Twelve years ago, towards the end of the first week of December, the ship’s agent came to my door and informed me that the Miranda, my fleet’s first ship, had sunk. There were no survivors, he had said, everyone was dead. There was a heavy emphasis on everyone and I knew what he meant but didn’t know what to say. When my housekeeper had seen the man in, I had turned and rested my arm on the chair, which at the time had been new and rough, but which was now smooth from constant use. The ship’s agent’s white beard had trembled as he had looked on me, newly wed and newly widowed.
“She’s gone down, sir,” the old man had told me, clutching and releasing his hat repeatedly in his hands. “We haven’t found your wife’s body.”
“Well, come in and close the door,” I had said. “Don’t make the bad news worse by letting in the cold.” Not that he could have really let in the cold—even in the winter I keep the window open a crack so that the smell and the bite of the crisp sea air may liven my mind—but it was the only practical thing I could think to say. All thought had left me. All practical wisdom except that one small act had fled.
Now, the last day of November, a woman was standing in the same doorframe of my study, dripping sea water onto my hardwood floors with a trail of seaweed behind her.
When my new housekeeper knocked on the door and presented the woman, I turned away from the papers on the table, rested my right arm on the back of my chair and glowered at the intruders. And there she was—all grey and pale—letting an ocean storm’s worth of chill into my already chilly den. I took a long look at the stranger at my door. Her hair hung limp around her face like pale kelp. The rags of her clothing were grey and thin, although she showed no signs of shivering from the cold. A silver pendant hung at her throat, a starfish. Her skin was as pasty and insipid as the underbelly of a bloated fish. Most of all I noticed her eyes; they were like summer storms on the horizon with tall, wind-swept waves crashing against the beach, threatening the house and sea walls. I recognized her then, as I looked into her eyes; she was older than she had been twelve years ago, of course, but her grey-blue-green flashing eyes were the same as the day I had lifted the veil to kiss her.
“Well, come in and close the door,” I said, and she stepped into the room. “You’re letting in the cold.”
“Shall I bring refreshments, sir?” my housekeeper asked. I looked at the housekeeper’s smooth young face, the bouncy gold of her hair and the empty green of her eyes. I had almost considered, just the day before, that I could wed this new servant. I would need a son eventually, no use having all of my work go to waste. But that problem was gone now, because here was my wife, presumed dead, and now back with the same flashing eyes.
All those years ago, when the old man had come calling, my housekeeper had also asked about refreshments. As a recently wed couple, we had hired an old grandmotherly woman to look after us, and I realize now that she had probably looked into my eyes with pity. He’s so young, she must have thought, and already a widower. Well I hadn’t needed her sympathies. The old nurse had fetched coffee and pumpkin biscuits and brought them in on a silver platter, which had been a wedding gift. All the time the ship’s agent and I waited for the niceties to arrive we remained in silence. My agent stared first at me, and then at the ground, up briefly at me again, and then at the ground until the wrinkled hands of the housekeeper produced a steaming cup of coffee in front of his face.
“Yes, thank you,” I told the current housekeeper, and she bounded off to the kitchen, closing the study door behind her. “So you’re back.” The woman did not look at the ground; her eyes, a hurricane in each, saw me the way I sometimes feel that the ocean does: a constant, beckoning gaze. The ocean knows that her waters will part for my ships, but sometimes, when she has the mood, her waves call sailors to herself. It is not a pleasant death, but there is many a sailor who said he’d like none other than to eternally rest in the bosom of the mistress he had always served. Her watery eyes did not leave my own as she walked further into the room and sat down on the sofa.
“You’re very damp,” I said, I could already see the water from her rags being soaked up by the silk cushions of the sofa. I had told the ship’s agent the same thing, although twelve years ago I had tried to say it apologetically, since it was not the man’s fault that the storm which had sunk my ship had come aground just as he was coming to tell me the news. Now though, there was no reason for her dampness, other than her time at sea. The weather outside was cold and windy, but the near December sun shone crisply through my open window. The ship’s agent had sipped at the coffee and sat gingerly on the then-new sofa, aware that he may be ruining the material, but I had offered him a seat, and he would not refuse me. She showed no such concern.
“So,” I had said, not sure how to think. “She’s gone, and my wife with her.”
“Yes, sir,” the man had said. He took a biscuit from the tray but it remained in his hand, slowly crumbling onto the polished wood flooring. My housekeeper had not been happy with that later. She scrubbed my study floor, every inch, to clean up the mess. Eventually, I had ordered her out so that I could finish the work that needed doing, widower or not.
My young housekeeper came into the room carrying a silver platter, not the same one as before; this one was a new one that had been a gift from one of my captains. The fare was my usual pumpkin biscuits and black coffee. We remained in silence while the young girl poured us each a cup. I watched the girl leave. Her skin was very smooth and delicate looking. She was the kind of girl I would have considered courting as a youth until my parents betrothed me to Miranda, a strong, rich woman.
“Bryan,” my wife said. Her voice brought my head around, so that I caught the sparkle of the silver starfish at her slender throat as I met her eyes again. When we’d first been introduced, most of the evening she had worn a thin veil and most of the evening we had been on separate sides of the room. I hadn’t known how stunning her eyes were until I lifted the wedding veil. I had gasped, in delight and shock, to see her staring at me hungrily. The years had calmed her hunger—she had not touched her coffee or the biscuits, I noticed—but the fierceness was still there.
“So, Miranda” I said, lifting a cup of coffee from the tray and taking a sip. “You’re back.” The coffee needed a bit of sugar and cream, but there were neither on the tray. I put the cup back on the tray, no longer desiring it, even for its warmth. Her eyes shone like a flat sea in the late morning when the light of the sun shines so brightly that you can hardly see the water for the light.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m back.” Her hands were folded neatly in her lap. I saw a small glint of jewels there, and noticed that she still wore my wedding band, a simple gold ring with a small inlaid diamond.
When the priest had left for the final time, after the memorial dinner, I had slipped my own gold band from my finger and placed it somewhere. I couldn’t think where.
“Did you miss me?” she asked. I considered the coffee on the tray and considered calling the housekeeper to fetch cream and sugar, although by the time she would come, the coffee would be cool and adding cream would only make it more so. The truth was that I had not missed her, but I hadn’t the heart to tell her. I had felt no loss at her death. If there was some loneliness at night, it soon faded. That initial kiss over the altar had been shy and hesitant on both our parts. The nights of our honeymoon had been fumbling, and awkward. I confess that I began to grow very fond of her, but she had only shared my bed for five months before she left on our fleet’s first ship to die on the rocks. I had not yet grown accustomed to the extra warmth in the house and bed before I was left to myself again. And the old housekeeper had been there to tend the house, so all else remained in its place.
The ship’s agent had been far more uncomfortable than I had been. I hadn’t known what to say, not overcome by any true grief, but a sense that something was expected of me and I hadn’t known what. When I had dismissed the old seaman from my study, I walked him down the hall and through the entry way, and then saw him out the door into the storm. The whole time, he apologized profusely for a pain I did not feel. That alone caused me some grief, for I am a man of etiquette and protocol. This time, too, I knew that I must speak, but could find no words. What do I tell a wife—a woman who had shared my bed for five months, a woman whose dowry and early inheritance made me a wealthy man even before I made the single family ship into a fleet of dozens—that I had felt only slight discomfort at her death?
“Did you know I was pregnant when I went to sea aboard theMiranda?” she asked. I had not known. How could I have known such a thing? If there were signs—a subtle change of mood, a slight discomfort in the morning, a gentle swelling of her breasts—how was a new husband to notice such things? I had felt that there was something amiss when she was gone, but whatever it was had been in the home for such a short time that I could hardly have said what it was. And after twelve years I had not even thought about it.
There is a portrait of her in the study. It was painted just before our wedding, and I had gone there as soon as the ship’s agent left. I sat in the large, red arm chair, lit my pipe, and considered her face. The artist had gotten the eyes wrong; they were painted an oily green. But that was not entirely accurate, because her eyes had always been like the ocean—watery and wild. Green and then grey and then blue and all the while radiant. Oil could not portray all that, indeed, and the painting had somewhat angered me. I had forgotten that anger until now, when I could see her eyes. Sometime after she was gone I must have decided to forget her eyes and see them as the artist had painted them: flat, mysterious, and uncaring as the sea on a still, foggy day. But, in truth, that was only one of her moods and I could see them all in her eyes again as she looked at me. Still I had not answered any of her questions. She may have noticed. Could she read my eyes as easily as I could see the storm in hers?
“I lost the baby in the wreckage,” she said. “It just came out, a small lump of red among the green and the froth.” Her one hand caressed the palm of her other. “It was not even as big as my palm, probably only a four-month growth.” She traced the palm of her hand with the finger of the other one, and then rested them both gently in the rags of her lap again. She looked down at her hands, fidgeted with the ring and then looked back at my eyes.
“I missed you,” she whispered. She reached her hand across the refreshment tray and touched my cheek. I felt affronted, as though she had struck me. I raised my hand to grab hers, intent to thrust her cold flesh from mine, but when I did, she only took it as an invitation to hold her hand. Her skin was cold, damp, and spongy in mine. She squeezed my hand gently once and smiled. I was convinced, then, that she could not read my eyes, or she would not have looked at me so. How could her stormy eyes be so loving if she knew that I had not missed her, that I doubted if I had really known her or if she had just been a dreamy comfort for five brief months? “Oh, Bryan, I was so lonely.”
I had no words for her; just as I had had none when the old man had announced her death. It was true that I felt some unease at her passing. It was not just the ship’s agent who came to apologize and console, but also my aged parents, married some thirty years; my colleagues from school; the priest and the women from the church. They expected something other than the cheerful countenance, as I had always shown, but I had nothing else to give. They called me strong, but I had told myself that I welcomed the new solitude. I was out of my parents’ house; I had an estate to myself. But I knew, looking into Miranda’s moist eyes, that the loneliness had not been a blessing for her. Wherever she had been the last twelve years, she had missed me, and that brought all the pain that I had not felt in the past to the present. If I had known in those five months that she loved me would I still have left her to the sea? Would I have sent someone to look for her? Why hadn’t I felt the same as she, even after five months? Was it not enough that I had named the ship after her; and that because she had begged I had let my two Mirandas sail together on their maiden voyage? I knew that some of the sailors said that women onboard were ill luck, and there were rumors after the Miranda went down that it had been Miranda’s presence that had pulled them to the rocks and taken the ship to the bottom.
“Yes,” I said, finally, pulling away from her moist hands. “I suppose you would have been; all alone as you were.” I considered that the future would be uncomfortable as well. Those who had once come to console me would now come to celebrate her return. Would the cheerful face I would wear then be as much a mask as the troubled face I had shown twelve years ago? Knowing I would need to be prepared for answers as to her whereabouts, I gained the courage to ask a question.
“Where have you been all these years?” I asked, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew that I hadn’t the heart to hear the answer because wherever she had been she had apparently been alive and I had not once thought to go look for her. She could just as well ask where I had been all those years: reading by the fire; eating cakes and sipping tea at the breakfast table; sleeping in my—no, our—warm bed. When her empty coffin had been lowered into the ground, I had assumed it was all over. I hadn’t even considered a family again until the new housekeeper had come a few weeks ago, and I had been charmed by her smooth skin and still, green eyes. They seemed like empty dreams now, because here was my wife, flesh and blood and sea water, right in front of me.
Those feelings shamed me as I looked at Miranda. But just as I knew I would not have such thoughts again—I could not allow them now—I knew that Miranda would not hold them against me—how could she?—so I put them aside.
“Lost at sea,” was her only reply. And her shimmering eyes never left mine.
I shifted in my seat and then rose from my chair, turned my back on this pale grey woman, and went to the window, where the winter’s sun and ocean breeze streamed through. After her sea-cooled presence, even the coolness of the winter air seemed all the warmer.
From the window I could see the ocean. It was a rich blue and capped with only the occasional, shallow wave. The sky’s blue was lighter, but just as deep. There were only a few wisps of clouds on the horizon. It was calm and peaceful, a day that the sailors would despise because there was no wind. I looked to the beach. I thought that I could see a damp trail coming right from the water and towards the house. For a moment I wondered if I could just send her back to the water. Perhaps the ocean would take her back. Then there’d be no unneeded attention, no flock of church women, no overbearingly eager mother. I caught my thought and cursed myself for it. I closed the window, closed my eyes, drew a deep breath, and then I forced my eyes to look at her.
She was staring at me, and one pale hand fidgeted with the starfish pendant at her neck. When I caught her eyes I lost the breath in my mouth. They were as blue and welcoming as the sea. I doubly cursed myself for my traitorous thoughts. I am sure that I turned red and was just as sure that she could see my thoughts. However, her eyes stayed blue and dark. They were as inviting as our wedding day, except that the shyness was gone. There was no doubt in her mind that I was her husband. No desire to send me to the depths of the ocean lingered in her mind. I recalled that the ship agent’s eyes had been grey that day, As grey as the storm that had raged outside. As grey as the storm that had taken the Mirandas from me. I blushed again. I had not felt anything when looking into his cold eyes.
“It was going to be such a beautiful baby,” she said.
“I suppose we’ll need to get you out of these clothes.”
“Our child, just a lump of blood in the water.”
“You can sleep in the guest chamber until—” I caught myself just as she interrupted.
“The guest room?”
“No,” I said, sorry that I had spoken at all. “That would hardly be proper. You are my wife, after all. I’ll send the housekeeper to town and get you some clothes.” I thought of her clammy skin beside me in the bed. No, that’s not how it would be. That’s not how it had been before, when we were newly wed. Her skin had been soft and warm, I reminded myself. She just needed a bath, fresh clothing, and she’d be just as she was before, only slightly older and no longer a hesitant virgin. My wife, I reminded myself. I sighed and rang for the young housekeeper. She would have a long day to get to town, and I would need to write a letter to the company’s lawyer, I am sure there was some legal matter that needed to be cleared away, now that my wife was no longer dead.
“Thank you,” the woman said. I walked towards her to help her from her seat. I saw that the sea water had thoroughly ruined the cushions.
“Welcome home, Miranda, my wife,” I said as I took her hand. I shivered at the coldness of her body, although it was dryer and not as cold now as it had been when she first brushed her fingers across my face.