Ann Cwiklinski

Contest Winner - 1st Place

Ann Cwiklinski won first place in the WITF/Central PA Magazine writing contest in 2009 and 2011; her stories,  “Dulce Domum”  and “Girl’s Song,”  were published in that magazine.  She previously wrote for various organizations in Washington, D.C., including the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  She now lives in Glen Rock, PA, with her husband and four children.


From her beach chair, Clare squinted at her four young children playing in the shallow surf. They were not strong swimmers, and not the least bit cautious, so she watched them anxiously, quietly cursing the large, slow-moving men who occasionally blocked her view as they adjusted things—their beach shoes, their waistbands, their ridiculous noseplugs—before wading past the kids and subsiding into the water up to their thick necks.

The safety rules that Clare always laid out for the children when they arrived at the beach, and which they recited back mechanically while tugging away from her to get to the water, did nothing, she knew, to protect them. “Not past the belly button,” Clare would warn, but they found the loopholes—“My bellybutton is above the water when I jump,” or “You didn’t say whose bellybutton.” Her husband, on the rare occasions he skipped work to visit the beach with them, encouraged the kids’ insubordination by joking that they would become formidable lawyers someday. “Drowned lawyers don’t win many cases,” Clare would point out darkly as the children sprinted toward the water and Ron laughed.

She’d done the whole beach-preparation thing alone that morning—packing the snacks, the sunscreen, the toys, the towels; getting the kids into their swimsuits and buckled into the car; running back into the house for water bottles; driving an hour to the beach through heavy traffic while sustaining a lively conversation about sting rays and jelly fish, calculated to keep back-seat behavior from degenerating into pokes and screams; unpacking the snacks, the sunscreen, the toys, the towels . . . She was sweating like crazy, sunscreen already melting into her eyes, but she didn’t dare take a swim until Ron showed up to help her watch the kids. Noon, he’d said, after he got a few things done at the office. A “few things” regularly stood between him and enthusiastic commitment to family outings. And—face it—he wouldn’t really be that much help when he did arrive. He actually closed his eyes at the beach, something Clare had not done in ten years, and wouldn’t allow herself to do for another ten, at least. Instead, she spent her time at the seashore tense and vigilant, determined to keep her kids from drowning, burning, getting lost, or kicking sand all over the gently snoring couple on the next beach blanket. “A day at the beach”: Ha.

And to think how much she’d loved the shore when she was small. Her mother had always had to drag her out of the water, bawling her blue-lipped protests, after hours of swimming. She’d then sit on her towel and sulk conspicuously for a respectable length of time before running off to collect treasures the sea had tossed onto the sand: yellow and orange jingle shells to decorate her toes like an old lady’s; strings of parchment-like disks that rattled with miniature whelk shells, perfect for displaying in Play-Doh bowls in her dollhouse; and, if she were really lucky, mermaid purses—brittle, black seaweed cases that were always torn and empty, though she never stopped hoping one might contain a mother-of-pearl compact or a photo of a baby mermaid. At one point she’d tried to believe that she, herself, could be of mermaid descent: She did eat an unusually large amount of tuna for a 5 year old. Perhaps her parents had stumbled across her infant self on the shore, swaddled in kelp, and one of them had turned brightly to the other and declared, “Let’s keep her. And, oh—let’s never tell her where she came from . . .”

So, of course she couldn’t deny her own children the beach. But she couldn’t share their joy; for her, the beach had become all stress all the time—a hot, sticky place to sit and watch and worry.

She unscrewed the top of a bottled water and sipped it halfway down, then poured the rest down the front of her bathing suit and along her arms. It would feel so good to dive into the water—what, was it like 90 degrees by now?—but she’d have to take off her prescription sunglasses, thereby losing track of the kids, or at least of the facial features that distinguished them from all the other screaming children. And she knew better than to trust the four of them to sit obediently on a towel for two minutes while she went for a solo swim to cool down . . .

Hold on, where were her two youngest boys? Just a moment ago they’d been stalking a school of minnows at the water’s edge, regularly sticking their fingers into the water to provoke kaleidoscopic confusion among the little fish. How had she lost track of them so fast? Where . . . ? Oh, phew, there they were, clambering up the barnacle-covered rocks, probably tearing their feet to pieces. Was climbing on the jetty allowed? Clare glanced over at the lifeguard: He didn’t look very alert. Wait, was he even awake behind his sunglasses? She should run over there and ask him something to make sure he was conscious—“Excuse me, what color is a Portuguese man-of-war?”—but that would require jumping up from her beach chair, so awkwardly low that the canvas under her bottom grazed the sand. Hmmm, she’d just keep an eye on him for a minute; if his head lolled any closer to his tan chest, she’d definitely march over there and poke him.

Why did it always have to be like this, with her worrying for everyone? Who put her in charge of the entire beach, anyway?

Her youngest son, Casimir, called excitedly from the rocks, “Mom, I caught a shrimp!” He waved his sloshing yellow bucket at her, further traumatizing whatever little creature he had just plucked from the sea and thus dubiously identified. “His name is Casimir!”

“What a coincidence,” Clare shouted back, but a sudden sea breeze whisked her less-shrill voice back over her shoulder, depositing her limp joke somewhere amidst the popsicle wrappers edging the parking lot. Casimir continued to gaze at her expectantly, his bucket aloft, so Clare resorted to nodding enthusiastically at him, pretending to see his catch from where she sat. It was probably a naked hermit crab, she guessed, thwarted in its mad scurry to a new shell. The poor thing. Wait, no: She would not fret about a hermit crab and its derailed dreams. If her worries extended to crustaceans, where would they stop?

Casimir happily resumed scanning the waves. Clare tried to recall when she’d last slathered sunscreen on his neck and shoulders; had he been swimming since? All of her children had, unfortunately, inherited her pale, freckly skin, so on any bright summer day, her chronic apprehension about unforeseen accidents sharpened to very specific fears about her children’s skin at the cellular level—sort of the way a cloud of cartoon bees zips into arrow formation to chase a terrified fool.

Casimir’s older brother, Richard, abruptly grabbed him around the waist and shouted, “Mom, I caught a shrimp!” Aaargh. The two of them were a concussion waiting to happen.

“Put him down before you both slip,” she yelled. Didn’t kids think at all? Well, at least she had roused the lifeguard: He sprang up and whistled the boys off the jetty—a bit too forcefully, as if to demonstrate how admirably wide awake he suddenly found himself. The boys, deaf to her own warnings, yet instantly deferential to a skinny teenager in orange shorts, slid hastily down the rocks, scraping their new swim trunks across every convenient barnacle.

OK. two kids momentarily safe, but where was Terence? Clare’s oldest had a habit of wandering way down the beach, unconcerned about eventually finding his nearsighted way back to their spot. And talking to strangers was practically a hobby with him. Where was he? She twisted around in her chair until she discovered him almost directly behind her, wrapped in his wet, sandy towel and absorbed in a library book. Good. Or maybe not: Didn’t that slithery, drooling monster on the cover look excessively creepy for a ten-year old? How had he managed to slip such a nasty book past Clare at the library check-out counter? If she grabbed it immediately, would she prevent a nightmare? Or cause one by being so overprotective? Sigh.

“Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!” This time, her daughter was calling from the water. Clare quickly spotted Katie’s red-striped bathing suit and waved. She made a mental note to stick with high-visibility stripes for the kids in the future—black and white would be best. Could she persuade Land’s End to do convict stripes for kids? (Yes, since she was in charge of the whole beach, she might as well lay out absurd safety guidelines for the beach-fashion industry.)

Assured of her audience, Katie ducked her head forward under the water, then drew it out slowly so that her long hair streamed over her face; she grabbed the dripping tip and rolled it up to her scalp, arranging one fat sausage curl around her forehead, like the wig of a soggy Founding Father. Clare dutifully admired, “Great, sweetie, you look just like George Washington.” Her daughter scowled at this unflattering comparison to a man, so Clare quickly suggested, “or maybe Martha? Betty Ford?”

Katie forgave her at once, smiled wide, and took a few mincing, presumably first-ladyish steps. She waved grandly at Clare, then dove into the water like a seal, instantly released from the constraints of first-lady decorum. Clare watched her daughter splash, utterly carefree. What was that story they’d read together, about the selkie? A meddling fisherman had snatched the seal skin of a beautiful selkie—sort of like a mermaid—from the rock where she was sunning herself in beguiling human form. Adding insult to injury, he’d taken her home to scrub floors, stir porridge, and bear children. When years later the selkie discovered her desiccated seal skin stashed under roof thatch, she’d slipped it on and plunged back into the sea, blithely abandoning husband and children. Funny how the story’s ending had pleased Katie, but disturbed Clare. OK., it probably served that sneaky fisherman right, but what about the babies?

“But, Mom,” Katie had explained patiently, “The underwater kingdom was way more beautiful than land. The selkie missed her real home.” Katie couldn’t grasp how…permanent having children was. Really, when you thought about it, becoming a mother was a more drastic transformation than a selkie’s conspicuous but reversible metamorphosis. But then, Clare herself hadn’t understood how radically a baby would change her life—not until she’d brought her first child home from the hospital and he’d cried frantically from 2 am until dawn. She’d slumped exhausted in an armchair, terrified of dropping red-faced little Terence, as Perry Mason reruns offered their dim light and slim solace. A newborn might arrive “trailing clouds of glory,” but no attendant, hazy bliss descended on Clare on her first night on the job; rather, her sweet infant slammed into her life like a little meteorite, knocking her out of her self-centered orbit for good.

In fact, Clare decided all these years later, as she watched her beloved, sand-covered children play and anticipated their next careless brush with disaster, most mothers were much more like lobsters than selkies—lobsters who willingly climb into deep-sea pots, then realize there’s no backing out. She recognized that her simile was sloppy, that it would not hold up past the lobster pot to the actual cooking vessel without thoroughly disparaging motherhood and its many joys, but the basic comparison pleased her: The panic of an entrapped lobster could be no wilder than the alarm of a brand new mother. Not much fairytale potential in that story, of course—“The Fairly-Large Maternal Lobster.” Clare pictured a Disney heroine, her long-lashed eyes on stalks . . .

Wait, no daydreaming: She’d lost track of the little boys again. Not down in the water, not on the rocks . . . Phew, they were just a few yards in front of her, over to her left, digging holes and tunnels for a shrimp (hermit crab?) metropolis. Terence had condescended to join them, discarding his library book face down in the sand. (No, kids didn’t think at all.) Clare was tempted to suggest that the boys move down to damper sand so they wouldn’t have to dig so deep to reach water, but resisted managing their fun. She couldn’t refrain, however, from reciting,

When I was down beside the sea,

A wooden spade they gave to me,

To dig the sandy shore.

She shook off thoughts of delicate, tubercular Robert Louis Stevenson, and how his mother must have worried. Her own sturdy boys gripped their plastic shovels tightly and regarded her with pained politeness for two seconds before resuming their excavation.

Not for the first time, she wished that her children preferred a good poem to Goosebumps. Tonight, she’d read them that beautifully-illustrated A Child’s Garden of Verses, cover to cover. That is, if she could find it in their messy bedrooms. Yesterday, she’d found crushed saltines and a dirty sock, flat and stiff as a pressed flower, inside the Monopoly box . . . Oh, sheesh, now she was fussing about housework at the beach. Pathetic: “Shall I make them clean their rooms? Do I dare to eat a peach? I wear a sunblock swimsuit, and scold kids on the beach . . .”

Where the heck was her husband? Clare opened another bottle of water and poured some down the back of her neck. He needed to hurry up, or she’d really get angry. What had that “2-minute Yoga” article suggested? Inhale through the right nostril, exhale through the left. Yeah, and then inhale through the left . . . That low-tide smell of atomized fish and sun-warmed seaweed surely healed stress . . . Which nostril was she on?

Ocean sounds were supposed to be soothing, too. Wasn’t the Nature Store’s meditation rack full of Beach Sound CDs? But although crashing waves and distant seagull cries might lull some people into a tranquil state—or an unmotivated teenage lifeguard into REMs—Clare tuned into the precise beach frequencies scrupulously deleted from those CDs. Even with the boys safe beside her, and Katie clearly visible, Clare found herself needlessly starting at every shrill yelp from well-supervised toddlers at the water’s edge. She noticed a group of rough boys in the water, screaming mechanically, “Marco . . . Polo . . .You cheat! . . . You suck!” Where were their mothers? Wait: Wasn’t that huge one ducking his friend’s head underwater too long? One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . . Clare gripped the arms of her chair, poised to spring to the rescue, just as the bully released his sputtering victim. God forbid the drowsy lifeguard prevent them from killing each other!

Finally, here came her husband—almost an hour late. And look: He had several sections of the Sunday paper under his arm. He clearly expected to relax.

Clare pushed herself out of her chair, yanked down the seat of her swimsuit, and handed Ron her glasses.

“Just watch the kids for five minutes,” she insisted, choosing to overlook the hazelnut coffee on Ron’s breath as he kissed her, an aroma implicating Starbucks, rather than critical office work, in his delay. Cheerfully caffeinated, Ron sat down in her chair and casually assumed parental responsibilities.

Clare escaped toward the water, stepping gingerly over slipper shells heaped at the high-tide mark like some gentle mermaid prank renouncing bipedal life. At the water’s edge, small, cold waves pulled at her feet, hollowing out the sand beneath them. She waded out deeper, through a band of seaweed that wrapped around her thigh and trailed her briefly. When the water finally lapped at her lowest ribs, she dove under a wave and swam through the dark-green murk, savoring the sudden quiet until empty lungs forced her back to the din and glare of the upper world. But even those few seconds underwater had begun to refresh her; she felt more relaxed than she had all day. Stretching on her back, she let the lifting, dropping waves continue to leach the stress out of her body. She could float there limply, happily for days, maybe years—until her constant worries, diluted across an entire ocean, survived only as a faint uneasiness rippling through far-flung colonies of Atlantic clams, a mild agitation among the mussels . . .

The sunlight soaked through her closed eyelids, creating the illusion of endless orange depths—no, heights, as if all the heat and stress of the day burned somewhere right above her without touching her. Abstract warmth, like a Rothko glowing in the chill of an art gallery . . .

Clare allowed herself several minutes of drifting before lazily turning her head toward the beach and opening her eyes. She spotted her slightly-blurry children huddled on a towel, munching the peanut butter crackers and peaches—peaches!—she’d packed that morning. Cooler lid left wide open, of course. Between bites, they sang their own off-key version of “Down by the Bay”:

“Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow, back to my home, I dare not go . . .”

They laughed generously at each other’s scatological improvements to the song, particularly those featuring whales and pails. They were the picture of mildly-sunburned, potty-mouthed contentment. Cute, actually, for human children. Clare noticed that Ron’s face was thoroughly hidden behind Sunday’s Book Review. No she couldn’t leave her babies solely in his hands. It wasn’t like anyone from the underwater kingdom was imploring her to stay, anyway, coaxing her with silvery pearls and coral palaces . . . She sighed. Back to her home, she must dare go.

She climbed out of the water, conscious of losing buoyancy with each step toward shore. When she reached the kids, Katie giggled, “Did you fall asleep, Mommy?” Clare hugged her. “No, I was just listening to the mermaids. But you guys sing better, so I decided to come back.” She reclaimed her chair from her husband, forced herself to nibble the sandy, half-eaten peach that Casimir offered her, and began planning supper. Fish would be good.

I first discovered tales about selkies in the folklore library at University College, Dublin, while working on my M. Phil in Irish Studies. These weren’t romantic fairytales, but matter-of-fact stories about some local woman who jumped into the sea one day, her mild eccentricities finally making sense to her neighbors: “Shoulda known that she was part seal!” The pull of the sea had proven stronger than any ties to her human family. Since having children of my own, I can’t read a fantastical story without bringing my own fussy, maternal concerns to it: “Umm, magical transformations are all well and good, but did anyone arrange for a babysitter?” I actually wrote a story from the point of view of a vaguely-remorseful selkie before writing this story about a cranky mother stranded on the beach.