The CanLit community came together in mourning last year when the news broke that beloved and acclaimed Kingston-based writer Steven Heighton had passed away at the age of 60. Known for his powerful multi-genre writing, generous mentorship of other creators, and trademark leather jacket, he earned decades of awards and praise for his novels, short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
His final gift comes in the form of a posthumously published story collection, Instructions for the Drowning (Biblioasis), bittersweet in its showcasing of a writer who was continuing to go from strength to strength in his craft.
The 11 stories in the collection include the title story, where a father's advice about how to save someone who is drowning proves difficult in practice, as well as tales of a woman's kind act which has unexpectedly dangerous consequences for her family, a man whose paranoia plays out in real life, and more.
Intimate, thoughtful, and indelible, Heighton's final stories are testaments to his insight, talent, and deep, wise empathy about the human condition. We're proud to share an excerpt here today from the collection's title story, courtesy of Biblioasis.
Excerpt from Instructions for the Drowning by Steven Heighton:
You're Going to Live
At first we posted guards outside the colonel’s cell on rotating shifts, day and night, but for two weeks he meekly followed our instructions, he spoke rationally, he respected the whole staff, may I, excuse me, please and thank you. So we took him off strict suicide watch. Some prisoners try climbing onto the steel sink and diving headfirst, arms at their sides, onto the concrete floor. It rarely works. At the last moment most of them instinctively fend out an arm and break their wrists instead of their heads. Whatever you think you want, your body has a mind of its own and you can’t make it want to die.
I’m doing one of my walks down the segregation corridor, looking in on the four occupied cells, when I hear an odd sound from the colonel’s cell. I walk back up the range, lift the grilled slat and peer through. I can’t make sense of what I see. Under his grey blanket the colonel—it can only be him, though you wouldn’t know it from here—is thrashing around and making gulping sounds. For a moment I think he’s having a really bad dream, which wouldn’t be surprising under the circumstances, except it’s noon and he’s always wide awake at noon, sitting on his cot with excellent posture, feet on the floor, a book open in his hands, the blanket beside him folded neatly, almost contritely. I pull out my handset and call for help. I’m on my own—Rinaldi is on break and Taylor, last I saw, was charging into the bathroom, his stomach giving him grief all morning.
I’m not supposed to go into a seg cell alone, but backup will arrive in a minute at most and I have a stun gun in my hand. How much can happen in a minute? But now I can’t get the key in—somehow something has been forced into the lock. I keep trying while ramming my shoulder into the door, hoping to jar loose whatever’s in there.
“Colonel, you all right?” I’m yelling stupidly.
More of those sounds, like he’s trying to swallow something and cough it up at the same time.
“Unblock it, sir—let me in!” I feel something give, the key clicks, I haul the door outward. From where I stand tensed on the threshold to where he’s writhing on his cot is just a couple of strides. “Need help here now!” I holler back into the corridor.
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I’m assuming he wants to hurt himself somehow, not me, and I’m younger than he is and way stronger, but I’m scared all the same. He could be faking. Turns out he has spent a lifetime faking stuff and not just in the small ways we all do. Plus it’s like there’s something non-human under the blanket, moving nonsensically, spastically, making bestial sounds. In different circumstances it might look funny—a kid at a sleepover, wired and giddy, clowning for friends. One of my own kids, clowning.
My hearing is weirdly alert and the rasps and grunts seem more and more amplified. “Throw it off, sir—the blanket.” In the distance a toilet flushes. I cross the cell in two steps, clutch the writhing blanket in my fist and, recoiling, pull it clear. He’s lying on his side, his pampered, well-fed face purple and mouth gawped open. His brown eyes roll up to meet mine like a veal calf’s. I drop to one knee, holster the stun gun, grab my handset and say, “Get a doctor down here.”
Down the corridor a door slams, voices yell.
“Have to pull it out,” I tell him. My voice is thin, throttled. “Don’t move. Try to bite me and I’ll break your jaw.”
He twists his body away so he is facing the wall—where now I notice lines of words, graffiti in yellow fingerpaint. Then the smell hits me—mustard. His squirming twines the blanket tighter. My eye takes in NO LONGER ABLE TO ENDURE, while an oddly calm quadrant of my brain wonders, Why not the shortest words possible, with only a few squeeze packets of mustard? He slams his red, shining forehead against the daubed wall, maybe not as hard as intended—he is weakening as his body fights for air, as his body fights him, the colonel wanting to die, his body insisting on more life, life at any price, life in any form. It’s like his body wants him to walk into that courtroom tomorrow, wants him to face the judge and the attorneys and the media and the jury and the seething families of those young men. Those boys. MY CULPABILITY, the wall says and I wonder, Why not just “guilt”?
I tell myself I too want him dead, that it’s a shame we don’t do that to killers up here—a man in his position, too, a position of trust and prestige, a man respected, revered, imitated. He must have thought he was specially exempt on all levels, maybe all the way up to God. For a long time I guess he was. I mean, who’d have given odds? Not the cops, he must have felt. They weren’t smart enough to finger him. But they got him, and now if anybody deserved to die he did, and I thought I wanted that too, but I’m not supposed to let it happen and now, it seems, I genuinely don’t want it to happen—I’m restraining him the way I’ve been trained to, pinning him under my torso, my hand forcing his head sideways into the thin, smelly pillow. “Stop!” I keep begging him.
I’ve immobilized him. Now I have to remove whatever’s choking him. The others are almost here, steps pounding in the corridor, but I don’t need them. I will do this, do this to the colonel, do it in my own way. He’s bucking beneath me. How does a face go this colour? I smell his fear, or maybe my own fear. I hear his muffled, heaving grunts, like there’s something alive in his throat trying to come out. If you passed the cell and knew no better, you’d think: prison rape, torture, some kind of brutal, excruciating intimacy. PROFOUND REMORSE AND SHAME. I force fingers into his mouth and I whisper in his ear, “Bite me and I’ll kill you.” It’s completely untrue—nothing he can do now would prompt me to help him die.
I pinch something and tug and it starts to come, a spiral ribbon of sodden paper. He sputters, retches. The rest pulls free: the remains of a cardboard toilet roll stuffed with bits of foil, emptied mustard packets. He’s gulping air helplessly. His inflamed eyes stare at the wall and shine with sudden tears. Others crowd into the cell behind us.
“Keep back,” I say. “I’ve got this.”
“Oh... God,” the colonel gets out in a sort of death rattle, though his breathing is slowing to normal, whatever normal is for someone like him. Every second he is more inescapably alive, tears streaming.
His body, of course, could not be more normal.
“You’re going to live,” I hear myself tell him, to no clear purpose. I hope the others didn’t hear. Someone is pulling me off him—not roughly, like I’m an attacker, the victor of a cell fight, but gently, like I’m a mourner leaning over the casket of the brother I always hated, not quite able to tear myself away.
Steven Heighton (1961–2022) was a writer and musician. His nineteen previous books include the novels Afterlands, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and the bestselling The Shadow Boxer; the Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize finalist memoir Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos; and The Waking Comes Late, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.