Oh Mary, you blue-white flowering beast.
You ride our hearts so we forgive the devils that trespass your forgiveness.
Living off your light, they suckle grace and hyacinths. You let them.
A wet apron hangs your neck white,
All is milk but not ocean.
The sun had already begun to descend in Coney Island as Maria, Rose and Francesca raced down the steps of the boardwalk, through the expanse of kitty litter sand, and leapt yelping, into the water. They hopped through the dun-colored froth, their lips and teeth pulsating from the cold, each playing at splashing each other, each trying not to get wet. It was a mid-September afternoon and they had just finished all their schoolwork and chores and had promised their mother for the fiftieth time that they would be back in order to help set the table for dinner. It was a long drive from Bensonhurst to Coney Island, but with Maria’s new drivers’ license, she welcomed any chance to leave the neighborhood, especially if it meant getting to watch the sun set through the spokes of the Wonder Wheel.
Francesca and Maria took turns swimming the length of the tide, but stayed close to shore, their mother’s admonishing voice pinging in their heads. Rose, the middle sister, swam determinedly out, head just beneath the surface skimming the foamy gray, mouth shut tight against the debris. Maria and Francesca saw Rose swim past them and yelled out tones of cau-tion. When Rose made no motion to stop, they looked at each other and simultaneously rolled their eyes. “Showoff!”, Maria turned and sang after her. Francesca, the baby at eleven, leapt up from behind Maria to dunk her, her brown eyes live with laughter. Maria shrugged her off pla-catingly, chuckling with averted eyes.
As the golden light waned and cast its toughness over the dull ocean, it became increasingly more difficult to resist the chill that swept the dust into their hair and eyes. Maria told Francesca that they should start heading back and began scanning the distance for Rose but couldn’t see her. Knowing their sister was not stupid enough to swim all the way out into the middle of the Atlantic by herself, they pushed their way back onto the sand, past the gravel and green glass that bit their knees and calves.
They dried themselves while scouring the horizon for Rose, but not a single swimmer could be spotted. Maria’s gaze fell upon a row of enormous glistening black rocks at the end of the beach. She nudged Francesca nervously and they both watched as swell after swell beat up-on the jetty. Maria thought she saw a figure moving between them, grabbed their stuff and walked swiftly down the beach towards the jetty, Francesca following close behind. Plodding by them was a family leaving for the day, laden with their lawn chairs and cooler bags. Maria asked the mother if she had seen a thirteen year old girl with long brown hair, and she nodded, pointing towards the rocks. They both thanked her and ran, kicking up sand, until they reached the water.
They called to Rose, who was in up to her neck and seemed to be examining something that was stuck between the slick rocks. Rose turned and seeing her sisters, grinned and waved them over. Maria yelled, “For Christ’s sake Rose, it’ll be dark soon. We need to get going!” But Rose wouldn’t budge, mesmerized by something indiscernible to her sisters. “You have to come see this,” she yelled. “We have to go! I promised Mommy we’d be there,” roared Maria. At a loss, Maria saw that Rose would not budge and with an irritated sigh, reentered the cold water. Anger mounting in her throat, she strode furiously through the tumult of waves. “I am going to strangle you,” Maria bellowed. Then she saw them. Three tall statues of the Virgin Mary, unstuck from the rocks by a final wave, had risen and were floating on the surface of the ocean.
My mouth, it’s bitter like poison. The kids, they always find a reason to leave. Never seem to wanna stick around. Today it’s Coney Island; tomorrow it’ll be San Francisco. You sac-rifice ya life for ya kids, sacrifice ya life for ya family, and what are ya left with. One soft-boiled egg and a spoon.
It didn’t always used to be this way. When we were kids, me and Vitu used to go down to the freak show, to Coney Island. We would sit there and point and laugh. Vitu really seemed to love it, even more than I did. He’d call and ask me to dinner; next thing, we were eating hotdogs and watching the tattooed lady. One time, when I was pregnant with Mary, we went down there and Vitu won me a statue of the Virgin. He hit four balloons with some darts and she was in my arms. When she was little, I used to tell her “Mary, I named you after the Virgin. Don’t disap-point me.”
With girls, it happens so fast, the changes. One minute they’re asking you, what’s this stain on my underpants, the next they’re hanging out with boys in cars. You spend ev’ry minute, all you got, tryna protect them, where’s that leave ya. Now Mary’s gone and gotten herself in trouble with that young boy. Tony. Sixteen years we gave that girl. Me and Vitu. Sixteen years down the drain.
You know, sitting here at the kitchen table, with the light coming in, I can still picture Mary when she used to come home for lunch. She’d sleepwalk in, eyes wide, and ask, “Is Daddy here?” Her shoulders would relax when I said no. She liked it better, with just us girls.
Sometimes, when Vitu watched his soccer, the girls would talk and he would yell and throw the remote at them. Then it was always, “Fanny! Fanny! Can you get these damn kids out of here?” Pulling legs out of arms out of hair, that’s a mother’s responsibility.
She’s got no idea, Mary, what it takes to raise a kid. If she were here right now, I’d school her. I’d sit her down at this table right so’s the sun comin in reflects her auburn hair. She’d look into my eyes and nod. We would just be a mother and daughter, having some eggs.
“Mary’s a goddamn mermaid, I knew it!” hurled Rose over the roaring tide. The other two girls stared, eyes locked with the statue, the water now challenging their necks. Rose doggy-paddled a few feet, over to where the porcelain Mary had been carried by waves. “C’mon you guys - help!” she said, straining to lift her. Maria and Francesca broke from their respective shocked stances and swam dazedly to Rose’s aid. Together, they hoisted and maneuvered Mary through the grey foam, passing jellyfish carcasses, and the aftermath of last month’s beach party.
They eased Mary onto the sand, shivering gritty smiles at each other. Rose faked like she was going to give the statue mouth to mouth and Maria shooed her away. She raised herself up on her haunches and began examining Mary for dents or nicks, running her wet, soiled hands cross Mary’s smooth arm.
“Where shall we keep her?” Francesca asked, alight with possibility.
“Keep her? What do you mean, keep her? She ain’t ours to keep, Francesca,” Rose ex-plained.
“But, we can’t just leave her here. Some stupid boys will come along and mess with her.”
“Why don’t we just offer her up to Aphrodite and send her back whence she…”
“Under the boardwalk. If we can carry her to the other side of the beach, she’ll be OK there,” Maria cut in, her gaze still locked with Mary’s. She rubbed the statue’s arm reassuringly, unaware of the mud cakes she was leaving. Rose narrowed her eyes at Maria, noted her glazed expression and nodded solemnly towards Francesca.
Again, the sisters raised the Virgin to their shoulders and made their way through the grey sink of sand and gravel. They stumbled silently through the wind that had swept up with the on-set of night, hunched over, oblivious to the dark. Sputtering held breath, they held on tightly to the statue, as they swayed with the gust. There was a brief exhale on three; they each caught their breath, the new gust sweeping their insides.
Looking up, they saw the faded neon of the Wonder Wheel’s evening retirement just be-fore they saw the boardwalk. They quickened their pace, reached the boardwalk and with an air of jubilance, finagled Mary sideways through the narrow space between chain-link fence and sand. They climbed in after her, hair clinging to their dusty faces, eyes readjusting to the dark-ness. Once squeezed in, they sat down to rest. Quietly, Rose hushed, “You guys, how are we go-ing to get her out of sight? This thing’s barely tall enough for Francesca not to hit her head. It’s still not safe.”
“We’ll lay her down and push her. What else. C’mon, don’t forget Mom’s still waiting for us. As much as I’d love to avoid that scenario right now, we need to move,” Maria chimed. The three girls positioned themselves at Mary’s feet and pushed, their bodies jerking from the weight. With a final heave, they reached a more secluded spot. Rose and Francesca looked at Maria for want of something to say. “Well, now what?” Rose asked, watching as Maria stroked the smudges she had left on the statue. Anxious, Rose turned to Francesca then back again to Maria as a small voice crackled from Maria’s throat, “In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost…” - They each crossed themselves where they sat in a circle, their heads bowed, beaded in quiet.
Some time later, after they had found Maria’s car where she had parked it by the Cyclone, and driven back on the Belt Parkway to their parent’s home - where they were greeted with their mother’s nervous shouting and smacks - they sat around their dinner table, their heads once again bowed in silence.
Mary woke into the glint of morning, and watched the sun dart through the boardwalk’s slats and break into shards of gold. She smiled, and tried to lift her heavy head from the sand where she lay supine - but the laborious effort was so great, she sank back down into the groove her sleep had worn. Just above her head, the boardwalk sagged slightly from the chug of feet stepping to the arcade, the carousel, and the beach. Her head thundered its morning electrical storm; she shut her eyes and lay there, her mind drifting to the circulating song of the carousel and the pinging of the winner’s bell.
In her dream, she had perambulated the graph of Bach’s cantata, the Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, had known each crescendo in her body, had known each injection of lyric for what it was, allowing it to soften her plaster into malleable flesh. She had moved swiftly, clad only in high-heeled pumps, her smooth legs stealing across the score of graphite, a strand of pearls swinging around her neck. In her dream she had waltzed the dead back to their graves, from where they had found her by the jetty, had returned their hearts to their own grainy dullness, while hers danced in rings of blue-white fire. She had sung the coaxing lies of nymphs to guide them, had been an oread pilaster for their breaking. With shoulders staunch as marble she had not been inflexible, swaying as each wave crashed her boundary, an accumulation of quarries and water. She had listened to their restless queries, had lulled them back to sleep with the lilting of Bach’s cantata, she had been both Orpheus and Eurydice, she had been the Madonna, she had been their Electra. And when it was ended, she had jumped off the jetty and swum, until her striving body was lifted by the current and then she simply flowed with it.
She raised her hands to her temples and massaged the skin there. From what stirred this incessant beating of drums, from what did the gong sound? From between her eyes, she beat back this throbbing telepathically, as she rubbed her tense muscles.
Her fingers knew it first, the chipping off of plaster as they dug deeper into the soothing. There was a chipping, and then a cracking, as particles of plaster broke up and crumbled between her fingers, raining into her eyes and the sand beneath her. Her mouth dropped open in terror and surprise, as she clawed at the cavity and watched the chipped pieces fall away. She felt two giant holes in the place where her forehead had been, and dug both thumbs deeper into the opening. She tried desperately to chip off more of her plaster; she yanked and pulled and grunted and flailed, to and fro in the sarcophagus her rigid body had worn into the sand. She tore and tore but no more would come off.
With great fatigue, she retired her hands to her sides and chuckled sardonically at her own frustrated compulsion. “Seven years of erosion, no wonder,” she sighed in resignation. With a shallow intake of breath, she moved her hands up to the back of her neck, gently massaging to break up the congealed sacs of fluid there and in her shoulder blades, the pain rising to the back of her head where they conspired in fired synapses. The whole of her head was seized by light-ning; she pulsated like the reverb of plucked aluminum. She was cold and radiant, emitting little puffs of breath which iced the warm air around her. She had become the sheen of a knife’s blade.
Immobile and gelatinous, she lay there shining blue and white. She watched the ray she emitted converge with that of the sun.
She reached down into the sand beside her, strained her neck to find remnants, any remnants of her cast to fill her orifice, to make her head whole again. All was sand around her; the grit filling her teeth stung her lips from speaking.