The first report came in at 5 a.m. The second, ten minutes later. And the third just as the harbourmaster hung up on the second. Something was crossing the shipping lane. A wreck, perhaps, or an iceberg. If icebergs were as smooth as glass and rounder than a bowl of fruit.
Or if, as the fourth report suggested, they cast a feminine shadow.
‘Two big hills joined sort of… in the middle.’
‘Like a valley?’ offered the harbourmaster.
‘Two hills joined in the middle. That would make a valley.’
There was a pause and the radio crackled softly.
‘And a third hill?’
Now it was the harbourmaster’s turn. ‘What?’
‘A third, smaller hill, joined on the end. What would you call that?’
‘Three hills, Christ!’
‘Well then there’s three hills coming your way, and two valleys.’
The harbourmaster scratched his chin. Outside, the wind chimes flailed soundlessly and a haloed patch of rain hovered in front of the porch light. Beyond that, everything was black. Somewhere out there the sea met the sky and between them a parade of trawlers and skipjacks shuttled across the horizon. But something had broken the line and was drifting toward the harbour. An hour passed. The rain stopped and the wind chimes fell still. A few joggers turned out on the beach. Daylight grew and the jetty became visible, a grey arm stretching out into a wobbling greyness which, with further increments of light, was unveiled as the glittering sea. And there, in the mouth of the harbour, lay three hills. Three elegantly curved, pale white hills. At least, in her size, which dwarfed the boats left and right of her, it was hard to see the form of her body, head, shoulder and hip, as anything other than abstract shapes. She hardly looked human or even natural, more like a porcelain doll in a bathtub than a corpse in the harbour. All at once she was spotted and several cries rang out in unison over the beach. Startled by the noise, six or seven gulls hopped off the jetty and, spiraling in tight circles, climbed into the air. With rather less coordination the joggers dashed off the sand. And unlike the gulls, which quickly disappeared, the joggers barely reached the promenade before looking over their shoulders. One by one they checked their runs, turned around, and walked back to the edge of the sand where they discussed her with gossipy panic.
At 9 a.m., the sun drawing level with a fuzzy hilltop across the bay, she washed ashore. Up the beach she floated, cajoled further and further with every wave until she left the water, listing forward with one last heave of the tide but rocking back and coming to rest, dead but not inert, her pale skin seeming to shiver, wet and glistening, in the morning light. She lay with her back to the crowd, her knees tucked up and her arms reaching out to the sea, her wrists together as if bound and, in fact, a blueish tinge burgeoning around her extremities as if invisible straps pressed her skin. The wind picked up. The boats bobbed a little more energetically at their moorings. The morning wore on and the gulls returned. The tide pulled out, leaving her well and truly beached. And when the joggers left, she was alone again. A lump of stranded flesh. Slowly I opened my eyes. I was lying curled up, my arms reaching out to the empty side of the bed. Thirsty, I went downstairs. The linoleum floor was painfully cold on my bare feet but I made myself stand still and not hop about like a child. Outside, the wind chimes rattled, and I wished I didn’t feel so useless or quite so alone.
Stranded Flesh was first published in Snake in the Grass and Other Stories 2013, ISBN 978-0-99264-13-0-6