Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery. -- Federico Garcia Lorca
This story was a finalist in the short fiction category at the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2015.
It was during the Perseid shower in August that they first began coming ashore. Random, dark-shouldered waves, running slowly on a sullen, windless afternoon. As they reached the shallow beach just north of the breakwater, they seemed to lift as if finding their footing on the shingle and rising like swimmers. These were not the long breakers of win-ter, but discrete waves driven without wind or rhythm.
Jared and Justin, Ellen Duvall’s boys, watched them from the upstairs window as Ellen harried them to dress for school.
“You have just five minutes to get down here to breakfast—or else!”
“Do you hear me?”
“Yeah, Mom. But have you seen the beach? It’s strange out there in the fog.”
Jared’s voice was muffled, as though fog had invaded the house. Ellen gave a quick glance out the living room bay. It was foggier than the past few days, but somehow she could see the beach distinctly.
The beach began just north of the town’s harbor. It was bordered by sentinel forests of hemlock, maple, and fir where the peninsula began its run north to Port des Morts, Death’s Door. Beyond the town’s small harbor, hundreds of sailors and fishermen had crossed the threshold of that door. And beneath the scrim of gray waters, their schooners, scows, and fish tugs lay dim and distorted—like memories.
Throughout the east side of town where most of the fishing families lived, the morning was much the same. Children being wakened, hurried through breakfast, and turned out the door, butter and toast crumbs still clinging to faces brushed with quick kisses as they headed to school.
Throughout the day, Ellen got little done. Unable to concentrate, she kept glancing out the window to the beach, waiting for something to change. She would go up to fetch the bed linens for washing, only to find herself downstairs in front of the window wonder-ing how she got there. She forgot the grocery list sitting on the kitchen counter, forgot to order firewood, forgot to call Annie LeClair about the PTA meeting.
She did remember to begin dinner. She had planned oven-baked chicken, but, de-cided to make potato soup instead, retrieving potatoes from the pantry and bacon and leeks from the refrigerator.
In the late afternoon, the soup was simmering. She was dusting the top of the piano, which she had dusted just the day before. In one hand she held her father’s photograph in its small silver plate frame with black velvet backing; in the other the dust rag. All the while, her gaze was directed out the window to the small crescent of beach where she would saw one or two women at the water’s edge.
Throughout the day, certain of the town’s women had felt compelled to leave their homes—bread baking, laundry unfolded, meals just served up hot on chipped earthenware, babies in the middle of a diaper change—to walk past the Coast Guard Life Saving Station, down the breakwater, and onto the beach. Each one silent, trying to discern the size, rhythm, and speed of a specific wave that had captured her solitary focus. And, as common during August, the small rocky beach was enveloped in a vortex of swirling fog. So, at first each woman’s imagination could have made of her wave any number of things—a barrel, a broken ship’s timber finally dislodged from one of the many wrecks that lay offshore, a fisherman’s float, a cedar stump, or any of the manner of flotsam that washes up on the beach on a given night.
A little after four o’clock, Ellen left the soup on the burner, stepped out the front door, and walked toward the beach and several women standing on the shingle. She squint-ed, focusing on a particular wave that rose slowly and then veered farther away from the breakwater, seemingly intent on coming ashore where Birch Street ended at the beach. Es-timating its landing site, she left the others and struggled over the loose cobbles. Some of the other women began to move toward other random waves.
Ellen stood, toes at water’s edge, mindless of its seep into her shoes. A man, tall and angular, rose out of the dark water. She recognized her father just as he appeared in the photo on the piano. Wrapping her shawl around him, she grasped his cold, callused hand and led him up Birch Street. They passed LeClair’s smoke house, ripe with the aroma of cedar, salmon, and chub, past Tippy’s bar, past Maggie Becker’s prim, white gate, to the house her father had built the year of the great storm.
He did not speak, but cold and ashen, settled onto the chair at the head of the scarred, oak dining table. She took the chair on his right and, leaning forward, covered his still cold hand with both of hers. His eyes fixed on the piano in the corner by the window and rose to the photograph resting in shadow. Then he turned to her and sighed, a breath of such relief and longing that Ellen felt it in her own throat.
She rose and touched his shoulder with the tips of her fingers. His heavy tweed jacket felt coarse and dry. Its abrasive fibers scratched at her memory. Was this the place he had always taken at the table? Resting one arm just so? Had he always started to say grace just as her mother settled into her chair?
Gazing at him all the way, she walked toward the kitchen where she ladled up a bowl of potato soup and returned to place it in front of him. The room was suffused with warmth and the aroma of the stout, earthy soup. The light, which had been fading in and out with the fog, flickered through the leaves of the mountain ash in the front yard and scin-tillated around the room. It danced and glinted. Ellen felt as though she were in a silent film run by a flickering projector. And like a projector, the light seemed to come from a source with the heat of a hundred candles. Her cheeks flushed. She felt the heat rising to her eyes, her forehead.
She noticed her father smiling now. His expression pulled her close, drawing her to his eyes, clear and steady, the color of the great lake on a stormy day, as her mother used to describe them—the deepest, deep blue, so dark that she could see herself reflected in the irises. All she could see was her father’s face. All she could feel was a warmth pulsing with the rhythm of the light that had invaded the room.
Suddenly, she felt drowsy with the warmth, dizzy with the light dancing around her father’s face.
She awoke to the slamming of the kitchen door.
The boys were home from school and were scavenging the kitchen.
“Just potato soup, Mom? Any cookies?” Jared stood at the dining room door. She could hear Justin opening the pantry.
She was sitting alone at the dining table, next to her a cold bowl of potato soup. Her shawl hung from the back of the chair at the head of the table. She gathered it into her hands, the pungent scent of the lake rising from it and filling the room. Wobbly, she rose to her feet and went to the piano. She held the small photo of a man standing on the deck of a fish tug and gently brushed a bit of dust from the glass with her shawl. She set it centered on the upright’s top where it caught the light.
“Did I ever tell you your grandfather’s favorite soup was potato soup? He was al-ways. . .”
“Mom, you always said you couldn’t remember anything about him ‘cuz he drowned when you were a baby.” Jared sounded adamant about this.
“Yes, I know, but I remember everything about him. I remember all the stories your grandmother told about him. Now I remember. . .”
* * *
Over the next year, there were many stories, remembrances of husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers, shared by women who had been on the beach that day. It had been August, during the Perseid, when the lake gave up the memories it had claimed.