Sea Passage

The little room off the motel’s laundry center was the best they could do, Sebastian said. He insisted he would sleep on the floor. He had brought her to this island as promised, just to see the ponies, no funny business.

When she walked through the narrow door, she noticed the double bed took most of the floorspace. Sebastian would have to move the lone chair and squeeze between the bed and the radiator to sleep. But the space was clean–glasses on a tray wrapped in hygienic paper, tiny bars of flaky pink soap smelling of old ladies’ face cream.

“How about if I bring us some food,” Sebastian said. “You look beat and you want to get up early.” The ponies could start their swim across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague as early as seven in the morning.

“Would you?” Cici flopped back from where she was sitting at the foot of the bed, letting her arms splay like someone making a snow angel, pushing her bag overhead to give herself more room.

“My pleasure.” He turned on the television for her. The evening news was playing footage of last year’s pony swim. Cici barely noticed when Sebastian left.

She dozed: the inevitable result of a day of harsh words and deceitful ones, a long drive in a sports car to the ocean with a charming guy who happened to be her cousin’s boyfriend. The anticipation. She was realizing a life-long desire of seeing the ponies.

Face up on the hard bed, she dreamed of being among a stampede of ponies galloping through the sand, herself riding a black and white paint colt bareback, sitting high on its withers to protect the small animal from her weight, clutching the mane to keep from toppling. When they stopped, she slid down and stroked the animal’s forelocks, put her face to the animal’s as it blew gently on her cheeks. The ponies of her dream crowded around her and she realized she was naked.

“You’re so warm,” a voice said.

She opened her eyes to see a window, drapes drawn, a door with the chain across it. She craned her neck around and found Sebastian spooned around her, holding her tight as he brushed his lips along her neck. Woozy with hunger and fatigue and from a stirring inside of her, she surrendered to the embrace. The moment was out of time, beyond any place she had been; it was enticing.

Suddenly hot, she rolled over to her back pulling her blouse at the hem to cover her stomach. Propped on an elbow, Sebastian leaned over her. The television was on still, but the volume low, murmuring like parents conversing in the next room.

“I have food,” he said.

“Okay.” She noticed how his hair was darker at the roots. She reached up and brushed it from his forehead. “Do you dye your hair?”

“Highlights.” He was unembarrassed.

“It looks good.”

When getting to know an unfamiliar horse, Cici would extend a handful of sweet hay or a carrot not quite close enough to the animal’s mouth for him to take it without having to reach in. Sebastian and Cici met this way, one initiating, the other accepting, together joining. Their kisses were unhurried. He eased his tongue into her mouth. She felt lightheaded. A remote part of her mind registered the greasy smell of fried food and the yeasty one of bread. But her hunger for food no longer mattered.

Sebastian rolled onto her and she felt his rigidness in the cleft between her legs. The pressure was a prompt for something more, though she could not know at this point in her life what that would be. She knew only that there was more. He placed a hand under her blouse and rubbed the rayon holding her breasts. She felt her nipples respond. Sebastian’s touch had none of the tentativeness of Jay’s. Sebastian moved his hips against hers and she felt herself responding. Sweat beaded across her shoulder blades.

She pushed back against him, testing his weight. Every rider fears being crushed under a fallen horse. That fear buzzed in her ear as she wondered how she could keep breathing.

“Is this what they call,” she could barely bring herself to say it, suddenly, irrationally, modest, “‘dry-humping’?”

“I don’t mess around with that,” he said. As he held her with one arm, his other hand unbuckled his belt. “Undo your shorts,” he said.

“Sebastian,” Cici wriggled, one shoulder pinned. “What are you doing?”

“What you want. Isn’t this what you want?”

“I want to get up.”

“Really?” He laughed, the sound dry as a winter cough, as he continued to struggle with his pants, to kick them to the floor. He wore briefs, immaculately white. They’re the same ones my brother wears, Cici thought. She had folded the family’s laundry her whole life. Momentarily, she was disoriented, in a motel room, in her room. Sebastian unbuttoned her shorts and unzipped them.

“I want to get up.” Cici spoke with teeth gritted. She was suddenly angry and afraid in a way she had never been before. She had felt fearful on horses, when they startled at a plastic bag or stumbled on the trail and the support beneath her foundered. She had been afraid on the river when she was paddling alone and a power boat stirred a wake that bounced the boat so vigorously the prow slammed into the water. But she had never felt penned. Not ever when her brother locked her in a stable when she was a toddler too small to undo the latch. She felt trapped now, snared, caught, captured.

She stopped struggling and Sebastian, still kneeling over her, sat back on his heels. “You’re afraid,” he said. He shrugged his shoulders up and down quickly like an athlete warming up. “You, who said she wasn’t afraid of anything.” He pointed at her.

“I am. I am afraid. I want to go.”

“Okay, okay,” he raised his arms. “You’re free to go.”

She started to scoot away. But, sharp as a guillotine door, he pinned her by reaching up and across, as if shearing her body. He was at least six inches taller than her and outweighed her by sixty pounds. He was strong from years of running the soccer field.

“What do they say? When you fall off a horse you have to get right back on.”

“What are you talking about?” She drew a breath. “I haven’t fallen off a horse.”

“Don’t scream.” He anticipated her every move, blocking her. “It’ll be okay. It has to happen sometime.”

He maneuvered to lay beside her, one of his arms heavy across her chest. Thoughts coursed through Cici’s mind, fast and sometimes overlapping like storm clouds gathering. Some girls would cry now. I can’t cry. What’s the worst that could happen? What am I doing here? I want to go home. The home I have for now. I shouldn’t have come.

She turned her head to look at him. He had the beginning of a pimple along his chin. His grim mouth gave him an underbite like a piranha. In spite of her fright, she saw how lame he was, like the know-it-alls who’d come to the stable, cockily handling the horses like traders, scaring the very animals they purported to love.

“How do you want to do this?” he asked as dispassionately as if they were movers carrying a sofa through a narrow door.

“I want to go,” she said. “I’ll take a bus home.”

“I bet,” he said, icily. Then, “Don’t make this a big deal. Sex should be fun.” He gyrated his hips. “Think about it. I was good enough for your cousin.”

Cici stared at the ceiling, its popcorn texturing bumpy and dusty. It reminded her of a cave she had visited with her sixth grade class. The cave room had been coated with nubbins and spears. Stalactite, the guide taught them. They hang tight. She hung tight to what she knew. She had to do something.

“I’m nervous,” Cici said, attempting a girlish tone. “Let me sketch you.”

Sebastian grinned. “Kinky. I like it.”

He moved to the far side of the bed, stripped off his polo shirt and arranged himself. On the television, Cici saw horses being herded into a pen. This was the same footage she’d seen on the earlier news segment. They called the wranglers “saltwater cowboys.” To Cici’s ear, “mare” sounded like “mar,” the Spanish word for “sea,” the way the locals said it. A skinny old fellow said, “The wild mar will go home without her foal. Start over, she will.”

Cici rummaged in her backpack. “Good thing I brought my sketchbook.” Confident the evening was his, Sebastian closed his eyes. When he felt Cici’s weight lift from the bed his eyes snapped open. The freaky chick held a knife before her like a sword. At first he laughed.

“You are a trip.”

“Fuck you.”

She threw the strap of her pack over her shoulder and reached for the chain on the door. Cici was used to latches on gates and stalls. Her nimble fingers turned the doorknob and she was free.

“I’m not running after you, Cecilia,” Sebastian called from inside the room. “You can chill.” He laughed haughtily. “Craaazy bitch.”

Cici turned, steadily retreating, her footing sure even as she stepped backward. Sebastian remained on the bed, smug in his smooth, strong body.

“Asshole,” she muttered. “Fucking asshole,” she added more loudly.. His car was parked between her and the motel room door, the yellow of it dulled from dust and smashed bugs. She noticed the knife still in her hand. “Major fucking asshole,” she said even more loudly and plunged the knife into the rear tire. The explosion of released pressurized air spurred Cici into a sprint, knife clutched in her pumping fist. Sebastian bounded out of the room to the hissing of his deflating tire. He started to run after her but the lot was paved in oyster shells that would cut his feet, and he couldn’t get far in his skivvies.

Cici found herself on a wide road with no sidewalks. The asphalt held the day’s warmth. Protecting her bare feet, she stayed to the dirt shoulder which had been brushed clear of debris. Her soles were tender; boots were standard at the stable and she wore sneakers when she canoed. She thought of the baby blue canvas high tops by the motel room bed and pictured Sebastian, pants on now, throwing them in the dumpster in the parking lot.

The water drew her forward. Across the channel she could see Assateague Island. It served as a breakwater, protecting residents of Chincoteague from the rough Atlantic. Chincoteague, she knew from reading, was seven miles long and less than two feet above the sea. What a flimsy setting for such drama, she thought.

Many people kept ponies in their yards in tidy paddocks near chicken coops and fenced vegetable gardens. Horses were a way of life here, not just because of the revenue the pony sale brought to the local fire department and the festival goers’ spending to the shopkeepers, but because the existence of the horses marked the town on three hundred years of maps. What had happened here gave everyone with a tie to the place a reason to be. Feral and tame co-existed.

The yards were unfenced so that lawns ran together and houses shared a single shade tree. A cat streaked across, setting out on its crepuscular rounds. Cici found a spigot near the road and stopped to splash her face and clean her hands, lowering her mouth to snap at the gushing water. She was so thirsty. She rubbed her finger along her teeth and gums then drank more and rinsed her mouth before spitting in the muddy ground.

Beyond a stand of mulberry trees, she spotted a gazebo behind two houses. In one, a woman moved from window to window closing the curtains, adjusting them so they fell straight and sealed gaps. At the other, a man stood on a porch finishing a cigarette. He studied the ember before each drag. He was waiting for a dog to finish its bedtime rounds, marking the shrubs on its lot. Cici made no effort to hide. She already felt invisible, insubstantial as a mayfly. She entered the gazebo and sat on the bench that circled the eight sides. One inside, the lattice sheltered her from view. Settled onto the bench, she ate one of the two granola bars she’d packed the morning before when she thought she would be spending the day with Jay, before she made the choice instead to take a ride with Sebastian. How like a strange hobo she must seem now, locating a spot to sleep, noshing on what was at hand.

She lay back, covering legs and feet with her sweatshirt, using her backpack as a pillow. I’m in Chincoteague, she thought. The amazement of being among the ponies, by the water, flushed her with warmth and she slept, no longer afraid.

The coldest hour that comes before dawn woke her. She stretched stiffly, wiggling her toes and fingers. Soon after, a bird called, triggering the songs of many. She waited still, listening to roosters crow from various points around her, dogs bark at paper boys on bicycles. When the electric blue light of dawn arrived she stretched and made her way on cold feet to the waterfront. Stopping for a cup of milky coffee from a cafe, she sipped the steaming beverage as she made her way onto a pier to stand on the edge of the world and welcome the sun. A runner, his shoes damp from the creep of the tide, paused beside her as white rays spread across the water’s surface.

“Look there,” he said, hands on hips as he jogged in place, “porpoises, a whole school of them.” Sure enough, the sea mammals leapt through the water, their leaps basting it like needles through a bolt of satin, cyan blue. When she turned back the man was gone. He had sped away without a farewell.

Gradually, visitors milled down to the channel until hundreds jockeyed for the best spot to see the tousled ponies. Parents waited with children perched on the shoulders; grandparents sat in folding chairs shading themselves with umbrellas. Faint as a smudge, the horses were visible huddled on the far shore. Everyone waited for the slack tide, the stillest moment when a leaf tossed onto the water will not move. For the newest foals, this was their first swim; everyone wanted them to survive.

The people stood on the park grass holding their breath, as the ponies paddled furiously to the marsh. Cici counted 88 animals, but there may have been more. The horses’ nostrils dilated as they snuffed and snorted through the salty water. When their hooves touched bottom, they lunged ashore, shaking beads from their manes and tails, seeking kin. Offshore, boats toting more tourists floated like bathtub toys. Cowboys disembarked from a scow, riding their horses right into the shallows to herd the wilder animals ashore. The youngest foal was wooly as a gangly lamb. Some of the yearlings kicked in defiance at their circumstances.

The animals found safety in numbers, following one after the other as they were driven through the town, egged on by sun-browned men in cowboy hats puffing cigarettes to keep the flies at bay. They passed incongruously among parked cars, beneath swinging streetlights suspended over intersections. To a one, the ponies were small, thirteen hands at most, and variously marked with thick manes and tails that, in most cases, reached to the ground. They shone from their rinse in salt water.  

Cici scuttled away like one of the sea’s blue crabs, away from the crowds now following the animals to the staging area. She’d seen what she came for: the ponies paddling from one island to the other. This completed the picture she had carried in her mind since she was seven years old and first heard the tale of a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon storm-wrecked off this shore, and the animals that saved themselves by swimming to safety, never having to haul gold for greedy men from stolen mines in the New World.

Cici ducked into the dollar store for flip-flop sandals, pink pom-pom cupcakes and a carton of milk. On the back of a piece of cardboard, Edna, the clerk, drew directions to the bus stop. Cici noticed her handwriting was distinctive, a sort of italic. Edna called the bus  “the silver dog” and gave Cici instructions to say hello to the gas station attendant whose name was Gus.

At the gas station, Gus nodded when she passed along Edna’s greeting and carried out a plastic chair for Cici so she could wait in the shade by the air hose. She pulled out her book intending to disappear into the story of a warren of rabbits at Watership Down. Near her, a black-faced gull perched companionably on a statue of a sailor. She bent to her opened book but the words meant nothing. Images of the ponies, pushing and pulling their bodies through the water to the unknown shore flooded her mind. Tomorrow the mares would be sent back to the refuge, the foals sold to what Cici hoped would be kind hands.


Alexa Mergen’s stories have been published in journals including Jenny, Foliate Oak and Wilderness House Literary Review, and performed by Stories on Stage in Sacramento and Davis, California. Her story “Stoop” received second place for “Best Prose” in the Luminaire Award. Her poems, articles and essays appear widely online and in print; her most recent chapbook is “Winter Garden” (Meridian). Raised in Washington, D.C., Alexa studied writing and literature at UC-Berkeley, UC-Irvine and George Washington University, and now lives in rural Nevada.


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