“Would you like to go for a walk? Around the edge of the lake?”: a short story by the winner of the IIML Adam Prize
Salal lies by herself on the pier. The sun has come and chased away the early morning mist. It’s getting hot, the early summer brings hovering blurs of heat across the island. The planks of wood underneath Salal’s body absorb the heat, frightful splinters of burning that sting when they touch the backs of her thighs. From the house she can hear the clink and rattle of metal hitting china. Alba is inside tidying up their lunch dishes. The yellow-white sunlight follows the ripples across the lake, trails of circles made by waterfowl. Salal shields her eyes and rolls onto her side, keeps reading her book, leaving the sun to brown her skin.
She wakes in a panic. She hadn’t intended to fall asleep. Later in the evening Salal and Alba are holding a dinner party for their friends. They had already spent a week at the cabin by themselves and wanted to do something they could invite their friends to. This was the place Salal’s grandfather lived and worked as a fisherman. She was lucky her uncle had let them borrow it for the week. It was a gorgeous spot now, modest, but tastefully renovated since Salal’s family had really started making money. Alba hadn’t seen much of the island outside of the city yet and was excited to be out on the water with Salal and their friends. It had been achingly hot all week, but Alba had insisted on wearing Red Bands around the property, just in case.
Salal starts to worry about the timing of this evening. She wants to will herself to get up and go inside, but she feels paralysed. The sun has made her skin angry and pink. She should get inside to avoid further burning, but she stays lying on the jetty slats. The sun beats down in parched waves. Her tongue won’t even move to lick the salt sweat off her top lip.
Loon calls out on the lake. Eagle nests above in the tallest firs. Their sharp cries echo along the surface of the water and the hills behind the basin the lake rests in. Salal watches the birds fish all afternoon, only to return to their nests and clean themselves. They shake out their feathers before biting and pulling them back into place. She watches until Alba calls her inside to help make a shopping list. Then the spell breaks and she finds her fingers moving again, her arms pushing the rest of her body up. She knows it’s happening but she can’t feel it. Salal leaves her book and blanket on the wooden slats, waves lapping so slowly and softly beneath them, barely audible.
As they discuss things to make, Salal begins to feel a little dizzy. Alba is a competent and quick cook. She knows what she wants to buy and basically just wants to run her ideas past Salal, who doesn’t want to go to the supermarket at all. She doesn’t like supermarkets, or the way the flickering neon overheads make her feel, but she decides to go anyway. She can’t decide what to make for dinner and this way she can see what is good and fresh to eat. Alba has a few small appetisers she wants to make, finicky things with very particular ingredients. Salal hopes that seeing the fresh ingredients nesting in their intricate pyramids will give her ideas. Her skin is a little sore and she feels her chest start to freeze up. As it gets harder to breathe, she gathers her wallet and phone and keys—refreshes her email several times, pulling the window down over and over again to search for new correspondence. She’s not waiting for an email from anyone in particular. They get in the car and Alba slams the driver’s side door loudly. Then they’re on the open road.
As evergreens zip past on the drive into town Salal feels her body tense back against the seat. Her feet flatten onto the floor, like if she can push them down hard enough she’ll slow the car down. Every corner they take feels like they won’t turn in time, even though Alba is a careful and considerate driver. Salal flinches as oncoming cars pass them. Alba squeezes her knee softly and tries to distract her. Salal just imagines her grandfather opening up fish with his knife, cracking and splitting their ribcages into flat skins, leaving the ripe pink flesh spread underneath.
The supermarket hums and buzzes. It’s relatively empty, which should be comforting, but it seems to make every interaction with another customer or store worker even more jarring. The air hums with sounds of freezers and air conditioners. Out the front of the store is a solitary beggar who is being asked to leave by a weedy security guard. Inside, women with expensive, cropped hair buy organic farm raised salmon. Salal wants to move quickly through each isle, looking at only necessities. Alba insists on asking employees where things are. All of the produce here is local and grown on the island. Alba loves this. Salal tries to decide between different greens for a salad. Arugula or spinach? Her mind volleys back and forth: she comes up with pros and cons for each. She debates from both positions, against herself, trying to imagine the different fixings she would use to with each. Alba comes up behind her and rests a hand on the base of Salal’s back.
“Having some trouble?”
Salal looks up and is sure Alba sees her empty stare and panicking mind. “Yes. I want to make a salad.”
Alba pretends to think for a moment and then says, “Rocket is your favourite, right? Why not just make a salad of your favourites?”
“I want it to be special.”
“It will be special. What’s more special than cooking the things you love most for your friends?”
Salal’s mouth turns down a little. “I don’t know.”
“Here, we’ll just get the rocket. There’s a thousand things you can do with it—and—it’s more flavourful than the spinach.” Alba picks up a nice bag of arugula and puts it in their basket. “We can always come back if you change your mind.” She kisses Salal’s forehead and pulls her on. They pick up easy things, some cured meats, soft cheeses, a baguette. Alba has found all the stuff she wants to cook with already. Salal looks at the fresh fruits, nuts and seeds. Tomatoes and peppers in reds and oranges and greens and purples. Alba helps her choose nice things, even if they’re a little more expensive. Salal feels guilty and worries about eating them later.
Back at the cabin, the afternoon whittles away into arranging food into small platters. Everything can be cut into tiny geometric pieces of itself and reconstituted with other ingredients into something new and transcendent. Salal tries to focus on the exciting alchemical aspects of cooking, the transformation that division and heat produce. She peels a cucumber into careful even ribbons. Beside her, Alba is confident and happy in the kitchen. Something continues to feel a little heavy in Salal’s chest, drawing down painfully. She rests her arms on the counter in front of her, lets the sharp wooden edge press into the flesh of her forearm. She concentrates on this sensation instead, the hard bruising feeling. The new counters are made from recycled timber from around the property. The surfaces are all warm red-orange. A mask carved by Salal’s uncle hangs on the living room wall behind the couch. It’s a legendary bird with a long and strong beak. The mouth pieces of the mask have been made so the beak can be opened and closed at will, with loud, hard clack, clack, clacks. Legendary Bird stares at Salal while she watches Alba chat happily, julienning vegetables into fine little sticks.
Throughout the cooking the weight on Salal’s chest only gets heavier. She tries not to let her mind run in circles, but it does, and she starts to feel paralysed again.
“Can we go outside for a bit?” She asks Alba.
“Of course.” Alba understands that something isn’t going well for Salal. She takes her hand and leads her out the door. “Would you like to go for a walk? Around the edge of the lake?”
“I’m not sure.” Salal can see other people walking around the edge of the water, tourists and holiday makers. She’s a holiday maker too—but only in the same way her ancestors spread out down to the south shore during summer in the old days. She isn’t a disruption for simply visiting here. Regardless, she doesn’t want to run into anyone on their walk. “This way.” She says and leads Alba away from the busy shore.
They take the track up to some of the big old stones. It’s not long before they see the tall rock face covered in markings. These are the only petroglyphs Salal has seen on the island. She knows there are more elsewhere, but these are the ones closest to her family. To Salal they look like snarling wolves. There are fish too—sole type things, and a few human figures. Tourists come in the summer and take photos or rubbings. Alba is almost in disbelief when she sees them. Salal has neglected to mention the archaeological marvel that rests behind her family’s summer cabin. When Salal tells Alba the approximate ages of the petroglyphs she gasps. Alba is very excited and asks if she can touch them. Salal shrugs and lets her know everyone else does. The rock has been carved into in smooth, rounded lines. Salal used to come and sit with the stone when she was younger, lean against the rock face for hours, reading or drawing. Little wolf figures running across the page, tongues and teeth out. She wonders if she should have brought Alba here. She didn’t think about it before at all. But she quickly banishes the thought as she watches Alba touch the rock, tenderly almost, avoiding the carefully carved lines—as though she might smudge the marks someone had made three thousand years ago.
Dusk falls slowly. By the time it’s dark they’re back inside and Alba starts lighting the fire. Salal hands her the lighter and matches and stands back to let her conjure the flame herself. The wind races through the chimney and makes howling sounds, blowing smoke all through the living room. Then yellow headlights illuminate the driveway. Two carloads of friends arrive at once, Alba’s workmates and Salal’s friends. The weight from earlier still sits below Salal’s ribs, but hearing her friends laugh and shout from the car makes her smile. They greet them all on the porch, beers in hand. Everyone piles inside with ornate salads, bowls of fresh and fragrant food. Marguerite has baked a cake.
“How’s it been, being away together?” Hanna asks, sucking in on her tiny vape.
“Great. I guess.”
“I guess?” She coughs out a cherry flavoured cloud. “You’ve only been dating for three months! This is meant to be the most romantic time of your fucking life.”
Salal looks away. “I don’t know, I’ve just been feeling weird lately.”
“Like skipping Zoloft weird? or…?” Hanna’s thins eyebrows rise comically high.
“Like there’s a lot going on at the moment and I feel like I barely have any energy or time to give Alba.”
“Sure. Relatable. That’s just grad school baby.”
Salal’s lips press together. “Yeah. Maybe it’s more than that. I don’t know.”
For a second it seems like Hanna is going to press it but knows Salal won’t have any more to say. She splits the difference. “It’s a bit of a shame. She’s pretty sweet.”
“You say that like you’re surprised.”
Hanna just laughs.
Alba is in the kitchen with her friends. When she relaxes into happiness her face takes on a childlike quality, like her joy is unencumbered by other emotions. Sometimes Salal wonders if everything feels simpler for Alba.
They all eat the food in a Dionysiac spread across the small table. The dining room is more of a breakfast nook, but they’ve filled it with sumptuous dishes—extravagant salads where several of the main ingredients are not vegetables. Alba made inappropriately small crudites, but they delight to those who eat them. Someone has brought candles and someone else collected wildflower posies. Margurite’s cake sits in the centre of the table. It is a layered and tiered, delicately frosted, black forest cake. She has carefully placed maraschino cherries along the top, the kind that are so sweet and pink—even the stems burst into syrup when you bite into them. They eat to the point of pain, though Salal isn’t even very hungry after the afternoon of cooking. She feels happy to see her friends like this, but still needs another beer to even begin to relax. She breathes in big gasps, releasing her sour sweet hoppy breath into Alba’s face. Someone else dims the lights.
It is later when Salal starts noticing the wispy threads of blue light that follow her friends’ movements. Hanna reaches past her for her drink and the bluish smoke follows her arm. As if it is heavier than air, it falls to the ground in misted drops, pulling silky thread of vapour from her sleeve.
Kaya and Marguerite are dancing, Marguerite raises her arms above her head, and Salal can see the tiny pinfeathers pushing through her skin. As if in time-lapse, the feathers extend and harden, cased in keratin, until they outgrow the casings and the dead matter falls to the ground. The feathers take a breath and settle, a brilliant teal, as primaries, secondaries, tertials—the trailing edge of wing.
Kaya is laughing, her wide mouth opening further and further back. Her mouth is a bear mouth, wrapping around her head. The teeth inside sharpen momentarily, before rounding down. Behind them, where Alba was standing, is a small berry patch. Her vines and bushes shrink and grow, blooming and fruiting over and over again in front of Salal. There is a small shimmer of sunlight over Alba’s branches.
Hanna is watching beside Salal, clapping a slow rhythm. They sit together until everyone who was dancing has transformed in front of them. Salal turns to say something to Hanna, but she has become a skin drum and a padded drumstick—all the animal dancers in front of Salal keep time to Hanna’s beat. The pain in Salal’s chest becomes stronger with every strike of stick on drum, the twisting sharp pain splits her heart, echoes in aches throughout the rest of her chest. She has to get outside.
She puts her beer down and gets up to leave. She looks back as she closes the door, at the dark living room. The pulsating blue light reflects through the window, onto the water closest to the cabin. There is the faintest sound of water. Lapping the edge of the shore. Moon has risen, Loon calls out on the lake.
Salal sits down on the edge of the jetty and remembers every visit to this lake. The stops to the ice-cream parlour on the drive down. The silence and mists of the dawn. Fighting with her sisters in their canoes. Sitting alone with the rock in the forest. Then she remembers getting ready to canoe one morning with no one else around, just her father. He helped her into the yellowest of life jackets. The water was still and black behind them. Salal was scared of falling in, to the bottom. Her father clicked the clips on her jacket and yanked the cords so hard he crushed her chest. The pain sat between her ribs and jumped out towards her heart and lungs. He pushed Salal towards the canoe and turned to his own jacket. She remembers not being able to breathe.