The Imp and the Bones
They say each one had been spun out of lightning strikes from across the Alöcva coast. Blues, greens, translucent pearl. Two-hundred-and-six of them in all.
Hung like wind chimes to catch in the breeze.
Then slowly put together, one by sweet one.
Never to grow old.
Only to break.
For years it had been the Old Corniche where the villagers liked to gather. A bustling surfeit of markets on one side, and a great plunge of honeycombed rocks avalanching to the sea on the other. The market sold delights, epicurean feasts: ladybird shells, fresh-plucked and toasted; birds' hearts basted in the yolk of their young; passion fruits the size of cantaloupes.
The honeycombed rocks lay in host to fishermen. Five deep at times. Standing for hours, sometimes even days. Nets cast, waiting for sea imps — a delicacy around these parts. Served on slate platters, their little faces turned away. Bones licked clean like neat, little twigs. Beautiful lithe bodies and long, blue limbs, all but forgotten along with their bleating, sable eyes.
The sea imps had tried reasoning:
'Look at us. We are barely morsels.'
'Even sardines are fatter than us.'
But the villagers seemed to relish the fact that they begged, and hunted them even more.
Eventually, however (as is the case with most poached souls), the imps grew weary of being so stalked, and began growing razors instead of teeth. Serrated, barbed points, enough to split human bone, which they then bit down on the fishermen until their thumbs fell clean away. Then they bit down on the women and all the children too until the whole town was thumbless and unable to do anything.
Not even to fish.
The sea imps, themselves, swam away in disgust. Spitting the thumbs into the air so they fell to the waves.
After, the town sort of folded in on itself and the cruelty which had defined them suddenly subsided. No more plucking of butterfly wings to wear as evening eyelashes. No decanting of lambs' screams as a wedding night aphrodisiac. The villagers seemed remorseful and reluctant to cause harm although no one could really say if this change came from shame or merely defeat: for it was hard to be cruel in the absence of thumbs.
The Old Corniche fell to ruins. No one ever visited except to harvest salt. They said you could hear the scream of a thousand thumbs in the conches that lay there.
Ferah found the girl curled between two rocks at the far end of the Old Corniche. Eyes shut, ribs softly tinkling as her chest heaved and fell. Tiny pinpricks of blood, like small splinter cuts, all over her body. She thought she was a sea imp. Bigger, of course, much bigger. But with the same indefinable beauty. Body curved from rolling waves and a slightest blue tinge to her lips.
'Quick,' she shouted back in the village. 'There's a sea imp at the Old Corniche.'
The villagers gasped and dropped their children (which happened quite often on account of having no thumbs) and ran like wild dogs down to the rocks.
A dentist was called immediately to check for razored teeth. His diagnosis: Her mouth is like a cathedral, adorned with chandeliers. And although no one was quite sure what the dentist had actually meant, he seemed satisfied there were no razors, and so too were they.
They carried her to the village and laid her in a crib.
Ferah visited her the following morning.
'Do you remember me?'
The girl nodded.
'I remember your face.'
She propped herself up on her pillow as she spoke while Ferah watched on in admiration. Propping seemed so much more elegantly done when you had two thumbs to assist.
'Do you know where you are?'
The girl shook her head.
'Or who you are perhaps?'
The girl looked puzzled.
'I mean, do you have a name?'
'No. I don't think I do.'
'Maybe you've forgotten it. The sea was wild yesterday.'
'No. I don't think I've ever had a name.'
Ferah frowned. She couldn't imagine anyone not having a name. It would be like not having a voice or perhaps even a soul.
'Well then, I'm going to call you Atoile after my grandmother.'
'Atoile.' The girl smiled and nodded her head. ' I think it will suit me.'
'Good. You know we all thought you might be a sea imp but the dentist says you're not.'
'A sea imp?' Now the girl frowned. Was she a sea imp? She had no idea. She could be, she supposed. She could be anything at all.
'How can you be so sure?'
'Well, you don't have razored teeth for one thing and you're too big anyway, and not blue enough.' Her lips had lost their blue colour in the night and were now a plush, coral pink.
'Do you think you will stay?'
The truth was she had no other place to go. Not one she knew of. And these folk seemed very kind although a little thrown without thumbs.
'But won't anyone miss you?'
Atoile shook her head. She had no memory of anyone in her life. In fact she had very little memory at all.
'I think your hand is broken.'
Ferah pointed at the girl's wrist flopping about by her side. It sang like a bell every time she tried to move it.
'Never mind,' smiled Atoile. 'The heat of the midday sun will heal me in no time.'
Now, mostly the villagers were delighted to have Atoile stay, especially since she was in clear possession of two, able thumbs. A commodity so rare around these parts that anyone with anything more than a stub was automatically assumed to be wiser somehow. Or at least not as foolish as to have lost them in the first place.
They left her alone to heal at first but soon they began troubling her with little tasks they needed doing: slicing bread in even lengths, threading needles, buttoning capes, counting to ten. She didn't mind that they asked. Being helpful, she soon realized, was the perfect panacea for not knowing who she was or from where she had come.
But not everyone was pleased. Especially the fishermen who watched on enviously as she set their hooks neatly and untangled their nets.
At night she retired early, flinging her bedroom shutters wide so she could feel the sea air sift through her bones. Often she could not sleep and as her bones lay softly chiming, she would stare at the stars trying to remember who she was.
At first she remembered nothing. Just the honeycombed rocks of the Old Corniche. But then slowly, like butterfly's wings, she had flits of memory. A long shore. Endless bleached sand. Coconuts and green fruits. A sky strewn with yellow moons and then down at her feet, a galaxy of glistening eyes. Blinking like stars flung across the sand.
'Why don't you have thumbs'' she questioned Ferah one day. They were out harvesting salt down by the Corniche.
'A sea-witch cursed the town,' Ferah lied. The truth was too savage. She felt ashamed by her village's past.
'But the curse is lifted now, yes? I have seen babies with their thumbs.'
'Yes,' said Ferah, continuing the lie. 'Now it is lifted and those born will have their thumbs. The rest of us will not.'
'I wonder why she cursed your village in the first place.'
'I don't think they were very nice.'
'The witches?' said Atoile.
'The village,' replied Ferah truthfully.
'That's a pity,' Atoile replied but she said nothing else.
At night her dreams continued. The beach and the white sand, the green fruits and coconuts. But sometimes she would see thumbs drifting past, like a school of thrashing salmon. And she would wake in soaked terror, clutching out for her own.
Now, most days after harvesting salt, the two would remain down by the Old Corniche. Atoile would stroke Ferah's hair and kiss her sleeping mouth. Sometimes the tiniest crack would form on her puckered lips and a sliver of blood would appear.
One afternoon as they lay dozing, a small creature washed up on the rocks. Alive. Kicking. Blue. Apart from a pinkish streak. Nothing ever landed on the Old Corniche without it taking a little back.
They carried it to the village where the dentist was called once again.
'Enamel and old gum,' he announced to the massing crowd. 'But its mother had razors. Of this, I'm quite sure.'
'A sea imp,' gasped the villagers, and the dentist nodded his head.
'See the curve of its tiny limbs. The powder blue of its supple skin.'
'Indeed,' agreed all the villagers, nodding amongst themselves.
But Ferah noticed some of the fishermen were licking at their lips.
'Come on Atoile, we must return it to the sea.'
'But it's wounded. Shouldn't we tend to it first?'
'Yes. Yes,' urged the fishermen. 'Don't take the imp now. Night is falling and the waves are rough. It can sleep in the well tonight.'
Atoile looked towards Ferah who eventually nodded her head.
'Well, go home then, the rest of you,' she glowered at the fishermen. 'You have nothing more to do here now.'
And the fishermen turned away, still smacking at their lips.
Late in the night and Ferah lay by the well. Atoile sat beside her, stroking the girl's hair while she watched the sea imp swim. She could see its bleating, sable eyes gazing back at her.
Suddenly she remembered seeing thousands of them. All bleating up at her. Weeping and choking as they beached at her feet. Coming straight in towards her on vast, wounded waves.
'Save us,' they had begged her. 'We have done a dreadful thing.'
And she remembered how the ocean had lost its sapphire wash. How all the thumbs had floated past and the imps had begged for help. How she hadn't saved a single one. She had simply swum away.
'I won't fail you this time,' she whispered to the reeling imp.
Suddenly Ferah sat up beside her. She had felt a shadow cast on her skin. The fishermen had returned.
'What do you want?'
'This,' snarled one of the fishermen, snatching the imp from the well. He began to squeeze it between the palms of his hands so its little, sable eyes bulged out from its head, and its blue lips began squealing. Its little voice singing out.
'Let the imp go,' shouted Ferah. 'Or have you no shame!'
'Shame?' laughed the fisherman turning to his friends. 'This imp stole our thumbs, our livelihood, our pride.'
'But it is not this imp's fault ,' insisted Ferah. 'Let it go you thumbless coward.'
And with those words the fisherman began to broil in his own blood. Curdling with rage, he let out a cruel laugh. 'Let it go, did you say. Then let me do as you wish.' And with that he hurled the sea imp towards the stone floor.
'No,' screamed Atoile, throwing herself to the ground.
But as her bones clipped the earth they broke into shards. Splintering the night sky like a thousand scattered diamonds. Puncturing the fishermen's eyes and rendering them all blind so they ran into the waves to be swallowed by the sea.
Ferah collapsed amongst the glassy slivers and began to weep. Her tears slowly pooling in the curved hip of Atoile. Except it wasn't a hip now but a delicate glass bowl — a perfectly rendered port — in which reeled the imp,
round and round and round.
Joanna Galbraith writes, "While I was originally born in Australia I now live in Italy with my one-eyed cat. I have been writing short stories for a number of years now and have had them published in both books and magazines, including Outposts of the Beyond, Stupefying Stories and the Clockwork Phoenix series.