The warm sunset turned the ocean to rippling caramel. It was reminiscent of another time and of a very different world to the girl on the shore. Something faded, sepia and musty in the corners of her memory. Something I’d clutch at every so often for comfort, the thought flitted across her mind.
She had been walking, but paused to take in the steadily cooling breeze now and the splashes of colour that spread out across the sky, its fading blue vestiges above her, and the clouds like stretch marks on the body of some exotic goddess.
She clenched the superfluous tulle of her skirts, which she had gathered up on either side of her, tighter.
I have to find it, she said to herself. I just simply have to!
The day was fast fading, but she was sure she could get there in time. She had to get there. It’s very important, she reminded herself.
She held up her gown so only the long train trailed behind her bare feet, along the damp sand. It whispered very quietly as it dragged, and there was something in the noise that made her listen closely and shiver.
It was growing cold. Would they notice I’m gone? Would they worry? Maybe they would just keep dancing, or sleeping, or eating. Or whatever it was that people did.
I just have to find it, she told herself again. Then I can go back.
The water was turning a deep purple hue now, with the sky a little lighter. She stopped for a few moments to watch it. She blinked vigorously. Then frowned. Was that water? Just for a moment there, she thought she’d seen something very different.
The colours ebbed even as she looked at it. Would there be time, now that the day had ended? She turned her neck, delicate in the watery twilight, anxious about her absence.
They won’t call for me, she reasoned with herself. It’s likely they won’t even know I’m missing. The parties and dancing. The blood in the corridor and the laughing that echoed up the stone walls. That laugh was a creature with teeth that crept after you everywhere.
She reached out for better times. Better stories that she remembered. Keep walking, she told herself. If they notice your absence, it best be too late.
Tendrils of orange still in the west, like embers. The memories of the roaring wood fire and the coziness of the armchair tempted her. It would have been time to put on the kettle and little Margarine the cat, who was warm and fluffy, would curl up on her lap. They would sit by the fire with the snow and sleet raging outside. The warm aroma of soup would waft from the kitchen, which meant that her mother would be bustling about the potbellied stove. Her worn slippers scuffing the stone floor. Her father would enter through the front door swiftly before shutting it again He would take off his fur pelt to which the snow clung in icy clumps. He would take off his burly boots and thick gloves and smile at her…. He –
She started, and awoke to darkness. Beneath her fingers she felt the sand, and its familiar coarseness calmed her rising panic. The stars were out in their full glory above her, but she could not see the moon. Oh. Oh, no, she thought. I must have slept. I must have lain down for a little while and slept. It’s so silly of me.
It’s the dreams, chiding herself. You’ve always dreamed too much.
The sudden awareness of cold woke her up fully. She picked herself off the ground, and began to walk forward, but remembered her dress. I mustn’t get it dirty, she thought. I will need it when I get there.
She gathered the silky fabric that pooled about her, and went along.
The dragging of her train was eerie. There seemed to be words in its whispering, some kind of mad praying – and every now and again, it sounded like husky laughter. It’s just the night air – just the air, and nothing more – that makes me quiver. The beach was silent and deserted. Her eyes had adjusted to the moonless dark.
She kept walking, craning her neck with her hair coming loose now, to look up at the sky. The constellations had moved a good deal since she had last looked at them. It’s strange that I can’t recognise any. I was never good with the stars but I used to be able to tell Orion at least.
She wondered what her destination might be like. In the chill breeze, the thought gave her warmth. I’ll get there and they’ll be waiting for me. She would know where it was, and then she would have to climb the rocks and crags, her dress billowing in the sea wind. And she would set her foot upon the top of the cliff, and the grass there would be lush, and green, and the scent of flowers in the air…
She rubbed her bare shoulders against the wind, and her legs felt bare and exposed in the thin tulle. Ghostly fingers of mist wormed their way from the waters that stretched out and on beside her. She shrank from them, moving closer up the beach, where there stood a little embankment of rocks and, beyond that, vegetation that seemed to grow thick and tall.
She tried to sing to herself, to warm herself up a little. I have to keep walking, she told herself. I must find it.
Oh, once she would get to the top of the crag! She would walk past rows of monstrous azaleas. The path would be narrow, but she would follow, follow into the thick garden, sumptuous and exotic with the aroma of the flowers in bloom. She would have already had it, then. Would have already been holding on to it, pressing it to her from where she had picked it up, and it would be still warm from the sun – still warm from where it had lain in the sand, waiting for her…
She felt herself sinking, melting into the dream, and instinctively tightened her grasp over her senses. She blinked away the vision and felt the sting of the still air and the mute blackness of the beach.
It’s as if I’m falling asleep, she thought, and resolved to stay attentive. The fog, seemingly in a matter of seconds, had enveloped the sands, amoeba-like. It floated waist-high for her and looked as though the sea had come in and did not wish to depart as usual. She could not see her feet nor the ground, and could not see where beach lay, and where water.
She stopped, dismayed, but also entranced at the sea of fog that spread out around her for what seemed to be miles. Just like clouds, she thought. Like I could put up my foot – she put up her foot – and get on to it. And kept walking, and walking. And maybe I’d get to a castle made of mist, and touch it, and it would solidify. And I would bring back the people who had been turned to mist, and all the trees and animals in that land of mist. And I would live with them high above the other world, looking over my castle window to see whence I came and whether the people had –
A splash to her left drew her out of her reverie. She looked around in the glowing mist, but couldn’t see anything below her hips. It was not this thick last I looked, she thought, and felt a twinge of alarm. How long have I been standing here?
The constellations had moved, for the stars in their patters were different than before. The breeze had changed its direction. She remembered the tide and felt cold fear grip her.
Instinctively, she put her hands down, down through the fog until she touched the sand. She was still above the water line. Maybe, she thought, I can go toward the rocks and wait there until it dissipates, and until the sun rises. Around her the fog sat heavy and thick, a sea of wispy milk. You know that there’s nothing in it, she thought to herself. Though they said it holds the voices of the dead.
She tried to sternly tell herself that it was just a saying, nothing more. But the closer she looked at the still vapor, the more it seemed to her to glow, and to drift strangely. And was that disturbance ahead not a sudden ripple? What might be looking out at her from within the fog?
Again, she heard a splash. The embankment, she reminded herself. Her groping fingers now grew desperate. She dropped to her knees, but couldn’t see anything for the fog. It felt strange, damp and cold against her wide, frightened eyes. She moved blindly ahead on all fours. Somewhere to her right now, she heard another splash, and this time it was followed by a more sinister sound that she could not place.
The fog smelled strongly of seaweed and salt. Oh, please, oh, please. She was breathing harshly now. Please, please.
She could not see what was around her, and could not tell how far she was from the rocky embankment. She could not tell which direction the noise had come from, but it filled her with a nameless dread.
She wandered blindly, stepping on her gown in the mist, her mouth twisted in a silent sob. The tears did not come although she longed for them.
She did not feel the solid comfort of rock. Her groping fingers touched water, and its coldness and silky texture made her scream in the darkness. Her feet seemed to act of their own accord; she found herself running in the opposite direction. Towards the rocks, she thought. They have to be this way and I –
Her feet splashed in freezing water in a suddenness that made her gasp. Her momentum took her into a depth up to her calves. The cold seemed to go to her very bones.
She turned now, and in what direction she knew not. It did not seem to matter anymore. Nothing mattered save the compulsion to be out of reach of the water. Its invisibility beneath the white mist frightened her, and she imagined it lying inky black, a sort of mercuric ooze around her ankles as she bolted away.
Her toes finally felt damp sand and she halted there, breathing hard, her eyes wide and staring.
There was nothing to see besides the ocean of mist. It stretched on, on, on. It seemed to cover the world, and she felt a nausea come over her. That everything had been consumed save the little spot of damp sand that she stood on, and she would fall and tumble into bottomless ether if she stepped off.
Cold, scared, she stood hugging her bare shoulders and looking out about her. I have to walk one way or the other, she thought finally. I must keep going.
She looked up at the stars. Oh, when will the dawn arrive?
She caught the sound of another splash, this time she was sure it came from behind her. Fish? Are there fish here? She asked herself. Then, Of course there are, silly. This is the sea. She tried to remember when last she had eaten any fish. Or eaten anything. She closed her eyes for a brief second and felt herself swiftly drawn inward like a breath, a gasp.
A dimly lit room. Flecks of colour on faded jeans. Yellow, white, blue. Boxes, clothes on a tiled cream floor which was cold to the touch of her bare feet. They had finished painting their flat. Mama had grown tired, too tired to cook – and ordered in some fish and chips. They ate it watching a movie. The brightly lit colours danced across the screen, but she realised she could not get them to focus. Mama laughed beside her, a happy, high laugh. Oh, I love this part, mama said.
She smiled in response, but did not say anything. Her jeans felt too frilly and light, and the apartment was somehow too cold.
Oh, your father used to do the same thing, Mama said. Then, in a sharper tone: I told you not to walk around barefoot, dear. Where are your slippers?
She looked down at her feet and saw they were wet, and sandy, and all around her was a puddle of black water.
Her eyes flew open wide and this time she gasped. She could feel water cover her feet.
The tide, she thought. It’s coming in.
She lifted up her dress gingerly, and set a foot down lightly in the direction ahead of her. It touched only sand, and she thought, this must be the way to the rocks. She continued, feeling her way forward. She had not got five paces before she felt her train tug.
She pulled on it harder, but couldn’t get it to budge. She knew it meant that she had got it caught on something but could not think what. It must be a rock, she thought. It would be easy to follow back and loose it, but it might mean going back to the water. She picked up the dress and holding it, followed to where it lay caught. It’s so long, she thought disjointedly. What a pretty dress.
What a pretty dress. All in green and pink pastels. It reminded her of warmer days on the knoll, as a little girl. Green the grass, and white and pink the wildflowers, and bright blue the sky. The milkmaids would go by with pots balanced on their heads, necks prettily held up. Their shifts and pinafores caught the breeze and billowed gracefully. The droning of bees and the singing of birds in the distance. And then, far out, over the knoll, someone called her name. She turned to face the shout, and saw her brother running toward her.
But his legs…what was wrong with his legs?
She gasped as her foot was plunged, very suddenly, into ankle-deep water. She supressed her fear. I’ll loosen the train very quickly. Just a few seconds and I’ll come back to dry sand. The water felt like ooze around her feet, like marsh mud. Like mud that eats.
She kept moving toward where her skirt was caught, but the water became steadily deeper somehow. It lapped at her mid-calf, a host of cold tongues, tasting flesh. She felt trepidation rear in her again, and paused. She gave her skirt a hard tug, but she could not free it.
She would have to go deeper, though every fibre of her being shrank at the thought.
She took another step forward, and felt the chilly water lap at her knees. It made her shiver, both with cold and disgust.
But there, there it was! She realised that the point of her train had been caught below the mist, not even a step ahead.
She could reach downward and free it, pick it off whatever it had been caught on.
She submerged her hand into the chilly water, thinking I can dry it out tomorrow. Nobody would guess.
Her fingers made their way down the last inches of fabric.
She screamed. She did not try to bite it back this time. It was a full-throated scream, and she tried to draw her hand back as if she had been burned.
She could not, however, for another hand, one that felt cold and rough, held hers in a vice-like grip. The skin felt grimy and sandy, and the fingernails cut into her own hand.
The eager silence that responded to her shrieks swallowed them up in a gulp. There was no other noise, and she realised now that she could not even hear the waves. She could not hear the rhythmic washing of the shore. Silence was the only witness, a demented kind of silence that watched and gibbered.
‘Please let me go!’, she pleaded with it, wondering if there was any intelligence on the other side to plead with. She pulled her hand as hard as she could. The fingernails only dug down deeper, cutting into her flesh so that she was sure they drew blood now.
It made her scream even louder in retaliation – born out of both indignation and fear, she used her other fist to pound on the hand that held fast to her.
Unfazed, the nails continued to dig in, and the hand began to – slowly – pull downward.
She pummeled and splashed and used her own fingernails to make deep gouges into the flesh of her captor. Her arm was being drawn quickly into the sand. She had an absurd thought in the midst of her terror and frenzy – when last did I ever hold a hand? – before she felt her face go down through the clammy mist and she could not feel or think.
To be continued…