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  • Writer's pictureAlice Godwin

One night I shall do this.

During those stormy nights as I lie in bed tossing and turning much as a ship would on a gale lashed sea, I actually feel that I’m on a boat and not in a building at all. Up here on the twentieth floor the wind howls as it meets resistance from the stone, the railings, the pipes, and the building itself. It howls in a manic way, maybe, it feels that the building should be, ought to be, a ship too. A great sailing ship that would dance with the wind in a bridal waltz of doomed passion.

I hear the wind as it creeps around the corners of the balcony and in through the cracks of the wall. The floorboards creak and groan, and the doors rattle, and my rooms become merely the galley and walkways of a great ship.

The wind picks up the canvas that covers my box that sits forgotten at the edge of the balcony, my box that contains the treasures of my youth that I cannot unpack and yet will not discard. It picks up the canvas and shakes it filling it with air and substance, so the canvas is no longer a sheet of blue plastic but a great sail that propels my vessel through the monstrous seas and the thunderous waves. I can hear its fluttering and its bravado as the wind fills it to almost bursting point, fills it to capacity, and it drives my ship through the churning waters.

The wind howls amorously and the moon spins by in a flurry of quicksilver clouds and my box of treasure slides over the deck saved only by the ropes that tie it down.

Some nights I fall asleep and really believe that my apartment is a sailing ship and the moon shines not through a window but a porthole. Perhaps, it is an ancestral memory; my father was a sailor and my mother a mermaid.

Yes, it is true, in my dreams.

I grew up living on the dunes, on the shifting sands. Our house was tiny and made of faded weatherworn wood. Sand was always blowing into the house, through the cracks between the walls, under the door, even falling like dry snow from the ceiling. It peppered our food with its gritty flavour; it brushed our clothes with its touch and dusted our eyelashes with gold. Our hair, my brother, our mother, and mine, was the colour of sand, golden sand. So similar was it, that when the three of us would lie on the sand with our heads together and our bodies stretched out like prongs of a wheel, it was impossible to say which strands came from which head and where the sand began and our hair ended.

My father had very different hair. His was red, like flame. His hair was angry and when he lay on the sand it seemed to say, look how different we are, we will never know each other, we will never understand each other. He rarely lay on the sand; he would walk the sand, crushing it with his heavy shoes.

My mother couldn't run much, her legs were fragile and she was often in pain, so we would spend long afternoons just lying on the sand gazing up at the blue heavens and telling each other stories. I often wondered if her legs hurt so much because they had once not been legs but part of a beautiful fish tail.

Once, long ago when she had been a mermaid.

Occasionally, my brother and I would join my father on his travels down to the estuary. We would need to traverse many dunes before we reached the sea's edge. It was a featureless walk but my brother and I would make a game of hiding in the tufts of spiky grass that grew in the valleys between the sands, or else we would chase the sandpipers that nested there.

When we arrived. I was inevitably disappointed as I looked out over the water, it wasn't really a sea this flat area of shallow water and sandbars.

Where were the waves?

Many times there would hardly be any water as my father would time it so we arrived at low tide, we would wander along the mud and collect crabs, shells and occasionally find fish that had lost their way and were swimming forlorn in a narrow stream of sea water.

Once we even found an octopus, he was very tiny and perfectly formed with his eight tentacles. He swam languidly in his pool of warmed water that was slowly evaporating. He looked at me as I picked him up, and his strange pale eyes seemed to contain an indecipherable intelligence.

Once when I was quite a bit older I accompanied my father all the way to the real sea's edge. He was very tired on this day and that is why he asked me to go with him, he coughed a lot and we both knew that we would have to collect as much as we could, as he would be lying in bed for the next few days. We left early and spent endless hours on the mud flats, filling our buckets but the pickings were poor so we wandered further out, further than I'd even been.

We were so far out I could hardly see our sand dunes any more. I was beginning to think that the sea really didn't exist, that it was just a story, until we came to a rivulet that was flowing around a sandbar. We crossed it, my father and I, it was not very wide but it was as deep as my waist and I felt a thrilling experience as the water swirled around me.

We clambered up the sandbar, it was surprising steep and the colour of the sand was just like where we lived. It gave me renewed energy, filled me with joy after the hours on the dreary mud.

As we reached the crescent I gasped, there in the distance was the sea, and what a sea it was!

The waves were crashing in thunderous intensity, I could see the mist formed by the spray and I could hear its voice calling.

Calling me.

Singing to me.

I wanted to keep going, I was driven by a need I couldn’t explain or understand, an obsession that dragged me towards it as though invisible ropes of salty spray had wrapped themselves around me. My father pointed to the water that lay between the sea and us, he explained the treacherous currents and whirlpools that spun silently, and the sandbars that moved their positions often hourly.

This was the great mouth of the river and there in the distance was the last ridge of sand that held back the sea, held back the fury of the ocean's embrace. The waves crashed in a frenzy of ardour, and the currents of the river swirled and answered in their own fashion, as they fought their way through the narrow channels that would finally lead to their union.

My father held me tightly as we both struggled with this terrible impulsion to join in, become part of this great ongoing love story. His red hair snared in my sandy hair and I felt his salty tears as they fell from his eyes and mingled with my own.

He whispered to me of his banishment and his punishment, words I could not understand, as though he were speaking in another language, but I understood the emotions and the sorrow, and I felt his pain.

We finally left when the tide was running back in and it would have been death to stay.

We only just made it too, burdened down with our buckets and our sadness, as the water came in so fast and furiously.

That night as we sat in the main room of our house, the kerosene light swaying in the wind, I watched my father as he carved. We had found a large beautiful shell on that creamy sandbar and now my father scratched marks into it with his sharp knife. He coughed constantly and his eyes were watery with delirium. I could feel the heat from his fever from where I sat, and my mother hovered silently and nervously around him.

Finally she made him leave and took him to bed as though he were only a child. I wandered over to the table and picked up the shell, it was exquisitely carved with a ship, a great sailing ship, its rigging full and magnificent, its prow lifting it up proudly from the waves.

It was such a noble and splendid ship; it was then that I knew that my father was really a sailor.

When we were sixteen and seventeen respectively, my brother and I left home. We said goodbye to our little house that sat like a piece of driftwood on the dunes, we said goodbye to the grey-green grasses and the funny sandpipers, we said goodbye to the creamy sand that was the same colour as our hair.

We said good bye to our father; his red hair was streaked with white as though the sands had finally begun to exert their influence, his blue eyes were tired and his face was etched like one of his shells.

We said goodbye to our mother; her hair was still as golden as the sand, her eyes were as clear and bright as the sky and her lips smiled. Only now her legs were even more fragile and my father carried her in his arms to the top of the dune so she could wave goodbye.

We said goodbye to our father, who was a sailor but had no ship, and we said goodbye to our mother, who was a mermaid but exiled from her waves.

We went to the city, we thought it was a city but I know now it was only a town.

It was big and noisy and even further from the sea than we had been before. It was situated on the river but the river here was small, placid and a muddy brown colour. Willows and poplars grew beside it, young men in colourful hats rowed its waters, and families went for picnics on the lush green banks. My brother and I found work easily, and in our free time we wandered the streets and ate in the cafes laughing at the menus and the ridiculous prices they charged for their shellfish.

We ate only vegetables, which we found exotic, and berries with cream, which we thought, must be food from the gods. We refused to eat any crabs or mussels, fish or octopus, it reminded us of home and made us sad.

Sometimes a slight breeze would ruffle our hair that was still as golden as sand and we would wipe our faces and expect to feel the grittiness of the grains from the dunes, but our faces would be smooth as the silk of the garments I wore.

My brother met a girl, her hair was dark and her eyes were the same brown colour as the river. She was calm and contented and liked to lie on the grassy banks and entangle her fingers in my brother's hair, and gaze into his wild blue eyes and hear him whisper to her in a voice that was like the sea. She would feed him blueberries, raspberries, and tangy cheeses that would crumble in her fingers. He was happy with this river girl and her arms that held him tightly on those nights he couldn't sleep, when his soul would wander back to the windswept dunes and the salty air.

I was not.

So one day I left my brother, who longed for the sea but had found some comfort in the river, I left and headed to the city that I heard lay further east.

The city was huge and sat on the banks of an enormous lake that was deep and fathomless and behind it loomed mountain ranges that were covered in snow all year round. The city had wild and fierce winds. I liked this wildness, this energy; it was like the wildness and energy of the sea. All the buildings were made of cut stone. Some of the stone was iron blue and grey and came from the mountains in the distance but some of the other buildings were made of a gleaming golden stone called sandstone, and it came from a quarry that was said to have once been near the sea.

I liked this sandstone, I liked the honey colour and the way I could run my fingers over it and come away with golden sandy dust that covered my hand in a fine film. I felt like rubbing my face and my body all over the stone just so I could once again feel the familiar grittiness of my childhood.

My apartment block was made from this stone and in the evenings on my balcony I would place my face lovingly against the warm stone and close my eyes and almost feel the sand of my youth. And the wind, which was strong and ferocious, would whip my hair, that was still as golden as the creamy dunes, and I would find solace in its airy embrace much like my brother had found solace with the girl from the river.

From my balcony which was like an eyrie I would look over the city and the lake, catching a glimpse of the lands and the river, and maybe even the sea far beyond.

I would feed the birds that gathered here, they were mainly birds of prey, falcons and ravens and even once an eagle. I fed them strips of dried meat that I had bought in the pet shop. I would talk to these birds with their midnight feathers and their huge beaks that were sharp like my father's knives, I would ask them if they had seen the sea as I knew that these sort of birds have very keen eyesight but they would not answer, only look at me with their eyes as flinty and hard as rock.

But I know that one night when the wind's howl is like the call of the sirens, when the moon is full and bright, and when the storm clouds are gathering and the air is electric with anticipation.

One night I will delve into the bottom of my cupboard and I will pull out the storm coat that all good sailors wear, I will put on my red bandanna that all buccaneers have and I will go out on the deck of my balcony.

I will grasp the wheel and I will hoist the sails and I will scream at the wind that is howling like a banshee and I will steer this ship, disguised as a building, out to sea. My birds will become albatrosses and gulls and they will wheel and turn above the masts as we set sail through the waters of the lake that are deep and fathomless, down the sluggish river to the gentle town.

I will stop at this town and I will call my brother.

Brother, I will say, come with me on my ship, we have a box of treasure to bury, we have islands to discover, bring your gentle maiden with her river eyes and we will show her the sea.

My brother and his girl with her dark hair and her sweet calm face will clamber aboard. I will steer my ship through the shallow river until it becomes wider, deeper and rougher and then, just as I can hear the great waves thundering at the entrance, I will call my mother and my father to come and join us.

I will say Father, here is the ship that you have lost, come aboard and be a sailor again. I will say Mother; let me take you back to your home that lies in the middle of the ocean. There I will lower you into the water that will soothe your limbs and make you whole again, make you into the mermaid that you once were.

My mother and my father will step out of the doorway of their small frail home and he, with his red hair blazing like a beacon, will carry her aboard; and her hair so long and pale will flutter in the breeze and trail across the sand one last time.

I will steer my ship, through the whirlpools and the rips and the sandbars that would ground us, out through the narrow channel and into the sea. And we will stand on deck and marvel at the waves as we plunge through the foam and the spray, and we will at last be home.

My father will be a sailor again and my mother will frolic in the waves as the gentle mermaid she once was.

One night I shall do this.

One night in my dreams.

©AliceGodwin 2010

originally published in Eclecticism Ezine Issue12 - Obsession

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