by Sophie Hoss
Everything on the island is being consumed by something else. A marble bust half-devoured by dune grass, rivulets of erosion scarring the shore. It’s geologic warfare. A violence so slow that it seems gentle.
Tonight, I will tell her I’m leaving.
I think I’ll tell her I want to leave. Maybe I’ll ask her.
Afterwards, we stand in the waves and shuck stones out into the briny froth. The Heiress is quiet. Her solemn dark eyes are still. Auburn curls writhe under her floppy beach hat.
“Dime for your thoughts?” I ask.
“A quarter, then. Final offer.”
“Don’t bargain with something you don’t have,” she says.
The Heiress’ voice is always hoarse. The first time I heard her speak, I pictured thin reeds grating together in her throat.
Sandpipers scuttle at the water’s edge. They are brown-speckled with narrow beaks that pluck at the sand the way hummingbirds spear into a flower. One of them nips curiously at my ankle. I flick the bird away, aiming a belated kick as it flutters backward. It chirps indignantly.
“They don’t know any better,” scolds the Heiress.
“The pipers. They don’t know they’re supposed to be afraid of us.” She plucks one of them up and strokes a long finger across its head. The bird doesn’t resist. “Be gentle with them.”
“I will.” I school my expression into a repentant mask.
The Heiress regards me blankly. Her face is ageless—she could be in her early twenties or her late fifties or her thousands. From a certain angle, her cheekbones curve the same way Penny’s do.
“There’s a lighthouse. Just a few miles off the coast.”
The Heiress doesn’t look up from her sewing. “Hadn’t you noticed it already?”
The porch wraps snugly around the cottage’s salt-weathered face. The Heiress perches in her hammock, leaving me a cushioned wicker chair. As always, dinner is spread on the glass coffee table—tonight, it’s lobster bisque, toast spread with ricotta and honey, and vinegar-tossed salad. A bottle of sparkling water nests in a bed of ice. There is never any wine, and I’d never dare to ask for some.
“Lovely evening,” I say, taking my seat. “Thanks for cooking.”
She nods. Her hands pluck absently at a driftwood harp. Its strings are fishing wire. Even after these many weeks, I cannot quite describe the instrument’s sound—like the ebb and flow of a heaving tide. Hypnotic and delicate.
When I left home, our child’s kick was beginning to ripple at Penny’s skin: a dolphin’s dorsal fin cresting just below the waves. Twenty years have passed since then. The doctor told us it was a boy.
The sandpipers ignore me when I try to feed them bread. They prefer to do the work themselves. What is it they eat—microscopic worms? Invisible shrimp? The sand itself?
The crumbs I’ve strewn on the shore grow soggy and are eventually sucked away by the undertow.
When it gets dark, the Heiress makes a bonfire on the beach. We roast salted goat meat over the purple-tipped flames and lie side by side, pointing out constellations.
“Cassiopeia,” I say. “The upside-down queen.”
“No. That one’s Medusa,” says the Heiress.
The low-hanging fog seems thicker than usual tonight—I imagine that it streams up from the ground.
“It was a stupid war,” I say.
“Why did you fight in it?”
“I didn’t have a choice. We wouldn’t have survived as long as we did if I hadn’t been in command.”
“You value your own service very highly.”
“I’m a good fighter,” I shrug.
The Heiress hums. “So you are.”
“There’s Hercules,” I say, pointing upward.
The Heiress does not correct me, even though we both know it’s really Orion.
The Argo was a half-mile undersea when a loose torpedo struck port bow. Metal collapsing on metal, a siren screech that wails me awake every night. I don’t know how I reached the surface—I just know I got there alone. An unsinkable captain.
We won the war nearly a decade ago and still had not made it home. Obstacles arose with each league our submarine passed. Hulking sharks and giant squids clamored to challenge us. Whirlpools and tempests swept us off course. Surprise attacks from lingering foes forced us to dock and regroup.
Why were we struck down in our final flight?
Atop the ocean, there was no trace of the explosion, not even a ripple. Just glossy obsidian. I drifted on my back for hours or years and fell asleep by dawn.
I imagine that my son is a good swimmer. In my daydreams, he is like a seal, with darting eyes and bristly brown hair like mine. I hope he floats easily.
The Heiress tells me this is the first time I’ve been lucid since I washed ashore three days ago. I’m propped on a stack of downy pillows in a pale blue room. My ears are ringing.
“Thank you,” I say. “You saved me.”
She nods soberly. “You should rest, Ulysses.”
I don’t ask for her name—somehow, I know she wouldn’t tell me the truth. I also don’t ask how she knows mine.
Each night, a swiveling oil-lamp flares pinwheels across the sea. I think the lighthouse belongs to the Heiress, but she denies it. I wonder how far the mainland is.
The little island is a barren sort of paradise. Craggy slopes and beech trees and the cottage with its never-ending rooms that feel empty but always seem to hold exactly what I’m looking for. The strong sun is tempered by a permanent coolness.
“Do you get visitors often?”
She shakes her head. “Just every now and then.”
“Well, I don’t want to impose,” I say.
She shrugs. “I like my privacy. But I don’t mind company.”
She is always barefoot, but her posture strikes me as distinctly queen-like. I never see her wearing anything but a billowy white sundress.
“How did you come by this property?” I ask.
Behind the house is a small garden. Tomatoes burst ripe off the stalks and bristly carrot heads poke from the sandy dirt. A few stray goats and pigs nose through the tangled roots. The Heiress tells me these animals came with the island.
“Were the sandpipers always here, too?” I ask.
The Argo’s covert mission had not allowed for correspondence—a tinny phone call near the beginning of my service was all I was permitted.
I miss you already, I told Penny.
I love you, she said. Penny’s voice always sounded like she was holding back a burst of laughter. Be safe. I’ll write to you soon.
Her letters were disappointing. Nearly every other word was redacted by my superiors, including my son’s name. Line after line of black slashes. I suspected that my letters to her met a similar fate.
“It’s just procedure,” I was told over and over. “No sensitive information goes either way.”
Eventually, no letters were allowed at all.
After meals, the Heiress likes to practice her magic tricks.
“Watch.” A trio of red ceramic cups shuffle between her hands. “Which one did I put the marble under?”
“The middle one,” I decide, confident.
It turns out the marble is actually in my mouth. I don’t feel the round glass on my tongue until the Heiress tells me to spit it out.
“Voila,” she says.
“That’s cheating,” I protest.
She smirks. “There’s no cheating in magic. You’re either surprised, or you aren’t.”
I pluck up a deck of playing cards and riffle through the stack, mixing its order thoroughly. I make the Heiress guess which card I’m holding.
“Queen of Spades. Ace of Clubs. Seven of Hearts.” She’s right every time.
“Want to hear a riddle?” I eventually ask.
I launch into a detailed question involving leopard spots, long division, a stolen painting, a lemonade recipe, and the number of stops a bus driver makes. I don’t mention that the first time I heard this riddle, my guess was wrong.
The Heiress laughs when I’m finished. “Isn’t it obvious? It was the florist.”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
I’m not a sore loser. I’m just a person unaccustomed to losing. I’m just a little surprised, is all.
I finally cajole a few sandpipers into eating seeds from my palm.
“Don’t spoil them,” scowls the Heiress.
Scraggy grass hisses in the wind. “Sorry.”
Later on, I walk the length of the island by myself. One of the sandpipers hops after me. Its beady gray eyes fix longingly on the lighthouse, on the gaping horizon beyond it.
“Where’d you come from?” I ask.
He turns to me and flaps his wings. His thin chirp sounds like a warning.
Submarine life was something most of the crew tolerated well, but didn’t actually enjoy. I was an oddity—I loved nearly everything about sailing underwater: the pressure thrilling in my ears, the regimented schedule, the periscope’s bubbled view. I was too preoccupied to be bored and too excited to be claustrophobic. My men said I was one of them. I led from the crowd, they said.
The Heiress catches me cutting down a beech tree.
“We have plenty of firewood,” she says mildly.
“I’m building a boat.”
The Heiress blinks. “I’ll help.”
We split the wood into planks and begin laying out the ship’s frame. The Heiress is as meticulous with her measurements as she is in all things.
“You’ve been a very generous hostess,” I say. “I really can’t thank you enough.”
“You have been a fine guest.”
I miss my men and dread the thought of sailing home without a crew. Strange to think the only person I’ll be in charge of is myself.
The Heiress husbands her animals well. Every few days, she combs through the goats’ wiry manes and scrapes clots of dirt from their hooves. She scrubs the pigs with a soapy rag and rinses them in warm water.
One morning, she announces at breakfast that she’s going to slaughter a goat.
“I can do it,” I offer.
“They’re my animals,” says the Heiress. “I’m the only one who lays a hand on them.”
I lower my head contritely. “Of course. I meant no offense.”
Later in the day, I watch from a window as she slings the goat’s puppet-like body over her shoulder. Dark splots of blood seep down her dress, but her hands are clean. The other animals don’t seem disturbed.
The first time I killed a man, I was seventeen. Babyish pudge still clung to my cheeks and neck. I am no stranger to the ghosts that soldiers carry home from battle.
I was fortunate to find something that calms me—putting a hand to my chest and listening to the hungry thrum of my pulse. I am here and alive, I say over and over. The names of my fifty men are always on my lips.
I mourn the things I will never know: the feeling of my infant child swaddled in the crook of my arm. The raw joy of seeing him born, wailing and red and alive. I only know a wild grief that my son will never need me as he once did. Grief that I will return to a child who is now a man, whose face I do not know. He will not be mine.
The men I served with came under my command as youths and were killed in their prime. Maybe this is penance: if they will never know fatherhood, then neither will I.
Penny will not be lulled into silence. She is gunfire that pounds my skull from the inside out. Have I made her a bitter woman?
I rouse the Heiress from sleep one night, rapping my knuckles against her door until she swings it open. She blinks sluggishly and rubs her eyes.
Behind her, the window is open, and its gossamer curtains flutter. I hear the ocean pulsing in the dark.
“Am I a good man?” I ask. “Do you think I’m a good man?”
“Those are two different questions,” she says.
“Come on. Please.”
“You’re a hero.”
I dig a hand through my hair. It’s grown shaggy during the time I’ve been here, longer than it was ever permitted to be during the war.
“Being a hero doesn’t make someone a good person.”
“So what does?” she asks.
“You can never give me a straight answer.”
“And you’ve never asked me what my name is,” she says. “But here we are.”
Heat gathers in my cheeks. “I knew you would lie to me. So I didn’t see the point.”
“You assume the worst of everyone but yourself,” says the Heiress. “I’m going back to sleep.”
Yesterday, a fly orbited the Heiress’ head during breakfast. She snagged it in her palm. When she unclenched her fingers, a pebble dropped limp to the ground.
The storm churns up from nowhere. It heaves down in biting sheets that sting like icicles. When the floorboards and ceiling start to leak, the Heiress climbs onto the roof. I follow suit and sit beside her as she stands with her eyes closed, arms flung out behind her like a sail.
“These are the gods, Ulysses,” she whispers.
My skin is wet, and I’m shivering but not cold. Lightning skims across the slate-black ocean. A howl of wind slaps me down, and I’m panting by the time I struggle back up. The Heiress remains perfectly upright.
In the submarine, we could feel the vibrations from hurricanes far above. I think that was a lightning strike, one soldier would say. Yeah, I think you’re right, someone else would reply eagerly. The amazement was palpable. I think the crew liked remembering that we were still part of the world and susceptible to its shaking, deep and hidden though we were.
When the storm ebbs, my newly finished boat has been hauled away from its mooring by the waves and battered down to the realms below. The heady scent of rain-drenched sand simmers over the island.
“Why should I bother going back at all?” I ask the Heiress. “So much time is gone. And I don’t know what’s waiting for me there.”
“That depends,” she says, “on whether you want to see your wife and son again.”
Her slack expression only agitates me more.
I don’t know how to reclaim the things I’ve purged, how to resurrect these sacrificial lambs. I don’t know how to invigorate my craving for trial and danger, the belief that every challenge is just another chance to prove myself invincible.
I don’t know. I am tired. And I am not invincible—not anymore.
I track one of the sandpipers as it flutters away from the beach. It weaves over sifting dunes and through snaggle-toothed shrubs. I follow like a hunter, quick and quiet and low to the ground. The bird’s sea-ruffled wings propel forward doggedly.
Eventually, we stop at a hollowed-out basin of sand. The skeleton of a tidy nest is propped up sideways, collateral damage of last night’s tempest. I watch as the bird circles the wreckage, surveying it with sharp eyes.
“Why hasn’t she turned me into one of you yet?” I ask.
The sandpiper ignores me. He starts poking through the weeds, clamping his little beak around sticks he deems worthy, tucking them patiently back into the bones of his nest, one twig after the other.
About the Author
Sophie Hoss is a New York-based writer currently pursuing a creative writing degree.