The Wind and the Waves
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Gale's Storyline.
I’ve been in love with the sea for as long as I can remember. Longer, really. I could swim before I could walk. My first recollections are of mornings spent at the edge of the pier, my feet dangling over the end of the wind-beaten, salt-steeped boards as I watched the boats sail out to the horizon, becoming dark silhouettes dividing ocean blue from sunrise red, and of nights spent beneath open windows, listening to the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, feeling the sea breeze against my brow and filling my lungs with warm, salty air as the wind and the waves sang me to sleep.
Even then, they sounded like music.
I loved the sea in all its changeable beauty. I loved it not in spite of its fierce moods, but because of them. Yes, I loved the sun-drenched summer days, when the sand was hot beneath my feet, and the gulls called out as they circled and dove, and I would run down to the shore with the other boys and girls, and we would splash and play in the surf, our heads bobbing like corks across the glassy surface of the green-blue water. But I loved the dark days, too, the gray days when the winds whipped the whitecaps, turning the water more steely gray than blue, and the waves broke upon the rocks like a crash of cymbals, and the spray hung in the air like a deep, briny perfume. I loved the black days when the rains came, and lightning streaked the heavens, and the falling drops mottled the water’s surface like a half-remembered dream. I would rush down to the shore on those days, too, to feel the wind whistle in my ears, to feel the rain beat upon my face, to throw my body into the roiling sea and feel the great, foaming waves crash over my head, as the current fought to carry me away and I fought back, not so much struggling against it as playing with it, teasing it, tempting it, daring it – a tug-of-war between old friends.
The sea was my first and fiercest love. It still is.
* * *
I remember the day I first heard the song. I was still a girl, and it was late in the autumn, near the end of the catch. The days were growing short, and the fishing boats were ranging farther and farther from the coast as they tried to scoop up the last schools of silverfins and stripebacks, soon to be boned and filleted, cold-smoked or salt-packed, and sealed into great clay jars for the winter months ahead. I was sitting on the docks with the other girls and boys of that awkward age – too old to be left idle, yet too young to go out with the fleet – helping the old harbor master to heat great iron kettles of thick, black patching pitch.
The winds were gentle, and the sea nearly still, when I started to hear the singing. Just one voice at first, like a high, lilting keen, mournful almost, but with a soft, seductive edge. Soon others joined in, singing the high and low harmonies, until it was like a whole choir inside my head. The winds carried the voices to me, and I felt my whole body attune itself to their song, my very heartbeat playing percussion, my feet tapping on the docks in time with the rhythm, my hips swaying from side to side as the music dipped and soared. Before I knew it I was humming along, adding my own voice to the chorus on the wind.
I remember the harbor master was still stirring the kettle with his pitch-covered paddle as he turned to me. I remember the look in his eyes as he asked me what I was doing.
Singing, I said. Can’t you hear the music?
What music, he asked, the paddle suddenly still in his hands.
The music, I said again, not understanding the question. The voices on the wind.
I remember then that his face went white as sailcloth. The paddle slipped from his fingers, and his rough, knotted hands grasped me by the shoulders.
Where are the voices coming from, he asked, and I could hear the fear in his voice.
I pointed out to sea. They’re coming from the wind, I said. West by nor’west.
Are they loud, he asked.
Loud, I said, and getting louder. Can’t you hear them?
I had never seen the aged master – who seemed to me then to be old as time itself – move as fast as he did that day, racing down the pier to very edge, where he hurried to raise three red flags up the signaling post, and then rang the warning bell so long and so loud that I thought the clapper would break off in his hand. The last of the boats made it back in just as the first dark, looming clouds appeared on the horizon, and the winds began to freshen and swirl.
The elders said that the storm which came that night was the worst in their lives. Black clouds blotted out the stars, and the gales from the west blew so fast and so fierce that they bent trees in half like sticks. The very sea seemed to boil, and the song in my head became a funeral dirge. But it did not frighten me. It thrilled me to my core. It made me feel intensely, emphatically alive, my every sense heightened, my every nerve alight, so that, even as the others huddled together in the center of the longhouse, praying to all the Gods of creation for safe passage, I pressed my face up against a shuttered window and watched through the slats in awestruck silence as the frothing sea lifted boats from their moorings and dashed them against the rocks, and the roaring gusts plucked roofs from houses and carried them away into the ink-black night like scraps of paper on the wind.
The next day, as the men and women of the village set to work repairing the damage, saving what could be saved and salvaging what could not, the harbor master pulled me aside and led me into the battered remains of his hut.
Do you understand what happened to you the day before, he asked me. I shook my head, told him I did not.
He knelt down close to me. He fixed his eyes on mine, and he spoke to me in a tone that I would not fully understand for years to come.
The sea and the sky have a life of their own, he told me. There is magic in them, and it speaks a language all its own to those who know how to listen.
Then he reached up and took down his old, three-stringed baika from a nearby shelf. I had seen him play it before on festival nights, and I wondered if he would play it for me then. But, instead, he held the left and right strings still beneath his stiff, rheumatic fingers, while he plucked the middle one with his other hand.
See how it vibrates, he asked me, as the baika’s low, reedy note hummed in the air around us. See how it speaks?
Then, as that first note faded, he released the two outer strings, before plucking the center one again. This time, I watched as the note spread through the air from the one string to the others, so that all three vibrated together, moving as one.
Just as one string hears another, just as one string moves another, he said, some people can hear the winds speak, can feel the seas swell. Anyone can learn to call upon the magic of the sea and the sky. But to feel its very rhythm, to hear its very voice? Such windspeakers are few and far between.
You have been given a gift, he told me. Do you understand?
I told him that I did. And, at the time, I believed it.
I had my rite of naming that very night, in the center of the storm-shaken village. The elders declared me ready to go to sea, and they named me Gale.
* * *
My marks tell the story of my life at sea. There is the girdled globe on my arm, which I earned for my first circumnavigation, and the four hashes beneath it, for the ones I've made since. There are twin stars on my shoulders, to show I’ve sailed from pole to pole, and there’s an angel on my breast, to show I saved a ship at sea. There’s a rope braided round my thigh, which vouches for my knots, and there’s a wheel upon my neck, which means I’m trusted at the helm. There’s a name above my ankle of a boy I loved in one port, and another name below it of the girl I left him for.
But the most important is on my cheek, where the points of the four winds mark me as a speaker.
A windspeaker is a prized addition to any sailing crew. I can guide my ship along the fastest routes, and steer it clear of storms. I can skirt the doldrums before our sails even slacken, and I can lead us to the nearest port before our stores spoil. So I could have had my pick of ships, I could have jumped from crew to crew as I chased the richest cargos. But I found a captain who I liked with a single-masted cutter that I loved, and I made that ship my home. I grew to know every knot in the wood of her deck, every pucker in the folds of her sails. I knew how she skipped across rough seas, and how she sliced through calm ones. I knew her sounds, and her smells, and her secrets.
I loved that ship like a sister. I loved her for her own charms, and I loved her because she kept me at sea.
I met a few other windspeakers as we plied the spice routes, and I tried to describe to them how the ocean sounded in my ears, how the waves seemed to sing to me, how the sea breeze thrilled my every nerve and filled my heart with song. But they didn’t understand. The winds spoke to them, they said. The winds spoke, and they listened.
But the winds never spoke to me. To me, they always sang.
* * *
I was sleeping when it happened. They must have rowed up aside us in longboats while we lay at anchor, and climbed aboard under cover of night. By the time I awoke to hear screaming on the deck above, and to feel the sharp edge of a blade held against my throat, we had already been taken.
The captain was already dead when rough hands dragged me topside. I saw his body slumped across the tiller, a sword driven so far through his chest that it stuck into the rudder post. I wish I could have been there for him. He was a good captain, and a good man. He deserved better than that.
The raiders lined us up on the foredeck. They tied our hands and feet, then stripped us bare to see our marks. Then a gruff-voiced man, whose face I never saw, went down the line, and, one-by-one, he put my crewmates to the sword. I knelt there, naked and bound, as the men and women I’d sailed with for years – the men and women I’d laughed with, cried with, swore with, and sang with – the men and women who had become more of a family to me than anyone to whom I was related by blood – were adjudged not worth their weight as ballast, cut down from behind, and thrown over the side like so much jetsam. I listened to their death rattles as their throats were cut, and I listened to the splashes as their bodies hit the water.
They came to me last of all. A rough hand grabbed me by the hair, and foul breath filled my nostrils as my head was turned to one side.
This one’s a windspeaker, the rough voice said. She’s worth more than the ship. The rough voice laughed, and others laughed with him.
That was when I started to sing.
I sang the old songs. Songs about death and betrayal, about crashing waves and gusting winds. Songs that chilled the bones of my ancestors on long, stormy nights as they huddled in the galley and tried to put on brave faces amid the terrors of the sea.
I sang out to the wind and the waves, I called out for them, I pledged my life to them if only they would join their music to mine.
I sang out to the voices, and the voices answered back. They sang with me, joined their calls to mine. Our songs became as one, the old song of my people joined into the very sea’s own lament. I felt the power and magic of the wind and the waves come flooding into me, and I felt my grief and my rage flood out into them.
The storm came up from nowhere. One moment the sea was glassy and calm, the next it surged all around us, throwing the cutter around like driftwood. All four winds seemed to blow at once, swirling like a hurricane, shredding the mainsail to ribbons. Waves broke over the railings, and the deck pitched and yawed. The yardarm tore free from the mast and fell to the deck with a cascade of splintered wood.
I watched the raiders die all around me. They were crushed beneath falling timbers. They were swept overboard by great waves which surged over the pitching deck. They were knocked over the railing by the swinging boom. All the while I kept singing the old songs, my voice rising higher and higher and getting louder and louder as the storm raged around me, until I could barely hear the wind or the waves above the sound of the sea’s savage music.
I didn’t stop singing until a wave nearly as tall as the mast rolled the cutter beneath me, and I was in the water, my hands and feet still bound with thick ropes, with the ship I loved like a sister above me.
It sank, and I sank with it.
I barely struggled as my lungs filled with saltwater, as darkness enveloped me. I could still hear the song of the storm echoing in my ears as the sea pulled me down.
I have heard it said that drowning is a bad death, but I have never feared it. The sea was my first and fiercest love. Better to die in the arms of a lover than at the point of a sword.
So I gave myself over to the sea’s embrace as the world around me faded to blackness. I closed my eyes, and I waited for the moment when I would feel no more.
* * *
That moment never came. I don’t know why. I should have died there, beneath the wind and the waves. I should have died in the sea that was my home.
But I didn’t. Instead, when I opened my eyes, I was lying on my back, and I felt solid ground beneath me. An alien sun was beating down on me, and the land all around me was like a blasted hellscape of cracked, parched clay and sharp, jagged rocks.
Somehow I managed to drag myself over to one of those volcanic shards that seemed stuck in the ground like giant darts, and I managed to cut myself free by rubbing my bindings up against it. There are days now when I look back and wish that I had not bothered, when I wish that I had simply left myself there to die beneath that oppressive, looming sun.
But I didn’t. I lived.
If, that is, you consider how I live now "living."
I’ve traveled to other planes since I first awoke on that arid nightmare world. I have crossed the eternities trying to get home. I used to care about finding my way back to my own world, but now I don’t even worry about that anymore.
I just want to make it back to the sea. Somewhere, anywhere.
I miss the sea. I miss it more than words can describe. I feel empty without it. My soul feels hollow.
I have spoken to the winds on the planes I’ve crossed. Sometimes they even speak back to me. But they don’t sing. They never sing.
The sea was my first and fiercest love. It still is.
I need to hear its music again. I need to hear it sing.
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