The Sea Wife

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by Lynn Love

*

'I have a gift for you, wife.' Dag is soaked to the bone, water dripping from eyebrows thick as thatch. He smells of the sea, salt and fish and days sleeping and living on the deck of a fishing boat.

Ebba curls her lip against the smell. 'I want none of your gifts.' Winter is coming and the cold presses through her furs, pinching the tip of her nose, shrinking her skin tight to the bone. 'Did you bring food?'

He kneels before the fire, wreathed in smoke, steam soon rising from his wet clothes. From under his furs he brings a bundle of seal skin. He lays it on the ashy ground where it twitches then lies still.

'What is it?' She wants to see, but holds back, trying to hid her curiosity. Her breath hangs in the air. The package begins to writhe, wriggling as if full of eels. 

Ebba is no newlywed bride, easy won by golden slivers of smoked herring. Two decades of marriage have pared her body down, made it taut as a drum skin, her back stiff, her heart nigh impossible to melt. She waits and watches.

Dag inches the sealskin aside and at first there is little to see, just a nub of flesh, pink with a haze of green, like a body adrift in a shallow sea. 

'I don't have time —'

Then she sees him — a baby — doughy legs suffused with jade, metallic in the firelight. For once she cannot speak.

'I found him,' says Dag. 'Tangled in the nets with the fry, a torsk clenched in his fist as if it was a spear.'

Ebba reaches, runs a finger over the little stomach, scales catching her finger. Reluctantly, she pulls back. 'He belongs to the Sea Wife, Dag. To the Havsrå. You must take him, throw him back.' Even as the words drop from her lips, the pewter eyes hook into hers and she wants to wrap the little creature in her shawl, feel his cool skin warmed.

Dag rests a hand on hers. 'The Havsrå gave him up. He is ours now.'

'We're too old ...'

But Dag has decided. 'We shall call him Hákon.'

Ebba slips her finger into the little fist, the touch thawing something inside her. 'Ours?'

*

'Come in, get warm,' says Ebba, poking the fire, making sparks jump across the beaten floor. 'You stink like you've bathed in fish. What do you and Jarl do on that boat? Sleep with the catch?'

Hákon crouches in the glow, chafes his palms. 

'Have you brought me saithe, hälleflundra, ling?' smiles Ebba, chattering to fill her son's silence. She knows the answer — no man on the island fishes like him. 

He nods. 'Full nets.'

Always full nets. 'Your Far would be proud.' 

Dag was lost three years earlier. He's out there still in the cold and the brine, hair combed by the sea's chill fingers. The thought snags at her.

'I heard her again, Mor.' Hákon's voice is no more than a whisper, but it cuts through the howl of the wind through the shutters, the crack and snap of the flames.

'The Havsrå?' Ebba slowly lowers herself to her stool, hands resting carefully on her knees. 'What does she say?' 

The fire leaps suddenly, the blaze lighting her son's face, making his skin glow gold. 'What she always says. That she wants me to go home. That I am havsbarn, a Sea Child. And hers.'

A log crumples, falls to fibrous ash in the hearth. 

'What is it you want?' Ebba licks her lip, waits.

'It hurts, Mor.' His hands rub together, the scales catching, making a chiff-chiff sound. 'It feels like harpoons in my head when she calls. Like a gutting knife running round the inside of my skull.'

Ebba takes his hand, feels the rough texture against her palm. 'What do you want, son?'

He looks up at her. 'I want to stay.'

She nods. 'Call the Havsrå. The Sea Wife and I must talk.'

*

Snow is falling soft as duck down as Ebba waits upon the rocks. She looks across the bay at the islands, hummocks of stone and heather and swaying grass prickled with snowflakes. Huts huddle in the lea of the pine forest, black shadows capped with settling white, grey smoke curling to dense cloud. Home.

Her toes are cold in her boots. She pulls the furs tight around her, smells the animal, musty scent of the hut, the hint of hearth and fish and rye that's been her life.

There's a splash at the water's edge louder than the rest. From the hiss of the waves a woman emerges, hair falling down her back, slick and thick as seaweed. She pulls herself up onto the rock's at Ebba's feet, her fishtail slapping the water, her angular face and the skin of her arms pink with a haze of green.

'Havsrå.' Ebba nods.

Fröken. The Sea Wife's voice is like foam over pebbles, crests breaking on the shore.

'You want my son,' says Ebba. 

Snowflakes fall on the Sea Wife's hair and shoulders, fizzling to water as they land. My son, says the Havsrå. A loan only.

'You gave him up.'

Your womb was barren as these rocks. She caresses the boulder with her finned fingers, as if it is a belly swollen with young. I gifted him to you.

'You can't take back a gift.'

The Havsrå smiles but says nothing.

The sun is setting, the snow falling heavier, smoothing the rough stone to soft pillows. 

Ebba's mind drifts over the rocks back to her hut. 'Hákon hit his head on a boat gunwale when he was five. Had a lump big as a tern's egg just here.' She taps her temple. 'Slept so long, so deep, turned pale as wax. I never thought he'd wake but he did, shrunk but whole. Then when he was seven he had a fever. Three days he skated between this world and the next. I sat by him, whispered my love as he argued with devils, as spirits nipped at his heels, tried to drag him from me.' Ebba turned her oaky eye on the Sea Wife. 'Where were you then. Mor.' The word drips from the old woman's mouth like poison.

The Sea Wife curls her lip, grips the rock with a leathery hand, knuckles white as bone. It proves nothing, she hisses. He. Is. My. Blood.

Ebba feels the desolation of those men doomed to the waves, feet tangled in weed, bodies caught in the swell and ebb of the tide. That world is the darkest green, cold as hell. But from the darkness comes a thought, glittering bright as a star. Ebba straightens her back, feels the rocks solid beneath her feet.

'So, this is our pact?' says Ebba. 'One man enters my house. One man must leave.'

The Havsrå nods, smooths her scales until they lie flat as a mirror. One and one, she smiles.

'Then we are done here.' Ebba stomps the snow from her boots, makes to walk towards the cluster of huts.

Stop, woman! 

The ground shivers, snow drifts collapse to the ground.

You owe me a man! screams the Sea Wife and her voice is the sound of glaciers shattering.

Ebba stops, turns, her head held high. 'I gifted you a man.' For a moment, she sees Dag, kneeling on the floor of their hut, staring at the bundle that was the havsbarn, that became their Hákon — He is ours now ...

'Thank you, my love,' whispers Ebba, heading for home and her shimmering boy.

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