The Gull Heart—Constance Fay

On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. At night, it is a soap bubble, frothed and frozen as the waves roll in and the moon shines his light dispassionately on. In the day, it is every color of blue, green, and gray—at once cloudy and clear.  

The fisherman who lives within the sea glass house is, of course, the victim of a curse.

He has married four times and been widowed just as many. The first went to plague, the second to a fall, the third drowned. The fourth disappeared. Some say she left him, others can’t argue with the curse—she must be dead if she is gone. The fisherman keeps a simple home in the sea glass house. No one knows how he came to own it and no one asks, either. 

There is something about him that catches questions in the throat.  

His eyes are thundercloud gray over cheeks as weathered as a sealskin and a beard as coarse as a sponge. Tattoos line his arms and drip down to his fingertips. Four straight black ink lines stretch down from his left eye, one for each wife had and lost. When he speaks, his voice is rough as dry sand and falls flat against the slick walls. The sea glass house feels hollow when the tide brings him home and he wonders if the lives of four wives have glutted the curse to satiation.  

 A whale-bone hook arcs over the hearth, large enough to catch a kraken if the right bait were used. Some days, the fisherman takes the hook from the wall and runs his fingers over its smooth curve. Everything in the sea glass house is smooth. There is nothing for a memory to catch on even if one were created.  

One day, the fisherman is out on the water and he gets to talking to himself. He tells himself he’s thirsty. He tells himself he’s not finding any good fish. Finally, as the moon begins to rise, he tells himself that he’s lonely. He says he’d do just about anything to not be so lonely anymore.  

And the moon, well, he listens.  

“What is a wife worth to you?” The moon asks the fisherman as the boat bobs beneath his broad white face.  

“Anything.” The fisherman swears, wondering if he’s fallen asleep and is dreaming of the moon. He doesn’t know the result would be no different if he was. Promises made to the moon, asleep or awake, are binding.  

So, the moon tells him what to do. The fisherman is to take the whale bone hook from above his fireplace and carve it into the shape of a woman. He should put two embers in the place of its eyes, so that she can always see the truth. Two shells will serve as her ears, so that she hears things that others may not. He must bind the wrists and ankles with rosemary so that she will never leave him. Finally, he must cut off his tongue and give it to her for a heart.  

“My tongue?” The fisherman stares up at the moon with wide eyes. He doesn’t use his tongue often, but it is a large sacrifice.

“Did you think you were making a doll?” The moon bathes the fisherman with cold light.  

“If I do all this, I will have a wife?” 

“If you do all this, and leave the doll for the tide to wash on the first night of the crescent moon, she will be birthed from the sea for you. She will love you and, so long as you do not neglect her, she will not leave you.”

The fisherman starts to speak but the moon cuts him off.

“There is one limit to this magic. After that night, she may never again see my face in the night sky. Not even once.”  

The boat jerks suddenly and the fisherman realizes that he has run aground on the shoals where his sea glass house sits. He returns to his house, thinking about what the moon said. About what the moon wants in return. It’s not such a high price to pay for love and the end of a curse. A woman composed of bone and fire, animated by moonlight, will be unkillable.  

He carves that whale bone into a shape as delicate as a sprite and ties her thin wrists with rosemary twigs from his garden. For her ears, he uses shells of the palest pink, glossy and smooth. Two hot coals rest where her eyes would be.  

But, he can’t bring himself to cut his tongue. He has the knife there, in his mouth, when he thinks, maybe the moon was fooling him. A tongue for a heart doesn’t make sense at all and he doesn’t want a wife to have a heart that would be made of something as venomous as the tongue of a man. Her heart should be a soft thing. He switches a seagull heart for his own tongue, pinned to the bone chest, and is proud of doing so.  

On the first night of the crescent moon, the doll goes in the waves, tied under with a rope of seaweed bound to a stone. When she wakes, the bride struggles, spitting at the sea as it washes over her head, bathing her mouth in salt. The fisherman sees her floundering and cuts her free, carrying her bone-pale body from the water and setting her feet upon the sand. He rushes her within the sea glass house and only then realizes that a bride who must never see the moon and a house made of glass are in opposition.  

The next day, while she is learning how feet work and grunting her first newly birthed noises, the fisherman coats the inside of his sea glass house with white paint, throwing the interior into shadow and blocking the sky. When he comes inside, he takes his bride’s cheeks in his hands and names her Itzel. Newly born, she pops her lips at him happily.  

After a few months, Itzel learns how to be a woman rather than bone, fire, and flesh. She was created to obey him, so he doesn’t bother to tell her why she is not allowed outside at night. A command is enough to ensure compliance. She has a clever mind, a devotion to her husband, and a peculiar fascination with the sky. During the day, Itzel sits on the warm brown sand as the wind tangles her hair and watches the gulls circle overhead.  

“I almost feel like I could fly.” She spreads her arms wide as her husband brings in the daily catch. Her flesh is pale and smooth like the wings of a gull and he begins to grow uneasy.  

He gently pushes her into the dark house in front of him and they light candles. The sea glass is muted now, dull gray as the sun burns away the paint’s gloss. His home, where once he could count the stars above, is now shadowed and hot. In the night, when the candles have burned down, it feels as though he is in the darkest depths of the sea, the water pressing in on all sides. But then his wife, with her cool moonlight skin and voice like waves lapping at the shore runs a finger down the side of his neck, and he forgets about the stifling dark.  

They share time, between the day and the dark for five years. The four lines below the fisherman’s eye fade with age until they are barely noticeable in the weathered tan of his skin. His previous wives are ghosts compared to his lovely and gentle bone bride.  

They have an easy communion. So easy, he has to do nothing at all to satisfy her. If it wasn’t for her fascination with the sky, she would be perfect.  

One day, when the fisherman returns from his work, he sees her atop the nearby cliffs, arms spread and wind catching in the rippling fabric of her white dress. Her bare toes curl over the rough black rock and her feather-pale hair streams behind her in the breeze. His heart catches in his chest and his tongue suddenly feels too large for his mouth. She looks so delicate up there on the stone that he momentarily regrets carving such fragile flesh. 

“Itzel!” He shouts her name. It’s barely audible over the din of waves crashing against rock.  

She looks down on him and, for a moment, her eyes are so remote it’s like she doesn’t recognize him at all. Smoldering like the embers they once were until all he can see is the otherworldly glow of her attention. It is scalding. As though the bone and rosemary and that little bit of bird-flesh are not enough to contain the fire.  

She leaves the edge of the cliff, as if a rope binds her to his intentions. Her lip curls against it and her eyes, as always, drift to the sky. 

The next time he leaves, and every day thereafter, he locks her within the sea glass house. He says he can’t trust her not to throw herself off the cliff. He doesn’t understand the wild heart that beats within her chest—the heart that he gave her. 

She bounces off the walls of the tiny glass house all day and the next, trapped. After five days alone in the dark, she begins to scrape away at the paint that coats the inside of the house, fingers clawed and stiff. She’s desperate to see just a sliver of the sky. The paint gives at the same time as her nails break and day shines through at last. It’s enough. For now. She pants on the floor as a flake of sunlight paints her face. 

When the fisherman comes home, he doesn’t notice the damage. His path through the house, from door to bed, is well-worn. So frequently trod that he barely opens his eyes. He doesn’t notice anything except the angry line of his wife’s back as she turns from him in their bed. He’s irritated. A man makes a woman, he expects her to be a bit more amenable. 

Long after he’s asleep, her ember eyes remain open and she sees something new. A cool light shines through the wall of the sea glass house. She presses her face to the wall, gazing through the small scratched hole in the paint and, for the first time, beholds the moon. 

For the second time, the moon beholds her. 

He warned the fisherman of this moment. The fisherman isn’t very good at listening—confident in his own cleverness. To assume one can outsmart the moon is a foolish thing. 

The moon doesn’t speak yet. He waits and he watches. He has all the time in the world. Something about looking at the night sky makes people want to wish for things and Itzel, well, she’s human enough to succumb to the impulse.

“I wish I could be free.” she breathes as moonglow fills her eyes.

“Is that what you really want?” The moon asks her. Since she’s never seen the moon before, it doesn’t strike her as strange that he speaks. 

She thinks about that. About the desire that fills her heart more than any other. “No. I wish I could fly.”

“What is flying worth to you?”

“I don’t have anything.” She answers honestly. Everything in the sea glass house is owned by the fisherman, even her. 

That doesn’t bother the moon. He isn’t about taking. He’s about the wanting. Hers shines almost brighter than the moon’s own glow. Itzel now, while not exactly a person, is enough of one to want, and wanting is the defining trait of people. 

So, the moon tells her how to fly. She’s got the heart of a bird but not the wings. To make wings she needs five gull feathers, a frame of driftwood bound with yarrow for hope and nettle for perseverance. It seems simple until he comes to the part that powers it all. A spent curse. 

Curses are hard to come by. Spent ones even harder. If curses were easy to sever, they wouldn’t be so effective. Before long, Itzel has everything else she needs, collected in the afternoons when she is released from her coop and allowed to breathe the sea-salt air. The curse, however, remains elusive.

As does her husband. Sometimes he doesn’t come home at all and she’s trapped within the sea glass house for days on end. She has become another smooth fixture of the house, trying desperately to snag the edge of her husband’s attention—but it has drifted away, somehow. The stifling dark smothers her until the love bound to her with rosemary and carved into her flesh wears away like sand smoothing stone. She’s left raw and prickly, empty of anything except that driving desire for the sky. When he finally does return to the sea glass house, she looks upon him in a different way. 

What is her husband, if not the bearer of a curse? 

As she withdraws from him, and he from her, the dark tattoos below his eyes grow stark again. Four lines for four wives. Nothing for the fifth. The only way to get beneath the skin of the man is through death. The living hold no purchase, sloughing away from him like the shed scales of a snake. And what after that? After she has been shed?

She will be free to dance in the wind. No longer locked in a painted glass house. No longer bound to a man who considers her his property. She swells with the feeling of potential. His curse is key to her freedom. But how to spend it? How to capture it once spent?

Every curse is built with a hook. His is to love and lose. Cast upon him long before she knew him. It is formed around emotion and damage. The hook is always hidden within the meat of a thing. 

In the end, it’s laughably easy. 

It’s not the man who is cursed, no. It is his heart. While it may have felt something for the four previous wives, it never has for her. She is a wife but she has never been a love. Love is not entrapment. Even a made creature understands that much. What she needs to power the moon’s spell is not the man. It is the part of him that she has never yet held. The part that loved and lost until it grew dry and hollow. 

It is not hard to kill him. He doesn’t consider her at all except in reflection of himself. Didn’t he secure bone wrists with rosemary once? He was so confident in their bindings that he forgot the caveat. 

So long as you do not neglect her, the moon had said. 

The fisherman gave her the heart of a bird and then blocked her from the sky. It is enough to loosen the binding of the herbs. Enough to make her will her own. 

She’s waiting in the dark of the sea glass house when he comes back from a long day fishing, harpoon in her hand and ash in her eyes. He blinks. She is out of place. An ottoman moved unexpectedly. A cup out of the cabinet. 

The harpoon goes in smooth as a wing cuts through air. When he opens his mouth, blood stains his teeth. Still, he is not angry or fearful. He is confused. A misplaced teacup cannot kill. 

He created her to please him. 

The moon created her for another purpose entirely. 

It occurs to her to apologize. She should. She’s killed a man she was bound to love. A fifth dark line drips from his eye. A bloody tear. Finally, she has marked him. 

She does not apologize. 

When his eyes dim as flat as the painted sea glass house, she lays him on the sand under the light of the moon and retrieves his heart. The curse lies inert within its weight. 

It is smaller than she expected. 

When she ties it within the frame of driftwood, yarrow, and nettle, it rests—soft and warm—between her shoulder blades. The pain that wracks her body is sweet and bright as wings spring from her back and smooth white feathers pierce her flesh. She twists and writhes and finally bursts forth anew.

Beneath the gaze of the moon, she flaps her wings and takes to the air. The night is clear and cold and—when she caws a ragged cry of liberty—the calls of other gulls greet her. 

 On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. Once, long ago, it was painted and dull. It has been scraped clean since then and—on a clear night—it reflects the light of the moon. 

A woman lives in the house. One with skin as pale as bone and eyes that glow like embers when roused. In the day, she stands atop the cliffs overlooking the water and the wind ruffles her hair as it rushes from sea to sky. At night, she takes flight from those same cliffs, buoyed by the air and watched by the moon. 

She talks to him, on occasion. Not to ask for a favor, no. The moon grants those rarely and they nearly all come with a hook. She seeks nothing but to share the joy of the sky.

The moon talks back. She is his first child. He loves nothing better than to watch her fly.

Constance Fay lives in Colorado, USA. She works in medical devices by day and writes by night, accompanied in both by a very opinionated cat. Her fiction has previously appeared in the horror anthology 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Crow & Cross Keys (“The Fox Bride and the Hawthorn Queen,” March 2022)Her website is and she can be found at @constanceefay on both Twitter and Instagram.

photo by Ingo Ellerbusch and Marty McGuire (via unsplash)