The Sea Witch Talks Show Business

by Elizabeth R. McClellan

read by S. J. Tucker


The whirlpool road is trampled
flat with fluke-slaps, now, since the girl
made my fortune with her tale. 

The oldest trick in the book is:
put what you want to sell behind
glass, a wall, three challenges —
set up the shill, let the suckers
reel themselves on in.

Her sisters came slimed with sucking mud,
whirlpool-bruised and ready to deal,
polyp stings like anemone blooms on their  
oyster-clamped tails, heirloom-ringed arms —

come to bribe me in stolen salvage
some many-times grandmother snatched
off what remained of waterlogged ex-sailors.

Who ever heard of a witch paid in gold?

Not a one would trade her tongue for her
silent sister.  Still, unmaking is
easier than making. I let them haggle me
down to their hair for the chance.

As for the knife,
no magic I didn’t put there
save the story:

            whales worship strangely in
            new hunting grounds, 
            ships sail in pods sometimes
            but they don't understand
            how whales work, 
            once upon a time a pod of ships
            beset a pod of whales
            when what passes for their god
            moved among them

and so on.

I tell you this much:

            Leviathan sank the Essex.

Whether I really bound up the weeping wound
the blade left in his blubber,
sold such a prize for seven handfuls of hair?
Take your best guess.

The princesses swanned around,
hair bobbed short in pearl combs,
the knife that never saved their sister passed
from waist to waist, gleaming
scrimshaw white against iridescent tails,
their epic bubbling from ear to ear.
Court gave itself over effortlessly to
cropped curls and casual sorcery.


The second-oldest trick is
you can keep doing deals forever
as long as you always deliver the goods.

My whirlpools tore the third daughter
of a minor house to pieces, spat
cerulean scales in piles on the heaped gray sand.

I would have helped her for her
deep green irises, left her eyes black
in the change, as suits a fish-girl
seeking centuries of suckered restraint
with a squid-boy.  Rules are rules.

I couldn't trust my eddies if I snatched back
what they had already won fair and square.

We only leave traces when we die
by violence.  Burial taboos are
not our nature.  Those scales
became the sought-after accessory,
grisly pendants and garden-ornaments
proclaiming the bearer witch-touched —
though some came, gathered, left
without a bruise, a sting, a promise.
Still, my business tripled.

Clever and quick to learn, they brought
abalone buckets full of fat prawns,
sailor-bits, knots of crabs, busied
my polypi with delicacies, darted
unruffled through spreading blood-clouds. 

One wrestled weaving tentacles set to sting,
snatched the skull of her strangled ancestor
with her black-striped tail, fled, victorious.
For that I would have apprenticed her,
but she won her prize without facing me.

The fashion now is to wear snakes to court.
I hear the more adventurous girls are training toads.


From granting their wishes, giving them
legs and lovers and Leviathan tales comes
eye-blues, nipple-pinks, silvery laughs
bottled, distilled in the gas-flame.

The third trick is, always keep
your eye on the next project.

In the house of bones the sailors
give me pieces of their stories.
I brew a tincture that brings their mutters
clear like whalesong in my bones.

You drowned me
says one.  I haven't the heart to tell him
he couldn't tell a dolphin from a mermaid
on that much liquor. We ate Coffin
and they ate me beams from the gnawed tibia
set in the wall.  The black spot is a promise,
I tell it, words bubbling out of my mouth
so slow I see the ripples form,  drug-slowed, iridescent. 

The phrase soothes many murmurs to silence.
I know the spell, but not how it works,
only that they bind themselves to secrets,
curse their dead to tell no tales
but whisper how their bones cry out
for vengeance.  When I was young

I wanted not to die, and become foam.
I have not yet stopped wanting,

but have concluded that these dead things
live in salt-infused marrow and sense memory only,
have nothing to teach me about the next step,
the fourth trick: Become a legend.  Live forever.


When we barter with life we are exact.
Three hundred years is a readily divisible thing.

We do not waste a third of our life in sleep
or dreaming.  Dreams are for sailors,
shipwrecks and whales, not such as we.

What I never told the girl, while she cowered
from my snakes and toads and bones and filth:

            your mother traded five years of her life
            for each of your sisters
            and ten for you, stupid child,
            more than a tenth of her life for babies
            smiling and floating and lithe in her arms,
            only asked you to stay safe, stay away
            from the witch's house.

I put a drop of her mother's youth
in her change, a powerful protective
though what good it did her is lost on me.
Perhaps the knives she walked on cut less deep.

Old enough for oysters
is old enough to choose,
to sell teeth, tongue, scale,
fractional life for desire satisfied,

but life is so rarely fair
to take in trade,
my stock is never enough
even for experiments designed in minutes.
The stoppered bottles are so small,
losing the sure thing is always bad business.

My predecessor told me
you will tire of this task before you finish it
do not become grasping in your greed,
went to foam like a dribble of drool,
sighing relief.  I have not tired,
not taken any unfair bargain.

In the murky glass of my mirror
I see the black-striped girl converse
with the skull of her ancestor.
The more the strangled spirit coaxes her
don't go, I lost before I got there,
it's all tricks, traps, a rigged game 

the more the flush of her last victory
steals over her face.  When she comes,
stung and slimed and sore through my mire
she will give over half her life to be a witch,

the price we all pay up front
for the chance to play,
a different shill for a different breed,
her ambition, perhaps, enough raw material
for me to master the fourth trick at last.

Elizabeth R. McClellan is a third-year law student who lives in a probably haunted apartment house in Memphis, Tennessee. Her poetry has appeared in Apex Magazine and The Legendary; she is a 2011 Rhysling Award nominee. She remembers pitching half a fit in the movie theater as a kid when she saw how Disney warped Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", now defining it as her first realization that Hollywood kills everything you love. Her favorite fruit available in this temporal reality is pomegranate or raspberry depending on the season. The fruit she longs for is only available in dreams and stories, tended by the Woman in Yellow.

S. J. Tucker is a full-time performing songwriter who grew up in the mysterious, swampy wilds of southeast Arkansas. She loves having the opportunity to find compelling songs hidden in fantastic stories and folklore equally as much as she loves getting the chance to awaken her friends' poetry with dramatic, creepy readings. You may find her on stage anywhere in the USA or Canada, performing solo or as part of various bands: Tricky Pixie, Skinny White Chick, the Traveling Fates, or the Heather Dale Band. Tucker's favorite fruit is the olive, but she has been known to dance for pomegranate seeds covered in chocolate.

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