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Muscle Memory
Nicola Jennings

"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it's always ourselves we find in the sea."

ee cummings

SHE was in the sea, supported by the water that surrounded her.

Floating, she was of the water and part of the water. It took away her woes and cares, her pains and aches, the stiffness of her joints, the heaviness of her years. That was the plan and it was working.

The water eased her confusion, lightened her depression and calmed her mind. Here no one could reach her to question her or organise her. Here she was free.

She knew that dead men's bones littered the seabed far beneath her.

Dead men's fingers rippled among the tendrils of seaweed floating and swirling around the rocks. On the horizon black storm clouds were harbingers of death. Oh she knew, knew it all. Knew why she was here, rocking in the sea. She knew where she was, even who she was, but how had she got here?

She couldn't remember that. And what was the plan? Already she had forgotten. Perhaps, if she concentrated hard, memory would come back to her. It did that sometimes. Lucidity in a flash.

Clarity when she least expected it.

Surprising her with awareness, understanding, memories, and always fear. Perhaps she wasn't alone, here, in the dark water.

Perhaps they were watching her now. Waiting for her to make a mistake, forget something, put a foot wrong. She squinted around her into the bright sunlight, but could see no one. The shore looked very distant, just a thin line of grey, another of green, the blue shadowy mountains behind.

Above them the clouds looked even more menacing than they had only a moment before.

She moved her right leg carelessly, experimentally, lifted it and watched the water stream back from it into the sea where it belonged. Lifted the other.

Repeated the process. She could still swim. Swim well. So many other things were lost to her now, but she hadn't forgotten that. She swayed and swayed with the rocking sea floating on her back, her eyes closed against the bright sky above her, savouring freedom.

Then she shivered as the sky darkened. The sun was being obscured by dark clouds. She could see that through her closed eyelids and could feel the coolness on her skin. She turned and swam, strongly, just as before. Swimming was always her delight, her escape and her joy. It held so many connections with her past, her missing fragmented past.

It was while swimming, powering through the blue pool early on a Sunday morning, that she first met him. She couldn't remember his name, could hardly remember his face, but she knew he had been important to her once.

Pet, he called her, or was it sweetheart? Perhaps she loved him. Were they lovers? Were they married? Were there children somewhere, anxious to be recognised, acknowledged, grieving her absence yet presence, her inbetweenness . . . neither one thing nor the other. She tried to drag his likeness before her, but all she could manage was the touch of his hand on her skin, her skin rippling with delight and pleasure, the strength of his fingers as he pinched her flesh between his finger and thumb, near pain and yet not pain, and his eyes laughing at her. Or was it just the water washing her, breaking against her, sparkling around her? There was nothing else in her mind. Just a gaping blank.

And where was she now? Why was she here? Was there a plan? If there was it was lost. For a moment she forgot her surroundings, content in the brief tenuous luxury of a memory, however fragile, however incomplete. Unaware that in that one precious, absorbing moment her body, heavy and weary, had begun to drag her down. The bones below were calling to her bones, a seductive siren song, luring them to the bottom of the sea. Down there bones were ground by the swell and drag of the waves into tiny grains of sand just like all the other grains. Pretty, not bone any more, but different shades of stone and shell and silica. Indistinguishable from each other. Fine and running finely like the sand in the egg timer in the kitchen, her blue and white kitchen, the sands of time and the end of everything.

Her clothes were heavy and sodden about her, weighing her down. Only her shoes were missing. But why was she wearing her clothes, why was she fully dressed here in the sea, far out from the beach? Was that part of the plan? Everything it seemed was conspiring to take her and place her where she belonged among the sleek and silvery sinuous fish, their unblinking eyes watching her, their mouths gaping, ravenous would-be scavengers of her flesh. The crabs too would have their share. Rich pickings, fine food for crustaceans, a fair repayment for all the crab salads and lobster bisque she had eaten in her lifetime.

She could still remember food.

She could remember the taste and smell and texture of food. Even as she drifted and sank, drifted and sank, washed around by the currents, even as her face felt water cold against it, and her hair splayed out behind her, even as the skin on her fingers was grey and crumpled and wrinkled by the long immersion in salt water, even still she could remember meals in fine restaurants, his arms resting on the tabletop as he wooed her, charmed her, but she could not remember his name, only her longing for him. Only the weeping and the longing. And her mother.

She too she could only make out dimly in her mind . . . remembering the hot meals at the kitchen table, the blue and white kitchen, the Christmas dinners and the birthday teas. Lost in the shadows were the people who had been there then, what they wore, what they said and whether they might have loved her once.

She couldn't recall yesterday or last week, or remember appointments, or unpaid bills, couldn't take the car any more up the mountains, away from the city and lie in the long grass with him, the white clouds scudding across the blue sky above, tiny spiders spinning webs in the heather. She tried again but she still couldn't remember his name, his face, or his voice but the watch he wore on his wrist and the worn brown leather strap, oh that came clearly to mind well enough. The time passing on the white dial with the silver numbers, until all the time passed, all her allotted time, that she remembered, and she was here now, in the sea, with her grief and her confusion and her plan and the waves were more choppy and the water wilder.

She turned back to look at the beach, still a distant line, where she thought she could see figures, movement, colours, but she wasn't sure. She wasn't sure where she was any more either, or why, and her face was wet and she could taste the salt of her tears on her lips, or was it sea salt? Fear gripped her. She panicked and struggled and forgot how to move her arms and her legs. She was cold and deathly tired and the sea anemones far below were waving their tentacles in the tide as though they were welcoming her.

Beside her a jellyfish rocked and floated and touched her gently.

She looked at it for a long time in wonder, knowing there was something about this soft almost invisible thing. Finally remembering the sting and the pain on the beach, someone pouring milk on the sting and wrapping her in a red and yellow towel on a pebbly beach and cold ham, and salad, and white sliced pan, and then nothing?

Her thoughts were coming faster and faster, and more and more jumbled, and she was sinking. Hands were reaching up from the bottom of the sea, dead men's hands, reaching up to claim her, to unite her with the lost and the confused, the desired and the forgotten. And hands were reaching down from above, raising her up and bringing her back, lifting her dripping out of the water and into a boat but why?

And faces were gazing at her, alarmed, anxious, curious faces.

Then she was on the beach and wrapped again in a red and yellow towel but why? And voices were calling her "Mother!" and "Nan!"

Faces, completely unknown to her, strangers, were hugging her and kissing her and saying "Thank God you're all right", "Such a fright", and "What on earth happened?" And indeed what on earth had happened?

She felt very small, insignificant and lost and alone surrounded by people who seemed to think they knew her better than she did herself, who seemed to know she liked hot sweet tea and wore navy and parted her hair on the right.

And where was he? Why hadn't he come to rescue her? She thought she remembered his name then, spoke it in a low clear small voice, "Dad?"

Saw their faces drop, their exchange of looks, and thought . . .

that's wrong. I've got it wrong. Joe, or Tony, or George? Nothing seemed right. Reminded herself not to say anything out loud ever again unless she was absolutely sure she had it right . . . she didn't want to see consternation on anyone's face ever again. Wouldn't speak. No. Not ever again. There would be silence, and then there would be oblivion. The little crabs would scurry over her eyelids and between her fingers and she would not know. Everything would finally be forgotten. No one would remember how she loved him and how he left her, how she wept and how it was all absolutely over now.

Over and over again. Over.

Nicola Jennings is a member of Airfield Writers, Dundrum and Aisling Writers' Group. She was the Deirdre Purcell Short Story winner 1999 (RTE) and Maria Edgeworth Short Story winner 2000. She has been a contributor to Sunday Miscellany (RTE) and The Stinging Fly, Waterford Review, Ireland's Own, Woman's Way, Suburbmagazine, Abbey Echoes One and Whispers and Shouts have published her short stories. She is married with a family.

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