Accordions unpleated welcoming songs the day the mermaids returned.
The first notes droned joyful at dawn, played by young men with wool collars unrolled against the wind. Mattress-clouds bulged above land and water, miles of damp cotton dulling the fishermen’s music. As the sky blanched, fiddlers sawed harmonies, horsehairs screeching on weather-warped bows. Bodhráns were rescued from blanket boxes and cupboards, clatter-spoons from the backs of junk drawers. Soon drummers thumb-pounded down autumn-gold slopes from the village. Beats jigged and reeled past the wharves, along the coast, then splashed through froth seething to shore.
Sparking a cig, Billy Rideout watched the procession from the dunes. Nodded at the lack of flute-wailing. That hollow music wasn’t fit for a homecoming, he thought. Too much like drowning-storms. Like last breaths blown through old bones.
There’d be singing later, in Ma Clary’s kitchen. And in the tavern. In the shipyards. Up and down the waterfront, men were already warming throats with liquor and oil, preparing for tonight. Mermaids liked a bit of haze in his tenor, or so Billy-Rid told himself, sucking smoke.
Half a day’s sail away, the first tall masts striped the gunmetal surf.
“Get your arse down here, Rid,” called Eli Stagg from the strand, carrying an armload of tinned gooseberries. “Grab a basket on the way.”
Billy-Rid pocketed the half-burnt stub, did as told.
On the beach, musicians and local b’ys milled. Horsing around between tunes, they swigged from jars while uncles and grandys set up trestles. Ankle-deep in the shallows, ancient sea-salted women supervised, criticising with squints and scowls but few words. Pointing out which tablecloths needed pinning down. Tsking at the smell of charred griddle-cakes. Snapping knot-knuckled fingers as Billy-Rid made a mess of the buffet, jumbling savouries and sweets on the boards. Between snorts, the matrons snacked on baked haddock. Sucked on bottles of spiced rum, dipper, screech.
“Full sail,” said the eldest, her white hair still plaited in maid’s ropes. Keen eyes trained on the horizon, she talked around a half-chewed wad. “Fleet’s racing the rain.”
Innards clenched, Billy-Rid pretended not to see the sharp-nosed schooners spearing closer. Distant fuzz-dots slowly hardening into crows-nests, smudged lines into hemp ropes. Coffin-dark jibs fading to shades of burgundy and mud on approach.
Beneath the proud sails, tall figures flitted to and fro on deck. They climbed the rigging, easy as flies. They swung the boom. They white-waked it for home.
Rid turned away, fumbling a plate of currant loaves. Gulls swooped, crammed their gullets with sweet white bread, as rowboats were lowered over gunwales a mile off shore. Ducking to avoid claws and beaks and wings, the b’ys each took up a shot of salt water.
“Fill yer guts,” they said, tossing it back for luck.
“Good lads,” said the nans, shooing the squawkers. Smirking when Rid suggested a second shot.
“Only takes one,” they said.
“Better safe,” Billy Rideout replied, upending another glass. Failing to drown the squirm in his guts.
The mermaids far outnumbered their rowboats, neither so many as when they’d first set out.
Clinker planks and women both were hard-worn from their travels. Hulls were mottled, keels paint-flaked. Otter-skin slickers were ripped and sleeveless, showing off oar-muscled arms. Canvas pants were ragged, storm-chewed at the hems; some hung like skirts, revealing tattooed thighs. Short-straw girls remained out on the ships—so close but still so far from home. Guarding the profits of their time abroad, the yield of raiding and trading. Scoping the waters for ill-omened shadows.
The shore party leapt overboard, hauled tired skiffs from hard-packed to soft sand. Their hair was dreadlocked, rimed with spray. Ten months at sea had staved in their cheeks, chiselled the roundness from hips and breasts. Blubber-treated packs were slung cross-body, leaving their arms free for fighting. Several hefted short-swords, others had daggers—though weapons weren’t needed for this landing. There were no screams at the seafarers’ approach, no terror at the sight of harpoons. Instead a baritone chorus whooped its greetings, singing tunes that beckoned them, one and all, inland.
Blood-cracks split the maids’ smiles as they ran to their dads, their b’ys, their lovers. Only one made the trip from water to welcome slowly. Concentrating, stepping carefully, she waddled across the flats with buckler-strap loose around a misshapen belly.
“Reckon your lass is carrying,” Ma Clary said to Billy-Rid, lifting her pipe at the girl he loved. Then the old sailor bent, knees cracking, and palmed a handful of shells off the strand. Whispering a blessing, she threw the lot like confetti. “First time lucky.”
“Lucky,” said Rid’s mouth, while the rest of him gaped. Sweat pricked his brow, despite the chill air. The sky puckered and began to spit.
Lord look at her, he thought, fumbling for a stiff whiskey to keep him upright. For nigh on ten months—a whole season’s sailing—he’d packed every minute with distraction. Full days on the wharf, full nights at Kelloway’s pub. Cod-fishing, carousing, pickling his brain. Trying not to think of this moment. Of her.
Lord look at you, he thought, lungs floundering. His gaze skimmed the cords of Beetie’s flaxen hair, the many hoops in her ears, the welts around her knees, the mermaid-cut of her calves.
Just look at you, he thought, and look he did; returning, again and again, to the bulge slung at his girl’s waist. The bundle cloak-shielded from the elements, the spatter now a steady drizzle. She’s carrying, Ma Clary had said—and so she was. Hefting a child Billy-Rid might have given her. A baby she might have gone and got for them both.
They ate everything the gulls hadn’t scabbed, drank til the rain seemed a joke. Gingham blew off tables, cartwheeled into the waves. Crocks were dropped, broken, buried under the skip and twirl of dancing feet. A waste, potters would say the next morning, but for now these losses were celebrated. They were expected. Annual tributes to the gods of wind and water.
Rum doubled Billy-Rid’s vision, ale blurred its edges. Swept into the sodden crowd, he swigged from any jar that passed. One minute he was on the sand, numb legs failing to reach Beetie three tables over; a blink later, he was reeling up the path into town, beach at his back. He was battered and tossed onto the road leading to Kelloway’s, a flurry of strong palms beating across his shoulders as the other b’ys tried to slap up some of his fortune.
“Filled her guts,” they said, all ruddy-cheeked, butcher-built men like himself. Thumping and clapping, the lads passed him shot after shot of salt water, whooping til he threw them down, howling when he threw them back up. Leaving Rid to contemplate the mess on his boots, they stomped up the planks to the pub. The din inside roared when the double doors opened: slurred voices, shrill pipes, the barman shouting out orders. Before they swung to, Billy-Rid heard the b’ys cheering his mermaid. And quieter, but distinct, Beetie’s giggled delight as the babe in her arms started baying.
Might be they’re right, Rid thought, straightening. The kid could’ve been my doing. It happens. It has happened.
Stumbling, he took a step toward the pub for each of the land-births they’d had on this rock they called home. Beetie was one, no doubt about it; not a snip or surgeon-scar on her. But that was eighteen-odd years ago, he thought, shaking the rum-fog from his head. Ma Clary’s niece? Yeah, she and the bottleman from Bonnebay had themselves a small brood of landlubbers. No gills, no fins in the bunch. Half a dozen of Rid’s dockside mates were earth-stock, like him; no merchild he’d ever seen could grow their class of beard or bulk.
Not every babe was fished, Rid thought. He paused on the stoop, listened. This onecould be mine.
Inside, the baby cried, a liquid mewl with a note of whale-song about it.
Alberta had once been Billy’s alone, his own shy girl who’d beet-blushed at his swagger, his attention, his gut-twisting love. She’d been his long before her summer-ship weighed anchor. And everyone knew he’d been hers.
As was custom, he’d ringed a reef-knot of silk round Beetie’s finger, making their intentions plain.
As was custom, he’d knotted his body around hers, morning and night, making the most of Spring.
As was custom, when her bloods kept coming despite Rid’s best efforts, when the tides changed and currents warmed, when the cannery reeked to the high heavens and barley began greening the fields, his Beetie had bodied the very schooner that had carried her back again today, carrying.
It wasn’t that long ago, Rid thought, pushing into a blue fug, heavy as the clouds outside. The guppy could be ours.
On the pub’s threshold, he stopped, fought for breath. The air was humid with merriment and music. Standing on chairs near the hearth, Dana and her water-born son added banjos to the fiddlers’ medley. Over at the bar, Vin Clary out-plucked them all on his mandolin. Harmonicas jangoed between verses, competing with the lonesome burtle of uillieann pipes. Between cups and jars, hands pounded stained barrels. Heel-rhythms had the floor quaking, pleasure thrumming across puddles trekked in with the rain.
At the room’s heart, Beetie was surrounded by cheek-pinchers, back-thumpers, drunken coo-cluckers. Her fair hair browning with sweat. Broad face living up to her nickname. Rawhide jerkin unlaced, revealing a strong collarbone and the kelp necklace she’d made for their tying day. Billy-Rid fancied the links still had some wet to them, though the roe-beads had well and truly dried. The little gems were grey, now, as the pebbles in her gaze.
Meeting it unsteadily, he flubbed a grin. A tiny hand had reached up from within Beetie’s vest, its blunt fingers groping for the seaweed chain. Hard to tell from this distance if the bluish cast of its skin was more than a trick of grog-tinted light. If its little digits had been tipped with nails, or anemones. If it looked anything at all like him.
Don’t go, he’d wanted to beg, all those months ago. Beetie had woken hours before dawn. Her gear waited by the front door; it hadn’t taken long for her to dress, to shoulder a hooded harpoon. The weapon had been a gift from her da, the blades vicious, star-shaped. The same one her late mam had wielded. It suited her, Rid had thought, but couldn’t bring himself to mention it. Beside him, the pillow still cupped the space where Beetie’s head had rested. The linens were still soft with her warmth. Billy-Rid had inhaled the beeswax scent of her, refusing to get out of bed, to say goodbye.
I can be enough, he’d wanted to lie. We have more than enough, with us two.
Instead, he’d whistled for fair winds and Beetie had turned a pretty crimson, self-conscious in her new skins and leathers. It was her first voyage, her first chance to hunt and shoal and multiply. She would have gone with the mermaids no matter what he’d said.
He only wished he’d said more.
“Good on you, lad,” Eli Stagg said now, full-proud with drink. Rid’s teeth rattled as Beetie’s old man threw an arm round him. Nodding thanks, he wriggled free only to be swept away in a current of dancers. The music capered, tempo unpredictable. Suddenly Billy-Rid was gripped under the pits, lifted like a child, then twirled and twirled and twirled. Lanterns pitched overhead, shadows tipsy. Awash in the stench of wet wool, beer and eel, Rid swooned. Clipped his chin on someone’s sharp elbow. Bit his tongue. Saw stars.
“ ’Bout time,” Beetie said, yanking him straight. Herself nearly tall as he, even barefoot. The hand she’d extended streaked red with rope-burns. Her laugh sun-bleached, voice barnacled. “Thought you were avoiding me.” She glanced down at the gup. “Us.”
“ ’Course not,” Rid said, barely hesitating.
Uncertainty flickered across Beetie’s face—half a second’s flinch—but she squashed it with a pickled-egg kiss. Almost a year at sea had livened her tongue but sapped its honey. Billy-Rid recoiled.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us,” he said, too stiffly. Trying again, he wiped his mouth and dimpled at the mermaid, his once-darling girl.
“Go on then,” Rid prompted, as the musicians mopped their brows, drained the dregs of Kelloway’s black ale. A few began packing their instruments, aiming to reach Ma Clary’s before the crowds. “Let me see it.”
“Her,” Beetie said, pulling back the sealskin swaddling.
No quick-mustered charm could keep the pleasant in Rid’s expression. His smile-muscles went slack as paste.
“Gorgeous, isn’t she?”
Fronds of skin dripped from the bub’s angled jaw, waxen flaps the hue of new leaves. Her chest jutted as she grizzled, the strakes of her ribs visible through a thin smock. The arms were slender but stunted; fern shoots partly unfurled. Rid took in the equine nose and winced at the strange list of her gaze. One deep brown eye turned up at Beetie; the other swivelled its iris ’round at him. Translucent lids blinked independently, or not at all.
Billy-Rid searched for signs of gills, for coronet bumps on the fry’s skull, found none. Yet.
Beetie beamed. “Isn’t she the prettiest little thing you ever saw?”
Around them, mermaids raised jars, bellowing shanties. Kelloway tapped the last keg, uncorked the final two barrels of mash. Tin pipes whistled for all the luck in the world, their empty wind blowing beautifully nowhere.
“Never seen one quite like her,” he said at last, earning another strong-armed embrace. The stolen bub pipped and squirmed between them.
Quivering, Rid buried his face in his wife’s brackish locks and wept.
For a month they called her Guppy, same as every other sea-child. A month for her to earn a name, to thrive on land. A month for Billy-Rid to adjust.
Drinking mostly brine, the bub grew plump and fast.
While Rid nursed the thirsty thing, Beetie and the mermaids disappeared over the rim of the world. Twice daily, fish drew them oceanwards and fish brought them back. The routine kept the town’s pantries full, the lasses’ figures hard. Before long they’d be pointing bowsprits east again, raising sails, whetting harpoons; until then, the women would work. Keep the iron in their muscles. It wouldn’t do for the island’s best hunters to run to suet in the off-season. It took steel to replenish stocks.
Billy-Rid knew this as well as anyone.
Folk wouldn’t survive without them.
With the b’ys at Kelloway’s, Billy-Rid laughed it off. His failure. He was no different from his mates, really. None of them had managed to cast their lines through a mermaid’s salt—except Tuck, just that once, when he’d barely learned how to handle his rod. That kid hardly counted, though. Within a day, the poor thing suffocated with a bellyful of air.
By now Beetie must’ve been raw as Rid was, after a fortnight of his contributions. His trying and trying and trying for a bub of their own.
A real one.
One he’d made, not one she’d snatched.
Maybe the sea had grown too strong in Beetie’s blood. Maybe, or too weak in his. Maybe it was the way she rode him now, as she never had before. Maybe it was the bile in Rid’s thoughts, the burn of wondering where exactly she’d got the gup, from whom exactly, and how. Maybe it was the ache of not-asking.
Maybe it was that Beetie didn’t—wouldn’t—need him.
Maybe that’s what left him so empty.
The gup’s not right, Rid thought.
All afternoon on the quay, she’d huffed and chortled in Ma Clary’s lap, gumming a piece of dried cod. The gran doted on Beetie’s girl, watched after her while Rid sorted and cleaned and filleted a half-ton of trout. When name-day planning had called Ma up to the bingo hall, she’d passed the bub on to the coastguard. Taking turns, the young men harnessed Gup to their backs, buoyed by her weird fluting as they patrolled the harbour. At last, when no one else had been free, Billy-Rid was forced to bring the baby and her noise home.
The cottage had been dank as a bait-house when they’d got in—Beetie’d had the windows open again, despite the autumn squalls. Rid hadn’t bothered to sop the puddles beneath the casements, knowing they’d soon be propped and dripping again. Beetie claimed to like it that way, cool and blustery. Said it reminded her of being on deck.
Rid lowered the baby into clean bathwater, then dragged the tin tub near the hearth. Hunkering beside it, he sat back on his heels. Paddled his fingers down by Guppy’s feet, avoiding the spiked-curl of her toes. She sputtered strange notes, maw agape.
As if it hasn’t mastered its nostrils, Rid thought. As if the damp air up here is too dry for its mouth.
With one hand he soaked a square of flannel, wrung it out, soaked and wrung, soaked and wrung, splashing himself more than her. The other cupped his chin, held his head up. Orange pennants rippled in the flue-draft, tips jigging, hooking Billy-Rid’s lashes, dragging his lids to half-mast. Logs sighed and settled. Heat lulled like nostalgia, like sun-baked memory.
In the yawning flames, Rid saw golden days; time he’d spent with Beetie before. When there’d been no ships or guppies for them. No bucklers or harpoons. No tying ceremonies or name-days. No bub that wasn’t theirs, not really. When they’d been kids, and sweet on each other. When they’d taken shifts at the guttery together, quick-slicing salmon bellies, carp heads. When they’d snuck to the rock pools at lunch, smoked stolen cigs. When they’d decorated each other’s faces with iridescence, scales stuck to their overalls, and they’d pretended—Lord how they’d pretended—they were magical.
She was, Billy Rideout thought, now as then. Salt glistening in her hair. Freckles on her nose, blue and yellow in the sunlight. The chunk torn from her gums an inheritance, Ma Clary once said, of the first mermaid, the first hook that failed to snag her. It was the second cast that had done the trick, taken the girl home.
The second cast, Rid thought, up to the elbow in suds and warmth. The second had been strong and true…
“What the blight are you doing?”
At the cottage door, Beetie dropped her cloak and bag. Cold night gusted in as she dashed across the small room. Five strides and she’d shoved Rid away from Guppy, the bub burbling, submerged to the nose.
“A splash in the basin is more than enough,” Beetie said, scooping the child, voice lowered, aiming to soothe. “More than enough. You don’t want her to drown.”
Of course not, Rid thought, sinking to the floor. Beetie slapped his hands when he reached for a towel. Cooing and fussing, she turned her back. Swaddled the girl tight, held her close. Bounced the near-miss from her nerves.
Left eye trained on Rid, right on the overfull tub, Guppy keened. A rippling, uncertain song.
Oh, how the b’ys would snort to see Billy-Rid acting so mawkish.
Steaming Gup’s bottles, scrubbing her unders, airing quilts between downpours. Plumping Beetie’s pillow with fresh-plucked down. Roasting stones in the fire, slipping them under the blankets, keeping the ice from her toes while she napped. Bartering crayfish for spuds, onions, carrots; sweet-talking Ma Clary out of a vat of new cream. Cooking huge batches of the Staggs’ favourite chowder. Bypassing Kelloway’s in the evenings, heading straight home to see Beetie off to the docks. Waking early to greet her at dawn. Brewing new leaves for her after-sail tea.
The week leading up to Gup’s naming-day party, Billy-Rid did what he could. To help. To make things right. He threaded garland after garland of urchins, ribbons, coral, and kelp. He hung them from the bingo hall’s rafters so Beetie wouldn’t have to do it. He lugged tables and benches galore, set them all up, leaving plenty of room for dancing. When Kelloway came to stock the bar, he stayed the hell out of the way.
Beetie had stopped tangling her legs ’round his at night. She’d started bringing Guppy with her down to the docks. Saying: the nans loved the girl so. Saying: they cared deeply and dearly. Saying: they wanted nothing but to spend time with the child.
“It would be cruel to deny them,” Beetie said, freeing Guppy from Rid’s grasp. “They’re only trying to make her feel welcome. They’re doing their best.”
As if Rid wasn’t.
That night, Kelloway’s overflowed with rum and revellers. The whole town was expected to show the next morning, bow-tied and be-gartered, before mermaids lifted anchor for the first catch. But a naming-day just wouldn’t be a naming-day if folk weren’t fur-tongued and skull-sore, retching into the buckets Billy-Rid had scattered around the hall. The whole island was expected at dawn: sea-striders and sand-runners, tykes and cane-toters. Those born to men, and those taken.
Every last soul would have to be out of their blimmin senses come morning, to pretend that Guppy belonged.
“Limber up,” Rid said to Eli Stagg, flexing and throwing back another belter of screech. His words burred, slow in coming. “Got a big ask tomorrow.”
One minute Beetie’s da was tilting the rim, the next his glass was drained on the bar in front of an empty seat. Rid’s neck swerved. A pint foamed in his grip. A second later it was shards glinting beneath his stool, replaced by a plastic kiddie-cup. Black mash and sour-cherry swilled down his craw, scorching a path to his stomach. Behind the taps, Kelloway scowled as Billy-Rid ordered another, but served it up anyway.
“Good man,” Rid said, or something like. Maybe, “Lucky man.” The barkeep leaned over the counter, lit the cig Rid had stuffed arse-end into his gob. The publican never had gups of his own, lucky man, never had planted nor sea-sowed. Good man.
“How about a splash of the bland stuff?” Kelloway said, sliding a pitcher of melted ice down the plank. “Might be you’ve had enough of the harsh.”
“Might be,” Rid agreed, but it felt good in him, the blaze in his heart, the lava in his belly. It got him up off the stool, onto the dance floor, where Beetie spun and spun, locks flying loose, baby on her hip. Squeezeboxes hawed and fiddles wheezed as Rid barged through the crowd. Flutes, real flutes, no mere ha’pennies these, tootled like Gup as he wrenched her away from the mermaid. His wife.
“Thing’s squawking for a feed,” he said, cradling the bub. “Look how thirsty—”
“Give her back.”
Around them, sailors thumbed knife hilts, toyed with sword belts. Pipers trilled, undaunted, while wooden spoons clacked, missing beats. String-pluckers and sawyers climbed off stage, tension bloating into the gaps of their music.
“She’s thirsty,” he said quietly, enunciating precisely. “I’ll take care of her.”
Beetie rested her palm on Billy-Rid’s forearm, firm but gentle. She smiled, a spark of fun in her expression. Humour he hadn’t seen in weeks. “Do what you gotta do, Billy-b’y,” she said, patting him like a child. “But mind you keep her wee snorter above water this time.”
Through the hot rush of blood in his ears, Rid couldn’t hear every mermaid’s laughter. Only the one closest to him. The loudest and least shy.
Outside, threadbare clouds blanketed the navy sky. Stars peeped through holes here and there, silvering billows above and swells below. Thigh-deep in the ocean, Billy-Rid crooned a lullaby. In his shaking arms, Guppy added garbled notes, high as the moon-chunk overhead. Its reflection hazed around them, wavering on the expanse of wet black. In the distance, dorsal fins broke the surface. Two. Four. Seven. Too rigid to blend with the whitecaps. Rid stood and watched like the sentries weren’t; the men slunk off for a stint of elbow-raising down at the pub. It’s been a month, they’d no doubt reasoned. Surely a month gone is time enough for the damned fish to forget.
Rid studied Gup’s elongated features, saw their likeness cresting the waves.
Still singing, he trudged further into the wash. Winter lurked in the deeps, shrivelling him. Shame boiled anew, thoughts of Beetie scorching his cheeks. How she’d left him. How she’d returned.
The baby gurgled as Rid plunged her. In and out, in and out, in and out of the water. She giggled as if it was a game, her skin-fronds flapping and floating, dripping. Sodden, her mess-cloth sagged, slid off, sank. Switching tunes, Billy-Rid disentangled Gup from her smock, let her ridges free, the hard clay of her skin. All spine and cartilage and bone. Better, he decided. The bub honked, wide-gummed with agreement. More natural, he thought. The way she would’ve been for her naming-day dip come daybreak.
The sea foamed as Rid churned. Submerged or not, Guppy was alert, eyes ever open, ever swerving. Salt water rushed in and out; her protruding lips sucked, spurted. Hoarse, Rid hissed “Come on, come on,” avoiding the bub’s mouth-fountain. Her odd gaze. Its unblinking ease, its alien colour.
He played deaf to the squelch of liquid burps.
“Come on,” he repeated, louder now, holding the girl under.
Forearms straining, Rid whispered, “Come on, come on,” as ten seconds passed, twenty, the baby’s slow-wriggle turning full-squirm.
“Come on,” he said again and again, voice cracking, “Come on,” until, finally, she was wrenched from his grasp.
The creature was more man than seahorse, more stallion than pony. A trumpet nose dominated his long face; traces of sorrow in the round black eyes were undermined by the angry trumpeting of his snout. Spikes lined his muscular arms. Fronds the same shape and hue as the bub’s dangled from a strong jaw. A carapace of ribs toughened his chest, accentuating the round softness of his stretch-marked belly. His were a warrior’s shoulders: broad, ink-marked, boasting scars. Squiggles puckered the flesh on biceps and delts. A vicious, spark-shaped scab livid between clavicle and neck. Beetie’s wound.
Treading water for a moment, the hippocampus cradled his squeaking child. Mesmerised by her existence. Tail curled around weeds, the creature stretched to his full height—shorter than Billy-Rid.
Our Guppy would’ve been quite the runt, he realised. From the looks of it.
The seahorse nipped gills into his baby’s neck, then immersed her slowly, gently. As though afraid she’d vanish if let out of sight. As she was lowered, Guppy exhaled without music. Quietly grateful. The dissonant strain of her land-breathers hushed.
Not ours, Rid corrected as the bub drank the sea into her lungs. As she and her da sank into the star-speckled blackness, without a word. She was never ours.
Ripples arrowed east, flippers and arms slicing away toward plundered isles. Waiting for his pulse to slow, Rid tapped out the jig-splash of seahorses departing. When he could no longer tell the difference between liquid-peaks and fins, he turned and faced shore. Saw the yellow glow of Kelloway’s atop the hill, spilling like weak ale across the boardwalk. Snippets of song drifted on the quickening breeze. Caws of joy. Back-slaps of mirth.
Shivering, Rid gauged the distance between here and there.
A far walk, he decided. Farthest he might ever take.
Wilting to his knees, Rid felt his limbs vaguely, steeped in chill. Just a minute’s rest, he told himself, looking down at his freezing hands, flipping them a couple of times to make sure they were still there. On his palms, a swathe of scales shimmered in the moonlight. Had he touched the stallion? Had he soaked up some of his magic?
I must have, Rid thought. I must have.
Inspired, he sloshed to his feet. Shy Beetie always hated dancing and parties; he’d rescue her from the crowd, take her to the rock pools, freckle her pink prettiness with scales. Oh, how she’d glisten, then. How she’d love.
You’re a fool, Billy Rideout, he thought a second later, flopping into the shallows. Part-squatting, he rubbed his hands together, watched the iridescence flake slowly away. His body aching with cold. Useless cock shrivelled. Balls in his belly. Overalls heavy with naught but seawater.
Only one way to fetch a bub, he knew. Only one that he could accept.
From the shallows, Billy-Rid swore he heard his wife’s heels skip-stepping on Kelloway’s floorboards. Emptied glasses thunking on the bar. Spoon-beats and hide-rappings and harmonica wails. Tilting his head, he listened to another, closer, deep-wooden rhythm. Tethered ships colliding with rails. Hulls bumping against pilings. Ropes creaking between gunwales and jetty. Masts swaying. Figureheads stretching, pointing to the fecund east.
Mind awhirl, Rid calculated.
He measured the span between here and way up the hill there.
Here and just over to the docks there.
Deciding, he bent and scooped a shot of salt water. Swallowed for luck. Steeled himself to go.