Mother Salt and her Sisters

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We sit, my sister and I, watching surf break on the rocks. In the distance, a lone schooner swings in the storm, white sail all a’panic.

“It’s your turn,” I whisper. Shaye nods. She cracks open the crab in her hands and sucks out the flesh. She grins, showing jagged teeth.

I offer her the bottle we’re sharing. With a flick of my chained wrist I shake it, watch the liquid curdle inside. I hold it steady and it turns fluid once more. Shaye takes it from me, pops the cork, and drinks deeply. She shakes her head, dark hair spraying wild.

On the next rock sit the Jagelli sisters. Beatrix is drinking from their own bottle, Lucia watching on with envy. Reaching into the rock pool behind us, I snap up a fat red anemone and throw the creature. It hits Beatrix on the cheek. She nearly chokes and spills her liquor down her fat chin. I cackle and roll back, grabbing my sides and wailing with glee. A litany of curses come my way, but the noise of the growing storm drowns them out.

Shaye’s eyes, once green, newly phosphorous, meet mine. The folds in her neck are tightening now, fleshy slits opening. As she draws breath she falters and makes a few faint clicks within her throat. Dropping her robes, unveiling a body ancient and malnourished, she hobbles to the edge of the sea. With each step her body grows sleeker, hair shrinking away and craggy wrinkles tightening, leaving nothing but smooth skin. She lowers herself into the water. It toils and churns invitingly.

“I’ll bring back a good one,” she sings, voice angelic.

She slips under the froth like a seal and becomes a shadow under the waves. I watch her swim, beating her feet like flippers and surging away. There are other shadows, too, joining her, all arrowing toward the rocking schooner. All the sisters watch, wishing it was them on the prowl, waving safe hunt to their kin, hoping their own sister’s chains are long enough to reach the ship.

There are dozens of us sitting on our rocks, watching the water boil and the boat roll. On the one side of me is Lucia Jagelli, now picking at her nails with a knife carved from bone. On the other is old Margo Pascam, chewing on a crab claw and sipping at fish oil. My stomach groans at the sight. Reaching into our rock pool, I pluck out a fisher crab and crack it open, striking it against my manacles. Its claws wave goodbye as I suck out the salty jelly from inside. It does not sate.

A chorus of cackling breaks across the shore. Looking over the waves, I see the schooner has toppled. Ink-like shapes slip and slide across the sail and mast, oily shadows pulling the ship under the foam. I snatch up our spyglass, taken from a ship long ago, and raise it to my eye. I yelp with delight as I see Shaye; she has a land-man and is dragging him with her, skimming across the water at pace, her chain looped under his arms.

“Beatrix hasn’t a thing!” I crow in Lucia’s direction. “Crab meat for you, for always, for you!”

She waves a hand at me and stares out to watch her sister’s inevitable failings. Beatrix hunted as proficiently as a carp.

Soon enough, the ship is gone, stolen under the waves. The wait is not long and Shaye appears at the shore, dragging the coughing and spluttering land-man by the neck. She passes him to me and I check him out, my webbed fingers scouring his face, front, back, and rump.

“A bit lean,” Lucia whines, her neck craning.

Shaye wrinkles her nose. “Better lean than a ghost. Your sister’ll be bringing you nothing but rope and wood to chew on.”

He is lean, true enough, but lean meat is still better than crab. Along the shore I see dozens more land-men being hauled, dragged, thrown, or pushed up and onto the rocks to waiting sisters. A chorus of wet slaps echoes as they are dragged out of the ocean.

Ours has passed out. I hit him hard. He coughs up water, splutters in panic, then opens his eyes. They’re blue as a calm day’s sky, but anything but calm now, flitting from side to side and wide as a cave mouth.

“Shh,” I purr. “Be still. We just need to talk a while. He looks delicious, Shaye. Well chosen, well caught.” I embrace my sister and try to ignore my baying hunger. Seeing Lucia hungrily staring at our catch, I snarl at her and she shrinks back, her manacles scraping against the rocks.

It never used to be like this. There was a time when storms hit, ships overturned, and we feasted. Not now, not immediately. Mother Salt gave us rules when she came to us and put us in chains. Sneaking a glance over my shoulder, I see her upon her pedestal, watching over all the sisters as we drag in our treasure, her vodyanoi guards at attention.

The land-man is fully awake now. Shaye holds him in her arms, crooning, playing with his hair.

“What’s going on?” he mewls. “Who are you?”

I smile, fangs out.

“My name is Kelsa. This is Shaye. We’ve got some questions for you.” The words taste sour. The days when our land-men were for nothing but feasting and I would already have his throat in two are long gone. Mother Salt demands patience and has set us questions to ask of all the men we bring ashore. Dinner depends on the answers.

He stared through me. I’m not sure if he nods or just shakes, so I continue.

“Three questions, quick as a snap.” I break a crab’s leg in half for effect. The joke does not register. “Have you ever been to Ender’s Boon?”

“Ender’s Boon? No,” he garbles, words tumbling from his mouth.

Shaye shrugs. It’s often the case. It’s a big city, I understand.

“Two more to go,” I say, licking my black lips. “You’re doing so very well. Now, in your life, have you ever married a girl from Castille? Not just agreed to it, but the act itself?”

“Married? Yes . . . once. Long ago.”

“You have?” I spit crab.

“When I was young. It didn’t end well. She ran off.”

Shaye’s eyes widen and I see her clench a fist. I shake my head, lank hair rolling over my shoulders. Plenty of land-men get married, after all. Plenty from this foreign town of Castille, too, I’m sure. No need to raise our hopes.

“The girl you married, where did you meet her?”

“I don’t understand,” he garbles. “What do you want?”

“Answer the question, land-man,” snaps Shaye. “Where did you meet her?”

“On a fishing trip to Shale. I met her down by the rocks.”

I take several quick snorts through my nose and slap my palm against the rock face, cutting it on an edge. My stomach groans again, so delicious he looks, but Mother Salt will want this one. There’s a chance he could be our salvation, the hammer to break our chains. Mother Salt has freed our sisters before, those who have found someone she remembers fondly.

This land-man could mean freedom, I tell myself, trying to drown out the cries of my churning stomach.

“He met her in Shale. Could he be one?” Shaye whispers furiously. Stealing a glance behind us, I see the vodyanoi keepers are out of earshot, marching about with their tridents of coral. Mother Salt, too, is ignorant of our catch. She is playing with a vodyanoi pup, making it leap and bound by dangling seaweed before it. I hear Shaye’s stomach howling with desire. We could just tear his neck and have our feast. Mother Salt would never know. It would be a joy to sneak one past the old sea-hag.

I shake my head. Hunger is muddling my thoughts like a devilish squall. This land-man could mean freedom.

I am about to whisper as much to Shaye when she cries out.

“Shale! Did I just hear Shale? We have a land-man who met his wife in Shale?” she shrieks. The storm has eased now and the whole coast can hear her cry. A pair of vodyanoi bound toward us, another leaping toward Mother Salt.

Shaye’s eyes meet mine. Our stomachs growl in unison. I hope this gift will please the sea-hag.

Mother Salt is coming toward us now, feet slapping on the wet rocks.

“Sisters, you have something for me? A man who married a girl from Shale? Who has never been to Ender’s Boon?” Her voice washes over me.

I nod.

“Then come, come. Bring him with you. Up to my throne.”

We stand, Shaye and I, and drag the land-man to his feet. Shaye has returned to her natural form now and we walk behind Mother Salt, stomachs pleading, chains scraping against the rocks. Mother Salt calls it throne, but that is too grand a name; it’s a weather-lashed rock, happenchance higher than any other on the coast, decorated with shoal and draped with colored seaweed. At its base run a hundred chains, cast out and secured to all the siren sisters of the bay. I rub my aching wrists at the sight of them.

I cast a look back over my shoulder and see the other sisters, claws and teeth all a’frenzy, tearing through their own treasures, feeding. Lucia glares at me then turns back to watch for the still missing Beatrix. The vodyanoi stand motionless, watching the sisters eat.

Taking a look at our land-man, I try to raise my spirits. He could be our key to freedom. Mother Salt has rewarded sisters before, snapping their chains and allowing them to find their own bay. The thought is sacred, but my baying hunger blurs my thoughts and makes it hard to imagine. All I can think of is his flesh.

Mother Salt perches herself atop her rock and motions for us to drag the land-man closer. She takes him by the chin and inspects his face.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Tomas Ghent,” he says. His choking and spluttering voice has gone now, replaced by a hushed whisper.

Her head cocks and she repeats the name to herself three times. Screws her face up and massages her barnacled temples with long and crooked fingers. Her vodyanoi pup wrestles with a knot of seaweed close by.

“Tomas . . . Tomas,” she rolls the name around her mouth, as if tasting it. “You met your wife where?”

“On the coast, just outside Shale.”

“Where on the coast?”

“Near the old lighthouse at Gheleon’s Point. There’s a cave there, all green and purple, walls covered in limpets. I used to go there sometimes, to be alone, where none of the other fishermen could find me. One day she was there.” His voice wanders dreamily as he speaks of old and treasured memories. Something glints in Mother Salt’s eyes.

“Yes, the cave. You were singing a song. High Tide and the Kraken. Something about the Kraken being trapped upon the shore. I never liked it. Such a sad tale. I asked you to stop,” she whispers.

The land-man’s eyes are wet and he shivers with cold. He looks up at Mother Salt.

“That’s right, it was that song. How did you know? I don’t know you,” he whispers.

She steps down from her rock and stands before us, brings her hands high and rubs her face. When she moves them, she is anew. Gone are her bulbous nose and shingled lips, black eyes and barnacle-strewn cheeks. Now she has the face of a land-girl, fresh and dainty and pink. Shaye’s nose wrinkles and I suppress a sneer.

The land-man’s jaw drops.

“Theresa?” he says, falling to his knees. “Theresa? Is it you? But it’s been years . . .”

Mother Salt, now unrecognizable, looks to me.

“What are your names, sisters?”

“I am Kelsa. My sister is Shaye.”

“You have done beautifully. Finding this husband of mine and bringing him to me, ignoring those ravenous pangs you must feel. You show iron loyalty, you do.” I shuffle my feet on the cold rock and glance at Shaye. “Leave us now. Think on what you desire. I shall treat you both to a single wish. Return to me in three days with what you want.” She waves a hand to dismiss us. A vodyanoi keeper steps between us and glares, red eyes bulging.

We nod in unison and make our way back to our rock.

“How do you think she’ll treat us?” I ask.

Shaye’s hand takes mine as we return to our pool. I know her stomach rumbles as harshly as my own. “She’ll give us our freedom, Kelsa.”

I squeeze her hand. “We can hope, Shaye.”

The storm has passed now and the sky is turning blue. As we approach our rock pool, Lucia lies across Beatrix, head on her lap, chewing marrow from a bone.

“Shim-spreet, what a treat,” she sings, sucking on her snack. “You must be hungry, you both, losing such a feast.”

“Where did you get that?” growls Shaye.

“I brought home a land-man, of course. Asked him the questions; he wasn’t what Mother Salt wanted,” coughs Beatrix, almost choking on her meal as she laughs. “So a delightful treat he became. Did you lose your meal? Shame. Must be hungry.”

“I thought you said she didn’t catch anything.” I look at Shaye, my stomach even angrier.

My sister’s face knots like gnarled driftwood and she grinds her teeth. I try not to care and instead think upon our coming freedom. I cannot.

We sit beside our rock pool, picking at fisher crabs while our bellies howl.

Mother Salt had kept her land-man up on her rock for days, recounting old times with her one-time beloved, occasionally calling sisters to provide them with crabs or whelks or oysters. The sisters about the cove have picked their land-men’s bones clean and are now basking in the sun, waiting for the day another ship will stray too close, ignoring the intrusive presence of the vodyanoi keepers who prowl the rocks.

“Will she truly grant us freedom?” I ask, sucking the jelly from a broken crab.

“I don’t know. I hope so. She has done before. Remember the Yeltrix sisters? They were allowed to leave after finding a husband of hers. Oh, to go find our own rocks to sing from, like older days!” We clasp hands at the idea. “We could sing to the ships once more, remember how joyous that was?”

“I wonder what she’ll do with the land-man?” I look up to the coral throne.

“I know what she’ll do with him,” come Margo’s scratchy tones. She lies with her sister, Wendsla, on their rock. “As for letting you leave? Breaking your chain and leaving you free to swim past the tide? Don’t dream too high on that, girls. Come speak with me.”

Shaye and I slide over the rocks and join the old sisters. They are not so unpalatable as Lucia and Beatrix, hunting in silence as they do. They are new to our end of the cove, too. Mother Salt moved them here just seven tides ago.

“How could you know what she does with the land-men? Mother Salt’s friends, are you?” I ask.

“We know because we, too, caught one of her other husbands, once upon a storm,” said Wendsla. “Many years ago, a frigate like you’ve never seen, bigger than a whale, toiling in the winds and the surf. We dragged it to the Under and stole away its land-men, as ever, and brought them here. This was not long after Mother Salt came to us with her vodyanoi and took us all in chains.

“We asked the questions, as she demands. He was a land-man who had not been to Ender’s Boon, had married a girl from Castille, met on the shore of Shale. We dragged him up to her rock and she showed one of her masks. Land-man could not believe his eyes, started crying in memory of lost love.” Wendsla looks over my shoulder and toward the great rock. “Different mask to the one she wears now.”

Shaye scratches her shingled cheek.

“And? What did she do with him?”

“After some days, she set him free.”

“She did what?” I cannot believe what I am hearing. “She set him free? She ate him, surely. Set him free from the torment of solitude, a lonely land-man on our wet rocks.”

Margo and Wendsla shake their heads in unison.

“But where would he go?” says Shaye. “There is nothing here but rock pools and cray. There is nothing for land-men here.”

“She let him swim from the far side of the cove, far beyond where any of the sisters could see.” She lifts her arm and her chains jangle. “Too few links on most chains. Sisters can’t reach around the cove. She let him live there, her pet, with nobody to see, nobody to know.”

“How do you know then?” I ask.

“The gift Mother Salt gave us. Our reward for bringing her husband, that let us explore the cove and discover him. We begged for our freedom, as so many have. You know what we were given? What Mother Salt called freedom?” said Margo, rattling her manacles in my face. “Longer chains.”

Shaye and I sit on our rock, whittling fish bones into sharp things. The sky is blood orange now, the sun sinking into the horizon. Fish dance around the reef. Some of our sisters play amid them, throwing the bones of land-men at one another and singing siren calls. It’s a long time since I sang one of those to call a ship. Mother Salt tells us this way, our bondage, our co-operative ship breaking, is better for us all. More regular, consistent. I don’t know about this, though it suits her own needs. Despite its waning power, her magic is still great. Though she would struggle to catch so many land-men on her own.

“More links in our chains? What kind of reward is that?” hisses Shaye. “No. That won’t do, Kelsa. It won’t do at all.” She stares at Mother Salt and her husband as she speaks, spitting saltwater from her mouth. “It’s not enough. My stomach aches. Each day it is worse. She must give us more. She must set us free. She must.”

I agree, but I doubt Mother Salt’s generosity. She came to our island when Shaye and I were young whelps, and took our kind in chains. Would she really let us depart? Margo and Wendsla were still here, manacled hard, despite the extra length on their leash. Others had been released, though. Would our land-man be enough?

I trace a finger across my broken teeth, stare at my chains, sourly remembering my efforts to gnaw through them, so many tides ago.

“Let us speak with her, sister,” I say. “Let us make our request.” We walk up the craggy rocks to meet her. She is deep in conversation with her land-man. At least, she is talking. He appears listless, staring out over the waves.

“Mother Salt,” I begin. “We have thought on the treat you offer.”

“Ah, yes. What is it you would like?”

I glance at Shaye. She’s scratching her shingles, eyes down.

“We would like our shackles sheared, Mother Salt, and to swim past the tide. We know you have granted this to others before.”

Her eyes open wide. They are deep blue, speckled with white clouds, and swim like whirlpools as she matches my gaze. She still wears her mask, face smooth and clean, but as I stare at her, limpets burst from her skin and cavities open, revealing small and curious mollusks that crawl across her face. Her mask slips. I wonder if it is surprise or just her waning power; she is as ancient as the rocks we sit upon.

“Sheared? You wish to leave me? Leave our family?”

“Please, Mother Salt. We found your husband. We would like to go free, as two sisters, and find a cove of our own.”

Mother Salt looks to her husband and then back to us. A mollusk creeps across her chin as he watches on with fear and disgust.

“Sit,” she commands, and we do. “Let me tell you a story. When I was a young girl I swam far and wide. I traveled the oceans, I visited the southern shores and the freezing northern ice-waters. I had much pleasure with the rest of my kin, long now passed, but found my own haven alone. A backwater town called Shale. The waters there were pleasant and I found the place to have a charm.

“I met a man there, sitting in the cave under the lighthouse, and enjoyed his company greatly. I cannot remember his name, as I struggle to remember any of their names now. The sailors there were of a sort so different to any other port I had known. I made a new face, one likeable to the land-men, and we talked. I found more of an accord than I had thought possible with this man, and we met many times. Eventually, we married. It’s their custom and I thought it endearing.

“I was greedy, of course. One sailor was interesting. How much more interesting would others be? I made many masks and met many land-men, each with their own loves and gifts and wants. They spent so much time on the waves in those clumsy ships they build, I needed so many to keep me entertained. Shale was a large enough place.”

The land-man turns now and looks at Mother Salt, mouth agape.

“After many years of this, my strength waned. I missed the call of the salt and the sea and of Father Kraken. My masks grew heavier and more tiring. I left Shale and abandoned my many husbands. I returned to the deep.” Mother Salt sighs, reaching up to stroke a whelk upon her cheek. “I eventually found this rocky place and your kind. You and your sister and all the other sister sirens. You seemed worth taking, so I did. It has been many years since and I forget many things, the names of my husbands being one. They seemed so important, once. Now they are but salt in the air. I can taste them, I know they are out there, but . . .” She trails off. “I miss them sometimes. That’s why you bring down the ships and ask them my questions. So I can speak with them a final time. I do not have the energy to wear a mask and walk upon the land for long, nor to travel the oceans, not now. I cannot return. So I wait and hope for fond memories to return to me. My throne here is a pleasant enough place to wait.

“You have brought me one of my husbands. I am pleased, but there are many more I have yet to see again. I shall not break your chains.”

Shaye’s hand takes mine. I squeeze hers back. My sister, brave Shaye, raises her eyes to face Mother Salt’s gaze.

“But Mother Salt, please. We have done you a kindness,” Shaye begins. “We could have ignored your questions and eaten him sharp. You would never have known but for our honesty.”

Honesty? Lies, Shaye, lies! So brave of her, so daring, to speak falsities to a sea-hag. Mother Salt’s whirlpool eyes look hard upon us.

“You are my things. To catch land-men and find my husbands if they ever pass by, that is your life. You shall not leave. I shall reward you, as I have rewarded others who have found my husbands. I shall give you another fifty links to your chains. You shall feast upon land-men that lie beyond the reach of other sisters.”

My hopes had been fragile, and now they were dashed. We would not leave to find our own cove. We would stay subjugate. As we turn to leave, I catch the land-man’s eyes. He stares at me.

I look away.

Our chains are lengthened. Mother Salt calls upon her vodyanoi to do so, singing to them in the tongue of the Under, and paying them with a gift of two sisters, who scream in anger as they are dragged away to their water burrow.

My sister and I held our tongues. I knew her heart and she knew mine. Our disappointment was overflowing, and it was all we could do not to weep. Lucia watched us close. How she would enjoy seeing our suffering, I’m sure.

It was two days later that another ship appeared. The sun was rising and the sea was a’shimmer, the wind cold and harsh. Another schooner, bearing sails red and blue, riding the waters near our cove.

Shaye passes me the bottle without a word. I shake it and drink the coagulate heartily, taking to the water as gills open in my neck and my ligaments bend, stretching skin and forming fins. It’s painful, always painful, but soon my blood burns with fervor and I go to the hunt. The drink makes us much stronger in the water. Faster and sharper.

I am one of the first in the water, but it is not long until the other sisters join me. Bursting through the waves, I can hear them. With muted barks and yelps and clicks they charge, surging like arrows through the cold water. I am at the front with two others, piercing through the water like a merrow’s spear. My stomach churns with anticipation.

We hit the ship, raking it with claws and gouging holes in its hull, punching through the hard wood with coral spines that have grown from our wrists, from our fists and feet. As we drag it to the Under, I dream of sawing through my chains with my new appendages, but I know it is no good. Mother Salt’s spellbound links cannot be broken by my own means.

My chain is longer now and I swim to the far side of the ship as the land-men cast themselves overboard, all a’panic. I have many choices, unlike my kin with shorter chains, whose eyes glare with envy at the selection of fat morsels out of their grasp. These land-men are better fed than the last ones.

I see one, legs kicking and fat arms flailing, and I loop around twice, catching him in my chain, and with a hard kick of my feet I am on my way back to the shore, catch in tow.

Shaye’s eyes burn with pleasure as I haul myself onto the rocks.

“Oh, what a catch! What a find. Well hunted, my sister.”

She slaps him awake as I sit upon the rock. Through narrowed eyes I see Lucia has hunted well also, her catch almost as fat as my own.

“My name is Shaye. This is Kelsa. We’ve got some questions for you,” my sister begins. “Have you ever married?” She speaks quickly, hurried. Urgent with hunger.

The land-man coughs up a lungful of water and looks up with teary eyes.

“Married? No, not I.”

Shaye’s eyes meet mine and shine with delight.

As we set upon our meal, I hear a shriek of complaint and irritation from Lucia. So typical of her, unable to keep her fat mouth shut.

“Shale? You were married to a woman in Shale?!”

We watch the land-man dragged up to Mother Salt, escorted by the Jagelli sisters and two large vodyanoi. Shaye and I laugh to one another, gorging upon our feast.

“Serves them right,” spits Shaye. “Serves them what they deserve.”

I nod and smirk, watch them speak to Mother Salt up at her coral throne. I notice the previous land-man, the husband we found, is missing.

“Where’s our land-man?” I ask.

“Saw him taken around the bend of the isle while you were out on the hunt. Mother Salt had some keepers march him that way.” She waves a thin hand to the rocky cliffs to the west. “Wouldn’t do for hubbies to meet, I guess,” she chuckles. “Wouldn’t want her memories tainted by a feud.”

I try to enjoy the banquet I have brought us but time and again my eyes wander to where Shaye had pointed.

“I’m going out,” I whisper to her. She looks at me in disbelief, her eyes dropping to the piles of meat before us and back again.

“Why?”

“See if I can find where our land-man is going.”

“Aha,” she nods, bearing stained teeth. “Dessert? Mother Salt won’t be happy. I’ll save you some of this one. Oh, bring me back some liver.”

I nod and slip into the water, tears brimming in my eyes. It has been too much. The false promise of freedom has festered and I grow ever bitterer. If Mother Salt insists on keeping us in chains, this shall be my revenge. I’ll break his body and chew upon his neck. The thought of her face as she finds his bones makes me smile. And if she does not find them I shall bring them to her.

I swim deep and with care, through coral gardens and seaweed, avoiding the vodyanoi pups that play amid the waves and staying out of sight of the other sisters. I swim around the corner of the bay, where Shaye had pointed, and I gently break the surface of water.

The land-man is there, sitting on a rock, staring out over the waves. I follow his gaze. In the distance is an island. He is humming a song to himself, High Tide and the Kraken, and he rolls a pebble around in his hand. I have heard him singing it to Mother Salt these past days and I have learned its words and tune. As he finishes, his head drops to his hands and he makes sobbing sounds. I cannot see any vodyanoi, so I drift cautiously closer.

“Hush, land-man,” I croon, bobbing in the water. I speak softly—I need him to stay close to the shore. His head snaps up and he looks at me, eyes red. “Why do you weep? Are you not free? So much better than . . .” I still my lips. Best not remind him of his shipmates.

He laughs without humor.

“Free? This is free?” he waves his hand to the ocean. “No man could swim across these waters. They’re full of danger. Kelpies, water-drakes . . . sirens.” He spits at me. “I die here, alone and starved, or I die out there, chewed and mauled and drowned in salt.”

I look out over the waters. He is right. I have not considered this. The sea is full of terror for land-men. No man could cross these waters and live, not without a ship. What fate must have befallen Salt’s other husbands? Where are her other pets? They must have tried the journey. I toy with the manacle upon my wrist, watching the land-man sob.

“Wait here,” I say, and dive back under the surf. I have an idea. There is a greater revenge I can have on Mother Salt than eating this pitiful thing.

It is seven days later and our bellies are all crying. No ships have come past in this time.

“Where are they?” wails Lucia, voice warbling. “I’ve never known such hunger!”

Shaye lies across my lap, eyes closed. I play with her hair and massage her ears. Her lips tweak into a faint smile. She strokes wrinkled fingers over the chains around her wrist.

“Where are the ships, Kelsa?” she asks. “Crab meat is no match.”

“I don’t know. They’ll come.”

Mother Salt is upon her throne, instructing a vodyanoi keeper. He is rearranging her coral, adding new colors and shapes. Why does she not feel the hunger as we do? What does she eat to stave off this pain?

“Look there!” cries Beatrix. On the horizon is a ship, white sails billowing in the wind. “Land-men! Where’s the bottle?” she shrieks at Lucia, who is already popping the cork.

More cries go up across the coast as more ships appear. There are five in all, sailing in unison, all too close to our bay.

“What luck, what fortune!” calls Beatrix. “This will be the greatest feast in an age,” she swigs from her bottle, passes it to her sister, and shuffles toward the water’s edge. “So many land-men, we’ll need to go together, Lucia.”

Shaye’s eyes are open and hungry. She places her hands on my shoulders.

“That was bliss, sister. Thank you. Where is the bottle? We must swim together.”

I look away.

“Kelsa?”

I scratch at the limpets below my ear.

“We shall not hunt, Shaye. Sit with me.” She looks at me wide-eyed. “We have no bottle.”

“We . . .” the word trickles from her mouth. She takes my hands, shaking. “We have no bottle? Where is it?”

“Just sit me with, sister.” I put my arm around her. “Sit and be still.” Her eyes meet mine and swim with confusion. She is not angry with me. We are sisters, after all. She stares at the ships and places a hand to her stomach. I pull her close.

We watch as the other sisters, all of them, drink from their own bottles and dive into the water. They surge toward the convoy, shadows under the waves, chains stretching, ready to take them to the Under.

They approach quickly, a school of terrors. I can imagine their barks and yelps of excitement.

A series of red and orange bursts from the sides of ships, like anemones unfurling, and the water churns and boils. The sounds of explosions follow moments later.

I hug Shaye close. The water continues to thrash as more explosions erupt from the ships.

Mother Salt is crying out, voice lashing like a whip, screaming at her vodyanoi to do something. They cannot. They look to her and back to the carnage.

More explosions. The sea boils red.

The ships turn their heading. They now approach our island.

The vodyanoi are croaking in fear to Mother Salt now, bounding about the rocks uncertainly, wet feet slapping, all in panic. Another series of ships has rounded the bay now. There are ten in all.

“Get your tridents! Go to the ships, take the land-men to the Under!” she screams.

I feel Shaye’s grip tighten on my hand. She trembles, as do I.

“Kelsa, is this you? Is this us? What have you done?”

“Just stay close, sister.”

The men of the lead ship are near enough to see now. They are pointing to the shore, some at us, some at the screaming vodyanoi. I see them lower rifles toward us, and the firing starts again. I shut my eyes, but feel no metal tearing into me. The land-man has stayed true to our deal. The vodyanoi are panicking, loyalty fading, and scramble away from the shore, hopping over the bank behind us and racing for the water on the far side. Mother Salt is screeching with rage and fear.

The first ship drops anchor off the shore, bloody surf painting its hull, coral shards embedded where sisters had charged it, and a smaller boat is lowered into the water.

“Kelsa, look!” cries Shaye. In the boat, at its prow, is our land-man, Tomas.

With a shriek of impotent fury, Mother Salt casts herself into the ocean and bursts through in an explosion of brine. Rifles crackle and the water churns, but is she struck? I cannot say. Sea-hags are mighty indeed, yet her magic wanes.

The land-men march up the shore and Tomas approaches. I can see the bottle attached to his belt. He does not smile, does not wave. He does, however, strike our formerly spellbound chains open, before stalking away. This proves to me that Mother Salt’s magic has died. Whether she has, too, I do not know.

“But why, Kelsa. Why did he come back to aid us? The land-man could have stayed away, safe and dry.” Shaye is basking on a rock, lolling in the sun. We lie in our own cove now, on a new isle.

“Mother Salt was our slaver, but do you think the land-men had any love for her?” I ask. “How many ships were taken to the Under, dragged down with her chains? How many land-men had we eaten in that time? We made a deal. His life for ours, and a chance for revenge.”

I lie upon a rock, eyes closed, the sun beating down on me. There was no sound but the lapping of the tide and the cry of gulls. There had been no gulls on Mother Salt’s island. I had missed their call.

“True,” replies Shaye. “But we were taking land-men long before Mother Salt took us in servitude. It seems strange that they would come and help, even with the kindness you did for that land-man Tomas.” She rubs her wrist, scarred from now-absent bonds.

I shrug. Perhaps it was fortune that gave us a land-man who would repay his debts. I hear not all are so honest. Perhaps it was the idea of a final vengeance on Mother Salt, his erstwhile lover who left him, to follow my plan and release me from bondage? To destroy her net of sirens must have given him pleasure.

Perhaps these things do not matter. She is gone. Whether that is to the deep Under or a new place, I do not know. I am sure she will not return here.

A sail appears in the distance. Shaye stands and waves, arms all frantic. The ship turns and approaches.

“What song shall we sing to them?” Shaye asks, licking her lips. “It’s been ever such a long time. I’m not sure I remember any.”

High Tide and the Kraken,” I whisper. “It’s a beautiful song, sister. To think of it makes me happy. I’ll teach you the words.”

And we begin to sing, once more, just as we did when we were young.

end article

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J. R. Troughton

About J. R. Troughton

James Ross Troughton is a writer of speculative fiction who lives and works in Essex, England. After graduating from the University of Leicester in 2007, he moved to Seoul, South Korea, where he worked in language academies for three years before returning to the UK. His fiction has been published by Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, and The Colored Lens. He can be found on Twitter at @JRTRoughton.