Mothers in Relief Against a Skinny Peninsula

by Craig Epplin

1.

I watch them wade reverent into slight waves. They walk sideways, discreet and patient, extend a shore-side hand and tap the water’s surface: like calling a cat. They chide or coax their small daughters, offer floating devices, foam noodles or plastic rings filled with air.

These mothers have a light touch. Are they endless?

These women in relief against the fuzz, another always seeming to appear, stark outline over the horizon, a mother or mother’s sister arriving at the shore to preside over an existential struggle—a child squats in the water to pee, decides it’s easier to do standing up, then appears unsure, or another one screams and flails, afraid of drowning, her body racing to inhale.

The kids pant and roar. Their mothers attend to them with method, without concern.

The children grow calm: with time they are reptiles basking in a sun, indifferent.

2.

In the distance a boat is docking. It’s ferried people like me from the skinny peninsula to the island. The sun is high, watchful, and soon this beach will feel just slightly more crowded.

I squint and read the word Gestaş and recall that its second syllable, taş, means stone.

To my left, three women are arriving. They are draped in color and form—pink plaid, green and yellow leopard print, purple leaves and flowers. They drop their things and begin setting up their spot. The umbrella they’ve brought keeps wanting to lean, and suddenly I hear the exasperation of generational authority, a voice asking for that stone (taş) or for someone to use it to hammer the staff into the sand. The youngest woman obeys the order. Voices fluctuate, dancing along a crescendo.

The ferry is now in its place, roped to the dock. My gaze crosses a man I had observed before. He’s been playing with his children, splashing them with light, but now he’s absorbed in watching, like me, the arrival of the boat. He’s ready, also like me, to come to the rescue should anything go wrong.

I suddenly remember being a young boy and learning, through mimicry, to look closely, as if concerned, at cars.

3.

Anne (two syllables: an-ne)—the Turkish word for mother crisscrosses the sand. The smaller and more fragile the child, the more desperate or joyful their voice.

Some father is counting to three—dramatic, slow, like an emcee or ringmaster. He’s building anticipation before he tosses his bony, ligamented son into the air. He’ll land with a splash, his limbs in disarray, shrieks of hilarity. Somewhere in the parabola his body traces, he calls to his mother: Anne.

Look at me, he seems to say, or save me. A laugh becomes a hiccup.

To my right a girl comes running, her bikini top untied—Anne, she cries on repeat. Her mother widens her eyes in mock worry but keeps her conversation going as she ties the ties. She has her own mother on videochat. I know because when she called, the first word was Anne—uptalked, a confirmation her mother was there.

Her daughter bounds away and she scans the beach with her camera. When she passes me I smile, bashful, camera-shy, and repress a silly impulse to wave, say hi to my mom.

4.

The umbrella is installed.

The women laugh and smoke cigarettes. They tear pieces of bread and make sandwiches with cheese.

Their daughters splash and occasionally return, seeking and receiving nods of recognition.

5.

I watch the men and think—statues with bellies, celebrities with bellies. I touch my skin, continue. Hands resting on bellies or rubbing in slow circles. Bellies that inspire confidence and bellies that hang like dead meat. Bellies hard on the outside from drinking too much and bellies like gelatin from eating sweets. Hairy bellies, peach-fuzz bellies. Bellies inhaled and tucked in, bellies that breathe, an extra button undone.

The splashing man keeps splashing.

He has a routine—a barrage of water-slaps for thirty seconds until the kids are overwhelmed, then a look of surprise as if he’s remembered some crucial task left unfinished, then theatrical gestures of panic and resignation. I guess I’ll just have to swim back to Istanbul. He says something like that—I strain to understand and translate as best I can.

Then it’s the charade of leaving, of swimming away to complete his duties, though really he’s just hopping up and down and rotating his shoulders in the water.

The kids scream for him not to go. He pauses, considers, and comes back.

Then more splashing and the scene again. Many times, without variation. Someone on the shore, his wife I guess, smiles. He eventually comes back to the sand, flops down next to her. She rests her hand on his billowing torso.

*

Craig Epplin is a writer and professor who lives in Portland, Oregon, United States.