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The Better Part of Drowning

Alix was never sure what kept the groaning rickety-spider of a dock up, unless it was the mussels that swarmed over the piles, turning them to hazards that could slice a swimmer open. The divers were all over scars from waves and mussels, always being pushed into shell sharp as knives and leaving their blood to scent the water.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!” If she heard that once a day she heard it fifty times, and each time she had to smile over the slicing pain and wave up, because coins weren’t thrown to kids who wailed. Wailing made her choke if she tried to dive anyway, and there were always kids enough to squabble over coins so tears did nothing but anchor her to surface and starvation and blind her to the sudden scuttle of predation.

Don’t draw the crabs, they always said, and smiled as they said it, because it was entertaining to see kids dive in crab beds, and entertaining to see the bloodshed when they were slow enough for catching. Alix didn’t blame them for that. She’d never been able to look away either, no matter how much bile rose in her throat, the metal taste of panic.

Crabmeat, crabmeat. It was their own little circle of carnivorism, the smallest crabs providing one and the smaller kids the other. Not that the biggest of the scuttlers couldn’t take a man full-grown, but usually the bigger you got the more sense you had, and the more the habit of watching claws kept them away from bone.

Alix had long since learned not to feel resentment for the crab-call—“Don’t draw the crabs” was always sung out in the whistle-tones of scuttlers—but it was the call for sharks that made her shudder most, because she didn’t understand it and the fin-man knew it and sang anyway. “Don’t draw the sharks,” he sang in crab-tones, but his business was sharks and if Alix didn’t draw them then he’d starve.

“I’ve never seen no sharks,” she called up, sulky in the water because his call never came with coins, or small pieces for trading. “Crabs must have ate ‘em all, mister.”

“Course there’s sharks here,” he said, hanging over and his mouth empty of teeth, the words rounded off like shoreline glass. “Don’t you see them hanging?”

There were dried fins hung from the last dock shop but one, the Street of Endings stretched out over ocean, but they could have come from anything. “Where do you think I get them from, if not from you kids?” said the fin-man. It struck her that if sharks swam after all, then she was basically being used as bait, and for more than crabs.

“Course we’re not,” said Toby, at fourteen the oldest of the divers and impatient with ignorance. “There’s no such thing as sharks. Not anymore. You want to know what those fins really are?” he said, leaning close. “They’re us. If he catches you he skins you and folds you into fins.”

“You’re making that up,” said Alix. “He’s got teeth hanging there too, strings of them. Kids’ teeth don’t look like that.” She’d spat her milk teeth into the sea as they came out, until another of the divers told her she could sell them for grinding and teas, traded the knowledge for a day chiselling mussels from the nearest dock support. After that she’d examined each tooth carefully before trading it to the apothecary for salve to harden her fingers against shellfish and a charm to keep the crabs away. It wasn’t as good a protection as the small tattoo that Toby had between his shoulder blades, the crab-sign that blurred their sight enough for slowness, but it was all her milk teeth could support.

Toby scoffed at her. “Teeth last forever,” he said. “They’re a thousand years old, those old teeth, like as not. I bet he got them handed down to him, from his da.”

Alix chewed her lip, considering. “He is pretty old,” she admitted, in doubtful tones. It was difficult to think of the fin-man having a parent. Parents died when you were a babe, mostly, or just beginning to toddle. The fin-man would have come diving with the rest of them then. “Maybe there were sharks when he was a kid.”

If he ever was a kid. It seemed unfathomable that a person who spent so little time in salt could be so wrinkled.

“If you’re not careful he’ll come and eat you up,” said Toby, trying to sneak an arm around. He was always trying to do that now, was a lot more patient with her than he’d been only a year since, and it wasn’t as if any part of her was rounding out for pinching yet.

“Bugger off,” she said, slipping out from under and swift-kicking. “Go try your scary lies on some other girl.” But she said it smiling, because he kissed her sometimes and sometimes she kissed him, when the weather made poor sport of diving and she wanted to taste something other than starvation.

She didn’t believe him. Not in broad daylight with the sun on the water making it look less murky from surface-side at least. Then Toby washed up with his back flayed off, his eyes and lips eaten away by little fish, and all Alix could do was drag him up out of the water-scum of surf and leave him.

“That’s not all you can do,” said Perette, grim. “The ‘pothecary takes more than teeth.” They didn’t have a knife between them so she traded a kidney and half of a spleen for the use of one and got to butchering.

Under the knife he looked very young. Then he stopped looking like much of anything, and when Perette was done she loaded up Alix with the organs they had left to them, the usable ones, and left the rest for crabs.

“I’ll never eat crabs again,” said Alix, but when the offal was traded away Perette bought them steaming bowls of chowder and there were little red legs in it from baby crabs too young for sugar and singing.

“Get that down you,” she said, and it was kinder than it could have been. “Look, those ones died last week, like as not. The meat’s on the edge of turning. They didn’t have time to munch on him.”

“S’pose.” She still felt weird about eating it. But that was more from politeness than scruples. Not that the hungry little eyes watching from beneath the edge of dock bothered her. If you shared what you got you starved. They’d be better working than eating and there was always opportunity for coins once word got round that a diver had died. People liked to play at ghouls then, it gave them a thrill to come throw coins into the murk and watch kids bleed and drown for them, get snipped apart by claws thick as thighs.

It still seemed a bit off to gorge the death of someone who’d been friendly. But the crab meat was rich and it was sweet, even on the verge as it was, and most of all it was warm. She licked the bowl out when she was done, didn’t leave even a scrap.

“I’m so full I’ll sink like sugar,” she said, and Perette smiled fondly from deep in her own bowl and warned of cramps.

“I’m not some nitwit baby four year,” Alix scoffed. “I know my business.” It was a simple business, easily remembered: dive and eat again, or stay in hammocks tied up close under the dock planks and think of death and crabs, just out of reach of either.

There was competition in the water, but she was older than most of the others now, and cannier with it. She did her best to look shocked and helpless over the mate she’d eaten at one remove, but the smaller kids cornered the market there and she had to push them away as coins were thrown to them, as crab-shells were thrown, old meat and fruit and melting biscuits, little pieces of scrap, empty bottles, cloth weighed down with stones. The sea didn’t ruin much if you got to it quick enough, even the biscuits were still edible though they made the mouth pucker and felt like wet sand in the mouth.

“You kids be careful you don’t draw the crabs!”

There was nothing to do but smile and wave, and to dive in the places away from fish hooks because they were let down sometimes by the fin-man, embedded in the piles between mussels and she lost blood enough to shellfish without sacrificing to iron and teeth as well.

Besides, there were better places to dive under than the fin-shop. Nothing came down from there but cartilage. She’d snaffled one once, a thin leathery piece that she had to boil for hours with bladderwrack to be able to stomach. Better than nothing, but there were other things to dive for and other things to sell, and the fin-man was so parsimonious in his hanging that anyone waiting for a windfall would be waiting a long time.

Loot was different beneath each shop. The bakery was the best, and not only because the baker gave them bread each night, the last of the loaves that didn’t sell, and sometimes little sugar cakes that Alix thought she kept aside especially on feast days. There were times, floating beneath, when the smells made her nauseous—the richness of the sugar, the sickly scent of caramel—but the caramel overflowed sometimes, bubbled through floorboards and into the ocean. It was no good hooking it as it came down, soft still and plastic in fingers, the salt water improving the flavour a little even as it made the caramel gritty on the tongue. It had to settle, to sit on the bottom and be covered in sand until the crabs came for it, until the sugar turned their shells to thin and sweetened wafer crisps.

“It’s magic,” Alix told the younger kids, same as she was told when she was four and learning to dive. “Magic sugar. If you eat it it’ll turn to iron in your belly and drown you.” The words had a bitter taste she was long used to, and the small starving faces turned up to hers had lost any appeal they might once have had in the shadow of her own hunger. Those sugary lumps might make a meal, if a scanty one, but a sugared crab small enough to be caught and sold would feed the seller for a day and there was no time nor pity for little ones who couldn’t learn and gobbled the sugar instead.

They tended to learn quicker when it was drowning on the menu, drowning come with sugar and consequence. She’d learned to make the descriptions vivid as she could, gurgling and choking, turning her own face blue with held breath. It was a stupid lie, but if they didn’t grasp it they would drown, pulled under not by weight of caramel but by the bigger kids, the ones with a vested interest in keeping the story going.

Alix had only done it once, held a kid under but she’d cried all through it and made it longer than it needed to be. One of the other divers had taken over, called her soft and scorned her twelve year old muscles, more suited for sunbathing than sugar work he said. A year ago it was, and she still felt shame in remembering, still felt the weakness in her arms and the disgrace of needing help to finish it.

It had been Toby done it for her. His skinny-strong arms had held the little one under, and one hand about her wrist had made her help with the holding too, so she wouldn’t look even weaker.

He’d sat with her afterwards, under the darkest corner of under-dock and thrown stones at the big crabs to keep them away while she bawled into wood. She could still feel the piles under her arms, the big logs that kept the dock from drowning—the whistle-chant of the crabs as they circled round, the clacking of claws a punctuation to notes.

“It’s shit, I know,” he said.

“It’ll be better next time,” he said, and Alix wanted to scream at him, to pummel him with her shell-scarred hands and make him promise there wouldn’t be a next time, but he’d done her the courtesy of truth-telling and to throw that back might have seen him leave her to crabs and she wasn’t that far gone yet.

“Big bastards under here,” he said, over the scuttling and the clack-clacking, the crustacean hunger choir, but Alix could hear the tension in his voice, the way that he turned as the crabs circled round and she didn’t put them in danger of staying longer than the stones held out. The largest of them was bigger than she was, almost, with a curved shell the size of her chest and it didn’t circle, that one, just stayed still as stones and watched, the stalk-eyes glaring, the claws coming together too softly to hear and that made it worse, as if it were waiting, conserving itself for the final rush and feeling the hunger rise within it. It looked at Alix as she looked at chowder—intelligently, as if she were something to be devoured, and the soft crab-crooning that came from it raised hairs all down the length of her.

“It was stupid to come down here anyway,” she said, scrubbing at eyes turned small and red.

“Don’t ever do it by yourself,” said Toby, and she’d rolled those small red eyes at him.

“I know. I’m not a baby.” But the truth was she’d forgotten, had run at once for the darkest place when drowning was over and hadn’t one thought for the crabs with claws thick as her arm and how they’d slice her up easy enough, the carnivorous crawlers, if they ever cornered her alone.

Now those crabs were going to eat Toby up, if they hadn’t already. The useless bits of him, the kissing bits and the stoning bits, the ones that couldn’t be dried and powdered up for drugs and trade.

“Perette,” she said, turning over in the hammock they shared in the early morning—sunrise and sunset the only time they were able to share body heat, being on different schedules as they were, diving and fucking requiring different levels of light. “D’you think the crabs took his back?”

The other girl was silent for long moments, her body shaking with the effort not to cough. She’d had the cough for a long time and Alix worried for her, pretended not to see the effort it took to settle, the choking ropes of bloody phlegm. “Crabs don’t skin that ways,” she said. “It were knife work, and good work too. All the cuts were clean.”

They knew what they were doing, was what she didn’t say.

Perette was aging out of diving and into fishing of another sort. “It’s still going down,” she said, pretty-mouthed, and Alix brought her salt water to rinse with. She was lucky in that she was straight up and down still; less fat made the sinking easier and no-one was going to mistake her for a mermaid, anyway.

“What about sharks?”

“Mermaids are more likely than sharks,” mumbled Perette.

“What are the fins then?”

“Dunno. But I’m not going to find out and neither are you.” That, of course, was enough for Alix to risk another theft—sheer perversity, and they boiled it up together on a night so cold that there was no-one willing enough to spend coin in watching them freeze.

“Wonder if we’ll grow fins now too,” said Alix. It wouldn’t be the first time, on the Street of Endings, with another of the shops above full of goldfish that were human, once. They fell through the cracks sometimes when the dock shifted and she’d even eaten one, when she was small, before she knew what they’d been.

Now that she knew she still ate them, given half the chance. The fish were sweet and plump and they wiggled going down, and she could say they escaped for true, take the fallen fishbowl back up to the woman who owned the place and say, honest enough, that she couldn’t find the fish in the ocean no more.

“It doesn’t bother me if you eat them,” said the Lady of Scales one day, as Alix was slipping out the door with a fistful of small coin in her hand for the return of glass. “It’s the risk they take,” she said, and Alix had promised herself then not to eat any more that came down in the winds. Fearful enough to let yourself be turned into goldfish—and she understood escape, she did, but some bargains were bad no matter what you were running from—and worse to be dumped from bowl into ocean and unable to get back. Worse still to be eaten up by some starving brat—but to have the woman who’d transformed you praise the eating made the scales sour in her stomach.

“They say it was eating the goldfish turned the crabs to singing,” she said. “All the souls crying they couldn’t come back.”

“I should think they’d know better than to go after kids then,” Perette scowled. “Could be their own or near to it.”

“I think someone should be sorry for them,” said Alix, but Perette was less certain.

“I’m more sorry for me,” she said. “If you don’t want to I will.” She liked to roast them on a stick over burning driftwood, char the little gold bodies until the flesh was burnt and sweet. “It’s them or me,” said Perette, “and if them were me they’d understand. Fish-folk know about bargains better than anyone”, for if there was one thing Perette understood it was trade. “You put your body on the line, you’d best be willing to accept what that means,” she said, coming back of a morning with a black eye, sometimes, or just walking funny. “It’ll break your heart else,” she said, and Alix would come up out of the water, wrap her in the driest blanket they had and sit with her ‘til she fell asleep, even though it took hours sometimes and that was time she wasn’t diving for coin or sugar or any of the other falling treasures.

“I bet they thought they’d get to be human again one day,” she said. “But maybe it’s better to be a crab than a goldfish?” Crabs at least were hunters, and they sang so pretty sometimes, especially when sugared up.

“D’you think they get souls from more than goldfish?” she said, not wanting the answer, not really, because they’d only left the useless pieces of Toby for the crabs and any soul they got from those was bound to be a bitty shredded thing.

“You don’t know they got souls at all,” said Perette. “How many goldies have we guzzled?”

Between them it wasn’t many. The Lady of Scales kept a close enough eye above for all it wasn’t gimlet, but even a few should have seen a change and Alix felt no different after swallowing. If there were more souls than one sloshing about in her tummy with chowder and little bones then they’d never said nothing to her.

“Maybe they only stick if there’s nowt there to begin with,” she began, but Perette started coughing then and it took her too long to stop, her chest all over spasms.

“It’s too damp down here for you,” said Alix, tucking her spare shirt closely around the other girl and trying not to mind the shivers herself. “We’ll go to the fin-man’s shop.” She’d learned the trick of sneaking in and there was a warm corner at the back where he dried the fins, where the remains of shark flesh hung in hundreds of triangles, in thousands of them. The trapdoor over water was always bolted from the inside, but a board was loose at the back and Perette not round enough yet to get caught between if she held her breath tight enough to suck in.

“I’m ‘fraid of him,” the older girl whispered, but Alix had drowned before for less whining than that and she had no pity. Just hoisted her up, slid under an arm and heaved with legs used to kicking, to dodging crab-claws.

“Just to warm you up. He’ll never know if we’re quiet”—if they could be quiet, but Perette’s cough was more silent wheezing than hack, the cough of a girl who spent too many nights outside and found it hard to get air enough for the chill in her lungs—“and he’s probably not there anyway.”

Lies, but learning to lie was the first step in learning to dive, before holding your breath even. Lies that said you’d come back up again alright, lies that said the crabs wouldn’t get you. Lies that their singing was an ugly thing.

But the board was loose and the shop warm and Perette’s lungs came easier and lying had made that happen, so Alix was all for lies then, and theft as well. No sense hiding in strings of food and starving, and the newest fins hung above, still sweating from being packed in salt for the first stage of drying. “There’s too many for him to miss,” she whispered and hooked one down with her fingers like crab claws, pinching the fin between. “Can’t see a place for soaking, but maybe it’s soft enough still,” she said, and would have tried it with her teeth if she hadn’t seen it in the folds: the small ink of crab-sign, and her own sight blurred around her.

“If he catches you he skins you and folds you into fins.”

She hadn’t believed him. No-one had, because kids were taken by crabs all the time and if there was one monster circling round there were bound to be others and there weren’t much of a difference between teeth and claws when it came to meat.

Her sight stayed blurred as she pulled Perette back to the hammock, the Toby-fin tucked into her shirt. It stayed blurred as she found the kid with the knife, the one who traded Toby-parts for the use of it and she gave him the fin for a second borrowing because dead was dead and the living had to eat, regardless.

She’d eaten fins before, too.

The knife brought the world back into focus, and Alix sneaked back into the fin-shop on silent feet, let the fins brush against her as she made her way to the stairs, avoided the teeth in case they rattled. And the shark teeth were shark teeth, she thought, because none of hers ever looked like that but teeth lasted forever. Flesh didn’t, and if the sharks were gone then no-one would know that shark fin wasn’t shark fin but stitched and folded flesh, and kids were eaten all the time.

Diving was quick and silent and keeping alert, trying not to draw attention so when Alix stood over the fin-man she wasn’t some small and stupid kid who’d never seen crabs up close before. She didn’t make the mistake of muddying up the bottom, causing disturbance to draw the crabs. She just cut across his throat quick as pincers. Not quite deep enough, but it’d do the job if Alix left him to bleed though it didn’t seem right somehow—those that never learned better should drown, and she’d been taught to drown.

“Don’t draw the sharks,” she sang, bending down to look in rolling eyes as he choked on his own blood. “Don’t draw the cra-a-abs.”

Dragging him down the narrow stairs to the trap was harder, but she managed it. Heaving him through was harder still, and when he caught hold of her ankle, one last wheezing strike, she fell through with him into shallow water, and the crabs gathering round.

Alix could see shadows of them in the dark, circling, moving, the little clicks and the beginning of song. So pretty, almost enough to lull her into stillness and she had no stones, nothing to bargain with except a body which they’d have anyway, and she knelt on the fin-man’s back, held his head under to the sound of sugar shells and harmony.

There was nothing else to do when the movement stopped beneath her. Nothing but to try not to cry and wet herself as the crabs moved closer and she failed even at that when the biggest crab dragged itself through the water to loom before her. On her knees as she was, her eyes were on a level with its own and Alix recognised it then, the crooning and hungry, considering look she’d seen before under dock, the first time she’d drowned a person.

She’d left the knife in the shop, had nothing but the charm round her throat and that was a cheap thing with none of the force of ink. As the harmonies rose about her, echoed under dock, all Alix could hear was crab-song and her skin shuddered with it, with the sight of those massive claws only moments from her face, only inches from her flesh.

Then the crab began to cough. The big crab, the queen crab, and out of its mouth and into the water between them plopped a goldfish. It sunk to the sand like a stunned soul and Alix caught it up, pressed it to her chest and the crab stumbled for a second, and when it righted itself it was more crab than she had ever seen, the intelligence gone and only crustacean-cunning remaining.

She threw herself backwards as the crab hurtled forward, and it would have sliced her in two with one snap of a powerful claw but the body of the fin-man was between them and the crab hesitated . . . and began to feed.

Behind Alix the smaller crabs were waiting. Still big enough to slaughter, to snip her between their claws, they nonetheless moved apart, left a small path to the nearest post. The souls of the dead, she thought. The souls of the kids who were divers, the kids who were shark-bait. Toby-souls, all wretched and ragged and she didn’t know what was left of them but they recognised the fin-man, and that gave her grace from pincers even if only briefly.

Alix stuffed the goldfish into a pocket, shinnied up the post and wooden wharf supports towards the trapdoor as the crabs moved in to feed. The mussels sliced her all open, her hands and feet and stomach and her blood ran down the pole into the water below, and the smaller crabs began to gather. Staring up and singing their hunger-song, and Alix knew that if she fell again there’d be no second chance.

She didn’t fall.

Instead she hauled herself over the lip of the trap, hands lacerated until they looked like so much raw meat. She set the goldfish in a chamber pot she found under the fin-man’s bed, and went to wake the Lady of Scales.

“My granddad stole it,” she said, lying through her teeth. “He’s real sorry; gone away for a bit. A pilgrimage or some such bloody thing. Said I should mind the shop for him.”

“Your grandfather,” said the Lady of the Scales, taking the goldfish and decanting it from chamber pot to tank. “No-one’s going to believe that, child.”

Alix let herself rest on the side of the open door, too dizzy to stand straight and with her own blood slicked down her, skin from a drowning man under her fingers. “I brought your fish back,” she said, trying not to cry and the Lady sighed.

“They’ll believe me,” she said. “I suppose he came to apologise himself. For the bad example he set to kin. I promised to keep an eye on his estranged . . . grandchild, was it?”

“It’ll do,” said Alix, sniffling, and reaching up one red hand to wipe away warm snot.

“It’s the risk they take,” said the Lady of Scales, and drew her in for bandaging and breakfast.

It was a good breakfast, but Alix learned to cook better. While her slices healed up Perette hauled in the fins of the shark shop, stacked them in the back where they’d be out of the way until needed for bait, and scrubbed until it shone clean enough for cauldrons.

“I feel bad, still, about eating them,” Alix said, of the crabs that found their way to the pot. “Isn’t a bit of soul still a soul?”

“Souls are only good for vengeance, far as I can tell,” said Perette, standing over the pot and stirring before the lunch crowd came in. “They might have let you go for the fin-man, but there are still kids getting munched.”

Alix wasn’t a diver anymore, and Perette had stopped her fishing nights as well. They still heard the cries and crunching, and if they still heard the calling down from people with too much coin and too little . . . well. It wasn’t as if Alix never tossed things down herself. The shop was enough to keep the two of them with only a tiny bit left over, and she might have left the rest of the kids behind but they still had to eat.

She never said it, though. At least not to them.

“We need more meat for tomorrow,” said Perette. “You want to do it or shall I?”

“I’ll do it,” said Alix, making for the trap. She wasn’t as skinny as before, but Perette was still a bigger draw for customers, and seemed to mind their pinching less. Alix had no patience for it, not after the night under dock and the memory of claws all around.

“Don’t call the crabs,” she sang, but crab-calling was easy enough with blood and flesh, and she had one and the shop the other. Palms pressed against the mussels beneath the trap, and it stung for only a moment, a slicing she was used to and her palms were tight with scars anyway, most of the feeling gone. Blood over the fins, the remains of kids she’d known and forgotten and Alix didn’t think they’d have grudged her, their skin folded over and lowered down on chains and she hoped that all their souls were gone, wherever they were, because the giant crabs that came back up, clinging to iron and gorging on child-skin were headed for nothing but an iron spike to the brain and cooking pots.

“They’re so sweet,” said Perette, over the pot and stirring. She sang as she stirred—a kid song, a crab song, one that they’d learned early from diving—and didn’t cough anymore.

Of course they were, Alix thought, remembering the falling caramel, the lumps of boiling sugar falling from above. The crabs were scavengers too.

About the Author

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold around sixty stories to markets including Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Asimov’s. She’s a Bram Stoker nominee and four time Sir Julius Vogel award winner, and was the 2020 visiting writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, the climate fiction novella The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, came out recently from Stelliform.