Beneath the Call of the Sea

A short story debut —

By Jannessa Cruzan

 

Ivy stood with her feet buried in the sand, staring down the approaching tempest. The clouds shifted and churned like a living thing, billowing toward her. Her hair whipped through the air, and her skin broke out in gooseflesh. She should be barricading the house with her father, but she pushed the thought away. She didn’t want to wait another year for the gray week to come again. Not even if that meant leaving her father to prepare for the storm alone.

The ocean called to her, its voice soft and crooning. The waves pined for her like a mother, or maybe those were her own desires she heard. After her mother disappeared last year, her thoughts had begun to scamper across her mind, and she had trouble grasping onto any one idea. She waited as close as she could to the rising water, the sand under her toes firm yet steadily giving way. Did that gentle lapping always sound like an invitation, like home?

Ivy stepped forward, her limbs heavy. The white crests surged with a determination that only came during the storm season. The quiet and even-tempered sea grew erratic with the incoming hurricane, and the water that normally provided the village’s livelihood instead chose one person to ensure the next year’s bounty. She knew that in a few more paces the undertow would grab her, but she could think of no other option. She wanted the person the water chose to be her.

“Stormy morning” © Stefano https://www.flickr.com/photos/leguiphoto/32961103626/

The spray battered her, burning her eyes in a way it never had before. No one would notice she was gone until it was too late. The idea created a sieve in her consciousness, draining the rest of her thoughts. Submerged to her thighs, she rocked, a piece of driftwood caught in the surf. The sand shifted and threatened to send her tumbling.

On the horizon, a dark smudge came into view under the lightning and clouds. Ivy leaned and felt the sand give way beneath her. A wave, larger than the rest, surged forward, and she fell into it willingly. Pressure pushed her under, the cold water like a fist around her lungs. She floated, weightless, in the icy wave. She fought her instinct to take a breath. Was this glacial ethereality the ocean’s promise to her? Before she could decide, another wave battered her, sending her tumbling, and lifting the sandy shore to meet her. With a shiver and a gasp, she crawled farther up the beach. The air was colder than the water, and she ached to fall back into the ocean.

The surf tugged at her, and she turned into it, her gaze finding the horizon and the dark shape that had lured her into the waves. The shape grew. She saw triangular sails. Tossed and battered, the ship fought to make progress against the hurricane, and the sight brought with it the image of her father fighting to barricade the house alone.

She had to go home. Her mother would have wanted her to help her father first. She turned, her feet leaving unwilling trenches behind her in the sand. The sea called after her in its persistent voice.

Her father met her halfway. His striking features mirrored her own: jet-black hair, a nose too large for his face, and deep eyes that were sharp and angry. Ivy felt a twinge in her chest; if only she hadn’t seen the ship, she would be free from ever seeing that look again.

“What do you think you’re doing? The alarm to stay indoors was over an hour ago.”

She wanted to show him the ship, but queasiness came with the thought. Her father grabbed her arm, his fingers trembling. The gray week—not her mother’s disappearance, not a boat out at sea—was the only thing important enough to disturb his otherwise calm nature. His features hardened as if her dripping clothes and violent shivering offended him. He did not relent. “Answer me.”

“I saw something,” she said, her jaw working hard to form the words between her chattering teeth. “A ship. In danger.” She was unable to explain her real reasoning for being in the storm; she did not think she could ever properly articulate the longing that drew her to the ocean. The sea chose her, but he would never understand such a thing.

“No one is out on the eve of the gray week,” he said. “No one besides you.”

“But what if someone is?” Would the storm choose them instead?

His lips pressed together. “You shouldn’t be wandering around.”

She could hear the tremor in his voice; his grip tightened. He dragged her up the path to their home. The slate sky had veins of olive streaking through it; the rain would arrive soon. She wanted to tell him how she abandoned the waves to find him. She wanted him to put his arm around her and hum the prayer her mother used to sing. She wanted something, anything to distract her from the call of the sea.

Their house came into view abruptly in the failing light. The one room shack jutted out of the otherwise barren landscape like a single finger. Other homes resided nearby, identical to hers, but the storm hid them. He pushed her into the house and slammed the door shut behind her. Outside, he piled sandbags before the door, and then he came in through the lone window. She helped him board up the window after he kept dropping the nails. Candles flickered like dying breaths in the dark room; the house smelled of smoke and bodies.

“Candles” © Fred Rockwood https://www.flickr.com/photos/freeloosedirt/2911462934/

The first gray day left Ivy restless. She bit her nails until her fingers bled, but the call of the ocean never lessened. The second day brought with it pacing. Her father made his bed in front of the door and refused to move. The third day dawned dark and tense. What thoughts Ivy had approached her like waking dreams. They carried her to the ship or into the ocean in turns, and she used them as anchors. The fourth day left her unable to think. Her father allowed her to sit under the window as long as he supervised her, but the cries of the storm were so loud in her ears she could barely hear anything he said.

As the day wore on, she distinguished a faint scratching noise beyond the window. She attributed it to a piece of driftwood caught against the house, but instead of subsiding, the scratching increased. Maybe the ocean had come for her. Her father leaned forward, as if he were aware of the desperate hope taking form in her mind. She couldn’t investigate the noise as long as he suspected her of returning to the ocean.

The scratching continued, faint and inconsistent. It grew weak, increased in urgency, and died back down again in intervals. Ivy listened for over an hour, her attention waxing and waning along with the persistence of the noise, before she realized what it could be. Maybe the sea hadn’t come for her, but maybe it had sent her mother instead.

“Is it possible for people to return during the gray week?”

“No,” her father said.

“But I can hear scratching against the window.”


“You’re imagining things.” He sounded pained. “No one is out there. No one returns.”

Someone was out there; she could hear them. The ocean must know she wanted to be chosen, and what better way to ensure she came then to send her mother?

He frowned, again appearing to read her mind. “Why do you insist on projecting your own twisted thoughts onto a storm?”

His words cut through the fog in her mind, but her new clarity did little to help her answer his question. The ship worried her, with its men who braved the storm. Everyone in these parts knew when the gray week would arrive; the sailors must have chosen to sail into the hurricane. Would the storm choose them instead of her as a reward for their bravery? Ivy’s desire to find her mother seemed selfish in comparison.

Ivy’s father didn’t look at her, instead focusing on the barricaded door. A worried line worked its way between his eyebrows. A peal of thunder crashed overhead, and he flinched.

“Say someone did brave the storm, could they survive?”

“The storm would drive the sanest person mad.”

“But I’m not afraid of it,” she said.

He glanced at her, and she saw in him the doubt she didn’t feel. He dreaded her walking through that door and into the salt and sand, never to return. He feared another disappearance he couldn’t prevent. It wasn’t her speculation he loathed, but his own.

She understood her father; he would never let her out, no matter what she said or did. She lay down on her pallet, listening to the scratching behind her head. The only option left was to wait him out and hope the storm didn’t drag her mother away while she did. When the cottony light deepened to onyx, her father’s shoulders slouched. Ivy watched as his muscles relaxed into sleep, giving her an opportunity to return to the storm.

She pushed the door without success. She tried again, using her shoulder, and the bags gave way enough for her to wriggle through the opening. Her father’s warning lingered in her mind; she would go mad in the squall.

She slipped through the gap.

The wind grabbed Ivy as she climbed over the sandbags, and before she could cry out, or her father could notice her absence, she was gone. The sky was darker than midnight, though the sun only recently had set. Whatever stars existed beyond the clouds did not show their faces during the gray week. The ocean, invisible in the darkness, cried out to her. Without her home as a buffer, the sea raged wild and demanding, tugging at her heart like the wind tugged at her hair. The roar of the storm overwhelmed her.

Instinct and memory carried her toward the window where she heard the scratching. She kept one hand on the wall to prevent her from wandering into the night and used the other to feel in front of her. Her robes tangled around her legs; one misstep and she’d tumble away from the house and be lost. She didn’t bother calling out; no one would hear her in the tempest.

Her hand brushed against the boards nailing the window shut. Without any clues to work with, she searched the window. After a bit of poking and prodding, her fingers found grooves in the wood, shallow but distinguishable. Her heart clenched in her chest; she couldn’t remember if those grooves had always been in the wood or not. She continued investigating, patting down the ground. Ivy couldn’t believe her mother would leave without saying a word; the wind and rain must have destroyed any message left behind. She would have to brave the storm if she hoped to find answers, but now that the opportunity was in front of her, she found it hard to take the first step into the hurricane.

Turning perpendicular to the house, she advanced as best she could into the tempest. Within seconds, she lost the safety of the wall. If she turned around, she had no guarantee that she would head in the right direction. She clawed her way into the storm. Her cheeks grew raw and her knees weak. The ocean had tricked her into leaving the protection of her home, and she no longer felt confident her mother would be there at the end.

The storm enveloped her, and she knew that with each step she drew closer to the rising sea. The sound of crashing waves told her to keep moving.

She stumbled over something in the path. Her first thought was of a sandbag, but that didn’t feel right. Her hands searched. She felt short hair and rough features.

The beard marked him as a man, and the thick, heavy necklace marked him as a ship’s captain. Not her mother then. His clothes stuck to his body as if frozen with ice, but she could feel warmth underneath. When she put her ear to his mouth and heard his breathing, the knots in her chest loosened. She smiled, for the briefest moment looking forward to telling her father how she had been correct about the ship.

Ivy hooked her arms under his, meaning to drag him back to her home. She took one step before nausea hit her; Ivy had no idea where her house stood, and if she wandered aimlessly she would draw closer to the ocean. Ivy lowered the man back to the ground and sat beside him. Her father was the only person who had any idea she needed help.

“Father!” she yelled into the storm. The wind sucked the words out of her mouth before the sound could reach her ears. She tried again. “Father!”

She couldn’t imagine him braving the hurricane to save her. Her mother hadn’t returned to her, and now there were two people facing the gray week. Which one of them would be chosen for the call? The sounds of the sea sickened her; she felt chilled in her deepest recesses. Would it be this stranger? Did she want it to be? Curling around the captain, Ivy took what comfort she could from the only other living creature in her world.

“My name is Ivy,” she said. “I saw you earlier, out in the ocean. I feared you would be chosen instead of me. I’ve known some of the ones who have gone before. I used to think that only one person could be chosen each year during the gray week, but here we both are. I believed a lot of silly things.”

Ivy buried her head into the man’s side, trying to use him to block out the noise around her. She focused on his breathing. She mumbled to him, the specifics of her conversation lost both in the wind and her consciousness. The ocean rose to meet her as her voice grew dry and hoarse. Each breath tasted of salt, and each exhale fought against the numbing water that lapped at her. Sand shifted underneath them. The sea sang to her bleak thoughts, and she listened to it.

The murmuring lulled her into a restless sleep. A part of her realized that she was shivering and freezing, but another part of her felt weightless.

The water lingering near her feet looked blue and calm as if the gray week had passed and the sun had reappeared. The sea stretched like a mirror, unblemished until the shoreline swelled and Ivy’s body slid onto the surface. The whispers echoed deep in her bones. This was what being the chosen one felt like. The ocean lifted her up. It felt like flying.

Her head went under the water. Below her floated the others who disappeared in past years. Barnacles matted their hair, seaweed covered their bodies, and sand colored their skin. Half frightened, half elated, Ivy watched one woman with verdant eyes float apart from the rest. Her mother. She wasn’t dead; she had become part of the sea, and the sea had reunited them. When the others smiled and beckoned to her, Ivy followed.

“like to drown” © Aimanness Photography https://www.flickr.com/photos/millervintage/5328740765/in/photostream/

A shadow eclipsed her vision. Above, her father crouched on top of the water. He stared at her, and Ivy dropped her gaze. She didn’t want him to see her like this. The sound of her name, distorted from the water, lifted her eyes back to him. He was frowning, but in the direction of the people below her, instead of at her. The ocean wavered as if disturbed by a falling stone.

Ivy hesitated, floating between her mother below and her father above. She couldn’t leave with him standing there. The gray week chose her over the captain. This was what everyone wanted. She tried to tell him, but when she opened her mouth, saltwater rushed in. Cold spread through her chest. She tried to speak again. Her lungs burned. Pain blossomed.

The ocean pulled her down, and the look on her father’s face turned angry. He raised his fist into the air. The sea churned like a cyclone. She spun in it. Her brother brought his fist down on the water. His hand caught on the surface instead of sinking, splintering the ocean like glass. She felt the impact deep within her chest. He hit again and again, until she was no longer sure if it were her body or the sea he attacked. With salty shards falling around them, her father extracted her from the sea.

He pulled her from the shattering waves, and she came out of them coughing and spluttering. The water in her mouth and on her face felt warm; it sliced her lungs with every breath. Ivy opened her eyes, not realizing she had closed them. She saw her father’s unruly hair like cords of coral dancing in front of her nose. He looked frantic, in a way she had never seen before. His lips formed the shape of her name.

Her teeth rattled in her head. She gripped her elbows with shaking fingers. Now that she wasn’t in the water’s clutches, she could see the ones who were chosen for what they really were: sacrifices, dead and gone. Her father was right. No one returned.

Ivy collapsed. Her fingers moved in jerky spasms.

Her father’s arms wrapped around her and cut through her panic. He hugged her, and the two of them shivered in each other’s arms. When he pulled back, she felt some of the terror subside. He helped her to her feet, and as he did, she noticed the rope tied around his waist. It stretched off into the darkness, but a lighter darkness than before. She must have survived the night. Over his shoulder, the granite wall of the ocean advanced upon them. She stared at it, her body cold.

They stumbled away from the relentless wave. The wind pushed against their escape. Sand lashed their skin like needles. Each step was harder to take than the one before. The storm fought them, trying to force her back.

A dark shape as large as a whale came into view in front of them. The form solidified as they walked closer until Ivy recognized it as her house. It looked bigger than she remembered. Her father pulled her forward, sometimes dragging her along. He never stopped his progress toward the open doorway, and his hand never strayed from her back. When he pushed her through the opening, she let him. She didn’t have the strength left to fight.

The door slammed shut. For a tense moment, Ivy couldn’t make out the inside of the house. The walls muted the storm, and her heart pounded in her chest. What if this was a dream? What if her drowning had all but taken place, and in her final moments her brain brought her home? A small cry escaped her clenched teeth.

“Listen to me, Ivy. You’re not out there. You’re safe,” he said.

“I thought,” she said, stumbling over the words, “that I could be with her again. But she’s dead, isn’t she?”

Her father grimaced, some of the hardness returning to his face, and nodded.

“I thought I could save Mother, but I saw her floating in the depths. She wanted me to come to her, but when I did, it hurt. I don’t understand why she would hurt me.” Her voice sounded rough to her ears.

Her father placed his hand on her head, solid and warm. “The gray week makes the sanest of us go mad. I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t her. She wouldn’t want you to die.”

Ivy recoiled from him. Until this moment, she hadn’t realized that reuniting with her mother would require her death. But underneath his blunt words, she heard that she’d scared him,

“But the captain,” she said after a long pause. “I saved him, didn’t I?”

“What captain?”

“The man outside, the one I heard scratching at our window.”

Her father’s blank stare met her. A flicker of sadness passed over his face.

“I stayed with him through the night,” she continued. “He’s the last thing I remember before I fell asleep.”

“You were alone when I found you.”

“No, that can’t be right. I felt him, heard him. He was with me.”

“He wasn’t there. Be grateful you were given a second chance.”

The candles burned low in their holders.

The storm howled. Ivy felt its despair twist inside her. The captain had waited out the night with her as surely as her father had saved her from it. He must have been swept away when she was taken. The gray week needed its sacrifice.

She turned her back on the door and whatever lay beyond it. Softly, she began to recite her mother’s prayer: do not fall upon this house; do not heed who is inside.

 

 


Jannessa Cruzan is an emerging writer born and raised in Picher, Oklahoma. She draws inspiration from her childhood in a town that no longer exists. She recently graduated from Oklahoma City University, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing. Jannessa now spends her time in Norman with her poodle and her imagination.

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  1. Shannon says:

    Captivating and beautifully enthralling, beginning to end.

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