When the stones appeared on the beach, summer hadn’t soured yet. It would be weeks before you retrieved the body.
I don’t remember now who first saw them, standing proud against the horizon, a cairn of pink flecked granite and feldspar that seemed both new and old in the same breath. In small villages, news spreads from mouth to mouth until it permeates everyone. Ours was no different. I remember when the stones first saw me though. I was alone in the half-light of the early summer morning, sand frosting my bare feet, and there they stood, as tall as you. Watching me. Although I didn’t know that then.
I type this now, watching our daughters dip and dive in the water, grebe-like and fluid. I am a writer. We seize moments and craft words, but I am not sure there will ever be a perfect moment to record what happened last summer. I know that it is beyond me to resist the pull to try. No matter how carefully I phrase this, how many times I edit the words, they will think that what I am about to recount is a fantasy, a notion held in the head of a storyteller. Maybe it will help them rest easier at night if they believe that.
I still wake in the dead hours before morning claims me. Mid-breath. Sweating into my pillow. It’s the same dream. Always water. Watching the young children now, lithe and confident, as they slide in and out of the glistening surface like seal cubs, always returning to bask on the sands, I almost believe I can swim again. Almost. Until the claws of the dead hours unsheathe and I hear them gently scratching against the glass of the summer porch. I turn my head, but they are too fast for me. I know they are there though, beneath the surface.
* * *
The stones were a curiosity. Our little coastal village is a gentle place. Colourful cottages line the sea front, impish, each with their own character. The single road that crests the surrounding hills and winds gently down to the water is our only link with the world outside. I had known as soon as I drove down it the first time watched by curious village eyes that this was a writer’s village. I had known it was home. We couldn’t wait to see the beach so we abandoned the car and ran down to the shore, the children squealing with youthful joy. You held my hand and we slipped off our shoes and walked barefoot to the waters’ edge, sand grains coating our toes.
Standing on the same sand, staring at the stones the day they arrived, I felt something shift beneath me. Everything was less solid. I remember turning away from the unusual pink granite boulders, cold air nipping at my shoulders, and taking the cliff path home, eager to tell you what I’d seen. We still shared things then.
That night, the first child went missing.
* * *
Annie was the grocer’s daughter. We still called him ‘the grocer’ even though his little shop on the seafront had long since filled up with the kind of things that appealed to passing tourist trade rather than village residents. I remember her wild red hair as it flew out unchallenged when she sped through the narrow streets, heading for the next adventure, accreting children to her like a wayward galaxy. The stones arrived and she was simply gone, her bed empty in the morning when her father went to wake her.
The world came into our village that day. We didn’t invite them but they came anyway. The grocer’s shop was shuttered and empty. We didn’t realise then that the shutters had started to come down in all of us. I think I was the only one who noticed that there was one more stone on the cairn that morning. I tried to warn you but you weren’t ready to see. You hadn’t heard the noises in the night. Yet. Each night, as you tucked the children in, you always gave the window locks a final check.
We still thought a lock could keep you safe then.
Walking the beach path became a ritual for me that summer. I still remember the way you looked at me each day as I pulled on my boots. Your eyes were sad. Once you asked me. Only once.
“Why do you go there each day?”
“Someone needs to. Someone who understands,” I replied. A piece of me broke away when I saw your expression. You just shook your head and turned away.
That day, there was another stone on the pile. By evening, the village was alive with talk of the accident. A child had been taken by the tide. This time a boy. His mother served tea in the café on the wharf, a gentle woman whose face lit up when she talked about her son. His body was washed ashore by the evening tide. Standing on the shoreline amongst the silent villagers, I gripped your hand. You squeezed back tightly, as if you were trying to anchor us. We listened to the low mutter amongst the boatmen gathered at the waters’ edge. Old Jacob turned to us.
“Luck’s gone. Ain’t nothing but to try and find it again. ‘e won’t be the last. It’s you incomers. Gone and made ‘em angry.”
I couldn’t find words to answer and he didn’t ask for them. I watched your face, hoping for a sign that you disagreed with him. You looked back at me and I knew that you had a kernel of fear in your centre.
That night, you insisted we leave the door to the children’s room open as they slept. In the morning, your side of the bed was already empty when I woke. I found you standing by the edge of their tiny sleeping bodies, staring at the window frame. I saw them too. Deep scratches etched into the woodwork. On the inside. That morning, you joined me on my walk to the beach and we both kept silent vigil by the cairn. It would be our last walk together, although we didn’t know that then.
* * *
The stones gave Annie back on the day of the boy’s funeral. Villagers spilled out of the church door and filled the graveyard on the hill. His mother stood hunched by the open grave. I didn’t see her cry. It was as if she rejected the salty water, refusing to acknowledge it. It had taken too much from her. It was a seafarer’s cemetery, the grey slate slabs a brutal reminder of the ocean’s power. A vicious wind blew in from the harbour, cutting into our backs. I knew something was watching us on the exposed slope. Waiting. I tried to keep my eyes on the woman by the grave, but the need to look back was too strong for me. I turned towards the shore, knowing what I would see.
The stones stood proud against the grey marl of the water. Rising and falling on the waves at the shore’s edge was a tiny body, her titian hair flowing in with the water.
You reached the shoreline ahead of the crowd, wading into the freezing waves without thinking. When you dived, I thought I had lost you, but you surfaced eventually and made your way out of the surf clutching the small body in your arms. When you looked at me, I knew that you were finally ready to understand. At home that night, you locked the doors and tucked the covers around our children, taking up a place in the chair in the corner of the room.
We never shared a bed again.
* * *
My daily pilgrimage to the stones became a part of our lives that summer. You were always waiting by the door when I returned, an unspoken question between us. The cairn of stones remained unchanged. Waiting. The children couldn’t understand why I stopped them from swimming with their friends in the waters of the bay. They could only hear the call of the crystal blue waters, shimmering in the summer light each day, just out of their reach. We knew that it was only a matter of time. We waited. Watched. Counted. They didn’t know that each night you kept a vigil alongside them. They couldn’t hear the scraping claws circling us.
* * *
The day the stones changed, it was a bright morning, sunlight flecked the water and I was almost happy. When I crested the peak of the path, I knew. I chose to count anyway. There were two stones more that morning. I ran home, the metallic taste of blood filling my mouth as my breath rasped through me. You were already waiting by the door. You knew.
“Stay with the children,” you said.
“I love you,” I replied. For a moment, we held each other with our eyes but we both knew that contact would make this harder.
“I know,” you said. And then you were gone. Already a memory. I locked the door and sat with the children until they woke. We had always known that it would be my place to stay.
* * *
I still ask myself which one of us made the greater sacrifice, when I am alone in the dark of our house. The stones demanded someone, and you gave yourself. I can never explain that to our children. I read them stories before bed, tell them you had to go away for a while and that you loved them. One day, I’ll tell them about the stones but they’re not ready to understand yet. One day, they will read this and know how much you loved them.
Until then, I will stay here and hold back the dark. I couldn’t save you from the stones but I can be the sea wall that keeps the waters at bay.
* * *
You disappeared the day the stones did. Really though, you left me the day you pulled the limp body of the child from the surf. I woke to the barren dawn light of another day knowing that you were gone. I still walked the cliff path that day, cold rain hitting my face in the cross-wind. I needed to see the beach. Once, I had found the wind refreshing. Then, it simply beat me with each icy drop.
The stones were gone.
I had known they would be. The relentless cycle of tides had smoothed away any sign of their existence. The village would say you had left me but we both knew the truth. The stones had taken you, just as we had known they would.
It was the price we paid.
I pretended that I knew you were going. Told those that asked that life in a small coastal village was too isolating for you. You were an urban creature. No matter how hard I tried to rewild you, there was asphalt and concrete at your core. These are the lies we craft for ourselves to make sense of the darkness. The truth is always there though. Scratching at the edges as the children sleep in the room across the hall.
I should leave here, I know. Build a new life away from the ocean. I don’t believe that I will ever shed the scent of the salt air though. It’s too corrosive. Instead, I wait. Each day, keeping watch over the bay. I fear the return of the stones. It keeps me awake through the dark hours. It is only with the dawning light that I can see there is also hope.
Hope is my tether.
Claire Kotecki is a writer, scientist and educator. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and a Biology PhD, and this is interwoven into her creative work. Her writing has been published in a number of literary magazines, on and offline. She is currently working on her first novel, ”Tales of the Wind Born’, and is a Lecturer in Biology and Media Fellow at the Open University.