22 September 1875
I loathe the sea. The gale whips my hair and throws granules of sand with such force that they feel like needles against my exposed flesh. Lantern light glows beneath my hand, but the dark gobbles it up like an offering. A sacrifice. Ahead of me the sand is pounded by one wave after another. Only the bravest monster would dare leave its calm depths to snatch me from the shore. As a precaution, I strain to hear a growl or feel the vibration of something large moving just beyond the breakers. There’s nothing but the rhythmic crash, slide, crash and the howl of the wind that takes my breath with its force.
I loathe the sea. I was only six when it stole Mamma from me on this very stretch where the water meets the land. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. Not that she filled Pappa’s long woolen coat with heavy rocks she collected along the edge. Not that she picked up a boulder nearly as big as I was and carried it pressed tightly against her chest into the winter water, white with froth. I hate that I can’t remember what she looked like on that day or any day before that. Pappa says I resemble her in so many ways that he wonders if I wasn’t made half from her and half from moonlight and mist. It must break his heart every time he sees me.
I loathe the sea. If I close my eyes and let myself be swayed by the wind, the cold water swirling around my ankles, I imagine I’m back on this beach six years ago. The day was unusually warm for September. Mamma had given me a tin pail and a large clamshell to use as a shovel. She showed me how to build sandcastles with sand and water dripping from her fingers like melted wax. It seemed like magic then. She left me alone so she could wander closer to the water. I was content to build a castle of my own. I remember being so happy the first time I managed to get the sand to build up upon itself into a spire. In my joy, I stood up and scanned the beach for Mamma’s golden hair. When I finally spotted her, her head was dipping beneath a cresting wave. I didn’t understand then. I still don’t understand.
I loathe the sea. My feet are buried beneath a layer of cold, wet sand and a continuous swirl of briny water. Even the gulls have taken refuge from the oncoming storm. I watch lightning crackle above the roiling sea. Mamma promised me that she’d come back, or maybe I dreamed that part. Nevertheless, every year I wait here on the anniversary of her disappearance — I cannot bring myself to say death. Wait and hope and beg God to give her back to me. It’s not hard to convince Pappa that we must return to the place where we lost her. He’s only too willing to believe me when I remind him of her promise. Sometimes I think he believes she’ll be standing on the beach, arms open wide, waiting for both of us. The heavy pull of grief when she’s not here is getting harder and harder to endure.
“Ah, Katherine,” he says, biting back the disappointment in his voice, “maybe next year.”
I take the lantern from his hands. “I’m going to stay until it starts raining.”
I loathe the sea. The cursed water that makes Pappa look old and fragile at only thirty-two. He’s spent countless mornings brushing my hair, trying in vain to braid it down my back. In those instances, I sit stock-still and breathe shallowly so as not to bring attention to his trembling hand and the tears I know fall from his eyes. On the bad days, he locks himself in his rented room and plays his violin. The melodies are all in minor keys, malleable yet solid like hot steel.
I loathe the sea. It anchors me here. Affixes me to a spot that splinters my heart into slivers too small to glue back together. A plan forms in my head as I snuff out the lantern light, remove the lid, and fill it with water and sand. The murky mixture sloshes about with every step. I move away from the water that’s numbed my feet and ankles. With one sweep of my hand, I smooth an area in front of me and kneel down into the gritty earth. I pick away the pieces of dried seaweed and abandoned fragments of shells. The seaweed floats in the air, snapping like my hair.
I loathe the sea. The sound of it at my back with its unrelenting crash, slide, crash that gets inside my head trying to bring me down into its madness. I hum a wordless melody in the back of my throat as I work with nothing more than sand and water and patience. The melody becomes familiar to me as the form beneath my fingers takes the shape of a Norman keep with decorative turrets. I wield the mixture as deftly as Mamma had all those years ago. I stare at my hands, the ones that look familiar to me and not all at once. It’s in moments like this that I feel I’m trapped inside someone else’s life.
“One for sorrow, two for joy.” The first nursery rhyme I remember being taught to sing. “Three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver. Six for gold.”
A voice on the wind joins mine, “Seven for a secret never to be told.”
I loathe the sea. And yet, here stands a boy. Bright-eyed and pink-cheeked. His nurse — she couldn’t possibly be his mother as she’s nearly a hundred — is a short distance away, wearing a scowl and trying to keep the wind from tearing the silly little felt bonnet off her head. I stare at the boy, all my words having been stolen by eyes like the sea and hair like the sand beneath my castle. He’s standing there like a grown-up, straight and tall and proud. When I stand to shake the hand he’s offering, my red silk scarf slips off my neck and twirls about like a dying red bird in the squall. The boy breaks his stoic pose to dash after my scarf straight into the whitecaps. A scream from his nurse matches the one on my lips.
I loathe the sea. It tries valiantly to steal away the boy who dives after my scarf, waterlogged and blood red. But the boy is young and strong and breaks the surface clutching my scarf in the hand he holds high above his head. The smile that breaks across his face is almost strong enough to chase the storm from this beach. I clap my hands and wipe away my tears as he walks to me, soaking wet and brave. His nurse throws a heavy blanket around his shoulders and continues to tell him what a terrible fright he’s given her. I give him my best smile and he mirrors it. We’re suddenly shy and unsure what to do.
Today, I think I might not loathe the sea as much as I did last year.
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Artwork © Copyright, Alina Sliwinska 2011. All rights reserved. Used with permission.