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Summer reading: A preview of Eliza Robertson’s debut novel, Demi-Gods

Summer Reading

The boat

'Our vessel drifted, half-submerged, from the shore. We bobbed past the harbour light, toward the more open stretch of ocean that linked the islands.' Our summer reading series continues with an excerpt from Eliza Robertson's debut novel, Demi-Gods

Patrick didn't tell me to follow him, but I understood he wanted me to. He slid through the French doors, away from their bickering, and meandered down the lawn, onto the dirt path that wound to the beach. Here, he dangled a whip of kelp at his side and slashed empty crab shells from the rock. I imagined the beach stones were lava and leapt from log to log to avoid melting my shins. I was nine years old, he was 11. He didn't speak as we walked. By now Mom and Eugene would be hurling insults at each other, which I hated more than when they pet each other's hands. So I trailed after him, springing between logs, kneeling for balance if I landed an unsteady one, tiptoeing along the lip of a trunk that had been hollowed by lightning. Long ago, a blue rowboat had been dumped on the beach grass beside the fort, the turf grown over it now, as if trying to reclaim the wood. Instead of climbing inside the fort, Patrick stopped at the boat and dropped his pack.

Help me lift this, he said.

Rust etched over the gunwale like dry blood; prongs of grass wedged through a gap in the bottom planks.

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Why do you want it?

He crouched and dug two hands under the stern of the boat. – Get the other side, he said.

I was scared to find what lived under there. Joan said there were water snakes and I imagined cords of them nesting under the hull. I didn't mind snakes if I couldn't see them, but worried they would shoot from the grass up my ankles.

I'm waiting.

It's not going to float, if that's what you're thinking.

He didn't reply. Finally I leaned forward and slid the smallest segments of my fingers under the gunwale. We pried the boat from the grass that had clamped around it. If I looked down, I would panic and fling my side of the boat, even if I saw only shadow or beach crabs, so I trained my eyes on Patrick opposite me, who lifted his end of the boat higher than I could. Together, we flipped it onto the keel. No snakes shook from the grass, but in a pocket of rubbery beach weed sat a clutch of two eggs. Each was no larger than the butt of my palm, the shells clay green, murmured with black splashes.

Patrick swooped down and pinched one between his finger and thumb. – You think it's hot enough to fry eggs on the rock?

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Put that back.

Why?

It's a baby.

He opened his mouth and lay the egg on his tongue, kissed his lips around it. After a moment, he parted his teeth and pushed the wet egg back into his palm.

What will you do for me?

He closed his fist around the egg and started to squeeze.

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I worried the scent of his sweat and saliva would scare the mother. The thought of these two green eggs abandoned under the rowboat with no mother's belly to warm them welled tears in my eyes. I didn't want him to see.

Stop that.

What will you do?

Just put them down.

He smiled. In a smooth motion, he tucked the egg back in the nest, wiped his hand on his jeans and nipped a crushed cigarette from his pocket. He massaged the paper to reshape it and struck a match on the rock.

Come on, he said, pulling on the cigarette with his girlish lip. – Let's go for a sail.

He dragged the grass-chewed, wind-rattled boat to the water. He pushed the bow into the seafoam. Liquid sucked through the gap in the bottom planks and the hull filled an inch.

You don't mind getting a little wet, do you? he asked and held the stern steady for me to climb in.

It'll sink.

You scared, then?

I trained my eyes on him to test if he was serious. He wore a white T-shirt stuffed into blue jeans, which he had rolled around his knees. With the cigarette hanging from his mouth, he looked like a hobo from the desert who hunted rattlesnakes and skinned them for boots. I stepped carefully into the boat and sat in the nearest wood seat. The hull sank deeper. He climbed in and pushed the boat from the shore with his forearms, perching opposite me on the middle bench. The hull filled with more water, but we managed to float, as if the salt pushed us up and down at the same time. The sea filled my socks, the cold unravelling a shock up my back. I resolved to visit the eggs the next day for signs of the mother. I'd sit on them myself if I had to.

Patrick grabbed the two chipped paddles that hung from the oarlocks. – What are you waiting for? You have to bail.

He started to row. I folded my fingers together and scooped water with my hands.

My dad owns a boat, he said. Twenty times bigger than this one.

That's impossible.

He lets me sail it on my own.

You're fibbing.

What do you know?

Our vessel drifted, half-submerged, from the shore. We bobbed past the harbour light, toward the more open stretch of ocean that linked the islands. It was a warm day, the bay sluggish around us – vitamin green, unbroken by waves. I swam here often; from the harbour light I could still front-stroke to shore. After 10 minutes, Patrick's rowing started to flag. No matter how vigorously he heaved the oars, or I pushed out water, we continued to droop into the sea. Finally, he steered us to a rocky point where the island tongued underwater and the boat could rest in its own shallow pool. I felt embarrassed for him. I unbuckled my Mary Janes and tipped out the water. If the leather dried with salt streaks, Eugene would take one of the shoes and bend me over his knee and whack my bum.

When I looked up, Patrick was watching me with a hooked smile. His jeans were drenched and the water had splashed up his shirt, the cotton slick to his stomach, an air bubble at his navel.

What? I said.

His stare flickered to the space beside me. I turned to find a ruddy, 15-inch jellyfish bumping over the sunken lip of the boat. I gasped and pressed myself to the opposite side. I heard a soft plashing and imagined the jelly wobbling at my waist, but I couldn't bring myself to look, and it might have been water shushing over the rocks. After a moment, I worried Patrick had stopped talking to stall me, the creature inching closer without my notice. I glanced down. At the same instant, the tide nudged the jelly over the lip of the boat. Its mass wafted toward my lap. The bell sprawled the water like an open wound, the net of stingers grazing my thighs. I could feel the weight of them above my trousers. A low howl built in my throat, but I was too scared to cry in case the movement drew it closer. Then I knew the jelly didn't sting my legs through the capris, because I could feel it now – my right forearm where the tentacles seared my wrist. That's when I leapt from the water and clambered the rocks to the bluff 10 feet above, where I buckled and pressed my burning arm into the dry grass. The creature still crashed into my mind, and I imagined it enfolding me, tangling my arms in its lattice. Patrick climbed the bluff a few minutes later with a handful of wet sea lettuce. He took my wrist and pressed the weeds onto the sting, which had started to blister. The pressure of his hand and the cool plants relieved the burn for a moment, but soon it started all over.

Excerpted from Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson. Copyright © 2017 Eliza Robertson. Published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


Demi-Gods author Eliza Robertson. Ellie Gillard

Q&A with Eliza Robertson

The narrator remains unnamed. Who is she, and what's her relationship to Patrick?

We learn the narrator's name soon: Willa. The novel opens at the family's summer home on Salt Spring Island. She's a taciturn, watchful girl with a young brother and bolshy older sister. Patrick, the son of her mother's boyfriend, has come from San Diego for a visit.

The characters are only nine and 11, but there's something very sinister, and very adult, about this excerpt. How does it fit into the rest of the novel?

The novel deals in several dualities; youth/adulthood and innocence/menace are two of them. I wrote Demi-Gods in four parts, which follow Willa as she grows older. The first part, set on Salt Spring, begins as Willa's psycho-sexual development is imprinted by those around her: most significantly by Patrick, who takes pleasure in treating her as a plaything, but also by the actions of her bohemian, disinterested mother.

Demi-Gods is your first novel. How did you find the writing experience compared with Wallflowers, your short-story collection? Did this start as a short story?

No, the novel did not start as a story, and I found the longer form challenging! I'm used to letting a story find its shape: I'll start with an opening and the rest eventually finds its place. The story stops when the initiatory momentum or rhythm dwindles. To trick myself into writing a novel, I conceived the story in different parts, and pretended to write a novella, which would be followed by another novella, and another. The problem is I reached the end of the first 20,000 words and didn't know how to continue. I can honestly say the story did not find its shape until the third draft. Even still, it's not a long book. I tried to retain the tension and force of a short story.


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