CBC Literary Prizes

Beneath the Softness of Snow by Chanel M. Sutherland

Chanel M. Sutherland has won the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize for Beneath the Softness of Snow.

2022 CBC Short Story Prize winner

Chanel M. Sutherland is a writer from Montreal. (Submitted by Chanel M. Sutherland)

Chanel M. Sutherland has won the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize for Beneath the Softness of Snow.

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and her short story has been published by CBC Books.

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May 31.

You can read Beneath the Softness of Snow below.


The room is filled with a foreign softness; it makes you uncomfortable. A menagerie of plush toys lines the inside of the crib. A shaggy carpet captures your footprints as you move across it. Even the lamp emanates a light so soft it barely makes shadows. 

"It helps their eyes adjust," the woman tells you, and you try not to picture the single bulb hanging over the mattress back home. The night you left for Montreal, the bulb had swayed slightly, its oscillating beam casting strips of light on the little girls sleeping beneath it, revealing too many details to remember. 

"You have two of your own, right?" she asks, and all you can do is nod. For a moment, you become suddenly conscious of where you are, standing on a carpet softer than the mattress you used to sleep on. 

Beyond the window, the sky is a bruised violet. The trees are like dark skeletons stripped down to their bones. You are still not used to this change; you think of the Cock n' Pull tree in the yard back home, its large seed pods like maracas in the wind. It does not shed its leaves to survive the seasons. 

"You must miss them, terribly," the woman says, and you watch as her lips form the word terribly. The brief pout of sympathy as she continues to lead you around the nursery, calling out things that are obvious – the changing table, the rocking chair, the mobile. You want to tell her that you have such things in your country, but it will not be entirely true. Before moving to Montreal, these things did not exist for you. They were like shapes drawn in crayons. They were details you read about in letters or heard through the static of long-distance phone calls from your sister Paula.

Juliette, you should see the baby's room. It's bigger than our whole house. 

Paula bragged about the belongings of her employers like they were her own. She would use up an entire calling card describing the fur coats she tried on when no one was around; the name-brand perfumes her employers gifted her for Christmas. Among mink and Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds, she'd finally ask about her son. "Does he ask for me? Does he miss his mommy?" You always lied and said yes, even though the boy had stopped asking for her and started calling his grandmother mama. 

The night you left home, you begged your mother not to let your daughters forget. "Tell them about me," you said. "Make sure they know how much I love them."

You watch her, this soon-to-be-mother. There are things she wants you to say, things she wants you to surrender to her that are so fragile you fear that once you give them up, they will shatter.

The woman turns to face you, and there's a look of apprehension in her eyes. You realize that you have not said enough, and force a smile. 

"When are you due?" you ask, jutting your chin at the stretched fabric of her shirt. 

"Not for another few weeks." She rubs her stomach in slow circles and the gesture reminds you of a story you heard in your childhood about a magic lamp. "We'll need someone immediately. Three nights a week and the occasional weekend." 

You know there is more you should say but cannot bring yourself to find the words. Instead, you stare at the decal adorning the beige wall — a rainbow arching up into white clouds then falling behind the crib. 

"Look, do you even want this job?" she asks, not cruelly but sincerely. "Because I get the sense that you don't."

"No," you tell her. "I mean, I do. I want the job." 

"Then tell me something about yourself, anything. Why should I let you take care of my child?"

You watch her, this soon-to-be-mother. There are things she wants you to say, things she wants you to surrender to her that are so fragile you fear that once you give them up, they will shatter. 

She laces her fingers across her bump, and her eyes light up. "Why don't you tell me about your girls?" she says. 

Something unfurls inside of you, sore and crusted as an infected wound. You let your mind take you to a place you only go when you're alone, and the tears flow like hurricane rain and taste like seawater. The words come and you let them surge their way onto your lips. You hear yourself say, "Nadine and Elena. Lena." 

This is the first time you've said their names to anyone since arriving in Canada. You never speak about your girls, not to the seven other white women who had asked you questions about them, questions meant to expose some flaw that made you unfit to care for their children. Not to the women your sister entertains every Friday, a circle of mothers who bonded over their misery after leaving their children behind. Most have not seen their sons and daughters for years. Some have become attached to the children they are paid to watch.

"How old are they?" the woman asks, and you press your heels into the carpet to keep from running away.

"Four and three," you say, then, "No, five and three. Nadine just turned five. Lena will be four in April." You can already feel the cracks. 

The woman shakes her head and looks out the window. "I can't imagine doing what you did," she says. "Leaving my children behind like that."

Your breath comes out as a silent cry that pushes its way through your lips and sinks into the carpet under your feet. Outside, night crawls toward the room, but the snow makes everything look bright. 

*

When you leave the house, the woman tells you that she'll be in touch. That she needs to talk it over with her husband first. 

"We'll let you know one way or the other," she says, then the door clicks gently. Once again, you are faced with the cold, stark unknown of a Montreal winter. Snow silently covers everything in front of you. The air is filled with it. Under the streetlights, it glimmers like fireflies. It piles up against sidewalks and cars like cresting waves that have become too heavy to move. You are once again struck by the dishonesty of the place. 

There's nowhere for you to go from there, at least nowhere you want to be. Tonight, the small apartment you share with your sister will be overrun with mothers from the islands. Breadfruit and salted fish will be passed around on paper plates. Someone will bring Hairoun beer or Ju-C, depending on what is available at the West Indian store. They'll swap stories about the women they work for who took no interest in raising their children and the husbands that confided in them about their marital difficulties. Some will share news from back home, teeth-sucking and reverting to patois among themselves. By the time you lie down, the sofa bed you sleep on will sag in the middle from their collective weight. 

There's nowhere for you to go from there, at least nowhere you want to be. Tonight, the small apartment you share with your sister will be overrun with mothers from the islands. Breadfruit and salted fish will be passed around on paper plates.

Instead of waiting idly at the bus stop, you decide to walk for a while. Winter is a selfish, parasitic creature. The cold air seems intent on taking every bit of warmth left in your body. Snow slides into your collar and down the front of your jacket. You feel more naked here, swaddled under layers and layers of insulated clothes, than back home where you walked barefoot on sand and rocks and didn't own a good pair of shoes.

When you see the phone booth, you move toward it with a feverish absence of mind. The phone is filthy and cold to the touch, but you do not notice. You dial the access number from the calling card you always carry, and then the destination number. The phone rings three times before your mother answers.

"Hi, Mom. It's Juliette."

"You don't think I know my own child?"

"How's everyone? How are the girls?"

"I'm not starving them if that's what you're wondering."

"Mom, I just want to know how they're doing. Can I speak to them?"

"They're in bed, Juliette."

"Just for a minute, mom. Please."

 "Juliette, you can't keep doing this to these girls."

"Doing what? I just want to speak to my children. Please put them on the phone."

"You know Lena is finally sleeping through the night? And Nadine, she – "

"Nadine what, mom?"

"She says she doesn't want to speak to you."

"Well, did you tell her it's me? Tell her it's mommy."

"I'm hanging up the phone, Juliette."

"Mom, let me talk to my children."

"You can talk to them when you come to get them."

The humming of the dial tone throbs in the dead silence of the phone booth. You press the receiver painfully against your head hoping to hear something beyond the white noise, but there is nothing on the other end. You smash the receiver again and again on the hook until the joint gives way, and the two pieces are hanging by a few wires. 

A white wave of grief crashes over you, and you sink to the cold floor. Your children's faces haunt you. They stare back at you in the windows of the booth. Reaching out, you long to touch their hair, feel the softness of their skin. Your fingers brush the cold surface of the glass. 

Your children's faces haunt you. They stare back at you in the windows of the booth. Reaching out, you long to touch their hair, feel the softness of their skin. Your fingers brush the cold surface of the glass.

"Fuck. Fuck!" you scream at the top of your lungs and tug at your clothes. 

Through tears that freeze on your face, you watch the street. You watch the snow piling up against the glass and on the roof of the phone booth, and you are overcome by an irresistible longing to lie down and let it bury you. Your mother's heavy words hang in the air. 

She says she doesn't want to speak to you.

*

It was your mother's idea that you move to Canada. Once, in the middle of the night, she snuck away from her bed and came to your room. 

The girls were asleep on the mattress. You lay on the floor, a folded sheet the only thing between you and the concrete. Your mother held a kerosene lamp, a shadow in the doorway. She motioned for you to follow her onto the veranda and you did. The night breeze carried on it the deep exhales of the sea. 

"You can't stay here," she said, blowing the flame from the wick. "You have to go."

You took one quick breath, then another, and another. "Go where, mom?" you asked. 

"Canada. Go meet your sister." 

"You know I can't support me and two kids in some foreign country, mom."

She looked through you then, beyond the yard, maybe beyond space and time itself. Her mouth stretched into a thin line, and you wondered what she saw. "Leave the girls here," she whispered. "Your daddy and I will take care of them."

That night, you did not sleep. Through the small window in your room, you listened to the wind rattle the seed pods of the Cock n' Pull tree in the yard. For the first time in your life, you wondered if the seeds were dead or alive.

*

You pick yourself up from the floor of the phone booth and catch the final bus home in the end. When you walk into the apartment, the smell of fried fish rushes forward to cling to your clothes. A medley of perfumes floats on the air like ghosts. 

Paula sits on the sofa bed in her nightgown, rolling small prickly curlers into her hair. She gives you a sad look, and you know she has spoken to your mother. You don't care, not one bit, not for anything she has to say. Not for the words that were spoken about you behind your back. There is a long silence, so long that you think your sister might just let you go to bed. You feel raw and exhausted but know that you will not sleep. 

"What did you think was going to happen?" she finally asks. 

"Shut up," you tell her. 

"Fine." She stands and walks towards her bedroom. "By the way, that woman you interviewed with this evening called. You got the job."

Fear and anxiety flash freezes through your body, and you stumble forward, tracking clumps of snow onto the brown carpet. When you sit on the sofa bed, it groans and you are surprised by how human it sounds. You can feel the wet from your jacket seep into and settle down in it. 

Paula sighs. "This is a good thing, Jules. It's the whole reason why you're here."

"I'm not taking care of someone else's kid," you tell her. 

"For the love of God, you need to stop this. If not for yourself, do it for those little girls you spend all day and night crying over." 

"I can't."

"You have to start thinking about what's best for them," she says softly. "Or else all of this would have been for nothing."

The accusation is out of your lips before you can think to stop it. The words are surprisingly soft, almost a whisper. "Is that how you justify abandoning your son? It's what's best for him?" 

The words seem to knock all the air out of Paula's chest. As she wraps her arms around her stomach, she takes short gasps of breath. You pretend not to see the hurt, the way she shrinks into herself when she closes the door. You lie down on the sofa bed feeling it sag under your weight, and cry until your tears run out. 

The woman calls back the next morning, and when she offers you the job, you take it. 

*

You have been with the family for five months now. The baby no longer screams in the night, and the mother does not come rushing into the nursery, her face blanched by the black terrors her mind has conjured. 

You have the dark hours to catch up on remembering all the things you cannot bear to forget. The night went from a still lonely thing to one that moves and shifts, like children rolling down a grassy hill. 

You have the dark hours to catch up on remembering all the things you cannot bear to forget. The night went from a still lonely thing to one that moves and shifts, like children rolling down a grassy hill

You and your girls sweeping baskets in the river to catch crayfish.

Nadine's squeals as frothy waves wrap around her ankles and pull her towards the sea. 

Cooking on the coal pot in the yard, each girl helping in the way children do. 

When the early morning light emerges through the trees beyond the window of the nursery, you say goodbye to your girls, for now. 

From the crib, the baby stares quietly up at you with eyes so blue it's like a rainstorm has rolled through them. It's a gaze that frightens you, one that will sear its way into your heart if you let it. It has the power to wipe the feel of sand and the scent of the sea from your soul. 

"You are not my child," you whisper, even as you reach across the barrier of the crib and brush his golden hair. 


Read the other finalists

About Chanel M. Sutherland

Chanel M. Sutherland won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction prize for her story Umbrella and is the recipient of the 2022 Mairuth Sarsfield Mentorship, a component of the Quebec Writers' Federation Fresh Pages initiative. Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Chanel moved to Montreal when she was 10 years old. She holds a BA in English literature from Concordia University and is currently writing her first book, a collection of short stories that explore the Black Caribbean immigrant experience.

The story's source of inspiration

"This is a story about immigrant mothers, of which my mom was one. I was raised in St. Vincent and the Grenadines by my grandparents and didn't come to know my mother until I was 10 years old. As a child, I didn't understand the full weight of my mom's sacrifice — leaving my sister and me behind to carve a better life for all of us across the ocean.

"I wanted to write a story that captured those first moments of a young mother in a foreign country, one that was hostile toward her in many ways. The sisters in the story are an amalgamation of many Caribbean mothers I've met over the years. Among other things, the 'you' point of view addresses those mothers — saying, 'I see you.' In a way, it's a love letter to any mother who has had this experience."

About the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Poetry Prize is open for submissions until May, 31, 2022. The 2023 CBC Short Story Prize will open in September and the 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January 2023.

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