© S J Marquardt
YouWriteOn offers publishing for writers to help them reach new readers who like their writing.
Click here to email us for details.
There is only darkness here. And the icy slide of water against skin. A depth away, silver tails thrash in the cold expanse, sending out frantic ripples: I sense them. The tide brings fish, sucking them into the cavern with the moon’s pull, and when she drains away, they are stranded. The sea abandons all her children.
With a lazy flick of long, smooth muscles, I push against the lake’s supple body and glide downward through the water, passing from black to black. Edging near, I can taste their wriggling scales on the current, and the tang of salt seaweed, still clinging to fins. Now I feel the echo of their blood pulsing, tickling against my skin. I thrust forward. Teeth and bodies convulse together.
There is only darkness here. And hunger.
It was January and cruel cold when the sea took Paa. There was a blasting wind and ice rain lashed fierce aginst the winder whilst I harkened for the sound of his boots on the mat. I always waited up to make him a brew of tay when the punts came in and we’d sit quiet together by the fire, the smell of brine and the brits he’d caught steaming off him as he dried. Maa said it be the waste of a good candle to stay up, but she never stopped me. That naet, he never came. By the time the lent lilies were in bloom, me Maa had taken up with William Penhalligan, a tinner from up Camborne way. Then, when the apples had begun to swell they were wed, and he moved in to our cottage with his lad, not having no place of his own.
They was nice and proper at first, alright: William keeping hisself up spruce for Maa, and John, who was a full grown lad of ‘bout seventeen year, full of ‘would ye mind’ and ‘if ye please’. Ansom he was too, that boy, and he knew it. But I never liked his looks. Not even before. He’d sit at the kitchen table smiling, small and secret, whilst I made up supper and then thank me all smooth and polite like, when I’d done. But I cudden be having the way his lips shone, nor the queer way his eyes would follow us round.
Theer aint no tin mines down here by the sea, so when what money he’d brought along with him was gone and spent and our tummies began to growl and grumble, William took to podding around, taking a job here and a job there to keep bread on the table. And for a while it was well enough, till he took to calling on the alehouse on the west ‘ome. Then he’d come in slewed, huffing and glazing at us all, with his small brown eyes.
“Why’s theer not no mait on the table, woman?” he demanded once, when me Maa served up the winkles and crabs that we’d collected out in the rock pools by the strand.
“Why’s thee not man enough to bring coppers ’oome to put it there?” said she, turned all cross and ugly, like she used to get with Paa. Then he walloped her one. And John sat like always with his lips gliddering and his eyes darting from his paa to her. Then resting on me.
From then on things took a different turn at ’oome. That John, was set up to be ‘prentice to old Edward the joiner come Spring, and till then he was hanging at a loose end. After that evening with me Maa, he came to following me around the cottage as I worked. He’d jump out from behind the door and take me by surprise, all laughing and talking ‘bout how great a joke it be to make me flustered. Then he’d say,
“Why Eliza ye do have attractive drop-curls.” or “Yew be turning into a fine figure of a lass.” or such like and then he’d stand tall in the doorway so’s that I’d have to squeeze passed him, looking at me strange all the while. Then one time, as I wriggled by, I felt his hand down where it shudden be, and I gasped. He only smiled broad ’cross his face.
“How dare ye!” I said, right uppity. But he just laughed at me, and put his hands all over, till I stuck me elbow in his ribs to move him, and fled the room. I told Maa ‘bout his going on’s one evening when her William was still out boozing, but she only shook her head and wudden listen. The bruises ’round her eyes were gone all green and yeller now.
Round ’bout that time, I took to walking out on the strand on me own of an evening, after the sea drawed back, picking out the winkles. Then I’d be off at the crack of dawn to the village to sell ’um and not come back till supper. It was all to keep out the house ’till Spring for old Edward paid ’alf his wages in board and lodge and John would be moving in with him then. So if the moon was shining after our poor grub, then I’d slip off again with a lamp down to the cliffs, gath’ring for the next day.
That was when I heard her first. The moon was full and round and I was looking out at the waves, wondering at how their crests were all blue-white aglitter. The wind was cutting cold already, for October was almost done and I was pensive ‘bout how I might stay out the house of an evening when winter came proper. As I stood there worriting and shivering, a pale, silvern schreee rose over the crash of the sea. I stopped, my blood turning icy and I harkened to the naet. There it was again: more heart-rending than a baby’s screeching, that’s been left, hungry and alone. Though not so mindless - more like a song it was, though it had no tune to speak of. I turned my head to find out its direction. One way and then the next. Then I was sure. It came from mouth of a cave, nestling at the roots of the cliff.
I remember all of them, the ones who went before me. I hear their voices still, echoing from the smooth walls of the cavern. Even in the deep, as I coil and uncoil beneath the cold press of water, I hear them. Each of them belongs to me, nestling deep within; I cannot still their clamour. But they offer no company; I am alone. This crystal chamber and its icy lake, flooded anew each month with the slow pulse of the tides, is my prison.
Freedom was promised me that day, long ago now. Not the sea. That was never mine; I may not swim there, but legs to walk the land with once again. The gift itself, I might pass on. As it was passed to me.
Skirts and all, I clambered over the rocks, sliddery with oarweed, like I was raving mad. But I cudden help meself, so anxious I was to be closer to that unwholesome singing. I almost flung the lantern onto the stones more than once, but that I could save meself from falling. I censure I’d have gone into the black mouth of that cave without it, though, in me eagerness.
At the cave’s beginning, the moonlight shone in, setting the rocks off to a pale glowing blue. Small pools of water were agleam like a thousand jewels, sparkling bright. From the end of the passage into the cliffs, I could hear the mournful singing clearer still. T’was the most beautiful thing I ever did hear, eerie as it was. So I lifted me lantern light high and entered, with nothing in me mind, but to find out what kind of creature it was that could sing so sweet; for I was certain it could be neither man, nor woman.
The stone passage was gen’rous roomy to begin with, big enough for lovers to lie down in and more, and I remember thinking sure that courting couples would make this their hideyhole in summer. Then I didn’t think no more as the walls squeezed close together, with barely room enough for a slip of a lass like me to push though. But the drafting air that breathed through the gap was cool, smelling of brine and wide open spaces, so I need not be afeared.
With a shove I was through, and so aghast at the stretch of water before me, lamp light winking on the ripples for as far as it would show, that I forgot to take care where I placed my feet. Me shoe skuttered out from beneath me and the lamp flew out me hand. A plunge of black, icy water closed over me head, and I cudden hear nothing, but bubbles of air rising and the song. Frantic, I kicked me legs about any old how, for I could not swim, but it did the trick, for the water broke above me and I sucked in a lungful of air, me teeth chattering. I flailed me arms about, feeling heavy with cold and struck upon the ledge from which I must just have fallen. Then I clung like a winkle to the rock, waiting for someone to pick me off.
That’s when I realised that I could see. The lamp had fallen on its side, but was burning still.
I tried to pull meself up out of the wet, but me arms felt like they was made of wool and I cudden shift up. Me chest had started pounding afright, though I’d been calm as Sunday before; but the singing had stopped. It was like pinching out a candle. I forgot why I’d been so keen to squeeze me way in here and began to feel cold and wisht.
The lake was still as glass but for a set of lazy ripples, flowering outwards toward me and I began to cry. The sound of my blubbering echoed uncanny in the cave so’s that I hardly cud recognize it.
A tower of water crashed next to me head and I saw the flash of a silver tail break the surface and slide back down below. I began to screech as I felt cold coils circle ‘round me, pinning me arms, hard as iron and squeezing. A head broke the water just as mine began to sink and I’d never seen nor heard of no other like it before. T’was a woman, almost, but her skin was silver-grey and shining, and her eyes were green and deep as the sea, but it was her teeth, oh Lord. Her teeth it was that set me gibbering. Rows of them, pointed and sharp, flexed outward as she opened up her maw. She pulled me down, staring into me face with her green eyes like she could not believe what she saw. I thought for sure that I was a goner. Any moment she was certain to pull me under to her lair and tear me limbs all abroad.
Then she was gone. And only ripples were left, slow sliding ’cross the water. Hard breathing, and shivering, I tried to pull meself out of the black water up onto the ledge, flapping about like a fish ’till at last I rested on the cold stone, too weak to move another inch. From somewhere out on the dark lake, far outside the glow of the lamp, I heard her caalin song set off again, piteous and lonely and me heart felt fit to melting. All the terror I had felt, just a slip of a moment before was gone. I wanted to be with her again, teeth or no, and look into eyes that held all the secrets of the sea. Without a thought in me head, I slipped back into the icy water again, but now it did not seem so cold. More like pleasant numbness it seemed to me now, like the nip of brandywine spreading on your tongue.
The song changed: not so plaintive now. Coaxing, it was, like me Paa singing under his breath when the goat had broke out the pen, and he was trying to get her back. Patterns moved across the water and I clung to my ledge: not frightened no more though. Just waiting.
I saw a blink of silver, just beneath the surface. Then again, a flash to me right, circling ’round me. I shivered, just wanting her to come close. And right up next to me, close enough to kiss, her silvery head rose out the lake, pearls of water dripping from her face and the curls of her long hair. She wasn’t singing, for her mouth did not move, but still the sound of it was ringing in me head.
“Yew be beautiful,” I gasped. I cudden help meself.
Her lips curled back as she opened her mouth, each of her teeth a shining point. She smiled. Then she lifted a long, graceful arm from the water, and with slender, webbed fingers, she touched me face. More tender, she was, than Paa, when he’d caaled me a good girl.
“Hunger,” she whispered, and her voice was like the hiss of crashing waves. I nodded, understanding.
“Take me, then. Then I’ll be part of yew. I’m no good for nowt else.”
Her green eyes blinked and she shook her head, drops of water falling from her hair.
“Man,” she hushed, her mouth struggling to form the words, as though it had not been made for speaking; “Bring a man to me. Then you will be with me.” A finger traced my lip. “Always.”
“Why don’t I stay here with yew, now,” I said, afeared that she would be agoan. “I’ll keep yew company for always. I don’t want to go back. Not now I’ve seen *yew*.”
Again, slow, she shook her head.
“*Bring*,” she whispered.
Water lapped aginst the rocky ledge and surface of the water was still. Even the song was gone. And I was bereft.
Next day, I was sullen and listless as I ever have been; me limbs felt cold and heavy, as though me blood were not warm enough to thaw them: I felt like me heart had been torn out from me ribs and there was only emptiness beating a rhythm there now. Even me Maa, who’s not a warm hearted woman, sent me back to my bed when she saw me face at breakfast, and that’s where I stayed - lying cold and clam in the sheets, thinking of nothing but the song and the fall of water from her hair.
Hour by hour, as I lay abed, I saw the light change colour, spilling through the windows. Then it began fading and the shadows came and gathered. At last, he came, like I knew he would, his eyes all gliddering and shifting. Not saying a word, he came sat down by me on the bed and pressed me down with his weight.
“No, John,” I whispered, but he didn’t pay me no mind. I struggled and he propped his arm up aginst me throat, so’s that I cud hardly breathe.
“Please, John,” I croaked, best I cud, “Not here, please John.” He loosed his arm at me throat then, like he was curious to listen. “Me Maa’s goan to come in John, any time. She said she’d bring a brew o’ tay not two minutes gone.” He took is arm away, staring into me face with his shining eyes, like wondering if he was goan to believe me.
“Yew be nothing but a lying hussy, Liza. I saw her out with the geese not ten minutes ago.” And he pressed down again, thrusting his hardness aginst me leg.
“John, no.” I cried, squirming. “I knows a place, John. There’s noone there. I’ll meet you down there. Promise!”
Daresay that took him by surprise, for he stopped his groping and just stared down at me like, in a daze. For a space, I was afeared that for him the fun was forcing me, not having me, but then he cleared his throat and said,
I told him the place, and that I’d meet him sure as apples when the moon rode high. He nodded and in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
I lay on the scratchy old blanket which Paa had always taken with him on the punt, smelling of fish and pipe smoke; still I was cold and damp through. But I could barely stop meself from trembling with excitement, knowing that just a little way down the cave passage, through the fissure in the rock wall was the lake, deep as eternity. I could barely hear the crash of the waves outside on the shore, for her song was so loud in me head. It never left me now.
The moon was sailing high and the sea was alight with shards of blue-white, like as if the moon had fallen and shattered on the ocean surface. Shivering in the cold, I began to think that John had thought better of our tryst. But then a tall figure blocked the cave’s entrance; silhouetted all black he was, his shadow reaching out toward me, stretched long in the moonlight.
All the gleaming little shells that the tide had gathered in the cave, crunched as he stepped nearer. Then he knelt down on Paa’s old scratchy blanket, and without saying a word, began scrabbling at the front of me dress, like he was digging for gold.
But I wasn’t afeared. I only gasped a little, and said,
“Not here, John. Wait.” I fumbled quick to light the little lamp. A moment later I looked up to see his glittering eyes darting over me in the yellow glow of the flame. His thick lips were moist, and ever so slightly parted. “Come on then!” I said, trying to make me voice low and husky and I took him by the hand.
“Why we goan back here?” he said, breathless, like from running. “There’s more room out front.
“Aye, but the wind is cutting. Back here through this crack, it’s dry and warm. Here, you go first, John. I’ll hold the lamp up. He squeezed past me, his body pressing hot through me damp dress. “You just wait, lass,” he whispered, shoving a hand up me thigh.
I smiled, sheep-eyed and nodded toward the fissure. He cussed under his breath but he turned and began to work his way through the passage. I followed for a step or two, holding up the lamp.
“I can’t see nothing,” he said, cross, as I began to lag behind.
“It’s straight in front, John.” I called. “Any minute now, it opens out.”
“Can’t yew hold that light up higher?” he complained, his voice testy.
I took one step further into the passage, then stopped, me heart snagging a catch. There it was, just like in me head, only more beautiful still. Her low, mournful shreee, echoed from the cavern walls beyond, inviting us in.
“What’s that?” called John, too far ahead of me now to see.
“I didn’t hear nothing,” I lied.
“That sound. Like a baby or a cat or summit.”
“I told you, I can’t hear no baby,” I said, leaning back aginst the cold stone wall.
“I think I found it!” he said, his voice takin’ on a hollow echo. “I can’t feel the walls no more, anyhow. Don’t know ’bout *dry* though. Seems wet enough to me.” Theer was a pause, then he called out, sounding small and odd, “What’s keeping yew back there ‘Liza? And where’s the light?”
“I be right behind yew, John.” I said. “Just carry on straight ahead; I’ll be theer now.”
Again, nowt but the echoing Song. Then he shouted, swearing and I heard a great splash.
“Liza!” he called, his voice thick with panic. “I’m in the water, Liza. Why didn’t yew say there was water here?” Theer was more splashing about and huffing so I reckon he was trying to swim. The Song stopped. Nothing but stillness now. Then he shrieked. At first he sounded angry, like a man in a scrap, then piteous and mewling like a baby.
Then that too stopped.
I just waited, me back hard up aginst the damp stone, ‘till I cudden hear nothing but me own hoarse gasping and the drip of water. And the song in me head, all but drowning the rest out. In the end, I rose up slow, me hands all jittery and trembling. I shud like to say t’was fear of what I might see left in the cavern, or niceness, for John was me step-brother after all. But it warn’t. Cold excitement, it was, like a shaking fever. I had no thought in me head: nothing but the Song and wanting to be near to her.
I began clambering through the passage, shells crunching like bones beneath me feet. Then I pushed through. Lamplight reflected off the water, making spangles on the rocky ledge. Two great smears of black were left on the smooth stone, otherwise there was nothing. But I didn’t hardly look for other traces of John; I knew where he was. I sat down on the ledge, careful not to get the muck on me skirts. It didn’t help though: soon enough I had a patch of it on the white linen. It was sticky and black on the rock, but on me dress yew cud see it was red.
I waited there ’till I thought I’d burst with waiting and finally it began. The water ringed and lapped gentle aginst the ledge, and a silver-grey form slid by, just breaking the surface. Almost soundless, but for the glistering drops of water, her head rose. One arm, shining metal grey, and impossible strong pulled her long, smooth body up onto the rock besides me.
Without a word she sat there, staring into me face with her sea green eyes. Slow as stars turning she raised her gleaming arm and touched her webbed fingers to me face. Tender she was. And quiet sad, like she’d seen it all before. All I knew, is that I was never more happy than sat where I was, next to her.
“A gift? ” she hissed. Without thinking, I nodded. She drew her face closer; her features were all delicate, like a girl’s, but for their silver sheen and the teeth, razor sharp hiding behind her velvet lips. “It is yours,” she whispered and she pressed her mouth to mine.
A thrill jolted through me, as though me flesh had been sleeping and now began to wake. I could taste the salt upon her lips, smell the tang of sea weed on her skin, almost like it was pouring into me. A odd, liquid feeling stole over me legs, a warmth - almost a burning, almost pain - coming from within. But me skin felt cool, and smooth as she moved her fingers down me arm. A sharp snapping sound, like the sound of bones breaking, roused me to me senses, and struggled away from her embrace. She held me to her, her grip cold and merciless. I tried to speak, to plead with her, but me mouth was full of knives and would not obey me.
I cudden hardly move me legs no more; like they were buried in sand it was, a great weight pressing them together. I twisted then with all me force from the waist, and felt them slither across the stone. She released me. I looked up into her face.
Green eyed with pretty, tidy little features, a young girl stared back at me. Naked as the day, her curls hung wet and dark over her pale skin but I could see they’d be bright gold when they dried.
“Pass the gift,” she said, hoarse, staring grave into me face. “Pass the gift to one who is like to you, then you are free.” Then she turned and I was alone. The lamp guttered out, and there was nothing but darkness.
I slid smoothly into the cool mantle of the lake.
Often I lie at the very bottom, sinking into the silt and feeling the weight of so much water pressing me down. And I sing, calling out to who or what will come. I am with her now, and she is with me. We are one: my self and I. I hear the others too, some so old, their language is another. But I understand them. They are all with me here, though they passed on the gift long ago and have fled.
Something stirs in the muddy bed beside me, drawn to me. My fingers dart out, quick despite the cold.
There is only darkness here. And hunger.