The ground is perpetually damp, the buildings creak, and the sun seems more like a hole forced into the sky than the real thing, but that is not why the town by the sea is ruined. The town has existed for centuries and will exist for centuries more. It cannot be felled by mugginess, or ancient architecture, or seasons without sun, but perhaps by something that is imagined. The town is not good for the imagination.
The inhabitants have grown adept at willful ignorance, ignoring the consistent murmur that envelops the town and the shrill calls periodically resounding from the sea. They become ghosts, turning off their brains and transforming into snuffed-out candles, and if they can’t, they stuff their ears with cotton. The pretending has become more difficult in recent years, however, what with the disappearances.
They’re always the same: there one day and gone the next, nothing disturbed, a trail of footsteps on the shore, as if they never existed to begin with. Easy to forget, easy to ignore, and questioning has never brought salvation, but mothers hold their children closer all the same. They all know who took them. If death was an animal, its breath would smell like the ocean.
On the same day the scientist returns to the town, the bodies begin surfacing. It’s a trickle at first–a horrified fisherman stumbles backward when he sees the carcass caught in his net, a child playing by the rocks mistakes a corpse covered in seaweed for a mermaid, a family of four stands paralyzed in front of a body kneeling on the shore. The scientist glances at the crowd gathering at the last scene, holds back his daughter, and shoves her into his childhood home by the sea, the sort that talks through coughing pipes and whining floorboards. He doesn’t walk to the morgue until the girl is sound asleep. She is not allowed answers.
Each day brings new bodies. The ones that float to the surface or wash up on shore are bloated and far beyond anyone’s reach, driving their families to silence and pleas for amnesia. Madness is avoidable, though, and they crawl into their beds, unfeeling and already forgetting. The unlucky families are delivered exhibitions. The corpses appear on the shore, the pier, the rocks, always kneeling, always stiff, always reverent, like bodies frozen into classical sculpture. The unseen perpetrator lurks in the murky depths, only appearing in the articulation of the body.
The scientist is silent as the medical examiner speaks of cuts, fractures, lashes, and bruises, as the police chase serial killers, as the mother of a late young man is found hanging in her bedroom. He retreats back into his house, where his daughter spends all her days. Delighted, she runs to him, but he shakes her off and shuts the door behind him. In his childhood bedroom, the scientist becomes a copyist, scrawling pictures of the calls fervently, recording pitch and thought and those oceanic depths.
The girl is not allowed answers. She is not allowed to go near the ocean. She is not even allowed dirt. But she allows herself imagination. The house becomes her life, ripe to draw out sounds and stories and a friend. The girl makes a friend. She never sees it, but she knows it’s there. She is not certain of many things, but she is so sure of those words, deep and hazy and warm, oh, so warm. The tremulous tone makes one drunk, so ruined to hear it even only in dream and intimate whispers. The scientist is engrossed in his work, poring over autopsy reports and secondhand information. He speaks of sight, but she sees the eyes.
The girl’s friend comes to her in a dream one night, and she can’t help herself. Entranced, she climbs out of bed, creeps past her father’s office, and walks into the sea. The water rises up to embrace her, and when she is fully immersed in the sea, it kisses her palms and strokes her hair, filling the hollow in her systems, pure euphoria. She feels rather than sees her friend in front of her, weightless and ethereal and inky black as it floats suspended in this hidden world. The words ring louder than ever in her ears as it approaches her, and no one can ever call it killing.
They find the girl on the shore behind her father’s house the next morning. The scientist falters at the sight of her: raw and red, bones and nerves standing out white and yellow, skin flayed back. The previous bodies haunted their finders with the extension of their twisted limbs and their glassy eyes staring up at the sky, but the girl has no limbs and no eyes. She has been stripped of her senses. Her eyes were gouged out, and she ceased to see. Her ears were cut and her tongue was bitten, and she was rendered silent. She will be in the dark, conscious and cut off for decades, but it is not death.
In the weeks that follow, the girl dips her stumps in paint and covers the house’s walls with eyes. The scientist watches and wonders if he can save her or if that’s merely the dream of every would-be conqueror. The people sometimes say, when they think he isn’t listening (but he is, he always is), that the devil took her soul and twined it with his own, that ghosts and sea monsters follow her, worship the body she is cursed with. They watch as she crawls out of the home, her father lingering behind her. They expect him to eventually smother her with a pillow, wall himself off from the good things in the world, and wallow in that house forever, but he doesn’t. The girl crawls in the dirt toward the bottomless sea. She is allowed dirt now. The scientist will allow the child gone mad anything, now that she’s been denied everything that matters.