Marly Youmans is the author of eleven books, primarily novels and poetry, along with several Southern fantasy novels for young adults. Her most recent books are: a novel, A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage (Mercer University Press, 2012), which won The Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction and took home the silver in the ForeWord BOTYA fiction competition; a wild post-apocalyptic adventure in blank verse, Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012); and several collections of formal poems, The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press, an imprint of P. S. Publishing, 2012) and The Throne of Psyche (Mercer, 2012). Marly is a native of the Carolinas who currently lives with her husband and three children in Cooperstown, New York, a village that boasts two castles, and whose reality was hopelessly scrambled long ago by the romances of James Fenimore Cooper. She hopes to continue that trend with the upcoming novel, Glimmerglass, to be followed by another novel, Maze of Blood, inspired by the curious life and times of Robert E. Howard. You can find more from the author at her personal blog. The following story, “An Incident at Agate Beach,” originally appeared in Argosy Quarterly 3 (2005) and was reprinted in the anthology Northwest Passage: A Cascadian Odyssey (Windstorm, 2005) and in The Year’s Best in Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006) We’re delighted to reprint this story by permission of the author. – The Editors
“Where did you come from?”
Marsha had jumped when the child materialized at her side, peering over her arm to see what it was she was doing, and she glanced about to look for his parents. But no one leaned from the cliff or climbed slowly down the path; no one was in sight along the beach in either direction, neither strolling along the rock pools nor bent to see what agates and jasper the tide had uncovered.
“What is it?” he asked, not bothering to answer. His eyes moved from the linen in her lap to the sewing basket, the lid thrown open to reveal a tumble of crewel embroidery thread mixed with silk and cotton floss. The circus gaiety of the contents must have drawn him, for he put his hand out and fingered a hank of purple thread, then ran his fingertips over the cloth tomato, studded with hundreds of pins, many of them a plain stainless steel but others topped with bright, transparent heads.
“It’s – ”
“A pincushion,” she told him, pulling a redheaded pin from the sawdust to show him.
He took the pin from her and studied it, whispering “ushion, ushion.” Curious, he tapped the point against his arm.
“Yes, it’s sharp. The pins are to hold the fabric when I hem or appliqué.” She saw that the words meant nothing to him. “Look. You see?” She took another sampler from the basket, turning it over to show where she had hemmed half of a side, leaving a picket of pins in place.
He seemed fascinated, touching the heads as if he were counting.
“How old are you? You look about seven, I’d say.”
“Yes.” Though he spoke, all his attention was on the sampler with its motto and vases of flowers and birds. His home-cut hair hung low on his forehead and covered his ears, though he somehow managed to look refined despite its carelessness – it must have been the delicate features and the sharp straight nose. The hair was a pale gold, shifting all together, like a cap. The boy seemed compounded of quickness and light, his fingers darting eagerly across the stitched scene.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes. But there are no fish. There should be fish.”
Marsha laughed, folding the cloth and tucking it under the thread.
“It’s sad, but very few samplers have fish,” she told him. “Now and then you might see a bit of waves and a fish or two. Not often.” She wasn’t surprised that he wanted fish. Why, seaweed was tied at his waist like a kilt. The pale bladders shone among the dark leaves.
Reaching under the basket, she took out her laptop and showed him some other samplers she had recently completed, along with a project that was still in the planning stage. She had not quite finished copying the stitches onto a grid and making a key as to their colors and types. Her husband had formatted a program for her, so that she could type in the number of threads in warp and woof and the dimensions of the piece and immediately begin work.
“I don’t know what it is.” The boy patted the unfinished sampler in her lap and added, “I like this one better. It’s soft and pretty.”
“These are just pictures, you see? You’ve never seen one of these at school? This is a computer. I store the images of my samplers on it. That’s what I do you see – I make museum reproduction kits, and people buy them and make copies of samplers that some little girl stitched a hundred years ago.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Because they like them, I suppose. For the fun of making.”
“Why would you want to store?” He appeared to be struggling to follow her words. “That’s not how we save things.”
“What do you mean, not how we save things? What do you do with them?”
“Oh, the stones, you know.”
“You know, the stones. The ones with the letters on them. We call them ogil stones.”
“What an imagination you have!”
“You should throw this away.” The boy tapped at the metal rim of the computer. “It doesn’t belong. But don’t toss it in the waves!”
She was amused. “Why not?”
“Because it’s not for the sea.”
“Well,” she said; “I’m not so much on computers. That’s my husband’s domain. He’s a real wizard with programming.” And she thought of Jim, somewhere by the shore, searching for agates, as he had done years ago as a child growing up along the coast. She liked seeing him this way, barefoot and away from his desk. Only three months had passed since the day they’d met, and now they were married. His job remained mostly a mystery to her. She had barely seen him at work – two or three times she had watched him rotate figures or objects of white mesh on a blue background. They had appeared rather like the result of a cross between a wire dressmaker’s dummy and a 3-dimensional drawing of the Earth, showing latitude and longitude like a stiff net holding in an endless sea. Then the next time they had substance and color, and she was disappointed. She had liked them better as enigmatic and blue, glimpses from another world.
“I’m sorry,” she said; “I wasn’t listening.”
“My brother is in love with you.” The boy smiled, showing bright nubs of teeth and tiny canines.
“But I’m married,” she protested. “He can’t be in love with me.”
“Well, he is. He told me so. He has been watching you every afternoon, and he loves you.”
“I’m on my honeymoon. He can’t be in love,” Marsha said severely. “And what’s your name?”
“Bramble?” He looked hopeful. “You could call me Bramble. Or Ramble. Or Scramble.”
She laughed. “All right, Bramble it is, at least for now.”
“Good.” He gave her a smile of intense sweetness. “And my father is in love with you, no matter what you say.”
“Now you’re confusing me! You said your brother was in love with me. Are they both in love?”
“Oh. Well, it’s not that. We just don’t count us that way – we’re just all close and we don’t think about those sorts of things. Brother, father, all that. Though he’s really my half brother.” He seemed a little confused about how to explain his meaning. “We’re born out of nowhere, right? And so we’re all the same.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “Okay,” she said. “We’re the same.”
“No, not exactly. Some people are just born knowing. Other people are like you.”
“Were you born knowing?”
Every afternoon for three weeks Marsha sewed while Jim poked about the tidal pools or went searching for agates and jasper. Afterward they would wander hand in hand along the shore or swim, and sometimes they would go up to the big bedroom with the plate glass window that framed the sea and the cavernous rock formation (wild when the tide was high) and the beach with its rocks and its animal flowers. They had a keen sense of how rare and precious their time together was, and that it wouldn’t come around again – the two of them free to spend the day any way they liked. Both meant to sleep late but neither ever did, as the window had no curtain. Marsha could never get over her feeling of surprise that the sun didn’t come up over the edge of the ocean, though the increasing light still managed to wake them at dawn, when they would stir and make love and go back to sleep.
They always intended to do nothing one day, just to stay in bed, but the big swashbuckling sky flung down its swords of light onto the sand and the sea, and they could not stay inside. Jim still had a child’s excitement about what he would find and came home from his beachcombing with sacks of treasure – a curve of fossilized dolphin bone, a fossil clam, a bloodstone, opaque jasper in shades of butterscotch, red, brown, and green. He brought black agates, pink ones, occasionally pale blue. The owners of the house had a notebook in which they had recorded the best places to look or dig on or near the beach, and he pored over this homegrown guide, scouring it for clues.
Occasionally Marsha went with him, but she had deadlines to reach on new kits, so usually she sat under an umbrella, detailing the pattern of a sampler on her laptop, or else sewing a reproduction. The few hours apart made them eager to be together again, though it wasn’t as if Jim were entirely absent; often she caught sight of him wading in the surf or clambering on the rocks.
Because their access to the beach was a private stairs – the house belonged to Jim’s boss and was seldom used by any but his wife and daughters – she didn’t see many other people. It wasn’t much different from plenty of other nooks along the coast, and the owners called it simply the agate beach, though that was the name of a dozen or more near-nameless spots.
Now and then a group of runners would skim by and vanish into mist, and once Marsha had seen a line of karate students punching and blocking their way across the sand, not looking toward her as they moved in unison, each step – right leg, the left, the right – inscribing a crescent on the air. She wondered idly what the name of the move was. A man in a black gi moved swiftly alongside, correcting a stance or the position of an arm. Only he glanced her way and smiled.
The boy came to see her almost every afternoon. Some hours after the karate class had passed, he came and stood before her like a wading bird, one leg up. She kept sewing and didn’t look, and he began pivoting, kicking at the air with his raised foot.
“Did you see the teenagers run by? Did you see the yellow belts and the green belts and the brown belts?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, stopping with his leg still up, the knee bent.
“I thought you must know karate.”
“What is karate? You mean those people who do this?” He dashed about the sands, kneeing imaginary opponents, striking them with elbow and fist, and ending in the horse stance with a great shout of Hoah!
“So you do know karate.” She took the fabric she had been working on out of the hoop and tucked the needle with its gold thread into the pincushion. “Bramble, isn’t it? I couldn’t remember what you wanted to be called.”
“Today I would rather be Eetsch!” he declared. “But I don’t know karate. I just followed them because they were interesting, and I watched when they fought the mist.” He came close and leaned against the rock where she was sitting. The faded old tomato caught his attention. Picked up, it sagged against his fingers. “This is so hard and bumpy on top. Soft underneath. But something could grab underneath and tear its guts – ”
“What do you mean, fought the mist?” Marsha took the cushion from him. It had been her grandmother Josephia’s, and she felt a mild attachment to the idea that their hands had touched the same thing, performed the same work.
“They went down by the water, and they did this – ” here he flashed about the sand again – ” inside a cloud. It was torn to pieces but came back together and won, so they had to go home.”
“You have quite an imagination,” Marsha observed.
“No,” he said, looking puzzled; “I just have eyes that see things.”
“So some people have eyes that don’t see?”
He didn’t appear to think this question worth the answering. Perhaps it was too obvious; perhaps he thought it merely rhetorical.
“The black man asked me to come with them. He chased me, but he couldn’t catch me.”
“The black man? Do you mean the devil? Oh, I know – the black belt. I thought he looked friendly. What did he say to you?” Marsha tugged at the sampler, straightening the cloth. It had puckered around a large urn from which fantastic flowers sprouted.
“He wanted me for himself. To do his magic. He said I took to it like nobody’s business. What did he mean by that?”
She looked at the lithe frame and the feet that seemed never to be still but danced and pattered on the sand.
“He meant that you could be good at karate, that you looked like a natural – somebody who can do it easily by imitation. At least, that’s what I suppose he meant. What did you tell him?”
The boy jumped in the air and sank into the horse stance, rocking and grinning at her. “I said Hoah! in the deepest voice in the world, deeper than his, so deep that it scared some of the hairs out of his head. Then I shouted Yah! Yah! Yah! and Catch me! He raced after me, but I lost him in the stones. They were all running after me,” he said with satisfaction, “but nobody could catch me. I looked out at them and laughed.”
“How? Did you hide?”
“I swam into a rock pool and stirred up the sand so they couldn’t see, and I hid in a crack.” The silk of his hair swung, as if nodding in agreement with the words.
Marsha wondered if any of his tale was true. Just then he gave a snap punch and another, and began scuttling about comically, still crouched in horse stance.
“Well, you are limber and quick. I don’t doubt that he would have wanted to teach you. But you shouldn’t hide in the water like that. What if you drowned?”
“You’re not calling me Eetsch, you know. You should call me Eetsch. I’d never drown. I can swim better than you. Better than any of those punch-punch boys. If they had come close, I could’ve jumped into the sea and swum away from them all, till they gave up and drowned.” He put out his chest like a body builder, grinning at her.
“What a little Puck you are,” she said, rather charmed by his boastfulness.
“What’s that?” He frowned, wrinkling the smooth area between the two gold bows of his eyebrows. Martha felt like touching them, they were so fine and glistening.
“A sort of sprite. A fairy.”
“You mean with wings? Oh, I like them.”
“Do you know any?” She laughed in sheer pleasure.
“Well, I’ve seen them. You’d have to talk to my brother about those. He knows them – he’s met them far out in the ocean, riding on a whale’s back.”
“Birds, I suppose,” she said softly. “So today you are Eetsch, and he’s your brother again.”
“Yes. But I’m really always the same, and he’s really all the same.” He reached for the pincushion, catching his fingernails on the steel heads.
“Careful with that – ”
“And he still loves you. He’ll always love you.”
“Why love you? I think maybe it’s your hair.” He crept close and combed his fingers through its ripples. “Looks like gold.”
“That’s a silly reason.”
“Why? Maybe it’s not that. You have sea eyes.” The boy peered into her face, coming so close that she drew back. “And you sit on the rocks and sew. He likes the songs that you sing …”
“Well, he shouldn’t. I’m married, and I love my husband, and we’ll live a long and happy life together. If all goes well,” she added, crossing herself. It seemed bad luck to have said it outloud.
Eetsch’s nimble fingers were working with the pins, making a pattern of jags and triangles out of the colored ones, with the steel heads outlining them.
“A rune, a rune,” he caroled.
“What for? How do you know about runes?”
“I don’t think there’s a word for it.” He paused, staring at his handiwork, before squatting to start another shape.
Idly leaning with chin on hand, elbow to knee, she watched him turn the pincushion, stabbing the cloth surely and swiftly.
“You’re a strange little boy,” she said.
This made him laugh. Already the cushion looked like some beaded monstrosity from the Victorians, though perhaps it was too geometrical for that – more like a native product from the Cherokee in the mountains where she had lived until she met Jim.
“It’s not like a voodoo doll or something like that, is it? You’re not trying to do me some harm? Or what about Jim? Maybe your brother would like Jim to go away?” She slipped down beside him on the sand, in the shadow of the boulder.
Although she had been teasing, he took the question quite seriously.
“No, it’s joyful. I just don’t know how to say it. You keep the pins the way they are, and everything will turn out all right in the end. The way it should.” He didn’t look at her; his fingers were too busy. “You see?”
Marsha touched the top of his head; the sunny hair felt hot against her palm. For an instant, he froze. Then he relaxed and went on with his patterns.
“So he wouldn’t hurt Jim,” she murmured.
“No; why do that if you love him? Besides, he likes Jim.” He inspected the pincushion as it caught the blaze of afternoon and seemed to ignite in his hands.
“Likes Jim? Have they ever met?”
“No, of course not. But my brother watches out for me, and he sees Jim, too. He helps him with his – his works.”
“Yes, my brother puts the pebbles and the big ones, the cobbles, in his path so he can’t help but find them. It’s a game. He hunts for lovely ones under the water.”
“You mean agates and jasper?”
“Yesterday he put out pink agates, and the day before it was blue ones, the kind that you don’t see so often. He said that Jim was very pleased.”
Marsha gave a little twitch of unrest. It was true; she remembered that he had found blue agates two days back, and he had left pink ones on her pillow only the afternoon before. The coincidence of the thing was queer.
“Did you talk to Jim? How did you know?”
“I told you. My brother told me. I don’t talk to Jim. Like I don’t talk to the black man.”
“Jim wouldn’t chase you. He’s seen you in the distance.”
“I know. I let him see me. Here.” He held out the tomato, wrapped in runes. If they were runes, Marsha thought, and not just his play.
“And what shall I use when I need pins?”
“Oh, there’s some left over. I put them on the bottom.” So he had, but he couldn’t resist the flourish of putting the silver pins into the shape of a star.
Eetsch leaned close to her and made a clicking sound with his tongue.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s my kiss. I invented it.”
Once again she was struck by his smile, which seemed a thing of great purity and sweetness, and on impulse she put her arm around him and pressed him close. Perhaps children were a good idea, she reflected, if they were as bright and nice as this one.
He wriggled out of her grasp and jumped to his feet, laughing at her and showing the sharp little chips of canines – baby teeth, still unshed.
“Should I thank your brother, I wonder?”
The boy shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. He did it because of love. Your Jim, what kind of stones does he like best?”
Marsha stared at him, feeling certain that this was a very odd sort of conversation. He drew her gaze and kept it. She would miss him, and the aesthete in her would miss looking at him. Though not conventionally beautiful, the dark eyes and fair hair and the slender, almost sharp features gave her a good deal of satisfaction – the sort of pleasure she might have gotten out of examining a valuable and fascinating sampler, say.
“He likes all the jaspers and agates. But he hasn’t found any sagenite, the type with the threads shot through the stone, and I know he would like a good enhydrite. Do you know what that is? The kind with water trapped inside?”
“Sure, I know.”
His eyes were no longer on her but on the waves.
“You should go up to your house,” he said. “The sea’s turning.”
At once he sprang away, his shirt ruffling in the wind, and raced into the water. Marsha stood, calling, and witnessed the boy throwing himself into the ocean, under the shadowy lee of a massive rock. Then he was gone, though she raced after him and searched until the tide was waist deep and pouring toward land.
“Marsha!” There was Jim on the cliff steps, with her basket in his hand. “Over here – it’s coming in fast.”
She knew it was too dangerous to stay. Spars and timbers near the rock pools were floating on the low water. The owners of the house had warned against swimming anywhere but the public beach down the road because a log, riding on a glaze of water, had sometimes killed. Even grown men had been struck and crushed. It wasn’t like the beach at Kill Devil Hills where her parents had rented a cottage each summer, where the flags had told them what to watch for – the fluttering red cloth marking rip tides and strong currents.
“This way!” He pointed to a narrow defile between stones where the water was rushing and foaming, and she splashed up from the sea, casting a glance over her shoulder now and then but seeing nothing.
To her relief, the next afternoon the boy was back with a shirtful of sagenites “from my brother,” lovely clear and golden stones shot through with needles of air. Marsha and Startle – he had named himself Startle for the day – left one on each step of the twisting staircase up to the house, and Jim had been well surprised.
“He’ll be stunned,” she had told the boy. “Happy.”
The newlyweds made love on the boss’s king-size bed with the stones all around them on the sheets and pillows. Jim had set them on her naked body and, when she closed her eyes, balanced two ovals on her eyelids.
“I feel like a queen laid out in a Neolithic barrow.”
“I’ll be a greedy cave man, sacking and pillaging the dead and coming home with treasure.”
She arched against him, feeling the stones slide from her skin. The sagenites struck one another with a noise like the clicking of dice.
“My lady of the agates,” Jim whispered, reaching for her. He looked exposed and vulnerable without his glasses, like a sea creature out of its shell. His skin was pale, his eyes dark.
The sagenites slipped, momentarily sticking to one and then the other as he pressed against her. When the tide of their lovemaking had broken on the stones and begun to ebb, the smooth shapes lay against her torso, outlining the curve of her side, her waist, the flare of her hip.
“My beauty.” Jim took others and outlined her nakedness, then curled beside her with his arm across her breasts and his face nestled in the curve of her neck. She smiled at the strangeness of his fancy and at his delight in the polished forms, which was different but no less than his eagerness for her breasts and thighs. Wasn’t it like a boy to pick up stones or sticks?
“Like a man’s genitals,” she whispered, drawing her hand along the ridgeline of his spine. Was he asleep now, a cobble clasped in one hand like a toy in the hand of a child? “Nothing but a stick and two stones.”
As she drifted after him toward sleep, she thought for the first time of how the brother – if there was a brother – had collected the air-needled stones and held them in his hands, so that, if he existed, he had in some sense touched her intimately; or, at least he had reached from one moment in time to another as surely as grandmother Josephia with her much-handled pincushion.
Jim was swimming; she could just detect him, far out, where they had seen the black and white orcas turning leisurely in the sun. Then she glimpsed something in the circle of rocks that the owners had said was named the devil’s porridge bowl because its contents churned to white at high tide, and she was frightened and called for him to come back, though of course he couldn’t hear.
“It was someone – I saw an arm reaching out of the water. But nobody ever surfaced.”
She had stayed at the edge of the waves until Jim swam to shore and rose, dripping, from the shallows.
“You saw something. Probably just a trick of the light.”
“No, I’m sure. It was a man’s arm, and there was something odd … bluish, maybe, I’m not sure.”
Jim was scrubbing himself with the towel she had brought, his skin becoming rosier by the instant. She hadn’t been able to make him understand how afraid she had felt, seeing the arm and hand, knowing that he was out of reach. Perhaps she wasn’t even clear on its importance – that instant of seeing the hand.
“Well, if it were a man, he’d probably be blue with cold. It’s chilly out there.”
“If it was,” she corrected. Because it was, it really was, she thought. “You’re not taking me seriously.” She dug her bare toes through the sand grains, dredging crystal from below the surface.
“What am I supposed to do? You tell me that you saw an arm in the ocean, and I’m supposed to do something? We could call the Coast Guard, but they’d think we were crazy.”
His hair stood up in spikes, and Marsha reached to flatten it with her hand.
“No, not that. You look like a pincushion.” She remembered the boy, holding the tomato in his hand. “A sea urchin.”
“An urchin that needs a long hot shower,” he said. “Brr, I’m going in. You could come along, you know.”
“All right. I’ll be there in a minute.” She had caught sight of a white shirt, fluttering from behind a boulder.
When Jim had climbed halfway up the stairs, the boy came running out to see her. He had a slender spear in one hand, tipped with an arrowhead; he wore a look that she had seen before on his face: excitement, tamped down. Marsha realized that she would miss him when she went away, and that she no longer worried about his parents or where his house might be. He seemed to be well able to take care of himself, and to think that everything that called to his attention was interesting. She liked that about him.
“I saw an arm. In the devil’s porridge bowl.” She nodded toward the low, jagged walls of the cauldron.
The boy pursed his lips. Perhaps he was busy thinking, perhaps listening. His profile seemed to rest against the light, as if leaning on it for support.
“Where? I mean, exactly.”
“You see where there’s a jag? Where the rock goes up and there’s a curve, with a sort of hole?”
He unbuttoned the shirt, tucking it into a crevice in an upright stone. Then he was naked, all but a necklace she had noticed before – pierced with a hole and ringed by runic shapes – and the long fringe of seaweed hanging from his waist. Skipping into the waves, he quickly waded out, and in an instant he was standing inside the walls of the devil’s bowl and reaching up to feel inside the opening she had seen. He waved at her; he was clutching something as he leaped from the cauldron. At other times the hemmed-in surf foamed and was wild, but now the water sloshed gently against the sides.
“From my brother.” He put the cobble into her hands. It was a large sagenite, pierced by many shafts.
“It’s lovely.” She wasn’t looking the stone which was, indeed, remarkable, with traces of blue like clouds, so that its whole aspect bore the air of a picture in a bottle – a cloudy scene with sunlit rain coming down. Instead, she was staring at the spot where she had seen the arm.
“Here.” He held up the pendant around his neck, and she grasped the stone’s edge, unsure what he wanted of her.
But before he could say another word, she caught a glimpse of something, right through the opening in the center. She made out a man’s face rising from the sea. She blinked once, found the head again; then a third time she saw him, looking straight toward them, but when she drew away and stared, she detected nothing, nothing at all. The boy’s features were impassive, and he let the necklace fall back to its place. Hardly enough time had elapsed to register the features in memory, but she thought that there was a resemblance and felt – how? The waves could play tricks on a person, she told herself: no reason to be anxious or afraid. And hadn’t Jim been swimming out that far, half an hour ago? Perhaps it was a snorkeler who had been floating on the waves and was only occasionally seen.
“What do you call yourself today?”
“I call me King-of-Fishes.” He smiled as he stared at the Pacific, peaceful now and dark blue, sparkling in the sun. “That means I’m in charge of all the fishes. But my brother is king over the sea and even the deep gulfs and the creatures of old fire, so he is better than me. Though I am quite good enough,” he said proudly.
“And what did you show me just now?” She wasn’t sure that he had done so; she wasn’t positive of anything except that Jim would be waiting for her at the top of the cliff, and that he would forgive her for not coming to him in the shower when he saw the big sagenite that the boy had put in her hands.
“Did you see something.” He spoke softly, walking away from her.
“What is that device around your neck?” She followed, touching him briefly on the hair, where a dazzle of sun rested like a crown.
“Oh that. That’s my toy. It’s a thing that binds me and heals me and brings me back when I go away. It’s my blessing.”
He fingered and gave the cord a tug, checking to see if it held secure; his hand reached for the knot at his nape. Afterward he gave the stone a swipe, as if to polish it.
“Sometimes you don’t sound a bit like a boy, you little King-of-Fishes.”
“But what does that matter? Even when you’re an old, old woman, you won’t feel any older inside. You won’t feel any older than you do today, except for the weight on your breast.” He tapped the pendant. “Not this. The dead, I mean, and the things that didn’t happen. And mistakes you made.”
“Now I know you’re not a boy. You’re a wise weird thing that’s thousands of years old.” She drew away from him, teasing him and turning to look back at the ocean and scan the waves for something – a little interruption that was neither whale nor bird nor buoy.
“No, I’m just me. King-of-Fishes.” He took her by the hand, and his fingers were cold and a little tacky, as if he had been playing in brine and mud. “Remember what I said at the start. Some are just born knowing. It’s easier that way.”
At the start of what, she wondered.
“I’ll be going home soon.” It was surprising how sad saying the words made her feel.
King-of-Fishes leaned against her, his arms chilly against hers, and he made his clicking noise that meant a kiss, and she clicked back at him, pressing her cheek against his. She marveled at how she had become so fond of this boy, when she’d never met his parents and knew almost none of the usual things about him – where he lived or went to school, his favorite movies and games and books. They looked at the water together, and far out a whale breached and showed a flash of black and white, tidy as a domino. An orca.
“You’ll come back,” the boy told her, his voice dreamy. “I promise.”
Then he jerked his head up, as if in response to a shrill note – someone close by had whistled.
“Wait, I’ve got a present for you – ”
He darted away between stones, the seaweed flying, and Marsha kept still, her gaze traveling slowly across the surface of the sea but finding nothing to arrest its motion. In only a few minutes he was back again, flushed and smiling.
“This is for him – ”
He handed her an enhydrite, cobble-sized. She exclaimed in surprise, holding it up to see the water trapped inside. It had been erratically worn and was smoother on one side than the other.
“My brother told me to give it to your man. Said that he shouldn’t go home without one. But I’ve forgotten his name – ”
“Jim. His name is Jim.”
“It’s hard to remember when the names never change. It’s so dull. Don’t you ever want to be something besides a Marsha?”
“You liked my name because it sounded like marsh, and you like the wet places.”
“Yes, but sometimes you could be Bog or Pool.” He was serious, pressing against her, tilting his head. Its silk clung to her arm.
“Rivulet is nice. I like the sound of it. Or you could be Queen of the Ocean. You ought to be Queen of something.”
He was absently rubbing the stone that hung from his neck, and when he looked up at her, she thought that his nervous, delicate features were beautiful. Yet she didn’t remember finding him so at first. The idea occurred to her that she could take the boy home and adopt him. But it was too soon; she had known Jim for such a short time.
“Maybe Queen of the Sea Slugs.”
She was amused to see that his face was serious. He was turning a small bundle in his hands and hardly seemed to notice her words.
“Would you like to live where I do, in a city?”
He pulled away from her, shaking his head.
“I would be crazy,” he said; “I would be like that man who fought the sea. Hoah!” He scampered toward the waves and jumped in, kicking and whirling and slashing with an imaginary sword. She saw the package fall, striking his leg and tumbling into the shallows. He spun around, feeling the loss, and knelt, groping with his hands. She could hear him crying out, “No, no no, no …” and then with a great upward leap he shot from the water, punching the air with his fist.
“I almost lost it,” he panted; “My brother would have been very angry. I would have been angry too.”
The package was bunched in his hand, its gold cloth poking out in puckers between his fingers.
She knew to wait, that he would show her if he chose. And if she asked and he didn’t want to share, King-of-Fishes would be off, the drops flying from his heels.
“It’s for you. Open your hands, and I’ll give it to you.”
She did as he said, seating herself cross-legged on a heap of pebbly crystals and offering her cupped hands. The enhydrite lay before her.
“Now,” he told her. “You must keep these for yourself and not give them to the – to Jim. It’s very important, because they’re meant only for you.”
He stared at her. “Well?”
“All right,” she agreed. “I won’t give them to him or anybody else. I’ll keep them for myself, because they’re from you, and I’m fond of you and will miss you.”
The boy frowned, kicking at the sand.
“It’s not exactly from me – that is, my brother gave them to me. For you. And there’s one for each of us.”
“That’s what you would say, I guess. The ones who are together.”
“I suppose that’s a family,” she told him.
He stood on one foot, thinking. “It’s like a school of fish. How they all turn to and fro. We just know the same way – where we are and what’s happening and who’s going to do something next.”
“But you’re here with me. You’re not with anybody else.” She combed her fingers through the fine threads of his hair.
“That’s because I’m a boy. The children always have adventures on the beach. That’s how it’s done. Because they’re in between, not a baby and not grown like the sea and the land are when they’re together at the shore. Not sea and not earth.”
Marsha had entirely forgotten about Jim and the shower. “What stories you tell! I really am going to miss you.”
He stamped hard against the sand with his foot, then lifted it up to see the imprint. “You’re not holding out your hands anymore.”
“Sorry. I forgot.”
She cupped them again; obediently she shut her eyes when told to do so. He laid one after another – something smooth and cool – on the shadowlines that separated her fingers. The last he placed on her right palm. Opening her eyes, she looked at the seven enhydrites. In coloring they didn’t appear like any she had seen in shops or in Jim’s collection, and they were all of similar size and shape, about as long as two of her finger joints. When she held them to the light, they glistened, blue or turquoise with occasional glints of rose and green. No, she had never encountered anything like them.
“Sweet,” she said.
He ignored her; perhaps that wasn’t enough praise, or perhaps it was just wrong. “This one is me.” He pointed with his pinkie finger, indicating the smallest stone. “And this one is my brother.” Here he tapped the one that lay on her palm.
“And there are others.”
“Of course there are,” he said, sounding puzzled that she needed to say so.
“Is one of them your mother?”
“My mother died when I was a baby. I don’t remember.”
Ah, now we’re finding something out, she thought. So his mother is dead, and maybe the brother acts like a parent. Because his father may be gone or dead as well?
“If you ever want me and my brother and the rest of us,” he said, staring intently and drawing his face so close to hers that his features went out of focus, “you just sow the stones in the ground near the sea.”
“You could come and live with us,” she suggested, hardly listening, but he gave a jerk of the head in dismissal.
“I would be crazy. I just told you, remember? I’d be like that man who tried to kill the sea, remember? And look what happened when I pretended – I lost the stones! I can’t live without the sea.”
The boy drew back. “You sow them in the earth if you want us. But it has to be by the ocean, or else we’ll die. Are you listening to me?” He grasped the thin cloth of her cover-up, gathering it in his hand.
“Yes, but – ”
He ran away from her, not even stopping for his shirt, and was lost among the crowd of rocks near the devil’s bowl.
“King-of-Fishes,” she shouted. “Come back! I’m sorry.” But she had to go up the stairs without saying goodbye that afternoon, carrying the cobble and the seven enhydrites, which she wrapped in the strip of gold.
On the last three days she hardly saw him, only spying his figure in the distance. She had finished her projects and now accompanied Jim on his forays in the rocks. Once she saw the boy bounding from steppingstone to steppingstone, and once she saw him perched on the lip of the devil’s bowl, staring into the water. Another time she thought that she could make out the shapes of two pale-haired swimmers, far from shore.
Feeling a little disloyal, she had hidden the seven stones in a jewelry case. Jim had been pleased with the enhydrite and wanted to find another. Once when he was asleep she carried the box to the window and scrutinized them closely, noticing lines like the shapes on Josephia’s pincushion incised on the surface. A flake of something bright inside the largest one caught her eye. When she held that one up, she detected a thin shard suspended inside the stone’s pocket of liquid. It glinted, fluttering in the water like a leaf falling through air.
When Jim was loading the car, she hurried to the beach, hoping to see the boy once more. She looked for him near the stairs and in the hollowed-out boulder where she had once found him sleeping. He must have been watching, but he let her search and call his names and didn’t answer until she wandered into the grove of upright stones. He laughed, jumping up to rush at her and throw his arms around her waist.
“Who are you this time?” She leaned and pressed her cheek against his hair.
“I am Sad,” he told her. “I am sad.”
Back in the apartment in the city, the whole episode seemed far away. She put the case on the wardrobe with some other jewelry boxes, and immediately she forgot. The image of the boy in his seaweed skirt and a spear in his hand, the face she had glimpsed as through a keyhole, the hand in the devil’s bowl: they appeared like nothing but dreams.
Even her life with her husband became illusory, beginning with the third day of their return. On that date, a truck failed to stop at an intersection and ploughed into the driver’s side door of her car. His car in the shop for an overdue inspection, Jim had borrowed hers. He was killed only a few blocks from the apartment. Just like that. Simple. Dead on arrival. Her car totaled. The death’s very abruptness seemed to evade tragedy and to suggest an unreality. Only at the funeral did the loss begin to sink in, though she had an intense desire to get up from the pew and leave the church, to abandon this – this undertaking, which was nothing she had ever wanted. His body was cremated, and the ashes placed in a metal tube with a stopper. The cylinder possessed the heft of a costly kaleidoscope, and its sound was a mix of rattles and shifting sands. But there had been nothing to see, neither light nor color: only dark. She hid the blind thing inside a lidded vase.
Strange how Jim’s exit from time seemed to distort time. The evenings were long and cavernous and held a multitude of thoughts. Grief seeped in little by little. She bought a television – a device she had always disliked – and let it eat the hours. Marsha sat on the floor in front of the screen, rocking back and forth as she cried, the volume turned up so that no one in the nearby apartments would know.
“I met you three months before we married, and we were at the coast for three weeks, and then we returned and you died on the third day.” She gave the vase a shake, as if she could get his attention. “So there were just three months, three weeks, and three days.”
At the beginning of her period, she slumped in front of the television with the urn in her arms, crying without making any attempt to stint her tears. She was weeping for their children, who were not and would never come to be, and she was mourning for the body that wanted a baby when it was too late. The image of an enhydrite with a flake of mineral trapped inside came to her mind.
The loss might have been easier if she had not been an only child, born to a mother almost fifty and a father of sixty. Both her parents were now dead. And it might have been better if she had moved to the Carolinas again, but she couldn’t make herself do so. She couldn’t bear the idea of explaining to everyone she knew what had happened, and hearing how, yes, it was tragic and terrible but that time would heal. For that matter, she didn’t want to pack up or get rid of Jim’s clothes and the objects in his study. She wore his shirts and bathrobe; a faint fragrance of him lingered in their closet.
Jim’s boss always brought her flowers on the seventh day of the month. The two had been best friends since boyhood, and they had gone to Cal Tech together. When small, the pair of them had been called JimJase, they were so close. Jason suggested that she go back to the house by the beach of agates and jasper to sprinkle her husband’s ashes on the waves. She thanked him but said that she was not ready.
At night she lay in bed, aching for Jim to reach for her or to curl at her back, his breath warm on her neck. Sterile limb, the hand that gripped the tissue was useless, merely her own. No other touch would arrive in the dark, secret and surprising. She often dreamed of seeing him at the shore. He would be wading at the edge of the ocean, picking up jasper and agates, his head down as he examined his finds. She saw that they were nothing like the stones of day; they glowed, and burning needles pierced the sagenites. He would turn but not see her, and the weight of the cobbles looked heavy in his hands. When she pursued him through a labyrinth of upright stones, he only receded into the background until she could not tell him apart from the gray, bent rocks.
She would awake, tears on her face and a terrible pain in her chest, and she would turn on the lamp and stare at the dark windows and at the pale arc lamps in the street.
In time, she had to set his pictures around the house because she began losing his face. She matched the exact shade of his shaggy hair to a hank of Theolian’s bloodroot floss. His eyes were less easy, and she settled on wood umber. Studying his images, she found him slippery and hard to keep. The fashionably ugly glasses got in the way. She wanted to see the exact shape of the line moving from brow to orbit to cheekbone, but it remained elusive. After all, they had had only the three months, three weeks, and three days. In time. After all. She hated the words; sometimes she thought that she hated language. When she no longer needed it at night, she donated the television to the nearest Goodwill store. A dullness set in, and she found herself still uninterested in needlework projects, though she forced herself to continue.
The worst was when spring came and brought fresh forgetting. Shouldn’t April have brought a renewal of desire? But it was impossible to remember a man every minute, every hour. She sat under the fruit trees, sewing a new sampler. The original had been purchased by a private collector, who let her study and measure and take notes in return for a document – an accurate description and an assessment of value. The naked man and naked woman were crude but charming. The faded apples on the tree had turned to salmon, as had many of the birds. Petals drifted onto the cloth, and she brushed them away. When she tucked the linen into the basket, her hand grazed the pinheads on Josephia’s cushion. Drawing it from the bottom of the basket, she felt surprised all over again by the designs made by the colored and silver pins. She had forgotten – it had been so long since she had needed more than a hoop and a paper of needles.
That night she called Jason and his wife, thanking them for the latest delivery of flowers, left on the mat outside her apartment door. They urged her to use the house again if it wouldn’t make her unhappy to be there. Perhaps it would be a help, a resolution, an ending: a something. She would think about it, said that she was not “getting over” Jim but that she seemed to be putting his memory at a little distance, as if their days together had been collected and given a museum space down the hall. That evening she went into his study for the first time in months. Cobbles and pebbles were spread across the library table, dusted with silt. A magnifying glass lay on the blotter of his desk. She took it in her hand, feeling for his grip around the handle. A memory of rolling across sheets littered with sagenites drifted into her mind, and she tried to fix the moment so that it would grow. But the images slid into the shadows and would not stay.
Copies of Jason’s sketches for a new game lay scattered in loose sheaves on bookshelves. She inspected one, noticing for the first time that the hero bore a vague resemblance to her husband.
Then, remembering the seven stones, she went to her bedroom and scoured the dresser and chest and wardrobe but found nothing. Only when she looked under and behind the furniture did she find the jewelry case, wedged between the wall and the paneled back of the wardrobe. Unknotting the bundle of gold cloth, she strewed the contents across a pool of lamplight. The fingerlings of stone were lovely. She had forgotten how unusual the color was, almost turquoise in places, with blues and flecks of other colors. Again Marsha felt sure that she had seen nothing like them in Jim’s books. The runes were scratched onto the surface and might have been made yesterday, they looked so fresh. Rocks were among the eldest things, but they remained mysteriously youthful. A thousand years from now someone might hold an enhydrous agate in her hand and wonder who had incised it, who had held it, what had become of them – and was the treasure lost only last year or a hundred or more?
They might as well have been elf bolts, flung at her, because they woke a sleeping curiosity and desire. How had she forgotten the boy for so long? She remembered his sharp-cut nose and the darkness of his eyes. How comical he was, wearing a seaweed kilt and a too-big oxford shirt, probably left behind by a tourist. She had seen him bathing naked, diving off the outermost rocks of the devil’s bowl. Never had she spied him in mundane dress or looking like an ordinary child in company with his playmates or parents. Once recalled to mind, he became the focus of her thoughts, and she felt eager to see him.
She and Jim’s mother, along with Jason and his wife, met at the beach house in June, and they waded out to an island of rock and each tossed a handful of the grit and ash from the cylinder onto the water. Afterward the others lingered for an hour to collect stones, because that seemed right. Roaming along the spits of rock and over black bands of sand and heaps of clear crystal, Marsha had a pleasant sensation that the boy was close by, but after the others departed the feeling drained away. It must have been seeing them at a distance, bending to examine a pebble or toss one into a bag, that made her feel that the day had become familiar – like those lost days when she could spy her husband hunting for treasure, beyond the next pile of shillets or the next curve of the beach.
Although she called for him and looked, she saw no evidence of the child except for his homemade spear, wedged in a crack in the rocks. The shaft was broken, but the stone was still good, bound to its stake with a strip of dried grass.
She felt disappointed and a little worried. He had always been so quick to appear!
When it was time to turn out the lights, she felt afraid and left a lamp burning. She didn’t know why or what she feared. The bare-faced moon shone through the glass wall overlooking the sea and lit her empty bed. The evening made so many homely or pleasant figures wear a different aspect. If she were to spy her husband by starlight: what horror. Even seeing the boy tapping on the glass – impossible, as the house jutted from the cliff – would scare her, she felt sure. And if she walked down to the beach at night and saw a pale arm in the surf, or two faces, she would be too trembly and weak to climb the stairs.
“You said that I’d come back,” she told the handful of enhydrites, “but you didn’t say that you wouldn’t be here.”
Seated close to the edge of the cliff, she surveyed the coast and sea, the pale sands and the black sands, the forest of upright stones, and the devil’s bowl. For three days she had searched for the boy, even going so far as to ask at a another house whether they had seen such a figure, dressed in seaweed. Nothing. A heavy silver spoon lay in her lap next to the smooth finger joints of stone. After a while she got up and dug into the soil, prying up low windblown plants she didn’t recognize; their roots held crystal, clear or amber, with here and there a jot of red or green jasper. The narrow trench, a few inches long, looked like a model of the grave of some ancient king, heaped with precious jewels. She laid the largest enhydrite in the pit and pressed the plant roots and sand into place. Immediately she felt the impulse to dig it up again but did not. Levering up another clod of sand and roots, she slipped the smallest stone under it. She remembered the year that she had planted tulips upside down and wondered whether there was a right way and wrong way to do this. How close together? She settled on two feet apart – about the width she had used when planting perennials.
“I must be mad to do it,” she murmured, patting the last piece of turf.
Looking around, she saw that the soil looked undisturbed, as if she had done nothing, and wished that she had marked the sites. It would be hard to dig up the stones again. Perhaps she would never find them all. But what did it matter? She didn’t believe anything would happen – and if not, why were they important? No, it was fine, whether she found them again or not.
The next day she stayed indoors, only once venturing to the beach to watch a rainstorm pelt the standing stones until they were black and glossy. Then she returned to the house and took a shower, the hot water sluicing her back until she was relaxed and sleepy.
She thought of reading a book, but words had lost the meaning for her that they once had held. What was the use of a story? She had been in a story of happily-ever-after; then she had fallen out of it, as if the writer had excised her with a flood of ink.
The next day she saw a morning rainbow, and she took the fading vision as a lucky sign. Wind blew away the clouds and rubbed the ocean against its nap, tossing foam. Going to the cliff’s edge, she saw that the ground was still saturated, so wet that water had collected in a shallow depression. Although on waking she had decided to dig up the stones, not wanting to lose them, she now planned to wait a day until the ground had dried. That afternoon she walked for miles up the coast, stopping to visit pools of stars and anemones. She came across the black belt, watching his class perform calisthenics, and she paused to examine the faces of the younger boys.
“Excuse me, do you remember – ”
He swung around, a wiry, slightly bowlegged man with his hair in a ponytail.
“Do you remember a boy with seaweed – around his waist, I mean – he was very quick and light. He followed you one day and imitated your class.”
The man gave a lopsided grin, shaking his head.
“I tried two or three times to catch that one! He used to tease us, but I thought he would have been champion material, with a little training.”
“Have you seen him? Recently, I mean.”
The class was doing push-ups now, while the surf frolicked to and fro, undermining their grip on land.
“No. I don’t think I’ve seen him since last fall. You know him?”
“He used to come and play and talk to me, when my husband was out of sight. I just hoped nothing had happened to him.”
The instructor turned back to his class, perhaps disappointed to hear about her husband. “If you find him, tell him to join my group and be a winner. There’s a real spark to that one.”
“Perhaps he was afraid of you. He called you the black man.”
Amused, his eyes flicked to her face.
“Like the devil, you mean? I’ve got a reputation as a taskmaster, but that’s quite a distinction.” His hand went to his throat, and she noticed a small Celtic cross and chain between his fingers. “The black man. What was the kid’s name, anyway?”
“He never had the same one twice. I don’t think he ever told me a real name, or certainly not an ordinary one.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him. He had the look of a kid who can take care of himself. Say, about that husband of yours … Are you happy with him?”
This seemed a difficult question, and Marsha puzzled it over in her mind for a second longer than confidence warranted. The ramifications of it seemed more and larger than she would have guessed. Was she content now, with what was left of him – that is, memories of three months, three weeks, three days? Was she capable of living with the Jim that was absence and being at ease, perhaps not now but later? Was he in any way still hers, or still a husband, though separated from her by time? She wondered whether she seemed bereft and abandoned, to make this stranger ask such a question.
“Whenever I have been with Jim,” she said at last, “I have been happy.” That much she was sure of. The answer was no doubt clouded, but she felt it was the best she could do.
“I guess that’s – somehow I thought he might have run off – well, you know where to find me,” he said cheerily, jogging away from her and calling for the class to follow.
When she returned to the stairs in the late afternoon, she noticed that the cliff face was marked with long tearstains. Drops plummeted from the lip, and, as she cocked her head to look, one splashed onto her forehead. Checking the top, she noticed that the pool had not shrunk but rather had grown larger. The vegetation was soaked and a brilliant green. Moisture seeped, collecting in rivulets that inched toward the brink.
She supposed that it had rained more than she knew. Inside the house, she curled by the big window overlooking the ocean and stared out. She was hungry but didn’t feel like eating. It was restful by the cool glass, with the waves wrinkling the sea’s surface and the shadows of the rocks growing long. She took a sampler from the basket but pulled the needle through the fabric only once before letting it drop. The long walk in the sea air had tired her. Like a gradual tide, the night edged in, blurring the line between wakefulness and sleep. In the morning she woke on the floor with her head pillowed on her arm.
Stumbling to the pantry, she took out a sack of coffee. From the kitchen window she could see the moon to the southeast, hanging over North America in a tissue of clouds. As if by magic, the veil turned red, and the crescent glowed a pale, bright sage. She stared, drinking her coffee, until dawn yielded to the daylight. Only then did she rummage in the freezer and find some waffles, eating them fresh out of the toaster with neither butter nor syrup. Without Jim, she no longer had an interest in cooking, so it didn’t matter. Nothing inside the house really held her notice; all she wanted was to go outside and wade in the surf and climb the rocks until she became weary.
Barefoot, she stood on the stone doorstep – blue and shaped like a child’s drawing of a cloud – and listened to a pattering. The sound, so pleasurable and erratic in its notes, startled her. When she went to look, Marsha found that the water could no longer be thought of as a large puddle. Streamers of liquid splattered against the rock face, blown by the breeze. Peering over, she saw that a stain of considerable size had spread over the sand. All day the pool grew, until it was some yards wide and constantly spilling over the edge of the cliff.
“I wonder,” she said aloud, but left the thought unfinished. Although cautious, she ventured close and finally stepped into the shallow circle. The water felt as cold as a mountain spring. “Maybe a coincidence. Could you be coincidence,” she muttered, bending low and combing her hand through the low coastal plants to see if anything had surfaced from the ground. Nothing: nor were there cracks or perforations of any kind. “If you’re not a coincidence, what then? Should I feel worried, alarmed? I’ve done something – what?”
By nightfall, a miasma tinged faintly blue hung over the pool, which was deeper and faster-flowing than before. When she picked her way through its current, Marsha felt streams of bubbles flying against her ankles. Kneeling and then crawling on the drowned plants, she felt her way across the cliff-top.
“Seven. There are seven. Like sand creatures buried by a wave and sending up bubbles.” Her voice was muted by the fog that swirled slowly around her. When she moved away, it seemed to settle in columns above the water.
And still she was not afraid. She had no desire to drive off in Jim’s little blue sports car with his prescription sunglasses still stuck in the pocket of the visor. Only when the moon rose and the stars came out did she begin to feel uneasy, alone under the zodiac with no one to see or to care what happened to her. Her old friends were three thousand miles away, and only Jason and his wife and perhaps some of Jim’s other colleagues knew that she was staying in the beach house – those plus her mother-in-law, who hadn’t cared for the daughter so abruptly foisted on her. She didn’t go inside, all the same, even when the mist over the pool thickened with dew and streams rushed from the ground and became a torrent, wallowing and then eddying at the base of the cliff until a finger of liquid trickled across the sand and vanished between stones, heading toward the sea. In less than an hour, the waterfall had made a rutted course and now flung itself pell-mell from height to sand to stones, losing itself in the tide. At once, with a whoosh! the cliff emptied itself of liquid, the creek twisting in the air like a silver otter with a tail of mist, vanishing between the standing rocks.
Marsha, who had been kneeling on the damp ground, exhilarated by the strangeness and increasing force of the falls, got to her feet. Her gaze was on the silvery track, winding across the sand. The water was gone, diving into the sea and hiding itself. The end was as mysterious as the beginning. Going to the site where the pool had formed, she bent and looked closely at the surface in the moonlight. Though the expanse appeared quite undisturbed and felt no more than ordinarily damp to her palm, the seven enhydritic stones were lying close together on top, as if she had never buried them.
She retrieved one after another, tucking them into the pocket of her cover-up, a clingy garment that had been a favorite of Jim’s. It recalled the colors of the ocean, an aquamarine with streaks of darker blue and green. The wind tousled her hair and cooled her flushed cheeks. What to do? In the house, she looked at herself in the mirror and turned away, momentarily frightened by the intensity of her own stare – a glittering in the eyes. Out again, she left the door unlocked and slipped slowly down the cliff stairs, her hand on the rail. It wouldn’t hurt to go halfway down and see what remained of the waterfall, the stain of its passage glistening by starlight.
The wind toyed with her hair, tickled her skin. The night seemed heartbreakingly lovely, with an edge to its beauty that didn’t come from her memory of Jim’s loss or from her grief afterward. Just now she seemed to have gone beyond that private sorrow. Motionless in the sky or rocking on the mirror of the sea, the stars drew her thoughts away from self – a mote in the oceans of time and space. Also infinite was the flux of waters that went on forever, wrapping round the globe, and the sadness that was in her like blood and bone seemed for once to be parceled out and shared with the tide and pulse of the sea and the outward-going stars, sailing toward the ever-retreating end of the universe.
A bat-like flittering caught at the corner of her vision. She looked toward the upright stones, stabbed onto their flimsy shadows.
The boy leaped into a patch of light.
“Come down,” he called to her, and she ran down the steps to meet him.
“Thank God! I was afraid you were drowned – ”
“Not me! I’m a fish! You remember; I’m a king of the fish. The dolphins love me. They’d never let me drown.” He laughed, the pearls of his teeth flashing. Shyly, he put his arm around her waist and smiled up at her.
“You’re taller – and where’s your seaweed?”
He glanced at the cloth knotted around his waist. The fabric didn’t cover much more of him than the seaweed kilt had done, but lacked the impromptu air of his former guise. “I’m older. My brother said that I was too big to dash about the world naked.”
“Where have you been?” Marsha touched his cap of hair, silky as ever, and her hand brushed against his jaw. In the moonlight she could see the veins twining blue under his skin.
“Oh, around.” He jigged in place, full of the irrepressible joy she remembered.
“I’m glad you came back,” she told him.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? And I knew you wished for me.” Here he turned a cartwheel out of sheer excess of spirits. “Besides, my brother wanted to see you again. It’s still the same for him as last time. Once we love, we love for keeps.”
Marsha watched as he fled through the standing stones, weaving in and out of the light. In a few minutes he returned, skittering across the sands, and took her hand in his own. The fingers had the same slight tackiness that she remembered from before.
“Jim – you know that he died last year, after we went home. Did you know?”
The boy looked at her warily, without smiling. “You know my mother died, didn’t you?”
“Yes, you told me. I didn’t forget.” She wanted to put her arms around him but was shy about it. They felt useless, hanging at her sides.
“Well, that’s how I know about your husband. You just told me. I’m sorry, though. He liked the stones. We would have given him better ones this year. My brother said that we should give him some from our – from where we live.”
“That would have been nice. He would have liked them.” This time she reached for his hand, and he let her take it.
“I wish nobody ever had to die,” he said in a low voice. “My mother is the only one that I know who died. And I don’t remember her. Why did he?”
“A traffic accident – a truck hit him on the road and killed him.”
“I’ve seen those … I knew he hadn’t drowned, or the fishes would have told me.”
He looked so matter-of-fact in this declaration that she laughed, lacing her fingers with his and letting him tug her across the sand, nearer to the waves that were steadily pouncing closer and closer to shore. She had forgotten how peculiar a little being he was, with his stories about the sea and stones and his ignorance – fancy a child never having held a pincushion! Or perhaps that was twenty-first century life, with clothes readymade in China and Mexico and Thailand. That must be where all the pincushions had gone. She wondered if the boy knew that China existed, and if he would let her teach him the things that he should have learned. She believed he must never have gone to school … What she saw after burying the enhydrites was pushed aside now, as if it hadn’t occurred at all. The reality of the boy’s quick, dancing self overshadowed the past days and made them appear as insubstantial as dreams. Even Jim was merely a shadow, and speaking of him hardly grazed her with sadness.
“You don’t believe me! You’ll find out – ” The boy smiled but not at her, glancing toward the sea.
If she hadn’t felt the stones pressing against her hip, she might never have thought of them. But she took out the fingerlings one by one and then spilled the fistful into his hands. He gave another secret smile and tucked them into the waistband of his garment – a short sarong, she thought it might be, if such a thing was worn by boys. The stubby figures were pressed against his skin. No, not figures, she remembered: just stones.
“And I have something for you. Close your eyes.” He grasped her hands, pushing them into the shape he wanted. Something hard skimmed her palm, then flopped onto its side.
“Oh – ”
It was a cord and pendant, the latter like the one around the boy’s neck: that is, transparent, circular, perforated in the center, incised with what he had called runes. Chambers of water were trapped inside, several of them holding minute flakes.
Marsha held the necklace at arm’s length, staring at the ocean through the hole. It seemed that she could make out four or five figures in the water, unless they were merely rocks, jutting up from the sea floor. As she moved the stone slowly across her field of vision, she saw something else: the figure of a man, leaning from a jagged perch. She could tell no more from that starlit distance except that he appeared muscular, with fair hair.
“Here, bend down and I’ll put it on you.”
She didn’t give up the pendant for several more moments, staring until she knew that she could learn nothing more.
“Did you see my brother?” He tugged at the string to make sure it was tied well, afterward lifting the pendant to look at the runes.
“I suppose so.” She felt a blankness, the sort of bewilderment one feels at the top of a stairs, realizing that the reason for ascending has been left entirely behind. Marsha shivered; a breeze had sprung up. She looked back at the steps and the cliff, with its stain that still marked where the waterfall had flung drops against earth. In a few minutes she would go to the house and sleep, and in the morning she would find the boy and ask him to go away with her. She could adopt him; she might even name him after Jim.
The crisp incisions on the hoop of stone pressed their messages against her skin.
“What do these signs mean?”
“It’s hard to say. It’s like a song. See, here’s the sign for air, just under the one for water. See? Air under water.” He touched each with his fingertip, rubbing lightly. “This one is a binding or a blessing, see, right next to heart. Here’s fish; here’s woman. There’s healing in it, and reviving, and protection in childbirth. And long life, too.”
“That’s a lot.” She twisted the cord nervously in her fingers. In the morning.
She would go away with the boy in the morning. “You seem older this year,” she said, a little sadly.
“My brother made me learn things. Not just the runes. But I skip off where he can’t find me whenever I want. I’m a king too. He can’t make me.”
“And what do you call yourself? Today, I mean.” She remembered the jumble of names, ending in Sad. Perhaps he would be happy now.
“Tonight I’m Merlin. Mer, that’s the sea.”
“And a merlin is a bird – ”
“A falcon who stoops to catch a silver fish!” The boy whirled, his arms lifted into wings and his hands gripping the air like claws.
“Yes, and a wizard who was a seer – ”
“I’m a seer too. I see and see and see,” he declared, ending with a somersault.
“What do you see? Do you see my future?” She asked but he wouldn’t or couldn’t tell, so she lifted the pendant to her eye like a monocle. The swimmers bobbing in the waves were gone, but the man was still musing on his rock. Wind lifted his long hair. The skin at his throat and on his chest looked bluish. Maybe that was a trick of the moonlight, though.
“Did I tell you that the black man asked about you? He wanted you to learn karate …”
The boy let out a peal of merriment. “He’ll never catch me! Not so long as I have legs to run. I would swipe off his head with my sword arm. You hear him talking? Draw arm, sword arm, all that, and there’s not a blade or scabbard in sight. He’s a fool who fights the mist.”
Back in the city there would be things that he could learn. Perhaps he could take lessons – he was quick and bright, he would be good in fencing or any of the martial arts. At first he would need a tutor for school.
“I must go inside now,” she told him. “But you’ll come see me tomorrow, won’t you? We can sit and talk all day, and maybe you could come back to the city with me in Jim’s car?”
What a rubber face! She suppressed her laugh. He had contracted his brow, squinting at her, and now said only, “traffic accidents,” as if that settled the issue.
“Tomorrow, we’ll talk about it then,” she insisted; “I need to rest.”
“But I wanted you to meet my brother,” he said. “Look, we’re already at the ocean, and he’s just right there. Come on.” His grasp had a surprising firmness, and she exclaimed as he tugged on her arm.
She stumbled at the edge of the water, going down on one knee. He stopped and waited as she stood up but didn’t offer to help.
“A little ways – can’t he come here?” She was breathing fast, nervous and – she now admitted it to herself – afraid. A chill flashed over her as she remembered strewing Jim’s ashes. His atoms were now the sea’s, his death swallowed and spread on the currents.
“What’s the matter?” The boy looked at her, frowning.
“I want to go home.” She was trembling, not just from the cold. When she lifted the pendant and glanced through it, she saw that the figure had moved from the rock and was chest-high in ocean, moving gently up and down with the rhythm of the waves.
The boy was determined, pulling her in the water, teasing and laughing at her fear, vowing that she would soon see his brother face to face. She had the sensation that they weren’t alone, that others were close around them, urging them on, taking her by the hand, pushing against the force of the waves. Along this portion of the coast, the floor dropped away quickly, and soon she felt helpless, riding on the swells, her legs dangling. When she lifted the necklace again, she saw with a shiver that the boy’s elder brother was swimming swiftly in their direction. As he came closer, she glimpsed his face, strong-jawed and bold in its contours. In a few more moments, he was close beside her, so that she could only catch glimpses of him through the lens of the stone. These quick angular snapshots frightened her more than ever, because something about him was not right – not just the blue and turquoise flush to the skin but the whole muscularity of him, the too-handsome, chiseled face, and the irises of the eyes that were cool but radiant like two pieces of sagenite set in sockets of stone.
The boy was laughing at his own success. Marsha gripped his shoulder, pinching him tight, as the brother drew her toward him. They each had her by a hand, and for an instant she was drawn against the man and felt the muscular hardness of him along the length of her body. She cried out, and water filled up her mouth with its murmuring.
A jogger in a black gi was leaping through the surf. He heard the sharp note of distress and stopped, staring at the sea.
From the shore, all that could be seen was a slight disturbance in the water, over in an instant. The swells became smooth. Waves kept pushing their freight of sand and weed to the shore, reflecting the upraised sickle of the moon and a harvest of starlight.