The End of the Day
The best place to find sharks’ teeth is by the pier, so at low tide, that’s where we go. At water’s edge, my daughter and I scrape the sand while the wash foams over our feet. I cup the ocean, and an angel wing appears in my palm. In another wave, a lettered olive. But no teeth.
“This totally sucks,” I complain.
My daughter says, in Spanish, Nothing is absolute. Which is strange, because she doesn’t know Spanish, because they don’t offer language here until high school. In the meantime, teachers tweeze out slivers of state history and implant these fragments in kids’ heads. Did you know the salamander is our state amphibian? Did you know we were once the Iodine State?
My daughter, I realize, is no longer beside me. She’s moved from the water and is drawing a daisy with her finger in the sand.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
I paint flowers so they will not die, she tells me, in Spanish, again.
When we resume our hunt the next afternoon, the beach is blanketed with starfish. Thousands of them, rough and white, baking in late sun.
My daughter smirks. I tried to drown my sorrows, she says, in Spanish, but the bastards learned how to swim.
“Hey,” I say. “That’s not you.” She’s quoting Frida Kahlo, I realize, which is strange, because her school cut its art program last year. Since then, the kids meet in the library once a week to watch makeup tutorials online.
My daughter shrugs. She says, in Spanish, I am my own muse.
“That’s stealing,” I warn her. I’m a teacher myself. I know academic dishonesty.
A day later, my daughter and I climb over the dunes and discover a sailboat’s run aground on the beach. The boat lists in the sand, hull cracked, lines wrapped around the rudder and keel. The captain squats near the pulpit. “Goddammit,” the captain says.
My daughter crouches beside him. To wall in your suffering, she murmurs, in Spanish, is to let it devour you from the inside.
The captain gazes at her, then begins to wail.
“Come on,” I protest. “That’s not her line.”
“Kids need to find their own voice,” I declare.
Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain, says my daughter, in Spanish.
“Damn straight,” the captain agrees.
That night, after dropping my daughter at her dad’s house, I uncork a bottle of wine. I watch tutorials about sharks’ teeth, computer hot in my lap. A woman tells me to sift through shell beds near the shoreline, using a cake pan and a screen. “Hunker down,” she instructs. “Clear the overburden. Good stuff’s underneath.”
The next day, armed and ready, my daughter and I approach the shadows of the pier. Near the pilings, there’s the top half of a bottlenose dolphin, washed up on the sand. The dolphin’s face is serene, though everything below its dorsal fin has been gnawed away. The contrast is strangely comic. The dolphin looks like a cartoon.
My daughter says, in Spanish, Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.
“This is a nightmare,” I fret. “Why are we here?”
I never paint dreams or nightmares, says my daughter, in Spanish. I paint my own reality.
Above us, clouds redden. Waves crash.
“No more,” I vow. But when I wake in the morning, alone, there’s a pull inside me, like a bow being drawn. So, at the end of the day, I collect my daughter, and we head to the beach once again.
This time, the shore’s a thick carpet of drowning bees.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have known.”
For a moment, my daughter says nothing. Then she wades into the bees, like she’s shuffling through snow.
The thing is, my daughter is very sensitive. When the bees swarm, her legs immediately swell. She sinks to the sand, sighing, in Spanish, Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?
I rush to her. Nothing stings me, for reasons I can’t explain. I kneel beside my daughter. “We’re going to the doctor,” I say.
I am not sick, my daughter says, in Spanish, I am broken. Her voice thickens in her throat. Then she rolls to her side and draws her face in the sand. She follows the steps they taught her in school, before they cut art class: first a circle, then a stack of horizons, to plot where her features should be.
When she’s finished, my daughter says, in Spanish, I leave you my portrait, so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.
“We’re together,” I remind her. “On this terrible beach.”
I hope the exit is joyful, says my daughter, in Spanish, and I hope never to return.
Around us, the bees make their suffering plain. They emit a strange static, like somewhere a wire has frayed.
“Who are you?” I ask my daughter. It’s the most important question of my life.
I am the subject I know best, she says, in Spanish. Then she coughs, and out spills a dark wave of sharks’ teeth.
I bend to her, frantic, like when she was a baby, when I’d check her breath in the depths of the night. When she was a baby, I strapped my daughter to my chest every morning, for protection. I carried her with me to the end of each day.
This was eons ago, of course. I don’t have the strength now.
Now I press my ear to her lips, straining to hear what moves inside. Below her, amid the bees, tiny black teeth gleam. I pinch one into the murk of my mouth. It’s strange there, an odd solace, worn smooth by another tongue.
I speak to my daughter in Spanish. I say, I love you more than my own skin. When a bee lights on her cheek, I brush it away – little thing, sweet bloom of gold dust.
Malinda McCollum is the author of The Surprising Place, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review – which awarded her the Plimpton Prize – Wigleaf, McSweeney’s, Zyzzyva, Epoch, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Charleston, SC.
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