Let it take you.
It was a whisper in my head, a thought that was mine and not mine, while they surrounded me, squeezing the remaining air from my lungs. That was all I knew as the cold and darkness devoured me.
If you lived in our village, you believed in impossible things. The housewives’ superstitions were laid daily at the dinner table. The fishermen only whispered their tales and stuck to their routines. Routines meant a kind of safety, and everybody knew it.
When the little girl washed up with the tide, people were worried and too scared not to help her. She didn’t have a name, but everyone called her Cliodna. Since she came from the ocean, that seemed as fair a name as anything. They didn’t dare chance that she was a goddess incarnate - she wasn’t, but they didn’t know that.
The town looked for her family, even if they didn’t believe anyone would arrive. And when no one did, it only seemed to encourage their belief that Cliodna was a child of the sea.
She was normal in most ways, but the fishermen soon learned that they captured more fish when she was nearby. While some encouraged her to spend time by the docks, others thought she might not like to watch them pull from her ocean if she was a sea goddess.
We were the same age, and I loved her the first moment I saw her. She ended up in the home of an older couple whose kids were grown, and they insisted she go to school like the other children.
Most kids our age were scared of her, and some were mean, but the mean ones came down with a cold that had them in bed for a week. In the end, beliefs are passed down through families, so no one said another unkind word to her. Many kept their distance but not me.
Of course, I was shy when I first saw her, too afraid to speak. One day, some other kids were teasing me, and she showed up out of nowhere. I can still remember how Cliodna stood there, her dark eyes glinting in the sunlight, silencing everyone with the strength of her gaze. A little superstition goes a long way.
Then she took my hand, my heart leaped into my throat, and I was done. After we walked away, no one teased me ever again. Instead, they began to look at me the same way they stared at her, with awe and a bit of fear. It was like I was hers, and I’ll admit that I liked that.
I didn’t speak much to anyone besides my family, but I slowly opened up to her. Her voice was like the wind that moves across the ocean, and I loved to listen. Cliodna was patient when I stumbled over my words and understood me even in my silence.
Although she never told me about her life before the village, I could tell that she remembered more than she wanted to share. She knew things that made her seem more like a wizened fisherman and less like a little girl.
Our best days together were by the ocean or swimming in its depths. I probably went out farther than I should, but Cliodna swam far and deep, and how do you tell someone you love that you’re not as brave as them?
But nothing ever went wrong when we were swimming together, and I quickly became a stronger swimmer than most kids my age. I didn’t tell my mother how far we swam because I didn’t want to be kept home or away from her.
When Cliodna and I were teenagers, she kissed me. Or I kissed her. One moment our heads were close beneath the water, and then our mouths breathed together. If we had been inseparable beforehand, we were even more so after that day. I thought I’d marry her, and although that wasn’t in the staves for us, we carved ourselves out a life. Maybe if it was anyone else, that would have been harder.
For the most part, we had an ordinary life until the fish disappeared. At first, everyone thought it was a bad day, then a bad week, then they got worried. Cliodna seemed sad, her silence heavier somehow. But I wasn’t scared until the night the winds howled like a Bansidhe waiting in the dark.
“Etain, don’t let them take me back,” she cried into my chest. Although I didn’t know what she meant, Cliodna never spoke nonsense. I held her, more terrified than I’d ever been. Let me be clear, I wasn’t scared of dying and had no reason to be. I was only frightened of one thing – losing her. The elusive otherworld couldn’t possibly be worse than grief.
When the storm finally calmed, and Cliodna slept, I crept out of our house and crossed the shore. Nothing but silvery waves glinting in the moonlight as far as I could see. All of the clouds had drifted away somehow, but I could sense something rolling in the deep.
Maybe it was my imagination or how the water looked full to overflowing, still spinning like the pot about to boil over. I watched until the night had shifted to greys before finally returning to bed. The following day a dead fisherman washed up on the shore.
Everyone in town disagreed on the death. Some thought it was clearly an accident. Marks on his head led some to believe that the fisherman had fallen. While others swore they saw bruises around his neck, he was officially declared drowned.
Even after the first body washed onto the shore, I believed we would never have to go. I dreamed of growing old with Cliodna, sitting by the sea until the salt had coated our wrinkles and the cold made our bones ache. Then the second body washed up on the shore.
After that, the whole town was whispering. Both had been judged simple drownings, but fishermen didn’t drown easily in the shallows that could pull their bodies to the shore. Fishermen began visiting more than usual, asking Cliodna to bless their ships and read the portents.
My parents begged Cliodna and me to stay with them. My Father said it wasn’t safe for two women to live alone by the sea. I knew they meant well, but only Cliodna could convince me to leave our home.
It was our home, after all. In addition to Cliodna’s readings, we made our living with herbs and advice. Cliodna had knowledge of coastline remedies that no one could match, and all the villagers had crossed our threshold at one time or another. We had a good life, and I didn’t want to lose it.
It’s so strange that good memories hurt the most when you’re about to lose them. I was so far under that I didn’t know where the horizon was. If I swam up, I could be swimming down. The old ones twisted me around, squeezing my insides.
The good memories weren’t enough to hold onto, but they came in the darkness along with the bad. It was like I was swimming through shifting realities and perceptions. The bad became shadows and shouting in my head, guilt rushing through me, reminding me why I was here. The sadness pulled me down, making my eyesight flicker and my body sink.
I could hear our arguments in my head and see her face as she shut me out when I wanted her to let me in. But the good was there, too, reminding me of everything I would lose if I didn’t fight for us.
“There’s no one like you,” Cliodna said one evening. I glanced up, about to mirror her compliment, but there was something in her eyes, in her voice. It was as though she were saying that I was the goddess. But it was also how she seemed to say, how do you not know there’s no one like you.
I held that moment like a prayer, deep beneath the sea, remembering how she had kissed me then. I wished that I could find her, but everything was lost. It had all fallen apart after the third person washed up from the sea.
The villagers beseeched her to stop the deaths and bring the fish back. They’d always believed that she could do impossible things.
I found Cliodna sitting on the beach after an extended visit with one of our town’s midwives. The wind was blowing her hair back, ruffling her curls. Although it was cold, I knew that Cliodna was not. I joined her on the sand, pulling my own cloak tight.
“What did she say?”
“This is my fault.”
“How can it be your fault? You didn’t kill them. If that fool of a woman insinuated that you – ”
“No, of course not. She only wanted my advice.”
“How could you possibly think this was your fault?” I grabbed her hand and was relieved when she squeezed my fingers.
“And how does Fiadh think you could help?” Cliodna released my fingers. I’d known her for twenty years and knew better than to give up. “Can you?”
“I suppose I can’t in the way she thinks.” I waited patiently for her to continue. “I remember the day that I came from the sea. My mother left me there to be safe, to survive. Perhaps my mother would rather I stayed safe, but the old ones are waking, and they’re hungry. I’m the only one that can make them go back to sleep. If I don’t, they’ll keep feeding, and if I do,” Cliodna trailed off without finishing her thought. “I’ve tried to believe it’s something else, but I’ve heard the call. It echoes on the wind and the waves hitting the cold stones.”
“ Who are the old ones?” I had more questions, but I had to start somewhere.
“They aren’t a who. The old ones are a what. They’ve existed since time began. The old ones take life, feeding on it.”
“What do you mean? The fishermen were whole.”
Cliodna gestured at her body. “This isn’t life. Life is what moves me and you, Etain. It moves the sea itself, but the movement isn’t life. When a child coughs, the cough is a symptom, not the cause. I’ve been hearing the call and ignored it, hoping I didn’t have to listen. The old ones want me, and only I can deliver the town from them.” My body went cold at her words.
“Then I’ll go with you.”
Cliodna shook her head, “No.”
“I won’t let you go alone.”
“They’ll devour your life, leaving nothing but water in your lungs.” Cliodna turned to me then, and there were tears in her eyes. “I don’t know what will happen, only what I’m supposed to do.”
I watched silently and gripped her fingers again. She didn’t let go this time, but I felt her slipping away all the same. “Wherever you go, so will I.”
“Where I’m going, you can’t follow.” We watched the waves quietly. Cliodna’s eyes shifted like she heard something I didn’t, and I knew she had.
It felt like something had pricked my chest, and I woke with a start. The fear rushed through my body in waves when I saw that the other side of our bed was empty, and I ran outside in time to see Cliodna walking into the tide.
I could tell she didn’t want me to follow, so I didn’t call for her. I don’t know what I thought I would do, but love is funny that way, and I was raised to believe impossible things.
Cliodna walked deliberately even as the cold waves crashed against her. As a swell covered her, I ran into the water. The first steps felt like pins piercing my skin, and the dive felt like submerging in ice.
Only faith carried me forward beneath the sea, unable to see even a hand in front of my face. What had been a pain in my heart was now a knife slicing through my gut. I couldn’t lose her and was afraid I already had when a slice of moonlight permeated the dark water. It was only a glimpse in the dark, but it was enough to dive down after her.
I hadn’t yet run out of air, but I might soon. Suddenly I realized that I was deep beneath the sea, trapped in an abyss of ice. I couldn’t feel my skin anymore, but I could feel my lungs, and they were on fire.
Diving forward, I thought of Cliodna. I opened my mouth and tried to call for her, although my voice was nothing but bubbles and silence. I was almost out of air, lost in the sea, and something else was in the ocean with me.
Opaque darkness swept past and then twisted around me. Everything inside of me seemed to squeeze and compact. Thoughts were dwindling to nothing but the memory of Cliodna talking about the old ones. Then there was only Cliodna.
Let it take you.
It was a whisper in my head, a thought that was mine and not mine, as they surrounded me, squeezing the remaining air from my lungs. That was all I knew as the cold and darkness devoured me.
Numbness washed over me or feeling washed out of me; I don’t know which. There was only darkness, nothing else. “Cliodna,” Her name left my mouth silently, a burst of my last breath.
Then there was a light, warmth, and a mouth breathing into mine. It filled me until I couldn’t have been warmer beside a Beltaine Fire.
Fingertips caressed my face, and when the lips departed, I saw a face bright with an inner glow before me – Cliodna. The peace only lasted a moment because the darkness was back, and it seemed angry.
It was different now, more solid, a lifeform beneath the sea. It stood out somehow, but I was unsure if it was pressing out or inward like a hole in the ocean. It pulled us toward it with a strong current, rolling around us.
I grabbed her hand, tugging her whole body against mine. That was when I realized I was breathing, and I held her even as that void sucked us both toward it. I kissed her like it was the last time before we were swallowed up by the old ones.
Deep within, I held her, and I heard them whispering. I listened to the old ones and knew we were still alive. Cliodna touched my face, and I heard her as though she had spoken.
It’s time. Let it take you.
Pins and needles formed across my entire body, and it felt like I was shattering. Eventually, I couldn’t tell who I was or who she was. We sparkled in the darkness like light on the water, a bit of ocean spray, sea glass when the sun hits it.
And I loved her more than I ever had as we ceased to be. In that instant, we became a part of the ocean itself, and the old ones were simply another part of us. They ate and ate, always hungry and never satiated, having forgotten that they were part of the sea, the earth, and the sky.
I was aware of my body, Cliodna, and them, but now there was much more. I remembered the love that permeated all the little places between us, like the mortar between stones.
We stretched out while connected with the old ones, and that remembering affected them too. They remembered holding Cliodna beneath blankets on cold nights. Staring silently and also speaking long into the night. They remembered scattering into ocean mist and ceasing to need. They settled into us, and I felt them fall asleep, the old beings of the deep.
Then I floated amid everything beautiful in the darkness of the deep. Cliodna rested there within me. I was a goddess and an old one hungry for life, and I was a human girl turning into the waves.
Then we were simply two women swept up with the tide, washed up from the sea. I smiled and squeezed her fingers, our bodies still entwined on the cold shoreline. The old voices whispered, and I silenced them with memories of their death.