I saw her from a long way away, squatting on the beach near the water, doing something. It was a long and rocky beach, covered with white and grey stones, curving between the ocean and the white cliffs behind, with no buildings or lighthouse to break the view.
When I came closer I saw that she was quite a young girl, seven or eight perhaps. She wore a sleeveless white dress with pink and blue flower patterns, and her hair hung loose around her shoulders, black with brown highlights where the sun touched it. She didn’t look up as I came closer, because she was busy.
She was busy picking up the stones and tossing them into the ocean, one by one.
I stood watching her for a while, and she never paused, never looked up. She’d pick up a stone, feel it with her fingers, weight it, roll it around, and throw it in the water – at the exact same spot each time. Then she would pick up another. There was already a little pile of stones, visible under the water’s surface.
“What are you doing?” I asked her finally. It seemed an odd idea for a child’s game.
She looked up at me then. Her eyes were wide and serious, not like a child’s eyes.
“I’m making a bridge,” she said. “I’m making a bridge across the sea.”
“A bridge? Where to?”
“To the island,” she said, as though it went without saying. She picked up another stone from between her bare feet, considered it, rolled it around in her hand and tossed it into the water. I watched it settle among the others. She reached out and picked up another stone.
“What island?” I asked at last.
“The island of dreams,” she said, slowly and clearly, as though speaking to an idiot. “The one across the sea, that comes when the moon is dark.”
I did not feel like laughing. Her manner left nothing to laugh at. Instead I peered across the water. The sea stretched, heaving, to the distant blue horizon. “There’s no island there,” I said.
“It only comes when the moon is dark,” she said. “I just told you. And then, when it’s dawn, it goes away again.”
“You’re building a bridge to it?” I didn’t want to ask who had told her about the island. It didn’t seem to be a question she’d welcome. “Why not just take a boat, then?”
“Boats can’t reach the island of dreams,” the girl said, throwing yet another stone into the water. She wasn’t just tossing them in at random, I realised. She selected where to throw each stone, according to its shape and size. “If they could, everyone would go there. You have to really want to get to it, you see.”
“And if you really want to get to it, you’ve got to build a bridge?” I asked.
She nodded. “Of course. How else would you get to it?”
I watched her throw in some more stones into the water. “What is it like on the island of dreams?” I asked.
“It’s all shadows and starlight and crystal,” she said. “Beautiful music plays on it, without stopping, music you’ve never heard before, and all your dreams come true. Once you get there, you never, ever, come away – and why would you want to?”
“So,” I said, “is it going to take a long time to make the bridge long enough to reach this island?”
“Maybe,” she said indifferently. “But it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to keep at it till I get there.”
I watched a while longer, but she said nothing more, just kept pitching her stones. And it was beginning to get late in the morning, and I was due to leave this place. I had no further time to waste watching a kid play her games. So I said “Bye,” which she didn’t acknowledge, and walked on. When I looked back from the end of the beach, she was still pitching the stones.
Many years passed before I came that way again. And it was the same time of morning that I walked the same stony beach, and it seemed that nothing had changed. Only, someone seemed to be wading in water a little off the beach. This wouldn’t have been strange, of course, but the person was only shin-deep in the water, and it should have been very much deeper there.
Without too much surprise I walked down the beach until I was standing behind her. It was a young woman, her denim shorts soaked with sea water and her shirt sleeves rolled up. I watched her throw stone after stone from a heap that rose out of the sea behind her into the water, until there were none left. And then she turned round and waded back up towards the beach for another load.
For a moment her eyes met mine, and I saw that same grave look as I’d seen in them so many years ago. Then she knelt and began gathering another armful of stones.
“Hello,” I said. “So you’re still at it.”
She didn’t ask who I was, or show any surprise at my question. “Yes,” she said. “I told you I’ll keep building it until I reach the island.”
There was no point asking if she actually believed in it. I watched her gather her stones. Her hands and feet were covered in abrasions from the rock, and left drops of blood behind which she ignored.
“Do you build the bridge all the time?” I asked.
She looked up at me. “As much as possible, I do. Of course it gets more difficult the deeper I get, but that only means I have to work harder.”
“Could I help?” I offered. “I have an hour or so to spare, and I’m not weak.”
She threw me a wild, almost terrified glance. “Not a chance! I have to do this all by myself, or the island won’t come.”
I looked at her and out at the sea, where the waves rolled. And I wondered how long she would keep at it.
Then, as she waded back out with her stones, I walked away.
Decades passed before I came that way again, and this time I went straight to the beach. And totally without surprise I saw her, quite far away now, still shin-deep among the surging waves. I waited where I was, at the same spot where I’d seen her for the first time so many years ago, until she came back.
She was middle-aged now, her hair run through with grey and lines around her eyes, but when she looked at me her gaze was filled with that same seriousness as before, and wavered not at all.
“So, it’s you,” she said. “Back again.”
“I had to see,” I told her. “You understand.”
“Of course. Tell me, did you ask anyone about me, in the towns? Do they call me a madwoman? Or do they even talk of me at all?”
“I did not ask anyone about you.” It was true. I looked past her at the line of wave-washed stones receding into the distance. “How much further do you think you have to go?”
She shrugged and bent to gather up stones, which she put in a huge rucksack. “I don’t know. It may be enough next darkmoon, it may take another thirty years. But it’s going to happen someday.”
“You still believe it’s going to happen.” It was a statement, not a question.
She looked at me. “Of course it’s going to happen. If I didn’t know it, why should I have spent my life doing this?”
For the first and only time, I asked the question. “How do you know it’s going to happen?”
She paused as she tightened the straps on the bag. “Because I’ve seen it,” she said. “In the dark night of the moon, I have seen the island, glittering with crystal and starlight, and I have heard the music, which nowhere else can be heard.”
“I’ll be back,” I said.
She swung the bag on to her shoulders. Her muscles, after all the years of work, must have been like tempered steel. She looked at me, unsmiling.
But it was many, many years later that I came again, and this time I only came because I had a strong feeling that if I waited any longer it would be too late. I came to the beach on an afternoon, and found it like before, lying rock-strewn between the stolid cliffs and the restless sea.
Far, far away, so far that it looked for all the world as though it were standing on water, a tiny figure toiled, moving with the slow, careful movements of the very old. I stood watching, thinking of wading out to it and at the same time knowing I would not be welcome to do that. The bridge was for its maker alone.
I wondered what kind of dedication would make a woman give up her entire life to such a project, but it surely must be near its end. I did not think the tiny, bent figure in the distance could keep going much longer.
Then she turned, and across the tossing waves she looked at me. And I looked back at her, and we stood watching each other for a while.
Then the sun, a red ball of fire, drenched the horizon with light and sank beneath the waves, and the darkness came rolling in.
I had already left the beach far behind when I remembered that this was the night of the new moon – what had she called it? Darkmoon. And since I was sure it was the last time I would be sharing this beach with her, I turned round and began walking back – just to talk to her, one last time, when she came ashore.
In the dim starlight I saw her still out there, barely visible, a dot in the darkness. I watched her as I walked towards the head of her bridge, where she had once, as a child in a flower-printed dress, first talked to me. And I saw her still pitching stones, though she surely couldn’t have taken so many with her that she still had any left to pitch.
Then I knew that she was throwing the stones from the older part of the bridge into the ocean before her, and I knew that she, too knew that this was the end, that she wasn’t coming back.
I had just reached the head of the bridge when I heard the music – not the music they played in the towns of men, but a different music, music wild and savage and indescribable. And I saw – or I thought I saw – something in the far distance, something that glittered with starlight and merged with shadow. Then a bank of low cloud washed across the sea, and when it was gone, there was nothing to be seen. No glitter and shadow, and no woman standing on the water.
And the waves of the ocean rolled on, as they had rolled since the world began, so many aeons ago.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015