Zoetrope: All-Story

Plum Island

Uzma Aslam Khan

As a special online supplement to the Winter 2019/2020 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2019 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Competition, as judged by Tommy Orange.

Beach plums bloom in June and ripen in August. Yesterday, I found some in the sand and dropped them in a crooked blue bowl that my love, Ciaran, made when he was a child. This morning, in the kitchen, he slices one in half with a fillet knife. We each take a half and chew, waiting for the flavors to speak. “Salty,” he says at last, “in that other way.”

I think, in a multitude of tongues, Which other way?

Salty means “sexy” in Urdu, yet in a sense that does not translate into English. The word, numkeen, which sounds nothing like salty, is said only of a woman. It implies that her skin is dark. This is part of her charm, but once I think it in English, she is fetishized. In Urdu, she is not. In Urdu, it is a charm, a salt, that nourishes her and is hers to be nourished by. It is not for consumption. Perhaps sultry comes close, but each time I move the word into other meanings, it pushes me into corners. So I slide back into Ciaran’s tongue. I try out salty in his other way, piquant and gruff like his forefathers, the sailor-settlers of this corner of Massachusetts. Here on Plum Island, I exist between meanings.

Kissing the juice on Ciaran’s chin, I say the beach plums don’t have much flavor or bite. They don’t even taste like plums. They behave, at best, like fruit that love the cold. He laughs, glancing at the clock. The guests at his bed-and-breakfast will soon be coming downstairs. He is happiest feeding large groups of people, building a home. As he opens the fridge, I leave the kitchen.

In the living room, I notice one of the guests looking at photographs on the mantelpiece. They are of Ciaran and myself, the dunes of Plum Island Beach, upon which the plums thrive, and a row of piping plovers, waiting patiently by the sea. There is also a photograph of me from years ago, when I was seventeen. I have it there as evidence that I did, at one time, have terrifically long hair. It is toward this photograph that the guest now leans, and I become the photographer, recording him.

There is a jug of water on a table by the fireplace, a scattering of magazines on the sofa where other guests have reclined, a heavy drape that I often want to replace with a lighter one. Except perhaps today, as then the room would be brighter, and he might see me. I recognize him. I am certain. The drape is partly open, and a column of light falls on his face. It is the mouth that gives him away, the way it curls upward slightly. And then the eyes, looking at my photograph the way they once looked at me, with an expression of passive confusion mixed with a pinch of detachment.

I want to be wrong. I return to the kitchen. “Ciaran, someone is wanting to speak to you. He’s in the living room.”

Ciaran clicks his tongue—breakfast is not ready—but carries out to the living room a large platter of fruit. The beach plums are not included. I stand in the doorway, away from sight, as he announces, “Good morning, hot breakfast on the way.”

The man answers in a thick French accent, “No problem, I am in no hurry.”

Then Ciaran says the name. “Make yourself at home, Victor.”

I leave the inn.

It is mid-August, and the greenhead flies are fewer. Earlier this summer, I led a field trip for a group of fifth graders who spent the day screaming, as much at the flies’ globular, green eyes as for their ferocious bite. A girl slapped her plump, white arm while fixing accusing eyes at me. I told her it was just for the month, when it was hot and still and the flies surfaced from the salt marshes. Soon, they would go back into hiding, and she would not have to worry. Then why did you bring me here now? her eyes seemed to say. I stared back, to indicate that I did not. Her parents did. Or God. I did not. Then I spoke, perhaps too theatrically, about the necessity of this refuge for birds, including the ospreys I hoped to show them later (we did not get that far) and the piping plovers, whose nests were in the distance, beyond the yellow tape to our right. “Look, there.” A few children scratched, and looked.

At the visitor center, I learn that the tour is canceled. Too many flies. It is true; they are suddenly active again. Must be the full moon.

A few people milling about address me by the name on my brown uniform, “Amelia,” and I am happy to take their questions. Then I have an hour to kill before the next group is scheduled, so I spend it among the dunes, helping to manage the closed areas along the beach.

Amelia is an Anglicized version of Amatullah, “female servant of Allah.” It is also a play on Ammophila, “lover of sand,” the Latin name for beach grass. I do love sand, so I don’t mind, though I did reject “Milly.” Our work is about humanizing nature, which is to say, framing it in American terms. We cannot help people relate to the environment if we are not one of them. Like the plovers and ospreys, I should trigger a safe emotional response (“cute,” “beautiful”), or at least demonstrate a vital function, which Amatullah would not. Ammophila, on the other hand, though neither cute nor beautiful, is essential. And so, as Amelia, I tell its story: Ammophila is the grass that holds the sand. It keeps our dunes from eroding. (I always stress possessive and plural pronouns.) Beach plum shrubs also stabilize our dunes. Like our marshes, dunes are a buffer against hurricanes and rising sea levels. We need these things—they keep us alive.

Plum Island does for the mainland towns of Ipswich, Rowley, and Newbury, and the city of Newburyport, what dunes do for the island, or Ammophila for the dunes: in a storm, it takes the first hit. Most of it is a refuge accessed along a boardwalk trail with select entry points to the beach, away from nesting shorebirds. I climb to the boardwalk’s highest point, on a dune some fifty feet high. From up here, I can see only a few people, all keeping to the trail. To the east lies the beach, to the west, the marshes. Each with creatures for whom, according to Kara, the wildlife biologist who named me Amelia, I play the role of “super mom.” It is true, I am a fierce warden. This was a good year for the plover colony: seventy-one precocial chicks. The least terns are still nesting. Through my binoculars, I can see that they are safe.

The salt-marsh sparrows are hard to spot from this perch. They nest in salt-marsh hay, but the hay is flooding more each year. The sparrow population is declining. Recently, on my marsh watch, I pulled back a tall thatch of grass and found two drowned nests, one with a female inside. It has been this way all summer. Kara says it is life on the edge, but I already know about that, and I still cry.

Two greenhead flies settle on my shirt sleeve, but I wave them away before they can bite. They soar toward the ocean, which is flat today. Not a single whitecap to ruffle its repose. The tide is low, and a cormorant is drying its wings on the rudimentary breakwater rocks hidden at high tide. Over the years, those rocks have stripped the bottoms of many ships, including one that belonged to one of Ciaran’s forefathers. The man had set sail from Belfast, and, according to Ciaran, is listed in Ipswich’s town records. Ciaran has wanted to take me there, to bear witness to his past. At the time of the shipwreck, Ipswich was a village called Agawam, an Anglicized Algonquian name that Ciaran does not know. So when I hear “Ipswich,” I hear loss.

There is a beach plum shrub just below the boardwalk, where visitors are not to walk. I hear voices. “C’est le même genre que celle qu’il nous a montrée, non?”

I think, in a multitude of tongues, It’s this, no, the same that he showed us? “This” for plums, “he” for Ciaran, who must have added them to the fruit platter at breakfast.

A woman answers, “Oui, je crois.”

Someone is staying with him, then, in Ciaran’s inn. Where Ciaran wants me to make my home.

If I were doing my job, I would tell them to leave. They are trespassing.

But I find it impossible to move.

This is an eleven-mile barrier island at the corner of the world. What is he doing here?

Then I direct the question at me: What am I doing here? In my three summers spent on this rock, I have met visitors from at least twenty countries, several from France, but have never once met another woman from Pakistan. And what about all the wild around me, to which I have formed an attachment—how did any of it get here? What did the first plover say to the first tern, the first wisp of grass to the first plum? Was it, What are you doing here?

They are pulling the fruit from the shrub. She is saying, in English, in an English accent, “Quite horrid—tart!”

Then leave it alone, I think.

It feels as though I stand upon a dune of far more precipitous height. It feels as though I might fall.

He was in Pakistan for a year. I saw him often at the center in Karachi where I was learning French. What was he doing there? Over there, the answer was easy. A year’s military conscription for French citizens was mandatory, unless replaced by civic service in a “hardship” country. Many French men in their twenties came and went for the same reason, though it never seemed like a hardship post. Every evening at the center, along with French classes, there were concerts, plays, art exhibitions, films. It was a lively public space in a city with hardly anywhere safe for people—local and foreign—to meet.

I recall that his house was lavish. I was sixteen that first time, and embarrassed. What did the gatekeeper think of me, when he brought me inside? And the cook, when he offered me lemonade? It is everyone around him—Victor, I mean—that I recall, as though by wading into the past I enter an aphotic zone with tentacles that test the edges, and I do not venture inside, not yet. I hover, and a drape slowly parts. A column of light falls on small items, the way it did just this morning, as he looked at my photograph on the mantelpiece. There are tall glasses, an L-shaped, cream-colored sofa, a blue Persian carpet with peacocks and fountains. His feet are long and white in its weave; he prefers to be shoeless and does not complain about the weather. He has acclimated well to some things. But he does not like the men. They are not friendly, he says. They think he is English. They think he is a colonist. On the contrary, he is here to avoid military conscription, to experience culture and change, which only the women—I am inside now, the air is thick and I can feel his breath—understand. The women trigger safe emotions. They help him feel at home. “We all need these things,” he says, smiling. “Companionship. Touch. They keep us alive.”

I turned seventeen. I noticed other women, also my age, on his large sofa when I arrived. Over the months, I saw a pattern. We were all elfin and dark, desirous of rebellion, unflinching of risk. We were salty in the way Ciaran means it. But also in the way that I mean it, which I realized only when I saw Sophie at his house. She was confident in her girlishness, with thick, ropy hair down to her hips, glass bangles to her elbows, and skin with shine, but on a face that did not welcome me near. She saw me as a rival, though surely she knew there were many others. I saw a woman who could have been my sister, first through my eyes, then a white man’s. After she left, he told me that her father had recently died. As he said it, I knew she had been crying before I arrived. “It is just the cycle of life,” he said, mouth mildly disdainful, eyes flat and elsewhere. I felt ill. Victor was leaving in two or three months. Sophie, who looked harder yet more vulnerable than I, had grown attached to him. I did not wish to be Sophie. I did not wish to see her the way that I had. It made me feel confused and distorted, as though I were in an alien body. I never again returned to his house.

On the boardwalk, I hear no voices. I lean over the railing. They have left. I walk briskly back to the visitor center, trying to return to this me, the one in the brown uniform, with a false name tag, shorter hair, and pockets full of facts. The one that is grown.

A couple is waiting for a tour. The woman introduces herself as Sothy.

“Sothy? Lovely name. How do you spell it?” I ask somewhat apologetically, though if I told her my real name, she would likely ask the same.

After she spells it, the man, Eric (she had the better handshake), says, “It means ‘scholar.’ ” He does not say in which language. “Watch out for all the questions she’ll ask. Also, she’s a weed warrior. Tell Amelia about the weeds.”

She does. She knows all about invasive plants—pepperweed, phragmites—and has spent the summer along the north shore, pulling them out.

“Could you help us out here, too?” I ask.

Everyone laughs. Then I give my formal introduction to the park, stressing the diversity of its many habitats. After she poses questions, without intending to I go off script. I tell them that at the time the park was created, in 1941, conservationists were determining which forms of life to protect, and which to destroy. “They were not just speaking of plants,” I add. Eric and Sothy look at each other, puzzled and a little bored, and then they look past me. I keep on: “Women who did not wish to bear children were accused of race suicide, did you know? Of course, only those not meant to repopulate.” I laugh. I feel ill. When they start to move away, I point out, behind a dune, the birdhouses that a few purple martins are flying in and out of. “I’m glad you each brought binoculars.”

On cue, and with some relief, they look through them. I direct mine at the ocean. I know whom I am looking for, and take my time. Sothy’s binoculars are dangling once more on the strap around her neck. She is bouncing on her tennis shoes, waiting to be led to the marshes. I keep looking toward the beach. A man is taking off his shorts, wading into the sea. I know what will happen when he comes out. I want to be witness to it.

I change the direction of the tour. We will take the boardwalk to the beach, not the marsh. Sothy is asking why, but I am not really hearing it. I do notice the flies getting thicker. Twice, Eric curses under his breath. Finally, he pulls a bottle of Off! from a pocket of his shorts, mumbling something about forgetting it was there. They stop walking, lather on the spray.

I watch the martins circle the dune and return to their homes. One moment, they want to nest, the next, to fly. What I want is to lie upon that dune, amidst the tall Ammophila. I want to be held. I want not to be eroded. I want not to dwell on the girl who could have been me. I want not to feel her fear as she understood that she could not tell anyone. Her family could not know. Nor could he. She had landed between two equal dangers: their wrath and his theft. I want not to feel her aloneness or humiliation when she understood this. But I do. Because it was me that Sophie came to, and I never saw a life so attenuated. The salt had left her. Shame had taken its place, consuming her so completely that it obfuscated all awareness of pain—she never spoke of it, not on that day, or any day after. When she did speak, it was to forbid me from naming it. I was holding her hand as we went down a back alley. The clinic had a small waiting room with chairs lined against the wall, and though it was early morning, all the chairs were taken. The receptionist was the only man there. I recall the clinic manager’s face, weathered by legalities, as she informed us that a signature was required, and it had to be a husband’s or a male guardian’s. We returned again the next morning, to pay the receptionist to sign. Then the manager said it could be done only to save a life. Was a life in danger? Yes, the girl pleaded. Yes! And so she began telling a different story of herself. And it would never stop. I was there, beside her. I was there.

Even now, if she had the chance to break her silence, could she?

“Amelia?” says the woman, Sothy, placing a hand on my arm.

I do not remove the binoculars from my eyes, as I keep walking. The flies are thickest at the water’s edge.

They like salt. No, they love it, the salty skin of ocean swimmers. As he comes out of the water, I can see the dark cloud swarming. At first, he slaps a few away. Then he calls out to someone to bring him a towel. His back is bent, to protect his face, so he cannot see that she is not there. She does not hear his plea. He starts to run. This excites them.

It is the female greenhead that has the ferocious fangs. Last month, during peak season, we warned people not to go swimming, least of all during the full moon, when tides flood salt marshes. If you do, we said, you can expect more than one or two bites. You can expect dozens. Hundreds. She will be ruthless in tearing open your flesh, for the blood her eggs need. It is just the cycle of life.


“Amatullah,” I say. “My name is Amatullah.”

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