Leviathan by Michelle Egan

Emma is willingly trapped in an abusive relationship with a Cornish fisherman.

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Silence told of a windless morning. No foaming 'white horses' where the waves met the shoreline, meaning he had to get dressed and get out there to work. He shut the window. The warmth of the house made him shiver. It was half past four, still the dead of night.

"You've passed the candle test, then?" said Emma from the bed. Tradition was that if the wind could extinguish a flame, then conditions at sea were too precarious. No candles were involved.

"Aren't you getting up?" He grabbed her by the ankle under the duvet.

"Egg mayo again?" She was bothered by him and reached for her phone, propping herself upright.

"That'll do." He clambered into the cargo pants he'd worn the day before, pulling them over his thermal long johns.

"You're still drunk, Andre."

"Aye," he said, stumbling out of the room, crossing the hall into the bathroom.

Emma stood in the doorway and watched him urinate. Her shins were bare, and she hoped he would see them, exposed patches of navy and magenta, yellowing, becoming fuchsia at the edges. She slipped down to the kitchen, and he followed, grunting about the kettle.

"Look at you, you're disgusting," she said as he watched her from his position at the wooden table. His teeth had been unbrushed for as long as his face had been unshaven. He looked around for an ashtray. Tell him he's handsome, they told her. "But you're still handsome," she said.

He sensed her manipulation of him, though he couldn't quite explain it. She was young and sparkling and she knew how to use it, though he didn't want her getting airs or flaunting her beauty in the village. Her naivety was already demanding enough. She still had no idea that when she smiled at men, they thought she wanted them sexually. "Which one of the boys will you do it with today?" He stood to get an ashtray from the windowsill.

"Oh, don't start that again." She rolled her eyes and stayed outwardly firm as her emotions wriggled in an invisible hold. "Come straight back here tonight." The only place she ever saw him was down the pub and his defense was always the same: that when he got ashore, he only wanted to relax, but somehow one pint turned into another, and another, and another. Even if he didn't keep his word, he didn't really intend to squander his life drinking beer. His hypocrisy weakened his argument when he pestered her about being idle and staying in bed all morning.

When his phone rang, he and Clive agreed to meet. Then he ate his toast and Emma made the sandwiches, her wrist embellished with navy and green bruising. He swallowed the sight. "You're so lazy," he said, spitting phlegm into the plughole and rinsing it away, curling his lip. "Get up. Do something." He kissed her on the cheek, took the sandwiches, pulled on a waterproof jacket and a woolly hat over his ponytail. The other side of the glass door was uninvitingly dark, and he made another rollie admiring his reflection before putting on his boots.

"Come back here right away, you hear," she called from their kitchen. "No pub. We need to talk."

Marigold was a four-minute walk through narrow streets lit with imitation gas lights that gave the village an antiquated feel. Andre finished his smoke and stood at the harbour's edge, untying the boat. Clive always arrived promptly at five o'clock, dressed in yellow oilskins and a black woolly hat, swinging a carrier bag in one hand and a container of water in the other.

Marigold - their livelihood - was a sixteen-foot fishing vessel painted chrome yellow.

The men clambered onboard without speaking. No doubt the conversation would turn to Clive's wife's cooking. That, and politics. Clive always had something to say about the world - not that his opinion mattered.

Either side of the deck hung a dredge for raking the seabed. The wheelhouse had two seats, a stove, a transmitter-receiver, a panel for the sonar, and a star-shaped wheel. Sixteen feet of welded metal, iron beams extending from her sides, cluttered surfaces, boxes and sacks, milky pools of rancid water. A hold beneath the wheelhouse had two planks, a variety of discarded and worn clothes, scattered toolbox contents, and stank not only of rotten fish but of worn socks and diesel.

She was too small for overnight excursions. They made same-day landings to middlemen on the dockyard and brought home wads of cash. There was no local fish market - London five hours away being the nearest - so the middlemen took everyone's haul Up Country in a refrigerated van, as well as supplying the area's luxury hotels and restaurants.

"Stick the kettle on." Andre wasn't asking - the other man had the six-litre water container, and Andre was the skipper. He started the engine and she chugged into action. A spotlight on the deck dazzled the village's silhouette into obscurity. "Switch that thing off there, will you?" Andre glanced at his cottage towards the back of the village and deduced Emma had returned to bed.

Smooth as glass, the boat cleaved its way out to sea. Wonder who she dreams of, he thought. That boy along the street? His forehead furrowed into a crevice. Or that South African guy I caught her talking to the other night? Guys closer to her own age taking interest in her made his pulse arrive in his throat and he ran his tongue over the fur-coating on his teeth.

Last night, she'd yelled he was a drunk and scraped his plate of roast chicken into the bin. Later, in a rage, he'd thrown the covers from her and pushed her off the bed. On the floor, she'd curled her knees to her chest. Next thing, she was crying, saying he'd kicked her. He'd grabbed her wrist to help her stand. But he was adamant he didn't kick her, no more than a gentle tap. She must have bruised easily, although those marks didn't look fresh. She was always scheming something, he was sure.

Clive was reading yesterday's news.

The sky was beginning to lighten, and a smudge of orange signalled where the sun hung under the ocean. The land was visible now: a rifle of Cornish earth virescently to the left of them, static. Emma wanted to hold talks again. Last time she'd made that announcement, she'd tried running off back to Blackpool and his cousin Tiffany had alerted him that her sister-in-law had seen Emma getting on the bus, frantic, crying, and carrying a suitcase. He pressed his head against his chest, stretched out his arms, then made an animalistic yelp. Hot sweet tea was medicinal. Colours were establishing and fixing their station as the sun crept higher behind cloud cover.

Emma hadn't been to Mabel's since she'd met Cassie two weeks earlier, but she could recreate its coziness in her head. Today she was having a morning of leisure under the duvet, glad not to be behind reception answering the telephone. Around this time, if she were at work, she'd be smiling at old people complaining about the noise from the pub the previous night, or the temperature of the grilled tomatoes, or the waiter's proficiency in English, or any one of the other ten things they predictably whined about.

As soon as Andre had gone, she'd returned to bed with her tea. They'd be bringing the first lot in by now. Getting it done, nonchalantly. Clive sorting the smaller ones, throwing them - along with stones - back over the gunwale, putting the ones they wanted into hessian sacks. She could imagine them too clearly, straining and bickering. Andre, the skipper, cloth-earing himself against Clive's droning and moaning.

Andre was braver than anyone she could remember, though he'd forbidden reminiscing because he said the past was exactly where it belonged, so she didn't need to mix Blackpool with the present. In his eyes, she'd been saved by him when he'd met her in the pub on a family holiday. She no longer had any friends in the north, only the vacancy created by their absence.

There were others in the village, Up Country people like her, folk who it was assumed had relocated to escape immorality and seediness. Cornish people understood her kind and didn't need details, and they found no reason to interrogate her about her previous identity. They accepted her as she was today, part of the safety of their tranquil community.

She sniffed and got a sense of Andre's wrath at her being in bed, doing nothing more than staring at the ceiling, thinking. When he didn't go to sea, he didn't permit lying around being inactive. In his opinion, staying in bed was a travesty. If he had a day at home on her day off, he sometimes made them a cup of tea, sometimes breakfast. He could be considerate like that because it made him feel more needed and less decorative.

After the tiff last night, she guessed he would surprise her and treat her to a pub dinner, commanding her to choose from the fancy calligraphy on the chalkboard after telephoning her down to the inn. That was his usual way of atoning for his flaws, though the worse he felt, the better her prize. On one occasion, he'd driven to the station to retrieve her, hunting her back before she could flee on the three-fifteen north, which had cost him two nights at a four-star hotel in Bath by way of apology.

Sometimes the village was overwhelming, too many influences, too much chatter about inane and trifling observations. The emptiness surrounding the village had attracted her to it, brought her away from the hazards of urbanity and memories. In the village, she didn't ever need to cross a road because the only thoroughfare doubled as pavement. Here, in the village, she was in harmony with nature and the secret lives of her fellow villagers.

Andre pushed the frames suspending the iron dredges over the sides again, each shaped like a dumper, teeth lining the edge of the base, metal nets attached to the back. They dragged along the seabed, flicking scallops into the nets. Clive released a handle and slowly, noisily, the wires unwound, the iron dredges submerged, sinking steadily until they were mere memories beneath.

Andre had seen a lot of weather. He squashed his cheeks beneath their stubbled covering. His eyes were jade, and his brown hair reached his shoulders. I'm like a Hollywood actor if I say so myself, he thought. He whistled under his breath. They would pass back and forth above this ground until the dredges became heavier, dragging along with scallops and stones, relics of the seabed.

Get up, they told her from inside the wardrobe, muffled and unlike voices. She drew these messages towards her, but if she ignored them, they didn't harangue her. When she was younger, resisting their advice seemed logical because she had to make choices for herself without being prodded against her will. Don't go that way, they said before she tripped on the steps and gave herself a black eye. From then onwards, she'd compromised and listened to it, co-inhabited her life with discarnate wisdom.

She pushed herself out of bed a second time with the intention of seeing Jared and Arnold, South African and Bulgarian barmen from the five-star hotel, relaxing at Mabel's café, no doubt. She knew them from the pub and now they'd started saying hello when they passed her manning reception. It would be mere coincidence they were all at the café at the same time. Andre would never be in the know or that under the surface she wanted to make her own friends with guys her own age. Their neighbour Cassie would be there as well, sitting in the window and rocking her baby to sleep, gossiping with her daughter's godmother about the prices in the village shop. Cassie often went to Mabel's with the other mums after dropping their older kids off at school.

It was velvety outside, cold enough to need a winter jacket. Emma chose a grey sweatshirt from the back of a chair and pulled on some jeans. She rarely wore makeup because it attracted attention - though today a slick of eyeliner was as effective as caffeine. On the way downstairs, she lightly knocked her shin once again on the low cabinet on the landing. Tears in her eyes obscured everything, so she went back and grabbed a few squares of toilet roll to dab them and resurrect the eyeliner.

Andre scanned the deck from the wheelhouse. Minutes earlier the sky had been empty but now gulls were coming out of oblivion as eerily as ever. The slightest consideration, even a simple conscious thought, any idea at all about emptying the dredges brought them zoning towards the vessel. An hour could pass without seeing one, yet - in a minute - a hundred and eight of them would appear, hovering and shrieking and circling the boat, sitting on the deck peering curiously at the fishermen, who recognized their dinosaur ancestry.

Andre tipped one of the containers and a pile of rocks, fish, seaweed, and scallops tumbled onto the deck. The men began to scramble through it, sorting fish into buckets, scallops into sacks, throwing stones over along with starfish, while the boat careened back and forth in the ever-growing breeze.

There were ships in the distance and other fishing boats. Once the engine was going again, Andre helped Clive continue to sort the infantile scallops from the larger ones. Then Clive stayed on the deck alone, whacking sea bass on the gunwale until they were limp, running a knife from their throat to their belly.

It took Emma twenty-five minutes to saunter down the hill to the promenade. First, she saw Oscar, her boss at the hotel and they exchanged only pleasantries. Next, the harbour master's wife accosted her with an 'Oright, bird!' to tell her of developments with her diabetes and the slipped-in but confidential news she was going to be a grandmother again. Before she reached the shop, she'd had a chat with Cassie, who was on her way home from Mabel's, her boy in a stroller. Cassie didn't miss an opportunity to remind Emma to brush her hair. "Proper job!" she said to her as she left.

When she opened the door to Mabel's, Jared and Arnold were sitting right where she'd visualized, separated by a pot of tea. Their legs were stretched out along the tiled floor, resting in floral armchairs, talking together cosily near the open fire.

"Alright there!" Mabel's apron had frills along the outer edges of its straps, which gave her peaks at the shoulders. Emma gazed at the cakes inside the glass counter until a wedge of chocolate-cherry seemed the most appropriate. She ordered a coffee and counted the exact change into Mabel's hand, matching the elderly owner's sentiment. Mabel expected her to sit by the window facing the beach, but instead Emma went back to the warmth of the fire in the side-room, away from the housekeepers who'd just finished their shift, their voluminous hips draping over the cushion-less seats.

"Are you okay?" said Arnold as Emma took off her coat to sit by the door. Before she could reply, he'd glanced at Jared.

"What?" she said and automatically tucked her sleeve over her thumb and squeezed the fingers of her other hand around the corners of her bruised wrist. As she did, she noticed her jumper was revealing its fleecy innards. She willed herself into her feet to counter the blossoming flesh of her cheeks.

Tell them nothing, hissed the voices.

When she left the café, the fuzziness of coffee lingered on her tongue. Salty air refreshed her sinuses: an awakening. Waves oozed over the slipway, green and choppy. The sky was metallic, a sign Andre would be back shortly. She fastened her coat over the corrected sweatshirt, convinced it wasn't inside out when she'd applied the eyeliner or spoken to Cassie. A storm was dancing in the cedars above the beach on the outcrop, drawing her towards the sand and a bench that looked across the bay.

White horses jiggled on the rocks where the ocean dashed onto them. There was danger offshore in these conditions, where the tilt of a small vessel became closer to faltering. The wind wasn't ferocious over land, nothing that could be described as a gale, but out at sea Marigold would be at its mercy. Emma sat on the bench mimicking the urgency of the waves, rocking forwards and back again, fingers curled around her wrist, the heel of one boot tapping the opposite bruised shin, eyes shut, watering exquisitely and potently, alive.

The boys hadn't invited her to sit with them and instead they'd chatted and chuckled over the pop and crackle of the flames. She could be seen on the beach from the cafe, a small figure with golden red hair, her face looking away from the village as protection from the lasers that scanned her whenever she started to melt. We followed you here, she heard them flutter around her. We wanted to watch you, see what you do. She focused on her own breathing to steady herself.

A splash.

Clive looked up from his book. "Dolphins?" he asked. Andre stuck his head out on deck. There was a singular gull perched on the winch. Its tiny eye looked directly into his as it cocked its head.

"Nope, can't see any."

There it was again, coming from the starboard side, the furthest from land. Andre took a few paces. Clive clawed at his own coat sleeve. Both men froze. Neither of them spoke.

Then it was gone.

An engine gurgled in Emma's head, and she lifted it to see Marigold approaching the harbor. Instead of going over to the quay, she waited to see what Clive did and when he got into his car to leave, she jaunted over to intercept her boyfriend. "I know," she muttered to herself as she scurried towards him.

He was leaning against the sea wall talking on his mobile, swinging a few bass in a carrier bag, smoking. When he saw her, he hung up. "I was just trying to get through," he said, and Emma's face contorted, licking the blood where she'd bitten the skin on the inside of her cheek. "You're soaking," he told her, bewildered. "Have you been in the sea?"

"You saw it," she said, her eyes glazed and unseeing.

"Saw what? What's going on?" Andre looked behind himself.

"I know."

"Know what?" Andre lowered his voice to match his girlfriend's.

"Leviathan. Hair like seaweed and a head like this." She held out her hands to demonstrate its enormity.

"You're crazy," said Andre, embarrassed, but not yet concerned. "You'd better go home."

Mascara had washed away in streaks that covered her cheeks like animal hide. She lurched towards him, and he shoved her in the direction of the hill. "Go home." Then the Earth's atmosphere tore as the force of the universe came crashing through the clouds, down from the sky, trepanning through Emma's skull, pushing two hemispheres apart before travelling along her spine, her body conducting it into the ground.

She wailed with her hands on her ears, bending her neck forwards, trapped where the universe's energy prised open the cells of her brain.

She saw Andre's face two-dimensionally with shades of darker colour in places, his mouth siphoning sounds that made no sense, but she guessed they were words, and something was happening. She saw the great seal-like creature staring back at them on the deck.

We see you, came the messages. You're not alone. We're connecting to you, Emma. We're reading your mind.

"Just a few bits, they said. Thanks, see you in minute then." Andre stood watching Emma from the doorway, putting his phone in his pocket and going over to where she lay on the couch. "Shift up." She had quietened down now; the act of screaming had released the ache and transformed the nervous pulses into tiredness. "My mum's coming over." Emma was in a dressing gown, avidly watching the screen. He didn't want to upset her by telling her what was coming next. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

She didn't move and as he was about to shake her to get her attention, she murmured something. "They're outside waiting, aren't they? They're coming for me. Watching." She mumbled the words as though lacking effort to form them. "No, I'm not going to do it."

"Who are? Are you hearing voices?"

She nodded slightly. "I don't know what anything meant," she said. "I didn't even know what the car meant, did I?"

"It'll be OK," he said, angling to hide his uncertainty. "Are you hungry?"

"You'll be on soon." She pointed towards the television news, her face expressionless and blank. "I still can't believe you saw it."

"Saw what? What are you on about?"

She looked through the doorway as though she were about to make a dash. "You did see it, didn't you?" she said, anxiously.

"I think you're stressed," he said. "You've got a lot going on." He reached for the TV controller, lying on the coffee table.

"Were you really talking to the interviewer or was I imagining it?" Reality was interluded with fuzzy alternatives.

"What? What interviewer? We didn't see anything, I promise. You nutter! Screaming blue murder when we landed. Yelling 'I know you saw it!' Do you remember? You've gone schizo or something, haven't you? It's the bloody village getting to you. I knew it would eventually."

"I was screaming?" She took the remote from him and turned off the television, sat up and straightened the dressing gown, unsure whether she was wearing scrubs or not.

"You were, aye. But it's stress, I reckon. Trust me to get stuck with a looney. Anyway, mum's coming over. They're keeping you in a while, apparently. Get you checked out. Get you well again."

"I was sitting on the beach, I think... Now what's happening to me? I don't understand. Have I done something?"

"Not that I know of. Nobody's called to tell me anything, anyway. You're having a breakdown, I reckon. It's this place. Don't worry about it."