Monk by the Sea
When she first announces she’s leaving, people keep asking her aren’t you scared? And when they ask this question they are not asking if she is scared of the weather or the ocean or the cliff leading drastically to it—although if they had meant those things she would have told them, truthfully, only a little bit. No, when people ask her if she is afraid, what they mean is aren’t you afraid you’ll be lonely. She tells them, also truthfully, no. She isn’t afraid of being lonely. The point of going, she keeps telling people, is to see if she’ll feel lonely, to see if she would be bothered by it—though she imagines not. One person offers to come with her, and she has to say thank you, dearest, but I’d rather go alone. They cry at that, ask if she feels anything for them after all this time, and she holds them carefully and tells them, truthfully? No. And that’s why I need to go.
When she gets there, she knows, instantly, that it was the right choice. She knows, instantly, that she won’t be going back to her old life in a hurry, though she doesn’t want to rule it out entirely. She does, however, alert her job and her old apartment that she will be gone for the foreseeable future, and tells her lover she wishes them the best, which means forgetting her with someone else, someone better. Someone there.
There are windows all along the wall of the house that faces the sea, and when she leaves them open she imagines she can feel the spray on her face, the backs of her arms, and who’s to say that she can’t? There’s no one there to tell her anything at all. It’s only a short walk between the wall of her garden and the edge of the world. She can’t see the break until she walks to the very, very edge of the cliff, which she does without great care multiple times a day. Just because she can.
She imagines, if anyone were to see her, that she would appear deep in thought, or perhaps very, very sad. Sometimes she is both of these things, but rarely at the same time, and more often than not she isn’t thinking anything at all, is just matching her breathing to the pull of the tide, letting her lungs and belly balloon up hugely inside her. The sea is calming, like nothing else is, wiping her mind of all the mouldy spots like no doctors or meditation or philosophy has been able to do before. The crashing waves become familiar to her, like a lover breathing beside her in bed. Not so obvious, but comforting still.
Occasionally a seagull’s call will cut the air, a bow drawn across taut strings. When this happens, against everything, she feels more lonely than when there’s no sound at all. It is a deeply mournful sound, keening, but for what she isn’t sure.
Her father, upon hearing her plan to go, had shaken his head and asked you’re giving up everything, your whole life, to be some kind of hermit? She had said nothing, smiled a little, sadly—because there was nothing new she could say to make him understand, and the explanations she had given people up to this point had felt wrong anyway. She had stood to leave and brushed her hand over his unruly hair, kissed his forehead goodbye, and said not a hermit, Daddy, so much as a monk.
Her father was the only person she agreed to write to, and she’s glad she did; every few days she sits on the bench in her garden, pad balanced on her lap over a great huge blanket, and she writes him a letter. Not a lot happens on this little cliff by the sea, so her letters are often short and sweet, missives that she’s alive and thinking of him, and happy. His letters back are longer and mostly a lot of stories from his childhood and then her own—do you remember that? You were very young, you might not—and sometimes about her mother, who grows dimmer and dimmer in her memories every day. He knows this and takes care to try to give her some of his own. She takes her time reading these letters, tries to read them on days that the sun is out, so she can take a walk and enjoy the warmth from the sun and from him.
She has to walk to town to post the letters, which she does every few days. The man in the post office recognizes her now, gets her mail for her before she has to ask for it, and they have short and delightful conversations while she waits. She knows that his wife shouts at him all day but puts a hot water bottle on his side of the bed when she goes to sleep, and he knows that she is here alone, and likes it. He is the only person she’s spoken to, out loud, in months.
On her way back to the cottage she stops for milk and eggs, some vegetables, which she carries in a canvas bag over her shoulder. When the leafy tops poke over the brim of the bag she feels like a painting, a woman with a big straw hat and a long skirt, someone who lives in a simpler world. She likes these walks to town; it just enough contact with the outside world to remind her that she is real, living on earth, but it reaffirms to her that she is not lonely, is not scared of being lonely. She needs no one, after all. Only herself and the sea.
When she lets herself back into the cabin after one of these walks, she drops the mail on her sofa and the big canvas bag on the kitchen counter, stands at the sink to drink water and feel the breeze cool the sheen of sweat on her face and neck. A rustling makes her turn around; she’s become quite used to most of the sounds of her little home, the roar of the sea and the quiet creaks as the bones of the house settle into the earth. This is not one of these noises. The man in the post office has warned her about mice, which privately she thinks wouldn’t bother her so much—what is she keeping from them?—but she is curious to know if they’re there. But when she turns, runs her gaze over the familiar furniture and blankets, it’s not a mouse she’s seen, but a huge, fat cat.
The two blink at each other, for a moment, before the cat rises and stretches his back, a big inverted U. He looks at her, dares her to move, and when she doesn’t he lays back down and goes immediately back to sleep, curled up on one of her throw pillows. She stares at him for another minute, settles down next to him, cautiously rubs her hand over his ears. When he simply takes a deep breath, resettles his body in his sleep, she knows that in her next letter home, she’ll be able to tell her father that she has a friend here, after everything.
Lauren Diethelm is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She got her BA in Literature from University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Matchbox Magazine. She’s worked for various presses and journals since then and is currently working in publishing.
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