"Stay with me," he whispered against her skin.
She laughed, leaning back to look at his face. "You're tired of sharing me with my other lover?"
Haron's lips tightened as he glanced down at the ship in the harbor far below them. "Yes. Yes I am. Marry me. Stay with me, Serla. I love you."
Serla kissed his cheek, then his lips. "If I stayed, then I wouldn't be the person you love." She kissed him again and laughed as she ruffled his hair. "Such fine hair. Let's stop wasting time with talk. I want to remember how your body feels while I'm away."
He followed her down to the soft grass, pulling the bright blue scarf off of her head and running his hands through her lovely dark curls.
The next morning, he stood in the faint predawn light and watched her ship leave. Up in the rigging, the bright blue scarf shone against the dirty white of the sails.
Three months later, Haron stood in the same place on the pier and watched Venture return. He scanned the deck, and found his beloved Serla by looking for the bright blue scarf on her head.
"Stay and be my wife," he asked her later, up on the hillside among the wildflowers.
"You know I can't," Serla answered him, and tucked a flower into his pocket. "Come with me, instead. We've an open billet, and I know I can get it for you."
"I can't. Mother counts on me to help run the shop."
"But shop work's not what you love." She snuggled deeper into his arms. "Don't you remember what it was like, before you started staying ashore? When the wind made the sails crack, and the bow sent up spray to sparkle in the moonlight? The salt on your lips and the sea in your nose?"
"Serla . . ." He sighed and kissed the top of her head. "I want a family. Children. A home."
She sat up, then, and looked at him with sadness. "Then you don't want me. The sea's in my blood, and if you don't know that, then you don't know me at all." Serla scooped her scarf out of his lap, got up, and walked away.
And Haron let her go.
When Venture sailed later that week, Haron wasn't in his usual place on the pier.
Over the next three months, Haron culled his possessions, until everything he owned fit in a single sailcloth bag. He found a boy named Kerr who didn't like the sea but liked shop work.
When all of this was done, Haron waited for Venture to bring his blue-scarfed sailor back to him.
The storm blew in fast. Within an hour the sky had darkened, and the winds sank two small boats before the fishermen could pull them ashore. After fastening the storm shutters on his own shop, Haron helped old Marise close up the taproom.
"In storms like this, my mother used to say that the depths of the sea open wide," Marise said.
Haron fastened the last shutter. "Why?"
"So the sea can claim its tithe. But she also said that sometimes the drowned dead sneak out for a while." Marise patted his arm. "Thank you for helping. Hurry home, before the storm gets worse."
The winds howled louder than anything else, until the horrible crash when the waves ripped the pier from its pilings. Haron reminded himself that Venture didn't need a pier; she could anchor in the harbor.
When the storm cleared just after dawn, the weak sunlight revealed the devastation. Haron looked for dirty white sails on the horizon, and hoped that, for the first time since her keel had been laid down, Venture was running behind schedule.
For the next four weeks, debris washed ashore on the beaches surrounding the seaport. Haron didn't walk on the beaches after the second day, not after he found the stained, not-so-bright blue scarf with dark, curling strands still caught in the knot.
The years passed, and so did Haron's mother. Kerr, the boy Haron had found to help with the store, grew into a man and found a wife. Haron treated Kerr's children as though they were his own; the children called him Uncle Haron and helped in the shop when they were old enough. Every night, Haron went home to his quiet, empty house on the hillside where the soft grass grew above the town. He kept his most important things in an old sailcloth bag, and he carried an old blue scarf in his pocket.
One afternoon, dark clouds raced across the sky. From the alley in front of the shop, Haron could see a pair of fishermen wrestling a boat up onto the sandy beach, while another boat capsized in the wind-scoured bay. He held a pair of storm shutters closed while Kerr's oldest son fastened the latch.
Haron looked up at the sky, then back down at the boy. "In storms like this, people used to say that the depths of the sea open up and the drowned dead walk free while the sea is busy claiming its tithe."
The boy looked at him with wide eyes. "Do you think it's true?"
Haron looked out towards the mouth of the harbor. "I don't know. I hope so." He inhaled sharply and turned back to the boy. "We're done here. Hurry home, so your mother doesn't worry." Waving, Haron turned toward his own house on the hill.
Despite the howling winds, Haron nodded off in his chair by the fire. As always, the blue cloth filled his shirt pocket, right over his heart.
One of the shutters slammed open and banged against the house, startling Haron out of his doze. The wind tugged at his shirt as Haron struggled to close the shutter. When he had the shutter latched tightly, he patted his shirt pocket in a motion long turned into habit. The scarf was missing. Haron inhaled sharply, and the smell of the sea filled his nose. He licked his lips, and tasted salt.
A sound like the cracking of sails in the wind made him turn. Standing there by his chair, she looked just as he remembered, and she wore her blue scarf tied over her dark curls. He ran across the room and wrapped his arms around her. "Serla!"
"You have your house," Serla said.
"I don't want it. I don't think I ever really did."
"You have children."
"But they're not ours."
"You never took a wife."
"I never wanted anyone but you." He cupped her face in his hand and caressed her cheek.
Haron had never seen her cry. Now, a single tear streaked her cheek, sparkling in the firelight. "I can't stay," she said.
"Then I'll come with you." He pulled her bright scarf from her head and ran his hands through her dark curls.
The storm abated at dawn. Kerr and his sons searched the ruins of the house up on the hill, looking for Haron. They finally found him down on the beach, where bits of ships had washed ashore for generations. An old sailcloth bag bobbed in the water at his feet. His hands clutched a tattered blue rag, and his lips curved in a smile.
Copyright © 2004 Dawn M. Paris
Dawn lives in San Diego with a daughter, two cats, and a husband, who all graciously share her with the Navy. Her favorite view of the night sky is from the middle of the ocean, although she'd gladly trade the view for a house full of books. To contact her, send her email at email@example.com.