Fiction · 06/28/2017

The Sea Child

They emerge naked from the sea. They are blue-faced after swallowing lungfuls of air, their long, fat legs wobbling to hold their bodies upright. They speak in a language consisting only of mimicking fishes’ soft-spoken blub-blub-blub. Their straggly hair is tangled with seaweed and dead fish. They do not know how to close their eyes anymore, so they fall asleep against the sand with their eyes open. And when they sleep, they try to gather memories of how they were born. They can only remember the sea, sea, see, look, the sea, and the pines shivering in the wind. How carefully they pluck dead fish from each other’s hair, how they chew on their rotting scales. How their initial thoughts of birth and sleep are quickly consumed by wanting, wanting.

It’s Margot who leaves them cake. Her mother has recently transformed their three-bedroom apartment into a pastry-shop, a place where Margot, who is nimble and quick and loves stuffing items into her polka-dot backpack, likes to secretly make deliveries to the sea-children. She makes deliveries to the truly desolate and wealthy, too, and because her mother relishes in self-gratification, because she loves pleasing others, Margot must stand at the recipients’ doorways and await their opinions of her mother’s cake. She cannot shake the habit before these blue-faced strangers.

It’s that time of year when they arrive. When the school children are on their week-long holiday break, when the nights come earlier, that’s when the sea-children are ripest and ready to surface from the water. Or so that’s what Ms. Winters says and Ms. Winters tend to be right about everything. Mostly everything, because the sea-children do not eat her yet, and as promised, Margot has brought them cake to assure them she is harmless and wants to be their friend. They do not scare her. They do not seem very dangerous. If the sea-children are dangerous, Margot wonders, then why not try to weigh their feet with stones? That’s the sensible precaution taken for the beasts inhabiting her dreams, so maybe the sea-children aren’t so dangerous after all. Maybe they really do want to be her friend because they are lonely, and maybe they will find some solace meeting someone as lonely, if not lonelier, than they are.

Just look at the sea-children: how drool trickles from their lips, how they scrunch their faces at the slightest breeze and look like wrinkled plums. They bend their bodies toward the ground to pick up pieces of cake she leaves by the shore. She watches how they lick the butter-cream frosting from their webbed fingers, how they smack their lips and let the sugar settle on their tongues. They cannot get enough of it and this pleases her. Ms. Winters doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Margot thinks. I bet she’s never seen one up close before either.

As they approach Margot, it’s that glint of longing in their pale blue eyes she immediately recognizes: the same face her mother wears during uncomfortable discussions about her school grades and her absent father.

They brush their fingers along her cheek. They tower over Margot but they do not intimidate her. Their lips pucker and it suddenly bothers Margot how they always look prepared for a kiss. And she remembers how her best (only) friend Sophie bragged about how a high school boy had kissed her at a party, and how Margot was never kissed, not even kissed by her mother, not even by the strange boys who occupy her dreams.

She is like the sea-children. Always waiting, always waiting, but never receiving, and this makes her love them more. And the sea-children love cake. They love cake so much they press their lips against her neck, sucking away at the flesh, at the bone, until what’s left is a bruise as raw as the evening’s dusk.

At first, Margot believes she finally has something to brag about to the class, but fear slowly gnaws at her chest once she realizes the world would forget her. And the world eventually does forget Margot, if only for a little while. The world forgets her as their lips suck on her shoulder and her elbow and her knuckles because they hope there is more cake inside her. When the world finally does remember her again, when it dawns on her mother that somewhere between afternoon and evening Margot hasn’t returned home for supper, the sea-children have sunk back into the depths. They remain idle for another year.

When the world does remember her again, slowly, slowly, as if it awakens from a soft dream, the sea-children drag Margot along with them. She is blue-faced after swallowing a lungful of saltwater. She drowns quietly as she flails and squirms to the surface, only for their webbed hands to drag her further into the depths, only for their mouths to pluck her hair clips from her pigtail braids where they thought should’ve been sea lilies. They celebrate her arrival with oyster pearls strung with silk, with glass coral glinted with moonlight. She doesn’t know how to speak anymore, let alone how to thank them, but she wishes to tell her mother how blue the flowers are underneath.

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Brianna McNish’s fiction is forthcoming or previously appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Literary Orphans, Juked, and elsewhere. She was named Honorable Mention for the 2017 Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction.