The Swallow and the Sea

Issue #51

‘Twas Abigail Goodwin who saw beyond the pirate of me, to the man, and loved me for that and disregarded the ill I’d done; so ‘twas me who saw beyond the folly of her and promised to carry her dead body to the swirling depths of Scylla.

Abigail meant to kill herself that night, and if the leap from the rain-slick stone tower of her home didn’t do it well enough, surely the cold depth of the sea would. I watched her pace at the top of that tower, back and forth before one weak torch, and took another pull on the wine bottle. My vision blurred under the blowing rain; the wine took it a step further.

I dropped the bottle to the bottom of the dinghy and wished for Abigail to be finished, for this terrible night to end. Let her muster the strength and do it soon—though now her heart still beat. If I meant to betray the promise I’d made her, the time was now.

The only movement I made was back to the wine bottle. The wine was cheap, but it warmed me. Around the dinghy, the sea bounced and flecked me with cold spit; somewhere in that cold splatter, I found a measure of calm. I looked back up to see the flutter of Abigail’s gown against the storm. She looked like a pale wing as she plunged with a speed that made my heart skip.

She vanished without a sound, under the dark choppy waters. I dropped the wine bottle and grasped the oars, pulling as hard as I could with wet hands. When I reached the point where I’d lost sight of her, I jumped overboard into the black sea. I’d promised.

Like a great creature, Abigail floated in the murky water, pale skin almost iridescent in the dark. Her gown enveloped her, massive blooms of linen, silk, whatever it was ladies wore these days. I struggled to get a hold of any part of it. I came up with a foot, with a shoe that slipped off in my fingers. I gave it up to the seafloor and lunged for her foot again.

I swam down Abigail’s inverted body, and when at last I held her around her nipped waist—ah, she’d worn her corset to the last!—swam upward. My lungs burned and bubbles of escaping breath blinded me until at last we broke through the surface. The hardening rain pelted us.

“Ah, Abigail, curses on you.” I cradled her against me and prayed that she would lift her head, that her brown eyes would look once more into mine, but she floated limp in my grasp, her dark blonde hair trailing like weeds around in the water. “More the fool I, for saying yes.”

I swam us back to the longboat, hauling Abigail’s sodden body aboard after my own. I lay panting and closed my eyes to the rain, allowing it and the motion of the dinghy to carry me to another place, a green meadow where Abigail had kissed me for the first time. Some part of her had tasted of ocean water even then.

“I trust only you,” she had said, and held my hands as she told me the truth of her life. She was not human and could no longer live as such.

“You feel human enough.” I said it then and now both as I eased her cold body off mine; Abigail curled into the bottom of the boat, with the wine bottle, the oars, and the slop of the storm. She had hit her head on something, for blood darkened her temple. Her hands were folded against her chest, like long, pale gloves that had lost their buttons. I traced the line of her hand around her wrist, loosened a strand of black seaweed, and touched her palm where I would have sweared to heaven that I felt a pulse.

“Danziger!”

I jerked my hand back at the sound of a hoarse cry from the tower. Through the stinging rain, I saw a figure, but not clearly; still, it was Lewis Goodwin’s voice—Abigail’s brother cursing me as I fumbled for the oars and made away with his sister.

Lewis wouldn’t have time to reach his ship and muster the crew, but still I rowed as though the devil were on my back. Rain and sweat mingled to make the oars slick in my hands. I looked down at Abigail’s still face, cursing her even as I wished to kiss her. I fancied that her eyes opened, so blinked and looked away into the storm. Its wrath was more calming than Abigail’s stillness.

The Swallow was anchored off the point, mostly empty as the rest of the crew was in port, whoring and spending the gold they’d been paid. Poor Hilary would be below decks, reaching for a leg he’d never feel again except in memory. Doc would be there with him, but otherwise, I prayed my path clear.

I wrapped and tied a sodden length of rope around Abigail’s waist and crawled my way up the rope ladder with the loose end in my hand. My boots slipped against the Swallow, rain and wind combining to force me over the rail and to the deck with a sob. The rope snapped out of my hands, too short, and I snatched its end before it flew over the rail.

Inch by inch I hauled Abigail upward. From below decks Hilary shrieked every so often. Why couldn’t Doc give him more rum and shut him up? Sadly, I grew accustomed to the shrieks, and by the time I’d hauled Abigail over the rail no longer heard them.

I sat there for a long moment, hoping that perhaps the storm would keep the crew in port overnight. Where was I to put Abigail? How did I mean to keep her hidden until we reached the strait where Scylla lurked?

Reaching the strait had once been my worry, but no more. Even if Arthur the trader wouldn’t buy the egg-sized opal Captain Dodd had lifted from Lady Wellington (and we knew Arthur would, for rarely could he resist something shiny), Dodd’s arrogance would take us to the strait. He wanted to say that he’d challenged Scylla—and won.

“I trust only you.”

I looked down at Abigail, who looked up at me. Her eyes were wet from her time in the water, from the rain that doused us, perhaps from tears. Could a dead woman cry? My breath caught in my throat as Abigail raised a hand and wiped the blood off her temple. She wiped her hand clean on her bodice, then she touched my cheek.

At the touch of her fingertips, I recoiled. I dropped her and stumbled across the deck to the nearest mast, as wide as three men bound together. I felt no safer behind its bulk. Abigail frowned at me.

“Jakob.” She reached for me.

Could a dead woman speak? I fumbled for the cross around my neck and held it up to ward her off. Rather than come closer, Abigail pressed herself to the rail. Water pooled around her skirts.

“Only you can get me there,” she said through her wet, blue lips. “Only you, Jakob.”

Dead or not, she remained my Abigail, and I’d made a promise to get her to Scylla. I nodded but did not move. My Abigail, my promise. I knew these things but could not make myself move until I heard the arrival of another dinghy—a dinghy filled with drunken men.

“Jakob,” Abigail whispered. “Take me below, to your trunk.”

I grasped Abigail’s hands in mine—hers seeming so warm when compared to my own, steady and sure whereas I felt loose like a falling sail. I bundled the rope which wound round Abigail’s waist and ran with her—oh, she ran, on her pale and bluing feet, twisted with seaweed, with but one shoe, below decks with me into the stench of those small, close spaces.

I had a small trunk, but it was large enough to hold Abigail. I fumbled with the latches, with the broken and rusted lock—what a time to regret breaking that in a fit of anger these long months ago—and watched as Abigail climbed of her own accord into the small space. She tossed out my clothing and climbed in, and I tossed my clothes back in atop her. Hidden beneath my blue shirt and faded trousers, my dead Abigail smiled up at me. She reached for the latch to close the trunk just as the first of the crew came back below.

They smelled like the taverns and whorehouses where they’d spent their money, sodden with liquor and perfume, and these things they trailed to their hammocks, to lie in them a while longer. They brought with them a yapping dog the color of Abigail’s gown, its face seeming splashed with black ink. It immediately set to sniffing every crevice it could find and yapping at shadows.

I lowered myself to sit on the trunk as Paddy O’Neill came closer and gestured with a meaty hand at the dog. The scent of rum curled through the air along with the hand, a new tattoo of a duck rippling on his forearm.

“‘e’s a temple dog, aye? Made to roust the demons and tear ‘em a-ssunder.”

I didn’t want the dog rousting my demon and nudged its wet black nose away from my trunk. The dog didn’t like the taste of my boot and growled at me. “New ink?”

“Ah!” Paddy slapped the tattoo, reddening the skin a little more. “The talents of lovely mistress Lorelai—at least one of them, aye?”

Paddy slapped my shoulder then fell back into his hammock, where he rocked and soon began to snore, as he did nightly. Often the snores were accompanied by remembrances of a sweet girl he’d left back in Ireland and the sour things he loved to do to her. I wanted to stuff Abigail’s ears with linen so she wouldn’t hear.

Instead, I closed the latch as well as it could be closed and fell back into my own fabric. I lay awake the night through, imagining that I heard Abigail singing. Distant and pleasing, like a shooting star across the night sky, her voice guided me toward a shore I still could not see.

Dawn found me on deck with a handful of other early risers. Finch and I made neat stitches through sailcloth, a continuing effort to complete another sail so that we might have a replacement for the one the winds currently shredded.

Finch was young, seven maybe eight, and had been sold into the captain’s service by his parents. He couldn’t remember a life lived on land. Couldn’t remember his real name, for that. His hands were as worn as any man’s here, callused and scraped; his skin no longer burned but had acquired the deep color of a man at sea.

I could remember my parents—my father himself a sailor, my mother always in the crook of his sun-bronzed arm. They’d raised me to the sea, and I wondered if it was worse to have that memory or have none as Finch did.

We raced with our needles, quick and neat, but Finch always bested me—until today. His stitches were slow, his eyes focused on something else. I followed his gaze across the deck, to the horizon over the rail, and saw it. A ship. It looked like a jagged black rip in the sunrise.

“How long’s it been there?” I asked in a whisper.

Finch watched the ship and stitched. He shrugged his thin shoulders. “Don’t know. Looks English.”

I couldn’t see a flag from this distance, but Finch didn’t need even that much to go on. He never used a spyglass; he liked using his sharp eyes to view the world from the crow’s nest. Being up there made me want to throw up.

Of course the ship would be English. I stabbed my needle through the sailcloth and stood, squinting to get a better look. It still looked like a black line against the orange horizon.

“Moving fast,” Finch said. “Could have letters against us.”

Lewis Goodwin could have letters of marque, I thought. He’d had the night to see them signed and sealed. If Lewis suspected I had Abigail—dead or alive—he would stop at nothing to get her back. Though I loved Abigail, her family loathed me.

“Did ye see her then?”

“Just a wisp of a dress, movin’ in the night.”

I turned from the sight of Lewis’s ship to the group of men who passed behind me.

“There’s a lass on board,” Gerald whispered to me, as if sharing a dreadful secret. “Dead, but walking.”

“Dead?” I asked.

“Lass?” Finch asked, his voice rising.

“Aye, she has a pale gown, her skin like the drowned sea.” Gerald winked at me, as if I would know what he meant.

“All hands!”

Captain Dodd barked orders from the quarterdeck. As they always did for him, the crew flew into motion and by Dodd’s command turned the Swallow upwind. With all her sails loosed, she caught the rising dawn wind and cut through the swells. This alarmed the few seabirds that had taken their leisure upon one of the masts. The same mast I’d clung to when Abigail had spoken to me.

Had she? Was she now wandering the ship, allowing the crew glimpses of herself? I couldn’t allow myself the time to truly think on it, alive as the deck was with men eager to escape English capture.

“Why’s they comin’ now?” Gerald wondered aloud as the Swallow stretched the length of sea between us and Lewis—if it were Lewis. Who else could it be?

“Ain’t no cause!” Finch cried and threw his small fist into the air. “Ain’t no—” He broke off as he caught sight of the strand of pearls Jasper Kay had hung around his neck. “Ye crimp those seeds from an English lady, man?”

“I think she were Dutch,” Jasper said, which drew a roar from the men gathered round us.

I didn’t care what she was; if that ship was English, the odds were firm that it was Lewis Goodwin who captained her. The Rosemary was a fine vessel; if the Swallow faltered once, she would soon be overcome.

But the Swallow was ever swift and fled eastward, closer to the whirlpool that I would throw Abigail into. How I would manage that was beyond me; it was one step at a time, and all the deck stretched before me was slick with Abigail’s blood.

No one missed me when I stepped away, below decks to check on Abigail. Paddy’s rat of a dog sat near the trunk and I shooed it away. With a yap, the beast settled a few steps away, his beady eyes following my every motion.

I eased the lid of the trunk open. The stench of the deepest ocean rolled out, dank, muddy, black. I peered in at Abigail who lay just as I’d placed her the night before, under my rumpled clothes. Her blood had darkened in her veins, leaving charcoal tracings beneath her white skin. Over this, the blood from her temple wound had dried in blackened streams across her face, down her throat. These lines crisscrossed like guides on a map, but I couldn’t make sense of the directions.

I held my breath as I reached a hand in and touched Abigail’s cheek. She was chilled and did not stir. I exhaled and slid my fingers down her arm, discovering something slim and pale in her hand. I thought it was an eel, but as I took hold of it found it hard. I pulled it free. ‘Twas the bit of scrimshaw whale rib I’d gifted her with before my leaving. She kept it in her busk, liking to say that it was my touch kept her spine straight.

The little dog ran to my side and snatched the bone from my hand. The foul beast skittered away with it, and I chased him, under and over hammocks, around other trunks and casks of rum and water. When I had him backed into a corner, he growled and spit around the bone and refused to give way when I’d grasped the other end. He shook the bone hard but I held firm.

“Little demon dog,” Abigail said.

The dog shrieked and released the bone. He fled between my legs and vanished into still-swaying hammocks. I turned, but didn’t see Abigail anywhere.

The story on the whale rib was given to me by my mother. It was the story of a woman who never felt herself part of this world, called by monsters she could not see but could feel in the bloody marrow of her bones. When the wind blew, they tugged upon her sleeves; when she swallowed, she could taste them—brackish. When she slept, they would curl beside her, and sometimes snore.

My mother said it was her own story, then softly laughed and said the monster in her bed was Father, and that I should never mind. But I watched her move through her days and felt something distinctly not human about her.

When pirates slaughtered her and my father, her blood was red, her bones white; human enough, until the pirates threw them from the deck. The water came alive at the taste of blood; it boiled and threw the ship on its side. I would have drowned in those waters but for the tentacle that slithered around me and tossed me up on land. A thin strip of sand served as my home for three days, a hairbrush and a doll without a face my only companions until other pirates found me and took me in.

“You think I’ve claimed her story for my own, don’t you? You doubt me,” Abigail said.

Her hand covered mine, covered the whale rib until I could only see the tangle of our fingers. I wanted to look at her, but didn’t dare.

“I’ve never felt right, Jakob, never, until you came along.” Abigail’s fingers slid between mine. “Don’t you feel it inside you? The reach of your mother even now? The sea, Jakob.”

I tried to pull my hand free, but Abigail wouldn’t let me go. She wound herself round me and it seemed she had tentacles then rather than arms and legs. Any man on board this ship would welcome her consumption, but I was filled with the need to run, to jump overboard and give myself to the sea. At the touch of Abigail’s saltwater mouth, I felt relief.

“You were born with the sea inside you,” she whispered against my mouth, her fingers like anemone tentacles as they pulled the sea from me. It was warmth and water between she and me; I swallowed her and she swallowed me, and in this way we passed from Atlantic waters into Mediterranean.

The Rosemary chased us across the day and on through the night. She made up some distance between us, but still the Swallow kept her lead. Scylla lay somewhere between Sicily and Calabria, so said our maps; we followed them as though they were gospel.

And still the men talked of seeing a woman walking the decks. They said she invaded their dreams, wriggling down into their hammocks the way water could trickle into a collar. I could taste that water; the slip of Abigail’s mouth against mine. Did these men know that taste? How dare they.

I sat up nights, waiting for Abigail to emerge on her small blue feet, but always found myself asleep come dawn, having missed her wandering. When I was able, I opened my trunk to look down on her and found her as I had left her. She remained wet; seemed sleeping.

Paddy’s small dog continued to nose around the trunk, scratching and whining and worrying at one corner with his teeth. He’d done a good job on the wood, leaving deep bite marks as he sought what it contained. Seawater pooled around the trunk now, the dog leaving wet footprints as he scampered out of my hands.

I grasped him by the scruff of his neck and hauled him against my chest, surprised by the fight in his compact body, surprised by the weight. He growled and strained against my hold, teeth snapping at my hands. He caught one of my fingers, blood bright against his chops.

I ran with the dog to the upper deck and swung him out over the rail, meaning to drop him into the sea. ‘Twas Finch who caught me and pulled me back.

“What’re ye thinking?” he cried. He ripped the dog out of my hands and dropped him to the deck, where he struggled to find his feet before scampering into the shadow of a rum cask.

I sank to the deck and buried my face in my trembling, bleeding hands. What was I thinking? I had always liked dogs, had lived with one for a time, but this one threatened the secret of Abigail. No one could know. I glanced at the few crew about the deck; they didn’t mind me or my misery—they were too wrapped within their own.

“This about the lass in yer trunk?” Finch asked.

I stared at him and said nothing. His dirt-brown eyes met mine easily. We’d known each other for years, this boy and I, and I saw no malice. But I did see wheels turning; this boy was no boy; he’d been raised by pirates. If he knew about Abigail, he meant to use that to his advantage.

Finch sat beside me and exhaled. “She walks ‘round at night, leaving her wet footsteps all over. Slipped in my hammock to make herself warm-like and let me have a taste of her. Thought it was all a dream, except I never dream, and the others started talking about her too, aye?”

“Finch—”

“Gets even stranger, then.” Finch thought for a moment, his small teeth chewing at his thumbnail. “A man comes to me, a man not of this crew, tells me he’s after the lass and he’ll pay me whatever I ask if I help him. And then just like the lass, he’s gone. They come and go like the wind, Jakob.” He spat his thumbnail onto the deck. He laughed, a dark coarse sound that no one so young should make, but whatever boy had been inside Finch’s body was long gone. “Pay me whatever I ask.”

My heart raced in my chest. “What did you ask him then?” From below decks, I heard Hilary cry out again; I pictured him reaching for his leg, his leg that had rotted and was thrown to the sharks. Wouldn’t he ever stop screaming, reaching?

Finch shook his head. “As I figure, it’s none of my business, save for lasses cursing the ships, ye know. It ain’t right, her being on board like that. Even if she is dead. Makes it worse, her being dead, don’t it?”

Abigail being dead made everything worse. The skies were darker, no matter the sun standing in them; the nights endless and plagued with demons.

“I just want her off this ship, and if ye take her or he does, doesn’t much matter. Could be Davy Jones for all I care.”

“I made a promise,” I said.

Would Finch understand that? We men of the sea often went back on our words, no matter how well we meant them when first spoken. We tried to stay true to those we crewed with, but we often failed—as I’d failed, by bringing the Swallow toward her doom, even as I brought Abigail closer to— To what?

“Aye.” Finch looked across the deck, then back to me. “Ye mean to throw her into Scylla?”

I looked at the boy sharply. “What do you—”

“It’s a legend, aye? A dead lass thrown into Scylla’s mouth, given new life.” Finch spat another fingernail onto the deck, then scrubbed his hand across his trouser leg. “But it’s the wrong kind of life. She won’t be yers after that.”

I shook my head and raked my hair out of my eyes. “It’s not that. I don’t want her back.”

But didn’t I? To feel the warmth of her hand again; to know her kiss. If I could have these things again, what wouldn’t I give? But these things had never been rightfully hers—hadn’t she told me such, when she claimed she was not human? No flesh, no bone, not as any land-living beast knew it. Her warmth and kiss were illusions.

He wants her back,” Finch said.

I shifted on the deck, got to my feet and began to pace. He who? Was this man of Finch’s all a dream? Or was Lewis among the crew? Had he somehow come aboard? My eyes searched the men who spotted the deck, counting those who came up from below as the captain called for them. The air had filled with salt and spit, and in the distance I felt rather than heard Scylla.

From my side, Finch asked, “Do ye think the captain will risk the Swallow in the end? Only t’sell a shiny stone?”

I smiled at Finch through my tears. “It’s not just the stone. He wants to test the Swallow against Scylla. Imagine the tales he’ll tell.”

We’d all seen the captain, nipperkin in hand, bewitching a tavern audience with stories of the sea. This one would bring him glory and coin both. What captain wouldn’t want to say he went up against Scylla, and won? Winning was the trick.

“Imagine the tale after this,” said a new, rough voice.

Finch and I spun as one, to look upon Lewis Goodwin who sat on the deck, leaning against the rum cask the dog had hidden beside. There was no sign of that dog now, but Lewis had a smudge of blood against his mouth, as if he’d bitten my fingers.

“Aye, that’s the rich man,” Finch said.

“Or maybe not a man at all,” I said, for if Abigail weren’t human, whyever would her brother be such?

Lewis laughed at that and charged me. He drew a knife and pressed it to my throat before I could slip away. He didn’t feel at all human beneath his officer’s jacket, if it were a jacket at all. What matter fashioned him? Was he like Abigail, water and salt formed into whatever they fancied? His hands, if they were hands, spread a chill across my skin. Under his touch, small rivers of ice crisscrossed my neck, frozen seawater cracking against my skin, running down into my shirt.

The deckside crew hollered, Finch loudest of all, but Lewis only laughed again.

“Now, scream again all of you and I’ll slice him through. He’s plenty of blood to spill.”

The cool knife bit into my skin even now. I raised a hand to warn Finch back, feeling the ice creep its way up my cheek, around my eye. So cold. Could Lewis encase me in ice?

“Where’s Abigail?” Lewis gave me a shake and the knife went a little deeper. “What have you done with her?”

“I’m here, Lewis.”

‘Twas Abigail who answered her brother, standing some way across the deck. It sounded like the entire crew took a collective breath at the sight of her. Water streamed from her now ill-fitting gown. It seemed as though she was coming apart, becoming water as she crossed to us. She flooded the deck. As Lewis was ice, Abigail was water, her skin and gown running with it. Through corset and skirt, it drenched her. So, too, the deck and anyone close enough.

Lewis avoided that flood. He stepped backward and kept me with him, as though he were afraid of the water. Afraid of Abigail. I blinked, and frost fell from my lashes.

“Come with me, Abigail,” Lewis said and let me go. Instantly, I felt the ice begin to melt away, seawater now beading on my skin.

Lewis overcame his fear enough to approach Abigail, but he did not touch her. In his eyes, I discovered a familiar ache; he wanted Abigail as much as I did but could not have her.

“Lewis, don’t touch me,” Abigail said.

But rather than step away from the water that cascaded from her skirts, Lewis now stepped forward. He lunged for Abigail, and everywhere his hands caught her, Abigail’s water turned to ice. The wet layers of her skirts began to solidify, the pale fabric freezing to the deck. The ice crept up her fingers, her arms, froze the dark blonde curls of her hair in midair. The ice traced every bit of Abigail that Lewis longed for but could never truly claim.

I looked for something I might strike him with, anything to get him away from her. Mine, not his!, my mind cried, and even though I had only my hands with which to hit him, I moved forward. Still, every step closer sent ice crackling over my shoes, and it was Finch who pulled me back, saving me from the cold.

With a shriek that seemed like a knife in my own heart, Abigail twisted away from Lewis. Ice sheeted off her like a broken glacier, spinning over the deck. Lewis collapsed to the deck, reaching for her but never touching her again.

“Abigail, please!”

Lewis’s bark was nearly lost as the ship rocked. The deck listed to port and a terrible sound now rose to engulf us—the roar of living water, a hungry beast that would devour us all. The crew seemed torn between staring at Abigail and Lewis and rushing to save the Swallow from Scylla.

“She’s dead, aye?” I heard Finch say to Lewis. “Ye can’t do for her now.”

“He never could have,” I said and touched Finch’s shoulder before I left him and crept toward Abigail. She clung to the ship’s rail in her tattered skirts. Water streamed from ice-made cuts, not blood. She hovered on the edge of something else, something I too felt in my gut. It was the call of home, the reach of a hand we hadn’t known in years.

Ahead in the waters, Scylla churned, fountains of water coiling from her depths. Under the moon’s glow, she was beautiful, a great spinning wheel that could crush the ship whole. I heard her voice, calling us, a low murmur in my bones, bones that Scylla seemed ready to carve new stories into. I squeezed Abigail’s hand and felt the rush of water between our palms.

“Get her away,” Finch said to me. “Get that demon off this ship.”

Demon, woman, I didn’t think it made much difference to him. I clasped Abigail by the arm and ran for the dinghy. The entire deck seemed crooked as Abigail and I stumbled.

“Finch—” I looked back at him. He had drawn his pistol and aimed it at my head.

“I’ll get the dink down,” he said.

His voice was as cool as Lewis’ touch had been, remote and older than his apparent years. I had never seen Finch with a weapon drawn, but had no doubt he would use it well. He wouldn’t miss, not with those sharp eyes of his.

“No!” Lewis cried, still reaching for us. His fingers were coated in ice. “Danziger—you can’t!”

But it was Lewis who couldn’t. As water had flowed from Abigail, now ice flowed from Lewis, his constructed body giving way to his natural form. Ice ran in a thin layer from his fingers, up his arms and around his torso. He turned away from us before the ice fully devoured him and leapt from the Swallow’s rail, into the raging sea.

Abigail and I climbed into the dinghy, and Finch lowered us into the uneven water. The little dinghy stood no chance against the stormy sea. It pitched violently and I toppled overboard, into the head-seas before the Swallow.

At my touch, the sea quieted. It was like kissing Abigail; I felt great relief as the water closed around me. It was warm and salty all at once, and I floated as if I might float forever.

“Feel her, Jakob!” Abigail called above the storm. “You’ve calmed her.”

It was torture to leave the water, but I doubted my ability to swim the distance to Scylla and hauled myself back into the dink. I blinked water out of my eyes and reached for the oars.

Every stroke that took us from the safety of the Swallow took us closer to Scylla. The sea grew choppy again and rain began to pelt us. Abigail didn’t seem to care. She grabbed one of the oars from me and took on half the work, her hands growing dark under the strain. What skin she’d made around herself had shredded, and I saw now that it wasn’t blood that ran in her veins but water. Blackened water dripped from the oar handle by the time we reached Scylla’s edge.

There, it seemed as though Scylla had the dinghy on a line. She smoothly pulled us in. We traveled round and round, and I caught sight of the Swallow farther out, struggling to escape Scylla’s grasp. She was listing again, though her sails were fully rounded in the now-howling wind. The Rosemary had perished, shattered timbers tossed in the whitecaps.

Abigail put a hand to the water as did I, but her touch didn’t calm the sea the way mine had earlier. Rather, Scylla reached up for us and grabbed, pulling us down and under.

If he’s a reasonable man, every sailor on the sea fears drowning. The sea is a beast, something eternally wild. Caught in its grasp now, there was no breathing, only hoping the end would be swift, hoping Abigail would find what she sought.

But that same relief came over me. I couldn’t breathe, and that was all right, for the water filled what air once had. It crept into my body and sustained me. It seemed the same with Abigail. The water filled her, washed the blackened waters from her, stripped her gown away, made her whole. Before my eyes, Abigail became what Scylla could not contain.

The human shape of her fell away. Arms and shoulders dissolved in a rush of salted water; belly and hips fell apart in a gurgle of foam. Abigail became the sea, the thing Scylla had always pushed against and could now no longer resist.

The very ocean parted, an enormous, wet mouth, which pulled Scylla inside until Scylla was the sea, and the sea was Abigail, and Abigail was all.

When Abigail reached for me I recoiled. I pulled out of her undertow and felt myself without a body; whatever I had been on land and ship, I was no longer. I was water and formless until I refused to be devoured. I became the thing that Abigail could not contain, and before I could swallow her—for I felt the longing within me to do so—I ripped myself away.

I flung myself out of her reach, spiraling across the strait, pushing the Swallow far past my reach or Abigail’s. The ship seemed so small within my grasp; how easy to crush it! Timbers snapped at my touch, flew into the air, stabbed my watery belly. I swallowed them down and settled with a liquid sigh, resting on the far side of the strait.

I sensed rather than saw Abigail in the water. I could feel the pull of her, even as I couldn’t move toward her. I tried to reach for her, stretching my watery arms her direction, but could not bring her closer. We were trapped, she and I, with the strait between us.

In this way we floated, letting loose of our mortal consciousness, becoming something other than what we had been. I reached for her and she for me, and if in the currents a ship or two were caught, we were helpless to apologize.

When the Swallow returned from Arthur the trader, ‘twas Finch who threw trinkets over the rail, to appease our monstrous appetites.

It was a carved whale bone that we finally connected over, a sliver of a rib, with an old story engraved, each line darkened with India ink. Abigail’s cool waters rushed across my warmth, and the whale rib spun, suspended in the sea. We rushed to claim the rib and the water surged upward, loosing a gentle wave which pushed the Swallow back into the open ocean.


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E. Catherine Tobler knows something about walking tightropes, working as both an editor and writer. Her fiction has appeared in in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including four stories set in her traveling circus universe. In June, The Kraken Sea, a novella set in this circus universe, will be available from Apex Book Company. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, www.ecatherine.com.

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1 Comment on “The Swallow and the Sea”

One Response to “The Swallow and the Sea”

  1. Guest says:

    09-21-2010, 09:23 PM
    Guest

    Awesome!

    Makes me want to stay safe on shore.

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