percevale

The village is called Corley, and it sits at the top of a grey cliff which pours itself into the churning sea.

When the rainy wind blows from the west, the water-horses dance along the breakers, and the cliffside crumbles just a little more as the wild waves beat themselves against it.

To the south, green pastures roll, speckled with grey boulders and ridges of stone. Sometimes, battered pickup trucks with muddy wheels make their way down the dirt road to town, but mostly Corley stands isolated on the cliff crumbling down into the hungry water. Most in Corley don’t have cars.

Thomas McGann is born in a storm, where the water-horses scream at the base of the cliff and the wind makes the chapel bells cry out in their iron voices. He is the youngest of three children with eyes like the pale salt, and the only one who is dark-haired like their mother. His sister and his brother and his father all have hair golden as the barley. (It is hard to grow grain, in the rocky pastures to the south of Corley, but some farmers do so).

Children are not so blind to adults as their parents may think, and it does not take long for Thomas to understand that his father does not like him- or does not like the way he looks. He does not understand this, for his father must like the way his mother looks, with her raven-wing hair that pours down past her waist and her deep eyes like dark water. His father always says, my children with their beautiful hair, like the sun. Not like that cloudy light that shines on Corley and the godforsaken cliffs, but like real and proper sunlight. When I was a sailor down in the tropics, I saw that kind of fire.

His father hits him once, and only once- knocks him backwards in the kitchen, and his hand lands on the whistling teakettle and the skin hisses and breaks apart.

His father hits his mother more.

He would not have seen it, if he had been in school, but most days he sneaks out and goes to walk along the cliffs, or to sit in the dark little chapel and watch the red light of the chancel lamp. He would not have seen it, if he had been in the chapel, but he grew hungry and decided to sneak back in and find some bread and cheese to bring out to the ocean’s edge.

But he does see.

Thomas is only eight, and he does not know what to do.

When he comes inside, he puts his hand over the bruises on his mother’s wrist, and she pulls down her sleeve and sits him down next to the rusting radiator to brush the caked salt from his hair. She sings softly, and tells him stories. (His brother and his sister do not care for stories, but big, strange Thomas McGann drinks stories like water). The stories his dark-haired mother tells are different from the stories he hears in church, and they scare him more.

She talks of the white horses, and how they snatch fishermen out of boats and drag them to the silt sea-floor, and how you would not be drowned dead yet before they shredded the flesh from your bones, but she talks also of how they sing in the storm, and how the colts are tossed about by the waves until they learn to pick their way over the top of the hungry sea.

She talks of the Leviathan, who stirs out in the depths beyond where the fishing-boats go, and she tells how when he moves, his blood bubbles up blue and green and glows on the surface of the water, churned up by the movement of the sea.

“There are strange gods in the waters,” she says once, while she wipes the blood and dirt from his knees. It is late at night, and her dark eyes gleam in the flickering electric light. “More cruel and cunning and hungry than yours. When you walk upon the cliffs, my boy, be sure you do not listen to their voices.”

“But you love the sea,” says Thomas.

“I love the sea, and yet it hungers,” she answers. “The gods of the sea and the wild are jealous gods.” For a moment, she pauses, and then laughs softly. “All gods are jealous gods.”

Thomas is as large as a man by the time he is twelve, and he gets in fights. He is sent back from school one day, with a wide smile full of sharp teeth and blood dripping from a cut on his head. His mother does not ask why it was he was fighting- there are bruises on her face, and she is busy with her knitting. Rain falls against the windows, the cold and damp threatening to creep inside, and the rusty radiator creaks.

Thomas climbs onto a stool to help himself to the biscuits in a jar on the top shelf, and- as young boys often do- misjudges how tall he is and cracks his head against the ceiling.

The ceiling falls loose.

He swears loudly as the loosened lath falls and hits him in the shoulder, and something cold and soft slides out and falls over his head. From the living room, he hears his mother sigh, and then her breath catches in her throat. As the boy struggles out of the heavy, softly furred folds of cloth covering his head and shoulders, his mother runs in with one knitting needle still in her hand, a haphazard trail of yarn spilled behind her.

“It hurt a lot,” he calls, already shifting guiltily.

She snatches up the coat, and holds onto it.

It occurs to Thomas that his mother is very small. She is wearing a floral-print dress, and he can see the bones in her arms, and the great furred thing that fell from the ceiling looks large enough to cover her entirely. The bruise on her cheek is stark against her pale, sharp features. She does not seem upset at him, though, so he reaches out to take the coat back. “Sorry,” he says, “It fell from the attic, I think. I can put the lath back.”

Flinching, she snatches it back and throws it over her shoulders, and runs into the living room and out the door. The screen slams behind her, and Thomas stands stunned for a minute, with the cold salt wind whispering in through the house.

“Wait!” he calls, far too late, and begins to run. His legs are longer than hers are, but when she reaches the cliff and skips lightly over the side he skids to a halt, looking over into the dizzying expanse of sky which lies between Corley and the grey-green ocean below. She is already halfway down the cliff, feet on a small and secret path, her greying hair torn loose by the wind. She looks back up at him, and then turns away.

“Mother,” calls Thomas, his voice made ragged by the wind as he lowers himself over the cliff. It is hard to find the same places she was treading, the water-slicked paths along the cliff, but he is able to follow her for a ways before his weight makes the grey stone crumble. He falls, hand scraping desperately along the cliff-face, and strikes gritty sand with a crack. Pain lances up his side, and he whimpers softly into the ground.

On the beach, his mother gazes at him with her dark and liquid eyes. The seal-fur coat is gleaming with rain, and her floral dress is torn. For a moment, she starts towards him, and then stops. “My blue-eyed boy,” she says softly. Out of arm-reach, with no chance he might try to grab at her, to keep her here upon the grey shore of Corley. “It is not for the sea to take you, but it will call to you. Be careful of the hungry gods.”

And then she is gone, running barefoot out onto the sea-swept boulders as the waves surge up with a sudden sound like thunder, and like singing. Thomas pushes himself up just enough that he can see the grey shapes of the seal-people in the tide, and then they, too, are lost in the flying foam.

When they find Thomas, with an arm and a rib broken, he is weeping.

“My mother is drowned,” he says to the priest, and to the soft-voiced old women who come to their house bringing food and sad faces- but to his father he says,

“She went far away from here, you dirty bastard. She went to dance the seal-dance, where the dark voices whisper on the water.” He is too big to be hit, now.

Thomas McGann dreams of dark water. He dreams of his mother, the grey seal dancing in the breakers. Most nights, he dreams of floating suspended in the water, with the dim moonlight shining down through the surface above him. It feels a little like flying, and a little like home.

Not so long after, his oldest brother fights with his father. It is nighttime. There is a casserole on the table that nobody really touched, a little burned around the edges. Thomas sits silently amidst the shouting, and his sister buries her head in her hands. It is the first time Thomas has seen their father shout at one of the golden-haired children.

He is still, right up until their father grabs the poker from beside the fire. "You made her kill herself, you horrible old man!" his brother shouts, pale eyes full of too much rage to see the poker. Big, quiet Thomas moves, and he catches the swing against the flat of his hand before it is even really started. The metal leaves a long, sooty mark on his palm, and the next morning the mark has turned to a faint purple bruise. The next morning his oldest brother is gone.

These days, he walks mostly along the cliff-line. He works on a farm, outside of town, but he always comes back to the edge of the cliffs of Corley to hear the seawater hissing and eating at the stone. Sometimes, he goes down the cliff, as far as the edge of the water, but when the white foam snaps at his boots he remembers his mother and her stories of the hungry sea-gods, who are jealous and vengeful and have great blind eyes and teeth like knives.

Does he believe in the sea-gods? Does he believe in any gods? He wears an iron crucifix around his neck, but many people in Corley do.

He dreams more often of the depths, and he wakes sometimes with the taste of sweat and saltwater in his mouth. He is not quite sure if the dreams are good or bad, and this is the true thing that frightens him. If the sea is vengeful, and his mother was stolen from the sea, then it is not done yet.

"If you love the sea so much," asks his golden-haired sister, "Why not become a fisherman like Father was?" Was. A fisherman before the water became hostile towards him, and the sea broke his boat apart. Thomas and his sister make the money now, and their father hides it.

"I don't know if I love the sea," he answers.

"You always watch the water, like Mother did. And you look so sad."

"The water wants me to get in it," says Thomas. He leans his forehead against the window. "It would be easy. But I don't think it will let me go, after."

His sister shivers a little, looking towards the cliffs and the sky beyond. It is not until several seconds later that she says, "You say such strange things, little brother."

It is three years after his mother's disappearance when the ocean at last draws in Thomas McGann. He looks out over the edge of the cliff, and he sees the silver-glass horses dancing in the surf, and the shining blue trails that form when the water is churned up behind them. The blood of the Leviathan, he thinks. The wind whispers softly in his ears, and he leans over the edge of the cliffs and looks down into the ocean.

The water draws him. It feels like home. For a moment, he thinks the wind smells of his mother, and the lotion she put on her hands.

He pauses for a moment, and then he runs to the path that the fishermen take when they go down the cliff to the water’s edge. It is dark, and the night is cloudy- the only light comes from below, the blue of sea-tossed bioluminescence. “Mother?”

The water whispers around his boots, catching at his ankles and pulling him a step forwards. Your birthright, salt-eyed son of the water, says a voice which hisses like the breakers on the rocks. He flinches back at that, looking around in the darkness. Your father has cruel eyes, says the darkness. Your oldest brother has already gone away. Leave the weeping shore, boy.

His stomach twists with a sudden hunger, and he is standing knee-deep in water. “Where is my mother?” he asks.

Your mother is far from here, in the deep-water where the schools of fish swim, where the seal-people sing to their gods of sound and storm. He sees now, the faces in the water, and he is waist-deep. The water is too frothy to make out any detail, but their hands clutch at his coat.

“I cannot breathe underwater,” he says, and nevertheless they pull him forwards, down into the choking deep. He nearly gasps as the icy saltwater closes over his head, but barely manages to cling to a little air as the water floods into his nose. The pale hands pull at his shirt and cling to his arms, and he realizes all at once that he is not in the sea off the cliffs of Corley- this water is much deeper, and there is no ground beneath his feet.

Far below, in the darkness of saltwater, something coils and moves. There are pale faceless figures all around him, and Thomas grits his teeth and throws a punch. It is slowed by the water, and by the bulk of his shirt and his coat, but it catches one of them in the head. The movement shakes the iron crucifix free from under his sweater, and it floats up and brushes against one of the creatures which pull him down.

At once, it rears back, the water shimmering as a heat-burn forms on its pale skin at the touch of the metal. Thomas twists, kicking upwards towards the surface and breaking away from the other creature which holds him with its smooth, clinging hands. His vision blurs, and he lets a little stinging saltwater into his lungs.

I will die here, he thinks, in the darkness and the salt.

And then his head breaks water, and the iron crucifix is hanging around his neck. He staggers from the water, chest heaving, and clutches at the cross.

You had only to be devoured, the voice says as he breaks free of the ocean, crumpling on the beach. Then you could have come home to the sea. Seafoam hisses around his hands as he vomits seawater, his vision slowly steadying. The golden moon breaks through the grey-blue clouds, pale beams of light scattering over the water and the great grey cliffs.

“The sea-gods are not my gods,” says Thomas McGann, when his breath is back and he has rolled well away from the water’s edge. “They are cruel to me.”

The air whispers with hunger, and still he feels drawn in the pit of his stomach to the sea. High above, the wind chases away the clinging clouds, whistling through the village of Corley. The iron church-bell booms in the distance, stirred by the wind.

Thomas McGann, fifteen years old, staggers back into his home and the screen door slams behind him. “You shouldn’t be out so late,” says his sister, with the tired eyes and the golden hair. There are bruises on her arm, and she pulls down her sleeves to hide them.

“We’re leaving,” says Thomas. He crosses the room and strikes the ceiling with his fist, opening their father’s cache where the sealskin coat once was. Money, and an unregistered old pistol.

“Where?”

He puts the pistol into his pocket and begins to pile food into a backpack, and after a moment she crosses the room to stand beside him and watch in silence. “Anywhere,” he says at last. “Inland. We’ll have to hike a few miles to get a bus, but we’ll be long gone by sunrise.”

She counts out the notes. “I have a little saved,” she says. “But Father-”

“Let the sea have him,” Thomas says, and his salt-pale eyes are cold, and his mouth is wide and full of sharp teeth. “Let the sea have the whole of Corley, too- they all knew what he did.”

His golden-haired sister leans against the counter for a moment, looking out to where the land drops off into salt-stained cliffs. “Long gone by sunrise,” she says.

At the foot of the grey cliff, the sea still hungers.

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