It was the kind of day where you feel like you’re alone even if there are other people around, the gray sky pressing the world into quiet. It happened that I was by myself on this particular day, walking along the edge of the silvery bay; I could feel myself receding into the distance. The beach was made up of smooth quarter-sized blue rocks, different shades of smoky blue; they rubbed together as I walked, making me aware of each step. Beneath the stones, I could see as my footsteps pushed them away, was a layer of gravel, wet and many-colored, pink and green and yellow and purple. The air smelled overwhelmingly of kelp, which decayed in dark rust-orange patches all down the beach, and of the delicate sea lettuce skirting the bottoms of tide-exposed rocks. Pines too, growing in the woods along the bay, added a tickle to the air.
It was as I was trying to distinguish as many scents as I could, like the different instruments of an orchestra, that I came upon the three women. Surprising not only because I felt so indelibly alone that day, but also because they blended into the landscape so well I did not see them until I was nearly upon them. They all sat on driftwood logs, staring out at the ocean. They wore dark clothes, the two nearest the water in gray cloaks that melted into the colors of the beach and the sea, the third in just a simple dark dress. The three women had long black hair, sparkly with little drops of condensation.
The one closest to me, the one wearing just a dress, turned and looked up as I walked toward her with my arm raised in greeting. She did not smile, and her brown face was riddled with a thousand wrinkles. The other two kept their backs rigidly to me, too absorbed it seemed in the view to notice my passing. I supposed they were not inclined to be friendly, which was fine with me, and I walked on. But as I passed, the woman close to me began to speak. To be more specific: she did not actually speak, but she opened her mouth and it emitted sounds. The sounds were haunting and unintelligible, wheezing groans and squawks that came from deep in her chest. As she made her strange tongueless noises, she pointed off down the beach urgently, stabbing with her finger in the direction I was going. I looked to the other two women for help, but they did not turn, there was something angry, or at least separate, in their rigid spines, strange with the wistful way they looked up at the horizon. I smiled apologetically at the woman making the noises and then kept walking, there was not much else I could do. As I passed, she turned back toward the water and her back straightened like the others’.
I walked for a long long time, following the jagged curves of the bay, now looking out at the islands, now examining the stones around my feet. I grew very alone again, happily.
The old man called out to me before I even saw him, so concentrated was I upon a tiny purple crab that was wrestling sea lettuce just out of reach of the water. Again, I was shocked by the presence of another human being, this time a very ancient little man in tweed with a cloak thrown over his shoulder. He carried a walking stick, and as he spoke he stooped over it, and I think that he was crying.
“Please,” he said, “you must help me find my wife. She has gone away again and I cannot find her. Please help me.”
“Of course I’ll help you, sir. Where did you see her last?” I was ready to turn back anyway, and he seemed so desperate, and besides I would do just about anything to help a little old man in a tweed suit. Although I was fairly sure he was delusional: How could someone keep losing his wife? Strange to say, I did not think of the three women from earlier. I suppose it was because there were three of them, and they seemed so purposeful, not lost at all, and even the one who had tried to communicate with me didn’t seem like she could be anybody’s wife.
“Oh, she goes away in the winter, she won’t tell me where. She always comes back soon, but this time she was so ill when she left, and it’s been too long. And she forgot her cloak. It always keeps her warm.”
He held the cloak out toward me, it looked almost as if it were made of feathers, small swaths of fabric sewn together smoothly, dark browns and blues.
The old man must be confused, I thought, but as we walked I continued to scan the evergreens and giant ferns at the edge of the beach for female forms. And each time a seal popped its head out of the water I looked at it a little bit longer. Logs rolling in the waves took on eerie forms.
We paused for the old man to rest, and I tried to take the cloak from him. It looked much too heavy for his frail body to support, but he wouldn’t give it up. He held it in front of himself, offering it to the sea or the sky. He made sure the edge did not trail on the stones, but stumbled often himself, so I took him arm.
“She must be so cold!” he repeated, as we reached the cliffs marking the edge of the bay. I didn’t know where to go from there, my car was parked at the top of the cliffs. The old man walked toward the edge of the water, to what looked like a larger rock resting among the pebbles. He knelt down, and ever so gently, he lifted the dark object into his lap and wrapped it in the cloak. When he came closer to me, I could see that it was a bird, a Canadian goose, missing many feathers, and hanging limp in his arms.
“Can I help you?” I asked, but he seemed to have forgotten me. He climbed the small rocky path up the cliffs, and I followed, ready to catch him if he slipped, but he did not. He sat at the dark edge, so quiet, and I waited. The Scotch broom had gone to seed recently, and the bushes were covered in the small furry black pods, soft to touch. And opening each one a revelation, the inside shimmery copper. Especially as the sun began to set, and the light itself became gold, the bark of the madrones aflame at the edge of the cliff. I watched the old man as it became dark. He got up, but did not see me, and I could not speak. He moved back down the little path, the bundle still in his arms, and I turned in the opposite direction to return to the road.
Chloë Gladstone writes catalogue copy for a living, which is not exactly what she had in mind when she was six and decided to be a writer when she grew up, but still it’s pretty fun.
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