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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

What the Sea Wants

P. Djeli Clark's writings can be found on Everyday Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Hogglepot and the 2011 print anthology, Griots. He blogs regularly as "The Disgruntled Haradrim" at pdjeliclark.wordpress.com.

The fishermen stood on their longboats that lifted and fell with each wave, watching the boy walk out of the sea. He waded from the shallow water, passing their nets without notice. His body was bare, most would later recount, except for what appeared to be a skirt of sea grass. A few would remember that wasn't exactly true and that a string of shells circled his head like a crown, gleaming white in the light of the descending sun. As he walked onto the beach no one said a word. The sea after all, often brought in strange things.
From a small rounded house made of red clay and dried leaves, an old woman pushed out a head to stare at the boy standing in her doorway. She shifted to the side to let him pass, noting the small footprint-shaped puddles he left behind. His coiled black hair was filled with things of the sea, while his long grass skirt swept back and forth as if still beneath the waves. He stopped to take in the meager contents of her home before returning his gaze to her. She stared back, catching her reflection in his eyes--large dark pools that could drown you in their depths.
"You look different," he remarked. His voice was fluid, and she felt it surround her, fine salt-tinged mist like the breath of the sea.
She smiled at the familiarity, worn skin creasing and pulling tightly across her face. "I am old. It has been a long time, Alil."
The boy frowned, as if not understanding. But of course he didn't, she mused. He never could.
"You wouldn't come back with me," he said. The hurt and accusation in those words caused the water in a nearby earthen vase to ripple and grow turbulent. She watched the tiny tempest for a while, following the small waves until they died away.
"And yet, here you are." With a sigh she wrapped an indigo shawl more tightly about her, settling down with much effort onto the bundle of cloths and nettings she called a bed. She was too old for all this standing.
"Come back with me," he pleaded. "To my father's kingdom. We can be together again, like before."
The old woman closed her eyes, reluctantly retrieving carefully buried memories. As a girl she'd loved to watch the fishermen of her village, perched like birds on their colorful longboats, skimming along the waves as they cast out nets to bring in their catch. Her mother and aunts chided that girls didn't belong at sea. But her father, who could never resist her pleadings, had let her come with him that day. That was when she'd first seen Alil, his boyish face peering up at her from beneath the waves, those dark eyes beckoning. She'd followed them, diving into the sea despite her father's cries. And there she stayed. Those memories with Alil were her most precious. The wonders of his world were endless. And for a while, she forgot that there was anything else.
Then one day, a young man fell into the sea during a storm. He would have drowned if she hadn't taken pity. Alil's help came reluctantly. What the sea wants the sea takes, he was often fond of saying. But he helped her bring the young man to shore. And when her feet touched land again, all her forgotten memories returned. Alil pleaded with her to come back. But she told him she had to stay, to see what had become of her past life. Those watery dark eyes turned sad and rippled then, but he agreed. She would stay for a while, and he would return for her.
But time passed differently in Alil's world. She returned to the village to learn her family was long dead, along with everyone she had known. There was a story however, of a girl who had jumped beneath the waves to chase a boy and was never seen again. Mothers still used it to keep their daughters from their father's boats. With nothing left for her, she walked back to the sea and waited for Alil's return. And waited. And waited.
Ten seasons passed before he finally walked back onto that shore, as young as when she'd last seen him. But not her. Time had embraced her again outside of the sea, away from his magic, and she'd swiftly grown into a woman. The young man she'd saved was now her husband. Alil, of course, didn't understand.
"Come back with me," he pleaded.
She'd shaken her head, wanting to say no. But those dark eyes were as inviting as ever. When he extended his small hand she took it. And the two ran down to the sea, into the waiting waves. Time passed and, once more, she forgot. It was a fishing hook that made her remember again. Finding it nestled in a coral bed flooded her thoughts with memories of the life she'd discarded, and she rushed back to the shore.
Like before, time had not waited. She found her husband and their small home long crumbled away to dust. All that remained was the story of the young wife who ran off into the waves, leaving her husband to die of grief. Since then, men had been warned not to let their wives wander too close to the sea. Once more she'd turned and gone back down to the shore and waited for Alil.
Thirteen seasons passed when he walked back out of the waters.
"Come back with me," he pleaded.
She'd shaken her head, ready to tell him she was married again, and now had two children besides. She could not possibly be so selfish. But when she looked into those dark eyes the words disappeared and she was running off again to the sea. That last time, it was the music that called her back. She'd looked up through the waves to find a man reclined in a small boat, playing a long wooden flute. He was startled to see her but hadn't stopped playing. So she climbed aboard to listen. And when he began rowing back to shore, she stayed.
Alil came to her some fifteen seasons later, as the first bits of gray nestled into her hair.
"I turned around to find you gone," he said.
She eyed him sadly. "All this time, and you only now noticed I was gone?"
But he only stared, the idea of mortal time lost upon him.
"Come back with me," he pleaded.
"No," she said, careful to avoid those dark eyes. She'd married the man who played the flute. And following what had become a common custom in the village, he'd built a house for them far away from the sea--which old tales said stole away wives from their husbands and children. Now he was blind, and couldn't fend for himself. She couldn't leave, not like she'd done so many times before.
Alil had grown angry. Villagers that day claimed to see furious water spouts spring up from the sea and spin high into the sky, before crashing down again. But when he calmed there was only sadness drawn onto his youthful face. He placed a smooth rounded pearl in her hands and spoke in that fluid voice.
"When you are ready, throw this into the waves and I will come for you." Then he was gone. And she hadn't seen him since. Now here he was, once more, as young and full of life as when she'd first spied him beneath the waters so long ago.
"Come back with me," he pleaded.
She shook her head, remarking silently how those dark eyes no longer worked their magic upon her.
Alil frowned. "But the pearl, you dropped it into the sea." He opened a palm to show it to her, round and smooth and perfect. "You called me."
The old woman leaned forward, clasping his young hands in her own. "Alil, my husband took ill and died only two seasons after I last saw you. I threw that pearl into the sea then, and waited for you to come. That was thirty-six seasons ago--barely a moment for you, but so many moments for me. Can't you see how old I am now?"
But Alil only stared at her, his face a mask of confusion.
"Come with me," he pleaded.
The old woman frowned and pulled away, making her voice stern. "I cannot. I will not."
Those dark eyes grew darker, like a roiling storm. And for the first time in his presence, she felt a tinge of fear. Then without another word, he turned and walked away, retracing his steps back to the sea--alone. Releasing a breath she sat back in relief. There she remained, alone in her small house, lost in her memories.
It was night when the awful roar pulled the old woman from sleep. She climbed from her bundle, wrapped in her shawl as she stepped out into the darkness. The village was alive. People ran screaming, with children in tow. Their faces were carved masks of terror as they sped from their homes, heading deeper into the surrounding jungle. The old woman turned, searching for the cause of such fear. Then she saw it.
Rising from the sea was a great wave, an unnatural black against the night sky as high as a mountain. It crept forward slowly, casting a shadow across all below, thundering its coming like some angry god.
"Alil," the old woman said knowingly. In her memories, she stared into those dark unfathomable eyes and realized suddenly, she was the one who had never understood. Come with me. It had never been a plea, but a command. From a being who never aged, who never grew up, who was little more than a child--with a child's wishes and wants and tantrums. Settling down onto the trembling earth, she did not run like the others. Instead, with heavy heart, she sat and waited for the sea that had come to reclaim her.
Seasons passed and went. After a time a new village arose, with new people who fished the waters on their longboats like many had done before them. But they built their homes deep inland and far from the shore. Tales claimed there had been another village here once. Then one night the waves came and snatched it all away--every man woman and child, lost to the waters that had so long sustained them. The fishermen had a warning of that fateful night that they passed along to each other as they set their boats out upon the waves: What the sea wants, the sea takes.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Author Comments

The author spent his formative years on the Caribbean island nation of his parents, who taught him a healthy respect for the sea. This particular tale was inspired by the tragedy that struck Papua New Guinea in July 1998, and delves into how human beings use tragedy to preserve memories, weave folklore, and teach those who come after.

- P. Djeli Clark
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