My mother almost drowned me once.
My pudgy fingers were wrapped around a sapphire, a blue glass jewel caressed to smoothness by a century of waves. I had spied it resting on a dimple in the sand. I wondered at the shard’s origin; perhaps a pirate’s goblet or the perfume bottle of an exotic, sunken princess.
The slap rang in my ear before I felt the heat spread. I raised my hand to my face, too late to shield my stinging cheek. She snatched my treasure from the sand where it had dropped and hurled it in a high arc back into the waves.
My mother grasped my shoulders. “We never take gifts from the Ocean,” she hissed.
I wriggled from her hold and ran towards the Ocean that had swallowed my prize. My mother’s arm looped around my waist and lifted me before I reached the line where the water meets the sand. I struggled against her iron grip, wailing as she hauled me across the beach to our cabin. She dragged me to the claw footed bathtub abandoned in the garden, full of rain and fallen leaves. My reflection kissed me as she pushed my head under.
I thrashed and choked down a mouthful of dirty water. My small fists beat the side of the tub. My lungs were scorching. Black specks multiplied in my vision. Right as the dots began to merge into a single darkness, my mother pulled me up by my hair.
Her fingers bit crescent moons into my shoulders. “This is the Ocean’s gift, Annabeth. We never take gifts from the Ocean. Do you understand me?”
She shook me until my head wobbled in affirmation. We never take gifts from the Ocean.
My mother’s grip loosened. She brushed my limp hair from my face. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” My soaking frock dampened hers as she pulled me into an embrace. “Annabeth,” she sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Our sliver of sand was littered with beautiful offerings from the Ocean. Twice a day, the waves crept closer to my mother’s home and when they bashfully retreated, there would be blush pink shells, and spires of bleached driftwood, and a carpet of sea glass beads transforming the beach into a stained glass mural. The locals whispered that my mother must be a sea witch or a mermaid to have enticed the Ocean to leave her so many presents. She ignored the gossip and the gifts. Every dawn, she would walk to the water’s edge and tip out the jar she used to collect her tears. “Someday I will replace the entirety of the Ocean,” she told me.
I asked once why she stayed here on the Ocean’s edge.
“For love,” was her only reply.
The ritual continued. The Ocean left a violin draped in seaweed, a marble coffin filled with pearls and snails, a golden sea turtle. When the sun awoke, my mother stepped past these marvels and poured out her jar of tears.
So with his gifts ignored, when I was eleven, the Ocean came to our door to ask for forgiveness.
His skin was nearly translucent and flashed rainbows in the glinting sun. He was dressed in a brown suit he had borrowed from a corpse. I had to crane my neck to see his gray eyes. He was so beautiful I nearly swallowed my tongue.
He extended a hand to me. It was elegant but his skin trembled as if his flesh was less than solid. His fingers gently brushed mine and I had the impression that, were I to grip them and pull, his skin would slough off and he would spill to the floor.
“Hello,” he glimmered in the doorway.
I was mesmerized into immobility. Droplets of water beaded on my skin where he had touched me.
He slid past me and poured himself into a kitchen chair.
I was unsure of the etiquette for when the Ocean has made himself a guest in your home. I scrambled for a polite gesture.
“Would you like a drink?” I asked.
His eyebrow floated up. He nodded slowly. I filled a glass halfway from the water pump and placed it in front of him. He peered at it and began to chuckle. I giggled alongside him but my cheeks blushed with shame.
The Ocean took at long drink of water. He held the glass to his lips and his throat rolled with his gulps. He replaced the glass on the table, brandishing it with a grin. The glass was overflowing with water now, rivulets spilling down the sides. I looked at the glass and then at the Ocean. He waggled his eyebrows. This time my laugh was genuine.
“Thank you for my drink.” His teeth were a collection of pearls in varied hues. The effect was oddly pleasing, his smile being like a garden made more beautiful by the diversity of its blooms. “I should offer you something in return.”
I shook my head.
“What about… a Sea Horse, a great black steed to ride through the waves? No? A little one, then.”
I bit my lip and looked at the floor.
“Come now, every little girl wants a pony.”
“Mama says we don’t take gifts from the Ocean,” I said to my dirty toes.
“Did she now…”
“Annabeth.” My mother threw my name like a harpoon when she entered the room. She yanked me back, nearly throwing me to the floor.
“Eugenia,” the Ocean exhaled.
“I was just having a lovely chat with-”
“Oh, Genie, look how gaunt you are making me with your tears. You’re wearing me away,” he grinned, indicating to the hollows of his cheeks. “I’ve brought you a gift, my love.”
“I am not yours.”
Something quivered under his pale skin and dove beneath the surface, dragging his smile with it. He pouted juicily. “My beautiful Eugenia. Look at your face. A cliff face. Do you truly hate me so?”
“Leave my home now. Never come back.”
“Don’t you wish to hear what I have brought you?”
His gray eyes perused my plain face and scrawny frame. “Such a beautiful daughter you have.”
I flushed crimson. My mother’s hands tightened on my shoulders, nails fitting into crescent groove scars. “Don’t,” she whispered.
“Ah, a crack in the stone.” The Ocean gleamed. “Genie. I’ve come to atone.”
My mother leaned heavily on my shoulders.
“Annabeth,” the Ocean whispered conspiratorially. “Go to the window.”
I hesitated. Gently, I extracted myself from under my mother’s weight. Though I feared she might, she did not fall.
I moved towards the window. Outside, there was a desert. The silver fish and jellies and albino dolphins flopped pathetically on the exposed sandy floor. On the edge, where the water once met the sand, there was a pile nearly as tall as me.
“Bones,” I gasped. Long bones, bleached bones, skulls with small teeth. A string of seaweed dripped from an eye socket like an inky trail of tears.
“Your gift, Genie.”
“You stole them away because you were jealous.”
The Ocean shook his head remorsefully. “No, Eugenia. They wanted to come. It is not my fault they didn’t have the strength to come home.” He advanced towards my mother languidly. His stormy eyes were tortuous ecstasy. “Genie, Genie, I miss your skin. Slipping, sliding. Genie, you are my moon. You draw me near, push me away. I am endlessly under your control.”
The fish gasped, gaped. “They’re dying!” I cried.
The Ocean traced the air around my mother’s jaw. “A cliff face. Created by the endless flow of water.” He leaned his face close to hers. “I am your king and you are my goddess.” Her shallow breaths created ripples that radiated across his skin. “Eugenia,” he sighed into her. “I brought them home. I’ve brought our children home.”
The cascading crash broke them apart. The glass had hit the wall satisfactorily hard.
I indicated to the flailing sea life. “They’re dying,” I chastised.
The Ocean narrowed his gray eyes at me.
“Annabeth,” said my mother like a prayer.
The Ocean turned to her. He was weeping. Leaking. Water dripped from his eyes, his ears, his nostrils. It oozed from his skin.
“Take my gift,” he pleaded. “Forgive me. Come back to me.”
My mother was shaking. I slipped my fingers into hers.
“Genie,” trembled the Ocean. “Don’t you remember? It’s like flying.”
“I will never forgive you.”
“I could take her,” he spat. “I could send a wave and drag her out.”
My mother’s hand tightened around mine. “But you won’t.”
“Why?” The Ocean was quaking, vibrating with swirling, disobedient water.
My mother let go of my hand. She stepped closer to the Ocean and rested her fingers delicately on his cheek. His love was reflected back to him in her eyes. I understood. She stayed on the shore for love. Love of the Ocean kept her near. Love for her daughter kept her far. When she mixed her tears with the Ocean, she stood on the border where the water meets the sand and the waves kissed the tips of her toes in the lovers’ hateful equilibrium. I was not the first gift she took from the Ocean, but I was the first she would not allow him to take back.
You will leave now,” said my mother to the Ocean, “Because I am your moon and I am telling you to go.”
“Eugenia,” sighed the Ocean as the roaring flood cracked his jaw. The endless wave ripped open his skin and out he cascaded. The riptide swirled at my feet. My mother’s embrace held me steady as I buried my face in her shoulder. The cabin shuddered; the beams were breaking, crashing. Things wriggled, wound around my calves and gummed at my skin. We were caught in a whirlpool, drowning, suffocating, I opened my mouth to scream-
I opened my eyes. The house was still standing. We were dry. The Ocean was where it belonged and the bones were gone.
“Annabeth,” said my mother. “Once you have flown in the Ocean…” She clutched my arms suddenly, her eyes wild. “The Ocean is deceptive. It is so much deeper than you could ever fathom.”
I brushed her hair from her cheek. “We never take gifts from the Ocean.” Because the Ocean demands gifts in return.
She pressed her hand against mine and nodded. She turned away from the Ocean, from me. Her face was once again stone.
When I turned eighteen, I left that cabin by the water and moved inland, as far inland as I could to where the seas are made of grass. My mother remained on the shore. She pours her tears into the Ocean, an act of mutilation, an act of devotion. The hateful lovers’ endless dance, the Ocean and his moon.
I often think of those weeping skulls, my brothers and sisters, grinning with elation as they fly through the bottomless Ocean. My mother held my head underwater once. I learned my lesson. I never take gifts from the Ocean. This was my mother’s gift to me.
My mother almost drowned me once.