Wax Boats

Sarah Roberts

In Sarah Robert’s debut collection Wax Boats, a rural island community comes to life in action-packed, evocative tales. Cougar ladies fight the BC wilderness and the inevitable extinction of their peaceful island lives. An expectant mother turns to Native traditions to guide her through a safe delivery. A Boy Scout troupe rescues their own leader, and learns to welcome someone “from away.” Wax Boats introduces thought-provoking characters caught between the encroaching modern, industrial world and the hard truths of lives lived at the edge of everything.

Wax Boats

The single salmon trying to fight upstream doesn’t have an easy time of it. It’s too late for spawning and the autumn is too dry—there’s barely any water in the creek bed. The salmon fights, but is doing a better job of bludgeoning itself against the dry boulders than launching itself home. The skin on its sides peels off, puffy and bleeding. Its fins are a sickly grey. This fish is closer to death than to dying.

I’ve seen lots of things on this island that could hurt a man’s heart if he were inclined to feel it, or turn a man more into stone than anything else—as if hard work and a rural life had the same slow effect that Medusa’s eyes might. It was no tragedy, that salmon.

One bloated fish trying to do the world right by beating itself up a dry creek bed is no great loss. But I remember when the stream gurgled with so much force the air was thick with water, and damp moss grew on the rocks, the trees, the telephone wires. I remember seasons when the creek was a writhing mess of fish, so many fat salmon returning home to die together, it made me proud to stand on the small bridge and consider the lives they’d lived, the dangers survived.

But this year, too late, just this one. It seemed like it had led a healthy life, that big fish. The golden sun with its late autumn heat blinded me and I closed my eyes, felt my sagging eyelids warm, and wondered if the salmon understood that it was alone.

An island is a miracle, a simple thing. To be cut off is somehow to be entirely whole, and to know your boundaries is to truly know yourself. Some folks can’t stand the pressure of an island; for them it’s a green jail cell, an ocean-bound cage. But an island is like a body—finite yet infinitely new with each exploration. Like the way one becomes accustomed to the little bumps on a lover’s elbow but never actually expects them. That’s like knowing the island, familiar but never rote.

People here believe in boats and that makes them more real than they are to mainlanders. There is something sacred about a boat, the gentle brilliance of it, and the risk that comes with pushing onto water. A boat is always an attempt. Setting off on the ocean is like testing the ice with the weight of your feet—there’s no knowing, not really, if you’re meant to be there, if nature will allow you to pass on through.

I’ve owned a lot of boats. My first was a 12-foot skiff that pulled faster under oars than with its rough little two-stroke outboard clapped to the stern. I’d take that one to the city for weekends on the town, in a felt fedora and gentleman’s gloves. I’d go to the Commodore or maybe buy a book. Play some pool. If I didn’t drink too much, I’d find my way back to the shore and sleep under the bench seat with the bail bucket as a pillow. There were nights when I tried to pilot home on black water, few lights in the world, just the seals barking to each other and the creatures of my imagination lurking below. I’ve been nudged awake on beaches miles from home by strange girls in pigtails poking me with a tentative toe to confirm my apparent death. I’ve woken up with my boat nowhere in sight. Once, pirated off without me, twice left to drift, untied. One sank to the muck at the side of the dock all of a sudden, as if she just couldn’t stay afloat a second longer. I’ve had a few old wooden hulls slowly slip under over time, but only that one that fell like a shooting star, one second an admirable vessel, the next a joke at the bar.

My favourite, though, is none of these runabout play toys. Nor the steel whale of a ferry boat, or the rock barges that load up at the quarry. I admire the old steamships that are now tricked up for the summer tourists and refuse to remember the hard, bitter, working families they used to shuttle from mill town to mill town. I have no fondness for those beak-nosed speed contraptions with their goliath outboards and nauseating grumbles. None of those boats ever meant much to me.

No, the ship of my heart is barely seafaring. It’s a little wax boat, less than a foot long in size, weighing less than a pound, glowingly translucent in its soft, gentle form. But it bobs along well enough, on a calm day. It’s got a “v” tip at each end so it’s always sailing the right way. There’s no way to direct it, no rudder, no motor; it is meant to be set adrift. There’s a square compartment for cargo in the middle and nothing else. It floats.

Roberts’ dozen stories in Wax Boats are vibrant with the “genius of place,” to borrow a term from Ethel Wilson, as well as memorable characterization. Somewhat reminiscent of Kinsella’s “˜rez’ characters or Anne Cameron’s mélange of wacky west coast families, the stories reveal a complicated world of boats, beach camping, wild bush women and men, ancient lore, longhouses, cougars and beer.

BC Bookworld

Won the 2009 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. The judges wrote of Wax Boats:

“Roberts exhibits tremendous versatility, writing movingly and convincingly in every conceivable voice—of the men and women, girls and boys, natives and whites who inhabit her fictional Smokecrest Island. There are stories here of loss and renewal, of strange adventures, and of acts of profound kindness. The prose is clear and evocative and flawless. Roberts is a truly gifted storyteller and Wax Boats is a mature and ambitious work of literature. It is a Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town for the modern age.”