"Gift of the Sea" © Copyright 1995 Bronwyn Calder
Provided here for personal reading. Anything else ask us:
"The Master Weaver" has 17 stories and 1 poem, most of them new. 3 stories have been published before.
"Gift of the Sea" has appeared in:
Bennett, W and Hudson, P. (eds). (1995) Rutherford's Dreams: A New Zealand Science Fiction Collection. New Zealand: IPL Books.
Gift of the Sea
The city spread below us like a grey-black fungus on the
beautiful rust yellow of the desert. It rose straight out of the sand - grey
buildings tall, crooked like teeth, with windows like rotted holes black in the
sun. The city crowded the shore of a flat oily green sea. It appeared to me as
if no light escaped it.
"I don't think we should go down there," I
Willa laughed. "You worry too much, monster."
She called me that when she was annoyed with me. "Stay here, then." And she
walked off, down, stumbling and tripping in the deep sand. I watched her angry
march, her head high, then I set off behind her, almost tumbling to her side. "I
knew you'd come," she said, grinning widely, crinkling up her wind-freedom
"I must protect you," I said.
She laughed, gently this time, and patted my
horn. "Dear Ran." She had forgiven me.
* * * * * *
The road man put the idea in her head. "You headin' for
the city?" he'd said, swinging the bar with which he was levering a boulder
aside. He made his living charging travellers a fee for clearing the road.
"Which city?" I asked. They were scattered
all about, dead places, full of rats, diseases and creatures that would knife
you for your coat. Well, Willa and I would knife you for your coat, but only if
one of us needed a new one.
"Down on the sea. They say there's a tribe
down there. All settled. I seen lots goin' that way."
"A tribe?" Willa said. She kept a low
profile around strangers. People were afraid of me and usually kept a
respectful distance. But there weren't a lot of women wandering the roads. It
paid to be inconspicuous.
"A tribe," he said. "Just the place for a
nice little girl like you."
That was when she began to think of it. A
tribe. Her own tribe were all dead. She remembered her mother, she told me,
mainly the bird and the wind that danced on her face - the bird in the corner
of her left eye crinkling up and nearly disappearing when she smiled, and the
wind, a streak on her right. Willa had the same tattoos.
"Why do we seek the city?" I asked one night
in the summer as we sat by our fire while the moon was high. I had heard many
bad reports of the place. That very day a way-man, bent almost double under his
load of fire wood, had told me the tribe in the city ate all those that came
Willa sat before the fire, gazing into it. She
poked at it with a bit of jolda stick. "I want ..." She wasn't looking at me.
"I need a tribe." I couldn't recall her expressing a desire before for
something that she couldn't just take.
"There are plenty of humans," I said.
"Vagrants, murderers, thieves. They'd cut
your throat for that." She snapped her fingers.
"So would we," I said.
"I want what the birds have," she said, as
the first bird of the morning gave a sharp cry.
"You want to fly?" I thought, for a moment,
that she was talking about the tattoos on her face.
"I want a nest. I want my own people."
I never told her how she hurt me. I did not
know, do not know, my own people. I don't think there are any others like me. She
was my people.
I'm not human. I don't know what it means to
be human. I don't know a lot of things that mattered to Willa but, whatever I
am (and no one, including me, really knows) I didn't see why Willa couldn't be
happy with me as she had been since I took her from the burning ruins of her
home when she was five years old.
We walked through the long summer, across
the desert of grey rock and yellow sand. It was not a lonely trek. We met many
way-men lugging their wares, some even selling water to travellers who
miscalculated the walk between water holes. The way-men had tales to tell of
cities and plagues and wars, and the state of the roads. Many had heard of the
city by the sea, but none had been there, or knew anyone who had. The city was
ruled by a queen with such a terrible face to look upon her was to drop down
When autumn came we met a way-man taking weapons
to the city by the sea. He told us he was going there and how he was to get
there and we camped together to discuss terms for a side arm for Willa whose
previous weapon had been lost in a card game with a pig man several months before.
"I can let you have top of the range in
return for her," the way-man said, rummaging through his pack and producing a
30 cm long automatic hand gun.
"What?" Willa leapt to her feet, hand to her
"I'll let your devilish mate have this weapon
if I can have you." And he reached out for her, drawing her to her feet, over
balancing her into his filthy arms before she had the blade from her belt. She
screamed and clawed at him and before he knew any more I howled and threw my
kick blade across the small distance between us. The blade flew true and struck
the way-man's head off.
Willa was furious, swearing and kicking the
body, taking the head by its hair and hurling it as far as she could into the
I sat and howled, angry and grieved and
fearful. When these fits came upon me only she could calm me, as she did then, kneeling
beside me, taking my face in her hands. "Ran, stop that old noise now." I could
smell the way-man's blood on her hands. "It's all OK now. And I got the side
arm. Isn't it beautiful?" She flashed the gold-grey metal at the moon and the
moon returned the gleam.
"I am afraid," I said.
"There's nothing to be afraid of."
I looked up at the moon. She gleamed back
the dull, evil beam of the side arm.
* * * * * *
Now it was accomplished.
We stood at the edge of the city where its
roads were broken and uneven and the buildings overshadowed us. In the shadows
it was cold. The hair on my back stood up. Willa did not seem afraid. She moved
forward, bent forward, as if excited. I pulled out my side arm and moved
"Drop your weapon!" The speaker, a woman,
stepped suddenly from a corroded opening in the building in front of us, her
red hair flaming in the sun. I dropped the side gun. The woman was tall - at
least two metres - and built as large as the road man we'd met. She had bright
red hair, but her face was hidden behind a white cloth mask and dark glasses. She
carried a cross bow.
"Drop your weapon." The woman was talking to
Willa now. It was too late to use her new gun. She took it from her belt and
gently laid it down.
"We offer you no harm," she said.
"That one is the Devil." Behind me another
voice. I turned quickly. A young man, a youth, stood in another decayed hole. He
stepped further into the light.
He wore Willa's wind-freedom tattoos.
The woman was walking around us now, bow
readied, and ten or twelve people had appeared, all armed, all watching us. "He
has only half the required horns. What are you, Devil?" she said, tipping her
veiled face at me.
There was a sudden yelping, a loud cracking
noise echoing among the decayed buildings, and a small black dog raced from the
gaping mouth where the woman had been concealed, leapt at Willa and tried to
tear out her throat. Willa twisted and raised her hand, fending it off. It sank
its teeth into the hand, and Willa screamed. I grabbed the dog and held it as
it continued snarling and yelping.
"Leave her alone!" the woman shouted at me. The
dog growled and slavered and I struggled to hold it.
"It bit me!" Willa screamed. She held out
her hand, showing the blood.
"She doesn't bite." The woman took the dog
from me. "She is a friendly animal." She set it on the ground and it made a
lunge for Willa again. This time Willa was ready for it and kicked it in the
ribs as it attacked. It yelped, but came again, so I scooped Willa up and put
her on my shoulders, carrying her as I had done when she was a small child. The
dog growled and barked. I bared my fangs at it and it backed a pace, snarling.
"She's just being friendly," the woman
persisted. She clapped her hands. "Tie her up," she said, and the young man
with the wind-freedom tattoos took the dog away.
I put Willa down.
"Who are you?" the woman said.
"Wanderers," Willa said.
"You may stay one night. Tomorrow you must
leave." She turned to me then. I couldn't see her eyes, but I knew she was
examining me from behind the dark glasses. "What is that?"
"My friend, Ran," Willa said.
"What sort of devil is it?"
"I do not know," I said. "But I have a
tongue that speaks."
"It may not come inside," the woman said.
Willa stepped close to me. "Did you see the
wind-freedom tattoos?" she whispered. Then she left me.
She followed the tribe into the gap-toothed
maze, leaving me alone in the road on the edge of the darkness of the city. I
howled then, alone as I was for the first time since I had rescued the infant
human from the ashes. Before that I had been alone a long time - I no longer
remembered the beginning. For all I knew I was the Devil. But I thought
not. The Devil could not die and, without Willa, I was going to die. I dragged
myself that day to the heavy sunless shore of the sea where the city shadowed
the water so nothing could be seen in its depths. It was the most water I'd
ever seen together at one time and I sat on its shore watching its lightless
surface, remembering the ease with which you could extinguish life by immersing
yourself in water until you could not breathe ...
The sun went down and it grew even darker,
and the moon came up, huge, round, white, glowing - she looked like the hilt of
the knife of the King of Rags we'd met a couple of years ago in the spine
forest. Mother of pearl, he called it, gift of the sea. I looked at the sea and
wondered if it would give me a prize, such a treasure, but it seemed it would
not, and the moon smiled upon me and I howled at her until, from somewhere
above in one of the rotted buildings, someone shouted: "Shut the Devil up!" and
a bolt from a crossbow thudded at my feet.
At dawn Willa came to me hand in hand with
her young tribesman. She left him in the shadow of the building and came to
where I still sat, still watching the sea and the rainbows of oil on its
surface. At this time of day there was sun on the water.
She came right to me and sat with me.
"Gloriana says you must go." Her hand had been bandaged.
"Has the dog gotten over its antipathy
"Finn kept her tied up. She doesn't like
me." The young tribesman seemed alerted by the use of his name, but he came no
closer. "They think you're the devil. I said you were just a friend. But they're
afraid of you. You have to go."
But I could not. I watched her return to the
young man, Finn, and take his hand again. I knew she would stay, so I would
stay - sitting here.
In the afternoon Willa brought me some food.
"Gloriana wants me to stay," she said. She handed me the meat.
"What is it?" I said, sniffing it carefully.
"It's alright, it's only rabbit buck!"
"I will stay," I said. "I'll stay right here
and watch over you."
"I don't want you to. Go away."
But I didn't.
I ate and rested and, as the next dawn broke,
I went into the foul water and swam out from the city's shadow to the sunlit
green velvet ripples. I did not do it to get clean; I enjoyed the freedom of my
limbs as I felt its oily fingers sliding over me. If I were truly human that
water would have killed me.
In the evening I hunted among the ruins by
the shore and knifed a couple of rats and roasted them on the beach. In ones
and twos members of Gloriana's tribe came to watch me eat, standing two or
three metres from my fire. I ate the rat in pieces off my kick blade, watching
the tribe all the time. They stared back at me blankly.
During the night most of the tribe
congregated by the sea. I sat up, afraid to sleep, as their hostility grew;
their blank stares changing to snarls as first one, then others muttered
"devil" and the muttering grew to a hum. Some took up a chant, although it died
away after only a few minutes. Then, sometime later, someone started it up
again. They shuffled closer to the fire, until I snarled, and they retreated a
few paces. Gloriana stood with them and, towards dawn, I saw Willa and Finn,
her tribesman, arms about each other, slip from the building and into the ring
That morning the sun pierced the heavy
yellow clouds and struck down on the tiny patch of rocky beach that had become
my world. Even the tips of the oil laden ripples began to sparkle. I took up my
Then the chanting started again. "The devil,
the devil, kill the devil." And a rock struck me in the middle of the back. I
howled and snarled at them. They retreated slightly but continued to hurl rocks
at me. One struck me on the head and I was dazed and sank to my knees, dimly
aware of blood sliding down my face.
"The devil cries, the devil cries," they
screeched, and I was aware I was whining and tried to stop but the pain ...
I heard Willa then, screaming "Ran! Ran! Stop
them!" I struggled to stand. Willa was upon Gloriana, trying to pull off her
mask and glasses, clawing at her eyes. The others stopped attacking me and
turned to aid their leader. Gloriana screamed and tried to shake Willa off her
back. Knives were drawn and Finn, Willa's tribesman, plunged his blade into
Willa's back. She screamed and held on with her dog bitten hand, the other trying
to gouge out Gloriana's eyes. Finn tore out his knife and Willa was bleeding.
"Let him go! Let him leave! He hasn't hurt
I stumbled up. "Willa," I said. "Willa ..."
I saw her eyes, her pain, her blood slowly leaving her.
Then the dog, freed somehow, darted from the
black gap-toothed maw, straight as the slash of a knife, and sprang, closing
its jaws on Willa's leg, dragging her. It was too much and my Willa, weak
already, lost her grip and fell to the rocky beach.
Gloriana, maskless, her broad shining face
flushed and grinning, seized Finn's spear and turned upon her foe, but the dog
was there already, tearing at my Willa's throat. I howled, sinking to my knees,
but Gloriana's tribe all had their attention elsewhere, watching the
destruction of their enemy.
I stumbled forward, took up my kick blade
from the edge of the fire, held it poised and threw it, my aim true as ever,
and the blade flashed once in the bright sun.
And then the dog yelped as if a sand crab
had bitten it. It yelped just once and dropped. Gloriana's tribe let out a moan
in one voice and crowded around it.
Willa now lay clear of them. I went to her.
She lay twisted and broken. I sat by her and howled - a useless instinct my
long dead and unknown mother left me.
"Ran?" Forced out between bloodied lips.
"Willa?" I bent close to her. Her eyes
opened, their lids fluttering like the black butterflies over the slag heaps of
the mining village where I had found her.
"Ran, forgive," she said.
"You killed her!" Gloriana screeched,
levelling a spear at me.
Willa's eyes stared up at me, but their light
had gone out. I snarled at Gloriana, baring my fangs and she backed away, and
her tribe backed. Bending, I listened, but Willa's heart was silent, her eyes
black dead pools. I howled and lifted her, carrying her, into the water. They
would not follow. The water was lethal to them. I pulled her into the water and
swam with her out from the shadows of the city, across the water to the
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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