Literary Prizes·CBC Literary Prizes

Black Coffee by Menaka Raman-Wilms

Menaka Raman-Wilms has made the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Black Coffee.

2019 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist

Menaka Raman-Wilms is a writer and journalist based in Ottawa. (Farwa Kazmi)

Menaka Raman-Wilms has made the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Black Coffee

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her story is published below. 

Krzysztof Pelc won the 2019 Short Story Prize for Green Velvet.

You can read Black Coffee below.

Mama's been drinking black coffee all week since the milk's gone sour. I told her I'd go to the store and get her some fresh, but we've been out on the water every day and there's been barely time for sleep. It doesn't matter much anyways, though, Mama said. She drinks it down too fast. If it wakes her up enough to pull in the ropes, she told me once, she could drink chicken fat.

In the harbour, everything shimmers. I like autumn mornings because there are fewer boats, and even though the cold makes the spray freeze to my face, Hamilton is always there to keep me warm. The two of us spend every moment together, especially on fishing days. We get into the boat and Pa's already at the stern, untangling nets. Mama's behind the glass in the captain's chair.

The sun is just rising, and the ocean around the breakwater shines with light-diamonds. The chill always makes them brighter.

It's one of the last fishing days before the snow sets in, and Pa said he wanted to try the shallow bank where that tanker almost ran aground in the spring. We had to go early, Mama said, because there was a wind coming down from the north that was some kind of fierce. So when the night was still purple, I woke up to make us all bologna sandwiches. I'm good at doing things like that. Pa lets me sort the fish too, because I can tell just by eyeballing them which ones weigh more than 10 pounds.

Our motor is the only sound at first, and then I can hear the surf as we leave the harbour and the waves get bigger. There's a moment that I wait for every time we take the boat out, just after we pass the breakwater. It comes after the first dip downwards, then back up, then the bigger dip down. There's a feeling like I'm falling, then flying, and my stomach gets confused but my heart likes it. I hold onto Hamilton, bury my fingers in his fur. Then the boat settles into rhythm and I know we're on the open ocean.     

When he was a puppy, Pa and Mama trained Hamilton to never leave my side. They tested him in a neighbour's pool: I couldn't swim yet, so they put me in water wings, and then dropped me from the diving board. Hamilton dove in and swum under me so I could ride him like a horse. Then he barked and barked.

They make me wear a life jacket out on the water, and I don't mind because it breaks the wind. Mama steers us up and around the coast and Pa is still untangling the nets, singing Stan Rogers. Next to me, Hamilton's breath smells like fish liver and is hot as a furnace.

When the wind becomes too much, we go inside and sit behind Mama's chair. I like watching her work. She tucks her legs under the chair and her hair behind her ears, and turns the wheel and checks the radar on the grainy computer screen. She'll say things quietly to herself: we're pulling a bit to the right, or that system is moving fast, or that sun is bright enough to blind a sunfish.

She talks to me when I'm there, too. Beverley, she says, see the way the waters come together on that side?

I nod.

It means it's deep. You can learn to read things.

Mama's been out on the water since she was three years old. I ask her about the clouds, and she says they aren't very heavy yet. Hamilton licks the back of my hand.   

We reach the edge of the bank just as god rays are pushing through the greyness. Pa is still singing and throws the nets in. Hamilton nudges my hip, wants to go outside, so I take him to the stern and his tail starts going like he wants nothing more in the world than the salt on his tongue.

We stand there and watch Pa work. There's not much for me to do yet, not until the fish come in, so I watch the waves moving, look out for humpbacks. There were a couple of times last season when we saw them breach, and the surge when they landed sent our lights swinging.

Today's a crisp one, Pa is shouting, and for some reason I know then that things aren't quite right, even though they seem like they are, even though Pa's smiling. I watch as the nets disappear into the blue and something in my stomach twists.

It's the wind, I realize a moment later. It's stopped.

Then Mama bangs on the glass to get our attention. Her face has something serious in it, like when she says I can't go to the store alone when Hamilton's at the vet. I go inside, and she tells me that the system is moving faster than before, faster than they thought it would. There's a warning out on the radio to head back to harbour. 

This is one of my jobs on the boat: take messages from Mama to Pa, and sometimes back again. Hamilton and I rush out and tell Pa to pull in the nets, and he looks as if we've just stepped on his fingers, but he does it right away. One of the rules on the boat is if you're told to do something, you do it. It was one of the first things I learned. You can ask questions later.

Pa's whole body is heaving as he bends and pulls up the nets. Seawater comes up and over the side, swirls at my feet, pools under the rubber of my boots. The wind's picked up again, and later I'll ask Mama about it, have her explain what the changes mean, but right now I'm needed to help fold the nets as they come back in.

I reach towards them and the first rush of ocean stuns my hands, but I stand my ground right behind Pa, pull and fold and pull and fold. I can feel Hamilton's nose against the back of my knee.

There are a few fish already, flopping on their sides, eyes terrified. I yank them out and toss them into a bucket of ice. They're all small, none bigger than a five-pounder.

Everything still looks calm, but I know it's not right.

Mama's turned the boat around slow so the nets don't get twisted. They're going to be angry tonight, I think, both of them drinking whiskey out of the orange juice glasses. Once the winter sets in we don't take the boat out anymore, and we haven't caught enough yet to make it to spring.

We finish with the nets and now I can see the storm gathering in the sky. It's far away still, at the edge of the horizon, but the clouds are piling on top of one another like there's not enough space.

Mama's taught me how to recognize danger: I know the look of the ocean before it starts to churn, the smell of the air before thunder. Clouds piling in the distance like that mean they'll soon rush towards us.

We're motoring back to the harbour now, and Pa is cursing quietly to himself. He doesn't like me to hear him.

Hamilton and I go back into the cabin and Mama is pushing buttons and turning the wheel and listening to the radio cracking. You hear that, Beverley, you hear that? She says without turning. Her hair's up in a ponytail but some strands got left behind on her neck. They're telling everyone to get out of the water. I knew that wind was coming down fierce. Didn't I say that, Beverley?

I go and stand behind Mama and watch the system on the radar screen. It's like a race now. Mama pushes the motor and we skim across the water and the clouds are eating the sky behind us. Mama's eyes are moving from the ocean to the radar and back again, and her breath becomes mist in the space in front of her. I can feel energy like heat coming off her arms.

There's a crack and I know it's thunder. It's still far away, but Mama curses and Hamilton pushes against me even harder. We're riding the waves higher now, dipping down deeper. I hold onto the back of the captain chair and Hamilton's neck. Pa comes into the cabin and stashes the bucket of fish in the corner.

Now it's crowded inside. Pa smells like salt and Mama's hair like lavender. Nobody says anything. Pa puts a hand on my shoulder. We speed along.

I'm not really nervous. Mama's a good captain, and we've been out in rough water before, and there was even one time when waves were coming over the railings. It hasn't gotten that bad yet. I reach for Hamilton's head and pull him tight against my side.

The raindrops hit the glass and then we can see the breakwater. The day's gotten dark, but Mama knows these waters like she knows my hands and she steers clear of the shoreline. We make a wide turn around the rocks, pitching forward and up so that I would have fallen if Pa and Hamilton weren't boxing me in. Mama doesn't take her eyes off the ocean.

And then we're back in the harbour. The rain pours, but the waves are smaller here and I can feel Mama breathe out a long breath. That was something, wasn't it? She's asking then. I wrap my arm around her shoulder.

Pa's ruffling up my hair and helps Mama find the pier. There are lots of boats coming in, and it's black as midnight. All the lights are off in town. We cut the motor to almost nothing. 

The harbour master is out with a lantern and Mama steers towards him, edges up to the pier. Pa goes outside to anchor us in. Then he comes back inside, kisses my head, then leans over me and kisses Mama full on the mouth.

We step outside and I'm soaked within a moment. The harbour master tells us there's a tree that took down the wires in town, that everyone's house is out, but there's a generator and a fireplace at the legion. They've got hot soup because the storm will last a few hours. Turns out nobody can work in this weather. 

We walk straight to the legion and I almost get blown off my feet. Inside the doors, there's a yellow glow from the fireplace. Hamilton shakes himself dry and sprays us all, and Mama curses and then laughs and then asks Pa to find them some whiskey.

It's too crowded inside. I like the boat because there's space, because I can sit quietly with Hamilton and not have to say anything. I walk behind Mama and Pa and try not to look at people.

We get cups of soup and Mama grabs some coffee and we head over to the fireplace. I'm shivering. Pa finds me a blanket and tucks me and Hamilton in. Mama takes off my rain slicker and hangs it on a peg.

They sit in chairs in front of me, drinking from their paper cups, and I watch their profiles move in and out of each other's space. They both look tired. I can hear more thunder crack outside. Then other people come by, people I recognize from the store or the street, and there is talking and laughing and I'm glad to be hidden away on the floor.

One of the ladies looks over in my direction, but I've already put down my cup and pretend to be sleeping on Hamilton.

Your Beverley out with you today? I can hear her ask Mama, and Mama answers yes all proud-like. I'm teaching her to read the ocean, she says.

I keep my eyes closed. It's easier when adults at a party think you're asleep, I've learned, because then they don't have to include you. I can hear more people coming over, more talking, and then there are cheers, which probably mean whiskey.

Past the windows, the rain rages, but inside someone starts to play a fiddle. The floor beneath me vibrates with dancing feet. Hamilton wiggles, and I know he wants to get up, but I still don't feel like talking to people. I open an eye to see who's close.

Pa's gotten up, he always loves dancing, but Mama's still sitting there in front of me. She's on the far edge of a big group. She's twisted her hair up and rolled her sleeves up and there are patches of wet still along her back.

And then this man sits down. He was standing in the group, and then he just pulled up the chair that was Pa's and moved it closer to her.

He leans in to say something and Mama shakes her head. He doesn't lean back, though. Instead he touches her shoulder, and when she shifts away he puts his hand around her waist. She tries to pull it off.

I know what Mama looks like when she's facing down a storm, and when she turns to him, her jaw is set in the same way. But he's laughing. His fingers are on her hip and it feels like the world has frozen, but no one else has even noticed. She puts a hand on his chest and pushes. Then she stands up. He laughs again, and his hand catches the back of her thigh before she moves away.

Then he leaves. He just gets up and moves back into the group, and Mama stands there, looking down at the chairs with an empty cup in her hand. The fiddle is still going. The hall is full now.

Then Mama turns and looks right at me, and I don't have time to close my eyes.

Everything around us becomes really quiet. People must still be talking and dancing, still drinking soup and coffee and whiskey, but I can't hear anyone. I can't see anything except Mama's face.

She says nothing. Instead she sits down on the floor with Hamilton and I, and warms her feet in front of the fire. She rubs Hamilton between the ears. 

We could have died today if she wasn't so good on the water, I suddenly think, and in that instance, I'm more scared than I've ever been. My body feels too heavy, like it's being pushed into the ground. Like that man's hands are on me and won't let me up.

We stay like that for a long time, and I bury my face in Hamilton's back and lie still. But no matter what I do, I can't get warm. I can't even feel my fingers.

Read the other finalists

About Menaka

Menaka Raman-Wilms has her Masters of Arts in English and creative writing from the University of Toronto and is currently completing her Masters of Journalism at Carleton University. She was the winner of the youth award at the 2016 Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story and Room Magazine's 2012 fiction contest. She also sings.

About the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2019 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.