In the old days – before the sun had returned to tame the ocean storms, after the last freighter had blundered home, only to run aground – magic was let loose in the world again. In those days my thoughts matched the weather, wild and alien. The gray clouds had swept humanity from the ocean shores and left them huddled deep inside the continents where they had only the howling wind and stinging rain to contend with. A few of us clung to the wave battered coasts, scratching out a living in the occasional and short-lived calms.
For a while, the rusting hulk of that salt-laden freighter held together, its bow thrust up over Whaleback Island, the old lighthouse somehow still intact, though it lay on its side, sticking out of a gash in the hull like a pale gray tongue lolling from a great black mouth. And, when the wind was up, that mouth thrummed. As wind and waves scoured the cargo from the vastness of the hold, its voice deepened, at times driving me close to madness.
When it was calm enough, Jack and Leo would roll a leaky old lobster boat down to the water, raise the makeshift mast and tattered sail to make a run across the harbor. They would race from the lee of the old Coast Guard station to the wave washed shore of the island, and back again Racing to get back before the clouds sealed the rent in their perfection and the wind roared once more.
They scavenged what they could from the dark and dripping cabins, but once the canned food ran out, it was rarely anything useful. Still, they kept going back, drawn by something I could never see, never understand. Treasure they said, grinning, though in those days treasure was food on the table. Something, anything besides the mussels we’d pry from the low-tide rocks or the haggard seagulls my son would shoot when they were too tired from fighting the wind to steer clear of him.
Time was when I could sit in the greenhouse without despair, coaxing pale white light from old fluorescent bulbs down to pale and spindly plants. Time was when I could listen to the wind scream past the windmills and around the corners of the old house we lived in and I did not feel fear, though I always longed for quiet. The house was safe, for all that it shuddered from time to time. It had stood its ground against Atlantic gales for more than a century and now its thin clapboard was sheltered inside walls of dry-laid stone, the roof held down by corrugated metal sheets and old steel cables salvaged from the Navy Yard.
But I spoke of magic.
Pandora’s box was old and tin and rusted shut. They’d found it in the crew’s quarters, tucked under a sodden pillow. “Charly” was painted in childish letters on the lid and my husband grinned at Leo as they pried it open, punching through the fragile metal with a screwdriver. To me, it seemed somehow indecent, this prying into some old sailor’s private life, but there was an allure to the moment, knowing we might, through his mementos, get some glimpse of the time Before. Postcards from foreign ports or photographs of loved ones. But all that ended when the lid gave with a scraping sound that set my teeth on edge.
It was the look on their faces that drew me in – the way they stared, first at the box, then at each other, but before I could get a look, Jack reached in and pulled out something black and twisted. At first, I thought it was a stick, but then I saw the nails and places where the knuckle bones showed through the skin like patches of some luminous fungus. Not human, thank God, but still a grisly thing for all that it had been kept dry by the box.
It was Leo that pulled out the diary and began to read, curled up near the fire, the book tilted toward the flames that edged his face with red. From time to time he would read bits aloud, while Jack just sat staring at the empty box. It was late by the time Leo started reading about the monkey’s paw and a wish gone wrong. In words as childish as the writing, that long dead mariner poured out his guilt and apologies in equal measure.
Oh God. Does this story sound familiar? Jack was never much for reading, but the story was an old one. An elderly couple with an only son. It was too much like us and with a shudder I realized what was coming. We were none of us greedy, but still it would come. The madness and destruction of that once make-believe tale. I grabbed the paw and threw it in the fire and, for a moment, thought we were safe, but Leo pulled it out before the flames could catch. Clasping it in his young hands, my son spoke – and after that, I knew we had to keep it. Had to have some way of undoing what he had done. Had to have some way of bringing him back.
“I wish I could see the sun again.”
For a moment there was silence, then the wind picked up, howling like I wanted to. Nothing had changed, but I did not sleep that night, only lay in bed next to Jack. Waiting.
In the morning, I heard Leo get up. Heard the sharp intake of his breath as he looked out the window.
“It worked!” He shouted and I heard him running out the back door, even though the wind still howled and the rain beat down in dark, angry sheets. Jack and I got out of bed at almost the same time, running to the window just in time to see Leo holding his face up to the rain, eyes wide and laughing as he spun in circles.
“Sun! Beautiful sun!” He cried, dancing with joy towards the rocks and the waves and death.
We never found his body. In those days, the dead did not return to the surface or, if they did, they broke up in the surf, chopped into pieces the crabs would gorge on. We searched the whole day, but gone is gone, there was nothing to find.
Neither of us wanted to eat. I watched Jack staring into the fire and fought the growing need to take my place in the story. To wish Leo back no matter what form he took. To hear his voice again, even if it gurgled with seawater. I knew – knew how it would end, but we already had death, what did a little madness matter?
His eyes followed me as I rose from my rocking chair and walked over to the box. I could see recognition in his eyes and, yes, I think there was a brief moment of agreement.
“I wish Leo was back with us.”
There, it was done.
I should have thrown it in the fire then and there. I should have re-written the end to that horrible tale, but I didn’t, just dropped the hideous thing on the floor. Jack looked at me through the tears in his eyes, then shook his head and went back to staring into the fire as I turned around and went to bed.
It was midnight or so when I heard the footsteps. For a moment I was afraid, not of Leo, but of what I might think and feel when I saw him. I was frozen. I wanted to get up and go to the door, to greet him as I always had when he returned home, but I could not move. I hated myself for that. Hated the sweat that broke out when I tried to rise.
The steps came closer, across the back yard toward the door. A flash of lightning painted a brief sillouette on the wall. One I knew so well it broke my heart. Another brief moment of calm came and went, highlighting the sound of wet boots struggling through the ever present mud. An, oh, so familiar sound now laced with fear and longing. I could hear the back door knob being turned – once, twice. Then nothing, and somehow I knew it was over.
The paralysis left and I got up, half in a trance, putting my bathrobe on out of sheer habit. Jack was still staring at the fire and a dry, musky odor filled the living room as I walked past him and through the kitchen to the back door. I do not know how long I stood there, my hand on the knob that Leo had tried to turn, but it didn’t matter. I knew he was gone again. I never did open the door, only went back to bed.
Our lives go on. Curses fade, though their consequences often do not. We live as we always have, even now that the storms have stopped and the magic gone with them. We do not speak much and I have never forgiven him, for Leo is dead and I am mad.