The Sea Witch Talks Show Business
by Elizabeth R. McClellan
read by S. J. Tucker
I. 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. II. 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. III. 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. IV. 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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