by Suzannah V Evans
The storm unsettled the islanders. It swept in ominously from the east, bringing rain that fell in thick ropes, and winds that undressed anyone who dared to venture outside. The postman, determined to deliver his mail, left the house in his rain jacket, walking shoes, and hat; when he returned, he was naked apart from the watch around his wrist. His hair was sodden, and he mewled at his door like a cat until his children let him in. For the rest of the day, he refused to wear anything apart from brown parcel paper around his body, and he took to having long baths in the dark.
Night winds, lightning, and jagged clouds had their effects on other islanders. Many remained indoors, singing to themselves or knitting unusual garments. Several islanders noticed that their hearing had altered significantly. The first one to notice a change was Jackolan. One evening, as his wife approached him in bed, whispering soft words, he swore it was the crash of waves that emanated from her lips. When she spoke, he gazed at her uncomprehendingly, rubbing his ears, and wondering if the rain outside had deafened him. She spoke again, and it was the noise of white horses rushing to the shore, submerging the rocks, and dragging weed back out to sea. When she undressed, it seemed to him that her skin was water.
Jackolan’s neighbours reported similar changes. Marialotte described how the cry of seagulls had infiltrated her thoughts. When she boiled water on the stove, the bubbles shrieked mouette-mouette-mouette; she pictured seagulls with sharp bills scrambling over her kitchen counter. Attempting to buy ribbon at the local shop, Marialotte saw the shopkeeper as a large gull, and she backed away mumbling, transfixed on his yellow feet. As she left, strong wings buffeted her, and she pulled her arms to her body, worried that she might grow wings and fly away. That night, before bed, she turned in the lamplight, inspecting her body for white feathers. She hid all the books in her house, believing them to be flat gulls, and refused to eat any food that had been near the sea.
Harriak also suffered. He lived in a small hut near the beach, and was the closest of all the islanders to the tossing ocean. In an attempt to disguise his hut from the sea, he covered the walls, roof, and windows in algae, and filled his bed with fish. He dressed himself in discarded fish scales and took to holding his mouth open in an ‘O’. If visitors passed by the hut, he lay on his side, eyes wide, flicking his legs to and fro. At night, he slept in the bath, his fish scale costume unpeeling itself from his skin and floating to the surface. In each fist, he clutched two sardines.
The winds continued. Schools were closed, and the islanders walked about their houses in the half-light, stirring pots of soup, muttering stories under their breath. Jackolan decided a meeting should be called, but was unable to understand the wave-cries of his fellow islanders. His own children seemed strange to him, their movements suddenly fluid and lithe; like many of his friends, they developed an attachment to the household bath. He would often find the three of them in the tub, cooing to each other, running their hands through the water and blowing bubbles. In the evening, they would murmur their sea-noises to him, motioning to the bathroom, miming swimming motions. Jackolan would acquiesce, and sigh as they tore off their clothes and ran upstairs to where water crashed and poured from the tap.
The twelfth week of rain came and went. Jackolan had grown used to the tidal pulsing in his ears, although he remained unsettled by the wave-drenched speech of his loved ones. At night, holding his wife, her breathing seemed like the shuddering currents of the deep ocean; her kisses tasted of sea-spume. He took to bringing her little presents of driftwood, sea glass, and stones that the sea had licked and cherished. Rather than finding his children’s frequent bathing unusual, Jackolan began to encourage their habits, leaving flannels and thick towels around the house. At midnight, he and his wife would bathe together, kneading each other’s hair and bodies, massaging toes and fingers, drinking water droplets from shoulder blades and thighs.
On the third night of the fourteenth week, Jackolan suggested a sea dip. The wind battered the house, and the trees shook themselves in a frenzied dance. His wife’s eyes widened. When she opened her mouth to reply, it was the sound of surf curling over rocks and fragmented shells. They took each other’s hands and stripped to their undergarments, tiptoeing to the front door, which clanged open when they touched it. Bowing their heads, they stepped into the wind.
Suzannah V. Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. Her poetry, articles, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the TLS, New Welsh Review, Eborakon, The North, The Scores, Coast to Coast to Coast, Tears in the Fence, and elsewhere. She is Reviews Editor for The Compass and an AHRC Northern Bridge doctoral student at Durham University.