She came from the sea, the morning after the storm. The day was clear and bright, windy, with a few clouds racing across the sky. Her hair was long and black so that it acquired a hint of blue, and the shade of her irises was subtle enough that she still squinted and shielded her eyes when the clouds covered the sun. Her skin was pale, nearly translucent, and to an unwise eye she would seem the age of a young woman. But the townspeople knew better. They knew how the salt and the water of the ocean kept the skin of the creatures that dwelt there smooth and supple, unlike the air and sun that wrinkled theirs. They knew how constant swimming kept muscles firm and toned, creating the illusion of youth and a long life, like sea turtles and sharks. The muscles of her legs and abdomen were sleek and strong, disproportionate to her slender arms. At first glance, she could have been among the most desirable of the town’s maidens, but the people knew better and were not deceived.
Two fishermen, a father and son, had found her that morning, asleep in a tidepool along the rocky shoreline, her head resting on a bed of kelp. They saw her from their boat as they struggled with an overloaded net, filled with fish driven into the shallows by the heavy surge of the storm. They wrestled the net into the boat and sorted their catch – throwing the young, the small, those they couldn’t sell back into the sea, separating them like chaff from the wheat – then beached the boat along the low-tide line and walked along the rocks to where she lay. The father thought she had tired, swimming against the storm, and found this still water for shelter, while his son argued that the storm had blown her here, the ebb tide stranding her as it did whales.
The son jogged to the top of the dune above them, from which he could see into town, waving his arms and shouting. Soon, a crowd had gathered. They sent a boy for the doctor, who was delayed delivering a stillborn child to the admiral’s wife. When he arrived, he examined the girl from the sea but could find no evidence of gills, and ultimately decided that she was breathing air and did not need to remain in water. He felt her temperature with a palm pressed against her forehead, reporting that it seemed low, but no one knew what normal was for someone from the sea. Though the sunlight reflecting off the water’s surface and the position of her body covered her – except for a few certain angles, which the boys tried to find, pacing along the rocks, tilting their heads – the women lifted her out of the water and wrapped her in a heavy blanket to warm her in case she needed it and carried her down to the sand.
She woke there on the beach, startled to find so many people standing over her, staring. She began speaking in a language none of the townspeople understood. They all began talking at once, asking if anyone recognized the sound of the words, commenting that of course they would have their own language, wondering if all the seas had different dialects. She fell silent quickly, not understood, drowned out, and momentarily forgotten as the discussion’s catalyst. When the discussion finally tapered off, they stood there looking down at her, wrapped in a blanket with only her face and hair – dark against the sand – visible beyond its folds, and her staring back, waiting for whatever consensus they might reach.
It was my mother, the keeper of the town’s inn, who offered to take her in, let her stay in one of the guestrooms until the doctor decided she was better. They sent the boy off again to fetch a horse and carriage, and in the meantime carried their bundled marine guest up to the road. They loaded her into the carriage and drove her into town. At our house, the inn, with my father at her shoulders and I at her feet, we carried her upstairs – her frightened eyes watching me the whole way – to the small room next to mine at the back of the house. Gradually, the crowd dissipated, and my parents returned downstairs to the kitchen and front desk. The doctor checked on her and told me to give her water and keep her warm, and he would return in the morning to see if she had improved. Then he left, too.
I had stood by, watching everything from the side of the room, remembering her body wet and glistening in the tidepool, clothed with sunlight and seaweed and the shadows of water, and the down-turned angle of her body, as if crawling from the sea. I remembered touching her, carrying her, the feel of her smooth, hairless skin. I remembered the spell of her eyes, compelling me to help her. She may not have had gills, but she needed the sea, the town’s act of charity in bringing her here bearing her farther from her home by mistaken understanding. This girl from the sea needed help and I could be her savior. I knelt down at the side of her bed, her body trapped beneath the weight of the blankets, and promised to get her home.
I left her then as well, to my room next door to prepare for our journey. I would wait until the dead of night, then take her from the house – carry her if I had to – and down to the harbor where my father kept a small boat moored. From there I would let her guide me, just out beyond the rip current or as far as she directed. I packed blankets, oilskins in case of rain, and extra clothes, a lantern and oil, fishing gear, a notebook, quill and ink, and what navigational charts I could find. From the kitchen, I took provisions: loaves of bread, dried meats, a sack of apples.
Then I waited. During my preparations, the logistics of a voyage at sea had occupied my mind fully. But now that all was ready, with the night still too young to slip away unseen, my mind was free to wander. I imagined her removing herself from her human garments, her skin glowing and unashamed in the moonlight. I imagined her smiling as she dove back into the water, then surfacing again to wave goodbye, to thank me. I imagined her reaching her hands up to the side of the boat and lifting herself up to kiss me, and with that kiss, granting me the ability to breathe underwater, or to no longer need to breathe, and I too would undress and dive into the water and swim with her, down to her kingdom beneath the sea.
An hour past midnight, I went down to the stables and saddled one horse, then loaded our supplies onto a second. I tethered them outside the back door and returned to her room, speaking to her quietly in the darkness before lighting the lamp.
She was gone. I thought it an illusion, the blankets laid just as I had left them, but stepping closer confirmed that the bed was empty. Were she well enough, and able to walk on land, still she could not have left without my father at the front desk or myself in my preparations around the house having seen her. And yet she was not there, nor anywhere in the small room. I threw back the blankets to find the nightgown the women had dressed her in spread flat on the mattress and a palpable, visible dampness to the sheets.
Whether she had turned to water and streamed down through the mattress and floorboards and then outside, or evaporated into the air, seeping out through the roof, I refused to believe that this disappearance was the way people from the sea died. Though it made sense that they would become water as we, people of the earth, return to dust, the decomposition of our bodies takes time – not so easily do we fade from this world. Thus I believed that this momentary transformation was not her death and immediate disintegration, but a willful and temporary change to allow her escape, not understanding that I was preparing to help her.
All water, whether earthbound or airborne, will ultimately make its way back to the sea.
I returned the horses to the stables. I carried the saddlebags back into the house, consolidating my supplies down to what I alone needed and could carry. It was nearly dawn, the sea pale beneath the lightening sky, by the time I finally set out, shouldering my pack and walking down to the harbor. My objective had reversed, but my itinerary remained unchanged: to sail wherever she would guide me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Matthew Brennan is a writer and editor from the Pacific Northwest. His short fiction and literary translations have received numerous awards and fellowships, and more than 60 of them have been published in journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, The Citron Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Fiddleblack, The Los Angeles Review, and Superstition Review. Brennan is a former fiction editor of the Hayden’s Ferry Review, and earned his MFA in fiction from Arizona State University.