Sister Mary Andrew thumped her hand on Clare’s desk. She was puffy behind her glasses. “I didn’t ask you for numbers. I didn’t think you were a child to make fun. Is this something to do with your background? With your mother being Protestant?”
“No, Sister.” Clare didn’t want them to, but her knees had started shaking under her dress so the lines of the plaid jumped. “About the ocean?” she repeated.
“Yes, of course the ocean.”
Clare thought her mind was shutting down. She felt scattery. But this was important. Last year in fourth grade, she’d taken a trip with her father and Finn to the ocean station at Woods Hole, and she thought she could remember the report her mother had helped her write. She’d practiced it so many times before she’d given it to her class at Hanbury School. If she could think of the first words, the first sentences . . .
Sister Mary Andrew motioned for her to stand up and Clare did, her hands gripping the wooden lip of her desk, one twitchy knee on the seat. Shore. That was the word that she needed. She tried her voice. “The ocean shore is different in different places.” She sounded all right. She cleared her throat. “Even . . . even on the Eastern Seaboard it’s different wherever you go. In the south there are coral reefs. What they’re made from is skeletons of sea creatures. Calcareous skeletons.”
Clare said the word again in her mind. Calcareous. She could feel all the words coming back now, the pushing rhythm of what she had to say. She went on. “Farther north, the shore is sandy, and the water shapes it into dunes and ridges. And farther north even than that, there are cliffs way above the water. The surf hits the rocks, trying to climb up.
“The sea smells like salt and fish. When you swim, you can taste the salt on your lips. When you float, it holds you up like a big hand. There are seagulls that cry in the air over the boats, and you can count the sea like music. The sea foam always falls back. It can’t get loose. It’s ivory. It’s the color of piano keys.”
Clare sat down. She looked at her desk. She crossed her lap with her arms but her legs were still shaking.