A bargain struck, a spell cast.
Sometimes, what you wish for you can have, but it costs you more than you think.
She came to the beach one summer, with a life behind her and a longed-for life promised. She clung to the edge of the world. Traces of her presence were fleeting, her footprints erased by the winds and gobbled up by waves. She slept curled up next to driftwood logs, or under bushes with sharp spines that tore at her clothes until they were ragged.
The salt wind took her pretty hair and whipped it into ropes. The sun blistered her soft skin, day by painful day, until it turned leathery and tough. Her delicate hands and her straight white teeth were her tools – she grabbed and gnashed until they curled and broke.
She learned to fight with the ocean and defy its dominion, planting her feet again and again, insisting.
She scraped out a shelter for herself in the dunes, miserable in size and comfort, digging as deeply into the sand as she could with a shell and her hands, until the cavity started to glisten with wet. Her hands ached and her fingers bled. She fought with curious crabs who pushed insistently through its wall, threatening it with collapse. She hauled driftwood to shore up the entrance.
From the north, the west, the south, it was invisible. Beach grass waved over it, and small avalanches of sand obscured detection from all but the sharpest of eyes.
From the east, staring down the hostile sea, it was a dingy, barely constructed hovel, the front littered with discarded shells and slimy remnants of fish, strands of kelp and tumbleweeds. Discarded fishing line tangled with flotsam and jetsam from boats – careless leavings of foragers and pleasure seekers.
She slept in her hole like a crab in its shell – tucked in tight, feet-first, packed around with kelp and seagrass, and once, for a while, (oh joy!) a striped blue and white beach towel abandoned on the shore by a thoughtless bather. But the towel left her eventually – gleefully snatched away by the wind as she shook it, evicting small skittering creatures who sought to take her comfort for their own. She watched the towel waltz with the wind – its stripes undulating in ecstasy as it climbed climbed climbed into the darkening sky, before finally the wind bowed out of the dance, dropping it down into the sea where it disappeared.
After that, her softest cover was her hair – grown long and matted, a haven for insects and beach debris, and aegis against intrusion by people. She did not welcome their curious gazes, but she did welcome the wide berth they gave her when they saw what she was. She bared her broken teeth at any who ventured too near, hissing and gurgling and howling and cursing, desiring them drowned. She no longer spoke any language they recognised. They assumed her mad and let her be.
By day she slept. When sunrise wavered on the water, turning it pink and orange, beautifully violent, she would hiss and hurry to her cave, prepare to hide and renew.
She dozed with one narrow green eye slit, scanning sand and dunes for enemies, seeing none but the malevolent ocean. She curled her dirty fingers into her hair, and drew it close, burrowing into it. She breathed deeply, ozone mixed with the scent of marine decay, filling her senses and soothing her.
Late in the afternoons, she kicked out of her shelter, walls tumbling incrementally with each movement, leaving sand fleas to bounce and winkles to burrow, seeking peace. She scuttled to the water’s edge, wading into the breakers, diving under them and swimming out to a small reef off-shore. There, she hunted.
Schools of tiny silver fish fled before her, moving as one, united in their distress as she snatched whole handfuls into her broken mouth. She pulled the undulating legs off starfish, crunching them as they wriggled, and swallowing whole jellyfish to wash them down. She growled as she fed, diving and reeling through rips that sought to upset her and drag her down, push her body into the coral, colonise it with mollusks, roll it in salt.
She foraged in the dunes, gnawing on beach grass and smashing eggs in their nests, drinking down yolk and slippery baby birds, still warm from their shells.
Once she found a lost dog in the dunes, whimpering as it wriggled away from her, back leg twisted strangely and tongue panting. She grasped its squirming body and ripped its throat out with a deep bite and one savage wrench. The blood stained her hands for days, but she slept deeply, her belly full.
When final rays of sun shot over the sand, and the sea turned from green to unfriendly grey, she would crouch near her sand cave. She crooned gently to herself as she stroked her feet with her hair. She scraped her toes with bits of shell, sawing savagely back and forth, drawing blood that oozed, thick and black in the last of the light.
When night finally conquered the beach, stealing colour and hiding its secrets, she would crawl out onto a small promontory of rock and coral. It cut her bleeding feet deeper, as she clambered to sit among its small rock pools. In the biggest pool she squatted, screaming at the ocean and shaking her fists, kicking crabs and stabbing her fingers into anemones, cackling as she watched them recoil.
Time passed and her feet grew calloused. She lost her toenails. Her hair grew still heavier. She could barely lift her head, and her forays down to the waves to find sustenance were an effort. Once, she let the water snatch her for a few seconds, waves rolling her and pushing her down, sucking her out into the bay to take her last breath from her. A gathering of savage strength, a kick off from the ocean floor, a ride back into shore from a passing turtle that struggled against her grip on its shell, mouth gaping in protest.
In the water she was lighter, and as the turtle towed her back to shore, she felt power surge back into her weary bones. She released it, kicked strongly and swallowed salt, brightening and hissing as she surfaced, renewed. She spat into the waves and watched the black phlegm dance on the surface before it was taken. An insult, or a gift. The sea relinquished her and the shore sullenly took her back. She crawled to the beach and slept.
On a sharp autumn afternoon, shivering and gasping in the frigid wind, she found a scale on her big toe. She screeched in triumph like the gulls above the bay, and pulled at her matted hair. Long strands were ripped from her head, and she flung them into the wind and screamed into the sky as they roiled and snaked through the swirling sand before they disappeared.
She squeezed back into the hut, one hand caressing her scale, the other gently stroking a thin-skinned place on her neck, where something new pulsed just under the surface. She ran a finger over the delicate edges of the scale as she cackled and crooned. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever known.
By morning, there was a second scale. By the time autumn had relinquished its grip to winter, all of one foot and half of the other was covered and it was harder for her to walk. She had to crawl down to the water, where she sat in the shallows, bathing her feet and turning them this way and that, admiring how the light glanced off her scales. They were pale green shot with gold and a delicate pink like the innermost spiral of a shell, emptied of its owner and washed clean.
By the end of that winter, the scales had reached her waist. Her legs had fused together weeks before, starting from the top and causing searing pain when she found she could no longer relieve herself. She had to rip into her morphing, writhing body with the sharp edge of a broken shell, and when a golden stream of urine splashed onto the sand, rivulets carving tiny lava flows through a miniature hellscape, she wept with joy.
Her toes eventually fused, the ugly calloused spaces between them replaced with delicate webbing that was irritated by sand but soothed by saltwater. She spent hours in the shallow rock pools, letting blood-warm water run over her body. With a sharp stick, she picked at matted sections of her hair. She hummed sometimes – wild, ringing sea shanties writ meek.
She fell asleep in the rock pool one morning, and slept peacefully. A cockle wriggled slowly into her hair and settled in, where it was joined by several small starfish and a bright red crab.
Her sand cave crouched empty now – a late winter storm had stoved in the top and the deluge had filled the pit. Debris from her battles and her meals spewed out, and what the ocean could reach at the next high tide, it took. Snatching its treasures back and spiriting them away to its depths. Vowing never again to allow their loss.
She awoke on her last afternoon on the beach, in early spring. From her rock pool, she squinted into hazy pink light, looking for storms, for wind, for the battle. But there were only gently lapping waves, and seagulls dancing joyfully in a breeze that played gently.
She pulled herself up out of the rock pool, and looked down into the ocean below. The delicate skin on the sides of her neck split, and she felt both longing and urgency for the depths. Her tail lashed with new power as she dived into the water, and when the next wave welcomed her, she disappeared.
Jordana Connor is a long-time scribbler and fledgling submitter of short stories and flash fiction. Her work has been published in takahē magazine, on Flash Frontier, and on 50-word Stories. She enjoys excruciatingly bad puns, delicious swear words, and the Oxford comma. She’s a Kiwi living in Brisbane.
Image via Pixabay