Everything is shabby. The bricks weep mortar, and green vines snake out of the lawn onto the sidewalk. The yard is dotted with clumps of jagged weeds, and the house itself seems shrunken, turned in upon itself like a closed fist. The midday warmth mingles with the smell of sulfur, and Annie is knocked back into childhood. She is afraid to go in. She wants to run in back of the house and hide. Hide with her legs sticking out, where her mother can find her if she’s in the mood and pull her out and smack her butt with the wooden spoon kept especially for this purpose. But it is different now. She could get back in the rental car and drive to the motel, where Becca waits with a sitter, and head to the airport. Becca, her solid, small girl who is afraid of nothing but the dark. Annie smooths back her hair, springy from the humidity, and climbs the cement steps. The screen door is rusted out and the mesh pulls away from the frame. She opens it carefully and knocks. Amelia opens the door. Annie can see from her cheekbones that she has some Indian blood. She is a big woman, thick rather than fat, with muscles that roll under her skin as she pushes the swollen door wide open.
“Hello, baby. I’m so glad you came to visit us. Nice to put a face to the phone.”
There is no rebuke in her voice. Annie is flooded with gratitude.
“Thank you,” she says, “thank you for everything.”
“Come on in out of the heat.”
Annie steps over the threshold into the cool room; it smells of mold and lilac.
“She’s a fine woman, your mama.” Amelia smiles at Annie. “I’m proud to take care of her.”
* * *
Annie sits in her mother’s old boudoir chair with its channeled back and ochre seat, the nap worn away and leprous. She sits at a distance; she’s not ready to go near her. Her mother sits propped up in an armchair. Everything about her is condensed, retracted: her arms shrunken, her hands withered and twisted, brindled with age spots. She is so reduced now, her feet in pink chenille slippers, dangling; her ankles, swaddled in support hose like bandaged sticks. Her head is almost hairless, covered with a hairnet. Underneath, the few remaining white wisps are pulled back over her naked scalp. Innocent and obscene, the pate shines through. Her neck is gone; there is a continuum from her chin to her chest. All of her falling away from the bone, collapsed in a flowered housedress.
Unrecognizable. Even the scent sanitized. But underneath the lilac cologne is the smell of decay. She is a tree rotted out from the inside, balanced, waiting to fall. “Hello, Mama,” Annie whispers.
Her mother’s eyes are vacant. Her mouth falls open a little and she lists in the armchair. “Mama? It’s me.”
“Here.” Amelia bustles in from the kitchen with a tray. “Time for your treat, darlin’.” She tucks a napkin into the throat of the housedress and hands Annie a small spoon. “She loves her treat.” She smiles at Annie. “You be a good girl now,” she says to the husk of a woman who once was Annie’s mother. Amelia turns away and goes through the door that leads into the kitchen. Annie hears her humming and water running. She crosses the room and sits near her mother, who waits, wordless and eager. The corners of her mouth are moist and her fingers flutter with desire. Applesauce. Annie dips into the china bowl and a shepherdess peeps out from the bottom. It is the last of the china hidden away in the mahogany sideboard, the Staffordshire that her mother bought in Mexico on her honeymoon. Annie scoops out a little applesauce with a demitasse spoon and brings it near her mother’s mouth. The old woman opens her mouth wide and sticks out her tongue. Annie pushes the spoon into her mother’s mouth and she sucks the applesauce in, smacking her lips together. She is like a baby, eager for pleasure and unprepared for disappointment.
“Oh, Mama,” Annie says.
* * *
It is evening. Annie watches Amelia give her mother a sponge bath with a soft cloth, the water sloshing on her lap as she leans in. Her mother closes her eyes obediently as Amelia cleans her face. Amelia opens a drawer beside the bed and takes out a small bottle. She squirts cream on both her hands and massages the feet first, with their thick, yellowed nails and twisted toes splayed at wild angles. Then she moves on gently to the ancient ankles, knotted with veins, the skin transparent.
“Circulation. The feet and the heart.”
Amelia lifts her mother deftly, stripping off her slip. Annie looks away. “Italian cotton, soft. Always the best.” Amelia nods with satisfaction and pulls down the plain white nightgown. She lifts her again and pulls the sheet up to her chin. “Sweet dreams, darling. You visit as long as you like.” Amelia pats Annie’s hand gently and goes out the door.
Annie pulls her chair closer to the bed, watching her mother breathe. The air whistles in and out of her lungs, the strangled sound of strained respiration. Now the old woman chokes, the tendons of her neck pulse, and she reddens, gasping. Annie pulls her forward by the shoulders. She is light, as if her bones are already empty, marrowless and ready to fly. Annie rubs her mother’s back gently. It passes and she lays her mother back down, still asleep. Annie wonders when it will stop, this labored breathing. Her mother is already gone, leaving this trickster husk in her place.
Nothing has really changed in the room, not the dark mahogany furniture or the Chinese rug with its lanterns and dragons. But everything is different. Annie gets up and goes to her mother’s dressing table. She sits down in front of the arched mirror. On the table there is a silver brush and the Arpege dusting powder. Annie opens the black plastic box, smelling the pink puff caked with powder, smelling the scent of her mother’s body. She puts the lid back on and opens the table drawer stealthily, aware of her mother behind her in the bed, waiting for her mother to scream out, “Thief!” but there is only the noise of air rasping out of her lungs. The drawer is empty except for a solitary twist-out eyebrow pencil. It rattles against the side as she closes the drawer. Looking up, she startles at the face in the mirror. She sees her mother’s face melded with her own—the arch of the lip and the curve of the jaw are surely her mother’s.
She pushes away and stands. It is then that she sees a stack of photographs, tucked into the edge of the dressing table mirror. The yellowed edges curl up, the glossy surfaces cracked. The first is a photograph of herself and Zoe at the beach. They look around five and three. They are holding hands, each of them clutching a pail. In the next photo, they are older; no longer holding hands, wearing matching polka-dot dresses. Zoe is younger than eleven; perhaps a precocious ten. Annie looks straight into the camera with a tentative happiness that she can’t remember.
She flips over the last photo. In the white-framed square of the picture, Zoe stands alone, freckled and triumphant, holding a prize she has just won for jumping. And Annie remembers. She remembers the dustiness of the day, the smell of the horses and the embroidery on her mother’s handkerchief that she wore tucked in at the neck in case she perspired.
Annie gets up and goes to her mother. She sits down on the bed and picks up her mother’s hand, holding it in hers. Her mother opens her eyes for a moment. There is a glint of recognition.
“Mama, it’s me, it’s Annie.” She begins to cry without feeling. It is like she is leaking. Her mother looks at her, puzzled. She looks, for a moment, like a worried child.
“I know you know me,” Annie whispers.
Her mother’s eyes close, rolling restlessly beneath the thin lids.
“I have a little girl now. I named her Rebecca for Daddy’s mother; she’s strong and smart and pretty. You’re going to love her; she’s the sweetest girl.” Annie tightens her grip, as if her mother is going to escape before she can finish.
“I have my own little girl, Mama. She has blue eyes just like you, and when she runs, she looks just like Zoe. You know, one foot turned in. I saw it as soon as she could walk. And the way she brushes her hair away with the back of her hand—” she waits, but there is nothing. Annie is suddenly seized by fury.
“She has epilepsy. Epilepsy, Mama. You see? I can say it. Fits. Just like my sister.”
Her mother is breathing more gently now. Annie takes her by the shoulders, squeezing. “Pay attention!” she says, shaking her.
“You knew Zoe wasn’t pretending. You knew she was sick. Your brother had it—you knew there was something wrong with Zoe. But you didn’t help her; you let her die.” Annie shakes her mother harder, and her head bobs back and forth.
“She drowned because of you. You hear me? Say it, Mama. She drowned because of you. Not me! Because of you,” Annie cries, and lets go. Her mother falls back on the pillow like a puppet with its strings cut. Annie puts her head down on the bones of her mother’s calcified lap and cries.
* * *
Annie has waited for the end of the day, when the sun will disappear into the sullen waters of the gulf. It is cooler now, and she walks along the seawall, her fingers interlaced with Becca’s. Her daughter skips by her side, jerking at her arm. There is a little shop with an awning down the boardwalk. Becca sees it and pulls her hand free, running ahead. She stops at a distance, looking back at her mother inquiringly. Annie nods and Becca disappears inside. Annie is alone on the boardwalk. She notices how tawdry everything is. The cement is spotted with blackened gum; the grass between the pavement and the road is littered with crushed beer cans, cigarette stubs, and condoms. Ahead of her is the pier where the remains of the Balinese Room stand. The building is vacant, its windows smashed in. The pier itself is half-underwater, and the green roof that had been a landmark has collapsed. Still, below her, the rocks are the same, jutting up jagged and black as mussels, the gulf itself lapping at the shore reluctantly. The tourist shops are new. There were never tourists, but now Galveston itself is a curiosity. She suddenly regrets letting Becca go in the store by herself and hurries to catch up.
The store is no more than a shed with a battered awning. Enormous conch shells with lurid pink interiors flank the entry. Inside it is dark and cool, the walls draped with fishing net. Tangled in it is a haul of starfish and fake lobsters. Becca stands inside, mesmerized. Annie sees her from behind, her solid calves, and the curve of her shoulders, and is seized by a ferocious love. She could lift an automobile off her child; she would die for her.
Becca is inspecting a figurine of a woman made of olive shells glued together. She puts it down.
“Look at the blowfish!” She turns to her mother with excitement and points up. The ceiling is hung with dried fish. They are suspended from the ceiling like a fleet of little blimps. Annie nods and picks up a bag of shells in red plastic mesh. Shells shaped like turkey wings, cowries, and bits of brain coral.
“Would you like these as a souvenir?” she holds the weight of the little bag in her palm.
“Can I get a blowfish? They’re so fat and spiny with those little mouths.”
“It will smell.”
“It’ll remind me of the ocean. You were lucky, growing up here by the ocean.” Annie pays and they walk out into the evening light. “Are we going to see my grandmother now?” Becca asks, blinking.
“Not now. We’re going to take a beach walk.”
“But we’ll see her?”
“Is she still beautiful?”
“No,” Annie says.
“But she’s still your mother. I know the picture. The one with those braids up in a twist. Like a dancer. But not so happy.”
“That’s a picture,” Annie answers.
There is an opening in the seawall; cement stairs descend down to the beach.
“This is a good place,” Annie says. “We’ll go down here.”
* * *
The seawall is high above the beach, built to resist twisters and flooding. The stairs run straight down, the edges worn away.
“Hold my hand.” She reaches out to her daughter.
“I can do it myself,” Becca asserts.
“But I can’t.” Becca looks at her mother, surprised, then takes her hand, squeezing tight.
They take off their shoes at the beach. Annie puts them in the canvas bag she carries. Becca stays close to her mother’s side, dragging her toes to pattern the sand. They walk close to the edge, between the clumps of seaweed and the water itself. Becca stops and kneels, inspecting the carcass of a dead crab with a reddish shell. She pokes it carefully, touching its underbelly with her finger. Then she picks it up and holds it in her palm.
She holds it out for Annie to see. “Look.”
“Beautiful,” Annie says. “Perfect.”
“Is it alive?”
“You know it’s not.” Annie looks at her and Becca, inscrutable, walks down to the water, wades in up to her ankles, then squats, releasing the crab from her hand. It bobs, floating.
“It’s dead; I thought the water would make it better.”
“There are lots of live crabs. Hermit crabs.” Annie points at the small, shelled crabs scuttling along the ocean edge. She picks up a conical shell that is moving sideways toward the water and holds it out to her daughter. The crab retracts quickly, folding itself in, flat and defended. They wait a moment and it emerges carefully, waving its tiny claws.
“The shell keeps it safe,” Becca says.
“It finds an empty shell to protect its soft underbelly.” Annie tosses it into the ocean.
“Where are we going?” Becca reaches for Annie’s hand.
“We’re walking until you find a starfish.”
“Then I’ll find one.” Becca races off down the beach, startling the sandpipers.
Annie wades into the water. She feels the warm surf and the silt of the sandy bottom with her toes. She stands very still, listening, but there is only the repetition of the water rolling in. She is waiting for the evening sun to light up the crest of the waves, for the wind to come up, and with it the rise of the tide. Nothing can be forgotten; her sister will always be with her, and yet she is gone. Only the water is forever.
She wades back to the beach with her back toward the rising wind, up to where the sand is dry and there are hulks of driftwood. The sand is beginning to swirl, stinging her calves. Up ahead, she sees her daughter. She’s in the water up to her knees, past the yellowed foam of the surf.
“Out of the water!” Annie calls.
But Becca is too far ahead to hear her. She is moving toward the sandbar, where the water is clear. Annie feels the heat ebbing away now, the sun drifting toward the ocean. She knows the tide is coming in.
“Becca!” she calls and starts to run.
She can barely see her daughter. Annie is running, kicking up sand, she races down to the water’s edge. Broken shells cut at her feet, but she feels nothing.
“Becca!” she calls, and then she sees her between the shadows of the waves and the setting sun, illuminated, golden, and glowing. Annie splashes out to her against the pull of the tide.
“Look, Mama.” Becca turns to her, smiling. “Look what I found.” And she holds out the starfish wrapped around her fingers.
Becca is standing on the edge of a sandbar in the shallow water. The water churns, dark and treacherous on the other side. Annie lifts her daughter up, holding her high over the swells, and wades back to the beach.
“I found it,” Becca says, triumphant.
“We can stop now.”
“We can stop.” Annie puts her down. She leads Becca back up the beach to the rocks and finds a sandy place between the boulders that’s sheltered from the wind.
“Look,” Becca says. The starfish has wound around her fingers with its spatulated rays. She pulls it off carefully and wraps it around her wrist. “Now it’s a bracelet,” she says, delighted. “Can I wear it for a while?”
“Yes, if you sit on my lap. We’ll put it back in the water later.” Becca moves over, her legs gritty against Annie’s skin. Annie folds her into her body, her arms blanketing her daughter from the wind and the swirl of the sand. Becca leans in against her. “Tell me a story. A story about the two girls.”
“It’s been a long time since I told you those stories,” Annie says. “Can’t we sit quietly?”
“No. I need a story now. Please.” She turns and hugs her mother close. Annie can feel the rhythm of Becca’s heart against her body. “Tell me again. Once there were two little girls,” she begins. “And they had a dog named T. John, who was a giant red-haired poodle.”
“And he always took care of them, no matter what. He could be a dog or a seal. He could fly if he needed to, but mostly he was a practical joker.” Becca looks at her mother expectantly.
“No,” Annie says. “He couldn’t take care of them all the time.”
“He did. You always said. There was the time in the forest when they were lost, and the time in the fire when he flew, and the time in the ocean when he was a seal.”
“You were a little girl when I told those stories. But now you know. No one can take care of anyone all the time.”
“That’s not the story,” Becca says.
“Sometimes you decide to tell to tell a story where magic saves everybody. But you know that’s impossible.”
“You always take care of me,” Becca says. “Always.”
“Stay here. Wait for me.” Annie stands, opens the canvas bag, and takes out the blue-and-white china urn that she has taken from her mother’s mantel. She tucks it under her arm and walks to the edge of the water. The clouds are striated, pinked by the light. A sliver of moon rises up to meet the sun as it disappears. Annie stands for a moment, feeling the wind on her face and listening. There is only the hiss of sand and the rumble of water. She wades slowly into the choppy waves, holding the urn. There is a seal, but she breaks it open and reaches inside. She feels the ashes, light as burnt paper on her fingertips, and the porous bits of bone. She lets the silt of her sister fall between her fingers. Sifting, she scoops the ash up and clenches it in her fist. She opens her hand and let’s go. It falls away, and there is nothing but dust left on her hand. She scoops it up again, tossing it out as far as she can, wrenching her arm, the bits of bone dropping down into darkened waves and water; the ash, lifted by the wind for a moment, disappears. She throws and throws again. It is suddenly dark, and her daughter is beside her, reaching for her hand.
“Mama?” Becca says. Annie does not answer. There is more ash than she has imagined. “What are you doing?” Becca asks.
“Scattering my sister,” Annie says. She dumps the last of the ash out of the urn, shaking it hard. The ash catches the wind and disappears in the darkened air.
“Let’s say a prayer,” Annie says. “A prayer to the wind.” She catches up Becca, who wraps her wet legs around her mother’s waist, crossing her ankles. Becca nestles her face into the curve of her mother’s neck, away from the wind and the spray. The wet tips of her hair blow across Annie’s face.
“A prayer to the wind,” she echoes in her mother’s ear. “A prayer to the wind and the water.”
Susan Haar’s work has been primarily in theater. Her play The Darlings was published by Broadway Publishing (2006). Her plays have also been published in The Best Men’s Stage Monologues of 2007 and in The Best 10-Minute Plays of 2018. Her work has been produced at Primary Stages, The Women’s Project, 13th Street Rep, and a variety of other venues. Her work has been recently published in The Borfski Press, The Furious Gazelle, Glint Literary Magazine, and Saint Ann’s Review. She is a member of The Actors Studio, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and HB Playwright’s Unit, was a selected participant at The Women’s Project, and served a residency at New River Dramatists. She received her J.D. and a B.A. in visual studies from Harvard University. She is currently a real estate consultant to the dean of New York University Law School. When she’s not writing, she enjoys gardening and beekeeping. She has epilepsy, as does her daughter, which is a subject that is threaded through her fiction. Her work can be found at www.susanevehaar.com.