The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.
She needs no doctor to know: When the moon swells to full, she will bleed again.
A sigh laced with more smoke. This time, for just an instant, the tendrils thicken, become solid. One brushes her cheek, chasing salt slipped from within to without, aching to join to sea. The fisherman’s wife starts, but doesn’t move, holding her body quivering-taut.
The touch does not withdraw. Cautious, she pulls on the pipe again, adding more smoke, more weight. The first tendril, more a tentacle now, is joined by a second and a third. One slips past parted lips; one traces the edge of her parted robe and curls around the swell of a breast that isn’t as full as she wishes.
Dive. She feels the word against her flesh, then the smoke is gone. She shudders, hairs rising, skin puckering tight.
It was a dream. Was it?
She draws her robe close, tucks her legs up, and waits for her husband to come home.
Below the pier where their hut crouches — all one room and no place to hide — waves surge, bringing the scent of green weeds wrapped around wooden piles. The fisherman’s wife raises her head from the drawn-up pillow of her knees. Through sleep-puffed eyes, she squints at the edge of the lowered shades. Still daylight. She didn’t mean to doze. Outside, seabirds call, squabbling over fish guts baked dry by the sun.
She rises as her husband steps through the door. The fish-stink on him is laced with sweat. It is his scent, her scent, the scent of their life together, and for a moment it breaks her. Her eyes sting, but no more salt falls.
The boards creak, the light changes as her husband shifts, uncertain, as though afraid of and for her until she folds into him. Her hands go to the nape of his neck, the small of his back. His fingers meet and lace together between her shoulder blades, pulling her close. There is black blood under her nails and his fingers are calloused from tying knots, casting nets, hauling lines. They are the hands of a fisherman and a fisherman’s wife. They fit together, two halves of a whole.
“No.” She murmurs the word against his throat, breathing in the salt-sweat of him, answering his unspoken question. It is the same answer she gave last month, and the month before. He softens a moment, before tightening his grip, fingers stroking her spine to soothe.
She shivers, reminded of…what? Should she tell him of the dream that wasn’t a dream, the word spoken into her jaw by a smoke-tentacle, caressing her tongue?
The fisherman draws back, concern in his eyes. “Wife? What is wrong?”
She shakes her head. “Only a chill wind from the sea.”
The fisherman’s wife rises. Is she sleeping still? If she glances back to the pool of moonlight holding her husband in their tangled sheets will she see herself lying beside him, chest moving steady with the in-out tide of breath? She steps outside, barefoot; from the pier to the sand, to the edge of the shore where the water traces a silver line against her toes.
She sheds her robe. The memory of poppy-smoke lies heavy on her tongue, slicks her throat, slows her blood. Could it be a vision? Must it be a dream? Salt-tinged breeze stirs her black hair, all loosed down her back. Cold slaps her skin as she steps into the waves. Deeper. Her hair spreads like an octopus’ legs, spilled ink on the sea.
Underwater, she opens her eyes. It is bright as the noon day sun. There is so much life, color everywhere. Above-wave, the world is grey and increasingly dull, whether with poppy-sheen or age, the fisherman’s wife cannot say. She knows only that with each year that passes there is more emptiness. It is not just want of a child. She feels the changing of the world within her bones. It is drying up, falling silent. But underwater, armies march. Children play. A blind man sculpts coral into delicate figures with too many eyes. Women with shark skin and shark teeth tend kelp gardens. Buildings crumble and rise again. The world, drowned, is reborn.
A shape darts at the corner of her eye — smoke made solid. She reaches after it as it slips past. A tentacle coils around her wrist, strokes her palm.
This is and was and can be again. All you have to do is choose.
The fisherman’s wife blinks, disoriented. The current has tugged her, turned her; the many-limbed creature is gone.
The blind old man takes her hand. “Mother,” he says and kisses her cheek. Even below the waves, his lips are paper dry.
A little girl leaves the army march to press a bouquet of sea anemones into her hand. “Mother,” she says, before swimming away.
Silver bright fish form an aura around her. Their mouths open and close. “Mother,” they say.
Eels and sharks and starfish and whales join the chorus, repeating the word. It booms like thunder, a low, reverberating note rolling out from the epicenter of her being, stirring a tidal wave to wash away the land.
“I don’t understand,” she tries to say, but salt-water floods her mouth.
She kicks, chokes, her head breaks the waves, coughing up icy water and strands of seaweed that slick her skin until she claws them away. She thinks she sees her husband on the pier, waving. But when she wipes salt-heavy hair from her eyes, he is gone.
A tendril traces the arch of her foot, strokes her calf, beckoning.
“No.” The fisherman’s wife kicks free. “Not yet. It is too soon.”
She wakes, or she swims, long, powerful strokes carrying her back to the shore, back to her husband’s arms.
The fisherman’s boat rocks gentle as a lullaby. He would catch more with the other fishers, working together instead of alone. There is a woman who sings her catch into the boat without ever casting a line. There is a man who knots the full moon into his nets and lowers it to lure a large, flat fish like a flounder, but bigger than anyone has ever seen. It is the same fish every time, the man says, and the whole village gathers to make a fire on the beach, bright enough to light the darkened sky. They roast the fish on long wooden poles, then burn their fingers pulling flesh from bone as fast as they can. As the fish cools, the bones poison the flesh. If they don’t eat the fish fast enough it will kill them.
The fisherman has no patience for the company of others today. Last night, he thinks he woke in bed alone. He also thinks he woke with his heart thumping like the tide, his wife lying beside him, insubstantial limbs the hollow color of moonlight; his fingers would pass through if he tried to touch her. Both things are true. When he looked through the window, he saw his wife’s head break the waves, hair like ink against her sea-chilled flesh, swimming toward the shore. When he turned, she breathed beside him, troubled in her dreams.
He has been restless ever since. Afraid. So, in his smallest boat, painted white like a pearl, he drifts alone. A jar balanced in the boat’s prow brews salt-water tea with the heat of the sun. It tastes of squid ink and tears, but he has heard it is used for prophecy, and so he drains the last drop. It sears a word on his tongue.
The word slams into him, sudden certainty. He must follow his wife down; he must find her under the waves. They must find each other. As the sun passes the apex of the sky, the fisherman strips and describes a perfect arc into the blue.
The water slices him open, steals his breath. Cutting knife-clean through the dark, he swims down and down. As a boy, he dove with his brothers for silver coins falling from rich men’s fingers. He could always go the longest without coming up for air. The fisherman’s chest is narrow, but his lungs are strong.
A tendril brushes his leg, an octopus’ arm or only a weed. An electric thrill, which is also panic. He kicks away, streaming bubbles like pearls. The shadow slips past him, ahead of him, ink darting in a jet of bubbles all its own. It pauses, turns as if knowing the fisherman watches. Its limbs bloom like ribbons of hair. The fisherman stops, suspended, rocked by the current. In the center of that tangle of limbs he catches a glimpse of his wife’s face, moon pale. Then the creature is gone.
Panic of a different kind — pulse beating a new rhythm of hope and desire, the fisherman gives chase. He dives deeper, fighting the aching cold in his legs, the pressure of breath in his lungs. He follows a smoke swirl here, an unfurling of ink there.
His chilled fingers grope. Fish nibble his calloused skin. He is almost there, even though he doesn’t know what he’s reaching for. A moment longer and he will allow himself to breathe.
There. The tip of one finger brushes a smooth curve, a perfect round. But sharp, the razor edge of a shell meets his skin, draws blood. He kicks, instinct shooting him to the surface. No! he thinks. I was almost there. It’s too soon.
His head breaks waves and he draws ragged, stinging air into wounded lungs. He shakes water-wet hair from his eyes. His little boat bobs beside him, patient and waiting. Stars prick the sky like a million eyes. Impossibly, the sun has set and the moon risen while the fisherman sought beneath the waves.
The hut is dark, but neither the fisherman’s wife nor the fisherman sleep. The walls smell of smoke and fish and salt. They hold a space of emptiness between them, an absence sharp-edged. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, they both decide. The wife reaches out, fingers seeking like a starfish across the vast gulf of the bed. Her husband’s hand is waiting.
“Wife,” he says. “I have dreamed.”
“Husband,” she answers, “I, too, have dreamed.”
Lips almost touching so the fearful words will not escape them, the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife whisper of what they have seen.
“Limbs like ink.”
“It is a prophecy, not a dream,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“What do we do?” the fisherman asks.
Fear curls and uncurls; a tide within and without.
“I don’t know,” the fisherman’s wife says. “Not yet. But I will soon.”
Sun draws sweat from the back of her neck as the fisherman’s wife bends to her work. Her legs cramp. Her hands are slick with blood, her little knife quick as she guts fish to hang on racks above the fire. The air around her stinks of offal. Below, the tide rushes in; she peers through the slats and she sees it, dizzying, fraught with secret glints of light.
Ropes of intestines fall through her hands, glittering green and black, slithering back into the sea. The scales and blood that catch on the wood and wink in the sun make a pattern, spelling the future. She half-closes her eyes, scrying, dreaming.
Her hands continue their steady rhythm of work. At the same time, she stands on the edge of what used to be a shore. The world is hollowed, the oceans and seas gone, all the secret places dried out and laid bare. The bones of vast creatures litter new-formed canyons. Wind stirs her hair, laden with the memory of salt. The sun, red-gold and low, peeks between withered pillars of stone, drags her shadow away from her heels, and tatters it across the sand.
There are cities in the skeletons of the drowned-in-air creatures — arching Temples of Whale, intricate Labyrinths of Squid, strong Fortresses of Turtle, and perfect, recursive Gardens of Nautilus and Conch. This is the world that might be.
There are buildings she recognizes, too — the Temple, the Market Square, her neighbors’ homes — all empty. This is the world that was.
Two futures fork away from her. It is for her and her husband to choose. Embracing one world forsakes another. The land or the sea. If one rises, the other must fall.
What is there for them here? The hope of a child that never comes? Poppy smoke and a village growing emptier every day. One day, the woman will not sing her catch from the sea; one day, the man will not net the moon so they can burn their fingers on flesh hot from the fire. Then it will be only her — the fisherman’s wife — and her husband. The world is moving on without them, drying up, blowing away like dust on the wind. But there is color and life below the sea, and if they will it, it will rise to meet them.
The fisherman’s wife glances down. A bundle lies cradled in her arms — delicate, moonlight-translucent bones, wrapped in a fine-woven net of silk; a fleshless, milk-tooth mouth held to her breast. With a shout, she opens arms. The bones tumble toward the sea floor and she shouts again, reaching too late to catch them.
She opens eyes never fully closed. Not yet, but soon, it will be time to choose.
The fisherman rises from the bed he shares with his wife. Is he dreaming? He dares not look back to see. Naked, he climbs the ladder at the end of the pier, down to his little boat, tied and bobbing on the waves. He rows, muscles bunching, following the path of moonlight laid across the sea.
The sky’s pearl is full tonight, swollen. Its twin lies beneath the waves.
The fisherman jumps, a needle threading the waves. He is blind, no sun tracing his descent. He gropes, hands outstretched, chasing the elusive thing that slipped from his grasp last time.
Shapes move around him, shadow-soft in the dark. A questing tentacle wraps around his leg, brushes belly, chest, and thigh. He shivers on the edge of ecstasy.
No, he thinks. Not yet. His wife must be with him. And he pulls away.
Stars burst behind the fisherman’s eyes. How long has he been underwater? Surely by now he must have drowned.
There, again, a tentacle brushes his leg, not a question this time, but a directive: Follow. Dive.
Touch, soft, strokes his cheeks, his back. The fisherman nearly weeps, already surrounded by the salt sea. It is still too soon. He pictures his wife crouched on the pier, her back aching, her hands bloody. He can’t leave without her.
The tentacles tap, lighter this time, relenting but still directing — here, here. The fisherman’s breath is running out. His hands sweep, frantic, and there, there, his fingers close.
They snatch. They pry. The sharp-edged shell draws blood again, but this time he doesn’t let go. Not until he has his prize.
Stars trail from his lips and blaze behind his eyes as he shoots upward. He breaks the surface as the sun climbs over the horizon, weeping, a pearl clutched in his hand.
“We could leave,” the fisherman’s wife says, but she doesn’t mean it. “Leave rather than choose.”
“The sea is our life,” the fisherman says.
He is here, but he is swimming through the dark at the edge of a vast continental shelf. She is here, but she is standing on a shore, willing the water to return and restore flesh to a city of squid carcass and whale bone. If he goes further, everything will drop from beneath him. He’ll be weightless, surrounded by water made of night, lit by drowned stars. If she opens her arms, she will no longer feel the dust-dry breeze and cradle wind-stripped bones. The world will call her mother, and she won’t be afraid.
They are choosing. They have already chosen.
“There is life in the sea,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“Yes,” the fisherman says. “But how…”
The fisherman’s wife closes her eyes. The memory of a tendril of smoke grown solid, a tentacle of ink and flesh chases across her skin. She opens her mouth, parts lips, breathes out a sound that is not quite a sigh.
“There is a song,” she murmurs, and lays moon-cool fingers against the fisherman’s skin. Thrum, from the point of contact — a note, shivering through both of them. The fisherman’s teeth clench tight a moment, the reverberation in his jaw, then he lets go.
The walls of the hut drop away, leaving them exposed to the wind and crashing waves.
Gentle, with net-abraded hands, the fisherman unties his wife’s robes. Beside the bed stands a bucket of fresh water drawn from the rain barrel outside. He dips a cloth and passes it over her skin, washing the sweat of the day’s work away.
Water beads, droplets catching the light. The fisherman’s wife trembles with the strength of her desire. As her husband moves the cloth, she snatches a moment here to unlace his shirt, there to undo his trousers. His clothes are salt-stiff and smell of fish; they resist when she pushes them to the floor.
The fisherman removes the pins from his wife’s hair. It spills around her, dark as limbs unfurling beneath the waves. She takes the washcloth and touches him as gently as he touched her. His chest and shoulders are beaten bronze from the sun, but from the waist-down he is fish-belly pale. She is the same. Only the nape of her neck is tan where the sun beats all day, and the tops of her feet where they peek from beneath her robes.
She drops the cloth into the bucket and watches it sink. It is a living thing, spreading limbs, darting away, then only cloth again.
The fisherman holds up the pearl, cupped in his palms — an unspoken question. By way of unspoken answer, the fisherman’s wife plucks the pearl from his hands and places it against his mouth. He accepts it with a curl of his tongue, and holds it cradled there. His skin glows.
The fisherman’s wife traces the light in her husband’s veins. It pulses in his belly, his groin, and the hollow of his throat. She chases the light with her fingertips—an underwater sea creature, a pilot fish leading her to delight and doom.
The fisherman groans, a soft sound. She follows her fingers with her lips. Her tongue. The fisherman tastes of brine — rainwater-washed — of sunlight and wind. Her fingers catch in the fisherman’s salt-stiff hair, the one place she did not wash. She pulls him close, urgent but not rough. Full of need.
Her lips press to his, drinking, crushing. His tongue passes the pearl into her mouth; its taste is nothing she can describe.
The fisherman’s hands are on her back, her buttocks, holding her close.
They drift in untold seas.
Their cheeks are wet with not-unhappy tears. She wants to swallow the pearl, but she’s afraid. She traps it between soft palate and tongue, pressing it against the roof of her mouth until it hurts. She is drowning on dry land.
The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife tumble into their narrow bed. The wind gusts over them, snapping the linens like sails. Crashing waves shake the pier and the entire house trembles, a ship spun upon the sea.
The pearl passes back and forth between them. It is in her mouth. It rests in his navel. She catches it between her fingers. He steals it with his tongue. Through shared motion, they press it between her legs.
Close, she thinks, so close. But not there. Not yet.
“Dive.” She sears the word against his lips with a kiss, and hears it echoed back to her from him.
She closes her eyes, opens her throat, and tries to replicate a song from her dreams.
They are here and they are now, but they are elsewhere and elsewhen, too. Smoke pours from the fisherman’s wife’s mouth and becomes a creature with many limbs. It unfurls down her body. She rises to meet it, mouth open, legs open.
It winds around her, singing of oceans rising to devour the world — birth of a different kind. Together they can call it, the water, the dark-limbed creature, to reclaim dry canyons, nautilus cities, temples of whale bone. A tendril, a tentacle, wraps round her tongue. Its motion teaches her a song.
She is already singing it. Has always been singing it. She will sing it until the end of time.
There is life in the ocean’s pulse and swell. Her hands cradle her belly. She lets the music pull her down.
The fisherman clings to his wife. Beyond the horizon of her shoulder, it is midnight, or the sun is just now rising. The sun is sinking; it shines high overhead. Beneath them, wooden floorboards thrum with the surge of waves. Stars wheel overhead. He remembers the touch of ink-dark limbs guiding him through water only a shade lighter than themselves.
He chases them down.
“We have to go farther,” the fisherman’s wife says.
“Are you afraid?” the fisherman asks.
“Yes.” She takes his hand. Their fingers fit together as they always have—two parts of a whole. But they are not complete yet.
“So am I,” the fisherman says. “But not too afraid.”
The fisherman and the fisherman’s wife rise and walk together out onto the pier.
The waters will rise if they call them, but it is better than a slow-emptying village — the Market, the Temple, their neighbors’ houses abandoned one by one. There is so much color beneath the waves, so much life, and it will call them mother and father if they choose. It is not the child they once wanted; it is greater — the destruction of a dying village and the birthing of a whole new world.
Together, they sing.
Salt water washes around them, but they do not drown. Called by the notes thrumming from their bodies, the creature rises to meet them. Ink dark, everything they have ever dreamed. It is as small as their hopes and big as the world—a tangle of limbs the color of midnight, blue-black and glimmering with light. It lays the fisherman and the fisherman’s wife down on the wooden pier. Below them, the pulse of the waves matches the tide of their blood and their desire.
The fisherman’s wife turns toward her husband, their fingers still entwined.
“Are you afraid?” she asks.
Legs part, hips rise. The creature knots between them, stroking hip, breast, thigh. It binds them. Swell of belly, swell of tide. Smoke made solid slips inside the fisherman’s wife. Her husband joins it. She sings.
Touch traces the fisherman’s spine, his legs. His body opens, responds. Ink fills him and he shudders in answer.
The fisherman kisses his wife’s lips, and kisses her lips. He savors her pearl, and savors their pearl.
The many-limbed creature flows between them. It twines and re-twines, a creation myth in reverse, stirring sea from the land.
On the pier, with the waves crashing beneath them, their bodies move to the rhythm of salt and blood. Their children swim around them, waiting to be born. Children with human faces and skin and teeth like sharks. Their smiles glow like moonlight among a tangle of hair like a multitude of limbs.
Yes, the fisherman thinks, rising to meet them.
Yes, the fisherman’s wife thinks, her body thrumming with song.
Together, they choose — a strange apocalypse of rising tide over the barren canyons of desolate buildings. They re-enflesh the drowned world of squid rot and whale bone, bringing back a new world, an old world, with a surge of the tide.
Together, the fisherman, the fisherman’s wife, and the creature of ink and smoke, sing.
|A.C. Wise hails from the land of poutine (Montreal) and currently resides in the land of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia). Her fiction has appeared in previous issues of Shimmer, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among other publications. In addition to her writing, she co-edits Unlikely Story. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise