Jolley Prize 2016 (Winner): 'Glisk' by Josephine Rowe

We are wading out, the five of us. I remember this. The sun an hour or two from melting into the ocean, the slick trail of its gold showing the way we will take.

Ahead of me, my tiny sister sits regal and unafraid in the middle of the raft that Fynn has built from packing foam and empty chemical buckets, lids fixed airtight with caulk. He's already tested it out in our neighbours' pool and declared it seaworthy, but if the thing falls apart he has promised to carry Sara himself. Fynn is thirteen, older than me by five years, and the only one of us three kids who has been to the island before. Our mother had long hair then, and Fynn's dad was still around, hadn't yet skidded his motorbike underneath a roadtrain. My dad – Fynn's dad too now, Mum constantly reminds us – shoulders a picnic basket filled with Sara's favourites, Fynn's favourites, Mum's favourites, mine: cheese and apple sandwiches, salt and vinegar chips, slivers of mango doused with lime and chilli, ginger beer. Enough food to last a week, though we'll be crossing back to the mainland this same night, lit by a quarter moon and a two-dollar torch.

The people around us hardly seem like people. More like a muster of herd animals. They move steadily through the water in ones and twos, feeling for the slope of the sandbar underfoot, the treacherous edge where the ocean floor falls away. That's how people – tourists, mostly – get themselves drowned, snatched off by rips.

The sea the sea the terrible ...

Yep yep, we say, we know; Dad gets wordy sometimes.

There are other families, some also towing small children on boogie boards, inflatable lilos, nothing so fine as Sara's raft. Eskies bob alongside silver jellyfish-balloons of clothes tied inside plastic shopping bags.

We're lucky, Dad's telling us, today's a neap tide – safest time to make a crossing. The highest tide not as high as normal, the deepest part not so deep.

Further out, the island looks like a rough dog slouching up from the ocean, muzzle pointed north-west. What's out there? A lot of putrid birds, Fynn's already told me, and some alright caves, mobs of bogans sinking tinnies. Nothing awesome. But tonight, after sunset, the shores around the island will be phosphorescent with the visiting swarm of bio- luminescent phytoplankton, on their anxious, brilliant way to who-knows-where. We'll perch along the highest bluff in a sprawl of blankets and eskies while the waves crash iridescent against the rocks below, sweeping back to leave lonely blue stars stranded here and there, then charging back in to reclaim them.

It will be spectacular, an eerie sort of magic, and I will never see anything like it again.

But whatever, this isn't the point. In the end, the island is just a dog-shaped rock covered with birds and sunburnt gawkers, temporarily surrounded by terrified dinoflagellates.

It's this wading out that matters, this crossing: the bright, migratory-animalness of it. Going waist deep, chest deep, waist deep again. What matters is how, halfway over, Fynn looks back at us, then ahead again, and says to no one, or everyone, or maybe just to Sara:

I reckon this is how the afterlife must look.

I see Dad look back at Mum and mouth the word, afterlife?

Fynn is the palest of us, lighter even than Mum; blonde right to his eyelashes, the only one who crisps up in the sun. He looks adopted. A thing we all know but know better than to say.

Anyway. There it is.

Do I make it through childhood without staking every possible biological claim on the man who calls us both my beloved savage? I'm ashamed to say I do not. I'm content to share him only in his lesser moments: it is my dad who used to play bass in an almost-famous blues band, but it is our dad who, before the blues band, used to play clarinet in a high school orchestra. It is my dad who promises to buy us a pair of albino axolotls, our dad who reneges when Fynn and I neglect our goldfish duties and Skeletor's tank is all slime and fug.

(There was a time, some years, where it was just Fynn and Mum, and this is maybe what I'm getting back at him for. Or else I'm getting him back for all the names he isn't called in school, the way no one ever asks where he's from, whether his parents are reffos. Or else it's the fact that, even though one of them is dead, he has two fathers, doesn't have to share his, and is allowed to wander off without telling anyone, to give reasons like 'just thinking' or 'just walking', getting soft looks instead of strife.)

Does my brother find some spiteful way of getting even, of undermining my full-bloodedness? He never does. Maybe he never feels the need to. Fynn takes these pissing contests for what they are. In actual pissing contests, there is no competition, and really no point. He gets halfway to the bougainvillea tumbling over the top of the fence, while I try (no hands) not to dribble on my runners.

At the deepest point of the crossing, the ocean reaches my lower lip, and I hold onto Mum. Feel my feet levitate from the shell grit below. Become cargo swinging from her strong gold shoulder, safe in her smell of coconut oil and warm bread as she pushes on towards the island.

Around us the ocean thickens to an algaeic soup that stinks of dead things; proof that the plankton are here, all around us, though invisible for now – it isn't dark enough to give them away yet. This is the point where Fynn's raft begins to keel, the empty buckets unhitching, and Sara responds with a lot of high-pitched wailing and clutching at salty air.

When the raft breaks apart, Fynn keeps his word, and Sara scrambles up from the wreckage to ride his bony shoulders, her little grabby starfish hands clenching fistfuls of his tawny hair. It must hurt badly, his eyes pulled to teary slits, but he says nothing while trying to shepherd pieces of the debris ahead of himself.

Waves slap at his face, trying to get in through his mouth and nose. He screws his eyes shut, snorts water, while higher up Sara sings, oblivious, her stubby little feet hooked under his wrists.

Hey mate, Dad offers, I can take her. But both Fynn and Sara shake their heads, so Dad just cruises alongside in a coastguard sort of way, until the ocean finally slips from Fynn's shoulders and leaves Sara cheerily marooned up there.

There are no photographs from that day. Mum dropped the disposable QuickSnap crossing back to the mainland, and though we groped and kicked around no one found it. Perhaps that's why I remember it so vividly. Fynn stumbling through the breakers with Sara, delivering her safely to the dry sand and waiting until Mum had led her off to squeak into some penguin burrows before he doubled over and gushed out all that swallowed seawater into a patch of saltbrush. Fiery stinger marks striped his quaky legs.

Years later, somewhere into adulthood, I'll decide that this is a story to one day tell at my brother's wedding. Or else his funeral. Possibly both – as with a certain kind of suit, it seems workable for either occasion.

Instead of the wedding and/or funeral speech (though sure, there's still time enough for both), I'm delivering this story to my wife. Trying to wrest my brother back from what local mythology has made of him. Careless Idiot at best; Murderer at worst. Ti has been driving past those crosses at the shoulder of Highridge Road for years, since before we even met. Shed-made, white as desert-bleached bones. Coated with a fresh layer of paint every spring, strung with teddy bears, ribbons, other sentimental lark. Trinkets refreshed each September, along with the paint. The grandparents' work, we suspect; the father too modest for that sort of rubbish.

This is all Ti knows of my brother. This, and the couple-three cards he's sent, and the shedful of furniture he left behind; all gliding teak curves and high-tension wires. Mid-century harpsichord, Ti calls it, explaining how their father was a luthier when friends admire the coffee table, the only piece that makes sense with the rest of our house.

My father, I'll sometimes add. My father was the luthier.

Why, Ti wants to know, would your brother come back here?

I ask myself the same.

After the hearing, depending on who you care to ask, Fynn either ran, slunk, snuck, crawled, choofed-off, fucked-off, hauled arse, or simply went to the Northern Isles of Scotland, where the Atlantic rushes in to meet the North Sea, and where he got some shit-kicking work at a whisky distillery. There he works five or six shifts a week, making nothing that anyone could put his name to.

I still draw sometimes, he told me once, glitchy at his end of our sole Skype attempt. His face freezing then catching up with itself.

I still sketch out ideas for things I might make one day if I ever [garble].

Last year Mum and Dad retired to Norfolk Island. Mum phones every Sunday to talk politics and weather and to ask what the hell she did wrong. Sara is twenty-five, working as an image and style consultant in Sydney. Who knows what she thinks; she's less scrutable than a butchy boy. She doesn't remember that trip to the island, or the raft, and I'm not sure she remembers a time when she liked either of us, Fynn or me. Her first memories start at five, and by then Fynn was sixteen, flakey as a box of Frosties, and I was a monster. Long gone are the days when she would laugh along with whatever jokes we told, not understanding but not wanting to be left out. Sometimes we would laugh just to make her laugh, tell jokes that weren't funny, or weren't even real jokes but had the rhythm of jokes. Just to test her, just to watch her go. Now she doesn't find anything funny.

I think you ruined her, Mum says down the phone one weekend. You and your brother.

When did he become mine is a question I do not ask.

Fynn arrives on a Saturday morning with one duffel bag, his blondness gone to seed, hair brushing the collar of the bomber jacket he wears in spite of the January heat. Dead pine trees still line the curb, flung out for green waste.

My brother lopes across the scorched front lawn, looking even older than he looked in court, older than I figured possible. Walking taller than he wants to be, ghosting up the morning. Out on the street there's his rental hatchback, some hairdryer, crouching as though it also hopes not to be seen. As though six years might be too soon.

I'm waiting behind the flyscreen, feeling everything I'd neatly flat-packed springing up in me. I will punch him, I think. No, I will bring him in close. I will tell him ... I don't know what.

Yes, I might have picked him up from the airport, travelled that 80 k's with him – school doesn't start back till February, the course is all set, no one needs a thing from me till then. But I was thinking, stuff it. After this long and this much silence he can manage at least that much.

He's turning silver grey at the temples, and when he finally looks up his blue eyes waver as though he is looking at something unstill. He reminds me of those huskies that people, out of vanity or stupidity, see fit to keep as pets in this climate. Ti's hands ball into little fists when she sees them; bewildered, patchy-coated animals paraded around Perth's richer suburbs, humiliated wolves.

Fynn is humiliated, of course. He is beyond humiliated.

Hey! I say. Then, like an idiot, Welcome back!

Raf, is all he says, putting his hand forward like I'm about to go and shake it.

I step out into the glare and grab him around the shoulders, and he stands there stiffly for a few seconds, finally relenting to the hug.

Still in the doorway he rummages through the duffle bag. Brought you a gift, he says, but he says it like geft, this new lilt in his voice. Your wedding, he says, handing over a fancy wooden booze box.

Sorry I missed ... Then he waves a hand to mean: everything.

It strikes me that this is what strangers do. Make offerings before stepping over the thresholds of each others' houses. That this is what we are now.

Get in here, would you?

Inside he shucks off the bomber jacket. His skin is the bluish-white of those axolotls Dad never bought us.

Six summers, he explains, like an apology. A lot to make up for – mind if I go photosynthesise? Then he spends the next few hours just lying in our backyard, stripped down to his undies. Ti will be at work a few hours yet, dislodging pieces of Lego from the throats of small, stupid dogs, treating pissed-off cats for gingivitis. Fynn keeps his eyes closed as we speak about nothing much: Mum and Sara synching up their mid- and quarter-life crises; the Perth mining boom; the resulting ice boom; the inevitable rehab boom.

I rant about my students, mostly write-offs. Teaching them the difference between Rhizaria and Chromalveolata when it would be more use teaching them the difference between papillomavirus and chlamydia.

All the while my brother's face is turned directly towards the sun. I study the frail red and grey blood vessels on his near-translucent eyelids, limpid as rock pool creatures down there in the deep set of his skull. The drive from the airport would have taken him past those crosses, the gleaming reinforced barrier.

What? he says from behind his closed eyes.

Nothing. You're burning, you know.

Beaut. Fine by me. Six bloody summers ...

Yeah yeah.

My wife falls in love with him, of course. Not in any way that could really be considered dangerous, just in the way I knew she would, the way people have always fallen in love with Fynn; quickly and easily and faithfully. It is so so so good to finally finally meet you, like a record jumping, and suddenly the crosses planted at the shoulder of the highway do not stand for two tiny girls and their singing-teacher mother. They stand for small town intolerance, grudges borne longer than is fair or necessary, nourished by the kind of rural oxygen a larger city would have starved them of.

The two of them stand at the kitchen sink, elbow to elbow, de-bearding mussels. Cracking up over something I don't catch. In high school the couple of girls I managed to bring home laughed just as easily for him, like they were trying to wake up some sleeping thing. Fynn, my older, whiter brother, who never felt the need to take me down a notch. Who's always had everything going for him. Why do I still think of him this way? And why is there a moment, a flash in which I also think, skulked, snuck, hauled-arse ... after all the defending I've done in the years since the accident. Especially in the first couple, with people murmuring and shaking their heads in the tinned-veg aisle, though all I have in common with Fynn is some blood.

I'm watching them over the top of my beer, my brother and my wife, somehow knowing, before it happens, that one of them is going to slice the paring knife through their palm, and the other is going to have an excuse to come at them with Dettol and cotton wool, and that I'm going to have to sit here and watch this. Then Fynn goes Ah Christ! but the gouge isn't deep, doesn't need Ti's attention, and he gets on with the job of scraping away the hairy tendrils that once anchored the mollusc someplace it thought sturdy.

Soon enough we're sitting around the table, butterflying shells between our fingers and using the halves for slurping up the briny liquor, the house filling with a fragrant, kelpy smell.

Ti has a theory about labour-intensive food, the kind where utensils are a waste of time and attempts at grace just make you clumsier. This theory holds: the empty shells pile up between us and the talk spills easily, as if we've been doing this every Saturday for years, the three of us.

The work's mostly just menial stuff, Fynn says. Bottling, labelling. Keeping the mice off the malt floor. Things I can't mess up too bad. No hand in the art of it. But it's enough to be in that landscape – that old, that immense. Part of you just disappears.

All of you just disappeared, I think.

Got a little boat, he's saying. Take it out for sea trout on my days off. Bay of Isbister, Inganess...

When he says these names it's with that lilt, as though the words have been kept in the wrappers they came in.

We drink all the wine that wasn't used to steam open the mussels, and when that's done we crack Fynn's wedding present. I uncork the heavy-based bottle, and the North Sea rushes into the room. I slosh out three glasses and we lift them to the wedding. We lift the next round to Dad's bypass, then another to the cousin whose dive gear let him down, and all the things that Fynn shouldn't have missed but did and oh well what can you do he's here now, hey?

Ti's giving me that watch it look; Fynn clears his throat and unfoots a mussel with a twist of fork, then goes back to seducing her with northernmost Scotland's beauty and gloom. The peat slabs cut and lifted out of the ground, snaked-through with heather roots and reeking of time. The salt air and natural violence that make their way into the bottle. The ocean and how it differs, how the memory of Western Australia shrinks right down to a pinhole. Standing at the edge of the Yesnaby Cliffs, clouds of guillemots beating frantic overhead.

Like the very ends of the earth out there, Fynn says.

Like the afterlife ...? And I can tell from how he looks at me that he doesn't remember ever saying that, that he thinks I'm taking the piss. None of us are quite drunk enough to not be embarrassed by this, so I refill our glasses and we drink to our sister, whose sense of humour we incrementally destroyed.

The bottle makes seven or eight rounds of our glasses before it's drained, and by that stage Ti has tapped out, her sturdy brown legs drawn up beneath her on the couch, her dark hair curtaining her from our nonsense.

Without her voice to anchor us there comes a drift, a silence so big and awful that it could be holding anything, but I know what's lurking. I try to head it off with small talk, but Fynn just nods. Here it comes, I think. Here it is.

You've seen him around, I s'pose?

Who?

Fynn shakes his head, as if I'm the coward.

Yeah. I see him sometimes. Not all that often.

And?

Look. Fynn. There's nothing I can tell you that's going to make you feel less shitful about it. Last year I saw him at the Farmers' Arms, and he looked like a man whose wife and kids had died five years ago. A few months back I saw him at the post office, and he looked like a man whose wife and kids had died six years ago. What else is there to say?

It happened in a heartbeat. In a glisk, Fynn has since said. Swerving to miss the dog that came trotting out of the scrub. Swinging his ute into the oncoming lane, into the oncoming sedan. Just a glisk, then. And the safety barrier just for show, apparently, eaten through by salt air and melting away like bad magic at the first kiss of fender.

I met a woman, Fynn says. Sweet clever type from the library. When I'd stay with her overnight, there'd be the sound of her kids running around the house in the morning. Sound of them laughing downstairs or talking in funny voices to the cat. It was too much, Raf. I couldn't tell her. And I couldn't stay.

I keep looking for something, my brother goes on. Something that'll fill up this scooped out place but drink doesn't do it. Sex doesn't do it. I walk a bleeding lot, and the wind there wants to rip you open, but it isn't enough. I'll think maybe I can lose it in a roomful of people, like it'll be made to seem smaller somehow, but no, it's like everyone can all already see it, smell it on me.

I make to recharge our glasses then remember there's nothing to recharge them with.

You want to know the best it gets? Really, the best it gets?

Come on, I tell him, get your stupid jacket.

I'm further under than he is but I know the last thing he wants is a steering wheel to hold. I climb in drivers' side of Ti's Golf, fix the mirrors while Fynn hides his eyes behind a pair of aviators.

You don't want those. Anyway, you still look like you, just more of an arsehole. Everyone looks like an arsehole in aviators.

Right, he says, flinging them into the lantana.

Since Fynn left some Perth kids came down and reopened the Kingfisher Hotel. The smoke-damaged collection of taxidermied birds that made it through the 2009 fire (suspected arson) are still roosting about the liquor shelves. The fibre optic thing is still there, the pool table is still there. But the bar's been refitted, a big slab of reclaimed redgum – behind it the top tier stuff is seven tiers up, and the bartender has to put down his copy of the DSM-5 or whatever and hop a ladder to get to it.

These boys don't know Fynn. These boys will pour him his drink without asking just how he likes being back home.

We take bar seats opposite a singed black cockatoo, its glassy eye on the rum selection. Fynn wins the wallet race, the leather split like overripe pawpaw, gaping fifties.

You need to carry all that around?

From the Travelex. I closed all my accounts when I left Australia.

You really weren't planning on coming back, huh.

Guess I wasn't.

There are Fynn's hands, threaded mangrove-like around his glass. Roughened by work that has nothing to do with him, work that carries nothing of himself. In my shed there's a second table and a set of chairs and a bookshelf. In February it heats up to a million degrees in there – six bloody summers – all the wood has buckled and split along the joins, the wires gone slack or snapped, all that careful tension ruined. I should have kept them inside. I should have driven into Perth this morning, been there waiting when he hefted his bag off the carousel. Now it's all I can do to lift my pint glass and meet his.

Of course the guy was always going to appear, his company cap pulled low, eyes shaded from the glare of pool table fluorescents. It takes him a moment – I see it, my brother sees it – to register that it's really Fynn sitting here, and when he does it's as if all the doors have blown open at once, the air pressure changes that fast. And if the glasses in their corral don't shatter, and the stuffed birds don't take flight ... if the tables don't upend of their own accord, it's only because of the steadying hand someone puts on the fella's shoulder, guiding him back to the game, to his shot, to the rip of felt as he jabs too hard with the cue, the crack of the white against the five and the grinding roll in the belly of the table as the ball is captured there.

'Shot, someone says.

Fynn is already fumbling at the zip on his jacket.

Sit down, I tell him. Finish your drink.

Raf, we can't stay here.

Well, I'm finishing mine. I take a long, purposeful swallow to show him.

Fynn doesn't reach for his. Is he looking?

Christ, I'm not looking to see if he's looking.

I can't just sit here and pretend like ... I should go say something.

What's to say? I told you, there's nothing. Just finish your drink, for fuck's sake. (When what I'd meant to say was; Brother. Be still. We're okay here.)

Fynn sits down, visibly shrinking inside the jacket's bulk. I watch this, and I don't know what good I'm trying to force. Or even if it's good.

Right, I tell him, setting my glass beside his. You're right. Jiggety-jig.

The way home is all roadkill and scarpering night creatures – future roadkill – streaking through the high-beams. Bundles of fluff and mashed feathers at the side of the road.

Acquitted, I remind him. Everyone knew it was not his intention to run three quarters of a family off a sandstone bluff. Everyone understood that. At least officially.

Okay, yes it's awful, it's tragic, but it wasn't your fault.

How much quiet is there before Fynn clears his throat and goes, Listen. Raf ? There never was any dog.

I say, How do you mean, no dog? Because I had seen the dog. Just as clearly as if I'd been riding shotgun for that nightmare. Fynn's described it a hundred times – that mongrely, greyhoundish thing, ribs on display through its sorry sack of grey skin. The way it skittered out of the scrub like a wraith. Looking back over its scrawny shoulder, as though something back there had spooked it senseless.

There just wasn't. I don't ... Can we leave it at that?

No, I think. No, we cannot leave it at that. But I drive the dark highway and keep quiet. Where had it gone then, the dog? Fynn had looked for it, in the first hundred versions of the story. He'd stood at the mangled safety barrier and called 000 – that part is fact; that part is on the record – and wondered, moronically, he said, where the fucking dog had got to. Because I wanted to kick it. His right knee bloody and ragged from where it had been crushed up against the ignition. A BAC of .03. Two beers, sober enough. This is also on the record.

If not the dog?

I roll us in silent to the driveway, past Fynn's rental car which has been tipped up on its side, exposing its shiny undercarriage. We get out and stand beside it without speaking for a moment, the air full of insect and sprinkler music.

Happens all the time, I lie. It's what these kids out here tip instead of cows.

How many people would that take?

Probably doesn't weigh much more than a cow. Should we flip it back?

It only takes a half-hearted shove. The car lands with a crunch that brings a flurry of curtain movement all up and down the street but nothing breaks and no one yells out. The passenger door is scraped up and the wing mirror is cactus.

Insurance?

Fynn just breathes in long and deep through his nose.

No way it's connected, this and the blokes at the bar. They were still there when we left. Just one of those freak coincidences. I'm saying all this to Fynn and he's saying nothing.

Inside, Ti has left the couch made up with sheets and pillows, and the coffee table – Fynn's coffee table – made up with a glass of water and a pack of aspirin.

Keeper, Fynn says, with a smile so pissweak I have to tell him g'night.

Ti gives a little moan as I slide in with her, fit my knees into the backs of hers. My chest against her spine, face pushed into her hair. Her hair smells like the ocean. I slide my hand between her thighs, not really to start something, just to be there, and we stay tangled like that, drifting nearer and further from sleep, until headlights flood the room.

It's nearly 3 am when he shows up, swaying out there on the lawn. The father, the widower. So drunk he's practically dancing, a boxer or bear.

He pounds the door fit to unhinge it, but his voice is surprisingly soft when he says, It's not right. It's not right that it's me coming to you.

No, I hear Fynn answer. I know it's not.

There's the click of the screen door as he steps onto the verandah, before I can tell him, don't. Don't say shit. About the dog. About the complete lack of dog. He doesn't need to know.

I drag the sheet with me into the hallway, holding it around my waist. Through the flywire I watch the two of them cross the lawn towards the street, then further on into the night air, away from the house. Away from help. My brother wading out into the dark and the dark folding over the top of him like a wave. No right thing now, no best thing. Nothing so easy as lifting a child onto his shoulders and carrying her safely above the grabbing sea.

'Glisk' by Josephine Rowe was shortlisted in the 2016 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and published in the August 2016 issue of Australian Book Review.

Published in August 2016, no. 383

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