My older sister blasted back into our lives as if no time had passed at all. Belle hadn’t returned to the Island in almost eight years, not since I refused to be her maid of honor and Mumma and Fletch refused to let her have her big day under the willow oak. Naturally, she had to show up now to ruin my big plans.
“Bring Fletch’s truck,” Belle texted. “My Corvette’s in the ditch by the cemetery.”
The Bel-Mar blade in the news must have called her home. When we were babies our daddy, Fletch, captained a fishing boat that trawled for sea scallops in the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay. One day he and his crew dredged up part of a mastodon skull with a nine-inch stone blade embedded in it. Fletch called it the Bel-Mar blade after his workboat, the Bel-Mar, which he named after my sister, Belle, and me, Maren.
“Can’t,” I texted back. “On my way to see Pastor Polly.”
“Don’t tell me you found Jesus since I’ve been away!”
“None of your business. What are you doing here?”
“Just send Fletch.”
Fletch wasn’t available either. He drove to Washington this morning to retrieve the Bel‑Mar blade from the Smithsonian after they radiocarbon dated it. Fletch hated the city. He would rant about the one-way streets, parallel parking, and how city folk couldn’t understand his Tidewater accent, making him repeat himself like a foreigner.
“Then you’ll have to come.”
“Is Troy with you?”
I texted Polly to ask if I could come over later. Wednesday afternoons were the only times Polly would allow me to see her. At least until the rumors died down.
“Bitch in a ditch😊,” Polly texted back.
Growing up, Belle would make me stay home with Mumma so she could go to parties off the Island. Mumma was wheelchair-bound from a boating accident before we were born, which left her paralyzed from the waist down. We always had to explain that yes, paralyzed people can have sex and give birth. The liquor store on the mainland delivered cases of gin and cartons of cigarettes to our house every week. Belle wasn’t popular but she was invited to every high school party to bring the booze. I never smoked or drank, but Belle took right after Mumma. We both wanted to escape the Island more than anything, but Mumma always said one of us would have to stay to take care of her and the farm so Fletch could work. I couldn’t compete with Belle. She was a year older and willing to do anything to get away.
When I pulled up by the cemetery in Fletch’s Ram, I recognized Belle from behind. She stood on a gravestone, yelling into her phone—probably at Troy, her fish-faced husband. Even though she had changed her hair from straight and mousy-brown like mine to a bushy blond perm, her hand-on-hip pose with the opposite toe pointing up reminded me of her fierce temper. A floral-print romper hid the weight she had gained.
Running my finger along the damage, I wondered how Belle fit in the thing. She had scraped and dented the entire right side by plowing through the underbrush. Helpless little red Corvette.
As I lay on my back in the ditch hooking the chain to her axle, something yipped from inside the car. Wiping pine tags off my softball jersey, I peered inside. A tiny dog was shaking in Belle’s purse on the passenger seat. Belle snuck up from behind and gave me a bear hug that felt more like the Heimlich maneuver, lifting me off the ground.
Belle had always enjoyed doing this, making me kick and scream. Six feet tall and overweight, she could lift an astonishing amount. She took after Mumma while I resembled Fletch, small and lean. I think Belle’s bigness is why she slept with so many boys in high school. Low self-esteem.
“Put me down, Belle,” I demanded. “I’m trying to do you a favor.”
She released me with a phlegmy smoker’s laugh. “Did you meet Chloe?”
“Not exactly. Why’s she shaking?”
“Separation anxiety. Don’t judge. She takes medication for it.”
Belle popped open the trunk and began sorting through samples of wild-print leggings until she found a pair patterned with Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s face.
“These retail for twenty but since they’re perfect for you, I’ll let ’em go for eighteen.”
“No, thanks.” I pivoted toward the Ram to retract the winch.
“When you see how much I make selling these, give me a call,” she said, slamming the trunk. “I might have an opportunity for you.”
“Put the car in neutral,” I ordered over my shoulder.
When we arrived at the farmhouse, Fletch’s hunting dogs—thirteen beagles with numbers spray-painted on their sides—howled and barked from their pen, alerting Mumma to look through her peephole. Fletch installed it at chair level in their bedroom on the ground floor so she could decide whether or not to answer the door when he was away fishing.
Belle stood in the driveway, striking her hip-and-toe pose, surveying the old home place. “It looks smaller than I remember,” she said, looking up at her old bedroom window. Waiting for Mumma to come out, she drifted toward the swing hanging from the willow oak overlooking the back side of Fletch’s boathouse on the creek.
I hadn’t missed Belle. I wished it had been me who got away. Mumma and Fletch did too, I think. I was afraid Mumma would drink more than ever after Belle left, but instead she stopped drinking, settling into a permanent bad mood. As she and Fletch argued through holidays—and even big events like when Neil Diamond performed “Sweet Caroline” at the high school—I felt Belle’s absence the most. Whether I liked it or not, we needed Belle’s craziness for balance.
Everyone always said I should be the one to leave the Island after high school. I made good grades and wanted to go to college. Belle landed a decent-paying job in the office of the marina during her senior year so she dropped out. That’s how she met Troy, a marine surveyor from the city. He was forty-three and Belle was eighteen. To me, he resembled the lumpfish we were dissecting in biology class—the back of his crew cut was flat, and his eyes bulged too far apart. But to Belle, he was beautiful because he had a lot of money. According to Fletch, he had too much money for a marine surveyor.
Soon after Belle met Troy, she dragged me to a party at his house in the city. I didn’t want to go, but Fletch said Belle couldn’t go alone. I was scared to go inside because one of Troy’s skinhead friends was shooting at empty tequila bottles on the porch with a BB gun. Belle fit right in, a pro at drinking shots and shooting darts. I motioned to her that I’d be upstairs until she was ready to go. In the bathroom there was a pile of porno magazines. Even though they were disgusting, I couldn’t help flipping through them. When Troy busted in by accident, he ran back downstairs shouting that I was a horny little dyke. “That’s it.” I handed Belle her purse, but she kept tugging at my arm to sing karaoke. I ended up waiting for her in Fletch’s truck until two in the morning. The whole ride home she was pissed at me for offending her boyfriend.
At the end of the summer, Belle quit her job at the marina, announcing that she and Troy were engaged. She had the nerve to ask me to be her maid of honor. “Are you crazy?” I shouted. “I don’t ever want to be in the same room with him again.” Unconcerned, she turned to Fletch to ask if she could have her ceremony under the willow oak. Fletch said no because he didn’t trust Troy. Mumma was her last hope. Belle kneeled in front of her for her blessing but Mumma stayed silent, fixing her gaze on the burn pile where last week’s trash was smoldering. Belle sprang into a rage, swearing she’d never speak to any of us again.
When Belle heard Mumma trying to open the front door with her grabby stick, she hurried back to her car to cradle her dog. As Mumma wheeled across the threshold onto the porch, Belle dropped the dog and ran to her.
I slipped down to the boathouse to check in with Polly. Mumma’s and Belle’s laughter rang out across the creek, reminding me of how Mumma used to do doughnuts on the porch with Belle draped across her lap.
I texted Polly: “Would it ever occur to Mumma that I’m to thank for Belle coming home? If I hadn’t contacted that archeologist, she wouldn’t be here now.”
Searching for something to do after everyone my age had left the Island, I wondered about the age of the Bel-Mar blade. Our family had always treasured it as a souvenir, believing it carried good luck, but I figured maybe it had scientific importance too. In my letter to Virginia’s leading expert in paleolithic projectile points, I explained where and how the Bel-Mar blade was found, enclosing a nautical chart with the GPS location, measurements, and several photos. To my surprise, he called right away.
Fletch had tensed when I told him a scientist was coming to see the blade. Typically, he would get rid of come-heres by filibustering on Chesapeake Bay fishing conditions until their patience timed out, so I grabbed my archeologist in the driveway and led him down to the boathouse. We weighed the blade and I helped him use a portable scanner to determine if there was enough organic material from the mastodon skull to radiocarbon date it. When we got a positive reading, we were both ecstatic. He suggested I send the blade to the Smithsonian’s forensic analysis lab, saying we might have a major find. As he was leaving, he handed me his card. “Call me if you’d like a job.”
“Thanks, but,” I nodded toward the house, “I’m kind of stuck here.”
No sooner had I FedExed the blade to Washington than Fletch regretted signing the permission papers. The radiocarbon dating didn’t take long—a few days. What took so long was the scientists fighting among themselves about how to report the significance of the results: The Bel-Mar blade turned out to be twenty-three thousand years old. Prior to this the oldest known artifact from the Americas was only thirteen thousand years old, brought by the Clovis people across the frozen Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska during the ice age. The Bel-Mar blade supported an alternative theory that the Solutreans, who lived in the area where Spain is today, traveled across the edge of the Atlantic shelf. The longer shape of the Bel-Mar blade matched the Solutrean style, indicating that the first people here may have come from Europe, not Asia. Most scientists regarded the Solutrean hypothesis as a wishful White supremacist theory, but the Bel‑Mar blade’s age gave them all pause. Eventually they concluded that one artifact wasn’t enough evidence to overturn decades of research.
When the Smithsonian finally announced their findings in a press release last week, a news station crew came to interview me and Fletch. Fletch described the day of discovery, and I described my plans to convert Fletch’s boathouse into a floating museum where people could arrive by boat to see the mastodon skull, the Bel-Mar blade, and the old wooden trawler that dredged them up.
Polly texted back, “Do U know the parable of the prodigal son?”
Before I could tell her to spare me the sermon, the hunting dogs went crazy. I bolted up the lawn, hoping it was Fletch, home with the Bel-Mar blade.
I stopped short. Fletch and Belle were locked in a gaze that I knew not to interrupt. Belle had an apologetic look, but Fletch was hard to read. Mumma stopped laughing, frozen on the porch. Even the dogs quit barking. Finally, Fletch’s face relaxed into a huge smile, and he stretched out his arms. As Belle bounded toward him, the dogs resumed barking, and Mumma went back to laughing.
I removed a rectangular package the size of a candy box from Fletch’s satchel and ran my finger over the embossed label: Smithsonian Institution, Natural History Museum, Department of Forensic Analysis. Lifting it to my nose, I detected battery acid and a hint of coffee.
“Hallelujah!” I shouted. “The Bel-Mar blade is home!”
Mumma and Fletch erupted in laughter over something Belle said.
Carrying the sealed box in front of me like a sacred relic, I followed them inside so we could open it together, but Belle had already whipped out her phone and was showing Mumma and Fletch pictures of her glam life.
“Look at Troy’s catamaran!” Mumma exclaimed. “It must be—”
“—yes, Mumma, sixty feet!” Belle beamed. “We hire a private yacht chef when we go to the Bahamas.”
I studied Fletch to see if he was impressed. He seemed genuinely interested, holding Belle’s little dog, petting its head, leaning over Mumma to see the pictures.
“Maren, please put dinner on,” Mumma said. “Get out the good china, and how ’bout you fry up those oysters you shucked yesterday?”
Banished to the kitchen, I resented Mumma for not even looking at me from her wheelchair throne. Waiting for the grease in the frypan to heat, I strained to overhear their conversation.
Mumma, Fletch, and I stopped eating meals together after Belle left. As we took our former seats, Mumma reached for our hands. With a bowed head, she raised her eyes to Fletch, who said the fisherman’s prayer for the first time in eight years.
After everyone served themselves, Belle got to the point. “So what are we going to do with the Bel-Mar blade? Troy knows somebody who wants to buy it for ten thousand dollars.”
“It’s not for sale,” I said, my eyes searching Fletch’s for assurance. “It’s going to be the main attraction of my museum.”
“Ten thousand dollars?” Mumma whistled through her teeth.
“I don’t know if we should sell it,” Fletch said. “The Bel-Mar blade has always brought us good luck. See how it answered our prayers?” He and Mumma beamed at Belle.
Tilting her head back to poke an oyster into her surprisingly small mouth, Belle said, “We need to sell the blade while the alternative theory is hot, if you know what I mean.” A stream of oyster juice squirted across the table as she bit down.
“That’s disgusting, Belle,” I cried. “You’re proud of the fact that Troy and his friends are White supremacists?”
“I didn’t say proud. I said we should sell it to them while they’re interested. I might be able to get them to go up to fifteen thousand if we had another bidder. How much will the Smithsonian give us?”
“Nothing,” Fletch said. “The know-it-alls in Washington can only take stuff that’s donated.”
“Who cares what race arrived here first?” Mumma said. “They were all cavemen.”
“Paleo-Indians,” I corrected.
“Well, I’m trying to launch my leggings business, and I could use some start-up cash,” Belle said.
We all stopped chewing.
She burst into tears, putting her forehead on the table so we couldn’t see her face. “Troy’s in jail, arrested for drug smuggling. All of his bank accounts are frozen. Go on, tell me you told me so.”
After a brief pause Mumma said, “That’s wonderful news! You can get your job back at the marina.”
“What?” I felt like I was going crazy. “That’s my job now. You think I should give it back after all these years because her husband’s in jail?”
“Relax, Maren,” Belle said, blowing her nose into her cloth napkin. “I don’t want that stupid job back. I want to sell the Bel-Mar blade so I can use my half to get my leggings business off the ground. I need five thousand dollars for my inventory and marketing materials.”
“Sounds like a pyramid scheme,” Fletch muttered.
“The leggings are cute,” Mumma said, already wearing a pair.
“No way.” I turned to Fletch. “I finally get a chance to do something with my life besides wait on Mumma, and just as I’m about to open my waterfront museum, Belle shows up wanting to sell my exhibit?” I left the table with the Smithsonian box tucked under my elbow, dropped my plate in the sink, and slammed out the kitchen door to be alone on the dock.
The yolk-like September sun was sinking behind pine trees across the creek. I texted Polly: “Really need to see you. Can I come over?”
“Maybe after the ladies sorting clothes for the fall fair go home.”
Mosquitos feasted on my ankles as I composed a text to Polly, telling her how much I hated the way she treated me. When the last of the yolk drained away, Belle snuck up from behind and lifted me in the air again. “Who’s Polly? Your girlfriend?”
“None of your business.”
“Have you come out to Mumma and Fletch yet?”
I started to deny I was gay out of habit, then gave up. “If you must know, we can’t tell anyone because Polly’s afraid she’ll lose her pastor job.”
She raised an eyebrow before changing the subject. “Let’s see your museum.” Belle threw open one of the two doors to Fletch’s boathouse.
I turned on the overhead light and followed her to the wooden case Fletch and I made to display our projectile when it returned from Washington.
“Looks like a coffin for a baby,” she said.
“Visitors will enter the museum over there.” I pointed to the opposite corner. “They’ll start the tour by boarding the Bel-Mar’s bow. When they step off at the stern, they’ll wait in line to see the skull behind the curtain in that corner. Then they’ll follow this rope barrier to take turns viewing the main exhibit in this case, exiting by the door we just came in.”
“No gift shop?” She cracked herself up. “I bet I could sell your visitors some leggings.”
Insulted, I walked over to the light switch, threatening to leave her alone in the dark.
A wave of excitement came over Belle’s piggy face. “I’ve got it. We’ll sell the Bel-Mar blade and make a replica for your exhibit—Troy knows a guy who can make anything.”
“Nice try, Belle. We’re not going to sell the Bel-Mar blade.”
“Who would know the difference?”
“I’ll know the difference,” I said. “I can’t knowingly display a fake artifact.”
“Why not?” Belle asked, lighting a cigarette. “Aren’t you living a lie by not telling Mumma and Fletch you’re gay?”
“Go outside to smoke,” I yelled, pushing her big butt out the door.
I expected her to shove her way back in or come around to the other door. Instead she beelined up the hill, on fire with purpose. My panic surged. I feared she was either going to out me to Mumma and Fletch or convince them to sell the Bel-Mar blade, promising to give me a replica for my museum. Maybe both. Mumma and Fletch—so thrilled to have her home—wouldn’t dare cross her again.
I imagined what it would feel like to hurl the Bel-Mar blade as far as I could into the creek, letting it settle among the fossils buried in the eel grass for another thousand years so neither of us could have it. Using my Swiss army knife, I broke the seal on the Smithsonian box, pried the top off, and read the letter of authentication. My fingertips measured the blade’s familiar weight. Balancing it by the ends, I held it under the light to confirm that half was darker from being buried in the mastodon skull and the other half was lighter from Belle and me rubbing it for good luck. Satisfied it was no fake, I opened the display case and placed the Bel‑Mar blade on the black velvet cushion. After rubbing the light end one more time, I closed the case.
When I turned off the boathouse light, bioluminescent algae glowed green around the Bel-Mar’s stern as water lapped against the barnacle-covered pilings.
Staring into the water, I dredged up a fragment of hope. With Belle home to care for Mumma, I wasn’t stuck anymore.
I checked my wallet to see if I still had the archeologist’s card. Before I could change my mind, I texted Polly to break it off.
My headlights illuminated the curve at the cemetery. With laser focus on the road ahead, I slowed way down, tightening my grip on the wheel. No way was I going to slip into that ditch.
About the Author:
Bronwyn Hughes is a certified public accountant who recently completed her MFA in creative writing from Randolph College. She enjoys beekeeping and boating on the many creeks and rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay. Bronwyn lives in Tidewater, VA, with her partner and a Maine coon cat. Her work has appeared in Atherton Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Evening Street Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and Sinister Wisdom. Find her on Twitter: @HughesBronwynY1
Feature image by Prawny / Pixabay