Teabox Tales - The Hagstone Promise (Part One of Two)
Another piece of writing based on a writing prompt, this one from user U/The_Transginger on Reddit (which can be found here).
This story has two parts, the second of which will be out soon.
For most of the year there was precious little to do in the place where the land met the sea. The tourists took the fun with them when they went home, leaving us nothing but traces. Browning grass on the village green where the funfair had stood. Picnic litter strewn across the dunes. Shutters drawn low on sleeping amusement arcades as they dreamt through all the grey days yet to come.
As a young girl, I lived with my mother in the rooms above a fish and chip shop. I can’t remember if the chip shop belonged to her or if she just worked there, but it took up almost all her waking hours. The role of father was played by a carousel of dubious local men, but they all blur together in my head. The whiff of beer and cigarette smoke. Faded blue and green and red etched into leathered skin. The warm pink sting of being struck, and then the white hot of raised voices.
I was unwanted and I knew it. But there was a freedom in that; the freedom to pass through a place totally unregarded. I was a scruffy little feral girl, roaming as far afield as my legs could carry me and living an elaborate fantasy life. In one direction I could walk for miles through farmer’s fields, muttering to the fairies only I could see. In the other was the beach, and my hours of combing on my hands and knees for sea glass and hagstones.
The beach was my favourite, in the end. My friend played with me there.
We first met on a cold January afternoon, just as the sun was setting. I had climbed up onto one of the wooden groynes and had tried to tiptoe all the way along it, but I had started to stumble. I had gotten so caught with maintaining my balance that I didn’t notice I’d walked fifty feet out to sea, and when I fell, I didn’t know that the water was deeper than I was tall. But I’d fumbled desperately with my little hands, and barely managed grab onto one of the wooden beams.
I wrapped both of my arms round the crumbling wood and squeezed my eyes shut. The ocean gnawed at an open gash on my ankle, and I felt a scream bubbling up in my throat, but my teeth remained anchored into my bottom lip.
Then I felt a prickle around my ankle. The pinch of fingernails. Pulling. Sudden, immense strength. Before I knew it, I was under. My mouth threw open and I was screaming, but it made no sound. Water burned in my throat, the salt like fire.
I thrashed because I knew I was drowning, but then I stopped, limp as a ragdoll. Made peace with what was happening. The ocean would take me, I thought. I would never need to go home again.
But then there was sand. Air, cold and bitter. Bleary eyes blinking out into the shadows. I screamed out between hurried, shallow breaths.
Then she slithered into view, leering down over me. Grey skin. Round black eyes. Hair like strands of seaweed. A body like mine on the top, but long and serpentine on the bottom, slippery like an eel.
She gave an uncertain, guttural sound.
I screamed again, but she tried to silence me, jabbing a bony finger into my upper lip.
“You shhh,” she said. “Shhh. Quiet now.”
But I couldn’t be calmed. I continued to wail.
“No no. No more drowning. Safe here. Safe,” the creature continued, voice hushed, smothering my mouth with the oily palm of her hand.
Her eyes seemed to glimmer, then. Just for a moment. I realised I could recognise something in them. Something familiar. There was no need to be afraid because she was also a child like me. I took in a sharp intake of breath through my nose and stifled my tears. Once she was sure that I would be quiet, she retracted her hand, and I tried my best to get my bearings.
We were on the beach, under the great, algae-streaked legs of the pier that loomed above us. It was cold and dank and shady, the gaps between the boards casting thin snakes of light onto the sand. It was not a particularly pleasant place to be, and I was starting to shiver. My little winter coat was completely waterlogged.
“You smell like fish,” I said.
“You were going to drown,” she replied. “Why were you so far out?”
“I was trying to climb the… The uh… The big wooden things.”
She tilted her head quizzically. “Why?”
“I… I dunno.”
There was a pause then. She blinked deliberately.
“What… What are you?” I asked.
“Mmm… Uh,” She fumbled. “I am… I am from the sea.”
“Like a mermaid?”
“Mer-maid?” she said, drawing out the word like she was testing it out for the first time.
“Yeah, like… Half human and half fish. From a picture book.”
“No, I’m not half of anything. I’m all me.”
“Why did you save me?”
She drew back from me, just a little bit. Her gigantic tail slithered, a torn dorsal fin unfurling like a fan.
“You were in danger,” she said. “And it was the right thing to do.”
From that moment on we were bonded. We played games, though she almost always won. She was remarkably agile on land, a sort of predatory precision to her every motion, and I was glad we had met as friends and not foes. Though she couldn’t remain on land forever, and had to slink back into the ocean every few minutes to wet her gills.
I stumbled home at gone ten o’ clock to an angry mother and a stodgy dinner in the fridge.
“Little cow. You’ve been out nicking, haven’t you? Social services’ll take you, and I’ll let em’.”
I didn’t respond. It didn’t hurt me anymore. I had a friend.
The days were so much brighter. I got up with the dawn and raced to meet her, and she was always waiting. I would paddle, uncaring that it was winter, and she would swim alongside me. Then we would climb up on the rocks, and I didn’t worry about falling because I knew she’d save me. She’d comb my hair with her spindly fingers and we’d talk. I didn’t have much to talk about because I didn’t have much of a life, but she did, and my questions were endless.
One answer at a time, she unravelled the mysteries of the North Sea.
The animals I only knew fried and battered she devoured raw. Plaice like brown disks, silvery little mackerel, and great knobbly sturgeon. She’d smile as she spoke of them, her cunning black snake of a tongue peeking out across the thorny landscape of her teeth.
She had a mother, some great ocean war-queen, and more sisters than she could count. Up until recently, they had hunted together. Seals were their favourite quarry. The very same seals that the tourists paid a small fortune to see, glimpsing them only through binoculars.
Her family hunted them in a complicated dance, carefully separating one from the group in a flurry of coordinated motions so they could kill them. The best meat was the organs, which went to the greatest of them, and the lowly got the marrow from their tough old bones. She had been great, once; dining on kidney and stomach, but never liver or heart. She had been told by an ancient witch that when she was grown, she would be strong enough to challenge her mother, so her sisters had driven her away. She had taken to prowling the shores until she was large enough to sieze power. The day was approaching, slowly but surely.
“So, you’re all alone now?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “Not anymore.”
“Do you miss them?”
A contemplative rattle emerged from the back of her throat. “No.”
“You’re so lucky. I wish I could leave my stupid family and never go back.”
She tilted her head. “Why don’t you?”
“It’s not that easy.”
We sat in silence for a moment, watching the grey lull of the waves. Then she smiled and started to laugh. She rose from her sitting position, stretching out her coils so she stood tall. “I’ll take you! When I’m all grown up and I’ve killed my mother I’ll take you as my queen and we’ll be free together forever.”
“I’ll give you everything. Hearts. Livers. Gold. Do you like gold?”
I fumbled to my feet, raising my hands into the air and almost slipping down the rockface. “I can’t swim! I can’t hunt seals, I’ll drown!”
“The witch.” she said. “She has a spell for that, I’m sure of it.”
I lost my footing and stumbled. I yelped in surprise, but my friend caught me in one smooth motion.
When I got home that night, there was an unfamiliar car outside of the fish and chip shop. A nice car. Expensive. It would surely be robbed, I thought.
There was a woman in a neat felt coat on the sofa. Her blonde hair was grey at the root, curls held in place with so much hairspray that I could smell it from half the room away. She smiled at me; her teeth too white by far. Too straight.
“Ah, it’s you,” she said. “Take a seat. I won’t bite.”
The aura of self-righteousness was unmistakable. It was a social worker.
Then my mother appeared at the kitchen doorway, dabbing her eyes with a balled-up tissue.
“I can’t cope with the little monster,” she sniffed, voice dripping with melodrama. “She’s feral. Doesn’t even go to school, she goes out nicking and scratching up cars.”
The social worker’s synthetic smile widened. “Is this true?”
I turned tail and ran.
They both tried to chase me, but neither could match my pace.
I tried to go back down to the beach, but the tide had almost gone in, so I hid in the darkness under the pier where the water was only ankle-deep. I put my face in my hands and howled, my anguish echoing off the weather-beaten timbers. My days of freedom were over. I would be taken away.
Once, a children's charity collector had put a leaflet through our letterbox. It had said that hitting was wrong, and it had a phone number to call, so I told myself that I’d call it. But when my mother found the leaflet hidden under my pillow, she’d torn it up into a hundred tiny pieces and shouted.
“They take away naughty children,” she said. “Children that cause problems for their mums. Give em’ electric shocks, and dope em’ up on pills so they can never be happy again. If you go airing out our dirty laundry to these people, then you’ll really have something to cry about.”
And I really was crying now. Everything was salt, my tears and the sea. Everything hurt. Everything was over.
But then came her hand. My friend’s cold grey hand on my shoulder.
She frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re taking me away!” I blubbed. “I’ve been bad, and now they’re taking me away to the place for naughty children!”
I grabbed her forearms and looked deeply into her beady black eyes. “Take me with you. Take me to the witch. I want to be with you!”
“I… I can’t go back. Not ‘til I’m strong enough.”
I fell to my knees, the tide drawing in and lapping at my sodden jeans. She shielded me from the water with her tail and moved in close.
“Listen to me,” she whispered, her hissing voice barely audible over the roar of the waves. “They will take you, I can’t help that. But I’ll come for you when I’m grown. I’ll take you away, and together we will crush all of our enemies.”
I sniffed the salt from my nose. “Do you promise?”
Her hand clasped mine. She forced something hard and wet into my palm.
I pulled my hand away and squinted at the object in the darkness. It was a milky white hagstone, the hole placed perfectly in the centre like a doughnut. By the time I looked up to ask her why she had given it to me she was nowhere to be found.
I gripped the stone tightly and took a deep breath of night air. Tears burned in my eyes, but my body wouldn’t let me cry anymore.
I returned, sodden and sandy and shaking with fear, to the house. The social worker was there, and a policeman.
They took me away. Far away from where the land met the sea.