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HalfBetween

by

Colin Thornhill

 

 
     
   

 

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HE TOOK THE LINE, AND WITH HIS THUMB, HE PRESSED IT INTO THE WOMAN'S PALM AND HELD IT THERE UNTIL HER FINGERS CLOSED AROUND IT. The little girl was asleep inside a small nook in the stern. The dinghy wobbled under their movement. They were but five minutes off the coast before she felt the seed of regret stemming in her gut. It was him to blame, but their sin to share.            

            "Wrap it," he told her.

            She took two feet of it in her left hand and looped it around her right. He came forward again and took her arm. He undid the loops and closed her hand around the first bit of line, then, circled it around her wrist three times, turning the translucent wire under and over, knotting it before the wrist opened wide into a hand. He pulled it taut a few times, her arm lurching forward each time.

            "Good," he said. "If anything catches, give it a moment. Then pull."

            She dropped her elbow to her hip. Her chin went to her chest. The dinghy tilted her forearm in sequence with her body shifts at the bow.

            "Keep your elbow tight. If something heavy bites, then so will your shoulder. Make it stiff."

The little girl slept on, her face buried in the crook of her arm and part of her dress soaked in the moisture from the floorboard. A fillet knife teetered below her feet, and a bottle of white vinegar and a canteen of water were stored as ballast up towards the bow.

            "No.   You do it like this." He maneuvered her elbow in place and held the position for a long moment, as if holding it there might keep it fixed. He had a bitter stench, as if something inside him had went rotten. She kept her eyes squinted to the east, the departed land no longer visible. Her mouth yielded to the air. She felt herself more awake, a cruel gesture, woken from death when she could sense him, when his browned skin gave off its heat, like a stubborn coal, and his sleepy, disinterested eyes betrayed no sign of quit.

            He stepped back and sat on the thwart. He looked over the side as if something were knocking, then, looked west. The island was still invisible on the horizon. He took the oars and worked them again. Her body divided the coast before him.   The wind and waves muted out all other sounds. Her arm was still held fast against her hip, but the rest of her body slouched in protest. Her head rocked slightly on her shoulders and when the dinghy rocked on its side, her entire body seemed to submit save for his one command. A buzz picked up in the distance, and his strides became deeper but still seemingly without urgency. The little girl shifted in the stern of the boat, and kept her face pressed into her arm. Her elbow rested below a perfect circle. A ring dangled from the plug that filled it, tapping the hull with each pitch.

For a moment, the woman considered shifting all her weight to one side so as to upset the balance of the dinghy - a quiet defiance, as if to tip them over - but it would be in vain for she could not swim. But it did help angle the boat away from the current - it was pulling them north while he rowed them west. It all seemed to please him despite herself. She remained still.            

            She watched the small eddies forming in the dinghy's wake, the spirals rising to swells and clapping together at their peak and splitting anew. Each wave held a short life that left no time for consideration, but instead formed into some other shape. She thought all this from her seat, line in water reaching back against the bones in her wrist, and dragging the baited hook. It lengthened and shortened with the waves, it measured the distance between her hand and his design. And it rippled through the waves. Nothing could be lured.

            "It's not working," she said.

            The wind blew strands of hair across her face. Her elbow slackened.

            "Tighten your elbow." She did.

From the light remaining, she saw only water and sand. No growth, no life, just a drowned out desert.

"I'm turning around. I can't hold my arm out like this anymore."

            She turned in her seat, dropped the arm again to regain her balance. She kept her arm loose for a moment. She wanted him to say something, to address her, to say she was defiant, but she fixed her arm back into position. Her wrist held up well considering the pull of the current. She liked that her arm could cross over her lap, in rather than out. She imagined herself from his perspective, seeing her back slouched forward, how her arms were crossed in front to hide everything from his gaze save her back, her neck, her head, and the line shooting out from her and into the sea. She waited for him to react, to get angry about this laziness, but she knew that he knew. The little girl sat up from her little cave in the stern. Her hair was a licorice brown, her skin clean of any sun, and her eyes the most piercing feature. When she was born, her mother felt a certain relief followed by revulsion - the sin come out of her, with eyes small and high and wide on the forehead, a birth defect that deflated the courage of the most confident observer. The doctor looked away. The family looked away. She looked away. They were small, so small that they conveyed no white, and pupils so large that they seemed to blot out the brown iris of her eyes, and sat very high on the forehead and so wide on the face that they appeared to be outside of her face. And the lump in the middle, small as it was, seemed barely to be a nose. Strangers averted their looks; the rest of the family could only cast about their glances to and from her, as if some immutable truth lay dormant in those eyes, a truth reserved for corners. The little girl grew to know her mother's back.

            An hour had passed before the horizon swallowed up the coast and the island appeared before them. The water blackened with life, and her arm lurched out from her waist. The catch made her forget the carefully maintained apathy and focused on the resistance at the other end of the line.

            She turned to address him, and with her arm straightened by the sea, she took in his silhouette, and the island behind him.

            He filleted the sheepshead over a wide piece of driftwood while the little girl made a game of adding wood to the fire. She ran to and from the forest edge feeding dried seagrape branches to a spitting fire. The woman flinched at the pop and hiss coming from the orange light, and massaged the thin groove in her wrist. When her arm had went out, he was quick to secure it with his own hands and pull in the sheepshead, as if she were the rod and he the reel, her limb a vessel of alarm. The fire popped, the woman flinched, and the little girl skipped along the shore.

            The fish was pierced through with a small, healthy branch and cooked over the fire. The last of the sun peeked through the forest, and the shore caught glimmers of its departure. Then the water went black and frothy. The little girl danced with her shadow along the waves, spinning and spinning like a confused wraith. He called her in to eat. He cut for her the two cheeks of the fish and half of the fillet, the woman a whole fillet, and for himself the other half and the belly, sepia-colored and sour. The little girl and the woman drank water from a canteen. He washed down his meal with vinegar. He drank it slowly, and his face showed no squint or shudder, as if his palate was immune to its bitterness. The woman watched him closely, hoped the travel had fatigued him right to his bones. He was lying over a small pile of palm fronds.

            "Can't we try to find this cabin tonight," she asked.

She wanted to keep him from the shoreline, but she worried that the cabin may sit too deep inside the island to find her way back. He closed his eyes, and her spine went weak. They opened again and stared into the darkness behind the brush. She child's strange eyes studied the flames, then the stars, and set finally upon him.

            "Is this where we're going to be forever?" asked the little girl.

            He kept his eyes on her but turned his chin in, as if to suck in air and belch. With nothing else emitting, he said "it's time to sleep."

            When she awoke, the man and the little girl were gone. She lay there confused and dizzy. The sun peered down brighter than she wanted. It was late in the morning. The sand was a mess of dips and craters. The landscape showed her alone on the beach. The bay pounded the shoreline with an intensity that alarmed her. The break of the waves muffled all other sounds.   The dinghy sat against the shore, rolling. The nose stood high in her direction, showing little movement from its tilting stern. She turned to face the tree line.

            She stood up from her knees and stretched, caked sand falling from her cheek, mouth, and forearm. She made a quiet, spitting noise. She wiped with her clean wrist. She looked at it for a moment. The groove from the wire had disappeared. She walked with slow deliberation. The rays pressed over her forehead and passed through her hair. There seemed a whole swarm of activity everywhere in the world, just outside the silence of this island, and she could sense herself darting right back into that world, free of the girl and this man, the sky inviting and blue, the wind pulling hard back towards the east. A beat started in her chest and she felt herself scurrying to the dinghy. She was let go.

            She pushed the stern easily over the shoreline. The keel broke crisply through the shore and water splashed about the dinghy. She stepped into the boat before the water passed her knees.   A retreating wave pulled her away from the shore. Her grip on the oars was automatic and efficient. She looked back to see herself already many yards away and still alone. She wanted to rejoice but made haste instead. The world seemed massive and with inexhaustible choices. She paddled in quick, staccato blows. The wind was to her aid, but the waves slapped violently against the stern. A perfect circle spit water from the hull. When she looked back, the shore had become a thin, white line. The floor of the boat was warm. The sun felt hot over the water, and her chest swelled uncomfortably. She looked down to find her feet submerged in a warm, shallow pool. She had let go of the oars and looked around her. The water was dark, all light swallowed to the bottom of the bay. She paddled on with the water rising past her ankles. She stood up and looked to the eastern horizon. She couldn't make out the coast. It was just below her knees and the dinghy let out a low gurgle. She stared back towards the island, taking in the beach, then the dense mangroves surrounding its northern tip. The left side of the dinghy submerged and more of the sea rushed into the boat's void, and the sun seemed to take up the whole of the sky, and the water was warm, but as her feet went further below the surface, she felt the cold, and she choked while looking at the sun.

           

*    *    *    *    *

            He tugged at one of the hanging mangrove branches, as if to test its strength. His fingernails were the same dark brown of the bark. It was the last branch he moved before he felt the cool, still air of the open ramada. Her lithe body draped over his shoulder like a scarf. The mosquitoes blared, the insects sang, the high chips of cormorants came in static calls, paused, and then cried again.   His furrowed, sun-worn face still carried the sleepy look he had at dusk.

            The mangroves opened up to a lagoon. Her once white sundress hung limp over her body, damp with last nights rain and spotted brown by the man's fingers. His face betrayed for the first time a relaxed expression, a slight smile. His skin, brown and hot as if it were burned from within, felt cooled by the dampened dress. His feet sank a little into the ground with each step, sometimes sliding in the mire. The mosquitoes harassed his neck. His hands scooted the bloodsuckers away, and some of them were smashed into black and red spots on his neck.

            He stopped at the foot of the pond. His arm crept up her back and his hand splayed out over her neck and the back of her head, and he eased her down, down and turning over the water, like she was spinning over the surface, like a dragonfly circling, waiting. A cypress stood broad over his shoulder, dark and mossy and full of ancient wisdom. The branches tapered over the sky, shading them from the sun. It comforted her, like a parent looking over his shoulder, keeping an eye on her. Then her toes grazed the water, her lips parted, her dark, strange eyes stared to the cypress, and she finally looked at him. He adjusted the angle of her body along the water's edge, then stretched his arms out further into the pond and rested her body in it like a doll, seated with her back straight and her legs bent so that her knees broke the surface like the knobs of a cypress knee young in years. The water was warm and silky, and the surface of the pond broke under her swaying hands. She seemed to be petting the floor, upsetting the growth. It billowed like a dark cloud around her. She followed his hands to her bony shoulders. He rested them there, then, squeezed them lightly before he pressed them downward.

            "Please," she said.

            He looked on her without anger, sadness, or disappointment. Not even confusion, but rather a look of patience, like a doctor waiting to administer a shot. For a long moment he kept his eyes fixed to hers.

            "I'm sorry," she said.

            A cormorant let out another call, muffled by the humidity. A soft illumination filled the air, otherwise drenched in green, black, brown.

            "Please," she said.

            His hands pressed down a little more firmly, but she relented, hoping instead that something else might occur, some divine intervention taking hold, changing the course of events, to start anew, and become whoever they were not. She sucked in warm, damp air. She felt surprise as her body descended into the pond. She felt no difference in temperature. It felt almost viscous. Her shoulders submerged, then, her head went under. The sounds of the island seemed to shut like a door, her ears breaking the threshold and then her eyes, and these arms pressing her into this new world. She came alive.

His face turned into a blur, and she saw the cypress waving behind him. Her hands moved from his arms to his shoulders, as if they were talking intimately, then down his torso and stopped at his belt line, and she clung to the buckle. She slid her fingers over his hip and her little hand grasped onto the bilge cap from to the boat. Her fingers pressed around the ring. She considered it.

            Then she breathed in the pond. Her eyes seemed to grow wider. Her chest convulsed. Her throat filled with water. Her toes curled in while her knees jutted out. Her arms relaxed, then shook one last time. And as her hand let go of the bilge cap, she felt herself returned.

            The water of the pond stood still, and her face held a fixed expression - one of self-reproach, and her chin lifted up in gentle gratitude. Her dark eyes gave out crystalline fluid from their corners, turning the murky water clear for a moment so that everything else remained a brown blur except those black eyes and the white skin around them. His thumbs squeezed against her collar bone, and then the rest of his fingers snaked around her shoulders and pinched her back. Only then did he notice that her hands had floated against his wrists, and had seemed to grip weakly around them.

            He lifted her out of the pond and carried her over to a fresh hole he dug with a conch shell.   Her eyelids were half-closed like her father's, sleepy. She looked most like him. The hole was dug by the edge of the surrounding brush, a wall of mangrove that roofed them in from the sun. He laid her down on the cool, black earth and held her head in his hands, feeling her cheeks with his thumbs, her flesh still so soft that it seemed to absorb the moisture from his fingers. Her head teetered loosely, still so trusting, completely giving herself up to the will of his hands. He withdrew his hands and curled up next to the hole and slept.

*     *     *     *     *

            The wind broke softly through the mangroves, then picked up with a stronger gust so that the branches waved frantically, ruffled and snapping. It would quiet then pick up again. The little girl guessed that it was 10am, maybe a half hour before noon. It was that part of the day where she never knew what to do with herself. She could occupy it with her drawings. She liked to draw figures that would stare straight at her from the page. Only her father could do this, and his stare was cold and unfeeling. Her mother could not. She couldn't bear to look at her daughter when she was born, she couldn't bear to breast feed this girl and see those eyes. She saw her as something else. And she was. Here, in the mangroves, she could be a phantom, dancing along the shoreline and darting into the forest and peeking through the mangroves with those strange, otherworldly eyes - eluding.

            Another breeze kicked up and one of the leaves, thick and fleshy, tickled her ear. She grasped it and pressed it against her cheek. Her spine relaxed and a breath came out of her like a pronouncement. She tilted her head against the rubbery leaf, turning into it as a hand would caress a face. She clinched with her other arm the branch supporting this leaf, and skittered up the neighboring branches. She came to a cluster of branches that formed a second floor that she stretched out over. She lay parallel with the ground, and wondered if she might think of herself as floating in the air. "No," she said aloud. "The branches are carrying me." She turned onto her stomach. She liked the idea of facing down on the world. She enjoyed being able to look out on the bay from this higher place. Then, the dingy came into view. It was some distance off, too far to call, but she could make out a struggle, something desperate about its movements. The little girl's body never tensed with concern. She felt sorry for this woman out there, alone in the bay - that the woman was born with that brother, and that she had birthed this little girl with a strange face, not cruelly planned... She was a swirl of fury and flight out there in the blue, struggling against two: the man, and then herself - her own shame, her own futility, and her own capitulation. For all this, the little girl was sorry.

            But the girl felt safe inside the mangroves, a world far from the separateness that defined her mother's own world. In the mangroves, everything merged together: the plants, the insects, the fish, the birds, the boars, the water, the air, the microbes and the oxygen that feeds it all. She did not love her mother, but she wished her well. And she felt herself rising under new growth, the stained hands lifting her from behind the knees and her lower back, which seemed to span the whole width of her, this giant that brought her here.

 

     

 

 

Colin Thornhill

Colin Thorhill teaches English Composition at Northern Virginia Community College in both Chantilly and Fairfax, Virgina. He is a graduate of George Mason's MFA program in fiction. He has done everything from pet stores, teaching assistantsships and construction. Our Stories is his first fiction publication.

 

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