"Atmospheric and lushly detailed, Demi-Gods captures the wonder and menace of adolescence in ways both unsettling and profound." Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and A Piece of the World
"A brutally beautiful coming-of-age story that sings with language as lovely, wild, and full of ominous longing as the young woman at its center." Robin Wasserman, author of Girls on Fire
It is 1950, and nine-year-old Willa's sheltered childhood is about to come to an end when her mother's beau arrives with his two sons to her family's summer home in British Columbia. As Willa's older sister pairs off with the older of these boys, Willa finds herself alone in the off-kilter company of the younger, Patrick. When, one afternoon, Patrick lures Willa into a dilapidated rowboat, Willa embarks upon an increasingly damaging relationship with Patrick, one that will forever reconfigure her understanding of herself.
Demi-Gods traces the tumultuous years of Willa's coming-of-age as she is drawn further into Patrick's wicked games. Though they see each other only a handful of times, each of their encounters is increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation. When Willa finally realizes the danger of her relationship with Patrick, she desperately tries to reverse their dynamic, with devastating results.
Daring, singular, and provocative, Demi-Gods announces the arrival of one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature.
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Eliza Robertson studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Scholarship and Curtis Brown Prize. In 2013, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the Journey Prize and CBC Short Story Prize. Her debut collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award, Danuta Gleed Short Story Prize, and selected as a New York Times Editor's Choice. Most recently, she is the winner of the Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Prize. She lives in Norwich, England.
Read an Excerpt
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
On the first morning, Kenneth slept in; Joan buttered toast soldiers for Luke in the kitchen; Patrick and I slurped cornflakes at the table. Mom's dollhouse had disappeared. Dad had built it for her when he designed the beach house, off the same blueprints, slicing every wall to scale. The dollhouse stood no more than twelve inches high, and Mom kept it on the nesting tables by the window. I loved it, because my dad had joined the pine with his hands, because Mom kept it after he left. Eugene hated it for the same reason. The real beach house too. He wanted to sell. He left his yacht in San Diego — they could sell that also. Use the money to demolish this pile of driftwood and build a nicer one, he would say. To which my mother would laugh: You couldn't build a fucking sandwich, Gene. Which made him hate the dollhouse even more.
So he was pleased when it disappeared. He couldn't smooth the smile from his mouth.
Maybe someone tossed it in the chuck where it belongs, he said, leaning against the kitchen counter — the ease of his stance undermined by how his fingers clamped the coffee cup.
That's where someone belongs, she said. Her kimono gaped over her underwear, which had collected the blue dye of a pillowcase in the wash. By contrast, he had dressed in suit trousers and a starched shirt, his sleeves cuffed around his forearms.
He opened his mouth to return something snide, but she swallowed whatever he said with a shoulder-racking, lung-scraping cough. Intentionally, I think. Eugene traced his finger around the lip of his coffee mug as he waited for the cough to end. When his fingernail dipped into the hot liquid, he lifted it to his mouth.
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 eleven. 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 petted 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.
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.
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?
Put that back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He lets me sail it on my own.
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 ten 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, fifteen-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 pedal pushers, 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 ten 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.
You know what kind of jelly that was?
I ignored him, clutching his hand tighter to ease the pain and my shaking, the jagged breath in my chest.
Lion's mane, he said. The biggest species of jellyfish in the world. One specimen measured a hundred and thirty feet. Longer than a blue whale.
I tried not to listen to him and focused on my breath, my heartbeat, how far we had floated, the direction of the house. Behind us, a branch cracked in the wood. We both turned. Something scampered into the undergrowth — a rabbit or deer, probably. I continued to scan the trees behind us. After a moment, he spoke again.
I'll pee on it if you want.
I snatched my arm from his grip. — Oh scram. I've had enough of your ideas.
Jellyfish tentacles have thousands of sting cells called nematocysts. To deactivate them on the skin it's best to apply vinegar. Urine's second best.
This is your fault. Let's go back.
How long will that take?
I sighed. My irritation with him was increasing the pain. A string of bumps had flushed up my forearm. A sob welled in my throat. I bent over and let the warm tears spill on my wrist to soothe the burn.
Why don't you pee on it, then? he said.
It won't work.
It's better than nothing. I won't look.
He rotated on the rock and squatted in the opposite direction, out to sea. I realized I did have to pee, that I hadn't gone since that morning. I sniffed and wiped my eyes with my good wrist. Patrick whistled. A pretty tune I couldn't place, maybe a hymn. It comforted me — our silence, his whistling, the waves turning below. The sting hurt, but no more than the time I disturbed a wasp nest and got nipped three times on the thigh. Patrick continued to survey the sea. I fingered the button on my pedal pushers, then pressed it through the hole and pulled my pants around my knees. I pushed my underwear out of the way and released a stream of urine onto my forearm. It burned more, but that felt okay — like it sealed the sharper, isolated burns. A hot trickle dropped down the rock toward Patrick. I could tell we were both listening. Finally, I pulled up my pants. The damp spread in the crotch of my underwear, beads of it smearing onto my thighs. I felt proud. As if I had passed his test.
I think we're that way. He pointed left, where the bluff receded into dark needling trees.
He did not congratulate me as we walked, or acknowledge how brave I was. He stopped whistling and hiked a few paces ahead on the rock.
The urine had dried on my wrist by the time we returned to the house, releasing a light musk. The row between Mom and Eugene had subsided. Eugene had changed into swim trunks so he could wash the car. His stomach pouched over the waistband, black hairs crawling from his belly button, the sun lancing off his shoulders. Mom dozed in her striped deck chair with a lime soda on the table beside her, a book folded over her ribs like armour. Joan and Kenneth lazed on the grass with a pineapple, Kenneth prying reedy wedges with his Swiss Army knife, passing them to Joan, who sucked the fruit and whipped the husks at the Gravenstein. Patrick hadn't said a word on the walk home. Now he knelt on the grass and prodded the hydrangea bush. Something filled his hand. I recognized it then — a fragment of the dollhouse roof.
Where'd you find that? I asked, too loud.
He shushed me.
You wrecked it, I said.
He shoved me inside, past Luke and his rock tumbler. My brother pretended not to notice. He lay on his stomach before two piles of stones, one raw from the beach, the other glossy as marbles. I sprinted up the stairs — shaken by the sight of the dollhouse, overwhelmed by this insult to my dad, even if he never knew it.
Hardly a second after I stepped into my bedroom, Patrick slammed the door and shoved a chair under the knob. — You won't say a word, he said. About the jellyfish either.
I barely heard him; I was thinking about how Dad had spent hours sanding the wood and fitting the walls together. He even cut drapes from the fabric Mom had used for the real curtains.
Patrick leafed through my dirty clothes on the floor. After a moment, he shoved a long-sleeved shirt in my hands. Then I saw what he saw — a manacle of stings had branded my wrist. Slowly, widening the sleeve so it wouldn't chafe, I pulled the shirt over my head.
How do I know you won't tell? he said.
He sat in silence a few moments, the itchy blue of his eyes settling on his lap as he turned the roof fragment in his hand, the skin between his thumb and index finger moist and catching light, blistered from the paddle. He motioned for me to sit beside him on the bed. I joined him there, my heels tucked under my bum. He took my hand on his knee and turned it so my palm faced the ceiling. Then he pressed the broken wood into my skin.
What are you doing? I yanked my hand away.
He snatched it back, pinning my wrist on the bed, then grabbed my other arm, the one with the burns. The pain made me gasp. He closed my fist around the splintered pine and together, with his force, we pushed the point into my hand.
I closed my eyes and waited for the skin to break, but he released his grip.
I'll give you a choice, he said.
Outside the room, dishes clattered for lunch, the kettle boiling, Joan arguing with Mom in a shrill voice, Luke trying to show both of them his stones.
You will have to do something so embarrassing you would be ashamed to tell, he continued. But don't worry. You do it every day.
Are you bonkers? I already —
Not that way.
We fell quiet. I waited for him to crack a smile and say, Got you, but his expression remained fixed.
You can clean off in the bathroom after.
I snatched the wood from the bed and dug it into the heart of my palm. The edge was dull. I could feel a divot where the skin had bruised. After thirty seconds, I couldn't press any deeper. I released my grip and hucked the piece under the dresser.
Patrick smiled kindly. — I'll give you privacy, he said.
The door clicked behind him. I sat on the mattress and stared at the wall, the crocheted sparrow and pine cones, the painting of a young girl kneeling before a tide pool, and thought: Okay. I can do this one thing. Soon it would be over. I detected movement in my guts. Often I can't go easily — not every day — but the adrenaline loosened the guck from my intestine and I could feel it shifting. I removed my pedal pushers and squatted on the carpet with my underwear still on and pushed. The vulgarity of the action made me want to laugh — it excited me in a strange way. I could pass all of his tests, even the naughty ones. With one more push, the feces slinked out of me and filled the crotch of my underwear. It felt hot and dense under my bum cheeks. I started to laugh. I clutched my panties under me so the poo wouldn't slip out and opened the door for the bathroom. Patrick stood there, facing me. He looked down at my hand, his nostrils flaring. He stepped out of my way and I ran to the toilet. Before the brothers arrived, Joan, Luke and I built the beach fort together. We found swoops in the trees to lounge in, brought pitchers of lemonade so we could nestle in the branches with cold glasses in our palms. We climbed on each other like bodybuilders; we practised headstands, we watched sailboats through binoculars, we counted bald eagles, we built fires from moss and dry seagrass, we dug bait, we dangled worms from our hooks, we caught crab in wood traps. They were larger than our hands, but we turned them over to check the underside triangle; we tossed the rounded triangles back to the sea where they drifted to the sand on top of each other. The summer we met the brothers, Luke started to shine rocks by himself. He organized his stamps in a leather binder. Here and there he followed us.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Demi-Gods"
Copyright © 2017 Eliza Robertson.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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