They lived in a sturdy hut by the sea, nestled tightly beside the only mountain on the island. A man and his wife, both worn by time like the stones on the beach. They were alone, and had been for many years.
Each morning, they walked the treacherous path between the base of the cliff and the deep water, gathering mussels and driftwood. While the sun stretched in the midday sky, they tended the meager garden beside their hut, coaxing small tendrils of life from the barren ground. And when the sunlight began to pale, they retreated to the hut to sit beside the fire and rest.
Their island was empty except for the birds that nested on the cliff side and the lizards that were always underfoot. This did not bother the man and his wife. In fact, they had quite forgotten that there existed a world outside of their own, or people aside from themselves.
One morning, the man rose early, awakened by a seaborne storm. The wind tore at the walls of the windowless hut, and the air tasted thickly of rain. But the hut was sturdy and they were safe, so he was not disturbed. He woke his wife with a kiss to her wrinkled cheek and set about reviving the fire.
It rained the whole day and into the night. They did not leave the hut except to check that the garden was protected from the ferocity of the wind. It was not the first storm on the island, nor would it be the last. The man and his wife waited it out as they always did, in silent repose, unaware that this gale was not like the others they’d weathered.
Sometime in the night, the rain ceased suddenly, leaving behind only clouds and a stirred up sea to prove that the storm had ever occurred. When the man and his wife awoke that morning, they went to the cliffside beach as always, to gather mussels and driftwood.
The sea was grey and angry, tossed and frothed by the storm. They did not notice her at first, so taken were they by the color of the ocean.
She stood in the shallow water, the waves tugging at her legs. She did not move. The wife saw her first, but said nothing, unconvinced that the child was real.
The girl was young, with wide gray eyes the color of the storm-churned sea and tangled black hair. Her slight frame was clothed only in a pale shift. She stood ghostlike on the shore, a creature of the sea and the storm.
They did not know who she was or how she came to the island. She did not speak, but allowed them to lead her to their hut, where she sat gratefully beside the fire and sipped at a warm bowl of broth. The man and his wife stood nestled in the corner, watching her as if she might vanish at any moment.
“What’s your name?” the man asked. The girl said nothing.
“Where are you from?” the woman asked. Still, the child did not reply.
The man looked from the girl to his wife, his face lined with concern. “What should we do?”
The woman smiled. “What else? We care for her.”
They called her Mara. She learned quickly how to find the best mussels, scampering along the sharp, slick rocks with ease. They taught her to tend the garden and laughed as she chased the lizards and birds, sunshine caught in her midnight hair.
Mara never spoke, but the man and his wife soon discovered that she could sing. By firelight each evening, she sang wordless tunes lovely enough to bring them to tears, songs that sounded of the sea, of the wind, of the dance of starlight in the water.
Each night, they slept huddled together, with Mara sheltered between the man and his wife on the only bed in the hut. Every morning they woke to find Mara asleep outside by the shore. At first, they tried to tell her it wasn’t safe, that she should stay in the hut at night. Mara would nod dutifully, but still awoke each morning on the beach. Eventually, the man and his wife gave in. The man built Mara a small bed of moss and seaweed, but she preferred curling up on the sand and stones.
Months passed. The man and his wife came to care for Mara deeply. She began exploring the little island, vanishing for hours at a time while they worked the garden and tended to the hut. Mara said nothing to them, but her stormy eyes lit up when they spoke to her, and she smiled as she sang to them at night.
She began to bring them trinkets from her excursions around the island: glassy black stones worn smooth by the sea, red and yellow feathers, spotted eggshells, and once, the bones of a large lizard the size of her arm. The man and his wife accepted these odd gifts as a sign of Mara’s affections, for the child never hugged them nor wanted to be touched.
On a cloudy day that smelled of rain, Mara went out to explore and did not return. The man and his wife waited until dusk, hoping she would find her way back. When she did not, they lit torches and set out to find her, stumbling around in the dark.
They searched until their torches burned out, scouring the little island twice. Mara was gone.
The woman wept bitterly that night, haunted by thoughts of Mara’s lifeless body floating out to sea, for that was the only explanation. The man wept, too, salty tears that fell into his wife’s hair as he held her. Outside, a storm raged into the night.
The morning after Mara vanished was a somber one, silent and empty. An overcast and rainless sky lingered, and the churned sea reminded them of Mara’s eyes. The man and his wife looked around the island again. They spent a dark afternoon staring out into the sea from the top of the cliff, looking for a figure in the waves. There was no sign of Mara anywhere.
The next day, the man and his wife went about their usual tasks joylessly, missing the girl and her songs.
The clouds dissipated the day after that, and an intense heat fell over the island. They struggled to keep their garden alive as the sun tore the moisture from the air and the earth. After a week of sweltering heat and sorrow—and still no sign of Mara—the man and his wife had nearly given up hope.
One night, dark clouds gathered over the island, blotting out the stars. The man slept deeply in the reprieve from the heat, but the woman woke in the dead of night at the sound of a familiar voice.
She rose quietly, ignoring the complaints of her aging limbs. The man did not wake as she left the hut and walked down to the beach. He did not stir as she followed the faint call of Mara’s song, walking out into the waves, led deeper and deeper by the ethereal melody.
When he did awake, he was alone in a storm unlike any he had ever seen.
The wind tore at the hut, shearing pieces of the roof from their place and up into the air. The man ran out and called for his wife, his voice stifled by the roaring wind. He steeled himself and set out to look for her, a dark dread settling in his throat. He knew he was alone.
He could not see much in the rain, which struck at the land and sea as if to wash it all away. He stumbled often as he ascended the mountainside, which was slick and treacherous beneath his feet. By the time he reached the top, the skin of his hands and legs was torn and bloodied by the rock. He called his wife’s name into the tempest until his voice gave out and he collapsed on the top of the cliff under the weight of wind and grief.
For a moment, the storm abated. The rain eased enough for him to see. There, out in the midst of the churning waves, a welcome sight: his wife, holding Mara’s hand. And amidst the howl of the wind floated a voice more beautiful than any other he knew, beckoning him. He sobbed at the sound.
The clouds above began to clear just enough to see the stars thinly through the mist. The song grew stronger, pulling at him like moon pulls the tide. He turned his face upward, letting the rain and starlight fall upon his face.
The man was not afraid. His steps were sure as he walked back down the mountain, past the remnants of the hut, which had been decimated by the storm. He did not waver on the path to the beach, his gaze fixed on the two figures in the distance.
He reached the place where the land met the sea and slid the sandals off his feet. Eyes alight, he stepped into the water, smiling as the ocean rose to greet him and the last of the stars faded from view.