Edition 26: Given Shape by Moonlight by Suzanne J. Willis
Cooperation and coexistence appear at the end of this delightful fantasy, even if only for a brief moment. SY
The last of the sunlight shafted through the water, twining through the green kelp and transforming its tips into diaphanous siren hands. Devon was mesmerised by it momentarily, and then checked the regulator and her oxygen readings. Sunset dives were tricky and more than one diver had been lost in these underwater forests as day turned to dusk, then night.
A flash, a slivering gleam far below caught Devon’s eye—she hadn’t imagined it earlier. It flickered through the fronds, a mysterious beacon in the watery gloaming. Her diving partner, Christine, was observing sea otters near the top of the kelp, close enough for Devon to feel safe to dive just a little lower.
There. With each pulse, the light outlined a gate made of glass and faded gold. Above Devon, Christine motioned for her to come to the surface. She shook her head in response, pointed below. At that distance, in these waters, she shouldn’t be able to see it so clearly and in such detail.
Unbelievable, she thought, checking her oxygen again. But it was there and behind it, a city of molten glass, rising through the green depths in spires and turrets and ever-changing gables. Mist swirled and eddied in the glass buildings and—impossibly—through the streets and alleyways between them. It glimmered, shifted, reformed, a ghostly song made into faery palaces twisting in the tide.
The last of the daylight disappeared and the moon’s wan glow called Devon upwards once more. From the kelp fronds, a tiny hand, translucent and icy, grabbed Devon’s wrist. She struggled uselessly against its grip, tried in vain to shoot upward as the creature emerged from the shadows. Pale eyes stared at Devon’s from a face that was unearthly and glorious. A woman no more than two feet tall, outlined by the filtered moonlight. Her lips made strange shapes that Devon supposed were meant to be words. It sounded like bells and long-ago storms and wind across a lonely beach. She shook her head.
One of those slight, strong hands reached up and pulled the regulator from Devon’s mouth. The creature leaned forward, pressed its cold lips over hers and sung into her mouth.
Bring back. Bring back.
The words echoed through her as the woman pulled away. All around Devon, ghosts like the one that had held her schooled like fish and darted towards the glass city below. Child-like hands, so many hands, pushed her upwards as her breath ran out and the ocean began to pour into her.
Blackness, and then Christine was hauling her upwards and onto the dive boat. Devon vomited up the water she’d swallowed as the dive crew rushed over with the medical kit and thermo blanket. Below her, the sea looked empty and black, but the words sang through her, like the endless tattoo of waves on the shore.
“Pa, I’m fine, really.” Devon smiled at her grandfather, bundled up in his chair by the fire. “Christine made it sound a lot worse than it is, I promise.” If only she had seen the half of it.
Safe inside Gram and Pa’s shack behind the sand dunes—which she would always consider home though she hadn’t lived there for a year—she listened to the night winds whip through the grass and scrub, wondering if she had imagined it. After her family’s history, it wasn’t a stretch, even at twenty-one, for her imagination to run febrile in the darkening currents.
Pa just nodded in return and stared into the flames. Usually the silences were easy between them, but now he was angry. “I won’t lose you, Vonnie,” he grumbled.
As the wind picked up and rattled the windows, she looked around the shack, its familiarity comforting after the peculiar day. The two bedrooms would be night-air chilly when they finally left the warmth of the fire. In the morning, the mist would fog the window until well after lunchtime. Lining the shack’s shelves were Pa’s wonderful collection of bits and bobs accumulated over a lifetime: the salt-wracked bell from the Liberation, shipwrecked on the reef in 1892; an orange life-preserver from his fishing boat, the Belle Amour; bowls full of gull feathers and dried starfish and shells that Devon and Gram used to string in their hair, pretending to be mermaids; jars of seawater, some clear, some with fish-scales, dated and kept meticulously clean, that Pa brought back from his fishing and that no-one was allowed to touch.
“What were you thinking?” Although low, Pa’s voice made Devon jump. Worse, though, was the way he looked at her. Not angry, she realised, not disappointed; frightened. A fisherman almost all his life, Pa knew the ocean was dangerous, unpredictable.
If Devon hadn’t known better, she could have sworn there were tears in his eyes. But Pa never cried. Not years earlier, when they had spent the night walking the beach and waiting at the wharf for news of Gram. Not when they brought her up the beach to them, gibbering nonsense as though speaking in tongues. Not when Gram would come and sit with Pa for a while, staring out towards the horizon with her empty eyes and stroking his hand like a nervous child.
Guilt rilled through her. “I’m so sorry, Pa, I didn’t mean to worry you. I’ve been sunset diving for almost two years now. But today there was…”
It sounded silly to say it aloud. Well, see, Pa, I saw a glass city while I was diving then something that was like a cross between a faery and a ghost grabbed me and wants me to bring something back…
Devon rubbed at her wrist; the skin was icy and pale, as though mildly frostbitten. Her lips, too, were freezing. Unnaturally cold, like the little hand that had grabbed her, the soft lips that had covered hers.
“She’s got the mark, Samuel.” Gram stood in the doorway of the bedroom, eyes focussed firmly on Devon, for once not staring at things only she could see. “Same as you. Cold flesh, cold heart. Cold flesh, cold heart…” Her whispering filled the room worse than a shout. She shuffled towards the front door, her whispers fading but lips still moving soundlessly.
Devon moved to help Gram back to bed, but Pa jumped out of his chair, glaring at her. He took Gram by the arm and guided her back to the bedroom, whispering gently to her, patting her hand.
Devon stared into the flames. In the darkness, Pa murmured soothing words to Gram to try to get her to rest, but Gram cried like an agitated animal. Then the click of the medicine bottle, more soft words. The little hut fell silent but for the sound of the waves crashing ceaselessly onto the shore. Devon was pulled by those tides just as Pa had been before her.
She turned as the bedroom door snicked shut. Just a step or two and Pa stood over her. The look on his face frightened her; angry and fearful, all at once. Roughly, he grabbed her arm and felt the skin of her wrist. He pressed the back of his hands—after years as a fisherman, his fingertips were too calloused to feel much at all—to Devon’s lips. She was shocked to feel him trembling.
Pa’s shoulders slumped and he sat heavily down in his chair again. In the fire’s orange glow, he looked so old. As though more than just one lifetime had left its mark in the lines etched across his face, in the leathery toughness of his skin.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my time,” he said. “’Cept for a couple of things. Marrying your Gram, that was one. And having you come live with us, for another.”
Devon crept closer to him, put her hand on his knee. “Pa, what’s made you so upset?”
“It’s my fault that Gram is…well, the way she is…” He hung his head and Devon knew that she hadn’t imagined the tears he wiped away.
“She went into the sea of her own accord that night, Pa; it was the hypothermia that made her mind slip a little bit.” Devon loved Gram despite the fact that she hadn’t been her whole self since that night.
“She went in looking for the Asrai.”
Pa stood and walked over to the window, pulling up the long sleeves of his sweater. In the moonbeams streaming through the grimy glass, his skin glistened palely, as though rimed with frost. He lifted Devon’s arm, gently this time. The skin on her wrist had the same winter-bitten hue.
“The only thing I know of that leaves that kind of mark is the Asrai. Ghosts of the sea, they used to call them. Much less well-known than stories of mermaids or selkies or sirens, but they’re there, alright.”
Devon’s head was swimming. Pa had never even told her a faery tale, much less anything about underwater ghosts. Standing close to him now, the coldness rolled off him, winter tides made into flesh. There was an otherness about it that made her shiver.
“They’re ghosts?” she asked.
“No, the Asrai are real. They feel the pull of the moon, just like the tides, and don’t mean us no harm. But, intention or no, they have harmed this family, me, then your Gram, now you…I haven’t been warm in fifty-odd years, not since…” He looked out at the moon trailing her silver skirts across the night, and then leaned forward to kiss Devon on the forehead. “Let’s sit by the fire, Vonnie.”
Bring back, bring back. Her icy flesh pulsed as she got closer to the flames, sending the words coursing through her. The Asrai woman had left her words behind in Devon’s body, it seemed.
“Only ever wanted to be a fisherman, like my Da and his before that. The Belle Amour was mine by the time I was nineteen, a few years before I met your Gram—I loved being alone out there. Some nights I wouldn’t bother to come back to shore, just anchor out beyond the heads. One of those nights was when I met her. It was a full moon, clear night, and it was like mist rolling in, but I’d never seen a mist like it. Swirling-like, sort of dancing, in the shapes of women. Too many of them to count and all much littler than humans. Asrai-shaped, really, though I didn’t know that at the time. As sudden as they appeared, they disappeared, dived under the waves. Except for one.”
Pa was looking into the distance to things only he could see. Not like Gram, though; not vacant and trembling and unknowing. He was reliving old, secret memories.
“She kept coming toward the Belle, dancing atop the waves and diving underneath ’em. The others were just under the surface, like silver sharks circling and trying to pull her back down. But she was too nimble. She came up to my ship and I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. You’ll think me a stupid old man, but I fell in love on the spot. Reached out and hauled her onboard. Didn’t care she was colder than a witch’s tit—sorry, love. She sang and spoke in a voice like waves and gulls, laughed at me when I didn’t understand. We kissed,” Pa blushed and cleared his throat, “and lay close, me not noticing the iciness of her and she not noticing the moon slipping farther down in the sky. It filled me with words and longing that I can’t shake, not to this day.”
Devon’s gut churned. She had already felt the beginnings of that longing, in the chill of her skin and a vertiginous craving for the movement of waves instead of the stillness of the land. And Pa had felt that way for fifty-odd years.
“Dawn comes and she leaps up, starts weeping-like. Soon as the sunlight touched her, she turned to water and poured away into the bottom of the Belle. That puddle gleamed like oil, red and green and blue, and silver like fish scales floating through it…”
He looked as though he wanted to say more, but stopped himself. Devon shivered as Pa fell silent, realisation dawning on her. “I saw one today. She grabbed me and she whispered words into me, too. Bring back, she said. What do you think it means, Pa?”
Pa’s face hardened and he shook his head.
“Does Gram know about…them?” Devon felt sick at the thought of it.
“The Asrai left me outside of myself, left words there instead. It’s the only way I can explain it. Your Gram knows. That’s why she went in that night. Wasn’t the first time she went in after them, but that was the night she found ’em…”
The Asrai song beat against Devon’s bones, louder and more insistent than before. “But if we could work out what bring back means, maybe we could fix—” Her words faded when she saw the look on Pa’s face.
“Why shouldn’t they suffer like we’ve suffered? That bed was made a long time ago.”
Standing, he put the grate around the fire, bent to kiss Devon then went in to the darkened bedroom. She looked out at the stars and waxing moon, the gelid mark of his kiss a brand on her skin, Asrai words branded on her soul.
Standing on the beach as the sun rose, Devon looked toward the horizon. She felt like she was standing on the edge of the world. That world was vastly different from the one she had known yesterday. The sun warming the sand failed to warm her. Craving salt, she poked out her tongue in search of ocean spray. The waves shushed over the shore and in that shushing were whispers she had never heard before.
Given shape by moonlight and shadow
At the white crescent, no more than a whisper of a city
Shadowy memories and slips of song
Filling, beating faster with each passing night
The salted tides and waxing phase pouring delicate
Asrai life into being, given shape and shadow and shine
Behind the bombora, a fisherman puttered past in his tinny, heading back to the wharf from collecting his crab-pots. A dog stood like a sentinel on the prow, silhouetted in the early morning sun.
Devon wished that she was out in that tinny, skimming across the waves, unknowing of the fae hiding in the depths. She thought of Pa, all hollow in the places that should be filled with life. If she couldn’t fix this, she would end up just like him. Emptied out and filled instead with their words. Never be able to love or live fully, just like him. The thought of existing with that longing forever churned her stomach.
Devon tasted salt on her skin. She walked through the shallow breakers that splashed around her ankles, calves, knees; cupped her hands in the seawater and lifted it to her lips. The brine slaked her abnormal thirst and she was almost overwhelmed by the desire to keep walking until the ocean floor dropped from beneath her and the currents bore her out, out, into the unknown.
Shaped by moonlight and memory, the Asrai long for
the one who is gone, her memory loved too-tightly.
She calls across time
imploring them, to find a way to bring her home.
Despite the sun, her skin was like gooseflesh. Ocean-skin. She walked over the sand dunes towards Gram and Pa’s home.
An offshore breeze blew mournfully, carrying with it the sounds of shouting and things breaking. Devon ran up the hill. Pa and Gram stood in front of the shack, surrounded by shards of broken glass glittering in the sun, the earth wet underneath them. Pa’s glass jars full of saltwater that had lined the shelves, the collection steadily grown over the years. By the looks of it, none had been spared.
“I said Devon’s not goin’ back out there and I meant it,” said Pa quietly.
“You’ve sentenced her, as you did me. Cold hands, cold heart.” Gram’s voice was strong, unwavering, like it had been before that awful night.
Devon tried to speak, but a strangled sob came out instead. They looked up at her; strong Gram was gone again, her eyes unfocussed as she shook her head and walked back inside. Pa took a broom and began sweeping the broken jars towards the bin.
“That’s all of ’em,” he said. “Your Gram, she was pawing through all of ’em, looking for the one that you’d be looking for, too, sooner or later.”
“What would I want with your jars?”
“Can’t just let it be, can you Vonnie?” Pa sighed. “The sunlight turned her to water, but I couldn’t leave her like that. I grabbed an empty hook jar, scooped that watery shadow into it and brought it back to land with me. Started collecting ocean water and other things, thinkin’ maybe she could be made whole again…”
Devon just stared at Pa, a different kind of coldness settling in her gut. She would never have believed him to be capable of such betrayal. This was what they wanted—the return of the Asrai who had turned to water in Pa’s arms so long ago.
“How could you do this to Gram? How could you keep all these and keep reminding her that you loved that creature— ”
“It’s better this way, see? You get used to it, after a time, but you can’t risk them doing to you what they did to your Gram. I can’t risk that.”
Devon wanted to hate Pa for what he’d done, for all of it, but the heaviness in his voice wouldn’t let her. Nor could she forgive him. Gram was right. He had just sentenced her to the half-life he had lived and she would never be whole again, always living with the ocean tiding through her, pulling her away from the pleasures life should bring. Calling her to the depths.
She turned on her heel and walked inside to find Gram, pushing away thoughts of the sea-ghosts haunting her, hunting her for something she could never give them. Just inside the doorway she paused, listening for his footsteps, but he hadn’t tried to follow her.
Night came and with it the full moon, stretching out its timeless story across the land and the tide. Pa had disappeared that afternoon. Gram had slept the rest of the day away. Devon had intended to pack after supper for her return to the city, where she hoped the Asrai words would be less insistent. But the words wouldn’t let her.
Bring back, bring back. As the sun had set, the call had become louder, hooking under her skin. Along with the terrible chill, burrowed into her marrow, it pulled her towards the shore. Thoughts of stormy seas, of endless sun-shafted ocean, of mysterious lights twinkling through the depths filled Devon’s mind.
“I’m just going for a walk, Gram,” she called softly at the bedroom door.
Gram’s sing-song voice faded as she shut the door behind her. “Cold hands, cold heart. One more, one more, cold hands…”
Standing on the shore, Devon felt the ocean reach out its arms to her, devoted, pleading. Wave foam fizzed over her feet, soft as a kiss. Only a half-life waited for her on land. But perhaps another life awaited her in the wide seas. Would the Asrai accept her instead of their missing kin? Did they even know that Pa had destroyed her after all this time?
She walked forward, the beat of the waves lulling her, the vast expanse of ocean enticing her forward. Further and further, until the sand slipped from under her feet and her heavy, soaked clothes pulled her under.
Kicking upwards, she surfaced, looking back towards the beach and the light of the little shack. Far above, on the dark cliffs standing sentry over the beach, a pearly light blinked on and off. The cold air against her wet skin and the memory of almost losing Gram to the sea—is this how she had felt?—brought her back to herself. The waves pulled her backwards, out beyond the breakers. No longer soft like a lover, but a terrible threat in the night.
Panicked, her feet scrabbled for the seabed as she went under again. There were no lights, no kind Asrai under there, just darkness. She surfaced and was dragged under again. Thrashing furiously, she broke the surface again and struck out for the shore, towards the light on the cliff that drew her like a storm-tossed ship toward the lights of home. A wave caught her from behind and tumbled her into the shallows. Coughing violently, she dragged herself onto the sand.
The Asrai words fell silent, a ghost holding its last breath. She shivered as Gram’s earlier words came back to her. One more, she’d said. The tiny light, moon-bright and bone-white, was the same as the light Devon had seen in the Asrai city.
The innocuous little glass jar stood on the edge of a rocky outcrop on the highest cliff on the shores. It glowed, vivid in the dark, as though the moon itself were a mere reflection of it. The water inside shifted and eddied, clear one moment, then indigo, vermillion, emerald. In its centre, a silvery, amorphous shadow flitting and dancing in the rhythm of lighthouse pulses and king tides. Asrai language rippled under Devon’s skin. Now, though, it didn’t discomfit her. Despite not understanding the words, it made her feel joyous.
On the ground behind it lay Pa’s sleeping shape, snoring softly next to a bottle with the handwritten label “Saltwater wine”. Farther down the coast, as the cliffs levelled off, the lights of the town sparkled.
Devon walked towards the jar; the shadow danced languidly and then stopped, waited. Standing on the cliff edge, far above the dark rocks below, fear thrilled through her. She picked up the jar and unscrewed the lid, but didn’t lift it off. She hesitated—now what? The shadow waited.
Pa stood behind her, just an arm’s length away. He looked desperate. She took a step backwards.
“What were those words she left you with, Pa?”
He rubbed his eyes. “Words a thousand years old. Longing and sadness. Knowledge.”
“They want her back. That’s what the words they left in me mean.”
In the seconds it took for Pa to walk towards her, Devon flicked the lid off and lifted the jar to her lips. The water tasted of salt and earth, pomegranate tartness and the sweetness of honey.
“It’s alright, Pa, I promise.” Devon’s voice sounded like bells and long-ago storms and wind across a lonely beach—she could see Pa understood. “They knew the world before you were born, will mourn it long after you’re gone. Go home to Gram. You belong to each other.”
Pa’s frosted skin shone with Asrai memory. It glowed like fire and ice. The Asrai words, their touch did not have to be a curse. Poor Gram would never be right, for she wasn’t like Devon and Pa—but for them, it was a boon, a link between them. They were of the sea. It crashed through their veins, briny blood from depths unknown.
They reached out to one another, fingertips touching. His caul of sadness shifted and slipped like melting ice. As though finally freed from a long spell, he turned for home. Maybe now he would be free to give himself wholly to Gram without guilt weighing him down. Maybe Devon would be free to live without the cold sea haunting her.
She felt weightless as the Asrai shadow flitted through her, curious. It bound itself to her skeleton; her human shape faded and disappeared. Like the mist Pa had seen so long ago, she poured over the edge of the cliff, the Asrai words singing out across the waves.
Ghosts of the sea, its memory keepers of
long-sunken cities, slipped from sight
before Atlantis was ever dreamed of.
Guardian of her shipwrecks and whalebone graveyards.
We sing the loneliness of sharks away, sing
the longing of sailors to sleep.
Leach ourselves of colour and substance
so the watered world might be coloured and lively,
from its coral reefs to the gold that spills
from deep volcanic trenches.
Shaped by moonlight and memory, we know the dreams and lives
from shore to shore
we are the stories strung across the world, lighthouse bright
calling out to shape the sea and her shore.
She flowed over the rocks, tided across the shore to a sandy cove, where the shadow shaped her once more into body and bone and blood, taking the chill with it. It clung to her ribs and waited. The weight of frozen wastes, of the memories of past and knowledge of the future were all contained for a moment in that fragile bone cage.
She stood in the shallows and, though it hurt to breathe, hurt to speak, she opened her mouth to the night.
“Go back. You who hold cities in your streaming hair and the memories of dreams on your frozen lips. Go back to where they wait for you.”
Like warm breath hitting winter air, the shadow left her on the back of her words and danced in a salty mist across the ocean’s moonlight trail towards the horizon.
Suzanne is a Melbourne writer and a graduate of Clarion South. Her short stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Schlock Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, the British Fantasy Society Journal, Fantasy Scroll Magazine and anthologies by PS Publishing, Prime Books, Fablecroft Publishing and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. She works full-time and writes in the spaces around it, inspired by fairytales, ghost stories and all things strange. Suzanne can be found online at suzannejwillis.webs.com
Suzanne J. Willis has previously been published in Edition 22 (Husk and Sheaf)