By Emma Grace Brankin
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The woman was standing in the sea. In the fading sunlight, her body glistened as if she had seaweed-green scales. As I climbed down a cluster of rocks, I could see that she was covered in burns. Her scabbed skin slid down her legs, creating the effect of a scalloped texture. The charred flesh on her arms had half-eroded away, revealing deep, vein-like tracks. A sliver of water lay atop her body and she wore the remains of a grey-blue dress. I sat close to the shore and watched her. I had avoided this curve of Scottish coast-line for fourteen years, since I was eleven. I had always known something would be waiting for me. With my finger I traced the intricate patterns of the woman’s burns into the sand before tracing circles, then spirals, then Cordelia – the name I now gave myself, the name no one here knew me by. The woman’s wide, white eyes watched my movements. Slowly, she walked out of the sea, her dress dragging behind her, as if the water was trying to hold her back from the land. Nobody else, not even the dog walkers at the other side of the bay, seemed aware of this creature’s procession towards me.
When she reached me, we looked at each other in silence. The lower half of her face had collapsed and patches of the skin were cinder-black. What hair she had was long and matted like knotted ropes. I felt ashamed, as ever, that people considered me beautiful. Then, an unpleasant understanding rippled across the woman’s eyes.
In silence, we watched as the waves lapped gently towards us. Then away. Then towards. I became lighter. Colder. Inch by inch, it was as if I was ebbing my way closer towards the stern, still ocean. The sounds of nearing voices awoke me from my trance. I looked down at my trainers to find the water sitting guiltily at my feet.
The white of the whale’s bones cut cleanly into the dark. My brow knotted as I looked away from the statue of the splayed jawbone, towards our father. He was disappearing around the corner that led to the high-street bookmakers. My fingers fidgeted in my oversized gloves as my twin sister Robbie caught my eye.
He had instructed us to wait here by the sculpture so we obliged, keeping ourselves busy as only eleven year olds can. As I started to tire from our games and races, my sister threw herself into a handstand against the bones, her face luminous with effort. She looked out towards the sea.
‘He’s out there,’ she said, her upside-down words interspersed with grunts.
‘No, not dad – the whale!’ She flipped onto her feet to launch into her favourite skit as I let out a whine. ‘He’s waiting in the water, his mouth ripped off, spitting out blubber and bone, wondering how he’ll chew his next fishy meal without a jaw.’ She jutted her chin out, crossed her eyes and came towards me with mangled words. ‘Hallllllp meee, ahhhhh’ve gaht nahooh mouf to choooo you ahup wif.’
I made my body a shell and stammered at her to stop.
‘Relax, you’re afraid of your own shadow,’ she said, twisting herself around the bones so her dangling pink face became the whale’s tonsils.
‘It’s just creepy hanging out with a skeleton.’ I tried to make my voice sound as casual as hers. ‘Why did dad make us wait here anyway?’
Robbie gave me an unconvinced look.
‘Don’t pretend you didn’t hear them last night. Your foot was twitching like crazy under the covers, especially when they got really loud.’
‘Yeah…’ I rocked on my toes. ‘I heard.’
As the sounds of yells echoed in our heads, I remembered the feel of Robbie’s hand as she silently held my foot through the covers.
‘I bet the person who saw he’d left us in the park won’t actually tell the police,’ I offered. It seemed like the right thing to say, the sort of thing Robbie would have been about to say to me.
‘The police won’t do anything for us.’ She looked down at me from her skeletal podium. ‘They never do.’
I wrapped my arms tightly around my middle.
‘If you really want to go back, I saw where dad hid the backdoor key…’ She started to inch up towards me, her face forced into an expression of faux-innocence. ‘Although, I know somewhere better to go…’
We shared a conspiratorial, complicit silence. She dropped to the ground like a stone hitting water.
The woman moved away from the gathering tide. The wind had picked up, conjuring waves that chopped into the sand, as if attempting to carry her back to the sea. I followed her inside a cove and watched her pace back and forth. I noticed for the first time how her stiff, immovable mouth was unable to contour language.
She placed a crusted finger into the sand and replicated the circles, spirals and scales that I had made earlier. Then, she wrote Cordelia. Over and over again, she imprinted my name into the surface, fascinated at the formation of letters. As the wind scratched at the walls, I remembered I had a voice.
‘Do you have a name? Like Cordelia?’
The woman raised an emerald-black hand towards me and hovered it above my chest, as if waiting for permission before making contact. My lips twitched. I looked again at the markings surrounding us. Circles, spirals, scales, Cordelias. Then I noticed there was a word she had not copied from me. A word I thought often but never dared say out loud.
My vision started to seep as if the solid world was dripping with water. I could feel her decayed hand resting on my chest as the boundaries between us diluted. I had no skin, no protection, no Cordelia to hide behind.
‘Who are you?’ I asked through shallow breaths. ‘Why are you here? Speak. To me. Please…’ I pressed my body harder into the palm of her hand. ‘You know that I came back here to speak to Robbie, don’t you?’
The woman’s eyes became sorrowful whirlpools. Her burned body swelled, expanding into a tidal wave of water that crashed into me, soaking every corner of my bones. My lungs filled with salt-water and my consciousness was pushed down to the bottom of a dark lagoon. She had taken control of my body.
The woman spoke but it was my voice that sounded out her words.
‘Thank you, Cordelia.’
I followed Robbie down to the beach.
‘This is the one,’ my sister said, leading me through slices of moonlight into a cave. ‘I heard boys at school talking about here.’ She pushed aside some rocks to reveal a waterproof box, from which she pulled out food, cans, cigarettes and lighters. She passed me the remains of a sandwich in its packaging. ‘It’s a good wee place isn’t it?’
I nodded, biting into the first food I had eaten since breakfast. Robbie watched me, her eyes absorbing everything.
‘Sometimes… I think we’d be alright, you know?’ Her words were slow, stiffening a little in her mouth. ‘If we never went back. There are places we could go where we’d be safe enough.’
I looked around the dark cavern.
‘Don’t you think?’ She took my free hand. ‘We’d look after each other. We could walk the coastline tonight and get on a bus in the morning.’
I was unable to untangle the words that would let her down.
‘It’s different by the beach at night, isn’t it?’ I said eventually in a timid voice. ‘Quiet.’
Robbie’s jaw tensed.
‘I don’t think it’s quiet at all.’ She sat down beside me but the irritation in her voice made my face prickle.
‘What do you mean –’
I sank obediently into her shoulder.
After a few minutes, I glanced up to see she was sipping from a can of beer. Her face had settled into an unusually calm half-smile. I tried as hard as I could to listen.
Sounds from the sea began to tremor towards me. I heard a cymbal shaken softly to a cautious crescendo. A scrunched-up newspaper, rustling as it unfurled. A kettle’s coaxing hiss. The rhythmic constancy of the waves arriving and then retreating, like a steady heartbeat. Robbie seemed content. Then the sounds became louder, the beating became faster. It seemed to amplify my own heartbeat, which started to thump in my chest and in my ears. My throat tightened as if clogged with water. I could see the whale coming to sweep Robbie, me and all the sounds of the ocean, into its splayed mouth.
‘Breathe, you’re okay.’ Robbie was throwing an extra blanket across me as the cold cut into me. ‘We’ll go back to the house.’
She interlocked her fingers tightly with mine. But her eyes remained fixed on the sea.
The woman walked along the shore. She looked down at the pebbles beneath her, so similar to those on the sea-bed. Only now her feet were cushioned by my shoes and, inside my shoes, by the flesh on the soles of my feet. The wind beat against her newly smooth cheek as she enjoyed how easy it was to smile.
She had control of my every movement, my every word. I was aware of everything but unable to interfere. Instead, I twisted and floated through slick, dark waters.
‘I waited for a long time,’ the woman told me. ‘The day I opened my eyes I was at the bottom of an orb of blue. I had no memory but that lonely place seemed right for me. I knew I was not made right.’
It was odd hearing this modulated version of my voice. Measured and assured. A voice that wanted to be heard.
‘In the distance I would see flickers of red and gold shooting through the water, like painted eels. When I tried to go to them the water would tighten around me as if burning ribbons were pressing down on my skin. I took shelter in the bones of a whale and sat in my cell on the seabed. Then –‘
‘You found me.’ My voice echoing in her head reminded me that I still existed. ‘Why?’
The woman turned away from the sea so I could see where she had walked to. In the fading light, without Robbie beside me, our cove possessed none of the magic it had on our last night together. Just a collection of cold, drab rocks.
‘Nobody acknowledged me. Until you. When I saw you Cordelia, I thought perhaps I could have a friend, somebody to help me understand. It’s comforting to know you feel that pain as well. Maybe we can be in pain – alone – together.’
The still waters that surrounded me fizzed with a throb of orange. My body felt bound by the sea.
‘Are we going to stay in the cove?’ I asked. Or, at least, I think it was me asking her and not the other way around. I could feel our edges dissolving.
‘After.’ She replied as the tidal wave of water swelled up again. ‘There’s somebody we need to talk to first.’
It was not my fault. Our father did not come home. Our mother was asleep after littering the house with bottles. Our parents had not paid the bills so there was no electricity or water. We were eleven.
We shared a beef slice that had sat in our broken fridge for days. We wrapped ourselves in our duvets and sat in the living room. We answered a magazine quiz. We played Connect Four. We laid candles out. We were careful. Robbie asked me about the beach but I stammered that I was fine. I silently chastised myself for having, yet again, been the boring, cautious one, the reason we had to come back. I wanted to climb whales’ bones and drink beer by the sea. Robbie steadied her hand and lit extra candles before turning to the stove furnace in the corner of the room. It took several attempts before it stayed burning. We crept closer to the heat.
She played with the deodorant first.
It belonged to our mother, we had never used one before. Robbie sniffed it before spraying the can extravagantly underneath both armpits. I picked it up and copied her. I always copied Robbie. I wanted to make her laugh, to please her with my imitation and to make her forget I had ruined our time at the beach. I did not want what happened. I was eleven.
Robbie’s voice was a wildly swung punch landing blows anywhere possible. The chaos of the fire enveloped her instantly. All I could make out was her face, an ash-white mask with a fixed circle for a mouth. She was still and silent. As if already gone. I watched, both slack and stone. Then, the flame with the girl inside it moved. A streak of red lit up the blackness of the kitchen. Ablaze, her panicked hand wrenched the kitchen tap clean off and it clattered across the floor tiles.
‘No water.’ My faltering voice could not reach her. ‘Robbie, there’s no water.’
Her movements stuttered. There was nowhere for her to go.
Finally, she screamed. Every part of the room filled with her scream until it was tearing apart the ceilings, the carpets, the very structure that held our lives together. The longer and longer she screamed, the further it dragged us apart. I wanted to jump into the flame and scream with her, let us burn together. We are still burning. Together, but not together.
I walked into my sister’s room.
She was sitting in a chair next to her bed, her eyes resting blandly on a small television screen. There was no sheen or delicacy to be found in her deformities. No scabs you could mistake for emerald green scales. The fire seemed to have stripped her of what made her Robbie. Burned away her vibrancy.
She looked up and my throat tightened. The woman, the cove, the beach, it all sat at the top of my memories like the white froth of a wave.
‘So, I would have become beautiful,’ a flat, electronic voice said. Her locked eyes twisted their grip into me. ‘Good to know.’
Her carer had told me the fire had destroyed her vocal chords but I still expected to hear her confident voice.
‘I thought you were dead,’ I said slowly. ‘They told me you had died. I-I never would never have left you here if I’d known.’
Robbie’s eyes slowly travelled the length of my body.
‘I missed you, Robbie. I missed our –’
‘Tell me about your life.’ Her substitute voice echoed out as her fingers moved slowly around a keyboard attached to her chair. ‘Tell me all the things I’ve missed out on.’
‘Robbie…’ I turned away as her eyes narrowed to cracks. After a silence, there was the sound of keys tapping.
‘Please.’ I looked up at her hesitantly. ‘Consider it my resurrection present.’ There was a flash of challenge in her eyes.
I remembered my eleven-year-old sister sitting on the beach, her boldness illuminated by the moonlight bouncing off the sea. I remembered me huddled, shivering inside the cove.
‘What do you want to know?’
‘Tell me what it was like to have your first kiss.’
‘Sticky,’ I said, attempting a limp smile.
‘And what does it sound like when you sing along to the radio?’
‘I don’t really -’
She was already typing again.
‘Or how you wear your hair when you go out?’
‘I don’t tend to go out much but –‘ I tucked my hair behind my ear and trailed off as I noticed Robbie’s window view. The bones on the hill were visible in the distance.
‘What about sports… do you do all of that yoga stuff? Come on. Indulge me. What does our face look like when we’re drunk? What sport are we best at? Do we look good in body-con? What does our voice sound like when we’re giving a fake compliment?’
For a moment, I was the one of us who hung upside-down from the whale’s bones. But then, my fantasy faltered and my shoulders dropped.
‘I am so sorry, Robbie.’
Her stretched and scarred face looked at me with a sharp scepticism.
‘I’ve barely led a life good enough for me, let alone good enough for you.’
My sister raised her hands and shook her head.
‘We should have run away that night, we would have escaped everything.’ I spoke in a quiet but purposeful voice. ‘I should have stayed at the beach with you. I shouldn’t have played with the deodorant so close to the fire. I should have screamed when the fire started. Don’t you agree?’
Robbie’s fingers stayed still.
‘I did nothing but watch you burn, while the neighbours battered the door down. I was silent.’
Now I tried to hook my eyes into hers but she looked away and watched herself, a distorted version of me, reflected in the television glass.
‘Don’t you hate me, Robbie?’
Her disfigured body tensed in her chair.
‘Tell me you hate me. I need to hear you say those words.’ I tried to keep my breath steady, to hide that even I was shocked by what I had just said.
Robbie continued to look only at herself as she replied.
‘I always wanted you to speak up, to stop being pushed around so much, to stand up to anyone, even me… let people know my wonderful sister was worth listening to… but this is what you say?’
‘But it’s what I want, it’s why I came. All you needed was water. And I stood there. As you burned. You must hate me for that. You have to.’
I remembered her inside the cove, listening to the sounds of the sea, that knowing smile on her face. So convinced in the life she had planned out for us.
‘I wondered for years was what I had done to deserve this. It took me a long time to look in the mirror. But it took an even longer time to learn to be without you.’ Finally, Robbie looked at me again, her eyes glossed with sadness. ‘I won’t waste my words telling you hateful things.’
‘But I hate you.’ I spat the words out my mouth like they were sea water. ‘You were everything I wanted to be and a reminder of everything I was not. I hate you for burning. For leaving. For living. I even hated you when you were climbing the whale bones as I sat and watched. And I hate you most of all because when I look in the mirror, my face is covered in burns too.’
We both sank into the deep of the silence.
Eventually, Robbie simply typed: ‘If that’s what you want then I have nothing to say.’
I stepped forward, wanting to say something, anything, to undo this mess. It felt as if my words were being held onto. I could feel the woman’s nails pierce into my apology.
I did not cry when I was taken away. I did not cry when my mother went through the artifice of putting her arms around my rigid body. I did not cry when I discovered I’d left behind the friendship bracelets we’d made. I did not cry when I blinked into darkness in my new bed. I did not cry when I accidentally said ‘mum’ to my foster mother and turned white with shock.
I cried when standing in an unfamiliar, polished kitchen, I asked these relative strangers if they would call me by a new name.
‘I want to be called Cordelia,’ I wiped my eyes with my sleeve, speaking with a strength I envisaged only a girl called Cordelia could have. Cordelia, I felt certain, would not hear the sound of Robbie screaming her name or the sound of the ocean pounding in her ears.
The woman was standing in the sea. I was standing in the sea. We were one and the same again. Or maybe she had never left me. Maybe it had been her who had spoken to Robbie. Surely, I would not have said those words to my sister? My memories were liquid, squirming under my skin. I looked back at the beach. The sand was scattered with driftwood, glinting in the rising sunlight like bleached bones. The cove was far away now but if I turned and waded back, I could sit in it, close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the sea. Imagine Robbie was still beside me and that we had never left. In the water you cannot burn.I felt the cold sting of the sea as it rose up my body. Here, right here, I would be safe. The flames could not get to me. In the water you cannot burn. The water was around my neck. A few more steps and I would have to go onto my toes. In the water you cannot burn.