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Hiccup


by Susan Rukeyser


I'm no expert, but to me it looked human.  This sea has brought me all sorts of things, over the years.  Nothing like this.

           

No one's permitted down in this cove, a rocky beach framed by walls built to hold the storms back.  But I like coming here at sunset, when the bay is briefly gold.  I leave the shop in Davy's more capable hands.  The cove is at the far end of the Sandylands Promenade, past the playground and the toilets.  In her heyday, Morecambe was a seaside resort for the somewhat posh.  Couples strolled the Prom while families had a day of rides and games over at the Pleasure Park.  It's all gone now, except for one long-abandoned ride and a few strings of colored bulbs, sagging between lampposts.  I think she's like a stubborn old whore, long out of favor, still painting herself up.  I was born here and here I remain—I'm allowed language strong as this. 

           

At low tide, Morecambe Bay stretches out towards the sea as a smooth mud flat, rivulets carved through it.  When it's like this, some daredevils trespass in this cove.  More than one has been caught by a high-tide that surged before he could scurry up the ladder.  More than one drowned corpse has been sucked out to sea, only to be spat back next day.

           

I risk it.  I reckon this sea and I have an understanding. 

           

It took me a moment to understand what I was looking at, that night—Like I said, I'm no expert.  The tide swelled over my bare, blanched feet, bringing seaweed and something big that knocked against my ankle.  Then the wave retreated, and on the foamy wet sand lay a foot.  To me, it looked human.  Another wave, and the foot began tumbling back towards the sea's mouth.  But I snatched it back, just before she swallowed.

           

The foot was white and hard as marble, with webby blue veins.  It didn't feel real, so I pretended it wasn't.  I stood like that for a few minutes, hiccupping like mad, holding that dripping foot as far from my body as I could.  Seaweed was snagged in its toes.  It was severed, no question.  Nothing but a blade could expose such a neat cross-section.  There might have been something moving inside—I didn't look, didn't want to know. 

           

Down in this cove, no one hears my hiccups.  I've had them for years, perhaps you read the story about me in the paper?  The doctors are useless.  I hiccup every ten to twenty minutes, even in my sleep.  Started when I was at university, Lancaster, just up the road, but farther than I'd ever been from my dad's chip shop.  I read Archaeology, and my thoughts were spun back to the earliest humans, prehistoric reptiles and mammals, and before that, to the nothingness of gasses yet put to use.  For the first time, I saw my small human life as part of something magnificent.    

           

A flyer went up in the department about a special summer dig on the Isle of Man—Neolithic pottery shards, good stuff.  I scribbled the information in a notebook.  I grew up knowing the Isle of Man was nearby, just fifty-eight nautical miles northeast, beyond the fog.  It didn't occur to me I wouldn't go on that dig.  It didn't occur to me I'd never see the Isle of Man.  It didn't occur to me I'd never work anywhere but my dad's chip shop.         

           

(Truth is, I don't much fancy fish and chips.  And I can't tell one bit of difference between codfish and plaice.) 

           

Down in this cove, where no one's permitted, the surf drowns out my hiccups.  No one hears me, and that's better.  I straighten my spine and stare defiantly at the Irish Sea, which, as you might know, is not serene.  The high tide approaches and I dare her to come get me.  If I'm feeling especially reckless, I let the icy water rise above my ankles until a prickly pressure begins in my sex, like something's stirring after a long dormancy, like I'm brave.  And for as long as I stand there, I don't hiccup.  For a few gorgeous minutes, I'm free. 

           

My trainers, socks balled up inside, waited for me back up on the seawall.  I regretted my bare feet as I maneuvered myself, still holding that damn foot, over sharp, slick rocks.  The hiccups unsteadied me.  On the darkening horizon I saw a shrimp trawler, and to the south, the Heysham-Douglas ferry making its last run to the Isle of Man.  It was brightly lit and I imagined its beery, cheery noise, the crinkling of crisp packets. 

           

Nearer by, fish suckled the surface.  I could make out their shadows, but I had no idea what sort of fish they were. 

           

I met my Pilar at Lancaster.  She was on exchange from the University of Madrid, as tawny as I was pale.  Originally, she was to stay one term.  Her English was perfect, better than mine, with warm vowels like sun-drenched haystacks, and sharp, salty consonants like olives.

           

She found my hiccups appealing, at first, even sexy, as they hinted at our secret.   She said she liked seeing me spasm, a big bloke like me, rendered helpless.  When we made love on my narrow dorm-room bed, my hiccups brought her to speedy, startling orgasm.  Afterwards, she'd giggle and cover my face with happy kisses. 

           

Of course she grew weary of the hiccups, over time.  When we married and I brought her home to Morecambe, I tried everything: stood on my head, drank from the wrong side of the glass, held my breath, let Pilar try and scare them out of me.  I saw a doctor; he told me about a young Royal Air Force pilot who'd returned from the Falklands with serious injuries, real problems.

           

The hiccups persisted, every ten to twenty minutes.  One day, ten years in, Pilar declared,  “Weak men disgust me.”  I didn't know what to say.  She never brought it up again. 

           

Years ago, I sold my textbooks to a student bookstore.  Nowadays I stick to telly.  Every day I work at my dad's chip shop, now mine and Davy's, on the Marine Road.  Davy's better with the customers.  To be honest I prefer the band of ferals out back.  Those little beggars hang round the skip after hours, mewing and licking themselves till I dump out a greasy pile of fish. 

           

Once a month or so, I push up Pilar's nightdress, determined to feel those happy kisses again, on my eyelids, my neck.  I try to match my rhythm to the sea just a few hundred feet from our bedroom.  I try to move with the high tide's determination, foamy fingertips pushing deeper inside the cove each time, pressure building as it floods. 

           

But my ceaseless noise—Every day, she puts a little more space between us.  Lately, she has no patience for my hiccups, not even to try and make the baby we're running out of time for, not even for an orgasm.  “I'm not a circus act,” she scolds me. 

           

It's true, what they say: What catches your lover's eye will, most likely, be exactly what pushes her away.  Most days, now, my cock's soft.  I think Pilar's relieved.  She finally has some peace and quiet. 

             

The sea has brought me all sorts of things over the years, besides this foot: Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, an unopened can of Foster's, a silver-plated crucifix, and the fish my father fed us, day in, day out.  One thing the sea never brought me was money. 

           

I couldn't afford to go on that summer dig.  I could raise enough for ferry passage, but the course fees were out of the question.  One day, the ferry departed for Douglas, with all my course-mates aboard.  I'd watched that ferry countless times, as a boy, from my bedroom at the top of our concrete council house.  Perhaps you'll find it an indication of my limited imagination or spirit, but as a boy I never much cared about seeing the Isle of Man.  Maybe it was because, although I knew the ferry had you there in just three and a half hours, I couldn't quite believe the island was real.  The fog rarely gave us a glimpse.  I'd heard the warm Gulf Stream swept round it, luring basking sharks and growing palm trees and wild orchids, even amongst the gorse and bramble.  I'd read that humans had lived on the Isle of Man for over eight thousand years.  I'd seen photographs of a well-preserved megalithic chambered cairn named Cashtal yn Ard.  I enjoyed shifting these strange words about in my mouth. 

           

I knew that, countless times over the centuries, the Manx had defended their island nation from marauders.  Various countries, including my own, had laid claim.  I knew the Manx had Viking blood in them.  I imagined them alternately fierce and circumspect. 

           

As a boy, I had no urgent desire to see the island, perhaps because I was content with how I imagined it.  But who'd have guessed I'd never see it?  Who'd have guessed I'd be this close, still watching from afar? 

           

(You're quite right, there's nothing stopping me from going now.  But I don't dare step onto that ferry, weighed down by this stowaway regret.  In my mind, it stays glorious.)

           

I was already working at my dad's chip shop when my course-mates set sail.  I was saving up, you see.  I thought if could just get myself a ferry ticket, get myself to Man, I'd convince them to let me join the dig.  Ah, I know.  But it kept me going.  

           

I carried the dripping foot to my car, my hiccups coming faster, every minute or so, it seemed.  I dropped it into a plastic bag I found in the boot.  I knotted the bag, then double-knotted to be sure.  I squirted hand sanitizer onto my palms, rubbed them together.  It evaporated too quickly, so I squirted more, hiccupped, rubbed again.

           

Finally, I called Pilar and told her the sea had brought me, of all things, “[hic] A foot!  Darling, to me, [hic] it looks human.”

           

She sighed, “They're getting worse, aren't they?  Your damn hiccups.” 

           

So—did I toss the foot back in, let the sea gulp it down?  Did I dump it in one of the bins along the Prom?  Did I call the police?  Perhaps I laid that plastic-wrapped foot on the floor of my car and drove to the chip shop, which by now Davy had locked up tight.  Perhaps I set it out by the skip, not sure what else to do. 

           

Perhaps, after a while, I let the ferals have at it.

           

You're thinking, Life's disappointments have sent this bloke round the bend.  You're thinking it's a hopeless predicament, hiccupping every ten to twenty minutes.  For years, no control.         

           

I'll say this: That foot was hardly a candidate for reattachment, now, was it?  Whoever lost it wasn't missing it anymore.  By then he'd got used to the idea.  And those cats—I was embarrassed for them, crying for morsels, when they were once wild.  Lions and tigers, weren't they?  Predators, and free.  I didn't want to think they might prefer cooked food tossed at their feet.  I didn't want to think they'd lost their blood thirst. 

           

I stood behind that chip shop I never thought I'd own.  I stared at fog that hid an island I'd never see, while pussycat teeth tore flesh from bone.   

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