STRANGE NEW HEART • by Ann Wuehler

I drown those I play with in the salty deeps. They struggle and scream against my lips. I kiss them, my arms like soft nets. They despair, eyes gazing into mine until the gazes lose that spark. That life, that hope, that will. I laugh, kiss them one last time, let them drift downward into the deep blue, into the deeper black, where their bones will roll and move with the carcasses of whales and broken ships.

A small island draws my attention but my sisters, all seventy of them, warn me. Stay away, stay away from Fishnet Island, Agrusha.

My name is the sound of the waves before a storm. My mother told me this but she tells all my sisters similar fables on their names.

The landwalkers reduced us to a few but we were once legion, my love. Don’t be careless, Agrusha. Be so careful, my little one.

Oh but I hide in the waters, form myself into mats of floating kelp, my head bald and greenish-azure. I and my own are well-equipped to hide in the plainest of sights when we have to. Or simply zoom through the water, down into the crushing depths where the landwalkers cannot go so easily. Have we not made sure their delicate crafts imploded a time or many? Of course we have. I am as malicious and interested in not being served over stewed seaweed or cut apart to see how I work as the next of my kin.

I raise my head above the rising and falling of the surf, so very gentle today. He sits on the shore, carving away at the dark driftwood held in his hands. That dark gray head bent, his skin worn as the underside of a traveling sea turtle. He has been stranded here for ages. I sit on the rocks, I toss the seashell I’ve brought for a gift toward him. It lands, plunk, by his spindly leg. “Come out and play with me,” I call but he does not raise his head or stop cutting tiny nicks in the dark wood, seasoned and tempered by its time in the brine and water. “Is it not pretty?”

His hand scrambles for that pink-gold shell, a conch shell. “You’re not real,” he speaks this in a soft awful way. The shell goes back into the incline leading up to the pale beach. I retrieve it, toss it back to him. “You’re not real!”

“Here,” I fetch a much smaller, broken bit of sand dollar, fling it into his lap. He jerks, the knife slices across his finger. Blood, as rich and fragrant as that of a seal, drips with a lovely scarlet hue to the sand below. “Let me taste that.”

I cannot leave the ocean but he can enter my vast world and go from it as he pleases. A distinct advantage for landwalkers. His eyes mark me, wide dark eyes in that sun-fried face. They are nearly without sense. A faint stirring of pity. I have never experienced pity before for one of them. A foul bubble of it around my heart. They are playthings and sometimes food.

“How long have you been on Fishnet Island?”

“Why do you squeak at me so?” He stands, his blood-dripping finger leaving a pattern of spots across the broken sand dollar, the driftwood, the sand. “No one is coming to save me. No one. Damn it.” He sucks at his finger, looking past me at the wide restless belly of the ocean, at the cheerful sky that today held no storms.

I attempt to leave. My tail has become enmeshed with an ancient fishing net. I struggle but it seems the strands and ropes have not rotted enough for me to break them. My fingers scrabble to push them down and off my tail. I reach for the sharp edge of a seashell but there is nothing within reach.

The landwalker moves toward me. I attempt to bite at the strands. I hiss through my long front teeth. I will not die so easily. I bite, hiss, entangle myself further.

The flash of a knife blade under the water, the fishing net falling apart with a sickening ease. The old man cutting away, face growing saner the more free I become. Our eyes meet, remain within one another, rather like staring into a sea cave full of sleepy eels. His rough hand runs over my face, traces the slit of my mouth, finds my sharp teeth but I do not bite him. I trace his face, his sharp bony brow, his thick lips, the strands of hair that grow from his jaw, upper lip and chin. My hand pulls him down. I kiss that hairy cheek, murmuring the song my mother sang to me when I was yet tiny and weak, and needed her protection. I taste salt, fresh and bitter. His dark eyes water, I lick that moisture but it hurts my pointy tongue, it hurts my strange new heart.

He splashes back to the shore, yanking the old net behind him, where the skeletons of other creatures yet remain. A giant fish, the rotting arm of an octopus, the remains of a whale calf.

I avoid the island for years, burdened with how to repay him. Until I notice the small research ship that bobs a long swim from Fishnet Island. I get it to chase me. I have such fun with this. But I hide among the rocks and floating kelp beds as the old man gets taken aboard, screaming and laughing. He turns to the waters, almost to where I am hidden. His hand raises. I twitch my fingers in return. I can return to my life. My heart is my own again. The salty stretches of my world call me. I answer with a glad, happy yes.

Ann Wuehler has written four novels — Aftermath: Boise, Idaho, The Remarkable Women of Broken Heart Lane, The House on Clark Boulevard, and Oregon Gothic. “Elbow and Bean” appears in the current Whistle Pig Literary Magazine and “Witch of the Highway” was in World of Myth Magazine. Her “Blood and Bread” will appear in Hellbound Book’s Toilet Zone 3, the Royal Flush, due in spring of 2022. Her “Sefi and Des” will be included in Brigid Gate’s Musings of the Muses, due out in 2022.

Like what we do? Be a Patreon supporter.

Rate this story:
 average 4.2 stars • 13 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction