The new egg was going to be a boy.
Cadence had overheard Mother Reed and Mother Piper saying so in the kitchen, last night, after they were done singing to it. She didn’t know how they could tell—it looked just like her little sisters’ eggs had. Maybe a bit bigger than theirs had been at three days old, but otherwise the same: fat as a pumpkin and ribbed like one, flushed with the faintest hint of venous blue. It looked like the dead jellyfish that would sometimes wash up on the beach, plump and gelatinous, clear near the surface and fibrous white at its heart, making you want to dig your fingers in, or maybe take a bite.
She sat by the bathtub with her little sisters, still in their bathing suits, and watched the egg bob fractionally in its ten inches of seawater. Their mothers had soundproofed the bathroom walls in layers of glue and fibreboard, even caulked the window shut to keep their singing from the neighbours’ ears. The stink of seawater swirled around them, sealed in as effectively as the sound.
“How can they tell?” asked her middle sister, Bell. “It doesn’t look special.”
“They’re mothers, stupid,” said her littlest sister, Chime. “They’ve gotta know.”
“You’re stupid. And I bet even mothers can be wrong sometimes.”
Chime stuck one brown little-girl arm out to prod the egg, which bobbed away, stirring the sand and other organic gunk on the tub floor. “I bet we could smash it,” she said. Her lips were parted, showing small white teeth, and her tight black curls were fuzzing as they dried. She looked angelic, sitting there on the tiles, like the cutest preschooler you’d ever seen. “I bet we could do it just like that.”
Cadence smacked her arm away. “Stop that,” she said, though she’d thought about it too. That gluey shell crumpling, blood and albumen flooding the tub.
She couldn’t picture the rest. They’d never had a little brother before, and she didn’t know exactly what was folded in the egg’s occluded heart, dreaming unborn dreams.
Bell put her pale cheek against the tub’s rim, trailing strands of red hair still damp from their afternoon swim. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready, Cadence?” she said in that perfectly innocent voice that made Cadence want to put her hands on her shoulders and shake her till she turned as blue as the egg. “Mother Reed’s gonna be mad if you’re not ready when she gets home.”
“She’s sc-a-red,” announced Chime, nursing her smacked hand.
“I wouldn’t be scared if I was going on my first hunt,” said Bell. “I’d be excited to get to meet Dad for the first time.”
“Maybe you should be scared,” Chime said. “If you mess up the hunt, Dad might eat you too. Just like he ate Mother Aria.”
Cadence lunged. Her little sisters’ hands and knees beat the floor as they wriggled away, but she was the oldest—fifteen years to their eleven and five, faster, longer in arm and leg. She caught Chime by the wrist, and her little sisters went from sass to surrender in the blink of an eye. Chime folded to the floor in limp submission, and Bell froze on all fours.
“You take that back,” Cadence said. Her face felt hot and her heart beat hard. They’d tracked sand into the bathroom with them, and the grit bit into her bare knees. “Dad didn’t eat Mother Aria. She left. She left us.”
“She wouldn’t,” Chime wailed, under her breath so Mother Piper wouldn’t hear. “She never would!”
“She did. And she’s not coming back.” She took satisfaction in trying the pain on for size, feeling it push on her breastbone till it threatened to crack. “So you’d better get used to it.”
Chime sobbed softly, curling her little body in on itself. Slumped in the doorway, Bell sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. They were all mean and dumb with grief right now, stumbling around and bumping into each other in the still-wet hollow carved out by Mother Aria’s absence, and Cadence felt meanest and angriest of all. Two weeks ago, she would have found a way to soothe and shush her little sisters. She would have been good, because she was the oldest and she had to be. But that had been before Mother Aria had left.
She’d found a new self in those two weeks. A self that wanted to smash eggs, kick the bathtub into shards while she was at it. A self that didn’t want to be good.
She heard a car pulling into the driveway, and knew Mother Reed was back from her job teaching music in the city. Cadence let go of Chime. She paused for a moment, then lightly shoved her little sister.
“Go distract her,” she said. “Buy me some time. I’m gonna go get dressed.”
Mother Aria was the youngest of their mothers, the one most often left at home with the children while the other two went out to hunt. Cadence remembered cuddling on the couch together under her favourite blue fleece blanket, back when it had been just the two of them, no little sisters. Hot cocoa and nature documentaries, which Mother Aria had always weirdly loved. Her mother brushing her hair, rushing them both to Walmart to replace a plate Cadence had broken before Mother Reed could notice.
She had a lopsided way of smiling, one side of her mouth quirking sharper and harder than the other. She smiled that wry, secret smile at Cadence a lot: when they were clumsily mimicking Mother Piper doing her makeup, when Chime was screaming about not wanting to eat her vegetables, when Mother Reed was putting on a DVD of a high school drama for them so they could see how human girls behaved. That smile had always felt conspiratorial, something shared between just the two of them, but now Cadence found herself wondering if it had actually been bitter. Something taut, close to fraying.
She’d always seemed somehow separate from their other mothers. Just as charming when she wanted to be, far better at wheedling the children into obedience, but always a step out of beat, like she was dancing to a different song.
Maybe they should have seen this coming.
Mother Aria had come into their bedroom on the night she’d left. Cadence remembered waking by drowsy degrees to her warm weight dipping the bed, her beloved hand on her hair. Mother Aria had been singing. Not regular singing. She’d been singing the song without words. The song of the waves.
“Shh,” she’d said when she’d seen Cadence looking at her. “Go back to sleep, seashell.”
The words had been lapped in song too, wrapping around Cadence and pushing her eyes closed. She remembered a line of light under the door as she slid under, her mothers’ voices in the hallway, a closing door.
When she’d woken the next morning, Mother Aria had been gone.
Bell was wrong. She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t. But she didn’t want to go hunting, either. Father was just a word to them, an idea, sometimes a shape in the ocean if they swam out too far and dove too deep. Leviathan smudge passing slowly beneath, prompting her and her sisters to flurries of bubbles and flashing fingers, signing dad! run! at each other in the gloom.
Cadence didn’t want to see him. She didn’t know him. Like her little-brother-to-be in the egg, all she had for him was a bellyful of unease and the urge to smash things.
She was supposed to want these things, but she didn’t. This was supposed to be her big day, and she just felt sick instead. She knew this meant there was something wrong with her, though she didn’t know why.
Maybe Mother Aria had sung the wrongness into her that last night, before she woke. Your mothers were only supposed to be able to sing the shape of you while you were still dreaming in your egg, but maybe Mother Aria had found a way to do it even now that she was nearly grown.
Maybe she’d infected Cadence with whatever it was that had let her abandon her family and break all their hearts.
Mother Reed drove them east on Shorefront Parkway in the convertible with the top down, wind lifting her straight wings of hair. Cadence slumped in her seat and watched the blue-grey sheet of the ocean, shimmering with a million, blinding fingernail dents of sun.
Hurricane Sandy had swept the cotton candy and funnel cake from the boardwalk, stripped the sand of blankets and coolers and piled it high instead with rotted wood, torn wiring, a waterlogged mulch of decaying junk. The wreckage had been studded with construction signs for two years as the government carted in literal tons of sand to replace what the storm stole.
Now the signs were gone, the new boardwalk open. Only the occasional patch of churned muck, ATV parked on a corner or gap in fencing remained.
It was the boardwalk they were heading for, Cadence realised. “I thought you said we never hunt this close to home.”
“It’s your first time.” Mother Reed turned off Shorefront, nosing between rows of parked cars. “We didn’t want to send you into the city alone.”
“Why do I even have to go alone? Why can’t one of you come with?”
“It’s tradition, dear. That’s how it’s always been done.”
“Tradition sucks,” Cadence said, and then bit her tongue, afraid she’d said too much.
Mother Reed double-parked at the corner, and Cadence’s lunch threatened to rise hotly up her throat. Her stomach cramped so hard it felt like she was being folded in half. She’d been expecting a long drive into the city. She wasn’t ready.
But the engine was running, and there were cars already honking at them, and so she swallowed her fear and climbed out, squashing the urge to slam the door.
“What if I can’t find someone?” she said.
Mother Reed’s lips curved up with amusement. “Finding is the easy part, dear. They’ll come to you.”
“So what if I’m late getting back?” Cadence persisted.
“Don’t be. Your father won’t like that.”
Cadence looked at her mother’s long-fingered pianist’s hands resting on the wheel, at her tanned cheeks and calm eyes, the shape of her nostrils. Mother Reed was the oldest of their mothers, tall and broad-shoulders, her dark hair shot through with silver. She made every movement, even the littlest twitch of a finger, with purpose, and she never, ever raised her voice, but Cadence had never seen Mother Aria or Mother Piper go against her in anything. There were tears and sometimes shouting, but Mother Reed always had her way in the end.
Until, of course, Mother Aria left.
Bell liked to speculate about which of their mothers had laid the eggs they’d come out of, usually just to freak out Chime, who would look at them with big shocked eyes and say “We’re not supposed to talk about that!” Her current theory was that Mother Reed was Chime’s mom. Her evidence: that they both had black hair and blue eyes.
It was stupid, of course. You didn’t get your looks from your mom. You got them from whoever Father ate right before he fertilised your egg. But if she squinted hard enough, she could see it: the shadow of Chime emerging from the bones of Mother Reed’s face.
It didn’t mean anything. Because Mother Aria had had hair the exact same shade of brown as Cadence’s, and that didn’t—couldn’t—mean anything, either.
“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever.”
She’d learned to swim when she was three. Her mothers had taken her to a narrow spit of surf-slippery rock, treading past tide pools full of purple shore crabs, barnacles and gunnels to where the beach grew thin and coarse.
There, they’d thrown her in.
She hadn’t drowned. None of their kind could ever drown. She’d shot to the surface like a cork, spitting saltwater, slapping at the waves. Before long, she’d learned that when she inflated her lungs and stoppered her mouth and nose, she didn’t need to come back up for air for a very long time. By the time she was twisting and darting through the foam, her mothers had been sleeking darkly through the water with her, all hair and bare shoulders, singing their laughter to each other as they held hands out to her baby fingers.
Cadence had raced schools of striper with her sisters and won, slipstreaming through the murk with their kelp-forest hair fluttering in the current, counting summer flounder on the seabed. They’d swum and sung and signed together, and their thigh muscles had grown strong from battling the Atlantic ocean.
But there had been that first bottomless moment when the ocean closed over her head and salt stung her nose and mouth. When she’d thrashed for footing and only felt herself sink.
It felt something like that now, watching Mother Reed drive away.
The new boardwalk was all steel pilings and concrete, hard and grey. Cadence wiped her sweaty palms on her denim shorts and walked across its sun-hot expanse, examining the bodies on the beach with what she told herself was a predator’s eye. She imagined herself moving, camouflaged, in the midst of her oblivious prey. Like a tiger from one of Mother Aria’s nature documentaries, pressed low to the ground, hidden by stripes of sun.
She wasn’t human, even if she looked it to the flip flop-wearing, cooler-carrying crowd around her. Humans had made her, though. All the people her father had eaten, their essence somehow sieved from their flesh and blood and bone, piped rich and liquid into an egg for her mothers to sing into the shape of her.
Who knew how many devoured human parents lived in her cells, pulling at her like the tide?
Cadence took the steps down to the beach.
The sea-breeze shoved the smell of sunscreen, cooking hot dogs and sugared drinks into her face. Bodies lay around her, lotioned, limp with heat, stretched out on towels. Children screamed.
She knew how to do this. She’d sat in booths with Bell and Mother Piper and watched Mother Reed at the bar, gracefully tilting her dark head as a man talked to her. Occasionally smiling, just a little. Eyes on him, dragging a fingertip, slowly, through the wet ring left by her iced water.
She’d never been there for what came after.
“Wear a short skirt,” Bell had advised, sprawled with Chime on her unmade bed while Cadence dressed. “Guys like short skirts.”
“Put your hair up,” Chime had added with baby wisdom.
“No no, leave it down. It makes you look older.”
“She’s not going to need that, stupid. And what d’you know about sex, anyway? You’re too little.”
“Mother Reed says some men like little girls.”
A sticky-mouthed toddler ran past, slipping and windmilling in the sand. Cadence’s eyes followed him without thinking, looking for an identifiable parent and finding none.
Then it hit her, what she was doing, and a shudder seized her by the spine, radiated out to the tips of her fingers and toes. No. She wasn’t that desperate.
Cadence swung around, intending to move further up the beach, and collided with someone who’d been standing behind her.
“Oh shit,” that someone said, hands raised. She saw brown hair, freckles, white teeth. A boy. “You okay?”
Cadence stared at him. And then she smiled, letting it reach her eyes and dimple her cheeks, seeing his eyes widen, too, as if he’d been struck by sun.
“Hi,” she said.
His name was Jason. He was fifteen too, and he was here with his father. “He gets me one weekend a month,” he said without enthusiasm, nodding to the man hunched on a blanket several yards up the beach and prodding forlornly at a tablet.
They walked down to where the sand was wet, and Cadence tried not to shiver with longing at the cool, fizzy touch of the sea slipping between her toes. She didn’t have to try nearly as hard to talk to the boy. He filled the silence all on his own, rambling on about what a shitshow traffic had been on the way here, how he’d had plans with his friends that he’d had to ditch because of his dumb dad, about high school. “I’m home-schooled,” she said when he asked her where she went.
It was the first time she’d talked to someone her own age. It was the first time she’d talked to someone on her own without one of her mothers hiding in plain night nearby.
Mother Reed had been right. It was easy.
“Hey,” she said, once it was getting dark. “Wanna see something cool?”
She kept his hand in hers as they walked out past the bodies and blankets, to where the beach suddenly widened as the boardwalk fell away and tumbled crops and spits of rock appeared. The clink of bottles and voices faded behind them. The sound of the sea grew louder, roaring like the blood in her ears, and the breeze plucked at the ruffles of her top.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“You’ll see,” she said, and it was enough. He came willingly, drawn by her fingers in his and the promise of whatever gifts he thought were awaiting him.
He had no reason to think he could ever be prey. He’d never had to live in a world where he had to look over his shoulder, worry about walking home alone, be afraid to let a stranger take him away from the people and the lights.
It made her angry, and weirdly excited, and maybe also a little bit afraid. Her emotions were so mushed together at this point that she couldn’t tell anymore.
She wasn’t just going to get to swim again soon. She was going to see her father, too.
The sun was just a few smashed streaks of pink on the horizon now, a hint of blood on the bottoms of clouds and a few shreds of light glancing off the water. Night fell soft and fast around them, and they kept walking. The lights of condos and close-packed houses glinted in the distance. Cadence lead them on an angled path that brought them closer and closer to the water, scuffling sand between their toes, and, finally, she felt Jason hesitate.
“Ugh, my dad,” he said, and groped in his pocket. “Gimme a sec.”
“We’re almost there.”
“It’s ok, I’ll just tell him to wait—”
Cadence put her hand on his wrist. She wasn’t sure if they were far out enough yet for no one to hear, but she couldn’t let him answer the phone, and so she began to sing.
It was a song without words, though if you listened closely, it would whisper secrets in your ears. It was a song of ocean mist and white sails, crying gulls and deep water. They didn’t sit on rocks and sing sailors to their deaths anymore, but the song remained the same.
Her throat ached, as it always did at first, but it was a deep and pleasurable ache. Jason stared, facial muscles going soft too, hand falling to his side.
Come with me, she sang, and took a step back, and another, till her heel broke the curling lip of the surf. She held out her hands to him, and he came, following her into the sudden cold shock of the sea foaming up around their thighs. He looked at her the whole time like she was his whole world, like adoring her was all he knew. He looked at her like she was beautiful, and she knew in that moment that she was, and a dark, hot lick of excitement crept up into her throat.
The waves lifted them off their feet, and she put her hands up to his wet face as she sang. There was a ruptured blood vessel in his eye. A vein pulsed in his forehead, and still he smiled, slackly, as his nerves fought the music turning them into harp strings.
Cadence turned in the water, fluid as any fish, locked her elbow underneath his neck and began to swim with powerful strokes.
When they were far enough out to sea, she pulled them both beneath the waves. Her song became a submerged dirge for the few seconds before she cut it off to conserve her air.
They sank deeper and deeper, the weight of the ocean compressing her ribs. Her thigh muscles burned. She blinked and a translucent membrane slid down over her eyes to protect them from the water, just in time to see a striped bass band away from them in the gloom, drowned light glinting off its scales. The deeper they went, the quieter it got, until she could almost believe they were the only people left alive in the world, nothing but the accelerating push and pull of her heart, the conch shell buzz of her blood in her ears as she sank into the silent cathedral of the sea.
And Jason, beginning to writhe as the song wore off and panic replaced the air in his lungs. Cadence knotted her fingers in his hair and kicked, feeling fear pluck at her too. The memory rose, icy and sour, of Chime’s taunts. Dad might eat you too. Just like he ate Mother Aria.
Where was her father? Hadn’t he heard her singing? Where—
He rose palely from the deep, a lighter shape against the dark at first, then the shape of ribs, barnacled shell trailing shreds of kelp, and a great, beating tail. She was tiny beside him, less than the length of one lobstered leg.
Run, Mother Reed had said, going over instructions with her one last time. Don’t stay to watch. Just go.
Jason might have screamed. Cadence didn’t listen. She was kicking for all she was worth, pouring every last ounce of her strength into carrying herself away from her father, from his shell and his dead-fish stink, and underneath the shell, the shadows and suggestions of his terrible face.
She breached the surface as her father began to feed. And though the water was too dark for even her eyes to see it change colour, she tasted it when it began to fill with blood.
She didn’t know how long she swam. The black, beating waves disoriented her, and Cadence found the shore through some combination of tide and instinct and distant music: her mothers, singing somewhere only she could hear, foaming around her in contrapuntal ripples.
She’d lost her shoes somewhere in the sea. Cadence stumbled from the water, wet sand sucking greedily at her feet. Her limbs shook, exhausted from fighting the current. She wrapped her bare, goose-pimpled arms around herself and spat until she couldn’t taste blood and salt in her mouth anymore.
Then she limped up the shoreline and walked the rest of the way, squeezing through a gap in the chain-link fencing.
Her little sisters were lined up by the screen door, faces tilted up like curious flowers. “Do you think we’ll have a new little sister?” were the first words out Chime’s mouth. “I’d like a little sister.”
Bell squeezed Chime’s shoulders. “I don’t think Mother Reed and Mother Piper are in an egg-laying mood.”
“Oh.” Chime sounded disappointed. “But he was cute, right? Maybe bits of him will be in the next baby.”
Cadence pushed past them. Mother Reed was waiting in the hallway, Mother Piper lurking anxiously behind, and she went right by them too, making wordlessly for the room she and her sisters shared.
It was a rule in their house that the whole family always ate together, except when one of them wasn’t home. Cadence wasn’t hungry. She stripped off her clammy clothes and buried herself under the covers, waiting to see if they’d come get her, but no one did.
It was only a few hours later that Mother Reed came into the room, sitting down on the edge of the bed in the dark just like Mother Aria had done that on her last night with them.
“Why don’t you all just leave him?” Cadence mumbled into the pillow. “I don’t get it. Why would you want to keep doing this? We could all just pack up and go.” Like Mother Aria had done.
Mother Reed said nothing at first, just stroked Cadence’s damp hair. She let her hand stay there afterwards, heavy against the curve of her skull.
“I know it’s hard being the oldest,” she said. “You have to look out for your little sisters, and lead them. You won’t always live with us, you know. Someday, you and your sisters will take your little brother—of course, he won’t be little by then—and you’ll follow the coast. When you’re far away, you’ll start a new nest. And then, someday, you’ll have daughters of your own.”
It took a moment for the understanding to settle in, but once it did, it made Cadence go cold all over. “So Dad is . . . ”
“Our little brother, yes. Mine, and Piper’s, and Aria’s too.”
She felt her mother drag her cool fingers tenderly through her hair, nails just barely scraping her scalp. “Aria was the youngest,” Mother Reed said, her voice like cool water, steady and sad, “and our mothers spoiled her for it. She grew up selfish. Selfish enough to run away and leave her whole family behind. I know you’re not like her, Cadence. We dreamed you in the egg and we sang you to life, and we didn’t sing you to be selfish.”
The bedsprings creaked as she bent over, dropping a kiss on Cadence’s cheek. “We left you a plate on the counter. Rest up, my good girl. Our beautiful oldest. Tomorrow, we’ll start teaching you the songs to make a boy.”
She’d been sure she wouldn’t sleep that night, but somehow, she did. Slept, and dreamed of being back in the water. Being back in the egg. In her dreams, she imagined—or remembered—her mothers singing the shape of her, we know you, we’ve always known you, we dreamed you and we sang you as ours. The words they’d sung her of. Daughter. Oldest. Obedient.
In the dream, Mother Aria’s voice wove clearly through the other two, bells and layered glass, and Cadence cried out to her in return, then why did you leave? I thought you loved us. I thought I was your favourite.
If you had to leave, why couldn’t you have taken me with you, at least?
The dream shifted at some point to that final night. Mother’s Aria weight on her bed and her hand on her hair, except the hand was Mother Reed’s too, and Mother Piper’s, and all three of their voices spoke the heavy, grating words together. Go back to sleep, seashell.
She woke in the dark to her little sisters climbing into bed with her. Her pillow was wet, and her throat scratchy, and Cadence realised she must have been crying. She fell back under with Bell butting up under her chin like a sleepy kitten, Chime’s warm weight on her back, framed by the tangle of their limbs.
The next day moved in slow motion. Her mothers and sisters trod gingerly around her, like she might break, or bite, and Cadence was content to let them. She’d found something in the night. Something buried in her like a fishhook, an unseen hand pulling on the line.
She waited till Mother Reed had left for work, and Mother Piper was walking through a math lesson with her little sisters, and then pulled up a footstool in the kitchen to examine the line of jam jars above the sink.
The jars were full of shells she and her sisters had collected. Quahog clams, tiny pink and orange jingle shells, bivalved scallops. They used to tumble out of bed at the crack of dawn when they were little, comb the beach for what the tide had left behind, singing to each other as they splashed through the spray and spume on small feet. Mother Aria would let them trade the shells in for hard-boiled sweets and popsicles when they made it back to the house.
Go back to sleep, seashell.
Cadence gathered up the jars and locked herself in the upstairs bathroom. She spilled the contents of jar after jar onto the bathroom mat, and in jar three, she found what she’d somehow known would be there. A phone number, scribbled on a scrap of paper.
Mother Aria hadn’t sung rebellion into her that last night, after all. But she’d left her an invitation to it. An open door, or the key to one.
She sat on the bathroom tiles and ran her thumbs over Mother Aria’s handwriting, mulling over this proof that she had been her favourite. That her mother had loved her better than the rest.
Not enough to not leave her, though.
She hadn’t known it until now, but a small and horrid part of her had hoped that Chime was right. That their dad had eaten Mother Aria, because if he hadn’t, it meant their mother had been unhappy because of them.
It was a shock, coming to know that your mother was not just your mother but a person, and that you didn’t know all of who that person was. That you weren’t enough, that your mother could want more than you, that your mother could want to be free of you.
She thought of Jason, now devoured, who’d been just a boy. Would it have been easier if he’d been mean? For all she knew, he had been. She didn’t know him at all, even if she’d killed him. It hadn’t meant anything, and it was that pointlessness of it all that got to her. Years and years ahead, doing this every week, for what?
She thought of the time Hurricane Sandy had descended on them in howling rain, being bundled into the car with her sisters to join the evacuation. Days in a motel room. Her mothers’ constant, palpable anxiety, whispering urgently to each other in corners, taking turns to leave and not come back for a whole day. What would happen if they ever stopped pulling people down into the drowning deeps for her father to feed? Would hunger bring him to the surface himself? Would he ram ships? Drag his abyssal body up onto the beach?
There was a world beyond the beach and the boardwalk and blood in the water, a world that she’d only tasted crumbs of in approved DVDs, snatches of allowed internet time, chaperoned trips into the city. A world that Mother Aria had left them for. That she wanted Cadence to join her in.
Cadence filled a backpack in snatches during the day, stuffing two changes of clothes and clean underwear into it, a few dollars stolen from the kitchen drawer. She sat at the table in the kitchen and ate dinner with her family, pretending to focus on her vegetables while Mother Reed asked Chime and Bell what they’d learned today.
Somewhere in the deep still-dark of the morning, she slipped from her bed, carefully avoiding the creaky spots on the floorboards to not wake her little sisters in their bunk beds. There was the faintest hint of light outside the kitchen window, the suggestion of salt and sea and dawn not so far away. She could already hear the crying of the gulls.
Cadence put on her shoes. She could have gone right out the door, then.
Instead, she went into the downstairs bath.
Standing over the bathtub, she looked down at the floating plumpness of the egg. It was definitely bigger than it had been yesterday.
She could break it. Peel it open like a fruit, find out what little brother looked like all curled up inside. But she couldn’t do anything about father, and as long as he lived in the water, there would be another little brother someday and nothing would have changed at all, really, except that Cadence wouldn’t be there to have deal with it.
But her sisters would. Without her.
She thought back to the morning after Mother Aria had left. Mother Piper crying into a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Mother Reed holding her white-knuckled hand, dry-eyed herself, because she was the oldest, and couldn’t cry. She remembered dreaming in the egg, and Mother Reed saying We’ll teach you the songs to make a boy.
Cadence knelt on the tiles and placed her hand on it, splaying her fingers and pressing down so it wouldn’t bob away. It was warmer than she’d expected, slick and firm. She tested the gelatinous outer membrane under her nails, the way you might push the ball of your thumb down on a sheet of bubble wrap in anticipation of the pop.
Something pulsed against her palm in the egg’s fibrous core. Heartbeat or recognition, she couldn’t tell.
The shuffle of bare feet drew her eyes to the door she’d left open. Chime and Bell stood just beyond the threshold. Chime gripped the doorknob tight, eyes bright.
“Are we gonna smash it?” she whispered excitedly. “Are we?”
Bell, her clever Bell, who liked to prod and poke at things until they twisted, but never let on just how closely they watched or how much they saw, said nothing. Her hands were on Chime’s shoulders, holding her in place. Cadence saw her eyes move to the backpack she’d left against a wall, and the press of her lips was already resigned to betrayal. It hurt to look at.
She made her decision. It was easy, in the end.
Come in, Cadence signed. Close the door.
They came: Bell slowly, Chime running up to topple her warm little body into Cadence’s lap. Cadence put her arms around her and held her there as Bell crouched beside them, shoulders nudging.
“We’re totally gonna smash it, right?” Chime breathed.
“No,” Cadence said. The egg bobbed in its ten inches of seawater, rich in blood and albumen and potential, waiting to be sung into shape. Waiting for change. Waiting for them to make it into something their mothers had never dreamed. “We’re going to sing to it.”