Marie did not grow up on the sea, but she grew up near it in a little coastal village that trailed up the side of a cliff-like ivy. If she’d been a boy then maybe she would have been able to spend more time out on the water, hauling up nets of the quick, tangy fish that gathered in silver clouds just past where the water grew calm. But perhaps even then she would not have been allowed because the ocean near the village was home to monsters with hungry eyes and beautiful voices, and those not strong enough to resist their calls were not allowed to go out.
Her mother was one of those who walked into the ocean one day and never resurfaced. Marie had little memory of her, but her grandmother told her the story every time she mentioned the ocean or when she caught her looking out the window too longingly. Your mother, she’d say, with a twist of her mouth, was foolish. She listened to the monsters in the ocean, and one stole her away. You’re just like her.
So maybe if Marie were a boy, and if she were not foolish and not weak like her mother, she could’ve gone out on the water. But that was not the case, so instead she stared out at the ocean from her window and, when that wasn’t enough, went down to the docks under the guise of delivering lunch to the fisherman who lived next door.
That day, Marie carried a basket past the tied-up boats, a container of soup sloshing around within. The people she passed nodded at her, and she nodded back. The sky was grey and heavy, near leaking. She hoped it would rain; she would be able to wait out the storm at the docks and delay her inevitable return to her grandmother’s house.
She stopped outside her neighbor’s boat and received no answer when she knocked, though she did not knock very loudly. She set the basket on the edge and continued down, her feet making muted noises on the damp wood, her skin stinging with the bite of salty mist blowing cold against her face. Her heart felt lighter with every step she took away from where she told her grandmother she would be.
The docks did not extend out into the ocean very far, but far enough that when Marie stood on the end of it, she felt like she was standing out in the black depths, far out, out where the water was smooth and bottomless. That day, the fisherman Seiger’s boat was tied at the end, rocking gently. She went to stand on the edge of the dock, toes hanging over, eyes staring out at the horizon, when the net dangling behind the boat flashed silver.
She glanced at it and turned back to the horizon. Then, she froze, and after a moment she swung her eyes down to meet those of the creature tangled in the net.
The creature glared at her with fathomless black eyes, teeth needle sharp and bared in a hiss. Her hair hung like dark seaweed around her face, sticking to the long, pale column of her throat. Scales glimmered where flesh should have been and gleamed silver from her cheekbones to the long, powerful tail she bore instead of legs. She was as lovely as she was terrifying.
Marie remembered her grandmother’s warnings—this was one of the monsters that stole her mother away, this was a monster that would lull her, make her want to disappear into the sea with just a crook of her knife-like fingers, just a few words—
But she looked so scared. Trapped. The net wrapped around that glorious tail like a vice, digging into the scales and folding her delicate fins.
She just wanted to be free, Marie thought, looking so deep into the pitch-black of the creature’s eyes that she could see her own face reflecting back at her.
She took a deep breath, almost as if she were about to plunge beneath the water’s surface. “I’ll help.”
She found an old knife on the boat that she used to cut away the net from the creature’s tail, gingerly untangling the rope from the thin membrane of her fins. The whole time, the creature watched her with those bottomless eyes, tense and distrustful, and as she was nearly finished, the creature spoke.
She had a voice as inhuman as she was, guttural and slow, followed by clicks that came from somewhere deep in her throat. “Why?”
Marie did not have an answer. Instead, she cut the last of the net with her shaking hands. “You’re free.”
A heartbeat passed in which the creature was free and staring at her, and Marie’s mind returned to the cruel edge of her claws, the point of her teeth, the endless black of her eyes, and she remembered her mother, just like her, walking out into the sea—
And then the creature disappeared into the murky waves with nothing more than a silver flash of her tail. Marie stood watching where the creature had been for some time, until thunder rolled through the sky like a stomach’s growl and rain soaked her dress, and then she set down the knife, bundled up the ruined net, and began making her way back home.
Later that week, the fisherman that lived next door came to visit. Marie had seen him coming from her spot at the window, and she greeted him at the door with a polite smile, voice low in the hopes that her grandmother would not hear.
No such luck. “Roald!” Her grandmother had a wide grin on her face as she motioned him in. She glanced at Marie as she did this, smile going tense and meaningful, and Marie bit back a sigh. “So good to see you. Did you like the soup?”
He did, and he was there to return her basket. Marie had left it on his boat. He hadn’t seen her visit.
“It started raining,” Marie explained, and her grandmother huffed.
Her grandmother did not let Roald go easily. She sat him down and fed him dinner, even though he said he wouldn’t want to intrude. He looked at Marie as he said this, but she did not offer him the reassurance she was sure he was seeking. Her grandmother was the one who insisted he stay.
Over dinner, Marie sat quietly and ate while her grandmother and Roald talked. The fishing was not good this week. They are thinking of going to the southern spot earlier this year. No, it’s not dangerous, as long as they stay out of the water. Yes, it has been cold lately. Had they heard that the fisherman Seiger had disappeared—
“What?” Marie spoke up for the first time, making Roald’s eyebrows raise and her grandmother glare. She ignored both and instead asked him, “How?”
“He caught a monster,” Roald said. “Except when we got to his boat, the net was cut. And the next time Seiger went out fishing, he fell in the water.”
Roald stopped there, as if the rest of the story were obvious. It was. Marie was already filling in the blanks with her grandmother’s familiar words, and the monsters stole him away.
Roald kissed her on the cheek when he said goodbye. Marie closed the door behind him.
Her grandmother said, “He’s a good man, would make a good husband.”
Marie did not reply, and her grandmother watched her closely before shaking her head and retreating to the kitchen. Marie moved to the window and looked out to the ocean. Outside was dark, the only light from the half-moon pushing through grey clouds, and the sea, for once, was quiet. Waves lapped deceptively docile at the shore, like something well-fed. Marie kept watching. She was not sure what she was looking for, but nearly an hour passed—her grandmother came in briefly to sigh and remind her of her mother—and she saw nothing. Eventually, she gave up.
Then, as she was about to turn away, a flash of silver against the endless black.
She went back to the docks soon after. This time, Roald was there. He smiled at her when she dropped off the basket and kissed her cheek. Her answering smile was tense.
He did not seem to notice. He told her that he needed to check in with some of the other fishermen, but that he’d be right back. They could share lunch.
Marie agreed, and Roald smiled again and walked away. She watched him go. Then, she looked down the dock, down to the end that reached out into the ocean, and she only hesitated a moment before moving that way.
No boat was parked there today. Instead, the murky black waters surrounded the end of the dock on three sides, and Marie walked up to the edge of it. She did not stick her toes over, but she did lean until she could see her own reflection in the water, looking past it for—for something.
Maybe for the creature, though it didn’t seem likely that she would return to this place. Maybe Seiger, or her mother, or any of the others that the ocean had stolen away. All she saw was her own face.
From a distance, she heard Roald calling her name. Marie looked over her shoulder, back towards where his boat was, and then turned forwards once more.
The creature stared back at her.
She sucked in a breath, and the creature watched her with the curious, cold eyes of an animal. Of something too smart to be an animal, too wild. Feral. The creature smiled when Marie froze at the sight of silvery arms coming up to rest on the dock.
Roald was still calling her name, but Marie ignored it. She did not look away from the creature, as if some part of her was afraid she’d disappear once more the moment she took her eyes away. They both remained there for nearly a minute, unmoving, staring, until Roald’s voice grew closer and the creature’s eyes narrowed and in her inhuman voice—
“Come with me.”
Marie snapped out of her trance and ran back towards Roald as fast as she could. His eyes went wide at the sight of her, and she knew she was trembling. He asked what she saw. She shook her head. He asked if the monsters had called her, and she hesitated for a moment before shaking her head again. He gathered her up in his arms even as she pulled away from him, and her grandmother screamed when he delivered her back and said the ocean tried to take her.
He said that the monsters had tempted Marie out to the edge of the docks. Her grandmother looked at her and grasped her face between her two wizened hands and demanded if it was true.
“No,” Marie said, “No, I went to the edge, but—”
That had been enough for her grandmother, who forbade her from going to the docks again. Roald agreed. Marie shook her head, but the choice was not hers.
That night her grandmother pulled the curtains over the windows.
She kept those curtains over the windows for the next six months, and every time Marie tried to move them, she slapped her hand away and pulled them shut again. She was not allowed to go to the docks. She was not allowed to go anywhere, not unless someone else went with her. The monsters in the ocean were too loud, and she was too weak to ignore their voices. Just like her mother.
Her grandmother left her alone at the house. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time since Marie had grown so weary of her captivity that she was willing to disobey.
Her grandmother left her alone at the house, but Marie did not stay there. She lived at the bottom of the cliff, as close to the shore as anyone was willing to live, and that meant the land met the sea just a few minutes walk from her front door—and less than that if she ran, which she did, barefoot and gasping as she rushed through the tall grass and sand dunes, the sky a heavy grey ocean reflecting the sea.
She stopped some space from the water and sat down in the sand. It felt good to dig her toes into it, her fingers, to stare out over the horizon past the waves, out where the water was flat and smooth. The part of her that ached from being restrained for so long finally relaxed, a weight lifted, and Marie’s next breath left her in a long sigh in time with a wave dragging itself tiredly up the shore. She inhaled as it rushed back down.
Lounging in the shallows, letting the waves rock her back and forth, was the creature. She looked like she had been waiting.
The creature had not changed in the time since Marie had seen her. Still pale, still wild, and still watching her with fathomless black eyes. Her silver tail gleamed as it surfaced briefly. They stared at one another for a long time.
Then, Marie found herself saying to the creature, “I am to marry Roald.”
The creature tilted her head. Marie’s throat ached.
“The wedding is in a month,” she continued, not quite sure why she was telling the creature any of this—and something in her stuttered when the creature nodded. “I must marry him. It is—he will be a good husband. He’ll ground me.”
“He will trap you,” the creature croaked.
Marie clenched her fists around the sand, shaking. “What else can I do?”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t. I can’t—”
“Marie!” Her grandmother’s voice called, from far away, and the creature slid back into the waves with a flash. Even then, Marie didn’t move, staring at the place she had once been until her grandmother was in front of her once more, grabbing her face between her hands and forcing her to look away. “You foolish girl, get back to the house. The monster—”
“Could have stolen me away,” she finished, and she let her grandmother drag her back into the house, flinching at the sound of the lock clicking into place.
The wedding was at the top of the cliff, overlooking the ocean, and the sky was grey with the weight of a storm. Wind plucked petals from bridal bouquets and sailed them over the cliff, dancing white specks that disappeared against the dark of the sea.
Where she stood at the altar, Marie stared out over the cliff’s edge, out at the ocean churning like a wild animal or something more feral. It was a black, bottomless thing, stretching on endless and free. And against that black, a pale spot. She squinted. It was her creature, her silver-scaled face a moon against the night sky of the ocean. She could not make out her eyes, but she could feel them.
Her creature lifted a hand out of the water and crooked her knife-like fingers and motioned for her to come. Marie held her breath, waiting for her grandmother’s warnings to come true, waiting for her feet to begin moving on their own accord—but they did not. She remained at the top of the cliff beside Roald, in front of her village, all of them watching her and waiting for her to take his hand and retreat back into their home and stay there for the rest of her days. The dress she wore fit her well, but it was suddenly constricting around her ribcage, her shoulders.
Her grandmother said her mother was a fool. She said she listened to the monsters too well. She said she’d been stolen away. She said she was just like her.
And it occurred to Marie—not for the first time, but certainly it was the first time she did not shove the thought away with a sick twist of guilt—that perhaps her mother hadn’t been stolen away at all.
Perhaps, she had gone willingly.
Her creature’s tail came up and lipped at the surface before disappearing again. Her pale hand motioned once more, and this time Marie dropped her flowers. The people behind her gasped and began to yell as Marie started at first at a stumble but then at a run towards the cliff’s edge. She could hear her grandmother screaming, see the gleaming teeth of her creature opening up in a grin, and she leapt.
For a moment, she was in the air. Her white dress billowed out around her like the fins of some exotic deepwater fish, one with creamy blank eyes, untouched by sight. Marie drew the rushing air into her lungs.
Then she hit the water hard enough to ache, and the sudden cold left her unable to move as she plunged down, the gloomy, shifting dark all she could see—until her creature’s face was before her, awful and lovely. Sharp-clawed hands dug into her hips and dragged her up.
She surfaced with a gasp followed by coughs and shuddering breaths. Her creature made a little clicking noise that Marie thought might be a laugh.
“I’ll help,” her creature said. A tug, and her dress sank away in pieces, weighed down by lace and beading, torn apart by her creature’s wicked claws.
“Thank you,” she gasped. Staying afloat was much easier now. Water splashed into her mouth, and she spit it out.
Her creature stared at her with fathomless eyes. “You’re free.”
She could hear the village up on top of the cliff, all shouting, but their voices were distant and muffled. Marie did not look at them. Instead, she took careful hold of her creature’s shoulders and dragged herself in closer, until her skin was pressed against slick scales, and she felt her creature’s tail wrap briefly around her legs as arms reached up to support her.
Her creature said, “Come with me.”
And Marie did not hear any voice inside her calling, didn’t feel her limbs moving of their own accord. All she heard was the consuming rush of the waves, her creature’s throaty voice, and her own breathless reply, “Yes, yes.”
Her creature smiled, and they disappeared into the black ocean with nothing but a flash of silver.