncoming, the tail of Nathan’s car in its path, and he heard the truck’s horn as it came on, aligned to smash the car’s rear quarterpanel and send Nathan spinning off the embankment into the forest, until the driver at the last instant hauled the truck to the left and as the tractor came abreast the car it veered out far enough that the truck’s front bumper clipped Nathan’s rear bumper so narrowly it was a collision of nothing but paint. Then the truck roared past, driver fighting to bring the vehicle safely into the bend through which Nathan himself had blundered, Nathan craning in his seat to watch even as his own vehicle was grating to a halt, watching the strings of orange lights toppling slowly towards the bend’s apex, Nathan holding his breath, bending his body against the tilt. There was a moment at which the tipover seemed inevitable but the driver in a display of skill pivoted the tractor in such a way that it rocked the trailer back onto its wheels, a shudder running through its frame, and then it rolled on, assuming the lane.
A sudden quiet in the car. Nathan opened the door and stepped into the rain, watched the truck slowing as it worked through the bend. He went around to the rear of his car, bent to look but saw nothing in the dark, ran a fingertip along the bumper where it wrapped the fender and felt a shallow abrasion in the finish. Panting, realizing how close it had been. He straightened, noticed that the rig had stopped, heard the throb of its engine. The cab door opened and a figure climbed onto the blacktop. Nathan raised a hand to signal he was okay.
Hey! came a shout across the distance. The figure began to walk his way. Hey, fucker!
Nathan squared himself and balled his fists, took a step towards the approaching figure before he recognized how his yen for combat would aggrieve Lisa. He wanted to fight, wanted desperately to throw punches, to take blows, to settle the apparent indignity he’d dealt to this truck driver. But giving in to an impulse had delivered him here, to the dark curve on this rainslicked road. He’d pledged to resist. He blamed the adrenaline coursing through his body from the near-collision. That he was responding only to chemicals made his rage easier to resist, to disarm.
But to avoid this fight he had to act. His opponent closing the distance. Nathan, hearing the fast knock of the driver’s boots on the blacktop, exhaled and bolted around to his door, threw himself into the seat. The engine had stalled, he tried to start it but neglected to push the clutch, the engine croaked and the car surged forward and died. As he saw the figure approaching at a run he jammed the clutch to the floor and twisted the key, starter cackling and the engine at last stirring. But it failed to start, flooded, and he stomped the gaspedal and cranked until at last the engine exploded to life. He moved the gearshift, unable to find first gear and finally struck home, gave too much gas as he popped the clutch, rear wheels churning in the gravel, a dark shape in the sideview obscuring view of the stopped rig, and then he was away, again screeching and yawing down the highway until he was able to regain control, the array of truck lights receding in his mirrors.
He let up, drove reasonably now, hoping the driver was not so inspired by revenge that he would bring his rig about and make pursuit.
Wiping his soaked brow, panting. He slammed the heel of his hand into the steeringwheel.
He had no consciousness of driving the next fifty kilometres, his mind busy replaying the events that had almost led to two fights and a crash. It had started, as usual, with his attempt to help. If he wasn’t meant to help, what was he for? Tried to remember his life before the philanthropic impulse had overcome him. He’d been carefree and cavalier once. It was a long time ago.
The rain streaking the windshield and the lustre of oncoming headlights on the wet road made Nathan’s eyes throb. But he had no choice but to push on, rubbing his fatigued eyes, struggling to remain alert.
At last a light appeared above the treetops, filling the sky as if from a stadium or a city, but as he closed he found it was nothing more than a strip motel and a diner fronted by high windows. He was grateful for it, pulled onto the gravel of the lot and shut off the engine.
He listened to the rain against the roof and felt instantly refreshed. Tempted to try another hundred kilometres. Almost forgetting he had nowhere to be. He opened the door and stepped into night.
Cold drops pelted him as he strode to the diner’s door, pulled it open. No one inside, but music on a radio behind the counter, big band, a compliment to the diner itself, a relic from the 40s or 50s. Pitted chrome, split vinyl in burgundy hues, peeling veneer. He sat at the counter and called, Hello?
A woman of thirty in a stained apron entered and without asking turned over a cup and filled it with coffee. She had a hard, bony look, slategrey eyes, cheeks hollow, a scar under her lip. Hair the colour of dandelions. She pushed out her bottom lip like she’d practised it in the mirror. He looked at the coffee, saw in it a greasy rainbow.
You got anything fresher? he asked.
She turned and dumped the carafe into the sink, poured fresh grounds into a filter, started the machine.
Be a few minutes, she said. You hungry?
I’d look at a menu.
He ran his thumbnail down the typed card. How’s the omelette? he asked.
It’s fine. But it’s breakfast.
This says allday breakfast.
It’s night. And I don’t do omelettes. How about a burger.
I kinda want an omelette.
Special burger. I’ll lay a fried egg on top.
You’ll lay an egg? he asked without smiling.
On top. Fries too?
He thumbed through a local newspaper while she cooked the burger. The tang of hot fat stirred his appetite. He discovered from the paper’s masthead that he was near Cumberland Bay, New Brunswick.
A story about a baby drowned by its stepfather caught his eye. The account nauseated him, summoned a raw fury of helplessness, forced him into that scene as witness, desperate to throw the villain aside and pull the struggling infant from the bathwater. He came out of this fugue with a gasp, the paper’s margins crushed in his fists, pivoted on the stool and looked into the dark of the lot, panting, watching the rain.
Goddamn pissing down again, the waitress grunted, and Nathan twisted, regarded her, and she stuck out that lip again and turned away, squatted at a cabinet and rummaged inside. He saw his own expression in the mirror behind the counter, forced himself to soften it. He glanced down, studied the burger. The yellow eye of a sunnyside-up egg stared back. He blinded it with condiments and crushed the bun down with enough force to rupture the cornea. He picked it up and shook yolk onto the plate before taking a bite. He was hungry and ate fast. Pushed his plate away with his thumb and stood, unsteady with fatigue.
What time you open for breakfast?
Somebody be here to make me an omelette?
He paid and went outside and stood beneath the overhang and watched rain falling like meteors through the sphere of vapour cast by the lone lightpole.
His navyblue Toyota Supra hunched before him, gleaming, sporty and mean, the scars of twenty years on the road obscured by darkness: skin bubbled and peeling, bones salt-rotted and rusting, suspension soft and palsied. Lately when he stepped off the clutch he would grind his molars in sympathy with the slipping clutchplates. The only exception to these debilities was her engine, which had been tuned and modified by its previous owner to a state of scarcely constrained fury.
This car a distant relative of the vehicle it had replaced, a pearlgrey Toyota Prius. Inverted, roof crushed, nose punched in, and the cabin blighted with pellets of safetyglass. Bladders of spent airbags strewn about like jellyfish.
He jerked up his collar and stepped into the rain, opened the trunk. Among empty oiljugs and a set of dumbbells lay his old suitcase. He lugged it to the office door, stepped into the panelled interior. No one at the desk, but a cigarette idled in a dish beside the telephone, a cylinder of ash sagging from its tip and smoke unravelling towards the ceiling. He cleared his throat, waited a few moments and noticed a button on the counter, pushed it, and a doorbell rang in the back. A girl came in, she looked about twenty. Nathan blinked. High, polished cheekbones, honeycoloured hair bound in a ponytail, eyes like blue candy. Nathan was immediately vexed by her beauty, the obligation it inflicted when it colluded with his singleness.
Hello, she said, barely glancing at him as she drew a card from beneath the counter and put it on the desk along with a ballpoint pen. Just the night?
He lifted the pen and filled the card, used the Toronto address where someone else now lived.
And your fortune? she asked.
Your fortune. She threw a thumb over her shoulder at a sign on the wall, silver script against midnight blue: Psychic Fortunes Foretold. $5.
Who does the fortunes?
How do you qualify to tell fortunes?You go to school for that?
It’s a gift, she replied, clicking the pen with agitation.
What kind of things will you tell me?
Where you been.
I already know where I’ve been.
Where you’re going.
You can see all that?
What if I don’t want you to know about me?
Too late, she said, smiling. I knew when you walked in the door.
Really. You didn’t even know I was here until I pressed the bell.
Her gaze faltered.
Sure I’ll take that fortune, he said quickly. Please.
He sat on the edge of the bed and untied his shoes, kicked them off. Went to his bag and withdrew the book he was reading, a fat paperback, sat again and opened to a dogeared page, read until But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. That dizzy torque of language, stirring the impulse to douse himself in words, in sentences. Turning away, shutting that book, trying to steady his mind, to reconstitute himself in the now. He set it on the sidetable and lay back, fingers laced behind his head, eying the room. Bland walls, freshly painted. Two framed prints, paintings, trees rising above a mosaic of fallen leaves. He sat up, surprised that these were Austrian forests, painted by Gustav Klimt. Buchenwald, Tannenwald. Tranquil scenes, treetrunks retreating into the depth of the canvas. The kind of place he sought. Except something distressing in the paintings’ titles. One was the name of a Nazi deathcamp, the thought of which raised in him again that terrible helplessness of inaction.
After charging his creditcard she’d taken his right hand across the counter, traced the creases with a fingertip, her head lowered. Studying his life. He’d felt an abrupt panic, wanted her to stop. He closed his palm but she pried it open, gave him an admonishing look. He watched the top of her head, golden hair drawn into an elastic.
Is it . . . no, she muttered. Oh. Oh no, but why would you. . . .?
What do you see?
She didn’t look up, muttered almost inaudibly, Oh, oh I get it. It was all about . . . But then why didn’t you . . . when you could’ve . . .
Nathan saw stars and pinwheels shuttle across his vision, felt the floor pitch, forcing him to grip the counter’s edge with his free hand.
. . . because you should’ve . . . because you didn’t . . .
Do you want to come to my room? he barked.
When she raised her eyes they were brimming with tears.
What would your wife say?
My wife? My wife is dead.
I know. What would she say?
He retrieved his hand, drew a five from his billfold and flattened it on the counter.
It’s five sixty-five, she said, scooping tears from her eyesockets with a fingertip.
I thought it was five.
You know, she replied, sniffling. Tax.
He pressed his head into the pillow and looked at the ceiling. After a moment sat up, realizing that a dark stain above the bed roughly the shape of Australia was wetness, and a legion of waterbeads was amassing along the southwestern coast. One broke free and fell, striking him on his cheek below the eye, a cold tear. He pawed it away and rolled off the bed and stood, looking up, listening to rain hammer the roof. Got down and rammed his shoulder into the bed, shoving it to the front of the room.
He awoke once in panic at a sound he thought was the door’s lock, but after a moment recognized it as the plick of waterdrops onto the carpet. He was fearful not of thieves or murderers but the fortuneteller, using her passkey to enter the room, slipping naked into the bed, accepting his offer. The warm delight of her skin, of human touch, what he longed for but could not accept. Must not accept. He gathered the pillows against him, clutched them in his arms.