after Brian May
On the day we buried my mother, our shovels uncovered another coffin as their tips kissed the ground. Pausing, we cast aside our sand-crusted supplies until we’d identified the obstruction: it was a jewelry box, in the style that was popular when my mother was a little girl. I thought it was an animal’s heart when I first saw it in my brother’s palm: preserved somehow; salted with earth. Then my brother brushed it clean and the veins and arteries became intricate designs raised in mahogany. Reality ensued once more.
We worked until sundown. Once one box had been swapped for another, and my mother found her resting place where sand became clay, my brothers and their sons and cousins clambered into her home to find out what we’d uncovered. Who had our mother buried long ago? In the kitchen we grew up in, we passed around the jewelry box, taking turns jiggling and pounding until its mouth creaked open. Inside were wilted envelopes addressed to a name we didn’t yet know was my father’s. We grappled over the letters, our skin still crisp with sea salt and dried sweat, and pored over every one.
Darling, you won’t remember this, being only a bulge in my belly. At the time, you gave me trouble enough by convincing my brothers that I lacked the strength to sweat, but not enough trouble to truly cause me pain. Still, my brothers hid me behind broad shoulders and bronze arms as if anticipating a swoon. In reality, your Uncle Ian collapsed that day. Seventeen and suffering from a heat-induced asthma attack, we rushed him inside, where he watched silently that evening as we quarreled over the contents of the capsule. Your uncle memorized our expressions as we pieced the notes together, my brothers’ heads swiveling one by one toward the yellow-eyed anomaly who was their half-sister. No one knew where this phenotype came from until now. No one saw Ian swipe the last unopened letter until he’d read it and announced, “Your father’s coming back soon.”
Daughter, we’re still waiting for “soon.” But by then, my children and your children will have moved far away from our house on the sand. The graves of your uncles will decorate lands far away. When you were young, you always marveled at how big the beach was—how it covered everything. How it dared to shake hands with the all-consuming sea and sky. This was before you knew the word “vast.” But vastness doesn’t cover that month you lived alone, after I was gone: surrounded by nothing and everything, an infinite hourglass that had run out of time.
A month after you bury me, the man returns, ninety-nine years late. He looks exactly as I described to you when I repurposed Grandmother’s letters as bedtime stories: a starry-eyed adventurer with black hair curled like comets’ tails, skin browned beneath generations of sun. His arms were built for lifting daughters, for driving shovels and flagstaffs into the ground. He could have been a sailor if his head wasn’t so in the clouds. You’ve forgotten all of these stories by now, but there is one thing you remember. Where had you last seen his golden eyes? They tug at your subconscious until you realize those eyes were mine.
The guilt that floods you, every posthumous apology, reaches me. But I know you did not mean to forget me. Do not pity me, darling. Let him tell you his name.
Your visitor introduces himself as a returned volunteer. He calls himself June. On the doorstep he describes his departure and his explorations of a new planet: Earth-like and empty, yet dripping with potential; the womb of a wonderful new world. Then he recounts his disorienting return. June apologizes profusely for his overdue homecoming—for the past few weeks, he’d stumbled through this alien century searching desperately for dead loved ones while time scolded him to hurry on.
June’s story jiggles your memory like a loose tooth that easily uproots. You cry out and you fall to your knees and he has you in his arms and that’s how he knows he has knocked at the right door. He has been knocking on many doors, trying to find who he could have called family; if he’d found the right door just a bit earlier, he could have caught me alive. You can’t believe that this young man is your grandfather, strong and spry with the pigment not yet faded from his skin and his hair. He looks like his name: vibrant and soaked in glorious sun.
After you’ve recovered, you invite June inside for tea. But it’s too hot for hot drinks, and both cups end up untouched at the center of the kitchen table. Instead, the man who looks like your grandson stares hollow-eyed about the house as if searching for the ghost of his lover. His gaze caresses the rare items he remembers in her hands, though by now they’ve shriveled with age—the wilted books, the sagging scarf, the vase still clinging to its old paint.
You don’t want to seem rude, so you ask June about his travels. Is Mercury quite as marvelous in person? Is the Milky Way quite as splendid? Did you fly past a black hole? Did you truly experience, in place of a century, one hundred days? Your grandfather patiently answers every one, his nimble fingers searching your knuckles for the woman that would have been his wife. You don’t have the heart to tell him that she’s bones beneath the sand. You wait until he says it himself; murmurs, “She’s gone, isn’t she?” and runs his young hand over your sun-dappled skin when you nod. He closes his eyes, chest stuttering as if your confirmation had sucked away the air. “But I’m glad I was able to meet you once again.”
“I’ve never met you,” you frown.
“You may not remember, but you have.” Your grandfather grips your hand and when he meets your eyes, the déjà vu overwhelms you again. He looks at you the way I looked at you long ago; the way a father may look at his girl. That’s when you realize that he’s skipped a generation in his desperation for somebody to love. Oh, darling. He’s mistaken you for me.
Any man removed of grief could have done the calculations in his head; known that the infant he’d left in his lover’s arms one hundred years ago will have been a centenarian, or buried, by then. Believe me, daughter, I’ve lived the longest life I could, but I am not a sun. But June did not know that his baby had great-grandchildren now. “Your eyes.” Your grandfather, who thinks he is your father, smiles as he cups your cheek in his hand. “She gave you her eyes, didn’t she? I remember them so clearly. Do you?”
You cannot bring yourself to tell him that you do not know. That the only people who would know were dead; that the woman he was soon to marry bore him one yellow-eyed daughter before she gave up waiting for him to come home. You cannot bring yourself to tell him about your uncles, all the sons she had without him, all the joyously unknowing generations she’d raised once she’d pruned him from the family tree—how she loved you. How she erased your name. You cannot bring yourself to tell the delicate volunteer that his lover had tucked every proof of his existence into a palm-sized box and left it forgotten under decades of sand.
Later, you will show him out back. He will marvel at how gray the sand has become since he last saw it but you will tell him that this is all you remember. Gray sky, gray sea, gray home, gray hair that plagued everybody you loved in those final years before they plunged you into solitude. And then you will show him my grave. I’m not your daughter, you will say, your daughter is here. As if those hundred years had finally, finally hammered onto his shoulders, June will hunch over like the old man he should have been. You will fear that he would break, or worse, that he would leave you alone. So for now you nod. And you nod. And crumple and cling to his hands, both of you crying for his baby girl—
—Oh, my daughter. My father. How I wish I could be holding you both.