We Walked on Water
The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta will publish each of the winning stories online this week. This selection showcases the exciting emerging talents, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we begin with the winning entry from Canada & Europe, Eliza Robertson’s ‘We Walked on Water’ and an interview with the author.
Land of the misty giants: cedar, alder, Ponderosa pine. Cascade Mountains pushing out green like grass through a garlic press. The veg here is fungal. Jungle. All of it is rainforest: fern-webbed paths and moss like armpit hair, the exclusion of 70 per cent of the sky. You see the tallest trees in the first half of the drive – between home and Hope, Hope and Allison Pass. I’m the kid at the back of the bus with a packet of apple-rings, slouched in his trackpants over two velour seats. I could have cycled: Chilliwack to Penticton, 285K, a hundred clicks longer than the route in the race. But it’s best not to overdo it. Rest well, race well. Taper time now.
Aunt Bea will meet me at the terminal, in her plaid-patched skirts, smelling of patchouli. She’ll drive her Volvo from Nelson, kayak on the roof-rack when she rolls into the lot. Last year we ‘made a week of it’. Our parents browsed bookshops and beadshops; Aunt Bea sat on the beach and sliced watermelon. Liv and I trained in the lake. We raced between the Peach and the Riverboat, and sometimes I let her win. Once she almost won for real, but I grabbed her heels and yanked her under. She kicked me in the hip and I let go. Asshole, she said. She splashed water into my eyes and swam to the shore to practise handstands.
When you train, numbers are everything. Kilojoules in and out, pounds per inch, the speed and duration of mass in motion. Zeros and ones, like a computer. Liv understood how to be a computer better than I did, though I think I’ve caught on. Our nutrition plans were similar: four to six small meals. Fistful of protein; fistful of starch; two fistfuls of colour. We ate space food. Sports gels in squeeze tubes: Accelerade, Perpetuem. She dipped salted pretzels into cottage cheese. I drank non-fat chocolate milk.
What worried Mom was the swim scrum: one lake, no lanes. Anthem ends and the start horn blares. 2600 participants wade into the water, identical in our neoprene and brightly coloured swim caps. It feels baptismal, sacrificial. We drop row on row into a tangle of legs and windmilling arms. Stay out of trouble, Liv, Mom said. Stay out of trouble. People assume she got held down. 5’4, 105 pounds: easy to front-crawl over. But that wasn’t it. She stayed near to me. The first leg, 1600 metres lakeshore to Last House, I kept her in sight. In the scrum, you move as a group: a collective consciousness. Sometimes you let yourself be carried. You slip over bodies like spawning salmon, which Liv and I actually tried once. Salmon run 2005, Vedder River. We in our swim skins and matching caps. We let the current steer us. Watched their shadows through our goggles, how darkness darted over algaed stones. Their hook jaws and flared teeth, port-stain scales, how they tumbled over each other and over our ankles. The flick of their fins.
Last year, the swim made me woozy for the rest of the race. 3.8 kilometres, one breath per stroke cycle. Rhythm is key. Beats per minute, strokes per metre. Your It feels baptismal, sacrificial. We drop row on row into a tangle of legs and windmilling arms. Stay out of trouble, Liv, Mom said.heart, your lungs, your metronome. The left is my poor side. I breathed on my left for the first half of the course and on my right for the second. You learn how to swim slippery, with minimal resistance of the body through water. When Liv and I practised at the pool, we took turns watching each other splash. Well that was sloppy, she’d say. It’s your legs. Your legs aren’t straight. I would swim another length and if it was better she’d shoot a thumbs up from the end of the lane.
Sometimes they wired separate music into the underwater speakers. You’d hear Top 40 on deck, but in the competition lane they played Beethoven. The lake is a different music – the calm hum of underwater ear pressure. In the race, you follow that hum to the shore, then find your landlegs, where your feet start and the wet sand ends. I remember juddering through the time chute – hands on my back, guiding me to the change tents. They unzip the wetsuit for you, spray you with sunscreen while you call for your glasses. I searched for Liv when I ran to the bike racks, but the ladies’ tent was crowded and she always took longer to change. Some athletes would pause at the nutrient station. They peeled their bananas and PowerBar wrappers. I kept my bike calories in a single bottle. Accelerade + CarboPro. Energy gels to top up.
Tonight, Aunt Bea and I will eat spaghetti. I used to make fun of Liv when she measured, but this weekend I packed her food scales. 400 grams whole wheat spaghetti, crushed tomatoes, extra-lean turkey. After dinner, we’ll drive the bike course. Follow the lakes: Skaha to Vaseux, Vaseux to Osoyoos. Penticton – Oliver – Keremeos, 180 kilometres. Every twenty-five clicks, I’ll get out and cycle. That’s how you notice the camber, the incline of road when the street appears flat. Never mind the mountain passes. The highest altitude comes near the end: 2500 feet. Aunt Bea will drive slow beside me. She will play Creedence Clearwater on tape. When she brakes for me to haul in the bike, she’ll sing I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, oh, Susie Q. Tomorrow we’ll drive the run route. We did this last year but I don’t like surprises. We all have our rituals. On raceday, Liv used to eat sun. We have this skylight in our kitchen; from May to September the light floods in. She’d stand below the glass with a bowl of white yogurt until the sun reeled off her spoon. I watched from the hall, sometimes. You could pinpoint each moment the glare made her blink. But on Ironman Sunday you eat breakfast before sun-up. Check-in’s at five; we set the radio for four. She aimed for toast and peanut butter, but couldn’t keep it down. Raceday nerves – I heard her retch in the shower. But ask any competitor: on raceday you go liquid. Mothers said it in the fifties. Don’t eat and swim. A girl eats careful and it’s a disorder; her brother eats careful and he’s an athlete. We shared the same BMI.
This is the first time I’ve taken the Greyhound. Last year, our parents drove. Liv asked for lunch in Princeton because it was the only town with a Booster Juice. Booster Juice stamps the nutrition label on every drink, so you know you’re getting thirty grams of protein with your 500 calories of Bananas-a-Whey. I wanted Dairy Queen. A Butterfinger blizzard layered twice with hot fudge.
That’s obscene, said Liv.
I have a craving.
That’s over 100 grams of sugar. For a medium.
Look at you. You’ll make yourself sick. That’s like six bananas.
How many bananas before you grow tits?
She didn’t speak after that. She inserted her earbuds and frowned out the window. You knew Liv was upset if you saw a glimmer of sweat above her eyebrows, or on her cheekbones. And sometimes she left her mouth open after she spoke, like she couldn’t quite catch her breath. But then I might poke her shoulder with my eyelids flipped inside-out, and she would smack the back of my head.
Long QT syndrome, the medical examiner had said. Arrhythmia. Mutated sodium channels, reduced flow of potassium: the medspeak never sounded severe enough. This year, Mom forbade me from competing. She said, ‘I forbid you.’ We fought when I registered in October, a few days before Halloween. We were carving pumpkins. She shoved hers off the counter with the heel of her palm.
Dad won’t come this year either. He says it’s because of work, but he’s not contracted for Sundays. Last year, they ate at Thomasina’s, a bakery with oven-hot scones and rounds of sourdough that steam from the centre when you pry them in half. We all shared a booth. Liv and I plugged into our iPods and frosty wax cups. Mom and Dad staring out the window, buttering their scones.
The tallest building in Princeton is the visitor information centre. My bus will wait there thirty minutes, and I might treat myself to a Strawberry Slam. Sometimes I wonder about the diets of other animals. How millennia of worms and woodbugs might contribute to the bone density of birds. The musculature of flight, lean protein for air-friendly pectorals. Versus penguins, who swim and eat squid. We’ve lost weight since we were apes; we’ve become more aerodynamic. I wish we had wings. Though the run rules say, no form of locomotion other than running, walking or crawling. Liv cut that line from the athlete guide and pasted it into her journal. It was funnier before the bike-to-run transition. The weight of your muscles, the downward propulsion, your blood and your breath pumping into the pavement.
Last year I made it to dusk. To the chicken broth and Coca Cola. The coke fizz went down like static electricity, like the charge from a balloon you rub in your hair and stick to the wall. The volunteers distributed the broth in warm paper cups. You would ease into a jog and graze fingers with the kid in a mint volunteer shirt as he handed you the cup. It tasted like the most nourishing thing you’d had all day and you held the liquid in your cheeks and nodded at the kid, who had Down’s syndrome, and he grabbed another cup from the table and fired you an A-OK sign.
At one point near Skaha Estates, I stopped running at the top of a hill and waited forty-five seconds to spot Liv. I thought she must be ahead of me. She was a stronger runner. I thought maybe she slipped in front when I used the toilet at the bike-to-run. But then I saw Dad’s Ford Escape at the turnaround on Christie Beach, his cheeks slanted and white through the windshield. Athletes crowded the special needs table, ghosted the nutrient station with their neon bottles of Gatorade. I stalked off the road and walked straight to the car. He shifted his eyes to me through the window, and for a moment neither of us moved. He flicked a switch at the wheel and the passenger door unlocked. I opened the door and climbed into the front seat and his palm clapped my shoulder. His eyes squinted into mine, and then he turned the ignition. I noticed there were two small Tim Horton’s coffees in the cup-holders. He drove off the course, on the other side of Skaha Lake, and it wasn’t until we were halfway to Kaleden that he pointed to the cup nearest me and said, that one’s yours.
A premature ventricular contraction is medspeak for your heart skips a beat. The contraction is initiated by your heart ventricles rather than the sinoatrial node. You can listen to high-pitched recordings on Wikipedia. It sounds I read once that grief is like waiting. Waiting to sleep. Waiting to wake up. Waiting for Act III, the plot twist.like bagpipes. Tempo Rubato is Italian for stolen time. Rhythmic freedom. The expressive speeding up and slowing down of a piece of music. Chopin played steady with his left hand, timed to the metronome, while his right hand weaved in and around the beat like a ferret inside a chest of drawers. Your left is your clock. Your timekeeper. Liv played ‘Chopsticks’ with her toes. Tilted onto her tail bone, the stool pushed back, half a grapefruit between her palms. She sucked the juice through a straw, and I waited for her to flick her chin and fire the pulp at me. I remember her in screenshots. Like she’s in motion, but my mind can only capture single frames. That’s how I imagine her in the lake. Involuntarily, when my mind slips in flashes. Liv with her jaw gaping, gasping in water. Liv with a thin wrist braced to her thorax. Liv with her eyes bulged like a fish. When I imagine my sister, I do not see Ophelia. Her heart’s seized and she’s choking in lake and I wonder at what point she knew.
I read once that grief is like waiting. Waiting to sleep. Waiting to wake up. Waiting for Act III, the plot twist. Like when you drop a twig into the stream and it never emerges on the other side of the bridge. Tonight in Penticton, I might take out Bea’s kayak. Go for a paddle. Liv and I rowed the swim course last year, with a Thermos of hot chocolate and a box of Ritz crackers, our boom box, the Beach Boys and six D batteries. We paddled into that warm darkness, the blue hour of bats. How they screeched and swooped over the dry-patched Summerland hills. Liv laid her oar across the cockpit coaming and shut her eyes. I continued to row. Motel neon glowed from the lakeshore, and we slipped past their spears of reflected light. ?
photo by Lee Shoal.
Interview with Eliza Robertson:
Is place, the landscape and language of where you’re from, something that has a bearing on your writing?
Yes. It’s difficult to escape. This story rattled around my mind for weeks before I found a voice for it. Then I took a train from Halifax to Vancouver – over six thousand kilometres of ‘landscape’, including the Rocky Mountains. But it was the Cascade mountain range that took my breath away. The story started there.
Do you know why you do it?
It’s not a conscious decision. Our environment surrounds us – it seeps in. Place influences many of my stories, but not all of them. I suppose if something moves me to write, I don’t question it. For other writers it’s music. Art. A relationship.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and a story collection. By ‘working on’, I mean I have finished tentative drafts, and now I have closed the projects from my taskbar so that I may indulge in a week of rest before I poke at them with a sharp nail file. (Again.)
If you were in a band what would it be called?
‘Mozart and the Wolf Gang.’ That might be taken by Anthony Burgess. Nonetheless!