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The Girl In The Sea by Faith Allington



Lina woke in the deep of night when the stars called. The attic window was far enough away from her bed to look like a painting of the night sky hung on the sloped ceiling. But she could see the stars winking and hear their voices humming against glass.

She should go back to sleep. There were nets to haul and fish to gut. There were chores to be done, like painting the boats or fixing the nets. With winter coming, her family would need to seal up their little house against coming storms. But she wriggled free from the blankets anyway.

She took her hooded cloak off a peg on the wall and tiptoed to the window. The moon was bright as a silver coin, wreathed by purple clouds. Dragon’s breath, that’s what her mother called those clouds. The sea, which would come almost to the house during high tide, was a restless creature of emerald.

Lina knew better. She always knew better. But the stars glittered so fiercely and the moon shone so beguilingly that she couldn’t help it. As she turned the window latch, the cold night air flowed in with its smells of brine and wildness. She could become a dragon or a mermaid or any of the fantastic beings waiting outside for her. 

She crawled up onto the window and perched on the ledge like a bird. It was perfect in this moment as she watched the sea and the sky, the whole night waiting for her. The cold air pressed fondly against her face until her excitement swelled and strained against her ribs.

She lifted her arms and let herself fall. It felt like flying. She knew she should be afraid, but the darkness never hurt her. As soon as her toes touched the sand, she rushed forward to chase the tide. 

Tonight, she would be a mermaid.

 

***

 

When she woke a second time, it was dawn and her mother’s hand lay lightly over her own. Lina’s mother was round and soft, with dark inky hair that fell over her shoulders. She moved as smoothly as if she were a seal gliding through the water. 

This morning though, her wide full mouth was twisted with worry and her large eyes were narrowed to slivers of ice. Her voice made music of the rebuke. “You’ve been outside.”

Lina’s chest tightened. There was no explaining the night’s wonders to any adult, even a mother as lovely as hers. She chewed her lip, wondering what gave her away. Her cloak was hanging on the peg and the window was latched. She’d even brushed the sand from under the bed carefully; it always seemed to follow her in.

Her mother gave her a sad smile and sighed as she pulled a twig tangled in Lina’s hair. “Your father will be worried, Lina. And you know he has work enough to do without worrying over you.”

Lina wriggled into a sitting position, still cocooned in the warmth of her blankets. The sky was a pale blue edged in gold. She glanced at her mother. “But it does no harm. He’d like it out there, I know he would.”

Something skimmed across her mother’s face, vanishing before it could be captured. “He has his reasons.”

Lina didn’t quite know why, but she reached her arms out. Her mother pulled Lina against her chest and held her in a tight embrace as if she feared Lina would fall. Her heartbeat sounded like the tide but her skin smelled like flowers. She kissed Lina’s tangled hair and whispered something too soft to hear.

They nestled together like a glint of seals sleeping between the rocks. This was how Lina liked to imagine them, hibernating for the winter together. Safe from the storms when crying winds and driving rain roiled the sea into madness. A madness with voices that Lina feared.

 

***

 

Lina spent all day working on the catch until her back ached and her fingers were slippery with fish scales. She preferred weaving nets, but the nets had held and so had her father's good fortune. She gutted fish that stared at her reproachfully with their liquid eyes and gaping mouths as if she ought to know better.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered as she wiped the little penknife her father had made her on her trousers. It seemed wrong to catch them like this, a writhing mass in the nets. It seemed like cheating.

Then the gold light caught on the tips of waves that had crept up to spray her with flecks of foam. The sea was inviting her to play, so joyful and dog-like that she found her feet taking her nearly to the water’s edge.

Then a shadow fell over her and her head tilted up. Her father’s presence seemed to quiet the sea and the tide pulled away from her. Her father was a big man, tall and broad-shouldered, his rough clothes in pleasant shades of brown and red.

“Lina.” Her father’s voice was a warm burr. But he had a mouth that seemed rarely to smile and brown eyes that looked almost like amber, memories trapped inside them.

She waited, wondering if he would chide her, but he just watched her as though waiting for her to do something. Behind him, she caught sight of her mother’s anguished face before it sealed itself up, became smooth as stone.

A strange humming sound filled Lina’s ears, but she reached up for her father’s hand and everything went quiet. She saw by the sudden leaping flame of his smile that she had done the right thing. But as he drew her away from the sea, she felt something stick in her throat and her eyes stung with tears. The sea whimpered.

 

***

 

“You know she’s not meant for this,” Lina’s mother whispered as she paced the small main room and kitchen of their tiny cottage. She wore a gleaming white cloak over her shoulders and her hair hung dark down it.

A fire flickered in the hearth, kicking up sparks. Lina, who was not sure if she was dreaming, crouched behind the foot of the stairs and peered around the corner. Her fingers felt only half-real against the wooden wall.

Her father was pacing the kitchen as if something inside him was struggling to get out. “This is her home and always will be.”

“We can’t ignore what she is, darling,” her mother said, her voice pleading as old silk.

“She belongs to us,” he hissed back with a voice like the fire’s own.

Lina shrank back and her heart started to spin at those four simple words. She belongs to us. Through a large window she saw the night sky full of stars and it seemed to her that it was coming closer. That it had a face and eyes and a name that she should know.

The door, improperly latched, swung open in the wind. A sharp briny smell raced in with the rain. A rumble of thunder rippled in the air outside. Her parents jumped, startled, and her mother slammed the door shut.

“You know I’m right,” her father said. “By hawthorn blossom and the spine of a sea beast. We did everything they asked of us.”

“Just because we made something doesn’t mean we own it,” her mother said, leaning against the door as if too exhausted to move. Her voice was so furred with grief that it made Lina sick to hear. “Oh, my Lina, my drowning girl.”

“But they promised us—”

Thunder shook the air again and blurred the rest of his words. Lina was suddenly more afraid than she’d ever been. Her chest hurt. She wanted to run back upstairs and hide under the wool blankets until dawn. Or maybe she wanted to scream and weep and run until she collapsed.

With a cry, she darted into the kitchen, up over the sink and wriggled out through the little window. The wooden windowsill snagged and scraped at her hair, but she pulled free and ran down to the shore.

It was a moonlit night, the moon so big she could drink the light, or bathe in it. The sea was shifting quietly, rippling in swells but no waves, as if waiting. A face seemed to peer through the water at her, but she could not make out the features.

Then something began to walk jerkily out of the sea. Its footsteps dripped and squelched on the sand, water pouring from its hair. Its skin was speckled with sand and seaweed, but she recognized it as another Lina.

“Which one of us is real?” Lina asked, her voice brittle. But was she really entitled to think of herself as Lina, she wondered. Could it be true that she was only a thing made from blossom and bone? Was this why all her memories were half-submerged, seen through water?

The drowning Lina just looked at her. Its eye sockets were dark green and hollow. Its jaw slid open and a sea thing slithered out between its lips, falling to the sand. Finally, it raised a limp hand towards the house behind her.

Lina jerked away, her heart tumbling in her chest like rocks down a cliff. She knew what the drowned girl wanted—for Lina to take her place in the sea. Lina could remember what was down there; she’d dreamt it all. The ruined coral castles and the great kraken and the fields of seaweed. She could slough off this borrowed life to become part of the shimmering tides forever.

“Please, please—Lina, we love you!” The scream came, ripped out of the throats of her parents like something stolen. It rang with such pain that it tore at Lina’s shaking body, echoing raggedly in her chest and seeming to scrape at her heart.

But she didn’t turn, she didn’t look away from the other Lina. She stood under the wild moonlight and wondered instead which one of them her parents wanted to keep.

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1 Comment


There we go. I counted half a dozen captivating turns of phrase and plenty compelling descriptions. Looking forward to more from you.

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