by Julia August
The first storm hit Eccles-on-Sea on Jenny’s fourteenth birthday. She lay curled up counting her cold toes while the wind battered the roof tiles and knocked the bells about in the grey church steeple. Rain splattered against the shutters like a cat trying to claw its way inside. Shivering, Jenny pulled her blankets over her head and squeezed her eyes shut against the dark.
The storm lasted for three days. On the fourth day, Jenny splashed through streets running ankle-deep with rainwater to see where two fields and Stafford Blake’s hay barn had fallen into the sea. An overthrown oak tree splayed its roots against the encroaching tide.That night, the wind rattled Jenny’s shutters until she sat up in bed. She clutched her blankets to her shaking knees. ‘Is someone there?’
Someone laughed, just too low to really hear it. What might have been footsteps dwindled into the flustered night.
There was a storm in the spring that was just as bad and another the following winter that was worse. By now, the tide lapped almost at Stafford Blake’s sun-cracked door. Jenny searched the dunes for driftwood to burn salt-blue on the hearth, looking for her father’s fishing boat plunging through the chilly waves.
The wind was as cold as the water. Hello, Jenny Black, it whispered to her.
Jenny rubbed her ears with icy fingers. ‘Who’s that?’
Jenny, Jenny, smart little Jenny Black of Eccles-on-Sea. Can you swim, Jenny? When Eccles-on-Sea is Eccles-in-the-Sea, what will you do then?
Jenny ran home trailing tatters of subvocal laughter. Sand blew into the abandoned houses, spreading a shifting carpet across the streets ahead of her. The sea was pushing the dunes into the village, her father said.
When the fourth storm struck, Jenny sat up for two nights with the sea whispering through her shutters about swallowing the village a gulp at a time.
Come to me, Jenny. I have towns. I have cities. I have ships and mountains and rivers and steeples. I ring church bells in the deeps. Come and I shall show you.
Jenny clamped her hands over her ears until all she could hear was her own blood thundering. Still the sibilant hiss of a promise of shipwrecked treasures slipped through her fingers.
Pearls and diamonds, Jenny. Would you rather doubloons or a crown?
Jenny wept and begged and stamped her feet until her father sent her to stay with her mother’s sister in Lessingham. Nothing Jenny could say could convince him to come too. If the sea reached their door, he might move away to Sea Palling or Happisburgh. What was a fisherman to do away from the shore?
She went back in the summer. The sea frothed restlessly over grass and green weeds and Jenny bolted the door when her father went out. After dark, she plugged up the gaps between her shutters with rags.
The year after Jenny’s father died, the sea swallowed St. Mary’s churchyard and spat him back up again. Half the village was empty now and a third of it was under sand or saltwater. Jenny opened her door one sultry evening to a listing figure, gaunt and salt-crusted, whose footprints dripped unsteadily down the street.
‘Hello, Jenny,’ he said, in a voice as hollow as a bell.
After the screaming and the crying and the retching, they sat down over a pot of tea. Jenny’s father fished a crab from the ragged shirt Jenny had buried him in and sent it skittering sideways across the kitchen table. ‘It’s not so bad,’ he said. ‘Peaceful.’ Something had chewed off his ear and part of his withered face. Jenny bit her little finger. ‘I lie there and I listen to the sea. She remembers you, Jenny.’
‘She reminds me of your mother,’ said Jenny’s father, who had never spoken about Jenny’s mother when he was alive. ‘She tells me all her secrets. You should hear her, Jenny. You don’t know half the things she could tell you.’
He stumbled off to his drowned grave at midnight. Jenny shoved the kitchen table against the door and emptied a bottle of old Amabel Sweet’s elderberry wine before she went to bed. She sat up late every night for a week, but he never came back.
First there were crabs in Jenny’s kitchen where there had been slugs. Then the sand, which sloped against the empty church, crept down her crooked street until she had to dig her door clear if she wanted to go out. The last of Jenny’s neighbours moved away and she started to find salt glittering in the hollows of her kitchen floor when she woke up.
She packed her bags to head inland to her cousins in Lessingham. When she went downstairs, foam kissed the lip of the second step. She retreated backwards up the stairs and sat down on the landing with a bump.
In the distance, the desolate bells were ringing.
Hello, Jenny, said the sea. You should have left sooner. It’s too late now.
Jenny hugged her knees. ‘Is that so?’
The sea shook out her seaweed hair and laughed with a mouth that might well have belonged to Jenny’s mother, not that Jenny could really remember either way. Now will you stay in your father’s house in Eccles-in-the-Sea? she said. Or come to me?
She reached out with foam-flecked hands. Jenny got up shakily. ‘What sort of a choice is that?’
The only choice anyone ever gets, said the sea. What’s it to be?
JULIA AUGUST FINDS DROWNED TOWNS FASCINATING. HER SHORT FICTION HAS APPEARED IN WOMEN DESTROY FANTASY!, UNLIKELY STORY’S JOURNAL OF UNLIKELY ACADEMIA, PODCASTLE, LACKINGTON'S MAGAZINE AND KALEIDOTROPE, AMONG OTHERS. SHE IS @JAUGUST7 ON TWITTER AND J-AUGUST ON TUMBLR. FIND OUT MORE AT JULIAAUGUST.COM.
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