The Fisher King
story by Brian Woodward and Mel Paisley
written by Mel Paisley
illustrated by Brian Woodward
The girl’s first prayer had been for her father.
Standing at the edge of the water, her favorite and only doll clutched tightly in her hands. Pudgy and small, the salt of the harbor curling the ends of her hair, watching the black churning of the sea.
Like all of the children of Ambergris, she had been raised on the stench of curing fish, briny wood. Whispered stories of a fickle god presiding beneath the waves. The Sea Goat, The Fisher King. This taker of things, a deity of this for that—a trade and barter ebbing in and out as easy as the tide. Saint of storms, the drowning dead. Equal parts cold and kind, his ancient mind as endless and unfeeling as the broad white swath of the harbor sky.
She thought of her father, gone out to sea. Long armed and wiry, his elbows and wrists like whorls of wood, dark handed and bright smiled. Optimistic, laughing at the kitchen table.
Thought of him again, unreturned. Imagined his leathery palms scraping against splintered wood, blunt nails digging into driftwood for purchase, the whole crew plunged into icy water, slick and black and frigid in their lungs, riptide tangling around their ankles.
At the end of the dock, she smoothed her thumbs across the felted rabbit’s whiskered face. The thin, black smile stitched into the soft, familiar brown she had snuggled and cried and chatted with between chores for all of her young life. Touched the happy, opposable, little ears, adjusted the flexible wire. Smoothed out the blue dress that her mama had made, had stitched by the stove with her arthritic hands, made to match her own, tiny peonies shoddily embroidered into the ends of the skirt.
A hot, scathing lump sandpapered at the base of her throat, tightened behind her eyes, but the girl breathed out around it and took a metal fork from her pocket, the churning of the surf loud against her skin, stinging her eyes. She unraveled one of the thin blue ribbons from her thick black braid. Tied one end to the ankles of her doll, the other to the bend of the fork, and begged her only precious toy into the water, holding her hands tight in prayer that the Fisher King would look upon her kindly, and return to the shore her father.
Deep beneath the waves, the ageless godling turned his great horned head towards the doll-body, all blue scale and curved bone and soft fur floating dreamlike in the water, his caprine eyes gone sharklike with salt and time.
The Fisher King watched the doll drown from his graveyard empire, his shipyard palace, splintered masts and rotting sailcloth dancing fishbelly white in the water. His coral throne glutted heavy with tribute—shimmering coins, silver combs. Candlesticks and cutlery and pewter lockets, the delicate lace of a wedding gown, tearing on the coral, picked apart by tiny crustaceans.
He had smelt this plea before, but usually from the thin girl’s mother.
From the mother, it was a halfhearted thing. She was a frugal woman of lukewarm faith, her long hands cracked and burnt from laundry and lye, practically cataloguing every asset of their home which could be liquidated for a bargain. She had gifted a comb once, her second favorite. A pewter of sugar dish that had been a wedding present, never full. Unuseful to her, outside of its value.
But this, the gift of the girl, it reeked of grief as it sunk to the bottom, white petticoats frothing in the sealight.
It was the kind of tribute that he could live inside of. An empty space in her life that would call his name to the surface of her mind every time that she missed what she had given. That was how you survived, as an eternal thing—you lived only in the weight your name carried, the gravity it pulled across a people like the moon across the tide.
So in his generosity, The Fisher King brought the stink of her father’s soul into the wide net of his protection, and decided that this time, if the tempest felled his ship, he would not have him dashed against the rocks.
In the last summer of her youth, she met a boy. This pale fingered fiddle player, all dark hair and bright eyes and out of town hands, always sewing a new song across a bowstring.
She had been selling marigolds in the market the first time they met. Homespun dress and shopgirl’s apron twisted around her waist, heavy braid piled at the back of her head, her sun-cracked skin warm with the scent of the harbor, bright as the copper pieces that he busked from strangers at the start of all this, before fame began to riddle in his fingers.
He found her beautiful, so he bought three.
Pinned the brightest to his shirt and swore in the street that he would be back again and again, that he would win her hand by the time that the last petal wilted from the last flower—vibrant orange curling and falling to the floor of his appointed rooms, made fine from the magistrate’s retainer.
The boy’s affections fell like sunlight across her shoulders. Each instance of his words against her skin lifting her out of obscurity like the flecks of gold that far away men sifted from the river. And so by the end of the third week of the third month, she was smitten and he was certain that she would make a fine wife—this hardworking, devoted girl with the sharp tongue and trusting eyes, so unlike the private, porcelain girls hidden away in the courts of the Lords that he had played for.
The bridewealth that the musician promised her father in exchange for her hand would be enough in silver to keep the old man from the sea for the remainder of his years, and so while he was wary of this stranger, this shimmering thing unaccustomed to their lands, their culture, their systems of bounty and belief, her practical mother knew that prayer was an inexact science, a fickle thing. And while faith and luck had carried their family far, there would be no need for such bargains when there was wealth enough to keep her husband safely on the shore.
So there had been a wedding, and they were happy. Garlands and dancing and lantern light falling on the harbor. The girl went to live with her new husband in the higher rings of the city, more smooth white limestone than rickety boardwalk, far above the stench of fish scales drying in the market.
Months into their fledgling marriage, an expeditionary force was raised. A three month voyage in search of lunar whales, great phosphorescent beasts tumor-ridden with excess of the Dream, crystalline aberrations ripe for the harvest.
It was dangerous work, but a wealthy risk. The far off nobles of Invergrat paid six month’s wages for a half pound of the harvested mutations, gold enough to convince the men of Ambergris into colder waters, onto bigger ships, iron helmed to cut through ice and shale and danger, further and further from their familiar shores.
The captain of the expedition had done this once, years before, back when he was young enough to be a ship’s boy rather than a leader. He knew that the journey was brutal, the nights were long. Madness haunted those waters, the endless dark liable to slip beneath the skin of a good man’s heart and turn him cruel, so he brought his request to the magistrate, asked for a singer who could spin sunlight from a bowstring to keep his crew sane in the long dark. The rich man knew well that the girl’s husband could soothe and flay in equal measure with his song, play a tune down quick to the bone, so he summoned the fiddle player to his white walled court and he answered, bow and fiddle and allegiance pledged to his shoulder.
The decision was made, and on the day that the expedition was due to ship off, the young wife collected a tribute from their coffers. Filled a burlap sack with more gold than her parents had ever made in their entire lives and walked with him down to the water, her lopsided gait growing sore and heavy with child.
At the end of the docks, she kissed him once, smiled a prayer for his return against his mouth and hoisted the sack of gold higher on her hip as the city waved goodbye to the sailors, to their sons and husbands and brothers.
As soon as the white, waxed sails crested the horizon, she closed her eyes, breathed the briny weight of the morning down into the bottom of her lungs and unfastened the twine, spilling her coins down into the tide.
When the Fisher King found her bounty, there was no curl of need around the easily replaced coins. An empty shimmer, pyrite to the long, ageless coil of his mind.
So he watched them fall.
When the ice and wind and rain stripped the deck from the captain’s ship like broken teeth, The Fisher King did nothing to save the singer. Just watched unfeeling with his net full of useless gold, appraising the taste of the more desperate prayers which had been gifted to the water, deciding if any had been sacrifice enough to earn his favor.
The waiting nearly drove her mad.
Time moved slowly—two months, then three, then four. Waking up each morning and staring out at the flat line where the black sea met the blue sky, hunting the horizon for a mast, a sail, a confirmation of the living or the dead. The unmarked passage of the days drug through her mind like a knife across the bone, chiseling her sanity into tiny powderings, filaments of white. Dread a salamander in her throat, a thick eel writhing in a jar of glass, her fingertips spinning and spinning around the band of her wedding ring, the pearl inlay, blue shawl held tight around her shoulders.
By the fifth month it was too late but she tossed it anyway. Widowed herself to the water, her daughter’s tiny body clutched to her chest, watching the small thing shimmer and fall into the sea.
No word came of the fate of the expedition. Years later, there were small miracles—a brother returned home from a long walk through a foreign land, a son who had survived but lost his legs to the sharks, but by that time the toddler’s father had already rotted into a myth. A legend of his own right, this tragic singer who died young and beautiful in service to his country, leaving his wife to grow old and destitute in his shadow.
Years later, the widow's daughter grew into a restless thing.
As a teen, she started sneaking off in the early mornings to learn the ways of the pearl divers at the shore. Those small, fearless women with their black hair coiled tight beneath their white cloth wrappings, their lithe, swimmers bodies tanned and strong and capable of diving ten, twenty, forty feet to the bottom and coming back up with their wooden buckets piled high with pilfered mollusks, potential treasures.
It was a dangerous thing, diving in to the Fisher King’s domain with nothing but a tether rope and your sisters to keep you anchored to the surface, but the pay was steep when the rewards were high, shucking precious things from the slick mouth of an oyster, walking back home with a silver commission jangling in the pocket of her apron, skimmed from the appraiser’s stalls at the end of the market.
When the frightened mother found this to be true, she snatched her only daughter from the proud order of these injudicious women, drug her screaming back to the safety of their limestone home. The girl fought and raged and argued against the lock and key, but her mother had learned well of the fickle mercy of the sea, and worked hard to keep her precious girl safe, hidden from the violence of the tides.
This worked, until it didn’t. Bitterness hardened the air between them, snapped beneath the knives and forks of the silent, one sided meals they shared, a slow resentment brewing like a storm until the night that the tempest girl finally escaped— sheared the hair from her head, dressed in her drowned father’s clothes, and ran off into the midnight morning, scrabbling up into the guts of the first ship that she could stow herself away on, dizzy with starlight and freedom and hungry for the wide expanse of possibility stretched beyond the harbor.
When the widow found her daughter’s scribbled note, she was inconsolable.
There was nothing she could do to bring her home, and she had nothing left to give. Her only treasure was already out beyond the tide, elegant and long boned and arrogant as her father, her body just as fragile to the whims of the king below the waves.
So she staggered around her empty house, collecting metal like roses. Making a garland of inconsequential, weighted things—candlesticks, cookware. Iron cutlery, what was left of their silver, wound in silk.
When she finished, she wound the corded anchor around her waist and funeral marched her body towards the end of the dock, the trinkets clattering a swan song around her hips as she staggered moonlit to the water, ears empty of anything but the whisper of the water against the rocks.
At this, the third of her prayers, The Fisher King listened. Watched her body float towards the bottom, the white of her skirts glowing fishbelly in the water, a frothed surrender so reminiscent of her first request—the childlike vastness of her first, fearful faith.
As the lifebreath left her lungs, he collected the shiver of her regrets like so much gifted silver. Promised her waterlogging mind that for this, he would protect her daughter, so long as the city remembered her fall and spoke his name around her sentence.
In the winding streets of Ambergris, the story of The Fiddler’s Wife still walks along the shore.
On the evening of betrothals and wedding beds, the old women of the city hold the hands of their granddaughters and whisper her name in cautionary tones, warning the girls of the dangers of forgetting the water which has borne them. Urging them to remember the gifts of the great King beneath the waves, lest they become the wives of his grave kingdom, bequeathed to an eternity at his side, baronesses of the drowned dead.