In 2003, a year after our youngest daughter died, my husband Chris and I travelled from our home in New Zealand to Oman to live and work for a year. The challenges of living in this fascinating culture helped us learn to live with our grief in a way we couldn’t at home. Gradually I regained my ability to write. When we got back to New Zealand, I started recording our experiences from that time. This is one of the stories.
This morning we’d watched the sun rise over the sea because we needed to see colour spill over the earth. We walked past deep holes dug by nesting turtles and over the tracks their flippers had gouged in the sand. We found piles of broken egg shells at the bottom of the holes.
“Let’s hope one of them made it to the sea,” Chris said. He picked up a stick and drew a heart in the sand around a cluster of empty shells.
“What a waste,” I said, counting around two hundred eggs.
“Part of a cycle,” Chris said, writing our initials inside the heart.
We peeled off our clothes and waded into the sea. Seabirds circled and dived. Floating on my back in the warm salty water I thought of a friend who once described the hours he’d spent in the sea after his boat capsized. The world became the boat he was clinging to and only that moment had any substance. He said he felt outside of time. I never fully understood what he meant, until now.
Outside of time. This day. This time. Two years ago. New Zealand.
Rebecca asks for music to be put on. She discusses a racehorse with our friends John and Sue and tells them she wants to train a white horse when she gets better. She asks me several times who came through the door and I say there’s no one else here, just the seven of us. She touches everyone and checks their names, then asks Sue, “What sound does a bear make when it’s stung by a bee?” We think it’s a riddle, but Rebecca says she doesn’t know the answer either.
The two nurses decide to leave as she seems so much better. She’s laughing and joking. Her face is a better colour. I say goodbye to them on the porch. When I go back into the living room Sue is telling Rebecca she and John will stay overnight so Chris and I can get some sleep. Rebecca thanks her then nestles the side of her face into the chair and closes her eyes. As I sit down opposite her I see her chest is still. We put our faces close to her mouth and nose and feel the tiniest whisper of air. Chris finds a pulse in her neck beating very faintly. My heart is beating hard. John and Sue slip outside and wait on the veranda. The nor-wester roars through the trees whipping up the autumn leaves. Chris and I hold Rebecca’s hands.
Beneath the hills wild horses graze in the moonlight. The lead mare lifts her head. Colts and fillies stop chasing each other’s shadows. Foals stand closer to their mothers. The old ones stop grazing. They all watch the lead mare, and wait. The earth holds its breath. Rebecca’s pulse flutters like a moth’s wing, and is gone. I go outside to tell John and Sue and they say they know because the wind has died.
I don’t sleep that night and next morning I move around as if trapped in glass. In the middle of a conversation with my two other children, a sound slides from my throat. It rises to a wail. Wave upon wave of wailing, from a place deep inside in my body. Chris, Susannah and Benjamin can do nothing but hold me. A fantail taps on the window. As Rebecca’s friends start arriving the fantail circles round their heads.
Chris knelt on the sand with the sea up to his chin. A seagull flew over our heads, its keening breaking the silence of the deserted beach.
“Do you remember,” I said, “when I was in labour? You suggested playing Scrabble to keep my mind off the contractions? Then you put your hand in the bag of letters and brought out an R.”
“Coincidence,” Chris said. Then, “Ouch!”
He reached down and brought up a stone. “No wonder it cut me. It’s covered in limpets.” He turned it over. His brow creased. He held it out to me. In the middle the limpets had dropped off, leaving behind a raised pattern of white calcification in the shape of a perfectly formed R.
Sitting under the stars in front of our campfire I hold the stone and stare into the flames.
“In ancient Persia when someone first saw oil trickle out of the desert they didn’t understand what it was,” I say. “They thought it was some kind of water and when it ignited they believed the fire was sacred. They didn’t believe the flame just went out. They thought it died, like the soul leaving the body.”
Chris points to the sea. The sparks from the agitation of the algae have become flashes of light that run along the length of each wave. The sea is ablaze with white fire. A large dark shape emerges from the water. A giant turtle. She drags herself across the sand, stopping to check out sites to dig a hole, then makes her way to our tent and starts digging beside it. With a sigh, she begins the long process of shovelling out sand with her front flippers. We edge closer, and by the light of the moon we watch her lay her eggs.
After two hours she covers her nest with sand, turns around and heads back to the sea. We follow and watch her swim away. Pieces of moon float on the water where she disappears beneath the waves.
Sandra Arnold is the author of two novels and a book on parental bereavement. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. The Stone was the first story that Sandra wrote about her daughter’s death. A longer version was published in The Best New Zealand Fiction Vol 4 (Fiona Farrell, ed. Vintage Books New Zealand, 2007), although the only fictional aspect was the changing of some names. Sandra’s website is www.sandraarnold.co.nz.
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