By Carly Miller
When I was a girl, Amory asked me to leave my home to go with him.
We stood in the surf, feeling it surge around our ankles. He turned to me, his face chapped and tanned from months at sea, dark hair wind-tossed. He was only twenty-seven, and already I could trace the lines where wrinkles would appear. Please come with me, he said. I looked up to the bluff where we lolled naked for the first time, eating fruit and lying across blankets with the nighttime tides roaring in.
We are standing in almost the same spot when he asks now, four years later, pleading once more for me to come with him. Staring at my middle, wounded: “Don’t force me to leave you like this.”
That first time he asked life was different. I had the lighthouse, and the sea, and my father. But the man whose legs I lashed to at five, pretending to be a riptide dragging him down and under, is three weeks buried in a plot next to my mother’s. The deed to the lighthouse sits in my wardrobe, but the worn stone walls, the very sea itself, is haunted now by the ghosts of my parents, and the empty rooms, my brothers all having moved on. I am alone.
The first time I stubbornly refused Amory. I looked out on the water and said, I will not go.
I would not leave my home.
That girl is different than the woman I am now. That girl had no sharp dependency on nakedness and feather pillows and teeth sinking into soft flesh of exotic fruits. She did not yet understand skin, and long skirts, and the connotations of wearing your hair on your head like a crown of thorns; evidence of all your truths.
And my body is no longer just my own. I am two-in-one, I am empty cradle waiting by the hearth, I am waistband in constant need of expanding, I am summer, and winter is approaching across the steel grey skyline of the violent churn of the North Sea.
Two days ago, Amory’s ship appeared in the fog, and he himself walked up the beach and all I could do was watch, petrified at the kitchen window, in my black dress. The ring of his knock echoed through the room. For the first time I opened the door to Amory and was afraid. He looked at my waist. He asked when I had planned on telling him.
“I don’t know what to say,” I tell him, feeling the water lick at my skirts and make them heavy.
He stops. Touches a loose strand of blond hair and tucks it behind my ear. “Say you’ll come,” he tells me.
I turn. Look at the lighthouse. The baby kicks as I do, a sharp thump on the inside of my ribs. I do not know how to do this, I realize, I do not know what this child will bring; the weight of the lighthouse’s freezing stones presses upon my chest; the weight of fear, of summer waning.
I whisper that I will come.
* * *
When Amory is not on his ship, he lives in wretched London. We go to London. London is by turns dead and alive. London is bones propping themselves up, the people moving among them, inhaling the soot. London is the dirty, stagnant water of the Thames lapping at crumbling canal walls.
Traversing the city, I watch from the carriage how the rich brush past the beggars, gathering the silk of their skirts to avoid dipping their hems in the filth. Our driver does not slow for anything, and I watch the street urchins run out of the way of our clattering wheels with fear that is tangible as my hands. I bring a scented handkerchief up to my nose. My eyes must be wild above it, for Amory leans across the empty space in between us and yanks the curtains closed.
“Don’t torture yourself, Olivia,” he says, and as he does I realize I have never been anywhere with this man except for the lighthouse.
It will not be so bad, I tell myself. I lean back against the seat, take the hand he offers me. I love him, that is truth. I have always loved him. It will not be so bad to be here with him that I love.
The carriage pulls up to a house—his, now ours. Amory tucks me under one arm, the cradle under the other as he leads me in through the front door.
“You belong here,” he reassures me in the dim entrance. He kisses my forehead.
He says, “You belong with me.”
I have never belonged to anyone before, though. I do not know that I will understand how to belong. I make myself look in his eyes without turning my face away.
The other heartbeat, the one tucked inside my belly, beats alongside my own. A miracle I do not fully understand.
* * *
The cradle is made of driftwood so that every night our child will be rocked to sleep by what has been spat from the sea.
When I realized what was happening in my body, I tried to figure out the best way to tell my father. I could not find the words. What ones would suffice? What excuse could I find? I woke up in the mornings, stomach swirling like the waves out my window, and retched my meals back up. It took two months for me to miss my monthly bleeding.
Though Amory played his obvious part, it was my fault that I was pregnant. I had let Amory come to me for years. I had let him touch me; sleep in my bed as though he was my husband. I had slipped up the winding steps to my bedroom, laughing with him, after my father’s door had clicked shut. He was a gentleman, but I was not a lady; over and over Amory offered me promises. Promises of marriage, promises to take me with him, promises to uphold my honor. Over and over, I’d rejected them, all his gifts of assurance, cupping his face: I only want you here, darling, I do not care what anyone else thinks.
I tried to muster up some shame for my actions and I could not.
Each morning I took walks along the beach, listening to the intermingling cries of gulls and waves. I felt deep within my body, and I felt the baby there.
In the end, there was nothing I had to say to my father. He knew. He started making the cradle when the first fabric order to expand my skirts arrived. When I asked him how he had known he only smiled and said I looked like my mother. So very much like your mother, Olivia. By then he was already sick. It did not hinder him from shaping and sculpting, polishing and carving; etching into the wood a thousand illustrations, a thousand stories. By then, for my father, the end was near, and I am sure he knew he’d never meet his grandchild. This was all he would leave behind for him or her.
He was not ashamed either.
* * *
The night I met Amory was the night of the biggest storm in my living memory. Father and I sat on the patio that morning, watching the sun split itself blood-red over the water, casting an eerie light that tinged the waves green. He said, Olivia tell your brothers to get the lamps ready.
It was the kind of storm that claims mortals in old stories, sucking them down into the dregs of the sea, the kind of storm that smashes the largest of warships to toothpicks, the kind of storm unleashed only by divine fury. It was riding in this storm that Amory came to me, lashed in the lifeboat, borne mercifully —miraculously— through the same divine power that unleashed the thunder, the same that swept me into his bed so young and gave me the strength I needed to claim him.
By evening the stones were screaming beneath the wind. The gale ripped out chunks of dune grass by the roots and flung them against the lighthouse, the ocean thrashing wildly. Waves swept across its surface, growing with each passing hour.
Propelled by a feverish delight in the wildness of storms, I raced up the winding steps to the chamber in the top of the lighthouse, and flung open the window. The rain hit me in torrents, tangling my hair, soaking my dress and tamping it down to my skin. The wind was fierce; I climbed on the sill of the window, opened my arms, and allowed it to cradle me upwards, sustain my foothold, as I bayed along with the roar of the ocean.
My brother, John, came running into the room. He yanked me down from my perch. Olivia you’re insane! he roared over the storm, laughing too, infected too, by the same wild desire to throw oneself into the tempest and feel the surge crackling around one’s body.
We wrestled the wind to get the windows shut.
The sky, dark and ominous, was turning the color of pitch. It’s time to light the lamps, he said.
The match hissed against the flint, there was the explosion of oil inside the glass, and the light erupted, came to life, cutting across the water. It lit across the dark sea, landed on the boat that was being tossed helplessly by the storm: Amory’s merchant ship.
It’s a ship! A ship! I cried.
The lifeboats hit the shore within the hour, cleaving tracks into the sand that were instantly erased by roiling water. Amory was in the bottom of one, icy water sloshing around his limp form, a clot of mangled blood slick on his forehead. Our captain, one of the men said, He fell and nearly went over the side.
Before she died, my mother taught me the art of mending, and when she was sick I tried and failed to break the fever, was unable to draw the illness out. One of the last things she told me was that it was not my fault.
The captain became my charge. I gave him my bed. Changed into dry trousers, he lay barechested on the sheets. Unconscious, he looked the youngest that I ever saw him. My fingers shook as I smeared poultice over the gash across his ribs—a scar that would remain—pressed down clean bandages. At first my hands wiped away only blood but as time passed they began to wander where they were not needed; the strong nose with its slight, aristocratic hook, out of place on the rest of the sea-carved face, the thick black hair. On the bed he was vast. I could curl up completely on his torso, feet bunched underneath me, fit in his chest. I would, later, desire this.
When he woke a day later he reached and touched my cheek: Did you save all of my men, or just me?
That night we walked on the beach, the lighthouse rising a pillar behind us, growing smaller and fainter. He told me of the places he’d been; to India, trading silks for the high society women in London, where he’d seen a red ruby as fat and ripe as two apples; to the Caribbean Islands for fat, sweet stalks of pure cane sugar.
There are places, he told me, hand sweeping out towards the water, where the sea is the sweetest azure, and the beaches are as white as pure sunlight.
I bit my lip, said, You cannot leave yet!
Miss, I have much work to do.
Your work will wait. You could have a serious head injury. I paused. I must monitor you closely.
Do you fancy yourself a surgeon, child? he asked, laughing.
I put my arms around his neck and pulled myself up to kiss him: I am no child.
He left two weeks later, my stake in him buried deep. He asked me to go with him. I said no. I said, very fierce: You come back to me.
It was nothing short of a command, and yet one he always followed.
* * *
The second night after my arrival in London, we have dinner with my older brothers and their families. They live in London. It seems that living in London is the fashionable thing to do. I wrap my mind around this while watching the maids—Good God, we have a staff—spread linen across the dining table, lay out the crystal, ask my opinion on flowers; the idea of happily choosing to live in this city or any other. It is baffling.
I have two sisters-in-law, both courted properly by my brothers. Before I met Alice or Margaret, I had never seen either of the boys do a proper thing in their lives.
We sit around the table, the men and I laughing.
I ask Eliza, the niece named after my mother, to tell me about her school adventures. Eager, she starts to respond before Alice reaches out and slaps her lightly on the wrist, She has a governess.
Amory politely remarks that Eliza, with her grey eyes, is my spitting image. Alice purses her lips.
John grins. “They may look alike, but don’t be fooled; Eliza is such a docile little thing. Perhaps,” he adds to me, eyes glowing as he looks at his child, “Father should have gotten you a governess.”
“Like it would help her any!” Peter launches into the story of how they’d gotten me roaring drunk at my father’s sixtieth birthday celebration: “Right little man you are, knew how to handle yourself even at thirteen.”
They’d followed me out to the barn behind the lighthouse and slapped at my heaving back in applause while I vomited into the pig’s trough.
“Leave her alone, she’s blushing.” John stabs at his goose, points his fork at Eliza. “No rum for you, miss. Ever.”
Amory bellows with laughter, and Margaret and Alice stare at me, aghast, sinning so bravely, no wedding ring on my hand.
After dinner my brothers and I go out into the small garden behind the house. It’s filled with roses and lilies, and is certainly not tended by Amory, who, as a ship captain, only has hands for ropes and oars and pointing orders. Not cradling tender stalks, not easing fragility itself up from black dirt. I will not be capable of tending this plot either; I kill any plant that has the misfortune of receiving my touch. Years ago, it gave my mother migraines. She would lock herself in the bedroom, drawing the blinds, covering her eyes with a cool washcloth after I, once again, decimated her garden.
Peter pulls a pipe out of his waist coat. He is all nicely suited up, so different than how I used to see him; clothes torn, and dripping saltwater as he swaggered up the beach, a net or fishing pole slung casually over his shoulder. “It’s a good set-up you have here, Liv,” he tells me, surveying the tangle of flowers.
“Yes,” I say, suddenly shy.
He lights, breathes in. Holds it out to me. I blow smoke in his face: “That’s for bringing up me getting sick in the pig trough.”
He chuckles. Reaches out and absently pats my belly where the baby is curled, still now. “You’re going to be okay, sis,” he tells me.
His voice stills me. Blinking back the unexpected wave of tears, I nod.
* * *
I wait for the baby.
I wait for many other things as well. I wait for Amory to come home after he leaves on his ship for three weeks to deliver goods to his buyers. I wait for the sun to rise lying in bed at night, feeling the heaviness of his weight next to me. I wait for footsteps on the landing, for the shadows of the house to retreat, for color to re-emerge. I see in shades of blue and grey; this house lacks light and air, is a place of many chambers and crannies, and I turn lamps on and off, desperately trying to decide which I prefer; light or shadow.
He comes home and for a few days everything is better. He brings me dried slices of pineapple, sticks of cinnamon that I crush in my coffee, tangerines that burst under my teeth, juice on my chin. He brings me a roll of ribbon so sleek and blue that it sparkles like the sea, and he winds it around my belly, tying a bow in the front like I am a package waiting to be opened. He falls on his knees and kisses the spot where our child lies, my fingers tangling in his thick hair.
Sometimes I wait without knowing it. For a week after I arrive I am tense. Fingers skittish over the pages of my book, hunched forward in anticipation for something I do not know, until I finally realize it is the crash of waves I am waiting for. I had not realized how much silence there is in this city, nor how much that silence weighs, pressing down on my swelling body. I am waiting for the ring of the ocean.
Then the first snowfall comes and so does my son. All the breaths I have gathered in my chest release.
Snow falls thickly. Clots in the streets, making a thick mud. It reminds me of blood when I remember later how I watched it clump together from behind the window, no energy to go out and taste it. Perhaps it would have a bitter copper tang.
Perhaps I only remember it this way because the day was later clouded by shades of red. My hands were pressed against the glass, palms flat, when I felt the first wave. As I was washed away I thought of the ocean, of how one must surrender if one wants to survive.
* * *
I had just assumed that I could grasp motherhood and wrestle it to fit me the way I had everything else in my life. It seemed to me an instinct that all women are born with.
Once, when I was twelve, I asked my mother what it was like being a mother.
We were sitting outside the lighthouse in chairs, watching the sun flay itself over the water. My favorite part of the sunset was when the sun doused itself in the ocean; I would always imagine a massive burst of steam erupting across the surface of the waves as it did, the way steam billowed when a hot pan was stuck under cold water. My mother sat, ankles crossed daintily, a glass of red wine in her fingers. She reached up and tucked her hair behind her ears, the delicate pearls in her earlobes flashing in the sunset. She had, I remember, eyes like fresh violets. I watched how slowly her chest rose up and down, almost as if she were sleeping; a rare moment of stillness.
She looked at me for a long time after I asked. Gave me her most gentle smile. Have you been considering it, Olivia?
I shrugged, suddenly blushing. I hadn’t been thinking about it, not really, but then I did. Then I imagined myself as her, sitting in a chair somewhere, feet in the sand, children sprawled out on a blanket next to me. It might be nice, I thought, watching her. Watching her lift her glass to her mouth, pass it over to me, One taste, Olivia.
She said, It is utterly unlike anything else in this world. It is the biggest adventure I have ever gone on, and the most important.
I tried to chew on this, tried to understand. I could not, I found.
My son was given to me, and the whole universe collided in that one instant; the very stars his father and I had etched constellations in seemed to snap into alignment, into a love as deep and powerful as the ocean.
But it seems it wasn’t enough. For I was wrong about the instincts, wrong about myself, wrong about my very own son.
* * *
I am plowed out, I am a gaping hole, licking the wound that is where William used to curl inside me; I am impatient for it to scab over and scar. I flinched when they cut the cord and my baby started to scream.
Will won’t eat. He shrivels in my arms, and, helpless, I watch him mewl. A terrifying wet sound. A kittenish sound that makes me want to howl with him.
Instead I sob propped up in bed by bunched feather pillows, breasts too full, throbbing and burning, leaking all over my shirt front. Amory rubs my shoulders, tries to be encouraging. “He knows you’re scared, love. If you’re calm he will be too.”
Just to show me he takes the baby into his arms, stronger than mine, voice deeper, and I watch the cries melt away as if by magic.
“See?” Amory says, not unkindly. He sees the look on my face: “Hey, it’s okay, it’s all okay.”
But I made you. Carried you. I should be able to understand what came forth from me.
“It’s not,” I say, mopping at my cheeks.
For a week after he is born I try to nurse Will, and he will not latch. My sisters-in-law try to teach me, impatient at my tears, baffled by the way my son refuses me. They did not have this problem, they say. I send them away shrieking. We feed him bottles of rich goat’s milk, instead. I cannot bear the thought of a wetnurse, of another woman able to do what I cannot.
I used to cry every time Amory left me. The first time I watched his ship fade in the horizon they were jagged, tearing sobs; sobs of which I’d never seen the like of in my fifteen years. His absence, the space next to me that he should be filling, the space on top of me that was too light without his weight resting there, was hollow. I thought of his face, and pictured the skeleton of a whale I’d once seen on the beach; those great, ivory ribs curled around nothing but empty space.
Even those tears did not compare to the ones that come feeding William the first bottle.
Amory binds my breasts up for me, using strips of fresh gauze and pins, standing in our room, me turning my face away from the mirror so that I do not have to watch. I cannot watch. He changes the bandages every few hours when I cannot take the itching anymore. Eventually I cease to be embarrassed; eventually I cease to feel anything at all, head hanging towards the floor.
* * *
On Christmas Eve, several weeks after his birth, Will rouses me with his cries drifting down the hall. Next to me I feel Amory begin to stir, getting up to comfort him.
I kiss his scratchy cheek, touch his big arm. I whisper that I will get him.
He pats my back in thanks. Drags the pillow over his head, tips back into slumber.
Like they’re a song, I follow Will’s noises.
Do not be afraid, child who flung herself into the ocean at seven, nearly drowning on a quest to find mermaids. Do not be afraid, child who dragged her lover from a storm. Do not be afraid, child who came to give birth in a skeleton city away from sand and air. Be brave now.
Open the door into the nursery, peer down into the crib. Feel the wave of fear and love. I tell myself it’ll be alright. He needs someone; might as well be me. His limbs are writhing, his father’s nose is screwing up, my eyes are clenched shut—I am hungry! he would shout if he knew how.
I get a bottle and lift him out. I sit in the rocking chair, lay his warm weight on my belly, tuck him back under my ribs where he ought to be. I will him to listen to the thunk of my heart and find it familiar.
“Come on, love.”
I tilt the bottle up, put the nipple between his lips. He twists his head away and retches.
“Will, come on.” I try again, feel the stubborn burn in my eyes. “William.”
His feet paw at me, pushing away. He cranes his neck, face red from wailing, his shrieks thunderous in my ears.
I dab at my eyes with my wrists. “Sweetie—”
He kicks his feet and I drop the bottle. It hits the ground and shatters, precious milk oozing across the floor. In this situation what would my mother do? I have no idea.
“What do you want, for Christ’s sake? I’d do anything if you just show me what you want.”
I am clearly not my mother. My son will not have me; my son has laid no claim.
I stare at this creature I created; this furious creature, creature of kicking feet, and constant squalling, face bunched under shocks of dark hair. Had I not seen his arrival myself, I might think that he did not belong to me at all.
I am yelling through my tears: “ I’m your mother; why won’t you have me? What have I done so wrong?”
And then Amory is there, he is pulling William from my arms, eyes wide. He is rescuing one of us but I cannot be sure who.
I go back to bed. After he takes Will, Amory does not slide back in with me. I lie there, feel the sheets cool around me while I gaze at the ceiling thinking of the home I left behind. There will be jagged floes of ice crackling around where the sand meets the water, the snow will blow across the water like a dust storm, and the salt will turn the air sharp, make it burn.
This is a different kind of winter. And I am afraid.
When I cannot be still any longer I get up to find Amory asleep on the parlor loveseat, the baby on his chest, snoring contentedly. I could climb next to him, rest my head on his shoulder, curl my feet into his lap, but I do not, for I don’t want to disturb them.
* * *
When Will is eight weeks old, both my brothers’ families and Amory’s sister comes to see him. Before their arrival, I muster up my courage, stare at myself defiantly in the mirror. Amory comes in the room. Laughs at the determined expression on my face. Eyes the color of the storm’s underbelly, he tells me, playfully lifting my chin with two fingers. He helps me pin up my long blond hair, but there are wisps still falling stubbornly around my jaw. I turn my face into his shoulder.
During their visit I sit in the rocking chair, by the fire, eyes burning from a sleepless night with Will, ignoring their stares. There is much to look at; I am aware. I can take their looks. I can take them staring at my dress, skirt of faded grey muslin, a cream colored shirt. I am alright with them watching Amory hand me a mug of hot cider and whiskey to keep me from nodding off right then, I am even, surprisingly okay with how they notice Amory’s own exhaustion.
What I can absolutely not stand are their stares when Amory puts my son in my lap and he starts to whimper at my touch. I cannot take the corners of their frigid smiles turning down as he scoops Will back up himself, feeds the infant milk from a bottle.
Wearily, I get up from my chair by the fire in the drawing room and go upstairs to get a wrap. When I come back down Amory has taken Will into the other room with John and Peter, talking loudly, playing men’s games. The women are in the drawing room, and I hear them before I see them, the swish of full skirts.
“I doubt the girl will ever be suited to any of this,” Alice says. I press myself against the landing to listen. “She’s demonstrated that she’s incapable of adapting from . . . well, frankly, I don’t know any other way to put it, heathenism. Running wild on the beach, for God’s sake.”
There is a response: “Poor young thing.” Simpering laughter.
“It is a pity for the child. He’ll likely grow up just like her, though it won’t be such a problem; he’ll be a man, after all. No, it is my brother I truly despair for,” I hear Clara declare. My heart jumps painfully against my sternum. “Bewitched by beauty and youth, ridiculously young when he found her. By a harlot’s tricks,” she sneers, “When all of that beauty fades he’ll be horrified by what he’s left with.”
A few months ago, perhaps, I would not have cared. Would have lifted my chin, marched into the room, and escorted the vile creatures out myself, thank you very much. Now, though, I watch my body as if from above, as it slides down the wall, in a heap on the floor. Dipping my head down to the heels of my hands, unmoving.
I remain this way until Alice finds me and cries, “Oh, darling, are you not well?” and I then pick myself up and put myself to bed.
* * *
“Are you feeling unwell?” Amory asks later that night, after they’ve left. He’d checked in on me shortly after Alice had informed him I’d come upstairs, but I’d shut my eyes, made my breathing deep. The door had clicked shut, footsteps retreating without a word. He sits now on the edge of the bed, reaching out and placing Will between us. The baby squirms and pumps his tiny legs.
I stare pointedly at my hands.
“Love, you’re awfully quiet tonight.”
I do not lift my face.
He says, “Olivia, I’m worried for you.”
I reach out and stroke Will’s forehead, finger dragging down his nose. He is beautiful with his dark curls, my grey eyes. I want to drag him against my chest, let his head rest in the crook of my neck forever. Bending, I kiss him on the forehead. Tip my head back, blink rapidly at the ceiling.
“Did Clara tell you that you should be?” The words come out high and childish.
Stupidly, he asks, “What?”
I push back the covers and swing myself over the edge of the bed. My movements jostle the baby. Amory reaches out to steady him, hand on the round belly, “Olivia, what on earth are you talking about?” His voice is hurt.
But I am already moving. I slam the bedroom door behind me, ride down the stairs on a wave of my own fury. I pull my coat over my shoulders, explode out the front door. Snow blowing in my face, bitter on my lips and nose, I set out in search of water, my feet moving by an old instinct.
I find myself on the banks of the Thames, staring into the dirty water lapping weakly at the stony ground, the canal walls on the bank opposite. Moving slowly, I approach the edge of the water, as close as I can go just short of touching it; I cannot bear making the plunge into the filthy murk. I stare at my reflection in the fogged glow from the gas lamps up on the streets. I am hunched in my coat. There are dark circles under my eyes.
I thought I was not the girl I once was when I first came here, but now I have fallen even farther from myself. I am the sound of crying from the bed. I am the receiver of merciless stares. I am the burn of breasts hardening like rocks. I am the crusted bandages peeling away from my chest, pulling at my skin. I am the shape I do not recognize in the mirror. I am the mother who cannot comprehend the touch of her own child. And this is not water, this is no ocean; this is not me.
Coming here was a mistake, I realize, staring at my reflection. Coming to London was a drowning woman’s lunge for air. I did what seemed necessary for my immediate survival, leaving when I thought that I could remain myself with Amory and as a mother. I was wrong; instead I am terrified. Instead, I am desperate for recognition of my own self and I know all too well where I must go to find her. I must go before she is lost forever.
* * *
When I get home Amory is waiting by the window. The sun has set completely, the only light from the reeking lamps. He gets to his feet as I open the door, his relief making the room uncomfortable. He says, “Oh, thank God.”
I hang my coat on the hook. “You’ve never worried about me before,” I tell him, voice unintentionally cool.
“You’re in London now.”
“I’m still the same Olivia.”
He hesitates. “Yes,” he says then. It is kind of him not to tell the truth.
There is a plate waiting for me at the table, remnants of a dinner I should have cooked him. While I eat he kneads my shoulders with his big hands, leans down to kiss my neck. Only once since Will have we been together and it did nothing to make me any less hollow. It was nothing but the bluish winter light of the city coming in from the window, paling us. The body I somehow did not know what to do with any longer, the one that felt robotic and foreign as it went through the motions.
I clank my fork loudly against my plate.
Amory sighs into my hair. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“It hurts to be touched,” I hear myself whisper.
He takes my face between his palms as if to say it’s okay, pulls it to his chest where I can rest, listening to the pounding of his heart. That surging in his veins, viciously alive. I think of the girl on the beach, toeing the writhing line of the surf, knowing he is about to leave her behind, I will not.
I would like to be that girl again. I would like to be viciously alive once more.
My hands tighten on his back.
* * *
I wait to leave until Amory is asleep. We lay in bed, his arm flung over me, and as I watch the coals in the fireplace extinguish themselves, his eyes drift shut, features softening, carried away by the current of sleep. Perhaps to his ship. Perhaps to the gentle, azure waters of the West Indies, to the Arabian Sea and on to India.
I lift myself onto one elbow, allow myself a moment to watch him sleep. My love for him is like the ocean; deep, impenetrable, nearly impossible to explore. It will always be there. I bend down, press my lips to his forehead, and he settles deeper in the bed. Soothed like a child by my touch.
I do not, as I gather my things, allow myself to cry.
In the nursery, I pull the rocking chair up to the edge of the crib, let my fingers trail over the quilt covering him, as I have done countless times before. He sleeps restlessly for one so little. He is definitely yours, Amory said once as we stood over the crib watching him sleep, for he never stops moving. By morning the quilt will be at Will’s feet, as the blankets are often at mine when I wake up.
I hope that he will look increasingly like his father as he grows. It is my hope, too, that he will be as good a man as Amory; a much better person than me.
I picture my son in three years, then seven. I picture him running down the beach, feet slapping in a gait he picked up from his mother, launching himself into the froth that rides the churning waves.
My love for him is different than my love for Amory; it is a tempest. It is churning, and terrified; possessive. It is of my own needs, my sudden, selfish desire, to scoop him out of the crib and take him with me. To take my son from his father, because I cannot bear the thought of being separated. In that instant I think I shall die if I am separated.
I pull him into my arms. He starts to whimper as I stand. Shush, I tell him, tucking the quilt around his body. Gathering his clothes hastily from the bureau, shoving them in a bag.
He does not quiet. He starts to wail.
Down the hall, Amory will start to stir. Quiet, I hiss, desperate, Shush, now.
It is futile. If I don’t go now Amory will come down the hall, through the door and into the nursery: Olivia what are you doing? There will be no way to hide: fully dressed in the middle of the night, clothes in a bag. There will be no leaving then, there will be no escaping what I am doing.
I stare into my son’s squalling face. I see the girl I once was. I see the ocean. Those are what I choose as I set William back in his crib: girl-child laughing with long hair tumbling loose down her back, the sweet sing of pounding waves, sharp cry of gulls. They are what I choose as I tuck the blanket back around Will. As I flee.
There is no such thing as a singular, clean break of the heart. It is a lie. Heartbreak is a crush; heartbreak is being pounded over and over on cliffs by merciless sea waves. Heartbreak is shutting the front door yourself, moving like a shadow into the night. It is the understanding that you are abandoning your child, and the not turning back despite everything.
Heartbreak is purely selfish.
* * *
I travel home by water. I let the waves carry me home. I stand out on the deck, hair blowing in my eyes, hands curled over the edge of the ship. Hands curled loosely, holding nothing, clutching empty air. My skirts whip behind me. My lips chap and my cheeks burn; hour after hour, standing in the wind, savoring the wind. I pretend that I am made of nothing but salt and wind and the white sunlight that shines coldly across the surface of the water. I wonder if the winter sea is cold enough to burn like fire should one fling oneself into it. It is so beautiful that, were it not moving like a breathing creature beneath the boat, I would believe the sea cut from millions of diamonds.
I do not let myself think about what I have left behind.
From far out, I recognize home. There! I tell the ship captain, pointing at my lighthouse, my place. It cuts through the air, a pillar, a line that beckons like the point of a compass.
Thank you, I tell him, as he rows me to the shore, opening my purse and handing him his payment; a ridiculous amount. He was hesitant to bring me on his ship. Foolish men believe that it is bad luck to bring a woman on a ship. But I am no lady, I had told him brazenly at the wharf, in the middle of the night desperate to find a ship, lifting my chin, showing him my ring-less hand, I am no lady, I repeated. He lets me off at the beach. Tips his hat, Good luck, miss. I climb out. I do not watch him retreat.
Home. I walk further up the beach, sinking to my knees on a dusting of pale sand. I am home.
* * *
I brace myself for the winter. I gather driftwood in my arms. In the hearth it burns, a myriad of color; purple, blue, and green, as the salt escapes. I wrap myself tight in stone and fire, trying to seal myself off from the cold. Though it is a valiant effort I make, it is not enough. There are different kinds of freezes; there are those that come from within.
It is the anger that comes first in this cradle-less tower.
I am angry at London. For being, barren, skeletal. By turns dirty and stunning, a clash I do not understand, one that left me reeling. For holding the home that shut me up in shadow; no waves, no sun, shielded me from snow. For hosting women who stared and mocked and shrieked with horrible, grating laughter.
I am angry at Amory for allowing me to lash myself to him, bite him, lose myself in him; get me with child, turn me inside out and upside down, fill me when before there had been a light emptiness.
I am angry at my son for not wanting me. Using my body, filling me, making me fall in love, then rejecting.
And above all, I am angry at myself. I fled. I failed.
After the anger, I am tired. After anger, the raising of the white flag, the whisper of surrender, the giving in to sadness and its inescapable, tsunami sweep.
The lighthouse is not the same; but for my shuffling movements, it is lifeless. Just another pillar of rock along the coast. I rise in the mornings, tend the fire, eat food I scarcely taste. Walk along the beach, stare out over the steel grey winter waves, the ever-shifting horizon. Miles upon miles of water, stretching north, deeper into winter.
I feel as still and silent as the stones themselves. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, coals dying, my breaths rising in puffs of steam in front of my face, it seems miraculous that they are there at all. I dream in muted colors. I dream of my Amory. I dream of my son. Of a ship, cutting through the water, making haste towards land, towards me.
Despite everything, staring out on the horizon, I find myself waiting. And I do not have to wait for long.
* * *
Spring, inevitably, comes. With it, a ship.
I am up in the dunes when I see it. There is still a chill and I have a wool wrap tight around my shoulders, thick black socks in my boots, but the air is going balmy, the snow melting and being absorbed by the sand. I push the hair out of my face, lift myself on my toes, and squint out across the water. From this distance the boat is unrecognizable but I know it is Amory. I know the way I knew he was mine when I first saw him lying unconscious in the bottom of a lifeboat.
The afternoon goes and he comes with the sunset, rowing hard. I run for the water, do not stop. Plunge in until it is up to my knees, dragging my skirts down. I grip the edge of the boat and pull him in, eyes only for the sling across Amory’s chest. He gets out of the boat on the beach, one hand going up to protect Will’s head from jostling.
It is simple:
He says, “You told me to come back to you.”
And so he has.