Author’s Note: This story first appeared in print via FictionPress on Jan 26, 2016. It was drafted sometime between 2006 and 2009. In other words, it’s super old—I wrote it while I was still in high school!—but I still enjoy the concept enough to want to share it.
Something about the crescendo of waves and the dreamy, silver light of the moon reflecting off the glassy sand drew him like no girl or wealth or shiny car could ever hope to. The closest thing the young man could compare it to was the lure of his guitar when a song was being born within him, struggling to break free with no means of relief in sight except in those glorious, finely tuned strings.
The release of finally hearing his songs ring true on his guitar was close to – close, but not exactly like – the peace that flooded him each time he set foot on his beach, the relief that steadied him when at last he ceased fighting the insomnia and gave himself up to the night. He thought of the small stretch of grit and saltwater as being his, since no one else ever came to lay claim to it. He visited only after dark, after the last tourist had abandoned the sand and sea to the night-crawlers. He alone walked on two legs on the silver shore. He alone witnessed its magic in the starlight. He alone called it his kingdom, his cure, his sanctuary.
This night, in particular, was an unusual night. No specific date on the calendar, no sign, no ancient tale or legend told him this – he simply knew. Whether the origin lay in the way the fool moon seemed to tilt her head, as if eager to listen to his music, or the way the stars winked at him, or the sigh he swore he could hear in the waves, something told him tonight was special. Tonight, he decided (hoped), he would finally find the perfect song – the one to show the world who he was.
His guitar slung over his back and his smoky leather jacket zipped up in defense against the chill December air, the boy nodded hello to the moon and began trudging across the sand. He headed for his customary place: a roughly formed chair-like rock, hidden from the mainland by sea oats and just close enough to the water to let him enjoy the sea spray on his face now and then while he played. His throne, he called the stone, mockingly, in his head. He smirked at the thought; he was no royalty, of that he was sure. He had his share of common flaws – more than his share, in his mother’s opinion, and secretly he agreed. The cigarette pack in his left pocket rubbed against his thigh in an irritating reminder of his addiction as he seated himself on his rock and carefully extracted his guitar from its case.
The guitar’s black body and slim silver strings glistened in the moonlight, blurrily reflected stars decorating the polished but otherwise plain surface of the other half of his existence. He ran his fingertips gently across the chords, which hummed under his touch like a lover. Moving his other hand to his belt, he closed his eyes at the satisfying click of a tape recorder – his version of a journal – and began to play.
First came the intro. Slow, steady, soft, sensual – a bare whisper of a thought. Then, the melody strengthening in his mind, he played a little faster, a little louder. It was no lament, nor a call to war, but rather a song of anticipation.
No, anticipation was wrong, too. There was more to it than that – a sort of deep-seated yearning, though what he expected he did not know. But it was close (or so the song said), and when it came, it would change everything. His fingers gained speed, power, while in his mind words began to form that called to whatever was coming to meet them.
Abruptly, his dark hazel eyes flew open. Something was – well, not wrong, but different. Something had changed. Though his fingers continued to play, the words forming in his mind dissipated, forgotten before they could be voiced. He could have sworn—
There. He heard it now: a faint, barely audible hum, not of guitar chords, but what sounded like human vocal chords. His fingers flew across the strings of their own volition, summoning a tune he no longer controlled, telling a story with an ending he could not foresee. He looked around; as far as he could tell, he was still alone.
But the humming, now a quiet singing which he could just make out but did not understand, persisted. He felt, rather than heard, the words being sung, and knew somehow they were meant for his song. He called, and something had answered.
Then he saw her.
His fingers twanged on the guitar, plucking a shocked chord at the climax of the melody. Without conscious thought, they slowed, the song fading into a mysterious silence as he stared, bewildered by the sight which now presented itself to him. Not ten feet from him lay the figure of a woman, unclad and unconscious at the edge of the tide. Her long, midnight-black hair fanned out around her head, spiraling and tumbling in dark curls along the sand; her smooth, mahogany skin shone with water droplets, and contrasted startlingly against the white beach.
He reached up a hand to brush shaggy auburn locks from his eyes, blinking and wondering if he was dreaming. Where had she come from? He would not, could not, have missed her on his trek across the beach; he always kept an eye out for fellow nocturnals, in spite of the rarity of such encounters. Besides, he realized, he saw no fresh footprints in the sand to indicate her passing; it was as if she’d come from the sea itself.
A sigh escaped her lips, and long lashes fluttered open to reveal a pair of staggeringly bright sea-green eyes. She rose, her legs as unsteady and unsure as those of a sailor taking his first staggering steps on land after a lengthy voyage. The boy’s instinctive good manners told him to get up and help her, but he found himself rooted in place, still as the coral rock upon which he sat.
Hair cascaded down her back and over her brown shoulders, swirling when she turned to face him. She smiled at him with warmth, as if she’d woken to find herself in the company of a friend, instead of bare on a beach with a stranger.
Yet she said nothing. As the silence stretched on between them, he mustered up the courage at last to speak, his mouth alone mobile while the rest of him remained locked in confusion and awe. “You—where did you come from?”
“I was here all along,” she answered, her low, lyrical voice rolling over the syllables in some foreign, unnameable accent.
The boy’s eyebrows arched up at her. “Since I got here?”
“Since you began coming here, three years ago tonight. I was here all along,” she repeated, and a touch of sorrow flickered at the corners of her eyes and lips.
“Since—? But I’ve never seen you!” Surely he could not have missed her on the beach so many times, so many sleepless nights since his first venture out here. “Why do you come?”
“For you.” Her lips curved shyly, and her hands clasped in front of her. “For your magic.”
“The music you make. The stories you spin on your strings and with your voice. It is a form of magic, to my ears at least. I, too, spent many nights here, alone and with no solace – save your music.”
“You like my songs?” He never had a fan before. “Um, thanks.”
She shook her head. “Your songs give me comfort and company at times when I would otherwise suffer in solitude. Thank you.”
“But, how come you never came out before? How come I’ve never noticed you? Do you hide from me?”
“I lie always in plain sight, though far beneath your notice.”
“In plain sight! Then how—”
“Would you have observed a bit of driftwood, had it been watching you?” she demanded. He blinked at the unusual question, and slowly shook his head. She nodded. “Then it is no wonder you never noticed me.”
“You’re a bit more interesting than a piece of wood,” he argued, but the cool glare she shot him silenced his protest.
“I am nothing more than that, and nothing less. What form I take makes little difference; either way, my fate is the same.” She cast her eyes out to sea, her expression softening. “Either way, I am still cursed.”
The boy understood little of what she said, but the word “cursed” rang in his ears loud and clear. “What do you mean?”
“I doubt you’d believe it if I told it to you,” she murmured, her voice just audible over the waves. “But then, what does it matter? To be disbelieved is to remain in my current state; I have nothing left to lose.” She turned to face him again, a slow, ironic smile tugging at her lips. “I am older than you think, you know.”
He hesitated. “Er, how much older?”
“Old enough to remember a time from whence all fairytales came. A time of kings and queens and knights, when master bards like William Shakespeare still walked the earth and the old ways were not completely forgotten.”
The boy gaped at her. “Shakespeare?” She did not reply, and the silence stretched out for one – two – three long seconds, shattering at last when a howl of a laugh burst from his mouth. “Shakespeare!” he exclaimed again. “Beautiful. Now, d’you want to tell me the real truth?” He stopped dead when their eyes met, the ice in her gaze freezing the laughter in his throat.
“You accuse me of lying?” Her tone turned brittle, the edges on her voice now sharp as knives. Behind her, the waves roared and roiled against the shore.
He shrank away from her, away from the wrath he saw building in her stormy eyes. “You—you can’t be—you look the same age as me!” he cried. “You can’t be that old.”
“Ha!” She cut herself off, clamping her teeth together and pausing to gather her thoughts. The ocean quieted, and when she spoke again, her voice was calm as a windless day. “This is an awful start. If you cannot believe such a little thing, such a small part of the story…” She lowered her eyes. “I don’t know why I came. Why I believed—” She shook her head.
He sensed her slipping away, and realized he did not want her to leave. He wanted to believe her, if only to hear more, and perhaps to make up for the pain he seemed to have caused her. “I didn’t mean—it’s just, it doesn’t make sense.” He spread his hands. “How can you look like—like—” He stuttered, his face reddening, and tried again. “How can you be that old and still be alive?”
She closed her eyes. “I was cursed.”
Skepticism clouded his face despite his best efforts. “You mean, like magic?”
When she looked at him again, the fury he’d been expecting was not there. The storm had calmed, at least for now. “Yes. I ask now for your extended suspension of disbelief; if you wish to hear my story, you must listen without the cynicism and reservations that come so much more easily to you. Will you do that for me?”
He paused. It made no sense, none of it did – but he wanted so badly to believe her. And perhaps, in merely wishing to, he had already begun. “Yes.”
She sighed. “Thank you.”
* * * * *
“I remember little of my life when I was alive; it has been many years since I last took this form. But I remember love, and I believe it was the blessing of that love that led to my curse. Do not ask me how; I told you, I remember little, and many of the details have faded beyond recovery.
“There is one detail which I remember clearly. The boy I loved, his eyes – they were raven-black, and sharper than a hawk’s. He saw me when I was beneath noticing; he loved me when I was considered untouchable. I think I must have been poor; I recollect no glittering jewels or luxuries from when I was alive in the conventional way.
“Don’t—I see the question in your eyes. You must understand, it is difficult for me to put this into words. There is so little in this language that can fully represent what I am trying to relate to you. Just listen; you will understand in time, I think.
“As I was saying, I recall very little of my human life. But I remember that passion, even now. The memory blurs with time, but it is not completely lost – not yet. I still treasure it for what it was, what it will never be again. The rest, however, is faded beyond recovery – save for a flash, a bright explosion of blue fire and light that has haunted me through time and space. That instant alone remains crystal-clear in the eyes of my memory.
“You think it strange? How else would I be the way I am, if not by magic? There are no laws of logic or science which can explain this. Remember your promise, and cease your speculations until I finish. Yes, I was transformed by magic. By whom, I cannot say, though I think perhaps it was a jealous rival, another woman who longed for my lover in vain.
“No, I do not know what became of him. Such was the ingenuity of my curse; who knew that ignorance could be torture, or the guarantee of life a reason to wish for death? But then, I suppose this is what is meant by the saying ‘not all that glitters is gold.’
“When I first woke the morning after my curse, I was overwhelmed with a simple, passionate gratitude to the gods for protecting me, for saving me from death. But once the frenzy of my discovery – that I was not dead – had passed, I began to see through the illusion. I found myself adrift at sea, unable to move or cry out. I was at the mercy of the waves in the worst way, with no control over destiny or even my own body. I could not see land. I knew not where I was, nor what had happened to me. But I was terrified, and it took a long time for that fear to fade.
“Once the initial panic wore down, I began to realize something I had taken no notice of before, something much worse than the paralysis. The limbs that I could not move – the arms that would not paddle, the legs that refused to kick, the mouth from which no sound would emit – were not simply immobile. I could not feel them at all, not even moving against my body as the waves shifted them; it was as if they did not exist, and I could not turn my head to see what had become of them. The heart that should have been pounding within my breast was still, too; I had no pulse, nor was I breathing. I have never felt so terrified or alone as I did then, not in all my years of existence, before or after my – alteration.
“If you can, imagine all the strongest emotions you’ve ever felt bound within your heart at once, pulsating like some live thing, some beast wildly clawing and roaring, desperate to escape from its cage within your breast. Now imagine what it would feel like if you could not express these feelings – you cannot move, you cannot breathe, you can hardly think for all the acuteness of the pain of your unreleased passion. The beast, however, is still there, fighting with all the fury of a cornered predator for its freedom – freedom which it will never find, because you have no way to release it. The cage is locked, the key lost, and you must suffer the consequences alone.
“That is what it felt like, to be thus trapped, with no idea of what happened to my love, or where – or even what – I was. All that love and terror and hurt and confusion ripped with ragged claws at a heart that no longer beat and eyes that could not cry. I wished then that I had been killed, for I thought I knew then what my curse was to be, that I would remain alone on this distant sea forever, suffering without respite or company to soothe the pain.
“I wondered then if, perhaps, I was not dead after all – if I had been sent to Hell.
“I floated for days without seeing a single other soul, save for the seagulls which occasionally circled above and a fish which brushed once against my back. I found that I could not sleep – no dreams would come to me to help pass the time. Eternity suddenly seemed so much longer than forever.
“A day, a week, a month—I lost track of time eventually, so I cannot tell you how long it was before I saw the ship. I know only that when I did, I felt the first glimmer of hope in what felt like a century, though this was, I’m sure, before I knew what it was to watch one hundred years pass you by.
“With that hope, however, came despair – I still could not move nor call out, yet how else could I attract their attention? I was powerless to aid my own cause; I could no nothing but wait, and pray they would find me.
“My hopes had begun to fade when, as they drew closer, no alarm was raised. It seemed they did not see me. But then a boy on the deck – a small child, no older than a couple of years at most – pointed one rosy, chubby finger at me over his father’s bulging arms. He saw me! I was overjoyed, despair washing away in an instant in the wake of hysterical bliss which I felt, foolishly, no amount of ill luck could overcome.
“‘Wot’s that?’ the boy asked, with the simple curiosity of a child just learning to name the objects in the world around him.
“His father leaned over the rail. When his eyes fell upon me, I waited for a gasp, a cry – anything to indicate the shock of finding a woman overboard – but he merely shrugged and turned away. ‘’Tis naught but a bit o’ driftwood, boyo,’ his father said, and took him away from the railing.
“If the curse had not already stilled my heart, it surely would have stopped beating then, for in that moment I felt it broken beyond repair. Driftwood – naught but driftwood? Confusion and fury threatened to overwhelm me, until the truth of his words struck home.
“Driftwood, indeed. I had no limbs, nor voice, nor pulse. I was prey to the ocean current, to every turn of the tide. The man was right. I was no longer human, but a mere piece of refuse which no sailor would notice and no hero would think to save. My love could never recognize me, no matter how long or hard he searched. I was lost forever.
“I watched the vessel sail away, its passengers ignorant of my plight. What else could I do but watch, trapped as I was in such a helpless shape? And when it disappeared over the horizon at last, its white sails like clouds against the sky, I felt it take all my hope with it. I surrendered.
“For years I wandered at the whim of the seas, tossed about by storms and wakes of ships and the ever-present tides. I saw little of humanity, save for brief glimpses of sailors and pirates and the occasional drowned man. My mind began to slip, drifting back to better days, for I cared little for the present. What did my existence matter, if I could do nothing to affect it?
“But one day – how many eons later I know not – a particularly wild squall blew me into sight of that which I had not glimpsed in ages: land. It was strange, after spending so much time in harmony with the waves, to see something so still, so stable and sure. At first I did not trust it, but when I felt the rough beach-sand against my body at last, I knew it to be no mirage. I felt something then my shackled self had almost forgotten – joy. I rejoiced in the feel of a new texture, the discovery of a novel sight. I fell in love with change for the sake of itself; you cannot imagine the monotony of the tide, when endured for years on end with no respite, nor the pure, overwhelming relief of finding solid ground to steady yourself on at last. It was no cure to my curse, but it was something – and anything more than the nothingness I had borne for so long was welcome.
“It was night when I first spotted the spit of land I later learned was an island off the coast of England; by the time I beached on the shore, dawn was already lightening the sky. As the sun passed the horizon and began her ascent, I basked in her warmth – and listened. Before long, the sounds of the shore mixed with voices, and I found myself surrounded by people of all ages, male and female, tall and short, old and young – people whose hands could grasp one another’s and whose legs could carry them in whatever direction they chose. They were free, as I once was. I envied them, but bore them no ill will – they were the first company to welcome me since my transformation, and I enjoyed eavesdropping on their laughter and conversations, even if I was not purposely included.
“I spent a week there. One beautiful, brilliant week, during which I drank up all the information I could glean from my unwitting companions about the country and time to which I had journeyed. When the tide came in at last to take me, I hated to go, for heaven only knew when I’d find land again. I struggled violently to stay, but to no avail, and away I was swept, back out to sea once more.
“I say ‘to no avail,’ but that’s not quite true. I did manage to learn something about myself, something I had no opportunity to discover before. For, as I fought madly to lodge myself in the sand, I felt my body lean towards land. A simple, tiny effort for most – but to me, it held infinite value: it meant I could control my direction.
“There was more. By venturing so close to humanity, I had found a place in its world once more, however insignificant. I cannot tell you, in the time I have, how many adventures I had there, how many close encounters with – oblivion – I experienced. I was snared in fishing nets, employed as a makeshift shovel for digging, and briefly served as a flagpole for a beautiful sandcastle. The list is endless.
“I have spent many happy years in the presence of people – but none so enjoyable as when I heard your song for the first time, right here on this beach. I resisted the tide for three years, just to listen to you play. I found a small inlet – just here, where my foot is – and managed to work myself into it. Luckily, no one notices a bit of driftwood here and there, so I never dislodged from my spot – until now, that is.”
* * * * *
The boy gaped at her with wide eyes and a slack jaw, resembling a fish out of water. She offered him a gentle smile. “That is how I am still alive, and still young. That is how I ended up here, with you. Do you – can you – believe me?”
Her voice drew him inch by inch out of his stupor, his mouth closing as he swallowed and stared. She astounded him, in every way. “How could I not?” Somehow, it was true – without knowing how, he honestly believed her.
Real gratitude shone in her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered. “For listening. For understanding?”
“There’s one thing I still don’t get,” he admitted. “Did you manage to break the spell? How come you’re human now?”
Her eyes grew misty, and she shook her head. “The spell still has hold of me. But your magic, mixed with that of the moon, gave me the gift of a few hours in my old body.”
“Yes, your magic. I was not merely waxing poetic when I referred to it as such. Music is a form of enchantment – one of the few remaining strands of spell-weaving still alive in this modern age. That is why it can consume one so completely. This magic, and that of the moon this night, is enough for now to free me until the sun rises. Which will not be long from now,” she added, looking up; following her gaze, the boy saw that the sky was already lightening.
“But why tonight? Why not sooner?”
“Because this is the first blue moon that has occurred since I came here. This is the most magical time of the year, even more powerful than All Hallow’s Eve, or the New Year.”
“‘Once in a blue moon,’” the boy murmured. “Is this the first time you’ve been able to change back?”
“A blue moon alone is not enough to transform me; I needed you as well. Your music beckoned to me, and I answered.” She smiled.
He grinned back, remembering his thoughts before she came. A song of anticipation – it was as if he’d been waiting for her. The first seagull of the morning cried out in the distance, and the boy considered the meaning of the coming dawn. “You’re going to change back again, aren’t you?”
She wrapped her arms around herself. “Yes.”
“I don’t want you to,” he blurted out.
“Neither do I.” She sank down to the sand, sitting half-turned away from him, facing slightly towards the sea. She looked wilted, weaker somehow than when she’d first arrived, and he realized the curse was already upon her.
“I want to help you.” He moved, his joints stiff and aching from hours of holding the same pose, and crouched beside her, close but not touching. He caught a hint of her scent, like fresh air and damp wood. “Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?”
She thought for a long time; the boy felt each separate second tick by with growing agitation as the night gave way to daylight. At length, she said, “Take me with you when you leave.”
“Take me with you,” she repeated, turning her eyes on his longingly. “You cannot break my curse, not now – but you can help me. Take me home, keep me by a window, and bring me back with you at night. And in two or three more years, you’ll see me again, as you see me now. I know it seems like forever, but to me, it’s as soon as tomorrow.”
He tried to imagine how it felt to be human after so long, knowing you would have to give it up again in mere moments. He nodded. “All right. I’ll do it. I won’t let anything happen to you, either – I’ll keep you safe till the next blue moon.”
“I knew you would.” She laid her hand over his, her skin cool and smooth against his calloused fingers. “Thank you. A thousand times, thank you.”
He cleared his throat, wanting to say more – but then the first sliver of sunlight slid over the surface of the ocean, streaking out to catch him full in the face. He started, blinking and squinting as his eyes struggled to adjust, and her hand slipped out of his grasp. “No!” He reached for her, his hand stretching into empty air. She was gone.
He bowed his head under the weight of his loss.
She’s not gone, he reminded himself. Just different. He looked down, and there in the sand where she’d been resting lay a piece of driftwood, about as long as his forearm and smooth as the hand he’d held only a moment before.
Before he touched it, a strange, electric whirring noise startled him, sounding as if it came from – his pocket? Then it came to him: his tape recorder. He left it on the entire time – it must have taped everything. Leaving the driftwood as it was for the moment, he yanked out the recorder and hit play.
There it was – the song that called her to him, clear as day. Lyrics whispered in his mind for the second time that night, and did not slip away as they had before. It was perfect; all he needed to do was write it all down, maybe polish off an ending to replace the moment he’d seen her, that awful clang. His finger hovered over the pause button, for he’d heard enough already to know that this was it – the song – the one that would change everything, that would finally get him noticed and signed with a record company and give him something to live on, something of his own to live for—
His thoughts of the future skidded to a stop when he heard a voice, a woman’s voice, joining with his guitar in the recording. It was beautiful, ethereal – and, more importantly, it was real. He wasn’t crazy after all; that driftwood lying in the sand was really her.
He stopped the playback, sliding the recorder back into his pocket for now until he could listen to it again in full later on. Moving as if in a trance, he reached for his guitar, placing it reverently back into its case and hefting it onto his back before looking at – her. He picked her up with the caution of a giant handling glass, wondering how she felt about being held in the palm of his hand.
“I’ll finish that song tomorrow night. I’ll add words and fix it up with a good ending. And when it’s finished, I’ll sing it for you first. After all, I guess I wrote it for you, didn’t I?”
Turning his back to the sea, the boy began the journey back across the sand, which was already warming in the dawn light. It was no longer his beach; now, it belonged to the early birds and beachcombers who would be arriving soon. His silver kingdom yellowed beneath the sun, the moon camouflaged behind a cauliflower cloud. His crunching footsteps mingled with the fading sounds of crashing waves as he made his way towards the city farther inland, his mind wandering far ahead of him to the next blue moon night. When would it come, and who would he be when it did?
More importantly, what would she think of her song? Would it be enough to save her, or did freedom require something more, something stronger than a moonlight serenade? Whatever it was, he vowed to find it before their next meeting. She was his muse; she had given him the perfect song, an anchor to hold onto in a world that had set him adrift. Now, he wanted to return the favor.