(CW: descriptions of dead bodies)
From the sea, the town would get a hefty supply of fish and seaweed, as well as strips of torn rope and ribbons, instruments, dolls, painted bottles, and even metal beams. Sometimes the tide graced the coast with a book, seemingly dry and in decent condition. Other times, the waters would unfurl in white curls and reveal a glass eye, dead armored crabs, or salt-crusted teeth.
But out of all the mysteries, the lost and random things brought onto the shore, the most bountiful and unabating was by far the dead bodies. That's how it started for everyone.
Some of us had arrived on boats, in small numbers, usually two or three. The unaccompanied corpses of those dragged onto the coast were often left to bask in the morning sun like driftwood, drying.
There's no clearing past the horizon. The sky, no matter how blue, gradated into an opaque nebula, a dense mist.
"But what's out there?" I once curiously asked the town's chief, a tall man with broad shoulders and glasses with such thin frames that his lens seemed to be floating in front of his face.
He took his hand to his chin. "Do you really want to know?"
"I do. Tell me, please."
"Well, the world, of course," he answered, chuckling.
The children played a game as soon as they heard the chime of the town's bell tower. They would speed past the cobblestone streets, past the town's square, through a narrow path that led directly to the beach.
Before a boat arrived, they would scrap and squawk like geese, placing bets on how many dead bodies would end up being retrieved.
"Four," one boy yelled.
"No, three," another jumped in.
The townspeople would head to the sand, wagering small or valuable items between one another in hushed tones.
"Six," a boy shouted. "I bet there'll be six dead bodies."
"Don't be stupid," an older man replied. "A small vessel could never fit half-a-dozen corpses."
The waves grew, layering one over another in a series of ruffles. They hit the shore, extending their reach and licking the toes of those abutting to the coast. The water ran shivers past my knees, the vessel finally approached, the bow kissed the sand slowly.
The children dashed, cutting past the crowd of people, clapping and howling with glee. The first to arrive placed their hands on the ledge, then they hunched their bodies forward, nearly falling into the boat.
"What?" some people said.
"There's nothing here," the boy returned. "The boat's empty."
All the bodies arrived differently. Some had no eyes or hair, and their faces seemed overwashed, almost as if their expressions could melt clean from their skin. Others often arrived mangled, with holes and wounds and festered injuries, as if the weight of the world had twisted and crushed them like paper.
The first corpse I saw right after my arrival was that of a young girl. Her mouth was open and bore no teeth, her skin sallow, and her legs so taut, so thin, that if pulled would snap in two like a wishbone.
"What do we do with her?" I asked the town's chief.
He let his eyes trace the crowd of people around him. The newcomers, the people that had arrived with me, tilted and turned their heads, lacking understanding.
"Well, we bury her, of course," he answered with such legerity. "Put her under the earth, under the white sand like a seed."
The new arrivals and I watched the townspeople dig a deep ditch, a burial away from the water, away from the ocean's grip. The dead girl laid on the shore while the boat was swept away by the sea. The sun began to settle behind the mist.
"Hurry," the chief ordered, "before the high tide comes in."
We all pitched in to help, carving an ample grave, much lengthier than the girl's body.
"Did it really need to be this big?" I wondered.
"Of course," someone answered, "the bigger the hole, the sounder the sleep."
We carried her gently, both hands on her body as if she was a precious doll crafted out of thin porcelain. I helped the townsfolk place her into the earth and watched them cover her with sand like a time capsule.
"What do we do now?" I asked.
"We wait," said the chief.
He looked at me, smiled. "Didn't you pay attention?" he asked. "The young girl's been buried, so now we'll wait for her to rise and live; so that one day she may leave."
When no bodies arrived, but a boat rolled in, it meant that someone's time had come and that they should go.
"Go where? Where do they have to go?"
"Didn't I already tell you, boy?" the chief returned. "Don't you already know what's past the mist?"
"You said it was the world."
"But isn't this place part of the world too? I don't get it?"
"This place, this town isn't meant for the living."
I hadn't discovered at the time what was out towards the direction of the world; everyone who had ever left had yet to ever return.
Out on the other side of the coast, abandoned in an area with jagged rock formations as sharp as mountain peaks, was a large vessel with sails and poles and crooked faces etched into the woodwork.
The boat easily could have transported several hundred people, men, women with children, and clusters of animals. The waves broke over its hull, emanating a rustle similar to the trees.
"So there you are," I heard the chief shout from behind me. "I've been looking for you."
"For me? Why?"
"It's my job to ask you, as this town's selectman, if you want to leave."
"What do you mean?" I returned. "I can't leave; I'm just a kid."
"But you can't stay here much longer either."
"Like you've heard me say before: this town is not meant for the living."
The chief squatted down beside me, letting out a groan as if he was weak in the knees.
"If you want," he said, "you can stay."
"Of course, but if you stay, you can never leave."
"But what's the problem with that?"
The chief pointed over my head to the waters of the ocean behind me. "The problem is that you'll leave the world behind, everything you've come to know, and anything still to be discovered."
The horizon for a moment appeared almost visible, gauzy even. The mass body of the nebulous layer peeled away like soft cotton, just enough for me to see the blue sky on the other side with clarity.
"Have you had any dreams?" the chief asked.
I nodded. "I've seen people. People, I don't know, that I don't remember, swarming around me, stroking my cheek, whispering in my ear."
"Blinding lights, two rings, speeding towards me."
"And when you wake, what do you feel?"
"In the beginning, it felt like a weight on my chest. It was as if my heart was being squeezed and could burst at any moment and stop beating."
"Now?" I repeated. "Now, I haven't noticed anything."
I sat on the boat with two other people, a man with hair that looked like a pile of crows feathers and the girl that arrived on the coast with skinny legs and no teeth, not too long after me.
"Are you guys scared?" she asked.
"No, I'm sure we'll be fine," he answered with a warm tone. "After all, if we do end up dying before making it past the mist, wouldn't we just be dragged back to the coast?"
The girl laughed, "I guess that's true, isn't it? And what about you, are you worried?"
"I'm...I'm scared," I choked out.
"Of what?" she asked.
"Of the world, of what's past the mist."
"Don't be," she assured, putting her hand on my lap. "You have to believe that the world's worth seeing."
The boat rocked, causing our bodies to shift forward and back, following the sway of the sea. The water whispered and splashed against the hull, exuding a briny scent while sending droplets into the air that stuck to our skin.
"The mist," the man with the feathered hair let out. He signaled with his head to the shape-shifting clouds enveloping our vessel.
"It's thick," I remarked, squinting.
But no one answered.
The man and the girl were gone, their bodies absorbed by the mist.
I had no idea what was going on. I ran to the end of the boat, nearly tripping and falling into the water. The overlay was eating the wood away, painting everything in my vicinity in white gouache.
Everything spiraled: the townspeople, the beach, the chief, the quarreling kids. The sound of waves crashing, the dead, the weight of the sand over my buried body, the townspeople gathering around me.
I looked out to where the town should have been and reminded myself of the chief's words. I was swept by a wave of latent memories: a dog, a house with vines draping from the roof, a man with white hairs, and a woman wearing a sunbonnet, sitting on the stairs of a front porch. There was a young girl, much younger than me, my sister, running towards the street. I saw a pair of eyes blinking, bursting into halos, warping the space around me. I heard crying and felt a burning cold wash over my body.
There was a tug, the pull of an invisible hook latched onto my chest. I felt no pain, and for a moment, it felt as if I were a cloud, distancing myself from the dead sea.
In the end, I was able to make it back to the world.
In the end, I'm here, living.