Edition 29: Sea Borne by S. G. Larner
The sea peeled back from the bay, sucked by a force stronger than tides. Laid bare beneath the sun, fish glittered and flopped, and deep furrows in the naked ocean floor traced the line of the currents. The horizon bulged. Ahli gaped, as cries went up around her.
Her father, Yune, dropped the net they were piling into their little round bowl-boat. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed inland.
The sight of his normally cheerful face twisted into a mask of fear gave her a speed she’d never possessed.
Sand flew from under her feet as she broke the line of the village, slowing as she reached the huts. Ahli looked back over her shoulder and her bowels loosened.
“Go!” Yune roared as he thundered up, chased by a churning grey wave, a giant monster rushing to swallow them. Ahli whimpered and ran, but it slammed her with deadly intent. Submerged in the maelstrom she flailed to find the surface, but everything was water, air a dim memory.
—water hitting her, battering her, rushing turbulence sucking her in, sharp things slicing her skin, keep mouth shut, don’t scream, lungs burning, break surface, gasp, please, don’t want to die, please Myr Queen, spare us—
Her ankle snared, slowed her tumbling momentum. She kicked but it was caught fast. Through the muddy, debris-filled water she glimpsed a sinuous form clutching her foot. Panic tightened her chest as the myr began to drag her back. The wave thrashed and foamed around them, lights began to flare and burst in her vision.
Ahli let her body go limp, resigning to the inevitable. The myr let go as the water reversed its direction, pulling Ahli toward the belly of the ocean. In a last desperate bid for life, she grabbed onto the teetering trunk of a pandanus tree and hoped it could withstand the drag. The wave released her with a rushing bellow, her ears suddenly filled with sound. Water streamed from her bruised body and the tree that had been almost flattened by the wave. Ahli gasped air into her tortured lungs and retched seawater. Her skin bled from thousands of cuts.
She peered out over the wreckage of her village as the frothing sea departed. Mud and mess as far as the eye could see, and half-drowned, bleeding creatures—her people—crawling in the muck. Ahli let go of the tree and fell to the ground, grunting as a jagged piece of coral gouged her hip. She rolled to her side and pushed up. Legs trembling, she took a few tentative steps. Pale green crystal shards hurled from the depths by the raging sea pricked her tough feet until they bled. Splintered wood, tangled rope and dying sea creatures littered the beach. A few hardy coracles remained, the round wooden boats wedged in pandanus trees, or scattered amongst the detritus. Her hair, full of salt and mud, dried stiffly against her head.
She neared the village and yelled for her father. Irilee, the wasp-tongued healer, was crouched over a man whose nose was so badly crushed it took Ahli a moment to recognise him.
“Is Pewyr badly hurt?” she called, and Irilee shook her head.
“He won’t be pretty but he never was anyway,” she replied.
Ahli picked her way over the spiky ground, clambered over soaked piles of wood that had once been huts. A familiar huddled shape leaned up against a damaged wall, and she shouted with relief.
He turned to her, and smiled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Ahli. Are you well?”
She shrugged. “I live.” Her ankle itched; she carefully unwound the seaweed the myr had left as a parting gift instead of taking her. “I think we’ll all be walking with limps for some time.” She gestured to the glinting fragments of crystal. Yune nodded and she helped him stand.
“Do you think mama and the boys survived?” Her eyes pricked with sudden hot tears.
“They had more warning than we did. We must look for them up in the foothills.” His face grew pale; he rubbed his forehead and swayed.
“Sit, Papa.” Ahli rushed to his side as he sat back down against the wall. “Did you bump your head?”
He laughed as she examined his bleeding ear, spiralling up like a narrow conch shell. “No, little fish. The sea clipped my ear with a piece of boat. I had nothing to do with it.” He chuckled again.
Ahli clicked her tongue and frowned. “I will get you some help, then I will go and find our family. You must rest,” she said.
He held his hands up.
“Yes, yes, daughter. Go now. See, Irilee has spied us and is bringing her fearsome self to tend me. Go, find the little ones, find my Pheya.”
Her mother and younger siblings had been working up in the amaranth fields, a low plateau beneath the foothills of the mountain. I must have hope, she thought.
She averted her eyes from the bodies of those less fortunate, caught on the slope to the fields. Her stomach churned like the myr wave, acid burning the back of her throat. These ones she’d already seen: her mother wasn’t among them, nor her brothers. The mud sucked at her torn feet, sapping the remainder of her strength. Ahli pushed herself forward, one painful step at a time. The amaranth fields, normally a sea of purple-red at this time of year, were brown and flat.
Ahead, an object out of place snagged her gaze. The great green-scaled body gleamed against the muck, long plumed tail limp, upper limbs twisted unnaturally. Orange-brown hair, strands thick as kelp, hid the creature’s face. Ahli crept close, mouth dry. She’d never seen one so close; never seen one out of water. The length of the tail startled her. She crouched down and gingerly touched the wide caudal fin, cold and slick under her fingertips. It didn’t stir. She shuffled up its length, leaned over and brushed the hair from its face. Clear teal eyes stared at nothing. Ahli traced a finger over the ear, spiralled and long like her own, and then lightly brushed the gill-flaps pressed shut against its neck. The muscular chest was still, and when she rested her head on it she heard no thud-thump of a heartbeat, only echoes of the faintest surge of the ocean.
Ahli rocked back onto her knees. In some ways, her distant cousin looked much like her, in other ways, not at all.
“May the Queen take you into her embrace for the endless sleep. May your soul return to the depths,” she said, her voice hushed. Slightly awed, she pushed herself to her feet and resumed her search.
“Mama! Haen! Miro!”
As she neared the foothills her calls echoed back to her, faintly mocking. Other landfolk appeared, stumbling on tired legs, heading to the sea. The weary survivors greeted her as they crossed paths. Finally old Kanla, the gap-toothed wise woman with hair the colour of the sky, passed her with a smile and a nod. “Miro was tired,” was all she said, pointing further inland.
Buoyed, Ahli forced her lacerated feet to hurry as tears of relief sprang into her eyes. Thank you, Myr Queen. She found her mother huddled over her two little brothers, crooning to them. Miro’s face was swollen and streaked with tears. Haen shouted when he saw her.
Pheya looked up, her eyes tight. Ahli noticed streaks of blue amongst her orange-brown hair. “How fares my husband?”
Her mother’s lips curved into a smile and her eyes relaxed.
“I made him stay; he bumped his head when the wave came.” Ahli saw how her mother staggered as she stood. “Here, give me Miro.” She hoisted her littlest brother onto her back, fixing her face into a mask to hide her own exhaustion. “Let’s go home.”
Ahli bent her head over the ruined bottom of their little round boat. The tough boban leaves she’d tied to her feet to protect them from the crystal shards were already tattered and in need of replacing. Her kelp-coloured hair whipped at her eyes as the wind gusted in from the sea. Light-headed from hunger, her shoulders slumped with despair.
“It’s useless,” she said, pushing the coracle away and clawing hair from her face. “Everything is ruined.” She hunched over, hiding her face in her hands.
Yune touched her back. “Little fish, all is not lost. We are alive.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her seashell ear.
“But so many died, Papa. So many are missing.” She glanced around, seeing nothing but catastrophe. “And the ground… The ground! Covered in sharp things to punish our feet. How do we rebuild?” She looked up at him, cheeks wet with tears. His wrinkled old face smiled at her. Behind him women swept up the Myr Queen’s curse as best they could, children strapped to their backs, boban leaves protecting their feet.
“One careful step at a time. We will rebuild. You will see.”
She sighed and shook her head, but wiped her tears and retrieved the coracle. Her father was wise, as always, but it was hard to stay strong.
Offshore, a dancing waterspout announced the presence of a sea sprite: those capricious creatures whose moods mirrored the Myr Queen’s. Fractured rainbows shimmered in the cast-off spray. Ahli pointed, and said, bitterly, “The sea is happy again.”
Yune glanced toward it. The myr had been buried in the shadows of the mountain, though some had thought it should be returned to the sea.
It died on land, Kanla had said. A restless spirit should be grounded.
Ahli stretched her stiff shoulders and winced at the pain in her hip. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just go back?”
Yune shook his head with a smile and touched his neck. “We lost our gills long ago. There is no going back, I fear. We would be like fish out of water, in the water…” He chuckled at his own joke. “Mothers, though…find it hard to let go. Grief ebbs and flows, and when her grief flows, she wants to chastise us and yet take us back in any way that she can.”
Ahli picked up a jagged piece of crystal and held it aloft. “I don’t think mama would be quite so awful if I moved away.”
A deep belly laugh erupted from her father. “No, but the Myr Queen is powerful. Those with great power are not accustomed to not getting their way. She will accept it, in time.” He laughed again. “It may take a few more centuries. It’s been some time since the last myr wave. Before you were born.”
Ahli wiggled her scratched toes, the webbing between them a faint reminder of their heritage.
A screeching flock of gulls wheeled in from the south, and distracted her until their neighbour Cerr strode past them to the water, no trace of a limp. He waded through the shallows, not stopping.
“Papa? What is Cerr doing?”
Yune squinted into the wind. “Cerr!” he called.
The man ignored him and walked further into the waves. Other landfolk stopped and looked, and Cerr’s young wife clutched their infant daughter to her breast and cried out to him. Ahli’s heart beat rapidly, alarm driving her to her injured feet.
He was shoulder-deep in the water. Yune ran after him, spurring the younger men into action. They flung themselves around in the water, yelling and splashing.
After a time they came out. “He was not there,” Yune said.
Cerr’s wife fell to her knees, which bled onto stray slivers of green, wailing. The baby scrunched up her face and cried too, but Ahli squeezed her own eyes shut and refused to let the tears come.
Cerr returned with the morning tide, bloated and dark, his hair turned completely blue. Yune raised his eyebrows at Ahli.
“That is why you never abandon hope,” he said.
In the evening the fierce Irilee raised the alarm that her husband was missing. No one had seen him.
He, too, washed up on the beach in the morning. The landfolk gathered around his body, unspeaking. Kanla hobbled into their midst.
“The Myr Queen is still angry. She sent the myr wave, and now she takes our men. We must send her a peace offering,” the wise woman said.
“But what have we done? Wasn’t the wave enough?”
“What will appease her?”
“We should have returned the myr that died!”
She held up her hand. “We will send back her lost child in the boat that is least damaged, along with amaranth and fish.”
“But we need the food! We have so little,” Pheya said, setting Miro on her hip. “We will starve.”
“Better to go a little bit hungry now than lose our men.”
Ahli’s stomach rumbled.
Haen rubbed his face and whined. “I’m already hungry.”
Ahli shushed him. Pheya turned a troubled glance to linger on Yune, and then nodded at Kanla.
By noon the myr was unearthed. The damaged boat was laden with offerings, and pushed out to sea. The afternoon tide brought it back, rejected, and soon another man was missing. They tied weights to the myr’s tail and Yune took it out into the bay. Sombre clouds huddled together, obscuring the sun. Ahli watched from the shore with the other landfolk while Yune cast the myr over the side. Wind gusted, increasing in intensity until the surface of the bay was a patterned tessellation of grey and dark blue. A light scatter of rain swept over the water as Yune paddled back to shore.
By evening another man was gone.
“This is very bad,” Pheya said to her daughter. “Keep your father close.”
They lifted the coracle right side up and settled it on the sand. Yune beamed at Ahli. “Beautiful work, little fish.”
As she smiled back his face went slack, lost its tone. She frowned, worry nibbling like a cleaner fish.
“Will we go fishing now?”
Yune looked through Ahli and turned his back on her.
“Papa? Are you well?“
He walked toward the sea, sure-footed. Fear tightened her throat.
“Mama!” she called, but it came out in a squeak. “Pewyr! Kanla! Help!” She stumbled after her father, pulled on his arm. “Stop, wake up!” His muscles were like stone as they splashed into the shallows. Ahli dug her nails into his skin, held on as tightly as she could, until blood trickled down his forearm.
The water reached her thighs. “Please, Papa.”
His momentum was relentless. Her grip slipped as something grabbed her ankle. “Papa!” She looked down, saw the myr staring up at her through a drifting tangle of seaweed hair. It moved its head side to side: No. She strained against its iron hold. When she tried to kick it with her free leg it grabbed that ankle too and she almost fell. The leaves tied to her feet came loose. “Papa!”
She stared at her father’s stiff back as he waded into deeper water, his movements heavy and unnatural. Tears rained down her cheeks. I must have hope.
Old Pewyr and one of the younger men tried to restrain him but he shrugged them off too easily, and then disappeared into the depths. After a time, the myr let go, and Ahli backed quietly out of the water, her gaze focused on where she’d last seen her father. At the shoreline she turned and limped back up the glittering beach, leaving a trail of pink-smeared footprints behind her.
Ahli refused to go to the beach in the morning to see her father’s corpse. Her mother returned, her movements slow and old, and set the fishing net by the door. She untied the boban leaves from her feet.
“Could you take the coracle out this afternoon, little one? I would like some fresh fish.”
Ahli looked down at her feet and picked a scab on her heel. The pain was a welcome counterpoint to the numbness inside. “I’ve never gone alone.”
“I know. But you are capable.”
She glanced up at her mother. The haggard face staring back was barely recognisable. A rush of shame broke through Ahli’s numbness.
“I’m sorry, Mama. Of course I will.”
“You are a big help, daughter. I am blessed.”
“Mama…” Hot tears flooded her cheeks. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him.”
Pheya gathered Ahli in her arms and shushed her. “It was not your fault. Never think that.” Ahli buried her face in her mother’s chest and sobbed.
Kanla called from the door. Pheya squeezed Ahli and settled her back to wipe her face. “We must be strong for your brothers,” Pheya said, and Ahli nodded. “Go, I will speak with Kanla alone.”
The wise woman entered as Ahli left, but the girl waited outside the door to listen.
She strained to hear above the shouts of children and the dull surge of the ocean. Kanla’s voice cut through the noise.
“The dead myr. Its spirit is restless.”
“We returned it to the sea.”
“Too late.” A pause, and then the wise woman’s voice came cracked and tired. “I erred.”
The squabbling of gulls drowned Pheya’s reply. Ahli shivered, and put her head as close as she dared to the door. Her curled ear brushed the smooth wood. Kanla was speaking.
“They are possessed. I think it is using them to get back, but it’s not working.” There was a pause. “It won’t stop, Pheya.”
“What can we do?”
Ahli leaned forward, lost her balance and toppled against the doorframe. She scrambled to her feet and fled to the shoreline. The waves battered the sand, relentless.
“Everything comes back,” she mused to herself. “The water, the men, the boat. Nothing can escape.” She shivered, rubbing at the bumps that suddenly covered her arms. Was it her fault? When she’d murmured her blessing over the myr’s body, had it stirred the creature’s spirit? Caused it to roam the land, seeking a way back to the depths? Why drown our men? A school of fish suddenly leapt from the shallows, flashing silver.
Unless the myr didn’t realise the men would drown, lacking gills. In its single-minded purpose, it was a danger to them all. Her ankle itched.
If it was her fault, she needed to fix things. She breathed in deep and went to fetch the coracle.
The wind tugged at her hair as Ahli dragged the mended bowl-boat to the water’s edge. The paddle rested on the net piled in the bottom. She shielded her eyes as she squinted out to sea. It was going to be hard work to get past the breakers without her father to help.
“Oh!” Ahli’s heart skipped as she put it all together. The men all drowned before they got past the breakers, and their bodies were returned to shore. Kanla said he couldn’t get back…She just had to get out past the breakers. Slowly she pushed the coracle into the water, and paused with one foot inside. “Where are you?” she whispered into the wind. “Honoured cousin, I am your servant.”
After long moments filled with doubt her brother Haen appeared, trudging through the sand, oblivious to the landfolk busying themselves around the village. He stood on a jagged splinter of sea crystal that had been missed in the clean-up and didn’t flinch, cry out, or change his gait. Ahli stared at his eyes. They looked past her, cold as the twinkling shards the myr wave had left in its wake.
“Haen,” she breathed. “Not you.”
She waited until he was level with the coracle then yanked him hard so he fell in. He flailed, trying to right himself as she pushed off into the water and started paddling. Each time he got to his knees she poked the paddle at him and pushed him back down. His seven-year-old frame was slight and she, at twelve, was normally more than a match for him, but he was stronger than usual.
“Just sit still,” she said, scowling at him. Her brother’s face remained expressionless, and he tried to get up again.
“Ah!” She pushed him back down.
The waves fought her. She made slow progress, creeping out into the bay until she was finally past the break. The shore curled around the vast expanse of blue like a white ribbon. Haen stopped fighting, and crouched in the bottom of the little boat, his thick orange-brown hair matted over his face. The wooden vessel rocked with the oscillation of the water.
“It’s so beautiful,” Ahli said with a sigh. Deep sadness settled into her bones, made her heavy, as she realised she would never again share this view with her father. She glanced at her brother, tried to see into him, to the possessing spirit inside. I must be polite. “You want to get back down there, honoured cousin? We’re past the break. You can go.”
Her brother lurched upright. She snatched up the paddle.
“No, please, leave my brother!”
Haen grabbed at the paddle, tugged on it with savage strength. Ahli shouted and kicked his arm. He lurched to the side, a flash of desperation passing over his face. With a yell she knocked her brother over with her shoulder and tangled the net around him. He screeched and writhed.
“Cousin, why do you trap me? The net is death.” Haen’s voice was not his own, it was scraped thin and full of the roar of the ocean at the same time.
Ahli crouched before him, eyes wide as she watched his struggles.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, and sagged, suddenly tired. With a mighty heave Haen threw himself over the side, still tangled in the net. The splash stopped Ahli’s heart and without thought she jumped in after her brother.
Below her he sank, still as a stone in his net. His hair fanned out, seaweed floating in the current. She surfaced, took a deep breath and dove down, her limbs clawing and kicking, until she could stretch out a hand and snag the net. She twisted her body toward the surface and pulled him upwards, her legs pushing against the water as Haen exploded in a frenzy of action. Her shoulder wrenched painfully, but she gritted her teeth, determined not to let the spirit take her brother. As they broke the surface Haen screamed and fought, seawater gushing from his mouth. Ahli battled to hold him, breathing in mouthfuls of water as she tried to keep them both afloat.
“Let him go!” she cried. “You don’t need to drown him. You’re past the break, you’re in the water, just go! He’s just a boy!” A flailing limb connected with her stomach and she let go of the net. Haen slipped below the surface.
Ahli’s body burned with anger. She dove again, her face twisted with fury. A flash of movement off to her right startled her: the myr was back. It glanced at Haen, and back to her. Haen looked up, and in that moment his eyes widened and his face contorted. Ahli lunged for him as the myr grabbed her. Haen fought, but the myr towed them both to the surface, its massive tail churning up the water. Ahli locked her fingers, certain that if she let go Haen would be lost. The myr seemed intent on only saving her.
Ahli’s head broke the water and she sucked in salty air. Haen still dragged at her shoulder, head under the waves. She ducked beneath the surface to see the myr face-to-face with her brother—with the spirit. It pressed its lips against Haen’s, and after a moment released him. Ahli tugged frantically and at last there was no resistance as she hauled him up into the air.
They coughed and spluttered as water slapped at their faces, but Haen just said in his childish voice, “Get the net off!”
Ahli gulped in air and untangled the wet ropes from his body. It drifted like a jellyfish beneath the surface, threatening to snare them both, before sinking slowly. A gleaming tail breached nearby and slapped the surface. Ahli splashed the water in reply, full of gratitude for her distant cousin’s help.
Ahli looked around for the coracle. Her limbs were tiring, and Haen’s face was pale. She saw the little vessel bobbing not too far away.
“Haen.” The boy looked at her. She pointed toward the coracle, and said, “Swim.”
He nodded, and they both swam for the tiny boat. When they reached it Ahli glanced at her brother and up at the rounded sides of the coracle. Papa had shown her how to do this. It would be fine.
“I’ll climb in, and then pull you up,” she said, and Haen just stared at her.
She shifted the coracle’s balance as Yune had taught her, and swiftly climbed in over the edge as the vessel righted itself. This reminder of her father’s loss sent a shiver of sadness across her skin before she turned to help Haen in, her feet braced against the side as his weight dragged at her. A sudden squall whipped her back with salty tears.
And then he was over the side and toppling onto her, and she held him and laughed with a relief that turned to sobs. Haen began to cry, shaking. “I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I thought I would die. It was so scary.”
Ahli sat up and cradled him in her arms. “Between me and that myr, there was no way it was taking you.” She smiled to herself and whispered, “I didn’t abandon hope, Papa.”
Over Haen’s bent head, Ahli spotted a waterspout forming. It danced and twirled. She nudged Haen and pointed at it. When he was calm, she picked up the paddle and fixed her gaze on the pale curve of the shore. Land.
S. G. Larner is a denizen of Brisbane, Australia, where she complains about the heat, wrangles three children and a couple of libraries, and explores the dark underbelly of the world in her creative works. Her work has appeared in Apex, Aurealis and the Australian Poetry Journal, among others, and has been selected for several Year’s Best anthologies. She’s almost finished a Master of Information Science. You can find her at http://foregoreality.wordpress.com