Language of the Gulls by Katrina Smith

Louisa Mae quotes the scripture: “The earth was formless and empty.”

We’re walking on the beach and Louisa Mae is moving slipshod through the sand, her ankles bowing and creaking, arms askew like a scarecrow girl. The hem of her skirt is snapping against the sea air, and she looks back over her shoulder, but not at me.

“Louie,” I say. “Look around, not up.”

She smiles her face in two and keeps staring at the sky overhead. “I’m going to swim in the clouds, Turtle. That’s what the Lord’s Marshal says, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Whatever you do, stay close,” I tell her. She’s no good at standing still.

She stops to hug me like I am the one who needs looking after. She’s burning up inside. Hot and unfocused. She doesn’t see what we see. She’s like this a lot now.

“I’ll be with the gulls, Charlie Turtle.” She bends dream-like at the waist and her hands flutter as she pushes herself out over the sand, the blonde hair we share hanging behind her like a comet. It doesn’t take her long before she’s a ways ahead.

I follow, wishing she wasn’t so far away and knowing I can’t catch her when she wants to run. We’re alone. We’re safe. We need food. I tell myself all the reasons we are here, and then, I tell myself a story:

There was once a boy with a sister. The boy and the sister took care of each other and they protected each other and walked on the beach where nothing hurt them, ever, and things were okay even though the word okay meant something it hadn’t before.

The sun hasn’t been out in three weeks and when the sea rolls it gives off a weird, glistening shine, part liquid metal and green algae mixed with brown from the seaweed it leaves in little piles all over the shore. The beach curves in around itself from one end to another. There’s a striped lighthouse on the point behind us and a narrow spit of rocks heading out into the ocean on the other end of the crescent. The stretch of beach closest to the water is covered with layer upon layer of yellow sand, but past that, towards the boardwalk with the FUN IN THE SUN! store and the place where we used to buy French fries, it becomes all tumbledy sharp rocks thrown down without a pattern and left out to dry. The rocks look like a bunch of rejects, from stones big enough to hide behind to smooth round pebbles, but the sand is the thing that doesn’t belong. They used to bring it in truck by truck, filling the beach back up every summer until now, the sea sucking it back down every winter.  Now the rocks are winning, swollen stone molars poking up through the sand everywhere, sometimes in the middle of the beach.  Louisa likes them.

We are almost in the middle of the crescent where the sand is still fat.  Louisa is heading, I think, for the rocky point, where she can stand on the warm rocks and be her happiest.  She goes screaming off, so far ahead of me that she is half her normal size, after a pile of seaweed she’ll want to wear as a crown.

You can live off the seaweed, it turns out. It doesn’t taste as bad as you think especially if you get lucky enough to find a couple of crabs or a gull that hasn’t been dead too long. This is not something I ever thought I would need to know.  Last week two kids fought over who got to claim some seaweed half the size of the one Louisa has in her hands.

Louisa and I, we don’t fight. We run.

The seaweed streams down past Louisa’s shoulders as she walks in stately figure eights and laughs at the ocean. The rip in one of the three skirts she wears, one over the other, is so big I can see a piece of the sky and a piece of the ocean through the same hole, but she walks like a queen should walk. She’s as much a queen as anyone else is, I guess.  All of us left here on Earth are Kings and Queens of the Nothing.

She’s graciously extended a hand for the air to kiss when there’s movement from behind the rock closest to her.

I freeze. I let her go too far. How do I get there in time?  Will she remember to run? All I can see is my unknowing sister offering her hand to the Drifter who will kill her or worse, and then there will just be me. All I can see is her face, those hot eyes wide open in surprise and fear. That’s how I miss the pile of driftwood and twisted rocks in front of me.

“Louisa! Louie–”

The driftwood catches me right in the shins. I am weightless for a second before I drop, the sand spraying out around my legs on impact. The rocks break my fall and what feels like my shoulder.  I can hear her screaming in the high, mocking language of the gulls, but I can’t see her from where I fell.  My shoulder throbs and I shut my eyes tight against the pain and the sound of her voice and reach for the will to stand.

One day the boy and his sister went to the beach. They took their places as kings and queens of the world. At first, they were afraid. They peered down from the distant peaks of their seaside mountains at the empty beach. They crept timidly across the sand. But when nothing drew forth to meet them, they became careless. Soon they leapt from the snowy tips of the mountains into the surf and danced with nymphs clad in seaweed dresses and were happy. But Evil can’t stand happiness, and when it heard their joy echoing across the land, it came, lusting after the queen’s seaweed crown and her ready laughter, and the king– the stupid king was too far away to help her. All he could do was fall down the mountain and break by the shore. Luckily the queen was stronger than anyone knew. She turned her laughter into a sonic scream and shattered the world over.

I throw myself over the rock pile and back onto my feet.  Louisa is twirling, a scrap of newspaper from behind the rock caught in her whirlwind, twisting from the ground to her waist to the sky and away towards the water.  There is no man. No Drifter, no Walker, no gang of Lost Boys. Just newspaper and Louisa being Louisa. I want to call her back and tell her we are going home, that leaving the safety of the others and the Marshal’s complex was a mistake, when she laughs and kicks the ocean. She glows so bright here. All lit up inside. Her hands echo birds floating on air as she walks the brine. She always did love the water and here, especially, it looks closest to the shadow of how things used to be.  Mama used to say Louisa was born looking too deep inside herself to ever notice what was outside, anyway. That’s why I look ahead for her.

Today is Louisa’s birthday. I don’t think she remembers, but I do. It would be nice to have something other than seaweed for dinner.

We’ll stay. My shoulder is going to bruise. Louisa will wrap it in scraps of old sheets and put on our mother’s face while she tends it as seriously as she does anything, but at least it’s not broken.

Louisa comes up short against a tide pool and bends over, the sky about to crack itself open behind her.  I slow down, shuffling against the sand and feeling happy no one saw me fall and happy no one was behind the rock and happy Louisa stopped running, at least for now. My heart starts beating more like normal and I can feel the flush draining from my cheeks as I merge with the beach, pushing against the sand until the ragged hem of my pants drags along the ground and my legs end in imported sand.  It smells like brine and rain, the swells rolling and crashing one on another. A line of bright orange buoys disappears and resurfaces like diving birds riding the undertow.

I rumble and churn down towards the water. My feet are bulldozers digging trenches through the sand, two furrows from the top of the dry beach down to the wet until I can’t push forward and the sand turns heavy, almost like cement.

I walk the edge, feeling out the white lacy bubbles. The ocean rolls over me, leaving an ache in my toes, soaking past my ankles. When it hisses back away it leaves some seaweed behind.  The leaves are rubbery, heavy with sand. The seaweed twists and vibrates as I pick it up and hidden between the rippled leaves is a fat fish as long as my hand, silver and striped, one clouded eye searching the sky and finding nothing. I almost drop it.

The sun glows dull behind the cloud cover. This is as bright as it ever gets lately and right now, what with the breeze coming in off the water and the sky the color of burnt cement and my sister running on ahead of things, this fish feels like an omen.

The fish opens and closes his mouth. I hold it as gently as I can without letting it fall, but my hands are shaking. Fish are one thing we can still find sometimes, but there aren’t enough of them to feed everyone and Louisa and I are never chosen to receive them at dinnertime. It’s funny. I never used to like fish, but now I can’t wait to taste it. I haven’t had one since before the plague and the quarantine trapped us here. I stroke his fins and the black stripe running down his side. He quivers and shines, even without the sun. His gills lift towards the sky and fold back down, and every time they rise something gold glints in the deep well of him.

I turn the fish over. On the other side of his mouth is a hook, punched clean through his lip. Tied up in the seaweed is a length of clear fishing line. When he swallows I can see the metallic green hook sunk deep and against the end of it a thin gold chain stretching down the crimson hollow of his mouth. I try to remember the last time I went fishing for real, in sunlight, with a line and a pole and a full lunch waiting for us in a paper bag my mother packed—apples and boxes of milk and thick slabs of roasted turkey on bread. I don’t remember how my father pulled the shining metal out of the mouth of the one rainbow trout we caught that day, but I can remember everything about the way that lunch looked. I squeeze the fish a little and work the hook back and forth. It’s not coming out.

The fish’s teeth curve light like funhouse glass. I push my finger past them, feeling around the hook until I touch the soft drape of gold. After two more tries I have it looped around my fingertip and when the fish gasps and swallows, I pull the long length of it up through him until there’s a round locket in my hands.

The salt water turned the edges brown with rust, and I really have to work at the catch where the sides lock around whatever secret is inside. I wonder if it is hiding a grandmother or a sister or a mother, because it is exactly the kind of thing that is made to carry the person you need to carry forever.  There’s a smiling sun on one side of the case and a rose on the other. I start picking the catch with the fish still flipping in my hands and I split one fingernail and almost drop him. I’m just about to give up when the locket flips open and slips out of my hands onto the sand.

I’m on my hands and knees almost before it finishes falling.

Two white gulls are floating above me, another is standing on stick legs next to me with a bright eye watching. Something in their voices changes as they call to each other, on on on, and before I know exactly why I am flipping the seaweed back around the fish and the locket and doing my one magic trick, everything vanishing, even though all I really want to do is look at that necklace.

Hey. Hey you Turtle,” someone behind me yells and there’s Flea, grinning ear to ear, coming down the beach. I stumble back up on to my feet, careful not to shift around too much.

“What are you doing, Turtle,” he yells again, waving so hard he jerks to one side and stumbles. I put both hands in my pockets and watch him kick the sand all over as he runs towards me.

He grins and never stops grinning, Flea.

“I’m just walking on the beach,” I say.

Flea blinks a few times and twitches, the brim of his mesh hat trembling. The hat reads ‘DURNWELL’S FLEA AND TICK SUPPLIES’ but Flea can’t remember where it came from, or why he has it, and asking about it is only a great idea if you feel like getting beat. Flea is over six feet and wide as the horizon, but he’s only Louisa’s age, three or four years older than me. Thirteen or fourteen.

“You looking for fish?”

“I found some seaweed,” I say.  I can feel the gills of the fish against the tangled wrapper, pushing against my hand, tiring. Pulsing and fading, pulsing and fading. The movement I’m feeling could be memory. He could already have died, my magic fish.

Flea’s eyes slide along the sand and he laughs. His hands buzz staccato patterns against his worn jeans and he shifts an old plastic shopping bag against his back.

“Is Louie with you, Turtle?” The bag catches the wind coming in from the ocean and rubs against it. I shift sideways to find my sister. Flea finds her first, all the way down the beach, and looks from her to me and back. She started shaking when the wind picked up and now she’s running again, her bare feet flashing like silver knives at the edge of the surf.  “She okay?”

I shrug. “Sure. Same as she always is.” Flea’s eyes follow her as she waltzes in zigzags across the beach, his chin tightening underneath that hat. He shuffles in place like they’re dancing together even though there’s a whole beach between them. He’s always looking at Louisa, but she’s never looked back.

“Flea,” I say, to bring him back here. “What’s in the bag?”

“What?” he says. His head whips around and the bag almost leaps out of his hands to land at his feet. We look down at it. “I guess firewood,” he says, the same joyful, inexhaustible wonder in his voice I always hear in Louisa’s. “That’s what I’m doing out here.  I am a Walker now because I am such a good faithful believer, Turtle, so God’s Marshal sent me out to gather everything I can for us Chosen. Blessed be the Marshal,” he says formally, the way we’ve been taught.

“I found some more wood back behind us,” I say. “Huge pile. I tripped over it and hurt my shoulder. It was near that old boat just down from the boardwalk.” I should stop talking. The wind blows against Flea’s bag and Louisa’s skirt, lifting it so that she twirls, laughing. She is so happy underneath that sky. The ocean comes and recedes, comes and recedes, and I want nothing more than for Flea to move on and leave us alone.

“You found anything else?” Flea says. He’s watching Lousia with a hunger I don’t understand, but I know I don’t like it.

“Only some seaweed,” I lie. The ocean hisses and falls against us, the tide rising underfoot and eating away the sand we’re standing on. I’m too busy trying to watch Louisa and keep my giving fish secret from Flea to feel the ground dropping away. As I fall the fish flies out of my pocket, twisting his tail as he burns furiously towards the ocean. I throw myself after it, but Flea is already there, his large hands ready, and the fish leaps straight into them. The gulls are screaming, white wings slapping the sky above us.

“That’s too bad. You and Louie could sure use one of those fish like was in your pocket, Turtle.” His broad face is full of an unspoken apology.

“Yeah,” I say, “We could.” The gray sky and the beach stretch on forever.  Flea’s eyes are fixed on the smooth gold oval swinging like a pendulum over the ground. The locket is hooked around the fish again, like they couldn’t bear to be apart, wrapped twice around his shining head.

“Hey,” Flea says. “Did you see this locket, Turtle?”

I turn away from the ocean, look towards the boardwalk where the old amusements sit rusting.  The Ferris wheel creaks and sways, red and yellow cars flaking paint into the wind. I imagine people walking and laughing, their hands filled with cotton candy and ticket stubs, or maybe their hands are full with the hands of other people.  “Yeah, Flea,” I say.

“I saw a locket like this once,” Flea says. He lifts the locket to his face and puts it against his eye, squinting to hold it there so that all he sees is gold. “Lookit.”

“So what?” I shove my cold hands into the front pocket of my sweatshirt and kick against the sand.

“The Marshal will love this, Turtle,” Flea says. “Blessed be. You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of my mom, Turtle. Did you have a mom? I was so lucky that I got to have three different moms. First I lived with Mrs. Betty,” he said, “and then I lived with Miss Angela and then Miss Lucy and then the Marshal after Miss Lucy went to heaven with everyone. Miss Angela wore a locket every day, which I was not to touch or she would slap my hands.” He frowns in shame and looks down at himself, the human mountain. Miss Angela must have been something. “I did not like it when she slapped my hands, Turtle. It made me cry.”

“I’m sure the Marshal will wear it every day, too.” The ocean lifts against the horizon, metal on metal, and my voice is rising. The gulls are gathering on the wind and calling one to another.

“Blessed be the Marshal,” Flea says.

“No.” There once was a boy and his sister. “I don’t want to.”

His hat twitches as he works it out. “Were you going to keep this, Turtle? The fish and the locket?”

An itch starts building in the back of my throat and I tug uselessly at the orange scarf around my neck.  The boy and his sister lived on the edge of a grey world.

“Give it back,” I say, only I don’t really know where this is coming from. It’s just a locket, an empty locket. It’s not special like the fish. “And then you and me and Louie can split the fish, Flea. One third of a fish for each of us.” The fish is bent parabolic by the rigors of death, bowed and sightless in Flea’s hands. Its clouded eyes reflect the world above, grey on endless grey. On the edge of a grey world where they lived together there was also a shining necklace made from yesterday’s sun and the last giving fish in the Endless Sea. The Endless Sea sent the boy a gift of the fish and the necklace on the day of the Queen’s Birthday, washing them against his feet in the delicate foam. But an evil Golem, a manmade creature of immeasurable strength, coveted the gifts of the giving fish and took them for his own, leaving the boy empty with grief.

He swallows, his throat constricting around the thought of the fish. “What about that locket, Turtle?” Behind him and to the side, past the end of the boardwalk, the old grand hotels stand watching us through broken windows filled with empty spaces like missing teeth. I imagine shadows standing in each of the rooms and remember that I used to just be afraid of the dark.

The boy told himself the necklace was not a magical necklace. It was not special at all.  The fish was probably delicious and in a grey world delicious is better than magical anyway.

“He doesn’t need this locket. What does it matter if we turn it in?” Down the beach my sister is swaying back and forth, pretending to be a willow tree or a bird or a shoelace, for all I know.

“You know something this beautiful belongs to everyone, Turtle.” He lifts the necklace over his head, his eyes following the twist of it against the clouds. He looks down the beach, to Louisa, again and I get mad.

Except the necklace was beautiful and beautiful is almost as good as magical or delicious, and the boy wanted it even though he tried very hard not to, and that made the boy forget his promise to his sister, the promise they made each other to run.

He looks down at me from underneath the shadow of his hat.  “You know you is supposed to turn this kind of stuff in, Turtle. You know you can’t go keeping all that for yourself,” he says. The words build one on another until he is shouting. One big hand pushes against my chest, holding me where he wants me without even trying. “You know we have to stick together and the Marshal says that means pooling resources and that means he decides what to do with all things because we have to stay alive and he is the one who kept us alive, Turtle. In the time after.”

I shove away his hand and back up towards the ocean, breathing hard. His face constricts, all narrow lines, teeth ground together as if he’d like to spit them out, and I think I have gone too far, I think he is about to hit me and I think, he wants Louisa, he won’t hurt Louisa before I see that he is crying.

His hat quivers, and I take a step away, and then back. “Stop it,” I say. “Stop being a big baby.” He cradles the necklace against himself as he keens, his hands opening and closing in prayer. His hands, thick with callouses, running up and down the scales of the fish, rubbing at the gold chain and the oval locket. “Stop,” I scream. “Just stop,” and I kick the sand until it sprays across his face and he still doesn’t flinch. He is one of the stones pushed back up through the earth, immovable, an abscessed tooth with a gold locket dangling from one hand and the silver fish shining in the other.

The boy thought, I can take this necklace from the hand of the weeping golem, and when I do the world will turn from grey to golden and my sister will be well and the golem will crumble to dust because what will there be left to cry over when the world is golden peace? 

I should turn and walk away.

He is big, but I am quick and Flea is a weeping stone. The sea curls around my ankles and booms behind me as I lift and twist, reaching out to pluck the locket from his hand, quick as I can.  In and out like the fish must have darted in and out of the waves this morning until he’d found himself a seaweed shroud.   The necklace leaps up to kiss Flea’s hat as I whirl away and the hat goes tumbling off behind him and then I am standing with the ocean at my back and the locket in my hand, watching Flea slapping at the top of his bare head.

His face screws up and he looks around in a panic. By now the wind has carried his stupid hat halfway back up the beach and I think he might start crying again when he finally sees it. His small eyes light up with an animal intelligence and blood darkens his face.

The boy slipped forward like a thief and he took the necklace. The guardian woke, the mark of the necklace burning against his stone face until all that was within the guardian was rage. The boy didn’t notice. He had always wanted to hold the sun.

“Hey,” Flea roars. “HEY.” He drops his head like a charging bull, and quick as I am I don’t have time to move before his shoulder catches me in the stomach. I am breathless and we are end over end together in the waves the wind has been building. We are ten feet from shore and traveling fast within seconds.

I feel Flea’s chest contract when the cold water hits and he pushes down in panic, scrabbling against my shoulders for leverage. He gains his footing before the next wave comes and knocks him over again, white faced and trembling. It’ll take all his strength to claw his way back up on the beach.

I’m not as lucky.

The water is a turbine, a sucking vortex. The waves are massive foam tipped tunnels. I’m getting sucked farther out with each wave. I’m getting tumbled like one of those smooth pebbles back up on the beach only I think there will not even be a nub of me left to wash back up on shore when the ocean is done.

I fight, though.  When I can get my face above the surface long enough to inhale I can hear Flea. “Turtle!” I can hear him moaning. “Turtle Turtle Turtle Turtle.”

The waves have to be ten feet high now, or a hundred feet high, or a thousand.  It doesn’t matter. I can’t get through them. I am weightless and terrified. There is nothing here to hold on to. On the beach my sister is shrinking, the birds flocking. Who will explain this to her if not me?

The current drags me down and away. Black seawater is pouring into my lungs. There isn’t time to cry. There isn’t time for fear or regret. Far away on the very edge of the beach stretching on like forever I saw someone I think is my sister, wearing a torn skirt fluttering on the air the way our laundry used to flutter on a clothesline. She bent at the waist and launched towards the sky. I can’t follow her. The gulls are screaming over my head, calling on on on to one another, black tips riding the wind. The ocean brought me the places Louisa’s feet touched and I follow them instead, straight on to the swallowed sun.

The sister danced on the beach in the grey dawn and the grey noon and at the close of the grey day she yawned and said I love my brother, my baby brother, as she curled up inside herself at the edge of the shore. She slept there with the roosting gulls as the boy drifted on cold waves, the taste of metal on his tongue. Oh, he said, and on. On, the boy said, on, on, on.


Katrina Smith lives and occasionally even writes in Burke, VA with her husband, two children, and several other animals. Katrina received her MFA from George Mason University in May 2014. Her work has won several writing contests, including the 2012 Kelly Culhane Writing Prize and George Mason University’s Mary Roberts Rhinehart Award. She has been published in or has work forthcoming from Salon and Jam Tarts.

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