Regina Clarke

Posted on January 23, 2012

1


Echoes

I wandered through the old house, expecting the memories, but none came. Surely the plain boards and the old wallpaper, the dish towel by the sink, the unwashed windows, have something to say. It was all silent, dust motes in beams of light here and there. Only my footsteps loud on the stairs.

A legacy, and no ties to keep it mine. Sell it, then, I decided, and walked out on the sagging porch to look at the sea. To the right I saw the worn stone steps leading down to the cove. It was hot and I leaned back into the cliff as I went down, afraid of falling. The beach was cluttered with driftwood and seaweed and shells, but the sand was as white and soft as I remembered. I ran my hand over the rough side of the cliff and remembered as a child climbing the fifty-foot side without a rope, daring my own mortality. No one had seen.

Taking off my sandals I walked a little way into the water. I almost hadn’t come back at all, but knew the break had to be made, finally. It was easier than I expected, almost a letdown. It was just a house by the sea.

“Hello!” The man’s voice was so near I jumped back quickly, landing my foot on a sharp piece of shell. But the call was from above, at the top of the cliff, a figure shadowed against the sunlight.

“You the Malley girl, come back to check on the property?”

“Yes,” I shouted back.

“Canfrey here. I’m supposed to see if you need anything, realtor sent me.”

“Thanks. I won’t be staying.”

He was silent and backed away out of sight. Then I saw him coming down the steps, carelessly, hardly touching the stones. When he got to the bottom I could see he was in his sixties, with the weathered face men in the town generally had.

“Not staying?” he repeated, coming toward me. “That’s a shame. It’d be nice to have the house lived in again.”

Yes, I thought, who wouldn’t want the amiable Malleys around.

For a moment we both just stood there, the only sound the small waves hitting the shore. I wanted him to leave.

“You know,” he began, “to tell the truth, I wondered if you’d even show up.”

“Why? I don’t know you.”

“Sure you do! I’m the one who helped you out of that pine tree–we had the fire truck and everything. You were a girl for climbing, weren’t you!”

The memory came back. I caused a commotion that grounded me for a week.

“You weren’t even crying, way up there with no way to get down. You just kept going higher, even when the branches started to bend. Remember it like it was yesterday, but you must have been no more’n twelve.”

As he talked I felt the familiar trembling inside, the feeling I’d hoped was really gone, threatening my sense of balance.

“No,” I lied, “I’m afraid I don’t. But it was a long time ago.”

“Yeah, it was.” He studied me, but I kept my expression blank. I hoped I did.

“Well, I’ll be going back. If you change your mind, let the agency know. I’ll be around if you need me.” With that he left.

As soon as he was out of sight I sank on to the sand and my fingers clawed into it until small pools of water formed from the damp layer beneath. No tears, I thought, never tears.

The tide was coming in and would reach the first stair in another hour. I lay back on the small beach and tried to listen to the sea and wind and nothing else.

But the voices came, the cruel words and the sounds of violence. Not mine, but theirs, old voices long gone now. A shadow fell and I looked up and saw a gull flying overhead.

The sounds changed. A wailing in the night. Faces lost in anger. The silence when it was over. Curtains were always drawn in the house, leaving it in a dim, muted light like an unused shed. Once I had run out the porch door, out of the gloom into a startling, bright sun, hearing at the same time the shrieking within, behind me and the sound of a band concert coming at a distance from the park behind the house. Discordant notes, bending with the wind. The sun dazzled me and I wanted to escape it, but not back in there.

And so it was always the cove and the cliff wall. Remembering, I stood up and walked over to the sheer rock. It wasn’t smooth close up; there were crevices and outcroppings.

The rock was gritty and wet at the bottom. I stared at the lines and strata, the sea water collected in hollows, feeling the coolness against my face when I pressed against it. I reached toward a crevice and pulled myself up a little way, and then further. I didn’t look down until I was six feet from the top. And then I saw how far I’d climbed, a dizzying height, with nothing to keep me from falling but the small indentations in the rock.

I was crying, after all. Leaning against the cliff I couldn’t move. Then out of the numbness, or through it, there came a different sound, faint and silvery like wind chimes, a sweetness that distracted me from the fear. It seemed to speak of a place I was sure I recognized, filled with light and gentle voices and things I had seen, like the deer once, near a tree, that had watched me a while before turning away. In the sound I heard water falling over rocks and rain at night. I wanted to climb higher and see for myself what it was.

But I stayed on the rock, frozen there. Until my fingers, sweating and slipping, my arms too tired to hold on, I thought of letting go. The chimes again, louder this time, like bells across the hills at dusk, and on the weight of the sound I did lift myself higher and reached out my hand and felt the dry grass and pulled my body over the edge of the cliff, lying in the hot sun and crying harder with the relief that washed through me.

When I finally looked up there was only the field and the house fifty yards away. The gulls circled over my head soundlessly. Even the wind had stopped. Then a few feet from where I lay I saw a silver glint and moved closer. The wind picked up again and faint, tiny tones came from the object. It was a child’s charm bracelet, full of small, tinkling bells, hanging from a tree branch that lay on the grass. The metal was tarnished but intact. It had been my own, a long time ago.

Below me the tide had come in, covering the first two steps of the stairs. My shoes were gone, washed away. But I saw my purse there, and would have to get it. Slowly I stood up and brushed myself off. Bending down, I picked up the bracelet and slipped it into my pocket. I went over to the stairs and ran down them, jumping over the water and retrieving my purse that was already slightly wet from small tentacles of water stretching up.

I went back up the steps, knowing it would be for the last time. Halfway up I turned and looked once more at the cove, and the sheer wall that closed it in, and the glinting light of the sea beyond. I ran the rest of the way, lightly, without hesitation.

It was an old house, and I had given it enough of me. I didn’t go in again, only locking the door and leaving the key in the vase of dried geraniums on the porch. The realtor would know where to find it.

***

Regina Clarke: I have a doctorate in English literature, have managed a sojourn in the high tech world (a peculiar interim destiny), and I have only published nonfiction before. But the stories have always been there. I lived once in Texas and have never forgotten the Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets I saw along highway 71 for upwards to forty miles one spring afternoon, en route to Llano to see an eagle’s nest. In California it was orange poppies on a hill against a darkening sky that stayed in memory. I will probably never see New Zealand, but I once watched a film about Janet Frame and remember the wind rising before a storm and rustling the leaves of a tree near a window of her house. If I had to say what I love most, it is the open road, though I seem to keep returning to New England. Most of my stories are about the matter of place, of what it means to be somewhere, and leave, or stay.

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