The Woman Who Sat By The Sea
Artwork by Russel Butler
She moved through the water, breathing liquid, seeing blue, Technicolor blue, with streaks of golden fish sailing by. Then, she was falling over fire, trees on fire. When she landed, she died.
Before consciousness, there was pain. An ache that began in the woman’s throat like a scream. Her eyes opened, she saw nothing. As she tried to breathe the scalding air, the dust of ashes dried her mouth. Then shapes began to form and focus. The forest was alive with deadly things. Smoke curling from the tips of their branches, blackened trees stood tall like gunfighters firing pistols into the sky. Roots snaked across the ground. Steam rose everywhere, ghosts who danced and swayed and seared her eyes until she was forced to close them tightly. Darkness again. Silence. The cracking and snapping of the fire had long ago died. Though she could feel the breeze slicing her skin, the wind was mute, having no leaves or grass to rush through.
She felt the sound before she heard it. First, an itch deep within her ears. Then, the buzz of a bee. Finally, the roar of a small airplane. The woman jerked upright, as water splashed down over the charred forest. She felt her skin rip across her flesh while she watched the plane sweep upward and away. The sky was empty again. The woman looked at her body, now clean from the soot and dirt and bits of cloth. Red, blistered skin, tender to touch. Smell of burnt hair. Trying to breathe the scalding air, she eased herself to her feet and began to walk in the direction of the disappeared plane.
She moved slowly, concentrating only on where her next step should be placed. The floor of the forest was still hot, the ash damp from the efforts of the firefighting plane. As all the brush and undergrowth had been burned away, her only obstacles were fallen branches and broken trees. Coming to a small stream, she bent for a drink. The water was cold and tasted like apples. She sat there for a long time, tired even though behind her she could still see the spot where she had lain. As she rested, the woman realized that her feet felt soothed from the cool mud of the shore, so she scooped large handfuls of it onto her body, covering her legs, belly, breasts, arms, and, finally, her head and face.
As she caught sight of her reflection in the clear water, she struggled hard to recognize herself, to recall her name. Her questions were met with a blank mind. When she stood again, she felt heavier but more comfortable. Much relieved in her camouflage suit, she named herself Charlene. Char for short, she decided with a little smile. Her lips felt tight and sore under the mud. She let her face go slack, gingerly jumped over the stream and kept walking.
When night came, Char rested, filled with hunger. She consumed her sleep, fed off her dreams. A delicious tomato, ripened on the vine, heavy with juice, sliced onto fresh warm rye bread. Mangoes. Suddenly swimming – years had come and gone, the sound of metal. Then falling.
It was not quite light yet. The sky was a deep blue, instead of black, and towards the east there was a softening. On the horizon, Char could see treetops. The sight motivated her to move from her resting spot, a shallow hole she had dug in the ground, which had sheltered her from the wind and kept her balm of mud moist and cool over her burnt skin. During the night, worms had slid over her. In the morning, she shook herself free from the earth.
The sun climbed in the sky and winked at Char with the passing of each cloud. Finally reaching the border of the burnt area, Char stepped away from the dead forest and disappeared into the lush green foliage not touched by flames. Walking through the woods provided its own challenge. The brush was thick and deep, forcing Char to stop and bind her feet with dried reeds for protection. And, where the sight of the fire had been eerily silent, this new terrain offered an abundance of sounds. Leaves rustled overhead as squirrels jumped from treetop to treetop. Wind moved through the bushes. Small creatures shook the grass. But most amazing, were the thousands of small birds perched in the branches, kissing the sky with their songs.
Char’s attention was soon captured by the sight of large ripe blackberries. She hurried to the bush and eagerly shoved the fruit into her mouth. Briars caught and scratched at her fingers and wrists as she plucked handfuls of berries. Her mouth filled with juice. Small seeds stuck in her gums. The taste of blood and mud mingled with the sweet wine taste of the fruit. She ate until her stomach cramped, wiped her soiled hands on the mossy forest floor and moved on.
She kept walking until the sun sank and a full low-hanging moon shone brightly on the forest. Char wanted to continue, but she felt like she could bang her head on that moon, so she was forced to stop for the night. Digging her bed, she tried to remember the day before she awoke in the forest. She had sipped cinnamon coffee in the morning and eaten toast with butter and sugar on top. Had she gone swimming? She moved through the water like she was standing still. It seemed as though years had come and gone. Then, she was sucked up into darkness. She could feel the walls of her confinement and pounded on these walls with clenched fists.
In the morning, Char ate green hazelnuts. She peeled the prickly skin off the nut, cracked the unripe shell with her teeth, and chewed on the soft tasteless seed inside. It took her a very long time to eat enough nuts to be satisfied.
Char could feel her cloak of mud stiffen with the warmth of the sun. Whereas the cold at night was carnivorous, biting at her flesh and eating into her sleep, the warmth of the day was benevolent, like the large rough tongue of a cow warming her skin with long slow licks. Becoming drowsy with this heat, Char shook herself awake and decided it was time to move on again. Though her destination was not clear, some instinct pushed her forward. Soon she broke through the woods and faced green sloping hills.
The air was more humid here. Long grass rippled in the wind and dandelion seeds with downy tufts swirled against the blue sky. Char bent and plucked a wish from the ground. Holding the flower between her fingers, she closed her eyes, brought the white cloud close to her lips and blew. The fuzz from the dandelion drifted away and Char was left holding a stem with a bald head.
She opened her eyes. The breeze still played in the grass. The sun had not moved. Char let the dandelion fall to the ground and started to climb the first hill. Her movement was efficient, deliberate steps that covered ground with purpose.
That night, when she stopped, she smelled the sea in the distance and the rolling hills became water lapping against her body. She moved through the water, breathing liquid. Her hands and feet were fins.
In the day, she swam over the hills. No longer did she have to fight to take a step through bushes and trees. She could walk unhampered, but was careful to avoid the small farms and the people traveling on dirt roads. At one time, she had hoped for rescue, but now Char didn’t need the help of anyone. She was convinced that her tongue was dirt and would crumble if she were forced to talk. In fact, she felt like her whole being was the soil she wore and the ground was more kin to her than the people she glimpsed.
These people seemed unreal. Hair combed. Clothed in dresses and pants and shirts and too much stuff. Talking sounds that needn’t be said. Everything was excess to Char. She could not stop. She swam over the hills – until she stubbed her toe on a very large rock.
Char stood at the base of the very large rock and looked up, way up, to where something swayed and bumped high against the stone. A man. Two men, climbing the rock and talking about how good their sandwiches were going to taste once they got to the top. Char ducked down and scooted to the other side, watching the sun glance off the sweaty backs of the rock climbers. She felt desire as she watched the men, muscles pulling and rubbing under their skin. These were beautiful men wearing tight, brightly coloured pants that made Char think of fish. And the sea.
Past the rock, far in the distance, Char could see tall buildings, their outline hazed by the cover of smog. By tomorrow, she would reach this city, which she felt must be her home. And she still wasn’t sure how she had ever left. She had been swimming, diving far under the ruckus of the waves. She had heard the sound of a motor getting louder and louder. There was darkness. The water tasted like iron.
Char stood scared and cold in the bright beautiful daylight. The rock climbers had disappeared over the edge of the cliff. The sun was high in the sky, stabbing her eyes with brilliant rays. She could hear crickets rubbing their legs together, making a song that buzzed too deeply in her ears. Her stomach was empty, but no longer rumbled with hunger. It fed off itself. Dry grass scratched her legs, but she couldn’t find the energy to move.
Char curled into herself and slept, hidden by the grass. When she opened her eyes, it was dark and lightning bugs flashed across the sky, stars close enough to touch and catch and hold in her hands like a wish.
She felt strong again and sunrise found her leaving the dirt roads of the country to follow a highway into the city. People stared at her from their cars, but they moved so quickly she was soon forgotten or thought to have been imagined. Nobody could really believe the sight of Char striding purposefully beside the highway, eyes shining white against her cloak of mud.
On entering the maze of buildings, however, people could no longer blink her away. They looked at her strangely and started to follow her through the streets.
Char walked on, not unaware of the attention, but completely unaffected. Her plan was to reach the water, hear its lullaby, and know she was finally home. As she rounded one last corner, she escaped the city and there before her lay the sea. Suddenly relieved, grateful and exhausted, Char sunk to the ground and sat on the sun-drenched sand. The tide was out, the waves crested far from the boardwalk. Just a little rest, and then she was going to enter the water and let the salt waves heal her skin. She wanted to float in those waves for eternity. But first, just a little rest.
As the sun reached its peak in the sky, Char sat by the sea while people gathered and shifted behind her. They asked questions amongst themselves. Who was she? Where did she come from? Why does she sit here? If they had asked Char, she would have replied.
She had been swimming. Her hands and feet cut the waves like fins. Air strapped to her back, she moved through the water, and seemed to breathe the liquid. The sea was blue, Technicolor blue, with streaks of golden fish sailing by. She moved like she was standing still. It seemed as though years had come and gone.
She’d felt the sound before she heard it. An itch deep within her ears. A shadow, a roar, and then she was sucked up into darkness. She could feel the walls of her confinement and pounded on these walls with clenched fists. The sound of metal shook her blood. The water tasted like iron. And then she was falling over fire, trees on fire.
When she landed she died. The water around her boiled and became steam. She couldn’t breathe the fire.
But no one asked a single question of the woman herself.
The woman, herself, drowsed in the warmth of the day, glad to not be moving, moving, moving. The sound of the waves rushed over Char. The smell of salt and fish filled her nose. Even with her eyes closed, she could still see the water. She smiled and felt the sun dry her cloak of mud.
Later, when the people realized Char had not moved in hours, they were concerned, went home confused, and had the nagging feeling they had lost something. They patted their pockets, thinking perhaps they had forgotten a valuable trinket in their clothes. They walked from room to room, staring blankly at walls and in cupboards, trying to remember why they had stirred in the first place.
The next day, after a good night’s sleep, people forgot they had seen the woman walk up and sit down by the boardwalk. They praised the city for this beautiful new statue, which would disappear under the waves with the coming of the tide and emerge newly polished each time the water retreated. The people of the city insisted a gold plaque be made where they could engrave her name or a few words describing this woman. In the end, though, nobody knew her story and the plaque remained blank. A shining, golden rectangle nestled under the figure of the woman sitting by the sea.
Marci Denesiuk received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Concordia University and has worked as a photographer and a journalist. She has also taught composition courses at Concordia, creative writing at Seneca College, and children’s literature at Université du Québec à Montréal. Marci also develops performances based on her stories and has produced a claymation film to accompany the reading of her story “Two Feet in Texas”. This story was originally published in The Far Away Home by NeWest Press in 2005 and is reprinted here with the permission of the author and the publisher.