The Woman in the Sea

He gazed at the horizon. The longer he stared, the greater the distance between it and him grew. The smudged line between ocean and sky blurred as night fell. Yet, he could see the difference. The sky was the color of eggplant, the ocean more blue, with flecks of green and white shimmering in the darkness. He scanned the darkness again, gazing intently at the water, and waited. Would he see her again? Would he see her tonight? He had searched these waters for over three quarters of a century, and had only seen her a dozen times, fifteen at most. But he knew she was there. She was always there, even when he didn’t see her. She was there, just the same. He sensed it.

He was six the first time he spied her.

It had been a terrible day at school. He had been cranky and his brothers and sister had teased him, calling him a crybaby and a pansy. He always hated that. Whatever had happened at school that day shortened his fuse. His retorts included a few inappropriate words for a six-year-old. At wit’s end, or able to see the bomb about to explode, his mother slammed her fists on the table with the force of an exploding soda keg. The salt and pepper shakers bounced and toppled. All conversation halted.

“Enough!” she said through gritted teeth. She barely raised her voice. “George, clean up the table when everyone is finished. Thomas and I need to get some air.” She wiped her mouth with her napkin, tossed it over her plate, and stood. Thomas knew enough, even at that age, to follow his mother’s lead. He followed her into the hall where they donned their jackets and headed out into the dusk.

They walked down the pier, across the beach, and along the water’s edge. Neither of them said much. She was contemplative; he was waiting for his punishment. At the jetty, his mother stopped, lowered herself into a cross-legged position, and patted the cold damp sand next to her. He sat and followed her gaze. She was watching the ocean, scanning the sea, searching for something. But what, he couldn’t fathom.

His father’s family had been fishermen as far back as they could trace, possibly descended from the original Vikings that used the island as a fishing camp. His mother’s family, however, was a mystery. She was raised by a sea captain and his wife. They found her in wreckage after a storm. There were no other survivors. They assumed she had been birthed during or just before the storm. Despite her harrowing start, she, too, had always been drawn to the sea.

As he sat there, pondering his punishment, wondering what his mother had in mind, he got lost in the undulating motion of the waves. The pounding surf had always hypnotized him. He closed his eyes and listened to the melody created by the ebb and flow of the tide. He swayed gently to the sound.

His mother’s voice broke over the rhythm. Her cadence matched the tempo of the waves as she spoke, “I’m sorry, Thomas. Of all my children, you have too much ocean in your blood. I had hoped none of you would be subjected to its force, beauty, calm, and rage the way I have.” She sighed and shook her head. “It will always pull you, tug you towards it. It will wear away at your soul. But it will also restore and build you up. It will buoy you like the ships that traverse it,” she said.

Through the dim dark of the moonless twilight, she pointed to the farthest edge of the jetty. He sensed the motion more than saw it, yet he peered at the space to which she pointed. Between the gloaming and the water’s edge, he saw her; the woman of the sea, bare shoulders exposed, a pool of dark hair encircled her in the inky water.

The ocean was blue and green, with sheens of grey and white, all swirled into a black unlike that of the purple-black night sky. Her hair was yet another black. Discernable against the black of the sea and sky. He never could adequately describe the sight, but he never forgot it either. This black-haired mythical woman of the sea – Mermaid, Selkie, Siren, Nymph, Sprite, Naiad, Serpent, Merrow – none of them quite fit her. To him, she was simply the woman in the sea, and from that moment on, she haunted him.

As he sat there, he sensed his mother’s calm. He felt her relax as tranquility permeated the air surrounding them. His mother seemed comfortable; at home in a way he couldn’t explain. “She will wait. Your life is but a season to her,” his mother whispered.

Unable to comprehend, he sat motionless and waited for his mother to explain, waited for the woman in the sea to do something, waited for some sort of signal. They sat together in silence. Over the years, he may have embellished this memory. It may have been mere minutes, but it felt much longer. Suddenly, the woman in the sea dove and disappeared into the swirling water. Waves and eddies replaced her in a flash, leaving no evidence of her appearance. He blinked, squinted, peered at the place she had been. His mother sighed and stood. Signaling it was time to return to their home.  

This after dinner excursion became their ritual. Neither of them ever mentioned the woman in the sea. They talked about school, errands, family, and life. They rarely missed a night. On blustery, frigid days, they would sit on a bench on the pier for a few moments, the cold sea-spray stinging their cheeks and freezing off the day’s troubles. During the warm summer months, the walks took longer, a respite from the heat of the day as they combed the beach for sea glass.

School functions, friends, girls, eventually took time away from his walks with his mother. Still, they rarely missed more than an evening at a time, until college. He was the only sibling that went to college. Both his brothers began working at the fishery as soon as they were of age. His sister, too, being a brilliant high school mathematician, landed one of the coveted office jobs. His parents were so proud of her, a working woman! It had been almost scandalous.

He called home frequently; until the phone bill proved cost prohibitive. Then he took to writing daily and mailing weekly letters home. His mother kept up the habit, walking solo each night along the shoreline. She said it calmed her nerves and restored her soul. His father thought it nonsense, but never asked her to quit.

His father died suddenly of a heart attack during his senior year. He almost left school. But his sister, married by then, scolded him for even thinking about it. The family had made too many sacrifices to send him to college. Dropping out would have been an insult to the family. His mother agreed. They held the memorial over Christmas, so he could take part. His sister helped their mother with all the legal and financial details.

After graduation, he returned home, and they resumed their nightly habit. After work, he would stop by and the two of them would walk along the shore. Treasuring their time together, he often found his mother waiting on the porch when he arrived. After his father’s death, she tired easily and their walks grew shorter. Sometimes they simply sat on the pier and gazed longingly at the water. Other times, they only made it as far as the jetty where he first spied the woman in the sea. As her depression lifted, their walks resumed their previous lengths.

The sight of the woman in the sea always brought a smile to his mother’s face. Once, his mother even waved, as if greeting a long-lost friend, and the woman in the sea waved back. He never had the courage to acknowledge her like that. Neither of them ever mentioned her, not to each other or anyone else. The woman in the sea was an unspoken secret between them, as if speaking of her would chase her away.

Once, when he was in high school, he brought his sweetheart to the beach for a moonlight stroll. He had really liked the girl, but now he couldn’t even remember her name. They held hands and walked to the jetty. As they gazed at the ocean, with giddy smiles plastered on their faces, she rested her head on his shoulder. She had smelled of vanilla. He had closed his eyes. When he opened them, the woman in the sea was there, closer than ever before, but still beyond the jetty. He abruptly said it was time to go and took the girl home.

He never understood what was so unsettling about that night, and why he never mentioned the encounter to his mother. He saw the woman in the sea other times when his mother wasn’t with him. But none of them had left him feeling uneasy and questioning things. Somehow, that episode had felt wrong, as if she had been judging or scolding him.

The woman in the sea made an appearance the night he proposed to Rosalyn as well. He wasn’t sure why he thought the beach would be an appropriate place, perhaps because he spent so much time contemplating life and their future while walking the shore. As they stepped from the pier, he told her about that first walk with his mother, and how it became a ritual. He even told her about the woman in the sea. Rose laughed it off as the imaginings of a young child and the encouragement of his whimsical mother.

That night, as he stood before the jetty, his heart raced. He wasn’t sure if he was nervous about Rose’s answer or receiving approval from the woman in the sea. His memory flashed to the episode in high school. He worried needlessly. Rose said yes. When the woman in sea appeared, she darted about, more actively than he had ever seen her, and dove below the surface with a flourish. Rose only saw a whale’s spout, which made her giddy, since she believed it to be a good omen.

During their courtship and marriage, he continued his evening walks with his mother. Rose grew accustomed to delaying their meals, late arrivals, and holding a seat while she waited for him at outings. Yet she never resented her mother-in-law; the woman never overstayed her welcome when she visited or criticized Rose’s housekeeping, cooking, or child rearing. She always brought exactly what she said she would to holiday meals, no more, no less, and was always available during emergencies.

As his mother grew weary of life and could no longer walk, he would push her wheelchair to the edge of the pier. The two of them would sit there, quietly, as the salt air filled their lungs and stuck to their skin. She made him promise to return her to the sea, to spread her ashes near the jetty. And he did. The woman in the sea was there that evening, too, as if she knew. She bobbed in the waves as he wept and emptied the urn into the surf. A doleful keening sounded on the ocean breeze that night.

He asked Rose and his children to join him on his evening walks, but they always declined. By then, they understood this was his ritual, his private journey. The woman in the sea continued to make random appearances. But with out his mother to witness her appearance, he doubted her existence, making excuses each time she appeared – a trick of the light, power of suggestion, overactive imagination, mirage, shadows cast by a passing school of fish or a whale, daydreams.

She appeared when his oldest got sick and had to go to the city hospital, when the hurricane tore the roof from his home, when his brother died, and after Rose’s funeral. Her appearance marked many of his life’s events, but not all. Now, years later, decades later, he was still searching for her. Still gazing past the battered wave and weather worn, ragged jetty. He wondered why. Why did he bother? What hope did it bring? What good did it do? What was the point?

Tonight, he had a different question. One he should have asked years ago. Who was she?

The salty breeze whispered to him in his mother’s voice. “She will wait. Your life is but a season to her,” it said.

The woman in the sea appeared. He could see her smiling. He had never been near enough to see her facial features. She was beautiful. He screwed his eyes shut, not wanting to look at her. She wasn’t real. She couldn’t be real.

“She will wait,” the wind said again.

The waves ebbed, crashed, called to him. Thomas. Thomas. Thomas. They pounded out his name with each crash against the sand. He listened to their melody. The music of the sea enveloped him. His soul drifted on the eddies. She called to him.

Bystanders – lovers hidden beneath the pier, late night beachcombers, a few teenagers walking home from their concession jobs – no one had an explanation. Every one of them told the same tale, without variation, confounding the police.

An elderly man swayed on the beach in time with crashing waves. Fully clothed, carrying his sandals in one hand, he walked into the surf, never flinching, backing up, or being knocked over by the waves. He just kept walking. The water reached his knees, his thighs, his stomach. He continued to move deeper. A few of them had screamed, yelled, and even threw a shoe at him. But he never turned around or acknowledged them. Surfers were wary of the risk. He was too close to the jetty, and the night was moonless. They stood by, helpless. The water reached his chest, his shoulders. He continued moving towards the horizon until the water covered him completely. They panicked and paced, waiting for the emergency crews, waiting until his battered body drifted close enough to be rescued.

But by then it was too late. He had joined the woman of the sea.