Distant Shores


I saw the world
dissolve in waves
—Maureen N. McLane, “Mesh”


The woman gazed out her window at the gray-green waves endlessly slapping the rockbound Maine coastline. She reread her letter from the girl in Togo (neat handwriting, the French carelessly translated by an aide worker). The girl had thanked her for the photograph, adding, “Your huge house near the ocean frightens me.”

The woman lifted her binoculars to the horizon—southeast, toward the Gulf of Guinea. Togo, she had learned, rises from its palmy beaches to farmland and mountains. “We are now in the rainy season,” the girl had written.

There will be stormy weather everywhere, the woman thought. Take care, children: tempests are coming.

In the background, a radio voice reported on a new study. Summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter, and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping eighty percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding. Future storms will also be wilder.

The woman turned down the volume and finished reading her mail. Among the newspapers and magazines was a science journal with an article titled “Our Changing Coastlines.” She opened to the page and read about a future where vast portions of the United States would be inundated by the rising oceans, submerging present coastlines under thirty fathoms of water.

Looking heavenward, the woman said, “You might be pleased to know, my darling, that your grave will be washed away with the tides and fishes.” Her husband had been noted for his fluid poems about water in all its forms and shapes. She had also been a poet but was no longer able to compose, for when she sat down at her desk, she felt it bucking against her. More alarming, when she walked outside her house, the ground pitched, falling and rising under her feet. She told no one, but if visitors arrived, she stepped slowly and carefully out to greet them, hoping they would think it was because she was frail instead of crazy.

When her husband was alive, they had not been afraid of the elements. They had bought and renovated this fisherman’s cottage sheltered by spruces on a rocky headland hanging over a cove. In the early mornings, they would walk along the windy Atlantic beaches, collecting shells and hoping to encounter Rachel Carson, who lived nearby on her own “granite rim of shore.” Though they never met her, they overcame their disappointment by drinking hot rum and reading aloud in the evenings from The Edge of the Sea. Her husband, poet of the water world, was excited by Carson’s passion for the magical zone where land and water merge.

“Listen to this,” he would say back then, reading some passage to her. She had been jealous of that other writer.

Over the years, the couple had explored many shores around the world. On their fiftieth anniversary, they flew to Chile and visited the three houses of the poet Pablo Neruda. The homes were reflections of Neruda’s love of the sea, spiraling upward for the best views of the Pacific and overflowing with nautical artifacts and his collection of seashells—more than nine thousand shells, mollusks, and conch. One of his houses, built on a rocky promontory overlooking the ocean at Isla Negra, was filled with marine treasures and a huge anchor set into the garden sand.

In Valparaíso, after visiting another Neruda house, the woman and her husband had sipped pisco sours and quoted the lines they could remember from his “Ode to the Sea.”

“So much sea,” she said. “It cannot stay still.”

He recited, “Now, behave yourself, don’t shake your mane, don’t threaten anyone, don’t smash against the sky.”

She countered with, “My name is sea, it repeats, while slamming against rocks.”

Together, they said, “Me llamo mar.”

When they returned to Maine, they showed their friends the panoramic photographs of sea and sky on Isla Negra and shared their surprise on learning that Pablo Neruda had been afraid of the ocean. He had declared himself a sailor on land only.

Unafraid, they had located the perfect sailboat, bought it, and named it The Indigo. Sailing soon became the woman’s favorite sport.

Now, many years later, with the letter from Togo on the desk and rain pelleting the roof of the cottage, the woman searched for a book from her past, seeking relevance in literature as she had done with her husband.

“Where is that Rachel Carson one?” she mumbled. “That bit about time and the sea.”

She couldn’t find the book, but a phrase came back to her: “The differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment.”

“A moment,” she repeated. For the earth, it’s but a moment. And this moment—my particular instant of time—is determined by my place “in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.”

Her husband had said that the edge of the sea was alive to Rachel Carson because it presented “an elusive and indefinable boundary.” Remembering this, the woman began to tremble. What if there is no longer any boundary, nothing stopping the relentless sea from smashing against the sky? She began to toss Neruda’s poetry books from the shelf until she found the poem she wanted. She read:

“. . . a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.”

The woman looked out her window again. A mere hour had passed, but the waters had meshed: the rain with the ocean. The horizon was lost in a gray seascape. It is gray inside my house too, the woman thought. She examined her hands. “Even my body is gray,” she said.

The window panes shuddered in the wind. A gust from an open window blew the girl’s letter onto the floor. The woman picked it up and studied the ending. “After the rains stop, the harmattan will come,” the girl had written. “Harmattan,” according to her dictionary, was “a dust-laden wind on the Atlantic coast of Africa.”

Undiscoverable pieces of the house quivered and rattled. The radio voice suddenly became louder, announcing: As the ice melts in Antarctica and Greenland, the shape of the earth will change.

The woman was perspiring and thirsty. Turning on the tap in the kitchen sink, she gulped handfuls of water and doused her face. The action made her feel cooler and more stable but couldn’t stop her runaway emotions. The shape of the earth is going to change, she thought. The planet’s rotation will be disrupted. Gravity will be weakened. Eternity will be closer.

“We must sail away,” the woman said then, turning her mind to that calming memory. How she missed the joy of sailing. One bright morning last week, when the sun highlighted the ocean waves, she had felt the old longing, the urge to push out and away in their boat, The Indigo.

“Imagine, darling, if I sailed The Indigo all the way down to Togo,” she said out loud. “I could surprise my letter-girl.” The girl always ends with à bientôt. Maybe she would like to see me soon, the woman thought. She envisioned their meeting on the beach, followed by a walk to some cozy shelter, then friendly conversation—polite at first, becoming more familiar as they watched the sun set.

As if their meeting were possible, as if it were reality, the woman considered her obligation to the girl. What would I tell her about the rain and the oceans and the rotation of the earth? Should I warn her? No, better not to predict disaster. I will write a poem about the sea—in French—as a gift. “I will write soothing, fearless words,” she said, seating herself at her desk and taking up her pen. “I will lie.”

La mer est notre mère,” she began, then faltered. The pen dropped from her fingers. She felt the desk rolling like flotsam in the waves. A petrel drifted past the window, rising and dipping on invisible winds.


Pat Ryan

Pat Ryan’s short fiction has been published in the American Writers Review/San Fedele Press and The Ghost Story. She is currently working on a collection of stories, one of which will appear in the 2019 issue of Chautauqua. Her feature articles have appeared in The New York Times, where she was an editor in the Culture Department. She lives in Deerfield, Massachusetts.