By Cayla Bernstein '21
Dun Laoghaire Harbour, Ireland. Many tourists here, writers looking for an escape. They admire the lighthouse at the end of a sandpaper pier. Some watch the sun rise, some watch it set. Some even do both.
Past the field of green grass lies Ann Marie’s Craftshop: pots, pans, ceramics. Salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of pigs. A mirror embroidered with flowers. The smell of cinnamon as you walk through the door, a sign greeting you: “Welcome home,” and another: “Everyone smiles in the same language.” The collections of poetry are renewed weekly; Ann places a few more on the shelf and flips the sign to open.
Singing Billy Joel, she cleans around the shop – rather, she dances. Pliés down to grab the window spray. Relevéing to reach ceramics above the shelf. She lights a candle by the register and looks out at the ocean. She wraps a headband in her French-braided sandy hair.
A boy comes in. He’s nine years old, at most, on his own. Lost his family searching for a toilet. Ann comes out from around the counter. Smiles, squats down. She wants to see his eyes, but they’re covered by his brown, shaggy hair.
His name is Samuel. He’s shaking. She hasn’t seen a boy his age for some time. She reaches out to him, brushes the brown tips that shade over his eyes, pushes them out of the way. They’re hazel, browning as they circle inward. She’s seen eyes like these before. Her hand begins to tremble. “It’s okay,” she exhales and strokes her fingers along her jawline, grazing her pulse. “Let’s go find them.”
Out on the field, it has begun raining. Samuel reaches up, holds her hand. His rainboots splash in the water. The rain, constantly humming. They sing along with it.
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn’t know where to find them
Leave them alone
And they’ll come home
Wagging their tails behind them
Six years ago. The grass tickled her feet then. Under the shade of a hedge, it felt cool on her calves. One of the few days without rain. Seamus’s head felt warm against her chest. He tilted his head, brown eyes looking up at her as if to memorize every detail of her face. He always had her husband’s eyes, but did have her perky nose, her one dimple on his left cheek. Each with one arm held in the air, they outlined the shapes of the clouds. Their fingers grew cold. They tingled with each cloud they traced. They sang then, before the fire, before his little fingers slipped away from her hands permanently. Before she was left alone. They sang.
Little Bo Peep had fallen asleep
And dreamt that she was all alone
But when she awoke
And pulled back her cloak
She saw that her sheep had come home
“Mom! Pa!” Samuel draws Ann out of her daze. She holds his hand tighter as he begins to run ahead. Eventually, he’s ripped away. The parents: Wife, black hair in a messy bun underneath her hood; and Husband, his glasses dotted with rain.
After a few exchanges, Ann gets a final hug from Samuel. She holds him tight, feels his tiny fingers on her back. She kisses his forehead. The couple watches carefully, protectively, exhaling deeply and with relief. How nice this moment was.
Before Ann realizes, she’s back in her shop, drops her coat. Leaves it on the floor. She locks the door and drifts toward the staircase, climbs it, drags her legs along the route. But something itches at her skin. Something tugs at her sleeve, weighs so heavy on her chest that she must breathe consciously and with effort. She walks down the stairs again and runs her hand along the railing. Something’s off balance. She taps her fingernails against the rail, rhythmically. But she’s at the bottom now, and her knees are still trembling -- it’s not enough. She pulls herself up the steps, each step strangely tilted now, the staircase rocking back and forth. Back down, and up, and down once more. She needs to get up, something pulls her there, but this time, her legs will not lift. There are brown dots on the walls now, dancing around. She finds herself staring at a painting against the wall: Ann, her mouth a faint blue from… cotton candy? Ice cream? She’s in her father’s arms, beside her mother and sister. Her mother was beautiful. She even had that new-mother glow, that innocent, sincere smile of ineffable gratitude. But then she remembers Samuel, his eyes, his little, warm fingers. How nice it was to help that boy. She smiles at her parents, at her younger sister, who stood hugging her mother’s legs, blonde hair messy around her head.
But then the faces grow… blurry. They’re crying. Swirling, melting. She reaches out to hold them, but her feet are so… heavy... Breathing out, breathing in, faster and faster until exhalation and inhalation become one motion the same. She can only hear her heartbeat. She watches her parents melt, her sister disappear, only she remains, a blue-lipped baby, floating without arms to hold her, crying, trembling, she falls to her knees, swims in the paint. Red and yellow. It comes over her body, the staircase, the walls. She drags along, crawls toward an orange light. How nice it was, how nice it was.