Student Spotlight: Meredith MacEachern

Interview

What do you write?

I always liked urban and realistic fantasy, and I’ve dabbled in post-apocalyptic, too. In recent years, though, I’ve become enmeshed in magical realism, which I think is my favorite genre to work in—looking back I see its influence in a lot of my older work. Regardless of genre, I find my writing is always reflective of real life, though. I’ve written to express frustration or confusion since I was little, so all my stories tend to have a social or political slant to them, or otherwise respond to the world.

 

Is there an author or artist who has most profoundly influenced your work?

That’s a difficult one. I think all my favorite storytellers have influenced me in different ways. K. Sello Duiker and Timothy Findlay started my love affair with magical realism, Agatha Christie and Laurie Halse Anderson have had a huge influence on my language and character building…but in a lot of ways, I think oral storytelling had the biggest impact. I was told a lot of stories growing up, and that mode of creation and all the different people who taught it to me have had a lasting influence. Myth, tradition, and memory have always been an important part of my writing because of that.

 

Why did you choose Stonecoast?

When I was applying to grad school, I told one of my favorite professors, who was writing recommendations for me, about all the places I was applying to. He listened very closely and told me to choose one where I would have a community and not just competitors. I knew some alumni from Stonecoast, and a lot of what they talked about was the diversity and support they got from the program. I’ve never really thrived in an environment where everyone was always trying to be the best or tearing each other down.

 

What is your favorite Stonecoast memory?

Dancing to “I Will Survive” at the 2016 Summer graduation is definitely up there. But I think the open mic that same residency tops the list. I was reading something I had written as a flash warm-up during Breena Clarke’s workshop that was very personal and kind of painful, but that I was proud of. I’m very stage-shy, but everyone was so supportive—one of the wonderful friends I had made stood in the back of the room so I had someone to maintain eye contact with to keep from bursting into tears. When I was done, it felt so cathartic, and I was glad I had done it.

 

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I mean, I guess all writers want to be published or otherwise have all their hard work and storytelling ability recognized, and so do I. But I’m also really interested in language. A lot of the languages I grew up around aren’t considered ‘vital’ in the international sphere, and I’d like to be able to help preserve them and assert their importance. The same goes for oral storytelling—I think it’s usually ignored as a mode of art and expression, and that blocks people off from millennia’s worth of histories, stories, and ideas that are still important and relevant.

 

If you could have written one book, story, or poem that already exists, which would you choose?

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I first read it back in middle school, and it was the first book that assured me that a round, awkward, designated-sidekick-type girl could be the hero. If my writing could help even one reader the way that book helped me, I’d die happy.

Meredith MacEachern: Featured Work

This is an excerpt from my current novel-length project, Whatever Gods May Be, a magical realist story set at the fictional Evangeline University in rural Nova Scotia. In this section, the five protagonists are investigating the death of a classmate, Carrie Prosper, who had her heart torn out and was found in the nearby bay. They are venturing into the local dikes, where strange beings are known to lurk.

 

The dikes of Redmount were a low, moorish space. Harsh winds off the bay and the tread of whatever creatures lived there flattened out the long grass. The path that hugged at the bay formed its outer border, and in the distance the forest prickled skyward, always seen through perpetual mist or shadow. Everyone knew that on the other side of those trees was the Cornwallis River and the highway fleeing towards Halifax, its distance from Redmount counted in the increasing number of Tim Hortons and the newness of the gas stations. But no one had ever been to the forest. Its mythic quality was great enough that even the oldest denizens of the town counted it as theoretical at best, and it had no name. It was not marked in Violet’s atlas. She had checked, twice.

Ava slowed her run first, the air raw down her throat. The ground seemed endless here; the trees that rose like a spine in the distance never got closer. This was the by-law territory, the silent space between Redmount and the rest of the world. Felicity felt the land quake under her. It wasn’t laughter now.

Finally, they all stopped. The five students stood together watching the trees in the postures of expectant deer, waiting for the startle, the snap. The darkness streaked the grass upwards so that shadows loomed over the low ground. Ava strained her ears for the sound of water, but with the bay at their backs there was nothing but the wind and the indistinct gripings of the earth.

It was Jonah who saw the page first. He clapped his hand over his own mouth to stop up his cry and jabbed a finger at the ground where a leaflet of paper shone. It was so pale, like a sand dollar, that in the dark it hurt to look at, and no one was sure why they hadn’t noticed it before. Kit, the last to stop their wild run, had very nearly trodden on it, and now he scooped it up. He read deliberately, with a little crease between his eyes, since he had left his glasses at home:

“’—I will quit the neighborhood of man and dwell, as it may chance, in the most savage of places. My evil passions will have fled, for I shall meet with sympathy—‘ It’s from an old book. Someone’s been reading out here.”

The others gathered to read over his shoulder, except for Ava, who began walking in little circles with her arms folded over her chest so she could scratch at the back of her left hand. Felicity had already identified the book and the context; Jonah was reading the notes scribbled in the margin. Violet noticed that there was a discoloration on the page, dampness in the shape of a flower. The impression of petals spread like a star over the word quit, and she pointed it out.

“It must be one of Carolina’s,” Jonah said, “she presses flowers.”

“What do you mean?”

They paused, briefly, to explain to Kit the weekly process of delivering books to the edge of the dikes where they vanished, and he seemed doubtful. “Who reads them?”

Felicity made to reply and then stopped herself short, before admitting, grudgingly, that she didn’t know—not that she hadn’t tried to find out. She had been Vice President of the literature society, and TA’d for Dr. Curnow and Dr. D’Angelo at various points, but the faculty was always cheerfully closed-lipped on the subject. Carolina was the most sphinxlike of all. Felicity had even glanced over her desk while sorting schedules out once, but the administrator wrote in a glyphlike shorthand.

But Kit thought of it the other way round. “Why can’t whoever-it-is just go to the library themselves?”

No one had an answer for that. They stood frowning at the blazing paper while Ava stalked about, scowling, as though she was trying to maintain a trench around them to keep the darkness back. In the dark her lashes seemed to leak down over her eyes in thick black lines.

Suddenly, in the distance, the stars over the trees were blotted out. For a moment, Ava thought of the mountains across the river, where the hook of Cape Split jutted into view. But this geography was new, a steep-sided back arched up against the sky. With sudden clarity, Ava could see the knobs of its spine caught in the moonlight. She tugged wordlessly on the closest person’s sleeve and heard Violet’s breathing catch and resume.

“Guys,” Violet whispered, and slowly they all turned and watched as the bulk shifted itself. Besides its emaciated spine there were few details in the dark, but it moved clumsily, lopsided as though it was dragging all its own weight behind it. In the dikes, distance was difficult to judge, but it seemed to be far off, and getting closer. There was the sound of the earth under it, the bone-on-bone grinding of a clenched jaw, and of paper crinkling, as Kit closed his fist around the page he was holding.

“It will move slowly,” said a voice over his shoulder, “but it will get here eventually. You should not have laughed so loudly.”

Kit spun, an athletic movement thrown off by his long limbs and the counterweight of the clenched fist, so that he went crashing into Jonah’s knees and they both ended up on the damp grass. All of Violet’s muscles seized, pinning up her spine, and Felicity yelled and ducked away at the same time so that the noise trailed back and up behind her and the creature in the distance lurched like a car on black ice. Ava simply put her hands over her head in anticipation of a blow, and watched from under her spilling hair.

All this happened in the space of a moment, and when they had all seen the source of the voice, it appeared at first as though a new tree had sprouted in the middle of the moorland. The man—for he was clearly shaped like a man now that they were looking at him—was even taller than Lucy, eight feet perhaps, but built like a wax figure, and solid even in motion.

“What are you doing here?” the creature asked. Then he repeated, somewhat truculently, “You should not have laughed so loudly. We ought to have been left alone.”

The five hearts that had gone leaping at the voice began to calm. They agreed, in deerlike whispers, that they shouldn’t have been laughing, and apologized, but none of them moved. Jonah, from his angle, with his leg pinned uncomfortably under Kit, peered up at the creature. He was wearing what looked like a very worn Evangeline hoodie and sweatpants from the campus store. Though both were in the largest size sold, they left his ankles and wrists and part of his stomach uncovered. The skin there gleamed sickly in the dark. It was thin and yellow, and the blood whispered beneath it.

“Who are you?” Felicity asked.

Jonah’s eyes traveled up, past his stomach, strangely vulnerable under the hem of the sweatshirt, and the powerful chest and shoulders, to the face, hidden in the hood drawn tight over his skull. Slippery black hair escaped in hanks. There was a flash of large white teeth like tombstones in the dark.

The creature said, “I am Klaus-of-the-Dikes.” His voice was well-oiled, and the words primed as though on a whetstone. There was a note of defensive pride there that made Jonah fight a smile and Violet think of her three little nephews when they wrapped towels around their shoulders and pretended to fly. “You’re students,” the creature added.

Kit finally stood and brushed himself off, allowing Jonah to scramble to his feet. With the surprise wearing down and their hearts slowing to a more reasonable rate, the five of them clustered around the stranger. His hands were large enough to wrap all the way around their skulls, and the muscles that moved beneath his skin were bloated with blunt strength, the sort that came from manual labor, but he drew back as though frightened. One of those enormous hands came upwards to shield his exposed stomach.

Felicity reached out and pulled the protective hand towards her and shook it, once, firmly, and the teeth showed again. The creature’s mouth appeared to have dropped open. The others laughed, softer, in the high notes approaching hysteria.

“Is this yours?” Kit offered him the page they had picked up; the creature glanced at it briefly and scowled.

“I did not want to finish reading it,” said Klaus-of-the-Dikes.

“It’s a library book,” Felicity said, indignant, “you can’t just tear it up.”

In order to properly meet the tall girl’s eyes, Klaus-of-the-Dikes had to lower himself to the ground and sit, cross-legged, which pulled the cuffs of the Evangeline sweatpants up over his ankles. The bones of his ankles, they saw, jutted out sharply, like those of a teenager or a young horse not yet grown into his own joints.

But even then, he curved down like a comma into her face, and Felicity drew back a little. Up close, she could see his mouth was black, his features blubbery and lopsided. He blinked at her with the slippery-cold eyes of a fish, and at her reaction there was an approximation of a smile.

“But I have torn it up,” he said. They could hear the creaking of his neck and jaw muscles working, restrained.

“What’s Carolina going to pick up when she comes back?” This was Jonah. He had taken the page from Kit and smoothed it out over his thigh. The shadow of the flower was still there—one of the wild white roses, he thought, by the size and the shape of the petals, which grew freely in the unkempt parts of Redmount and amongst the stubborn blueberry copses. One of the English professors must have had a clutch of them, as they could often be found cut into vases on Carolina’s desk, or on the bookshelves in the Chehalais offices and lounges. Staring at the blooming silhouette, smudged by damp and mishandling, Klaus-of-the-Dikes’ dark mouth pressed into itself as though he was trying to eat his own teeth, and again there was the sullen duck of the head and the hunch of the shoulders that pulled his too-small clothes tightly around him. He wouldn’t meet their eyes.

They all looked at each other. Ava was still half turned towards the shifting hill in the distance, making its inexorable progress towards them, but had relaxed slightly. She said, “I have a copy I don’t need. We can replace the book.”

“Yeah,” Jonah agreed, “but—“

Klaus-of-the-Dikes raised his head. He looked suspicious as he cast his look between all of them, with his head thrust forward and his jaw working. “But?”

“Do you know anything about what happened to Carrie Prosper?”

For a moment, he seemed confused, and it lent his features the same vulnerability as his bare stomach and awkward ankle-bones; they were less threatening for it, the eyes with a little bit of white around them, the waxen skin folded in where he frowned, so he looked more human. “Who is Carrie Prosper?”

“The girl who had her heart torn out,” said Ava, “in the bay. Early fall.”

His face cleared. “Round? With braids?”

They nodded. Klaus-of-the-Dikes scowled again. “It was not me. I only saw her. From a distance—she was walking from the red place.” He had to point to explain, across the dikes’ expanses to the faint red glow of the Timmy’s sign. “She stopped on the boardwalk. I did not watch her after that. You must understand.” Suddenly, he spoke with urgency. “I had no interest in her at all. I had no reason to watch her or to go near her, or to do her any kind of harm.”

They all followed his finger and his words from Tim’s to the boardwalk and the bay. Violet began, with a restaurant crayon from her pocket, to draw out the path on one of the atlas pages. Then, before any of them could say anything, Klaus-of-the-Dikes turned again, this time flagging out the moving shape in the dark. By now it was close enough so that the tops of the trees behind it looked like spines growing from its back. They could hear something low and complaining, a noise like rust and water, coming towards them on the sea wind. There was a smell with it—the breath of something rotting and wet and terribly old.

“You should go,” Klaus-of-the-Dikes advised. They stared at where the monster was, overwhelmed by the smell and the noise. “It does not want you here.”

“Would it know?” Ava asked. She seemed to be the only one unaffected by the smell, her nervousness shed like hide on a hot day, and she stared owlishly into the dark. “Would it have seen her?”

Klaus-of-the-Dikes considered this with a philosophical tilt of his head. “Perhaps. But he would not tell you. Not now. You were too loud.”

“What if we came back another time? Quietly?”

The slippery eyes turned towards her, lit faintly by the rising moon and the spilled stars, seed-like, growing brighter in the sky. “Do you see it—the way it walks? Look now, it is turning towards us. It is almost here. You see its shape?”

They did, but it was Kit who realized what he was looking for. The monster’s lopsided movements were caused not by an extra weight on one side, but by a lightness on the other. Its left shoulder, which shrugged with each movement it made to pull itself along, ended abruptly, a ragged angle on the body.

“It’s got an arm missing,” he exclaimed, and in his discovery his voice was very loud. The monster, closer, closer, gave a horrible cry and the earth shook and Felicity felt it in her teeth.

They didn’t need Klaus-of-the-Dikes to tell them to flee this time; they raced back across the moorland to the path and the boardwalk with the silent terror all prey creatures learn, and they didn’t stop until they reached Main Street, and ducked around a corner in front of one of the used bookstores. The noise returned; students flowed around them. The dikes were suddenly far away and deceptively still from here, but the smell lingered on their clothes, the raw breath of the monster.

Kit doubled over once they had stopped, half gasping a stream of intricate sacres— “Criss de calice de tabarnack d’osti de sacrament—!” while Jonah sat heavily on a nearby bench. Violet clutched the atlas to her chest.

Ava continued to stare out at where they had been; besides a buckling upwards of the ground that was normally flat, there was no indication of the chase, and the intermittent hill was a common sight to the residents of Redmount. Felicity was looking, too, but her eyes were farther away, or doubled back into her own head.

“So how do we get it a new arm?” she said. “Without being eaten alive.”

 

 

Ava was considering the same question while she walked home. Honeybriar House was halfway up the hill between Chehalais and the Tower, so it was sheltered from the worst of the winds that shrieked through the valley in winter, but the north-facing windows were still afforded a view of the bay. It was a small dormitory, horseshoe-shaped, and all girls. The piping was exposed, the house was drafty, and its residents, unabashed, tended to move about wrapped in trailing blankets and towels. Everything whispered, and it always smelled faintly of apples.

Ava had lived in Honeybriar for all four years at Evangeline, which was longer than she had lived anywhere else on earth. Someone told her once—perhaps a grandfather, or a wandering missionary of some denomination, she couldn’t remember—all the best stories end with a homecoming. Walking through the doors of Honeybriar every evening after class felt like both, and now especially, still shaking from the chase and the settling chill in her bones.

Honeybriar was paneled in dark wood and scratched-up cream paint, and the furniture was muted greens and blues and everything was well-worn and well-loved, cared for by the grey-braided custodian who worked her methodical way around the horseshoe each day. She was finishing her daily round when Ava entered. Tucking the communal mop and bucket back into the corner in preparation for university evenings, she smiled at Ava when the girl came in.

The foyer connected the two wings of the building, and to reach the east wing Ava had to pass by the main lounge’s double doors. Inside, Honeybriar girls were gathered in thickets on the sofas and seated on the wide sills of the house’s front windows. Several girls at a time could fill one armchair; a few had shoved the hard-backed couches together and piled it with quilts and homespun or woven blankets. Occasionally a hand would emerge, blue in the light of a dozen laptop screens, to retrieve a coffee mug or a nail polish bottle or a morsel from various takeout trays. A pop song was playing from somewhere, and Ava was drawn reluctantly in by the familiar scene. She paused outside the glass double-doors, looking in and feeling something in her turning over, warm as hibernation, like the feeling of waking up on winter morning with nowhere she had to go.

As she lingered, a few girls on an armchair inside saw her and waved her in. There were two on the chair itself, and one tangled amongst their legs on the floor in front of it, one perched on the arm and one sprawled across the back with her spine arched and her foot swinging. All of them had notebooks or laptops open. Their faces were alight with solemnity, and Ava felt as though she were approaching a council. She fought the urge to smile maniacally.

“We’re planning a memorial,” Fatumo said from the seat, “for Carrie Prosper.”

“Oh?” said Ava. She wasn’t surprised. Carrie Prosper had lived in Cope House, but Honeybriar had always maintained a fierce protective stance towards the women of the campus. “When?”

“Soon. On the steps of the old hall, probably. Henry Christmas from Admissions said he would help officiate it. He’s from Bear River, too, you know.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

Desiree, strung up across the back of the chair, lifted her head to look at Ava. It seemed a very uncomfortable position, “The mounties have dropped it already. Did you know that?”

That Ava had not known. She remembered, dully, the image of the cop cars peeling away from the bay, and the mounties slouching across the streets. They had looked aggrieved then, but she was as unsurprised at their apathy now as she was at Honeybriar’s reproach. She felt, as a film that clung like oil to the laptop screens and coffee cups, a low humming anger. Her own was in shades of grey.

Telling them goodnight, and that she would be at the memorial, and that she would tell everyone she knew, Ava made her way up to the third of Honeybriar’s four floors, to her single room in the corner facing the student union building. On her way, girls called greetings through their open doors; a third year passed her, humming, wrapped in a towel; and an RA was adjusting a poster on one of the resident corkboards, advertising free and confidential STD testing at the campus clinic. She saw the expression on Ava’s face and didn’t bother her.

Ava’s room was larger than most of the other singles; one of her scholarships covered room and board and she unabashedly took advantage of that. Her desk was cluttered, and her bed was draped in a cheap, flowered Target comforter and an eiderdown blanket. There were two wardrobes: they were too big to fit out the door, so when the double room had been turned into a single, whoever had done it had left them both there. Ava kept one filled with clothes and the other with tea.

For a moment, Ava paused before the window. Her room faced the main path through the campus and down the hill. It looked out on the brutalist angles of the student union building and, just beyond, the steeply sloping Cooper Avenue and its student apartments. The SUB was still all lit up; the convenience store inside would only just be seeing the study-night rush. On the path below, two Honeybriar girls, music students, stepped out from the building and hurried back towards the dorm with thin plastic bags of trail mix and potato chips. Again, there was the warm feeling in Ava’s breastbone, cupped like a small animal.

She often got the same feeling at the beginning of each year, after the summer, upon her return to the university. Down this path, during orientation in August and the first glorious still-summer days before classes began in earnest, new and returning students would ramble long into the night, loud and drunk on the new beginnings and the cheap tequila at the local dive. They delighted in the way the air cooled enough after dark to chill the sweat from them, and so they went along steaming and shouting.

Once the year had settled in, they would still go by, well into the winter, sometimes wearing just as much clothing, but they would hurry and not be as loud. By then Ava would be keeping her windows closed against the chill. But in the summer, for those first few days, she would lie awake in bed and listen to the drunken students. Those nights she loved them so much, just for being part of the one solid piece of earth she could return to, that she thought she would glow like a whale-oil lamp.

She sat heavily down in the swivel chair and stared at the accumulation of syllabuses, textbooks, and handouts that were spread out across her desk. Dr. Curnow had assigned the first few chapters of The Road, Dr. D’Angelo a one-act play called How They Bled for Spain—she had doodled running horses and sickles and camera lenses in the margins of the rubric.

Outside, the night was quiet. Her window was still open, but there were no drunken ramblings down the hill. Redmount seemed very fragile suddenly, a dusting of powder over a deeply-lined face. At its fringes, the bay was full and whispering, hush. It dug its fingernails into the banks at the edge of town and Ava could hear them grating there. The sound reminded her of qamutiik over sea ice, but harsher, without the sled’s flexibility or fish-skin runners. She wondered if Carrie had heard the same sound before she died.

The grey anger in Ava’s belly flared like ambergris catching fire. She spun the chair—once, twice, three times—and settled in facing her desk. Brushing aside the assignments, she opened up the lid of her computer, clicked the group chat, and began to type.

 

Meredith MacEachern

Meredith MacEachern has been writing since before she could physically hold a pen. After a childhood spent traveling with her archaeologist parents, she earned a BA with Honours from Acadia University in Nova Scotia, where her work appeared in Estuary and The Athenaeum. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing through the Stonecoast program.

Meredith primarily writes novels and long fiction, though she occasionally dabbles in poetry. She also enjoys studying languages, particularly Inuktitut and Vamé, in what little spare time she can muster.