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Murder By The Sea
About the Author: Jennifer Steil is an award-winning author who lives in many countries (currently Uzbekistan/France/UK). Her most recent novel, Exile Music, won the Grand Prize in the international Eyelands 2020 Book Awards and is a finalist for the 2021 Lambda Literary Lesbian Fiction Award. Her previous novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award, the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award.

Marina stands looking at the patch of dawn flickering on the remaining sea. So small, so far. You couldn’t get too close to the water anymore or the sand would take you. It holds her sinking feet too tightly and she lets it. She deserves to be held here, at the scene of the crime. It’s only fair. They had taken the sea, piece by piece. They had turned it this way and that, strangled the rivers that fed it, poured it over the mouths of thirsty cotton.  

When she was a girl, she had thought it would crash to these Karakalpak shores her whole life, through her grandchildren’s lives. None of them had made plans for when it left and their town, their lively sea town, became a stretch of brown, stinking sand that now did no thing at all. The mushrooms she loved disappeared from riverbanks. Salted soil spoiled the cotton, withered the almond and apple trees behind their homes. Chemical dust filled the lungs of their children. The sun burned nearly every drop of pristine water into thin air.

She bends to curl her fingers around a plastic water bottle. A near lifetime ago, her fingers had cleaned scales from fish. When their bodies began turning up rotting and poisoned, and her husband Sergei had gone to work on the island and never returned, not even when the island was no longer an island but part of the shore, when the Russians in a panic razed it all to rubble, she had left, traveled far from Mo’ynoq, stayed away for years. In Tashkent, she cleaned a house that rarely needed cleaning, a house without crusted salt and mud. She washed clothing that still smelled of soap from the last wash.

Retired now, returned, she spends most of her time sleeping in a yurt hours north of the town. She watches the water; she keeps vigil. She no longer has to clean. But cleaning becomes habit, so she cleans the sand. She tends the shores of what remains. She cannot clean poisons from the waters but she can do this. She has become housekeeper to the sea.

She is stuffing the bottle into her woolen sack when she sees something larger down the sand. Something longer and manlike. As she steps closer, the muck clutching at her heels like a child trying to keep a parent from leaving, she sees his silver hair, his round belly, the familiar bend of his nose. Yusup, husband of her daughter, the daughter named Darya for the river.

Drunk again, she thinks. That’s why he never made it back to the yurt last night, not that any of them had stayed up waiting.

On the wet sand nearby she sees the shell of a drink, the drink they now had in place of the sea. The drink that took the pain and turned it numb. They poured and toasted what they’d killed, as if the crime were not theirs. As if inebriate incantations could make it rise once more.

“Wake up, fool.” She nudges his ribs with a calloused toe, but his body just rocks in the sand, stiff. She reaches for his heart, to listen for it with her palm, cries out in sharp shock. Something nearly invisible protrudes from his chest. Glass. She rubs a bleeding hand against her jeans. She touches the glass again, careful this time, sees the Qara of Qarataw on the shard. Vodka: the only pristine liquid they have left. Qarataw has killed many men, but not like this.

She can’t pretend sorrow. She never liked her daughter’s husband. Darya too had come to despise him, especially after he started with that fungicide business. But who liked their husbands here? What was left of them to like? Maybe Mo’ynoq once had good men, when they could spend the day in the water and return with gleaming sturgeon, pike perch, or trout. But who can love a husband who is home all day and thinks cleaning is beneath him? Marina was lucky to be widowed young. Once there were tigers here, lush forests, and foxes. Once there were men.

She walks back up the hill, past more bottles half buried in mud and sand, plastic bags tied tight, trash telling them how they still don’t learn. The wind is cold and the dirt not the kind the earth makes but the kind humans make, the kind that reflects no light.

When she returns, rolling up the carpet from the doorway and tying it fast, she finds Darya alone with baby Saiga. Everyone in her family named for something that no longer thrives. Darya’s shoulders sag in relief when Marina tells her.

“But it wasn’t me,” she says. “You don’t think I would, do you?”

This story appears in our NOV 2021 Issue
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Reader Discussion

Excellent! Interesting and catching storyline with a wonderful twist of who done it! Lots of angles packed into this story! Loved the read.
By Tina

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