In celebration of National Poetry Month, we are pleased to present “The Ghost Tide Chantey,” an original poem by Fran Wilde, acquired for Tor.com by editor Miriam Weinberg.
Tor.com is celebrating National Poetry Month by featuring science fiction and fantasy poetry from a variety of SFF authors. You’ll find classic works, hidden gems, and new commissions over at the Poetry Month index.
The Ghost Tide Chantey
Once, our island sang four chanteys: storm, shoal, hearth, haul.
Seven tides graced our lee shore: ebb, low, slack, neap, high, perigee, spring.
Now the lee shore lies barren. Now I sing one chantey and
new tides sweep the sand: iron, smoke, and bone.
Once, a warship anchored our cove, iron-clad and cannon-pierced. A dragon bowsprit cast a rippled shadow, chewed at its watersunk chain. A captain strode the island’s pier, calling: war, need, honor.
A teacher rang the schoolhouse bell. Once, twice. Summoned the children, sent them to duty. (Would haunt that sound until their return.) Mothers sang the hearth chantey, “Go down, go down to the sea and be blessed,”
and the old coxswain rowed the oldest boys shipward.
We tossed marigolds in their wake.
Down to the sea and blessed be, away, away, away.
More frigates hove to, sails flapping. Swept up younger boys, our strong girls. Took the crops, the stock. Gathered the fishing boats; led them away (away, away).
Emptied houses turned shuttered eyes to the sea.
A bell stilled at the end of its rope. A schoolhouse filled with dust.
Storm crushed sea; smoke bound sky; we watched from widow’s walks worn thin.
Time pounded our island, shouting go down go down.
A long-broken mast gutted a beach. A headless bowsprit shed scales and pitch. Rain peeled the shoreline back, unearthed rusting hulls.
Gulls wove nests with dead men’s hair and copper wire.
The island stared down the bare horizon as hope sunk below the waterline.
We’d rung them gone. We vowed to wait, to sing them back.
Return to me from the deep, dark sea, by foot, or wing, or water.
“The world’s a thief,” the coxswain said. He stayed to keep the ghost watch too.
Together, we walked the shoals. Unraveled the silence of loss. Put marigolds in the graveyard, closed up empty houses, let the future rot on shore, and stitched the island quiet.
A white sail pierced a storm-black sky. The coxswain hummed an old song;
waited for sail to turn cloud, or bird. With wind-sung hull and baskets full, from wide and lonely sea. Sailcloth bellied the gale. A moss-hung mast and salt-rimmed bow tacked toward the cove.
The island caught its breath, held hope in its mouth.
A pier creaked as a boat rode bare pilings, giving voice to longing. A ragged shift flapped the wind, as one girl jumped the gunwale, secured the lines. The girl’s teeth gleamed like pearls.
Go down to the sea and blessed be; return, return to me.
The coxswain hushed the schoolteacher; said, “Too young by far.”
He boarded to seek captain or guardian. Found handmade pulleys, extra rigging. Sails long reefed to gentle the winds. Cams and clamps commanded tiller and mainsheet, set to head the ship north and east.
A rough machine of brass and wood crawled the rigging, secured the ship, scuttled sideways. The girl fed it seaweed. Wound its wooden key.
Soon, the girl wore shoes from one island house and a dress from another. She skipped the shoreline. Windward to lee, afore the sea, today, today, today.
The windup crab dodged the coxswain’s hands, his desire to take it apart. Girl and crab strode the lee shore, humming. Slept on derelict porches, pulled at the island’s fallow gardens, dipping and rising like crows.
(Once, an island wished its own back so hard, the tide brought a war-flung child. The island whispered: welcome. And the island muttered: stranger.)
“She could be ours, or near enough.” The schoolteacher sat stubborn by the stilled bell.
The girl plucked marigolds, tossed rocks at the bell. Wove wild uncertainty across the island’s days.
Now the coxswain grumbled: trespass, disrespect.
The schoolhouse beckoned. The teacher let the door swing wide and sang a chantey. Dusted off a chart and knocked it to the floor where it bloomed like smoke. The girl traced a finger on the compass rose, on a margin’s flame-licked dragon.
“Ride high and low, where monsters go, away away away.”The teacher’s fingers brushed a speck on the wide sea. The girl scrawled long, dark clouds across the distant land. So far, so far away.
“None but her to bury us,” the coxswain said, and thought to sink the boat.
The island weighed the empty horizon as the sun rose over the lee shore and the girl walked the old pier. She wound the crab, lowered it to the waterline, and skipped back across the boards. The crab skittered sideways beneath the surf, and out to sea.
Green-bottomed clouds billowed the horizon. Rain spat and hissed. The bell rang. The island leapt awake by the lee shore.
Another ship. Two. The girl, in pinafore and dungarees, let go the bell’s rope, ran the pier.
Foam blown before storm: fishing boats returned to harbor.
The island’s gnarled hands tried to catch their lines. Missed. The girl reached to help, made a fast hitch. Sails dropped. Gangplanks descended and old eyes looked up to meet young faces, wind-tossed hair, gap-toothed grins, thin and dirty cheeks.
None like ours who’d been taken. Who we’d sent off to the sound of bell and chantey, with marigolds.
The island clutched its welcome to its chest, its songs turned to sand; the girl clapped her hands.
Be leagues away, turn home one day; return, return to me.Feet pounded gangplanks and pier; laughter tore silence. A gull made of bone and cloth circled above the masts. A reed cat prowled the gunwales.
The coxswain spat: strangers.
Children spilled from the pier, deaf to his words. Flew through our houses. A hammer went missing. Nails pulled loose from shingles. A spare millstone broke.
“Where are the strong sons? The obedient daughters?” the coxswain shouted. Despair shuttered his eyes.
The schoolteacher laid out fishing nets, a rusted plow. Wound the clocks. Set a proper table.
At dusk, children plucked each treasure from its proper place.
The reed cat stalked the garden. Licked a bloodied paw with a nettle tongue.
Children wrought strangeness in the square. Made a wind-up fan from cutlery and a spring. Worked a broken clock into sharp-edged doll.
The schoolteacher dreamed children stole her bones, wove them with wire, hung them from the bell.
Children plied the coxswain’s wake, pacing garden to pier, then shore, and back. They wore his shoes and whispered. The coxswain shouted them away, his voice like breaking dishes.
Girl and schoolteacher walked the shoreline, gathering mussels. Rough chords spilled from young lips like wind, woven with familiar notes. The teacher sang, Return, return to me.
The gull spun gathering clouds.
The coxswain found a thief in his boatshed. Caught him up by his copper hair and dragged him to the shore, sang away, away, away as the rain whipped cold and sharp. Threw the stranger to the water.
At dawn, the children stole their boy back, laid seaweed on wounds, pushed wind into lungs.
The reed cat tried to lick him awake.
The teacher threw marigolds to the shoals. The school bell tolled the passing.
Children scoured the island, pushed doors aside, searched the shore, Down to the sea to return to me, until they found the coxswain, haunt-pale beneath a storm-wrecked hull.
Dug his neck bones and scapulae from sand. Hung his ghost like a sheet from a mast.
The teacher called them then: rang the bell once, twice, again. Return, return.
Now, the island is echoes. A schoolhouse with a missing bell. A weed-woven path.
Children retrieve weathered bones from shoreline, from schoolhouse. They stitch joy to sorrow, theirs to ours. The island begins again.
Now the old wind tugs new boats to sea and back. A canvas gull surfs the drafts.
The island’s children ply their nets with laughter. They sing strange songs.
Now my bell sits the hillside, rung with marigolds.
Now there are ten tides, five chanteys.
Now, I hum return to me, where they cannot hear my ghost chantey be blessed.