[Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion and, more immediately, Chet Raymo’s forthcoming Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian. ]
I am haunted by images of Father slipping on the rocks, but I know that if I do not go out again today, I never will. Mother says it is especially important to find more items for the curiosity shop now that we will not have the income from Father’s cabinet-making. Yesterday we sold a whale’s tooth and some faded copper coins, but we have very little left. Mother sits outside manning the shop and Richard is in London sorting out matters with the uncles. I feel the wait of the world on my shoulders as I lift up my voluminous skirts and head out to the cliffs.
It is a warm summer day and I expect I shall other visitors to the Cobb. I shall try to work undisturbed with my hammer in the rock. Richard found the skull of a great creature here a few months ago, and ever since then, I have been hoping to make a discovery that will rival his in magnitude. We are keeping the skull in Mother’s room for now in the hope of selling it in London for a large sum, perhaps when we have other great findings as well. It is a sight to behold — four feet long, its jaws filled with sharp interlocking teeth, its eye sockets wide as saucers. I do not like to imagine the creature it once was, though sometimes it haunts my nightmares, along with Father’s ghost.
The warm spray lashes against my back as I gaze out to the horizon past the sea ramparts. Here is where the ships set sail to greet the Spanish Armada, and here is where the Duke of Monmouth landed, and maybe someday they will say that here is where Mary Anning gathered fragments of bone. But no matter. I do not care what they will say. I simply want us to have food on the table, and so I keep my eyes fixed on the task at hand, treading carefully on the slippery rocks.
After about two hours, when the cloud cover clears and Ware Cleeves looms up in the distance, I stop working to eat the bread and jam in my lunch pail. The jam is fresh, made from the berries that ripened while we were still mourning Father’s passing. For days I could not eat anything so sticky-sweet, but now I savor the return to the familiar tastes of childhood. Childhood, I say with such a clear sense of time’s demarcations. Childhood was then, before Father fell. The “after” does not yet have a name.
Again and again I imagine how Father lost his footing on these treacherous cliffs. I imagine him excited by the glint of something shiny protruding from the rock in the distance; I see him lurching forwards, then stumbling. I hear him cry out more in surprise than in fear; I hear his voice echoing back off the empty cliffs; and then I hear the silence once more.
Here, now, it is suddenly no longer silent. Below me there is a party of eight out on the rocks, four women in bonnets and great skirts accompanied by four men, all elegantly dressed. I watch them from my perch and hope that they cannot see me in all my shabbiness. But they continue to approach, and soon I can hear every word.
“Miss Elliot, you have done a good deed in making that poor fellow talk so much,” says one of the older men to a woman not much older than myself, though a bit more plump and rosy-cheeked. The woman shrugs her shoulders as if she does not deserve his compliment, and they walk on. Behind them, another of the young women skips across the rocks, her eyes always following the handsome man beside her. I want to tell her that she ought to walk more carefully, that these cliffs are slippery, that it was in just such a spot that Father lost his life. Soon they will come to the craggy stairs that we call Granny’s Teeth. Should I call down to her to proceed with more caution? I am reluctant to reveal my presence here; I so much prefer to be an anonymous observer of human society than to take part in all its messiness. I am, after all, a fossil gatherer. Still, she skips so lightly, and the cliffs of Lyme are so steep….
“Don’t talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth. Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell!” –Alfred Tennyson