His new wife spent her daylight hours by the ocean. From her perch on the edge of a high cliff, she watched the blue, reported on the swells, and noted the movement of the tides. This was not a shock to him. He’d known she was like this before he’d married her. It was known to him how her eyes would scan the long line of the horizon, taking it in with a sweeping gaze. Then, those same eyes would dart down to the jagged rocks underneath the cliff, where the ocean broke and frothed, before smoothing along the meandering white coastline of the island, following until the edge of the coastline met the corner of the horizon, where her eyes had started. His new wife would then begin all over again. At the passing of the sun, she would sing a familiar wobbling song across the water, loud enough it may have just reached the edge of the earth some nights.
Her watching was not in vain, for every so often, a dark shadow would appear along the horizon. Far off, it was hard to make out. But she had her father’s looking glass, an exotic trinket that shined like the sun. It had washed upon the shore one day. He had been wary of it when it had been found, but the old man had been enamoured with it and had given it to his daughter, to watch out for him on the fishing boat – though they never travelled further than they could see the shoreline, and never ventured close to that line – that line where the sea fell off the world and into nothing. The shadows would never venture any closer. His new wife would begin her searching, looking, scanning, singing all over again.
When sailors, wearied by the salt and sun, passed the small, mountainous island many disregarded it. For out in that part of the sea, every island looked the same to seafarers – covered in jungle and surrounded by jutting, sharp rocks. The trial to explore would be too dangerous an expedition. So it was that the island had not seen a visitor since the last ship had been skewered on the rocks, and its cargo – slaves on a ship bound for another land – had killed the crew and stumbled upon the shores of the island a hundred years ago.
The new inhabitants lived happily. Their population rarely exceeded one hundred. Their children had children, and then more children again. They created places of worship that housed gods to love and fear. They built homes that could stand the torrential rain in the wet, but stayed cool in the dry. The lands were fertile from the dormant volcano that loomed above them, and with some work, crops could be planted. Pigs found on the island could be kept in pens and bred. And on the darkest nights when even the moon wasn’t bright enough to see, the villagers would make a fire on the beach. The fire grew high enough and big enough that anyone should see it if only they looked. But no one ever looked, and no one ever saw, and no one ever came to the little island.
His new wife rarely walked down the cliff and into the village. The house that he had made for her, when it had been decided he would wed her, had been abandoned. She would not leave her father’s house, lest he return. But with his own eyes he had seen the old man sucked off their fishing vessel, and he’d seen his body float out to where the sea fell off the edge.
She did not venture into the village because the villagers spoke of her in low whispers. They talked of her stained dress, the same every day, and her long and untamed hair. They pitied him for having to share a bed with her. To listen to her mournful songs to the sea every sundown. She smelt like a grotto and her skin was pallid and slimy – those who had touched her likened it to the sea slug in its squirm and slickness. How you instantly wanted to let go and wipe the hand against your shirt. Some of the children called her mermaid. Their mothers called her sea witch.
Often, as she watched the horizon and waited for her father to appear from the edge of the world, he thought she might jump right off the cliff and into the froth below. Sometimes she teetered just over the edge and his mind would betray him and urge her to tip that little bit farther. Once she asked him if he thought there was anything out there. He scoffed and said, ‘of course not. We would know about it if there was.’
The ship appeared the following morning. His new wife was the first to see it, rising at first light. She walked down the steep path to the shoreline and picked at an empty bottle that had washed ashore. It smelt rancid. Then, she saw the men, sitting on the boat. She called out to them. They, with their skin pale and delicate like the white underbelly of a fish, looked like ghosts on the deck. She asked if they had her father but they did not reply in a way she could understand.
By the evening the men on the boat grew livelier and merrier, as if the moon had encouraged their spirits. They drank from their bottles and danced in the light of the fire. They ate feverishly with both hands and open mouths. They convinced the women to dance with them as all languages transcend merriment and joy. The men needed no convincing to drink from the bottles, he included. His new wife watched them – not the water – from the edge of the cliff now. He drank another mouthful of the burning liquid. He felt warm inside, like the fire had taken hold of his guts.
In the week that passed, the old women mended the sails of the stranger’s ship. They killed pigs and salted and packed the meat. The old women hoped they would go soon. They could see the damage in the people and the danger that the festive strangers had sewn into the land and the people. The doctor’s wife had a bruised lip. The rancid liquor had made him act out in rage. Married women snuck away, hidden by the shadows of a bright fire, and gave their bodies to the strangers. Where had they come from, these strange men? Everyone wanted to know.
‘They are ghosts,’ said a woman to her husband as she cut the vegetables for the stew. ‘Dead man lost to sea.’ Her husband nodded. ‘They sail around in their boat because they cannot rest peacefully with the dead.’ Her husband nodded. ‘They are cursed.’ Again, her husband nodded. She raised the knife to him. ‘Mark my words, they will cause us trouble.’
Each night the strangers drank by the fire, sharing their bottles around. There was a large supply on the ship. The women danced. Children cried in the night, left to sleep in small, cold huts. But their cries were deafened by the sound of the hollering along the shoreline.
The doctor’s wife stumbled home late that night and found that even the light of the fire could not guide a dizzied eye or an uncontrollable body. She found her husband waiting up for her. He held a wooden club in his hands. A dark mist had settled over his eyes. As she slurred a greeting and tried to fix her clothes, he raised his hand and brought the club down upon her head.
They found the doctor sobbing over her body in the morning light. Her skull, from the sunken eye socket to the crown of her head, had fallen away like a sand bank. She was cold and a mixture of stiff grey and deep red.
The strangers continued to drink through the night and into the morning. They lined the beach and their white skin grew red. The old women came with the mended sails and the ghosts began stringing them up, until they flapped as the east wind picked up.
‘There,’ said the old women. ‘You can leave now.’
But the ship did not get towed from the shallows and the men – or the creatures that took on the appearance of men – were not so interested in returning. These were not the men that the sea witch had called with her song. They did not bring back any who had been lost.
He attended the evening’s festivities. His wife called them ghosts, but he had felt the flesh and seen the blood of these men, and he wanted to know more about the lands beyond the horizon. For he’d thought many times of steering the fishing canoe out a little further, past that final wave. But the strangers were not interested in talking. They wanted to drink. The fire lit their faces.
A few of the men staggered to the ship, still marooned on the shore, with a woman. When they came back, the woman was not with them. The strangers passed a small trinket between them – a thin, tall, bald man, who’s head looked like the moon and who smelt of whale insides, held it in his hand. He raised the trinket to the light. It glimmered. He thought it to be the looking glass, for it was long and thin and the man raised it to his eye level. Then it lit up with fire and sounded like thunder. He felt it cut him through. He stumbled. Hit his head. He heard laughter and then he heard nothing.
When he awoke, he was told his new wife was gone and that there was a hole through his shoulder. She’d gone with the ghosts the following morning and all the villagers had lined the shore to watch them leave and disappear beyond the sea.
‘She called them here,’ said the doctor, smoking. ‘With her sea witch songs. She had to send them away.’
‘Some say they were ghosts,’ said the woman who was dabbing ointment into his wound. ‘Here to terrorise us. To punish us.’
No one said much more after that. Everyone wondered what they’d done to be punished.
When he could walk, he went to the track that led up to the cliff face and to his new wife’s father’s old home.
He passed the graveyard, where there the rich soil had been turned many times in the last week and the whole place emitted a musky smell. He saw the hut’s roof, he saw the door open and he ran to it.
But his new wife was nowhere. Not in the dim corner where the bed lay, not by the kettle or fire, or even found by the of the cliff. The looking glass was gone. He staggered to the edge and looked down to the jagged edges, and searched for her body, white like froth in the waves, but it wasn’t there.
He fell to his knees in the place where the grass had been worn down and there was only smooth, hard dirt. Her sitting spot.
He scanned his eyes along the horizon, searching for his new wife. Then, down to the jagged rocks, across the shoreline, and then when it met the horizon far into the distance, his eyes began again. As the sun went down, her new husband let out a long, heaving sob across the sea. To the villagers below on the beach, it sounded like a song.
Abra Pressler writes fiction from her home in South Canberra. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) from RMIT University, and in previous lives she’s been a chocolate shop girl, grain processor, burger-flipper, hotel maid, and for a while, a teacher in the south of France. From 2012 – 2015, she edited fiction for GORE journal. When she’s not writing, Abra works within the education sector. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter