You know of the Sea Witch, of course. Even in your inland towns you’ve heard her name; you know that she collects drowned souls and keeps them in her cold halls under the sea. All whose bones lie under salt-waves belong to her—merchants and kings, queens and servants, pirates and raiders and innocent babes. Ordinary sailors and fishermen too, of course. Far too many of those from our shores.
You’ve seen the charms we weave to keep the storms at bay. You’ve heard the prayers for fair winds and a safe journey home. But what if you’re already dead, fishes nibbling through your hair and seaweed twisted ‘round your limbs, your flesh dissolving in the cold ocean tides? Who is there then to save your soul from the Witch’s black halls?
That’s what these charms are for, you see. Go ahead and hold one. Feel how smooth it lies in your hand. It’s strong wood, from deeply rooted trees. See how fine the paint job, the black eyes and stripes along the side. No, don’t speak to me of those gaudy charms for sale up the street. Mine are truly crafted. See the fine details, the care with which the feathers were made.
Why does a fish have feathers? You really don’t know the story of Mikki, do you? I can tell you haven’t been here long. No, you can keep ahold of that one. Hold it while I tell you the tale.
Years ago this town was scarcely more than a village. Few merchant ships docked at these shores, and fine visitors such as yourselves were a rare sight indeed. But the greatfish still ran in shoals along the coast each spring, and the glittering silveroils ran to the south in the fall. The fishing fleet still set sail each fair day of the season, just as it does today.
There was a family in the village. A little girl who lived with her mother and father and older brother. The mother’s true name is now lost, but all in the village called her “Gull”. Her clear skin was the white of a gull’s breast, and she gathered gull feathers shed on the shore. She washed them in fresh water and wove them into charms for her husband to wear. The gull soars over salt-water but returns to land to nest; so we say that a gull’s feathers will guide a seaman home.
It was the first bad luck for the family, when Gull took ill. Until then, it had been a blessed life: the seas fair and the fisherman’s nets and lines filled with fish. His wife singing as she fed and clothed and cared for the family. The children growing up, healthy and strong.
Who can say what plague struck the village that year? So many illnesses in this world, fevers and chills of all kinds on this coast. The whole family took ill, coughing and pale, burning and shivering. In this story, the father and children recovered. The mother did not.
They buried her in the grassy field above the village, close to the sun and sky. High and safe from creeping fingers of salt-water, but within sight and smell of the sea. White gulls wheeled and cried above the grave.
So the children were motherless, the daughter still such a tiny thing, barely able to lift the iron kettle above the fire. The boy just a few years older, running wild through the tall dune-grass. Neighbors and relatives tried to help. There was an aunt, the widower’s sister. She did her best, but she was busy with her own young children.
The orphaned girl didn’t know how to make her mother’s feather-charms. She had watched, and her small hands were clever, but there was a knot she couldn’t manage, a knack she didn’t have. No one else in the village knew how to make them. The girl, who was named Mikki, sat outside her house trying again and again to tie the feathers just so. She cried in frustration, but no one noticed; no one helped.
There was much overlooked the year that Gull died, much that was forgotten.
It wasn’t just the charms, or the fish dumplings and soup she had once made. Soon Mikki forgot her mother’s face. She could remember other things—a snatch of song, the touch of her mother’s hand against her cheek. A fall of dark, silken hair. She remembered sunlight flashing and the sharpness of a rock hurting her foot on the beach, and then crying out to her mother for help. But her mother’s face, the shape of her eyes, a distinct image of her—all these were gone.
The girl and her brother grew. They learned to take care of themselves. The relatives and neighbors helped out less and less. Mikki and her brother scrambled together over the rocky shore, collecting mussels and seaweed for supper and prying limpets off rocks to bait their father’s lines. The brother held his sister’s hand, helping her climb over the rough outcroppings. On the way home he took the baskets and gave her a head start, letting her race before him down a smooth stretch of sand. Then he was running, too, and when he ran too far ahead he heard his little sister’s voice calling his name, “Kerel, Kerel!” like the high, clear call of a bird.
Soon Kerel began fishing each day with their father, and Mikki was left alone to gather shellfish and bait their father’s lines. Each afternoon she met the village boats as they pulled into harbor, and helped her father and brother bring in their catch.
She was happy, despite early loss. She had friends; she had her brother. She still had her father, a lean, hard-working man of few words. He was somber and distant, but there were times that his eyes softened when he looked at his children. There were times that the sadness in his face cleared. Occasionally he dropped words of praise—for Kerel’s handling of the boat, for Mikki’s fish stew—and then his children glowed with pride.
Gull’s last feather-charm had long since frayed to pieces. It was Mikki’s charms that Kerel and Father now wore.
Perhaps Mikki was careless. She didn’t wash the gull feathers thoroughly enough. She didn’t take care to promptly replace worn feathers. Perhaps it was that she simply didn’t have her mother’s touch. She made the types of charms that other women in the village made: simple necklaces of feathers and beads tied on bands of leather. They weren’t Gull’s designs, and never would be.
One day Mikki was spreading out seaweed to dry in the sun when she became aware of a sudden stillness. The air felt tight; no birds sang, nothing called nor moved. The drying rack fell from her fingers and she looked out to sea, her heart pounding. She saw dark clouds on the horizon, and a brilliant, eerie light flooding beneath.
She ran to the harbor. Other women and girls were already gathered there. The world held its breath. She saw the first fishing boats racing home, flying before a wall of light and the black storm-clouds massed above.
Wind rose off the sea. A spray of salt hit her eyes. She stood on the pier, waiting. And then the world went dark, sudden as the clap of a hand. Rain poured down in sheets, and waves swelled and whipped the bay into foam.
The first boats struggled in. Voices shouted, barely audible above the surging wind and surf. Women held shielded lanterns aloft in the gloom. Lines of rope were tossed and eager arms pulled the fishermen ashore. None of them were Mikki’s father or crew; her father’s boat wasn’t there.
Straining, Mikki glimpsed a boat out past the harbor. She saw it sail by the rocks near the harbor entrance; she saw it making its way to safety and home. And then a sudden wave overtook it from behind; she saw the boat capsize.
Her scream joined the screams of the crowd, thin above the wind and sea.
She saw a second boat try for the harbor, and saw it dashed upon rocks.
She waited and waited, frozen and numb, but she never saw her father’s boat at all.
It was the gods’ blessing or whim that Kerel was not on his father’s boat that day. Father’s crew had taken another man on board in Kerel’s stead, a crew member’s cousin whose own boat was undergoing repairs and who needed to feed his family. The crew agreed to let the man fish with them that day, and to divide their catch with him.
And so Mikki still had her brother, though all else was lost.
At some point during that dreadful day, she became aware of Kerel standing beside her. He had returned from the river-town several miles inland, where he had gone to buy goods and run errands.
It was still raining, the sky dark as night. In the lantern-light Mikki saw the pale faces around her; she saw the wife and young sons of the fisherman who had taken Kerel’s place. She could feel her brother crying next to her. She reached out, and they took and held each other’s hands.
This is what we say in these coastal towns haunted by dreams of the Sea Witch: a finger bone is enough. A joint of a pinkie, a single knucklebone, the smallest scrap of flesh—these are enough to save a soul from the Sea Witch’s halls, to call a soul home to rest. Take what you can, whatever you can save from the sea. Wash the remains in fresh water. Bind it in white cloth. Sing to it. You’ll have to stay up a full night, singing the soul home. In the morning, rise and carry your loved one on a bier of fresh-cut wood. Carry him or her to high ground untouched by the sea. Bury your loved one, and scatter the grave with flowers.
For days after the storm, Mikki and Kerel wandered the shore, searching for their father’s remains. They were joined by others looking for their own fathers or sons, husbands or brothers. Up and down the coast, fishing boats had been lost. Wreckage and bodies washed in over days. A few men from their village were retrieved—two men from the Gannet, one from the Wild Rose. But no one from the White Gull—-not a trace of Father or any of his crew.
Mikki lit candles for the soul of her father and the souls of the village’s lost men and boys. She prayed to the Goddess of Mercy for them. On the family altar she set out a bowl of her father’s favorite stew and the barley-cakes he had loved.
She went to her mother’s grave and asked for Gull’s intercession. She prayed that her mother’s spirit might petition and win release of Father’s soul from the ocean deeps. Around her, other women and girls were kneeling in their own family burial plots, making similar prayers. White flags fluttered in the field, marking the souls of those unburied, and signaling them home from the sea.
Kerel went to his mother’s grave with Mikki. He knelt with her, his eyes red, but his prayers were silent.
It was a hard autumn. Three boats and a dozen men lost from the village. Nine men whose bodies were never retrieved. Survivors shared what they could with the widowed and orphaned. Kerel went fishing when he could with other boats in the village, and on boats from other ports. He found odd jobs, and Mikki took in extra work mending nets and baiting lines.
Winter came, cold and stormy. The fishing fleet was grounded. Mikki stretched the salt-fish-and-porridge with water until the grains could scarcely be seen. Her head spun from hunger.
In the spring, Kerel found steady work on a boat that launched from a port-town to the south. He rose each morning an hour before dawn and returned after the sun had set. Mikki combed the beach each day for the finest, whitest feathers she could find. She spent precious money on beads and on fine leather ties. She wove her charms, praying to Gull that this time she would get them right.
The air softened with warmth. The trees were in full leaf, the fields abloom with tiny bright flowers. Birds were nesting on the cliffs. Now the sun shone even after Kerel walked in the door after a full day’s fishing. He whistled, and began speaking of plans to invest in a new boat with friends. Mikki’s hand went to her heart as she thought of the crew he had lost. Kerel carefully pretended not to see.
Each evening, she put a few bites of supper aside for the family altar, for her father’s soul. She wondered if he could taste it beneath the waves.
Spring slipped into summer and then into fall. Kerel told Mikki that he meant to set sail on a merchant ship to southern seas.
“Six weeks down the coast to Ibrin,” he said. “We’ll unload and take on new cargo, continue down to the point and then sail east to the Thressian Islands. We’ll avoid the winter storms here and ride the westward winds back. Three months in all, but Mikki, it’s better than kicking my feet at the fire through another winter if the season here is poor. I’ll make enough money for the payments on my share of a new boat this spring.”
Mikki stood still, her dark eyes wide.
Kerel’s own dark eyes pled with hers. “We’ve saved and I borrowed an advance on the pay,” he said. “Enough for you to be comfortable. Our aunt and uncle will keep an eye out for you.”
Mikki’s cheeks burned as she realized that her brother had already made up his mind, had already laid out his plans.
“I…I told Jacil,” Kerel hesitated. “I know that you don’t like it that I told him first, but he’s promised to watch out for you.” Jacil was one of Kerel’s friends. A nice boy.
“You like Jacil, don’t you?” Kerel’s tone was light. She knew what he was asking.
She thought of a boy who had sailed on Father’s crew. Kerel’s dearest friend. He had had freckles and beautiful hands, and a quick smile that flashed like lightning. She had never spoken of her feelings for him. She knew that Kerel mourned him at least as much as he mourned their father.
“Yes,” Mikki said aloud. “I like Jacil well enough.”
It’s not only the souls of the drowned whom the Sea Witch calls. Sometimes, she calls to those still on land. A child on the beach goes missing. A young woman goes for a walk on the cliffs and never returns. An old fisherman disappears from his bed in the night.
Usually, there are signs. Usually, it’s someone bereaved. Every village has its tale. A widow or heart-broken lover; a bereft parent. A seaman who escaped a wreck, but saw his captain washed overboard and his friends drowned before his eyes. Such a person’s own eyes may turn empty, unseeing. He doesn’t respond to his name; he doesn’t see the sunlit world. His soul is trapped underwater, wandering the ocean floor.
If you can see the signs, you can perhaps keep the body safe until the soul returns. You can keep watch, keep vigil. A family will string feathers over the doorway along with branches and sprays from a rowan tree. Family members will feed the afflicted tea with bitter herbs. Sweet-leaf will be burned on the fire.
If there are no warning signs, there is nothing to be done. A girl vanishes, called down to the ocean depths. A boy jumps suddenly from cliff or boat or pier. Afterward, the village will whisper of missed signs, of the Sea Witch’s irresistible song. Mothers will continue to comb the shore, searching for a scrap of bone to bury.
Mikki went to the docks of the southern port-town to see her brother off. Other family and friends accompanied them. As he went to hug her, she handed him a pouch. “Ten feather-charms inside,” she said. “Each time a feather frays, take it off and put a new charm on. Promise me.”
He smiled. “They don’t wear out that quickly, Mikki. I won’t be gone that long.”
“You don’t know how long you’ll be gone.” She tried to keep the tremor from her voice. “When you discard a charm, throw it into the sea. Maybe—maybe it will find its way to someone. Someone who could use it. They’re weighted with beads of stone.”
He held the pouch to his heart. He made as though to speak, and then stopped. His expression was unreadable. He hugged her tight, and said only, “I will.”
Another hard winter. Wind and rain and the seas churned white with foam. Thunder and crashing waves a nightly lullaby. Mikki’s cottage roof leaked and the walls shook in the wind. The cold seeped in like a relentless tide.
The fishermen were stranded on shore by the weather, adrift and grumbling. Mikki saw children hollow-eyed with hunger. Kerel had spoken truly: there was money enough for her to eat, and so she went from house to house sharing her barley-cakes and bread.
Mixed in with the scream and whine of the wind, mixed in with the crash and murmur of waves, Mikki sometimes thought she heard other notes. A chime of bells. A female voice. Something that was almost a song. She shivered and prayed and built up her fire.
She heard word of a fishing boat lost from a village to the north. A crew of brothers and cousins. They had set forth during a break in the weather, betting on fair skies for a chance at whitefish and silveroils. She didn’t know their names.
“He’s safer on that merchant ship than we are on our own boats here, Mikki,” Jacil said. True to his word, Kerel’s friend stopped by nearly every day. He was a comforting presence, cheerful and solidly built. He had fixed the leak in her roof, although it seemed scarcely warmer than before. He held his hands to her fire now. “Calm southern seas and one of the finest boats to launch from the shipyards of Ibrin…”
Mikki looked at her brother’s friend, at his kind, broad face. She tried to smile.
Encouraged, Jacil kept on. “You were there, you saw the Kittiwake set sail. Biggest ship I’ve ever seen. Those merchant vessels are made to carry on through storms; they can ride waves half the height of our cliffs. And the captain—nothing but good words about him from everyone I’ve heard. A good captain. A good crew.”
“A good crew,” Mikki echoed. She imagined her brother on the open sea, riding waves half the height of the cliffs that flanked their village.
“He might even be on his way back now,” Jacil said. “Another month, a month and a half. Kerel will be home soon.”
A month. A month and a half. Mikki counted off the weeks in her head.
A ship from the Thressian Islands sailed into the port-town to the south. But it was not Kerel’s ship, not The Kittiwake, and the crew had no knowledge of The Kittiwake’s fortunes.
Another month. And then one more. Finally word from the merchants’ guild: The Kittiwake had landed in the Thressian Islands on schedule at the beginning of winter, taking on cargo there as planned. It had been seen departing for the westward journey back. But where was it now?
Anchored in a warm southern isle, Jacil said. Blown off course or damaged in a storm, but under repairs and soon to make its way back.
Somewhere on the coast south of Ibrin, Mikki’s aunt said. Delayed, but already on course again.
Lost in wild seas, others whispered darkly. Blown far off course and drifting under strange stars. Caught in a whirlpool that circulates endlessly, forever, near the bottom of the world. Caught in the tentacles of a beast whose face is sand and rock at the bottom of the sea.
Gone, Mikki’s heart told her. Torn apart by storms. Swamped and capsized like the fishing boat she had seen last year. Broken on rocks like the second boat she had seen destroyed. Vanished, like her father’s boat and like so many other boats from the coast.
“Don’t,” Jacil said, watching as Mikki lit a second candle on her family altar. “It’s too soon, Mikki; you haven’t waited long enough. Ships are delayed all the time. Did you hear of the Plover? It sailed into Ibrin Bay half a year late.”
Mikki stared at the flame she had lit. Her dark eyes were haunted, but her voice was calm.
“How cold do you think it is,” she said, “at the bottom of the sea?”
Jacil hesitated. “Mikki,” he said finally. “It might be different in the southern seas. The stories they tell. . . I know I’ve laughed at some of them. But they believe different things there. Different gods and spirits. Maybe. . . . maybe it’s not the same when a man drowns in southern seas.”
Mikki thought of the Sea Witch. She thought of the songs she heard in the night, the voice calling and the chime of drowned bells.
“It’s all one sea,” she said.
This is the story we tell on our coast: the souls of the drowned are trapped in the Sea Witch’s halls. As long as their bodies lie in her realm, there can be no release.
But it’s a story that some—that most—have always resisted. Children light candles on altars and pray. White flags are planted to call spirits home. Ancestral ghosts are petitioned. There is hope against hope that fate can be changed.
Mikki ran to the top of the cliffs and threw her feather-charms into the sea. She watched them spin through the air—half-made things, unfinished, some of them completed but torn apart by her own hands that day. Why had she spent the winter tying them? Why had she combed the shore for the perfect white plume? Her frail charms had never done anything. They could never hold back the might of the sea.
She watched her charms tumble and fall. She saw them caught by the slate-gray waves.
She had prayed to her mother’s spirit, the mother she could not remember. The only family member buried in the safe black earth. Gull had never protected anyone. She had not even protected herself.
Mikki watched the last of her charms sink out of sight. Seagulls flew beneath her, banking and soaring into the wind.
That night she went to her aunt and uncle’s home for dinner. Her young cousins chattered and laughed and passed the bread, and afterward the family asked her to stay the night. There was no room, and yet on another night she might have accepted. There had been times during the lonely winter when she had curled on the floor before her aunt’s fire alongside her youngest cousins, grateful to feel their sleeping bodies beside her, to hear the breath of another person. She knew that her kin worried about her. But this night she thanked them and turned away.
She went home to her own cold house. She sat before her own empty hearth, her eyes unseeing.
“Will you marry him?” her aunt had asked. Jacil had proposed to her that morning. Mikki had not given anyone a reply.
Of course you will, a voice inside her said now. Jacil would care for her. He was a good man. And she was a girl alone in the world, brotherless and fatherless. She could grow to love him. She thought of what Kerel would have wanted.
She thought of Kerel at the bottom of the sea.
She heard the Sea Witch’s song again, chiming faintly beneath the wind. A song like a flute, and then like the piercing cry of a gull. A woman’s voice, singing a song she knew, a lullaby she had once heard. . . Light flashed in her memory, she felt cool hands; a curtain of dark, silken hair brushed her cheek. She was a child, lying feverish in bed, and her mother was singing to her. She struggled to get up, telling herself This isn’t real, and she heard another voice, her brother’s voice, calling to her frightened and far away, Mikki, Mikki. . . She heard other voices, fainter still. The voices of all lost beneath the waves. She felt a feather in her hand, and she knew that it was the beautiful, perfect feather she had always sought.
She opened her eyes. The feather was real.
She traced the long feather shaft with a trembling hand. She felt the edges: smooth and strong. It was whiter than foam, white as the rare snow that sometimes fell on the coast; it glowed, and there was not a speck of dirt or color to be seen.
She heard her mother’s voice, and knew that this time it was true.
She closed her eyes, held tight to her feather, and let the Sea Witch’s song take her away.
She was a little brown fish in the great ocean. A fish so small, so inconsequential, that she had no name; fishermen would not waste their breath on her. She swam through the holes of fishermen’s nets; she swam past their lines, beneath their boats; she swam downward, down, and all sunlight slipped away.
She was one of hundreds of tiny, nameless brown fish. They swam in the cold depths, moving past one another without notice. The only light came from the tiny flames, like candle lights, that the other fish held in their mouths.
There were walls of stone, black and shimmering. There were forests of kelp. There was a woman on a throne, and her green hair drifted and swirled in the tides. Her face shone like a pale moon. Her lovely eyes shifted from green to gray to blue to green again. She lifted one hand languidly, gracefully, and at her signal a small school of fish came and circled above her head, the candle lights in their mouths making a living, glowing crown.
The newest little fish, just come from the sea-surface, swam forward to join them. She, too, was a servant of the Sea Witch.
She had served the Sea Witch for untold eons. She had served the Sea Witch all her life, and all past lives she might have had. She knew nothing else. There was nothing else to know.
She swam the great ocean looking for drowned souls to bring back to the Sea Witch’s halls. She swam through great wrecks, ships near the size of palaces; she swam through rusting black cannons and broken chains. She found some souls still drifting near their bodies, confused. Other souls had already been washed far from their remains, whole crews scattered across the sea.
The souls were little lights floating in the deeps. Tiny golden lights—the sight stirred some memory within her. Whenever she came across a soul, she took it into her mouth and swam back with it to the Sea Witch’s halls. In those silent halls, shelves stretched endlessly along the black stone walls. The little fish would deposit the soul carefully upon a shelf, there to join an endless line of souls shining steadily at the bottom of the sea.
The Sea Witch sat amidst this all, watching the lights increase around her. Her eyes flickered with the colors of the ocean surface. Sometimes, her eyes looked sad.
Sometimes, a soul would try to speak.
They would whisper as the little fish took them into her mouth. They would murmur snatches of their memories; they would plead with her for a glimpse of the sun, a breath of air. She did not understand their words. She carried them with her, deep and deeper still, until at last their voices faltered. They were silent as she placed them on the waiting shelves.
She knew the valleys and hills of the ocean floor; she knew the wide plateaus, the vents of fire, the canyons and trenches and undersea mountains. She knew all manner of human ships and boats. She saw remnants of human life spilled from the wrecks: cracked plates and cups, a shaving blade, a woman’s comb. A child’s doll, the porcelain head broken open, the silken hair rotted away. She saw all manner of corpses and bones, and the talismans that many wore or left behind. Figures of gods and spirits, carved in wood and gold and ivory and jade, hung from chains of silver or gold. Amulets stuffed with dried flower petals; vials of blessed, black dirt. Lockets with loved ones’ pictures. Lockets that held pieces of parchment, inscribed with prayers and spells.
She saw a charm of feathers twisted around the neck of a freshly drowned corpse. The soul still floated nearby, bobbing in gentle currents. She stared at the decaying feathers, and something stirred within.
Ten feather-charms. She had given ten charms to someone, a long time ago. Charms weighted with beads of stone. Each charm woven for a face she could no longer picture.
She found the first one tangled on a coral branch in tropical seas. The beads glinted; the leather bands were still supple and strong. The feathers looked as fresh as the day she’d tied them, but shone white-hot like pieces of the sun. Caught in the charm’s loops was a single glowing soul.
The little fish bit and pulled at the charm, at the tangle of feathers and soul. The soul whispered, and she felt it break free and slide inside her. She knew her name. She remembered everything.
“Kerel,” she said.
“Mikki,” he replied.
The feathers slid off the leather ties, one by one. She felt them cling to her, melt into her scales. They flared, and she was an explosion of light. Then they dimmed, and they were merely ordinary brown scales, a part of her like the rest of her skin.
She began laughing shakily, giddily. “You’re so far from home,” she told her brother, and he wept because so was she.
It was easier to find the others, then. She heard them calling to her across the sea. They had all drowned off the same coast, within a few miles of one another, yet their bones had been tumbled far and their souls even farther. She could hear their voices clearly now; she understood their words. Kerel knew them, too, and he helped her find the souls of the men from their village, all who had drowned in the storm that wrecked their father’s ship.
Hathir, solid as an oak tree, and gentle and kind. He had been like a second uncle to her.
Feren, thin as a grass-blade, who quipped and laughed at his own jokes.
Karsen, who whittled spinning tops and toys for the village children every New Year’s celebration. Athel, barely more than a boy, who used to flick her pigtails when they were children. Farsil and Kiernan and Relis…
She found them held in glowing feather-charms, entangled in seaweed and coral, caught on the rotting mast of a ship or the edge of a rock. Anchored and waiting for her. She took them into her mouth, and she took the feathers for new scales.
“You can’t hold us all,” Kerel warned, and it was true. They were too many, too heavy and bright. They burned her cheeks, her teeth.
“Hide us,” they whispered, and she unwound a feather-charm and used it to tie them all together to the corner of a jagged rock. She tucked them into a rock fissure.
Kerel she did not release. She had swallowed him, and he stayed within her, lodged beneath her heart.
Five left. Four. Three. Two.
She found him, the freckled boy with the brilliant smile. The one she might have loved, had they had more time.
“I saw him,” said the soul who had once had beautiful eyes. “He was with me; he tried to save me. And then we drowned, and a brown fish took him away.”
And Mikki and Kerel knew where the last soul, their father, had gone.
She swam back over the great ocean plains; she swam over the undersea mountain ranges, the valleys and trenches and vents of flame. She returned to the Sea Witch’s shimmering black halls.
She looked at the shelves and shelves of souls and despaired.
None of these souls spoke. None called out to her. There were no shining white feathers coiled around her father—nothing to mark him from the rest. He had been taken before a charm could find him and hold him fast.
“Where do I begin?” she whispered. And Kerel within whispered, “At the beginning.”
They moved down the endless rows, the golden lights burning steadily around them. Servants of the Sea Witch came and went, adding new souls to the shelves. All ignored Mikki.
She called out, and the vast silence drowned her voice. No one replied.
“He never did talk much,” Kerel said.
She laughed weakly. But a pang hit her fish-heart as she thought of how little she’d known him, her quiet, grieving father. She’d thought that maybe he talked more with Kerel, that Kerel surely knew him better, for they had gone out to sea together each day…
Mikki and Kerel went on. On and on. Ever closer to the heart of the Sea Witch’s labyrinth of halls. They saw her at times, walking in the distance, her hair drifting luminously behind her.
How much time had passed? How long would the Sea Witch let Mikki roam these halls?
Days later, years later, an unknown immensity of time. . . Kerel froze within her and said, “Mikki. Here.”
She stopped. The little lights burned before her, each one exactly the same.
“Here,” Kerel said again, although his voice was uncertain. “Somewhere here, one of them, I can feel it…” She swam in a slow circle. Kerel inside tensed with frustration. “No, not that one, not that one, but close by, I know it…” Loss echoed in his voice. Loss that did not begin on a single storm-wracked day, but that stretched out from the years before.
“If we had a feather-charm,” Mikki said. “Something to call him, something to catch him. . .“
Kerel was still. When he finally spoke again, his voice was strange. “Mikki, I can feel a feather inside you. A feather in your heart.”
It was as though the cold ocean had vanished. She remembered sitting alone in a dry room. She remembered holding a beautiful, perfect white feather in her hand. The feather her mother had given her.
“Take the feather out,” Mikki told her brother.
He pulled it from her heart, pushed it up her gullet and helped her hold it in her teeth so that it could shine to the outer world. She swam slowly before the shelves of souls, the feather incandescent in her mouth.
She saw the Sea Witch enter the far end of the hall.
Now souls were waking and stirring all around. Their voices were like the rustling of leaves in the sunlit world. They were calling out to her, to the shining feather she held.
Mikki saw the Sea Witch draw near. At the other end of the hall, a school of fish turned and began to swim toward the feather’s white light.
Kerel gasped as the Sea Witch’s face came clearly into view. Mikki knew that he saw it, too—the fine bones of her pale face, the graceful curve of her eyes. The Sea Witch resembled their mother.
The feather blazed in her mouth; she was blinded by it. But she heard a voice, familiar, quietly speaking her name. She swam to it, unseeing. She felt a soul push up against her feather and make its way through the barbs, into the quill. The light increased still more; it was intolerable. The soul moved up the quill, and the light flared through her; her bones hummed. And then the light dimmed, and she knew the feather was a part of her again, a feather-scale like the rest. Her father was within her. “Mikki,” he said softly. And then, “Kerel.”
Fish eyes cannot cry. But she felt something in her contract, and then loosen and ease. She felt her father settle in next to Kerel. She held the two of them now, her family. Two golden lights nestled beneath her heart.
The feather from her mother had dimmed, but it did not go out. It shone still in the darkness. All her feather-scales shone. She was a white light, a beacon. Souls around her cried out.
A feather-charm flashed above. A string of feathers holding eight souls, men and boys from her village. Lost crew of the Gannet, Sweet Rose, and her father’s boat, White Gull.
She swallowed them all, taking them within her. The last feathers became her last white scales. And the souls were not heavy, as they had been before. They were light itself. They were sails full of wind; they were lanterns of hot air, pulling her upward.
She began to rise.
She heard the souls on their shelves calling for her. Take us! Take us with you! they cried. She gulped souls down as she floated past. They slid in, and told her of their pasts. A slave thrown from a ship for disobedience. A sailor whose foot slipped on a wet deck. A girl who drowned herself from grief.
She was rising toward the ocean surface. She was buoyant with souls.
“You can’t take them all,” Kerel whispered as she rose faster and faster.
And another voice, a new one, said, No. You can’t take them all. But you can take all you can. It might have been her mother’s voice. It might have been her own.
Far below, the Sea Witch stood and watched. Her green-grey eyes were expressionless. Her hair and dress billowed in invisible currents, and her servants watched silently with her.
But Mikki was looking upward. The surface was rushing toward her. She saw the light growing stronger and clearer. She remembered the sunlit world, the life she had lived there. She had time to mourn it, to mourn what might have been. To grieve the life she might have chosen: marriage to Jacil, children with him, an ordinary life in the village with living family and friends.
The surface rushed ever nearer. Her scales had turned to feathers. She thought she saw the sky. And then her last thoughts disappeared. She was flying upward, and there was no separation between water and air. She was melting into the light, she and her father and brother and all the souls she could carry with her wings.
But our story does not end here. Not quite.
You might understand it now, that wooden fish charm you hold. The little shrines you may have seen along the shore, at the foot of a pier. Shrines to the fish-bird, the bird-fish. Prayers to both the White Gull and Brown Fish.
No? Then let me explain. It is said that Mikki did not stay in the Realms of Light. It is said that she went back for the souls she could not save. She scours the oceans even now; she enters the Sea Witch’s halls and takes souls from the very shelves. The Sea Witch merely goes about her ancient business, collecting drowned souls; and Mikki goes about her business in turn—Mikki the Light-Bringer, Soul-Savior, the Winged Fish.
Did you keep count during the tale? Ten charms she gave Kerel: one so that he would always have a charm to wear, and nine to be tossed to the sea. But the tenth charm never found their father. Perhaps it found a different soul to save; perhaps Mikki has already used it, rescued that soul and taken the feathers. Or perhaps this is what she uses over and over, this single charm, saving lost souls one at a time.
And the Sea Witch in her black halls: perhaps she is merely holding the souls in place for Mikki, keeping them safe on her shelves. Perhaps that has always been her ancient task. Is that why she sings from the sea?
This is a story we tell each other, here on our lovely, perilous coast. Here, where storms blow and bells chime in the deep, and we pray and light candles in the dark.