All around you were reminders. The wooden patter of tiny feet racing down the pier. The fine-dressed doctors who could do nothing to save her. The cold, pitying glances of townsfolk as you sallied forth alone.
She’d begged you once never to go back, never to leave her wondering if you’d return with the tide. And you’d sat on the corner of her bed, her tiny body wrapped in ragged blankets worn from use, and you promised her no one was going anywhere.
“Never?” she’d asked, skeptically.
“Never,” you told her.
“Never never?” she pressed.
She laughed and believed.
Now that promise was broken and useless as you were.
You had to get away from all the life you’d grown accustomed to or risk drowning in memory and grief. Out on the waves, there were monsters and madness and nightmares of old. You’d seen the suckered arms of krakens, waving like ribbons in a storm, and women with sea-kelp for hair, daggers for teeth. The sea held dangers enough to keep the memories at bay, so you found a merchant vessel in need of deckhands and offered your experience.
The bosun gave a quick once-over, saw the leathery, wind-worn skin, the far-away look in your eyes. That vouched enough for experience. He welcomed you aboard. Lady of the Water she was called, though her skin was a rich earth-brown.
It felt the right course soon as your hand touched the wooden railing, rough and smooth, rich with salt and memory. You were home. An old, forgotten home you’d thought never to come back to. It felt a good place to forget.
Bronze men, their skins baked by the sun, ran about in their loose hanging slops, singing off-key shanties as they worked the sails, rigging, and knots. Anything to keep their minds from wandering too far off deck.
“Heave! Ho! Heave-ho away!
“Let go your hope, let go o’ your faith
“Push! Pull! We pitch and we sway!
Heave! Ho! Heave-ho away!”
The ship weighed anchor and you were gone from that place, the old life sinking under the horizon as if swallowed by the sea.
The old knots, hitches, and bends came back to your mind like lost loves. You weren’t as quick as the younger lads, but your rope work was cleaner and more reliable by far. Bowlines and butterflies, stoppers, cloves, and double beckets, appeared beautifully from the jumbled chaos of your bitter ends. The work kept your mind from lingering too long in one place. It kept you moving, kept you scrubbing, kept you knotting, kept you grinding. Until you weren’t even there at all. You were just these two strong arms, these rough and calloused hands.
Most days you were under the sun, in the open air. The water lapped at the bows, the wind kissed sweat from your skin, and you thought of nothing but their beauty until you forgot you were forgetting, and something bubbled up. Memories of the warm, newborn bundle held close to your chest, or her eight-year old smile, wreathed in sunlight, forced their way like daggers to your heart.
You asked the bosun to be moved down below. To work the bilge pump alone in the hull. The water there smelled foul—like rot, mold, and gangrene. Rats scurried about as you pumped and you pumped, releasing the water that crept through the cracks. Out to the deck and out through the scuppers, back to the sea it all went. But some always found its way back, and if not carefully managed, it would swell from the bottom and sink the whole ship.
The work was grimy and hard, but down in the muck that filmed around your legs, you didn’t even think of the red of her hair or how it was flecked with streaks of gold. You didn’t dwell on her dimpled smile or the freckles that littered her cheeks like crimson constellations.
You almost didn’t think of her at all.
At night, before retiring to your berth, you’d stand over the deck, lost in the whisper and wail of wind-whipped waves. And sometimes you’d swear her voice sang over the waters, carried from the green lands beyond. Most nights, you’d simply turn your back. Move along.
But some nights, when the deck was a mere skeleton crew, and each of them quiet as bones, your gaze would drift off and land on the moon, its face soft and bright as her own. And a tingling ache would rise from your chest, and lodge like a stone at the back of your throat, and gasping for breath, the words would slip out:
“I saw a fair maid on the rocks by the shore
And watched her hair wave like the sea I adore
Hey, Oh-Ho! Hey-oh, my darling!”
Once snug in your uncomfortable hammock bed, you’d be kept awake by the heat, or else the snores, or else the one item beside your clothes you brought from home. The locket belonged to her mother once, before that good woman said goodnight. And your sweetling cherished it and wore it the rest of her days. Now it was yours, and you occasionally put it under your nose, wondering if it still smelled of her hair and skin, but all you ever caught was the salt and sweat and stink below deck.
“Wha’s that there?” someone might ask.
“Nothing,” you’d say, slipping it back under your shirt—safe and buried—and then rolling off to sleep.
Inevitable. You could see it coming a long way off. Above, the clouds came together, conspiring against you and darkening the sky. But this far below, they seemed only gentle as they pulled across the earth, like the gray blanket she’d pulled up to her chin, hiding the pox that ravaged her skin. Tell me a story…the wind cried, conjuring memories of her sleepy and scared on her last night. You knew then as well, there were no safe ports to steer towards.
You never knew many stories. But you knew some songs once upon a time, songs shouted from crow’s nests and forecastles and in the belly of the hull. She’d always liked those best.
So you opened your throat and sang soft as smoke, “I saw a fair maid on the rocks by the shore…” And when she smiled her last smile, you cracked like a ship’s hull, welcoming the torrent before it swallowed you whole.
The storm battered you bow and aft, starboard and port. All around you wood groaned and crunched. Ropes whined as they pulled tight, then snapped, recoiling like whips. Men bandied about, above deck and below, following the captain’s stern shouts. They struggled to turn the ship leeward, to catch orders over the roar of the storm, but it was no use.
You knew it was no use, even if they refused. Your grief had pursued you over land and sea, bringing black, bitter clouds swollen with love, hurt, and rage. There was no running, no sailing, no hope of escape. You stood at the bow, ignoring orders and downpours, a mad thing hailing the sea.
“She sat and she wept a long river of tears
“That fattened the ocean, and to her kept near
“Hey, Oh-Ho! Hey-oh, my love!”
In the tumult of wind and wave, and the steady onslaught of rain, through the biting crack of thunder and the constant spittle of spray, there came a call from the crow’s nest, nearly as distant as Heaven, but only nearly.
You saw it then, the shadow approaching like a thief in the night: black rock jutting angrily from the sea—an island molded in the deep before thrusting skyward. For some reason it reminded you of the time you were happiest, when you’d first held her fragile form and knew you had purpose. Now you stared at that hard, painful rock, and wept with the rain.
The ship was anchored to wait out the storm, but that night a fog came rolling over the water, and with it, some of the crew claimed to hear whispers on the waves. There was talk of sirens and ghosts, of krakens, cruel captains, and other terrible things.
They searched about, starboard and port, but no one saw the schooner creeping out of the mist. Clangor and clank, came the hooks over the railing, and then the thum-thum of boots against the hull. Before anyone could raise the cry, bodies were rolling onto the deck. In their hands were long swords and short, and some held daggers in their teeth.
Terror stuck to your throat, thumped at your breast, as steel bit through linen, bit through flesh, and good men and foul spilled on the deck. But in your heart, you welcomed them, the fearful sight, and you almost didn’t think of her at all.
Cold steel pressed against your skin. Their speech was incomprehensible, but the growls and grunts were universal. You were guided to the portside rail with what remained of the crew, those few who hadn’t had thought or chance to fight back.
Once the survivors were accounted for, they slew the captain just to demonstrate their commitment. That stern man collapsed upon the deck as rigid as a broken mast. His shocked, flaccid expression reminded you of a sharp wind flapping uselessly at the sails. As the red pooled around him, the pirates pointed their gaze at the crew.
Quiet as stars you kept, tense and trying not to smile as they went man to man collecting purses and trinkets in exchange for blunt insults and the occasional sharp blow. The fit and firm were offered service upon their vessel; the weak and injured were excused from the deck.
Finally they came to you, but before they could make their offer—to sever or serve—they caught the glint of gold hiding under your shirt, and drew out the locket which hung like an albatross around your cursed neck.
They required it, but you refused.
You could taste the rot and rum on their breath when they pressed the knife against your throat. But you wouldn’t let go. Not to save your life. Not to spare the crew. Not for anything would you let go.
They grinned, they laughed; they unburdened you anyway.
The water was cold as God’s justice and just as fierce. But down in the depths, you found something impossible. Not darkness under the sea, but light. A glowing coral reef, littered with fish. And there wasn’t silence under the sea, but song. It washed over you in warm torrents like the fresh ache of grief. And you listened and wondered if you could weep under water, until your chest ached for breath and you breached the surface, gasping desperately for air before diving again to hear, to hear, to finally hear…
“I gave her my coat sleeves to soak up her grief
“And promise to seamen a gentler leave
“Hey, Oh-Ho! Hey-oh, my love!”
Her voice, clear as the summer sun through the morning mist. It made the sea feel warm, and renewed life to your limbs.
You rose from the water, gasping and laughing, salt water and tears running down your cheeks. It made no sense that she would be here, as it made no sense she was taken, but it was her voice in the waters, her voice that called you down. You looked to the strange isle, its white shores limned with sharp rocks and trees.
Frantically you swam to shore, hardly noticing as they threw the crew in behind you or when both ships caught wind and sailed out with the storm. You didn’t hear the others curse you, or how their curses turned to hopeful tears, their sorest griefs now triumphant joy.
“Melinda! My wife! Where are you?! I hear you! Come to me!”
“Samuel? Sammy, my boy!! Is it really you?”
“There’s gold down there! Enough for us all, boys! Gold!”
A sustained hum filled the sea. A buzzing just beneath the waves. Men were diving, catching up water in their hands like it was buried treasure. They’re mad, the fools. It’s not their love. It’s yours.
You’d found her, and all you could hear was her voice trapped in the lapping of the waves: splash, splash, splash, splash…
In the blue beneath you stretched a coral reef thrumming with light in every hue. Multi-colored fish drifted through the clear waters while silver- and greytips cut through the waves, drawn by the flailing and blood of so many injured. They took one man under, while others resumed the prowl. But every man of them kept searching the waves, certain they’d found their true heart’s desire.
You went under again, determined to find her, to save her this time, to not let her slip through your fingers. Wasn’t that her face he glimpsed, wreathed in coral before the waves pulled them apart? Was that not her hand reaching out of the rock?
Clearer and clearer she sang in your ear, as you dove deeper and deeper to find her, until exhaustion wrapped tight across each muscle. You lacked for air, but when you opened your mouth it filled with water and salt. Choking, you rose, breaking the surface and spewing everything in you.
Clarity came with the air. The song was gone, and the things you’d heard, the things you saw, now felt like some sweet dream gone wrong.
Across the waves were gray fins, and madmen flailing and floundering. The water around you was electric with sound, humming, fuzzy against your skin, and the coral pulsed and glowed rhythmically below. You could still hear the screams of terror and joy.
“I’ve found it! I’ve found it! It’s just beneath us, lads!”
“Get away! Don’t listen! Don’t listen! It’s a lie!”
One man was sure he’d found God down there in the sands beneath the sea.
She isn’t here. The thought clanged through your head like a penny in a jar. The singing coral…It sounded like the name of a tavern where you’d lose all wits and coin before she was born. Now you buoyed above the waves, lifted and deflated, passively, and the singing coral called you still: Thrum! Thrum! Thrum!
You looked around—at the strange isle ahead, at the pacific waves now bleeding light. It was foolish to stay in the waters, but where now to head? Away from the danger, to scrape out a life on scrub and hard stone?
The water pulled at you, just the way she used to tug at your shirt for attention.
You didn’t want to remember. You didn’t dare forget.
You closed your eyes, you swallowed some air, and you dove, dove, dove. Past fish and sea turtles and sharks with full bellies. Beyond dead men and fear and the coral confetti. The water was warm there near the floor. Full of song and sleep and arms that wrapped around you. You pressed your cheek against the hand in the coral, stony and unlike hers, but alive. Alive.
“She told me the sea was kept full by her grief
“And that she would love me but love would be brief
“Hey, Oh-Ho! Hey-oh, my love!”
Schools of fish drifted about in hazy clouds of color. Indigo, jade, and azure swam peacefully round your head, while creatures too small for the eye to see, sang and fed on your flesh, littering the reef with your bones, to rattle and dance forever in their song.
|Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Northern California with a very good dog. His stories have appeared in Podcastle, Metaphorosis, The Dark, and many more. You can find links to these stories, as well as the occasional blog about writing, at hamiltonperez.com, or follow on Twitter @TheWritingHam.|