He had forgotten how grey everything was by the shore, how desolate. The skeletal grasses that grew at the edge of the sands leaned towards him in the briny wind, the industrial carcasses of desolate factories stamping themselves on the skyline and not only was it all so grey but it was all so sad.
He pressed his hand into the long black coat he wore which seemed to be trying to take off from him and fly up to meet the great, dirty seagulls that swirled above. His face and neck felt as if they were coated with a layer of heavy rubber and yet still stung from the biting chill. A light rain had darkened the beach to dry mud and peeled what little colour was left in the seaside town away.
The ocean slid towards him, tempting him, ushering him towards it. When it retreated he saw it had left him a gift—a single carp, stained with pollution. The fish flapped uselessly by his foot in a serene slow-motion dance, eyes whole and wide like a terrified child. Its mouth begged numbly for help as it cut into the rough sand.
He watched coldly as the carp slowed, then stopped.
A light rain had begun to fall.
He turned his coat’s collar up and made his way back to the boardwalk. Already the deep, heavy feeling had begun to swell in his chest, the place affecting him, infecting him, like it had done a year earlier. The rain spattered against him and through the wet spray he glimpsed one or two other souls dashing for cover, little more than thin black shapes in the distance.
As he walked, he imagined that he heard her barefooted footsteps behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then turned. A scrawny, mottled gull sat on the boardwalk fence, staring out to sea. It called to the ocean with its great yellow beak, uttering an ethereal sound that seemed to float beyond the horizon, then flew off towards the ugly black clumps of the fishing boats uselessly trawling their nets.
He hurried on along the boardwalk as the wind battered him.
After a time he felt lost and that was when he saw the hut. It had been the same the previous year as he had once again strove through the freezing, barren weather, almost having given up on finding it. The man in the bar’s directions had been misshapen and filtered through a lifetime of breathing the briny air. They had seemed, back them, to be toying with him rather than instructing him and the black feelings that the shore inspired had reached what he had then believed to be their peak. He had collapsed onto the boardwalk’s sodden wood in such a rainbow of barbed emotions that he could not think—and when he had looked up the sea mists had cleared enough to allow him a view of the fisherman’s hut in the near distance. It looked like an icy black stone against the drab sky, tiny and pitiful against the crashing waves.
The sea was quieter this time, less reckless, as if it were a child that had reached puberty since the last time he had seen it. It was shy and eager and moody.
The rain had eased slightly but had already done its work. He was soaked beyond his coat, beyond his clothes, beyond even his skin. That rain had beaten its way into his bloodstream one year earlier and had been coursing coldly there ever since.
He approached the hut and once more thought he could feel her behind him. He ached with the memory of her.
He knocked hard on the door, noticing how his hands were the colour of fire, his knuckles death-white.
There was movement inside and when the door opened the smell of rotting fish-guts filled his nostrils. The man that stood before him was like a heavily knotted tree branch; little more than four and a half feet tall, bulging all over his misshapen torso, hairy and scarred and tattooed, his veins a map of clear blue lines on his pale, rippled skin.
The dwarf considered the man before him, almost double his height but interminably thin and swathed in black, black hair. This stranger was also struck dumb by the ocean winds and an 365 days of weighty melancholia.
“Well? What do you want?” His voice was embedded with the coarseness of sea fogs, his tiny eyes narrowing to pinpricks as recognition began to slide over him.
Still the visitor said nothing. The raindrops had begun to thicken again, bulleting the little shack, so vulnerable as it sat next to the great, black ocean.
The dwarf peered at the man, his stumpy hands gripping a gutting knife as his annoyance at this intrusion gave way to something else.
“You took my wife,” the stranger said as the rain pressed down upon him.
The dwarf looked the man up and down, gritting his teeth. “What do you want?”
The man stared back, shaking mightily as he stood, almost lost in the blue-grey spray which dissected him. “You took my wife,” he repeated numbly.
The dwarf flipped the knife deftly into his left hand then slowly stepped to one side. “Come in out of the rain,” he said.
* * *
The shack was a microcosm for the town it sat on the edges of, just as the dwarf was. A fisherman that had nothing to catch and a fishing village with no working fishermen. A ghost place in so many ways.
Thick wooden shelves lined the walls, the low ceiling’s skeleton of rotten wooden beams draped with disused nets and rusting equipment. The jaws of a medium-sized shark hung at an angle on the back of the front door. By the window, a sturdy table with a large cleaver wedged into the wood and strands of oily fish entrails spread across it.
The dwarf had given him a piece of tarp to wrap around himself but seemed not to be bothered by the chill that hung inside.
“I remember you now,” the dwarf said. “You’ve been here before. Last year. You . . . and that pretty little thing.”
There was something about the way he said it, made it like a razor.
“Do you remember what you did to her?” the visitor asked without looking up, the rain dripping from his hair thick and acidic from the smoke stacks that smogged the sky.
“I do lots of things, hard to keep track sometimes.”
The visitor looked up, peeling his hair away from his sunken face, arms draped over his legs in the chair he was slumped in. The dwarf moved towards him, eyes level with the other man.
“Question is, do you remember what you did to her? From that look on your face, I’m thinking you might just.” He stalked around the back of the chair. “What’s done is done, my friend. And what’s done cannot be undone.”
The ocean winds battered the tiny shelter and there was the sound of a fog horn or factory alarm going off in the distance—a mere memory, another ghost.
“I want her back,” the visitor said.
The dwarf’s chuckle was more of a snarl, as rough as his blistered skin. “You can’t have her. She belongs to the water.” He leaned in closer so that the visitor felt his beard scraping cold, sensitive skin. “It’s too late.”
* * *
His name was Daniel, this stranger, this man-shadow.
And she had been Ceri.
They had stayed in the room that Daniel now lay in, curled up on the floor because he couldn’t bear to be back in the bed where she had spent her final night. There had been an ill-tempered wind that night too, and a silence between them.
The raw floorboards beneath him creaked as he rocked himself over the sound of the bed and breakfast’s landlady’s footsteps on the stairs. She paused by his door, her shadow thrown in the crack of light at the bottom, then faded again.
Daniel felt himself drifting to the memory of Ceri’s night-whimpers, the desperate sighs she made on those few occasions she managed sleep. It hadn’t been life; it hadn’t been fair.
It had been the only thing left to do.
* * *
It was three am and it looked as if the sky had collapsed and fallen to the ground, now liquid and pitch black.
Tendrils of oily surf crept up the sand and around his legs.
He had looked into the shack moments earlier after finding himself back at the shore and made sure the little fisherman was as asleep as he had appeared to be then climbed down off the pier that stretched out into water. The howling wind covered any noise he might have made but the dwarf had a supernatural air to him, born of the same piscean magic that had allowed him to communicate with the ocean and do as Daniel had asked one year earlier.
To Daniel it seemed not that he walked into the freezing blackness but that it came to him, up his legs, his stomach, his chest. He could see foot-long fish flipping themselves out of the water and splashing back in again, fish that hadn’t been there for a very long time now. They beat a steady rhythm amongst the pinprick explosions of the raindrops on the surface but fell silent as he became submerged.
Beneath, it was utterly black and yet somehow he was able to see. Oxygen bubbles turned luminous by moonlight spilled from his nose and lips, his hair like seaweed, flowing upwards from his scalp.
The ocean floor was desolate. Broken pieces of reef and ancient, worn rocks were all that remained on the porcelain sands at the bottom.
He moved through the water in a way he shouldn’t have been able to, sensing ribbon-like shapes moving around him but unable to look. It took him moments to reach the burial place, where the tips of the treasure chests stuck out from the soft ground they were half-buried in. They were at all angles, having been plunged in from the pier above.
It surprised him how many there were.
How many lives?
Each container was an ending, another crumbling jewel handed over to La Mer by the stunted fisherman and his callused hands.
Down here the world was described entirely in shades of blue, just as Ceri’s world had been. All of it diluted, shifting. You moved through it with the feeling that you had no control over your movements, that they were mediated by some greater force; by a distinct, unmentionable blackness.
He moved between the makeshift graves, touching each one as he went. Sparks of memory, fragments of lives left to rot on the sea-floor because the world no longer had need for them, bit him like tiny piranha. And with each step another chest was revealed, more and more until it seemed the whole ocean bed was covered in them.
He tried to speak her name, spilled bubbles into the darkness.
Turned and realised that each chest he had touched had opened behind him and lurching water-shadows spilled out of them. Within some, the white glint of skull or bone.
He spun around, his movements sluggish and delayed in the grip of La Mer, as the graves opened for him and he couldn’t escape when fingers began to grab him or when limbs wrapped around him. He sought desperately amidst the corpse-rabble to find her face but there was too many of them.
His mouth filled with sand as he was pressed downward, his previously unacknowledged ability to breath without breathing suddenly leaving him and ice water was filling his lungs and the last thing he remembered was the beauty of the ocean’s surface above him, studded by raindrops filled by moonlight like bullets.
* * *
Then there was the smell of strong coffee, mixed with tobacco and sea salt.
Daniel’s eyes opened through a layer of grit to a low, chunky table with what looked like teeth scattered across its surface. A blanket had been laid across him and a fire burned weakly in the hearth on the other side of the room.
The dwarf was sitting on the edge of the table, his malformed legs barely reaching the ground. His clothes were filthy and looked damp in places. He picked at his teeth with an incisor that had previously been at home in the maw of an adult basking shark.
“Drink this,” he said, and offered a steaming mug to Daniel.
Daniel stared back numbly then suddenly lurched forward as he reached for the coffee. His body spasmed and a cool stream of watery vomit ruptured from him. He hacked and coughed, spat sandy residue out.
It took a few moments for his consciousness to adjust and understand where he was.
“You think it’s going to be that easy?” the dwarf asked him, his demeanour stuck somewhere between anger and amusement.
Daniel gripped the mug but did not sip, taking comfort merely in the heat and aroma it gave off. “I don’t remember coming here.”
“Somewhere between dream and reality, that’s where this place is now. It doesn’t matter which. You think I care which? Isn’t nothing left to keep us from drifting off into the sky or La Mer come capture us.”
“I want her back.”
“I’ve told you already, boy, you can’t have her.”
“I’ll give you whatever you want—whatever it takes.”
“She doesn’t belong to you, doesn’t belong to me. I play no part in this anymore. La Mer has her now and that steely bitch don’t give anything back, let me tell you.”
There was a wet slapping sound from across the room. Daniel squinted past the blur of salt water corrupting his face and saw movement on the opposite wall. It was a fish like the one he had seen the day before on the shore, a fat black carp that had been pinned to the woodwork by its tail with a gutting knife. It bucked numbly, eyes like marbles about to slide out of its scaly head.
“La Mer’s getting tired,” the fisherman said as they watched the animal slowly suffocate. “Nothing left to suck out of her, soon.”
Daniel sipped on the coffee. He felt like an astronaut floating off into space, nothing to hold him down any more. The cuts he had made on his arms had begun to sting again from the salt water, as fresh as the day he had pressed razor blades into them, and the ocean was inside him.
“I remember when there was life here. When the sky was blue and not grey and La Mer didn’t reflect it like bad metal. I remember when things weren’t this empty.” The dwarf stood by the window, lit a cigarette.
The fish slowed its protestations, the sound of the cold marine wind filling the tiny shack, perched like a mollusc on the edge of the pier. Gulls screeched high above as if they were being murdered. And the ocean was great and black and forever.
“I’ve lost count of how many I’ve put down there, you know.”
“There could be one less,” Daniel offered weakly.
“There could be,” the fisherman agreed, puffing out smoke at the gull perched outside the window. Scars littered the creature’s body. “But I don’t take from La Mer, I give to her. That’s the way it works. And don’t forget—it was you who came to me.”
There was the sting, the barb that had been lodged in Daniel’s chest for a year. The fisherman had put Ceri down there but only because he had asked.
“I had my reasons,” Daniel told him.
“Everyone does. But its not my place to ask.”
“I did it for her—she couldn’t bear it any longer.”
“She tell you that?” And the dwarf was peering at him, shaggy eyebrows jolting across his brow.
Daniel tipped his head to one side. “I just knew.”
“You don’t seem so sure.”
“Less every day. That’s why I’m here.”
And back to the start again.
“You can’t ever be with her again, my friend. I can maybe give you a moment but that’s all.”
“What do you mean, a moment?”
The fish had stopped flapping. The gull had flown.
“La Mer is a creature like any other and grows tired. At night she sleeps and doesn’t hold as tight to that which she has. It’s the best time to fish. Or used to be. But your wife . . . this isn’t what you want. It isn’t what you think it is.”
“Don’t tell me what I want.”
“You don’t seem to know too good yourself,” the dwarf said, shrugging mildly and Daniel could feel him discarding the offer.
“I want whatever you can give me.” Daniel was sitting upright now, the tarp discarded, the coffee put back on the table next to the shark teeth.
“She won’t be the same. Once La Mer takes her … She won’t be what you think she will.”
“I don’t care.”
The fisherman grimaced, realising he couldn’t be swayed and regretting offering the man what had meant to be a distraction.
“You can’t have her back.”
Daniel stood, abruptly towering over the dwarf, sadness displaced by something almost akin to hope. He hadn’t gone back to the town expecting anything, seeming instead to drift there because that was all that was left. And if he were to die, he should die there, of all places.
“One hour,” he said. “Can you give me that?”
The fisherman defiantly stared back, hateful of the impedance on his quietly disintegrating life and anxious to let it crumble in peace. He nodded once. “Come back tomorrow.”
* * *
Awakening with no memory of walking back to the bed and breakfast had been no surprise for Daniel. His life had had the blurred edges of a dream for some time now, selectively adopting reality when it saw fit. Ceri’s footsteps; the cold caress of the ocean; the fisherman; the blood-haze of self-inflected trauma.
Visiting the fisherman making another deal with him to undo the first—it might have happened, or not.
None of which mattered.
He had come to the shore again that afternoon, already the light fading, the sky melting at the horizon like dirty wax. It was the only place left for him. He felt the weeping shadow of Ceri behind him, watched the impossible reflections of the box-graves rippling on the ocean surface twenty meters out.
It felt like the end.
He didn’t know how much he could trust a man who would abduct and bury another person in the bottom of the ocean without any inclination to know why but when there was only one choice there was no need for doubt. Plans formed in his head, plans to swim out and away from the dwarf before he could do anything or run up the beach and into the taxi he had arranged earlier in the day.
One hour could never be enough and it didn’t matter what the fisherman said.
Of course he would be with her again—there could be no other way.
* * *
Despite his awkward shape the dwarf possessed a strange grace as he dropped himself into the ocean that evening. The winds had picked up, stirring up bars of surf that glided across the water’s dark surface and scattering flocks of gulls into a frenzy as pieces of poisoned, dead fish floated up out of the darkness.
Daniel crouched on the edge of the pier where it descended onto the sand, hands draped between his legs, heart cold and heavy in his chest like a rock. Everything was slowing down, filtered blue just like Ceri had said in those final months.
The marriage had been a weak effort to try and drag her out of the darkness. They had both known it wouldn’t work but what had there been left? Through the lithium and lopraphamine, the Prozac and herbal remedies. Through time spent apart and time spent together.
The oceans surface parted and the dwarf dragged himself out, walking up onto the shore by himself. Daniel stood, went to meet him halfway, suddenly panicking.
“Where is she? You said you would . . . ”
The dwarf was coughing as he held up his hand, ice-water spilling off of him making his skin look even more leathery than it had before. He hadn’t even bothered changing, his clothes heavy and sagging, pieces of seaweed trapped in the lining of his pockets.
“It’s started,” he said, gathering his breath and trying to banish the image of that first grave, the one that he had buried what seemed like and eternity ago. The one with his own wife’s rotting bones in it. “She’ll come to you soon—as the sun sets, when La Mer is at her weakest.”
Daniel looked to the water, fearful of trickery but knowing there was nothing he could do either way. He was at the mercy of the devious troll that had put her there in the first place, a creature with no good reason to be doing what he was doing.
He remained looking out at the shuddering water surface, listening to the fisherman move wetly back up to his shack and he wondered if the dwarf would be aware of Ceri standing there, as black and translucent as the dying wisp of an extinguished candle.
* * *
Her hair was dark as before, her skin whiter. Her lips purple, eyes clear. There were some dark veins visible around her shoulders and neck where the wedding dress hung around the top of her breasts. One of the gothic, elbow-length gloves she wore had peeled downwards like excess flesh and was wrapped around a bony wrist.
She came out of the ocean as if it were poisoned honey, the water taking longer than it should to slide off of her. The old steely bitch was more reluctant than the dwarf might have thought.
The wedding dress had turned black, perhaps rotting. It dragged behind Ceri as she stepped onto the beach, bare feet plunging into the soft sand. Her arms were outstretched, palms turned upwards.
And then she stood before him, after all that time, after all that suffering.
Her features were perfect, her face soft and no longer creased as it always had been.
Did she remember the dwarf coming for her as Daniel lay in the bed beside her, unmoving as she was dragged away? The taste of the venom-soaked rag that had been pressed into her face? The sound of the ocean caressing her in the chest?
Daniel reached for her, ready for his hand to move through the illusion. He touched her arm and though it was bitterly cold it was solid; it was there. She was there.
She came into his arms and returned the gesture when he squeezed her to him.
The frenzied gulls had quietened down but still circled above, swooping occasionally. In the distance, over Ceri’s shoulder, a massive tanker split the horizon, billowing smoke. Daniel could feel the fisherman watching them from the window.
And none of that mattered.
Her lips were warm. Her lips were warm.
He couldn’t speak, now cocooned in a numbness that was not of the thick, depressive origin it had previously been but instead a gentle, sad one.
Ceri’s eyes were as brown as always. She seemed slightly dazed, slightly distant but glad of his presence.
Daniel cupped her face with his palm, traced a finger up her jaw, around her ear and into her hair; felt sadness surge in him as her eyes fluttered with satisfaction at his touch and then she suddenly slumped into him and he had to lower himself to the beach, supporting her as they went.
They lay on the sand, Ceri curled in his arms as the freezing water crept slowly up towards them. La Mer was anxious, as temperamental as ever. Daniel pulled Ceri further up the shore and away from the creeping, watery fingers.
She gazed up at him, and it was clear that she was only partly there. He brushed a streak of clotted hair from her face.
He’d cancelled the taxi before going back to the shack earlier, perhaps sensing it would be pointless. He had known the dwarf would be right, that he couldn’t have her back no matter how much he wanted. He’d given her away and would never have her again.
But for now, she was with him again.
The tanker in the distance sounded a horn, a low, resounding scream that shuddered across the ocean towards him.
Where now? What now?
With each pulse of water that leeched out of the ocean like blood from a knife wound the time they had together slipped away. The rhythm of the surf counted down the seconds and all Daniel could do was draw her closer.
All he could do; and all he needed to do.
That anything else would come of his return other than this one last moment together was no great surprise to him—that he would feel so complete holding her, knowing that she was slipping away from him once more, never to return, was.
And soon he was breathing drowsily into her hair.
* * *
When he awoke the sun had bled into the horizon a bright orange glow and all that was left beside him was the thin, shallow trench marking where Ceri had been dragged back into the ocean.
Sand stuck to his face, crumbling from him as he sat up.
There were pieces of her wedding dress, black little fragments, embedded in the trail as it vanished into the water. And on one of the scraps, the glitter of the wedding ring Ceri had taken down with her into her burial place. It all seemed calmer, La Mer content again that she had her jewel back.
Daniel stood, brushing himself off. He tried to see the blurry shapes of the box-graves reflected on the surface but though it was brighter than it had been the day before all he could make out were lumps of coral and algae-soaked rocks.
He could still feel the ghost of her lips on his.
Behind him the boardwalk of the pier creaked and he saw the fisherman looking back down at him. The dwarf had a knife in one hand, a diseased fish in the other, both hanging by his sides. For the first time there was an untainted smile on his face.
The sun caught on something on his finger. Daniel looked into his own palm at the ring, the gesture La Mer had left him. He slipped it onto his pinkie finger, the only one it would fit on, squinting in the daylight.
He could feel the world ready to slot back into place again. Not yet, but soon.
The sea lapped at his feet and felt almost warm.
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