Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
The blue house beside the big salt kept its secrets, as did the world weaver who lived there. It stood on the crest of a bluff, overlooking the sea, its clapboards blasted by saltwater thunderstorms and scorched by sun. Its porch held two ironwork rocking chairs, worn to comfort, but only one had ever been used at a time. And that was by the current weaver in residence who, on top of everything else she did, was responsible for tending the veil between worlds. For years, no one disturbed their companionable silence, enhanced only by the lapping of waves along the shore.
When Mami Wata sent her hurry-canes, the world weaver would put on her linseed oil-cured cape, secure the door to the house, protect it with powdered brick, and head out in the driving rain to look for mermaids.
Most times, there was only one, hidden in the arching sand dunes, cowering from her mother’s wrath. Goddesses never looked kindly on a lack of good sense, and getting caught on land at low tide was the height of foolishness. The weaver would speak to the maids in whispers that they heard over the wind and thrashing waters, coaxing them them back to the ocean’s embrace. She guided them as they crawled, hand over hand, tails steering, bald heads sleek and glistening, into the waves. After they disappeared, the storm would slowly die, and the turbulent waters would return to their gentle cat-like lapping.
Far fewer were the maids dragged ashore in nets by fishermen, who quickly became entranced by their not-quite-humanness. Some had single tails like fish or sea ponies, others had eight or more trailing tentacles, coiling around the rough netting enclosing them. When that happened, the world weaver would discover the fishermen poking and prodding the maids instead of finding shelter from the sea Goddess’s wrath. It took some doing to convince the men to let Mami Wata’s gals go, but the world weaver mostly managed it without bloodshed.
Only once had she fought a man. He was a fisher who’d thought he’d be able to feast for weeks on the thick, heavy mermaid tail. After, she lifted the tortured child from the bottom of the bloodstained shad boat, dressed her wounds, and carried her back to her mother. The boat, she burned for kindling.
It had been many a year since she had to leave her home and search the shores, and she found herself restless, unable to find comfort in her four walls. The house sighed, understanding, but not wanting her to go. It felt secure with her presence and her protection. Without her, someone else might paint its wooden slats white or yellow, instead of the blue that kept the haints away.
The house wasn’t actually afraid of being haunted, but it liked living beings inside itself, and from what it experienced over the years, the living and the dead rarely got along.
It had been many a year since the world weaver had stitched together the veil. When she was younger, and still had dreams of living among the masses, she’d been on call for such repairs. But she soon found that despite her ability to patch rips between the worlds, usually caused by careless fools without respect for or belief in magic, no one wanted her around. She was an all too visible reminder that, while diminished, magic still lived and breathed on the human side of the veil.
So the world weaver had packed her splinter needles and her frog hair thread and left the city and her dreams of living among others behind. The creatures from the breach that still survived followed her to the blue house, where she tore a hole in the world with her fingernails to allow them to return home. Then she sat on a sand dune, tucked her skirt between her thighs, and whip stitched the hole closed again.
The wind picked up, blowing her tears across her bronze cheeks. She didn’t brush them away, but turned into its force, allowing it to take her breath as well. Gasping, she sucked in a deep lungful of sea air, and it calmed her enough to return to the cozy warmth of the house.
Never had the house understood her desire for solitude, but it accepted this need with the grace of its years. When it was younger and newly built, it might have kicked up a fuss, made a key stick in its lock or kept the pilot light from firing. But age after age housing world weavers had taught it that each weaver must come to terms with herself eventually.
It was at times like this when she was grateful for her position. Nowhere was the barrier between worlds thinner than at the sea’s edge. The ocean didn’t need a tear or a rip, it seemed, to bring the beautifully strange into this world. On her daily walk down the wooden pathway to the beach, she and the house had seen wondrous beings, and marveled. The pair had helped many return home, even buried those that refused succor.
A few times, the odd visitor managed to wiggle through the veil between worlds without her notice – she was still a tad human, and therefore not perfect. All weavers retained a breath of humanity, which made them a little patient with the more trying aspects of humanity. Those wondrous creatures that didn’t die in the cities were captured and tortured for research. Word got around that this was the fate of the uncanny and most stopped trying to visit.
One clear morning, during her walk along the sands, she saw someone scurrying away with a small bundle. She shouted after them, but they didn’t turn and outdistanced her quickly, tucking the cloth-wrapped package under their arm. City folk, she thought. Someone who had overfished their permit, or didn’t have one, taking more food than they needed or could reasonably sell.
She made her way back to the blue house and sat on its porch in one of the ironwork rockers, to drink a cup of peach tea that was really wine. Her bones ached and the back of her neck prickled where the tight coils of her hair managed to escape her brush. Clouds amassed in the previously clear sky faster than winds could carry them.
At that moment, she knew what the person had done.
“Mami Wata wants her baby back, House.” But she didn’t move, choosing instead to rock herself slowly, soothing her anxiety at the gathering storm. For once, she wanted to be the one someone came home to after the work was done. She wanted to wait with the house, keeping herself warm with tea that was wine, and waiting, watching the dunes for her loved one’s return.
The house’s floorboards creaked in acknowledgement. It also knew what those clouds meant: that the world weaver was going away.
Winds whipped up fierce, bringing sand and grit up on the porch to batter at the woman’s face.
She groaned, but rose from the rocker, grit crunching under her feet. Mami Wata didn’t like waiting and her storm was something to behold. Sand rose in whorls above the seagrass, tiny funnel tempests. The house’s windows rattled, and its moans tore at her heart.
“You win,” she muttered.
Outside, the world weaver nailed up thin squares of wood to cover the house’s windows and tacked up sheets of tincloth to the inside windows in case anything penetrated the glass. The house rasped, its floorboards squeaking against each other. She didn’t go upstairs to cover the top windows, choosing instead to let the house see down into the city from its perch on the sea’s edge, hoping that would lessen its worry.
“I know,” she soothed. “I know. I won’t be gone long.”
She had no idea how long she’d be gone or if she’d be able to return. In her experience, and in that detailed in the writings of weavers before her, those that stole the children of the sea would kill to retain their ill-gotten prize. She wasn’t immortal, she knew that, but what would kill her? That was a mystery.
Once the world weaver had packed a small bag with a woven blanket, a skin of seawater, and a few strips of dried fish from her own food supply, she donned her linseed oil-cured cape, secured the door, and protected it. She headed across the sand toward town, the wind and rain at her back, the Goddess’s whisper in her ear.
She worried she had forgotten the way, but her recollection of the paths was still sharp, possibly because the memory of the way the city folk treated her was also stingingly fresh in her mind. On she walked, sipping from her skin of seawater, until sand became dirt, and dirt became stone.
Having lived for so long on the sea, alone with just the house, the city felt tight and closed, the buildings too tall, too close. Her steps quickened in hopes of finding the baby soon and returning home.
She rarely thought of the house as home, but it was. The blue clapboard, always visible through fog and ocean mist, warmed her, cheered her. She wasn’t sure she had ever told it that, but she vowed to the moment she returned. Nothing that meant so much should feel unappreciated.
The gazes of the townsfolk lay heavy on her as she walked the cobbled streets, the stones paining her booted feet. The storm hadn’t followed her to the city, but she sensed it there, just outside the town, watching and waiting to strike. Hold on, she thought. Can’t go charging in all the time. Even Goddesses, especially nervous mothers, needed reminding at times.
This town wasn’t the same as the one she’d left. The symbols the townsfolk had painted on their doors and shop signs to prevent magic were gone. Even the shops themselves had changed. No meat hung in windows or no freshly-dug vegetables in trays outside, ready to be scrubbed and eaten. No longer did scents of baking bread and cakes dance in the air. Gone was the excited bartering and the clip-schlop of hooved animals. Instead the sounds were piercing shrieks and wails, and they frightened her heart into a flutter. This was not the world she had left, the world she had so wanted to be a part of – the one that had driven her away.
Even the folk had changed. She didn’t mind the different clothes and hair – those styles never stayed long. It was their reaction to her presence. Once, they’d have avoided her, crossing the street to not have her steps cross theirs. Now, they followed her at a distance, pointing fingers and little boxes at her, and laughing behind their hands. Unsettled by their attention, she wondered how long she’d sat alone in the blue house overlooking the sea.
This town was new and unfamiliar, but yet again, the folk here had judged her as apart from them. She did not understand their speech, but at least she could make sense of the signs and maps with some effort.
How was she supposed to find the baby among all this? Even the feel of magic had left this place. She kept walking the stone, resolute in her task, sand crunching beneath her.
A sprinkling of golden powder lay between the cobbled stones on the road, winding down the street, then up onto the footpath in front of the row of glass-fronted shops, only to disappear around a corner. She followed the glimmer like crushed gold, heedless of the curiosity behind her.
The trail led to a building more like those she remembered, long and narrow, and fronted by a line of four doors, likely an old stable. Someone had finally noticed the trail of grit and had tried to sweep it away. But the wind had swirled the sand back into a pile outside one of the doors, of which the top half was open, and after glancing around, the weaver approached and peered in.
Darkness filled the space, save for a flameless lamp crouching in a shadowed corner of the hay-scented stable. She pulled the handle grip; the bottom of the door swung open without a sound and she carefully closed it behind her. She crept in, letting her eyes adjust to the wan light filtering through the wooden slats. The storm held off for now, but the weaver knew she had to be quick. Mami missed her girl, and there was no telling what she would do in her worry.
Riffling through the dusty shelves, she found papers marking sales of goods – old magic, roots and herbs and oils of bark, mostly for gentle spells to calm the mind and soul. As she read more, the receipts showed contents of darker charms – to hex a family line or harden the heart against a former lover, to end a life. At the end of it all, a paper with one item listed:
SOLD – one sea monster (Cannot guarantee living, but care will be taken to assure arrival in one piece. Good for weather spells or as a curio for the morbid.)
The world weaver threw down the papers, tore open the drawers and cabinets, looking for the child. In her haste, she forgot to be quiet. The moment she drew open a hatch and saw the crab child lying on a tattered cloth was the moment a shadow fell over her shoulder. She turned, and saw a figure looming over her. Then she saw the pipe – metal, rusty, heavy-looking.
He brought it whistling down on the top of her head.
A splash, like a boulder falling into the ocean, sounded as the pipe connected with her skull and continued on through to slam against the dirt floor. The blow jarred the thief’s shoulder and he gave a brief cry. The pipe clattered to the dirt floor. Nonplussed, the weaver blinked, then wiped off a sprinkle of rust that had fallen on her nose.
“Unwise,” she said, grabbing the man by his collar. She dragged him to the far wall of the barn, then clawed a long, jagged rip in the veil. “Show me horrors,” she told the opening before shoving the man’s head through. He writhed and jerked, but if he screamed, it was lost to the veil.
The crab child giggled and clicked its claws.
When flickers and snaps of light appeared in her sightline, she turned to see the city folk with their slim black boxes pointed at her, flashing lights erupting from them.
“You stood there!” she shouted. “You all stood there and watched him strike me!”
The world weaver then grabbed the child, wrapped it in the blanket and pushed through the folk in her way. She did not stop walking, heedless of their calls to her asking for what sounded like ‘picts’. At least now they were afraid to touch her. The child gurgled and rooted at her breast, but she gave it a strip of dried fish, which it suckled at happily.
In the distance, the clouds were retreating, almost as if they were pulling her back to the sea, and when she saw the house still standing against the violence of the storm, she smiled. As she got closer, she saw a dark-skinned woman sitting on the porch, plucking shells from her halo of coral-colored hair, before twining it into plaits.
“Weaver,” the woman said, flicking the waterfall of braids over her shoulder. She straightened the hem of her dress, iridescent with rainbows.
“Mami Wata,” she answered, then recalled her vow. “I’m glad to be home to you, House.”
Under her feet, the floorboards creaked in welcome.
“May I?” the Goddess asked, opening her arms. The crab child went to her, and she cuddled it close, whispering song in its shell-like ear. “I have yet to thank you for your help all these years, Weaver. I have been remiss.”
It was best to say nothing in these circumstances, and the world weaver took this option.
“What would you request of me?” The Goddess turned her grey-green eyes, set deep into her dark skin, on the weaver. She rocked the chair gently, soothing the child.
The house creaked a warning. It saw the city folk coming, determination rising from them.
More than anything, the world weaver wanted her solitude back, and she knew these folk would not allow her to have it. No, solitude was not what she wished for. It was peace. Eternal peace and the company of one who has loved and cared for her. She looked up at the house, her home, her love.
“I am pleased with your choice. Do you agree, House?”
A squeak of floorboards sounded its agreement.
The weaver turned to the Goddess. Waves rose up, crashed against the shore. Thunder boomed, while a flash of lighting took her vision for a brief moment. When her vision returned, the house was gone, the rockers now on the sand. Mami Wata sat as she had before her display, smirk showing she was pleased with her work. Next to her sat a man, his lapis-hued face weathered, but kind. Smile tentative, he rose from the rocker and approached her.
“I didn’t think you’d mind if I kept the blue,” he said.
“I… I don’t mind at all,” she whispered as he slipped his roughened hand into hers.
Mami Wata stood, clutching the crab child to her. “I’ve made a home for you, near mine, of course. I shall still need help with my brood.”
She sauntered away toward the ocean, her dress clinging closer to her body, until it was impossible to tell it from skin. When she dove into the waves, her tail surfaced for a moment, wide as a whale’s, then the Goddess and her child were gone.
The weaver stared for a few moments, gently squeezing House’s hand.
“Are you happy, House?”
“I’ve been happy with you for eons,” he said.
Hand in hand they walked along the sand, following in the Goddess’s footsteps, and into the playful sea, the excited cries of Mami Wata’s girls welcoming them home.