Like the Grains of Sand

I sit quietly on my log beside the fire as Rena gathers the ingredients for our breakfast. Normally I’m the one to do this–crack and roast the snails, wash the sea greens, brew the coffee. Normally, she can’t be bothered. Not unless it’s sewing she’s asked to do, and even then she shuts herself into her room and takes twice the time she should. But today, Rena insisted it was her turn to prepare the food.

“Sit down and relax, Gram,” she said. “Let me do it for once.”

Took me by surprise, that did. Even though Rena never knew her mam, she’d been like her since birth. Taunting the lighthouse ghosts with the boys who ain’t learned fishing yet, sleeping in the woods just to prove she didn’t need the sea, disappearing for days at a time. But looking into her black eyes, her mam’s eyes, I still see heart.

Not that Rena’d ever admit it. She’s also got her mam’s way of not wanting to seem weak, of not wanting to care about anything at all.

As Rena rinses the sea greens in a bowl of fresh water, I push my toes into the warm sand and start the telling.

“Back in my day,” I begin, “there used to be special creatures called birds. And the birds were the greatest creatures that ever existed, far as we was concerned. Because the birds knew how to fish. Knew it better than any ‘ol human ever did. Best of all, they shared with us. And we called them fisherbirds.”

Rena sighs, a long, exaggerated sigh. I know she thinks it’s senility that makes me tell the same stories over and over again.

“We also called them partners, friends, and life,” I say. “And they called us comfort, warmth, and home.”

It’s important that she knows of her past, of our history. When I’m gone, ain’t none of them boys or old men who still act like boys goin’ to tell her about herself, about who we were before. The younglings don’t know for nuthin and the older ones would like to forget. Forgetting’s easy. It’s the ‘membering that hurts.

“You’d have liked the divers,” I tell her. “They could dive deeper than you ever could, down to where the sea is black and cold. Brought back all sorts of juicy treats. And the pattern on their coats, all black and white spots, was so geometrical you’d think someone mapped it out while they slept.”

Rena’s face is stoic. She’s cracking snail shells like the birds used to do for us, though with half the talent and taking twice the time. I taught her, though, so she’s better than most. Better than all the men for sure, never mind what they say.

Rena fumbles a snail in her hands and drops it into the gritty sand. “Stupid snail,” she grumbles, picking it up.

“Speaking of snails,” I say, “we sure could use a harpoon fisherbird right now. Girl, were they a sight. Plunging into the crystal liquid, silvery plumage all slick-smooth like that friend of yours, what’s his name, with the greased up hair? Jax. Just like that. And they shucked our snails and clams better than human fingers ever could, saving only greasy scraps for themselves.”

“I can shuck these snails just fine, Gram.”

I give her a look but try not to condescend. She’s doing pretty well for a human.
“Well, let me tell you ’bout the babbies then,” I say. “All the chickie babbies just loved humans. Come spring, you’d have fuzzy chicks tumbling fluff over beak in your lap, chirping and clucking, making you laugh like you never had before.”

“Wish you could see them,” I sigh. “I’ll never forget the way the water drops looked on their feathers. Like little sacred jewels.”

“The birds aren’t gone, Gram,” Rena says, looking up from her work. “How many times do I have to remind you? We have chickens.”

That’s the one difference between my grandotty Rena and my dotty Phoeb. Rena doesn’t care about the birds. Phoeb did. I should have talked about them more when Rena was younger. If only they hadn’t reminded me so much of Phoeb, of everything sad and wrong in the world.

“Chickens aren’t birds,” I tell her, just like I always tell her. “A chicken couldn’t catch a fish if you spent every day teaching him the trick of it. A chicken’s worse than a drunken ol’ man who’s had all his fingers chomped to bits by sharks.”

Rena sighs, then tosses a heap of just-rinsed snails into the skillet. “Well I already heard all your stories just the same,” she says impatiently. “I know them by heart.”

“Good,” I say. “That’s very good. Because you can’t lose what you keep in your heart. Ain’t no forgetting what you make sure to repeat. Say the words often enough, they’ll work their way inside just about everything, into all kinds of places you didn’t know words could go. Like the grains of sand you find in your ears, even though you’d only walked barefoot for just a few minutes, not even in the wind, and several days ago besides.”

As I say this last bit about the sand, I stick my finger in her ear, playful-like, and give her a tickle.

“Careful, Gram,” she whines. “You’ll wreck my sewing stuff, carrying on like that.”

Rena has her sewing materials beside her on the log but I can’t quite tell what she’s making. From where I’m sitting, it’s just a pile of black and white material that shines.
I’m feeling playful, though, so I make for her ear again.

She dodges me and her scowl breaks like a wave against the rocks. Laughing, she asks, “What’s with you, Gram?”

I smile and shake my head. “Don’t know,” I say, leaning over and rustling her ebony hair with my hand. “But your mam used to love my stories.”

Rena’s eyes brighten and she sits up straight on her log. I almost never talk about her mam.

“That girl, she’d curl up at my feet and listen for hours if I let her, right past supper into the night.”

A sob catches in my throat, sudden-like, and I pause. This is why I don’t talk about my Phoeb, even after all this time. But today there’s something, something like an itch in my brain that makes me want to tell my grandotty about her mam. Her mam, who died before Rena’d seen her first year, who died because I put stories and hopes in her head.

I take a breath and keep on. “She looked like you. Had your eyes and that same amber skin. If you’d have ever seen your gramps, you’d know you both took after him.”

Rena sets her wooden spoon in the skillet and closes her eyes. She’s thinking ’bout her mam and maybe her gramps, too.

The smell of roasting snails is making my belly grumble. Snails ain’t no fish, a course–we haven’t had fish in days even though the menfolk have been out looking all week–but at least we have some sort a meat.

“Sometimes I worry,” I muse, “that the fish have started leaving just like the birds. That somehow, we need birds in order to have the fish. That’s the thing about this world. You mess up one part over here, ‘nother part over somewhere else is bound to get messed up too. There’s a balance to it, a balance we destroyed when we got to thinking we was better than the birds, smarter and faster and all that nonsense. They knew this world’s working better than we ever could.”

Rena’s eyes are open again but she doesn’t say a word. After a bit, she just goes back to stirring.

“They were all male birds, right?” she asks. “Your fisherbirds?”

I want to tell her that back then, back when the birds did the fishing, we humans split all the other chores between us, man and woman alike. That it wasn’t only men who fished and only women who cooked and cleaned. But the idea that we could all work together, that we didn’t have to compete over bragging rights about who caught the biggest fish, would be lost on her. Lost, like so many other things about my world, about what was and what could be.

So alls I say is, “No, honey, they weren’t all males.”

The food’s ready now and Rena’s scooping it into our bowls. Snails on one side, greens on the other. I help out just a little, by pouring the coffee into our mugs.

Rena chews her snails slowly, like I taught her. ‘Cause there ain’t no guarantee we’ll get more tomorrow.

I test the thick, gritty liquid first. She brewed the grounds in the water, like I’ve always done. It’s just right. I take a few more sips, then wedge the mug down in the sand so it don’t spill, and pop a snail in my mouth. It’s warm and salty, chewy but not overdone.

“Good snails, Rena. You did a fine job.”

She shrugs and takes another bite. Mouth still full, she asks, “What happened to the fisherbirds, Gram?”

What she means by asking this, I figure, is what happened to her mam. But she’s not ready to ask outright and I’m not ready to put the thing of it into words. So instead, she asks this other, easier thing.

I could tell her now. I could tell her how I once tried bringing the fisherbirds back, tried starting over. I could tell her that it didn’t work, that the cost was too great, and I couldn’t bear to pay it again. I could tell her how I decided memory would have to do, that I’d keep the fisherbirds alive in words and story and song, that I wouldn’t try to bring them back again, bad as we needed ’em around.

And I _will_ tell her, just like I always do. A version of it, anyway. But it’ll take me some time to get there, to say it aloud, to work through the pain. Just like it always does.

“I’ll get there,” I say. “When I’m ready.”

“Okay,” Rena says. “I’m listening.”

I cough, almost choking on a snail. She’s never willingly listened to my stories before, much less told me outright that she would. She has me wondering what makes now different than all the other times. But I won’t ask, for fear she’ll close me out. Probably, she just hopes I’ll say some more words about her mam, make her more solid, more like sand.

Best to just keep telling.

“We had us another partner, too,” I say. “This little fisherbird with an ugly black head and hair so mussed you’d think him good for nuthin but dancing in the wind. Plumage all a-puff, chest filled with air, he always reminded me of a young soldier heading off to war, not knowing what a terrible thing war is. But girl, those mussed-up, puffed-up birds were real business-like. Not like some a the men, getting drunk and drifting off, dreaming of women-folk’s naked rubies. Those birds could fish. We called ’em crazies ’cause of their wild feathers and mean looks. But soon as the sun went down, they’d cuddle up with us for warmth.”

“Did my mam ever see a fisherbird, Gram?”

“Wish she did,” I say, looking out over the sea. I thought I heard the squawk of a paddler or a spoonbill, but now I realize it was just the chickens playing tricks. It’s only ever the chickens playing tricks.

“Your mam had a feather, though. I found it on the beach not long before the last of the birds flew off. We didn’t even know what was happening back then, what trouble was ahead, what change. But I picked that feather up–shimmery black it was, like your hair–and saved it all the same.”

Suddenly, I’m not wanting to talk about this, not wanting to solidify the memory. I set my bowl down; food’s all gone now since there wasn’t much to begin. Rena must be finished, too, ’cause her bowl’s on the ground and she’s fidgeting with her sewing stuff in her lap.

For a bit we’re both quiet, with only the crash of the waves behind us making noise. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to the silence, the lack of chirps and quacks and trills.

I look up to see Rena running her fingers over the length of fabric in her lap. I still can’t make out what it is. But she ain’t listening, that’s sure.

“Stop your fidgeting,” I say. “Respect your elders and listen. You might learn something.”
I’m not fidgeting,” she says.

No sense in arguing with her, but she _is_ fidgeting, growing tired of my telling, so I’ll give her what she wants.

“You think you’re ready to know how your mam died?” I ask. Somehow, I manage to get this out without choking up, without getting the feeling of sand stuck wet and clumpy in my throat.

I can’t quite make sense of the look on Rena’s face. She just stares at me, shocked almost, and I stare at her, neither one of us speaking or blinking at all.
A chicken clucks in the distance, up where the sand turns to grass. I ignore it.

After a minute, Rena slips her sewing work over her shoulders and drapes it down her arms. I see now that it’s something like a feathery scarf.

Then she stands and raises her arms out wide. ‘Cept they’re not arms, not anymore. They’re wings.

“I already know,” she says, so hushed I almost don’t hear.

Her wings are long and wide and strong. They remind me of the albatross, black and white, and each perfect feather shining like a star. It’s a wonder I didn’t catch on sooner. Then again, she’s never shown any interest in the birds.

“I know she died trying to save them,” Rena says. Her voice is real soft and gentle, more so than I’ve ever heard it before. “Trying to become one.”

I feel my mouth hanging open, but I can’t close it and I can’t speak. This is how her mam looked just before she died. I found her washed up on the shore the morning after she left, wings all torn, beak broke against a rock. She’d made the wings just right, just like I’d taught her, but something else went awry. Something with my magick, maybe. Or maybe it was just bad luck.

“You talk about it in your sleep, Gram. You go over it every night, whispering about the wings, saying the magick bits, crying about my mam. I’d have told you about my plan but I didn’t want you to say no before I’d had a chance to show you the wings. I’m sorry for making you think I didn’t care.”

I stand and throw my arms around my grandotty, afraid of what’s coming next.

“And I know,” Rena begins as I release her, fighting tears herself, “I know your magick’s what helped mam turn.”

The tears are streaming down my face, hot and salty. A little minute goes by, us looking at each other all awkward-like. Now she puts a hand–a wing–on my shoulder.

“Let me do it,” she begs. “Please let me. I’ll come back. I’ll come back just as soon as I’ve found a mate. Then you’ll have your fisherbirds.” Her voice already sounds less human, more like a chirp. That’s how I know she’s right for it. She wants the magick and the magick wants a fisherbird.

“Gram,” she chirps, “I promise. Like you said, to the fisherbirds, the humans are comfort, warmth, and home.”

I nod, and wipe away the tears with my palms.

“And as long as you have your words,” she sings, “as long as you tell your stories, I’ll never be gone. I’ll be right here, working’ my way into everything. Like the grains of sand.”

Her song of promise hits me like a warm wave and I know everything will be alright.

“Okay,” I say. “Okay.”

Sara Puls is an attorney for a non-profit law firm and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in library science. She’s also the co-editor of a new online speculative fiction magazine, Scigentasy: Gender Stories in Science Fiction & Fantasy. Sara’s fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Daily Science Fiction, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Stupefying Stories, and elsewhere. Her Twitter handle is @sarapuls.

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