If she’s dead, I thought, I’ll never find her in this white flood of moonlight on the white sea, with the surf seething in and over the pale, pale sand like a great shampoo. Almost always, suicides who stab themselves or shoot themselves in the heart carefully bare their chests; the same strange impulse generally makes the sea-suicide go naked.
A little earlier, I thought, or later, and there would be shadows for the dunes and the breathing toss of the foam. Now the only real shadow is mine, a tiny thing just under me, but black enough to feed the blackness of the shadow of a blimp.
A little earlier, I thought, and I might have seen her plodding up the silver shore, seeking a place lonely enough to die in. A little later and my legs would rebel against this shuffling trot through sand, the maddening sand that could not hold and would not help a hurrying man.
My legs did give way then and I knelt suddenly, sobbing — not for her; not yet — just for air. There was such a rush about me: wing, and tangled spray, and colors upon colors and shades of colors that were not colors at all but shifts of white and silver. If light like that were sound, it would sound like the sea on sand, and if my ears were eyes, they would see such a light.
I crouched there, gasping in the swirl of it, and a flood struck me, shallow and swift, turning up and outward like flower petals where it touched my knees, then soaking me to the waist in its bubble and crash. I pressed my knuckles to my eyes so they would open again. The sea on my lips with the taste of tears and the whole white night shouted and wept aloud.
And there she was.
Her white shoulders were a taller curve in the sloping foam. She must have sensed me — perhaps I yelled — for she turned and saw me kneeling there. She put her fists to her temples and her face twisted, and she uttered a piercing wail of despair and fury, and then plunged seaward and sank.
I kicked off my shoes and ran into the breakers, shouting, hunting, grasping at flashes of white that turned to sea-salt and coldness in my fingers. I plunged right past her, and her body struck my side as a wave whipped my face and tumbled both of us. I gasped in solid water, opened my eyes beneath the surface and saw a greenish-white distorted moon hurtle as I spun. Then there was sucking sand under my feet again and my left hand was tangled in her hair.
The receding wave towed her away and for a moment she streamed out from my hand like steam from a whistle. In that moment I was sure she was dead, but as she settled to the sand, she fought and scrambled to her feet.
She hit my ear, wet, hard, and a huge, pointed pain lanced into my head. She pulled, she lunged away from me, and all the while my hand was caught in her hair. I couldn’t have freed her if I had wanted to. She spun to me with the next wave, battered and clawed at me, and we went into deeper water.
“Don’t…don’t…I can’t swim!” I shouted, so she clawed me again.
“Leave me alone,” she shrieked. “Oh, dear God, why can’t you leave” (said her fingernails) “me…” (said her snapping teeth) “alone!” (said her small, hard first).
So by her hair I pulled her head down tight to her white shoulder; and with the edge of my free hand I hit her neck twice. She floated again, and I brought her ashore.
I carried her to where a dune was between us and the sea’s broad, noisy tongue, and the wind was above us somewhere. But the light was as bright. I rubbed her wrists and stroked her face and said, “It’s all right,” and, “There!” and some names I used to have for a dream I had long, long before I ever heard of her.
She lay still on her back with the breath hissing between her teeth, with her lips in a smile which her twisted-tight, wrinkle-sealed eyes made not a smile but a torture. She was well and conscious for many moments and still her breath hissed and her closed eyes twisted.
“Why couldn’t you leave me alone?” she asked at last. She opened her eyes and looked at me. She had so much misery that there was no room for fear. She shut her eyes again and said, “You know who I am.”
“I know,” I said.
She began to cry.
I waited, and when she stopped crying, there were shadows among the dunes. A long time.
She said, “You don’t know who I am. Nobody knows who I am.”
I said, “It was in all the papers.”
“That!” She opened her eyes slowly and her gaze traveled over my face, my shoulders, stopped at my mouth, touched my eyes for the briefest second. She curled her lips and turned away her head. “Nobody knows who I am.”
I waited for her to move or speak, and finally I said, “Tell me.”
“Who are you?” she asked, with her head still turned away.
“Not now, ” I said. “Later, maybe.”
She sat up suddenly and tried to hide herself. “Where are my clothes?”
“I didn’t see them.”
“Oh,” she said. “I remember. I put them down and kicked sand over them, just where a dune would come and smooth them over, hide them as if they never were…I hate sand. I wanted to drown in the sand, but it wouldn’t let me…You mustn’t look at me!” she shouted. “I hate to have you looking at me!” She threw her head from side to side, seeking. “I can’t stay here like this! What can I do? Where can I go?”
“Here,” I said.
She let me help her up and then snatched her hand away, half turned from me. “Don’t touch me. Get away from me.”
“Here,” I said again, and walked down the dune where it curved in the moonlight, tipped back into the wind and down and became not dune but beach. “Here,” I pointed behind the dune.
At last she followed me. She peered over the dune where it was chest-high, and again where it was knee-high. “Back there?”
“I didn’t see them.”
“So dark…” She stepped over the low dune and into the aching black of those moon-shadows. She moved away cautiously, feeling tenderly with her feet, back to where the dune was higher. She sank down into the blackness and disappeared there. I sat on the sand in the light. “Stay away from me,” she spat.
I rose and stepped back. Invisible in the shadows, she breathed, “Don’t go away. ” I waited, then saw her hand press out of the clean-cut shadows. “There,” she said, “over there. In the dark. Just be a…stay away from me now…be a — voice.”
I did as she asked, and sat in the shadows perhaps six feet from her.
She told me about it. Not the way it was in the papers.
She was perhaps seventeen when it happened. She was in Central Park, in New York. It was too warm for such an early spring day, and the hammered brown slops had a dusting of green of precisely the consistency of that morning’s hoarfrost on the rocks. But the frost was gone and the grass was brave and tempted some hundreds of pairs of feet from the asphalt and concrete to tread on it.
Hers were among them. The sprouting soil was a surprise to her feet, as the air was to her lungs. Her feet ceased to be shoes as she walked, her body was consciously more than clothes. It was the only kind of day which in itself can make a city-bred person raise his eyes. She did.
For a moment she felt separated from the life she lived, in which there was no fragrance, no silence, in which nothing ever quite fit nor was quite filled. In that moment the ordered disapproval of the buildings around the pallid park could not reach her; for two, three clean breaths it no longer mattered that the whole wide world really belongs to images projected on a screen; to gently groomed goddesses
in these steel-and-glass towers; that it belonged, in short, always, always to someone else.
So she raised her eyes, and there above her was the saucer. It was beautiful. It was golden, with a dusty finish like that of an unripe Concord grape. It made a faint sound, a chord composed of two tones and a blunted hiss like the wind in tall wheat. It was darting about like a swallow, soaring and dropping. It circled and dropped and hovered like a fish, shimmering. It was like all these living things, but with that beauty it had all the loveliness of things turned and burnished, measured, machined, and metrical.
At first she felt no astonishment, for this was so different from anything she had ever seen before that it had to be a trick of the eye, a false evaluation of size and speed and distance that in a moment would resolve itself into a sun-flash on an airplane or the lingering glare of a welding arc.
She looked away from it and abruptly realized that many other people saw it — saw something — too. People all around her had stopped moving and speaking and were craning upward. Around her was a glove of silent astonishment, and outside it, she was aware of the life-noise of the city, the hard breathing giant who never inhales.
She looked up again, and at last began to realize how large and how far away the saucer was. No: rather, how small and how very near it was. It was just the size of the largest circle she might make with her two hands, and it floated not quite eighteen inches over her head.
Fear came then. She drew back and raised a forearm, but the saucer simply hung there. She bent far sideways, twisted away, leaped forward, looked back and upward to see if she had escaped it. At first she couldn’t see it; then as she looked up and up, there it was, close and gleaming, quivering and crooning, right over her head.
She bit her tongue.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a man cross himself. He did that because he saw me standing here with a halo over my head, she thought. And that was the greatest single thing that had ever happened to her. No one had ever looked at her and made a respectful gesture before, not once, not ever. Through terror, through panic and wonderment, the comfort of that thought nestled into her, to wait to be taken out and looked at again in lonely times.
The terror was uppermost now, however. She backed away, staring upward, stepping a ludicrous cakewalk. She should have collided with people. There were plenty of people there, gaping and craning, but she reached none. She spun around and discovered to her horror that she was the center of a pointing, pressing crowd. Its mosaic of eyes all bulged, and its inner circle braced its many legs to press back and away from her.
The saucer’s gentle note deepened. It tilted, dropped an inch or so. Someone screamed, and the crowd broke away from her in all directions, milled about, and settled again in a new dynamic balance, a much larger ring, as more and more people raced to thicken it against the efforts of the inner circle to escape.
The saucer hummed and tilted, tilted….
She opened her mouth to scream, fell to her knees, and the saucer struck. It dropped against her forehead and clung there. It seemed almost to lift her. She came erect on her knees, made on effort to raise her hands against it, and then her arms stiffened down and back, her hands not reaching the ground. For perhaps a second and a half the saucer held her rigid, and then it passed a single ecstatic quiver to her body and dropped it. She plumped to the ground, the backs of her thighs heavy and painful on her heels and ankles.
The saucer dropped beside her, rolled once in a small circle, once just around its edge, and lay still. It lay still and dull and metallic, different and dead.
Hazily, she lay and gazed at the gray-shrouded blue of the good spring sky, and hazily she heard whistles.
And some tardy screams.
And a great stupid voice bellowing, “Give her air!” which made everyone press closer.
Then there wasn’t so much sky because of the blue-clad bulk with its metal buttons and its leatherette notebook. “Okay, okay, what’s happened here stand back fo’ gods sake.”
And the widening ripples of observation, interpretation and comment: “It knocked her down.” “Some guy knocked her down.” “He knocked her down.” “Some guy knocked her down and –” “Right in broad daylight this guy…” “The park’s gettin’ to be…” onward and outward, the adulteration of fact until it was lost altogether because excitement is so much more important.
Somebody with a harder shoulder than the rest bullying close, a notebook here, too, a witnessing eye over it, ready to change “…a beautiful brunet…” to “an attractive brunet” for the afternoon editions, because “attractive” is as dowdy as any woman is allowed to get if she is a victim in the news.
The glittering shield and the florid face bending close: “You hurt bad, sister?” And the echoes, back and back through the crowd, “Hurt bad, hurt bad, badly injured, he beat the hell out of her, broad daylight…”
And still another man, slim and purposeful, tan gaberdine, cleft chin and beard-shadow: “Flyin’ saucer, hm? Okay officer, I’ll take over here.”
“And who the hell might you be, takin’ over?”
The flash of a brown leather wallet, a face so close behind that its chin was pressed into the gaverdine shoulder. The face said, awed; “FBI” and that rippled outward too. The policeman nodded — the entire policeman nodded in one single bobbing genuflection.
“Get some help and clear this area,” said the gaberdine.
“Yes, sir!” said the policeman.
“FBI, FBI” the crowd murmured, and there was more sky to look at above her. She sat up and there was glory in her face. “The saucer talked to me,” she sang.
“You shut up, ” said the gaberdine. “You’ll have lots of chance to talk later.”
“Yeah, sister,” said the policeman. “My god, this mob could be full of Communists.”
“You shut up, too,” said the gaberdine.
Someone in the crowd told someone else a Communist beat up this girl, while someone else was saying she got beat up because she was a Communist.
She started to rise, but solicitous hands forced her down again. There were thirty police there by that time.
“I can walk,” she said.
“Now, you just take it easy,” they told her.
They put a stretcher down beside her and lifted her onto it and covered her with a big blanket.
“I can walk,” she said as they carried her through the crowd.
A woman went white and turned away moaning, “Oh, my God, how awful!”
A small man with round eyes stared and stared at her and licked and licked his lips.
The ambulance. They slid her in. The gaberdine was already there.
A white-coated man with very clean hands: “How did it happen, miss?”
“No questions,” said the gaberdine. “Security.”
She said, “I got to get back to work.”
“Take your clothes off,” they told her.
She had a bedroom to herself then for the first time in her life. Whenever the door opened, she could see a policeman outside. It opened very often to admit the kind of civilians who were very polite to military people, and the kind of military people who were even more polite to certain civilians. She did not know what they all did nor what they wanted. Every single day they asked her four million five hundred thousand questions. Apparently they never talked to each other, because each of them asked her the same questions over and over.
“What is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“What year were you born?”
“What is your name?”
Sometimes they would push her down strange paths with their strange questions.
“Now, your uncle. Married a woman from Middle Europe did he? Where
in Middle Europe?”
“What clubs or fraternal organizations did you belong to? Ah! Now, about that Rinkeydinks gang on Sixty-third street. Who was really behind it?”
But over and over again, “What did you mean when you said the saucer
talked to you?”
And she would say, “It talked to me.”
And they would say, “And it said –“
And she would shake her head.
There would be a lot of shouting ones, and then a lot of kind ones. No one had ever been so kind to her before, but she soon learned that no one was being kind to her. They were just getting her to relax, to think of other things, so they could suddenly shoot that question at her. “What do you mean it talked to you?”
Pretty soon it was just like Mom’s or school or anyplace, and she used to sit with her mouth closed and let them yell. Once they sat her on a hard chair for hours and hours with a light in her eyes and let her get thirsty. Home, there was a transom over the bedroom door and Mom used to leave the kitchen light glaring through it all night, every night, so she wouldn’t get the horrors. So the light didn’t
bother her at all.
They took her out of the hospital and put her in jail. Some ways it was good. The food. The bed was all right, too. Through the window she could see lots of women exercising in the yard. It was explained to her that they all had much harder beds.
“You are a very important young lady, you know.”
That was nice at first, but as usual, it turned out they didn’t mean her at all. They kept working on her. Once they brought the saucer in to her. It was inside a big wooden crate with a padlock, and a steel box inside that with a Yale lock. It only weighed a couple of pounds, the saucer, but by the time they got it packed, it took two men to carry it and four men with guns to watch them.
They made her act out the whole thing just the way it happened, with some soldiers holding the saucer over her head. It wasn’t the same. They’d cut a lot of shapes and pieces out of the saucer, and besides, it was that dead gray color. They asked her if she knew anything about that, and for once, she told them.
“It’s empty now,” she said.
The only one she would ever talk to was a little man with a fat belly who said to her the first time he was alone with her, “Listen, I think the way they’ve been treating you stinks. Now, get this: I have a job to do. My job is to find out why you won’t tell what the saucer said. I don’t want to know what it said and I’ll never ask you. I don’t even want you to tell me. Let’s just find out why you’re keeping it a secret.”
Find out why she turned out to be hours of just talking about having pneumonia and the flower pot she made in second grade that Mom threw down the fire escape and getting left back in school and the dream about holding a wineglass in both hands and peeping over it at some man.
And one day she told him why she wouldn’t say about the saucer, just the way it came to her: “Because it was talking to me, and it’s nobody else’s business.”
She even told him about the man crossing himself that day. It was the only other thing she had of her own.
He was nice. He was the one who warned her about the trial. “I have no business saying this, but they’re going to give you the full dress treatment. Judge and jury and all. You just say what you want to say, no less and no more, hear? And don’t let ’em get your goat. You have a right to own something.”
He got up and swore and left.
First a man came and talked to her for a long time about how maybe this Earth would be attacked from outer space by beings much stronger and cleverer than we were, and maybe she had the key to a defense. So she owed it to the whole world. And then even if Earth wasn’t attacked, just think of what an advantage she might give this country over its enemies. Then he shook her finger in her face and said that what she was doing amounted to working for the enemies of her country. And he turned out to be the man defending her at the trial.
The jury found her guilty of contempt of court, and the judge recited a long list of penalties he could give her. He gave her one of them and suspended it. They put her back in jail for a few more days, and one fine day they turned her loose.
That was wonderful at first. She got a job in a restaurant, and a furnished room. She had been in the papers so much that Mom didn’t want her back home. Mom was drunk most of the time and sometimes used to tear up the whole neighborhood, but all the same she had very special ideas about being respectable, and being in the papers all the time for spying was not her idea of being decent. So she put her maiden name on the mailbox downstairs and told her daughter not to live there anymore.
At the restaurant she met a man who asked her for a date. The first time. She spent every cent she had on a red handbag to go with her red shoes. They weren’t the same shade, but anyway, they were both red. They went to the movies, and afterward he didn’t try to kiss her or anything; he just tried to find out what the flying saucer told her. She didn’t say anything. She went home and cried all night.
Then some men sat in a booth talking and they shut up and glared at her every time she came past. They spoke to her boss, and he came and told her that they were electronics engineers working for the government and they were afraid to talk shop while she was around –wasn’t she some sort of spy or something? So she got fired.
Once she saw her name on a jukebox. She put in a nickel and punched the number, and the record was all about “the flyin’ saucer came down one day, and taught her a brand-new way to play, and what it was I will not say, but she took me out of this world.” And while she was listening to it, someone in the juke joint recognized her and called her by name. Four of them followed her home and she had to block the door shut.
Sometimes she’d be all right for months on end, and then someone would ask for a date. Three times out of five, she and the date were followed. Once the man she was with arrested the man who was tailing them. Twice the man who was tailing them arrested the man she was with. Five times out of five, the date would try to find out about the saucer. Sometimes she would go out with someone and pretend it was a real date, but she wasn’t very good at it.
So she moved to the shore and got a job cleaning at night in offices and stores. There weren’t many to clean, but that just meant there weren’t many people to remember her face from the papers. Like clockwork, every eighteen months, some feature writer would drag it all out again in a magazine or a Sunday supplement; and every time anyone saw a headlight on a mountain or a light on a weather balloon, it had to be a flying saucer, and there had to be some tired quip about the saucer wanting to tell secrets. Then for two or three weeks she’d stay off the streets in the daytime.
Once she thought she had it whipped. People didn’t want her, so she began reading. The novels were all right for a while until she found out that most of them were like the movies — all about the pretty ones who really own the world. So she learned things — animals, trees. A lousy little chipmunk caught in a wire fence hit her. The animals didn’t want her. The trees didn’t care.
Then she hit on the idea of the bottles. She got all the bottles she could and wrote on papers which she corked into the bottles. She’d tramp miles up and down the beaches and throw the bottles out as far as she could. She knew that if the right person found one, it would give that person the only thing in the world that would help. Those bottles kept her going for three solid years. Everyone’s got to have a secret little something he does.
And at last the time came when it was no use anymore. You can go on trying to help someone who maybe exists; but soon you can’t pretend there’s such a person anymore. And that’s it. The end.
“Are you cold?” I asked when she was through telling me.
The surf was quieter and the shadows longer.
“No,” she answered from the shadows. Suddenly she said, “Did you think I was mad at you because you saw me without my clothes?”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“You know, I don’t care? I wouldn’t have wanted…wanted you to see
me even in a ball gown or overalls. You can’t cover up my carcass. It
shows; it’s there whatever. I just didn’t want you to see me. At all.”
“Me, or anyone?”
She hesitated. “You.”
I got up and stretched and walked a little, thinking, “Didn’t the FBI try to stop you throwing those bottles?”
“Oh, sure. They spent I don’t know how much taxpayers’ money gathering ’em up. They still make a spot check every once in awhile. They’re getting tired of it, though. All the writing in the bottles is the same.” She laughed. I didn’t know she could.
“All of ’em — judges, jailers, jukeboxes — people. Do you know it wouldn’t have saved me a minute’s trouble if I’d told ’em the whole thing at the very beginning?”
“No. They wouldn’t have believed me. What they wanted was a new weapon. Super-science from a super-race, to slap the hell out of the super-race if they ever got a chance, or out of our own if they don’t. All those brains,” she breathes, with more wonder than scorn, “all that brass. They think ‘super-race’ and it comes out ‘super-science’. Don’t they ever imagine a super-race has super-feelings, too — super-laughter, maybe, or super-hunger?” She paused. “Isn’t it time you asked me what the saucer said?”
“I’ll tell you,” I blurted.
“There is in certain living souls
a quality of loneliness unspeakable,
so great it must be shared
as company is shared by lesser beings.
Such a loneliness is mine; so know by this
that in immensity
there is one lonelier than you.”
“Dear Jesus,” she said devoutly, and began to weep. “And how is it addressed?”
“To the loneliest one…”
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“It’s what you put in the bottles, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “Whenever it gets to be too much, that no one cares, that no one ever did…you throw a bottle into the sea, and out goes a part of your own loneliness. You sit and think of someone finding it…learning for the first time that the worst there is can be understood.”
The moon was setting and the surf was hushed. We looked up and out to the stars. She said, “We don’t know what loneliness is like. People thought the saucer was a saucer, but it wasn’t. It was a bottle with a message inside. It had a bigger ocean to cross — all of space — and not much chance of finding anybody. Loneliness? We don’t know loneliness.”
When I could, I asked her why she had tried to kill herself.
“I’ve had it good,” she said, “with what the saucer told me. I wanted to…pay back. I was bad enough to be helped; I had to know I was good enough to help. No one wants me? Fine. But don’t tell me no one, anywhere, wants my help. I can’t stand that.”
I took a deep breath. “I found one of your bottles two years ago. I’ve been looking for you ever since. Tide charts, current tables, maps and…wandering. I heard some talk about you and the bottles hereabouts. Someone told me you’d quit doing it, you’d taken to wandering the dunes at night. I knew why. I ran all the way.”
I needed another breath now. “I got a club foot. I think right, but the words don’t come out of my mouth the way they’re inside my head. I have this nose. I never had a woman. Nobody ever wanted to hire me to work where they’d have to look at me. You’re beautiful,” I said. “You’re beautiful.”
She said nothing, but it was as if a light came from her, more light and far less shadow than ever the practiced moon could cast. Among the many things it meant was that even to loneliness there is an end, for those who are lonely enough, long enough.
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