R. lived in Ö-, a town curled round a sparkled bay, a convergence of sun-gilt windows and foam-blue walls. At the bay’s outer edge, where the houses thinned to dregs, R.’s cabin rested on the water, black seaweed clotting the edges of the boardwalk, speckled with candy wrappers and bottle shards.
The front room was a small, empty foyer with a bathroom to one side. The big room served all other functions – bed tucked into an alcove across from the door, ill-assorted chairs clumped under large, curtained windows, and a tiny kitchen in the corner by the entrance.
A small mirror hung on the wall so R. could gaze at himself one feature at a time. Or, if he happened to catch a glimpse from across the room, he could discern only the general impression of movement.
At night the water whispered to him. It spoke to everyone in Ö- who lived nearby. Several grocers heard it sing, and the drunks who lay down on the boardwalks jolted awake to its screams.
R. lay in bed and listened to the murmur of voices from down deep. Sometimes they came as echoes flung upwards from a dark trench out at sea, washed into the bay straight to him.
Were the grocers to tell him about the songs they heard, R. would laugh and put it out of his mind. Anyway, none of them could decipher the words. Sometimes, right as he fell asleep, R. thought he could almost understand –
It didn’t matter. He rarely thought about it when he was awake.
N. lived across the bay. Her hair was sometimes blue, sometimes blond, and she preferred not to listen to the water. She walked at night instead, out in the suburban gloam away from the sea. Sleep came only with the afternoon light, on her family’s sitting room sofa, cradled by the cool leather and the high ceilings and the voices of her parents and siblings. No one questioned her sleeping patterns; the schedule of the house was perpetually erratic. The older kids had night jobs and went out drinking, and N.’s parents assumed she did the same. They liked her blue hair – were enthusiastic about the particulars of every child – but utterly unable to keep track of them.
Dad worked for the shipping company. His money poured into the house because he wanted only to keep the family happy. Each child had a separate bedroom, and this was his chief source of pride. Mom sat in the den most of the day, reading. The children came to her and asked for advice, which she dispensed earnestly. Not interested in the day-to-day chores, she paid one of the elder girls to clean and another to watch over the smaller siblings, but she brought herself together in force for a spectacular dinner every night, taking a ceremonial seat with dad at the table. The little ones joined them, but the older kids drifted in and out, heaping platefuls to take to their rooms or the garden.
N. ate in the twilight before heading out for the night, picking her dinners out of foiled leftovers in the refrigerator.
“N. wake up! Ow! Tell him to stop!”
The afternoon glowered through the sheer curtains. Two of the small kids were fighting on the rug.
“Cut it out!” N. groaned, leaned on her elbow, and threw her other hand around the boy as he flailed, fingers reaching for hair to pull. N.’s sister yelped and tried to poke her brother’s eyes. He broke away from N. and the children ran out of the room, screams echoing down the hallways.
N. got up and headed to the kitchen for cold fish and mashed potatoes.
So, the light: it was the way the water mirrored itself and sparked like cut glass against the city. When the sea misted, its refraction rested in layers of gauzy glow, intoxicating the town with its own air.
R. lived alone and obsessed over the water and the light. He walked during the day, when N. slept in familial thrum.
In the evenings he poured drinks at the shipping dock bar, where N.’s father appeared one day, disoriented and nervous. He ordered beer and talked with casual fervor.
“It’s my family you know. They’re perfect, really! And everyone’s so happy and all that. I’m feeling good, too! But well it’s tricky this thing…” He drifted off. Then, just as thoughtlessly, “…and that’s that. The whole situation. Complicated stuff! But with the family…they’d never find out! Couldn’t! But that won’t be difficult, none of them pay attention except my wife… she… she…”
He ordered more beer, sweated through his shirt, talked on, then suddenly stopped, eyes swiveling, head struggling to keep up with reality.
“I think the older girls all run around… except N.! She’s the one with blue hair. Oh but who knows, maybe she does too…”
R. kept serving him drinks, annoyed and enthralled.
Then he remembered — the blue-haired girl! On the boardwalk, coming home from work. He had stayed late cleaning up, the sun was getting ready to spread across the water and recreate the town as its glistening double.
She had walked past him, face expressionless. The hair looked green, but that was probably the orange sheen of the streetlamp. The father rambled a while longer, then left.
He was back the next night.
“She was upset with me for not coming home on time!… Well I was expecting her to be, actually, but no, she was smiling! Heated up dinner and never said a word about me getting home late…”
All before ordering a drink, though he seemed drunk already. R. stared. The man smiled suddenly, boisterously.
“You should meet my daughters!”
R. kept staring.
“I don’t mean anything, oh you know… well! Look, they’re good girls, so I don’t care what they do, really, I assume they know what they… But come see them with me! Oh well maybe you wouldn’t like that. It’s an overwhelming house if you don’t know how to handle it. I better send them here to meet you.”
“I’ve seen one of your daughters, I think. You called her N.”
“Now that’s interesting! Of course that makes sense. Where did you see her?”
“Ah… well I’d send her, but we don’t keep the same hours. Last I saw her she was sitting at a bus stop… oh I should’ve stopped and given her a ride!”
Waxy night lay across the town; the black water gaped and grinned to itself nearby. Last hour before dawn suffocating his mind, R. walked home from work.
In the cabin, he’d listen to the whispering sea; outside, its voice scattered and dissipated.
Perhaps the old man — N.’s father — would kill himself. Pointless, predawn thoughts.
There were some other people in the streets. All drunk, all disoriented. It was the air. Thick and dark, it congealed into resin, sticking to their lungs and glands.
R.’s house loomed over the water at the boardwalk’s edge. Never able to miss the morning light, he would only sleep for a few hours before heading out again. In the afternoon he napped while the sun lay heavy on the sea, curdling the water’s surface into a golden-driftwood crust.
Mornings he walked the edge of town away from the bay, then curled into a spiral of inner streets. The houses tended to flock to each other’s squat walls against the wind breathing off the waves.
The sky was huge and pale, wrung out of soap clouds, glowing with fevered sun, reflected endlessly in the water. R. felt it even in the outcast suburbs. There was a hill there of brittle gray grass, overlooking the rooftops and the bay, but he could never stay there long, had to keep walking to stay awake.
He wanted to meet N., but she was asleep. R. wondered if her father would return that night, then put it out of his mind. Thoughts grew too thickly in his skull, swelled with infection, then moldered.
The light caught in half-melted clumps of snow. N. walked through them to hear the slush and see the sun tessellate into dirty fractals. The day before, the house had emptied into a cool husk, and the silence made it hard to sleep. Now she was out later than usual: the sun had come up.
When she returned, the place was full again. It turned out dad had come home early, called several cabs, and herded everyone to a funeral while N. slept. Now he was sitting in the den, on an arm of her couch. He hadn’t been waiting for her, but was glad of the coincidence.
“I’m sorry dear one I didn’t take you to the funeral! For some reason I thought you were with that boy from the bar…” His eyes shifted from corner to corner, only briefly alighting on her face and hair before he walked out, holding onto the back of the couch for support.
She had never seen him so drunk. Who was the funeral for? The rest of the family had already scattered, there was no one to ask. She decided to walk to the shipping company and find her father’s office.
Copper lamplight crowned the treetops, and lightning glowed pale blue among the clouds. The air whipped rain and seawater into foamy mist, dissolving the snow. It swallowed the thunder and softened the town’s normal hum.
N. wore a scarf bunched at the neck, grazing her chin against the beads of moisture gathering on its folds.
Towards the sea – which spoke so low the vibration quivered through her body; which swathed its thoughts in darkening ooze.
The office building blinked with several solitary lights scattered over its brick carapace. The guard idled by the water with the dock crew and didn’t see N. walk in, rifle through a directory on his desk, and head upstairs.
Chairs and cabinets and conference tables were strewn across the large rectangle of the third floor, the walls studded with office doors. A few lights burned dimly green, and the blinds hung open, sparse glitter coating the glass behind them.
She found his office unlocked and looked in, leaning against the doorframe. Like his favorite rooms in the house, it seemed as though he had only just left. Pictures of the children were taped to the walls, interspersed with memos and announcements. Spiral-bound manuals lay stacked on the floor.
The mist sank into the walls of R.’s cabin, glutting the voices he was falling asleep to, mind half-lifted out of its bone shell – over the water – the sudden silence hovered dead above him, and he awoke. Room too still and cluttered with shadows, he knew he would not sleep. So he got up, dressed, and went out. The waves brought breezes to stir and lift the mist away, but the room sat empty, reflecting itself in the mirror on the wall.
R. knew he could return now, but the night cleared and would soon turn hoar-gray with dawn. He did not take his loop around the city, going instead to the water. Weaving through streets across the shore, away from the cabin, to hear everything from a different angle. The port was empty, and a skeleton crew smoked cigarettes on the dock.
He found a stretch of sand pockmarked with stones, blocked from the road by a henge of black boulders. At the other edge of the sandbar, a forest of tall reeds sprouted from the mud, and a girl’s silhouette darkened against them. R. stood across from it, trying to decipher the shadows.
The sound of the waves was hollow but thick, like being pulled through a tube filled with pellucid gelatin.
She heard him, and her shadow shifted. They approached each other.
R.’s ears throbbed; he pushed her; she fell; her head hit a rock.
A pearled sheen spread through the darkness. He dragged the body into the sea and watched its threads fray until his eyes glazed and the corpse became a glut of darkness on the whitening foam.
He went home to sleep and listen to the water and wait for the light to splinter the sky again. Seaweed sloshed unseen against the boardwalk.