The Shore Beyond by Stacy Barker

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The Shore Beyond by Stacy Barker
Illustration by Sue Babcock

There is a man on his way here, in a boat. He is fleshy and wet. Alive. I can hear his heart beating, his blood pumping through his veins, his lungs expanding and contracting. He thinks I am dead.

I am not.

I am surrounded by the dead. They do not come here. But they are always out there. I see them, bobbing up and down on the waves. I want to whisper to them, mimic the voices of their lost loves, their estranged children, their abandoned parents. I want to appear to them dressed in the skin of their worst nightmares. I want to make the sea mad, the waves brutal, and laugh as they panic and struggle, helpless against me.

But I cannot.

I stand on the shore of my island, the ice smooth and cold under my feet, and I watch. He is coming.

Soon.

It is always so cold here. I wiggle my toes on the ice. I am wearing a male skin today. The toes are big and hairy, the nails thick and unshaped. I frown at them. They change, become smaller, smoother.

It is even colder when I am wearing a female skin, but I like it. It is so easy to drive the mortals mad in this skin. I remember what it was like, when I was warm, when I could walk under the sun, when the world was green and blue and brown and gold, when I could destroy whole families with a flick of these hips.

They locked me away here. They said that it was wrong, that the mortals were not our toys, that they had feelings and thoughts and worth, that we must not interfere with them.

I laughed. I still laugh, thinking about it now, here in the cold whiteness, surrounded by the dead.

The dead who will not come near.

Perhaps they remember me, still.

I remember them. I remember their warmth, their softness, how they blink in and out of existence. One second they are tiny and ugly and loud, so loud, and the next their bones are dust in the ground.

I remember how their bones felt in my hands.

I look at my hands, at the long delicate fingers. I imagine the man in the boat stepping out on to the ice. I imagine reaching out for him, taking hold of his wrist, squeezing it. I imagine the ice spreading, his fingers going white and cold, and then his arms and his chest and his legs and his face, all white, all frozen, all crackling and thin and sharp.

I imagine throwing him down, shattering him on the hard ground. I imagine red and brown and gray shards, glittering in the light.

I look at my hands again. The fingers are thick now, the knuckles more pronounced.

The better to kill you with, my dear.

The boat touches my shore. I shake my fingers, and they become thin and smooth again. He prefers me this way.

I do not know how long he has been coming here. He is not old, so it can’t have been very long. I do not like the mortals when they are old, when their hair is white and their skin wrinkled. Then they are slow and used to death, and they are not so fun to play with.

This one is still fresh. Although he is already used to death. He can see them too, the dead ones.

He can see me.

He is not cold. I know what they are like when they are cold. Blue lips. Blue fingernails. Bluish tint to their skin. They are so pretty and blue when they are dying of cold. I used to make blizzards, sometimes.

He walks over to me, and he does not leave prints in the snow. He does not slide on the ice. He is not bundled up in layers. His clothing is thin. He only shivers when he is close to me.

I wonder if I carry the cold with me. Perhaps that was their joke. Maybe this island is a paradise, full of green trees and warm sand, and the waves that seem so dark and gray to me are really translucent blue.

I wonder if I will see the sun again, when I break out of their prison. Or will the cold follow me? You can only turn so many mortals into ice and shatter them. Eventually it loses its fun.

The man talks. He talks and talks and talks. I say things sometimes, when he stops and goes silent. I tell him about the time before the cold. I tell him about the children who starved while their fathers chased me, about the women who came to me seeking help and died screaming. I tell him about the blizzards and the droughts and the wind storms, the great big funnels that scooped up the houses of the mortals and flung them about. I tell him about driving men mad, about reading their heart’s thoughts and taking the image of their worst fears, their most bitter regrets, and hounding them until they took their own lives. I tell him about the beauty of blood, the artistry of bone. I tell him how I miss it, how it is dark and cold and lonely here on the island, how there are only the dead now, and they never come near.

He does not run away. I think maybe he cannot hear me. Not always. He did, once. The first time. He was shorter then. He saw me, and I read his heart’s thoughts, and I said “Help.”

He talks some more. There is no fear in his voice. He leaves, eventually. I watch him get into his boat and row away.

I have been cold for a very long time.

I am wearing my male skin when he comes again. I do not know how long it has been since the last time. Time. Time. Nothingness. Cold.

Always so cold.

I don’t bother changing this time. The cold reaches into me. I want the extra hair.

He talks, and I am cold, and it is dark.

I am thinking of what I would do if I were free, how I would take his skin from him and wear it as protection against the cold, when I hear it. Light, he says. A ritual of light. I remember. I remember gems and candles and eyes and blood. I remember drinking, the sweet taste of their souls on my tongue. I remember the impossibly bright light. I remember the ritual of darkness that bound me here, and I know now how I can get out.

“YES!” I scream. I know now that he cannot hear me, not fully, because his ears do not start bleeding. But he looks up, excitement in his eyes.

I read his heart’s thoughts.

“Bring the light”, I say. Calmly. Quietly. He hears, and he will obey.

I watch as he rows off in his little boat. I think of them, with their rituals and their spells. As if they could hold me here forever. Fools.

The man will bring the light.

And I will shove him into the dark.

I look out over the waves, at the floating dead, and I imagine leaving here. I imagine the world, warm and bright and open, and I imagine me eating their hearts.

The man comes again. He is carrying gems. A candle. Things I remember. He puts them down on my beach.

I remember when they locked me in here. They taunted me. They said that I would never be free, that only a mortal’s soul could free me. I told them that I drank the souls of mortals. They said yes, that’s why we’re here, and then they said that no mortals would come, that no one would hear me, that I would have only the dead for company.

I look at the man, the mortal who can talk to the dead, who wandered on to my shore and saw me, who heard my plea for help. He is kneeling in front of his gems. I change into my female skin, the one that he prefers, the one he talks to even when he is not here, and I kneel across from him.

The wind rises. I see him shiver. His skin pales.

He is giving his soul to me. Willingly. Lovingly. The candle lights up, his soul burning bright and pure. The gems glitter with the whispered secrets of his heart. I reach out to him. Tenderly. I don’t want to hurt him. I need him alive.

He cries out when I drink his soul.

The light comes, and it is bright and warm, so warm. I had forgotten what warm feels like. The ice parts with a loud thunderclap, the snow melts, the waves turn from gray to blue. I step out from my prison and on to the shore. Free.

It hurts. It’s too bright. I have been in the dark for so long. But this will pass. I feel the new skin forming, the flesh young and supple, the muscles firm from rowing.

The light dims. My eyes adjust.

His eyes.

I speak to him in a voice between, a voice both mortal and not.

“Thank you for freeing me. You have no idea how long I have been here, in the cold. Waiting for a good person to help me, a person with a pure soul. A person like you.”

I look at him through these new eyes. I see confusion in his eyes, eyes that are losing their color, their spark, and becoming black and dead. I speak to him again, this time in his voice.

“There. The better to see the world with, my dear.”

I pick him up. He is so fragile. I want to break him. I want to see his blood, his bones. I want to hear him scream. But no. I need him alive. I need him here, when they come looking. And they will.

I throw him into my prison, into the cold and the ice and the fog and the unspeaking dead. He lands on the ice, hard, but he is unhurt.

I turn and look out over the sea. The waves are gentle and green. The sky is blue. The sand under my feet is warm. I dig my toes into it.

I walk over to his boat, the sun warm on my new skin, and I laugh.

 

BIO: Stacy Barker lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she spends her days driving around the city and taking pictures. She lives with a spousal person and many cats. This is her first published story.