Momma cuts like a man-of-war
Through the fog of an early morning
With nothing more than a coffee filling up her sails
– from All Ashore by the Punch Brothers
Somewhere near the edge of the earth sits a weary fishing town that is easy to imagine and impossible to find.
Twilight is long since dead and dawn has passed, but the morning has yet to give up her grey ghost. In these early hours of the day, the poor waves betray their exhaustion by whimpering as they collapse one by one on the shore. The storm gave no quarter as it beat them into submission all night long; the line that separates water and sky was smudged out in the chaos. Grey after mournful grey simply surrenders itself to the next as if all colour has died here too.
From a house at the chapped lip of a rocky plateau that overlooks the bay, a woman glares out into the achromatic deadzone.
Her expression is almost as washed as the anemic palette before her. She gives the impression that she is scouring infinity for something. But in fact, her thoughts don’t need to stretch quite that far to graze at oblivion.
The woman strikes a match on the underside of the kitchen counter and lights the large votive candle sitting in her window. She lights the cigarette pursed between her lips with the same match and flicks it out. The corners of her eyes crinkle when she breathes in more grey.
Just as the coffee begins to percolate on the counter, she notices a thick, ominous fog making its approach from somewhere just beyond the horizon.
She follows the the fog’s trajectory until she spies the lighthouse at the southern tail of the crescent that makes up their inlet. Even the lighthouse’s lamp seems to be exhausted this morning. Bleak; barely holding on to its purpose after weathering the night’s savagery.
She watches a small fishing boat emerge from the mist and approach the docks below. The fishermen are returning from their early morning trolls. Or perhaps they were out all night. The difference is negligible to the wives who wake up to an empty space on the other side of the bed at this hour.
The coffeemaker spittles and gurgles to announce that it’s had enough. The woman threatens to strangle her cigarette between two frustrated fingers and pulls the carafe from its hotplate with the other. She pours the scalding darkness into her waiting cup.
Coffee circles around the stained inner walls of the mug like rainwater being sucked into the gaping mouth of a drainpipe. She feels something like fleeting satisfaction; she finds herself imagining being whisked away by the swirling darkness.
The woman leans her wilting, barely-smoked cigarette into the turret on the ashtray next to the sink. She threads the fingers of one hand through the handle and hugs both palms snugly around the curvy waist of the mug. The heat from the coffee is almost too much even through the layer of thick porcelain, but she doesn’t flinch. She endures it with stubborn veracity. Staring back out into the ashy murk, she retreats to the barren shack that is her anxious mind where she thinks about how far everything has strayed from the plan.
As she rocks back and forth between realms like a ghostly ship without an anchor, she absently listens to the fishermen’s indiscernible grumbles wafting up from the shipyard. They hoist their humble nocturnal catches to hawk at the market today. She is caught off guard by the mere idea of fish on their clothes and scoffs through her nose, grimacing with disdain in spite of herself. She takes another sip of coffee.
She winces. It’s still too hot. She knew it would be; it’s the same every morning. But the gritty burn on her tongue has become an oddly welcome reprieve to the chronic pain she has been enduring everywhere else. From the acid wearing down her throat, to the shards of glass in her gut and the rusted pipes that were once her bowels…
If he ever asked why she gets up so early and stares out into the void like this, she would say it’s because she likes the silence of the morning. That there is something calming and restorative about having that moment to herself.
This woman would be a liar.
But it doesn’t much matter, because he has never asked.
She gets up before the dawn because she no longer sleeps. The waves of unease tug too hard at her rigging for her to feel any stillness while she moors awake and alone at night without him.
Across the bay, she sees the lighthouse keeper emerge from the comically tiny mouth as the base of the looming monster entrusted to him. He is so small next to the bone-white behemoth that threatens to swallow him back up again. This monster, whom he safeguards no matter what, that he is destined and doomed to care for until he leaves this earth, just like his father before him.
She wonders if the lighthouse keeper can see her from where he stands. There was a time when he fancied her; she wonders if he ever wonders about her, about how things might have gone if she’d chosen him instead. She spends most of her mornings thinking about what might have been. How she might have been.
She wonders if anyone takes any notice at all, or if she’s already drifted away.
Every morning she goes through these strokes. There is no joy in this ritual of hers. She is deflated, filled by the emptiness of the smoking crater that was once her home. She sips the steaming black from the rim of her cup again, looking back to the east to see the heady fog continue its advance. It’s closer now, creeping up past the rocks and bleeds between the lines of houses that sit like tombstones along the scraggy shoreline. The spectral shroud envelopes the gravesite, heralding the death of everything this woman ever thought she knew.
She tries to convince herself that he has a handle on this. That she can handle this. That she is stronger than this.
He spends more time at the pub than he admits, carousing with his demons. But there are only so many voices around this bay. Even despite the gaping abyss between them, she has heard their whispers.
Though the weariness has cut deeper into his face with every passing year, they haven’t compromised his roguish, devil-may-care charm. She knows this has only helped him do more than stargaze when he’s out at night. She knows he’s been burning hotter than ever next to those younger, brighter stars. He might think the film of stardust is blacked out by the soot of his firewater, but she would know that glitter anywhere — she used to have a similar sparkle about herself.
We promised each other more than this.
Every tick of the clock in the next room brings a matching tick to the corner of her eye. The wooden beams of the old house creak in unison with her aching bones. She takes another bigger sip — not as hot now as it slithers warm and certain down her throat — and thinks of the man sleeping in her living room.
Man… she thinks. A demon, more like.
A demon who dares slink into her home late at night, reeking of the rum it uses every time to swindle her husband out of his own flesh, and the perfumes of the pretty, young things that feed it.
Lost somewhere in a numb, dreamless sleep, this diabolical creature still dons the meat-suit that belongs to the man she married. The man she loved.
The man she loves…
The man she is supposed to love.
The man who is slipping away from her.
The man she fears may already be gone.