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Story with a Gallinule’s Wing in It

Story by Seth Clabough (Read author interview) March 6, 2017

Art by Margriet Zwart

for Margriet

The sea was also in the story, just beyond dark playa trees like ironworks, the umbels of a wild carrot.  This was December, near the village of Santa Teresa.

There was a girl, too, not a character but an actual person, who really did say, “I want to be lost in the heat stink of jungle and surf, to raise the sea as my child, to have it break my heart.”

She had a good shot.  This was the Pacific after all, which everyone knows is far more beautiful and soulless than the Atlantic, especially on the remote Peninsula de Nicoya with its lush, wet, fragrances, its pondering of stray dogs, sunbathers and double overhead barrels.

In the hills above Mal Pais, the drug dealers and thieves, dusty offshoots steep and climbing, and a thin dark figure squatting shoeless with a cigarette, two hens on his tin roof ragged in molt.  I saw it when I lived there, when I drank Guaro and took ecstasy behind the toilets with a Russian folksinger, when I went deaf from surfer’s ear and sniffed out the dailiness of the place with its dealers, Imperials, casados, bandits on the road to Liberia, the thin man with his sad-state chickens.

I saw the girl, too, watched her point the nose of her board away from everything, sweep out over the ugliness and beauty, the foreign tongues, lean bodies and Mayan calendars, paddle through stray dogs, old lovers, a cratered, dust-choked road.

I can’t write a story with surfing in it, so I’ll offer up the rosettes in the palms of Costa Rican children, how the amnesia of far away makes old expectations gridless, and how the girl catches, if not a wave, then the swell of the whole coast—the dealers and bathers, but also the rattle of an old washing machine, a sick dog yelping from the ditch, the soft cluck of a hen, the rainy season still five months away.

I suppose the crest lifts her—above a baseline, a deep cut—that she drops in at the shoulder, staying in the pocket, shredding a remote place as it all settles open and heavy, an iron weight sinking like a sun into water, into a sea which may or may not be the color of a Gallinule’s wing.

This would be the place to end except that on the beach, under almendros, the locals refuse to leave.  They lean on their rusted quads, pass joints with fingers scented of cocaine and mangos, and anyway I’m thinking of the two gunman from Nicaragua who shot the old expat.  How one was fourteen, the other missing his hand, how the old man died under his bed with a photo of his granddaughters and a shoebox full of maps, charts, legends, pathways to home or riches or god, though god is a problem of astrophysics.

We write what we write, see what we see in swirls of tabletop dust.  Because roadside tarps keep hanging regardless, moving gently as howler monkeys move through the ceibo tops, iguanas forage the compost heaps, as a phone rings, as Aldo, drunk again, heads out on his quad for the fish taco stand.

And anyway it might be true that foreigners will walk the public access of comedy and grief, that miles and years away strangers approach or will set out from slate-colored cities, but so what?

It’s far less interesting than the actual girl at Pranamar who fell in love with the sea when it was but a murky puddle.  She really did end up raising it.  She took it in, gave it clothes, taught it to speak four languages and sent it off to school with a new backpack and a ham sandwich.

It grew.  Obviously.

It swelled until its clothes burst and it spilled from the windows of the school, until it rolled away from her in all directions, until it lived against many continents at once and no longer remembered the girl at all.  But she came to touch it anyway.  She put her whole body in it.  She floated and rode her board so that she might know it by its waves.

All of this is true, more or less—the folksinger and drugs, the howler monkeys and bandits.  And there really was a girl who cried because the sea didn’t know her.  I think she loved it more because of that.

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Notes from Guest Reader Tyrese L. Coleman

This story hit me with its evocative, cinematic imagery. I felt like I was at this place, with this girl, surfing, yet not always inside water, but often through the landscape and the culture of this place. I also appreciated that this story isn’t just a bunch of descriptions, but rather a deliberate commentary on storytelling and craft. This story accomplishes what I think good fiction should do, which is to transport you to someplace new and interesting while still stoking the fires of intellect.

About the Author

Seth Clabough is the author of the novel All Things Await, and his work appears in places like Blackbird, Litro Magazine, New Writing, Barely South, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Women’s Studies, Aesthetica Magazine and numerous other publications. His writing has been selected for Ploughshares’ “Best Short Story of the Week” column and been nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, Best of the Net, the Luminaire Award for Best Prose, the Million Writer Award and the Queen’s Ferry Press Award. He teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia.

About the Artist

Margriet Zwart is a surfer, painter, and world traveler who makes her home–along with her daughter, Zaia–on Costa Rica’s Nicoyan Peninsula. She owns the popular Zwart Cafe and Art Studio in the village of Santa Teresa, and, when not out surfing, can often be found there chatting with visitors and creating her art. Margriet speaks four languages, has a degree in fine arts from institutions in Toronto and Vancouver, and has had her work featured in shows in the United States, Central America, Europe and elsewhere.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Five
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