This is a short story I wrote last year for hyperrealism
Beatrix was born in the summer. My mother stayed at Pen Bay Medical center, where Chester and I were born. We weren’t allowed to visit because we had colds and babies can’t be around colds. In the cage a few pairs of eyes reflected from the motion activated outdoor lamp. My father had found the three raccoons living in the fake lighthouse near where he worked. The old rafters had become so brittle, and the raccoons made it in easy. Everyone could hear them in the building, not just beneath the hole in the ceiling. Chester squatted next to the cage, he wanted to keep them, I just wanted one, he could have the other two, and maybe they could have little raccoon babies. I liked their cooing purr noises, like a cat and a loon cross. My father was inside the house calling the vet, to see what to do with the raccoons. Chester was really close to the cage, the little raccoon hands were reaching out to him. I told him not to touch them, “They could be rabid,” I said “they eat garbage.” But Chester touched them, and they weren’t rabid, but we couldn’t let them go in our backyard, because then they would start living near our house. That was the summer my father kept the raccoons in the carriage house.
The carriage house was where my father kept all of his tools, car parts, and the attic had our camping gear and Christmas decorations. I liked being in the attic, the pink insulation had pictures of the pink panther on them, and it was always hot and dusty. There was a door that led to the outside, on the second story. My mother told me it was where the hay for the horses used to be kept, when it was a real carriage house. The big glass doors on the bottom level were supposed to show off the carriage that belonged to the people who lived in our house when Main Street wasn’t a side road. The carriage house when we owned it always smelled like oil and sawdust, like my father. He liked teaching us to build things. We made a new cooling rack for my mother every Christmas, even baby Beatrix got to hold the dowels when we were sanding them. My father called her his third son, and gave her tool sets for her birthday, along with handmade baby doll cribs. He was the only one who called her Trixie.
Beatrix was so tiny when we got the raccoons, that’s why my mother didn’t want them at the house. My father kept their cage in the garage part of the carriage house, and fed them when he got home from work. My mother was too busy that summer; she painted the house a blue-grey color. I remember when she was on the roof, painting the spaces under the eaves. I was supposed to stand outside with the phone in case she fell off. She was tied to the tractor, so if she did fall, she would just hang from the roof by her waist. She didn’t fall. I sat under the shadow that our house cast onto the lawn. My father had mowed the lawn the day before, the wet blades of grass stuck to my legs. I must have been about four or five.
My mother had turned the radio in the house all the way up with the windows opened so she could listen to music. My father had taken Beatrix and Chester to town with him. My mother wanted them out of the house so she could just paint.
“You know me and your godmother used to paint houses when we were in college,” she told me, stretching her arm above her head, her voice thin from the positioning. “We were staying at her parent’s house in New Hampshire. You know how laid back she is, and we got up on the ladders, singing, talking, having a great time. We weren’t paying too much attention, and before you know it, we had painted right over a wasp nest, but we didn’t see it because it was between panels. Those wasps came out really angry, and we both screamed and jumped into one of the open windows, because we were so far up on the ladders, we couldn’t run down them fast enough. There were guys painting the rooms inside, and we all chatted until the swarm calmed down. We had a pretty good time.” My mother laughed to herself, dipping the brush into the coffee can she filled with paint. My mother’s face, hair and clothes were dotted an ashy-blue. I caught a grasshopper when she was concentrating on the painting. Its leg was hurt, I didn’t hurt it. Yellowish green blood leaked out onto my hand. It smelled like a dead caterpillar. I wondered if grasshoppers ate caterpillars.
Chester was the only one in the family who could catch caterpillars and not have them curl into a ball in his hand. They just continued walking on his hand as if they didn’t notice that they’d been moved from their original location. When I picked up caterpillars they curled up and peed on my hand.
The summer that the caterpillars nested in the trees around the house and my father had to come from work to burn their nests I found out about the quarry. Chester and I slowly opened the door to the carriage house. The empty cage that used to hold the raccoons sat in the corner. It still smelled like them. We brought out our bikes. “Are you sure? Mom won’t get mad?” Chester asked.
“How is she going to find out?”
“I don’t know, but maybe she will.”
“As long as we don’t tell her, she won’t have to know.” I said, closing the door behind us. Chester started peddling down the gravel driveway on his bike, which used to be mine. It still had the sticker of the motorcycling mouse on it that I got from the dentist.
The street lamps were on, but it wasn’t dark yet. My father told me that they were on a timer, but had to be reset for daylight savings every year. I rode behind Chester, because I was bigger, and drivers could probably see me better than him. The late sun settled in vapor over the fields of the nearby houses as we rode past. We didn’t call them our neighbors because that would mean that we lived next door. The nearest house was across the street and down the creek a ways. We stopped at the stop sign, and I pulled my sweatshirt drawstring tighter around my neck, it was cold for June. We saw no cars. On a Sunday evening, most cars were inside, like our mother’s was, picking Beatrix up from a friend’s house.
The tires on our bikes hugged the road, making a light buzzing sound, chorusing with the crickets. Chester was singing a song, and I had to remind him “watch the edge,” “don’t run over frogs,” “your shoelace is loose.” We rode finally to the patch of dirt in front of the woods where the rangers parked their cars. The quarry was closed to the public before we were born, but the fence was only a car barrier. We put our bikes behind the trees. The lightning bugs flew into our faces, the reflective tape from our bike helmets attracting them. Chester had never come to the quarry before, I had only been brought once before by a not-neighbor named Patrick.
“What if someone takes our bikes?”
“Who would take our bikes?”
“I don’t know, someone who needs bikes?” Chester kept a hand on the seat.
“Who would want our bikes? Yours is old and mine is a really old girl’s bike.” I outgrew mine and my mother’s bike fit me.
“They’re great bikes!” Chester said. He hadn’t taken off his red bike helmet.
“Our bikes are old, rusty, and the chains slip all of the time. They’re safe. Let’s go.” I removed my helmet and walked into the woods. Chester followed, but left his helmet on. I called him a goddamn pussy. It was a new word to me, but at twelve I felt grown up when I swore. He tried to hit my arm but missed. I pounded the top of his helmet, forcing the visor over his eyes. He pulled the helmet off his face and called me a jerk. I laughed. He walked ahead of me.
The trees stopped a few feet from the lip of the quarry. The water at the bottom was opaque and blue, like toilet bowl cleaner. At the bottom of the quarry was an old Ford truck from the 1940s. I could tell because my father showed me the differences between truck hoods and headlights. Chester knew too. Beatrix was only told that she was supposed to like Thunderbirds, but only the ones from 1956, because my father said that the fins were not overdone that year.
In the milky blue water the roots of trees stuck out. They were rotting in the air, their trunks covered in moss. There wasn’t much algae. My mother said that almost nothing can grow in an old quarry, it’s just old rocks. I walked up the side of a rock ledge, a stony bridge between the two sides of the quarry. I put Chester’s fingers into an old dynamite hole. “If this was a long time ago, you’d have no hand now. Pew!” I said, making exploding noises from a phlegmy place in the back of my throat. Chester laughed, and but kept his fingers in after I let go.
“How did the dynamite go off, but there’s still this tiny hole?” He prodded the outside with his thumb. The hole was about as large as a carrot.
“I guess it didn’t. Maybe they were going to blow this part up, but then that’s when the quarry got closed.” I picked up a dead stick.
“Or maybe it was a dud, like it didn’t go off when it was supposed to.” Chester stood up and laughed. I wondered what would have become of the dud. I wondered if it was at the bottom of the quarry, under all that water. I walked up between the two sides, giant blue pools of water held by granite. The edge was defined, as well as steep, going down maybe forty feet, maybe fifty. We couldn’t see the bottom. It could have gone down another fifty feet after that. The rock ledges patterned with dud-holes, sided by trees and moss. The rock came out of the ground, made it, defined it. The quarry was dotted with evergreens, complimenting the artificially blue water. My mother told me that the water was blue because of the sky, and the sky was blue because of the water.
Chester picked up a stick, a caterpillar at the end. He still called them “Callipiters” even at nine and a half, not on purpose, and mostly only at home. The setting sun gleamed off the water, making green sparkles all the way to the steep edge. There was only one part on the far right of the quarry that was shallow enough, another truck sat there, the bed sticking out of the water, the rest in a pool of watery rust.
I sat and watched the chickadees hop on the ground, poking for seeds. Chester put the caterpillar on a nearby stump. “Do you think they mind?”
“The callipiters. Do you think they mind getting picked up?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’d hate it.” I threw a rock. The splash, too small for such height. I nudged the pebbles around my foot off the edge, watching the spider webbing ripples sink.
Chester picked up old glass pieces that he found. Beer bottle sections with brand name hollows, brown, green, blue, clear. Not as smooth as sea glass, dull in parts, but still sharp. He was like a crow looking for sparkly traces for his nest.
“Look at this one! It doesn’t have a date, but it looks really old!” He held up a squared bottle neck, covered in dirt. A car on the road passed by. Chester put the glass into his pocket and climbed back up the ridge to sit next to me on the moss. He picked at the small flowers that grew on the rock. They looked like miniature artichokes. The sun sunk below the trees, pushing their shadows over the water.
“That looks so pretty doesn’t it?” Chester smiled, tossing the flowers into the water.
“You’re such a goddamn girl.”
“Yeah you are. Dad always said he wanted another girl. Why do you think mom put you in that damn ballet class?” I threw dirt on his helmet.
“Shut up!” Chester’s face was red as he pulled his helmet off and tried to wipe his hair clean. The twigs and moss stuck in his curls.
“Better clean your hair up before you get too dirty, girl.”
“Shut up Teddy!” He punched me in the leg. His face was deep red, freckles dark against it.
“You shut up Chesty!” I punched him in the leg. Hard. The contents of his pockets crunched. He screamed. No one called me Teddy. I punched his leg again so he wouldn’t forget. The second time I felt it hurt. My knuckles pinched. Chester kept screaming. I looked at my hand, shiny slices of glass stuck out. Chester held the inside of his thigh, crying.
“Stop crying.” I said, cradling my right fist against my chest. He didn’t stop crying. “How bad is it? Is it bleeding?”
“I don’t know! It hurts!” Chester looked at me and then squinched his eyes up tight. I pulled his hands off his legs, so they wouldn’t push the glass farther in. His jeans had a little blood on them, close to the inseam. I pulled some of the broken glass out of his pocket, mostly big shards. The smaller pieces were deeper in the pocket. The shadows from the trees darkened their red gleam. Chester was still crying but quieter.
“You have to take off your pants.”
“I want to go home.” Chester looked at me.
“I need to see how bad it is.” I brushed the glass off the rock into the water. He watched it fall. Chester’s drops of blood were in the quarry, like all the dead quarrymen, Johns, Georges and Stus. “Come on, maybe it’ll hurt less.” I said. Chester lay on his back and unzipped his jeans. Carefully trying to pull them off, he started screaming again.
“I can’t! It hurts too much!”
“I’m sorry Chester! I didn’t mean to! But we have to see how bad it is.” I tried not to look worried. He got his pants off, the fabric visibly pulled by the glass. Part of the brown bottle neck stuck out of his thigh, the rest sat in the inside of his pants. . I could see the dirt from the glass mixing with his blood. It was getting dark, and I tried to remember what I learned in boy scouts. I remembered that I needed to apply pressure, but what if that made it worse? Chester started crying harder, seeing it. I pushed on his leg. More blood came out, pooling in the waistband of his pants. He screamed. The glass broke off in my hand. The shadows made it hard to see, but the blood was spilling over, the moss below absorbing it. The moss would have part of Chester in it like the quarry with the dead miners. Chester would make it grow.
Chester groaned. “Don’t look” “trust me” “I did well on my emergency preparedness badge” “It’ll be fine.” My hands were covered. I couldn’t find the other piece of glass. I could feel it with my hands, I could touch it but I couldn’t find it. My hand was in Chester’s leg. I could feel his heart beating though his blood. Chester kept screaming. There was too much blood. I went back to applying pressure. I would find it later. I would find it later and it would be fine. We would just get home before my mother and throw away our clothes and get the glass out and it would be fine. She wouldn’t have to know. The blood would slow down and we would go home. I ripped a piece of my sweatshirt, wrapping it around his thin leg.
“Is it ok? Can we go home?” Chester asked.
“Yeah, just wait a couple minutes and we can go.” I pulled his pants up under his back. The shirt stayed. My hands and pants and sweatshirt were bloody. I peeled off my sweatshirt, turned it inside out and handed it to Chester. It wasn’t cold, but it seemed like something he might need. He pulled it on, the hem almost to his knees. I sometimes forgot how big I was compared to him. The liner of the sweatshirt was pilled and white, but all the blood was in the inside.
I pulled him up. Chester’s face was red and puffy, he tried not to cry. I picked up his helmet and put it on his head. “Can you walk on it?” He nodded. Chester took a few steps, and looked at me. I took his arm, supporting his small frame. I hoped he wouldn’t trip over the roots. It was dark under the trees. He made a noise when he stepped with his right leg. I was glad he was so skinny, his thighs didn’t touch each other when he walked. We got our bikes out, I snapped my helmet to my handlebars. Chester looked at his bike.
“How far is it back home?”
“I don’t know, probably more than a mile. What do you want to do?” I had my hand on the seat of my bike.
“I can walk.” Chester snapped his helmet on. He held the bar beneath the seat. I did the same and gave him my shoulder to lean on. We made our way to the road. We walked along the side of the road, the crunchy pebbles loud against the rubber of our tires and sneakers. Chester didn’t cry, just looked ahead. I walked slowly, trying not to make him hurry. We passed a field with lightning bugs floating in the tall grass that was still a couple of months away from haying.
“They’re pretty.” I said. Chester nodded. I saw blood making its way down his pants under the sweatshirt. His helmet bobbed, the reflective strips shining from the streetlamps. We were going to get home. We were going to put our bikes away and my mother wouldn’t know. We wouldn’t get in trouble. At stop signs we stood longer than we needed to. Chester’s face was puffy but back to pink. I hummed a song I liked from the radio. We were going to be fine. At the stop sign near our house Chester leaned over and threw up in the grass. I felt his little body shake. He nodded and we made our way up the driveway. My mother’s car wasn’t in the driveway. I was glad that she was friends with everyone’s moms and spent a long time talking during pick ups and drop offs.
We put our bikes and helmets in the carriage house, shutting the door tightly. I turned on the garden hose, and pulled the sweatshirt over Chester’s head. He pulled his pants off one leg at a time, I tugged at the ankles, keeping him up with my other arm. The handmade bandage had slipped almost to his knee, the blood ran down his leg, catching in it. I asked “Are you ready?” “this is going to be cold,” “Are you sure?” Chester nodded and squinched his eyes closed. I held on to him, and sprayed his leg. It came out too hard and too fast. I almost dropped him. The tiny bits of glass came out, and the dirt and the dried blood. The cut looked clean, a tear in him less than a half inch wide. I knew it was deep, but it didn’t look bad without all the mess. I turned the hose off and held onto him and our clothes.
I pulled the toilet lid down and sat him on it. Chester looked tired. I climbed onto the washing machine and got the first aid kit off the shelf. I pulled out the industrial sized bottle of hydrogen peroxide that my mother used for cuts and ear infections. I climbed down and poured the cap full, spilling a little on my hand. Chester had started bleeding again; he tucked a wad of toilet paper under the cut leg. The hydrogen peroxide splashed over his leg, bubbling. “I’m sorry” “Sorry,” “almost done.” Chester didn’t react. The gauze from the first aid kit came with scissors, I cut it bigger than I needed, fitting it over the cut, plenty of room. The tape was thick and clung to the tiny white hairs on his leg. “Done.” I said. I pulled his shirt off and threw our clothes together. I didn’t know how to do laundry, so I stood in my underwear looking at a pile of bloody, dirty clothes.
“We could throw them out, under the trash, she wouldn’t know.” He said. I nodded, piled them and went to the kitchen, stuffing them under last night’s dinner scraps. I washed my hands, forgetting about the glass in my knuckles and the blood stains. I washed them clean as I could and went to my room, and got dressed. I went into Chester’s drawers and got some clean pants.
“Here. I know you like my Hotwheels shirt. You can have it.” Chester smiled and dressed himself on the toilet. We heard the door close. I helped him into the kitchen and onto a stool. My mother brought in bags of groceries.
“Can I get some help bringing these in?” She asked. I looked at Chester and went outside. Beatrix was walking back from the car with an opened bag of banana chips.
“Mom’ll kill you if she sees you eating right before dinner.” I said. Beatrix stuck her tongue out at me but closed the bag. I got to the car, opened the trunk and sat down next to the groceries. He was fine, I did everything right, my mother wouldn’t know. I sat that way for a while until my mother came over.
“What’s taking so long? I need to get dinner started.” She said. I said I was sorry and picked up the gallon of milk. She grabbed my hand. “What’s this? Is this glass?’
“Sorry, I broke an orange juice glass. I wanted orange juice.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes.” I tried not to look at her.
“We’ll take care of it.” She hugged me and I pressed my face into her shirt. My breath made my face hot against the fabric. “Sweetie, are you ok?” “We can always buy more juice glasses,” “It’ll be fine, I promise.”
We got up early in the late spring to pick berries in Lincolnville. My mother paid twenty dollars for a pallet of berry baskets. My mother told us that everybody eats about a bucket of dirt in their lifetime, so a little fertilized soil on the berries wasn’t going to hurt us. Beatrix was the littlest, so she got to ride in the backpack, her head covered by a flowery hat. My mother would hand her the smaller berries, so she wouldn’t choke. She would squeeze them before putting them in her mouth. My mother’s long hair would have seeds in it all day. Beatrix’s face was gummy and red. The raspberries were the best, when my mother found a farm that bred pricker-less ones, the berries grew fatter, and they squished in our fingers. The juice reached our elbows by the end of the morning. The farmers never charged us for the berries we ate, mostly because my mother would talk to them about what kind of tractors they used, and where they got their manure from. She used to be a farmer, she told us, after college, and before she married my father. When we got home from berry picking, my mother made us all take off the clothes we were wearing. We would change and she would pour boiling water all over our clothes. She said it was the only thing to get berry stains out. It didn’t work for any other stains, like jam.
On the days my mother made jam, we weren’t allowed in the kitchen. There were too many things to burn ourselves on. She said that. One time I snuck in, keeping low below the counter. She was boiling the jars in one pan, and the cut up fruit and sugar in the other. I watched as she pulled the jars out of the boiling water with the barbecue tongs, and set them up on the old stained dish towels. Then she ladled the hot berry mush in, trying not to spill. I put my hand into the open bag of sugar. She didn’t see me, because she was trying not to burn herself through the oven mitt. I put the sugar in my mouth, but it was wriggling. Over my forearm crawled black ants. I must have made a noise, because my mother looked at me, the bag of sugar, and my arm sticking out of it. “Spit it out.”
I spat ants on the counter, and their brothers ran down my arm to meet them. My mother picked up the bag and threw it through the door. It landed in the sandbox. She brushed me off, and the counter. “Are you ok?” She asked while she pushed my hair back on my forehead like when I was sick. I nodded.
“I swallowed some.”
“I’m sorry sweetie.” She kissed the top of my head. “I’ve got to finish this before it burns. You sure you’re ok?” She turned the burners down to settle the jam. She called it a rolling boil, the kind where it hasn’t boiled over yet, but you can’t stir it, and it won’t stop unless you leave it alone for a long time. It can burn you easily if you aren’t careful.
My mother was careful. She finished the batch, screwed on the lids and flipped the jars to cool. When the ant bodies floated, she stirred them back in, called them seeds. “They’re full of protein.” “They’re good for you.” “You know, in a lot of cultures people eat bugs, because of the protein.”
Chester and I ate ants. We did experiments. The red ones were salty and spicy, and the black ones were sweet. We ate them like sunflower seeds; we bit their bodies and sucked out their insides, spitting the shells. We trapped ants from the hills in the yard, and the ones that came out from between the bricks of the kitchen door walkway. We caught them and took them to the tangled apple trees between the hill and the pond, far behind the house. It was shaded and a stream ran though the roots. We sat under the trees and ate the ants, and when we were done we poured vinegar on the hills, to keep them from telling their neighbors. We took our sandwiches under the trees on hot days when my mother said the sun would spoil mayonnaise. It was cool and covered, our fort, with our feet in the stream, the cold water freezing our toes even in August.
We were barefoot. Our feet were tough, our mother told us not to wear shoes when we could. When she and my father brought home baby Beatrix, they didn’t put shoes on her. Relatives always buy baby shoes, but babies don’t need shoes. My mother wanted our feet to be tough. She told us that she once walked over broken glass, and she didn’t feel it, it didn’t cut her. The beaches in Havret were made of rocks. The sand was hard, sharp, and grey. The beaches reached the woods, or the road, or the dirt. Flowers grew near beaches. The nicer ones had sand trucked in for the whiteness. It didn’t last, and every year a new truckload came, and filled the air with sandy dust. Out-of-staters didn’t know about the beaches. They brought towels and flip flops that did’t stand up to punctures. In the postcards that tourists sent their families, the beaches looked soft and warm. My mother said in the southern parts of the state, August was hot, and their sand was white. In midcoast, the wind came off the water, which was breezy until chilled and wet skin met it after a swim.
My mother used to be one of the tourists with the cut feet. She and her family summered. My grandmother lived in Connecticut. My mother drove us down, all eight hours, to see our grandmother, and to become more cultured. Once we got to go to New York to see a ballet. We pulled into the driveway late. The car was hot, even with the windows open, and Charlie the dog panted wet breath on our necks. Chester was already asleep, and my mother had to carry him and Beatrix inside. My grandmother had fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room with the lights still on. When we came in through the front door, she straightened her hair and gave me a kiss. There were cookies on the kitchen table. I snuck one while my mother was putting Chester into a bed and my grandmother was looking for a spare toothbrush. We never remembered our toothbrushes. The cookies were old, and tiny brown moths flew out of the box when I opened it. My grandmother gave me a toothbrush, and my mother brought my bag into the room. I climbed into the tall twin bed, Chester sleeping with his mouth open a few feet away. The sheets were stiff and the tiny bb’s I felt near my feet were probably mouse poops. I went to sleep listening to my mother sing Beatrix to sleep in the pink room down the hall.
My mother was giving Chester a bath when I woke up. His sheets were wet, the little blue flowers on them shiny, piled up at the foot of the bed. I went to the kitchen, excited because my grandmother let us have more than seven grams of sugar per serving cereals. Chester liked the kind that was supposed to taste like waffles, I preferred the kind that were Rice Krispy Treats that you were supposed to eat like cereal. My grandmother had some left from the summer before, but they tasted good stale. I got one of the bowls that was shaped like a melon-half, and poured my cereal into it.
“I thought your mom got theatre tickets.” My grandmother got up to pour herself more coffee. “Your uncle said he got them for her.” She said as she stirred her coffee. I ate my breakfast while my grandmother made plans to tee off at noon. I asked what we should look for. “Look for bridges. Bridges can tell you a lot.” My grandmother lit a Now 100. “Bridges are built for the people, you know, your grandfather is an architect, that’s a lot like building bridges.” She opened the because my mother didn’t like it when she smoked in the house when we were around. “You know lots of men die when they build bridges? Lots of Irish men, your father is part Irish, any of his relatives build bridges?” I shook my head. “Well that’s good, I like the Irish. I suppose you look a bit Irish, with your freckles. Your sister, now she looks Irish, reddish hair and all. You’re one of those, what’s it called, black Irish? With those dark eyes and hair. Must be.” My grandmother took a sip of her coffee. But you know that bridges, they’re important, you know they help people get places, you should go see the bridge, elephants have crossed the bridge and my own grandson has never been there jesus shit.” My grandmother plucked a dead leaf from one of the plants on the window sill.
“Why were elephants on the bridge?”
“Nobody told you that one?” I shook my head. “See, there was this woman, and she starts screaming on the bridge right? And everyone thinks she died or something, so they all start running. Well wouldn’t you know, they crushed a whole mess of people, and a bunch of them died. So nobody uses the bridge for a while, because they think it’s not safe anymore. Then there’s this man who owns the circus, and he decides, I’ve got elephants, why don’t I walk them across? So he does, all twenty one of them, nice as you please, just strolling over the bridge. Fantastic. My grandmother got to see, that was before my mother was born you see. Just fantastic.” My grandmother put out her cigarette, and I carried my bowl of milk to the sink. Chester walked over to my chair in a big pink bath towel. My mother brought in his clothes, leading a sleepy Beatrix still in her nightgown, my mother’s front wet and soapy. Chester sat at the low stool, his tangled brown hair dripping into his cereal. Beatrix wanted oatmeal, she was three, too little for much sugar, so she thought maple brown sugar oatmeal was sweet.
We got off the train at Grand Central. My mother told us to look at the ceiling, see the constellations. She took us by the hands, I held onto Chester, as we crossed the big floor, still looking at the painted sky. We walked to the theatre; my mother called it a matinee. She told us we were really lucky. “This is something you can tell your kids about. You got to go to the ballet and see famous ballerinas. This is special.” She squeezed our knees. We were early, and there weren’t too many filled seats. She made us dress up. She said that no one dressed up for theatre anymore, and that was too bad, because it’s so exceptional, and dressing nice meant we were respecting it. I hated it. I wanted to see the bridge, or go to the place with the tiny turtles. Chester and I had to wear ties, but Beatrix got to wear her old purple tutu. My mother said this was important for us all, just watch them.
When it was dark and the music started, I tried to pay attention. “Why aren’t they talking?” I asked. My blazer was hot.
“This is a ballet, they don’t talk, and their dancing says everything.” My mother whispered back. It didn’t. They danced, I thought a few times that a few would fall, which would make it much more interesting. I liked the parts when they ran in their ballet shoes. They looked like ducks. I just kept hoping one of them would trip over their shoes. My mother told me earlier that their shoes are full of wood. I wanted them to slap the stage, which they did, but there was no sound. Chester liked it. He kept asking if I saw the jumps. All the way back to my grandmother’s house, he talked about the jumps.
“He’s jumped so high! I bet I could jump that high!”
“I bet you could too sweetie! You’ve got my long legs.” My mother beamed. Chester was going to beat me at being ‘well rounded.’
“I’m going to show you, look how high I can jump!” Chester leaped off his chair, and continued leaping across the large dining room.
“Later Chester, we’re eating.” My grandmother said with her mouth full, a hand held up to shield her chewed steak. He sat down, eating his macaroni and cheese. At my grandmother’s house, the adults ate adult food, and the children ate children food. Beatrix had the orange cheese on her tutu, and her face, and in her strawberry blonde curls. She was mostly asleep, her hand clutching a fork, her wrist in the macaroni. Chester finished, and leaped his empty plate into the kitchen. He slipped, because my grandmother made him wear socks indoors. My mother took him upstairs to wipe the blood off his nose.
“Your uncle used to get the worst nosebleeds.” My grandmother said. Beatrix was asleep, her head rolling against the chair back.
“Which uncle?” I asked, my grandmother had two sons.
“Your uncle Gregory. He used to get the worst nose bleeds, and it wouldn’t stop. I hope your mother is holding his head back, that makes the blood go down the throat. That’s the best way.”
“Did you eat blood?” I asked Chester when we were in our beds.
“A lot.” He smiled.
“Was it gross?”
“It tasted like nose-run.”
“And blood. There was a lot.” Chester still had a tissue in his nose. He told my mother that it might start again, he could feel it.
Beatrix was in the bath. She was screaming. Beatrix had a bad habit of getting messier when she was tired, and that was no time for a bath. Chester was fairly consistently messy, while I thought of myself as pretty clean. My mother didn’t agree. She didn’t like it when I kept dead fish in my pockets. I only kept minnows in my pockets. She said that was disgusting.
Beatrix was getting toweled off, her whimpering alternately muffled by my mother’s ruffling of her short, previously cheesy hair. Chester pulled the tissue out of his nostrils. “See, it’s still bleeding.” He reached the tissue towards my face in the dark.
“I bet I can jump like that guy today.” Chester said as he stuffed the tissue back up his nose.
“You think so?” Chester leaned his fluffy head towards me.
“Yeah, but then you’d have to be in a ballet class. They don’t have ballet for boys in Havret.”
“Well, Beatrix’s friends moms are talking about sending their kids to the little kids ballet class. And mom made us take that modern movement class last summer.”
“That was fun, I liked the part where we painted the cardboard windows.”
“Yeah, me too. But you didn’t see any ballerina boys there did you?”
“Plus, you don’t want them to cut off your penis do you?” My mother called it castration.
“Why would they do that?”
“You saw that man today, did you see his penis?”
“Mom said he was wearing a cup.” Chester said slowly.
“Yeah, they put a cup down your tights, like the kind you drink out of, but it’s cut in half, they think it looks better.”
“That’s not true. Mom said that man today had five kids.” Chester looked at the tissue again.
“Yeah, from before he was a ballerina. Before they cut his penis off.” It was the only thing that could possibly make sense. Then Chester called for my mother and she told him that no one was going to cut off his penis, so just go to sleep.
Posted in I wrote this for class
, berry picking
, new york
In the summer my father left for the harbor early, meeting Johnson or Bardier at the docks, talking in the salty fog that disappeared by midmorning. The weather wasn’t idle chat with the fishermen, and ‘red sky at night’ frequently set expectations for the day. My father’s office sounded like a robot. The three radios were tuned to different maritime channels, announcing craft warnings and weather reports. I liked to sit in the window seat of the harbor master building watching dinghies and rowboats navigate the cramped moorings close to the boat launch. On summer days when my mother needed us out of the house so she could make jam, or repaint the shingles, Chester and I sat at my father’s desk and listened to the robot voice tell us how many Knots the wind blew. On the wall there was a painting of a ship that my father said had sunk, the American flag on the stern unraveling in the wind. The only other wall decorations were a series of sticky-notes that held names and registration numbers.
Sometimes my father would let Chester and I sit in the front room with him and the fishermen and boaters that would stop by. We liked hearing them talk; sailing accents from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Canada, the fishermen turning their r’s to ah’s. Johnson and Bardier spent their mornings in the harbor master building, I don’t know if I ever found out what their first names were. They were both locals whose families had lived in Havret Harbor since it separated itself from the neighboring town of Jeterton, sometime around the war of 1812. They shared a lobster boat because it was “wicked expensive.” Her name was Red Lady and their buoys matched with red horizontal stripes. Johnson and Bardier smelled like fish and cigarettes. The fish used for lobsterpot bait has to be a little rotting so the lobsters can smell it. Their waders had little bits of old cod and halibut stuck to the bottoms.
My father used to haul pots, but grew up in Castine, where he and his brothers and his father and his father’s brothers had gone to Maine Maritime to become captains and shipbuilders. Before that the Sillmans were the Cielmonts in Montreal who built houses. My grandfather was trained to make boats but made chairs; he had his own store full of benches and stools. It was the kind of store that out-of-staters would have their Maine conversation pieces shipped from. His brother Dodge who my father was named after moved away to Port Clyde work on lobster boats, an extra set of hands, earning money and building a reputation among the fishermen until he could afford a used boat. He found a retiring fisherman who sold him the Bella Donna, who was never renamed, and pots with buoys whose colors stayed the same. My father spent summers in Port Clyde hauling for his uncle. The string of pots reached far into the ocean, soaking in the colder waters. He worked in the sun with his oil overalls and no shirt, leaving his French/Irish skin to burn and freckle. His brown freckles stretched from shoulders to wrists where his gloved hands were red from work, and not from sun; his usually chestnut hair bleached, his nose constantly peeling. When he was old enough his beard came in brown and coarse, and the only times he shaved it were for weddings and funerals when a clean face was respectful.
My father spent one summer saving his money to fix up an old Boston Whaler; Sundays were spent in his uncle’s backyard, scrubbing, sanding, painting, and refinishing the decayed boat. The outboard was a gift, all fifteen horses. Sundays were a day for staying home. You didn’t have to go to church, but you couldn’t do anything else either. The whole state closed on Sundays, except for some of the Chinese restaurants, the kind that had signs that said ‘Oriental.’ My father spent most of Sundays in bed, and the afternoons tooling around the inlets and coves in his whaler, spots he could see from Bella Donna, but not close.
Friday nights were when the fishermen, crewmen and dockworkers got paid, my father and his uncle included. The streets, bars and harbor full of drunken port men. His uncle would be angry if he knew he had taken the whaler out after dark to see a private cove one Friday night, late in July, when the air started being warm. It was trespassing, if he was caught, and only if they were home.
Before he could see the dock, my father killed the engine, coasting through the dark and quiet water. He tied the wet and weedy rope around the dock cleat in a figure-eight, pulling it tight. Bilge water sloshed around his feet in the bottom of his Boston Whaler. He put the stern light pole behind the gas tank. The newly varnished seats were red and still sticky; the heat and water kept them from setting. The white flotation pillow with the black mildew held tight to the plank seats. My father fished his keys from the floor attached to his unsinkable buoy key ring. He stood on the seat cushion, holding his tennis shoes in hand and stepped onto the dock. The skiff bobbed when his foot pushed off, pointing the fore into the harbor.
My father sat on the dock, pulling his shoes on, his bottom numb from the wooden seat, barely braced against the pounding of the waves. His wavy hair heavy on his scalp with salt and sweat, rising with the breeze when it picked up. He stood, seeing that the lights were out in the big white Victorian house at the top of the hill that overlooked the cove. The cove and the house were owned by a family from Connecticut who came up for long weekends and the week of the Fourth of July. Their Sunfish lay on the beach, the sails still in their red sheath. My father walked across the beach, feeling the sharp rocks through his tennis shoes, thin from wear. The light at the end of the dock turned on. He climbed up the large rocks that sat between the beach and the pine trees sloping up the hill. His knees crunched old pine needles under them. He sat in the dark of the trees while a girl in shorts and a tee shirt walked down the dock. She leaned over his whaler, and shouted “I know your registration number now, whoever you are! I’m going to the cops, and you’ll get arrested.” She stood crossing her arms, waiting. “Really? You’re going to let yourself get arrested? How stupid are you?”
“Okay, I’m sorry, please don’t repoht me.” My father stepped onto the rocks.
“Because you said you’re sorry?” The girl kicked his skiff.
“Hey, come on now, that’s nowt nice.”
“And neither is going on someone else’s property when it’s clearly marked.”
“I didn’t see nothing.”
“There are signs on the trees over there, and both ends of the dock.”
“It’s really dahk.”
“Which makes it all the creepier that you’re sneaking around here.” She kicked his skiff again.
“Hey now, I just came down heah to see if they was any of the glowin jellyfish I heuhd about.” My father had his hands up.
“I’ve never heard of any glowing jellyfish around here.” The girl kept her foot on the fore of the whaler, moving it back and forth like rocking a baby cradle.
“Yeah, see, some of the fishamin say that in the summah around this time, the jellyfish come in the coves to spawn, and they glow like fiahflies but in the watah.”
“You’re putting me on.”
“No, sweah to god, but I don’t think they’ll be comin anytime soon from the looks of it.” He looked at the water, black except for the yellow reflection of the dock light.
“Well that sucks, especially since you’ll be in jail and won’t get to see them ever.”
“Hey, come on now, I really am sorry, what can I do?”
“You could…” the girl thought about it for a while. “You could give me your boat.”
“I can’t give you my boat, no way.”
“Hope you like jail.” The girl kicked the whaler again.
“Isn’t theyah something else I can do? I could give you a ride, sometime?” My father shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Fine, you have to give me rides whenever I want, for the rest of the summer.” She smiled and took her foot off the boat.
“I weuk fuh a living, I don’t got time except Sundays.”
“Fine, Sundays it is Mr…” She reached her hand out.
“Dodge Sillman.” He stepped up to the dock and shook her hand.
“Nice to meet you Dodge, my name is Marian Webbly.” She stepped back, letting him get to his whaler. “See you Sunday then.”
“Yup.” My father unhooked the rope from the cleat and started the motor. Marian walked back to the house, turning off the dock light. He put up the navigational lights so other boats wouldn’t hit him.
When he got back to his uncle’s dock, the hems of his pants were wet, even though he’d rolled them up. His whaler made a light tapping sound, pressing against the dock with its rubber bumpers. He decided to wait until his pants dried before walking back to the house to avoid questions. He walked a bit up the hill to the main road. Next to the lamppost was an old fashioned lobsterpot, arched with a flat bottom, a net slung in a round opening between pine slats, facing inward, like a navel. He could see where the lobsters would crawl in, and into the next room with the bait bag. The whole point of a lobsterpot was to get them to come in, the net would let the small ones back out, but the big lobsters would get stuck, only able to move backwards. The lobsterpot had two miniature pilings thrust through it, the cheap pine slats sawn in jagged circles. He felt that was wrong, since they didn’t even make wooden pots any more, they had to be made by hand, they had to be strong and well built or a fisherman could lose a whole string of pots.
My father wanted that lobsterpot. He didn’t know what he wanted it for, or what he would do with it if he had it. He crouched and tested it by pulling gently upwards; pushing his legs against the wooden platform it was screwed into. After checking to see if anyone was around and finding no one, he ran back down the hill and grabbed a wooden paddle from his whaler. It was supposed to be used in case the motor died, but he wedged it under one corner and rammed it, the old wood of the platform separating from that of the pot. He hoped no one would hear the creaking of the rusted screws, he didn’t know how he would explain it. When he got home later, he would tell his uncle that a drunken captain gave it to him. His uncle would know where it came from but not say anything.
Another thrust into the gap between platform and pot pushed the paddle a few inches deeper into the breach. The pilings didn’t come up, but my father didn’t want them. He was sweating in the damp July sea air, his dark shirt sticking to his chest as he used his weight to leverage the progress. After a few more shoves, he cracked his paddle and pulled the pot from the platform. He put the paddle back in the whaler, careful not to further damage it in the process. The lobsterpot was heavier than a few slats of pine and some old rope netting should have been, but it went under his arm as he walked with what he hoped looked like purpose and not guilt. The dark streets beyond the bright of the dock yawned at him. That’s how my father always remembered the night he met my mother; the night he also stole a lobster pot from the township of Port Clyde.
I was sticky. The breeze came off the water and across The Beach. My mother poured the sunscreen on my back and rubbed it in. I looked at the overcast sky as she covered my neck. My eyes closed as her greasy hand wiped over my face. Chester crashed his pink tugboat into the sand, the dog watching.
“You’re done,” my mother said, “play in the tidal pool until I finish slathering your brother.” I stood up as she pushed the hair off my forehead. Over the wet sand to the long rock that broke up the beach, I climbed over the barnacles and into the cratered center. Squatted in the warm water hunkering my bottom to the rock, my knees were almost equal to my shoulders. I splashed the warm water over myself, trying to warm my skin against the late spring air. Chester stood so my mother could cover his knees and shins. His bushy brown hair already had sand in it. The dog smelled his back. Chester waved at me. Water squirted between my hands in his direction. Chester laughed. My mother zipped his red life preserver and stood up, pulling her long hair over her shoulder. She walked to my tidal pool with Chester.
“Boys, since this is a tradition, I think I should say something.” She took Chester’s hand and mine, pulling me up. The air met the water on my skin, causing my teeth to chatter. My mother continued. “I am just so happy that every year, June first, we, as a family, go swimming in the ocean. It means so much that this is something we can accomplish every year, so that every other swim we take for the rest of the summer is warm as a pool in comparison.” She smiled down at us. My lips were probably bordering on purple. Chester climbed the rock and picked up a piece of light green kelp, pulling back my mother’s swimsuit strap. “Don’t you dare.” she said, not turning around. Chester giggled, trying to balance himself on the barnacles, his feet soft from a winter of shoes. “Don’t you do it Chester Arthur Sillman.” Chester let the kelp and straps go, pinching the slimy green leaf to her skin with a snap. My mother grabbed Chester around the middle, running to the water. She threw him in ahead of her. Chester bobbed in the water, kicking and splashing. My mother shouted up to me as I stood with my ankles in the tidal pool, shivering, “Come in TR, it’s not so bad.”
I wished she’d thrown me in too. Spring ocean water hurt to the marrow. Wading meant stepping further in, knowing that the feet that hurt would be joined by shins, and then knees. Wading was bones and skin and blood screaming, the body pleading, until numbness. Waiting for my knees to stop screaming, I submerged my thighs. Wading took hours, days. Chester splashed the dog’s back. Numbness reached my waist so I went under. Cold water on the face and head makes the lungs try to gasp. My eyes stayed open, the greenish darkness fuzzy with bits of sand and seaweed floating in front of me. I stood up, my lungs gasping, cold salt in my mouth. Chester doggy paddled towards the beach. Dragging my numb legs through the water, up The Beach, I made it to my towel. I didn’t understand how they could stay in so long. Small waves rose beneath my mother and Chester, big waves didn’t make it through the harbor. The dog jumped through the bits of foam, biting crustaceans.
When I warmed up and my mother and brother came out of the water, I took a green bough from the apple tree and tied my leather string to both ends. Like Robin Hood, I notched the outside of the points, locking the string in place. Because the wood was green it didn’t break apart when pulled. I made arrows with my leatherman, sharpening the points, notching the ends. I felt like a man, like my father, who went hunting in the fall with my uncles and his friends. I felt like a warrior, and a brave. I was going to kill, and bring home what I had killed. Other boys wouldn’t be men until their parents told them so, but I was.
Chester sat in the tidal pool, pouring water from a bucket and onto his boat. My mother sat in her beach chair, sunglasses on, her long hair hanging wet over the back, sand stuck to the ends. Her head was hanging over the back of her chair, air noisily coming in and out of her open mouth. Past the apple tree that hung over the sand, tiny and undernourished crabapples underfoot I went. I crouched in the grasses behind the tree where my mother took the dog to poop. The seagulls circled over the harbor, the tree, and the harbor master building. I took out my first arrow, firing it between the branches. It came back down. The gulls flew low, trying to get the mussels, clams and crabs at the low tide, finding old apples easier to pick up off the ground. One tried to land between me and the tree. I fired. The arrow hit it, bounding off. I notched another arrow as the gull started flying away. My arrow hit the gull between the wing and ribs. I didn’t it would actually work.
It squawked, wings not beating together, one fast, and one not completing the flap. I watched it hit the ground, further hurting the left wing. Blood colored the white feathers. The gull cried. The right wing kept trying to fly, but the left hung around the arrow sticking out of its side. I grabbed the gull. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I kept saying it. “I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I pulled the arrow out, the blood dripping off the feathers, onto my stomach. Blood came out of it’s beak, the gull opening its mouth all the way, its small tongue like a red worm. I held it to my body, it would get better, I would fix it. “I’m sorry I’m so sorry.” It screamed some more, as I hugged it tighter to me. I whispered my sorries to it like a chant. The right wing pushed against my chest. The gull’s head moved back and forth, crying and leaking. My mother called my name. I couldn’t stop sorrying. Chester ran up the path behind the tree.
“Is it ok?” he asked. He reached his hand out to touch it. I jerked away.
“I’m fixing it! You’ll ruin it!” I yelled. A couple of tears fell on the gull’s feathers. They would help, tears and sorries would help. It would be fine. It would be great. It would come home with us and live in my room. I would have a gull and name it Derek. The gull screamed again, this time panting. My stomach and swim trunks were red with bird blood, white and gray feathers sticking. Chester reached his hand out again, and I screamed. The gull screamed with me. The blood was warm between the feathers and my stomach. Chester would break it. I needed to fix it. I was sorry. I squeezed harder, the pinned wing pushing against me. My mother stood at the bottom of the path. The dog sniffed the gull. “I’m Sorry!”
My mother asked me to let go. I couldn’t.
“I have to fix it.” I said. She had to understand.
“Sweetheart, let it go, it’s dying.” She put her hand on my shoulder. I had to save it. I had to get it clean, the blood was making it sick, there was too much blood. I walked down the path. Chester was crying and my mother picked him up. I walked down The Beach towards the water. It just had to be clean. The gull pushed its wing into my solar plexus. The cold water sunk itself into my skin, biting me. Blood and feathers mixed with the dark green. The gull would get better. It lived in the ocean, it needed the salt. We needed to go under, to be clean, for the salt to polish us bright. My mother came up behind me and lifted me around my middle. The gull drooped. It was warm against the water. My mother’s arms pulled me backwards towards The beach. Screaming. I wasn’t clean. I was bloodied and feathered. My mother dropped me on the sand. The gull’s eyes didn’t close when its head hit the rocky ground.
My turtle was Polish. His name was Magnar Stanislaw; it said so in blue glitter on a sign over his tank. Magnar Stanislaw was a red eared turtle and on a Wednesday I left work early to get to Pet Planet before five thirty. I put the Turtle Bites canister into the eco-friendly mesh bag offered at the door, and stepped, probably very suspiciously, to the tank ornaments. I tried to look like I was not looking at tank accessories, or specifically the ceramic mermaid breasts. By facing the other way, I was staring into the face of an angry parakeet. The sign hanging below his swing said his name was Sturge. Of the decidedly aquatic themed knickknacks, the maritime selection was under stocked. I did not want to be the pet owner with a treasure chest in his turtle tank, so I picked a submarine that promised to float and sink depending on how much air was in the sub. The cashier was a high schooler, the kind that would say that animals were his friends. I walked the five blocks to my apartment with the submarine in my hand and the turtle food in my pocket. I wondered if passersby noticed the bulge.
Magnar Stanislaw paddled water when I closed the door. I took off my pants because it was hot, and walked over to Magnar Stanislaw’s tank to drop turtle food pellets in the water. I felt like saying something witty to him, like Rocky, but decided that talking to my pet turtle was too weird. Instead I pointed at him with both hands like old-timey cowboys. Magnar Stanislaw stared at me. The submarine was grey without any markings. I put it in the tank and Magnar Stanislaw pushed his neck out and tried to bite it. He kicked up the bottom of the tank scum, brushing the plastic propeller with where I imagined his nose to be. The sub bounced off the side of the tank, poking Magnar Stanislaw in the mouth. He blinked a few times and then involved his front feet in the fight against the ornament. I decided that the sub was German. I pictured the tank as the Atlantic, or the Baltic, whichever one was closer to Poland, with a fleet of subs coming to attack the country of Poland, represented by Magnar Stanislaw. I could see it perfectly; the u-boats surfacing off the coast of Magnar Stanislaw, preparing their torpedoes, the sailors running to their positions. I wondered what it would be like to man a torpedo, put it into place, alert others that it was ready to fire, receive the command, push the big red button, hear the whoosh of an object propelled through water, and the inevitable explosion that followed. Magnar Stanislaw’s red ears made me think of the ignition of the Polish fleet, the fire and smoke covering the beaches of the Baltic.
Thursday, Lane came over to watch NBC programming; I had the advantage of basic cable over her local news channels. I had found my model car paint in the shoebox at the bottom of my closet, and set them out on my desk. Lane walked into the living room holding the submarine.
“Why was this in your dish rack?” she grinned with one eyebrow raised.
“I’m going to paint it.” I gestured towards the paints.
“What are you going to paint on me?” She said in a high voice, bobbing the sub in front of her face. She taught first grade, and her energy level matched that of her students.
“It’s going to be German.”
“Ja, I am German! Vhat’s going to be painted on me?” She asked in a German accent, wiggling the sub.
“I’m going to do the Luftwaffe, because a swastika would be— bad.” I plucked the sub out of her fingers, and leaned over to kiss behind her ear.
“Do I have a captain?” Lane asked, still in accent.
“Ja, Kapitän Arnulf Schtockheimer.” I put the sub on my desk.
“Ja, dat’s goot.”
I painted the sub after she went home. Magnar Stanislaw was chewing his freeze dried shrimp and spitting them back into the water, only to chew them again. I figured that’s what cows would do, had they the opportunity to survive in water. I made a black cross with the widened ends on the grey sub, and outlined that with the white. I felt like a lonely fifteen year old– painting insignias with model paints at my desk for my turtle.
After I washed my hands, I turned on my new X box for some ‘Stripes of Glory’ WWI hand to hand combat. After dusting a few krauts, I felt a little bad for shooting at what were technically digital versions of my Great-Grandad Edsel’s countrymen. I wondered if there were any pro-German video games. Maybe in Germany, but they would possibly feel bad about promoting Nazism, so it would probably be Viking themed. It would be cool to play a Viking game, but, in my experience, games with shooting were a bit more satisfying. Lane was Swedish and English by ancestry, so only half of her would be offended if I were to play a pro-German game. I wanted to play that game, but no one had invented it yet. I decided to make it myself. I had no experience with programming, but I knew a lot of people who did. That was the advantage of working at Crunch Board Entertainment. I would ask on Monday or Tuesday how to go about making a proposal. It could be bigger than ‘Stripes of Glory’ or ‘Liberty Trenches’ or even ‘Patches of Honor: Pacific Theatre.’ I looked at the sub in the tank, gently dipping with the waves made by Magnar Stanislaw tapping the glass with his front legs, his unsteady feet shaking the water.
Posted in I wrote this for class
Tags: administrative assistant
, conference call
, fabric softener
, frozen peas
, hole punch
, magnetic poetry
, pine needles
Mercer kept salt water in a jar next to the window over the sink. It wasn’t the same as the water she scooped it from. This was clear, with sand in the bottom and bits of seaweed or fish parts settled. Mercer liked the thick glass, with the smooth letters that spelled a cursive ‘mason.’ The jar was clear, and the water was clear, and it was wrong. Her mother Hannah kept old bits of china and sea glass. They were splayed with gray rocks that had white veins in them. They were wrong, sitting on wood instead of being polished and smoothed and worn down to bits of sand. Mercer thought of what should have been little piles of sand on her mother’s dresser.
Mercer secretly climbed a tree. She wanted to look over the pond, see where it met the ocean. Her grandmother’s house was mildew and pine. Hannah spent her summers there until an orphan burned it down along with five other houses near the beach. The fireplace was old; the rest was rebuilt while Hannah was in school. Mercer climbed down, the dry bark crackling. The beach was past the pond, but she had seen snapping turtles crawl onto the lawn. She climbed up the rock face instead of walking around the house to the lane, and closed the faulty screen door that let mosquitoes in. Lucas poked a snapping turtle with a stick on the front lawn, smiling up at the living room and reaching his foot toward the turtle’s mouth. She didn’t watch him taunt their mother.
The kitchen was connected to the living room by a slate pathway shouldered by windows. Her grandmother had jars with nothing in them. Mercer fit the jars into each other like Russian dolls. She slipped her sandals on in case her grandmother came into the kitchen. Her feet were dirty, and scratched between the light calluses.
Mercer went to the beach with Hannah, her grandparents stayed under the overhang of the clubhouse. Hannah told her about diving off the elephant with the boys, her swimsuit snapping when she hit the water, spending the entire summer with her bikinis held together with safety pins. Mercer wanted to climb the elephant. To see what the beach looked like from up there. To step around dried barnacles and touch the warm rock with her hands as she maneuvered up the tail and onto the back. To shoo the sea birds off, trying not to step in their droppings, thirty years of baked seagull scat.
* * *
She tried to swim to the elephant when she was little, with Lucas, both of them in life vests. Hers had dolphins on it. The undertow started, it was hurricane season, and the jellyfish were coming to the shoreline. The sign on the beach said that they were only allowed in the water if accompanied by at least one other person. Hannah held Mercer and Lucas by the nylon tethers on the backs of their life vests. They were floating on their stomachs, paddling, tipping right and left to crawl, necks sticking out as far as they could go to keep their chins out of the water. Lucas had a red life vest with yellow piping, she knew it was red, because Hannah’s feet got knocked by a wave, and she didn’t let go. Mercer saw Lucas’ red life vest through the sand and the seaweed. She saw Hannah’s blue swimsuit and her own white life vest with the pink and purple dolphins on it. They all looked darker under the water; the sand was between her and the sky. She saw legs and sand and sand again. When Mercer’s head came out of the water, Lucas was crying.
“Why do you want to kill me?” His cheek was already pink from where his knee hit.
“I didn’t try to kill you.” Hannah pulled her yellow hair out of her face.
“Yes you did! I saw! You went under and wouldn’t let go! I was going to die!” His other cheek was blushing, and his eyebrows arched in a ‘why?’
“If I let go, then you’d be dead. The riptide would pull you out far, far out to sea, and you’d be gone. You’d go one way and Mercer would go another way, and I’d lose you both. Would you prefer that?” Hannah turned them back to the shore.
“Yes! My head wouldn’t be underwater.”
* * *
Mercer left her sandals by the door, and closed it slowly. In the dark she almost couldn’t see where the tears were in the screen were. The dog stared at her, pacing. She hoped animals could receive telepathic messages, because she promised him a treat if he didn’t bark. Apparently he could, because he sat and tilted his smooshed face to the side to ask ‘now?’
Every pad of her toes slicked with the dew on the slate stairway. She walked in the grass until the driveway met the road, and took a right. The honeysuckle draped itself over the stonewalls like balloons filled with dough. She pulled the flowers and sucked the stamens clean, leaving empty petals. Her red brown hair was littered with leaves on the right side where it snagged twigs. She passed the sleeping beach houses with road bikes in the front yard. Mercer walked through the hurricane damage from before her grandmother was born, over the felled chimneys and sunken bathtubs. The fence on the dunes was missing a section where the pallets were stacked end to end around the clubhouse. She folded her shorts and shirt next to the lifeguard chair, the sand fine and cool, squeaking against her metatarsals. She retied her bikini with a double knot, the dark green matching the dune grass.
Mercer planted herself at the edge, the water sucking the sand from under her, leaving foot shaped pools, the pale and lacy foam ankleting. The elephant was between her and the lights from the harbor, glowing, the beached side black and wrinkled. She squatted, picking up a hollow green crab, flicking it onto the beach for the gulls. She climbed into the ocean, her arms sunk to her elbows, toes curling into the sand and shells at the shore. She gripped the bottom, the shells and old seaweed clinking against her bracelet, crawling.
Posted in I wrote this for class
, elephant rock
, salt water
This was published by the Pratt Success Blog, an offshoot of Pratt Career Services and Peer to Peer: http://prattsuccess.blogspot.com/
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When the child is filled with darkness, the lamps are too yellow, the couch is too brown, the carpet is dry and cracks under the child’s elbows. The sister of the child has her braids fraying in the middle. The knitting basket is full of sea mines, and the yellow glow of the ceiling light is puckered with the lightning bugs trapped inside for years. The turntable scratches over the warps. The piano in the corner bares its teeth, parted and widened, its feet hovering above the carpet. The layers of old wallpaper peer out where they meet the ceiling, whitecapped by putty and paint. The child’s skin is pink and raw from leaning against the carpet, and sings throbbing. The television is too loud, the colors jump at him. The child pulls himself on his elbows back towards the wall, away from the television and the piano. He inches towards the tiled bathroom, the tiles that are wet in the summer. His singing skin cooled, condensation on his hairs.
* * *
In the summer, the child’s family visits his cousins’ house, the one with the horses. The field out back is overgrown and full of horse droppings and blackberries. Paul and Dad pick blackberries and hand them to the child, and he fills his mouth and covers his face. He picks with both hands, ripe, overripe, green. Some leaves gum to his sticky fingers.
The grass is itchy against the child’s knees where his galoshes don’t meet his swim trunks. Dad tells Paul to look at something, and he holds out his hand and pops it in his mouth. Paul stares at the child as his eyes widen. Dad asks what the matter is, but Paul doesn’t open his mouth, can’t, won’t. He puffs out his cheeks and looks from the child to Dad, hoping they know what to do.
The slimy back of the frog touches the roof of his mouth, quietly waiting to be let go. The child could feel the little feet on his tongue. Dad laughs and tells Paul to spit. The little frog hops away quickly. He doesn’t stop spitting all the way home.
* * *
The child becomes used to being one of sleep’s discards. Tired of lying in bed, pretending the basement is not an ancient Native American burial ground, dug up so that the foundation could be poured. Pretending no one will grab him coming back from the bathroom to punish him for dishonoring their land. Pretending the waterfall into the window from that storm was just a freak of nature, and not a warning. The child turns a few lights on in the living room. The spiders, poisonous ones, crawl out from behind the television, and the thriller mystery novel Dad bought for plane rides has odd legs smooshed into unnatural positions on the back. The green goo from the big white spiders coats the wall and the book, like alien blood smear. The child doesn’t mind the little brown hairy ones, but the big white ones are unreasonable, always appearing in the middle of the day or the middle of the night.
At 1:30 am he has to kill two spiders. By three, there is another. The sticky trap behind the television is full of the hairy brown ones, most still twitching. He pretends that he is not living in a grave basement, and there are no angry spiders behind the television, in the laundry room, under the bookshelf, in the bathroom, under his bed with the hunter green comforter. Pretends there aren’t spider leaders planning their attack while he sleeps. Pretends the sticky pads will hold them, and that angry and deformed spiders are not coming for him. The child wonders how mad the dead Indians are compared to the sticky spiders.
* * *
Sometimes in the summer, his friend’s family visits. Dad makes a fire in the pit near the apple trees. The child and his friend light sparklers, and catch lightening bugs, and sleep in the yard. He and his friend dig for clay and make mud pots to sell, and wash their arms in the stream. They put green felt hats on and shoot twig arrows from bows made of sticks and rubber bands. They are both Robin Hood, and pick up apples under the trees, and eat them next to the stream, in the shade. They bite ants, and suck out their insides. The red ones are salty, the black ones are sweet. They spit the empty bodies back onto the ant hill, and pour baking soda and vinegar on them. It’s an experiment. When Dad goes inside, they spray WD40 on bigger ant hills, and watch them writhe before lighting the grease on fire.
The friend and the child paint the lilac trees with mud, to protect them from the sun. The trees turn white, and when it rains, only one side stays muddy. When it is time to go, they tell the parents that they are stuck together, and need medical experiments to take them apart. The friend gives back the green cape, and they separate which mud pot was made by whom. They stick together as the friend gets into the car. He gives the friend a collectable card that will be worth a lot if he keeps it in its sleeve. The car is on the road, and in the driveway the child finds the plastic eggs they caught the fireflies in that rattle like rice when he picks them up.
* * *
Just because he finds something, doesn’t make it his. Dad found the cat under his truck, the cat stayed with them for a year, and then the cat was gone. He still finds orange hairs everywhere even though they moved away. The cat had kittens once, when they thought the cat was a boy. Dad gave the kittens to a man who had a farm. Sometimes Dad hears crazy stories about the kittens, how they killed a wild hare together, or scare the horses. The cat’s probably hiding under someone else’s truck, or part of some orange owl coughings, like the ones the child had to dissect in third grade when he found a shrew skull. That wasn’t his either – it was the shrew’s, and then the owl borrowed it, and then he found it. He wanted to take it home with him, but it wasn’t his to keep, and Mrs. Greene said he had to leave it with the rest of the owl coughings on the paper towels – the brown ones that never got his hands dry – public school towels.
* * *
The child develops a coping mechanism called “the desert lizard” wherein he blends in with the environment until attacked, and leaves a piece of him behind for escape. Desert lizards are the same color as desert rocks and stay very still. They blink sometimes, but they become part of the rock. If a bird can see them, the lizard gets ready to run, but lets go of its tail if that means not being eaten. He lets go of his argument if someone gets mad, and smiles and pretends he never cared about anything. If the bird gets the tail, it leaves the lizard alone. When he gives them a concession, they leave him alone until the next time they get hungry for his surrender. They swallow his defeat like a tail, and break it down, making it part of them, adding it to all the other conceded arguments they’ve won, building themselves into a desert bird out of his lizard tails.
After a few arguments, their nose forms into a hooked beak and the feathers sprout out of their forearms. Their brow becomes a V, their mouth points downward, their bones hollow, and their toes become scaly and crooked. Soon, instead of yelling, they screech so that it can echo in canyons, off of the rocks he blends into, and up to the sun they can’t fly to. The child’s tail has no time to grow back, and they peck at his oozing stump, until they swallow him whole, his padded fingers sticking to the side of their beak. And they fly home, taking him with them to feed to their hook beaked chicks on the side of a canyon, in a nest built of the rocks he now hides under.
* * *
In the house the child used to live in, there were streams and a pond that filled itself in. He puts a plank over the stream, and calls it a bridge, and covers it with mud, so it is stronger. A piece of drift wood is his oar, and his fishing spear. He pretends there are fish in the stream, and brings home minnows he caught in the ocean, and puts them in the pond, so they can grow big. The pond will be full of fish, and he and Dad can catch them in their backyard. The minnows disappear under last years’ leaves. The child uses his driftwood to clear out the leaves, making the pond harder to see through. The minnows try to jump out of the pond, their silver sides through the murk. The fish, pushed back into the pond, stick their heads out of the brown water. He picks one up, sucking for air, and pokes its gills, covered in the mud. His dirty finger tries to squeeze some of the mud out, rinses the minnow off. He puts the minnow back into the pond, with its family; he figures swimming with their heads out of the water is a way of getting to know each other. He can hear it when their little lips smack together as they talk to each other. They turn brown as they smack their tails on the water, turning sideways, trying to unclog their gills. The child stirs the water, and they hide under the leaves, and know they are hibernating for next spring.
* * *
The child lives in a lighthouse seven miles outside the city. He reads a story about a little girl who lived in a lighthouse and wanted a garden, but it was so rocky, nothing would grow. So every spring she would buy new soil for her garden that would wash away in the winter swells. He wonders if he could plant a garden here, rocky on the cliff over the ocean. He decides to start with some window boxes.
Every night, in his lighthouse, he goes upstairs – he calls it the crow’s nest – to light the lamp. Tiny swallows live up there, but at night they sleep. The child wonders if swallows could cast bird shadows on the fall clouds outside if they woke up. He sits downstairs looking at the clouds for bird shadows. Dad goes into the city for oil for the lamp to refill the reservoir. He goes to a maritime shop, but sometimes they don’t have oil, so he has to buy it in a candle store. It doesn’t have the smoke or the smell. The child wonders how they get the oil out of the goose. He could have some geese, and squeeze the oil out of them like row from a fish, all pink and full of miniature clear globes that break under a fingernail with the tiniest pop.
* * *
The child brings food under the trees, and climbs into their branches. He pees around his fort, so the wolves will know it’s his. There are wolves in the woods, even if Dad says they’re deer, he hears them sometimes. The wolves know the fort is his, and stay in the woods, but he can hear them running on the brown pine needles and old twigs. They splash across the stream higher up. He hears them licking the water. He could catch one, and have it live with him in the fort. The wolf would be wild, but it would scare other things away from the fort.
The child wishes there was a willow tree, so he could swing from the vines, but there isn’t, so he ties ropes to the old apple trees. Sometimes he falls when the rope is wet. He puts metal bowls of fruit in the stream, and calls it a refrigerator. When it starts to rain, he pulls a tarp over a tree, and under a rock. He sits in the blue tarp, listening to the tapping. There is old glass in the leaves, and he hides it again. Sometimes he finds brown glass, but sometimes it’s green.
When he finds glass at the ocean, it’s smoother, and doesn’t have the raised letters. It’s frosty, and salty. At the ocean, he sits in warm tidal pools, and climbs the rocks, navigating the barnacles. Schools of tiny fish form a silver cloud, sprinting from his hands in odd directions until reforming their cloud. The child holds drift logs together for a raft, and paddles it out to where the cement docks end, and Dad tells him to come back.
He finds clusters of mussels and wants to take them home to cook, but can’t pry them from each other, pruning fingers tearing on the rims. Mussel shells become spades, and cups, and knives, and swords. His fingers bleed on razor clams. He banks the tidal pools with sand, the sand fleas hopping on his arms, tiny bites mixing with the itch of the salt water drying. He sits in the pools while Dad talks to the harbor master. Swimming alone is how children get pulled out to sea, where he would drift on his back farther and farther out, and sharks would teach him to breathe underwater. They would tell him to kill big fish with his teeth, and to dart quickly, and his eyes would move farther to the sides of his head, with his nose wide to smell blood in the water. That’s what happens to children at sea, and no one knows they’re children anymore.
The child sits waist deep in the pools, and sings to periwinkles until the tops of the masts are orange, and it is time to go. His hair holds the sand close to his scalp, which will stay for two weeks, sometimes three, and his pillow will smell like the ocean.
Posted in I wrote this for class
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