When David got to work that morning, he discovered a large shell on his desk holding down errant pieces of paper. He smiled. His coworkers were always razzing him about how messy his desk was and now, it seemed, someone had taken it upon themselves to assist him.
He picked up the seashell; it was as big as his fist. It didn’t have pointy bits like a conch but was smooth, almost like a marshmallow that had been melted and stirred then set again.
He lifted the shell to his ear, something he had not done since he was a boy. He half expected the old notion that you could hear the ocean in an empty shell to have gone the same way as the Easter bunny and other childhood things, but he did hear waves, like the whispering of a giant.
He closed his eyes and found himself thinking of a beach side motel he and his mother had stayed at when he was around six. He hadn’t thought of that time in years but now an unusually vivid memory rose in him. It was of standing on the beach, listening to the crash of waves, while sand blew against his legs. The sand had felt like the pricks of insect bites and as a child he had been confused by this. He had seen bugs, ugly bugs, hopping out of a washed up tangle of kelp he’d poked with a stick. He hadn’t seen the bugs clearly, been too repulsed to get too close, but he had dimly seen, or perhaps imagined, that they had tusks of all things, and in his mind that meant they should be much larger than him not jumping about at his feet. When he felt the pricks of the sand he had thought they were the same bugs, now even smaller.
He opened his eyes and laughed, recalling how he had screamed and cried, telling his mother giant shrunken bugs were eating him.
That night, laying in bed, reflecting on how different his thinking and perception had been as a child, he had the growing feeling there was another memory in him wanting to surface. As sleepless hours went by, he became more and more convinced that something else had happened at the motel, something that — unlike the crawling insects and blown sand which he could reconfigure with an adults understanding — would be more strange if remembered now, not less. A child’s whole world is largely of unknowns. He could, he was sure, have witnessed something and not seen it for what it was, a truly unusual event.
When dawn arrived before sleep he got up, sent a message to work saying he wouldn’t be in, then drove to his mother’s, arriving in time for lunch.
“I can’t recall,” his mother said, taking the kettle off the stove.
“I think I was six,” he said. “So I guess it was before we moved here.” He thought about how the wind had been cold; had it been early spring or fall?
His mother set a tea pot on the table.
“A motel?” she asked, turning back to the cupboard and taking out a package of Peek Frean cookies. She shook the package before opening the top and looking inside.
“It was on the ocean,” he said. He had a clear image in his mind. “There were sliding glass doors and just a bit past the back deck you could walk to the beach.”
“Oh, you must mean Taylor Bay,” she said, opening the trash can and throwing the empty package out.
“No,” he replied.
“You used to love going to Taylor Bay,” she said, opening another cupboard.
“It wasn’t Taylor Bay.”
“You sure David? You were quite young, weren’t you?”
He knew it wasn’t, and if his mother thought about it at all, she would know that not only had they never stayed at Taylor Bay, there were no motels there.
He didn’t think too much of this discrepancy in recall with his mother. She had never been one for details or direction. Even now, after having lived in the same house for twenty years, she could get disoriented and find herself driving out of town instead of to her local shopping centre. And she still told her friends that he’d studied anthropology at university, her memory sealed by his description of an early course he had taken.
David took a sip of tea and wondered if his mother’s poor recall had inspired him to look more closely at his own memories. He didn’t think so; it didn’t explain the pull he felt.
The next morning, while waiting to pay for fuel at a gas station, he pulled a road map off a rack and examined it, but the lines of highways and names of towns did not evoke anything. Back in his car he found himself driving towards the coast. He didn’t think it likely that the motel, which he remembered as being old back then, would still be there. Still, he always had liked road trips and the possibility of finding the same beach excited him.
And then, after a morning of driving through forests and farmlands, it happened.
He rounded a corner and the highway broke through to an open view of the sea from atop a high cliff. As he began his descent to the coast, he recognized the bay below him, remembered seeing it for the first time as a young boy. He felt this so strongly it was as if his younger self was riding in the car beside him.
He remembered rolling down his window (his mother had complained about her hair getting in her eyes) and sticking his head out, imagining he was flying over the ground like superman.
He smiled, opened his window, extended his hand, and moved it like a rolling wave against the rushing air.
After many switch backs, the road levelled out and he drove past houses, cabins, craft stores, a gas station, and motels. And yes, after he had driven the whole length of the bay, he found the motel.
The sign, which he had had absolutely no memory of a moment before, he immediately recognized. He remembered looking at it while waiting in the car as his mother went inside. It was of a large seahorse, painted gold and green: the Seahorse Motel.
He pulled in and peered at the buildings in front of him. He could see now that he had not remembered it right. He had thought it had been like most motels, one long building with adjoining rooms, but it wasn’t. There were three small cottages that he could see, possibly more behind.
The place was not well kept. The paint on the cottages was sun bleached and flaking. Some of the pale roof tiles on the cottage in front of him had come loose, revealing their original colour beneath to have been a dark green. And there were dandelions everywhere. They rimmed the foundations of the cottages and flowed out over the gravel parking lot as if they were running from under the buildings, attempting to flee.
He looked past the cottages; unable to see the ocean he opened his door and got out.
Wind, not strong but full and steady, blew off the ocean, cool like it had been in his memory. His sense of smell had never been strong, but he had no problem perceiving the scent of the sea. And he heard it, the low thrush of waves falling on sand.
He walked to the end of the parking lot, stepped onto an old log, and looked at the horizon. The sun was low, hidden in clouds far out from land. The sea was not blue, but reflected the clouds above; it was the colour of concrete and appeared tired. Everything was so muted he felt like an actor in a black and white film.
He heard a screen door bang shut behind him. Turning he saw a man walking towards him.
When the man was about ten feet away he stopped. He gazed above David’s head as if examining something. David turned, wondering if perhaps a bird had caught the man’s interest, but somehow he didn’t think so, and looking he saw nothing in the sky. When he turned back, the man came closer.
“Hello,” the man said, his eyes the blue the sky and water should be.
“Hello,” David replied.
“You looking to stay?”
He had not had time to think of that.
“You have a cottage available?”
The man waved his hand.
“Take your pick,” he said. “The newer motels drop their rates at this time of year and the few people who come through at this time stay elsewhere. I can let you stay for half our usual.”
David made a show of looking around, but he already knew he would.
David slid back the glass door and let the wind and the sound of the sea enter the cottage. The deck before him looked small, but he was certain this was the same cottage he had stayed in as a boy. Before him, dandelions seemed to be in conflict with another plant. A single golden flower grew up through a tangle of wild succulents, while other dandelions watched from around the edge of the cottage. Were the dandelions advancing? he wondered. Or was this other foliage? Was the lone dandelion making headway into indigenous terrain, or was it the first to be attacked by invaders from the shore?
It didn’t appear, as he drove looking for a place to eat, that there was any real town. There was no shopping centre, no grocery or drug store. The gas station where he stopped to refuel had a few shelves on which, besides the usual chips and chocolate bars, sat two lonely loaves of white bread and various summer-time condiments. The fridge held ice and pop, a single carton of eggs, and empty racks where a twisted sign indicated wieners had been displayed and probably would be again when summer returned. He was told by the teenager behind the counter that he would have to drive half an hour south to buy more substantial fare. Similarly, the first restaurant he came across was closed, and the second. He drove the whole length of the bay until at the end he found one that was open.
It did not look promising.
Walking up to the front doors David saw only one other parked car, and the motel the restaurant was attached to showed no signs of activity. He was not greeted by people or sounds when he entered. He walked past an unmanned reception desk and down a narrow unlit hallway till he emerged into a surprisingly bright and pleasant room. The front wall was not straight but curved like the prow of a ship, with full windows facing towards the ocean. Outside, the horizon glowed softly. It was not a vivid and spectacular sunset. No rays pierced the clouds, which held only the slightest tinge of orange, but it was beautiful in a calm, assured way.
A man sat at a table facing the view, a glass of beer in his hand. His light hair looked like a crashing wave caught in a photo; it rolled up off his forehead, gaining height as it drifted towards the back of his head. David heard a cup connect with plate and turned to his left. Another man, fingers pinched delicately through the small handle of a coffee cup, was staring at him, as was the man who sat across from him. They both had on dark suits, not expensive, nor had they recently seen the inside of a dry cleaner. The men did not nod a greeting, nor go back to their half eaten pies, but stared at him unblinking. David imagined that if he had a better sense of smell, he would be able to detect a lingering touch of embalming fluid emanating from them.
He moved towards a table on the other side of the room, but as he passed the man with wavy hair, he saw that the table next to him also had a better view of the setting sun.
As David sat down, the man turned and looked at him lazily, or perhaps drunkenly, his smile friendly enough, and a sharp contrast to the two men at the table behind, who had swivelled their heads and were still watching him intently, unconcerned or unconscious of being rude.
“Hello,” David said to the man with wavy hair as he sat down.
“Hello,” the man said, pointing his beer towards him before lifting it to his mouth. The man looked at David while he drank, keeping his eyes on him until his beer, which had been half full, was all gone. When the man had finished drinking, he put his glass down, smiled as if at some private reminiscence, then startled David by bellowing out, “Sarah.”
This produced no immediate results, but after several long moments, moments in which the man continued to hold his gaze, David heard footsteps in the hall.
Over the man’s shoulder, he saw a woman around his own age enter the room, her dark hair close on either side of her face, like stage curtains closing. She wore a simple, light blue dress and had a beer in one hand, evidently familiar with the wants of the man who had yelled.
The woman stopped when she saw David, stopped like a bird hitting glass. The men in suits swivelled their heads between her startled stance and David.
It was for only a moment that the woman stood still and their eyes connected, but that moment seemed larger and fuller than the time accorded it. If he were to learn it had lasted centuries unchanging, waiting for the machinery of time to begin to roll again, he would not have been surprised.
The woman walked past the men at the table and it seemed to David that he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes and that her shoulders were taut in the anticipation of trouble.
She placed the beer in front of the man beside David, picked up his empty glass and held it lightly, as if weighing its potential as a weapon.
“Perhaps this man would like a menu,” the man said reaching for his beer, “or a drink.”
“Kitchen’s closed,” she said.
The man turned to her. “Surely a sandwich is in the realm of possibility. He appears to have travelled far.”
Sarah looked down. The room, as when he had first entered, as when she had first entered, was thickly silent. Words, footsteps, were the anomalies, allowed, but visitors with few rights.
Sarah lifted her gaze back to David. This time, instead of fear, her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened with what he thought was a trace of anger.
“I don’t want to be a bother,” he said quietly.
Their eyes locked.
In David’s mind there appeared a scene of being at the beach, of patting a small, blue, upside down pail with his hands and then lifting it gingerly to reveal a compressed tower of sand. A hand, not his, came into view and placed a shell on top.
“I can make a sandwich,” she said.
“That would be nice.”
“Anything to drink?”
“Could I have some tea?”
He nodded again. In his mind he saw a hand holding thin seaweed, the kind of sea weed that you can almost see through when you hold it up to the sun. The hand placed the sea weed around the base of the small sand tower.
She turned away; her thin dress billowing slightly as she did so. She walked past the men at the table, who had not stopped staring. One was slowly lifting a sliver of pie towards his mouth. His eyes on the woman, his aim was low; the fork hit his lip as she walked past. The man pushed the piece of pie into his mouth, then turned to David with blue smeared lips.
David adjusted his chair so that it pointed away from the men at the table and out at the view. As he sat waiting for his sandwich, he was unsure if the silence was more uncomfortable than it would be to have a conversation with the man beside him considering the audience they had. When the man did not speak, but stared as raptly at the ocean as he had before, David followed his example.
When Sarah returned with his sandwich and tea, she placed them on the table without speaking. She also brought another beer for the man, at which he smiled and drained the one in his hand. When David had finished half his sandwich, he heard the rub of chairs on the floor behind him. He did not turn and look. He was certain the men in suits were standing, staring at him. He took two bites of his sandwich before he heard footsteps walking away and then he did turn, making sure that the men in crumpled suits were truly gone. He wanted to comment to his neighbour on the men’s strange manner, but the words did not come to him. He looked towards the man beside him who, continuing to stare out the window at the sea and sky, much darker than they had been, said, “Maybe tomorrow night?”
Before David could answer, or even begin to speculate on what this meant, the man stood, held his beer up to the departed sun, drank the last of it, then turned and walked out.
The woman, Sarah, did not return.
When David had eaten his sandwich and drank his tea, he got up and called tentatively into the hall. There was no response. He sat back down, tested the small stainless teapot she had brought to see if there was anything left and, discovering it empty, got back up.
“Hello,” he called again into the hall.
He walked to the reception desk.
“Hello,” he tried again.
When no one answered, and he heard no sound of movement, he returned to the dining room, took out a ten dollar bill — it was either that or a twenty and he did not feel the dry sandwich and tea deserved it — and placed it under a knife beside his plate and left.
At his car, he turned and looked back. He wasn’t sure, but the curtains of an upstairs window moved as if a hand had been holding them to the side and had just let go.
Sleep did not come easily. The bed was harder than he liked, and cold; it took a long time for his body to warm the sheets. He did like the sound of the ocean though, and the absence of the city noises he usually heard in his apartment.
When he woke, he lay in bed trying to remember his dreams. He felt they had been important. There was something about a door but, in the way of dreams, the door, while being a door, had been something other too, like a cat or a tree.
It was a sunny day. Once he got up, he sat on the cottage’s back step, rolled up his pant legs, then walked onto the beach barefoot. As bright as it was, he discovered that it was still quite cool and walking barefoot was not as enjoyable as he had hoped it would be. He did venture into the water though, remembering as a child laughing at the feel of outgoing waves eroding the sand beneath his feet. The tide was advancing, though, not retreating, and the sand beneath him stayed firm, while the icy water felt as if it were cutting his skin.
He walked back to the cottage dejected, but not inconsolably so. He decided go into town, have breakfast, come back and explore again properly attired.
As he made his way up from the beach past a ribbon of driftwood to where clumps of succulents appeared like small islands in the sand, a voice called out to him. He hadn’t expected to be addressed and at first thought the wind was sending him sounds meant for someone else. Looking up, he saw the man who had rented him the cottage gesturing to him, his movements overly dramatic, as if the two of them were in the midst of gale force winds and he was offering sanctuary.
“Hello,” the man said when David had walked up sufficiently close to hear. “Would you like some coffee?”
He did want some coffee, though he stood for a moment without speaking. Here, away from the water, the sand was drier. It blew against his legs and he felt tiny pricks along the back of his calves.
The man smiled back. He had a softness to his face and David sensed a loneliness in him, a long, well-established loneliness.
“Coffee would be great,” David said. “I haven’t had a chance to get any groceries.”
“Come in, come in,” the man gestured, again too largely, his arms moving as if they were pulling in a net.
David followed the man stepping up through the sliding door at the back of his cottage.
“Here,” the man said, extending a towel towards him with which to wipe his feet. “How do you like your coffee? Cream? Sugar?”
“Black would be fine.”
When he was done wiping the sand and moisture from his feet, David looked around the room. Shelves extended from floor to ceiling along one whole wall, filled with all manner of things. David found himself squatting down. On a low shelf, sticking out from behind a piece of driftwood, was a thin gold rod the length of his hand and just slightly wider in diameter than an ink tube from inside a pen.
He picked the rod up. It was light, but he sensed that it would not bend to any pressure his hands could give.
David looked up. The man, holding a cup of coffee in each hand, was staring at the rod in David’s fingers, his mouth open in mid-sentence. David felt that by holding the object he had invaded the man’s privacy, had broken ancient rules of guests and hosts.
He did not replace the small rod on the shelf, however. He stood up holding it. The man backed up a few steps, his mouth still hanging open.
Feeling uncomfortable, David turned from the man and looked at the shelves.
Why had he been drawn to this one object out of all that were there before him? At eye level was a beautiful purple spiral of a worn shell, beside it a full wing of a dark feathered bird. Why, and how, had he seen the object that was in his hand? Certainly his eyes should have gravitated towards these other more noticeable and attractive objects first. And now that he looked at the items on the shelves more closely, he saw that what at first he had assumed to be simply interesting pieces of driftwood, were in fact subtly carved. The knots and grains of weather moulded wood had been delicately emphasized, causing faces and animals and birds to appear like shy hallucinations. He knew the man had carved them; they echoed the loneliness David sensed in him. He wished now that he had noticed these figures first and commented on the skill they evinced, but he hadn’t, and looking back at the man, he saw it was too late now. There were tears in the man’s eyes and — David was not entirely sure if he was imagining it or not — the thin rod in his hand was vibrating with a soft current.
The man composed himself and stepped forward, holding out a cup of coffee.
David took it.
The man kept his hand extended. David looked down at the rod in his hand, then reluctantly gave it to him.
The man slid his hand inside his jacket, depositing the rod into a pocket, then patted his chest over top of where it was.
“She gave it to me and told me to look after it,” he said as if this explained everything.
They went outside, sat on low beach chairs, and drank their coffee watching crows along the tide line scratch the sand with their claws and peck at it with their beaks, feeding on creatures buried beneath.
“I had forgotten,” the man said after a time. “Well, not forgotten, just stopped thinking about it.”
He looked out towards the horizon.
“It’s been so long,” the man said quietly.
Sitting beside this man, David felt as if he were at the bedside of a loved one in a hospital. He didn’t know what to say, but felt it was important he was there.
After David had drunk his coffee, and the cup was becoming cold in his hand, the man spoke again.
“I don’t think they remember either,” he said sadly. “Things…” his hand fluttered as if picked up by the breeze, “things distract and over time bury the past.”
The man looked at David, seeming to need some response. Not knowing what to say, David nodded.
“But you,” the man said smiling. “You’re here.”
David smiled back.
After another long period of silence, David got up.
“Thank you for the coffee,” he said.
He stood in front of the man and held out his hand. Like the man’s earlier emphatic gestures, the man shook his hand in overly large up and down strokes before stopping and squeezing David’s hand firmly.
“Don’t let him fool you,” the man said looking him in the eye. “He’s as dangerous as he ever was.”
He went to fetch his mother. He had been exploring the beach and at first that had been preferable to waiting in the cottage for his mother to shower and drink her coffee, but after awhile he felt too alone. It was not enough to chase gulls and cause them to fly; he needed to be seen doing so. It was not enough to be the only one to look at the things he found. He needed his mother to also hold the tiny spirals of broken shells and wonder with him. It was uncomfortable to see something beautiful or interesting on his own; he didn’t know how to contain it. So he walked back to the cottage holding some of his best finds: a dried out baby crab fully intact, a piece of rounded green glass, and an oyster shell with sea weed attached to it, looking like a withered hand.
When he was close to the cottage he saw his mother sitting outside, not on a chair, but on the ground, leaning against the sliding glass door, her knees drawn up and her arms resting on them. He called out to her as he approached, excited to show her what he had in his hands. Her head turned so slowly towards him that he in turn slowed his pace and then, when he was still twenty feet or so away, he stopped entirely.
He had never seen his mother, or any adult, cry before. He had not known it was something they did. He did not know how to respond. His mother did not say anything, did not rise to greet him. She looked at him for a moment then leaned her head against the glass behind her and closed her eyes.
It frightened him.
He stood there lost, not able to go to her and not able to leave.
He felt a tug on his shirt.
A girl, a few years older than him, motioned with her hand and, not knowing what else to do, he followed her back to the beach.
They walked until they came to a log, its trunk buried in the sand as if it had been thrown there by some giant. The roots stuck out above the ground and someone had placed a stone in the centre of them, making an eye, turning the sun bleached log into a dragon, its roots now whiskers and teeth, horns and scales.
“Here,” the girl said, holding out a plastic blue pail. “Go get some wet sand.”
David carefully put down the things he was carrying and did as he was asked.
Later, after he had made a ring of towers and she had decorated them with sea weed and shells and feathers and he had not thought of his mother for quite some time, the girl surprised him by saying, “She wasn’t crying because of you.”
That thought had never occurred to him.
“She was crying because of your father.”
“He’s a bad man.”
“He is not,” David said, feeling attacked.
The girl did not reply, and after a moment David looked up from his moat digging to find her staring at him.
“My father’s a bad man too,” she said.
David did not know if his father was a bad man, did not think so, but the way she looked at him, he wanted his father to be. He wanted to share this grown-up like seriousness with her.
“My father’s a very bad man,” the girl said, placing a feather on the castle wall, “and like your mother, I have to do something about it.”
He did not go into town for groceries like he’d planned. The thought of leaving the bay and entering the outside world not only did not appeal to him, he felt it might endanger his quest. The past, like a hungry feral cat, was showing itself, but that it would continue to do so was not certain.
He spent the day alternating between strolls. First to the point south of the motel and then, after stopping back at the cottage, where he made himself some tea he found in the cupboard, he walked north towards the end of the bay, but not all the way. He did not want to go as far as the restaurant. Not yet.
After his second, longer walk, he lay on the bed in his cottage and it was then he had remembered meeting the girl and building the sand castle.
And then, standing at the sink, filling a glass with water, looking out at the ocean, an image had surfaced in his mind of her dark hair blown back in the wind as he ran to keep up with her longer legs.
“My father says it’s time for us to leave.”
“No,” he said, grabbing her arm and making her stop.
She looked at him.
“You’re right,” she said. “We mustn’t let him leave. Will you help me?”
“It’s….dangerous,” she said.
“That’s OK,” he replied.
She took his hand in hers and squeezed it.
He took a deep breath and felt himself grow larger inside.
When David drove to the restaurant, the same lone car was in the parking lot that had been there the day before and the reception desk was still as lifeless as a museum exhibit.
“Do you like fish? Halibut to be exact?” the man with the wavy hair said the moment David stepped into the dining room.
“Uh…Yes,” David answered.
“Good, good,” the man nodded. “Caught today by our skilled and dedicated neighbour. Rice? A white marinade sauce?”
“No. You’re right,” the man said, jabbing the air with his finger. “Why cover up the natural flavor? Grilled, that’s it. With potatoes. Yes, and some pickled cabbage on the side for contrast and digestion.” He rubbed his hand in circles across his stomach at the last word.
The man pointed to the table David had eaten at the night before, then disappeared down the hall, singing as he moved away. The man’s voice trailed off, then became loud again as he returned with a beer and a glass and put them on the table.
David looked at them.
“On the house,” the man said, patting David’s shoulder. Singing again, he turned and left.
When there was only an inch of beer left in his glass, and the sun was a similar visual distance above the horizon, David heard footsteps behind him. He turned, hoping it would be Sarah, but it was the men in suits. They looked at him like he was a strange animal, or perhaps like they were strange animals. They made their way to the same table they had been at the night before. They continued to stare at him as they sat down. The one who had smeared pie on his lips the day before collided with the side of the table. He did not stop looking at David as he slid his hip along the table’s edge and lowered himself into a chair.
David found that he was not as disturbed by the men as he had been the night before. He felt no ill intentions towards him from them.
Moments after their arrival, the man returned, expertly carrying five steaming plates, two plates in each hand and one balanced on the crook of his arm. He stopped at the table with the men in suits, who each took a plate, and then came over to David and placed the rest.
“Sarah!” he yelled as he had the night before. The man looked and saw David’s nearly empty beer. “Ah yes,” he said, and walked away, calling out “Sarah” again when he was in the hallway.
The man returned with a beer in each hand and sat down.
“Bon appetit,” he said, toasting David.
David had never thought it before, but he wondered now if his poor sense of smell meant he also had a diminished sense of taste. He had never been one to fuss much over food. He ate what he considered to be a healthy diet but, unlike his friends, he did not become enamoured of certain restaurants or insist on particular coffees or wines. Tonight, however, he was enjoying eating far more than usual. He could taste the freshness of the halibut and felt that with every bite he was taking in some of the strength and mystery of the sea.
They ate without talking; the man emitting slight noises of pleasure as he chewed. Halfway through their meal, Sarah arrived. She sat on the other side of the man with wavy hair, all three of them facing the window. David could not see her without leaning forward and turning his head. He tried to think of things with which to start a conversation and give him a reason to look at her, but he could think of nothing better than “it’s a beautiful view,” which he finally did say.
“Wait for it,” the man responded. “I think we are in luck tonight.”
Unlike the night before, it was a clear, cloudless evening. A golden path sparkled along the surface of the sea from the shore beneath them to where the sun touched the horizon. As they watched, the sun moved below the water, but the man beside him did not stop looking, and, when David leaned forward to pick up his glass of beer and use the opportunity to look sideways at Sarah, he saw that she was gazing as intently as the man was. Neither of them was looking at where the sun had been. Instead they were concentrating on a band of green sky between the darker blue of the beginning night and the lighter blue lingering on the horizon.
“There,” the man said reverently.
David heard footsteps. The men in suits came and stood by their table, staring as well at the changing colour of the sky.
“There,” the man quietly said again. “The colour of home.”
Putting his glass back on the table, David stole another sideways glance. The four of them were so still, so absorbed. He felt as he had as a child when adults had been attentive to things he had not understood.
And then that short period of shifting light was over, and Sarah was standing, collecting plates, and the men in suits turned away, not back to their table, but out and down the hall.
Sarah did not return and the man beside him, who had been jovial and friendly earlier, now seemed as welcoming as a sleeping python.
After it was clear that Sarah would not return, and the man beside him was not going to break the silence, David stood, took his wallet out, and put a twenty dollar bill on the table.
This time, when he looked back before entering his car, he did not see the curtain of an upstairs window fall back into place as if someone had been watching him. The curtain was held to the side and she was standing there staring.
“What is that?” he asked, watching her roll the thin, gold coloured rod between her thumb and small fingers, her eyes closed, concentrating.
“An Ancil,” she replied.
“What’s it for?” he asked.
She didn’t answer him, but continued to run it back and forth.
David did not know how long the storm had been going on. He woke to rain battering the sliding door, wind whistling around the corners of the cottage, and waves sounding too close and too large. As he lay there listening, he thought he heard another sound, a voice, coming closer, angry, possibly drunk. The wind and waves were so loud he was not sure if there was a voice, but then the glass door shattered as something heavy crashed on the floor and rolled across the room.
“I know you have it,” the man yelled. “Who do you think I am? Did you think I would not know? Come out!”
David scrambled in the dark for his pants and shoes, not that he planned to go outside, but he did not want to meet this threat in his underwear, and he did not want to cut his feet on the shards of glass scattered on the floor.
He managed to slip on pants, but not find his shoes, before the man was there at the mouth of the broken door. David stayed still for a moment, crouched low, hoping to be hidden by shadow. A hand grabbed the back of his t-shirt and pulled him off balance. He fell and felt a sickening jab in his right knee; pain like he had never felt before tore up the inside of his thigh. The man yanked him through the door and dragged him towards the roaring sea. David twisted, trying to grip the ground with his feet. The man pulled him across a log and David fell over the side. His head snapped back, striking the ground, and then he was no longer aware of the rain, the wind, the man, or the glass embedded in his knee.
She came by their cottage just as they were finishing eating a dinner of sandwiches and potato chips. She knocked at the glass door, and his mother rose before he was able to, and invited her in. She saw the half-packed suitcases on the couch.
“You’re leaving?” she asked.
“Yes,” his mother answered.
“I’m afraid so.”
She looked at David and he felt so guilty — even though there was nothing he could do — that it took all his resolve not to cry and not to turn away.
He put his plate in the sink and went with her outside.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out when they were away from the cottage.
He hadn’t known how she had planned to make her own father stay, and his crying and shouting earlier had not had any impact on his mother’s decision.
She did not address his apology but instead said, “I’ll come tonight; listen for me.” She made an O with her mouth and called out like an owl. “When you hear that, come outside. I’ll be waiting.”
He nodded, though he was not sure how easy that would be. Seeming to sense this, she knelt on the sand and pulled him down to face her.
“Please,” she said, and for once she did not seem as strong and sure as she always had. “Will you?” She squeezed his hand. “I need your help.”
He nodded. “If my mom wakes up, I’ll run and meet you at the castle.”
She laughed at this. Not making fun of him, he felt, but because he had surprised and impressed her. She hugged him then, and though he was too young and too small to fall in love, he did. And though he would not think of her when he was older and in the arms of other women, he would always compare those later embraces to this one and be unsatisfied.
That night he tried not to fall asleep. He lay on the couch, staring out the window, until he heard his mother’s breathing deepen and small sighs come from where she lay on the bed around the corner of the open room. He woke to a hand shaking his shoulder and his friend standing over him; the finger at her lips barely visible in the dark. He followed her outside, slipping on the shoes he had left there, while she quietly slid the door shut behind them.
“I’m sorry I fell asleep,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you call.”
She smiled. “It’s OK. It took longer than I thought it would.”
He looked around and saw that the skyline was starting to glow with a new day.
She took his hand and they walked to the dragon log by which they had built their castle.
She sat down and patted the ground for him to join her.
“I need you to take something with you and hide it for me,” she said.
“Will this help keep your father here?”
“He. We. Will be trapped here.”
“Will you do it?”she asked.
“Lie down,” she said.
When he had lain on his back she straddled his chest.
“Keep your eye open,” she said.
She held the Ancil just above his left eye. She rolled her finger against her thumb, spinning the small gold rod. From its tip fell a single point of light.
At first all he felt was a slight irritation. He tried to blink, but the fingers of her other hand held his eyelids open.
His eye watered until he could no longer see her face and still his eye watered until it seemed like he was at the bottom of a pool. And there, on top of the pool, a star floated. As he watched, it sank down through the water of his eye, gracefully, slowly, determinedly.
It fell deeper than his vision could follow and he felt it inside, like the touch of the most beautiful note ever played. It moved into him and hid itself in a coral corner of his mind.
He lifted his head and heard his own voice moaning. Sarah was kneeling in front of him, a piece of blood covered glass in one hand, her other hand holding a towel to his knee which throbbed explosively. Behind her David saw the man who had fed him fish, who had dragged him from his cottage. The man was sitting on a chair, his nose bleeding. At his sides, holding an arm each, were the silent staring men in suits. Behind them David saw the shelves he had seen that morning, lined with carvings and gifts of the sea.
“How dare you?” the wavy haired man shouted, struggling. He was larger and stronger looking than the men holding him, but their hands pinioned his arms like vises and his efforts moved them not at all.
“And you,” he said, turning to the man whose cottage this was, who held a shovel in his hand, looking quite prepared to use it, had probably used it already, judging by the wavy haired man’s broken and bleeding nose. “You’re part of this? I will rend you and your ripples. I will tear your threads out of existence. Your kin will never formulate again.”
The man, who had looked so tender that morning, was calm and solid in the face of these threats.
“I aligned my threads with yours because you were of the best of us,” he said. “But I will stay thick and large till my time is done before I ever let you return and impinge upon the others.”
The man strained against his captors, yelling in frustration.
“Release me at once,” he said to the men in suits, “and I will only reshape you.”
But they did not.
The man noticed David was conscious and glared at him. David felt a small furtive movement somewhere behind his eyes.
“Father,” Sarah said. “You can never return.”
At this, the man’s proud head fell to his chest and he wept loudly, louder than David had ever heard anyone cry. The room filled with his torment. David’s skin could not keep it out. It was becoming his own and it was not something he was strong enough to bear.
“Please,” the man said, looking at David. “If not me, let her go. It is not right that she no longer moves along the lines. That her grace does not enrich the others.”
David found himself agreeing to this plea, but the carver was firm. “You know that can’t be,” he said.
David, who knew nothing of anything he had heard and only felt the anguish that penetrated him, called out “Why? Why can’t it be?”
He looked at the woman who had been his friend when he was a boy and he, like then, was willing to do anything for her, even if it meant his life.
“My father and I are linked,” she told him. “With me there, he could always find his way on our shared threads.”
There was a flash of green light and before David was knocked backward by the man’s body striking him, the room, and everything in it, the walls, the furniture and even those standing, seemed to him, just for a moment, to be like he had been told they were in science class at school, composed primarily of empty space. For just a moment, he could see through everything, as if nothing was in fact there and he was alone, adrift in the void between stars.
Then he was on the ground, the man behind him holding his neck in the crease of his elbow.
Sarah turned and calmly, as if the man’s actions were of absolutely no concern, said simply “No.”
And the man surprisingly released his grip.
David moved quickly away, turned back and saw the man nod at his daughter.
“I…” the man paused, taking a deep, long breath, “…will let you go.”
The man reached out and squeezed his daughter’s hand. “You must go. You must be part of home again.” He softened his grip. “I’m sorry.”
The sky showed the beginning traces of dawn, like it had that morning years before when she had given him the key — that was a grain of sand and also a star — to hold and hide, and take with him.
Gulls circled above as the grey sea crashed against the shore.
David’s bare feet were cold; he leaned against the shovel in his hand, taking weight off his wounded knee. The others stood before him in shallow water, Sarah facing her father, her hands in his, he flanked by the silent men.
The man released his daughter’s hands, looked at David, gave the slightest of nods to the carver of found wood, then turned, and with one hand in each of the suited men’s, the three of them walked into the sea.
“Do you still have the Ancil?” she asked, after they had stared at the sea for a long time
“Of course,” the carver said.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out the small golden rod and handed it to her.
She turned to David, took his hand, and led him up the beach.
He had not noticed, and had not thought to look for it, believing that it would have been long gone, but she led him to the log that had once had a head of a dragon. It was buried deeper, and the roots that had been teeth and horns were worn away.
There, behind the log, she sat atop him and held the rod’s tip just above his open eye.
“Look,” she said. “Look into the Ancil.”
And, as when he was a child, she held the lids of his eye open until it watered freely. And moving up from its resting place in the folds of his mind, leaving a wake of childhood memories, a point of light pierced the bottom of his eye, rose up through his vision, floated for a moment on the surface of his world, then disappeared above his tears.
He held himself from asking if she must leave so soon. He knew that for her it was not soon at all and, as much as he wanted to, he would not ask her to linger. He did ask her one question. He was not sure she would be able to answer, but he knew if he didn’t ask he would regret it for the rest of his life.
“Where are you from?”
“It’s not really a where. Watch,” she said.
She took a step back, then another and another, putting one foot behind her at a time. With each step she did not get any further away, but somehow, with each step, she became smaller and smaller, as if he were looking the wrong way through a telescope.
And then she was gone.