Authors: Lauren Groff
After every dip, they huddle together under the wicking travel towels she brought and wait to stop shivering.
The older boy, who has taken to reading
in the tin shack that is a free library, makes a menhir of the beach stones. These stones, she learned, are called
. She likes best the chalk ones that look like bone cracked open to reveal gray flint marrow inside.
The little boy wanders over to a girl his age, making friends as usual.
The mother lets the sun shine on her spotted skin. Every once in a while, she checks in on her younger son, then goes back to dozing. There is something not right with her head, as if in sleep a cloud had descended through her ears and now refused to burn off in the sun.
The last time she checks on the little boy, he has moved away from the girl in her silly ruffled suit and is talking to the parents.
She stands to fetch him back. The other parents are British, she hears, when she comes close. The woman is dark-haired, gamine, emphatic. The father is charming, with a jaw too big for his head. They both wear such tiny swimsuits that the mother has difficulty looking them in the face. She hasn't spoken more than a few non-
commerce-related sentences to an adult in so long that she is also having trouble coming up with something to say.
She stands there in silence for a few breaths longer than is normal.
Hullo, the father says at last. Your boy is entertaining us.
Hi. That's him, she says. The entertainer. I hope he wasn't bothering you.
Not at all! the dark-haired woman says. He's a funny little one. He asked us an interesting question. He asked us if time will stop when the universe stops expanding.
The mother has to think about it. Will it? she says.
Space-time is a single fabric. Just warp and woof, the man says.
So. The answer is yes? the mother says, but the other two just smile, whitely.
The mother waits for them to say more, but when they don't, she says, Weird question for a four-year-old, for sure. I wonder where it came from.
Oh, the father says. I told him that I'm an astrophysicist. Four-year-olds tend not to know what that means, so I just said that I study space. Stars and black holes and things, I said.
don't know what an astrophysicist does, the mother says jokingly, but the couple look at each other. Then she wants to say that, oh, Christ, of course she knows, the condescension Europeans shower on Americans is not always warranted; she's a novelist, which is tantamount to
being a one-woman card catalogue for useless knowledge. She could teach them a thing or two. But she knows she'd sound even more pathetic to these two silky people than she already has. The three adults watch in silence as the children go back to their game, which involves using gray stones to smash the chalk off white ones.
She thinks she could perhaps salvage the situation; she has ideas of being invited over to their house for teatime, scones and clotted cream and the children running around their garden in search of something ineffableâghosts, fairies, the last gasps of cultural imperialismâand so she introduces herself and says that she and her boys are in Yport because she is researching Guy de Maupassant for a writing project.
A writer, for a certain layer of society, is catnip. Apparently not this layer. They don't offer her their names. Instead, the father says, Oh, is
it. We were wondering how you ever came to be here. We've holidayed in Yport for ten summers straight and had yet to meet an American until today.
Not missing much, the mother jokes. But he says, Indeed!
She gives up. She calls the little boy's name and says it is time to go up to the house for lunch. He hands his hammer stone to the little girl, who takes it gravely.
You know, the other woman says in a low voice, tenting her eyes with her hand against the sun. Your little boy seems a bit anxious. Of course, you must be aware.
Anxious? the mother says, surprised; her youngest son is so full of light. Not this one, she says. She gestures at her other boy, scowling in concentration, his stone sculpture larger than he is. I mean, the older one, for sure, but this little guy's pretty happy, she says.
Oh? the father says. You know him best. It's simply that he asked us what would happen if a tsunami came in the middle of the night.
We said we hoped very much a tsunami wouldn't come! the other woman says.
Then we explained that most of the houses are well above the average sea-surge level and that in all likelihood, only the boardwalk and carousel and some of the restaurants would be underwater, the father says. But nobody lives at sea level, we said. So nobody would be hurt.
The children would wake up in the morning to crabs and starfish on their front steps! the other woman says.
An adventure. No need for alarm. Right, Ellie? the father says, looking at his little girl, who gives him a pinched smile, then a sigh.
The mother says goodbye but thinks, Fuck you and your space-time, too, as she picks up her perfectly lovely and gentle and normal son. He wraps himself around her torso. She backs away. The bad feeling in her lasts until they reach the house, where the garbage has been taken from the cans, but the glass, all the wine bottles, the jars, have been set out on the step. There is no room for the mother to stand to put the key in the door. Her face
burns. Once they are in, she starts up a movie on the iPad even though the boys haven't asked for one yet, and puts all of the glass in plastic sacks, and hides them behind the bookshelf near the front door. She doesn't think her boys have noticed, but when she finishes and turns from the sink, drying her hands, the older boy is watching her through a part in his bangs.
She is drinking champagne out of the bottle. It tastes better that way, bubblier and colder, and after a week here, she wants the cold all the way inside her, to the center of her bones.
Down at the little cluster of tin shacks beside the boardwalk, a band is playing not-bad cover versions of the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, though the singer's accent makes the words go rubbery and bounce.
The sunset is so excessive it fills her with nostalgia. A hot burn, everything shot red, even the skins of the slate roof tiles. The color feels like youth.
One by one the seagulls line up on the opposite peak. The giant seagull flaps to a stop on the chimney and basks there in the light.
They're just birds, she tells herself.
In the long row of gulls, there is a mangy tiny one at the center. It struggles its shoulders against its neighbors, too skinny to be at ease like the rest of the birds.
They've gone quiet again. And she doesn't know what she is watching at first when the seagull to the left of the mangy one seems to bow its head at the shivering thing, and then the one to the right does, both of them bowing and bowing. Perhaps the little one is some kind of prince bird, perhaps they are paying their respects, she thinks, confused, and then the other seagulls nearby move in on the bowing, and only then does she understand that they aren't bowing, they are killing the skinny tiny gull, pecking it to death.
Surely, if she hurls the bottle at them they'll stop. But she has frozen, and the murder is over so quickly, a heap of bloody feathers that slides out of view.
It has all been done in silence, though a high buzzing has risen to her ears from inside. The little seagull didn't even scream; it accepted meekly, it seemed to offer itself to the others. Surely it had a right, at least, to a scream. Even if it couldn't avoid the outcome, it had the luxury of protest.
The band on the boardwalk has slid into Kashmir.
I am a traveler of both time and space: I yam at raveler of boat I'm and spice.
She winches the skylights shut, puts plugs in her ears and presses pillows against them, and the furling music and the sudden screaming of the seagulls at the loss of the sun becomes only a small hubbub at the very center of her brain, where the heat pulses on and on, and won't stop.
The road curves, and as it does, the mass of cornstalks chest-high in the fields separates into clear rows, as if a comb has passed through. Deeper into the curve, the corn masses together again.
The boys want to talk to their father in Florida. It has been more than a week. She keeps meaning to fix the wifi or ask the owner to do so, but she keeps being distracted. It is early in the morning, five-thirty in Florida, but August means that her husband works from dawn to midnight, and even if she and her boys had been in the house, they'd have been an irritation to him. She knows her husband will be awake by now and worrying his coffee.
They are going to the giant Carrefour up the road, a kind of massive grocery store with a cheese store, an in-house optometrist, a media section, a cafÃ©. Surely, they will offer wifi. She can buy prepackaged meals; she is growing tired of what she could make with the single saucepan and skillet at the house. She can buy DVDs in French for the boys. She can buy wine so the lady at the
won't twist her tight lips in and out and look at the mother calculatingly when she rings up the bottles. She can buy socks, because she brought none for her sons and their sandals add a new thick layer of stink to the house. An invasive species from America, the megastore.
Once inside, she tries Skype on her phone, but it trills and trills and her husband doesn't answer.
Where is he? the little one says.
Out running! she says brightly. She buys them a
chausson aux pommes
Up the aisles. Jam, brioche, eggs, cheese.
Down the aisles. Wine, pickles, packaged carrot salad, fruit. It is comforting, this cleanness, the neatness here.
They try again and again and again, bleeping until the call trails off.
In the backseat, the older boy stares at his hands.
What's wrong, Monkey? she says.
He doesn't want to talk to us, he says in a low voice.
That's not true, she says. He loves you. He's always happy to talk to you.
Then he doesn't want to talk to you.
That's not it, either. She thinks quickly. He's probably out for breakfast. You know he won't make himself breakfast if we're not around.
Not even cereal? the older boy says skeptically.
He's probably skinny, she says. Wasted. A skeleton of his previous self.
No. I bet he eats burritos like three times a day, the older boy says, and he brightens. I bet he's superfat. Like when we get home, we won't even know who he is. He's smooshing out of his clothes.
I bet he's dead, the little boy says. He gives a little chuckle.
Hey! That's not nice, she says.
I didn't say I
, I said I
, the little one says.
I bet he's at Bill and Carol's right now, the older boy says. I bet he has an omelet and a stack of pancakes and a biscuit with butter and honey and toast and coffee and orange juice and hash browns, and is just like shoving it all in like a steam shovel. It's like falling all out of his mouth.
Yuck, the little boy says.
And a milkshake and a banana split and vegan chocolate cake and corn nuggets and a tempeh Reuben and french fries and hot sauce. And lobster soup and baked potatoes and broccoli and bean tacos.
When her bigger boy is like this, almost smiling, she wants to fold his triangular fawn's face in her hand and keep it warm there forever.
The little boy throws up into his lap.
In the morning, the glass bottles are again on the steps, so many, ghosts of her nights. Someone is trying to tell her something. She heaps them inside, behind the front door. The pile makes her desperate.
There is too much noise and fog in her head to leave the house all morning, and she lets the boys stay in their pajamas after breakfast and they watch
She feels obligated to attend to Guy. She can't bear the biographies, the sour ugly man in them makes her feel sick, so she returns to the Guy she likes, the young man
who wrote her favorite of his stories, “Histoire d'une Fille de Ferme.” The prose is beautiful, simple. It begins with a servant girl on a farm, on a torpid day, going out to a sweet-smelling little hollow full of violets to take a nap.
As the mother reads, she can almost see Guy's square young face in the open window; it is 1881, Ãtretat, a relatively warm day in early March. There are carriage and seabird sounds coming into the room. Papers breathe under the stone weight. Guy touches his moustache nervously with his tiny callused hand, dreaming a fiction into life, a farm girl lying back in her damp hollow, sex stirring in her body. Inside Guy, the imagined girl is being made real; in the mother's imagining of him, Guy is also being made real.
Now the boys run over to her because
has ended. The little boy farts, then raises a finger into the air like a gun and says,
When they finally go down to the beach, they find the tide all the way withdrawn, a wasteland of black and green, and the older boy says, in Captain Haddock's voice,
Mille milliards de mille sabords.
They sit anyway, out of the wind at the pop-up free library. The teenager who watches them, day after day, lets them be. The mother finds Marguerite Duras and Michel Houellebecq and J. M. G. Le ClÃ©zio, and the boys flip through
, and she reads and ignores the shelf of Maupassant staring down at her.
, a book that has always struck her as contemptible, too cynical to be believed. There is no love in the book, not even in the mother character for her smart and naughty son.
From time to time, she looks up at the tiny figures picking at the edges of the receding tide, then back at her book to read.
The sun grows warmer. She takes off her jacket.
There is something beating louder in her, behind her thoughts and the book's taut words, something terrible, but she can't look at it, she needs to look away; if she looks at it, it will come even closer to her, rub up against her, and she can't let it, all alone in this cold place with her two small boys to care for.