One balmy day, Lynn ventured out to the cave by the bay. Technically, it was called a cove, but the phrase “cave by the cove” didn’t roll off the tongue well enough for her to accept the technical expression.
The cave by the bay was where the witch lived; Lynn had seen people running here many times to fetch the miracle maker when someone fell ill or was giving birth or was dying.
The witch was a pleasant old lady, or so she seemed. “Hello, Lynn,” she said. “I see you’re well and healthy. Is your mother doing well?”
“She is, but my grandmother is sick,” said Lynn.
“I will see what I can do for her,” said the witch.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much she could do. Grandmother was very old and everyone said so, and she was sick and in pain every other day. The witch gave her a potion to help take the pain away for a bit.
A bit that was long enough for grandmother to say goodbye. And then she died. And then they held a wake.
A wake was when you spent all night awake, watching over the dead to make sure they didn’t rise up during the night. Nowadays they don’t, but in the olden times, wakes were fraught with danger due to fairies roaming the night – at least that’s what the adults told Lynn.
In the morning,everyone would come to your house and get rascally drunk, or at least the adults would and the children pretended. Everyone would talk about the good times they had with the deceased, but in the dark of night, the only stories were in your thoughts and the sounds of the rotting corpse.
And of course, the sound of the waves. At night they came close enough to the houses, so they built them on stilts to prevent flooding. Lynn liked living dangerously close to the sea, though. She liked hearing the waves. They had interesting things to say.
The door opened with a frightening creak, and her mother poked her head in the room. “I’ll take over from here, Lynn. Go to bed,” she said.
“Okay,” said Lynn, rubbing her eyes. She gave grandmother one last look, and went to bed.
It was no use getting up early to prepare food for the wake when everyone always got up before sunrise. Lynn tried her best, but in the dark of predawn there were already people in the kitchen making sandwiches and cakes and tea. Lots of tea. Too much tea, in fact, and not enough beer.
The men would not go out to fish today, that was for certain. “Never go sailing while drunk,” her father always said, never to Lynn, though, he would never let her on the boat. The sun rose, and people streamed into the house like the morning light.
The nicest part about the wake was hearing everyone share stories about the deceased. Well, it was obviously the drink, but children couldn’t drink yet, so she had to make do. Stories about grandmother were punctuated with laughter and perhaps even moments of silent tears.
“Grandmother made incredible beer.”
“Grandmother could scare away even the sharks!”
“Grandmother danced with the fairies when she was young and got away with it.” – now, this story she knew, and perked up at.
Grandmother had talked about it exactly once, when Lynn was going through the phase where she was telling everyone about the things the sea told her, mostly about the land under the waves and the people with the loveliest voices.
Grandmother had danced in the fairy ring, and escaped with only an arm lost. It could have been so much more. She spoke with hushed tones, and perhaps it was the clearest way anyone had ever taught Lynn to shut up.
So she did, and she listened to the stories, and did the washing while people got more and more drunk as the morning went on.
After everyone had left (and guzzled all the beer), she went down to the coast and watched the sea attack the cliffs to no avail. Waves pulled on her feet gently, like a mother to her child in a crowded market.
There was a tower standing tall on top of the cliffs. You didn’t have to squint, despite it being so very far away. Grandmother had told her stories about it, about the princess given to the king and queen by the sea, and how they locked her up when she yearned for home. It was a story everyone knew from childhood, and a story everyone passed on to their children and grandchildren, because it was nice to think of sailing off to the offing and returning with a beautiful princess bride and a kingdom of untold riches.
But those who did never returned, they warned.
The waves tugged at her feet again, and she would have followed them to the cool green water if she didn’t still have work to do. This she told the sea, and it seemed to understand as it’s tenacity abated.
In the evening they cast Grandmother out to the sea, where her soul would find the land of the dead and be at peace forever. It was a happy occasion, because everyone knew she was off to a better place. But people still cried, because they lost someone they cared about, and everybody knew that too.
Lynn stood at the edge of the coast, even as the tide flowed in, and talked to the sea, because it was a good listener, and cried, because it was good at listening to that, too. And then she went home, with a lamp to guide her in the darkness.
The next morning she woke up before dawn and went to the witch’s cave again, this time bringing some egg sandwiches.
The witch was weaving at a loom by lamplight. She looked up when Lynn entered the cave, nodded, and went back to her weaving.
“Good morning, miss. I’ve brought sandwiches as a thank you for your help,” said Lynn, trying to make herself heard over the clicking of the loom and the whooshing of the waves.
“Thank you, child,” said the witch. “What can I do for you?”
Lynn thought hard about this question. She hadn’t really had any purpose for coming here other than to give the witch sandwiches. Seeing her silence, the witch laughed.
“It has been a while since people came here without a request. Do you like weaving, Lynn?”
“Well, it looks interesting, but I’ve never tried… Why are there no strings?”
“Ah.” The witch stopped clicking the loom, or at least she stopped doing something close to it. “Those are the threads of lies, child. It means you cannot tell lies, and you cannot see other people’s lies.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Well, yes, of course it’s a good thing — I see you’re actually believing me. No, it’s not very useful. Not in my line of work. Don’t look so downcast, I’m sure your parents will love having a truthful child.”
Lynn watched the witch work quietly. The waves could speak for her, after all. Light reflected into the cave off the water, which meant the sun was rising, or perhaps had already risen? It was hard to tell.
“It is done,” said the witch. “How about this as a thank-you gift?” She pulled the invisible fabric off the loom and placed it into Lynn’s hands, where it passed right through.
“Oh. I forgot.” She bent down to pick up the cloth of lies. “Such a shame. It really is one of my finest works, if I have to say so myself.”
“It’s alright, miss. I just came here to give you the sandwiches, really.”
“No, child. I insist. Come back someday and I’ll have a better gift for you waiting.”
Lynn knew from countless days spent talking to the ocean to simply accept gifts whenever you were given them, and relented. Outside the cave, the fishing boats were far off in the distant sea, and the sun was low in the sky. Another ordinary day of collecting seashells lay ahead for her.
This was this thing about seashells: sometimes, they were alive, and she had to throw them back into the sea. Sometimes, they were beautiful and could fetch a great deal of money, and those she threw back into the sea too.
The sea tested you often, like a lover. Tested you to make sure you didn’t love the sea only for its bounty, tested you to make sure you loved the sea and the whole of the sea.
But sometimes the pretty shell she throws back in washes up again a few seconds later, and those she put in the bucket to wash later on. Those were good days, when the sea felt kind. Lynn said her thanks to the waves, felt the sand under her feet fill with cold water for a second. This was the friendship she’d known since forever.
But she had a new friend in the cave, and Lynn’s days were often spent in the bay, where she could talk to both the sea and the witch.
The witch’s gift was another cloth, which she worked on during Lynn’s visits. The threads she weaved were still invisible, though the witch assured her that they were not lies. Not entirely real, either, but not lies.
It took a week of visiting before the witch presented Lynn with the invisible cloth.
“What is it?” she asked. It felt like wool in her hands. Invisible wool. She hadn’t seen any sheep around, so perhaps the wool came from them.
“This is a story,” said the witch.
“Oh,” said Lynn, pretending to understand.
The witch continued, “It is both real and not real. It is only what you make of it that determines what it is.”
“Oh,” she repeated. “Thank you, miss.” It felt warm, and smelled like Grandmother, when she used to tell her stories.
Something so painstakingly made for a few sandwiches… this wasn’t quite a fair exchange. Living with the sea taught you all about exchanges. Sometimes, saying thanks was enough, but if you were given something really good, like a really good catch, something had to be given in return.
The witch had given her a story woven into invisible fabric. Converting that into sea exchange rates, it was like a secret from the depths. Something that you really had to pay for.
“What can I give back to you, miss?” she blurted out. A fatal mistake. Asking the sea what it wanted from you was a good way to make it sulk for a few days.
But the witch was not the sea. She was, as far as Lynn knew, human. “There is nothing I want that I could not possibly get for myself, child.”
“Everyone has something they can’t have, miss,” Lynn persisted. “I can’t tell lies, Mother can’t eat crabs, mean old Angus can’t be nice to people.”
“I’m sure he could be nice to people, if he tried. It’s not very hard,” said the witch. “Let it go, child. Think of it as a birthday gift.”
So Lynn went home, though she did not quite let the matter go. Even birthday gifts had to be repaid, often by knocking at your neighbours’ doors to bring them cakes. And it wasn’t even her birthday!
The cloth was warm and comforting when she wrapped it around herself, and fastened it with a pin. A cloak made of a story. It didn’t get all wet and heavy when she wore it in the sea, either, which made sense. Stories didn’t get wet.
The fishermen came back in the afternoon, and Lynn set to work cleaning the fish. It was calming, washing blood off of the fish, carving out its guts, which were thrown back into the sea for the shrimp to have. Skills with a knife were highly appreciated in their village.
Lunch was fish, of course. After lunch, she had the day off and spent it on the beach with her feet in the shallow water.
“I want to do something nice for her,” she told the sea.
Everybody yearns for something, it told her in return. Like the open sea, she thought, and how every bit of her body wanted to scramble to the boats and sail out to the deep blue.
The witch never left her cave, except when she was called. The cave, with the waves lapping at the entrance regardless of the tides. The cave, with the clearest sight of the tower on the cliffs.
Come to us, said the sea, as if reading her thoughts.
Lynn wrapped her invisible cloak around herself tighter. It smelled like fish baked in the nighttime fires. “Tonight,” she said. “Tonight I’ll try.”
A wave, slightly larger than the ones before it, washed over her legs, as if the sea was showing its approval.
Night fell, and the moon and the stars lit up the sky in place of the sun. Lynn brought a lantern, just in case, and untied an old fishing boat from its post, the one with the apple that Grandmother had carved into it. It felt like stealing, and her stomach hurt with guilt as she dragged the boat to the sea.
The water was calm, or at least as calm as a sea could possibly be. Between tides, it was. She paddled, and paddled, and paddled, and the island grew darker behind her, with all its lamps unlit.
Alone in the sea, with nothing but the stars to guide her. Grandmother would have lamented the foolishness. Everybody would do so as soon as dawn broke. It was nice, though, the feeling of the wind in her hair, the rolling sea beneath her, the danger of tipping over and falling into its depths. Strangely calming. She paddled anyway.
The thing about not being allowed to go out to sea was this: she’d heard about the dangers of the sea, like whirlpools and whales and sudden storms, but no one had ever prepared Lynn for any of it. No one had expected to.
So being in the sea had felt pretty good, but then the water started to spin and pull the boat down. And all at once, the stars blinked out into a world of inky black.
‘I’m going to die,’ she thought. The water was warm, compared to the night air. ‘Barely eleven and already dead.’
There was only so much air she could hold in her lungs. ‘Goodbye, mother and father,’ she thought. ‘Goodbye, everyone. Sorry I lost the boat, too.’
She could swim, but to where? The sea was pure black in every direction. The cloak, still dry, floated uselessly in the water. Air burst out in bubbles, and what filled up to replace it was anger. This was a terrible story. No hero ever died right after setting out on their quest. How dare the sea lead her to her death so soon—
Thinking this, Lynn died, and went to the place all dead people went, like her grandmother did just a week ago.
It looked suspiciously like a forest, except forests were much gloomier than this. It looked like forests as thought of by people who liked forests, of which she was not part of.
The sky rippled above in the way skies do not. So this was a dream, then. Did the dead dream too?
“Welcome to the land under waves,” said the most beautiful voice she had ever heard in her (un)life. “If you would kindly follow me, miss…?”
“Where are we going?” Lynn asked, still a little dazed from the whirlpool.
“Why, to introduce our new guest to everyone, and have a grand feast to celebrate your arrival!”
Food sounded nice. She hadn’t had anything since dinner, which was a lifetime ago. A feast was a little too much, but that was probably the way they did things under the sea. Fish everywhere and all that.
Hold on, the dead don’t need to eat, do they?
Why was she hungry?
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?” she asked. Her brain finally woke up with the rest of her body and was finally pulling its weight.
The voice turned to look at her, and so did the eyes hidden in the trees. Blank eyes, pointy ears, a vacant, almost smirking smile.
Grandmother had told her about them years ago. Fairies! The warnings buzzed into her head as quickly as her heart beat (it was still beating, thank goodness).
Don’t accept fairy gifts.
Don’t eat fairy food.
Never give them your name.