The world is in limbo at 4am. I don’t know whether it’s late or early. The sun hasn’t started to rise, but the stars aren’t quite visible anymore. The crickets have stopped chirping, but no birds are awake to sing yet. Do you ever wonder whether you’re reaching the end of your life or the beginning? Can you pinpoint the moment when someone you are becomes someone you were? When do you start using past tense when talking about people you know (or knew)? What’s the difference, if there is one, between is and was and used to be? These are the questions that 4am asks me, and I have no answers for it. Maybe that’s why, in this bleakness in between light and dark, I get the most visits at this time. I’m usually on my third pot of coffee by then, so awake (and so tired) I go full minutes without blinking. I’m usually about to let out the breath I take in every day once the sun starts to set and think that, for today, everything must’ve been alright in the world. I’m usually right. But sometimes, maybe two or three times a month, I’m not. That’s when I’ll pull on my jacket, head outside to the edge of the windy cliffside, and invite whoever it is who was about to leave this world to stay awhile.
“You don’t have to do this,” I might say, grabbing their hand and gently pulling them back. They’ll turn to face me, both annoyed and relieved at the interruption, and I’ll notice something about them. Sometimes they look pretty young, sometimes they’re dressed very nicely, sometimes they have an engagement ring on, sometimes they have something in their hands–a necklace, a letter, a picture. Sometimes they’ll have taken off their shoes. I never really understood what that was about. Are they afraid of getting their shoes wet? Do they worry about trudging around the afterlife in damp socks? Do they hope someone will find them? They usually won’t say much, if anything. Most of the time, they aren’t even crying. But they’ll always come inside. Some will have a cup of coffee. I’ll have two. Usually, though, they’ll go for tea.
I won’t ask them why, but sometimes they’ll tell me. This is when they’ll start to cry, if they weren’t before. Once they get to the part about how lonely it is, no matter how many people are around you, that’s when they’ll start. I’ll tell them that it’s ok, that everyone has people who love and care about them and that I’m sure they are not as alone as they think they are. I don’t mind lying to keep people away from my home.
“Thank you,” they’ll say.
I’ll nod. Afterwards, I’ll find a place on my mantel and they’ll leave me their name. They’ll stay until the sun rises. I’ll hope they never visit me again. Usually, they don’t. Usually Beachy Head is a place they’d rather not remember.
The delivery boy comes on the first Monday of each month with my groceries. It’s the only package I ever get. The 24-hour Waitrose is a fifteen-minute drive from my cottage on Beachy Head. Fifteen minutes there, fifteen minutes back, half an hour getting groceries. It’s just too long to be gone. For over a year, the delivery boy hasn’t asked me why I can’t come to the store myself, and for over a year I haven’t asked him whether or not he should be in school. We have an understanding.
“She’s a beautiful day today, isn’t she, Miss Kayla?” he asks.
I like his accent. Something about British children (he must be about seventeen though, old enough to resent being called a child) is off-putting and charming at the same time, especially with the odd drawl people from Sussex seem to have. He’s got a ruddy complexion and a pleasant, customer service smile.
“It is,” I say. 64 degrees fahrenheit, a slight breeze, partial clouds. It’s very nice for November, but I’m sure by next week it’ll be bitter cold and gusty, especially up here. I tip him £10 and take my groceries.
“Thank you!” he says, always chipper. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” I say back, but I can tell it sounds weird coming out of my American mouth.
I return to my post. I spread smooth peanut butter on soft white bread while I keep watch. It’s only 5:43pm but maybe someone had a bad day at work. I never have bad days at work. Sitting solitary in the comfort of my own quiet home, I make calls and ask people if they’d like to spend money on something they’re not already spending money on. I’m thankful when they hang up on me. Most of them do, but some are too polite, or maybe too lonely, or maybe too bored to give up the brief company. I’m thankful I’m paid for hours and not commission. I’m thankful this job lets me focus on living here on the cliff.
Nobody visits me that day, and I’m glad. It’s a bit early in the month for it anyway; it gets worse closer to Christmas. So I take a ten minute shower around 8am. It’s the one luxury I allow myself, and it’s as good as sleep. Better, even. I leave the door open while I shower, though. It doesn’t really make any sense, I know that, but I feel like I’ll be able to feel someone in my front yard better that way. After my shower, I don’t look at myself in the mirror; the mirrors in my house are gone. I’ve become afraid of tracking the changes in my own reflection. Still, even without seeing myself, I can tell the circles around my eyes have gotten darker. I slip into a soft bathrobe, pour a cup of coffee, and go back by the window. Before I sit down, however, I notice someone’s already out there. I rush outside to pull her back, but she whips around to face me before I can grab her hand. Then, she does something that I don’t know how to respond to. She smiles. Not a teary-eyed, devastated smile. She beams so wide I notice a missing tooth towards the back of her mouth.
“So, it’s true. The lifeguard,” she says. Her accent doesn’t sound very Sussex, but I can’t place it.
I don’t have time to say the things I’m supposed to say or invite her in or get her name before she thanks me and runs off. I wouldn’t have said any of those things either way. I would’ve asked what she was talking about. Either way, I’m so confused it takes me five full seconds to call after her, “Wait!”
I get a call on Wednesday–I never get calls.
“Hello?” I’m almost not sure how to answer it. My hello comes out as a faded recording of an impression of someone else’s.
“Hello, Miss Coleman!” the friendly voice greets me as if we’re already friends. “Is this a good time?”
“I’m sorry, who is this?”
“I’m from the Mid Sussex Times. I was hoping we could schedule an interview with you. The Middy is very interested in your story!”
“Well, of course! You’re the Lifeguard!”
That name again. I hang up. No distractions.
On the second Monday of the month a visitor comes at 4:06am. She’s sitting down on the cliffside, shoes still on, when I go out to meet her. She doesn’t want to come in, so we sit outside and look out at the black waves and the cautionary white beam from the lighthouse just off the shore while she tells me about her daughter, Myrna, who just turned nine and likes to do ballet and whose goodness frightens her. I don’t blame her for being afraid of not being good enough. I don’t blame her for feeling trapped in a role that she never really signed up for. I don’t blame her for worrying that she’ll fuck up and cause her daughter to be just like her. They’re all reasonable fears.
After a while she does come inside for tea (She’s surprised at how strong I make it– “I didn’t think Americans could brew a proper cup.”) and warms herself by the fire before writing her name, Sharla Abbott, on the mantel. It’s still dark when she says she has to leave, but she assures me that she’ll be okay.
“Maybe I’ll come back up with Myrna,” she says.
I shake my head. “I think it’s best not to come back. Not to dwell. You know?”
She frowns, but nods. “You’re right. Thank you.”
These are the fleeting visits I get on Beachy Head every so often when someone’s flimsy will to live snaps like a twig and they find themselves on my property, drawn to the lighthouse in the water like moths to a flame. Without them, the only company I have is the faraway, faceless lighthouse keeper, the wind, and the mean sound of the collision of waves with jagged rocks.
I don’t see Sharla again after that, only her name above my fireplace, and I’m glad for the loneliness. Until the third Wednesday of the month when that strange visitor comes back at midnight. I wish I could be happy to see her, but I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed that I didn’t have enough time to tell her not to come back.
My memories of Beachy Head are watercolor stills. I have spent centuries forgetting. A re-memory:
…A little Black girl, four years younger than me…It’s 4:30pm…Our father bought us pocket watches so we could pretend to be high society Londonites…Waves crash against rocks like bad dreams…
I have a memory that isn’t my own of drowning.
I think a lot about the hyphen in my ethnicity.
I have memories that are not my own of ships.
I have never liked boats. I have never been on a cruise. I like the beach, but I don’t like the ocean.
I have been afraid of water for generations.
I often wonder whether trauma is a dominant or recessive trait.
…I have my own room now…I have a dream that is not my own about washing up on shore…?
I catch her hand just as she’s about to fall, and she just looks back at me and says, “Hi.”
“Hi?” I say. I mean it as a greeting, but it comes out as a question. I notice her shiver; over halfway through November and she’s wearing a flowy white dress as if it were spring–an odd sort of optimism. She has on a partially unzipped backpack, no shoes, and her long locs are wrapped around themselves in a bun. “I take it you’re about to run off again?”
“Not this time!” she says, and smiles as if she wasn’t just about to use my front yard as burial ground. “I have a surprise for you.”
Before I can finish my “What?” she’s unzipped her backpack and there is a small dog in my arms. This doesn’t make me any less confused.
“I don’t have any money to take care of her,” she explains, “But I saw her by the side of the road on my way up here and I just thought that since you’re up here alone it’d be nice to–”
I stop her with a look. The dog, a wiry haired mutt, whines so I put it down. “You were going to jump to your death with this in your bag?”
She cocks her head as if confused. “But I didn’t jump to my death.”
I open my mouth to respond, but realize I don’t know how to continue the conversation.
“Please just take care of her,” she says.
“Take her to a shelter. I don’t have any food and–”
“The grocery store is ten minutes away! I’m sure they have pet food.” She’s ready for each rebuttal, as if this is an argument we’ve had before.
“I have to keep watch.”
She looks left, then right, then behind her. “I can watch until you get back. I’ll scare off any potential jumpers.”
I hate that word. “We just met,” I say. “I can’t let you keep watch for me.”
Instead of responding, she shrugs and sits down at the cliff, looking out into the English Channel. The dog crawls into her lap and curls up.
I’ve never been uncomfortable with silence before.
I go inside, and ten minutes later come back with £20. While she’s gone at the store, I put dog food on my monthly order. The dog sleeps at my feet while I keep watch. She snores sisi…sisi… so I name her Sisi. Nobody visits in the twenty minutes that my strange visitor is gone and I’m glad.
She comes into my home as if she isn’t a visitor and lays a bag of dog food on the kitchen table and two bowls on the floor. I glance back at her and lift up a hand in greeting as she fills one of the bowls with food.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says.
Pouring another cup, I notice that my pot is running low and I get up to brew more coffee.
“Tea or coffee?” I ask her.
She shakes her head.
I shrug and place a fresh filter into the basket, then add four tablespoons of dark ground beans. I add water to the pot and then pour the rest into Sisi’s bowl. One new step to the routine doesn’t hurt, I guess.
She hums a tune I know that I remember. Then it’s quiet until she asks me, “Don’t you wanna ask me why I jumped?”
…Mm-mm mm-mm through my window…My mother’s bare feet on the kitchen floor, her soft voice makes everything she sings a secret…
“You didn’t jump,” I remind her. “And no, not really. Unless you want to tell me.” I take a sip of lukewarm coffee and frown, impatient for a fresh pot. “I will ask you your name though.”
She looks up, as if trying to remember. “You can call me Bird.”
“Bird,” I say. I cross over to the fireplace and take the felt pen from off the mantel. “Would you?” I say, holding it up to her.
She joins me by the fireplace. “Who are these people?” she asks, running a finger over each name. I realize that nobody’s ever questioned it before. I still can’t place her accent.
“It’s everyone who’s visited me here.”
She nods, understanding. “So these are your trophies.”
I feel my eyes narrow. “No, nothing like that. Just a way to remember.”
“Seems a little too proud.” She takes the pen from me, caps it, and hands it back. “I don’t like monuments to tragedy.”
“It’s not a monument,” I say. Bird, I realize, is exasperating. “Don’t you keep reminders? Letters, trinkets?”
“Maybe,” she says. “But I’m not a memory.”
I hear my coffee brewing and decide not to respond. I finish my cup and pour a fresh one as Sisi wakes up and trots over to the food bowl.
… “But mommy we’d both take care of it!”…
Footprints in fresh snow…
“Kayla,” she says, and I realize this is the third time she’s tried to get my attention. I’ve been staring out the window, watching. My cup is half empty. I wonder if she wonders if she’s offended me. I wonder if our memories of people even exist.
“Sorry. Are you alright?”
She nods. “I should leave though.”
“Are you sure? It’s pretty dark.” Only 1:15am. Sunrise is hours away, and I feel protective. It’s dangerous going down Beachy Head at night. “You should rest. It can get really lonely out there and the path is steep.”
Bird smiles. “I’ll be back! I have to visit the puppy, after all.”
I frown. “I think you shouldn’t come back. The rest of your life should be about how you live it, not dwelling on all this.”
Bird laughs, and for the third time that night I am very confused. “Does this Catcher in the Rye thing ever get boring?” She rolls her eyes. “You can’t just make people names. It doesn’t matter if you think you saved them.” She laughs again and picks her backpack up from by the door. “I’ll see you later, Lifeguard.”
Before I can object, Bird is gone.
For the rest of the season, she makes it her duty to haunt me.
The things I’ve forgotten are like phantom limbs.
I can feel a whole language, invisible, unspeakable, intangible, rolling around in my mouth. My own sister’s name is a familiar tune that I can’t quite place.
…It’s 4:45pm…Someone I love disappears into water…
There are no faces or names in that memory, but it smells like the old wood floors of my childhood home.
Sometimes when the delivery boy comes with the newspaper, I like to read the obituaries. It’s not as morbid as it sounds; I’ve never read anyone’s name in The Middy whose name is also on my mantel. I remember all of their names. Maybe that’s why there are so many things in my own life that I’ve forgotten–you can only shove so much into a suitcase until some spills out. Moving here, I had to pack everything I owned into two large suitcases. I’ve only moved once, but I have some advice on packing:
Start with sorting. Throw all your clothes, books, jewelry, shoes, bags, bad memories, and hair products onto the floor and decide what you’ll take with you, what can stay behind, and what should be thrown or given away. It’s nice to give things away because it feels like if something were to happen to you, who knows, then at least someone will have a piece of you that couldn’t fit into your suitcase. That piece–the sweater you no longer like, those ugly, regifted earrings–can be theirs when you no longer belong to anyone or anything.
Fragile items can be hard to pack safely, especially if you’re travelling by plane, so just break them before an unfortunate mistake breaks them for you. Be in control of your own self destruction. Swaddle the broken pieces in bubble wrap and place them between two layers of sweaters.
If you’re nice to the person that checks your bags, they might let you get away with an extra kilogram. After all, if the plane goes down won’t it all get wet just the same, even if you’ve moved it to your carry on?
Three of the six obituaries say that the person “died in their sleep.” I know that isn’t true. That isn’t a way that you can die. Nobody just slips peacefully off to an even deeper and more permanent dream. There’s always a reason. I used to wake up in my bed unable to move and think I’d died. Now I’m thankful that I rarely sleep.
It’s not quite 3am, and my eyes are starting to glaze over. I yawn and reach for my pot of coffee and take the last sip. I’m about to get up to brew another pot when Bird materializes in the window and startles me, her grinning face pressed against the glass. She disappears for a moment only to reappear at the door. Again, she enters as if she has lived in this house for years.
“Hi!” she says.
“What are you doing here?”
“I have a gift for you.” She sits down across from me at the kitchen table. I notice she’s still wearing that dress. “Here.” She places a plastic bag of coffee beans on the table.
“These are for me?” I don’t remember the last time I’ve gotten a gift (though I’m warming up to Sisi, who is asleep at my feet.) “Thank you.” I smell the bag and allow myself to smile. “Watch the window a minute,” I say, getting up to grind my new beans and make another pot.
“I’m worthy of guard duty now?”
I look at her, searching for any signs of uncertainty. Unable to spot any, I say, “We’ll see.”
Bird watches the window and hums while I make coffee.
…Bluebird bluebird through my window…
Finally I place it–a song my mother used to sing me. I wonder again about Bird’s accent and realize I know nothing about her except that she is childlike and strange.
The coffee is a bit weak, but I don’t complain. While I watch the window, Bird sits by the fire and hums.
At 9am, I jolt awake, sitting upright on the couch in my small living room. I won’t ever get those six hours back. I didn’t even dream. Or maybe I did and just can’t remember. Maybe my dream is another in a long string of memories I’ve willfully forgotten. Either way, the fire is out and Bird is not watching at the window. I feel stupid for trusting someone who should be a stranger. Someone who is not consumed with a dreadful sense of duty to this cliff and its visitors. Someone who can sleep without waking up to the sticky feeling of bloody hands.
There is nobody on the cliff and nobody that I can see in the water below. My hands are clean this time. How can I feel so guilty for a life I did not lose? I sit down by the edge and listen to the restless water. The sound of the waves and the fierce wind is not a lullaby, it’s a warning. A reminder that any body of water is more powerful and less forgiving than any human body. Some people find this, the knowledge that our bodies are fragile and miniscule, scary. I, however, find it soothing. Our bodies are normally possessed by false importance and the absence of light and the dangerous illusion of strength. It’s an odd sort of comfort to remember that your body, a frail vessel, cannot protect you from everything. This way you know you don’t have the great responsibility of being immortal. This way you are reminded that you are small and so too are most things that might hurt you, relative to the size of sea. This way you see that because you are weak there must be stronger things that might protect you.
Bird is sitting at the kitchen table with Sisi in her lap when I get back. She looks up at me and smiles a greeting.
“I need you to leave,” I say. I take the pen from the fireplace and try to hand it to her.
Something flashes in Bird’s eyes for a moment. What is that look? Is she hurt? No. Angry. She takes the pen, caps it, and hands it back to me again. “Do you really think you’re saving them?” she asks. I don’t answer. She sets Sisi down and walks to the door. She looks back at me. “Do you?”
She shrugs. “Good luck, Lifeguard.”
And then I am alone.
I go back to the window.
I take my seat.
I watch the cliff.
I usually get a visit on the first snow of the season. Not this year, though. Things have been quiet on Beachy Head. A few tourist families taking pictures, the distant presence of the lighthouse keeper, but I’ve been mostly alone through December. The delivery boy came with my groceries, but it was during the ten minutes I use to shower so he left the box at the door. Sisi is good company, although she doesn’t talk much.
Most of my life before Beachy Head is a blur, but I can assume I didn’t have that lonely a childhood. There are people in most of the old memories that I have, although not all of them have names or faces. Now all I have of the people I know is their names and the knowledge that they are alive. I’ll have that until I see their name in the obituaries–I never have. That, for me, is enough. Bird was wrong. My mantle is not a monument. It’s the company I keep. I don’t know if I had friends as a child though, or if I was liked. If I didn’t live up here, would I be? Would I care enough to make friends?
I make a few calls while I keep watch. Most of the people I call hang up, and one man is comically angry that I’m calling on Christmas Eve, as if I remembered that’s what day it is. I manage to convince the one person who lets me talk, an older woman, to purchase a new security system for her home. She worries about burglars and has priceless china that’s been in her family for years–she’s saving it to give to her daughter when she gets married. Her daughter is forty-three. She also has a son who has a wife and a thirteen year old daughter. She doesn’t want him to have the china, though. She wants it for her daughter when she gets married. Her birthday is next month. I don’t know why she tells me all this, but I’m glad she feels some sort of illusion of safety.
Once she hangs up, I get a call. Someone returning the favor, I guess.
“Hello! Ms. Coleman?” a slightly familiar, too-friendly voice greets me. I wait for him to go on, and he waits for me to say hello. He clears his throat and breaks the silence. “I’m calling from The Middy again. I wanted to ask once more if you’d do an interview. I think your place on Beachy Head could make quite a story!”
I want to hang up, but a small part of me is too polite, or maybe too lonely, or maybe too bored to give up the brief, though unwelcome, company. A larger part of me, though, is too proud to be the subject of someone else’s story.
Why not let people know there is someone out here to protect them? I hear Bird’s voice like a conscience. I disagree. I can’t let this place gain notoriety. It’s too distracting. I hang up. They won’t call again.
When Bird left, she took my solitude with her. In return, she left me with the heavy presence of no company and the constant feeling of being watched. This is what my cliff must feel like, always under my distant eye. But at least the cliff knows who’s watching it. I, on the other hand, have no idea if the eye I feel on me is even there. Sometimes I swear I hear Bird humming, only to realize I’m hearing my own voice, idly filling the silence with futile sound. Sisi is odd company–I think she can tell I’m lonely, or at least beginning to remember the feeling of loneliness. She’s mostly silent, but sometimes she’ll bark forcefully at the door, wary of some intruder that is not yet here, or maybe just not yet visible to me. Sisi, I think, is smarter than I am, letting her anxiety loudly manifest rather than forcing herself to forget it was ever there. I told Bird to leave, but the empty space on my mantle makes me sure that her absence is as temporary as her existence is. What was that look? Was she angry? No. Hurt.
…Bluebird bluebird, through my window…
I hum the song my mother taught me while I fill Sisi’s bowl with food. The song that Bird resurrected and brought back to my memory. Why does she know it? Why does she enter my home as if she is not a stranger? Why is she childlike and strange?
…Bluebird bluebird, through my window…
Sisi barks at something in the distance, and I realize she’s been barking for a while now, trying to get my attention. It’s 11:49 and someone’s out on the cliff. I try to reach for my coat, but my body isn’t receiving any signals to move. This, among other things, is why I don’t let myself sleep. I close my eyes and take inventory of the parts of my body. Toes. One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten. Fingers. One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten. Two legs. Two arms. A mouth. Two eyes. A nose. Usually I can get my body to wake up by reminding myself that it’s real. That I’m here. I’m here. I’m here… I bend my right big toe, just slightly, and open my eyes.
The visitor is still out on the cliff, but someone else is out there with them now. She’s wearing a flowy white dress as if it were spring–an odd, optimistic sort of obliviousness. She has on no shoes, and her long locs are wrapped around themselves in a bun. The cold hasn’t turned her brown feet red. She seems impervious to it. Snow falls around her; none of it seems to get in her hair. She stands next to the visitor, and I can see her mouth moving but I can’t make out what she’s saying to them.
The only parts of my body that I can move are the toes on my right foot.
Her palm is flat against the middle of the visitor’s back, her arm bent slightly.
I feel the thumb on my right hand move. I try with all the strength in my weak, tired body to make a fist, but only half my fingers will move.
She straightens her arm, her palm still flat on their back, and they’re moving forward. She’s pushing them forward.
I stretch the fingers on both my hands.
She steps forward, and they fall. She stands there and that visitor, lost on top of my cliff, falls.
Bird turns around and looks directly at me.
She lifts a hand in greeting and smiles. ?
The dead return.
Not as ghosts or as the undead, they just refuse to stay dead. Everybody that’s ever been thrown into the ocean will claw their way back to the surface, dry and breathing healthy breaths.
The dead return.
They do it well and they do it easily. They slip into our thoughts and live on as melodies, as scents, as reflections.
This is how the dead return.
They beg us–demand us to see them. To recognize who they are. Until inevitably our memories of them, sickly and fading, slip away into the sea and drown. But they return and return and return.
Not as ghosts or as the undead.
As the sinking feeling of being watched. As a tangible loneliness. As strangers with familiar faces.
The dead return.
And when they do they are livid, furious, broken with love and grief.
They want fiercely. They need endlessly.
The dead return.
And when they finally leave they will try to take you back with them.
Forget the words to that song.
Send them back. Send them all back. ?
She’s back the next day. I look away from the window to brew a pot of coffee (my usual dark roast. I tucked the beans she brought me away in the back of my cupboard and they haven’t seen the light of day since) and there she is, starting a fire in the fireplace.
Bird meets my gaze and grins, the space where her back tooth should be visible. “Your house is so cold!” she says. She does not ask if it’s okay that she’s returned. She does not mourn or show remorse for the person whose name is not on my mantle. Bird’s relentless cheerfulness scares me, but I don’t want her to leave as much as I don’t want to have to worry about her coming back. The look she gave me, I’ve decided, was a warning.
The sun is just starting to rise, orange seeping into the dark horizon, black revealing itself to be dark blue, less and less dark as the orange takes over. This is my favorite time of day, because it’s a sign I’ve made it through the night.
“What do you want to do today?” Bird asks, as if we had been in the habit of doing anything.
“Keep watch,” I answer simply, pouring hot coffee into my biggest mug.
Bird lies backwards on the couch, her skinny legs draped over its back. “But I’m bored,” she whines. “We should go out to the lighthouse.”
“Because it’d be fun.”
I can’t remember the last time I wanted to do something for the fun of it.
“Have you been before?” she asks. When I shake my head no, there’s that look again. Why? “Have you been down to the lighthouse before?” She repeats her question, rejecting my answer.
Bird is no longer lounging catlike on my couch. She is two inches from my face. Her wide, tired eyes are like two black holes and her breath smells like salt and sadness. “You’ve never been?” she whispers it through gritted teeth, and I hear it as if she was shouting. “I don’t believe you.”
“Bird, I don’t–”
“I don’t believe you!” This time, she is shouting. The lights flicker from wind.
“I mean it, I don’t think I’ve ever–”
“That’s not true,” Bird screams, her voice hoarse and rattling like the gusts outside. “That’s not true!”
And the lights go out. For a moment, Bird just stands there in the dark, looking into my scared, confused face. “I’m sorry.” She shrinks away from me. “Please don’t be mad.” She looks small and lost, but there is an unspoken “or else” in the tone of her voice.
Getting down to the English Channel from Beachy Head is no easy feat. Not only because of the wind and the steep rocky path warning us to retreat, but also because of the distractions that pull us–mostly me–away every few moments. The blackberry bushes on the path to Beachy Head have no thorns to fend off reaching fingers and beaks. There are colors I don’t remember seeing on my way up here. Beachy Head, despite all its ugliness, is a beautiful burial ground. Bird, however, is uncharacteristically focused, pulling me along every time I stop to wonder why I don’t remember ever taking this walk. It’s as if we’ve switched places–me, full of a confused and curious sort of wonder and her, quiet, far away, unspeaking. But once we’re on the rocky shore facing the water, her eyes are wide and sunlit again. And I’m filled with an emotion that is not quite fear.
“Come in!” She doesn’t hike her skirt up as she wades into the water. “Kayla!” she reaches a hand out to me, but I’m firmly planted on dry land.
“No!” I laugh, despite myself. “I don’t do the ocean.”
…“You didn’t go in?”
I don’t know…I’m scared.
No, that’s not it.
“Have you gone in before?”
Yes, over and over.
Bird frowns and I remember that face she made. Was she hurt? No. Worried. Of what, I wonder. “Fine.” She wades further, almost up to her hip now, and that feeling that’s not quite fear starts to take over me again.
“Bird, come back.” I feel protective, and I’m suspicious of this water that seems to, like a siren, call stoic, hopeless people into its depths. “Where are you going?”
“The lighthouse!” She turns back to me and beams. “Come on!”
So I slip off my shoes and follow her. Immediately the icy water stings my feet. I stand in place, the water just over my knees. “It’s too cold!” Bird wades back to me giggling. She grabs my arm, pulling me out further. I protest, but laugh and let her lead me out into the water. In another world, this could have been us. Friends, splashing and laughing on our way to sneak a peek at the faceless lighthouse keeper. But I keep glancing up at the cliff’s edge, worried I’ll miss somebody. That a visitor will suddenly collide into the rocks just feet away from us.
“Kayla, stop it!” She splashes me. Bird doesn’t want my attention split between her and the cliff. She pulls harder, and suddenly her grip is too tight, her laugh is too malicious. I push her away and she lets go and stumbles backwards, disappearing fully into the water. When she doesn’t come back up, I look around for her frantically, calling her name. Then I feel a hand around my ankle, and the water covers me. Just a cold, black prison and the water’s surface a thick glass impossible to break, and if I scream the water will swallow me whole–
I have a memory that is not my own of falling into cold, blood-stained water.
What is memory if not a ghost?
Memory is the physical absence of someplace, someone, something, sometime. An intangible representation of the past. For Black people, there is no past; time doesn’t exist for us. Only blood. Our hyphenated names are written with it. Two names bound by the wakes of ships on metallic, dirty water. The living and the dead and not the not yet born–we exist simultaneously.
There is no I, only we.
Only the crashing of waves.
What is repression if not an exorcism?
There are ghosts that I cannot exorcise possessing my lungs.
Everytime I take a breath, I cough up saltwater and blood. Much of my memory, though, escapes me. I’ve lost years (Or hours? Or moments? Or lifetimes?) to willful exorcisms.
Bird is so familiar, but my ghosts of her exist only as singular senses. She is not a whole memory. She is the sound of my mother’s quiet humming and she is the smell of blood in the water and she is the hoarseness of my throat after too much mourning.
I have a dream that is not my own about being eaten alive by sharks.
Something in the way Bird watched that body fall, smiling and unbothered, felt personal. She is childlike and strange, but flashes of that warning look bring me back to the person she led to the edge of the cliff. I’ve seen them fall over and over and over, the only part of them visible their brown hands. Every time, I try to look close enough at them to see the name that should be on my mantle carved into their knuckles or hidden like code on the palms of their hands, but there’s never anything there. And I’m distracted by Bird. Her turn towards me. Her wave. Her smile. A threat? No. Something else. ?
I open my eyes to the familiar and suffocating view of my cliff. There’s a young fire going in the fireplace, and my biggest mug is filled with fresh, hot coffee. Flashes of that incident in the water feel so familiar. I hope to willfully forget it, as I’ve learned to do. Bird is nowhere to be seen. If she’s not infiltrating my home, she’s infiltrating my mind. She disappeared as so many people and things and memories of mine have. It’s easy to lose something, but fishing it out of the ocean is next to impossible when you can’t bring yourself to open your eyes underwater.
I have accepted the fact that maybe Bird is not real. Delusions coming to visit me on this cliff are as likely and as unwelcome as any other visitor. I accept this fact mostly because I hope it’s true. If Bird is real, she is dangerous. And what about Sisi? Sisi looks up at me, waking from her nap as if she’s aware she’s being spoken about. My watchdog. Why did Bird almost jump with this in her bag? It seemed odd before, but now it fills me with something like fear. The feeling I get when my body forgets that it’s real. The reason (one of many) I don’t let myself sleep.
4am. The dreamlike place between night and day. A visitor comes and I am immediately afraid for him. Afraid the ocean will call him too loudly. Afraid Bird will trap him. I run out to him and pull him back. He fights me, angry at the interruption. I don’t blame him, but I don’t let him go. I won’t let him go. I can’t let him go and see him fall. He comes inside, and we sit quietly in my home. I have run out of things to say to these trespassers, and he’s not much of a talker either. But then, he tells me he lives alone at the bottom of Beachy Head, only house down there. He’d never made the trek up until tonight. Didn’t know he was going to jump until he was at the cliff’s edge. Didn’t know the sorrow he’d held in his chest until there it was, laid out for him as expansive as the ocean.
“You should go.”
“You should go,” I tell him again. I look over at Sisi, watching the cliff dutifully. “And you should take her.”
“Your dog? I’m not taking—“
“Living alone on this cliff is dangerous. You need her. Please.”
I have no idea what this stranger needs, and I know that loneliness is only as dangerous as you yourself are. But I need to remove Bird from my lungs, to be rid of every trace of her and her chaos. If I remove everything she’s tethered to, maybe she will dissipate like smoke. Maybe she will find another cliff to haunt. Maybe she will cease to exist altogether. “Please.”
He holds my gaze and sees something broken there beneath my desperate plea. He takes Sisi out in his backpack, much like how Bird carried her in. Sisi whines as he leaves with her, but I won’t be swayed. Just as he’s out the door, I remember that I don’t know his name. “Wait!” I get him to come back and leave his name, Charlie Horne, for me on the mantle.
“You know where I live,” he says, and gives a small smile. “Come visit Sisi whenever you want. Really.”
I nod. “Of course.” Though I will never visit. I watch him walk away into the darkness until he disappears completely, leaving me with only a new name on my mantel and, finally, solitude.
I don’t remember much about moving up here to this cliff. Bits and pieces—that’s all I have of many things. Much of my own childhood is a song I can’t quite remember the words to. The last visitor, Charlie, said something I don’t remember. That the ocean called to him. I have never felt called by this ocean. I’m more bound to it than called by it. Tethered to something at the bottom of the sea, something I hope never to find.
Bluebird, bluebird, through my window
That song returns to me at random moments now that Bird has resurfaced it. When it does, I’m immediately reminded of the smell of the old wood floors in my childhood home. The way my mother’s soft voice made everything she said a secret, shared in confidence. Her eyes, like mine, two black holes — deep, pitch black, and endless. But in all these memories, there is something missing. Something just outside of my peripheral vision. I can’t turn to look. I can only sit by and watch through my young eyes, tracing the patterns on the light wood below me. Watching my mother prepare four plates. For me, and her, and two silhouettes whose faces are blank and whose names I could not speak aloud even if I did remember them.
The ocean doesn’t call to me. Quite the opposite, it fills me with a sense of dread so deep I have let myself go mad protecting others from it. I have a dream or a memory or a story I once heard — I’ll never be sure which, but when I think of it, it happens around me as vividly as the present — of washing up on shore. My mother, when I told her this, recalled something similar. No, not similar. Identical. The same as mine, to the detail. She stared out the window, far away, and told me she didn’t think it happened to her.
“Then it’s a dream?”
“I don’t know, baby. Maybe it belongs to someone else and they’re lending it to us.”
“You can give someone else a memory?”
She turned to me and looked me in the eye, no light in hers. A seriousness I wish I didn’t remember. “Some memories are hard to get rid of. Even after you’re gone.”
“Do you have it too?” I start to turn to someone else, but that’s where the memory fades around me and dissolves into smells, into faint lights, into the feeling of my bare feet on the cool, light wood.
I sit at the window, watching that cliff. The snow is almost fully melted now — Spring will be in full bloom soon. It’s been quiet, leaving me with only my worry to keep me company. I don’t want to see Bird again. I’m worried what she may say. Whose name she may take from me. There’s a visitor outside, and more than their name I want desperately for them to leave.
I open the window and shout at her from my seat. “Hey!” My voice is hoarse from underuse. “You need to leave!” I spit into the wind. The visitor turns and meets my eye, a confused fear on her face, and she starts walking towards my home. “No!” I shout. “Go home! Go away!” But she keeps on towards me. And once she’s right up to the window, she says, “Where am I?” tears flowing from her wide eyes.
She turns out to be one of the least talkative visitors I’ve had. She doesn’t tell me why she’s there or indulge me with questions to distract herself as others have done. We sit in silence for half an hour, as she stares, catatonic, out towards the ocean until the tea I’ve poured her goes cold. Finally, she tears her gaze away from the ocean and asks again. “Where am I?”
”Beachy Head.” I say. “You shouldn’t be here.” I look away, back out towards the lighthouse. “People come here to die.”
“I don’t…I don’t remember—“
“Can you get back down the hill? I need you need to leave. Please.”
She writes her name, Rosaline Tyler, on the mantle. Because she doesn’t remember how she got up, I lead her part of the way down. Past the blackberry bushes and the steepest patches of flattened grass. Past the break in the dirt path and up until the lights of the other homes are visible. She clasps my hands and thanks me. Rosaline, I know, will never walk back up this hill again.
I walk back up the hill and when I open the door, there she is. Bird. Standing right in the doorway, just inches from me.
“Where is she?” Bird asks. A quiet intensity in her voice that is about to break. “Where’s Sisi?”
“She’s not here, Bird. You shouldn’t be either.” I push past her, returning to my post, but Bird won’t leave.
“But, Kayla, where—“
“I gave her to someone. He lives down the hill. If you want to see her you can go visit him instead.”
“You’re trying to get rid of me.”
“Yes. I am. Why do you keep coming here? We don’t know each other, Bird. We’re strangers. Go home.”
Something in her breaks at this. She is silent for a long moment, just staring at me, and I’m worried she’ll start to cry. But she doesn’t cry. Instead, she grabs the fire iron from beside the fireplace and hurls it at me with a wild shriek. I duck, just avoiding being impaled by the pointed metal tip, and the fire iron shatters through the window. Bird collapses into sobs, apologizing to me in one breath and cursing me for hurting her in the next. Instead of being terrified at her trying to kill me, I feel compelled to comfort her. I sit with her by the fire and she lets herself be held, soaking my shoulder with her tears. I hold her close and tell her she’s alright. That I’m here. For once, I feel as if I’m not lying. ?
I had a sister.
Remembering anything beyond that is like going through a box of old letters that are written in a language I no longer speak. I’ve forgotten every word of her. Each and every letter. Why? What pain am I protecting myself from? Sometimes, during the dark blue times of day when the sun and moon are equally alien and misplaced in the sky, I think I still know her. A girl, four years younger than me, childlike and strange. My mother would sing bluebird bluebird and it was the only way she’d fall asleep. Remembering her name is like overhearing the conversation in a passing car. Here and gone before I can sound out the shape of the words I’ve heard. Sometimes, during the indigo parts of day when everything in the distance is a cool, black silhouette, I run my hand over every name on my mantle and hope more than anything in the world that one of them will singe my cold fingers and push me into the knowledge of something and someone I didn’t know I still remembered. None of them ever do. I remember walking along Beachy Head swinging pocket watches and laughing and feeling a sort of unbothered happiness I know I won’t ever feel again. And then I remember washing up on shore. When I see that part of the memory though, it’s through a borrowed set of eyes. Viewed through the reflection on a window. A memory of mine that is not my own. Sometimes I cry for the living, for the dead, for the not yet born. All existing simultaneously. All aching to be remembered. One of them, though I remember only the material from which she is made, is mine.
I had a sister.
My memories of her are faded ink, barely legible. My memories of her are muddled songs heard from a staticy radio. I remember the cadence of her voice but not the things that she would say. I remember the crease of her palms but not the shape of her hands.
I had a sister.
The only detail of her I can recall clearly is that she was mine. ?
I cancelled my deliveries. If the delivery boy was lured into the ocean by Bird, I would never be able to face myself. I’ll be fine for awhile—as long as I have enough coffee to keep myself from sleep I have everything I need. I need to snuff out any excuse for her to return. I haven’t called anyone to fix the window. It means that I have to keep the fire going to keep from choking on the cold, but it’s spring now and summer will be here soon enough. Soon it won’t matter. Bird hasn’t come back since I called her a stranger. I think about that a lot. More often than I think about her hurling a sharpened metal pole at me, though that crosses my mind at times. I think about how severely it broke her and wonder if I’m cruel. There haven’t been many visitors lately, and I’m glad, but there are empty spaces on my mantle I’m anxious to fill. And that makes me wonder if I’m cruel, too. ?
I remember you. Do you remember me? I remember how we’d sit on the wood floor and listen to the sound of our mother’s bare feet and her singing. How you couldn’t sleep without that song. Do you? I do. I remember sitting in between your legs while you braided my hair. Tight, even though I’d cry. I remember you loved me. Do you? I do. I remember everything, everything. Every word of you. Each and every letter. Is it easier not to remember? It isn’t easy to remember you. Why won’t you say my name? Why won’t you call me by my name? If you heard it would you know it was mine? I won’t give it to your collection. There’s no room for me there. I’m too big now. My love is too big. The people who you pulled from the edge of my burial ground do not love you and they do not deserve to be watched over by you. I do. I love you. Why didn’t you catch me? It’s not your fault, but why didn’t you? The ocean called too loud, and I couldn’t hear anything else. It tricked me. A mean, mean trick. We die in the water and are baptised by it, so the living and the dead and the not yet born can all exist together in fragile harmony. The ocean called too loud. I didn’t have the dream that you and Ma both had about washing up on shore. I remember you told me, but I couldn’t find it. Couldn’t find that bad dream anywhere. No. My dream was of flying over the water and finding home. Where’s that? It’s not here. I remember swinging pocket watches and loving being a visitor and hating being a visitor and loving the newness of somewhere far away. But this is not our home and these people do not love you and I hate them for taking up space in you. They don’t deserve it. I do. You remember each of their names, but if you heard mine out loud would you know it was mine? Do you remember me? I remember you. I remember everything, everything, everything. I do. Do you think the call of the ocean is your fault? Some of us were thrown, some jumped. Some eaten by sharks, some washed up on shore, some are sinking still sinking into the blackness. But me, I came back to see if you still knew my face. A long journey. Generations long. Lifetimes long. If you slept would you see me? If you saw your reflection would you see me? I always had your face. You had our mother’s. Ma had Grandma’s. We all had black, black eyes like staring down a hole. You can’t ignore that all, it’s a history. You say it scares you, but then why don’t you leave? Why do you stay? Why is it all you ever want to see? Can you see my face? Do you know me? My memory cracks and fades and falls apart at a certain point, but not as bad as yours. Distance from time has given me opportunity to find as many pieces as possible and glue them back together again. You brought me here. We had to beg. We wanted to see the lighthouse. We saw it. We were swinging pocket watches. I felt a breeze. I heard my name in the ocean…I saw you looking past me, over me. I was trapped under glass. Trapped in your dream, if you ever slept. Every time you came and looked out, I’d try to make you see me and you never did. Even now, looking right at my two deep black holes, you don’t. Why? Is it easier not to remember? Is it easier not to have to ask if you should blame yourself? Do you think this is the only cliff in the world? Do you think yours is the only sadness? Do you think yours is the heaviest guilt? Do you think the names on your mantle belong to you? Do you think they’re the only names? Do you think you’re saving them? Why didn’t you catch me? Do you remember? I remember. I remember everything. You. Everything. Everything. Everything. I even remember the cracked black crevices too dark to make out. You remember our song. I hear you humming it. We needed it to sleep. If I sang would you sleep? If you slept would you dream? If you dreamt, would you see my face? Would you remember? Bluebird, bluebird, through my window…Do you remember me?
I remember you. I remember everything.
Maya Durham is a writer from Maryland. After graduating from Cornell she attended artist residency Centre Pompadour in Picardy, France, where she completed her debut novelette Beachy Head. Currently she lives in LA, writing, working as an assistant, doing drag performances, and doting on her cat, Zami.