Sisters Grace, Sky, and Lia have grown up isolated on remote land, living under the severe rule of their mother and father — the latter called King. King has taught his daughters that men are toxic and dangerous, and that their isolation is necessary for their survival. But months after King’s mysterious death, a violent storm washes three strange men ashore — the first men other than King that they’ve ever met.
Emergency has always been with us; if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming. The ringing in the air after a loud sound has passed. The count before the thunder hits. And here, finally, is the emergency we have been waiting for our whole lives.
We gather lengths of muslin and our knives and we move down to the shore while the men are still weak. By the time we arrive, they are sitting up. Two grown men and one boy, all of them tracked with salt and sand. The small one is crying hard.
We stand in a semicircle a safe distance away from them, fabric bunched in our hands, ready.
One of the men gets to his feet. His body is elongated, dark hair across his chin and head, cropped close. The other man is older, shorter, his hair fair or grey or both, pale eyes that he shares with the first man. A blue rucksack, soaking wet, lies on the ground between them.
“Please don’t be afraid,” says the man who is standing up.
His words come out differently from ours. He extends a hand though we are too far away to take it, though we wouldn’t take it anyway.
“Stop,” says Mother. He withdraws the gesture immediately.
“We had an accident,” he says, swaying slightly. “Our boat went down.” He gestures to the sea, but there is no wreckage.
“You shouldn’t be here at all,” Mother tells him. “This is private property.”
“We’re looking for sanctuary,” he says. “We know of your husband, King. Can we speak to him?”
Mother’s face looks uncertain.
“Girls, go further up the beach,” she tells us. “Move back.”
We do as we are told, until she raises her hand.
“Men,” we whisper to each other, our heads almost touching. “Men men men.” We are appalled. My legs shake. I turn to see whether I can make out teeth, claws, weapon, but there’s nothing to suggest their danger.
After some time speaking, she gestures for us to return. The strangers are standing now and Mother displays the knife casually, as if it’s just another part of her, a part she knows extremely well.
“Why shouldn’t we drown you?” she demands.
“Would you drown a child?” the dark-haired one asks in return. He pushes the boy forward. My sisters and I clutch at each other. The boy is sweet. His eyes are pink, rabbit-like.
“I would do anything for my girls,” Mother says, stoic.
The men look at the water. It is calm, but there are currents that would take you under in a second.
“We can be of use,” the older one says. “We can protect you.”
“We don’t need protecting,” Mother says.
“You might do soon,” the dark-haired man says. “This isn’t a threat from us, understand. But a lot of things are happening out there. People worse than us could be coming for you.”
Mother seems to consider this.
“Perhaps this is fortuitous,” he continues. “We are fathers, we are husbands, like he was.” So she has told them. A quick stab of grief passes through me. He looks at us. “We know something of how to keep people safe.”
The boy sits down abruptly on the sand, as if his legs have given way. The older one places a hand on his head.
In the time since King, we have not rigged a single trap. In the time since King, we have let the patrols slip. We have not killed the animals that could be harbouring toxins. We have become softer already, worn by the burden of vigilance. But Mother is not hasty. She knows all about the lies and exhortations of men.
“We need time,” she tells them. “Until then, you stay here. Where we can see you.”
The dark-haired one stares at her. “Where will we shelter?”
Mother shrugs. “The storm is over.”
“Could we please have some water?” asks the older man.
Mother gestures at the sea. “Knock yourself out.”
“Are we going to let them die, then?” Grace asks with rare interest when we are back in the house, sitting at the table for breakfast as if nothing has happened. Mother locks the dining-room doors, and the kitchen door, normally open at all times. We’ll see them if they walk towards the moorings, but neither boat is big enough to hold three men. The remaining motorboat, gleaming white and red, will carry two at most. The rowing boat takes on water and is for short journeys only.
“Let me think, Grace,” Mother says.
“Maybe they are friends of King,” Grace continues, ignoring her. “Maybe they have come to pay their respects.”
Mother puts her hand to her head; the stress of it all has given her a migraine. The sick voltage of the pain drifts from her left eye over the entire side of her body, and though she would usually want to be alone she insists now that we all stay together until it leaves her. We sit in her room for hours with the curtains closed, checking periodically on the men from the window, holding our breath throughout the plush mid-afternoon dark. Grace puts a wet cloth on Mother’s forehead. When she has passed out for good, the three of us watch the men from her bathroom window, together. The dark-haired one is knee-deep in the water, shirtless, his back to us. It must be very hot now. The small one is lying on the sand like something that has been spat out. The older one has his knees to his chest, and like the child he is not moving.
We stand guard in shifts through the night. When it is my turn I walk from room to room on the ground floor, exhilarated. My mouth is dry. In the kitchen I am sitting on the tiles, black diamonds against terra-cotta, when the knocking starts, the shadow of a man at the door leading into the garden.
It is the dark-haired one and the child. They watch me, blurred, through the glass. The boy is crying again, his face alien and liquid, and the man mouths a word at me, which I realize is Please. I am not used to being offered this word. It is a spell, a weakness. I am moved; I let them in.
It is just a step over the threshold, the matter of a few inches, outside versus in. The man doesn’t hesitate, pushing the child in one fluid motion as if afraid I will change my mind, which I could, which I should, and then both of them straighten up and look at me, making direct, unprotected eye contact with me for the first time, and their eyes are shadowed holes in their heads, containing something that I cannot comprehend.
“We just want water,” the dark-haired man says, quietly and urgently. “Maybe some food, if you have it. Then we’ll go.”
I turn my back to them and fill one glass, then another, at the sink. The proximity of their forbidden bodies has a gravitational pull. They drain the glasses and I fill them again. I find a milk bottle and fill that too. The dried fruit I was going to eat — figs from the garden, splitting hearts laid out on trays in the attic to shrivel and crystallize — I hand out without touching their skin. And then they do go, they are out of the door without looking back, and I step out after them, I am watching, I am still standing guard.
Mother is renewed in the morning, post-migraine. Everything smells better; she asks for bread and butter, for apples and tea. A vision came to her in the night. It was King, and he told her to show deep kindness for now and for always. They were swimming in the pool, meeting underwater in the middle of it. Mother woke up before they could touch. She cries a little as she tells us about it, a dab of water under her eye.
“You mean you had a dream,” Grace says.
“You can’t swim,” adds Sky.
“You are both cruel,” says Mother. She splits the skin from an apple slice with her thumbnail, peels it off in one vulturous motion.
We are not supposed to see what she does to the men, but we watch from Grace’s room, which turns out to have a good view. Sky and I stay ducked down at the window, our hair all in our faces and mouths. Grace keeps up a running commentary, her voice distant.
“She is making them take off all their clothes,” she says.
We strain our eyes to look. There the men are, pulling off their T-shirts and jeans. Mother gestures. She is holding King’s pistol up to them. They take their underwear off too. Their skin is striped with different colours, like ours, but that is the only thing we seem to share. I am grimly fascinated. Grace makes a small sound of disgust.
“She is checking their clothes and rucksack for weapons,” she continues. Sure enough, the men have backed away and Mother is lifting their limp garments, shaking them with great vigour and letting them drop.
“She is pointing the gun at them again,” Grace says. I wish she would be quiet. We can all see Mother after all, her arm raised, clearly right up close to them now. They try to shield themselves with their hands but she must have instructed them to stop that, to press their arms close to their sides, their bodies exposed.
We meet them properly for the first time at the dinner table, when they enter the room dressed in clothes that belonged to our father, clothes which are too big for them, even though the grown men are at least a head taller than any of us. We are sitting already when they come in, but we rise to our feet, ceremonial. I touch the square of muslin folded up in my pocket, just in case. The men line up on the opposite end of the table to us, sunburnt and weary. Mother stands at the head.
“I’m Llew,” the dark-haired one says. He puts a hand on the shoulder of the boy, next to him. “This is Gwil. Say hello.”
Gwil moves his feet, looks at each of our faces quickly, then to the grimy ceiling. “Hello,” he says.
“I’m James,” says the older one. “Gwil’s uncle. Llew’s brother.”
I am surprised and happy at the idea that blood ties them together; it feels like some kind of familiarity. We say our own names, in order of age.
“Sit,” instructs Mother, and we do as we are told.
The men eat quickly, too quickly. I worry they will choke. Llew shucks oysters and slides them on to his plate and on to Gwil’s. There’s something about the smoothness of his movements, his eyes luminous and quick. His arms have a fur on them that disgusts and enchants me at the same time. Grace kicks me under the table sideways when she sees me looking.
Llew teaches us how to pronounce his name, but none of us can do it. I resolve to practice it secretly so I can impress him. Drops of condensation roll down the wineglass that holds my water.
James asks me how old I am, and I shrug. When he turns his attention to Grace and asks how far along she is, Mother takes the opportunity to preach about the superiority of daughters. We shuffle in our chairs.
“Do you have daughters?” she asks the men.
No, not yet, they tell her. Maybe one day. She is disappointed. Grace murderously dismembers the tail end of the fish.
We eat in silence for a while. Mother seems to be debating whether or not to say something. In the end, she puts down her fork.
“Nobody comes here any more,” she tells them. Her voice is lowered, but we can all still hear her. “It’s not like it was before.” She pauses. “So, I don’t know. You need to make your own way from here.”
I think of the damaged women in the boats with their thinning hair, their strange voices and gifts wrapped in brown paper. The translucent skin at their temples, at the backs of their hands.
“They’ll come,” Llew tells her as he takes more food. His voice is kind. “They’ll find us. We just need to stay here for a few days until they do.”
Mother doesn’t say anything more, just lifts the fork to her mouth. I want to cry at the ease with which they know they will be found.
After dinner, we go about the rituals stealthily. Mother distracts the men with playing cards, fanning them out on the dining table and encouraging them to play. We leave the room through the tall glass doors and watch the shadows of them moving against the wall, arms reaching, the unfamiliar hum of their voices falling away. We pick our way down to the shore with salt cupped between our palms, and we lay it down with the usual care.
It is just before I go to sleep, the sky still light, when I see a strange bird pass overhead. It is not one I’ve ever seen before, and I look up in awe at the stiff wings, its shadowed shape dark against the sky. It’s far away, yet I can hear the drone of its song very faintly through the open sliver of my bathroom window. Grace is in her room and I call for her, I run to her door and knock on it until she follows me. She stands on the toilet seat to get a better angle, but she only catches the last seconds before we can no longer see it. I wonder where it nests, whether it flies endlessly or bobs on the waves, pulling together a raft made of the faltering world’s debris. Grace finds my hand with hers, and we link fingers tightly for a second before she pulls away, as if remembering that we no longer do that.
We have never been permitted to cry because it makes our energies suffocating. Crying lays you low and vulnerable, racks your body. If water is the cure for what ails us, the water that comes from our own faces and hearts is the wrong sort. It has absorbed our pain and is dangerous to let loose. Pathological despair was King’s way of describing an emergency that needed cloth, confinement, our heads held underwater. What constituted an emergency was me and my sisters crying in unison, unable to stop.
I love to cry, though. With King gone, I have forgotten to feel guilty about doing it. There is no one left to notice what I do now. Alone in my room, the windows flung open and the sun lazy against my eyes. Or underwater in the pool, where all water is the same water. Sometimes I imagine the death of my sisters, the image of them standing against the rails on the terrace and paper-crumpling down to the ground, one by one, and then the tears come even when I remind myself that they are still alive. It’s important, the knowledge that things could always be worse. Imagining them gone makes the edges of my love sharper. In those moments I almost understand what they mean to me.
The night the men come, I cry quite a lot without knowing why. My sleep is shallow. Their distant bodies are thumbprints of heat, somewhere lost in the house. ●
From the book The Water Cure © 2019 by Sophie Mackintosh. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Sophie Mackintosh won the 2016 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2016 Virago/Stylist Short Story competition, and has been published in Granta magazine and Tank magazine, among others. The Water Cure is her first novel.