(The 300th story to appear in BCS!)
Around noon, when the sun came out again, Mona’s children discarded their shoes and their socks, their trousers and their smudged shirts, and swam out towards the drowned ship.
The wreck had been there much longer than the children had been alive. It was slick with green algae in some places and rippled and scratchy where it had rusted. Mona’s son liked to swim down and stare through the gaps in the twisted metal underneath the water. Mona’s daughter liked to crawl up on to the top where part of the vast stern protruded. She stretched her little body out across the flattest part and let the sun dry her hair.
The briny smell, the dusky organic odor of all the things that live in deep water; it reminded the children of their mother. Mona’s daughter licked her lips, tasted warm wet salt.
“Look,” said her brother, bobbing easily on the surface. His bare legs looked green through the water. They bunched up under him, angular like a frog’s. He pointed towards the shore.
The sheriff was there, along with Mrs. Barlow, who taught school. They stood in front of the blackened outlines of the lighthouse and pressed their flat hands over their eyes for shade. Mona’s son swam towards his sister until he could cling to the metal sides of the wreck, his little palms spreading out whitely.
“They’re gonna take us away,” he said.
His sister slipped down, a light little splash beside him. “If they do,” she said, “I will be with you.” Her hand stretched out for his.
Mona boiled the hacksaw three times. “Do you think that’ll be enough?” She pulled the tool out of the pot of bubbling water with a pair of metal kitchen tongs.
Beatrice just stared at her, uncomprehending. “He’s gonna die,” she said slowly, as though Mona were dumb, as though she didn’t know.
“Maybe,” said Mona. She deposited the still-dripping hacksaw into a folded brown towel, gentle as a mother with a baby. “Get Mama’s sedatives and the leftover needles,” she told Beatrice, who shook her head and pressed her cold hands to the back of her neck as if holding herself down to the earth.
Mona had already crushed up the capsules that their mother had left behind and mixed them in with the thin broth she’d fed the soldier. He was unconscious now, breathing deep and steady. She supposed that was good.
Walking down that long hallway with the hacksaw pillowed in her arms, Mona felt clear and hollow and purposeful. Her hands seemed to move with no particular intelligence to guide them. It was like when she climbed up to fix the light: just a task; just another repair to be made.
In the room, in the dark, the soldier was sweating into her pillows and her sheets, which had never known a man’s skin before. There was a damp impression all in the shape of his body. His forehead was warm to the touch, and the skin around his ruined leg was burning. The long bone below the knee was shattered; it protruded in hard white angles, stuck fast into little pools of yellow infection. The skin all around it was puffed and red, and when Mona touched it–even with just her fingertips–the soldier twitched and cried out and ground his teeth together.
Beatrice came with needles in her hands, vials in her pockets. “Should we... should we give him something? Whiskey?” She set the needles down on the sideboard with a nervous clatter.
“Nothing to give. Except that,” and Mona nodded her head towards the vial. It used to make her mother’s voice slow and tongue heavy. She would lie down on the sofa and look around the room in a lagging loop, her eyes somehow grown thick. Mona didn’t know if that would be sufficient for the soldier, or for the work she needed to do. But there hadn’t been a supply shipment in four months; if they had whiskey to give, it was a secret to Mona. She stared down at the last space of cool, pale skin just below the soldier’s knee. There, she thought. When a fissure or a crack appeared in a lens, one had to find the edges that were still whole; those were the only parts it was safe to touch. One had to remove the whole thing.
She rested the saw gently on his skin, at an angle like it was a block of wood. He did not move, his face did not change. She pressed down slightly until she could see the teeth of the hacksaw depress his clean skin. Wood did not give in that way; metal was never so pliant.
“I can’t do this,” said Beatrice, wrapping her tanned arms around herself, holding on to the ends of her long yellow hair. She looked very young and very vital, sunlight creeping uninvited into a shuttered room.
“You are not doing anything,” Mona pointed out. As usual, Beatrice turned everything into yet another chapter in the grand drama of her life. Beatrice screwed up her mouth at Mona, as if she could read her uncharitable thoughts in her face. Maybe she could; Mona had never been a great one for subterfuge.
“I can’t watch this,” she said.
Mona had always hated the way Mama and Dad used to coddle Beatrice, pet her and let her play the baby. So she surprised herself a little when she said, “go, then.” Beatrice looked at her, all big-eyed gratitude. Neither could help the way they had been made, Mona supposed. But it was a kindness as well; Beatrice was lucky to always have someone to take care.
Mona could hear the sound of the waves on the shore outside, and she could hear Beatrice in the hallway breathing shallow and making soft retching noises. She pressed the hacksaw down hard and began to pull it back and forth again in a methodical, industrious way.
The soldier squirmed; weak, narcotized. He made a sound that might have been a sluggish scream. The hacksaw tore rather than cut; his body fought her at every stroke. The muscle in his leg grabbed at the teeth of the saw and resisted. It felt to Mona like swimming against a strong current, all of it so much harder than it should have been, than she had imagined it would be. Only when she finally hit the solid foundation of his bone did she get good purchase. It made a grinding, scraping. Her forearms ached; blood soaked down her sheets, into the mattress. It was thin and almost black.
Once, she looked down and saw that his eyes were open, logy like her mother’s eyes. His mouth gaped open, his lips trembled. But what words he had died somewhere inside of him, and no sound came out.
One morning, Warwick Shue woke up, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and stood up. He tumbled almost immediately to the floor.
The dark-haired sister, Mona she was called, appeared in the doorway like a dour shadow. Her pale, expressionless face didn’t change, and she did not make any attempt to go to him, save to reach out with one hand and rest it on the curve of the doorknob.
Warwick was grateful.
His “good” leg was weak from long weeks of bed rest. It quivered underneath him as he raised himself back up on the bed. It was absurd, but he couldn’t help but think of Friday night dances before the war, when he was just a boy. Margot Pellis resting briefly in his arms like a sparrow, and his legs had shaken just like this. He had held her so still and so stiffly because he was sure that a twitch, an exhalation, would send her flying. Margot Pellis. She might as well be dead now. He would never see her again.
He rested on the bed and breathed raggedly, bending his head down and tilting his face away from Mona’s bland, watchful gaze. Eventually he looked up; she was still staring at him.
“Could you do with some breakfast?” she said.
“I could,” Warwick answered.
The next day he awoke to find an antique wooden wheeled chair sitting at the end of his bed. He moved towards it in the new way of locomoting he had adopted, half-crawl, half-hop, leaning heavy on his hands. The chair was old but solid. Probably weighed as much as he did. He touched the curved armrest; it felt sort of slick, as though it were some organic, sweating thing.
Warwick did not like the chair, not at first, not ever. He felt small in it. He clattered, he creaked, he crushed the dirt and the grass in narrow rows behind him. Were it a choice, he would not have used it. Gotten around instead with crutches or simply laid in his borrowed bed day in and day out, but he found out later that Mona had scavenged it from the house of some rich old man whose only son had gone to war and left him all alone to die. She’d rolled it over a mile and a half of tall grassland and rocky shore to bring it back to the light and to him.
Each morning after that, Warwick climbed into the chair. Smooth, familiar underneath him like an extension of his broken body. Mona took to going for strolls with him, out along the raggedy swell of land that the light sat upon. They remarked occasionally upon the sea. The industrial grey of it, the surprising white green froth, high waves. The calm that became ominous.
Warwick learned to depend upon the constancy of Mona’s hands, always waiting there on the raised back of his chair. He learned to anticipate the sounds of her footfalls next to him. One morning, he told her how he had come to be shot, by his own superior officer. Stealing a boat, running away. A coward. A coward like with Margot Pellis, who he had never touched, save for that one dance they’d had, where he’d held so still that afterwards his arms had ached with it.
“So,” said Mona when he had finished his tale, “you can’t ever go back?”
Warwick felt a rare, absurd urge to laugh. She spoke as though she’d actually feared he could.
The first time they slept together, Mona helped him from his chair. She positioned him carefully; she scrupulously avoided his truncated leg. She asked him if he hurt, told him to be very careful or he could open up his stitches. Warwick lay underneath her where there was no air.
Of course Beatrice ordered the dress from a catalogue. Mona had tried on several occasions over the years to teach Beatrice how to sew, but Beatrice had no patience for pricked fingers and strained eyes and Mona’s bitingly neutral voice in her ear. The endless litany of all the things she had done wrong.
The dress was made of lemon-colored silk, a bit more garish than it had appeared in the picture. Few women could have carried it off, but Beatrice was exceptional. It was cut low in the front and very low in the back and when Beatrice folded her legs over one another, an enterprising individual could see all the way up to the top of her stockings (one tan, one beige, so close in color that no one could tell the difference, unless they looked very close indeed).
Beatrice sat at the bar and folded her legs.
The social scene on the island was nothing to speak of these days. Before the war, Beatrice’s mother had made all her clothes, and that had been sufficient. They had loved her, boys and girls much richer than a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. They flocked around her, bought her gifts and competed for her smiles. Invited her to every party, and never seemed to notice that she didn’t throw parties of her own.
But, of course, they were gone now. Dead, if they were boys; moved away if they were girls, and lucky girls at that. Some, of course, lingered. Little widows not yet twenty-five and already saddled with children, households. Ghosts from a war that everyone was doing their damnedest to forget.
Beatrice was not invited to parties anymore.
It was not fair. The war had come for Beatrice and for the rest of them when she was so young. And it had taken everything, like the leeching tide. She’d never had time to be a girl.
There were parts of her, though, that were still young and comely. Beatrice slid her legs slightly against one another, explored the contours of one knee with the inside of the other. Her stockings caught slightly with a hissy sound.
There was a man at the end of the bar, and he was looking at her. He was green-eyed, tall; long hands, articulate fingers. She liked the look of him. She drew her own index finger around the rim of her glass and looked at him without appearing to look at all.
His name was Anton. He wore a military officer’s jacket and thick dockworkers’ pants; they scraped and pulled, tangled in with her mismatched stockings outside against the bricks of the bar. Eventually pants, stockings fluttered and fell, half inside-out like outgrown skin, all pooled at their ankles.
Anton was... silly. When he lifted her up, pressed her back hard against the gritty bricks, he said “up we go,” in a child’s sing-song. Beatrice smiled.
“Oh,” said Anton, soft, as though discovering something small, secret, and beautiful that might run away or perhaps evaporate if he didn’t take the most tremendous care. “I like that.” He touched her mouth.
Beatrice tilted her head back, presented her throat for kissing. Anton obliged, and she circled her legs around his waist, locked them together at the ankles. She might, she had decided, like to keep him.
“Put your hands to work.” That was what Mona told her.
The advice remained the same, no matter the person or the heartbreak. Mona would say it was because good advice was ever-applicable. Beatrice would say it was because Mona was never really listening anyway.
She took Beatrice up to the lantern room with her, set her to work oiling the myriad little clockworks that the great central lens required to pivot and turn. Beatrice knew the work well enough not to bother looking down. She knew what she would see: her own fingers blackened with grease, just like Mona’s.
“They don’t even need these fucking things anymore,” she said. Her voice had gotten so colorless these days. “Anton–” she choked. She wondered if it would ever leave her, or if she would spend the rest of her life feeling sadness twist in her like a corkscrew every time she said his name, or remembered his smell, or looked at his picture next to her bed. “Anton says that they are building ships now that have powerful communication devices. They won’t need to look for a light.”
“They’ll always need lighthouses,” Mona answered her, always so calm, always so patient. And didn’t she need to be patient, with a sister like Beatrice? “And they’ll always need people to keep them.”
“Daddy never wanted this for us,” Beatrice insisted. She dipped her index finger and thumb into the thick grease, rolled the squared edge of a cog absently between them.
“Daddy died,” Mona said. “That’s how war is. It takes from all of us.”
Mona was polishing the lens. Beatrice found herself fascinated by the movements of her sister’s hands. They were purposeful and they were strong, efficient. They did not waste time or space or effort. They did not forget or mistake. It suddenly seemed to Beatrice that her sister would be much easier to live with if someone would just cut her hands off, clean at both wrists.
“Didn’t seem to take much from you,” Beatrice said. Mona had the skillful hands, but Beatrice had a knowing tongue. “Got rid of Daddy and gave you a job and a house of your own. Drove Mama away, but that was all right, because who wanted to take care of that old bitch anyway? Hell, it even brought you a man. And hobbled him so he couldn’t ever run away.”
“Beatrice.” Mona might have said her name a bit more sharply than usual, or perhaps Beatrice only wanted that to be the case and it was her wishful thinking interfering. “What are you going to do about your belly?”
Beatrice swallowed; the back of her throat tasted as though she’d taken a lick of that thick black grease. “I...” she began.
“You’re not going to try to raise it on your own.” It wasn’t a question. A scenario too outrageous to be suggested, even amongst a list of the most remote possibilities.
“I doubt that,” Mona said, but her voice was not unkind. She was never unkind, of course. She did it all for Beatrice’s own good.
“But you said–”
Mona wasn’t going to let her finish a sentence. “That was before, when you had Anton. Beatrice, you cannot even do for yourself, let alone a child. You were lucky to find Anton. Do you really think you’ll find another man who’ll tolerate you? Whore doesn’t age well, and you are not a child anymore.”
Beatrice had known, of course, that Mona thought these things. But it was another thing entirely to hear them in her sister’s measured, reasonable voice. She sounded as though she were ordering wheat flour from the supplier. She sounded as though she were describing the essential nature of the world for someone who was very young or very stupid. The sky was blue, rabbits ran fast, and Beatrice was a whore.
“I think it will be for the best if we don’t tell the child anything.” Mona leaned forward and made a clucking noise with her lips pursed. She reached into the guts of the light, fingers delicate, fingers certain, and pressed against the smallish cogwheel that that Beatrice had forgotten about. Stiff and unlubricated, it barely moved as she pushed it. Mona held up her finger, clean and dry, before her sister’s eyes and did not say anything at all.
On their way down the breathless-tight, curled staircase, Mona rested her hand briefly on Beatrice’s shoulder. “I think you’ll make a fine aunt ,” she said.
Warwick wasn’t waiting up for Beatrice.
Of the two of them, Mona was the early riser. The list of daily tasks required to keep the lighthouse functioning and keep food in all of their bellies seemed to grow a bit longer each day. She worked, as they said, from dark to dark. She was lying alone upstairs in their marriage bed.
Ever since the war, Warwick had been a troubled, restless sleeper. Stairs gave him difficulty, and dreams offered little reward. And so he often dozed downstairs in the old, genteelly ragged armchair that he was given to understand had once belonged to his dead father-in-law.
Beatrice usually stumbled in sometime around three or four. If he was awake and she was lucid, they might have a brief conversation.
More often, though, she hummed nonsense songs and danced in a tuneless, liquid way, touching her hips with her fingertips as if to guide them to and fro. She smelled like other people’s cigarette smoke and that strangely intimate, uniquely feminine odor that perfume takes on when it co-mingles with sweat.
It was the only time Warwick saw her laugh anymore.
“I broke a heel,” she said one night, limping awkwardly on the damaged shoe. She was wearing a dress the same blue as her eyes, and it had slipped down over the curve of her shoulder. She was one of those rare women who could carry off dark red lipstick, even smeared as it was now. It looked like someone had popped her a good one in the mouth. Maybe they had. Maybe she had deserved it. Beatrice had a way... well, Beatrice had a way.
“I don’t remember how,” and her forehead creased up like a child’s. She sat down on the ottoman in front of Warwick, tugging her shoes off one at a time. Warwick politely moved his foot, but she grabbed it back, grinning at him and resting it in her lap.
She seemed fascinated by a little red thread of darning on the toe of his sock, and she picked at it with her fingernail. “Did Mona do this for you?”
Warwick nodded; he couldn’t seem to move. Even his breathing grew shallow and tentative. Was he afraid? Of Beatrice? Not that silly girl-child.
“She’s such a good little wife. I don’t even know how to use the sewing machine. So good at taking care. Knows what’s best.” Her hand moved gently up his foot and into the cuff of his pants, drawing odd, curling designs on his bare skin with her long fingernails as she went. She looked up at him with her jewel-bright eyes.
“I remember the day you came here,” she said, and stretched along the short distance between the chair and the ottoman, resting her hands on either arm of the chair. “I remember thinking that everything was going to change.”
Unlike Mona, who seemed mostly frustrated with her expansive hair, Beatrice always wore hers down and it covered them both thinly now, like a fragile veneer of gold. Warwick thought about that first day, how he had thought her a mermaid, glittering and shimmering and yellow like the sun.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” asked Beatrice. Warwick was very conscious of the distance between the two of them. It was three inches, or maybe two. Beatrice allowed her arms to grow loose, relaxed. She lowered herself down upon him with a sigh. He smelled the liquor on her breath. Her dress gaped open, released a warm gust of air that was somehow equal parts wonderful and obscene.
“Yes,” he said, because it was the truth.
“Do you think I’m prettier than Mona?” and she looped her long, pale arms around his neck. Warwick loved his wife. He loved her serious eyebrows and her strong arms and her lush mouth that smiled so rarely and radiantly.
“Yes,” he said. Because that was also the truth.
“I would have kissed you,” said Beatrice, pressing her face to his and just brushing the side of his mouth with her painted lips. “If she hadn’t gotten there first.” He could feel the flutter of her lips, the tremor of blood in her throat. “I would have fucked you,” she whispered, and her voice was like the sound a seashell makes when you hold it up to your ear.
She was his mermaid girl once again, and she moved through his hands like water, like sunlight, like air.
Mona’s children awoke to her hands, cool and dry and salt-smelling, on their little foreheads and their fragile throats.
“Up, little ones,” she said. They stared at her, hair mussed, nightgowns spilling white around them. “Put your shoes on, and your overcoats” They were good children, they had never failed to obey their mother and they knew the punishment for answering back.
She took her daughter’s hand in her right hand and her son’s in her left. “We are going outside,” she said, leading them out of the open door of their room.
“Shhh.” It was little more than a gasp as they padded down the long hallway. The girl craned her neck; looked around the curve of her mother’s hip, at her brother on the other side of Mona. His eyes were as wide as she knew her own must be.
Mona paused, just for a moment, to look in the open door of Beatrice’s room. She was sleeping, rolled on her side and facing towards Mona and her children.
Her mouth was faintly open, her hair was in her face. She frowned even in her sleep now. She shifted very slightly; made an indistinct noise, as though she could feel Mona’s stare upon her. A man’s arm crept over her middle, smoothed the comforter against her body.
“Come on,” Mona mouthed. She guided the children outside and did not bother to shut the door behind them.
The three of them stood in the sand for a long time and watched the fire, which had begun with an oil lamp left carelessly on the spiraled wooden staircase of the lighthouse, consume the whole of the tower. It inched and then dashed, across the roof of the little keeper’s house where the children had spent all their lives. The girl gasped into her brother’s shoulder.
It was a frightening, lovely thing, the way the great lens refracted the firelight and sent it out over the water. Mona’s son held tight to her hand; it was warm and dampish from sweat that he knew had to be his own. He was never afraid when his mother was with him.
Mona backed the children down the beach when the smoke started to drift out towards them. The sand was still warm from the day’s sun, and Mona laid her children down upon it. They blinked sleepy eyes at her, clasped one another’s hands. She sang to them, the songs that her own father had once sang to her, in the days when she and Beatrice shared a bed. She remembered lying close beside her sister, warming winter-cold hands in the hollowed small of her back. Absently braiding and unbraiding Beatrice’s long yellow hair when neither of them could sleep.
“Mama,” her daughter asked, “will you stay now?”
“No,” Mona said, “just until the morning. And then you must learn how to take care.”
Everyone told Beatrice she would have to get used to telling Anton goodbye.
“He’s a soldier,” Mona said, “that’s how they live.”
Warwick agreed. “You enlist, you spend the rest of your life taking orders.”
Beatrice resisted the urge to point out that he wouldn’t know a whole hell of a lot about proper military protocol. Mona had told her of Warwick’s deserter status in sisterly confidence.
“He’s ashamed,” Mona said. Beatrice was thoughtful enough to not shame him further with her knowledge. Not Warwick, with whom she had some secrets of her own.
“And you wound up getting shot,” Beatrice answered instead. “What would I do if Anton got shot?” And that was a point upon which no one had any advice at all.
Before Anton left, he kissed her mouth and her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. “My Beatrice, you are my favorite place. I will come back as soon as I possibly can,” he told her.
Beatrice cried like a child. And, like a child, she went to Mona. She laid in her sister’s bed, in the smooth unoccupied place where Warwick never slept, and wept until her face burned. It was shame, or misery.
“Shh, shh, shh, little sister,” said Mona. She stroked Beatrice’s long hair, tangled and untangled it with her fingers. She smiled a little. “It will all come out right. Just work on that baby in your belly and don’t worry about Anton, he’ll be back.”
She wiped Beatrice’s wet cheekbones with her thumbs. Her hands felt familiar on Beatrice’s face, the rough parts ticking slightly against her skin. “You take care of you,” Mona said, “and I’ll take care of you and, together, we can manage it.”
The boy looked like Mona. He had her dark eyes and hair, her patrician nose and her mouth that seemed to bend uncontrollably into a frown. On his little face, all those things that made Mona look hard, matronly, or storm-clouded, made him look like a tiny sage. He didn’t speak much, either, and that helped. It was some trick of blood, but to Beatrice, it always seemed as though the natural world was agreeing that she wasn’t made to be anyone’s mother.
Beatrice had discovered that she actually required very little sleep, and she spent most of her nights awake. Mona wouldn’t tolerate a rattling clattering in her house, where her children were trying to sleep, so Beatrice just laid very still and watched the moonlight come in the window. Transformed, each month in a predictable pattern.
She slept now in a room she still thought of as her mother’s, where the woman had moved after she started having headaches every day instead of once a month, after she and Daddy had stopped sleeping in the same bed.
Every so often, she would hear small, furtive movements in the hallway outside her room. She would listen to the sound of shuffling childish feet, almost drowned out by just the sound of her breath. It was always him, the boy. He had bad dreams; Mona called them night terrors. She was attempting to break him of the bad habit of creeping into her room at night and curling himself against her to sleep.
Beatrice would listen as he hesitated at his mother’s door. He shifted, one foot and then the other, weighing his mother’s wrath against whatever horrors pursued him out of dreams. It always ended just one way. Mona, whose hearing was very acute, always opened the door and looked down at him, little boy with her eyes and her hair. “Again?” she would say, sounding as though he had failed her. The boy would say nothing and, after waiting a moment so that he might consider all of his insufficiencies, Mona would sigh and let him in. To lie beside of her in the only place he could seem to sleep easy.
There was all sorts of taking, of course. Beatrice waited a cautious length of time before leaving her own sleepless room. She was much older than the boy, much quieter, and she knew all the weak places in the floor.
She went to Warwick, and he accepted her the way he always did, with a kind of wonderment that delighted and disgusted her. He looked at her, he touched her as though she were some perfectly ripe fruit with soft bruisible edges. He kissed her politely, like it was a privilege. It was pathetic, and Beatrice had realized, slowly, that she could no longer do without it. She bit him and scratched him deeply, hoping to leave marks, scars if she could manage it. But, of course, she was not so foolish as to imagine that Mona did not know. She had always known. It was just one more allowance she made for Beatrice and her many flaws.
“Do you ever think about what our lives would be like if Mona wasn’t here?” Beatrice asked him one night. She laid her head on his chest and when she spoke, her mouth sent a fluttering vibration through his skin, into his veins, all the way to his heart.
Everything was an amusement for Beatrice. Everything was for Beatrice. And that was why she was always going to have so much trouble.
“If they’re coming from the mainland, they might have new magazines,” she said, standing up in a half-crouch to stare out the top of the light for what had to have been the five hundredth time.
“It’s a military lifeboat,” Mona told her, resisting an eye roll. Beatrice was nearly eighteen now, she was quickly becoming ridiculous.
“Soldiers read,” Beatrice said and smiled.
“If we’re lucky,” Mona reminded her, “it won’t have anything in it at all.” Beatrice made as if to stand up again but sat back heavily instead.
“I still think it could be something good. Maybe it’ll be a soldier. Maybe he’ll be handsome.”
The boat had been drifting towards them inexorably for the better part of the day. Mona knew the tides, and she guessed it would make shore around sunrise. They’d been watching it all day, though, and they hadn’t seen any sign of anyone on board, or anyone attempting to steer it.
“It’s just wreckage.” A day didn’t go by when some detritus of war didn’t wash up on the shore. When Beatrice and Mona were young, they used to go out along the shore, picking through it for the kind of things small girls treasured. Mona always watched her sister closely, making sure she didn’t pick up any pieces of glass or metal too shortly at sea to have had their edges worn off.
“I’m done with this,” Beatrice said, turning aside in a sulk.
“No,” said Mona. For a moment, it startled her how much like their father she sounded. “You’re not,” and she pointed out a small cogwheel Beatrice had failed to see. “This isn’t a toy, Beatrice. The things you do to the light matter. They matter for more people than just you.”
Beatrice spread a fine layer of black grease over her pinched fingers. Her eyes flicked to the window again and again.
Neither of them slept that night.
Beatrice met her at the kitchen door that morning with a long boning knife in her hands. She was strangely pale, except for a slash of excited red high in her cheeks. “I thought... just in case,” she said. Mona, who had tucked their father’s antique pistol into her apron pocket, nodded.
Beatrice smiled; it was brittle and wavering. It reminded Mona of the first tentative rays of sunlight emerging on the end of winter. How they came through the windowpanes all watery and uncertain. It had been just the two of them for so long, Mona realized.
Mona reached out, touched her sister’s shoulder almost hesitantly. “You be careful, Beatrice.”
Mona’s little sister ran heedless down the gray shore, which was just beginning to grow light. She climbed up on top of the boat where it had stuck fast in the sand. “Mona!” she cried, bending curiously over the hollow sloped bottom. “There’s a man in here!”
The first thing Warwick Shue saw when he came back to life was a mermaid. She was made of gold, and her hair looked like ribbons. She peered down at him with eyes like jewels, and she said “Hey? Hey, are you alive?”
“Yes,” breathed Warwick, and he had never been so happy to be so.
If anyone had asked him, Warwick would have said that he murdered his wife because of Beatrice. He knew what he was to her. It wasn’t even lust that brought her to him, but just boredom and meanness and a certain kind of selfish need that was strangely attractive. At least she had wants, at least she required something of him. At least he had things left to give.
And when she climbed on top of him, wordless, mask-faced; scraped his skin and bit his flesh, Warwick did not feel fragile. At least for a time.
And Beatrice was still beautiful. The little lines that flowered and unfolded at the corners of her eyes and mouth made her look not old but intricate, detailed. Her bones had grown a little sharper with age, and the heaviness in her hips and her breasts gave her a settled look. But of course mermaids didn’t grow old, they just grew lovelier and lovelier until you couldn’t look at them directly anymore.
No one asked questions when Mona died. The lighthouse was a bit like its own country, surrounded on three sides by rocks and water. One door, one huge window like a rotating eye. The sisters were more like rock formations than women, pale and cragged and faintly dangerous. The man... well, he was nothing to speak of. They said it was pneumonia, when Mona drowned in her bed, and the island didn’t think much about it at all.
Everything stopped whenever Mona was ill. Beatrice made a desultory effort at keeping up the light, but soon the accumulated weight of all the things she had forgotten to do or had simply not wanted to do rendered the whole venture seemingly meaningless. The children ran wild, neglecting chores and playing all day in the sea like little brown frogs. Dishes piled, dirt gathered, laundry went unwashed. Mona lay in her bed at the top of the stairs in a fever.
The sun came in the window and lit her up. Her pallid, careworn face. Her hair so grey now. Warwick carefully climbed from his chair to the bed, put the full weight of his body on her chest. She stirred a little, opened and closed her mouth, fishlike.
He stuffed a white washrag deep into her throat until the white of the cloth was nearly invisible. Her eyes trembled open. In close succession he watched uncertainty, fear, and then a panicked desperation flicker across her face. As he poured the water into her struggling mouth, she made a pitiful choking noise, and Warwick nearly lost his nerve.
On those rare nights when they shared a bed as husband and wife, often she would entangle her leg with his own. Mona would rest her little foot in the hollow of his larger one, in the place where his own missing limb might have gone.
She couldn’t breathe. She moved her limbs as though they were under heavy water. If he stopped then, pulled the cloth from her throat, she would live. She would rise up and take care of them all again. She would forgive him.
No. She would not forgive him. Mona never forgave. She took her recompense every day, in little razored words and flat disappointed looks. In the cool, competent way she took tools, delicate things, complicated things, out of his hands. So certain that he could do nothing but break them. Mona always knew best; Mona always knew what to take. Even when no one had asked her.
It would have been better if his boat had dashed against the rocky shore, tossed him into the sea and drowned him. It would have been better if he’d never come to this bitter place and never seen these ugly, ugly sisters.
After he was done, he went to Beatrice and cried, which was a thing he hadn’t done since the war. She touched his hair and his face, perfunctory.
“Shhh, shhh,” she said, in the way one might comfort a child whose fears are inane but must be forgiven, as all is forgiven the young and the weak.
On Saturday, Mona decided to show her sister the wreck.
Beatrice was uncertain; she waded forward and then back when the waves began to look threatening. Mona, meanwhile, swam in impatient circles around her.
“Get your head wet,” she demanded, “you’ll be fine.”
Beatrice crouched down to her collarbones. She looked to Mona, who rolled her eyes and paddled over.
“Here,” Mona said, reaching out and taking Beatrice’s smaller hand in her own. “Hold on and follow me.”
“Okay,” Beatrice said, lifting her feet off of the bottom one at a time.
Mona set out, kicking hard and stroking with one arm. Behind her, the small weight of Beatrice disrupted the water, sent rippling vees out behind them.
“Mona,” she cried, “I’m swimming! Let me go!” She flailed her free arm wildly, churning water and turning it white with air bubbles.
Mona laughed. “Beatrice,” she said, “don’t be stupid. You’d drown without me.”