With a pinch of Lavender

Thesis segment 1

November 1, 2009
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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.

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Riptide

February 3, 2009
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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.


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