Once the sun has whispered its soft goodnight upon the roof, Mama makes jewellery from the stars. She reaches her great arm up, plucks all the colours of the universe from the smooth, velvet pouch of the sky, and needles them together with chains as light as spider-silk.
I watch each night, hidden behind jewel-stacked shelves, when I should be sleeping. It is secret work, Mama says, and secrets are not for seeing and certainly not for touching. But I want to see them, feel them cold and smooth in my hand.
Between my fingers, I fiddle with fire-red beads, slow-roll them across my palm. One jerk and a pale grey necklace clatter-crashes to the ground.
When it shatters, the night-sky chokes with moondust.
Mama spins, eyes my empty hands and darkening cheeks and the secret spilled across the floorboards.
“Fool girl!” she cries. She gathers her gems and her chains and rushes to the door, bare feet snagging on the broken shards of the moon. “Come, itsa. We must run. It is not safe anymore.”
The ocean crashes against the side of the house—angry, howling, hungry. Without the great grey round of the moon, the sea has been untethered. It bites at the city, takes each wooden shack between its teeth and chews. When it spits them out, they are little more than kindling, too wet to set aflame.
And we are running—our footsteps leaving eddies in their wake, which are soon filled up with salt. The sea nips at our heels, licks at our ankles and recedes. While it swallows the streets to our sides, we run to the hill’s top, safe—or safer—uneaten. It gulps down the apothecary, filling the air with herbs and spice and warmth that clogs my throat; I clutch my knees and spit bile into the salt.
“Mama?” my voice scrapes.
She shakes her head and holds a finger to her lips, but the sea has heard us now and it whispers. Words lapping against words in a crush and swell so loud we can’t quite make it out. Somewhere in the water, which has risen to our knees, I feel the sea say Thank you. No moon now, we are free. We are free.
Mama holds her bag to her chest; one hand is inside, fingers flicking this way and that.
The sea grows curious. What is she doing?
Mama shakes her head again and shapes her mouth into a “no.”
It chomps down on the fishmonger’s and a frown flows between my toes; when the fish do not wake upon the ocean’s large tongue, the water lets out a wail that sounds like an armada of hulls splitting on glass-sharp rocks—their metal bodies screeching.
I press my hands to my ears.
What is she doing? the sea demands, its cold teeth prick my thighs.
The bag shuffles against her and she moves faster, breath clouding about her mouth. Up above, the moondust swirls and gathers.
What is she doing? What is she doing? The water tugs at my legs, the beginnings of a current dragging it back to the shore’s edge. It sinks its teeth, desperate. No, no, no.
“Almost there, itsa. Hold on.”
Around us the waves lap no, no, no, no and my feet slide in the salt. To the left, another building falls and another, but the water isn’t hungry anymore. It spits up doors and windows, the bent sign from the whitesmith, as if to rebuild the shack city—to give it back chewed up and broken. See, we do not have to. See, you do not have to. It is okay now. She can stop. It releases its bite and strokes at my thighs, gently soothing. Make her stop.
The new moon is almost whole, only a sliver of dust still circling its way across the night. Mama makes one last thrust into the bag and loops a thin chain around her neck—the new moon hangs against her skin.
The moon in the sky is full, whole, angry.
No! the ocean screams and sweeps my feet from beneath me. I breathe in water and it burns.
“Itsa!” Mama’s cry is loud but the wave is louder.
It flushes into my ears, my eyes, my mouth, my nose—and I can’t breathe. My fingernails break against the ground; I claw at it, but the water is strong. The sea is being sucked back to port and me with it.
Mama’s hand comes warm around my wrist; she is anchored to something, she is—has always been—a ballast. Mama heaves and hauls and I am a tug-of-war between she and the sea.
The ocean has reached my lungs and it whispers mine, mine, mine.
But Mama doesn’t let go and her hand on my wrist tells the water “no, you can’t have her. No.”
We have been here for hours, days, weeks. I am dying, I am dead, I am the sea, I am a girl, I am my mama’s daughter.
I am alive.
Mama pulls and pulls, and the air rushes into my chest, evicts the usurping blue and leaves me gasping and grateful. The ocean takes one last tug before the moon scoops it back into its basin. Without the water, Mama and I collapse into a mound in the mud, shaking and cold.
“Oh, itsa. Oh, my girl.” She gathers me close and we rock, she gathers me close and we watch the wreckage of the shack-city drift out to sea.
Later, when we are dry and safe and the moon’s white light hugs our shoulders, Mama opens the bag and fills her hands with jewels.
“Mama?” I ask, and my voice croaks with lingering salt.
“It is best, itsa,” she says, her smile soft and sad.
She reaches her great arm up and places all the colours of the universe safe in the smooth, velvet pouch of the sky.
Elou Carroll is a graphic designer and freelance photographer who writes. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Aloe, Emerge Literary Journal, 101 Words, Underland Arcana, Walled Women, and perhappened mag. She is the editor-in-chief of Crow & Cross Keys, and she spends far too much time on Twitter at @keychild.
Shattered Moon, Hungry Sea by Elou Carroll is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine November Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the featured image for November: Margaret Nazon: Milky Way Starry Night. (Celestial beadwork collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Glenbow.)