Perhaps the Sea
Only the steady creaking of a flight of swans
disturbed the silence, labouring low over head
with outstretched necks towards the sea.
-- The Fox in the Attic, Richard Hughes
Ambrose was absolutely alone with it in his grandfather’s huge, empty house. He dumped it on the big dust-sheeted living room sofa, left it there, and hurried across the silent hall to wash his shifting hands. As he walked his property he’d recently inherited from his grandfather, he’d found it in the north pasture among the brambles beyond a copse of hemlock about a hundred yards from the Contoocook. He didn’t even know what it was, but he knew he felt an obligation to bring it back with him to Fuller Road slung like a slipping yoke across his shoulders. Ambrose had never seen anything like it in his entire life. Its clouded outer covering reminded him of a sea, but how he knew this he could not say. The object caused him to age as if he’d been carrying it from the quiet north pasture for his thirty years and in the meantime he’d found himself passed from a boy attending the Meeting School to a middle-aged man who found himself alone in this farmhouse, benefactor to the decrepit but stately air.
He called for the examiner, as someone would have to come examine his discovery, but the regular examiner had suffered a fall from a horse and would be laid up for at least a week. The Central Agency said they would send another lady from Exeter as soon as they could, but it might be later in the week.
Ambrose put on a kettle. Today was only Monday. He warmed himself in front of the fire. The thing still lay stretched across the sofa beside him. From the armchair, he watched how the fire’s reflection danced and shimmered across its folded form. Again, for the hundredth time that day, he wondered what it was and why it was that he felt so affected. The water was boiling and he rose to the kettle.
A gift, that’s how Ambrose thought of it, something he’d not even known was coming to him, but a change now seemed to have seeped into him, for he found he doubted his desire for this gift. It felt like too much for Ambrose to hold, too much expanse like the panic some feel when viewing a great desert.
The night was now well along and he went out walking in it.
This particular night, like one he might find stranded and abandoned at the height of day, felt melancholic as if it had incurred a wound of unknown origin and no matter what manner of healing Ambrose envisioned, no matter what path or stitch he traced, the wound would never heal, and in fact such a wound was never meant to heal. Rather, for one out walking in such a night, it nicked tiny corresponding wounds in a body that resembled silver tears. And so Ambrose was struck. Sleep overcame him somewhere in the north pasture not far from where he’d found it. Under the log he usually lay beneath, he curled his body.
When the sun lit him, Ambrose awoke covered in a light dew. A slight chill lay on the top level of his body and to dispel this he rose and began to walk. He had a sudden premonition that the examiner would arrive that morning and he must immediately return home.
The examiner arrived as Ambrose had just turned onto Fuller Road. He rode with her in her small car from the start of the road the nearly quarter of a mile to the farmhouse.
The car pulled up in front of the garage, coming to rest on the blanket of pine needles that covered almost all of the ground around the garage. They sat in the car beneath the basketball hoop mounted at a sag above the garage doors. Ambrose could count on one hand the times he’d shot baskets here.
Ambrose hung the examiner’s coat and cap in the front closet. He knew she wouldn’t expect much from him in the way of hospitality, but he desired to make an effort.
No need bothering with the kettle, Mr. Fuller. I’ll get working straight away. Where is it?
Ambrose turned on the light that lead to the living room.
Now if you’d give me some time alone, the examiner requested with a quiet smile.
Ambrose retired to the kitchen. What seemed like hours passed, but could’ve only been a few minutes. The afternoon was still, but approached evening.
When the examiner emerged, she found Ambrose still in the kitchen. Perhaps now would be a time for a nice cup of tea, she said. As the water’s temperature rose, they sat in silence. He poured the water from the kettle. She sipped gingerly for a moment before speaking.
From what I can tell, it seems to be a swan of some kind, though one I’ve never seen before, an ancient one or perhaps a lost breed. It also seems to have been damaged by foxes, I would imagine, for he has wounds all over his white, but at the moment, he is alive. And in fact, as evidenced from the slight flutter of his forehead, I’d say he’s dreaming, a rare thing for a creature so damaged. It is my best opinion as an examiner that he is dreaming of the sea, although I cannot logically say why I feel confident of this. Perhaps the sea is a return to something, a place or a time long past. I don’t completely know, but he may yet heal from this. My advice is to continue to let him sleep, and when he wakes, if he awakes, do your best to see him to the skies.
Now, if you don’t mind, Mr. Fuller, I’d like my coat, please. It’s getting late in the day and soon all the whiteness will be gone.
Ambrose Fuller had not been to the sea in some months, not since his grandfather had died. In his professional career, his grandfather Bruce was a land surveyor for the state of New Hampshire, and over the course of his eighty-nine years, he patiently acquired the neighboring land around his modest farmhouse along the Contoocook, enough land that as a little boy Ambrose had nightmares of losing himself within his grandfather’s tracts of land. Ambrose, in his teenage years, came to know this land through walking it with Bruce in order to check the fox box-traps that dotted the land. To say that his grandfather had been obsessed with foxes would have been an understatement. “A fox is a wolf who sends flowers,” Bruce used to tell Ambrose and there were not words to describe the effect finding a fox had on Bruce. The only way Ambrose could describe this was that finding a fox was like Bruce somehow returned home. Bruce never did anything other than commune with the foxes for a few moments before freeing them. He whispered to them through the cage. To calm them, he told Ambrose, to listen to their hearts. I give them a mantra. Bruce never told Ambrose the mantra, but was it Ambrose’s imagination that the foxes seemed calmer the moment Bruce spoke to them?
Now that land belonged to Ambrose. There were others in his family who wanted things, as always, but the land was his. However what he would do with it was unknown.
Ambrose made his way to the sea. The swan, who had slowly but miraculously healed itself, was sleeping in a cage in the back of Ambrose’s truck. He drove to the nearest coastal city. It was an overcast day with the clouds hanging low to the horizon like a quilted ceiling. There were moments, as he wheeled his truck through the streets of the small city, that he caught a glimpse of the sea, just a shimmering glint of light off water, far off at first, but yet the undulating texture unmistakable. And there were signs for it, directing Ambrose with arrows and place names. He followed the signs and could feel himself descending in altitude, subtly drawing closer to the zero point. He hummed a quiet song to himself, a graceful melody of fire and loss. He tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel, then leaned to one side as his arms turned the wheel, his foot working the brake, his breath steady and deep, his eyes scanning the wharves beyond the windshield. Rolling down the window, he could smell the salt.