Wake up, Kay heard. Wake, wake, wake up, girl, whispering, then a tweedling humming, wake up wake up again, all very soft and almost sleeping in her ear. The air was cool and sweet. She had been dreaming, running along a path after Annie as the dark was coming, and where was Thea? Lost, as the dream was lost on waking too.
It was the little girl Sally and her sister, Susannah. When Kay opened her eyes, they took her hands and pulled her from the bed, smiling and whispering. “Come come come,” they said, and Kay pulled her white dress back on over her shift, leaving her stockings where they lay, and went with them. They went in bare feet and so did she, as if it was the old days at Blade Lake. Her feet were soft after a long summer in boots, but she did not mind the round stones or occasional prickles on the path. They went ahead of and behind her, laughing in their yellow dresses now they were outside, and Susannah said her mamma (“my sister,” Kay said) was still asleep and would be most like all day so their mamma said to play along the sand instead of getting underfoot.
Susannah must be her own age, Kay calculated from her height and seriousness. Sally was only little, six or so, tagging along with Susannah as Kay and Annie had run along beside Annie’s sister Mary whenever they could.
The morning was still pearly-early, only faint sounds from the town below them as they climbed on a long white path through tangled brush and hunkering flower-bushes, ducking or leaping branches as they went. A bleating, bell-dangling goat ran past them once and Sally turned to smack its rump with a stick as it went by. The path went downhill then, and left, went right, and opened up as if through an archway.
And there was the sea again, the same particular green-white-blue-white glass that begged you to come in.
They did. The girls dropped their sacks and dresses, and ran down the pink slope shrieking. Kay took off her white dress and ran with them just in her shift, her bare feet on the bare sand, glorious. The girls were in the water. They would drown! But no, of course they would not. They were laughing and jumping, leaping to meet the waves and leaping back, dancing into the shining water and back.
Sally ran up to where they’d left their clothes, and pulled from one sack a big glass jar. She raced back down the sand—oh! do not drop it!—and into the long, calm shallows past the waves where Kay and her sister stood. Susannah took the jar and showed Kay how to use it, waiting until the wave had passed and the surface quieted: she pressed the bottom of the jar gently into the water and bade Kay look.
She bent over and looked through a clear eye dipped down into the sea—look, fish! Transparent small fish, a school of them, flitted through Kay’s and Susannah’s legs and arms, invisible in the waves until the glass revealed them all. They almost made Kay want to jump back, not to be bitten, but they were small fish, after all. But when a long striped fish swam into her glassy view, Susannah said, “Run!” and they went splashing through the spray, away, away from whatever that bad fish was. The curling surf came racing up the sand so strongly, and pulled back so strongly, that you could only stand sideways and wait for it, almost shivering with the thing that was coming, and would you live?—and then pound, pound, the wave pummelling you over into a great unknowing mound, lost in sudden silence and green motion—and then you were set free and could jump up again. And again, again.
They ran along the water’s edge till they were tired, then back along the sand, wet shifts clinging and sticking to their legs. Susannah’s sack held oranges and plums and bread. They ate, and there was water in another jar to take the taste of salt water out of their mouths. Sally fell asleep with her head in her sister’s lap, and the older girls sat drawing pictures in the sand with a stick until they got hot again. Then Susannah woke Sally (bright eyes clear as marbles, the lashes tangled black velvet) and they ran back down into the purling, constant, ravelling-unravelling sea.
The surf was higher now, and they went straight through it to walk in the chest-deep water past its edge, Sally leaping up to ride Susannah’s jutting hip. This time the best thing happened. Susannah pointed and pulled Kay’s arm to turn her to the south. Not twenty feet from them she saw two long grey shapes slide shining through the shining turquoise surf—two blunt, brainy heads, silk-grey skin, one fin with a notch out: two dolphins, strayed into the little bay. How long were they? Nine feet, ten—and they swam close, so close!—their bulbous foreheads, the sweet long line of mouth and nose. The notched one’s face looked up, his eye intense in focus, then away again—her existence did not impinge on his.
Susannah went closer, closer, both sisters sidling nearer and nearer to swim beside the dolphins, wanting to be closer, as Kay did herself. Susannah waved come on!
From the ship she had wanted to jump in and swim with them—but now it felt impertinent to think of touching that grey flank without an impossible permission. The dolphins were not like a fish that you might want to eat, but like a big dog coyote looking back at you from a stubble field. His coat the colour of the grass, as the dolphins were deep-sea-coloured.
But this was Sally and Susannah’s place. Maybe by living here always and knowing the place, they had the right to touch, to swim along with the dolphins.
No place was her place, it seemed to her for a bleak moment. Everywhere was places she had been taken to, or barged into. Even the Morning Light.
This is an excerpt from The Difference (Knopf Canada 2019).