This is not the story that Naomi told when Dr. Benjamin and the story men came to collect all of our memories. Instead, she told about her granny and the blue cookie jar. Marco was a dead man and a sore point by then.
Marco was Naomi’s first and only love from the time she was fourteen, which might seem young to you. It might have been kinder, though, had she started going with him a bit sooner. They only got three years of hand-holding and walk-taking and four months as man and wife before he passed. Even here, where lives are often mean little things, it didn’t seem fair.
Marco was a sailor, which is the usual occupation for our men. He crewed on his uncle’s rig and he died there with the rest of them when it went down during a late November squall. Of course, Naomi was hundreds of miles away and had no way of knowing about that when she walked into the kitchen one morning and found her husband sitting at the table.
Now, Naomi had been without Marco for going on a month and a half and her own daddy was a sailor as well. She was well used to being alone, as all us women are. It can be frightening. The island is small and we know the men, their names and the names of their mommas and sisters. But that didn’t stop the fearing, not altogether. It was a kind of ticking, a working like a machine in the back of your head. Each woman on the island kept a running tally of each sharped-edged, deadly thing in her home. For Naomi, it was the long rifle in the back of the closet, the six wooden handled knives in the kitchen draw, even the heavy carriage clock that her daddy’d made her for a wedding present.
And so when she saw Marco sitting there, she was just standing still, but her mind was zipping away all “how am I going to get to the closet?” or “how am I to open the knife draw without his hearing?” Because, by all rights, Marco should have been weeks away across the water right at that very moment (indeed, right at that very moment, Marco was floating in the cold ocean making dinner for the fish, but of course Naomi didn’t know that.)
But he was justthere, Marco. He was just sitting and staring down at his hands like he was noticing them for the first time. He didn’t look particularly dangerous. He looked like her husband, the good boy she’d known her whole life.
“Marco?” she said, with her hand resting but not moving on the knife draw. He turned to look at her, but he did it real slow, and when he saw her, he didn’t seem to know her at all.
Naomi pulled out the draw, and it made a little wheely creak. Marco’s face didn’t move at all.
“Naomi,” is what he said finally, and it said it like she was some old friend he hadn’t seen in years. Like he was proud of himself for remembering her name.
Naomi was a practical sort. You see a lot of antsy girls get married before they’re ready; still too young and feckless to keep a house, let alone a husband. Naomi wasn’t like that; you could eat off her floors and, though he wasn’t around long, you never caught Marco complaining. Being like she was, Naomi couldn’t help but wonder if she weren’t seeing things. Women did that sometimes, when they was too lonely or too worn out from the waiting. Naomi didn’t think of herself as no weak woman, prone to fits or crazies, but it seemed more likely than her husband up and appearing like magic at her kitchen table, right next to a piece of blueberry pie wrapped in waxy paper.
She backed out of the kitchen without saying a word and went across the way to Elia DuPree’s place. Elia was about five years older than Naomi and was in the habit of giving Naomi advice, as is often the case in the friendships of women.
This was a Saturday, so Elia was doing her baking and she was flour-white up to her elbows. “Well, I dunno,” she told Naomi, who was pacing around the kitchen like a needy cat. “My daddy died when I was young, and my mama was always telling about how she saw him the night his ship went down upstairs in our house, going from room to room and checking on us kids.”
“You think Marco’s dead?”
Elia didn’t answer for a real long time. “That’s not what I said,” she told Naomi. But it sure sounded like that was what she had meant. You might think Elia was scaring Naomi for no reason, just being superstitious. And maybe she was, but she’d thought about it, and between Naomi Smalls going off her head and a sailor dying at sea with a bit of funny business, she knew which was more likely.
Naomi had prepared herself for the idea that Marco might not come back to her; or she thought she had. Listening to Elia, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had known, somewhere in the hidden parts of her heart, that something terrible had happened.
She started crying, right there in Elia’s kitchen, and Elia came right over and held on to her, though she left white dust on her shoulders and her back.
Naomi didn’t go home for another forty minutes and she didn’t expect to find anything when she did. It was a blessing, she supposed. This way she’d have time to prepare for the funeral and for the pitiful looks she’d get around town. She’d looked that way herself at those sad little widows with their teenage faces.
But when she got back, Marco was still there. He’d moved into the sitting room and he was just standing in the corner, looking down at the unfinished cradle that sat there.
Naomi had been hoping hard for a baby, but her monthlies had stubbornly come just as regular as rain in the spring. Hating to see her so down in the mouth, Marco had started work on the cradle. He told her he had to get a move on, because when he got back, he was going to give her a little baby boy to take care of.
Feeling silly, Naomi started crying again.
“I made that,” Marco declared, pointed at the cradle. He didn’t seem troubled by her tears.
“Mmm-hmn,” was all Naomi could manage.
“But I didn’t finish it.”
Naomi crossed the room slowly until she was right up close to him. She could see his chest rise and fall. He smelled like he always did, dirt and briney water and the dusky dried-leaves of his hair.
“You said you would when you came back.”
Marco turned to look at her. He smelled just the same, but his eyes were all wrong. “I’m sorry,” is what he said. Naomi looked at the cradle, touched it with her fingertips. It was supposed to rock back and forth, but Marco hadn’t gotten to the little mechanism that allowed it to do that. It was stuck, always in-between.
“I missed the way you smell,” the Marco told her, and he gathered her up in his arms, and Naomi let him because he looked just like her husband. “Ocean only smells one way,” he muttered into her hair. “All sorts of smells on you. I can smell the blood in your heart. In here.” He laid one hand flat against the little rises and falls of her rib bones.
He tasted of salt. Not human sweat-salt, but like a spoonful of it. Naomi half-expected to see him melting in the places where her mouth had been.
He took her into the bedroom she had shared with her husband. Naomi began to lift her housedress over her head, but she stopped when she saw he was just standing there, not undoing his shirt or trousers like he usually would. He was waiting for her, she realized. As if he didn’t know how.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, as she unhooked button after button, concentrating on them real hard because her hands had started shaking.
He was very cold. His skin was cold; his breath made clouds in the air. She felt frozen underneath him. She watched her own skin turn bone white and then pale blue, like it was happening to someone else. Her body didn’t know him; she didn’t open up and welcome him. It wasn’t like with Marco at all.
When he was done, he lay still on top of her, his arms spread out over hers. For a moment, she was afraid he was going to want to stay like that all night. Marco had been terrible about stealing the covers and he used to throw his leg over hers in the night. But Naomi didn’t know how she was going to sleep with all that cold heaviness on her. She could hardly breathe.
She reached out, touched his hair and grazed her fingernails over the place where his hairline vanished into his neck. When she used to do that to Marco, he would shiver all over. And she, lying close, would be able to feel the brittle gooseflesh that rose up on him. “What are you?” she asked him.
“I’m…a wish,” he answered. And then she must have slept, because the next thing she knew, it was morning and the sun was coming in orange through the windows. She’d slept away a whole afternoon and night.
Sixteen days later, the letter came, telling all about when and how Marco had died. Nine months later, Naomi’s only daughter Mala was born.
There was all sorts of nasty talk in town about Marco’s best friend Eli or the teacher up to the school, Mr. Brubaker. But those of us that knew Naomi and had heard the story firsthand, we never did but believe her. The strangest thing, she said, was how in the morning there was no sign of the man-shaped thing. Except for a little pile of white salt on the undisturbed quilt next to her. I saw it for myself: almost a handful of big, coarse grains. It looked like sea-salt.
I am sad to say that Mala never got much love from this island or the folks on it. Not even when she was just a little thing. In school, she got a reputation for hissing like a cat, and for biting, even though she only did that the one time. At lunchtime, she sat alone on the low slope of the outhouse roof reading something stolen from the school library. Once or twice some shiny young teacher would try to pull her down, but all they ever got was pine cones thrown at their heads.
Most every day, a group of tough boys, mean-mouthed boys, used to chase her all the way home. But they were noisy, beating the underbrush with hasty-cut switches and they were slow. They seldom caught her.
When they did, Mala went to her mother and submitted to her tender doctoring. It probably wasn’t right, but Naomi almost relished those days. Normally, Mala was prickly as a burdock and it was only in the cleaning of scrapes, the bandaging of cuts, that Mala allowed her mother to touch her at all.
Naomi was a sad woman. She still missed Marco every day, and it was so fierce even after all those years that she sometimes wondered if a person could have an abscess in their heart as her grandfather had in his leg. Something that only pretended to heal for a little while but always opened up once again and wept. Sometimes, she went down to the shore and did watercolor pictures of the water and lighthouse, and she missed Marco while she hung them up and she missed Marco while she stirred the stew for dinner and she missed Marco when she kissed their baby goodnight and then she crawled into her empty bed and missed him all night long.
If Mala had been more like other children, if she had given hugs and kisses and laughed more and frowned less, Naomi might well have been a bit more cheerful. If Mala had been a little easier to understand, Naomi might have loved her easier. But no one could ever love a childmore. And as Mala grew up and Naomi grew older, Naomi learned to be grateful for her odd girl. Mala, after all, would never marry and leave her alone. Mala wouldn’t ever leave the island for a job in the cities. Mala wouldn’t ever get so old that she didn’t still need her mother to take care of her, even if it was only in the smallest ways.
And the years went on and Mala wasn’t a child no more and they lived together in that little cottage and made an island of themselves. That, more or less, was how things were going along before the story men came.
Dr. Benjamin wasn’t a real doctor. Not the kind that heals people, though we could have used one of that sort. He was just another man writing things down in notebooks, but “Doctor” was how he introduced himself and that’s how his men always called him, so didn’t none of us argue with it.
By then, we were used to people like him coming to the island to study it. Sometimes it was the birds or the trees or the sand or even the tides. As if there was anything to know about tides that any one of us couldn’t have told them. But Dr. Benjamin came to the island to study us.
We took to calling it the Story Eater, that machine he brought along with him. It had a metal horn on one end, like the blossom of a lily flower and a big wheel of yellowed wax around the bottom. “Going down to the shore,” we’d say to one another, “gotta feed the Eater.” And then we’d take the skinny black path down to the water’s edge, where Dr. Benjamin and his people were living in their white tents, stakes drove deep into the ground like they meant to stay.
From me, Dr. Benjamin got a story about Mama Lavalie, who steals the breath from the lungs of babies, among other things. Naomi gave him the one about the cookie jar, like I said. Others told about witches and ghosts and their own lives, whatever he wanted to hear. And Dr. Benjamin wanted to hear everything. The Eater was always hungry.
It was curiosity that drove most people down the shore to him, and perseverance. Look at any manner of strangeness long enough and it starts to become the shape of the land. By the time Dr. Benjamin had been camped out for half a year, those tents might have grown there or washed in from the sea.
Dr. Benjamin came in the spring, an odd and gentle one for us. He stayed on through the summer and into the fall and, after a while, we stopped expecting him to leave. He got to be such an accepted sight that we was all just as surprised as him when the first big squall of winter came in and near washed him out to sea.
It poured miserable, dashing, sideways rain for hours on end. The sky boomed and lit up yellow with lightning. Dr. Benjamin’s tents collapsed under the weight of that water, spilling and gathering in them like in a woman’s burdened apron. Or else they just blew right out of the sand. Dr. Benjamin, he was running, running, running back and forth from one tent to another, trying to save his Story Eater and those pasty wax circles he’s spent so long collecting. He was piling them all up in an alcove on the sea wall and, once, he looked up. Mala was sitting there on the top of the wall. She wasn’t wearing a rain slicker or even shoes and she was just looking at him like he was a rat, like he was a bug. Like he was something with too many eyes and too many legs and all she wanted to know was what ridiculous thing he was going to do next.
“Can you help me?” he shouted over the wind. His men were running forward and backward around him, like water flowing around a stone. Later, he would think it was funny how no one seemed to take notice of the girl on the wall.
Mala didn’t say anything to him. He stayed too long, looking up at her studying face. Eventually, he ran back to his tent, filled up his arms with more stories and tried to protect them with his own body as he ran. Mala on the wall didn’t move.
In the end, it wasn’t so great a loss as it might have been. A few of the wax wheels were ruined but most survived. And in those days after the storm, Dr. Benjamin spent most of his time writing lists of everything he was missing and making plans to build shelters more stout and more permanent. There was nothing gone that could not be replaced.
He called up on Bethel Ellison special, asked him to come down and “sit for him.” It was because Ellison’s wax wheel had been destroyed, of course we knew that. But Bethel still walked with a bit of a spring in his step down the black rock way. He was the only one, after all, that Dr. Benjamin had asked back personally. It must have been a memorable story.
When he got there, it was almost exactly like before. They’d set up the tent again and Dr. Benjamin had his little wooden desk (the wood was soft and splitting down by the legs now, though). All the wax wheels were stacked up behind him still, but now they were uneven and jumbled, listing into each other. And there was Mala. She was just standing in the corner, not looking at anything in particular. Dr. Benjamin didn’t say anything and Bethel didn’t say anything and it was like she was a lamp or a table.
Dr. Benjamin said what he always did: “what would you like to share today?”
But of course old Bethel knew that he wanted the story he’d lost. It was the one about him and his father and the little drowned boy that they found in the harbor. More than forty years out from it, and Bethel still remembered the way the boy’s shirt had slid and slid against his hands. And the sick swooping in his stomach when he realized that it wasn’t just the boy’s clothes, but his skin that had come undone and was sliding around.
He tried to tell his tale just as he done before. It was one he had shared often enough to have a bit of a speech for it. He knew the edges of it the way he might have learned to understand a table or a chair that had sat in his home for a lifetime.
When he was done, he turned and walked past Mala on his way out, and he was none too happy with that. Island folk didn’t see much of Mala and, even those of us kindly disposed towards her would have admitted that we liked it that way. More unsettling still, as he passed her by, Mala stuck out her hand like the two of them had just done a deal. Too surprised to do anything else, Bethel shook her hand. He made a choked noise in his throat, though, and dropped it quick like a burning thing. Bethel left without looking back. When he was gone, Mala turned to Dr. Benjamin. “Do you want to know a better story about him?” she asked.
“Pardon me?” asked Dr. Benjamin. Two days earlier, Mala had become a regular in the tent. She came in the mornings with the first light and left around sunset. She wouldn’t answer any of Dr. Benjamin’s questions and she just watched while they filed in, told their stories, filed back out again. At first, he was surprised that we was all speaking so frank in front of her like that. But then Dr. Benjamin realized that Mala was like his white tents. We’d had a lot of practice putting her aside in our minds.
“You asked me to help you. And you want the best stories, right?” Mala asked. Dr. Benjamin gestured for her to take a seat in the story chair in front of him. Mala did so. For the first time since he’d seen her on the wall, the was something uncertain in her.
“Are you going to turn on your machine?” she asked.
“I’d like to,” Dr. Benjamin admitted. “But I won’t if you don’t want me to.” That was something he had discovered early on: people thinking they was running the show was a hell of a lot more important than people actually running the show.
She looked past him at the Story Eater. “Turn it on,” she said.
Mala sat very still. Most people telling stories waved their hands, slid them over one another. Most of them flicked their eyes around, looking at Dr. Benjamin and then at the tent walls and then at their own lap. Mala just looked at the Story Eater, watching it draw the shape of her words in the soft wax. And she said:
“When Bethel Ellison was seventeen years old, he married a lady older than himself. When she was eight months gone with her first child, her best friend Annet Davis came to Bethel and confessed to him that the child was not his, belonged to a boy who did odd jobs down in the marina between benders. Bethel’s wife had always loved him, Annet said, and her parents had forbid her to marry him.
Bethel trusted Annet, but his wife was a fine thing. Prettiest girl in the village by far and he was a young man, just starting out and it was quite a thing for him to have her. That all meant little, of course, if she carried another man’s child in her belly. That was like having a handful of sand. And so Bethel waited.
A baby, a girl eventually called Nivi, was born easy, especially for a first child. Bethel did not ask to hold her. Instead, he drew the midwife aside. She was a wise woman as well as a midwife, as many are. Bethel explained himself, his doubts, and asked her to divine the truth for him.
When Nivi was fourteen minutes old, the midwife picked the skin on her new little palm with a silver needle until it bled. She was not concerned with her caterwauling. Blood welled up and the midwife swirled it on her own index finger. She pushed her finger into her mouth and tasted the blood with a thinking, close-faced look. Then she turned to Bethel with her needle in hand.
Bethel knew even before the midwife began to shake her head.
When she was gone and the house was quiet and the sun had sunk, he took Nivi’s mother bleeding and sobbing from her childbed. He drowned her in the dark green water where the sea met up with the land. He told everyone she had succumbed to the kind of madness that strikes new mothers, that she’d slipped out of the house like a sleepwalker, that he’d found her himself in the surf the next morning. When he told the story, he thought of a dead boy he’d once pulled from the water. He remembered his cold blue skin and the way he was ragged and swollen, worried at by fish. In that way, he contrived to cry.
Most believed him. Those who did not had an idea about the baby she’d carried and they knew that those sorts of women generally came to one bad end or another. Mostly, there was the question of the baby, whom Bethel had still not named. No one would blame him, he knew, if he didn’t keep her. He was a man alone and very young still. His house was no place for a little helpless thing.
He gave her to Parson Clarent, who had taken in others of her kind. There were no secrets for Nivi about where she had come from. But she knew in an unspoken way that she must never come to Bethel, for aid or for information or any sort of familiarity at all. Outside, of course, what was to be considered reasonable between neighbors.
She saw him as she grew. In the pews on Sunday, down to the shops with the other men. But she had rarely ever spoken more than two words to him. He never re-married. As she grew, she collected the whispers of others, the suspicions that never quite materialized into words.
And so Nivi looked at Bethel with interest. Was it his hands, his ordinary brown hands, that had pushed her mother’s head down under the water? Had he watched her hair and her skirts floating and the bubbles dying? She didn’t know if she hated him. After all, she had not known her mother. Perhaps spending her childhood with a slut and a cuckold would have been worse than the Parson’s house where the only sounds were catechisms being recited.
But sometimes when Nivi looked at him, across a street or over the top of a hymnal, she thought he looked sad. Sometimes, Bethel looked back at her and he thought about the soft, liquid sound of her, the shift and stretch he had felt with his head resting easy against his wife’s round belly.”
Dr. Benjamin stared at Mala, letting the Eater’s needle run around and around, drawing nothing in the yellow wax. Unthinking fingers reached into his pocket, brought out a red and white hard candy in crinkly cello-paper. He popped it into his mouth and sucked thoughtfully.
“How do you know that story, Miss?” he asked Mala.
Mala hesitated. “I…like stories. I’m a good reader.”
“But, I mean, did he tell you those things? He couldn’t have, could he?”
Mala gestured towards the spinning Eater. It broke Dr. Benjamin out of his spell and he dashed for the machine, shutting it off all a fumble-fingers.
“Would you like more?” Mala asked him. “I can get you more.”
Dr. Benjamin rested his hand on top of the Eater, like it was a little child that needed his comforting.
“Yes, I’d like that very much.”
The last time the mean-mouthed boys chased Mala, she was thirteen. She hadn’t started her bleed yet, but she had the look of a young woman already. She was tall, like Marco, and she had a round bottom like her Mama had. If she wasn’t Mala, the boys might have chased her in a different sort of way.
The Ferris boy was running after her—that whole family was trash, washed in like scrum from the sea. He called out “hiiii-ya!” and smacked the heads off flowers with a stick as he went. He only got Mala because he jumped her from the low branch of a tree.
“What now, Spazzy?” he sneered, holding her arms down and driving his elbows into her ribcage.
Mala didn’t give him no words, just snarled and kicked at him. First, he set to fighting her, laughing and forcing her into the dirt with his knees and all the sharp points of him. Then, as Mala watched, something funny moved over his face.
He moved his knee along Mala’s leg, high up on her thigh. His face looked strange; scared, even. Like he was the one being held down.
And this is what Mala learned:
The Ferris boy’s father was a mean drunk. He couldn’t keep a position on a boat; he messed around with the wives of men who were at sea. He never had a kind word or a soft touch for his wife or any of his three boys.
“I am your father,” he used to tell the Ferris boy, who was the oldest boy. “I’m owed.”
The Ferris boy did a man’s work around the place. He chopped wood and repaired the cottage in winter. He tore his hands and bent his back down at the docks, picking up odd jobs for small sums, all to pay back that bottomless debt he owed just for being born.
“Don’t go out in the Midsummer night,” his mother told him every year. “Mama Lavalie walks and she’s taking folks to fill out her court.”
“Don’t go out in the Midsummer night,” she reminded him when he was ten. She said it with a rich purple bruise on the side of her face; a little crusting of blood left over because it hurt too much to wipe away. The Ferris boy looked at the table set with mealy bread, thin soup, all that was left to them.
He worked so hard, almost wore through his little bones. He raised more money that week than he’d seen in his whole life. It was like a kind of dying, handing it over to the man who imported the fancy liquor.
Yellow whiskey, the color of amber beads like ladies on the mainland wore. A whole bottle of it. He gave it to his father and said it was to repay him. Already in his cups, the man could only nod. It was just what he knew himself to deserve. The Ferris boy looked at him and he’d never hated a thing so much.
The Ferris boy left his father reclining on the lawn, with the glass bottle crooked in his arm, held more tenderly than he’d ever held his own babies. The Ferris boy locked the windows and the doors. He sat up all night.
When the pounding came, the shouting, the cursing and the screaming, the Ferris boy sat and waited. His mother woke up and sat beside him. She didn’t make no moves for the door. She brought him a blanket for his shoulders and wrapped it around him like he was still a child.
The boy never saw his father again. The Ferrises ate better after that.
While Mala was learning this, the Ferris boy was crushing her with his chest, pushing against her and making strange little noises in the back of his throat. But he’d been dumb and thrown his stick away where Mala could reach for it. One end, broken carelessly off a tree, came to a mean point.
Mala stabbed him deep in the thigh. “Don’t you ever touch me again,” she said, standing over him while he screamed. “None of you. None of you touch me.” Mala brandished the stick to show she meant business. “I can tell them what you did.”
Those boys never did chase Mala again and, from then on, she read fewer books and watched her classmates instead.
On her way home from Dr. Benjamin’s tents, Mala took the long way through town. She walked through the fruit stands and fish vendors and she spread out her hands and her fingers, just a little bit, not so much that you’d notice.
When she got home, Naomi asked her what she’d done that day and Mala said: “Nothing.”
Mala filled six wax wheels by herself. She ruled the tent, coming the morning and not leaving until the dark of the night. And she talked the whole time, only stopping every once in a while to sip a little of the water or the clear liquor that Dr. Benjamin offered her.
She uncovered her neighbors, all their little sins and triumphs. She delighted in secrets, in sacreds, and Dr. Benjamin delighted in her. When she spoke, Mala lit up like a candle in a windstorm; she flickered and bent and danced and seemed to inhabit all the shapes of her stories. Mala, she was a thing to see.
But our island is a small one. Filling all day, every day with stories…sooner or later, Mala was going to run out. Dr. Benjamin could see she’d started to slack her pace. The stories she picked now were less bitter and less vibrant. Mala herself didn’t seem so struck by them. She was reaching the end of her supply, and that scared the Doctor.
“Mala,” he said once. It was night, the usual time that Mala would be leaving. “Would you sit next to me?” Dr. Benjamin pulled a chair over by his own. He’d been partaking of some of that clear liquor of his and that was the only way he’d gotten up the nerve to talk to her like that.
Mala looked at him for a long minute, because she wasn’t in the habit of being hasty about much of anything. And then she circled round the table and sat next to him.
Dr. Benjamin looked at his hands. “Mala,” he said, “do you like living here on the island?”
Mala was confused by the question because she wasn’t real sure she liked living at all. It was just what she did. But Dr. Benjamin didn’t seem to care that she didn’t have no answer for him.
“Do you think…do you think you would like to live on the mainland? I could take you there. To the cities. There would be so many opportunities for someone with your gift.”
“Gift,” Mala repeated, like a magic spell. They were silent together for a moment. Dr. Benjamin drank.
“There are a lot of stories in the cities, aren’t there?” Mala’s books had all suggested that that was the case.
Dr. Benjamin smiled at her. He spread his hands expansively, and when he brought them back down again, they rested on her shoulders. “Mala, in the cities, there are so many stories that you couldn’t tell them all even if you talked all day, every day until the end of your life.”
That was the first time Dr. Benjamin ever saw Mala smile.
Dr. Benjamin smiled too, but nervously, like an apology. “Can I ask you something?” he whispered. Mala inclined her head. Dr. Benjamin laughed in that way that folk do when nothing is funny. “Could you…could you tell my story?”
Mala leaned forward. She looked seriously at Dr. Benjamin. He was not very old. She imagined his life in the city had been good and unexciting. But Mala was curious; Mala was always curious.
When she kissed him, he tasted cold and sweet. Peppermint, like his candies. She bet he tasted like that all the time. Maybe everyone in the cities did?
This is what Mala said:
“Once, you had a sister. She was much younger than you and you took care of her.
Your parents went away for a living. You and your sister used to run through the stone courtyard and pretend to be pirates. You had nannies and you had maids. But your sister had no one to play pirate with, except you. Even after you were too old for those kinds of game.
One summer, your parents came home for weeks at a time. It was the longest you’d been with them in your whole life. They took you to the beach and you walked behind your sister in the waves and untangled green ribbons of kelp from in and out of her ankles. She had never seen the ocean before and she didn’t even notice you, following along behind and making her safe.
She died in the ocean, drank it and sank. That’s what your parents and the doctors told you afterwards. She was a little girl, she could barely swim. There was nothing mysterious about it. But you could remember hands. Green, cold hands. They took your sister and you reached out for her but they were so much stronger than you were.
Sometimes, in the summer nights, you drag your hand down the sheets of your bed and remember the feeling of their fingers breaking your grip and pushing you away.
The doctors told you to forget. Your parents told you to forget. They were going to send you to be cured. They were going to take you away from the house and the courtyard and all the small things that were left of her in the world. And so you learned to forget.
You still spent your summers on the sea.
The hands took her underneath for a princess. You thought they would want her for a princess. You could not remember if they ate human folk. But she was such a pretty little girl. How could they not want her? How could they not give her a crown and worship her? So you floated. Disconnected from her, you went up and up and up and rested on the top of the water.
And in that moment, before your parents found you and pulled you back to shore, you relished it. That cool weightless ease of no one hanging on your hand. Later, you would wonder if you had called them with your wish so secret that you did not even tell it to yourself.
“They taught you to forget. Do you remember now?” Mala looked steady into Dr. Benjamin’s stricken face.
Dr. Benjamin tasted salt. Too much, he leaned over the side of his chair and spat out on to the wooden floor. A streaked white pile landed there, salt warm and half-melted from the heat of his mouth. He could feel the tumbling grit of the few remaining grains on his tongue and in his teeth.
“I remember,” he said. So much salt and he thirsted from it.
Before Mala was born, Naomi didn’t paint. She used to draw in the little paper books her daddy would bring her back from the world, but painting wasn’t something she ever saw a woman do. After Mala, all sorts of things suddenly seemed possible, and she was already an odd duck as far as the rest of us were concerned. So while another woman might have spent her evenings knitting or sewing or reading, if there was books to be had, Naomi sat at her kitchen table and spread the white sheets of her sketches all around her.
Mala sat on the floor beside her and traced the grooves between the soft white boards. “Baby, do you think we should plant poppies alongside the house this year?” Naomi asked her girl. She did not expect an answer because that sort of thing wasn’t of no concern to Mala, but we do all like to hear a human voice, even if it’s our own.
Mala shrugged her shoulders. “I won’t be here when they bloom.”
Naomi laid down her sketch. Her charcoal pencil rolled in among the curls of her papers. “What?”
Mala tucked her pinky nail into the dark little crack between boards. “I’m going to go away,” Mala said. Naomi shook her head without words, her mouth worked all useless. “The stories here…” Mala struggled to explain, “they’re…dead now. He put them in his machine. I need to find new ones.”
“Mala,” Naomi made her voice low and reasonable, “you can’t leave. You don’t know how to take care of yourself. People will hurt you.”
Mala just stared, thinking about those boys who chased her. Hurting was everywhere.
Naomi’s voice rose, her eyes got bright, like black stones washed in with the tide and glistening. “Mala, you need me. I’m your mother, no one else is going to care for you.”
“There’s nothing here anymore,” said Mala.
“I’m here.” Naomi choked a little on the words. She could feel her heart beating hard in her throat and her chest, it was like panic, it was like fighting. If Mala had apologized, or reached out for her mother’s hand, she might have soothed some torn up thing inside Naomi. But that wasn’t in Mala’s nature. Instead she just looked at her mother with that flat stare, like she was looking through her. That look of hers that always said there wasn’t anything to see.
“You’re not even a person!” Naomi screamed it; she stalked into the kitchen and opened one of the wooden cupboards so hard it made a slam-crash noise against the other cabinets. She threw a glass vial at Mala, stopped up on one end with cork. It hit the floor in front of her and the stopper tumbled out. White grains spilled out, some landed on the floorboards, some on Mala’s skin. “That’s all you are.” Naomi was shaking, Naomi was white. Naomi held on to herself with both arms.
Six little grains clustered on Mala’s bare knee. She licked her index finger, scooped them up. She pressed them against her tongue.
“They’re hollow inside. They’re made of breath and dust and sea water. They can’t have anything heavy inside of them, it falls through their body and rips them apart so they must be remade. But they can carry things for a little while.
My daddy sank like your sister. He was a fisherman. When he died, he was thinking about the lines he’d left dragging out in the water. He was thinking about the fish, creeping through them, sides jeweled.
The demons like to look at the dead fisherman. They sink for a time and the demons float underneath them, let their cold bodies pass through them. For a moment, when that human skin passes through their hollow dust, it is like a pulse.
The demon took my father’s kiss. Touched his hair and his shoulders and rode on his hips, wearing my mother’s face. Kissed him goodbye, tasted his breath, smelled his blood.
Like each empty thing, they ache. For a while, they hold life inside of them. It grows, it pushes, it warms and insists. They hold on for as long as they can, but it will weight them down. It’s too heavy. It would tear them, you see?
The demon brought me to my mother. When I was gone-just the smallest seed of me-the demon felt weightless. It could sink back into the sea and watch for the dead fisherman again. Without me, the demon was bereft; but the demon was wise. The demon knew that I had never belonged inside it. I’d only just rested there for a while.”
Long after dark, Mala climbed into Naomi’s bed. It was first time something warm and living had laid next to Naomi’s body since Marco’d left for the sea. For a minute, Mala just rested and drew breath in and out and let her mother listen to the sound.
“Please don’t leave me alone,” Naomi said eventually, her voice got little and teary. “You’re mine. You’re my wish.”
Because she wasn’t a cruel girl, Mala stretched out her arms and awkwardly enfolded her mother. She touched her only gingerly, as if it burned or buzzed, but she touched her. “I’m mine,” she said.
Naomi pressed her face into the bend of Mala’s arm, drawing warmth and something like comfort from the girl. “Momma?” Mala hadn’t called her that, hadn’t called her anything since she was just a little thing. “Would you like to hear a story?”
Naomi took to weeping, salt water on her daughter’s skin.