“Glory! Look what I caught!” Pepe yelled as he ran up the small hillock, hopping about, scattering the gulls. When he reached Glory he began kissing the gasping face of a truly ugly black fish he’d just pulled up onto the rock he was fishing from.
Glory stumbled back, making distance from the monstrosity being shoved at her, back from her collecting of beach-rose hips, which they all called “apples”.
“Monkey?!” she cried out in surprise, spitting out half of a chewed rose hip. The fish was the size of a child, weirdly flattened, and had too many teeth in its wide mouth. Glory held her breath, she didn’t want to know what the hideous monster Pepe was so excited about was, and was shocked with his kissing it.
“Frog?” she sputtered like a sneeze, and then she clapped a jittery mitten-clad hand—mittens worn to protect from the rose prickers—over her round mouth again as Pepe turned the fish to look—so it seemed to Glory—directly at her. Its shining goggle eyes, and vast mouth seemed to want to swallow her, she screamed.
“Get it away!”
Pepe stopped his excited fidgeting and gave Glory a grave look. “‘at look like a monkey? . . . You kids, you don’t know nothin’.” He hooked his hand in the gill and let the ample fish dangle from his arm. It twisted awfully, slimy black tail curling in the sunlight.
“Oh, no!” Glory fled the hillock, leaving the apples behind. Pepe watched her gangly run down the dune with the deflated look of a serially losing coach. She was getting big.
“Ya don’t know nothin’ . . . ” He started yelling after her, “you’ll never amount to nuthin, not scientists, not engineers, not artists! Nuthin! . . .”
As she reached the beach, Glory began twisting one of her ears and pretending it was a tremendous pain to have her ear used in such a way by Pepe. She wrinkled her nose and cried in a kind of pantomime of despair. The rant in her ear. Please, no more.
Pepe was red-faced from shouting after her, but wasn’t quite finished, “Frog, you say? You think I’m out here catching frogs? . . . Frogs and monkeys? C’mon, think a minute!”
Finally, Glory out of range, he trudged back to his sticks and string, back to smashing those nasty blue-black mussels with a rock, putting them on a hook, lowering them into the surf. No one gave a good-goddamned about what Pepe was doing—except the gulls who patiently observed him from a respectable distance.
When Pepe was in a better mood, he often told them about the “olden days” he remembered. The days when they grew the food: watermelons, tomatoes, cabbages, something called basil, and lots of other things Glory could not remember the names of. He said he could remember turning over the soil, planting the seeds. He told them about the smell of fertilizer. He was often showing the kids the soil. “This is good soil!” he’d say, pointing at it. The kids would nod, look around, kick at the ground a bit. What he hell does “good soil” mean? He also reminisced about catching fish, his eyes shining as they sat around the campfire, but those fish had been different, sleeker, taller, silvery-sided, man-sized—Pepe would stretch his arms completely out. These were the fish his father knew how to find. The mysterious personage of a father-of-Pepe boggled Glory’s mind. It was often the last thought she had before falling asleep, picturing Pepe’s father, some sort mythic ancient creature. Pepe told them something else too, about dogs and cats, and how in those olden days, sometimes a dog or cat would get lost and people would look for it. They’d hang pictures of the lost pet, ask if anyone had seen it, and sometimes, these lost dogs and cats would find their families again.
Glory could no longer remember when she had first seen Pepe, could no longer remember where she had been when he found her, picked her up, carried her. It seemed to her that Pepe and Nolan and now even most of the others had always been around her. If she concentrated really hard she could almost see something she couldn’t quite recall, from before, but it was too hard to focus. There may have been a kitchen she sat in, a mother she had cried to, but remembering was like trying to count the eels in a bucket when Pepe would scoop them with his net. They moved so fast, so wiggly, so alike. And there had been fire. Fire was her clearest and oldest memory.
Pepe taught her rules. Most importantly, do not talk to strangers, strangers made people disappear, especially soldiers. So they would run and hide from strangers. He also taught her to not let the boys sleep with her.
Pepe tried to teach some of the bigger kids to fight a bit, taught them to swing sticks, and how to use the pocket knives they’d found, but Glory was not allowed to take part in that.
The strangers, of course, had guns.
Mounds of runny slum-bullion were dished out of a bucket onto makeshift plates—hubcaps and shingles. No one asked what was in it, all hoped it wasn’t those terrible mussels. It seemed tremendously unfair that the easily collected animals were always the worst slime imaginable. But there was fish in the stew today. Glory sat with the others and watched the darkening horizon. The light show was spectacular, some nights better than others. Tonight there were lots of flashes and smoke plumes. It was a powerfully mesmerizing effect, holding all their shining faces until they slept.
“Why come we can’t hear it?” Glory asked, slipping into her most comfortable voice.
“Cause it’s too far away,” Nolan answered.
“So why come we can we see it?” she asked, rubbing her nose.
“Because it’s not far enough away.”
Glory nodded, imagining understanding. She knew she’d be smart like Nolan one day. She’d know stuff, too. Sometimes she tried to imitate Nolan’s brow. His was always knotted, and Glory supposed this meant something.
Later that night, as it cooled down, Glory pushed into Nolan’s tent, a bit of cloth stretched over a branch wedged into the beach sand. She worked herself feet-first into his blanket, and wrapped herself around Nolan from behind. She knew he didn’t like this, and that Pepe would be mad, but she couldn’t help it. She didn’t like to be alone at night, even after the horizon calmed down, after the flashes and muffled thunder stopped, and even after the whimpering of the littlest ones.
Glory practiced saying the new knowledge Nolan taught her. Too far to hear, but not too far to see. We can see farther than we can hear. She hoped someone—one of the younger kids perhaps—would ask her so she could say it.
“Oh, not again, Monkey,” Nolan hissed at her as she woke him, using the name for her she did not like.
“Do you think they sing songs?” Glory asked, resting her head on his bare shoulder, once he calmed down, accepted her there under his sandy blanket, and pressing her cold feet against his calves.
“No, they are damned bad people, they don’t have songs, just guns,” he muttered sleepily, “Monkey.”
Glory smiled, perfect eyebrows arching over her large dark eyes. Her dark curly hair needed brushing out. She burped softly and was sure the stew meat was that horrible thing Pepe had pulled from the sea. That horrible face gripped her, its bug eyes staring at her, its things flaring like wings. Had they eaten that? It was too horrible to accept. She had had a flash in her head, she had decided that it would eat her, the same way the sea with all its limitless creatures would, if she were not careful. And Pepe kissed it, like he expected it to turn into something better, just like in that story. Where had that story come from?
The next day there was a lot of mess on the beach, the new moon tides had distributed much of the previous night’s battle and deposited some of it near the little camp of refugees.
Here and there were bodies. Flies and small green crabs had already found them. The bodies were always in the most uncomfortable positions, always half buried in the sand, arms and legs oddly arranged. The kids studied them carefully, the tougher ones got much closer. Pepe had told them that the dead don’t miss comfort, but the stares he got from the kids stopped him explaining it further. Gulls flapped overhead waiting their turn, having been chased off by the older boys.
“More soldiers?” Glory leaned close to Pepe, this was the first time she’d come so close.
“Of course they are, you fool, or, leastwise, . . . were.” But there were times when it had been civilians on the beach as well, but Pepe didn’t want to reminisce about that, didn’t see the point in it.
“Are they ours?” asked another young boy who was called Dimple.
Pepe chuckled mirthlessly, he could have said, “There’s no such thing as ours.” He’d said that before, but instead he just said “Yeah,” with a sigh. He dropped to his knees and closing the corpse’s eyes with a little prayer and gesticulation, began rummaging the pockets. Objects were passed around the group, the little ones collected the coins, and fought over the best ones. “That’s a lighter, hang on to that.”
Glory held on to a picture, already passed around the small hands. A picture of a pretty woman, very pale, blue eyes. The woman smiled a sad smile. Glory stacked it with a growing package of paper also handed to her from Pepe’s rifling, his hands moving almost frantically. Then up and on to the next one.
Glory studied the pile of papers as they moved, it was a pile of letters tied up, all indecipherable and smudged, but fascinating nonetheless, the stamps, the hand-writing, the little hearts, kid’s drawings, maps, clippings from color magazines, cards and so on. She maintained a collection.
“Are they good guys?” Nolan asked Pepe.
“Yeah, these were good guys,” Pepe said with another sigh.
“How can you tell?” Nolan asked.
Pepe stared at Nolan, a growth spurt on this kid. Pepe’s authority no longer enough, Nolan wants knowledge. Pepe grinned, pointed at a star sewn into the shoulder of the man’s uniform, “You see that star? That means he’s a good guy.” Pepe spat on the sand.
Glory also had a revelation this morning, it was the first time she’d understood clearly that her conduit to another world was coming from the pockets of these soldiers. As she studied the package a small picture of three children, all as white as the gulls with hair the color of the sun found its way to her hand. They had children too. “Look!” she shoved the picture at Nolan who was busy in the dead soldier’s pockets.
“What?” Nolan was used to Glory never having anything of interest in her hands.
“Look, kids!” Glory smiled, her discovery somehow expanded, “they’re beautiful!”
Pepe looked up as he pocketed soldier’s doses of amphetamines, his favorite find next to cigarettes, “Lemme see that.”
Glory pushed to the other side of the group avoiding the pile of seaweed unwound from the body, pushed the picture into Pepe’s scrunched face.
“Hmm.” He said.
“They’re beautiful,” Glory said again reverently.
“They’re kids, just kids,” Pepe felt uncomfortable about Glory’s sudden discovery, this job was much easier when the children could be convinced that these were just things—junk on a beach, but it wasn’t possible anymore. They were getting older, smarter. He chided himself for not keeping Glory out of it, for not filtering the photographs out of the paper she liked to collect. “Ah me,” he sighed. I’m doing my best, Poppa.
Glory was having an unusual morning of discovery as she squeezed the letters and studied the pictures, and now she could not help noticing how dirty her nails were, and how brown her skin compared to the bodies. She folded all the materials up and later established them with her collection rolled in her blanket.
“They’re just kids, Glory, there’s kids everywhere.”
“Is this their daddy?” she pointed at the drowned man, a touch of something rising in her voice.
Pepe didn’t know how to disentangle this, all the boys were looking at him now too. Was this a daddy?
“Yes. Probably. I don’t know!” he stammered and then groaned to his feet, “c’mon!” The good thing was nearly everyone had canteens after this round of scavenging.
“Goddamnit,” Pepe said after crumpling a third sodden package of cigarettes he’d studied carefully. Though there were a few he managed to scavenge. He lined the pickled cigarettes on a log near his tent in the sun. He waited intently for those smokes all day. He also longed for pain-killers, even aspirin, but, of course, he hadn’t seen any aside from what he could scavenge off the occasional dead in years.
That night there was a scare. A patrol swung to their beach on a large machine. They played their powerful search light over the debris. The roar of the motors guttural and chugging. Everyone had to stay very quiet and not look. Pepe said they could see their eyes with the light. Glory tried to imagine this, imagined something like the shiny shards of mirror the boys collected to flash at one another. Then the machine stuffed itself up onto the beach and men jumped off, nervous men with a lot of gear, and guns. There were always plenty of guns sticking out everywhere. The men kicked at things, and dragged the bodies around. They laughed as they searched the weed wrapped debris. Again Glory was surprised and she turned to Nolan, “What are they laughing about?”
“Shut up!” He hushed her, and pushed her head roughly down into the sand.
“Ow!” she cried as Nolan did his best to silence her. He kept her head down a few seconds until she began sobbing softly into the sand and spitting.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time—even the little ones made barely a peep—the men appeared satisfied with their looking over the beach. The machine was shoved back off the sand and the men clambered aboard, fired the engines and turned the boat around. Again the men could be heard joking and laughing. The children watched the craft motor far into the darkness before Pepe let them move again.
Just more kids, Pepe thought to himself, afraid of the dark.
When the sun rose, a few hours later, Pepe rounded up all the kids and made them pack everything, which for most of them meant rolling everything into the blankets. It was time to move.
Glory was disappointed as she was finally getting used to chewing on the beach-rose “apples”.
“Will there be apples where we are going?” She asked Pepe.
Pepe stared at her for a moment, “What?”
“Will there be any apples where we are going? The little kids—,” she looked around them, taking in the small ones, “they love apples.”
Pepe softened, Glory had never before distinguished the little ones, never before seemed to realize she wasn’t one of them. “I don’t know—I don’t know.” He moved a small bit of grass in his mouth, which he chewed compulsively. Only two of the cigarettes had burned at all well and he’d chain smoked them despondently.
Finally, the entire group was ready. With the sun fully above the horizon and not a cloud in the sky, they began to find their way down the beach.
First, the older kids surged forward, exploring and claiming everything they found, then, they waited for the rest of the group to arrive, and then, they surged forward again, competing with one another for speed and items. The entire party moving like a worm down the coast.
Pepe had already split up two fights that morning. It was going to be a long day. Glory watched him as he shepherded, making sure the smallest ones were attached to bigger ones. Glory kept her hand in his, and noticed he was staring at her feet, bare, dirty and sunburned.
“I hoped ta find ya some shoes by now,” he said with a strange pained look on his face.
Glory smiled at him, why did he seem so sad? Hardly anyone had shoes. Glory could not remember ever having shoes. Pepe had tried to make her some from a tire, but they weren’t any good.
“I don’t need any shoes,” she chirped at him with a wan smile and a shrug.
“I’m gonna get you some shoes. You’re a girl, girls have shoes. You’re not a baby anymore,” Pepe said matter-of-factly, and squeezed her bony hand a bit too tightly. He fought a lump of shame for not being able to find enough for these kids, especially Glory, to eat. “You don’t understand, you kids don’t understand nuthin’.”
Glory looked down at her feet marching in the sand, her face a frown. She suddenly wanted to run, to jump on Nolan, to do anything but be here with sad Pepe telling her about shoes and girls.
“We’re going to do more, I’m going to teach you how to read them letters,” Pepe smiled at Glory.
“Read the words?”
His shame rose. He’d been an impatient and terribly inconsistent teacher, there were selfish times when he’d fantasized ditching all these little charges, leaving them for the soldiers to find, and who was to say that that would be worse? Who put him in charge anyway? Pepe sucked at his grass stem. Ah me. Poppa? What would you do?
“Yeah, read the words,” he said finally, and this cheered both of them up. But they had to keep moving, and it was a long time before they could rest.