Raíz lay down, in a black burqa, on the white sheet. From above, she must have looked like an abstract painting, a single black brushstroke on a white canvas, or like calligraphy. The sun radiated out over her in a massive golden spiral and the light turned the water into undulating waves of molten glass. Yet, she stayed cool.
She felt the sheet raise up and hover above the water. The sheet wanted to fly, across oceans and continents, back to her homeland. The sheet wavered there above everything like her son’s kite caught in jetties of wind or like the one recalcitrant cloud in a clear blue sky that passed overhead the last time she visited her husband’s grave.
But the sheet did not have a direction, or a place to go. War had claimed her home. Left a ruin. Not a destination: a void, a devastation to avoid, to circumvent, a site indescribable. These no places dot the earth, eventually absorbed back into desert, mountain, or jungle.
Her origins were nowhere and her past nothing. That is why Raíz filed a false name and fictitious papers, identity weightless as the floating sheet which set her back down on the beach. Raíz came to the beach to fly. It was her favorite game. Only her burqa kept her tied to the earth with its grave colors. Otherwise she would become the sky’s ephemera, a particle of dust, a solitary seabird.
She thought she heard the faint voices of children coming down the beach. But it could have been an echo. She should leave behind the possibility of flight, of weightlessness, of freedom from grief. This oceanside town seemed as good as any. Tomorrow she started as a teacher’s aide. The school children would keep her son’s memory alive like a wick for a candle flame. Maybe Raíz could unveil her heart, unwrap it like the icon of a saint on its holy day. Her heart was clotted with love and she feared it would stop up from grief soon if it went unexpressed.
A gang of boys came down the beach. They were running and singing. Four almost identical tanned, tow-headed boys from the oceanside town all about age eight. As they came closer, she heard them chanting, “Sea Hag, Sea Hag/Washed up on the beach/Watch little children/Beware her evil reach!” They ran up to her one by one, chanted the song and fled back to join the group. She rose up. She was a furious, regal Sea Hag. The wind off the water waved the loose material of her burqa like a warning flag. The boys took off running, laughing, and screeching like evil sprits who appear out of thin air to torture the lonely and helpless.
She wanted to grab them and shake them. How could they be so cruel? Why would they taunt her? Hadn’t she been teased enough by guards and smugglers, by government workers? Now here? There was only so much she could take. At the same time, she did not want to become bitter and hard as the Sea Hag. That is what the boys thought when they saw a woman all dressed in black alone on a beach, that she was an unwanted crone who had never felt the love of a husband or the affection of a son. She started walking away and left her white sheet there.
The next day she started at the new school as the art teacher’s assistant. She wore a black hijab. Her task was to prepare the materials for the students’ art projects. She set out paper, paints, brushes, pastels in all varying shades. She took out each pastel and tried to find the one to match the color of her son’s eyes, but she would have needed to blend the blues and greens together to recreate them. The color of her husband’s eyes escaped her. She could not remember his face before it was torn open by mortar fire. Now all she could see was a devastated one, blasted, burned and blood soaked.
A boy came in. It was one of the kids from the beach. He had been crying. He also had a scratch across his face. She had some time to talk to him.
“What happened? Do you remember me?” she said.
He did not want to say anything because he thought he would be in trouble for teasing her. Earlier, the gang of boys had realized she was the woman from the beach because of her hijab and that she was going to be the teacher’s aide. They met and tried to come up with a plan to get her fired. But Xavier said he was going to try and befriend her. They hit him and told him if he got them in trouble, they would hurt him even more.
“I’m Xavier,” he said. “I wanted to say I was sorry. I saw you on the beach and you looked sad. We were watching you from the dunes and we made up that rhyme. I didn’t want to do it, but the others are stronger than me.”
“Xavier, I forgive you,” Raíz said. “When others convince us to do something we do not want to do, we become like the sea creature you sang about, one who is lonely, scared, ugly and destructive. That creature can look like you or me or the other boys. It lives off fear and silence. You are like my son who was not too scared to stand up to evil, and I am proud that you stood up to the others. That makes you brave. We need more bravery. We will go up to the boys together and tell them what they did to you and me was wrong. We should confront the creature when we can.”
Raíz and Xavier went out into the schoolyard to face the boys. They held hands as they approached their grimacing faces. The boys could not run this time.
Alexander Perez lives in Albany, NY. He has fiction forthcoming this winter in Soft Cartel, Furtive Dalliance, and Anti-Heroin Chic.