Driftwood by Emily Ward

Alec Soth
“Charles, Vasa, Minnesota 2002” by Alec Soth

Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said his bones weren’t made out of branches. Clean branches, like the ones that would wash ashore after the annual gale. Those branches burned green and blue, but Barnabus wasn’t like that. He wasn’t salty, or sandy. But he knew he liked the rough knitted cloth spun from his mother’s fingers, from the neighbor’s aging sheep. He didn’t understand the sheep, or why they lived by the sea, because if there’s one thing a sheep can’t handle, it’s a steep cliff.

Barnabus spent his mornings in the shed. He liked it in there, the vaguely damp wood, the overcrowded shelves. He kept his gloves by the door and the window sash drawn; that way, he could work by the light without ever having to see the sun.

He was famous for the glue that stuck under his nails and the sawdust that trailed behind him everywhere he went. That was why Barnabus avoided going into town. His toolbox didn’t frown at the paint streaks across his sleeves, and his workbench didn’t raise an eyebrow at the splinters in his beard.

Barnabus only went into town when he needed more glue, more paint, more brushes. He was probably the main reason why the craft store was still in business. The owner knew him by name and would often say things like, “Lurvly day, eh, Barney? Jes lurvly.” Barnabus rarely responded; he didn’t know how to tell Mr. Hillbury that he hated being called “Barney,” and often, he hadn’t noticed if the day was lovely or not.


Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said he didn’t miss his wife. He would wake up at 3:38 A.M. or look up from painting the detail on a propeller and feel like he’d missed a step on the staircase, his stomach swooping with the sudden change. It used to happen all the time, less now that his mother filled the spare bedroom, the bedroom that had been painted robin’s-egg blue for the baby girl who had only lived long enough to be a promise.

He and Kate were young when they bought the house, but they weren’t stupid. They’d kept it clean, sound, and laughed when it didn’t flood during the gale of ’78. They made it comfortable enough for a family, comfortable enough for Kate’s eyes to shine with her smile when she told him the news.

January 9th of that year had found them picking out a paint for their daughter’s bedroom. February 12th, an oaken crib yawned in the robin’s-egg room and a new fridge hummed in the kitchen. March 21st, and Kate told him she was going out for a walk, zipping his windbreaker over her curved, gentle belly, the belly that liked to kick while she was putting together a puzzle. March 22nd had found Barnabus at the foot of Bate’s Hill, standing next to the sheriff and staring down at his wife’s body. She leaked broken life, and her eyes were flat — “She must’ve fallen, snapped her neck,” said the sheriff.


Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said he was good at grocery shopping. That was why his mother made the lists and he just pushed the cart. He couldn’t be trusted to remember produce or pasta or chicken breasts — his mind dealt in canned ravioli and juice from red-yellow powder. The day his mother moved in, she had taken one look at the contents of his cupboards and swept all of it into a garbage bag. She had pinned him with a look and said, “High-fructose corn syrup should not be the main course at every meal, Barnabus.”

This was why Barnabus didn’t have a veritable reason for buying the fireworks. The list had definitely been lacking in the TNT area, but the brightly-colored tubes had just been sitting there, right next to the cheeses, shining under the fluorescence. They were in his cart without so much as a second thought. It didn’t occur to Barnabus that he had never lit a firework before in his life, or that his untrimmed beard or his fondness for knitted cowls would produce any kind of hazard. When the tubes passed under the red beam of the scanner, Barnabus noticed that they cost the same amount as a new tub of paint. Barnabus didn’t mind.


Barnabus Croft would be telling the truth if he said he knew that model planes were meant to be made out of balsa. He made them out of oak. He knew that you could put engines in those planes and make them fly, but he glued them to strings and let them hover above his head.

Whenever he turned the shed’s flimsy lock, Barnabus remembered Mama Croft’s first visit to his shed, the way she had gone still, a plane in her hand. “Well, it’s . . . it’s very nice, Barnabus. But . . .” She ran her fingers along the underbelly of the plane, then its wing. “Where did you get the wood?”

Barnabus had twitched a shoulder. She’d looked at him for a long moment before nodding and putting the plane back on his workspace. Neither of them had mentioned the splintered hunks of polished oak flung into the corner of the shed, an axe rusting beside the crib’s carefully-carved headboard.


Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said he’d expected his mother to unpack the fireworks like they were a can of beans.

When Mama Croft pulled the fireworks out of the grocery bag, her face made a shape Barnabus had never seen before. “Mother?” he tried when she didn’t show any sign of moving. Mama Croft shook herself and refocused on the package. “Lord have mercy . . . ” She weighed it in her hand, heard the vague rattle of low-grade gunpowder. “You got a death wish, boy?” Barnabus swallowed. “No. Just thought they’d be pretty, that’s all.” She turned the package around slowly, as if it might explode at any moment. “You sure you want to do this?” was her eventual question. Barnabus nodded. “The sky’s clear today.” “It is,” she agreed, focusing on him again. “But you’d better trim yourself up a bit if you don’t want to catch fire, too.”


Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said he recognized the person staring back at him. He shifted, squinting at his reflection; was this really what he looked like without a beard? His chin was less brutal, his forehead kinder. Something in him wondered if this was what he’d looked like the last time Kate had kissed his cheek. Soft, he thought. I mustve looked soft.

Mama Croft was waiting when he walked into the living room. She sucked in her breath a little, teetering on a smile before she nodded, clearing her throat. Barnabus let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, his hand reaching up to rub nonexistent sawdust out of his eyes.

They ate dinner slowly, and only once did Barnabus wish that he were out in his shed instead of at the table. He smiled, even produced a small chuckle, his hands steady around his glass of water. They were both watching the horizon, the way the fields around the house darkened until their edges dripped with tar.


Barnabus Croft would be lying if he said he was nervous.

He was quiet as they walked down the field, bag of fireworks under one arm and his mother’s hand around the other. Her cane was sinking into the damp ground, producing a soft squish with every step, but Barnabus was more focused on the way the air felt against his skin. He inhaled deeply, taking everything he could into his lungs.

“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” said Mama Croft as he bent to strike a match. Barnabus gave a small smile as the light flared and caught on the line hanging off the bottom of the firework. He backed away, and a moment later a bang echoed around the grass and bright green sparks exploded above them in a perfect circle, and Barnabus watched as they flashed and died, alive too quickly and gone too soon.

“Another,” he said around the thickness in his throat, but he meant more than just one because a moment later the rest of the fireworks were standing in a line, begging for a flame. His hands shook under his gloves as he struck the match, and as he stepped away, he could feel his mother watching him, could feel that she wanted to touch him. But he kept his gaze fixed on the darkness above, waiting.

With another roar, the gunpowder sent sparks up into the air, and they were beautiful, glowing and spinning and dancing and so unbelievably close that Mama Croft gasped and Barnabus lifted a hand, reaching for the sparks, breathless as his eyes leaked and his knees weakened because he knew what this felt like, he knew what it felt like to burn.

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