I have been working on this story, off an on, for a few weeks now. Tonight I am torn as to whether or not it is “complete.” I like the ambiguity and openness of how the story ends now, but I wonder if it seems unfinished.
She moves through the room; men like trees about her, the rumbling of their voices loud and low as she stumbles on newel legs. She feels every bit of imagined fat touch inside her clothes, would loan her body away, if she could, to escape the feeling of living confined in her skin. She feels the rough wooden floor below her, sees how the men regard her as a casual time, a quick play, planning already how to discard her. She looks through them, seeing the warm darkness of the night, the shifting light of the stars, the moon cut board length in the sky.
In the morning the shops along the edge of the sea will open, light shading everything, and the men will shift from beds into boats. As she walks she will be carved by gazes, eyes whittling her shape more and more. The light will surround her, thick and fibrous, each eye notching and scoring her. In the houses and factories the women will tut, saying that it is a shame what happened, a shame that it befell the prettier one. The glare of her sister will be the only thing they see.
But the night, the open and dark night, is hers. She moves out, finding her way between buildings and street, between church and graves. Here, there is only the fresh turned earth and the field of puncheon stones, only the silence of the dew and her singing. In the black, no eyes measure the knotholes of what she lacks, no one knows her grief. Only the sawdust of stars sees her, and to them she sings of the man.
He is a song without words, a song of childhood and then unremebering. He was a boy she knew when she was young, who said he did not know her when he was older. She was one of the girls who watched him, wishing to feel the rough grain of his skin, wishing that the cut of his gaze would fall on them. She always turned away when he faced her, afraid that he would catch her staring, afraid that he would know she was looking at him. But he never saw; he only ever saw her younger sister.
So, when she was seasoned enough that her father told her to think about a husband, and began to talk of the next generation, she did not expect that the boy would call on her. She was surprised when he appeared at the house door to ask her father if she was free to walk with him. He stood in the canopy of light, just outside the door, and waited as she moved from the shadowed interior to meet him. And when she did, he walked so briskly that she struggled to keep up with him. He was silent, apart from the sound of his maple soled shoes on the gravel, and she did not know what to say to him. They walked in crunch-broken silence past three neighbor’s houses, and then quickly turned and walked back to her house.
The next day, when he again stood under the sun in front of her house, she was surprised. She had assumed he would not return again, and was unready to meet see him. By the time she made her way outside, she found her sister there as well; he had offered, and her father had agreed. It was more respectable to have a chaperone, he said, and all three walked this time. She hurried to keep up with them, as they walked just ahead of the silence that surrounded her. He spoke in low tones, the words falling underfoot like autumn leaves, and only her sister heard. She followed them past the homes of factory workers, past the waterfront shops, past the faded wooden docks of the fishermen, and when they finally returned to her house, she was glad of the cool shade inside.
All three walked this way the next day, and the one after, and the one after that, until she found that she could simply sit, shaded by the trees that lined the yard and it would make no difference. Even then, the sun was too bright for her, and the little circle of shadow not enough, and so she asked her father if she might stop. Her father had not seen the way the boy only ever spoke to her sister, how his face lost its hardness when her sister approached him, how her sister was the one he ever wanted to see. Her father still thought of his grandchildren, still thought the boy visited for her, still said her sister was too young. She had to prune away those mistaken ideas.
When the boy returned that afternoon, neither she nor her sister left the dark shelter of the house. Her father stood in the yard, rooted in his rage, his face burled with anger. He would not be moved by any explanation, and told the boy he was not to return. The heat of his words flew like sparks into the sky, and when the boy left, her sister cursed her for telling their father. She swore that she would see the boy again, that they would go together, away from that town.
The next day, her sister and the boy were gone. Men stayed in from fishing, factories closed, even the shops along the sea did not open. People looked for her sister along the road that carved its way to the next town, others in the beveled foothills of the mountains; men searched door to door, women called for her in fields. Even the priests looked for her, walking the shore and wharfs of the town. But, she was nowhere. The factories opened the next day, and the shops day after that. Even the fishermen went back to their plank boats after a week.
And then, on the morning of Saint Jerome’s day, a small dark spot appeared at the offing. The fishermen saw it first, and sailed closer, each one straining his eyes to see what the mystery was, each one calling to the others with speculation. Some thought it wreckage of some far away disaster, others that it was a mermaid, sent to seduce them into the ocean. They built their stories on the foundation of each other’s, each become more and more fanciful, until they saw the second spot, smaller than the first, the fabric at the edge of the surface, the arm wrapped around the tiny body. They saw the two faces, driftwood framed in ripple-scattered light, and knew that her sister had returned home.