Vignette IV: Haliae

Image courtesy of Nick Fewings at Unsplash

The war is over, and the beach is safe again. The mines have all been cleared away, though the carcasses of abandoned and destroyed tanks and transports still litter the sand and shallows.

I have brought wine and honey and cheese and just a bit of chocolate, squirreled away beneath a floorboard in the barn while the war raged around us. I hope the wine has not turned.

When I reach the shore, I push off my shoes and dig my fingers and toes into the fine sand. There are tracks in the ground, gouged deep, and depressions where mines had once been hidden.

I am not alone. My neighbors (those who survived) and soldiers (those who survived), out of uniform and uncomfortable in civilian clothes that don’t feel right anymore, wander the beach. Their eyes are wide, their heads still cocked to listen for planes and bombs. We wander wide of one another, just in case the planes and bombs come back.

An old man bent with grief holds the hand of his great-grandchild. She has learned to be silent. He sees me, and sees the bag of offerings I carry. He dips his head, tips his hat, and almost smiles. He leads the child away.

I dip my head in return, and wade into the shallows. I leave my shoes and jacket behind, held down with a scoop of sand. Out beyond the tumble of boulders and sand which circle the bay, a handful of fishing boats and smaller craft chug out to sea; so many fewer than before the war, their crews now composed of old men and women and young children. Further into the water, feeling carefully with my feet. Sharp stones, smooth stones, cool sand, bits of metal and plastic. Further, until I reach the small ridge of stone, like the back of a whale. It curls up out of the water, a rough semi-circle.

I clamber on top and kneel on the hard stone. I can feel the old man and his great-grandchild and so many others watching me from the beach. Some of them understand; others do not. I pull out the wine, pry off the wax and cork, and take a tentative sniff.

Berries and flowers.


I pour out some of the wine, then push the cork back into place. Tucking the bottle close, and the small waxed cloth holding the honey and cheese and chocolate, I step forward, into the air. I plunge down, down into the hollow of water resting in the curve of rock.

It is deep here, the ground carved away by time and tides and invisible hands. Crustaceans and anemones cling to the face of the rock. Fish dart, confused. Salt water stings my eyes and presses at my nose and ears.

Down and down I fall. There is only water around me, and darkness, light far above. Air bubbles tickle my cheeks, and my skirts flare up around my hips. I reach the bottom, fingers scrabbling against the rock to hold myself down. Fish swim between my legs, and a seahorse flits past my ear. Memory directs my fingers over the rock to the narrow opening. I kick hard, angling into the opening. My shoulders scrape the sides of the tunnel, and I leave the light behind.

I kick and count, kick and count. When I reach thirteen, I angle upward. My head breaks the surface of the water, and I am inside the cave. There is only darkness here, the soft shush of water, and the quiet singing of nymphs.

Their song fades as I push forward. My feet eventually find the slope of rock and I crawl up and out of the water. Again, memory guides me the necessary steps. I stop when I reach the right place and drop to my knees.

Curious whispers now, and the weight of ancient eyes.

I sing my greeting into the darkness, and my apology for my long absence. I apologize, too, for the pollution of their waters with blood and oil and rusted metal; for frightening away their schools of fish and turtles with bombs and mines; for befouling their waters with our war.

I pull the honey and cheese and chocolate from the bag and lay them out carefully in front of me, moving by touch alone. I uncork the wine and pour out the last of it. I hug the empty bottle to my chest.

For long minutes, there is silence, and I wonder if this is the same silence that greeted my ancestor so many generations ago when he came to plead for his people and his livelihood.

Then they begin to sing, and the sound rolls through my skin and into my blood and bones. I am weeping. I feel a gentle brush across my cheek, and a tear is carried away.

When their song ends, I whisper my thanks, my voice raw. I retreat carefully, toes curling against the rock. I slip into the water, kick and kick and kick towards the faint light. Out into the deep well carved into the bottom of the sea, and then up, up, up towards the light.

I gasp, spitting water, when I finally surface. Blinking against the salt that clings to my eyelashes, I find the handholds and footholds carved into the curve of rock and pull myself up. When I reach the top, I look across the bay and see that they have all gathered there, my neighbors who understand and those who do not.

Holding the wine bottle close, I scramble down the far side and wade through the water. When I reach the shore, they are still waiting, clustered and silent.

I smile and hold up the bottle. It is filled with water now, pearls a glimmering treasure on the bottom, a fish swimming in narrow circle within. A fish too large to have fit through the neck of the bottle.

The old man smiles, the weight of his grief momentarily lifted. Behind me, I hear the bells of the boats and the shouts of the fishers as they haul in their nets, full to bursting.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her work can be found there.]