“I, like all the other people of Normar, know the sound by heart. I can tell you when it signals an arrival, a departure, or simply the time of day. Some things you learn by living.”
He left early morning, before the sun had even thought of rising. He took the bag he packed last night and was gone. The squeaky stairs and door were a ghost of a sound to the rest of us as we slept soundly. He said he didn’t want us to see him leave, that it would be easier for everybody. Or that’s what he wrote on the little scrap of paper he left behind. I disagree. I grab the other letter he left, the one with my name written on it in blue ink, and quietly leave the house.
I run as fast as my legs can take me down to the port, dodging crates of fish and clams that are being carted up from the fishing boats. They ooze a salty smell that I have grown up surrounded by, that everyone here has. I weave my way between merchants, whose carts are piled high with barrels of seafood, bags full of salt, and piles of sail cloth and rope. They will leave Normar at sun set.
Precious few outsiders stay in Normar for long; there is nothing for them here. Job opportunities are few and far between. Most of us are sailors and fishermen, at sea all day from dawn to dusk, sometimes longer. The rest are traders, weavers, shipwrights, glass blowers. Our town is one built around the sea: there are no cobblers, for leather will only be ruined by the water; no silversmiths, for the metal will simply tarnish. Those who are born here though, often stay for a lifetime, for generations. Sons and daughters learning their trades as they watch their parents perform them.
But Normar is no place for artists, for writers or scientists. Many townspeople would have hired my brother, for his deft hands or sharp eyes, but he didn’t want to spend his life here. It made sense; of course Normar is no place for an artist like him. His creativity is wasted here. So he’s on a boat, preparing to go somewhere new, to London, then maybe even Paris. He’ll probably never return.
The bell on the dock begins to clang adding to the cacophony of the streets. I turn sharply, towards the sound. It signals ten minutes to the next ship’s departure, my brother’s departure. I, like all the other people of Normar, know the sound by heart. I can tell you when it signals an arrival, a departure, or simply the time of day. Some things you learn by living.
I stand at the edge of town center, on the brink of complete chaos. There are vendors who sell their products out of the bottom floors of their homes, pushing out farther into the street than they have a right to. Donkey carts positioned at opposing angles, making it difficult to get through. I dive in head first, side stepping children playing tag, ducking through conversations, and dodging the brooms and canes of men and women fending off the hordes of hungry seagulls. The air is filled with shouting, disgruntled neighbors and competing merchants. They are accompanied by a clatter of wood and metal. I step out of the chaos, not entirely unscathed, but in relatively good shape. I check my pockets quickly to make sure that his letter wasn’t stolen.
I hear someone shout my name and I wave a friendly hello, still walking quickly towards the seashore. I step onto a side street and a crash sounds from a few yards away. I quickly pivot towards the source and see a few of my father’s friends, Steve and Martin, I think their names are, struggling to keep a stack of barrels from toppling over.
“Maria!” one of them shouts. “A little help here?”
Quickly, I rush over and take the barrel from him. It is heavier than I am expecting, and he and I both lower it to the ground while he balances another. As the men work, I steady the foundation, ensuring that none of us are crushed beneath the barrels. Judging from their weight, I guess they are full of lobster, so I work with caution. I definitely wouldn’t want to set these little sea devils loose. When we are finally finished, Martin and Steve wave a goodbye as I continue towards the dock.
My earlier walk is now a run, racing the sun, even though I should have plenty of time. But when I reach the dock, I slow down and when I reach the post, where there is supposed to be a rope tied, mooring the ship to land, I come to a full stop. I see the boat already much too far from port, the sails out and full of wind, blowing him away from me.
He said it would be easier like this. How can a single envelope be easier? With its messy white seal and chicken scratch writing. It’s not better. Two pieces of paper aren’t better. A letter telling me how much he cared about me, and I know it’s selfish but I can’t help but think that if he really cared he would have stayed. Sailors bustle around, continuing their work as I unfold the other leaf of paper. It’s a portrait of both of us, his arm over my shoulder. We look so close, and for a moment I forget how far apart we really are.