For eighteen moon cycles, I had tried to get pregnant. I pleaded with six different men, without success. One claimed he had no interest in family responsibilities. One agreed to father a child in exchange for marriage, hoping I would cook and clean for him, but I refused. Four others blanched and said nothing at all——scared, no doubt, that my magic extended beyond seawater.
Every day, at sundown, I watched the eligible women of my town slink through the open-air market, past baskets of spicy redroot and bags of dried bread beans. Their tawny faces shimmered under their sheer red veils, smiling shyly as they eyed the muscle and jawline of eligible men. I could hear men and women choosing each other, whispering their vows. I even followed a couple home and peeked through their window to see how mating was done. Six moons later, the new wives paraded their round bellies through the market, proudly displaying their fruitful shape.
I selected Toprak because he was a seasonal worker and too poor to be considered eligible. My options were limited to men with stained work hands, but I didn’t care. I liked Toprak. He was quiet and kind, and I didn’t want anything but his seed. No vows, no responsibilities. He was leaving town the next morning, so he would never know and the child would be mine. It was time for me to choose my own shape.
I snuck up to a salt pan, one of twelve shallow squares carved into exposed granite not far from the sea’s edge, and nabbed a pinch. I sprinkled it over my last slice of fingermelon and bit into it, letting the sweet and savory taste roll against my tongue. The salt had picked up a good color from the offshore potassium deposit, a creamy pink, and the texture was flaky. Two gaunt seasonal workers were raking mounds of sparkling crystals into the center of their pans and scooping them into wooden buckets. I didn’t see Toprak, which meant he was probably in the meadow.
A striped mouse with a notched ear squeaked past my foot and dove under a rock. I had seen her before. She had gotten braver about begging for food since her babies were born a half moon ago. I bit off a piece of fingermelon and tossed it toward her. She darted out and dragged it back to her hole. A chorus of baby squeaks followed.
“Eat up. Every mouthful counts,” I whispered. Not that the mouse understood me. It was silly to speak to her——I just hated seeing small ones go hungry.
I brushed away the alkali dust coating my eyelashes as I looked at our inland sea. A fisherman’s skiff cut across the waves, its trough filled with silverfins ready to be brined and packed in candlenut oil. A sour breeze kicked up from the shore. The smell was growing stronger every day, and I knew why. The sea was expanding. A white mineral trace marked our stony shore like a scribbled warning. Each high tide moved closer, as if the sea no longer cared for its boundaries.
I had been careless with my magic. It was my duty to safeguard the sea, but I had been forgetful. My mind occupied. The sea was annoyed with me; petulant, like a spurned lover. It was threatening to retaliate. The water didn’t have a voice, exactly, but I could tell from the shape and sound of its waves. The swells bristled with hissing foam.
I would do better, and everything would change, as soon as I had what I wanted.
Toward town, a patchwork of farmed pearlberries, sunchokes, and black squash covered the surrounding hills. Bay trees had settled in the ravines, and white dome houses dotted the landscape. Behind the tallest crest, the copper-colored sun dissolved into pink clouds. I didn’t have much time before sundown. If I was lucky, Toprak would be alone in the meadow.
A shadow stepped in front of me.
“This is your fault, Pinar.” Uncle Bulut gestured with his chin at the choppy sea, then spit into a bush. He was tanned and skeletal, with yellowed fingernails and gray hair, and his face sagged in a permanent frown.
“Yes, Uncle.” I didn’t want to argue. Also, he was right.
“Did you tend to the sea yesterday, like I asked?”
“I’ll do it today.”
“It’s been three moons.”
“The tide is already changing. You must do your duty.”
I shrugged. “It’s not too bad.”
“You say that, but you are not a fisherman. Do you think the townspeople don’t notice? Do you think they don’t see how lazy you are? You are my niece. If something happens to the sea, they will blame me. Do you want that?”
“Then tell me. Why aren’t you tending to the sea?”
He didn’t understand anything about my magic. We were family, but no skill had been given to him. Kindness had also passed him over. “I told you. I’ve been busy.”
“With what? I am the one doing everything around here.”
All he did was yell at the workers. And me. That was it. “I’ll take care of it.” I moved to step around him.
He raised his arm to stop me, and I flinched. The bruise he had left on my shoulder last week was still fresh.
“Why are you going toward town? Why aren’t you going to the shore?” he demanded.
“I got my women’s blood and have to change my undergarments.” That was a lie, but I knew he was squeamish about bodily fluids.
He recoiled. “Fine. But don’t forget.”
“I won’t.” I had no intention of visiting the shore that day. I hurried away from him.
“If the sea dies, our town dies with it,” he called after me.
I didn’t turn around.
I made my way to the embankment and climbed down, careful not to snag my skirt on the thorned bushes, then step-stoned across the creek to the pimonel orchard and the meadow. I checked over my shoulder twice to make sure Uncle Bulut hadn’t followed me, then peeked out from behind a tree trunk.
Toprak was there.
He hovered over thatched mats, busily emptying the wooden buckets of salt crystals to dry in the sun. He was thin and tall, with dark curls that fell to his shoulders. Most of the men in town were hairy as goats, a trait coveted by eligible women, but Toprak’s golden brown skin was smooth as a river rock, which I liked. The humidity made his tunic cling to his chest, revealing two perfect dark circles through the threadbare weave, and the loose knot of his low-slung breeches clung to the dimples of his hips.
We were alone. I had timed it right.
I stepped into the clearing and clicked my tongue to get his attention. He glanced up. I hesitated, unsure how he would respond, then I waved him over to me. He tipped his head like he didn’t understand, but he walked toward me. When he got close, I pressed my finger to his lips to keep him quiet and took his hand to lead him to a patch of exposed granite surrounded on three sides by boulders. My favorite place to hide when I was younger.
I touched his cheek. He tensed, his eyes digging into mine.
He reached up and covered my hand with his. For a moment, I thought he would pull my hand away. I half-expected him to scold me about propriety. To demand vows. Offer a bargain, seed for wifely chores. Run from me, scared. But he stayed silent, and he held still.
I had never been this close to him before. I noticed everything about him: the powdery smell of coneflower soap radiating off his skin, the uneven spacing of three freckles on his forehead, the small white scar on his chin, the deep v in his top lip. I leaned forward and brushed my lips across his, then leaned back to gauge his reaction. He offered a crooked smile. Maybe he had done this before, but I doubted it. Eligible women thought they were too good for seasonal workers.
I decided to take his smile as a good sign.
I wound my fingers in his hair and slid my tongue along the underside of his top lip. Through the thin fabric of his tunic, I could feel his body tighten. He wrapped his arms around me and deepened the kiss.
This part I had seen when I spied on the eligible women when they mated. I mimicked them the best I could.
I tugged off his tunic and loosened his breeches, then guided him to the ground and straddled him, like I had seen through the windows. He made no noise as he moved inside me. I heard only breath. When he lifted and bucked against me, I felt a flood of warmth, and I knew. I had gotten what I needed.
The first time I tried my magic, I was scared.
I was six years old, no taller than my mother’s hips. She sat cross-legged at the shoreline, sifting the rocks. Her green eyes sparkled like polished malachite and her black hair spiraled down her back in wild curls. I had seen my reflection in the estuary pond, so I knew we looked alike, including the galaxy of freckles across our nose, but she had winged wrinkles at the edges of her eyes, which I thought were pretty. She had told me more than once what would happen when I said the spell, but it turned out there was a difference between knowing something and feeling it.
She did her magic every new moon, when the night sky went dark.
She pulled a perfectly round moonstone pebble from her pocket and handed it to me. “It’s time to try,” she said. “You know the words.”
The moonstone rolled in the center of my palm. I tested its weight and examined its color.
My mother eyed me. She could tell I was stalling. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure it doesn’t hurt?”
She took a deep breath, which usually meant she was ready to speak the truth. “It hurts when I think about spending less time with you. But the spell itself doesn’t hurt.”
I still didn’t understand the need. “Why do we have to do it?”
“We talked about this.” She rubbed my shoulder gently. “If we don’t make an offering, the fish will die off, and the winds will change, and our crops won’t grow, and our town will go hungry.”
“Yes, but I’ll die if I do the spell.”
“No, you won’t. The offering takes a single moon cycle off the end of your life.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “Tilling the land is hard, and it takes life from the farmers. Tending the salt pans takes life from our workers. Everyone sacrifices something for our town. Our duty to the sea is part of the natural order. You can’t touch or taste this order, just like you can’t touch or taste gravity. But it’s there, and we need it. The sea takes a little bit from us, but we still have this time together, and I’m going to spend it filling your belly with as many silverfins as possible. Make you grow up big and strong.
“Now,” she said, “let me see you try. Make the magic come to you. Remember I told you how?”
“Close my eyes and listen to the waves.”
“How do they feel, to you?”
“Calm. Full. Content.”
“Good.” She took my hand in hers. “Imagine yourself as a wave crashing on the shore. Listen to it. Let its language fill you, then speak the words.”
I brought my hands to my chest and held the pebble between my palms. With my eyes closed, I began to whisper. “Mother Salt, I am here. Father Water, I am here. My bones are made of soil. My heart is made of mountains. My life is made of time. Take a single moon from me. In return, I ask you to stay within your bounds, neither rising nor falling beyond the tide, and let our people flourish.”
I opened my eyes and tossed the pebble into a wave.
I felt nothing for a moment.
Then, a clamor rose from the waves, crash upon crash, as if they were trying to speak. My body shook and a tremor ripped through my muscles. It felt like my organs were melting inside me.
My vision blurred and my legs folded——
——my body went into free fall, swaying like a leaf dropping from a tree——
——but before I hit the ground, the water caught me. It held me, buoying me up. I didn’t remember walking into the sea, but I must have, because I was neck deep. My hands tingled, so I lifted them out of the water. Darkness crawled over my fingertips, then worked its way up my arms, toward my chest. I felt cold and motionless, as if I were a star suspended in the night sky. The only thing moving was my mind, turning like the long slow arms of the galaxy.
A sudden explosion of light jolted me and my vision cleared. I was sitting on the beach, perfectly dry.
My mother examined my fingernails and rubbed the ends of my hair, measuring them. Satisfied, she beamed proudly. “Good.”
My fingernails and hair had both grown a half inch, the exact length of a moon cycle.
I had done it right.
I loved my new shape. I kept a hand on my belly all day, feeling the mounded roundness of life growing inside me, so close to being born.
Uncle Bulut did not love it. He knew this was how it was done in our family, and he understood that our town needed an heir to my magic, but he thought I should have consulted him. As if I would have taken his advice about who should father my child.
That evening, I crouched by the shore. I had kept my promise about tending to the sea, faithfully doing my magic every new moon cycle, and the silverfins had returned to their peak numbers, which provided our town fisherman with plenty. The sour seawater smell was gone, too, along with the sullen lover aftertaste in our salt harvest. The waves felt calm and content. I breathed deep as I watched the sun lean into the horizon. Pregnancy left me feeling hot most days, so the shady cool of dusk was welcome.
I sifted the loose stones on the beach, brushing past limestone and basalt, hunting for a moonstone pebble that could hold my spell.
“What are you looking for?” A voice startled me from my thoughts.
I placed a hand protectively on my belly. A boy, probably six years old, stood with the sinking sun at his back. He was knob-kneed and stringy with the ropey muscles of a boy who knew hard work. The look on his face reminded me, somehow, of the striped mouse with a notched ear.
“You want to help me?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
I pulled a fingermelon from my lunchsack and sliced it lengthwise, offering him both halves. His face brightened as he reached for the fruit. I expected him to gobble it up, given how skinny he was, but he ate slowly, savoring each bite.
“Are you new to town?”
He shook his head.
“I haven’t seen you before.”
“Maybe you don’t notice kids like me.”
I considered this. I used to spend every dusk at the market, watching the eligible women, but now I hardly ever ventured into the village. I couldn’t remember seeing any children like him, so maybe he was right.
Pain echoed between my hips, then faded. The sensation had become more frequent in the last few days. The baby seemed to be getting lower and heavier.
The boy eyed me as I winced. “You’re almost ready for birth.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged, wiping a drip of fingermelon juice from his chin.
“Where is your mother?”
He shrugged again.
“Are you going to tell me your name?”
“My name is Kaya.” He swallowed the last bite of fingermelon and sucked his fingers. “What were you looking for? On the beach.”
I took a deep breath, which helped with the hip pain. “A moonstone pebble. It needs to be round like the moon, and it needs to shine.”
He tilted his head and blinked like he was thinking. Most people in town understood the practical need for my powers, but they didn’t like being close to it. They worried they might be tainted by it. Damaged. My mother told me people feared things they didn’t understand.
Kaya nodded, unfazed. “Do you care about color?”
It was an unexpected question, so I almost laughed. Nobody, not even Uncle Bulut, had asked me this. “Yes, I care. The more it shimmers, the more powerful my spell. But any shimmer will do.”
“That makes sense. Cloudy moonstone isn’t as pretty.”
“Is that so?”
If he noticed my amusement, he didn’t show it. “Most people who walk on the beach think rocks are boring, though, so they don’t notice when they step on something beautiful. I found this yesterday. Look.” He dug a pebble from his pocket and dropped it into my palm.
Moonstone. High density, flawless polish. Larger than a pearl, smaller than my thumb. Blue glimmer with undertones of purple. Stunning shimmer.
Kaya made a hand gesture to show that it was now mine. “Are you going to do your magic now?”
“Maybe soon.” I shifted my weight uncomfortably. The pain was getting worse.
He watched as I stuck my hand into my lunchsack to check what I had left. Dried pickleweed, a pouch of pearlberries, and a bread bean roll greased with sheathbill fat. He deserved payment for his moonstone pebble gift. I handed the whole lunchsack to him.
His eyes practically vibrated with excitement. “You’re not going to eat it?”
“You need it more than me.”
He dipped his hand into the sack and dug out a fistful of pearlberries. He didn’t shove them into his mouth all at once. He ate each one individually, as if they were precious jewels. “There’s a reason you haven’t seen me before.”
“I move around a lot, town to town.”
“People give you food?”
He snorted. “No. You’d be surprised, though, what people put in the trash. The problem is the other kids. The biggest ones decide who gets what and who gets nothing. That’s why I move around so much. Once they figure out I won’t play their games, they make sure I get nothing.” He offered a hunk of bread bean roll to me. “You sure you don’t want some?”
“You eat. Every mouthful counts. ” I smiled at him. He started to grin in return, but his expression crashed to a frown and his face blanched.
I was confused. “Did I do something wrong?”
He pointed to my skirt. A wet stain bloomed on the fabric. I tried to stand up, but my legs shook and the wetness trickled to my knees. I fell to all fours. Stones dug into my knees as I crawled toward the shoreline to wash myself. Pain broke between my hips, shaking me to the core, so hard I thought my bones might break apart, but as soon as my skin touched the water, the pain dulled.
I crawled further into the sea, letting it lift me up until I was floating. The waves stilled and the water held me, as if it knew what I needed. My stomach squeezed. I could hardly breathe, but I managed to push downward, willing the baby out. I pushed, until a bolt of pain split me open and blood stained the water. I reached down and felt the crown of the baby’s head. One last push, and the baby slipped into the water, slick as a fish. I caught his shoulder and pulled him into my arms so I could bite the cord and wipe him clean, and then it happened.
He made a sound. His lips circled in an o-shape, round as a pebble, and he released a cry that filled the hollowest parts of me.
Kaya paced on the beach, watching. “Is the baby okay?” he shouted.
“No,” I said. “He’s perfect.”
My mother died without a single gray hair. She was young, and I was half her age, barely old enough to call myself full grown. All the other girls in town got to see their mothers grow wrinkled and wise, but I had to settle for a tombstone.
Before she died, she sent a letter to the town in the next bay. I found Uncle Bulut on our doorstep one moon later, holding that letter. He was nothing but frowns, even then.
“Pinar, come here.” My mother reclined on her bed, fragile and pale, but she managed to lift her hand and reach for me. I rushed to her side and latticed my fingers with hers, hoping against hope I could hold on to her.
“This is your uncle. He’s going to stay here with you.”
I glowered at him. He didn’t look any happier than me. “I don’t need anyone.”
“I know.” She patted my hand.
“I’m still going to fish,” he interjected. “My occupation is fisherman.”
My mother ignored him. “He’s your father’s brother, and he’ll make sure you don’t go hungry when I’m gone.”
Anger flooded me. I hated when she talked about leaving. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
“Death is part of this life. You must accept this.”
“You could have refused to do magic. You could have skipped some months and then we’d have more time.”
“You don’t know that. Anyone can die at any time.”
“But you knew it would take your life. Who cares about the people in town?”
Uncle Bulut snorted. “Everyone on this side of the mountains needs our sea. We catch silverfins, but we don’t have yulaf flour. The inlanders grow yulaf, but they don’t have fish. The hill people harvest candlenut oil, but they don’t have flour or fish.”
“I don’t need a lesson,” I hissed at him.
“Obviously, you do. Any part of the trading system goes, and it all goes. That’s how it works.” Uncle Bulut made himself comfortable in the big chair. My mother’s chair——and she was still alive.
My mother squeezed my hand. “You must do your duty when I’m gone, Pinar. Promise me.”
I couldn’t say no. I gave her my promise, but I had no plans to keep it.
My baby smelled like love.
I reclined against a pimonel tree, watching Uncle Bulut rake flaked salt onto drying mats as I held Deniz to my chest, cheek to skin, my arms circled around his warmth, my lips buried in his soft hair. His mouth smelled sweet, like sugar mixed with cream. And his clothes smelled clean, like coneflower soap. But the top of his head was the best. It smelled deep, like morning musk.
Deniz was six moons old and he still smelled like my body, as if we would always share a single scent and we were still one, and nothing, not even birth, could truly part us into two.
My mother told me that when I was a baby, she slept while I slept and she woke when I woke. But I couldn’t keep my eyes off Deniz, awake or asleep. I couldn’t understand how she had given so much of her life to the sea. How she had agreed to that bargain. I didn’t want to miss a flutter of his eye, a breath, a coo. Nothing he did was too small to treasure.
Nothing could be worth more than time with him. I was certain.
When I was five years old, I asked my mother to explain her magic.
“Look here.” She held out a moonstone pebble. A streak of opalescence cut clear through the center, shimmering like stars. “You can see the whole galaxy in this stone.”
“It’s beautiful.” She offered it to me, and I took it.
“The stone represents our duty.” She pulled me into her lap. Calm waves lapped the shore as the evening’s shadows swelled into dusk. She leaned close to my ear. “Everything in our galaxy moves in harmony. Every star, every moon, and every planet pushes and pulls against each other in exactly the right way. That’s how our sun rises and sets, perfectly separating day and night, and it’s also how our moon governs our tides, making sure the waves never go too far in or out.”
I squirmed closer, fitting my shape into hers.
“Duty is what binds everything to order——the sea, the sky, and the water. The sun must rise every day. The moon must wax and wane. Otherwise, everything would fall apart. Duty is a sacred bond, a mutual trust. My duty is to sacrifice part of myself every moon cycle.”
“But you lose part of your life.”
“I don’t mind doing it. I am proud to be bound to the eternal laws that govern the galaxy. I want to help make our harmony. Does that make sense?”
That was a lie. I said it because I loved her, but I didn’t understand why duty was more important than her life. Not until she was long gone, and I had lost everything.
The sea was angry. The swells raged like fists and the waves clawed at the shore.
The beach had narrowed to a sliver, but there was still space to sit and watch the fisherman skiffs. Fewer and fewer returned with troughs full of silverfins these days. It had been sixty moons since I had last tended to the sea. I hadn’t done it since the day Deniz was born. I had no intention of ending up like my mother, and I wasn’t going to let Deniz waste his life, either. If the sea expanded, so be it. Let it be angry——I had my son.
Deniz and I crouched on the rocks. I licked a finger and cleaned a splash of red pimonel juice from his cheek. He was gangly and awkward now, like most boys his age, but his curly hair gleamed like black onyx and his green eyes sparkled like polished malachite. Like me. Like my mother. But lately his skin seemed sallow to me, as if he were permanently tired.
“You need to get more rest, my sweet boy.”
Uncle Bulut grimaced at me. “He doesn’t need rest. He needs silverfins. No boy can grow up on fruit alone.” He sat not far from us, cleaning debris from his fishing nets. “The townspeople know how lazy you are. They know we don’t have fish because of you. Your mother would have been ashamed of you.”
Anger scorched my face. “You don’t know anything about my mother.”
“I know about duty,” he growled. “You’re letting everyone starve. Instead of coddling the boy, why don’t you show him how to tend to the sea.”
I pressed my lips together. There were a hundred things I wanted to say. None of them were fit for a child to overhear.
“Yes, I want to see your magic!” said Deniz.
“Why not?” Deniz asked this question every few moon cycles. He pulled a pebble out of his pocket. The one that Kaya had given to me the day Deniz was born. I had kept it in a drawer until Deniz found it.
Kaya had only come back once. He said he found a town he liked up the hill.
Deniz watched the moonstone roll around in his palm. “Uncle Bulut said you could show me how to do the magic.”
“Don’t listen to Uncle Bulut.”
Uncle Bulut deepened his grimace. “You had better start listening, Pinar. All the fish are dead.”
“No, they’re not. They’re just further offshore.”
“Are you going to go get them?” Uncle Bulut snorted as he flung his fishing net into his boat. “You do nothing, all day.”
“I oversee the salt pans.”
“But you’re not doing your duty. You should teach him magic or let me teach him to fish.”
Deniz glanced up. “I want to learn how to fish.”
“You won’t let me do anything.”
Uncle Bulut patted Deniz on the back and made a face that could have been mistaken for a smile. “See? He’s a good boy. He wants to work.”
I ignored him. “I’ll think about it.”
Deniz brightened, but I already knew my answer would be no.
I forked a brined silverfin fillet onto a yulaf cracker, then handed it to Deniz with a sidelong glare at Uncle Bulut. I hated that he was right about the fish. They were offshore now, but they could die soon, if I didn’t tend to the sea. I also hated that he knew it was my fault. I only had a few casks of silverfins left, but I was determined to make sure every one of them went into Deniz’s belly.
I dug around in my lunchsack for fingermelons. I sliced them with my pocketknife and placed the fruit in Deniz’s wooden flatbowl. He pushed two slices toward me. We played this game every meal: he offered me half, and I refused. This time was no different.
“Don’t make me say it.” He grinned playfully.
“You had better not.”
“I’ll say it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You won’t.”
“Every mouthful counts.” He mimicked my voice.
“Oh, you!” I grabbed him into a hug. “You need the food to grow up. I’m already big.”
“You have to stay healthy.” He giggled as I tickled his side, then his expression turned serious. “Please?”
I pretended to be annoyed, but I loved every care he took for me. “Fine.” I snuzzled his neck. He smelled like seawater and fresh air. Then I let him go and accepted a single slice of fingermelon. He nodded, satisfied.
He stuffed a fingermelon slice into his mouth, then let out a yelp.
“What’s the matter?”
“I lost it!” he shrieked.
“The pebble. I dropped the moonstone pebble!” He scrabbled to his knees and dug furiously, burrowing between the basalt rocks. “It’s got to be here. Where is it?”
“Let me see.” I leaned over to help, but the pebble had disappeared. If it had slipped between the cracks, and it probably had, then it would be ten hands down by now. It was impossible to find anything on a rocky shore that didn’t want to be found.
Deniz kept digging.
“My boy.” I touched his shoulder gently, hoping to calm him. “We’ll find a new pebble.”
“I want that one. You got it on the day I was born. I want you to show me your magic with that one.”
“I understand. I’m disappointed, too. That pebble was perfect and rare, and a very kind boy gave it to me. But sometimes you must let things go. That’s just the way it is. Please, stop digging.”
He looked up at me. Tears rimmed his eyes. “I want it back.”
“You know what my mother told me once? She said, don’t be sad. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
He swiped at his nose. “What does that mean?”
I pulled him into my lap and buried my lips in his hair. Underneath the salty sweat, I could smell myself on him. The morning musk, the aroma we shared, the sweet connection between us. “It means sometimes we lose things we love, but if we look hard enough, and we are patient, those things will come back to us. Not always in the way we hoped.”
“Did your mother come back to you?”
I pushed the curls from his forehead. His eyes looked just like my mother’s. “I see her in you.”
“But you still miss her.”
He tipped his head like he was thinking. “Is that why you won’t teach me magic?”
I wrapped my arms tight around him. I had never explained how the sea took moons from my mother’s life as a sacrifice, and yet he must have understood, somehow, why I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I kissed him on his temple, crusted with sweat salt. “Yes, that’s why.”
Uncle Bulut had finished loading the equipment into his skiff and was making his way toward me. “I need help on the boat today.”
Deniz crouched at my feet, still eyeing the spot where his pebble had disappeared. A damp breeze had kicked up. Clouds and sunshine chased each other across the open water, but the eastern sky had grayed. “It looks like there’s a storm coming.”
Uncle Bulut slid into his fishing slippers. “It’s a rainshower.”
I wasn’t sure he was right. Rainshowers usually came from the north, but the winds had shifted lately.
“I want to go.” Deniz scrambled to his feet. “You said I could.”
“I said I’d think about it.”
“But I ate the fillets. You said I had to eat all five if I wanted to go.”
“You’ll get wet if it starts raining.”
“So what? He won’t melt,” said Uncle Bulut. “This is why he needs to spend more time with men. You’re teaching him to be soft, but that’s not how life is. How do you expect him to make anything of himself if you never let him try anything?”
“I’m not soft! I want to go.” I hated saying no to him, but there were always reasons why he shouldn’t do things. “Please?”
“We won’t be out long.” Uncle always said his trips would be quick, but once he caught sight of fish, he chased them until he got his fill.
I dug my eyes into Uncle Bulut. “You’ll be careful?”
He snarled indignantly. “You think I don’t know how to sail this sea? I’ve been doing this for longer than you’ve been alive.”
“We’ll be careful.” Deniz treated me to his most convincing smile.
I turned my gaze to the sea. My mother had told me not to trust the water when it was angry, but the fist-like waves from earlier that day had smoothed to calm.
I dipped my toes in the waves and let them slide up to my calves, then closed my eyes.
The sea didn’t feel tranquil, exactly. More like composed or deliberately placid. Like an invitation. Maybe it was hoping to make peace with me. I wanted that.
I had been thinking lately about tending the sea every other moon cycle, or every third cycle, to limit the damage to my lifespan while still making an offering. Getting to spend time with Deniz was important, but maybe I could make some concessions, and the sea would be satisfied, and the silverfins would be enough. We wouldn’t have to ration brined fillets anymore.
I decided. As soon as Deniz came back, I would tend to the sea.
I opened my eyes. “Fine. A short trip.”
Deniz let out a whoop of joy as he raced down to the tide’s edge and climbed into the skiff. Uncle Bulut shoved it into the water and wobbled into his seat, then they rowed toward the horizon.
They moved away from the shore faster than usual, as though an underwater current was giving them unnatural speed. I pushed the worries from my mind and walked toward the salt pans.
Then, I heard a rumble of thunder behind me.
The trees and grass stood at attention. The clouds billowed black and an electric scent hung on the air.
This was no rainshower.
My stomach sank like a stone.
I waved to them, hoping Uncle Bulut would see me, but they were already too far away from shore. I scrambled up on a boulder, trying again to get their attention. Shouting. Come back. A slant ray of sun reflected off the water as I caught a last glimpse of Deniz, and then the shadow of the storm was on them.
With a crack of lightning, the sky split open in sheets, and my world tore into two.
Deniz didn’t come back until the next morning. He was still wearing his red tunic and blue pants. He rested on his stomach, his arms draped at his sides, palms up. He slept like that sometimes, usually a deep sleep.
But this was not sleep. He was dead.
His eyes sagged open. His nose pressed against basalt beach rocks. His lips gaped. The waves lapped at his hollow mouth, filling it and emptying it with salted water.
His skin was pale and cold, so I cocooned him in a blanket and gently set him under a tree, then faced the sea.
It had taken my boy. To punish me.
Rage shot through my veins and scorched my throat as words heated in my belly, rising like wrathful lava, tasting like bitter salt, smelling like sickening sulfur. All of my love for my boy, all of it, turned molten.
No scream would ever be loud enough. No tears would ever be hot enough. Nothing mattered but revenge. If I could not have my son, the sea could not have its water.
Wading into the tide, I lifted my hands. The waves held still, no froth or foam. Waiting.
I didn’t know the words. And yet. The spell shaped itself in my throat, burning like acid, working my tongue, pulsing in my neck.
My magic swelled, then I shot the words from my mouth. “Mother Salt, I curse you. Father Water, I curse you. My bones are made of sorrow. My heart is made of grief. My life is made of emptiness. You will never take another moon from me.”
The water retreated from my rage, shrinking back. I followed the tide past the rocks, chasing the shivering waves. There was more to say.
“May stones and rocks form over you. May ceaseless fires burn under you. May you be caught between stone and flame, without hope, and your waters boil until smoke rises from you and burns you to ash.”
An earthquake shook the bedrock, and a gash split the sea in half. The water churned and hissed, each wave roiling and screaming, as it fought against the curse. But it was no use. The sea drained into this abyss, devouring itself, until the water turned to vapor and steamed to dust.
The sea was gone. In its place was a limestone basin, slashed through the center, littered with fish and seaweed, all turned into bone and ash. The wind smelled like curdled rot, blowing the clouds in rancid gusts.
The rocky beach had disappeared. Instead of seawater, solid calcite salt surrounded me, white as snow. I stood ankle-deep in a shallow thermal pool, no deeper than a salt pan. These glimmering pools cascaded in series of terraces to the wide gash in the center of the now dry sea.
The last remaining seawater bubbled and fumed, its temperature high enough to scald skin raw. Steam thickened the air. Drops dribbled over the edges, spilling downward to the cracked limestone below, where it disappeared into the deep. A thick masonry of new minerals coated everything in crystallized salt, shimmering as if it had been layered with a thousand liquid pearls.
A luminous tombstone for Deniz. A monument to my sorrow.
I enjoyed looking at Uncle Bulut’s skeleton. It was ash gray, half-submerged in a steaming thermal pool not far from what used to be the rocky beach. One boney arm reached toward me and the other rested by his side, as if he had been struck dead mid-oar stroke.
Uncle Bulut deserved no grave or tombstone. He was cowardly and cruel. He had earned his disparagement.
I buried Deniz under a pimonel tree near the shore and covered his mound with a hundred moonstones. Then I sat in its shade, eating a shriveled sunchoke as I surveyed the damage my curse had done. The daily winds had changed, making storms more frequent. The crops had withered. Silverfins were a memory. The townspeople didn’t scream or yell at me. They were too scared. They shut their doors and closed their windows, but they watched me, eyes narrowed with accusation. Their hungry rage seeped from the shadows.
“They call it the Salt Castle.” A boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, stood with his back to the sun. I couldn’t see his face, and for an instant, I imagined it was Deniz.
He stepped into a shadow so I could see his face, then pointed to the fuming white mineral pools.
It was Kaya. I hadn’t seen him in years. He was taller than I remembered, and also thinner. He was knob-kneed and gangly, with matted black hair and a mouth smeared with dust. His cheeks were hollow as spoons, and a spiderwork of blue veins showed through the stretched skin of his legs. His ribs bulged against his tight tattered tunic.
He was a reminder of the hunger I had caused by refusing to tend to the sea. I turned my eyes away. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Probably not, but I knew I needed to come.” He paused like he was waiting for me to say something. I was silent. “Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”
In truth, I didn’t care. “You pity me?”
“Anyone who can do that doesn’t deserve pity. They deserve respect.”
“Respect.” I snorted. “More like hate. The townspeople hate me.”
“They’re scared of you.”
“With good reason. I killed my son.” I glanced at him, watching for the shock to register. He was unfazed.
“I heard he got caught in a storm.”
“It wasn’t a natural storm. The sea wanted to punish me, so it took Deniz. I wish the sea would have taken me instead.”
“I’m sorry about your son.” He said it matter-of-factly. I could tell he meant it.
“Why did you come here?”
“I tried going inland. I thought maybe I could get a job milling yulaf, but it didn’t work out.” He showed me his left hand. Knife scars criss-crossed his palm and his pinky finger was a mangled stump. “A kid caught me eating a piece of bread. He said it was supposed to be his. Kids get meaner as they get older. Did you know that? Some of them do, anyway.”
“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
He shrugged, but his eyes didn’t leave my half-eaten sunchoke. I offered it to him. He shook his head. Even near starvation, he was polite. “I don’t want to take your food.”
I pushed it toward him. “No one will come near the trees here. The fruit is rotting on the branch.”
“You should preserve them. Save it for the wet season.”
“You’re probably right.” I didn’t have any plans to do it. It was all I could do to wake up.
Kaya took a bite, savoring the sunchoke’s clustered red seeds. I dug into my pocket and pulled out a flask of water. I had gotten it from what remained of the estuary, so it tasted like algae, but his lips looked cracked with thirst, so I doubted he would care about the flavor. He accepted it and took a long swig.
I turned my gaze back to Uncle Bulut’s skeleton. “Why aren’t you scared of me?”
“Who says I’m not?”
“You don’t seem scared.”
He shrugged, then continued eating.
The sun tilted at the horizon. Kaya finished licking the last sunchoke juice off his fingers, then started digging between the basalt beach stones.
He made a triumphant noise as he unearthed something. “Look at this.” It was a moonstone, one of the most perfect I had ever seen. Deep purple shimmer, perfectly round, with a sparkling white streak through the center of the orb, like a palm-sized replica of the galaxy.
“I’m still good at finding the pebbles you want. Do you like it?”
“Yes.” It was extraordinarily beautiful. “Deniz lost the moonstone pebble you found the day he was born.”
Kaya scooted closer. “Was he upset?”
“Yes, but I told him not to be sad, because anything you lose comes round in another form.” I remembered the tears rimming Deniz’s eyes. “I was wrong about that.”
Kaya placed the pebble in my palm, and we sat quietly, watching the last traces of sun disappear into darkness. He shivered.
“Do you have somewhere to sleep?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I have an extra bed.”
He tilted his head but said nothing. I guessed he was scared.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to stay.”
He eyed me. “You’ve always been nice to me. Why?”
“I don’t like seeing young ones go hungry. It’s always bothered me.” I heard the words come out of my mouth, but I wasn’t sure I believed them anymore. If I truly cared, I would have helped the townspeople. I would have saved my son. I would have willingly contributed to our universal harmony.
Kaya offered a cautious smile. “I’ll stay with you, if you teach me your magic.”
I snorted. “No.”
Because I knew the price of consent. And I understood the cost of refusal. “It’s not your duty. It’s mine.”
“Then why aren’t you doing it?”
I had hoarded time when Deniz was alive, and now my anger sustained me. “We can’t get the sea back. It’s impossible.”
“Have you tried?”
“I don’t like seeing others go hungry, either.” He dug his dark eyes into mine, his gaze unwavering. “You won’t be alive forever. The townspeople need someone to learn your magic. We need the sea, so we can have fish and flour and fruit. It’s your duty to teach me.”
His words sliced through me.
I had a choice to make. I couldn’t forgive the sea, but if I didn’t teach Kaya my magic, the sea would take him, too. Its famine would take our whole town.
“We’ll see, tomorrow,” I said.
Kaya slept on his stomach. Head on the pillow. Dirty beige tunic and too-short pants. No blanket. Mouth open, eyes closed, arms at his sides. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. I hated that he reminded me of Deniz, and I loved it, too, as if something about the way he breathed brought my son back to me, if only for a blink of an eye. I watched Kaya all night, the steady rhythm of his rising and falling chest repeating the message: he was alive.
A moonless night blacked the window. I left my bed and walked down to the last sliver of beach shore. I palmed the moonstone pebble Kaya had found earlier as the spiritous mists rose from the thermal white terraces of the Salt Castle. The monstrous monument I had built with my magic.
I knew the smell of my anger. I knew the taste. It turned my stomach to ash and made it hard to remember if I was the fuming tombstone or the tombstone was me.
“Pinar?” It was Kaya, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
My knuckles whitened as I clutched the moonstone pebble. I cocked my arm back and threw it as hard as I could. It arced like it was carried by an unnatural wind current, high overhead, until it landed in the deepest gash in the center of the dry sea.
“Are you okay?” Kaya tugged at my elbow.
His touch jolted me. I could feel something break inside me. A tickle of energy. A swell of underground water. A fresh rush of salt.
I decided. The sea had taken Deniz. I would not let it take Kaya, too. Or me. Or our town.
“Can you find another pebble, Kaya? I’ll tell you the words.”
Kaya and I sat under the pimonel tree next to Deniz’s grave as the sun crested the horizon. It had been eight moons since Kaya started doing magic. The sea had returned, little by little, and it was calm that day. Our town would get a full harvest soon. Kaya was hopeful, and his hope pleased me.
Kaya pulled a pouch of pearlberries from our lunchsack and offered me half. I accepted, and we both ate slowly, savoring each one.
“When you look at me, do you sometimes think of Deniz?”
I gave him an evaluating gaze. Kaya didn’t have malachite green eyes or onyx-black hair. Not like me, not like my mother. Not like Deniz. Kaya had dark eyes and straight hair with golden tawny skin, and his smile hooked slightly crooked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering.” He shrugged. “I know I’m not your boy.”
“Yes, you are.” He was mine in all the ways that mattered, now.
He scooted close. His clothes smelled clean, like coneflower soap, and his breath smelled sweet, like pearlberry juice.
“So, do I remind you of him?”
He tipped his head onto my shoulder and nodded like he was satisfied with my answer.
I turned my attention back to the sea. In the right light, I could almost see the Salt Castle. It was buried under water now, but it would always be there. My thoughts washed over it, never straying far, moving in and out with the tide.