Beth stood on the edge of the sand, gazing out at the ocean

on

She found a patch of the soft silt that covered the coast at sunset, then
trudged through the shallows to a beach that had not been there at dawn.
The salty tang of the water washed over her, and in that moment of complete
relief, she felt like the woman in the old, long-abandoned folktale who had
been stranded on an island and was finally rescued with her life-sized doll
inside a hollowed stone.

Beth dropped her satchel-laden backpack down by the water’s edge, then
crouched down and sat cross-legged, knees wide, with her eyes closed. The
water was only knee-deep. She breathed in deeply, closed her eyes again, and
allowed the sensation to wash over her. This, she told herself, was just
another dream, only more vivid than those that might come from the deep
seas or the desert. She was a woman in a dream, a woman in a story, and
this time, it didn’t matter.

As she stared out toward the ocean, she wondered which story was taking
place. She could almost hear the rumbling of waves on sand, feel the current
tugging at her, and then the ocean opened up, the night-time clarity
shooting up like the sun at sunrise. The cold caresses of the sea air had
melted the last traces of the dreams that were still clinging to her. The
charm of it, so familiar, was what pulled her forward.

Beth looked over at the water. There were no stars. For a moment, she
wondered if they had been forgotten. Then she realized that was her
distraction, and she closed her eyes, concentrating on the rhythmic tug of
the waves.

When she opened them again, she could see the stars. She sat up and,
without bothering to take off her shoes, dropped to her feet and ran. She
felt like the woman in the story who jumped from a high cliff, knowing she
would drown if she stood still.

“I’m so cold,” she said. The air was so still, and yet, she could hear
the whisper of waves crashing against rocks. She looked down. Her feet were
bright with the reflection of hundreds of lights, the entire ocean in
full-blown night. She closed her eyes again and let herself drift.

Beth found herself floating on the moonlight as she rode the current. She
swam for what felt like miles, though she could see only a few hundred feet
into the water ahead as her shoes touched down on the sand, the only sound
all around her, the faint slap of her heels on the beach.

When she finally stumbled onto dry land, she collapsed onto the sand.
The sun had set. The moon was still full, and reflected off the dark water,
the only light seeping in through breaks in the clouds above. It was dark
out there, not quite night, not quite day.

She looked up at the sky, but it was covered in a heavy blackness
that could only be the shadow of something large and dark. The moon lit
only a narrow band, and beyond that, it looked like an eerie, ghostly
silver mirror. She thought of the woman in the old folk tale who had been
drowned, and was finally rescued with her doll, that only the moon could
see and recognize. That was Beth.

“I will be back,” she murmured. Then she pulled her shirt up over her
neck and let the air fill her lungs like a warm, wet kiss. She opened her
eyes and stared down the empty beach toward the ocean.

“You’re not there,” she said to the water. “You’ve left me.” She got
up and moved toward the water.

“No, Beth, you are still here with me. I don’t know how, but you
remain here with me.” It was only now that she realized it, the night she
had come to this place, all that she had seen and done. The water was
still. For a moment, she thought it was waiting, as if it were waiting
for her to come back, then she realized that it was silent because only a
human could find silence here, and she was no longer a human.

She moved closer to the water until she reached the cold, still surface,
and then she put her hand on it. She felt the water respond to her, and
taste it, like a small animal. She was surprised at how alive it felt,
like she had only imagined.

“Are you there now?” she asked. But although the water responded to her,
it did not reply. The only sounds she could hear were the waves, crashing
against the rocks, and the whisper of waves on sand.

“No,” she said. “I am standing here, alone, but here is something
else here with me.” She felt the coldness of the water as it crept across
her hand, then she pushed it away. She opened her palm and turned it over,
tasting the salt of the ocean. She thought that she could not remember how
to breathe anymore.

“I am alone, Beth, but this does not matter, does it?” she said.

She closed her eyes again and let herself float out to sea. The waves
came and went, crashing on the rocks, and she saw the whitecaps rise and
fall, then slowly descend in long plumes of white noise toward the ocean.
She knew that she should leave, but she held on to that place that felt
like home.

Beth opened her eyes and swam out to sea. The waves came and went, then
she opened her palm and turned it over, tasting the salt of the ocean. She
thought that she could not remember how to breathe anymore. She felt strong
and strong and cold. Cold and strong.

She moved out to sea and the waves came and went, crashing on the rocks
and the whisper of waves on sand. She knew that she should leave, but she
held on to that place that felt like home.

***

The air felt as if it were heavy with sadness, and the trees were
empty and silent as if they had all gone to the cemetery.

All of the women were gathered in front of the church. Their husbands
and children were sitting or standing on the stoops, and the families sat on
the front steps with no one talking. In that silence, the three women were
all alone with their thoughts, and for a moment, Beth thought she could
hear the song of birds, but then she realized that was only in her head and
that it was really the wind in the trees, making them sound like birds.

Tears formed in her eyes, and she looked over at the church. It was
empty. The doors were shut.

“I’m so alone,” she said. It was the same feeling she had felt when
she had first came here after her marriage, alone, on the shore, waiting for
her husband to return. She realized that she was still on her own, that
she had not been able to leave, and she had been alone for a very long time.

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