Tanya felt the wave coming before she saw it – an extra hard tug on skirts already soaked, anchored to her thighs. She smelt it too, the metal brine scent of the deeper sea, chill water churned from below, lifting fragments of seabed, scraps of broken shell and fins – the sea’s graveyard.
She tightened her grip on his hand, felt the moist leather of her glove, salty now, slippery as fresh peeled skin.
Seeking a reflection of her own fear in his face, she saw only joy, his arms flung wide, wings ready for flight. A flicker pierced her chest – she should have known. All these months he’d spoken of escape – from his father, from an imposed future of tenants and rents and broken backed harvests. But when she’d pressed him for details, he grew poetic, talked only of eternity, the moon and distant stars.
‘Freedom, rybka!’ he gasped as the wave scampered up his back, tumbling over his shoulders.
Freedom? To drown? To drift, puffy, grey, needled by blue crabs?
She imagined his boots – buffed to a fine shine, soles kept slick for dancing (how he loved to dance!) – slipping on the little pier, leather gliding over lichen …
… she released her grip.
The wave hit him, carried him from her. Then another hit and another, white crests battering his head, an avalanche forcing him down, burying him under endless ocean. His cap buoyed for a moment – swirling on an eddy brown as drainage water – then sank.
Tanya fell to her knees, wave after wave pulling hungrily at her clothes, smothering her face. Then she realised – beneath her was the submerged pier. Her fingers dug into crumbling wood, hooking barnacles, muscles trembling under the barrage of shivering water, flowing into her ears, nose, mouth until she was unsure where the sea ended and she began.
When the wood gave way to oozing sand, she flung herself on the beach, hacking brine, lungs and stomach scoured, eyes salt singed.
For the longest time she lay still, waiting for the land to reclaim her, for the sea to give up its hold for good. When strength returned, she unlaced her boots, numb fingers peeling off her jacket, her over skirt, the second skin of her stockings.
Her knees were still soft as jellyfish as she stood.
‘Freedom,’ she whispered, walking along the shoreline, footprints swallowed by each fresh wave.
By the way, my dear, ‘rybka’ (according to this site) is a Russian term of endearment meaning ‘little fish’.