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Read an Excerpt From the 10th Anniversary Edition of How You Were Born by Kate Cayley

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Ten years ago, Kate Cayley firmly established her place as a leading short story writer with the collection, How You Were Born (Book*hug Press). The book went on to win the Trillium Book Award and was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

A young mother intrudes into the life of an older woman, thinking she knows what’s best. An academic becomes convinced that he is haunted by his double. Two children spy on their supposedly criminal neighbours. A man enables his cousin’s predatory impulses out of loyalty, and a circus performer dreams of a perfect wedding.

These tales show the reader deeply human characters, who try and fail, and who seek connection and redemption as they go about their lives. Love, loyalty, and memory are explored intimately, and the collection comes together as an empathetic tragi-comedy that spans time and place.

We're very happy to share an excerpt from a story in the new tenth-anniversary edition of Kate Cayley’s award-winning collection, which includes three new stories, a foreword by Alayna Munce, and preface by the author.


The Summer the Neighbours Were Nazis, excerpted from How You Were Born by Kate Cayley  

My brother Richard was odd. By the time he was twelve my mother yearned for a diagnosis, but he was just odd. Oddness in a child is not tragic, it doesn’t gain you sympathy, but his strangeness felt to her as hard to bear and as isolating as real tragedy. He was afraid of the dark, afraid of strangers, cats, dogs and other boys, and if anyone called him Rick he would say “My name is Richard, please don’t call me Rick” in a strained, grieved voice. He wore the same yellow T-shirt every day through that summer. He would not eat bread crust. He thought we could send signals to aliens from our roof, given the right equipment. He became hysterical if my mother entered his room without knocking, and had a series of traps worked out so he would know if she’d gone in when he wasn’t there. He was obsessed with the Third Reich and the nineteenth-century Society for Psychical Research, and he read books about them. He had no friends, except me, and wanted none. I adored him.

His teachers had no idea what to do with him, and he was hopeless in school. They’d say to my mother, “Well, his reading level is really just amazing…” and, drifting off, they would look at her helplessly, which made my mother, burdened with raising us on her own, lie awake at night thinking that a boy Richard’s age shouldn’t cry so shamelessly, or prefer the company of his nine-year-old sister, or be so content with his own solitary state. Richard—prim-mannered, heavy-set, with chipped fingernails, stained clothes and lank hair—barrelled through the world with implacable satisfaction, barely noticing his own social failings. Shoved against walls by students, mocked by bemused or possibly cruel teachers, he adjusted himself and continued, eager for the next discovery to recall at the dinner table, talking with his mouth full as my mother winced. Who could blame her—with fall came middle school, and she was sure it would kill him. She adopted a bantering, hectic tone with him all that summer. Richard, who missed nuance, noticed nothing.

Kate Cayley author photo

Kate Cayley, author of How You Were Born

That summer Richard decided we should spy on our neighbours, two old men who never left their house. He said they were Germans, high-ranking Nazi war criminals in hiding, and he stuck to his story even when my mother told him that Nazi war criminals hid out in Latin America or at least the BC interior, not Toronto. Besides, they were Polish, like everyone else on our street except us.

We made a lookout in the birch tree in our backyard. The tree grew against our fence, but the higher, thinner branches reached over to their side. If we edged our way out onto those branches, we could see, far below, their yard’s thin grass and the cedar hedge they had grown to keep us, or anyone, out.


Calculated risk, Richard said to me, we are taking a calculated risk. He packed a bag for us to take up the tree. In it he put water, crackers, cheese, a flashlight, old heavy binoculars, a notebook and pens and an air horn. I have no idea where he found the air horn. I put blue and white streamers in my pockets and hung them from the branches, against Richard’s objections. I’m not sure whether he thought it made us too conspicuous or felt it introduced an incongruously jolly note to our mission, but he gave in when I begged.



“I need you to listen to me.”


I leaned forward, wedged in the branches, my stomach lurching when I looked down at the ground. He took out the air horn.

“Put your hand on the pin, there. That’s what you pull to make the horn go off. Careful, it’s really loud. This is only in case we have an emergency. A grave emergency. Pay attention, Nora.”


Richard called the neighbours Friedrich and Wilhelm, pronouncing the names with a pedantically exaggerated German accent, like a villain in a movie. I called them The Men. We watched them through their one clear window. All the other windows were covered with newspaper.

The window looked into the kitchen. We could see an old white gas stove, a battered Formica table, a counter scattered with dirty dishes, cups with broken handles, bread ends. Sometimes the two men sat together at the table and drank coffee. Sometimes they argued, banging the table with their fists. Once one hurled a cup at the floor, where it smashed. After that they ignored each other for two days, moving quietly around the room, keeping their eyes down, not speaking, stepping over the white shards in their slippered feet. On the third morning the pieces had been swept into a corner, and the men sat again at the table, bent over their coffee and bread.


I wondered, and still wonder, which one of them swept up the broken pieces, coming downstairs in the night, shuffling into the kitchen, his hand searching for the light switch? The man who threw the cup, repenting, or the other man, forgiving? And why sweep the pieces into a corner, but leave them lying there? A reproach, or simply arthritic knees, acceptance of the inescapably encroaching chaos of poverty and age? Who were they to each other and what brought them to that house? Richard and I, so enthralled by the two war criminals in hiding, never considered anything nearer to the truth. Never married brothers? Two widowers staving off loneliness and privation? Perhaps (though this is hard to imagine) old lovers, covering their windows in newspaper to hide? Or enemies, locked together in self-imposed isolation and struggle, malevolent in the limited light of the kitchen, the single naked bulb? 


For us they were the splendid possibility of uncomplicated evil. It was Richard’s ability to transform the world by the sheer force of his enthusiasm that made me willing to watch them for hours every day, to report excitedly on every movement, while Richard took notes. That was his gift. He would interpret every twitch, every mouthed word, and before my eyes they grew into sly architects of horror. It was an amazing gift: to give every observed gesture a secret meaning. His gift answered my longing for sense and significance in the world, just as I was getting old enough to begin considering whether any of us had much particular importance or place.

It might have seemed pathetic from the outside—the two of us, with our streamers and bag of supplies, shimmying up the tree after my mother left for work—but watching them was a duty and a calling. I don’t know how we thought they wouldn’t notice. Alone in their house day after day, they were as fundamentally unoccupied as we were. And for all I know, they speculated about us as much as we did about them. It never crossed our minds that we might be both the watchers and the watched. 


The knock was loud. My mother answered in her bathrobe, clutching the Sunday paper. We were in the kitchen, watching her outlined in the doorway. We could hear her low voice, and the man’s shaky grumble cutting in and out. He was the slightly younger one, more hair, more teeth. She nodded, spoke, nodded, said something inaudible but final, shut the door, stood for a moment with her back to us. Through the window we saw him cut across our lawn towards his own house. He looked as though he were still mumbling, his left hand clenching and unclenching as he considered what my mother had said.

When she came back into the kitchen there were blotches of red on her cheeks, small isolated patches that made her look haggard. I was a child used to pleasing, and hated to think I might ever be in the wrong. The whole time she spoke to us I stared at the red splotches on her cheeks, which seemed to be my fault. Wishing to be correct and praised, it never occurred to me that my mother might be an unhappy or easily humiliated woman. Not simply concerned with us, but in her own self: comfortless, at a loss.

She sat in front of us and announced in a brittle voice that we must stop climbing the tree. She wasn’t angry, but we had to stop. She peered at Richard almost shyly. Richard looked out at the tree, hung with streamers now wet and tattered from summer rain.

“Richard,” she said quietly, her voice less brittle now, “couldn’t you help me sometimes?”

She waited while he stared out the window, his mind, as always, elsewhere.

She went upstairs, walking slowly to convey her disappointment. Richard smiled at me, picking at the hem of his dirty yellow shirt.


It was nothing she had said, so he missed it. He only noticed things said. I noticed. She was ashamed of him. I knew, though I didn’t fully understand. Much later, having understood, it took me years to forgive her, and years after that to realize how unjust my grudging, high-handed forgiveness was. Seeing Richard as a sign of her bad luck might have been a necessary thing, a way of holding herself together, or attempting to. She didn’t deserve to be forgiven as if I would, in her place, have behaved differently.


Richard said we must be more careful.

“There’s still so much we don’t know. We’ll find everything out.”

“Like what?” I asked, watching him rock back and forth. I felt doubtful, as if, for a moment, I saw him through my mother’s eyes.


He waved his hands in the air.

“Everything, Nora. We’ll find out everything.”

I decided to believe him.


We went up the next morning, inching higher than we’d ever gone. The branches bent under us, the white curled bark slipping under our hands. Richard went first, testing with his weight, whispering for me to follow, the bag slung over my shoulder.

The two men sat in the kitchen. They did not seem to be speaking. The floor was piled with newspaper, spilling all around their feet. I handed Richard his notebook.

They must have been waiting for us. Chairs were pushed back, cups slammed down on the table, they moved with surprising force, opening the back door and running down the steps, one of them carrying a broom as if he would chivvy us out of the tree like stray cats. Richard watched, amazed. They stood under the tree, shouting in Polish. The one with the broom began to smack at the trunk. I thought that he would shake us down.

I pulled the pin on the air horn. The sound was so big I lost my breath. The men stopped yelling and stood open-mouthed, the broom held up in the air. Back doors opened all along our short street. People began calling to each other. Richard, startled, lost his hold and slipped down out of the tree, the leaves slapping against his face as he fell, down through the punishing branches and into the mud of a wet summer, but not wet enough, not soft enough. Richard stared up at me without seeing me, his leg twisted under him.

The air horn went on and on, taken over at last by a scream that came from my brother, strange and singular and out of place, as if coming from outside him, from the tree or the grass or the sky. 


Excerpt taken from How You Were Born by Kate Cayley. Published by Book*hug Press. Copyright, Kate Cayley, 2024.

Kate Cayley is the author of three poetry collections, including Lent, a young adult novel, and two short story collections. How You Were Born won the Trillium Book Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. She has won the O. Henry Short Story Prize, the Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry, and the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. She has been a finalist for the K. M. Hunter Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Story Prize, and the Firecracker Award for Fiction, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the CBC Literary Prizes in both poetry and fiction. Cayley’s plays have been produced in Canada, the US and the UK, and she is a frequent collaborator with immersive company Zuppa Theatre. Cayley lives in Toronto with her wife and their three children.

Buy the Book

How You Were Born

This tenth-anniversary edition of Kate Cayley’s award-winning collection includes three new stories.

A young mother intrudes into the life of an older woman, thinking she knows what’s best. An academic becomes convinced that he is haunted by his double. Two children spy on their supposedly criminal neighbours. A man enables his cousin’s predatory impulses out of loyalty, and a circus performer dreams of a perfect wedding. These characters fail despite their best intentions and continue on despite their failures.

The stories in How You Were Born, each more incisive and devastating than the last, examine the difficult business of love, loyalty, and memory. Sharing the bizarre and tragi-comic of life—whether in present-day Toronto or in small towns of the early 20th century—Cayley champions the importance of connections, even when missed or mislaid, and the possibility of redemption.

With a Foreword by Alayna Munce and Preface by the author.