Come Back to the Sea

Come Back to the Sea

illustration by pascal campion

“Come Back to the Sea” is the story of Yukio, who hears the sea singing and sees disturbing visions of the water swallowing everything she knows. Is it all in her head? Or is the sea really coming for her?

This short story was acquired for Tor.com by Henry Holt editor Noa Wheeler.

 

Come back, come back to the Sea where we want you.

A young woman looked down from a slit of a window, four feet high and only a foot across. Below her, in the silvery light of the half-moon, the waves of the cold Sea shimmered as they sighed in toward the pebbly shore. One hand held shut the robe that was loosely wrapped around her wide frame, the other was poised to pull closed the shutter which would shield the window from the storm that she could distantly sense approaching.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

The young woman—but no, she was perhaps just a girl, fourteen or fifteen years old—the girl looked down at the waves that left a soft white foam at the water’s edge, trying to find the source of the voice that called up to her, singing gentle, mournful words.

Come back, come back to the Sea as you long to.

There. Something—a shadow, a shape like a person, half-risen from the water. If only she wasn’t so high up, on the topmost floor save one of the towering pagoda. Or if the moon was brighter tonight, then perhaps she could pick out some feature, some hint of who was calling to her.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

Her lips moved, silently mouthing the words as the voice sang them faintly up to her. A man’s voice? Surely it was a man. The girl leaned slightly forward, her hand slipping from the silken closure of her robe to settle on the windowsill. Who are you? she wanted to call down.

“Yukio, why are you stirring?”

Proctor Sumiko. The old woman’s hand snaked out to supplant the girl’s at the shutter and pulled it closed with a clack of wood on wood, the snap of the hasp settling into place.

“Come away from the window, Yukio,” the proctor said. She shut the waxed paper panels in the wood frame of the window and latched them. The girl let herself be led away, back to her little room down the hallway, to her narrow bed.

Though the window was closed, though the shutter was sealed, still she could hear it quietly, like the soft hissing of the waves: Come back, come back to the Sea.

 

At the end of a narrow rutted track that ran down through slate escarpments was a high, narrow stone structure just above the pebbled shore of the cold Sea. Though it was formally known as Spring House, the name was never much used, and both the residents and the folk on the forlorn barrens above called it the House by the Sea. Here were sent—or sometimes came of their own will—the children of the nearby villages who would not act the parts the gods had assigned them: youths who failed to find charm in the tilling of fields, maids who did not delight in wading knee-deep through rice paddies. Once they would have been sent to monasteries to chant the glories of the Hundred Gods, or beaten out of their villages and made into vagrants. But now it was to the House by the Sea they came, and dreadful rumors were whispered of what happened to the children sent there. Whispered, because none ever returned to their villages—to their lives of earth floors and thin hides tacked over windows, of endless meals of salted fish and vegetables faded or pickled or dried, of bare feet and thin smocks and grinding labor.

Yukio did not find Spring House so dreadful as childish imagination had suggested, though it was certainly strange. Eight years already she had lived in the House, a life of hearing odd stories she never understood and taking lessons that seemed without purpose, of hunting for crabs with teams of other girls every morning and reciting numbing chants in the evenings after dinner. She didn’t see the point of most of it. The proctors said they would, each of these children, turn out to be remarkable—Yukio was meant to control the wind and waves—but how this result was expected to occur from the proctors’ teachings she couldn’t discern.

When she woke in the morning after Proctor Sumiko had shown her to bed, the air was chilly and damp, the promised storm sweeping in over the fathomless gray of the Sea. Faintly, she could hear the echoing trills of paired ivory flutes dancing around one another, and she knew that her friend Ami was at her lessons.

They had let her sleep very late, Yukio realized. If Ami was already at her flute, Yukio should have been down by the water’s edge gathering up little crabs for lunch, as she did every morning, whether it stormed or no. Though she had slept so late, she was still weary. The song of the stranger had haunted her even in her sleep, and she had dreamt dark visions of rising waters, but she could not recall any more. She yawned and then rose from her bed, washing her face at her basin, tying back her long dark hair, drawing on her warmest robe, and slipping rough sandals onto her feet.

Proctor Sumiko was waiting for her in the hallway, kneeling with her head slightly bowed. The old instructor looked up at Yukio as she slid back her doorway, a thin panel of pale wood.

“What have you dreamt?” the proctor asked without preamble.

“Good morning, teacher,” Yukio said, dropping to her knees and bowing her head. “It gives me pleasure to see you.”

“Don’t fall back on pleasantries, girl. You are late and we haven’t the time. Tell me what you’ve dreamt.”

The girl looked up through her lashes at the proctor. The old woman’s mouth was set into a tiny hard knot of pale lips, a look that Yukio had not seen before: the proctor was greatly troubled. The stranger in the Sea was a most serious matter, she realized. For a moment Yukio considered telling her teacher why she’d stood by the window, listening for the song of the Sea—that it wasn’t the first time, and that she dreaded it would not be the last. But she didn’t speak of the song. She had promised Ami not to.

“I dreamt of waves coming over the rocks of the beach. I dreamt they rose higher and higher.”

The old woman’s soft left hand snatched at the girl’s chin, lifting Yukio’s eyes to her own. “Did the water come all the way up to the House?” Sumiko asked.

Yukio shook her head as much as she could with her chin still gripped as it was. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

The proctor’s right hand connected with the girl’s cheek. There was not much force to the slap, but the shock was sufficient to make her reel back, slipping from the old woman’s grip.

“You mustn’t listen to the Sea, Yukio.” The proctor’s voice was hard as the slate that lined the road to the House.

“I thought I was meant to master it. How can I, if I’m not to listen?”

“You still fail to understand all we attempt to teach you. There are bounds to your powers, to all powers; and there is great danger in pursuing your gifts too far. I say again, do not listen to the Sea.”

“I can’t stop it,” Yukio said, barely a whisper.

“It will stop,” Sumiko said, and rose from her kneeling position. She did not gesture for the girl to follow as she walked down the hall, away from the window that was still latched shut, and toward the stairs to the lower levels. “Soon enough, it will stop,” her voice said, coming up the stairwell now to Yukio, still crouched on the hard floor in front of her doorway. “Until then, do not listen.”

Faintly, like the echo of the proctor’s fading footsteps, Yukio imagined she heard the call of the waves on the pebbled shore.

 

At the top of the House was a tiny attic space that only the children went into, and then mostly when they were young and small. It was dim and hidden and musty, and every child liked to imagine it as a cave where adventures could occur, if only they—the children—were let alone to have them. Directly below it was the bell chamber, home to a great bronze bell and the long wooden rod that was drawn back and then struck against it to call the folk of the House back for afternoon devotions and for evening meals. But in the late morning the gulls owned the place, waddling about on the faded wood floor in the cold air that came in through the open sides of the topmost level.

“Did you hear him again?” Ami asked.

“Not until we’re in the cave,” Yukio said, gesturing up to the hole in the ceiling. A hundred feet below them the waves crashed against the stones of the beach, and the Sea was listening.

They clambered up the ladder that was meant, Yukio supposed, to let the proctors maintain the bell and its ropes. There were soft swatches of cloth and a sort of greasy polish up in the attic, the only things normally kept there, but Yukio had never noticed anyone tend to the bell. It must have happened, though: the great dome of it was shining and bright where it was not carved with characters of an ancient prayer for safety and strength.

“All right, tell me,” Ami demanded, taking Yukio’s hands as they settled down onto the cloths, thin but at least providing some padding against the cold hard floor. They had to bend over because they had grown too large for such a small space—more Yukio than Ami, who was fine as porcelain and seemed unlikely to ever grow much more. There was no light save for what came in from the open hatch that led down to the bell chamber, but it was private, and always Yukio felt that the outside world could not come in.

“He came again last night. Came up to the edge of the water, and he sang for me.”

“From where did you see him?”

“The window at the end of the hall. Proctor Sumiko found me there. And she asked me about it, just an hour ago.”

Ami breathed out. “You didn’t tell her about the times before, did you?”

“No, I promised I wouldn’t. This is just for you and me,” she said, and leaned forward to take Ami’s tiny hand in her own plump one. Her friend smiled and tilted her head down slightly, a mild blush playing at her cheeks. “I heard more of the song, too. I think this is all of it. Listen.”

And she sang it, as best she could—chanted, more like, for they had no training in songs but only in the praises of gods and spirits.

Come back, come back to the Sea where we want you,

Come back, come back to the Sea.

Come back, come back to the Sea as you long to,

Come back, come back to the Sea.

A shudder ran down her spine as she finished chanting the words.

After a moment Ami raised her gaze to Yukio and was now all seriousness. “Do you really long to go to the Sea?”

Yukio thought of her friend and shook her head. “I want to stay here with you.”

“Of course. We’ll always be together.” She laughed lightly and then was solemn once more. “I’m not a proctor, so perhaps I’m wrong, but I think it’s still not gone too far. The window at the end of the hall isn’t yet so bad. You haven’t gone down from your floor?”

Yukio gave a violent shake of her head, but said nothing.

“You can’t, you know. Whatever it is in the water, it wants you. Wants what you’ll become.”

“What I’ll become? How stupid of the Sea, then. I may become nothing at all.”

“That’s not true. We’re both going to be great mistresses of the waves. The Sea will come when we call, and the storms will rage at our command. But our command, Yuki. We must lead, not be led by the waters.”

It sounded so grand when Ami said it, and the proctors seemed to think it was meant to be. At times—like now when the Sea was speaking to her—Yukio, too, accepted her supposed future fully. The omens of their birth marked them for it: Yukio had been born on the night of a great wave that almost destroyed her village, and Ami had first drawn breath on a cliff top in a storm so wild that it had knocked down her ancestral home and left the infant exposed to the wind and thunder, sheltered only by her frightened mother’s arms. It was clear that both of them were destined to be magicians of the waves, however one achieved such a state. No proctor in the House could clearly explain their techniques, and they were honest enough to admit that sometimes they were wrong, and a boy or a girl in their training would become nothing more than a man or a woman.

“Why do they want me then, under the Sea?”

“To stop you controlling it?” Ami suggested. But it wasn’t much of an answer. There was no answer. And even there, even in the attic cave up under the sloped, wavelike rooftop, the sound of the surf came to Yukio’s ears very faintly, wrapped under and around the screams of the gulls.

 

Come back, come back to the Sea where we want you.

How loud it was, the song: she had her ears covered with her hands, her head under her thin blanket, her door slid shut, and yet Yukio could still hear his tune coming up from the deeps.

She tossed off the blanket and rolled to her knees in her shift, dragging her robe around her shoulders. Rising, she thought of lighting a candle but decided against it; someone would notice, she was certain, and the proctors would find out. The door slid open with ease. A rich, briny smell came in from the hallway. In the dim light of the one lamp left lit overnight, Yukio saw a long, tattered green mass huddled at the base of the wall opposite. Seaweed in the crannies, and one little crab that came out from it toward her door. She slammed it shut quickly.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

She would look. She would see what the Sea was showing her. But when the panel door slid back into the wall once more, there was no green there, no little blue crab. The air smelled of the salty tang of the waves as always, but not of the ripe shore as it had a moment before.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

Come back, come back to the Sea as you long to.

“I don’t want to go to the Sea,” Yukio said firmly. She stepped into the hallway. The other students’ doors were all slightly ajar, some an inch open, some as much as a foot. It didn’t make sense: everyone slept with their doors closed. She stepped to the nearest, the room of a boy of ten called Kenjiro, and pushed it farther open.

His mat was sodden, the blanket pushed up to cover just the boy’s face. He wore a wrap around his waist with most of his body visible, and there was something wrong with it: pale and bloated and slightly, ever so slightly wrinkled, like a very old man’s skin. Yukio took down the lamp and brought it into the little chamber, and saw Kenjiro clearly.

He was dead, dead and sea-claimed, like the bodies that washed up after great storms, when a ship had sunk. She had seen those more than once, and he looked just like them. Carefully, she crept forward.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

Yukio knelt down beside Kenjiro, her knees landing on the edge of his sleeping mat. Cold water soaked her robe, the edge of her shift, her knees. She shuddered. Her lips were shaking now as she reached out her free hand for the blanket that covered Kenjiro’s face. Her stumpy fingers pinched just one tiny fold of the fabric, wet under her grip. A moment’s hesitation, but then she knew she had to see what was beneath, and she jerked the blanket back.

She screamed as she saw him, his eyes open, his mouth wide with tongue swollen, dark hair plastered down by the waves. As small as a fingernail, a little blue crab crawled from the hollow of the drowned boy’s ear and started the climb up the slope of his sea-wrinkled cheek.

Yukio closed her eyes.

“What are you doing?” a boy’s high, confused voice asked.

Her lids flickered open. Kenjiro was alive before her, his chest uncovered as she held his blanket back from him. He rubbed his eyes sleepily.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Is something wrong, Yukio? Why are you here?”

She pushed up from the ground and retreated from him. “Everything is fine,” she said.

“Okay,” the boy murmured, already drifting back to sleep.

Again in her chamber, Yukio felt at her knees, at the still coldly wet patch on her robe, on her shift. The air felt heavy with pressure. She stared at her doorway, listening for faint scuttling on the ground, for the sound of the rising tide, for the Sea coming to press in on her, but there was only the still of the night.

 

The storm was finally gone the next morning. “We will walk the beaches and look for flotsam,” Proctor Sumiko said. The wind was still blowing strong from the north, icy cold and unforgiving, but the air had cleared almost entirely and the Sea was a startling blue. Yukio and Ami and four others, three boys and a girl all about the same age, wandered in intersecting lines up and down the beaches, the shale cliffs rising above them, broken stones unsteady under their sandals.

“There was seaweed in the hall last night,” Yukio said to Ami. They had wandered far from the rest, west along the beach with the sun behind them. “And a crab. I saw Kenjiro dead, drowned in his bed.”

“You were dreaming,” Ami said. “Just a bad dream.”

“No. It wasn’t a dream. My robe was wet.”

Ami glanced over her shoulder, looking back at the distant figure of the proctor. Yukio looked back as well, shielding her eyes with her hand. Farther even than their teacher was the high, towering House, each level a little smaller than the one below, swooping roofs thrusting out eaves first to the north and the south, then the east and the west on alternate levels. “There is something we can try,” Ami said at last, as they started to walk.

“What?” Yukio asked, though she thought she knew. They had powers. The proctors all said it was so, and sometimes—when lightning chased the clouds onto the shore and the waves thundered at the land—she could feel that power inside her.

“I don’t know if it will work, because we know so little, but we can call to the Sea, make it answer your questions.” Ami reached out and took Yukio’s large hand in her grip. “I think we can do it, if we’re brave enough.” But her voice trembled.

“We can do it,” Yukio said, squeezing her friend’s hand. How warm it felt now, holding Ami’s hand. Though the wind was still frigid, she hardly noticed it any longer. “I will be brave enough for us both.”

A half smile. “Do you want to try now?”

“Yes. When will we ever be so close to the Sea, and just us two alone?” Or if not alone, near enough.

Ami turned to face the water, drawing Yukio around with her. She lifted her arms, bearing up her friend’s, and Yukio, too, raised her free limb. A tingling started in her legs, as if some energy were beginning to rise up through her.

“I’ll start, all right?” Ami asked, and Yukio nodded. “Honored spirits of the Sea, give us an answer,” the smaller girl said. Above them a gull sounded a long, gasping cry and then fell silent. The waves splashed a little closer, but perhaps the tide was turning.

“It’s happening. So quickly,” Yukio said, almost laughing. “What’s our question?” The tingling had risen to her thighs, her hips, her belly. The coldest wind could not have chilled her now, not in the midst of deep winter, not with snow crashing into her face.

“You know better than I do.”

Distantly, so distantly, she heard the sound of pebbles grinding under running feet. The proctors coming to stop them, too late, too late. Over that desperate noise now came the hiss and sigh of the waves, the water lapping only feet from their sandals. A dozen little blue crabs scrabbled away from the surf, crossing over the soft skin of her feet.

“What do you want from me?” Yukio yelled across the cool Sea, and felt the wind turn and shift around them. A sudden rush of warm air blew out over the water, rushing from them, from their joined hands held high in the air out into the realm of the waves.

Come back.

“I hear it,” Ami said.

“I will not come!” The waves splashed over their toes, on the hems of their robes. The Sea was cold as death, but this was not a bother to Yukio. Not anymore.

Come back where we want you.

“Make it stop, Yuki,” Ami said, her voice quivering. The waves rose up their ankles, and the gulls were screaming.

The tingling had climbed all the way to her hands, to the hand that joined with Ami’s and the one that lifted even higher, her left held up to the surging winds, and now she cast it forward. Ami moaned beside her. The wind flung itself out, battering at the waves. A gull crashed into the surf. A score, a hundred of the crabs were all around them now, a few as big as their palms, as big as their heads.

“Go back,” Yukio said, her voice raging into the air, carried on the wind. The Sea cast up a great wave that rose and rose and held above them for an endless moment, and like a shadow cast by some great figure, the shape of a man was hinted at in the depths of the gray waters. Ami struggled to tear her hand loose, but Yukio held tight, knowing they could master it. Could master the Sea. She flicked her fingers, and the wave crumpled back into the water, fell instantly before it could crash down on them, dropped into nothing, the man’s form shattering with the tumbling spume.

At their feet, the pebbles were slick but drying in the sun. The foamy edge of the surf was feet from them. The crabs were gone save one, small as a fingernail, that crept even then between two stones and vanished from the sunlight.

Proctor Sumiko reached them and snatched their hands apart.

“What have you done?” she said, voice low and hollow and terribly weak. “What have you done, girls?”

Hands at her sides, Yukio started to shake. Not a gentle shivering, but massive juddering spasms. She collapsed onto the pebbled shore, her mind failing, her body impassively ignorant of her wish to remain standing and strong.

And quiet, carried on the wind as it rushed over her ear, came the song.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

 

She woke on a pile of soft, cushioned mats, in the infirmary on the lowest floor. There were no windows, and the two-paneled door was closed, so Yukio didn’t know if it was yet day, or if night had crept in from the east. Two lamps flickered and cast a shifting glow over the chamber: shining wood floors, a pair of lacquered cabinets that held medicines and bandages, an embroidered cushion that the medic would rest on when he was in attendance. But Yukio was alone.

What had she done? Cast back the Sea, and sent it crashing down into itself, but she knew not how. Only that it had been easy, as easy as flicking away a fly or catching up one of the little beach crabs.

Almost inaudibly a sound came to her ears, the gentle protest of wood onto which weight is being pushed, like an old bench that two people have sat on at once. Something was pressing against the door panels from the hallway; and from under them came a little spreading pool of water, the fetid smell of the beach at a low tide.

Yukio rose from her bed and walked to the panels. They creaked and groaned as she laid her left hand on the matching panel and felt there a hint of cool dampness.

She set her other hand on the right panel and slid them apart, and the Sea came rushing in, waist high, then settled down to be only as high as her knees, the water swirling about her. Kelp floated in the surge, and a piece of driftwood burdened with tiny, multilegged bodies snapping their claws, and then something larger, something in a light robe with dark hair spreading out from it like spilling ink. Yukio waded forward through the water, noting that the lamps in the hall still burned with smoky flames. She paused next to the figure, the one resting facedown on the surface of the water. It was a student, she was sure of it: an older student, not one of the little children. For a moment she hesitated, and then she reached out and grasped the soft shoulder and, struggling for a moment, flipped over the body.

Ami’s pale face stared up at her, eyes wide and bleached from black to the gray of the Sea under storm clouds. From her open mouth came a little splash of briny water, and then a single blue crab that climbed up her tongue as up a staircase. Yukio staggered back, the solidity of the water making her stumble and tip over, crashing down into the wet, her elbow connecting with the driftwood. A flood of crabs clambered onto her as she sputtered in the shallow water.

“Go away,” she said, but there was no strength in it. She closed her eyes and covered her head with her arms, feeling the tap tap tap of tiny pointed legs on her face, her wrists, inside her robes. The water bore her up, but it would not leave, would not pass away as she asked.

“Are you well?”

She pulled her hands away from her face and blinked her eyes. The medic Atatsuo—he taught the students the basics of anatomy—was leaning over her in his soft green robe, his dark hair pulled back into a knot, a thin mustache on his top lip. Yukio looked around and saw no water, no kelp, no floating body, only herself on her piled cushions and mats.

A tiny crab slipped into a crack in the wall as she stared at it, and was gone.

“Are you well, Yukio?” Atatsuo asked again. “Can you answer me?”

Slowly she shook her head, unable to make her lips move in the shapes of words.

 

They sat, Yukio and Proctor Sumiko, in one of the golden-wood rooms, the window closed tight and a screen placed in front of it, no furnishing but the mats they knelt on, feet under their bottoms. The young woman and the old one sat facing each other in a silence that had stretched for some minutes. Yukio had long since gathered—even within her first year at the House by the Sea—that this was some strange part of the training meant to make her into whatever it was the proctors thought she should be.

“What are you doing?” the proctor asked.

Yukio stopped humming. She hadn’t realized that she had been doing so: the song of the Sea had come into her head, but she had tried to empty it away, pour it out like water to mop a floor. Useless, though: the haunting refrain lingered.

“I am . . . it is the Sea.”

“What did I tell you, Yukio?”

She sighed. “Not to listen to it.”

“And yet . . . ?”

“You don’t understand, Proctor Sumiko. I have no choice. There isn’t a way for me to stop it. He comes to the shore and he sings—”

“He?” Sumiko said, the one word cutting through all Yukio’s thoughts and fumbling speech.

A faint nod.

“Have you seen him yet?”

“No. Just a shadow on the shore’s edge, a shape in the waves.”

“But he hasn’t appeared to you? You’re certain he hasn’t appeared to you?” There was in the proctor’s voice something strange and new. It took a moment for Yukio to place it.

Fear.

“I have never seen him, Proctor.”

The old woman leaned forward, bridging the gap between them, and laid her hands on Yukio’s face, the left over her forehead, the right covering her eyes. They were cool and soft, and for a moment Yukio felt like a child with a fever, her mother hovering over her, a wet cloth at the ready. She shook away the thin memory of long-ago childhood; her mother had banished her to the House by the Sea when she would not always and without question do as she was told. Sumiko wielded no succoring cloth. She was just a bitter old woman with nothing to say. After a moment, the hands drew back. The old woman smiled weakly, and nodded to her student as if something had just been accomplished. The proctor must have thought she’d worked some charm, made some magic, but Yukio knew it wasn’t so.

Still the song rose from the deep blackness under the surf.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

 

“Yukio, you must. You have to call the Sea again, and tell it to stop,” Ami said, a hint of desperation in her voice. “You broke the wave. You can command it to stop doing this.”

Again Yukio shook her head, as she had all three times Ami had suggested it since they had gotten together. It was the slim end of the dinner hour, but they had skipped their meal, wandering the high, narrow halls of the middle floors where classrooms and libraries piled up one atop another, and where now it was almost totally silent. The fading sunlight of afternoon came flowing through windows left slightly open, admitting also the salty tang of the water. As they walked, she couldn’t help but look again and again over to Ami, her eyes seeking any sign of the fate she’d witnessed in her vision. But there was only the porcelain beauty of the smaller girl, and no sign of the grim dead form Yukio had witnessed.

“Then what?” Ami’s voice was filled with frustration.

“I don’t know! The proctors are scared, though. We broke the wave last time, but what if we don’t manage it again? It might come, just like in my visions. It might come, and maybe I won’t be able to stop it.” And maybe she wouldn’t want to stop it.

“You did it once,” Ami said.

“Once. Just once. And with you helping me.”

The other girl blushed. “I didn’t do much of anything,” she said.

“You did, though. I could feel the power running through us both. Maybe I shaped it, but half of it came from you, I’m certain.”

They wandered up and up, to the bell tower where evening sun caught on the shining bronze and gave the glow of day back to them. Ami ascended the ladder, smiling down at Yukio who followed after into the warm dimness above. For a long moment they sat, not saying anything. Yukio was happy for that moment, happy to be with her friend in the quiet of the little cave atop the House.

Ami took her hand. “Does the song keep getting stronger?”

“Every time I hear it, it’s harder not to go,” Yukio said, squeezing her friend’s little fingers tight in her bigger hand. “It’s getting more powerful. One day soon I might not be able to resist it anymore.”

“What do you think will happen if you listen? Will I . . . will you be gone forever? I’d never see you again?”

“Oh, Ami.” She wrapped her arm heavily around the other girl and drew her in, feeling her friend shake against her chest. “Are you very afraid?”

Ami pushed her back. “I . . . I hear it, too, now. It is so loud, Yuki.”

Yukio felt dizzy for a moment, as if the world was spinning fast around her. “Then we have to do it. We have to go now, and call up the Sea, you and I working as one.” She set her other hand on Ami’s knee and patted it twice. She tried to project a confidence she only half felt. Half, because she was certain that by herself she would belie her own solidity and be lost before the waves, but for her friend’s sake, she could be as strong as the rocky shore, and resist all the Sea’s blandishments. “We can do anything, if we’re together.”

“I’m not afraid.” But the little hand in Yukio’s shook slightly, the palm hot and damp, and she knew her friend was frightened.

“Now? Shall we do it now?” Dinner was just ended, and the proctors would be having a meeting, somewhere in the lower levels, as they did most every night; the other students would be studying or droning out chants or be about their evening tasks. There would be no one to stop them, no one to interfere, if they did this thing.

Ami didn’t move to affirm or deny the question. She did nothing at all for a long moment, and then she tightened her sweaty grip on Yukio’s hand. It was enough. Yukio crawled to the hatch and clambered down the ladder—always an awkward task—with her friend following behind and above her. Outside, the sky was crystalline blue, the air chill with a wind that blew from the north, and the Sea, far below, was almost still, close to silent.

“It’s waiting for you,” Ami said, her black eyes cast down at the water, and Yukio knew it was true. The Sea was waiting, but for what? For her, or for their challenge?

In her head, the song was silent, the voice as vanished as an ebb-tide wave barely touching a pebbled beach, drawn far away from her but soon to return, she was certain.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this. The proctors might be able to help us,” she said.

Ami shook her head. “No, Yukio, we must. If we don’t, the song will grow until it takes you. Then I’ll be all alone against it. We have to act now and make it stop before it’s too late.”

“It’s only that I mistrust the moment. I can’t hear the song right now, Ami. The Sea isn’t calling. Maybe . . . maybe later, when it is?”

Ami gripped Yukio’s shoulders and stared up into her friend’s eyes. “This is the proper thing, I know it now.” She loosed her hold, her right hand dropping to grip warm and damp at Yukio’s left, and started down the stairs that led to the next level. “We’ll go down to the Sea and we’ll make it leave you be. It will work.”

Again it was enough: her friend’s certainty convinced Yukio. She knew they had the strength to call up the waves. She herself had the will to do it—if only to help the smaller girl—and together their magic would conquer, though Ami might shudder and quail before the deed.

As they climbed downstairs, past silent classrooms and windows thrown wide open to let in the chilly air, she started to hear the song again: Come back. Faint as snow on a rooftop at first, but each level they descended brought it to her more clearly: Come back to the Sea as you long to. The air filled with the tang of rich brine and something less clean under that. Yukio glanced at Ami, but her friend seemed not to notice, her mouth a line of determination, her eyes slightly narrowed.

“Do you smell the Sea?” she asked as they came to the lowest levels, and dimly heard the sound of the proctors at their debate.

“The wind from the north carries a hint of salt,” Ami said. “Is that what you mean?”

She shook her head—it was the smell of the ebbing tide that was catching her nostrils, when fish and seaweed were left on the shores to dry and rot—but said nothing more.

At the stairs from the third floor to the second, Yukio saw a tiny blue crab scuttle away under a door. She stopped. Come back, come back to the Sea where we want you. Ami pulled at her hand and led her down to the second floor. Tiny pebbles lay gathered in corners, and tattered trails of seaweed littered the floor. The crabs were everywhere, in ones and twos, some as small as a thought, others vast as the terror that was growing in Yukio’s breast.

“This isn’t right,” she said, and tried to stop Ami drawing her along the hall to the last flight of stairs, the one that would take them to the ground floor of Spring House. The waves were loud in her ears now, and she jerked her head about as if to drive the sound away. “We have to stop.”

“There isn’t time, Yukio. The song, don’t you hear it? I won’t . . . it won’t wait. I can be brave for us now, if you aren’t.”

So much strength in such a small hand, still moist but growing chill, now. The tiny girl dragged the larger after her, down the final steps. The walls were damp, and water pooled in the halls. A gull picked at the soft flesh of a drowned boy’s face as crabs lingered near his wide, swollen eyes. A thousand waves crashed in Yukio’s head all at once, and her body tingled with the growth of power, her left hand most strongly—the place where she touched Ami.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

“Don’t take me outside,” she said. “Can’t you see what’s happening?”

Ami looked over her shoulder at her friend. Tangled in her hair was a long thread of kelp. Small and blue, a crab perched on her forehead, walking as if the pull of the earth had no hold on it. Ami’s eyes were the gray of the stormy Sea. Almost Yukio ceased moving; almost she wrenched her hand free. “Yuki. Don’t be afraid,” Ami said, but the voice was only half hers. Blended in, deep and rich, was the voice of the singer, the man-shape in the waves.

The main doors of the House, heavy wood bound in brass, swung open to the wind’s billowing breath. Outside, the sky had grown gray and the waves thundered on the rocky shore. A few students doing their evening chores looked out at the wild waters, frozen in place with baskets or nets in their hands.

Come back, come back to the Sea as you long to.

“No,” Yukio said, her breath barely enough to make the sound.

Come back, come back to the Sea.

Through the billowing winds and the crashing waves she heard soft steps behind her, though they should have been too quiet for her ears to catch them. “It’s not too late,” Proctor Sumiko called. Yukio turned and saw her standing on the lowest stair, with shadowy forms behind and above her, the rest of the proctors, but none of them distinct. “You can still turn back. Let go her hand.”

“I won’t,” Ami said sharply, and tightened her icy grip.

“Not you,” Sumiko said. “Yukio, let go.”

She looked back to her friend, to the pale face wrinkled with the Sea’s kiss, the tangled weeds in her hair and the water that ran from her mouth. Ice cold, the hand that held hers. The vision of death made material inches from her face.

Her only friend.

She paced ahead, to stand close beside Ami, with the wind from the Sea slicing through her robes, the air so rich with salt and rot that she could barely catch her breath. Ami smiled at last, and together they stepped to the doorway.

The clouds swirled. The Sea pulled back as they lifted their hands, standing at the threshold, and then a great wave rose up as high as the House itself, all the pebbled shore for a hundred feet, a hundred yards, made bare of water. So fast, it came: faster by far than the last wave, even. The scuttling crabs fled for the protection of the distant, looming tide, and then it crashed down: crashed down over the rocks, over the students who stood paralyzed with fear, to the great doors open to the storm. The wave surged over them, and Yukio closed her eyes, closed her mouth. It hit her like nothing she had ever felt, and yet she stood still, defying the wave and all the Sea.

I will not go, she thought. I will stay here with Ami.

 

The water dwindled around her, fell away. Her left hand was empty. Ami was gone. All about, the House was broken and wavetossed, pebbles scattered like a game of dice gone mad, ropes of weeds draped over the stairs and a shattered table, crabs dancing across the floor and caught in the hair of Proctor Sumiko, who lay facedown at the bottom of the stairs.

“Come back,” the man’s voice said, and she turned and saw him there, tall and hard, his face cold and scarred, his skin pale as if it had never seen the sun. “Yukio, you must come back.”

“Where’s Ami?”

The man came and took hold of her left hand. His flesh was hard with labor but warm, the flesh of a normal man, not a demon of the Sea. “Her choice was different. She’s gone, Yukio. She called the waves and they took her.”

“She didn’t call the Sea. I did. Tell me where she is!”

“Gone, I tell you. She called it and then opened up entirely, and the Sea swept her away. No matter how many times you search, you won’t find her. She’s not here. She’s not anywhere.”

Yukio looked about. Sumiko’s body was long gone to rot and decay, she realized, picked over by birds and beasts, only her dark tresses threaded with silver still as they had been in life. That was the smell she had caught all this time, the rotting foulness that had clung to her nostrils.

“What happened?”

“They should have taught you better than they did, Yukio. The proctors with their pride and their guesses at wisdom. Letting you—and Ami, poor creature—think you could control what has no master. Foolish. The Sea will take everything you’re willing to give. Even your life.” He shook his head. “They should have known better, at that school. Should have taught you more than they did. They had enough learning for the shore, maybe, but the Sea is not to be trifled with.” His hand tightened on hers. “You can’t stay here, Yukio. It’s not the place for you any longer. You’re one of us now.”

“I want to go home,” she said, but she didn’t know if she meant her little room far above them, or the place where her parents had lived that she only barely recalled, or some other spot, some doubtful location where Ami could be waiting for her.

“I know,” the man said, his voice rough with emotion. “I will take you.”

She looked up to his face. There were tears unshed in his eyes. She reached up her right hand and brushed at them, feeling the salty water catch on her fingertips.

“Where?” But she knew, in her heart she knew. She was tired and weary and forgetful, but she knew: the only place in the world she was wanted.

“Back.” He sucked in a breath of the salt air and let it slowly out. “Back to the Sea.”

It lay before her as she looked at him, across the pebbled shore: blue like the skies that soared endlessly above it.

“I’m afraid.”

He nodded. “You always are.” His feet shuffled and then his steps lengthened as she moved with him. They crossed the threshold out into the brilliant, bright air. The waves sighed ahead of them, hissing as they kissed the shore. Yukio shivered and paused for one moment, rubbing the salty tears between her fingertips, and then let the Sea take her away.

 

“Come Back to the Sea” copyright © 2013 by Jason Vanhee

Art copyright © 2013 by Pascal Campion

5 comments
Terri Hildenbrand
2. Terri Hildenbrand
Great writing. Nicely done.
Terri Hildenbrand
3. missallen
Lovely and evocative!
Naurael O'Chalad
5. Naurael
I cried, just now. And I stood on the shore with them, calling the sea.

Thank you.

Love,
Naurael
Jan Kafka
6. JanKafka
Lovely, evocative story, beautiful writing. I might wish you had not used Japanese names, because it made the non-Japanese facets stand out to me - shoes worn indoors, etc.

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