Aye Of The Hagfish

Adam Israel

Gwen’s feet sunk into the moist sand along the beach, just after high tide. Odd things washed ashore Mersea Island from time to time and it used to be common for Gwen and her friends to hunt for treasures, or at least sell the most interesting shells to the local shop for a pence or two.

Salt and sand crusted the skin of her bare legs as she walked along the edge of the surf. Samantha had come with her, mostly on the lie of catching a glimpse of tourist boys lingering in the late season’s warmth.

“Do you think you’ll stay in Barrow Hill after school next year?” Sam asked.

“I dunno,” Gwen said. “I suppose.”

“What’s that mean, ‘you suppose’? Don’t you want to go to university?”

Gwen shrugged. She’d thought about it, of course. Her mum and dad wanted her to follow in their footsteps and live on the edge of nowhere in the middle of the bog. “Maybe.”

Sam stopped to examine and discard a crusted shell. Its mouth was slightly ajar, the meat already picked clean by the gulls. “Well, I’m out of here the day after graduation. Maybe I’ll go see London.”

Gwen claimed the next clam — a bulky thing still covered in muck. She dug a knife out of her pocket as they continued walking. “It’s so big, though.”

“And full of boys,” Sam giggled.

“Aye.” Gwen pried the edge of her blade into the mouth of the clam and twisted. The shell opened with a wet pop. “But I want to do something, not run off to get arsed with boys.”

“Ohh,” Sam proclaimed. “Looks like you’ve got something.”

Gwen had found a pearl once, a milky white bead sitting inside, resting like a prize atop the oyster’s meaty pillow. The inside of this oyster looked wrong, somehow. The meat looked grizzled and tough, like old leather, and sunlight sparkled against it where the center bulged out and wore thin.

The knife cut the mantle holding the oyster to its shell and Gwen turned it over and the entire bit of flesh plopped into the palm of her hand. Seagulls flocked to examine the discarded shell and squawked with disappointment at the lack of spoils.

Sam watched on as Gwen dug her fingers and a thumb into the meat. The lump was hard, bigger than any pearl she’d heard of being found on the island. She pushed against the bottom of it, forcing it through the weak wall of the oyster’s bed. At last it burst free and slapped against the palm of her hand.

The gulls, at last, had their reward.

Gwen and Sam stared at the round object in Gwen’s hand with equal parts awe and disbelief. It was oblong, slightly larger than a marble, bulging in the center like a petrified eye. Its iridescent nacre was blue-green, like the sea, unlike any pearl she had seen.

“It looks like an eye,” Gwen said, rolling it between slimy fingers.

“What’re you going to do with it?”

She slips into the hot bath, eager to wash the salt and sand from her skin. Her sisters are out of sight, likely still playing at the beach, but whomever drew the bath must have also left the draught of mead, too.

She drinks deeply, thinking nothing of the slightly bitter aftertaste. Her skin tingles in the warm water but that, too, she pays no mind to, until it is time to rise. An angry rash covers her skin from the waist down where the water touched her and her insides burn with the fire of the sun, the chariot of Apollo. She pulls herself over the side and rolls into the sand, gasping for air as gills sprout from her neck and scales grow out of her skin.

As she half-crawls, half-flops towards the sea, a sharp laugh pierces the air. Through her convulsions she catches the fleeting image of a woman with silvered hair, watching the last of her humanity melt away.

“I’m going to keep it, of course,” Gwen snapped. And show it to her dad, who knew a few things about the strange relics that washed up occasionally, being the curator of the museum and all.

“Can I see it?” Sam asked, holding out her hand.

Gwen jerked her hand away, closing her fingers around the stone protectively. Maybe she wouldn’t show it to her dad after all. He might want it on display, after all, and this belonged to her.

“Whatever,” Sam said, with a flip of her hair. “Next one’s mine, though.”

Gwen followed, absentmindedly caressing the stone. The only thing she wanted to do was go home so she could lock herself away and stare at it some more, away from prying eyes.

•  •  •

Solitude greeted Gwen with a party hat when she arrived home. She’d forgotten that her little sister, the princess of the family, was having a sleepover. Gwen waded, hip-deep, through a sea of eleven and twelve year old girls to reach the safety of the kitchen.

“Oh good, you’re back.”

Gwen stuffed her hands in her pockets sullenly, hiding away the stone she’d clutched anxiously the entire way home. “What do you want?”

“Your father suddenly remembered that he’d left some important work unfinished and rushed back to the museum.” Her mum’s eyes rolled dramatically, her mouth a half-cocked grin. “I don’t suppose you’d mind running after him with supper? I packed enough for the both of you.”

Gwen pecked her mum on the cheek and sprinted out the back door with her tasty parcel. The Mersea Island Museum was to the west, a twenty-minute walk if she crossed the salt marshes. She’d spent her whole life in the marshes and they were perfectly safe despite what superstitious louts might say.

The day crept to bed and the half moon rose to the east, casting a silvery light to guide her path. Gwen shifted her pack and fished the eye from her pocket. Under the moonlight, the nacre seemed to swirl and shimmer. Caught in its gaze, she walked unaware until she tripped over a root stretched across her path and fell face-first to the ground.

The eye bounced from her grasp and came to a rest at the edge of a bog, several feet away. Gwen scrambled on hands and knees, ignoring the scraps and cuts received, and dove towards the eye.

Kneeling in the dirt with her prize recovered, her attention turned to the surface of the bog for the first time. Tiny waves stirred its surface, and a dark shadow could be seen moving in the depths if she focused on them.

Shadows mirroring the pools twisted across the surface of the gem. Gwen gazed deeper. She swore she could hear whispers but they were muddled. Her hand dipped into the water and as the surface broke, water spilled over on to the eye cupped in her palm and everything became clear.

Every inch of her new cursed body aches from weeks of swimming but she’s finally found her way home again, after the initial panicked flight that took her into the deep. Her arms are nubs and her legs conjoined into a tail but she manages to beach herself and wriggles, inch by horrible inch, along the sandy shore.

The first of her sisters sees her and their eyes widen. Between gasps for too-dry air she calls for help but the words that come out are no longer human. She is greeted with screams. Soon all of her former sisters have joined in. They may not recognize her words but she does theirs. Hagfish. Monster of the deep.

One of them, either in bravery or panic, places a well-aimed kick and she is back in the water, hurting more than from where foot met scale. Away, she swims, knowing that home is a thing of the past.

Gwen rubbed her arms, the faded memory of the blow sending goose bumps across her flesh. The water, or her vision, seemed clearer now. She could make out the shape of something at the bottom, coiled like a snake. It moved, startling her. She backed away, picked up her pack, and ran.

•  •  •

The Mersea Island Museum stood three stories tall, higher than almost every other building on the island. Visitors and tourists flocked to it in droves but most locals ignored its existence. Most, except her father. The lights in his third story office were on, a sure sign that he was busy trying to classify the museum’s latest find.

Hands still shaking, it took Gwen three attempts before she entered the right combination to the security lock at the employees’ entrance. The after hours silence of the museum had never bothered her before but now she glanced around corners carefully before turning, creeping down corridors leading to the stairwell.

“Hi Da,” she said, peering around the open office doorway. The large room was chaos objectified. Shelves lined the walls, filled with old books and stacks of papers. Long tables filled the remaining space, debris and strange artifacts — what her dad affectionately referred to as the lost and found — covering every surface.

“Oh, Gwen,” her dad said, not looking up from his studies. “Your mum said she’d be sending you. Come, have a seat.”

She sat on a telescoping stool and dropped their supper to the ground below her dangling feet. She clasped both hands around the eye, feeling its warmth pulsate.

“Whatcha doing?” she tried to ask casually.

He finally glanced up, wearing his ridiculous headset of glasses and magnifiers. She supressed a giggle at the sight of her multi-spectacled father.

“A fisherman caught a peg leg offshore yesterday, and there might still be bits of flesh attached. I’m trying to collect enough to send away for DNA testing.”

“Uhm, eww?” Gwen mocked a retching motion.

“Why the sudden interest?” He turned to face her.

“No reason,” she blurted out. “I’ve heard about some of the things that wash ashore sometimes, that’s all.”

“Or through it.”

Gwen frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Things have been known to sort of bubble up from below, through the sand, and wind up in the salt marshes.”

Food is scarce in the deep, and a dead rockfish is a fortuitous find that will sustain her for weeks. She enters through its mouth, winding her long body through its digestive tract. 

Tiny jabs are the first sign of trouble and her worst fear is realized when she runs headlong into a giant hook, waiting near the rockfish’s sphincter. Like any trapped animal, her instincts turn to escape. She struggles against the hooks, tearing the rockfish apart from the inside in the process. She reaches open water and sees the line, pulling her towards the surface.

She struggles harder as she nears the surface. The shadow cast against the water is familiar. Her memory of the fisherman reaches back to the time before fins and she still wants nothing to do with him. She fights against him. The smaller hooks in her body tearing free but the pain of the hook in her face is agonizing.

The fisherman’s net is almost upon her. She has seconds to act or he will have her, finally, a fate more unbearable than the one he had already doomed her to. With one last desperate effort, she waits for the line to go slack and jerks against it. The hook rips free, taking her eye with it. Agonized but free, she swims far and deep until exhaustion takes her.

“Gwen?” Her father’s voice sounded worried.


“You went away there for a minute. It was the story of the glass urn in the lead coffin again, isn’t it? Your mother always groans when I tell that one.”

She shook her head, as much in response as to clear away the cobwebs. “No, no, I was just distracted.”

“There’s a reason they call Mersea the ‘Island of the Pool’. Things have a habit of collecting here, a gyre — like an oceanic clearing house.”

The eye seemed to twitch in her grip. It might have been her imagination, but she swore it was almost alive since the salt bog.

“What about sea monsters?” she asked.

“What about what?” he said. “Like Loch Ness?”

“No,” she said, more boldly. “You know, monsters. Big scaly things with teeth that reach out of the water to eat unsuspecting children.”

He tilted his head, watching her before he answered. “Sounds like something out of a story. Are you sure you’re okay?”

She lifted the satchel and set it on the corner of a table. “Just fine. We should probably eat before this gets too cold.”

•  •  •

She could have given it over to her father but she didn’t think he’d understand. She didn’t understand it, either, but something told her that the eye wasn’t meant to be studied under a microscope. She didn’t know where it belonged but she had an idea where to start.

The water of the salt bog was still and silent when she returned. She’d sat beside it for almost an hour, hoping to see more, to understand more. Gwen almost gave up, before remembering that the visions really started only when the eye had touched the water. She cupped both hands around the eye and slowly submerged it. Almost immediately the shadowy figure from the deep began to stir.

She sleeps in a deep crevice, the pain from her wounds a faded memory, when her missing eye wakes. The double vision disorients her at first, but she clearly sees the presence of the two faces she hates the most, the fisherman who hunts her and the witch who had cursed her.

She sees their lips moving, and by trick or imagination she hears the words of their speech as true as her newfound vision.

“Thank you, Circe,” the fisherman says. “With this, she will be compelled to obey me?”

“Perhaps it will finally satisfy your obsession, Charybdis” she says, stroking his salt-crusted beard. “You know there are other maidens worthy of your attention.”

Charybdis grunts. “Nothing will dissuade me, Circe.”

Circe’s darkly stained fingers approach and pluck at her eye, distorting the vision. Her point of view moves, revealing the bath of blood and herbs she had been floating in and in its reflection, her missing eye, in Circe’s grip.

“If I were to command her to ‘swim far, until she couldn’t swim anymore’, she would be compelled to obey me.”

Her fins twitch and she nuzzles free of her hole. Just a moment before she was content in her slumber but now, damn the witch, she actually wants to swim — needs to.

Circe hands the eye to Charybdis, who drops it in his pocket like a piece of bait, just another tool of his trade. The compulsion fades. She doesn’t know whether to hide or try to swim beyond its reach, if that’s even possible.

“Do not forget me,” she hears the witch say.

The double vision resumes a short while later. Charybdis stands upon the deck of his great ship, her eye in the palm of his callused hand. “I have loved you since I first laid eyes on you, Scylla, and swore then that I would make you mine.”

She cringes at his words, fearing what comes next.

“Come to me,” he commanded in a fearsome voice.

Nothing happens. She feels no need to obey, no desire to fulfill his wish and make it her own.

He repeats his command over days and weeks with no effect, whether by fate or the witch’s trickery. She flees, haunted by the vision of his frustration until, in a fit of drunken rage, he casts her eye into the sea.

Gwen tried to steady herself when she realized the hagfish had risen to the surface and was nudging her hand, gentle and upward. It was the ugliest thing she had ever seen. Its skin was pale grey, and covered with wrinkles and scares. The face, though, was like something out of a dream. A life-like, human face filled with sadness.

“Do you want the eye?” Gwen asked.

The hagfish flailed in response, slapping its tail flat against the water’s surface, splashing her skirt.

Gwen sat back, clutching the eye to her chest. She sat still for several minutes while the hagfish seemed to watch her.

“S-should I take it back to the sea?” she asked.

The hagfish circled the salt bog, its full body visible for the first time. She guessed if its coils were straightened, that it would measure over fifteen meters. Its head surfaced again briefly and she swore it was smiling. And then it was gone, to slumber in the deep once more.

•  •  •

The sun was just cresting the horizon as Gwen, body aching from lack of sleep, reached the beach where they had found the oyster. It was too early for tourists to be awake yet. The only signs of life were the silhouettes of fishing boats in the distance. In the palm of her hand, the eye twitched occasionally, as if dreaming.

The place she had found the oyster was mostly undisturbed. The discarded chunk of meat lay intact. Surrounding it, the bodies of the seagulls that had pecked at it formed a circle. She shuddered, not just at the sight but also at the thought of the meat, in contact with the eye for all those years, now corrupt and inedible.

She picked up the remaining oyster shell and walked further along the beach. In a secluded alcove, she sat in the sand along the water’s edge. She placed the oyster shell in the sand, open side up like a bowl.

The eye settled in her hand when she exposed it to the light.

She sees the watery descent of her cast away eye. She thought she could outrun it, that it would settle into a watery grave and be lost forever. Instead she watches in horror as it flitters towards the bottom and into the open, waiting maw of an oyster.

Its jaw snaps shut and the double vision goes dark, leaving a blind spot in her mind. She drifts in the current and waits. She thinks she has lucked out and continues on. Suddenly, need fills her, to find a warm, dark place.

She swims, west and down and up, trying to fulfill her compulsion. Dark is easy in the trenches but warm is next to impossible and her failure threatens to drive her mad. At last she runs into land. Despairing, not knowing what to do, she scours the coast until she finds a place with a soft, salty underbelly. She burrows through it, like a rockfish, until she can go no further. The bog is small, barely large enough for her to stretch, but it is warm and dark and she can breathe here. She rests and waits, until the end comes and she can finally find peace.

The memory of the things she had seen, the tragedy of the things done, were still fresh in her mind.

She didn’t want responsibility or power. She was just a girl who could barely make up her own mind yet, but this decision was easy. She gazed into the eye and felt its returned attention. She wetted her dry lips, nervous, and nodded.

“Free. Go free. Never be bound by another again.”

Gwen placed the eye inside the nacre bowl, whispering, “Sorry,” and removing the knife from her belt pouch. She placed it tip down again the center of the eye and slammed the flat of her palm into its hilt.

The shell around the eye cracked with the first strike, then splintered. On the third blow it shattered, a squish that made Gwen jump. The blow was true, and final, and the lifeless eye slid off the tip of the knife. For just an instant she felt a stab of pain and the fleeting sensation of darkness, then nothing out of the ordinary.

The connection she felt to the eye was gone but something else had filled the gap. A resolve, to see this finished and not just her part in it. She picked up the shell and the remains of the eye and stomped away, retracing her steps.

•  •  •

The salt blog was as quiet in the day as it was under moonlight. Gwen could see to the bottom clearly now, tiny bubbles of sea water filtering to the surface through the soft white sand. The hagfish was gone.

If not for the remains of the eye in her hand, she might not believe any of it had really happened. She didn’t know how she’d convince anyone else of what had happened. Strange things had happened on Mersea Island but nothing like this.

She turned the shell over the bog and let the remains of the eye and the oyster meat settle into the silt below. A burial at sea, in a way. The death of the seagulls would be questioned, but ultimately forgotten, written off as another one of the unexplained events of Mersea.

Gwen’s mood brightened as the morning went on. By the time she reached her parent’s doorstep, there was a spring in her step that hadn’t been there the day before. Her mind raced ahead, with thoughts of London and beyond, going to University, and what other mysteries were waiting for discovery.

Adam Israel head shot

Adam Israel

Adam Israel was born with one foot on the road and a book in his back pocket. Having lived in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, he’s expatriated to rural Ontario, Canada with his wife, three dogs and three cats. With his nomadic days behind him, he spends his days working freelance as a writer and software developer.
A graduate of the 2010 Clarion Writers’ Workshop, his fiction has appeared in print and pixel, most recently in Crossed Genres, Goldfish Grimm (twice) and the anthologies The Crimson Pact 2 and Finding Home: Community in Apocalyptic Worlds. He can be found online at www.adamisrael.com and on Twitter @adamisrael.

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