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Fiction

How to Join a Colony of Sea-Folk; or, Other Ways of Knowing

Step One: You Wait

You are patient and your love, true. There is nothing you cannot withstand.

Step Ten: Believe This To Be the Sea

Standing at the top of the dunes, hands wrapped against the railing—frost-slick and weathered—you can believe it. At your feet are stairs and stairs and stairs that zig-zag down through the pale yellow dunegrass like a great scar. Beyond that: a shallow strip of beach. And further: a wider strip of ice and frozen snow sprinkled with wind-blown sand. Beyond further: blue. Deep and endless. But not still. The lake is restless. Gone milky with roiling so that the surface mirrors, almost exactly the color of the clouds, which are pregnant with raindrops and near bursting.

You know there is land on the other side of the horizon, closer than you think. Perhaps a day and a half on foot, if you travel round the southern, narrow, boot-shaped edge of this lake. It’s out there. Somewhere. But for you, who grew up in a nation both landlocked and arid, where fog is foreign but dry heat very familiar, it may as well be the sea.

Besides. Aren’t all the world’s waters connected? Fed by the tears of Mami Wata’s former lovers (they are numerous, envious creatures). It’s what you’d heard. And more than that, it feels true.

Step Nine: Arrive at Dawn

Or dusk. Depending on the stories you’ve heard. Either should work. But you are chasing a new beginning. Is that selfish? You’ve tried closure and last rites and saying goodbye and none of those felt honest. So, dawn it is.

Step Two: Arrive at Dusk

Or dawn. It doesn’t matter. The horizon is unbroken and empty as ever.

Step Seven: Write a Letter

No matter how many times you’ve started you are certain that all of your words arrive on the page wrong, an insufficient explanation of the bruise you’ve been cradling behind your ribs since the day you accepted your love would not come home. Yes, you have been happy. Fulfilled. And yet, there is an ache. A tenderness swelling between your connective tissue. You believe there is a way to ease it.

Your son, Tove, would call it a hunch, but your hunches are usually good.

You can only hope that in time Tove will understand. Perhaps he will even think of you in the spring, come festival time. Drape the altar with strings of cowrie shells and your favorite head wrap and the kora your love left behind that you always did intend to learn to play. Leave dishes of roasted yams next to grilled fish and winter apples, cups full of maple-wine next to a photo of you at his age, and him, squirming in your arms. Yes, that too. But for now, it will suffice for him not to worry.

Step Eleven: Find the Perfect Tidepool

The rosy edge of morning finds you taking slow steps through the damp sand. It slides and shifts beneath your feet. You look north, then south along the beach. Shore stretches out in each direction, unbroken, dimpled by last night’s rain. Ultimately you choose north. Away from the lighthouse. It already failed you once; too many nights spent wishing for it to lead a ship to you. You won’t give it a chance to fail you again.

There ought not to be tidepools here at all. But over the winter ice formed, broke, crashed against the coast and repeated its strange percussion again and again until the shoreline was remade into something new. This close to spring, water has found ways through the ice dams. Of course. Water always finds a way. Channels have formed, bridging lake-sea to lake-sea-shore, and shallow tidepools are the result. You pass half a dozen, knowing without knowing that none of them will do.

Sea birds swoop low on swift wings. A chickadee chirrups its name in the woods behind you. Thin flat chunks of ice that would look more at home in the polar-deserts, if not for the sand that dusts across them, slush against each other in a way that is both lazy and indulgent. You stare at the lake beyond. Understanding comes.

• • • •

Your first step onto the icy mound is tentative. You’d rather not send a foot crashing down into the freezing water. Well, not before you really have to. It holds and you take another. The snow and ice have built into a ridge here. The lake-sea crashes against the new, temporary shore. You follow this ridge until you come to a place where water has been trapped. A part of the ice shelf has sunk deeper. Bubbles trail up through the fissure. You turn the coin over and over again between your fingers.

Step One: You Wait

You are patient and your love, true. This is nothing you have not done before.

Step Six: Tire of Waiting

You tried to explain this to Tove once, and he looked at you as if you’d gone mad. He thinks he knows tired because he has one child walking and one barely sitting up and one more on the way, and yes being a new parent is a very particular sort of exhaustion but he does not understand the type of tired you are of decades of waiting for your lover to come home.

It is a tired that turns bones into brittle things and threatens to hollow out hearts into echo chambers and he does not see it because he has never seen you do anything but endeavor to love and heavens almighty has your life been full of love, so much love, but there is that ache that cannot be eased, and that hunch, that knowing, that will not give you peace. You and your love were ordained by the stars and something so godlike will weigh so heavily when circumstances have torn you apart and further, you know, you know it the way platelets will clot a wound and the way bearberry pollen will make you sneeze, and the way a crow’s beak is black and flames burn blue and the coin wrapped inside your fist is cold, that it was nothing so simple as being lost at sea.

Step Twelve: Prepare your Offering

You hear her before you see her.

You know that Mami Wata is sometimes Papi Wata, and often both at once, but the temple your love worshiped at always sung of her divine light, and so you came to think of the god as her too. It’s right for you in the moment, anyway. Which is also how you know that this is the place. Her song carries not so much as words, but rather more like a sigh released with each bubble that pops at the surface of the water. It is something you feel more than you hear.

You’ve brought two offerings: hot drink brewed from roasted kola nut and chili peppers, the grounds and seeds still swirling in the bottom of the jar, and also a flagon of raw elk’s milk. The elk’s milk is near yellow against the water as you pour it into the tidepool.

Nothing happens.

Step One: You Wait

You are patient and your love, true. You’ve waited before. It is nothing to you now.

Step Three: Become a Pity

They waited with you at first. The entire town held vigil, waiting for the ship to return. The last letter you received was dated from a port-town weeks ago. They were days late passing through the straits that would bear them from sea to lake to home to you.

Eventually the casual observers left, then the neighbors and close friends. Leaving you with the other widowed partners too stubborn to call themselves such.

Then the vigil thinned until there were no others, only you and the stubby wax candles that dotted the stairways down towards the dunes.

Fall rains turned to early snow. You let the November winds do your howling. You did not beat your fists upon the sand but rather clutched them tightly at your sides. The press of fingernails and the ridged edge of a golden coin into your palm grounded you then as much as anything.

Step Thirteen: Try Again

The bubbles in the tidepool grow fervent, then stop all together. You add the spicy kola nut beverage to the pool. Even lean forward to dip the jar in the water and wash out the excess grinds. You wince, imagining the heat on your tongue and the bitter aftertaste. Only a god would enjoy a drink such as this.

It is a start, you think, but also there is a buzzing growing – along the backs of your legs, across the cups of your knees. You move your foot. A gentle tapping at first. Enough to ease this yearning. And then it hits you. This feeling is an urge and you let it take you. Waves crash up over the icy edges that jut lake-sea-ward. That gentle rhythm will do. You stamp once and crouch so that as you turn one arm swoops upward, palm to sky, while the other is tucked hand over heart, and your elbow traces a circle near knee height. You laugh and do it again. Then you tuck your hands near your waist and let your shoulder work your body back upright; then arch your spine, heart to heavens. The wind picks up and you clap and throw your hands towards the clouds. You roll from your waist to your shoulders and back down again. This is a dance for a god. Euphoria lights through you. You know the stories. You’ve been too long from her ceremonies but you know how this goes.

• • • •

Step Four: Believe the Stories

When you love someone long enough it is not uncommon to begin to see the world as they do. You were brought up agnostic but you could not deny the blessings Mami Wata bestowed on your lover. It would be nothing for them to go on a walk along the beach and find a nautilus shell, preserved and weather-polished, or go fishing only to remove pearl after improbable pearl from the mouths of catfish and bluegills. Once, your lover came home with a fat salmon. Nothing in the mouth but in the belly—not one, but two golden coins, nearly as large as your palm. The front stamped with a symbol for fertility and the back a head with two human faces, and a body that ends in a double tail. No currency you knew of. From beyond, your lover insisted.

When their ship did not return, you knew in your gut that a shipwreck was the least likely answer.

Mami Wata takes care of her own.

Step Five: Try Again

It takes courage, you suppose, to welcome someone such as you, who is known to have one eye turned toward the lake-sea, to their bed. And you are grateful, so grateful that Ko did not give up on you. Your decades together were peaceful. When you are feeling gracious to yourself you admit that it took courage on your part, too, to try for love again.

Step Fourteen: Steady that heart of yours. Isn’t this what you wanted?

It is. So why does your chest tremor in fear? The bubbles in the tide pool have increased to the point that they burst at the surface and each pop releases a note of song. At least, you choose to believe it is song. The force of each note sends tremors beneath your booted feet. The time has come. Ask.

Step Fifteen: Ask

Mami Wata! Sacred mistress of many faces. Divinity of the waters of the world. My love did not come home, and I know why you might want to keep them. They are everything good and bright, like a sliver of sun on a winter day, but it is time. You have kept my love. Now take me too. We will be together. Dancing along the currents. Singing songs to the lost and lonely. Tangling limbs in lengths of seaweed. Take me too.

Step One: You Wait

The wait is instantaneous compared to this lifetime you have spent in suspension.

• • • •

Heavens above and waters below, you were not ready. The fissure in the tidepool grows and what at first you take for the bright light of the afterlife is revealed to be an eye. More massive and just as awful as you’d imagined. A pearlescent iris set in a face the same shades as the nutrient rich soil at the bottom of rivers and stars almighty, how could you not know she was so close? Were those gusts wind or her breath? Were those waves or wakes left from her mighty tail? Has she been waiting? Is she like you?

Step Eight: Burn the Other Letters

You know them all by heart. You know the swoop of each character. You’ve worn the edges thin with your handling. There is not a word your love meant for you to have that is not already a part of your every cell. Those letters beat in your veins. Fire across synapses. You can’t think of a thing more true. You won’t need them where you are headed.

So burn them.

But take the coin.

Step Last: Go

The archipelago on which you have been making your case shifts and breaks free. Faster than you can comprehend you are moving free from the shore, and it’s only when water splashes against your belly that you realize you are submerged and sinking still. Icy islands cast shadows when viewed from underneath. You gasp, and that is when you understand that you can breathe. Mami Wata flips and shoots deeper, with you cradled between the webbed fingers of a gentle hand. The darkness grows, but there is light beyond it. As you grow closer, shadowy shapes resolve into silhouettes part human and part of-the-sea. And if your ears are to be believed—there is music, too. Above the drum beats and string plucking one voice rises. Sung with strange lungs and still, you know those words.

They were written to you first.

You would know that voice anywhere.

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K.S. Walker

K.S. Walker. A young Black person with glasses wearing a dark green hoodie and a brown backpack standing on a hiking trail smiling at the camera.

K.S. Walker writes speculative fiction. You can often find them outside with their family or inside starting a craft project they may or may not finish. K.S. Walker has been published or is forthcoming at FIYAH, Uncanny, The Deadlands, Translunar Traveler’s Lounge, and various anthologies. You can find them online at kswalker.net or on Twitter @kswalkerwrites and Instagram @kswalker_writes.