My father had two things to say to me before he died, and he was ceremonious about it.
“Always live by the water,” he told me in the morning, when he could still turn his head, his blue eyes liquid.
They didn’t make my sister Aria and I stay in the room with him, but the door was open and we heard everything from where we sat in the hallway, our small backs against the wall. I believed there was an angel in the room with my father, too large for the space, a grey and unreasonable bird whose wings scratched the wall while it waited for my father to die, impatient and bored, teasing at times, poking him with feathers.
Sometimes my father would cry out and I blamed it on the angel bird.
When Aria was called in at sunset, I sat alone listening to the movements of the sea through the open window, waiting for my mother, who was in the room with my dying father, to call me in for a final goodbye.
I wondered what my father would say to me in the end – Take care of your sister? Watch the wind like I taught you? – or would he whisper a sea shanty the way he did when he came home from the ship drunk, his voice hot and raspy.
But it was none of those things.
When it was my turn, I leaned toward him, his face grey, bird-like, hollow and very still.
“Aaawwk,” he said.
One year only I did not live by water but rather by my memory of it. I stared at the rock of a prison wall long enough so that it liquefied, swirled, offered me the shoreline – and I was thankful for my father’s advice and for my lifelong proximity to the sea. I hoped he had been able to make his final ceiling swirl and that he floated into it while his angel, the brute, was sleeping.
I heard my wife’s intimate whisper coming from the wall sometimes as if it were a seashell and she, the sea. “Things will work out Ern,” the wall said, as if I had lost only my wallet, or misplaced my glasses.
But she was right. Things worked out.
I am a very rich man now, living in a big house against the sea.
Our little house still stands next door and I very much miss the days we lived beneath its small roof. There are mornings when I walk into the old place and listen, marvel that the angel remains in the basement where I threw him the first time I caught him coveting my wife, prodding her with a soft feather that delighted her and made her giggle like the girl I fell in love with.
I know that angel, and I know that it is his elbow knocking the corners down there, his stench that floats up the stairs, the rasp of his wings that thrum through the floor.
He is waiting for me.
When my wife began losing her mind, she started throwing her things down the hill into the thick line of brush between our house and the beach. She was delighted when a waistband or the sleeve of a coat became caught in the bramble. These were things she refused to believe were hers. Even the worn shoes that I put on her feet. “Look,” I said to her, “look how they fit. Like Cinderella,” but she would shake her head, quickly take them off, and throw them down the hill, one after the other.
People walk their dogs along the beach and I watch their wagging fingers land on my house which is taller and wider than the others that stand proudly on the hill. The question is whether I killed my wife. They point to the little house and say that is where he killed her and there, under that willow, is where she was found, in her bed, under the covers like she was sleeping. The amount of money I was awarded for wrongful incarceration is the next point upon which they speculate.
From one of the leaning balconies or from my lush green yard, through the thick red tulips, I see them walk along the beach.
Three dogs braid their way down the shore. There is a child that stumbles between mother and father. All of the families are happy when they walk on the beach, the warmth of spring against their skin. The sky is beautiful. Also the birds. The child is healthy. The dogs run, gallop together. The father picks his child up, collects and softly folds the love in his arms, reaches for his wife’s hand, counts the dogs, notices for an instant how extraordinarily beautiful life is, does not care at this moment that one day a dog will fall to the sand motionless, etc.
At times I feel sad for the angel that lives in the old basement. I know that his prison is not secure, that he is there of his own will. Hiding from the one who hides from him also.
“Not yet, you bastard,” I tell him when I walk by the house. “Not yet.”
Early one morning I saw a shimmering object in the brush where my wife had tossed her jewels, away from her new self, this emerging stranger that I had found rather appealing. (When I saw this person undress, I was stirred.) The sparkle might have been nothing more than a collection of dewdrops, yet I walked to the edge of my grass, through the gate and beyond, into the fog and bramble only to discover that which I sought was a mirage after all.
I stood for a moment looking up at my house as a stranger would have, thought about the enigma that tread its halls, the man who may or may not have killed his wife. I was sorry for him yet I wondered. When he moved the bed outside, did it contain a corpse or the still beating heart of his beloved?
I was happy being this person, this observer, and for a moment I wished to continue my early morning walk as him and go further down the beach, my body young and strong, and forget about this house and the old man who lived there, catch up with my wife instead, her ponytail swinging ahead of me, strong legs, eyes blue like water, the smile she would give me, the warm kiss to my mouth because of the love we made the night before.
I smiled for my dream, wished them well, heaved to climb up the hill and found that I was stuck in the mud. I flailed and sank further, remembering too late the dangers of the bramble in the spring: Beware! Quicksand! Aaawwk!
I could not call with sufficient voice to be heard over the ocean and my waving was no match for it either. I believed I would die when the mud reached my groin, my bones breaking like branches when I slumped, and I wondered if the second of my father’s dying statements was intended to be and die by the water also.
When the sun was overhead, I saw the curve of a single shoe and reached for it. I could see the stains of my wife’s toes, the little bunion bump that she hated, the worn heel.
By the time I heard his wings, I was very warm, thirsty and strangely calm.
“I am not such a bastard now, am I Ern?”
“You are still a bastard, you bastard,” I whispered.
“Do you wish to die here or may I help you?”
“Help me you bastard.”
He looked around, placed a wing beneath each of my arms, lifted me out of the ground and out of my shoes like a sprout. He held my body close to his and half scrambled, half flew up the hill. I could hear his breath, crackling and laboured. His arms were sinewy and aged, the last two fingers on each freckled hand part of his wing structure. The hairs on his head were sparse, his mouth was drawn, his few remaining teeth grey. I heard a drum roll inside his stomach, the clash of distant cymbals with each beat of his heart.
His sweat lingered on my back and I stood freezing on the lawn where he left me.
That evening, I cooked for two. Cod and creamed peas. I walked with the plates over to the old house, knocked, and pushed the door open. He seemed to be waiting for me, sitting in a kitchen chair for which he was too large, his eyes meeting mine through the grey.
“I have brought you something to eat if you are hungry.”
I put the plates on the table and sat down across from him and began to eat with my hands. He did not look at me. He maneuvered a pea to sit between his thumb and his fore finger, squeezed it until it broke, placed the pulp on his quivering tongue. I heard the sound of his mouth in motion.
“I’ll get wine,” I said and walked to the cellar door, toward the dusty bottles of wine that I had once collected.
“Gone,” he said.
“Then I will go to my new cellar,” I said turning toward the door, “where the wine is also excellent.”
I found honey wine in the cellar and also a bottle of Akvavit, which when I read the label revealed itself to have the same ingredients as the hot, glistening moonshine of my youth. Walking from one house to the other, I gathered a shanty out of the growing darkness, whistled its highpitched allegro across the lengthening shadows on my lawn.
He was on the dilapidated porch when I returned, sitting in one of the chairs from which my wife and I used to watch the sunset, his plate in his lap. He had found two mugs which I filled with wine.
We did not speak but drank in silence.
The evening was fine. His wings bothered him and he kept shifting them, scratching. Finally he spoke, his voice careful, slow and very accented like my father after a long trip on the boat.
“The water is peaceful and if you do not hate me, this is very pleasant.”
We spoke in Norwegian, his accent more antiquated, more authentic than mine. I felt as if I were faking it – that I wished to sound more Norwegian than I was – that I forced my tongue to hit my palate earlier than was natural.
I studied his face as he spoke, his eyes on the dark water, and eventually I wandered beneath the moonlight to my house, leaving him alone on the porch where he had fallen asleep.
We sat together every evening after that, shared meals and wine, always a little Akvavit which he liked very much. I became used to him, and after some time his wings did not distract me nor did his strong tongue.
At times he would fling me on his back, both of us a little drunk, and fly off with me, skidding to a landing in places I did not at first recognize. Once I thought we were in Kuwait, other times Montevideo, Madagascar, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway of course, but most time we landed on the northern Irish coast, where boulders like fallen teeth were strewn about the green.
“I have dreamed this before,” I said to him each time.
“Aaawwk,” he said back, and we swam in the sea like youngsters, climbed through castles, slept in their stone corners.
Sometimes I sit alone now, a blanket across my lap, my nurse quietly beside me. Other times I soar with my friend.
From The Story Parade by Sherry Cassells, which you can order here when I figure it out.