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ISSUE #25

July 2014

FICTION

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by Rew X

The Drove

by Leah Thomas

 

She was dressed in her sister’s clothes, and that was why the chill found her so quickly. Ebba’s boots were much too big for her; Brim could feel frigid water between her toes as she clung to the seawall. A sealskin mask shielded her face from the worst of the wind, but this was High Tide, when gales bowled entire huts over and all but froze trees solid. This was High Tide, when the dead returned to the island.

How much colder was Ebba now, trapped beneath the waves? Would she ask for her boots back when Brim pulled her out of the drove?

Water rose before the narrow bulwark Brim stood upon, crashing against the base of the wall. The ancient edifice had been built long before the battered village, along the slender peninsula of the jetty. The jetty bowed out from the northern cliffs of the island and curled around the crags of its eastern coast, a beckoning finger of many thousands of steps’ length that sheltered Brim’s home in a cove.

The silver afternoon sky darkened. Brim gritted her teeth. Ebba’s harpoon fit her well enough. Through the slits in her bone goggles, Brim’s eyes traced it down to the coiled rings of its rope to where it ended, wound about one of the rusted leverage hooks that adorned the wall. She had been practicing. She thought she could lift her sister’s weight.

She must.

In the long months since the last High Tide, Brim had awoken cold on many brittle spring mornings, her sleeping hands patting the empty hammock that had been Ebba’s. Brim had traveled to the fish market during summer days in her sister’s boots, almost forgetting that Ebba no longer trudged through puddles alongside her. Brim had sat at Father’s bedside this past winter and dreamed Ebba was laughing there by the fire, distracting them from the damp sound of his labored breathing.

It had been a hard year for everyone. Most villagers only came to the wall for funerals: some rituals feel safer to abide by, especially those concerning the dead. One after another the bodies were cast from their capstones along the wall. They plummeted headlong into the sea. If the sea was kind and the families patient, it was said that the waves would one day bear the bodies back to shore to be granted new life during the next High Tide.

Families were hardly patient any more, and the sea was hardly kind. Each time the tide had risen near high enough for the drove to reappear, someone had died — from fever or chill or being old and weatherworn — and the hungry sea had pulled away, satiated.

No one could remember the last time a villager had been brought back from a drenched tomb. Hardly anyone even wanted the drove to arrive. It was painful to see familiar white bodies writhing beneath the waves like maggots in foul meat. And what were the odds that a fisher could not only spot a loved one’s corpse beneath the waves, but also bring it ashore? The wall was long, the waves strong, the water dark.

Would Ebba smile if Brim plucked her from the drove? Would she rise, dripping and laughing, life restored after months of submersion? Brim imagined reeling Ebba in. Imagined Ebba clinging to the parapet and pulling herself over. Unlike Brim, Ebba always took pleasure in doing things on her own, however she liked. Between the two sisters there had always been their gasping father, the earthbound fish swaddled in blankets, eyes vacant — but it was only ever Brim left holding the bedpan.

The waves rose higher, cascading into the wall with all the racket of a hurricane. Brim hummed her lips against the inside of her mask. She tightened her grip on the harpoon.

The sound of the waves shattering below became a shattering and thumping. More than water was slamming against the jetty’s base. Brim squinted into the depths, and saw, quite clearly, white flashes beneath the surface. She watched another corpse thump into the jetty.

As far as she could see in the graying light, the waves were laden with white shapes, shadows of the village’s dead.

The drove had returned.

It was because her eyes were fixed on the crashing waves that Brim did not see the other fisher approaching. It would have been difficult to hear unsteady footsteps on stone over the noise of the wind and sea. She started when the newcomer cupped hands against the side of her covered ear.

“Brim.”

Brim stiffened. She knew that voice: Lo.

• • •

Lo’s father was the tavern keeper and a former fisherman. When Brim and Ebba were children, they had delighted in tales of his seafaring exploits. He claimed to have been a sailor and a tradesman, and when he had drunk enough from his taps, he claimed he had been a member of the drove.

Ebba always squealed with mock horror whenever the old man lifted his pant leg to reveal a scar like a white comet, its tail extending from the back of his shins up past the underside of his knee. He told them that the harpoon that pulled him out had been seven feet long, and that the woman who had done it had asked for marriage once he was yanked out.

Ever since his submersion, his eyes were ceaselessly leaking seawater. He said he drank so much from his spigots to make sure his insides would not dry up. He said that words could not express what it was like to be carried around the world alongside dead brethren, caught in the currents that traced countless coasts, his lungs filled with water — the same salty water that now leaked from his eyes.

Father was sick even then, so it was Lo’s duty to come away from cleaning and send the girls homeward down the hill after the tavern keeper lapsed into snoring.

“That isn’t a harpoon wound,” murmured Lo, once. He and Brim lingered in Ebba’s wake as she slip-skated across the winding ice of the village street. “He got that scar when he was our age, from a fall and a broken fence. He’s never died at all.”

Ebba stopped. “Maybe not. But what harm can he do?”

Lo shuffled his feet. “If people believe him … people might go to the wall.”

Ebba snorted. “Which idiots are you so worried about?”

Lo looked Brim dead in the eye; not Ebba, but Brim.

“Oh?”

Lo flushed. “I just meant —”

“Don’t you worry, Lo. If my sister slips on the ice, I’ll catch her!” Ebba twisted herself like a dancer, wordlessly beckoning them on. She knew they would always follow her.

And wasn’t that what they were doing now, months after her funeral?

She can laugh. Ebba can laugh all she wants when we pluck her from the drove.

• • •

Brim could almost make out dead faces now. Arms broke the surface of the water, mere feet below. Brine splashed about tangled appendages. The way the sea knocked them about made the limbs flail and kick as if they were alive.

“Brim!”

Brim listened to the smack of the corpses below. “You’ve followed her, too.”

“No.” Lo’s panicked breaths, filtered through his mask, seeped into her ear. “Not her!”

Brim saw another white arm and a mat of pallid hair. The nearest of the drove, emerging from black waves. A pale child, emaciated and drawn. The waves flipped her forward and pressed her against the wall. Her stomach was deflated, her eyes white, her hair tangled as the waves recalled her.

“I’m not about to go home without her, Lo.”

A second wave contained more and more, all elbows and knees. And the third rose high enough that all along the wall, the glossy dead of the island slapped against the jetty.

Lo shouted over the cacophony. “And if Ebba strikes elsewhere?”

“We’ll see her.” She loved being seen.

Water slopped down from between the nearest parapets, soaking them to the marrow. Brim imagined Lo’s eyes were wide beneath his goggles. He pressed himself closer, away from the dead that were getting caught on the wall, were bowed over it. More water crested the wall.

A dull moaning arose from the waves crashing below. Beside her, Brim felt Lo tremble as the dead wave cascaded over the wall entire. Now members of the drove were almost within grasp; Ebba pulled Lo back as one woman, wrinkled with age and algae-specked, nearly landed atop them. Lifeless forearms scraped against the stone inches away, tangled limbs rose higher and water, more water, splashed down into Ebba’s boots.

Brim braced herself and grabbed the wall. Beside her a dead man, suspended by his midriff and caught on a bulwark, was groaning from his tattered throat. Farther down, entire writhing bodies lay on the wall. A few had been carried beyond, to the other side; they would have to be cleared from the shoreline in the morning. There could be no restoring those neglected bodies that were beached overnight.

“We have to go!” Lo clutched Brim’s slippery arm.

More than seawater drenched her face, though Lo could not know it. “I won’t!”

Lo began to pull her away, stumbling over foreign limbs and torsos as he yanked her forcefully toward the shore. “These corpses are made up of years, decades; don’t you think I want to search for my own sisters, my mother?”

“You’re frightened. But I won’t be anymore!”

She gasped as another corpse spun up over the wall between them, nearly knocking her backwards into the water. A cold hand slapped her across the shoulder.

Lo pressed his mouth to her ear. “Ebba wasn’t frightened, and look where she is now! Gone off on her own again, for good! She wouldn’t want to be followed this time!”

Brim growled and tried to pull away, but he held her tight. She could barely see. The harpoon, dislodged from the hook, dragged behind her, catching here and there on the dead underfoot. Lo kept pulling.

“She doesn’t always get what she wants!” Brim cried, unsure that he could hear her.

From the corner of her eye, Brim saw a bloated severed limb — a leg? — soaring near. She held tight to Lo’s arm and shoved him to the ground. She thought she heard the splash as it hit the surface of the lagoon.

“She didn’t want to shrivel up, swollen and bedridden like Father!” Brim rested her forehead against the wall.

Before and behind them, countless corpses dotted the slippery wall in piles, in squirming heaps. The sea was generous. Lo was panting so loudly that Brim could hear it above all else. He had given up pulling altogether. There was blood running down from the bottom of his mask. He’d hit his head against the stones when Brim shoved him.

“I could have caught her.” The words flooded from Brim’s mouth. “That day I left Father to get fish salve at market. For his chapped lips. I heard her laugh, saw her slip from across the street. I was holding a basket. And for some reason, I didn’t drop it. Maybe I was angry that she was laughing while I was buying fish salve. She left me alone with him again. But I watched her fall towards the stone and for an instant I considered catching her and then some part of me decided she could always catch herself. And I didn’t drop the basket.”

Brim closed her eyes. All she felt was sea breeze, all she was was cold and wet. Salt in her nostrils, in her eyelashes. Beside her, Lo was heaving. Brim could not wipe her nose with the mask on. She could not wipe her eyes.

Finally Lo said: “She didn’t want to be caught.”

Brim laughed — a broken rasp. “I suppose not.”

The wind whipped around her and for a moment she did not feel it. At last she helped Lo to his feet. They stumbled toward the village.

She became aware that the tide was lowering and light was breaking in the sky — the tail of evening sun, clearing the sky to pale green. The worst had passed. But so many of the drove were marooned on the wall. Would they dry out by morning? Would they smell like fish?

When the shoreline was almost close enough to leap for, Lo stopped and gazed back out to sea. Brim could not see his expression, but she could feel him tense beneath her grip.

Lo pointed out to the diminishing tide and cried: “Ebba!”

They should have all looked the same, Brim knew. Water-encased corpses should have been impossible to differentiate between.

But Ebba was Ebba, even in death. She was caught adrift on a recoiling wave, braced in foamy white. Her hair was bleached to match her skin, her bones seemed fragile beneath her flesh. On her scalp was the bulge of a water-swollen wound that revealed her skull to the air. But there was no mistaking the shape of her, the shape that had danced on ice.

“Your harpoon, Brim!”

Brim was already throwing it. She had no time to tie it to the wall, so she and Lo held tight to the end of the rope and watched the harpoon sail into the sea.

Brim cursed. She had aimed wide. She yanked it back, pulling the rope quickly into a loose coil on the ground.

“Again, Brim!”

She gripped the spear tight in her sister’s gloves and Lo held her steady as she pulled the harpoon back. With an almighty thrust she threw it into the sea.

The barbed point pierced her sister’s stomach and lodged there. From the end of the line, Brim could feel it catch, and then she could feel her wriggling. Slowly, arms protesting, she and Lo hoisted Ebba up, over the wall. It took much longer than she had ever anticipated; it seemed that Ebba resisted, that she had grown impossibly heavy after soaking in all that saltwater.

Finally, Ebba was free of the water. She weighed even more. Lo cried aloud and Brim’s arms had all but given out when at last the tip of Ebba’s pale head, followed by her narrow face, followed by the protrusion of her chest, and her speared navel, crested the wall.

She did not climb up herself.

Brim nearly fell backwards into the sea as Ebba flopped onto the stones at her boots.

“Ebba,” said Lo, after a moment of stillness.

Her hair hung lank. Her mouth fell slack. She squirmed on the jetty; she writhed and twisted. From her throat sea foam was pouring; her eyes were vacant opals. She did not smile.

For an instant, Brim wanted to take her up into her arms. Wanted to pull her to her feet. She imagined again that Ebba would laugh, shake the water from her shoulders, cross her arms over her chest, and demand to be taken somewhere warm and given some proper clothing, given something to drink. Brim would trail behind when Ebba asked for a story or two. Father might even recognize her. Over time, her cheeks would regain their luster. The wound would heal to a white comet.

The thing that was Ebba sucked on empty air. Its limbs contorted and twitched.

“Brim…”

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

And together, without ceremony, she and Lo cast her sister back into the sea.

 

 


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Leah Thomas frequently loses battles of wits against her students and her stories. Her debut novel Because You'll Never Meet Me is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. A graduate of Clarion 2010, her work appears in Asimov’s, Black Static, Pseudopod, and Ideomancer, among others. Tea is her lifeblood. When she's not huddled in cafes, she's usually at home pricking her fingers in service of cosplay.

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