A CLAM FOR MAGGIE
By Ruth A. Souther
Clear, spring-fed Michigan water rippled
around Maggie’s knees as she waded around the shoreline of Gilead Lake. She delighted in the feeling of mud oozing between
her toes. It brought back memories of better summers. Summers when she had done exactly the same thing: wade the deceptive
waters, searching below the surface for sharp rocks. Rocks that, year in and year out, multiplied. A never-ending source and,
until this year, a never-ending irritation.
This summer, the routine brought satisfaction to Maggie. It was positive.
The results could be seen immediately. She glanced up at the pile of wet rocks on the shore. One rusted beer can sat on top,
its jagged edges faintly resembling a crown.
“Ouch.” Her bare toes stubbed against a hard object.
Maggie squinted at the wavering bottom of the lake. Her face was distorted in a distorted watercolor. Smiling, Maggie murmured,
“Here I am, knee deep in life. Shouldn’t I feel something?”
She plunged her hand into the water, searching
for the rock. A chilly tingle went up her numbed arm. Digging deeper into the muck, she felt a slick, moss-covered surface.
Maggie leaned farther over, nearly dipping her chin in the lake. Small bubbles popped the surface as the mud finally released
its hold on the rock. Triumphantly, she looked at her prize, streaming with cloudy water and gooey with muck.
a small shiver of delight, Maggie realized it wasn’t a rock. It was a granddaddy clam, and from its appearance, it must
have been in the lake forever.
“Do clams live forever?” She jokingly addressed the shell. “Or does it just
seem like forever?”
She swished the clam through the water to wash away the excess slime and examined it again.
Dark and light rings on the shell surface showed its growth stages. How on earth had the thing managed to avoid the usual
fate of lake clams? Most became fish bait long before gaining so many rings.
It was a rare creature to have reached
Perhaps it was enchanted, Maggie mused. She rather liked the idea of finding an enchanted clam. It suited
her mood. And what if she were to kiss it? Would it turn into a handsome prince with magical powers?
A sudden stab of
pain caught Maggie unawares. She gasped and brought her free hand to her chest, touching the area where a breast had been.
Tears stung her eyes, blurring the beloved landscape.
Magic. Magic existed in fairy tales. She gripped the
clam tighter as she pressed her fingers into the deep ache in her chest. Grandmother always talked about the magic of Heaven,
what a joyous moment when the horn of Gabriel blew! The only catch was you had to die to get there.
Well, Gilead Lake
seemed like a little piece of Heaven. Maggie scanned the peaceful horizon and wondered how this place could stay the same
year after year. Especially when the rest of her world had shifted and caved in.
A soft, hesitant cough intruded
on her thoughts. An alien face peered at Maggie from the shore several feet away. Startled, she first thought the entire lake
was a dream and she was still wrapped in gauzy confusion at the hospital. The foreignness of the features confused Maggie.
The woman standing on the weedy bank pointed at the clam in Maggie’s hand and spoke excitedly. Only a smattering of
broken English words were understandable.
Maggie stared at her. Who was this woman? Why in the world did she
want the clam? And what was she doing here in the first place? Blinking, Maggie shook her head. She didn’t understand.
small oriental woman, dressed in a swimsuit and beach robe, smiled and pointed to herself. Carefully, she enunciated, “Mai-Ling”.
gestured toward the cabin next to Maggie’s. The cabin belonged to a minister who was always lending it out to those
in need of an inexpensive vacation. Mai-Ling began to speak again. She swung a pink plastic bucket hanging on her arm. A word
that sounded vaguely like ‘chowder’ reached Maggie’s ears.
The meaning dawned on Maggie. She clutched
the clam defensively. Shaking her head violently, she intended to leave no doubt in Mai-Ling’s mind as to whom the clam
belonged to. A puzzled expression settled on Mai-Ling’s face.
Maggie looked from the bucket to the clam
in her hand. Should she politely give it up? Should she sacrifice her enchanted clam simply because this woman asked her to?
Poor thing. A few minutes ago, it had been snug in its hideaway under the mud…
“No!” The shout
burst from her lips. She was shocked at her own vehemence; after all, the clam was a simple creature born only to turn around
Blow, Gabriel, another of God’s creatures is ready to bite the dust, is that it? Maggie held the
clam aloft for a moment. Give it up, because death is inevitable? She hesitated for a second before hurling the clam far out
into the mucky water. The sudden jerk of stiff muscles brought excruciating pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Once the
tears started, they couldn’t be stopped. Maggie brushed her fingertips across her face, leaving a muddy streak across
Embarrassed by Mai-Ling’s steady gaze, Maggie blindly felt her way along the rickety dock beside
her. The rough, splintery wood felt good. It felt normal the way picking up rocks had felt. Maggie hoped she would prick her
finger with a piece of two-by-four and bleed. Yes, bleed…bleed and bleed…blood meant there was still life.
rage inside her, the overwhelming rage centered on the small creature and on the unknown visitor. Six months ago, Maggie had
been like the clam. Buried in her own small town hideaway. And cancer had come visiting in the guise of a lump in her breast.
The cancer had uprooted her life. It had sucked the soft inner soul from her body and left an empty shell.
A shudder raced
down Maggie’s spine at the gentle touch on her shoulder. She flinched, drawing away. She could not apologize. She would
not apologize. The touch strengthened. Reluctantly, Maggie turned to meet the other woman’s gaze. Mai-Ling’s eyes
held concern and quiet sympathy.
‘Pity,’ Maggie thought. ‘She feels sorry for me.’
Panicking, Maggie touched her caved chest. ‘And she knows. She knows about the cancer.’
the absurd inclination to laugh, Maggie saw herself through the other woman’s eyes. Crazy American lady. Throw away
perfectly good food. Sentimental over an unfeeling, cold-blooded creature. Ridiculous Americans!
Mai-Ling took her
hand from Maggie’s shoulder, reached into the pink bucket, pulled out a green-tinged clam and pressed it into Maggie’s
clenched fists. Unwillingly, Maggie relaxed her fingers to take it. She stared uncomprehendingly at the clam. What was she
supposed to do with it? She raised her head and met Mai-Ling’s steady gaze. Dropping her chin, she once again stared
at the smooth, hard shell in her hands. This one wasn’t as big as the first one. It had tiny nicks along the edge with
the two sides joined, as if something had tried to pry it open.
Smiling shyly, Mai-Ling touched the shell with
her finger and nodded toward the center of the lake. She made a throwing gesture. Maggie ducked her head as a new batch of
tears filled her eyes. She wiped the back of her hand across her nose, smearing the streak of mud. Blurrily, she stared out
at the peaceful lake.
With small sounds in her throat, Mai-Ling urged Maggie to throw the clam after the other
one. If Mai-Ling could speak English, Maggie wondered if she would say, ‘You silly woman. You wanted the clam and
now I have made a gift of it to you. Why do sit there and stare at me as if I were the crazy one?’
suddenly became of the utmost importance to return the second clam to the lake. Maggie gauged the distance and tried to put
the shell in the exact same spot. With any luck, it would land nearby. The two women watched the graceful arc of the shell
and heard the plop as it broke the surface and sank beneath the waves.
Mai-Ling waited for the last ripple to
fade away before she pulled another clam from the bucket. This time Maggie did not hesitate. She flung the creature as hard
as she could toward the center of the lake. The pain in her chest felt good.
Three more times, Mai-Ling reached in
the bucket. Three more times clams found their way back to their neighborhood. Maggie’s spirits rose as each one settled
out of sight.
One more clam lay nestled between the upturned palms of the woman beside her. Maggie paused and searched
Mai-Ling’s shining eyes.
“You!” Maggie cried, “You throw it!”
nodded. She hefted the clam as if weighing out life itself. As the clam sailed from Mai-Ling’s fingers, Maggie tilted
back her head and laughed out loud. Maggie’s shout of joy echoed across the water. It was answered by the screech of
wheeling lake gulls. A fishing boat rocked as its curious owner peered toward shore. A dog barked and a child giggled. A hungry
fish flopped in the air, snatching at a mayfly.
The lake fell out of suspension and came back into life.
This story is dedicated to my mother, Margaret Tipsword,
a breast cancer survivor, who passed away December 14, 2005 from an unrelated illness. It was first published in May, 1986
in Our Family, a Canadian magazine.