Short Story Prize
Old Hands by Mathew Howard
This week, we're rolling out the five stories on the shortlist for the CBC Short Story Prize. In today's story, an old man faces a history of violence and regret as the waters of time sweep away his home and the memories it contains.
My house is sinking into the sea. First came creeping dampness, a salty sweat that rose through the carpet and filled the air in a wet exhale. Now mould blooms across the walls in a delicate lace. All the photographs are gone, except the one of Marla taken on her fiftieth birthday, just a few weeks before she died. Her frozen face, forever unsmiling, yellows and curls at the edges like memory. Tiny waves lap at the skirting boards, sand collects on sills.
Knee deep. My old hands are cold and tired. The heaviness of salt hangs in the air, and I imagine my home, my life, pickled behind glass in a briny soup. A butterfly of water traces my every movement through the house. The walls crack and coil, exposing the house’s skeleton, rotting, reeking and private. My house creaks and whimpers, as though trying to break free from the mud and crawl to higher ground.
Waist deep. I marvel at the hidden abilities of known objects, a china cup that floats from kitchen to bedroom while the books that lifted me in darker moments sink like stones.
Deeper still. I tie a sheet between kitchen cabinets and sleep, suspended, through soggy dreams where Marla’s face rises and falls through the darkness. I reach for her, arms flailing, only to find myself upturned and in the drink, startling the fish that now dart about the pots and pans collecting, reef-like, underfoot. My kitchen island is an island of a truer kind. I gather and cling to tiny gifts the sea brings as offerings, a cork, pencil, an old light bulb, flotsam from a drier, distant life. I’ve moved the photograph of Marla, tacked it to the ceiling above my hammock. Her quiet surrounds me now and always.
I’m cold, feel bone heavy. Another window breaks and the cold air swallows me whole.
I feel her on the seventh or eighth night, a shape both familiar and strange moving through the drowning house with quiet purpose. She fills the house in a way she never could before, her presence above, below and everywhere. She swims from room to room, the house groaning under the weight of her memory as she bumps along walls, thrashes through old doorways. With a smooth cut of fin, she’s in the kitchen, and rolls on her tremendous side. A silent, unsmiling eye meets mine and we watch each other, remembering, until the water erupts in a flash of teeth. I lay still, silent as the fish, hoping she’ll take me. Over years, decades of marriage, there were many nights like this; quiet, cold nights with nothing said, nothing ventured. Nights without end.
With a flick of fin, she leaves, out the front window and into the vast expanse of ocean. I close my eyes tight, and cast the net of memory after her into the long night.
I’ve started eating the fish. I hold my hand in the water and wait for the silver twitch of scales. I chip oysters from the kitchen sink. The top of the chimney still works fine, and I burn driftwood, books, anything high and dry enough to have escaped the great wet stomach of the sea. I burn my things and try to remember a time when I had any other use for them, a time when I had neighbours, friends. Not so long ago, I think, but I can’t remember faces or names, just the distant laughter of a child and Marla. I wonder what I’ll do, where I’ll go, when the house finally slips beneath the water for good. I imagine I’ll go with it. I’ll stay here forever, even as the walls wash away and the windows dissolve to sand.
In the meantime, I’m trapping the last memories in canning jars and sending them out on the waves. My wedding ring and father’s cufflinks in one, a piece of ribbon and a baby’s spoon in another. These are the souvenirs of my life here in this house, my life with Marla. They’ll bob and sway across the ocean until they find her. Then she’ll come for me, find her way through the crackle of late summer storms or the dull, icy wall of winter.
Fumbling through the water, my fingers fall upon a porcelain cat and a key. A tiny hand holds the key in my memory. The delicate, diaphanous melody of a music box unlocks peals of laughter long forgotten. Marla and I had a daughter. A very long time ago, I know, but we did have her. She was here with us, in this house, and then she wasn’t. Such sadness. Why don’t I remember it every day?
I’ll tie the key around my neck and keep it close to my heart always. I’ll set the cat to sail in the last jar. It will mean something to Marla, even if it doesn’t to me, trip some mechanism of her memory and draw her home.
The key keeps me awake at night. I get to thinking, remembering.
I oar back through fifty years, a century, eternity, until I’m lost. I stare at the stars, pause a while, and then wreck upon the shores of an island I’ve chosen to forget. A tiny hand holding a key, a ribbon loose in the wind. I look at my old hands; rough, work-worn hands that held and loved Marla’s face and body, good hands that nurtured plants and pets, helped people, played with and protected my child for the short time she was here. We are capable of such love, I think, such boundless, immense love.
Then I see Marla in the distance, circling, hungry for blood.
I lost the roof a few days back and the night is wide above my hammock at the end of the world. Marla’s photo is gone, but that doesn’t matter now. The stars are restless, churning and awake. Tonight, she will come. I hold my fingers tight around the key. I will keep it warm, even as it chills me to the bone. It chatters my teeth, rumbles out truths loud as a winter storm. The last memory will be of tiny hands.
I feel her sometime in the night. Having feasted on the anger of fifty years or a century, she is larger than ever, colossal, monstrous. I am small and frail. She fills the house until the last walls crumble into the churning dark. I can’t see her, but amidst the howling wind, I can find her by following the silence. I put the key in my mouth for safekeeping. The chimney falls into the sea with a crash and the hammock whips, moonward and away. She waits, watching me. I’m alone and scared in the cold, moving waters.
I try to remember the house, sunlight through windows and the sweet smells of a well-used kitchen, but my old hands have a memory of their own. They remember striking our girl, setting a ribbon loose in the wind, clenching into fists and knocking her to the living room floor. They squeezed her too tight and threw her hard, before moving onto Marla, who refused to fight back or say anything at all. These hands put a music box into my girl’s tiny hands as I told her I’d never hurt her again, until I did, of course, and she left us. My hands remember.
My feet fumble against the shipwreck of kitchen floor. Frigid water crawls up this seaweed skin, through driftwood bones. The waves spray ice into my eyes and I can’t see Marla, but can already feel the gnashing of her awful, righteous jaws. I’m ready for her, have stripped myself to what I am, an old man with nothing but a key in his mouth and the yowling terror of his own hands.
As with everything Marla does, this will be silent, but not gentle. I swim to her gaping mouth and pray I won’t be trapped, Jonah-like, alone with my violence for all time.
"Old Hands" is in the running for the CBC Short Story Prize.
Read our Q&A with Mathew Howard
The winner will be announced on March 26. The Grand Prize is $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, a two-week writing residency at The Banff Centre, and publication in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine.
Be sure to come back to Canada Writes on March 15, when we'll be opening the "people's choice" poll for you to vote for your favourite shortlisted story while we wait for the judges' verdict.