This story is by JD Edwin and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She came and sang to him on the eve of his eleventh birthday. He listened, heart damp with innocence and feet buried in the sun-toasted sand. Under the moonlight, the scales that climbed over her hips and tail shimmered like wet opal, and her eyes were dark like those of a white shark. Her song carried no lyrics, only a melody that ebbed and flowed with the tide. Though he had never heard it before, he knew it was a gift for him, and he fell in love that very night.
After she fell silent, he chased her, swimming until his arms nearly gave out in the wind-swept waves. In the morning he returned alone, with only the reflection of the dawn upon the water accompanying him as he made his way back to shore, exhausted and dripping with the remnants of the sea. The weight of loss rested heavy in his chest, sinking more and more with each night that passed without her song. Just when he thought he could take no more and gave merit to the idea of walking into the ocean until his suffering ended, she appeared again, this time on the eve of his twelfth.
He was a blessing from the sea, the matron of the village always said to him, her rocking chair creaking like the mast of an old ship. Silver hair played at her temples as the tide rolled in and the gulls screamed their hoarse song. Sons of the sea, she told him, came to land carried by the waves, and good tidings followed them. Their arrival foresaw prosperity for the village – ample rain, good fishing, and healthy infants. But the sons never lingered for it was not their home. One day, to the sea they would return, back to a world unbeknown to the land folks. The land folks never knew how long the sea sons would stay, but they loved and cherished them as they came, and sent their kind thoughts as they left.
“But how would I know when it is time to return?” he asked, fingers sliding over a single shell he had carried for as long as his memories. He had told no one this, but it was the color of her scales when they caught the light of the moon.
“You will know when you know,” the matron replied, gazing out into the roaring waves. “Every son of the sea knows when it is his turn. More often than not, it is when they cross that threshold that divides boys and men. We do not know why, only that the sea calls to them, and they go.”
He followed her wrinkled eyes to the gray horizon and wondered if it might have been more than the water that called to the boys who returned to sea.
With the moon she came, and with the waves she left, leaving behind her song that haunted the depths of his dreams and thoughts. With each year that passed she drew nearer, always on the eve of his birthday. By his thirteenth year he had learned to wait for her. By his fourteenth he stood with his feet in the water. For his fifteenth the girl who did the matron’s washing offered to cook for him, her soft cheeks flushing pink. She had eyes the color of amber. He tucked a flower behind her ear and thought to himself that she was pretty like a river rock – small, insignificant, precious in its own way, and easily walked past. He kissed her because he knew she wanted him to, then walked her home as the sun disappeared beneath the water. By the time the stars rose, he was standing among the waves, waiting for those dark eyes, deep as the sea and radiant as the moon, to peer above the surface.
When he turned sixteen he swam to join her, fearing as he drew near that she would turn away from him. But she did not. She allowed him to come close, as close as he dared, close enough to see the wet, slippery, frog-like texture of her skin and the gills that lined the sides of her neck. Then she reached out and glided her wet, webbed fingers over his face and chest. He breathed deep at her touch, and she dove below to explore his legs and what dangled between them. He didn’t move, though his heart thundered in his chest. When she had satisfied her curiosity, she sang to him once more before sinking out of sight.
On his seventeenth he ventured into the water the moment the sun was out of sight. The pretty girls in the village no longer looked at him, for who could stand to keep holding her heart out to a boy whose eyes never left the sea? He did not notice this. They were all mere river rocks to him, and he walked past each one on his way to wait for her. Always for her. When she appeared, she went straight to him. He carried her out of the waves, salt water dripping from her hair, long, green, and trailing like the plants of the sea, and laid her on the sand. He did not speak, and she did not sing, but she welcomed him with her touch and drew him in like the receding riptide. He drowned in her, and she smiled before she departed. This time the song was in his heart.
When she returned again, he went to carry her once more, but she beckoned him instead. He went. The sea swallowed his feet, then his legs and trunk, and then he was floating. She took his hand and he followed her through the moving currents, until the land and the village melted into the night. She moved through the water like a bird through the air, and though he struggled to keep up, he was more alive that night than he had ever been in his entire life. As the morning light made its appearance, they arrived at the rock cluster sitting above the surface, beaten smooth by eons of waves and tide. She gestured for him to climb, and he did.
The first thing he saw was the sun rising on an endless sea. And though he had seen it many times before, he marveled at its beauty like a blind man parting his eyelids for the first time. The next thing he saw was the infant, pink, naked, and glistening with sea foam, its wail lost in the symphony of shrieking wind and crashing waves. He turned to inquire his lover, but she opened him from throat to navel before he could utter the first word. The final thing he saw was her eyes, dark as a white shark’s, gazing down lovingly at her babe as she scooped warm blood and viscera into its mouth, the first and only meal provided by its father.
When the sun made its way to the center of the sky, the babe would be discovered laying on the beach, sleeping warm and satiated, half buried in sand, a single shell the color of opal gripped in its hand. The villagers would collect it and lay it in the lap of the matron. And they would say what they always did as they gathered around it.
“Come, it has arrived again. A true blessing. Another son of the sea.”