by Tobias Wade
A girl is chased from her home and must decide where she belongs.
| There was a village so close to the sea that it might fall in, hanging as it was on the precipice of rocks above the cold grey waters. It smelled of salt by night and fish by day when the fresh haul was dragged across the stony beach in great twined nets of seaweed. It was famous from the western shore to the farthest eastern isle as the home of the richest waters to be found. So too was it famous for its storms that would leave brave men locked in their basements for fright. The winds would howl as beasts and whip the frothing waters into great monsters of the night. The sky would be torn apart by blankets of lightning to make the darkest night brighter than midday. The storms would never touch the village though, and the people there lived as ones blessed by the good grace of the ocean.
There was one old widow who was the bravest among men, and each morning her nets would be filled with the most beautiful fish ever caught. She lived alone with her daughter in a house built on the beach, so close to the sea that the first floor would be under three feet of water when the tide came in. The old woman and her daughter slept in the rafters on the second floor, and when they desired to use the first the old woman would call out to the sea and it would withdraw, a turtle back into its shell. The whole village called her the Queen of the Sea, for wherever she went the angry waters would pacify and the murky depths would clear to reveal the schools of fish below. It had been said that once an older boy was bullying her daughter, putting small crustaceans down her dress and tying sea weed in her hair. The waters had risen up in anger at the word of their Queen and washed the poor boy to sea, never to be seen again. Whether it was true or not, the two lived alone and unmolested despite their fame.
Even for the Queen of the Sea, fishing is very hard work. To wake before dawn to catch the tides and to haul great nets overflowing with fish, to mend the cords and weave the clothes and make sure the house on the beach was tight from the probing waves. All of these as well as caring for her daughter alone bore heavily on the woman. One day the sun had beaten her in rising, a thing that had never happened before. The next day she stayed in bed for long hours into the day and the third she never rose at all. She had grown weak, and though her daughter called for aid the other villagers who feared the Queen of the Sea kept away. Her daughter sat beside her day and night, alone together save for the salt in the air and the water beneath them ebbing its way into the house. There on the fourth day the Queen passed, heralding that night the greatest storm the village had ever seen. It churned the waters into towering pillars that crashed upon the shore. Brave men and women fled from the beach, higher into the hills to escape the wrath but found the sea pursuing them where they went. The wind lashed the small boats tethered to the ground and lifted them flying through the air as weightless kites. Then down they crashed to earth, or colliding in mid air they would burst in a rain of splinters. The trees bent with the rhythm of the sky and the earth shook for the thunder. When the morning found calm, the village had been completely destroyed save for the house of the Queen, there at the very edge of the water, safe and untouched by the storm.
The villagers crept back to where their homes had been and lamented their loss, and how readily grief is turned to anger when they saw the old Queen’s daughter step from her unharmed house. Witchcraft they said, that the village should be destroyed. Sorcery and black magic that hers alone should survive. They drove her from her house and tore it apart plank by plank so that they might use the wood to begin rebuilding their own houses. The daughter of the sea, weak from grief at her mothers death and afraid of the villagers fled to highest rock precipice overlooking the sea and buried her head in her hands.
Down she looked at the jagged rocks below her, down at the stony beach and the terrible fall. How easy it would be to make a step, and would the wind catch her as it did the sailing ships in the storm? Would it send her flying to dance safely above the rocks and waves? Would the sea love her as it did her mother and cradle her in its waters, or would she be dashed to nothingness and be nothingness forevermore? Down she looked, and in her contemplation she saw something else there on the beach. It was a trail of crabs scuttling too and fro across a stretch of pebbled sand, making little marks wherever they went.
“What can cure me, bleeding without wounds and broken without a mark?” she called to the crabs below. They altered their scuttling paths and scratch scratch scratched away into the sand. Words revealed themselves in their wake to answer her:
“Salt cures all wounds.” spelled out the words in the sand.
“What salt could cure these?” she asked.
“The salt of tears.” the crabs respond. And so she wept atop her rock. She wept for her mother she had lost and for the village that had chased her away. She wept at not belonging in the village she was born in and continued weeping until the salt of her tears stung her eyes and blurred her vision. At last tears became sobs and sobs became heaving until her tears ran dry, having been sitting alone for hours without cessation of her pain.
“Tears cannot cure these wounds.” she said to the crabs below.
“The salt from sweat.” was scrawled into the sand.
She stood from her rock and went down to the village again. Her house gone, her mother gone, she asked what had become of her? The villagers said she had been washed out to sea when the house was removed, back to where she belonged. Her tears dried she fought back her grief and set to work alongside them. Plank by plank by log by log she found the driftwood that the ocean returned from its raid on the village. Log by log by plank by plank she built their houses just as they had been. When it was time to build her own house, no one would assist her however.
“It is your mothers curse that brought this storm upon us! She was the Queen of the Ocean and so it must have done this at her bidding.”
Sweat soaked her brow and down her wearied body from her day of work, stinging from her eyes down to the cuts in her feet, she had not the strength to build her own house now. As night fell she lay herself down beside the water and waited for herself to be cured. Where was the deep breathing of her mother, that rhythm to match each wave that crashed upon the shore? Where was the comforting warmth nearby, more presence than body that kept the storms at bay? She tossed and turned more than the sea, and unable to find sleep, until eventually she returned once more to her rocky precipice.
“I have cried my tears and sweat my sweat, and the salt has cured nothing. What salt could cure these wounds?” she called below her.
The crabs were asleep and the beach still. The sand wiped clean of any marks by the lapping of waves. Nothing but the chill of the night to answer her, the sea wind whipping to play with her hair and dress. The wind carrying the salt of the waters, filling her lungs and calming her.
“The salt of the sea.” she said, to herself for she was absolutely alone. She climbed down from her perch and walked along the stony beach. She breathed in the sea that was in front of her, all about her and inside of her. What cure lay here?
A rush of wind and the sea reared its frothy head once more. She did not move, not afraid nor hopeful, simply aware. One vessel had not been destroyed by the terrible storm. It had been thrown so high into the air that it had taken a full day to fall back to earth. Here it fell now, right in front of her eyes from the very ceiling of the sky it fell. The wind caught it and again it sailed through the air as easily as it might have sailed over water. Down it drifted, gently now, gently into the embrace of the ocean, sitting before her fully intact with its sail billowing wide and its small mast proud and unbent. She stepped aboard the vessel, for what else are you to do when the sky gives you such a gift?
Out into the ocean she sailed, cutting through the quiet night and leaving small ripples behind her in time. An hour passed as gently as a minute elsewhere for her mind was clear and still. The salt air that filled the sail filled her as gently and together they were propelled far from the grey line of shore.
Alone and still the wind died away, leaving her adrift. She lay there for a long while, letting the soft rocking waves lull her to the sleep she could not find ashore. It was not until late in the morning when she awoke, jolting upright at the sound of voices.
“What’s it doing, so far from the land?”
“Why does it sit atop the wood? Does it not swim?”
“Do we eats it? Or does it eats us? Perhaps we eats each other”
She looked over into the calm blue waters to see fish talking amongst themselves. They were the great beautiful fish that her mother had been able to catch, those kings of fish that were the envy of every other fishermen on the waves.
“I will not eat you,” spoke the girl warily, “if you do not eat me.”
“That seems fair. Join us then, if it belongs here.”
“I do not know that I belong here, only that I do not belong there,” she said, trying to gesture back towards land but not seeing it in any direction at all. There was nothing but the uniform diversity of rolling waves in all directions, each unique and each replicated a thousand times over.
“It should be back with her parents the poor thing.”
The girl stifled the tears that so readily brimmed to her eyes again. “I have none. My mother is gone, and now I am alone.”
“Then we shall take her to her father.” the fish agreed amongst one another.
“I have none, for I have never known my father.” And this was true. For as long as the girl had lived she had only ever had a mother. She had asked why the other children had fathers and she did not, and her mother had only replied each time ‘You are the daughter of the sea, that is enough.’
“Of course she has a father, silly thing. Everyone has to have one.” And with that the great glimmering fish began rocking the boat, first this and that, their efforts aided by the obliging waves until it looked as if she would tumble out completely.
“Stop! What are you doing? I’ll drown!” The fish paid no heed, back and forth, back and forth until the boat capsized completely and the girl fell into the water with a splash.
She panicked as the water sank into her dress and provided a great weight to drag at her. She struggled as her head was pulled farther and farther below the water, the white rippling ring of the sun growing dimmer as she grew farther from it. And then all at once she felt air enter her lungs and the film of water clear from her eyes. Down she went, deep under the waves but found she could see and breathe as easily as if she were above the surface. One great fish nosed itself below each arm and she held fast to them as they guided her downward. How quickly the memories of the surface world faded as she beheld the splendor of below.
There was a great forest of kelp that rose from the depths around her. First the tips and thin snaky leaves became visible, which resolved themselves into mighty trunks as she sank lower. They kept growing in width until they were as wide around as the mightiest trees she had ever seen, except instead of staying rigid these gargantuan appendages of the ocean swayed and danced as delicately as a flower in the breeze. Down and down they go, through a cloud of fish shining with every color of the rainbow. They wove a bright tapestry around her, talking amongst themselves in the chattering of children. Through the cloud she burst, to see great mountains lining the floor of the ocean bustling with more strange creatures than she could name. There was a fish with more mouth than body, eating itself again and again to turn inside out each time. There was a creature like an octopus with so many legs that it could roll in any direction and find a foot to guide its path. There were monstrous creatures that sailed through the water with sublime grace that defied their size and swarms of others so small that they could be inhaled if one were not careful, each resembling a snowflake as they drifted through the water.
Most wonderful of all however were the merfolk. They bore the upper bodies of grecian gods melded seamlessly with the great tails of a fish, giving powerful strokes in the water to propel them rapidly forward or swishing back and forth lazily so that they drifted and spun merrily. They were each going about their own tasks with purpose, but dropped these immediately to follow her when she appeared. They formed a procession behind her as she was led by the fish to the very base of the tallest mountain in the sea. The entrance was an arch of living coral a hundred feet tall, with two massive pillars of kelp on either side. These were woven into each other to form an impenetrable door to block the path. Here she was left in the company of a noble merman who drifted in front of her.
“No daughter of the land may enter here. Where is your mother?” he asked her.
“I am the daughter of the sea, and my mother is gone to the sea before I.” replied the girl.
“And your father?”
“I have no father, or, perhaps he is the sea. In that case he is here with me.”
“That is yet to be seen. You can breathe here where there is no air and see where there is no light, and the weight of the ocean bears no burden atop your shoulders. We shall see however.”
“What is inside the mountain? And may I enter now?” she asked, curious to what could be concealed at the heart of the ocean when so many wondrous sights were left to plain sight.
“A palace beyond all palaces, for inside dwells the king of the sea. Before admittance I must see if you are truly his daughter. You are to suffer a trial, and should it be passed you will be allowed in to live in the castle.”
“And if I cannot pass?” she asked.
“Then you will drown.”
The girl consented, having no life she wished to return to behind her. The merman took her by the hand and beat his tail surely in the water so that they both left at a great pace. The other merfolk, while curious, returned to their work about the palace. All the other creatures split before them with great respect so as not to hinder their journey. The merman took her before a vent that cut deeply into the earth and bid her look inside.
“What do you see?” he asked her.
“The whole world above the water, from the sky to the trees to every blade of grass is inside. There’s the rock I sat upon overlooking the water, and here the village that is no longer my home. I see in it each villager that is not my friend.” she answered. For indeed, there was the entire world stretched out below her. How small they all looked, toiling to rebuild their village, and how great was the world around them.
“What kind of world do you see?” he asked.
“The world that killed my mother.”
“And what kind of people?”
“The people who let her die.” she answered.
“Reach inside, and tell me what you find.” She did as she was bidden but upon reaching the vent she found an invisible layer of glass covering it. She looked back at him in confusion and he continued:
“Your test is this: break the glass and you may enter the castle and live there for as long as you wish. Let the waters of the ocean flood over the world and wash away that place that you do not call home and each person you do not call a friend.”
She hesitated in thought, but knew even before she lifted her fist to do so that she could not. “I don’t wish them harmed.” she replied.
“You would be living in the castle here, a palace that mocks every other on the surface of the earth. There are walls of pearl, pink and white and black that shine with their own light. There are banquets of every food you can imagine and many you cannot. You would prove yourself the daughter of the sea, and more than that you’d be its Queen. You can have everything you want here, simply break the glass and prove yourself.”
“I can not.” spoke the girl.
“And the cost of failing the test is to be drowned. You called yourself the daughter of the sea? Do as you are bidden.”
“I will not. I am the daughter of the sea, but also the daughter of the land. What is the ocean without land to hold fast to? If that is the cost of living in your castle then it is too high, it would be better that I drowned.”
The merman smiled in relief. “As your mother had chosen before you. To be Queen of the Sea is not to harness the sea’s power but to live in spite of it. You will return and as long as you live the village will be safe, and when it is your time they will be safe again as long as your daughter is wise. Now rise, Queen of the Sea, to your throne on the beach.”
The merman pushed her forward into the vent, through the glass without breaking it, and down she tumbled dry as the desert, to land back on her familiar rock overlooking the mighty ocean. When she returned to the village the angry waters calmed beside her and the villagers bowed their heads to the new queen. The storms spared the village once more, and the rich harvest brought prosperity again. Her house was rebuilt, right on the beach with the first floor that floods and the rafters that were dry by the thankful villagers. In the coming months she would find herself pregnant, and when it was time to have a child it would be a girl, and she would be the daughter of the sea.