From the author: In the sea was an island. On the island was a house. And in the house was a woman.
In the sea was an island. On the island was a house. And in the house was a woman. And in the woman was a secret. But, like all the best secrets, the one upon whom it centred was completely unaware of its existence.
Her name was Elizabeth and she had never seen her face.
Elizabeth had been born out of the sea, like Aphrodite. A classical allusion that she clung to in order not to think about the circumstances of her birth-the cold fangs of rock that she had clung to all unknowing, and the hard scrabble for the grim, grey shore through the freezing waters. Bloody and dripping she had emerged from the womb of the sea to stagger onto land and into the house that seemed so familiar, despite her inability to recall how or why.
Shuddering and weak, she had reached out to touch the door and it had swung inward, as if in welcome. Inside there was a table, chairs and shelves of books. All of it waiting for her. All of that, and her name as well, inside a locket that lay forgotten in a pile of clothing covered in stains.
On the back of the locket were the letters ‘V’ and ‘F’, and when she had opened it, a woman’s face had returned her stare. There was a name opposite. Elizabeth. Her name and perhaps her face, though the angles she traced with her fingers did not seem to fit those of the woman in the picture.
She lived hard, eking out an existence on the barren rock, at night hunting the innumerable rats that scampered out of the island’s guts when the lightning ripped wide across the black sky. With the rats, she ate the moss that clung to the rocks, and, once a seabird that drew too close to her.
Elizabeth had strong hands. She wielded rocks and driftwood with all the dexterity of a Norman knight wielding his sword, but often as not she relied only on her ten fingers, and stalked through the scrub of the island’s high places on ten toes. She did not cook the meat she caught, but felt no ill-effects from chewing it raw. Indeed, she could not imagine dousing the taste of the flesh through fire.
She had clothes which she did not wear for fear of ruining them. There were trousers and a shirt, neither of which truly fit her, perhaps having been meant for a child and an apron which stank of chemicals and other, less pleasant things. The latter she rolled into a ball and buried behind the house.
In truth, the constant rain that drenched the island felt good upon her skin, and her naturalism became more about comfort than consideration. Her flesh was invariably flushed with an unrelenting heat when hid it from the air. Sometimes, when the lightning curled and coiled, it burned as well.
There were two other houses on the island, besides hers, but they were both ruins now, broken and empty. In the evening, as she gorged on rat, she wandered among them, exploring their secrets.
By day, she read. She read the anatomy texts and alchemical treatises that filled the shelves of the house to bursting, and when those grew dull, she gorged on Byron and Shelley and Voltaire. Of those, she preferred the latter. There were twenty-seven books in the house other than those concerned with anatomy and alchemy, and she had read them all, in random order, seven times apiece. That some were in Latin and others in Greek, French and Arabic did not matter for she could not tell one language from the next. It was all the same to her.
When she had finished the last book and waited to begin the next rotation, she would sit on the rocks outside her door and stroke her arms and legs, which ached sometimes in the oddest places. It was as if she were filled with old hurts and ancients wounds that her eye could not see and fingers could not reach. A bone-deep itch that scuttled through her at lonely intervals, dragging with it images to her mind’s eye.
Some of those images were comforting. Others made her pull out her own hair and drum her heels against the rock. Once, possessed of a rage that echoed out of a glimpse of a memory of mismatched eyes, she had bounded across the island screaming and howling and flailing at the lightning with a club of driftwood.
Only when the club had broken, and her fists had been rendered bloody and bruised from battering the stones, did she at last return to sensibility.
Her wounds healed, and quickly, if the medical texts were to be believed. She watched the bruises lighten and fade over the course of hours, the golden skin returning to its normal sheen.
The scars never healed in the same way as the bruises. They remained, but then they had always been with her. They were thin strands of pale yellow that stood out against the gold of her flesh, rising and falling across her arms and legs and belly and elsewhere; a latticework of marks that she could not recall the origins of, nor, indeed, did she wish to.
Sometimes, when she touched them she got the strangest sensation that she was waiting for someone. The true owner of the house, perhaps. She touched the locket and traced the initials carved on it. Who was ‘VF’? Was that who she was waiting for?
Elizabeth was stroking the locket when she caught sight of the boat for the first time. It was a blotch of pale colour on the vast darkness of the water. She half-stood as the wind whipped her hair about her face in a frenzy. Unconsciously, her hands clenched and she warred with the sudden impulse to flee.
She had never seen a boat before, but the word and the shape lurked in her memory. And with the word came fear. Hard, cold fear that clambered up into her belly and sat lodged like a lump of badly-chewed rat. Elizabeth did not know why she was afraid, and that only made the fear worse.
Breathing hard, she crouched and watched the boat for minutes, then hours, watching it draw closer and closer. As it grew dark, she lost sight of it at last and the trance was broken. Abruptly, she turned and dove into her home, slamming the door and latching it. Head down, a wracking sob escaped her and she trembled uncontrollably. Her stomach heaved as she pushed away from the door, and she looked around wildly.
Suddenly, the house, her home, seemed horrible. Everything sent a razor-caress of disgust across her nerves-the anatomy books on her shelves, the odd table that sat in the centre of the room with its runnels and odd score-marks and the stains on the floor. Her hand flew to the locket hanging from her neck and she squeezed the soft metal tightly.
Eyes closed, she slid down to the floor and sat weeping. And then, after a time, she sat sleeping. She dreamed that night of the sea and her birth and the way the water had smelled of iron and oxygen, and how that smell had clung to her for weeks following. She dreamed of how she had hurt all over, as if her limbs were held on by red hot pins, and walking brought new agonies each and every day until finally the pain had faded.
She dreamed of those first days, when the books had been full of blurry hornets rather than words and how she had destroyed three in a rage, scattering pages across the island. Three books full of cramped writing, with neither pictures nor poetry. She had torn them page from page the way she tore rats, and had watched the white shreds become caught in the cold wind rolling off the sea. The sight of it had calmed her immediately, though she could not say why.
Elizabeth awoke with a start. Her nostrils flared as she took in the smell of the day and the sea. She pushed herself to her feet and away from the door. Her hand hesitated inches from the knob. Then, with a growl, she yanked the door open and stepped out.
Birds cried out as they swooped over the beach. She gazed at them, then down towards the path that led to the beach.
The boat sat among the rocks where its occupant had pulled it ashore. She bit back a whimper and contemplated running back inside. But the house wasn’t safe. Nowhere was safe. Not now.
Elizabeth didn’t know why, she simply knew it was so. Safety had been an illusion, now stripped away. Slowly, unwillingly, she started down the path, pausing only to scoop up a length of driftwood.
The boat sat silent as she approached. She circled it, stepped heedless through the surf, her bare feet dancing awkwardly over the rocks. She tapped it with the stick, and when no response was forthcoming, her lips peeled back from her teeth. She had strong teeth, capable of breaking bone and grinding muscle to paste. She bared them now as she climbed into the boat and searched it for any sign of its occupant.
Wet tarps and empty boxes filled it. She swung a tarp around her shoulders, suddenly cold, and used the stick to smash a hole in the bottom of the boat. Then, grunting with the strain, she shoved it back out into the water. The rocks shifted loudly beneath her feet as she pressed her shoulder to the prow and heaved. The boat glided along against the current, then began to dip as the water blossomed through the hole she’d made.
Elizabeth could not say why she had done what she’d done, but it was satisfying all the same. A blow struck against...who? She shook her head and turned, the driftwood creaking in her grip.
Above her, at the top of the path, a man-shape watched her. Her heart stuttered in her chest and her eyes sprang painfully wide. She stumbled back and the sea clutched at her ankles, shocking her back into herself. Above, the man-shape ducked out of sight.
Elizabeth screamed. A moment later the tarp fell from her shoulders as she sprang into motion, running up the path, the driftwood swinging wildly. She fell several times as she scrambled upwards, such was her hurry. At the summit, she hurled the driftwood blindly, and it clattered against the house.
There was no sign of him. Breathing, she whirled, head cocked like a hound’s as she sniffed the air. Familiar scents dug into her mind, but she could not bring the memories they had hooked into the light. Frustrated, she hissed and swung her arms.
Where was he? Where?
Her eyes fastened on the door. It was open, ever so slightly. She grunted as if struck, and shivered. Was he in there, in her house? Was he watching her even now?
Her breath came faster, painful rasping knife-stabs of oxygen that bruised her lips in their escape. Her hands writhed into fists and sprang open again over and over. She took a clumsy step forward but then hopped back.
Why was he here? Why had he come back? She shook her head and whined. Had he come back? Who was he? Why was he tormenting her? Her fingers dug into her scalp and she yanked at her hair, shuffling back and forth as her eyes stayed locked on the house.
Finally, explosively, she lunged for the door, striking it with her shoulder. The hinges popped and squealed. She was very strong, and not just in her hands or feet and the door fell in and she fell with it. She was up a moment later, crouching on all fours. Books sat on the table, neatly piled as in preparation to be moved. Clothes were folded, and placed in a trunk. She scrambled around, peering beneath the table and behind the bookcases. Where had he gone? He had been here, she could smell him.
Where was he? Where was he?
Rocks crunched together. She froze. Her eyes cut to the door. A shadow, rippling in the wind. In her mind flashed again that long ago nightmare of mismatched eyes. A voice like the thunder rattled in her head.
Her hand flew to her locket and she screamed. She flung herself at the closest window and broke through, heedless of the scratches and splinters in her skin. What she could not ignore was the splash of pain that rippled up her leg as her ankle twisted and refused to bear her weight. She tumbled forward.
“No, no, no,” she whined, her voice long unused now slipping forth like metal scraping metal. The shadow stalked her, gliding across the ground like a hunting dog ahead of its caster.
She met his eyes across the distance. Gray like the rocks and harder still. They widened as they took her in and she felt the memory of scalpels and cold ointments. He opened his mouth to speak but then she was moving despite the pain, moving up and towards him, shrieking like a hawk. She lashed out and he fell back, no longer a monster but a man, the same as any in the anatomy texts. Berserk, she threw herself on him.
As she bore him down, images pinwheeled through her brain like scraps of paper caught in a wind. Images of the man before her examining her with grey eyes and a surgeon’s smile, and of another whose mismatched eyes blazed hungrily, hatefully in her head and whose voice cut across her soul like razors stropping stone.
Her fist rose and the man squirmed away from her, babbling inanities. She reached for him, feeling the strength coil through her. She could rip him in two like a rat, and crush those hateful eyes. As she dragged him back, fear filled the grey eyes. Fear and something else.
Her face looked back at her, contorted in rage.
“Elizabeth,” he said. But he wasn’t looking at her. His flailing hands snagged the locket and as she jerked back in surprise, he tore it loose. She stood and stepped back, her hand flying to her throat.
Then, hands dangling, she looked down at him as he groveled in the dirt, sobbing and clutching her locket. No, not hers-his. His locket. His Elizabeth.
She wasn’t his. She had not been waiting for him. A darkness crept upon her, and she saw those mismatched eyes again, alight this time with a devil’s flame. Her hands clenched, then, abruptly, relaxed.
“No,” she said. “No.”
On his knees, he reached for her, babbling. She stepped back. “No,” she said again, more strongly. She brushed fingers across her throat. The weight was gone. The weight of Elizabeth. Of memories not hers. Of designs and desires that she had no part in.
She was not Elizabeth. She had never been Elizabeth. And she had not been born in the sea. But to the sea she would return.
Leaving the man with the grey eyes behind, she walked away from the house with its secrets and down towards the water, her golden limbs moving much more smoothly than they ever had before. Before she knew it, she was running.
As she entered the water, she wondered, just for a moment, whether her intended bridegroom would be upset by her absence. She imagined his mismatched eyes wide with rage and his hands, so like hers, shaking in fury. Then, pushing that thought aside she wondered what her new name would be. In the end, there was only one way to find out.
With strong, smooth strokes, she began to swim.
This story originally appeared in Candle in the Attic Window (2011).