Rattleback, by Robert Dawson

The pickup truck was jacked up in front of the house, waiting for a part that wouldn’t come till Wednesday; but the wheelhouse of the Mary Anne Creaser was still only half painted. Kellie slouched along the beach beside her father, hands in jeans pockets, denim jacket zipped to her neck against the sharp east wind. Ripples raced across the peat-dark waters of Snyder’s Pond, behind the beach. Over the ocean, rays of misty light fanned out beneath the gray and yellow clouds. The sun had his backstays down: a storm coming.

Finally she spoke. “Dad?”

“Yes, Kellie?”

“It’s been really cool lobstering with you this year.”

“You’ve earned your berth, honey. A man couldn’t’a worked harder.” He took a final drag on his Player’s and flipped the butt to the wind.

“Thanks, Dad.” How to say it? The gulls and the grinding surf offered no words. “Dad? If I wanted to go to university next year…”

“Jesus, Kellie, you don’t need to do that. Catches are getting better each season, and lobster’s been a good price for two years now.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Not like when your great-grand-daddy was a boy. Back then, y’know, if a kid got sent to school with a lobster tail for his lunch, he’d chuck it inta the bushes so the other kids wouldn’t know his folks were too poor to buy baloney.”

Was that old story even true? “I know, Dad. But if I did–would you help? I’ve saved most of my wages, but it’s not enough. If it weren’t for that history grade I might have got a scholarship last year. But now I’d have to pay everything.”

“Kellie. You’re from Low Harbour. We’re lobstermen, with a license and a boat.” He paused; when he spoke again his voice was quieter. “She’s named for your mother, Kellie. Wouldn’t seem right to have somebody else crewing.”

“I want to study physics, Dad.”

“I know you did real well at science in high school, and I’m proud of you. But your life’s here.”

“No, Dad.” She looked at the sea, the beach, the familiar hills. She inhaled the rank seaweed-scented air, tasted salt on her tongue. “It… it isn’t. I want to be a physicist. Or maybe an engineer, I don’t know. But that’s what I want to do.”

They were past the sandbar and the pond; this end of the beach was covered in oval popple-rocks. They rolled against each other in the ebb-wash, clattering like an anchor chain running through a hawse-hole. Kellie studied the stones at her feet, looking at their shapes, searching for the special one that must be there somewhere.

“A physicist?” Her father tapped another cigarette out of the package, and brought it towards his mouth but paused short. “Why, for Christ’s sake? Is this some sort of Women’s Lib thing?” He shoved it between his lips, cupped his hands around his lighter, bent his head as if in prayer, and exhaled smoke.

“It’s not that, Dad. And nobody says that these days.”

“Let me tell you, girl, you’re doing a job that most men couldn’t handle, and doing it well. You ain’t got a God-damned thing to prove to anyone.” Rough granite in his voice.

Kellie kept her eye on the stones. There… was that one? She picked it up: smooth, grey, flattened, a little bigger than a bar of soap. An oblique vein of harder rock raised the middle of one face, askew from the main axis. She traced the contours with her finger: a rattleback, and it looked like a good one.

They reached the wharf, and scrambled up the rusty iron rungs from the beach. “Look at this, Dad,” Kellie said. She put the rock onto the smooth flat top of a bollard, and flicked it into a clockwise spin. “See how it turns?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Watch.” It slowed and eventually stopped.


“Now watch again.” She spun it counterclockwise. The stone turned reluctantly, shuddering, and came to a mutinous early halt. Then it reversed, and crept back clockwise for nearly a whole revolution.

“How’d you do that, Kellie?”

“You try it, Dad.”

Forward, backward, his rope-roughened fingers spun the stone. “And you just knew it was gonna do that?”

“Yes, Dad. It’s called a rattleback. I read about them in the school library last year. I’ve found a lot of them on the beach.”

“How does it work?” The instinctive curiosity of a man who could compensate for wind and tide without conscious thought, who had taught himself to fix a truck or a marine engine with only a handful of tools.

“I don’t know. It’s something to do with the shape, but the math’s hard. Calculus with vectors, and some Greek letters that I don’t know what they stand for. But I want to learn.”

A wave crashed slowly along the beach.

He looked up from the rattleback. “Get your butt moving, girl. We’ve got a load of painting to get done before sunset,” he said, in that mock-gruff voice that had covered his domestic surrenders ever since she was a little girl.

“Aye, aye, Captain.”


Toward eleven, Kellie went downstairs to brush her teeth at the kitchen sink. Her father was sitting up at the dinner table, playing with the rattleback, flicking it, watching it spin and reverse, spin and reverse.

He looked up at the sound of her bare feet, and smiled. “Damn thing just seems to know which way it has to go, doesn’t it?”

Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university. When not teaching, doing research, or writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling, and fencing. His stories have appered in Nature Futures, AE, and other periodicals. He is an alumnus of the Sage Hill and Viable Paradise writing workshops.

<– The Dock, by John Rowntree

Cabrio, by Emily Hoover –>