MENEMSHA HILLS RESERVATION
BY JENNIFER TSENG
I’m only going to take one, she said, already a guilty edge to her voice, as if some part of her felt it was wrong to take even one and she was rationalizing, anticipating my condemnation of her. But less than a minute later, she found another one she liked and quickly picked it up and said, one more’s okay, a rhetorical question posed to no one in particular. She nodded slightly in the direction of her daughter and said, just one for me and one for her, that’s it and suddenly it seemed as if she’d adopted C for the sole purpose of moments like this, to be allowed to take one more of something when she was already pushing her limit, as if her daughter existed to double her quota, to increase two-fold her right to possess things. Then again, to raise a child requires selflessness, perhaps even a relinquishment by half of one’s self and to raise a child alone, as she had, requires more sacrifice still. I couldn’t help but think that if every person who visited the beach took two rocks, by year’s end there wouldn’t be any rocks left.
So when she said one for her and one for C, I felt prematurely relieved, not knowing that within seconds she would pick up a third rock, this one rose-colored and gray with a band of white around its circumference, this one as big as the first and second combined. Like a gambler who slides one stack of chips into another with a bang, she knocked two of the rocks together and said which one, as if she were planning to adhere to her second self-imposed limit and choose between them. The rocks made a sound like two pool balls colliding; I half expected to hear an eight ball rolling into a leather drop pocket but there was nothing except her voice saying, in reference to her latest acquisition: it feels so good in my hand, like it was meant to be held. She held the rose-gray rock in her left hand and the first two awkwardly in her right before abruptly thrusting all three into her jacket pockets.
Should we go back, she asked, glancing in the direction of our daughters. Sure, I said, and we walked back ungracefully over the rocks. I was slightly alarmed by the rapid escalation of her desire and its fulfillment, her instant disregard for the limits she herself had set. Then she said, what I really want is a bigger rock, which confounded me because in fact I’d just been marveling at how very big the rocks were that she’d put in her pockets, at how very large her appetite for them had been. I felt a wave of guilt for being a resident of the area who had invited her there, only to passively witness her taking rocks from the beach as if they were owed to her, as if the earth were at last making amends for crimes it had committed against her. She seemed not to think of it as taking but as replenishing. I did nothing to discourage her from taking the first or second or third rock. I simply watched, surprised, as she took them. In truth, I was tired of correcting white people’s behavior, tired of functioning as a moral compass on their journeys through the wilderness of life.
She wanted a beach with sand so we drove to one that had a long jetty made of beautifully colored boulders. We walked out to the end and I said jokingly, well here are some bigger rocks but even as I laughed, I beheld a horrifying image of her hiring a crane to lift one of the most beautiful boulders out of the beach and into her truck and her driving away with it, taking it back to the city with her. I felt an acute sense of relief when this didn’t happen. As we were leaving, I saw a slim, blue-gray rock bearing a delicate line of white—like a jet stream—across its front and, because she was especially fond of striped rocks, I bent down to show it to her, naively assuming she had finished plundering the town and she exclaimed, oh it’s a very preppy one! And without deliberating or making any effort to appear to be struggling to decide, she put the rock in her pocket with the others. I was startled and speechless and prayed, in my tortured, Catholic way, that the ghosts of the land would perceive my speechlessness not as passivity or weakness but as a silence I had observed in their honor and I wondered, between the two of us, who was worse.
Jennifer Tseng’s flash fiction collection, The Passion of Woo & Isolde (Rose Metal Press 2017), was a Firecracker Award finalist and winner of an Eric Hoffer Book Award; and Tseng’s novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (Europa Editions 2015), was shortlisted for the PEN American Center’s Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the New England Book Award. Essays from Tseng’s manuscript, Mixed Feelings, about growing up multiracial in America, have recently appeared on The Paris Review Daily, Catapult Magazine, Poetry Magazine, and Ecotone.
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