Discover more from EVERYTHING IS A LOVE LETTER
The sea snatched the woman's bones from me—not for you, not for you—but I'm used to its tricks and I snatched them back, staring as they danced sun-white between my fingers.
“You've taken enough from me,” I told the sea. “These I'll keep.”
It responded in a sudden rise, rattling smooth stones in protest. It was ornery, I thought, but so was I, sun-hurt and salt-stung, and I wouldn’t be frightened off. I was quick to pick out the rest of her from the pebbled shore, marveling at what I’d found.
So the woman came away with me, tucked up amongst the driftwood in my little patchwork bag, the sea grumbling lowly behind us. That evening, I laid her out beside the fire, transfixed by the smoothness, the cleanness. We sat together for a long time, listening to the driftwood logs’ crackle. I touched the bones gently, rearranging them until they seemed to be placed correctly.
I didn't have all of her; just a few pieces. The knobby ones were finger bones, I thought. I recognized the curve of a jaw, the pointed-pearl teeth; some larger shapes I couldn't name. Smooth, strong lines of things that had once held up a body.
“I hope you don't mind this little place,” I said. “It's all the home I have.”
The firelight winked kindly across their coral shapes, lulling me to sleep.
I can't say exactly how I knew the bones were a woman's, except that I felt she was speaking to me.
That night, I dreamt of a voice at the fire.
How did you come to be in this lonely place? She asked.
“It’s a terrible story,” I told her, “and I can't remember most of it now.”
I brought her with me everywhere from then on, slung over my shoulder in the bag, and strung around my neck—I’d fashioned a grass-rough rope from which to dangle her finer bones. I showed her the island, the places I liked to sit and walk and climb; the lush-leaved trees hung heavy with dripping fruit; the deep, shady patches that felt like a cold pool plunge. It was good to have someone to talk to again.
Give back, the sea sloshed from far below as I picked my careful way across the cliffs. Give back. It tried to reach up to me.
I turned my face away, ignoring it. I fingered at the bones where they hung from their string. The spray just barely brushing my heels was a warning.
I do not know poetry. I have no beautiful words. My voice is reedy and raspy from underuse. The only poetry I could show her was in the land itself.
We stopped and listened to the trees when the dusty wind blew through them.
It sounds like voices, she told me.
“Exactly,” I said. “Exactly.”
She came to see that the lonely place was beautiful.
I braided some of her long, fine bones into my hair.
I wondered if she looked like me, the woman. If I would have envied her height, her shining hair. I thought I could see her sometimes, when she spoke to me. But other times, I was sure the woman I imagined was someone I'd once known. It was difficult to remember.
After I'd left it alone for some days, the sea had calmed to a sulking stillness, until it was quiet enough that the bones and I could go back down to the shore. I was grateful for that; there was little enough to do on the island without avoiding the water.
Sitting on the smooth, dry rocks, I could sense the sea was still displeased. This irritated me. “You're just jealous,” I snapped, “that I can take her with me everywhere, and not you.” I’d been lonely before the bones, and an ocean made a hard and fickle friend.
I didn't speak anymore to the sea, and it didn't speak to me. The birds circled, beady looks bright on the trinkets around my neck. The sun pinched at my skin; it, too, was hungry for the bones. It wanted to bleach them clean. I stayed down there until the tide had pulled all the way out to the horizon and little creatures scuttled around in the wet. Then I shivered in the cooling evening and brought her back home again.
I took one of her pearly teeth and rolled it around against my gums. A memory came to me: sharp ivory points breaking through tender flesh. Soft tongue poking at the jagged wound of a tooth until it finally came loose. I wondered if it was her memory or mine. More and more, I was forgetting what the difference was.
I pressed the piece of her between my teeth.
Ouch, she said.
I put her back together by the fire.
I’d been remembering afternoon swims to the bones, and the woman seemed to long for the sensation.
The sea was once your friend. Let’s return to the beach.
I had to admit that I’d been yearning for a swim myself. We picked our wary way down to the shore.
The sea had remained stone-still since that first visit. It sat quiet, neither friendly nor forbidding. I wondered if oceans could fall asleep.
I approached its edge, the woman gathered up in my hands, and still it didn’t stir. The cool touch of the water to the soles of my calloused feet was a feeling I’d almost forgotten.
I laughed, wading in further, letting old sand wash from my legs and my knees. I thought the woman was laughing, too, a sharp-bright sound, or it could have been a bird on the cliffs behind me.
Farther, she said.
A very quiet breeze picked up, kissing cool the sweat at my temples. How I’d missed the sea; how I’d longed to swim. I waded in to my thighs, my hips, my waist.
It was when I felt the stirring of the silt that I knew I’d made a mistake.
The tide tugged hard to knock me off my feet, pulling me under and dragging me out to the deep. I surfaced, choking and panicked, and saw the vicious curve of a wave as it crashed toward my head.
The breeze became a squall, and the sea sprouted teeth. And it devoured me.
MINE, the sea bellowed, pummeling me, pounding at my skull again and again. MINE, MINE, MINE.
The bones were torn from my necklace, my hair, my hands. I cried out for them, treading against the current, but the roar of the waves was louder than I could ever be.
I screamed and screamed and screamed. I bellowed back at the crash of the sea, the howl of the wind. I howled through the thing in my mouth trying to drown me.
I wake up prone on the pebbled shore, the water lapping gently at my ankles, my calves. The quiet surf sounds sorry for the pain in my head, the salt in my lungs.
I heave the water out of my body. I turn achingly over onto my back. I’m bruised. The birds are circling and circling.
Not for you, the sea sighs, sorrowful, caressing. Not for you. I flex my empty fingers.
The sea has taken the woman’s bones from me. The sea will someday take my bones from me, too. The birds want my bones, want them picked perfect-clean. The sun wants my bones, wants them burnt brittle-white.
I want my bones carried by warm, tender hands. I want my bones buried in soft soil far, far away from the water.
Not for you.
Not for you.