Where Sea and Sky Kiss
by Dan Campbell
Illness skulked about the village, hiding in the alley fish-rot and grasping at coats in the fog. The sea misted up and smothered the houses, as if already holding the island in its embrace was not enough.
People coughed and hacked and died in their sleep. My father found one elder staring out to the dawn from his bed, one hand reaching toward the window. They buried him and all the rest under the perimeter of church bells, ringing out the chill.
I screamed into the world amidst this grief. Many took my birth as an omen: some good, others bad. It all depended on who had lost, and how much, as to whether they shunned or smiled on me and my family.
My parents had each been married to others, each lived quiet lives on the edges of the island. Mother had been a fisherman’s wife, shy and determined, always ready with a cup of tea or a loaf of bread, but little to say, when guests came calling. Father had been husband to the mayor’s disinherited daughter, out on the strand between the lochs, where he herded her sheep and milked their one cow.
Afterwards, it seemed inevitable that they two would wed each other, what with neither of them being from the island. The mayor’s daughter had brought Father home, already betrothed, after a trip to the mainland. (Thus, the disinheritance.) The fisherman said he found Mother half-drowned on the skerries, clinging to ship’s spars. (She certainly sounded foreign, to the few who heard her talk.) But at the time, it was quite the scandal for my parents to be living together–now on the strand, now by the shore–after their spouses were consumed in the winter.
She was pregnant when her first husband died–had been since spring. And after the mayor’s daughter died, Father was one of the few villagers who checked on her health, fetched the midwife, harrassed the doctor, held her hands through each contraction–as if I was his own. Nine days I was, being born. Nine days of contractions drawing nearer and nearer, and then gone. It wasn’t only the midwife who noticed they came strongest during high tide. But no one dared comment on it.
Mother and Father were both small and slender. In the years after, while I grew up rambling the stony shore and the heathered hills, the villagers would remark how the two of them were made for one another. He was slight of build, wiry and well-muscled. She was fragile-looking, with delicate bones and long fingers. Her hair feathered golden in the wind.
Often, they would stand holding each other and gaze into one another’s eyes like new lovers. I asked them once what they were looking at. Mother said she saw in Father’s eyes the rolling sea foam and clouds scudding over a slate sea. Father said that, when he gazed into hers, he heard the sigh of the wind and the ripple of lake waves on the shingled shore.
After the ill winter of my birth, he kept a few sheep but gave the rest of the stock back to his father-in-law (who was now inconsolable, blaming himself for his daughter’s fate). Mother took up spinning and weaving (but refused to help make nets). They traded cloth for what goods they could not make themselves. It was simple stuff: homespun, plain and unadorned. But the women of the village said that no cloth was softer than what Mother made from Father’s sheep.
So the story goes, as I know it now, told and retold by hearths and over ale, embellished by my own memories–though I keep most of those to myself. Only weavers understand the texture of fibers in cloth. To others, it is only softness or roughness, or the play of light along the folding of thread under thread under thread.
I don’t think either of them realized it until the end: how their strangeness drew them together, why the sea and the sky clung to each of them like the finest of fabled cloth. It was when they moved house that everything changed. They built a modest cottage on a high bluff by the western shore, having purchased the land from a widow who was happy to take both of their holdings in (unfair) exchange.
I remember their discoveries as clear and sharp as the day they left. Father dropped a locked chest while carrying it to the cart, to haul Mother’s belonging’s to their new home. The wood around the hinges broke, and the lid fell open, spilling the contents. I went to help him and found feathers: firm, white feathers, soft and strong. They held together and turned as one, as if they formed a bolt of cloth. I opened my mouth to tell him how beautiful it was, and his finger touched my lips, stilling me. I looked in his eyes. “Not a word, young one,” he said and quietly put it all away. I didn’t say anything about it again, not to him or Mother, not even when I saw him hide the chest under bales of cloth in our new home. His eyes had been so sad, all rain and mist and the weeping of cold stones.
The next day, I helped Mother clean his house. She found it while sweeping away cobwebs from the rafters: a handsome velvety thing, slippery as wet shale, supple as seal skin–for that is what it was, though I did not know it then. She cried, clutching the scent of it to her cheek. I touched her shoulder and smelled Father’s gentle musk, just like when he would hold me close after a nightmare. I knew not to speak, then or later. Mother’s eyes rang bleak as summer skies when the sun never sets but the air is cold as a winter’s noon.
They quarreled. Spilt milk, neglected chores, who was in whose way–it hardly mattered, but that they inflict their heartbreak on each other. As if they said and did anything to keep each other close, yet just far enough away, that neither must admit the truth they both now knew.
I didn’t understand then, though I do now. I just wanted them to be happy, to see them smile and hold hands and watch each other by moonlight in the doorway, like they used to do when they thought I was sleeping. I loved them so much–love them, even now–and I wanted them to love each other again.
On a day when Mother was gone to market and Father went to bring down the sheep, I stole into our cottage. I moved all the cloth from the corner, opened the chest and set the feathered cloak aside. I put the chest back where it had been and piled the cloth back on. I fetched the sealskin from the highest rafter where Mother had asked me to tuck it. And I left them both draped on the table, folded one on top the other like interlaced hands. I hid in the thorn bush on the edge of our land, where I could see both the cottage door and the path down towards the village. And I waited, quivering with excitement, imagining how the light would sparkle in their eyes, how they would kiss in the moonlight, how they would be my Mother and Father again, so gentle, so loving, so wise.
They met in the yard: Father stiff as he had been the past few weeks; Mother cold as silk. She went to the cottage first. Then he followed, drawn by her cry. I didn’t see them there together, by the table. I do not know what they thought or said. But they were there inside a long, long while, and I imagined them turning one to the other, all secrets forgiven, all sorrows mended, making love like they used to, softly entwined beneath their handspun bedclothes. It made me happy, dreaming of it.
My heart leapt in my throat when they stepped out together at sunset, holding hands. They stood in the yard, facing east towards the new risen moon behind me. I almost ran to them then. They were looking my way. But I stayed hidden and watched as they walked away north, to the path that led to the sea. I’ve never been happier than in that moment, seeing them there together, like always.
The last light of day hung from the clouds as they reached the edge of the bluff. I still wonder if they turned round then, if they hesitated. I wonder now what they truly thought, what feelings coursed through them in that last moment before they disappeared, one following the other to where their hearts belong.
I returned to the cottage, built up the fire, set the table, and prepared a simple meal of bread and cheese and dried fruit from last summer’s harvest. I was sure they’d be back, hungry after the long day but smiling and laughing like they used to in the evenings.
I ate dinner alone when I couldn’t stand the hunger any longer. I fell asleep by the fire when I couldn’t keep my eyes open one moment more. In the morning, I knew I was alone.
I made do. I was just old enough to start keeping the house on my own: herding the sheep, spinning the wool, weaving by touch as much as candlelight. I still keep to myself, as my parents did: selling homespun, mending worn clothes, and making cheese to offer guests when they come to buy my family’s fabled cloth.
Now and again, at market or in the ale house, I hear whisperings of omens, of selkies and swan wives, of ill luck on a long winter–all the wary wisdom of those who live surrounded by the sea. Their voices hush when I approach, and gentle smiles cover their gossip, but their gaze shifts away from mine. It’s then that I take long, long walks: on the strand between the lochs or along the shingle by the washing deeps.
That morning, when I woke alone for the first time, I found one swan’s feather on the path down from the bluff. It smelled like my father and mother both: the musk of the summer wind, blowing in from the sea and rushing tiny waves to the lake shore.
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