Call of the Sea
After she left, my father never let me visit the Sea.
"You will drown," he said.
I might've laughed--Had he not taught me to swim? Did he not ride out on its waves every day?--if not for the look in his eyes. They were matte, dark and deep, and I knew he thought of my mother.
So I stayed away from the surf, and did not ask why I was forbidden that which I loved. I did my best to ignore the rolling, crashing waves that seemed to beat against our shanty's walls as the tide rose and fell, fell and rose, tied to the moon. I avoided even the bluffs that backed our tiny plot of rented ground, keeping my gaze turned firmly inland.
I sewed a second pillow from a soft blue blanket, stained with salt, I'd found buried in the basket of old rags, as he mended his nets by the coal-fire. His lips thinned when he saw the material, but he stayed quiet in his corner with his oversized needle as I plied my tiny silver one.
Thereafter I slept with my head nestled between my cushions like an oyster might cradle a pearl. But still, I could hear the pounding of waves as they smashed against the immovable, implacable shore, and I felt as though I might go mad.
When at last, I worried my lip to tatters and my self to sleep, my dreams filled with flashes of the blacksmith at his anvil, of the baker kneading bread, of the miller grinding flour, all in shifting shades of blue and green that pulsed to a heartbeat that pounded against the inside of my skull.
My father and the other village men measured time according to the sea's seasons and kept their lives according to her moods, which may have been why he never remarried. (She's a jealous mistress, the Sea, leaving little love for hearth or home.)
I began to feel the allure, the tug on my own heartstrings as I watched the other girls banter over buckets of water or baskets of cod with the boys from the corner of my eyes. Usually, I was careful, but when the pounding in my chest grew too strong, I became careless, and the young fishermen would catch me staring.
Then, they would laugh and wink and invite me into their circles of flirtation and fun. Always, I would flush, as if embarrassed to be caught looking at them, but it wasn't their tanned faces or strong hands I had been admiring. I focused on the smaller details--the crust of salt that ringed the cuffs of their shirts, the wind-tousled hair, the faint sheen of scales on their fingertips--and beat back jealousy, that they might be permitted where I could not go.
So when those young men offered to give me the first of the catch fresh from the boat, I laughed and said I had mending. If they presented me with a shell that (they said) matched my eyes, I thanked them for the thought and quickly placed it in the bottom of shopping basket. There, my groceries might pound it into a fine grey dust by the time I reached my home.
And so it was that I kept my promise to my father, who forbid me the only place I wished to go. Day by day, season by season, year by year, I kept the hearth clean, and the shanty warm, and our home welcoming as my father continued his own flirtation with the sea.
My hair took on the same silvery cast as my eyes. My hands shrank into emaciated, curled claws. My head still sang with sea-drums.
When the doctor came that last time, he asked to speak with me outside of our shanty.
"Do you have any relatives?" he asked, not unkindly.
I shook my head and clutched my shawl about me more tightly. The day was cold, despite the spring sunshine. A breeze blew over the bluff, full of salt and the cries of seabirds. My temples throbbed.
When I didn't say anything, the doctor shrugged and re-entered the little shanty that had been my prison. When he came out once more, he held his bag firmly in his left hand and a cane in the other. "Good day, then, mistress," he said to me, and walked away without waiting for a reply.
That night, the sea roared through the walls and what half-hearted defenses I had shorn up. I pressed the blue pillow against my ears and moaned into the mattress. New blood blotched and seeped into the sheets as my teeth worried my lips.
On the other side of our tiny house, my father coughed and wheezed, fighting his own battle as his lungs filled with fluid. Curling onto my side like a child in the cradle, I focused on him--my anchor, my foundation in the world to which he had bound me so long ago--and watched his chest rise, and fall.
Rise, and fall.
Rise, and fall, and fall, and fall.
I held my breath, waiting for his chest to rise again. Small black dots danced in my eyes before I sucked in air once more, eyes watering.
And still, he did not breathe again.
I threw back the coverlet and shuffled to my father's bedside. The last coals burned in the hearth, giving a false glow of warmth to features. I stared at his face for a long, long while, burning it into my brain, and then I left the hut.
The track to the sea was clear of bracken and brambles, though I had not walked it since my mother had lived in our little shanty. It was the way my father had taken every morning and every evening to the sea, to the rickety little wooden boat I could still picture in my mind despite the years.
Despite that, I stumbled over the unfamiliar ground. I caught myself, and marveled at the feel of smooth sand beneath my knotted, swollen fingers. The drumming inside my heart, my head, intensified into a crescendo that had my vision swimming.
As I crested the bluff, scrambling and stumbling, I saw the sea unfurl beneath me, a pearled carpet of shadows and shards of moonlight.
And then I was there, at the shore, with no memory of the journey between where I had been and where I was now. My cheeks were wet, and my tongue darted out to taste the tears that seeped into the corners of my mouth.
The salt stung my abused lips, filled my nose with the bouquet of the ocean, and a sob ripped from my chest.
I fell to my knees, keening to the moon that moved, heedless, through a shadow-sky. The sand molded to my legs, held me in its embrace as I wept and the waves crashed in a sweet cacophony of welcome.
As my sobs subsided into hiccups, I began to watch the surf through the glaze of tears that clung to my eyelashes, admiring the dark sapphire shadows gilded silver by moonlight. And--for a moment--I thought I saw movement within the breakers, a vague, dark form that flipped and twisted and turned against the tide.
I stiffened, my cheeks still damp from either seaspray or tears (or both), but the shape vanished--only to reappear the next. It was closer to the shore, now--closer to me--but I could make it out no more clearly than when it had been a vague possibility or an exhausted delusion.
I heaved myself to my feet, ignoring the grains of sand that clung to my skirts, and threw myself toward the ocean's edge to see more clearly. The instant before I reached the water, the waves retreated, leaving behind a sodden, lumpy thing in their wake.
I stooped and picked up the salvage that had been tossed to the shore like so much rubbish. Its weight nearly pulled me back to my knees once more, soaked through with water as it was, but I steadied myself and unfurled it.
The dark pelt shone, black against black, as I held it up against the sky. Moonlight picked out each individual strand of hair in silver, so that the whole seemed to glow in my hands. I stroked its sleek, soft surface, marveling at the craftsmanship that had produced such a wonderfully plush fur, and my hand ran over something hard.
Carefully, I turned it over, and a silver clasp winked at me. Two hands met, prayed, connected one far edge to another in an unending embrace of warmth for the wearer.
The sea, having so long clamored for my attention, whispered in my ear, and I put on the sealskin cloak.
The next morning, the village found my father's husk alone in the shanty we once shared. I was nowhere to be found, but eventually the sheriff's son saw a set of meandering footprints--too small for a man's--leading away from the hut toward the sea, where they stopped at the water's edge.
The villagers shrugged and shook their heads, I'm sure, secretly glad that they wouldn't be called on to care for an aging spinster. They buried my father on that bluff that stood between me and my Sea. For that, I was grateful.
But that relief quickly washed away as I joined my mother--and my brothers and sisters and cousins and lovers--in the Sea, where I danced in its icy heart.