Copyright 2018 Cindy Brandner
He smelled the land before he saw it. They were still a day out from Cobh when he felt the change in the wind—a change of scents, something less salt, something softer and sweeter, the smell of refuge and sanctuary. There was a soft thrum of excitement in his blood merely from that whiff of land, and a hope, caught in his chest like a needle, that this land would give him back his memory, or even just the end of a thread which he might follow through the labyrinth of finding out who he’d once been.
The fog had gathered in, thick as a wet wool blanket, just after noon. Sea smoke it was called by some, making it sound far more romantic than the reality. Casey had been twitchy ever since the smell of the land had invaded him, his blood pulsing in quick, bright sparks and making this last day at sea near to unbearable. The restlessness had driven him out onto the deck, to peer through the thick draperies of fog, straining for a glimpse of shoreline.
Suddenly he sensed movement in the water below. It was instinctual, he supposed, that prickling uneasiness which came over a man as he sensed a great body sliding through the waves. He could see it in his mind’s eye—a phantasmagorical creature rising from the depths of the abyssal plains, to emerge in this world of smoke and illusion. He felt that way himself—as though he was just now emerging from the bottom of the sea—not, he thought peering down toward the water, that that was a particularly attractive metaphor for his life, but it was, he supposed, as apt as any. A long time of submersion and living in a place where no light could reach, and sight more a thing of instinct rather than knowledge. And then to emerge in a world filled with light, and yet find it foreign and strange, as though he was a wild creature who had to relearn the ways of man.
The sound of the whale surfacing came a moment later, that great watery exhale which carried the scents of the sea within it—fish and plant, salt and dark, and echoes of a mystery as old as the planet itself. The scent niggled at him, like an itch beneath his skin that he could never relieve—that this too, this breath from the deeps, was memory, and spoke in some way of that other life, and the man he’d once been.
The whale lingered upon the surface of the sea, and then slid back into the depths from which it had come, silent as dark stealing over the land. The breath lingered upon Casey’s skin and in his nose, condensed into fine droplets of mist.
'…and I shall broadcast, saying nothing
The starry echoes of the waves…’
The scrap of poetry floated through his mind, and yet he did not know the poet, nor the voice which spoke the words in his mind. The voice still there, just a faint echo lingering. A woman who had loved poetry? Echoes. That was all he had, bloody echoes of a life that might have been real, or merely something he’d conjured up like a Potemkin village in his head. A beautiful façade but when you peeked behind, there was only a yawning space.
He stood there for some time, staring into the fog and sea, until the soft disturbance of a gull, passing through the mist, moved against his skin. He hoped the poor thing wasn’t lost, flying blind wasn’t advisable even for a seabird.
“’Tis said,” a voice emerged near his elbow, startling him from the reverie of fog and leviathans, “that seagulls are the souls of Irish migrants who died overseas, an’ return home as birds or the mist off the waves.”
“Is that so?” Casey asked, the hair prickling along his arms and chest, and rising stiff on the back of his neck. He’d not heard the man come up beside him, and his defenses were now on full alert.
“Aye, that’s so. We’re romantic fools, we Irish, no? When ye’re dead, ye’re dead, an’ there’s no comin’ back as a gull or a bit of fog. Ye’re merely rottin’ in the ground, providin’ a bit of food for the worms. Still, sometimes it’s wise to pay heed to the old superstitions. My nan used to tell the tale of a young girl who died of fever while away from home, an’ her father thought it best to bury her there, an’ not risk carryin’ the fever back to their own place. An’ so she was buried in the nearest churchyard, an’ the father then made his way home. A few nights later he heard a scratchin’ at the window, an’ then a mournful cry of ‘I am alone, I am all alone in my cold grave.’ An’ he knew what it meant an’ that he must bring his daughter home, or she’d never rest easy. So off he went, an’ had the coffin of his dear daughter dug up, an’ then put in a cart. An’ he took her home then, all the way from Wicklow to Kerry, an’ buried her again, there amongst her own, for the dead can only rest peacefully when laid down with their forefathers, for ‘tis ill to perish amongst strangers.”
A chill chased down Casey’s spine, feathering out like a fan of ice to his very extremities. There were times he had felt this, that he was a dead man making the journey home, where he might find rest amongst his own.