By Melinda Moore | July 31, 2013 at 10:11 AM EDT | 2 comments
THE SEA LISTENS
By Linda Adams
Ever since my grandfather Victor's death at sea had brought me home, the voices rolled in with the fog: a thousand voices whispering all at once, demanding attention but not understood.
I walked along the sandy beach, my hands burrowed into the pockets of my jacket. It wasn't cold -- at least not for here, but it was at least a sixty degree drop for me. I'd only been back now three days and felt like I'd have to be an Eskimo to live here.
But then it hardly looked like a summer day well into the morning. Fog pressed against the world, blurring the lines of reality and imagination. Just a few miles offshore, the sea disappeared into a white haze. A foghorn echoed mournfully across the peninsula.
I didn't know why I kept coming out here. Maybe I'd find an answer I was missing. Maybe I'd catch a snatch of a conversation amidst those whispering voices. But the words remained unclear, and my questions remained unanswered.
I stopped to gaze at the twin granite formations jutting out of the sea, known unofficially as "the Two Sisters." The waves crashed around them, spraying foam higher and higher, as if angry that these rocks impeded the sea's path. Victor had walked out to those rocks, perhaps from this very spot.
A shiver made the muscles in my back jump. The whispers had intensified, as if urgently trying to communicate a message to me.
The whispers must be a trick of sound caused by the shape of the bay. That's what I told myself at least, though I wasn't sure I believed it. I wasn't sure I believed anything. The truth was that I'd already reached my limit of "too much," and this was one more thing to weigh me down.
Before I realized it, I was walking down the beach, staying just out of reach of the waves rushing in to greet me. Up ahead was the only other person on the beach at this time, a fisherman. He had the kind of beard that looked like he'd just forgotten to shave that day. He was sprawled in a beach chair, a fishing line rising above the chair like an extra appendage. The line disappeared in the surf.
Movement beyond the line caught my eye, and I turned to the water. I took two steps forward to get a better look. A head floated on the surface beyond the swelling of the waves. It rolled with the current. It was too far to tell much, but it looked like a woman.
Alarm pounded at me, and my soldier training kicked in. I was ready to do something, even if I wasn't sure what. It'd been quite a hike to get to the beach from where I'd parked my car. While I could swim, I think even an Olympic medalist would have trouble in those breakers.
"Is someone out on the water?" I asked the old fisherman.
The fisherman didn't looked up from rummaging through his tackle box. "Harbor seal. They like to float with their heads out of the water."
A seal? The sea was trying to trick me. I stood on my toes, wishing the seal wasn't so far away.
"You're not from here," the fisherman said. His voice sounded judgmental, disapproving.
I pushed that aside. I'd had so much of it this last month that I wasn't sure if it was real or if I was imagining it. "No. My grandfather is -- was Victor Talmadge."
"So you're the soldier. Meredith. They sent you back?"
Sent back wasn't the right phrase. When I found out Victor had died, my commander had to hunt down the Red Cross message. We'd moved eight times, and no one could figure out where we were. I had two weeks of emergency leave, and then I had to go back.
I wanted to go back, but then I wasn't sure I wanted to go back.
"Yup," was all I could say. "Did you ever see him out here?"
"All the time. He'd walk back and forth on the beach, staring at the sea and muttering about the light. He'd finally set up an easel and start painting. " The old fisherman blinked, sorrow crossing his face. "Good artist. I have one of his paintings. Hard to believe he's gone."
The line tugged, and he turned his attention to it.
I wandered on, listening to the voices.
The fog was beginning to burn away by the time I returned to Victor's house. The first thing that struck me about this place was that the streets didn't have curbs. The lawns just rolled downhill and right into the roughly laid asphalt. Victor's house was near the end of a street that dead-ended at a field overgrown with grass.
It was a two bedroom slab house, with white sidings and a red door. Yellow rosebushes grew under the two front windows, and the lawn was still green. I liked the houses here because each one was different. It didn't look like some big cities I'd been where the builders had popped the house out of a giant mold and just changed the color.
A white cat approached me with delicate, fussy steps, stopping at my feet to crane her head up -- can a cat be anything but female?
I knelt and ran my hand over her spine, humming with pleasure at the softness of the fur. The cat rammed her head against my leg, determined not to let the mortal who was paying attention to her go.
Footsteps slapped against the asphalt. "Don't let her fool you. We pet her all the time. She's spoiled rotten."
I twisted around to see my visitor, a Hispanic woman well into grandmother's territory -- hair that had probably been brown now a mix of gray and white, a comfortable dress that hid stains, a white cardigan sweater to stay warm, and practical tennis shoes for chasing after little ones.
"What's her name?" I asked. My fingers had found the sweet spot on the side of the cat's neck, and I scratched it gently while she tried to drive my hand to the ground with pleasure.
"Snowball." The woman gave an apologetic smile. "One of my nieces named her. Never even seen snow. You're Meredith, aren't you? I'm Guadalupe Sanchez. My house is over there."
She pointed to a house across the street that used to be only one story. At some point someone had slapped a second story on top. The first story was painted a pea soup green -- how did someone think that looked good? Even the army didn't like that color, and the army was all about green. The second story was an equally ugly brown, and the siding was smaller.
As if reading my mind, Guadalupe said, "My father did that years ago. Created all manner of headaches. My husband had to race to the county seat to get all the permits." Her lips stretched into an easy smile of memories. "I left it like this after he died. It's him. Besides, a coat of paint's not going to improve it." Her tone changed, becoming motherly. "How are you doing?"
"I don't know. I feel like I should have slammed to a stop somewhere back there, but I keep moving in all these different directions. Did Victor give you any idea that he was going to--" I couldn't bring myself to say the word suicide. There was something vile about the thought of it. I'd spent my last nine months watching for IEDs in front of me and preying hands behind me -- all I had thought about was staying alive and whole.
Guadalupe stuck her hands into the pockets of her dress. "He was still mourning Opal's death." I had to pause to count back. With every day being the same in the war, I'd lost track of when I was. It had been two years ago, and they'd both known it was coming.
"Did he stop painting?"
"No. If anything, he painted even more. Have you been inside?"
I glanced up at the house. My eyes burned with unexpected tears because of the finality of going in that house. "No, not yet."
"Want me and Snowball to come with you?" Guadalupe bent in half and scooped the fuzzball into her arms, settling the cat over her shoulder.
I grinned and scratched between Snowball's ears. "Can't let her get unspoiled now, can I?"
We walked up the sloping lawn to the front door. I noted holes here and there, drying in the sunlight. Gophers were mining the lawn for goodies.
I'd been given a red key that opened the front door. It stuck a little, swollen from the moisture in the air, and I put my shoulder to it to push it open. Iciness reached out and grabbed me, not from air conditioning, but from a house that had sat empty, waiting for life to fill it.
The floors were hardwood, maple brown, and squeaked with my footsteps. I remembered seeing these when I was little and thinking how strange they looked compared with our linoleum tile.
All the furniture was gone, replaced with paintings stacked against the walls. I went to one stack and fingered through it. Victor always dated his paintings, and these had been done about three months ago. Most were of the beach I had just been on, and specifically of the Two Sisters rock formation. There was desperation and a loneliness in the paintings that reached out for me, as if he were looking for something and didn't know what it was.
"What is it about that place?" I murmured aloud.
"Some say it's haunted," Guadalupe said.
I glanced over my shoulder in surprise. Haunted? "Like people hearing voices or seeing ghostly mists?"
Snowball squirmed in Guadalupe's arms. "Mind if I set her down?" At my nod, she set Snowball on the floor. The cat wandered over to sniff the edge of a painting. "We all know about the voices. They roll in with the fog every morning. Some people follow them into the sea."
Something in her tone made me pause. "You've heard them."
"Years ago." Guadalupe busied herself with looking through a stack of paintings. "I'd just gotten back, and it was hard adjusting."
"Vietnam? You were a nurse?"
A nod. "The army didn't do much for people with post-traumatic stress then, and even less for women. According to everyone, I wasn't supposed to have any problems. It seemed like those voices called to me in my dreams to go out there, and when I went to the shore, I wanted to walk into the sea." She knelt to pet Snowball. The cat's feathery tail trailed along her chin. "I haven't been back there since."
"What do you think the voices are?"
Guadalupe let out a breath. "The story is that those two rocks were sisters. They were waiting for their husbands to come home on a fishing boat. But the fog was bad, and the ship crashed into the rocks and sank. The two sisters were so distraught that they walked into the sea and became those rocks." She took up my hand. Her fingers were cold. "You shouldn't go out there again, Meredith. It's not safe."
Snowball, losing interest in us, trotted through the doorway that led to the hallway connecting the bathroom and bedrooms.
"Let's see what Snowball's checking out," I said, carefully avoiding Guadalupe's eyes.
Oil paint crowded out the other smells. Victor's room was at the end of the hallway, the door open. A corner of the bed was visible, looking curiously sterile, like no one had lived here.
The other bedroom was closed off with a wooden door. I remembered these doors, too. All I'd ever seen before were painted ones, but these were real wood. This one door glared back at me, forbidding me to enter. Even Snowball didn't seem interested in the door.
"He painted in there," Guadalupe said.
I stared at that door, my hands closing into fists, fingernails pressing against my flesh. Fear thudded in my throat. I couldn't go in. I didn't want to know what his last painting was.
By the time I rolled out of bed the next morning at oh-dark thirty, the fog had already come in for its daily visit. I puttered around the hotel room for an hour, waiting until the day got light enough out.
I'd been worn out by the events of the previous day and should have slept heavily, but instead I kept drifting into dreams about the beach. About that harbor seal I'd seen. Twice in my dreams, the harbor seal had become a woman with silver hair and golden brown skin.
And I thought I knew why Victor had gone out there.
The fog draped itself over the beach, and at times, I wondered if it had started raining. I kept feeling prickles of dampness on my skin. Except for the waves spilling ashore, the fog quieted the world with misty fingers.
But I knew my mystery woman was out there. Perhaps watching me. "Can I talk to you?" I called out to the sea. My voice sounded more tentative than I liked.
I scanned the choppy water.
Maybe it was just me.
Then a head appeared above the surface in the distance. Harbor seal? No. Definitely female. The head ducked under the water. A few minutes later she emerged from the surf, moving like a seal. She came ashore, bouncing, using her arms to walk on the sand. The surf splashed around her. Both her long hair and her tail were a silvery-gray, and covered with mottled spots. Natural camouflage.
I sat down in the soft sand so we could both be at eye level. It seemed only polite. But how did one talk to a mermaid? I decided common courtesy would probably be okay. "My name is Meredith."
Maybe I'd expected her voice to be musical, especially after listening to stories about the siren call of mermaids. But the voice was ordinary. I could have heard it on the street.
"Are you the only one ... out there?"
Her lips pressed into a smile. "No, there are more. We conceal ourselves as seals."
"Why did you let me see you the other day?"
"We tell stories. Share them across the waves. You have stories you need to tell."
"No." I was already shaking my head. "No one wants to hear those. Some act like I'm whining about nothing, and others --" I shrugged. "They don't want to hear the truth. What happened with my grandfather?"
"He was lost in his grief, and he was looking for escape." A wave splashed over Erala's tail and reached for me before being pulled back into the sea. "He heard what he wanted in our voices."
I nodded, my throat tightening up. My heart told me it was true. If he hadn't walked into the sea, he would have probably withered away from a broken heart. The day Opal died something in Victor had gone with her, never to return.
Erala clasped her hand around mine. There was course webbing between her fingers. "The best stories aren't the happy ones. Sometimes you have to tell the story to wash out all the poison. Tell me yours."
Somehow then, my mouth opened, and words came out. Haltingly at first, as if I were trying to find my balance. I was the private in basic training, being taught again and again, to trust my squad leaders, to trust my officers. And then I was sent to war, and those same people abandoned me one by one. The only person I could trust was myself.
By the time I was finished, tears were cooling on my cheeks, and all the energy had drained from my body. As I reached up to wipe my face, a flash of movement made me turn to the sea. In the water were more heads, floating above the surface, all listening to me.
"Come back and finish the story," Erala said. "We'll be here." She turned and waddled back into the surf.
I stayed on the beach for some time after the mermaid left, watching as the fog melted into the sunlight. I finally stood and trudged back up the beach. The door to Victor's last painting still waited, but I was ready for it now.
Linda Adams is a travel administrator by day and a fiction writer by night. She has a horror story coming out in October in Fabula Argentea and is working on a contemporary fantasy/action-adventure novel.
She is also a former soldier and served during the first Persian Gulf War, when it was still strange and new for women to be at war. You can visit her blog "Soldier, Storyteller" at http://garridon.wordpress.com/