Literary Prizes·CBC Literary Prizes

"Enigma" by David Huebert

David Huebert won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize for "Enigma".
David Huebert won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize for Enigma. (Mike Kalimin)

"Enigma" by David Huebert won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize

As the winner of the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize, David Huebert received $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, attended a 10-day writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and had his story published in Air Canada enRoute magazine.

Serge is asking what more can I do. He puts his hand on my shoulder and each finger is a splash of acid. I know he wants to help but I also know what more can you do means your horse is on massive doses of tranks and analgesics, your horse is a giant skeleton walking, your horse is lame and life for a lame horse is no life at all. Serge is saying all this without saying it and I am brushing his hand away and wishing I could brush away these truths that have begun to wilt me. Wishing I could simply live, instead, inside my colossal love for that animal. Serge is saying you don't have to make a decision right now and I am thinking her name over and over, thinking Enigma Enigma Enigma. I am thinking, as I have been for days, about what it means to founder this badly, to have to walk on bare bone. I am once again trying to imagine that animal's enormous pain, thinking if I could only conjure that feeling I could absorb a portion of her anguish. Thinking how the bone that shot through her hoof after the laminitis spread is known as the coffin bone, thinking that a horse injected with barbiturate becomes toxic shortly after death, thinking how it's crucial not to give other animals the chance to scavenge the poisoned cadaver. I am thinking of the taxi driver who killed my first cat before peeling up the block, thinking of the three cats I have buried in my parents' backyard and wondering once again that heinous, haunting thought: how to deal with a half-ton cadaver?

The summer after I failed math ten for the second time my parents took me and my brother whale-watching on the Digby Neck. We ate lobster rolls with lots of lobster and too much mayonnaise and cruised way out into the Bay of Fundy. We searched for two full hours and I was sure we weren't going to see anything and then the captain stood up straight and the boat gathered speed and I could see the spouts out there in the water, two miniature tornadoes shuddering through the grey-blue sky. As if the water itself had decided to dance and soar. The spouts stopped and the guide pointed to a slick black mass, rising for the surface. The whale charged straight for the boat before swerving away at the last chance and I could see its strange liquid face cresting the water. The creature became a massive, swimming grin. It was huge and dark and sublime and I heard the guide saying "humpback" and "calf" but I did not register the meaning until the mother appeared alongside, dwarfing the boat with her rubber-glove blackness. The mother left her head underwater but I felt that I knew her more than anything I had ever known. I knew the curious joy she took in the vastness of the ocean. Knew the painful lack of her lost companions. Knew her fathomless love for that grinning calf.

The mother dipped underwater and was gone, leaving a slough of foam on the surface. The calf followed shortly and the guide explained that these were humpbacks and humpbacks were known as "clowns of the ocean" because they were so often spotted at play. Soon their twin spouts emerged a hundred metres to port and the captain turned the boat to follow and I was imagining their movements below the surface, picturing the dip and sway of tail through water, their sauntering glide through the blue-black depths. The spouts disappeared and we waited a few long minutes but the whales did not surface. There was a bright grief in me, knowing I would never see these creatures again.

As we approached East Ferry, small black dolphins began to jump beside the boat. I said to my brother I didn't know we had dolphins in Nova Scotia and my father overheard and said maybe I should take that oceanography class at school and even though I resented any school advice from my father I thought maybe I should, maybe I should.

Serge is saying maybe spend the night at home. Serge is saying it's been four days now and maybe it would be good for me but there is nothing to convince me to leave this trailer at the barn with its yellowing curtains and coffee-stained fold-down linoleum table. There is nothing to convince me to leave the horse I've spent ten years of my life with, the horse I've known longer than Serge and differently. The horse that has sensed the subtleties of my body — a nervous twitch, a feint of the reins, a remote fatigue in a calf muscle. The enigma I have known in ways otherwise unknowable.

I say you're right Serge, just maybe not tonight. He holds me sweetly for a long time and I determine to let him and eventually it feels good. Serge leaves quietly and gets in his car and I watch the taillights streak along the pasture like grenadine fireflies. I walk out under the three-quarter moon, smelling the hay and grass and manure. As I enter the barn I hear her nicker, the wet shudder rising up from her tired throat. I open the stall and lie down beside her, feeding her mints from my pocket and falling asleep, as I have for the last three nights, with my arms around the gunmetal barrel of her neck. I dream I am riding her underwater. She is part whale, now, but still somehow the same. She swims fast and sure and weightless through the endless liquid dark.

Girl goes whale-watching, is overcome by wonderment of nonhuman life. Girl enrolls in oceanography course at high school. Formerly troubled girl, struggling in school, whose parents felt need to repeatedly warn about sex without condoms and perils of pregnancy, realizes that taking riding lessons for entire life and nurturing deep-seated passion for animals may translate into everyday skills. Despite former mathematical ineptitude, girl takes advanced chemistry and biology and surprises parents and teachers and self with success. Girl improves high school grades, gains acceptance into university. Girl takes biological sciences at Dalhousie, works part-time cleaning stalls and shovelling manure until she makes enough money to buy a horse with help from now highly supportive parents. Writes heartfelt application essay and is accepted to Atlantic Veterinary College. Marries tall and stoic small animal vet whom she loves because of the ridiculous side of him only she knows — the way he refers to himself as "Serge the Surge," the way he cheerfully sings sordid profanities when he's frustrated by someone's driving, the way he holds the blanket in both fists and tugs it up to his chin when he's sleeping in on Saturdays, looking as adorably boyish as a square-jawed man with greying sideburns can look.

The farrier has helped me move the horse out into the middle of the back pasture, the pasture where she's often frolicked and chattered in the late evening. Serge called and said he was racing over but it is better to do it alone. Hal and Summer stand in the main pasture, not grazing but switching their tails and watching. I kneel beside her and draw a slow, deliberate breath before slipping the needles into her jugular — a large dose of xylazine followed by the lethal barbiturate. I put the needles away and reach for the apples and mints. She casts her black eyes up and I can see that she is already sedated. I put a hand on her neck and rub as she nibbles an apple, the breath from her massive lungs slowing, slowing. Her head is in the dirt and when I lift it up I find it heavy, heavier than it has ever been before. That day we went whale-watching, the guide described how whales sleep — drifting downwards, fully unconscious, colliding softly with the ocean floor. Then rising again, still sleeping, to take air. As the final breath leaves her, I think this is how I will remember this horse: drifting and rising through an endless, liquid dream. A life without friction. Her breath is slowing, slowing, and I am digging an enormous hole in the ground, fashioning a coffin from the boards of her stall, and crawling into it with her. Wrapping my arms around her huge, heaving breast. Marvelling at the grey-white constellations of her coat. Clinging to this beloved enigma as the dirt scuffs over us.