Fiction from Karly Noelle Abreu White

A rocky ocean edge at dusk

Photo: Them Holmes

Sea Born

William was gone, which meant it was time for the sisters to get to work.

He seemed to run their every day and hour when he was present, but as soon as he left, it was like the spell was broken. They were a team again.

The sisters were Ida and Jericho, and they looked almost nothing alike. Jericho was as stout as the walls of her name, with her hair hanging down her back in long braids, and her arms roped with muscles from a lifetime of hard work.

Ida was tall and willowy, her skin was mottled with vitiligo, and her dark brown hair rose in a puffy halo from her head.

Both sisters shared eyes as black and endless as the night sky.

They lived in a small white house by the sea on a small outcrop of rock. A few times a day, one sister or the other would pause in her work of hanging laundry or carrying firewood, and stare across the waves, unfathomable longing in her gaze.

Then she’d turn back to her task.

There was much to do. William’s visits were unpredictable, edged in uncertainty. He stayed sometimes only a single night, other times a month or more. He showed up unannounced, the sight of him lit a flame in the sisters.

He was poison to them. With subtle glances and nods in one direction or the other, he’d bestow favor upon Jericho, or Ida, whomever his whims led him to prefer that time, and the other would feel a jealousy as wide as the sea.

During the worst visit, William spent every waking second with Ida, rising from her bed only to eat and piss for three days, and Jericho found herself eying the racks of knives and ocean waves, tears tracking down her face. She hadn’t been certain if she’d wanted to kill him, or her sister, or simply herself.

But sometimes Jericho was the preferred sister, and Ida found herself inventing elaborate poisoned stews and pies in her head, and always, always eyeing the waves.

But when William was gone, all animosity disappeared as if it had never been. Neither sister discussed the thoughts they had when he was present, and they never talked at all when he was near, pitting them against each other.

It was too painful to think about, the weakness he brought them to. They’d been warned, in their youth, to never let a man come so close to them. They’d just never considered the same man would ensnare them both.

Since he was gone now, the sisters laughed and sang and the house was almost merry. It was a gloomy, damp place, and the ground was hard and bore little fruit for them, but they loved one another’s company, and when the mood struck, Ida sang well, and Jericho picked flowers, and there were bowls of fish stew and fresh bread always baking, and life was good, they could sit by the fire and knit, and sometimes, when one stared after the waves on the horizon a little too long, the other could come and clasp her hand and lead her away, to hang the laundry, or show her back to her mending, or, sometimes, to play a game of mancala, to sing, to tell tales.

They could always count on one another.

As Jericho took their dresses off of the line, she tried, studiously, to keep her eyes off of the water, and instead looked at the sky. It was gathering grey, as it almost always was. This was a harsh land, and a cold wind blew most of the year. Today was no different, and she watched birds, black against the grey, envying their freedom. The laundry all gathered, she hurried back inside, where she found Ida boning a fish.

“Gonna rain tonight,” Jericho said.

“I expect so,” Ida said, not looking up from her work.

“Looks like squirrels got into the apple bin again,” Jericho said.

“Too bad,” Ida said. “Was looking forward to making cider.”

Jericho closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of the fish. Salt and brine. When it was so fresh, it wasn’t unpleasant. It merely smelled like life. Like home.

“Was thinking tomorrow would be a good day to work on the fence, but if it rains, then…”

She trailed off. Ida wasn’t listening. Ida’s eyes were unfocused. She’d cut her palm somehow, her blood running out on the board, bright and red.

“Jesus, girl,” Jericho said, pointing at her hand.

“Oh,” Ida said, her reaction so nonplussed she could have been commenting on the weather.

“Get it wrapped up, you idiot!”

Ida nodded and wrapped a kitchen towel around her hand. The blood soaked through sooner than Jericho would have thought for a cut that didn’t look that deep.

“What on earth has gotten into you?”

Ida shook her head. “Too much water in the air, maybe.”

“Too many rocks in your brain,” Jericho muttered.

Then she stopped. She felt that invisible thread pulling on her spine.


She looked over at Ida, her eyes suddenly sharp, her back straight. Yes, it was definitely William.

He walked through the kitchen door with no ceremony.

“How are my girls?” he asked, his voice deep in his booming chest. His skin was white and looked suited to the rocky, cold land they were in, blending in wonderfully with the clouds and stormy sea.

The sea.

No; William. Jericho’s heart beat fast just looking at him, soaking him in. His brown hair curled with salt wind, and he smelled like earth. His eyes were the color of summer leaves. His hands were calloused with hard labor. He was a sailor, of course, and came to port on the wily whims of the waves. He looked from one to the other of them.

He kissed Jericho on the mouth, long and hard, and she felt her knees grow weak from the effort of kissing him back. He tasted like whisky and oh she wanted to drink it in.

Then he released her and gave a long kiss to Ida too.

She felt the rush of pleasure fade as she watched him kiss her, that faithless bitch. She seemed to enjoy the kiss as well, all giddy and girly when he parted. It made Jericho want to spit.

He pulled them both in close to him, and Jericho tried to focus on his warmth, on the earthiness of him, on his scent. But it was difficult when that other person was so close to her. The heat of embarrassment and rage she felt was unbearable. To share a man with your own sister. To have her never back down, never concede. And she couldn’t be the one to do it. Jericho had seen him first. He was hers, by rights.


He’d taken his boat out to sea, and caught her in his net, just a few miles from this place. He was handsome, and lonely, and his hands were big. When he hauled her up, his surprise at what he’d captured was enormous. He untangled her, speechless. He’d stared long and hard into her golden eyes and pulled her into the boat. “What are you?” he asked when he found his voice.

She had never seen a human man before, and found her heart beat faster when he looked at her like that. Nothing had ever made her heart race like that.

“Yours now,” she said, without thinking.

He’d kissed her mouth, and he’d tasted like honey and wine.

She had never wanted it to end. She journeyed closer and closer to shore, every time letting her guard down as he put his hands in her hair, his mouth on her flesh.

“Don’t go back to the water,” he said the last time.

“I have to,” she said. “It’s my home.”

“Make your home with me,” he said. “Come be with me, I’ll build you a house.”

She shook her head. “I have a sister. She needs me.”

“She can come too.”

“No she can’t.”

She, stupid girl, explained about their skins. How he’d have to catch her, steal her skin. How he’d have to seduce Ida, the way he’d seduced Jericho.

He did. He told her it was for her, to build her house.

She watched from the water as he pulled up her sister, dragged her onto his boat.

“No,” she murmured, her heart tortured. And she wasn’t sure if she pitied herself or her sister more.

She’d determined to prevent her sister from going back to him, to prevent herself from returning to his boat or the shore, to put it all behind her. But it was a big ocean. Bigger than the land could ever be.


William pulled away and looked at them both. “It’s been so long,” he said, giving them each a grin.

“How long will you be staying?” Ida asked, not able to keep an edge of desperation from her voice, her cut hand long forgotten.

Jericho smirked, wanting to exploit that weakness she heard in her voice.

“Well, it’ll depend on how good you girls are,” he gave Ida a wink. He moved to touch her hand, and lifted the towel from it.

“Now how did you manage this?”

This time, he looked up at Jericho, as if asking her for the events, instead of her sister.

“You know how clumsy she is,” Jericho offered, a wicked grin on her mouth.

William gave her a smile that made her heart melt, and patted Ida’s hand and none-too-gently. “She is indeed,” he said.

“Get it cleaned up and finish up the dinner,” William said, all warmth gone from his voice.

“Jericho,” he murmured, “Come with me.”

It wasn’t really lovemaking with William, so much as fucking. When he was spent he rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Sometimes he’d be ready again in a few minutes. Other times he’d go right to sleep. Jericho was rarely satisfied, and yet something about it was as intoxicating as the rum she’d tasted in her youth. She never had her fill of him. She lay panting where he’d left, half-hanging off the edge of her bed, her clothes still on her, merely shifted hurriedly to the side in his urgency to get at what he needed. She felt like a prostitute. Like a concubine. She ran her hands over herself, desperate for the release he wouldn’t give her.

“William,” she murmured.

“Yeah,” he said to the ceiling.

“All those other ports you visit,” she began. Her throat constricted. “Are there girls in them too?”

He sat up and looked at her, studying her face. He grasped her wandering hand, hard. “Does it matter?” he asked.

“It does to me,” she said.

He chuckled. “What a man does when he’s away from his home is his business alone. What you need to worry about is what you do when I am here,” he said. He suddenly pulled away from her, and left the room.

Ida had finished dinner by the time they got back. It must have, Jericho though, been a quick dish. They sat at the table. William held court at the head of the table. He told stories about his travels, about the sun-burnt islands they sailed to, the brawls he stopped—or started. He didn’t mention the girls, but of course there were girls. Jericho thought of sailing to those distant lands. She’d never even been on a boat. She longed, instead, for the water. The sun was setting and she found her gaze wandering.

“Jericho.” She heard his voice coming from his chest more than his mouth, and it warmed her like fire in the wood stove. She looked at him. “I asked what you girls have been up to since I’ve been away?”

“Oh,” she said, her fingers teasing at her dark braids. “We been thinking about planting some pumpkins over by the back fence.”

He studied her, and she wondered if he knew where her mind had been. Who cared. He kept them on this little outcrop of land surrounded by the sea. It was only normal they’d think of it. Normal.

Jericho saw Ida looking at her, and her eyes were wide and full of something ill. At first, Jericho thought it was that old envy that swept over them in William’s wake. But it was something else.

Something like terror.

“Girls, I’m starting to think you don’t like living out here all by your lonesomes.”

That snapped Jericho’s thoughts back to the here and now.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been eyeing a house in the city, nice central location. Easy walk to the markets. You could make some friends of your own kind,” he said.

Your own kind.

Ida opened her mouth to respond, sheer panic on her face.

“I don’t think they’d take kindly to that,” Jericho said thickly. “There aren’t folks like us here,” she said carefully.

William pursed his lips. “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I suppose not.”

“We like it here, really,” Ida said in a rush. “And it’s away from the other men,” she added.

“Now there’s a thought,” William said. As if he hadn’t thought of it already. “I would like to keep what’s mine away from prying eyes.”

Ida nodded with a little too much enthusiasm. “Yes, and we like living quietly, you know. No need to make a fuss.”

William nodded. He looked unfavorably at her hand, before turning his gaze back to Jericho. “You like it here too? It’s not… too far from the mainland?”

“I like it just fine,” Jericho said, looking just past his right shoulder. Then she made her gaze simpering. “Because it’s where you live.”

That did the trick. His shoulders loosened and his gaze went soft. He took her hand. A thrill shot through her, despite their pre-dinner ablutions. She looked over at Ida, and felt the overwhelming urge to scream at her to leave, to let William take her here, on the table if he must.

But she said nothing. And Ida stared only at her hand, ashamed.

After he downed a glass of whiskey, William went to bed. Ida and Jericho didn’t speak, each settling into nightly chores, Ida scrubbing pots and pans, and Jericho mending a pile of shirts William had brought her. She sat in front of the fireplace, watching the flames. Fire was so foreign to her. As was the desire to put her hands into it. She wondered how it felt. Her heart was heavy as a stone. She listened to Ida in the kitchen, trying to muffle her quiet sobs as she cleaned.

Her anger at her sister seemed to dim slightly with William asleep. It had boiled down to mild annoyance.

“You can stop now,” Jericho murmured.

“I can’t, you know that.”

Jericho did.

Tears were salt water.

They were still sea born, after all.

The day broke and William announced he was going to town. Both sisters assembled in the parlor, both had, by unspoken agreement, dressed in their Sunday best to see him off. They always did when he was home, never knowing if he’d leave in the morning.

“Is there anything you girls need?”

Jericho went through her mental stock of the house. Flour, sugar, salt…

“Ribbons,” Ida said suddenly.

William raised an eyebrow at her, his gaze soft and even indulgent, fatherly. “And why, pray, do you need ribbons?”

Ida looked at her hands, and then back up at him. “So I can look my best for you.”

William gave her a smooth grin, and turned to Jericho. “And for you?”

Jericho was so disgusted with her sister’s display that she could barely sputter out, “Bacon. The larder is low.”

William’s face closed at this practical need, and his face became blank.

“Ribbons and bacon. Very well.”

He was off soon after.

Jericho tried not to fume about the ribbons as she went about the day’s tasks, tending the garden and feeding the hens.

She saw Ida staring out to sea, and didn’t even reprimand her.

“We could leave, couldn’t we?” Ida had asked her once, her hands on the glass of the window.

“You’re welcome to try.”

Her sister had looked back at her with slumped shoulders and shadowed eyes. She’d never suggested it again.

William was gone until late into the night. Ida excused herself after a silent dinner of seaweed stew, leaving Jericho alone in the study. She’d come here many times for comfort in the intervening years since her capture. She suspected William didn’t have much use for the books, but he’d noticed that they kept her sated, and brought one or two back every trip. She liked stories of adventure best, faraway lands. She hadn’t known how to read, her kind had no use for it beneath the waves. But they were also quick learners. She had taught herself, and Ida besides. But tonight, the books offered no comfort. She thumbed through well-read tomes. Gulliver’s Travels, The Mystery of Udolpho, The Count of Monte Cristo. All of them had provided an escape from the four walls and the endless longing. But tonight nothing was enough. She stared into the dying fire, the lighted embers growing in her gaze. Fire was a fascination. Born of the sea, she wondered if she could die by it.

She was in this gloomy posture when William entered the room, smelling of whiskey and smoke and other womens’ perfumes. She made to turn, but he caught her hand, and brought his mouth, all hot and wet and reeking, to her neck.

She submitted, closing her eyes.

She could be forgiven for not noticing when Ida entered the room, when she took up the small paper bag, and withdrew the ribbons.

As William’s calloused hands began to paw at her, suddenly he hitched backwards and made a wet gurgling noise. His hands continued to grab at her, but now it was for dear life. Jericho’s gaze couldn’t turn towards him to see what was going on, but she heard Ida’s soft voice.

“Thank you for the pretty ribbons. Don’t I look my best now?”

William wheezed. Jericho’s mind was reeling. “Ida?” she murmured. “Ida, what are you—“

“Let her go,” Ida said, and to Jericho’s surprise, he did. She threw herself away from him and saw her sister, ribbons pulled tight around William’s neck. His face was going from red to purple. His hands were scrabbling against her sister’s scrawny ones, but Ida didn’t budge.

“Now release her for real. Where is her skin?”

William wheezed again, but Ida didn’t let up her grip. Her knuckles were white.

Jericho could scarcely grasp what was happening. She felt a sudden urge to push her sister off of William even now, but she held her ground, watching the horror in front of her.

William weakly lifted a finger, pointing to the fireplace.

Ida shook her head. “Show us,” she demanded, leading him, by the neck, across the room. He pointed again, not the fireplace—the chimney.

“Jericho, this is your chance,” Ida hissed. “Don’t waste it.” Jericho scrabbled to the fireplace, looking at the flames desperately, and around the room. “Hurry!” Ida snapped, “He’s damn strong.”

But no. Ida was stronger still. Jericho was in awe. But she couldn’t stay. She dashed into the kitchen, grabbing a bucket of water from the table. Sloshing it around, nearly spilling half, she threw it on the fire. It wasn’t fully doused, but she didn’t care. Her fingers scrabbled up the chimney, and her heart pounded. She felt the sleek, smooth skin. She pulled it out of the fireplace. It was dark and brown as she was. And wrapped inside it, the smaller, mottled skin of her sister. Foolish William. He should have hidden them separately.

“I’ve got them, come away,” Jericho said.

Ida shook her head. “Take them, and go. I’ll be right behind you.”

Jericho hesitated. “But you don’t need to deal with him anymore. He’s nothing now.”

Ida shook her head, and Jericho saw the pain in her sister’s eyes. How had she been able to overcome William? What was it costing her?

“I’ll meet you in the waves,” Ida repeated, glancing at the embers smoldering on the floor beside the fireplace. William was still struggling against her. Jericho looked at him. What a pathetic figure he cut, after all.

“I’ll meet you in the waves,” Ida murmured again. “Be quick.”

She ran through the house, out the door, into the good night air. The waves called to her from below, and she wrapped herself in her glorious skin, feeling herself transform into her true self as she hit the water below.

She had left Ida’s skin for her at the cliff’s edge, sure she’d find it and join her soon, and they would revel in the water together, finally free.

When she looked back at the house, it had lit up, so much more than a sea-bound house should have. Fire licked at the windows, the doors. She could scarcely understand what she was seeing, as the whole place quickly became engulfed.

Jericho waited. But Ida never came. The air was cold. The waft of smoke hit her sensitive nose, and she dove under water to get the sting out of her eyes and mouth.

Unsure what else to do without her sister, Jericho began to swim, and lost herself in the feel of the water, churning around her body, her free, sleek, seal’s body. She believed she would never take off her skin again. She swam and swam and swam until the grief and loss were nothing but more sea. Tears were salt water. And she was sea born, after all.

Karly Noelle Abreu White is a writer whose work has been featured in a variety of publications such as Fathom Magazine, The Belladonna, The Raven Review, The Unmooring Journal, Writers ResistUntangledNothing Held Back, and Pieces of Me. She holds a Bachelors in English Literature from Biola University and lives in Southern California with her husband, two children, and fussy cat.

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