Ella raced up the forest path and dropped her armful of branches and twigs in the firepit. Granddad was still a ways down the hill, his creaky legs making him slow, so Ella lay down on her front at the cliff's edge, where the long grass tickled her chin. The salty summer wind blew her hair into twists like rope as she looked out over the sea. Small white clouds floated beneath her, skimming over the surface of the water, their tops picked out in copper by the setting sun.
A huffing and a puffing behind her meant Granddad Judd had made it to the clifftop, so she sat up and turned to face him. He eased himself onto a weathered log by the firepit. A large conch shell on a length of twine swung loose from his baggy shirt as he leaned forward and took a bottle of seaweed wine out of his bag.
"Ella," he said, bottle shaking in his hands, "how old are you now, girl?"
"Nearly eight," said Ella, puffing her chest out to look as grown up as she could.
"Nearly eight," he chuckled. "Back in my day, we just called that 'seven'." He took a gulp of the wine, then put the bottle back into the bag and pulled a tinder box out in its place. He knelt down and tried to strike a spark into the kindling. His fingers fumbled the steel half a dozen times afore he gave in. "Ella, girl, light the fire for an old man."
Ella rolled her eyes and took the flint and steel. She lit the fire in two clean strikes.
"Thank you, girl. Now, do you know why you're up here tonight?"
"'Cos mother told me I had to come."
Granddad's eyes wrinkled up as he smiled. "I'm sure she did. And why did she tell you to come?"
"I don't know. Is it 'cos I said I wanted to be a fisherfolk, like Henry? Henry always said you knew lots about fishing 'cos of how you'd done it so long."
"Leastways your brother learned some manners from his mother. Do you truly want to go out onto the sea?"
"Yes, Granddad. All the boys say it ain't for girls but I don't see how that matters none to the sea."
"You know what, I don't reckon it does neither. I reckon all that matters is you know how to respect her."
"How'd you mean, Granddad?"
Granddad Judd got a funny look in his eyes, like he did when he told his old stories. When he spoke again his voice had gone kind of odd, as if he was reciting something important, and it rumbled like the waves.
"Ella... do you see the sea?"
"Do you love the sea?"
"Do you know why you must love the sea?"
"Then let me tell you of the Lady."
"She used to sit in the sky with the Moon, a brilliant white glow trailing her as she danced around him. The Moon himself was smooth and flawless in those days. Anything done while they watched was blessed, and many a child was made and born beneath them. The stars themselves were born to the Lady and the Moon, you know.
"All the world knew her, and all the world loved her, and she bore hundred different names: Mother of Stars, Love of Moon, Ember of Life; She Who Births Light, She Who Gifts Goodness, She Who Sees All and Ever; Singer, Giver, Lover, Bringer, Mother, Wife. For thousands of years the Lady and the Moon watched us down here, all the hope and tragedy and joy and grief of the world, but we were only a curiosity to her, nothing compared to her true love.
"But one man looked up and saw not love or grace, but opportunity. Opportunity for himself, with no thought as to the cost.
"We don't speak his name where the sea might hear us. He was a sorcerer of an old lost empire, already an important man, with the power to encourage and turn the weather as suited him. But the problem with power, girl, is that there's no satisfying that particular thirst, and no matter how much he had, he never had enough. And so he thought himself a plan whereby he could make himself king of all kings, lord of all the world.
"He whispered to his Emperor of a secret quest for power, and the Emperor--being as much a fool as the sorcerer, and thinking the power was meant for him--granted him a great ship crewed by mutes, a crew that could tell no tales. The sorcerer sailed out to the farthest part of the ocean, where no birds glide for fear of the distance, and used the Moon himself to guide the way. In those days, you see, the Moon sat in one place in the sky, and sailors everywhere would navigate by him. And so the Moon betrayed his love, though he didn't mean to and couldn't have helped it, but felt guilty for it ever after.
"As the ship came to rest directly beneath the Moon, the crew was sent all below, and the sorcerer stood alone on the forecastle with a cloth across his eyes. He spread his arms wide"--Granddad imitated this--"and sent great threads of thought out into the sea around him. With a vast effort he pushed his will out down these threads and calmed the sea all around, turning its surface flat as glass for an enormous distance. Then he tilted his head back and began singing, a high, wailing note that he sent up through the sky to catch the ear of the Lady.
"Now, nothing had ever called to her like this before, and she was intrigued. When she looked down to the world to see what was calling, she saw her love the Moon reflected perfectly on that still ocean, with his bright light hiding the ship. Astonished and delighted, she dove down, wanting to dance in this new night sky.
"The sorcerer prepared himself, eyes shielded from her beauty by his blindfold, and waited for his moment. As soon as the Lady pierced the surface of the water he snapped tight his threads"--Grandad clapped as he made his point, making Ella jump--"and tied them about the Lady, binding her to the sea.
"It had been in his mind that he should tame the Lady and use her glamour to bring kings to their knees, bowing before her. But he had not reckoned on her temper. As soon as those threads wound around her she knew what had happened, and she ¬raged. Oh, how she raged! She struggled to break free of his trap, but it was all in vain. As she twisted and writhed so too did the sea twist and writhe, and the sorcerer's ship was smashed and upturned and lost to the depths. And so the Lady undid herself, for in drowning the sorcerer she drowned all hope of ever escaping her bonds, and doomed herself to be tied to the sea forever, parted from her love.
"There were storms that night the likes of which have never been seen since. Grief tore at the Lady and the seas tore at the coasts, wrecking boats and villages and families alike. Whole towns fled inland to escape her anger, leaving behind all their homes and livings so they might survive the night."
Granddad fell silent, and Ella guessed he was thinking of Grandma, who'd died in a storm before Ella was born. Now Granddad wasn't talking, Ella noticed how hard the ground was where she'd shuffled closer, and she shifted her legs to get comfortable again. Granddad noticed her and blinked back his tears, smiled a sad sort of smile, and continued in a cracked voice.
"The Moon was still sat high in the night, and had seen all this unfold. He began to weep, and his tears fell across the sky, great streaks of fire they were. Ever after his face was scarred, as you see it now.
"Seeing his upset, the Lady calmed herself, guilty at the loss she herself had caused. Her own tears filled the sea with salt and regret.
"The Moon travels endlessly above the world now, searching in vain and unable to see through the waters that tie the Lady down. And as he moves across the sky, so she yearns to be with him, the oceans swelling and shifting so they can be closer. That's how the tides begun and how they were named: yearning tide and weeping tide, lovers' tide and mourners' tide.
"When you ride on the ocean, girl, you ride on the Lady, and to love the sea is to love her. She'll always repay that love if you keep it true. As you head out into deep waters you'll see the great whales of the oceans, and hear how they call to the Moon with the song of love that she taught them. As you watch on a calm night you'll see the Moon reflect perfectly as she tries to gather him close to her. You'll stand on sandy beaches and watch turtles come up to lay their eggs where the Moon will watch over them. And when storm clouds cover the night sky and hide the Moon you'll learn to batten down the hatches and huddle beneath decks, because the Lady will cry when his face is hidden from her, and she'll forget you ride upon her. But when the storm has passed she'll repay your courage with gifts, and never is the fishing so sweet as when the Lady feels she owes you.
"This is how it is, girl, the truth of it and the heart of it, and I'd have you learn it well. You must love the Lady, for when you're out there she's all that's looking after you, and all that'll bring you home safe. You'll love others, aye, in time, but you'll love her first and above all, and when your time comes you'll not be set in the ground like most folk but set free to swim with her forever in the moonlight, held deep in her bosom and swayed into the everafter with her song in your heart. This is our life, girl, our way, and it is hard, but by the Lady and the Moon, it is ours."
Ella sat in silence. The red of sunset had given way to the deep blue of night, though the breeze was still warm and heavy with salt. The Moon hung low on the horizon.
"You still want to be a fisherfolk then, girl?"
Granddad Judd nodded in satisfaction. He started to root around in his bag, and when he didn't immediately produce anything, Ella reached in and took the bottle of wine by its neck and gently proffered it up for him.
"No girl, not that. This." Granddad pulled out a conch shell like the one round his own neck. A piece of twine was threaded through a hole by the opening. He tied it round the back of Ella's neck and let the shell rest against her chest.
"It's a bit big isn't it, Granddad?" she asked, holding it up in front of her face.
"You'll grow into it, girl. You'll need it for a lot of years yet."
"What's it for?"
Granddad grasped his own shell in thick fingers and held it against his ear, motioning for Ella to copy him. She did as he showed, and her eyes widened when she heard the soft whooshing sound inside.
"This is a piece of the sea, girl. The Lady loves every part of her domain, and she won't ever let go of any of it. That's her you're hearing right now. So you wear that shell, and the Lady knows you're hers."
Ella nodded solemnly, shell still clutched tight to her head.
Granddad pushed himself up from the log, in that stiff way he always moved when he'd been sitting too long. "Come on girl, give me a hand. I want to sit and watch the sea a while."
Ella jumped up and took hold of his arm, steadying him as he took a shaky step towards the cliff's edge. They sat themselves down on the grass with legs dangling against the rock face and backs warmed by the fire. Together they watched the Lady churn beneath the light of the Moon, the smell of her salty tears in the air, and the yearning tide rising up the beach beneath them.
This is my oldest story.
I mean, I've written for as long as I can remember, but this was the first original thing I can remember really being proud of. The first draft dates back to 2007, when an episode of David Attenborough's glorious Blue Planet set my mind whirring--long before I was really writing with any intent.
Back then, it was 1000 words of prose poem told by a distant narrator. It was tidied up a bit and sent out the door as my very first submission, back in 2013.
Since then, it's gained the framing story of Ella and her Granddad and slowly turned away from all the fancy words to something more characterful.
It was rejected fifteen times before it found its home. But you know what? I always liked it. I always hoped it would find its place. I'm glad it did.
This is my wife's favourite story.
All content (text and images) is © Matt Dovey 2019 unless otherwise noted.
2-column layout based on design by Matthew James Taylor.