Rumpus Original Fiction: On the Sea

By

The beach was shrinking. That was how we thought of it at first.

We knew that the sea levels were rising—everyone knew—but when you live by the shore, you measure tides by the size of the beach. We were used to the waxing and waning of the sand, used to the way it retreated at high tide and then spread itself out once more. I once asked my mother what made the tides come and go like that, and she said that she thought it had something to do with the moon.

At low tides during the summer, we used to go out onto the sand bars and rescue stranded moon jellies shivering in shallow pockets. My mother showed me how to scoop them up with both hands and gently place them in deeper water. You had to use both hands because their translucent, fragile bodies would break apart and die if you weren’t careful, slipping through your fingers like egg whites passing through a fork.

One summer, the sand bars never appeared. The sea levels were rising faster. The waves began to kiss the rocks beneath our porch at each high tide.

My mother insisted that having a house on the shore was still worth it for the view and the sound of waves rinsing themselves through the night. She hired men from an inland company to put the house on stilts. The men’s large arms bulged at odd angles, and the outlines of their veins looked like small snakes trapped under thin skin. My mother noticed me leaning over the windowsill to watch them and said, It’s rude to stare.

The stilts were thick beams reinforced with steel, spreading out from the edges like how the sun’s rays look in children’s drawings. The house shook on its new legs at first, but then it settled into the rhythm of the tides. Its walls began to taste of salt. I know this because I tasted them.

We collected our mail through a pulley system. We fished from the windows.

The other neighborhood girls stopped visiting with their jump ropes and braided bracelets. They said it was because they disliked the long climb up the ladder to our door, but I don’t think that was the only reason. Maybe they didn’t like how I’d been staring at the veins in their wrists. Maybe they somehow knew that when I couldn’t sleep I would press my lips up against the house’s damp walls and let the tip of my tongue soak in its saltiness. The saltiness was also a bit sour, like the tangy taste that I found between my legs and would sometimes suck from my fingers at night. Salty and sour and sweet, all at once.

So, I jumped with invisible jump ropes, with invisible girls clutching the ends. It wasn’t too bad. I always got to pick the rhymes, and I didn’t have to take turns holding the ropes. But one day my mother said, Honey, jumping up and down like that can weaken the stilts.

I gave up on the braided bracelets, too. The threads got hopelessly tangled in my fingers, and I couldn’t stand the feeling that I’d killed something precious and light.

One morning, the sea rose to greet us even more closely. From that day on the carpet in the basement was perpetually damp and began to smell of fish. This was when the sea first began bringing treasures to us, squeezing them through the wooden floor panels. We would find them impossibly embedded in the carpet’s squishy tendrils. An old-fashioned green soda bottle, a rusty pocket-watch, a strand of bright purple seaweed. My mother was delighted each time a new treasure appeared. She said, The sea is so beautiful, she loves us so. I said, But seaweed isn’t meant to be such a color. She said, But I trust the sea as I trusted my own mother who bought this plot of land on the shore and made it into a home. I mean she bought the right to build here. You can’t really own land. Do you know what your grandmother used to say? She used to say, My cup runneth over.

What does that mean?

It means that life is liquid, and so it can spill out everywhere.

The waves kept rising higher, sometimes swelling like an inhale and sometimes sighing like an exhale and sometimes groaning as if in pain. We had to lengthen the house’s stilts one at a time, and it seemed like we were always tilting one way or another. The floors were never quite level again, and I sometimes rolled out of bed at night, though that could have been because of my many slanted dreams.

I dreamed that my mother turned herself into a pillar of salt and asked me to push her into the waves so that she could dissolve and finally be able to touch the sea without hurting it. I dreamed that the sea pressed an apology note through the basement floor, but the water had blurred the ink so much that the only legible words were sorry sorry sorry.

One by one, our neighbors moved inland, and then further inland. The land itself moved further inland. We added more rungs to the ladder and lengthened the pulleys for reeling in our mail. My mother still received a few digests and catalogues every month, though she said that all her favorites were Going Under.

And as our neighbors were moving away, my mother was swelling with life. She grew bigger and rounder while the sea pressed more and more treasures through our basement floor. A signet ring inscribed with either a Z or an N, a thin-toothed ivory comb, a rose-tinted light bulb. My mother said, Such a shame we didn’t have this when there was electricity. She seemed to lean backward when she walked because she had to counterbalance the forward-leaning weight of her belly.

She said that surely this swelling inside of her belonged to one of those men from the inland company who first put the house onto its stilts, though several years had passed since then. Maybe life grows more slowly when you are so heavy with sea-salt and fish-smell. She said that her ankles were sore. She said, Sometimes I wonder if I’m a good person.

I think you’re a good person.

Do you know what your grandmother used to say? When she thought someone was truly good, she called them the salt of the earth.

What’s that supposed to mean?

I think it means that they’re the flavor that brings out all the other flavors, she said, speaking with one hand pressing against the small of her back and the other resting on her belly, as if she were holding herself together. The way she talked about salt made me worry that my dream about the dissolving pillar had been a premonition. Or worse, that the act of my dreaming it was the thing that would make it happen.

When my sister emerged, we saw that she had scales along her spine and gills along her neck, but we loved her anyway and told her she was beautiful, although truth be told her fishiness made her ugly. Maybe it was that she was uncanny, which made me wonder what it meant to be canny and whether that was something I wanted to be. She always looked startled with her wide, round eyes. Always looking around as if she couldn’t quite believe that, of all places, she’d ended up here. We had to leave her immersed in the bathtub so she could breathe comfortably. She ate algae and seaweed and, eventually, prawns. She liked to chew on the bony tails even when all of the flesh was gone.

My mother and I dragged the small kitchen table into the bathroom so the three of us would be able to have meals together. We had to sit cross-legged on stools because there wasn’t enough space for chairs. My legs seemed excessive, always folded away beneath me like the curled tails of steamed shellfish.

One day, my mother said, This is our un-evolution. And I said to her, That’s not how evolution works.

We never decided on a name for my sister. It didn’t feel right for us to name her when it seemed like she had somehow always been with us. My mother said that long ago, people used to have naming ceremonies where babies received their names through holy water. I asked her what made the water holy and she said it had something to do with saying special words that the water could hear and hold onto, or maybe it was that there were certain words that the water wasn’t allowed to hear, or both.

In my own room, stretched out in bed, I felt the softness of the flesh on my chest and wondered if I would be more pleased with this body if it had scales instead of skin, if I could belong to the sea in a way that meant I didn’t always have to come up for air. Or maybe it would be nice to have a blowhole, as the whales and dolphins do, to be able to belong to the beautiful water but still breathe the beautiful air. Maybe it could be here at my navel? Or here, in the place where my throat dips into itself?

Once, I dreamed that scales grew from my eyes, grating over the soft seeing-parts and pressing into the folded skin-corners. Either my mother or the moon told me that I had to scrape off some of my sister’s scales and eat them with rice to make my own scales fall away. When I woke up, I was very glad that none of it was true and that my eyelids could still open and close.

We stopped lengthening the house’s stilts for a while, allowing the basement to become fully submerged so that my sister would have more freedom to move and grow, to breathe her mysterious gill-breaths more deeply. We taught her how to sing the alphabet and how to count to ten on her webbed fingers. Sometimes, before bed, I read poetry to her from a dry spot on the rotting staircase. She gradually learned to speak, and when she knew how to say it, she told us what we were expecting to hear—that she wanted to go live under and in and with the sea, which was singing to her and calling her home.

We let her go. When her scales sparkled in the moonlight, I remembered that moonlight is just sunlight. I felt like I should’ve read more poetry to her when I’d had the chance.

She promised to visit soon and help us add the next set of stilts. The old ones are completely underwater now, gathering sea-moss and barnacles, and the basement seems to be sinking ever lower. It’s hard to know for certain whether the sea levels are still rising, because we have lost sight of the shore.

The house lurches forward in a way that reminds me of my mother’s pregnancy, waterlogged and straining. I have heard her crying at night, and I know that she is losing hope, that she thinks we cannot possibly add even another inch to the stilts without making them buckle into themselves like so many weak ankles. But they have not buckled yet.

My sister will return, and she will know what to do. The glint of her scales might appear on the horizon at any moment. If you see her out there, tell her we are still waiting.

***

Rumpus original art by Lea Wells.


Anna Hundert is a fiction and nonfiction writer currently pursuing a master's degree in theological studies. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Atlas & Alice, and elsewhere both online and in print. She is also a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. You can find her on Twitter at @anna_hundert. More from this author →