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The Sharp Below

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"There's magic in this marsh."

This is what your Gram says, one evening at the dock's end. She sits at the very edge of the boards and lets the current tug her toes. Brown water, quick hunger. She watches the waters pass, her eyes creased and darting, as if the swirls hold a secret language only she can read.

There's so much silt in the creek it's impossible to see what sharp things lurk below. Oyster shells. Alligator fangs. Rusted fishing hooks. Your younger brothers never seem to think of these things when they scream "Geronimo" and cannonball from the dock's top railing. You cannot stop thinking about them. Sharks teeth. Beer bottles. Blue crab claws. Your knees stay squeezed to your chest. All you can look at are your grandmother's anklebones, bobbing against the waterline. These, too, are sharp. As thin as the rest of her.

"What kind of magic?" you ask.

Summer is heavy against the sky. The season fills your lungs with every breath: colorful heat, edged with your neighbors' grilling charcoal. Gram inhales it all, seizes every bit she can before she tells you, "The kind that sings to your blood. Old as life and salt and death. I'm surprised you haven't faced it yet."

Your mother hates it when Gram talks like this: with distance in her voice, far-off and bone-frail, using words that shake your insides. Sometimes, when your mother thinks only your father can hear, she uses words like senile and declining.

Some things are declining, yes. Gram's tendons are a skeletal premonition, bruised with too many IV needles. Dock boards splinter under her grip. The sun sinks into more shadows. But her eyes on the water ... those are alive, lit in a way that makes you ask, "What does the magic look like?"

"Look like? The magic's invisible. Most of the time," Gram adds. "No, no. It's the feeling that gets you. Ebb and flow, high and low. Heron's wings against the dawn. The cries of saints across the waters. Philip, Michael, Matthew, John...."

Bells, you realize. She's listing church bells, reciting their names with the power of a summoning. You can almost feel their iron reverberations — clashing across the harbor, skimming with dorsal fins, spreading into the creeks, out, out, through the grass's green glow, all the way to your dock's edge. Something ancient stirs in your chest, déjà vu turned in on itself, again and again.

"I'll miss them," your grandmother goes on. This sentence is as pointed as the rest, sharper still because you know the deeper meaning behind the words.

Slipping away. Decline. Death. Call it what you will, but for God's sake don't say it. Not out loud. Something inside you is still stirring, as ravenously murky as the water around Gram's toes.

"Are you afraid?" you ask.

"Of what? Dying?" Gram's eyes find you. It's so dark now that you cannot tell her irises from their black-hole center. You should've switched on the dock light. Walking back to the house, with Gram on your elbow, poor visibility and a hundred jutting boards to cross, will be tricky. You might fall, or worse.

"No."

"Why not?"

"Not much point, is there?" She stares back at the water. "Ebb and flow, m'dear. Ebb and — Oh!! Look!"

Gram's ankles have disappeared and water around them churns — darkness and froth. She kicks at the creek. All around, tracing the trail of her toes, is light. Ghost-green sparks dance across the waters: in, out, in out.

"Do you see it, Wes?" You don't have to see Gram to know she's smiling. Her voice is bioluminescent, magical.

"Yes," you tell her. "It's beautiful."

Graudin
  • Graudin

Your grandmother kicks until her strength runs out. A minute, less than. Her breathing is labored, but she keeps staring into the marsh, wanting just a little more, a little longer....

You take a breath of your own, so deep that your kneecaps dent your chest. You slide your feet into the dark, dark waters. You make the light shine.

Charleston native Ryan Graudin is the author of Wolf By Wolf, The Walled City, and the All that Glows series. You can visit her online at ryangraudin.com.

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