In our village the wind and the moon whip the sea into constant war against us.
Other seas in other villages deserve the phrase “tranquil sea” or “the sea’s quiet waves were gently caressing the shore,” but that is not our sea.
Our village started out as a thievers’ village. No one would choose to live here unless they were hiding something. In fact, there is no way out but the sea, which is the route I took when I got old enough.
The houses lie in between two riven castles of black rock.
Over the centuries, giant pieces of rock have fallen far into our bay, so the shore is strewn with solid black pointed warnings: do not get too comfortable.
You can’t swim here, only wash.
We have no farms, only little gardens that protect from encroaching salt air.
There is a poisonous bog behind the garden, near my ma’s house. The water is acidic but we use the cottongrass that grows in it for pillows on our stone beds. Oh, we are little compliant creatures with moments of despotic, defensive fury.
No one steals anymore but even so we all feel the guilt of our forebears and feel this hard life among black rocks is fitting.
We are all born with it, even me.
I now live behind the little gray shack that serves as a school. The teachers use petrified salt. The children write on stone tablets. Through the crack in my window, I listen to the same lessons I was taught as a child.
The teachers instill the words salt, sea, fury, steal, rock, death into passive, limp sentences: “The man’s bones were crushed by the weight of the sea and he was visited by death.” Or, “The salted gulls’ wings were stolen by our mouths by us four the other night at Angela’s house.” At the very end of each lesson, the students learn the maxim, “Only God gets an action verb.”
My whole life outside this village was about getting my own action verb.
In ten years’ time, I had crossed the seas and stayed in many villages, even some cities, and I had seen much of the world. I made my money in advertising, dropped my useless belief in God (the best advertising campaign there is), and made travel my sole purpose in life. I had many lovers and no children (no time). I saw tulips blossom, and walked in warm, soft grasslands that stretched far beyond the eye could see. I swam in fresh-water lakes. I spoke actively. I wrote with fine black ink. I wore rich reds, greens, and purples. I never wore a scarf, which most of our women do.
The taste of salt burnt my tongue.
Life was good, but then I got this letter from my ma. I was sitting at a café, learning how to make a berry cream sauce for sugar cakes. The manager handed me a torn envelope. I took off my sunglasses and opened it greedily.
She told me something incredible: a trunk wrapped in rope had washed ashore with a dead man wearing only his nightgown and what looked like orange peels scattered all about him.
Some people thought the man was from a faraway place with strange funeral rites or that the trunk was a message from God (all pleasures lead to a lonely disastrous end, etc., etc .). But another theory caught on after a few days: people remembered the exotic fruit I had sent them. There could be no other explanation than that I had killed the man. But it wasn’t just that I had, in their eyes, killed someone (our villagers don’t ever kill, not even animals—they eat fish that wash ashore). No, no, much worse, was that I was casual about it, and I sucked the juice out of what must have been dozens of oranges after I committed the act. A mortal sin followed by the worst kind of excess.
I wouldn’t have minded this so much, but Ma told me she was suffering nightmares from the pounding of nails on her door at night. She’d wake up and find signs posted to her door: “No more gifts from the evil one!”
At the end of the letter, Ma begged me to please think about coming home, to unite the village, and to defend myself.
I traveled for three days on a cargo ship to get home. When the ship came ashore just before dawn, the handlers helped me unload. We finished just as the sun peeked out from the sea. I brought every glorious thing with me: cases of pears, apples, oranges, gooseberries; dark chocolate, spicy chocolate, chocolate with seasoned pecans; rum from the South, clarets, whiskey, brandy, fifty varieties of red wine, and, most important of all, fresh water. I brought papers and inks from the South. I also brought a sensible gift: the sapling of an apple tree. Of course, I knew the apple tree would be too large one day for our garden and would soon die of saltsickness, so I brought plates of gigantic mint-colored seaglass and a booklet titled, “You, Too, Can Build a Greenhouse!” I thought, if I was coming home to defend myself, I was going to teach them a lesson. I was going to get them in on it. I wanted to be comfortable when I was there. I didn’t want to live on salt-ridden vegetables.
The light quickly went out. The clouds came in.
A few of the older men of the village straggled out of their gray shacks in their long gowns and caps, arms folded. I was wearing my slinky red dress, which no doubt shocked them. I paid the handlers, grabbed a trunk on my shoulders, and turned around to see their shivering, pained faces.
“The evil one.”
“An evil color is worn by her.”
“Devil’s goods are brought by her.”
I carried the trunk to the back of the schoolhouse and went back for more. Curtains opened and quickly shut. The wives.
I am a large-framed woman but my back started to bend after lifting the tenth trunk. Panting, with my hands on my hips, I said, “I could use some help here.”
Samuel stepped forward and in a shaky voice said, “It is needed to be said that you and your goods are no longer welcome here.” With that, he spit in the sand and joined the rank of the others.
I walked back for more. Where were the young men? Where were James and Thomas? No doubt hiding in their shacks, with candied nuts stored away under their beds. It takes years before desire is killed.
The sun burnt through, beat down on me. The back of my dress was starting to get damp. The cluster of stubborn men were shaded by a rock.
“Joseph, how were those pears? Matthew, is there still chocolate in your teeth? Be men! Help me!”
I threw the trunks in front of them. “Store these behind the school, please.”
Their bodies went limp. Joseph hoisted a trunk over his shoulder. I heard him hiss under his breath, “Only God gets an action verb.”
That’s how we started.
After all the materials for the greenhouse and trunks were securely placed behind the school, I thanked the men and told them they will be rewarded for their efforts soon. They slinked off to their shacks, heads bowed. I caught a glimpse of the wives inside shaking their heads and turning away as they let the curtains drop back into place.
I headed up the little hill with my suitcase, past the sad garden plot and back down the other side to get to Ma’s. I hoped she was sleeping.
When I got to her door, I saw a stone tablet on her door. Fresh chalk. I spat on it and rubbed the message away.
The latch opened soundlessly. Everything in the house was silent. The smell of the entrapped salt air took my breath away. Ten years of my life evaporated. Not one thing looked different than it had when I left, just smaller. Walls, table chairs, nothing but gray stone everywhere.
I shuffled in, slow and tired, vision blurry. I rubbed my hand along the rough corners of the long table in the main room. Pa made it years ago, and in the center sat the clay pot I made in school when I was eleven. Ma had stuck some cottongrass in it.
The door to her dark room was a little open. She was facing the wall, curled up, her hair long and gray. I put my case down, lay down next to her, and closed my eyes.
Oh, how the hard stone felt like an old friend!
I had a fantastic dream. Anyone else in the village would call it a vision.
Wearing my low-cut red dress, I stood in the middle of a dark cave. Figures wearing hooded cloaks formed a circle around me, each one held an orange.
I looked down and saw that my feet were wedged in stone. They pelted me with the fruit. I screamed and nothing came out. The figures tore off their hoods. I recognized everyone in the village.
They had more fruit. They bit into the oranges and spit out peels and juice and looked at me with hatred and disgust.
I looked at my body. Parts of me were disappearing.
One of the executioners was Ma, coming forward with a huge black rock.
I woke to the sound of her scraping the skin off a broccoli stem. There was a slit in the door, probably left open so she could hear if I woke. She was bent over the sink, hair tied back, clothes thankfully not gray. “Ma,” I whispered.
She turned off the faucet and dried her hands. “Katherine!” she cried.
We held each other, tears falling. I was home. Her shoulders shook. I made her look at me. Her face had the lines of a dry, crumpled leaf, even though she was only in her fifties. She glanced at her apron. “A toll has been taken, my Katherine.” She looked at me once more, taking in my short dark hair, and stroked my chin.
The cottongrass waved in the breeze outside the open window. We talked about the dead man in the trunk. She said the men had been trying to send it back out to sea but it kept returning to shore.
“I would’ve sent it back with the cargo ship I came in on.” Our thin vegetable soup tasted of nothing but saltwater.
“A cargo ship? Here? Why were you on a cargo ship?”
“I’m going to make a greenhouse. It will be fantastic. We can have mint leaves and all sorts of herbs. We’ll have apples by the fall.”
Ma stopped eating. “What? Why?”
She started to clear the table. My bowl taken away before I was finished.
I looked out the window to the poisonous bog.
I attacked the greenhouse. I gathered all my materials: the decay-resistant wood, the hammer, nails, replica seaglass, bevel, ladder. The pamphlet said that the greenhouse was “So easy to assemble that you could do it before the roast was out of the oven.” I started with the foundation. I pounded away all afternoon. Of course, it wasn’t easy. Some of the pieces didn’t fit.
As I looked up at the mid-afternoon sun, nail in mouth, I noticed a few villagers with baskets walking to the garden. They were looking at me through the corner of their eyes. By four, I finally finished the foundation and four of the walls. By this time, the roast would have been burnt to a crisp.
I stopped and opened up the fruit trunk and grabbed a peach.
I sat in my hollow house and cheerfully ate the succulent thing.
Now that I was inside my walls, even though the glass wasn’t up, I felt something like relief. I looked past the little shacks and could see a sliver of the dull sea from where I sat.
I posted a note on every home, leaving Ma’s for last. Ink and paper:
When I walked in Ma’s house, I noticed a candle wasn’t lit. The dark afternoon had settled in. I must have called her name three times. I ran outside to check the bog first, then the garden.
I walked back over the hill and stood at the top.
Not one of my signs was hanging on a door.
The sun sank beneath dark clouds. A wind picked up.
I imagined they'd put Ma’s corpse in the trunk with the dead man.
I ran to the greenhouse.
My fruit trunk was still sitting in the center. I sat and waited for them to show.
I caught a whiff on the wind of a deadly odor: rank. I opened the trunk.
The decomposing body of the dead man lay there, twisted in impossible angles, surrounded by moldy green orange peels. One of my notes was on top, ink blurred from spit. All I could do was scream as I ran to the center of the village.
I knelt in the dirt, hands over my eyes. Crying terror.
The shadowy figures encircling around me.
“It’s time to be defended by yourself, Katherine.”
Hoods. They wore them to the meetings to signify that they were of the same brotherhood.
It was dark now. I stood, feeling like a little girl, completely lost. I cried at their power.
I heard my pulse pounding. I tried to run, but the circle tightened. I couldn’t make out the faces, not even Ma’s. I ran back to the center, limp.
“What is it you say? How will you defend yourself? Speak.”
I heard the sound of all of them spitting.
“I . . . you are all such awful people! I can’t see you! You don’t believe in God!”
“All that is wanted by us is the defense promised by you.”
“I didn’t kill anyone! Eating oranges doesn’t make me a killer. I sent you all fruit!” I started getting my blood back. “Is it the person who sent the oranges, the person who ate the oranges, or the person who picked the oranges—or what about the person who made the oranges? Did you ever think of that?” A sound behind me distracted me. Like a hammer. “Who knows where that man came from?”
“Are you done?”
I sat down, exhausted, head in my hands.
There was much discussion.
One of them shouted, “Silence! Let a decision be made by us.”
I heard whispering. Neighbor to neighbor in the circle. The whispering stopped at the figure directly in front of me.
“A decision has been reached. Fellow villagers, the action may be begun by you.”
A blaze of orange orbs lit up the night air. Each person had a piece of fruit in his hand. Before the first could be thrown I burst through the crowd, shouting, “I am the action verb! I am the action verb!”
I broke through and headed straight for the greenhouse.
As I got closer, I was amazed to see Ma on the roof, nail in mouth, finishing up the last touches.
“Get inside. Quick.”
She had pulled the trunk with the dead man out and filled the greenhouse with all my trunks. In the corner was the sapling of the apple tree, potted.
The air was light and green and the smell of the decay-resistant wood was exhilarating and fresh. I saw shadows crash up against the frosted glass, but I couldn’t make out the faces. I felt safe.
I heard Ma talking to the crowd from the roof. I’ve never been more proud of her. She pronounced me, her daughter, unguilty, but because my way of life was so hard for our village to withstand, the condition for my living here would be that I was required to live in my greenhouse and nowhere else.
And so I sit. I made a chink in the glass so I can see people walking to the garden or to the shore and back. It’s been long enough now where some of them wave. Ma comes to see me every day. I give her herbs that she puts in her soup, which has got to improve the taste. I give her orders for shipments, so I can still live the way I was used to. For comfort. I put in a skylight, so now I can get enough air. Ma told me that man in the trunk finally stayed out at sea as soon as I received my judgment. It’s not so bad. I have a view of those sharp rocks on the shore.
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