She looks at him as if she had been bruised,
her grey eyes catching storm and sea
like tide pools gather wrecks in miniature
and when she stares that way, as if she knows
he looks into the distance to avoid her unasked questions,
a little bruised himself and guilty
as the sacrificial dawn that ever gives
insufficient warning for the sailors
still night-drunk and restless in the cold.
With love, as with most storms, there is no warning,
and less prevention - the heart’s red sails
cannot be taken down, the cedar deck
smashes into straw,
the water closes faster than a tent upon the raging stars.
There is no warning, either, for the arms that basket-catch
the islands warm and white beneath her pelt
that smells of salt and fish guts turned a day past rot.
There is no warning that he will look on her
as a man looks on a woman
so that when he stumbles on her white-backed nakedness,
her first skin looped low on a myrtle branch
he snatches it away like something vile
so he may save her, too.
At their wedding feast, the bone-lace gown, his mother’s
scratches her wrists and her cove-hollowed throat
— third skin
raising welts and wheals like atolls.
There is no promise when he ties their hands in a reef knot
or when he hides the hateful pelt beneath the floorboards with the worms
that she will not look so very far away
Where the sea boils into a line inside
the mirror flatness of her eyes.
Indeed, sometimes when he looks fathoms deep
he finds only leaden waves to roar back at him,
not the portraiture of his lined face
all good wives should display.
There is no promise that she will not walk
the line where sand melts into wilderness,
her eyes blistering beneath the clinging spray
even as her belly blisters.
Old sea men say that nothing in the world is sure
except that ships will list between the pregnant clouds,
and marriage to an unskinned girl will end in water, too -
the blood waves closing over net-splayed hair,
over lips that breathe - alas, at last
before that sand silence, that deep
calling out for depth.
Upon the shore, his broad arms full of squalling,
burdened with the specter wail of seals
another promise manifests like rain sweeping down the cliffs,
that he will cry and cry without return.
So when she looks at him
his girl, his sea-whelp,
her grey eyes washing up the past like driftwood
he cannot answer all her unasked questions
anymore than he can answer green-gilled greed
or that worse sprite, good intention
when they peek at him through dreams.
For there can be no warning for a question
anymore than a daughter’s bones may warn a father
as they sprout beneath her foam-fair flesh
or her hands may cry alas, at last
as they reach, as if by instinct, for the boards
burying that now eyeless pelt like sunken treasure
to pluck it out, to hold it to the light
in the determination small girls have
to try on mother’s gowns.
© JoSelle Vanderhooft, ‘The Sailor’s Daughter’ originally published in Goblin Fruit.