Stillwater Saint

/ Ivy Du

Fiction18 min reading time

Mary told Adeline she was named after the saint. The other girls, with their uniforms unhemmed by their mothers at home so the skirts could be longer, loose threads fringing their calves like beaded curtains, said that Mary was the most highly-contentious saint. That she was the lamest saint. The first time the two of them talked was in the school restroom, which was squashed into the back of the building, tiled dark red like the kind of dancefloor children weren’t meant to discover. Mary let Adeline wear the gilded cross necklace she got from her mother after Adeline kept staring at it, her vision ping-ponging between Mary’s opal-round eyes and where the necklace resided in the hollow of her collarbones. Mary said that she resolved to never learn a thing from the teachers until the part of the curriculum arrived that would teach her what the Biblical Mary did to deserve her sainthood beside birthing a man; surely, it must have been something of her own she was chosen for. Adeline asked why the hand dryers didn’t work, and Mary responded that none of the hand dryers in their town ever worked.

“Are you from a place where hand dryers work?” Mary leaned over from the changing table where she sat, her hair zebra-patterned gold and black in the half-baked light the metal window only permitted in parts.

Adeline was. And she was from a city where it was illegal to hang framed statues of Jesus up in school bathrooms. Where she had heard from her family friends who went to youth groups that all their pastors had multiple degrees in exegetical studies. When she moved to this new town, which was as small compared to the coast as a piece on a board game, a planet in a galaxy, a buoy on the ocean, she was twelve. Her mother’s car had pulled up to their new home in the middle of the coastal mist, which whipped each of its individual water droplets across her face, stringing between the strands of her hair. The rest of the drive was a silent war between her and her mom, a fight for primacy between whether her window should be rolled down or not. She liked the inconsistent coolness that wove between her hair, made it a mess, ghosted its fingers across her scalp.

The house was clearly falling apart; the wooden floor seemed to sink like wet sand wherever she and her mother walked on it. Planks speckled with holes fell while no one was in a room, their origins unknown, no name for the parts of the sky they fell from. The house seemed to prove little resistance against water; Adeline felt the mist rise into every room. The toilet sprayed whenever it flushed, and it was evident they needed buckets to catch all the water dripping down from mildewed cracks in the ceiling. They drove again, dew flaking loose from them like crystalized dandruff, into the middle of the town, hoping a hardware store would miraculously unearth itself from the rows and rows of bars, memorabilia, tourist-traps that called the ice cream they were importing all the way from the Costco in the city ‘gelato’ to justify selling one scoop for seven dollars. The car shot out of the edge of the town, hawking around its perimeter. Adeline had plastered her face against the window, fogged the glass with the heat of her features alone. She withheld her breath; mist obscured most of her vision. The view ahead came in traces. Her eyes only wanted to identify one thing— the indescribable mass of water surrounding them, jigsawed into pieces by the mist.

“Look how high the tides are on days like this,” her mother sighed, taking one hand off the steering wheel to wipe the skywater and her sweat, which had now mixed into an entirely alien substance. “The number one rule from now on is you stay away from the beach on days like this.” When the sky was the color of a piece of paper, the sea yawned open like a cavern, shedding its skin over the entire shore until all the sand changed color, all the creatures from the tide pools could face one another, bubbling like blood from a new wound. During her last days in her old house, her mother had dug up nature magazines and pointed out all the pages that displayed this exact same shoreline, each obscured with different patterns of mist. Adeline had scanned each two-dimensional horizon carefully, and wondered if she had collected enough images to make out the entirety of it while looking directly at it. She tried to summon her recollection, but the ocean was as new as if she’d never seen it. More violent; with an immense depth she’d never known. When she stopped holding her breath to swallow, she imagined she was swallowing sea salt, and one of her new teachers— probably a nun or something— forcing her to spit it out as if it was sin.

All the girls from school went to the beach regularly to draw on the sand: crabs, mermaids, whatever other creatures they only saw on their TVs while their parents weren’t looking, and imagined roamed the waters. None of them owned swimsuits; one time, a group of college girls, tanned like they were from another coast, with a more volatile sun, showed up with surfboards that they didn't know how to use. Mary waited until enough schoolgirls stopped talking, stopped dragging their fingers through the sand, before taking her hair ribbons out and announcing she wanted to steal a swimsuit. She always removed the ribbons when she wanted to make a point, when the static of her emotion rose so high her unleashed hair stuck up in impulsive tufts. Often, Adeline sat on a branch and did Mary’s hair while the other girls drew on the beach, appreciating the way its flow harmonized around her fingers, splitting then sealing around them like clouds.

The schoolgirls chortled; Mary’s mother was just like all of theirs— she’d rather beat the skin off her daughter’s back than buy her a one-piece. Adeline’s mother, being that they were from the secular side of the state, had packed her a swimsuit that she’d only ever swam in a pool with. But Adeline was only interested in swimming if she had someone with her. None of the other girls could, or expressed any interest in doing so, under either gray or blue skies. One of the girls flicked at the edge of her fraying skirt and whispered that she heard mermaids ate people— if they saw one they should be alarmed, then alarm others. That’s why mermaids were also called sirens: they were what parents, what schools, warned against.

Otherwise, the schoolgirls chased seaweed flies around until the insects dispersed from the coast and traveled with the wind like dust clouds. Those were the only things for them to do. The rest of the town was just bars, just imported souvenirs, useless merchandise printed with a name and a date that Mary said wasn't even reflective of when the town was actually established. Nothing for kids their age, dangling from a branch over teenhood, except a church school that curdled atop a small cliff, overlooking the ocean, reined in by a chain-link fence. Non-overcast skies at the beach drew in schoolgirls and tourists, who all turned their heads in the same direction when the sun was rising and setting, all their phones following the fiery ball like the shadows of sundials. On darker days, or during school hours when the girls could only see the sea through dust-crusted, thin windows and the links of a fence, the men from the magazines, men with tripods and cameras, lenses that extended into larger lenses that extended into even larger lenses, knelt over the beach like soldiers or grave-visitors, for the express purpose of capturing the scene of a sea overflowing, marbling the sand, the tide pools where a sign planted long ago warned people not to walk on. Men with chins scruffed the texture of the cliffside, hair the same color as the sand when the sea’s exoskeleton molted over it. When Adeline asked why these men were allowed onto the beach during high tide but not her, her mother said that it was the job of men to play with their lives and come out on the other side soaked, golden, alive. It was their duty, not the duty of little girls, to capture all of nature in one singular frame.

The school and their neighboring church were separated via a dirt path that went through an overgrown garden, tendrils of plants Adeline couldn’t identify spilling over the cliff like untended bangs. Equidistant between both structures was a well, wide and the water in it without color, always the same shade as the sky’s temperament, the bricks yellow, the moss living in the gaps between them jade green. Every week, the school alternated the girls they would send down to the well to draw out water for the church, which sold it in plastic bottles labeled ‘holy water’ by sharpie, with a cross drawn below the words. Adeline once asked how the people who ran the church knew the water was holy, how it retained its holiness split between a school and a place of worship. Mary said that the school and the church were both holy; twice the holiness. The whole cliff was dripping, saccharine with divinity— sickly sweet with it. Layered over all the girls in the same smooth, tenacious texture, gluing them to the ground.

She threw the bucket aside, letting it tumble into the jungle of coastal plants walling them, and stuck both her arms armpit deep in the water, wetting the sleeves of her uniform until they melted around the curve of her elbows, creased like petals. She swirled her arms around in the water, and told Adeline to dip her finger in and taste it. Adeline dipped an index finger and a middle finger in, but did not raise them to her lips. “Now the water’s twice as unholy. It all cancels out. It’s normal water now.” Adeline stared at Mary, who was bent over the water, moving her arms around, begging the water to change its shape to suit her. She thought about all the people that would buy the un-holied water after they left the buckets out by the church’s backdoor to be bottled. How many elderly couples would keep it on their nightstands by their dentures, how many middle aged couples would dot a few drops on their babies’ heads, blessing them with blankness.

The tendrils climbed over the fence in the slow, almost-perpetual motion of escape. But neither Adeline nor Mary ever tried to climb it. “I’ve been thinking about it. I think it’d piss everyone off,” Mary admitted when both of them had finished moving the water but didn’t want to return to class. Adeline had only climbed the short kind of fence, the kind that barricaded the lower-classmen’s playground from the upper-classmen’s in her elementary school, back in Silicon Valley, where the hills closed around everything like walls and the grass was so dry it stung to step on. The fence around the school was tall, taller on the other side because the distance down included that of the cliff, well-worn top to bottom. Down to a passage dug out from the cliffside, that opened like a jaw, where the older kids that had grown up around the area hid inside to do “inappropriate things''— according to Adeline’s mother when she was replacing the hinges on their front door— because it was the only place in the town where the church couldn’t see, tucked directly below all the Evangelical pastors, camouflaging with the steps of their feet like shadows when the sun was directly overhead. The opening of it was so small it looked like a mouth and could barely fit two people. On clear days, it kissed the surface of the ocean. When the tides rose, the water pierced through the passage from front to back, circling like an infinity sign. Adeline imagined mermaids racing through it, eating one anothers’ tails. No photographers or influencers ever went into the passage— it was all dark; there was nothing the light didn’t touch that was worth publishing. Adeline’s mother patched their ceiling with plaster and newspaper scraps that displayed the names and faces of kids that died, disappeared, drowned; that passage the always the last place they had been speculated to have visited, to have spoken of, dreamed of.

In their morning classes, the girls sat with ribbons in their hair and their hands in their laps, and were taught permutations of the same idea appearing in different formats— applied to English and math. That God created things in order, in sequence, in equation, day one through day six, minus day seven where he rested, and then just left everything to develop on its own. That He was good in the way that he was distant. He gave space. In their evening classes, they were taught permutations of the idea that God had a path for everyone, predestined, known before birth, that He was good in the way where he was always by their ears, telling them what to do and to accept that they had to do it or else live unfulfilled. That everyone needed to carry out what He had designated for them— to be good wives, to rear good children, to raise their daughters demure, in their own image, and their sons bold and fearless, like their fathers. Like the men who wore life vests and rode range rovers to take pictures of the horizon line when the sun set and the sky was still gray. But Adeline didn’t think that those men were brave, or at least as brave as the kids who walked into the narrow passage hidden in the shadow of their school to smoke something, to watch the water kiss itself, to kiss one another, understanding the weather, the tide, understanding that they would die. Day after day they learned the same thing, Mary taking off her ribbon and snaking it around her own fingers, then Adeline’s, pretending not to hear. Adeline, after a hundred days in the garden with Mary— watching her dip both hands into the well, disturbing the rippled patterns that the wind had predestined for the water, anticipating the day the priests would notice a disturbance in the water, agonize over its irrevocable change, bemoan that one girl had managed to make everything different— knew she couldn’t help but keep listening. Mary stared at their teacher’s leather shoes every time she paced up the walkway, and chewed on the ends of her ribbons. Rubbing the cross around her neck. Waiting for the day the teachers would mention her name without mentioning a saint’s son, without giving her merely a glance, telling her to put her hair back together, to make herself presentable again. As if it took only one moment to see her dishevelment as the totality of her timeline; as if it was the only role God had dug out of the dirt for her.

Adeline took the ribbon later in the garden, sutured the fraying ends together with her spit, and rewrapped it around Mary’s hair. She took note of the way that the hair that ran down the nape of Mary’s neck shot out in all directions like a tree that had just been hit by lightning. Like something on the cusp of a storm. After she stepped back to admire her work, Mary knelt over the well again and cupped two palmfuls of water, drinking it all in one swallow. Adeline looked at all the bits of leaves, dead waterflies, spores that looked like they would take root and then blossom in intestines floating across its surface, and told Mary the water wasn’t for drinking. She hugged Mary from behind and tried to squeeze the water out. What came out instead was more solid in substance and smelled of stomach acid. Mary, without looking, said that she was sick, and that she had read from a brochure in the visitor’s room of the church that the holy water was a cure-all; it shouldn’t matter which orifice it entered the body through. Not everything can be divinely intaken, then divinely conceived, divinely expulsed.

Adeline stared at the spastic pattern of the water— she wondered why Mary still believed in it after dipping so many of her own body parts in, trying to deplete it of its power, trying to cleave a permanent scar in its surface. Knowing that every time they returned to the well, the surface of the water was clean of all tears; unsutured, skin-smooth like the sky. She tucked a piece of hair behind Mary’s ear and thought about the clarity of the water in the plastic bottles that weren’t for them, that church visitors paid for to take far away, into other cities, and said, “I thought that the way you use holy water was to sprinkle it over your own skin, see what sinks in, what your body rejects.” She thought about the sea, its noise the only thing penetrating the garden, about the way its waves tore it apart and sealed it back together over and over again. The way the ocean was free to scream while the girls were told to stay silent in prayer before every class. Free to tear itself with fervor, to experience its own depth without sublime purpose matting its surface, reminding it to return to nothing; free to chase itself until it bleeds, to bandage itself in a breadth of all-encompassing emotion.

Adeline felt their combined warmth and wondered if separating from Mary would feel like the sea, splitting itself at the seams. She took note of the pose they were in, the vomit layered over her arms.

“Can we go to the beach?” Mary asked, when the silence had become sufficiently thick.

The sweat of their skins had sealed them together; when they finally pulled away, it lingered, brief, before receding back to their bodies. They traipsed down the hill, bending their knees like mountain goats, kicking up dust, down to the rusted railings that then brought them to the beach. The sky was clear, clearer than the water Mary had lifted to her mouth, finally unmirrored— all the grime in it finally visible under the shadow of her body. They sat together on the branch that had dried out, then been rewetted with mist and tide from days prior. They stared at the passage, which was above sea level that day, and Adeline said that she heard something from her mother back in San Jose, in a house that had working doors and ceilings as sturdy as stone. That sometimes, when the photographers returned from the town to their studios, they found the bodies of drowned kids floating across the sea in their images, which had to be photoshopped out with a blur tool for publishing. That’s why the sea, in so many of their photos, was airbrushed as smooth as soap, scrubbed of any shadows that couldn’t be identified. Adeline asked Mary if she thought the photographers would pray for the bodies before smoothing them into the same texture as the sea. Mary didn’t answer— only said that she’d rather her body sink to the floor of the ocean if she ever drowned. Better to be erased by the sea than a man. She asked if Adeline was ready.

Piercing through the rainbow-spray vapor, hand in hand, past the college students, unattended tripods, inside-out umbrellas, they breached the aqua length of the water. Waist-deep in it, Adeline imagined herself fizzling like a bath bomb, bubbling into the same substance as the sea, all of her tasting like salt. Mary asked Adeline if she believed in mermaids. Before she could answer, Mary had already unstitched the sea with her arms, her head under the water, skirt billowing, hair radial like circuits of light, hand pointing downward, begging Adeline to melt into the same saltwater as herself— to find out. The cross necklace was the only thing connected to her that floated to the surface; she let it survive her.