“Is this love real?” she asks.
Sitting on a bench near the other end of the room, her words are unmistakable, magnified by the reverence and strange acoustics of the museum. He turns from the glass case filled with the desiccated husks of seahorses to look at her. Her hair is down, her glasses bright. She’s wearing the coat he bought her last winter. It’s not quite winter yet but the evenings are getting cooler. It is evening now. At least, it must be. They’ve been in here for a hundred years already, it seems.
“Obviously,” he replies. “Duh. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
At the sound of his voice, she looks up. “Not you, silly.” She raises the paper cup to her mouth and sips. “Arabica. Instant pick-me-up.”
“I’m an instant pick-you-up.”
“You’re fast, I’ll give you that.”
With a lingering glance at the contents of the cabinet, he walks the short distance to where she’s sitting. She pretends not to watch him as he approaches but he sees her peek sideways. She taps the cup as he takes a seat next to her, her short nails making a hollow sound against the cheap Styrofoam.
“I’ve missed you,” he says.
“From the other side of the room?”
“If you’d just think about moving in…”
She taps faster, then stops altogether. The silence is sudden and alarming. He hadn’t realised how big the room was, how empty. They haven’t seen anyone else in probably ten minutes. He wonders how much longer they have to spend here.
“What were you looking at over there,” she asks, “in the cabinet?”
He catches her peering his way again, decides to play her at her own game. The rows of cases in front of them are too far away and the objects inside too small for him to make them out. He finds himself studying the ceiling. “Why do you ask, when you already know?”
“You were looking at the seahorses,” she tells him.
“How did they look?”
“Like they’d crumble to dust if you touched them.”
“Don’t touch them. Anything else?”
From where he is sitting the exhibits are tiny flecks, almost invisible on the glass shelf. He recalls them, their withered tails, needlepoint snouts, eyes like used cigarette cherries, ashen and black. Beside him, she shifts, her hand finding one of his knees; he realises she’s watching him.
“Thirsty,” he says.
She stares at him a second longer, then laughs. He loves her smile and her face when she laughs. There isn’t much poetic going on his head but he knows what he loves and that is it. Smiling back at her, he buries his head into her shoulder.
“You’re an idiot,” she says.
“Can we go soon?” Muffled by her coat, his voice is small and thick.
“Had enough of me already?”
He wraps his arms around her but does not remove his face from her neck. She smells of perfume – he couldn’t say which – and still a little salty, from the beach yesterday. He loves the beach, almost as much as he loves her. Yesterday had been a good day.
“This place creeps me out.”
“I think it’s romantic.”
“What’s romantic about shrivelled-up fish? I swear I feel like I’m hanging out inside a shipwreck.”
“Come on, seriously?”
He shakes his head, some of her hair falling across the back of his neck.
“The memories,” she says. “The feeling attached to the objects. The objects themselves, so small, so fragile. Your delicate seahorses. The secrets. The stories.”
He feels her set the paper cup down before she moves, her weight shifting underneath him. She leans carefully to one side and stands, lifting him with her. She is not strong enough to carry him and yet she moves him with the lightest suggestion.
Taking his hand, she leads him to one of the cabinets. Like the others, it is made of glass. Like the others, a spotlight shines down over it. It is a bright, impersonal space, considering the nature of the objects housed within. He almost thinks he understands what she means.
“Is this love real?” she breathes. He follows her pointed finger to a small item just below head-height. It is a ring. At least, it used to be. The years do not appear to have been kind to it, battering the metal, creating pocks and eroding away much of what might once have been a design. It is crusty and matte and covered in tiny discs, almost like it has been carved out of rock.
“Why does it look like that?”
“It’s a tentacle. Crafted in the likeness of one, anyway. No one knows where it’s from. There was a theory, but that’s just another name for a story, and there are already lots of those.”
He is watching the ring and the reflection of her face around it. She is still smiling, her glasses bright. The eyes behind them brighter. He doesn’t know what she is talking about but he loves that smile. He gives her hand a squeeze; she squeezes back.
“Where did they find it?”
“Washed up, technically, 1973. Inside a shark’s guts. The gulls were pulling ropes for their morning feast and some children spotted it, still red, still wet, sticking out the sand.”
She looks as beautiful with her glasses on as she does without. When she leans forwards, like she does now, her hair falls around her face. It is shoulder-length hair, dark but with red undertones, caught in the right light. With her free hand, she tucks a stray strand quickly behind one ear.
“Some say it was made by primitive island people. This story goes, they worshipped the sea, and the things that lived in it, so they carved jewellery that resembled them. Seeing the ring now, I can believe that. I can see the waves in its grooves, the strength in its shape, the beauty in its suckered likeness. I can see something divine in the brine and the blood and the cut of coral.”
“You really love this stuff, don’t you?”
She leans in closer and he moves with her. His face inches towards the glass, the coarse sea smell filling his nose again, and for a moment he too finds himself staring at the ring. He slides deeper, its grasp tightening, feels a hand through his hair, the suggestion of darkness filled with pale shapes and submarine depths. He realises he is breathing heavily.
“What happened to the island people?”
“No one knows, but I have a theory, professor.” She winks at him, and he feels himself stirring. Here, of all places, in this wreck of a museum! “I think they died. Thousands of years ago, swept away by a storm. The sea they worshipped gave them life, then just as quickly it took it away. Now that’s love.”
He stands there for several minutes while she admires the exhibit. His breathing steadies. His arm finds her waist and she stirs slightly, but no more. He wishes she looked at him the same way she does those antiques. He knows she’s interested. No, it’s more than that. She loves him. He’s certain. She just won’t admit it. He doesn’t know what that means.
“Come on, it’s getting cold and the table’s booked for eight.”
“It is getting cold, isn’t it? Did you see that?”
He looks over her shoulder as he helps her to button up. Sometime between sitting at the bench and checking out the display, the lights in the hallway have gone out. He hopes they haven’t been locked in. He hasn’t seen any staff but assumes they’d check every room first.
“Almost done. See what?”
“There.” She squints behind her glasses, then stiffens. He feels her tense bodily in his hands. “There.”
This time he sees it. A single light, hovering about head-height in the dark. It flickers intermittently, soft, dull pulses that fill him with a sense of contentment. It has to be a torch.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The hallway swallows his words. He stares harder, wishes his eyes would adjust faster, but the flashes are playing games with his sight.
He hears her behind him, throws an arm out protectively. “Stay back.”
The light is weak but there is something satisfying about its rhythm and the vague illumination it casts.
“I said stop!”
Gradually the light grows fiercer. Shadows squirm across the boards and up the walls. He smells the sea, gently at first, then the sudden rush of damp and decay. It had not smelled so strongly at the beach yesterday, amid the rock pools with the crabs. Already that seems like a lifetime ago.
It occurs to him that he is standing in the hallway. Her hand finds his, and he realises she is by his side. The light is right in front of them. It is not a torch; the thought is laughable now. It hangs in the air, swaying slightly, dimming, then glowing brightly. This close, he sees himself in its gelatinous mass, distorted but hand-in-hand with her. It has always been her. It is everything he could have wanted to see.
The light flickers, fading before their eyes. The darkness rushes in, then wavers again. His stomach turns at the smell, his trainer slipping on something wet. He could reach out and touch the light, if he wanted. It would be the easiest thing.
The orb begins to glow again, brightening, filling his eyes, and for the first time he sees behind it into the rubbery lips, the rows of teeth, the vast mouth that contains them.
As the light dulls, the mouth gapes open, wider, wider than he could have ever imagined.
Still smiling, he extends his hand into the darkness.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2016 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.