Story Mechanics: We Walked on Water by Eliza Robertson
“Land of the misty giants: cedar, alder, Ponderosa pine. Cascade Mountains pushing out green like grass through a garlic press. The veg here is fungal. Jungle. All of it is rainforest: fern-webbed paths and moss like armpit hair…”
So begins “We Walked On Water”, Eliza Robertson’s breathtaking, Commonwealth Prize-winning short story. The story tells the tale of two high-level triathletes – the teenaged narrator and his younger sister Liv – as they train for the Ironman in Penticton, British Columbia.
Three things strike me upon reading the story’s gorgeous first lines—and these same characteristics make for a great study of high quality prose.
The first is Robertson’s almost holy attention to the landscape of Interior BC: the “misty giants”, the “moss like armpit hair”, the jungle. Landscape is a trope that that anoints this story with so much of its eerie magic. The lush rainforest and barren hills of BC are not simply Supernatural BC backdrops for a heartbreaking plot. Her narrator, a competitive triathlete, lives and breathes the land. Through his athleticism, and his body of bone and muscle, he celebrates his own animal nature, his habitation of the land:
Sometimes you let yourself be carried. You slip over bodies like spawning salmon, which Liv and I actually tried once. Salmon run 2005, Vedder River. We in our swim skins and matching caps. We let the current steer us. Watched their shadows through our goggles, how darkness darted over algaed stones. Their hook jaws and flared teeth, port-stain scales, how they tumbled over each other and over our ankles. The flick of their fins.
The story’s opening lines also reveal Robertson’s considerable gift for language. Her prose is deft, a compression of sensation and image. Time and again, she strikes the right note, never showy, arriving at the perfect word.
The tallest building in Princeton is the visitor information centre. My bus will wait there thirty minutes, and I might treat myself to a Strawberry Slam. Sometimes I wonder about the diets of other animals. How millennia of worms and woodbugs might contribute to the bone density of birds. The musculature of flight, lean protein for air-friendly pectorals. Versus penguins, who swim and eat squid.
The third striking feature of Robertson’s work, on display in these opening lines, is her keen ear for rhythm, for achieving a cadence that is muscular and musical – like a swimmer cutting through a lake, or a glacial stream tumbling over granite – yet always restrained. Throughout the story, she maintains a firm (and elegant) narrative control. Here it is again, near the story’s dark conclusion:
I read once that grief is like waiting. Waiting to sleep. Waiting to wake up. Waiting for Act III, the plot twist. Like when you drop a twig into the stream and it never emerges on the other side of the bridge.
A much-deserving winner of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Eliza Robertson’s “We Walked on Water” is a sure demonstration that the act of careful listening – to language, to rhythm, to the wonder and harsh magic of the natural world – is an indispensable skill in any writer’s toolkit.
Eliza Robertson completed her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship and the Curtis Brown Prize. She has twice been longlisted for the Journey Prize and was a recent finalist of the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. She lives in Victoria, where she is completing her first novel and a story collection.
Story Mechanics appears on Current Living approximately once a month. In this space I take a closer look at the mechanics, tricks and narrative techniques behind some of the freshest, finest writing in contemporary Canadian and global short fiction.