Gifts of the Sea

Just a thing I rambled out last night. Posted with the usual caveats about the lack of copy editing. 

 

As a small child, I never understood why my mother hated the ocean so much. It made no sense to be angry at something that was always there. But she snarled at any shells I tried to show her, and railed at sand on the hearth, and pulled the curtains tight when the moon was full.

For me, the shore was an endless source of wonder; shells and seaweed, little crabs and anemones in shimmering pools when the tide was out, rolls of thundering waves, flying foam and crashing spray when the tide was high. It wasn’t until I was old enough to start helping with the shore nets myself, that Auntie Cora told me about Seth.

Seth, she said, was your older brother, gone the night you were born. He’d been a true child of the sea- getting wet as soon as he was able to walk, sailing as soon as he could manage the tiller, and away on fishing boats just as soon as he’d finished school. He had a bright smile and flashing eyes and a way with him that made you excuse the occasional spots of mischief he could manage.

His shipmates and crews held him to be their good luck charm- their nets were always a bit fuller, damage from storms always a bit less. He was fair with his men, both for reward and punishment, and not a soul ever regretted sailing with him. On land he was just as well-loved, and he’d caught the eye and the heart of Melissa, from the next town over. Before it…happened… he had gone ring shopping with his best friend Will.

Everything looked clear skies and fair winds for Seth, until the night he decided to take his singlehander out under the full moon for a jaunt up the coast. It was a trip he’d done many times before with no bother, it “cleared his head”, he claimed. But this night, when he returned, pulled his boat up on the beach and moored it down, he didn’t have a word of greeting for any of the others there. People afterwards said his eyes looked to be staring right through them, and his whole body seemed to be bowed down with a weight.

For weeks, he wandered around like a ghost, speaking to no one, ignoring the fishing, most often wandering up and down the beach like he was looking for something. Neither your parents, nor his sweetheart, could uncover the source of his melancholy.  He didn’t take to drink, like many young men in the grip of a mood would, he just seemed to shrink in on himself. Then when the moon was new and a storm was lashing the shore, your mother deep in labor with you, he slipped unnoticed from the house. When the storm passed, both Seth, and his boat, were gone.

Like most sea-folk, your parents knew that after a time, there was no hope… especially when a few days later the crushed hull of the dinghy washed ashore. They had fish to catch, and a you to care for, so they moved on. But your mother, she nodded solemnly, has never forgiven the ocean for breaking his heart and taking him away.

I was angry, that my parents had kept this brother from me, but Auntie calmed me some, and talked about how much it hurt my mother to think of him. So I did my best, after that, not to plague my mother with sea-related excitement after that, nor ask my father questions about the brother I didn’t remember. The sea, however… now that I knew, the waves seemed to listen to my questions like a patient teacher.

I’d made myself a hidey-hole in a cove at the north end town -too rocky to be good for fishing or foraging, but a small cave midway up was accessible even at high tide. Kitted out with some old rugs, and a few boxes, it made a nice, private lair, indeed.  Sitting at the entrance, my legs dangled over the side, I’d talk to the ebb and flow of the waves about my brother. What had he looked like? Where did he find the best fish? Why had the sea made him so sad? With each brush of spray across my toes, I’d imagine a new answer to my questions.

It was soon after that, that I noticed a change in my beachcombing spoils. I was always scanning the tidal edge for new bits and bobs of shell or glass or rock to add to my growing collection, and my finds were much like everyone else’s… until the afternoon a wave licked at my toes, and a shiny glint caught my eye.

It was a button, brassy and bold, with a fish enameled on it in bright blue. It showed no damage or age, so I assumed that it must belong to one of the men at the docks. I scampered up that way, and tugged at my father’s coat to show him. He smiled indulgently at the thought of my latest find, but when I opened my hand, his face blanched whiter than foam, and he snatched the button from my hand. I tried to explain, but he shoved the button in his pocket, and told me to go help mother with dinner. All through dinner I felt his eyes on me, all evening he kept slipping his hand into his pocket. Long after I’d been sent to bed, I heard my mother weeping.

Over the summer, two more buttons washed up at my feet, and a bosun’s whistle. Whole unbroken shells, barnacle free, and shining coins from other lands. A piece of gilt chain, a tiny amphorae, a cluster of crystals untumbled by the surf. Things no other child was finding. They were gifts just for me, from the ocean who kept me company.

Mindful of the reaction to the button, most of these treasures lived in little boxes in my cave. One of the buttons I strung onto a cord, and wore close to me.  The more natural ones that I could explain away as storm-wrack I shared with my age mates as we compared our piles of treasure that no adult would understand. Each of us had our own simple hoard- Maisy had a collection of sea glass, all soft edges and diffuse light. Gil collected bits of bone and shell, proudly educating the rest of us as to their animal of origin. Bryan was the expert on the shore birds, and brought feathers and eggshell. My favorite to share was polished rocks pushed onto the shore.

As I grew older, it was to my mother’s relief that I didn’t take to the fishing boats. For all I loved where sea met land, out on the ocean was a bane to my stomach, and more often than not breakfast went to feed fish more than me. The shore nets and crab pots though, those I loved- the heft and swing of flying them out over the waves in the early morning, followed by a lazy afternoon scouring the beach for wood and kelp for the fires, then the groaning haul of the catch as the sun made its way down towards the water. Each catch I took care to return the things we did not need to the sea, instead of leaving them to gasp to death on the docks as some might have done.  If anyone noticed that nets I’d helped throw were a little bit fuller, or the pots I’d baited held crab and lobster just a bit bigger, no one mentioned it. Perhaps they were afraid I was sea-blessed like my brother, and feared to make me aware of it. Perhaps they didn’t want to say anything that might skew the luck. I noticed, and after every harvest I went down to my cove and gave thanks.

My cave had long since grown too small for me, but this was still my personal haven. To replace the cave, I’d built a small shelter just back from the edge, and I would spend my evenings sitting on the edge, conversing with the ocean. Sometimes I’d speak about the day’s harvest, sometimes about family, sometimes about my plans for the future. I don’t remember when I started talking to the sea like it was Seth, it just rolled in like a tide – talking about how our mother had gone up to the mill, or how our father had broken his arm and was surly as a tangled line about it, or the sorrow when Auntie Cora passed.  The sea always listened, and it gave. Sometimes, when I mentioned the fishing was slim or that someone in the town was ill, would come trinkets of value; things I could sell at the next town over for a small bit of money to smooth someone’s path. Never enough to draw attention to me or our town, but enough to keep suffering at bay.

And then came the storm from nowhere. Out of season and billowing up so quickly that even Old Llyn, with his uncanny weather sense, had not seen it in the clear blue sky of morning. We rallied quickly, pulling up boats and nets, shuttering up windows and lashing down gear, but a gnawing fear was growing in all of us -three of the fishing boats, including my father’s, were out in the gale.

Huddled inside the community hall with the rest, all I could feel was anger. I knew that it was the new moon. I knew the storm that had claimed my brother had come unawares. I knew, and I felt betrayed. When no one was looking, I slipped out of the hall, and made my way to the beach.

The rain whipped about me from all sides, spray and storm surge drenched me to the bone before I’d made it to the stone seawall. Wind tossed me this way and that like giant hands tossing a ball, but I bent myself down and pushed forward until I felt sand beneath my feet.

I raised my face to the storming sea and screamed back at the howling winds. “I trusted you! You were my friend! I loved you! You were the brother you took from us! How DARE you take father now, too! How DARE you do this to our mother again!”

I reached into my drenched clothes, pulled out my button on a cord, and tore it from me. Shaking my fist at the waves, I used all of the strength born of years of hauling nets and tossing pots to fling the button into the traitorous sea.

Back inside the hall, they all made fuss over me -I used the excuse that I’d thought I’d heard a loose sheep, and had dragged it back to the barn to explain my dripping, drenched state. My mother had simply pressed one hand to my cheek, seen the sorrow in my eyes, and nodded softly.

We sheltered there for hours. Time of day meant little in the darkness of the storm, and we slept in fitful clusters, trying to shut out the wind that sounded like a host of dying things. When they died down and a measure of silence came we still huddled fearing to believe it was over. Then in small groups, we went outside to see the damage.

Devastation. Few houses that had been made all of wood were standing. Trees were uprooted, fences tangled messes up against hedgerows, streets were washed away. The pier, and much of the fishing gear, was gone. None of us were well-resourced people, rebuilding would be a long and expensive process.

All heads turned at a wail of horror from the direction of the beach -one voice, and then another, as we ran to see. There on the sand, lay the shattered remains of at least one of the fishing boats…and bodies. So many bodies. Yet, as people rushed to find their loved ones among the fallen…one began to move. And then another, and another, until instead of sobs of loss, we were hearing sobs of joy. Every last crew from those three ships, lay washed up on the beach -waterlogged, battered, but alive. My father among them.

My mother reached him first, tears streaming down her face. She helped him to sit up, he was clinging to a wooden chest with the most…bewildered and awestruck look on his face I had ever seen. He handed the box to mother, and she made a moaning gasp. There, on the lid, was the same blue-enamel fish pattern as the buttons.

Quietly, we led father away to the remains of our house. The walls had held fast, but the roof had been blown across the landscape like chaff. For a wonder, the old table and chairs were still there, and only needed wiped of mud and righted. We sat, and set the chest on the table between us, none of us quite willing to be the first to open it. Finally, with a huff of impatience and fear, I turned the latch.

Inside was a treasure worthy of the name. Enough coins and gems to repair the whole town, and then some. Nestled amid the shining wealth was another small box, sealed with wax. It, too, held the blue fish design, worked out in gemstones and gold. I held it out to my father to open. They gazed at the contents, my father’s mouth working as he read something quietly. When he finished they looked at each other, leaned into each other’s arms and began uncharacteristically sobbing.  Confused, and more than a bit afraid, I slipped the box from my father’s hand.

There was a letter, unfolded so that it could be read as soon as the box was open:

My beloved parents and darling sister,

It pains me more than you can know that I have not been able to reach out to you and let you know I live. I have wrestled with the guilt these many years- and the harshness of the decision I had to make when Ahrissiah bade me be her groom. Only at the new moon would the transformation hold, and yet I could not tell you where I was called to go.

I have watched over my little sister all these years, listened to her as she shares the life that I left behind. It has kept you all as a shining beacon in my heart. She had grown into a remarkable woman, a friend of the sea and it’s creatures. It is her care that has led the People to trust enough to return your people to you, and let me contact you this one last time.  Pray think of me with love and joy, not with sorrow, for I am happy in the life I lead. The sea will always provide.

Your son,

Seth- called now Sesshai of the Air, Warden of the People.

Under the letter, a painting. A dark haired man, with laughing eyes and a ready smile, his arm wrapped around the waist of a beautiful woman with hair like coral Between them a child of perhaps ten with the mother’s hair and the father’s eyes…and all of them with sinuous, glimmering tails where their legs should be.

 

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