My short story ‘One in a Thousand’ received Third Place in Issue #32 for On the Premises.
Three jumpers over five days. Terri had witnessed one of them – a young man who had caught his girlfriend in an affair. But he didn’t exactly jump, he drove his car straight over the cliff.
Graff’s Point had become a popular site over the years, boasting the highest coastal chalk cliff in Victoria. If you were a tourist you were guaranteed one of four things: spectacular views of the bay, whale watching, a photo with a fur seal, or you might witness a felo-de-se: a suicide. And the numbers had been increasing. Perhaps death had a ripple effect—suicide by osmosis, as if some unseen force were calling them to the scarp. And albeit it was somewhat in vogue—it remained a disturbing human endeavor; you don’t see squirrels lining up to jump from mortal heights or dogs fashioning nooses.
But it wasn’t so much the triggers we were interested in—our job was to catch the bullet before it left the gun, at least between our proverbial teeth. We came here to save people. I had saved twenty three souls since starting the Graff’s Point Chaplaincy Team and had lost only one during my watch: a woman with terminal cancer.
I picked up my pace, heading up the embankment towards Graff’s Point. Terri had radioed in a code red, which usually meant A: a potential jumper or B: an atypical tourist. The wind was fierce. Sometimes it was so strong I often wondered why people didn’t just blow back up onto the landing like cloth puppets.
I could see the woman now—but she wasn’t a woman, she was a teenager, I guessed about sixteen. She wore a pink cardigan which she tugged at the sleeves with tight fists and strapped to her shoulders was a floral blue backpack. She was alone.
“Hello there,” I said.
She glanced over. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of giant sunglasses that didn’t fit her face. She froze a moment before turning her gaze back towards the precipice, and in doing so seemed to steel her resolve. I stood several meters away, my hands plunged deep into my pockets—a gesture of trust. “Magnificent view isn’t it?” Under normal circumstances this would be a polite remark from one tourist to another, and perhaps these were normal circumstances—I hadn’t decided yet.
For a long time there was only the sound of the whipping wind until she looked at me sidelong and said: “How long do you think it would take before I hit the ground?”
A: a potential jumper.
She shuffled her feet forward, now she was no more than 2 inches from the ledge: a 162 meter drop. I clenched my jaw and swallowed.
Not today, please not today.
If I felt any terror I couldn’t show it. If a person had reached the end of their rope then you—the emergency worker, the Good Samaritan, the Counsellor—were their frayed end; their lifeline. I made my mouth into a hard line, adopting a more serious expression. “About four to five seconds depending on your body weight,” I said.
“What about the wind?” she said.
I wanted to explain my puppet theory but didn’t think it was very scientific. “I’d say… someone of your small frame might gain a few seconds.”
She didn’t reply, she was too busy biting her bottom lip, contemplating the drop. She removed her sunglasses. She had pretty blue-grey eyes that spoke volumes, but of desperation not death. I felt my breath loosen, my body relax. This girl was not going to jump.
But that didn’t mean my job was done.
“Do you know what the biggest problem with jumping is?”
She glanced up. “What?”
“One in a thousand survive.”
In all truth, I was yet to meet a survivor. A fall from this height would turn your bones to pulp, and the higher you fell the heavier you weighed.
She wrinkled her brow and shook her head. “That’s bullshit. No one could survive that.”
“Oh… you’d be surprised… one in a thousand,” I repeated, inching towards her.
Her gaze followed my feet nervously. “That’s far enough.”
I stopped. “OK, OK,” I said, showing my palms. “What’s your name?”
“Eve,” she said. “So are you… beach patrol or something?”
I gave a genuine smile. “No, but I am a type of life saver. I’m Father Mathiew, or Leon if you prefer. Local clergy at your service.”
“Ha, you’re a priest. Great. Come to hear my last confession have ya father?”
“Not your last I hope… plenty more sins to come,” I said, attempting a light tone.
“Actually, I was hoping we might continue this conversation over coffee and cake. My shout.”
She looked away again, out at the maiden voyage running through her head.
Keep her talking.
That was how you saved them – you kept them talking. I took another step closer. “What’s troubling you Eve?”
“Oh you know… life,” she said.
It was then I noticed the fresh bruises along her neck, scarlet stains that ran down to her collar bone.
Keep it light.
“I’ve never seen someone pack a bag for heaven before,” I joked.
Her bottom lip quivered and tears pricked her eyes, welled up and spilled down her cheeks. She was swaying dangerously close to the edge of the bluff.
I wasn’t talking. “I was a terrible minister,” I blurted out. “Sometimes, I can’t believe I was ordained.”
She didn’t reply, just frowned, parted her lips and then closed them.
“During my seminary training I worked two jobs,” I continued, “an orderly at night at the local hospital and a cafe over the weekends. Sometimes I was so tired I’d fall asleep during confession.”
I nodded. “Gave a whole new meaning to sleeping on the job. People would wait to be absolved and when I didn’t reply they’d continue confessing, until they finally heard me snoring.”
There was a gleam in her eyes, she shook her head and smirked. “Worst priest ever.”
“Oh, I wasn’t ordained back then, I was still a deacon, and not a very good one at that … I was late all the time, forgot complete passages of scripture, improvised my sermons…” I laughed. “I once had a woman confess her sin was impatience, so I absolved her immediately.”
She gave a light chuckle. “I bet you need a lot of patience for this job,” she said, and her gaze drifted back towards the deep-blue waters of the bay that stretched into a perfect crescent.
I recognized the guilt in her tone: I’m a burden. But they were never a burden and always a test. “Not so much patience but persistence. Every time a person jumps from this rock face they take a bit of us with them.”
She closed her posture. “Why do you think so many people come here to die?” she asked.
It was not a question I entertained. Some questions were better left unanswered. Perhaps it was the natural splendor of the place, the way the ocean locked with the horizon, like the warm glow that seeps around a doorframe – inviting in the weary traveler. Perhaps Eve expected a verse wrapped in a proverb, but I’d been semi-retired since my wife had died and rarely quoted scripture unless in a sermon. Perhaps I was the worst priest ever and it was the man who saved people.
“I don’t know Eve, each have their reasons. But what I do know is that we’re all flawed creatures. No one is infallible but we are redeemable,” I continued, choosing my words carefully. “Whether you believe it or not, heaven is right here, now… not out there somewhere. It all depends on what eyes we choose to see with.” She studied me as if my words might denote a lack of faith – as if the afterlife had become an afterthought. “It’s the small miracles, the tiny sparks amidst a sea of darkness,” I said, closing the space between us. “That’s what you should hold on to… hope, it’s as vital as the air in our lungs. It’s what keeps us going.” I extended my hand and she studied it the way someone might study a stray dog before leaning in for a pat, then finally, she placed her slender hand in mine. I felt a wave of relief wash over me as I led her away from the ledge and over to a park bench. There we sat in silence until finally she rested her head on my shoulder and began to sob. I gently stroked her hair and could feel warm tears painting the back of my neck.
“I’m a terrible person,” she murmured.
“No. No you’re not,” I said.
She lifted her head and wiped her face. Her eyes were as raw as two beets. “Worst girl ever,” she said, attempting a smile.
“Never,” I assured. “That’s just a lie in your head. You need to hold on to your truth, whatever that may be.” And as I spoke there was a sound, like a muffled bird upon the wind. For some reason I thought of my oldest boy Brandon, now married with children of his own.
She looped her skinny arms through her backpack and stood facing me, the waning afternoon sun catching her hair like silk. “Thank you Leon,” she said.
“What about that cup of coffee?”
“Thanks but… I’m OK.”
I leveled my eyes. “Do you have somewhere to go?”
A frail smile. “I do,” she said and turned to leave, then as if forgetting a set of keys, she paused. “I just wanted to be a mother, that’s all I wanted … my own tiny spark,” she said.
I didn’t reply. An abortion? It was just one more reason that brought girls like Eve to Graff’s Point. I didn’t pursue the thought, just watched until her pink sweater and blue bag disappeared down the beaten path and released a long breath.
Another soul saved.
The next morning a text came through. It was Terri: Leon, I think you better get down here. I’m on the beach.
I didn’t bother showering, just threw on some threads and left the house in a whirlwind. When I arrived I found Terri standing on the shore, her yellow rain jacket stood sharp against the bleached coastline. She was always the first on the scene—and to think she once stood teetering on that very cliff herself. How far she’d come.
The wind was brutal, tossing shrapnel and sand into the air. I shielded my eyes, spitting out grit while I walked. I could already see the misshapen body as I approached and my heart immediately sank.
A pink sweater.
Some of the knitting had frayed from the shoulder—but this girl wore a pair of black capris pants. Eve wore a denim skirt.
Someone else? Someone else.
And then I saw the blue backpack. She was still wearing her backpack. I felt a sudden wash of nausea come over me. I stooped forward and gazed out towards the spiteful sea. It was like God had formed a fist in the waves.
“Leon?” I heard Terri say. “Is it the girl?”
My eyes were a mix of tears and salt from the driving spindrift. I scooped up some courage and gazed back down at the body. She was flat on her stomach and her limbs were unnaturally splayed. I could tell her neck was broken due to the strange crook of her head, and her auburn hair, which covered most of her face, was now coarse and strewn with sand and bits of seaweed.
I gave a somber nod and knelt down, carefully removing the hair from her face. Her milky blue eyes were wide open, frozen. The gleam was long gone and she held a sudden, terrified look, as if she’d changed her mind a moment too late. It was true that the brain received signals at about one meter per second, so she may have hit the ground before she could really process what was happening. People who had survived jumping from bridges often reported regretting it as soon as their feet left the railing.
I said a silent prayer before gently closing both her eyes—eyes that I had painfully misread.
I should’ve seen this, should’ve known.
On closer inspection I could see she had ruptured her skull on some sedimentary rock. Her hair was stained and matted with thick blood that had congealed from the cold, and a trickle of dried blood marked her pale lips.
“She’s been out here overnight,” I said. “She must’ve returned,” I felt my throat constrict, “just hours after she left me,” I shook my head wearily. “I don’t understand… she seemed OK.”
Terri didn’t answer, she had her head down; we both did. Four jumpers in six days. It was too much for anyone to bear. “So young… silly silly girl,” Terri finally said, her eyes capped in tears.
I carefully lifted the girl’s head. One side of her face was peppered with bits of shell and there was fresh dirt under her fingernails; dark like peat or compost. It struck me as odd. Had she survived impact and tried crawling? It was too horrible to imagine.
“Do you think it’s possible she somehow—”
“Listen,” Terri said, raising her hand. “Do you hear that?”
I listened, but all I could hear was the battering wind off the bay, the distant grumble of a seal, the orchestral clash of waves.
“You can’t hear that?”
“Hear what exactly?”
Terri frowned, her hand hung in the air like a conductor’s baton ready to strike. “There,” she said.
I closed my eyes and focused: the rolling waves, the effervescent fizz of sand sliding back, the agitated sea air pushing in around my ears—but in between… yes… something else. Perhaps a gull on the breeze? No. The sound was closer – a smothered, suffocating wail.
Terri shot me a look. “What is that?”
Just then, a revelation.
“Oh dear God.” I glanced at the backpack and back to Terri and she covered her mouth with her hand. I unzipped the bag and a familiar sound instantly filled my ears. I could’ve slapped myself for not realizing it sooner. It was the crying of a newborn; a baby – somehow miraculously alive, cocooned inside the backpack. I reached in with both hands and carefully folded the infant into my arms. A boy, all salmon skin and wrapped in a football jersey—he couldn’t have been more than a month old. He was breathing. I gently touched his skin, he was surprisingly warm.
“He’s OK, he’s alright…”
Terri began to cry, repeating: “Oh God, dear God… a baby.”
She wanted me to hand him over right there, but I needed a moment. Here was a wonder, a small miracle – a spark of light against an immovable black tide that seemed to suck everything in. Here was Eve’s tiny spark; the hope I told her to hold on to. His miniature fingers clasped around my hand. I smiled. “Hello there little man,” I said and realized my eyes were leaking. Then all at once he ceased his wailing and gazed up at me with soft dark eyes. I held him close to my chest and waded out into the foam. My heart was leaping in my chest and I felt each tear being plucked away by the shifting blow as I rocked the child in my arms.
I looked up and took in a stuttering breath. The morning had brought strings of white stratus which crisscrossed against a gradient of blue, obscuring darker clouds beyond. The scent of rain hung in the air.
“Thank you,” I whispered to the sky, “thank you, thank you.”
It wasn’t possible, wasn’t possible at all but here he was. I thought of the boy’s mother flayed out on the beach like some mistaken catch. All that was left of her were broken bones—no, all that was left of her was right here, nestled in my arms. I knew the story: teenage mother, broken family, abusive father, abusive boyfriend, abusive everything… and then the last act: child services.
The world was a divided place, too many adrift, each without a compass and no lighthouse to guide them. Maybe Eve was tired of being divided, like a demarcated piece of property. Perhaps she just wanted to feel whole—broken but complete for once in her short, delicate life. He was her wholeness. Who was I to judge, who was anyone to judge? Who was God to judge? I imagined Eve saying.
The infant studied me with a puzzled expression, was probably wondering why this strange man had a white bush growing out of his face. “You’re safe now… you’re safe,” I whispered.
We watched as the police and paramedics trudged up the coast towards us. Watched as they zipped up Eve into their own blue bag. I sat with the child in the ambulance as one of the paramedics wrapped him in a small blanket, administered formula, rattled off questions. I rode all the way to the hospital and every healthy cry was music to my ears.
And in that moment I knew, he was my cross to bear and I would be happy to carry it. I thought of Eve. I had failed her. I contemplated my sin: vanity. And I thought of a passage from Psalms:
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
One day I will tell him how beautiful she was. Eve, his mother, the first mother. One day I will tell him, he was one in a thousand.