Teabox Tales - The Hagstone Promise (Part Two of Two)
Here it is, part two of The Hagstone Promise! This has proven to be quite a lot harder to perfect than the first part, and I'm not as happy with it as I was with the first half.
Still, I'd hate to leave you all hanging for too long. I hope you enjoy it.
For years I mourned the simplicity of the village. The empty seafront. The days when I could wander freely. I mourned her, too.
But, as much as I loathe to admit it, being taken away by social services was not nearly as awful as my mum told me it would be. There were no raised voices, and I was not struck. But there was an eerie liminal fakeness to it all, living the better part of a decade in a bedroom with a fire safety notice on the door and locks on all the windows. I was safe, but not a lot else.
Then, when I came of age, my life was upturned once more. I moved up in the world, but only slightly. From a bedroom with locks on the windows in a children’s home, to a bedsit with locks on the windows in a council building.
My first job was in a kebab shop. It was simple busywork, really. I knew everything I was supposed to do from watching my mother when I was a child. But that barely kept a roof over my head, so I kept my eye out for something better.
I became a cleaner, which suited me better, and earned me just enough for a true place of my own. Soon, I was the proud renter of my very own little house. My first true home.
My life seemed to settle into routine after that. The little feral girl was no more. I was tamed.
But there was still something in the back of my head. Something that gnawed at me. My friend.
Once, in the childrens’ home, I’d had a big emotional outburst about her. I’d told an older boy who bullied me that she was coming for him when she was strong enough, and then the woman with the straight white teeth had taken me to the office to “talk about my feelings.”
“Now now,” she had said. “You’re a big girl. You know that there’s no such thing as mermaids.”
But I’d refused to forsake her. It took a barrage of pills to get me to recant and parrot the lines they’d told me, and even then only barely.
She wasn’t like the fairies I saw in the fields because I knew deep down that they were just my imagination. I wanted to believe in them, to see them flutter and frolic, so I forced myself to until it was so. But she was different. I could not have dreamed up her fingers in my hair. The stories she told me. She was real, I knew it in my bones. And besides, I had the hagstone.
I wore it every day on a cord around my neck. And then, when the cord disintegrated, I put it on a silver chain.
I’d given up hope of her ever coming back. She wouldn’t be able to find me here, so many miles from the sea. But I still liked to think of her.
Once, in the spring, I took the hour-long bus trip back to the village and stayed in a cheap B&B. I couldn’t find her through a whole weekend of searching. I thought that she must’ve forgotten me. It was so many years ago, and we were children after all. I went home emptyhanded. Broken-hearted.
But then there came a knock on the door at gone midnight one night, waking me from my sleep. I groaned, stirring in my bed. A house call at this time could not be good news, I thought.
The knock came again, in loud thumps this time. Then there was a metallic clatter, the sound of the letter box being pushed open, and a voice.
It was her, I was sure of it. My heart jumped into my throat.
I sprung from the bed and ran to the door, throwing it open wide. And there she was, all grown up. And boy had she grown. She had to stoop to get through the door, and her tail trailed for metres down the corridor.
She was gasping for air, her gills bone dry. And her body was covered in scars, slashes of silvery white on her dark grey hide. But it didn’t seem to bother her. She looked down at me and smiled.
“You came back!” I said.
“I’m sorry I took so long, but you were rather hard to find.”
“Are you.... Can you breathe right now?”
A dry crackle emerged from the back of her throat. “Uhh. No.”
I rushed her into the kitchen, running a tea towel under the cold tap until it was saturated. She crouched obligingly, and I pressed it against her gills, leaving the towel hanging across her shoulders like a scarf.
She inhaled deeply. “That’s… That’s better. Thank you.”
I stood on tiptoes, cupping her cold face in my hands. It was such a nice face, even covered in scars. “So, you did it?” I asked. “You’ve overthrown your mother?”
She smiled, revealing a mouthful of teeth now yellowed and chipped. “Her and many others beside. My rule is now total and unquestioned, and you can be my queen. Come, the witch is waiting.”
Ah. I’d rather forgotten that bit. When I was that broken little girl, it had sounded like the greatest life in the world. But now I was grown. I had a job. A house. I was no longer troubled by pains so great that I felt I needed to escape them so totally.
I was a poor swimmer, and I’d grown a distaste for fish. But I was still so lonely…
She could see the hesitation in my eyes.
“Are… are we still doing that?”
“Yes. God, yes! I’ve waited so long.”
She swallowed hard. “You can say no. I… I’m still glad to see you.”
She took my hand and squeezed it tightly, her curved claws digging slightly into my palm. Why was I doubting? I had wanted this for so long. I couldn’t quite meet her gaze.
“Can’t you just… Can’t we just spend the night together? Talk about it?”
I felt her pat me on the back with her other hand. “We can talk, but I need to be in water. The cloth isn’t working very well anymore.”
I had a bathtub in my little rented house, but not a big one. It barely fit me, so it had an ice cube’s chance in hell of fitting her. Still, we tried. If she laid just right, the top third of her could fit so that her gills were under the water (freezing cold, at her request). The bottom two-thirds, her serpentine tail, hung over the edge in a vast coil on the ground.
“I’m comfortable,” she insisted, teeth gritted.
“Are you sure? I have a garden hose out back if…”
She raised her hand and pointed at my neck. “You still have the stone!”
I touched it, wrapping my finger around the chain and smiling warmly. “I’ve worn it every day since you gave it to me. Was the only proof I had that you were real. I got bullied a lot at the home and…”
“I’ll have to crush all your enemies, too. But it isn’t hard to kill humans. It won’t take long.”
“No! I don’t want you to kill anyone! They were just kids. Kids in a rough situation,” I said. “Kids just like me.”
She gave a drawn-out sigh, slipping backwards in the tub so that her head was underwater. bubbles emerged from her parted lips.
“You can take the social worker if you want though,” I added quietly. “I’ll just look the other way while you’re doing it.”
She smiled, face distorted under the movement of the water.
“And maybe the boss from my first job. You can take him.”
Then, with a great splash, she rose from the water. She gripped the side of the bathtub and looked at me, her eyes wide.
“Is it a good life?” she asked. “Being a human?”
I sighed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I suppose it’s a lot less free than what you’re used to. A lot less independent. You’ve always got to jump through someone else’s hoop, so to speak. But it’s a safe life. There’s pretty much always enough food to eat, and you never really get into fights, or at least not bad ones.”
She took a lock of her oily black hair and wound it around her finger. “I was thinking. If the witch can turn a human into someone like me, then… Then perhaps she could turn me into a human. Just for a while.”
“Do you want to be a human?”
“I’d like to see what it feels like.”
That was how the whole night was spent, and much of the next day as well; her struggling to sit comfortably in that little bathtub, and me on the floor beside her. We did talk, but she had grown so tired that much of it was of no real consequence.
By the time the afternoon came around, we were planning our leave. But I was still undecided. I cursed the sense of adult practicality I had gained, because she was all I had ever wanted since I was small, but I could no longer imagine a life out at sea.
But she was willing to try out being human. It seemed an awful shame, though; to take a creature so wild and beautiful and make her into just another work-a-day so-and-so. Could she ever be happy that way? Living a life of grey days with nothing to be fought for or plundered?
But she would be safe. I had seen the scars on her tail. The jagged chips in her teeth. A great tear in her leathery dorsal fin. If she was human, nothing would hurt her.
When she explained to me the lengthy route she had taken from the village, I wondered how she’d made it all on her own without suffocating. But this time we had my car, and it would only take an hour.
Though it was difficult to cram her into the back seat, and there was no way she could wear a seatbelt with a bucket of water on her lap to wet her gills with, the concept of a car seemed to rather excite her.
“This is so useful. I’ve never moved so quickly in my life,” she said, open-mouthed with awe, about twenty minutes into the journey. “Does it work underwater?”
“No. It’d break underwater.”
“I dunno, it just would,” I replied. “What you’re wanting is a submarine, and those are very expensive.”
She gave a downhearted sigh. “Oh.”
Once we were out of the city, we reached the miles and miles of open fields. The very same fields I’d haunted like a restless ghost when I was young. I couldn’t help but smile. The afternoon sun lit them up like gold, and they were just as beautiful as they were in my dreams.
But she had something else on her mind. I heard a wet squeal as she prodded the window with her finger.
“I noticed this earlier. All the plants here are in lines, and all the same. Why would someone do this?”
Between the stunning view and her constant questioning, it had gotten rather hard to keep my eyes on the road.
“That’s a field. I told you about fields when I was younger. Do you remember?”
“The place where the fairies live?”
“No. No, I made that up,” I replied. “Food grows in fields.”
She laughed, just a little bit. “You eat plants? You don’t have to hunt them or fight them? You just… You just pick them out of the ground and you have food? That’s… That’s not true, is it? Nothing is that easy.”
“Most of the time we don’t even pick them, we get them from the supermarket.”
“I’d like to pick food from the ground. It sounds peaceful, like the old stories that the witch tells.”
I smiled. “I have a pot of strawberries in my garden, and a tomato plant in a little plastic greenhouse. Then there are blackberries, they’ll be in season soon, but I don’t like them very much.”
“You’re so lucky.” She sighed.
“You think so?”
We caught our first glimpse of the sea soon after; a little grey-green bar on the horizon that quickly burst into full view as we approached. Then there was the old pier, its legs long and blackened and skeletal. Gulls wheeling in the sky. The colourful flash of the amusement arcades. The distant whiff of deep fat fryers. The village, alive for the summer.
“Home,” she whispered.
I nodded, but something burned inside me. It all came back to me in an instant. Men with tattoos and cigarettes. Plates of stodgy leftovers. Knowing full well I was unwanted by the person who should’ve wanted me most of all. Being filled with emotions more intense than my little body could hold. But then there were the early mornings. Dirt caked into the treads of my trainers. Cold seawater rushing around my ankles. Basking on the rocks. Knowing her. The fateful night we made our promise.
“Home,” I agreed.
I parked on a quiet road where I knew she wouldn’t be seen, and we headed for the beach. The tide was drawing in and the tourists had left, so we realised that there was no real need for discretion, but we headed for the shadowy darkness under the pier regardless.
We sat in the sand, watching the slow back and forth of the waves. Then, she turned to leave.
“Stay here,” she said.
“Where are you going?”
“To call the witch.”
I saw her slither across the beach and disappear into the water, and then I was all alone. I took a deep breath, the air thick with the scent of salt and damp wood. Reaching a hand behind my neck, I unclasped the silver chain so I could hold the hagstone in my hand.
It was such a familiar object; the last thing I saw every night when I took it off, and the first thing I saw in the morning. But here, in the place it had first originated, it seemed brand new again. I slipped it off the chain and clenched it tightly.
She was taking a long time. Had she left me? Had she had a change of heart?
I unclenched my hand and examined the stone again. I held it up to my eye and looked through it, before slipping the hole onto one of my fingers. To my surprise, it fit perfectly. It had been a ring this whole time.
I was so busy admiring it that I almost didn’t notice the great grey behemoth crawling its way towards me. It was the witch, all fifty feet of them. They were too heavy to stand upright, so they crawled, their webbed hands twisted into feet to drag them through the sands. Their hair was a matted tangle, their eyes featureless white pearls.
“So, this is the little morsel that I’ve heard so much about,” the witch said, every word a growl. “Hmmm. They’re a strange looking thing, but they’ll make it as one of us right enough.”
My friend shot the witch a look.
The great beast drew back in surprise. “Oh. It’s going to be that way, is it?”
My friend bit her bottom lip. It was strange. Fear was such a foreign emotion on her face. “Will it be permanent?”
“No,” said the witch. “For a lesser witch it might be, but I’ve been around long enough to know what I’m doing. It will be perfectly reversible.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” I asked.
My friend took my hand. “I was thinking. I can give you hearts and livers and gold, but I can’t give you magical ground food, or… Or houses that move you to wherever you want. But maybe I could stay with you, to keep you safe from things that hurt. I want to be like you, just for a little while. And then, when we want to, the witch can make us like me, and we can hunt.”
“I… I think… I think that might work.”
“So,” asked the witch. “This is really what you want?”
There was a flash of white light. The smell of burning filled the air for just a moment. The witch was gone, and my friend was human.
She was short. Well-built, with squared shoulders and calloused hands. Her skin was pink and raw from the sting of the seawater. She looked at me, dark eyes wide, confused but utterly delighted.
“It worked,” she said, before promptly falling flat on her face.
I crouched down and helped her to her feet. She clung to my shoulders, legs shaking like a newborn fawn.
“How do you work these things?”
“You’ll get the hang of it,” I replied.
I drove her home, wrapped in my jacket, and our life together began.
I can’t say that it was all plain sailing to begin with. She did not take naturally to domesticity, no matter how hard she tried. It was the simple things, mainly.
Cooking food: how much heat was too much, and how much heat was not enough. After her third bout of food poisoning, I taught her how to order takeaway instead. Clothing, and how it absolutely must be worn outside. And property, which confused her for the longest time. Just because it could be taken, that doesn’t mean she could take it.
But once she hit her stride, our lives became complete. The two feral girls; finally tamed and reunited.
When summer comes, and I get a few precious days off work, we go back to the village to fulfil the promise exactly as we made it all those years ago. The witch changes us, and we swim. She hunts, and she gives me hearts and livers and gold.