The young ones spend their nights off shore, poaching the water with their fingertips. Tap, tap, they tell him, is what it feels like, over beers in the afternoons, their adolescent eyes as wide as their storytelling. The hoaries and the fishmongers, the ones who chew their lisps at the far end of the room, call them Dó, Ré, and Mí because of the lightness of their voices. Tap, tap, they tell him, the feel of the line, the fish rubbing their nets, placing his small warm hands on his fingers, don’t squeeze… like this, until a pulse vibrates against them. A bead of sweat breaks free at the man’s forehead, and for a brief moment, eyes closed, he imagines there in his hands lies a small and perfect animal. Until the boy pulls away.
From the deck of a trawler, he’s watched their thin blue shapes emerge from the tide, morning after morning, for the last year. Five a.m. to a stroke, the cathedral bells plumbing the districts in the hands of a madman, the way it was when he was their age. The dissonant chimes clatter off the silence sown in the fabric of everything, the damp walls of the neighbourhood houses, the semi-lit shopfronts, the magenta waters of the canals. Nothing escapes. Vibrations still hum in the window panes, in the soft bones of the sleeping, long after the quiet returns. The air left by the bells is so concentrated you could touch it, hold it a moment in cup-shaped hands, facilitating each morning in the cramped streets burrowed along the waterfront… a story.
The three boys pull their boat from the current and jess it to the seawall, carrying their skinny catches at their shoulders, stepping over unmade shadows stretched out on the sand. Their bodies ache with cold, like puppeteers to their own simple joints, the intimacy of their movements buzzing against the glass of his pupils, reminding him what it was to be fourteen. To the boys, the men’s faces take shape in cool threads of light coming off the streetlamps on the boulevard, their skins beaten like copper bowls, their eyes deep as barrel holes, their thin mouths made large by speckled moustaches. Their muscles and hands mesh in the thickening colours, until the nets are spread over the deck, the edges of them latched on the lead line. No one speaks past a voice of eyes. The three boys join in, among the stacks of plastic creelers, pushing their weightless bodies through the last of the shadows. The light coming now through the mist, helpless as falling ashes.
She wakes with closed eyes to their footsteps.
She hears the air caught in the hollows of waves, pushes the sand lifeless in her fingers. The solitary engines of the first fishing boats pass not far off the beach, and a bare light leans on her eyelids. She hears a turnstone near, so close she could grab it. Her mouth is dry, but none of these thoughts open her eyes. There’s a song in her head, the one playing on the radio in the flat above the butcher’s door, a couple of nights before. Doesn’t understand the words, but her mouth starts to hum.
When she leaves, her body will make this impression in the sand: small, one wing, female.
Eyes still closed, turnstone further away now.
Ninety minutes later, the engines hush near a crossroads of stony islands, six miles down the coast. Their shorelines cut themselves from the sunlight in smooth white lines, and bird shit shimmers oily on the rocks. The air fills with heat. Dó throws the tail of a cigarette off the side, where silver-purple circles on the water top distend in the current and break apart. Diesel and sweat hang in his nose as the lead line slides over the surface in a crescent shape. Waiting cuts the silence in two.
Floating… the islands are floating, the boy says aloud to himself.
As if stirring a conversation from its place past voices, the men begin to speak among themselves. A conversation that begins in the middle: council quotas, depleted fish stocks, the growing numbers of the seals. Dó listens to their words, doesn’t understand what they’re saying. He only knows they’ve had to run the nets deeper lately. He listens to the pitch of the words, makes them again, words like the one in the local dialect for ‘cull’. Thinks he might understand them better in the framework of his own voice.
Her eyes open and scatter. The air pushes sunlight across her face, and a dull pain twists in her belly and up the bones of her back. She walks barefoot, a shoe in each hand, through the horde of women who come to the waterfront to sunbathe in the mornings. Whores, her voice is effortless, like air through a flute before a note is struck. But her mind pares to a picture, one of her brother, the same fragmented image that fills all his absences: the freckles made of raindrops at his shoulders, the slow bones of his spine like footsteps down his narrow brown back, to where she used to pull at the waistband of his trousers to keep up with him when they were smaller. Her body very near his, toeing his heels. Fuck off, he’d say, and slap her hand away.
He’s been gone the last two days.
She wipes the sticky edges of her lips across the back of her wrist, and chokes on the thirst like a stone in her throat. Her body pushes out from the centre in a brilliant sharp pang, and she cups her hands under her small breasts through the weak lisle of her dress.
Turning down one of the alleys off the boulevard, she crouches behind a large blue construction skip to urinate. Its sound peals loudly on the parched cement, her eyes on the backdoors of the apartment buildings further down the alley. A little shirtless boy steps out on one of the first floor terraces, from behind a row of women’s clothing drying on a line. His face fat and serious, he holds a pancake up on the prongs of a fork near his mouth, but he doesn’t eat it. Doesn’t take his eyes off her. She finishes short and stands, looking away from him long enough to watch the puddle of her urine stream under a heap of broken cinderblocks.
She walks the narrow valley of the Street of Pelicans, through the district, car engines burning up in the traffic, humming at her bare legs, spilling out on the plaza between the fish market and the stout white wall of the Cathedral. She sits in its shadows, the smooth marble steps cool on her legs. Leans back on her elbows. But invisible sets of eyes gaze at her from under the awnings of the market, and warm air bites her throat. A voice, male and sudden, calls her, Sol. Her name. Taken from a shopfront window, the year the priest tried to teach her and her brother to read. Trumpets, an enormous tuba sweating under the sun, a child’s book, its pages turned yellow, open to sheet music; her own nine-year-old reflection staring out from the patina of dust on the glass.
She knows the man from yesterday. A journalist.
Followed her around, buying her cigarettes and asking her questions. Said he was an Irishman. Said he wanted to take her picture. Said he wanted it for a newspaper in London, England.
Money, said she.
She told him about the song, the one in English playing on the radio in the flat above the butcher’s door. She said she didn’t understand the words when he asked her to sing it. When she tried to hum it, he joined in, singing aloud to her on the marble steps. It wasn’t the same song, but she laughed until it made her cough.
She told him the song made her love.
He stopped speaking to her when she said that.
But now he’s back, sitting on the steps a few feet away, surprising her with her own name. His eyes straight and blue, a blue she has never seen, and he looks as if he’s translating the words in his mouth, the same look he had yesterday. He offers her a cigarette, notices her knees quiver:
You’re a hard one to find, said like a question.
Are you waiting for someone?
The photograph he’ll take of her in a few minutes will appear next month on the cover of the Sunday magazine of a London paper. It will look like this: a young girl leaning back on her hands against the white marble steps. Short black hair, like a boy wears, her bony olive shoulders pushed up toward her chin. Her mestizo-brown face is tilted slightly to the left, dribbles of light across her black almond-shaped eyes, her gaze somewhere through the lens. Beyond it. No smile. Thin grey shadows deepen at the half-moons of her armpits and under the perfect line of the clavicle, which makes crosses with the straps of her dress. The fabric of the dress bunches slightly at her waist. Her knees are squeezed together; a deep blue bruise on the left one. Next to her, a space enough for someone else, where a half-dozen cigarette butts lie crumpled on the step.
The slender body of a young seal has come up in the nets, under Dó’s stick legs. It slaps the deck in thuds, strains against the meshed nylon thread. Its large sloe-eyes peer from the gauze, and a clear snot streams at its nostrils.
The engines behind the boy screech as they’re started again, almost human, like the voices of the neighbourhood women whose children turned up dead with the tides almost twelve years ago. They had disappeared a few nights before that, last seen on the steps of the Cathedral. No one speaks now about those murders, or how the bodies came to be found, bloated, washing gently against the outer locks of the canal. But on clear nights, walking back from the bar, you’ll still hear a mother keening in her mouldy kitchen. A milky fluid streams now from the seal’s eyes. As one of the men pulls back the net, the boy turns it over, woolly fur moulting on his hands. Freckles have crashed like raindrops on the seal’s pale brown belly. With the sweep of a knife, the man opens them in a stroke.
The air outside the bar tonight is still. Along the waterfront, a row of trees lean on the unlit houses like statues of wind, and thin haloes surround the street-lamps in the damp air. Shopfronts radiate pale colours. The man has stayed at the bar through supper, watching Dó move like water inside a cloud, his slight body fluid in the squalid light, until the boy shot him a nervous smile and left. Walking home, the man squeezes a thin roll of cash shoved in his pocket, given to him by one of the lispers from the market. His neck aches him from sitting at the bar for hours, and the dried sweat at his collar rubs his skin. He crosses between the parked cars, toward the bars on the Street of Pelicans, still full at this time of night. But in the end he doesn’t even slow down.
He has pushed the key in and opened the door, when she steps out of the iridescent shadows of the butcher’s door. He’s noticed her there before, over the last few weeks: short hair, like a boy wears. Shivers a bit, her bare arms pale and weak in the light, manages a smile. Bright red lipstick catches the invisible hairs over her lip, and pale purple shadows rest on her eyelids like weights, as if some meaning were hidden there. He pauses a moment, his wife in bed in the flat above, too tired to sleep, their two children in the cots in the hall, a bare yellow bulb hanging above them, lighting their sleep. He catches the foul tint of the girl’s breath, and shuts the door behind him.
Leaning in the door frame, Sol watches the barman in the cafe that has just closed across the street. Cool air pinches her skin and her cough deepens in the middle of her chest. The barman sits alone at the second table in from the window, a pile of neatly-folded white paper napkins in front of him. Liver spots and cobwebs of thin white hair cover his head, and damp yellowy stains make circles on his shirt under his armpits. His collar curls at the tips like the wings of a paper swan. Not once does he look out the window to see her, in the doorway next to the butcher’s. If he does, he’ll unlock the door and call her over. He’ll pour out a large coffee mug of port, heat two cheese sandwiches, and tell her stories that sound to her like lies. It won’t matter to him that she’ll eat slow, elbows on her knees seated on the stool, gazing aimlessly out the window while he talks.
But tonight he doesn’t look, his head slumped to his chest. She thinks maybe he’s dead, that he’s run out of stories to tell her, and that death is when you have no more stories to tell anyone. The barman doesn’t look up to see the door open behind her.
At this moment, a longboat moves in the currents a half-mile from the beach. Rivers of light come off the shore, furrow in the blue-black surface, reaffirm the darkness. Dó’s lower lip quivers. He concentrates on certain lights, the weaker ones, thinks he knows which one’s his mother’s house. Thinks for a moment that the house is real. Safe inside the walls of it. Behind him, the other two dispose of the body of a boy their age. They tie a nylon cord round the neck and the chest, the consonance of their hands invisible in the unbroken run of shadows. One of them growls orders at the other that are left ignored. The boy’s skin feels cool and oily to them. The nylon cord feels warm from the friction made by the knots. Even if he turns round, Dó won’t see the freckles on the dead boy’s shoulders, scattered like raindrops, or the strut of footsteps, straight as a spine, down the boy’s back.
Her eyes open and close, but it’s not her doing it, no one’s doing it, she’s in the hallway, shouting, but no sound comes, nothing, the man, the one who’d gone in the door minutes before, presses her to the wall, giant before her, his eyes black and sad, he’s saying something she doesn’t hear, his voice absorbed by the skin of wallpaper, fluorescent light dripping across her vision, looking to the cafe but it’s not there, only a door, his hands, lifting her, rough at her skin, nothing on his face, as if someone else is in the hallway, another’s hands, as if possession of her body is neither hers nor his, only his skin like dirt under her fingernails, her mouth opening and closing, no sound, nothing, only the sour taste of saliva on her breath, only the metronome of bass notes flowing like a distant river from the rut of his mouth, pressing her to the wall, supporting her weight, which feels sudden and heavy to her, a hand now, on her mouth and nose, smearing lipstick down her chin, hard to breathe, the back of her head against the wall, she coughs, the pain in her chest unearthing itself on her face, his fingers rubbing her eyelids, smearing purple shadow across her skin.
Sudden as it started: nothing.
She doesn’t know why, tears and make-up burning her eyes.
His body is still and cold. His arms tight around her, like two sleeping animals.
His arms innocent like a hug.
She swallows the spit in her mouth, the pattern of the wallpaper brushing against her shoulders as she slips slowly through the hole of his arms, liquid, her back skimming the wall. She lands weightless again on her feet. Dribbles of sweat on the man’s muddy olive neck sheen in the fluorescent light, his body beginning to shiver, sopping with the stale smell of fish.
A priest wakes some hours later, at ten minutes to five, with the alertness of a man who has slept badly. Two candles still bum by the bed, his ears and nose numb from the cool air in the room. In one furious movement he stands, pulls a woolly robe over his head, covering his fragile body. He steps into the sandals at his feet, bending in half to tighten the straps, two sizes too tight, where the metal buckles have made deep discoloured imprints in the leather. He looks at his watch and lifts the latch on the door; a breath of air pushes in, the brief flit of candlelight giving an impression of something small shifting in the bed behind him, under the rumpled mound of the quilt.
He walks through a small hallway, a chest of drawers in its shadows, through another door, and out onto the plaza. His sandals clap over the cobblestones to the doors of the Cathedral. Inside, between the enormous columns, candles bum in small cast-iron dishes, throwing no light, like stars in a lazy summer sky. On the far side of the altar, he struggles at the damp wall inside a doorway for the fuse-box.
He climbs the ladder-like steps, ducking his head in the low passage, his knees sore with cold. He counts each step as he’s done every morning for the last twelve years, wary of the same few where loose slates have begun to vibrate under his weight. At the top, he barely makes out the silvery hands on his watch by the light of the stairwell: a minute to five. He disconnects the ropes hanging out of the bell chamber from their automatic timer, until they brush freely at his shoulders. Finds the one he wants, coils it once, twice round his arm, the sleeve of his robe having fallen in a bunch on his shoulder. He thinks of the women he’ll wake in a moment, who’ll be at the first mass in half an hour, their yellow eyes trying to catch his all through the service, reaching to the cupola with their odd prayers, now more like conversations with the children, who, late one January night, were mistaken for street kids on the steps outside the Cathedral. He woke that night to the noise of a truck racing down the Street of Pelicans. Its clatter still vibrates in his ears, even now. He still sweeps what’s left of the women’s bouquets of moth orchids and daffodils off the steps every Monday morning after they’ve been tom apart by the starving dogs that stray in the plaza at night. Snaring his fingers round the rope, he shuts his eyes, the last seconds breaking lightly on his lips.