Gina Ochsner is an American author best known for her story collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2001, and her novel, The Russian Dream Book of Colour and Flight. Gina’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Glimmertrain, the Kenyon Review, and Image. You may discover more about Gina through her website.
Even though the word “liminal” is never written in the following story Half Life, its reality is omnipresent, found in multitudes of edges, boundaries, and intermediate spaces of mystery.
Having swallowed too many bones, the sea has a bad case of indigestion. This sound of dyspepsia shatters the nerves and Erlen Steven knows that is why no one wants to live at the lighthouse. It doesn’t help matters that three men died during its construction. When the mail boat ferries him to the docks, this fact is just one of the many things Erlen knows to keep quiet about in the presence of the local coasties.
Which suits him fine. He is not in the business of making noise, but of making light. In water and at sea, life revolves around his light. And each evening before starting his watch, Erlen recites the Light Keeper’s prayer. A longish prayer—Erlen does not have it up by heart. Which is why the prayer is typed, framed, hanging at the landing at the base of the light tower. Erlen does not bother with the beginning, but the end holds salt: . . .grant, oh Thou Blessed Savior, that Thou would join us as we cross the last bar and struggle for the farther shore, the lee shore of the land where the sun never goes down, and where there is no darkness for He who is the light of the world will be the light thereof.
No one would accuse Erlen of being overly religious, but he isn’t the type to stand in the way of it either. A prayer can’t hurt here on the rock, he thinks when he climbs the steep sixty foot spiral staircase to the service room, where the light is kept. The light, a first order Fresnel, stands nearly twelve feet tall and six feet wide. The lenses are composed of glass segments arranged in rings and stacked in concentric circles.
When his father kept the light it used to take the young boy-and then later-the young man–Erlen all of a day to clean the nearly one thoursand pieces of glass. This left only a little free time to comb the rocks for pieces of the sea: sand-smoothed pebbles, razor clam shells, the spiraled dog whelks that house miniature tornadoes inside their fragile casings.
The shells held to his ear, the young man Erlen marveled that out of such dryness issued the musical sound of water. And that the high tide could carry such items of fragility and strength (once—whole green and blue glass floats all the way from Japan) seemed a mystery intended for him to solve. Imagine his surprise when he found one day not a shell, but a woman, nude and shivering, washed up on the breakers. What could he do, but take her and that bedraggled fur coat tucked under her arm, into the lighthouse? What could he do but fall in love with and marry her? What could he do but get her with children—twins no less? And what could he do, being book-bound and a little forgetful, but lose her?
“I’m not surprised,” Inspector Wilson said when Erlen delivered the news: Mrs. Erlen Steves, wearing nothing but that tattered fur coat minus the collar and a portion of the left sleeve, had jumped from the rocks. “This lighthouse has a history of driving its keepers mad.” Inspector Wilson circled a finger at his ear, and then tugged on his jacket of his Coast Guard uniform.
Erlen searched his memory of all the logbooks he’d read. “I didn’t know that.”
“Well, you know it now,” Inspector Wilson said, casting a long look at the girls, already toddlers and tethered to a laundry line-in accordance to the light keeper’s safety manual.
“A selkie loves water,” Astrid says.
“–A selkie loves land” says her sister, Clarinda.
“–A selkie walks on two feet . . . ”
“–whenever she can.”
Jump-rope geniuses, Astrid and Clarinda sing out tandem rope rhymes and never miss a beat. At the Mt. Angel boarding school they are unusual girls—always have been, Mother Iviron thinks—and not just because they are twins. Skin pale, jaws strong, mouths flat, the girls have eyes a color of blue so reluctant they border on gray. The only way Reverend Mother Iviron can tell them apart is the way Astrid pushes out her lower jaw in the presence of uninvited pity, while Clarinda tears up and turns red.
United utterly, what one girl starts the other girl finishes: rhymes, riddles, math problems. A phrase in the mouth of one twin finds its completion in the mouth of the other. If Astrid feels the bite of nail, Clarinda cries out as it punctures the sole of her shoe. When Astrid slaps the girl who calls her creepy times two, it is Clarinda who makes penance with a spate of Hail Marys, repetition being the heaven of duplicate things.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and the fruit of thy tomb, Jesus.
Fruit of the tomb? Mother Iviron, beyond girlhood puns, doesn’t think twice when she makes the girls wear the hair shirts. Old fashioned, oh yes. But to tell the truth, they didn’t seem to mind it too much.
Equally suspicious to Mother Iviron is the way the girls prepare for bed. They slide their cots together and before climbing in, they line up their shoes, turning the points toward each other as if the shoes might continue an ongoing conversation.
“When a selkie drags you under”
“—she’ll split your skin asunder.”
When she hears this kind of talk, Mother Iviron stretches a hurting smile across her face. Far be it from her to stifle the imagination. And certainly tragic stories of the sea bear instructional value. But when the girls turn eleven and substitute sea chanteys for prayers, Mother Iviron sends them home to their father with her regrets.
The lighthouse stands sixty feet high, tall as a castle. Ringed black, and white, the painted markings turn the light tower into layered cake, spun sugar. The staircase curves in a tight spiral, the corkscrewed architecture of a lightning whelk. In the lantern room, the girls crack open a window and take turns playing Rapunzel. All the lighthouse needs now is a resident witch.
The girls shout out into the wind: Come find us! In the meantime they keep busy. The work: polishing brass and cleaning glass, doing all to bend and multiply light in its refractions and reflections. Special care must be given to the first-order Fresnel and its catadioptric lens assembly. The bulls-eye lens rotates and magnifies the light as it swings. From a distance of twenty-six miles away the light appears as a flash over the water. At least, this is what their father’s manual of operation says. But to the girls wearing their green safety goggles, the lenses look like a gigantic transparent beehive. The rotating bulb behind the bulls-eye is the queen bee. Astrid and Clarinda, the custodians of the glass, are the confused dim-witted drones.
For the longest time they thought the light was meant to lure the ships nearer—yes, right up to the rocks. Never did they imagine the light was meant to turn away every vessel except the mail boat or Inspector Wilson’s tender, which would arrive in evenings without any warning and set their father scrambling. Astrid and Clarinda aren’t quite sure what to make of Mr. Wilson, the Coast Guard’s Aid to Navigation Inspector. When he comes with his high-powered nose lowered, Mr. Wilson always examines the kitchen first, tallying its contents and cleanliness down to every drawer and cupboard, each piece of cutlery. Astrid thinks he looks like a bloodhound on the scent of something turned sour. Clarinda thinks he looks like God wearing a dark uniform and white gloves. Only God would smile more often, Clarinda decides as she pockets two knives, a fork and spoon—just to throw the count off.
Bewildered. Erlen Steves is bewildered. Nobody told him how to raise girls. His many books about sea creatures, legendry and lore have been no help at all. And nothing in the engineering texts or the lighthouse operation manuals explain how to ease the loss of a wife and a mother.
All of which to say, Erlen hasn’t fully recovered. He knows this. Lulled by the changing moods of the water, its murmur and roar, it’s hard not to think water, think salt, think tears. He knows it’s unseemly to grieve for so long, but his sorrow is amplified, doubled, on account of the girls. He is not sad for himself: he lost a wife he suspects he was never meant to have. But for the girls to lose their mother while still so young—it splits his heart in half every time he looks at them.
He tries to be strong. He kisses them each on the forehead. Astrid’s skin is always a little cool to the touch, Clarinda’s always a little warm, feverish even, and then he climbs the sixty feet to sit with the light. The night watch he spends alone in the service room, cleaning the glass, polishing the bull’s-eye lamp, which turns and turns as regular and steady as the beating of a heart. That anything so large or so small as a bulb could whirl with such constancy brings a comfort to him, here, in the lighthouse where he knows nothing, not even water, should be taken for granted—neither the things the water carries away nor what the water might bring.
By day Sister Rosetta teaches the K-6 boarders at the Mt. Angel Parochial school. By night she writes a religious mystery novel and edits the Convent Cloister Herald, circulation thirty-eight. Thirty-seven after Sister Margaretta, God bless her, died peacefully in her sleep.
She’s got a talent, that one, the other sisters say. A real way with the words, the way they never lock-step fail on her. And the way she can phrase a question: “Does Jesus still bear the wounds in his side and hands and feet now that he is ascended to the right hand of the Father?” A question so direct it unsettles the older sisters, Mother Iviron in particular, whose eyebrows stitch together at the scent of such mysteries. Such unanswerable questions ring with the hollow interior of the rhetorical. They make Sister Iviron’s joints ache and her teeth throb. Sister Rosetta, blissfully unaware of what her words do to Sister Iviron, pokes around for the soft entrails, for the heart of faith, keeps poking with these questions in her nighttime dreaming.
Her dreams! Sister Rosetta’s dreams could fill an ocean. Will she ever stop? “Honestly,” Sister Iviron says. The way Sister Rosetta’s frolicking queries keep the first year postulants up at night, roiling the calm rarified air within the stone walls of the convent– it’s enough to drive them to distraction. Why did Jesus heal some and not others? Sister Rosetta asks in a dream, and the postulants and novitiates rise and bob in the gathering waters of Sister Rosetta’s viscous questions.
It wouldn’t be so bad, except Sister Rosetta is always the first to stir, waking with a shout and leaving the rest awash in her unnavigable dreams. Some of the postulants have signed up for swimming lessons. Others wear life jackets under their seersucker bedclothes and clamp plugs over their noses.
After too many nights left stranded in Sister Rosetta’s dreams, Mother Iviron makes phone calls, drafts letters. In record speed, Sister Rosetta’s resume makes the rounds.
A man fell in love with a woman.
But the woman was in love with the sea.
Their father’s voice winds down the stair case from the service room, that furnace of green and light and heat grown thick with their father’s singing. He is shaping his grief, casting sorrow line by line, limb by limb, into the figure of a woman they cannot remember. In the place of her body, Astrid and Clarinda have these weepy words they know they were never meant to hear, but have long ago committed to memory. The same words that pushed Sister Iviron’s determined smile askew, words that make the girls thirsty to know things. So many questions Astrid and Clarinda would love to ask their mother. So much about sky, skin, water, they would like to know. But their mother swam out to sea one day and forgot to return. “It was very strange—she being a champion swimmer,” their father sometimes says.
When they cannot bear to hear their father sing they climb the steps, put on the safety goggles, and tug on his sleeves. They pull him down to the kitchen for dinner, for midnight snacks, for breakfast which is always the same fare: Spam on crackers or macaroni with caned tomato sauce.
“Tell us a story.”
“A sad, strange story.”
“A strange, scary story.”
Erlen tries. He collects and collates the strangest stories he can find. To date he has amassed two notebooks full of sea lore and legendry. As they eat their macaroni and Spam, he tells of lighthouse ghosts and large boats split to splinters on rocks like these, and small, mischievous sea creatures. He tells them about a mermaid who almost married a prince. But the prince married another and the mermaid came to him one night as he lay sleeping and killed him with a poisoned kiss upon the lips.
“That’s not so sad,” Astrid says.
“And its not so strange,” Clarinda adds. She holds a row of macaroni noodles between her teeth and makes strange music through her homemade harmonica.
“Then maybe you’ve heard about the selkies, who look astonishingly like seals. In their whiskers they carry magic. If they fall in love with a human–and they do this more often than you might think–then they will unzip their fur, tuck it into a bundle and hide it somewhere safe. Later, when they are tired of their human body, tired of human love, they simply pull their fur back on and swim out to sea.”
The girls shudder. The pupils of their eyes dilate, then shrink to pin-points as if their eyes themselves are breathing. Erlen likes to tell this story because it’s the only story the girls sit still for. But certain parts of the story he doesn’t tell. A wayward selkie who has children with a human must come back for the children when they become women—otherwise those children will forever remain trapped in their human bodies. But this involves the changing of bodies and desires, and this isn’t something Erlen likes to think about. He doesn’t like change. To Erlen’s reckoning, his girls will always be girls just as the lighthouse will always be their stronghold, their safety.
But one night he finds the girls in the lantern room, their long hair braided into knots and flung out the window as a ladder, their bodies leaning dangerously over the sill, and he realizes in a blink how thoroughly he doesn’t understand them–how foolish he’s been to hand them so many fictions to inhabit. He hauls them back in, too hard. His fingers leave a mark on Astrid’s arm. But it’s Clarinda who gasps and narrows her eyes. And he knows everything he will do to make it up from this point forward will be exactly the wrong thing.
In the waking world water is danger, water will drown them. The girls do not know how to swim. Though long off their lighthouse leads, they still cling to each other behind the rail, afraid of the seventh wave, the sneaker that might pull them over and out. At night they push their beds together. Two commas, if they lie on their beds, touch toes to toes, head to head, their bodies form a circuitous loop. Choosing one heart to live in, one body of dreaming to inhabit, in no time they drift into each other’s dreams. Barefoot they clamber over shore rock and into the shallows where the limpets and starfish move so slowly it’s as if in dreams, time sheds its hold over things born in water. Deeper they wade until they feel underfoot the velvet and buzz of the corals.
Farther out, the rock and sand shelf plunges and the water swallows them. It burns a little to take it in through the nose. But they’ve been practicing every night in their dreams and breathing under water comes easier than it used to. Overhead the sun blooms purple, blooms blue, a kelp bulb floating across their untroubled ceiling of liquid. When they wake to a waterless sun, the light carries edges and angles, slicing their room. Gone are the dreams, the very memory of the fact that they had, indeed, been dreaming. The only clues: salt riming their eyelids and crusted under their fingernails, their night gowns wet and wadded up into a pile at the foot of their beds.
The girls are good readers, having scoured the lighthouse logs for any mention of their mother. And they’ve even memorized the lighthouse prayer in its entirety—no easy feat. But theirs is a lopsided education, and when the girls ask how to divide twins by twos—a problem of fractions if ever he’s heard one—Erlen writes to Mr. Wilson, requesting a visiting schoolteacher and nanny.
In no time he receives a typed letter on heavy linen paper. It is from Mt. Angel Convent. A suitable candidate will be sent over immediately. Erlen scratches his head, sniffs the lily-white stationary in sheer amazement. He cannot recall actually mailing his request. The notion that God and Mr. Wilson might work in tandem and quicker than the Tuesday mail boat only adds to his bafflement. For there is Mr. Wilson’s tender, nosing alongside the landing. All this on a Monday!
With a bellow from the fog horn, the boat heaves to, and down Erlen goes, clink, clink, clink, his boots over the steps. The girls, eyes gray as stone, stand on the landing and clutch the rail. But it’s the new teacher he’s worried about, bobbing and pitching in Inspector Wilson’s tender. Erlen ties off the boat and studies her. A stranger to water, he can see that her stomach is in her throat: her face is as pale as her starched collar and veil, and she’s got a fine sheen of sweat above her upper lip. Go ahead, he’d like to tell her. Retching is the only way to beat the nasea. When he grabs for her hands, soft and pudgy like a child’s, they melt to fit his. Erlen lifts her from the boat and his breath stutter steps in his throat. He realizes he had forgotten what a woman’s hands feel like.
Sister Rosetta, a little queasy in Mr. Wilson’s tender, surveys the lighthouse rock and her new charges. She spots the two girls standing at the railing. Hard telling where one girl begins and the other ends and Sister Rosetta understands why she’s been sent: to care for them in the singular, to care for them in the plural. For it’s clear in a glance that this land does not love these girls–stick thin, chalky-faced, their long brown hair whipped to tails, Sister Rosetta sees a picture of twinned longing, so raw and pure she has to look away.
Mr. Steves, the girls’ father, reaches out and pulls her from the boat. His hand is rough against her skin and though his grip is completely appropriate, she feels flustered, can’t help thinking that this is the perhaps the first and last time she will be touched by a man, any man.
A low blast from the horn and the boat leaves. Mr. Steves strides ahead to the lighthouse with her suitcases. Sister Rosetta tips her head at angle and studies the girls whose fingers have turned white under the pressure of their grip.
“Are you all right?” Sister Rosetta asks.
“Seven,” says the girl on the left.
“Cry seven tears at high tide and a selkie will cry with you,” explains the girl on the right.
“Seven,” Sister Rosetta says, “is God’s number.”
Sister Rosetta nudges her glasses higher onto her nose. “Because on the seventh wave, what God has taken He gives back.”
“Our mother was swept away on the seventh wave. It was very strange—
“—she being a near champion swimmer.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” says Sister Rosetta, blinking fiercely behind her glasses.
“Well, you know it now,” says the girl on the left, her jaw thrust out.
The girl on the right: nose red and snuffling, chin all a tremble. It’s going to be a job, Sister Rosetta knows, but the girls turn sweet, leading her by the hand up, up, up the winding stairs, throwing open the door to each room so that she can see for herself: the storage room, kitchen, sleeping quarters and bathroom, library, and at the very top, the service room. Sister Rosetta doesn’t know about the green tinted safety goggles and looks directly into the heart of the light, into brilliance so fierce it’s like looking at God in glory, a light meant to guide but viewed too closely would certainly blind.
Days pass, each one a crow-shaped stain falling from the shore pines. The wind kicks up, breaks brittle days into halves, throws Erlen’s nose out of kilter. The lighthouse smells of metal, of wet copper, of pennies. It was his wife’s smell: pure and elemental, edged and biting like salt. One afternoon Erlen leaves the lantern room, his nose roving in all directions, tracking the scent of skin and wet fur. His nose leads him to the library where the wind has snapped a windowpane. Sister Rosetta is there, a flurry of pages from the primer swirling around her. She stands on tiptoe reaching for the paper that curls out and away from her. She looks like a figurine in a snow globe. The sight of her, not at all a bad looking woman, provokes his heart to skip. And it’s at that precise moment Erlen becomes a religious man, thanking God for this wind, for stirring things up.
The wind, Sister Rosetta, too, is thankful for. It howls through the lighthouse, inside Sister Rosetta’s ears. Stitching sky to skin and water to sky, the wind never stops ushering quick changes, spins her widdershins through what she cannot see or understand but certainly can feel: the warmth and weight of Erlen looking at her just now.
But then Sister Rosetta, textbooks and papers in hand, stumbles. Her veil, caul, and wimpole fall. Her shaved head is bared. Where are her feet? She wonders, as the floor rises to meet her. then Erlen is there, catching her. It’s a surprise, the sureness of his grip. For even she doesn’t quite know where her elbows, where her knees beneath the voluminous folds of the wool habit, and yet he knows exactly how to right her: an arm hooked around her rib, another anchoring her elbow.
Don’t ever let go. That’s what Sister Rosetta is thinking. What she says instead:
“Is there something you were wanting?” She is trying so hard to sound utterly unflappable, though she can feel herself blushing, yes, down to the roots of her shorn hair.
Erlen retrieves her glasses, hands over her limp headpiece. He is careful with her vestments, averts his gaze even as he helps her with the veil, the hem of which has come unraveled. But his nose can’t quit. Erlen’s arms go stiff, his elbows lock. He considers Sister Rosetta, points his nose at her neck. She’s not the source of that scent he’s tracking, he realizes.
“Give the girls a bath,” Erlen whispers, his nose twitching, “with extra soap.”
Sister Rosetta’s religious mystery novel is not going well. The hardest question– Does God really know what He is doing?– hasn’t provoked a quick answer. Not in her writing, not in her life. Equally uncooperative are the twins who do not want to shave their legs and underarms, who do not want to bathe at all. The three of them sit on the rim of the enormous metal tub and look at the water.
“Skin replaces itself,” Astrid leads off,
“–cell by cell,” Clarinda adds,
“—every thirty days,”
“—but hair replaces itself more slowly.”
“Besides, we like being hairy–”
“–the hair keeps us warmer at night.”
A smile starts on the left side of Astrid’s face and travels from girl to girl. Sister Rosetta shrugs. The truth is, underneath her habit, she is a little hairy, too.
“I’ll go first,” Sister Rosetta says, hanging her habit and veil on a hook. She soaps herself and shows them how to run a razor the length of a leg, around the tricky points of the ankle. Her flesh hangs from her body in doughy folds. Sister Rosetta wonders if they know how unmoored she feels inside her own skin, this awkward transparent sleeve. Can they even guess how badly she wants to turn the razor and make a longitudinal incision, stem to stern, and step free of her body that weighs on her, shames her?
But the girls aren’t even watching her. Astrid bends to the tub, trails a finger in the water. “Our mother liked baths.”
“Took them on full moon nights like this one,” Clarinda says, nodding at the window where the moon was a buoy in the dark sky.
“She’s coming back for us,” Astrid steps out of her pants. “She’s going to teach us how to swim.” The girls climb into the tub and no sooner have they settled in the water than they begin to bleed. Simultaneously, of course: two scarlet threads unspool from between their thighs. The girls are unnaturally calm, looking at Sister Rosetta with their wide eyes.
Sister Rosetta helps them out, towels them off, shows them what a strange contraption the belt and hook, what good for girls becoming women such modern day conveniences are. Afterward, Sister Rosetta carries the bath water, pink and smelling of iron, in large pots down to the landing. Like carrying a comb to the sea, it’s a risky thing to do but Sister Rosetta pours the contents of the pots over the railing anyway.
That night as Sister Rosetta climbs into bed, she considers the lighthouse lens turning silently. She thinks about Erlen with his hand at the light, true and shining. In no time at all, she is asleep, awash in a dream where she stands knee deep in the surf and unlocks a suitcase full of keyhole limpets, chitons, lightning whelks, and several specimen of spindled murex. How wide are heaven’s gates, how deep? Sister Rosetta wonders. She is stringing a rosary made of these musings, each question another chiton or whelk, the surfaces asymmetrical in pattern and design. Meanwhile, the good nuns at the abbey, uncostumed and unrestrained, turn their gazes to the expanse of Sister Rosetta’s borderless dreaming. They link arms and kick their heels together with glee as they rush for the water. Wearied of their rosaries worn down between fingers and thumbs, they are only too glad to wade in deep, exchange their smooth beads for the sharp points of Sister Rosetta’s queries.
Sister Rosetta’s snoring keeps Astrid and Clarinda from sleep. Boredom and insomnia provoke their curiosity. Though the ground floor storage room is strictly off-limits, with Sister Rosetta asleep and their father up in the lantern room, there’s no one to stop them.
The storage room is black as tar. It’s an interesting proposition, such darkness held in the belly of the lighthouse. For fun they do not light matches or shine flashlights. Instead they drop to hands and knees and crawl across the floor, ending up in a far corner, where they find fur: one long strip and a smaller crescent shaped patch. They tuck the scraps under their arms and race up to their room, where they survey the scraps over the bedspread.
The fur is shiny silver like a seal’s. They know without speaking it aloud, the fur is from their mother’s coat. Instinctively, Astrid drapes the long swatch of fur over her shoulder, where it adheres to her skin, stretching from tip of shoulder to point of hip. Clarinda fastens the collar of fur around her neck and the girls know: there isn’t a shoehorn big enough, a crowbar strong enough to pry these strips loose now.
Later that night the moon slips off its lead and a storm rolls in hard and fast. The wind whistles harsh lullabies that send the girls into unsettled sleep. Only their thin and flimsy human skin separates all that water outside from the water inside their bodies. They could drown–this has been the point of their father’s stories, they know. But Sister Rosetta has taught them fractions and they now understand that they are two-thirds water, maybe more. They will float like the fish that swallowed the moon. They will rise buoyant and swim. All their lives it seems they’ve been practicing–in dreams, of course.
They know Sister Rosetta understands this. They know this because that very night they wade into each other’s dreams: the girls into Sister Rosetta’s dreams and Sister Rosetta into the combined dreaming of the girls. In their dreams nobody wears clothes, and so they swim naked–Sister Rosetta and Astrid and Clarinda–their fears and their terrible longings and their many questions bobbing beside them. And they show each other what they never could during day: Astrid’s strip of fur that now girdles her waist and Clarinda’s collar, which has already spread as a cape over her shoulders. The girls are sloughing their cracked and flimsy skins and Sister Rosetta runs her fingers over their beautiful patchwork bodies in utter amazement.
And then Sister Rosetta reveals her raw heart, ready for something more than wind and salt. Something more than the threads of her veils binding her up or her many lesson plans, more than her mystery novel. And the girls with their eyes grown so gray now they are nearly black, see Sister Rosetta’s heart and know exactly what she needs to hear.
“You take care of him,” they implore in the singular and Sister Rosetta bolts upright in bed.
The fur has spread, covering the girls from neck to knee. They turn their skins under and roll them down, as women do when stepping out of a pair of nylons. They tuck their skins under their arms and wind their way carefully down the stairs. Astrid trails a hand along the stone to steady them, while Clarinda bites her lip. With each step Clarinda thinks right, thinks left. Thinks down.
“Don’t–” Astrid whispers,
–“be afraid,” Clarinda replies. It’s what their mother said, the day she swan-dived from the rock for the water. Now they know, now they remember. How to swim? That will come. But it’s the land they must leave, once and for all, leave it for the water that will lift and carry them. Water, Clarinda thinks as she pushes the sky aside with her hands.
“C’mon,” Astrid urges. “Hurry now.” At the landing Clarinda hesitates.
“Don’t–” Astrid says.
“–be afraid,” Clarinda replies.
Don’t be afraid.
When Astrid lifts her left foot over the ledge, Clarinda steps off with her right.
Erlen smells the girls. He leaps to his feet. Slap, slap, slap, down the stone steps. Above him the light turns behind the glass. You would think for all this light he might see something. But he doesn’t, can’t, the light shining miles and miles beyond him. By the time he reaches the landing, the girls are gone.
“Come back!” he shouts, knowing full well they can’t hear him, having slipped beneath the water with their slick and oily bodies. Two transparent skins drape over the railing; two unzipped girl-shaped casings drip the color of fog.
Erlen, beyond bewilderment, fingers the skins. Next to him is Sister Rosetta, her lips moving silently. Guide them, she prays. Her prayers stand tiptoe to press against the invisible beating heart of God. Guide us all. She understands, looking at Erlen, looking at the skins he folds into halves, into quarters, that none of them have ever been quite right for this world, casting about in skins they aren’t quite suited for.
Erlen turns to Sister Rosetta. “They’re not coming back are they?”
Sister Rosetta peers out over the water. “No.” She is crying hot oily tears. She will miss those girls with their luminous eyes and stories. She is sorry they’ve gone. But she is not really worried. It’s Erlen she’s thinking of now. No, it’s herself and Erlen—together–she’s thinking of. She rests her palms flat and hard against her heart, her heart so full, she thinks it will burst from the pressure. Sister Rosetta smiles, can’t help thinking this is another mystery, this hurt wrecking her, this full measure of sky she’s swallowed, pressed and running over. So full in her lungs, she might drown on it.
Is it love? She wonders, considering Erlen leaning at the railing. Is this how love finds us even when we’re sure it won’t, finds us anyway, splits us wide open? It’s an unforeseen plot complication and she’s not sure what to do but offer thanks: thank you, parable. Thank you, rhyme. Thank you, unanswerable questions.
Erlen presses his hips against the railing. His daughters are gone, he can feel it as certainly as he feels his heart tumbling. Gone but not lost, he feels that, too. In the hills the dogs bark and bark, beyond reason, beyond logic, barking for the sheer joy of repetition. To see, perhaps, if the moon might wag its tail.
Erlen turns to Sister Rosetta. Her face glows beneath the moonlight. Her woolen habit is beneath Erlen’s hand. Sister Rosetta is beneath the habit. From rib to rib his heart is a melon falling rung by rung down a long ladder.
“Sister Rosetta …”
“Rose,” she says, slipping her hand in his. The wind whips her veil and caul from off her head. She doesn’t have time to think: catch it. It tumbles past the breakers, caught now and carried, beyond the surf where it disappears into darkness.