"Mountain Under Sea" by D.W. Wilson
In this 2015 CBC Short Story Prize–winning story, a man struggles to address and soothe his daughter's grief in a foreign landscape.
Warning: This story contains graphic language.
At the pub on St Martin's Lane, you guzzle Brooklyn Lager while Iggy uploads photos to the Internet. England Trip with Dad — Day One, she's called them, and she tags you in each: London Heathrow! Eating fish 'n' chips! Dad's neckbeard, lol! In one hand she cradles her cellphone and in the other a champagne flute that pulses with prosecco, which, you've learned, is European for sparkling wine. Iggy's got irises dark as ground coffee and skin the colour of cork. After each taste of bubbly her lips leave a forensic imprint on the glass. Eighteen, your daughter, not old enough to drink legally in British Columbia and too young to have voted — though she will, she reminds you, she'll vote for the goddamn Liberals. She's heading to university in Toronto, had planned this trip in England with her childhood sweetheart, a last hurrah. Then he hanged himself with his computer cable. Iggy found him, saw the cord looped over the bedroom door. When she pushed on the wood, she felt the weight sway, like some kind of playful resistance. Tough as ring wire, your daughter, but you know what to look for, you see the way she tears at her thumbnail with her teeth.
Iggy rattles her phone onto the table between you. A two-inch line, freezer-burn pale, underscores her eye where, in Grade 10, she stopped a slapshot with her cheek. The doctor said you could pluck the stitches at home, so while Iggy sat on a low stool, you braced your elbow on the kitchen table and pinched that first thread with your tweezers. She told you not to make her less pretty. You said, worst-case scenario, she covers the scar with a zipper tattoo. Think how easy Halloween will be, you said. The guys will go nutso.
She gazed across your knuckles, eyes narrowed to pinholes. Did you just say nutso?
I am the dad, you said, and tugged at the last stubborn suture. I can say nutso.
Now, in the pub, you drink two and a half yeasty lagers for each flute of bubbly, until blood flushes your cheeks a steam-scald-pink and your head swims with those worries you never lose: Have you been a good dad? How is it that, at your age, you still have nothing to say about grief? After the paramedics took her boyfriend away, Iggy went to the cliff jumps and scaled the highest bluff, one hundred feet in the air. Kirkwall's lake has an undertow, and those few who've survived the leap speak of a desperate, subaqueous grapple. You found her a dozen paces from the edge. I wasn't going to jump, she said, and you believed her. I just wanted a better view.
Indie rock drones from the pub's speakers and Iggy plays a pantomime piano to the tune. You hit your comfort zone. The room swells with pearshaped Brits and wicker-thin university kids bronzed by Spanish sun. In the corner some guy fixes you with a scowl that could sabre your beer bottle at the threads. You insisted Iggy go to Europe anyway. You booked a ticket alongside her, put it on your credit card because who the fuck cares, and when she pressed her cheek to your chest you knew. You knew.
Before the two of you left Kirkwall, Iggy scoured the Net for bad jokes about England. She recites them with faux gravitas: What do you call a pretty girl in Britain? A tourist. What do you call an Englishman at the World Cup finals? A referee. What's the most common owl in the United Kingdom? The tea-towl.
Outside, channels of rain slurry along London's streets. You and Iggy take a moment to stare over the rim of your drinks at the deluge.
They call this "a white cloud day," Iggy says, scare quotes and all.
I call this "crap."
Maybe I'll live here. I could live here.
You polish off another lager, spin the bottle like a top. Iggy lifts her prosecco and through the flute's distortion you see a smile tease her molars. When she sets the glass down her fingers come to rest on your knuckles. Twice as big as hers, your hand, nails chewed to the quick and dotted with a scar pattern like thrown bones. Soon Iggy will start calling you Old Man. You'll growl at her, and she'll giggle behind her wrist like the schoolgirl she never turned out to be.
Take me somewhere I've seen in the movies, you say.
Back home, after you found her on the bluff, you didn't leave. The two of you sat with your feet over the edge.
Trainsickness exists. The on-board bathroom smells like an outhouse hung with air fresheners. You're en route to Edinburgh, which Iggy refers to as the Athens of the North. Hours earlier, in the station at King's Cross, she handed you your ticket and adopted an exaggerated Scottish brogue, heavy o's and rolled r's. We'll cross the moors, she said, and nodded at you in that way she does when you don't get her jokes. Like An American Werewolf in London?
We're not American, you said.
Come on, Dad.
Outside the train, a thunderstorm turns the ground to muck. Across from you, Iggy fingers a tall can of cider and reads from Trainspotting. You fidget against nausea. When you taught Iggy to sail, the two of you wore dime-size patches of medication on your jugulars — scopolamine — that kept the seasickness at bay.
What do you call a Scotsman with diarrhea? Iggy says.
With your face on the pillow of your arm you manage a throaty, What?
Good God, Isabel.
She clucks her tongue. She raises the cider to her lips. Old Man, you're hungover.
I am not, you say, but Iggy sets her drink down and grins.
Beneath you, the train's engine cuts in and out, in and out--its own kind of heaving.
Back home, after you found her on the bluff, you didn't leave. The two of you sat with your feet over the edge. Below, Kirkwall's lake lit with the last light of the sun. Iggy sat shoulder to shoulder with you. Your phones buzzed. A few kids appeared on lower plateaus and chutes of water rose in answer to their cannonballs.
It'll be okay, you told her.
How do you know? she said. Under the honey-coloured light you saw tears cocoon her eyelashes, mascara in long moults from tear duct to chin. And over the rocks, over the water, over time and heartache — yours, hers — you glimpsed insights more fleeting than the wing of a moth. For that instant, on that cliff jump on that evening in July, you knew the answers to the questions she'd ask. But you knew, too, in a moment, you'd lose that insight and return to the clichés passed to you that would be passed on by her. It felt good, right then, to be a dad again.
Even now, when Iggy skips toward the barriers in Edinburgh, you feel it — an ache, like when you fix something and it breaks again, that whisking away of satisfaction. Iggy waves. Hurry up, Dad, she mouths. You hike your pack higher on your shoulder. Okay.
Know this: There are infinite presents. There is this now, when somehow for some reason in a shimmer of harvest gold--a gasoline smear on Kirkwall's lake, maybe, or the low angle of dusk — you glimpse the whole of your life and the endless lives of strangers and the even more endless lives of Things. You see your backyard; you see sunlight silkwormed on a blade of wheat; you see clefts at the bottom of Kirkwall's lake forever unexplored; you see a rope of saliva on a dead boy's gums; you see Iggy as a girl, playing with Hot Wheels in the dirt; you see stacks of lodestone and heaps of peat and piles of iron shorn from a disused train car; you see the crema on an espresso in a café in Edinburgh and the young man who pours it; you see his future with your daughter and their few good years and you see the barnacle of cancer in his bowel; you see Iggy in her Scottish house staring dumbly at the darkness of her bedroom; you see your own death, a quiet, fitting thing; you see human cruelty played out by men in fatigues gawping at beheaded enemies and you see that same cruelty in a child who plucks the wings off a moth.
Then there is this now: when you let the knowledge leave you, because no man should so intimately know the misery of his daughter. And this now: the moment after, when you loop your big stupid arm around Iggy's shoulders and hug her to you and threaten to tickle her if she squirms. And this now, in a café in Edinburgh, in motherfucking Europe, when Iggy cracks a joke that makes the barista smile, and you want to tell her again that it'll be okay because — for an instant — you just know.