ScotiaBank Gillers

Shortlist excerpt: Inside by Alix Ohlin

Montreal, 1996

inside-125.jpgAt first glance, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she'd been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she'd found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she'd come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her -- its clusters of green-spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence. This winter had been mild, and what snow did fall first melted, then turned to ice overnight. Now, at the end of January, it had finally snowed all night and all day, at last enough to ski on. Luckily her final appointment that afternoon had canceled, leaving her free to drive up before the light was gone. She slipped around the Chalet and headed into the woods, losing the vista of Montreal below, gaining muffled silence and solitude, the trees turning the light even fainter. One skier had been here before her, leaving a path of parallel stripes. On a slight downhill slope she crouched down and picked up speed as she moved around a bend.

Turning, she saw the branch or whatever it was too late. Though she tried to slow down, she wasn't quick enough and ran right into it and was knocked out of her skis, falling sideways into the snow, realizing only when she sat up that what had tripped her was the body
of a man. Her legs were on top of his, her right knee throbbing from the impact.

The air torn from her returned slowly, painfully, to her burning lungs. When she could breathe she said, "Are you all right?"

There was no answer. He was flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow. Beyond his body the ski marks stopped.

She thought he must have had an accident, but then she saw his skis propped neatly against a tree.

She got to her feet and gingerly stepped around until she could see his face. He wasn't wearing a hat. "Excuse me," she said, louder. "Are you okay?" She thought maybe he'd collapsed after a heart attack or stroke. He lay sprawled on his side, knees bent, eyes closed, one arm up above his head. "Monsieur?" she said. "Ça va?"

Kneeling down to check his pulse, she saw the rope around his neck. Thick and braided, it trailed beneath him, almost nestled under his arm, and the other end rested on a snowbank --no, was buried underneath it -- and on the other side she could see that the branch it had been tied to had broken off.

She hurriedly loosened the rope and found the beating rhythm in his neck, then opened the first few snaps of his coat in the hope that this might help him to breathe. His face wasn't blue. He was around her age, thirties, his short, wavy, brown hair riddled with gray. Still his eyes wouldn't open. Should she slap him? Administer CPR? She pushed him gently onto his back. "Monsieur?" she said again. He didn't move.

She skied quickly back to the Chalet and called 911. In her halting French, all the more fractured because she was out of breath, she tried to describe where in the woods they were. When she returned, he was lying where she'd found him. "Sir," she said, "my name is Grace.
Je m'appelle Grace. I called for help. Everything will be all right. Vous êtes sauvé."

She put her ear next to his mouth to hear his breath. His eyes were still closed, but he heavily, unmistakably, sighed.


Later, at the Montreal General, she realized that both pairs of skis had been left behind. The emergency workers had loaded the man into the ambulance and she had followed it, weaving through the traffic along Côte-des-Neiges. She wasn't even sure why. Because the Urgences-santé men had looked at her expectantly, assuming she and the man had been skiing together? Because one of them had said, in commingled English and French, "The police -- ils vont vous poser des questions at the 'ospital," and she had nodded obediently, like a schoolgirl?

It was partly curiosity, to know what had driven him to such an act; and partly pity, because anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly. And it was partly that she of all people had been the one to throw herself across his path.

Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what had happened. Regardless, she was sitting in the waiting room hours later, shivering each time the glass doors slid open with an icy draft. The linoleum was streaked with gray-brown slush people had tracked in, and she could smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke from the sidewalk outside. There was no sign of any police officer wanting to ask her questions. The man had been wheeled off, with a canopy of nurses over his still-silent body. Grace waited, though she wasn't sure for what or whom. When she remembered the skis -- probably long gone by now -- she smacked herself on the forehead. Hers were practically brand-new. She looked at her watch; it was seven o'clock, completely dark on the mountain. She was tired and hungry and ready to go home. Before she did, though, she wanted to know that he was being taken care of. She walked over to a nurse at the reception area.

"Excuse me," she said. "Can I see him?"

The nurse didn't look up from her paperwork. "Qui, madame?"

"The man who was brought in earlier. The skier."

"Who?"

"I don't know his name. He was found on the mountain."

"You don't know his name?"

"I found him up there."

"So you aren't family." Her tone was hostile, weary.

"I'm a therapist," Grace said suddenly. "Une psychologue?" The nurse nodded, her manner softening at the French. Now she seemed to grant her a professional capacity, and Grace didn't disabuse her. "I must see him as soon as possible," she said, trying to sound authoritative.

The nurse hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and pointed to the elevator. "Three sixteen," she said.

Grace knocked before entering. The man was lying on his back, wearing a hospital gown, an IV drip attached to his arm. He was staring at the ceiling with a blank expression that didn't change when she came in. Whatever pain he'd been feeling on the mountain was absent from his face now; he might have been waiting for a train. Visible around his neck was the thick red abrasion from the rope. Clearing her throat, she sat down in a chair next to the bed.

"Do you speak English?" she said. No answer. "Vous parlez français?"

Again, nothing. "I took a little Spanish in high school, but that's all gone, so these are pretty much your only options," she said. His clothes were folded and stacked on a bedside table. "I'm going to look through your things for your name, unless you specifically tell me not
to." She went through the clothes, feeling for a wallet, and he made no move to stop her, even when she found it and pulled out his license. John Tugwell. English after all. She put everything back as it had been and sat down again. "John, my name is Grace," she said, "and I'm a therapist, though that's not why I'm here. I was just skiing when I found you lying on the ground. The branch you tied yourself to broke off. I called the ambulance." But for a blink, he made no sign of being conscious. She couldn't even tell if he was listening. His hands, palms down above the blanket, lay flat, unclenched.

"There usually aren't many people in that part of the park," she said, "which I guess must be why you chose it. I don't know what would've happened if I hadn't come along. Would you have tried again, after a while?"

He said nothing.

There were deep lines around his eyes, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. His lips were unnaturally pale. Beneath the thin hospital blanket his body looked sturdy and solidly muscled. It was impossible to tell, as he lay there, whether he was handsome or not. The
spirit that would have animated his face, giving it character and attitude, had receded from view. She stepped closer. Even at this little distance his body seemed to give off no heat whatsoever, as if he'd been permanently chilled.

"You're back from the dead," she said. "Maybe you don't want to be, but you are."

For the first time his eyes met hers. They were green. Then he blinked again and closed them.

"If you want to talk," Grace said, "I can listen."


Excerpted from INSIDE by Alix Ohlin. Copyright © Alix Ohlin, 2012.  Excerpted by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.