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The Old Woman & The Sea

An old man stands on the sidewalk, water seeping out of his shoes and darkening the concrete around his feet. The tips of his shoes reach to the far edge of the curb. His feet are perfectly perpendicular to passing traffic. His eyes look to the left, staring at nothing in particular, partially obscured by drooping eyebrows, heavily encrusted with salt. He is not frowning, per se; he is thinking, or perhaps simply distracted. The hood of his navy raincoat is pulled tightly around his face, pinching the wrinkles that spoke from his eyes. Silver tufts of an ancient beard crash out of the hood from where his chin is buried, like the wild froth of a breaking wave. Behind him, the ocean drives into the rocks. And he drips. His overcoat drips, his salty eyebrows drip, his fingertips drip, his briefcase drips.


He has just emerged from the sea.


He seems to be waiting. His expression suggests that he knows what he is waiting for, but perhaps not when it is due. And so he simply stands there, eyes to the left, still as a statue. No one seems to notice him at all.


Ida is on a bus, returning to Galway from Ros a' Mhíl and, before that, returning to Ros a' Mhíl by ferry from Inis Mor. Today is her 80th birthday. She came to Ireland, visited Inis Mor to forget her birthday, not to celebrate it. She no longer cares to mark her own time on this earth. This month is the twentieth anniversary of David’s death. She marks that. Though the anniversary is irrelevant, really; she marks his death every day. Twenty-one years ago he recovered from the first stroke. He had begun to walk again. He took lilted steps with a dragging right foot and a forgotten right hand that always hovered, outstretched at an odd angle that bothered her. It reminded her of his mortality, the only part of him she hated. She did not give a hoot about her own mortality. She was just beginning to trust that he would stay with her. But one evening shortly before her 60th birthday: another stroke and the blackness washed over the rest of David’s beautiful mind.


The anger settled into her then. For twenty years she has refused to let it go, refused to move on.

Ida is looking out the window of the bus and out over the ocean, trying not to hear the conversation next to her in which three American tourists are attempting to outdo each other with their knowledge of independent films.


“God damn Americans,” she mumbles. Even though she is one.


She is tired. The bus has slowed in traffic.


And then she sees the man on the sidewalk. He is standing impossibly still and is positively soaking wet. The bus comes within inches of the tips of his shoes on the curb. He does not flinch but his eyes shift and meet hers though the window. He holds them for a long moment, squinting thoughtfully. And then, as if he has remembered something, he turns and begins to walk toward town. She’s remembered something too, but she can’t figure what. Something from too long ago. Traffic moves and the bus picks up speed. She cranes her neck to keep her eyes on him and sees just enough to notice a small seashell fall from his briefcase and bounce once on the sidewalk. And then he is out of sight.


Suddenly, her chest hurts. Her breathe comes in quick, harsh gasps. She grabs onto the armrest and places her forehead against the window.


“Ma’am? You alright?” It’s one of the Americans. She waves him off.


They disembark in Eyre Square. Ida immediately turns to walk back to the shore, though she’s unsure why. She tries to ignore the continued throbbing ache in her chest. She moves slowly and it’s nearly an hour before she reaches the spot where the dripping man was standing. There are no puddles left on the sidewalk, no wet footprints to indicate his path. But there is the shell. She bends slowly to pick it up. It is small, off-white, barely the size of the thimble she’s used for 50 years. She places it in her coat pocket where it sits with two skipping stones David stored for years in an old shoebox, a knot of red thread pulled from his scarf, and her wedding ring, too large for her finger now. She looks around. There is no sign of the man. She dreads the long walk back. Why had she bothered to come here?

“You old fool,” she says aloud to herself. A small dog passing by looks up at her, wounded.


She turns to face the water. A memory strikes her: her first time in Galway, oh, years and years ago. She had come to this very spot. She never loved the ocean until she’d seen the ocean in Ireland. She stares out at the water now. Her eyes are still good. My God, she thinks, it is still so beautiful. She’s done her damnedest for the last two decades to allow beauty in only in small doses. Beauty is vulnerable. She shuts her eyes tight and opens them and realizes with a sharp stab of grief that—for the first time—she can’t recall David’s face.


The pain in her chest grows.


She turns from the ocean and begins to walk back to town, but stops short when she sees another shell, several paces ahead of her. “Leave it be,” she thinks, “leave it be.” She is pleading with herself; these shells are doing something awful to her. But she can’t leave it be. She walks to it, picks it up, places it in her pocket. And then there is another shell beyond that and another beyond that and another beyond that. She follows the trail, collecting each as she passes, though it is difficult for her old back to continue bending to the ground. The ache in her chest builds with each one she retrieves. And she cannot stop collecting them.


With each shell, David seems to fade further from her mind and something else is seeping into her thoughts to replace him. A blinding light, a radiance. Both beautiful and horrid. She fights it. Attempts to block it out. The dread is mounting in her. She frantically replays her life with David in her mind, she even grasps for memories of his stroke, his death, but the details are less and less clear. With horror, she sees her hand reach to pick up yet another shell. And then…she can’t remember his name. His name! She desperately wants to flee, to go home, to sit with their wedding album and his letters. But something is holding her here, dragging her forward.


She is near panic, breathing in short gasps, when she retrieves the fortieth shell and stands to to find herself on Quay street. She looks around. It is night. The street is empty and silent. Her pockets sag and bulge with shells. She hears a squish and a squeak and turns in time to see a dripping briefcase and a wet shoe disappear down Druid Lane, leaving behind a trail of wet footprints and drops of water.


“You! You there!” she shrieks.


She attempts follow but the pain in her chest is suddenly so acute that she cries out and clutches at her breast. After a moment, she staggers after the man, bending laboriously in the short distance to collect three more shells. When she turns the corner she gasps. There are lights: orange lights and white lights and yellow lights and blue lights. Thousands upon thousands of them. They float there in the lane, unattached to strings or cords. They bob gently in the evening air. She reaches out to touch one and a sensation of soft warmth passes through the gaps in her fingers. The lights seem to guide her to the door of a small cafe ahead. She approaches cautiously and enters. The cafe is empty and still. Blue lights hover near the ceiling, casting a dim glow. The floor is covered in a shallow pool of water and more is running down the sides of the walls and dripping from the light fixtures. Reflections of light dance on the floor, distorted in the ripples of falling water. A shell sits on the counter across the room. She retrieves it and clasps it in her palm. A single drop of water falls from the ceiling and lands on the countertop in its place.


She looks up and suddenly there is no ceiling but the night sky alive with stars. And she is standing on a rock in middle of the sea with the waves lapping against her feet and the sea is aglow with every color she has ever seen in it — blue and turquoise and green and purple and orange and gray — and infinity is around and above her, blowing through her hair and rustling her coat and again, for a brief moment, she has the sensation of remembering something long forgotten. But it is fleeting and just as quickly as it appeared, the vast world around her fades and she is back in the cafe with the bobbing lights and the dripping ceiling.


She is sobbing, clenching the shell tightly in her palm. She thinks her chest might burst open and the burning light that is filling her might spill out onto the pavement. She does not know how long she rests against the counter, trying and failing to grasp what is happening to her. She can no longer locate the anchors in her mind she has long relied upon. She searches. She cannot find him. She cannot even find the anger.


There is a shell in the doorway now.


This time she is led to the bookstore where the dripping man sits in the window, perching contemplatively on a mound of books. He is not inside when she enters. Vines have grown over the shelves. Oak, ash, hazel, and birch trees rise from the floor and disappear into the ceiling. Books are scattered everywhere. Some of them have been taken up into the trees as they’ve grown and their pages stick out from all sides of the trunks, their covers half pressed into the bark. A weeping willow sits in the middle of the store, its roots diving in and out of the carpeted floor in all directions. It has long fed on the books which surround it and its leaves are inscribed with lines of poetry and chapter indexes and pictures from children’s books. A small pile of shells lies at the base of this tree. She walks over to sit beneath it and leans her exhausted back against its trunk. She reaches out for the branch that dangles closest to her and on its leaves are pictures from the books of her own childhood. On another branch, inscribed on the leaves are tiny cursive lines — she reads in them the thesis of her college dissertation, in her own handwriting. More leaves depict sketches from her sketch book, and patterns of the quilts she once so delighted in making. The branches hold her lifetime: full of beauty and joy and pain and grief and love and loss. For the first time in twenty years, the memories nestle in her mind. She permits them to stay. Her fingers caress the shells in her pockets. And there, at last, is David's face, beautiful and smiling at her, his face intersected by the delicate veins of a leaf.


*****


It is dawn. Ida is standing on the shore, the sun is rising. Her pockets overflow with hundreds of shells. They jostle in the hood of her coat. They are nestled into her hair and tucked into her socks.


The dripping man stands next to her. They look out over the water.


“It’s my heart,” she says.


“Yes. You’d forgotten it,” he says. “It’s always better to take it with you.”


As she begins to walk toward the water, he drops the briefcase. A million million shells spill out over the rocks. They leap and roll and tumble into the surf. A final blinding pain surges through her. And then with a pounding, pounding, pounding she at last feels her heart beating. The blood courses through her.


And with a cry of joy, she walks into the sea.

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