by Elliott Kate Cooper
There is a pond my dad and I used to pass on our way to Towne Center in Mount Pleasant, fountain-clad and lipped with trees. Come winter, it was his favorite part of the drive: ducks flocked down South and gathered there, floating peacefully on the water and ruffling their feathers for warmth. We’d go down that road and, as I flicked turning signals and checked mirrors and fiddled with radio static, he would teach me their names, fill his throat with their calls, until I could tell each type by the pattern of their wings.
A couple years ago we passed by there and saw signs boasting another development company. In the car, our conversation petered to a gaping silence. Over the next few months the pond was drained to a dry pit and packed with new earth, and the foundation for an apartment complex was laid.
It’s finished now. Another faceless gray building. My dad and I take the long route these days and don’t speak of it.
It’s not surprising anymore. When my dad tells stories of the Sullivan’s Island he grew up on, slanted houses and quiet afternoons, I stutter in disbelief. My little brother does the same when I tell him: Do you know we used to have fireflies? As a toddler, barefoot and sun-drunk, I ran beneath long-leaf pines at the boat landing, hands reaching for small heartbeats of light. They didn’t panic when caught, just explored my cupped palms and trusted I wouldn’t crush them with childish cruelty before they escaped back into sticky summer air—on, and on, and on. Jealousy leaks from his smile, pools on the floor between us. He has only ever caught fireflies on a family trip to Maryland because they no longer live in Charleston. As more people move down here, more lawns are sprayed for mosquitoes, and the pesticide kills the fireflies off.
Things like this are inevitable. Nothing expands without crushing something smaller in its wake. But inevitable doesn’t soothe the sting I feel when the cramped diner my family used to crowd into gets replaced by a breakfast chain. Or when the gas station where my brother and I bought eighty-cent slushies, where the cashiers knew us by name, gets torn down and replaced by office buildings. Small shops downtown are ushered out by national brands. Rent climbs higher and higher, until my grandparents are packing their things into cardboard boxes, pockets worn too thin to live here anymore.
In sixth grade, I spent the night at a girl’s house out on Sullivan’s Island. My mom dropped me off—my dad can’t stand going out there when he doesn’t have to, seeing those massive white houses swallow the place where he grew up, seeing the black-eyed Susans reduced to patches, seeing traffic choking the main road. The girl’s house is one of these places, too; built with money she believes to be commonplace, almost necessary. That night, her mom takes us for ice cream, and when we pass by the last smattering of cramped houses at the heart of the island, she purses her lips and bites back a nasty comment.
The next morning, I hear her talking about me to her daughter. Joking—maybe, maybe not—when she says: You know, she doesn’t act like one of us. She’s not island family. It echoes in my head for months, carving out a hollow in my mind. I didn’t say a word to her that day, shuffled my feet against the stairs to warn them I was coming down, smiled at the breakfast table, filled my tongue with yes ma’am and no sir. But I wanted to take her hand and drag her through my memory, my dad’s memories, through fireflies and duck ponds and everything that has been torn down, made brand-new, and ask—is this what you mean by progress? Taking walls already built and making them higher, harder to breach? I wanted to tell her my dad grew up here when it was nothing but oak trees and salt-torn earth, when ghost stories were not sensationalized and lived rich in mouths instead of cheap in gift shops. He can read these waterways like palm lines, has taught me the names and calls of every bird this progress has vanished.
But, I would add, yes ma’am. Of course. I see you taking in the crooks and scars of my grandfather’s hands, the accent my father refuses to bury. Tell me why you think we’re not allowed to stay.