Fiction · 11/13/2013

Secrets

It was never hard to find the secrets in the sand. A tiny bump as the surf retreated, an almost invisible disturbance in the surface of the beach and there I was, already digging. People never bothered to bury them very far underneath, either. A half-hour yielded a small pailful of colorful, patterned orbs — a person’s secret was as individual as his face, Daddy used to say.

One day, Daddy found a secret that was solid black. It sat in his hand like an oversized egg, smooth all over and shiny like oiled glass. It was so dark it seemed to suck in all the color around it, all the light. When I drew close to it, I could see my own eyes reflected in its surface. Daddy pulled me away as he lowered the secret gently into my blue pail.

“Careful, girl,” he said, “Secret like that, who knows what it could do to you.”

We took it to the marketplace and got a good-sized chicken for it. Daddy roasted it over our gas stove, one part at a time, and I held out the tin pan to catch the drippings. It was the best chicken I ever tasted, never mind that I had only tasted chicken twice before, and both times while Mama was still around.

Mama left us when I was four. Daddy said that he could have told me she had died, but that he didn’t hold to lying to one’s children. He didn’t tolerate questions from one’s children, either, he added.

After that, it was just me and Daddy in the hut on the beach. I got used to looking for the secrets.

If Daddy was able to, he’d come with me to the market and we would trade the secrets for food: bread and eggs for me, acorn whisky for him.

Acorn whisky tasted like God’s piss, Daddy said, not like the fine scotch he used to drink before the great wave came. Of course, this was only talk on his part. Daddy had not even been born during the time of the great wave, back when the earth was filled with people and their secrets were kept inside themselves.

Imagine that, Daddy once said to me, keeping your secrets inside; no wonder they all died. I wanted to point out that they hadn’t all died, else how would we have been here? But Daddy looked so sad, sitting there drinking whisky out of the blue plastic pail I used to collect secrets, that I shut up. When you are six years old and living alone with a father who likes to drink acorn whisky, there are times you would do well to shut up.

On days when the whisky didn’t make him sad or mean, Daddy would tell me about the great wave. Years and years ago it was, when the world was much larger than it was now, with a lot less water and a lot more land. The earth had become too hot, Daddy said, because people had been burning too many fires. So the snow melted off the mountains and the tips of the world, and it had all come rushing down to the sea and across most of the land. Naturally, people died. I wanted to know more, but that’s always how Daddy told it — the fires and the snow melting and then the great wave rushing across the land and the people drowning, like a colony of ants in a puddle.

Daddy had a wonderful way of simplifying things.

On days when Daddy didn’t drink, he would go down to the beach with me. Our house stood right on the sand, a one-room hut with clapboard walls. I would carry the pail and he would dig. But when Daddy dug for secrets, he only kept the big ones.

“Weeny stuff,” he would mutter, on his hands and knees in the sand, casting aside any that were smaller than golf balls. He only kept those that filled his palm. Me? I scrabbled every secret I could find into my pail, regardless of size, color or pattern. When you are six years old and your food supply relies on how many secrets you can find, it’s best not to be choosy.

Daddy had always liked his drink, even when Mama was around. But at least back then he had a reason to stop. He didn’t drink whisky back then, either. Mama didn’t like the stuff, so he was a beer man. He and Mama would sit at the kitchen table after dinner, drinking beer out of glasses that Mama had chilled in the icebox. Daddy would make jokes and Mama would laugh and laugh until the tears ran down from the corners of her eyes. Sometimes it felt as if they’d forgotten I was there at all. And then occasionally, if they’d had enough to drink, they’d start singing. Mama knew all the old ones, the classics from before the great wave. She’d been the daughter of a teacher, back before she married Daddy, the big man on the beach. She sang ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ and my favorite, ‘Moon River’. When she sang it, she’d take me in her arms and I’d sit there on her lap, watching their faces shine.

On those nights it seemed to me like Mama’s voice was the only soft and delicate thing in the hut.

 After we ate the chicken that night, Daddy cranked open a can of chocolate milk for dessert and heated it up on the stove. I sat at the table, thinking.

“Daddy, what happens if you don’t bury your secrets? If you just… kept them… inside?”

“You’d die, girl.”

There was a pause as Daddy poured the milk into my bowl. Then he sat down and lit a cigarette, grimacing as he took the first puff. He looked at me. “You remember Uncle Jake?”

I didn’t, obviously, seeing as Uncle Jake had died before I was born. Daddy blew out a double stream of smoke that made him look like one of those dragon animals I saw once in a picture book. He lifted his singlet and scratched his belly before he began.

“Well, girl, first thing you got to know is that your Uncle Jake was the best damn secret digger up and down this beach and on the shore across it. Sure, I was the big man, but on an average day, heck, on a bad day, Jake dug more secrets than anyone else did in a week, including me. And I’m not talking about those weeny secrets you like to collect, either. I’m talking big secrets, important ones, some as big as your head and dark as black to boot. ‘Course, in those days, there were a lot more big secrets around, people coughing up at the beach every night. Nowadays — I dunno, girl. People all see-through, you know? Like they haven’t got anything inside them. No more secrets ‘cos they’re all buried down at the beach.”

Daddy fell silent. I knew what he meant. Sometimes I would see them huddled together down at the marketplace, their eyes empty and colorless, those that had buried too many secrets. It was a tricky business, coughing up your secrets; keep them inside and you’d die like Daddy said, but bury too many too fast and you ended up transparent, like a glass of seawater held up against the sky.

“Well, anyways, as I said, Jake was the best. So it was a surprise to everyone when one day he said he’s done, finished, quit. A dirty business, he said, digging and selling people’s secrets.” Here Daddy paused for some whisky. “Now I ask you, girl, what’s so dirty about it? Everybody got secrets, secrets got to come out somehow and ain’t nobody so foolish to sell their own secrets — that way lead to damnation, you remember that, girl. I ever catch you selling your own secrets, that the last day you ever live in this house. Drink your milk, girl.”

Daddy glared at me and took another puff of his cigarette. “Dirty business, he says. I swear, towards the end, your Uncle Jake like to be a madman.”

Here, Daddy fell silent again, brooding, staring at the table as if it held the answer to dead Uncle Jake’s madness.

“What happened then?”

Daddy looked up. “What you think? About three months after he decided to stop selling secrets, I got a call to come down to his house — he was living five huts down from ours at the time, old Ronson’s place now. When I got in there, the smell was something terrible, like seawater gone bad or worse. Jake was in the room on his bed, twice his normal size and shiny purple all over. He could still speak then, even though his lips were swollen almost shut. He told me he’d rather die than cough up another secret, rather die as he was dying, full of something terrible and ugly, than go out over the water as empty as people were these days.”

Daddy gulped some whisky. For the first time ever, I wished I was old enough for some too. I kept imagining myself swollen up like Uncle Jake, making everyone around me gag with how bad I smelled.

Last summer, I had gone down to the marketplace to try and sell a pailful of secrets. I was standing by old Sal’s stall, hoping she would give me two of her big eggs for one of my weeny secrets. Sal was a mean old lady, probably the meanest in the marketplace, but she was so greedy for secrets she’d take even the smallest ones I could find. This time, she had pushed me aside to serve another customer, one of those rich women from town, all dressed up in frills and bows.

I was looking around, searching for some other vendor I could trade with, when I saw her. At first I didn’t think it was Mama. She was wearing a deep blue dress, long to the ground, with a shiny bow tied at the back of it. In her arms she held a tiny dog, like she would a baby. She was standing next to a man dressed all in black.

“Can’t be Mama,” I thought. Mama would never wear anything like that.

And yet my heart beat faster and faster as I stared at the back of her head. The woman who was not Mama turned very slowly, so that at first, I saw her profile, the beautiful line of her nose and chin curving down into her long throat. And then I saw a little bit more of her cheek and her curly eyelashes and that sweet trick she had of lifting them just as she turned her face, and then I had forgotten all about the secret and Sal’s stall and the tiny dog and I was running, running, running, calling “Mama! Mama! Mama!”

Secrets scattered as I dropped the pail and flew after the woman who was, after all, Mama.

What happened next felt like a slow motion film. Mama turned her head fully and her eyes widened with aching slowness as she took in the sight of me, braids flying and torn shorts flapping, running full speed towards her, crying out for her. She blinked once and looked at me, hard, and then she turned back around and looped her hand through the man’s arm and together they continued their way into the crowd.

I stopped short. The marketplace thundered around me. I could see Mama’s blue dress traveling ever further away, the unwavering line of her back moving with that grace I remembered. When the last of the blue vanished, I turned back towards Sal’s stall. She was done with her customer and was watching me.

Slowly, my mind still numb, I bent down to pick up the secrets that had fallen from my pail.

“Your Mama ain’t never coming home, Scrubs,” said Sal, her beady eyes narrowing maliciously as she watched me. “She belong to Mr. Downer now.”

I paused, my hand hovering over a secret. What did Sal mean, ‘belong’?

“Who’s Mr. Downer?”

Sal snorted.

“Uptown man, don’t you know? Rich as the sea. Just look at that dress. Your Mama ain’t your Mama no more, girl. Mr. Downer, he been keeping her for two years now, and I ain’t never seen her wear the same dress twice.”

Sal jerked her thumb at the pail in my hand. “You gonna sell me any of those or no?”

But my mouth felt dry and I could only shake my head. I thought about Daddy, sitting in our hut in the moonlight, drinking his acorn whisky, telling me about the great wave while the sea outside our windows glittered.

It was as if Sal could read my mind.

“What your father expect, Scrubs? A girl like your Mama, pretty as a secret, gonna stay with him in that hut on the beach all his life? You the only reason she married him anyway. If your Daddy hadn’t knocked her up, she’d be Mr. Downer’s from the very start.”

I finished picking up my secrets. They were muddy from the marketplace floor and a couple had cracked. I had no food or whisky for Daddy but I made my way home with Sal’s words pulsing in my mind. I never told Daddy about my new secret. I never buried it down at the beach. I was afraid that if I did, I would forget the burning feeling I got in my chest when I saw Mama, when I understood the meaning of Sal’s words.

It was a couple of weeks after Daddy told me about Uncle Jake that it happened. I came home from the marketplace one evening and as soon as I opened the hut door I smelled the whisky whipping up my nostrils. Daddy was slumped over the table, a pool of lumpy vomit cushioning his head next to the big whisky jug. The stuff was everywhere, so much of it that it mercifully drowned out the stink of the vomit. It dripped from the curtains, splattered across the floor in yellow patches like piss, stained the walls.

Daddy lifted his head. He must’ve been drinking for hours and hours. He opened his mouth and his voice came out crackly and harsh.

“Did you know, girl? Did you know?”

He was talking about Mama. Someone must have told him about Mr. Downer. The only miracle was that no one had told him earlier. Two years of Mama living with another man, and no one had told Daddy. That’s how much of a big man Daddy had been on the beach.

Daddy struggled to his feet, tilting lopsidedly, pushing his palm against his own vomit on the table. “C’mere, girl. I’m asking you a question. You knew, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Daddy had caught hold of my elbow, his thumb digging painfully into the thin bone there. “You knew, didn’t you?” he repeated. I could smell the vomit on his breath. The words came out in a whisper.

“You nothing but a stinking, useless drunk. If it weren’t for me, Mama would never have married you. If it weren’t for you, Mama’d still be here with me. I hate you, hate you.”

And then, lower still went my voice as I saw the shock gather in Daddy’s eyes. “I’m glad Mama belong to Mr. Downer now.”

As soon as I heard the words leave my body I wanted to grab ahold of them and stuff them back in, swallow them hard back down. For a moment, Daddy looked like he would burst, his beard quivering and his skin shiny and stretched, red from the heat of the whisky. Finally, he released my elbow and staggered back. He had bolted up from his chair so fast that it lay toppled on the floor. Slowly, he bent down to pick it up.

He reached for the jug. His shoulders were hunched over and he looked at me with his bloodshot eyes. A vanquished dragon.

 After a while, Daddy got up and put out the gas lamp. The room fell into shadow. Through the window in front of me, I could see the moonlight make a track of brightness across the dark sea. Everything still smelled of whisky and vomit, but I kicked off my shoes and climbed into bed. I could hear Daddy getting into his own bed across the room.

That night, I woke up to the sound of stillness and absence. I sat up, heart pounding. And then before I knew it I was running, running, running across the beach, seeing Daddy’s stooped figure retreating ever faster from me, chasing Daddy as he followed the moonlight’s track across the surface of the sea, into the blackness of a horizon that I couldn’t understand and finally, with the water lapping to my chest as I watched Daddy go under, realized I did not want to know.

By the time I swam back to the shore, the last of my calls for Daddy had died away, the beach giving back no echo to me. All was stillness and only the coconut trees rustled above me. Beyond them, the waves ebbed and flowed above a hundred waiting secrets. I turned and walked back to the hut.

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Leeyee Lim is a Malaysian writer and copy editor currently living in Beijing, where she works for a Chinese women’s rights NGO. She has previously written non-fiction pieces for Persephone Magazine and HelloGiggles. You can find her at http://lylim.net.