Books·CBC Literary Prizes

"Because We're Not at the Ocean" by Christine Higdon

Christine Higdon was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize for "Because We're Not at the Ocean."
Christine Higdon was shortlisted for the 2016 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize for "Because We're Not at the Ocean." (Peter Higdon)

I should have known —

because we're not at the ocean. Because we're not standing on the sparkling shore of any great salty body of water where a message in a bottle might have traversed time and space, bobbed along by waves, nuzzled by curious fish, eddied in whirlpools, gnashed between the serrated teeth of a great white shark only to be spit up as inedible. Because we're not even on a lake, into which some lovesick puppy might have tossed a bottle in hopes of it being rippled by the gentle breezes to the other shore, filled with fevered declarations of love to that girl at Camp Whip-poor-will that he, or she, glimpsed during the canoe races some summer ago.

Because we're on the shores of the Humber River, just two hundred and fifty metres north of Bloor Street, that endlessly busy, twenty-five-kilometre-long road that cuts the city in half, dividing uptown from downtown. I should have known.

My nine-year-old finds it. I'm not paying him much attention; he's the cautious one. I've got my eye on the seven-year-old who is wandering too close to the icy river. But out of the corner of my eye I see my eldest bend down and stay down. I know him; he's found something good and he knows enough not to advertise it to his little brother and my friend's son. He glances up quickly, calculating with Boy Scout accuracy how he might get to the car without anyone seeing the filthy green bottle and the folded piece of paper that lies corked within it.

My friend's son, Thomas, alert as a bloodhound, senses something. Up perk his ears, then his head. He rushes over, his voice as loud as he is big.

What's that?

That draws the little one. The seven-year-old. Ben.

My son stands. He has already dropped a mitten somewhere and that one bare hand is clasped around the neck of the bottle, clutching it against his winter coat. Thomas lays a pair of proprietary paws on the bottle, but my son keeps a firm grip on it. He is a year older than Thomas, but much smaller. Most of the time he defers to his big friend, heedful of his size, but not today. This one is his.

Smash it! Thomas says.

His mother and I shriek no at the same time, and she rolls her eyes. Thomas, she says.

Then, imaginations quickened, these well-read caveboys crouch in a circle over the enchanting thing. I can read their minds: it's a treasure map, or it's a message sent by a ship's captain marooned by a mutinous crew a hundred years ago on a desert island; it's from someone unjustly imprisoned in Azkaban, or it's a long-lost love letter tossed by a sad sailor into the churning sea.

Once we determined that, yes, opening it will require a corkscrew — and no, sweetheart, of course I don't carry a corkscrew in the car — the younger ones drift off in opposite directions along the mucky shore, each in jealous pursuit of their own treasure. There are plastic bags, fish backbones, dead seagulls, desiccated balloons, beer caps and pull tabs, half-submerged shopping carts, useless single mittens and gloves, barrettes, running shoes, and a pair of underpants near a bloated raccoon. All worthy of investigation, but none so coveted as what my son has found.

He stays crouched, in love with his bottle. I look at the sweet curve of his back and wonder who this boy will be. I lure him farther up the river with a promise of seeing the steelheads leaping for their lives against the current, but it's still too early in the season for those single-minded creatures and their hardwired return to the spawning grounds.

My friend and I head back to the cars, say goodbye in the parking lot, two single mothers going home with our sons. I watch the boys coming up from the river, the bottle swinging between my son's fingers, a slight swagger in his step, and imagine him eight or nine years from now, walking up this same path with other friends, a half-full beer bottle in his hand. Maybe. I shake the vision from my mind: Where's your mitts? I ask. He doesn't hear. They're someone else's treasure now.

______

At home we scrub the bottle clean. I hold it up to the kitchen light and we all exhale; it is a thing of beauty — thick unmarked glass, champagne bottle-shaped, emerald green. He hands me the corkscrew and I take it like a surgeon would the scalpel. We work on it for what must be, in their minds, hours. And by the time the obstinate cork has squeaked its way up and out the boys are expecting a genie. And so, it seems, am I.

My son upends the bottle. He shakes it. He pokes a skinny finger into its neck, reaching as far as he can. But the paper is damp and through the green we can see how it is stuck, down low, against the glass. Immovable. My son has not cried in frustration for a couple of years. It looks like that is about to change.

Upstairs in my bedroom, we wedge the nozzle into the heating grate where it will have to stand, drying, until the morning. We read our bedtime book and then, after his little brother is asleep, I find my son crouching over the grate, poking in the bottle with a pencil. In the morning, my love, I say, and I kiss him goodnight.

I close my bedroom door. I use an alphabet soup of tools — a pencil, a kitchen knife, a crochet hook, chopsticks, needle-nosed pliers, an unfurled coat hanger. With the hanger, I manage to raise the note so that it is poking out the bottle's neck. Half an inch. Just enough.

I should have known —

because we were not at the ocean. Or anywhere else a bottle might have bobbed and eddied and escaped the jaws of a great white shark. Because upstream from Bloor Street the Humber is just a puny river that curls lackadaisically through city parks and unprotected farmland, skirting subdivisions and highway off-ramps.

I use my teeth. I clamp on the twist of paper, risking certain death from E. coli or some other water-borne bacteria. I pull it out. I have probably made a roaring sound. It feels like giving birth.

I am Svetlana, hot Russian girl. For good time call...

O, the sweet, stinking flood of childhood disappointment. The bitter taste of the fetid dandelion wine my big brothers made in pickle bottles and hid inside the rotting log in the woods behind the house. The hopeless sound of the pop bottles I'd picked in the ditches dropping through the bottom of my paper bag and smashing on the road. The empty honey jar on the breakfast table.

I call my friend and nearly cry. And then we laugh. Svetlana, Svetlana.

______

My son wakes early and goes straight for the bottle. The paper inside has dried and can easily be pulled out with that pair of pliers that are lying on my dresser. He holds the note in his hands and I can feel his beautiful boy-heart beating.

It can't be a treasure map to nowhere. It can't be a made-up love letter from a lonely soul across the sea. It can't be tea-stained to look old. It can't be in secret Pirate code. It can't be from Azkaban because he knows that's fiction. It can't be a tall tale he'll tell his teacher, she who would raise an eyebrow.

So, because it can't be a lie —

it's a note from the River Sprites. About how beautiful life is on the Humber. About how the steelheads love the feel of the rushing water on their speckled bellies. How the Great Egret, so white with her yellow beak, loves to gaze down from the trees onto the smaller fish, and how delicious they taste. How the red fox with his white chin trots along the riverbank every night after the humans have gone. And how once, not so long ago, a mother bear came down to the river to hunt for treasure with her beloved cubs.

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