The surface of the fjord was still until a rock skipped across the grey water. Mara chose another flat, silvery rock, and weighed it in her hand. Ben watched the rock skip once, twice, before it sank. “Not as good,” he said. He rooted through the pebbles and broken shells on the shore.
“Hand me another one,” Mara said, extending a hand. Ben offered a lumpy red rock. “No, a flat one.”
Ben crouched over a tidepool lined with algae and barnacles. “Here,” he said, extracting a rock from the pool. He handed the rock to Mara and jumped over the pool to wander by the edge of the shore.
“You should be more careful,” Mara said. “Mum doesn’t want us so close to the water.”
Ben seemed not to have heard Mara. He was busy examining a periwinkle shell to see if the snail was still inside. Mara didn’t see the danger in wading in the shallows–she knew how to swim better than any of the kids in her class, and her father had spent most of his life fishing on the fjord. But Mum was nearby, collecting seaweed, and it would be better that Ben get scolded than Mara.
Mara was about to skip another pebble when she heard shifting rocks and saw her mother approaching, carrying a basket filled with dripping green seaweed. Ben leapt up and ran to Mum, clutching her woolen skirt and showing her the empty shell he’d found.
“A good find,” their mother said with a smile. Mum bent down and brushed the hair out of Ben’s eyes before looking out at the unsteady waves. “How about a cup of tea back home? I made us some sandwiches too.”
Ben and Mara agreed and trailed along behind their mother back to their house set in the hills beyond the fjord. The path home wound past a little graveyard of empty graves, made for those lost on the water. The neighboring farmland was dotted with prickly gorse bushes and patches of heather. Sheep grazed freely and shook their heads to cast off swarms of midges. The house was tucked behind a pair of hawthorn trees and a narrow creek which the children splashed through to cool their feet. A man was seated at the kitchen table when they arrived.
“Uncle Finn!” Ben ran up to the man and hugged his leg.
“I’m glad you could make it,” Mum said. She started making a plate of sandwiches and tea while Mara bent down to pet the cat.
“I have something I want to show you,” Ben said. He ran off to his room.
“Another drawing?” Uncle Finn said to Mum with a laugh.
“Yes, he’s really improving,” Mum said. She poured the boiling water into a teapot painted with lavender sprigs. “Did you ever figure out what happened to those sheep?”
“Nah, they’re still missing. At this point I figure something got to them.”
“We should go look for them,” Mara said. “What if they’re just lost?”
Ben came back into the kitchen with a piece of paper in hand. He offered his crayon drawing proudly to Uncle Finn. “Look,” he said, beaming. “I drew you and Dad.”
Uncle Finn squinted at the scribbles. “Are we…fighting a sea monster?”
“Yeah!” Ben said. “See, that’s Dad chopping at it with a sword.”
Mum looked over Uncle Finn’s shoulder with a cup of tea in her hands. “Oh, I love it, Ben! Your dad would love it too.”
Mara swallowed her mouthful of sandwich. “That could be what’s taking your sheep, you know,” she said to Uncle Finn. “Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong place.”
Mum smiled. “You think sea monsters have a taste for sheep?”
“Or it could be a werewolf!” Ben said.
“Or a regular wolf,” Uncle Finn grumbled. He jumped as the cat meowed by his ankles and he tried to shoo her away. “Go, get out! I’m not leaving this place covered in scratches again.”
“Maybe if you were nicer to Pepper, she wouldn’t scratch you so much,” Mum said. She picked up the cat and kissed the top of her head.
Uncle Finn eyed the cat mistrustfully and finished off his sandwich. “So, you kids start school soon?”
“Day after tomorrow,” Ben said. “I get to go with the big kids.”
“You’re growing up fast,” Uncle Finn said. “Pretty soon we’ll be sending you to university.”
“Don’t say that,” Mum said, wrapping her arms around Mara. “Then you’ll leave me! What will I do without you two here?”
Mara flipped through an old photo album while Mum helped Ben put on his pajamas. The photos were all from before Mara was born, recording her mum and dad’s years on the fjord. Mum looked the same, familiar and warm. Mara didn’t know much about her father, but she remembered when he would take her in his fishing boat and they would sail under the hot sunshine. And at night, when the fireflies danced over the pier, she and her father would sit among the boats and watch them rock in the water. He would read her detective stories and they would try to guess the ending. He was almost always right.
Mara brushed a finger over the photo. Her parents were smiling at each other there, with the hawthorn trees in the background. Mara studied her father’s sea-worn face, his big round glasses and his smile that looked so much like Ben’s. Mara closed the album and snuck it into her bedroom.
Mara and Ben shared a room with walls that had been lovingly hand-painted with dancing animals crowned with flowers. Mara settled beneath the blankets on her bed. When Ben and Mum came into the bedroom, Mara waited until Ben had stopped rambling about his drawings to take out the photo album and set it on her lap.
“Mum,” Mara said, “do you think Dad is really gone?”
Her mother turned to frown at Mara. “What made you think about that?”
Mara offered the album to her mother. “I just keep thinking that . . . well, maybe he’s not dead. Like Uncle Finn’s sheep. He’s lost or something.”
Mum was quiet. She got up and pulled the bedroom window shut, to keep the midges from swarming inside. Ben looked as interested to hear Mum’s response as Mara was.
Finally, Mum took the album from Mara and sat on the woven carpet between the two beds. “I wish I could tell you that he was just on a long trip, or that he was hiding with the faeries under the hills. But I’m afraid he really is gone. I’m sorry, Mara. I know it isn’t easy for any of us.”
“But how do you know?” Mara said.
“Mara, I wish I could answer all the questions you ask,” Mum said, “but I can’t. Your father was an adventurous and sometimes reckless man. You’re a lot like him, always asking questions and wanting to learn as much as you can.”
“I don’t remember him,” Ben said quietly, looking at the photo album. “Can I see?”
Mum nodded and sat on the edge of Ben’s bed, flipping through the pages and explaining each picture. Dad on their wedding day, Dad with his boat, Dad fishing off the end of the pier, Dad holding a baby Mara in his arms.
When Mum finished with the album and turned off the lights, Mara listened to her footsteps fading. A door closed, and Mara propped herself up in bed on her elbow. “Ben,” she said.
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Fine,” Mara said, turning her back to Ben and staring at the wall. She could solve the mystery on her own. If only there were suspects she could talk to, someone she could finally blame. “It was that man, sir, he killed my father,” she would say to the police. But it was impossible to expect a fjord to answer her questions.
Mara, Ben, and Mum spent the morning picking up last-minute school supplies. Ben chose a new set of crayons–he wanted the kind with the built-in sharpener, but Mum said no–and Mara browsed the notebooks for something scholarly. She had been the top of her class for several years and felt she had a reputation to maintain. She had a plain blue notebook in her hands when she spotted a shimmery, greenish journal with a creature on the front that looked like a horse.
“Cool,” Mara said. She took the notebook off the shelf and showed it to her mother. “It looks like a kelpie.”
“It does,” Mum said. “I’m surprised you remember that story I used to tell you.”
“Kelpies are shapeshifters but often take on the shape of a horse,” Mara recited. “They lure people to the water and drown them.”
But that probably hadn’t happened to her father, he would have known better. Mara preferred her other theories–that Dad was a selkie, trapped in seal form, or that he had been transformed into a fish that gives wishes.
Mara decided to keep the blue notebook and put it into her backpack when she returned home. She had already organized her books by subject and had everything neatly packed away, ready for the next morning. She looked over at Ben, who was poking the cartoon frog on his backpack.
“You know they test you to see how smart you are,” she said. Ben paused.
“What do you mean?” he said. He considered his collection of rocks and shells on the windowsill and picked out a spiky cluster of quartz to put into his backpack.
“I mean, they give you tests and ask you questions about reading and math and stuff. If you fail, they kick you out of school.”
Ben dropped a periwinkle shell into his bag. “But I only know how to count to thirty. What about the bigger numbers?”
Mara shrugged. Ben abandoned his bag and ran out of their room, calling for Mum. Mara would usually laugh, but she felt slightly guilty instead. Mara peered into Ben’s bag. It was empty apart from a few rocks and loose crayons. She shook her head and gathered up the crayons into a bundle that she secured with a rubber band.
Ben returned with Mum at his side, and she bent down to look into his backpack. “It’s not a bad start,” she said. “Mara’s just trying to scare you. Oh, I see you chose your nice quartz to show to the teacher. I’m sure he’ll like that.”
Someone’s fist pounded at the door and a voice shouted through the house. “Hey, open the door! We need to talk.”
Mum patted Ben’s head before turning and leaving the room. Mara followed her into the kitchen and hovered by the table as Mum opened the door. Uncle Finn was standing there, holding a mangled chicken. Bloody feathers drifted to the ground around his feet. “I know this is your cat,” he said.
Mum frowned. “What, killing your chickens? Pepper wouldn’t do that.”
“But I know it’s her,” Uncle Finn said, shaking the chicken a little so more feathers flew off its corpse. “First my sheep go missing, then my chickens. And I saw your cat sneaking off through my field yesterday!”
“Pepper couldn’t attack a sheep even if she wanted to. She wouldn’t go after the chickens, either. How many of them were killed?”
“Well, I can assume five of ‘em were eaten. The only one I found was this one, but there was plenty of blood and feathers around the coop this morning.”
“How about I pay for five new chickens?” Mum said. “I hate when we argue. We’re family still, aren’t we?”
Uncle Finn went quiet. “Yes, I suppose we are. Anyway, if it’s not Pepper doing the thieving, it’s something else. Wouldn’t want your cat disappearing too, eh?”
Mara couldn’t sleep, so she rolled over and whispered to Ben. No response. She flopped onto her belly, looking out at the hawthorn trees and the moon above them. Its silvery light glinted off the rooftop of Uncle Finn’s house and the creek between them, and with the mist gathering it looked like a scene out of one of those detective stories she used to read with Dad. The floor creaked somewhere and Mara jumped a little. She slid out of bed and unzipped her backpack. Everything was still inside, all the shiny gel pens and her blue notebook waiting to be used. She shouldn’t be worried. Mara crept out of the bedroom, tiptoeing down the hall and getting a glass of water from the kitchen tap. As an afterthought, she snagged a cookie from the counter.
Mara sat on the edge of her bed, watching Ben’s blankets move steadily up and down with his breath. Ben rolled over and muttered something in his sleep. Mara finished her cookie, licking the sweetness from her fingers, and reached over to unlatch the window. It was probably too cold for midges anyway, and the breeze was nice.
Mara looked to the door. No one there. She turned back to the window and searched the trees and the shadows beneath them. The soft, rasping voice came from somewhere outside.
Something moved that time. Mara was sure she had seen something. She reached out to pull the windows shut again, but stopped herself. She squinted out past the hawthorn trees, toward the grey road and the fields. The berries were hundreds of tiny red eyes, watching Mara. Something was out on the path, partly obscured by mist.
Mara climbed out of the window. It was exciting to do something rash. Something that her father might have done. She could imagine him crouching in the path, waiting to surprise her. Maybe he was only human at night, a sort of anti-werewolf. The main road was empty when Mara reached it. He should be just there, ready to run up to Mara and hug her and tell her everything that had happened while he was away.
Mara followed the voice away from the house. The fjord opened up before her, cold and silent in the fog that drifted over its surface. Mara looked down at her bare feet crossing the dark soil and the treacherous stretch of sharp rocks and slimy grey tidepools. The creature ahead wasn’t her father–some pale, distorted copy, maybe. Or something else entirely. Faeries liked offerings, didn’t they? She should have saved that cookie.
Mara stopped moving. So did the creature. Water lapped against its feet, which looked more like hooves now that Mara saw them properly. Antlers stretched up from a vaguely human head, skin stretched tight over the skull. It looked like it was grinning. Hunched over, it reached out a skeletal arm and beckoned to Mara again.
She shook her head, and stood still. “This is a dream, isn’t it? It must be.”
“Mara, dear, don’t you recognize me?” The creature tilted its head. “I told you to keep away from the fjord, and yet here you are.”
Mara swallowed and realized her fingers were trembling slightly. She curled them into fists. “You called me out here.”
“It’s in my nature. You must have opened the windows.”
“You told us it was to keep the midges out,” Mara said. She hesitated before taking a step toward the creature. “Mum, what are you?”
“Don’t come closer,” the creature said. “I would drag you down to the depths. I have done it before.”
Mara took a few shaky steps backward. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry. I am just so . . . hungry.”
“You stole Uncle Finn’s sheep, didn’t you? And his chickens too?”
“Fish are dry and cold and full of so many biting bones.” The creature scratched at its ribs and whined. “I wanted something warm, something full of hot blood.”
The creature lunged for Mara, but she ran. The cold air burned her throat and stung her eyes, but she kept running past the road and the graveyard and the fields. When the house emerged from the fog, Mara jumped the creek and scrambled past the hawthorn trees before pausing to look back. The creature stood at the edge of the water, its ears drooping.
Mara felt the soil, cool and damp beneath her toes, and decided to remember this as a bad dream. No faeries, no father, no monsters from children’s stories. They were silly, anyway–distractions. Not real.
The creature finally spoke. “We can’t cross running water, you know.”
“I know. You told me that.”
“I thought it would be enough.” The creature slunk away, swallowed up by grey eddies of mist.
Hannah Vitiello is a master's student studying science writing with Johns Hopkins University. Her BA is in English: Creative Writing, from Webster University. Hannah has been telling stories since before she could write.