So on a frigid day in February she gathered up the sandy blankets that she and Sam used at the beach. She carried them up the channel of roads to the home of the Sorceress.
She wasn’t hard to find, although almost no one knew where she dwelled.
Phoebe, with her bundle of wool, peered past the dim light and stared until she found the shapes of things: old bones, fast food wrappers, green, fuzzy rinds of things.
Skinny rats scuttled past her ankles and clawed at her leather boots with each step she took. Even the most withered of sorceresses deserve their acknowledgment and respect.
So she took another two steps and bowed. The atmosphere snapped at her, letting her taste its bitter breath when she straightened. Sharp wind screamed through the walls and stung her face.
Dead vegetation hung from the dumpsters, pointing at her like deformed, bony fingers. The air was heavy and sharp and smelled of old fish.
The Sorceress was as she always looked: gray, with dead-twig hair and eyes like the shiny insides of hollowed mussel shells.
“I know why you are here,” the Sorceress said. “What you want will bring you no joy, and you will suffer for your insistence. You are a very stupid, pretty woman.
I will grant your wish for a price anyway because you are who you are and you will not leave until you are satisfied.”
So Phoebe, because she was in love with Sam, who knew and marked every bird in the sky, handed The Sorceress the bundle of blankets. The Sorceress in turn rose to her full height.
Her shadow filled the sky and the alleyway. Her hair dripped red water into tributaries down her arms and formed stagnant pools at her feet. Seawater streamed from her mouth when she grinned.
“You will be a bird to him. He will always find you. You will never fly away. You will return to the Ocean no better off.”
The sorceress threw the blankets into the sky and the rough thread turned to feathers and scales. Sand flew into Phoebe’s face.
A million tiny needles filled her eyes and salt water flooded the sorceress’s realm.
When she could see again, there was only an old lady with no teeth huddled at the end of an alley full of trash. Phoebe bowed slightly and then slowly made her way back home.
As she approached the side entrance to the house, which led to her apartment, she saw the back of the Crone’s head through the parlor window.
The old woman sat in front of the fire and ash blew past the grate like feather down.
The next time she saw Sam, the sand was so cold her bare feet burned. She was lying on her belly, writing words in her notebook.
Some of the words were hers because she made them up; some of the words had been given to her by the Sorceress.
He smiled when he saw her and said, “Lady Phoebe of the Ocean, you are elusive. I’m glad I found you.” He sat in front of her, blocking her view of the colorless waves, so she frowned.
“I’d begun to give up hope,” he told her.
In truth she had been at the same place on the shore every day.
In any case, she’d at least been walking somewhere every day and thinking about the beach, or she’d at least dreamt of the place a few times.
“I washed your blankets,” she told him as she stood up and shook the sand from the one she’d been laying on. “But now this one is dirty and wet, and the Sorceress has the other ones.”
He tossed his head back and roared his laughter up at the sky. Then he took the blanket under one arm and slipped his other arm around her shoulders. Walking like this was almost like breathing.
Their steps undulated along the sand; the freezing wind made her long, pale hair swish back and forth across his forearm.
Sam’s house was only a few blocks from the foreclosed beach house. He brought her inside and made her a can of chicken and stars soup.
They ate their lunch on a threadbare sofa and he told her more about his work at the University. He gave lectures and maintained a part of the ornithology display at the museum.
He had half-dozen graduate students who filed things and graded papers for him. He told her this while he spooned their dessert of canned peaches into her mouth.
Each slice of peach was a tiny sparrow. She understood this and swallowed tiny carcass after carcass because his story of the birds was a song and she was under its spell.
When he put his mouth on hers the syrup blood mixed with brine air and melted her tongue. “I know we belong together forever,” he said to her.
She held her legs together and stretched them straight out. He bound her up in fish-scale blue sheets and his body until she stopped shaking.
He kissed her and stroked her hair, and she knew he was right because there is no such thing as limitless forever, only limitless now.
By springtime, Phoebe indeed became a sparrow herself.
In front of the entire biology department, Sam placed a band on her finger and he held her so tightly to him that she couldn’t fly away even if she’d wanted to.
As people she barely knew drank to her health and danced in the sand, she listened to the waves. Somewhere she heard the water cats hissing. She took a few steps closer to the water.
They cried, “come back to us and be free.” However, Sam smiled at her from a few yards away. On her hand was her new identity, a gold band engraved with his name and hers.
She ran to him so that he could keep her close to the land and the living.
When she looked again, water cats were just seaweed bouncing on the waves, and the horizon was only water and sky with nothing in between.
She tried to be a good, caged wren. She sat on the beach and watched him tag other birds, or ride out on his paddle board.
She stopped trying to turn cartwheels because she always scratched up her hands and got her blood on the birds when she helped keep them still for him.
Often, Phoebe was alone because Sam had dissertations to direct, which meant late nights with the young women whose words and data he needed to inspire.
Sometimes they called the house at strange times, and he got up and left to discover some strange, wayward finch in a place it shouldn’t have been.
Sometimes Sam didn’t come home for a day or two, and his clothes smelled like salt and feathers upon his return.
When that happened, Phoebe tried harder to be a good little bird. She prepared his favorite meals and swept the house of sand. She put fresh sheets on the bed and waited.
When he still didn’t come home, Phoebe wandered back out to the shore and swam out as far as she could toward the moon.
Green and brown seaweed found its way to her feet and slipped between her calves and thighs until she was part sea creature again.
If she looked very carefully below her body, into the deep water, little circles of tiny red mouths opened and called out to her, but their message was unclear.
She cupped her hand to her ear like a shell and tried to listen more carefully on those occasions.
Then she’d see the flash of the gold band on her finger and remember she did not belong in the garden anymore.
The bathers from her youth, the witches and water cats, were the price exacted by the sorceress. So she swam home and waited for Sam, who inevitably, eventually returned.
Sometimes he was so loving and tender that she remembered the cage was worth the price.
Last night, which was an unusually balmy night in November, almost a year to the day Sam caught her mid-cartwheel, she came home and Sam was there, and so was one of the doctoral students.
Phoebe stood in the doorway and watched their bodies move like sea snakes, slithering around each other. The entire Ocean filled her eyes, quietly flooding her face, washing over her body.
Salty water seeped between her fingers. Her band loosened and clunked to the floor. Discarded, she waded through the house like flotsam.
Now it is dawn. Regardless of the weather, it is the coldest day she has ever known, and she is naked. She has thrown her jacket, t-shirt, skirt and boots past the rocks onto the sand below.
She stands on the breakwater. She imagines a circle of flowers as red as the sun.
At the bottom of the Ocean, there is a garden of mouths that will tear away the two useless props that support every painful step she has taken on land. The water cats promised her this.
They will wrap themselves around her and purr and lick her with silky tongues until her skin dissolves and the tiny agonies inside dissipate. She will be free and safe.
Her hair whips past her back as the wind and salt spray assault her. Phoebe doesn’t care that the salt from her eyes and the salt from the Ocean both sting so badly.
It’s the only indication that this body still feels sensation. She hadn’t even known there was saving to be had. She turns away from the angry water and makes her way past the sharp, wet rocks.
Tiny slivers of shells gash her soles, but this too, makes her feel awake. It isn’t for naught. Some creature will suck up the iron in her footprints, one way or another, and be nourished.
She is not dead anymore, here on the beach in this land-locked form. She walks along the rock line at the beginning of the jetty and the freezing Ocean shoots through her scraped up feet.
The scratches on her feet are a nautical chart of her blood, bones, and nerve endings.
Where do love and truth part ways? On the horizon, clouds assemble themselves into the shapes of bathers in old-fashioned swimsuits, and they slip into the pink mist where sky and Ocean connect.
The Monster is long dead. Sam will never stop trapping and banding things that do not belong in cages. She stares straight ahead. She hears her dearest companions call to her at long last.
She spreads her arms to the sky and runs to embrace them.