His mother’s hair, glossy and black as a newborn raven’s wing, framed her face as the gentle beach wind blew strands across her sea-green eyes, an obsidian veil of strands she was forever moving with her fingers, unable to keep it tamed and penned behind her ears.
Her eyes were beautiful, the contrast against her hair and dusky skin a bit jolting at first; it seemed even her hair couldn’t help but be near them, the dark strands like fairy trails, as if they’d stopped to look before flying away, weaving around her lashes.
He found it odd she never considered cutting it, but never suggested it.
At this hour of the day the sun was high enough for the sand to be warm under his feet, and he took a glance up at the clouds sailing like galleons of vapor across the sky, assailing the light before floating away.
A perfect day.
In her linen dokran, she was not dressed for swimming today, though they walked where the surf met the sand and their feet kicked up droplets of mud; she didn’t seem to mind the hem of her robe getting muddy.
He was going to splash her, as she’d fallen into a reverie, but something in her expression checked the impulse and purged it from his mind.
She was preoccupied, looking out at the ocean, and though the surf was quiet, he didn’t think she heard him, so he called again.
She turned to face him then, her eyes coming to focus, her smile indicating he had her attention, but he’d forgotten what he was to ask about his father, and quickly filled it with something more inocuous.
“Can we collect shells today?”
Her smile grew bigger. “Don’t we always?”
He wanted to remind her that they hadn’t always, to remind her that when his father set sail and the weeks flew past like a hurricane wind that brought no letters to their door, they would go to the harbor, and she’d spend hours watching the horizon, leaving him to fend for himself through the rough trade and thick stench of filthy, briny sailors, fearless gulls and rats, and buckets of bloody chum for sharks and such.
He took the neglect well enough, and an older fish merchant took a liking to him, teaching him to scale and gut, and how to remove a hook from a wriggler. He’d also taken a liking to Mother, but when his advances were rejected, he cooled toward the boy himself, no longer as welcoming, content to exchange a brief nod of non-greeting and nothing more.
Too young to understand the motives of lust, the boy retreated further into himself, not realizing he’d been used as a prop.
Mercifully, she stopped going to the harbor, and they began to walk the beach instead. He wasn’t sure whether to view it as a sign of persistent optimism or fading hope. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, and so they passed the time collecting shells, and he’d go swimming while she watched.
He’d swim today too, when the water became warmer, but for now, her eyes replaced the sun in his world.
The ship never came, and the emptiness of the horizon seemed to reflect the emptiness in her heart as he listened to her quiet sobbing in the small hours of the morning, grieving more for her instead of with her.
For himself, there were calico patches of impressions that never became a whole picture, trickles of sensory things that never became a whole stream.
It left him more numb than angry, more resigned than sad.
He did have a memory that he favored, but even that one he’d buried deep.
The book seemed to know he wasn’t done, and the pages called to it, digging into the barriers of his mind and tearing them like desiccated gossamer as he fought back the tears from a well he thought had dried long ago.
The memory came, evoking feelings of an unwanted longing he hated but couldn’t stop.
He shook his head. “Please, spirit. No. Please….”
The book’s power broke through, and the oldest memory flared like a newly made torch.
His parents were standing together, looking down at him as he woke up, squalling and striking the air with his infant fists.
She smiled at the both of them, kissed his toes, then kissed the man on the cheek and said she was going to make breakfast.
When she was gone, his father’s rough, strong hands lifted him to see a smile of loving pride nestled inside of bushy, black whiskers, but the rest of his father’s face was indistinct.
The smile was all he remembered while the edges of the vision dimmed and faded, and the sound of gently rolling surf returned…
“That’s a beautiful shell, son.”
He beamed at the praise, and she laughed and ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead.
“Did you put it to your ear yet?”
“Yes, I did!”
“Did you hear the ocean?”
He grew pensive. “No, I heard….I heard it speak.”
She stopped, and looked at him, saw he was serious. “What did it say to you?”
“It asked me…it said, “Would you sail the world to find a smile?“
He’d heard the voice as clearly as he could hear the wind, the gulls, and the surf foaming and hissing at his feet, and when he looked up again, she was weeping into her hands.
The book’s power, or whatever it was, released him.
Weakened, he merely sat back, and let his wits and composure begin to return.
He guessed he always knew he’d put the memory away but never sealed it.
He didn’t know if he could, or really wanted to seal it forever. He didn’t know if the book had that power. But what he knew was that in that moment, if he could have, he would have sailed the world to find that smile and bring it back to her so she could see the man she loved, and smile at him as she did that morning, and her world would be set right again.
Leaving the book on the table, he finally emerged from the hidden room and locked the door.
Through the dirty windows he saw the light had turned to darkness, and under a blanket of moon and stars and dusty silence, he shuffled along to his space in the library’s cellar.
He used the slivered moonlight to find a match and lit the candle on his stand, and sat on the edge of his bed thinking about what just happened, but the emotions were too high and the thoughts racing and incohesive.
He didn’t want to think right now, and reached for the flask in his stand.
With the fire of the flask’s liquid settling him, he managed to change into his night clothes and lay down.
Tonight at least, he’d sleep like the child he wished he’d been, his father standing by his mother’s side, lifting him onto broad shoulders as they all watched the feeling of longing sail away on the high tide, never to return.