Bee sat and waited. The ocean slowly crept away, revealing large swathes of brilliantly green seaweed and clusters of black and white shellfish. The sun rose a little higher and the twins smells of rotting fish and ocean brine grew stronger. When the water was almost all the way out, Bee began to look around. Low tide was what the sea witch liked best.
Earlier, when Bee had first arrived, there had been a man walking his dog and talking animatedly on the phone, but the two of them had since disappeared and Bee was entirely alone. She shifted on the log of driftwood she’d chosen as her waiting spot, her feet dangling toward the rocky beach, and wished she’d picked a spot closer to the tree line. Here, on the beach, with her back exposed, she felt vulnerable and unprepared. For all she knew the sea witch may come up behind her and whisper in her ear before Bee ever suspected she was near.
Overhead a gull cried and Bee tracked its progress across the gray-blue sky. When she looked down again the sea witch had appeared.
She was about fifty feet away and came along like a spider, a walking stick in each hand that she used to test the ground in front of her before stepping delicately forward. Bee was unsure, as she was the last time she saw the sea witch, if it was a ruse or not. The sea witch was a small, bent-backed old woman, bundled up despite the bright spring sun, and there was something about the way she carried herself that made Bee wonder if her speed, or lack thereof, was really all an act. Bee sat on her log, heart thumping a bit harder with each step that brought the sea witch closer. Bee twirled her wedding band. Around and around and around she twirled it.
The sea witch crept closer and closer, head down the entire way. She didn’t acknowledge Bee until she was right beside her.
“You’ve come back,” the sea witch murmured, gaze fixed on the ground as though she were searching for shells.
Bee shivered. “Yes.” She steeled herself for what she was about to say. “It didn’t work. The spell you gave me. It didn’t do anything.” Her voice gave way at the end to a hoarse whisper.
The sea witch kept walking, head down, and Bee was forced to leave her log and walk beside her if she wanted an answer. “Curious,” the sea witch said. “Well, we can always try again.”
Bee faltered for a moment and lost her balance on the rocky shore. She was surprised by the sea witch’s answer. She had expected to be admonished, scolded, told she’d done it wrong and to leave at once and never return to this beach again.
“I would like that,” Bee said. “To try again.”
The sea witch smiled at the rocks under her feet. “I’m sure you would. I will need another payment of course.”
“I…” Bee trailed off, then started again before she completely lost her nerve. “I’m not sure how much I could pay you this time.” Her stomach lurched. Surely the sea witch would turn her into some sort of slug just for saying it. “You see, he, my husband, he would notice if that much money went missing all at once. Last time I saved up slowly for it, but this time, this time I think I could only pay you half as much as last time.” The sea witch frowned and Bee hurried to continue. “At least at first. I could pay you in installments.” When the witch didn’t say anything Bee added, “With interest.”
“I’m not concerned with being paid interest, girl.” The sea witch stopped walking and Bee stumbled to a halt next to her, one foot slipping on the rocks. “You don’t seem wholly committed to this endeavor.”
Bee nodded furiously. “I am. I promise you I am. I need my husband to love me.” She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. “He cares for me, respects me, but he doesn’t really love me. Not like he used to.”
“Is that so bad? Many women have men who don’t respect them sharing their bed for all of eternity. So your husband doesn’t love you. At least he’s tolerable.” The sea witch shrugged. “Many women would gladly trade places with you.”
Bee nodded, not sure how to say what she was feeling, like there was a hole in her chest. She stared at the sea witch’s feet. They were gnarled, lumpy things encased in ancient leather sandals. There were barnacles on her ankles. Her toenails looked like oyster shells.
“I feel like half a person,” Bee whispered. She hated the feeling, hated this deep seated knowing in her that there was something missing. That she was living half a life.
“Speak up if you’re going to speak,” the sea witch said.
“I said, I feel like half a person,” Bee forced herself to stand up straight and lift her head, forced herself to look at the sea witch’s face. To her surprise, the sea witch was looking back at her and nodding. Her eyes were rheumy and small, her skin gray. She reminded Bee of a porpoise she’d seen once, washed up on the beach.
“I suspected as much the first time you came to me. If you insist, we’ll try the spell again. A little differently this time of course.”
“What will I owe you?” Bee’s heart stuttered as she spoke. She had no more money to give the sea witch—what little she’d been able to save the last time had been done over months and months, back when she’d first gotten the idea that she’d feel more content and settled if only her husband loved her.
The sea witch waved away her questions, her walking stick floating through the air like a detached limb. “We’ll come to that later. It will be something you can afford to part with, I guarantee you. For now, go home, and come back when the moon has risen.”
Bee nodded and turned away. She picked her way over the rocky shore toward the trees. When she had reached the spot where the rocks gave way to coarse sand and grass she looked back. The sea witch was gone.
All day Bee fretted and chewed her nails. She burned the rice. Started the washing machine with no clothes in it. The bare white walls of the house felt closer than normal, more claustrophobic. In the afternoon, when her husband came to her and wrapped his arms around her waist, then moved his hands gently under her shirt, he commented that she seemed distracted.
“I’m fine.” It was out of Bee’s mouth before she had half a chance to think about whether it was true.
Her husband stepped back and studied her face. She looked away, toward the corner where a dust bunny was building up.
“Alright,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek and went out to the garage.
As night came on, Bee grew more and more restless. Dusk had only just begun to gather when she let herself out of the house, telling her husband she was going for a short walk. He nodded and went back to reading his book.
As Bee approached the beach, the worries she’d been trying to hold back all day finally broke through her mental levy. What payment would the sea witch take? She had brought a little money with her, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough. The sea witch would surely ask her for something else, something that would be hard to part with. Nothing so fairy-tale as her firstborn child or anything like that, but maybe her favorite rabbit, or the bracelet her grandmother had given her. Bee feared that somehow the sea witch would know what she loved most and take it from her.
Bee reached the beach and took a deep breath of the dusky air. It smelled, as always, of fish and salt and dreams. The water was a deep indigo and the sky had lost all its gold, the sun having set completely as Bee approached. She turned and walked up the beach, letting the sound of the waves drive away her thoughts and doubts. Whatever the sea witch took she took. There was nothing Bee could do about it now.
Upon reaching the edge of a tidepool, Bee paused. She realized she didn’t actually know where the sea witch lived. The two times she’d met her the sea witch had seemed to appear from nowhere. Both times Bee had been alone with the waves and the birds, turned to look at something that had caught her eye, and suddenly the sea witch had been there, standing in a spot that had only moments ago been empty.
This time, Bee decided, she would purposely not look for the sea witch. Maybe that was just how it worked and she’d show up faster that way. So Bee found a good spot along the tree line and settled herself on a stump, her heart thrumming in her chest, eyes firmly fixed on the first evening star. The swallows dived through the air and the sky purpled. The waves crashed rhythmically, gently wearing away Bee’s anxiety.
“That one there isn’t a star, you know.”
Bee jumped and turned. The sea witch was right beside her, her hair stringy and crusted with sand.
“What do you mean that one isn’t a star?” Bee asked. She turned her gaze back toward the night sky so that she wouldn’t have to acknowledge the fact that the sea witch’s footsteps only stretched about twenty feet behind her and then abruptly stopped. Perhaps a rogue wave had washed them away. Perhaps she had come out of the ocean itself.
The witch turned her head as best she could and looked up, her neck and shoulders permanently stooped with old age. “It’s Venus.”
“Venus,” Bee murmured, not understanding. Why was the sea witch telling her this? What did it matter if what she was looking at wasn’t a star?
“The planet Venus, named for the goddess of love. Funny that you should be so fixated on it given what we’re here to meet about.”
“I see.” Bee cleared her throat and looked around. She didn’t know how to begin the transaction.
“I made this for you.” The sea witch held out a small amulet—a black stone wrapped in corroded copper wire. It dangled from a piece of looped twine. “Take this home and slip it over your neck while you sleep. It should do the trick.”
Bee took it gingerly in her hand; it was cold, much colder than she expected it to be. It felt like the ocean in January. It was different than the first spell the sea witch had made—that one had been a tea of sea grass, crushed starfish, and squid ink. She’d had to heat it on the stove after her husband had fallen deeply asleep and drink it all down in one gulp. It had been foul, but for some reason, after Bee drank it, she had wanted more.
“What do I owe you for this?” Bee asked, worry over the answer sitting like indigestion in her stomach.
The sea witch looked away and then back from the corner of one eye. “Your hair.”
Bee’s hand tightened until it was a fist and the wire around the stone bit into her palm. “My hair?” Her hair, long and thick and the kind of brown that turned red in the sun, was her favorite feature.
“Yes. Your hair. You will let me cut it off.”
“All of it?” Bee asked. “Or just a piece?”
“All of it. To here.” The sea witch made a slicing motion next to her neck.
Bee reached up and unconsciously stroked her hair. She’d braided it back that day, as she did most days, to keep it out of her face. Most people would probably assume she didn’t care much about her hair given how seldom she styled it. She’d worn it long ever since she’d been old enough to decide for herself what to do with it and she’d always delighted in the silky feeling of it running down her back like water.
“Why do you want my hair?” Bee asked. “Are you going to put a spell on me?”
The sea witch chuckled. “Do you think my help comes without a price? I want your hair. If you don’t want to give it to me that’s your choice, but I’ll be taking that amulet back.” She held out her hand.
Bee tightened her grip on the amulet and held it to her chest. If there was a chance that this could help her, make her husband love her, make her feel like her house was a home, then she wasn’t going to give it back.
“As I thought. Come here. Sit down.” The sea witch gestured to a large rock situated near a piece of driftwood. It was the root end of a tree and its gnarled, long dead roots reached out like tentacles. Bee sat on the rock, her head lowered, and stared at the stones near her feet.
Quickly and without speaking, the sea witch reached out and grabbed Bee’s braid. Then with the other, she produced a pair of scissors, from where Bee had no idea, and in five strokes Bee’s braid came loose in the witch’s hand.
As soon as her hair was free Bee felt lighter, almost weightless, the way she did when she floated in the ocean. She reached up to feel her bare neck. The ends of her hair were jagged and uneven, one side longer than the other. She looked up at the sea witch and found she couldn’t see her face for she was silhouetted by the unforgivingly bright moon.
“How do you feel?” the sea witch asked her.
“I’m not sure,” Bee replied. “I thought that would be…” she trailed off, not sure how to phrase what she was thinking.
“I suppose so. I think,” Bee paused. “Maybe it just hasn’t hit me yet.”
The sea witch shrugged. “Or perhaps it never mattered as much as you thought it did.”
“It’s uneven,” Bee said, feeling the ends of her hair once more.
“That it is.”
Bee sat in silence, the roots of the dead tree reaching around her, toward the ocean. “I suppose I should go home,” she said.
“If you’d like.”
Bee rose and slipped the amulet over her head. She reached up to brush her hair out of the way, to get the twine to settle on her neck, but faltered. She had done so out of habit, but the string was already resting against her neck; there was no hair to get out of the way.
That night, as she lay beside her husband, trying to sleep, Bee thought of all the good memories they’d shared, how he’d always been kind to her. She felt selfish and ungrateful that she couldn’t be happy. She lay beside him, listening to him breathe, listening to the sound of the waves hit the shore, and waited for morning to come. The light of the moon crept across the ceiling. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed of the ocean and all that lived in its dark depths.
The next morning Bee woke to find her husband already up and out of bed. She glanced around their small house, then peeked outside. He was in the garden pulling weeds. She went outside to say good morning, hope blooming through her chest. She felt happy, lighter. Hopeful. Bee brushed a short wisp of hair out of her face and gave him a hug.
“Your hair is shorter,” he said, giving it a playful tug. “It looks nice.” He smiled at her and his eyes crinkled in the way they did when he talked about a book he liked.
He kissed her, and Bee could feel a sourness begin to swirl in her stomach. It hadn’t worked. It was a kiss from an old friend, not a lover. Bee thought of all the money she’d secretly saved, of the hair she’d spent years growing and caring for—all of it gone. The sea witch didn’t fulfill her promise. She was a con artist and a cheat, nothing more.
“Feeling alright?” he asked her, concern in his eyes.
Bee nodded. “Yes, I’m fine. Just feeling a little nauseous is all. I think I’ll go for a walk.”
Bee walked down to the beach and sat near the spot she had occupied last night, when the sea witch had given her the amulet. She couldn’t bring herself to go to the exact same spot—the roots of the dead tree looked too much like tentacles reaching out to grab her.
She sat. And she waited.
The sun rose to its highest point in the sky and then began to slide down toward the ocean, slow and liquid. Bee was unaware of the world around her. Barely heard the gulls laughing at her or the waves breaking on the shore. For once she didn’t notice the sizzle of the water as it curled along the sand.
The sun sank lower. The crests of the waves turned magenta. Bee watched a crab walk along and slip into a tide pool.
“Back again,” came a voice near Bee’s ear. She knew without turning to look that it was the sea witch—she could smell her.
The sea witch smelled like a concentration of the ocean. Like fish and salt and shark blood, like seaweed that had been baked in the sun and that quality that only the ocean has—like discontent and possibility mixed together.
“It didn’t work,” Bee said. She hated the way she sounded—petulant and spoiled, like she hadn’t gotten a toy she wanted.
“Perhaps you have asked for the wrong thing.” The sea witch sounded nonchalant. She picked a lump of something white out of her teeth.
“But,” Bee protested. “But it can’t possibly be the wrong thing. If my husband loves me I’ll feel content. I won’t have this horrible feeling like, like…”
“Like you don’t have a home? Like you don’t belong?”
Bee glared at the sea witch. How did she know? How did she know what was in Bee’s heart? Things so thoroughly locked away that Bee only let herself know them when the moon was full and shining down on a calm ocean?
“All this worry over whether or not your husband loves you, but have you ever stopped to wonder if you love him?”
Bee opened her mouth to object but then closed it. She thought back to what the sea witch had asked her the first time Bee approached her and asked for her help. Bee had told her that she wanted her husband to love her, that she wanted it more than anything in the world.
The sea witch had cocked her head ever so slightly to one side, like a gull watching a crab, and asked, “And is that really what your heart desires?” She had doubted Bee’s answer even then.
Bee had swallowed and nodded and said that yes, of course that was what her heart truly desired. The sea witch had frowned and shrugged, seemingly a bit disappointed in Bee’s answer and told her what it would cost.
Now Bee sat on the shore, feeling like a fool. She had asked for the wrong thing. Because all the time Bee had spent thinking her life would feel right, that she’d feel less adrift if only her husband loved her, she’d never stopped to examine why she felt that way or whether she even loved him. If she was honest with herself, she didn’t love him, probably never had. They’d built a life together—a quiet, gentle life by the ocean, but it had left her feeling lonely and unmoored because it wasn’t the life she really wanted. There was a different life she craved, there was something else she truly loved. More than him. More than even herself. Bee watched a wave crest, admired the way the water bowed in on itself, curled around toward the sand below and then crashed along the shore.
“Now tell me, little Bee,” the sea witch said. “What is it you desire?”
Bee looked up from her seated position at the sea witch hovering over her. Even with Bee sitting and the witch standing, they were almost nose to nose, so stooped was the sea witch. Bee took a shaky breath and pointed toward the ocean. There. There was where she belonged.
“Then let it be done.” The sea witch ran her hand along Bee’s forehead. It was rough and dry and warm, like sand in summertime.
Bee started to say that she needed a little more time, needed to go hug her husband and tell him what a good man he was, how she needed to clean up the dishes she’d left in the kitchen, but she didn’t seem to have the breath to say anything. She tried to draw in air, but struggled. She put her hands on her chest and throat and realized her arms were darkening—that they were turning a sort of purplish-red color. Her fingers seemed to be melding together. A burning, ripping feeling started near the base of her neck and traveled down her spine. She looked up at the sea witch, eyes wide, beseeching.
The sea witch towered over her, looking down.
“You know what has to be done,” the sea witch told her. She gestured toward the water.
Bee crawled toward the ocean, sand and grit sticking to her arms and legs that were beginning to look more and more like tentacles—raised circular welts rand up and down the length of them. She felt woozy and was having a hard time holding her head up. It felt as though her bones were melting. She could no longer breathe at all. Stars blossomed in her vision and the edges of everything began to grow dark. She was about halfway to the water when she was certain she was going to die. She let her body fall into the sand.
Beside her, the sea witch spoke sharply. “Get up, girl. I won’t help you. You have to do it yourself.”
And so Bee gave one final push, propelled herself forward, her limbs burning, her chest feeling like it was about to implode and splashed into the ocean. She braced herself for the knife-sharp pain of the cold water but it didn’t come.
A wave rolled over her, oxygen rushed into her lungs, and the stars disappeared from her vision. On instinct, Bee moved further into the water, away from the shore. She took another breath and felt the water curl around her. It stroked her face and belly, caressed her new limbs. The water was deliciously cool and revitalizing. It held her closer than any lover ever had.
Bee looked around, amazed by her new senses. She could see farther through the water than she’d ever been able to before—could see shafts of light piercing through the surface, tiny specks of krill, and far off in the distance, the shadow of a whale. She could hear the chitterings and murmurings of dolphins and the gentle scratching of eels burrowing through sand. She caught the faint metallic tang of blood and the mustiness of seaweed. Bee was immersed in a strange new world, but felt a sense of returning home after a long time away.
She cast one look behind her, toward the shore, toward the shadow of the sea witch where she was still standing on the beach, then turned and headed out for open water.