Your House by Cayenne Bradley
2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Cayenne Bradley has made the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Your House.
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will be announced on Sept. 22. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and will attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.
You can read Your House below.
WARNING: This story includes discussion of suicide and may also affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
Your house is the right half of a wide, modern grey duplex on the outskirts of town. Two storeys, three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms. A five-minute walk to the beach. You bought it when you were still single because it was big enough for a family, and that's what you wanted more than anything: a family of your own. Instead, you got my mother, sister and me. A family, sure, but never quite yours.
The last time I'd been here was five years ago, when I was 15. Back then, a few potted herbs neatly lined the walkway, but now messy vegetation obliterates what was once the front lawn, brown tendrils snaking across the frozen ground, reaching under the neighbour's fence and across the sidewalk. Your boss — and only real friend — drove me here, and now he punches in the key code and waits with his hand on the doorknob.
"You ready?" he asks, shoulders hunched, jaw muscles working.
"Yes," I lie, and go in.
Inside, the stale air smells of dirt and metal. Muddy boots, visi-vests, hardhats, bulky flashlights and other work debris choke up the foyer. I'm surprised by this, for when I knew you, your house had been not just immaculate but barren. You had kept your living room completely devoid of furniture because you liked the feeling of the empty space, and a crumpled sock left on a stair or a hairbrush abandoned on a table was enough to set you off.
I'm surprised by this, for when I knew you, your house had been not just immaculate but barren.
He and I wordlessly agree to keep the lights off, as if illuminating the detritus of your life would be too grotesque, and shadows gather in every corner. Your kitchen has become a conservatory: lush plants hang from the ceiling, line the windowsill, cover the table, connected by the clear plastic tubes of complex watering systems.
In your backyard, brown scraggle erupts violently from the earth, tumbling out of planter boxes and over trellises and stretching up the tall fence. In our past life you had always been so tender with your plants, which then were orderly and perfectly weeded. Sometimes I'd see you on your knees in the soil, and it almost looked like you were praying or speaking to the earth. Every evening you'd mist the garden and wander the house with a blue plastic pitcher of water, and dusk here was dewy and pungent with chlorophyll. But this scene is different. It's as if you were a restless god frenetically summoning creation, and the desperation of it prickles the back of my neck.
When I turn around, there's an after-image echo of you and my mother at the stove. You're flipping berry pancakes while she stands behind you, thin arms wrapped around your bulky torso, head resting against your back. I can almost hear a Dave and Morley story playing on CBC and smell my mom's ultra-strong, tarry black Kicking Horse coffee. From the living room come the thumps of my little sister practicing handstands against the wall. Your empty living room had become her dance studio and gymnasium, and you adored how we breathed life into your house.
You met my mother at a yearly plant fair shortly before I turned 12. She was carefully inspecting a row of baby blueberry shrubs, and you came up behind her and said: "Nice blueberries." It's absurd that this is how it all began: nice blueberries. You built a little world together full of secret glances, inside jokes, still-life embraces. You were always playing chess or throwing knives in the forest or doing something complicated and messy in the kitchen, like making loganberry jam or hacking at burdock roots for medicinal tea. When she frowned at complicated paperwork or was stuck on hold with some company, you would methodically knead the knot between her small, sloped shoulders until her head lolled.
Did you see our ghosts too? Did you spend these long five years living among animated memories, like corpses that didn't know they were dead? And where would I have been in these spectral tableaus? I remember existing in the periphery, always awkward and out of place, willing myself translucent. I was the pea under your bed, keeping you awake and tossing, digging into your spine no matter how you lay. I had no language to speak of the way you looked at me, as if through fire, as if I burned you. You turned brittle the moment I walked into a room, and I became convinced that there was something terribly wrong with me, something only you could see.
You turned brittle the moment I walked into a room, and I became convinced that there was something terribly wrong with me, something only you could see.
As I start up the stairs, your boss tells me he'll stay in the kitchen and let me have my time in your room alone. "The bedroom to the left," he says, "not the master. Take as much time as you need."
The bedroom to the left. Mine. Or at least, it was the one I had stayed in whenever we spent the weekend at your house. It hadn't quite been my room, because your house had never felt like home, so I didn't lay claim to the space by decorating or leaving any of my things there besides a few changes of clothes. I climb the stairs slowly, pause for a moment in the dark hallway, then push open the door and scan the room. I'm not surprised you moved in here, inhabiting the space I left behind. You even kept your king-size bed in the master and chose to sleep in what was once my bed.
Despite the same furniture, the room is barely recognizable. Clothes cascade out of the closet, spilling in front of your massive gun safe. Here is the rainbow dresser my mother got at a garage sale, but it's covered with the sediment of a haunted life: scattered prescription sleeping pills, dog-eared bibles, empty NyQuil bottles, credit card statements, knives. A lone gold bullet stands on its end beside your keyboard and I pick it up, rolling it between my fingers until the cold metal warms to my temperature, then slip it into my back pocket.
At the foot of the bed is a neat stack of every card and drawing and picture and note my mother, sister and I ever gave you. I flip through them and see school photos, love letters from my mother, handmade Father's Day cards, even Home Depot receipts with my doodles of eyes and mermaids on the back. In your suicide note, an email sent to me titled I hope my peace brings you peace, after a string of the usual desperate apologies and remorse and self-loathing, you asked to be buried with them. But I can't stand the thought of you decomposing around these remnants of us. So much of me is already entombed with you. So much of you is still alive in me.
So much of me is already entombed with you. So much of you is still alive in me.
I perch on the edge of the bed, barely breathing, then sink down and bury my face in your pillows. I want to be angry. I want to be righteous and bitter and vengeful and brave like I was months earlier at the police station when I finally, finally found the courage to hold you accountable. Instead, I just feel sad. I don't have any words for it other than that. Sad. The smell of you — Axe Snake Peel body wash and Original Listerine and working man's musk — envelopes me, a haunting reminder of your body, and I stay in your bed — my bed — our bed — for a long while. I don't know why my first instinct was to come here, to be close to whatever might be left of you. I guess I'd hoped it would feel cathartic, but it doesn't. I am here and you are not, and that is that.
Eventually I pick myself up and start snooping around in your things. Funny how I feel almost guilty for intruding despite the fact that you bequeathed this house and all its belongings to me. On a shelf in your closet I find a purple Photolab envelope, and I sit on the pile of clothes on the floor and flip through pictures of massive old-growth trees, flagging tape wrapped around wooden posts, your red quad. You must have taken them somewhere up north while plotting out the path of a logging road. Suddenly I'm looking at you: you're crouched in a mossy cave in a hi-vis vest and hardhat, grinning boyishly at me like you've just told me an inside joke. You're young, skin and eyes glowing, looking nothing like the last pictures I'd seen of you, in which you're bloated and grey and weathered, eyes flat and lifeless, sparse hair exposing pink, flaky scalp. It had given me no sense of justice to see how severely your crime poisoned and decayed you, how it aged you by decades in just a few years. None of this feels anything like justice.
In the closet, surrounded by you, the few good memories come to me in mute flickers. I've never known what to do with them, how to hold them. Our late-night insomniac motorcycle rides. Midnight beaches, meteor showers, naming of constellations. Shakespeare, chemistry homework, Star Wars, winter surfing, gun range, driving lessons. They're ash now, have maybe always been ash, but I want to keep them anyway, to keep them as they were, preserved like beetles in amber. Remembering you as more than the sum of your sins is my kindness to you. In lieu of forgiveness, which I'm not sure I'm capable of or would want to give anyway, I can at least be kind.
Remembering you as more than the sum of your sins is my kindness to you.
I fold the picture in thirds and slip it into my back pocket along with the bullet, then return to the hallway. I pause in the doorway of the master bedroom, unable to bring myself to go inside. It's an ordinary room: large and rectangular, grey carpet, a window overlooking the backyard, to the right an ensuite bathroom and walk-in closet. King-size bed with beige sheets. But to me it has the ravenous pull of a supernova, at the centre of which are The Memories, clotted, wordless shadows that turn over and over themselves.
I step away and start down the stairs, then stop and turn to face where you had stood above me five years ago, when I pressed the barrel of my grandfather's antique .22 calibre pump action rifle to your forehead.
"If you ever hurt another girl like you hurt me," I said, "then I will find you, and I will shoot you. Do you understand?"
You nodded, silent tears running down your cheeks. "You won't need to," you whispered. "I'll do it myself."
Did you kill yourself because you didn't trust that you would never hurt someone again? Did you do it because you did hurt someone? Did you do it because you thought the world would be better off without you? Is the world better off without you? Was it a coward's act, or the bravest thing you've ever done? What was the very last thought that went through your head before it was blown open? Was it me? Was I there with you? Did you pull the trigger there on that beach in the middle of a December storm just to finally escape me? A thousand needling and unanswerable questions spiral around in my head like hungry birds.
At the bottom of the stairs, I notice the magnets on the side of your fridge. The multitudes of tiny foam squares are still arranged in the same pixilated shapes my sister and I had left them five years ago: two mermaids, a purple octopus, our names, country flags. You would have seen them every single day. Why torment yourself like this? Did you feel like it was part of your penance? Or were you terrified of forgetting anything about us, of even the smallest act of letting go? Do people like you deserve to learn how to let go?
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
- The Canada Suicide Prevention Service: Call 1-833-456-4566 (available 24/7) or text 45645 (available 4pm to midnight)
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 686868
- Kids Help Phone (ages 5-20, French and English): Call 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: Call 1-855-242-3310
- Trans Lifeline: Call 877-330-6366
- LGBT Youth Line: Call 1-800-268-9688 or text 647-694-4275
- Advice to a New Beekeeper by Susan Cormier (Langley, B.C.)
- Seh Woo, My Teeth by Kerissa Dickie (Fort Nelson, B.C.)
- Tek Tek by Y. S. Lee (Kingston, Ont.)
- Storkatorium by Jane Ozkowski (Bloomfield, Ont.)
About Cayenne Bradley
Cayenne Bradley won first place in Event's 2021 Non-Fiction Contest and Room's 2020 Short Forms contest. Their work can be found in publications such as Contemporary Verse 2, Plenitude and the Temz Review. They have a BFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and live in Victoria with their fiancé and infant daughter. Bradley is currently finishing a memoir they hope to publish soon.
The story's source of inspiration
"I cope with difficult memories by turning them into art. There's something so transformative about finding poetry in my pain; it's a way to reclaim and give a new purpose to experiences I had no control over. To write through trauma is to write through the body and release somatic ghosts. I know I've found the right words when the story feels like a safe house and resting place for a dark memory."
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction 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.