Joanna Howard

In the haunted cottage by the sea, I settled into the seaman’s berth. The captain was long since dead from his own hand. I came from the west in widow's garb with a trousseau in cedar. Drawn to the sea, again. The sea that captivates men with motherly arms and swimming dark womb is no place for a lady.

In the beginning, I only heard laughing. His portrait in brooding oils hung in every room.  The balcony's French doors swung open of their own accord. I had been very lonely for a very long time. Below the bedroom’s balcony, dark waters spilled into a narrow cove. The deck chairs, clothed in damp canvas, faced seaward on their precarious stage. Through nights I kept watch. Shadows and flashes in the movement of the night waters. Nightmares disband in sweet lingering insomnia. I was very good at looking straight ahead.

In time we lulled each other. He crept out of his painting and moved among his own things. The rooms doubled their size. The house shifted carefully, and the air inside grew thick and pendulous, and the furniture swelled near to bursting. Nothing was mine, but was done up according to demand in scrimshaw and leather, blue velveteen, and papered walls. I preferred the traditional black, though all of my underclothes were convent made in silk and lace. I undressed behind a painted screen, and felt a slight breath—certainly feigned—on my shoulder. We had not yet been introduced.

I was getting lovelier in the days that followed. Men in two-seater cars drove up the hill and down again. I took no suitors. Another courtship had begun. In our bedroom, his figure slipped out from the shadows and hardened its form, square and unshaven. He appeared as though he might speak. Here began the affectation of the living: breath, glance, speech from the mouth. Sounds came rough and unsorted. I fell deeply asleep, and in my dreams the sea air and its vapors, gaining force, stirred the bed clothes, and I awoke bathed.

The memory becomes very sweet, and the hands of the clock spin forward. Most days, he came and disturbed the contents of the room. His voice drew together in scraps and curses, and with it a certain perspective. I attempted to record his advances. He held together in a dashing form, and his sweater buttoned at the shoulder. Now, gaining voice, he had quite a lot to add. I accustomed myself to an unvarnished point of view. Language that meant all too clearly what it said. Periodically, his name burst with violence into the air, which I repeated to myself in a whisper, removed away to the darkness of the closet. Even there I was well accompanied. I was plunged into community. In the late afternoon, the fog came down from the cliffs, and settled in so close around the house it blocked even the view of the balcony’s rail from the lounge where I sat, most often, near to fainting. It brought him in close as well, out of the haze, and fluid and silent, he knelt at my elbow. There was no time to be lost in admiring him.

Though his temper was cooling, I felt, if not quite wanted, that I was waiting in line. Outside, the short lawn collected a periphery of spectators. Three bombshell silhouettes in ragged black crepe, slipped up among the beach grass, watchful, and distrusting. The captain refused to comment. In modern times, I might have had competition, but ours was an arranged affair.

Some years passed, and the road lay still, and broken with weeds. An auburn hound, with feral eyes, followed me through the house, and slept at my feet. I draped my shoulders in tartan. I spoke often and in all directions to a captive audience. In wakeful hours, with the light high over the water, I waited for the night that disrobes. A certain fear crossed my mind. How long before the past, in finally forgiving, would open up and give him passage? It was enough for me to live at the water's edge, on the spirits' line, and wait to be overtaken.

I woke and slept. In sleep’s reverie, taking his arm, I found it opaque and firm. We walked up the steep incline from the beach to the cottage. We began together in step, my wild dog held close. Moving along the path, the captain was at our height, and then moving apart from us, far ahead, and above. The air wavered, and I dropped into fever.

That day, the sky and the sea met at a narrow seam. Like the hinge in a dream which, closing, changes the register. The room kept silent. Beyond the French doors, the horizon held steady. All I could see was what I could see. 

I cast about inside the house, held as I was to the hope of his return. In this way, I haunted. I catalogued my memories, and counted among them several of his that had passed between us. I might have thought it unlike a thing to posses in itself a soul and a memory. Years passed, but I kept current in the blush of love.

I married the place. This was the more lasting of the two liaisons. Loving so solitary a horizon, when one has been abandoned, proves some compensation for absence. If a lesson follows, then don’t look for truth in dark waters. The thin scrim of my captain’s cottage kept all picture windows facing seaward, and so in passing from glass to glass, I followed that unchanging vista, a reminder of the one who never abandons.