In hindsight, Aveny couldn’t quite recall how it began. There was the raven-haired woman, standing by the shore, her visage ablaze with youthful beauty. She turned and spotted Aveny, whose heart seized with surprise. But it wasn’t her the woman had seen.
A young man was approaching, moving jauntily down the grassy path. His black suit and white priest’s collar stood out in strange contrast against the windswept seaside setting. As he passed Aveny, his gaze locked onto the woman.
Aveny had never seen someone so entranced. He stared like he’d never seen such wonder, nor such beauty. Adulation etched into every inch of his face.
The season shifted and the sun cut through the haze of clouds. Aveny found herself following the pair, now walking dreamily along the shore, hand in hand. She recognized him now. He was younger, less careworn, but it was unmistakable. He was the father from her dream.
The woman’s hair billowed softly in the breeze, and the man gently tucked an errant strand behind her ear. “I’ve searched my whole life for a real experience of the divine,” he whispered. “And then I found you.” He kissed her cheek. “Transcendent. Celestial incarnate.”
The woman smiled and the pair locked eyes. She was different here, Aveny realized. Softer, somehow.
The man loosened his collar and removed the white band. Then, with a laugh, he cast it sidelong into the sea. The woman laughed with him, her eyes sparking in the sun, and the two melted into a passionate embrace.
Then, everything shifted and Aveny found herself standing before a small house by the sea. The woman stepped onto the front porch, cradling a newborn baby in her arms. The man emerged behind her and wrapped his arms around them both. They breathed together, basking in one another, a budding new family with the whole future before them.
Again, everything changed. The woman was dancing through the beach grass with her cinnamon-haired toddler, laughing. There was no trace of the blank expression from the cliff. She was gleeful and filled with life. Together, mother and daughter waded into the sea, kicking up wild sprays of water, splashing, playing, running. The woman picked up a starfish and handed it to her tiny child, whose eyes grew wide with delighted awe.
Then, the family reappeared, this time ensconced in the pews of a small chapel. The woman shifted uncomfortably in her simple white dress, her face red and hot. Her eyes had the look of a caged lion.
The child fidgeted between her parents. She swung her tiny legs back and forth, her shiny shoes making soft swishing noises against the church floor. The Bible on her lap slipped and fell to the floor with a thud. Her father quickly retrieved the book and rapped her across the knees with a firm “be still!” Then he glanced about, embarrassed at the disturbance.
The child shrank into the pew, ashamed.
The woman turned and gazed at the pair appraisingly. Then she stood and took her daughter by the hand. Kicking off her shoes, she walked barefoot from the church, leading the child along behind her. Whispers followed them out the door.
Whispers followed the family everywhere – The stranger who seduced the priest. The child, little better than a bastard, surely carrying the curse of her parents’ sins.
The whole town talked. Aveny could see the humiliation of it burned into the man’s visage. She could see the memories, the hushed comments and sidelong glances that followed him everywhere he went.
His community had turned against him. Even worse, they had turned against his child; his sweet, defenseless child. And this, Avney knew, he could not bear.
And in that moment, she also knew that he could never show enough pious devotion to earn their forgiveness. And just as evident, as the man sat frozen and alone in that small chapel, was the realization that he did not.
The room melted and shrunk, the sky outside the single window darkened. They were home, and the woman was laughing with her husband – wait, no – fighting, screaming at each other in the small house by the sea.
“Where do you go?!” he demanded. “Where are you always sneaking off to?”
“I’m not sneaking anywhere,” she cried. “I’d take you with me if I could.” She reached out and touched his arm.
He jerked away. “I don’t know who you are. I thought you were divine. But it wasn’t divinity at all; it was a devil’s trick.”
Tears streamed long hot lines down the woman’s angry face. “No,” she cried. “Let me show you.”
And then she strode out of the house, picking up pace and running over the rocky shore. The man followed, his steps jerky and halting.
The scene melted and reformed. The same midnight sky had darkened somehow. Pinpricks of starlight stood out in sharper relief, casting tiny spotlights over the scene below. The woman stood by the water’s edge, water coursing down her back, streaming from her sleek and soaking hair. “This is who I am,” she said, an expression of exhilarated hope and glee painting her features.
The man stumbled back, tripping on the uneven rocks. “No,” he said. “This is not natural. This is the devil’s work.” He uttered a panic-laced prayer under his breath, turned and ran.
The woman was left standing alone in the dark, all emotion seemingly drained from her being. Then she turned back from where she came and shrieked at the sky and the sea as if the very sound could rend the two apart.
The black night shifted, giving way to glowing candlelight. But it was the only warmth inside the small house by the sea. The woman was calmer now. She was reasoning with the man – no – begging him. For what?
Her pleading was met with ire. “Don’t give me your promises,” he hissed. “I know what you are! An abomination! You tricked me. You lured me with your witchcraft.”
“No,” the woman cried. “No, what we had is real.”
“No,” the man sighed. “I was a fool.”
The little girl stumbled sleepy-eyed into the room.
He quietly seized her hand and led her back to bed, uttering, “but I won’t let you corrupt my daughter.”
Tears streamed down the woman’s quivering cheeks as she watched them go. “I’m sorry,” she cried out. “I’ll change. I’ll do anything you want.”
The man turned in the doorway and, without making eye contact, gave one curt nod.
Night faded to day, as the seasons shifted outside the small house by the sea. And the woman, hollower somehow, stared out at it all from within the rough-hewn window, grey faced and stony-eyed; just staring – out at the ever-lapping sea. Aveny recognized her vacant yet solidified expression. This was the woman she knew.
And just as quickly, she was there in the meadow, standing stoic under the summer sun with her husband and daughter playing nearby.
Aveny wanted to look away. She couldn’t bear the thought of watching the woman’s demise all over again – but she also couldn’t turn away.
And then the woman was running, racing despair to the edge – the edge of the cliff, her sanity and her life.
Aveny chased her, harder and faster than before, almost as if she could stop her if she just made it there first – and she did make it there first. She reached the cliff edge and turned to stop the woman, to force her back to land, life and sanity – but the woman ran straight through her like mist through a forest and then she was falling, falling, falling – her long black hair released from its constraints by the sheer force of the wind. It billowed behind her like an abandoned kite battered by a storm.
As the woman’s body reached the rocky surf, Aveny shied away, unable to watch her grisly demise. But something stayed her – something familiar.
A twisting motion, a becoming and unbecoming, and with a splash, the dress hit the sea. It bobbed for a moment, before succumbing to its own saturated weight. And then it was gone.
And Aveny knew.