The Traveller washed ashore on the eighth of June with the southern wind.
We call it the change-wind, a fickle god of luck that tosses ships around as if they are toys. Captains are wary of the South Wind. When they come into our parlor, salt tangled in their beards, they talk about it like they would a mischievous boy who cares little for the consequences of his actions. It scatters fleets and changes the currents on a whim, but there is an affection and tolerance to their voices when they describe its trifles. They say it isn’t like the harsh justice of the North Wind or the dangerous lulls of the West — it may lose you money, but it will rarely take your life.
I don’t believe in the wind-gods. Peter does, and I light the abalone-patterned candles and sweep the doorstep with a sagebrush broom for his sake. He kneels before the steady northern wind every morning and prays for the lamp-oil and the wick and the Fresnel lens. I kneel beside him and pray that we might eat our breakfast before it gets cold.
As we knelt before the candles on the eighth, our prayers were interrupted by an odd susurration of the waves. In the silence of Blackrock Lighthouse, the waves have been my constant companion. Peter doesn’t talk much. He likes it that way, and I suppose I do too. After we were married, the first few years were full of words, a constant jabber to fill the void of the city. We told each other the story of the day we met and of our wedding. We told them again. And again. And again.
As the stories wore out and fell away, the waves became a new conversation, the gossip of the deep. I listen to them the same way I listened to the ladies in my mother’s café as a child: not understanding their words, but sure that what they said was vitally important.
That morning, the waves whispered, look, look, something has changed.
I lit a candle and climbed down the shale that forms our shore. Most of Blackrock was high above the water, surrounded by the sheer cliffs of black slate that give the island its name. However, there was a small path, carved out by the passage of the keepers before us, that led to an inlet where the shore was level with the cold sea. I often came down here to cast out dirty water or collect driftwood to burn. I don’t remember why I came to that place then. I can only assume it was the rhythm of the waves that drew me, and the uneasy sense that something important was at hand.
When I first saw the Traveller, I thought she was just driftwood, a bundle of skinny wrists and knobby ankles tied together with rags. Only the blood convinced me otherwise. Peter called her a bad omen, remembering the stories of sharp-toothed mermaids who slip ashore in the guise of invalids. I called her helpless, and told him to help me carry her up and settle her in the drawing room.
For the next few days, the Traveller was silent. As Peter trimmed the wick every morning to keep the light clear and bright, I made stews of turnip and silver fish, watered down until I could place it between her lips. The sharp cliffs that flanked Blackrock had not been kind to her, and I was not a doctor. All I knew how to do was clean her wounds, make her stew, and hope that her body would knit itself back together.
The Traveller had long, black hair that smelled like the sea. Her face was sharp and thin, like a mackerel, and a pale, wormlike scar climbed from the corner of her mouth towards her ear. I combed the salt out of her hair and wrapped her wounds in rough linen. She looked out of place in my gingham dresses, but the leather coat she had arrived in was swollen and rotting by the time I found her. My clothing would have to do.
My mother used to say the smell of my soup could bring people back from the dead. Peter used to joke that I was the best cook on Blackrock— the joke being that I am the only cook on Blackrock. That summer, I hoped that my mother was right.
After two weeks of soup and blankets, of kneeling before the Four Winds, and of Peter’s quiet, constant grumbling about what one is supposed to do with detritus that washes ashore, the Traveller spoke. Peter and I were alone in the drawing room, waiting for the seventh hour when we would fill the light again.
“You make lovely soup,” she said. Her voice was low and rough from disuse, but it still managed to startle us.
“Thank you,” I answered cautiously. She sat up, testing her spindly limbs, wincing as she inspected the bandages.
“Thank you for everything. I’ll be on my way.”
An inexplicable panic rose in me, and I spoke far louder than I should have.
“You can’t! You aren’t strong enough yet. You’ll surely become ill if you leave now.”
She regarded me with narrowed eyes, as if seeing me for the first time.
“Pearson,” Peter supplied.
“Amelie,” I responded at the same time. The Traveller gave me a thin smile.
“Madam Amelie Pearson, I will decide what I can and can’t do. Thank you for your hospitality, but I must leave immediately.”
Something odd crossed the Traveller’s face. In hindsight, I recognize it as the emotion one feels when reaching for a kitchen utensil in its customary place, only to find it missing, and to further discover that one has no idea where it has gone. She rose unsteadily, still looking puzzled, as if having a good rifle through the other drawers of her mind to ensure she hadn’t placed it there by accident.
“I… I must leave, immediately,” she repeated softly, and limped out of the door.
She must have gotten at least three feet before she collapsed again.
A week later, the Traveller was still with us. That was what she told us to call her, after more hesitations and puzzled silences when we inquired after her name. I tried everything I knew to coax further information out of her, plying her with warm bread and strong tea, but she always seemed distracted. She watched the captains that passed through our parlor the way a caged bird watches the sky, hanging on to every sea story and tall tale they spun. I knew that look. I often caught a glimpse of my own reflection in the storm-fortified glass of our parlor, watching her in precisely the same way.
Sometimes, I would find her sitting by the ocean with hunger in her eyes, a desperate melancholy in her voice as she told me she couldn’t recall what she was doing before she washed ashore here. She didn’t remember what she was meant to be doing or who she had been. Sometimes, in the dim morning hours when the pain rushed upon her in waves, she murmured to me that she wasn’t sure if she had been anyone at all.
However, Peter’s patience began to wear thin. He had started to ignore the Traveller, his eyes skating over her whenever they were in the same room. As the two of us talked over dinner, he ate in silence. One night, when the Traveller had left to sit by the shore, he finally spoke.
“She has to go, Amelie.”
I rarely argued with him, but something about his dry, dismissive tone roused my anger.
“She needs our help. Why shouldn’t we provide it?”
He rose from his chair and tossed a set of newspapers towards me, making me jump as they landed in my lap. I inspected them with growing puzzlement.
“These are months old. Why do you still have these?”
“They’re from May and June. Not a single shipwreck near Blackrock. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Perhaps she’s from further away? The tides…”
“Or maybe,” Peter said, in his quiet, unassuming way, “she’s hiding something. A scarred woman, washed ashore with no name but a burning desire to flee? Think, Amelie, what’s more likely: she’s a lost soul who needs your help, or a criminal taking advantage of your kindness?”
“I… don’t believe that,” I said quietly. “She’s been nothing but pleasant—”
“Anyone can be pleasant if they want to be! You’re endangering both of us!”
I rose as well, pressing the newspapers back into his hands, my words sharper than his.
“Perhaps I’ll only endanger myself, then!”
The waves rushed in to fill the silence. At the look on his face, my eyes fell to the floor.
“You’ve changed, Amelie,” he muttered. “It’s her doing.”
“She’s nearly healed. Just another month?”
Peter turned away, settling back into his chair.
“Fine. But then she’s gone, one way or another.”
After that, the silence between us took on a noxious quality, sharpened into a vicious point by the words that had preceded it. The Traveller listened uncomplainingly to my worries about Peter, however insignificant they must have seemed to her. In the past, I had always been the first to ask for forgiveness, but this time, it was Peter, hat in his hands, who approached me one Friday evening.
“Want to go out?”
I paused. It had been years since the last time I heard him ask that.
“A night on the town. Just like old times.”
Peter’s eyes were still and sad. The Traveller remained by the window, watching Blackstone’s light rake the water.
“I should stay here and look after the light,” I said. “And I’m not sure if she’s well enough to be alone yet.”
The Traveller coughed in what I construed as a helpful manner. Peter looked between us, his mouth working at words he didn’t want to say. Eventually, he settled his battered hat on his head and turned towards the door.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Amelie.”
“It isn’t that difficult,” I responded lightly. “Just soup and bandages.”
As the door shut behind him, the Traveller watched him pick his way between the dark cliffs. Her hair was long and dark and still smelled like the sea. The scar at the corner of her mouth still twisted her smile into a grimace. My gingham dress still hung like sackcloth on her lanky frame.
She was still beautiful.
That night, I saw more scars. Her skin had been ripped and torn, bitten and sliced, until she resembled nothing so much as a map of a mountain range. Each one held a scrap of the Traveller’s tattered memory. I learned them with my eyes, with my hands, with my mouth.
Peter spent more evenings in town. The Traveller’s new wounds became old scars. I grew familiar with them.
Several weeks later, another odd pattern of the waves roused me from my sleep, combined with the rough scrape of a boat on our dock. Look, look, something is changing. A rainstorm had blown in, and the bed next to me was empty. Peter had probably decided to stay the night in town. I grabbed a lantern and crept out of our house, down the treacherous cliffs.
Beside the dock was our small dinghy, empty but for a figure in a dark cloak who was climbing into it. I ran down the dock, nearly slipping on the wet wood.
The Traveller regarded me with shock and guilt. For a moment, it felt as if the ground beneath me had become the ocean.
“Amelie. You should be asleep—”
I knelt down and grabbed her by the wrist. She winced, but she didn’t pull away.
“Peter was right about you! What are you stealing?”
“Only the boat, love, and I’m sure it’ll come back soon enough.”
There was a strange, fervent light in her eyes as she looked towards the horizon.
“I’ve remembered, Amelie. I know what I’m meant to do. I’m sorry, but I have to move on.”
“You have to stay here! Aren’t you happy?”
She paused. A wave threw the boat against the dock, and she stumbled forward.
“That doesn’t matter. I have to keep going. That is why I am the Traveller. Not the tourist. Not the refugee. I have no home to return to. I have no Peter, no light, no Blackrock. But you, Amelie — you do. What I wouldn’t give to be like you!”
Another wave soaked us in freezing spray. She ran a rough thumb over my cheek, then pulled me close, her thin lips meeting mine. The taste of salt filled my mouth.
“Please,” I repeated hoarsely, unable to see anything but her wide, dark eyes. “Whatever I have, I risked it all for you. Please, take me with you. I will be your home.”
The Traveller looked at me, then down at the rough wood of the dinghy, then back out to sea.
She kissed my eyelids gently, one at a time.
She was gone before I opened my eyes. From the South, a wind began to blow.