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  • Writer's pictureMeghan Ball

Free short story: The Things My Grandmother Knew

I think one of the hardest parts of writing is how long it takes for things to finally be seen. I wrote this story in early December, tailored to a new genre magazine that had put out a call for submissions. I felt really confident in its chances but, alas, it came home on its shield in defeat. That's writing for you and I don't bear the venue any ill will. When you get 1,000 submissions and have only a dozen slots, tons of incredible writing just doesn't get bought. It's so hard, both for writers and publishers. That's just how it goes, you know? I just felt bad because since this was such a specific story I knew it wouldn't find a home anywhere else. This was it's one shot.

Usually my failed stories don't see the light of day, no matter how much I loved them. Often I just completely delete them. Every so often I shove them at very patient friends. I like sharing my writing, though. It kills me I don't get to do it more often. So, instead of banishing this to an external hard drive or worse, the recycle bin, I am posting it here. I know in doing so it won't be able to be featured in a magazine, since this is considered "already published" but it's such a specific story I doubt it would have found a place in another venue at all.

I tried something different with this one, a different style and a different vibe then what I usually do. Maybe that's why it faltered. I also never liked the title but I'm bad at those anyway. Despite that, I still really like it for some reason. It's a solemn fever dream and it feels like Nick Cave's "Weeping Song". Either way, I hope someone likes it. I hope you like it. I really did try.

Thank you for looking at this, whatever it is. I appreciate it. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

The Things My Grandmother Knew

by Meghan Ball

My grandmother was a fine storyteller and when I was little I was her enraptured audience. I would often sit on the scratchy carpet at her feet and play with paper dolls as she knitted and told me stories. She knew everything. She knew why the tail of the fox was tipped with white and why puffins wore tuxedos. She knew the secret songs that whales sang in the cold, black ocean just outside our back door. One day, when she deemed me old enough or perhaps having been especially good, she told me about the history of our island. I want it written down now, this sacred oral history passed to me, so you may understand what I must do. What I have already done by the time you find this.

Before every story, Grandmother would heave a sigh like the tale was a burden she was setting down. She would train a clear, dark eye on me to make sure I was behaving. She needn’t have worried. I was always entranced. Satisfied I was listening, she would pick up her knitting or darning and begin to speak. Sometimes it felt like the entire house would go silent while she spoke, not even the carriage clock on the mantle daring to tick or tock when she spun her tales.

Our island was a bounty for a handful of strange shipwrecked men, she began. They had discovered it far, far away from the cold, craggy coast of their homeland quite by accident. A massive storm had beached them there, their fine ship torn to shreds against the rocky shore. It was if the hand of a god had shoved them onto the land. They disembarked in the pale dawn light and found an island with rich soil and richer waters. While they repaired what they could of their vessel they began to settle there and build the barest of necessities to keep out the elements.

Temporary things, Grandmother had said. But, she would continue in that way she had, the rueful sing song lilt of her voice, many people spend their whole lives in places they thought were temporary. Soon the men did not want to leave. The meager crops they planted began to grow with a startling fierceness, as if trying to prove to the men what good land they had found themselves on. Fish would leap into their nets like trained circus animals. The living was good apart from one thing. (Here, she would lower her voice conspiratorially to me.)

The men were lonely.

They considered sending a small group back across the ocean to find home and fetch their families but they could not be certain they would find the island again. They had no maps or ways to prove where they were. They were stuck. They turned to the oldest among them, a one-eyed sailor who knew many of the old rites. He knew how to conjure up wind when the seas went quiet and how to cure ailments both physical and spiritual. One morning he walked naked into the calm seas and begged the waves to give them wives. He beseeched the great waters to provide, as they had done with the fish and the land. He called upon names the men would later refuse to repeat; names that made them shiver, that made their skin feel tight against their bones, that made their insides feel oily and gangrenous. Names even Grandmother refused to say. Though the waters had been calm but moments before, a great wave crested around him and knocked him into the rocks, killing him instantly. His blood mixed with the foam and was swept out to sea.

The next morning there were women on the beach, each more beautiful than the last. They had dark hair and bright eyes and each one carried a seal skin in their arms. The men stared at them, not believing their eyes. They said nothing, each woman taking one of the men by the hand and leading him away. The men went like lambs to slaughter, Grandmother would say with her wheeze of a laugh. The poor dazed and bewildered creatures. In the next few days, there were many hastily carried out wedding ceremonies and the sound of chopping filled the air as the men worked to enlarge serviceable shacks into nicer homes.

The women smiled secret smiles to each other as their bellies grew. They wove fabric, tilled fields, and cooked meals. For all intents and purposes they appeared like normal women, Grandmother said. They looked no different than her or I. Sons grew up to be brave and hardworking, daughters beautiful and smart. The arrival of each new daughter saw a small seal skin, wrapped in a strange briny twine, left on the back steps of the house. Here Grandmother would shake her head and suck her teeth. The foolish men did not know why these skins appeared. The skins unnerved them and they began to take them away from their wives and daughters. The men hid them, spirited them away in the night, put them behind lock and key.

Some of the women didn’t notice. Some were happy on the land. They were happy to tend children and chickens, happy with the men they had chosen. Their skins grew thin and dry in locked boxes in larders and under floorboards, cracked and disintegrating from disuse. Others became angry and lashed out, walking into the water and letting the waves dash them to death against the rocks. Some women just became sad, wading into the water up to their waists, their aprons sodden and salt-encrusted, to stare distantly into the ocean they could no longer return to.

I always thought this to be impossibly tragic but Grandmother spoke as if she was reporting nothing but butcher shop gossip. No amount of my confused tears could change the story. I did not know why I cried so terribly or why, later, I would have nightmares about the sea. I would wake up screaming and Grandmother would sit up with me, singing lullabies to calm me. My fears kept me landlocked, watching as my peers would splash in the water with abandon. I never did learn how to swim. Grandmother always said it was for my own well being.

Many sins on the island were committed in the name of well being. Jealous husbands and worried fathers kept up the skin theft practice. Stealing away the little skins after a birth and passing the knowledge down to their sons and sons in law. Soon the birth of a daughter was unremarkable and there would be no skin left at their doorstep. Soon the knowledge of how the island was founded faded into myth and legend as so many things do. I certainly never heard about it in school. Only Grandmother seemed to know the story. Every so often someone would find what appeared to be a seal skin in a box that had once belonged to their great great grandfather. People would laugh and shake their heads at how foolish the older, more superstitious generations had been. Why, even Grandmother had found such an item in her father’s effects after he passed away. The pastor suggested it be burned but Grandmother never said what became of it.

Generations passed and modernity came to the island. Bridges linked it with the bigger country to the east and younger folk left to pursue their fortunes elsewhere. Rarely, the birth of a new daughter would find the father tripping over a seal skin while collecting the milk bottles but it was considered nothing more than a traditional prank now. Sometimes a young woman would walk out into the sea and meet her end on the rocks. Everyone in town would lament the tragic loss but they would note she was always daydreaming, always sorrowful, never quite all there. These things, Grandmother would say, did happen every so often.

There is a small maritime museum in town, housed in an old building once belonging to one of the great old families that had settled and founded the island. I remember visiting it on school trips when I was younger. Inside, behind glass cases, were a few seal skins. They are well preserved, with charming little white placards saying they had once been part of a quaint, ancient betrothal custom. Grandmother shook her head when I told her. No one remembered what had been bartered for with blood.

No one except the sea, she would say when she brought her story to a close. The sea took its tithe from the island as it saw fit and returned its children to the waves when it felt the desire. The sea had a long memory and one day the island and its people would not be spared for what they took. I know now what has been taken from us, from me.

It was I who went through Grandmother’s things when she died. I sorted through bags of yarn that would never become scarves or socks, I went through books that would never again be read. At the very top of her closet, behind old love letters gone moldy and the trinkets of her girlhood I found a small wooden chest. There were skins inside, each rolled up neatly and marked with a name. The skins were the peeled bark of my family tree, each woman I shared blood with was represented, going back hundreds of years. I found my grandmother’s name. I found my mother’s name.

I found my name.

I leave this with you now so you will know what became of me. I want you to know I do not go into the sea out of grief or sickness. I will not end up dashed against the rocks. I have my skin with me, small and sad it may be, and I will find what blood of mine lives beyond the waves. I am no longer afraid.

The tide is coming in and I must go. It calls to me. I hear its song in my veins. Do not be sad or angry with me. Look for your skin in your family home, draw it to your breast, and join me in the sea. I know I will recognize you. I will take your hand and show you everything I have discovered.

We will be free once more.

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