The Sailor’s Wife

Artwork by National Bank of New York, 1860s
Artwork by National Bank of New York, 1860s

The mist from the sea comes crawling closer, but brings nothing with it. It climbs up the cliffs, scurrying over wet rocks, and settles on the house. Droplets of it fall swiftly down the weathered timber like seagulls diving into the waves, leaving wet streaks on the faded white paint. The mist sits on the pane of the open window, whose shutters shake like a waving hand in the wind, beckoning the world inside. The old house clings to the seaside cliffs, just as she within it clings to his promise.

Over the sea, touching the waves, the wind flies freely, and blows through the window to greet her each morning. It cools her face and blows through her hair, whose bright yellow hues have begun to fade. Her youthful face, despite new lines appearing at the corner of her eyes, remains the same. Her eyes shine with the light of each new sunrise that she watches from her window. Every morning she combs through her hair and ties it to the nape of her neck, just like it was on the day he last saw her. She waits for him, and returns to the girl she once was, with a spirit wild like the waves and a laugh loud as thunder.

The window is always open, scanning the ocean, ready for his return. A glimpse of white in a sea of green will sometimes catch her eye, and she’ll rush to the window, breath caught in her throat. But the white sail disappears, and there’s no mast and no ship, and she’ll shake her silly head and walk away. Now and then the loud bark of a sailor will draw her back to the window, but the surface of the water remains empty.

Each morning she awakes with new hope, heart and ears filled with his departing words.

I will make it back to you.

His voice swims in her head and drowns out the storms, and she swears she can hear him call out her name across the horizon. But every night, when no ships have made it to shore, and as the sun departs from the sky, the light falls from her eyes. The corners of her mouth fall, and her hope once again dies.

* * *

‘You don’t have to go.’

He chuckled huskily, lifting his chin and turning to face her. ‘You say that every time. And it’s not any different than before. You’ll wake one morning and look out the window and there she’ll be, sails tied and anchors lowered, and I’ll be standing there at the bow waiting to see your face. We won’t take long.’
She watched the ceiling, speckled paint reflecting the golden tones of the sunset outside. She could feel him watching her, feel his hand enclose around her own, but she didn’t look to him. ‘Ship’s have disappeared before. Men lost at sea, never to be found again.’ Her voice was low and serious.

‘Do you think I’m going to let that happen? I’d battle the God of the Sea barehanded before I let him take me.’ She could hear a breath of a laugh escape him as he said it.

‘Please, don’t.’ She left the bed and walked to the window, pulling closed the shutters, dipping the house into darkness. She untied her hair, letting it fall from where it sat at the nape of her neck, and returned to his side.

‘Promise me,’ she sighed, wrapping her hands behind his head. The look of fear in her eyes stopped him from laughing.

‘Okay,’ he whispered, running his thumb over her bottom lip, eyes scanning her face, as if to commit the sight of her in the darkened room to memory. ‘I promise.’

She lowered her eyelids, releasing her hold on him. Foreboding waves threw themselves against the side of the cliff, strong winds knocked on every wall. The thought of never returning, of forgetting the sound of her laugh, her frustrated groans, of her breathing next to him as she slept, scared him immensely. As he lay next to her, her eyes on the ceiling once more, and as he listened to the shouts and threats of the crashing waves, a sickening feeling of dread overcame him, an ominous weight he would never admit to her.

‘I will make it back to you,’ he said loudly, the sound causing her to jump. She said nothing, but entwined her fingers around his, and they both lay silently in the dark, each ignoring the calls of warning the world outside was trying to make.

* * *

The ocean is calm and the sun high, light flooding into the house. She sits by the open window, on a wooden stool with uneven legs, and rests her head on the wall. She scans through her books. Fingertips fuss over the hem of her dress. Her eyes alight with reignited hope, she listens out for the sound of wind slapping against an open sail. ‘Is it today?’ she whispers to the peaceful sea, whose modest waves don’t quite reach the cliff face. ‘Will you bring him back today?’ The line of the horizon remains unchanged, a never-ending sight of ship-less vastness. The throaty caw of a seagull gliding over the house is her only reply.

I will make it back to you.

Discarding her book on their bed, she leaves the house. She runs barefoot through overgrown grass and climbs down the ladder he had made for her so she could walk along the beach beneath the house. She looks up the side of the cliff, moss growing on jagged rocks, and sees the open shutters of her window tap lightly on the wall. Her white cotton dress entwines around her ankles as she paws the warm sand with her feet. The waves aren’t strong, but they make their way to the shore, small ripples picking up sand and swirling it beneath shallow water. She walks out into the coolness, a small white speck in a sea of green, and listens. The wind and the ocean whisper together, forming words, messages from a ship far away, a ship lost on the other side of the world.

Hello, my darling.

‘Hello.’

Not today, I’m afraid. The wind’s too weak.

‘You could still make it.’

Not today.

* * *

‘Open your eyes,’ the light pressure of his fingertips on her eyelids lifted, and a red glow entered the darkness of her closed eyes as sunlight touched the lids. She could feel a warm wind on her shoulders and face, a tickle at her ankles, and could smell the salt and damp of the sea. She opened her eyes, and her line of vision was flooded by blue, a cloudless sky and the darker ocean, a clean line separating the two in the middle, not letting them touch. She could feel him beside her, watching her, and turned to him. And then she noticed the old house behind him, its tin roof rusted bronze and the last traces of cracked paint on the walls. He was smiling, arms outstretched slightly, as if he was presenting something to her.

‘What?’ she asked lightly, trying to mask her confusion. He shook his head at her and stepped aside, glance shifting to the house.

‘A house,’ she said blankly. ‘What –’

‘Our house!’ he exclaimed, lifting his arms once more. The wind blew against her back, wrapping hair over her face, pushing her towards the old structure. She laughed nervously.

‘I bought it for us, isn’t it great?’ he asked, not waiting for an answer before he walked to the door and pulled it open. ‘Come on,’ he smiled at her and out at the ocean. ‘Look at that view!’

She followed him into the house, wind trailing behind her, and she scanned the rust and chipped wood, the cracked glass in the window at the top of the house, whose crooked shutters knocked against the wall in the wind.

‘You bought this?’ she said, once she had followed him up the small staircase to the bedroom. He was standing at the window, and silently motioned for her to come to him. ‘But it needs so much work, how can we afford to –’

He had placed his hands on her shoulders as she reached him, and turned her to face the open window. She gasped. It was the same view as from outside the house on the cliff, but intensified. There was nothing but sea and sky, nothing but the limitless expanse of freedom. No buildings, no land, no ground; it was both nothing and everything at the same time. They were floating above the earth, hovering over the surface of the ocean, level with the horizon that separated water from air. She could see the entire world from one little window.

‘It’s all ours,’ he whispered, looking down at her. The sun brightened her face and the wind pushed her yellow hair back off her shoulders, and he couldn’t imagine spending their lives anywhere else than in this little house on the cliff. She continued to stare out at the quiet world with disbelief.

‘Can we paint it white?’ she said softly. He laughed.

‘We can paint it whatever colour you like, darling.’

* * *

His skin was raw with cold. He could feel the bones in his fingers ache as he grabbed hold of the thick rope. Its normally harsh and rough fibres were soaking and hard to grip. He wrapped it round his wrist twice to ensure he would not let go.

‘Get ‘em down!’ he heard one of the men yell, and someone joined him in pulling the sails down the mast. The loosened riggings left the white sails slack and they whipped back and forth dangerously in the wind. He could feel the ropes digging into his wrists, and he looked to the man beside him. He was younger than himself by a few years, his hair longer, his blue eyes terrified. He can’t have been through storms like this before, he thought. ‘We’ll be okay,’ he yelled to the boy reassuringly, but he did not hear him over the roar of the wind and the bashing of the angry waves against the sides of the ship.

A great crack, a scream, and the mast came down. He looked up, and saw the great white sails that had always gotten him home safely fall, threatening to crush him. Rain pounded down into his eyes from the black sky, and he dived out of the way, hitting the deck hard. The crash of the mast drowned out the shouts of sailors, and the boards of the deck smashed, sending splinters of wood flying. The rain continued to fall fast, blurring his vision. Waves bellowed at him as they crashed against the groaning ship. The wind whipped his skin and hissed in his ear, screeching, reminding him of his promise to her that was broken the moment the mast snapped in two.

I will make it back to you. I will make it back to you.

Will you make it back to me?

Her worried face entered his mind, her features blurred like the ship in the storm. He heard the fear in her voice, the panic in her eyes on the eve of his departure. His insensitive laugh echoed loudly through his head as he ran shivering below deck to help with the bilge. He had watched the sunrise through their window as he packed; saw the red streaks of light shining through the window, illuminating her sleeping form on the bed and the dust that swam through the air. Her hair untidy on the pillow, worry lines etched into her forehead even in sleep. He had kissed her cheek before leaving her there, alone in that small white house that clung to the cliffs. Why hadn’t he woken her?

When he reached the cabin his heart sank. Black water filled it and kept rising, which meant the hull had broken and flooded also. He ran down the steps, legs splashing through the icy water, but stopped at waist height. There was nothing they could do. The mast and sails were gone, the hull was flooded. He couldn’t see any way of surviving, unless the ocean herself decided to spare them.

‘Forgive me,’ he spluttered, exhaustion stealing him of his voice and his breath.

You promised.

He ran back out into the storm, shouting at others to help him empty the bilge, determined to continue fighting for her.

* * *

Climbing down the ladder she felt the cold, still air on her skin. There was no wind, no breeze, and her greying hair sat unmoving at the nape of her neck. She sat down on the beach. The sand was cold, neglected by the sun’s warmth, and the ocean was still and silent. The calm world was voiceless, and she was alone. No seagulls flew overhead. She heard no whispers from the wind, no gusts bringing her messages from a lost ship slowly making its way back home. No white sail on the horizon, no sailor calling her name. But still she watched, and waited, her eyes alight with the hope that rose with that morning’s sunrise, because he had promised. She glanced up at her window. It was open, as always, but its shutters did not knock against the wall, but hung there crooked and at rest, two rusting pieces of a small white house sitting alone on a cliff above the sea.

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