There is a path worn in to the wood beneath my slippers. It’s just a little wider than my feet side by side and extends the length of the balcony, parallel to the railing. On a dark night when the wind whips by skimming the frothing waves, the bygone generations of women in my family return to pace the hollow line, as they did in life. I pray that soon my shade will join that treading covey, as my heritage prophesized. But deep in my soul, I know that the years stretch before me, vague, laggard, and joyless. Long will I slowly fade in this house of my ancestors, while the servants quietly spread tales of the eccentric mistress. For they will not dare to call me mad. Will I be mad? Am I mad already? Not mad but hollow—yes, hollow and otiose. There is nothing left. Nothing.
Mary just brought the supper tray; she always knows somehow when I will not descend to the Dinning Hall. The untouched lunch tray puzzles and worries her; she clucks softly as she bangs the dishes in uncharacteristic annoyance. I have no strength to force the inclination to turn and speak to her. I can feel her unnerved eyes regard my back through the veranda door, past the undulating, sheer white curtains. Neglected, she turns and quickly leaves, shutting my bedroom door with a sharp click.
I know that the stories will start tonight. The scullery will buzz with speculations and descriptions of the mistress standing outside on the high balcony staring at the sea.
“And in her best night dress too.”
“The one made from the Italian lace brought all the way here by the young man.”
“The young man?”
“Aye, I don’t know what the neighbors will think.”
“It’s the gypsy blood, in truth, she’s always been a might touched.”
“Like her mother, poor chick, I’ll take her a tart later.”
“Aye, she always did love a hot tart.”
Yes, the stories will start tonight and within the week, the town will hear that I’m running mad into the water without a stitch on. But it’s not important. Nothing matters now, nor ever will again. I feel my mind make a brief struggle to pull myself away from the railing and my futile vigil. For a moment, I contemplate returning to my normal routine, but the thoughts drift away as I stare at the sea, flagging. The desolation is too great; my reason sinks once again into benumbed oblivion. I return to the sea.
At the end of its creeping rise and decline, the sun is drowning in blood and fire. Agitated, the turbulent sea thrashes, yanking and dragging the imperturbable shore down to the depths. The broken horizon swirls about its fiery focus as he resists the inevitable plunge. Nothing survives the trip to Davy’s domain, not even the celestial focus of all we know. I suppose that the fated rhythm of existence and the unfailing subjugation of all to unbeing should comfort me. It is a woefully inadequate compensation, consoling only in the promise of an end to hopeless grief. Not a cheerful pledge.
Oh God, there is truly nothing left but the waiting. Hell flows before me; the vision of solitary years of lackluster life torments me. It is a small pain now, but I know that it will rapidly grow as the overwhelming intensity of my grief fades. Fades but never departs, I will carry the burden of his loss in to the silence beyond, where God granting I will be relieved.
When my father’s ship yielded to the waves, two years after I was born, my mother’s grief haunted her visible even to a small girl. The misty specter of her loss twined in her clouded blue eyes like a sheer white veil tossed upon the brine. Slowly she languished, disappearing in the mists, until even I was unable to call her back. She fought the suffocating whorls of grief, but her strength was not enough. I think in the end she gladly relaxed and allowed herself just to drift away. Always her serene nature persevered even through the long nights I never once heard her rail at the misfortune carried in her blood. And always, my volatile temperament distressed her. No gentile encompassing mists for me; my burden rides my back, a great black beast. Even now, I can feel it tighten its claws and the blood of grief flows from my shoulders. I must control this creature or loose the little I have left in irremediable insanity.
No the madness would be worse; hounded and violent I would suffer without relief, locked away from the sea. No, control is the only option—to feel the breadth of my grief without measure would surely drive me to self-destruction. I must gather my strength—the fight to endure will be arduous.
Even now my control slips and it bubbles to the surface again. The storm was bad. No, dire. Hellish. The black-blue of turbulent water at midnight matched the ferocious jet of the clouds surrounding the ship. Were it not for the masts’ staunch insistence on a general upward direction, it would have appeared that the ship was tumbling in furious space, no longer of this earthly plane.
They fought, pitted against the Bitch’s fury, but without hope. Somehow, a sailor knows when life’s thread has run out. The call of the sea screams and he knows. For a sailor’s blood is salty, and like will always return to like, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, saltwater to the sea. But a sailor will not succumb, in polite grace. No, a sailor fights the Siren to the end without hope of escape.
In my sleep, I watched him fight, heard the wail of the sea, felt her call pulsing through my flesh. For I am my mother’s daughter, heir to the taint in her blood. The curse is strong, flowing through my veins, gorging on my grief. It dances a bolero through the generations of my family, seizing the first-born daughter, seducing each with the promise of love. It tempted me beyond caution, beyond memory, beyond warning, beyond resistance.
And so we loved, him and I, we painted out souls in watercolored strokes, soft and deep, until the colors ran together and the pictures became one mural, complete. Our passion rivaled the sun in July; our anger burned the fury of a forest fire leaving the riotous beauty of peaceful Fire Flowers. Our hopes grew as the lilies, prosperous and full; our dreams soared the heights of the hawk’s sky and our happiness opened Pandora’s Box.
We had two years and three months and only four more months before he rose to Mate and we could marry in stability. Of course, my estate would have kept us both and with careful management, our children too. But, his soul painting always held shaky orange. My sailor had to prove himself a man to society. I had thought we were safe from the curse because old blood also runs in my veins. I remembered my grandmother’s wise words. Never did I cling to the words of the Christ-child like my mother, shielding herself from the blasphemy of curses and witch magic. There are many kinds of wisdom, many ways to heal pain. My ancestors burned in the name of blasphemy. There are many evils in the world not all cloaked in shadow. Yes, I go to church every Sunday, for God is kind, indeed the face of love. ‘Twas not his power that poisoned the lives of my foremothers and that now grips me. I pay homage to the light, but I do not deny that the stars also twinkle.
My grandmother was one such, she shone with a quiet softness, spreading comfort like a candle easing all those around her but, never her own pain. The day I was born she looked at my cradle and knew; the curse is indeed strong. Her daughter and the girl-child after would both tread the Widow’s Walk, as she herself did every evening. My grandmother tried to warn me, but I listened only to the servants talk of the bliss my parents enjoyed not to the permanent grief of my maternal grandmother. I knew the story, “the Heron women are cursed, one daughter only to live and grow, one daughter only never to wed, one daughter only to love and bed a sailor, and one daughter only to watch his ship go down in her dreams.” I always believed that the curse was broken, if not by my mother then certainly by me. Hadn’t my father lived for two years longer than any other had? Perhaps it was grace granted by Christ’s Lord for my parents’ devotion, perhaps the taint was weaker in my mother and the power stronger in me, perhaps…, but I should have remembered that the end was the same. I was a foolish child, blinded by the present with no concept of the future.
Foolish yes, but never stupid, I heeded my grandmother’s advice, storing it away just in case. Then later I meticulously followed her instructions, all the while laughing at my unease. I was careful and there were no children, so I had four years to my mother’s two—stolen time bought and paid with the credit of thirty long years of grief. A fair price. Joy is never cheep and love even more dear. A fair, but devastating price, oh Lord, he is gone and I watched, watched and could do nothing!
It was so long and he was so tired. But sailing was his life and he fought. He fought past smell as the wind whipped life away. He fought past sight as the rain obliterated the night. He fought past hearing as the crashing waves drowned out the voice of the Captain. He fought past taste as seawater filled his mouth parching and quenching, hope and despair. He fought past touch as the Siren’s icy fingers pulled at the ship seeking to pry him away. He fought past fear because I was there watching. But he fought without hope, as our lilies drowned and our hawk crashed to the sea. I could only wordlessly beg him to hope, and then to swim, and then only to wait for me, not to fly so far ahead that even in eternity I would never catch up.
I awoke screaming his name. The dawn was clear and warm as if to belie the truth. “It was just a dream,” murmured the treacherous waves. And for a moment only, I was able to fool myself. But my soul picture stood alone; the ragged edge testimony to the missing half of a mural torn asunder. His presence was gone from our home, the place by the door where his boots always lay was only an indistinguishable spot in a room. A room in a house proclaiming itself to belong solely to me.
I was wrong, the stories in the servants hall have already started. It’s not every day the maid comes in to find her mistress wailing into her lover’s pillow. Poor Margaret thought I was having a fit, and when Henry was called he was quite at a loss, a hysterical mistress in her night clothes being well out of a butler’s job description. Thank God, Mary, has a sound head on her shoulders, and they just left me alone. I would have throttled timid little Dr. Wright.
Yes, control is preferable to madness; I have not the strength to claw my way back from the brink again. No, I must build my walls thick and tall. No one must ever see the inside smeared with my bloody grief as the beast drives me into the wall again and again and again. No one and above all my daughter. Yes, I must have made a mistake, though I don’t remember doing so. Perhaps it was simply the curse in my blood. Fate always fulfills a prophecy, whether it follows the rules or not.
She grows inside of me, strong and brave. She will be stronger than I, stronger than any of the women gone before for I will make her so. No woman of my blood will ever pace this Widow’s walk again. I begin to follow the warm line, a carven reminder of my heritage, planning to undo it all.
My daughter will never stand here gazing at the sea. She will never hear of the curse from me. I will deny her the truth of every story, “Just gossip, my dear, your father was a soldier not a sailor. It’s it quaint how folk stories change details like that, don’t you think?” She will grow up far, far away from this house and it’s whispering past. She will become a modern learned woman at the best boarding schools. She will learn to love the city and deny the Blue Bitch’s call in her blood. She will never hear of the depth of the love I shared with him, my beloved sailor. For oft’ I have seen true love in others, without the benefit of a horrifying curse. She will find a city man to wed and he will take her far from the sea, safe. And even if that love is not that of storybooks, she will have made her own way, her own choices, and there is contentment in that. She and her daughters will prosper far away, without me, for this curse binds me here as surely as a chain. Every evening I must walk here and remember what I have lost. Dear Lord, I will miss her, but she will be safe from me, from my blood, and there will always be a letter at Yuletide. I must content myself with that.
I stand still now and gaze at the sea, liquid sky in the twilight, the color of his eyes. Oh my love, you must wait for me. It will be very, very long, for I have much to do, but you must wait. Please. Oh please, wait. In seven months, my work begins. And after that there is only solitude and the wind off the sea.