by Caroline Kelley
Lakeville South High School
The Mystery of the Sea
One sign precedes the ship’s entrance into the harbor of the seaside city. It raises a curiosity that fastens itself to the faces of wide-eyed town residents and tumbles through the local gossip like a fisherman’s skiff caught between mountainous waves. It is a length of navy satin that appears without warning at the peak of each flagstaff within the city’s borders and bears the image of two golden sea dragons, entwined with one another, wreathed in a halo of flowers. The dragons breathe fire that moves, writhing within the confines of its fabric, and the flowers seem to bloom outwardly from the satin. These flags mark the city in the way a predator marks its prey for one rotation of the sun before the ship settles into the harbor.
Then, the ship has arrived, and it fills the harbor as much as it does the local gossip. Passersby marvel over the size of the ship, the shroud of fog that follows it, and the simple fact that no one has seen it sail in. The sailors that dock the ship walk about with bleary eyes and half-formed thoughts, yet their hands remain steady as they keep stubbornly at their work. The town eccentrics will later blame this on the agendas of otherworldly beings, and the others will dismiss it as mere conspiracy. They will not admit the way this idea resonates in their very bones, so they will distract themselves with the ship’s other mysteries.
One such peculiarity is that the ship is governed by two rules. The first proclaims that the ship will occupy the harbor for all of one day, and the second dictates that all guests who board the ship on this day must disembark by daybreak of the next. Knowledge of these rules sweeps across the city, although it has not been posted in the newspaper or announced by any authority. It is as if the notion has been tucked into the head of each town resident, nestling so neatly between all their other thoughts that they can hardly recall a time in which they did not know these rules.
There is a girl who is more enamored with this ship than anyone, for there is a pull on her heart that tugs her toward the ship. She is the first to exchange her coins for a ticket; the usual ringing of metal at her waist replaced by paper satisfaction gripped between her fingers. This girl has not known much wealth in her 17 years (it takes a week’s worth of pay to purchase her ticket), but riches have never filled her dreams anyway. Rather, she carries with her a terrible longing to tour the world. She wants to savor the bold flavors of foreign cuisine and memorize the delicate lilt of foreign tongues; she wants to feel the fall of snowflakes on her tongue and the rush of rivers on her hands. She tires of watching the same sunset on the same horizon every night. The townspeople have always thought her wayward for this yearning, but they are at peace with their mundane port city in a way that she can never be.
The girl races up the gangway of the ship, her freckled face bright with excitement and curls bouncing about her in a halo that is the color of strawberries under the sunlight. Aboard the ship, she is met with a lively scene—men swallowing entire swords, contortionists twisting their bodies into odd shapes, trapeze artists swinging about like monkeys, and dancers moving with ethereal grace. They are incredible performers with smiles that do not seem to wear out. Everyone is clothed in bright swaths of silk and tulle; the girl imagines that from above, they are comparable to a field of blooming wildflowers.
More patrons spill onto the ship’s deck, pointing wildly at the acts while awed remarks and disbelieving laughter bubble upon their lips. Soon, a crowd has gathered, and everyone revels in an innocent sort of amazement that brings youth to even the oldest among the townspeople.
Just when the girl begins to feel as though she is outside herself, someone taps her shoulder, effectively shoving her back into the realm of reality. Yet, the touch itself is soft—lighter than a breath and fleeting like the whims of a child. The girl turns around with her head pitched to the side with inquiry but her eyes still alight with wonderment. A woman with a shock of inky black hair has approached her. She wears a cocked hat that is the color of soot and signifies her rank as captain of the ship. Her eyes seem to contain galaxies, but the stars in them have long since burned out. She is the only one aboard the ship to don a plain outfit that does not catch in the light or sound little bells with her every move.
“What do you think?” When the woman speaks, her voice comes out rough at the edges, though it also betrays her easy confidence.
“It’s everything I never knew I wanted.” The words tumble from the girl, and her mouth hangs slightly open as though she is surprised by her own response.
“It is, indeed,” the woman says with an odd smirk playing about her lips. “What is your name?”
“Anastasia, I can tell our festivities exhilarate you. Would you like to join me for lunch?” The woman leans in, her lips hovering at the shell of the girl’s ear, and for a moment that is brief and infinite all at once, Anastasia swears that the very air around them crackled with a strange sort of electricity.
She merely nods her answer.
The two eat a hearty meal in the captain’s candlelit quarters. The woman reveals her name to be Narissa. Anastasia confesses the commonness of the seaside city where she has lived all her life. They talk openly about their pasts and their dreams and the small details about themselves that no one else bothers to question. Narissa has seen every continent. Anastasia has dared step foot outside her city only once and immediately turned back to run home. Narissa longs for wealth to rival a king. Anastasia envies the pirates whose closest thing to a home is the northernmost star that settles in the same nest of constellations every night to usher them toward their next adventure. Narissa’s hands are flecked with scars, and her neck bears an ugly slash that spoils the end of whatever story it begs to have told. Anastasia’s skin is smooth and unremarkable except for a diamond-shaped birthmark at the base of her thumb. As captain and patron of the ship, they politely laugh between bites and toast to each other, but when their plates are empty, they sound like old friends.
After they exchange a volley of remarks on the prospect of their stomachs bursting if they managed another bite, Narissa leads Anastasia back to the deck of the ship. The latter pauses as a crisp wind caresses her bare cheek, but it is not the nip of the air that has confusion nestling into her otherwise pleasant expression. A velvety night has swept over the sky like the close of a curtain prematurely commencing an intermission.
“Is something the matter?” Narissa poses this question almost too readily, and her voice almost seems to have left a bit of its sincerity with the scraps of their meal. Even the shadow that falls across the bridge of her nose seems sharp and jagged.
“It’s only that I thought we were sharing a quick lunch together, and now it seems that we have spent the entire day hidden in your cabin,” Anastasia worries her lip, speaking of the daylight as one would of money that has been lost to a poor gamble, “and I am to get off the ship by dawn.”
“Do not fret my dear. For as short as the day has seemed, the night will feel long,” Narissa drags her forefinger and thumb along her jawline (as though to make it obvious she is considering something) and adds, “if you are still concerned, perhaps an arrangement can be made for an extended stay.”
The worry that has had Anastasia’s brow furrowed dissolves enough for her to notice that though she has not felt the ship depart the harbor, she can no longer spot the gleaming lights that furnish the streets of the seaside city every night. She cannot even see the quiet lapping of waves unto each other in the thick night. It seems as though the entire ship is suspended in a place of nothingness. The vague confusion that plagues nearby patrons indicates that they have noticed it too.
Anastasia wonders if it is not an accident that, in the same instant that the patrons realize the utter strangeness of the ship, fireworks are lit and steal everyone’s attention like an experienced pickpocket. Fireworks are not uncommon in Anastasia’s city, but they are never as vivid or vibrant as these. The patrons all have their faces lifted toward the sky, consumed by the display and distracted from whatever had previously muddled their thoughts. All they register is the fireworks glittering like jewels against the backdrop of the night sky; they may stand like this for hours and not know of it. The experience is much akin to peering through a kaleidoscope.
It is long before Anastasia returns to her senses and grasps that Narissa has abandoned her company. Soon enough, the woman reappears with a cup of milky-white liquid — a rare delicacy, she explains, from the last port she visited. She holds the cup out in silent offer, and, entranced, Anastasia does not hesitate to sip from the drink. Her lips are barely wet with it before she registers the bitter taste as poison, though it is not in time to keep her from swallowing. Immediately, she is coughing and sputtering, and her stomach is thrown to nausea. Black holes, like patches ripped from that mysterious night sky, spot her vision. She is not sure her legs can hold her weight, for they are now tingling like static. Within moments they are numb, and she is crumpled on the ground. The last thing she can recall is the way the floor smells of sea salt and sandalwood.
Anastasia wakes to a large tank of water set before her and the sense that something is wrong. She quickly discerns, with no small amount of horror, that her legs have been replaced by a tail, its scales clawing up her torso. She is soon told that the tank is hers to perform in for the ship’s patrons, and she learns that the ship’s crew is a haphazard collection of kidnapped port city residents who had been as eager to see the ship as she was. Like them, Anastasia learns to perform with a smile that could pass for happiness, and she can still be seen with her distinctive strawberry curls, though they are duller now. Her freckles are faded, and her skin has sunken in.
She understands now why sirens are so bitter and find solace in calling ships to their sinking.
Caroline Kelley is a junior at Lakeville South High School in Lakeville, Minnesota. At her school, she is involved in the National Honor Society, robotics, marching band, Student Council, Junior Class Officers, and various other activities. Her passions include reading and writing, especially fiction.