Sea Shanties

 In Short Fiction, Stories

“You could tell her about the Moray.”

“For the last time, Doris, I’m not going to do that.”

“Well, alright.” A stray drop of coffee landed on the diner’s peeling counter as Doris whisked the carafe away. After a year of waitressing at her side, it was still unclear whether she’d been born a Doris, or whether it was a title bestowed on her by the grimy mysticism that every 24-hour diner exuded. Maybe if I worked here long enough, I’d end up curt and maternal, too. So far I could only do curt.   

The flesh on her arms swallowed up her elbows as she leaned back on the counter again. “You could always leave that part out, and just stick with the ship going down. That’s a great story all on its own. Not many’s lucky enough to be in their very own shipwreck.”

I grunted noncommittally. It was ten after two and Kelly still hadn’t showed. I was on the wrong side of the diner counter and out of my uniform, but I could still feel the apron straps digging into my waist and the sticky residue of all the darlin’-baby-honey-sweethearts I’d smiled through that morning. When I told Doris I was bringing someone here, she’d graciously agreed to pretend I didn’t work here. It wasn’t like the food was any good. It was just that I intended on buying Kelly’s lunch, and to afford that we’d have to stick to the one place I could eat for free.

The truth was, I was probably going to tell the story, anyway. That was what boat-folk did, wasn’t it? Fishermen’s tales, ancient mariners; one thing we all had in common was that we couldn’t keep our mouths shut. I’d only worked the boat for three months before it went down in a storm, releasing all the dead fish back into the sea like some kind of atonement. And then I’d seen the Moray. But that part I really would leave out.

“Bathroom,” I said, but Doris wasn’t listening.

There were little scraps of toilet paper all over the floor, some exciting new graffiti at eye level with the can; I’d be the one cleaning it up later. For now, I just stared in the mirror a while. Makeup dried my eyes and made my mouth as stiff as tanned leather. For days I’d imagined the look of surprise on Kelly’s face when she saw how normal I’d got myself; gone was the lanky girl who shuffled along with one shoulder dragging against the lockers, meeting Kelly’s eyes for too long and then not at all. I hadn’t seen her since graduation—or at least, she hadn’t seen me. The photos on Facebook never did my memories justice. Maybe when I saw her again I could strip that varnish away.

I stooped over the sink to scrub my face with the cheap hand soap, and when I straightened up my eyes were smeared with runny mascara, red-rimmed and wet.

The television in the corner of the room was chattering away as I slid back onto my stool. What was different was that Doris was watching it. I looked up at the screen and saw a face I knew, the one I thought would be coming through the door.

“Damn shame,” Doris was saying from somewhere far away and underwater. “First drowning of the season. Pretty young thing, too. More coffee, Al?

“Allison?”

#

They’d scoured the water for three hours before they found her tangled in the kelp, and no one was saying how it got tied around her legs like that. I pictured her floating like a balloon on a string, her hair a golden halo tinted green in the sea-light.

For a while I just picked the peeling vinyl off my stool, drank the coffee Doris poured me, and followed the story through all the local news channels. It was a small town. In half a day, Kelly became a celebrity. Interviews, a police statement saying nothing at all, shots of caution tape twitching on the sand as the newscasters speculated in authoritative voice-overs. They were saying it could have been an accident. They were also saying that Kelly had been a state competitor for her college’s swim team, tossing that fact out there like chum for the sharks.

I was distantly aware of the looks Doris was shooting me across the counter, the gentle, prodding do you maybe want me to drive you home, hon? that I grunted into silence. I knew she’d want to change the channel to sports, that the folks coming in to eat their gummy pancakes were starting to shift nervously in their seats, but moving or speaking too much would mean acknowledging this was real. My phone sat on the diner counter. Her texts were still on the screen and, when the news cut away to a cartoon bird squawking about breakfast cereal, I began to scroll through them. I can’t believe we’ve lived in the same city for so long without realizing! she had typed a week ago. I could believe it easily, myself. My social media accounts were dead air. I made no effort to keep up with old friends and gave up on making new ones. I was, as my ex told me, chronically and incurably asocial. She’d said it as a joke until it stopped being funny.

We still on for today? Kelly sent that at six this morning, back when she was alive. I’d woken up at noon, disgusted at how chipper she was at such an ungodly hour, and texted a hurried lol yep. I wondered if she’d gotten a chance to read it. Whether my banal last words had irritated her. They infuriated me now.

I was off my stool and out the door before Doris could call my name. This close to the water, everything smelled like ocean. Salt and rotting things. I walked past the bench where I caught the bus after every shift, my eyes on the pavement, and I could feel every piece of grit through the bottoms of my worn-out shoes. When the Little Mermaid had her tail carved in two, every step on land felt like she was walking on knives. I wasn’t sure why I thought of that now. I was trying not to think of anything.

#

Night crept in by the time I got back to my apartment. For a while I couldn’t make myself cross the threshold, so I stopped just inside the door. It was a shitty place. I wasn’t being self-deprecating; it was just the first word that would pop into any rational person’s head. Shitty. A shithole.

But that morning, I’d made an effort. I’d chased dynasties of dust-bunnies into the hall and cleared all the used paper plates off the kitchen counter. Like this was more than just a place to crash between part-time shifts at the diner. As if, in some universe, Kelly and I would have hit it off at lunch, walked along the beach and laughed at each other’s jokes, marveling at how charming we’d turned out. Part of me must have carried the words to invite her back here for a drink—the same part that had washed the sheets and dug into the last of the cologne at the bottom of my medicine drawer—without telling the rest of me what pathetic hopes it was entertaining.

When two shots of certified drain-cleaning bottom-shelf vodka couldn’t put me to sleep, I dug an old yearbook out of the box of junk I’d held onto from school. Long hair in a bun, a dimple beside the corner of her mouth that always looked like kindness to me. Hers was not the face of a girl who would one day swim down beneath the waves, into the cold embrace of the kelp. I fell asleep with my face on Kelly’s picture and dreamed of the storm, the pitching waves, the fingers trailing through my hair, down from my hip to my toes as I kicked towards a breath of air that never came.

#

I’d told the story so many times that I remembered the parts I made up as clearly as the ones that happened. The little fishing boat caught in a big storm (real). The waves so tall that I had to crane my neck back to see their crests, rising dark against a sky lashed with green lightning (not real; the waves had pounded me under the surface before I could wipe the salt from my eyes). The water that had come surging over the deck until the ship was riding too low, until the waves up and turned her like a plastic bath toy (real). Then the Moray.

I’d gone under and figured myself drowned, only it wasn’t so easy as just waiting for it to happen; I’d kicked my way through the wreckage and the burst-open net of our fish, the ones still alive scattering like starlings into the dark and the dead ones choking the water with their slimy touches. Except it wasn’t the fish that closed around my ankle, that stroked and tugged and pulled me down, almost playful, even as my lungs burst. In the final flash of lightning I stared down into the depths and had seen a sliver of deeper darkness hanging in front of me, like a crack torn into the sea. Or it might have been something thin and serpentine and stretching very far down, its outline undulating in a parody of hips and breasts, its face turned up to me. And when the light flickered out, I could swim again. I swam for the darkness the lightning had left behind, and nothing followed me but the words I swallowed like seawater. The name I borrowed from a nature documentary, a leathery strand of flesh with too many teeth.

A week after they found the body, the police released a statement that they were ruling out foul play. Kelly’s options were narrowing down. Accident or suicide. A flip of a coin between the two. And Kelly had been such a strong swimmer; the newscasters gloated over that little tidbit for hours.

Without the titillation of murder, Kelly dissolved from the local news feed like sea foam coughed up on a beach. I hadn’t been to work since it happened, and I was trying not to think about that. Instead I hunched over my computer and I read every article about Kelly ever published, present to past, the story of a life in reverse: drowned, she rose from the waves to work as a teacher helping underprivileged kids, falling into the arms of a good college, getting A’s in high school as my face flashed by unnoticed in the halls. I imagined her shrinking, smaller and smaller, until she was swallowed by the water of the womb.

After the shipwreck, I’d done my research. That stretch of coast had seen no unusual drownings. No disappearances. No smeared photographs of something peering out from between the waves, no stories other than the legends that any sea-town dished out with its fried clams and coleslaw. None of my shipmates who survived the wreck had seen the Moray either. It happened just a few miles from where Kelly died.

I found myself studying a woodcut depicting naked women frolicking in the waves, beckoning sailors to throw themselves into the surf. Below the surface of the water, their sisters pinned the swimmers to the bottom. Eyes fixed on the ecstasy of the drowned and drowners alike, I lifted the bottle of vodka at my elbow and nearly hit myself in the face. It was too light—empty.

I stumbled to my window, heart pounding sluggishly. My building technically faced the sea, albeit with a mile of land in between. I used to play the sounds of the ocean on my tinny phone speakers and pretend I was close enough to hear it, back when I first moved here and that kind of sentimentality still meant something to me.

Now, I listened to the silence and thought: why not? The Moray killed her. Was it any crazier than the idea that ocean currents somehow twined kelp around her legs so tightly she couldn’t fight her way free? The idea that she had done it to herself? I couldn’t remember how the legends went—whether mermaids drowned their victims out of hunger or out of love. The stories had their own logic. Where was the logic in a girl who had it all and threw it into the sea?

That night Kelly came to see me. She was sitting beside me on the couch, her wet hair spilled loose over her naked back. I ran a brush through it, over and over, the coarse scrape of the bristles filling the silence, the slimy strands thick in my fingers. I couldn’t be sure whether terror or excitement pounded in my chest.

#

I wasn’t invited to her funeral, of course. After all, I’d barely known her. I imagined crashing it anyway, reeking of vodka with a nervous grin plastered on my face, and peering at the seams in the coffin to make sure seawater wasn’t trickling out. Not a great scene. So on the day they put her into the ground, I went to the cove instead.

No one else was there. A sharp wind came off the water, whistling around the grey rocks. There was a little scrap of police tape, some cigarette butts, used condoms, burger wrappers. An empty Starbucks cup tumbled around my feet in the breeze, the paper mermaid flashing by as if she’d dropped her fins and run. Gulls flitted around and beaked at the garbage. Their cries harsh as salt.

I picked my way along the damp stones just above where the tide reached. Waves slammed the shore, coating my lips with their spray. Living this close to the sea, I’d seen my fair share of desolate places. This one was bereaved. Somewhere under the waves, out there yet within eyesight, Kelly had drowned. What brought her here to begin with?

I stepped close enough so that the thin rush of water surged around my toes. I tried to imagine what Kelly might have seen, the dark shape standing among the waves. An arm rising out of the water, beckoning her forward. Nothing broke the surface, though. Maybe it didn’t want me. At this very moment Kelly was sinking into a different kind of darkness, not struggling at all as it closed over her head.

#

A couple weeks passed before the cops ruled her death a suicide. It was the first article that came up when I Googled her name that morning, short and to the point.

“Kelly was a beautiful girl, full of life,” her mother was quoted as saying. I sneered at those stupid, trite words. I could have done better than that. The article proceeded to paint Kelly as a workaholic whose drive to succeed finally caught up with her. “Her friends report that by the end she hardly had time to sleep between work, volunteering, and social engagements,” the article claimed. “Evans had even scheduled a lunch date with a high school acquaintance on the very day she took her own life.”

By the time I finished reading my hands were trembling. I wasn’t sure what pissed me off the most; maybe it was the author’s head-shaking tone, or maybe it was what the article turned me into. A date on a calendar, a chain on the anchor that dragged her beneath the waves. The only real connection to Kelly I had. I cracked open a new bottle without reading the label and poured something colorless into my dirty glass.

Time slipped out from under me. I didn’t remember walking into my kitchen, had no idea what I planned to do until I reached for the phone. The taste of vodka crawled over my tongue, but my head felt as clear as a tide pool, full of strange organisms. With fumbling hands, I picked up my landline for the first time in weeks and started going through voicemails. Most of them were years old, the ones that weren’t from Doris asking me where I was; I deleted them categorically until I found the one with the number I wanted. I dialed it instantly. It picked up on the third ring.

“Margaret Keyes speaking,” the voice said, in a tone reserved for answering mysterious late-night phone calls.

“You wrote the article? The one about Kelly?” My words sounded choked and low, like an animal trying to talk with the wrong kind of mouth.

A long string of static from the other end of the line. “Who am I speaking to?”

“Her lunch date.”

“Ah.” Another tactful pause. “I see you got my message. I had hoped to get your comments before publishing the article, but since I never heard back—”

“Kelly didn’t kill herself,” I said. I went to lean on the counter and almost slipped to the floor. My fingers gripped the edge like a lifeline. “That’s not my side of the story, it’s the goddamn truth.”

“The police were confident.”

“They don’t know anything. Something else happened to her, and the cops don’t care.” I wasn’t even sure where the words were coming from; they welled up out of me, cold currents from deep down.

“Did you know her well?”

“I watched her. I saw more than anyone.”

I imagined I could hear the scratch of pen and paper on the other end of the phone. “Did you talk to Kelly on the day she drowned?”

“Just by text. I haven’t heard her voice since high school.”

“I see. And why do you think she would kill herself on the same day she was supposed to see you again?”

I blinked. A film seemed to be forming over the surface of my eyes, so dry my lids caught on them like sandpaper. “I don’t know. I mean, I said she didn’t kill herself.”

“Mm.” The grating of her pencil dragged over the inside of my skull. “Is it possible she had some kind of personal vendetta against you? That her last act was some sort of punishment?”

What?”

A watery, choking laugh. “No, of course not—because she never even cared that much to begin with. She didn’t think of you at all as the water burst her lungs.”

Bile surged in the back of my throat, waves funneled into a narrow channel. I pulled the receiver away from my face and watched the air bubbles surge out of the mouthpiece. It was only then that I realized I couldn’t breathe.

When I jolted awake, my flailing limbs knocked the empty bottle off my desk. It bounced with a clang that I felt in my teeth. The article on Kelly’s suicide stared me down from my computer screen. After a while my fingernails slowly peeled themselves out of the meat of my palms, leaving twin bite marks pressed in the skin.  

I closed my laptop and lay in bed. The apartment was silent. The phone didn’t ring. I thought of that last breath of water, the burn of salt and the feeling of fingers in my hair. The world was still dark and would be for a while.

I got up, put on my shoes, and headed for the shore.

#

The cove at night was a place that had slipped through the cracks of some alien world. Oily grey waves rose in the moonlight, ridged like lava flows. In the daytime, they had slammed the shore; now the water groped blindly, searching for a handhold to haul itself onto the sand.

I stood on the stony beach until I could have drawn the scene from memory. It must have been low tide; rocks appeared like jagged black teeth, the rabid drool of seafoam clinging to their bases. One close to shore looked like a hand with one finger pointing toward the dark night sky.

I kicked off my shoes. My jacket followed, then my shirt, my socks, my pants. I stood in my underwear, shivering against the cold sea breeze, and I didn’t think about what I was doing as I stripped down totally bare.

Part of me had been planning this all along. I’d meant to swim down to the very place where Kelly had died, to run my fingers through the kelp. I imagined plunging into the slimy green strands to pull out a shoe, Kelly’s shoe, and once I held it in my hands, then all of this would somehow make sense. It felt rational enough. I hadn’t slept in days.

But the dark shape rising out of the water, motionless against the slap of the waves—that was not a piece of my fantasy.

It hadn’t been there when I’d come to the cove before. I kept my eyes focused on it, waiting for it to vibrate in tune with my shuddering vision and dissolve back into the alcohol in my brain. It didn’t. It looked like a head, dark hair plastered against it, too still to be swimming, immune to the tug of the current. Dead air and total stillness came off it in waves, washing over me, singing me out to sea.

The first step into the surf felt like a mallet crashing on my foot. My breath leapt out of my throat in a gasp that nearly strangled me. A cold so raw it cooked the flesh on my bones. Still, I stepped forward. This same water had wrapped around Kelly the way it wrapped around me, before it had dragged her down to where it could keep her. The dark shape waited, patient, familiar. I thought about the storm that had nearly drowned me, the fury of the waves and the flashes of light from far above, a counterpoint to the unbroken darkness below. Only this time, I wasn’t caught in the grip of something I couldn’t fight. I was walking out to meet it.

The water lapped up my inner thighs, dripped from my pubic hair, tongued at my hips, languid, sucking kisses that left me numb and grateful for it. Kelly had felt the same caresses. In a way, we were feeling them together. The water slid into the channels of my ribs. I walked with my hands cradling my elbows, feeling the gooseflesh like the roughness of salt-eaten stone. The dark shape blocked my way.

“I saw you,” I said. My voice shook like drops of water driven by the wind. “I see you now.”

The shape did not move. I shook with terror and cold and ecstasy, but I couldn’t stop, not then. It called to me, the cold and the water and the numbing hiss of the waves. Another step. Another. I wasn’t afraid of drowning. I’d been doing it for years.

“Here I am,” I said through chattering teeth. “Don’t you want me, too?” My feet shifted on the slimy stones beneath me, but the water bore my weight. Its icy mouth surged over my breasts, buried its teeth into my collarbones. Anger was the only heat left under my skin. The hard sliver of darkness waited before me.

“Come on,” I hissed. “Aren’t I good enough for you? Is that why you wanted her?”

One more step. The water seized my throat. I stood before the dark shape, the waves lapping my chin, close enough to touch it. Moonlight drove into my eyes and obliterated its features. This thing had no voice. Anything born from this terrible cold could never speak in a way the living could understand. The water buzzed in my bones, a low and droning melody. There was only one answer, then. A yes, or a no.

“Take me to her,” I whispered, and reached out to touch its face.

Slimy. Hard and wet. I traced barnacles, splinters, the places where the rot had set in. Wood. It was wood. Part of a pier long sunk beneath the higher tides, standing on the ocean floor as the water opened and closed around it, watching without thought or feeling as Kelly drowned herself.

There were no monsters here. Nothing to confront. Nothing to drag me down. Just the tug of the sea, the undertow straining at my limbs. It would drag me down not out of love or hunger, but for no reason at all.

My nails sank into the rotting wood. The water leaned up to slap the tears off my face, salt against salt. The same water that had crept into Kelly’s lungs. I opened my mouth to it, gulping like I could taste her, swallow her. With my final step forward, my feet left the rocky bottom, and I wrapped myself around the slippery pier like I could become a part of it. There was nothing but me and the boiling cold of the ocean, the solid, slimy pillar stretching down to the ocean bottom. I wouldn’t let it go. I would cling to it until the tide climbed over me and follow Kelly the only way I could. My eyes closed. I drifted, drifted out to sea and then beneath it, and it seemed that the dark head turned to press against mine as we sank.

#

Waking up again was, itself, a betrayal. Moonlight jammed into my eyes; a bed of stones nudged my back. When I lifted my head, I saw the cove as I’d seen it before, back on the shore. Somehow the waves must have carried me back, spat me out like a piece of gristle. Water streamed around me. I felt so heavy and still that not even the ocean could move me. I could just lie here and let the cold claim what the ocean hadn’t wanted. But Kelly wasn’t waiting for me at the end of that darkness. She never had been.

I dragged myself away from the water on numb legs, tugged my clothes over my wet skin without feeling them. The cold and the grey moonlight had sucked all the color out of my flesh. My fingers were too stiff to button my pants. I knew as I straightened up that I wouldn’t make it home on foot.

The thought of explaining myself to a hospital nurse left me shaking all the harder. I called a cab instead. My shoes were lost somewhere in the darkness and the sand, so I stood in my socks by the side of the road as the car pulled up. The driver gave me a strange look in the rear view mirror, but I gave my address and he didn’t ask. He offered me the rest of his lukewarm coffee halfway through the ride. It burrowed like fire into my guts. I gagged then drank the rest of it. I knew I didn’t have the cash for a tip.

When I got home, I stood in the middle of the floor, the grime of the ocean stiffening my skin. I couldn’t touch anything, couldn’t sit on my own furniture. I wanted to shower it all away, but the thought of water made me shudder like something about to fly to pieces.. Instead, I slid down onto the floor, shivering, smelling the sea all over me. The brine of it. The dead things it carried.

#

A couple days later, after I had cleared my internet history and returned Doris’s calls and banished all my empty bottles to the curb, I remembered where I’d left my shoes.

It was stupid, and I acknowledged that, but I knew I had to go back for them. As long as they were there I could still feel the grit of the sand they were lying on, smell the ocean on my shins—a piece of myself that might call me back someday. Maybe that’s exactly what they did.

In the day, the air felt too warm, too dry, the memories of my strange night-thoughts turning colorless and parched. I found my shoes right where I’d left them, damp and coated with sand. Low tide again; rocks peered out of the ocean, pointed up to the sky. There was no other trace of my presence that night. Empty sand, empty water. An absence that sank deep into my core like an anchor holding me in place.

I stared at the cove for a long time, trying to place the small dread growing in my stomach, the cold that still locked around my skin. There was nothing. The water’s surface rippled like green-grey glass, unbroken. And that was what bothered me, of course. Because where the lonely pier should have stood, there was nothing but furrowed water. I stared at that point for a long time, remembering how clearly I’d seen it standing among the waves. How I’d touched it. My eyes scraped the surface for an answer. There was one way to know for certain: I could wade out to look for it again. I imagined dragging my fingers through the water, the empty water where the thing had risen up to meet me, had held me, had cast me back onto the beach and then slipped back into the darkness.

It wasn’t Kelly I thought of whenever I caught a whiff of the ocean wind or heard its distant murmurs. I thought about the woodcut, the sailors being dragged into the sea. I wondered why the Moray had tossed me back that night. Maybe the thing had recognized something in me: a fellow underwater creature, a thing already drowned. Maybe it was only biding its time. Some nights I woke up with the sweat-slicked sheets twisted around my ankles like damp kelp, and it wasn’t fear that made the blood pound like waves behind my eyes. When I dreamed of sinking beneath the water, I opened my mouth and breathed.

After dreams like those I’d sit in my chair at the window and look to the sea. I could stare right through the miles of buildings and distance, stare right into the cove. I saw a lonely shape rising over the sea, still, waiting. There was no sound but the sucking of the waves. It was nothing like a song.

Amelia Fisher is a weird gay hippie who lives in a van. She’s the author of two queer novellas and is currently writing more. Her hobbies include playing video games in the middle of the wilderness and figuring out how to bake a soufflé on a camp stove. Find her out in the desert somewhere, or at ameliafisher.com.

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