There are girls who stumble along the beach, barefoot, heels in one hand and a premixed drink in the other, balancing upon the line between the smothering land and the vicious sea, hoping they won’t see morning.
There are girls who will, in the last moments of their lives, fingers clutching the soaking mane of the beast below them out of pure instinct, blame themselves for seeking adventure, for finding exhilaration in danger. There are girls who know that if they make it home, they will be blamed or mocked because who could be interested enough in ugly girls like them to tempt them below the waves?
There are girls who do not know they are girls until the sea comes for them.
There are girls who have been told the old stories, who know the old ways to resist, to save themselves. And there are girls who find their own ways.
There is Alice on an angry winter night, on a beach full of scattered cigarettes and the smell of spilled rum and vomit on the rocks. There are waves crashing in, dirty white foam just visible in the moonlight. The remnants of the bonfire glow and fade behind her. Her friends have gone home, or have wandered back into the town and passed out on the sofas of friends with more liberal or more absent parents, and now there is just Alice on the beach. No one calls her Alice, not yet and perhaps not ever, and she wonders, as many girls do when they’re fifteen, whether anyone will even notice if she disappears.
She’s been at a beach party, which happens any time the rain is light enough to get a fire going and the cold is just bearable. They stoke the flames and share drinks and smokes and dare each other to make a move on one of the older girls, the ones with hair tugged back until it hurts and gold-hoop earrings. Alice has poured some of the rum she shoplifted from the co-op into her water bottle and added a can of Sprite, and she has a new packet of ciggies. If it wasn’t for everything else, life would be good.
Alice doesn’t want to go home, so she climbs over the rocks and finds a space to watch the waves in the dark. And just like in the stories, a glashtyn approaches her.
This is an island that sends all its girls into the sea. The lucky ones will float, encased in steel or wood. They’ll come back with teaching diplomas, or they’ll come back by noon, following boats laden with herring, and they’ll work until dusk; until the catch is gutted and salted and barrelled, until their fingers are chafed raw with salt. The others will not come back, or decades will be lost and themselves Changed when they return.
This island sends its girls into the sea, into the untamed grey sea of December, the sharp blue sea of June. It sends them from its hidden beaches and from its rebuilt ports. It sends them alone, bare feet on the stone steps cut into the cliff, and it sends them with their friends, on days that smell of salt and sunshine and wide-open futures.
The sea claims its girls, and they will say, in the Methodist church and in the Rotary meetings, that it’s so very sad they were pulled to the sea, and no one will ever stop to consider that it was they who sent their girls there. The girls who don’t come back will be forgotten, and those who return will have children and rent flats in old, converted hotels and never speak of how much they fear for their daughters.
If you were to question why so many girls are lost, they would tell you that if you don’t like how things are, you don’t have to stay here; that there’s always a boat in the morning. The sea is always waiting.
The glashtyn is tall, with dark curls and eyes that glint even in the darkness. Pointed ears poke through his hair; donkey ears, glashtyn ears.
“I can see your ears right there.” Alice holds her cigarette in her mouth and forms triangles with her fingers on each side of her head. “You’re not kidding anyone.”
The glashtyn smiles, huge, blunt teeth too big for his jaw, and holds out a string of pearls.
“Oh,” Alice chortles mockingly. “Are these for my grandma?”
The glashtyn says nothing. His smile becomes deeper. Alice finishes her cigarette and takes a gulp from her “water” bottle, then another.
“Look, I know what I have to do. I’m not thick. I just have to wait this out till morning. Sure, I can do that. I’ll get grounded, but I’m always fucking grounded. I don’t really care. And no offence there, but you’re hardly a temptation.”
The glashtyn takes no offence. He motions for her to take the pearls. Alice shakes her head. If anyone else were here, they would find the scene absurd; Alice still looks every bit the boy she isn’t, with her close-cropped hair and buttoned shirt, her baggy jeans. Everyone knows that glashtyn only appear to girls.
When he tries moving closer towards her, Alice makes the ears again, giggles, drops her bottle into a rock pool, and half-falls in her attempt to retrieve it.
“You’re hardly my biggest problem anyway,” she continues, her drunkenness dulling the pain of her twisted ankle. “If you can tell … if you can see what I’m hiding, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does as well. And I can’t … I can’t stay here if that happens.”
She may as well be talking to the tide, to the cold air, to the edge of a storm on the horizon, but the glashtyn is still there and he walks forward a step and holds out the pearls as if offering a solution.
“We’re both pretending to be something we’re not. We both know each other’s secret. You’re a cabbyl ushtey, a water horse, and I’m a girl. Both masquerading as men, or in my case, just a boy, as my mother likes to remind me. So, how about we both agree that there’s no point in us sitting here staring at each other, that you’re not going to trick me, you’re not going to drag me into the sea, down to my death.”
But the glashtyn says nothing, and Alice waits on the rock and wishes he’d stop grinning at her, drinking until the night sky spins high above her, wishing she was anywhere but here.
It’s not that the people here don’t love their daughters. They love them fiercely, squalling babies that command so much love it hurts, smart young women who play the flute and babysit their siblings and make their grandparents smile with pride. The sea cannot take the girls when they are young and their parents watch as they engage this force with fearlessness, skipping over its waves, damming the streams that trickle from springs down the beach with rocks and wet sand. When these girls get older, their parents, knowing the sea will take them, can only hope that the sea will also bring them home.
It’s not that they don’t love their daughters. It’s just that this is how it’s always been, and that history is stronger than love, and that the sea is stronger than them all.
Alice steadies herself to the roar of the sea, seeming to come from all around her. She’s nauseous and her head is beginning to thump, and the sea is drawing her to it.
Alice would never have mistaken the glashtyn for a human, would never be tempted by jewellery or romance, she’s too smart for that, but she’s tempted by the sea. She’s tempted by escape.
The glashtyn disappears with the dawn, fading into the low cloud, or perhaps running to the sea so fast that Alice doesn’t see him go. She’s lasted the night; she’s saved herself.
She smokes a cigarette, stubs out the end on a rock. She strips down to her boxers.
She walks into the sea.
There are girls who walk into the sea because their mothers once walked into the sea, and there are girls who walk into the sea because their mothers told them not to.
There are girls for whom the sea bends, refreshing on a warm day, to carry them wherever they might want to go. There are girls who know right from the start that they will drown.
There are girls who have been training in the council pool three times a week since they were five, and yet their limbs freeze when the first wave hits. There are girls who have always avoided the water, who find swimming comes by instinct.
There are girls who do not drown.
Alice has to get away from here. She has to get away before someone finds out what she is. She knows what happens to girls like her; knows that when girls like her are sent to the sea, they are already bloody and bruised; knows that girls like her are always meant to drown. The water reaches her stomach, an icy shock always, but she forces herself to keep going, launches herself into swimming, throws herself upon the waves. She takes long strokes, one after another, pulling herself into the cold water as the village wakes behind her.
Alice is a strong swimmer, but she knows she has no hope of getting to the mainland. The only thing she can do is give her mother the comfort of thinking this was merely a tragic accident. She takes firm strokes, one after the other, the cold water numbing her right through, the lighthouse and the café and the lights of the small town fading behind her.
Alice is succeeding where the glashtyn has failed. Alice is drowning.
Some of the girls who do not drown spend their evenings deep in study, playing film soundtracks in their pokey bedrooms as they revise physics, history, algebra. The sea will take them on passenger ferries, and they will reserve seats with scarves and coats and head up to the deck and watch the rocky island growing smaller and smaller behind them. They will get their nursing degrees and their teaching diplomas, and they will take the ferry back for the last time, and they will walk down from the ferry, their skin dry and their hair heavy with salt, and they will feel their feet on solid ground as if for the first time.
Some of the girls who do not drown will find the herring industry in decline, barrels replaced by refrigeration, no money in following the boats. They will ask why they must go to the sea when they can become accountants and financial advisors; when they can cut hair or sell shoes or make coffee. Some of them will escape the sea. Some of them will leave and never return.
And some of the girls who do not drown will learn how to ride.
Alice swims until her arms tire and her feet feel numb with the cold and the island has faded to a rocky shadow in the distance. She feels, first, a new current beneath her and thinks nothing of it, and then hair brushes against her drooping toes and she’s shocked into energy, adrenaline coursing through her. The glashtyn she outlasted has come to take her after all. It’s in horse form, now, but Alice knows instinctively that it’s the same one; it rides alongside her, charges past her and then dives deep underwater before crashing upwards into her, knocking her backwards until she falls onto its back, not stopping for her to right herself, but charging on, galloping through the sea.
She clutches the sodden mane with her hands, feels the horse’s heartbeat heavy between her thighs. She does not think of what’s behind her and she does not think of what’s beneath her; she thinks only of clinging to this beast because she knows there is nothing else to cling to.
She knows that glashtyn take girls into the sea to drown.
She knows only that she’s not meant for the fate this small town has in store for her, that any choice she makes is better than choosing nothing but how things are.
Alice crashes through the surface of the water, the force of the sea smashing against her face, salt water stinging her eyes. She gasps, blinking until she can see the sun, the horizon glowing ahead, and she doesn’t have time to decide if it’s beautiful or menacing before she’s plunged down again, clinging tightly, eyes clenched shut, her skin blue with the cold.
It might not be that she is stronger than the girls who have been taken and have drowned. It might be chance. It might be that the glashtyn has taken pity on her, though that is not something Alice has ever heard of before. It might be because she was tempted not by the glashtyn, but by the sea. She doesn’t know. She only does what she has always done; she takes what she has been given and does her best to survive with it.
She rides the glashtyn through the waves, still clinging but starting to find her balance, her rhythm. She uses her whole body to guide it, pushing loudly through the waves, turning and galloping back the way they came. She begins to smile, terrified but exhilarated, breathing more easily now, holding a breath every time they plunge below the waves, relieved every time they resurface, finally accepting she’s going to live.
There are girls whose need to live is stronger than their desire to die.
The whole town, and the other villages around have come out to watch, the gossip having flung itself from one stone house to another. There’s a glashtyn, it said, a real glashtyn in the harbour and it looks like someone’s riding it. There’s only one way one rides a glashtyn, replied the older women, the ones who knew the old stories, and that’s down, down, down to your doom. They barely believe, even when they see it themselves; the massive horse crashing through the water, the rider clinging desperately, but riding, not drowning.
Alice dismounts, at last, falling into shallow waters. She lingers before she leaves the sea, her mouth just above the line of the water, taking gasping, desperate breaths of air as the town blurs into view. She feels that something deep inside her is not the same, and she prays to the new god above and to Ler and his son, gods of the sea around her, that she has changed on the outside as well. She pictures herself stepping out of the water with silky black hair to her waist, delicate features, budding breasts …
She pictures a body they may drown her for, but one they will have to believe.
The cold air reveals the same scrawny, pale body she’s been stuck with all her life. She doesn’t let herself cry, just blinks until all the seawater from her eyes runs down her cheeks, and she sees.
The girls who swim out to bring her to shore are perhaps eight or nine years old, but they’re strong and they take one arm each over their tiny shoulders and help her stand, help her walk, exhausted and breathless, one foot in front of the other, to shore. Another, even younger, splashes out to her with a towel, which she drapes around herself. These girls will not drown.
The whole town is here, but it is the girls who walk forward to her. It is the girls with plaits and the girls with fashionable bobs, girls in their hitched-up tartan skirts and girls in ragged jeans, girls who are trying not to scratch their eczema or are stumbling on twisted ankles. It is the girls with novels in their backpacks and the girls with headphones draped around their necks. It is the girls who have to leave their wheelchairs on the promenade and be helped over the sand by their friends. It is the girls who have only just realised they are girls. It is the girls who are terrified and the girls whose eyes are glistening with excitement.
Alice clutches the towel around herself and walks over the damp sand as they surround her. Some of these girls are her classmates, others she has known since they were babies. And now she smiles at her disappointment because she knows she has not failed, that girls like her are not Changed by the fae or by the gods. Girls like her do the changing.
She will change herself, in time. Today, much more has changed. For these girls are not looking at the sea as the fate that will take them, but as a world for them to explore.
Today and tomorrow and in the warm, wild weather of spring, these girls will learn how to ride.
These girls will not drown.