They weren’t really pirates. Those men gallivanted in alloy crucibles, hunting fiery mirages—my tendril-web. Call me Ess, or any name in a language with that sound. Call me what you will. They always had a variety of epithets, depending on weather, mood, or state of sobriety. They called their purpose the “noble quest”; I was nothing but the medium. A group of listless sailors, sometimes a few soldiers mixed in for good measure, venturing into mystery for the sake of treasure and glory. This thirst for acclaim over all else gained them the popular title “pirates,” but it didn’t mean much. Aside from a taste for excessive quantities of liver poison and ambiguous laws, they were just like any other men. Still, they insisted on searching, and so I had to make them welcome.
“Sad girls made the world,” the man called leader slurred his lies. Thread-thin fingers sunk beneath my surface, split bonded tension, and obscured the reflection. The full moon offered the ghost of a view, and I took advantage of its melancholy light. He didn’t take the time to notice my observation—unblinking eyes marking the white scar on his bottom lip, and a wrist that had lost much of its dexterity. He had been alone for much of the journey, and his gaze perpetually cast out and down. Not like someone searching, but like a man with nowhere else to focus.
‘Who made them sad?’ my voice, trapped in salty foam, lapped the bobbing capsule. He was entirely alone—forcibly ejected, or maybe he slipped away from the crew in a haze. A small vessel, broken off from the group without a word. I’ve never known their minds. Neither young nor old, he entered my space, and mumbled decades of guilt and hostility over my waves.
“How does it feel to be archetypal?” The man questioned space, or me, or both. “To be everywhere and unknowable?” Again with the ambiguity.
‘How does it feel to be nothing?’ Cruelty need not be reined when one is mute. But it felt like a dialogue. He was asking questions, and I was the only one present to answer. His words felt like accusations, and I could not help but get defensive. The cool wind bristled about us, and I delighted in his trembling shoulders.
“None of the others have good reason. For being on that boat, I mean.” Ah, the confession. The fair trade for my favors, but he had no way of knowing. The sea has never needed physical gifts, like some mortal girl. The pirates, for lack of a better name, made me female because they needed the assurance of dominance. They came bearing superstitions and gilt crosses, and attributed my complacency to subservience. Poor men. They insisted on assigning humanity to something other, and discounted the strength of a whim. Better, I suppose, than acknowledging personal weakness—knowing that not all beings can be swayed.
“I don’t either, but at least I know it. At least I don’t expect to go home.” His voice gained confidence as he spoke, and I slowed my waves to lessen interference. I needed nothing, but I loved their stories.
“There was this girl. Of course. It’s always a girl,” and with this he smiled. “The girl of the tower. That’s how I would begin a fairy tale, but in reality she was the girl of older brothers and a mother’s avarice. Sons are no good for that sort of thing, after all. They could work hard, and keep a household afloat, but everyone knows it’s the daughters that bring the glory. Especially the girls with amber hair and white wrists—they practically guarantee a small fortune.”
So he told me about his love. The girl was named Psyche, for the noblest part of a human being, and she lived up to expectations in every way. To be honest, there was nothing terribly interesting. I listened because I had no choice, and because he cared. The way his tongue stuttered over her name was endearing, and felt like erosion. He crumbled as the story tumbled out from his lips. He knew there was no hope of winning either girl or family, but still he tried to make himself worthy. The mother desired gold, and Psyche wanted a name, so he signed up for an impossible quest. He wanted to be an Ivan—to capture the ember bird that would prove his worth. The poor man knew it was impossible, but the gesture itself was all-important. He would die for the girl if it meant she would remember him fondly.
‘It’s not my fault you’re here.’ I rose to kiss his fingertips where they hovered over the edge. ‘I know her mind no better than I know yours, but do not hate me for that ignorance. If I could win her, for you, I would.’ He could not hear my entreaties, but I swear a shudder ran the length of his spine. Perhaps it was just the wind again, but I would like to think we had an understanding. I could not give him any physical treasure, or promise that a safe return would win Psyche’s regard. For all I knew she had already been married off and was impatiently awaiting the birth of another horrible, golden-haired creature. Still, I pitied the man with no concern for his own life. Any cruelties that left his mouth were the products of surrender.
“They’ll never find any gold, will they?” For the first time since sunset, his thoughts returned to the men who had abandoned him to my mercy. The larger craft had followed the sun west, chasing the play of light over water, and left my companion floating aimless. There were oars in the bottom of his boat, but we knew they would never be touched. Two fragile pieces of wood, and an abundance of half-drained ceramic jugs—all a single man could ever need. They all committed mutiny in the same way; the leader sacrificed the quest, so they sacrificed the leader. It happened at least once in every group, but no one complained. They were all mine, anyway.
“They’re too young for something like this. They hear stories of great treasures guarded by beautiful women, and so they flock to any ship that’ll sail. I’ve never heard of any group returning. They just assume that means the prize is still waiting.” He looked down at me, and then I was certain we understood each other. He did not have to say any more, but the verbal flood could not be stemmed. “You’re just like all the others. Like Psyche, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. We submit to your mercy, and you dash us against the rocks.”
‘But at least I love you.’
“Our bones are your horde, and the pile grows daily.” It was not intended as an indictment, but it was the truth.
I always liked the way dawn-light reflected over their chains. Nearly every man had something around his neck—a lover’s token or a priest’s charm. To me they looked like feathers, or the radiant frill of something legendary. They came looking for wealth, and it was through their stories that I learned to desire it for myself. They told me of burning birds, or girls transformed to serpents, and back again. Some I released to the air and the land, but the ones who told me true stories… those were the men I kept. I was created to be lonely, with nothing but the sky to hold, but sentient enough for hope. I longed to be called Psyche, Vasilisa, or anything else. I wanted someone to name me, and to make me real.
This man did not carry excess adornment, but his hair was compensation enough. As his head tilted over the edge of the boat, an insufficient shield, sunlight caught on infant-white strands. Even inches below the surface, my shadows could not hide him from the sun’s sight. ‘It won’t last long, love,’ I whispered to coax out that last gasp of air. ‘You’ll forget her soon, and there’ll be only us.’ They always trusted me at the end. No man, no matter how angry or how hurt, could resist my promises for long.