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Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story. (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)
Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story. (Neal Cresswell/Neal Cresswell for The Globe and Mail)

SUMMER FICTION

Summer Fiction: Birthday, by Lisa Moore Add to ...

The waves were loud when they crashed against the sand, a deep thumping, a faraway noise full of solemnity and hiss and kelp slithered up and wrapped around our ankles and our wrists and the cold hurt our bones until we couldn’t feel it so much. Just an overall sting. We were running in, Claire and I and Elaine behind us. A birthday party at the beach.

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There was a wall rising way out, jellied and dark and rolling toward us. We were yelling at the top of our lungs. I glanced back toward the cliffs looking for Jeremy, my 12-year-old son, who was coming on his dirt bike through the old logging paths and I knew he’d show up on the cliffs to see where we were.

Lorna had raised a green beer bottle up in the air, a salute that caused it to spurt foam. James was holding an entire roast chicken in a crumpled sheet of tinfoil in one hand. The tinfoil was a white fire and he was devouring a leg. Emily and Sally in their fluorescent water wings. Then the wave was on me.

I dove through and it hugged me tight. I was gripped, manhandled by the gentle fist of the world, deep inside something old and sure and it was silent and my head broke through and into the noise of the beach again.

When I blinked one of my contact lenses was askew. It was almost out of my eye, or it had slipped halfway off my iris or a film of water had come between the lens and my eye, and there were drops of water in my eyelashes that broke up the light into spots of violet and blue and pink, spots floating close enough that I could have touched them with my hand, and the cliffs behind the beach became five cliffs wheeling slowly in circles, overlapping at the edges, and the boy on the dirt bike at the top of the cliff, in silhouette, was five distinct boys, each boy hovering near the next, for less than the second or two before the contact lens floated back into place on my eye and I was engulfed by the next wave and dragged under and lifted up.

My son had been driving through the woods, flying over stones and roots and swerving around ruts and puddles, the sound of his breath in his ears, intimate over the roar of the engine and the smell of gasoline and blue exhaust and he got a stunning, violent thud in the face that he only later thought of as feather and bone and claw.

His head was encased in a helmet with spray-painted flames and mirror sunglasses and a mouth guard of wire mesh.

The hard smack made the bike snake under him and the ground tilted up, the wheels firing off a round of stones and clouds of dust and he was tipping over and would have the skin torn off his arms and legs and broken bones except he straightened the bike out with his formidable will and a rigid defiance that was part muscle and part that rarefied sizzling intelligence that adrenaline sparks, and that burns clean and that you have to be 12 years old to access and he kept going and only several moments later with his heart thumping very hard was he able to think the word: bird.

And later, on the cliff looking down at his family and their friends, the adults and the two little girls, the dogs sniffing each other, an English Setter and a black Scottish Terrier, the blankets and picnic coolers, his mother swallowed in the waves and way out, the circling white flecks in the sky that were seagulls and the smooth flat patch in the water below the gulls that meant there was a whale, and then the black tail and tiny white burst of spray which he could also hear or thought he could hear and the horizon hazy, only then did he feel some tickle under his chin and glance down to find the tiny feather on his neck of his T-shirt.

Black tipped and brown with a translucent quill. He knew the bird must be dead and he took off the helmet and turned the face of it around and saw there was some guck, greyish-yellow and clotted with specks of blood on the mesh over the mouth guard and he felt goose bumps and the hair on his arms and a light sweat broke out all over.

I carried the beer cooler back to the house and had to put it down on the pavement and pick it up with the other hand, switching because it was so heavy.

The woman I was chatting with was from Toronto. She’d been here a while with work and said she loved it, but she was having trouble walking over the beach rocks in her flip-flops. The spongy soles slid away from her foot with every step.

I regret the flip-flops, she said. I’ll tell you that.

I had cupped my hands around my eyes just before we started up the hill, to see Dave’s iPhone photo of Stan, flung upward in wings of thick white surf, his chest out, flying, the ecstasy of keeping his face out of all that creaming power and might, mouth an O of surprise or joy, a veil of gleam over his whole face, eyes shut tight, chin tucked into his shoulder.

I could hardly see the image on the phone because the sun washed it out but there he was in front of us, Stan, standing now, the foam dragging backwards away from him as he stumbled forward. His head was down and he looked lost in whatever had overcome him and then he turned back and ran in again, roaring, fists in the air.

There was a lace curtain for the flies and we lifted it out of the way and inside the house it was so dark after the sun and then wasn’t dark at all.

All the food. Salads and a plate of thick steaks in a pool of blood and a stainless steel bowl of crab legs and barbecue smoke coming in from the window. Boiling cabbage and salt beef. I told my son to put the water guns away when Emily started to cry because her dress was wet.

I’ll have to iron it, she cried. And it’s my favourite.

Give me the gun, I said. His face is so tanned, his blue eyes are bluer than I’ve ever seen. We are eye to eye. He has shot up this summer, my height now.

He points the super-soaker at my chest. His light brown eyelashes wheat-coloured at the tips. His father’s eyes, those cheekbones. My mouth. Something of me in his chin.

But the mounting audacity, the grin, there is something in him right at this second that isn’t me or his father, just him, just him, and I regret getting mad because he squirted the gun and he’d taken a finger full of blue icing, a psychedelic blue, and wiped it down one of the girl’s cheeks and she had put a finger in the chocolate icing and had drawn a moustache on him and what was I mad about?

Grow up, I’d said. Or: Be more mature. And I regretted it.

I knew he would become so many things, all the different selves he would be, but if I could, I would keep him this way, with his wild eyes and fearlessness.

Put the gun away, I said.

What, he said. This? A damn cold splotch on my T-shirt over my chest. And he kept pulling the trigger, racked now with uncontrollable giggles, crumpling over with them, one hand pressed to his heart as if to hold himself back from the terrible deed, as if to keep him from toppling to the floor and he was choking out the words: Stop what? This? Do you mean this? He kept squirting. And this and this and this?

Lisa Moore’s most recent novel, February, was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

 

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