Love Letters on the Nightmare Sea by Rachael K. Jones
I thought the tendriled horrors were angels when we woke at sea that disastrous night and saw them falling on the waters. Now, Suneeti, on this abandoned island, they are radiant in the setting sun, their translucence licked gold by dusk.
The first one crashed onto the deck of our little boat. Its body was round, jellyfish-translucent, with six wing-like fins, and fine waving tendrils like underwater kelp. An alien, ethereal beauty—of course you reached out and brushed a tendril with your fingers. You were always the curious one. I caught you before you collapsed on the deck, fast asleep. The horrors swarmed the hull, their soft feet sticking like little kisses climbing up a neck, but I took you below and locked the hatch. Tendrils groped through the cracks, but they couldn’t reach us through the door.
You slept so long and hard. Even the storm couldn’t wake you, nor could the shipwreck, the fear, the floundering. You are sleeping still, many weeks later, eyelids flickering in dreams I cannot share. After three years of long-distance calls across six time zones, after our long-awaited reunion voyage, still you have gone to a foreign shore without me. I am twice bereft.
There are stories, Suneeti, where princes wake a woman with a kiss. Would it work, I wonder, for a princess too? But it matters not. Stolen kisses are for presumptuous men. I won’t kiss you until you can kiss me back.
After the wreck, I searched your papers, page after page of careful pencil sketches that took you away from me years ago. Notebooks crammed with radial starburst shapes—primitive cnidarians, hydrae and jellyfish and medusae in flowing tentacled skirts, their snapping purple beaks tucked beneath. But I did not find what stung you. Instead I found your love letters in the margins, on the blank sheet backs, crammed between lines, your innermost heart crying out for me, though you never sent them.
I found the ring, too. I’m wearing it now. I would have said yes, you know. It is important you know that.
How long can I fight the monsters, the loneliness, the deprivation? How can I withstand their chill wings, their drifting tendrils? I am only one woman. I rise each day from beneath our overturned sloop and scour the island for water and food, enough for my survival. At night, huddled against your sleeping form for warmth, I write you letters in hopes you may someday read them.
Sometimes I dream a tendril brushes my cheek, and I awake screaming to this nightmare, my eyes buried in your long, dark hair. You smell salty like the ocean, like tears. Most nights, I don’t sleep at all, for fear their touch will send me into eternal torpor beside you. The horrors are everywhere, so many I cannot see the ocean anymore. They have displaced the waters with jellyfish ichor and fine tendrils. The waves roll like a cat stretching its back, all its hair on end. Even if I could fix the boat, how would I repel them the moment we set sail? They would swarm us again in an instant.
But you would be so proud of me. Today I have made a discovery: your letters, Suneeti. The horrors cannot touch your letters. I discovered it by accident last week when the wind ripped at one of your notebooks, and I gathered the scattered papers strewn along the shoreline. One blew near the lapping nightmare waves. I was determined not to lose a single page, not when you wrote them, so I braved their tendrils, and then it happened: the ichorous bodies shrank from the paper’s touch.
Now I wear them as my armor, laminated in yellowing tape and wrapped round my breast. Letters on my back. Letters on my legs. Your signature an unbreakable charm over my heart, an incantation. They grope for gaps between these pages, but you, Suneeti, have confounded them at last.
And so, Suneeti, dearest Love, I shall carry out my last and most desperate plan, because I need you to hear my yes, and to kiss me back, and to hold me until the nightmares fade. I shall wrap you in the tattered blue kaftan that covers us both at night. I shall braid new ropes. I shall tear these pages from my notebooks, each and every one, and paper over the warped, wet wood of our wreck.
From these words I shall build a new sloop to repel all monsters. Your letters will form the keel. Mine shall form the mast. This page shall be the sail. I will launch our bark on ghostly waters when Pisces ascends in a sky that is still ours, and no tendril will touch it. We will lie together in the hull, and I will hold you close until our love bears us across this nightmare sea, or until it makes the ink run.