Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea

I’m in your house, wearing one of your shirts. I’m sitting on your floor, with all the drawers of every desk and dresser open. I have them poured out and I’m looking at what you’ve kept. Your old laptops and love letters, your hard drives full of photos and emails, your string and wire tangled into little knots, hard and tiny, twisted so tightly that I can’t crush them more than they’ve already been crushed.

I’ve let a fox move into your upstairs. She walked into your flat one day, and I waved her past. Now she has kits in the bedroom closet, nested with your sweaters. There are bats in the basement, but they’re from before you left. My heart is full of hammers. I don’t understand how you could’ve left me here, with your keys, and your bed, with your bookshelves. I have my own place too, but you left me in yours when you went.

I have a little pile of metal animals. I have a bunch of things you gave me, things I hung around my neck. I have bracelets that hook to chains, and out in the back there’s a rock with a view of the water.

Sometimes, when I sit out there, I see the monster under the surface, the tension scraping over its scales. It’s big. What I can see of it is only a spine, or a tail, sometimes, and then it’s gone. I sit on that rock, looking over the edge, and think about how I used to love swimming. When I was a girl, I could hold my breath for a month. I’d sit on the bottom of a river in the mud, or on the pebbles, and wait for the season to change. Once I tried to come up but the river had frozen, and I ended up swimming just under the surface for a while, waiting, waiting, until I found a fisherman by seeing his shadow. The fisherman had made a hole in the ice. He was crouched beside it, with a thermos and a fishing pole, and I rose up naked from beneath him. I took him in my arms, and he screamed with such terror that ice cracked elsewhere, a spiderweb of fractures, trees black and leaning, wolves howling, and his blood in my mouth. I was not sorry.

There used to be laws about this, but there aren’t any longer. No one could bring me to court to tell me I can’t have you. No one could force me onto a stand and question me. I look down, off the cliff behind your house, and I see that dark shape waiting, but it never rises up.

Your neighbor came over for tea and you fucked her once a long time ago, if I have any skill at reading these things.

“Are you okay?” she asked me, and I said I was not.

“You don’t imagine everything,” I said. “You think you might have imagined everything that could happen to love, but you can’t. There are more things that can happen than I thought,” I told her, and she nodded.

We sat together at the table in your kitchen, next to the dishwasher, and it hummed and rattled. I looked at the teapot between us and thought about fucking her too, to see what it would be like, to see what you saw in her, but the tea was too strong, and she looked at me with too much kindness.

“He’s not everything,” she said. “I should know.”

I don’t think I’d ever weave with thread. I think I’d only weave with metal. I think I’m the kind of woman who makes chains, not cloth. I am no abandoned wife, and you are no husband lost at sea. You’re not at sea. The bottom of the sea is full of broken chains that used to hold anchors to ships and trenches where they tried to lay cable. The bottom of the sea is full of bones and garbage.

A long time ago, I used to know an old man who’d built a boat. He’d made it out of plastic bottles, and he decided to sail around the world. He came from a family of circus performers, and all of them went with him. The whole family took to the sea, in their boats made of bottles. Out in the middle of the Atlantic, I saw one of his sons juggling fire, and a daughter, doing back flips from raft to raft, flying through the air like a fish. They’d lost their sense of direction and had no way home. All they had were sails made of shirts and skin, and they stood and acted as masts for their father’s ship.

I swam up to the father’s boat, and said “Will you apologize to me now?”

He said he would not.

He’d married me, and then forgotten it, and I wanted him to forget the rest of his life if he’d been so quick to forget loving me. Finally, though, I relented. He sailed with his starving family for a year and a day, eating raw fish and drinking rain, and one day I forgave him and let him find shore. I’d met him in a tank where I’d been playing a mermaid and he’d been playing a sailor, a theme park in Florida, and he was nineteen and I was not.

I thought I was the only thing like me, not in the world, but in the area. I thought I would know if I saw another, but I didn’t. I wonder now how many times I’ve walked past people in the street who were not people. I wonder if they knew me for what I was.

I was walking into bars in those days, and meeting lovers over ice cubes. I was wandering into hotel bathrooms, and when the taps turned on, I’d smile at strangers through the water. Sometimes I’d take one home with me, and other times I’d leave them. It was easier then. People drowned all the time in their beds. There were years of water mattresses, and in them I found peace. There was a beautiful aquarium in one apartment, as large as a wall, warm water, lit from below. There were gutters too, of course, every city has them, storm drains and canals, but I didn’t need gutters. There were times in my past when outdoors was the only way to do it, but the cities are plumbed now.

You have no aquarium and no bathtub. You only have a shower, and I stand in it, with the water at the hottest setting, writing in the fog on the glass doors. I keep the bracelets on when I shower. I keep them on all the time. I’ve been looking for a key, but I haven’t been trying as hard as I might be. Somewhere in this flat there’s no doubt a box full, but if I tried them all I still might not want my freedom. The bracelets are beautiful. They’re gold and covered in writing. When you gave them to me, I thought you’d bought them in an antique store, but you hadn’t. You’d had them a long time. They were from your family.

“Do you like them?” you asked me, and I drank the rest of my wine and held out my wrists.

“For the rock?” I asked.

“It’s part of the thing,” you said, and shrugged, giving me an embarrassed half-smile. “You don’t have to do it. It’s just a silly thing.”

You weren’t sleeping much, and hadn’t been. You were talking too fast. Things were wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix them. I kept trying to hold you down and love you, and you kept telling me you loved me too, but that you were messed up.

Down there, off the cliff and on the sand, they hold a festival every year. I don’t know who they are. It’s called End Beach, and the festival’s supposed to be a big deal. People camp for days, and drink and take drugs and make art. There’s no cash, just sacrifices. You perform one, and then someone gives you one in return. At the end of the festival, the winners, the ones who’ve spent the whole festival proving what they’re made of, get swept out to sea. There’s a pageant, and that’s the prize. A few people every year win instead of going home. Sometimes the winners are famous artists, and sometimes they’re finance men. Sometimes they’re young lovers. It all depends on who has the most to lose, and who’s most willing to lose it in public.

Everyone leaves letters to be opened by their families in case, but it’s apparently an honor to make that sacrifice for art and glory. I don’t go. It’s an old festival. The people in this part of the world have been doing it for centuries, you told me, when I first asked you about it, and I said “Huh. Always the swept out to sea part too?”

“That’s the fun part,” you said.

Last summer, I stayed up here and watched it, but I mostly could only see flags and banners, and at night the campfires burning. The day after it was all done, I looked out to sea with binoculars, but I couldn’t see anyone. The beach was all covered with blood from sacrificing, and pizza boxes from delivery. There are a couple of places that make a year’s income on the last night of the End Beach festival. I hired some people to clean it up when nobody else did.

I let myself slip down the drain after a while in the shower, and swim around in the dark beneath the city, but there’s no one there I want. I come back up the hill in the morning, dripping and filthy, and get directly back into the shower with a mug of tea already in my hand. I drink it as I wash, letting it tan me from the inside. It tastes like you.

A few years ago, I lived for a while in a sushi restaurant, the dish in the fish, on my back in the tank, allowing algae to grow beneath me. Sometimes people looked at me funny, but mostly they didn’t notice. I’d talk to them occasionally, tell fortunes or lies. This is how I met you. You were the vegetarian at the sushi bar. You looked into my tank and said, “What the hell?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

You tried to mobilize the chef, all the waiters, but I was comfortable. I wasn’t planning on leaving. If someone selected me for dinner, I thought I’d be happy to be served, but a lot of customers thought I was poisonous, and even the ones who loved risk were too scared.

“You’re not fine. You’re getting out of that tank,” you said, and put your arms in up to the elbows, working your fingers in at my sides. “That’s what we know. That tank, among other things, isn’t big enough.”

“I’m fine,” I protested again. I had grown to the glass and my skin felt delicate, but you dislodged me, wrapped me in napkins, and took me home.

When you stopped sleeping and when you stopped eating, it wasn’t like I was going to leave you. I tried to work my own fingers into the places where you could still feel them, but you told me you were fine, and refused to talk about it anymore. At sunrise, I’d find you staring out the windows, and you’d jump when I said your name, like your name wasn’t a name you knew.

“That’s only the sun rising,” I’d say.

“Another day,” you’d say back, and I’d hand you your tea and curl up beside you, but you weren’t exactly there, and the sky inside your brain was dark all the time, like the sun was dead.

“Nothing gets better,” you’d say. “It only gets worse. I’m not good for you. I’m dragging you down.”

“I can swim,” I’d say, but you’d just look at me while your tea got cold. “Then drag me down,” I’d say. “I know how to do that too. You’re not the only one.”

Instead you went running, and ran and ran around the island trying to corral all your dark inside a ring.

We got into a fight and I took off into the rain, splitting myself into a million pieces while you watched from the front porch.

“Can’t you just hold your breath?” I shouted, from out of the storm, and you told me you couldn’t do anything.

“Just hold your breath and wait for another season,” I tried to tell you. I could feel spring coming. I’d been down the hill to the neighborhood on the other side of the park, and in it there was a deep pond full of fish. They were all coming back to the surface after the winter. Most of them had survived. I’d stood on one foot in the icy water and looked down at them as they looked up at me, their little orange eyes and white fins.

“Come down to End Beach with me,” you said.

You weren’t even wearing a shirt. You were standing in the doorway, this tall, handsome guy in your underwear, your chest hairy as a pelt. You didn’t seem like anyone who’d like living beside the water. You seemed like you belonged to the forest, if anything. You looked like the man I loved, the skinnier, miserable version of you, and I thought about putting myself into the beads of your sweat, or spilling myself into your mouth to be swallowed. But I was split into raindrops and you couldn’t see me very well, so you also couldn’t tell what was rain and what wasn’t.

We’d been lovers for years by then, and I had a mind full of memories, you picking me up and carrying me through the house, me swimming up to you through your wineglass. I had memories of falling backward onto your bed, your mouth on my cunt, your hands opening me until I screamed. I had memories of fucking you in that shower, and of getting down on my knees to take your cock in my mouth, memories of you coming on my face. Whenever I looked at you, I could see that written all around you, a history of heaven, but now you wouldn’t fuck me. Instead we just held each other in bed, trying not to fall apart. Something was wrong with you, and I couldn’t fix it, so I walked naked through your house, and sometimes dissolved onto the floor, waiting for you to slip. If you were going to die, if you’d decided that was what was happening, I wanted to be the ice you cracked your skull on. At least then I’d be there. I froze myself into a river on the floor of your bedroom, and you looked down at me sadly, and skated barefoot, refusing to cut me.

“What would it be like,” you’d said the day before, “if I was gone?”

“It would be like shit,” I told you.

“I’m not going down to End Beach,” I said. I’d never been. I didn’t like the look of it. So you went there alone.

That was a year ago. Now I’m standing in your kitchen, looking down the garbage disposal, wondering if it could take me. It can take teabags. That’s why you bought it. I’m looking at fish tanks all over town. I’m looking at soup bowls. I’m looking at birdbaths and wineglasses. I want a crow to put the pebbles into my pitcher and spill me, but you were my crow, and now I feel like I’m just an inch of water stuck at the bottom of a vessel.

Upstairs the foxes yip a little bit and downstairs the bats rustle. In here, I’m naked on the linoleum, drinking tea so hot and strong it hurts, and trying to let you go wherever you went. I want to take off for another continent, or maybe I don’t. Maybe I want a dead sea, and me salted beneath its surface. Maybe I want to go to Russia and sell myself for caviar. I could cork myself up in a bottle and appear at toasts, or stretch myself at the bottom of a swimming pool and wait for businessmen to have heart attacks above me. I could take myself off into a current and press myself to the bottom of an iceberg, all the parts beneath the surface, mapping them with my fingers, swimming below the frozen blue. I could wait for leaves to fall on me in the bottom of a mountain creek, or stay here, in your kitchen, with the water running until it overflows the sink and fills the room.

In your bed, I wrap myself three times in the comforter, and look out the window, seeing the view, and maybe the monster too, a long black ridge in the surf just off End Beach. You never cared. You’d dive out there, and kayak, and float on your back with sunglasses on as I watched through binoculars. Eventually I got used to it. I’d let you out the door, and you’d go swimming.

“I’m from here,” you told me back then. “I grew up here. It’s not a big deal. I don’t know what you’re so scared of. You don’t need to be scared. You love the water.”

Love was not the word for me and water. Love is not what it is, and now, even less. The bracelets are heavy on my wrists, and the loops for the chains are uncomfortable. They’re not just loops. They’re shaped like fish.

I was scared of that beach. I thought about something rushing up beneath me. When I think about the monster out there, it’s a tremendous sort of stingray and can flatten itself to the ocean floor like a carpet. I think about what might walk on a carpet like that. Usually, that would be me. On any other beach in the world, I’d be finding pearl divers, or coral thieves. I’d be down with the sharks. Not here.

Last July, a girl came to the house, up from the festival. She was drugged out and giddy, but happy, wearing an outfit made of nets and seagull feathers. She smelled like a bonfire. Her hair was to her knees, and tangled, but beautiful anyway, bright gold, thick and shiny, knotted with shells.

“Can I have a glass of water?” she asked me, and I let her in.

“I wouldn’t ask, but I’m sick of Gatorade,” she said. “Everyone’s worried about dehydration down there, and they should be, too. But it’s amazing. You know. You have to do it. There’s no saying no to a festival like this. I’ve been coming since I was little.”

“What did you sacrifice?” I asked her, and she looked at me and laughed. She was maybe eighteen. Not old enough to be down there at all.

“Oh, I gave up the barrettes my mom gave me before she was swept out,” she said. “My mom won the festival ten years ago, did I say that? And then I took someone’s dad’s suicide note from him and burned it in the fire. It was a good trade. It’s a beautiful thing, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s nothing I want to sacrifice. I feel like I did it all already.”

She tangled her hair around her hand in a way that meant something, and then she looked up at me again. “But you know what’s out there, right?”

“No,” I said. “What’s in all oceans. I know what’s in this one. Fish and maybe some whales.”

“More than that,” she said, and her face was so bright she glowed. Maybe she was on ecstasy. I don’t know what the drugs are these days. It used to be that people took all kinds of things distilled from barley and mold, snake venom and poisonous flowers. I’d meet them in the Roman baths and in the trickles of water slipping down stone walls, find them in their steaming raptures and whisper them onto my tongue. No one heard them screaming down there, or if they did, it was part of the ritual. Everyone knew back then that some people had to die to pay for the miracles. Now people think miracles are free.

“It’s not just the ocean. It’s not just drowning. You get swept away if you win. I don’t have enough to lose yet, but I will eventually,” she told me. “I’ll just keep coming back until I do. I’ll fall in love with someone, and maybe I’ll have a baby. That might be enough.”

“You know that festival gets bigger every year. They’re eroding the coastline. They’ll probably shut it down. There’ve been complaints.”

I’m the one who complained. I hate the noise and the mess. I hate that there’s a festival down there at all.

“I’m going to win. I’m going to be the one who gets to be swept out to sea,” she said, and kissed me on the mouth, her lips soft and heavy, her tongue against my teeth, her hands suddenly on my ribcage and her breasts pressed against mine. This was not what I was expecting. Then she was gone, running back down the cliff stairs, her fishnet top rattling with barnacles for quite a way, her cut-offs barely covering her.

I looked over her head to see if I could see the monster, but I couldn’t. I could only hear the cheering later in the evening when she had herself shorn, all those golden curls hung like a fleece from the cliff face. I walked out to the rock and looked down, and there she was, her slender body draped in white, everyone down there drinking wine and singing to whatever god they thought was in charge. I could see that she had tattoos, and all of them of sea monsters, dark ink like woodcuts, her body a habitat. One of the boys down below crowned her naked scalp with flowers, and I sat on the rock until it was full dark.

I won’t lie. I thought about walking down those stairs then, down to the sands of End Beach. I could see the ocean lapping at the shore like a cat’s tongue at a dish. I could see the blood from the day’s sacrifices running into its mouth.

Someone that day had given up a hand, and learned to paint with the other. Someone else had written an apology for everything in the sand and let people fuck on it. Another person had built a tower of unsold canvases, and that was the bonfire that night, a pile of portraits of her lovers. I heard a smaller barter carrying up from the beach, two boys bargaining for dinner, one boy offering another his only memory of his grandmother singing, in exchange for a cheese sandwich.

I stayed up on the top of the cliff instead. After a while, I went back into your house and tried to forget you. If I was giving you up, if the memory of you was my sacrifice, I’m not sure how much of me would be left on the other side. You flooded through me and mixed with my blood, and I don’t know what of me is mine and what is yours.

Now it’s winter, and End Beach is empty. No one’s trying to sell their precious things down there anymore. I turn the bracelets on my wrists, and turn them again. Wherever you are, I wonder if you remember the first night we spent together, and if you knew that I almost let myself kill you. You were bandaging my wounds, and I was sitting on the top of your toilet, looking at you. I could see the tears in your eyes, and I almost ran into them, trying to save myself from falling in love with a human again. I could have poured out of you, torrented, flooded you from the inside out until you drowned in a teacup’s worth of salt water.

But I didn’t want to kill you. It’d been four hundred years since I’d stood in a courtroom, dripping, and let a town convict my lover of loving me.

“What was I to do,” he said, pleading. “She came up out of the stream, naked and wet, and she said be with me. What would you do, Sven Andersson? And you?”

“Not what you did, Peder Jönsson,” said Sven Andersson, but he was staring at me, salivating. Finally they decided on a hanging, and my love was strung up from a gallows with me unable to do anything about it. I had no sway over wood, no sway over rope. I threw myself down a well and stayed at the bottom, eating insects, holding my breath, waiting for another century to come and comfort me.

I was frightened of you. You’d torn me from my tank. But I let you bandage me, where I was bleeding, and when you told me you didn’t have to know everything, I told you I did. When you said you had no secrets, I laughed at you. When you said you were simple, I laughed some more.

“No one simple would have seen me,” I said.

But you didn’t tell me everything.

I make a decision at last. I’ve already lost you, and you’re the best thing I ever lost. It’s been long enough that I’ve read all your books and touched all your pictures. I’ve drunk the last of the tea you left.

“It’s part of the thing,” you said, and so I go to your basement and get the chains. There aren’t any special costumes, I don’t think, or at least you never said there were. Just the bracelets. I thread the chains through the loops on the rock, and then through the fish on my wrists. I stretch on my back, looking up at snow falling, and then I lock the locks.

“It’s silly,” you said. “Come down to End Beach with me,” you said, but I didn’t. Maybe if I had I could have kept whatever happened from happening. You got swept away, or swept yourself away. You let the ocean take you. I don’t think you’re riding a bus somewhere, or under London on the tube. I don’t think you’ve flown across the ocean and are hiding from me in New York City. I think you’re gone.

I chain myself to the rock hanging over the shore, and perch there until I’m covered in ice. I hold my breath, waiting for another season to come, spring or the middle of summer, with light like blood and every green plant drinking girls like me up from the ground. I think about everyone I ever tugged down through a river, every diver I ever touched gently underwater, until they couldn’t do anything but drown for me.

Through the ice on my eyelashes, I can see the ocean surging, the dark spinning and stirring, an abyss below the surface of the world.

At dawn, I watch the monster rise up out of the sea, its body a blackness the size of a lake. It’s too large to see it all at once, and so I don’t. Ink spilled in a glass of water, shifting and spreading, black bleeding into blue, edgeless. I watch the monster surge up over the sand and look at me, eyes gleaming, claws on the cliff face.

I am not afraid of monsters. I’ve never been afraid of monsters. I’m afraid of love. Love is offering your body up to some god other than the one you were taught to worship.

I look into the monster’s eyes. It’s no monster I know, no monster in a category I’ve seen before. There are the old monsters that tore ships from the ocean, the ones that leapt from caves, the ones that waited underground for heroes. There are the monsters that trampled mountain ranges, the ones that ate all the cattle, and then all the children. There are the monsters of the air, the ones that fly, the ones that sing songs so beautiful every city sleeps. This is a monster I’ve never met, a monster of the end.

I look at it and see not just sadness, but fury.

“Are you the one who does the sweeping out to sea?” I shout. “Are you the one who takes the sacrifices? Did you take him away? I want him back.”

“He’s not everything,” said your neighbor. “I should know. He eats women. You don’t know what I’ve seen. I’ve lived opposite him for years. It’s not your fault you fell for him. I fell for him too.”

But the monster just looks at me, eyes shining, and I want to turn to water and become its tears. Love is what you see coming and don’t run from. Love is the swift rising darkness darker than the dark. Love is the creature you covet, the wound you want.

The monster looks at me and says nothing, and of course, I know you. I’d know you anywhere.

I move my fingers, trying to get between you and your scales, and I get one nail under your skin. My heart is still made of hammers. I drive it in deeper, puncturing you until I smell your blood.

You open your jaws and pluck me from the rock, the chains that hold me there breaking. Down below us, the coastline erodes and End Beach itself is swept out to sea.

I met you, love of mine, at the end of centuries spent alone. My body has been every decorative lily pool in Japan, and every waterfall in Africa. My body’s been the Amazon, full of snakes, thigh-deep wading for explorers, and the Mississippi and her floodplains, spilling out across miles, looping and twisting to surprise the houses. My body was the last moments of the Aral Sea, the final drops drunk by a camel and carried away. When you found me in that fish tank, I was too lonely to travel.

So I dissolve onto your tongue. I rush through your tears and pour myself beneath your skin. Water will always find its level.

In the sea off End Beach, we swim out, our flesh one thing and then two again, you naked and me naked too. Maybe every love affair is the sacrifice that saves the city. Behind us, I see buildings not falling.

The rocks are black and sharp, and the teeth of dead monsters are all around us. Some of them starved to death, and others were killed by heroes. Some of them swallowed ships in starvation. Some of them, maybe, got harpooned by their lovers. You taste like tea, like salt, like ice.

“Do you eat all the artists?” I ask you, “Is that festival for you?” and you look at me and tell me you have to have some secrets.

“Do you drink all the drowned?” you ask me, and I tell you I have to have some secrets too.

No one knows the end of this. Not me. I don’t know if I’ll end up in a gutter, or in a teacup again, in a champagne glass, in an ice cube in someone’s freezer, trying to wait for forever to pass.

“This is simple,” I say.

“Nothing’s simple,” you tell me.

A long time ago, I used to know a fisherman. We met when I was his fish, and he called me up out of the water to grant him wishes. I told him nothing you wish for is what you think it’s going to be, that even if you wish for riches, you’ll end up buried in coins, suffocating on metal. He asked for love, and I told him that love will kill you.

“I don’t mind dying,” he said.

So I gave him love. Later, I rolled his body in a sail and then into the ocean, with rocks at his feet. I watched him drop through the water, and at the bottom, I watched him eaten by the little creatures down there. When all his bones were bare, I made him into a house, and lived inside him for a while. His love gave me shelter beneath the waves, and my love gave him the last thing he wanted. I am not sorry.

I turn my head to look at you, and you’re all around me, this giant span of fins and tail, teeth and eyes.

“Swim,” I say, and I become the ocean.

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult sky ship fantasy Magonia, from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she’s The New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the anthology Unnatural Creatures. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, and has recently appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, Subterranean Online, The Lowest Heaven, The Book of the Dead, and many more. It’s anthologized in Glitter & Mayhem, Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction 2012 & 2013, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Laird Barron’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction.