Edwina

Fiction
Skye Allen


Games
Photo Credit: Piermario

The western edge of Galway is an empty road that falls off the flat gray end of the world. There’s a playground at the border between the town and the sheep fields, a square of wet gravel in wet grass. I sit on the middle swing and face the ocean. My arms circle the swing chains and my hands go back in my pockets, chains though my elbows, palming the rocks there. They’re a precaution. I don’t need them. I put them there in case it turns out I can swim longer in the cold Atlantic than I think I can, in case I start swimming at all, in case instinct takes over and destroys my plan. I slide my hands out and grasp the biting metal of the chain and kick off. I watch the last grass and the last sky of the world go by between my boots. I imagine the grass tomorrow at this time, still glinting in the long evening light without me.

“Hi? Can I swing?” a kitten voice says. I jolt out of my swing trance. The girl is petite, freckles in milk, corduroy pants the color of fresh rust and a deep red sweater that should clash. She is the colors of another fall in another country. Fall in Ireland is gray.

“Swing away.”

The girl puffs out little sighs, the way my students do when they’re getting ready to ask for something. She looks like the right age to be in my tenth-grade English class.

“I love swinging. Makes me feel like a little girl?” She talks like the kids too, declarative sentences that turn up like questions at the ends. Only the girls, never the boys.

I stop pumping and force manners onto my face. “I’m Susan.”

“Hi Susan.” The girl smiles at her lap. “My name’s Edwina.” She glances up, pale eyes big.

I ask her to repeat it and she says: “Edwina. It was my great-great-auntie’s name.”

“It’s wonderful. Did you know her?” I slow to a stop now and heel the wet gravel at the front edge of the puddle under the swings.

She twists a dyed-blond strand. “No. Dad says she was a great lady though. Says I take after her.”

I can’t confirm or deny that. I don’t say anything.

“She stayed home though. Me, I’m just back from my trip,” she says.

I am far away from home for a good reason. I have crossed the ocean to my ancestral country, a place I have never visited, to do among strangers what I could not do at home. I think of it as bringing my bloodline back to its source. I think about spawning salmon, but then I think: salmon leave eggs behind. I’m not leaving anything that contains life. That’s why I’m here. I think about the doctor’s office, the liver color of the wall I stared at as the news was broken, the way a promise or a hymen is broken. You can’t return to the state you were in before you heard the news, even though it was true already, even though your body was already empty of life, had been since the morning of the hospital visit, even though you told yourself this was the last time you were going to try. I watch the last clouds of the world huddle over that same ocean, giving the sun a decent burial.

A teenage boy lopes up from the far side of the slide. White sneakers so new they glow, baggy pants, blue baseball cap on backwards. He calls “Ha-llo,” although he’s close enough to whisper, and his bobbing motions become a bow to the pretty girl. His skin is walnut wood and there’s a shine on the apples of his cheeks.

And then there is another one. The same shoes, the same hat but yellow, the same long hands on a second boy. They could be brothers, or cousins. The new boy is younger by a couple of years, but I can see they’re both trying to grow facial hair.

The first boy plumps down on the one remaining swing and tells the low sky that his name is Gerald.

“Where are you from?” says Edwina.

“I am Ireland. Irish. I am Irish.” Gerald’s voice is African.

“You’re not,” she replies.

“You are not Irish,” he counters, and I feel hidden, like a voyeur among courting birds.

“I’m Irish. She’s American, Susan is,” Edwina’s whole body is huddled to the side of the swing closest to me now. Not a voyeur. I’m a chaperone.

“Black people in America, they are Americans.” It’s the second boy, the one with no swing. He places a huge white shoe against the support beam on the swing set and toes his weight into it until it creaks.

Edwina sucks on the silver hoop in her bottom lip. “You can’t be Irish.”

“I am citizen,” says the standing boy. “Of Ee Oo.” It takes me a second, but I realize: E.U.

“Okay then, where were you born?” Edwina’s kitten voice goes even wispier but I can’t tell if she’s flirting or scared. Or both.

“Ireland,” says the standing boy, but then his face opens into dimples and he says: “Somalia.”

“I went to Madagascar before on my own. Not Somalia though. I was on a boat. I’m just home,” says Edwina.

I revise my estimate of her age upward to eighteen or nineteen, if she’s old enough to have traveled so far alone.

“You’re a sailor,” Gerald says, and then he sings in an unsure voice: “pretty maid on the sea-o,” not a tune I recognize. He sings it to himself, staring at the sky, but years of watching tenth graders tell me he’s trying to get her attention. I make up my mind to stay here until the boys leave, despite my plan. I’m worried about Edwina, alone out here with these two. The last three young people in the world.

“I got a needle in my eye there. I was working on the boat. Like a tourist fishing boat? And I woke up one day and there was a needle mark on my eye. I don’t know how it got there.” The girl is looking at me now, pleading for corroboration or for me to believe her, I can’t tell which.

“Your eyeball?” says the standing boy.

“Yeah, like on the white part? I don’t know who did it. An injection or something. I was out for a long time that day, before. Asleep like.”

My mind is saying drugs, rape, theft of anything else the girl had. I ask her if she was hurt, if she ever found out what happened.

“No, I asked everybody on the boat, but they didn’t see anything. There was a guy who day-rented now and then to fish, he was there that day. But that was the last time.” She slides a glance at me and I force myself to meet her hazel irises, not to let myself look at the whites of her eyes. “It wasn’t his real name, the name he gave us. So I can’t find him again. It was just my eye, nothing taken or anything. It didn’t even bleed. I had a headache but… And it’s different, my eye, now.” Her voice dies away to nothing and she watches the puddle under our three swings, anchors it with her gaze as she rocks. I imagine she is regretting having opened the topic of her eye.

But when she looks up, what she says takes us all by surprise: “You should read it.” She is looking at the standing boy’s pants. He gives a start and slides a hand into his deep back pocket and pulls out a dirty window envelope, folded in half and still sealed. He unfolds it to reveal a red-and-green logo in the corner and I catch “Health Service” under all the Irish text, and the word “Slainte,” which several people at home told me means health, as in “to your health.” The envelope is the last toast in the world.

“I would. I will,” he says slowly. He’s staring at her like she just grew horns. I wonder why she wants him to read the letter. How she knew it was there, and that he hadn’t opened it.

“He can’t read,” Gerald says, on my other side, kicking brown water onto his white shoes. I can’t tell if he’s joking.

“What about you?” I ask.

“I can. Not that.” Gerald is gripping both swing chains, pointing his chin at the standing boy. An envelope from the national health service probably contains information about test results, especially if it’s the kind of envelope you’ve been carrying around in your pocket unopened until the edges turned black.

“I can read it for you. Might be somebody else who needs to know what it says too,” Edwina says, her tiny voice full of hesitation. She holds out a hand that ends in a wristful of rubber bracelets under her too-short sweater sleeve. But the standing boy returns the envelope to his pocket with a shrug that closes off his whole body. He turns his yellow cap around, bill front. The gesture says¬†we’re done here.

I watch Gerald’s long body as he heaves himself up out of the child’s swing. I imagine the letter from the Irish health service telling his friend that he has HIV, or some other STD, or that he is the father of a child. My throat fills and I feel the nausea that I know will lead to an attack of full-body sobbing, and I get ready to stand up before it hits. It’s time. I’ve waited long enough. I’ll walk along the water until Edwina is out of sight, and then she won’t have to see me when I turn to walk into the last ocean of the world. A breath of relief fills me:¬†it’s now. No more getting ready. No more crying. Not ever again.

“My ladies,” Gerald says, only looking at Edwina, and when the two young men amble away toward the road Gerald turns and flaps his hand up and down like a little boy.

I slide up to stand, hips pinched and tingling from sitting in the tiny seat for so long. “I was heading for the beach,” I say. “It was nice meeting you. And good luck with your eye.”

But Edwina kicks her legs out to swing closer to where I’m standing. She reaches for my jacket with both hands and puts all the weight of her upper body on it, letting go of the chain. If I twist away she’ll fall out of the swing, face first in the gravel.

“It’s different now, my eye. I can see things now. Since the needle,” she says. She adjusts her grip on my pockets.

The rocks are out of sight. I was careful about that. I’m kind. I came all the way to Ireland for this. No one who knows me will find me, not before. Not after.

“Why are you going to the beach now? It’s pissing,” she adds. She’s right. The sky has just gone from threatening rain to dumping rain. It’s vertical ice water, straight down my collar.

“There’s something I need to do.” I say it in my schoolteacher voice. Don’t challenge me, young person.

Edwina eases her body back on the swing. She is still attached to my jacket, and I let myself be dragged forward. When she has her balance under control she reaches deep into both my pockets. She whispers: “Don’t, Susan? Not today. Not here in my home. I’ll never be able to come back here.”

The rocks are the size of half-loaves of bread. They hit the ground, one, two, on either side of my boots. The girl looks into my eyes and now I see the needle marks, whiter seed-sized dots on the white of each eye. Her irises are green, brown, gold, and the pupils are huge.

The rocks hit the ground.

I will tell myself later that it was Edwina. That she saw with her altered eyes something I could not see myself. That she was young enough to be my child, and yet she was the one with the long vision, the one who could see what I could not, the life beyond this day and this ocean and these five-pound rocks. I will wonder later how she could see the rocks, but more than that I will wonder how she could see me in the ocean, and could turn me back from it.

I thought I had come to the end of joy, I think now. The end of hope. But I have not come to the end of the world. I thought I had, but it turns out that’s not what this day is for.

I feel the missing weight of the rocks, a lightness in my shoulders, like I’ve set something down that had been slowly crushing me.

“You’re right, it’s cats and dogs. What was I thinking?” I say, and my voice breaks apart, my calm resolve is gone, that icy feeling I thought was the last shred of courage I would ever need, and my cheeks are hot with tears where they had just been cold with rain.

Edwina pulls me to standing. She ignores the wreckage of my face and clamps her thin fingers in the damp crook of my elbow. “What we need is a cup of tea with whiskey,” she says, and that has to be the voice of her mother or her aunt, it’s a voice twenty years older and made of slate. I imagine the tough women in my own family tree, hear them using those same words.

We walk toward the road, toward town, away from the ocean.

pencil

Skye Allen has had poetry appear in Insomnia and Sinister Wisdom. This is her first fiction to be published. Her YA fantasy novel Pretty Peg will be released by Harmony Ink Press in Summer 2014. Email: skyeralexander[at]gmail.com

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