The night the sea came in at the windows with a roar like a thousand drumbeats, I was abed and dreaming of my dead husband.
Riauk had been gone nigh on two years, pitched over the side of our fishing boat, where he’d disappeared (I was told) with scarcely a splash. Punishment, the villagers said. The sea mother’s retribution. I did not believe it.
I missed Riauk most in winter, when the rain off the sea slipped through the cracks around the windows and the wind moaned beneath the thatch. The thin woolen blanket was no comfort from the mist, and the forlorn cries of the gulls picking clams along the beach were echoes of emptiness.
I dreamed that he called to me, though not in a human voice. It was a sound like a cry from deep underwater, a shout laced with bubbles and seaweed, muffled as though by immense distances.
I dreamed of him often. For a while it was the horrific dream of the bloated body that had washed up on the shingle beach, skin the color of chalk cliffs, nibbled bits of flesh as pink and clean as scrubbed hands. Dreams in which he walked up from the beach, ashen-gray and swollen with seawater, trailing kelp like long green tethers. His eyes empty as miniature moons, bleached of color and life. Those dreams would heave me up out of the cot, a scream swelling and dying in my throat.
Those faded eventually.
For months after, I dreamed images of our youth, night after night. Hardscrabble winters and autumn sunsets. Quiet evenings of stewed mussels and weaving. The days spent trimming and gathering palm fronds for our hut. The time he’d struck me with the flat of his palm so hard that the imprint of his hand lay like a shadow on my face for weeks.
But most often I dreamed of nausea and sore breasts and bulging bellies. Four times in four consecutive summers I had quickened, felt the churning butterfly wings of movement, proudly watched the doughy rise of my navel. Each time but the last it had ended in blood and sickness. The one tiny scrap of humanity that had emerged stayed only a season, leaving behind its fragile body like an empty coconut shell.
The villagers feared the tiny girl. Small and dark, the color of oiled mahogany, with four long slits like gills behind each ear. I called her Eketi — “little fish”.
For a thousand years, those born twisted and infirm, those with split faces and too many limbs, had been given back to the sea. They were the sea’s children. Hatchlings of the storm.
I held her to my breast. I did not relent. The village women avoided me, making a sign over their mouths with closed fingers to prevent the demon that had taken me from entering their body.
Shortly after came the night my husband struck me. The Old Man of the village had come and spoken to him. My husband lifted the baby gently — he was always gentle with her, even then — and made for the door, but I stood in his path like a windblown tree and would not move. He did not meet my eyes. He spoke softly, insistently. Words as dull and meaningless as surf-washed pebbles. I screamed. He slapped me across the cheek with a sound like a tuna dropping on the empty hull of a boat.
But he did not go. The anger passed from his face. He helped me back to my feet and wept like a child in my arms, stroking the infant’s head with a hand grown rough and callused from hauling lines and patching nets. I did not weep. I cradled Eketi in my lap, cooing quietly though I tasted blood.
Her life had burned quickly, fiercely. Dry grass in a strong wind. Her eyes were old, incredibly old, as if they had viewed the rising of the islands like the tortoise shells from the depths. I had known she would not last, known it from the first moment I had seen her bunched face. Riauk had known it too, I think, though he never spoke of it. He turned his back on the villagers, sheltered Eketi and I like a boulder at the verge of the storm-tossed sea.
The night when the sea came in at the windows with a roar like a thousand drumbeats, I was dreaming all these things. Of a baby that had not died, but had grown into a beautiful, dark-haired child with ancient eyes. Of a husband whose hunched back bore the lashing wind and rain. Of a voice that called to me in the speech of the sea.
Then all was water, a froth of sticks and foam and swirling debris, a quickly muted thrum like a drawn out roll of thunder. It picked me up, spun me a slow circle like a cautious dancer. I opened my eyes to light, a shimmer like moonlight on calm waters. I saw villagers, those I had known my entire life, men and women with skin the color of palm bark, wrinkles netting their faces. Eyes open, mouths wide in silent screams, struggling frantically against the weightlessness of water, while precious air like pearls drifted upward.
The current lifted me on pillowing arms, caressing my face with plumes of soft light. I did not struggle. I listened as the muffled rush fell away and there was only a submarine stillness, an eerie and blissful silence without birds or insects or rustling grass.
I saw them, Riauk and Eketi. They swam toward me. Bright eyes and sleek bodies, scales like drops of molten silver. I knew them. They called my name with the soft insistence of waves lapping the shore.
I left it then, that cumbersome body. Shed it like an empty seed pod. Abandoned it to the mud-stained darkness.
A flick of tail, a slant of fin. Cool, cool water tickling the tongue.
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