EVERYONE LOVES the sea, but I love all her moods.
I love her when she lashes and screams as much as when she cups the shore tenderly. I never knew my mother; the sea took her place for me. One of my earliest memories is floating in a little coracle my father gave me for one of the highest tidal pools. He stood near and watched. The water dappled sunlight up at me, and when I put my hand down into the water, it felt warm to my touch, warm as the blood in my veins.
Papa says I have magic. In fact, everyone said I had magic. But somewhere, somehow, everyone was wrong. I’d gone to school with talent, and then it had disappeared.
It was the first day of summer vacation from magic college when I went back to my father’s house. But I was not on vacation. The college let me stay that long only out of kindness, to keep me from the humiliation of heading home early, and in the hopes I would find my magic again. When school resumed, I just wouldn’t return. Because I didn’t have magic, after all. Papa’s fees were wasted. All my studies were in vain. Everyone’s belief in me was wrong.
I shut the gate and walked up the path slowly to my father’s house. I knew he wouldn’t be inside. He’d be around the front, selling books to people who came to the beach to rest and recuperate. We live near a thriving resort area where wealthy people come and breathe the sea air, as well as near a little village with poor fisherfolk and people who earn their living from the hardscrabble soil.
I remember seeing women in their ethereal white dresses breeze into the shop, women with languid, pale faces seeking something light to read as they recuperated from some illness or other by the sea. My father, always the gentleman, made these women right at home. To this day he sells a lot of books to women.
That was how he met my mother. She came to the shop one day and bought a book. The next day she came back and bought the exact same book. And then again, the next day. He said that was when he knew; she might not love books, but she cared for him.
He still doesn’t speak of her, but I think of her as looking like those beautiful, pale women with their sickly faces. He has few pictures of her, and no one in the village talks of her. She drowned at sea, but lives on in my imagination, and sometimes in the harrowed, aching look around my father’s eyes.
I kicked the sand off my shoes and slipped in through the kitchen door. The screen banged, a familiar sound. I swallowed the lump in my throat, set the kettle on the stove, and started to make some tea. My father likes tea, and I haven’t yet grown up enough to really like the taste of coffee, though I try to pretend I have, everywhere but at home.
How will I ever tell him?
I watched the pot, waited for it to boil. Around me, I heard the sounds of village life and the sea. The sea called to me with her gentle waves, but I couldn’t go. If I went to the sea before I told my father, I was sure I’d break down. And then how would I be strong enough to tell him at all?
Sometimes I want to walk into the sea and keep going. That must sound like I want to die, but I don’t. I want to sink into my mother’s arms with a sigh and let her carry me home.
Home. This is home, isn’t it? This little village that was mostly fishing families and doubled in size every summer with vacationers. Not quite far enough down the coast for the big ships to leave from, nor a huge resort town, Collinsville was a great place to grow up. I’d missed it so much while stuck at the college, banging my head against the assignments I couldn’t do. But now I would give almost anything to be back there, anywhere but here to have to face my father’s disappointment.
I am not afraid of him. I have never feared my father a day in my life, the man who feeds strays and seagulls and gives books in secret to women in the village who can’t afford them, whose husbands would be angry if they wasted money on such luxury as stories. He’s a gentle man, almost too generous for his own good: he could barely afford to scrape together the fee for the first year of college.
I wished he hadn’t. I wished it was refundable. I could’ve been happy by his side selling books, I think. But now I would always be a failure, the boy who wasn’t good enough.
There were good jobs to be had for people properly trained and licensed to use magic. If one used magic without a license and ended up causing damage, they could face legal problems, even jail time (or worse). So it was a good idea to get training if one had enough magic to be worth the bother, and it was a good career option. There were always extra job choices for trained magicians—better options even if they chose regular-sounding jobs because of that extra skill.
The school I’d gone to was well respected but not cheap.
I rubbed my thumb between my eyebrows and sighed. When the kettle boiled, I poured two mugs of hot water over two teabags. The warm steam curled up to my nose, and I stared down into the darkening liquid. Then, leaving the tea to steep, I headed outdoors, kicking off my shoes.
My feet felt free for the first time in months, soaking in the feeling of the good, clean sandy earth between my toes and the long whip-thin, soft-looking sea grass. I wriggled my toes, digging them into the sand, and stretched my arms over my head.
Maybe he will be less sad if I cook him a good meal. I knew it was a foolish thought, but I grasped at the straw as if it were gold. Leaving my shoes propped beside the back steps, I headed down to the fishmonger’s.
The salt-smelling sea breeze ruffled my hair. The sea called to me. I ignored her, but it was still a comfort to hear her so close. I used to dream of the sea at college, restless, unhappy dreams that left me near tears when I awoke.
How could I have left it behind? And now, how could I be back? The sea sang a stronger tune in my blood lately, though, and at the sound of it so near, I couldn’t regret returning here so very much.
I walked lightly, barefoot, down to the fishmonger’s. It’s nestled along the dock, near the barrows selling potatoes, apples, and cabbages. I stopped along the way to buy a few of each, smiling at the sellers. They wouldn’t know I am here to stay, sent home in disgrace; they’d think I’m only here for the summer.
My arms were full of potatoes, cabbage, and apples as I moved on. I never know how well my father will do with keeping everything stocked. He loses himself in books, the kind of man who often forgets to eat or go to bed.
I had a little pocket money left and so planned to buy the biggest fish I could afford. My mouth watered at the smell of the place. Good fresh fish doesn’t smell fishy. It smells clean, and it makes me hungry. Sometimes, I sneak slivers of the raw flesh. It tastes delicious to me. I realized there was nothing I wanted more right now than a good chunk of fresh, raw fish.
I pushed open the door to the fishmonger’s, with its new sign: Springfield’s Fish. It was a fancy shop for our village, a permanent shop where men sold their fish and villagers as well as vacationers went to buy. I was suddenly so hungry I could hardly breathe. I’ll buy a big one and have a quick snack while preparing the meal.
“You filthy, disgusting boy!”
I jumped and my eyes twitched at the sound of a loud smack. A small grunt accompanied it, as though someone was unwilling to cry out but was hurt.
My gaze widened, and I clutched my produce close.
“And don’t you ever let me catch you eating it raw again!” The fury startled me. Surely there were more than myself and whoever was in trouble that nibbled at bits of raw fish? Why, I was sure some of the fishermen—
A boy about my age scurried from the backroom, one of his cheeks bright red. He kept his gaze down and moved fast, not quite running. A large man—Mr. Springfield?—followed, anger still on his face. Mr. Springfield—his father?—noticed me and moved toward the counter, wiping his hands. “Yes? Can I help you?” he asked.
We didn’t recognize one another. I wished Old Jan hadn’t sold the fishmonger’s to this horrible person.
“Um, yes, two of your largest, freshest fish, please.” I almost didn’t want to buy from him because he hit the boy. But the ships weren’t in at the moment, so I needed to buy from him or else do without. You can buy lovely fish if you wait till the men are docking, but I didn’t want to wait.
Springfield gestured irritably to his boy. Only two fingers, but the boy moved, jumping as though switched on the legs. He kept his gaze down and moved with quick, jerky movements. Even so, he couldn’t conceal his natural grace. He had sturdy limbs, and soft, curly hair sprang up from his head. I couldn’t help noticing the hair on his arms and legs. I had peach fuzz, but he had fur. It was beautiful on him. He had a heart-shaped face, a strong, round chest, and muscular, athletic limbs. But his face was a mask of caution and anxiety, and I couldn’t see his eyes because he didn’t look up at me.
And then he did, and I almost wished he hadn’t. Such misery and fear filled his gray eyes, some of the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen. I wanted to reach out to him, to grip his arm and hold on to him and tell him it would all be okay.
But I couldn’t, of course. And clearly, it wouldn’t.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to catch his eye, but he wouldn’t look at me. He accepted the coins I gave him carefully, shoved them in the till, and retreated quickly, keeping his gaze lowered.
They both retreated to the back room. I was afraid to hear the smack again, the man’s angry voice raised. Yet all I heard was silence. It hurt me inside nearly as much as the man’s anger.
I slowly turned and left the store with my fish. What else could I do?
I GUTTED and deboned the fish with the ease of long practice, pausing to slip slivers of the fresh flesh into my mouth. Even chewing the familiar, succulent food did little to ease my gloominess, though it eased my hunger a great deal.
I couldn’t understand these despairing feelings washing over me. All I could see was the boy’s frightened face, the way he held his shoulders tensed and hunched as though expecting to be hit at any moment. But he was strong and a hard worker—anyone could see that—and—and good. He was good. I couldn’t shake the conviction and didn’t try; that boy did not deserve to be hit. I wanted to go back there and give the man a piece of my mind.
I scowled at the fish, picked out a bone I’d missed, and began to cut the fish into pieces to fry. My father doesn’t like raw fish.
As I worked, something made me glance up. The slight sound of footsteps. I suppose if any thought had crossed my mind rationally, I’d have wondered if it could be Papa returning from the store. But my thoughts were all on the boy, and for that instant, I expected it to be no one but him.
And it was. My heart leaped at the sight of him, pounding with unexpected joy. I had wanted to see him, and now he was here.
He walked by the open door to the kitchen. His steps were quick, strong, and sure, the scowl on his face dark as rain clouds. He carried a package wrapped in paper.
“Wait!” I moved out through the doorway without even thinking, still holding the fish knife.
He flinched and took another quick step, then caught himself, stopped, and gaped at me.
“You,” he said. For the first time, I heard his voice. I liked it.
“Me,” I agreed. I lowered the knife, and we stood there and looked at each other. The wind made a gentle sound in the grass nearby. “I eat raw fish too,” I told him.
He blushed. Somehow I didn’t expect that. “I have to hurry. He’s expecting me back,” he said in a raw voice just above a croak. I hated how even the reminder of that man—his father?—could make him act so cowed.
“Wait,” I said, retreating to the kitchen. I hacked the end of the fish off, clean and fresh and deboned, and hurried back out to him, carrying it on the end of the knife. “Take this. I have extra.”
He stared at me—but his gaze couldn’t stay away from the fish for long. He reached out and snatched it with his quick, strong fingers and took fast, sharp bites, inhaling it with a savage hunger. I’d never seen anyone else eat raw fish this way.
I took a step closer to him tentatively while he was distracted. “Will you come and talk to me sometime? I’d like to get to know you.”
He swallowed, hard, and held his fingers up toward his mouth, then hesitated and lowered them, wiping them on the edge of his ragged brown-gray shirt. “Why?” He seemed painfully self-conscious. “You’re… you’re the wizard. I’m….” He shrugged, looking away.
“I’m not,” I told him. “I—I don’t have magic after all. Please don’t tell anyone. But it didn’t work out. I—I’d like to be friends. There aren’t many boys my age here. I’d like to get to know you.” I knew I couldn’t fit into words the connection I felt with him, even before we spoke a word to one another. It might have been because we both liked raw fish. But it felt like more.
“I’d like that too.” His gray eyes sought mine, questioning. Then he dropped his gaze again. “I’ll see if I can sneak away.” He began to move down the path again. I saw for the first time his feet were bare: strong, slightly hairy feet, brown with the sun.
I started after him, as if pulled by a rope connecting us. “Anytime. I mean it. Anytime. I don’t have any schedule I must keep. Come. Just… come.” Then I shut up.
He nodded and moved away, swift on his bare feet. I watched him go. It hurt inside with a sharp ache, a deep pang. It was the oddest thing.