CBC Literary Prizes

Gibson by Brenda Damen

Brenda Damen has won the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize for Gibson.

2020 CBC Short Story Prize winner

Brenda Damen has made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Gibson. (Submitted by Brenda Damen)

Brenda Damen has won the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize for Gibson.

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have her work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

You can read Gibson below.

WARNING: This story includes details of sexual assault readers may find disturbing


Dad steps into the trailer after his third-trick shift. The air goes grainy. I'm the only living thing. The pencils and shoes don't care.

We live as high as the railroad dared to go. I feel through my toe bones collisions of sound, percussions so deep they can't be heard, only felt; distant freight trains coupling.

Dad looks like the carving on the hull of a ship. His eyes, from below, look blind. His weight compresses me; the triangular bones of my pelvic cradle. My legs scissor out. I hitch my breath. I breathe in the lee of his rhythm. This is his private moment, his secretive act. I am the sock, the baseball glove, the towel. Whatever thing a boy masturbates into. 

I never knew it had a name. I never knew this was "sex." I thought it was just another way for dad to be mad at me.

A solitary grizzly enters his den. A snowstorm covers his tracks. We sleep eight hours. He'll sleep thousands. 

Dad goes up on the roof to shovel down the snow. The weight could crush the trailer. I listen to the metal groaning. 

Power poles break under the burden of snow and the trailer goes dark. We put our food out in the snow. Heavy winds get up under us and pitch and sway. I get thrown right out of bed. Dad doesn't believe in anchors. Far out in the night the crack of pull-aparts is like gunshot; rails tearing themselves apart. Engineers stop pulling their whistles. The sound could set off a slide. 

A moose takes refuge on freshly cleared tracks, exhausted from breaking snow. It's up to his neck in some places. When the rails begin vibrating it spooks him. He lowers his antlers and charges the train. His hide's too tough to break apart when the train hits him. It holds his meat and bones inside him. A dead moose rolling can lift a train right off the tracks.

Ditcher crews wear two pairs of mitts, one wool and one leather. They're throwing avalanched animals off the tracks. They're lighting fires to thaw the switches.

A solitary grizzly enters his den. A snowstorm covers his tracks. We sleep eight hours. He'll sleep thousands.

Spring thaw, you can smell the sap rising. I pass a place where something was born. Placental smells will bring scavengers but just for this moment it glistens in the sun. Black trunks and low-lying water, and sweet double-edged clover. Train wheels compressing the rail joints and clicking, like those people whose toe-bones crack when they walk.  

Crossing at dusk, my purple shadow falls long down a hillside. There are beads of water in the air. My shadow exhales its breath. Coming through dry weeds I make no sound: I go about collecting evidence to prove or disprove my existence. 

"Come get your head down," is the way dad puts it. He speaks the mother tongue of the cock. You put a suckling baby to your penis and she's going to latch on. How steep the slant of it. On man, it is coming. The impulses along the finger bones. In the skull behind the eyes. Veering dangerously close to myself. I find a sun-warmed stone and I put it in my mouth to stop myself from screaming.

Down the double rut two-track I find an elk carcass. His head is wrenched by the antlers, wrong-twisted. He likely broke his neck while rutting last October and stayed under the winter snow. His eye cavities are filled with sunlight and bees. His rib-ridges smell of decay. Slow bees drift out of the skull-hive. Grizzlies will rip apart trees or elk, they don't care which, and scoop honey, wax, bees and larvae with their paws and eat it all together.  

We drive down to a bottom-creek town on a bumpy washboard road. Milky-jade puddles in the ruts go crimson as the sun goes down. A flashlight picks out moose antlers mounted on a shed. Dad heads for a row of derelict houses that he calls Slattern Alley, but the sign on the corner says Pomeroy Street. The "after supper sisters" is what he calls them. They're prostitutes. They use the backyards to do their trade. Dad tells me to wait out in the street. I hear many men's voices like cattle lowing, and their sudden moans. I know my Dad's and I know when he is finished.

Calgary writer Brenda Damen reads her story, which won the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, Gibson. Warning: This story includes details of sexual assault readers may find disturbing. 15:08

Down in the dark territory, head-and-ditch lights are the only points of light, the way projectors move their beams and flicker, searching. There are faint blue sparks up on the mountain; a loaded rock train coming down. The brakes are so hot that the wheels spark blue. There are night-scents all around me. Stringent weeds and damp grasses, thick and clotted with life. Things breathe. The whole forest is breathing. Nobody in my trailer is breathing like this. 

A wall comes up fast and I'm about to crash. Dad's thrown me again. The feeling of standing still right before impact. My mind saying it does not involve me. Fluttery sense of disbelief. My spine and skull hitting with a cracking sound. Crumpled the wrong way with my legs up the wall. I watch someone's eyes go fuzzy in the mirror I've been thrown against. I fail to know me. I wake myself up making a noise embarrassingly human. 

With dad, you can smell his hair. His breath is dank and metallic. Everything he does — yell, punch, throw — is concentrated only on me. Being in danger implies intimacy with the aggressor. If he can see me and connect with his fists, then I exist. 

In the mud behind the jakes, a bear leaves huge paw prints. I follow them out of the railyard to a patch of blueberry bushes. Blue-black treasure-globes hang like plum-bobs. The bear gives over to the heft of them against his lips and the purple gravity in his belly. Wild Low Sweet this species is called. Slays of bumblebees dropped pollen to the stigmas. Each blueberry grew from its crown-shaped dimple and burst into weight, fecund and aching to be eaten.

When the grizzly becomes engorged and staggers from the feast, he leaves the place like a drunkard. His muzzle and paws are tattooed blue. His heartbeat is slow. He feels the forest's vibrations in the walls of his heart.

"I've had pissing contests with this bear before," dad says when he shoots it. "You start out hunting him and before you know it he's coming up behind. He's circled around. You know he's behind you, you can hear him breathing. You can smell him. Now you're the one being hunted. No rush of the blood through the groins like that one. You're about to feel his teeth come through the back of your skull and you're wondering what that's going to sound like."

There are night-scents all around me. Stringent weeds and damp grasses, thick and clotted with life. Things breathe. The whole forest is breathing

Dad does a torso grind against the bear. He's pornographic and he knows it. Black flies crawl over the bear's eyes and inside its mouth. You can see that it was stunned. Drool-strings hang from its mouth. The smell is rank. 

Sunlight on dad's eyelashes, he sits with the bear. He's careful with the blade in the grooves. Skinning the bear that was happy, the indigo-drunkenness still on its paws. Dad spittles the hide. The fur is all slurry. Dad's hands are pink-caked with blood. His green shirt bends to the work. His hair falls forward from the crown. Where dad's jawbone curves, it makes a little wheel. When he pulls back the fur, the skin's too white. 

Dad uses brain tanning to preserve the hide. He boils the bear's brain until it breaks down. He soaks it into the pelt. He rubs eggs in to soften it. He calls it tawing. The hide hangs over the clothesline, fretting in the wind. 

The rope creaks in the bearshed. The over-beam groans. Dust falls from the rafters. Bears look a lot like people when their fur comes off. Dad's going to make me eat it, gristle and all. 

In the back blue stronghold where we live, on the bony spine of the Rockies, train ledges are carved on near-vertical shelves. It's mostly descent from here. 

Curvature slows trains. An engineer is always thinking three miles ahead. Sometimes one end of his train is going uphill while the other end is coming down. Thirteen thousand tons of train, hanging on a 90-pound knuckle.

Some have driven trains for 30-odd and that's a lot of trackage. They know the fall and rise of every inch of rail. They've entered four-mile tunnels not knowing if a slide has blocked their exit. They've ridden over washouts where the rails were hanging in the air. Canting their trains close to sideways, their big hands on the throttles, their whistles hang.

Pre-dawn, an owl gives a solemn four-hooted call. His eyes, half-hooded, glow. He watches something scurry. I stare. His dive is sudden. The prey hisses, screams, and makes a thick sound it its throat. The owl carries it high to the crotch of a tree and swallows it whole. I've seen the balls of fur and bone that they regurgitate. I've seen them land and bounce on the pine needle floor. I've taken them apart. There are tiny skulls inside.

Dad hits me with the cheek strap. It loses its grip. It skitters off my skin. It's flippant. He made it himself. The stitches are knots of rawhide. The tongue-buckle runs and the prong digs deep. I don't leave a crease on the belt.

Dad gets calmer as he becomes more violent. His heart rate actually drops. He can't stop because violence is addictive. The aggression stays in his system. While he's shunting boxcars in the morning, while he swings the axe against the splitting wedge, his pupils stay dilated like a vicious dog.

Our mountains stand in a rough triangle, enclosing us in their flanks. Some peaks lean. Others appear to be walls without depth. It's only that you're seeing them at odd angles and their mass is behind them. Mountains make their own weather and send it down the valley. They spin blizzards off their summits, they fling mudslides down their backs. Each one looks close enough to touch until you see rocks falling from the upper slides, black and grainy, and only hear the rumble after several minutes have gone by.

When the heatwave hits you can smell the pinesap boiling in the trees. The tracks get too hot to touch. There's a bad derailment out past the west mile board; a train tripped over a heat-kink in the track. 

On the day that I was traded, a lot of his musician friends were there. Hard-lined, paroled, and jamming. They'd run amp and mike cords along the floor. Dad's reel-to-reel tapes were turning. The lead guitar came in, strings-strong. Chest bone vibrations below their voices and a bass line thrumming the floor.

During a break I heard dad say, "No really, what do you want for that guitar?" It was the Gibson bass he wanted; its luthier body, the stave of its neck. I knew something bad was happening when the man looked over at me.

The man was wearing a thunderclap hat – trying to look like Bob Dylan. He threw me onto my father's bed and shut the door. They turned up the amps in the living room to drown me out, and went on playing.

Dad stayed up all night, splicing. He was that good. When he got through with a song it was breathing in and out.  

Way down where it's hard to hear, on the bottom-most track of the song, I can still hear me screaming. There's a lot of complex sound; magnetic distortion and subsonic echoes from the liquid iron core. If I lay one finger on his "new guitar" he will "beat me raw," he says.

There are places where you can get inside the body of a mountain; the deepest of caves. It's like lying at the bottom of a well. You can see the night sky even on the brightest day: clusters of stellar nurseries in the densest regions, where the births of new stars take place. Lying with my back against the damp bottom of the cave, I watch dark matter way out there. Nebulae turning in the slow deep grind. Sometimes I can feel the actual spin of the planet. There's muscle and heat and dust and gas. There's nothing older than the violences way out there.

Sometimes I can feel the actual spin of the planet. There's muscle and heat and dust and gas.

I inhabit very small spaces, going unnoticed from myself, but I saw me yesterday. I was beautiful and terrifying. The fog was rolling so thick I could swipe a hand through and come away with shreds. It smelled like damp steam, like wet laundry. I could breathe the fog in, but not exhale it. The sun cast my shadow up onto the fog and my shadow was enormous.

The drop-step is a chiseled ledge the wind and erosion made with me in mind. My shoes fit but the toes hang. The tracks from here are pencil lines. When I stand on this drop-step I'm riding the world. It turns beneath my feet. It banks. I almost didn't make it. I was dragging a weight.

The air is muggy up near my face. The wind comes up in a funnel and blows my hair straight up. Moistened things arrive ahead of the storm. 

The Rockies shoot up their great water-stained walls. Rocks begin loosening from their moorings. I've never watched a rock slide from above. Rocks go down, some as big as our trailer. They spin as they freefall, releasing sulphur smells. 

When I lean out and let the Gibson go, gravity takes it. It almost takes me, too. The wind goes through its strings and makes an eerie sound. It goes down with the rockslide. A boom-crack as they pile up miles below. 

Two great thunderstorms are meeting. Lightning breaks against the peaks and walks, step-for-step, in no hurry, coming down. Echoing back from every mountain, sustained thunder, thunder that rolls right above me. Every tunnel and cave amplifies the sound. 


Resources for victims of sexual assault:

Assaulted Women's Helpline: 1-866-863-0511

If you need help and are in immediate danger, call 911. To find assistance in your area, visit sheltersafe.ca or endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help


Read the other finalists

About Brenda

"I have never entered a writing contest before. After I pressed the 'Submit' button, I felt something akin to terror. I am unpublished but have been working on the same manuscript for 13 years, tentatively titled Third Trick. Many of the scenes in Gibson were lifted out of this longer work."

About the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize

The winner of the 2020 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.

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