We're delighted to present an extract from The Red Word by Sarah Henstra, the latest publication from Irish publishing house Tramp Press.
University student Karen is swept up in back-to-school revelry when she wakes up after a frat party lying on the lawn of Raghurst, a house of radical feminists. She gets a crash course in anti-frat activism on campus, and is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women.
I squinted up at a shadow blocking out the sun. A man was standing over me. He wore faded jeans and a huge oval belt buckle etched with a triple X. I lifted my elbow to my brow and the man became a woman, a girl my age. If I’d learned anything last year at college, I’d learned that just because someone was wearing a military crew cut and a white T-shirt tight across a flat chest and had a pack of cigarettes folded into the sleeve of the T-shirt like James Dean, it didn’t mean you went and assumed she was male. Some of my education seemed to have worn off over the summer.
‘Are you okay?’ the girl asked.
I turned my cheek to the grass in an effort to mute the stereophonic whine of cicadas and grasshoppers. I was lying in somebody’s backyard. Gray fencing teetered overhead, but the only shade on me fell from the massive, hairy leaves of some kind of vine I was curled beside. Slug trails dazzled the undersides. ‘What is this plant?’ I asked.
‘Um, pumpkin,’ the girl said. ‘Last year, after Samhain, we couldn’t fit all our jack-o’-lanterns into the composter, so we dug a big hole back here and buried them.’
‘Samhain?’ My voice cactused my throat.
‘Halloween. Look, are you okay? What happened to you?’ she asked.‘I had sex with somebody,’ I said. The uprush of memory, and the shock that I’d spoken it aloud, made me retch a little. I rolled over and sat up in the grass. ‘You had sex with somebody,’ she echoed. ‘On purpose?’
I waggled my head side to side, testing my headache. The yard kept swinging when I stopped moving. ‘There was a frat party,’ I explained.
It came back to me now with another lurch why I’d walked all the way from the fraternity house to this particular spot, early this morning before I’d passed out. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Oh, damn. Is this 61 Fulton Ave?’
‘Yes. Well, at the moment we’re standing in 63,’ she said. ‘Our backyards are connected.’
I looked around. There was a line where the neat lawn became a jungle, and this was the jungle side. ‘I came about your ad for a roommate,’ I said.
The girl crouched beside me, barefoot in the grass. She held a mug of coffee and a lit cigarette. She offered them both, reaching out one hand at a time and pulling it back to indicate she’d make either substance disappear if it proved offensive to my hangover.
‘Thanks.’ I took a sip of the coffee, heavily sugared, and then a drag from her cigarette. I brushed at the ants crawling over my bare legs.
The girl was a few years older than me, I guessed, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. ‘You’re a little early for the room thing,’ she said. ‘Some of us have class this morning. Didn’t whoever you spoke to tell you that on the phone?’
I held out my hands to show the girl my dirt-ringed fingernails. ‘Well, I wanted to make a good first impression, you know?’ I laughed, but misery poked its black fingers all through the laughter. I was making it worse. I was making her feel sorry for me. ‘Look, let’s just pretend I was never here.’ I heaved myself to my feet – if I didn’t notice then maybe she wouldn’t either, how my knees and shins were smeared with green, how I must have been crawling on all fours that morning by the time I reached the back fence.
This would have been a good place to live, too. The roommate-wanted ad had stood out from the others at the Student Housing Office, where I’d been browsing yesterday for an alternative to my on-campus housing placement. The ad was much wordier, for one thing. Committed feminists only, it read. Vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic meal-sharing, and Queer-friendliness a must. That last phrase had stuck in my head because I wasn’t sure exactly what it was supposed to mean. ‘Queer’ was a slur against gays, I’d always thought. An insult, not something friendly. It was something the rednecks in northern Ontario were fond of shouting at tree planters on our days off, when we dressed up in thrift-store tuxes and dresses to go dancing at the Valhalla Hotel bar. Buncha queers.
The contact name on the ad had stood out for me too: Dyann Brooks-Morriss. Dyann had been one of the only sophomores in my freshman Great Writers class last year. I was impressed by her vocabulary and the boldness with which she would interrupt the professor with questions about things like ‘patriarchal assumptions’ and ‘ideological blind spots’. I came home once after hearing Dyann speak up in class and looked up ‘hegemony’ in my dictionary. Dyann sat in the front, and I was in the back, so I’d never really had a look at her up close.
I wobbled across the lawn behind the girl. ‘Hey. Give my apologies to your next-door neighbours too, okay?’ I said.
Her smoke huffed out in a laugh. ‘If they noticed, which I’m sure they did not, I don’t think they’d mind. Look, why don’t you come in for a coffee.’
The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (published by Tramp Press) is out now.