SHE WAKES THE WATERS
by Nene Adams ©2014
“Please, Tilly, don’t go to the shore tonight.”
I scoffed at my cousin Charlotte. “Why not? Are you afraid of sharks?”
She shrank into herself a little. “No,” she whispered, staring at me with blue eyes as cool and pale as the memory of water. “But it’s Valentine’s Day.”
Ah, that explained much. Members of the Lennox family had used the rambling old house at Asher’s Beach as a retreat for decades. Everyone knew about the Valentine’s Day curse, a legend passed with ghoulish relish from child to child while huddled under blankets. Years ago, I’d done my share of terrifying younger children who shared our vacation home.
“Don’t tell me you still believe that story, Lottie.” I put an arm around her shoulders. The delicate bones felt fragile under my hand. “It’s a myth.”
Charlotte made a slow blink, which meant she thought I was stupid. “Of course I believe, Tilly. I have to believe because it’s not a myth. Every word is true.”
I flung myself away from her with an impatient snort and made to leave her there. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’ve heard the singing, haven’t you?” Charlotte said behind me.
Her question made me pause. True, some weird quirk caused a phenomena no one could explain. Sometimes at night, a careful listener could just make out a high, rhythmic piping more complex than a sea bird’s call rising above the booming surf. Theories ranged from undersea caves to a transatlantic telephone cable.
Shrugging, I turned back to face her. “And if I have heard something?” I stressed the word, unwilling to let her win such a silly argument. “That doesn’t mean I can’t go for a walk on the beach or a swim anytime I want. I’m an adult, Lottie. Same as you.”
Charlotte gazed at me. A shadow crossed her face. “No. Not the same.” Before I could ask her what she meant, she fled the room, her bare feet skimming the smooth wooden floorboards as she bolted down the corridor toward the kitchen.
I considered following her, but decided to let the matter drop for now.
Charlotte was my favorite cousin. We’d grown up together since my father and her mother were close siblings. Charlotte had the Lennox eyes, an indistinct blue, and the golden Lennox hair. I’d inherited the eyes, but poppy red hair from my mother’s side. I’d also inherited a similar build to my Uncle Joseph, a short and robust man who’d stumped around the house smoking a pipe and telling dirty jokes until he died when I was twelve. Occasionally, I thought I caught a whiff of his tobacco, tarry and foul.
We were opposites, Charlotte and I. She’d always been tall, thin and fey, an odd and secretive girl content to puzzle over a seashell for an hour while I chafed to run and play. Where she whispered, I shouted. Yet I loved her as only blood can love blood.
I glanced around the library, a dim and quiet place in the part of the house furthest from the ocean. In here, outside sounds were muted, though not the smells of salt, fish, and ozone drifting in the wind coming off the sea.
Scuffling footsteps—someone walking into the library. I spun around expecting Charlotte, but instead, I saw my girlfriend, Jess.
“Hi,” Jess said, pushing a lock of short black hair behind her ear. Like Charlotte, she was tall, but rangy and wiry rather than fragile. Solid, like me. I never had the impression she’d break if I hugged her too hard. “Lottie’s upset and burning toast in the kitchen.”
“As long as she doesn’t set the house on fire,” I murmured, going over to take Jess in my arms. I buried my nose against her collarbone. Like always, her skin was warm, scented with vanilla and musk. Familiar. Comforting.
A hand stroked my hair. “Did you guys have an argument?”
I raised my head, fighting the impulse to press against the caress like a demanding cat. Jess looked down at me, crinkles at the corners of her brown eyes betraying her amusement. I sighed. “Not exactly. We were talking about the curse.”
“The curse on the Lennox family.” I remembered I hadn’t told her the story, so I tugged her to a pair of overstuffed, battered armchairs and pushed her into a seat. I took the other. “In the late eighteenth century, this house was built by Fear-Not Lennox,” I said, warming to my tale. “His new bride, Elaine, was born at sea on a merchant ship and pined for the ocean after their wedding, so Fear-Not moved here from New York to make her happy. But Elaine wasn’t the wife he expected. She was young and had wild, troublesome ways.”
“Sounds like my kind of woman.” Jess gave me an arch look and fluttered her eyelashes, grinning.
I reached over to lightly smack her denim clad leg. “Hush and let me finish.” I waited until she quieted before continuing, “Elaine wouldn’t obey her husband. She didn’t act like a lady. She rode the fiercest stallion in the stable, a rumored man-killer. She gambled. She drank too much wine. She swore, and danced, and swam naked in the sea at night. Fear-Not couldn’t stop her, not even when he suspected she might be meeting a lover on the beach.”
“Who knows? But eventually, Elaine became pregnant. Fear-Not hoped a baby would calm her, but she stayed out longer and longer walking on the shore, singing and staring out to sea. She went into labor too early and the baby was born dead. A monster, I heard, with a deformed head, a mouthful of sharp teeth, and eyes like a shark. Fear-Not thought the baby was a devil, so he threw the body into the ocean. Elaine had lost a lot of blood, but that night she left her bed and walked down to the beach. They found her footprints in the sand going from the house to the high-water line. No one ever saw her again.”
“That’s a nice bedtime story … not.” Jess shivered, rubbing her arms although she wore the cranberry colored sweater I’d knitted for her. “Okay, what about the curse?”
Was the chill in the air genuine or manufactured by imagination? I wasn’t sure. “According to the legend, Elaine is said to have put a curse on the Lennox family: that any daughter who walks the shore at night on the evening of February fourteenth—the day her baby was stillborn—will be taken by the sea.”
“What does that mean, ‘taken by the sea?’”
“I’m not sure. Disappeared, certainly. In the oldest family records, for example, one of Fear-Not’s granddaughters announced her intention of taking a midnight stroll on Valentine’s Day to defy the curse. A servant later heard her cry for help, but by the time people went down to the beach, it was too late. She was never found.”
“Who knows? There is no curse, Jess. Yes, a few other Lennox girls have vanished from the house over the years, but I’m sure they were careless when taking a night swim. The current can be tricky. Or maybe they ran away and married an unsuitable boy. Or an unsuitable girl.” I put on a leer and wriggled my eyebrows.
Jess’ laughter followed me when I left the library. On my way to the kitchen, following the acrid odor of charred bread, I ran into my brother, Edward—short for a man, hardly taller than me, and built square and compact. In the late afternoon sunlight spilling through the windows, his red hair caught sullen fire.
“You should talk to Charlotte,” he said, folding his arms over his chest and leaning against the wall. A frown pinched lines in his forehead. “She’s weirder than usual.”
I opened my mouth to deny Edward’s accusation, but decided to let it lie. Charlotte’s fretfulness, her fits of melancholy and brittle excitement, were normal for her. Perhaps he’d forgotten. “What do you mean?” I stepped closer to him.
Edward shrugged. “She’s been on the beach a lot.”
“She loves the outdoors,” I dismissed with a sniff.
“At night? In winter? In the middle of a storm?” He shook his head. “Something’s not right with her. Did you know Charlotte’s been living in the house for the last six months?”
“No. How do you know?”
“She told me. I had to come out to the house a few times to do some emergency repairs on the roof, once right before Christmas. I found Charlotte staying here. No electricity, no heat, no lights, just sitting in the dark, eating cold soup out of a can. I invited her to stay with Caroline and me and the kids, but she wouldn’t have it.”
Indignation ran hot through my veins. “You just let her stay here and freeze?”
Edward’s mouth compressed to a thin line. “She wouldn’t come. Damn it, Tilly, of course I was worried, but Charlotte’s a grown woman. I did what I could. I made sure the electricity was turned on and filled the pantry with food she could heat up. Don’t judge me. I don’t think even you can make Charlotte do anything she doesn’t want to.”
I grudgingly nodded to concede his point.
“Listen,” he went on, “I’ve seen her out there walking on the shore at night, no matter the weather. She’s never done that before. She’s always stayed indoors after sundown.”
He wasn’t exaggerating, I thought. Charlotte never liked the ocean after dark. And she hadn’t said a thing about living in the house either. She’d let me assume she came here for a weekend vacation, the same as me and my girlfriend. “But what is she doing?”
“Hell if I know.” Edward pushed off the wall. “Talk to her. You know her best.” He continued down the hall, soon disappearing around a corner.
Troubled, I continued to the kitchen.
When I confronted her about her omissions, Charlotte attempted a laugh. “Oh, Eddie worries too much.”
I didn’t miss the way her nervous fingers crumbled bits of blackened toast onto her plate. “Why were you staying at the house? Didn’t you have anywhere else to go?” Charlotte flitted from job to job as her interest waxed or waned, which made her income and living situation precarious. “If you didn’t want to bunk with Eddie, you could have called me.”
“It wasn’t like that,” she assured me. “I just wanted to live in our family house for a bit.” A hint of petulance touched her mouth. “I’m a Lennox. I’m allowed.”
“Of course, but in the middle of winter?” I pressed on before she had a chance to answer. “What about the beach, Lottie? At night. Eddie says—”
Charlotte balked. She placed both palms flat on the table and stood, her slender body rigid. “You stay away from the beach tonight,” she said, low and insistent. Her pale eyes gleamed. “God, I wish you and Eddie would mind your own business.”
“We care about you.”
“Then leave me alone.”
I tried to touch Charlotte when she passed me in her flight from the kitchen, but she evaded my outstretched hand. Worry nibbled around the edges of my former good mood. I busied myself cleaning the kitchen and shaking crumbs out of the toaster. Tonight, I decided, I’d follow Charlotte if she left the house and try to find out what ailed her.
Jess didn’t like my plan, but she didn’t argue too hard against it. “Be careful,” she told me later as we carried bags of Chinese take-out from the car to the house. Neither of us were decent cooks. “Promise me you won’t do anything reckless.”
“I promise.” Pausing on the porch steps, I stood on my toes to brush a kiss over her lips. “I love you.”
“Love you back,” Jess replied, looking pleased.
Her soft mouth enticed me to another kiss. The bags dropped from my hands.
After a long, floating moment, Charlotte’s voice cut through my haze. “Come inside, for heaven’s sake. The Chinese is getting cold, I’m hungry, and it’s almost seven o’clock.”
Jess picked up the bags. “I’ll set the table. You girls come when you’re ready.” She went into the house, giving me a sultry look over her shoulder.
I winked at her. The restaurants in town were crowded with couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. I’d seen Jess looking. Earlier in the week, I’d bought a bottle of her favorite very expensive, very good red wine for our private indulgence after dinner.
Charlotte lingered on the unlit porch. So did I, sensing she wanted to speak to me.
Night had fallen. The moon rode high in an indigo sky. From here, the view of the beach was postcard perfect, framed by the grassy dunes closest to the house—the ocean stretching to the horizon, hemmed by a long stretch of sand marred here and there by piles of rocks pitted and beaten ragged by the ceaseless waves.
“Are you happy?” Charlotte finally asked, her voice nearly inaudible.
I thought about Jess, our life together, our work as artist and model, our friends, the cozy apartment we called home. So different than the old, brooding Lennox house my ancestors built. “Yes,” I answered simply. “Are you?”
Charlotte glanced away, focusing past me and onto the beach beyond. “No. I’m not happy, Tilly. I haven’t been happy in a while. Not in forever, maybe.”
“Have you seen a doctor?” Depression, I thought. Anxiety.
“I don’t need pills.” Charlotte continued to stare at the water, her hands twisting together. In her white dress, her golden hair turned silver by the weak light filtering out from the living room through the screen door, she resembled the beautiful, ethereal ghost of a bride. “What I need is understanding.”
I looped an arm around Charlotte’s waist, offering comfort. “I’m trying to understand, Lottie. Explain it to me. Tell me why you’ve developed this sudden fascination for going out there in the dark.”
Charlotte made a frustrated noise. “When I was a child, I heard the singing at night. It frightened me.”
“We thought it was mermaids, remember?” I tried a chuckle, but the sound withered and died in my throat. I coughed instead. “Mermaids singing to their lovers.”
“‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each,’” Charlotte quoted in a murmur, her eyes half closed. A poem from a book in the library. “Yes. And I was frightened.”
“But you’re not afraid now?”
A tremor ran through her. Abruptly, her hands dropped to her sides. Her chin came up. I knew this resolute expression well. She’d talked herself into or out of doing something against her natural inclination. That could be good or bad. “No. I’m not. Which is why you shouldn’t go to the beach tonight, Tilly. It’s Valentine’s Day. Stay inside with Jess. Make love to her. Be happy. Because I’m not afraid.”
I had to be sure. “You aren’t going to do anything … anything foolish, are you?” I put the emphasis in the right place, knowing she’d take my meaning.
“Stop being stupid. I don’t intend to hurt myself.” Charlotte frowned. “We knew the truth once. You choose not to remember. The answer’s right in front of you, but you’re not listening.” She glared at me, pushed off my arm and stopped, arrested by a sudden, high pitched piping drifting from the beach.
I was caught by the glassy perfection of the sound, leaping and falling in precisely measured cadences. Each crystalline note rang clear and true, glittering like diamonds on the salt laden wind. Not a random bird’s call or a mechanized hum, but music that set hooks into my heart and soul. I felt those hooks pulling at me, little coaxing tugs as though connected by the thinnest black threads to an unknown hand.
The music left me disconnected from myself, my head floating above my body. A cloudy softness tinted the world and everything in it. I wasn’t aware of moving. It seemed to me the beach itself drifted closer. The surf whispered against the sand. The tide was coming in, some part of me noted complacently, the greedy, foam-capped waves sliding up to claw back the shore. To reclaim the land for the ocean.
I spied a paler patch against the blackness of rocks and seething water. A woman. My breath fled.
Tendrils of dark, wet hair spilled over the naked woman’s shoulders and breasts, clung to the sweetness of her face, and obscured her eyes. Her mouth described a generous curve, parted a little to show pearly teeth as she lifted her voice in that compelling song. Her skin glistened, alive with moonlight and shadows. She crouched on the rocks, heedless of their roughness and her vulnerability—beautiful in her wildness.
The woman’s voice soared in wordless melody. I couldn’t think. I didn’t want to think, my mind lit only by her, a fallen star shining in the sea. A white jewel burning with white fire into the green, into the blue, into the black of the deep and silent waters. I would follow that star. I would sink down, and down, and down forever, falling and following—
A hand closed over my arm.
The touch broke the song’s hold over me. I felt the hooks jerk painfully and split into pieces. I shook my head, my thoughts sleep sodden although I knew I’d been awake.
Charlotte clutched me with both hands tight around my bicep. We weren’t on the porch. We stood on the beach, ankle deep in the surf. My feet were numb from the cold. I couldn’t grasp what had happened. My gaze turned to the woman who’d lured me here—
Not a woman. Not human, anyway. No hair. No ears. The skin was as pale and bloodless as a corpse. And the face—dear God, the face! Soulless black eyes bulged from the flattened head. No nose, but a fluttering scarlet slit slashed above a lipless mouth filled with rows of needle sharp teeth. The creature held fast to the rocks with clawed, blue-scaled fingers joined by thin membranes. More scales glinted like steel on its sides.
My pulse banged in my ears. I remembered the story about Elaine and the curse, the suspected lover, the dead baby. My flesh prickled.
The creature began to sing.
Pure beauty poured from that gash of a mouth. I wanted to cover my ears, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even blink. I could only stare at the creature and think over and over in dazed horror, I have heard the mermaids singing…
Charlotte hauled me back with unexpected strength, shoving me staggering further onto the beach. “I told you,” she said, her expression calmer than I’d ever seen. No, not merely calm. Transcendent. “I told you, Tilly, I know what to do and I’m not afraid.”
Then she turned to the creature and smiled.
I’m not sure what I shouted, or if I shouted, or if I did anything except fall onto the sand choking on unvoiced creams. I don’t remember what happened. Charlotte’s smile is one of the few things I can recall from the fog shrouding those moments.
When I came back to myself, Jess was there, worried and on the verge of panic.
Charlotte was not. No sign of her could be found on the beach. No sign of the creature, either. I’ve never told anyone what I’d seen. I never told Jess the curse was real enough to take my cousin on Valentine’s Day. I’ve never asked myself the creature’s purpose. Some questions can’t bear answering. As far as Jess and the rest of the world are concerned, Charlotte went swimming and was swept out by the current. We mourned her. Life went on.
Edward suspected the truth, or perhaps at least a part of it. He’s a Lennox. He knows the story. One day years later, he came to where I sat painting a landscape of the beach and asked, “Do you ever hear that strange singing anymore, Tilly?”
I paused, my brush trembling. Faintly, ever so faintly, I thought I caught the edge of a high, sharp note floating on the wind from the sea. “No,” I told him and returned to my painting.