Short Fiction by Sian Hughes
Sheona came out of the sea all on her own. She felt neither the desire or the need to dance naked under the moon with a tribe of girl pals until some no-good-fisherman spotted her. She did not need a love story to start her new life. She did not at first know what she needed.
She had sung under the shoreline, trilling through fronded kelp, majestically sending ripples inland and tiny bubbles skybound. That’s when it had started. When she looked to the sky. And she wondered what it would feel like to have air on her skin all day, to be submerged in it. Breezes sifting through her, sorting her thoughts like wheat from chaff. Cool air, caressing her body. The calmness of it, the nothingness and bliss that endless air suggested. To breathe it in. Imagine, to breathe air as it held her. Not just to take air from elsewhere and hold it inside as she meandered up and down the waves.
That was what continued it, after the sky had started it. The thought that her life down here was pointless. She was just beautiful, a simple feature – one amongst many of course – of an endless wave. No more than seafoam, a freckled flash of black in a day’s white horse. A myth. She was a myth. And whilst this could be equated with legend, she knew she was simply myth. Here nor there, no deeds to speak of. Most often nameless. So she decided.
Never before had she shed her skin. The first time it hurt, like tearing herself open. Like losing part of herself. And she bled. And she wept. But it felt blissful. The pain brought euphoria and she did dance, and skip. For a time. And then returned to the sea.
The next time she chose day. As the spring flowers dipped their leaves and raised their heads to meet the sun, she unzipped herself and stored the part of herself that she could not name in a kelp covered cove. Finding clothes, she discovered, was not so easy if she did not have a man to provide them. But she saw discarded things on the meagre strip of sand and pebbles and covered her nakedness as she had seen them do.
And soon she found a place which seemed to have all the clothes you could take. And although one woman shouted when she tried to take what she desired. A second woman seemed to read her eyes and said, ‘don’t fret Deborah, we are called Seafarer’s Mission for a reason’ and she learnt that charity had to be given not taken. And she learnt that charities have shops. So at the shop she took what she liked and the woman – not Deborah – wrote it all down and said finally,
“I’m sure you’ll remember us when you can?”
Sheona did not understand.
The woman said kindly,
“I’m sure you will pay for these things when you feel able?”
Sheona nodded, and so she learnt what writing was, and what money was and how that worked. And she took the note that Not-Deborah had given her. And when she got out of the clothes-filled room that was called a shop, she realised Not-Deborah had given her another note, and this was some of the money stuff.
She walked back through the town to the cove and hid her new things and the money note in the kelp cove and took back part of herself, and took herself into the ocean.
Many more days passed like this, and she learnt what money notes paid for, and how people liked to spend them and spend their time. And once, a girl looked at her arm and exclaimed how beautiful her bangle was: “Where did you buy it?” Her sisters had made it for her out of shell. And so Sheona realised she could have things, and make things, for which people would pay money notes to her. After she had sold many bangles, each day she rose from the waves. She went back to Not-Deborah, who Deborah was currently yelling at,
“Iris, it’s Tuesday, we don’t put out the men’s shoes on a Tuesday.”
Deborah frowned at her, and Sheona, feeling pleased she had learnt a name-day, (on which they apparently did not put out shoes) thrust a fist full of money-notes at the woman who was called Iris.
Iris was astounded. She pulled a strange array of faces and finally her face landed on something which Sheona thought was fear. She was still not too good at reading their faces.
“This is too much, much too much,” Iris whispered. “Where did you get it?”
And Sheona pulled up the sleeve of the long top – which she had now bought, and paid for, from Iris – to show all the shell bangles she kept there, That she had been selling ten a day of for probably two moons. Iris sold her a purse, and put the money notes into the purse, which was small but smelt of grass and mammals. Iris told her there were much better things she could spend money on than things in the Seafarer’s Mission.
“Like counselling to learn how to talk?” Deborah muttered darkly.
So, the next time Sheona saw Iris – she made it a habit to go in twice in a moon, to sell Iris some of her bangles – Iris said she, ‘could get a pretty penny for those in the shop’. Sheona wasn’t sure what made a penny pretty, but she found she did make Iris smile, and Iris had one of those faces that was four times more beautiful with a smile on. Deborah seemed to not give Iris too much to smile about. So Sheona went to see Iris smile. Sometimes after selling the bangles to Iris, she stayed to help out in the shop, and Iris gave her more money after. So, she learnt what work was and that it could be deeply satisfying. But also that it could be frustrating and upsetting – and so Deborah was fired. She had apparently been taking things from the Seafarer’s Mission without asking, and without a note from Iris, and without paying money-notes for the things later. So Sheona learnt what stealing was.
Each day, she went to help Iris in the shop, each night she slipped all her things into the secret kelp cove, took back the part of herself, and took to the waves. She didn’t need to sleep, and she did not need to eat. But she needed something else. She did not at first know what she needed. And then Iris asked her two questions, just as they were spring-cleaning the shop. Sheona did not know what made it ‘spring’ cleaning, but Iris had said, ‘time for a proper spring clean’ so Sheona helped out – rubber gloves felt very odd on her them-skin and made her feel sick in her throat.
“Lass, I don’t even know your name, and I don’t think I’ve a right to ask, and I don’t think I’ve a right to ask why you don’t talk neither. But I do think I’ve a right to say – you know all them notes you stuff into your purse. You’d about be able to get a little place in town now with what I pay you, with your bracelets as well. And I know you walk out of town each night after we close the shop. Because I see you walking, from the bus.”
It was the most Iris had said to her, ever, in as long as they had been doing the shop together. Sheona learnt that the loud and smelly carriage that took people out of the town on the coast road was called a bus. And she learnt that Iris, and all of them, had ‘little places.’ Places where they lived. They did not have to live in one place at night and one place in the day and hide from their sisters for many moons where they had been.
So, Iris took Sheona to a place that seemed to be a shop for ‘little places’ and Iris got her a good deal because her cousin’s son owned the shop. And Sheona moved into a little place of her own and went to pay for it in the shop – with her money notes that Iris called ‘wages’ – at the end of each moon. Each time, the cousin’s son looked at her a little oddly – and took the crumpled-up money-notes and smoothed them and counted them and nodded.
Then Sheona realised she needed to talk.
Most people, the few of them she had come across, didn’t say much to her when they found she said nothing at all. But there was one man, who worked in the cousin’s-son’s shop, who always said interesting and curious things to her, things she did not understand. Then one day he tried to touch her, and she realised they were not interesting, curious or nice things he said at all. They were the things no-good-fishermen usually said to people like her. People that were not like them, not people. Things men said to women – to get them to marry them. Sheona genuinely wondered how it ever worked and she tried out her voice in the mirror in the smallest room in her ‘little place’. She could make it work and she could make sounds, but she found she did not know the words for things. She could sound out words that Iris used: ‘shop’ was easy, because it had the sound of the sea in it; ‘lass’ was harder; ‘money’ was ok, because she could hum it like a song. But her mouth didn’t know how to work the other words out.
She thought about what she could say to the cousin’s-son’s friend. She had no idea what people said to men like him. She thought about the last thing he said to her, he said it in a nice voice, but she knew it wasn’t nice after he grabbed her.
“Why don’t you ever talk to me, when I give you all these compliments.You’re just a frigid bitch, aren’t ya?”
She could not make any sense of the middle bit – the man had not given anything to her, and the end bit was clearly the nasty part, because he said it quieter, and slower and then grabbed at her. She had practically run out of the shop to get away. But the first bit, Iris said something like that too, but nicer, like a wondering question, like clouds on a sunny day, that play across the sky without thinking too hard about it. Iris had said,
“Wonder if you’ll ever talk to me,” and sort of stared at her, and Sheona found that if she blinked several times, she stopped looking at her. Iris shook her head, like she was dislodging a ‘cobweb’ – which Sheona had learnt were a great problem in the shop.
“I guess you can’t make words like you can make jewellery is all.” Iris answered her own question.
So Sheona practised. ‘Can’t make words, talk to me,’ each night in the small room in her little place. And she said these, one day, to Iris. Iris was so surprised that she dropped a crystal decanter that she’d been hoping to get another pretty penny for. When they’d finished tidying up, Iris said, thoughtfully.
“You can’t make the words. Does your voice hurt you? You know the words though?”
Sheona shook her head.
Iris blinked, surprised, “You only know the ones I’ve been saying to you?”
Sheona nodded. She knew meanings, and she knew feelings, and she knew faces now – after a long moon of learning them.
“Silly me!” Iris was saying, “Silly, silly me – here’s me thinking you’d got some emotional problem, and you just didn’t want to talk. I never asked where you came from, I never thought you just didn’t know the language!”
Iris paid for Sheona to have English lessons – two evenings every week – Sheona had learnt the week-days by the regular pattern each day had in the shop. She had learnt that there were a number of weeks in a moon. So on three evenings every week, after they closed the shop, Iris walked her up to the church next to the bus stop, where the English classes happened, and Sheona spent a moon learning English. Once the words came, she found she knew them straight away. She found she could read the words in the way that they put them in pictures on a page. She found she was a ‘supremely quick learner’ because the teacher told her so.
One night, at the class, a woman brought in a thing she called a ‘typewriter’ and the class all oo-ed and aah-ed over it, because it was apparently very old. They took pictures of it on their hand-devices. Sheona had seen that many of them had hand-devices and there were desk-devices in the cousin’s-son’s shop – but Iris had neither, and had a low opinion of both – so Sheona had never been curious about them. The typewriter though – she thought was beautiful. It had shiny keys and spat out ink into all the new words that she had learnt. She picked up her book and put the words together and she said to the woman.
“Can borrow I please?”
And the woman – who was Pakistani and had six children only a bit younger than Sheona – didn’t mind that Sheona didn’t put the words in the right order.
At home – in her little place, Sheona had learnt was also called a ‘home’ by many of the cute and frilly worded signs Iris sold in the shop – Sheona tried out the typewriter. She typed random keys, she typed words she had learnt, she got out her books and learnt how to put the words together for the cousin’s-son’s friend who had bothered her. And she wrote him a letter. She did not think it was strange to write a letter before she had ever had a conversation. She didn’t know that was the usual way round.
She wrote the man a letter – which was really just a very long number of words to say ‘leave me alone’ and she didn’t know that she should write her name at the end of a letter. So she didn’t. She didn’t know about conversations, or hiding your name, until Iris asked her a question, it was only the second or third Iris had ever asked. She was usually happy to just tell Sheona things – or talk out loud to herself. But the day after Sheona had written a letter to the no-good-cousin’s-son’s-shop-man and put it in his hand and walked as crisply out the door as the letter was folded – Iris said to her.
“Why didn’t you tell me that Nigel was bothering you?”
Sheona thought about it, and put her head on one side, but her slow blinking did not make Iris shake her head of cobwebs or turn away. Sheona put the words together carefully.
“I couldn’t,” she said.
And Iris turned away seeming to understand but at the same time shaking her head.
Sheona spent the rest of the day trying to think of a nicer thing to say to Iris. But went home, thinking of the question – and the only other questions Iris had ever asked.
So Sheona tried to learn to say her own name. Whatever she tried, she could not make the sound of the sea turn into the right sounds. She looked in the little mirror in the little place called home. And she tried to ‘spit it out’ as Iris would say. But she just could not.
The next day, when Iris was breaking open all the shutters and throwing out all the waste from the ‘spring’ clean, that seemed many moons ago, Iris shouted a word that Sheona had never heard before. But Iris shouted it so loudly and joyfully that Sheona shouted back the last of the words she had carefully been preparing;
“… is my name!”
Iris, having opened all the windows on the top floor, creaked down the back stairs of the shop. She looked at Sheona but didn’t ask any questions. Sheona had learnt that people like Iris just don’t ask a lot of questions.
“My name is Summer,” she said simply and joyfully loud.
Illustration by Lauren Miller
This piece came in the Top 5 in The Mechanics’ Summer Folk Tale Festival