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The Day of the Sea
by Jennifer Hudak
When the Sea came to our village, she was an old woman. She arrived when the water crested and draped over the earth, its salty fingers pushing out offerings of sea glass and bladder wrack. Her dress trailed behind her, hair tangled with kelp and tentacles. No one doubted that she was the Sea. Everyone was disappointed.
We’d all heard tales about the power of the rising ocean, how it leveled towers and returned rock to sand. How it would destroy everything in its path in order to make its way home, to our village. In those tales, the Sea was a warrior, beautiful and terrible, slashing her way across the continent, swallowing everything in her path. Even when gossips at the market began to whisper about nearby towns swallowed by salt water, about boats crushed like kindling and bones strewn across the ocean floor, even as the smell of salt wafted on the breeze, we did not seek her out. We waited for her to come to us, as the stories had foretold.
But the Sea that arrived was timid and exhausted from her travels. We’d expected her to thunder against our walls, insistent and unrelenting, Instead, she waited just outside the village, frail and silent. The tide nudged at our gates and withdrew, nudged and withdrew, as if asking permission to enter. If she had ever been a warrior, it was a long time ago.
We’d prayed to her. We’d spent generations waiting for her to arrive. No one was willing to turn her away. But no one stepped forward to welcome her, either.
“I am weary,” said the Sea, in a voice as deep and heavy as fathoms of water. “I have seen too much and traveled too far.”
The villagers all shifted their feet and avoided her gaze. If they let her inside, how could she return the favor? Her waters, stretched thin here at the end of her journey, wouldn’t offer up the bounty we expected; they would only flood our fields and poison our lakes. She was not what was promised, and though no one said it out loud, everyone thought it would be better if she didn’t get too comfortable.
But then, my grandmother stepped forward.
“Come inside, then, and rest,” my grandmother said. “I have food and drink, and a bed that stands empty since my youngest son and his wife died of the blue fever.”
The Sea bowed her head. “The Sea does not rest. But I will linger here, until the tide goes out.”
When my grandmother took the Sea’s hand, it was ice cold, but she didn’t let go.
Once the Sea had gone inside my grandmother’s house, we children ran for the shore. We couldn’t wait to see the treasures in its shallows, things we’d only heard about in story and song: oysters hiding luminous pearls in their soft gullets; fish that glowed in darkness like candles; creatures spined and tentacled and every color we could imagine. But the water, even though it was shallow where it flooded the outer fields, was so cold it numbed our feet and ankles, and none of us wanted to wade in further. We ran back and forth as the sluggish waves approached and retreated, searching for any kind of treasure, for surely the Sea wouldn’t leave us empty-handed, not after we’d welcomed her and offered her food and drink. But the shells the tide left behind were dull and broken, the mussels picked through, the seaweed brown and smelly. Even the fish were as small as insects, and not worth the effort of catching them.
The only interesting thing the Sea brought with her were the birds—the color of dirty cream and weak tea, voices rough and ragged and ugly. They bickered with each other and stole food from our plates if we didn’t swat them away. But in the air, they hovered as if weightless, and let the wind buffet them this way and that. I liked them because they were brave and a little bit mean and because they took what they wanted.
“Look!” I told my friend Jeffa. I had a half-eaten biscuit in my pocket, crumbly and stale, and I held it out toward one of the birds. It cocked its head and edged closer.
“Stop it, Margit. They’re dirty.”
“No, they’re not. They’re smart. See?” The bird darted forward and snatched the biscuit out of my hand, then flapped away so I couldn’t take it back.
Jeffa made a disgusted face. “Now your hand is contaminated by the Sea. Just like your grandmother is contaminated.”
“What are you talking about? We wanted the Sea to come here.”
Jeffa pointed an accusing finger at the water. “That is not the Sea we prayed for. She’s just a worn-out old woman. And now she’s in your home. Dripping salt water everywhere. Who knows where she’s been, what she’s carrying?” Jeffa backed away from me as if he smelled something terrible. “You stink like the Sea, just like your grandmother.”
My biscuit had attracted the attention of the rest of the birds, and while Jeffa was speaking, a flock of them gathered around me, flapping and squawking, searching for more crumbs. Their harsh cries blended with Jeffa’s laughter. I rubbed my hands against my shirt until they were raw, trying to get the smell of the Sea off my skin.
The bell clanged for dinner, and we all gathered around the community table. My grandmother had made space for an extra chair so that the Sea could join us, forcing the rest of us to shuffle and adjust and bump elbows at our meal. My spot shifted down just enough so that the table leg butted up against my knee, and I seethed with resentment. In yet another disappointment, we ate preserved rabbit for dinner, braised to temper its roughness but still stringy and dry. In all the stories that foretold the Sea’s arrival, the day ended with a decadent meal of clams and prawns and scallops. The centerpiece of the table would be a giant fish cooked whole, staring at us all with its confused eyes while we dug out pieces of its tender flesh and dipped them in herbed clarified butter. But the Sea had brought no such riches when she arrived. The only difference from our normal dinners was the mound of seaweed that garnished the platter of meat. I wouldn’t touch it, but my cousin tried some and said it was chewy and salty and strange.
While we ate, we all stole glimpses at the Sea. She ate little, and drank not at all, as if she was the one in danger of contamination instead of the other way around. Before the meal had ended, she stood and pushed her chair back.
“The tide is receding,” she said.
Everyone looked relieved, except for my grandmother. “Will you be back tomorrow?”
The Sea dipped her head. “The waters will remain, but I will not return until the next moon.”
“But what about our crops?” Jeffa’s father stood up, amid murmurs all around. “They’ll drown in your water. What are we to eat?”
The murmurs increased, and then my uncle stood as well. “Yes, since you didn’t bring the riches we were promised.” My grandmother cuffed him on the side of the head and he sat back down, but he still bristled with anger.
The Sea merely gazed at everyone with a blank, unreadable expression. “The next year will be hard. Change always is. I hope you are here when I return.”
No one stopped her as she walked outside. The sun had just set, and though we could hear the rhythmic swish of the water, we could not see it. We waited by the safety of our gates as the Sea retreated, disappearing into the night.
A month later, the Sea returned. Once again, my grandmother welcomed her inside, even though my uncle’s eyes threw daggers at her when she did. I stayed out of the house as much as I could while the Sea was there, to keep her smell off me. Even so, Jeffa refused to play with me.
When the sky began to darken, I had no choice but to return home for dinner. We had no communal feast that night. We were all hungry, and there was no extra food to share. My grandmother offered the Sea what little we had in our larder, and even though the Sea ate none of it, I was still angry. It was the Sea’s fault we were so hungry. Her waters drowned the crops in our outer fields, and even the plants in our village gardens were bent and shriveled from the salt winds. We tried paddling out into deeper waters in search of fish, but the waves flipped our boats. And one of my cousins nearly drowned when a current reached out and grabbed her ankle, pulling her into the deeps. The Sea didn’t apologize for any of this. She left as quietly as she came, leaving me to scrub up her sandy, salty footprints.
Each month, the Sea returned, and lingered with my grandmother. Each month, we villagers grew thinner and hungrier and angrier. By the first anniversary of her arrival, we’d all learned to hate the Sea. She was no warrior, but she’d destroyed our village all the same.
To me and my friends, it felt like an age had passed since she’d first appeared. We’d all grown taller—I was taller than my grandmother now, and nearly as tall as my uncle. I’d outgrown two dresses and one pair of shoes, and now I was wearing my mother’s old tunic and sandals, even though her clothes billowed around my bones.
But if the Sea had aged during this time, it didn’t show. She was still an old woman, but she didn’t look any more ancient than she had the first time we’d seen her. My grandmother told me that while a year is a large part of a child’s life, it’s but a fleeting moment for someone as old as the Sea. I supposed my grandmother would know, since she, too, was still as old as she’d always been.
When the weather turned cold, I swallowed my distaste and stayed in the hut even when the Sea was there. I refused to talk to her, or even look at her, and I took shallow breaths through my mouth to avoid inhaling her briny scent. Yet I couldn’t help but listen as she talked.
Because there, in the privacy of my grandmother’s hut, she did talk. I asked my grandmother why the Sea spoke so easily to her when she said so little to everyone else, and my grandmother shrugged. “It’s because I listen.”
Each month, in our hut, the Sea told stories, and her stories were like waves rolling onto the shore, one after another in a never-ending procession. I listened in spite of myself to tales of giant squid and tiny plankton, of whale song and the grinding of tectonic plates. And as my grandmother and I listened, we began to learn.
We learned what trees and plants enjoyed living near the shore. We learned how to build outriggers for our boats so that they wouldn’t flip so easily. We even learned how to anticipate the Sea’s moods—how to tell when she’d be in a fury that would whip the waves into monsters, and when she’d sleep soundly miles below on the cold ocean floor.
My grandmother started experimenting with her garden, crossbreeding the scrub-like plants that thrived near the coast with our own fruits and vegetables. I sketched a rough drawing of an outrigger canoe and wove sea grass into sturdy nets. I didn’t think anyone else in the village would be willing to try our ideas, but my grandmother placed a hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry.
“No one ever listens to me,” she said. “But I know how to talk to them anyway.”
She showed my outrigger drawing to my uncle, and when he scoffed and told us all the reasons it wouldn’t work, my grandmother said, “Oh, you’re so very smart. Margit is just a child; she doesn’t know any better. But I’m sure you could design something far superior!”
She cooked up some kelp for our next communal dinner, and when Jeffa’s mother recoiled, my grandmother said, “Oh, I’m just a silly old woman. I don’t know how to prepare exotic ingredients like this. But you’re such a good cook, I’m sure you could make it taste wonderful.”
They still scoffed, and Jeffa still complained that I stank, but my grandmother’s words seeped into their minds and settled like groundwater, and they learned, too.
By the third anniversary of the Sea’s arrival, our village had learned to cultivate what could survive the coastal winds and the salt spray: berries that hid inside a cage of prickly branches; nuts that protected their meat within a rigid shell; sturdy greens that cooked up sharp and bitter. We’d built boats and woven nets and strung lines and hooks, and we’d begun to catch the creatures that lived beneath the waves.
Each day, high tide inched closer and closer to the village center, so gradually you might not notice. But eventually it crept over the thresholds of the huts on the edge of the village, flooding their cold cellars and dampening their firewood. My uncle talked about building walls and digging channels to direct the water away from our homes.
“The Sea is a woman,” he said, “and sometimes a woman needs to be told where to go and what to do.”
My grandmother’s eyes narrowed. Later, when we were alone, she told me, “You can’t stop the Sea with walls. She’ll go where she pleases.”
“What will happen to our village?” I asked her.
She smiled at me. “Don’t worry, Margit. You and I, we’ve been kind to the Sea, haven’t we? We’ve befriended her. She’ll remember that.”
While the encroaching tides were methodical and gentle, out in the deeps the ocean was strong and muscular and dangerous. This made our village proud, because the great wild ocean had finally come to our village, and we had tamed it. Our boats grew bigger and sturdier, and our harpoons grew sharper and more deadly, and our village became not only rich, but feared. One day Jeffa’s father came home early from a fishing expedition with twice as many fish in his catch as usual: spoils from another village’s boat. The children gathered on the beach to get the story from Jeffa.
“My father flung his harpoon at their boat to stop them from fleeing. And when he took their fish, they just cowered, and wet their pants, and didn’t even fight.”
“But won’t they go back to their village and tell them what your father did?” I asked. Jeffa was still pretending to ignore me, but he answered anyway.
“No one’s going back to that village. My father’s harpoon made sure of that!”
The other children whooped and cheered, but I thought about those fishermen and felt sick. I thought about the people waiting for them to return, anxiously watching for their boat on the horizon, not knowing that the waters that approached the shore were tainted with their kinsmen’s blood. I thought about a young boy just like Jeffa, missing his father.
Meanwhile, the seabirds roosted on our rooftops and fences, squawking and snapping at each other and leaving everything coated in their white excrement. Meanwhile, the tide rolled further and further inland, cold and quiet and implacable.
By the fifth anniversary of the Sea’s arrival, we’d learned to measure time by the tides. We had become a sea people, tough and rugged and salt-covered. That year, at long last, we made the communal feast that the stories had promised, so that the Sea could look upon all we’d accomplished and congratulate us. We boiled shellfish in enormous buckets and then tumbled them across the table, where we squawked over them like the birds, cracking them open and relishing the soft, salty innards. The adults drank wine made from tart red berries and sour green apples, and even the children were allowed a sip. And there, in the middle of the table, was the largest fish I’d ever seen, staring at us as we picked its bones clean.
Still, the Sea ate little and drank nothing at all. She sat quietly among the clamor of the feast, a puddle of salt water growing around her chair. I wanted to hear one of her stories, but I knew that nobody other than my grandmother and I would listen.
My uncle stood and raised his glass; wine sloshed over the rim. “This is only the beginning for our village!” he said. “Next year, we’ll catch a fish so large it won’t fit on the table. Next year, we’ll net every crab on the ocean floor and boil them up hot.”
“Next year,” said Jeffa’s father, “we’ll set the table with gold and silver from neighboring villages, and we’ll use their finest lace to blow our noses!”
Everyone roared with laughter. I thought to join in, but one glance from my grandmother stopped me. Her eyes were dark as a storm, and she clenched her spoon with a fist.
My uncle held up his hand to quiet everyone, and then he glanced down at the Sea. “She doesn’t look much like a warrior, does she?” he said with a chuckle. “That’s because she’s not a warrior after all.” Around the table, people gasped, but my uncle held up one placating hand. “She has showered us with riches, as the stories have promised. But not as a warrior, no! The Sea, she is the Great Mother. She brought nourishment to our village; she cared for us as though we were her own children. But now she is old and weak, and we are the ones who’ve grown warrior-strong. This has always been our destiny. This has always been our right.”
A roar of agreement rose up from around the table, and everyone drank to toast our well-deserved good fortune. Everyone except the Sea.
“Have some wine!” insisted my uncle, pouring a glass for her. “Celebrate with us and grant us another year of abundance! And we, your warrior children, will protect you from harm.”
The Sea did not reach for her glass. She did not congratulate us, did not promise a year of bounty. Her expression remained unreadable, but I thought I saw waves ripple beneath her skin. “The tide is receding,” she said, rising up. The saltwater puddle beneath her chair ran across the floor in dark rivulets.
“What does she want from us?” Jeffa’s father muttered, too drunk to whisper. “This meal is worthy of a king, and she turns her nose up?”
The Sea paused before leaving the table. “The next year will be hard. Change always is.”
“Change?” thundered my uncle. “Hard? The Sea came, in all its fury, and we conquered its waters! What else should we have to fear?”
The Sea did not answer. She knew he would not listen.
My grandmother and I followed her outside. We were both ankle-deep in icy salt water before we’d even reached the gates of the village.
“Wait,” called my grandmother. “They are brutes, all of them. But they don’t know any better. Please, don’t let them offend you.”
The Sea stopped and turned. “I am not offended. It’s simply time for me to go.”
“But surely you can stay for just a little longer?” My grandmother coughed, blushing. “With me, I mean. Stay with me.”
I flushed, too, but with embarrassment. My grandmother sounded like a young girl, flustered and silly and desperate. But the Sea didn’t laugh at her. She showed no emotion at all.
“I am weary,” she said. “I have seen too much, and traveled too far, but the Sea does not rest. This was never the end of my journey.”
My grandmother gripped my shoulders. “Then take Margit with you.”
“What? No!” I tried to wriggle free from her grasp, but my grandmother held me tighter.
“We’ve been good to you, haven’t we?” she said to the Sea. “And Margit hasn’t done anything wrong. Give her a chance, at least.” Every hint of coyness, of flirtation, was gone now. My grandmother was begging, and this frightened me more than anything else.
“I won’t leave you,” I said. “I won’t leave the village.”
“Foolish girl,” she hissed back. “This was never about saving the village. The village will be underwater within five years. The Sea goes where she pleases.” She pushed me toward the Sea, then, so roughly that I stumbled forward and landed on my hands and knees. The tide splashed up to my chin, making me gasp. Seaweed tangled around my wrists. “Take her!” my grandmother said to the Sea. “Please!”
The Sea looked at me without speaking. The wind tossed her damp, tangled hair, and whipped the foam-licked hem of her dress. She did not shiver with the cold. She did not even blink her storm-gray eyes. She stood there as I stumbled to my feet, and I saw, all at once, how easily she would roll over our village—calmly, inexorably, without anger or vengeance or remorse. She was not the Great Mother, like my uncle had said, but neither was she a warrior. She was the Sea, and she was ancient, and we were all just a fleeting moment in her long life.
When she turned away from us again and began walking into the waves, neither my grandmother nor I called out for her to come back. We just clutched at each other, and felt the tide suck the sand away from beneath our feet, and listened to the seabirds laugh themselves hoarse in the darkening sky.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (July/August 2023)