A Short Story by Olivia Griffin-Cordray
Durly couldn’t bear to listen to their talk any longer, and finally, he fled for the solitude of his beach. Now the sea churned as if some monstrous creature was turning over in its depths. Clouds roiled across the sky, shutting out the sun. The smoke from his pipe was acrid in his mouth and burned his tongue. He knocked the ash out of his pipe and tucked it back into his vest. If it had been any darker he wouldn’t have seen the flash of white in the waves, the twisted length of limb, the body that bumped up against the beach.
Durly got to his feet. Something cold gripped his stomach and he stumbled down the hill. His feet broke through the crust of brine over the sand, leaving jagged dark holes in the bands of frost. At the water’s edge he stopped, pulling off his boots — too valuable to ruin — and then he sloshed out into the icy waves.
His feet went numb almost immediately, but he didn’t have far to go. Another wave surged in and the body came with it, drifting up toward him with such force that if he hadn’t braced himself it would have knocked him backwards. Instead he caught it against him, heavy and slippery and ghastly pale like the belly of a fish.
He didn’t know why he did it. On the occasion that the dead washed up on shore the people of Brindlecove usually pushed them back. It was bad luck to take from the sea what the sea had claimed for itself. But his arms went round the body nonetheless, and he twisted his left arm instinctively so his hook wouldn’t dig into the flesh.
It was a girl, he saw then. Her lips were a bruised purple, her hair shock-white and tangled with black ropes of seaweed. Durly staggered backwards under the weight of the body but managed to drag it out of the water and onto the sand. When he got her fully out of the sea he realized he had no idea what he was doing. He began to release his hold to let her body slither to the ground, but then he uttered a shriek of horror as the dead thing suddenly convulsed and clutched at him with claw-like hands.
The girl’s eyes shot open and she gasped for breath, choking and coughing and spitting out sea water and gasping again.
“Oh god,” said Durly. “Oh, my god.” In his shock he let her drop. She curled up on the sand, shaking.
One way or another he managed to drag the girl indoors. His hut was small and dark and smelled of ripe burnt oil, but the coal forge and the kiln kept it warmed through even the coldest months, and the thick wool curtain over the single window – a purchase from Herdann’s girls – shut out the wind that managed to get through the shutter. He bypassed the slab-like bed and dumped the girl rather unceremoniously by the still-warm forge. He yanked the rough woolen blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her, then wordlessly pumped air into the forge and put a pot of water on to boil.
The girl at first lay prone by the fire, shivering uncontrollably. But eventually her tremors ceased and then she went from deathly pale to bright pink all over, and she began to scratch at her skin almost unconsciously. Durly made tea and tried to get her to drink it. She took only a little and refused the rest. He tried to offer her the bed but she wouldn’t move away from the warmth of the forge. The blanket he had given her was damp from her half-drowned body, so he brought her a fresh one from his trunk and let her be.
She slept fitfully. Durly thought he should go to town and call someone to help — maybe Marla and Bittern. But he didn’t want to leave the girl alone for a moment.
He worked quietly while she slept, sanding and shaping the handle of a work knife he needed to finish, and cutting out pieces of leather to make a sheath for it. He went outside to smoke his pipe again but it had gotten dark and even colder, so he didn’t stay long, except to limp down to the water’s edge to retrieve the boots he’d left there. He felt trapped within his own ribcage, like a single fish thrashing around in a bucket.
After several hours the girl stirred, pulling the quilt closely around herself. Her hair was white as salt, but she couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She watched Durly with something dark deep in her eyes. Maybe suspicion. Maybe rage.
“How do you feel?” Durly asked her at last.She furrowed her brow, but otherwise did not respond.
“You’re safe here,” Durly tried again. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just a — ” He stopped himself. He’d almost said fisherman. “An old man by the sea,” he said instead. “You’re safe with me.”
But she didn’t say a word.
Durly worked his mouth around thoughts he couldn’t put into words. Questions like Who are you? and Where did you come from? seemed insignificant in light of the fact of her survival. He didn’t want to call it a miracle, but how else did a body survive the sea the way she had? Her hair was still full of seaweed; she looked like some wild sea creature from the old stories, come to devour the world for the harm it had done her kind. A chill of fear prickled over Durly’s skin and he shivered.
He had to say something; she was looking at him with such a terrible look. “This is my home,” he began slowly. “We’re in Brindlecove. I don’t know if you know it. It’s just a little coastal town built up on the backs of fishermen. I used to be a fisherman, before….” He gestured with his hook. She stared at it but her expression didn’t betray a single thought.
Durly cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he said, “I’m not a fisherman anymore. My sister’s husband apprenticed me when I lost my hand. He said I didn’t need two hands to make knives. Turned out, the hook’s even better. I don’t have to worry about burns when I’m tempering a blade.” He smiled a bit at that.
The girl was staring at a hank of her white hair as if it belonged to someone else. The knifemaker watched as her hands found a ribbon of seaweed and began working to free it from the tangle.
“My father used to tell me the story of the god’s fish,” Durly said, watching her work. Her fingers were as deft as a fisherman’s mending a net, as deft as his used to be. “Long ago, before the Wall, there was a winter in Brindlecove that lasted six months. The sea became thick with ice. The earth was hard as stone. They had no food, no firewood; whole families would huddle around a single tallow candle trying to keep warm. They boiled shoes to try to eat the leather.
“They were getting ready to ransack the temple for firewood when news came that a monstrous large fish had washed up on the beach – the very beach outside this hut. The men put down their axes and followed the messenger to the sea, and sure enough, there it was – a fish as large as a boat, as large as ten boats, still gasping for breath and beating the water with its powerful tail. The men tore into the beast, and found it carried enough meat to feed the entire village, and enough fat to burn until the winter broke.”
The girl was watching him, her hands working slowly now. She seemed to be listening intently.
Durly hunched his shoulders. “The god sent fish every year after that. Huge fish, fish the size of houses. So much fish they salted it and feasted on it through the summer. So much that people got sick of it.” He paused for breath and it caught in his throat painfully. “All that god-damned fish.” He gasped, the pain going deep now. “The god was just giving us what we wanted.”
The girl from the sea watched him as he covered his face with his good hand. He turned away from her, curling up on the hard slab of his bed, his face to the wall, his knees pulled up to his chest, and he held in his breath like a man plunging into the sea.
He dreamed of ash, hills of it, ash floating through the air like snow. It caked the ground, his hut, his hair; it mixed with the sea and turned it to sludge. It buried Brindlecove so only the tops of the chimneys remained, belching out smoke and even more ash until the whole world was white with it, and the sea gnawed away at its edges.
Then someone was shaking him and he woke up to find the girl leaning over his bed, her hair licking up around her head like fire. The ash from his dream. Her head was on fire. No – it was just the glow from the forge. But –
She spoke finally, and her voice was deep and roughened. “The Wall is coming down,” she said.
Durly’s mouth worked silently like a fish sucking at air. Finally, he managed to say, thinking she mistook the roar of the sea for the rumble of falling rock, “It’s only the ocean.”
But she shook her head and her wild white hair floated as if she was still submersed in saltwater. “I’m telling you, the Wall is coming down.”
Over the roar of the sea Durly heard screams.
He was up and out of the hut in an instant. He sprinted up the hill and when he got to the top he saw the night lit by the lunatic orange of fire. The temple was ablaze.
Durly cursed softly. He could barely breathe. The fish trapped in his ribcage ceased to thrash. “The god is dead,” he said aloud, despair causing his voice to break.
“He’s not,” came the girl’s voice beside him. He hadn’t noticed her clamber up the hill behind him, but now she stood at his side, one clenched fist holding the quilt tight around her body.
“That’s our temple you see there, lighting up the night,” Durly told her. And then: “I guess the people got tired of waiting for the god to send them a fish.” A gust of wind blew ash into their faces and Durly began to cough.
But the girl smiled eerily, the light of the bonfire glinting off teeth like pearls. “I am the fish,” she said. “And the Wall is coming down.”