In the markets of Llanelli and Swansea, beside the mussels and oysters, sit heaps of cockles.
I gather them; I am responsible for the mountains of shells that shift and dwindle as the housewives come and go. Sometimes I cook them, too. On the plate, they nestle between bread and bacon, their grimy grey exteriors boiled open to show the orange flesh within. In the predawn darkness, I put them out for breakfast. My husband shakes with snores above, until the smell rises up and wakes him. Then my morning quiet shifts to the silence he inflicts. At night, I check his boots for dust, to see if they have been walked to the quarry or the pub. I know better than to speak then, too.
I only break the silence, my fast of words, as the sun climbs over the hills and I climb into the donkey cart. Already lined with women, I find a place on the bench among them, sack and sieve in hand. We knock knees as the cart bumps down to the beach. ‘Morning Eirlys bach,’ they say, and love stirs itself in my heart. Poor children, turned out early into the street, eyeball us as our cart goes by. We are objects of fear to them, with our wind-whipped faces and hunched-up backs. They, little innocents, do not know there are worse things to face inside a home than briny winds and quick-turning tides.
As a child, I was so not naive. I listened to stories. The one about the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach was the best of all. Out of her lake she would emerge, enticed by the mooning eyes of men who lingered on her shores. Drawn by her beauty, they would propose in turn, offering food and a share of life on their farmsteads. ‘Hurt me and I am gone,’ she would tell them, marrying often but never staying for long. The lady slipped away easily, back to the sanctuary of her watery home.
When my young man singled himself out, I forgot the stories were warnings carried by word of mouth. He said my name so sweetly, I thought I would never want to slip away.
They come back to me now, as I bend over the cockle beds, searching for grimy grey shells. Seawater runs across the sand in streams, forming landscapes that I bring earthquakes upon with my sieve. I think of him too, my cockle shell husband, all shut-tight respectability till the wrong word boils him up. In the moments when I straighten for rest, I look to the sea, scanning the waves for wherever she went—until brine-slicked arms go round my shoulders and the women whisper comfort in my ear, turning me back to solid ground.
Hetty is an English Lit graduate from Somerville College, Oxford. She has previously been published in StoneCrop Review and the ISIS magazine. When not writing, she enjoys wandering round new places, wild swimming and drinking endless cups of tea.