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molia dumbletonMolia Dumbleton lives and works outside of Chicago, Illinois. She has studied at Oberlin College, Rice University, and Northwestern University, where she was honored with the Distinguished Thesis Award and a nomination for Best New American Voices. She attended the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop in 2013. Her work has appeared in New England Review and The Seattle Review, and is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online







The Way We Carried Ourselves

Winner of first prize in the 2013 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition



We were already mixing heavy vodka tonics for the grown-ups—our summer sunset routine, clinking crystal glasses and feigning la-di-da gestures, sniffing the mouths of bottles, daring one another to lick lemons, and sliding ice chips down one another’s bathing suits. The six great-aunts were waiting, lined up on couches looking like the sisters they were, when one of the uncles cringed barefoot up the gravel driveway and laid James gently on the grass at the bottom of the front steps like an offering.

No one had known how to call us, no one ever had before, and like most summers we hadn’t hooked up the phone. But before anyone could make it to the house, someone from the marina had thought to find an uncle at his six o’clock swim off Stone Beach, and from there he had gone dripping and chafe-thighed to the docks, where he found our gentle cousin strung from one foot, drowned in a rowboat. Still holding Gordon’s gin and ice cubes, through the kitchen window we saw the uncle kneel, face hollow, the rest of him almost as limp as the skinny boy in his arms, and still cold and wet from his swim.

James was blue. He stood out dark even against the uncle’s bare chest, which was cold and hard too, but not like James, whose knees stayed bent even when he laid him out. James’ hair was long that summer, to the dismay of his father, and we couldn’t help thinking, though we’d never say it, that he really did look a little like Jesus with his legs bent like that, together and folded off to the side, arms spread wide across the grass, hair curled and clumpy, and with his head angled in a pitying way, like he felt sorry for you even though he was the one nailed down, his skin tight and shiny.

There should have been noise, but there wasn’t. One cousin went out first, bottle still in hand, and with ice first stinging and then numbing our hands, the rest of us began to follow, one by one as we sensed the change in the group. Then eventually an aunt, wondering where her gin had ended up, and another following her sister, then uncles looking for their wives, then the great aunts in a line until everyone stood there silently, filing onto the slate steps as if we might sing or pose for a picture. But instead of a wise-cracking uncle up front center telling everyone to “Say camembert!”, at the bottom of the steps there was just the uncle and James. And instead of the unbelievable family photo that routinely caused cars to slow in passing fingers bouncing as they counted just exactly how many people, all ash-blond under a single aura of summer yellow, could fit inside our house there was just quiet. The aunts took our cold hands and led us back inside, where through the door we could only see James’ mother’s hand grip the wrought iron railing and slide step by step to the bottom.

In the quiet, wide-eyed, unmysterious stillness of the evening, we sat in our bathing suits and let our hair be stroked, while the uncles shuffled quietly, murmuring out front. We felt the new weight of our warm, beating flawlessness; of all those mothers’ eyes as they assessed our freckled backs and fragile fingers; and we were suddenly small, our shoulders narrow, and our skin thin and penetrable as we felt them being touchlessly measured. And when the women’s hands fell softly around our shoulders, they took our faces in their hands and kissed our brows, and we went to bed still smelling of beach—straight from bathing suits to pajamas without a shower. From our bunks, as our lids got heavy, we met eyes and we missed him. Without him, we were lost. Without him, there was so much we would lose.


Life had been sandy, with ping pong tournaments, capsizings, and coins saved for candy. And while other children were adrift without television, school, or schedule, with James as our leader, our summers had passed slowly for us together in our house, every day one long sun’s arc of freedom, with sandwiches at noon and card games at night. We were interchangeable, a silent mass, and we slept soundly in the high tide humidity, exhausted and peaceful when the day’s warm air gave way to dampness in the sheets. 

On beach days, stacked three to a bike, we’d brought home crabs in a bucket, to brag over if they were big, taunt if they were feisty, or kill if we’d caught the same one twice and decided he was too dumb, too smart, or too red-bellied for us to bother catching again. James had been the one to suggest the lawn mower. The bravest of us, he was the one to drop them, their black crab eyes expressionless, legs clawing for surface, pinchers for something to hurt, into the red metal blades of the powerless hand mower while one of the rest of us pushed the blades spinning.

Crabs don’t have blood. Their bodies just separate and the little bit of ocean they have inside them dries up, and the rest of us had to wonder what had happened to James’ body, laid out on the lawn that had been our killing field and cemetery, and how long it had taken for his blood to turn hard and still inside him. 

Night after night, we sat on the front steps after dinner, and through the kitchen window we heard them piecing it together. A late night rowing the dinghy out to the sailboat, a miscalculated step over a lifeline, a tangled foot, a banged head and a helpless face resting in two inches of rainwater collected in a rowboat’s belly. An entire day passing, hanging there alone while the rest of us ate, played, talked, lived, unknowing. They speculated. The logistics were impossible, but in the end, it seemed, given the nature of things, more surprising that the rest of us had managed to stay alive this long.

As for what James left behind, there was no bike, nor bed, nor hardly clothes that were his alone; everything was everyone’s, and leaderless though we were, we continued to slide into the clothes that were dry and fit, the flip-flops closest to the door, and whatever bunk happened to be empty, without the searing discomfort we might have felt if this or that had really belonged to him alone.

Things got still and quiet. The beach was suddenly too bright and sailing too much trouble, with all the winching and rigging. Neighbors said we weathered it fine; there were so many children and all so healthy, but they didn’t know the quiet inside the house that used to be all sand and rummy. And from the battered seaside windows where last year’s fresh patched paint was already beginning to peel away, we felt the eyes of our parents, aunts, uncles, and great aunts watching us ride away with a gray narrowing that we may have misunderstood as love or worry.


We started riding single. Anyone who wasn’t ready in time to claim a bike would walk. Then they bought us bike helmets and knee pads and elbow pads, then they didn’t want us riding bikes at all. Bikes were locked together to a pillar out back and we walked. Then we were walked to lessons, then withdrawn from swimming and sailing altogether and enrolled in land sports, which they watched from the sidelines, their fingers rolled tight into their palms.

The whole marina had been closed for a day after it happened. The town was small, and we were known, so we got used to strangers watching us. Unable to distinguish us one from another before, the strangers were now uncertain as to which of us was missing but knew that one was, and their searching discomfort made us cohere even more, our carefulness evident in the way we carried ourselves, traveling as a blond halo of quiet-eyed caution, a living caveat of what carelessness gets you.

In August, a four-day rain drove us all inside, where we played silent games of cards under a joyless scrutiny. Over the tops of our splayed cards, we met eyes again and planned.

On the next clear day, at the beach, we scooped jellyfish from shallow waters and slid them into a bucket. We knew from James that in the dark, their lightbulb coils glowed green in the middle of their clear jelly goo; we had many times crowded around him in the dark to watch him lift them and let them ooze through his fingers, hold them up close to our faces, then explain how their bodies were pieced together to make them glow from the inside when they came in contact.

We packed up our gear and headed home from the beach, strapping the bucket to the back of a bike and setting out together, bikes and walkers, in a slow, cautious phalanx. We wore shoes against gravel and glass; our noses glared white with zinc oxide. The drinks were already poured when we got there, the ice in the bucket already melting, and it was quiet as we filed up the stairs and one by one, stepped into the closet and slid the door closed behind us.

Leaderless, we sat cross-legged, bare-armed, and stuck together like mussels, and called him with our question: Who. Which of us could rise from the rest and lead. Setting browned hands gently on the edges of the bucket, we waited. We swirled the transparent globs, rolling them gently until their coils lit up, then whirled them faster until they began to spread thin and clear and gooey, and just before they fully lost the boundaries that separated their small bodies one from another, the bucket glowed its quiet reply. In the fading living luminescence, we turned our faces to Elizabeth. She was small and quiet, with ash-blond hair brushing her small shoulders. She had James’ thin mouth, and the dexterity to thread live snails on a string so gently that their single-muscled bodies were still writhing on the line when you dipped it, as bait, back into the sea.

She straightened her spine and spoke. They had taken James away in the night, she explained. While the rest of us slept, she had watched as they came to our room for a blanket from the empty bed, then watched from the window as they wrapped him and gathered him up again, his limbs locked, long and shining in the porch light as they shifted and dropped out from under the corners: his bare foot, his stiff arm, his square-kneed leg still gently bent. They had laid him softly in the back of a car, the one closest to the road, and for the first time all summer, someone had started the car with a quiet rumble.

We could see it, feel it, finally, as she talked. Their faces turning, pale, to the upstairs windows. Breaking first with soft beauty, then apology, then grief. Then settling into steel to declare the war that would come next.




©2013 Molia Dumbleton



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