William Willoughby and the Coast Road, Or: Remembrance at Dawn
Day 54 — 60
William Willoughby sat on the cold sand, his knees buckled up under his chin and his pale blue eyes blurry with distant thoughts. A chill breeze from the north tugged at the sleeves of his jacket, but he did not notice. The sun was, as always, buried beneath a bank of low gray clouds that stretched from one end of the sky to the other, bending over the restless sea and the small sandy rock that was the only home William had ever known.
Waves washed against the shore, crashing with the solemn regularity of a great and ancient heartbeat; the ocean was alike the pulse of the earth itself.
The ebbing roar soothed William. It faithfully guided him into a trance from which he usually emerged only after the light from the incarcerated sun had faded to twilight. Within that trance, the sandy beach before him came alive with gilded specters splashing in the surf, whirling, dancing, walking, and making love under the emerald stars. He beheld a kingdom of delicate towers in the clouds, their soft, crenellated walls rearing up above the spray, the glittering helmets of a thousand soldiers peeping from behind the merlons. The sky was blue, and white, and clear all at once, and sunlight dabbed the edges of every moving thing with gold.
For a long, timeless moment, William held his guard thus on the sand. While his body grew numb with cold and stillness, his mind soared freely amongst the billowing towers, and danced in the surf with familiar strangers.
Though the spectral figures never tired of their leisure, there came always the time when they finished their carousing, and turned to William one after the other and bowed; and, then — skipping, walking, and dancing — they disappeared into the darkening sea.
The gold-limned crenels in the sky faded to dull orange, then brown, then dark blue, as twilight snuffed the glittering of the thousand helmets and the great kingdom faded into a dull mass of gray clouds, and was gone.
And so, as the blotted light from the hidden sun faded into night, William roused from his trance, and found he was alone on the cold bank of sand.
In the gathering dusk, William unhinged his petrified limbs, wincing as his cramped muscles eased themselves into motion. He stood up, slowly, and sighed — a long, deep sigh from the depths of his heart — then cast one last, longing glance at the empty sky and turned away.
A gathering wind soon devoured the sandy impressions his plodding feet left in the beach, and tore again at his jacket sleeves, yet he did not notice. He passed through a stand of tall beachgrass, crackling and snapping with frenzied excitement, then onto a short boardwalk that led to the coast road.
William walked the coast road every day, though he could not remember whence he came and — once he left the beach — never knew where he was going. It seemed to him that he had walked the coast road since the beginning of time.
In silence he hobbled along the humble road. Faded, cracked, wind- and salt-blasted it was, older even than William, as much a part of the little island as the stunted trees that dotted its shoulders. The road wended its way around the island, keeping always within sight of the sea, here and there met by other roads coming or going from inland. It was lightly trafficked at the busiest of times, and at twilight, it was all but deserted.
There was a safe and pleasant warmth in loneliness, William thought, as he trod quietly and unhurriedly along, not sure whither he was going. He fell into an absent musing, his eyes following little pebbles, disturbed by the uneven movement of his feet, as they bounced across the hard-packed earth.
Safe and pleasant, indeed. William felt he could walk along that road forever, never thinking about anything but the small, skittering stones.
Some time later, as the last light of muddled day leached into the black sea, a pair of voices awakened William from his reverie. He brought his gaze up from the dim road, mildly surprised at how dark it had become, and trained his ears towards the unusual sound.
Through the ceaseless pounding of the surf, he heard strains of twinkling laughter. A deep male thrumming, playfully reverent, mingled with the bright tones of a woman happily in love. It was unexpected, this beautiful music, so William stopped to listen.
Before long, he saw the faint outlines of their bodies moving along the road some distance ahead. He could see they were young, for their movements had the graceful carelessness that was but a fond memory of the very old.
The youthful shapes moved closer, their voices growing more distinct. They paused, their blurred edges merging and bending toward the water, and then parted again with supple laughter.
William, who stood rooted in the road, was unsettled by the couple’s odd familiarity. He pondered the strangeness of coming upon them — two living souls — at this time, with nothing else accompanying him but the frail light and the ocean pounding close by.
Before he could think to move off the road, the man and woman, little more than dark masses against the sky, were upon him. William opened his mouth as though to speak some greeting, but the words died in his throat, and the pair, holding each other close, brushed past him as though he were not there at all. Their musical murmuring continued unabated, and gradually faded as they passed away down the road.
The comfortable loneliness that had wrapped William in quiet warmth a moment earlier quickly dissipated, replaced by a chill that sent tingles along his neck. Almost fearfully, William turned away from the receding voices and continued along the road, the sound of his quick footsteps masked by the crashing of the sea.
All was in near blackness; a diffuse light, reflected from the crumpled surface of the sea, outlined the wispy fronds of beachgrass in gray shadows. William slowed his pace, using his feet to guide him down the road, now a nigh invisible ribbon in the darkness. The rumbling water seemed ever closer; William half feared he would walk into it and be swallowed by the vengeful surf.
Yet he continued, never thinking ahead, and only seldom wondering about what had come before. His feet did not ache, nor his limbs tire, nor his mind wander. His loneliness no longer comforted him, yet a desire to continue possessed him.
He did not know how long he walked. The lissome couple was a happy memory from his youth, the spectral dancers and gilded castles but faded dreams from another life. There was something else — even older than the airy kingdom and its glittering army — that rubbed faintly against his consciousness, like the dying light of a distant star seen for the last time across the vastness of space; but, even as he noticed it, it vanished.
To William’s ears came then the distinct sound of uneven footsteps on the road ahead. He shivered; to him, a limp was menacing, an affliction unique to the dangerous and untrustworthy.
He edged to the side of the narrowing road and stood still, hoping the invisible stranger would pass him by as had the amorous couple.
The hobbled steps grew louder, crowding out the noise of the sea. A strangled gasp choked in the tightness of William’s throat as a pale, disheveled man appeared from the darkness, his countenance drawn in anguish, haunted eyes staring steadfastly at the ground from within deep sockets. Surely, this was his father, come back from the grave!
William stood, paralyzed, fear poisoning any chance of movement. As the man passed by, his pale blue eyes turned to catch William’s own. Within those hollow depths was a fierce, ancient longing that tugged at William’s breast; yet, before he could summon a word, the man was gone, his stumping receding into the inky blackness.
William lingered for some time, his knees trembling, the white, anguished face burning into his mind. He yearned to follow, yet fear of what he might discover kept him firmly in place.
Eventually, his fear waned and he gathered himself, edged back into the road, and continued along in slow, shuffling steps.
So bleak was the light that he had now to guide him only the ocean, and the feel of the uneven ground beneath his feet.
All was utter darkness. Not a blade of light cut the weight of black night. The air hung heavy and oppressive, and muffled even the sound of the sea.
William stumbled and pitched forward onto his hands, feeling the cold dirt on his palms. Rather than stand again, he crawled slowly on his knees, thinking only that he must continue. Surely, the pale light of dawn would soon relieve him.
For what may have been moments or days, William crawled along the road, now little more than a trail through invisible underbrush. He thought of nothing but the fatigue in his wrists, and the roughness of the earth, and recalled with dim dread the decrepit man, his pale blue eyes haunted with mourning.
The sea was silent. Had it always been so?
There was no sound in the suffocating gloom. William lifted his head, his sore neck protesting. How long had he been thus?
A black stillness enveloped all; neither coursing blood nor heartbeat disturbed the utter silence brought to William’s ears, nor could he sense against him the rough weight of the earth.
He floated thus for a time, his senses straining for some spark of light or the whispering of beachgrass or the movement of cool air.
He thrust his trembling hand out to catch at a living shrub or pebble to ground him, but found nothing. He pushed his legs against the earth, but met no resistance. He jumped, and went nowhere. He ran in place, and felt he had crossed the immensity of space. He beat his fists against his chest, feeling not even the vibrations in his body, nor hearing his own fury. He opened his mouth to yell, but summoned not a whisper.
He fell, then, into a quiet despair, forgetting there had been anything but this eternal darkness, which had become his world.
Against the cool silence came then a thin, rattling sound, weak and indistinct, yet pitiful. William jerked to attention, straining to make out the source of the noise, though it seemed it came from everywhere at once. Quickly did it gather intensity, wailing in the darkness until it rained like hammer blows against William’s virgin eardrums.
Words. They were words, roughly spoken, through a dry and dusty throat as old as the darkness: Remember. Remember. Remember.
The friable refrain repeated over and over, louder than the whole fury of the sea put to one spot of sand, rattling William to his bones. His hands, pressed tightly against his ears, stopped nothing. He cried out in his mind, Remember what? Remember what? Remember what?
Remember, the voice repeated once more. Then, the piercing screams of man and animal, a crashing and splintering of wood, and silence. William pitched forward roughly on his side. He felt cool grass against his cheek. The dull roar of the surf against the sand rose again to his ears.
When he opened his eyes, he saw that it was dawn.
Through misty lashes came the arching branches and fluttering leaves of a stand of whitebeam trees, illuminated with the first hint of day. Beyond stretched a bank of high clouds, rolling back over a calm sea, their peaks gold and white in the new sun.
William sat up, his senses singing. He stared at the clouds, disbelief mounting. He could not remember seeing such brilliant colors, except in his dreams.
Dreams. The darkness, and the screaming and the splintering wood, and the words, repeated over and over… what had they said?
William sat up, rubbing his eyes. He must have fallen asleep here in the cool grass, lulled by the rumbling waves. He looked about him and was astonished to see he was in the cemetery. Many a time had he passed by this place, wondering at the lonely quiet stones, but never had he entered. It was not out of fear, but out of a strange unwillingness to look upon the names of those long deceased, whom he did not know.
He looked for the entrance — an old iron gate that stood rusted ajar — and turned towards it and the coast road beyond. He raised his foot to take the first step, and then heard the words from his dream.
He paused, curiosity compelling him to stay in this place he had long avoided. The motionless stones watched him in silence, the trees continued their fluttering in the cool breeze, and the day drove slowly away the night.
It seemed suddenly proper to William that he should explore the crumbling monuments before dawn faded too much. He turned back to the stones and began to shuffle slowly among them, not certain what he sought.
After a short time walking among the overgrown rows, William came upon a short, faded obelisk set upon a stone block. A wingless angel, eroded by the centuries, held watch over the epitaph. William bent low and peered at the weathered letters:
Carmilla Jane Willoughby
Aug 16, 1773 —
The rest was illegible. William’s skin prickled.
“Carmilla…” he said, tracing the name with his fingers.
The haunting word from his dream came again, and with it screams and shattering wood and a sensation of weightlessness. And that dying memory that had rubbed so faintly against his consciousness awakened, and William saw in a flash green grass growing low against the rutted road, his boots against the dashboard, the dark mane of the horse streaming in the wind, the turn up ahead; heard her laughter twisted into a plea, then a scream as the mane reared up, then crumpled down into the mud, pitching her into the splinters.
Her fresh, youthful smile under wide, green eyes — so long forgotten — came to him at last, unbidden. He clutched at the stone and broke into wracking sobs, crying her name aloud.
Carmilla! It was all my fault — it’s all my fault — I’m sorry, my Carmilla, please…please forgive me.
He cried and cried, his tears wetting the soft earth where she lay, until he could cry no more. He slumped over on his knees, his head resting against the cool stone, and fell into a restless sleep.
When he awoke, day was come, and the cemetery was bathed in the brilliant gold light of a clear morning. He blinked open his eyes, forgetting for a moment where he was, astonishment at the warm light overtaking him. He sat up, and saw again the stone and the epitaph.
The recollection again played through his mind, and the urge to sob anew welled up in him. He looked, then, at the worn angel, and remembered: he had called her that, his angel. He cried again, though freely and without shame, as warm memories, long forgotten, poured into him.
After the tears would come no more, a calm peace settled over William. He stood, looking fondly at the old stone, then blew a soft kiss and turned away. A warm breeze blew at his heels as he walked through the iron gate and onto the coast road, bright and new among the rustling beachgrass.
William walked for a short time before he found himself at a small rise overlooking a long, flat beach stretching into the lapping surf. The day was warm and young and full of promise, and the water beckoned.
He walked down from the rise and onto the soft sand, closing his eyes and stretching his fingers to catch the gentle currents of air. When he opened his eyes again, he saw her, alone, dancing quietly on the beach near the surf.
He stopped, and for what seemed an eternity he watched her whirl about, effortless, her gilded hair catching the sunlight. She stopped, suddenly, and turned to face him. William felt like running back to the coast road, but found he could not move.
He saw her eyes, then, wide and green over a youthful smile, and all thought of escape abandoned him. His knees shook and he almost fell into the sand, never to get up.
I’m sorry, my dear Carmilla, he thought to her.
She smiled broadly, her eyes sparkling, and she seemed to laugh silently, shaking her head as though he were a delightful but misbehaving child. William thought he would sob anew, but found he could not. He felt he should be sad, but could not be. He wanted to feel joy.
Then feel joy.
She raised her arm, then, and beckoned him towards the surf. Beyond her, above the crystal blue sea, the clouds formed into sweeping white battlements and delicate towers, and a host of thousands glittered among the sparkling crenels.
She beckoned again, and William, swept up in a joyous passion he had never known, moved towards her, then broke into an awkward run, the fine sand spraying behind him. As he neared her, he paused, and she took his hand in hers, looking on him with tender affection. She turned, then, and guided him into the foamy surf, and they walked far out into the water and vanished.
Over the calm, rolling sea came then a tinkling laughter that ebbed and flowed and frolicked until it could be heard no more over the gentle washing of the surf.
This is the first piece I finished over a series of days, rather than in a single writing session. The self-imposed constraint of starting and finishing a story in the same day was good for my daily writing practice, but made it difficult to write thoughtful stories. Now that I have allowed myself the option to write each day and continue over a span of days, I can better practice long-form writing, which is a great step in the direction of writing my first novel.