Your mother used to tell you stories about the witch who walked the shore. A gnarled, mangled woman with mossy seaweed trailing from her scalp and claws where her hands ought to be. A woman who had been trapped underwater for so long that her putrefied skin rippled across her body as she moved, slick as a bed of eels. A woman who could turn a child into a crab with no more than a flick of her bony wrist; hard shell, but still flesh inside, still you. Even the best fisherman wouldn’t know the difference as he sliced you open. A woman who would steal your family away to join her cast of crabs: one for every fisherman’s hook dropped on the sand, but the grown-ups first, always the grown-ups first, so the youngers might be left calling out, their cries lost in the hollow sea wind. Your mother said sometimes, if the sky was quiet, and the sea was calm, you might even hear the witch, singing out in a gurgling whisper or clacking those terrible claws.
That’s why your mother taught you to darn your father’s clothes so well, even when the moonlight squinted your eyes, and the needle stole blood from your fingertips. You asked your mother about the bruises around her wrist once, and she said she’d fought off the sea witch only the night before, when she’d found her on the path, headed for your father. She smiled a little as she told it, and nudged you to check your thread. Sometimes your mother’s cheeks bore green and purple marks and you wondered if the witch had been back again. Either way, the story worked. You daren’t miss a stitch that might become a hole, that might become a curse.
The crab claws your mother kept on the windowsill to illuminate her words lie there still. Only now it is you who clacks them together to frighten your little sisters into doing what they ought. It is you who whispers the shhhh-shhhh-shhhh of lapping waves to sooth them back to sleep when they wake and weep. It is you who brings your father his nightly broth and beer while he grunts in his armchair. It is you who mimics your mother as best you can.
The last night you saw her, there were footprints along the sand leading to her bedroom window. They were too big to be your mother’s. You didn’t understand, until you heard the yelling. Your mother bellowed like a shore-stranded whale as your father did whatever he did to her that night. You and your sisters hid under the blankets, holding tight to each other, waiting for the storm to pass. The next morning brought silence, an uneasy calm, until your father grabbed you by the wrist and led you to your mother’s things; her sewing box, her purse, her apron. Out walking in the village that afternoon, neighbours glanced at the pavement as you passed close by, then whispered in groups like huddled reeds as you walked back to your home.
In the end, you didn’t know if the sea witch had taken your mother, or if the stories you caught from the village were the truth.
Still, you chase crabs when you see them, scuttling along the walls. You scoop them up, talk to them, search their black eyes for hers.
Your father drinks more and more and though the waves seem to whisper dark secrets about him in the moonlight, you keep them to yourself. It’s between him and the sea.
The women who climb into his bed each evening offer no comfort, to you and your sisters or, it seems, to him. You crack open the door one night, watch your father and one of these women, their limbs twisting together like knotted driftwood, until he catches your eye with his, wild and furious as any squall. You dash away before he can grab at you.
In the end, those women all vanish too, slither back to wherever they came from leaving nothing behind but more damage to your home and your heart. And the whispers from the waves grow louder still.
You cock your ear to the window at sunset, think about talking back, but what could you say? What could you do? Your sisters think you’ve been in the wind too long, all that time spent out hunting for crabs. But you know that they sneak conches under their blankets to help them sleep, shells pressed close to their ears, to keep the real sounds of the sea out.
One night when the whispers are stronger than ever, you lean out of your window, put your face in the damp breeze and listen hard. There’s a clack-clack-clacking from the shore, louder and louder until you can’t pick out your own pounding heart from it
You see something in the mist, perhaps just the flap of a distant sail, though to you it has the form of a tall, wild woman. You snap the window shut, too quick. It wakes your father who smacks you hard across the face before you get the chance to run. You tuck yourself tight under your blanket, your back sore from all the floors you’ve scrubbed, your fingers stiff from all that darning, your face still stinging, and you tell yourself that you don’t believe in the sea witch, not really. It was a story your mother told you to make you work hard, so’s you wouldn’t meet the real monster, that’s all. You understand that now. Still, when you rise the next morning, you look at the murky bruise on your cheek, the blue of a wave against your moon-white skin. You head over to the darning table. You take your father’s trousers and begin to unpick the stitches in the pocket, the one where he keeps the hooks.
Gaynor Jones is a writer based in Oldham, UK. She is the recipient of a 2020 Northern Writer’s Award and has won or been placed in writing competitions including the Bridport Prize, Bath Flash Fiction and the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award. Her novella-in-flash Among These Animals was published by Ellipsis Zine in March 2021. You can find her on Twitter @Jonzeywriter or on the web at www.jonzeywriter.com.