This house is more like a ship. If it weren’t for the chimneys and the pitched roof, I’d consider calling it that. I think the house would prefer it. The five bedrooms teeter on the edge of the cliff, the slate-colored waves slicing at the craggy shoreline below. The spray just barely reaches the rocks below its foundation, almost as though the sea beckons it to dive in, to go back where it belongs. Maybe that’s what the ocean whispers to the women, too. The ones who have gone over.
The view from my room is sweeping as I step to the window. A thick, gray fog hugs the shoreline, stretching its gnarled fingers as far as I can see in either direction. I can’t tell where fog ends and gray sky begins. I can only see the foaming surf as it pounds against rock. I pull my shawl closer around me, shivering. Isn’t it peculiar, I think to myself, that the ocean performs this ritual each day, never finding different results? It comes back again and again, slamming itself against the cliffside, never deterred. Even the sea itself is a little mad. Perhaps this is the best place for us.
The ring of keys jangles against my skirts as I walk the dark corridor to the kitchen, the splintery floorboards groaning and creaking under my feet. If I concentrate hard enough, I can feel the shifting of the ship house on the nonexistent waves. I place my hand on the wall to steady myself and try to ignore the dizzying feeling.
I push the swinging door open to find Nellie’s ghostly silhouette, her nightgown billowing in the wind. She is standing in front of the open window. Icy air has filled the room. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone here, especially this early in the morning. I’m admittedly startled, sucking in my breath hard and fast, and I hope she hasn’t noticed.
“Come, now, Nellie,” I coo softly, so as not to agitate her. She doesn’t bother turning around as I slowly approach her, placing my hands gently on her shoulders. Her skin is cold and her lips are blue. She must’ve been standing there for hours.
I guide her slowly away from the window, and I try not to think of Amelie. Her velvety skin, soft as a ripe fig; her smooth hands gripping the sides of a book, brow creased in concentration; her lips parting into a widening smile as she looks over the ocean, chin tipped back and arms outstretched, salty wind toying with her dark hair. I try to shove the memories down, but they’re surfacing like the whales I sometimes see off the shoreline on clear days, dipping underneath the cloudy surface only to come back up again. They are forces to be reckoned with – whales and memories.
When Nellie is safely tucked back in her room, warming underneath her covers, I do a room check. Sometimes I fear the desire is catching. All eight women are still in their beds. As I cast my gaze across each sleeping head, I can’t help but feel a little like a mother to some of them, especially the ones who stay longer. Where once I was nothing to anyone, here, I am everything to them. But I know better now. I know to keep the boundary, to protect both them and myself.
I return to the freezing kitchen and close the windows, which are now banging angrily against the sides of the house. I set the new coals, open the dampers and fill a pot with water. After Amelie, I considered having locks placed on all the windows, or painting them shut. But what good would that do? It would only serve as a small obstacle, a mere bandage on a large, gaping wound. I know better than anyone. If a woman has made up her mind, there is nothing one can do to stop it. It’s better, to find oneself on the edge of the cliff, knowing full well the option is there. You can take a breath, step off the ledge, let yourself fall mercilessly to the dark waters below, waiting to accept you, envelop you, to keep you as a precious treasure. Or you can live. You can rest in knowing you had the option.
With the porridge bubbling on the stove, I make my way through the house lighting candles and pushing the heavy drapes aside. Today, the sun would not bring enough light to pierce the fog, I know. Sometimes it feels like the mist creeps into the house, through the cracks in the wood or underneath the doors, and gets underneath my skin, into my bones. It brings with it the wailing and crying of sailors lost at sea, carrying their grief in its clouds.
I take extra care to light enough candles in the library, where I know most of the women will spend their time on a day like today. I do not charge exorbitant amounts for my wards, like other places closer to the city, but the women with means, the ones dropped off by frantic husbands or accompanied by doctors of the mind who want to be updated monthly on their patient’s wellbeing, those I ask for extra. I ask them to bring along five books to add to our collection. I do not censor them, either. Many say that modern literature is poisoning our minds. I say it’s feeding them.I run my hands over the dusty spines, feeling the smooth breaks of the golden embossments. I pull one off the shelf. The Awakening. And scratched in ink on the inside, Amelie. I move my fingertip over the letters of her name. I listen for the groans of the ship house, the soft animal breathing of the sleeping women. I close my eyes.
Lauren von Foregger is a 2004 graduate of the University of Mississippi (B.A. in Journalism) and a 2011 graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi (M.S. in Communications). She’s written prize-winning short stories for the Alabama Writer’s Cooperative, community college publications, and numerous newspapers and magazines. She currently holds a full-time position as Communications Director for a large national nonprofit. She’s the stepmother of two young boys, who have turned her life upside down in ways she never would have imagined. She currently resides in Jackson, Mississippi.