CW: discussions of drowning, ambiguous discussion of parental death
By Beck Morawski
It’s one of those fall nights where the weather’s downright ungainly.
It’s all lopsided, growing into the chill, not quite ready to give up the weight of summer but still punctuating evenings with thick fog and brittle salt-air wind.
You like nights like this on the island. You remember the times that your father would take you up the tower of the lighthouse—all creaky stairs and narrow windows too tall for you to reach—just to watch the light cut across the mist. The air up here was so much colder than you were used to, the atmosphere seeming to thin out at the edges. But your teeth wouldn’t chatter, your lip wouldn’t tremble, you’d just stare in awe at the way the beam skimmed the surface of the water, flickered into the abyss with the echoes of fog horns.
(Eventually, those evenings became trips to trim wicks, wind clockwork, grease axles, polish windows until they were clear as air. It doesn’t bother you. You take the stairs one at a time and clench your jaw against the cold, just as you always have. It doesn’t matter now that you do it all alone.)
Tonight though, the air’s too cold for the humidity, the water too warm for the air. It hovers like a jacket wrapped around you with the sleeves too short and the hem just a bit too long. The sun’s barely set but you feel it just beneath your skin, the way you know the tides will shift, the way the fog will roll in from the ether, thick with saltwater.
There’s not much whimsy left in it all now, but you wear it around you all the same.
You made your evening tea, brought it up and up the winding stairs as you went about your checklists. You like the routine of it, the muscle memory. The light washes over the ocean in its endless sway, and the narrow space of the lantern room is warm with the flame.
Somewhere behind you, ensconced in wide boardwalks and streetlamps, the last candles are being snuffed out in town with thin smoke plumes, not to be lit again until sometime next May, when the chill breaks and those that summer here return in a rush of perfume and suitcases.
Now though, up in the tower, you feel like the only person alive. The fog’s further out to sea, and it’s the boundary of everything that exists. It’s a wall of black glass, opaque and towering as it closes in on your world. You’re wrapped in the kerosene-sweet smell you grew up breathing in, but it’s almost suffocating as it hovers against the inside of your mouth. You steep your tea too long like you always have, tried to make it bitter enough that it’ll scald your tongue, wash out the taste. Rationally, you know mainland is somewhere out there, that there’s someone just beyond the sheen of cloud, but all you see is how the waves break against the darkness. They move restlessly into the unseen, only dispelled by the rhythmic motion of your light.
When you see her, you swear you’ve seen a ghost.
She’s down just beyond where the bluffs fade into dunes, in the waves up to her chest. You only catch her when the lantern’s glow passes over her, paints her pale hair and dress sickly gold against the dark water before she disappears again.
In an instant, you’re at the railing, leaning half over with the momentum. You’re about to call out, shout something, anything to save the poor miss from drowning, from the chill, but the words die in your throat when the light passes over her again.
There’s something in her posture, just barely visible from up here. Her arms are splayed over the water’s surface, letting the sea foam break against her fingertips with a distant curiosity. She tilts her head back, and you watch her hair dip into the waves, floating long and colorless with the outline of her skirts beneath the surface. She’s smiling, you think. A strange kind of peace to be finding in the middle of nothing.
She disappears again. You let yourself relax, let your feet touch the ground. Your breath leaves you with a lurch the way it hasn’t since the very first time you laid eyes on the now-familiar ocean break below you, vision swimming at the sharp rocks and harsh motion.
(You remember being young, so young, coughing at the cold air that settled just behind your ribs. You’d tripped on your skirts trying to get closer, almost slipped beneath the railing that hit at shoulder-height before your father had hooked two fingers into your collar, dragged you back into the warmth of the lantern room with a warning glare. The dark had risen up at you fast as a breath, and you could taste the salt-grime with the pulse in your throat.
That day, you learned to pack your unwieldy skirts into a trunk beneath the bed, to wear trousers, patched at the knees to keep out the chill.)
You recognize her, you think dully. One of the girls your age who visits during peak season. Her father summers here, some important man who meets with other important men, flashing weighty pocket watches and tap polished shoes against the wood of the boardwalk. You almost don’t make the connection, still half expecting to see her under a lace parasol, expecting to see her with her hair in finely styled ringlets, arms laden with trinkets and shells from the curiosity shops that capture all the tourists’ eyes.
Now though, she stands drenched in saltwater, tight curls weighed down with it until they hang at her back. Numbly, you run your fingers along the back of your neck, along the skin exposed to the warmth of the room behind you. Something deep in your chest aches for the hair you’d shorn short months ago. Your fingers feel too cold, the same temperature as the air, as the sea crashing below you.
(As a child, you’d played down at the shore right before the sun set, just after dinners of thin soup and dense bread. You threaded through the crowds of tourists, clusters of umbrellas and chairs, couples lounging on blankets, women dipping their toes into the foam that brushed up against the sand. You felt invisible as you moved through it, weaving around groups absorbed in the way the sky seemed to start stuttering into shades of gold, the clouds like ash-smears against them. A telltale hiss-whine would silence the murmur, and the first rockets of the fireworks show would rise up from the pier in a shower of red, red sparks.
When you caught your reflection in the water basin that night, scrubbing the salt out from behind your ears with a lukewarm cloth, all you could think of was how your hair caught the candlelight, how it hovered halo-like around your shoulders, the same lit-flame of the fireworks that rumbled somewhere outside, sending ripples through the water.
It wasn’t a hazard, then. It wasn’t an unnecessary indulgence.
It was you, until it wasn’t.)
The girl looks strange in the artificial light. When it skips over her again, you can see in a surreal, aching clarity the way her teeth chatter as she stares out into the fog, the way her dress is the type for early, early summer, the last item in the closet before it’s all packed away for home.
You want to imagine the fine drops of mist that catch in her eyelashes. You don’t want to think about why.
(I don’t even know her name, you think. She doesn’t even know I exist.)
You don’t know how long you stand there like that, just watching, just waiting, fingernails pressing grooves into the wooden railing like it could help her from getting swept out into the unknown. Like you could hook two fingers into the collar of her dress, drag her to shore.
There’s a moment, at the very end, when the moon just barely pokes through the clouds. You wait for moments like this, always have, the magic of the entire ocean turning to glass, to snow, to a mirror snapped into a thousand moving pieces. You can see her outline for a second, in the beats between the lantern’s rotation, a dark spot rising with the swells of mercury.
She laughs, high and brassy like church bells, and you think you’ll never forget the sound. You have no clue why, have no idea what could force that sound out of someone’s chest on the edge of nothing.
When the glow sweeps over her again, you’re expecting to see her again as she was, all flow and float and at home in the sway. Instead, when you catch sight of her, she’s got a hand raised to block out the light, staring right damn at you through her spread fingers.
Your breath catches in your throat, eyes wide and heart battering. You almost choke on it, the panic, as the light glosses over her and she disappears. You can’t imagine how you looked to her, a dark silhouette against light as bright as the sun, the shadow of a cyclical eclipse.
You’re counting the seconds now, watching the movement of the light out of the corner of your eye for the moment that it’s trained back on her. It’s awful, you think, being trapped like this, waiting, waiting.
Just as suddenly, she’s gone. You wait a full rotation just to make sure. Then two.
You only spot her again by chance, a shift of movement on the shore that you could have just as easily mistaken for wind. You think you see her in the sand, barely perceptible against the dunes, shrugging on a coat and carrying her shoes. She’s a smudge against the shoreline, her footprints darkening the sand with water until the sea laps them up, brings them back home to where they belong.
There’s a pit in your stomach, shame smoldering embers against the inside of your ribs. You think it’s going to swallow you whole.
Your tea is cold, lost its warmth to the night.
It starts out normally enough; you’re used to waking up to the first light of dawn and sailors’ calls echoing from the docks.
You rise, your bones aching from the cold, slouching into a jacket to ward it off.
(Too young for that, Siobhan, your father would say, with a half-chuckle. Look like a right old man.)
Your bed is small, the room it’s in somehow smaller, just wide enough for you to spread your arms and let your fingertips brush the draft-chilled walls. Rationally, you know what you have to do this morning, down to the minute. You know exactly when you’ll still the weights and when the kerosene will need refilling. You’ve done it every morning for three years, now.
But, for some reason, the muscle memory stings deep beneath your skin. It all feels sickly, artificial, like rings you’ve worn until you’ve forgotten where your body ends and metal begins.
You should go into the tower and start the day. You should make your tea and climb the steps until the ache in your legs drowns out the place in your heart where it should be.
But you hear church bells.
You’ve lost weeks like this before, only keeping track of the world through the shift of the tides and the rise and fall of the moon. Wind speed, kerosene levels. Barometric pressure and the thrumming migration of seabirds. You’re content to keep on living like this, your entire life existing in the sway, in a roving circle of light that hovers over your head.
But you’re out of tea. And butter. And the last of the bread in the pantry would be stone-solid, even after it was thawed.
It’s with frozen joints and rough, mechanical movements that you drag the trunk out from under your bed. You let the metal corners click hard against the plank floor, let it echo as you undo the latches with stiff fingers.
Food meant going into town. Going into town meant skirts stiff with disuse, hats pulled close to your head to hide shorn-short hair. Excuses as to why you missed the last three weeks’ sermons while you counted out coins to cover costs at the grocer.
There’s some pain deep inside your chest, some dread as you pull a dull wool skirt out of the trunk and run your fingertips along the hem. You’d bought it months ago from the seamstress at the peak of summer, when the prices on wools were slashed to fractions of fractions. You think back to the way she hummed, asked how you were, listened to your half-mumbled reply before she turned with a smile to the customer who would line her pockets for linens.
You hate it. You hate the numbness, the worry, knowing someone will see you for who you are and who you used to be. You hate the pitying stares, the soft rumble at the back of someone’s throat before they offer you condolences. The tourists slide by rain-slick, don’t even look in your direction, let you drift through the mist and melt into the boardwalk or the drone of the waves. If you were to pass the girl from last night, if she were sitting in the back of a carriage, her and her family waiting to speed away to somewhere warm and dry, she wouldn’t look twice at you, wouldn’t hold her palm up to block out the light before she disappeared forever.
No, it’s the locals’ whispers that have always cut deep, who’ve always held eye contact for too long, who’ve hissed soft words just within earshot. The poor thing. Isn’t it a shame what happened to her father? Got in a boat and rowed himself right off the end of the earth.
Their words move in your head in ebbs and flows. The wool’s wrapped so tightly around your fingers that it stings, and you can’t make yourself move from the floor. There’s a roaring in your ears, louder and louder, thundering while nausea makes the room seasick-spin. You shouldn’t be doing this. You can’t be doing this. There’s no time. You need to still the weights. Clean the fuel tank. Scrub the lens until the skin on your palms shines firework-red. If you don’t, there’s nothing. You have nothing. He trusted you with this and now you’re crashing it against the breaks, you’re letting it fall apart, and he’d hate for you it if he was still here.
(There was a time, a time right before the end of everything, that he made you run a full night on your own, followed you around shadow-close. You were so proud when you did, when you were able to get the wicks to catch on the first try, when you were able to steady the mirror in its frame.
You wish you’d noticed how sad his smile seemed, how much it would bleed into your own.)
You can’t do this.
You drop the skirt in a heap. You stand, dull and numb, roll your shoulders, blink through the haze. The town can wait. The lighthouse can wait.
Instead you find yourself pushing your way out onto the beach, everything a hazy pink as the door slams shut behind you. It’s a clear day, and you swear you can see for miles more than there are in the world. The ocean seems to sap all the color from the sand, holds it as the tide goes out in minute rolling motions. The gulls caw and swoop somewhere beyond your vision, but you can only focus on the way everything is crystalline-pale, pastel like the earth itself is just the icing on the cake, reaching out forever until it isn’t.
You’re barefoot, still in your sleep clothes, choking on emotions you don’t have names for. It doesn’t matter: it feels like not much of anything matters because it’s all blooming in your chest, and suddenly you’re shucking off your sweater and wading into the water because you can and you are and the water is frigid, lost all its warmth to the early morning just like you.
You need it. You need to feel something.
The water is a shock. It’s a rush, harsh and exciting as it pulls and pushes you, hooks its fingers into your collar and drags you wherever it wants you to go.
In that moment you are every child that has ever sprinted across this shore, you are every sailor’s widow who has run after grief into the sea, letting the swell take you and hold you aloft and let you go. You are every exhale the sea has breathed, every summer storm and distant ice float you’ve ever seen, because there is something out there and that something is whole inside you for the first time in what feels like a long time.
The world seems to hover around you, vibrant and living just because it can. It fits like a second skin, you think. Slick like spilled oil that won’t wash away. Like you’re not the only living thing in this world.
And it doesn’t matter if you are the one watching or the one being watched, because you dive your head underwater and marvel at how the hair at the nape of your neck has grown so long, how your limbs feel so much lighter, even as you open your eyes to the sting of saltwater just to see the way the sunlight dapples through the waves.
You break the surface, and you’re dizzy with it. You can feel every breath still in your chest before it escapes. If you squint, the droplets on your eyelashes make the world into the facets of a brilliant diamond.
And you laugh.