Flo was nearly thirteen when I first saw her standing on that under bite of brittle Norwegian rock. She fell and split open her shin on the craggy edges of a tidepool. The blood sort of pearled up on the white, downy hairs of her leg. She ran her middle finger over the parted skin and licked up the blood with a grin. This is the closest that I ever came to feeling in love.
That island, shrouded in vaporous Baltic air, was always for me, a place for medieval fairytales and timeless romantic narratives, yellowed with antiquity.
The bitter Norwegian wind gathered up all of the fragments of romantic intrigues and chimerical day dreams of my childhood and wove them together in the shape of that little girl, whose blood dripped into slippery tide pools. Flo was the heroine to my nostalgic fairy tale. I loved her because of her silvery hair, and her pale gray eyes, because she told lies and believed in mermaids, floating in the deep grottos off of the mainland. I had reached some point, raw with the onslaught of puberty, at which I’d come to the tragic realization that I could no longer put faith in mermaids.
Fleshy brown cowlicks of heather gathered between the soap stones and the soft, gray bones of washed up crabs. We walked around barefoot; the traction of our toes the only thing to keep us from slipping. We had to pick our way gingerly around the mosses and crab shells; squealing hysterically when, having missed a step, we felt the cool, wet grasses squishing between our toes.
The mosses grew here in the wintertime, but in the summer they rotted beneath the brackish film of spindrift coming up from the ocean. Coagulated by the eastern sun, these little brown spots looked something like bits of spit tobacco, and they were slippery. Flo had a habit of standing up so tall, with her chest forward and throat open to the sky, that the bones of her spine bent back like a crescent moon. She walked about on the pads of her feet, so that her heels, pale and smooth, never touched the ground. She never looked back at what she’d left behind, or down at what she trod upon. As a result, she often slipped on the moss and dried up jellyfish that gathered at the rocks, and cut up her knees quite a bit. But she never did cry, except for once, when a chipped oyster shell she’d been keeping in her bathing suit fell over the flanks of the catamaran.
Despite her fragile, wraith-like features, she had a way of spreading her presence out over the entire island, leaving little bits of herself like fairy dust or bread crumbs in the guelder roses beneath white birch trees, across the cranberry marshes and heat-crusted lichens by the waterfront.
I used to find threads of her frosted white hair in the most intimate spaces; on the inseam of my pillowcase, or snagged on the ribs of the broken mollusks I picked up from the underbelly of the boat and put in my pockets. Oftentimes, after I’d gone to sleep, she left salted caramels in my slippers at the foot of my bed. My only clue-in to her nightly visits were the melted puddles of sugar that stuck to the bottoms of my feet in the mornings. I gathered up the bits of her as best as I could, enchanted and envious as I was of all that was Flo.
She was intrepid and choleric where I was timid and apprehensive. When there were adventures to be had, she’d take my cold fingers in her own dewy, plump palms and squeeze. “Bloody hell! Its like picking up vanilla ice cream with your hands”, she’d trill, glossing over each word with her thick Shetland accent. She taught me to tie sailor’s knots until my knuckles cracked against the ropes and we sailed out for the coves of the mainland in the old Catalina sloop. She chanted spells over the graves of broken swallows’ eggs beneath dismantled nests, and wove little prayer bracelets from the maple flowers and yellow belles that sprung up by the brook. She tied them to my ankles solemnly; “Make a wish”. On evenings when the migrations of egg-yolk jellyfish drifted across the currents of the fjord, she’d sit at the very edge of the dock and tap their smooth, quivering caps with holly branches. Her mother would call out to her from across the heather meadow and she’d pretend not to hear.
One night, long after the jellies had passed, and Flo’s cousins had come in their patched orange dingy from the mainland, she took us skinny dipping. Gasping with the thrill of disobedience, she told us fragments of ghost stories and tales of the haunted Scottish highlands. Where she saw winking sprites and the shadows of nymphs and unicorns, we saw sinister figures crouching in the brush. We stripped down to our cotton panties and blushed before the stark moonlight on her bare bottom. On the way back from the dock, Flo was quiet and her cheeks shone wet in the night. Later, when she was fast asleep, I noticed a welt on the soft, intimate spot above her inner thigh, where a jellyfish had stung her and made her cry.