At the Threshold

Morris Collins

He had only been living in the house three days when he realized that the woman never left the living room. It was a one-level, nineteenth century Lower Key beach house that rested above the swamp on thick ash stilts. The living room looked out onto the sea which heaved in the distance and filtered into the swamp through eddies in the sand. At night, when the tide came in, he could hear the water flowing beneath the house, dragging detritus from shore--stones and bits of dried coral--into the swamp. His bedroom window faced the wetland and on his first night in the house he opened it and watched as the sea drained into the marsh. From the sound of the flowing water, he expected to see something violent--little waves and rivers crashing beneath the cypress canopy--but there were no waves; the water flowed smoothly, shimmering in the moonlight and the reeds swayed gently, as if from a soft breeze.

He didn't have an air conditioner and that night the room grew hot and stale. His bedroom opened out onto the living room, so he propped open the door with a conch shell. There wasn't much of a wind, but the bay windows were large and allowed plenty of air into the house. He lived alone but he brought silk sheets for his bed from New York. That night he lay on top of them and there was something sensuous in the breeze. He fell asleep to the faint heaving of the ocean and the taste of sea-salt on his tongue.


And then there was one moment when he was awake, when he was staring into the living room where the curtains shifted strangely in the wind. They fluttered, fell, rustled and rose, and he wasn't certain where they began or ended. He couldn't feel it on his body, but the wind must have grown stronger to cause the curtains to dance like that. He wondered if he should close his door.


The next day he ate fried conch at a fry shack by the water. He had a pina colada with his conch, and brought another one with him down to the shore. It was August and the beach was empty. A crab skittered over his toes while he drew in the sand with a dry chunk of driftwood. It was a bright day and the ocean looked very blue against the wide horizon. Farther down the beach, near his house, an old black man with a crooked back scanned the sand with a metal detector. He stared back at the sea; somewhere in mid-ocean, maybe a mile out, waves broke on underwater shoals.


Then, on the second night, when the tide came in and the curtains billowed in the breeze he saw her in the living room. She was there and then she wasn't. Sea-shells clattered under the house and an alligator bellowed in the swamp. He watched as her dress fluttered and bent and became a curtain again. And then there was only moonlight, wind, and silence, save for the beating of his heart and the murmur of the foaming sea.


In the morning he rowed into the swamp in a canoe that he found under the house. It had a single half-rotten oar in its bottom, and he had to use it to break through the phloem of bull-rushes and witch grass that guarded the periphery of the swamp. Thick snake grass and cypress vines tangled around the oar's shaft, while the paddle stuck, floundered in, and pushed through the silt that swirled beneath the water. When finally he was clear of the denser marsh plants the canoe began to sweep smoothly through the swamp with only the occasional thump of a half-submerged log or whisk of bog-lilies beneath the hull.

He looked back at the gentle wake and realized that he was moving in zigzags. He didn't sense that the water was deep, but he couldn't see the bottom. As the sun climbed higher, light passed through the mangroves of crooked cypress trees that rose like snakes from the marsh, dappling the water.

From somewhere, not very far off, he heard the swish and splash as an alligator slid into the swamp.

Mosquitoes hummed about his face and he felt bumps rising on his neck, his arms. There was blood on his fingers.

He passed under a stand of bog-oak where a water moccasin sunned itself amongst the branches and then slipped--more like something fading away than moving--beneath the play of leaf-shadow and light on the water.

He remembered the night before when a woman with light skin and a flowing white and lavender dress was and then wasn't staring at him from his living room.

And then he remembered Marilee, and turned his canoe back out of the swamp towards his house and the sea.


He adjusted the curtains. He took them down and put them back up. He tied them open and then closed them again. There were dead spiders in the windowsill. He looked down at the couch. It had an ash frame, like the stilts, and was padded with two leather pillows. There was no depression in it, no dent or crease from a woman's body.

He stood at the window and stared out across the beach. It was low-tide and the sea, angry blue against a bleached sky, seemed far off, well past the sand which stretched out across the horizon. Miles away, it seemed, gulls swooped at the water's edge, and an egret leaving the swamp flew over his house, past the beach, and out of sight. Otherwise the shore was empty; even the old man with the metal detector was missing--searching somewhere farther down the coast, maybe, for pirate gold. He was very much alone.

This is what you wanted, he said. Isn't it?

And then again, as always, thoughts of Marilee. He stepped out of the house and walked down the ash gangplank towards the shore, while a black spotted butterfly, or was it a moth, fluttered about his head.


The fry shack, nailed together from the crooked limbs of dried cypress and elm, stood on the beach's farthest edge, near the road, no more than a quarter mile from his house. Its roof was tin, and inside it, Charley, a fisherman who'd lived in the Keys for the last fifty years, sweated as he prepared fried conch. He wore an alligator tooth around his neck and spoke English with his mother's Caribbean patois accent.

He ordered fried conch from Charley and ate it on the beach while he drank out of a paper cup. He'd given up on pina coladas; they were tourist drinks, and now that he owned a home on the marsh he wasn't a tourist in the Lower Keys anymore. He smiled. Look what happens, he thought, when New Yorkers go native--soon he'd be wearing an alligator-tooth necklace as well. The sun was full in the sky now and sand stuck to his sweaty arms. He finished his rum and headed back to the fry shack for more.

A woman around his own age, thirty maybe, was sitting on a stool eating conch outside the shack. He glanced at her, didn't take in much: she had light brown hair and high cheekbones. She smiled at him as he stumbled over the hot sand and he noticed that she had blue eyes, and that one of her eyebrows was higher than the other--as if it were perpetually cocked in an expression of bemusement. Charley poured him another rum--a big one--from a bottle that he kept in an icebox in the back corner of the shack.

Rum wasn't originally meant to be drunk cold, you know, Charley said. Never did see a pirate drinking iced rum.

What can you do? he said to Charley. I guess I wouldn't make much of a pirate. And then there was the night six months earlier in New York at the costume party where he wore a bandana and eye patch and drank champagne out of the bottle and dove fully dressed into the swimming pool after Marilee told him to walk the plank.

I've never been much of a rum lover myself, said the woman on the stool.

He turned and felt the loose scree of sand and dried coral shift under his feet. Out over the ocean a gull called, dove, skimmed the water and rose again.

You must not be from around here? he asked.

No, she said, and smiled again. I'm not. I'm a writer from up north--well at least I'm trying to be. I guess I had too much rum as a teenager. Or maybe I'm just more of the wine type.

He liked the way she raised her eyebrow as she spoke. It allowed her face a quizzical, crooked look, and he remembered reading Poe's reference to Bacon's comment on beauty: there is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.

You've probably never had any good rum, then, he said. Isn't that right Charley?

That's true for sure, said Charley.

And what's the difference? she asked.

He glanced at Charley, grinned.

Well, just like wine--it's all in the process. Taste is dependent on the type of sugar cane and the quality of the distillation. This rum of Charley's since you asked ...

Since I did. And a smile.

... is made from an old recipe given to his great grandfather by an escaped slave from the sugar plantations on St. Croix. Back then they'd grind the sugar cane by hand, toss it into deep stone mills, mash it up in the gears. One day he fell into one of those mills and buried himself underneath the sugar cane pulp.

And he escaped?

They took him for dead and threw him out with all the mashed up cane husks. If Charley's telling the truth that is.

He could imagine the slave falling into the mill like a man stepping into a pool. The first step and then the plunge. Somewhere downwind a boat horn sounded. Hermit crabs scuttled in the witch grass beneath the shack. Charley began to crack conch shells with a hammer.

That's quite a story, she said after a while.

Some local flavor, he said. Should put that in your--novel?

Poems, actually, she said, peering at him, he thought, with that look of bemusement. But yes. That's what I need. More stories like that, an insider's look at Saddlebunch Key. I've seen all the tourist stops, and I've explored the towns. I've watched old dogs sun themselves, and gaped at all the pastel houses, but I don't have a sense for the spirit of the place yet.

Even talks like a poet, no? said Charley still cracking conch.

She may have blushed, or maybe it was just sun on her face. He held up his empty cup; Charley turned back into the shack to get more rum. She started to speak and he could sense her hesitation--she was, perhaps, very beautiful.

What are you doing this evening? she asked. Maybe you could show me around.

Not tonight, he said faster than he expected. I appreciate the offer, really I do, but not tonight.

She dropped her eyes and then raised them; Charley returned with a bottle of rum wrapped in a palm-frond sleeve.

Well in case you change your mind, she wrote her number on a napkin and handed it to him. Amanda Latroux, she was staying at the Sea-Horse Inn. He took his rum, turned away quickly and headed for the beach. The crooked old man with the metal detector was back, searching amongst the empty sand.


That night he slept with his bedroom door closed. He fell asleep thinking of Marilee: her laugh as he walked the plank, and the feel of her hand pushing him into the pool. And then there was her hand again, frailer now, it seemed, bonier now, like the body of a sparrow. He heard her nails clacking on the hospital bed's metal rails, saw her hands grasping the bed frame and then reaching out, grabbing air. He remembered taking her hand and he could still feel it against his, he could feel the space it occupied; he could almost imagine a pressure on his skin. But he couldn't touch it, and his fingers curled around empty space.

He awoke in the middle of the night and knew that he had to open the door. Outside, cypress leaves rustled in the swamp, and beneath the house shells clattered amongst the seething tides. An owl hooted once, low and long, and then was silent. There were no other bird cries and dawn was still a long way off.

He opened his bedroom door and she was on the couch in the living room. Although he couldn't feel it, there seemed to be a strong wind in the room because the curtains fluttered and swayed like loose sails at sea, and he couldn't tell for certain where her dress, which rippled gently and blurred at the edges, began or ended. He stood there at the doorway, then, and watched her as she stared back at him, implacable, from the center of a gale.

Is this why I came here, he thought. To go mad like a hermit, alone?

And then she was, and then wasn't, and then was again in the room. But standing before him this time, standing in the doorway, only inches, now, from his bedroom. He stumbled back onto the bed.

Marilee? he asked. But she was not Marilee--he had known that before he said the name. Her hair was longer than Marilee's had been, longer and lighter. Lighter for sure, but he couldn't tell the color in the moonlight, shadow, and tremulous air. Her cheekbones were high, like Amanda's maybe, but there was no asymmetry in her face and her eyes were dark, darker than Amanda's eyes, darker than Marilee's.

And she stood at the door, heaved against it, flickered, pulsated like the beating air beneath a moth's wings, and was back on the couch half-invisible amongst the curtains.

He spent the night in a half-sleep, dreaming of Marilee, and her trembling fingers, staccato on the hospital bed frame. And then in moments of waking, he watched the woman in the living room from his bed. He watched her, and she stared back at him as the sun rose, crimson at first light, over the sea.


Several hours later when the sun was full in the sky and the last wisps of cool dawn air had been blown out to sea like the smoke of an extinguished candle, he left the bedroom, picked up the portable phone in the living room, and stepped outside onto the ash porch. The warm breeze brushed over the dried salt on his face, and he realized that he must have been crying during the night. He ran his nails across his skin, and they came away white with caked salt. Then there were nails again striking the hospital bed--fingers clasping metal, grasping air--and a cormorant screeching suddenly, rising off the lee shore. He looked back through the window into the living room; it was bare, nearly unfurnished, and the couch was empty.

He dialed Amanda's number before he could think of a reason not to.

Hello. Amanda? The line was dull with static, but she could still hear him. He could imagine her eyebrow raising as they spoke. She paused before she said goodbye and he wondered what she wanted to say. The sun felt even hotter when he hung up the phone. He hurried into the house. The tide was beginning to come in.


They met on the beach near the fry shack. She was drinking from a paper cup.

So, she asked smiling. What do you have planned for me? Show me where all the treasure is?

Something like that, he said and looked out past the shore where the waves were beginning to swell.

Come on, he said. Let's go get a boat. He could, from farther back on the land, past the beach, smell plantains simmering in the pastel houses. Amanda was still watching him, waiting, but he continued to look out to sea.

I tried some of Charley's rum, she said.

And did you like it?

Oh yes. This is my second cup. I feel like such a pirate.

He turned away from the shore.

Everything but the eye patch, he said and laughed; laughed because she was smiling at him, and laughed because he couldn't imagine her cocked eyebrow beneath an eye patch.


They rented a small sunfish sailboat and he took her to an island, no more than a hundred yards across, in the north inlet where the sea was green and warmer than the light blue water of the open ocean. He took out the rudder and beached the boat high up on the shore. She was puzzled.

We're all alone, she said. Why drag the boat so far onto shore.

The tide's coming in, he said staring at the horizon. It was hurricane season, but the wind was down and the sky was clear. He tossed her a snorkeling mask.

Is there a reef near here, she asked?

The best between here and Cuba, he said putting on flippers. That's why the water's so dark.

They entered the ocean together and the water was warm against his skin. His snorkel tasted stale with old air, and he dove deep, submerged and let the snorkel fill with water, before he re-emerged near Amanda, expelling the water from his snorkel with a sharp exhale. She swam beside him in the ocean, and only for brief moments, half-seconds, flashes like crashing waves, did he remember swimming dressed as a pirate, side by side with Marilee, in a New York penthouse pool.

Later, they ate red snapper on the beach with a Sauvignon Blanc and fresh plantains.

Better than rum, she said tasting the wine.

Not very authentic though, he said. It's from New Zealand. The locals would drink rum or beer.

And how long have you been a local?

Not nearly as long as it feels.

So why move here?

But the tide was in and the wind was up. The palm trees bowed and swayed in the breeze and it was too windy for words. Somewhere on the mainland someone must have built a bonfire because as he turned his eyes away from Amanda's he could smell Spanish moss burning in the distance.

Better get the boat, he said.

She put her hand once on his knee, and then, later on, as they sailed out of the inlet she touched his lip. He looked at her, and then looked down and away, but she let her finger linger on his mouth a moment more.


That evening he took her to a calypso bar on the north coast. They drank rum and danced close, and he realized that her eyes, like opals, changed color and glistened in the neon light. As he danced he felt the beat of the calypso drum in his stomach and felt her hands on his body, on his face, on his back, on his hands like dead sparrows while the song grew faster and the lights began to dim and they danced closer still. Behind the calypso singer, local men clapped hollow coconut shells together, clapped them hard and fast against the frame of a hospital bed.

L'amour ne m'oublie pas, sang the calypso singer.

Boots and coconuts, falling coins and hospital bed-raking nails stomped and clapped, clattered and scraped.

L'amour, and she was closer, now, and he thought he could feel her lips on his face as, outside, waves crashed and a pirate walked the plank at a New York costume party.

He pushed himself away from her and held her face, wet from dancing, in his hands.

Amanda…, he said.

L'amour ne m'oublie pas, went the song as he turned and ran, maybe, out of the club, out from under the neon lights and onto the beach where the sea heaved restlessly against a dark sky.


That night--his fourth night in the house--it rained hard and water poured through his roof and onto his bed. He let it fall, and pool, and stream over his face like tears unshed. He stood up and stepped into the living room where the woman lay staring at him from the couch. The rain drummed unceasingly on the roof, but he was no longer thinking of the clatter of nails and fingers beating against a hospital bed. He heard Marilee laugh and felt her push him as he stepped off the diving board.

He staggered forward slowly and settled down onto the floor beside the couch where the woman lay. He closed his eyes and listened to the rain. After some time it grew fainter and he knew that dawn must not be far off--weather in the Keys moves in quickly like fever and breaks with the tides and first light. The woman on the couch was still beside him and he began to wish that she'd touch him, would dry his face with her glassy fingers. But he knew that she would not and yet he continued to wait and listen to the last of the rain. The tide began to rise and he could hear it swirling under the house. A merlin called from the swamp but it was a fleeting call--sharp and brief, far off and fading away. Still, the woman didn't move, but he could imagine the touch of her hand, just as he could remember the feel of Marilee's. He opened his eyes. The seasons were changing, autumn soon, and every night a little longer than the one before--a few more hours of rain or wind or whatever else there was staving off the first deceitful half-light of the false dawn.