Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


A Novel by Carla Gunn
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Amphibian, Carla Gunn's first novel, is about nine-year-old Phineas William Walsh, a child with an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world and a capacity for worry. He's obsessed with animal facts and figures, but can't make the human world, with its arbitrary cruelties and complications, add up. Amphibian is published by Coach House Books.

This morning Bird and I got in trouble. We were pretending to be spies. Our job was to decipher our enemies’ cryptic messages. In our Grade 4 classroom, Prime Enemy Number One is Mrs. Wardman. We were sure she had some undercover allies, but we weren’t sure who they were. So, to figure it all out, we were keeping track of Mrs. Wardman’s commands. At the point our covert operation was blown wide open, this was our list:

  1. Kelsie, hold your tongue. (Beside this Bird had drawn a picture of a tongue in a hand. It kind of weirded me out.)
  2. Ryan, don’t play with your thing. (What Mrs. Wardman said to Ryan who was spinning his X-men eraser.)
  3. Gordon, it’s time for your medication.

All I can figure is that the list must have slid off my desk while I was watching a spider by the window. I was thinking about how I sure hoped nobody mean spotted him. If Lyle caught him, he’d rip his legs off one by one. Then, just as I was thinking about how my grandmother always says, ‘If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive,’ my eyes were pulled away from the spider and made to focus on something quite a bit bigger but not so interesting: Mrs. Wardman. She was standing over me. My brain blinked, and then I understood what that meant.

She said, ‘Phin! Are you even listening to me? Why are you staring off into space?’ Just as I opened my mouth to say something that wasn’t the truth, I saw her see the list. As she reached down to pick it up, it was like she was moving in slow motion, like when I flip a cartoon book’s pages reeaaallllly slowly. When she stood back up, she looked at me and raised her eyebrows, and then she looked at Bird. She didn’t say a word, but I knew we were in trouble.

It didn’t take long for Mrs. Wardman to get her revenge. She moved Bird to the front of the room and left me at the back. Now all Bird’s stuff is in Kaitlyn’s desk and all of Kaitlyn’s stuff is in Bird’s desk. Kaitlyn didn’t like the picture of Dr. Evil on the inside of Bird’s desk, so she erased it. To top it all off, last week Kaitlyn was out sick with lice and I’m not so sure she’s completely cured.

I have a humongous blue eraser that has the words ‘Big Mistake’ on it. That’s what this day was. If I had an eraser of life, I’d start at the top of the morning and work my way down. I have a feeling, though, that whoever drew this day pressed the pencil really hard and even if I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed, little horrible bits of it would still be left behind.

- - - -

After school, I didn’t play in the playground with Bird like I usually do. I saw Lyle over on the monkey bars and just didn’t feel strong enough to risk being picked on. My mother says Lyle is the spawn of similarly small-minded cretins and that I should just stay away from him. She says that I’ll meet lots of small-minded, life-sucking cretins all through my life. Why does she torture me like that? The Lyles in my life are going to grow bigger and bigger and that’s supposed to help me feel better?

Sometimes I have really, really bad thoughts about Lyle – the being-picked-by vultures-and-bursting-into-flames kind. And one day I said pòg mo thòin to him. It means kiss my something. It’s Gaelic and I learned it from my grandfather. Lyle just looked at me confused. He doesn’t speak Gaelic. In fact, he’s not very good with languages, period. In French class, he asked Mrs. Wardman what je ne sais pas means and she said, I don’t know. He got really mad and gave her the finger behind her back.

When I got home, my mother was on the telephone, likely interviewing someone for a story. She’s a journalist. She works at an office building in the mornings but mostly at home in the afternoons. Sometimes when she gets off the phone or home from an interview, she’s really sad. She won’t tell me why, she’ll just say, ‘Hard story, Phin.’ That’s the code word for don’t talk to her until after she comes out of her bedroom.

I went to my room and got out my Reull drawings and stories. On Reull there are lots of different kinds of cats. I drew one called the Electric Cat, which you wouldn’t want to come across. I wrote about how if you mistake him for a domestic cat and take him into your house, he will shut down the power and you’ll get the shock of your life. His body reacts to things like TVs and electric mixers and sends a high voltage through them which ruins their motors. You cannot keep an Electric Cat as a companion animal.

I have a companion animal. Her name is Fiddledee. She’s a really furry black-and-white cat with blue eyes. I went to look for her in my closet where she sometimes sleeps on top of my stuffed animals, but she wasn’t there. So then I turned on the TV. to the Green Channel. The Green Channel has shows about animals and nature and how humans are ruining the environment. The life on earth is in deep trouble. Deep, deep trouble. In fact, twenty-five percent of all mammal species are on the Red List of Threatened Species.

Partly because of this, my New Year’s resolution is to save at least one animal from going extinct. I have a cat whisker collection in a matchbox. I also have feathers from different types of birds and some squirrel fur. This way I will at least have their DNA.

On the Green Channel I watched a show about sadness in animals. When an elephant in Africa dies, sometimes more than a hundred elephants will come from all over and trumpet around the dead elephant with their trunks up in the air. Then they cover his body with branches. When a baby elephant dies, often his mother won’t leave the graveside. Mother elephants love their babies. Once after a man in Africa used his tractor to haul a baby elephant out of a mud hole, the baby’s mother rushed up to him and wiped the mud off his clothes with her trunk.

Last year when I was eight, I had to say goodbye to Granddad MacKeamish at a human funeral. Just a few months before that, I said goodbye to my father too. But he’s not dead. It just feels like it sometimes.

- - - -

Today we had to do logic questions in math class. First we read this sentence: ‘Paula gave out 47 treats for St. Patrick’s Day.’ And then this one: ‘Paula received 50 treats for St. Patrick’s Day.’ Then we had to read some statements and write T for true or F for false or M for maybe. This is how I answered:

  1. Paula received three more treats than she gave. T
  2. Everyone who received a treat from Paula gave her one as well. M
  3. Paula did not give a treat to anyone who gave her one. M
  4. Paula did not receive any treat from anyone she gave one to. M

The problem was that after we were finished, Mrs.Wardman put the answers on the board and she marked number 2 as T and numbers 3 and 4 as F. I went up to Mrs. Wardman to ask her why she answered like that, and she said that since Paula got more treats than she gave out, she must have gotten a treat from everyone she gave one to. She also said that Paula must have given treats to everyone she got one from since she gave out fewer treats than she got.

I said, ‘But how can we know that for sure?’

She said, ‘Phin, it’s logic. Go back to your seat and think more about it.’

So I did. I thought really hard about it, but it didn’t seem like logic to me. How could anybody be absolutely sure that Paula got a treat from everybody who gave her one? We don’t even know how many kids there were altogether. Maybe there were a hundred kids. Maybe there were a thousand or a million kids or even giga kids. Giga is another word for a billion, but when it comes to computers it means 1,073,741,824 information units.

I went back up to Mrs.Wardman and told her I thought really hard about it, but it still didn’t seem like logic to me.

Mrs. Wardman said, ‘It is logic, Phin. Here, I’ll show you the answers in my teacher’s book.’ She opened the book and let me look at the page where the answers are written in red. The teacher’s book said the same thing as Mrs. Wardman wrote on the board.

So I went back to my seat to think about it some more, but still it didn’t seem like logic to me. Suppose there were a hundred kids and Paula gave a treat to all the boys but only got one from all the girls. That would make # 3 true. That makes an M for Maybe the right answer to that question. I told Mrs. Wardman that she and her teacher’s book must be wrong.

That’s when she said, ‘Phineas Walsh!’ for the second time this week. I could tell she was mad with me, so I went back to my seat. Her being angry made me angry, and the rest of the day was mostly cac, which is Gaelic for something most people do about once a day.

In fact, the only good thing that happened was that Bird’s mother, who is a
Thumbody, came into our school with some other Thumbodies and sang and danced around about everybody being a Thumbody. She wore a funny hat and dressed up like a big thumb, but she looked more like a big peanut to me. If my mother came into my class dressed like a big peanut, I’d hide under my desk, but Bird didn’t seem to mind at all.

We all got to press our thumbs on an inkpad and then make prints on a piece of paper. It made me think of how it would feel to be a prisoner, except our prison was the school. I put eyes and whiskers on my thumbprint and made it into a cat. Bird put teeth on his, and it looked like I don’t know what. Then we cut out our prints and put them into round pieces of plastic and made them into pins, which we put on our shirts.

Bird’s mother told us that we’re all special, and that we should all feel good about ourselves because we all have our own thumbprints and no two thumbprints are the same I didn’t know how that made us special, but I didn’t say anything. No two worms have exactly the same skin pattern, and nobody thinks they’re special. On the Green Channel I learned that humans have 60% of their DNA the same as worms. And we’re 60% like bananas too.

After the Thumbody thing, school was over. I went straight home because Bird left with his mother. It was kind of embarrassing seeing them walking to the car together. Bird’s mother was still dressed like a big thumb. I figured I may as well be embarrassed for Bird since he wasn’t embarrassed for himself. I think I even blushed for him. I do a better job at that anyway because his skin is dark and you can’t see his blushes very well.

When I got home my mother was working in her office but she wasn’t on the phone so I went in to say hello. She could tell that something was wrong, likely because I said hello in a quiet voice which isn’t very usual for me at home.
My mother said, ‘What’s the matter, Phinnie?’ She’s the only one who calls me that, which is a good thing.

I told my mother about the logic problem at school. My mother said that she agreed with my logic. She said that there was a slight possibility that the question could be true which makes M the right answer. But she also said that maybe Mrs. Wardman thought it wasn’t very probable and so thought the right answer was F.

‘So maybe there are two ways of seeing that problem,’ she said.

I said, ‘Yes there are – a right way and a wrong way.’

Then my mother said that Mrs. Wardman likely was making an assumption that wasn’t really in the problem; she assumed there were only 50 kids.

I said, ‘But doesn’t assume make an ass of u and me?’ I learned that from Bird who learned it from his cousin. He also learned from his cousin that you can guess the size of somebody’s penis – only he didn’t use that word – by looking at the distance between the tip of that person’s pointer finger and the tip of the thumb when he makes the letter L with his hand. But he’s wrong because I checked it out.

My mother told me that ass of u and me wasn’t a very nice expression, and that I shouldn’t use it.

I said, ‘Why is it so bad? It’s more of an insult to donkeys than to humans.’ But I was just pretending that I didn’t know the other meaning for that word. I still felt angry at Mrs.Wardman. I imagined her face on an ass – on a donkey ass, not on a human one.

My mother said that sometimes people – even teachers – make mistakes. She says that sometimes it’s not a good idea to point out to people that they’re wrong. She said that sometimes it’s better to just let it go and be right inside your own head instead of worrying what’s inside the other person’s head. I have to think more about it. Don’t people want to know when they’re wrong? Why does being wrong make people happy?

I told my mother that if I was wrong about something and somebody told me the right answer, then that would make me happy. She said she would always do her best to tell me that I’m wrong. I think she already does that, and that made me happy.

Then I went up to my room to draw and try to forget about whether or not Paula got treats from all the kids she gave treats to. Who gives out treats on St. Patrick’s Day anyway?

I drew the Oster which was a species hunted by Gorachs – who think they’re the most intelligent beings in the universe – for their five nostrilled noses, which the Gorachs used to hold things upright, like pens and pencils and things like that. Gorachs also liked to use them for sprinkler nozzles. They did this by drying them out for weeks and weeks and then using glue from the stomachs of the Tussleturtles (kind of like earth turtles but with bulging stomachs which slowed them down even more and made the Tussleturtles really, really wise because they were never in a hurry) to coat them so that they would be waterproof.

The Oster is now extinct. The other creatures of Reull are very, to-infinity sad about this. They know that with the extinction of the Oster, one more string of the web of life has been torn away forever.

Then I drew the web of life that was holding Reull in place in the universe. Lots of the web strings were in place but lots of them were broken. There can only be a few more destroyed before the whole planet falls into space.

- - - -

Today we had to take Fiddledee to the vet. She has red in her poop, and Mom says that can’t be good. The vet’s name is Dr. Karnes. She is really big and has lots of sticking-up hair that looks a little like a lion’s mane and makes her face look bigger than it really is.

Dr. Karnes listened to Fiddledee’s heart, checked her body for lumps and weighed her on a scale like the one at the grocery store. Then she took her temperature. When my mother takes my temperature, she has an instrument that she sticks in my ear. Then she presses a button and the instrument beeps, and then she takes it out to read what it says.

Fiddledee wasn’t so lucky. Dr. Karnes had to put the thermometer in another place, and I can tell you it wasn’t her mouth. I held her while the vet did that because Fiddledee likes me best, and the vet said I would help reassure her that she would be all right.

I looked into Fiddledee’s eyes, and she looked just like the cats on those birthday cards with the bulging eyes that are supposed to show that they’re surprised by how old you are. I think I know now how the photographer gets their eyes to bulge like that.

Finally, it was all over and I let Fiddledee go. She climbed right back into her cat carrier which was kind of funny because it took Mom and me a long time to get her in there in the first place.

Dr. Karnes said she doesn’t know for sure if there’s anything wrong with Fiddledee. She said we have to keep an eye on her and bring her back in another month to see if she’s lost any weight. We’re also supposed to watch her litter box for more red poop and to bring a fresh piece in for a test if it looks red. I hope there’s nothing wrong with Fiddledee.

When we left the animal clinic, we ran into a man my mother knows. He had a dog who got bitten by another dog and had to get stitches. My mother introduced me to the man whose name is Brent. I said hi, but I decided I’d rather talk to his dog, so I did.

On the Green Channel, I learned that a human can check to see if he’s top dog by taking one of his dog’s toys or chewies and putting it in his own mouth and walking around with it proudly. I think it might be a better idea to only pretend it’s in your mouth. If the dog growls or chases the human, the human is not top dog. If the dog doesn’t do anything or just tries to play, the human is top dog.

Another test is to wet your dog’s food with your own spit and offer it to your dog. If the dog eats it, he’s submissive, but if he growls or won’t eat it, he’s dominant. To wet your dog’s food, you can just spit on it and not really put it in your mouth.

I patted Kooch on his head and his back and on the top of his muzzle and he looked happy. Submissive dogs look like they’re smiling. If you want a dominant dog to start being more submissive, you can hold his mouth into a smile once in a while, and that will start to make him feel more submissive.

That works for humans too. If a person holds his face in a smile, he doesn’t feel angry or dominant. I saw that on Discovery Channel.

Some biologists think a smile makes a human feel less dominant because the smile evolved thousands of years ago from the fear face. If you were afraid of your enemy, you would smile to show that you weren’t a threat. I think humans are sometimes big liars, though. Some of them smile to pretend not to be a threat and then have you for lunch. For instance, sometimes Lyle smiles at you as if he’s your friend – then next thing you know he’s got you in a headlock or he kicks you in the shins. The smile’s only to get you to let your guard down. My mom says that’s pretty much how it works at her office too.

Brent had on a light green shirt with a dark green and purple tie. He looked a lot like a leprechaun, partly because of all the green, but partly because he was really short – much shorter than my mother, who is really tall for a woman. My mother is a little bit taller than my father, but she’s a lot taller than the man named Brent.

I got the feeling Brent is one of those grownups who doesn’t really like kids but pretends to. I like people who don’t like kids and don’t even pretend to like them – like Mr. Byers who owns the big apple tree that Bird and I play on. At least with Mr. Byers you know to stay away from him because he might grab you by the ear and march you over to the principal’s office like he did to Justin who fell out of the tree and into his backyard one day.

But with people like the man named Brent, their voices says, ‘I like you’ and
‘Aren’t you a cute little kid,’ but that’s not what their faces say. He reminded me of the alligator snapper turtle which has a bright pink tongue that looks like a worm that lures fish right into his mouth. Or like one of those shiny cards that if you tilt it one way you see one thing but if you tilt it the other way, you see something different.

Afterwards, I asked my mother if she actually liked that man. She said she likes his company.

I said, ‘Is that man going to be your boyfriend?’

She paused for a moment – too long of a moment, if you ask me. Then she said,
‘Phin, I enjoy Brent’s company. We have a lot in common. Listen, Phin, if I ever were to have a boyfriend, it would never come as a surprise, okay?’

I said, ‘Good, because bad surprises upset my homeostatis.’ I learned that word in Discover magazine, but I had never had a chance to use it until then. When a person’s homeostatis is upset, he feels uncomfortable and is motivated to do something about it. For example, if you are cold, you will shiver and get a sweater. I didn’t want to think about what I would be motivated to do if Mom made that man her boyfriend.

Besides, my mother and he would make a funny-looking pair. They would be different than most mammals since the male is usually bigger than the female. There are some mammals where the female is bigger, but only a bit bigger. That would be like the spotted hyena. The female spotted hyena has to be bigger than the male in order to stop him from eating her pups.

Of the species where the female is a lot bigger than the male, many of them are spiders. For example, the average female golden orb spider is 20 centimeters long, but the male is only 5 to 6 mm long. Some of the golden female orbs are 1000 times bigger than the male. The male is so tiny that he can live on the female’s web and steal her food without her even noticing him. He mates with her usually while she’s eating and is distracted. But if she notices him, she will try to eat him too. I can always hope that happens to Brent.

My father looks better with my mother, but they got separated when I was eight. I live with my mom because my father travels a lot. He’s a foreign correspondent. Right now he’s in Helsinki. It is six hours later in Helsinki than it is here. That means my dad is living in the future.

Excerpted from Amphibian by Carla Gunn. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Carla Gunn

Carla Gunn’s work has been published in the Globe and Mail, the National Post and heard on CBC radio. Along with writing, she teaches psychology and she worries. Amphibian is her first novel.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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