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Salt in the Blood

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Summer, Ireland, circa 993 A.D.




The waters were wide, and cold, and dark.


Rey would run to the water’s edge and dip her toes in anyway. The water burned her feet and turned them puce, numbing them until - if she looked away - it felt as though she didn’t have them anymore. If there was a rare warm day, she would strip off and wade up to her chest. The water was never warm, and never had been. Her body would smart for hours afterwards, but she loved it. She liked the weightlessness of the water, and how light it felt to not be able to feel the sandy bottom beneath her toes. She would fill her lungs with cold air and dive down into the gloom, and surface with stinging eyes.


The bay was wide, and cold, and bright, its pale sand held flush against the dark water by the seawall. In front of it, along the pier, the currachs rocked and creaked, swaying on the waves, tied down so that they didn’t float away.  Hung along the wall were the men’s nets, and beneath them stood their píce iasc, with barbed points to spear the giant toothless sharks that floated slowly in the shallows, their mouths open like caverns.


Behind the wall were the roundhouses – little round stone huts with fairies’ caps of thatched grass. They had to be stone, Rey knew, because the wind would tear them from the ground in the storms. It howled through the eaves at night like a banshee at her door, and rattled the currachs against the pier like beasts in the water.


Beyond the houses were the fields – onions grew there, and cabbages and parsnips – and the cows. The sheep roamed there, and the cows, and the fat snuffling pigs were fenced off in their dirty pen.


The village was so little – ten smoking roundhouses, dotted at odd lines with one another, as though they had been thrown up in a race against time -  that Rey could yank on her shoes and race around its circumference without losing her breath. The air was sharp and cold and burned the nose, but the thick stench of the fishnets burned worse, and the stink of the skinned sharks hanging beyond the houses burned ranker still.


Inside the houses was dark and smoky. There was a hearth in each one - a smaller cousin of the communal pit outside – but Rey didn’t light hers when she woke up. The hut felt oddly warm – summer-warm, she realised excitedly – and there was faint warm light filtering in through the hide door.


She stooped as she came out of her dark little hut in the lightest shift she owned, the hard thatch grazing the top of her head. She leaned on the stone, pulled on her shoes – salt-leather boots that kept her toes warm and her soles safe from jabbing stones – tied the leather thongs, and stood. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the sky was pale and blue, promising precious heat, and the air was soft and good. There was a figure hunched at the firepit that twisted around to look at her when they heard footsteps on the pebbles.


“What are you doing?” she asked, though she could see. Finn was scraping two flints together, hunched over a handful of grass.


“Fire,” was all he said. His little dog was sat beside him, wiry and white and patched with russet. He bounded over to Rey when she clicked her tongue at him, jumping up on its hind legs to scrape at her knees and pant at her. She scratched him behind the ears, and said to Finn, "I'm going swimming today.”


 "Are you?” He had dug the old ashes out of the pit, Rey saw, and dumped them at the side. Next to them was a pile of cut logs. Rey had seen the other men chopping the summer wood, and had gone over afterwards to smell the fresh-cut wood. It was her favourite smell after the smell of roast meat, and the smell of the water.


 "After I eat."


 "The water will still be cold." Finn was stout and broad and brown-eyed, and he and Rey were friends. His tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth in concentration as he scraped, scraped, scraped ... spark! Little orange specks of fire leapt from the flints to the tinder, and the brown grass caught flame. Finn blew on it frantically, putting his face close to the flames. Fascinated by the blowing, his dog yelped and made to investigate, but Rey held him back for fear that he’d stamp out the flames in his excitement, and cause Finn to have to start all over again.


Finn dumped more grass on top, and it was enveloped in flame. “Pass me a log, quick,” he exclaimed, between blows, and holding the dog back under one arm – it attacked her neck with its tongue – Rey hefted a thick log from the pile and put it into his outstretched hand. He put on more grass, watched it catch fire, and then waited until the first log had begun to smoulder before adding another. The dog slipped out from under Rey’s arm and went to lean against Finn’s side. He sat back on his haunches and sighed, turning to look at Rey.


“The water will always be cold.” She watched the dog, smiling. “But at least I won’t freeze when I come out of it. The sun will dry me.”


“I’m going spearing today,” Finn told her.


“Are you?”


“With the others. And… and Hux.”


Rey grimaced. Hux was loud and red-haired and pugnacious, but he was strong. The village needed Hux; he could heft a whole net of fish onto his back, and thrust his spear into a shark’s eye from a hundred yards. The rest of the men loved him, and they all carried on in their rough, loud way together, thinking they were the Fíanna.


Finn was strong, too, but he was quiet, and Hux would outshout anyone if he felt as though he wasn’t being held in high enough regard. He often teased her for having parents, for living alone, for not being married, and for waiting – Mamaí and Daidí aren’t coming back, Rey, you lump” – and got away with it, because no one would dare answer back.


Except for Rey – and Phasma.


Phasma would – and had – slapped Hux, more times than Rey could count. She was widowed, and her husband had hated Hux as well. He often gave Hux a nose to match his hair, and Rey was sure that Hux was pleased when Phasma’s husband had died. He didn’t expect Phasma to take her husband’s place. Rey and the others would watch in delight as the big blonde woman raised her hand and cracked a slap across Hux’s face with such force it sent him flying backwards onto his arse. Phasma made the decisions, to Hux’s disgust, and the village needed her, too. She owned thirty cows, and all of the pigs.


“Go, then. Don’t let Hux topple you in. He would, you know,” Rey added.


Finn had been thrown into by Hux before, Rey knew, ‘accidentally’, especially when there was a shark in the water. The big shallow-swimmers had no teeth and would barely bat an eye at anyone in the water, but their great open mouths looked like to swallow a man whole, and they would swim past with their jaws gaping, so close they could be touched. Hux had never been in the black water with a shark before. Rey wondered if he would be so quick to shove someone else in again if he were to face the beasts in the open water.


She pushed her brown braid back over her shoulder. Its tied end bumped against the small of her back.


“He’s a cunt.


“Try and shove him in today. See how he likes being swallowed up by a shark.”


“No, he’d kill me. Properly kill me.” Finn sighed and stood. “I’m starving.”


“You’re far from starving,” someone said. Phasma emerged from her hut, hauling a tray of food like she did every morning. Behind her, Rose followed, arms full of pots. Rey watched as Finn gazed at Rose, eyes going glassy.


The rest emerged when they smelled the food and heard Phasma calling; she spitted three fat hares, cut bread, and stood up and roared, “BIA! TAR AMACH, TÁ BIA ANSEO!” Rey had bread with butter and honey – a summer treat - scooped from the big jar with a spoon, and a hot haunch of rabbit. The older men ate together some ways away from the fire, and drank their vile mead, loud and stupid. Rey counted them; Dainín, Niall, Padraig, Bran, Peadar, Ciarán, Séan, Ruan, and foul Hux. Nine big, stupid idiots.


Rey hated mead; it was so much sweeter than honey, and made her stomach roil. She always told Phasma that she liked honey on bread, not in cups. She glared over at red Hux, slurping his mead as though it was water. Rey drank the summer ale instead, and ate her rabbit with her legs crossed beneath her. Rose sat beside her and Finn and Phasma. The rest of the women chatted amongst themselves, eyeing the men. Rey counted them, too; Neasa, Róisín, Siobhán, Sinéad, and Ailis, and their children. None of the children ate with their fathers. Rey wondered why. She was sure that she would, had she a father to begin with.


“Are you off out on the water today, Finn?” Phasma asked, horn cup halfway to her lips.


He nodded, mouth full of bread. Phasma sniffed. “He throws you in, and you ring his bell for him, do you hear me?”


Finn nodded again, eyes downcast. Rey watched him. He won’t, she thought, but Phasma will. Rey poked him with her foot and smiled encouragingly when he looked up. Finn’s dog pounced on Rose’s lap, tore her rabbit from her hand, and darted away towards the water. Finn gave Rose his leg of rabbit as an apology, and she went bright red, making Rey laugh, and making Rose go even redder.


Rey helped Phasma carry the pots back when they had broken their fast – Rose lingered at the firepit, trying to coax some semblance of conversation out of Finn – and raced down to the beach, tapping Finn on the top of his head as she passed him. The men were gathering their nets and their shark spears at the wall, and Rey tried to slip past without them seeing her.


“Hey, lump!” she heard a familiar voice leer as she went past the wall. “Still looking for Mamaí?


“Piss off, Hux,” she snapped, without looking. The men exploded in raucous jibes, spears rattling, as she descended the dune and went down towards the water.


“Check the water, Rey, they might be floating around somewhere.” They howled with laughter, shoving and slapping one another’s backs, as they filled the creaking currachs. Rey stopped at the water’s edge and sat, hugging her knees to her chest, until they were on the water. She dared look, and saw Finn in a currach with Peadar, rowing at the edge of the group. They exchanged a glance, and she raised her arm to wave goodbye. The waves were calm, and the weather was good, but her stomach clenched whenever any of the men went out on the water.


Except Hux. He can drown, or be swallowed up by a shark, or eaten by a water-horse for all I care.


When the currachs had disappeared around the headland, Rey took off her shift and waded in. Behind her, she heard one of the women shout, “Hón álainn, Rey!”, and it made her giggle. She turned around to make a rude gesture and saw them sitting together with their war-board, preparing a game. Phasma was leading one of the heifers down from the field, and the children were kicking a pig’s bladder about on the sand-grass.


Rey went deeper, ignoring how the icy water stung. Her pale body was all gooseflesh despite the warmth of the day, her nipples taut and red. She focused on her feet until she couldn’t see them, lost in the gloom, and stood still a moment, watching as the sun, rising now, began to paint the headland. She could feel it on her face and her shoulders, if she leaned back. The water was still bitterly cold. She just had to stand and bear it for a moment.


 The gulls shrieked overhead, and the water lapped at Rey’s skin. She could feel her braid floating in the water, pulled softly back and forth by the gentle waves. She brought it around her shoulders, sucked in a great breath of air so that her chest swelled, and pushed down into the salt.


The sound was so muffled in the grey-green gloom. She could still hear, faintly, the gulls screaming above, but the sound of the water, dragging and rolling and collapsing in on itself around, below, and above her blocked out everything else. Rey dragged her hands along the sandy bottom, fingering the slimy kelp. She pulled a piece out from its root, unleashing a cloud of sand into the already murky water. Her eyes stung even worse, then, from the sand, and she moved her hands about, trying to dispel it. She squeezed her eyes shut, cheeks bulging. It was nearly time to resurface.


Rey brought her feet down to the bottom, so as to push herself up like a dolphin. A strand of seaweed brushed her ankle, startling her, and her eyes snapped open in the stinging murk. She heard herself shriek, the sound almost quiet in the gloom, mouth opening to fill with salt.


There were eyes in the water; unmoving, and completely still.


Rey thrashed backwards away from it, screaming and choking. Her shrieks created bubbles, obscuring the space between her and … it. Naked, she kicked and struggled, desperately trying to find a foothold on the sand while trying to get away. An ancient kind of panic had come over her; a desperate panic as old as the world, the frantic, clawing panic of prey; of a deer, a seal, a rabbit – of Rey.


Her right foot found the sand, and she kicked down on it so hard that pain shot up her right leg. She flattened her hands scrabbled helplessly at nothing in the water, pushing desperately downwards. In her head, something screamed get out, out, out, out, OUT, OUT, OUT, OUT –


Her head broke the surface and she spewed water, still struggling. Gasping and sobbing, now, she tried desperately to bring herself back to the sand. She saw the women standing up, Phasma dropping whatever she had in her hands. She screamed, “CABHAIR LIOM!”, and Phasma started running.


                A cold hand wrapped around her ankle and pulled. She was still screaming when she went under again.


                Rey was facing the seafloor, but she kicked and kicked and kicked, bawling bubbles as her lungs filled. Another hand caught her other foot, and turned her over, spinning her in the sunless water so that she was facing the surface. Rey’s fists flew out, trying to grab something, anything, and she pulled herself upwards so that she was facing it.


 A strangled cry tore from her burning throat. Her kicking legs were throwing masses of sands between her and it, but she saw long, pale fingers wrapped around her ankles like iron shackles. Deathly-white shoulders. A cloud of dark hair -


Brown eyes were staring at her.


She could hear, somewhere, shouting, splashing, over her own drowning screams. The brown eyes flickered upwards.




The eyes narrowed, the iron hands loosened, and it was gone. The splashing came closer, and warm hands hooked suddenly beneath her arms, and hauled her up. She broke the surface shrieking still.


“Rey! Rey!” She could hear the desperate cries of the other women. The cold air hit her, and she filled her lungs with it. Her eyes stung, and she couldn’t see. “REY!” Someone slapped her across the face. “Rey, it’s alright, you’re alright. Get her up, lift her up.” She felt herself being hauled up into the arms of someone strong – Phasma.


Spluttering, Rey gasped, “Phasma – Phasma – the – the- ”                                            


Phasma shook her. Rey blinked and coughed and blinked again. Phasma’s face became evident, eyes wide and frightened. “What happened? Rey, what happened?”


“There was a – a – a- ” Rey burst into tears. “A what?” Phasma exclaimed. They were walking, Rey realised. Phasma jostled her as she took long, frantic strides towards the sand.


“There was – there was something in there,” Rey howled, “there was something – someone in the water, there was someone in the water!”


They lay her on the wet sand. It was cold and coarse against her back, her rear, her thighs. The sun had risen. The women were shouting, prodding at her, sitting her up.


“There’s no one in the water, is there?”


“Get her dress, quickly!”


“She almost drowned!”


“Is she alright?”


“Get a sheet!”


She was wrapped in something warm and hefted up again. She opened her eyes, blinked, and fainted.