A Maid on the Shore

A Maid on the Shore

Sonya Taaffe

Forlorn echoes at the water’s edge: he lowered his hands and hunched his shoulders beneath the heavy cloth of his jacket, a little embarrassed that someone might have heard him, that no one had heard him. Out on the water, overcast rain-light turned the waves grey as rough glass, cloudy, wind-scuffed, like something that he might stoop to lift from the tide-line in one curious hand. He bent and gathered pebbles, rattled the wet sliding weights between his fingers like a gambler nerving for the throw; instead he tossed each into an oncoming wave, dull curl and tumble of silt, foam, sand dragged into a still sculpture-curve for no more than a second before it broke and flooded against his feet, covered the sound of the pebbles’ striking with its liquid breath and crash. When the pebbles were gone, he stood there with his hands empty at his sides. Wind furled spray off the water, stung his face. He did not move. He did not know where to go.

Already rain was dropping out of the low clouds colored like the sea. The waves hedged him, pinned him to the broken line of stones and sea-strewn weed; rain nailed his shoulders, his hands, his upturned face when he raised his head and squinted into the iron sky, looking for someone, something, anything. He did not have the courage for another call across the water. One shout, no more, as though she would have heard him and shouldered the water aside at his cry: salt streams sleeking her hair that looked pelt-brown in shadow and russet black in the light, crimped leaves of kelp draped slick about her broad shoulders, striding out of the sea with her awkward land gait; feet stamped on the shingle as though she were never sure that the earth would not move under her feet, rock out from underneath her with the flirting sidestep of a wave, chancing element that she loved. He had never been able to love it for more than her sake. Rope and sailcloth and the hauling of nets had scarred his hands, sun and salt winds tracked history around his eyes and mouth, and he could not remember a time when he had not opened his mouth and tasted the shattered-glass scent of fish salting the air; still he did not trust the water that his eyes searched.

Shivering, he pulled his jacket around his shoulders and kicked at the rain-glossed stones, raised his voice once more into the wind and heard the words fall away unspoken behind his teeth. Come back. I love you. Are you there? Please. Pleading words, a suppliant’s words, defenseless, naked, and the men would rag him without mercy as he tried to drain his pint and pretend that he had not spent that afternoon raining into evening trudging the shore, crying for a woman whose name he had never known, who had given him no more than a dream-handful of her time, not worth his while, never within his reach. He was shaking, bent against rain and memory, remembering: when he first saw her surface from the water that ran from her skin like glass, round-shouldered, bulky, deceptive in her size and her deliberate movement, skin pale against the fall of hair dense and dark and wet as the pelt gathered around her shoulders; she had hold of his trouser cuff for a moment before she turned back into the next wave and he gripped the rail of the boat in both hands, open-mouthed, paint flaking under the pressure of his nails, and he would have thought her a flick of sun-dazed fancy but for the salt stiffness drying in the cloth; he closed his mouth and pulled his cap down against the sun and did not say anything to the men who pressed him for stories, Tadhg, and Micheal and Peadar, drinking men, fishing men, salt-weathered and storytelling, who knew the secret that he did not, how to ride on the sea’s back and joke about it afterward, how to wink at the girls behind the bar, how to catch one by the hand and let her go in the same dancing movement, though when he tried the same he nursed a five-fingered burn of shame on his face and walked the shore alone after that.

There he found her, sunning herself on a spar of rock where barnacles and limpets clustered and tough slippery weed sprang in clumps underfoot. Her hair slid unbound over her naked back, hot to his hand when he knelt and touched it, trembling–it felt like silk, though he had never touched silk, only heard the word and seen the weaving; like the fine shawls of his mother and sisters, that could pass through a wedding ring–until the last strands trailed through his fingers and he touched her skin, fever-hot, sweatless, and the sweat started on his brow. Only a little salt had dried along her spine, brushing away beneath his fingers. When she turned onto her back with a lazy, massive assurance that made the breath snap in his throat, his hands brushed across her breasts: the blood jumped in him and he could not speak. Under the hot summer sky, she pressed him down to the shingle and there were stones like fists jutting into the spaces between his ribs, shells crunching under their weight, sand in his hair and all the folds of his clothing; he blinked tears against the sun, blinded, dazzled, his hands full of the pelted richness of her hair, his head full of the sight and smell and feel of her, though she never bent her head for his kiss, he never tasted the salt currents of her mouth, and she seemed to run through his fingers like seawater or rain as light burst in the marrow of his bones. He came to himself because a seabird was crying in his ear, tugging at his hair with a curved and curious beak; he flailed it away with one hand and started awake, sandy-mouthed, sun-struck, sprawled on his back among the rocks with his jersey stuck with dried seaweed and his trousers in a state and a head on him like a week’s revelry spent in a night. Shamed, exhilarated and bewildered, he gathered himself together and hurried back to the boats. Behind their hands, he knew, grins and jokes were flashing at his expense; and the girls who looked at him out of the corners of their eyes were measuring him against some standard he did not understand, finding him wanting, and moving on. He did not care about them, now. If he lingered on the shore, she would come: like a delirium dream, as though the furnace heat of her body kindled a fever under his skin, like something out the stories that went around the table when the glasses were emptied, shedding her sea-sleek fur to take him in her arms, strong and broad and depthless as the sea; no matter how many times he reached for the core of her, eluding him every time. He told no one, and haunted the skerries in hungry secrecy.

If he was crying, he could not tell among the curtains of rain; he did not know what tears felt like, though he knew that something clawed in his throat, his breath scraped thin over loss; he did not know how to cry. Still he stood where the backwash of the tide flurried foam and broken bits of weed, staring out over the heaving skin of the sea. Waves dinted under the rain’s rough hand; darkness coming fast out of the west where the sun had gone cloud-hidden under the sea’s brim. Rain hissed and rattled on the water, drummed on the stones. He had nothing to say and knew it; the storm outspoke him. He clenched his shining wet hands and felt the nails dig into the calluses on his palms. The only calluses on her hands had spanned the linkage of her fingers, a roughened web at the top of the palm; he had loved to trace the strange skin with his fingers. The color of her eyes defied his gaze, drawing him into darkness, until he looked nowhere except where she was—

Hunched between rain-grey clouds and cloud-grey waves, he crammed both hands against his face and breathed out harsh, angry words into his palms until he could straighten again, could breathe the damp air coming off the sea, could move without feeling his bones splinter against her absence. Let them laugh at him, Micheal and Tadhg and Peadar coiling rope in the sunshine and winking at the girls who walked the shore with their shawls crossed over their breasts and their bright hair like flags in the wind, storytelling men drinking and saluting their clumsy dreamer as he stumbled out of the salt wind and the rain like a half-drowned man: he had touched their secret in the hot sunshine and the salt burn of sweat, and now he could turn his back on the trustless sea and walk against the wind, not pleading for her, not begging her back into his life, masterful. So she waited for me boys, and for all I know she’s waiting there now: seal-brown, seal-round, out on the shore where the gulls sweep and cry on the wind: and damned if I’m back there again. I’ve no wish to find myself a drowned decoration at the bottom of the sea. I’ve no wife to swim down and bargain for my bones. But stand me another round and I’ll tell you again how I found her sunning herself on her skin… Long faded from his cheek, the slap still smarted under the skin. But if he caught her hand tonight, when he had drunk his pint and told his story, if he touched her hair threaded ember-red in the flaring light, would she slap him again? He thought of her and walked faster, thought of black russet hair and felt his heart clench, tightened his teeth against memory and hurried over the rocks with long, sharp-moving strides.

Out of the rain-blown evening, crags and slabs of rock jutted black and darkened grey; he almost barked his shin against a fallen stretch of stone overhung with frilled weed, splashed one foot down in a tidepool risen with rain, laughed and came to a halt against a split back of stone where he leaned with his arms crossed, head tipped back to the pouring sky, and grinned until his face began to hurt. Then he saw that one of the stones was not a stone, was pale beneath its shag of seaweed, moving in response to his nearness and his hard panted breath of laughter, turning toward him a face full and broad-boned as the moon that tugged the tides: rain dripped into his open mouth and he could not tell if the sound in his throat was moving toward delight, anger, sorrow as he caught at the rock to steady himself, grit and seaweed slide beneath his palm and a barnacle biting into the heel of his hand; he was kneeling to reach out to her, thoughtless, wondering as the first time he saw the sun falling deep into her five-fathom eyes, his hand almost on the smooth round of her shoulder before he saw who was in her arms, whose face her dense hair curtained, whose mouths had met in a kiss as deep and potent as the turning tide.

Pale eclipse of a face among hair spray-darkened to the color of wet embers, slender hands holding fast to the heavy sea-graceful body that had held him between earth and sea on a hot summer’s afternoon: he cried out and felt slick pebbles sliding out from underneath his foot, collapsing like a heartstricken man when it was only the sea tugging his certainties out from under again, all story gone out of his head, all language lost. Blood shocked through him as he fell, rain-pounded, abandoned, remembering when it had been his hands on her secret skin, his fancies of what that long red hair would feel like tangled between his fingers, and it was no kindness that neither face laughed as he clambered to his feet and ran away through the rain, as the men would laugh as he drank bitter pint after pint until he could no longer taste the salt burning in the back of his throat like tears or the sea that had branded him when she reached out of the water to touch him once and make him hers forever, though she was not his, she had never been his, and neither had the girl whose hands Peader caught and loosed like a game, whose eyes Micheal snagged with a wink, who listened on the breath of Tadhg’s spun stories; they would never hear this story from him. Toward the lantern light he ran, choking on his breath, slipping on the wet stone and turf while the rain beat on his back, knowing that everyone knew the secret and he did not: though he did not know anymore what the secret was.

Their eyes stayed with him, though he ran like a madman all the way to the light.