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Bitter is the Sea, and Bright

Michelle Muenzler, also known at local conventions as "The Cookie Lady," writes fiction both dark and strange to counterbalance the sweetness of her baking. Her fiction and poetry have been published in magazines such as Star*Line, Daily Science Fiction, and Apex Magazine, and she takes immense joy in crinkling words like little foil puppets. Check out her squidgy-weird buddy adventure novella, The Hills of Meat, the Forest of Bone, on Amazon if you want to see why she probably shouldn't be allowed to write humor. She promises it won't bite. Much.
When the Isperfell come to our village of Merse by the Sea, it is not with their delicate bone-lattice knives readied and their faces painted for war. No, they approach the old way. Slowly and from just down the shore, emerald sea water cascading from their bright scales and lean arms opened wide.
Their needled teeth gleam.
"We stay," they say, though it takes us some moments to make out the words, the long jaws of the Isperfell not being made for human speech.
But once the words are known, we do what any other village clinging to survival along these remote shores would do in our place. We greet our new guests as in the old stories--a pained smile on every face--and welcome them to our homes to stay.
It's the price of the sea, after all. One that every village knows it will someday pay.
They were seven days the last time they stayed, or so say our elders with their shaking voices and trembling hands clutched against their chests. Seven days and seven nights, and half a morning spent watching them go.
And that time, the host village was lucky. That time, the Isperfell left on their own.
We at Merse by the Sea are not so blessed.
Which is why when the tenth day approaches, shells are pulled from a dusty bag long set aside for just this purpose, and Leena who just finished suckling her first child and is thick with another draws the lone striped one. Several question the wisdom of the bag's choosing, but in the end, it is agreed that not even the Isperfell--incomprehensible though they may be--would be so cruel as to separate mother from child.
Trembling, Leena approaches a smaller Isperfell with scales like blue glass and asks if they are ready yet to go.
Gentle, like Leena to her own child, the Isperfell pulls her into its loose embrace. One webbed claw rests atop her broad belly, and its long snout nuzzles against her cheek. The pulse along Leena's neck throbs. Then, whisper-fast, the Isperfell slides its bone-lattice knife across her throat.
"We stay," says the Isperfell, cupping Leena to its concave chest. Her fish-gasps spill blood in bright ribbons to the floor until there is no more to spill, and only then is she discarded from the Isperfell's embrace.
We linger awake through the night, stomachs heaving.
But come morning, we force the smiles back onto our faces. Wait for the Isperfell to indicate they are done with us at last, that Leena's sacrifice was of worth.
The Isperfell, however, remain.
Smiling with their sly fish-pin teeth and watching us even as we watch them in return.
At twenty days, our stores of smoked fish and preserves are gone. Yet still we do our best to weather the unfathomable storm that is the Isperfell. This remote village is our home, after all. This sea, our blood.
Hungered, our children take to trapping the small rats that creep through the stores at night, an act the Isperfell ignore. Less acceptable is the young couple that decides to toss their nets into the shallows despite all warnings from the elders. To that the Isperfell take great offense.
The Isperfell do not bother with their knives for the couple.
Their teeth are sharp enough.
And so we stick to trapping rats. To ravaging our gardens before their season. To slaughtering what few milk goats can be spared. And also praying to whatever gods will listen that the Isperfell do not take further offense.
That they do not decide to go to war.
Of course, we also debate the choosing bag with its many shells.
Some say it is time for another choosing. Only then will the Isperfell be satisfied, the villages of the sea once more let be.
It is another two days of cramping hunger before the rest of us agree.
At thirty days, the bag is much lighter of shells, and Merse by the Sea much lighter of folk. Those of us that remain waste away, skin nets snagged atop bits of bone. Yet the Isperfell seem healthy as ever, their message unchanged.
"We stay," they say. Again and again, despite each sacrifice sent by the bag. "We stay."
On the thirty-first morning, we throw the bag into the sea. Shells spill into the tide along with all our faith in the promises of the old stories. Exhausted, we gather our children. Our accursed elders. Our sick and our hale. Every body in our village that can be offered, we gather. And we stagger to the shore, wavering as the warm waters of the emerald sea snatch at our heels.
The Isperfell gather as well, just before the shore. Their scales glint in the dawn light, and they cradle their bone knives like babes.
"You've stayed," we say, collapsing to our knees in supplication. "Now go."
The Isperfell's teeth gleam.
At random, they claim us--one here, two there, and the rest of us trembling beside. Lovingly, they run their knives across sun-warmed throats. Watch as our blood spills onto the foaming sand.
By the time the last Isperfell is gone, we who remain alive clutch at the surf with empty hands, whimpering as the water washes red around us.
And starving, we crawl--first one, then the rest--into the shallows of the emerald sea and snatch up the small jeweled fish-like creatures that teem therein during this season. And if the prey we thrust raw and wriggling between our teeth resemble our late guests a bit closer than is comfortable, all the better, say some.
For never sweeter was that bright and bitter flesh.
As bright and bitter as the sea.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 14th, 2018


Stories of place can be difficult to capture, to instill that sense of events in an unknown world (particularly of the fantastical variety) while balancing the element of the familiar. In this piece, community is balanced with horror, and we watch as a people struggle with the expectations of them in the face of what is as incomprehensible in some ways as any natural disaster striking their shores. Like a tornado shredding one street while skipping over the next, the Isperfell have a natural order behind their actions, but to those whose lives are affected, it is no different than the random-seeming malice of any terrible storm.

- Michelle Muenzler

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