The men went out in boats to fish the cold waters of the bay because their fathers had, because men in this village always had. The women waited to gather in the catch, gut and clean and carry the fish to market because they always had, mothers and grandmothers and so on, back and back.
Every day for years she waited, she and the other wives, for their husbands to return from the iron-gray sea. When they did, dragging their worn wooden boats onto the beach, hauling out nets, she and the other wives tried not show their disappointment when the nets were empty. A few limp, dull fish might be tangled in the fibers. Hardly worth cleaning and trying to sell. None of them were surprised, ever. None of them could remember a time when piles of fish fell out of the nets in cascades of silver. She could imagine it: a horde of fish pouring onto the sand, scales glittering like precious metals. She could run her hands across them, as if they were coins, as if she were rich. Her hands were chapped, calloused from mending nets and washing threadbare clothing. Rougher than the scale that encrusted the hulls of the boats.
Her husband had been young once, as had she. Some days she woke up, and in the moment before she opened her eyes, she believed they were still young. His arms were still strong, and she would guide them around herself, until he was holding her tightly against him. A fire burned in her gut, and she felt as she had the night after their wedding, both sated and still hungry, arrogantly proud that he belonged to her forever. She always knew which boat was his, of the dozen silhouetted against the horizon on the far end of the bay.
Then she opened her eyes, saw the creases of worry in his face, the streaks of gray in her own once-dark hair, and remembered that years had passed, and nothing had gotten better. She clung to the pride she once felt. She remembered what it had been like, and on those days she wanted so badly to seduce him. But he was too tired to be seduced, and she was too tired to keep trying. The best she could do was take a small geranium from her flowerbox to stick in his buttonhole or behind his ear. Sometimes when she did, he smiled.
Every day, the fishermen returned empty-handed, and they bowed their heads, ashamed, as if they really had thought today, this day of all days, their fortunes might change. Once a week they went to the village’s small church, where the ancient priest assured them, in the same words he’d used every week for decades, that their faith would be rewarded. Someday.
Basket in hand, she would pick a path through the sand to his boat. He would greet her silently, frowning. The shame, apology, in his eyes had faded over time. Now, there was only defeat, and habit. He goes out in the boat because he always has, because he has nothing else to do, because she is always standing on the beach with her basket, waiting for him and a catch that never quite materializes.
She was always too tired to touch his face, to offer a smile of comfort. Dutifully, silently, she gathered up the day’s catch from where it flopped on the wet sand. A few dull creatures, sickly whitefish no bigger than her hand. Not enough to cover the bottom of her basket, but she would scale them, gut them, clean them, and take them to the square to sell.
Their village did not have a market of its own. Instead, a buyer in a rickety truck, its sides built up with wooden slats, came to buy what they offered. The only reason the man came at all was because he could pay less here than anywhere else. They should ask for more money, she always told herself, they deserved more money. But when she stepped forward, shoulders set and chin raised to stand up for herself, the other women held her back. They couldn’t afford to drive him away. Sometimes, though, she recalled the pride she once felt and made her demand.
He simply turned his back, threatening to get in the truck and drive away. She had to beg him to stay, and when he offered less than he ever had before, she had to accept. He fed on their desperation with a smug smile. They did not have a choice; no one else would ever come to make an offer.
Now, she was the one to feel shame peeling back her face. She’d take the few coins in exchange for the scant catch, and think of the impossibility of even wishing for something better. She kept on, for no other reason than her husband made the effort to take out the boat at dawn. Going through the motions was the least she could do. So the circle played out, and would play out for all the days to come. To do anything else would upend the order of the universe. At least they didn’t have children, as if the village’s population had thinned as thoroughly as the bay’s.
The last thing she did each day, after their dinner of soup and hard bread, as the sun went down, was water the box of flowers in the single window of their one room clapboard home. The red geraniums usually flowered and granted some color to her tired, washed-out world. They even smelled a little, a faint perfume cutting through the stink of fish. As long as she had fresh water for the flowers, as long as the flowers sparked green and red against the salt-scoured drabness of her house, she could continue to wake each morning and imagine that she was young, imagine that today was the day her husband would return to shore with a boatful of fish, and their fortune.
One day she woke up, opened her eyes, got herself and her husband out of bed. Fed him and sent him off to the boats, but he returned a short hour later, and asked her to come with him to the beach. They’d found something.
On the sand, the fishermen and their wives gathered, standing in a semicircle around a figure: a man, shoeless, in torn and weathered clothing, lying face up at the tideline, unconscious. The waves lapped at his feet, and there were grooves in the sand that hinted that he must have clawed up from the surf. A castaway perhaps, but no other debris littered the beach, no broken spars or ripped sails, no other bodies or survivors. No storm raged last night, to account for a body washed up on their shore.
Disbelief at the oddness, the disruption in the eternal routine, kept anyone from moving closer. So she was the one who went to the man, brushed his tangled black hair from his pale face and touched his neck, feeling for his pulse. When he opened his eyes, she flinched. Not a drowned body, but a man, alive. His eyes were the gray of slate.
He smiled at her.
Seeming hale and strong now, he sat up and smiled at them all, not at all like a man who’d been found on the beach, baking under the morning sun after freezing in the night air. She stared at her hand; he’d been cold, where she touched him.
When he spoke, his voice wasn’t at all parched like it should have been, washed up from the sea as he was. Instead, it was clear, deep, beautiful, and he made them an offer. He promised them bounty, all the treasure they’d wished for for so many years, all that they’d prayed for and never received. To prove he could make good on his vast assertions, he asked to borrow one of the fishermen’s nets. Her husband gave him his. Taking the net, the stranger waded into the water, until the waves met his knees, and he cast. The net settled, sank, and, skillfully, as if he’d fished all his life, as if he’d come from a place where men had fished for hundreds of years, perhaps even a small poor village like this one, he held on to the net, dragged it, gathered it in, hauled it to shore. He leaned against the weight of it, because the net was full.
A hundred fish thrashed against the net’s fibers. But more than fish, there was gold: he reached in among the flopping bodies and drew out a cup, a plate, and a circlet—a band of twisted gold that might fit around a woman’s arm. The bend of it spiraled one way and another, resembling the infinite curl of a seashell. The shape drew the gaze, which fell into it, spiraling down until you believed you might fall in truth, and then you looked up into the sky, and realized the sky too went on forever. She stopped thinking at all, lest she become ill.
The castaway reached out, offering her the band of gold. She took it; it was cold, burned her hand with its chill, but she held it tightly, drawn close to her breast. This was all the riches she had ever dreamed of.
The god of the village’s old priest had never given such glittering proof of his good faith.
The price they had to pay was blood. It didn’t even have to be their own. Just blood, shed in sacrifice, which, when she thought of it, made a certain kind of sense, as much sense as the wealth the castaway drew forth with his net—a concrete wealth that she could feel and taste, not a wish and hope for something that might never come. What else did they have to trade but blood? Never mind all the blood she and her husband had already shed, stabs from fishhooks, burns from rough nets, bruises, broken bones, blisters, a slip of a knife, chapped hands from so much washing, washing, washing, until the water she rinsed in ran red.
Accidental blood didn’t count. The bargain needed fresh blood, clean and intentional.
She knew exactly where to find the blood they needed.
While the others glanced between them, uncertain, she rounded her shoulders and caught her husband’s gaze. Convinced him she knew what to do, took his hand, and marched to the village square.
Everyone followed her, except for the old priest in his faded gray robes. The cloth might have been white once, before she was born. The old man was afraid and begged her, all of them, to stop. He could barely look at the castaway and made the sign against evil at him. For his part, the castaway laughed, and that was all it took to drive the priest into his church. She saw the priest one more time trying to light a candle in the window, but his matches were damp, and the wick was moldy. He stood there, striking over and over, his motions sharp and desperate, his face pursed in concentration. She looked away, didn’t look again. He’d never helped them, in all her years of praying for fish, for health, for salvation. How wonderful now, to be doing something more than praying.
At the same time she always did, she went to the square, her basket in hand, waiting for the man in the rickety truck. She looked like she did any other morning, waiting for what their buyer thought of as charity, what the wives knew was shame. The air seemed very quiet, not even the gulls crying over the water.
The buyer arrived in a puff of stinking exhaust, climbed from the rusted cab of his truck like he always did, his smile broad as if he had just finished laughing at a joke. Faced her, arms spread, as if to say good morning and what fine weather. She didn’t give him time to look surprised as she dropped her basket and slashed his throat with the hooked gutting knife she’d kept hidden at her side.
It was a cut she’d made a thousand times, designed to part flesh instantly and spill the guts cleanly. His throat opened, shining red like the inside of a fish’s gills. His eyes bulged, round and unblinking. The man fell soundlessly, and his blood spilled. A much darker red than her geraniums.
How nice, to see some color in their faded world.
She showed them all how easy it was to make a strike for a better future.
The next day, every boat was filled with fish and gold.
The new god provided. She spent hours studying the gold band around her arm, tracing her fingers along its arcs and spirals, sighing at its color, an inspiring glow, what she imagined the sun must look like in a fairytale kingdom, so perfect and warm. Along a certain curve, she could imagine that the metal caressed her back.
The second sacrifice was even easier.
The village had one inn, a decayed plankboard house, two stories, with a cupola that looked over the bay. It might have been elegant, once, and was still the most stately building in the village, with its overgrown yard and peeling facade. In summer months, a handful of tourists might decide the village was quaint and choose to spend a night here. They never stayed more than one.
But this was winter, and no one had passed through for months—until today, which must have been a sign. She spied on the man, a sickly young thing with an ill-fitting suit and scuffed hand-me-down briefcase. The innkeeper said he was a scholar studying the region’s history, and had asked many outlandish questions about economic depression and whether it might be brought on by curses. Depended on how you defined curses, she thought.
Approaching midnight, a whole crowd of them went to the inn to do the deed. Again, she held the weapon and made the cut. The rest stayed behind to ensure the sacrifice could not flee.
He didn’t escape. He hardly made a sound when she struck. She stood over his bed as he gaped, and he didn’t even seem surprised as he bled out.
Her husband brings her trinkets of gold that he draws up in his nets, along with fish, though she cares less and less about the fish. Now, when she pulls herself to him and guides his hands to her hips, he digs in his fingers greedily, clutching her to him so that her breasts are flattened by his chest. His eyes are bright enough to match the flashing of jewels in sunlight as he kisses her, and she is warm as fire, no matter how clammy the winter air outside grows.
The flowers have died. Their scent has long ago faded, and for a time, she continues to water the dried out, blackened stems, the broken petals lying shattered on the cracked soil of the planter box. It’s out of habit rather than hope. One day she forgets, distracted by the twisted gold band around her wrist. Its light draws her like a sun, if she could remember what the sun looks like. She follows the pattern of its spirals, the depth of its whorls, and she can almost hear the chanting of the beings who made it. They must be beautiful.
The fisher folk gather in the square in front of the old priest’s church. The old priest hasn’t been seen in some time. She hardly wonders what has happened to him, and can’t remember what he looked like or what he preached. She forgets the old life, because what of it is worth remembering? Though she notices the splash of red across the church door. It reminds her of her geraniums, and she always liked flowers.
These days, her husband comes home smiling and rushes at her, arms outsretched to grab her up, to feel every inch of her, carry her to their cot and pin her there. She burns, answering him. It’s no longer work to seduce each other, and they rut like eels, writhing around one another. After wearing each other out, they fall asleep smiling, wake smiling, and they kiss deeply, wetly, before she sends him off to the boats. The ocean has become a joy instead of the torment it was. She can smell nothing now but salt and slime.
She bathes sometimes in the old tub that has stood behind their shack for years, gathering debris. She cleaned it out, scrubbed it, filled it with water from the sea, and now soaks in it for hours. Her graying hair coils and snakes around her like the limbs of some leviathan. When she pulls at the strands, they come out, and she stares, studying them. Wraps them around her fingers and wrists, twining them with the twisted gold she wears. She’ll fall asleep like this, floating, suspended, dreaming of deep places and distant voices; then wake submerged, staring up through the distorted lens at a wavering world, gray and dimly lit, and hardly notice that she has not drowned.
Once, she looks up through the warped glass of the water and sees the castaway above her, looking back, seeming to study her, taking in every inch of her naked body, curled up in the tub. She recalls that she should be embarrassed at the very least, mortified and blushing. She should hide herself. Ought to be angry and cry out for her husband. But she doesn’t. Though her skin is cool, her mouth clammy, her gratitude for him burns, and she would take his hand and draw him down with her, to show him how deep her faith runs. But he touches her face, strokes back what’s left of her hair, smiles like a father showing affection for a favorite daughter.
And she thinks, he does love me, he loves us all.
They perform the rituals, make the sacrifices. They watch the little-used roads for signs of travelers, whom the innkeeper invites into his decrepit building with a hungry gaze and grasping hands. So eager, most guests are suspicious. Some listen to their instincts and leave, in which case they’ll be taken on the road leading out of the village. Some stay, though soon the keeper won’t have a room to offer that isn’t stained with blood.
Her husband loses his thick brown hair, leaving a scalp like a whale’s hide. She still loves to rub her scaled hands over it, stroking him to a frenzy as he lays his now-toothless mouth against her neck for sucking kisses. His boneless arms fit so tightly around her, and her legs cling to him with a sinuous determination, like an octopus gripping its rocky mount. They lie in the salty bathtub together, and it feels like home.
Their new priest preaches of a time when they will go to the sea. This is their reward, eternal life in the holy depths. No longer slaves to the sea, but masters of it. So he says. They gather, chanting, and the rituals make her feel like that first glimpse of gold did: overwhelmed, soaring over an abyss, the infinite spirals, so much greater and terrific than anything she had ever seen before. She has kept that gold band around her wrist, where it remains locked, her peeling gray flesh swelling in folds around it.
There comes a time when they are gathered, chanting and writhing, performing their sacred rites of blood, when she isn’t sure anymore which of the gray-skinned, eel-headed men is her husband. If she calls out his name, none of them will answer, but she doesn’t call, because she doesn’t remember. They seem like such small things, names and husbands. Now, she only dreams of the time which must come soon—always, must come soon—when they will go to their reward, to dwell in the eternal kingdom in the darkest places under the ocean.
She remembers one thing. Tiny, so small and inconsequential she has forgotten to forget. A day, a moment in a day, in her young and newly married life, before the future stretched unbreaking. She found a wooden box which she filled with dirt and mulch. She planted flowers, watered them, kept them alive for years, until she didn’t. Reds and greens and yellows, a memory of color that stings her mind like the cut of a knife. She flinches at the sting, hardly knows why. Instead, she turns again to the sound of chanting, which by now has become the sound of resolve.
When she slips under the waves and lives forever more in a world of gray, she wonders if her resolve will break. Because even then, she’ll remember the warmth of the sun on her face, and the scent of the flowers.
© 2013 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC.