What the Sea Brings
WHAT THE SEA BRINGS
Katherine Forbes Riley
Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 5 – September 2014
Anna’s beach chair is buried in seashells. They make a sound like the tinkle of tiny bells as the waves slowly grind them to dust. Anna’s daughter sucks in her sleep, a reflex as rhythmic as the waves. Anna stamps her feet in a rhythm of her own, but softly, so as not to wake her. She can’t see them, but she knows that they are there, sting rays the size of dinner plates and the color of sand. The whiteboard on the pavilion keeps track of the stings. Last week the number remained as stable as the water temperature, but this morning the faded 3 had been imperfectly rubbed out, a bold 5 impressed upon it. The young man who set up their umbrellas says it hurts far worse than a bee sting. “Even the men cried,” he said gravely.
“Shuffle, shuffle, stomp,” says Anna’s mother, Celia, as she and her two sisters slosh through the water. Past the breaking crests they relax on their noodles and talk. This is their first time together in almost a year and their flotilla realigns in accordance with their conversation. Anna’s aunts drift together while Celia tells of her bathroom remodel. “I said black slate and she puts in this faux white tile rug thing! Now does that sound anything like me?”
Aunt Elizabeth asks after Celia’s husband, wondering if he’ll retire soon because of his heart attack. Celia shrugs, and floats deeper into the sea. Aunt Lynn mentions her youngest daughter and they all draw close again to review the facts of her broken engagement. They call her a runaway bride. They say he must be heartbroken. They say it is better she did this now instead of two kids later.
When they come out of the water, a man hails them. He is handsome in an old man way. A week ago, when Anna and her husband Fer first arrived, everyone looked the same, men and women alike, all sun-glazed and sun-glassed and sun-hatted with sagging breasts and voluminous folds at the elbows and knees. But over seven days Anna and Fer have been cataloguing differences. Some wear long sleeves and pants even in the heat of August, while others parade around in bathing suits, their cleavage a long flat expanse of sun-brown. Some glow as if there’s life yet to be lived, others glower as if it has been one long disappointment, and a few seem intent on wringing out every last drop, chatting up Anna and Fer about their baby and the weather and the wildlife, not just the sting rays but the turtle hatchlings and dolphins and manatees and baby alligators and innumerable species of birds. They range in age from nimble sixties to cautious eighties. Rarely, a child surfaces on the sand, looking like someone’s ancient memory.
This man appears to be in his mid-seventies, medium-tan and still reasonably athletic. He is wearing cargo shorts and a tangerine polo shirt. “I have taken a wonderful picture of you,” he tells Elizabeth, and then moves so he can show it to her. Lynn moves beneath the shade of the umbrellas, but Celia peers over their shoulders.
“It’s a nice picture,” the man says.
“I suppose it is.” Elizabeth’s cheeks take on a faint blush.
“You can have it, if you want. I’ll give you my email address.”
Confusion ensues. No one has a pen. No one’s memory is what it once was.
“Never mind,” says Elizabeth, finally. “It’s just a picture.”
“But you might want it,” he insists. “For your high school reunion maybe?”
“Ugh,” says Celia, turning away. “It’ll be my fiftieth soon. Give him your email, Lizzie,” she commands, and Anna hands over the pen she’s dug from her bag.
“She’s the boss,” says Elizabeth.
“Ah. She who must be obeyed,” jokes the man, smiling at Elizabeth.
Anna can almost hear the buzzing, scuffling sounds of a cell being carved out for him in the beehive of her family. Elizabeth has longed for a spouse ever since hers left her for another woman three decades earlier. Lynn and Celia consider every eligible man potential husband material, but Elizabeth always finds them lacking. These days she says she won’t settle for anything less than holy, handsome and rich, says the Lord will provide if He sees fit. Celia says she needs to start thinking about assisted living.
As Elizabeth writes down her email address, the man asks where she hails from. “L’Enchanté,” she says, and he nods knowingly, says they live just a mile down the road from her, in Sea Crest. Sea Crest is one of the richest gated communities in Naples.
When the man leaves, Celia follows. She returns with a cup of coffee just as Elizabeth is telling Anna and Fer about her miraculous recovery from lower back pain. “I kept praying on it, and the Lord kept saying, ‘Elizabeth, you have to see a doctor!’ The Lord and I talk a lot,” she interrupts herself, a girlish blush rising — the same one she wore around the man. “But I kept saying, ‘No, Lord, not that, anything but that!”
She’s making fun of herself. She doesn’t trust doctors, although she was a dentist herself before retiring a year ago. She says she resisted Him for months but the only result was a burgeoning addiction to pain pills. The doctor, she says, immediately discovered a hernia. “It was a ten minute laparoscopic surgery,” she says ruefully, “and my back was cured. The Lord and I had a big laugh over that one.”
Celia snorts as she lowers herself gingerly into her lounger. She is still suffering from a hernia she had surgery to repair six months ago. The doctor can’t find anything wrong but she still has attacks and must lie flat with an ice pack on the scar. She thinks it was improperly mended. Elizabeth thinks she needs to talk to the Lord.
“Does anyone think that man was hitting on Elizabeth?” Lynn asks quickly. She is trying to avoid an argument. Elizabeth and Celia have very different views on religion and even a snort can set one off.
“I thought he might be,” says Elizabeth, and her eyes circle, laying her hope bare.
“That’s because you’re so out of the loop,” Celia says, clinging to the embryo of dispute. “He was only showing off his photograph. It wasn’t a bad composition, but you couldn’t see you. Only your hat, and the top of your suit.” Being an amateur artist, she speaks with some authority.
“Well, it is a beautiful suit,” Lynn says finally.
“It is,” Celia acknowledges, and they both gaze at Elizabeth’s one-piece. It is fifties-style, with ruching down the center, a straight bodice, and wide straps.
“Anyway,” Celia continues, looking around for her Kindle, “he’s sitting with a group. Men and women. Couples,” she says meaningfully.
“He wasn’t wearing a ring,” Lynn says.
“He said we. Didn’t you hear him? He said, ‘We live in Sea Crest.’”
Most everyone in this part of Florida lives in a gated community. Celia and Elizabeth both live in L’Enchanté, and Lynn lives in L’Étouffée, a mile down the road. They bought their condos together a decade ago with the idea of reuniting in their golden years, but Lynn rarely comes when Celia is here and every time Celia and Elizabeth come they get into an argument. The last one occurred over Christmas, when Celia helped Elizabeth pick out a new décor and then Elizabeth refused to turn off Fox News. They didn’t speak again until Celia’s husband had his heart attack this past February.
Elizabeth told Anna she thinks Celia is still mad at her. Lynn told Elizabeth it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Now don’t incite Celia!” she said yesterday, “You know she’s coming loaded for bear.”
Lynn and Celia both arrived yesterday, but Elizabeth has been here since May. Anna and Fer have come for three weeks, a decadent vacation but a necessary one after her difficult pregnancy and his tenure review this past spring. Celia said they could use her condo, and then said she was coming for the second week and invited all her siblings as well, so this second week of their vacation has turned into a family reunion.
Last week, when Anna and Fer arrived, they took the baby over to Elizabeth’s to say hello. They felt it necessary but kept it unannounced – Anna was half-hoping Elizabeth wouldn’t answer the door. When she did, Anna thought she’d been drinking. Her eyes were bright, her voice overloud, and her words tripped over each other. She wore a thin loose tank top that barely covered her underwear, and kept tugging at it with a giggle and saying how embarrassed she was, yet stood talking to them for at least ten minutes before going to change.
As they waited, Anna heard voices and wondered if she was alone. When Elizabeth returned she took them on a tour of the new furnishings. The TV was left on, accounting for the voices. The camera panned across the ecstatic faces of a stadium full of people murmuring prayers. Elizabeth led the way from room to room, jumping from subject to subject, exclaiming how sweet the baby was, how pleased she was that they’d come, how she used to have the orange pillows in the living room but since yellow is a neutral color she’d moved the orange to the back and now had yellow in both rooms and had accented the living room with the pale teal. Three separate times she pointed out her new yellow lamp and how like a sculpture it was. Her lips were wet, her cheeks flushed. Later Fer would say she just wasn’t used to visitors.
Anna had worried a lot about maintaining their privacy that first week with Elizabeth there, but a cycle was soon established, a repetition of hours that pleased them all. Each morning they went to the beach in the cool of the dawn, and Anna would sit on her chair in the surf, bouncing the baby in her lap. Her baby’s laughter erupted each time the waves broke over her feet. Anna didn’t fear the stingrays. The whiteboard changed so rarely that it had lost its power to frighten her.
Each morning found Anna and the baby at the edge of the sea chatting with Elizabeth as she floated on her noodle beyond the surf. Elizabeth gave Anna a novel to read, The Sea, The Sea. They discussed its plot and language along with Anna and Fer’s academic life, which Elizabeth professed to admire despite its relative poverty. Fer sat under an umbrella a few yards away making ink drawings of the scenery on rice paper. To Anna the view always looked the same and oddly two dimensional, as if sand, sea and sky formed a single unwavering plane. Yet each morning Fer made a hundred different drawings of it, each one spare with brushes and blots that slowly resolved to a new configuration of identical elements: a horizon line, a blur of cloud, a curl of wave, a diving bird, blocky stacks of condos at the edge of the page.
That first week they would stay at the beach until the baby began to fuss and then return to their respective condos. A precious hour followed during which the baby napped and Anna worked, incorporating into a series of half-finished poems all the scattered bits of consciousness she’d jotted down since the day before. As the days passed and the baby got used to the smell of her sheets and the sounds outside the window and the different quality of darkness in her bedroom, one hour stretched to two. When she woke, Anna would take her into the living room. Fer would show her his drawings while they waited out the afternoon thunderstorms, page by page, and she would read him her poems, bit by bit, and it would feel like they had suspended time, or reinvented it anew. After the storms they’d walk through the drenched Escherian landscape, empty but for themselves and thousands of tiny lizards. Alone, Anna would have gotten lost in all the reiteration. Fer, whose sense of direction was unerring, thought it helped ease the passage towards death, every street lined with condos landscaped with cypress and palms and spurting fountains whose white noise blocked all sounds of life and instantly put the baby to sleep. They’d wind their way home and stay up late getting to know each other again. They drank prosecco and ate cheese popcorn and watched On Demand movies as eagerly as children. They made love and it felt new but the same.
The whiteboard says 8 stings today. Anna keeps her feet tucked beneath her as she sits in the seashells with her sleeping baby and listens to Lynn go on about her rice pudding. It comes in a jar, she just scoops it out and sprays on light whipped cream. In Anna’s memory, Lynn’s farmhouse is full of kids and dogs and her husband is fifty pounds overweight. But in fact the kids are grown and the dogs are dead and they’ve moved to an apartment in town, and last week Elizabeth told Anna their youngest daughter — the runaway bride — has been helping her father lose weight. “I don’t know why Lynn never helped him,” Elizabeth said, rather querulously.
The three sisters all fight their weight. Their mother was a night eater and her children became night eaters too. But the past two mornings Celia has eaten breakfast with Anna and Fer. She has coffee and an egg. She is a grandmother now, but Anna can feel her mother-hum as she merges with their morning routine. It is a feeling half-forgotten and half-unfamiliar, normal in a way Anna can’t remember it ever actually being when she was a child. Celia holds the baby while Anna empties the dishwasher. She balances the baby on one hip and flips her egg with her free hand. She forks up bites one-handed while the baby explores her lips, her nose, her hair. “You two work so hard at this,” she says, laughing. “I never worked that hard with you.”
They go to the beach later now that Celia is here, and stay longer. Anna and Fer tell each other privately that it’s just for one week, that it’s Celia’s due. Fer, at least, can work at the beach, but Anna must give up her precious hour because the baby takes her nap in the sea. This makes the beach around her throb with poetry: clouds creeping, minnows streaming, pipers pecking, old men puffing, three sisters floating in the sea.
As they leave the beach that second afternoon Lynn invites everyone to her condo for dinner. When they arrive she holds out her hands and the baby immediately starts to cry. She knows what’s going to happen. It happens every time Lynn sees her.
“My friend’s daughter just had a baby,” Lynn says, talking over the baby’s escalating wails as she jounces her on one knee. “They came over once and let me tell you, that baby was having fits! So I said, ‘give him to me —’”
“And he stopped?” Elizabeth yells.
“Right away!” Lynn shouts back.
With three children in their thirties and none married yet, there is desperation in the way Lynn holds a baby. It’s something the baby can probably sense, but Lynn never mentions it. She’s the youngest. Behind her back her sisters call her uptight. Tonight she is wearing lipstick and mascara and chunks of gold like armor. Her hair is freshly blow-dried in a feather pattern around her head.
“Your hair looks nice,” Celia says. She’s looking a little bedraggled herself, her linen shirt wrinkled, wisps of hair sticking out from the stubby nub of her grey-gold ponytail.
“It looks great,” Elizabeth says admiringly. Elizabeth just got her hair cut. It’s as short as Lynn’s now. The women in this family get haircuts at age milestones. In their thirties, they get the bob, which gets shorter until their sixties, when they get the helmet. So far Celia has refused the helmet, but then she didn’t get the bob either until she was forty and their mother told her she looked like a harlot. Their mother’s dead now.
The rice pudding is actually pretty good. Everyone says so except Elizabeth, who can’t eat it because she’s doing The Virgin Mary Fast. She watches everyone else eat it. She can’t tear her eyes from it. She says, “A jar of that pudding and a pint of ice cream and I’d be all set.”
When they return home they see a car parked outside Elizabeth’s condo. Uncle John and his wife have arrived. They all walk over to say hello but Anna and Fer don’t stay. No one smokes while they’re there but it drifts, high and wavery, above the lamps. It’s very strong-smelling, medical grade — John gets it from a colleague out in California — and Anna is worried about its effect on the baby.
In the morning there’s an empty ice cream container in the trash and all their cheese popcorn is gone. Celia doesn’t stay for breakfast. She slips out the door without meeting Anna’s eyes, calling, “We’ll meet you at the beach! Get enough chairs for everyone!” But it’s eleven before they show up.
They go in the water right away and form a spiral with Uncle John at the center. He laughs a lot, rolling it out like the waves. His wife’s face is hidden behind huge round sunglasses, and she keeps swiveling like a periscope. Elizabeth’s murmur rises and falls, constant as a talk-show. Even Celia seems affected and she smokes weed every day. But her stuff isn’t as strong as this. Lynn and her husband form the spiral’s reluctant tail. They dislike all drugs except alcohol.
Once they come out of the water everyone troops up to the pavilion for lunch. The sisters get salads and beers. They pick at their salads and order more beers. Suddenly the sky is full of dark clouds. Anna and Fer wrap their sandwiches in napkins and hustle over to the tram station. The tram through the mangroves shuts down when there’s lightning and sometimes it’s shut down for hours. No one else comes with them. They order more beers instead. A woman gets stung while they’re waiting for the tram. They hear her scream all the way down at the beach.
Back at the condo, Anna and Fer feel at loose ends. For the first time, they wish they were home. The baby is fussy and bored with her toys, so they sit on the floor trying to interest her in a pile of pink plastic measuring cups. They watch the storm through the lanai. Rain sweeps past in loud torrents. Lightning splits the sky all the way to the ground. Thunder cracks and rolls itself up into great booms. But after a while the sky repairs its perfect blue, and the only evidence of the storm is the dripping sound, which soon evaporates too. Then Anna and Fer hear voices on the stairs and Celia marches in. “It’s party time,” she announces. A half-empty bottle of prosecco swings from her fist. Elizabeth and John sidle in behind her. Their eyes are as red as a demon’s. Elizabeth’s gaze alights on Anna and then skitters away. Anna and Fer feel like prey. They watch silently as Celia shows Uncle John’s wife her paintings, but when the baby begin to babble in response to the sudden influx of people and noise, Celia’s attention abruptly shifts.
“Can I hold her?” she says.
She wants to show off her granddaughter. But the previous summer she fell down her porch stairs after smoking and then drinking half a bottle of wine. She was holding Anna’s eighteen month old niece at the time.
Fer stiffens. Anna swallows. She opens her mouth, but Fer saves her. “I was just about to change her,” he says.
Celia leads the way out, says they’re going for sushi and saké, while he and Anna are locating diapers and washcloths.
Celia’s husband has arrived. He’s arranged a charter fishing trip for the men. He is paying for Fer. Celia makes breakfast before they leave. She’s in the kitchen banging around before anyone else is even out of bed. She makes scrambled eggs and bacon and English muffins but her husband only eats a muffin. He doesn’t want to get sick on the boat. Fer eats a muffin and a small scoop of eggs and one slice of bacon to be polite.
It’s still very early and the condo is dark and ominous in a way Anna can’t register, although it permeates her thoughts. Anna is thinking of the next six hours and angling for a way to get back, just for one day, her hour of writing time. “I’d like to get to the beach early,” she says, “and only spend an hour or two.”
“You can go by yourself then,” Celia replies with some venom.
Anna looks at Fer and Fer looks back at her.
“Look outside!” says Celia.
Anna does, and now it registers: the clouds are heavy and low with no hint of pink at all.
Celia turns to her husband. “You can’t go out on a boat. Not in this weather.”
Abruptly he rises. “They know what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re professionals.”
“You’ll drive all the way there and they’ll cancel on you.” Celia follows him but further discussion is forestalled in his search for a parka and a hat and a bag of nuts, and then the door is closing behind him.
“He barely spoke to me,” she muses, circling the kitchen as if sensing something amiss there too. She throws away the great cold pile of bacon and eggs and muffins and then pours herself more coffee and sits flipping through a home decorating magazine.
Anna finishes her breakfast. She nurses the baby. In the silence, Celia’s sacrifice looms. Her sisters are going into old Naples today, where they will watch Uncle John’s wife spend great sums and justify their own purchases by spending less. Only Celia isn’t going. She’s staying home with Anna. Except Anna doesn’t want her to, and she doesn’t think her mother wants to either. “You can go shopping,” Anna says. “Really. I’ll be fine.”
Celia flips a page before replying.
“No,” she says slowly, “I don’t even want to go. Unless you really don’t care. Then I’ll go.”
“I just —”Anna stumbles now over implications and accusations, “I just thought — it’d be great if you stayed.” After a moment, she adds, “How about we go the pool?”
Usually a group of senior ladies does water aerobics in the pool in the mornings, but with the sky so threatening Anna and the baby are the only ones there when Celia arrives. Anna looks up and smiles so her mother won’t think she’s angry at her for spending the last hour smoking at Aunt Elizabeth’s. She isn’t angry. In fact, she’s dreaming — with mounting anticipation — of actually being able to write today. It’s only fair. “This is the way the ladies ride,” she sings as Celia slips into the water. But it’s going to be tricky: the baby requires her full attention because if she cries she’ll need to nurse and then she’ll fall asleep and be up again in half an hour. “This is the way the gentlemen ride,” Anna sings, bouncing her, making her laugh.
Celia does one slow lap and then climbs out of the water. “I’m going home,” she announces, “since you obviously don’t need me.”
“— early in the morning. Ooo-kaay!” So focused is Anna on her singing that her response comes out in song. Taken by surprise, she says, “We’re coming too. Just as soon as we shower off this chlorine.”
Anna walks back to the condo on little puffs of air. It feels like an epiphany, as if maybe that’s the trick of it, to sing like the seashells and keep singing, no matter what’s happening to you. When she opens the door Celia is freshly showered and talking on the phone. “I’m not going,” Anna hears her say. “I’m helping Anna with the baby.”
“Oh, that’s too bad!” This is Lynn’s voice. Celia has her on speakerphone. To Anna’s ear she is feigning dismay, and she must not know Anna is listening because she adds, “Anna doesn’t like to be alone with her baby, does she?”
It’s like she’s been struck by a stone. All of Anna’s buoyancy leaves her. “I can’t believe she said that,” she murmurs, sinking into a chair as her mother hangs up the phone. The words just fall out. She doesn’t mean to say them aloud.
Celia takes in her daughter’s expression, her own countenance rapidly darkening. “Who cares what she said?” she cries. “I’m the one who’s hurt! You completely ignored me at the pool!”
A great weight presses Anna into her chair as Celia rises and walks to the door. “I’m going shopping,” she calls just before it slams.
It is the past unrolling the future. It has happened so many times before that it feels like it’s happened already, but it hasn’t, not yet. Abruptly free, Anna runs for the door.
“I’m sorry!” she calls down the stairs.
“No you’re not!” Celia calls back, turning the corner one flight down.
It’s true. Anna’s heart beats like bird wings.
Behind her, the baby begins to cry in great choking gasps.
“Please come back,” Anna says, already turning away, “for the baby. What’s between us doesn’t matter.”
“Fuck you,” says Celia.
But she comes back.
Later, after the men return and everyone else goes out for Italian food, Anna tries to explain to Fer what happened. As a teenager she once had a plantar wart and tried to dig it out, all those slippery skin-colored threads that had no feeling until they merged without warning into painful flesh. The fight is like that. She can’t tell where it started and doesn’t know how it grew.
“So basically it’s the same fight you two always have,” Fer says.
He too has a story to tell. Celia’s husband confessed to the men while fishing that he’s going to retire soon, and that Celia doesn’t want him to. She doesn’t want him in the house all day. “Right now,” he told them, “I’m an important man. I’ve got so much responsibility crossing my desk. After I retire, I’ll be nobody.”
The sky is full of dragonflies, buzzing, diving singles and silent pairs joined at the abdomen. The beach looks like a war zone. Dead dragonflies blacken the tideline. Broken shells litter the higher ground. Some have holes bored by patient invaders who then devoured the flesh alive. Even the sand is the dust of billions.
Anna and Fer have returned to the pattern of their first week, but it’s twisted, spoiled. They’re being avoided. Every morning Celia and her husband go straight to Elizabeth’s. They don’t come to the beach until Anna and Fer and the baby are ready to leave, and only return to shower and change before heading out again. Celia and Anna can’t look at each other, and Anna has caught her stepfather staring at her with small eyes. She tells Fer, “I think he hates me now,” but Fer says he’s just doesn’t want to set Celia off. Everyone else acts as if they’re afraid Celia will think they’ve taken against her if they even talk to Anna and Fer.
“Something happened in that family,” Fer says with disgust, but Anna thinks it’s better this way. The second week is nearly over and Celia is so quiet Anna can almost forget her. She doesn’t want to think about her lest the thought arc between them and ignite. Each time she does it morphs and spreads until Celia becomes a non-mother and Anna becomes her father, until she can feel Celia’s longing for a different daughter even as she longs for a different mother. When Anna was little she longed for Lynn but now she knows they’re all tainted. It terrifies her to think she and her daughter are tainted too.
Elizabeth hosts a family dinner the final night of the second week. Lynn brings guacamole. Uncle John’s wife makes her shrimp and Gouda soup. Celia brings gelato. Fer gives everyone an ink drawing. Photographs are taken, of Anna and the baby, Celia and the baby, and Lynn and the baby too. Wine glasses are refilled, at which point Lynn admits with an aborted glance at Anna that she’s been suffering from a hangover all week. “I only drink like this when I’m with my sisters,” she sighs, which prompts Celia to tell a story about a dinner party she and Elizabeth gave where they passed out before serving the meal.
“You left your guests alone downstairs?” Lynn is horrified.
“I always love being with you, John,” Celia says.
“Now look at the mess I’ve made,” he replies, smiling down at the crumbs on his pants. The two of them disappear into the back bedroom. While they’re gone, Lynn and Uncle John’s wife set the table with items purchased on their shopping trip. Elizabeth takes the baby and carries her around with pride because she doesn’t cry. Lynn’s husband leans over and whispers, “You’re a good mother.” Later, while hugging her goodbye, Uncle John’s wife says the same thing.
Celia has a hernia attack just as Anna and Fer are leaving and goes into Elizabeth’s room to lie down. When Anna goes in after her the sun is streaming through the blinds at an angle, bathing one side of her mother’s face in a light that smoothes all the years away. Anna sets the baby down beside her and for a moment imagines them as mother and child.
“I hope you feel better,” she says.
Celia musters a smile, but it looks like a grimace on her shadowed side.
“Thank you,” she replies.
It is dawn at the beach, and the start of the third week.
Fer broaches the subject as soon as they settle in.
“Oh, yeah, she’s pissed,” says Elizabeth.
“So what did she say?
Fer’s voice is calm, but a frown carves deep lines around his mouth, and he is laying out his brushes more exactly than usual.
“Oh, you know,” Elizabeth says, sounding like she’s trying to make light of it. “Anna doesn’t appreciate her enough. Every time she came over she told me something else. She must’ve smoked ten times a day! She said you were making her so anxious.”
“What did she say?” Fer repeats.
“Well, let’s see, she said Anna didn’t thank her for only smoking at my house because of the baby —”
“I did thank her!”
“We both did.”
“Mm, and apparently, Anna, you ignored her at the pool the other day—”
“She left!” Anna cries.
“— and when you send her a Mother’s Day card, you never sign your name. You write, ‘The Devaux Family.’”
“She’s crazy,” mutters Fer.
Elizabeth sighs. “She can be a baby, can’t she?”
Anna keeps quiet. She hears some legitimacy in her mother’s complaints.
“She reminds me so much of my mother,” Elizabeth continues. “My mother used to get mad at people all the time too.”
“It’s because she has so much money,” Fer says, “she thinks she can do no wrong.”
It’s not enough just to sing, thinks Anna, it’s the song you choose.
“I know what I really think,” Elizabeth says later. She lowers her voice conspiratorially, glances around. “But I don’t say it out loud. People think I’m crazy enough already.”
Anna glances around too, sees Fer trailing behind. “What do you think?”
“I think she’s possessed. Demons aren’t what people think,” Elizabeth hurries to add, “It doesn’t have to mean you’re spitting pea soup. There are little demons. Sometimes your mother gets this look in her eye. It’s just…evil.”
A group of people is already waiting for the tram. When it comes they all rush on. An old lady is left behind, first in line but last to rise.
“That wasn’t fair,” Elizabeth says to her as the tram departs.
At first it seems the women didn’t hear, for she doesn’t reply until she has slowly and carefully reseated herself. Only then does she turn her head.
“It happens,” she says.
This is all she says, but there is something about the way she says it that seems to encompass not just this temporary inconvenience but also other, far more significant phenomena, like her age and the sea. It’s a powerful effect, and they all stare, taking her in. She looks ninety, at least. She looks ancient, but at the same time she’s quite tall and sturdy, and while fragile, there’s an elegance about her.
“Is that your lunch?” Elizabeth asks. She’s looking at the woman’s hands, which are long and bony and seem almost alive, like spiders, or orchid roots, as they clutch a white takeout container.
The woman gazes at Elizabeth. Her expression is tranquil and absorbed. She gives no sign she’s heard the question. They’ve given up on her answering when she finally says, “I had lunch here. This is my dinner.”
“Oh!” Now Elizabeth looks concerned. Her eyes go soft. Anna can tell her heart is breaking at the idea of a lonely old lady getting all her meals from a beach restaurant. Anna herself is disconcerted by the woman’s protracted silences. She wonders if this is illness — and yet she seems so unaffected, by illness or anything at all. Her poise is like distant water, her silences like measurements of the great reaches through which her mind is traveling.
“You must live alone then.” Elizabeth is smiling now. “So do I. But I so love to cook. I take great pleasure in it.”
Anna winces — Elizabeth tends to adopt a sanctimonious air with strangers — but the woman simply nods. The bones of her face are magnificent. Anna imagines them covered in young flesh. She must have been very beautiful once.
“I live in L’ Enchanté,” Elizabeth is saying.
“I live in L’ Enchanté too.”
“Oh! Isn’t that amazing! I’m in 815.”
“I’m in 815 too.”
Perhaps it’s the pauses, but for a moment Anna suspects the old woman of lying for the connection it brings. Elizabeth has no doubt at all, she is smiling her girlish smile, she thinks the Lord has put this woman in her path as someone to cook for, care for, minister. She sees this woman as an older version of herself, and in truth this woman makes this easy to do. Her serenity is a welcome mirror, something one can look forward to. Now Anna feels a rush of hope. Maybe she and her daughter aren’t doomed after all. Maybe time is a song that can be sung.
Maybe time is like the sea. It connects us with its poetry. It brings sting rays and a red tide that kills all the fish in the shallows and leaves them dead and stinking on the shore. In fifteen days Anna and Fer have seen ambulances twice taking out the dead. How fragile can anyone allow themselves to be? Some days she thinks she’ll never go in the water again, and some days she thinks it’s better to be stung than never feel the sea.
Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist, a writer, a wife and a mother of two. She lives in northern New England. As a linguist, she has published over 40 scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. Her creative writing has been published by Akashic Books and The McNeese Review. She has also recently completed a novel entitled Private Language.