A YOUNG couple strolled down the pier hand-in-hand just as the sun was starting to go down. As they walked, their arms swung to a rhythm that matched the steady beat of their footsteps. The young lady wore a broad smile and her eyes glistened in the sunlight, while her male partner looked grim and despondent. Written clearly on his face was a sense of hopelessness that only seemed to grow as they progressed. He kept glancing about with a look of desperation, like a man on his way to the gallows. There was no one here but the fishermen who regularly materialized on the peer whenever the tide was right. They paid the lovers no heed but stood stoically still with their rods in hand. The peanut gallery of red faces would neither acknowledge the young man nor grant him any respite. He was stranded with her.
The sky was exploding into colorful pastels and the clouds looked like large cotton candy tufts against a yellow background fading into blue. They had left the concrete towers of the city behind as they followed a path of scarred wood out into the teal sea. A cool wind was coming in off the surf, teasing their hair with briny gusts. The smell of fish and salt mixed with innumerable and unnamable components swirling eternally in the tide.
As the couple followed the railing, the young lady hummed wistfully while her lover seemed to cower from the edge. The waves rolled in as the tide changed and green foam beat against the wooden columns supporting the platform. The glistening sea came in tumultuous breaks, hissing as it slapped against the pier. The heaving tide caught the orange sun and formed a tapestry of gleaming white and green, threaded together in a living and eternally moving organism. It spoke in a multitude of low voices all at once, its chilly breath inundating the pier with hushed words. She laughed to hear what it told her, eyes squinting as her face turned back towards the burning light of the setting sun behind them.
He followed her gaze and saw a vision that only served to terrify him even more. The sun was going down behind a row of hotels and beach houses that sat perched over the sandy dunes. The empty windows were full of shadows and looked apocalyptic in the fading sunlight. Those lonely apertures made the whole city look hollow and dead. The white beaches were also devoid of human warmth, and whatever sounds might come from the city were drowned out by the mutter of the waves against the pier’s wooden supports.
She turned to him, her smile broadening. Black hair billowed about her pale face, and her eyes practically glowed with love. The thin hand that gripped his tightened, as if to hold him in place. Despite this he could not look her in the face, his gaze instead lowered towards the waves. They walked slowly to the railing and looked out over the endless sea.
“This is where we were when we first met,” she said. “Do you remember?”
He nodded slowly, trying to focus on the fractal of grains and scars etched into the wooden railing. “I remember,” he said at last. A bloody smear from some vivisected fish adorned one scabbed plank of the rail. He thought it ought to be outlined in chalk.
“Tell me about it,” she said.
He sighed with resignation: he had recited the story many times over the years and knew it like a prayer. “We were sixteen. You were standing right here, where I am now, with an ice cream cone in your hand, and you were looking out at the waves. Your father had died the previous month, but I didn’t know that at the time, and you had this sad look in your eyes. The sunset was behind you, and it made this silhouette around your head. I thought you looked like an angel.”
He smiled a little too, a crack in his stone mask. “You caught me staring at you. You turned and gave me this glare……”
“I thought you were cute,” she said.
“Not my first impression,” he muttered. “Anyway…I said I was sorry, and…”
“Go on,” she said, prodding him.
He took a deep breath and relinquished it slowly. “I asked you if you wanted to get pizza. I was terrified, but it all just came out of me at once. And for some reason, you said yes.”
She giggled. “I said I thought you were cute.”
“Everything went smoothly from there.” he continued. “We met here every weekend for that whole summer. We went to the amusement park and the beach and everything. And every time I saw you, I fell in love a little more.”
“I felt the same way,” she said. Her fingers caressed the back of his hand, and her touch erected goose flesh on him.
The young man’s attention had been captured once again by the water and he was watching the waves curl, turn to foam, and finally smash themselves to pieces. With its many wrinkles and contours, the sea looked like the crawling flesh of an enormous leviathan. Perhaps it is, he thought. Perhaps it sees us and knows us deeper than we know ourselves. After a moment, he continued.
“I should have tried to see you more. During those weeks, I mean. I should have tried harder. But I was afraid to ask you out again. I figured I would look desperate.”
“I wouldn’t have minded if you were desperate for me,” she said. She kept looking at him with those pleading eyes, though her gaze was one that he could not return.
“Towards the end of the summer, I saw you with somebody else,” he said, his voice falling low. “I and my parents were out at a restaurant, and I saw you at a table with this guy….”
“It didn’t mean anything,” she said quickly.
“He was better looking than me, in any case. A lot better, by my count. I figured you were moving up in the world….”
“You didn’t have to stop coming,” she said. “When you didn’t show up the next week and the week after that, I thought you were mad about something….”
“I was,” he admitted.
They stood in silence, the wind blowing in their faces. Out in the distance, both sky and sea stretched eternally into a horizon that formed an infinite expanse. Two elements struggled in a futile competition to see which could outlast the other. All movement and shape faded away into a single line where the two met but never touched.
“You were in college by the time I saw you again,” she said.
“I remember,” he replied with a smirk. “I was trying to be a writer. I always figured I’d be the next Steinbeck by now.”
“Steinbeck wasn’t as sexy,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze.
“You ended up being a waitress at that restaurant,” he said. “I was there with a friend…”
“I recognized you right away. Three years, but you were still the same.”
“Thanks,” he muttered. “I guess I’m not very unpredictable.”
She laughed. “When I saw you, I felt the same way I did back when we first started dating. That same feeling of just…belonging to you.”
“You had other men in the meantime,” he said. He looked as if he wanted to leap over the railing and let the sea consume him.
But she locked arms with him and pulled him back. “It didn’t mean anything. From the beginning, I only loved you.”
A smile came slowly, his face stiff. “I wanted to cry with relief that day. When we met again after so long. I was so ashamed…”
“You shouldn’t have been. I went right up to you for a reason.”
A long silence. His fingers dug into the wood of the railing as his grip tightened.
“Did you really love me?” he said, in a small voice.
The young woman lay her head on his shoulder. “Then and now. Always.”
“I was so happy when you said you wanted to pick up where we left off. I thought there was someone else…I was sure of it…”
“And we were always together after that.”
They stood, listening to the ocean throb. It was like the rhythm of an enormous heart, the beat of all living things. The sea breathed, and its exhalation was full of foreign scents from another world. The young man looked out on the horizon, a precipice that overlooked an adjacent but juxtaposed reality. The sun was sinking in this life: perhaps it rose in another. He tried to listen to the moving waves, to comprehend what they were telling him but found himself unable. The wind drowned out the syllables: it was coming with greater force, and sliced his voice into tatters.
“When I gave you the ring,” he said slowly “you didn’t even hesitate.”
“Why would I?” the young woman said, looking genuinely confused.
“I was never the right man for you,” he said. He was shaking, something coming up out of him. There was a dark void growing in him, and it was now taking over everything.
“I never held anything against you.”
“I was never STRONG for you!” he said, his voice breaking into a sob. He hung his head, the sobs coming. Tears ran down his cheeks, chapping them in the sandy winds that blew in over the surf.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a lot stronger than you think.”
“When they found the tumor…”
“Shhhhh,” she whispered, caressing his shoulder. “It’s ok, baby…”
He could barely speak, his voice cracking as his whole body trembled. “When they found that tumor…I just came apart….” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, smearing the mucous. “I was still hopeful at first… I thought maybe it would all still work out…”
“You were as strong as anyone could expect you to be,” she said.
The last few rays of light were fading away now, the sun reduced to an orange line at the edge of the horizon. He turned slowly to her, and for the first time, looked her full in the face. She almost obliterated him with the radiant force of her love. His body could scarcely stand the sheer magnitude of the guilt he felt, which threatened to shred him from the inside.
The hiss of the sea once more whispered in its legion of different voices. They were issuing an invitation, one that he could not bring himself to understand. It promised terrible secrets and horrible inevitabilities that his mind, in its feeble state, could not actualize. He grabbed onto the railing, his legs feeling as if they were about to give way. His fingers ran against the scarred wood and sent a terrible thrill up his arm and into his body. The bloodstain stood out above all, a chilling reminder violent acts both natural and heretical, terrible but eternal. The pier was not a thing born from the machinations of a human mind, but rather the bleached bones of a dead behemoth from the sea.
The sky had colored itself, like a developing daguerreotype, into a gradient of cool blue fading into screaming crimson. It looked like a gash in the flesh of some dark-haired animal. A shape was rising out of the sea, the silhouette of a towering and ancient structure. A giant pyramid spiralled upward from the waves as it stabbed into the sky. He could only dimly see it in the distance, but he knew it was an ancient relic that had existed since before mankind walked the earth. This ziggurat had been buried by time but was summoned from the depths by the transition about to take place.
She smiled at him and cupped his face in her hands. The palms were cold and clammy, like the scales of a dead fish. Her cheeks were drained of all colour and had begun to glisten with sweat. “I’ll miss you,” she said.
Her hair started to disintegrate in clumps, falling in a shower onto her grey hospital gown. As it tumbled away, the wind caught it and blew the strands like the seeds of a dandelion. The fibres were carried away into the ether, shaken loose by the flapping gown. Her bald head seemed to glow in the dim rays of the sun, pale and freckled, casting a phosphorescent sheen in the dimness.
Before his very eyes, her face shrivelled and shrank. The cheekbones grew out of the receding skin, and the eyes sank into the sockets. She began to waste away as her body fat melted from her bony frame. Joints protruded from her flesh as it grew looser by the second and shrivelled to a wrinkled suit too big for her bony frame. Her teeth popped out one by one as drool slopped from her empty maw. The eyes glazed over as a milky film clouded the once beautifully pensive eyes. Her flesh became rubbery and almost transparent in its thinness. He could see veins and capillaries through the translucence, though these throbbing vessels had already begun to go black and septic. Dark splotches spread over her forehead, growing until they completely absorbed the desiccated face. The suppurating skin split and sloughed into crags and sores. The eyes rolled out of their sockets, first the left then the right, landing on the wood planks with a splat. The jaw fell away and clattered at his feet as the skin melted into soppy putrescence. He fought back a scream as he watched the liquification of her flesh in horror. The scent of rot and decay assailed him as her tissues turned to jelly.
Then a skeleton composed of clacking, bleached bones stood before him. With a loud crack, the desiccated corpse collapsed utterly into a spray of yellow-white dust. A cold wind that smelled of the briny depths came and carried it off in a whirlwind. The fugue saturated his ears, and he heard her voice whispering. It joined the legion of other voices, becoming one with a multitude that spoke in a hushed and eternal chorus. Then, everything died away into a mere hiss as the waves settled with the incoming tide.
He turned back to the sea and began to cry. He shook with sobs as he stared out into the dark horizon and watched the sun finally vanish. The sky went black, and the sea became dark like oil. The ziggurat was gone, as was that terrible red light pouring from the edge of existence. The fishermen talked calmly amongst themselves, and he heard the whizz of a rod as someone cast out. More people were congregating onto the pier now, coming to fish in the cool of the evening. They passed him by without a glance or word, as if he were merely a wooden post. The viciousness of the wind subsided, and he could now hear the clop of sandals on the wood planks intermingling with the cry of a seagull and the mutter of eager voices.
He closed his eyes and listened to the rhythmic crash of the waves. A breeze came in, chilling his wet cheeks and filling his nostrils.
It brought with it the salty smell of the sea.