The first thing I found was the ring. It was a sultry, oppressive day in late August, and I was hollowed out by pain. I had taken a slow walk down to the beach, in hope of finding a breeze to dispel the worst of the heat, but even here the air was as dense as fog. Waves limped up and down the shoreline, while children ran over the shingle, their parents wilting on benches along the promenade.
The world was too immanent and far too bright. I walked beside the water’s edge, my eyes cast down, averted from the blinding skyline. The carcasses of a million shells passed beneath my feet, a series of ruined cities. When I saw the ring glinting under a tangle of dry seaweed, strangely, I wasn’t surprised.
It was old; I could tell from the moment I picked it up. The gold was soft, indented with faded hallmarks around the inner edge, and the setting was encrusted with sand. I crouched down beside the water, reeling from the cataclysm in my head, and immersed the ring under each successive wave until the stone flashed in the sunlight. It was an emerald, I think, neatly but sparsely cut – a few sharp lines forming a rough oval. A tiny ellipse of ocean.
I slipped it on my finger and went home.
Pain is my Scylla and my Charybdis. It is the rock against which I am shattered relentlessly. But from the moment I put that ring on my finger, the pain began to recede a little—a barely perceptible turn of the tide.
At the same time, the visions started. I call them visions, though I suppose you might consider them dreams, in that they arrived while I was sleeping and vanished when I woke. But they had an intense quality, like no dreams I’ve ever experienced before. I could remember every detail, even days or weeks later.
The first time, I found myself standing on the deck of a ship, on an ocean that formed a perfect mirror for the sky. There were people all around me, but they were as insubstantial as ghosts. The sea, on the other hand, was a living presence beneath my feet. If I had lain down on my stomach and stretched my arm through the railings, I could have bathed my new ring in the water.
I woke up with the taste of salt in my mouth.
I think the shoes were near the place I found the ring, but then one bit of beach looks pretty much like any other. It was a couple of weeks later, and the heat had broken into a torrent of rain. Bits of bottle glass littered the shingle, shining like the ring on my finger.
They were a perfect pair: flat-soled, the leather worn but far from worn-out, the upper portion woven from greying white lace, now laced green with reeds. I took them home and cleaned them. They looked far too small for me, but somehow my feet accommodated them.
In my dream, the ship was pitching from bow to stern. I felt no fear, just the rise and fall of it radiating through my lumbar plexus down to my new lace shoes. And I remember thinking that this is how the pain comes to me, in a relentless swell. There are times when I can rise up on the crest, when the nausea lifts and the screaming quietens, and just for a moment—there is nothing there at all. Then comes the fall.
After the shoes, I returned every Sunday to see what gifts the sea had brought me. I taught myself where to go. I memorised the exact spot through careful observation of 360 degrees of miniature landmarks: a yellow scrub to my left, a barnacle covered rock perfectly aligned with a crack in the promenade wall. I was rewarded with a belt of faded brown leather, a cotton smock, and a pair of fingerless gloves.
The bonnet arrived at dusk, in a storm. I had waited all day for the weather to lift, but by mid-afternoon, the sky remained deep indigo and the rain continued to fall in sheets. I went to the beach, anyway. A lone dog walker staggered past me, his body braced like a boxer against the wind, while his dog hung its head in indignity.
The bonnet was lying under a small cairn, each stone placed in precise order of size, so that even this howling gale could not shift them. It was made of the same greying lace as the shoes—exquisitely woven and wildly impractical. I stuck it on my head and tied the ribbon under my chin. Then I replaced each stone where it had been laid, in the exact configuration that I had found them.
Later, I dreamt I was looking up into infinite darkness, strewn with breadcrumb trails of stars. The ship must have been moving from side to side, though it appeared more that the mast was a fixed point and the vault of the sky rocked above it.
All throughout the next day, the ground felt unsteady beneath my feet. But the screaming had become a distant hum, and a little shakiness felt like a small price to pay for that bliss.
The last thing to arrive was the shawl. It was winter by then, so perhaps someone had decided I needed something tougher than lace to arm me against the cold.
I was still wearing the ring, the shoes, the belt the smock and the gloves, as I had done every moment since each respective artefact found its way into my hands. I even wore them in my sleep. It sounds crazy, but if you have ever been in pain, and then found something to take it away, you will understand.
The shawl was dark grey in colour, knitted from wool that surely ought to have disintegrated many years before. It was sopping wet, as heavy as a hauberk around my shoulders. As for keeping me from the cold, well, I didn’t really feel the cold by then. I didn’t feel much of anything at all.
That night, the ship passed through the waterline and into the twilit world below. Drifts of reeds clung to my bonnet, and surprised-looking fish bashed against my forearms. My new shawl was an anchor, tugging me towards the seabed. I must have been drowning—I was certainly not breathing—but there was no pressure, not in my lungs, my ears or my head. It was a strange kind of freedom that I was sad to wake up from.
The last time I visited the beach was at night. I don’t know why. I had never walked that way in darkness before, it being too remote and me being too often afraid of shadows. It was dark and snowing, but my ears ached for the sound of the sea, and I felt such a compulsion to go, I could not resist.
The night was breathtakingly quiet; not a whisper of a breeze troubled the snow as it fell through the orange pools of streetlights, settling like drifts of ash along the pavement. On the promenade, visibility stretched to barely two metres’ circumference. There was no hope of seeing the other side of the bay. Even the intermittent green flash of the lighthouse had vanished.
A man loomed past me, dragging a dog on a lead. I can’t be sure, but I think it was the same dog-walker I had seen during the storm, a month or so before. The dog, at least, looked familiar. Neither of them glanced up at this strange woman trudging along in lace shoes with a fancy bonnet pinned into her hair.
I left the promenade, slithering down the embankment to where a border of dishevelled grass poked through the snow. Beneath my thin soles I could sense when the grass gave way to rocks, and then to the fine shingle that signalled the approach of the water’s edge.
I heard it before I saw it—the sound of waves slapping the underside of the old pier’s wooden slats. It must have been high tide when the water could rise far enough to almost swallow the dilapidated landing stage.
I walked back a few paces and ascended the uneven set of steps that led up onto the jetty. I had come here before, on squally days, when glimpses of the churning black sea between the cracks provided a chilling memento mori. Tonight, there was nothing but a white path stretching out into the bay.
It seemed like I was walking for a very long time before I hit the edge of the world. The path dropped away into nothing, where snowflakes fell in perfect vertical silence. There I stopped, and I waited, as perhaps I had done before, and perhaps would do again, many years from now. I stood and I waited for the ship to come in.