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Driftwood by Morgan Thomas

 

Morgan Thomas is an undergraduate student in Gainesville, Florida, studying creative writing and zoology. When she is not writing, she enjoys wandering on the Florida prairie or through the hardwood hammock, where life is generally waterlogged, overripe, and flourishing.

The first time I saw the Daijli, he’d come into Uncle Lou’s shop looking for something hermosa to hold his vino de guava. He wore pleated pants and tipped his white derby off his head as he walked through the door. I sat at the lathe, spinning it absently with one bare foot as he drew up close to Uncle Lou, who was mouthing off about varnish and cherry stain.

Uncle Lou stared at those smooth pink lips as they smacked down between the syllables, but I knew he wasn’t seeing lips. He saw rowan and water-bloated yew. He shifted his gaze to the Daijli’s eyes, looked past the pupils and picked out his heartwood.

Let them talk, Uncle Lou always said. Let them prattle on about the fact that they couldn’t tell oak from hickory with the bark on it. You listen close, and then you make the thing they couldn’t put into words.

The Daijli didn’t notice Uncle Lou was listening close. He spoke with his gaze on Mama, who was bent over a chisel and a rib of sandalwood. Even then, not knowing where he’d come from, I knew it was Mama he wanted and a cabinet to keep her in. She knew it too, kept her gaze on her hands and the wood peeling up in close strips.

She laughed when the door closed behind him, and Uncle Lou tore the Daijli’s business card in half. She stood and eased the paper from his grip.

“What are you doing, Mallea?” He said it low, stilling her hands in his own.

She whispered, “Following the dime trail,” her eyes still holding the smile.

“You have a daughter, Mal.” He glanced at me as he spoke, trying to say it was all right with just his eyes. “You are no footloose tease, not anymore.”

Mama pulled in tight to herself, and I saw her lose it, saw it slip from her shoulders like a loose shawl. Happiness, ever fragile, fluttered hollow-boned from her slack palms and was gone.

She followed it to the front door. The bell rang her into the coming dusk, and it kept ringing long after she was lost from window-sight. Mama was head and shoulders behind double-paned glass, not looking back. Mama was in no hurry. I suppose the Daijli was waiting for her somewhere. And happiness was too quick to catch; she was just letting it go.

Uncle Lou sighed quiet under bell-clatter. “Where do you think she’s headed, little Ada-girl?”

I said, “Soft pine, beetle bored.”

He pretended not to understand.

.  .  .

Mama wasn’t back that night. I slept in the corner of the bed we shared, leaving her plenty of room. Her spot was frosted at dawn, the sheet pleated and crisp, empty.

I spent that day and the next in Uncle Lou’s shop, milling slurry with a nagura stone and sorting chisels by size. He was making a wine rack, hands moving in a callous shuck and file, steady and mechanical as rifle-loading. He was worried, but you wouldn’t know it from his face. Uncle Lou kept his worry in his hands, beading up from every shallow nick and scrape. He struck his left palm with the scribing gouge on the second morning Mama was gone and left his blood on the maple board planed to a smooth quarter inch.

He saw Mama first, when she came wobbling home on the third night. He watched her through the window of the front room, tracked the brush of her shoulder against brick wall, followed her weaving step. He pivoted on smooth tile floor and left through the back before she reached the porch.

I knew he was going to his shop, and I felt shame flutter up from my feet, licking at my belly, because there was a part of me, small and mean, that wanted to go with him.

I stayed. I watched the light come on in the window of the shop as Mama’s hands fumbled the front knob, and she came swinging in on the door. She found a chair, and I heard the purr of Uncle Lou’s saw. She extended one arm to me, and I went to her. I knew she wasn’t seeing me. She was quivering on the edge of tears and wanting somebody to hold her, and I’d do. I was watching Uncle Lou behind my eyelids, sketching dovetails on blood-specked board. I was breathing in the smell of her—something whole and heavy as the rolled amaranth she ate in dry mouthfuls. Beneath that, down deep in the wood of her, crouched the slow sure rot of sea.

.  .  .

Mama says anybody who claims midnight is the witching hour doesn’t know the next thing about it. Dawn and dusk are the powerful times, the times when one can slip from this world into another and back again without even knowing it happened.

On Tuesdays we woke when shadows still clung to clammy flesh—before they slipped, humiliated, to the floor. We walked to the wharf enshaden, so Mama could get the essentials at Sedano’s and barter with fishmongers for early-netted shrimp and oysters without pearls.

I sat on the docks and watched the trawlers come in off the gulf. On a calm day, they swoon in slow like behemoths from another land, and I think if they could say something of that world, it would be something heavy, something dredged up from the bottom of the ocean and forever pulling to get home.

Tajo always came in long after the rest, and his message was always the same, shouted from the dragger as he sidled it up next to the jetty and ran ropes around pitted metal cleats, steadying his boat with smooth hands: “You best pull your toes back from the Gulf, Kahlita—you let it nibble at you that way, and one day it’ll bite hard.”

He always wiggled his own toes as he said it, curling them over the ends of his sandals, feeling for the deck, textured fiberglass slick with sea-drip. He called me Kahlita because he said I had Kahlo hair, dark and never brushed, Kahlo eyebrows thick and frowning.

“No time to talk.” He said it as he stepped onto the dock, planks that had tasted salt for years and withered with it until only knots and warped heartwood were left. The softest grains go first.

“Already late and shrimp losing the freeze.” But he talked. He talked as he loaded coolers into his truck. He talked about hungry thingshungry kids, hungry country, hungry ocean, hungry osprey diving after small-scaled fish. Shrimp, the sole answer for a world of empty bellies, open mouths crying for more.

“And Kahlita teases the ocean with fat bare toes.” He stood close and stepped on them just lightly, so the pad of my foot accepted the grain of the dock and held it in creases of swollen flesh.

“All the great whales eat from the toes and work up. Swallow cositas, swallow them whole.”

His boat pulled against the hawsers, and he went to her, touching her hull with tender fingers.

“Hungry seas would gobble shrimp thieves before Kahlitas,” I said.

He just smiled and turned to lift another plastic bin, back muscles bunching, fighting hard to escape his skin. “The Daijli comes after girls not much older than you.”

“Daijli.” I kept my eyes on his head, but he spoke into the wind, his back to me.

“Daijli. Stranger in a tuxedo de blanco and a hat set down over dark curls. He’ll take your hand and lead you in a fast-paced tango or a slow waltz. He’ll dance you right off the edge of the dock, down into water flat with stars like sky, and you’ll kick and jive and clutch him until you inhale with your head beneath the waves and join your abuelo in the sand graves.”

I shook my head. “I know better than to follow a stranger.”

He laughed at that, “Then the Daijli will take you on your back in the sand, right at the water’s edge, and you’ll wake in the morning with the tide at your hip and coming in fast.”

I sat on the dock’s edge, dry-mouthed fish pecking at my ankles. I pointed my toes and let them cut the water, spinning eddies and sending them out to sea.

“If he’s fond of you he might come back, leave flowers that turn with the dawn to gasping fish, dying quicker than roses out of water. He might leave his jacket on your chair, and you’ll wake to find seaweed dripping salt water in the seat. The Daijli can’t stay. The sun turns him into a scale-less fish, gray-bodied and leaping.”Tajo paused, scanning the water with shaded eyes.

I watched him looking, and I knew what he would see—smoked hickory with dark mahogany for the inlay and Mama clutching a hard-bent arm, thinking I’m asleep, pressing gentle on the door latch so it closes quietly. He’d see me huddling beneath my shadow cloak and watching her laugh, as she stared at a clean white derby and strummed the locks beneath it: Daijli.

He turned back to look at me, his eyes serious. I stared past them, searching for his heartwood, but I just saw Tajo, dark all over because the sun shades the ones it knows best. “Even at night,” he said, “the transformation is not complete. The Daijli must always wear a hat. It covers his blowhole. Without that, he cannot breathe. When he leaves his hat, then you’ve got him hooked; then he’s getting foolish. If you keep the Daijli’s hat, he cannot come back on land. He is caught in the sea.”

“Blowhole,” I said. “A dolphin?”

“Yes, dolphin. Daijli.”

Then Mama was there, calling me from the seawall, and I wanted Tajo to warn her, but he had his truck idling, coasting slow up the dock, and Mama was calling louder, hefting a bag heavy with shellfish. My shadow had slipped down to my ankles, its head and shoulders submerged in brined water.

.  .  .

The Daijli came out of the night, loafers scuffing on pavement, no footprints—just trailing wet like the seeping of a snail. He came when Uncle Lou worked late in his shop or walked off a long week in streets neon-lit and sparkling. The Daijli came in silence and a white suit, strolling up the front path like a thing summoned.

At first Mama kept me out of the way. She’d send me out with a basket for muscadines or coltsfoot, never mind that the light was fading, and she didn’t trust anything she hadn’t picked herself; never mind that the last of the berries were stripped by thrush three weeks back.

One night she handed me a pottery bowl, thrown off-center and heavy through the base. “Take this to your uncle,” she said, and I went, and I looked back before I crested the stream to see her stretching like taffy in the Daijli’s arms. That night I let the stew get cold on a smooth stone and caught frogs until full dark. Mostly, I wandered the night-forest, palmate plain of wind. I walked on the edges of my feet, calling to Cooper’s hawks in litany, circling back when they had nothing left to say.

By that time she was usually gone with him, or they were locked in the room she shared with me, gasping and dreaming together.

Once, I turned back early and caught them sitting on the back porch, leaving rings on Uncle Lou’s cherry table.

They talked, and I listened to the conversation progress in clicks—of ice against glass, then teeth on teeth, then nails drumming off wood. I climbed the oak that shaded them from snooping stars. I sat with my back against the trunk and listened to the slow dusk-fluttering of insects, the plea of a mosquito just beside my left ear. I gossiped with Persephone of the waning moon, and behind me, where I couldn’t see, Mama laughed with force, skewering happiness on a sturdy kabob and crunching it between her teeth. Mama grinned the sharp-toothed grin that would see a boiler wrung and plucked without wilting.

.  .  .

The Daijli ate meat. I saw him shredding a chicken’s thigh with his teeth, tearing gristle from bone until there were only naked sticks in his hands and grease shining on his lower lip. He said something soft, and Mama leaned over and bit that oiled flesh; she licked and pulled at it like a fresh pup for its dinner. He lifted from his chair a bit until he hovered over her, bent at the neck, throat working and abdomen swelling like he would upchuck the chicken for her right there on the porch.

The night he finally removed his derby, he had decided to stay for dinner. Mama made paella with red wine, tapping heel-toe in the kitchen to keep the roaches from the floor. I wondered if it was a jive. The Daijli shrugged out of his coat and lifted one hand to his hat, raising it slow and ceremonial from his forehead. I watched him put it down on the cabinet and walk up slow behind Mama. She had a Mason jar heavy with salt water in her hand, doling it out to the saucepan in sips.

I grabbed at his sleeve, knowing if he touched her they’d go off under the waves together, but he didn’t stop or bend down, just twisted his arm out of my grasp and brushed at the cuff smeared with oyster liquor from my hand. “Tan suciamijaTan sucia.”He said it in a slow loll, the measured cadence of a spell. Dirty, so dirty, he said, and made me feel it.

I reached for his hat, but he snagged it, spinning it in long fingers with no trace of a web, head tilted down and frowning at me, legs moving in a box step, matching Mama’s, waltzing in smooth at her back and lowering the algae-lined hat onto her curls.

I stood on my toes, wishing for height, imagining the gray, hairless pucker of his skull, the wet-gleaming orifice lit by sallow kitchen lights. Mama turned from the saucepan when he set his hand in the small of her back, stepped in time with him. They pivoted from stove to sink in tandem.

I went running for the shop.

Uncle Lou was planing a cabinet front, his eyes far away, and when I entered, he didn’t even look up: “Think you could sharpen that side gouge for me, Ada-girl?”

I stared at the waterstone, cowering and inert on his workbench, saw steel honed to a sharp edge and cutting deep, saw wood stain—sangria—saturating soft pine.

I stepped away from the tool, kept still with my eyes on him until he glanced up.

“The Daijli’s taking Mama.”

He didn’t laugh, and he didn’t ask what I was talking about. He breathed deep into his belly and ran his plane down the board. “She always comes back, Ada.”

“Stop her.”

“If I could stop your mama doing things, we’d never have met.”

His eyes were soft, inert, bovine in their complacency. I was following the movement of his plane, forward motion that inevitably leads to retreat, endless forth and back. I pounced on the plane with both hands, halting it at its apex, pulling sideways. It left a score in the wood, deep and ugly. “You could stop her if you wanted to.”

He just eased the iron from my hands. “Don’t hurt yourself.” He threw the wood into his scrap pile, started sketching the inlay pattern on a fresh board. “So could you.”

But by the time I got back to the house she was gone, and the paella scorched on the stove. His derby was on the floor in the front room, lying at an angle like he’d dropped it. The underside was algae-free, smelled only of pomade and sweat. I took it between my hands.

The sea is thick at night, star-encrusted and forever dreaming something quiet and distressing, something that makes it shift and moan, something that starts with not and ends with sky. I threw a white derby into the waves and watched it nod there, swept up in the sea-dream. I waited for a dolphin with oyster liquor on its front flipper, waited to see the Daijli steaming breath from his blowhole, hear him muttering in his milk-tongue, all clicks and whistles, dragging Mama behind in tresses of star-crumb and wood.