“Himeya” by M. Raoulee
They tell me they found what was left of my father broken on the rocks with the last of his men. I knew. I saw the red water seeping out of the windward bay. I’ve wept, realizing besides— the island will not be ours anymore.
When she comes for me, I go with the Shark Woman. I let her mark my shoulder with one of the teeth she wears. My skin looks sickly pink against hers even in the torchlight.
She says, “Everything in the sea is there for a reason,” and holds her hand over the spindrift gathering around us. “All the fish and all the pearls; the water vipers and the sharks; what of our brothers has washed away.”
One of the men says my father’s name, then sets fire to the outrigger that would have been mine if it hadn’t needed to serve as a funeral ship tonight. It drifts out on the tide as it burns.
The Shark Woman squeezes my wound. I bleed. “He will wait for you in Himeya’s Kingdom-body.” Soft as smoke and only for my ears she adds, “For now, you look enough like the people who killed him.”
Our island is given as spoils to the general who left so many of his men to rot alongside ours.
He hires servants from his homeland— fragile, pale people who choke in the sun. Come the evening before the first arrivals should be presented to him, I drag one of the girls into the surf and I tell myself once more: everything in the sea is there for a reason. Her empty body turns over in the waves and sinks away.
I long to follow even her ghost. I have not dived, have not put my pink hands to the hearts of a reef since the Shark Woman cut me.
My name is Anna now, according to her papers. What a small, silly name, I think, even as I realize that her clothing doesn’t quite fit me.
The general’s family calls themselves Idoran. Their patriarch looks all the maids and butlers over. When he comes to me, he runs the handle of his walking stick under my chin. I stare up at him through the heat shimmer of the afternoon as he turns me this way and that and finally slaps my attention away.
The blow’s not as hard as I expected.
“Don’t look me in the face, girl,” he sneers, and neatens his shirt sleeves before he strides off. “That one needs a workout. Take her to the brat.”
One of his men pulls me off through the halls of his manor. The vaulted galleries leave me thinking of beached whale carcasses, of standing beneath naked ribs amidst the sickly sweet scent of rot.
I am given to Lourice, the second daughter. Though she’s ghostly pale, she has hair as dark and coarse as sea urchin spines. It’s the same color mine used to be before the Shark Woman made me tint it red.
Lourice brought a host of books from her homeland. They overflow with ink sketches of cadavers. She drinks glasses of sherry before she sleeps and she likes her clothes laid out on her bed once she’s risen. Her skirts she changes more than the other women in this house, but she takes walks along the beach and gets sea salt on her hems.
I carry a parasol when she goes out, though Lourice catches all the little shade it makes.
She says, looking out over the blue horizon, “I like having the ocean in my backyard. It’s interesting, you know?”
“It’s…” I start to answer. I have no simple words for Himeya, all She is and shall be.
Lourice hums, leaning closer, almost to the edge of her cover.
I end up repeating something I’ve heard the other maids say, “It’s nice enough.” That, rather than the ten thousand things I mean.
“Very! So, do you think we’ll see any more dead octopuses today?”
I shrug. We walk on. I move through the brightness of the far edge of the parasol and I pretend not to notice when my lips burn in the midday sun.
General Idoran’s wife is his second. He tells her to give him more children, but the only answer she gives him is a slow, sharp look from her side of the table.
When she learns that I did not fight being placed in her stepdaughter’s service, she insists on borrowing me for the afternoon, then winds the thread for the lace she’s weaving around my hands. I can’t go more than a few inches from her like that.
“You should be mine,” she says.
“But I’m not yours,” I offer meekly, though the words flicker in the back of my throat.
The thread squeezes my fingers, then creeps into her work. “Not now, anyway.”
By nightfall, my hands are numb.
It’s not a week later that the cooks find the general with one of the scullery maids bent over a counter.
The lady strides up to him and trails one knitting needle along his cheek. “I’ll give you children,” she says. “They’ll look like you, but they won’t be yours.”
The maid sinks out of his grasp and into a strand of broken oyster shells. “Oh, that,” says General Idoran. “I suppose I’d have better luck marrying off the brat than getting anywhere with you.”
Lourice grabs my hand and pulls me with her as pans and wine bottles go over in the kitchen.
Dinner is late that night. Lourice reads an anatomy book full of vein diagrams while she waits.
I don’t see the maid or her tattered stockings again.
I witness these things and still, there’s so much that slips my senses. A diver’s hearing is not that of a farmer or a hunter. The Shark Woman knew this when she chose me.
Every time I meet her in the shadow of the manor, she puts her hand to my shoulder and the scar she cut there. “Do not be ashamed,” she says tonight. “Everything you tell me will have meaning.”
I press my hand over hers.
“We’ll find use for it. If you make little progress this year, then so be it. There will be more years. They can’t stop that.”
She doesn’t bid farewell to me before she vanishes again. Only her warmth remains, that even against the spring night. In the distance, the tide howls.
Suitors arrive soon after. The second one puts his hand down Lourice’s bodice.
I’m capable of breaking his fingers, but Anna is not. She runs out of the room sobbing for a guard and I hear my voice as she does it. The suitor finds himself escorted into a muddy canal.
Back in her chambers, Lourice fumbles the rips in her ribbons. General Idoran handles them too. Rather than accept her careless Father…, he cuffs her. “I expect better from you in the future.”
“Of course,” she answers, only to give him one more whisper I cannot catch.
He hesitates, looking at her as if she stepped out of the waves with no other mother. He never seems to recognize her. He curses and he leaves.
I move to the liquor cabinet and I pour one of the thicker, darker cordials, since it isn’t bedtime, isn’t time for sherry.
Lourice spits the blood from her torn cheek into her glass before she hands it back to me.
“I seem to recall you’re especially used to this,” she says.
I nod. I doubt I’ll be able to mend her ribbons.
The third suitor barely speaks. The fourth, he asks my name, and I stare in silence at him for a long plunge of my heart before I answer. He nods and forgets and decides to talk about Lourice’s parlor flowers.
“That one’s some kind of algae. I have trouble with the name,” she tells him, meaning the sea lily struggling outside of its tidepool.
“What curious things they have here!” The suitor gazes through the window to the fires still leaking black smoke where the jungle hasn’t burned away yet. “Say, I hear the natives believe the ocean is a woman named Himeya.” He says Her name in this snapped, stilted way.
“Yes,” answers Lourice.
“She and the water are the same or somesuch. Supposedly, you can’t so much as cast a reel into…”
“Yes. Please tell me about the thing the villagers swear by every single day.”
The suitor purses his lips. “Well, you could have said you knew what I was on about.”
“Himeya…” Lourice’s tongue also slides clumsily around Her name, “…is ineffable and cruel and nonetheless, we should not speak poorly of her.”
“And wasn’t there something about her lover betraying her?” The suitor rolls his wine glass between his fingers.
Lourice hums through motes of ash suspended in the sunlight. “Ineffable.” It’s all the more she says to him.
“You’re not going to get a prince!” the general thunders.
“I don’t want one,” Lourice replies. The cutting remarks drift into other matters after. The farmers still torching the hills have gained little, lost trees they meant to spare to the flames. Lourice and I return to her room amidst another fit of discussion over this.
She undresses herself, then goes to wash. I drape her nightgown over the bed. Once she finishes perfuming herself, I untangle her sea urchin hair.
“You’re the only person who’s met all the boys,” she says. “What do you think?”
“It isn’t my place.”
“It’s your place if I ask you plainly.” She turns over her shoulder to offer me that.
I set the comb aside. “They have no purpose,” I say.
“Ah. That’s a diplomatic way to put it.”
She shifts, her long legs crossing and her hands reaching over the limpet blue of her sheets as she tells me, “I want… I want to be with someone worth my time. Does that make any sense to you?”
“It makes all the sense in the sea,” I say, unthinking.
Lourice’s lips just barely part in the candlelight. Once I put that out, she shakes back to herself. She pulls me down on the blue with her.
I don’t know why she would. And for me, I can’t help it, Anna or not Anna, it’s all far too strange. I laugh.
“Bring me a man, if you can find a good one.”
Days later, I tell the Shark Woman about that instead of the suitors. After all, those have drifted away.
The servants stand in attendance to the general railing at one of his mainland emissaries. I watch an unfamiliar footman bite his lip. There’s that glint of understanding in him. He knows that the hills would give up luscious harvests if only the general learned how they cycled and breathed.
I bite my lip as well, though I lose any sense of the words around me. At a certain pitch, all sounds become a spring tide roar. The servants cringe. But, the footman, he realizes what I can’t hear. He lets his suit pull aside so that I can see the scar on his collar bone.
I think to myself, were he not so pale, were his hair not tinctured blond, he would strike me as handsome. He’s not for me, of course.
I meet him outside in the midnight thrum of the surf and I ask him in the tongue Himeya gave us how steady the breathing of the sea felt on his way here.
We smile at one another in the darkness.
Lourice asks Makaro first of all if he understands how fish go together inside. He would have learned this at his mother’s side as soon as he could hold a knife, but he still draws with her in the light of the oil lamps I’ve lit in the garret at the south end of the house.
I was born on this island, but the heat of this space still makes me flush.
When Lourice climbs into his lap and runs her hand down his hip, Makaro answers by holding her there and guiding her to other places on his body. They shudder on one another’s fingers for a long while before she comes up writhing. Then, she stretches out on the old sheets beneath them and they crash together, soft-soaked as they whisper one another’s names, as she wraps her leg around him.
I watch them with my eyes half-closed. I don’t mind seeing anyone entangled this way. It was never something I looked away from before, but now, I make myself think about diving. That will keep my head clear in the moments I wait, fists on the trap door, ready to push back if anyone tries to open it.
I wait for hours.
Makaro leaves before dawn. Lourice lies in the outline of his body, resplendent in his scent.
“That was wonderful,” she tells me.
“I’m glad,” I say and I help her dress before I carry the sheets back to the servant’s quarters’ laundry.
Even in this early splash of the day, there are people singing with each other in their beds, so one more set of love-stained linens won’t matter.
Makaro and I make a game of sneaking him and Lourice together. I decide that there will be no begging off, no feigning illness. He should not show weakness when he’s sleeping with Lourice who dares to smirk at her father. Our work comes down to navigation and more bitten lips; the fact Makaro’s duties keep him longer than they should some nights or leave him smelling of perfumed polishes that we scrub off with sea water.
I do bribe one of the other maids to pretend she drifted off to sleep in a different hallway than she did, but she leaves thinking I’m the one having Makaro in the bower woven between the rafters. No, it’s Lourice, glistening with wine and festival makeup while her father screams at the kitchen staff, while he doesn’t even realize that she’s gone.
His daughter meets her lover on the beach another night, but they finish in the garden since Makaro almost gives himself away explaining why the sand won’t do for lovemaking.
“I’ve never actually been naked outside,” Lourice whispers to me afterwards among the closed hibiscus buds. “But I’ve also never been pregnant before.”
I nod. What else can I do? Ah, besides fasten her clothes.
The Lady Idoran is taken from the parlor. She retches somewhere underneath her tears.
“You should disown me,” Lourice tells the general.
So, I will have no need to let her secret sleep.
The general’s battle-scarred fingers trace along her temple. “I would never do you that favor,” he says, and there’s nothing in his voice but the words, there before he takes himself into the hall and demands that none of the maids, none of the butlers, should let Lourice out of her chambers.
Lourice makes her way, calm as if she had chosen to go there herself. Back in her own space, she plucks a book down from her collection. “So much for going on walks,” she says. “You can bring Makaro here, right?”
Since I am Lourice’s maid, I’m all but confined myself. She teases me with the anatomy books at first, but I tell her: “I’ve heard enough about them from you these past few years.”
It has been years by then that Anna has served her.
Lourice shrugs, then puts me on a chair beside her. She goes over the notes one of her favorite professors made on the workings of wombs. Many of them I had gathered from my own, but the particulars of how they may open or close or rupture like ripe mermaid’s purses seems fascinating enough.
“So, that’s that, and as for men…”
“No,” I say. “Tell me about hearts.”
“Oh, you mean, thoracic anatomy.” Lourice smiles, half-hungry in the way she does it. “That’s a lot. Maybe tomorrow.”
We’re both sore from hunching over the pages. She stretches, hand on her stomach. I go outside and pluck seashells for her to toy with, passing them up through the window on a fishhook strung through one of her ribbons.
Some of the conches aren’t as empty as I would bring to other women, but those are the ones that make her smile.
Lady Idoran visits with a bottle of sherry. “Another from my private stock, since you’re so determined to drink me dry.”
I pour as evening falls, as Lourice resettles her hips one more time.
The conversation rides on things outside of the room— dead crops and drowned pearl divers from the servant stock, how these have left the lady without maids to hold her lace thread. “Even the water’s vicious,” says the lady out of a spell of silence. “I’ve no idea how anyone lived here.”
Lourice opens her mouth to respond, but whimpers instead. She stumbles to her feet and towards the bath. I follow. The lady stays, staring out the window.
I have one last blinding hope that Lourice is simply ill, but her legs slick over red. She’s hardly four months gone so she screams at me, but there’s nothing for it by then except to give her somewhere to rest her head.
“Please kill me. Please. I can’t do this.” she begs. “I can’t.”
“Why would I hesitate?” I ask but… then I haven’t. I haven’t made a sound.
Lourice clings to me and she sobs and my knees go damp with her blood.
The physician manages to stop Lourice from bleeding and, for the pain, puts her out. Lourice’s eyes don’t close after, though she sleeps.
I stare down at her a long while through moonrise. I could hold a pillow over her face and that would be the end of it, of her. I would have done as she asked. I would have made my mark on this family at last.
Instead, I tuck a towel under her lips as they trickle wet.
I move to help myself to the sherry then, little as I care for the stuff. Lourice’s glass stands empty, but the lady’s has not been touched.
I pour the entire bottle out of the window. Let it poison something out there. At least, let it poison some other part of this house.
Rather than smash the bottle as well, I go walking like I haven’t in so long, wandering between the bowers I made. Those are quiet and alone tonight. I may be caught in the Idoran’s house, in my duty to my people, but these places, I found them amongst the bones of the mansion and they could almost be mine.
They could, but they aren’t. The rustling in one comes to bother me, then the anemone of ripped lace I find in another. I move to the garden. I breathe, but no air seems to soothe me. I remember that once I took much smaller draughts when I surfaced from the pearl beds. I remember that they were more than enough.
Someone else gasps off in the hibiscus grove. I peer through the quiet blossoms.
The lady’s skirt rides up Makaro’s thighs and his tongue skims along the corner of her mouth. As he moves against her, she shifts sideways, lips nearing the mark on his collar bone. “I can’t believe you,” he whispers, laughing low.
“The brat’s not mine, so…” her voice crests into a moan. “But you are, aren’t you?”
I cannot hear his answer. I still know it as the garden sinks behind me in the night. I don’t realize I’m running until my muscle memory snaps into place on the stairs to Lourice’s chambers.
No one has cleaned where she knelt, so I do as I would for a child I had lost. I gather what I can and I carry it down to Her Kingdom-body in a bucket meant for oyster shells. At the cusp of the shore, I cast everything off. The moonlight trickles violet and then turns silver once again.
Sand that should filter out from under my feet lingers. The sensation comes strange enough to make my bare legs twinge. Around me, the sea sighs. I remain, braced on the last thing that comes steady to my hearing— Her voice. The next heady wave I accept across all of my skin.
A swirl of foam and salt and wonders washes up before me.
I know Her. I know Her way. What lies at my feet must be mine, given for a reason.
My heart throbs in my throat, but I thank Her, Himeya whose name these people cannot even speak.
Makaro finds me dripping outside of his window. Of all the things he’s forgotten, the appeal of a diver offering herself still full of the ocean’s breath is not one.
“Thank you,” he says. “Thank you so much for all you’ve given up.”
I would tell him that I had very little to surrender, but then again, there was no woman born before me who carried what I do. None who lived, anyway.
As Makaro smooths his grasp onto me, the water viper unfurls from my bodice, opens her mouth and her spines.
Makaro loses his voice to her venom before he can scream.
He stares at me in recognition, lip bitten. His whole body spasms as the snake courses away from him over the still-warm flagstones. A few tears squeeze out of his eyes, and white spit from his mouth. His heart sputters and he lies still.
I leave him.
The general only takes a week to break the new footman’s wrist. No one else fills his place.
I would see the Shark Woman to tell her, but the next night I’m meant to meet her, I find myself staring into the cobbles where Makaro choked away. I don’t go. I don’t even think about going again. My currents have a purity beyond hers.
Lourice moves listlessly now, though her body has mended, or so say the physicians. Sometimes, I press shells under her hands and sometimes I find that she’s left them by her candles.
I would very well call this a quiet handful of weeks after all the time I’ve spent as Anna. They only end when the emissary from the mainland can’t do more than beg for whatever it is the Idorans are supposed to be farming in the place where the jungle once thrived.
“I will not give you what I do not have!” bellows the general. I think he might break more than then the wrist of this man, but instead he turns away and his hands tremble in too tight fists. “Get out,” he manages at last. So, he is left alone.
I steal through the corridors after the emissary. When he hears my footsteps and turns to me, I plead, “Sir, forgive m’lord. He is distraught over his daughter’s illness.”
“I heard,” he answers coolly.
I follow him down across the sandy flagstones. I do not bow my head. I see in his face how certain he is that I will.
His moment does not come.
“M’lord loves this place so much, but it has been so cruel to his family. If he could only remember what he won that day.”
“Who are you to say these things to me, girl?”
“I listen.” I also stride close to the emissary now, guiding him towards sight of the shoreline. “The people here love the sea and call her Himeya. They say the wonder here comes from Her…”
He raises an eyebrow then as I hand him a shell, one from Lourice’s bedside.
“…flesh, for wont of a better word.”
The emissary purchases a fine outrigger, made by one of the last of our shipwrights. Of course, he apologizes for how “clumsy” and “ugly” it is when he presents it to the general.
The one that should have been mine was not so different, perhaps carved more intricately at the bow. This one, though, she cuts through the waves with such abiding purpose.
Himeya must adore her. I think that and I blush to rest on her benches.
“Damn, they painted the sail,” says the emissary, scratching his cheek in embarrassment. He cannot read its prayers for calm weather written there in rust, though he ties it as I told him. The wind catches and the outrigger speeds out past the bay, past the place where the tide once ran red. As we cross into the open water, our escort boats lag behind and the lady laughs aloud at the wind nearly taking her hat.
Lourice keeps her half-lidded gaze on the horizon. I pull her hand into mine and fill her palm with a flacon of pig’s blood.
She stares at that, then me.
The emissary shouts that he can send no more men to grow ashes.
I show Lourice the rest of the flacons in the picnic basket between us; how easily they snap on the stern. So, she takes hers and she breaks it. She reaches to me and she never says more, but her eyes ask and tide around us blooms scarlet.
When we have emptied the basket I slide across the outrigger and I cut one rope along the boom. I duck, pushing Lourice down with me. The sail whistles over our heads.
Not so the emissary— he catches the boom in his back. He breaks and topples overboard.
If the lady fell or if she jumped, all I see of her is sodden whiteness casting against the surface. She begs, begs like a child, lifting herself to the general. He takes her hands as foam rises scarlet around them. I try to kick him, try to throw all of my weight his way at last, but in the end the lady drags him into her arms as the ocean around them shimmers with sharks who have come for the pigs’ blood.
The ship thumps on one enormous body skimming beneath us, then another and then there’s a rush out where their voices used to be, howling breaker crashes that blow out on silence.
In that, I pick myself up. I do what I can to right the sail since this ship deserves at least that much.
The next sound I make out clearly is Lourice laughing. She moves to stand on the prow of the ship Himeya holds so tenderly, there beside me.
“Everything in the sea is there for a reason,” I say. I hold my hand out over the water as though I had right to make any such show to Her; to know Himeya, to dare speak of Her to anyone called Idoran.
Then there comes a hand on mine.
I realize Lourice has taken me there. She holds me so tight and she smiles through her tears, even to the moment when she pulls me close. She kisses me the way she used to kiss the boy who was Makaro.
My heart pounding against her, I realize that for her and me— moments will come when we cannot reach another shore, when she will know, when I will tell her anyway, when we will sink, when we will drown. There is no place left for us on the shore any longer.
Let the sea take our hands as well. We are here.
We must belong in the great, blue Kingdom-body of all the world.
|M. Raoulee is an author and artist currently roaming with a pack of coyotes somewhere in Arizona. You may remember her from Broken Metropolis, Lackington’s, or other fine venues. She has never dropped a cat on a draft for science and she is not currently howling at the moon while drinking a Twelve Mile Limit.|