In the dining room, my brother Luke kneeled in a pool of sun and inspected his stamps. He received a packet in the post yesterday, so he would spend the morning cataloguing them by country, measuring their perforations, stroking their gums. He sat beside his leather album with a magnifying glass, the flannel of his pyjamas wound around his knee. In his palm, he fingered a copper-shelled beetle on a blue frame. Cuba 1950.
In the study, Uncle Eugene folded his socks. He owned a delicate selection— calf-length, dandelion green. He did not fold them how Dad folded them, which he learned in the war. Eugene pressed the socks together to fold them in thirds, then opened the elastic and tucked the toes inside. The pairs formed neat parcels, which he arranged in a row in his suitcase. I wondered who taught him to fold socks so discretely; he never fought in the war.
The kitchen smelled sunny with coffee. No one had cooked, but I could almost smell the fragrance of other mornings. Charred toast, sulphurous eggs, newsprint. Dad wiping yolk off his chin with a corner of the business page. I lifted the lid of the percolator. The basin was full— no one had touched it. So I poured myself a cup. The liquid smelled vinegary up close. I could not bring myself to sip, but I didn’t want to waste the coffee either. I carried the mug outside. It felt like a growth on the end of my arm.
Mom sat on the terrace swing in a network of afghans. The wool bound her feet at the bottom like a fish’s tail. She drank what looked like cream from a whisky tumbler. A cigarette balanced between her fingers, Eugene’s carton open beside her. She lowered her glass and smoked. After a studied drag, she tapped her ash into one half of an oyster shell.
Is that you, Will?
I stepped onto the terrace and shut the French door behind me.
She said: sometimes I think of you as a forest creature.
Like a metal, her voice warmed and cooled depending on her surrounds. Or in this case, who she spoke to.
You know what I mean, don’t you? she said.
I stared into the sunlight. She watched me blinking and smiled. I think I did know what she meant, but I didn’t want to get it wrong. I waited for her to continue.
I’m never alone in the forest, she said. Even if it’s silent, I will find bushtits and minks and voles.
Bears, I said, thinking of the San Diego Zoo.
Sure, bears. Mountain lions. Bryophytes.
Moss, she said, without explanation.
She smoothed her hair into place and sipped from her drink. She used to curl her hair and fold it inside a snood, or else plait a wreath behind her ears around the crown of her head. I was relieved when she cut it. I worried she would stop combing and her hair would grow stringy, and I would have to listen to other women’s comments at Ganges. Salt Spring Island is a small place.
You have to be particularly mindful of moss, she said.
She lifted the cigarette to her mouth and waited for my response. She found a new kimono in San Diego— honey-pink, patterned with windows. Stain-glass windows, grey windows, windows with birds. She sucked her cigarette. The kimono’s silk sleeves pooled around her elbows.
Have you brought me a drink? she asked.
Both our eyes lowered to the mug. I had nearly forgot I was holding it.
Coffee, I said.
No thanks, Ducky.
She lifted the mug from my hands and placed it on the table beside her. Joan and I used to play Old Maid at this table. It came from Grandmother’s set of white iron garden furniture.
Mom patted the cushion beside her. I climbed onto the porch swing. She lifted her glass, but paused before it reached her lips. She dipped it toward me.
I took the tumbler with both hands, the ice bumping my teeth as I drank. The liquid tasted sweet and eggy. A curl of heat wiped the back of my tongue.
Mom took back her glass. She rocked it, watched the ice slide back and forth
Now I’ll have to get more, she said quietly, after a moment.
She glanced at me, as if considering whether I could do it. After another moment, she combed my hair with her fingers and pushed it behind my ear.
Eugene’s packing in the bedroom, I said.
She continued to rock the ice in her glass. The cubes plinked louder as they melted.
Big suitcase or little suitcase? she asked.
Okay, she said. Good girl.
But he’s folded a lot of socks.
Has he now?
Little suitcase, many socks, she said. What do we make of that?
She tried to sip from her glass, but there was only ice.
Maybe he wears two at once, I suggested.
She sucked a cube, then opened her mouth to spit it back. The ice was too wide to slip out subtly.
Willa, she said, after she had completed the maneuver. Why don’t you go for a walk?
She rested her head on the back of her wrist.
Pick us some flowers, she said as she slouched, her knees nudging me off the swing. The kimono had unfurled around her heart, and I couldn’t help but pinch the collar together.
Your fingers are cold, she said.
I paused, my hand between the silk and the bars of her chest. Her muscles tensed. I stepped back into the sun.
In a colander, I collected: honeysuckle, trilliums, a nootka rose. Then I rested on my secret beach. One of my goals this summer was to find a phantom orchid. Joan said only one hundred grow in the province. They bloomed in columns of waxy petals, no leaves. As if someone plucked the wings off a swan and wrung them into a garland. They preferred the soil you found under cathedrals of cedar. And compost piles, shell middens. I think it’s the calcium. My secret beach had a shell midden. You could see it in the dirt that cut over the sand. Grass grew overtop now. Dad said natives tossed their shells here after they ate. Now the shells had chipped into fragments small enough to scrape inside my fingernails. I liked to imagine who ate these clams. Ten thousand years ago, someone cradled this mollusc in her mouth and sucked a fringe of chewy meat.
Dad knew a lot about this island. He hired one or two guys from the village to help build our house, and they shared morsels of information, like the best end of the island to fish for halibut. There was a contract builder from Victoria on Salt Spring, and it vexed him that dad sourced the work elsewhere. City boy, he said. After cheap labour. But I knew dad paid natives the same wage as anyone. I proofread his books to practice my long addition. To be honest, I think Dad preferred their company. He knew the island’s geography too, from his marine map, which Eugene had left pinned in his study. I memorized the map so I could find new beaches. My memory started to merge this map with his other posters. He would pin inserts from National Geographic and Popular Science on the walls— in case he needed to refer to a constellation chart, say, or a diagram of the human body. As I sat on the shell heap, I began to imagine the islands as an anatomy. A system of organs. On Salt Spring, we were locked in the centre of the system. A pancreas. Vancouver Island loomed to the south and west like our fat, glandular liver. Across from here, Kuper was what? The gallbladder? Then Galiano to the east— our descending colon. Mayne, Prevost, Pender. I wasn’t sure what those were. Further south, America. The anus, of course. On an island, it’s easy to feel confined.
This excerpt is taken from the opening chapters of a new novel in progress. Eliza Robertson was joint winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2013. The regional winners of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize will be announced on Tuesday 28 April.
Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver and grew up on Vancouver Island, Canada. She attended the creative writing programs at the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2011 Man Booker Scholarship. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Journey Prize and CBC Short Story Prize. In 2013, her story ‘We Walked on Water‘ co-won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her first collection, Wallflowers, came out this year with Hamish Hamilton Canada and Bloomsbury. She lives in England.