Author’s Note: Still coming to terms with his failed marriage and estrangement from his son, a middle-aged man finds a small cave on a beach while staying nearby. Its secluded, shrine-like quality prompts him to give his memories to it as offerings. In doing so, he recalls his relationships not just with his ex-wife and son, but with his own dead father, through all three of which he traces haunting echoes of the sea.
In the Sea God’s Cave
I DIDN’T PLAN TO BE HERE: THIS PLACE, folded into its sliver of shore and stone between the sea and the untidy fields. I found it by mistake, when it was getting dark; I thought it was a shadow on the cliff face. I wanted to get back on the path.
It was the next day, when I returned, that I realized it was a hollow in the rock. I parted the ivy and the weeds hanging over it. My phone light showed an awkward shape, twisted and low, gouged out of the stone. Its sides glistened with water. I could smell damp and vegetation, and the brine breath of the sea. It was quiet, though, cut off from the restlessness of gulls and waves outside. I realized I could fit into its space if I wanted. Hide there, unseen. In this cave.
My wife told me once that I undermined our marriage by being secretive. Not dishonest, not lying, but closed. “Shut, like a shell,” she said, on the night she left me, fed up being married to a mollusk. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s “… pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas” but said nothing, which I guess proves what she meant.
We spent much of our time together on beaches like this. I can see them, bathed in the sepia light my memories always arrive in, like antique postcards. The past for me is a venerable ivory, worn and reassuring and strong. It’s the present that I find brittle, a worry in my fumbling hands. My ragged claws.
I’ve always liked a beach out of season. The uncluttered, disingenuous space allowing its few occupants only a temporary pass. Each bird, each wave-wreck, each footfall, or speck of jetsam…all refugees, wandering their rootlessness among so much sky, so much expanse. The distance itself rinses you clean, washes your habits away in its huge, indifferent flow. And when you leave, it’s as if you’ve been allowed back into your own life, purified. Forgiven.
I think there’s more to this little cave than meets the eye. Maybe it’s one of those lucky places you read about in myths, the chosen spot of some god or sprite, numinous and magical. I should bring something to it, perhaps, make an offering. What would be appropriate? A fish, or some fruit and wine? Should I build an altar, burn dry seaweed at the entrance, wild herbs? It needs to be something precious, something of value. I can bring my memories. Offer them to the deity of this place. What have I to lose?
My first offering, then, is a beach like this, the second summer of our marriage. The vista spreading before us was full of dreams- becoming-plans, the edges of everything plastic with potential. All we needed was time and energy, and we had oceans of each. It was so exciting. We felt like crusaders, just landed, eyes fixed on the holy promise of happiness.(Do dreams litter this beach— all beaches—like redundant shells?). I can still hear her voice as we walked beside the waves.
“I want us to live by the sea. I want it to be part of our life.” “Why not?”
“So am I.”
“I want to fill our house with stuff from the beach, washed-up treasures.”
“I’ve always liked the sea. All those childhood holidays. I feel there’s something missing if I don’t go to the sea every now and then.”
“Why do we have to concede that much? Let’s live here. I mean all the time. One of those cottages set into a hillside above a cove. Just a short walk to the sand. There’d be no need to leave. No tomorrow-going-home, but tomorrow here, and then another tomorrow here, and then…”
All those “tomorrows” of our happy chatter, their details worn, like driftwood. Later, she said something that struck me:
“When I try to imagine God, I visualize a sea, something vast yet intimate, both lapping at your feet and spreading out all ’round you, as far as you can see. A power that links you with everything. A sort of constant essential attention.”
I’d never heard her speak like that. It seemed a deep thing she’d suddenly shown me, drawn from some hidden part of her I’d never glimpsed before. I didn’t know what to say. I remember looking out at the sea—her holy sea—but finding no words, no similar revelation to offer her. I regret that now: my silence. One of many regrets, glib splinters of remorse. Why did we stop trying? When did we realize that more than dreams and energy and time were required? That we didn’t have the tenacity, or the luck, or the temperament to see it through, to will it through? To walk by that same sea all our lives?
Our distant ancestors found shorelines to be rich habitats, abundant sources of food. We’ve always searched these places opportunistically, addressing our needs. I’m not scouring the littoral for supper, but these things I’m turning up—these washed-up memories—I wonder if it’s an instinct I’m following, some ancient urge played out where sea and land meet, where worlds join and end? Not much of an offering. Not much of a cave.
WE WERE GREAT PLANNERS. Mistrusting chance, we felt the future was too precious to be left to its own devices; it needed husbanding. Like an illustrated medieval calendar, our early marriage was a vivid tapestry of toil and design as we parceled out the arriving time. Schemes came and went, money was earned or borrowed, our youthful energy lavished. We researched, tried and re-tried, failed and tried again. Gradually, our dreams—or at least some version of them—took form: the longed-for cottage, a dog, two goats, chickens, a vegetable patch, all a short walk from the promise of the sea. We only had to cross two fields and negotiate a steep, bramble-clad track before we could stand, every day, at the waves’ edge of our promised land.
One warm, late September afternoon of the third year in our cottage, I wandered down to the spume-flecked sand beyond the dunes at the far end of the shore. A gentle wind broke over me; a faded tawny light bathed everything, softening outlines, washing away any sense of hurry. Standing on sand the color of old linen or faded parchment, I looked out at the sun in the pooling beauty of its end, as gulls slid above me and the water tumbled and frothed in front, and I knew—surely I must have known, more even than I’m remembering it now?—that I was standing at Eden’s edge, the border of my happiness, of our happiness. Did I really not sense the other side of that sunset, some hint of the future that I stare from now? Wasn’t it that which caused me to shiver and walk back quickly, in the mild September breeze, to our little cottage of dreams?
Not that our gifts had ended yet. On another mild evening, the following September, we held our infant son as other breezes blew over other waves, and another sunset sank before the family portrait that we made.
How did we miss so much of our unraveling before it became too late? Why didn’t we see the paint peeling and the rot spreading in from the edges of our lives more quickly? Why weren’t we on our guard more against what crept in, unnoticed and lethal? Do I worry at this because I have the time to do so now, unlike those busy years that galloped us so fast and so far from our sunset vignette?
When the nurse first placed my son in my nervous arms, I marveled at the thereness of him, the exact outlines of his features, each exquisite effort of tiny movement, the vivid actuality of his expressions. He seemed so real that I could almost not believe in him.
His sure, unarguable certainty changed our life together. When the giddy joy had settled, the wonder grown actual, he gradually became the catalyst crystallizing less generous properties hidden in us. We found that we had differences of outlook, mostly on what was better for him. Matters we’d never spoken of, maybe never thought of, before elicited unexpected poles of judgement. His health, play, education, disciplining, toys, diet: all these jagged opinions lay ’round us, heaps of judgment and reaction gathering like piles of driftwood that our baby’s existence unwittingly lit. As the time passed, even casual suppositions, etched more often and with less indifference, took on the deep incisions of permanent divide.
Our times alone with him began to rival the marriage. A bleak jealousy grew in us against the other’s slow theft of hours spent with him. He was a disputed treasure. The sea, no longer a familial backdrop, became a place of individual escape, an exile from the raised voices and bitter silences, from our guilt and anger, the irreparable forgetting of all we’d dreamed. Along its shores now, all those things that had sustained us before our son’s coming were washed away by this bitter new tide.
I wonder if she ever thought, as I did sometimes, what would have happened if we’d stayed as we were, before…?
I used to love to take him rockpooling, hoping to pass on something of what I’d felt as a boy when my father and I had lifted pebbles and probed delicate jade fronds in the hope of discovering one of the pool’s hidden denizens. Or studied the slow, deliberate livings of its fleshy anemones and shielded limpets, its huddling mussels and slow, grey snails. I’ve never lost the sense of excitement I feel when I first see a rockpool, its myriad tiny details laid out before me, like a strange city, a full other world, so alive yet so different to the one from which I stare, entranced. He loved it, too, my son, squatting on the rock, leaning over, intent and serious.
“Dad… Daddy, will there be a fish, like last time?”
“I hope so. Or two crabs.”
“You can’t pick them up, though, because of the claw-ers.” “Okay.”
“’Cos of the pinchers.”
“Well, we have a bucket this time. We can put them in there to look at them.”
“If we do, can we take them home to show Mummy?”
“Because she hasn’t seen them, I think.”
“No. Not ever, Dad.”
“I’m sure she has.”
“No, Daddy. No, she hasn’t. And we have, you and me, Dad. We’ve seen them!”
“Yes, we’ve seen them. You and me.”
I spoke to him recently: one of our rare phone conversations. I asked him about school. He has a girlfriend, I think, though he wouldn’t be drawn. He’s not sure if he wants to be a computer programmer or an ecologist. He says his mother’s well. She’s still with her partner. Her new partner, as I think of him, though he’s the third since we split up. Or the third that I know about; we’ve spoken little. There may have been others. There were for me, though none lasted, and there have been none these last few years.
As she said: “Shut, like a shell.”
By the time we moved away from the coast, the sea itself had become a hateful presence, a restless, mocking jibe that lapped hugely at the wreckage that was all we could show for our plans. It’s taken years since then for a different tide to come back: this gray, forgiving indifference that bleaches everything to a faded relic left in the sand.
Sentimentally, I wonder if that half-hope of his to be an ecologist has any root in his early life by the sea. He says he doesn’t want to be part of the generation that lost the Earth. Even in their disaster-guilt, the young overestimate their own importance. Yet, he’s grown up with global warming, the damning retreat of the glaciers. I’m as trapped in the ice of my time as my world- worrying boy is in the thawing flood of his. I’m less concerned now for our polluted Arcadia than I am for me, its aging tenant, though perhaps that only indicates the species of selfishness that took so much in its keep for granted. Either way, this is his time. I’ve handed over the keys to whatever’s left. He’s the lord of the rockpool now. And if he has a child, I hope it still offers them its jagged scape of shining pebbles, huddling shells, tiny forests of floating green, and the heartbeat glimpse of a vanishing fish.
MY FATHER SPENT HIS LAST WEEKS on a beach of sorts, wandering between cliffs of pain and waves of semi-conscious, drug-relieved reflection. His features hollowed, their new depths shadowing the bones beneath. Brief spells each day saw him calm, thoughtful, articulate, talking quietly to me about the past. I sat with him, made him cups of tea that he rarely drank, arranged his pillows, opened windows, shut them. I listened to him speak, his voice surging and fading as his energies allowed.
A couple of years after my wife and I split up, I lived with a woman for a while, moving my few possessions into her ground floor flat. Within months, we knew it was a mistake, my violation of her home somehow symbolically echoed when the flat was burgled. We’d gone out for an afternoon’s mending togetherness which had proved ineffectual. Ironically, our return—to find the sitting room window overlooking the small garden smashed, and the flat littered with the chaos of crime—elicited the last genuine sense of closeness we experienced together. Between her hurried phone call to the police and the questions and form-filling that followed their arrival, we wandered slowly through the rooms in silence, holding each other. What struck me was how exactly like every screen depiction of a burglary it looked: the flung clothes, the rummaged and emptied drawers, the sudden, shocking gaps. It seemed strangely familiar.
So it was with my father’s death. All the apparatus of ending gleaned from tearful film farewells: the plastic medical equipment, the colored pills, the flesh-sweat smell, his drugged, unfathomable exclamations, the long silences regulated by his shallow, labored breathing. It was as if these props-for-a-dying had been dragged from some set designer’s storeroom and arranged recognizably around us, so that he and I had taken our place among their familiarity, having known both them and our roles all our lives.
What was unexpected, as I looked at the tubing and the oxygen tank, the Perspex pill box tray, the thermometer, and the plastic dish for him to spit in, was the surge of outrage I felt that so much of it would soon be decorating the death of someone else, someone not my father. I felt those neutral functioners littering his demise were an integral part of this crucial—I nearly said vital—phase of his existence. If they could not become his even now, if they couldn’t take on at least some of his passing as they fulfilled their role, how could he lay claim to any part of his life? There needed to be, there had to be, subjective relics of his suffering, his fear, his voice faltering in the washed-out ash of another pre-dawn. Why couldn’t he mark his own pain by marking these things with it, etching them with his ending? Why couldn’t he take them with him to the tomb, material witnesses to his last journey, something to gather the dust, laid next to him?
In the end, the closest he got was the pale indecipherable smudge of the sweat stain on his last sheet, which I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of. For years, I kept it in a plastic bag, hidden in a case in the loft. One day, unplanned, I opened the case and unfolded the sheet. Against the bare electric glare of the attic light, I could still make out the faint yellow stains, like a tide line on the fabric of a shore.
I burned it. If I’d known, I could have saved it, brought it here to this cave. It seems appropriate. A winding sheet around the memories that I’m laying in this place, in my half-dead present. Not that I needed a relic. My father’s ghost walks with me everywhere, like the ghost of my marriage, my son’s childhood, my childhood, myself a year ago or even yesterday: standing here in this same spot, thinking similar things. Like grains of sand, these ghosts are milled-down motes of life. Every moment, every sight or thought or feeling, becomes a phantom, drifting away, some of them to return: restless, patternless, haunting fragments, beyond count. A shifting desert of the dead.
Once, after a bad morning, he slept for several hours and woke feeling better, lucid and seemingly untouched by the recent pain. He drank some water, sat propped up on his pillows, and stared out the window for a while before saying to me: “You know, I used to be more worried about things than I am now.”
“This dying: we’re hardwired to its coming. Oh, we might not think about it, might bury our fear of it away, but we always know. Now that it’s happening, I feel there’s something about it—something unstrange from a long time ago—that’s very much a part of me. I’m not saying the wretched pain is easy, but what I feel now is not the fear I had of it at your age.”
“I’m not sure what I feel about it. I do think about it more now, though; it always seems just there, beneath the surface.”
“Yes, but back then—where you are now—I would wake in the night and feel as if this huge nothingness was rushing towards me, like that blast of air when you turn into a passageway on the underground, only it was sucking everything out of my world: my breath, my hopes, my courage, anything around me with which I thought I was building a life. It was quite shocking. I would lie there, really affected by it, an awful empty dread, a fear and hopelessness. To lie in the darkness while your whole existence melted away…I’ve never felt so alone.
“Afterwards, I remember how much simple things helped. Getting up, covered in sweat, still shaking, to make some tea. Standing there, with only the cooker light on, and the warm mug in my hand, looking at all the ordinary objects in the kitchen. God, there’s so much stuff in a kitchen! The heads of the wooden spoons, the saucepan handles, a half-dead plant, your mother’s old teapot that her grandmother gave her. Even the day’s post left by the cooker—the printed, demanding words of a bill—seemed like something from the familiar workaday world, with the same values I had, blundering on, regardless, just like me. I found it so comforting, all of it. The molecules we make our lives from, all lying there around me, ready to be reassembled so that I could start again. Carry on.
Now I don’t need them anymore. But they’re there for you— the indispensable minutiae, the humble bricks with which to build the palace. So simple, really. In all my fear during those times, the little specks were holding me up. Only I didn’t know or had forgotten. You see? I needn’t have worried. You needn’t worry. They’re always there.”
That was his gift to me: the story of his road to a quotidian Damascus, his diminutive gods of the everyday working tirelessly like ants to keep the universe going. When the pain came, perhaps he saw them at work again in the bright little tablets and the white plastic switch he had to press to let the morphine down the line into his wrist. The little details that held him until the end, when he slipped away and left them to their unending Atlas task.
FOR OUR SECOND MEETING to discuss the divorce, my wife had chosen a quiet gastro pub near the park. Our first had been in a coffee shop that filled too quickly, leaving us struggling to make ourselves heard over the chatting and laughter, the demands of toddlers and the insistent chorus of phones. In one of those sudden, unexpected silences a crowded room can produce, my voice’s angered tones had carried on listing some of what I considered to be the more unreasonable stipulations my wife’s lawyer had presented to my lawyer the previous day. Embarrassed, we hurried from the awkward, interrupted lattes.
Now, we sat bathed in a slanting sunlight, alone, among the shaded gray paints of gentrification coloring our behavior. We were quiet, resigned. The legal necessities seemed slight, brittle considerations, weightless afterthoughts we sifted through without rancor. I watched the dust gilded by the late morning light. Staff prepared for the coming lunch. A door opened, closed, opened again. Cutlery rattled; glasses chinked.
“Do you agree to the access conditions?” Her voice sounded weary.
“Yes. Some flexibility…with work, I mean. I might have to change days; I sometimes don’t get much notice.”
“I understand. I don’t want it to be difficult. We can’t let that happen.”
She began to take a deep breath but stopped halfway, as if unable not to say: “He’s been a bit quiet.”
“It’s not surprising.”
“The last time you dropped him off…that can’t happen again, a scene like that.”
“It’s always going to be our fault, this. Both of us.”
“Yes. It’s just…I still can’t believe it: lawyers and access, all that stuff.”
“That’s how these things are done; it’s a process.”
“Like some medical procedure.”
“Other people get through it; they find a way.”
“I know. I’m sure we will.”
I wasn’t, though. I didn’t doubt we could adapt to our inadequacies. Nor that we would become the civilized ex-couple sharing the burden of guilt and duty. Not even that our son’s life wouldn’t be better off away from the bitter shards of inheritance that were all we would have bequeathed him had we stayed together. What I couldn’t feel sure of, in the calm poise of that morning, was that we could ever maintain any connection at all to the couple that had once so wanted and so welcomed him. How had we damaged the selves we were back then so that we— they—seemed unrecognizable now? How had we come so far from that September day, the three of us by the sea?
After she left the pub, I sat there for a while as the first of the lunchtime customers arrived, feeling as if that September sea had drained away to leave nothing but a parched landscape in which we wandered aimlessly, kicking over the bones that lay around us in the dust, less recognizable every second as the body of the marriage they’d once been.
Three years before that second meeting, we’d moved away from the sea to lose ourselves in the city. We’d been at our worst. Barely able to tolerate the other, we’d each embarked on insubstantial, punitive affairs. She carved a new social life, going to classes and joining groups; I found excuses to stay away, or walked alone for hours through the backstreets and parks, along the canal paths and scrublands near the rail lines. She opened her life to deal with her sadness; I shut into the shell of mine.
“You’re so sealed off! So bloody unreachable! It’s like I need a code to get in. You say things now, and I have no idea that’s what you were thinking.”
“Isn’t that why I say them? If you listened more, you might find it’s the same thing I’d said the time before, and the time before that.”
“Oh, how did I know I would be to blame?”
“Well, if you’re accusing someone of being impenetrable, but you’re not listening when they try to tell you what they feel, you can’t only blame them. You see? There’s an example: I’ve just told you what I feel. That’s not being closed.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I know you have no problems telling me bad news when we argue; you seem more than fluent then. But what good is that? I already know what you’re thinking by that stage.”
“Only half-closed then?”
“Stop doing that! Stop focusing on just one thing I’ve said. What about all the other stuff? Why aren’t you talking about that?”
And on, and on…the familiar flayings of a failed love. Strained voices rending the once precious tapestry.
I AM STANDING WITH MY MOTHER, holding her hand. We’re on a large beach. To me it seems to spread forever in all directions, except right in front, where the sea is playfully sucking the sand from under the soles of my feet, nudging itself around my ankles, clear wavelets washing small particles of weed over my toes. Half a dead crab’s shell floats past, its pale underside tumbling over and over, the three still-attached legs bending and unbending lifelessly in the current.
“There he is!” my mother shouts. “There’s Dad!”
“I can’t see him, Mummy.”
She lifts me up till my head is as high as hers and points ahead of us, out to where larger waves, wide as the beach itself, are hurling themselves towards the shore, piling and shattering as they tumble forward, exploding a whiteness that boils and roars.
“There! Now! See him?”
Desperately, I follow her finger to where the last wave has broken in a storm of spume, the wind carrying the spray back out to sea. In the center of it all, suddenly, is a man, his head dripping, his shoulders glistening as the water smashes around him. He sees us and raises an arm to wave. Against the immaculate surf, his skin shines golden in the sun. He pauses once, to look back out at the sea. Then he turns and walks steadily toward us through the tamed swell.
“Here he comes!” we both shout at once.
The light rain is easing. The cliff path here is lined with dripping leaves and grass, the flower petals hung with drops. My trousers are soaked below the knees. The breeze is fitful, unsure. I haven’t seen the forecast, but I sense the weather will resolve itself into something bolder, good or bad, something more certain. Crows are searching the cliff edge, and gulls comb the shore or bob on the calm water beyond the inconspicuous folding of the waves. A woman was walking two dogs here earlier. They sniffed and dug among the high tide line. One of them rolled in something. I can just make out the dark gray shape of an oil tanker heading west. In the next bay, a small fishing boat plies between purple and orange floats, attending to its crab pots. In the field beyond the headland, sheep speckle the slopes.
Next to the nearest rockpool, a large jellyfish lies on its back in the sand. I touch it with my foot, the clear body much firmer than I’d expected. Its other parts, folded tube-like canals colored light orange or dark purple, are tucked beneath its tough rubber center. It seems so alien, such a primitive form for harvesting life. A blob of just viable being, wandering the currents’ will.
What am I going to do? Where can I go from here? Everything I’ve tried has failed. Each thing gone, or limping on, broken. A middle-aged man dragging his self-pity around the cliché of a bleak beach.
I wonder what the divinity of this cave thinks. Are you impressed with my offerings, my libations of memory? Eh? No? Too hackneyed? Too glib? You immortals! I should bring you that jellyfish; see what you make of its indifference. I’ve opened up to you, brought my hidden thoughts to your shrine. My wife would be jealous—would have been jealous, once. Before you turn your back on them, they’re all I’ve got.
What can I do? I’ve run out of ideas. Should I just cling on grimly to my father’s everyday objects in the hope that they’ll buoy me up? Perhaps I’ll get washed onto a kinder shore. He was, I think. Carried clear of those nights of fear, the hopeless mid- currents of his life.
At my father’s funeral, his oldest friend told a story about their youth that he’d never told anyone before. He and Dad would walk to work along a path that ran between a river and a wooded patch of scrub. A tramp had set up home there, among the litter between the trees and the bramble bushes. He’d built a shelter of pallets and plastic sacking that he sat in front of, drinking and shouting at passersby. He’d become part of the landscape.
One day, they heard a cry of panic and sounds of splashing. When they got to the hovel, they saw the tramp in the river, thrashing feebly several feet from the bank. Dad’s friend said that while he’d tried to find a branch or length of wood, my father had plunged straight in and brought the drowning man, choking, to the safety of the bank. The friend said he’d never told the story to anyone before because he was ashamed of his own hesitation, which he realized had been due to the man being a tramp.
In a choking voice, he confessed into the clear, quiet judgment of the church: “I hadn’t wanted to touch him, his filthiness.”
I don’t think Dad had ever told the story to anyone, either. Certainly not to me. Perhaps it was modesty, or was he protecting his friend? At the reception afterward, I asked his friend what had happened to the tramp. He’d spent some time in the hospital, apparently, then moved away from the river to set up under a disused railway bridge. He was found dead a couple of years later, after a night of hard frost. Alone.
There! An extra offering to soften the sea god’s heart concealed in that recess in the rock. Spare me something, holy spirit, a crumb of wisdom or advice. Leave me something in this cave, something I can take from here to start again with, build around. Something I can hold up to the mirror each morning before another day begins. Something I can show my boy if he comes to see me. Something I can salvage.
The weather’s clearing, the clouds thinning above the bay. I might walk that way, to the next cove. See what’s been washed up. The lady who owns the place I’m renting called in this morning to tell me she’s had a cancellation; I can stay for a while longer if I like.
I won’t come back to the cave, though. I’ll leave these days here. There’ll be other places, other spots hidden behind the fabric of things, waiting to be found. That’s how such holiness works. The needy haul their lack around till some cleft or moment in the world admits them, and they lay their griefs on an altar, and their prayers rise.
The sea looks like a gray-white sheet of soft, barely shining cloud, spread all the way to the thin smudge of the horizon. It absorbs the gulls’ cries, and the rhythmic sound of the waves’ gather and fall. There’s something shroud-like about it: unhurried, enveloping. When I look at it, I sense my thoughts beginning to fade, to disappear, as if the water’s calm has covered them, and they are sinking slowly, without a struggle, in its endless patience.
Craig Dobson lives in England. His fiction and poetry have been published in Active Muse, Better Than Starbucks, Black Works, Eunoia Review, Flash, The Frogmore Papers, The Interpreter’s House, Literally Stories, The London Magazine, New Welsh Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Rialto, Runcible Spoon and THINK. His work is forthcoming in Short Fiction Magazine.
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