By Anna Whelan
Underneath the gushing role and crash of the surface, below the ever-shifting beauties and terrors of the sea’s skin, lies the epic rhythm of its dark gut. Salty teardrops, flung sparkling into the air by storm winds and dancing fish are born in the deep, where neither wind nor dance exist. Giants move through the darkness, slow and heavy as time itself, eyes blind, mouths open.
In that blackness there once lived a woman. All that she knew she had learned from the tips of her fingers. History was a cold rocky crag, a distant memory of an angry heat, oozing from the earth’s very core. Philosophy was the fine dust nestled in the rocky hollows or carried in the current, not knowing it was once a fossil, and before that, alive. Her education-by-touch did not prepare her for surprises. That’s why her fingers trembled as they recognized one for the first time. Terrified, she touched what seemed to her to be the fossil of a man. He stood upright, his marble foot resting on the severed head of a monster, his arm raised in triumph. She stayed by the statue for a long time, running her hands over its surface, trying to understand what it meant. She knew it must have sunken from above, for its resting place, near a large boulder was empty not long before. She remained near the man’s motionless feet for a long time more before she turned away.
* * *
Day broke upon the sea. A creature, a bird with the face of a woman, turned her unblinking eyes to the east as she shifted on a high, barren perch. The cold mass of the water lapped desperately at the sun-parched rock, as the warm rays slowly reclaimed it as their own, touching the dry bones scattered upon it with the familiarity of a lover. Coiled among the bones was another creature – a snake with the face of a woman, its bronze scales dull with age. The snake was sighing faintly, and the sound grew louder with the rising of the sun. As the bird-woman ruffled her feathers, she joined the snake’s whispers with her own low chant. Their song was an unhappy one in the early gray of the morning.
A woman’s head broke the dull surface of the water, but did not interrupt their song. They turned their ancient eyes to her and watched her gasp. Air filled her wet lungs, the chant flooded her ears and mind; she was drowning in the light and heat of the sun.
“Why have you left your home?” the chant was asking her, “Speak!” Floundering, her arms waving, she opened her mouth and fumbled over the sound. Her reply was a song, like the language of the questioners.
“I have touched something I do not understand.” She began to describe the statue which had sunk down to the sandy ocean floor which was her home. She had never before voiced her thoughts. She swam towards the women and dragged herself onto one of the rocks, unused to the heaviness of her own body, its awkward movement through the thin air. Her thoughts, however, were moving faster and easier, leaping over barriers which before had seemed insurmountable.
“It was like me,” she ended her description, “though it had never been alive”.
“You are mistaken” sang the snake woman. “What you have touched is not like you. It is the work of humans, who with their hands shape clay and stone, and beat their drums and play their flutes, so that they no longer hear our song.” The bird-woman leaped into the air from her high rock and landed near the sea-woman with a rustling of her brown wings. “Come join us, sisters” she sang in the sea-woman’s ear. “The men who used to come to hear us have long since turned to dust, but our song is eternal, and we will practice our craft so long as the sun rises.”
The sea-woman’s eyes began adjusting to the bright light, her vision began to clear. She looked at her own white hands, then turned her eyes to the horizon. She could see a wooden ship, propelled westward, away from the sun, its many oars moving in rhythm to the beat of a drum. She looked back at the women-creatures.
“Though I have no legs, I have hands, which you do not. I am not like you. I am more like the humans. I will go to them, and they will teach me to shape stone and clay as they do. I do not wish to stay here with you. Their drumming is more beautiful than your song, because every beat may be the last.”
The snake woman’s chant turned into a venomous hiss. “You are a fool! Heed my advice, sister, for I am older than you, and have lived among the humans. In a grassy garden I once shared my food with a human woman. Our kind brings humans only suffering and death. You cannot understand their arts, any more than they can understand your.”
But the woman from the sea had already decided.
“Will you help me, sisters?”
The snake woman slithered away through the dust and scattered bones, her song hushed to a bitter mutter. The bird woman did not move. She turned her head to one side, and surveying the sea-woman with one gold flecked eye, chanted shrilly.
“I will help you. I have spent my life among the clouds and the mountains. I have heeded my ancient sister’s advice, and stayed away from the humans. Though I too, in my youth, often listened to their drums and songs from a distance. I stayed here with my sister, wincing and singing through the ages of man. Now I am old, and discontent. Go to them. Perhaps your fate will be different than mine.”
The sea-woman leaped back into the water intending to swim towards the ship, but though the water cradled her softly, like it had done all her life, the embrace seemed now to suffocate her. The bird woman swooped down and lifted her into the air.
“The water is no longer your home. I will take you to the place where humans live.” She flew through the air in the direction of the ship, holding her tightly in her claws. As they flew the sea-woman cried in pain as her tail split into two pale legs, like those of a human. From the tips of her new toes, the water dripped back into the sea.
* * *
The little boy laughed as he flew through the air, up towards the ceiling and down again safely into his father’s arms. As she stood there, kneading dough at the flour covered table, she watched her husband and child as they played. After a few more air-tosses, Aias put the giggling boy back on the ground, and after tenderly touching the boy’s curls, sent him back to his toys. He then turned back to his work. Sitting on the stool, by his potter’s wheel, Aias dipped his hands into the water jug, and began kicking the wooden wheel at his feet into motion, as his wet hands shaped the clay on the wheel-head. She liked watching his large brown hands, covered with wet clay, turning shapeless lumps into urns, jugs, pots and bowls. She would help him as he carried them to the fire pit, wet and ready to collapse back into shapelessness. They would emerge from the fire pit dry but brittle. Though they could never revert to their formless state, they could break into sharp fragments if not handled with care. He saw her watching him and smiled.
“What would I do without you, Korë?”
That was the name he had given her when she had stumbled into the village, unsure on her feet. A family took her in and taught her how to make bread and how to water the earth so that things would grow. Aias the potter would visit her there, and when he finished building her this house, at the edge of the village, he took her to be his wife. She smiled back at him, and carried the braided dough to bake in the fire pit.
The next day, she helped Aias load a cart with the wares he had been preparing all winter. He kissed her and their son, and set off for the city festival. Her son balanced on her hip, she watched as her husband faded into the dust of the road. In the evening, when the boy was sleeping, she carried the candle near her husband’s wheel. From the shelf she took a large lump of clay, which was she had covered earlier with a wet rag. She set it on the wheel-head, sat down on her husband’s stool, dipped her white hands, so different from her husband’s large brown ones, into the water jug, and began turning the kick-wheel. Her wet hands worked the clay into a tall, pillar-like shape. She stopped the wheel and started shaping the clay with her fingers. She continued her work into the night, transforming the clay into a figure. At dawn she stoked the fire pit, and when the fire was hot enough she put her statue in it, so that it would dry and harden as it baked.
She returned to the house and, exhausted, began pitting olives for her son’s breakfast. He awoke and ate quickly, then ran off, still awkward on his plump legs, eager to meet the other children and join their games. She busied herself with other necessary household tasks. She fetched water from the well in a jug her husband’s hands had formed. When enough time had passed, she took her statue out of the fire, and set it outside the door to cool. Finally, she fell to her bed and slept deeply.
When she awoke, the sun was in the middle of the sky. She rose and went outside, to call her son for his lunch, as she did every day. She did not need to this time. Her son was sitting outside the door, looking at the statue she had made, hesitantly touching it.
“Come eat, darling,” she said. He did not move his eyes, nor show any sign that he had heard her. She bent down, lifted him, and placed him on a chair beside the table. He scrambled down and ran back to the statue. He was always distracted by new and interesting things. He would often stare at flowers, animals and even rocks, filled with innocence and curiosity. He reminded her of herself, when she first came to the village. He would come in when he was hungry enough.
But he did not. For the first time in her life, a growing panic filled her mind. Her little boy refused to come in. She brought food out to him, and he would not swallow it. Night had fallen, and still he remained outside, shivering in the cold air, staring at the statue before him. She took the statue and hid it from him, then lay him in bed, holding him in the dark. She woke up to hear him moving in the thick darkness of the room, breaking a clay plate as he fumbled blindly for the statue. She took it from its hiding place and placed it beside the bed so that he may look upon it as he lay there. She sat by him, waiting for him to fall asleep. He did not. His brow was hot with fever, his eyes sunken in darkened sockets, he pattered about, desperate for the touch of the clay figure. Again and again she tried to feed him some soup, but the boy would not eat. He would only lay down if the statue was before him. She wanted to break the statue, but was terrified that her son’s heart would break with it, for his heart too grew dry and brittle, not wet and alive like a human heart should be.
He died two days later. The sun faded from his pale skin, his eyes open and gazing at the statue. Clawing at her own hands, silent with grief, she took a hammer to her statue, until all that was left was dust. She walked out the door, through the fields, eyes blind to the sun and skin cold to its rays. She reached the edge of the land, her toes sinking in the wet sand between earth and sea andraised her voice in song.
“Sisters! Will you help me?”
* * *
Day broke upon the sea, and on the barren, sun-parched rock there were three half-formed sisters. A snake with the face of a woman, a bird with the face of a woman, and a creature, a woman with the tail of a fish. Their song was an unhappy one in the early gray of the morning.