The first step onto dry land was bittersweet: the sweet relief of home and the bitter ache of parting.
Years had passed but the swaying green of the bluffs hadn’t changed at all. She stumbled her way forward, her legs unused to the steadiness underfoot. Behind her the waves lapped at the shore and she could hear the familiar creak of wood on the wind but she would not turn. She would not crack.
She paused at the base of the cliff, eyes caught by the sparkle of a rock pool. Her reflection swam in and out of focus as tiny crabs rippled the surface. How different she was now. Soft, doughy features replaced by scarred cheeks and steely eyes. Her hair, now flecked with grey, was much shorter than it had been the last time she’d stood in this spot. The long flowing locks were a luxury that she hadn’t been able to afford: a handhold that she wouldn’t provide. Conscious of eyes at her back, she straightened. Lingering here would only prolong her pain.
The worn path home was so familiar she found herself following it with little effort. In the stillness, with only the crickets and the itch of salt on her skin to distract her, she felt her mind trying to wander. Trying to remember. She focused on the scene around her, firmly controlling her wayward thoughts. Crocuses lined the path, the first signs of spring. She looked for the beauty in the journey - it had been years since she’d seen flowers in the wild. A flash of a cabin, a battered metal jug stuffed to the brim with bluebells bought from a harbour stall. No. She had made her choice.
The path was both too short and too long. Houses came into view sooner than she was ready for. In the garden of the nearest - a small cottage with a modest garden - stood a man hanging out washing.
She stopped and watched him as he draped shirts and breeches, marvelling at how tall he was, how he seemed to vibrate with the fitness and vitality that young men sometimes did. Her breath caught in her throat as he looked up and realised that she was there. Saw the shock of recognition in his eyes, seeing past her rope-callused hands and sun worn face to the woman he‘d once known. Her knees gave out when he took his first tremulous step towards her and tears blurred her vision as she heard his voice crack as he called for his father.
Tears. Embraces. Exclamations. Her old home, as familiar as the path but also so strangely other. Where her vegetables used to grow now stood untended weeds. Where her pies used to cool on the sills now boasted a tired collection of rusty cans. Where her boy used to be now stood a man.
She couldn’t keep her hands away from his face. Brushing his hair to the side, cupping his cheek, wiping the moisture from his eyes. She studied the face she’d dreamed of for years. He looked more like his father now even though he’d resembled her more as a child. His smile softened the sharp angles and planes of his face and the joy in his eyes dulled the ache in her heart. She kissed his forehead and huffed out a laugh as he crushed her in a hug that nearly cut off her air.
She didn’t miss the shadow at his jawline or the faint smudge of green around one eye. She touched both with a gentle fingertip and he flinched, a look of shame flickering across his face. Behind him, a man stood in the doorway, regarding her coolly.
A flash of the same man and the same doorway, her arms thrust out towards him and her voice hoarse from screaming. Him slumped, cradling an arm and bleeding from the mouth. She blinked and the vision faded. Automatically looked at the floor to see the grooves she had worn in the ground as she’d been dragged away but, of course, the years had erased them.
He looked older. Leaner. The taut, wiry muscles stood out on his bare chest and she shuddered involuntarily at a flash of his arms pressing her down. She closed her eyes and called to mind a different set of arms, just as strong and lean but wrapping around her with tenderness. But, no. That memory would no longer bring comfort, not with the loss so fresh in her mind.
The man waited, expecting her to rush to him and fall to her knees for him as well. He would be waiting a long time. The meek, obedient woman he had barked at and belittled had died in the raid that night. The woman who stood before him had been reborn from her ashes and that woman had not returned for him. She had not battled storms and crossed oceans, fought friends and killed foes, manipulated captains and bedded pirate Queens for him.
She drew herself up and narrowed her eyes. The plan had always been to return. She’d left a life that she loved, left the woman that she loved, all in the pursuit of home but as she stood on the threshold of her old life she found the idea of settling back into it utterly repellant. She turned to her son, who cringed at the look in his father’s eyes, and decided.
The ship would not leave until dusk. That had been the promise given in the hope that she’d change her mind and return. Her lover knew her better than she knew herself, it seemed. She spoke for the first time since returning, offering her son the choice that had been made for her so many years ago. His hitched breath and panicked glance at his father gave the warning she needed to avoid his arms as the brute she’d married attempted to shake the defiance from her. He wasn’t prepared for her neat sidestep or her clever twist of his arm that drove him to his knees. She’d learned much in her time away and she was no longer defenceless.
Calmly, she repeated her question and pushed her husband’s face into the dirt to quiet his screamed threats and obscenities. The boy, offered freedom, stumbled a little before gathering his few possessions from the cottage.
His father, too comfortable in his role as the victor, required another lesson or two before they could leave without pursuit but even he backed away from the barrel of a pistol levelled at his face.
This time the path was entirely too long, though the bliss coursing through her veins lent her speed. This time the beauty wasn’t difficult to find and the sunlight hitting her son’s dark locks made a bubble of laughter escape her. He smiled tentatively in response and she resisted the urge to grab his hands and dance to the shore.
When they reached the waving green of the bluffs and the black sails came into view, she wondered if it were possible to fly from happiness. She heard the shout go up from the decking even from this distance and she pulled the boy into the little rowing boat that had brought her here only hours before and used the power of her joy to row them both towards home.