She lives in utero, lives in softness, pulsing at the bottom of a whale’s belly. Her whole life passes inside another mammal, inside another woman. Though this other woman has long been buried, part of Ayla still believes her mother, Maris, circles this island, surfacing from the sea to breathe while rarely breaching the water completely. Though Maris has now been gone for going on two decades, having died of a blood disease in her early thirties, in many ways her daughter has not been born yet. Even at thirty-six years old, past the age at which her mother’s life had already reached its end, Ayla has in essence never stopped functioning as a second heartbeat. All her perceptions seem to still be filtered through her mother’s keener senses.
An only child of the woman once considered the loveliest of any living on the island, Ayla bears her little resemblance. Meanwhile whoever her father may have been remains a mystery, one Maris herself never seemed particularly concerned with solving. Yet even more remarkable than her mother’s beauty or father’s lifelong absence is the fact Ayla’s spine has never stopped adopting the posture of a fetus. Once she emerged from mother’s body gasping for breath, her back refused to straighten. Though the rest of her body in time developed as normally as that belonging to any other child, her back retained its roundness. All her life, Ayla has borne a humpback. She has never stopped carrying what she sometimes likes to secretly imagine as a child of her own, though her child is one she will be pregnant with always. Ayla is also pregnant on the wrong side of her body.
Even with wide blue eyes that only further widen whenever she looks toward the ocean, because of her disfigurement she has always preferred invisibility, as much as she can claim. This is easily attained, though, on the island, which Ayla has never left, having never wanted to travel to the mainland, having never wanted to risk more glances and stares from strangers, nor from those who are more familiar to her. Even among those who have known her from the time she was an infant, she never loses complete consciousness of what she regards as her ugliness in their company. Her being fully formed and yet unfinished.
Only a few hundred people live on the island throughout all four seasons, and Ayla can recognize them all from a distance, from their way of walking alone before she sees their eyes or nose or lips. Only during summer does the island ever become more than sparsely populated, when it faces onslaughts of tourists riding bicycles on paths along its beaches or through its forests, forming lines to board catamarans for whale-watching expeditions. Though the latter mark the island’s main attraction, Ayla has never once done this herself. Not only because she is not a tourist, but because she and whales have so much in common as it is. Both hum melodies to themselves without any lyrics. Both can tend to strike those outside them as monstrous.
Humpbacks for whales, though, are not a problem. For as long as her mother was alive, Maris was the only one who seemed convinced her daughter’s spine would eventually straighten, given time, when Ayla was ready. That her mother was wrong—that Maris proved herself as fallible and deluded as anyone else—has always been more difficult for Ayla to accept than even her spine continuing to resemble the stem of a wilted flower, a dehydrated iris or daisy. Regardless of its beauty or ugliness, Ayla realizes a body is far more than its appearance. Even a body as undesirable as her own acts as a home. A body serves as a dwelling place even if no one else ever comes to visit. Even while living inside one as imperfect as hers, behind closed doors and in her privacy Ayla still enjoys, almost lavishes, in her humanness, her smoother surfaces and deeper ravines.
When she was too young to now remember, Maris had poked holes inside her earlobes from which to hang a pair of earrings. Though the holes have long since grown back together, a crust still forms at the back of their remnants. Whenever she is alone, which is often, Ayla likes to pick at these places. Similarly the wiry hairs growing from her pubis have over the years become a kind of companion. She twists the longer ones around her fingertips. Several moles also form a sprawling constellation across her stomach, a spray of dark stars she analyzes through palpation as she lies in bed, at her most languid.
Though occasionally she wakes on the cusp of orgasm, she has never indulged an explicit sexual fantasy. Through thirty-six years of living, she has never allowed herself to imagine a scenario in which someone else might find her attractive, would willingly touch her skin. All the men who live year-round on the island are old too and wizened. Even when she notices the younger male tourists, she never loses consciousness of how her spine must make her seem as though she were always bending down to pick up something—as though she were born an old woman or still compressed inside her mother’s uterus—as though she were either nearly dead or its opposite. Even during sleep, the exaggerated curve of her neck toward her sternum is never lost or unforgotten.
As she has grown older, as she has begun to notice more creases denting her skin, a few hairs losing their familiar color of honey, Ayla has become aware of how, given another few decades, the rest of her will likely look as elderly as her spine alone now makes her appear from a distance, from her way of walking. To her, the only wonder is that no one else has ever perceived or stated the obvious—which is to say her unbornness, the fact a part of her at least is still waiting to emerge from this lifelong bath of amniotic fluid, which she seems to be taking against her will. No one else has ever weighed her true predicament, her being trapped inside a woman of uncommon loveliness who also happens to have been dead now for decades. To everyone else, though, this makes no difference. They find themselves walking past someone whose spine looks as curved as a fetus, relieved they don’t suffer from the same condition.
It was only Maris who ever suggested Ayla might be carrying some vital knowledge inside her humpback, either knowledge or wisdom unavailable to those whose bodies function better, more normally. Maybe, as Maris was sometimes wont to add, Ayla needs this burden. Once the time comes when she doesn’t, the humpback will vanish. The relief that will follow the earlier years of pain and embarrassment will then render the latter worth it—this in any case had been Maris’ theory. While her mother’s full acceptance once allowed Ayla to look past all the other harsh scrutiny, Maris’ prediction has not materialized, has not even come close. All the humpback whales swimming past the island during the warmer months still seem to sing to Ayla alone at times, saying much while saying nothing, singing songs without words, without a message.
Across the street from the restaurant where Maris once worked as a waitress for as far back as Ayla’s memory can extend sits the Victorian inn where Ayla cleans rooms during the island’s summer season, where she also sleeps during these months in a room in the attic. The rest of the year, when hardly anyone ever comes here on the ferry, Ayla works as a lighthouse keeper. Though she has no real responsibilities, she relishes her title for its ability to invoke another era in human history, one when wooden ships would come barreling toward the island, one when their sailors would lumber into what they could uncover of civilization, of women and warmer beds. The light that once pulsated from the structure where Ayla does most of her living no longer functions, however. It no longer keeps any sailors or fishermen from becoming lost at sea, from drowning before being swallowed by a whale and dissolving inside its stomach.
Within only a year of Maris’s death, once she turned eighteen, Ayla was offered this position by the island’s council. She was given it mostly as a kindness but also because no one else was willing to live here alone, on the side of the island lying farthest from its only restaurants and grocery, farthest from any other homes. Its former caretaker had recently died of a heart attack in his eighties, a lifelong bachelor and hermit. Despite the lighthouse’s isolation, despite the oddness of giving this position to a woman so young, someone was needed to ensure no one comes and vandalizes a place regarded as historic, to at least notify authorities if this were to happen.
During the nine months when the Victorian inn closes its doors, when its owners have migrated in tandem with all the island’s birds and whales to the tropics, Ayla consequently finds herself sleeping inside the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, whose low lamplight cannot be detected by anyone on the outside. For this, she receives a small salary, no more than enough to pay for her bus fare around the island and basic provisions. For this, she is allowed to hide, to live without attracting scorn or pity. In this way, she feels she can contain her suffering, can keep it from spilling outside her own life onto someone else’s. This is all she is trying to accomplish.
He almost sees her, the other woman. When Ayla first approaches as he lies prone on the beach, his senses seem to fill with a light sheathing someone with a severe disfigurement, someone whose spine never stops bending as she nears. Early November, this is Jason’s first time on the island. By late this morning, he was surprised by how quickly he arrived here on the ferry, surprised he never had come here before with either his wife or parents. Until only a week ago, his life had always also been too full for him to think of leaving it for somewhere this desolate, somewhere known only for its proximity to whales and porpoises, creatures in which he has never taken an interest. Until only a week ago, his life made too much sense for him to bother with seascapes. He has in truth always preferred indoor to outdoor spaces, shelter to the elements, which only makes his current circumstances, lying here on cold sand, stranger and more wretched.
Recently turned thirty years old, a couple years ago Jason gave up his accounting practice to work for his father and the family business. Spending all his weekdays in a hardware store once built by his grandfather, he tracks the store’s profits and expenses while helping his customers to fix those things that have broken inside their homes. Married to a woman who works from a corner of their living room that she made into an office, illustrating books for children, over the past few years he has also found himself envying his customers whenever they confessed another door handle or lamp had been damaged by one of their children. He envied them only because he and Amy had not had any of their own yet. With everything else in his life having fallen comfortably into place, he had wanted his own home to reveal the evidence of the harm wrought by small hands that he could then repair, could build toward a deeper sweetness.
For the four years their marriage lasted, Jason assumed a child would come with patience and time. It is only within the past week he has discovered that Amy was sleeping with someone else while he was working, while he was recording customers’ overdue payments, stocking bolts and wrenches. Following a growing suspicion, he checked her messages one morning when she was showering, learning in this way that she was taking birth control without ever letting him know, keeping their world smaller than she promised him. While Jason assumed they would have a reason someday to read aloud those stories for which Amy sketched the illustrations, she had privately considered their marriage its own prison, somewhere from which to flee. Before he saw her for the last time, she said his working for a hardware store and as an accountant beforehand had been embarrassing, something she was always loath to tell her friends, all of whom were musicians and artists, who considered numbers and measurements to be soulless. She could hardly express how tired she had gotten of his toolboxes and ledgers.
In the back of his mind, Jason knows there will be other women. He knows his own case is hardly anomalous. He still has his job, his youth, his parents. He isn’t bad looking. But after he told Amy to go—after he threw all her clothes into garbage bags and tossed those bags onto their lawn so she could take them anywhere else, to her parents’ or her sister’s or her lover’s place—he still had wanted to leave his life for a bit, if only for a weekend. He had wanted to escape to somewhere of even deeper loneliness, somewhere more sympathetic. He came to the island early this Saturday morning, assuming he could easily find a room for a night. At this time of year, he reckoned there would be few other tourists. None, though, were expected.
The only lodgings were closed until next spring when he knocked on the door. The Victorian inn was closed not for the afternoon but for the next six months. Knowing the next ferry would not return until next morning, he walked along the shoreline until all his energy was spent, until he accepted that he would have no choice except to sleep out in the open air. Resting his head on his backpack, using his only change of clothes for a cover, he had fallen into a shallow sleep when he first heard Ayla’s footsteps. Only a few minutes earlier, she had finished her dinner of tomato soup and bread. After noticing the last spears of sunlight slanting through the small window above her oven, she had put on a jacket to walk until complete darkness descended. She had gone to stare out onto the sea, imagining her mother’s nearness as she did routinely before returning to her lighthouse for an evening of doing nothing more than reading a paperback and running her hands across her skin, bringing her fingers to her nose at moments to smell what came of their contact with other openings. To spend another several hours with her own peculiar amalgam of emptiness and fullness.
Jason’s shape—his prone position suggesting he had either fallen sick or had an accident—arrests her, keeps her for a little while from moving. Someone suddenly is here when everyone should be gone, should never have come anyway. His clothes are almost colorless, blending with the sand. With dark hair and rangy limbs, betraying no capacity for mobility, Jason looks half dead even while his cheeks are flushed, his lungs fluttering inside his rib cage. The innocence that comes to all of us in sleep has softened his skin into something silken while his mouth hangs ajar. His neat row of bottom teeth alone tempts Ayla to come closer rather than keep her distance.
In all her years as a lighthouse keeper, no one has ever come to vandalize where she lives, to coat its concrete with graffiti. Her experience living here has never been one of danger, only isolation. This sleeping man is the first she has ever spotted outside the tourist season and maybe too the last. This sleeping man, however, isn’t sleeping. Once she steps close enough, Ayla sees this, and lost as she is in astonishment, it takes her a few moments to recall the fact of her humpback, to remind herself this must be at what this man is staring while not speaking. Instinctively, she extends her arm, intending to offer solace. She withdraws it only once she remembers who she is, realizing he is likely repulsed, wishing someone else had come to help him.
Seeing her shrink away, Jason sits up while taking in this woman whose eyes look much too large for her misshapen body. He tries to smile before he can form a reasonable explanation as to why he has been found lying here, so close to twilight. Not saying anything for several moments, he dusts the cold sand from the knees of his pants as their eyes meet again. Relieved he appears unharmed, Ayla sighs once she realizes she would have no way of assisting him were real assistance necessary.
Looking past a face whose vulnerability frightens him more than he wants to be frightened and toward a sandbar instead, he tells her how he assumed that he could stay at a bed and breakfast but obviously assumed wrongly. He puts on his backpack and stretches his arms overhead, preparing to walk somewhere he can sleep uninterrupted. By now the other woman—the one he first noticed when Ayla approached him with her halting gait—has dissolved into something less than air, beyond perception. An aura of beauty that briefly almost hypnotized him no longer surrounds the only person whom he has ever met with a humpback. Something he could not fix if he wanted.
Losing more of the radiance she never knew was even there, Ayla reaches out her arm once more, this time in protest. She says she lives nearby, that sleeping outdoors at this time of year, this far into autumn, will lead to sickness. With her voice soft and adamant, she offers him somewhere to sleep until he leaves next morning on the ferry. If he doesn’t mind a couch with uneven cushions, her lighthouse can shield him from those winds that always come more strongly once the whales have departed for warmer climes. All except her mother, who may be watching for what may happen next.
Nothing does, however. Nothing anyone else, including Maris, would ever bother to recollect. The only night Ayla ever spends with someone else inside her lighthouse keeper’s quarters, nothing of any note occurs. Nothing that Jason, looking back years later once he remarries and has two children, will ever reflect on again. Extreme grief also tends to blunt memories. It blurs most actions taken in its midst, and at the time Jason visited the island he was stricken with it. Grief, securing its furthest reach, may enclose someone as completely as a mother encloses a fetus, and a fetus cannot normally remember its history. Not unless that fetus has lived well into her thirties. Ayla alone is changed and changed irrevocably by a few fleeting moments. For anyone else, they hardly would have counted.
Jason never meant to add to her suffering. After he leaves for the mainland next morning, he never imagines how he might have made her long for his return, to the point that Ayla devotes less and less of her thinking to her mother ever afterward, at times almost relinquishing her belief in the whale always circling the island. She spills herself instead like the yolk of an egg into a bowl of batter, pouring herself into another type of pain than that from losing Maris, another pain also mixed with a strange sweetness. From Jason’s perspective, were he forced to consider his actions in retrospect, he would have said it was only Ayla’s kindness that prompted what there was no reason to reconjure, her heating him tomato soup as he sat there on her couch’s lopsided cushions. As she stirred the soup and then spread butter over bread, the beauty that had been lost on the beach briefly returned. Floating around her daughter’s edges, once more there was Maris. Jason could not so much see as sense the other woman, someone who, much like Amy, had once been so enamored with lovemaking that Ayla’s father remained a mystery not worth pursuing. One lover among of dozens.
After Jason has eaten all the food Ayla has to give him, from her closet she takes an extra blanket and pillow. Its few shelves are all the room for storage she has inside her dwelling that, apart from its bath, amounts to a single room with rounded walls that taper as they rise toward the ceiling. The kitchen is no more than an alcove between her couch and bed, which sit opposite. After making Jason’s place of sleep as comfortable as she can, she turns off the light but still steps inside her bathroom to change into her nightgown, which is long and billowing. Through the window above her oven, which ushers in stark moonlight, once she emerges Jason can see the extent of the white fabric. Lying on his back, pretending to sleep, he cannot help wincing at the drastic curvature of Ayla’s spine inside the cotton gown, her head falling toward her collar bone, falling as a state of permanence. He wonders what caused it—whether something went wrong inside her mother’s uterus, inside a woman who gave birth to a lighthouse keeper, to someone who will almost certainly remain here alone until her death. Someone, he realizes, even lonelier than he is.
Ayla sleeps with her body contracted, her knees tucked up against her breasts. From her shape as she shifts beneath her sheets and blanket, Jason understands she has always done this, since her infancy. Several times throughout the night, he falls asleep and wakes again, his consciousness wanting to float back toward the surface, back into this strange reality where he has found himself that feels closer to vivid dreaming. Looking across the room as his eyes adjust to the darkness, and as moonlight only deepens the contrast between objects, he further studies Ayla’s outline. He listens to her breathing. In his half wakefulness, he almost forgets she is a grown woman.
Because her knees nudge her chest so closely, her feet failing to reach the bottom of the bed, he senses her unbornness without even quite knowing this is what he has identified. An unborn fetus who is also motherless. A woman who could become a mother herself in theory but who never will, who from a certain vantage might even appear pregnant but who carries the baby on the wrong side of her body. Something of the truth comes to him without Jason knowing this is truth, without knowing anything about Maris, about how long ago she transformed from a beautiful woman into a humpback whale that still circles this island even during the colder seasons.
He falls asleep and wakes once again, and Ayla is shaking. From a couple feet away, he feels before he sees this, before he sits up from the couch and walks over, before without thinking he encloses her, acting in Maris’ stead, were Maris only able to provide this type of consolation for her daughter. By this time in the night or early morning, Jason has stopped thinking about Amy, about why he even came here to this island to begin with. He has now forgotten his own pain while breathing someone else’s in. This other pain pulses from the heart over which a woman’s neck has been folded too early—Ayla looks little older than himself, somewhere in her thirties, as he would guess. Jason feels as though he might be seeing too much inside this dark room at the bottom of a lighthouse that refuses to provide any illumination. He sees but has no choice. He could not have stopped himself had he wanted.
Thirty-three vertebrae make up the human spinal column, a fact of which Ayla was ignorant until Jason counted them, first while tracing them up from her sacrum and then descending from her neck, placing his index finger against each one through the fabric of her nightgown. Ayla now knows she has the same number everyone else has. It is only their dramatic sweep and inability to straighten themselves that has kept her from ever leaving the island, from ever fantasizing about a life other than the one she has led. Wanting to love this unborn fetus into something closer to its wholeness, Jason cannot keep himself from trying to soothe her as she keeps her face and body turned toward the wall. In response, her shaking increases, as though her spine might rupture from being touched for the first time since Maris, the first time in decades. She shakes even more as his touch keeps coming, touch that for Jason amounts to practice—for easing the pain of his own children to come, who much like Ayla have not been born yet. Who, unlike herself, in a couple years will be. Whose lives will be ones of fullness among a much larger population. Early next morning, Ayla pretends to still be asleep as he slips away, closes the door behind him.
To come back is always to return, from wherever you may have left. To come back implies a homecoming, and the back of a human body is its spinal column, which means this must also be a home, one that may be substituted for others when there is nowhere else to go or someone has been made homeless. Whenever someone may feel lost or abandoned, she can always go back to her body, to the spine supporting the rest of the skeleton. Though Ayla knows hers is not as it should be—not half as tall and straight as everyone else’s on this island, perhaps everyone else across this entire world—whenever she rubs her hands over those parts of her back she can reach, feeling for her upper and lower vertebrae, she tries to mimic Jason’s gentleness, though she tries without succeeding. In his absence, Ayla knows a new kind of misery. Part of her feels grateful for it.
By the time another tourist season comes and the whales have returned along with the tourists, Maris has left the body of the only whale who ever stayed here throughout the year’s duration. She has now left the water and journeyed somewhere else, to the mainland. When Ayla realizes at last she could do the same, go somewhere different, it is too late for her, however. Because her spine’s concavity has grown even more exaggerated with time, because of the physical pain its severity inflicts, she doesn’t have the strength to board the ferry, to even climb the dozen steps down to the dock from which the boat leaves. By her early forties, she no longer cleans the rooms at the Victorian inn, no longer sleeps in its attic during summer but stays at the lighthouse through all four seasons. She knows Jason isn’t coming back to the house with the round walls where he has been its only guest. He soon has his two children, a pretty wife who likes his ledgers and toolboxes.
Every summer, the lighthouse attracts hundreds of photographers and artists, people who are capable of endless staring at the place where she lives, people fond of taking paintbrush to canvas, pencil to sketchpad as they squint one eye until they can see what they want to see with clarity either real or imagined. They stand and stare at a place whose eponymous light is lightless. For Ayla, sitting inside this place with all her flesh bared to the sun coming through the window above the oven, her hand grazing her orifices, it is almost as though most people warm to things even more once these things have become anachronisms, once they serve little to no purpose. Songs without words, to which no one ever knows the meaning—this is Ayla’s favorite kind of music, the music of animals, of water and wind. The chorus of each song goes on and on, without beginning or end, across all the oceans of the world. She knows this and yet cannot believe it.