selected for publication by Robin Marie MacArthur

Orderly trunks of maritime pine forest plummet to marsh grass and beach sky where the narrow double lane becomes the Dauphin Island bridge. A brown pelican glides outside the car window as I coast onto the island proper, guiding me to this first Thanksgiving at Mama’s without Mama. Lump crab meat, an onion, oil and vinegar, everything to make her West Indies salad is loaded in a cooler on the floorboard. I don’t know about the rest of my family, but if I eat nothing else this Thanksgiving, I will eat this crab salad.

When my brother Wayne, a mulligan of a man, opens the front door to the family beach house, his red beard is muted by a new overlay of gray. He wears a linen button-down like some would-be yachtsman instead of the owner of a local employment agency where I suspect he met Samantha, wife number four, when she applied for temporary work. I did not make their June wedding, claiming car trouble, but suffered through the reception seated by Samantha’s attentive and odiferous uncle dressed in a wool suit.

“Nice and toasty here for Thanksgiving, huh?” I push past Wayne into the air-conditioned chill and peer down the hall to see if he has claimed Mama’s bedroom for himself and his child bride.

“Well, hello to you too, Brynn. What brings you to the neighborhood?”

I sock him in the arm, then wish I hadn’t when my knuckles ache.

“Did you get here at the crack of dawn, little brother?”

Mama’s bedroom door opens. Samantha leans out and waves. Her auburn hair is piled in a messy bun, and her lotioned legs peek out from under Mama’s teal robe. “Hi, Brynn.”

I pivot to the picture windows overlooking the bayside. Halfway between the beach and the house, past the glinting tide pool, a child’s yellow shovel marks a warning in the sand.

“She is wearing Mama’s robe.” I try to sound mellow.

“It’s okay, Brynn. Mama liked Samantha.”

“I’m pretty sure Mama liked all of your wives at first.”

Wayne starts for the stairs with my bags in hand.

“Lela Ann here yet?”


I snatch my camera and spotting scope from Wayne’s shoulder. I don’t want him whacking it against the railing on the way up.

“I’ll take Bayside, then.”

“How’s your birdy-gig, sis?” Wayne asks, dropping my bags inside the bedroom door.

“I call it my bird photography career, thank you, and it pays the bills. And you, how’s the agency?”

“I picked up a couple of new contracts so business is booming, and Samantha’s a big help.”

“Knows all about short term jobs, huh?”

“Uh, uh,” Wayne wags a finger my way. “Play nice, Brynn. You know that’s what Mama would want. I’ll see you for Bloody Marys.” He closes the door.

Alone at the window, my window, witness to all my firsts: rush of motherhood, loss of Dad, love of birds, I set up the spotting scope and focus on the tidepool, a permanent fixture since hurricane Katrina. There a great blue heron rocks a slow, inquisitive gait, eying the water. I scan the shore for the reddish egret, a coveted life list bird, with a shaggy auburn head and clever sun and shade hunting dance. On the tail of the island, seagulls and terns face the stuttering waves. They are buffeted by the wind, but resolute, enduring. I breathe into their strength as the crunch of car tires on gravel announces my sister’s arrival. Lela Ann and Wayne caw over each other in the front hall, as if he doesn’t remember this is the sister who tricked him out of Daddy’s pocket watch, the one who wants everything for herself. My siblings whisper, plotting how to deal with a Brynn bomb. I cap the scope.           

Lela Ann swoops into my room uninvited. She spins around in a shell pink flax dress. A silk shawl drifts behind her stirring a chemical perfume trail.

“Brynn. Sugar. Did you get the bedroom you wanted? You could have had the Gulf.”

She air kisses both of my cheeks.

“Every time, Lela Ann, must we go through it? I don’t want your room.” A lifetime of summers and holidays in this house, yet no matter how many times I explain the difference, she still calls the tern a seagull. “Let’s check the birds from your window.”

In the hallway, Lela Ann stumbles into a small table, rocking a bowl of sand dollars and moon snail shells. I put an arm around her waist.

“What’s going on with you?” She’s damp with heat and her face is flushed as if she’s been running—something she hasn’t done since high school. I guide her to the bed.

“My medicine,” she points to a pearlized leather handbag. “Would you?”

I dump the contents on the dresser and try not to ponder what would happen if Lela Ann died before Mama’s will came through. How I would always have the spotting scope up and only leave for monthly supply runs. How I would win the campaign to spay and neuter the songbird-eating stray cats that roam this island. How I would guard the shorebird nests during nesting season.

“Good grief, Lelee.” I hold out the five medicine bottles that tumbled from the bag. “How many pills are you taking?”

With the biggest bottle in hand, she gestures for me to put the rest back.

“I’ll be fine.” She shakes out a large square pill. “This is just my version of menopause.”

Mine must be my bird obsession.

I’m tracking a black skimmer hunting impossibly close to the surface of the water when Wayne rings the dinner bell, a tradition that only he loves. Lela Ann opens the door to her bedroom and leans lightly against the door jamb looking poised and pressed, the old Lela Ann.

“Isn’t he charming.”

“Just so.” She leads the way down the carpeted stairs.

“There they are,” Wayne hollers, foisting a meal-sized Bloody Mary.

I wave my hands over my head, speaking loud and slow. “Why are you yelling, Wayne? We can hear you just fine.”

Lela Ann kisses him on the cheek and takes her drink. “Thank you, darling.”

Wayne thrusts a Bloody Mary into my hand. A skewer of stuffed olives and cocktail shrimp with a strip of bacon extends at least four inches out of the glass. He gestures towards the kitchen island.

“And fried green tomatoes. My Samantha whipped up the remoulade sauce herself. I’m the luckiest man.” He stoops to kiss the top of her head.

“Hey, how’s Olivia?”

“She’s coming. Probably with her boyfriend, Lando.” My mouth burns with the perfect level of spice.

“True love?” Wayne asks.

Lando, Olivia’s round, looming boyfriend who likes to wear pink, will doubtless ask to stay for dinner.

“I hope not.”

Through the picture windows, I spot a shrimp boat stitching along the horizon.

A family walks east along the shore. The boy tosses potato chips while a squabble of seagulls trail behind him like a bouquet of kites.

“Hey, did I tell you that Samantha is taking culinary classes?” Wayne rubs his hands together. “And do we have a Thanksgiving surprise for y’all!”

Lela Ann plucks a seeded flatbread from the tray and carefully coats it with homemade pimento cheese. She winks at Samantha.

“I hope you’re pregnant.”

Samantha waves the question away and indeed her lithe yoga body does not have even the hint of a belly. Four marriages for Wayne and no kids, except the ones he marries.

“We brought a turkey,” she gives Wayne a side hug. “But honey, I think he would make a better pet.”

The front door slams.

“Hey, Mom!” It’s Olivia. “Why is there a turkey in a cage under the porch?”

I kiss Olivia on her cheek and give her a quick hug. She’s so light since she went vegan this summer. I’ll bet she lost ten pounds she didn’t have to spare.

“Aren’t you going to greet your family?” I resist the urge to finger comb her messy hair.

“Hi, Ms. Brynn,” Lando says. He holds up a bag of corn chips and a bottle of Crystal hot sauce. “I brought snacks.”

“Are you ever without a snack?” I eye the pink madras shirt stretched across his belly.

“Mom,” Olivia grabs my hand and pulls me away from Lando, “what is going on with the turkey?”

“Go talk to your Uncle Wayne.” I point her towards the kitchen, then pick up a pink duffle bag with a green “L” embroidered on the front. “Is this your bag, Lando?” He nods. His mouth is full, and he offers me a doused corn chip. I miss real sleepovers with matching pajamas and a gaggle of Olivia’s girlfriends.

After Lela Ann’s gumbo and cornbread dinner, Wayne and Samantha laugh and chat at the bar, mixing drinks for our sunset beach walk. Lando and Olivia are piled together like puppies on the screened porch, and I’m flying solo at the sink. While talking on the phone with her husband, Charles, Lela Ann paces the length of the dining table and back. I may envy her easy life but not that hollow marriage. When my ex-husband left in a VW Bus with his hairstylist, I said good riddance though it meant Olivia lacked a dad growing up. I didn’t stop him from coming to see her. He just didn’t.

“Charles is not coming.” Lela Ann joins me at the sink to dry soup bowls.

“Why do you put up with that?” I ask, though my suspicion is that she can’t stand to be rid of his surgeon’s pay.

She carefully sets another dry soup bowl on the stack. “What?”

“His cheating,” I study her pale green eyes framed in tortoise shell glasses.

Lela Ann shrugs her shoulders and breathes out a quick huff.

“We’ll see how she holds up to a Thanksgiving full of surgery tales.” She folds the kitchen towel. “Now, I want to know. Are you going to help Wayne kill that turkey?”

Hot toddies in hand, we take the stairs to the porch beneath the house where the Thanksgiving turkey waits in a wire kennel. He is the color of burnished chestnut with white tail feathers and wingtips and a vibrant red wattle and snood—a bourbon red. I photographed one for a local farm a couple of years ago. The survival of the heritage breeds depends on the market demand for their meat.

“Who gets front row seats?” I ask. Wayne has already strung the turkey hanging wire between the columns opposite the porch swing. A fryer, a blow torch, and a bag of safety glasses are piled under the stairwell nearby.

Olivia appears beside Wayne.

“Uncle Wayne promised me he won’t hurt this bird,” she says. She’s wearing a yellow T-shirt with a cartoon turkey flashing a peace sign that says Happy Tofurkey Day.

“That’s right.” Wayne puts his arm across Olivia’s thin shoulders.

I shake my head.

“Oh yeah. I read that wikiHow on turkey butchering this afternoon. They don’t feel a thing. Just hang them upside down on a wire like this”—I pluck the stretched wire—”and razor the carotid.”

Olivia ducks out from under Wayne’s arm and runs towards the beach.

“Baby,” Lando yells. He kicks off his pink slides and runs after her. “Wait up.”

Wayne tosses an eroded shell into the tide pool ahead. Minnows nip the surface where water bugs dance. Drag lines with scratches on either side cut across the sandy edge—alligator tracks.

“Way to go, Brynn.”

“Dammit Wayne, this one is on you.” I jab a finger at him. “You’re the one who brought us a butcher job on this first Thanksgiving without Mama.”

He jerks to a stop next to the tide pool as if he has just remembered she’s gone. Bubbles rise in a deliberate stream from below. Alligators can leap the length of their body. I’m shaken by a chill. Samantha loops her arm around Wayne’s and steers him to the shoreline. Lela Ann grabs my hand, pulls me away from that dark pool.

“You don’t have to make people miserable just because you miss Mama,” Lela Ann says. Whenever I think she doesn’t know me, she’s looking right through me.

Three brown pelicans wing low over the orange-tipped waves of the Mississippi Sound, flying towards the setting sun. A ghost crab side steps ahead of the tide back to its hole. I know who I am in this place: beach glass with indelible edges.

“I’m sorry your husband treats you like trash.” I watch a couple kayaking towards the West End. Dolphins crest and glisten ahead and beside them.

“Hush that now.” She drops my arm.

“I know he’s cheated on you for years, and that your son never comes home to see you.”

“You don’t know when to quit, you idiot.” Lela Ann dumps her drink in the sand and turns back to the house, spooking a great blue heron that is gliding to the tide pool. I pinch myself hard enough on the forearm to raise a welt. Wayne gives me the what’s-up-shoulder-shrug. I shake my head and pretend to wring my own neck.

The house is asleep. Out the picture window, the gibbous moon throws enough light that the water looks like a shimmering blanket unfurling over an immense bed. Maybe the yellow-crowned night heron is fishing in the tide pool. I’ve just made Mama’s West Indies salad: lump crabmeat, chopped onion, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, ice water, a little salt. It needs time to marinate. I wait in the dark.

Footsteps clip the stairs. I peek over the recliner-back to see Olivia wearing an oversized T-shirt, probably Lando’s. She doesn’t notice me. The door opens to the downstairs porch and she descends. When she returns several minutes later, her breath is heavy. Has she taken up smoking? She climbs the stairs to the bunkroom she shares with Lando. I didn’t want him to spend the night, but I offended everyone, so I said as long as the door stays open he can. Lando’s steady snores cover her return.

Wayne, Samantha, and I sit on the screened porch drinking drip coffee with half-and-half and Kahlua. It’s Thanksgiving morning. We watch shimmering bronze and brown turkey feathers whirl and dance on the beach just past the tide pool. The smaller breast feathers caught in sea oats wave like flags of surrender. A broad wing lies half on the shore and half on the surface of the tide pool, as if the turkey is escaping underwater.

“So much for my bourbon-pecan stuffed turkey.” Wayne pulls Samantha closer.

“I’m sorry,” I say again. “Had I known Olivia was setting the turkey free, I would have stopped her.” The gusting wind pushes a cloud of feathers further west. “She’s going to hate this.”

“Oh hell, it would have been a bloody mess anyway.”

“Mr. Tom would have made a great pet,” Samantha says.

Wayne nudges her in the ribs with his elbow. “Oh, you think so.” They lean their foreheads together and laugh.

Lela Ann, wrapped in a fluffy robe, joins us on the porch with a mug of coffee.

“Morning, Wayne. Looks like our turkey met his match.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t me. Someone we know,” Wayne makes quotation marks with his fingers, “set the turkey free and an alligator ate it.”

“You’re kidding.”


“Morning, Lela,” I raise a toast.

“I’m not talking to you.” She holds her hand out, blocking me from view.

“Fair enough.” I nestle down into the beach towel wrapped around my shoulders. A cold front has dropped the temperature another ten degrees in the last hour, ending a streak of hot fall days. Tough breaks for a cold-blooded alligator trying to digest a turkey.

Olivia appears below the porch. She walks stoically towards the tide pool, gathering feathers. The larger ones she cradles in one arm. Smaller feathers are tucked into her hair and shorts pockets. When she reaches the wing stretching from the tide pool, she buckles and collapses against Lando. I hear her weeping as Lando carries her out to the surf. Feathers float in his wake.

Lela Ann clears her throat. “I’m going to divorce Charles.” She swipes her hand across her forehead.

If only she meant it. I offer a spot of Kahlua, but she turns away.

“Come on, Lelee. What’s it going to take?”

“I don’t know, Brynn.” She looks over her tortoise rim glasses, before leaning back in her chair. “Why don’t you swim in the tide pool? Survive and you’re forgiven.”

“Just to be clear, you mean the tide pool where the alligator ate the turkey?”

A cool nod.

“Tough customer. Keep an eye out for me. I’m checking Mama’s salad on the way out.”

Vinegar slices the air as I stir Mama’s West Indies salad. The lump crab is fresh, flakey and white. My onions aren’t as finely diced as Mama’s, and I suspect I’ve added too much pepper.

“Add cayenne,” Mama said the last time I watched her make it. “A pinch will make it pop. Just remember that.”

I take a bite for courage and savor the heat.

Amy Patterson, a Texas native, has resided for the last decade in one of the most biodiverse areas in the United States—the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Her writing interests include a deep sense of nature. This is her first publication.

Guest Judge: Robin Marie MacArthur lives on the hillside farm where she was born in Southern Vermont. Her debut collection of short stories, HALF WILD, won the 2017 PEN New England Award for Fiction and was a finalist for both the New England Book Award and the Vermont Book Award. Her novel, HEART SPRING MOUNTAIN, was an IndieNext Selection and a finalist for the New England Book Award. Both of her books have been translated into French and published by Albin Michel. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing and has taught in many non-traditional settings including the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference and Orion Magazine. She is the founder and director of Word House, an emerging writing space in southern Vermont; her essays and stories have appeared in Orion Magazine, LitHub, Hunger Mountain, The Washington Post, Shenandoah, Alaska Quarterly, and on NPR.