Tides – Ailsa Bristow

Tides – Ailsa Bristow

December 2021

The woman stood at the edge of a cliff, suspended halfway between sky and sea. At her back, beyond the rocky outcrop, was the ancient cottage, shutters clattering with the ocean breeze.

She breathed the world in. There had been a storm last night, and the world was salt-scrubbed clean. She watched the sun begin to roll over the horizon, painting the sky in hazy yellows and soft pinks. It was a day for starting over.

She began to walk. Her legs were still stiff, foreign things, and she stumbled a little at first, but soon found her stride. She tried not to think about the old man she’d left behind in the cottage. In the inside pocket of the windbreaker he’d loaned her was a thick roll of green bills that she’d found in a kitchen drawer that morning.

She walked. The skin on her hands blackened with dirt that she stooped to gather by the fistful for no other reason than to inhale its foreign fragrance. She walked, letting the roar of the sea grow more distant with every step. The land seemed quiet until she trained herself to listen for the furtive creatures burrowing in the earth and to hear the wind singing in the trees. From time to time, she spotted the dim shapes of squat buildings in the distance. She avoided them, her stomach clenching as she remembered the way the old man’s eyes had crinkled as he smiled.

Perhaps it was better not to risk getting too close to other strangers.

She walked.

As she walked, she gathered new words, fragments of overheard stories, questions. Her days were loose. She might rest beneath the shade of a beech tree for hours or run as fast as she could just to feel the way the wind tugged at her hair. She slept in barns and in hollows and, once, in the bed of a pick-up truck, where the blankets she found felt like a gift, just for her. She slipped among the people whose words she ate up, who shared food with her, always a passer-by. She thought she might keep herself safe, that way.

When she arrived in the city it was airless, choked with dust and fumes. She almost turned around and walked straight back the way she had come, ready to give up on whatever impulse had brought her this far. Only curiosity forced her feet forward.

She wanted more stories. She wanted answers.

There were words for what she’d done. She was a runaway, a fugitive, a thief. But none of the words seemed to fit right; they cut tight against her skin.

She had been seeking solid ground for a long time. Not even the ocean had been wide or deep enough to contain her restless heart.

Her mother, her voice crashing and roaring, had told her: “This is who you are. This is where you belong.”

Though it had never been spoken between them, she knew her mother was lying. Or at least, she wasn’t telling the whole truth. There was another world she belonged to. It didn’t matter that the ocean was her home, her inheritance. It was also her prison.

Without meaning to, she had found the beach—colliding fragments of all that made her: salt, shadow, stillness. She was transmogrified; fresh bone grazing against socket; new skin tested by sharp rocks. Her untested lungs had choked on cooling air.

Her mother roared in fury as her wayward daughter scrambled along the beach. Wave after wave lashed her legs, tried to pull her back in. She had dug her fingers into the grit and damp of the sand. Her hands had found rocks, a way to tether herself to the land. When the old man found her, she was still clinging to them, the skin on her palms red and raw.

The old man had lived his whole life by the sea. She could smell it on him. He ought to have known enough stories to warn him away from beautiful young women washed up on the shore. Still, he had covered her with his jacket, and offered her his hand, and she had taken it, pulling herself up and away from the sand, the stone, the water.

She tried not to think of how much of herself she might have left behind.

The cottage was ancient—too few windows, and all of them small—but comfortable enough. In the kitchen, plates and bowls were stacked on every surface; spoiling fruit spilled out of a bowl, but the fridge was bare and empty.

“Sorry,” the old man said, with a vague wave of the hand. “Since my wife died, I’ve not had much company.”

He’d fumbled through the cupboards, at last pulling out a battered box of pasta and a dusty jar of sauce.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “About your wife.”

His jaw tightened. “S’alright,” he mumbled, but she could read the grief in his face: the way his eyes seemed to look just past her when he spoke, the rumpled shirt, the hollows of his cheeks.

“Tell me a story,” she said, and, as they sat down to eat the pasta he had cooked until flaccid, he had.

There was a young man, lived round these parts. Fisherman by trade. Cut him open and his veins would have run with salt water, that’s right. He knew the water like a husband knows his wife. Knew just by looking at the water when a squall was coming. Knew never to set sail on a Friday, knew never to tempt the winds by whistling when at sea. Knew the sea for a goddess, and a fearsome one at that, and knew enough not to scoff at the devotions the older men made as they set sail, even though they were good Christians when they set foot back on the land.

And the young man fell in love with sea. Even when he was not out to fish, he would journey out in his boat, to admire the glimmer of sunlight upon the waves. When the water was calm, he’d let the little boat drift, and let his fingers run back and forth through the icy waters, a caress. When a storm blew, he roared along with the sea, his heart thrumming.

And the sea, in her own way, loved him too. Loved the solidity of him, loved his quick-quick energy. Loved his youth and his wonder, loved the startling blue of his eyes.

One day, a storm caught the young fisherman off-guard—the swelling waves tugged him in towards a sandbar, tossed the boat over jagged rocks.

The fisherman ought to have died, but the sea, well she scooped him up. Carried him to a cove and forced herself—at great cost—to join him on the shore, so she could pump the water from his lungs. Kept his frozen body warm with her own body, pressed a kiss to his raw and bloody lips.

She had waited, unwilling to speak lest she break the story’s spell, but the man’s voice had faded and drifted. The light outside the cottage died and the plink plink plink of rain against glass filled the silence between them.

“And?” she asked when she could bear it no longer. “What happened next?”

The old man startled, blinked at her as if he’d forgotten she was there. His hand grazed the rough stubble on his chin.

“The story ends the way all stories about love must end,” the man said, his smile wry. “Tragedy and loss.” He’d shifted abruptly out of his chair, began to gather the plates from dinner. She hurried to help him; her hands clumsy as she dried the heavy pan. When the task was done, the old man stood staring at his hands, pruned by the dish water. He didn’t look up, but when he spoke it was clearly: “Still, better to have loved and lost. Better to have loved and lost.”

The city invited strangers. She noticed the way the people moved through it and left only the barest of traces. A damp palm print on a revolving door, the lingering smell of perfume in a bathroom stall.

The city was a place to disappear into; a place where she could have a life of her own making.

She became skilled at getting by. She learned how to take favours without giving up too much of herself. Learned the city’s rhythm, grew used to the heat of so many bodies pressed up against one another. Learned how, sometimes, if she looked into someone’s eyes for just the right amount of time, they would forget what she’d neglected to pay for. They always sent her off with a smile.

Still, it didn’t matter how far she had travelled from the ocean. She woke sometimes to the sound of crashing waves. The water in her bathroom sink ran thick with salt, coating the basin with crystals. When she walked down the grey city streets seagulls as lost as she was cried out, come home, home come home, come, come.

A man with eyes the colour of moss approached her in a bar.

“Adam,” he said, sticking out his hand. She couldn’t help but smile at his boyish bravado. She gave him a name, let him buy her a drink.

He asked her where home was.

“That’s a complicated question,” she said, and he nodded as if he understood. He told her about the place where he grew up. The landlocked mountains where rock hemmed in the sky. He told her about driving up mist-skirted highways, passing trees standing sentinel.

“A place like that gets in your bones,” he said. “I’ll never leave it.”

He had a habit of running his hand through his brown hair, leaving it sticking out in every direction. He shook his head and gave a wry laugh. “I think I’ve had one too many,” he said, tipping his empty glass.

“No,” she said. “No, I know exactly what you mean.” Her eyes slid away. “I’d love to see the mountains, someday.”

They left together, drunk and laughing. She let him into her damp basement apartment. Her eyes followed his as he took in the bare walls, the single bed, the wilting flowers on the kitchen counter.

“How long did you say you’d been here?”

She didn’t answer, and when she kissed him, he tasted of pine.

Adam fit into her life in ways she hadn’t known she needed. Together, they painted her apartment. She spent hours agonizing over paint chips until she at last selected a white called fresh start. Adam laughed. He arrived at her door week after week with his arm full of plants—cacti, palms, rubber plants, succulents, spider plants—until her apartment brimmed with green.

“Things even you can’t kill,” he said with a grin.

He cooked her breakfast and as she ate, he read her the headlines, his face reddening as he unspooled all the trouble in the world.

She asked him for a story, and he laughed, asked “What kind of story?” and looked baffled when she shrugged and said, “Any kind of story.” He sat in silent thought for a minute. When he began to speak, his dark brows pinched together in concentration.

When I was a kid, my dad couldn’t work out how he ended up with a wimp like me. I’d cry at anything: a dead racoon at the side of the road, the thought of puppies being separated from their mothers, a harsh word from a kid at school. My mom called me sensitive but, my dad… well. He wanted to protect me, I guess. Signed me up for judo, got me into weightlifting, gave me my first sip of beer when I was 12 years old. He loved me in his own way, I think.

So anyway, when I was sixteen, dad and I went on a camping trip. It was the thing we’d always shared. We loved the crisp mountain air, loved bathing in still, crystal clear lakes. We’d spend our days hiking, gathering firewood, making camp, maybe fishing. At night, my dad would whittle and tell me all about his dad, his childhood, the kind of things we never normally talked about.

On the last night, he told me he was sick. There wasn’t much that could be done, he said. A few months, maybe half a year. And I cried. Of course I did, as if I were splitting into a million pieces. He hugged me tight, and I could smell the salt-sweat of his skin, the lingering sunscreen, the sweet mildewy scent of his clothes. His hands were rough, and red, and he gripped me so hard it was as though he thought he could hold me together through sheer force of will. He held me until I had nothing more in me, until I was empty and stunned.

It was a clear night, the stars sprawled out across the velvet sky. My dad still held me close.

Finally, he said, “You can’t care this much, son. You can’t keep living life with your heart on your sleeve. The world’ll destroy you if you care too much.”

I didn’t know what to say to that and so I said nothing. Six weeks later, he was dead.

Adam worked as a government relations officer at a large non-profit. As they spent more time together, her space began to fill with briefing papers and glossy reports, printouts of statistical models, survey data sets. He dressed every morning in his grey dress pants and when she saw him in the evenings his tie was always loose, his shirt sleeves rolled up. He’d seemed baffled when she told him that she worked odd jobs—catering shifts and office temp work, mostly—couldn’t understand her lack of drive, ambition.

“Maybe I’ve had enough of ambition for one lifetime,” she’d said. “Maybe I want to paint on a smaller canvas.”

The truth was, she liked to be anonymous, forgettable. She sailed through galas and parties, tray of canapes balanced in one hand, offering guests an impassive smile. All the while, her mind floated away.

In her new life, she was slow, dreamy. She lost hours gathering stories, imagining new possibilities. She wrote herself into many different futures: a house with Adam, two kids and a dog; a lonely mountaintop cabin where she would paint and write; a bustling farmhouse, full of friends and guests, honeysuckle creeping up the walls.

“You have enough energy for the both of us,” she’d tell Adam with a playful nudge. “You change the world. I’m just trying to live in it.”

Still, it rankled. To spend time with Adam was to be recruited into his causes. Housing accessibility and playground regeneration. Traffic calming and environmental justice. Once, she even found him furiously typing on a neighbourhood Facebook page, dedicated to saving the local Starbucks.

Her burbling laugh had been cut short by the look on his face. It was the most accessible coffee shop in the area, he’d told her, lonely young moms used it, it was a safe place for homeless people. “Community spaces matter,” he’d said, his cheeks stained red.

One morning she woke to find his face bathed in the blue light from his phone. His hair was matted to one side of his head, and she could trace the lines of the pillow creases across his cheeks. He propped himself up on an elbow, thrust the phone at her. “Look at this,” he demanded. She stared at the image of a beached whale, its body swollen and grotesque against the white sand.

She looked away. “Do you have to—”

“This is happening,” he said. “Right here, right now. It’s our duty to look. To do something.”

She rolled out of bed, backed away from him and the photo he was still brandishing at her. “What are you doing? This isn’t doing anything,” she spat.

She’d left as he’d continued to lecture her, picking up her bag and slamming the door shut behind her. She didn’t return until the sun began to bruise in the sky.

Adam was sat there on the steps that led up to her apartment, eyes rimmed with red, stubble skimming his chin.

She waited as he pushed himself up, ran a hand through his wild hair. Everything they’d said and everything they’d left unsaid hung between them.

And then he closed the space between them, pulled her into a tight embrace. “Don’t you ever do that again; do you hear me?” His voice was thick with his too-ready tears. “I thought—”

But she didn’t let him finish, pressed her mouth against his lips. As they made their way back into the apartment, she thought about the yoke of belonging to someone; of the obligation that came from holding another person’s happiness between your hands.

Despite everything, they were happy. Her happiness was physical, solid, lodged beneath her ribcage. Happiness was a kind of pain. Adam’s eyes, his smile, his hand grazing hers—her happiness tended to be a sharp-clawed thing that seemed to press against her ribs. She was afraid—if she let her happiness loose, would it crack her open? Would it gut her?

In the cool blue light of a morning, she thought about ending things. She could form the words so easily, knew how his face would crumple, knew how he would fight back the tears. Would he be gentle in the face of heartbreak? Would he shout and slam the door on their life together? When he told the story to their friends would he cast her as the villain?

Sleepy, he rolled over in the bed, pulled her into his body. His eyes blinked open.

“What’s this?” he asked, brushing a thumb over her damp cheeks.

“I just…” The words lodged in her throat. How could she tell him all the ways she’d fought to get free, only to find herself clutching him?

“I don’t want to leave you,” she choked out.

Adam searched her face, his gaze gentle. He planted a kiss on her forehead, rested his chin there. “So don’t,” he said, as if it were that simple. Her body shook with the force of a sadness that needed to crash over rocks.

“You don’t understand,” she whispered. “Where I come from… I’ll never leave there. I’ll always be going back there. And that means…”

He cupped her chin in his palms. “Means you’ll have to leave me?”

She nodded; her throat too closed for words.

He considered her. “You talk as if there’s no choices to be made, love.”

Her mother’s voice echoed on her tongue. “I’m flighty, selfish. I’ll never settle down, never take things seriously.”

Adam pulled back. His thumb gently nudged her chin until she met his gaze. “That’s not you. That’s not who you are.” He was close enough for his breath to warm her skin. “You can promise me right now. Whatever choices we make, we’ll make them together.”

Pine and salt, leaves rustling and the crash of waves. Her thoughts tangled, but he didn’t release her from his arms and so she nodded. “I promise.”

Days passed, weeks passed, months passed, and she stayed.

She and Adam moved into a house with a garden that she did not know how to tend. They visited farmer’s markets, they argued over who had or had not taken out the garbage, they filled their house with the laughter and shouting of friends who believed that a good argument over wine would be enough to put the world to rights.

And Adam grew used to the way the gulls would line up along their back fence every morning.

They were building a life, she thought, day by day. She had never realized it would be so ordinary, so tedious, so beautiful.

They stretched out on their deck on a late July night, the plum sky shimmering with the light of the city. Heat pounded like a pulse through them. Adam rolled a joint as she sipped a glass of cool earthy wine.

They sank back into the pillows and blankets they’d pulled outside. They talked about taking a trip to the mountains—she’d still never seen the place where he was born.

Silence fell between them.

“You’ll make a wonderful mother, one day.”

His palm pressed against her thigh. She flinched but did not pull away.

“You don’t want to?”

“No—I mean—I haven’t really thought about it yet.”

He rolled her onto her side so he could cradle her in his arms. “So… Think about it.”

The story was almost too easy to write. Stacks of laundry. Toys underfoot. Counting steps and hopping over the cracks in the sidewalk. Naming all the animals in the city park zoo. Green eyes that would promise endless summer. A laugh that could crack a day wide open.

She could see it all.

She kissed him before she could say all that was in her heart.

The night breeze whispered come home. Water dripping from taps calling come, come, come. The gulls, once silent, began to caw, ever more insistent, come home, home, home. She tried to ignore it, but the message echoed across water as wide as continents, and over the windswept land.

Thin-lipped newscasters delivered the solemn news that the ocean was dying. Fish washed up rotting on the shoreline. The water stank of sulphur. Children foolish enough to splash in wading pools, lakes, or even puddles, appeared in emergency rooms, their skin blistering and black. There was no explanation; something had gone wrong. Adam read her the stories over their breakfast coffees until she at last begged him to stop.

“We have a duty,” he said, frowning.

An argument years in the making echoed between them.

Rain drummed against the windows, come home. The wind howled, come home. She tossed in the bed, trying to sleep through the clamour of a storm until she heard in a roll of thunder the message she had been trying to ignore. Your mother is dead. Come home.

She forgot to eat. Her eyes, once deep blue, turned dishwater grey. Sentences, thoughts drifted away from her.

“What is it?” Adam asked her. He tried being gentle, but when he couldn’t reach her the words became an accusation. “What’s going on with you?”

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell him. It was that anytime she tried to fishhook the words up through her mouth, she found only breath and silence.

Come home, come home.

She dreamed of the old man, pictured the way he stood staring at his hands in the basin of soapy dishwater. Better to have loved and lost, he’d said. But he’d also told her all love stories ended in tragedy and loss.

She considered the weight of a lifetime of waiting.

Remembered the fractured sadness in the old man’s deep blue eyes.

She woke to the sheets soaked and reeking of brine. Ice cold water flooded the lungs that were made for land and not sea. There was no seawall to hold the waters back; her body screamed at the shock and then turned numb.

She lurched from the bed, her breath rasping. Adam stumbled after her.

“What’s happening?” His green eyes were wide as she began slinging her belongings into a backpack. “What’s going on?”

She blinked up at him through salt-water tears. She forced the words out through numb lips. “I can’t. I can’t anymore.”

His face shuttered.

He stood at the door as she struggled down the steps with the bag of things she knew she would not need for long.

He stood on the front step, rain soaking through his t-shirt, plastering his dark hair to his skull. She wanted to be strong enough to walk away without a backward glance, but she couldn’t help herself. One last look.

His mouth twisted. “I suppose I should thank you,” he said, his voice trembling. “You tried to warn me once, didn’t you?” His fists clenched and she knew she had to listen to what came next.

She didn’t have to wait for long. He heaved a breath, and she noticed his eyes full of tears he was fighting not to shed. Then, turning slightly to one side, no longer looking at her, he said, “Go then. I should’ve known all along that you’re too selfish to love me back.”

An old man approached from the distance.

“So, you’re back,” he said.

Tears slid down her face.

The old man knelt beside her and drew her close. She inhaled his warmth, the tang of his body. She pressed into his solid, human form. Her borrowed body shook—there was so much she must leave behind.

“Tell me a story,” she said, her words thick with tears.

And so, he did. The story of the restless goddess of the sea who’d fallen in love with a mortal man. The child she’d borne him. The life they’d tried to make together, wedged between water, rock, and sky.

“It never could last. When she realized what would happen to the seas if she left them forever…” His voice cracked; his eyes turned misty. “She had a duty. She had to return to her home.”

She swallowed the words down, let them seep into her marrow.

“Life had to go on, you understand. The man, he married, and the sea…” He kept his eye on the crashing waves. “The sea is the sea. She moves according to a pattern of tides.”

She was silent for a while, listening to the barely perceptible flutter in her belly. “I thought I could belong here,” she said. “But I think I always knew I’d return to the sea one day.” Her voice was the crash of waves against rock.

“She loved you, you know,” he said. “Would be proud to see the woman you’ve become.”

The old man held her for one last breath, and then gently let her go.

She let herself go, unpicking sinew from bone, atom from atom. I have a duty, she whispered, as she stretched herself thin, until she became a net spread across the ocean. She pictured Adam’s face, serious and pale, his eyebrows bunched over those green eyes. But the water needed her more. And so she let the currents pull her under, sinking and bobbing, until there was no difference between her and the waves that carried her.

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