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Closer Than She Appears
By Elisabeth Black
I was reciting lines at the point on the Lovers Beach when I first met William. He stood among the rocks not far away, his back to me, tense and bare and with his head held high. My mind said, “Animal,” though his body was human: not slender but well-proportioned. The sun, dropping behind us, reflected orange on his black hair. I flushed at the sight of him, for I didn't know him, or why he was there. I should want to sneak away without him noticing me, yet I wished to go closer.
The problem was, he stood in the water. Gathering all my restraint, I took a firmer grip on my shoes, bunched my skirt in my other hand, and waded in up to my ankles. So much gravel underfoot, and the terrain treacherous... I was usually alone this far down the point, hidden from the parking lot and picnic bench. “Who are you?” I called.
He turned slowly as I hobbled to meet him in the surging of the tide. The waves splashed up to my knees, making my throat constrict. The man, he stood smiling, though my cheeks and eyes burned so hot.
“Where are your clothes, man?” I slid my gaze from his shoulders to the shore, without getting a good look at his face.
“My name is William. I have no clothes.” His voice was hollow like the inside of a shell, and the tide whispered through it.
While he talked, I was able to meet his gaze. I stumbled backward in the water, almost tripping and falling in. Just saving myself, I clutched my shoes tighter, re-gathered my skirt I'd dropped. It stuck cold to my knees. My belly aflame with the man and the waves, I said, “You mustn't stand here naked. It's against the law.”
He smiled at me. His lips were red. “Why don't you come in for a swim?” He held out his hand, palm up. He should have been gooseflesh all over, but only a faint flush colored his cheeks.
Ha. A swim. In water. “No.” With a wrench, I began to pick my way out. The sun was setting, the whole ocean reflecting a fluid, dark-interrupted light.
“Your eyes, they're black as a seal's,” he said.
“Stop it,” I said. “Listen, if someone sees you there like that, they could very well call the police. It's... strange.”
I faced him, the water sliding sand around my feet, suggesting things I dare not credit. “Why?”
He studied me for a moment. “Do you know where I might find something to wear?”
“What happened to your clothes?”
“I don't own any.”
“We kept some of my Da's old things.” I cursed my voice, for it died away in the face of him.
William nodded. His face brightened when he smiled, as if from a broader joy that had naught to do with our conversation.
“I hope you're not a criminal, a serial killer or something.”
He laughed, free and loud. It blended with the ocean sounds, with the wind, with the beating of my strangely twisting heart. “You go ahead,” he said. “I'll follow you from a distance.”
That was kind of him, because it wouldn't have looked well to the neighbors if he'd walked too close, being starkers. I kept glancing back as I walked the shore road. Night came on, and his skin flashed white from amongst the heather where he crouched and darted. Animal, warned my instinct again, and I hurried home, knowing I was right, and wondering.
Mam wasn't back from work yet. In the dark interior of the cottage I rummaged in a drawer till I found Da's old trousers and shirt among the mess.
William must have still been hiding, so I laid the clothes on the step and opened the cabinets to see what I could find for him to eat.
“Bridget MacDonald, why have you thrown your Da's clothes outside?”
I spun to see Mam standing in the doorway holding up the clothes in her clenched fist. In her other hand she held a parcel wrapped in butcher paper.
“Your skirt is soaked.” She tossed the clothes onto the table and plunked a skillet on the burner.
“Mam, the clothes are for someone.”
She stopped in the act of preparing the dinner. “For whom, Bridget?”
“A man I met at the shore.”
“A strange man, and you're giving him your Da's clothes? Why would you be doing that?” She felt around behind her on the counter for her cigarettes. The flick of her lighter sounded over the fish beginning to sizzle.
“He had no clothes.” I blushed, but continued as she folded her arms to listen. “I don't know who he is. I think...” I trailed off, rubbed my nose with the back of my hand.
“What do you think, then?”
“I'd like to give the clothes to him, if I may. He must be cold.”
“Is he here?” She looked around the little cottage as if he might be sitting in a chair and she'd not noticed.
“No, he's waiting outside. For modesty's sake.” What on earth made me say that? Modesty was neither here nor there with William, that much was clear.
Mam arched one eyebrow, went back to the cod. She opened her mouth and let smoke out, sucked it back in again, blew it forth in a stream. “Alright, Bridget. We'll talk later.”
I stepped out and called, “William. The clothes are here for you.” I looked around, straining my eyes against the falling dark, but he didn't answer or appear, so I walked back inside.
Mam and I ate hungrily, quickly, and then we closed the door, locked and bolted it as usual. The clothes still lay on the doorstep.
I was worried for William. “Mam,” I said, as we lay back to back in the bed.
“You ready to tell me now,” she asked sleepily.
“I think he's a selkie man.”
She lay very quiet for a moment, then said, fully awake, “Then it's best he's gone and if you see him again, you stay away, do you hear me Bridget?” She'd turned anxious after Da died and she had to take the second job. I myself worked as a maid at the motel in town, and on the weekends I tended its dreary little bar, which nonetheless paid better than the whole week of changing sheets.
Mam rolled onto her back, scooched away a bit, readying for a real talk. “Selkie men are the devil, lass. They'll steal your soul before you know what's happened to you. I doubt he's a selkie, this far south, but be sure he'll only bring you grief if he is.” I could feel the weight of the things she wanted to say: You're too old to be mucking about with strange men, it will ruin any last chance of marriage for you. Thirty years old and still living with my mam – well. She mentioned it often enough, I had it by heart.
She huffed and rolled over. I kept myself away from her now. After a time her breathing softened. She was that tired, working all the time, she slept like the dead, poor thing.
I rose silently from the bed and walked to the kitchen half of the cottage, cracked a window for some air. A hand tapped on the casement, and my heart leaped. I knew who it was. Leaning close to the glass, hoping he could see me in the darkness, I held a finger to my lips. Too bad the bolt on the door was exquisitely loud, and the window also creaked when raised much. I knelt and put my mouth by the slit I'd opened. “I can't talk.”
“Why not?” he murmured, and I could make out the shadow of his hair, and the light of his face, the black of his eyes. His hands lay wide as he leaned down to speak to me.
“My mam is sleeping.”
I longed toward the door. “Nay. If I wake her there'll be hell to pay.”
“Is that so?” He sighed, looked down, back up. “Well then, come to the beach tomorrow. Early.”
I frowned. “I have to work very early tomorrow.” The wood floor was cool against my legs. I pressed my chin to the paint on the sill.
“Come anyway. Come with me. I found something.”
What will you do to me? What are you? “Alright. Yes. I will.”
And so, the next day I called in sick, whispering as if my voice was gone, when really I was trying not to wake Mam. It was the first time I had failed to be at work in fourteen years, and my manager gave me no trouble about it, only wished me well. I crept out. I had dressed for the beach, but carried my uniform so Mam would not find it and ask questions. My shoes I also carried.
William stood beside the door. He spread his arms to display my father's too-big clothes, gave me a rueful look. I dug my fingernail into my thumb for clarity and grinned at him. “We mustn't wake Mam,” I whispered softly. “Let's walk.”
He nodded. “To the beach.”
We walked there in silence. Two of our island ponies stood beside the water. Wild, they wore no halter or saddle, and they never allowed any person near them. They whispered together and flung their long manes around when I told William so. They began to move away, but William called them, some croon I could not quite comprehend. It touched the edges of my hearing only.
“Pretty,” I murmured, barely breathing as the ponies rambled nearer. One sniffed my hand, lipped at my maid's dress. I laughed.
“You would not swim with me,” said William. “Will you ride with me?” He leaped onto his pony and sat smiling down at me.
“I...yes! But I don't think I can jump like you did.”
He made another sound, and the pony kneeled beside me. “Well what about that?” I asked, delighted. I straddled the wide spotted back. We rode the length of the beach at a walk, then back again to where we found the ponies. Once, twice, three times, quiet together. The pony I sat had a sweet amble. My body rolled with her effortlessly.
“When you said you found something, did you mean the ponies?”
“Yes,” said William. “See the sun.”
The sun broke the horizon as he said it. Did he bow? I thought he did. I tried not to stare at him, at the way the light made his face into something noble and ageless, and so I turned to the orange and pink of the clouds. “I don't usually see sunrises. The laundry room has no windows."
“In the hotel. I'm a maid in the hotel.” I looked down at my fingers wound into the pony's sturdy mane, at my skirt flowing away to either side, and I wondered why I felt different.
William regarded me with that joy playing around his lips. “Your eyes, I love them.”
“They remind me of the deepest parts of the sea...” He slid off his pony, leaned to whisper in its ear. The pony turned and nudged his chest, and William murmured again to it.
I dismounted, sorry to do so. The ponies did not leave entirely, but clopped over and ate grass across the road. I stared after them, rubbed my fingers together, the feel of the beasts still on me.
“What is your name? I told you mine,” William said. We walked to the water, still watching the last green and blue and yellow of sunrise.
“Why it's Bridget,” I said. “I thought I told you.”
“Brìghde,” he said, in the old pronunciation.
I met his intent eyes, blushed. “Aye,” I said. And when he moved close I blinked and stood still.
He lifted my hair from the side of my face with one hand, and with his other thumb stroked my brow. “Brìghde,” he said, and his breath went over my skin so clean, intoxicating. “I heard what you were saying yesterday, before you spoke to me.”
“The poetry?” I managed, and raised my hand to barely touch his. “It's just something I'm trying to memorize.”
He nodded. “I also know many verses by heart.” He smiled. “I could tell from the way you said the lines that you are a believer.”
I turned my face to his. “What –” I stopped, unable to speak, all a-tremble.
He searched my eyes, released my hair and dropped his hands upon my shoulders. “You believe in the things you should. You can see,” he said, as if that were answer enough, and perfectly clear. And it was, for I did believe, and he set my heart a-tossing like a boat in a storm. When I looked at him I recognized the things I yearned for.
“I must kiss you,” he said, but gentle. He looked over my face like it was a thing he was discovering, as he must have been, for I now knew him less than one whole day.
“If you kiss me, I will be lost.” My mother's words drifted by, less a memory of words than of her flopping about in bed, complaining of danger.
“Indeed.” He lowered his face, and pressed his full lips upon mine.
The sea roared in my ears, as if I were in it. I raised my hands to his sleek hair that smelled of water, a scent I loved and hated, and he slipped his hands up and down my sides. We kissed for a time, and a time, and another time, standing on the beach until a car passed and honked. We parted but he embraced me, and we looked into each others' faces.
“What is wrong?” I whispered.
“Brìghde,” he said. “Thank you for that.” He was pale, shaken. He released me and turned away. Was he leaving?
“What is it?”
He returned, smiled to me, his inner joy warring with some concern. “I hardly know you. It's possible–” He stopped, lowered his head. “I'm sorry.” He placed his hands on my shoulders again and I began to fall, but he caught me.
I dreamed...of rocks and sky and rain, of breathing beneath the sea, of the body of William and my own body twined like the silky wet seaweed. I woke, and a tale darted away from my lips, just out of reach. Black rocks broke the sand around where I lay. I blinked. Often I dreamed of drowning, but not like this. Perhaps I was fevered. The sun blazed down.
With a curse, I leaped to my feet. I stood above the tide line, in a nook away from the beach, my toes in the warm sand. Beside me, my uniform and shoes were stacked neat as could be, and upon them lay a branch of kelp. It was merely brown wrack, but when I lifted it, it was supple, each leaf whole and rounded and sweet. It smelled of salt. Like William's mouth tasted. I opened my lips but only a breath came out. In a full circle I turned, but the beach lay desolate of him.
“I am no fool,” I whispered. “Not yet, and I will not be.”
On the road I brushed sand from my feet and, hugging my uniform to my chest, tried to decide what to do with my guilty holiday. A black car whizzed by, and I knew its driver. Any one of these commuters could take the truth of my whereabouts to the hotel, or word could get around. I turned back and walked beside my dangerous sea until I was near home, then cut across some rough ground to the cottage and crept inside, changed my clothes. I pulled on my shoes, then stood in the light the sun shone through many windows. Full of floating dust, the cottage smelled of the mildew, and cigarettes, and cooking oil. It had the feel of a thing that had passed when nothing had come to take its place...it felt of my mother. Of me.
Snatching my book I walked away from the house, my head down. But I stayed near home, on the pebbled beaches where I trod back and forth, wearing pants and shoes now like a sensible woman, a jacket against the wind, holding my hair back from my face and repeating over and over the lines that must be enough, lines by a poet who said in a few words what I could not, given hundreds. Lines, lines, lifelines. I spoke through snotty tears as I repeated them. All the pages of my current poem I repeated, then began again at the beginning. Only a few small words tripped me up; I would conquer them, then I would have it.
The next morning, in the windowless laundry room, I pulled sheets from the dryer and bundled their warmth close. When I turned, there stood Helen watching me, smirking.
She began folding her own sheets above the big laundry cart. “Who were you kissin' on the Lovers Beach yesterday morning?”
I halved the sheet, halved it again, tucked it beneath my chin. “I was sick in bed? Who told you I was on the beach?”
“Don't try to lie, silly. Everyone knows. Besides, I saw you.” She smiled her dimples, narrowed her crafty eyes. “So...? Who are you meetin'? He must be somethin' else to make prim little Miss Bridget call in sick and then kiss him like that before God and everyone.”
“I was at home! I ate some bad fish, if you must know.” I shoved the cart ahead of me through the double doors.
“Tha's not true,” Helen sang out cheerfully.
After work I walked to the beach. A few kids were there, loitering around and laughing loudly. I knelt beside a single unscuffed hoofprint. Making my hand into a fist, I pressed the rounded indentation. “So William,” I murmured. “I suppose I'll wait awhile. I'd like to say I won't wait forever, but I'll likely be here forever whether I'm waiting or not.”
The kids looked at me, said something low and laughed. I stood and walked to them. “Get out of this place,” I said.
“What? Is this your beach or some shit?” The boy who challenged me was fat and wore a shirt with skulls on it, a band's name.
“I don't mean the beach, now,” I said, facing him steadily. “I mean after you finish school. Go somewhere better. Get scholarships if you can, make a life worth living. Don't stay on this island.”
“Uh, okay.” They rolled their eyes and stood there waiting for me to leave first, so I did. I walked home and made dinner.
The next day I returned to the Lovers Beach. I recited my lines, scanned the sea.
The next day I did the same.
And the next.
Day by day the waves called louder.
On the weekend, I slept a lot and worked at the bar. An American hit on me clumsily, and I quietly made his drinks too strong until he shambled out, belching ominously, his arm draped around his friend.
The lines gave me trouble, after that. I began mixing up the stanzas, putting whole phrases in the wrong places. My heart had gone out of it. I sat on the beach watching the water, listening for seals but hearing only cars and waves. Where would I go, alone, anyway? I was thirty years old, and all I knew how to do was make beds and mix drinks. There was nowhere I wanted to go.
There was nothing, nothing I knew how to do.
Maybe I'd be happy if I learned a different poem. Maybe if I learned anything. Could I get a scholarship? Could I leave my mother? For some time now, she had not needed me.
But could I cross the Sound? I shuddered. Admit why you're really still here. It's the water.
I sat and waited for William, wondering why I could still see his face so clearly, as if I had memorized it a very long time. As if all my memorizing had been him, in the end, not only him, indeed, but the things he whispered without a word.
All at once the old memory arose, as it was wont to do. I could feel the salt sea closing over my head, inhale the panic, suck in the murk. I jerked and shook my head, swallowed the tears. Release it, Bridget. Tie it in a shroud with a rock, drop it in the deepest sea. Keep it buried.
I returned bit by bit to the moment, took a deep breath and focused again on the problem at hand. William was no selkie, surely. Waiting for him was... it was nonsense straight from a bad romance novel... I sat and judged myself, and everyone, and I hated the rocks, and the seagulls and my shoes with the big toes wearing through. The sun set sullen this night.
I walked home and threw my book on the bed, not gently. I slammed a pot onto the stove and began to boil water for pasta. Mam disliked pasta. A tap came at the window. I froze. For a moment I could not move at all, and then I crept to the door, opened it and called, “Hello?” No sound, so I walked out, my arms folded for warmth. Clear around the cottage I walked, surveyed the blank heather. Other than a neighbor clattering about in their drive, I was well and truly alone.
Only, I knew better.
Later, “Bridget, you have been moping since you met that man who stole Da's clothes.” Mam leaned back from the table and lit a cigarette. I opened a window and peered out into the darkness, listened.
“Not moping. It's just... I want something more than this island. People here don't understand the things I like, Mam – you don't, even. And... you should.”
Mam pursed her lips, blew out smoke. Her black hair was fresh-combed, she wore clean clothes, all ready for job number two. “I understand you. But you'd have to get on that ferry to leave, you know.”
I winced. The buzzer went off on the washer. “I am so sick of laundry.” I dragged myself to the kitchen, began pulling out wet towels.
“Bridget, I hope you have not been seeing this man.” Mam stubbed out her cigarette.
“No.” No tears, Bridget MacDonald.
She shoved her chair out abruptly. “Either way, for the record, I forbid it,” she said, tapped the table with one knuckle. “You don't know what's good for you. This island is a good enough place, with good enough people, and we have this cottage which is all we have, and neither of us will be leaving. Not with your wee phobia.”
Oh, Mam. I shook out my favorite dress. “I thought you wanted me to marry.”
She sighed. “Whom will you marry, child?” She pulled on her coat, lifted her shapeless handbag. “Remember, no mucking about with the naked man.”
“He's not naked, he's wearing Da's clothes.”
She shot me a look and stomped out the door. Second-job nights pissed her off.
I closed my eyes and opened them again. Mam forbade my seeing William, but I knew it could only be the right thing to do.
As soon as my dress was dry I slipped into its satiny warmth. Pulling the door to the loo shut, I slicked on lipstick, mascara, my elbows knocking on the walls to the tiny room. The mascara tube said “Waterproof.” I read it aloud, looked at myself again, at my unexceptional face. Reciting the lines of the poem softly, I thought maybe I saw something change in the eyes William had told me he loved. I had those lines by heart now, all of them.
“Well.” I watched my reflection for a moment, but the woman I saw, she had no right answers.
In the kitchen I kicked off my shoes. I wrote a long note, laid my trembling hand on it. Then I left, locking the door of the cottage behind me. Mam would find the key I tucked beside the step.
All around the house I walked, pausing and listening from time to time, searching the bracken with my eyes. “Please,” I murmured. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, but after a long time I decided I had been mistaken to think someone was here. I began to walk toward the beach.
Cars tooted their horns at me and swerved on the narrow road, their lights a glare through my tears. Ach, the island was all one – so dry, so lonely. My blue skirt fluttered with each step. It was not safe to be out alone after dark, without even my canister of pepper spray. A car slowed and the driver whistled at me through the open window. I clenched my teeth tight and walked on, head held high. But the car made a u-turn in the road and came back in the other lane. “Hey lassie.” It was the American.
Here was the lot for Lovers Beach, so I turned in. The American inched his car in after me, parked, and jumped out. “Hey, stop a minute. I want to talk to you.”
“Aye, but I don't wish to talk to you,” I called, hurrying down the beach.
His footsteps quickened to a run. I glanced over my shoulder, and he was too close, pursuing me. “Just...come back here...” His words slurred.
I ran. To the end of the beach I went, but he came after me more determined now, shouting like a child, wheedling, stumbling. He did not stop. I came to the rocks where they went out into the water, and began to walk along their treacherous slime as quickly as I could. My legs shook, and nausea coiled in my belly. For me, the sea is always an object closer than it appears.
“Hey. Lady.” Anger filled his voice now, his ugly accent. He stepped onto the rocks, and with his shoes on he could move faster than I. Only a few more rocks lay yet uncovered by the waves, and I kept stepping till I reached the end of the arm of stones. Slipping a bit, I turned to look back through tears.
The American stopped. He grinned. “Can't go any farther than that, can you?” He crossed his arms. “Now you have to come back and talk to me.”
“I most certainly shall not.”
His smile vanished. “Then I'll come get you.”
“Then I shall push you into the sea.”
I swallowed, kept my glare stern. He mustn't see me crying, or he would think he'd done it. The water lapped at my toes and heels. My whole soul drew toward it, my head spun.
The American stood and considered for a moment more. He swore, turned and began inching back over the stones. I watched until he reached the beach. He made a rude gesture, then walked to his car and started it.
“Well done,” came a deep and lovely voice behind and below me, a voice of secrets.
“William.” I spun, and he was not there, and I teetered. My right foot slipped. I tried to catch my balance, but I could not. This was it, after all these years. I screamed, my legs gave way, and I pitched toward the water in a messy, elated stumble.
William caught me around the waist. I turned as he turned me, and there he stood, pale, all skin.
“Please, please,” I stammered, “the... the beach.”
“Of course,” he said, courteous but strange, looking at me with something like disappointment. He led me back, handed me onto the beach.
The moon lifted herself, round above the eastern horizon.
William stood easy on the rocks. “You're blushing again,” he said.
“You would blush if I jumped out at you naked,” I managed. I kneeled in the sand to hide my shaking legs, my dizzy head.
“Mm. Shall we try it and find out?”
Car doors slammed, raucous voices laughed. Suddenly I exploded. “Where did you go?”
William raised his brows, drew me to my feet, and into another of the nooks for which this beach was known. He settled, patted the ground beside him.
“No thank you.” I crossed my arms, tried not to shout. “Tell me! Why did you leave like that?”
“Ach, Brìghde,” he said. “And after I gave you my dream.”
“The dream of the sea,” he said. His eyes reflected the moonlight. “And of other things.”
I cleared my throat, willed my voice steady to repeat: “Why did you leave me like that?” I was shaking, furious, and I hated myself for it, nor could I quite understand it. “Never mind,” I said. “I've no right, I'm insane to – it's not even my concern –” I spun on my bare heel and began to walk to the lot. This was to be my last night. I would find a way off the island if it killed me, which it probably would.
“Brìghde, don't go.” William followed, circled to stand before me. “My mother told me to stay away from you, well, from all women, and I had to be alone for a time and think about it. She said women are the death of... people like me. They steal things from us.” He paused, and his face became very tender. “But when I told her your lines, she liked them, and she said you might not be like other women. I told her you were not, and that I had made up my mind regardless of what she commanded. So she told me about the test.”
I smoothed my dress over and over. What test? Who was his mother? “Are you a selkie?”
His expression went dark. “Does it matter to you?”
“Of course it matters! I'm merely a woman who likes poetry.” I laughed without humor. “And it would be exactly like my life if I fell for a...a person...who lived in the sea, where I could not live.”
“Fell for?” He didn't understand the euphemism.
“Ah, me. William, I cannot go into water; I should not even go near it. When I was a child, my Da tried to teach me to swim but I sank like a stone, and I did not rise again. I have a problem. I suppose it's vertigo of a sort. The sea pulls me toward it. One day I will go too close, and it will win, and I will drown.”
William smiled a little. “Brìghde, my mother told me if we are to be together, there is a test you will pass, a thing you alone among women will know how to do.”
I was still stuck on – “To be together?”
He stood, so beautiful I had to look away, but not for long. “Do you trust me?” He took my hand before I could answer, but then he waited. He waited with that joy in his eyes, and I remembered the way the pony nudged his chest, the way he talked to it, the way he spoke about the lines of my favorite poem in all the world.
“That'll be a tentative yes,” I said.
“Then come, and we shall see what we shall see.”
He led me into the sea. We walked into the water until it reached my waist, and I balked, took a step back. My head was spinning again. This was more than trust. “What are we doing, William?” His name felt like pleasure on my tongue. Truly, pleasure and fear snaked round and through me in equal parts. I shivered as the water swept up and down my hips.
“We're going into the water.” He turned and his eyes were black, and they glittered, and my heart stuttered animal, and I touched the water with my free hand. It made me want to kneel, want to lie beneath it. I followed William deeper. The waves touched my chin, brushed my lips, closed round my nose, kissed over my head.
William's hand wound around my wrist, and the sands that swirled in the shallow waters obscured him some, but as we walked deeper the way cleared. He led me along easy paths, among rocks and fish and plants. He stopped after a long time, turned and took me in his arms. We stood solid, not rising like we should have. William's skin was warm, his smile lit the ocean. “Do you know how to do this?”
How lovely, oh, the waters, salt as my tears, dark but I could see.
“Do you know how to breathe under the water?”
I took a deep breath and smiled his smile back at him. “Indeed.”
Elisabeth Black lives in Maryland where she reads widely, raises kids and chickens, and gets her hands dirty as often as possible.