The ocean is no place for a dryad.
A century has slipped away since the timber cutters hauled my home-tree down that damp, forest track. The tall shadows of my sisters – myrtle, wattle and sassafras – left far behind.
The blunt rattle of the shipyards, air saturated with tar. The carver worked, prying away the sapwood and the green, trying to break through to my almost-flesh figure below.
When I was bolted to the bow at last, the sails full and strung out over deep water, my heart fought back, resolutely pulling its way towards the earth. I’d soon found rocks, and the ship along with me.
I am dredged up, disgorged along with the stickleback and squid. Steaming timber gives way with a sharp crack, the scent of ozone and charred wood, like freshly turned pine, searing my lungs. I still fear the flicker of fire or a man with an axe.
I shift in my hollow and frown up at the towering men-shapes. Bolstered against each other, they press away from me, straining toward the edges of the deck. Though all eyes are locked on me, none step forward. Only their scarred fingertips move, throwing up ancient ward signs.
Puzzled, I inspect my own weak hands, stretch and flex cold fingers to study the lines on my palms. These men have nothing to fear. Encased for years in salt and sand, trapped under the ocean, I have become just a threadbare scrap of a thing.
When I was bolted to the bow at last, the sails full and strung out over deep water, my heart fought back, resolutely pulling its way towards the earth.
The deck lurches from one swell to the next and the familiar slap of water on the hull gives me the heaves. It brings back memories. Cutting high through the ocean. Imprisoned. A silent witness to an element I couldn’t bear.
Though back above the waves, I am still far from land. Sick with longing, I hear the sound of boots through the boards. Taking me by the elbow, the captain hoists me up and away from sight. Safe behind closed doors.
He is shaking but not with fear. Lifting my arm, circling, he inspects the structure of me, the texture of my hair, looks me over like something he thought lost long ago. I’ve grown so used to surrender, it’s not in my nature to fight. Not yet.
He carries me from the harbour like some shameful trophy. Clutching me close, sheltered, though his eyes skitter away from the ill fit of his neighbour’s judgement. We skirt our way up the hill, past rows of sandstone cottages hunkered beneath the black edge of the mountain, all of them angled down to watch the sea.
When he sets me down in the soil of his garden, it feels like home – until I catch sight of the woman glaring from the step.
I can still feel the imprint of his hands.
‘What’s this, then?’ She brushes soil from her hands as she tumbles potatoes into a basket.
Forgetting myself, I lean hungrily towards the smell of fresh earth, eager to put down roots again. It has been so long.
‘Crew are gone,’ he says.
‘What!’ She flushes red.
‘All of them. Packed up and gone.’
‘What happened this time?’
‘I didn’t do a damn thing!’
‘I’ll bet,’ she tuts. ‘And this one?’
I pull the greasy wool of his jumper tighter around me. The hem skims above my bony shanks and I crouch to keep it down. The other woman looks solid, a glint of quartz in her gaze. It isn’t to be so easy then.
‘Orphan of the ocean,’ he lies.
‘Another one? Can’t help yourself, can you?’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Ever think of throwing them back, idiot? They never last up here.’
He leans in, tightening a fingertip in her collar as he speaks.
‘Ocean’s more my mistress than you’ll ever be.’
‘You don’t say.’
She pushes him aside, and he scowls, full of impotent bluster.
‘Go on!’ she urges, ‘I’ll take care of your whelk. As always.’
Relenting, she steps forward to lay one brittle hand along his jaw, gives it a sharp tap.
‘Off you go. Sort out this thing with the men.’
Together, we watch him trudge down the hill, hounded and weary, as she measures the frail width of my wrist with thumb and finger. Shaking her head, the shadow of a smile slips across her face.
‘Never lasts. All flotsam and jetsam, you lot.’
The crew follow him, and his whiskey, back up the hill, and though they are all agreed to set out again at first light, they still watch me warily.
I hover in my borrowed slip, not feeling the cold air, skirting the barrel of fire, while they cluster around it in their coats. Rain glitters off the end of the roof. The smell of sizzling fat and charcoal catches in my hair and sticks tight, lingering after I fall into bed. Through the damp plaster wall, the ebb and flow of their gruff voices in the darkness builds its way to a heavy dread in my lungs. A reminder of the weight of all that salted water and the press of the ocean. Even firmly set down on dry land, I can’t shake the flashes of wild waves. I’d resolved to endure that liquid, saline space for an eternity. Now the dirt is all around me. A siren song in the night.
Green polyps sprout from the plaster beneath my outstretched fingertips and I brush them away, out of sight.
The garden is full of revival and, with him gone from the house, the tang of sea-spray is far away and down the hill. All I can smell now is healthy sap from the plum trees, the sun on damp chickweed, and rich, solid earth, heavy with sandstone. Something unfurls in my chest.
Dolly brushes a hand across my cheek.
‘There’s no need for that, love.’
Mystified to see tears painting her fingertips, I brush away my grief. Instead I grip her forearm, pulling her to me.
I’d resolved to endure that liquid, saline space for an eternity. Now the dirt is all around me. A siren song in the night.
‘What happens to the orphans?’
She stares at me a moment before loosening my grip on her arm.
‘Fade away with longing for the sea,’ she says. ‘You all do.’
‘I’m different.’ How could she not know? Am I so strange?
‘Hardly, love. Clear enough this place doesn’t agree with you – you’re sick already. You don’t eat. Don’t know what else to do for your kind.’
She’d not seen me at night shovelling dirt into my mouth, feeling it stick, cold and gritty in my throat, fed at last. The plum tree blossom had fallen in a great flood of surrender as I’d mined the earth for nutrients, clawing with long fingers among the roots, back in my original element.
‘I don’t belong out there,’ I try to warn her.
She looks me up and down, laughs coldly.
‘You’re no different, sweetheart. Hauled up from some ancient oyster bed like the rest, chipped loose from the shell and kept for pleasure.’
‘Like all the other oyster-girls.’
I’d expected her to notice long before now.
‘No,’ I insist, ‘wood.’
‘Ha! Wood?’ she jeers. ‘From all the trees way out there? You stink of the sea!’
‘I was part of a ship. A figurehead.’
‘You’re no different,’ she repeats.
Still, I can see the hook of fear in her. I knuckle my toes down into the dirt, see the clover and sedges uncoil new leaves. Show her my teeth.
‘Ask your husband. He knows better.’
‘You’re mistaken. My husband is a creature of simple habits. He likes to collect ocean trinkets. You fit the cloth, that’s all.’
Dolly places her palm on the naked plum tree and a handful of fresh buds begin to surface, popping free from the bark. A show of strength, but I can see how it pains her to do it. Leaning in, I sweep back her hair, a net of sweet peas seeding from my fingertips to weave across her scalp. A crown.
The sensation disturbs her. Clutching at her head, she rips at the vines.
‘We could be like sisters, you and I,’ I whisper, trying to mend what I have so easily broken.
Her head shakes, horror passing over her face.
‘You’re no kind of kin to me.’
My smile is bitter. But I nod. I can understand fear. Still, I reach out to her.
When her husband returns from the sea, Dolly is just another soft memory behind the dandelions and nettles. He seems happy enough to find me in her place. For a while.
The front steps are fast lost to chamomile and mint as I grow more comfortable, the garden giving over to wild seed. Soon enough, I see how his eyes begin to slide off mine. He doesn’t concern me. Summer stretches across autumn, the branches heavy with damsons and floral bonnets, and I revel in the hum of an ocean of bees; raising my seedlings to new heights.
‘We could be like sisters, you and I,’ I whisper, trying to mend what I have so easily broken.
Now, even when the boat makes shore, his shipmen stay away from the house, chained by their superstition, and it is a lonely walk up the hill for him. My captain’s forays out to sea, draw out more each time. In his absence, I let the limbs of the willow explore the house, bracing the walls and roof, sloughing off the fragile shell of plaster to break out in new buds. The old dishes crack in the sink, pushed aside by insistent runners searching for water, and the small windows are shuttered by wisteria.
I hear the yawn of the gate. Wallowing in warm soil under the broad leaves of the squash, I am full of sunlight, sluggish with it. I roll to my knees.
There is my captain and by his side another girl: grey eyes, silver hair, young flesh. I can smell the customary fear coiling off him as he clocks me and shelters her behind his back. I stifle a laugh. What does he think I might do?
She looks flaky and hollow, tender skin already burning in the dry heat of the sun; a real delicacy, that morsel. I smile indulgently at my captain. His eyes turn to the house, the rack and ruin of it, the thread-through of vines in the stonework, and I enjoy seeing his neck blush with rage.
Neither of them speaks. He urges her inside with a bridle twitch of her arm, and she turns to look back at me, gaze full of dying, as they disappear into the broken house. I stretch back out in the dirt, leaving him to reacquaint himself with the cottage and his newfound place in it.
He doesn’t sleep in the wide marriage bed anymore. The nest of bark and branches I have woven there doesn’t seem to suit. In any case, he has other duties now.
The sky is turning to night and the harbour gleams like dull metal under the town.
‘Does she have a name?’ I ask him, discarding the chaff as I sort a mess of seedpods.
Beyond us, out at the furthest point of the plot, the girl is straining against the sandstone of the wall, as if trying to reach the ocean far below or catch a breath of salty air.
I can’t go to her. I don’t want to. Though I feel for the poor whelk, lost in a landscape so unfamiliar. I remember that compressed sensation of longing, the beat of it in my wrists. Safe in my garden, I recall those long years at sea and the spiny, clicking, scaled expanse of the deep. How unsettling to be at home in such a place.
I remember that compressed sensation of longing, the beat of it in my wrists.
An older memory plucks sharply at my spine and I shiver. Beside me, my captain has picked up a whetstone, his eyes holding mine as he works the blade of the axe to a moonlight gleam.
Within a week, the oyster-girl’s supple skin has cracked, deep fissures opening across her face, as the life and liquor shrink out of her. The grey eyes have darkened to charcoal black. She’ll be gone in a bare few days, more fodder for my garden. Our captain doesn’t like to look at her now. It’s all too much and death is a level of intimacy he clearly doesn’t care to find.
I stay outside when I can. The smell is all through the house, like rotting kelp. He must be immune to the stench. Or used to it, I think, covering my mouth while I watch them sleep. In the dark room, the girl looks smaller, curling in on herself, away from his long reach, and though it burns my hands I sprinkle her with salt and snap a wet sheet across her dry flesh. She whimpers, shifting, nuzzling her cracked face closer to the dampness as our captain shivers in his dreams and tugs a blanket over his bear-like shoulders.
Next day at dawn, he’s run back to the sea, unable to face her inevitable end. The coward. Why not throw her back? Too ashamed? Instead, the young oyster-girl remains with me, landlocked within the house, too weak to make the harbour. She is only a kernel of what she’d once been. A barnacle. Doesn’t make a sound as I slather her in silt and slurry; just writhes slowly in the mess like a dying serpent. Later, when I drag her limp form to the wharf and roll it in with a hollow gulp, I’m not convinced I’ve done enough.
She simply vanishes from sight in the dark water. Not even a sign of her fractured corpse bobbing to the surface.
I sit and wait. Boats come and go, flooding men back onto land. Alighting, they move as a pack, avoiding me as they pass, cursing at my unexpected presence in their territory. No one lingers.
At pink dusk and to a chorus of begging gulls, she rises again. She looks for me with eyes that are leached of blackness, have returned to grey. She holds out her hand, an invitation, but I shake my head, trying to hide a shiver, and anchor myself with the closeness of stones and wood.
‘We could be like sisters,’ I try once more, my voice pitching.
She smiles, showing pearlescent teeth, and links her slick arm through mine. Silently, I tilt my head to her shoulder. I think she might pull me in, drag me under, but we simply rock back and forth at the borderland of the shore. I feel a pleasant tingle of salt on my forehead, hear a now familiar tidal rush beneath her skin.