Nora Chases the Sea—Nick Tan

Nora chases the sea, spitting at the long, tattered line of foam curling away from her salt-scabbed feet. As she advances, the sea retreats, pulling out of the bay and putting itself away. Nora runs across the stripped littoral zone, shredding her soles on the rocks jagged with barnacles, kicking at the wriggling fish. The sea huddles as far back as it can, then stops. Then it surges toward Nora, released from the catapult of its own body.

Nora, please stop chasing the sea, the townspeople plead when their buildings and power lines are washed away, when their sewage pipes burst and their trains are derailed by the incoming surf.

Nora says, Not until it gives my sister back to me.

Nora poisons the sea. She sinks the crawling tankers and smears oil slicks across the water. She raises factories along the coast, churning out noxious brews, the effluent turning the sea orange and purple and black. The prawn farms die. The seabirds wash ashore in tarry lumps. The fish catch the edges of petroleum rainbows with their gills. The sea shawls itself in algae as thick and dark as stale blood.

Nora bathes in the burgundy waves, shouting, You take many but you always give them back, so why not her

In response, the sea retches out mats of rotting kelp tangled with dying luminescent things from the deep.

Nora stabs the sea: first with wooden poles, then with concrete piling, laying her foundations in the seabed. She builds a causeway, then a platform, then miles and miles of long-legged imitation land, upon which she sets the first blocks of her floating cities. She cuts the sea into canals. She drives the heels of her cities into reef and rock. She flattens the tides into languid swells. She skewers metal through the deepest trenches, straight through the beating, buried heart of the sea. The sea looks up through the grating of Nora’s cities, greased and groomed and tame as a pond.

The sea dies and Nora finds her sister half-submerged in the sand, desiccated sponges clinging to her skeleton. A starved hermit crab is using her skull as a shell. Her jawbone chatters as the crab shuffles among her teeth. Nora digs her sister out and cradles her fishbone ribs.

Nora, says her sister’s skull, the hermit crab creaking her sister’s teeth into speech, give the sea back to me.

It made salt and bones out of you, and still it wouldn’t let you come home, answers Nora. Ask for something else.

Her sister replies, Then how about a kiss?

Nora leans toward her sister’s bones and kisses where lips once bloomed, and the crab nesting in her sister’s jaw clips her and floods her mouth with salt and rusted iron, and she tastes the little cove where she and her sister used to dive off the rocks and emerge, spluttering, with fistfuls of jellyfish, their fingers and arms throbbing with the incandescent venom of the stingers, which they’d lick until their welts became infected, and if the tide was too low for swimming they’d lie by the rock pools and herd the tiny periwinkles into made-up constellations until their eyes were blurry with periwinkle-stars and the sun melted their brains into stupor.

The cliff collapsed. The cove is gone. The sea took it, along with her sister. And now, the sea is gone, taken by Nora.

Nora cries, and the sea ruptures through the membranes of her heart and pours out of her arid eye sockets, snatching away her sister’s bones. She steps ashore onto a new beach, damp sand streaked with stranded jellyfish. She moves inland, away from their stings. 

Neither sea nor sister follow.

Nick Tan is a Malaysian speculative fiction writer based in Aotearoa NZ. Their work has previously appeared in Apparition Lit, Translunar Travelers’ Lounge and Anathema. They can be found on Twitter @moxieturbine.

photo by Oliver Sjöström (via pexels)