Fiction · 02/17/2010

The Gift of Mourning Imagined Losses

Losing that boat felt like death, felt like sand in my throat. Three years old, and my tiny boat was drifting away, green plastic in brown sea, brown sea that grew green and then blue and bluer in the distance, as all things are made more beautiful by their far-awayness. I reached after it, desperately, hands splayed like a crude drawing of the sun. But my mother pulled me back by bathing-suit strap, back past the lip of the waves and wet sand and footprints of strangers, back past beach blankets and umbrellas until we were standing on the dunes, watching as what was once in reach paled toward the horizon.

The boat was made of plastic. The earliest forms of plastic were made from animal horns, those wild, graceful spirals that charge the future, that sprout at sky, reaching, unafraid. The horns would be boiled, softened until they no longer resembled horns at all but lumps of pale clay, waterlogged hearts, bloated jellyfish. But my boat was new; its plastic could have only come from petroleum, that rich, ancient sea hidden in the earth, stolen and refined and cracked and catalyzed and blended and melted and molded and cooled in the shape of a boat, given to me on my third birthday in the almost-thaw of late winter. In the summer I took it with me to the Atlantic coast.

My grandmother browned on a low beach chair; my mother toed the water, scanned the horizon for shark-fins, runaway speedboats, screaming children pulled out to sea. It was my grandmother who, as a young woman, crossed this ocean knowing not the language, the landscape, nor the way her husband would look in the dark, and yet it was my mother who was never at home here, always watchful, on guard, worried a tidal wave would sweep out of nowhere and leave only detritus, anonymous limbs of her no-longer-children. So as she saw me wading farther into the water, bobbing the boat on the in-and-out gasp of the waves, it was only natural that she ran into the surf and pulled me back, away from the reach of the tide, away from my toy boat. It was the animal in her, but maybe something else: a woman who had the gift of mourning imagined losses, who grasped after the ghosts of husbands and children and homes not yet departed. Meanwhile my grandmother bronzed on the shoreline, her body a monument to real losses: a soldier-husband, a stillborn baby, a continent.

We watched — me, my mother, my grandmother — as my father dove in and out of waves searching for my boat, his young body a pale buoy on the horizon. We stood on the dunes all afternoon and into the sunset, when the wind picked up and stung our faces with whipped sand. My mother held my hand. Her own was freckled, constellations of brown stars that predicted youth and age, birth and death. Beside me her belly bulged with a mysterious sibling swimming there while I was dry on shore.

My father emerged from the waves, soaked, a sea-monster shaking himself off like a dog. In his hands, he did not hold my boat. But when he reached us on the dunes, he dropped at my feet three tiny figurines, the passengers on my boat, who I’d forgotten about: little plastic people about the size of my father’s thumb with black-dot eyes and yellow hair. They looked none the worse for their shipwreck; in fact, they shined a little more, looked somehow cleaner than when they used to lie on the dirty carpet back home. I picked them up, I treasured them, precioused them against my heart, which beat like the waves that still carried my boat away, away, to somewhere I would never know.

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Jacqueline Vogtman is originally from New Jersey but currently resides in Ohio, where she is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Bowling Green State University. She serves as an assistant editor of Mid-American Review, and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pindeldyboz, Twelve Stories, Prick of the Spindle, and Emprise Review.