Eleanor Mae

The fishing boats talk on winter nights. They huddle together in the empty harbor, waiting for the sun to fall and the water to turn a still, shining black. The wind takes a long time to come—but it does come, eventually, in ice-laden eddies and gusts.

The orange ropes begin to quiver; the peeling hulls begin to creak and moan.

The wicked hooks swing free, and whisper slaughter.

They drown out the quieter crafts: the sleek pleasure yachts, the dinghies. They are coarse, spitting rust into the dark water, their slick decks stinking of fish blood and sweat. They speak in moans and shudders as the wind crawls through each hole and knot. They sing old shanties. They tell old tales.

Most often, they make lists. The words clank and whistle in the air. Mackerel, tuna, herring, sprats, says one, tuna, bream, salmon, cod, says another. The older ones have more poetry in them. Cockles, winkles, thumbnail clams. Spiny lobsters kicking and scratching, blinking their wet black eyes. Dogfish and angelfish, bull sharks twisting on the hooks. Huge, fragile basket stars the color of a blinded eye. And sometimes, when the winds are high, man.

The boats hush at this part of the litany. The word man fizzes and curdles in the water; the seagulls flap away with raucous, fag-end cries. Man, man, man, the boats whisper, bonded in blood, and then, clanging and creaking and shivering in the cold, they laugh.

I always close the window when they laugh. The smell of the harbor fills my nostrils as I reach out for the frame. Engine oil, cigarette smoke, frost on wool. Fish guts shucked roughly with a wet knife, spattered on the ground for the dogs to lick.

I know the boats don’t laugh. I know it is only a story I am telling myself. But I still shut the window tight.

I draw the curtains, and lie on the left side of our bed with my eyes wide open. I whisper his favorite nursery rhyme as if I am saying a rosary. Ten green bottles… ten green bottles…

Sometimes I sleep, but not lately. I dream instead; eerie underwater dreams of drowned cities, bells ringing under the sea. I dream of colossal ocean landfills, full of twisted wrecks of metal and plastic and broken glass, tossed asunder, scattered along faraway coastlines.

Sometimes I dream of the deep trenches, the splits in the earth where the water bubbles and spits with silt and heat. I dream of the things that scuttle and click their way across the vast, lightless wastes, and the lives that they must live.

My fantasies are epic; the pulpiest of horror schlock, the most dramatic flights of fantasy that I can muster. Boats that revel in the bloodiness of their catches. Coiled monsters, picking their way through the drowned detritus of man’s growth and spread. I wrap these pictures around me like a blanket as I lie uncovered, unseeing, anchored by what I can create.

It’s better like this. It’s better not to sleep, and dream the deliberate dreams that come with a waking mind. I make them as vivid as possible, nightmarish, hoping that my brain is fooled enough to let my sleep be peaceful.

It often works, but not always. No matter what I conjure up, some nights are hard. Sleep grips me like a hand, pulling me into a place I recognize.

The good linen tablecloth, with tiny purple pansies in the corners. A cake hastily bought from the corner shop, the icing smudged, the air filled with the smell of stale crumbs. Mark’s mother, triumph in her watery eyes, her hands dry and wrinkled in mine. Finally! Congratulations!

Two drops of blood on the linoleum a month later. Then three. Never so ill-mannered as to patter or gush. A rush to the bathroom—a delicate one, Mark was watching the football—and there, kneeling on the gleaming white tiles, he slipped out.

More my body than his own, at that point. Not enough of himself to live. No definite form; he was still liminal, shaping himself into himself. But I had already known him, and named him, and sang him songs as he made flesh of my flesh.

Mark came up when the match was over, wanting to know what was wrong.

But he was flushed away, scrubbed from the tiles, lost in the water.

I dream of monsters. I dream of monsters, and in this way no space is made for the possible, the probable, the happened. I should dream of land, to make it easier on myself—but I’m pulled to the sea, drawn by my blood as it drifts on the world’s tides. An infinity of mysteries; my child, anchored in the ocean’s heart, as separate from me as water is from air.

I don’t dream of who he could have been. I don’t dream of what he has become, down there in the dark, a face I could see myself in.

I shake my head. I strain my ears, searching for the laughter of the boats.


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