The third time the ocean comes to our door, there’s no sister to wake me. I’m roused from my slumber by the lapping of waves and tiptoe past our father’s bedroom door. He won’t rise for another hour or two. By then, the ocean will have receded once more. He’ll wonder at the damp sand when he pulls out the boat for the day. At the small fish left behind in saltwater pools. If I can help it, he’ll never know what happened here.
I open the front door. The water reaches up to the stairs, but there are no waves. The ocean is a black mirror, stretching to our doorstep in a held breath. On the horizon, its darkness melts into the night sky. Stars have already started to bleed into the water, sinking underneath the surface. Fish leave the cold depths for the heavens, huge schools of them spiraling upwards. The first time the ocean called on us, my sisters and I watched a shark leap out of the water, chasing fish into the star-studded sky. By the look on Katerina’s face, the light reflected in her eyes, I knew we had already lost her.
I watch her now as she returns from the deep, kelp braided into her hair. Her skin is nearly translucent, ice-blue veins running up her arms. When she smiles, her teeth are sharp like the shark’s that once lured her from this house.
She was the first to be born and the first to leave.
“Sister.” She spreads her arms. Her dress is a cluster of barnacles and small pale crabs scurrying across her body. “It has been too long.”
Five years. Three, if you count the time she came for Marie, but she barely looked at me then.
I stay where I am, hands gripping the doorframe. I’ve prepared for this for weeks, but the words won’t come. My need for a response is delayed when the wind picks up, relief washing over me.
Marie descends from the sky, carried on a breeze. My second sister’s hair is the light of stars, her skin the dark void between them. She gathers me up in an embrace, but her feet hardly brush against the stone steps. Her breath on my cheek is the freezing Northern wind. Ice shimmers on her lips.
“I’ve missed you,” she says and tucks an errant strand of hair behind my ear. “What’s with this weary look on your face? Are you not excited that we’ll be reunited?”
“She’s scared.” Katerina scoffs. “Perhaps she’s too young for the ocean to claim her.”
“I’m no younger than you were!” The words slip out before I can stop them—the annoyance at her sisterly teasing like muscle memory.
“The ocean is a generous wife,” Marie says placatingly. “She’s not like the sailors make her out to be. She’ll take care of you. Of Father too, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Nets full of fish. No wind harsh enough to rip his sails. A poor prize in exchange for daughters he doesn’t even remember.
“She’ll let you be whatever you need to be,” Katerina says. “You could be fire if you wanted. The heat in the deep, the endless smoke rising from the heart of the earth.” I can see the promise in her eyes. She wanted life and death, the thrill of the hunt. So the ocean gave it to her. She’d never die in her bed of old age. Never grow sick, staring at the drawn curtains of her room until she’d dwindle away to nothing.
Marie’s hand is in mine, squeezing gently. “You could see the ice in the North. There’s a pulse underneath it, so slow you could live a whole lifetime within the beating of its heart.” She would never take a husband, never bear him children. Never feel her body grow heavy with life and responsibility, anchoring her to the only ground she’d ever know. She wanted freedom, so the ocean gave her the winds and roiling storms.
“What if this is what I want? This life?”
Marie recoils at the suggestion. Katerina’s eyes grow hard. I’ve offended them, but how could I ever make them understand? I think of the people in our village and my heart aches. Of our father and his warm smile. Of bread fresh from the baker and the fields of strawberries near the woods. Of sinking my hands into the soil of our garden and the sun on my skin. Is it a crime for me to love the things I know?
I don’t notice the water rising until it laps at my feet. I flinch at the sudden cold. She could take me by force, I realize. If she wanted to, the ocean could tear me from this house. But I feel nothing but the cool water around my ankles, a careful touch. She has been here all along, listening. She sees me as I see her. She has watched continents break and empires fall. By her side, I could be magnificent and terrible. I could let the water take me now and be a hurricane, a storm to match her might. I could be the endless dark, fall where even the sun wouldn’t reach me.
Or I could live a life, full and rich and human. Be buried in the ground I cherish so much.
The water recedes, slowly at first. I take a breath as I emerge from what she’s shown me. A million pathways, endless possibility. My hand doesn’t leave the doorframe. My feet stay firmly on the ground.
There’s disappointment on my sisters’ faces as they leave with the tide. They won’t think of me often, but they’ll be happy in the lives they’ve chosen. And if I ever change my mind, I know they’ll be there—waiting in the surf for me to join them. The ocean is a generous wife, after all. Her gift has always been the promise of a choice.