I twisted a cap off a bottle and threw it into the fire. We watched the sparks. The beer went down like water. The firelight pumped like a red heart in the night. I said, “Let’s bring Sally to the beach tomorrow.”
Smirks didn’t respond, didn’t move, didn’t look at me. I could imagine them together. In the canoe. In the middle of the lake. Where no one could see. Where no one was watching. I could picture her sitting in his lap and Smirks reaching in between her legs. I could see it all. I could see it happening. It could happen, and then what? And then nothing. And then nothing. Nothing would happen to Sally. She would not be afraid. She would not be hurt.
“Julia,” Smirks said. “If she were your niece—”
My niece, Lila. Not really my niece. My cousin Sandra’s daughter. Little Lila with her big brown cartoon eyes that she got from her mother Sandra and her silken, almost silver hair from her father Joe. Seven years old and a hellion, obstreperous, unstoppable. Teachers said she had “discipline problems” but I saw something better. A tenacity and a questioning of authority that could only be good for her, in the future, surely. She wasn’t unhappy and she wasn’t disrespectful. She was her own person, a small person, a little adult. “What about Lila?” I asked.
“If Lila were here, would you offer her to me? Would you give us time alone? Would you let me touch her?” He threw a log on the fire, and the world lit up in an instant of orange, then faded as quickly to dark.
I’d spent the summer with Lila the year before. Her parents, my cousin Sandra and her husband, Joe, ran a restaurant up north in Fort Nelson. A truck stop, natural-gas pit on the edge of the Greater Sierra oil field. Fort Nelson was a town in the middle of the bush. That’s what they call it up there, “the bush,” because you couldn’t really call it a forest. They barely looked like trees, those spindly pines and firs, skinny from the frigid temperatures and dry air. My favourite formation was the krummholz black spruce, German for “bent wood.” Trunks and limbs, exposed to decades of freezing wind, twisted and deformed like arthritic knuckles clawing north. I’d gone to help with Lila, who’d become a handful. Sandra and Joe offered me free room and board for the summer to nanny while they ran their restaurant, Port Mantoe, a French-Canadian diner on the west bank of the Prophet River, serving bicultural fare such as cheeseburgers on baguettes, or coq au vin with a Montreal style bagel.
The population of the town was 4,500, and most of these people were truckers and diggers, natural gas executives from India, mechanics, A&W employees. It was a strange place on the border of the Yukon, four hundred kilometres from any town on every side, frontier land with no greater purpose than pumping fuel down to the cities and suburbs sprawling half a country away. Sandra and Joe had a beautiful log cabin on the edge of town, isolated from the trailer parks and motels that lined the Alaska Highway. In the summertime, the sun didn’t set. Sandra and I would stand on her back patio at two in the morning smoking cigarettes and watching the soft, orange orb sink to the horizon and hesitate there before swinging, slowly, back up toward day.
Lila was enthralled with me: a new, young, energetic adult, paid to pay her attention, which I did. I poured my attention into her, grateful for the break from my research and from the fights with Thierry. This was before the Molestas, when I’d been hiding inside my books for too long. Lila breathed life into my research. It was the first time I’d spent any significant amount of time with a child since I’d been one myself.
Sandra and Joe would wake up early every morning, gone by six, and Lila would rouse around nine. I’d make her breakfast and she would sit on the floor and watch cartoons. After eating we’d head out to the field where we would, each with our shovels, gather the horse poop of three horses and pile it in the middle of the pasture until the mound was higher than Lila herself. The mares, Passion, X and Synth, would roam, suspicious, around our perimeter, eyeballing us with chary expressions, looking away if I caught their gaze. I always felt they were holding something back, some vital part of their personality that they only exposed once we’d gone inside.
On days when I was distracted, Lila would manage to throw herself into the heap of shit while I wasn’t looking, as though it were a pile of leaves we’d raked, and I’d spend the rest of the morning with her in the bathtub, scrubbing manure out from all her nooks and crannies. At these times, I would be acutely aware of the realness of her body. It made me uncomfortable. Her flat, sexless chest. Everything narrow and nascent and smooth, like a sunflower seed.
I always wondered: didn’t Sandra worry about me? She knew about my father. She knew about the storied “cycle of abuse.” Didn’t she fear perversion on my part, taking care of Lila every day, bathing her, dressing her? I asked her once, after a few beers, terrified at her response.
“No, Julia,” she said, looking me in the eye. “You would never do that to someone. You’ve been through it. You would never do it to someone else. The buck stops with you, remember.” She stamped her cigarette out for emphasis. We cracked open two more cans. I had felt we’d both missed the point.
One day Lila and I took a nap together on the couch. Her little body was warm and supple, snug into my chest, cozy between my legs. I woke up before she did, and tried to imagine becoming aroused by her. We were spooning, essentially, and her bum was against my crotch, and I stared down at our bodies for a while. I lifted the waist of her pink jogging pants and peered past her belly to her underwear. Tiny, like a doll’s. She was about as sexy as a sleeping cat. There was no physical or psychological reaction from me. There was nothing arousing about it. I remember gratitude in that moment, and I actually said out loud, “Thank God,” though I realized later it was a perfunctory performance of relief, because I’d still known I wasn’t safe. What if Lila were twelve? What if she were developing breasts? What if she weren’t my niece? Might I be aroused then? I held these questions at arm’s length.
Months later, long after I had left Fort Nelson and returned to Vancouver, I received a voicemail from Sandra. “I’ve had your diary here since the summer, you know. Just sitting on my bedside table. I kept waiting for you to ask me to send it to you. But you never did. So I read it last night.” A pause as she took a drag from her smoke. “Dude, you’re hilarious. A pedophile? You? Ha. Come on, bud. You’re not a sick fuck. You’re a little fucking crazy, I think maybe a bit. But you’re not sick. Call me. I need you to tell me what ‘perfunctory’ means.”
Smirks asked me again. “What if it were Lila?”
“That’s not a fair question.”
“What’s fair?” he asked.
“I don’t know about Lila.”
“Do unto others.”
“That’s an essentialist argument.”
“What’s right for me isn’t right for everyone.”
“Isn’t it? Think.”
He was right. I had to think. According to the literature, many of the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse don’t activate until a certain stage of emotional development. The research suggested that if the perpetrator of the abuse is a parent or relative, the symptoms of depression worsen because of the perception of the betrayal of trust. But this perception was what I questioned. Did I—did others—actually feel betrayed, or were we told we should feel betrayed?
There was no way to know. There was one way to know.
I was in a dark place, and I was beer-drunk. Heavy. Angry. “I have to go to bed.”
In my tent, I bit my lips until they bled. Pained groans tight in my throat. I hated that Smirks thought I needed help. What could he see? Which one of my defects had slid into view? The loon on the lake called out. A song so familiar that you imagine you could emulate it by opening up your throat, your chest. You imagine your own sadness and wisdom could make the same sounds as a loon. But of course, if you tried, you’d just sound like a human, crying.
The next morning, I dipped my toes into Christina Lake and recoiled. Could this really be the warmest lake in Canada? I spread my blanket out on the sand and sat cross-legged facing the water. Sally’s mother kept the canoe docked at the corner of the small beach, and Sally had brought her lifejacket, even though Smirks had insisted he was not going to take her out on the water.
“I don’t have the skill,” he’d lied to Janice. Of course Smirks knew how to row a boat.
“Oh, it’s fine, Smirks,” Janice had said. “She just wants to float around out there, anyway. She’s just going to jump off and swim, the little fish. Trust me.” Sally held her mother’s hand, looking at the ground, digging a toe into the dirt. The quality of her summer days depended on the willingness of the campers. Would they play with her or wouldn’t they? Si and Sally had probably escorted dozens of campers on the lake, in the woods, over the course of their short lives.
Janice was tall and regal-looking, like a formidable tree. Late thirties, probably a couple of years older than Smirks, the same blonde hair as her daughter’s and a brown face that, rather than wrinkled, had been smoothed with age, like a stone. Ice blue eyes just a shade too far apart. A beautiful lake creature. She touched Smirks’ shoulder, and I froze the image in my mind. Smirks and Janice, happy couple.
“If it’s really too much of a hassle—”
“No, it’s fine.”
He would take her. I saw a flash of relief in Janice’s eyes. She liked Smirks. She inherently trusted him. What an idiot. A surge of rage tingled from my thighs, through my core, into my throat. My innards liquefied. I felt the anger and did nothing. Rode the sensation right out of my body. The situation unfolded and I stood there, jaw fused. I knew I should say something. Obviously I should say something. I should stop it. Should. I wondered if I were a sociopath. Smirks reached out and took Sally’s fingers in one hand and her lifejacket in the other. Together, they walked toward the water.
Once at the water’s edge, Sally jumped up and down. “Let’s go for a float, Smirks!” He laughed and gave her a high-five. Some momentum had taken hold of him, and it slowed all movement for me. I felt caught by opposing forces, the potential energy of his body and mind causing him to move so fast, light years ahead of me, while I was getting smaller, sitting on my beach blanket, watching them, voice lost, withering.
“You gotta put your life jacket on, sweetie.” He held out the little orange vest. Her arms slipped in, thin as broom handles. Smirks kneeled in front of her and fastened her jacket, taking care not to catch her long blonde hair in the teeth of the zipper. I didn’t breathe. He reached his hands, as big as her head, around both sides of her neck, and for a moment it looked as though he was going to kiss her, but instead he tucked his fingers under her hair and drew it out from her life jacket. It spread across her back, golden in the sun. “You ready?”
“Yeah!” she exclaimed, and threw her arms around him in a sloppy embrace. I thought of the scene in Kubrick’s Lolita, when Dolores and Humbert Humbert are driving in the car and she clambers up from the back seat, embracing him, kissing him. The word “coltish” kept coming to mind. But children are not animals, I thought.
Smirks looked at me. “You sure you don’t want to come?” Was that a threat in his voice? A hint of I’m calling your bluff? I felt as though he were challenging me. I’ll do it, he seemed to be saying. I’ll do it and it will be your fault.
I shook my head. “No.” My voice choked. I held up my book, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I had never read Faulkner and had thought, stupidly, that a vacation would be a good time to start. Sally ran toward me and put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes. A remarkably adult gesture. I looked at the ground. I wanted to reach up and grab her waist and hold her there. Hold her there until the tsunami that was washing over us stopped flowing. Receded. Disappeared. Sally followed my eyes until they finally landed on hers. Young, trusting girl. Little girl with a slender neck. How did children—so fragile, so easy to break—make it out? How did they survive?
Satisfied with my eye contact, she spoke. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.”
“You’ll take care of him?”
She laughed, and trotted back to Smirks. He grasped her under her armpits and lifted her up into the canoe. She was so excited, bouncing her knees, lifting her bum up and down on the yoke. Smirks pushed the canoe into the water, lake lapping up to his knees.
“Woo!” he shouted, “Chilly!”
“Chilly!” mimicked Sally, bursting into a giggle. All children sound the same when laughing. That was a line from a book I read once. What book was it? Right before the woman kills herself. She hears children laughing. I pressed my hands into my knees, felt the hard ridge of my kneecaps, dug my fingertips in, probing for cracks. Smirks hopped in the boat and inexpertly guided it toward the middle of the lake. I watched how he slopped the oars into the water and made shallow and ineffective attempts to steer, and I realized he wasn’t faking his ineptitude. He actually couldn’t row. How could a man who grew up learning every other sport and living near different bodies of water not have learned how to row? He and Sally were out in the water like two children.
Sally traipsed all over the boat, perching on first the bow seat, then the stern. She grabbed Smirks’ biceps for balance. Muscle can be a noun and a verb. Intransitive and transitive. I muscled my way into the situation. Or, all that cycling has muscled her legs. I had a compulsion to tell Smirks he was a loser. I made a mental note to do it when he got back. Any self-respecting athlete should be able to paddle without looking like a fucking moron. I remembered that conversation on the patio. One hundred years ago. His smugness disguised as inquiry. Did you do your best at anything today?
Smirks reached an arm around Sally’s waist. He gripped her there, guided her to sit down in front of him. They drifted farther away until they were shining shadows of themselves, the sun reflecting off the water and their bodies. I could make out movement but not specifics. Their bodies were close together, then apart, like drops of black oil bonding and breaking. I squinted against the sun, tried to discern details. There could be kisses, maybe. There could be touching, but I couldn’t see. Smirks’ hands disappeared between her legs. Or was he still paddling? They were in the same spot for a while, it seemed. I shielded my eyes with my hand. Sally reached her arms up high above her head. Why wasn’t she wearing her life jacket? I thought I saw Smirks press his lips to her hairless armpit.
I ran into the water. I still had my shoes on, and I swam. The water pummelled me, coated me in icy armour and all I could think to do was breathe and swim, my mind an anaphora. Right arm, left arm, right arm, left arm, chaotic breaststroke that felt more like drowning. My feet were tied together. I caught glimpses of the blue sky.
The tree line. The water’s edge. A blurry metal boat in front of me with people playing inside. I swallowed green water that tasted like freezer burn and stone. I swam for so long, twice as long as the distance should have allowed, before I finally slapped my hands up over the edge of the canoe and peered inside the hull.
Smirks was sitting on the bow seat and Sally on the stern. She held one foot tight to her body, close to her chest. The way she sat, with her leg bent up, I could see the crotch of her bathing suit. Had it been pushed to the side? She was sobbing. I couldn’t breathe. My lungs dragged. I sputtered, shimmied toward her with my hands on the gunwale. Smirks was talking, but there was a rush in my ears, water leaving them, Sally’s sobs entering them, I couldn’t hear him, didn’t look at him, just moved toward her. Sally. “What happened, Sally?” I asked finally, my lungs finding some air. Sally couldn’t speak, she was bawling too hard.
Smirks’ voice. “She hurt her toe, Julia. She stubbed her toe and slipped.” I looked at him. He was shaking his head. “She hurt herself.” I looked at Sally. With Smirks’ retelling of her trauma she started wailing even louder. Reliving the sharp pain in her mind made it worse. I looked at her foot and saw a trickle of bright red blood twisting up around her ankle like henna. “She was about to jump into the water, and she stubbed her toe. She hurt herself.”
Sally nodded desperately. Smirks pulled me up into the boat with the adeptness of a lifeguard. Before I knew it, he was rowing us skilfully back to the shore, expert swipes and digs with the oars, the hull cutting a fast line through the water. I held Sally in my lap and watched him, dumbfounded. We made it to the beach. Janice was already standing there, arms akimbo.
“She does this,” she said. She grabbed her daughter’s wrist. “She cries, for no reason. Just cries and cries.” She jerked Sally’s arm, harder than necessary.
I pointed to Sally’s foot. “She cut her toe.”
Janice looked, softened a bit at the blood. “Oh. Sweetie.” She kneeled down, kissed her fingers, pressing them to her daughter’s skin. She looked up at us. “It could have been a lot worse. Right?”
Smirks touched Sally’s forehead, wiped a strand of hair from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Sally.” Sally had her thumb in her mouth.
Janice pulled it out. “Don’t worry about it. She’s really too old to be crying like this.” She hushed Sally, pulling her toward the campground. Sally looked over her shoulder. She looked at us as though we were strangers.
Smirks and I watched them go. I could sense him scowling. “People are so fucked up,” he said, and he moved to tie up the boat. He was talking about Janice. He was talking about me.
Me, I felt incredible. Like a star had exploded in my heart chakra and shot photons to every cell in my body. He hadn’t touched her, and it thrilled me. I’d escaped prison. I’d escaped war. We left Christina Lake that afternoon, and for the first few kilometres, until the town was out of sight and off our minds, we stayed far away from each other’s slipstream. I knew Smirks was furious, with me and with Janice and with himself. But I felt liberated. Every time he turned around to look at me, I turned the corners of my mouth down. But the smile would creep back, and the work felt important and the world looked beautiful. I bit my lip to keep from hollering my joy.
Chelsea Rooney grew up in the Annapolis Valley and lives in Vancouver. She hosts a monthly episode of The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-Op Radio and is a regular contributor to Project Space’s web series on artist publishing. In 2014, Caitlin Press released her debut novel, Pedal, which Steven W. Beattie of Quill and Quire chose as a favourite first novel of 2014, and Canada’s book blog 49th Shelf chose as a book of the year. Pedal has made the shortlist for the 2015 Amazon.ca/Walrus First Novel Award.