Thalassa was born at sea, on the waves of a storm. Because of this, she loved the ocean. Sometimes, it felt as though her veins were full of seawater instead of blood. Her mother, however, told her that was nonsense.
“Thala, Thala,” her mother called her name. Thalassa ducked her head beneath the cattail reeds and dug her toes into the cold sand. Eventually her mother would give up the search and go back home.
“Foolish girl,” she heard her mother mutter, so close that if she peered upward, she could see the curve of her mother’s shoulder, her head wrapped in silk, strung with beads and seagull feathers.
Thalassa held her breath. And then her mother left, just as Thalassa knew she would, back to their house further inland. She emerged from the reeds and watched her mother disappear down the path back home. A wry smile formed on Thalassa’s lips as she dusted the sand from her skirts. She was free, at last.
* * *
Thalassa skipped down to the beach, pleased with herself. The morning gloom was giving way to a warm day, and the pockets of her dress were deep and empty. Thalassa left her shoes among the cattails and waded down into the tidepools. Plucking small crabs and slimy sea slugs, spikey urchins and tiny pearls from where they hid, she dropped each new treasure into her pockets, until they were full and squirming, soaked with saltwater.
When there was no more room, Thalassa journeyed beyond the pools to a hidden shore. The bank, shaped like a crescent moon, led her to the mouth of the sea cave. Low tide revealed walls of jagged teeth and smooth pockets of sand. Thalassa weaved between the rocks, careful not to lose the creatures crawling inside the folds of her dress.
“Thala,” her mother said, the voice echoing off the cavern walls.
Thalassa stepped onto a circle of cool, wet sand. Holes in the rock overhead let in beams of sunlight, but these were not enough to reach the shadows swirling in the back of the cave. The sound of waves crashing at the mouth filled Thalassa’s ears. From one of her pockets she plucked an urchin and threw it into the dark.
“Thala,” her mother purred. “Thala, did I ever tell you the story of how you were born?”
Thalassa smiled, pinched a sea slug between her fingers, and chucked it into the bowels of the cave.
“You did,” Thalassa replied. “But I will hear it again.”
Thalassa could hear her mother swallowing the offerings, though she could not see her. The darkness had a way of rippling when it was happy, and Thalassa was sure that somewhere in the shadows her mother was smiling.
* * *
By the time high tide rolled in, Thalassa’s pockets were empty, though her head was full of stories. Thalassa thanked her mother for the tales, and her mother thanked her for the meal. It was the same as always. A fair trade. And a warning.
“Thala,” her mother cooed as she weaved away through the rocks, back toward the mouth of the cave. “Do not forget to come back, Thala.”
Back down the crescent beach, Thalassa’s mind swam with the stories her mother told her, not just of her own birth, but fantastic tales of legendary serpents who swallowed ships whole and stole the faces of men, of sea witches who gave birth to fish and daughters alike, of powerful curses that could banish even Gods to the furthest corners of the world.
Of all the stories, however, Thalassa’s favorite was of her birth. Her mother-in-the-cave told her that she was a legend, too. That she was born on the dark waters of a wild sea, and when she cried the rain stopped and the clouds parted. The storm left the heavens to hide deep within her veins.
“Do not forget, Thala, do not forget,” her mother always said.
Thalassa returned to the beach where soft waves crashed along the shore. She let the water lap at her feet while her eyes scanned the horizon. The ocean went on forever, it had no end, same as the boundaries of her imagination. The stories in the cave let Thalassa go wherever she wanted, far away from this island and its sureness. But the stories were more than just an escape. They rattled deep within Thalassa’s bones. She looked up at the sky streaked in shades of pink and orange. There was no storm except for the one swirling in her veins, beckoning her to return to the place of her birth, toward a half-remembered truth.
She found her shoes among the sand and reeds. The cattails waved in the wind, taller than her shoulders. Thalassa made her way inland, back toward home.
* * *
The house was a shack made of wood, wrapped in a porch that creaked beneath every step. Driftwood chimes hung from the storm drain, their hollow knocking echoing on the wind. The walls were full of windows, big and easy to see through. Thalassa climbed the stoop, aware that her mother was in the kitchen, humming a tune. Thalassa opened the screen door and tiptoed inside, but before she got very far her mother’s humming stopped.
“Thalassa,” she cooed. “Where have you been?”
A shiver ran down her spine. Familiar smells of fish and incense rose into Thalassa’s nostrils. A boiling pot of water was steaming on the gas stove, and her mother was at the counter dropping tentacles into it. She didn’t turn to look at Thalassa, though she didn’t need to. Thalassa curled her sandy toes against the wood floor as she thought on what to say. The rhythmic chopping of her mother’s knife filled the silence between them, while a thousand lies bubbled to the surface of her mind. She could tell her mother that she went to the library, or to the fishermen wharf. She could tell her mother anything—anything but the truth.
“I went to see you,” Thalassa said. The chopping stopped.
Instant regret sank into Thalassa’s chest like an anchor. The truth, it seemed, wanted to be told, whether she was ready or not.
“You went to the Crescent Cave,” her mother said, voice drawing deep. She turned then, staring her daughter in the face.
Her mother’s braids hung down to her waist, full of feathers. Her mismatched eyes, one gray and one blue, bore into Thalassa. And her mother’s tentacle fingers were writhing with anger, already grown back from the ones she cut and dropped in the stew.
“I told you, Thala, never to go there,” she said. “I am not in that cave; I am right here.”
Thalassa stared at her mother’s fingers because she could not look at her face. There was something wrong with it, like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. Instead, she stared at her mother’s tentacles, wriggling like worms. Her eyes went all around the kitchen, looking at the hot pot, the counter, the sticks of incense burning in the windowsill, anywhere but her mother’s gaze. With a sigh, her mother gave up and returned to her cooking.
“You will not go back to that cove,” Her mother said as she scooped small crabs from a bowl, dropping them into the stew. “How many times must I tell you, Thala.” She used her suction cups to pick out the pearls and urchins. “You were not born at sea, but here at the midwife’s house.” She tossed sea slugs into a hot pan slick with oil. “You are not of the sea. You are of the land. You will not disobey me again.” Sizzling sounds filled the kitchen, as her mother sautéed the mollusks.
“You will not feed that monster anymore.”
* * *
The next day, Thalassa returned to the Crescent Cave. She rose before dawn and padded down the hall, sneaking past her mother’s room. Thalassa slipped out the front door and ran down the path, past the fields of cattail reeds. Her bare feet found the beach, cold and dark. She stood, staring at the water, her chest heaving to catch its breath.
Sea foam rode the soft waves and littered the shore. In the quiet of the early morning, sandpipers scurried through the wash, using their long beaks to catch the crabs bubbling beneath the surface. Thalassa joined them in their efforts, plucking up the crabs and dropping them into the pockets of her dress. She found seagull eggs hidden in the reeds and muscles buried in the tidepools. She gathered smooth rocks and found a fisherman’s hook.
With her pockets full, Thalassa made her way across the curved shore toward the Crescent Cave. The sky was full of gray clouds, so the cavern was darker than usual. Thalassa lingered in the mouth, listening for the whisper of her mother’s voice. She tossed a seagull’s egg toward the back of the cave and the darkness bristled with pleasure.
“Thala,” her name echoed along the seawalls. “Did I ever tell you the story of how you were born?”
She fed her mother from where she sat near the cavern’s entrance. Thalassa flung her little offerings into the darkness without much gusto. Between words she would hear the crunch of shells and the slurp of muscles. Thalassa twirled the fisherman’s hook between her fingers, floating in and out of her mother’s tale.
“I was born at the midwife’s house,” Thalassa said. “I am not a legend. I am just a girl from a poor town along the coast.”
Silence fell within the cave. Thalassa got to her feet and waited for her mother to say something, anything. Tell me that I am wrong, she thought. But the voice did not return, and so Thalassa turned to go.
“You’re forgetting, Thala,” her mother said.
“Shellfish are fair trade for stories,” the voice in the darkness rippled. “But blood is a fair trade for memories.”
Thalassa considered the hook in her hand, and without a second thought, sliced the skin of her palm. The hum in her bones told her to do it, it told her that this was the proper way to speak to the voice in the cave. She curled her fingers into the cut and squeezed. Her blood dripped onto the sand, red. Not blue like the sea. The thin layer of water that always coated the cave floor was sucked back, and the blood was brought through the mouth, as if the cavern were drawing in a deep breath.
“Thala,” her mother whispered. “Bring me more, Thala.”
* * *
Her mother was waiting for her on the porch of their shack, sitting on the steps beneath the driftwood chimes knocking in the wind. Her mismatched eyes went wide at the sight of the cut on Thalassa’s palm, all of her anger momentarily forgotten as she carried her daughter into the bathroom and cleaned her wound. She fussed over Thalassa, washing her palm and wrapping it in dry bandages. Her mother’s tentacle hand, Thalassa noticed, was gone.
Lopped off, boiling in the pot on the stove, her mother told her. It will not grow back. It is for you.
That night on the porch, Thalassa sat with the stew in her lap, watching it grow cold. The tentacles were floating on the surface of the broth, which was darker than usual. Sitting beside her on the wood, Thalassa’s mother ate with one hand, gnawing on the husks of empty crabs and swallowing the raw yolk of seagull eggs.
“You went again,” her mother said after a time. “You gave it your blood.”
“I gave my blood to you,” Thalassa said.
“No,” her mother said. “I am giving my blood to you, but you do not want it. I am giving you my right hand, and still you do not eat.”
Her mother went on chewing, the soft squish of yolks traded for the hard crunch of rocks between her teeth. Thalassa winced at the sound.
“What else do you want?” Her mother asked. But Thalassa did not want anything. Her mother laughed at this and reached for her daughter’s hand.
“The Mahanas are going to get you, Thala,” her mother’s voice grew deep, fingers tracing the bandages on her palm. “The Mahanas are patient, Thala.”
Then, her mother tore away the bandages. She drove her fingers into the cut, causing Thalassa’s wound to reopen. Thalassa struggled, but her mother would not let her go. She held her daughter’s hand over her bowl and watched the blood drip into the stew. The broth rippled, and Thalassa realized that the whole thing was full of blood, not broth, and that her mother’s tentacles weren’t tentacles at all, but human fingers.
Something woke up in Thalassa’s bones. My mother never had tentacles for a hand.
When she looked back at her mother’s face it was not her mother’s face. And she realized that it had never been her mother’s face, always a little off, a little wrong, like a picture on the wall that hung just a little askew. Her mother was a monster. It was a Mahana. It had a long nose and a wide mouth. Its hair was seaweed, rocks and feathers. Its eyes didn’t match. Not her mother’s eyes. Not her mother’s real eyes. She had left her mother in the dark for too long. Thalassa had forgotten.
Here in front of her was the real monster. The monster she had been feeding.
She tore her arm from the Mahana, spilling the bowl of blood in the sand. Thalassa leapt off the porch and went running toward the beach.
“The Mahanas are coming to get you, Thala,” her not-mother called after her, scooping the bloody sand into its mouth. Thalassa did not stop running, she did not look back. She ran between the rocks and through the reeds, she ran across the beach and through the tidepools. She ran beneath the full moon, following the crescent shore to the mouth of the cave.
* * *
Her pockets were empty, and the cavern was full of water. High tide sloshed against the rocks, their echo roaring deep within the tunnel. Thalassa waded into the current, entering through the mouth and calling upon the darkness.
“Mother,” she cried. “Mother, I know you are here.”
But the cave gave her no reply. Thalassa recalled the stories her mother had told her; of curses and of monsters who looked like men. Except these were not just stories. Her mother had been banished to this cave, and Thalassa had forgotten the truth.
Thalassa waded into the cave, but the water rose so fast that her feet lost purchase of the floor and soon she was being dragged inside. It was as if the cavern had turned into a throat and was swallowing her whole. As if it was no longer satisfied with little offerings, with a few drops of blood. She had come to the cave with nothing but the clothes on her back, and the darkness would have its fill.
But Thalassa did not fight it. She swam toward the back of the cavern, diving below the surface, her last breath held firm in her cheeks. For the first time, instead of throwing trinkets, she entered the dark herself. Waring currents tossed her back and forth. Thalassa squeezed the cut on her palm and painted the water with her blood. If the stories were true, then her blood was not blood, not seawater, but a storm.
Out of the darkness, the Mahana appeared. It had followed her, transformed now into its true self. It was a sea serpent, though it still wore the elongated face of her mother. It swam through the current and struck out at her with a pointed tailfin. Thalassa grabbed hold of the blood she had let loose in the water, watched as it curdled to life, a storm cloud beneath the sea.
“Thala,” the Mahana moaned. “Thala, let me eat you.”
The Mahana surged toward her, its mouth stretched into a grin that showed a dozen rows of needle-like teeth. It opened its mouth and the smell was rank, even underwater; Thalassa could taste it, rotting flesh, like fish guts left to cook in the sun. Still, Thalassa did not retreat. She wielded the storm from her blood, recalled her mother’s tales, of a girl born on the waves of a wild sea, whose cries calmed the rain and made it hers.
Thalassa struck the Mahana with a spear made of cloud. Of rain and lightning. Of surging waves and the wrath of the Gods themselves. The serpent reared its head back, cried out in pain. It clutched at the hole in its chest, which bled slugs and urchins, crabs and nickels, bottle caps and pearls. All of Thalassa’s offerings poured from the Mahana, and it sank into the depths below.
Thalassa swam upward, breaching the surface and drawing in gulps of air. She was in the back of the cave, surrounded by darkness.
“Thala,” her name echoed along the rock walls. It seemed to come from within her own bones.
“I am here,” she said, and at once the ocean retreated. The Crescent Cave drained of all its water, leaving Thalassa standing on the soft sand, her wet clothes and hair clinging to her skin. Her veins were thrumming with power. Not full of blood or seawater. But of darkness. Thalassa remembered now. She was made of the shadows that lurked in the back of sea caves. She was made of her mother. Of the woman emerging from behind the rocks.
“Thala, did I ever tell you the story of how you were born?” The woman asked, pulling the net of a fisherman from her long hair, untangling it from her hands and feet.
Thalassa’s eyes welled with tears.
“You did,” she replied. “But I will hear it again.”
Kendra Marie (Craighead) Pintor is an emerging author of strange fiction, with poetry that has been featured in Sagebrush Review, The Offbeat Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and others. Kendra’s upcoming short story “The Sluagh” will be featured in Craft Literary Magazine January 2022. In addition to frequenting California’s amazing beaches, Kendra also spends way too much time taking photos of her orange tabby cat, Cheesy, and watching anime. You can follow Kendra’s journey on Twitter (where she also spends way too much time).