Brine and Bone
Every Saturday since the crash, we barefooted the barnacled rocks that had snagged the proof of others. We waited for the tide to shore our mother or the sky to earth her. It was my sister Eleanor’s job to lift the rocks, and she squatted, feet spread wide as her hips. When she reached out, her sleeves shifted to reveal wrists red and raw with scratch, and though I couldn’t see her palms from where I stood, I knew there were blisters, some new and pink and puffed with fluid, some already flattened from the burst.
The silt released the rock with a slurp, and its underneath scattered. We’d once spent hours collecting crabs on this beach, clasping them like our father had shown us to avoid the pinch, then flipping them belly up hoping to see the mass of eggs. I now let them scatter untouched. The once shunned blips of slick sea worms burrowed without insult, and the tiny dartfish, once thought the ultimate find, pierced the water without interruption. We weren’t there to delight in the complexity of lives we believed were so simple. We were looking for anything of her. And every week we found nothing.
Our father joined us for the first month. He wore a backpack so full of things for us it rawed the skin on his shoulders. We were old enough to pack for ourselves, but he did it anyway. Water bottles, apple and cheese slices, granola bars, sunscreen. He brought honey for my cough, and Eleanor’s ankle brace in case of uneven rocks. We were six and two to him, and I had to push back when he squirted sunscreen into his palm and asked me to stand still.
That first Saturday, we stared at the bay while we ate, and I tried to think of something to say that wasn’t about how I felt. I was a hundred feet from the bay, my legs soggy with brine. My father asked me something and the answer sent me into a coughing fit. He dug through the bag and handed me the honey then sat on a beach log behind my sister to French braid her hair. He’d never done it before, but that morning I’d seen him watching a How-To video. His starter strands were too thick and I knew the braid would fail, but I swallowed the honey, and kept my mouth shut.
Dozens of searchers scattered the shore, doing exactly what we were doing. I recognized some of them from the press conferences and support group. Most of the people had lost fathers and husbands on their way to meetings and conferences and though everyone seemed sure their loss was the worst, only a few were right. One man scrambled along the boulders, too far from the shore to find anything, I thought, looking for something left of his wife and three daughters. There was no logic to where he searched, but even less so as to why he didn’t walk into the bay and draw a last, deep breath.
She is at first the slick black of a seal in an already dark ocean. It is only four pm, but the sky is already more bruise than bright. The waves offer then take her back, each surge flashing an undeniable: the fish-belly white of arm; the sparkly fuchsia flush of dress-up footwear. It is obvious and yet we still hope for the aquatic. We say to each other You never know, though we’re mothers. We’ve never not known.
We see the men in the yellow jackets down shore and signal them as arranged. We leave untouched what we are desperate to press into our chests, which are stupid with heat and heartbeat, and let the shiver of her body chill us for good. We wait, shored. Seagulls keep their distance but chatter about who gets what first. Some keep their Mine deep in their throats, more a cackle than the bawdy giggle of others. The men, who’ve already forgotten the others they’ve recovered, rush toward us in a flurry as though the RESCUE on their jackets is what they do.
We are a mile inland when they pronounce her dead. There is nothing about what they say that hasn’t already been forced from our mouths, and nothing they’ve seen will sour their dreams and wake them soaked with the sea of their bodies and skin flooded with the prick of panic. We find her mother at home, as advised. She stands in the kitchen mashing pears into sauce. She knows what we mean. We move quick because we are full of a throb that threatens to burst us. She doesn’t fight us, but her feet jerk with some ancient last smudge of Survive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kami Westhoff is the author of Sleepwalker, winner of Minerva Rising’s Dare to Be Contest, and Your Body a Bullet, co-written with Elizabeth Vignali. Her work has appeared in various journals including Carve, Third Coast, Meridian, The Pinch, Passages North, West Branch, Hippocampus, and Waxwing, and she teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.
ABOUT THE MANUSCRIPT
In late 2010, I rediscovered the story of Andrea Yates, a Texas woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub. I’d heard of this case nearly a decade earlier, and though the tragedy of these deaths had troubled me then, it wasn’t until after I became a parent that the specifics of Yates’ trauma compelled me to explore how past trauma dictates the decisions and actions a person makes, some horrific, some desperate, some illegal, all flawed. The effects of those actions, often disastrous, are at the core of each story in What the Blood Tells You to Be.
My characters go missing. They struggle and fail to protect those they most love. They do everything they can to not be who they were born to be. They love to the point of suffocation. They choose to forget everything to not remember that which cleaves them.
My stories don’t provide any answers to the problematic and often troubling choices my characters make, but rather seek to explore their various encounters to gain a better understanding of a their nuanced, and at times tragic, behavior. This call to examine, connect, and in some way relate to characters outside of a reader’s experience is one of the most powerful and important responsibilities of literature.