Mary and Tray

The north wind whips her shawl about her shoulders and the salt flecks lifted from the top curve of each wave nip at her face like tiny teeth. She pushes her hair from her eyes and scans the cliff face, looking for evidence of this winter’s work.

Out on the strand, splashing through rock pools, Tray lifts his head and sniffs and turns, all attention, curious, watching her move cautiously towards the latest fall of flinted chalk. Then the sideways scuttle of a crab catches his eye and he is lost in the moment, bounding and barking, sneezing as his eager muzzle catches nothing but a slap of brine.

Mary glances over at the noise, and smiles gently at her foolish dog, but the diversion is a momentary one. There is much else to see here, today. She knows this beach, these cliffs, the wide curve of bay, and the Golden Cap beyond, better than the patterns on her palm.

She was a child, the first time – the first find – here with her brother Joe, the year after father died. She wonders, now, what it was they sought to find, scrabbling amongst the broken boulders on the beach, so soon after they had put him in the earth.

An angel lay uncovered, so it seemed to them. Not pretty, like in the books at Sunday School. Its strange head twisted ungainly to one side, its wings unfeathered, and all impressed into the stone as though God has thrown it down with all His might.

She knows better know. Plesiosaur. That was its name. It never flew, but swam in oceans older than the one that beats against this beach. It crawled up onto an earlier sand to lay its eggs, a hard struggle and a fruitless labour, for an earlier cliff came down upon it, saving its body and its bones for Mary and Joe to wonder at, and the world in turn to ponder and discuss.

Mary Anning is an expert now. For a woman, quite regarded in her field. Of course she cannot lecture in the academies of Germany and France, and the London institutions are unable to admit her, but consult her on their latest finds. She hopes that America’s forward-thinking scientific societies may yet acknowledge her.

The cliff fall lies just ahead of her, but her sturdy brown boot slips on a stone and she lands sideways with a gasp. She lifts a gloved hand and winces at the sharp stab of pain when she turns her wrist, but then her eye is caught by a sweet curve in the hardened clay. A word she has read comes into her mind. Quetzalcoatl. At last, the winged lizard? She must be dizzy, surely. The Latin – that would be pterosaur. As she scrapes away to reveal more, the pain blanks her eyes, and then there is a face by hers, and a long nose pushing and nuzzling her back into the world.

“Tray.”

He barks encouragement. Silly dog.

When the wet chalk ledge shears clean away above them, neither hears, until it is too late.

The tide turns.

—-

It is high summer, and low tide. She walks with a limp now, as she supervises the excavation and the scientific drawings of the bird that lay within the rock. Now she can see it fully she imagines it soaring in lazy circles over the primeval swamps.

It gives her comfort. Nothing is ever gone, entirely. Father, now part of the rich, red, loamy Dorset soil. And Tray, a scrap of fur, and teeth, and doggy bones, settling down to sleep inside the white rock, for paleontologists, millennia ahead, to find and wonder at.

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One Response to “Mary and Tray”

  1. fayfran Says:

    This story was first published in The Astor Anthology (Deal, 2014), and read at the book launch.

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