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vol vii, issue 2 < ToC
Maidens of the Sea
Wendy Nikel
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Lady ofCrackle Ball
the Lake ...
Maidens of the Sea
Wendy Nikel

Lady of
the Lake ...


Crackle Ball
Maidens of the Sea
Wendy Nikel
previous next

Lady of Crackle Ball
the Lake ...

Lady of
the Lake ...


Crackle Ball
Maidens of the Sea
 by Wendy Nikel
Maidens of the Sea
 by Wendy Nikel
Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.

The day dawns as red as fresh blood on a fishing boat's deck. I know when I see it, we'll have to work quickly. The grandmothers rouse us from our beds—Molly and Magdalena and Midge and me—and before we can rub the sand-sprinkled sleep from our eyes, they've bundled us up in our slickers and boots and rushed us down the sand-speckled beach.

"First day of spring!" Grandmother Gertie throws her hands to the skies, her hair flailing behind her. The others join in, all three looking every bit the part of Macbeth's Weird Sisters.

"And what a fierce one it will be!" Grandmother Ginny licks her fingertips to taste the breeze. "You're sure to find some vigorous catches today!"

We shiver against the biting wind and nod to one another, still in that surreal, half-dreaming state that so often accompanies a much-anticipated day. Yes, our task will be more difficult this year, but those creatures caught amid the peril of a spring squall are generally the strongest and healthiest. It's a good omen, one I tuck close to my heart among all my hopes and wishes and dreams for the day.

The hands into which I gather my supplies are red and raw, each blister a lesson in patience and perseverance, each scar a test of my strength. Today we will find out if it all is worth it.

"Bet you'll catch the best one, Moira," Magdalena whispers in my ear. Even after an entire year of bearing that name, it still takes a moment to recognize it as mine.

*     *     *
"We'll call you Moira," Grandma Gertie said exactly one year ago, a day that was both sharp and hazy in my memories, forever ago and just past. She handed me a bundle of supplies—woven lengths of scratchy sheep's wool, spools of thread by which to bind it, sandals of leather, a rain slicker, boots, and a single brown bowl and a spoon.

"You're welcome to call me by my real name," I said, testing out the boundaries of this strange, new place. Wondering what they'd called Lydia here. She'd trusted these old ways, the ways of her mother and grandmother and the generation before, but this world was still new to me, and I still had my doubts.

"We encourage the young women who come to the village to take on a new name," Grandma Gertie said in her matter-of-fact way, "as a symbol of your new life. Now go on and get settled in. It's almost time to bring in this year's catch, and you're not going to want to miss that."

*     *     *
"Well, go on then!" Grandma Greta says now, prodding us with her umbrella in sharp, rhythmic jabs until somehow, we're at the end of the pier and clambering aboard the Marieur.

In the bottom of the fishing boat lie four nets—one for each of us—woven by hand on the winter days when ice and hail kept us from the sea. My net contains cords the same shade of red as my hair and beads of amber to match my eyes. Each bit of glass represents a characteristic or trait, and I hold it up, examining each segment one final time. The net is strong, the bindings firm. It's of better quality than the nets we usually use, for today we wouldn't be bringing home cod or herring or mackerel. No, we have bigger, more important catches to snare on this, the first day of spring.

We push off from shore, far across the sea, taking turns with the ropes and rigging, working in synchronization as we've practiced for the past twelve months. Even Magdalena does her share today, which was half a miracle in itself, considering her usual tendency to daydream or sit on the railing, plaiting her ebony locks and singing morbid sea-shanties rather than joining in the work.

When we're far enough out, so far that the grandmothers' village is but a dull, dark stone on the shimmering beach, we throw down the anchor and set out our nets. They will be approaching soon, those strange, mysterious creatures we've only seen once before—on this day precisely one year ago. Only this time, the prize will be ours. Anticipation burns through my blood with each furious beat of my heart. The boat rocks steadily, as if to calm and soothe us as we watch the horizon, awaiting that which will change our lives forever.

*     *     *
"There's a contract," Lydia had warned me as she wound her station wagon through the narrow mountain pass. "Read all the terms carefully. Make sure this is what you really want. That you're willing to pay the price."

She glanced into the rearview mirror to check on her sleeping son, bundled in the car seat in the back. A maternal gesture, easily dismissed, at least then.

"Don't worry; I've got this." I'd been in ROTC and gone through boot camp with guys twice my size; if I could handle that, I could certainly handle this.

I'd told my other friends I was spending the year overseas, somewhere secluded, without WiFi. The truth was just too much to believe—even for me, sometimes. Coming from anyone but Lydia, I wouldn't believe it, either, but I knew her too well. I'd known her family since I was small enough to pedal my secondhand tricycle down the block while my own mother put on her makeup and headed out on the town with her friends, leaving me behind to watch Sesame Street alone.

Lydia's dad was a handsome, hardworking man who wouldn't step foot outside the city, a quirk that I'd never thought to question. He doted on her mom and brought her flowers each week to brighten her desk—giant, smiling-face sunflowers or perfect, marbleized tulips that made the whole house smell like spring. His gentle devotion never waned, not even when Lydia's older brother turned eighteen and disappeared, leaving everyone to speculate what dark secrets the family kept hidden that would make such a boy want to flee.

"If I didn't think you could do it, I wouldn't send you," Lydia said, her voice warping and bending under the words' weight. "But it isn't just about being tough and strong; goodness knows you've got that down."

"All I need to know is whether it's worth it."

"Every day."

Around us, the mountains opened and gave way to the sea, and the taste of salt filled the air. I inhaled deeply and thought one last time of the world I was leaving behind: not much more than a 9 to 5 job, piles of leftover take-out boxes, and a tank full of goldfish I always forgot to feed.

Lydia pulled her car off the road, the gravel crunching beneath the tires. "See that path that disappears around the cliff? Walk along there until you reach the village."

We said our goodbyes and I set off toward the sea, my bag slung over my shoulder and the crashing of the waves muffling all other sounds. I didn't look back to see how long Lydia would wait. It didn't matter; no matter the terms of this contract, I'd take it. I had to take the risk. I had to at least try. It'd worked for Lydia and it'd worked for her mother, why shouldn't it work for me, too?

"You should know, though," Lydia called after me, her words hurried, as if she'd tried to cork them up, but they'd burst out anyway. "Happiness comes with its own price. You can't lose that which you don't have."

*     *     *
They arrive with the storm.

No sooner do we see the odd ripple on the surface, the bright glimmer of scales beneath the waves, than the wind picks up and the rain pours down, mixing with the rolling waves.

"Hold onto your nets!" I shout over the crashing sea. Closer and closer, the creatures come, moving together as a single mass of silver.

Beside me, Molly whimpers. "Maybe we should wait until the storm has passed."

I don't answer. We've asked before, and the grandmothers had answered in their matter-of-fact way. It has to be today.

"When fate comes knocking, you can't put it on hold," Grandmother Ginny had said.

"This," Grandmother Greta had said, "is nothing more than a test of your dedication, your daring, your resourcefulness, your determination, your faith. Those who fail at this would have been unfit for the reward." The other grandmothers had just nodded knowingly.

Now the time is upon us.

The rush of swimming creatures rock the boat more than the storm, and they swirl around, as if curious about what would bring such a small boat with four young women out to these waters on this first morning of spring.

"I've got one!" Magdalena calls out first, the muscles in her arms bulging under the strain of her net. "I got one! Someone, help me pull it in!"

Midge and I exchange a glance. She can't be serious. Grandmother Greta has warned us of once, long ago when one woman had assisted another in pulling in her catch. The end result was a tragic tale of misplaced loyalties and burning jealousy. It was far from the happy ending we've been promised. Perhaps she'd told the story for Magdalena's sake—beautiful Magdalena, whose cheerful disposition makes us love her despite her shortcomings and weaknesses.

No, there can be no question as to whose catch it was, so Midge and I pretend not to hear, averting our eyes to our own nets and the fierce, silver creatures swarming beneath us.

When something finally snags in my net, the tug bites my palms, reopening old calluses. Tears stream down the corner of my eyes. Is this it? Is it time? Has all my work and waiting paid off? The grandmothers' lessons echo in my head. My elbows rattle against the edge of the boat. I grit my teeth, straining against its power.

Magdalena struggles with her net and I with mine, with Molly between us, looking back and forth, frightened and agape. Her fingers are entwined in the corner of her net, but her attention is on me, on Magdalena, on the rain-streaked skies. Everywhere but where it should be. She looks back to the shore and beyond, her eyes betraying her reluctance, her doubts.

"Molly! Pay attention!" I cry, but it's too late.

With a swift, almost graceful swish, Molly—still clinging to her net—is swept off her feet. Before any of us can react, she's gone, deep into the sea, where even her mustard-yellow slicker can't be seen.

*     *     *
Molly had sat beside me that first day of spring a year earlier, my very first ally in this strange place. We'd sat on the dune at a distance with Grandmother Ginny, watching that year's maidens bring their catches ashore and talking about what we'd hoped to find here.

"I'm most afraid of failing, aren't you?" Molly confided with an openness and ease that startled me. "It doesn't seem quite fair, does it, that the ones who fail should have to stay here, apart from the rest of the world? Just look at their little village out there on the peninsula. Doesn't it look like such a lonely place?"

"If I had to be banished from the world, this wouldn't be the worst place to live out that sentence." My apartment back home with its stack of dirty dishes and the couch bottomed-out on one side seemed a lot lonelier than the tidy, wind-swept village.

Molly laughed. "I suppose you're right. And someone needs to ensure the grandmothers are taken care of."

The terms of the contract were not what I'd expected, but that hadn't stopped me from signing. If I failed, I'd spend my days walking the beach and tending the grandmothers' huts, which didn't sound like a half-bad life when compared with what I was used to, but the price of success. ... I'd felt like the maiden in Rumplestiltskin as I'd put the old-fashioned quill pen to the parchment.

"Oh, look! They're back!" Molly said, jumping to her feet and pointing. "But three went out; where's the other?"

"Dangerous monsters swim among them," Grandmother Ginny said. "Hunters lurking in the shadows, hiding themselves in the flurry of scales and fins."

"How will we know which is which?" Molly frowned, shading her eyes against the sun's glare.

"Simple: the monsters are those who wish to harm you."

*     *     *
"Molly!" I scream into the wind and sea, as if somehow my voice could overpower the storm and demand it return her to our boat. I lean over the edge, reaching out toward the waves, grasping for those moments just past when she was here and safe and alive.

Midge shakes her head fiercely, gesturing to my net. Just in time, too, for the next tug would have been too much for such a tenuous grasp.

Molly is gone. Gone forever as if she was never here. And despite the aching, jagged hole it'd punctured in my heart, there isn't a thing I can do. I focus my attention on the net before me, hoping to forget, even if just for a moment. Slowly, ever so slowly, my determination returns. Hand over hand and blinking back tears, I pull the net in.

Vaguely, I sense Magdalena and Midge struggling with their nets beside me. Magdalena pulls her catch into the boat, and it thumps around near our feet. She throws a thick burlap blanket over it so that it won't flop out and collapses, panting, at the back of the boat.

I make steady progress. With each rock of the boat, each crash of water against the side, I pull my net further in until I can nearly touch the creature's shimmering scales, pressed against the amber beads. At the sight of them, my heart thrums with anticipation.

Midge cries out. She kneels at the boat's prow—arms outstretched, hands empty, face raised pleadingly to the sea. I have to look away.

She's dropped her net.

Midge's defeat fans the fire in my own heart. I didn't come all this way to end up alone and empty-handed. With one mighty tug, I haul the creature into the boat. I pant, gasping, my head mere inches from its own. It stares at me with unlidded eyes, its gills opening and closing, gasping for breath. It's nearly six feet long and healthy and strong. A fine catch, from all appearances. I close my eyes. The worst is over.

"Come on, then." When I catch my breath, I tug a burlap blanket over my prize. "Let's get to shore."

Midge sits, weeping, as we struggle against the wind, making our way, slowly, slowly to the sandy beach.

The grandmothers meet us with cheers and consolations, their umbrellas shielding their gray heads from the diminishing rain. With a tsk, Grandmother Ginny tucks Midge's blanket around her shoulders and leads her down the beach toward the village on the peninsula—her recompense for the opportunity.

Magdalena and I watch her until she disappears. I stand there, my hands bleeding and calloused, the salt and sand of the sea sticking to me as a hundred thousand thoughts swirl around my head, as hot, angry tears of grief cloud my vision.

I understand now, for the first time, what it means to truly lose someone. Yet how could the rending of my heart after losing someone like Molly or Midge, whom I'd known for such a short time, possibly compare to losing someone after years of happiness together? How could it compare to losing a husband ... a child ...?

I understand now what Lydia had meant. I understand the silent pain in her mother's eyes that summer her brother went missing.

"Grandmother Gertie," I say, grabbing her wrinkled hand in half-panic. "Is everything settled? There's no going back?"

The grandmothers' wrinkled countenances may read like well-loved books to each other, but they are a mysterious, forgotten language to me.

"Cold feet, Moira?" Grandmother Gertie asks gently. "I thought you were the strong one."

"I don't know that I'm strong enough to bear this. Is there still time to change my mind?"

"You can walk away at any time, but first, consider what you'd be missing."

Tired of gasping with aqueous gills, the creatures flopping in the bottom of our boat complete their transformation. Gills disappear into their necks. Noses form to breathe air. Muscular legs take the place of tail fins. Arms grow, thick and strong. Faces morph, developing eyelids and chins and noble brows, until what once were strange and magnificent creatures of the deep now look something like us.

*     *     *
Lydia had returned from her sabbatical accompanied by a tall, dark stranger. He held open doors, he got along with her friends, and in every quirk and freckle and shade of his personality, he seemed utterly, perfectly suited for her.

I brought Sean to their wedding—Sean whom I'd met on Tinder, whom all my friends thought was a catch because he liked skiing and his parents owned a vineyard out west. Sean, whose old girlfriend happened to be a waitress at the reception hall that day. After cake was served and her shift was over, she joined us at our table ("You don't mind, do you?"), and when the dancing began, he brought her on the floor ("For old times' sake"), and before the final dance, he slipped out with her without even saying goodbye.

Lydia caught me crying into my fifth glass of wine long after the other guests had departed.

"What's the secret?" I asked. I pleaded. I begged.

And finally, reluctantly, she told me.

*     *     *
The man holding my red-corded net looks at me with eyes that are kind and gentle, full of mirth and faithfulness and all the qualities I'd woven into it to attract him. In the waves, I hear Lydia's answer when I asked her if it was worth it: "Every day."

"The time has come to take your husband," Grandmother Gertie says, looking pointedly at me. "Take him far from the sea, so that he will not be tempted to return to it. Take him over the mountains to the city where you were born, and remain there. Raise children of your own as you were raised, until the time comes for your sons to return to the sea, for they were not meant to spend their entire lives on the land, and one day, its summons will be too strong."

He holds out his hand, and I know that, in taking it, I will be taking the biggest risk yet—bigger than leaving my home in the city, bigger than all the dangers of the sea.

For you cannot lose that which you don't have, and the price of happiness is the knowledge that you'll one day lose it.

But some things are worth the risk.

I clasp his hand, and together we walk up the mountain. The journey is long, but it will give us time to become acquainted. As we reach the ridge, I glance back at the grandmothers' village. The storm has passed, and sun shines down upon the shimmering sands of the beach.

"One last glance?" he asks in a voice as deep and soothing and vibrant as the sea.

"One last glance," I say, though I know it's not forever. The seasons will pass; joys and sorrows will come and go.

The losses will break my heart.

But one day, when he is gone and I'm alone once again, I'll return, a grandmother, to pass on to my own granddaughters the ancient knowledge of life, of love, of the sea.

Lady of
the Lake ...