This story is by Joanne Buttner and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Long ago, when all was new and just created, Ocean was a calm and placid sea. Her shores stretched white and sandy, and in her shallows mermaids sunbathed. The people who lived on her shores were kind and humble. They had been created from land and sea and they lived in harmony with land and sea. They had never seen a cloud.
Ocean paid little attention to these people and their fleeting, mortal lives. They left barely a ripple in her waters. The people swam, they fished, and they buried their dead. Ocean drifted, restful and undisturbed, responding only to the rhythm of Moon’s calling.
Then one night, on a night as clear and cloudless as ever, Woman came to Ocean’s shores. There was nothing special about her. She looked as most on the island did. Her face was youthful but lined; eyes grey as a tempest; dark hair long and loose. Shining tears tracked down her cheeks. She was alone, except for the babe that clung to her chest.
Heedless of waves pulling at her ankles, she waded into Ocean’s shallows until the water reached her chest.
She spoke. “Ocean, Mother of Men, Woman of the Waters, hear my call! I am a daughter of the sea and I call to the sea! Listen to me!”
A summoning. Ocean had never been summoned by Woman before. Deep in her watery depths, currents began to stir.
“Ocean, please, hear my call! I come to you for help. My son, my only son, who was conceived and born on your shores is sick. Please, I beg you to heal him.”
Ocean responded. Her consciousness rode her currents to reach the surface. Her waters whirled around Woman’s legs, exploring her shape, the curve of her stomach, the salty sweetness of her skin. Woman’s voice reverberated in the water, creating little ripples of meaning that Ocean understood.
As the waters around Woman began to swell, lifting her off her feet, she held her babe out to Ocean, allowing her waters to drench his tiny form.
Ocean caressed the babe with gentle currents, sensing his draining life force like light, almost extinguished. With a soft push, Ocean extended the magic of her life-giving waters into the babe, spooling power, seeking the salty flow of blood, sensing its stagnation. She pushed harder, trying to remove the blockage and force the blood to move, but it was like pushing saltwater up a freshwater stream. Impossible.
Ocean stretched her power still further. Stretching, stretching, stretching… Until with a suddenness that caught them both off guard Ocean began to pour power into Woman. And for a moment Ocean was neither Ocean, nor Woman. They were one. Both vast and expansive and yet bound by human flesh. They were shoals of silver sardines; dolphin pods coming up for air; Kraken stirring in the deep. They were skin and bone and beating heart; heartbroken, howling, desperate.
Ocean recoiled. Pulling back, separating from Woman, who tasted of fear and moonlit waters.
The babe dropped from Woman’s arms, tumbling into the receding swirl. As good as fish food.
Uneasy currents roiled within Ocean. Every day she returned to the place where Woman had stood in her waters and spread her consciousness wide to see if she could sense her again. She could not rest. It was as though Woman had taken a part of her, and until Ocean found Woman again, she would never feel whole or at peace.
Every day she returned and every day she witnessed the daily goings on of humans. Small children running naked through the waves; free divers swimming in the shallows harvesting clams and oysters; women fixing nets and kissing their husbands goodbye. Quiet days and busy days. Long days and short days. Days of new life and days of death.
And still Woman did not return to her shores.
After a time, watching humans became a habit for Ocean. She paid special attention to burials, when the dead were released into her waters and women wept on her shores. It reminded Ocean of Woman and her babe and of that moment when she had felt what it was like to be human. A glorious, terrifying, overwhelming turbulence of emotion that drew her in and spat her back out.
It was so very different from the way Ocean experienced the world. Her drifting, easy existence, where all within her waters was out of focus and uninteresting unless she forced herself to concentrate. Woman had changed all that. Now she knew what it was to experience emotion and she wanted to understand it, to reconnect with the part of herself she lost when she separated from Woman.
She wanted a human heart.
When Ocean realised this, she knew there was only one place she could get a heart: from Creator.
Creator was on a volcanic island far from human habitation. A speck on the vast expanse of Ocean’s belly. It was the work of a moment for Ocean to travel her currents to its shores.
Creator sensed Ocean’s approach behind him.
“What do you want?” Creator spoke without looking up from his work, a new creation he was moulding out of ash and blood.
“On my shores there are humans,” Ocean began, “and recently one of them summoned me for help…”
Ocean told the story of Woman’s summoning and the babe she couldn’t save. When she reached the point where she had somehow joined with Woman, Ocean paused. She wasn’t quite sure how to ask for what she wanted, or even explain why she wanted it. She simply knew that without it, she could never feel complete again.
In the silence Creator sighed.
“I want a human heart.” Ocean finally admitted.
“A human heart you say? What do you want with one of those?” Creator finally looked up from his work.
“I want to understand Woman and the weeping women in my waters. I want to understand why humans do all the things that they do and what my role is in it all. I want to feel as Woman feels, as I felt when I was joined to Woman, but I want to understand those feelings and know what they mean. I want –”
“A human heart, yes, got it. Hmm…” Creator pondered for a moment, then said, “If I give you a human heart, there will be no exchanges, the heart will be yours for all eternity. I will not grant you another boon. Do you understand?”
“Yes! Yes! I understand! That is all I want.”
“Very well then. Return to the shore where you met Woman. You will find her there, and she will have your human heart. Now go and leave me to my work.”
Ocean turned from Creator and sped towards the human shores.
Her waters fizzed and churned unpredictably, displacing several hundred herring, and upending a submerged shipwreck as she passed. Swimming sea turtles coasted in her currents, snapping at passing bubbles of elation. Briefly, she joined a pod of dolphins, twisting in and around them, joining in their game.
When she reached the human shores she scanned along her usual route, seeking Woman.
Woman was teetering on the edge of a precipice close to the waters where she first summoned Ocean. It was unmistakably her. Moonlight bathed her features, casting the shadows under her eyes in sharp relief. Her long hair whipped around her.
Finally! Ocean sped towards her, waves tumbling over each other in her eagerness.
Woman looked at Ocean, casting her gaze out long across her waters. Then she stepped off the edge of the precipice and fell.
Ocean sped to catch Woman, hoping to carry her to safety, but she was too late. Ocean felt Woman enter her waters; heard the crack of her skull as it struck rock.
Woman was dead.
Woman was dead and Ocean had failed to save her. Creator had tricked her! She now held Woman’s heart within her waters, but it was no more hers than the Kraken’s or the mermaids’ or the sea turtles’. She would never understand Woman or the weeping in her waters. She would never understand why women kiss their husbands or why children run naked through her waves. She would never understand why she responds to the call of Moon or what causes her currents to writhe and twist. She would never understand herself. She would never feel complete again.
Ocean roared. Her waves crashed against the precipice, tumbling rock, and shale into her waters. Bloody foam churned against the rocks and dark clouds roiled above. Ocean called on her power and brought forth the rain. She beat at the precipice until it crumbled. Then she sank, drifting and despondent into the furious currents of her consciousness.
From then on, Ocean grieved the loss of Woman and her heart. She became a wild and stormy sea and all who sailed her were wary of her unpredictability.