He stopped speaking the day after it happened. After the salt water rushed into his lungs and the survivor got the better of him. He didn’t expect the man to fight so ferociously; to thrash and claw before submerging in the churning water. He didn’t talk about the destruction of the schooner or shouts of the other wreckers as they claimed what wasn’t theirs and dragged it onto the shore; their bodies hunched like beetles, rolling the dawn’s capture over sand and stones.
He didn’t speak when the children grabbed his coat sleeves; begging him to open water-logged cases, pluck strings, and hold strands of pearls intended for women as lovely as their mother. They were too young to fear the cliffs, the descent, or foolhardy quests to do things differently than those who came before. Too young to accept that fever and water-borne contagion had slipped through the door and stolen their mother. He pulled them away from drafty windows and imagined them running for the door—growing up mid-stride—looking like the sailors lost in the waves.
He didn’t tell them about his first salvage; the rush of power in his unpracticed hands, the inability to tell if he shivered because of the wind or because of what he had done with his bare hands. He didn’t report how the scavengers laughed at the youthful crew; saying they were like nags with lanterns strapped to their necks—wandering the shore, unable to navigate or shield themselves from the rocky misfortune. He laughed with them, though murderous expedition was not in his nature, and the sight of the lads, face-down in the water—shirts billowing like the arms of specters—crawled into his dreams, tightening his jaw, stiffening his limbs, and forcing him to relearn the movements by dawn.
He didn’t mention the times he refused to go with them; feeling his penance was incomplete and the contagion would return with three winding-sheets. He chastised himself without saying a word; vowing to find a place away from the water, the wind, and the stinging salt on his swollen hands. He vowed to do it. But the sky renounced him, the scavengers appeared in the doorway, and he left to do what he had always done. He kissed the cheeks of his sleeping children and started the descent; knowing the sea had rendered judgment and would never stop exacting its price.
© Darlene Eliot