The Gannet Girl
by Frances Rowat
They said Castermay’s mother had held sea-glass in her mouth when she’d lain with the girl’s father, and that was why Castermay was standoffish and still, tongue weighted by salt and sand, and eyes the colour of the leeside lichen found on the chalk rocks in the saw-bladed grass. Castermay was not warmly welcome in the village longhouse where she lived with the other children who had no brothers or sisters, but her mother’s work was too valuable for her to be turned away.
Her mother lived down on the beach in a small hard house built on a flat rock between high tide and low, the roof of which was a favored perch for gannets. Four times a year, clear sky or storm, she walked into the waves and cut herself to bleed for the sea with a heavy bone knife, and so the sea within a day’s sailing was thick with life. The village sustained itself, and had more to cure with smoke or salt and trade uproad and inland, and losses to the sea were lighter than they might otherwise have been.
Castermay worked like any other child of an age to do so; she pulled in her own weight and more on the days she worked the nets, and her fingers were sure and her knots were firm, if ungainly. When she did not work, she walked the strip of rough beach between high tide and low with her mother, or spoke with the gannets that rested on the roof.
As she grew older, she came to spend more time in the village; she was quiet but not cruel, and two or three of the other children who lived in the longhouse with her came to like her well enough.
Still, most of the village wished her gone down to live between high tide and low with her mother, and grumbled more and louder as it seemed she would not choose to do so and might settle on land.
In the spring after Castermay’s fifteenth winter, her mother went out to the sea and never returned, and Castermay was turned out of the longhouse and sent to tend her mother’s empty house. If she cried, she did it in private; and if her eyes were raw and red against their odd grey-green color, it was nothing she could not have blamed on a hard day’s work, for she refused to stop working the nets. She had loved her mother, but she had not loved the loneliness of the beach, with only the gannets for company, and she did not wish to call her mother’s house her home.
Then the sea began to dry up.
It was still as wet and vast as ever, and it hushed and roared steady through the nights and long days of summer bright and storm. But the nets brought in fewer and fewer fish, and the tidepools went from scuttling to twitching and then to stillness, and the seaweed that draped and combed along the sand in the pulse of the water grew sparser.
The village traded more meanly with the ships that came close ashore, and dipped into its own stores of smoked and salted flesh.
“The sea has never been so barren,” said Castermay’s gannet, floating comfortably near her as she gathered up her net preparatory to dragging it slowly back. He was a young gannet; plucks and smears of mottled brown kept a foothold among his white feathers and circled his neck to fall upon his breast. The gannets still roosted on the roof of the small house that been her mother’s, as they had before her mother had gone to live there. Now Castermay left the leeward shutter pinned open for them in the storm and gale.
The gannets did not love Castermay; they had not loved her mother, and in truth it is not possible for gannets nor any bird save the dust-and-sand brown sparrow to love a human. But they were fond of her, and the gannet that she called hers and that called her his own chose to seek her company.
Castermay made a noise, through her breathing, which could be taken as agreement. She was a rare-mouthed and thoughtful girl, and gathering up a weight near the equal of her own in wet rope besides, so she was short of breath as well as short of words. When she had most of the rope in a stiff sodden coil over one shoulder (the better to drop it and swim clear should she lose her footing, rather than being dragged down to drown), she began the slow way back, towing the net as she did so.
“May be,” she said, “ought look into it.”
“You think you can settle the matter?” the gannet said, paddling alongside her. He turned to look at her in the manner of gannets, who have eyes on the front of their faces as humans do; this is why humans and gannets may work in such fine accord, even if they do not love each other. They can see each other eye to eye.
“Don’t know,” Castermay said. “Could do worse than look. My mother would’ve.”
“Your mother is dead.” To the gannets, things that have gone unseen for the swell and fade of a moon are dead, and when it comes to small fishing villages they are rarely wrong in this assessment. Castermay set her jaw and looked grimly shoreward. The small house where her mother had lived was standing, but a season with only Castermay living resentfully there had given it a husked-out air.
“Loved my mother,” she said. “Rather do as she might than live as she did.”
A human can speak of lintels and dreams, and a gannet knows the slap of wind and water, but only the sea-witch could tell the cause of currents and the mood beneath the waves. Castermay could swim well, and hold her breath as long as anyone who did not dive for a living, but she doubted that would be enough.
So she took her mother’s earrings, a pair of matched red sea-glass stones twisted up with unrusting yellow wire, and washed the dust off them in the sea, and sucked them clean of salt. And she bartered them with one of the ships that came by, for a sack of flour no bigger than her gannet, and a handful of yeast.
These might not have been the sailor’s to give away, but Castermay paid a fair price for them regardless; she knew full well from her mother that you cannot make magic without being willing to pay out the cost of its value, in work or in wealth. The sailor might have asked her for other payment, but he looked to the heavy beak and muscled body of the gannet perching on the bag slung over her shoulder, and said nothing more.
Castermay went back to her mother’s house, and there she made bread. She had heard her mother describe it, but had never had cause to bake leavened bread before, and it took her some trial and not a little error. Most of the loaves in the village were unleavened, a paste of water and flour and oil seasoned with the salt always in the air. Two of the families kept the making of sourdough, which worked well enough when someone needed to bake silver into a loaf and set it floating on the waves to find the drowned body of their kin. But for bread to carry breath and warmth within it, it must be leavened with fresh yeast and rise and swell full of itself.
So she baked the bread, eventually, and came away with a loaf as large as five of her fists together, and tore it into four. She wrapped each piece as best she could in skins and oiled cloth, and sealed them with wax, and then tied each packet to her belt. She filled her pockets and the sides of her shoes with stones of sea-glass like the one they said her mother had held in her mouth, those years ago, and she waded far enough into the water that she could feel the sea-glass begin to weigh her down, and she ate the first piece of bread.
Then she walked down beneath the sea, in the grey light of night’s falling.
The moon was shining full upon the slow rise and fall of the sea, and her hair tendrilled up towards the surface for a moment and then was pulled under. She could see a little, and the saltwater stung her eyes, but not much worse than if she had been crying.
She went out past where the undertow sucked the sand away, and the raw seabed beneath lay in cracks and shelves. The air in her lungs had grow too thin to bear, so she let the last of it out in a great warm sun-smelling bubble that rose to the night above, and ate a second piece of bread, and went on.
An eel slithered up to nose at her presence, longer than her leg and twice as thick around.
“What are you doing here?”
“Here to see why the sea has run dry, Mother Slipskin.”
The eel wound up around her body, and coiled around her ribs, and looked her in the eyes—but with only one of its own, for eels are not like gannets. “The sea will never be dry, girl,” it said. “The sea will outlast us all, wet and rising and falling. It is only that you and yours have forgotten how to drink from it.”
“Our nets are empty.”
“Oh,” the eel said, “that is another matter.” It showed all its teeth to her, the ragged edges of bone that had worn unlovely through its tough flesh. “I myself have been a little hungry of late, and you are a large morsel.”
“A gannet watches over me.”
The eel looked up, and perhaps it saw against the moon the floating body of the gannet, the smattered white of his neck and breast stretched down as he peered, and all the weight that could be brought to bear behind the sharp point of his beak. Gannets dive like thunderbolts, and split the waves a dozen fathoms deep if they put their hearts to it.
The eel and Castermay were not so deep as that.
“So it does,” the eel said, drawing its teeth back a little from Castermay’s face, and holding its coils around her a little less tightly. “Well. You shall make it to the home of the sea-witch, then, in the hollow where all jetsam is sunk, and all bones and guilt come to molder in the dark.”
“Glad to hear you think so, Mother Slipskin.”
The eel hissed, but that is how they laugh. “I am not your mother,” it said. “And the gannet does not love you, even if it is loyal.”
“As he’s loyal,” Castermay said, “don’t need him to love me.”
The eel flicked free of her, cold and thick and muscular, and swam off with a gliding ease that made Castermay think of how, if she kicked off her shoes and had only the sea-glass in her pockets to keep her from rising, she could swim above the rock and below the surface and call all the sea her own to pass through, further and wider and deeper than she could see.
“It is a cold thing, to have no-one love you,” the eel called back as it swam. “We of sea-water can manage it well, but you have the red blood of sunlight in you. Down in our wet salt darkness, that is only good for spilling.”
Castermay went on, and the ground sloped down, and she came to the edge of a great hollow that pulled all the water into its cold heart. Thin slips of sand ran past her, and the salt itself sparkled as it was drawn down to darkness.
She let out her second breath, and swallowed the third piece of bread, and all the air and warmth and light trapped in its white crumb. Then she stepped off the edge and down.
The sea pressed her flesh in against her bones, and the water swept her down to a deadfall tangle of spars and bone. Castermay pulled herself up with hands and knees bruised and raw, and picked her way through the jutting skeins of stone and chalk and drowned creatures by the scattering of dull witchery-stars that pulsed amidst the dark currents.
She came to the hut of the sea-witch, which was hung with skins, some glittering with scales and some pale from drowning, and had a great riven shell for a door. It was studded all about with the sucking mouths of lamprey, and had a shark’s jawbone for a knocker. She touched the jawbone and it rattled and trembled on the hard surface of the shell, and the sea-witch bade her come in.
There was a wick stuffed into the fat of a living fish and set alight for a lamp.
The edges of the shell shivered against each other in the flow of the water, and flakes of the door drifted in peach and pearl grains. Castermay saw her mother’s bones in the hut, with a heavy knife set hilt-deep between the ribs.
“Brought you a gift, witch of the sea,” Castermay said, and held out the last of her bread.
The sea witch had no bones, and no skin, but hung together within herself as a jellyfish might. She poured into and over the bones of Castermay’s mother, and sat up within them, and took the bread in hands gloved over the dead woman’s fingerbones.
As the bread left Castermay’s fingers she felt a trembling in the water, and the darkness slipped wetly over her, and ground the weave of her clothes deeper into her skin.
“What have you come for?” the sea-witch said, for she had her own tongue, long and furled and wetly feathered like the slow plants of the seabed that know neither heat nor light.
“Come to learn why the sea has gone barren.”
“I could tell you other things,” the sea-witch said. “I could tell you of your mother. I could tell you the names by which she called on me that night, and the color of the sea-glass she held in her mouth as we lay together. Of how to conjure her back by moonlight, that you might hear her speak within the tide.”
Castermay was still for a long while, but then she shrugged, for she had seen the sea give back the dead and learned well that they were never more than an echo. And all know that witches of sea or salt or air can sire children on men and women alike.
“Could tell me these things if you chose, but not what I’ve come to learn. Come to learn why the sea has gone barren.”
“I could tell you how to make a gannet love,” the sea-witch said. “The twigs to cast upon the waters where they dive, and which fish to choke with a feather from their left wing. To make a gannet love as a human, and think of your delight as their own.”
Again Castermay was still, and this time she shook her head rather than shrugged. For all know that gannets do not love, though they may be loyal enough to burst their hearts, and as pleasing as it may be to be looked upon that way Castermay did not wish to have it forced from another, and perhaps not from the gannet, either.
“Could tell me these things if you chose, but not what I’ve come to learn,” she said again, and for the third time: “Come to learn why the sea has gone barren.”
“Your mother,” the sea-witch said, “gave her red blood of sunlight to me by the light of the moon, in the still cold places beneath the waves. And now she is dead, and her body was jetsam left to molder in the dark.” Her eyes squirmed inside the skull of Castermay’s mother. “Those on land give none of their blood to me. I will give no life to them.”
Castermay thought of the long days her mother had bought her in the longhouse with the other children, and the empty silence of her mother’s house, with the water lapping forever at its stone foundation. Her mother had loved the sea, a little, and the village that she lived near, but Castermay did not imagine she had loved the loneliness of the small house.
And Castermay did not care to live in the house between high tide and low, and knew that only those who gave blood to the sea at the lynchpins of the year lived there.
“What if I gave you my blood now?” she said. “Make amends for her gift taken from you.”
“If you give me all of your blood,” the sea-witch said, lingering on the words, “then I would let loose the life of the sea, as long as you lived, and the waters by the beach would thicken with fish and crabs and bladderwrack once more. But you might not like what you find left of yourself.” The sea-witch ran her hands with their puppetted bones over herself, the shimmering creases of her belly and the glistening darkness knotted around ribs and thighbones. The tiniest finger-bone from the left hand of Castermay’s mother pulled loose and sank deep into the shimmering jelly of flesh, coming apart into a tiny blossom of salt and chalk.
Castermay looked up, to the flowing gaps between the skins of the hut, and the black water pressing thickly down. The air in her lungs had grown thinner as she waited and spoke to the sea-witch, and the moon’s light was too far above for even a glimmer to be seen.
She had come down to the dark places, and there was not enough time to climb back to where the land broke up from under the sea.
“What you offer, I’ll give you all of my red blood of sunlight,” Castermay said, and as the sea-witch smiled Castermay watched her mother’s teeth crack and patter out of her skull. “But only that.”
The sea-witch reached into Castermay, and yet the bones of her mother crumpled and folded against her skin, for they were, after all, only bones. But the sea-witch’s touch went deep within, and the shimmering flesh of her turned the same smeary red color as the flame that lit the hut. Castermay grew colder, and her eyes seemed harsh and grey in the grim light, but she stood still and straight.
“Stay here now,” the sea-witch said. “As you have no time to walk back, your bones may rest with your mother. And when you die, I shall starve the village that let her be murdered.”
Castermay felt the fading warmth of breath in her lungs, and turned the sea-glass out of her pockets and pulled out of her shoes. Thin and quick she slipped through the roof of the sea-witch’s hut and the sea-witch lunged after her, but her mother’s bones snagged all slow and crooked on the skins, and the sea-witch was caught up struggling and howling in a rage.
Castermay clawed up through the water, and the sea-witch below shucked out of her mother’s bones and came boiling up behind her. The moon’s light was growing clearer, but the sea-witch’s jellied flesh seethed up and fastened around her ankle, and she shrieked out the last of her air as the grip ate into her flesh, bubbling blood in oily runners through the water.
Her gannet dove, and clove the water like an axe splitting rotten wood.
He went past Castermay so close she felt the bubbles of night air on her fingers and face. A great billow of noxious bile rose up as the sea-witch’s grip loosened, and Castermay heard her scream like a splitting hull.
Her gannet never made a sound.
Fish trailed the pallid tatters of her blood in the water as she came to the beach. Castermay crawled past the high-tide mark and lay there shivering in the dank sand as her bones sang against each other and the air came shallow to her lungs.
After a while, her gannet’s tattered body rolled back to the shore in the rising tide.
If Castermay wept it was no more than she had done for her mother. She gathered up her gannet as the sun rose behind grey clouds and the day came on, and went limping along the shore to lay his body on the high dry roof of her mother’s house. Other gannets wheeled above her, white as salt in the day’s scattered light, and when she came within sight of her mother’s house she saw still more of them thick on the roof.
The people of the village were gathered there as well, watching her draw near. She came close enough to speak, and looked at them as the gannets wheeling above her broke their glides and settled to shore.
Castermay thought of the knife that had spilt her mother’s life, and said nothing.
They said more than enough to fill the air, questions noisy as gulls. “Whose blood did you give the sea, to make it spit back its fish?” As if you could give blood you did not own. “Was it his? Was it the gannet’s?”
Castermay, with the tattered gannet in her arms, shook her head. “Gave the red of my blood.”
The people drew back from her, frowning and ill at ease. The questions stopped and a murmur like the sound of the tide in the teeth of rocks spread through them. And one who was father to one of the children she’d grown up with cleared his throat, after the others looked to him, and gestured to the little house between high tide and low. “You must stay here,” he said. “You have given up your sunlit blood; you are neither land nor sea, and should live between them.”
A handful of the gannets ruffled their wings and arched their necks.
“Only people who sacrifice to the sea live here,” Castermay said. “And gannets.”
“You have sacrificed to the sea,” the man said. “But if the sea needs more, or the sea-witch is angry…” Castermay was looking at him flatly, with her lichen-colored eyes, and his voice dried up in shame. The waves beat on the shore in the silence.
“You’d have me here,” Castermay said, “for making sure the sea-witch never has cause of coming near you.”
One of the gannets hissed, but not at her. The people were quiet for a moment. She picked out a few of the other children she had grown up with and saw that one looked, at least, a little guilty for his father’s words.
It was less than she might have hoped to see on his face.
“I saved you.” Her voice was thick. “The sea rich again, long as I live. And you’ll not let me come to land with you?”
“It’s too much a risk to have you in our homes,” said the man. Castermay thought of how thin that argument was, how much of it dwelt in believing that the sea-witch might not keep a bargain or might cross the high-tide mark and come to land in anger, and knew that words would not sway them to let her come to land.
“One of you killed my mother,” she said. “Who kept you all fed.” Who had bought her passage to land, even if Castermay’s strangeness had stuck so hard in someone’s throat that they had killed her mother rather than see Castermay herself live among them. “Would you kill whoever I named as doing it, if it meant I’d go quietly to the sea’s larder?”
They looked among themselves, and muttered, and the man speaking looked at his son who she had grown up with, but in the end there was not much argument. “We would.”
Castermay’s lips pressed white with anger, but she measured her words as well as any gannet might.
“Sea and salt take all of you then, for all I care,” she said. “I’m done.”
And she put her back to the sea, and left the village, and none raised a hand to stop her, for the gannets watched with bright sharp eyes.
In time she may have crossed the land, and come to a city where there was no sand or chalk to speak of. But such matters are another story.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Kaitlyn is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and current speculative fiction writer. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop and writes short stories to avoid editing her novel. Currently living in Japan with her husband and four loud children. Pre-coronavirus she spent her free time hiking, traveling, and learning new languages. Now she stress-bakes and binges Turkish TV shows.