Sitting on the back stoop of the small cottage overlooking the Atlantic, McLean watches the first light of day awaken across the sea, climb the steep cliffs and engulf the land in a warm, brilliant glow. From a story he once told, she has a non-memory of him on a similar hillside stoop with a similar view. Ironic, in that breath-stealing, punch-to-the-gut way, that she has ended up where he began, on the coast overlooking the ocean, watching the horizon give birth to the day. His absence has become as prevalent in her life as his presence had been. In this exact moment, alone on the back porch, feeling him both here with her and missing from her side, she realizes why she has really come. She was seeking him, hoped he might be here. Hoped the wind might conjure him up in the sea air. Her mind knew the absurdity, yet her heart had refused to believe this was just a random refuge on a long sea shore. She realizes the salt she can taste is yet one more tear. Another gut punch. Her hands grasp the mug of strong black coffee tighter as the warmth of the early sun immediately fades.
On the ferry crossing the Strait to his hometown, the cold mist from the ocean had taken small, razor-sharp bites out of her skin as she turned her face into the northern wind and strained to see the opposite shore. The cold pain startled her and was a welcome change to the searing heat of so many recent tears. All the times she had imagined herself here, it had never been without him. Now he existed for her, ever present, yet never fully there. Faded snapshots she has of him here play over in her mind, a shadowy figure haunting the peripherals of her vision. She and her daughter had played on the deck outside the ferry’s near-empty bar, pretending to be blown along by the wind, and descending make-believe stairs, amusing themselves far more than they did any of the patrons watching from inside.
She relates to the barren land here, hard and stripped bare. Scars of rock reveal themselves, exposed by the elements and time. The porch railing too has been worn by exposure and use. Running her hand across the rough surface, a piece of ragged wood pierces the soft flesh of her middle finger. At least this pain she can do something about. She hasn’t started unpacking and doesn’t feel like locating her make-up case where the tweezers will be. Remembering the two sewing pins stuck in the bottom corner of the lace curtain over the kitchen sink she had noticed while getting water for the coffee, McLean heads back indoors. She had let the water run for a long time before filling the kettle and not knowing how long the cottage had been empty before they arrived. They will need bottled water next time they are in town. Too lazy to search for a pen at the time, she had taken the shopping list from the fridge, set it on the counter and placed an empty water glass on top as a reminder.
The screen door slams behind her on the way to the kitchen just like the one at her aunt and uncle’s house growing up. Somewhere in her subconscious her uncle yells, “don’t slam the screen” and the memory brings the flash of a smile. This time, she hadn't done it on purpose just to get a rise out of him. Sure enough, the pins are there. They are the type her grandmother used to use, with small, coloured balls on the ends. Pulling out the pin with the light blue ball, she begins to work her skin away from the sliver, her mind exploring the possibilities of who might have left them in the curtain, when and why, while absentmindedly picking at her flesh. She has no idea who has lived here before her and feels both an intruder and instantly welcomed home. How many others have sought shelter and respite within these walls? More importantly, how many found it?
A week ago she had no idea they would spend the summer here, having stumbled upon an online rental advertisement late one night. It thrilled the owners, Sam and Sal, to learn the rental would be for the entire summer, but they had concerns. They hadn’t wanted a stranger with no ties to any locals, and could she afford it on her own? Could she handle being on her own? Truth was, she couldn't afford not to. She had to finish the book and hoped to write it here. Even her mind was betraying her lately. Severely sleep deprived, it would run non-stop, keeping her awake at night, yet refuse to transcribe itself onto the page. Sensing their hesitation, she had put their reservations to rest with reassurances. She felt guilty playing their emotions, mentioning her illness and how spending the summer at the coast would also do her daughter a world of good, but had feared not getting the place. A caged animal, trapped in a town she hated and a body that continued to betray her, she needed to flee, and couldn't risk not getting it, not getting out. She hadn’t told them everything of course, just enough. Sam and Sal seemed to relax after she wired them the money for the first half of the summer up front and sent a post-dated cheque by over-night courier for the rest. For extra effect, she enclosed a picture of her daughter and herself standing in front of their old house the summer before, when both their smiles had still been genuine.
Unpacking in the cottage bedroom, it startled McLean to find a photograph of him in one of the boxes, a picture of the two of them together, the only one she has. Her daughter had been the photographer and had fallen for him as fast as she, a momentary family of three. Having spent the last year looking, she believed it too had gone. Every few weeks she would dream of him, unable to remember his face, wake and frantically search for it again. As always with old photos now, it is not his face she studies, but her own. Longing for a trace of her old self captured beneath that shiny layer of film, the only place her happy self exists.
This picture was when she could only think of him with pure happiness, not the bittersweet smile that now invades her core. Watching as the photograph slips from her fingertips and spirals towards the wooden-slat floor, the smiling image of her other self momentarily freed by this brief flutter, an unchoreographed free-fall dance of the unchained soul. The self that belonged to her so long ago. Her face nestled in the soft niche of his neck that she misses most, wrapped in his strong arm, fingers tangling her hair, where she had always felt safe. She always pretended to put up a fuss about his making a rat’s nest of her hair, but secretly enjoyed it, and misses it still. Autumn, they are framed by a forest of flaming trees with yellow, orange, and crimson leaves. She’s wearing her cable-knit sweater and a long full-skirt, blissfully unaware of the coming hurt. She now dreads those blinding bright, late September days which shall forever remind her, in so many ways.
She catches the reflection of the open window behind her in the silver-framed mirror hung above the bureau as the curtains lift with the salt-laden breeze only a moment before she feels it brush across her back like a sheath of silk caressing her skin. The wind is constant here, and was how she instantly knew she had finally found her true home. Given voice as it dances through the subtle, summer leaves and set against the roar of the distant waves. It comforts her to know this little haven by the sea has withstood so many coastal storms, believing it may help her also withstand. Her own small fortress with lace curtains and manicured lawn on the sea swept shore.
Already she has learned the details of this cottage intimately. Knowing which floor boards groan in protest against the weight of her feet, and avoiding them as she paces the floor. An audible reminder of the weight of a thousand pounds now carried on the metaphoric shoulders of her soul. The still empty closets here unnerve her, though the doorknobs are her favourite kind, old-fashioned cut glass knobs resembling oversized jewels that sparkle every morning as the sun brushes light across their surface. She lay in bed their first morning watching the streak of dawn light’s slow succession across the room, reassured by the visible progression of time. As children, her adopted cousin Lala always told the story of how her real parents lived in a mansion where the doorknobs were made from real diamonds. She promised that when they came for her, she would give McLean her very own diamond doorknob. McLean knew, even at that young age, that they would not be coming and that no diamond-doorknob laden happily ever after’s existed, but Lala never stopped believing.
Bending, she retrieves the fallen picture from the floor and grabs a pen from the desk on the way out the door to the kitchen. Writing ‘water’ on the list, she sets the pen down beside it and fastens the picture of the two of them, smiling and together, to the curtain over the sink using the same blue headed pin that had earlier pierced her skin.
Donna M. Jack is a Canadian writer of all things; poems, short stories, non-fiction, anecdotal humour, lists and notes.