Four miles and change northwest of the Cahoon’s Cottage strip, the east coast’s largest sand dune, Jockey’s Ridge, looms grand over US-158 W. Jockey’s Ridge houses the world’s largest hang-gliding school—humans drift bat-like, casting shadows over the kids flying kites and playing tag on the hill below. They slip as their ground slides from under them. They fall and the sand in a thousand pieces lets go, downhill.
I am lured by what the sand swallows as the wind shifts the dune some six feet southwest each year. How many kite tails choked down like hair in the throat were now dried and faded among the roots of plants tried and failed. How many of the island’s hotels—just one—how many wedding rings, inches of bypass, fishhooks.
The ridge swallowed the castle of Nags Head. In certain seasons of certain years, the shell-colored, stucco turrets are visible across the highway. Iron support beams twist out of the sand with braids of beach grass. There is enough sand there to hold a body as it walks, with the castle and the rest of the Putt Putt course buried beneath it. Every year, less and less of the castle is revealed—what appears is more weathered, and closer to ruin.
On this island, death and burial. Not always in that order.
After the kids—my cousins, my siblings, all kids but just barely—reported to my mother, aunts, and grandmother that the T-Rex of Jurassic Putt was still standing, bolstered up by a sixth angled bar, as if a team of poachers had strung their lassos around the towering, plaster dinosaur, we ran: my sister, Seventeen; my brother, Fifteen; me, Nineteen, sinking foot-holes in the sand for my cousin, Twelve, behind me; and last Twelve’s sister, Fourteen, spitting out the Atlantic spray.
The streetlight at Cahoon’s kept the parking lot in sight behind us, for a while.
The night before, the rest of them ran unsupervised while I nursed a cup of coffee that stagnated in the warming pot for hours. I watched them run off, geese in rank, and then watched the ocean from the porch. Voices more adult than mine whipped one another inside. Two generations of women bickered about whose rental cottage was the nicest—my grandmother’s rocked on its tilts when too many of us sat on the couch, or at the dining table; I slept on a green pleather couch in our own—which table would be best to drag onto the raised deck for Thanksgiving dinner the next night, who would cook best, and what. Tonight, I followed the kids down the steps.
Seventeen stopped, hunched over a shell bed to pick for shark teeth. The water was an uncertain color—wave curls shaded Maggie Nelson Bluets blue. Or Maggie Rogers Spotify Singles blue; in either case, the same blue absorbing. In either case, Maggied.
“Mysterious Woman walks toward the shore,” Twelve said. “What’s she found?”
So far, nothing. I kicked over a scallop shell that looked hole, white with salmon stripes. The inside was chipped apart and black. Fifteen swore he’d found the head of a large fish—like football-sized, no like, not Nerf, like, pigskin—fisherman’s waste I could picture severed from the body, the rest of the fish butchered and scaled. Several days rotted, washed in high-tide onto the higher, dryer sand where our mother runs, to challenge her endurance. He said there’d be no smell when we approached it. The head was brined with salt the way our faces were, looking at each of them then. Twelve’s bug eyes held heavy bags, like mine, salt from the air catching on her lashes, long as mine. She blinked hard. Already she looked up to me in a way I wished she wouldn’t.
Her mother is my mother’s twin. We’ve made a game of twins, in the family—our twin mothers nearly scheduled their children. Maybe it was that I came years early, though my mother has said she tried for me sooner, and perhaps mourns me in the children she lost, though I’m here. But then, in months of one another, a girl from one twin and a boy from the other. A year passed: a boy, then a girl. Fifteen twins Fourteen. Those pairs paired off. They grew up looking alike, bonded by the lies they could tell. Twelve and I had each other—we were our own twins. The same mouse-brown hair cut at our shoulders. The same hammered-together teeth. But she was close with her mother. I had something on my skin that I knew could rub off.
Fifteen took off running again. We all chased him. We wouldn’t know we’d found the head until one of our search party sacrificed their sandal to the meat left over, snapping bones between their shoe strap and their cold toes.
Twelve held my elbow with one hand, shifting her flashlight side to side on our path.
“Watch for pufferfish,” she said.
They washed up in doubles every dozen feet or so, bloated into a deflating, leather ball, with their puckered lips almost grinning.
“They crunch if you step on them,” Twelve said. “Like chips.”
“Like chips,” I said back.
Fourteen caught up to us. Twelve disturbed the moonlit puddles between sandbars, weaving too close to the water. It was early. Winter made it look late. The water had receded already from the middle stretch of beach where it foamed when we left our mothers working down another pot of coffee in the absent hum of our movement. Nothing to care for—Thanksgiving dinner now cleaned—and only themselves to discuss. Or, as it was, each other to critique.
“Come back here,” I called to Twelve.
She dragged her hand through the water and flicked drops from her fingers at her sister.
“It’s like Midnight Sky,” Twelve said. She threw her lanky arm out toward the water. “The color.”
“Like, the pink?” Fourteen said.
“No,” Twelve said, “like the lyrics.”
The water matched the sky still but swallowed up my Maggies. We’d long passed Jeanette’s Pier by then, and that second set of streetlamps, running a thousand feet over the water, was down. Like a mouth had closed around the bulbs to leave us in the dark. Behind us, brittle cracks. Fifteen stomped bare feet through the meatiest shells, those single-sided incongruous Arc Clams and cup-tongued oysters that I knew from illustrations, posters in the grocers and in the museum on the pier.
“Found a stick,” Fifteen said.
He batted the stick against the wet sand. Our mother said the density here, closer to the water, gave a runner more grounding. She fed me many pockets of similar wisdom: to run and keep trim, but not near the pool’s edge. To eat, but to know which foods would seep out of my stomach and cement as fat on my hips. To dissolve, sweet as sugar in water, when I could.
She inherited those lines from her own mother, now sitting bitter in that cottage and filling the silence as fully. I pictured my mother in the recliner coasting the edge of the living and dining rooms, looking away from her sister and the woman who raised her and out at the gazebo. When we came before—just my father, my mother, Seventeen, Fifteen, and I—all those summers, things had been more alive. From that gazebo my mother counted porpoises on the horizon as the sun rose. From the pier we watched fishermen toss skates disc-golf style, smack against the water. They always flapped their wings away into the deep.
My mother spoke recently of trying to break a cycle. Something, to her, Hillbilly Elegy. I see it now as the cycle of daughters. I don’t need to read a book like that to know it.
I ran again, throwing sand into my jean cuffs. If I moved, it seemed, the sheer weight of my hands—which should have offered my mother a gentle touch on her shoulder, knowing what I knew—would not sink me in this sand. Running fought off the weight of my tongue in my mouth, so I might say what I should have said, when my father came to me in his need to care for my mother and her closed gates. When he told me about a group chat my mother knew about, where her only family planned a trip to her state and sacred place, where they cast labels like nets. I stopped, panting, my tongue brick-heavy with the sentence I don’t believe it’s true, Mom, what they said about you.
Twelve sang the line in Midnight Sun about not belonging to anyone. More pufferfish washed up where two years ago, winter patterned Nags Head with decrepit, tailless shells of horseshoe crabs. Last year, a living crab crawled across Fifteen’s foot, and he jumped into my arms in the water. I held him, under his knees and around his back. My mother suntanned near a vacant tent—hers—that we weren’t allowed to use. Seventeen went back to the cottage when she burned, and Fifteen and I swam alone, and things were.
But once in a trip, my mother would race across all levels of sand and dive flat-hands-first into the ocean, with us beside her.
That crab was living, recovered in a year, but even now there are no pufferfish I can recall inflating themselves beside me, and not so many mushroom-cap tops of clear jellyfish, like breast implants or jello cups floating—
“Watch out,” Twelve said. “Mysterious Woman almost steps on the jelly.”
“You know what,” I said, “maybe we should just turn back.”
“Nah,” Twelve said. “You’ve got to see this.”
We shared, too, our twin mothers’ canines, which stuck out, nearly layered over the main row of teeth—her braces were bracketing them back in line, the way I’d done years earlier.
They drove down from the North, these women who my mother has so, and always, wanted to impress. I love them each—my aunts and my grandmother—for reasons that will, too, grind away. The love between mothers and daughters in my family has always been a shell dragged across a new microplane. The dust that comes off is fine and pearlescent, but it wipes away in an instant, and it costs one more animal their shelter, their life. These women drive down, and they call my mother Bitch.
This is Thanksgiving, Christ’s sake. Bitch. My mother drove the dead turkey halfway across the state, thawing it under the minivan air-conditioning. Bitch. Dry-brined it with salt and pepper, basted it, bitch-basted it all day in an oven hardly large enough, while my aunts and grandmother worked at, sure, candied yams and mashed potatoes and Pillsbury biscuits and green bean casserole and creamed corn and stuffing. But have—bitch—they ever held that dead thing with both hands and prepared it for all the women to say, knowing what they’ve said about you while you were gone—difficult bitch, sister bitch, trying bitch. Bitch without reason, bitch not one thing at all. Nothing the better for it but the turkey no one ate.
No one to tell the dead turkey in my mother’s hands that it was good.
Fifteen yelled. “Yuck” or “Yes” or even “Yum.” We never knew with Fifteen.
His bare foot grazed the gills of the rotting head. Our cellphone flashlights slashed the beach to pieces, moving with arms and our shifting weight as we caught up. Wide eyes stared up at him. He struck his stick against the dune to my right.
When I moved to Wilmington, I did not call my mother anything. I did not call her at all.
We watched the dead fish for as long as you can possibly watch the head of a dead fish. We could have buried it. The sand would do it itself—next year, a kid from another family would dig a hole on the coast, just to do it. They would pull the bones out with a plastic shovel. We did not bury the head.
When I moved to Wilmington, I could not forgive my mother for her words of wisdom, for all the one-grape lunches they became, for standing up at dinner and asking if I would waste the meal—purge it—in my bathroom when I left the table. For mothering the way that she was taught to mother, by being the daughter of a woman who had, that Thanksgiving, turned away from her. The way I thought all mothers turned.
At Nags Head there was distance between us. Exactly half the length from one pier to the other.
“Really,” I said. “Let’s go back. They’re probably waiting.”
Twelve, Fourteen, and I headed back, and Seventeen followed. Fifteen was somewhere near us in the dark, thudding the branch against a seaweed clump of hair. Fourteen asked me about finding myself on paper. I didn’t tell her I was lost. I told her about Maggie Nelson.
“More seaweed,” Fifteen called out. He swung the stick from behind his back across his entire body. It bounced against the clump. It thudded, one.
I used to want to be like her—my mother—one of five children and with so many buckteeth to tell me how good I was. Instead, I am one of three who did not know on Thanksgiving that our mother would be gone in a moving truck, come Easter. I used to want to be like her. I did not know that she would be gone. I am less without her. I cannot forgive what I was taught not to see.
It thudded, two.
That was our last trip. All of us in one cottage, sharing one mirror, sharing beds and recliners and closets and clothes and meals. I have seen those women rarely since. By May, my mother lived in an apartment miles away from my house. By June, I’d seen her once at a diner, drinking old coffee, and otherwise only in parking lots and driveways. By June, I saw my aunts and grandmother at Seventeen’s separate, mother-only graduation party. We took pictures with a gap missing, a face cut out. By the time we came back to Nags Head—my father, Seventeen, Fifteen, and I—my mother was someone I didn’t know. Not my father’s wife, not someone I knew—any more than I ever knew—how to defend.
I do not want to tell the part of my mother’s story that overlaps with my own anymore. About the day that she told me all families fight and I told her not like this and we stood across the kitchen yelling nothing at each other and crying, Seventeen in the middle, as quiet as she is in this essay, and Fifteen somewhere else, and me wishing I was in Wilmington, and my mother probably wishing I was there too. I do not want to bear any push that I gave her to leave us.
She said she didn’t. My father said that she didn’t know how to love the way that people needed to be loved. I said little and took no calls.
My mother is good, even if she isn’t always. I don’t believe what they said about her.
“It was a bird,” Fifteen said.
He held my wrist. He is still my mother’s favorite. That day, he must not have known what they all called her, or he would be where I could not, comforting my mother. That morning I saw him plant a kiss on her cheek. I looked away.
“What?” I said.
The bundle of seaweed looked so much like hair because it was like hair, as much as feathers are like hair. The bones snapped like the fish head. The gull washed up the same way, with the jellyfish and the pufferfish. The salt dried them out. No one looked like themselves. Perhaps we would all of us—dead bird and brother, fish, mother—be royalty buried by the castle, forgotten until a certain season.
“I think we should go back,” Seventeen said.
“I was beating a dead bird with a stick,” Fifteen said.
“I would like to write,” Fourteen said, “if I knew what to say.”
She had nothing to forgive her mother for. She had nothing to ask forgiveness over.
“Mysterious Woman,” Twelve said. “Zoe?”
“I was beating a dead bird with a stick,” Fifteen said.
I wanted to step into the water, to be tossed into the sand so the scallops carved into me the words you are good. I wanted the cuts deep enough I’d need stitches in their shape. You are good you are good you are good.
They took off, one and then the others. They reached the dunes, becoming taller as they rose to meet them, their mothers on porches welcoming them with lights and dry towels and ears to listen to what we’d seen. They left the dead buried. They left the dead in the sand, in the dark.