“You came for me from the garden,” she called to him, laughing.
She flipped into one last cartwheel, tripped over an empty hermit crab shell, and he ran to catch her before she crash-landed. He knew she was about to fall before her feet ascended skyward.
Some connections, she knew, were just like that.
They spent half that night huddled underneath the raised deck of the abandoned house. They shared the scratchy blankets from his car and wrapped themselves up next to a small fire.
His paddleboard was their table. They ate round crackers and peanut butter from the market up the road, and drank beer and bottled water.
She explained that the burning brush of their fire was once witches’ hair until the leaves dried from age and cold. The wizened women abandoned their tresses to wintertime many years ago.
The sky turned bright black and the moon shook the stars from their hiding places.
He put his hot hands over her cold, graceless fingers and said that one day they would be together forever up there, he was sure of it.
In truth, the stars had always frightened Phoebe a little, so she just smiled and nodded, and looked out the corner of her eyes to make sure Orion wasn’t listening or watching.
Sam’s eyes were blue, like summer and daytime and land. She knew he’d do his best to keep her safe.
“No,” she thought but said nothing. “I will come to you. We will meet at the bottom of the Ocean and we will be water and mouths together. We will dance in the garden and be free.”
When she awoke, Sam was gone, but he left her covered up with the blankets and had cleaned up the evidence of fire and food with which he had nourished her.
Something else had been nourished as well, and Phoebe felt some strange vibration in her bones that morning.
Every time they met after that, her heart purred the way the water cats once purred through her. If he touched her hand, her lungs turned somersaults.
The first morning, part of a series of numbers and a shape that was either an M or part of a heart were drawn in the dirt.
She didn’t understand the message, or maybe there was no message and everything was as random as everything else in life.
She thought of Sam every day. She went to the same place on the same beach.
Sometimes he would come to her if she wrote enough words in her spiral notebook or turned enough cartwheels, or let the wind and sand sting her skin until it went felt frosty.
One particularly frigid afternoon, he found her, smiled and shook his head.
He told her, “You’ll catch your death out here in the cold, woman.” He wrapped her up in his scratchy blankets and built a fire.
All through November and December she allowed her feet and hands to freeze at the chance he might come to warm her.
Phoebe’s apartment in above the garage in the house of a Crone. The Crone’s husband, when he was alive, made his living by the sea.
Phoebe had a coffee pot, a pair of cowboy boots with desert flowers embossed on them, and a wool pea coat that she wore in the wintertime. These were the things that anchored her to this life.
Sam worked for the University. His job was to catch native birds in his net, band them, weigh them, then record information about where they’d been. Then he let them go.
“If I were one of those birds, I’d go to you,” she told him once. “You wouldn’t need a net, and I’d just tell you where I’d been.”
He chuckled at that. He thought she was a lot cleverer than she really was, mistaking strangeness for wit. He wrapped the blankets around them both and held her even tighter.
He kissed her and said he would be tempted not to set her free anyway, especially if she stayed still enough for him to band her.
They sat by the fire and looked up at the clear sky, and Phoebe thought about what it would be like to live in a cage full of infinite stars.
They were on the beach, but when she was with Sam, she never thought about the water, the cold, or the cage.
The more Phoebe thought about living in the sky as a banded bird, the more she wanted it.
The Crone worried, and warned her, “People in that world aren’t like us. They don’t understand the ways of the water.”
The Crone and her late husband had been seafaring folk. When Phoebe was a just a child swimming with the water cats, the Crone had been gathering fish and oysters and crabs.
She used them to nourish those who understood that everyone turned to water and sand. Even the ones who swam into the horizon became foam, grit, and water.
The Monster, too, eventually dissolved into inky water and the water cats slipped away to their garden. Phoebe was tired of waiting for the water cats. She didn’t want to be foam.
She would follow Sam and she would let him put a band on her. She’d have a license number, just like the birds and their tracking numbers.
She would go to his starry tower and let him take care of her.
“People like us, pet, we don’t need saving. Never ask to be saved, little one,” the Crone advised and pleaded.
Phoebe didn’t want to be saved. She wanted to be loved back by someone who meant it.