sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears
Many years ago on a distant island, there lived a young maid in a cottage by
the sea. Margaret's father was a sailor and her mother was dead, and her
only companion was a great furry hound called Coovara who accompanied her
wherever she went. Coovara was a fierce beast whose only loyalty was to
Margaret; he growled and bared his teeth at anyone else who came close to
One night, when there was a storm blowing in off the water and the trees
swayed in the wind and rain rattled the windows until Margaret thought
they'd break under the force, there was a pounding at the door and a voice
begging to be let in. It was late and there were no neighbors anywhere near.
Margaret ill-liked to open her door to a stranger, but the voice was
pleading and desperate, and when lightning lit up the night, she looked
through the window and saw a figure bruised and bleeding and naked as the
day he was born.
He fell in the door with a splash of water and muck, but then he stood and
thanked her sensibly enough. Coovara had been at her heels, but when she
opened the door, he turned tail and cowered under the bed whimpering as
she'd never seen him do. Perhaps she should have known then that the
stranger was not all that he seemed, but she was merely grateful that the
dog hadn't attacked the poor man, and she busied herself finding some old
clothes of her father's. When she returned, Coovara was crouched at the
stranger's feet and wagging his tail slavishly.
Once the man was clean and dry, Margaret could see that most of the blood
was coming from a deep gash on his hand. She stitched it up with nine tiny
stitches and bandaged it with a rag. He made no sound as her needle pierced
his skin, and when it was done he smiled tightly and said, "Good girl."
The stranger was handsome, with black curling hair and merry dark eyes, and
he smelled like the ocean. Not like a sailor, not of tar and stale rum
sweated through the skin, but like the sea: clean and salty and, up close, a
bit like dead fish. He didn't say much, but he had a pleasant voice with a
lilting accent. Try as she might, Margaret couldn't discover what had
brought him to her doorstep. He answered every question with one of his own,
and by the time they sat down to a simple supper, she realized that she'd
told him all about herself, and she still didn't know anything about him,
except that his name was Tom Carter.
After supper, Tom leaned forward and pulled the pins from her hair one by
one, until it fell in a dark curtain around her face. He called her "pretty
Margaret" and "kind Margaret," and whispered sweet words as he kissed her
mouth and neck. The storm had turned to a gentle rain, and the rhythm of it
on the roof was like distant music. No one had ever called her pretty
before, and his touch was like fire on her skin. When the lantern guttered
and went out, she took him by the hand and boldly led him to her bed.
The next morning he was gone, leaving her father's clothes neatly folded at
the foot of the bed. She told herself it was no more than she should have
expected and that she was lucky not to have been murdered in her sleep, and
that was the end of that. But of course, it wasn't, for in a few weeks it
developed that he'd left her something to remember him by.
Margaret kept on as she had before. Before her belly grew big enough to
show, her father's ship went down with all hands, and so there was none to
reproach her for her shame. The townsfolk gossiped, she was sure, but she
paid them no mind. Coovara never regained his fierceness, but perhaps his
reputation was enough to protect her, for no one gave her any trouble.
When her time came, it was a long, hard labor. The baby was turned wrong,
and finally the midwife had to reach deep into Margaret's body to twist it
around. Great gouts of blood coated the midwife's arms, and there was a pain
like nothing Margaret had ever felt, and then the baby slipped out in a
burning, tearing rush. But it was all for naught, for the midwife said the
babe had been throttled by the cord. Margaret was too exhausted even to cry
when the midwife wrapped the tiny body in the bloodstained quilt and took
For a day and a night, Margaret slept a deep and dreamless sleep. She woke
with her breasts full and hard, and no amount of pressing would release the
milk inside. She made herself some tea and called for Coovara, but he
wouldn't come, and she feared he'd run away. She was too weak to do anything
but return to bed, and soon she was shivering and sweating with milk fever.
She slept again, fitfully, and awoke to a scratching at the door and a
strange squalling sound. Staggering to her feet, she pulled the door open.
There on the doorstep was Coovara, nuzzling at a damp, ragged bundle. It was
a wee baby, red-faced and screaming and swaddled in a stained blanket. When
she picked him up, he rooted around until she offered him her breast; he
latched on with a powerful suck, and the blocked milk rushed out so hard it
overflowed his mouth.
At first Margaret thought that the midwife had brought her an orphaned child
to foster. But she recognized her own stitches on the quilt and the patches
made from her old calico gown. Stranger still, when she unwrapped the babe,
his soft skin and dark curls were all rimed with salt and sand, as if he'd
been bathed in the ocean, and there was a thin red mark all around his neck.
If she had any doubts that her own child had somehow been returned to her,
they faded as he grew and became the spitting image of his father. She named
him Jack, after her own father, and he took to the water like a duck. He
could swim before he could walk, and from the time he could toddle, he would
disappear with Coovara and she would find them wandering the docks, watching
the ships come in. Jack was nine when he ran away to sea. Coovara never
recovered; he wasted away to nothing and died a few weeks later.
News of Jack came from odd places: broadsheets, rumors, and even a few
letters from the boy himself, often containing extravagant gifts from
strange lands. Then for many long years she received no word from him. Some
said that he'd been killed in a mutiny, and others that he'd been shot by a
jealous husband, but Margaret knew her boy was too special to die by any
ordinary means. Finally, after ten years of silence, she found on her
doorstep a cask overflowing with gold, gems, and ropes of pearls as black as
midnight. She knew all was well.