She drifts in at high tide, as those of us who came before and those who will come long after we are gone.
The ringing of the sea-bell pulls me from the page of the book I’d been poring over for the next day’s lesson. The bell’s hollow call still elicits a chill of mid-April night air through my bones and the taste of brine on my lips. It catches me off guard, wrapped as I am in the oblivion of my work, and I jolt upright, gasping for air and fighting an illusory current as my mind replays flashes of arms and legs and the scream of twisting metal.
Though it’s well past midnight, I’ve abandoned my bed hours ago, after a dream that left me feeling more awake than asleep: images of a mother’s warm smile, a father’s gentle hand, the prodding of a rosy-cheeked nursemaid, and the coos of a baby brother. As with any dream, it came without prompting; I hadn’t thought of Before in many years, not since the day I mentioned to Theodore how I once picnicked before the fountain at Carre St-Louis. He chided me for my imagination, saying that I couldn’t possibly remember Montreal. He was reading a psychology text at the time – one that washed up mostly undamaged in a professor’s trunk – and insisted that children could not retain memories from infancy.
Maybe lost children are different, I told him.
The bell continues its tolling long after I’ve caught my breath and reassured my frantic senses that it’s only my robe tangled about my legs and not an embittered whirlpool pinning me in place. I pull the curtains aside and squint down toward the beach, wondering what the sea will deposit upon the shores tonight.
It’s been months since the bell last tolled, yet no one in the village is starving, no one is in need, and as I pull my boots on, I wonder—as I’ve done before—what would happen if we failed to heed its call. Would the sea recant, returning its treasures to their proper place? Or would our inattention offend it and incite it to greater iniquities?
It’s like the cat that lurks about the schoolhouse—fat and well-fed from the hands of eager children—that still, by some base instinct, stalks and kills the sea-birds nesting in the dunes. Too often, the smug old tom will saunter up the path bearing those bone-broken gifts, with blood still gleaming on pure-white feathers, and drop them on the schoolhouse’s front stoop. I learned early on in my tenure to accept these gifts gratefully, lest it swipe at me with its claws and fangs.
The feathers, soaked in rose petals to purge them of the rusty scent of blood, now fatten the pillows upon my bed. I run my fingers across the mattress, wishing I could return to that place in my dream; so quiet and peaceful, free from the sea’s caprices.
But we each have a part to play, and I—it seems—am fated for mine. I take up my lantern from my bedside and my too-large mackintosh from the hook beside the schoolroom door, and I clamber out across the dunes.
Tonight, the face the sea presents us is calm. The wind whispers stillness and the sea ripples peace, as if assuring us of its good intentions. As if those who dwell on an island can be fooled. As if we don’t already know its true nature.
The voices winding along the dunes are marked by bobbing yellow lights. I must be the last able-bodied villager to descend, for when I hold my lantern aloft to be counted, the bell instantly falls silent. Below me, ninety-seven pinpricks of light swarm like fireflies down the beach.
“I’d nearly sent Gina to wake you.” Theodore is suddenly at my side, the full moon shimmering off the surface of his spectacles and making him appear wide-eyed and surprised. The wire frames stretch taut across his face, obviously designed to be worn by a boy and not a man, but what can be done about it? Things of glass rarely reach the shores intact.
“Don’t worry, Loraine. I’d have let you sleep,” Gina says, rushing up to join us. The three of us walk astride, shoulder to shoulder, retracing the path we’ve so often traveled before. Each of our steps fall in a familiar rhythm. “I’ve told him, I won’t set foot in that schoolroom again. I did my time – eighteen years cooped up in there, doing sums and recitations, with the sea so close I could hear it, just begging me to come, let it wrap me in its waves.”
I shiver at the thought of a pleading sea-voice, and beside me even Theodore seems ill-at-ease. He takes Gina’s hand, and over the wind I can just hear him mutter, “Don’t speak like that, ‘Genie. It’s bad luck.”
Six months ago, she’d have retorted back to both of us, reminding us how, unlike the rest of us, the sea holds no fear for her. She’d have speculated it was because she came here so young, because she was never meant to be here at all, but I’ve always suspected that’s just the way she was made—that even if she’d been twelve or thirteen, as the oldest of us were upon arrival, she’d still be drawn in by its churning.
Theodore calls it bravery. I call it foolishness.
Now, on the dunes, their voices entwine, too low and intimate for me to hear. I struggle to keep up, to fall back into our familiar rhythm, to reclaim my place among them and close the distance between us.
They pause to rest atop the final dune, and there the moonlight reveals the sea’s midnight offering: the ribs of a once-mighty ship. Flotsam and jetsam tumble onto the beach, and already, far below, the villagers haul what they can ashore, capturing it in netting and dragging it with ropes before the fickle waves can smash it into useless debris upon the rocks.
“I wonder if there are any children this time,” Gina whispers.
“I hope not,” I say, picturing their trembling shoulders and fearful cries.
It is only after I say the words and see the longing that lurks in the shadows of her face that I begin to suspect what Gina means. No child comes onto this island in a biological way: the miracle of conception, which reads like fairy tale magic in our books. We are all born of the sea here, in a labor of foaming breakers and the birthing pains of loss.
Theodore takes Gina’s hand, and that gulf between us widens; between married and maiden, between have and have-not.
From somewhere far below, a shout rises over the sea’s roar, and with a glance at Theodore that I was never meant to see, Gina gathers her skirt and hurries ahead. The water churns, turbulent and unrelenting, as we trace her steps to the shore. We rush forth, our duty as inescapable as the tides, to deliver the island’s next generation of lost children from one cruel fate to another.
When we arrived, there were so many of us—fifty-four in one night—that those who came before built us a leaky-roofed nursery near the center of the village from bits of steel and splintered oak and panels of mahogany and walnut dragged up from the shore. One by one, they took turns playing nursemaid: wrapping us in tattered silk curtains and setting us to sleep in porcelain tubs and the turned-out lids of suitcases. They sang us to sleep with unfamiliar songs from far-off lands and fed us from the husks of strange island fruit, using mismatched utensils of silver to scoop out the sweet milky center.
As we grew, they made us a playground of driftwood sea-saws and barrels. They built a schoolhouse and filled it with well-worn maps and half-ruined books and water-stained tintypes of places we’d never see. They sang us lullabies and whispered reassurances, until we were old enough to carry our weight.
We didn’t all survive to adulthood, though our caretakers did the best they knew how. We were orphans raised by orphans with no skill or knowledge of childrearing, getting by on philosophies read in the washed-out pages of salvaged books and portions of fruit and fish passed from hand to hand.
Other children have arrived since then, though never so many at once—crying babes in rabbit-soft gowns, shivering girls sobbing for their mothers, and the occasional hard-eyed boy with chapped lips, each of them students I teach in the half-empty schoolroom.
It’s an echo of my own childhood, save for one thing: now, we are the singers of lullabies and the whisperers of reassurances. We are the ones who must be strong and unafraid. Yet each day when I look at the children, I ache with their struggles and sorrows. Each time I meet their eyes, I sense the churning of the sea.
Theodore and I stumble down the dunes to the beach. Our feet sink in the sand, slowing our pace, and I resist the urge to reach out for him to steady me—a gesture that would have once meant nothing, but that now means too much.
When we reach the water’s edge, he shouts for Gina and hurries along the shore, leaving me alone in the surf.
I ought to join the others, to lend my strength to haul in the larger pieces we’ll need for repairing our shelters, but in the moonlight, I spot a chest of drawers already half-buried in sand, standing upright like a sinking tombstone. Tucked within its topmost drawer are baubles of pearls and gems that gleam wickedly in the moonlight. They’re pretty but useless, and I let the sea reclaim them, gathering instead the cloths that had cushioned them. These, we’ll tear into sterile bandages and use to patch torn clothing.
But when I remove the linens from the drawer, there’s something tucked away beneath them, something that, at first, I mistake for a child’s toy. It’s a bird, its wings tucked up, only as big as my hand. Its tiny head wobbles unnaturally when I lift it, as though its neck has been snapped. Waves rush in and out around me, dragging my hems and disorienting me, and I can only stare at the poor creature and wonder at what the sea has brought us this time.
Familiar voices call out from the beach. When I look down, my feet are buried. The bird tumbles from my shaky hands and drops without a splash into the froth.
Frantic, I free myself and stumble ashore.
By the time I reach them, Gina has the child’s hand in her own, driving aside all my thoughts of the bird in the drawer.
“Gina?” I ask. “What are you doing?”
Gertrude, the village councilwoman, stands over them, her dark skin and silvery hair glowing like wave-polished stones in the lanternlight. “It’s highly unusual, but if you are willing to provide the child a home—”
“Yes. Of course. We will,” Gina interrupts, as if it was never a question. As if the child was always hers.
The child is silent. About twelve years old, she wears a dress that may have once been fine but is now too gray and tattered to tell. Her hair hangs limp to her shoulders, a shroud of darkness gleaming in the lanternlight. She stands rigid, her expression still and lifelessness.
Theodore paces, wringing his hands and avoiding my gaze. He’s known all along what she’d planned. Why hadn’t they mentioned it to me? What other secrets have they kept?
“Gina,” I protest quietly. “Let the village take the girl in. There’s plenty of room in the nursery, and they know how to care for children—”
“This child has the opportunity to be raised by a family,” Gina says. “A real family, with a mother and father. Isn’t that what we’ve all always wanted? What you would have wanted?”
I choke on my protests. I stumble on my objections. She’s right, and yet something deep within me begs, not now. Not yet.
The girl looks at me, and a chill like an unexpected current sweeps across me. She blinks, and I feel as though I’m drowning.
“Don’t you think you ought to take some time and think this over?”
“What?” Gina startles, her cheeks flushed.
“This won’t be the last lost child.” Whether it’s because of my dream or the bird lying dead in the drawer, I don’t know how to explain to her my unease at this night; the feeling that if she takes this child, I’ll lose her.
Gina springs to her feet and scoffs in disbelief. “Can’t you ever think of anyone beside yourself?”
A cloud covers the moon, making her and the girl nothing but black silhouettes against the villagers’ lanterns.
“Gina... I only meant...”
The cloud rolls back, and they are already too far up the dunes to hear my shouts.
Three days pass before they turn up at the schoolhouse door: Gina, Theodore, and the child they call Maris.
“Her name means of the sea?” I sweep away piles of sand with my grass-bristled broom. It’s a futile pursuit, an endless task, but it gives me something to do as the child wanders about the room. Something to keep my hands busy and my eyes from Gina’s. It’s clear from the way she avoids mine, she hasn’t yet forgiven what I said on the beach.
“Her name is Maris,” Gina says sharply, protectively, and my stomach twists, realizing that motherhood has already changed my laughing, carefree best friend.
From the other side of the room comes a cracking sound. Standing beside the nesting box where the students have been preparing for the hatching of chicks, the girl holds a broken eggshell. Within it is a barely visible mass of tissue, coated in yolk.
Sickness creeps up my throat.
“No, no, darling.” Gina hurries to huddle over her like a mother hen, protecting her from my fury beneath her wings. “She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know.”
Gina turns the girl’s attention to a windchime made of seashells as the stench of egg finds my nose.
“Nothing showed up in the records,” Theodore confides. “The ship manifest didn’t even list a child.”
It’s unusual—both that a manifest was recovered and that it didn’t list every passenger—but it’s clear that it’s not my place to say. Where my place is now is unclear.
“Gina took it as a sign,” he mutters, watching the two. “Neither of them was meant to be here.”
We didn’t discover the truth of Gina’s origins until after we’d been there ten years, when a crate of ceramic bowls washed ashore, cushioned by yellowing newspaper pages.
Eager for news from the outside world, the entire village had gathered and carefully flattened each one in turn. We spread them out across the floor of the meeting hall with only enough space between each to accommodate our footsteps, and we weighed down each corner with stones. Once they were dry, we ordered them by date and then, night after night, after chores were complete, we gathered together in the crowded hall as Gertrude read aloud from them in her slow, melodic voice.
Theodore and Gina had huddled beside me, sharing a soup of red algae from one of the recently procured bowls and whispering about what the world beyond might be like. It was only when Gertrude spoke the name of our great ship that the hall fell quiet, all murmurs stilled.
An infant. A kidnap plotted by a former nursemaid, who set out to begin a new life with the stolen child tucked away in her carpetbag. A birthmark on the child’s left ear—one too entirely familiar. And parents, alive on a far-off shore, still waiting and praying and hoping.
Gina’s footfalls broke the stillness. The slamming door shattered the silence.
Theodore and I found her, later, waist-deep in the surf with her skirt spread like petals around her. We lingered amid the tidepools, calling out to her until night fell, until our voices were worn hoarse by the sea.
In the morning, we woke at the rising tide, as the water creeped up to drown where we slept. Gina sat beside us, her feet dangling over the rock’s edge. Still with us and yet, from that moment, apart.
The arrival of a new student always sets the schoolroom aflutter. There’s a tension in the air, a breath long-held, a bubble un-popped, as we wait to see how the newest child will fit into the jigsaw puzzle of our island lives. Early days as a lost child are difficult, but there isn’t a soul here who doesn’t know what they’re going through. There isn’t a soul here who hasn’t had to dry their own tears and find their own courage and discover a way to go on.
When I introduce Maris – my hands resting lightly on her shoulders—I don’t tell them about the manifest or the meaning of her newly given name. I don’t tell them about the broken egg I tossed from the water’s edge.
As the day passes, they gather around her, offering guidance and friendly smiles, gaining nothing in return but blank, hollow stares. Libby offers to braid her hair. Gregory passes a pencil. Each kindness compounds my own sour guilt. If these children can welcome her without reserve or suspicion, why can’t I?
Theodore and Gina come to gather her at the end of the day. They stand outside the door, hands clasped, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, while the other students file down the path to the nursery. Tonight, the nursemaids will serve them algae soup in chipped ceramic bowls and sing them lullabies in languages long-forgotten, and they’ll curl up in rusting bathtubs and broken suitcases with their blankets of faded-silk curtains and together dream their shipwrecked dreams.
All except Maris.
Maris will be led by Gina to the cottage on the edge of the dunes—the only one in the village that looks out across the waters’ edge. Theodore built it months ago from salvaged cargo ship crates and an upturned lifeboat that Gina painted bright yellow. Together, they teased broad-leafed vines to grow into the places where the wooden slats splintered, but still the sun shines through, green-hued and broken, flickering with each sea-breeze. It’s the most beautiful home in the village.
I whisper to Gina about the girl’s silence. “Have you taken her to Gertrude? Perhaps she’d speak with her.”
“We’re her parents. When she’s ready, she’ll speak with us.”
“Here, Maris,” Theodore says, offering a palmful of snap-peas. “They’re the old tomcat’s favorites. Just hold them out like this, and he’ll eat them from your hand.”
Theodore takes her hands in his own and kneels before the schoolhouse beside her, but no matter how he pleads and cajoles, the grouchy old cat won’t draw near. It raises its hackles and bares its teeth, and when they try to lean in, it hisses and sprints away.
Gina snatches up the child’s hand so quickly that the snap-peas scatter.
Theodore clears his throat and dusts sand off his pants, offering me a smile as Gina leads the child away. “I guess the old boy wasn’t hungry.”
A week passes, and a change takes place as gradually as the erosion of rock. Maris is without a pencil, and no one speaks up to offer theirs. Maris is without a reading partner, and not one child volunteers. Maris stands alone, eyes focused beyond where the children play to the churning of the angry sea.
“Why don’t you invite Maris to jump rope?” I ask two girls her age. Timidly, obediently, they do. That evening, I find the rope cut into bits too small for jumping.
“Why don’t you invite Maris to read?”
That night, I find a picture book vandalized—an ink-red X over each of Peter Rabbit’s siblings.
“She’s just having trouble adjusting,” Theodore says the next day. “Many young ones struggle in those early days.”
“You ought to ask the elders,” I say. “You’ve never raised a child before. You’re practically children yourselves.”
Gina says nothing at all as she leads the girl away. She is immovable where Maris is concerned.
“Maybe she should be raised with the others,” I say.
Theodore is silent as we watch them grow more distant, and I wonder: Has he thought the same? But when he finally responds, it’s to say simply, “Gina loves her.”
The following day, when the sea-bell summons the children from their play and two desks remain vacant, a bitter taste crawls from my throat. I know, instinctively, without calling roll, that one of the places is hers.
“Wait here. Keep the young ones busy.” Mackintosh in hand, I race out the door.
A sea breeze whips the spray into my eyes as I stumble across the dunes. Where could they be? Where would she have gone? I see in my mind all the craggy cliffs and bottomless pools—every place where someone unfamiliar with the island might wander. Every place where one who intends harm might lure another.
Ninety-seven voices join mine. Our feet traipse across the island. We search until darkness threatens, until I fear we’ve run out of places to search.
I hear them before I see them. A child’s voice trapped beneath stone. Along the shoreline, I scramble down slick rocks, each footfall thrown off balance by the persistent beating of waves. There are caves here, dozens of them that together form impossible labyrinths, accessible only at the lowest of tides. Though the boy’s words are muddled by echoes, in my bones, I feel his desperation to escape the water’s rise.
Together, our hands and feet and arms and voices pull the children from the darkness, extracting them one by one from the earth. And over Maris’s head, Gina’s eyes meet mine, and it startles me to find her expression is closed to me; I can no longer tell what she’s thinking.
“She thinks it’s her fault,” Theodore says, his arms full of books I’ve gathered for them borrow. When neither child would admit how they got to the cave, Gertrude deemed it best to keep them apart, particularly when she discovered fresh splinters embedded in the boy’s hands.
“She thinks you hate Maris because you’re jealous.”
I scoff, but long after Theodore leaves, the thought tears at me, banishing sleep. Each time I let down my guard, the accusation surges through my mind again. Outside, a growing storm echoes my dark inner thoughts.
I’ve lived with the knowledge of all that’s been taken from me: mother, father, sibling, home. And yet none is any more than what anyone else has lost. We’re children of equal misfortune.
And yet... The yellow-painted cottage. Her hands entwined in his. The looks, the whispers, the moments, the secrets that I’m no longer welcome to share. The chasm between us, deep and lonely. Each of their joys has been my loss.
I sit up in bed.
The scenes replay in my head, over and over. What if the egg had been cracked already? If the two children had simply become lost? What if I have been wrong, my judgment clouded by the wounds of my own heart?
Boots in place and lantern in hand, I set off for their cottage through the driving rain. I need to apologize, to let Gina know that wife or mother or whatever she becomes over the course of this life, she will always be my friend, my sister.
The sea roars before me, restless and riled, while the wind urges me back toward the safety of the schoolhouse. The cottage is dark, but beyond it is a light, bobbing on the shore. A shout, caught on the wind, whirls around me.
“Maris! Maris, where are you?” Lightning flashes, and I recognize Gina’s form, standing with the lantern, ankle-deep in the surf.
“Gina?” I yell and stumble ahead. These dunes are dangerous, even in the daylight, and to be out here on a night like this is inviting trouble. “Gina!”
The light bobs, as if she might have heard me and turned about, but she’s still too far off to reach.
Another burst of lightning fills the sky, and in the moment before the world falls into a deeper darkness, I see something bobbing on the waves beyond her—something that looks like a raft. A raft, tied together with chopped-up lengths of jumping ropes and wood that would leave splinters in a child’s palms. A raft, which, while being constructed, would have been hidden somewhere grown-ups would never think to look. A raft, now carrying the lone silhouette of a girl farther and farther from the island that had claimed her.
Dropping my lantern, I clutch my nightgown in my fist and rush to overtake Gina, already in the shallows, where the water swirls about my waist and surges to my chest. She’s reaching outward, her body poised and ready to plunge, when I grab her by the arm to stop her.
“Loraine?” Her eyes are wild as they find mine. “What on earth are you doing out here?”
“Let her go, Gina. You must let the girl go.”
Beyond, the waves are tossing the raft like an eager child with a new toy. Gina’s gaze never wavers as she shakes her head. “What does it matter to you? You don’t care for her.”
“No, but I care for you. You’ll drown if you try to reach her now. I know you love her, but she’s made her choice.”
“What about him?” My voice is shrill, and when she looks out toward that place between the shore and the raft and her eyes overflow, I know.
He’d have woken when Gina rose from their bed, when she discovered their child had gone missing. He’d have run more quickly than her across the sand dunes and would have arrived at the sea well before her. Maris’s raft would have been closer then, and he’d have seen her. He’d have thought he could reach her in time.
“He hates the water,” I say. “He can’t even swim.” He hates the water, but he loves Gina. He’d have done all he could to make her happy.
We stand there, watching the waves breathe their ragged gasping breaths, until the raft disappears and Gina’s arm goes limp in mine. Until the wind dies down and the waves turn glassy-smooth and the sky bursts pink along the horizon. And then I gently guide her backward, toward the safety of the cottage on the shore—far from the eddies and undertow; from the girl in the makeshift raft; from the man who, no matter how long we stand there staring, is never coming back.
I wake wrapped in a blanket on a chair in a sun-dappled cottage, surrounded by the swaying of broad-leafed vines. The sea is quiet now, a mere whisper across the rocks, and it’s bright in here, far brighter than when Gina and I stumbled inside and collapsed, our fingers barely brushing, each of us drowning alone in our grief. It’s only after I rub the grit of sleep from my eyes that I understand why it seems so bright. So empty. So lonely.
A gaping hole opens with a view to the sea where the yellow-painted lifeboat has been pried from rusted nails. Already, the wind has swept in a pile of sand, staking its claim on the abandoned place.
The villagers, no doubt, will wander in soon, assessing the damage and shaking their heads and gathering the useful things left behind. I’ll follow them back down to the village, to rebuild a life from the debris; for as much as I may wish it, I’m not like Gina. I don’t share her bravery or her foolishness.
But when we take what we need from this place and relinquish the rest to be overwhelmed by dunes and creeping vines, I’ll hide away a yellowed scrap of paper, one I find tucked away beneath her pillow. One I haven’t seen in many years.
And in the ages that pass, when I dream of Before and my heart feels scraped out by the loneliness of lost children, I’ll hold that page up in the candlelight—an image of an infant destined to become a woman whose love was as fierce and consuming as the sea—and I’ll picture a reunion on some distant shore and pretend I believe it could be true.