Mam had always told Aneth to keep away from the sea— forbidden her from it, in fact, with threats of a beating, her cracked fists balling at the mere suggestion of the place. Aneth’s brothers and sisters were allowed to go, an agony of unfairness. They were forever traipsing sand into the house and shaking down hair stiff with brine about their shoulders like wet dogs.
“You’ve never learned to swim,” Mam would snap in bristling response to Aneth’s jealousy. “Pa’s gone to Heaven, so there’s no-one to teach you, and I’ll not have you drown.”
“I could learn from the others,” Aneth—ever-obstinate—would insist, and Mam would come at her with the handle of a wooden spoon or crumpled slipper, and Aneth would wisely take to heel, lest she nurse a reddened ear for the day.
There was something in Mam’s eyes behind the anger and maternal fear, a murky, stirring thing, like a crab emerging from a shell. Memories, they were, Aneth thought; Mam’s sister, Aunt Bethta, had once gotten riotously drunk at Yuletide and told the unusual tale of Aneth’s birth, she being the only witness.
“Sudden, it was, your coming,” Bethta had said. “Your Mam didn’t even know she was with child. Slim as a girl, still, and besides, the wisewoman said she wasn’t to have another. But wise she was not, it seems, for you came to us, and she cannot account for it, the hag.”
“You hush,” Mam had sniped, but she’d looked at Aneth with those shifting eyes, and kept her mouth shut as Bethta finished the tale.
“We went down to the shore to pick mussels and such for a broth, walked a bit through the water, barefoot; it was a fine day, for September, as though the summer had come knocking on our door again. I couldn’t help but lie on the sand a bit and close my eyes to take in the sun. Your Mam was still in the sea, up to her knees in it, not straying too far, so as she wouldn’t be swept away. The waves about the cove are strange, you see, and come and go in such a ways as you can never predict them.
“So when your Mam started up screaming I thought that was what had become of her, and jumped to my feet, thinking I’d have to swim a mile to save her. But she was still standing, just as I’d left her, looking down at something in the water. As I drew close to her I saw what it was, and thought for a blink that I’d gone mad.
“There was a little naked child, floating on the water between your Mam’s legs, the little sac on its string like a jellyfish, so pale and white. Your Mam stared just as I did, although she must have felt it come out of her, as small as it was, as you were. I had to pick the infant up and cut the cord myself with a bit of broken shell.
“She wouldn’t even hold you at all, your Mam, not at first— shocked, of course, looking out to sea, as though you were someone else’s child.
“Then she held you so fierce she couldn’t bear to let you go. A miracle, you were, precious as a pearl. You remember that, girl, when you’re misbehaving for your blessed Mam.”
Later that night Aneth had overheard fierce whispers between the sisters, although she had squeezed her eyes shut, pretending, to herself, that she were not listening through a crack in the door.
“You think you know everything, you cow,” Mam had said, roughly. “You’ll be putting notions in that child’s head I can’t shake out. Every day is a bloody fight to keep her out of the water— if anything happens to her on your account I’ll wring your neck for a drunk and a stupid bitch, and I’ll never forgive you.”
“Don’t you speak so to me!” Bethta had retorted. “The child would be gone had I not fished her out. You’ve me to thank, and I’ve not heard one word of it.”
“I’d as well thank the sea for that; it’d be as much use to me.”
Aneth had thought on the argument often, picking it apart as a gull might a cockle on a stone. Before she’d thought herself Mam’s least favourite child, the one that caught the most handprints on her calves, and was laden with enough chores her fingers chapped and her back ached like a crone’s.
Now Aneth saw, in Mam, the snapping ferocity of a fearful love, pushing her away in the same desperate violence with which a different mother might hold her close. Yet that love only filled Aneth with scorn, for she knew that it concealed a secret.
Always she’d been told that grownups never lied, least of all Mam, who held herself up with all the pride of some weather-worn saint. The hypocrisy disgusted Aneth, making her feel rather older and wiser in comparison.
So, as her trust in Mam declined, Aneth awaited the day she might slip away to sea and defy her, as she had always yearned to do.
At last it came, an afternoon as grey as a seal’s belly, and moist with autumnal heat. Mam had gone to bed for a rare nap, Aneth’s siblings all at play, or sent about the village on errands, out from under her feet.
Aneth herself was meant to wash the dishes, but the job was quickly done in a rinse, and she was out of the door in the sneaking silence all children learn under their mother’s noses.
Down she went to the nearby cove— the Devil’s Cunny, the locals called it, little sense though that made to Aneth, once she learned what a cunny was. She kicked off her boots and stockings to walk through the sand, relishing the crunch of sand against her feet, which she’d never been allowed, lest she traipse too close to the water.
The air smelled thickly of the seaweed washed up on the shore, and all about her stones and blunt shards of sea glass lay out like jewels scattered from a rich man’s pocket. Aneth wandered about, picking them up at random, relishing the liberty of so simple a pastime.
As she approached the sea she stopped and looked at it, stilled by a longing she’d endured for so long that she hadn’t realised in what volume she possessed it.
The ocean lay flat across the cove like a scrying glass, only the occassional tongue of a wave belying that it was a thing that moved, and not an image painted upon the sky. Aneth had been told by one of her older brothers that the sea wrapped about the world as its circlet, that it had no end; watching it now she believed it, drawn into the magnitude of brackish darkness.
She took a step towards it, then another. There was anger in her, that Mam had barred her from the sea. Aneth had only ever glimpsed it before from afar, on hilltops, or from the steep doorstep of the wisewoman’s house cresting the village. She knew that the water was dangerous, of course; ships were shattered like rotten teeth in oceanic storms, and many hapless folk, year after year, were sucked under the ice of unimaginable depths, washed up bloated and white, or else never seen again.
But Aneth wasn’t afraid of the sea; her brothers and sisters had played here, and always they came back, pink-cheeked and laughing with the heaven of it. Perhaps if she proved Mam wrong, showed that she need not be coddled and protected, Aneth would be allowed to come here, with them, and Mam would forget whatever it was that churned the terror behind her eyes.
Aneth lifted a foot and stepped into the water, watching it pool about her pale ankle, marvelling at its chill touch despite the balm of the day. The sand under her sole was damp and soft, rising between her toes, and at her heel a cold pebble arched her foot like a hoof. She took another step, gasping as a wave lapped up her calf, to her thigh, awakening some sensual sense in her that had never been.
Aneth walked on and on into the sea until it reached her loins, her waist; glancing back to be certain that nobody had come down to the cove, she stripped her white dress over her head and let the waves caress her, as they had done, when she was born. She seemed to recall it now, strangely, that buoyant hold—
Then, suddenly, starkly, Aneth screamed. She felt through her limbs, her body, a searing pain, as though she were coming apart in the water like strands of sugar. And so it appeared, for as she raised an arm she saw that flesh and bone and skin alike had all begun to moult from her, their fabric churning into something akin to foam.
Never had she heard of such a thing, in the wildest tales. It frightened her, the pain and impossibility; what had Mam known of this, and never told? What did it mean?
Aneth attempted to turn for the shore, but her legs were gone, everything was. She was a thing that only thought, and felt, and had no matter; the ocean had washed all that away.
Yet she wasn’t dead, or surely there would be no Aneth at all. She didn’t sink, or lose her sight, or consciousness, nor did she fall away into darkness. The sea carried her, on it, within it, as it always had.
Slowly, it washed through her spirit an understanding, the memory of being, that which she was. Aneth belonged to the ocean, had come from it, all those years ago, when she had been so wanted by a woman of the land.
Now she had returned, and might do as she willed with all the wildness of an element. She was the sea, and yet was a child of it, as men are of earth.
How was it that she had ever forgotten?
Returned to herself, Aneth went about everywhere the water did. Sometimes she was the wave that tipped a boat and made sailors run from port to starboard; sometimes she was the deep that drowned and picked clean white bones for their frail beauty. Other times she was a woman and a fish, at once, and clambered rocks to lay with men and women who would never be believed after she had gone back to the blue again to watch, laughing, at their bewilderment.
She was the rain that fell upon the beach back to the sea. She was the storm that drove away the shoals that fed the starving, and ushered them back home to be fed upon again. She was cruel, and beautiful, and worshipped.
She missed her Mam, for still Aneth remembered the time she had gone to land as a girl, and could still do so, if she desired it.
There came a night she did just that, for she heard, on the wind, the sound of the old woman crying, for it had been some years now since Aneth had returned to the sea, and all the other children had grown, and gone away. Her Mam stood at the same little cove her daughter had been lost, wretched with so human a misunderstanding.
Aneth rose the pale-headed crown of a wave and soaked her mother’s skirts, a playful splash she would have slapped her for, so long ago. The old one only stared, and shivered back; with a sigh Aneth gathered in a crest of foam upon the land, taking the shape of the woman she would have been.
The tears that came to them both were much like the sea, had been of it, in the way of such things.
“My daughter, my daughter,” croaked Mam, holding her arms out to be embraced. “You’ve come back to me.”
Aneth laughed, and drew the crone down against her coldness, cradling her as she had the infant child.
“My Mam,” said Aneth. “I was never gone.”