Opening Lines: The Mountain Can Wait

Posted on 30th May 2015 by Rob Chilver
Sarah Leipciger's novel drops you deep into the icy wilderness of Canada and a desperate search for one man's son.

There's nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice, writing at the start of their career. That's why we're highlighting our favourite debut authors of the year so far.

Set amongst the stunning Canadian landscape, Sarah Leipciger's debut novel The Mountain Can Wait opens with a dramatic and desperate rescue amongst the ice. Showing the lengths a father will go to to protect his children, Tom Berry is a man content to live out his days in the wilderness in isolation with no one to call for help for when things go badly wrong. After his son Curtis disappears, it falls to Tom alone to track him down but whether he can truly reach Curtis is another matter. Read the opening pages below.


Erin was six when she fell through the ice one afternoon during those weeks between winter and spring.  When the wind blew a certain way and there was a turn to the air that suggested new growth in a world where the ground was still frozen and the tree branches black and without bud.  Curtis had wanted to go snowshoeing but Erin complained that it was too cold, and snowshoeing too hard, so Tom dressed her up and covered her face with a scarf and pulled her behind him on the wooden toboggan.  The sky had been clear for days and the going was easy, the old snow glazed over with an icy crust.  He was sweating under his coat. Under the trees, the snow was pocked with drip holes.  They moved slowly through the bush, making their way to Black Pond where they’d skate and drink the hot chocolate he carried in a thermos. They left after lunch and got to the pond at three, the forest shadows long and well-defined across the ice.  Tom let go of the toboggan and stretched his tired shoulders.  Curtis was lacing up his skates and Tom was taking off his coat to remove a sweater when Erin jumped on to the ice, running and skidding in her boots.  She disappeared around a corner where the bank curved and the heavy boughs of a tall fir reached out over the pond and there was no sound for a moment, just Curtis pulling at his laces and complaining about cold fingers, the whump of a load of snow falling from a tree branch to the ground. Then came the sharp crack.  Tom went out onto the ice calling Erin’s name and when he came around the fir tree, he saw her floundering in a jagged hole of the blackest water.  Water so black that it swallowed the arm of sunlight that crossed it. With the force of her panic, her head dunked under and when she came up she was choking from the cold water she’d taken into her throat.  Tom dropped onto his stomach and inched toward the hole, the ice wheezing and clicking under his weight.  She waved her arms above the water.  Her eyes rolled like a trapped animal’s and she was panting.

“You have to breathe, Erin,” he said.  “Slow down and breathe.”  He called for Curtis to bring the toboggan.  “I’m going to get you, but you have to breathe.”

Her eyes were on him, black as the water.  Her small mouth stretched back in a grimace as she raked and gulped for air.  He moved closer but could feel the surface of the pond bowing under his weight.  Freezing water seeped onto his chest and he knew he wouldn’t be able to get any closer.

“Breathe slowly Erin, calm down.  Good girl.  Get yourself to the edge where you fell in.  That ice held you before, it’ll hold now.  Get your arms up over the edge.”

Curtis was behind him with the toboggan.  “You’ll be okay, Erin,” he yelled, the words scared, tight.

She dog paddled to the far edge of the hole and grabbed at it.  Jags of ice fell away and bobbed and slushed in the water and the hole grew bigger.  She screamed and coughed and cried harder.

No Erin.  Turn around and come to this edge.  The ice is stronger here, towards me.  Hurry.”  

She turned and paddled and got her arms up over the edge of the hole and it held her.

Tom pushed the curled end of the toboggan towards her.  “Wrap your arms around it.”

She was calmer now, blue-lipped.  She wrapped her wet arms around the toboggan and he pulled.  He moved her a few inches out of the water but then she let go, slipping back into the hole.

“I can’t,” she said, her voice slurred.

“You can.”

“Too hard.”

“It’s not.  You try harder, now.  Get both arms right around it and hold your hands together.”

“I can’t.”

“There’s no time.  Come on now, both arms right around it.”

She tried again and slipped once more, this time up to her neck.  She got her arms back over the edge and laid her head on them.

Tom started to shiver, was wearing only his cotton shirt.  He closed his eyes.  Okay, he thought, okay.  He breathed in deeply as if to make himself lighter and spread his legs out to distribute his weight, and shuffled closer and closer until his face was inches from hers.  The ice moaned under him.  She’d been in the water for at least three minutes and now she had no strength, all her blood had rushed to the middle of her body leaving her limbs heavy and numb.  

“Get her out,” Curtis yelled, his voice wet.

“Shut the hell up.”

“I can’t feel my body,” Erin said, her voice small, the words without beginning or end, one long word.

 Without thinking too much more about it, he plunged his hands into the water and grabbed her under her arms, heaving her out and rolling away from the hole in one swift movement.  Sliding in his boots, he carried her to the other end of the pond.

He took her clothes off and also his shirt, pulled her against his skin and wrapped his coat over them both.  He held her like that until her lips turned pink and then dressed her in his own and Curt’s dry clothes and bundled her onto the toboggan. They covered the distance back to the house in an hour and while Curtis loaded the fireplace, Tom again undressed himself and Erin and wrapped their bodies together in blankets.  He lay with her close to the fire, her cold skin pressed into his, and imagined his body heat radiating through her.  She shivered for over an hour, and when that subsided she was mostly still, shaking periodically as if her body, now warm, moved with nightmares of a remembered cold.  Curtis was asleep on the couch and Erin slept too; Tom rocked with the rhythm of her breathing, unsure of how to move away.  He wasn’t in the habit of holding his children.


Sign In To Respond

There are currently no comments.