Monday, May 11, 2009

The sea

The boats are returning to the harbor now, one by one, the reflection of their torches flaring across the water in the last moments of twilight. Tired and grim-faced -- it's been a bad day's haul, it seems -- the fisherman will pull along the docks, tie up, and silently unload their catch. From where I stand, along the rocks where the jetty meets the long, grey beach, I can't see their faces, but I know each one of them by name, I know their thoughts, I know their wives, and I teach most of their children.

The policemen have completed their enquiries and have left town. They haven't said as much, but I know they won't be back. They will file their report -- missing person, no evidence foul play -- the folder will be neatly tucked into a cabinet in the district office, and no one will ever look at it again. It's always the same. As far as the authorities are concerned, keeping track of the activities of the living is responsibility enough; expecting them to bother with the affairs of those who have disappeared without trace would be asking too much, and in the end what good would it do, anyway?

My mother was the first person in the long history of this village to be able to read and write, and had she not given birth to me she could very easily have been the last. She wasn't from here, naturally. Her birthplace was twelve miles inland, in a real town with lamps and cast-iron fences, newspapers and brightly lit cafés. When she was nineteen, having already lost both parents, she came here with some friends on a lark and, as the result of a series of circumstances the nature of which I was never allowed by my mother to have more than the vaguest knowledge, never left. It would be appealing to be able to say that she stayed because she fell in love with the village or with my father, but I'm not sure that either was ever true. Be that as it may she remained all the same, and in time I was born.

My mother was never able to teach my father to do anything more than write his name -- a skill I'm quite certain he never employed when he was out of her sight -- but she saw to it, in spite of our poverty, that I was supplied with books, paper, and writing implements, and she pointedly neglected my instruction in the tasks that in the village are customarily allotted to girls, namely gathering seaweed and shellfish, tending to the gardens, and looking after infants, one's own or those of other people. My mother put on no airs about her own original station in life nor did she entertain any illusions about how far she had descended from that condition in consenting to marry my father, but she regarded herself as a civilized women and civilized women did not muck about in tide pools and lazy beds. My mother performed her obligatory household duties, the unending cycles of cooking, cleaning, and laundering, without complaint, but she never suggested to me that these activities were sufficient to constitute one's mission in life. Since it seemed unlikely that I would ever leave here or find a suitable husband, her fixed intention was that I become the village's teacher and instruct the children in the rudiments of literacy, arithmetic, and religion. Had it not been for the burden of attending to me and my father, a burden that increased after my father's health began to fail, she might well have taken up the task herself. As it was, by the time my father went to his grave her own health had begun prematurely to decline. I was already sixteen and therefore, in my mother's judgment, sufficiently prepared to see to the village's education. She persuaded her neighbors -- with what kind of arm twisting I will never know -- to entrust their offspring to my tutelage in exchange for a few coins a week, enough to pay for a few supplies and my own very modest requirements for food, firewood, and other necessities. I have never harbored any illusions about the lasting effect I have had on my charges, but at the very least I know that they will not be as ignorant as their parents.

There were two policemen this time. The older one, the one who seemed to be in charge, seemed familiar, though he didn't appear to remember me. They always come around to me eventually. The villagers are a close-lipped lot, and even when they do decide to let on a bit their ramblings don't appear to make much sense, at least to outsiders. I, on the other hand, know everyone in this village, I understand their ways, and I'm happy to tell the policemen whatever it is they want to know. The missing man lived in a cabin along the harbor; he lived alone; he drank no more than anyone else; he had no enemies one night that might not be his friends again the next. And so on. They enquire, as discreetly and indirectly as they can, about his relations with women; I tell them plainly what I know or may have heard.

In the end I really haven't told them very much at all, but it's all they need or want to hear. What they don't want to hear is what no one has told them but what everyone in the village knows: that no trace of the man will be found, that no witness to his fatal last moments will come forward, that no bloody footprints will be found leading into the brush.

For the most part, the people who live in this village die in one of three ways: by drowning, by drinking, or at the point of a knife. Little given to reflection or sentiment, they fear none of the three. What they do fear has no name -- for how can you name something that no one has ever seen? -- and if the police have gotten wind of it, one way or another, as they make their way around the village, through some slip of the tongue or muttered aside, they lift their pencils from their notebooks and pretend they haven't heard. Only later, perhaps at the very end of their interview with me, as they stand awkwardly before the door, their questions concluded but still held back as if by magnetic force, will they allude to what people are hinting but what of course is nothing but ignorant nonsense and superstition, that the disappeared man has been taken by something silent and unseen, something that visits the shore only after long intervals and only on the blackest, coldest, mistiest nights, something that lifts latches and subdues without sound and that leaves no evidence of a struggle behind. And I'll tell them that yes, that's what the people think, and that's what they have always believed, and if they ask me if I believe it I'll tell them that what I believe or don't believe doesn't matter. And the younger policeman might suggest that couldn't it be true that the vanished man might simply have succumbed to madness and alcohol, that he might have lost his mind in the depths of night and strode out into the sea and drowned, and I will tell them that yes he might well have but that they can scour the shoreline from now until doomsday and nobody will ever find his body.

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