Unseen waters, fluid cold, singing mothers, infinite valleys, splinters of shadow, cracked leather, veined land, imagined frontiers & black sand.
TThe girl wondered about the ocean. If it was truly as blue and as vast as the sky, stretching so far into the distance, you couldn’t see its end. If it was salty on your tongue and in the back of your throat and too deep to swim to its bottom, and filled with fish so large, they could swallow you whole or feed you for a whole month.
That’s what her father told her, but, like her, he’d never seen the ocean before. Never sipped, swam or fished its waters, let alone breathed the wet coastal winds strengthened by the combined force of each wave. He’d never been beyond the next valley, whose far edge took dawn until the first hours of night to reach.
He’d no need to, to walk that far. Had everything he needed right here: a stout home of stone, wattle and daub his father had built. A garden that never struggled to bear fruit, fed by reliant rains and a shallow brook of shimmering water he cut, veining the land. A twenty-head flock that provided everything else: milk, cheese, wool and warmth. He had his daughter; she and him were the valley’s last inhabitants.
But after he’d buried his wife, the girl’s mother, after they’d whispered their prayers over her grave, asking the earth to bloom her into the flowers, grasses and shrubs—the girl listened to her father, repeated his words as best she could, kneeling as he did, hands submerged in soil—he found the ocean filling his mind, weighing on his tongue, pouring from his mouth.
He’d first learned about it from a traveler. Travelers occasionally strode by—never in company, always in solitude, heavily laden with what looked like their entire homes, eyes fixed on their feet or the up-ahead—for reasons he couldn’t quite comprehend.
Where were they coming from? Where were they going?
There were an infinite number of valleys they could cross to reach their mysterious destinations; why choose this one?
He was no longer curious, not about any of this, their answers not coming—many seemed mute—or insufficient, a language never shared beyond a few words and the common one of expressions, gestures and drawings in the dirt. Only about the ocean, willing to expand language, blur its boundaries, for knowledge.
To a featureless plain of faceless people who cast her suspicious glances; although they had no eyes, she could sense it from the tilt of their heads.
He’d incessantly ask about it, even if they seemed mute, knowing a voice was there regardless, ceasing only when they reached the edges of the next valley; amid the echoes of their final exchange and in the silence that followed, an ambiance, really, of birds, bees, water and wind, silence here a thing unknown, artificial, he’d watch the travelers persist past the borders he’d built for himself until they were a splinter of shadow among innumerable others. He’d then return to tell his daughter everything he’d learned.
The ocean surrounds us, he said, eyes aflame.
But when she climbed to the valley’s highest peak, hoping for a glimpse of it, she was disappointed. Greeted only with a familiar sight: mountains cut jagged lines into the horizon.
It lies over the mountains, her father explained. Beyond the last of them.
The mountains end? she asked.
Yes, and the valleys too, and one day, I’ll take you there. We’ll live in a city built on its edge. Along a stretch of black sand we’ll walk barefoot. The sand won’t cut our toes like the rocky banks of their brook when they waded in to bathe.
We’ll live in a home that reaches up into the clouds, and gaze out from ice-covered windows—glass had been described to him as such.
Cradled in her father’s arms one night, breathing the billows of sweet-smelling smoke he exhaled, which mingled with those exhaled by the hearth—just as sweet—the girl imagined the cold like this, as if, like the ocean—just as cold—it was made of water.
Their own home was windowless, had a low ceiling and single door of wood and wool. Otherwise, the heat of their bodies, of their hearth and of one or two of their flock—in winter, when the temperature plummeted to blistering—would escape, and they’d freeze in the bitter cold that flooded their valley every night.
Cradled in her father’s arms one night, breathing the billows of sweet-smelling smoke he exhaled, which mingled with those exhaled by the hearth—just as sweet—the girl imagined the cold like this, as if, like the ocean—just as cold—it was made of water. She imagined it gathering during the day, too transparent to see, and pouring from the sky when the sun fell, filling their valley to the brim before spilling into the next, and the next, until the world was flooded and they floated up among the stars.
Heights didn’t frighten her, but the stars did, their uncountable number. Their comfort in a vastness she shivered to even think about; she shivered this thought away. Wondered if the iced-over windows could keep the cold at bay.
Of course, her father replied. If they’d crack from the pressure of the floodwaters, or melt when they lit a fire to stay warm. Don’t be silly.
She considered his promise to take her there, to the ocean, a promise he began repeating every night before bed, brushing her hair with a hand.
When she closed her eyes and listened for familiar melodies, she heard only her father’s snores, the flock’s snorting, the brook’s trickling, the hearth’s crackle, the wind’s whistle.
She wasn’t sure if she’d want that. To leave their home, still filled with her mother’s clothes; she’d often hold the clothes to her nose and lips, hoping for the slightest taste or hint of fragrance that had long since vanished. To leave where mother had once sung to her, her voice reverberating off the valley peaks when bathing or tending to the garden or the flock, filling the valley with warmth; or becoming its own gentle, soothing smoke when the girl fought off sleep, afraid to dream; dreams took her far away from everything, everyone, she loved. They took her somewhere strange; since she could remember, she’d had the same recurring dream. To a featureless plain of faceless people who cast her suspicious glances; although they had no eyes, she could sense it from the tilt of their heads.
She couldn’t remember her mother’s songs, as if they died with her, or her voice, as if she never had one. When she closed her eyes and listened for familiar melodies, she heard only her father’s snores, the flock’s snorting, the brook’s trickling, the hearth’s crackle, the wind’s whistle. What did the ocean sound like?
She couldn’t remember her mother’s face. When she looked out over the valley from its slopes, searching for familiar features in the land’s contours and contrasting textures, she saw only another faceless face; skin as blank and as white as snow stared back, and nothing her father told her, no description of her mother or story about their short-lived life together, helped her remember. It was like painting with a breeze.
But when thinking about the ocean, assembling her father’s passionate passings-on, it so easily came to mind. Its likeness—as if it were already embedded in her memory—emerged before her, perfect, when she looked up at the sky. The clouds were the crest and foam of its waves, the birds its fish large and small, as well as what they were: birds, those that swept along its surface, dived for a catch. The rain had its salt when she opened her mouth to it, lapped at the sky. And so, to her father’s delight, she began to ask him about it, eager to learn more. To fill the emptiness her mother had left, the place her memory should have occupied.
Had her mother become the ocean and its fish? Had she become the flowers, grasses and shrubs that swayed, quivered within its depths—underwater gardens—and sprouted from the dunes—tiny mountains of sand—above it?
It was like painting with a breeze.
She was coming around to her father’s promise, which he repeated once more, moments ago, while she rested her head in his hands.
His hands were like heated stones covered in cracked leather. Covering her ear, they brought a rush like the wind. Like the brook after a storm, when it surged, striving to be a river. Maybe this is what the ocean sounded like.
Maybe the ocean would bring her the comfort of his hands and of her mother’s songs and clothes. The comfort needed to face her dreams—only more frightening since her mother’s death. The faceless people were joined by a bald, faceless flock that trampled them, stampeded, shattered the ground on which she stood; she’d wake during her plummet.
Maybe the ocean would replace her dreams with reawakened memories.
Would it? she asked her father.
Let’s find out, my little sprout.
She asked him all of her other questions, and he assured her that her mother was now everywhere, everything and everyone.
She was as brave as the first star to occupy the sky, but thought otherwise.
Still, she was afraid to leave. To leave behind her mother’s clothes, although her father said they’d have to. To leave behind the flock, whose pen he unlatched in anticipation of their leaving, as if to give himself no other choice but to follow through. They hesitated. Took tentative steps into the open. Because each head had been caressed by her mother. Their wool and hides retained traces of her the girl tried retracing with her own hands. And when her father finally told her it was time, she, too, hesitated.
She stood there, on the threshold of their home, emptied of its contents, food, clothes—their own—and the tent that had brought their ancestors to the valley, and wept her first tears since the burial; she didn’t want to cry. She wanted to be as brave as her father asked her to be when the wet soil darkened the pallor of death; the soil sealed away what she longed to see.
And she was. She was as brave as the first star to occupy the sky, but thought otherwise. I’m weak. That she was hurting her father by not moving. I can’t move. By holding him, burdened with everything, back.
Take your time, he said.
Another moment: all she’d need.
When her tears touched her lips, and she tasted their saltiness, the ties restraining her slackened. And when her father knelt before her and cupped her face, cupping her ears, and the rush returned, rushing with it, filling her up, was something beyond bravery: courage. Courage that had her longing to dream.
The ocean now sang to her, although she’d yet to hear its voice.
Christopher Impiglia is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York. He is also an adjunct professor of English at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and an editor of art books. He received an MFA in fiction from The New School and an MA in medieval history and archaeology from the University of St. Andrews. His words have appeared in Columbia Journal and PANK Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Impigliato. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Spring 2020 Travel Writing Prize. A version of it was originally published in Hemingway Shorts, Volume 4, 2019.
Lead image: Joel Vodell