Why This Zglevian Family Won’t Go to the Beach this Summer – Short Story by Roppotucha Greenberg
Summer’s straining and running away, and we haven’t been to the sea. By mid-July, things have gone so bad I call in the press. The reporters blow smoke rings; their tripods whisper on the garden paths. And I’m ungrateful and inconsiderate.
A smell of burnt milk from the kitchen: mother sends out a piercing shriek. ‘It’s her nerves,’ I tell the reporters. We’ve stayed away from the sea for so long it’s begun to invade mother’s kitchen. The milk froths over, little chunks of ginger bob like seaweed. The dish-soap reflects mermen and crustaceans. Unfortunately, the reporters have also been afflicted: sea-creatures lurk in their bulging eyes.
My brother and sister are sneezing on the folding beds. The garden gives them allergies and infected noses. They give the garden vacuous looks, French declensions, and logarithmic tables until it’s considering relocating to the bottom of the well. One of the cameras sneezes in sympathy, but the rest creak on towards the roses, where our grandmother, large and dangerous, moves freely on her many wheels. An unknown beast of cogs and metal, her wheelchair, stalks through the thick rosebushes, her shears at the ready. Our grandmother has a collection of buttons which she uses to summon bad weather and manipulate storms. If her warm milk is late, she utters maledictions and unleashes a migraine to swallow the world.
‘Granny needs care’, mother says. ‘We can’t just leave her alone when she has high blood pressure. She was your age during the War. Think of that’
And another day passes away from the sea, a day when we need to be quiet like mice, considerate, and wary of her moving buttons and flashing silver teeth.
Uncle Ruben arrives on the evening train. He brings canned ham and rumours. ‘The sea’s all gone,’ he says, ‘even the dogs complain and won’t go in’. And mother says ‘Ah’, like she knows it’s a fact and serves him sweet tea and fried mushrooms. ‘It’s pepsy-brown, not blue, and full of radioactive waste,’ he says.
I’m sick of his lies. The sea is not his to write off. The tripods surround Uncle Ruben like mosquitoes; the lenses stare into his spectacled eyes. Pity. They should squeeze beside the chicken-wire fence, where it’s almost like being in the forest. Ask the cunning blueberry bushes or the huddling nettles. They are crazy with venom, mosquito spit on their stalks, purple flowers bursting out. Rusting cans hide in the undergrowth; the trees are drunk on the spilled offerings, and the air is thick with beauty and waiting. This family should’ve gone to the beach, should’ve left the plants alone even for a bit, let the blackberries ripen with dignity.
I hear the wheels of the tripods and the reporters’ slurring speech. They’re looking for me, and I’m irresponsible and have no clue what the adults have to put up with. The path sprouts into the lilac bushes and the shed where Uncle Chmurnik is forging. He doesn’t know about the reporters swarming in the garden. He is busy. The basin is full to the brim and the raw lightning bolts are squirmy. The air is so close, they’re dying to get out. His shirt sticks to his back. He is skinny but strong. His arms are laced with scars, from the bolts, and he wears an oven mitt on his left hand. I sit on the bench to watch. He grabs a dripping bolt. It struggles, flares up, turns the blue room white. Uncle Chmurnik brings down the hammer, striking it, twisting it, until it’s a long whip of yellow flame. He throws minted lightning whips into a canvas bag.
‘Want to have a go?’
He smiles. He trusts I’m strong enough to wield the hammer. He doesn’t know I’d invited a bunch of reporters, doesn’t sense the danger. And I’d love to do it: feel the cold iron, crash the heavy hammer on the anvil, let it fly towards the sea. We’ll never go anyway. They’ll keep chewing on secrets, whispering evil, and drinking tea from chipped cups with flowers. I’d let the metal ring in their ears. But I hesitate, and the last lightning is whipped into shape and packed into the bag. Outside, the reporters are interviewing the jubilant ants. It’s their wing-sprouting day. Once it’s past, we’ll notice that the rowan berries are ripe, and the wasps will visit. The cameras are crawling on the ground to film the ants soar. This will buy us some time.
I follow Uncle Chmurnik to the roof of the shed. The clouds are heavy, lowing for fresh thunder. But he puts on his hat and lights a cigarette instead. ‘It’s too early’ he says. The light is funny, all broken up. And the heat has an edge to it. He puffs out, and the smoke flies low. There are scars on his hands and throat. I tell him how I’ll study in the city when I’m older, and he agrees. Because we’re both bad at talking, we pretend that we understand each other. But I don’t know what he has done to get those scars, and he doesn’t know I let the press in to sniff him out.
They arrived on big buses with hoards of bottled water and foreign sweets. They snoop close to the earth, dig deep in the flower beds, dredge the ditches. They’ll uncover the truth before the clouds burst, before we know what it is, and they’ll ship it off for the world to enjoy. Then they’ll drive off. And as they pass the station, there’ll be a flash of yellow sand and waves, house-tall, whale-blue, wild-with-waiting.