Jolley Prize 2015 (Shortlist): 'Crest' by Harriet McKnight

Harriet McKnight

Harriet McKnight

Harriet McKnight lives in Melbourne. In 2014 her work was shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize,

...

It takes more than half an hour to put on all the layers of the dry suit. First the woollen thermals, then the thick undersuit and the neoprene seals around the neck and wrists. Finally, the membrane shell. All this before we even look for the hole in the ice. By the time we hit the water we are as plump and blubber-thick as the more cold-adapted creatures: seals, whales, little penguins that leave trails of bubbles blurred behind them like a zoetrope strip. Pierre calls it our sumo suit, the ‘Japanese Squeeze’. Will tells him it’s the closest Pierre’s ever got to an exotic embrace. Pierre says he is innocent and pure and doesn’t want to know about Will’s sordid carry-on. We’ve been working together so long that this kind of thing seems funny. When we step off the Zodiac onto the ice, we move like one gangly animal. We scan the horizon and sniff the air. The centre of gravity low in our bodies, every bit of us on high alert to feel if the frozen sheet bends at our step. There are no shadows here. It makes it hard to see what we’re looking for: a place where the ice opens and we can slip down into the hanging cathedral beneath.

I guess you could call us veterans. Our training was hard; we knew not to take the ice for granted, to view the ocean as a wild animal – unpredictable and untrustworthy. Despite the ease that comes with years of doing this, the feeling of nervousness never completely goes away. Even when standing on several feet of frozen water, I can feel the ocean moving beneath us, subtle and swaying like the rock of a mother’s hand on a cradle. In our world we think of surfaces as solid: table tops and concrete floors. Out here the Ross Sea runs beneath us. Sounds leak up, chucks and whirrs of seals, booms and whines of whales. Sometimes we lay down with our ears pressed to the ice just to listen to the world beneath.

With every dive it’s someone’s job to stay on top and watch for any shift in the ice or change in the weather. What seems like solid terrain is always changing, sheets splintering with ocean currents. Seals have to keep coming up to their holes every few minutes to make sure the water doesn’t freeze right over their heads. The hole-minder’s job is to watch the surface of the hole for the lacework of slush forming. Then they shove a stick down and smash it up. Pierre stays on top while Will and I dive. He prefers the grunt work of the surface to the cold water beneath. A decade or so before, Pierre had been up there with the best of them. In serious diving circles people knew his name. Then his dive partner died of an air embolism in Sipadan. They dragged her into the boat with blood frothing on her lips. Pierre tried to go down a few weeks later, but he couldn’t stomach the depths after that. So now Will and I take the dives in turns.

This morning I try to calculate whose turn it is, then quickly begin to set up my dive gear before Will has the chance. I can feel them both watching me, but neither points out that I’ve done the last three. The only sound is the gentle whoosh of the slushed gap in the ice. This is the quietest place I’ve ever been. When the wind’s down, you can hear your own heartbeat. Pierre starts the chainsaw. It whines as he expands the hole, a small snowstorm kicked up behind him. My suit half on, I look at Will, who is stacking the equipment.

‘Lil, I know my wife would much prefer you went down than me,’ he says with a shrug. But he looks at the circle of water sloshing up and over the rim of the hole for a beat longer than is usual. None of us are out here because we want to sit on the sidelines. He helps me pull the suit over my shoulders and drags the zip closed. The guys haven’t mentioned it yet. I can feel them holding back. Everyone called it a tragedy. I haven’t felt right about that. It seems too small and too large a word at the same time. Like it’s the wrong shape to fit onto what happened. Whatever it is, it’s still so recent that people just let me do what I want. Most of the time I can’t even feel bad about that.

The sun is brutal and burning. As we round the coast it crusts our lips and flakes our noses. Then we move into the shade of an ice front and everything is plunged into aqua-blue cold. Some of these fronts are fifty metres high. We can hear the groans, the change, the shifting of weight. We don’t hug the coast, too much chance of a chunk carving off. The fronts are monoliths, cold and impartial. They throw long shadows. You can’t quite get your eyes to take in the size of them. The information gets lost on the way to your brain. They’re always slightly distorted, out of focus.

We aren’t seeing as many big bergs these days, mainly growlers or bits. That’s what we’re doing out here, watching the changes in the ice. Sometimes it feels like we’re just witnesses to the death of things. We measure and prod. We collate data and feel the planet crumble and grind down around us. A few days ago, we found a leopard seal beneath the sheet ice, a speckled blur in a lacquer finish. When I got down close, I could almost make out the grain of its fur. The back half of its body trailed off into sinew and pale meat.

‘What a goddamn waste,’ said Pierre. Leopard seals need pack ice to breed. On top of that the numbers of fish are dwindling and the ones we have seen are threadbare and nasty-looking. The one beneath the ice had its jaws cracked apart, mid-howl. Its teeth were long and yellowed like old lace. I’d never seen one so close. Usually if we spot them in the water we just sit on the ice for a while and wait for them to move on. It’s pretty rare that one will take a bite at you, but all of us have been on edge since everything that happened with Kristy Brown a few years ago. Wild animals are wild animals. You never really know what they’re capable of.

I still panic the first time water comes over my head. My core is toasty but the cold seeps in around the edges of my face, snatching breath from my lungs. I have to hang there, just beneath the surface, concentrating on calming down. The thick exposure suit grazes against the edge of the hole and the water is hazy from the slushy, half-frozen ice that slips in with me. I focus on my chest, the movement of my lungs against my ribcage, the rubber, the water. I imagine Stevie Nicks’s voice; always the same song, something so far from where I am, in the cold and the sea. Once, Stan had looked at me with the blush of love in his cheeks and asked, ‘How do you do what you do?’ We had been dating a few months. I was wine-flushed and flattery-fat, but I never told him about that song. Even now, I’m not sure why. In my head I can conjure up the way the chords slip into the next. The slide guitar highlights and the way her voice trembles on the longer notes. It’s well paced and deliberate. The one-two-three of the kick drum. I hang my breath on it and it calms me. Bubbles from my regulator brush against my face. When I open my eyes, the ocean drops out below into darkness.

The sea is bottle-green and blue for the first few metres down. Above my head is a ceiling of eerie turquoise that I’ve only ever seen in the ice. Drop down past the ten-metre mark and the water gets thick and inky. It’s impossible to describe how beautiful it is. This upside-down, Dalí landscape. Ice spreading out in twirling stalactites and frozen wave barrels. Fish, all silver but different sizes, move in clouds, sometimes chased by fur seals and penguins. Movements graceful and determined, there is nothing more elegant than animals living where they’re supposed to live.

My camera is so heavy I can only hold it for about fifteen minutes before my arms start trembling. Packed in against the cold and the wet, it looks more like a prop from a sci-fi movie than a camera. The torch at my waist swings in lazy circles; the beam dissolving into the darkness like it does when you point a light up towards the stars. I drop down further. I want to get a better angle of the ice structures. Later we’ll place these prints next to ones from the previous years and search for changes, smallness, thinness. Our hearts sinking and staying low. The weight of the evidence like a thick oil spill. Only scientists can know the exact weight of the world and the list of sins we have to pay for.

From the deep comes a sound. It is like crystal glasses when they are clinked lightly together, or when someone wets their finger and then runs it around the rim – or both together in a symphony of glass and liquid. The ocean feels vast and vacant. The sound bounces and shifts, slides behind ice structures before floating back on the current. It doesn’t sound like any whale or sea animal I’ve heard before. I scan my memory for familiar patterns – Pierre was forever playing recordings of whale songs in the cabin, or obscure things with bells and tin whistles – but nothing comes to mind. They say we know less about the ocean than we do about space. I heft the camera. It takes a while to manoeuvre my fingers into position above the shutter; my gloved hands are swollen as though they’ve been bee-stung. The sound is still ringing against the ice and water. I want to be ready to capture whatever it is. There is a swell like the moment in a pop song before the lyrics kick in. And then, stillness. The sea drops out beneath me like it’s infinite. Something creeps up my back and slips inside my rubber skin. It is warm and comforting and I recognise it. A mother would never forget it.

When our placement ends we load our stuff onto the steel-hulled North Star. It takes us three days to reach Hobart. We spend the time collating data and playing drinking games. The bergs are thin, then they disappear. The waves become seething, inky mounds. We part at the docks with few words. Stan is sitting in the car, the engine running against the cold. He waves as I reach the bottom of the path. I see the dark blur of his arm move behind the fogged windscreen. When I open the door he says something, but I lose it almost as soon as the words leave his mouth. For the rest of the conversation I’m trying to pretend that I was listening.

The light is different here. In Antarctica it catches itself around glass-sharp corners and spills across the water’s surface like confetti. Here in Hobart it is dulled by the eucalypt trees and forced flat against the sides of buildings and tarmac.

Stan is restless in the mornings. He turns and shifts, dragging covers and sheets with him. Recalling the peace and stillness of my bunk, I haven’t yet gotten used to his shape beside me again.

‘Your feet are cold,’ he says. ‘Like ice.’

‘That’s funny,’ I say, and dig my toes into where his knees crease.

Stan turns over.

‘Hey,’ he says. ‘Where are you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I wave my hand in front of his face and click my fingers together.

He pokes my nose.

‘Stan.’ My hands wind around his neck, I pull him in so my chin rests in the curve of his collarbone. His body holds a stiffness he won’t let go.

‘It’s the same every time,’ he says. ‘You’re only out there for a few weeks but you never really come back.’

I think, this again? I think, you knew what you were marrying.

We try to do normal things, but I’m counting down the weeks until we leave for the south again and he can feel it. We go shopping, eat out, play Scrabble, which I win. When he leaves the house in the mornings I pretend to still be asleep. I rise once he’s gone and walk around the rooms in my socks until I have to go to the office. Will and Pierre drag out charts and sheets of graphs amid coffee mugs and peach buns from the local bakery. Will’s wife moved to Hobart to be close to him, Stan to be close to me. Pierre’s wife runs a not-for-profit out of Brisbane and they see each other twice a year. If he is lonely or misses her, we can never tell.

There’s a lot of typing and data entry, but they wave me away when I try to offer to do some. ‘There isn’t that much,’ they lie. My kind of grief is unspeakable, unknowable. People show concern through picking up the boring jobs they would try and palm off onto you at any other time.

‘How’s Stan?’ they ask.

‘Same old, same old,’ I reply, their eyes on the back of my neck as I turn away. I love them because they don’t say anything else.

‘How are the boys?’ Stan asks when I come home.

‘Same old, same old,’ I say. He laughs, but it sounds feigned. At night I dream of the singing and the warmth beneath the ice. When I wake the light is flat and the bird sounds scratch the air. I stay in bed and read Latin American writers. Eduardo Galeano says that we’re all tiny flames, some burning more fiercely than others, some just pulsing with barely any light and no heat. I don’t know what kind of flame I am anymore. Stan would be a cosy hearth fire. He would never be considered a dangerous blaze.

We fight on my last night. Badly. Neither of us is prone to screaming, but the walls shake with rage and pain, our voices smashing against each other like bull deer rutting. Some unidentifiable compulsion to lock horns and tear strips of flesh from each other. By the end we are both shaking, Stan is crying. My throat is thick and aching, but there is no wetness on my face. He looks for it. Like tears will give him some proof of me, something he can grasp and understand.

‘She was our baby girl,’ he says.

‘I know.’

‘Does that mean anything to you?’

‘Yes.’

It is a second death to see disbelief in your lover’s face.

When we leave the harbour Stan doesn’t stick around to watch us move away. The big hull cutting waves like butter. I try to feel guilty but I don’t feel anything, except the icy teeth of the wind on my cheeks as I stand on the deck until the light fades. Golds and pinks spun like fairy floss through the feathered noctilucent clouds. Sunset on land is never the same as it is over the open ocean.

It takes longer than I expect to get my sea legs again. I stumble around the deck, as though one side of my body is heavier than the other. Pierre comes down with the flu a day into the journey and stays in bed. Will and I sit in the cabin listening to him swear and watching the waves pound the windows.

‘I never got to tell you,’ Will says. ‘I know it was months ago but the service was really great, really great.’

There is a tightness in my chest. Through the window we can see the first icebergs appearing on top of the water. They are small and sun-smoothed this close to Tasmania.

‘Thanks,’ I say. The water is beginning to freeze, rivulets of icy slush run like cracks across the glass.

‘And you know that if you need anything …’

‘Thanks.’

We spend the first few days as we always do; in McMurdo, organising gear and killing time before we head out to our research base. McMurdo sits like a dirty, backwater mining town in the pristine whiteness of Ross Island. Corrugated iron structures built up like a slum. There are one thousand people during the summer months; all a little crazed by this emptiness. Pierre says they’re the professional dreamers of the world, the people that seek out the point where all the lines converge. He says there’s nowhere south of the South Pole. One night a guy pulls out a fish in the canteen. He dragged it up from the dark and the deep. It’s long and spiked; its flesh is mottled alabaster. It has round, human eyes. He carries it from person to person like a newborn.

‘Guys,’ he says when he reaches our table, snapping its jaws open and closed, ‘why did the Spookfish cross the road? C’mon, it’s a joke.’

We’re all relieved to leave McMurdo behind. After the mud and the stagnant air, we breathe so deeply that our lungs ache. We sit in the sun with binoculars to our faces; searching for any bit of movement, a brown blur, a cloud of breath. Pierre finally spots it; a seal’s head hooked like a periscope about five hundred metres to our right. The hole is not the biggest. Pierre pulls the chainsaw alive and begins to shave away the edges. I sprinkle talcum powder across the inside of my suit to help it glide over my sticky skin. Will still doesn’t say anything. He helps me stretch the thick suit over my shoulders and pulls up the zip. He spends extra time checking the water seals and catches.

‘I think you should watch the current down there,’ he says. His fingers are on my arm. I can barely feel their pressure. The head of my suit is still hanging around my neck. I pull the first set of gloves on. They’re woollen, insulating. I keep my hands high so they don’t accidentally touch the snow and become damp.

‘Maybe you should wear a rope,’ Will says.

I fiddle with my belt. Check each weight.

‘Lil.’

‘It’ll slow me down.’

Will spreads the neoprene hood wide and guides it over my head. The rubber is tight against my chin.

‘That pull looks mean.’

‘It’s fine.’

He tests my first stage valve and then all the hoses.

‘You’re not the only one out here.’

‘What exactly does that mean?’ There is a hotness in my chest and I’m daring him to push it further.

‘Whatever any of us do out here involves the others.’

‘Is it my professionalism or my skills that you’re questioning?’

Will looks at me a long time and then tugs the red, outer gloves down to my wrists. He uses enough force to let me know. He checks my seals again, my tanks, my emergency equipment.

‘She’s a-ready,’ says Pierre and picks up the crowbar to keep the hole open while I’m down. The grind of the ice against itself loud in my ears as I slide into the blackness.

The rush of cold, the snatch of breath. I think of the same chords, Stevie’s voice. Then my lungs find the rhythm and there’s only the fullness of water in my ears. I head down and prepare my camera. The descent flips my torch up and the beam shines the way I’ve come. Almost immediately I sense the currents are stronger than usual. Water is casting patterns across the underside of the ice sheet. Swirls and bubbles streak as though they’re pressing up against a glass-bottomed boat. This is a bad sign. The ice could shift, closing the hole above my head and sealing me beneath. I could be dragged off course and lose my way under the ceiling of ice. I have no compass. This close to the magnetic pole, the needle would point straight up. Training taught us to read the ocean but also to know that we’ll never be able to completely know it. To always approach it like you would a bear. I should have used the rope. I lift my face to the dull smudge indicating the hole in the ice, the blur of the sky above. I think, I should go back. Just head up and say ‘You were right Will.’ Cop his gloating. I put my hands down, fiddling with the valve, and then I hear it. Glassy tinkles and shimmering notes. The entire universe hanging between the semitones, the whole history of me and her and the planets strung like a necklace between the movements of the melody. The current drops away. The water slows to a standstill; thick as a lava lamp, the algae dangles like fairy lights. There is no drift across my suit, no debris wafting past me. I feel as though I’m hanging in nothing. The song swells from the ocean floor, rushes up around my ears, fills my throat and my nose, vibrates against my skull from the inside. It’s warm. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.

Then silence rushes in and everything speeds up. The water pulls at my limbs. The current spins my torch in wild circles. I can’t see the hole. Tiny fish and krill zoom past my goggles. Silver bullets. My oxygen reads three minutes twenty-seven seconds. My breath is short. I can’t see the hole. The ice above my head is a hard, blue sheet. I think, I should be just beneath it, why can’t I see it? I kick my fins against the water trying to stay in the one spot, listening to the rasp of my breath through the tube, watching the bubbles from my tank float up and smash themselves against the underside of the ice. I don’t look at my oxygen dial again. The ocean is huge and whole around me, the groans of ice moving against itself echoing from all directions. The whines and clicks of the sea floor. I’ll work back along the way I drifted. I head up slowly. We don’t have a hyperbaric chamber out here to get rid of the bends. If you get them, it’s a painful trip back to Hobart. It feels too slow, I’m not moving. I reach up and touch the ice. I try to feel along it for a dip or dimple that would give something away. It’s slippery and my hands scramble in slow motion. Why the fuck isn’t Pierre doing his job? The singing is back. It’s back but distant, distorted. I try to breath as shallowly as possible. Sip the air, my diving coach said, like it’s port. It’s there beneath my fingers. I can see the blurred outlines of boots on the other side. I put my arm up and hit ice. The slush is packing together, freezing a new lace surface. I try to pull my arm back to form a punch. The current pulls my ankles. I don’t look at my oxygen dial. The singing is a whisper, right next to my ears. I can almost feel the pressure of a small fist on my forearm. The water is so warm.

Stan comes in like a storm. I’m midway through chopping tomatoes. I’ve been back a few weeks and until now things have been calm between us.

‘I saw Will at the shops,’ he says. ‘Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?’

We are making paella. I had bought a nice red. Stan was fetching fresh mussels from the fish shop. They’re in the plastic bag he’s flung into the sink, rounding on me with anger vibrating off him.

‘It was nothing,’ I say. ‘It could have happened to any of us.’

‘But you didn’t tell me, Lil.’

‘I’m fine.’ I hang a laugh around the words in the hope of sounding nonchalant.

‘Will said you weren’t interested in the rope thing,’ he says. ‘Isn’t that what you guys do? Why did he say that?’

‘He’s overreacting.’

‘Why does it feel like you’re taking risks?’

I don’t have it in me to care how the truth sounds. ‘I thought I could hear something,’ I say. ‘I thought I saw something.’

Stan’s face is tight and folded in on itself. I don’t have it in me to want to try harder.

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means I was doing my job.’

He is shaking his head. I hate his face when he’s like this. ‘It’s bullshit,’ he says.

‘Oh, so now you know how to do my job?’ It’s petty.

He just stands there with all he’s not saying up around his shoulders, twisting his body, making me want to drag it out with my nails. I spread my hands in front of him like a prayer, a plea. My voice is getting thicker. ‘Don’t you ever think you can feel her?’ I say. ‘Don’t you ever feel that?’

His mouth twists into thunder. Then his face clears with realisation and he has something like horror in his eyes.

‘That is fucked up,’ he says. ‘Jesus Lil, that is so fucked up.’

‘What?’ I yell. ‘What?’

‘You were trying to drown yourself. Because she drowned.’

The slap when it happens is hard and makes us both jump. My palm stung raw, his cheek blooming pink. The echo of the crack of skin on skin sharp in our ears. The molecules of air ringing between us.

‘Whatever you think you’re seeing down there, whatever you think you’re finding,’ he says. ‘You’re wrong. You’re just fucking wrong.’

I don’t start sobbing until the door slams behind him.

A gate unlatched. Small detail. Usually it would be fine, the other kids are mostly old enough, their schools ran swimming lessons last year. New Year’s Day and my sister’s turn to host, no time to check everything, no person could check everything. A tiny hand reaching out to push cold bars. A hand small enough to grasp a finger, to tug hair. Not large enough to catch water and climb her way to the surface once under. Too long out of the womb, she would have to be taught to feel the fish part of her again. A soft body too heavy for buoyancy. A shadow on the bottom of the pool when we finally realise she’s missing.

That night, I don’t feel Stan slide into bed beside me, because I’m dreaming, the low rock of currents twirling about my ankles. I’m hanging in the water, a crucifix in liquid. No rubber suit this time, just ocean on skin, my hair fanned out like a mermaid. I feel beautiful. A voice heard more in my heart than my ears. A song I have never forgotten. When the words come I am ready. They are what I already knew. The water is warm like a bath and I can feel the sunlight streaming through the surface. When she appears I am not surprised. Even the ice starts to sing.

 

'Crest' by Harriet McKnight placed third in the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.