Adapted from an image © Hogie
Rebekah’s Blue Dress
Rebekah arrived from Germany on a ship. The leaving was all in a hurry, and the landing was even more confused. Tall buildings, smoke and steam, and men speaking in a strange language, their hands rough on her back as they hurried her off the gangplank. Her family’s search for somewhere to stay—not home yet, just a room, and an open window to breathe from.
Two weeks later the ship they’d arrive on was torpedoed on its return journey across the Atlantic. For years Rebekah dreamed of that boat, the Queen Helena, sunk in the cold gray ocean, sharks swimming through Rebekah’s cabin, crabs asleep on her bed.
“You shouldn’t have told her,” Rebekah’s mother scolded her father, but Rebekah’s father was a man who couldn’t understand how a six-year-old could dream of rusting metal and an octopus in the dining cabin, its legs stretched like wheel spokes across the tables that sat eight for breakfast.
He shrugged and said that women thought too much, but somehow not enough, and Rebekah was left to her nightmares.
Rebekah’s mother died two years after the war, cut down by a flu that blew through town and took half their neighborhood with it. Her father told her exactly what had happened, and how, and when. He didn’t believe in leaving his child in ignorance, although Rebekah grew up wishing she’d been left exactly that way. She chased ignorance like some women chase love, hot and blind for it. She didn’t want to hear about her mother’s lungs collapsing like a paper bag blown up and then clapped with your hands, as her father demonstrated on a brown paper bag from the fruit store. He’d emptied it of apples first.
Rebekah grew up and moved away, as far across the country as she could—and she would have run further, across the blue Pacific, if she wasn’t so afraid of ships and wasn’t too poor for planes. She wanted to change everything, but the only thing she could think of to change was her name, so she did.
When Beckie arrived in the dust of the West with a single bag holding her blue childhood dress, the one she saved for her own daughter one day, she began her true search for ignorance. She sought it in whisky and she sought it in bars where the wind through the half-opened doors threatened to blow her off her bar stool, and the candles dimmed at midnight, or maybe that was just her eyelids drooping shut.
She’d kept the blue dress because it was the one she wore in the portrait that was painted after Momma died, the portrait her father commissioned. In case he lost her too, he said.
The best thing about the West was that it was dry: grit in her hair, her lips dusty, her eyes half-closed against the wind. The wind seemed to start on the ground, rising up, rather than sweeping in from the ocean. Here it was like the earth breathing out. A hard sigh that blew away all memory of water, all memory of a blown-up paper bag clapped in her face. Sometimes Beckie dreamed of a ship on the sea, spray wet on her face, looking down at her small feet tilting up and down below her in dark brown boots, a glistening deck. But in the morning she turned to whatever was next to her, a man or a bottle, and drank deeply, and she couldn’t quite remember the dream that had woken her with a damp forehead and a dry throat.
When the child budded in her belly, and her belly bloated like a jellyfish, pale and translucent, she didn’t send the letter to her father that she wrote one night and couldn’t read the next morning. It was clearly her writing, but not her words. And anyway, the cheap paper was mist-thin, streaked with watermarks like rain on glass.
It was a daughter, as she knew it would be, and Beckie stroked the baby, her fingers spoking across the frail downy scalp, and decided to call her Helena. Helena grew fast, arms and legs wriggling out of her body, her eyes gray. She soon learned to crab-crawl across the timbers of the kitchen, laughing at Beckie’s attempts to catch her, her body slippery as seaweed under her mother’s hands.
The blue dress hung in the closet for years, sun-faded even though it was sheltered in darkness. The first time Beckie put it on Helena, the girl cried salty tears, the wool scratchy and the hem rippling against her ankles, tickling her to hurting, so Beckie hung it up again, waiting for the next year, or the next daughter.
Beckie’s father died with a rope around his neck, his feet dangling six inches from the wood-planked floor. Three months after the event, Beckie received his letter. Dense handwriting crammed at the top of the page, black ink. At the bottom, his drawing of a stick-figure, a loop around its neck. Next to it a tidy sketch of the knot he intended to tie to the beam overhead. A sailor’s knot, he said in his note. The Anchor Bend.
“I learned it a long time ago,” he wrote in the margin. “I learned everything I could. Ignorance is the blindness of man. This is why we left Germany, because I didn’t close my eyes when everyone else did.”
At the lowest rim of the page, a wavy line like the sea stretched across the horizon, almost touching the dangling feet of the stick-man. A sun was half-submerged in the waves, rays spoking out in the same way that Helena drew suns with her pencil. Whether her father’s sun was rising or setting, Beckie couldn’t tell.
Beckie closed her eyes and folded the letter away, put it in the pocket of the blue dress, where Helena might find it one day.
Copyright © 2008 by Tania Casselle
"Rebekah’s Blue Dress" was first published in New York Stories, Fall 2006.