Water lapped against her thighs, sending ripples of gooseflesh up the ivory towers. She could stand the chill five steps in, but one more step onto the pebbly riverbed and the soft current would embrace her torso and only with a few more deep gulps of autumn air would she be able to resist scrambling for shore.
Salt stung his eyes and abraded his chopped and bleeding hands. The matted rope slid through his palms as he shouted in fear and effort. Above the screaming wind the faint din of a ship’s bell wildly cut loose in the storm could be heard. Timbers groaned and men prayed in vain to gods they did not know they loved.
As the creek eddied around her legs and crimson leaves floated by, she swayed to maintain balance. Cupping her hands she drew a palmful of drink. In it a water strider madly fought to escape. On sight of the insect the tendons and muscles within her body stiffened to cords of steel, ready to throw the tiny assailant away, but she froze. The animal bumped into the borders of her fingers, silently searching for safety as its calm watery world was turned upside down. The woman began to sit down.
Chains dug into his barrel chest as he struggled to pull the canon back on deck. Brothers fell over the sides, heads gashed open by a rogue boom and whipping ratlines. The grinding of his teeth was lost in the sudden crack that split his eardrums. A scream, a crunching sensation and shouts of anguished men blended into the cacophony as the mainmast began to splinter and twist. A loud thud as a man up in the sails trying desperately to cut loose the tattered canvas fell to the deck. Blood, tar and water squished around his bare feet as he took another agonizing step forward on the swaying deck. To his left ran the second mate, knife in teeth as he attempted to crawl up the side nets towards the sails. Four watches in and half the crew missing. Another step. And another. The metal scored the deck as it dragged forward, at times slipping a few merciful inches with the pitch of the ship. But she would be there…
It rushed by her, enveloping her swan’s neck and tangling her black tresses. If she opened her mouth wider it would rush in, pushing the shocking cold within. Shivering on the pebbles she watched leaves fly down the stream towards her. Deep heavy boughs tasted the water around her. A locket danced along her breastbone as it jostled in the current. The water seeped inside and began to drench its contents.
Seven watches and the maelstrom had not relented. Three more had joined the rest of the crew in calmer waters. God almighty, if the storm were ever to let up, there was no way to sail to port… The mainmast was reduced to shards of timber, most rations had been lost, and if anyone survived, they would surely be too beaten to take on the jobs of those who had died in addition to their own duties. Blood trickled down his hardened muscles, and nary a piece of sun-browned skin was left without scrapes or bruises. A deep laceration in his neck had resulted from his dire attempt to secure the canons on deck. One chain had slipped loose and taken a chunk out of his shoulder, sending him across the deck on his back as the canon slammed into the remains of the mainmast. Another brother had barely missed being flattened by the rogue weapon. Now he sat, senses and mind numbed from hours of cold salt water and sucking wounds. With brawny arms wrapped around the taffrail he watched the sea rise up to meet him, then fall away again. He let the torrential monsoons soak into his hair and trickle into his mouth, filling him with cold and dread. A locket shuddered between his sunken chest and the railing, its soft clink of metal the only sound the sailor’s beleaguered ears could register.
It had been days since the scheduled arrival. Pieces of driftwood appeared on the beaches in droves, and the coastal town was shrouded in sorrow and terror. Ship after ship came home in pieces, each one more damaged than the last. A hundred widows crowded the church aisles, their wails drowning out the deep hollow ring of a bell for each man lost. She remained in the water, letting it flow over her quivering limbs, letting it soak through her bones. Holding the metal necklace to her lips she muttered his name over and over, calling, shouting in her head to come to her or give her hope. Sunlight glittered a deep orange on the crystalline rivulets as twilight grew near. To stand up and break this paralysis, to drain the water from her skin and hair, to meet the cold kiss of night on damp skin, these were trials she cold not face. The locket became warm against her lips as her body chilled in the slowly darkening waters. Salt trickled down her cheeks to join the creek. With every gasping sob the creek fought to overtake her. Beyond the whisper of the leaves the beginnings of a furor could be heard. An electric shock shot through her body and settled in turmoil in her stomach. Eyes widened, mouth motionless, she sat, listening.
The sea boiled around him, each wave lashing his body with ferocity unknown to him. As he dove into another trough, another crest would rise above him, far mightier and more powerful than the one before it. Pieces of line and cable tangled around his feet as he clung like a madman to a large section of mizzenmast. Bobbing like a cork he imagined he saw her in the waves calling to him. With broken fingers digging into soggy timber he held her hair in his mouth. The metal casing was warm against his tongue and in his fevered mind he was in her arms again. He could feel her… He closed his eyes. He would see her long black ringlets soon. How her eyes would shine when he stepped lightly onto the shore! How sweet her ivory skin would taste… His body began to relax and he became oblivious to the hell raging around him. They would marry, and he would leave this temperamental mistress, and build for the town, like he had planned. His fingers slowly slid. He would teach their children to swim in the creek by the church… The waters calmed and he drifted home to her.Each ring of the bell was a knife to her heart. His ship had come in. Three men had floated in on a raft made of remains of his old home. Fresh cries of agony and loss filled the November air. The water sifted in through her gritted teeth. Salt poured openly down her face. The metal felt colder now, painful to the touch. She opened it with frigid fingers and looked upon a lock of his hair, now soaked. It tarried for a second then was swept away downstream. With only her eyes above the liquid mirror’s surface she took a deep breath and floated home to him.