Before they posted the warning signs, the cliffs were lined with boats, ours among them. But that was a long time ago, back when my youngest brother and I used to sit on the railing and let the sprays of sea water paint our cheeks. The brine burned, scratching at our sunburns and freckles with needle-like fingers as if it wanted to drag us into the mottled water. We would squint against the sun’s angry glare and watch the rocks for time’s telltale brushstrokes until the impending dusk blotched out any landmarks.
Alexander, our oldest brother, would sometimes steer the bow so close to the cliffs I could see the holes drilled there by whatever minuscule creatures used to inhabit them. On one occasion, Elliot leaned out beside me, fingers sending flakes of the railing’s paint tumbling into the wind while the other hand reached desperately for faint outline of stone wings. I held my breath as the pads of his fingers traced the carved feathers, too afraid to follow his lead. I’m not sure what I was afraid of back then. Falling? No, I think it was the stories. The mere thought of touching something so shrouded in myth and strange occurrences kept my fingers locked around the railing.
I now realize that those thoughts were nonsense, the same nonsense that drove Elliot back to that particular cliff everyday until his crumbling health kept him in bed. It was the same nonsense that pulled Alexander down to the docks every night. At first, he just sat on the warped boards, letting the water’s siren song drag him into a trance. He’d wait until dawn to untie the boat; only a fool would try to navigate near the cliffs in the dark. Whatever slowly unraveling thread inside him must have snapped one night, because the boat wasn’t there one morning. Our father had searched roiling water with a borrowed sailboat only to turn up empty handed after hours of scouring the cliff’s shadows.
Alexander stumbled through the back door two nights later, soaking wet and mumbling half-formed stories about caves and limestone giants with wings large enough to create tidal waves with a single beat of their jagged feathers. Elliot hung on his every word, oblivious to the way our older brother’s fingers twitched violently every few seconds. I sat on my bed, hiding in a nest of blankets as everything I thought I knew crumbled around me. Our mother managed to coax Alexander into silence, but it did nothing to the fear settling in my stomach. There was still something keeping my fingers curled around the railing.
Now, I can only watch as the girl before me leans out, fingertips reaching for my own jagged feathers. She stares at me, peering into the stained eyes of something she’ll never quite understand. Somewhere in the dappled green sea water reflected in her eyes, I find what I was afraid of.