The Hermit

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 6.17.56 PM

We travelled to a German town where sick people slept in towers of salt. Pumps lifted the salt water skyward and then allowed it to fall through a scaffold of birch twigs. Invalids lay and breathed the salt air while crystals grew from the walls, which were marble-white and marked with driplines from the trickling water.

The water was from salt lakes that lay deep below the ground, under the feet of the sick people as they struggled from their beds to the salt towers. They lay swaddled in cotton sheets, eyes bandaged, white as mushrooms. They did not speak because speaking tired them. The salt that grew between the twigs was taken away and sold, but nobody knew to whom. I tried asking about it, but discovered nothing. Surely, I thought, it would be a precious commodity, since the breaths of the sick were trapped inside it, and those breaths had been hard won and in short supply. I could even grow angry at the idea of someone growing rich from the crystallisation of stolen breaths. But it was an anger that soon passed.

Everyone in the town was sick or dying, but there were many toy shops that sold wooden copies of everyday objects. A wooden slice of cheese, a wooden desk lamp, wooden shoes, wooden ice cream. Once Aaron swung his hand clumsily and sent green wooden peas rolling all over a shop floor. The shops also sold noseless and mouthless dolls and child-sized wrist watches that didn’t tell the time. I suppose the invalids sent them to their grandchildren.

I bought a doll without a face and a wooden bed with a wooden pillow. That night, as we tried to sleep on a hotel mattress that smelled of iodine, Aaron said,

“Do you remember my salt daughter?”

I told him I didn’t, and soon he was asleep, his face upturned and mole-like, the mouth blindly opening and closing, ropey with thick saliva.

I knew we’d have to leave. The town was full of illness, but Aaron would not be cured by breathing the salt air of the towers, or by strolling past well-tended flowerbeds in the German sunshine. And I, too, had started to dream again of our daughter. Her face in my dreams was white with salt crystals, as smooth as marble. She was wrapped in a salt-crusted white sheet. She was taking slow, laboured breaths.

The next morning Aaron had another fit and cut our visit short. I suppose in retrospect it must have been brewing all the day before, although I was finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between his prodromes and his everyday sickness, the suffocating clumsiness, blunted thoughts and muffled voice. After a short stay in hospital, we travelled to a small town by the Black Sea. On the train I slept and dreamed of my daughter, frozen in salt, the water dripping over her featureless face.

Aaron and I went for a walk by the shoreline and he said,

“The sea is alive. It’s speaking.”

“When I was a child,” I said, “I used to get myself to sleep by imagining I was floating in a small boat in the middle of a big sea.”

He turned towards me, impatient.

“I know. You told me that before. You can be really tedious.”

Of course I’d told him before, several times, but I could never be certain which events still existed in his memory and which had been blown away.

He walked ahead for a while, then said, “It’s a stupid thing to imagine. You’d drown, in a small boat. And what would you eat?”

“I’d catch my own fish,” I said. “And I’d purify the sea water by evaporation.”

I remembered that I’d loved the idea of being able to provide for myself; as I closed my eyes I would feel the water moving, the boat cradling my body, the clear wide sky above.

I put the faceless doll to bed in the hotel wardrobe, since I knew Aaron would never look there. One afternoon while he was napping I found another toy shop and bought her a loaf of wooden bread.

I walked back along the seashore and watched the water move. The beach was covered in small stones that the waves had carried up the sand. Most were black, but there were also pebbles of white volcanic marble, tumbled smooth. I put about a dozen in my pockets and returned to the hotel, where they told me that Aaron had had another fit and had been taken to hospital. Three days later, we flew home.

When I unpacked, I realised that the wooden loaf wasn’t there. I thought I must have left it behind in the hotel room, so I ordered a wooden apple and a box of wooden eggs from a mail order company. The doll lay on top of the coverlet that was painted onto her bed in white and pink. I surrounded her with a ring of marble stones.

Aaron asked me, “How long have I been dead? I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“No,” I said. “You’re not dead.”

He said, “Do you remember the taste of my salt daughter?”

I shook my head. There was a crust of dried saliva on his chin.

The English summer had passed while we travelled around the continent. Now there was a damp in the air and the skies were white with cloud. I dreamed the sea rose up and came in through the windows of our house, even though we were far from any sort of water. I went to buy fruit juice and the shopkeeper leaned over the counter, her face pink and smelling of  face cream.

“He seems worse, love,” she said. “There’s less of him every time I see him.”

“I think he improved in Germany,” I said. “I’ve really noticed the difference.”

She nodded, as if we hadn’t disagreed. I didn’t like the woman. She liked to believe she was intimate with everybody. When Aaron dropped jars of jam onto her shop floor, sending boiled strawberries and glass shards into all four corners, she would squeak and hum with faked sympathy.

I picked up a small brown package from the post office, which contained the eggs and apple. I placed them in a small cardboard box next to the doll’s bed.

I took Aaron to the coast. It was a little Cornish seaside town, quiet now the season had ended. The journey took five hours by train. Aaron walked up and down from carriage to carriage, restless and opening windows so the cold spilled in and the air roared.

When we arrived I lay in all my clothes on the flowered counterpane of our guesthouse bed and fell asleep. I woke up two and a half hours later and Aaron was not there. The woman who ran the guesthouse wasn’t sure where he’d gone.

“I didn’t know he was ill,” she said. “He seemed so sure of himself. I do hope he hasn’t come to any harm.”

I walked down to the beach and he was there, standing knee-deep in the salt water. It was ice-cold as I waded out to reach him.

“There are hands in the water,” he said. “Every night, you see, I feel her cold hands over my mouth.”

I took him by the hand and led him back to the guesthouse, where we both stood under a hot shower. He started to stroke my pubic hair, until I lifted his hand away. He cried then, like a child, and I gave him his tablets and let him sleep.

There was a toyshop in the town, full of buckets and spades for holidaymaker’s children and wooden toys for smart families. I bought some pink-and-white painted biscuits , a cloth sack of small wooden potatoes, and a wooden plate. The doll was hungry; surely I’d been neglecting her. She lay as still as always, on her painted bed, propped on a pillow that would always be hard and unyeilding, never retain the shape of her head and neck.

Sure enough, it was only two days before all the plate was empty. I wished I knew what her favourites were, but I could only guess, remembering my own daughter and which foods she had eaten happily, which she’d spat out.

Aaron was still restless, and I took him for long walks along the cliff path until he was tired out. We’d clamber down to isolated pebble beaches; he’d come home with pockets full of seaweed and wept when I took them off the hotel radiator and threw them away. As for me, I’d  search for the best white marble pebbles, unblemished and a little translucent. I knew nothing harmful could pass through a circle of such perfection.

The guesthouse was comforting and warm. All the doors were wooden and had metal latches, and I was reminded of my aunt’s house in Wales, where I used to stay as a child. I slept in a white room with a wooden latched door, and a whooping dove woke me every morning while the mist still lay thick upon the grass.

One time I was convalescing from some childhood illness, and she kept feeling my forehead with the palm of her hand. She fed me bread with honey, which she said killed germs. My aunt would not let me drink water, only milk.

We walked to a tiny church on top of a high cliff. It took three hours to get there, a steep, difficult climb. I was anxious that Aaron would slip and fall, but the woman who ran the guesthouse had insisted we pay the place a visit.

“It’s a very healing place,” she said. “My husband used to visit it every year, up until he died. He drank the water from the spring.”

“Do they run services?” I asked, finding it hard to believe anyone would serve somewhere so remote.

“Long ago,” she said. “It used to be a sailors’ church, you know. But it wasn’t busy, if that’s what you mean. The priest was an odd fellow.”

I asked around, and discovered that he had indeed been strange, a thin man who ate seagulls he caught in wire traps, silent and grey and wild-haired, a lover of hail and storms. Some thought he was a monk, but others suggested he’d never even been ordained. He died on the top of the cliff in the middle of winter and starved birds picked his bones white.

When we reached the top I could see why the priest had given his life to this small church. It was perfect, tiled in slate and covered with orange lichens. Inside was a wooden ship’s figurehead, painted in bright colours which the salt water had almost worn away. She loomed over the tiny altar, her weathered face blind and framed by strands of golden hair. The font in the centre of the aisle was trickling with the water of a coastal spring, which had worn a deep lip in the grey stone.

Aaron was bright-eyed and overexcited, running his hands through his hair. He filled his cupped hands with spring water and drank until his shirt was soaked with the water he’d spilled.

“The water of life,” he said, “that’s what they call it. We are born once in blood and again in water.”

On the way back, we met the woman who ran the guesthouse.

“Oh, you’ve been to the church,” she said. “That’ll do you good. Listen, I’ve realised why you look so familiar. You stayed here a few years ago.”

“That can’t be right,” I said. “We’ve never been here before.”

“No, no,” she said, “I’m sure of it. Your husband wasn’t so ill then, that’s why I didn’t notice it at first. And you had your little girl with you. Tiny mite of a thing. How old would she be now?”

“You must have made a mistake,” I said. “We don’t have a daughter.”

She frowned. “Well, isn’t that funny? They were very like you two, this couple I remember. I told them to visit the church, but I don’t think they ever got there. I think there was some trouble with the girl.”

I bought two bottles of wooden milk. It upset me that I could have forgotten our earlier visit there, although I had tried to forget most of the things that happened after I lifted her to my mouth to kiss, and tasted salt, and knew what it meant. I thought of the sailors praying for calm seas in the clifftop church, and of my daughter, drowning on dry land.

That evening Aaron ran out into the street without trousers on and with bare feet. I had undressed into my nightie, but I followed him, pleading.

He said, “It is strangling me. Can’t get its hands from my neck.”

“Come back in,” I said. “It’s cold.”

“I’m still in here, you know,” he said. “But I am being strangled.”

I dreamed that my daughter was wrapped in a shroud and I lifted her towards a moon made from salt. I dreamed that the world had hardened and gone still. I took her out and walked into the silent waves. She was stiff in my arms, her face unmoving beneath the shroud, but still breathing despite everything, and I thought the water might bring life back to her. Instead it pulled her from my grasp and out to sea, and as she floated away from me I saw more white-shrouded bodies carried on the icy water. Aaron’s I thought I recognised, and maybe mine.

When I woke in the morning the milk bottles were gone and so was Aaron. I went to the beach and saw the prints of his shoes, but they ended at a place where the sand was covered with small tumbled marble stones the waves had carried in. Each one of the stones was perfectly white.

Further up the shore, I saw a shoe, and then another shoe, discarded among the pebbles. A sock was curled in a rock pool, swollen with water. Another was jammed between two stones. He seemed to have been moving up the beach, away from the water. I found more footprints and a pair of trousers next to a sand dune, and his underpants hung from a gorse bush at the foot of the cliff path. Above me I could see a shirt, caught on a thorny branch, flap and flap in a gust of wind until it was pulled away. The shirt flew into the air, sailing above the water, and disappeared into the morning fog.

I left my bags behind, and the doll’s bed. I couldn’t afford to draw attention to my leaving. There was enough money in among the clothes I left behind to pay for our few nights at the guesthouse. The doll herself I wrapped in a blanket and held close against my chest as I headed for the station.

“I’d like two tickets for me and my daughter” I told the woman at the ticket office. 

“Where to?”

“Just the next train.”

“All right,” she said, “but it’s a Sunday. You’ll have hours to wait.”

To kill time before the train came, I made the climb up to the small clifftop church. I moved more quickly without Aaron stumbling beside me, slowing me down.

It was as beautiful as I had remembered. The figurehead stood over us, her giant face worn smooth by time and salt, its features lost to the sea. I blessed my child with the healing waters of the spring. She would breathe more easily now, smile more quickly, her hunger would be swifter and more easily satisfied. And then I began my descent, knowing that somewhere on the rocky paths that lined the coast, Aaron was wandering. I still do not know in which direction he walked, or for how long.

Florence Delaney is working on a series of 22 stories, one for each card of the Tarot Major Arcana. She lives in London.