They say that Sillith Wharsh is dead. The children who saw her that morning say that Sillith stepped out into the ocean after the night of the fires. They say she stood in the shallows, surrounded by a thick bed of seaweeds and lettuce on the surface of the water. They say the first leaf wrapped round her calf, and then one around her knee. They say that it went fast from there, a large clump gathering at her inner thigh, another at her waist like an ungainly green infant, and then slap after slap of brown straps, wet greens. Sillith, they say, stood staring down at herself, not struggling, not fighting or making a noise. The tiny silver fishes came, relentless, leaping up and taking her like that, wholly, with their shivery ranks. What they could not pull down in her, her head bowed but legs firm, her spine still and strong against them all, the ocean came and conquered in one final wave. It took Sillith. They say her hair rose over her like a shroud as she slid down the curve of the great green swell, hiding her face from those who witnessed. She was gone. Her body didn’t wash ashore in a day or so, like the countless other things caught and killed in that consuming pull. The ocean doesn’t always give the body back, they knew this, so only a few continued to talk and dream of her. Otherwise, she was forgotten for a while, folded into what was fast becoming the chaotic history of the island.
In the shallows, Sillith is surrounded by hundreds of tiny fish, nicking, twitching, darting. Every so often, they give her a soft nibble. She wills herself to kick, to scare them away, but she cannot. While her body slowly twists in the current, they brush into her with their fragile fins, their tails, their shimmering bellies. Occasionally, one of them tangles in her long hair, and it jerks violently to free itself. She is grateful for the vivid life in those frantic, yanking moments, and sorry when the little fish is gone, flicking away from her into the green and gold lit waters. She watches it go and it seems as if it is taking thought with it, as if language is passing from her.
In this moment, all that is actual breaks apart inside of her and begins to drift.
Sillith is face down, arms splayed, over a shallow and quiet shelf of sand. Beneath her, like a series of lights, a series of sparks, a school of fish flickers in the full sun, breaking light into their hundreds of backs, into their bright blue streaks, into their gills and fins and delicate, winglike tails. They flicker, strike the light out around them, draw it, release it. Sillith stares down at them, their light crackling inside her, deep within, to where the child forms; spine, eyes, fingers, toes. It is a child, after all.
This sudden knowing sends a shudder through her. It is her first motion in months. Then her muscles are still again, and her body bobs, turning gently.
Close to her face, a brown shape swims past. Sillith cannot turn herself to look. She waits, floating. There is the feeling of being watched, something Sillith has not felt in a long time. All the creatures she has passed previously were deeply busy with their own living.
This is watching. She can feel it. She is being watched. It stirs her. A feeling without loneliness enters her. When the current slowly turns her body, she sees them, three squid at the top of the water, in formation, watching her. They are all looking at her. It is clear. It is unmistakable. Gratitude churns deep in Sillith’s sleeping body. To be seen. To be seen! The current begins to shift her. She looks back, for as long as she can see them, until finally, they turn and swim away.
It is the coldest water, winter storms above and a cold that penetrates Sillith’s consciousness, even though she can’t feel it. Her clothes have rotted and torn away, she is aware of this, and she floats nude, traveling the currents, crossing shoals and currents that are never twice the same. But it is the cold, the cold is the final helling of her, she takes the small light of life, the life that is growing inside of her, and she takes her own heart and mind, and she travels inward. They burrow into her, into the smallest channels, passing through the most magnificent and horrible chambers, seeking darker, thinner cracks until they find the deepest place of self, and there they fold up together, small, and hide.
When the waters warm, Sillith is dragged into increasingly shallower tides, where she is jostled in waves, bubbles at her ears and eyes, the long kelp of her hair wrapping and unwrapping at her neck. The baby is the first to wake. It shifts inside of her. Sillith wakes, staring into sun green waters. Winter is over.
Sillith, facing up, watches the foam gather, bunch, disperse. In the twining lines of foam, she sees tree roots, clouds, veins, hair, vines, the long under-earth of the swamp. The sun strings the foam shadows on her face in thin dark lines. She remembers shade. Shady places.
Suddenly, a sound rises. A rhythmic series: clomp, swish, whoosh. Clomp, swish, whoosh. Then the sounds of water against a boat, the slurp and belch of water on a hull. Sillith, paralyzed, silent, still, wants to scream, swim, call out. But the sounds get closer, and the boat is above. She sees the hull, the oars. No human, no arm or flash of skin. The bulky shadow of it passes over her, embraces her with darkness and then leaves her exposed again, marked by the twining shadows of foam. She watches it go, watches the oar blade slice the water, the bubbles swirl, then gone. Sillith’s foot kicks, once.
Sillith is racked by random and various twitches and jerks, uncontrollable, thrilling and terrible signs that force her to understand that the child within her continues to grow. She understands she will have to birth it in the water, where it will be instantly lost to her in the tumbling sea. She thinks of a small white body spiraling away from her. She wills herself to land. She forces memory and thought, those half-forgotten currents, to land. What is land? Crickets, she remembers. Mud. Wings. Voices. Steam. Beetles, moss, fingertips, weeds.
Her father dead. His blood on the moss.
Inside her, the baby is still. As if they both are quieted by this. And then the baby shoves, hard, inside her. She tries to remember more: gulls, storms, branches, wind.
Sillith is in the dusk lull and spin of the water. The blue black shadows eat the last streaks of light. Her body, full pregnancy upon her, rolls heavily in the firm evening current. Nude and water thick, she is a great pale fish, heavy with her offspring.
A jellyfish brushes her arm, trailing threads of tentacle which lick Sillith’s soaked, swollen skin. She rolls, is almost righted. One arm pulls upward, her hair flows, the water churns, the blue black white light waters glimmer, and the second jelly floats in. This one tangles around her bloated left leg.
Sillith’s eyes, still open, do not blink or flinch. Another jellyfish, swirling in the same current, rides into her back, tentacles lazily curling around her shoulder. There are surprising bitter stingings. Another jellyfish, rising from below, tangles in the nest of her hair, swings into her chin and spreads itself. Pricking pain burns her neck. Another jelly bumps up the length of her shin, to her knee, to her thigh, and is trapped under her rounded belly, pulsing against her thighs. She is among them, deep in them, one of the current borne host. Sillith and the jellyfish float toward the surface. One brushes her breasts, wraps her ribs. She watches a big blossom of white light pulse before her face as the huge jelly bell slopes upward, its stingers slowly washing past her lips, into her mouth, touching her tongue. An undulating jolt begins within, her lips and teeth and muscle of tongue flicker and twitch, a flinching which spirals out and down and up and in, until Sillith’s body is awakened. She writhes, wild limbed loose, and suddenly feels herself sinking.
Flailing, snapping, twisting, pressing the jelly bodies away from her, she kicks, spread eagled and awkward, until her legs press together, and firm as a fin, she kicks again, shoving her huge body through water to shore. When she nears the surface, she strikes out a stiff arm, some wooden thing that does not belong. She plunges into air after it, gasping a terrible noise, as if air is not what she wants, as if none of this is what she wants, not what came before or is to come. She heaves her first breath as if it were fury and sorrow, she flails, sinks, kicks, knowing the way as she does, each current, each pull, each wave, she scrabble rides the ocean in, and then, hands in the sand, legs unable, she rolls, stands, falls and rolls, scrapes her belly, knees, hands. She pushes against the wet land, vomits water, gasps raw air, and staggers to her feet, small waves splashing her ankles.
Blinking, she moves herself into the air. She stumbles and rises again, flinging wet sand in high arcs. Her streaming, matted hair, knotted heavy in snarls of seaweed and shell, clings to her haunches. Her silvered black lips pull air, finger it roughly into her lungs, and she lurches, drags herself, now falling in the sand, now standing, straight to the cottage she knows waits for her in the swamp.
The cottage, when she sees it, has a light burning in the window.