There was a time when men feared the sea. They feared its storm-tossed surface, mysteriously winking at them from under the moonlight, and they feared its frothing waves, whose white lips had swallowed countless fishing boats, stealing whatever lay within. The young sailor on his maiden voyage, more nervous than most aboard, had heard of fathers drowned, sons washed overboard. His mother had begged him not to go, but where money is scarce, as it often was in the village, there was little choice.
With each swell, the reluctant ship pulled further away from the cove and the safety of its moon-bleached shore. Further from the small fishing village and its twinkling lights, and into the damp dark of the night. Out here, it was each man for himself, and each man against the sea.
Piles of dark fish flopped upon the deck. More lines and more nets were cast down into the depths. They'd fish the sea bare for a buck. As the sailors pulled them up, they always checked the contents: there were things in the water that you didn't want to catch. And the sailor's eye, always, stayed on the surface, as though fixed in its socket.
Don't go, his mother's voice called in his mind. If you go, I feel as though I will never see you again.
And then he recalled his father that early morning, slumped in the old living room chair, breath dizzy with alcohol and eyes glazed over. Another late-night bout going 'round the pubs. A slight, breathy snore stirred the strands of his hair. He wouldn't wake 'til noon.
He'll lose his pay today if he doesn't go.
We have rent to pay.
And with what money will we buy our food?
She'd clung to his arm as he walked out, wearing his father's wool sweater and cap. He shook her loose and shut the door. He didn't turn as he walked down the garden path, knowing it was her red, teary-eyed face he'd see, lingering at the window.
She could feel them coming. Men, whose blood was sweet on her tongue, men with flesh as soft as a ripened peach. The sea rejoiced, its song bitter cold and familiar, its harshness stirring the waves into a deathly dance. They rose steeply, eagerly spilling over the rails and flooding the slippery deck.
She rose from the depths with rough, kelp-like skin, iridescent scales glinting in the inky water. She was a horrid thing: insidious, slitted eyes peered just above the murky surface, and puckered gills flapped arduously in the folds of her neck, suffocating in the air. Hair like knotted twine fell to her hips. Her tail burned and itched where skin used to be, rubbed raw where a single rope hung around her single ankle in a pretty little knot. The rope was twisted and frayed, but its fibres were unyielding, and it tied her to her last memory of who she once was.
She bucked in the next wave of the coming boat as her body was thrown downwards, salt stinging her eyes. But she rose once more, she saw him at last; staring back at her from the railing of the ship was a sailor with sea-green eyes.
There was a time when she knew this man. He was just a boy then, a youth with a pretty face and a pretty smile. A boy that made the village girls’ hearts flutter—hearts that seemed as thin as paper when he tore them in two. He was a fisherman now, a job that was never wanted, but always in demand; fishermen had a habit of disappearing around here.
He had become unfamiliar to her in many ways—skin tanned from hours of toil under the sun, wrinkles just beginning to form around the eyes, lips pulled down in a permanent scowl. And now, face to face, she smiled and watched those weary eyes contort in horror. They all feared the sea; he feared it more than most.
Do you remember me? she asked, in the song of the sea. He hesitated, and in that, she found her answer.
As a child, she’d once lingered too long by the ocean’s shore at sundown, despite her father’s warnings. When the tide came in, the frothing waves had grabbed her by the ankles, and she'd barely escaped their urgent grasp with her life. Years later, when she finally stepped foot on the beach once more, the water’s frothing edge brushed her foot when she wasn’t paying attention. She screamed. The laughs of her schoolmates still rang in her ears. She thought she’d never outlive the humiliation, the teasing—until one day, when a boy with sea-green eyes came to her with a note. Sundown. Meet me at the beach.
They stood still on the pier, the sinking sun colouring their skin red, the warmth of the day fading with it. The girl’s paper heart fluttered in its cage of bone as the boy handed her a knotted bracelet—a sailor’s knot—and smiled.
I love you, he lied. And when she reached up to kiss him, he pushed her into the sea.
The others laughed with adolescent glee when he threw her over, and they watched as she sank. Seaweed wrapped like chains around her ankles, strong and slick, and the water closed around her, choking her, coaxing the last bubble of air from her thin throat. Above her was the dull thunder of laughter, softened by her watery grave.
The schoolboys were cruel, but they were only young and foolish, and proud of their heartless trick. They waited for her to surface; they forgot she could not swim.
And the girl had waited. Now he stood in front of her, with eyes pretty as sin and dull with surrender. Around her, the sea hissed, its sirens singing sweetly to the sailors aboard the ship in husky whispers. Indeed, men feared the sea for the sea was monstrous, but she was a monster too.
I love you, she lied. And she dragged the sea-eyed sailor under the waves.