Bernard Steeds: Sea mist

Dec 2023 | Short story

It was almost spring when the sea mist landed, passing up the valley like a barbarian army, razing everything in its path.

Simon Abelson was in the courtyard watering his tomatoes when he saw it gathering over the Bay of Balarés. It was a solid wall of vapour, almost like a nuclear cloud. He and Carolina had been planning a trip to the interior, to see their son, Xavier, who was an architect in Salamanca. They had hoped to leave the next day, and return in a few weeks when summer had arrived, but upon seeing the mist Simon was overcome with premonition.

“My love,” he called, “can we leave right now?”

They threw a few things into their car and pulled out on to Estrada Portesco just in time to see the mist touch and dissolve the corner of the beach. Carolina was at the wheel.

“My god,” Simon cried, “that mist will claim everything!”

Carolina, who was the practical one in the family, shook her head, and said: “Simon, you are too full of dreams!”

It was true. Simon’s mind was like a pinball machine. Drop in a coin and worries would scatter and pelt and ping in all directions. A professor of semiotics, he could be drawn into confusion by the simplest of questions (“Who are you?”, “What is the time?”) and was known to wither in fear at the prospect of social engagement. On many occasions, Carolina had asked him to see a therapist, to get to the heart of his inner labyrinth.

“Hurry,” he shouted. “This mist is going to eat us.”

Although Carolina was the calm one, she too had feelings. Why, she wondered, had her son not called about the arrangements? Did he no longer care? Had she not done her best? Had their bond never recovered since the day, thirty-three years ago, she lost him in the cheese aisle at that supermarket in Ponteceso?

“Do not shout,” she said, “if you want us to make it there alive!”

The month of April was the most beautiful in Galicia. After the winter chill, the Atlantic sun had burst forth again. All over the hills, wildflowers ran free. The people of Couto were already planning the annual festival, in which the boys and girls would dance the jota, as their fathers kept time on pitu and bombo. There were sea mists all winter, but none before in April, and none so stealthy as this. Simon turned to watch it through the back window.

“It is like a giant waterfall,” he said. “If it catches us, you will not be able to see.”

The little car made it to the outskirts of Couto, shuddering as it rolled the bend and joined the AC-424. Simon’s stomach was rumbling. In other circumstances, he would have asked his wife to stop for coffee and pastry, but the mist was too wild. He watched in horror as it claimed the town, swallowing its people, its little golden brick homes. The Mayor and Mayoress, out for a morning stroll, were taken by its vapour. Manuel Gatt, selling newspapers on the corner, seemed to go up in a puff of steam. The abattoir exploded in pale blue light, adding a stench of bacon to the mist’s cool scent.

Carolina, seeing this devastation in her wing mirror, pushed harder on the accelerator. The car lurched forward, almost ramming into a milk lorry. The lorry driver slowed to hoot, and was swallowed whole in the ravenous fog.

“I have always loved you,” said Simon, reaching across, to touch his wife’s arm, “no matter what I might have said.”

With a hiss, the mist touched the bumper of their little car.

“And I you,” said Carolina. “No matter what I might have felt.”

In a moment, everything went dark. It seemed that the car had been lifted from the road. Like a tornado, the mist carried them off, spinning and lurching, washing them clean. Carolina whipped at the wheel, but it made no difference as the car skidded along on a slick of memory. Simon closed his eyes. For the first time in his life, he prayed.

It took only a second for the mist to pass, only a second before they were back on the AC-424, travelling along jauntily in their little runabout – a middle-aged, married couple, vacation-bound. All around them the countryside sparkled, as if it had been washed clean. Bird song entered the cabin like so many bells. Colours – green, brown, blue, white – appeared crystalline, essential. It seemed to Simon that he had suddenly recovered his sight after a temporary blindness. Even the air smelled sweet.

“Excuse me,” he said, to the woman beside him. “What is your name?”

Carolina turned to him, smiling.

“I do not know, my love.”

“Where are we going?”

“Who can tell,” she said. “Life is mystery.”

And, suddenly, Simon was seized by an alien feeling, something calm and still, a little like the feeling he got when he watered the tomatoes, watching each droplet float through the air and land on the taut red skin. If he had a name for the feeling, this professor of meaning, he might have called it “happiness”. For the sea mist did not destroy all in its path, but only its past and its future, leaving behind a single moment, rolling on forever and ever.


Bernard Steeds recently won the AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU Katherine Mansfield Sparkling Prose competition, with his short story ‘Manel’. He is also twice winner of the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, and was shortlisted for The Moth International Short Story Prize 2022. His work has also appeared in the collection Water and in several anthologies and journals including The Penguin New Zealand Anthology: 50 stories for 50 years in Aotearoa, and The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories.

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