I used to long for the ocean.
The shoreline is deserted. I stand alone and scrutinize every movement, every glint in the water. Sometimes there is a seal. Its shiny, black head will bob in the water like a buoy, and it is not until it turns that I see the shape of its snout. It will watch me for a few minutes and then it is gone; slipping back into the sea. It might reappear just a few feet away. Or it will not. But I wait and watch, ever hopeful.
My father, James John Fitzgerald, is dead. While they tend to his frail, broken body I stand on the beach and fill my lungs with cold sea air to flush out the smell of death that lingers in the fine nasal hairs and coats my tongue.
He talked to me right up to the very end. He pushed the words out between rasping breaths. Perhaps he thought I might reconcile him with his God. I could offer no last rites, no forgiveness, no absolution. His story unsettled me.
My mother died when I was still a baby. She walked down to the water’s edge, slipped off her shoes and waded into the sea. This much I know. My father would never speak of her, but I thought, when he stood on his balcony and stared out to the horizon, he was thinking about her. He seemed to pour year after year of sadness into the hole she left behind.
On his deathbed, my father begged me to listen without interruption and whispered a tale I could scarcely believe.
This is the story he told me…
They warned the captain not to set sail on a Friday; however, he was resolute; a storm was brewing but they needed to get under way. They cast off. The wind caught the sails and propelled the ship forward through the choppy port waves. ‘Sally’s Joy’ sat proud in the water. Steered past the harbour walls, she carved a frothy path through the deep, blue sea. The captain stood on the quarterdeck and watched his crew at work. Sally’s Joy was a well-known vessel, not least because of the artisan’s hand-crafted figurehead which gripped the forepeak and led the way into each new adventure. Sal, as she was fondly known, was the gilded effigy of a beautiful angel.
Her feathered wings, wrapped behind her, protected the beak of the ship. Her arms held her wings in place and her bare, round breasts jutted out; feminine and defiant (they were said to calm the angry seas). Her wavy, flaxen locks were permanently windswept, and the craftsman had carved every fold and ripple of the flimsy garment which had slipped to her waist. The reams of fabric had fallen and sat at her ankles like crested waves. Her eyes were half closed as if to keep out the spray. The serene smile imbued calm and confidence that the sea would not harm her ship.
For two days, they sailed without incident. The ocean changed into the midnight blue of water that is deep, cold, and unexplored. The spout of a whale not twenty feet from the boat reminded the crew of the fathoms of dark water beneath them. Gulls wheeled overhead and followed the ship. They picked at the scraps thrown overboard or perched on the yard, with their heads turned on one side to watch the sailors.
The sight of a pod of dolphins brought cries of joy and hope from the crew.
But the captain remained alert and peered through his ‘scope at the storm which had followed them for the last few days. The sun began to sink below the horizon. The moody grey clouds crept up behind them like a predator; stealthy, silent, and sinister.
They entered the straits as the storm sprang. The rain came thick and fast. The wind whipped into a frenzy and the sea became a heaving mass of black hills. The storm held the ship in its jaws then tossed it out of the ocean. It paused while the ship scrabbled for purchase on the undulating surface and then pounced again. The ship was plunged into the deep troughs and then teetered on the crests of gigantic waves. The crew fought to keep control of their vessel. At last, the captain shouted for them to abandon course and they tried to steer her into the wind.
Sal dived into the ocean and surfaced. Her chest crashed into the waves, but she stayed firm. She hugged the ship and its crew like a mother protecting her children and seemed to usher them behind her with her stiff wooden arms, shielding them from the violence. Then, in the middle of the chaos, the ship’s hull juddered. Through the sound of the storm came the screech of wood on shingle. Sally’s Joy had run aground. Unable to steer or navigate, the crew battened down the hatches. They waited for the clouds to clear and the sun to rise.
The storm moved on at last, finished with its quarry. As the tip of the sun peeped over the horizon, the captain and crew took stock. They were not far from the coast. A spring tide and the strength of the storm had forced the ship aground. With the tide now on the turn, the captain gave the order to ‘sally ship’. The men lined up port side and then ran together in a long line to the starboard side and then back and forth, until the ship began to rock. Backwards and forwards they ran, rocking the ship to break it free from the suction of the sand and mud. When the ship listed yet again, a gas lamp fell from its hook, smashed on the foredeck, and set light to a pile of sacks and empty barrels. Before the fire was noticed and extinguished, the flames licked at the tips of Sal’s wings.
For the briefest moment in time, all four elements communed in Sal. The ship had sunk so low, her feet rested in the waterlogged earth. The wind gusted round her body and water ran down her face and neck, whilst the fire singed her wingtips. She thought she heard the captain cry ‘Sally,’ but she had waited too long to heed his pleas. Her dress creaked and cracked. Her arms split from their mooring. She ripped free from her wings. Her curls fell forward over her face as she stepped down from the ship’s beak. She waded through the shallows holding her skirts above her knees. Salt water glistened on her polished shoulders. Standing still on the beach, waterfalls cascading to pool at her feet, she transformed into her human shape.
On the ship, the sailors ran back and forth, desperately trying to free the vessel from its muddy trap. A ship without its figurehead is surely doomed? The ship let on water fast through the gaping hole left by Sal. Seven souls were lost as they tried to mend the breach but all to no avail; the remaining crew abandoned ship and Sally’s Joy sank into the ocean bed.
James fell in love with Sal the minute he set eyes on her: cold and alone at the sea’s edge. He carried her back up the beach to his house and nursed her back to health. James asked Sal to stay, and she did.
Sal still longed.
He fell for her tranquil smile and grew to love her deeply. James’ troubled soul found peace in her company. He tried to be the man he thought she wanted him to be. To James, Sal seemed content.
Sal still craved.
The night Sal’s waters broke, a hurricane raged out on the sea. Forked lightning lit up the sky; the black sea frozen like a snapshot with each illumination. The rain beat on the windowpanes and gusting winds smashed against the shutters. Thunder rumbled and crashed overhead, as if to fill the strange silence where there should have been cries of pain. The storm abated with Sal’s final push and the last rivulets ran down the windows as though they wept with relief.
Sal still yearned.
Once she had rested, Sal left the baby cradled in James’ arms and walked down to the shoreline. The swell was a dirty brown, churned up during the storm. But the sea was calm now. Sal removed her shoes, stepped into the shallows, and returned to the sea.
Today, there is a spring tide, and the water has receded much further down the beach. Little patches of sand are revealed, and some polished boulders, usually hidden from sight. I can see something protruding through the water out at sea. I shield my eyes against the sunlight. There is the profile of a woman with wavy hair and her arms stretched behind her. She looks in my direction then back to the sea. I know. It is Sal.
The rising tide will embrace her and pull her back to the depths. Elusive like the seal, she may appear again at low tide. Or she will not. She is there, in the water, she was always there; the lost soul searching for her ship.
There is a quiet and stillness on the beach. I am alone on an empty shoreline. No gulls cry, no whistling wind. There is silence. And peace.
I turn and creep up the beach like a changing tide. Sated, at last, by the sea.
Copyright 2022 Jessica Joy
I live on the Southeast coast of England and the sea often features in my work. In “Sally’s Joy” I explored grief and loneliness and the magical, transformative possibilities of combining all the elements. I love folklore and tales connected to the sea and was inspired by the working fishing boats on the beach and the beautiful seals that watch my dog and me on the pebbles.