3.11 Sea Braids
4.023, FALL 2019
A story of a site.
Based off the Massachusett Indian tale of Squant, the Sea Woman. (http://www.humanity.org/voices/folklore/squant-sea-woman)
The nest of blankets flinched slightly as I placed my hand on it. “It’s fine,” I sighed, drawing out the syllables. “The train’s gone.” Night-time had bleached the room of colour; I only saw the bright contours of my sister’s head against the windows as she extracted herself from the blankets. Grey eyes, I thought, as she looked at me. The colour had left them too; their copper would return with the dawn. Too bad dawn was such a long way off. There was no way she’d get back to sleep on her own.
“It’s so –” she chewed on her lip.
“Annoying!” She threw a pillow at me. “Don’t use words I haven’t learnt yet!”
“You should accelerate your acquisition of vocabularic information.” Grinning, I dodged the next pillow and clambered into the bed with her. “You’re out of ammo.”
That earned me a scowl.
“Do you want to hear a story?”
“I’ll tell you anyway.” I snuggled up as close to her as the blankets allowed. The moonlight was getting stronger, filtering through the windows at the end of the room. Silvia had gotten the attic room, lucky thing. From up here, you could look over the tops of the trees and see the glitter of the Charles River, the whole of Boston a string of Christmas on the opposite bank. It seemed like the entire world was framed right there, by the gentle arch of Silvia’s ceiling. I sighed again.
“What’s the story?” Silvia’s quiet whisper was almost shy.
“You changed your mind?”
“.... I’m bored.” … And you like stories. I finished for her, smiling as I reached out to stroke her head. An old habit.
“Well, every child knows the story of the giant who fought and killed the bird demon…”
“I like this one.” Silvia murmured, closing her eyes.
“Then you’ll like what happened next even more.”
Ocean water lashed the opening of the cave mouth, and Maushop waited for the wailing of the gulls to subside. The tide crept higher and higher, pooling around the rocks to his feet, feeding the water plants that grew there. He rested upon a great and flat rock, his pipe in his hands. The pipe was filled with pokeweed; there was no tobacco on this land. It kept him warm. As the night grew darker and the storm gained in strength, Maushop felt the swirling of waves first cover his toes, then his ankles, then his calves.
He had almost fallen asleep when the tickle of seaweed turned into an icy, clawing grip. Fingers like teeth clutched at Maushop’s legs, shackling them to the rocks, and a dark figure stepped out from under the waters. The ocean thundered outside the cave, but in there, it was silent.
The figure was a woman. Her eyes were square, her hands webbed like tern’s feet, her hair thick and matted like kelp. It billowed, though there was no breeze. Wolves like waves flanked her and growled, though they had no mouths. She held up a finger, and they were silenced and melted back into the still water.
Maushop placed a black feather into her beckoning hand, for he knew that was what she had come for. It was the tail feather of the demon bird and still speckled with red. When he looked into the woman’s eyes, he saw shades of sorrow give way to hope.
Then she was gone. Lightning cracked outside the cave. Maushop’s pipe fizzled and was dark.
“Maushop… he wasn’t afraid?”
“I’m sure he was.”
“So why did he seem so… so…”
“Bravery doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. Bravery is being afraid and still doing what you have to do.”
I heard the blankets shift slightly. “Are you brave?”
“I’m not sure if I’m brave.” I giggled. “But what you have to do now,” I extricated myself from the bed. “Is sleep. Bravely.” I gave her a light kiss. “See you tomorrow.”
The next morning, I brought Silvia to the bridge spanning the train tracks. In summer, it was her favourite place; the concrete canyon of the train tracks was a place of adventure, and from here she could safely observe it, sitting down on the bridge’s grassy surface with her legs between the railings. It was curious, given how much the actual train bothered her, that she enjoyed being here so much.
“What is the point of the train?” Silvia asked as we wandered across the highest point, pausing for a beat to admire the view.
“Didn’t they teach you?” I asked, vaguely nodding my head in the direction of the kindergarten. You could barely see it, but for the brightly coloured climbing frames in the playground. From behind, most of the buildings looked like mounds of earth and grass. The kindergarten was no exception.
“Nope.” She shook her head. “They’re useless at telling us useful things.”
“That’s rather critical. Am I any better?”
“No. See, you’re changing the subject!”
“The choo-choo.” I spun my arms like wheels. “Brings cargo from one place to another.”
She thought about that a bit as we walked down the slope of the bridge to the small wetland park on the other side. “Cargo?”
“It means stuff.”
The winding network of concrete paths in the wetland park was Silvia’s second favourite place. I had to admit, it wasn’t half bad. It was like a small magical refuge of trees and gardens, spread like a tapestry on the steep slope between the road and the river. Since it was winter, the boughs were bare and dusted with snow. Beautiful, in a sad sort of way. There were beehives on the far side, near the De Wolfe boathouse. No one really knew who owned them, just that they were there. I wonder whether the bees feel cold?
“Did the lady come back?”
I shook my head and looked down at Silvia. We were on the lowest path, and Silvia had stopped just short of the water, listening to the waves lap at the shore. “Which lady?” I stooped and picked up a flat rock, weighing it in my hands.
“The lady from the ocean!”
“Oh, that lady. Yeah, she did. As did he, actually.”
Silvia pulled a face. “Is this a love story?”
I shrugged and threw the rock over the water. It skipped three times, before plopping into the river. “Sometimes.”
Maushop came back to the cave many times afterwards. Sometimes came too early and saw nothing but the harsh glare of sunlight on the water, smelled nothing but his pokeweed smoke mixed with salt water, heard nothing but the thump of waves like a heartbeat. When the tide turned, however, he would feel the fingers of water again tangle around his toes and would see the woman walking through the waves towards him. On some days, when the sea was calm and the weather bright, she would beckon him and blow bubbles and sing. On others, bad days when the winds blew hard, she would rage and tug at him and set the water wolves howling, but to no avail. Maushop sat in the cave and waited. And when the winds had calmed, he would leave.
He had a wife back home, and five children. And though the wigwam was too small and she would yell and rage at him, Maushop was loyal. It was his duty as a husband. Even so, he did not tell her about the woman in the water.
The days passed and seasons turned and Maushop came day by day to the cave to watch for the woman. He began building a bridge from his home, which lay a small ocean away, to the cave, as an excuse to be there more often, and be at home less.
Silvia frowned. “Did he build it like you, when you were throwing rocks?”
“Skipping rocks. Also, he was using sand. Like when a beaver builds a dam, except... with sand.” I struggled to find an analogy. “An underwater mountain range.” I flung my arms out in a gesture.
“Yes, fine, but did he throw rocks?” I gave her a withering look.
“One rock. At a crab that bit his toe.”
“Did he eat it?”
“No. Giants only eat lobsters.” I grinned and pinched her sides to make her squeal. Revenge. “Big ones!”
On occasion, when the waters were sparkling with life and light, Maushop would wade in and swim with the woman, but when she dove deep, to where the ocean turned dark blue and the small colourful fish couldn’t swim, Maushop returned to the surface. Here, the heat of his pipe and the smoke waited for him. He’d brought tobacco from his home and stored it high on a dry rock shelf. Here he could dream of her green hair and bask in the sunlight. He had seen a dark hole between the rocks deep down there where she swam in the night time and did not want to enter it.
One day, he came home and found that his wife had left with another man. Tears of anger, then confusion, and finally despair wetted his face, Maushop went to the cave, where again he waited. The woman came and laid her hands upon his cheeks, and this time he followed her down into her realm.
There, she twined her long green braids around him, and he fell into a deep slumber. Bubbles drifted from his lips to the surface of the ocean and popped amidst the waves.
“He has never awakened from that sleep.” I finished. “Sometimes the lady becomes afraid that Maushop will never wake, and storms build on the horizon. Mysterious whirlpools,” here I grabbed Silvia’s hands and pulled her down so that we were looking just over the surface of the water. “Drag ships into the depths. She hopes that the fading sparks of life will bring Maushop’s own life back. But it takes many lives to recover a giant’s soul....”
I smiled, somewhat proud of how dramatically I’d ended the tale. But Silvia’s mind was already elsewhere, her gaze hovering in the middle distance. I huffed.
“The buildings,” Silvia said suddenly, pointing at them.
“What about them?”
“They look kind of like braids, don’t they?”
“Yeah, they do.” I stood slowly.
“And if they’re braids, that puts the lady’s head right… there!” Silvia pointed into the distance, to the ledge of the BU bridge, which the undulating curves of the buildings sprang forth from. From there, the undulating curves of the buildings wound across the slope of the river, became narrower and narrower, until the enormous arched roofs became the thin walkways that we walked on now. When I was little, I liked following the ribbons from one end to another, trying to see if I could cross all of the hills in between. Some of the steepest ones had stairs so that one could do just that.
They did look like braids.