Filed under: Friday Fiction May 27, 2016
This story, like last week’s, was once originally fan fiction. Also, I sort of cheated in that it’s been published — it appears in my collection Flashed! but I couldn’t get it out of my head when I was thinking of something to post for today. If you’ve never read the collection, then it’s new to you.
The story was actually inspired by a poem I read when I was much younger called “Krinken” by Eugene Field. It’s a sad poem but it’s one of my favorites. Even as a child, I knew it was about drowning, which was probably why I liked it so much.
Yes, I always was a bit strange. And, just to let you know, so’s this story.
Anyway, here goes …
Sea Change (2,550 words)
Copyright © 2016 J.M. Snyder
The storm blew up suddenly, as those in late summer tend to do. Taer knew it was coming, could feel the surge of the tide in the flow of his veins, and spent the day gathering in the nets strung out along the beach, where he had left them to dry. By dusk the sky was bruised and swollen with angry clouds muttering above the water, and the sea threw white, foam-capped waves at the shore. It was going to be a bad storm, by the looks of it. Even the gulls that usually cried along the tide line were hiding among the rocky cliffs that edged the beach like a cupped hand.
The nets were woven of coarse and heavy rope, knotted and reknotted until they looked like gnarled hands, arthritic with use. As he rolled them up, careful not to tangle their lengths, Taer noticed a few frayed cables here and there, places the kraken had eaten through during the last haul, and he’d have to mend those before he went out on the sea again. Tonight, he thought, lifting the bundled nets onto his shoulders before turning home. When the storm breaks.
Home was a small, one-room hovel that sat at the far end of a boardwalk whose wooden planks were beginning to rot beneath the briny air. Each step he took on the boards sounded flat and listless, the echo hanging beneath stifling clouds that pressed down on him as heavily as the weight of the nets on his back. The air itself was a thick blanket, cloying and tight around him with the uneasy calm before the storm. It rains too much any more, he thought as he entered his hovel, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth was it hadn’t rained in months, and this storm was long overdue. The last time it had rained, they’d been out on the water …
He shook the memory away and threw the nets down to the sand-covered floor. That was long ago, a different life, a different person — not him. He was just a halfling, eking out a living at the edges of the world. The last time it had rained, he’d been torn in two, part of him drowning in the sea while the rest of him, the part he was now, washed ashore. Like driftwood, cast aside. He lit a smoky lamp to push back the shadows. Some days he wished both halves had drowned. At least then he’d still be whole.
The oily light illuminated the small room. Two chairs lined one side of a low, wooden table — only one chair was ever used now. The other one waited patiently, but it would wait forever before anyone sat in it again. Along the far wall a narrow bed stretched out like an empty palm, too damn large for the half of him that was left. A cast iron stove, cold and unlit, a bucket sink, a trunk full of clothes and photographs and memories he no longer bothered to look through … in the center of these things, the nets looked like beached leviathans, huge and awkward and noisome out of the water. With a sigh, Taer closed the door to the hovel and pulled out the only chair he ever sat in and, tugging a corner of the nets into his lap, began to stitch the damaged ropes as he waited for the storm.
* * * *
It was summer when Nis last smiled. He used to run along the edge of the water like the pipers, laughing as he tried to keep ahead of the tide. “Taer!” he’d cry, and Taer would look up from his nets and grin as he watched the boy splash through the waves. Nis. His name had been Nis. Those three little letters were still carved on Taer’s heart, etched deep so the tide and time wouldn’t wash them away.
Nis, the other half of his soul. When he smiled, the sun rose in the sky. When he cried, the heavens filled with stars. When he laughed, everything in Taer swelled like the sea rising to the moon and he had to throw the nets aside to catch Nis in his arms, kissing his salty skin until they both lay in the sand, exhausted and tangled together like kelp.
But then the storms came, and there was no laughter any more.
* * * *
When night fell, it brought with it large, icy raindrops and a quick wind that howled around the hovel as if it wanted in. But the door was latched and the windows shuttered, and Taer sat in the damp glow of his lamp, mending the nets in his lap. He watched his tanned fingers shuttle the needle through the rope, weaving the frayed lengths back together again, and he tried to ignore the way the wind screeched his name as it flung the rain against his home.
In his hands the needle moved back and forth between the ropes, and he watched it as if those weren’t his fingers guiding it along. Outside the world drowned in a torrential crash of rain that deafened him. When the wind blasted the hovel, the lamp flickered uneasily, afraid. In its unsteady light his needle wove through the nets with the flash and shimmer of a dartfish dancing in a shallow tide pool. It was only a thick scrap of bone, carved from a kraken tusk long ago. Back when he had been whole.
Suddenly he heard laughter through the storm, distant and carefree. His laughter, and Taer’s eyes welled with tears he’d thought dried because it was the breakers and the crash of the surf and the thunder, nothing more. The rains, he thought, waiting to hear if the laughter would come again. It’s the storm, so late in the season. It’s the wind, it hates me, always tangling my nets and threatening my home. It isn’t … it can’t be …
It came again, a light, boyish sound that tore him from the chair, the nets falling forgotten to his feet. He stumbled over the thick ropes as he tripped toward the door, the laughter drawing him outside like a beacon in the storm. “Nis!” Taer cried, flinging the door wide.
Rain struck his face; cold, fat drops that stung his skin. A gray mist rose from the sea like a curtain draping the beach. The rain fell so hard that it pelted the sand into flat, dark land before ricocheting back toward the sky.
The beach was empty, the laughter gone. Nis. Taer was still halved like a mollusk whose shell has been broken, still alone, and he wished he hadn’t cried out. Nis.
He closed the door and kicked through the nets, but the name skipped around the room like a pebble across water, and he wished he had never set it free.
* * * *
The sun shines down on his curls, turning each lock into a ringlet of gold. The seaspray mists across his tanned chest, so smooth and thinly muscled, strength hidden beneath calm waters. His eyes dance as he looks out over the ocean, twin pools in his face that rival the deepest sea. “Taer,” he says, pointing out to their nets. They need to gather in the haul before the storm.
The rains are gentle at first, and Taer doesn’t see the hurry in retrieving the nets. The kraken can wait. He’s hungry for his boy, and he eases Nis down to the smooth wooden deck of their boat, his fingers slipping easily beneath the shorts Nis wears, stroking hard flesh and soft skin until Nis arches into him, gasping his name. He loves the sound of his name in that voice, and when he enters Nis, his name becomes a litany of lust and love that echoes the sigh of the sea. His lips are like coral, that pink and that perfect, and Taer sees the fine spray of sweat above his upper lip, caught in tiny hairs bleached blond by the sun.
Salty kisses and sandy hands, the warm press of bodies in the cold rain, the rocking rhythm of the boat beneath them that matches their own, faster and harder with the coming storm, the waves crashing around them, blood pounding through their veins until the moment crests into an explosive orgasm that leaves them both spent and drenched and clinging to each other like anemones to a reef.
Then the storm comes in from the sea, fierce and angry. They struggle to get the nets in, the kraken slipping through frayed lines that would have to be mended. A low roar rumbles through the boat like thunder, the bitter cry of a leviathan caught in the tangled nets, trying to shake itself free.
And the waves toss the boat as if it is nothing but a piece of flotsam, and lightning splits the sky, the world, the lovers, in two.
* * * *
Taer heard the laughter again as he struggled awake. Memories like dreams threatened to drown him, and it would be welcome, after all this time, to give in to them. It would be welcome to become one again, to become whole, to see Nis’s sunshine grin and chase his laughter, to love him and never let him go.
But it was morning. Nis was gone and, without opening his eyes, Taer knew it would still be raining, a steady drizzle that drenched the world beyond the hovel, tamping the beach into a color like sodden ashes. He was gone, and Taer’s arms ached to hold him again. His fingers burned where he could still feel the brief press of skin before Nis had slipped away on the wind and the waves and the storm. In his empty bed Taer clenched his fists as he hugged himself tight, but the storm had left him cold and damp and alone.
The word was a whisper in his ear, but it was his voice, the hint of laughter running beneath it like a stream, and Taer rolled over, half-expecting to find Nis beside him once again.
The bed was still empty.
Another whisper, and this time a small laugh as well, so childlike and innocent that Taer’s heart twisted to hear it after all this time. Taer turned the other way, but he was still alone.
A fit of giggles erupted somewhere behind him, and even though he knew there was nothing but wall he still craned his neck back, arching away from the bed to see …
“Stop it,” he muttered to himself. There was nothing, just as he knew there would be, but he couldn’t calm the quickening of his blood, couldn’t stop the hope from blooming inside of him, and it was his own body he tried to command, not Nis. Never Nis. He hadn’t heard that voice in so long, he didn’t want to lose it now. “Nis?” he dared to whisper.
Laughter again. This time it was outside. Tumbling from the bed, Taer ran for the door, but halfway there he tripped over the nets lying in the middle of the room. He skidded to the floor, scraping his palms and knees, and then the laughter surrounded him and he pushed himself up again. “Nis!” Don’t, he thought, pulling the door open. Be there. Don’t do this to me. Don’t …
The rain was gone. The sky was deep and endless, an ocean that stretched above him. Beneath it the sea glistened with the strength of a million diamonds, cast down from the blazing sun. The sand was bleached and white and pure as snow, and along the tide line ran a wild wisp of a boy with unruly curls and flashing eyes. “Taer,” he called, glancing back over his shoulder, and there was summer in that smile, those eyes. “Follow me, Taer. Catch me.”
“Nis.” Taer took a step out onto the boardwalk, squinting into the sun. It isn’t him, his mind whispered, but how could it not be? It looked like him, it sounded like him …
It was him.
But Taer lingered by the hovel, unsure. Beneath his bare feet the boards were hot, but he ignored the heat. Nis laughed again, taunting him. Raising his voice, he called out, “Nis!”
“Catch me,” Nis said again.
Taer raced after him. He fell, that voice inside his mind reminded him, but he ignored it. He fell, you saw him fall, he slipped through your fingers and into the sea, knocked from the boat by the leviathan during the storm and you saw it happen …
But had that happened? Had that really happened? Nis ran ahead of him now and maybe it had all been a dream, one of those nightmarish visions in that gray time between awake and asleep, when the world was only half-real. Because he was only half-real, without Nis, who now raced the tide. He was real, he had to be.
Breaking into a run, Taer followed his boy as swiftly as he could. As he closed the distance between them, Nis glanced back once more, still laughing. “Taer –”
Then Taer had him in his arms, and he was warm and alive, his lips softer than Taer remembered, his hands strong, his skin salty. Taer couldn’t get enough of his scent and his taste and the small moans he made as they kissed. “Nis,” Taer whispered, fisting his hands in the cottony velvet of his lover’s curls. “Nis.” It was the only word he knew.
Nis twisted out of Taer’s fevered embrace like a fish darting through the thick ropes of their kraken nets. “Follow me,” he said, taking Taer’s hand in his as he pulled him toward the sea. The sun winked in his curls, damp with spray. “Taer? I’ve missed you. Come with me.”
Taer let himself be led into the waves. Cold water swirled around his ankles. Farther, and the water pressed against his chest with a chilly weight. Each breath was short and forced, but Nis still smiled at him, his hand in Taer’s own. “Nis,” Taer said, wavering.
“I love you,” Nis whispered.
That was all Taer needed to hear.
Another step and his foot slid out from under him, icy water numbed his leg, a dangerous undertow threatened to drag him out to sea. No! his mind screamed as he slipped beneath the waves. His chest ached and his feet scrambled for purchase, but there Nis’s hand was still in his. Nis …
Strong arms encircled his waist. Warm lips covered his, and hot breath filled his mouth, pushing back the cold and the fear that gripped his heart. “Taer.” His name was the soughing sigh of the surf, but it was Nis’s voice, and it was Nis’s hands on his body, Nis’s lips on his skin. It’s been too long, Taer thought, letting his lover lay him down on the soft sand of the ocean floor. Nis pressed against him with the weight of the sea on his back, his hands caressing Taer’s chest and legs and arms, heating his skin despite the cold water surrounding them. “I’ve missed you,” Nis said again, and his voice was the crash of waves on the shore.
“Nis,” Taer sobbed as he drowned in his lover’s eyes, safe in his arms and finally, finally whole once more.