Searchers came and looked along the riverbank throughout the day. Then it was dark again. Even at night they searched, with flashlights. They shouted.
She remembered, strangely, that the nurturer had been standing on the path. Why was he there? She had never seen him there before. Now he stood there, but didn’t acknowledge Claire, didn’t look at her. He was looking at the river. He was calling a name.
His son. Yes. That was his son.
So it was his son who had gone missing.
Piecing together the fragments of memory, Claire could feel the cool dirt of the path under her bare feet. Why would she have been barefoot? Everyone always wore shoes. And running! Why had she been running?
Now the nurturer spoke to her loudly. But what had he said? He took him!
Jonas took the babe! Was that what he had shouted to her?
Elsewhere! Elsewhere! (But what did that mean?)
Then, through the blurred confusion of the memories, she found that she was on the boat. She had run up the slanted plank, in her bare feet, crying. The heavyset woman, her light hair unpinned, came from the cabin and put out her arms to Claire. She remembered the feeling of enfolding. The smells: sweat and onions from the woman. Fuel and damp wood from the boat itself. A puff of smoke. The scrape of the plank being pulled aboard.
She was with them, on the boat. The engine throbbed. They were leaving. Why was she, Claire, on the boat?
They were headed Elsewhere. They said they would help her find the boy, and the baby.
My son, she had told them, sobbing.
Her next blurred memory was of sea, which she had never seen before. Rain: something she had never felt. Storm. Lightning. Waves. Fear. The men were shouting. She was in the way; they shoved her aside and rushed to tie things down. She couldn’t stand. It was wet and slippery even inside the cabin. She fell. Sprawled on the floor, she heard things slide loose and break. She felt a rush of water, suddenly; it pulled at her clothing. Cold. So cold. And then: Quiet. A hollow, rushing kind of quiet. Darkness.
And that was all Claire remembered of those last days, no matter how hard she tried over the hard and lonely years that followed.
The slate gray sea roiled, scraping the narrow strip of sand rhythmically, tugging at beach grass, digging and sucking loose the rocks at the shore’s edge. Spray stung the men’s eyes when they went to tighten the ropes holding their boats secure. Salt coated their beards and eyebrows. They pulled their woven hat brims low.
Old Benedikt cupped his hand above his eyes and peered upward, assessing the sky through the pelting rain.
“It won’t break for a while,” he called. “Not till night.” But his words were carried off by the stiff wind, and the others, tugging and twisting at the coarse ropes, didn’t hear him, didn’t reply.
The women remained in their cottages. Fighting the weather was men’s work. The women listened to the wind as it roared in the chimneys, to the ripping sounds of torn thatch, and to the whimpering of frightened children. They tended the fires, stirred the soups, rocked the babies, and waited. This storm would pass. The sea would calm. It always had.
In the time that came after, the story of Water Claire took different forms. It was told and retold; things were forgotten, or shaped and changed. Always, though, there was this truth: that she came from the sea, flung in by that fearsome December storm years before.
Some said she was found, later, when the scudding clouds pulled aside and showed low sun in early evening: that she was there on the strip of beach, her clothes half torn from her, and they thought she was dead till she stirred and her eyes opened to show the deep amber-flecked green that later all remembered the same.
Others said no, it was Tall Andras who saw her in the waves, who threw himself in and grabbed her by her long hair as she clung to a thick wood beam, that he swam with her till he could stand, and when they looked he was there in the churning broth of sea with her in his thick arms, her head against his beard, and that he said but one word: “Mine.”
Children said she was carried in by dolphins and they made games of it, and rhymes, but all of that was just tale-spinning and fun, and no one took it to be true.
Others murmured “selkie” from time to time when she was remembered, but only as a fanciful tale. The selkie stories of seal creatures were well known, oft told, and in all of them there was a shed skin. Water Claire had come in clothing, though it had been shredded by the gritty winter sea. She was human. There was no seal to her.
Or mermaid, either.
She was a human girl sent to them by the sea, who stayed among them for a time, became a woman, and went away again.
It was actually Old Benedikt himself who carried her in, once she was seen. Several, including Tall Andras, swam out, but it was Old Benedikt who reached her first, slicing his way through waves with his burly, muscled arms. He pried her loose from the wood spar, for her fingers were locked there. He knew how to wrap her lifeless arms around his neck and to hold her pale chin high above the foam and spray. He had brought wounded sheep in from the field this way many times, holding them against his chest.
He stood, finally, in the shallow surge and suck of water, walked forward, his feet heavy in the drenched, icy sand, and laid her there. He could see that she still lived, and he covered her with the thick woven coat that he had thown aside as he entered the sea. Then he turned her wet, pale face to the side. He pressed upon her through the coat until she spewed frothy brine onto the sand, and coughed.
Tall Andras was there, it is true, and he thought, gazing down, that he wanted the girl for his own, but did not give voice to it.
Old Benedikt looked up at the surrounding men. “Run ahead,” he directed Gavin, who was fastest. “Tell Alys. We’ll carry her there.”
Hastily the men gathered poles and coats and made a carrying litter, knowing how to do it for they had done it many times before. Their children fell from boats and cliffs. Their sons and brothers were wounded by hooks and rope. Their women died giving birth, and the newborns died too. They used such a litter for the slow journey to graveside.
But this girl was alive, though her eyes stayed closed and her fingers clenched as if she still felt the splintery mast in them. When they rolled her onto the litter, she coughed again, and when they lifted it to carry her up the hill, a cold breeze picked up a strand of her long wet hair, drawing it across her cheek. Her eyelashes fluttered then, and she began to tremble and whimper.
Carefully, in the increasing darkness, for twilight was brief here in winter, they moved with her up the ridge and felt with their feet for the worn path that would take them to the village and to Alys’s hut at its edge. Four men carried the girl. The others walked behind. Now and then one stopped, turned, and looked out toward the sea and the horizon with its darkening sky as if searching for the silhouette of a vessel that might have thrown this astonishing gift their way. But there was nothing there but what had always been there: empty ocean the color of pewter, tarnishing to black now as night fell.
The village nestled at the foot of a forbidding cliff in the curved elbow of an arm of land. The peninsula jutted out from the main coast in an isolated place where time didn’t matter, for nothing changed. No newcomers had ever appeared, not in anyone’s memory, and only an occasional discontented man climbed out (for that was what they called the leaving) or tried to. An overgrown, root-tangled path meandered upward at the foot of the cliff but then disappeared at the base of a sheer rock wall, and after that there was no way to go farther but to climb. Several had fallen to their death. One, Fierce Einar, had climbed out successfully but returned, embittered by what he had encountered at the top.
He had quarreled with his father and climbed out on a winter night with a sack of his own belongings, and some he had stolen, tied to his back. When he returned, climbing back in, it almost killed him, for he was maimed by then, bloody and in terrible pain. He dropped from the final rocks onto the snowy path at the base, howling in agony and with a knowledge of failure. Then he fell silent. He crawled to a place where he could pull down a narrow tree. He stripped it of branches, broke the trunk into two pieces, and used them to haul himself upright. Then he leaned on the sticks and dragged himself home to face his father. He lost the title Fierce, and was renamed Lame Einar. Still only eighteen, still silent, he tended sheep now, and nursed a deep despair.
The best route away from the village was by sea. But the ocean was turbulent and unpredictable, with dangerous currents and constant wind. Each fisherman had found himself in peril more than once, and all had lost friends or brothers.
Alys, toothless and wrinkled though with piercing eyes and a sharp tongue, told the men roughly: “Leave us be!” when they carried the trembling creature in to her. She tended the girl through the night. Alys was childless herself but had been midwife to many and was no stranger to damaged young. She stripped the girl of the drenched, ripped clothing, setting it aside, then rubbed her dry with rough cloth, and wrapped her in soft wool. She did all this in flickering light from a smoky oil lamp. When the girl stopped shaking, Alys stirred the herb-flavored broth that had been simmering on the fire in an iron pot. She poured some into a bowl, and fed the girl from a spoon held carefully lest she thrust it away in her fear.
But the girl sipped, wary at first, then opened her mouth for more.
“Go slow or you’ll puke,” Alys told her.
“What brung you?” she asked when the soup bowl was emptied. The girl’s head turned and she half rose, listening to the murmur of the sea, but she did not answer and the old woman did not urge her. Instead, Alys found a comb carved of bone on the shelf nearby, and began to unsnarl and smooth the wet, salt-stiffened hair.
The wind howled through the thatch on the roof. It was deepest night now. The girl dozed, half sitting. Finally, Alys lowered her to the bed and pulled the length of wool cloth up around her bare shoulders. She watched for a few moments as the girl slept, her hair fanned about her head. Alys had always yearned for a daughter and felt that the sea had sent this one to her. After a bit she lowered the flame in the lamp so that the hut was dim, with dark shadows on its walls. She wrapped her own self in a woven blanket, sank into a nearby chair, and slept too.
In the morning the girl woke and wept softly. When she saw her clothing, all rags now encrusted with drying salt, she clutched the tatters, feeling the ruined cloth with her fingers, and then relinquished it all, turning her face to the wall. After a bit, with a resigned sigh, she took the coarse woven shift that Alys offered her, slipped it over her head, and stood. Her bare legs and arms were bruised and scraped; one ankle was badly swollen and she favored it, limping to the table where Alys had set a bowl of porridge.
Her hair was red-gold, burnished copper in the early light of winter that came through the small window and fell over her as she ate. The day was fair, as it was often after storms.
“What brung you to this place?” Alys asked her again. “What carried you and threw you to the storm?”
But again the girl did not answer, though she stared at Alys with her gold-flecked eyes. She had a puzzled look.
“Do you not understand our tongue?” Alys asked, knowing that the question was foolish, for if the answer were to be no, then the girl could not understand in order to give it.
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