A Love Like Salt by Jennifer Howell


Summer Water Challenge Winner


There is a boy in the middle of the ocean. Thousands of boys run in and out of the ocean at the edges, playing tag with her grabby salt-spray fingers. Those boys are filled with laughter and bologna sandwiches and clinging sand. They have fathers who will snatch them up when the ocean plays too rough. Seagulls swoop around them, melding screams and caws into a cacophony of joy. 

There is no sound where the boy in the middle floats. He is the type of boy who beat on the window of the car every time his father passed the dunes, shouting to be let out. Sometimes his father did, bumping up onto the sandy knoll beside the road with a warning, “Ten minutes! Not a moment more!” as the boy threw himself out of the car and ran to the crest of the dune to watch the ocean shine. 

He can watch forever now, drifting farther and farther from where the ship and his father sink. 

He is splayed over his raft, a mannequin with hair crusted to his forehead and bleached to the color of dry bones. The raft is not a raft but a door. Once, this door closed the boy’s world off into a ship’s cabin the size of a wardrobe. Now, his world is as wide as the ocean he dips his fingers into. The ocean creeps cool across the red skin of his wrist, a stinging kiss. It will be worse when he pulls it out, the impatient sun stripping the water back to nothing but salt pulling tight at fragile, burning skin. 

The boy does not think of this. 

He thinks of dancing. On the ship he stood on his father’s shoes, half-hugging, half-dancing as violins played. The boy wrapped his arms around his waist, leaning into him, laughing as he felt the shifting of his father’s stomach. Now, it is the ocean that dances with him, pressing the boy up into the sky.

The boy has seen nothing but sky for days. Sky above and sky below. He wonders if the ocean’s dance will end the way his father’s did when he let go as the sirens sang and they all strolled to their cabins, waiting for the storm to smash the ship to pieces. The boy’s fingernails dig into the wood, cracked when the water smashed against it. A splinter lodges beneath his nail. He hears the sound of his father’s shout, mixed with the smashing glass of their balcony door. 

He misses his father, but he cannot help smiling at the beauty of the ocean around him. His lip splits; he licks it, tasting blood and salt. Everything about his mouth is difficult–lips too tight with salt and chap; tongue dry and clinging to the roof of his mouth–so he hides it, pressing his smile against the blistered skin of the back of his hand. The sun sparkles on the ocean’s waves like pixie dust. 

“I can fly,” the boy says, but when he stretches out and touches a golden fleck it breaks apart, and he is still trapped. The ocean rocks him; he closes his eyes and sleeps. 

A boy cannot know the ending of his story until he is past it. 

The ocean, though, has been past this ending a thousand times. 

She holds her boy, content to dance with the child while they wait for the end. He sleeps, and she remembers the patter of his feet in her waves. She almost caught him then, rumbling up from the deep to wrap around his waist and drag him down into her arms. His father was quick, pulling the boy up with a shout. The boy did not shout–he sputtered, spitting and scrubbing until his mouth was free. Then he pushed out of his father’s arms and dove back into hers. The noise of his laughter as she splashed against him again had sounded like gulls crying, promising to forgive her over and over again as they learned to love one another. 

His father had stood beyond her reach, face rippling with worry. He tossed words like time and leave toward the pair. She tumbled against the boy’s back, trying to soothe him–but it was his father’s promise of a journey on a ship that had cast the ocean and her boy back up into joy and laughter again. She smoothed her surface, the shining gold of sunset on her waves as he left piercing all the way to her center.

The ocean had waited, knowing her boy would come to her. Thousands of ships scurried across her unnoticed. Tides passed, rushing in and out until one brought with it his ship. He stood at the bow, straining forward, wind whipping his sun-kissed hair as he crowed with wonder. She crowed with him, straining to reach him the way she could on the beach. The ship thrust her away. Only her spray reached him, clinging to his skin as he stretched toward her. 

The boy disappeared, hidden from her in the belly of the ship. The ocean wept, desperate for his touch. The wind saw her tears and bent to help. They worked, her passion fueling them both until the skies darkened with the wind’s moans and her waves arched toward the sky. Salt-spray fingers shattered, clawing at the boat to reach her boy. 

The boat shuddered and broke before her passion. She raced through it, searching for him. There were hundreds of boys, but only one that didn’t run from her. She found him in a room far too small for their love and drew him out, spinning around and around in wonder as the wind cried at last, at last, at last. 

The ocean sighs. She whispers a lullaby to her boy, swirling his raft in a gentle circle as he sleeps. Someday, his grip on the raft will loosen, and she will swallow him whole at last. She waits, she whispers, and she watches. 



Jennifer Howell (@howlsmovingjenn) is a marshmallow with a gooey nightmare center. Her obsessions with metaphors, vampires, and stabby people pondering the meaning of life are smashed together in speculative novels and short stories, all of which can be found at www.jenniferhowell.net. She is repped by Claire Friedman of Inkwell Management. She can be found on Twitter @howlsmovingjenn.

Published 8/12/21


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