Moira stumbled across the loose sand, at one point going down on her knee and feeling it burn into her flesh. Stupid shoes. With two convulsive jerks she kicked each one from its foot. One buried itself in the sand somewhere to her left; the other hurtled toward the sea and landed just at the edge of the water, a small spray being the evidence of its final ruin. The heat on the soles of her feet was oddly bearable.
Neither shoe made a sound. The living shoe or the dead one.
She would make the sound for the dead one. Death should not be a quiet thing. Not among the living.
She hurtled herself headlong toward the waves which in turn rushed toward her. She stopped when the waters lapped at her calves. Who cared that the hem of her black dress would soon be heavy and clinging to her legs.
“LIAR!” she said first to the lazy retreating liquid that swirled about her ankles.
The sea answered back with a gust of salted air, pushing the netting of her hat veil into her mouth. No! She would not be silenced. Not this time.
She jerked the hat off, pins and all, and sent it sailing into the ocean. Who cared that her hair tumbled down her back like she was a girl again. Who cared if it was not ladylike to shake her fist and scream:
She defied the waters to silence her. They could not because she spoke the truth.
His call came from far behind her. She could not bear the undertaker’s compassion at this moment. He would try to console her. Calm her. Restore her composure. It was his job. She would have a difficult time not slapping him for his patronizing solace.
She covered her ears with her palms, dug her fingers into her hair, closed her eyes. He should leave her alone. He should know there was no danger that she would walk into a riptide and end this all. She wouldn’t give those treacherous waters the satisfaction.
All too soon, he would catch up. Until then…. She squared her shoulders, took a stance, faced her adversary head-on, but squinting.
Was it so very long ago that she thought the ocean spoke to her of splendid new beginnings? Sometimes it seemed as if she had stepped into someone’s hand-me-down life, so far was she removed from the place of her birth, the start of this bitter ending.
Moira was eighteen when the sickness struck her seaside fishing village. Undernourised bodies began to fall, picking up speed and strength so that by the time the tide reached her family it could fell even the strongest.
First it stole her handsome and mighty father, then her two vibrant brothers, then her beloved mother.
For whatever cruel reasons Moira had been singled out to live, none could have been worse than being the lone pair of feet to stumble toward Mr. Gordon’s. She needed proper coffins, a proper burial.
“Can you help me?” she remembered asking the lanky, suited man. Even in the silent, serious cave of this business of death, she caught the intense green of his eyes, looking directly into hers.
The timbre of his voice was like honey on a cough. The commanding baritone made her heart stop racing, for just a moment. In that moment, she could take a breath again. A deep and satisfying one. Her body relaxed of its own accord.
He listened. He listened as if she was the only one who had ever lost an entire family and been left utterly alone. He listened as if there were no other bodies needing his morbid but special touch.
“I have some money,” Moira said at the end. “Probably not nearly enough, but I will give you what I have if you can just help me grant my mother’s dying wish to be buried with dignity.”
“Keep your money. Needless to say, I am quite busy these days. Too much work here for me to do alone. I have a man working in the back with me. It would help to have someone out here to handle customers. You could exchange your time for the caskets and preparation of your family for viewing and burial.”
Work. The idea had not crossed her mind. What she would do tomorrow or the day after or the week after or the month–none of it had yet filtered through the shock. But to have work. Something to do with the hands and the mind.
“Yes. I would be happy to.”
Moira went to work for Mr. Gorden, rising early and working until she fell into a dreamless sleep at night. Somehow, during the long days, she became one who listened, happy to hold many a trembling hand in the warmth of her own while she heard those stories, at once the same yet unique.
Only she could not sleep away the fatigue at her own home. Moira couldn’t even make herself walk through the front door. She was afraid of the disease and the silence, both consorting to drive her mad. She took to walking home after work, then walking back to Mr. Gordon’s to sleep away her exhaustion in the large wing-back chair in which he sat whenever he paused to smoke his pipe. The sweet tobacco smell was new, yet constant, and falling asleep with it in her nostrils was the best lullaby to be had.
As long as she was busy consoling others, her heart felt consoled as well.
“You are good at it, Miss Moira. You help them feel that are not alone. It is what we all need most when death makes a hole in the fabric of our lives.”
Maybe she was good at it. But only until the woman came in who wore the same dress as her own mother’s favorite. Or until the unconsolable mother came in to make arrangements for infant twin boys. Or when the old couple she saw walking the streets each morning and each evening did not stroll by and the next day the man was standing before her with tears falling unabashedly, unashamed.
Of course Mr. Gordon found her sleeping in the office. He did not scold. He did not tell her she was being silly. He said she could not possibly be getting a good night’s rest. He said there was a hut at the edge of his property, only one room, but weathertight. He said they would go together to get the rest of her things and he would help take care of the loose ends of her father’s business.
She went with him once. Standing in the soulless kitchen was wrenching. She missed her mother’s gentle voice and the smell of baking bread. By rote she expected to hear the squeal of playful boys in the yard or on the packed earth street; instead there was only the pall of silence. There was no father’s moustache grazing her cheek. There never would be again.
The grieving became raw, just like the winds blowing off the winter sea. Still, when she needed him the most, Mr. Gordon was there, assuring her, “Moira, it is a good thing to cry.” Or he would say, “Enough for you, little one. Go walk with them. Don’t be afraid.” He knew just how to say the words, just how to look in her eyes. How to make it sound like her family was away on holiday, looking for her to join them one day, but not too soon. His hand on her shoulder would somehow fold around her like a shawl. Her world was still empty, but she was not alone.
Yet as Mr. Gordon talked with and made her life tilt toward normal, the townspeople began to have less to say to her. Women seemed to be whispering hand-to-ear. Her greetings in the marketplace fell on unresponsive ears. At church, no one would meet her gaze.
By springtime he started to send her to her hut well ahead of his walk home. He avoided being seen with her in public.
She joined him uninvited one day when he walked along the beach.
“What have I done to make you upset with me?”
“I am not upset with you.”
“Something has changed.”
“It is not good that you and I spend time together alone, Miss Moira. You surely know this. Especially with you living under my roof. People…they talk.”
“We work together! Mr. Gordon, you are my friend. It’s not like I live in your house!”
“Ah, but it is my house you live in, you see. If you had anywhere else to go I would ask you to.”
His words cut. “I am sorry to be a burden.”
“Nonsense. You are nothing of the kind. You know that when people tire of discussing life or death they turn to gossip.”
“Then let them gossip. You have been nothing but kind. Generous. A gentleman. My friend.”
“Ah, but Miss Moira, you must understand that you cannot thumb your nose at these people and then expect them to accept you as their own later on. You are not a girl. You are a young woman. There are rules.”
“I don’t need them, not the rules, not the people. Not now, not later.”
“You plan on moving then? Where? To do what?”
She crumbled on the inside while she kept her back straight and her chin high. Still he could see.
“Look across those waters.” Gently he turned her by the shoulders to look out over the ocean. “Do you hear them?”
“Of course I do. I am not deaf.”
“Don’t just hear. You must listen.”
During the next silent moments she did. The endless noise scared her almost as much as the realization of how much she had missed his touch, his breath moving over the top of her head. She swallowed hard and focused on the pulsing rhythm.
“The waves will makes you a promise.” His voice was velvet against her ear.
“What could that promise be, I wonder?”
“It is promising that by putting the depth and breadth of those waters between the heartache here, and the promise of a new life, you can leave death behind, move beyond it’s touch.”
“How can I do such a thing?”
“Listen to the waters. Hear what they are saying first. Once you hear the ocean’s promise, ask me again.”
Thereafter she took to walking the beach by herself. Moira did not attempt to converse with any of the people who had robbed her of the company of her friend. She talked to the ocean instead.
“What have you to tell me today?” Some days it would send her chattering gulls. Other days a piece of sea glass, a mermaid’s purse, an intricate shell. She began to recognize how the waves took on different tones depending on the wind and the weather. But it did not speak back clearly enough for her to return to Mr. Gordon with her question.
What did he mean? She asked herself the tedious question again and again and again, until she overheard a conversation between two patrons at the bakery.
She had purchased a simple roll and was holding it close so that the scent would combine with the warmth of the room and conjure her mother for just a few brief moments.
“My son-in-law is taking my baby to America!” lamented a disembodied voice.
A flood of confusion erased the familiarity of the bakery in a flash, almost as intense as the flood of her initial grief, yet edged with a daring bit of hope.
Clutching the yeast roll, she ran to the water’s edge. New life. Fresh start. Sail away. She could hear it now.
How? She was a single young woman. Was it even allowed? Did she really want to be so far away from the place of her birth, the resting place of her family? Alone?
But what was there here for her? Lies that became truths only by repetition. Unwarranted ostracism. What kind of future was that?
She fed the roll to the gulls and went to work.
That evening as they were closing for the night, Moira looked Mr. Gordon in the eye and asked, “How can I do such a thing?”
“You can go with me to America. As my wife.”
Clearly she had said yes too quickly.
To be continued…