Maura has no beef or blood pudding to offer when the young strangers come knocking. No mackerel, no lamprey, no lamb. They won’t take stale bread, or fish heads, or chard, but sometimes, sometimes they’ll take dairy. Before daybreak she drained Old Bess’s udders, half-filling a small tin pail. At dusk she placed saucers of milk on the stoop, laced with arsenic and lye—but poor Nally had quickly lapped it all up, poor, poor little kitten, too hungry to know he was eating death.
“Tomorrow,” she calls now, while knuckles rap-tap outside in the dark. Her husband sits at table, not quite drooling; a glisten pooled on his lip. Eyes on the door, Maura edges closer to him. She reaches down absent-mindedly. Smooths his thinning hair with her palm. Scrubs his slack mouth with her sleeve. She whips a bib from her apron pocket, fastens it around Michael’s neck. There was a time he’d have whacked the scrap of cloth from her hands, with Barrel looking on and snotty-nosed laughing. There was a time he’d have belted her right then and there, for picking and poking and fussing. For treating him like a child.
Michael was well-salted, well-roughed by the sea; his temper sharp as his pride. When they were alone, he was often gentle. Kissing Maura’s bruises. Pulling out when she said so. Drinking whiskey watered with ice. But in sight of his crew—the foster boy, mostly—he was, first and foremost, a captain.
Not so long ago, he’d have cuffed his own spitty beard, thank you, Maura. He’d have worn the brine like a medal.
Soot clouds from the fireplace as young strangers top the roof, plugging the chimney with cold feet and arses. Others run round the house, hammering clapboards with twiggy fingers. Kicking the foundations. Rattling shutters.
“Tomorrow,” Maura shouts, hoping they’ll hear. Hoping they’ll listen. She has nothing but words to appease them. “We’ve none to spare tonight—not a lick—but the lad’ll haul in a big catch come morning.”
Liar, knock the young strangers with cartilage and bone.
Liar, rages the wind off the ocean, hissing with Barrel’s voice.
• • •
Their luck had been fine before the boy came.
Sure, their rent was in arrears. And, sure, the fishing was dire. Most nights, Michael sailed out at moondark; most dawns he sailed in with nets empty. At sea, his harpoon was ever-primed, the blade and hook sharp, the rope strong. They hadn’t seen a decent-sized whale in months. Defiant, Michael scoured the beaches for shellfish. Pants rolled to the knees, he’d hunted the shallows, poking a long cruel stick into holes in the sand. But when the tides went out, the shores were often bare. No cockles, no mussels, no clams.
Twice a week Maura went and cooked other folks’ meals, stirring up feasts from their plenty. She’d sip the sauces she made, taste the stews for seasoning, dip into the vats of butter she’d churned. The barons generously complimented her skills—Where’d you get this lass, they’d boom at their hosts. Only seventeen! So many years of good cooking ahead of her!—and they’d hire her for an evening, for a week, for a pittance.
Stomach rumbling, Maura left their lavish dining rooms and pocketed leftover strips of bacon. Balls of suet. Roasted potatoes. Shortcakes. Satchel heavy with pilferings, she’d leave their warm houses with a few extra pennies, but scarcely a crumb for herself.
On the way home, she’d buy a fistful of corned beef, some salted pork or a couple of hocks. The meat went into the soup pot with onions and cabbage; the rest went outside for the strangers.
Keep things as they are, she’d whisper, lining windowsills and doorstep with offerings. We’ll make do, we’ll be fine. If it’s just us two. Together. Alone.
Maybe the bacon had gone off that long-ago night.
Maybe the cakes were rancid.
Maybe the young ones were sick of potatoes.
The next morning, the leavings were all gone—and so, it seemed, was her luck.
• • •
For the first six months of his life, the boy’s name had been Darryl. After his da, so the parish priest said. Clad in mourning black, wide brim drooping in the rain, the old Father was a sorry mess. Part of his act, Maura now thinks; but at the time, he put on such a good show none but God Himself could tell where the truth ended and the lies began. Wilting on their doorstep, the priest stood there sniffling and coughing in his threadbare cassock, begging Christian charity. His arms too scrawny to carry the swaddled thing as far as he had, over paddocks and bogs to the seaside—and much, much too scrawny to lug it all the way back.
Have a heart, he said, for this miracle child. Its parents lost in the drink, their ship run afoul, and no survivors but this one tiny bub. Just like Moses, he claimed. An innocent boy set adrift in a basket, lost but now found, now wanting protection. Needing a kind soul to take him in.
Give it here. Breath whooshed from Maura’s belly as she hoisted the creature across the threshold. No wonder it’s squalling. You’re squeezing its guts in two.
Bless you, daughter, the priest sighed, shaking the feeling back into his arms, groaning and stretching his back. You’ll be a good Ma, girl. Mark my words.
No, she replied, looking down at the bub, his round face like a well-slapped backside. He was solid, even then. A two gallon keg wriggling in Maura’s embrace, overfull and sloshing.
No, she said. We won’t have him.
It was a simple decision: the only decision. Haddock and cod had only just started spawning. They’d only smoked enough herring to see them through spring, much less summer, fall and winter. There were only so many manor houses in this county—and Maura’s pockets were only so big. To her mind, there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. Michael was her one and only. They wouldn’t have a child.
Then Michael cleared his throat.
Business will never expand without more hands on deck, he said, forgetting that with extra hands came extra mouths. And you’ve said yourself that a helpmeet wouldn’t go astray.
But this one’s a barrel, Michael.
Well now, he said, chest swelling. That he is.
• • •
After a few noisy minutes, the ruckus on the roof peters out. The windows shudder once, twice more and finally go still. Maura’s shoulders relax. Her pulse slows. Once her stands stop shaking, she ladles weak broth into a bowl. As Michael stares, she mixes in their last dollop of lard, dragging a spoon quietly through the liquid. Barely making a ripple. Careful not to spill a drop, not to splash.
Ever since Barrel followed his parents into the deeps, Michael’s shied from anything wetter than tears. He won’t bathe, won’t wash the salt from his face or damp the dried scales from his hands. A fortnight has passed since the boy’s drowning; now the cottage reeks of sorrow and rotten fish. Fourteen days’ worth of musk, sour cheese, and guilt have fouled the small space, fourteen rank layers for each year of Barrel’s short life. Sitting at table, day in and out, Michael wallows in the stench of regret. Dwindling from the bold whale-hunter Maura still loves into a worn-out, one-flue harpoon. Eating only what Maura can coax down his throat, drinking barely enough to stop crumbling.
For two weeks, the same routine. Not long after sundown, Maura guides him from table to bed. Kisses his oily forehead, strokes his lank hair. Starlight silvers the room when she snuffs the lamp, glinting off Michael’s unblinking eyes. She sleeps beside him, despite the stink. Holding him close. Breathing his breath. At moondark she gets up with him. Gathers his gear. Opens the front door. Waits for him to head out.
Two weeks and he’s gone no further than the table. Clutching the frayed rope twisted round his paunch. The lifeline that failed to bring his son home.
Hating to leave—Michael’s grief, she thinks, is too dangerous—Maura takes little work. The festive season has passed; now landlords and wives are stuffed in their dens, hibernating until the crocuses bloom. Forced to live off their blubber, the barons keep a close eye on their winter larders. When she can, Maura filches onions or fried fat, a turnip for Michael’s dinner. Always, she bags rat-bait for the young strangers.
“Almost ready,” she says now, adding a coin of stale bread to the soup. Thumbing up crumbs, she listens for rap-tapping at shutters and door, listens for Barrel’s howl. She puts her thumb to Michael’s mouth, wipes. The crumbs sit like sand on his tongue.
“I miss him, too,” she says, convincing no one. Michael blinks. Breathes in and out. Makes no reply. Settling into the seat beside him, Maura’s mind drifts. The young strangers have never been good to them. Brought them together, sure, and saw them married to boot. But that isn’t enough to keep him, is it? That isn’t enough to bring him back. She watches the bread bloat with soup and thinks about Barrel. Underwater, somewhere. His broad torso swollen to bursting. Limbs greened with seaweed. Blued muscles disintegrating, a buffet for sardines.
That’s what Michael wants, she thinks. What he’s always wanted.
Someone beside him, out on the waves.
Someone to raise.
Someone more than her.
• • •
Nowadays Maura feeds her husband the way he did Barrel before the boy learned to bite. Spoonful after spoonful, shovelling it in, scraping off the excess. Humming a little tune to keep him calm. Prattling between ditties, saying nothing much. “How’s that, love? Is that good? Mmmm, you’re hungry today, aren’t you?” With each gulp, she wishes he’d bark at her, say she’s scalded the roof of his mouth. She wishes he’d call her a ninny. Wishes he’d laugh.
“Think you can manage this?” She presses the spoon into Michael’s limp hand, knowing how angry he’ll be to find his calluses all softening, the leather-hard palm turning to silk. Bending his fingers around the handle, she guides his arm through the motions—dip, lift, slurp, dip, lift, slurp—until he follows through on his own.
“Good work, love,” she says, hearing a scratch of claws at the door. “Keep going.”
Michael smacks and slobbers while Maura gets up to let in the cat. “Good work,” she repeats, watching him as she unbolts the lock. Then she turns and swings the door wide. Cooing here, puss-puss, she looks outside. To her left and right, yellow lines fall through the shutters and glow in thin rows across trampled grass. A long rectangle stretches from Maura’s feet, outlining her silhouette in gold on the path. Vision strained in the darkness, she spots lanterns dotting the valley. Lamps bobbing on masts in the harbour. The moon flickering through scudding clouds. “Hungry, m’lad?” she asks, stepping aside. “Come on, then. In you get.”
Fresh air blows into the cottage, crisp with seaweed and salt, cool with spray. It cuts through the room’s fug, clearing Maura’s head.
Poor, poor Nally.
White-crested waves crash on the coast as the young stranger creeps up the stairs. With arctic tread it slips into the house, shoeless and solemn and pale. Its trousers rolled above the ankle, sleeves above the wrists. Scalloped buttons carved of shell run the length of its arms, grazing Maura’s belly as it slinks past. She shudders at the creature’s touch, light though it is, somehow more feather than flesh.
Before pulling up a chair at the table, the wight glances at Maura. Nods with an almost imperceptible tilt of its chin.
Yes, she reads in that gesture. I am hungry.
• • •
Wherever there’s fear, Maura’s da used to say, there’s usually hope.
Ignoring her instincts, she doesn’t scream, doesn’t shove the stranger right back outside. Instead, she closes the door. Edges around the table. Serves it a small cupful of broth. Praying for luck, she watches the thing gulp it all down. Steam curls from its nostrils, mouth squelching and gaping for more. Maura holds her breath as Michael’s bloodshot eyes flick up, meeting clear white. Fear, she thinks. And hope. The creature is nothing like Barrel—grey and lean where the other was ruddy and squat—but sitting where it is, in the boy’s long-cold seat, it just might catch her husband’s interest. It might just reel him back.
Reaching over, the young stranger pries open Michael’s jaw. With long, long fingers it scrapes sadness off his tastebuds and cheeks, then sucks its digits clean. Michael sags, all his fight lost at sea. His dark gaze drops, his focus once more submerged. He leaves his mouth open for plunder.
“Wake up,” Maura hisses. “Do something!”
Resuming its cycle—dip, lift, slurp, dip, lift, slurp—the spoon clinks against pottery and teeth. Smiling, the wight burrows lower, gouging straight into Michael’s belly. Snagging every misery-soaked morsel he’s swallowed. Digging with such speed, its nails don’t leave a mark, don’t even rip the grease-stained shirt. In and out, quick as life. Water burbles from Michael’s throat.
The thing grins beside him, chewing the half-mashed sop in its hand.
“We’ve given all we can,” Maura says, trying her damnedest to be polite. Hypocritical boors, the young strangers demand courtesy—no matter how badly they’ve skimped on the luck. It’s one thing to poison their snacks for a fortnight, another altogether to banish them from the table they’d won her. Maura knows plagues are incited in such ways. Children stolen. Whole families burnt to death in their houses.
“Leave him alone.” she says. Then, recalling what tricksters strangers are with words, she clarifies: “Please. Let us be alone, together.”
The creature cocks an eyebrow, its smile growing. Maura runs through her request, looks at it backwards and front. Let us be alone . . . Together alone . . . Together. Nodding, the thing chortles. Yes, its grimace says. Together, together, together. Ploughing into Michael’s stomach, it gorges, hollowing him out. Solidifying as it eats. Bite after bite, it shrinks; first to half its size, then half that again. Small but not wan and flimsy; small but robust, a parcel too heavy to lug very far. Condensing, compacting, it pinks like a pig, the chair groaning beneath its new weight. Only its fingers remained unchanged: twice as long as Maura’s own, insidious as smoke, they scour and hook and latch.
“Enough,” Maura says, cracking the thing’s knuckles with her ladle, the way she used to Barrel’s when he was greedy. Fool, she thinks immediately, guts twisting. Already she smells the cottage in cinders around them. Any minute, deadly pustules will bulge from her limbs. And Michael. Poor, poor Michael. The husband she’d bought with meat and tears—one glutton consumes his mind, another devours his body. Soon he’ll be nothing but skin, hair and bones. And soon Maura will be left alone, as she’d asked, though not at all as she wanted. It won’t be her and Michael, alone together. There will just be her, just Maura. Alone with a stranger.
Unless she can steal what her husband needs most.
Unless she can steal them a future.
“That’s enough,” she says, to Michael this time, prising the spoon from his grip. “We mustn’t leave our guest out.” Broth dribbles down his chest, a streak so dark and wet it makes him weep. As he snuffles into his salt-crusted beard, Maura reaches for his bowl and swigs what’s left of the soup.
Watching intently, the creature sniffs. It fingers slide out of Michael’s stomach. Blank eyes track Maura’s every movement. Trailing her as she skirts then sits on the opposite side of the table. Squinting at the black pot cooling on a trivet beside her. Tracing the line of her hands as they lift the cast-iron crock to her mouth.
Maura drinks deep, determined this offering will be her last.
This promised gutful.
Amplified inside the pot, her breathing obscures the sound of bare feet shuffling closer. Chair legs scrape on the stone floor as the young stranger squeezes in beside her. Grunting and wheezing, it clambers up, the woven-straw seat squeaking as the thing leans over. Slowly, deftly, its fingers strum her belly like a lute. Maura jumps at the ice in its touch, the scritch of sharp nails against her apron. Inhaling a lungful, she sputters and coughs. A tongue laps up what’s spilled, licking her neck.
When her throat clears, Maura begins humming between swallows. A soft, soothing song—one of Barrel’s favourites—with sleepy, familiar lilts. Soon, Michael’s weeping subsides, but the clawing at her guts persists. Pausing to drink down the soup’s dregs, Maura steadies herself. Then, humming louder and stronger, she peeks at the barnacle suckling her middle. Buried up to the elbows, it’s now shrivelled blue-white. Compact as a roast ham. Fat cheeks clotted as though smeared with soft cheese. Slopping liquid into its purple maw, it gazes up at her and sighs.
Together, it purrs. Alone together.
“How’s that, love?” Maura says. “Is that good? Mmmm, you’re hungry today, aren’t you?”
And as it nods, Maura brings the pot cracking down, then rams the stunned head face-first inside her. Grabbing the thing’s pudgy rump, she shoves. Her innards writhe and compress, but she won’t stop—no, she won’t be alone. Bladder leaking through her cotton skirt, she jams tiny arms up under her ribcage and legs down into her pelvis. She pushes and grunts, pushes and grunts, until all that remains are the creature’s clawed toes, wriggling from a black gap in her navel.
“There now,” she says, mashing its feet out of sight, leaving no mark on her apron, no gash. Full of promise, the squirmer spins inside her. Full of raw luck, Maura reaches for Michael’s hand. Presses it against the full moon of her belly.
“Look what I’ve got for you,” she says to her man. “Extra hands, love. Another mouth.”
Lacing her fingers through his, she rubs the taut fabric curved between breasts and lap. Together, their palms shush back and forth like the tide. Together, Michael’s eyes focus as little heels kick and little elbows jab. Together, their chests swell.