Feature: Lowcountry Fiction Contest, Sullivan's Island 1951 (1st Place)
Young Walter populates his lonely world with fantastic stories of foxes and chickens, tunnels and soldiers, but when a curious creature washes ashore near his mother’s beach house, is his discovery real or imaginary?
When Walter thinks of his mother, he thinks of the smooth, shiny back of her robe. She calls it a “dressing gown.” It is peach-colored with green leaves and white flowers. It lies against her back as she hunches over her big desk, whose rounded top can come rattling down and cut off his fingers if he touches anything on it. Her hair is the color of sand, blond with little bits of shine and little bits of dark in it. As she leans over her paper and pen or holds her head in her hands, her pale neck glows like the inside of a seashell. For someone who always wants to be out here, at the beach house, she has pale skin. She hardly goes outside the house. Walter prefers town, where he can find other boys on the street to play with. Here, it is just her and Evangeline and whatever strange friends of hers come around.
Evangeline is busy. His mother keeps her that way. His mother hates for people to dally. But what does she do but sit at her desk, sometimes not even writing? He isn’t allowed to read what she writes, but sometimes when her friends come over they sit around the dining room table smoking and drinking and taking turns reading from notebooks, and he hears her voice like it was in a movie. Fancy talking. Her laugh is so loud it can wake him up in the middle of the night all the way from downstairs.
Today is one of the days he knows he should stay away from her, but that just makes it harder to leave her alone. She rocks back and forth in her chair staring at her desk. She has her arms crossed and a cigarette in one hand. Evangeline lets him sit just outside the door of his mother’s office as long as he’s quiet. When she points her toe out to the side with her bare leg coming out of her robe, he knows she’s going to spin around in her chair and that’s when he skedaddles. He has his own notebook with him, and he writes stories about foxes.
It’s one of the first cool days, and the wind blows through the open windows on either side of her desk, sending the white curtains flying up like ghosts. He pretends he is a fox and leans against the wall to curl up and stay warm. He closes his eyes.
He wakes up to the flapping sound of paper. At first he thinks they are paper airplanes flying from the desk and into the air. His mother yells, “Evangeline! My papers!” She stands up from her chair and raises her hands to her head. The wide sleeves of her robe slip down to her shoulders, and her fingers dig into her hair. He’s afraid she’s going to crush her head she is squeezing so tight. Evangeline is under the house hanging up laundry to dry. He runs into the room, jumping at papers. When the windows are open in the front and the back, it sometimes makes a wind tunnel. If he doesn’t help her catch her papers, they might fly away.
She spins around. She isn’t picking up anything. She only looks around like there’s nothing she can do.
“Walter!” she yells. “For heaven’s sake, get out of here. Just get out. Get out. Can’t you see?” She crouches toward him and shakes her hands in front of her face. Her fingers are curled as if they’re eagle talons. As if she wants to crush him, too.
He runs out the back and lets the screen door slam shut. She hates it when he does that. She hates loud noises.
He hates her. He runs into the sand dunes. Evangeline is singing under the house. When Evangeline sings, she can’t hear a thing. But then his mother goes out on the back porch and yells for her and stomps her heel to get Evangeline’s attention.
He turns back into the dunes. In between the house and the beach are humps of big green bushes. This summer he made a tunnel and a fox den by breaking off some of the lower branches. In the den, he made a floor mat with dry reeds from the beach. Even when it rains, it usually stays dry in the den because the branches overhead are so thick. Now he rips out more branches to make a tunnel from his den all the way to the beach. He might even see a snake. He doesn’t care.
Evangeline calls him from the porch. “Wally? Wally, come back here.” He freezes so she won’t know where he is. She’s the only one who calls him Wally. That’s because she says Walter is too much name for a sweet little boy. He’s not sweet, though. She doesn’t know how he really is. “Stay out there if you want, Wally. But be careful. And don’t go in that water.”
His mother is probably already back at her desk. Maybe burning holes in her papers with her cigarette because they flew away like they weren’t supposed to. She’s done it before. She doesn’t care where he goes. She wishes he would go away. She says it all the time: “Out of my sight. I’m begging you. Just for a little while.” And then she turns back.
Winding vines connect the bushes like nets, and some of them have thorns. He takes his socks off and puts them on his hands. He doesn’t have shoes on. Maybe he’ll catch a cold. Evangeline acts like catching a cold is the worst thing in the world. But when his mother catches a cold, she stays in bed all day reading books and having tea brought to her. He likes to read books. He’s the best reader in his class. But Evangeline shoos him out of his room where his books are. “You should be running and playing and soaking up the sun,” she says. “You aren’t an old man yet.”
The sand in the shade is cold, but he doesn’t care. The more vines and branches he piles up the hotter he gets. Usually he sees lizards and little birds and ghost crabs, but today he is like a bulldozer scaring everything away. Every time the pile gets big, he drags it back to his den to put it with the others and make one big pile. He can’t make a fire and burn everything down, but he pretends anyway that he is going to have a big bonfire in his den. Maybe he will even rip through the top of the bush covering his den to make a smoke hole like in a teepee.
The closer his tunnel gets to the beach, the steeper the dunes get until he is on top of the last one and all of the bushes are behind him. In front lies the wide-open beach. The sand here is warmer from the sun, and he digs his toes down into it until his feet are covered. Then he does a somersault down the dune. Sand gets in his hair. He shakes it off like a dog. He climbs back up the dune and does it again. The next time he rolls down sideways. Then he lies down and crawls up the dune using only his arms like an army soldier.
He stands up on the dune as if he’s been working all afternoon to conquer it. The ocean is rough today with waves that peak like little snow-topped mountains. The sun makes the foam and bubbles sparkle. The waves tumble up the wet sand.
Something big and dark is rolling in with the surf. Something that looks like a torpedo. Something exciting.
He runs to the water. It’s a shark. A big shark. He knows it’s dead because its eyes are dull and gray like metal. He doesn’t know if animals go to heaven, but if this shark had a soul it is gone. He takes his socks off his hands and drops them on the beach. He rolls up his pants and tiptoes closer to the shark that has come to a stop. The shallow water swirls around its big body. The water is cold, and even though the shark is dead it is still scary. Its body is big and heavy, longer than Walter is tall. It is thick. Its eyes are small for such a big body. “All brawn, no brains,” Evangeline would say, like she tells him when bigger kids pick on him at school.
Its skin is dark gray, and Walter can imagine the giant black shadow it must have been creeping through the water. He touches the skin over its nose with his fingertip. It’s rough. Then he lifts the nose with one finger to get a look at the teeth. Big triangles on the top and skinnier sharp ones on the bottom.
What all has it grabbed with those teeth? He’s heard crazy stories about people opening up a shark’s stomach and finding things like watches or fur coats. He’s too afraid to try to turn the shark over, but he can see some of its white stomach. White like milk. And soft and slippery looking. Not like the rest of it that’s like armor.
How did he die? There are no marks from a net, no blood. It’s a mystery.
He has to show his mother and Evangeline. They won’t believe it. He can’t believe there’s no one else on the beach to see it. Even though it is October and no one is swimming, they would be scared to see what kind of big scary shark lives right here where they are.
He skips his tunnel and instead takes the sandy path through the dunes to the house.
He stops when he gets to the backyard because he hears voices laughing and talking. So much for Evangeline wanting him to come back. So much for his mother having a bad day. She is on the glider, her bare feet flat on the porch floor pushing the glider back and forth. There are two men and one lady on the porch, too. Evangeline brings them glasses on a tray.
“Thank you, Evangeline,” his mother says in her nice voice. She always tells Evangeline she doesn’t know what she’d do without her. She’s her only real family in the world. Like a sister. But whenever Evangeline brings her little boy with her his mother gets mad. Walter would like to have a brother or a cousin. Evangeline’s little boy is good at making forts outside and even inside with cushions and blankets. He’s loud and can do funny voices. He would want to see this shark.
“Mama, Mama,” Walter yells. He jumps up and down so she will notice him from up on the porch. “Come see this. You’ve got to come see.”
“What do I absolutely have to come see?” she asks. She keeps gliding. The men and the other lady look down at him through the screen. He’s never seen them before.
“A shark. It’s a big one. It washed up on the beach. Come see.”
“Walter, can’t you see we have guests? But in a little while I will be glad to go see your shark.” She is calm on her glider. She only ever gets excited about bad things.
“Mama, it’s a real shark. It’s dead, but it’s real. You’re not going to believe it.”
One of the men stomps his foot and says, “I’d like to see this shark. Let’s take a little stroll through the dunes to the wilds of the open ocean. Helen, Isobel, Bert, shall we?”
All of her friends have strange ways of talking. As if they are reading straight out of a book. But he is glad the man wants to see. His mother always agrees with her man friends.
“Evangeline?” his mother calls out. “A refresher for the expedition.”
“Mama, come on.”
“No reason not to take the party with us.”
The grown-ups refill their drinks and walk down the steps to Walter.
“Show us the way, young man,” says the man who decided they should go see. But Walter can’t wait for them. With their drinks and fancy shoes and his mother’s bare feet and her robe that right from the start gets stuck on a yucca plant, they are too slow. He can’t wait to get back to the shark and stand beside it as if he wrestled it from the ocean himself. He will lift the snout to show off its terrible teeth and invite them all to feel the rough skin. He could have his own TV show about animals.
He stops at the top of the last dune to wait for them. But he can’t see the shark. He runs across the beach and into the waves, the water rolling around his ankles and shins and soaking his pants. Where is it? Where could it have gone? He goes in deeper to his knees. He looks both ways along the beach. He looks for the dark torpedo shape in the waves. He marches back and forth pulling his legs through the water hoping the gigantic frightening body will bump into him in the current.
His mother and her friends are on the dune with their drinks. They look toward him but don’t come down. He runs to the bottom of the dune. “It’s gone. I don’t know what happened, but it’s gone. I promise it was there. I promise. I don’t know where it went.”
The lady called Isobel gets down on her knees in the sand and leans toward him. “Maybe it wasn’t really dead, it was only playing dead because it was afraid of you, and once you left it swam back into the ocean like a big old coward,” she says in a kind voice like Cinderella’s fairy godmother or a kindergarten teacher. As if Walter is a baby who is going to cry, who believes things that aren’t true. He did see the shark. It is real. And he isn’t going to cry. He isn’t.
“Maybe a scientist came and got it and took it somewhere to study it,” he says.
“I see he has his mother’s imagination,” says Bert. He puts his drink down in the sand and pulls a cigarette and lighter from his sweater pocket.
“Oh yes,” his mother says, watching Walter. He can’t tell if she believes him or not. If she cares or not. If she’s mad at him or not for dragging them out here. “He writes stories, too. Foxes who make friends with the chickens and such.” She smiles down at him.
“They eat the chickens,” he says.
But Bert is lighting a cigarette for his mother now, and Isobel is talking to the man whose name he doesn’t know. He stands there waiting for them to say something. Even to tease him about what could have happened to the shark. How did something so heavy, so dead, just float away? The grown-ups do not care.
He goes back to the edge of the water and looks out and side to side again. The wet sand on the beach is almost as dark and gray as the shark. His eyes blur with tears. He rubs them away with his knuckles. When he closes his eyes he can see the shark right there but when he opens them there is only the wet sand and his cold toes and the wet legs of his pants. His dirty socks are still on the beach like two limp silvery fish. He picks them up and throws them into the ocean.
His mother, standing on top of the dune, crosses her arms to stay warm. Her robe lifts behind her and flutters in the wind as she turns toward the house. Her friends follow. They are back to their stories. She will send Evangeline out for him in a while if he doesn’t go in.
He can sneak through his new tunnel to his fox den. But for now he sits on the beach, cold and wet like the shark. Will some mysterious force come take him away like it took the shark? He puts his head to his knees.
He hears a low bullfrog hum so near that he vibrates with it. He looks up, and it’s a shrimp boat chugging toward him close to the shore. Behind the boat seagulls and pelicans dive for the dead fish two men are sweeping out the back of the boat. Three or four dolphins follow behind, too. They dip into the water with their slick, shimmery bodies.
As the boat passes in front of him, he sees the captain standing at the big wheel. He’s so close Walter can see the steam from the mug of coffee in his hand. The captain smiles and waves at Walter. He has probably seen a lot of sharks. He would believe Walter. He would tell Walter what he knows. He would let Walter steer the wheel. He would give Walter some dry wool socks and let him drink coffee. He would take him to the dock and tell him stories.
About the Author
Bessie—who was born in Charleston, grew up on the Isle of Palms, and now lives in Mount Pleasant with her husband, Will Bagwell, and five-year-old triplet boys—wrote “Sullivan’s Island 1951.” “I’m currently working on a novel about a lonely man who finds love relatively late in life,” says Bessie. “This story is about that man as a little boy. His childhood is not part of the novel, but writing this story helped me discover why he is the way he is. Also, I’m always trying to get to the bottom of what it’s like to be a boy.” An American Studies major at Sewanee: The University of the South, Bessie received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Florida.