From the author: War is approaching and a woman flees her home with her three daughters. She carries three pieces of gold and three pieces of silver with her, and a heavy secret.
(Note added for World Refugee Day: Since this story was written with the plight of refugees very much on my mind, I'm sharing this story as a public post for the next little while. If you can, donate to an organization that helps refugees, like Raices or UNHCR.)
The day Alma hears that the War has devoured her husband, she knows it's past time to leave the village. In all her lifetimes, she has never stayed this long in one place, and she hopes it's not too late to make it safely to the coast and find passage across the sea. Even as she listens to the man who delivers the message of her husband's death, she can feel the ground beneath her feet shift and tremble as the War closes in on her home.
That night, she gathers up her three daughters and tells them to pack a small bag each, no more than they can carry comfortably on their backs while walking. Her own bag is already packed, and she waits outside while her daughters flit around the house getting ready, all three of them anxious and red-eyed, putting on their shawls and cloaks and walking-boots.
Alma has no money, but she brings three pieces of gold: a ring worn on the third finger of her left hand, and a hoop-earring through each earlobe. The silver she owns she is already wearing - two wide bracelets, engraved with runes, one around each wrist; and a plain, heart-shaped pendant on a chain around her neck.
For nigh on twenty years, Alma has never taken off her silver, wearing it as a reminder of the promise she made: to stay; to be a wife, a mother. Now, the metal feels strangely tight around her wrists, heavy around her neck, her skin itching at its touch.
The night deepens while Alma waits for her daughters. There is no moon, but her brown eyes are sharp even in the dark. She looks at the garden she's tended - weeding and watering, planting and harvesting. She looks at the clothesline where she's hung the laundry all these years, a forgotten towel whispering of dresses and baby rompers, socks and shirts. She looks at the winding road she's walked more times than she can count, headed to the village and the market.
These days, the village is almost empty. So many people have already left, fleeing the War, crossing the sea, heading for other lands, for strange and distant shores, that are safer than home.
Alma tucks the necklace inside her dress, pulls her sleeves down to cover the bracelets, but her skin won't stop itching.
When the girls are ready, they follow the pale gleam of Alma's shuttered lantern along the winding road. They walk away from the village, away from the war, toward the Drylands, toward the distant mountains, and the sea beyond.
The road is dusty and winding, trampled by many feet, and Alma smells fire and grief on the wind. The War is close. Too close.
At dawn, they rest beneath a creaky old oak at the edge of the Drylands. Alma looks down at the ground, at the strong roots digging deep into the dirt and grass and old leaves, holding on to this piece of earth. She looks up at the fading stars tangled in the branches, and the indigo sky above. This is the place where she saw her husband for the first time, where she stood hidden in the dark and listened to his voice as he sang on his way home. She didn't love him yet, she just wanted to hear him sing, so she followed him.
He sang when he set out for the War, too. But having the voice of an angel did not save him.
Her daughters sit together below the tree, quiet but unafraid. She feels the sadness quivering inside them, a string plucked by their father's death, but they are not fearful even though they know something of the monsters that stalk the wilds. Even here, even now, they trust their own strength and hers.
Alma knows her daughters are not what most people would call "good girls", but they are good. Strong, determined, fierce.
So much like me. Too much like me.
The gold feels heavy and strange to wear, but she knows it won't last. Getting to the coast, getting across the sea, will cost her. It might even cost her the silver.
Alma searches out the locket between her breasts, feels that smooth heart resting against her skin, remembering the touch of her husband's warm and calloused hands when he slipped the silver chain around her neck. She allows herself one moment to hold on to that memory before she lets it go.
"We must keep going," she tells her daughters, and they nod and rise.
They know how far away the coast is - through the Drylands, across the mountains. They have seen the maps, but they have never been there. They have never run across jagged rocks and burning sand, have never had to take shelter in an old den to escape pursuit. Only Alma has the real map of scars and memories to follow.
Alma's first gold earring pays for water in the Drylands. Her daughters are tired and thirsty, and the freshwater spring is guarded by men with weapons. The men are weak and few, but their weapons make them loud, make them think they're strong. There is a ragged crowd of people here, all of them fleeing the War, old people and children, men and women. Alma pays for all of them to drink, and while her daughters sleep, she looks at the moon's sharp sickle hanging low, and she scratches at the skin beneath the silver until her wrists bleed.
Alma's eldest daughter, Ayla, leaves in the foothills, when they've left the Drylands behind and the sharp teeth of the mountains bite into the sky up ahead.
"Don't stray," Alma says when they settle in around the campfire that night, but she can see how the darkness tugs at Ayla, how the wind whispers to her, how she longs for the feeling of sun and moonlight on her skin. Alma knows that longing only too well, knows how small your life seems when there are so many places you could go.
In the morning the girl is gone, but an osprey circles high above, watching them, tilting its grey wings in the sky as it rises.
Alma's second gold earring pays for three mules to carry them through the mountains. The men selling the mules carry weapons in their belts, and Alma feels her voice sink and tremble into a growl when she talks to them. Restless, she claws at the itch beneath her sleeves, while the dogs guarding the camp cower and whimper at her feet.
In the end, the men charge too much for the scrawny mules, but Alma is glad to leave, following the rocky trails into the mountains with her daughters.
They ride for days. The wind is cold, the rain pours down, they barely sleep. Alma stays awake every night, gazing up at the cloudy sky that offers no glimpse of neither moon nor stars. Underneath the bracelets, her skin peels and burns and she cannot soothe it no matter what she tries.
Alma's second daughter, Malva, leaves when they have passed the mountain-summit and are heading down the steep switchback trails towards the coast.
It's early morning, and Malva sits by the creek that skips down the mountainside, its waters cold and clear as the sky itself. Malva dips her hand into the water, and Alma sees a flutter of fins and gills below the surface when she smiles.
"Don't go," Alma tells her, but she can hear the water calling to her daughter, knows that Malva already feels the flow and ripple and roar of the river the creek will become.
"I'll be back," Malva says, shaking her long hair loose from braids and ribbons as she walks away, smiling, following the creek.
When they ride beside the stream the next day, Alma sees the flutter of scales and eyes in the water between the rocks, and every now and then she glimpses a smile of sharp teeth beneath the rippling surface.
Alma's youngest daughter, Lillian, pulls her blue shawl tight around her head and shoulders in the wind and sits steady and sure in the saddle all the way down the mountain. They can see the ocean now, a glitter and haze along the horizon.
At the foot of the mountain, they sell their mules to a farmer, exchanging them for food and water, new boots for Lillian, and a night's sleep beneath a roof. The coast is so close now that they can smell the salt on the breeze, hear the call of the seagulls.
In the morning, Alma looks at Lillian, at the way she pulls her dark hair over her shoulder when she braids it, the way she rolls her sleeves up to keep them dry when drinking from the well, the way she squints at butterflies in the sunlight. She remembers holding Lillian to her breast after she was born, remembers how easily she slept through the nights, how she refused to smile at anyone new who came to visit. She is the same girl now as she ever was - quiet, steadfast, determined.
The gold ring is heavy on Alma's finger, yet it feels suddenly too light.
She can only hope it will be enough.
There is a small town by the sea, with cobblestone streets and many white-washed houses clinging to the cliffs, but there is only one boat anchored in the bay, and the captain and crew are hard at work readying the vessel for the journey.
The other boats have already left to make the crossing, the men gathered at the gangplank tell Alma. They scratch their heads and chins and look away when she glowers, but there are many people there, already waiting, counting their money, faces hollowed out by fear and hunger.
"One gold ring is not enough for two," the man demanding payment says. He's clean-shaven, with a smell of malice and decay about him that makes Alma's voice and teeth sharpen. She sees the glint of fangs between his lips, the glint of something else, something worse, something crooked and coarse in his eyes when he turns to Lillian. "And if you and the girl want life jackets, well, that's extra."
Behind them, the line of people stirs, muttering, restless. Alma's flesh trembles beneath the dress, beneath the silver. She is so tired of men, tired of the weapons they wield to make themselves feel strong, tired of pretending she is too weak to challenge them.
"You could wait another week," the man goes on, "but soon it will be too late in the year, the sea too dangerous for anyone to cross."
Alma thinks of her husband, devoured; thinks of Lillian, of the daughters she has already lost. Even here, by the sea, she feels the War approaching. Soon it will be here. Soon it will consume this town, these people. There is no way back. There is only the sea, and the crossing, and the hope of something better on the other side.
"Mamma, we can make it without life jackets," Lillian says, but Alma knows the sea, she knows it will claim whatever treasure it can take, just like any man or god or devil.
Alma gives the man her gold ring, slipping it easily off her finger. Then, she gives him her silver bracelets. They are harder to remove, clinging to her raw skin like a pair of long-worn shackles.
"Passage and life-jacket for one," she says, nodding at Lillian. "I'll be back with more once I've talked to the money-lender in town."
The beardless man curves his lips as if to say no, but he takes her gold and silver and passes it to the captain on the deck. Alma sees the Captain weigh the jewellery in his palm, studying the runes etched deep into the silver, tracing each sign with a blunt thumbnail. Her sharp eyes see through the Captain - the family he's lost, the drowned children he's gathered on the shore for burial, the small kindnesses he's given in his life. She isn't sure what he sees in her face when he looks at her, but in the end, he nods.
"It's enough. But we leave at daybreak, and we wait for no one."
The beardless man shrugs, then grins at Lillian before he saunters off the dock, following a girl who could not pay for passage. When he walks past, Alma smells old blood on his breath beneath the aftershave, and a shiver runs through her from head to tail. She has fought enough monsters in her life to know what this man eats and what he hungers for.
“What's wrong, mamma?” Lillian asks, but Alma doesn't answer, she just strokes her daughter’s braid, tugs at the shawl wrapped around her shoulders.
Should have brought her something warmer for the crossing, Alma thinks, considering the knits and woolens left behind.
"I have to go. Stay here. Hold your place in line and get on board as soon as you can."
"I'll hold a seat for you, Mamma."
Alma finds no words to say. All words seem too small and too big to contain what she is feeling. Instead, she takes off her silver necklace, pulling the pendant clear of her dress, slipping the chain over Lillian's head.
"Keep it safe.”
There's a crack of worry in Lillian's voice, but Alma is already striding off the docks into the dusk.
Alma follows the road along the shore, toward the town, pursuing the scent of aftershave and blood. Free of the silver, her senses sharpen as everything else falls away, and looking back at the sea and the dock, Alma sees a tiny sliver of the future, lit as if by sudden lightning: Lillian, standing in the boat, steady and sure, getting ready to step off on the other side. Safe.
Safe, but for one thing.
Alma quickens her pace, her footsteps light as paws on the trail. The beardless man is just ahead. His steps are heavy, his voice low as she speaks to someone. In the dusk Alma sees the girl he followed, a child no older than Lillian, and the man's hands are on her. The girl doesn't scream but Alma smells her terror, the jagged edge of it like a blade held at her own throat.
Beneath the moon, in the darkness, without the silver to hold her in place, Alma shivers. She thinks of the War, thinks of her husband, crushed beneath its bulk. She thinks of Lillian and the girl up ahead, thinks of the beardless man looming over them.
The gold is spent, her silver's gone. She has only one thing left to give.
Alma bounds forward. The girl screams and runs away, but the man can't see Alma clearly yet, and when he does, it's too late for him to scream. She feels the last of her body shift and change, and in a flash of rage and grief and hope she sheds everything, clothes and scarf and shoes and skin, and this man is not fast enough, not strong enough, to resist her. No one ever has been.
After, Alma sits in the tall grass, watching as the boat disappears into the shimmer between sea and sky, and she knows that Lillian is standing on deck, looking back. She feels Lillian move away from her, her scent dissipating in the breeze, in the smell of salt and fish and seaweed.
Maybe, Lillian calls out for her one last time, but Alma sits unmoving. There is no more silver to turn her now into the mother Lillian knew before.
There's a piercing cry, far above, and Alma sees an osprey, wings spread in the first light, following the boat. And in boat's wake, a ripple of scales and fins, following.
Alma feels the sun's first rays on her back, warm and bright like hope. She runs along the shore, a grey shadow in the grass, searching for another way around the sea.
In the boat, Lillian has long since stopped crying.
“Where’s your mother?” the Captain asks, not unkindly, but Lillian only shakes her head, still grasping the silver locket around her neck.
A bird rests on the wind above her, following the boat, its beak and eye sharp as it gazes down. The waves get bigger and the boat is small, but Lillian isn’t afraid. Beneath the waves, she sees a glint of fins and scales, maybe even a familiar smile.
Lillian smiles back and looks ahead with the weight of the silver around her neck, familiar and comforting like Mother's touch.
(From the print anthology Heroines, published by Neo Perennial Press.)
This story originally appeared in Heroines: an anthology of short fiction and poetry.