Down by the Elbow, Billy’s place was, up high on the rock, so high it was a hardship to get from the dock to the cottage. All rock, gray granite with a stripe of pink quartz marbled by white. Wind-born waves shuffled against the shore, blue-tailed skinks sunned in crevices, dragonflies hovered and snapped at minuscule prey. We all of us lived like that, perched on rocks on our islands out in the open waters.

That afternoon she came from the Elbow to us. She pulled up in her whaler and Thora, wearing a pink lifejacket that matched Billy’s bikini, leaped out. Billy laughed like one of the loons around here. Thora jerked and jumped at the sound of it. Dumbass dog, we thought. The water rippled as Thora chased a water snake, and Billy called out “Let’s swim.” One hand held her waterproof bag with her smokes and boat license, the other a liter bottle of Coke. Particular about that, she was. We dove in, swam to the point and back. Sparkling hot it was. Slept on the rock out front. Billy shivered and Thora skootched up to her. Brittle our Billy was so we fed her and between bites she pulled on that Coke bottle like a baby at the breast. We had our suspicions.

We played dice as dusk lumbered in. Roll one thousand to get in the game, first to get ten thousand wins. Billy yanked her pink sweatshirt over her thin shoulders and right on down to her knobby knees. When her turn came, she ashed her smoke, lipped it on the saucer and flung dice across the table again and again. We caught them. Wind gentled through the screen and the candles sputtered tiny black plumes. The stars came out and Billy rolled five aces. Well, whaddayaknow she said, a strangled confession. Her smoky regret stank up the room. We knew then. Stay, we said.

Mouthy she was in her no, so ‘round ten we shoved the whaler off our dock, gave her an extra flashlight. Told her we’d pick her up the next day in our Hunt boat, do a picnic. But when we tied up at her dock she wasn’t there. No Thora either. Scoured her island. Went about to the others, we did. Later word came to us.

No one gets to stay, you know. No one. But we’re here anyway, rolling the dice.

7 Comments

  1. Sarah Freligh

    Catherine, I’ve read that first paragraph again and again and each time find something new to marvel at. It’s a textbook opening–we get characters, a clear setting, the hint of conflict — the difficult terrain, the isolation, those lives lived clinging to rocks on water — and the voice, the voice, the voice. That bit of inverted syntax from the get — “Down by the elbow, Billy’s place was”– just hooks me and makes me want to read on.

    I love the collective voice is working here, as the teller of the tale but also the ones who get to/have to stay behind and tell the tale. There’s such poignancy in that, a lovely golden note of regret there at the end. And Billy is such a singular character, so finely drawn sensorily evoked: The stink of the cigarettes! Her knobby knees! Her whaddayaknows!

    I had to read it a few times before I got that Thora is the dog (I got momentarily thrown by the pink lifejacket, a wonderful touch). So maybe “her dog Thor” the first time she appears on stage?

    Well done!

  2. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh, I love the language in this story, Catherine! Your use of “was” (it/sheconcretizes an existence that wisps away and has us (well, me) wondering. Such a sense of place, with its hard granite cliffs, everything hard to get to but worth getting to know. Love the five aces and the disappearing act. A magician, she was!

  3. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    This is just gorgeous, Catherine. At the risk of repeating what’s already been said, the “we” is perfect here, as is the wonderful, unique voice that anchors the piece and carries the story all the way from Billy’s hard-to-reach cottage to the muted reference to tragedy at the end. The story throbs with tension, heightened by short staccato sentences and lyrical language. A few of my favorite images and descriptions:
    “Wind gentled through the screen and the candles sputtered tiny black plumes.”
    And,
    “Wind-born waves shuffled against the shore, blue-tailed skinks sunned in crevices, dragonflies hovered and snapped at minuscule prey.”

    Stunning work!

  4. MaxieJane Frazier

    Between Billy having an unexpected bikini and her pink sweatshirt below her bony knees, the surprises and foreshadowing set me up for that perfect ending where you go beyond a summer evening to the universal.

  5. Kathryn Kulpa

    This story is so mysterious to me! I kept re-reading, trying to figure it out. Kept thinking of Greek mythology and wondering if Billy is a siren or some other kind of mythical being. There’s such a strange, otherworldly feel to all of it: “We all of us lived like that, perched on rocks on our islands out in the open waters.” Except for a few (more or less) contemporary references like the pink life jacket and the Coke, the story seems to take place out of time, in some realm where “no one gets to stay.”

    I love the characters, both Billy and Thora, and their close but unsentimental relationship. I agree that I’d like to see Thora identified as a dog earlier, and maybe we could see what kind of dog. The collective “we” voice feels spot on. I love the unexpected verbs and the vivid sense of atmosphere, and even though I didn’t understand everything that was going on, I was willing to go along with this unique, compelling narrative voice.

  6. Suzanne van de Velde

    Catherine — we’re immediately drawn into this group, and the speaker definitely feels like the cool crowd. I love the voice throughout: “Well, whaddayaknow she said, a strangled confession. Her smoky regret stank up the room, We knew then. Stay, we said.”
    Respect for each other’s privacy and independence overrides their concern for Billy’s (and Thora’s) safety, contributing to fatal consequences. Where one’s personal responsibility lies, the balance between individualism and shared futures, is compelling and I’d like to see the speaker grapple more with that more.

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