My first love was an ocean blue sky
It’s been too long since I’ve drowned a man.
Now my heart is paying the price. This one has an idiotic grin and I know the moon is struggling to wash him in silvery light. His heart quivers against my fingers, like a baby sparrow in my cupped palm. Delicate, vulnerable, and so painfully alive.
Wild as the sea and sweet as a lie
My song travels through the darkness, in waves of both sound and water. Unseen bandages of fatal melody combing through the undersea shadows. Even as it twines around him, he remains bewitched by my essence, flinching virtuously but never wavering.
No ship could sail the waters of my love
So join me, darling, from the world above
I can feel the pangs receding. My lungs expanding and my heart unknotting. The sea tipping her head in silent approval. I hate this — undoubtedly. I wish I could have held out for longer. That I was strong enough not to fall back into the same tired cycle.
That I didn’t need to steal hearts to sustain mine.
But you are the sky and I am the sea
When the guilt catches up to me, sprinting through the threshold of my chest cavity, I will be long gone. Once more blending in with the humans of the world like a last-minute smudge of watercolour. The boy’s bones will merge with the seabed, his memory washed away by the tides until he’s nothing but seafoam, like something out of a fairytale. Only this is real life, so the little mermaid dies and all that’s left is me, the sea witch.
The boy is choking, a necklace of bubbles escaping his lips. This time, I examine his face further, past the ridiculously upturned corners. His smile is syrupy and heartfelt — too saccharine for my taste. If I had to guess, I’d say pretty boy is probably a local heartthrob. I can’t help but wonder if his death will leave behind hearts that sit in quiet bungalows, throbbing deep into winter nights.
Forever in view, but never quite in reach
Tossing the thoughts aside, I inhale all the brine I can. Then I bury my fingers into his ribs and tear out his soul.
As the boy slips into the mercy of the sea, I kick up and emerge from the water, breaking the surface like raining glass. My white hair slowly reassumes its natural black and I peek around surreptitiously. My hoodie is where I left it on the sand, slightly damp. I hug into its warmth, picturing hot chocolate and my old guitar.
On my way out, I catch a glimpse of a mysterious boy sitting on a rock, his profile obscured by spindrift and cryptic sunlight. His sombre eyes meet mine for a fleeting second before I sigh and look back towards the ocean. My captor.
I should be relieved the farther I drift from her waters, but it feels like an open cage, a slow tease. Because no matter how long my chains are, I’m still shackled to the sea.
Apart from the contents of the fridge and my permanently creased clothes, everything else in the house had belonged to the old geezer. I still go through his things in the attic, a museum of dusty displays and antiques that the old man wouldn’t have traded for all the mountains that tickle the sky. Wilhelm had been a large brute, with patches of skin that sagged as if they were sewed with time, but I’d met him when he still had broad shoulders and teeth — two fine rows of them, constituting a sea glass smile.
He never once judged me, despite knowing what I was. Now he’s gone and I’m still here, unaltered and fresh as the day I was fashioned from the sea. A life lived in servitude for that very reason.
I planted daisy seeds by the chipped well / What matters most, the pearl or the shell?
I spend most of my time in the attic where the rafters host moths at teatime, sitting on the springless mattress and plucking chords with my guitar pick. Most of the photographs on these dressers had been taken with a Box Brownie, some crisp black-and-white and others dappled with muted colours.
Wilhelm keeps me company from behind the picture frames, as I twist random lyrics and tune my guitar, relying only on my aptitude for distinguishing between resonance scales.
Woke up in the same black dress as I did last night
Married the shirt against the wall from my catfights
“Wherever you are, you bag of bones,” I grinned at the floor, “I hope there’s beef jerky.”
Today I visit the sea not because I must, but to prove a point. To show myself I can face her and still stand without my knees rattling like empty oysters. The waters are calm tonight, the type of calm where your ceiling is dripping and the sound of yellow taxis rushes outside, but it’s still soothing because it whisks together into a mellow cadence.
People find it romantic how the sea keeps kissing the shore no matter how many times he pushes her away. What they often skim over is that perhaps there’s a reason why the shoreline sends away the tides. Maybe the coast is hurting, and all the sea does is persistently rub her salt into his wounds.
I lip-sync a lyric I’ve been experimenting with.
Ice is just water that walks on water / We're nothing short of lambs for the slaughter
As a breeze traces my spine, I sense a presence someplace beyond the crags. “There’s no use hiding if I know that you’re there,” I deadpan.
A bloody love line, a bloody love line / Like the Arizona rain that tastes like wine
A teenager steps out of the blackness — the same boy that had been sitting enigmatically on a rock overlooking the coast the other day. “I wasn’t hiding,” he says. “I’ve seen you. Around. You’re that girl who eats people.”
“I— yeah. Sure. Shouldn’t you be high-tailing it out of here then?”
“We all eat people. In one way or another,” he shrugs and I realize his eyes were never dark. They’re all shades of storm green and siren blue muddled together with a brush pen on the blur setting. “We swallow up their voices and wolf down their dreams.”
Is love in a bottle as free as a bird? / He brings me chains and tattered words
I should snip this budding conversation at the stem, step back into my carefully calculated existence and warn him to look the other way. At the very least, I should say something equally smart, but instead I whisper, “Well, aren’t you a strange little thing.”
“You’re strange too. And unearthly. Maybe you should decide for yourself whether that’s really a bad thing.” After a moment or two, he’s gone.
Still, I can’t help hoping our paths would meet again.
“That’s the last of them. I’ll be heading out now.”
I hand Ellie a cardboard box brimming with canned foods and non-perishables. She nods with laughing eyes before turning towards the storage room. “Thanks, Muriel,” she says as I knock over a clipboard from the reception desk. “You’re an angel.”
My hand stops midway to the ground and hangs in the air like a confession gone wrong. I’m not an angel. A sinuous pang breaks me out of my trance and I clutch my side like my very heart could spill out. For some reason, I think of him, as I leave the shelter home where I volunteer. The boy of the beach.
I look for him sometimes, as an island woman might, past the horizon on afternoons when the sky wears thunderstorms and the stars come out early. I imagine this island woman might stroke her round stomach, wondering when the fishing boats will return with her lover. Sometimes I find him, sometimes I lose him. But I never work out the courage to say anything.
I've got a paper bag for the lukewarm tears / And a Mason jar for the red rose years
He’s late this time, but when he does arrive, he’s standing behind me before I can hide and the ravenous pangs sluice through my lungs. The boy asks me if I can speak with dolphins. I would laugh if not for the pain, at what looks to be our second conversation.
“Yes.” My voice is devoid of emotion. “They kind of sound like donkeys.”
“Who knows, maybe you can talk to donkeys too?”
“I can actually,” I grin then, “I knew this old coot. Wilhelm. He was a lovable ass.”
His smile is unlike any I’ve ever seen but I almost buckle over from the knives tumbling inside. This wasn’t supposed to happen again so soon. Last time I’d held out for a bit less than half a year. The air around folds into a fraction, so thin I can’t breathe and my lips crack, leaving me dry and desiccated.
My heart pinches; it needs her, the sea and I despise it. The sea gives, the sea takes but the sea never loves. She demands a price, a sacrifice.
“You alright?” the boy asks.
Share with me your silver wings, I sing and step towards the ripples. He follows. I’ll bring you kingdoms on a string. The water swells through my calves and licks at my hip. A blush spreads across his cheeks like coral branches. When the tides mix with a summer storm. . . I stumble through the ending of the couplet. I don't want this boy to be another to die without a name for me to remember. In my arms, I will keep you warm. . .
I trail off. I can’t. He blinks and stares up at me.
“What’s wrong?” His innocence stings. “Did it happen again? Do you need to eat me?”
“Stop. Leave. Not funny.”
He touches my shoulder so tenderly I might cry. “It’s okay. I know—”
“It’s not okay. Don’t look at me.” I shake him off.
“—you’ll get through it. My mom would say it seems that you’re lacking a lot of love.”
I don’t know if that should offend me, but it doesn’t. I don’t know why he isn’t gagging onto the sand or labelling me a monster. I don’t know if I want to knock him out or curl up in the attic. I don’t know a lot of things — least of all how to be human — but the only human thing I know right now is I don't want to be alone.
He gives me space and I am grateful, but I balance my forehead on his shoulder and grit my teeth from the pain. “It hurts.”
“I know.” No sympathy. No disgust. No pity.
“And,” I stare ahead blankly, “I don’t know anything about love.”
“Well heck,” he growls, then chuckles morbidly. “Like I do.” Pulling away imperceptibly, he helps me regain a steady position. “But maybe we can learn together.”
And love is not all war, you know / We could turn up the lights, put on a show
That’s all I think about as we wander away to fight different battles. All I think about as I flinch up the attic stairs as if I’ve swallowed swords. All I think about as I bite into a cloth and writhe on my bed as my head pounds with the sound of converging armies.
All I think about as my shields crumble away and I scream into the night.
In the end, I couldn’t do it. Like debts that amass and you can’t prolong them any longer. I tried so hard not to lure anyone into the depths. It was a kitten this time, but it feels no different to me.
A life is a life no matter the race.
I cried for six days straight. But he was there. Neo. I like his name and I don’t reckon I could find a note that’d suit it in harmony. He brought me napkins and fast food — French fries always help and it reminds me of midnight drive-throughs with Wilhelm in the ‘80s. Together we’d made the cat a little grave out of shells and pebbles, right here on the cove. I named him Pudgy and Neo had laughed, but I could tell it wouldn’t have been his first choice.
When I’m not up in the attic with a view of the stars or down in the shelter home with people rich in smiles, I’m at the sea. Most nights he’s there too and we talk about the secrets that circulate our bodies like sand grains hugging the curves of an hourglass. I tell him that I’ll live longer than the average human, but we don’t dare discuss it further.
Instead, we search for love. We peek around shop corners into alleys and look for patterns in the foam of morning lattes. Neo even asked a lamppost once and I could almost swear it flickered madly as if rolling its eyes.
After our research, we sort out our findings on love like separating trail mix and chocolate-covered pretzels. Or rather, he sorts them out and I munch on the trail mix, leaving out the peanuts. I love rainy evenings and lighthouses, foreign food and road trips spent reading maps. He loves cameras and windows with long drapes, old classics and math puzzles. I think the math is a bluff in an attempt to sound smart, so Neo lets me feel his heartbeat as he solves a page of Sudoku.
It sounds like the gentlest lightning and I think it’s my new favourite song. I don’t tell him, but it joins the list of things I love. I haven’t felt a pang in so long and I revel in it.
Lady Luck ran her nails down my face / But on the carousel I have a dark horse pace
This evening, we agreed to meet at the ocean and he’s already there, facing the waves.
“Neo,” I smack him lightly, smirking, “Want to buy me some food?”
He turns to me but his eyes are glazed. “I hear it. Do you?”
Then I do. A song, raking through the shallows and poking into our skin like cold needles. I freeze. There’s another like me somewhere close and she’s begun her call. Neo moves towards the tumultuous waters, as though someone was stirring a giant straw through the sea. I hiss ferally and grip the crook of his elbow.
“No,” I dip my head, bare my teeth, “I won’t let you.” He struggles against me and I keep holding like a vice. “Stop! Fight it, not me.” Finally, when I cry out thinking I’ve lost my only friend, he relaxes and goes slack. “Neo?”
“I’m here,” He grins and I want to scrape it off his face. “You didn’t think I’d let them eat me, did you?” When I don’t answer, he continues, softer. “Muriel, I heard you and then the song broke. Do you know who it was?”
I sigh. “No, but she’s like me and I hope she steps on a Lego.”
“Ouch, that’s harsh.”
Now I grin. “She deserves it, for trying to take a life. And singing.”
“It’s not her fault. She probably hasn’t found love." A pause. "And don’t you like to sing?”
“I hate it when you’re right. And I’m sick of singing. I want to fly.”
“So is love.”
Neo sucks in a breath. “Hasn’t it worked so far?”
Keep shooting holes through the cardboard roof / Oh boy, you don't know she's bulletproof
He’s right again, but I’m not thinking about that. The pangs were tenacious at the start, but gradually, they ebbed away. Every time I found something to love about my life, every time I shared it with Neo, and the elders at the shelter house and Wilhelm in the photo albums, and even the sea, the pain raised its hand to knock at my heart but lowered its fist when I shook my head.
Maybe the sea doesn’t need hearts as payment. Maybe she needs love, for all the love she gives and all the love she never had.
Lucky for her, I have a lot to give now.
What if the sea witch was a matchmaker? / Setting up love, not a heartbreaker
“Muriel,” he says my name and I wonder if he can sing. “What do you love today?”
I look up at the night sky and its thousands of eyes. “The stars.”
“Ah, those big old things. Giant balls of gas and fire.”
“Pfft,” I burst out laughing. “Foolish human, the things you don’t know.”
He glares at me and I double over again. “Well, enlighten me, I’m waiting.”
We sit cross-legged and I tell him how the moon watches over the sea as if they're sisters, reining in her tides when she gets too chaotic. And the stars are really luminous pearls that the sea sent up into the dusk, as a gift to the moon because she's afraid of the dark. Every night is proof of their bond.
When his weight grows heavy in my lap, I think he might have fallen asleep, dreaming about nonsense. But his eyes are open, looking up at the stars alongside me. Eyes that are both soft and dark, not too pretty or bright. Real, and so painfully alive. Life, love, maybe they aren’t so bad.
We hang off the cliff, just barely alive
But as long as there’s love, our hearts will survive