[TW: Child loss]
She was broken when I found her.
I first glimpsed her frail form at the edge of the beach, where sand gives way to sea. The dauntingly unchanging vista, the site of my nightly penance, had become indelibly etched into the dark crevices of my soul, so it took a moment for me to register something was amiss with the scene that fateful night.
When the fact of her pitiful presence lodged itself firmly into my consciousness, I hastened forward, a sick, familiar dread churning in my gut. Hampered by the gusting wind, I crossed the sand as fast as I was able, at first mistaking the prone figure for that of a child.
Not a child, dear God, please not that.
As I drew nearer, I found the battered body to be that of a woman, although one so small and frail that my mistaken impression was forgivable. She was curled into a protective ball there in the surf, the same fetal position in which we all spend the first nine months of our existence before emerging from the womb, as if in unconscious defense against the cruel realities of life yet tasted. She was grievously injured, and I suspected the faint rise and fall of her chest would be short-lived. A nasty gash ran the length of her spine, another intersected it perpendicularly from shoulder to shoulder, the two forming a gruesome cross. The blood was shockingly dark against her pale skin. The rest of her was covered in scrapes and bruises and only her head – utterly bare – remained blemish-free.
Naked, she lay there, whimpering like an injured hatchling. I couldn’t guess at her age, nor from whence she had come. There were no tracks in the sand. It was almost as if she’d been washed up from the sea itself. Or had fallen from the sky.
I doubted I could help her, but nor could I leave her there to die alone. At the very least, I could try to bring her some comfort in her final moments. So thinking, I bore her away to my nearby cottage.
In the harsh lighting, her wounds seemed worse than previously thought. Death, I have found, drives a hard bargain and once it senses its due, it will not be denied. I felt its dark wings enfolding the cottage that night, buffeting the small structure with ceaseless, malevolent intent as I lay the woman gently down on the sofa.
She had slipped into unconsciousness and that, at least, seemed a mercy. I retrieved a bucket and sponge from the kitchen and set about attending to her as best I could.
As I worked, I found my mind wandering to the story of the good Samaritan. But, as the water in the bucket darkened to crimson, I concluded there were few similarities. The woman might have been a traveler of sorts, but no band of thieves had done this to her. Her wounds had a deep, surgical quality – they had not been inflicted by any mortal hand. And what of I, the rescuer apparent? Unlike the Samaritan, my motives were not pure. Driven by guilt, my actions were selfish. Which is to say, despicable.
Still, as I applied the sponge to her broken body with a care my hand hadn’t practiced in years, I found myself thinking of redemption.
Once finished, I covered her with a worn quilt and left her to rest, certain she would be dead come morning.
She slept for three days.
I was not home when at last she woke. I had taken one of my infrequent trips to town to purchase provisions, and when I returned, I found her sitting upright on the sofa, wrapped in the quilt that had gone from shroud to shawl. Her eyes – the most peculiar shade of blue-gray I have ever witnessed, like the sky before a thunderstorm – speared me to the spot, laying me bare like a penitent before God.
“Y-you’re awake!” I spluttered. She only stared, unmoved. Perhaps she spoke some foreign tongue and my words meant no more to her than did the cawing of the gulls beyond the window. “Are you hungry?” I ventured.
That, at least, she seemed to understand. She nodded briskly.
Without another word, I turned away and headed for the kitchen.
In the days that followed, we fell into a comfortable routine, albeit a silent one. I tried speaking to her many times. I asked who she was, where she’d come from, and what had befallen her on the beach that cold night. I asked her name. Each time I spoke, she responded with the distinctly avian cocking of the head that indicates comprehension, yet she never replied. After a time, it seemed not to matter. I developed a sense of ease and comfort in her silent presence that I had once felt with another, but never since. I felt drawn to this mysterious being in some indefinable but vital way. The very fact of her seemed to matter far more than mere words, and so their absence became insignificant.
I spent my days as usual, cooking and cleaning and performing minor repairs around the cottage. At dusk, I went for my solitary walks along the beach and when I returned, I settled with a book into my armchair by the fire. She spent her time sleeping, and when awake, she’d gaze out the window at the sky beyond with a longing intensity that was heart-breaking to behold. When she grew tired of that, her gaze would inevitably fall to me. Hers was a look of patient expectation, although if she wanted something from me, I knew not what it might be.
When neither sleeping nor staring, she spent her time eating. She ate a great deal.
Looking back on it now, I sometimes think that was the time when my healing began. I still wanted to disappear from the world. I would often gaze out to sea at the bleak horizon and long for nothing more than to go out and meet it, yet the feeling was less intense than before and grew dimmer each day. It is a peculiar fact of life that we seldom notice change – even drastic change – when it happens gradually right in front of us. Nothing alters day by day and yet when we look back, everything is different. Perhaps that is why I found her transformation, like my own, unremarkable – because it unfolded slowly before my very eyes. Or, perhaps I had suspected her true form all along.
Her wounds healed rapidly, aided no doubt by her constant rest and voracious appetite, and while the bandages I had wrapped around her upper body remained in place, they were less often spotted with blood. Her hair began to grow, first in flimsy tufts and then in generous, feathery locks that draped her back in a golden cascade. At the same time, downy outgrowths on her arms and legs bloomed into a dazzling array of crisp, white feathers. Despite her constant feeding, she appeared to gain no weight. Above the bandages, her neck extended, swan-like in its grace, and her clavicle jutted out harshly, bone straining captive against a thin membrane of flesh. Her posture straightened and her shoulders squared as if the blood-cross on her back had become a wooden brace.
I observed this startling transformation day by day, and it never once gave me pause.
I cannot say for sure how long she stayed with me. I know weeks went by, perhaps months. But for one who had become as accustomed to marking the passage of days as diligently as does a condemned man awaiting execution, time faded to inconsequence for me. Many things that once seemed important became less so the longer I spent with her.
On one blustery night, much like the one on which I found her, it fully dawned on me that her transformation was complete. She had recovered, but more than just restored, she had transcended the bounds of her former state. Her beauty was utterly mesmerizing.
That was when she spoke to me for the first time.
It would also be the last.
“Who are you?” she asked abruptly as I sat in my accustomed place by the fire. Her words were clear and melodic, like birdsong. Beneath the eaves outside, a bevy of nesting pigeons echoed the question. Hoo? Hoo?
I had longed to converse with her ever since I concluded she would not succumb to her injuries and yet, as had her silence before, her ability for speech now seemed unremarkable. It was as if I had known she would find her voice all along; had been patiently waiting for this very moment from when I had first glimpsed her lying upon the sand. Rather than marveling at the fact of her words, I found myself focussing on the question itself. I knew it was not meant literally, so I considered carefully before answering. “I do not know.”
“Knowledge is power,” she observed in her singsong voice.
“Yes, so they say. Which would make me powerless, I suppose.”
“No?” I asked, puzzled.
“No,” she softly insisted. The conversation bore a faintly fragile, otherworldly quality. An ephemeral undercurrent coursed beneath her words and like smoke, they drifted fleetingly across the space between us. I felt much like a sleepwalker, pulled along against my will towards some unknowable inevitability. “There is as much power in knowledge as there is in ignorance,” she continued.
“Life is a paradox. Know thyself. Yet you cannot know what you are unless you know what you are not. The first step to knowledge is ignorance, so if there is power in knowing, it stems from not knowing.” Softly at first, her voice rose as she spoke, concluding in a crashing crescendo that belied her diminutive form.
“The opposite of a minor truth is a lie,” she interjected firmly, “but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” This statement, this declaration, felt both familiar and wholly foreign to me. As I was digesting her words and wondering if I had displeased her in some way, she continued in a gentler tone. “What is your greatest flaw?”
Flaw, flaw, the seagulls wheeling on the cooling air currents outside insisted.
“I am incapable of love.” The answer was not one I had planned and yet the moment the words passed my lips, I knew them to be true.
“If you are incapable of love, you are also infinitely capable of love.”
“No! I – “
“You love me.” It was not a question. “You found me. You rescued me and brought me to this.” She spread her feathery arms wide, although whether to indicate the cottage or her physical transformation was not clear. “Why?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“Which means you do know.” In one smooth motion, she stood up, turned away, and unwound the bandages that adorned her chest. From the cross-shaped lacerations on her back, two glorious white wings emerged. Fully extended, they spanned the length of the room. Facing me once more, she drew her wings in close, pulling me to her diaphanous body and enfolding us both in a feathery embrace. “I’ve shown you,” she whispered, her face mere inches from my own, eyes boring into the very center of my being. “Now you show me. Tell me who you are.”
I spoke a great deal that night, unable to deny her command, and whilst I cannot recall the exact words that poured from my mouth, I know well the essence of what I conveyed, for it was my internal darkness, my own cross, my everlasting torment. Releasing it felt more than right. It felt necessary.
I began with my childhood, but my tale soon narrowed to the two greatest joys of my life – marrying the woman I loved and, after many a failed attempt, eventually fathering a child by her. I spoke of my boundless love for my wife and daughter. And of one cold, blustery night in particular.
I told her of how I’d taken the toddler for an evening stroll on the deserted beach, as was our custom. How, distracted by a flock of gulls, I had taken my eyes off the child for a moment – the briefest of instants – but it was enough. When I looked up again, she was halfway to the water and rapidly approaching the deadly boundary line that divides sand from sea. I ran as fast as the gusting wind would allow, but so hampered, I arrived too late to intervene. I watched aghast as the waves bore my beloved child away on the evening tide.
I spoke of the dark days that followed, of my wife’s newfound hatred for me in the wake of our child’s death and her bitter accusations right up until, unable to bear the burden of grief any longer, she had taken her own life. It would have been easy to do the same, and yet I felt whatever punishment awaited me in the afterlife, nothing could compare to living with such agony. And so, as penance for my sins, I stayed my hand and remained in the realm of the living, condemned to revisit the scene of my anguish again and again as a bitter reminder of what I had done, and what I had failed to do. I endured day after dreadful day, withdrawing from the world in the secluded cottage that had once resounded with laughter and warmth, now grown as cold and silent as the only two people I had ever truly loved.
Of all this and more, I spoke, held tightly in her winged embrace. She did not shy away. Her piercing gaze never wavered. When my words had run dry, transformed to twin torrents streaming down my cheeks, she tenderly kissed my tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, as she led me to the sofa. She lay me down and gently covered me with the worn quilt.
If any birds outside echoed the sentiment, I did not hear them. Her soft words followed me down into darkness.
I slept but did not dream.
When I awoke the following morning, I was alone. The cottage was frigid, awash with the sea breeze that poured in through the open window above the sofa. That, and the solitary white feather in the center of the room were the only traces left of her, the only proof she’d ever existed at all.
No sudden transformation occurred in my life as a result of this experience. Knowledge is only useful in so far as it can be applied, and I didn’t know quite what to do with what I had learned about myself.
Which, of course, means I knew exactly what to do.
I continue on, living my life of solitude and visiting the beach every evening, as before. Except now, sorrow no longer dogs my every step. The gale of grief still blows occasionally, and always will, but it is far from the oppressive wind hampering my steps that once it was. Freedom is the ultimate gift, and there is nothing more freeing than forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is the hardest variety to attain and thus the most liberating of all.
Rather than revisiting the scene to punish myself for my long-ago actions, I now return nightly to the beach, not in penance, but reverence. It is an act of honoring my precious daughter, preserving her memory, and reminding myself that life is fleeting. Heartbreakingly, breathtakingly so.
Sometimes, when the gulls dip and wheel on the currents overhead, I imagine I can make out words in their cries. Rather than looking down, I now look up, at the birds and the yawning chasm of the sky beyond.
Is it any wonder the horizon looks different to me now? I think not. For all that we perceive is a reflection of self, and now healed, my perception has undergone a subtle but fundamental transformation. My soul has sprouted plumage of its own, and one day soon I imagine it will take flight. And soar.
I once wanted nothing more than to disappear. Now I know that what I truly longed for was to be found.
I was broken when she found me.
Now, I am broken no more.