He wakes at the same time he did the day before. Every morning he shuffles in the dark through the same choreography, first throwing the blankets off his body, then jamming his feet into a pair of worn slippers, and before going to the bathroom, walking in a haze over the creaky wood floor boards to put the kettle on the stove. The sun hasn’t risen yet over the bay. The ocean is still obscured in the wee hours of the morning. William eats his breakfast alone in his quarters, watching the half glimmer passage from darkness into light.
By seven it is bright enough out to wash the stairs. William carries his bucket to the top of them and slowly works his way down. He does this everyday. The repetitive sway of his scrubbing arm and the tide-like spill of suds slosh back and forth in a sort of rhythm over the splintered steps. From the small square window in the staircase wall, the sea appears as though encapsulated in a box, a diorama containing an image that could belong to any place in time, made up of equal parts sky and water. William looks up at the little view of the ocean as he scrubs. Some days, young children can be seen flying their kites on the shore, hats blowing off in the wind and floating away on the water. But now, the waves are empty and calm. There is nothing fantastic outside, no owl or pussy cat rowing off into the sunset, no mythical creature swimming past.
Today, the sea looks like the photograph William keeps in a frame on the table beside his bed, just a span of grey waves that fill the entire picture, a slight billow in the water as though it is passing over a hill. The photo was taken the day a pod of whales surfaced from beneath William’s row boat while he was out on the bay, their enormous sleek bodies emerging suddenly from a placid patch of water. Though the upsurge had prompted William to urinate on himself, the boat did not capsize. It simply rose up on the animals’ movement, their fins jutting from the water in domino procession around the vessel before disappearing again a few moments later, as though they had never been there. The whales often pass through William’s bay. What space they occupy at what depth below him he can’t say, nor what other creatures carry on in obscurity beneath the surface. The waterline exists as the fragile division between parallel worlds, each passing unnoticed by the other. It was that way when William lived in the city years ago, with entire lives taking place unseen in adjacent rooms, only separated by thin sheets of plaster and decrepit insulation, reaching each other in muffled sounds through the walls.
It is quiet by the sea. There is no shared architecture that connects William to any other person. He passes many days without encountering a single human face. His time is propelled by a series of tasks carried out with robotic regularity. Put the dishes away. Draw the curtains over the windows. Walk down the road to pick up the mail. Later today, William will spray down the sides of the house, a monthly power wash to dispose of all debris, a build up of dead mice and remains of bird’s nests sure to empty from the shingles to the ground.
When William is done scrubbing the stairs, he sits by the window in his quarters and reads the newspaper. There is nothing in its pages of much concern. It is a local gazette from the nearest town a few miles inland, reporting on traffic congestion near the city hall and winners of the pumpkin contest at the county fair. William glances up from the headlines and looks outside. All there is to see is water all the way to the horizon.
At ten o clock William sweeps downstairs. He pulls the blinds up from the windows and turns the key in the cash register. On the ground floor is a small gift shop and general store. Here one can buy tiny figurines and ceramic mugs hand-painted with wild flowers from the region. Mostly though, the fishermen who pass through spring for lengths of rope or bags of coffee. The store rarely tallies more than a few purchases a week.
Some of the rooms downstairs are populated with mannequins. An attractive woman in an apron is bent over a painted plaster caste of a rhubarb pie in the kitchen. A sea captain is posed with a telescope at the window in the library. In the hallway, a string of plastic fish hangs on a hook beside a fishing net above a pair of boots on the ground, arranged like a still life by John Singer Sargent. In the bed chamber is a four poster bed, a lacy bassinet with a fake baby in it on display in the corner. The rooms are cordoned off with faded velvet ropes. They have low hanging ceilings and are equipped with furnishings only two-thirds the size of what fills William’s quarters upstairs, which itself is barely outfitted for current day humans, furnished modestly with a small cot bed and an armchair in one corner, a kitchen table, and a wood-burning stove.
When he is done sweeping, William dusts the shelves in the library, a collection of Maritime encyclopedias, almanacks of nautical maps, and charts tracking the currents in various bays across the region, none of the volumes perused by anyone but William in years. Many of the books are hollow casings, painted wooden models made to look old. William carefully lifts up the captain’s plastic hand from where it rests on the shelf and pulls out a book of the first photographs of lightning. He looks through the pages with a magnifying glass at a series of images showing grainy black skies injected with luminous scrapes of light spread across the dark like systems of blood vessels.
On the mantle is a model ship inside a bottle. William puts the books back and goes over to look at it. He examines the tiny men posed with ropes in their hands raising up the sails. A minuscule wooden mermaid is tied to the mast beside them, facing the ocean with her eyes shut. Outside, the waves crash onto the shore, leaping up over the rocks and against the house. In some places in the world the surf freezes over buildings at the edge of the sea. In the winter they crystalize into strange shapes of ice.
There are few people who visit William’s bay. Now and then a ship comes in from a neighboring port and a haggard sailor steps off onto the dock, bringing William pieces of venison acquired on his travels, or an exuberant trout freshly pulled from the water. In the summer, teenagers ride to the end of the pier on their bicycles or perhaps a single deer stops to gaze alert in William’s direction. But, for the most part, his house is something to be seen from afar. People remember it as they drive past the road up on the cliffs in their station wagons, children pointing their fingers at the windows and crying out, “Mother, look!”
A few times a year, Mr. Lewis brings his ship to dock in the cove. An aging scientist who studies the migration of whales, he tracks a certain breed originally native to this coast, recording the sounds they make under water. Sometimes when Mr. Lewis comes, the two men share a pipe or a box of wine and tell each other riddles. But it has been some time since William has seen the blue stripes of his boat on the horizon. For the past year, they have exchanged the riddles by letter, a correspondence of no trackable pattern, growing more infrequent as time goes by. Now and then a well-traveled envelope with Mr. Lewis’ name on it arrives, always from somewhere different—points along the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, when William picks up the mail, there is a letter from Alaska. It consists of a single piece of paper, on which is written:
“He who makes it, has no need of it. He who buys it, has no use for it. He who uses it, cannot see it.”
There are no other words included in the letter, no signing of a name, no news of the other man’s whereabouts. William sits on a stump outside with his back against the side of the house, holding the letter in one hand, and his lunch in the other, the same pumpernickel fish sandwich he has been eating for years. He thinks for a bit, but cannot decipher the answer. He folds up the paper and puts it in his pocket.
In the afternoon, when the chores are done, William goes out on the water. In his long rubber coveralls and wading boots, he rows out to the middle of the bay and lowers a cage down into the water on a rope. There he waits, tying a handkerchief around his neck as he leans back in the boat and opens his book. He has just finished reading the autobiography of Jack the Ripper, which has paired nicely with the flask of whiskey he keeps in his pocket. Today it is Shakespeare and a jug of moonshine. “I pray now, keep below!” he says, reading the lines over the water. “Give thanks you have lived so long and make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour.”
There are moments throughout the day when William speaks aloud, as though conversing with someone or pontificating in front of an audience, though in fact there is no one there to hear him but the seagulls or the fish. Sometimes, in the evenings, he wanders about the rooms on the ground floor, adjusting the mannequins and popping his head into the display kitchen to say, “hello dear,” to the woman in the apron, or strolling into the library to remark to the captain on the weather.
Now as William looks up from his book, he sees a fog in the distance. Behind him is a barren coast of jagged rocks, before him an expanse of iron blue water. Situated on the very tip of the peninsula, there aren’t many other houses along the coast. In the woods above the cliffs, William notices a tree that appears blue against the greens of the other flora. It is a Christmas blue, as though it has been frosted with tinsel or should exist underwater. He can’t remember the last time he celebrated Christmas. Certainly not since he came to live in this house.
When an hour has passed, he puts his book down and pulls the cage up from the water. It is full of shrimp. He reaches his hand in and takes a single prawn from the jumping pile, snapping its body in half before popping it into his mouth, only seconds ago alive. As the sun dims out on the sea, the light grows brighter inside the houses. William’s house glows brighter than all the rest. The rooms used to be lit by candles, an array of thick wax pillars shining with a light that penetrated the fog. Sometimes, in the evenings, when the lights are brightest, William stands at the upstairs window, gazing out into the night.
At dusk he turns his boat around and rows back to shore. Once inside he heats up some soup on the stove and tosses a few shrimp into the pot of boiling water, watching them float through rubbery conglomerates of seaweed as if still in their natural habitat. After dinner, William fills out the log book. In the entrance hall of the building there are rows of these ledgers kept by previous occupants. Their names appear alongside the years of their residencies, dating all the way back to the 1700s when the structure was built. It has undergone a myriad of reconstructions since then. Before William, a one-armed man lived here. He was famous for the way he smoked his pipe, holding it steady between his chest and dismembered half limb as he used the remaining hand to fill it with tobacco. He lived in the house until he was 92 and died when the roof caught fire one day. His mouth had been open when he looked up to toss a bucket of water on the flames, and a stream of molten lead trickled down his throat. “I’ve swallowed the flame!” it was said he cried out, his last moments of life occurring as an ingestion of light. The shape of lead that was removed from his body is displayed on the ground floor, an amorphous lump now kept in a glass case.
Each of the ledgers contain years of records, ordered by date, nearly every page marked with the same single sentences: “Did chores,” followed by a line describing the weather that day. Here and there, a page or two is filled with writing detailing an event witnessed in the bay. William pulls his own book from the shelf. “Washed the stairs and exterior walls,” he writes, then, “Fog at dusk, wind from the East.” Before going up to his quarters, he steps inside the display bedroom and rocks the fake baby in the bassinet, humming a tune his mother used to sing to him. As he finishes the song, William climbs the stairs, as he does every night.
When he reaches the top he turns out all the lights.
In the night, the waves crash against the sides of the building. The air is a deep translucent purple. Inside the few houses scattered intermittently along the coast, the curtains are drawn and interior doors are left ajar as people sleep. The structures are filled with a hollow sort of darkness, the still silhouettes of stationary objects, the heave of bodies breathing in the air of the subconscious. Occasionally, the menace of a mosquito buzzes around someone’s ear, or a mouse passes through a kitchen, and in the imagination of a restless child in some darkened bedroom, an intruder silently pries open a window and slips one leg inside.
William lies awake for some time before falling asleep, tossing beneath the covers but remaining on his vessel, contemplating the psychedelic metamorphosis of the shadows as he gazes up at the little window above his bed. He wonders if sea creatures experience night time, or if they are in a perpetual state of night. There are no stars to be seen from where he lies in bed. The sky is clouded over. An eastern gale whips at the air, the sort to blow hanging laundry and insects across the landscape. Rain falls at a sideways downpour from the clouds, beating in torrents over the water, sending high turbulent waves to break over the rocks. In the periphery of his quiet room there is the sound of a violent whistle in the distance, of trees bending under cracks of thunder. But William is unmoved by the storm. Tonight the house is completely dark and he hears nothing. When he finally falls asleep, he is launched into the slumber of a boy who has spent all day running through the fields. He dreams he is beneath the surface. It is like a news item he read about in the paper once describing a group of environmentalists who had a meeting underwater, signing papers in scuba diving suits on desks chained to the ocean floor. William is submerged without any gear. He maneuvers the terrain as though he is on land, walking in his work clothes through the water.
Outside, the ocean is black under the cover of night, growing more dense with each meter of depth. As the storm persists, a ship approaches in the darkness.
In the morning, William wakes at his usual time. He clamors into his slippers and in a haze of half sleep, puts the kettle on the stove. It is still dark out. He has not had a good look out the windows. He starts up the tune he sang the night before, humming it intermittently as he makes breakfast.
The newspaper has been delivered to its usual place, stuffed inside a tiny compartment in the wall of the lower level, originally constructed for the exchange of milk bottles back when fresh dairy used to be delivered to the house every morning. As William waits for the water to boil, he goes downstairs to retrieve the paper, opening the little door of the compartment and stashing it under his arm as he heads back to his quarters and throws it down on the table. He fries a single egg on the stove, letting it puff up in a puddle of fish oil, then scooping it with a spatula onto a piece of bread. The kettle screams, emitting one long whistle of steam. As William pours the water into the coffee pot, he repeats the words of Mr. Lewis’ riddle to himself a few times out loud: “He who makes it, has no need of it. He who buys it, has no use for it. He who uses it, cannot see it.”
The sun begins to rise as he puts his food down on the table. It is then that he notices that the newspaper lying there is soaked through. William opens it up and spreads it out on the table to dry. On the front page are pictures of the storm that passed through the region. William scans the text as he begins to eat his breakfast, the fork abruptly clanging to the ground from his fingers when he reads of a ship that disappeared over night. According to the report, large shipments of grain were among the ship’s cargo, as well as a group of migrant workers allegedly passing in secret, all believed to have drowned in the darkened bay.
William gets up from the table. With trembling hands, he opens the window. Below, broken tree branches and piles of debris float in pools of water lapping onto the shore. Shards of wood and metal are strewn among the rocks, along with scraps of rope and unidentifiable matter. A man’s shoe can be seen washed up on the beach, with kernels of sprouted corn floating en masse onto the sand around it. Holding onto the frame on either side, William leans his body out of the window, the moment of turning the lights out at the top of the stairs the night before replaying in his head.
From a distance, his house appears as it always does, a chalk white tower at the end of the dock, looking out over an endless horizon of water. A meadow of long yellow grass grows over the land around it, with stalks of purple flowers sprouting up between the rocks on the cliffs. On a facing bluff across the bay, a man stands at his easel. He paints William’s house as he has seen it appear in the evening, with a ribbon of light shooting out from either side of its pinnacle, the golden pathway it usually projects over the water missing from the bay for the first time last night. The man has painted 36 of the 54 lighthouses in the region, selecting this to be his last before ending his travels. With one eye closed, he holds his paintbrush up to the sky at arms length before him, gazing so acutely at the color on its bristles against the clouds, that he doesn’t see the figure descend from the window.
As William plummets through the air the answer to the riddle occurs to him.
“A coffin!” he cries just before his body is shattered on the rocks, the fried egg sweating on its plate where he left it.
Kyra Simone is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Black Clock, Conjunctions,The Fabulist, Little Star, and the Anthology of Best American Experimental Writing, among other journals. She is a member of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse and works an associate editor at Zone Books.