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.
The girl’s name is Meredith Maris. Her mother’s, Heather Hall. We add these details to the records of who is born and who dies. There is more to them than their names, and we add that information to the Book of Remembering. Heather loved hiking and reading books about birds and plants. She wished she’d married Meredith’s father instead of the man she’d fallen in love with. Meredith loved catching common animals: snails, slugs, beetles, and seeing how long she could keep them alive. Heather was friendly but not kind. Meredith was mature but not wise. They were both loved and unloved, but that last part isn’t transcribable so no one writes it down.
It’s after midnight when we finish recording. Some of us go home to our children, living or not. Some stay in the center to read night into day. Some of us have people waiting up for us, or prepared to claim as much, to ask us what’s wrong even though. We lift blankets and they settle like earth around us. Or grab a pillow and sleep on the couch. We climb onto the bodies beside us, wet ourselves with their mouths. They don’t ask Where or Why, or they do but forget their question before we bother to answer. These are the men whose hands we once slapped away from the lip of our underwear when all we wanted was to sleep. These are the men that once woke early enough to make us coffee and arrange fruit into smiley faces before leaving for work and returning in time to help with dinner. These are the men who, when cleaved with the tragedy of children they couldn’t manage to keep safe, chose to forget, to stay tucked into the folds of the long term where they were the men we all thought they were strong enough to be.
When we’ve taken what we want from them, we swear to ourselves we’ve made the right choices about what to keep and what to release. To dip our feet into the suffering before stepping in, when to hold under and when to surface. We think about Meredith, wonder if the outfit she wore that morning was chosen as her last—what did she say to her mother when she last spoke to her? It’s our job to suffer for her mother—it’s the least we can do. It’s messy. It tastes and smells bad. It hurts in a way that makes us say Enough. With this smeared all over our faces, we peer through the left-open bedroom doors of our children to suffer what we have or what we have lost.
Months earlier when the first child went missing, we knew exactly what we needed to do. Organize. Search. Rescue. Recover. Grieve. Heal. We knew what to blame—the ocean and its insistence upon believing everything in its reach was its to take. Signs were posted: Beware of Undertow; Sudden Drop Off: No Swimming Allowed. After the third drowning, fences were installed and a lifeguard hired. A Coastline Watch was instated but they failed to see what they were there to not miss. Child after child found a way to let the ocean have its way and over and over we claimed we did everything we could.
Because it made sense to do so, there was an investigation into what the town had done to its children. What had been taken from them? What had been lost? What hadn’t we seen though it was right in front of our faces? We looked at the schools. The drinking water. The community events where the majority of the town ate from the same batch of chili. We looked toward the sky. We looked at each other. We looked at ourselves. There was fault everywhere so everyone stopped looking.
The air is sour with blossom when Eddie Turntower’s mother Natalie stands at the Town Council meeting and announces Eddie is haunting her. Of course it must feel that way, we say, and get back to the line item on the agenda: combining the elementary and secondary school. She slams her hands onto the desk. Listen to me. She says his bed is messy in the morning though she makes it every day. His hamper leans from the weight of his soiled clothing and we all know she’s never slacked on laundry. She lifts a paper bag and shakes it toward the front of the room. Its crackle punctuates her words. From it, she pulls a t-shirt and pinches the shoulders in each palm and spreads it wide so we can see circles of sweat that darken the armpits and the splatter of a snack on its chest. She holds an armpit to her nose and breathes deeply. Do you think I wouldn’t recognize the smell of my own child’s sweat?
She passes the shirt to her right—each hand receives it reluctantly as an offering basket. When the shirt returns to her she folds it and puts it back into the bag. There’s more, she says, and we listen to details about the crust of toothpaste in the sink, sneakers that refuse to stay branched on the shoe tree, the appearance of the feces he’d had a habit of forgetting to flush.
We stare at her. We listen. When she stops speaking we still stare. There’s no reason to believe she isn’t haunted. Why wouldn’t she be, but what we aren’t sure about is why that’s a problem for her. Those of us who’ve lost would do anything for the slightest hint of our child. A quick sniff of hair dank with the sweat of fever. A misty shape just similar enough to be a Could be. A pressure at the back of our neck pulling us closer.
What do you want us to do? we ask after she walks out of the library. We look at one another because we know but can’t say it.
The motion to merge the schools passes unanimously. What to do with the soon to be emptied building is tabled for next month. Pods of townspeople form outside the library. Men find themselves surrounded by one another. Women do the same. No one says a word about Natalie and her ghost, but every voice is thick with them.
Our group forms that night. We make plans quick like we would during a disaster or a storm. Natalie opens her front door. We believe you, we say, forcing the space between us visible with our breath. Inside she shows us all the places she’s ghosted him. The air is foul. Piles of clothing scatter the living room floor. Bowls of unfinished cereal sit sogging on the counter.
Please excuse the mess, she says. Growing boy…you know how it is? She looks at us and we know this is our chance.
We understand. Take our hand, we say as we lead her to the bathtub. He’s waiting for you.
Water won’t be our way from now on—we don’t want the ocean to think it’s won—but this time it is. This time it has.
By mid-summer nine children are gone. One day Meredith becomes the tenth. Six mothers have been reunited with their gone. The rest are with us and we need them to help with the burden. Those that had fathers now have fathers that live in the bliss of the before. You’d have to ask them why. How. We can’t be bothered with those questions when there is so much suffering to do. Our shoulders curl forward and down by the time each day is done though we know we only breathe right when they are up and back. When we walk, we are more horizontal than vertical, and the proof of what we’ve been up to as debatable as daylight.
Someday someone might look back and have ideas about how we could’ve handled this better and they will no doubt be right. We never claim to be without flaw—it’s possible Natalie could’ve healed, a few of us have, but how long can we stomach letting someone suffer when we have the answer to their relief?
Two weeks later a man in a skiff pulls Abigail Austen from a boulder fifty feet from the shore. Alive. It isn’t clear if she’d changed her mind and swam to the rock or if the rock found her. We’ve learned some things we just don’t get to know. The men respond to the fisherman’s call but once it’s clear she’s alive they take her to the hospital and call us. Abigail’s mother died when she was three and her father has forgotten, so it’s up to us. We are told when the fisherman found her she was bleeding from her hands and her face and her side and her knee was bent the wrong way. The injuries on her hands and face are superficial, but the nurse lifts the gown to show us a six-inch bandage already rusted by the gash on her side.
Abigail is unconscious so we discuss options. We’ve never had a rescue. We aren’t sure how to grieve for the survival of a child that found herself compelled to end her life. We agree it’s good her mother’s dead. Our bodies buzz and we pick at our nails and scabs or sweep speckles of dandruff form our sweaters or bend over to retie shoes or tuck in things that are better left untucked. One of us throws up then more of us do. Machines beep and breathe as they were designed to do.
The doctor says it is uncertain she’ll ever wake, so we decide to carry on as if she’s lost. One of us knows Abigail loves scones so we bake some and spread the butter on way too thick. Its salty smears glisten on our lips, our chins, the tips of our noses. The butter coats our throats so when we swallow nothing gets left behind.
Because she didn’t have a mother, we don’t know much about her so we make guesses. She loved to construct bird houses, certain if she got it right a mother bird would choose it to lay her eggs in. She once took the top prize in children’s Battleship Tournament. She and her best friend Meredith once build a raft out of branches and twine, wedging clay into the gaps between the branches. They were excellent swimmers, so no one stepped in when they launched it into lake, backs flattened against the branches, made bets about how long it would take until they sunk.
The morning arrives without the skin of light. Our bodies are stiff and muscles on the cusp of seizing. The scones and their crumbs are gone and the beautiful smooth butter worn from our throats by the insistence of swallow. Nurses ring our phones one at a time. Abigail is either dead or alive and nobody does anything to find out which.
There are no active Missings, but we decide to spend the morning on the beach. We used to spend mornings remembering how things once were: the shrieks and giggles of tide pool discoveries—sea cucumbers that and eject then regenerate internal organs when threatened by predators; kites carving air into infinities before the nosedive; the opal backs of seals threading the skin of the ocean. It didn’t take long for the burden of remembering to ghost our own memories.
The tide is far enough out rocks we’ve never noticed constellate the shore. One of us points to the moon that hovers above the ocean, its shade a blister on the cusp of burst. Just beyond the Warning signs, dozens of jellyfish blob the beach, crimson hearts like open sores on the sand. Someone says certain jellyfish, when severely traumatized, can return to a polyp stage and start over. It is unclear, she says, if its memory starts over, too.
Down shore, the men in the yellow jackets watch us, or at least we think it is us they are watching. Their bodies move toward us, unburdened by grief, faces smeared with smiles. Have we got it all wrong? This insistence on remembering? What would we do if we had it to do again? It’s becoming more difficult to remember who we once were or if we were ever once who we thought we were.
The men point at the jellyfish and shrug Who knows as they tiptoe through them. Seagulls bitch and flap at them as if they know something we don’t. By the time Eddie’s body was found, the seagulls had eaten his eyes, nose, lips, earlobes, and fingertips. Rendered senseless. We were told his mother refused to believe it was him even when they unzipped his sweatshirt and lifted his shirt to reveal a scar on his stomach from a childhood surgery. When the knowing took hold, they comforted by assuring her Eddie was certainly dead before the gulls got to him.
The men in the yellow jackets are closer than they’ve ever been. Once of them has covered himself in seaweed and stomps around moaning. The men laugh because they believe in make believe. Others balance rocks on other rocks, say Oh, well when they topple. Everywhere we look things are moving on.
If we were different women, we would leave the men to their play. We’d nod at the seagulls to let them know we understand why they do what they do, even though that is something we’ve never actually done ourselves: understand why we do what we do. We’d gather these transparent creatures in the bellies of our palms or the cradle of our arms and dive face first into the ocean. The men in the yellow jackets could save or sink us. Abigail could wake, mouth full of the why, or sleep and keep it secret. We’d let the ocean slowly coax us back, its waves like hands we craved on our bodies but never felt. We’d say Remember. We’d say Forget. We’d mean both.
Kami Westhoff‘s chapbook, Sleepwalker, won the 2016 Dare to Be Award from Minerva Rising and her collaborative chapbook, Your Body a Bullet, was recently published by Unsolicited Press. Her work has appeared in journals including Meridian, Carve, Third Coast, Phoebe, West Branch, the Pinch, and Waxwing. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.