By Penny Jones
Halloween wasn’t the same on the island as it was elsewhere. The children still made witches hats and garlands out of construction paper. Though the pumpkins were also cut out rather than carved; fresh vegetables being a scarcity on the rugged, windblown landscape. But the biggest difference was that Halloween on the island wasn’t a time to honour the dead, but to bring forth the living.
The islanders had no wish to call back to those who had passed away, their bodies wrapped in tattered sails, their sacraments ballasted with sand and stone from the beach. Each pocket carefully weighed and filled, then sewn shut with fishing wire. Before the body was taken far out to sea. Nobody wanted to remember their dead. Sentimentality had no place out here, and the candles that were lit on All Hallows Eve were not in hope to lure back those bloated, fish nibbled cadavers.
Sarah woke early that Halloween, the sky still dark as she made her way down to the shore. The bright, sharp, salt tang of the nights tide burning her nose; not yet overpowered by the stench of the seaweed, that would come later as it lay ripped and torn from the rocks, scattered across the sand for the wind and sun to bake. Sarah slipped off her shoes and placed them well out of the sea’s reach before removing her clothes, and folding them neatly one by one and placing them on top. Nestled within these layers she placed with reverence an earthen jar, her menses. She checked the wax seal. It would all be for nothing if her life blood seeped uselessly into the sand.
She was the first down this morning, later the beach would begin to fill with others. Girls that she known from school – though most of them younger than her. They would either brazenly strip, teasing their friends who tried to hide their bodies beneath their hands before running quickly to the sea, allowing the chill water to hide their modesty. They may nod or smile at her, but fewer each year came to chat, as if with each passing year she became more of a pariah, alone, aging, as she came down to the shore once more. Sarah knew it was likely her last year to come down. Her parents regarded her with pity, the women of the island fear, the men disgust. She’d promised herself that if she wasn’t successful this year, then she would walk into the sea once more, but would not return. She didn’t want their pity, and their fear was useless.
The sea water slipped over Sarah’s ankles as she took her first tentative steps into the grey expanse. Cold as bone it gripped at her flesh, causing goosebumps to run up her legs. The first gentle tendrils of seaweed brushed against her skin, like fingers, grasping, entreating her to stay, to sink down into the turgid depths. As she stepped further out the seaweed gave way to the delicate seagrass, the tendrils caressing her limbs. Each step deeper into the sea brought their gossamer touch closer to her divide, as the chill water slipped round her hips in its freezing embrace.
Each year she went further out, trying to find the best seaweed. The delicate seagrass for capillaries, for veins knotted wrack, arteries oarweed. Praying that she would find the tangled masses unbroken this far out from shore. You could almost tell the ages of the women of the island, by the depth that they ventured. The younger girls would spend the day frolicking in the shallows, jumping waves and splashing each other; more child than woman, they had no need of a mate, no matter what their body might say. The young women would venture further out, allowing the chill waters to bathe their bodies, each year venturing deeper and deeper, until there was only her. Submerged. Nothing showing accept the gentle curve of her neck and her head. The waves matting her hair like the seaweed she coveted.
It was getting dark by the time Sarah ventured back out of the frigid waters. Her skin as wrinkled as the elder’s who sat mending the fishing nets in the hut down by the quay. She wended her way through the forms that lay like sunbathers upon the sand. Some haphazardly put together, left out for the gulls to pick at, or for the tide to take back; others carefully protected by the crags and outcroppings of the cliff walls. Although she had not seen them birthed, Sarah could tell which one, belonged to which girl. The elders of the island would tut or shake their heads at the carelessness of the young, but none of them would speak their disapproval out loud. If they wished for another year unfettered and barren than that was up to them.
Sarah carefully placed the weed down, the bladder wrack and gutweed, the sugar kelp and cock’s comb. Layering each individual piece in their correct place. Once she was sure that everything was as it should be, she opened her jar. The thick liquid pooling at the centre of her creation. With one final glance she turned and made her way back up to village.
As her steps took her higher up the coast path, the sounds of revelry echoed down to her, the sweet sound of voices raised in song; a dissonance as bawdy songs were belted out by innocent voices, bring to Sarah’s mind the image of angels in a brothel. Sarah ignored the festivities and made her way back to her cottage. Those at the party wouldn’t miss her, and she didn’t want to remind them of what tomorrow might bring. Once home she settled in for the night. The fire lit. A blanket round her shoulders to fight off the sea chill that had worked its way down deep inside of her. She waited.
Sarah sipped at her cold tea, the night was quiet now, the festivities long past, the men asleep ready to get up at sunrise for a days fishing; the women awake, excited and anxious as they strained to hear the sound of footsteps upon their path. The moon painted the island in shades of grey and silver as the first head appeared above the cliff edge, their hair still wet and matted glinted in the moonlight. Sarah watched the men appear as she waited to see if any of them would knock upon her door.
Find out more about Penny on her website.