I know the poets say “bone-white,” but bones are never really so-white, and these beached bones have surely been bleached white. On approach to them, I am tilted by the memory of my grandmother texting, “I love you to the bone!” and an old lover asking, “what does that mean…,” as our femurs lay interlaced beneath feathered, sex-stained sheets.
With another step, washes the memory of being slapped by my mother for collecting twisted seagull bones from a germ-infested carcass. Here, as shore slaps, a figment of her pull-bone nips beneath my jacket, hauls itself through intercostal bars to pluck, pluck at my vagus nerve. The pockets are new and empty now, but the feeling is always the same: taut and organized;
I let out a single cough, closer to a wheeze, and suspect the bleach-white-beached-bones might have been imagined by Coleridge. Might even be Biblical. In this four o’clock, wintered light, I judge they are surely too large to belong to a refugee.
My great uncle reacts to Facebook posts about drowned refugees, with spherical-laughing-jaundiced-faces and posts such things as:
Fuck Them Dirty Bastards! Good Riddance, I Say! Britannia Rules the Waves!
This upsets my grandmother, who took him in after he had gambled away his home and car and family. She doesn’t know whatever happened to him.
It is true, my grandmother will die soon. Her lungs are a fibrous matrix;
…if you can imagine a very large but very tight-knit blanket having bubble-gum stuck in the already very tight-knit holes and adding more and more bubble-gum, until there is too much bubble-gum and then trying to fold and unfold the blanket, very rapidly…
My grandmother thinks this bubble-gum is likely American and grape flavored, something really shit. My mother thinks that bubble-gum is the flavor. The color of bronchi and shrimp and flamingo wing.
“Do you have any questions?” Asked my grandmother’s specialist, still coddled and warmed in his sticky, self-woven covers. I wondered whether I would eventually inherit the blanket. My mother let out a single cough, closer to a wheeze, and we left the clinic to lunch.
When my girlfriend’s grandmother died, we were just excited nerve endings and stories of old selves and favorite films. It was her elder brother who called across continents to wake us from the cold sweat of London night. Death had crossed phone lines, fault lines, open borders, armed borders, war zones, Time zones, Time Square, Trafalgar Square and the stratosphere to reach us, but my girlfriend’s brother said “gone” rather than dead. After the connection was cut, my girlfriend looked to the ceiling and said, “My grandmother has gone,” before closing her eyes to sleep. I wanted to know what the word for grandmother was in Urdu, and brother, and dead, but we were still so new; I held onto her bones instead.
I taught a novel recently, where the protagonist has reached the age when one should scrub their feet each night before they sleep; nails trimmed and buffed, cuticles edited, toes moisturized—the lot. One student supposed, it’s like matching your knickers to your bra and making sure that everything is shaved. When my grandmother’s mother died, my mother and I went to Marks & Spencer to buy her something comfortable for the coffin—a white old-lady-bra and matching knickers; a teal sweater and smart grey pants; black ankle socks and off-black shoes. It is impossible to remember now but I’m sure her feet were spotless.
I don’t remember the last time I saw my own grandmother’s feet and think I should perhaps photograph them soon, before the pathologist gets to work. The thought of a latex-gloved stranger probing at my grandmother’s bones makes me unsteady. I wonder whether the same image unsteadies my mother, or if it’s the flesh that gets her, like the feathers. Each time I ask my mother if she loves my grandmother, she responds by saying,
my mother must have
studied my feet, long before
they knew summer grass
My mother’s grandfather kept pigeons when she was a child. He learned to navigate with them in the navy and attached easily. There’s a romantic family tale which says he ran away at fifteen to join the war; that he was the only cousin to survive; that he fell in love with a cropped-haired Italian woman and never fell out again; that his homing birds followed him back to Liverpool; that they carried elaborate letters and postcards to and from the cropped-haired Italian woman until the day his lungs gave out and his favorite bird, Loretta, died of a broken-heart. My grandmother keeps Loretta’s skull on the mantel piece now, held down with a reliable wad of tack, where she has been for some thirty years. Her head is the only thing my mother wants when my grandmother’s own lungs give out; I have requested her wishbone.
The scientific name for wishbone is furcula, which sounds a little like a dance. My mother has written a poem about hearts dancing beneath the breastbone. My breasts are much smaller than my mother’s and grandmother’s, but we are all hummingbird by heart and reptilian brained. My mother, the poet, was researching pigeon navigation when she came across the diagnosis:
Bird Fancier’s Lung (BFL) is a type of hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP). It is triggered by exposure to avian proteins present in the dry dust of the droppings and sometimes in the feathers of a variety of birds. The lungs become inflamed, with granuloma formation. Birds such as pigeons, parakeets, cockatiels, shell parakeets (budgerigars), parrots, turtle doves, turkeys and chickens have been implicated. People who work with birds or own many birds are at risk. Bird hobbyists and pet store workers may also be at risk.
My grandmother refuses to believe she is a bird pervert and has demanded an autopsy, when her Time comes. My mother thinks this is ridiculous. My great uncle says that it is the fault of the foreign birds, he should never have allowed them into his home. He’s thinking of starting a petition to KEEP THEM OUT!
On our second anniversary, my girlfriend gave me her copy of, The Conference of the Birds. In the evening, she took a blue biro to my arm and drew Simorgh bird from memory and suggested we move back to the blue coast, on account of the clear air. She thinks my lungs will eventually thank me for it; that we can both purge our pipes before The Day of Judgement comes. When we moved into our new home, my mother gifted us a painted phoenix on a giant piece of hessian cloth and told my girlfriend to make sure its flames always face the blue coast. She obeyed, until I fractured my ulna and we needed something to wrap it in. My mother has yet to notice my blood amongst the feathers and can admire her masterpiece for hours on any given visit.
My back is turned against the phoenix, against my mother, to the blue coast, to the bleach-white-beached-bones, when my feet are caught in a fishing line and I fall onto my knees. I let out a single cough, closer to a wheeze, and think I’ll return to the bleach-white-beached-bones tomorrow; the seagulls have come into feed, leaving feathers as treasures for plucking, plucking, and my grandmother is calling.
Sophie Kelly is a 27-year-old writer and PhD candidate. She is originally from Liverpool and now resides in Hertfordshire with her partner, three dogs and two cats.
featured photo by Ada Liang