The waves crashed against the rocks, and the gulls screamed as they circled overhead.
The old man sat atop one of the bigger rocks. He cast his line into the stormy waters, even as he stayed out of reach of the salty spray that splashed up against the shoreline. He waited, as the incessant wind plucked at his hat, like the playful hands of a small child. He didn’t have to wait for long.
“Papa, can I join you?” He sighed deeply, and nodded. He slowly turned, and watched his daughter clambering up the rock. At a particular difficult point, the child paused to consider how to climb further up. The old man stuck his rod in a crevice, and stood up, offering his hand to the child. The young girl beamed at him, and put her hand in his, and he pulled her up to the top of the rock.
Her hand was always so warm.
He turned back to the sea, quietly looking at the rough waves. They would never go away, these waves. He would visit every year, and they would still be here. They’d still be here after he was gone.
The young girl settled down primly next to him, and shrugged off her small haversack. She opened it to take out a lunchbox and a small thermos flask. Hands full, she considered the haversack in her lap, and what she was holding. After a pause while she wondered at the injustice of not having a table on top of the rock, she put her lunchbox and flask down on a somewhat flat area. He heard the zip of her bag, not wanting to turn his head to look at her.
Haversack safely on her back again, she picked up the flask, and held it out to the old man. “Mama says you need to drink some of this and make sure I get some as well.” With the authority of her mother behind her, the young child continued to hold out the flask until the old man finally reached out to take it.
The cocoa was hot. It would be. The taste and smell would be just right, as always. He wondered how it happened, that she would always bring the same perfect cocoa. And his hands trembled as he poured the beverage into the attached cup, a huge lump in his throat. He brought it to his lips, almost fearing to taste it. Fearing that it would taste the same. Or fearing that this time, there would be no taste.
The taste was perfect. As always.
He wanted to scream. He had done so, once before. She’d covered her ears, screamed back, and then cried. He’d spent a long time calming her down, coaxing her, taking her into his arms and shushing her.
He never wanted to have to do that again. He didn’t want to hold her body and remember how it felt to have that little warm figure nestled against his breast.
She tapped on his arm, and without being further bidden, he passed her the cup. “Careful. It’s hot.” He never could shake the habit of admonishing her.
She blew on the cup, pouting her little lips. He watched her, and trembled. Every time, he watched, and trembled. Every time his heart would break some more.
“Mama prepared a tuna sandwich, and an egg sandwich. Can I have both, Papa? I’m hungry.” Her soulful eyes bore into him. He nodded gently. How could he refuse her? He’d never been able to really refuse her. He should have learnt to, before that day. And maybe things would have been different.
The rod twitched, and he automatically reached for it, pulling back on it. His instinct told him this was a live one, and he reeled it in methodically, her little bursts of enthusiasm and wows, an accompaniment to his efforts. When he landed it, he could barely look at her through the veil of tears covering his eyes. Every time he heard her voice, he wanted to break. To shout at the unfair world, to rant at how the world continued to move on even though he could only hear her voice here, this one time every year.
Her voice tore at him. It was his fault. He had failed to protect, and she had paid for it. And yet he could not bear to tell her to stop speaking. He craved listening to her. Touching her. Being alongside her, as any father should be.
She was frantic. “Don’t cry, Papa! We’ll catch another fish! It’s no big deal, like you always tell me, Papa! Don’t cry, please!”
The fish had slipped off the rock, twitching, slapping, in its bid to survive. It arched once, scales glinting in the sunlight, through his tears, as it flew through the air, back towards freedom. But at this height, with the sharp rocks below, he knew the fish might not survive. It would be torn apart if it hit the rocks before it hit the water. But at least it had a better chance than she had at the time.
“I miss you, poppy.” He said it, facing the water, the rod untouched.
“Why, Papa? I’m here, with you.” Her voice could smile. Her expressive voice and her beautiful eyes, her soft cheeks, were what he missed the most. He remembered when she was born, a red, bawling ball of humanity. He’d never imagine her to completely steal his heart when she clutched on to his finger, shortly after her birth, or that she would wrap him around her own little finger as she grew older.
She would never grow older now, even as he would age.
He cried openly now. She clung on to his arm, trying to console him, but he wept, big, wet tears sliding down his face, huge sobs wracking his bent shoulders. And she clung on, not understanding, weeping along with him, even as he clung on to her, clung on to himself, rocking forewards and backwards, as the grief came in waves, as the pain tore at his core. And she was there, as the grief spent itself, as it would every year.
He wiped at his face with his rough hands, realising that her hands no longer held him, that her voice was no longer heard. He heaved a deep sigh, such as the world would heave on the very last day. It was over for now.
“Darling. Come home.” He turned to look at his wife as she walked towards him, from the little beachhouse that stood where they’d stayed, those many years before, and every year till now. Her face was lined with wrinkles, but her voice was still as rich, her embrace still as warm. She stood a distance back from the rocks, not daring to come near. That had probably saved her those years back.
“Did you see her?” he called out.
“Jack, there isn’t anyone but you on that rock there. Come home, darling. Dinner is ready, and it’s getting cold.” Her cardigan whipped around her thin frame, and the hem of her dress fluttered as the wind blew at her.
“She came, Lacey. She came this year again.” His voice was almost triumphant.
“I’m sure she did, Jack. Come home.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? You never do.” He disassembled his rod, picked up his empty bucket, his bait box. “You don’t see her, because you don’t believe.”
She shook her head, and sighed. “Come home, Jack. Come home.”
He took a look at her again, and a thought occured to him. “Do you even remember her? Is that why you can’t see her? That you choose not to remember?”
“I remember, Jack. I do.”
“Then why don’t you ever come up here with me, to wait, to see her, to feel her, to hear her?” He was starting to weep again.
“Jack, come home, please. Come home now, and we’ll talk.” She pleaded with him.
“Do you still blame me?!” His roar was defiant. “No one knew the waves would come that high. They’ve never come that high since! I had no idea she was in any danger!”
Her voice was more urgent now. “I don’t blame you, Jack. No one blames you. Come home. Please!”
With a defiant roar, he turned and faced the waves. “Why did you take her away? She was so young! You had no right! You had NO RIGHT!” He was shouting shrilly, his voice cracking in the face of the strong wind.
“Jack! Come down!! Come home!!”
The scream echoed across the village grounds at the foot of the outcropping where the lone beachhouse stood, near the rocks which the sea crashed against. A visitor to the village was shocked enough to stand up, looking towards the distant beach, exclaiming, “What was that?!”
The owner of the little inn where the visitor had been having his meal shook her head. “She comes back every year, just to relive her pain. We can’t do anything to stop her, and she doesn’t want to listen. Every year. Twenty over years now, and she still returns. In a way, when we hear her scream, the worst is over. I’ll go check on her in a while.”
“Who? What happened?”
“The lady who owns that beachhouse. Her daughter must have been playing near the rocks, and slipped and was lost. Her husband jumped into the water two years later, when they came back to visit.” The owner stopped her cleaning to look over where the beachhouse stood. “They were a beautiful family, the three of them. They always came by my place to pick up their supplies, and I always made up some cocoa for the little one. She loved it.”
The owner stepped to the back of her inn, and looked over to the corner where she’d left the flask of cocoa as she always had done, every year after the accident. She had started it as a way to commemorate the little sweet girl, who always had had a smile and a laugh for everyone. She’d told no one about the flask.
And as always, the flask sat there, opened and empty, only steam wafting out, rising into nothingness.