My heels clack across the belt of mosaic floor. Mid-stride, I stop to look at the chips of beer bottles fitted cheek by jowl in an unintelligible pattern: plaided browns and green interjecting parabolas filled in with clear glass. Grey barnacles acne some of the pieces, they must have been in the ocean. How? A beer bottle is never intended to end up in a mosaic, and definitely not in a gallery. Iʼve skipped therapy and come here to consider the art, but itʼs all I can think. There is something to be said about this floor, about how these bottles came here from another life.
It’s not far-fetched. Oceans have a way of swallowing men and man-made things, it happens: amber tesserae found on a Florida beach can hail from a modern Milwaukee brewery and end up in highbrow contexts.
Largely sea glass is sickly emerald and sepia colored glass from beer bottles, otherwise ceramics of ambiguous origin. Terra cotta shingles, even good china broken many times over. The oldest pieces are frosted, younger pieces manifest stamps and glazes and should be thrown back.
In your hand, a dazzling huddle of sea glass will rear its head, swearing, “I am treasure, I am treasure.” You look until you believe in the mantra. The glass holds your gaze, you wonder about its biography. Where did it come from? Where has it been? Sea glass smiles widely, its glossy tight lips regret to inform you, you cannot know.
Summers as a girl, I paced the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico with a mason jar. There were hours and hours spent, head bowed over sand, picking glass out from the seashore. Blips from those summers are so well remembered — sharp like young spangles of sea glass — but the whole of the island, as it was then, I can only piece together in cubist blocks.
Sanibel Island is different now, anyway. Most of the agreeable trashiness was run out by classy establishment. The mom-and-pop stores became boutiques. The funky bungalows were bought up and demolished, condos and mansions erected in their stead. Miles of the beach were privatized, developed as plages.
Not everything has changed: The island still sticks out like a sore thumb into the Gulf, and thanks to this perpendicular relationship to the ocean currents, Sanibel is the shell capital of the world. The same tropical light show occurs every evening: a neon orb sinking southward through a grenadine and honey sky and, as the finale, scuttled beneath the horizon. Every morning, the star returns to the limelight.
Eagles continue to roost in the highest tree peaks; they raise their families on the new architectural ledges. The sun still can be counted on to bronze your flesh, and the no-see-emʼs to feast insatiably on it; except itʼs blue-blood they are drinking now. Only the greater number of hermit crabs have left.
Grand-mère lived on the small island in the Sunshine State. Her front yard was bestrewn with kitschy lawn gnomes and plastic flamingos, balancing expertly like ballerinas on one leg. At dusk, the hot pink birds could be mistaken for the esteemed roseate spoonbill that inhabits the island. The rear of the house faced the ocean, where a hedge of sea grapevine fronted low hips of sand, splitting the green yard from the ecru beach.
She didnʼt allow me to call her grandmother, in English or French. I called her by her name. Dianne, not like the sentence, “Die, Anne,” like Dianne Arbus, with a short i. Nothing could unseat the importance of oral tradition to a Seychelles woman. Even the realities of a twentieth-century family, its members disbanded throughout continental American, besides internationally in Seychelles, could not thwart what she perceived as the duty of grandmothers. She called long-distanced to tell me a bedtime story.
On insomniac nights, I return to the story. We grew up together, I know its plot, it knows the natural color of my hair; I know its adjectives and it knows the story behind my every scar. Along the way, it became what I describe with equal accuracy as either an allegorical autobiography or a psychedelic bildungsroman. It became the story of my life. At night, I can hear the virgin story in Dianneʼs own voice, accented and satin, doling sentences in poised tempos.
Like trinkets in a curio cabinet, she arranged her words. For spice, she took the perfect verb down from its shelf ̶ bubbly verbs for action, leaden ones for dramatic delivery and open mouths. She garnished with adjectives. And for color, Dianne substituted saffron for orange; used azure in lieu of blue; specified sea foam green; “red, like your motherʼs lipstick”; periwinkle.
Why use threadbare words when you could by very beautiful? so sheʼd say.
But Shakespeare said, A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, I had retorted.
Shakespeare! Shakespeare was being a hypocrite, he always used the best word.
Nessa, my gnomes are coast guards. The lawn gnomes ride my flamingos down to the beach. In pointed red hats, they guard the procession of infant turtles, as they trickle to the ocean of melted sapphires. They block the seagulls’ sorties, and check the ghost crabs. Wayward turtle babies are rotated by degrees. Rerouted, they make beelines for the ocean. The gnomes’ cheeks flush with happiness for every turtle folded into the blue sheets, and coral-colored feathers bristle with a job well-done. After the last of the hatchlings are safe, they brew pineapple cider over the fiery tresses of petite bonfires and toast, “Reptiles, live long; smiles live longer still!” They break out fiddles whose bows are strung with mermaid hair and triangles bent from the metals of sunken ships; they dance a jig around the flames. If you were there to bear witness to it, you might cry, or perhaps you’d laugh, because it’s spiritual. Maybe you do both at the same time, your tears would drip into your mouth and shock your tongue with their saltiness. The gnomes eat orange slices wrapped in mint leaves looted from the garden. So, when you wake up to barren orange trees, I’ve not been making juice, the gnomes just needed to refresh themselves. Only people with dead imaginations cannot see this.
Dianne adapted the story to my needs. It waxed didactic, tickled, or she steeped it in psychology. Once I wet the bed at an embarrassing age, and Felix the gnome had an accident from drinking cider before bed. Another gnome came to us shortly before my first day at a new school. Leopold graced us via Fed-X from the Midwest having never seen an ocean. Dianne worried it would handicap Leopoldʼs assimilation, but the others embraced him immediately. On his maiden watch, he single-handedly delivered three sidetracked turtles from certain deaths.
Were the others proud, Dianne?
Oui, très fier. You should have seen him go.
Leo went on to become the flamingos’ exclusive vet.
After several months, I shuttered during our embrace. Dianneʼs skeleton was salient; bulging navy and eggplant veins showed through her skin like a houseʼs wiring. She looked knowingly at me, believing I was oblivious, but watched her studying me from the corner of my eye. Fearing she would not wake, I begged her not to sleep. When she did, I compulsively leaned over her until I felt a definite humid exhalation.
Soon she told me that one of the gnomes, Jeremy, had been walking by the seashore and found a sand piper with a broken neck.
It was on the brink of death, she reported. He scooped the fluffy bird up and watched the life leak out of its eyes.
So, it died?
Oui. After it died, he walked off the beach with it. He left the body by an ant hill.
I started to protest.
Non, Nessa! There was nothing else to do.
She passed smiling weakly on an otherwise mediocre afternoon, bespeaking serial “Je t’aime, au revoir’s.” On the eve of her death, the gnomes and flamingos went away.
I was thirteen. Iʼd learnt to distinguish between ʻrealʼ and ʻpretend,ʼ I knew what a lie was, and knew already to take the world with a grain of salt. I had mastered sarcasm, acquired cynicism, and shed several downy layers of naiveté under which I found the winking black sequins of dark humor, and what turned out to be the premature stubble of disenchantment, what would later ripen to jadedness. The loss of mermaids, Santa Claus, and the gnomes preceded my disbelief in angels and gods.
I was growing up, but that day I threw a tantrum and acted like a child. Dianne told me the gnomes left for South America. A letter came from Ecuador — green sea turtles needed assistance– they went. She tried to soothe me, saying, Don’t worry, the gnomes are well. You know them, they will be fluent in Spanish by next Tuesday.
It is possible to trace my maturation using the gnomesʼ story as a springboard. Itʼs a map of me. Unconsciously, I have edited it to parallel my moods, phases, and touchstones. I have added and subtracted until the revisions reflect my history, till my x coordinates correspond with their y coordinates at sharp right angles. I have projected onto the gnomes so that their world is contingent on mine. We are too kindred to ever go separate ways, our lives are irrevocably synched.
When I streaked my hair with magenta in high school, the flamingos concomitantly debuted with spiked collars and matching nonchalance. At the nadir of my adolescent despair, in conjunction with the height of orange blossom season, Jeremy wove a daisy chain and hanged himself from a branch especially hung with flowerets. The gnomes graduated from mint leaves to marijuana while I was away at college. Leo became a full-blown junkie and Felix started popping pills.
I overheard them once, rehearsing old days while they got their respective fixes.
We doubled the survival-rate, Leopold betted.
You saved several on your first day out. Felix spilled out a Xanax bar from a vitamin bottle, You were riding a high horse.
No, I was on top of the world.
Felix swallowed the xannie, laughing. That time, we thought weʼd gotten emʼall. But Jeremy caught sight of straggler and a mean gull diving…
Oh, Jeremy decked that sonʼa vaʼbitch in the nick of time! He was grinning ear to ear when he dropped the hatchie in the water.
Grinning, though heʼd broke his knuckles!
Even though! Dammit, Jeremy.
Yeah man. I miss him. And their eyes sparkled in memory, with tears and the influence of drugs.
The gnomes’ PG, storybook immaculateness had waned over time. First, grungy salt and pepper dreadlocks began to poke out from beneath flaccid hats, then leathered faces eclipsed the rosy cheeks. They are shabby now, but still winsome. Though their smiles are stained yellow, they are wide and real. They seem taller, more ordinarily human, more like the scruffy retired fishermen of Key West.
They are not the same do-gooders I used to think of them as. When a hatchling is preyed upon, they do not weep, but they care, in the low-pitched sorrow of Peace Corps volunteers, partially numb after all they have seen. At times the blues take hold, and they go through the motions, but those vigils are perfunctory. They cannot help but think that most of the hatchies wonʼt make it anyway.
Resignation slinks into my bedroom too, and smothers my optimism. We sit together in our ruts with lukewarm ambition, wait for hope to show her face and prod us on again with staling slogans. Don’t give up. And, Every little bit counts.
Later, after Iʼd become a photojournalist, I began to see the gnomes. They turned up amongst street children in Thailand, and in Bedouin camps in former Mesopotamia. In Moscow in May of 1986 they sat in a loge at a ballet adaptation of Anna Karenina. The stage light threw their silhouettes against the wall, a sharp headed row like wrought iron arrows, they had starched their hats for the occasion.
There are traces; fleeting intuitions that cause my hair to stand up in a salute to their proximity. Clues: a red conical shape cut off on the periphery of one photograph; an elfin hand extending from a dingy royal blue cuff, also out of place. I catch glimpses in urban crowds that leave me spinning. There are shadows. They are staying abreast of my life.
Recently, I met a clique of backpackers in Scandinavia while working on a study shoot on informal travel. Theyʼd brought a garden gnome with them, involving him in their pictures they said, Like in Amelie and Travelocity. I know a couple of roaming gnomes myself, I said, and they didnʼt understand but laughed politely.
Kneeling, I run the pads of my fingers over the mosaic floor, plaided browns and green interjecting parabolas filled in with clear glass, rough tongues wagging. I am treasure, I am treasure. I wonder what happened to my mason jars. What happened to those jars, stuffed with glass? I feel a tug, taking me.
I am there, by the knot of mangroves Iʼve built a sandcastle, and crowned the biggest, least prepossessing hermit crab King; the one with most attractive shell is Queen. Nearby an anhinga airs out, its wings splayed like hand fans. At her front door then, and it opens— gliding through the doorway and the sunlight slips off from my shoulder tops. My head swivels in the direction of her brass birds, the annoying paisley wallpaper in the kitchen, the crystal doorknob that leads to Dianneʼs room, the backyard and the beach and the eternal watery tumble beyond it. The flamingos look up from preening; in their background the gnomes smile with readable eyes that say, Weʼve missed you too. Come back to Sanibel.
Tonight in Las Bachas, the turtles hatched and began a new generation. The gnomes rode out and saw them home.