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State Library of Queensland, no known copyright restrictions, flickr

I think of the Florida Gulf coast in this hurricane season. I wrote this story several years ago and published with an Australian journal. Growing up, it meant everything to me to learn how to fish in the Panhandle during the summer and sell crabs on the roadside. “Ladybug’s” passion for the sea and its creatures are modeled loosely on experiences I had with my aunt. Be well. — Meg

Her chair is a basket weave of rainbow, her floppy hat a mushroom cap. Every day she sits under the Australian pine, her thin legs stretched out toward the bay, heels dug into the soft sands of Anna Maria Island.

She speaks to birds. She tells them where to find mollusks, greenies, pinfish, tube worms, anemones, mullet, stonecrab, blue crab, fiddlers, spot, black drum, croakers, ballyhoo. The longer-legged wading birds walk along the shallow areas, knobby knees clear of the water for more than a hundred feet out. They are her friends: the common egret, the snowy egret, the white ibis, the roseate spoonbill, the great blue heron. When one of the larger birds is near, she speaks in soft tones. She embraces their world through her sympathy.

Sometimes she helps a grounded boat. She walks out on the bar and dislodges sand from the propeller. She gives the careless boaters a map, shallow areas at low tide drawn with her red pencil, the channel markers with an x. Had they had her aboard, she could have helped. But the birds need her more.

Once a week her daughter visits.  She says Mother I really don’t think you should… and Mother I don’t think it’s wise that you… and Mother why don’t you try to see if you can… and Ladybug, for that’s her name among the locals, says “Umm hmm” until her daughter leaves for the city. The birds listen to her complaints. They nod their silent ascent.

When her son comes, he casts his rod, the only sound the fine unspooling of the line from the reel. She has taught him all she knows about fish and where they feed and when, the patterns of the tides, what he can find just by looking and what he has to know, too, in a deeper sense.

Her husband died pursuing shrimp. He allowed her to navigate while he went below to haul in the catch: At that time, the highest compliment any man could give a woman of a fishing persuasion. Superstition had it that this killed him. She did not remind them he died saving one of their own, a crew member entangled in a net.

During the long days she grieved him, she dreamed of pregnant nets, the breeze in her hair, her husband’s strong neck, the feel of his unshaven face against her cheek in a private moment. His expectation that she could endure anything, could do what she must, helped her survive. She sensed him with her, protecting her still and she began to understand something like faith.

Once her children were raised and gone, once the town forgave and forgot, she became Ladybug, a woman who talks to birds, a woman who graced the town – the grocery, the bar, the peel ‘n eat, the library, everywhere – with a red bug tattoo on the bone of her wrist.

First appeared in Pure Slush