The Bermudian magazine is delighted to introduce the honourably mentioned short stories from this year’s Short Story & Poetry Contest, themed “The Sea”.
The Ebbing Tide
by Sarah McDonald
“Mummy will we see mermaids at the beach.” The little voice drifted from the back seat. It had been the same question an hour ago.
“No Isla. I’ve told you. Mermaids are a fairy tale.” Helen was tired. It had been a long journey. “They’re not real.” She added as an afterthought to head off the next line of enquiry. She could see her little girl chewing her lip with great thought.
“But Granny said…”
“I know what Granny says Isla darling,” she knew only too well, “but Granny is old and… she gets confused sometimes.” She’s been confused for many years, she thought sadly.
“Yes darling.” She held her breath.
“Why’s Annie my Great Aunty?”
“Annie’s my mum’s sister, so my Aunty, which makes her your Great Aunty.”
“Does that make sense darling?”
“Guess so.” Isla said slowly. “I think she’s a brilliant Aunty.”
Helen laughed. “I guess she’s that too!”
“Will we be there soon?”
“Very soon my angel.” Helen watched the rough dune grass out the window sway and bend in the breeze. Beyond that she could see the sea. It stretched seamlessly to the world’s edge. A vast beast that glittered and blinked in the weak sun.
“Good… cos I need the toilet. And so does Teddy.”
She took a left down the drive flanked with bare gorse bushes. The colours of the landscape looked so different from their visit in the spring. The fields surrounding the cottage now seemed bleak and blanched of colour. The death of summer in full swing. Annie came out to greet them with faithful Patch barking at her feet. The gravel scrunched as the car pulled up.
“Well hello, hello! Good journey?” She called out with a smile.
“You’re brilliant Aunty Annie!” squealed Isla.
“Well, thank you for the compliment!” laughed Annie “How are you my gorgeous girl? Come in, come in… I’ve got lunch just about ready and the kettle on.”
“Jam sandwiches and orange squash for little girls,” Annie announced presenting Isla with her lunch, “and coffee and chicken sandwiches for the adults.”
“Thanks I really need this!” Helen gratefully received the mug from Annie. They both watched as Isla stuffed down her sandwiches and then rushed to rifle through the box of toys in the corner. Annie’s aged beagle Patch seemed unimpressed by the usurper.
“You made record time. I wasn’t expecting you for another hour or so.”
“We left pretty early to avoid the traffic. It’s just nice to be away from the City and near the ocean… always surprises me how beautiful it is down here. I really miss the sea sometimes… and all that space… everywhere is so cramped at home.” Helen took a bite of her sandwich.
“Speaking of family… how is my dear sister?” Annie asked warming her hands on her coffee mug. Helen swallowed hard at the mention of her Mother.
“You know… the same really. Her mind comes and goes like the tide. She spends most of her time looking out the window and mumbling to herself.” She took a gulp of coffee. “The nurses say she’s been having dreams again… and sometimes at night she’ll call out for him… for David.” It was still painful to talk about her brother.
“He was taken too early. God rest his soul.” Annie shook her head. “Margery was never the same after. The sea can be a cruel, unforgiving place. Serene and tranquil one moment and raging like a banshee the next… And you both such water babies when you were little too… was a hard job to get you out of the sea.”
“When we go to visit… sometimes she doesn’t even know who I am. She gets confused, thinks I’m other people. But her face lights up when she sees Isla. She likes to tell her stories about the sea – some of them are ones I’ve never heard… from when you were both small, and Grandpa worked as a fisherman. Others are no more than fairy stories, but they seem familiar somehow. I have to keep explaining to Isla that the stories aren’t real.” Helen sniffed. “I had to tell her we wouldn’t be seeing any mermaids.” She laughed in a sad way. “I’m not sure it’s healthy for her, you know… to think of the sea in that way.”
“Have you thought any more about teaching her to swim…?”
“No.” Helen said quickly. “I mean… I’m not sure… I just want to keep her safe… don’t want her going through what I did.”
“But learning to swim might make her more careful… more confident…”
“No. I know you mean well but not now… maybe in a year or two.”
Annie gave a woeful smile. “Come on let’s get some fresh air… we can walk into the village.”
The wind had picked up as they left house, bundled in coats, with scarves billowing. The worn cliff path led all the way round the headland and onto the beach. Helen kept a watchful eye on Isla who skipped along the path in her yellow coat and pink wellies. Patch seemed determined to keep a close eye too and his furry ears flapped in the wind as he raced by her side. Round the bend it was just possible to see the village peering from behind the beach dunes. Helen took Isla by the hand as they left the rocky path and made for the sand.
The crunch and roar of the encroaching tide was louder from the seashore. The gulls cried out in guttural calls and sashayed on the breeze.
“No Isla, no too far ahead please… ISLA.” Helen called out. Isla was tottering about in the direction of the waves. “Isla I said no!” The little girl stamped her foot and kicked at the sand.
“She’s a wilful little thing! Just like you when you were her age.” Annie laughed gently.
“She’s stubborn… that’s what scares me.” Helen smiled.
“Mummy, Mummy, I want to go look. I want to see the mermaids.”
“Isla… what have I told you… Ok, ok… wait for Mummy. I said wait for Mummy Isla. Don’t move.”
“Where’s Patch got to?” Annie said looking around.
“Is that him?” Helen pointed.
“Ahh I see him. I might just go and get him… not as young as he used to be you know.”
“Just a minute Isla. Mummy’s coming.” It was only for a minute, but when Helen looked around again Isla was gone. Patch started to bark and she looked in the direction of the old quay. Isla was dangling her Teddy over the edge. Even as she screamed she saw her little girl trip and stumble over the uneven concrete. The splash was barely audible over the slap of water. Helen hurled herself after her daughter. The icy cold knifed her body and she gasped for breath. Ahead she could see the blur of Isla’s yellow coat ballooning. The wave rushed around her. Helen pounded outwards with her arms and legs. The rancid salt taste made her gag. She swiped at the water and grasped the yellow plastic coat.
“Mummy.” Coughed Isla. Her lips already fringed with blue as she gripped her arm.
“It’s ok baby… Mummy’s here.” She felt a sting of panic as the extra weight dragged them down. Helen kicked her legs viciously. She could feel the rip tide moving and knew to go with it. The flow of water threatened to drag them out, but at the last minute seemed to think better of it. Helen felt it push them instead towards the far side of the quay. She felt the undercurrent lessen. It was like they were being wrestled in another direction. Helen’s eyes widened. They were at risk of being dashed against the rocky outcrop. The cold was bleeding her of strength.
“Mummy’s here.” Her daughter looked listless. As they neared the rocks, Helen used the wave’s moment
um to push Isla up onto the ledge. The sea roared. The next wave threatened to pull her out again towards the wide ocean. Helen made a desperate grab. She couldn’t pull herself up. She fell heavily back into the water, her wet jeans pulling her down. She tried again. Her arms were heavy. Her fingers numbly brushed the rock. The tide was pulling her out. That’s when she saw it. A glimpse. A shadow. She couldn’t be sure. But then the pressure on her wrist pulling her back towards the ledge. A hand guiding her through the waves. She found a footing beneath the water and heaved herself up with all her remaining strength. She landed hard on her side facing the sea. A blurred face. A flick of a tail. Those eyes. And then gone.
“Isla? Isla?” The last thing she heard was Annie.
“She’s ok. She’s going to be ok.
The hospital smelt of bleach and sickness, but it was only for the night.
“You’ve both been incredibly lucky!” The Doctor pronounced with a mixture of condescension and amazement. “Mild hypothermia, concussion, cuts and bruises. It could have been much worse.” Helen clamped her tongue. Like she really needed reminding.
Isla seemed worryingly unperturbed by the episode.
“I’ve got a friend for you Isla. Since poor Teddy was lost at sea.” Annie said handing her a paper bag.
“Thank you.” Helen smiled.
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Please really don’t blame yourself Annie… if anyone’s to blame…”
“A Bunny!” Isla beamed with delight.
“Didn’t want to upset her by getting a Teddy.”
“Probably for the best… lucky she dropped him really… the extra weight would have pulled us under for sure.” Her stomach flopped at the thought.
“Teddy’s with the mermaids now.” Isla smiled triumphantly. Helen said nothing.
“Maybe it’s easier for her to think that.” Annie reasoned.
“Yes.” Helen avoided her gaze. “Yes, you’re probably right.”
“I still can’t believe you managed to get up on that ledge.” Annie stared at Helen.
“Amazing what a mix of adrenaline and fear will do I guess?”
Helen couldn’t quite bring herself to visit her mother for a few weeks after they returned home. She kept putting it off. She ignored that uncomfortable feeling when she thought about it. Then one weekend she found herself pulling into the car park at Little Grove Care home. Isla had gone to the aquarium for a friend’s birthday party. Helen sat in the car for half an hour before mustering the strength to go in. The cheerful yellow corridors did little to alleviate the general air of inevitability. The smell of age clung to her. Margery was in her usual pose looking out of the window when she walked in.
“Hello Mum.” An unusual flicker of recognition sparked. “It’s…”
“Helen.” The voice was quiet but audible.
“Yes that’s right Mum. It’s Helen.” She couldn’t help the tears welling in her eyes at the acknowledgement.
Helen talked about everything else apart from the thought burning through her mind: her job, the weather, and Isla’s swimming lessons she was due to start next month. She came close once or twice to revealing the whole story, even was on the brink. She’d rationalised it in so many ways: shock, cold, fear. Her mother smiled vacantly throughout the visit and allowed Helen to hold her hand. She could almost believe for a moment her Mum was back. The loving face of her youth. All too soon it was over.
“I’ve gotta go now Mum… but it’s been lovely… really lovely.” Helen kissed her on the cheek and gripped her frail frame in a hug. “Bye, Mum. I love you.” She turned at the door to wave goodbye.
“You saw him. David. Didn’t you?” Margery smiled and nodded to herself. “I knew you would.”
Those Who Remained
by Karli Jai Powell
The Smart left early – years before the others. On air planes. They landed in far off places with hills and mountains. Places so far up in the sky, it mystified the mind to imagine the motivation of a bottomer climbing so high. They didn’t know what we knew to be true. The ocean was coming. Later, The Strong left. On boats. They looked at the ocean that had washed into their yards and seeped into their homes and saw not an invasion but an invitation to explore. They took with them the Very Young and most of The Sick, so as not to burden those who remained. The Old.
These are the words painted onto the roof of the old parliament building – one of few the dry places left in our capitol. Premier Grant had them written before he drifted.
There hadn’t been much land to begin with. Just a few dozen miles of spewed up rock; cooled solid by the then welcoming sea. In our heyday there had been enough land and international trade to at least feed everyone and live a good life. If you had visited then, you would puzzle at us now – a handful of hills surrounded by hundreds of white rooftops. A handful of lucid souls surrounded by hundreds of white haired men and women – old bones and minds, long drifted out with the tide. An odd art display or abandoned anthropologic study.
Waking up in the high rafters of a long abandoned cathedral – I say a silent prayer. Although we haven’t been properly introduced, I hope the God of this church is listening. It’s a prayer that I’ve said to myself every morning for sixty-one days. Sixty-one mornings ago – we received our last contact from the mainland. Any mainland.
On sea legs, I maneuver gingerly around my floating bedroom – makeshift bedding and even a little storage secured to a nest of inner tubes, driftwood and emergency floatation devices. When I first took this job, I did my best to try and look the part. At 18, I’m the youngest Premier to ever serve and I wanted to be taken seriously. Blazers, lapel pins and brightly coloured socks. Now, as I secure the straps of my waders over my wetsuit I wonder if that was the same attitude that got us into this salty mess. Show over practical necessity.
Careful not to spill, I ration fresh water into my flask and set it next to everything else I need for the day – a headlamp, a small first aid kit, binoculars, duct tape, and a large fishing knife. I take my time securing everything to my utility belt. I cannot afford to lose what little I have.
Seconds after I have pulled on my rubber boots there’s a knock at my improvised door – my Chief of Staff and Minister of Home Affairs and Safety. I head out, ready for the day.
Stepping out into the gathering light I take in my surroundings. The air is thick with the salted sea air. What once was a thriving metropolis is now a watery wasteland. As if God Himself stepped on our small island and pushed us down into the sea. I greet my comrades as I board the small dinghy. “Good morning, Jon – Frankie.”
“Good morning Myles.”
“Hey Myles .”
There are little formalities between us. Frankie passes me a small bundle, which is my breakfast – boiled fish wrapped in kelp. It’s not much in terms of variety but we’re blessed with what we do have in abundance and that’s fish and seaweed.
Frankie casts us off as I take a seat. As we drift I look her and Jon over – none of us truly sleep well but it looks like maybe they’ve had a rough night.
In his mid-forties, Jon is old enough to have fathered most of my scant Cabinet. He wears his age proudly but never with condescension. It was he that recommended me for this post – said that should the time come, if he were to drift he would want me to see after his wellbeing. This morning in the early light he looks weathered beyond his years. I catch Jon’s eye.
Jon shakes his head, tucking his heavily shadowed chin to a
void my hope. I already knew the answer but I had to ask. If we don’t hear from someone soon all of this effort could be for nothing. I look to Frankie.
“Update?” As always she pauses before she answers – fixing me with an earnest look so as to prepare me for the news.
“Three drifters and two lost – maybe three.” Rough night.
Receiving bad news from Frankie is always a little unsettling. Her face is made for smiles. She is oddly coloured for an islander. Aside from her pale brown skin, which never seems to tan, she has the most intriguing constellation of freckles running across her short nose and under the left of her warm brown eyes. From her head, a hurricane of red-gold curls lick around her face and shoulders. It’s said that she looks like a St. David’s islander. Whatever that means.
“Maybe three?” I start eating, doing my best to chew and swallow without tasting too much.
“Mr. Roberts. He hasn’t been seen since yesterday afternoon – but I think I know where we can find him. We’re headed there now.” Okay.
Although we have a small outboard engine it’s reserved for urgent situations. Luckily we’ve been granted with a strong wind from the east that should take us directly to what’s left of the western end of the island. I scarf down the rest of my meal as we prepare to sail away from the main rock.
We fall into an easy rhythm, with Frankie and me following Jon’s lead. Maneuvering around the ropes and sails, the wind steady at our backs. In these conditions it’s not hard to imagine sailing away forever, especially with Frankie. With such focus on her face and the wind in her hair, she smells of open ocean, peppermint, and hope. I allow myself a moment to feel my feelings for her. It’s something I try not to do too often- it seems to take more and more effort to bury them afterwards.
We make good time but it takes us a while to navigate through the labyrinth of rooftops and as we try to find our way to the largest land mass. We know that we’re on the right track when we find a small boat moored to a tree by the waterside – it’s Sunfish sail flapping loosely in the breeze. We follow suit, tying up to the same tree then jumping into the shallows to wade up to shore. Jon and I look to Frankie for direction.
“Mr. Roberts is seventy-four and strong – he’s only newly drifted. Up until three weeks ago his mind was as clear as any one of us.”
Jon and I look at each other, the rapid deterioration of the mind is something that we have discussed at length. None of us are experts on dementia but we have our theories. Jon reckons there must be some sort of trigger. “What happened three weeks ago?”
Frankie nods at his implication. “Three weeks ago his wife, Jules, died – complications after a long bout with pneumonia. Needless to say he didn’t take it well and ever since then he hasn’t stopped telling the story of their first date to anyone who would listen. About how he showed her the whole island in just one afternoon from a fort on Scaur Hill.” Here she pauses to point at the mound of earth we happen to be standing on. “So, my guess is that we’re going to find a very sad and fairly distressed Mr. Roberts up on this hill somewhere.”
We decide that it would be quickest if we split up. Before we head our separate ways Jon hands both Frankie and me a machete to combat the wildly overgrown vegetation. “Don’t hurt yourselves or each other.” He fixes me with an openly stern look before he turns and heads off into the thick brush. Avoiding Frankie’s eyes – I do the same.
Cutting through thick vines and climbing over tons of abandoned debris, it isn’t long before I’m completely disorientated. I know that if I just stick to a fairly straight path I’ll eventually emerged on the other side of this shrinking islet.
As I work my way forward I think about Mr. Roberts and the hundreds of others waiting for me to come up with a plan back on the main rock. It’s not a lack of food or shelter that I’m worried about – it’s care. It’s not fair that we have to keep them herded so close together, it’s not fair that we don’t have the medication or even the education to treat them for their ailments. And should something happen to me or any one of my Cabinet – what would happen to them? I do my best to keep my despair in check before it turns into anger. I cannot deny that there is a part of me that wonders if there was ever a contingency plan for all of this. Surely the world did not change so drastically over night. Surely The Old were once young enough to plan for their futures and their children’s futures. As I make my way toward a brightening that must be a clearing – I note that there is little evidence of any such planning.
Stepping through a gap in a thick tangle of vines I find myself staring out at the open ocean with only a small grouping of hills in the distance. I can only imagine what Mr. Roberts and his new love must have seen back then.
I’m just starting to look around when I hear the loud burst of Frankie’s air horn not too far away on my left. I stick to the smooth rock at the water’s edge and make my way to where the sound came from. As a climb over a large boulder I find her kneeling before a weeping grey haired gentleman. She waves her hand in my direction, signaling me to approach carefully. In this state The Old can become easily agitated and I can see she’s doing her best to sooth him. I can hear the soft notes of a song that we often sing to capture the minds of a large group.
Bermuda is another world…seven-hundred miles at sea.
And the way the people greet you – is like a friendly melody.
It’s a song that we all know and Frankie sings it in a way that makes you long for the Bermuda that the lyrics describe. Approaching slowly I join in.
To touch a flower in the morning – to listen to a honey bee.
To hear a bird who sings a song – just to say that he is free.
Up close I can see that Mr. Roberts is breathing easily as his teary eyes blink up at Frankie. Aside from a thin gash across his forehead he looks to be in good physical health. Kneeling next to them I unhook my water flask, twist off the top and hand it to Frankie who helps Mr. Roberts quench his thirst. With what supplies I have, I tend to his head wound as Frankie examines him more thoroughly for other injuries. All the while we hum the old tune for his comfort.
Eventually Jon appears carrying a large bunch of ripe bananas only half eaten by birds. He peels one to give to Mr. Roberts immediately who seems appreciative and eats with vigor.
Jon has scouted out the most direct path back to the boats and with Mr. Roberts all patched up it only takes a little cajoling and a bit more singing to get him to come along.
With the wind useless to us now, Jon and I use the oars to pull us slowly toward the main rock – it’s backbreaking work. Mr. Roberts keeps us entertained with stories of his wife Jules, who was an expert baker and loved to dance to the Gombeys and Soca music. He even does some pretty good impressions of her moves that give Frankie the giggles – a rare sight.
Sometime during the mid-afternoon we take a break. The sun is high but not too hot as we eat what’s left of the bananas and taking large gulps of water from the bottle Jon keeps on hand. We then watch as Jon strips down to his wetsuit and then jumps overboard to give his back a proper rest before we tackle the last leg of our journey.
While Frankie and Mr. Roberts are distracted with Jon’s floating exercise I take a moment to say that silent prayer to myself again. It would be great if there was word from anyone, anywhere that could help us when we get back. When I open my eyes Frankie is suddenly next to me and taking my hand in her own. Without looking directly at her I squeeze her hand as a small acknowledgement of what is clearly happening between us. It’s all the hope that I can spare for myself and for her while there’s so much of
it needed elsewhere.
When we finally make it back to the main rock it’s twilight. We get Mr. Roberts squared away and a quick meeting is had with rest of my Cabinet as we bring each other up to speed with the goings on of the day. Fresh water will need to be procured tomorrow and we need to organise a new fishing team.
By the time I make it back to my floating bedroom it’s close to midnight. For now – I have given up on the notion of any outside communication, at least until morning. I peel off my waterproof layers and prepare for sleep.
Just as I put out my lantern there’s a knock at the door. My stomach instantly tightens as I prepare for bad news. With no light I stumble clumsily toward the door and almost hit whoever is on the other side. It’s Frankie. She’s crying.
“What is it? What’s happened?” I’m tugging at her sleeve for details when she kisses me. Soft and sweet and perfect – like her. She pulls back slowly and gives me that earnest look I’m so familiar with.
“Myles – we heard from the mainland. They’re coming to help us.”