The Fisherman Knows the Sea
By E. M. Sole
Jorge went out the night after Temmery didn’t return from fishing and stared at a dark grey sea lit by moonlight coming through a break in the clouds.
They had been fishing, racing the strange storms that had begun several months before and chased the fish the village depended on away. Jorge watched his friend’s boat until the rain started beating down and he’d been forced to hurry to shore.
Temmery never came back.
They knew the danger of going out and also the danger of not. With barely enough food reserves to keep the village a month, hunger would be visiting soon and with hunger would be suffering and eventually death.
As Jorge watched, a glow appeared in the depths of the sea, as if all the stars hiding behind the clouds in the sky had taken to swimming. The glow brightened as it came closer to shore, and started breaking into distinct patches of light surrounded by dark water. The sea around the patches of light boiled and rose into pillars of glowing water still moving toward Jorge where he stood shaking with fear.
As they came closer the pillars resolved into the shapes of men. Rank after rank, fifty or more, came up onto the shore standing on the rocky beach. All faces turned to stare unblinking at Jorge. He’d never seen their like, tall and thin, all glowing with the same pale yellow light. A soft sound like a sea birds distant call and the lines parted letting through a glowing figure smaller than the others. This one a woman, her long unbound yellow hair reaching to her ankles drifted slightly in the wind. A long dress clung wetly to her thin body. Her face was expressionless and beautiful in the way that the rugged cliffs beaten by centuries of waves are beautiful in their eternal strength. On her head rested a crown, the only thing in the group not having the same yellow glow. The stones in a downward pointing crescent glowed pure white, like pieces of the moon stolen away.
She nodded toward Jorge. He nodded back, unsure if it was the right thing to do but without another option except standing mute and motionless.
Behind the woman, was a familiar face, glowing fainter than the others and harder to see. Temmery in his simple fisherman’s clothes torn, his face marked by a large purple bruise extending from jaw to temple, a sad empty stare in his eyes.
“Are you the one bringing the storms on us?” Jorge asked.
The woman took the last step to bring her near enough to reach out and take Jorge’s hand in hers. Her skin was cold, but not unpleasantly so, and smooth as beach stones worn by the sea. She shook her head. “Your kind have brought the wrath of the storms on yourselves, and many others suffer with you.” Her voice was high-pitched, like a whistling wind playing with the branches of a tree.
The woman lifted her other hand, palm raised to the sky, and the sea behind her raised up in response, water piling on water into a dome the size of a hill. Jorge backed away, pulling his hand from hers.
She narrowed her eyes. “Fisherman, you fear the sea that provides for you?”
“This is not my sea,” Jorge answered.
“It is not your sea. It never was your sea, vain child. The sea is its own master and master of all who dare to be a part of its world.” She closed her fist and the dome of water collapsed rushing down engulfing the soldiers and Temmery, washing them away as it flowed out to the sea, leaving only the woman.
“Do you know how to I stop the storms before we starve?” Jorge asked,
“Have you lost all memory of the way things were? Have you forgotten the past you came from? If so, search your dreams and fears to find what you seek, whether you act on what you find or not, that is up to you.” The woman melted into the water and faded into a formless glow just under the surface.
“What happened to you, Temmery?” he whispered. Only the wind heard, and it did not answer him.
Jorge walked slowly back to the village, his heart heavy with fear for Temmery. Death always followed a fisherman at sea, but to be a ghost, if that was what Temmery was, that was the stuff of nightmares.
When he returned to his house nestled between the cliff and an ancient tree, he woke his mother’s mother and asked her to tell him about the past.
She stared at him groggily and asked, “What path?” her hearing as blurry from sleep as her eyes.
“The distant past, where did we come from? What was the world like then?”
“Why do you ask such a thing?” she said and leaned back into her thick sawdust pillow.
“I want to find the reason for the storms.”
“There is a story from the distant past about a raging monster the size of the sky, its eyes glowing red, its voice like thunder coming in from the sea.”
“The Hunbard, that’s what you are talking about?” Jorge asked. She nodded. “A story to frighten children.” Jorge tried to laugh at the old woman’s foolishness but he couldn’t, old memories of a child’s dreams brought on by stories and a raging gale kept him quiet. The clouds in his dream had eyes of red, long claws roiled the waves and tore at the sand of the beach. The claws caught him as he tried to run away and pulled him into the boiling water. He remembered waking screaming as the shore disappeared behind mountains of water coming down on his head.
“I don’t remember, Mother. In the stories, how did they stop the storms?”
She laughed. “You were always too busy to listen to stories. The hero went out, fought the Hunbard; and when he lost, he challenged the Hunbard to a game of dice. When the Hunbard lost the game, the hero chained him to the giant’s teeth, and that’s where it is to this day.”
“But it isn’t,” Jorge sighed. “We fish the giant’s teeth now, and there isn’t any sky-sized monster there anymore, if there ever was.”
“Never used to fish there.” The old woman mumbled. “Bad luck to disturb the Hunbard’s sleep, bad luck to keep an old woman awake, too.” She started snoring. Jorge kissed her wrinkled forehead and went out the door. He sat, leaning against the side of his house and watched the clouds drifting overhead, the scent of the wind promising a storm in the morning.
“Where do I find a hero willing to fight a sky-sized monster?” Jorge asked. The wind did not answer, but a voice in the wind did.
“Usually, one does not seek a hero. In the old tales, one becomes a hero.” The voice danced with humor. Standing to Jorge’s right was a stranger with a large bag thrown over his shoulder. His ragged clothes were different from the people of the fishing village, or the peddlers and entertainers who occasionally passed through, wore. “Well, hero to be, do you know where a traveler can sleep, a traveler without any excess coins to be rid of?”
“You can sleep in the boat shed.” Jorge pointed at it enclosed on three sides with the boat filling most of it. “It’s out of the wind, smells of fish.”
The man shook his head making his too long hair fly wildly. “Not the smell of fish. I should die of hunger. I haven’t eaten in so long.” He grimaced, clutching his stomach.
Jorge frowned. “I can’t give you a meal, there’s little enough for us, with those storms keeping the boats in.”
“I had heard that this land was prosperous. That’s why I’m here, to learn to be a fisherman and get rich.” There was a look of anticipation in the man’s eyes.
Jorge laughed bitterly. “You’re too late. We can’t take the boats out in the storms, and when it’s calm the fish are gone anyway.”
“I see. Is that why you were pining for a hero?”
“Aye. Perhaps that’s a job for you?”
The man laughed loud enough that Jorge was worried that he’d wake the old woman inside. “No, dear man, I was born a coward, and learned to be one, too.”
“Then you aren’t suited to be a fisherman, either. The sea is a dangerous place even in the best of times.”
“It’s well I learned that now, instead of when I was trying to learn to walk on water.” The man laughed again, this time quieter and thoughtful. “Well, I need money and you need a hero, but you haven’t anything to spare and I’m a coward. What are we to do?”
“Sit and watch the storm come in,” Jorge answered. “There isn’t much else to do right now.” So the man sat down by Jorge and they watched the clouds roll overhead.
After a while, the man took a pair of dice from his pocket and rolled them in his hand a few times, clicking them quietly. Then he said, “A game? If I win, you give me a meal. If you win, I’ll be your hero. Oh, and I get a meal. I can’t be expected to be heroic on an empty stomach, can I?” He held out the yellowed bone dice in a palm.
Jorge glanced at the dice. “I don’t gamble. You won’t find many in the village who will. Fishermen do enough gambling taking their boats out, dealing with a fickle sea, changing weather and an uncertain catch. We don’t need any more uncertainty in our lives.”
“You gamble to live. I gamble to live. Come on, one game. You just might get your hero.”
“And I just might give you a meal and have you disappear into the night.”
The man laughed pleasantly. “This heroing does it involve going to sea?”
Jorge stared at the greyness. “Yes, it does.”
“Then, a deal, if you win give me the meal on the boat. I can eat while you’re taking me to wherever you need your hero to be.”
The man threw the dice, and Jorge did. “Ha!” the man yelled, “you won! It seems I’ll have to learn to be a hero. I haven’t told you my name. It’s Markin, so you can tell the minstrels when they write heart-breaking songs praising my sacrifice and courage and make the young ladies swoon.”
Jorge stood brushing sand from his trousers. “I’ll get your meal. Water and dried fish and some bread. That’s all you’ll get. That’s all there is. We leave right away. The tide is right and there should be time before the storm hits to get there and back.”
The man frowned his lower lip sticking out like a petulant child. “Right now? That’s not much time to learn to be brave.”
“You’ll have the boat ride, long enough to search your soul for a trace of courage.” Jorge said as he went in the house. “Mother?”
The old woman opened a cloudy eye. “Again you wake an old woman?”
“I’ll be gone for a while, out to sea. I wanted to tell you in case I don’t come home.”
The old woman sat up, blanket falling aside uncovering a thin frail hand. “Why would you do that?”
“I want to know the truth of the Hunbard. Don’t worry I won’t be alone. I’ll have a fool by my side. They say providence protects fools and madmen, and I think he might be both.”
The old woman took his hand in hers; he put his other hand on top a moment, and then pulled away, leaving the little house without looking back.
The man, Markin, was still there, grimacing uncertainly at the heavy cloud filled sky. “You’re sure the storm will wait for us?”
Jorge shook his head. Markin sighed and followed him to the shore. Jorge threw a sack with hard bread, dried fish and a canteen of fresh water into his boat and with Markin’s help pushed it down into the waves. Once the triangular sail was hoisted and the boat was bucking in the churning water, Markin asked where they were going. Jorge pointed out the giant’s teeth faint pillars of dark against the horizon.
“That doesn’t look far.” Markin grinned. It faded quickly when a wave hit the boat rocking it violently sideways.
“Farther than it looks. Distances are deceiving at sea.”
“Are they?” Markin didn’t touch the fish or the bread, instead, he clung to the boat, grasping the sides tightly and giving an occasional groan as waves tossed the boat up and dropped it deep into the water. The giant’s teeth, tall odd shaped pillars of rock sticking high above the sea, came in and out of sight with the waves.
When the teeth loomed high above them, Jorge pulled hard on the rudder to keep the boat from being dashed on the rocks, and Markin asked in a weak voice, “What do we do now that we’re here?”
Once the boat ground its way onto the bank of sand that formed a gum to the teeth, he replied, “Now, Hero, you look for a monster.”
“Monster? I think we’ve just been through a monster’s belly.” Markin got out of the boat and scrambled as far from the turbulent waters as he could get clinging to the rough stone of one of the teeth. Jorge followed tying the boat’s rope firmly on a smaller rock. “What am I looking for? Not being well versed in monsters of the sea, I don’t want to overlook it.”
Jorge closed his eyes and pictured the image from a child’s dream. “You’ll know it. It’s as big as the sky and has glowing red eyes and roars like thunder.”
Markin stared at him like he was a crazy man. “I think I’ll go back to being a coward. You can keep your meal, and I’ll keep my life, thank you.”
“Too late, you’re here and I’m not leaving till I find out whether there’s a monster causing these storms or not. Unless you plan on taking the boat by yourself.”
Markin groaned and cowered by his pillar of rock. “I’ll stay here and watch your back. You be the hero, fisherman.”
Jorge turned around searching the teeth’s tall spikes and their ever changing bar of sand and gravel. There was nowhere to hide a monster as big as a sky.
Markin seemed to hear his thoughts. “Perhaps it’s like that fish I saw once, puffer fish I think it was called. It blew itself up big when it wanted to and shrank down skinny when it wanted.”
Jorge glared at him offended by the craziness and logic of the idea. Then he carefully walked around the rocks. Several caves were cut into them, like giant cavities in the teeth, and were just the thing to make a giant have a foul temper and want to brew up storms. Jorge shivered. He kept walking until he found the cave he remembered to be the largest and waded inside, holding onto the rough stone wall and banging his head on the uneven ceiling.
Three steps in, he tripped, falling to his knees. his hands reached out to catch a handhold, and instead touched a heavy metal bar. Jorge ran his hands along it. It was curved on each side and his hands hit another bar coming up at right angles, links of a great chain, the metal three inches across, the links almost as long as his forearm. Just what would be needed to hold a giant monster in place. He backed out, nearly falling into the crashing waves and returned to where Markin still sat grasping the rock.
Markin looked up with a pale face. “Ready to leave?”
Jorge nodded wordlessly. He waited for Markin to crawl into the boat, then he untied the rope and crawled into it himself. Markin whispered, “Glowing red eyes you said?” Jorge too busy fighting the waves to answer. “And big, very big, right?” Jorge turned to snap at him, but the words, only half formed and fragile, were whipped from his head by what Markin was staring at.
Hanging down from the clouds, and seemingly made of them, was a snake-like head as big as an island, with two glowing red disks for eyes, each one bigger than the boat they were in. The head sank down coming closer to the boat. Quickly, Jorge pushed the rudder hard trying to turn the boats prow away, knowing even with all things working for him the boat couldn’t outrun the monster that was looming over them. The body separating from the clouds was so long it disappeared into the distance.
“Any chance that’s a strange natural phenomenon that I just have never seen before . . . being a land person?” Markin choked the words out.
“Not that I’ve ever seen.” Jorge’s arms ached as the rudder beat against them, fighting like a wild animal to be free of his grasp. He watched in horror as Markin stood up in the bucking boat, his hand held up toward the Hunbard.
“Do you like to gamble?” He asked with a toothy smile.
The Hunbard’s eyes flared brighter, its mouth gaped open, and it roared. The wind of its breath caused the sea to dip and bulge. The boat surged out of control, spinning first one way, then the other.
Markin was knocked backward by the boat’s movement. Jorge grabbed for him, pulling him back from the boat’s edge. “I guess not,” he said as he caught the seat and held on shaking. “I dropped the dice into the water anyway.”
The Hunbard pulled back, and then shot forward like a snake, snapping at the boat. Jorge tensed as the mouth closed over them but it was made of nothing but cloud. They passed through the face as a wave pushed the boat away from it and toward the giant’s teeth. The Hunbard pulled back for another attack. This time the Hunbard’s teeth caught the mast as the boat was whipped by the water. They were solid and strong enough to shatter the wood when they closed on it. Markin, who was close enough to those very solid teeth to get sprayed by splintered wood as the mast and sail were ripped away, groaned and whispered a prayer to an ancient god of gamblers.
“We don’t need luck right now,” Jorge said quietly. “We need to know what to do. In the story, the hero won a game of dice.”
Markin looked sadly over the edge of the boat. “Lost them. Don’t think it’s in the mood anyway. Anything else the stories say?”
Jorge fought to remember what the woman from the sea said. She told him to look into his fears and dreams for the answer, but right now his fear’s main influence was to turn his insides to water and his mind to mud, and here alone on the sea with a stranger, a monster, and the giant’s teeth, his dreams of childhood safe in his bed seemed very remote.
“I would suggest you think a little faster, fisherman,” Markin said, the terror in his voice freezing the water of Jorge’s fear. The Hunbard had made a great circle above them and was now heading back downward very fast, mouth gapping wide, showing long white spikes of teeth three layers deep like a shark’s.
Jorge looked up at the Hubbard watching them with narrowed eyes. “I think I might be daft for this, but try talking to it.”
“Talk.” Markin stared at him like he was crazy. Then he shrugged and turned around to face the Hunbard with a shy smile. “Hello, are you the monster?”
The Hunbard’s mouth gaped open again. Jorge braced himself for another attack, but instead, it roared with a sea shaking laugh. The two men braced against the force of the monster created wind.
When it was over Jorge asked, “Are you causing the storms?”
The monster stopped laughing. It stared at them quietly a moment, and then said in a voice that sounded like the roar of distant thunder, “You seek to chain me again? I will not be bound, not again. A fisherman’s net snagged the chain imprisoning me in that cave and pulled it free. In accordance with the agreement I made, that I would be bound until freed by a man’s hand, I am free and I will not be bound again.” The Hunbard coiled around, its red eyes dimmed into the color of blood and it disappeared upward into the clouds. A wave caught the boat pushing it suddenly once again toward the giant’s teeth.
As Jorge caught the rudder to turn the boat back into open water, a wave came up unlike any Jorge had ever seen. Its crest was broken into long fingers, like a hand rising from the surface of the water closing on the little boat and the two men trapped in it. The wave came crashing down and Jorge was dragged into the churning water. He felt a pressure close around his chest. Believing it to be a sea snake, he thrashed against it, trying to get free.
Then his head broke through the surface and Markin yelled in his ear, “I’d think you wanted to drown fisherman, the way you fought me.”
Jorge gulped the damp air, fighting to keep his head above the water.
The giant’s teeth loomed overhead. Jorge tried to swim toward them, but it was the sea itself that threw him, and shortly later Markin, up on the sand bar. They scrambled up as high from the water as they could get and clung to the rocks.
“If we survive the storm someone will come out and rescue us, right?” Markin yelled in his ear.
Jorge shook his head. “Unlikely anyone will look for us, not after a storm this bad. Temmery and I were the only ones to fish this area. The others were too afraid of the giant’s teeth’s reputation.”
Markin’s forehead wrinkled. “We can swim back to shore then?”
“Perhaps, it’s a long way, but we might make it if the sea is calm,” Jorge yelled back as a wave crashed on the rocks, drenching them with spray.
Jorge thought he saw a glow lighting a patch of the sea. Another wave passed and Jorge stared hard searching for the glow. It was there, brighter and closer. Another wave and the woman, glowing faintly the color of the light of the full moon, stood before them, half submerged in the foaming sea. Her soldiers rose one by one behind her, and behind them stood Temmery.
“Please,” Jorge said. His voice was loud even over the sound of the wind. “How do I fight the Hunbard? How do I calm the sea?”
The woman smiled. “Choose, fisherman, save yourself or save your village. You cannot do both.”
“If it’s alright with you, Madam, I’ll save myself.” Markin said.
Jorge turned furious. Then felt foolish for expecting loyalty from a stranger. “I choose the village. I will do whatever necessary to protect it.”
The woman’s eyes glittered. “Even when you have someone waiting for you, who needs you to return?”
The image of his mother’s mother filled Jorge’s mind, her slight body shivering in the chill damp wind as she walked the beach looking for clams. Jorge closed his eyes and prayed for guidance. No one answered his prayers except the howling wind.
“No one will help you, fisherman. You are alone in this, as in all true things,” the woman said.
“I choose the village, that is what my mother’s mother would want,” Jorge said, his heart heavy with pain at the thought of her left all alone. “If you get back alive, Stranger,” he said to Markin, “watch over my mother’s mother for me – to atone for your betrayal.”
Markin grimaced, and then nodded with reluctance.
“So be it.” The woman raised her hand and two more of her glowing soldiers rose out of the sea towing the boat behind them. “Get in.” The woman told Markin. “They will take you to shore.”
He smiled. His teeth flashed white in the ghostly glow of the woman and her soldiers he waded to the boat and climbed in it. “This is the last chance to change your mind fisherman.”
“No,” Jorge said.
The woman nodded and the two soldiers walked back into the sea disappearing under the waves. The mastless boat cut through the water heading toward the distant shore and Jorge soon lost sight of it.
“How do I fight the Hunbard?” Jorge asked.
The woman said, “You? fight the Hunbard? you do not have the strength. It is the spirit of the sky itself, the life and soul of the winds. How would a mere man fight the sky?”
“Then how do I stop the storms?”
“You do not, but you have a powerful ally. Can’t you hear the sea scream in pain? Doesn’t the fisherman know the sea?” she asked and then she and her soldiers melted back into the sea. The last to go was Temmery. He looked a moment at Jorge with sad eyes, then collapsed with a splash into the waves.
Above the grey snakelike coils of the Hunbard danced across the sky.
Jorge knelt down and watched the water. Just visible lying on the sand, was the giant chain one end leading toward the cave and the other end disappearing out to sea.
Not knowing what else to do, he tracked the chain back into the cave. Inside, the links formed a loop, and in the center of the cave stood a large rock, its base deeply grooved. Jorge lifted the loop, struggling with the weight, levering it up and over the rock. As he pushed it inch by inch down the stone, the rusty metal ground away at his skin. A last push and it slipped into the groove and pulled taunt. Jorge leaned against the rock breathing deeply. When he stood, he left a bloody hand print behind.
Outside the cave the wind screamed loudly. As Jorge looked out, a gust hit him and he shivered. Waves rose up stretching toward the boiling clouds. The Hunbard’s coils dipped and rose. Its head shot down snapping at the sea, the glowing red eyes burning with hate. As the Hunbard flew just above the water, a wave gathered up, on its crest the chain whipped upward catching the Hunbard’s neck and dragging it downward.
After the Hunbard disappeared into the sea, the waves slowly began to calm, the clouds broke up and a ray of sun slipped through to sparkle on the waves. A school of blue and white fish shot by breaching as they passed the mouth of the cave, the first fish Jorge had seen for weeks.
Jorge sat, eyes closed, listening to the song of the sea. He heard a creak of a boat and the splash of waves against its hull. He opened his eyes. Markin waved at him as the boat came up to the sand bar. When Jorge could, he caught the boat and pulled it up onto the sand.
Markin got out of it and slapped Jorge’s shoulder. “Looks like you didn’t need me to be your hero after all.” He pushed Jorge over the side of the boat. Startled, Jorge watched as Markin pushed the boat out into the water and threw the rope into the surf. The rope snapped tight and the boat was drug away by an unseen force. As Jorge watched, Markin stepped into the waves. A glow lit the sea where he disappeared.
The giant’s teeth receded into the distance, and soon the shore, and a single figure standing on it, came into view, Jorge’s mother’s mother, her thin shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders, hair messily drifting in the wind, waiting for him to came back to her.
As the boat hit the bottom and twisted, Jorge jumped out, grabbed the rope and pulled it up onto the sand, where the old woman was standing under a clear blue sky.
E.M. Sole is a proud resident of Nebraska, living there with three Jack Russell terriers and a very confused cat. She was given the gift of the love of literature of all types by her grandmother, a gift that has grown in value through the years. Her short stories have appeared in Mystic Signals, Infective Ink and Liquid Imagination.