The Ocean Would Kill Anyone
The sea dies on a Thursday in the middle of the night and I am the first to know. The light above, that blinking beam warning ships, went out while I was sleeping. Some malfunction, and in the dark, the ocean disappeared. No one witnessed the moment, except, maybe, the sky. Though, with all those clouds and all those stars, I had my doubts. No, the sky had its eyes closed while the ocean met its end much the same way I did.
I wake to find that vast expanse, that blue blister, missing. She left me as all things I love do: suddenly, without warning, without my even noticing. I race to the top of the stairs, my tools in hand, to fix the light. To bring it back.
The ocean loved that light. Everyone knew it. People came from across the world to witness how far the water reached to try to touch it. Once, the ocean got close enough to spatter the observation deck with its want.
Perhaps, if the light were back, so, too, the ocean would be. I am breathless at the top of that spiral, examining the mechanics of the thing. I have done this a long while now. I see the problem. I correct it.
I wait two minutes, eyes closed, then turn to where the waves ought to be, but find only the ocean floor, exposed for the first time. Dry and cracked and ugly. Give it time, I suppose. Give it time. It will come back.
The light rotates in its pattern, every fifteen seconds. I know where it ought to be, by now, with my eyes closed. My heart beats in time.
Will I have to move back home, after this? Must I go back to that frozen, yellow place? The idea chills me more than the Gąski winters ever have. I’d rather lay in the midst of our new desert and let the sun take me like the ocean never would.
I tried, for a while, to convince it to. I did. But, that cruel, dark thing spit me back out onto the shore time and time again, salt in my ears for days. I stopped trying, eventually. There were only so many times I could be taunted by those depths before it broke me to keep wading in.
Perhaps no one notices. Perhaps I am the only one witnessing this desertion. Perhaps I am the only one the ocean left behind. I was the lighthouse’s keeper, after all.
I retreat to my quarters and turn on the radio, listening for any mention of the ocean turning up on someone’s doorstep. Following someone home. Maybe she has gone on a day trip. Maybe she got lost on her way back from the store. She will be found, wandering. She will wonder where I have gone, me who watches over her. I listen the whole of the night and nothing, still. Nothing.
What reason would tourists come, now the love affair between the ocean and the light is over? What purpose do I have?
I light candle after candle and blow them out, wishing. Wishing. I should not tell what I wish for it is bad luck, but the bad luck has already come. I wish for the ocean back. I wish for my daughter back. I wish for something stronger than wishes. Something to do, maybe. Some action to take to right how wrong it feels to look at that uneven horizon.
Night falls. The distance is dry and still. I am so used to seeing the motion of the waves, it itches to see it gone. Itches under my skin in a way that makes me pace. Panic. Scratch at my skin. There is no way to avoid how my want leaves marks behind. It always has. It always has.
When dawn breaks on the second day, I climb the stairs to the observation deck where the tourists used to lean over the railing, hoping the act itself will conjure the ocean back. Habit or something like obligation. Bring her back by the simple fact someone came all this way to see her.
But, still, the sea stays gone.
The next day, the first radio host pronounces the ocean dead. All across the world, boats sit, grounded and grounded for good. What had I missed, all this time, looking up when I should have been looking down? What signs had I missed the same way I missed them when my daughter shriveled away?
The entire village weeps at the funeral, gathered at the edges of where the ocean touched. They kneel and bury scribbled wishes on torn notebook paper in the depths of where she lived. I borrow a pen and am handed a piece of paper. I go to write I’m sorry, but when I try, the paper sogs as if touched by wet hands. Frowning, I try again. Again, the paper disintegrates with dampness.
Over and over again, I try, but fail. The people around me whisper behind their hands. I didn’t steal the sea, I want to tell them. I don’t know where she is or how this happened or how I missed it.
I’d give anything not to be at a funeral again.
I forego the paper wishes and keep glancing up, expecting to see the rush of her. Expecting to hear children laughing as they plunge into her depths. Expecting to see ships, growing-larger insects on my horizon. It is strange to think everyone’s horizon is different unless they are sitting exactly together. What would it feel like to share the same sky?
I wait for the knock to come all night. The one that will force me to pack my bags and go back to that place I was terrified of. Those ceilings and that noise and no sky to speak of. The place my heart did not beat in. Not anymore.
The knock does not come. It does not come.
The lighthouse light flickers with a thunk. I sigh and gather my tools. The stairs are tall and long and spiraling and I don’t have the energy. Before, it gave me a chance to see the ocean jump, leap, when the light came on again. But this futile action, this pointless assent, only made me sigh.
I take my first step and freeze. The sound of the ocean comes from behind me, the wrong direction. I pause, but I am sure of it the same way I was sure it was my daughter crying in the middle of a crowd. I know it in my chest, somewhere deep in the bones that live there.
I run outside, tools banging against my hip, but the horizon is still only half blue. Room memory, perhaps, spitting the sound of the ocean out even after it is gone.
I make to climb the stairs again and there it is, the rushing sound. That angry hum. Louder, this time, I think. Or closer. Has it come back to me?
I turn to find only the concrete. My god, I have got to stop believing my memory. The light can wait. There are no boats to warn against the land. There is no water to drown in anymore.
I go to bed, the radio turned on low beside me. To listen for any news, I tell myself. Not to drown out that noise, if it were to return in my dreams.
The next day, I try the stairs again. I am up one, two, when something heavy hits the back of my jean-clad ankle. I look down to find dark spots against the denim, as if water splattered somewhere nearby and I was hit by the aftermath. Like it is Wet Monday. It happens while I blink, while my eyes are closed.
When I look down to find the source, though, there is no proof of water. Not anywhere in the entire room. No droplet or stain, no dampness in the air. Not even the taste of salt on my lips.
My next blink, a cold hand wraps around my calf. The ghost of a touch. Not tight, not cruel, but there. The way my daughter would when she was small and her hands could not reach any higher. Trying to get my attention.
I turn, again, and flee. That light means nothing. The sea is not real anymore. What compels me to the top of that staircase, to correct that flicker, I did not know. Only that my heart wanted it, wanted that pattern back to beat to. If only to give me some reason for it to keep beating.
My chest hurts three days later when, still, I am afraid to step foot on the stairs. It comes only with my eyes closed. In rushes, as the ocean often did. Swallowing ships whole, pulling children down by their ankles, leaving debris behind. The sea gladly took them in sacrifice for whatever wrong was committed against her. A wrong no one could identify.
She was insatiable. Insatiable, of course, except for me.
I try climbing the whole way without blinking. I try holding my breath. I try and try for weeks, growing haggard and angry and sad.
I refuse to go home. Someone soon will realize I am still here and will kick me out. The building will be torn down. My electricity turned off. What use am I without a light to tend to? What use is a lighthouse without the horrid ocean to steer boats through?
Instead of trying anymore, I walk into that concrete room with those long steps, and I close my eyes on purpose. Water soaks through my boots, so cold my skin splits. My ankles, then. My calves my daughter touched so many times and I had forgotten. My hips, my stomach, my chest with my erratic heart, now, without its blinking guide. Was that knocking from behind me? Had it finally come?
The water surges up my chest, sloshing. Yes, this is my ocean. I know her by sound alone, by the way she is so angry. I failed her, after all, and we both know it.
“I’m sorry,” I say and my mouth fills with water. I can’t bring myself to open my eyes, even now, as the water floods my lungs. Let me be like the children in the stories, gone out too far and drowned. Let me be a ghost story parents tell their children, proof they are loved because their parents were willing to terrify them to keep them safe. Proof I loved someone, once, so much I told her stories just like me. Let me be that if I can’t be anything else. Let me be the reason children come home safely from the monstrous, miraculous sea.
Yes, the ocean is cold and cruel and she didn’t need to die, but she did. I expected nothing less from a beast with monsters inside. A thing with depths like that. Her love affair with my light was over. She sank herself out of spite to prove it.
I do not float in this water as I usually did, my small frame. No, this time, I sink heavy and hard and my eardrums pop with it. And I know, from the many times I tried before, how quiet the ocean is from the inside. How beautiful and how strange.
My daughter is not dead at the bottom of the ocean. The knocking does not sound down here. No, here it is blue and it is so cold my whole body comes alive, pulsing with want, and I want to stay even as my lungs burn. I have always wanted to stay.
Enough. Enough. I am sick of funerals. I am sick of having my own damn sky.
I like the dark. That heavy blanket of it. Yes, my heart still wanted the light it beat to, but why should I listen to that? It had broken long ago. A broken clock may be right twice a day, but no one ever used those to tell time. Shouldn't the same be said of hearts?
The tourists weren’t coming. The sea was gone. The knock finally came. The light went out and it was my fault. It was. All of it.
A light, strange behind my eyelids, came in a flicker. Then, again. Ah, this is what the ocean must have seen every day. It made sense, then, the way the ocean loved it, now. I ache, suddenly, to reach for it more than anything. More than my grief.
My body is flinching now, curling with every pulse of want for air, for light, for life. I bruise with it. But the light is so far away and every inch of me splits when I move and it is hard to try again when I resolved to give up. Give up. I wanted to give up for a long time now.
Everything is dark except for the flickering. It is time to let it all go.
Then, all of the sudden, the water is gone. I open my eyes, curled on the concrete floor. My hair is not wet, my hands not pruned. My lungs ache, gasping, but I cough out no water. My mouth is dryer than it was before, lips cracking.
No puddles, no shadows, not a drop to be seen. Not anywhere.
Everywhere, my skin hurts. Everywhere, I am chilled. The light above remains broken, my pulse to see it stronger than ever.
I long to warm myself in the shower, but I could not take the feel of water on my skin. I climb into bed and hope.
Come morning, I am still chilled. A roaring comes from inside my eardrums. I taste salt, always, no matter what I eat. I try to leave out the front door, but the ocean has me again, sunken and bagged and heavy.
I cannot fix the light. I cannot leave. I cannot find any way out.
The ocean would kill anyone, yes. Anyone except me.