Friday
Feb062015

The Virgin

Sarah Blackman


 

At the end of one summer, Estelle was sent to live with her uncle.

 

Her mother took her to get a new haircut at a salon downtown that was so fancy it looked as if it were taking place inside an abandoned warehouse. There were flattened cardboard boxes splayed across the floor. There was the prevalent odor of mildew and a plastic antiseptic smell, like Ban-Aids. "I see," said the hairdresser before anyone said anything to him. He was a tall man wearing black and white striped pants which made him look even taller. He stooped like a snake over Estelle's shoulder and fiddled with her chin as he turned her head to and fro in the mirror.

"The problem is she's too peachy," the hairdresser said. "At a certain age, a girl wants to look less malleable, less furry." He nodded at her mother in the mirror even as he flicked on his clippers and swiped the hair from the side of her head in one buzzing pass. There was a moment of silence in the hair salon and then everything clattered on much as it had before.

Afterward, her mother held her hand as they walked to the car in the parking garage. She clicked the electronic keys on and off, locking and unlocking the door, but the car was still anonymous, far away, and the garage was full. "It's not what I would have wanted," said her mother and Estelle thought this was one of those moments in which what a person said could rearrange itself to be applied to almost everything. At any given time, Estelle thought, everything was happening all at once, but sometimes one was appallingly aware of it. A hair was in her eye, making it itch. "I think we're on level four," she said.

"No," her mother said, "We're right around the corner. I'm sure of it. I dropped some pennies out of my purse to mark the way."

 

Estelle's hair was hay colored. It looked as if it should smell like sweet grass and now it stood out all over her head in jagged tufts like hay. Her uncle's name was Maynard. He lived in a hotel in a resort town by the ocean. The Pretty Pony was the name of the hotel. Its sign didn't light up anymore, though all the bulbs were intact. The pretty pony reared and hoofed the air. When the lights were on its front legs would kick proudly from the knee. As it was, it looked like the pony had too many legs, as if, were it ever to sink back to the ground, it would hobble around, hampered by its too many legs, frustrated but still proud.

 

Estelle took a bus to the coast. Her father did not come to see her off. When she was very young her father had taken her to the zoo every Thursday afternoon. They observed the elephants giving themselves dirt baths. They tapped on the glass wall of the tarantula habitat to see it rear up and wave its legs. Solemnly, they fed the spider monkeys Ritz crackers Estelle smuggled in her mother's sequined lime-green clutch. "Into every life, a little gluttony must fall," Estelle's father said as the monkeys screeched and hopped and chased each other up and down their nest of hanging ropes. The monkeys had long, petulant, pinching fingers and Ritz cracker crumbs spangling the black fur of their chests. During the day Uncle May was the groundskeeper at a sea-side zoo that, her mother said, was small and surprisingly appointed. At night he was a bartender at the hotel in exchange for his rent. Estelle was too old to let herself be fully excited by the zoo and too young not to be afraid of the bar. "You are a bright girl with no capacity for destruction," her father said and laid his hand over the top of her head so the tip of his index finger wiggled in her ear. Her mother waved and waved as the bus pulled away, then, just before they rounded the corner, she dropped her arms and stood looking across the street toward a drycleaners and a florist shop as if she were just any person stopping suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk to consider who in her life could be persuaded to love her more fully under the influence of a bouquet.

 

Estelle was fifteen years old. Her heart beat inside her chest like a hand opening then closing tight. Her arms were just slightly unusually long. She had persuaded herself that she was both ferocious and angry. She had only very rarely been to see the sea.

 

Uncle May took her to the bar at night because there was nowhere else for her to go. It was not quite the season and not quite not the season. The smell of salt rode the air in a high, thin, bitter way as it flowed over the dunes. Some trees were losing their leaves. It was odd to see red and yellow and brown leaves skirling amidst the sand that fringed the sides of the road. It was odd to see palmetto trees, their clanking fronds as melancholy as pelicans, and then not to see them because there were so many. The bar had no name. It was the hotel bar and that was enough. Estelle sat at the very end of the bar on a high stool with a plump, cherry-red seat and drank ginger ale. Sometimes Uncle May flipped glasses in the air and made the ice cubes arc above his head like square, tumbling stars. Mostly he mopped the bar with a rag and chatted with the people who were left there, lingering past the perfect days of gold and blue, brown skin, sweat in the creases, the bold bare sunsweep of their faces looking back from the mirror. Why couldn't they leave? Estelle wondered. What were they still looking for?

The hotel bar employed a nightly band called the Blue Hawaiis who played soft jazzy covers of the Beach Boys and Don Henley. The Blue Hawaiis were all women and, when there was no one in the bar but Estelle and Uncle May, the band would lurch into strange keening songs that jangled along like a calliope while the singer, whose name was Darcie, read aloud from the bartender's guide, or Reader's Digest Abridged novels, or whatever else she happened to have at hand.

Uncle May smoked and had a grey tooth in front with a sheen like an oyster shell. He was very handsome. Estelle hated herself for drinking ginger ale but once she had ordered it the first time Uncle May brought her a glass every night without asking. Estelle didn't go to school. No one asked her about it. She wore jean shorts and sneakers without socks. Once she had put on a piece of jewelry from the selection she had packed and brought with her, she did not take it off. Her wrists and fingers and neck were slithering with beads and stones, little tinkling bells and frayed lengths of string. Estelle hated herself for needing so much attention. "Select glasses that are thin, transparent and sound off in high registers when pinged," Darcie sang. "Clean, sparkling glasses show off good drinks," she intoned.

 

Estelle's father had long thin hands. He had a sharp nose, blue eyes that often watered, very small ears, like a baby's ears, that nestled close to the sides of his head. Estelle did not think of any of these things when she thought of her father. Estelle's father was an artist. When she thought of him she thought of the knuckles on his long, thin fingers; of the swirls of color smudged into their whorls; of the pads of color pressed into his fingertips; of the thin sediment of color sinking under his nails. During the day, Estelle's father worked as a teller at the bank. He wore crisp, white shirts and pink ties. Estelle's mother wrote her letters:

Dear Honey Cake, Dear Honey Bear, Dear Honey Bee, Estelle's mother said in her letters. Estelle could not remember the time when she had lived inside her mother's body, but she thought her mother had probably said the same things to her then. All along, her mother had been addressing her as if she were far away and there were many miles of both architecture and the natural world between them. There would have been a dim red light and the sound of heavy pumping. There would have been a transparent, boneless lingering and a sudden convulsive tuck.

It isn't that he doesn't ask about you, but that he doesn't remember you right now, Estelle's mother wrote. The world he lives in is very small and very simple. It has walls, a floor, a ceiling, maybe a glass of water and that is all. I don't know what else to say. If we could become like glasses of water . . . If we could be simple and contain within ourselves only more simplicity . . .

Uncle May was her mother's brother. They did not look very much alike, but Estelle supposed there was some sort of echoing resemblance in the shape of their heads, the crooked way they held their shoulders. Which meant, of course, that the dwindling echo continued in the shape of her own head and her own crooked shoulders. Estelle looked at herself in the big, bronze framed mirror above the sink in her Uncle May's bathroom. She ran her fingers through her hair until it stood out all around her head like a thistle. She touched her front tooth. She pressed a finger into the corner of her eye until all she could see out of that eye was a round, plum-colored pressure spot. Her father had always just called her Estelle. He had a seriousness of purpose, but also a great sense of humor. Sometimes, even though she had recently played the part of Lucrezia Borgia in the school play and had a scene where she and her brother Cesare, played by Donnie Fetelli, shared a long lingering kiss in the arbor beside their ancestral home, her father reached out and ran the back of his finger along her cheek or tucked her hair behind her ear. Lucrezia Borgia had a hollow ring she used to poison other people's drinks. Her father was a pope. Estelle did not know a single thing about her mother. Not one.

 

All the roads in the town traveled in one direction. Depending on where one started this was either toward or away from the ocean. One could travel away from the ocean, but only so far before the road gave up its sense of itself and frayed into twisty little side-streets, dead cul-de-sacs, or trailer parks. One could travel toward the ocean, but that too ended in dissolution. It was not a happy town, was it? Estelle was trying to write a letter to her mother. Dear Mom, she had begun, but that was not enough. Already, she felt the meaning of the letter pulling away from its language, like wallpaper more or less gracefully sloughing away from the wall. When Estelle had gotten off the bus Uncle May was there to meet her. He was wearing jeans and a white tee shirt. He was leaning against the hood of his car and his hair was wet. The bus station was just off the highway, at the end of the fatigued street that ran through the center of town. Estelle had two canvas suitcases patterned with gloomy, over-sized cabbage roses and Uncle May said, "Those used to be your mother's. She took them to camp with her every year like she was the queen." He picked up the suitcases and slung them both into the back seat of his car. Uncle May was twenty years older than Estelle. He was the sort of man who, as he aged, would look more and more as if he had just finished recovering from a bar fight until, at some unspecified golden moment, he would blaze out with grim, unsatisfied, obliterating sexuality and then tip over into his long, slow decline.

Estelle stood in the bus station parking lot and listened for the ocean. The bus was still chugging behind her, its exhaust a hot wash against her back. Uncle May ran his knuckle over his mouth and then did it again. He was looking at her shoes, at her grubby ankles, at her knees. There was a hushing noise all around them, a moving noise, the noise of small, dry bodies, like grasshoppers, brushing along in the wind. Estelle couldn't tell whether that was the ocean or the sound of the highway. Uncle May said, "Are you thirsty? Do you want something to drink? How was your trip?" but that is not what he said.

"Seriously, would you like to stop somewhere or just go home?" said Uncle May.

 

A road, beach grass along its fringes, morning glory vines and the flat, grey pads of cactus. Palmettos stood around the 7-Eleven as if they had been erected there. Red and yellow flowers with thorny stems bloomed by the dumpster. Estelle walked by and there were children clustered around the back door. They were younger than her; three boys and two girls. The girls were smoking cigarettes and the boys were watching them. They breathed in and breathed out. No one talked.

What am I seeing? Estelle thought. She stood for awhile watching. Then, when nothing changed, she walked on.

 

When Estelle was still a cramped knot inside of her mother's body, her father was commissioned to paint a mural next to the war memorial in a park downtown. He was given a certain liberty with material and construction. In general, his instructions were to "educate and entertain."

"Beauty is bureaucratic nomenclature," Estelle's father sometimes said. He admired control but not frigidity. He kept a compact folding ruler in the back pocket of his work pants where it made the sort of bulge that, in another man's pants, would be a wallet or a can of chewing tobacco. Estelle believed her father had a great sense of humor, but, when it came down to it, she could not remember a time when he had set out with the intent to create laughter. "He is someone who encounters the world," Estelle's mother said. "Always encountering. Clash, clash, clash."

The mural ended up being part painting and part sculpture. There was broken glass involved, systematically cantilevered pieces of rebar. In some places Estelle's father had excised lines directly in the concrete retaining wall that ringed the traditionally explicit war memorial—a sad soldier, a weary gun, a list of names—and in others he had painted boxes in olive and bronze and a musty, shoebox grey. There were some shapes that might represent seed pods and deep, scything roots. There were other shapes that might represent a whirling cosmos. Estelle's father named the piece, "Acknowledgement." It received several important reviews, but was not well loved by the people who regularly attended the park or owned businesses adjoining it. "Hard to deal with," someone had written on the city's public website. "What does the guy want me to feel, guilty or something?" said someone else.

If the town planners asked Uncle May to make a piece of public art, he would probably paint a giant picture of a sandwich with one bite taken out. If the town planners asked Darcie of the Blue Hawaiians to make a piece of public art, she would create something with a lot of glinting mirrors and the sound of a groaning trombone. Estelle did not consider what she herself would make if the town planners asked her to etc . . .  Dear Mom, she wrote, The ocean looks like the ocean. The beach is kind of grey. There is a movie theatre here, but they only get the movies after they've been out for awhile. What else am I supposed to do, describe things? Everything looks the same. I look at something and I might as well have not looked at it. I look away from something and the same thing happens. Am I supposed to be learning something from this? If I am supposed to, then I am not, just so you know. I am not doing anything much. Here I am.

Estelle put the letter in an envelope and addressed it to the house in the city where her mother and father and she herself had all lived together. She put a stamp on the envelope and slid it into the dumpster behind the 7-Eleven. No one was there. The wind from the ocean slipped over the top of the nearest dune and rustled around in the beach grass. It swirled some cigarette butts into a tight little funnel and then dropped them. The red and yellow flowers bobbed on their stems for a long time after Estelle could no longer feel the wind brushing past her leg. Then they stopped bobbing and for one brilliant, over-exposed second everything was perfectly still.

 

The zoo was on top of a rise that overlooked the ocean. It was a small zoo, very long and narrow, bisected by an asphalt path. On one side of the path, visitors could amble through gardens composed of various native plants that had been specifically designed to attract indigenous species so the visitor might observe them as they went about their natural behaviors. Here one might observe a snowy plover, read a hopeful sign. Look out for the tell-tale mark of the southern red-backed vole, read another. On the other side of the path, the gibbons and lemurs, a pair of red pandas and a lone, ramshackle giraffe shifted uneasily in their cages. Behind them, through the bars, the ocean rolled and heaved.

When Uncle May worked at the zoo he wore a green groundskeeper's uniform and brown boots. The uniform was slightly too big for him. It sagged at the neck in a way that made his head look too small and too round as it rose up on top of his neck. When he worked at the bar he wore black or white t-shirts which fit him very well. Sometimes he lifted up the hem of the t-shirt and wiped his face with it. Now, when he brought Estelle her ginger ale, he dropped a maraschino cherry into the glass right in front of her. Together they watched the cherry slide down the sides of ice cubes and settle in the clear space at the bottom. It was so red its redness hovered around it and sent little tendrils up through the fizzing ginger ale. Uncle May poured himself his own drink and tapped the side of the glass with his fingers as he looked out over the bar. There were arrangements of plastic flowers on all of the tables; purple daisies, fleshy pink orchids. The band was on a break. When Estelle leaned forward what she heard was either the ocean or her Uncle's breath. The windows were fogged up and, outside, it had grown cold. In Estelle's opinion, the zoo was perfect in the expression of its intent but for the giraffe. He could see too far. He disrupted the aura of incidental discovery, of happenstance observation, because he could turn his long, morose face at the top of his sentinel neck and look out out out over the sea.

"Secretly, I hate ginger ale," she told Uncle May.

Uncle May shrugged. "Not a secret anymore," he said.

 

 

When Estelle awoke in the morning, Uncle May was often still in bed. Their bedrooms were on opposite sides of the shared living room and kitchenette. Estelle stood at the counter and ate a piece of dry toast. Through Uncle May's half-open door she could see the back of his head on the pillow, one arm flung up out of the covers, the brown stretch of his tricep, the thatch of hair in his armpit.. Sometimes, Estelle took her toast and went out. The Pretty Pony did not have a view of the water, but it was only two blocks from a public access path cut through the dunes onto the beach. Estelle stood on the boardwalk. There was a salmon pink towel unraveling at the base of the dune. There were four seagulls standing with their backs to the water, all hunching their shoulders in the same way. The ocean spit and curled and frothed in the sand. Estelle supposed there had been a change in the weather; she supposed there were words invented to describe the very specific spit and curl of the waves, the very specific green and then grey and then green again of the water. When Estelle ran her hands through her hair she could feel that the haircut had started to grow out. Because of the salt in the air, her hair felt thick and sleepy. It no longer had the thin, bright bite the hairdresser had cajoled out of it and, if she had to guess just by touch, Estelle would surmise that rather than a thistle her hair now looked like the petals of a giant sunflower drooping into the harvest. Oh well. She supposed she knew it couldn't last.

That summer she and Donnie Fetelli had gone down to the canal that ran behind a row of boarded-up red-brick warehouses at the edge of an upscale shopping district which nevertheless descended quickly into slums. There was a festival going on. Vendors were selling beer in the streets and college boys sweated in a muggy haze beneath their dreadlocks and colorful knit caps. The banks of the canal were ringed with mimosa and nets of Virginia creeper. The water itself was green and rocked in a sludgy, private fashion against the stone verge of the lock. It was true that, in the world of this century, the self no longer held covenant with the body. She and Donnie had a paper sack that contained two bottles of pink liquor and a pack of Marlboro Lights. They had an oversized picnic blanket. There was neither privacy nor an expectation of privacy and yet, up and down the banks of the canal, other couples lay under their own oversized picnic blankets. Donnie Fetelli propped himself up on one elbow and tented the blanket over his shoulder. He rolled a joint, pinching the ends of the paper between his lips with a practiced twist. He wasn't wearing a shirt and his torso was long and ropy and white. Estelle thought about nakedness, about the easy way boys could wear their bodies as if their skin was just another shirt they had chosen that morning from a heap of shirts that lay about on their bedroom floor. "Let's get fucked up," said Donnie Fetelli and they did. Later, Estelle thought how slim his entire body was, the whole length of it long and cool and uniform in its tight smoothness. "Ah ah ah," said Donnie Fetelli in her ear. The picnic blanket fluttered at its edges letting in light and the dim sounds of the festival, rising and falling and moving on.

What is there to remember about this precise moment? thought Estelle. She tried to fixate on something, a small private detail that she alone could come back to, but everything she thought of was an invention. There was nothing to remember that had actually happened. There was nothing to invent that was more interesting that what was going on right then in the muggy air between her and Donny Fetelli's rising and falling bodies.

 

A gull rose up into the air and then the other three followed. They winged around Estelle, their feet slung like fleshy petals below them, and screamed at her piece of toast. "Aw aw aw," said the gulls. Estelle shoved the toast in her mouth, crust and all, and chewed and swallowed. When she went back to the Pretty Pony she sat on the sectional couch where she could see both the television and the rest of the room. Uncle May came out of the bathroom with a white towel wrapped around his waist. Steam billowed over his shoulders. "Sorry, kiddo," he said. "I didn't know you were here." When he walked over to his bedroom and shut the door he left damp footprints in the carpet. "Our guest today has written a novel about both cooking and sex!" said the television. On the screen a woman with an uncomfortable face folded her hands in her lap and smiled. Estelle wondered how many books had been written about both cooking and sex. Probably very many. It seemed like almost everything that was being written just then was about those two subjects in conjunction with one another. On the television, the live studio audience roared and moaned. Estelle stood up and put her feet in Uncle May's wet footprints, right foot in the right footprint, left foot way over in the left. "Did you say something?" Uncle May said and popped his head out the door. "I thought I heard you say something. What did you say?"

 

Dear Mom, Estelle wrote. She made the M's very large and the o very little. She reversed it and wrote tiny inch-worm M's and the O larger and larger until finally the whole page was consumed by the letter O, its blank, ravenous center. Her wrists jingled and jangled under the weight of their collected jewelry. At that particular moment, drawing larger and larger O's, Estelle was wearing every piece of jewelry she owned around her wrists and her neck, around her fingers and ankles and toes. Tomorrow she would begin taking them off. Dear mOm, Estelle wrote. Dear MoMOMoMOMoM. This letter she stamped, sealed, addressed, and slipped in the out-going letter basket in the hotel's lobby. In two days, it would be in a different landscape entirely. Her mother would tear open the flap and hold in her hands all those pages which said and did not say her name. Estelle left the hotel and turned at the corner. She walked for awhile and when she was tired of walking she turned around and walked back. It was as simple as that, Estelle thought. Back and forth. First one thing and then the same thing, only backwards.

 

The Blue Hawaiis were having a party. It was at Darcie's house, a bungalow, screened porch, the screen packed with little diamonds of sand on the ocean side, Christmas cactus blooming in the front yard. "You're coming," Darcie said. Estelle looked at Uncle May, but he was picking at a spot on the counter with his thumbnail, looking down the bar at a bachelorette party who were staying at the hotel. They had been there for two days—sunning by the pool, which was drained, taking muffled group walks along the beach. Now it was their last night and they were at the bar drinking martinis. "To Pamela!" said one of the bachelorettes and they all lifted their tippy glasses to sway at the ends of their tippy arms. Uncle May shrugged.

"What kind of name is Pamela?" he said to Estelle. "I mean it. Is it French? It doesn't sound French."

Something had happened. A change in the weather. That morning Estelle had come upon a pelican waddling up and down the aisles of the parking lot. He had a beautiful blue stripe running down his beak and a fat, clumsy, aggressive belly which he thrust out in front of him as he waddled between the bachelorette party's bumpers and picked at the furled edges of their bumper stickers. It was hard to tell which of the bachelorettes was Pamela. They were all wearing little crowns cocked festively in their hair. They all had the same smeary, under-cooked faces. Discover Dayton, said their bumper stickers. I heart My Kinkajou. The pelican worried the edge of a sticker; he almost had it off. What would he do with it then?, Estelle wondered, but he was taking too long and, as the pelican did not rear up or flap his wings or in any other way display his madness, she moved on.

"Come on, don't be like that," said Darcie. "It's a party."

 

And it was. Fast and loud. Lots of music, different kinds of music coming out of different rooms in the tiny house. Darcie lit sparklers and stuck them along the top of the dune. Uncle May lit a cigarette and shut the car door behind him. Somewhere there was the ocean, heaving.

When Estelle was little her mother was pregnant again. "Boy or girl?" she asked Estelle. "Lucy or Oliver?" Estelle pressed her hands against her mother's stomach and her face. Her mother's stomach got bigger and bigger and Estelle bit at it with her new teeth—so white and small and round—because she loved her mother too much. Then one day her mother and father went to the hospital and when they came back they did not have a baby.

"Sometimes things happen to a person," said her father. Her mother did not say anything. Her face looked patchy, as if it had come apart and been stuck back together. At night, when she woke up and called out in the dark, her mother came into her room like always and rocked her in the rocking chair like always. Like always her mother smoothed her hair back from her forehead. Nothing had changed. Less had changed than had the baby come home, red and wrinkled, bawling with the shock of so much space. After her mother left, Estelle lay in her bed and watched the moon cross the windowpane. It was not always. It was right now. The moon went behind the pitch of the roof across the street. Estelle could no longer see it, but even without the moon to mark time, it was not always. It would never be always again. Surely, Estelle did not think these thoughts so clearly. She was only a child then, her life lived like a hyphen. But she remembered these thoughts. But she remembered the moon and the black of the sky where it was not any longer, where it had been.

"Baloom de Baloom" went the music the living room. "Teka teka teka" went the music in the kitchen. Estelle passed through. There were drinks on the tables, assortments of finger foods in thoughtful little bowls that were now deranged and left unreplenished. Estelle kept her hands at her sides. She touched nothing, was scrupulously conscious of touching nothing, leaving not even the smallest flake of skin behind to mark her passing. Two people with shaved heads were making out on the couch. Estelle passed through. The Blue Hawaii's accordion player was sitting on a stool in the kitchen playing the accordion. Estelle passed through. At the back of the house were the bedrooms, two of them side by side, separated by a short hall that led to the back door. The bedroom doors were open and faced each other. Estelle stopped and looked in the bedroom to the right. A man was lying on top of the bed asleep. He was naked, he had a beard. His penis was a fat, warm slug against his thigh and his beard tangled wetly from his mouth and moved as he breathed up and down. Estelle did not want to look at it: the matted wet hair, how it made his mouth a hole. The party seemed to have moved on, lifted up and away like someone lifting their skirts to step up a stair. Estelle turned and looked into the other bedroom but it was empty. The bed was neatly made, pillows plumped. Was it here that a choice was made? To sit and wait. But for how long, how long was she expected to suffer? Behind her, Estelle could hear the naked man breathing out of his mouth hole, a wet breath caught in his mouth hole, a smacking sound he made with his mouth hole as he continued within himself: on and on and on this fat, warm, naked man.

But there was something too within Estelle that was herself and had not quite grown to fill her body. There was a thing that moved through her and pressed itself against her chest, her stomach, against her cheek where she could feel it warm and full like a mouthful of something warm and red and cherry . . . Estelle passed through. She moved on.

The back door opened onto the dunes where dune grass feathered and waved. A wind was blowing off the ocean, blowing sand against her lips, blowing the party away behind her like a skirl of red and yellow leaves, a curl of ribbon, an aluminum can rattling down the street. At the top of the dune was the ocean. And Uncle May.

 

Once her father said . . .

 

Once her mother answered . . .

 

"If I grow up," said Estelle when she was five, "I want to be someone who can weave clothes out of straw." She was reading a book where this happened. She wanted to have a pair of pants made out of sweet, steaming hay.

"If you grow up," said her mother, shaking her head. "Oh, that's a good one. That's one I'm going to write down."

Estelle stood at the top of the dune next to Uncle May and together they looked out over the ocean. It was black and green, silver where the moon hit it, moving all at once, together, like a muscle moving under the skin. Uncle May blew smoke out of his mouth and it whipped away behind them, a long, unraveling coil of breath. Something white flashed and tingled between the waves. It was Darcie, swimming. Estelle saw her elbows cut in and out of the waves like needles, her feet thrash out of the water like thread pursing the cloth.

"Won't she be cold?" Estelle said. The dune was slipping away under her feet, sand sliding in arrows down the slope. She adjusted her weight. She caught Uncle May's arm for balance.

"She will when she gets out," said Uncle May. He turned to her. The moon was up. There was smoke in his mouth and she, Estelle, so small and, after all this, so patient, could make herself fit until she was all the way inside there: next to his warm, smoky teeth, curled up on his warm, smoky tongue. "Mostly what people want is to be plugged up," Estelle thought, "not to leak." But if she thought this or if it was only another thing someone had said, another in the very long list of people constantly talking, she could never afterward remember. Likewise the plume of grass she broke as she clutched at the dune. Likewise the scrap of Darcie's skirt that lifted like a bird from the beach and slumped back again into the sand. It is a tricky night with so much moon, so many shadows. It is a long life that begins many times, over and over, back and forth, between the dark water and the dark land.