THE STRANGER • by Michael McCourt

“The sea can be unruly this time of year. The waves wild and unforgiving. What were you doing out there in the middle of it?”

The stranger pushed his potatoes around the plate with his fork before stabbing some and quickly eating them. “Just a fool’s errand.” His voice was gravelly, but soft.

“The sea can make fools of us all, so it must have been something really important to risk this weather. He’s lucky we found him, eh Mary?”

“Martin, just let the poor man eat his supper,” Mary gave her husband a look that said be nice.

The man looked up, his tired eyes shifting between the two of them, and then back down to his supper. Martin thought there was something distant and secretive about him.

“I’m grateful for the help and the dinner. It’s mighty kind of you,” the stranger mumbled, eyes down.

“Yeah, help,” Martin laughed. “You mean pulling your unconscious body out of the ocean and freezing myself right to the bone?” Martin knew the cold spray of the Atlantic. He had fished those waters most of his life, and when he finally had enough of that chill that never left his bones, he retired with Mary to the solitude of this little island.

“Martin, be nice,” Mary said, sharply. “The man has obviously been through a lot.”

The stranger looked right into Martin’s eyes, and Martin understood that the man had seen and done hard things. He looked relatively young, there was just the beginning of grey around the the edges of his full dark beard, but his eyes looked older, weathered by experience. “Like I said,” the Stranger said slowly, “I’m grateful for your help.”

Martin stood up from the kitchen table. The sun had dropped low in the misty sky, and pink and violet light filtered softly through a lace curtain drawn over the kitchen window, hanging pastel dots around the room like ornaments. An Impressionist image of strange domesticity — Mary, ignoring her meal, sitting across the table from their visitor who continued to eat, while Martin, hands on the table, leaned above them both. Martin began to pace around the small room for a moment and then turned to Mary.

“I just don’t understand the secrecy. I mean, I risked my life to pull him out of the raging water. A fool’s errand? That’s his explanation? He’s got no boat, no way of getting back to the mainland, and no reason for being out here. I just want to know what’s going on!”

“The sea cannot be mastered,” the Stranger whispered. “The land can be tamed, hewed to fit a man’s desires. The ground broken open, trees felled, homes built, borders created. But the sea will not bend to a man’s will. She’s violent and unpredictable. You can harness the wind and sail her waters, but you have to be ready, always, for its sudden transformation into something savage and terrible. Despite that, if you quiet your heart and listen, you can hear her call to you. You can hear her song rising on the wind. A song of longing and of loss…” He was suddenly quiet, eyes looking down toward his plate. The silence had mass, as if it took up all the space in the small kitchen, and was heavy with regret.

Without looking back up at his hosts, the Stranger finally spoke again, quiet and breathy, “I had my reasons for being out there.”

Martin looked at the Stranger, his shoulders carrying an invisible weight. He looked tired, the kind of tired that went all the way down. Then, Mary stood and let her hand fall on Martin’s shoulder, and spoke softly, “Martin, some stories aren’t meant to be shared. They’re sad and they’re hard.”

Martin considered this and again silence expanded to fill the room.

After a moment, the Stranger’s quiet voice dissolved the silence. “I’m grateful for your help.”

Michael McCourt is a high school English and Music teacher living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He writes poetry, flash fiction and short stories. His writing has previously appeared here at Every Day Fiction, and at Green Ink Poetry, Paper Swans Press and Paddler Press. When not teaching and writing, he coaches high school football and spends time outdoors with his wife Sarah, and children, Ethan and Grace.

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