Brine and Bone

Kami Westhoff

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.

Hours into our first Saturday, he spread out a water-proof blanket on the sand and set out our snacks. He sliced the apples so thin they dissolved on my tongue. He’d put our food in containers with multiple compartments to keep everything from each other. We hadn’t used them for food in years. Eleanor would separate species of insects and lay them in the small boxes, and I, earrings — studs to dangling hoops.

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.

Eleanor squawked when the brush snagged, and my father tugged too hard. He shush-shushed her and started another braid. I grabbed two cheese slices even though they would give me a stomachache. After he ate, my father designated patches of the shore for each of us. Before we scattered, he made a promise to call him close if we found something and not to touch it, no matter how hard it was to resist.

I took my sandwich to my assigned patch, which was more tide pool than rock or sand, and unlikely anything could wash up and over and into. I was fine with this. Finding would be worse than not finding. We were assured by now any biological remains washing up was unlikely, but that wasn’t the only thing of her that could destroy.

I sat on a rock and ate my sandwich. Just under the surface, barnacles fanned their feathery legs to catch the food too tiny to see. My father had made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I hadn’t had for years, and I wondered why I’d ever stopped eating them. My sister crouched in her assigned patch, and I watched her start the lift and lower of rocks. When she reached forward, a strip of skin above her waist band exposed tracks the color of raspberries her fingernails had carved.

What I thought was a fit of seagulls was actually a woman down shore, clutching something to her chest while a man wrapped his arms around her. I waited for her to drop to her knees like I’d seen others that’d found something do, as though being closer to the earth eased the ache, but she remained standing, only hunched by the weight of the man. I couldn’t tell what she was holding, maybe a piece of a blouse or jacket, maybe a patch of carpet or seat. Maybe it was just something that once belonged to the sea. But she saw what she wanted.

I felt a flutter a split-second before a seagull tore the sandwich from my hand. It got the whole thing, and disassembled it as it flew like a fake bat on a string in an old movie. I waited for my father to rage at me or the seagull, but his eyes were on the woman. A man in a yellow jacket approached her with a plastic bag. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the woman’s hands flailed with the disaster of useless language until she dropped it into the bag. Whatever it was looked small enough to be nothing from where I stood. When I looked back toward my father our things were packed, the blanked folded. Nobody said anything when we left, but we all had a feeling our father wouldn’t join us again.

Each week, something of others continued to be found. An East of Edenem> paperback. A flip flop, foam pressed dark into the print of a single, unique footprint. A bottle of medicated shampoo. A lipstick in Chatterbox Pink. A paddle hair brush. A box of tampons in a Ziploc bag.

Each finding hunched us. Though my father didn’t come, he continued to pack us lunches, water, and sunscreen and always asked to braid my sister’s hair before we left. She always let him.

Eleanor asked every Friday if we were going to search, and I said yes, because I needed to feel like I was of any use at all to her, but I’d given up. Items were still being recovered, but everything looked like it belonged to my mother, or nothing did. I realized how little I paid attention to the types of what would be her daily items. It was getting more difficult for me to breathe, especially on the shore where the humidity was high. I’d told the doctor it felt like there was water at the bottom of my lungs, too far down for the cough to reach. She said everyone had their own way of grieving and prescribed me an inhaler.

The doctor was right, of course. My sister’s grief had made her grow two inches in eight weeks. Impossible, of course, but it happened. The hem of her pants refused to cover the tops of her socks and flip flops were the only shoes that fit. If my father noticed, he didn’t say or do anything. He’d always been careful not to mention anything about the changing shape and size of our bodies. I knew mine was doing its own thing too. There was a constant ache in my stomach like I needed to eat so I did as much as I could. Even still, my pants wouldn’t stop slipping off my hips, and I found my sister’s fit me right.

By the eighth Saturday, the crowd of searchers had thinned to the man who’d lost his wife and daughters, a woman who was now clearly pregnant searching for her husband, and us. I’m not sure if everyone else had found something or had given up. For the first couple weeks, Christ the King church members had set up a table with coffee, hot chocolate and cookies for searchers, but they’d moved onto another disaster.

Eleanor continued to be the rock lifter and offered to do it for the pregnant woman. I lay the blanket out and set out what my father had packed. When he first sent us on our own, the food he packed had been indulgences — chips, donuts, soda, fruit leather — but today he’d packed blueberries, cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes, and cashews. I ate all the cheese while my sister chatted with the pregnant woman and put her hand on her arm with a “let me lift it for you.” The man with the lost wife and children approached and asked to sit on the blanket. He sat and set out a bag of beef jerky. I took a piece and it kept my mouth busy so I didn’t say anything, and neither did he. It was the first Saturday of fall, and the sky was the color of dishwater. I looked at my sister and tried to squint away the haze that seemed to follow me everywhere. I noticed for the first time the peaks of her breasts.

My father’s braiding had improved considerably and he’d managed two today, tight from the top to the tips. She’d suddenly become beautiful. The man held out the packet of jerky and I took another piece even though I’d only gummed the first piece. My cough had finally gone away, but my lungs still felt thick and wet and I’d started hiccupping. We ate jerky and watched my sister lift and lower rocks for a lifetime.

Finally, she came to me and said it was time to go. When I stood, my legs felt as useless as fins, and my feet barely left a print on the sand. She offered me her arm, and I saw her wrist was smooth, the color of the rest of her skin. Though my father had told us not to tell anyone, I considered telling the man we hadn’t known our mother was on the plane until my father got a phone call from the airline after the crash.

The morning her plane went down, she’d made us scrambled eggs and toast, reminded Eleanor about the puppy sitting she was doing for our neighbor, asked me when I thought I’d be home that night. I wanted to ask the man why he wasn’t with his family on that plane. I wanted to ask him what kind of father lets his children blow into a million pieces. I wanted to ask him what it was like to know they died terrified, waiting for their terrified mother to say it would be okay. I wanted to ask what kind of person bothers to open their eyes in the morning and bother with the inhale. I knew there was suffering worse than mine, but I wanted to see it.

My sister told me to come on. I gathered my things slowly because that was how my hands moved. I could tell by her tone she was asking the pregnant woman questions and the pregnant woman was answering them. She pointed at the ocean, which was as still as saran wrap and the color of coal. The man was on our blanket, but his gaze was lost in the ghosted ocean so we left it with him.

Our father was waiting for us in the parking lot. My sister got in the front seat and I didn’t complain. I sat in the middle and tightened the seatbelt. My father asked how it had gone, and when my hiccups flared, I let my sister answer. Her voice pressed into my ears like water. She chatted about the pregnant woman: only six weeks from her due date and had invited Eleanor to her baby shower. Mermaids were the theme. I couldn’t stop blinking to clear away the fog. Eleanor was my mother’s favorite, but I loved my mother more than she did. I didn’t blame her — Eleanor was simply a more pleasant person than I was. She had a light about her people often said. At a restaurant one night, a woman had taken my mother aside and complimented her on her beautiful children. She then motioned toward Eleanor and said, “She’s a direct line to God.” I never forgot that moment, how my cheeks had pinked at not being good enough, how ashamed I felt when my mother took my hand, sticky with snacks, in hers and said, “I know.”

Though he’d driven us each Saturday for two months, my father made a trip that should have taken an hour last two. I wrapped myself in his coat and thought about trying to sleep before the hiccups came back. My fingertips were full of the throb of nails chewed too short, though I’d never been a nail biter. There were too many roadside crosses to count, ones that had nothing to do with me or the plane crash. I tried to catch the carved names and dates, but things were mostly dark smudges. Sometimes I saw letters, but couldn’t make out the words they made.

The following Saturday was the same: me, Eleanor, the pregnant woman (who my sister had started calling Sarah) and the man who’d lost the most. My father had taken Eleanor shopping for school and didn’t complain when she got into the car wearing a new outfit. She’d started wearing make-up, too, or had she for a while now? There were a few years when I was the prettier one, at least on the outside, but now my eyes looked like coal pressed deep into dough, and a downy fuzz had appeared on my face and arms. I thought about how the doctor said everyone grieves differently, and at least the cough and hiccups were gone.

The man was already sitting on our blanket when we got there. My legs didn’t want to work right, so I crawled toward it. My sister already had her palms pressed to Sarah’s stomach by the time I got there. The man didn’t say anything about the crawling or anything else. Though there were no more coughs or hiccups, I’d been burping a lot, each dislodging a warm gush of fluid I swallowed without tasting. The man held the beef jerky out and I took a piece even though I knew I couldn’t eat. The wind picked up a scent, and I saw a dark continent of urine on my jeans. The shore refused the tug of the tide. The ocean gave back what it didn’t want or need, but we’d found nothing of our mother. Though we hadn’t admitted it, we couldn’t deny she had been leaving us. Why not? What had we ever done not to deserve being left? What had we ever done other than need? I searched for some damage to settle into, some pocket of raging muscle or stormy gut, but I felt nothing but a pulse. I looked at the man.

I knew from the news his daughters were two, five, and eight. Hazel, Harper, and Emma: names they’d probably chosen because they would be good to grow into. I knew there was enough time for the passengers to realize the disaster they were about to become a part of. For our mother to realize she was about to destroy us. I wondered if she wished we were with her at that moment, about to burst into a billion pieces a mile high more than she wished she was earthed. Maybe she fastened her own breathing device then moved onto Hazel’s for a last chance at acting like a mother. Maybe she shushed her screams, promised everything was going to be fine — it was just a storm they had to pass through.

I reached toward someone but nothing moved. My eyes were full of gray sky, lungs flat with the bottom of a breath. Some time passed, I think, before I felt the sensation of being lifted, the inconsistent motion of an uneven path, the resistance of ocean’s surface before its acceptance. The water chilled my body until I felt no difference between salt and skin, mineral and muscle, brine and bone.


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