K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in beautiful Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears in Cold Mountain Review, Fiction Southeast, Zone 3, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird — sci-fi, horror, magical realism, all the good stuff that shows how change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com.
We took Emmaline on what promised to be a particularly stormy night. It wasn’t hard to do, especially since all the police and alarm company people were right there in the mob with us. Her mother, Rebecca, had to be restrained by five different people; the sheriff even had to lock her in a holding cell to keep her secured.
We brought Emmaline to the closest beach and tied her to a giant lightning rod that we’d planted in the sand not far from the water. The choice of sacrifice via lightning strike surprised a lot of people, but we didn’t have a volcano to toss her into or any grand golden steps like the Mayans to push her down from. And if we were going to make the sacrifice count, if we really wanted our crops to flourish and satisfy, it made sense to us that the more drama we could build up, the better.
The noises she made! She sounded so much like an animal it actually became easier for us to see it through to the end. We waited all day and half the night with her until finally the promised rain began to fall and a flash of light slipped down to snatch her up. Our fillings all buzzed in our teeth, and Mrs. Johnson lifted a hand to her heart as her pacemaker gave a startled little jolt in her chest.
The lightning-struck sand turned to liquid glass around Emmaline’s bare feet. We all agreed to let it harden some before trying to move her body. But when old Maurice and a couple of his fishing crew finally went to untie her, they discovered she was still twitching. Of course, we’d all dissected frogs in school and killed plenty of chickens for plenty of dinners, so initially this didn’t worry us much. But then Maurice put his entire callused hand up against her throat.
Heart’s still beating, he told us, and some part of this revelation must’ve made him real itchy because he took to scratching the back of his neck and the crusty caps of his elbows.
We were all surprised at the news, but mostly we were disappointed.
Emmaline came back to her senses around the time her feet finished cooling. She started begging all over again, saying that her survival was proof the gods didn’t want her dead, but it wasn’t enough to convince us. If anything, it only seemed like her life might make for an even more valuable sacrifice. Something hard-won and fought for. So, Maurice and his crew hauled her up into one of their rowboats, her chunked-glass feet clunking against the wood as they did so.
We all pitched open our umbrellas as the rain picked up and lifted our flashlights high to watch as they rowed her out and dropped her in amid the waves. Weighted down by her glass slippers, she sank feet-first through the purple dark. We waited a long while, perhaps expecting another lightning strike or some other divine message confirming package received, but it only continued to rain and rain as if we’d done nothing at all.
. . .
Blond, beautiful, lemon-fresh Rebecca was famous across our little island for her preserves; jams, pickles, jerkies — she knew how to make things last. She knew how to bring out flavors that even the foods themselves hadn’t been aware of.
Don’t you know by now? she’d say to her food. You are large. You contain multitudes.
But while Rebecca’s preserves were adored from top shelf to bottom, it was her daughter Emmaline we all considered the true prize. Emmaline, whose adaptable, energetic nature kept both Rebecca and herself preternaturally young and healthy. It was well-known across the island that Emmaline possessed the curious ability to instantly rejuvenate herself and, by extension, her mother, whenever a finger was accidentally diced along with their cilantro or a toe lost to a piranha while wading out in search of this spice and that. We were all quite used to peculiar things, though, so we never paid it too much mind in those salad days. No, what we best knew and loved Emmaline for wasn’t her rejuvenation, but her talent for finding and procuring newer and newer flavors.
Why not try adding some maple sugar to these trout filets? she would suggest to her mother. Why not add some hickory to the smoked rattlesnake? Some pumpkin seed and peppercorn to the pickled lemons?
They were close, Rebecca and her Emmaline. They used their shared culinary art to bind and re-bind themselves tightly, tightly together. Still, Emmaline couldn’t help her desire for travel and Rebecca had never been able to deny her daughter anything, and so Emmaline left us as soon as she was able. She sailed all around the world in search of inspiration, hopping from one grand continent to the next, learning how to preserve much more than simply food, but smells, sounds, and even sensations of touch as well. And when she was ready to return to us, she came with suitcase after suitcase of jars filled with the pickled scents of wet fur and antique brass, the brine-soaked music of whales moaning and vegetables being chopped, the petrified feeling of fingers dipping into a cool lake, the soft luxury of warm bread between your teeth.
When she finally returned home to us — no doubt eager to share all she’d learned — she came home to an island changed. An island of failed crops and starving children.
Well, not that the crops were dead exactly. Not that our fields were barren or our orchards dry. It was simply that they’d suddenly ceased to satisfy. Suddenly, no matter what or how much we ate, nothing filled us. Four meals a day, five, eight, ten — our bodies still dragged heavily, exhausted, needing fuel. We shoveled in food by the cartload, but it never made any difference. Our kitchen tables all splintered under the weight of the meals we’d begun serving each night. Our dishwashers all broke from overuse. The tines on our forks bent beneath our frenzied, constant biting.
We watched with dark eyes as Emmaline unloaded her new wares in Rebecca’s shop. Our lips curled back from our teeth, our stomachs growled, our wallets ached — what she’d brought back wasn’t food at all, but art. Useless.
It wasn’t long after that that the crops themselves did cease to grow. We’d over-farmed, our resident experts said. We’d exhausted the soil. Why hadn’t we kept more food in storage? Was Rebecca really the only one who’d restrained herself enough to build up reserves? Was she the only one for whom food still sated?
There were many nights we all laid awake in our various beds across the island, our stomachs yowling like cats and our thoughts tangled around Emmaline and Rebecca, knowing they must be sleeping soundly with their stomachs full and busy and comfortably weighted, doing exactly what stomachs were always meant to do. Was it their pickling that did it? Was there some secret satisfaction-agent in the brine?
We bought up jar after jar, bag after bag, can after can. Rebecca couldn’t keep food on her shelves no matter how quickly she restocked, and Emmaline grew weak from the strange, constant work of rejuvenating fingertips nicked at the cutting board or sliced open while collecting shards of glass from the jars we’d dropped during our crazed shopping. But none of it ever worked for us. Never even made a dent. The hunger cored us faster than we could swallow.
Many tried leaving the island to seek their satisfaction elsewhere, but there was nothing to be found for them. No matter where we went, hunger followed, as if the famine had tied itself to our backs — everyone’s but Rebecca’s. Everyone’s but Emmaline’s.
Rebecca bought two luscious mansions right on the water with all the money she made taking advantage of our need, and though it’s true she turned one of them into a successful shelter for battered women, we all still knew exactly what she was doing. Flaunting her brutal extravagance in our time of brutal desperation. Flaunting her happy, humming digestion.
It wasn’t long before whispers broke out of divine wrath and hubris-induced suffering: Sin! Greed! Gluttony! God’s punishment! And the louder everyone shouted, the more it made a queer sort of a sense. What other explanation was there? Hadn’t the crops always been enough for us before? Hadn’t the annual sacrifices of honey, goats, and beer always been enough? Yet there we were, starving.
You aren’t starving, Rebecca told us again and again, parceling out her preserves like a miser. How could you be? Look at you! Your broken tables! Your bent forks!
But it was Rebecca who wasn’t looking. It was Rebecca who couldn’t see the truth of things. Full people, happy people, never can. It wasn’t long before we realized exactly what needed to be done. It was time for Rebecca to be made to understand us. It was time to give her something to starve for.
. . .
People started seeing Emmaline’s ghost up and down the beach. Some said they saw her howling in the sand, promising her revenge. Others said they saw her clawing her way out of the water, dragging her glass-encased feet behind her.
Maurice had an especially hard time dealing with it, and it wasn’t long before he started muttering to the hull of his boat as if she was still lying there pleading for her life. Most of us stopped buying his fish after that (what few fish there were). There was just something about his delusions that made the fish taste off somehow, as if the death in them was suddenly more pronounced. It wasn’t long before Maurice was poorer and hungrier than the rest of us, and no one was much surprised when we found him one morning with his neck in a rope and his feet off the floor.
Funny that he died with his feet gone weightless, someone said, seeing as Emmaline died with the opposite.
And it might really have been funny too, but none of us mustered a laugh.
Not many of us ended up going to Maurice’s funeral, but Rebecca made an appearance. It was the first time she’d dared show her face since that stormy night, and all of us gasped at the sight of her haggard look and wrinkled, hanging skin. She must’ve been seventy-five years old by then, but she’d never before looked a day over thirty thanks to Emmaline’s rejuvenating effects. Her once golden hair had turned a coarse yellowy-gray, and even the flowers she laid over Maurice’s coffin were shriveled and falling apart.
Couldn’t she have at least dried them first? we whispered, ducking our words behind the church bulletins. She used to preserve flowers with such skill it looked as if they’d never died at all.
You look so tired, someone told her, not meaning to be mean. You didn’t have to come out for the ceremony, you know. I didn’t even think you liked Maurice.
Rebecca didn’t respond, but the more reflective of us already knew her reason: Maurice was the only one other than her who’d bothered to mourn her daughter.
. . .
Some people said it was because Emmaline was haunting us and that ghosts don’t count as dead dead. Others said it was because she hadn’t died properly with the lightning strike, so her sacrifice hadn’t been accepted. In the end though, the reason doesn’t really matter because none of it changes that it was all for nothing. Emmaline’s entire lovely life: all for nothing. The crops failed us again and again and the fish stopped coming by our island until there was nothing left to eat but palm fronds, tree bark, and the occasional rash of bugs. Rebecca had long stopped her preservation work, and her storehouse of supplies — its location long kept secret — was eventually discovered and ransacked.
There was nothing, nothing left.
A few of the more desperate among us went so far as to break into Rebecca’s house one afternoon to try forcing her to resume her work.
You already have what you need, she told us. Her voice was wet and empty as a cave. Hardly a voice at all. Haven’t you survived all this time? Yet here you are, demanding more.
Haven’t we survived? we all shouted, mystified. On leaves and grass and nothing!
If only you would preserve the bugs, some of us argued, or even just the palm fronds, show them their hidden flavors, then we wouldn’t have to suffer so miserably.
At least that way we could taste something, others said, even if it wasn’t filling. You could bring out their multitudes to sustain us.
But it was all to no avail. Rebecca could hardly pull herself out of bed, let alone go to work bringing out the dormant flavors of island refuse. Every day she aged more and more intensely, each hour without her beloved Emmaline weighing on her like a year, two years, a decade.
Eventually someone decided that perhaps Rebecca’s grief was the reason why the gods hadn’t recognized our offering. Perhaps the gods saw her suffering as just another form of claiming the dead and keeping it from belonging fully to the Divine and the Beyond. For this possibility, they snuck back into Rebecca’s house and cut her throat in the night. Her blood seeped out over her white skin, white hair, white sheets, white carpet until everything was red, and to see her bedroom was to wonder if anything could ever truly be white again.
. . .
What none of us knew, however, was that the gods’ sacrifice wasn’t spoiled by ghosts or a mother’s endless despair. What spoiled it was the fact that Emmaline had never done us the courtesy of dying at all.
As she’d sunk down, down, down, she managed to clear away her panic just long enough to put her years of traveling and experimentation to work. After all, it was no longer simply her mother who knew how to make things last. And so, as she sank, Emmaline traded oxygen for salt, taking in gulp after gulp of thick seawater, filling her body with it from every orifice, until she herself was pickled. Preserved.
Her joined-together feet dragged her all the way to the ocean floor. There she waved like a lone tendril of seaweed, subsisting off the ocean’s salt until her skin was as bright and butter-soft as her mother’s jarred lemons. But eventually, after months of work and failed attempts, she gained the strength to pump her bound legs like a mermaid’s tail and so move herself from one watery haven to the next. As she went, she let herself be tasted by fish and whales of all shapes and sizes, and they in turn gave her secret knowledge of the deep and all their aquatic wisdoms.
Her body rejuvenated as it always had, and so she was forced to constantly re-pickle herself as each new bite healed afresh. But when a lonely nurse shark wandered by one day and bit off the entirety of her left arm, Emmaline realized the limits of her regenerative abilities. A finger? An ear? A soupçon of breast or thigh or back? These she could handle. But regrowing an entire arm…
She looked down at her naked, lonely shoulder. She felt the emptiness of it first. But then, slowly, she recognized the new beauty of her unornamented side. She saw the cleanliness and Zen-like simplicity of its contours, and soon, she felt like herself again. Whole. Complete.
For years, she existed rather happily this way, and for some inexplicable, hungry reason that she couldn’t define, she was careful never to wander too far from our island. She considered returning to the surface every now and again, especially on stormy nights when she found herself missing her mother most, longing for the beauty of dry things — blankets, socks, wings, books — yet she never did. If her friends and neighbors missed her, she figured they would’ve come looking for her. But in all her time below the waves, not one diver or submarine ever tunneled down in search of her. What would she do on the surface now anyway? How would she survive with her skin so vulnerably soft and her body in need of so much salt?
. . .
It was only when a storm felled the great ship Theodosia that Emmaline found herself drawn back once more toward the sky.
Most of Theodosia’s crew were cast into the sea and killed on impact, their necks snapping as if the waves were cut with steel, but one man survived, fighting against the tumult even as it sucked him under. And as he drifted downward, his eyes popping and limbs shaking, Emmaline thought she recognized him. There was something bright about him. Something multitudinous. Captivated, she plunged downward and grabbed hold of him with her strong singular arm. Struggling against his sinking weight, pumping hard with her glued-together legs, she managed to pull him ashore.
The dry sand abraded Emmaline’s delicate skin and the friction pulled thick locks of hair straight out of her scalp. But despite any pain, she lingered with the man there on the beach. His name was Jamal, and for several long minutes, all he could do was cough up more and more water.
Word passed quickly about the shipwreck and we all rushed out in hopes of harvesting whatever cargo found its way to land. Preoccupied with the work, only a few of us spotted Jamal and the woman who’d brought him to our island, and even fewer of us recognized her for who she was through the dark and the waves and the hunger.
You’ll be alright, she was heard telling him.
Are you her? Jamal asked. Emmaline’s ghost?
If she answered, no one heard.
How can I ever repay you for my life? he asked.
Most of us continued on, oblivious of them, distracted as we were by the loot and debris still drifting in. We stormed forward, grabbing at crates and beating them open with crowbars. We stuffed our mouths fuller and fuller, unable to stop ourselves, sand and splinters mixing in with whatever actual food we could find. We wouldn’t realize until much later just how many of us had actually caught sight of them.
Why didn’t you say anything at the time? some people demanded.
We didn’t think we’d be believed! the rest of us countered, and though no one could deny the strength of this argument — Emmaline’s ghost had already been supposedly spotted by so many — we all knew the truth. We couldn’t have said anything even if we’d wanted to. Our mouths had been too full.
Please, Jamal, Emmaline said, though this is according to only one lip-reader among us who’d thought to bring binoculars and just happened to look the right way at exactly the right moment. All I’ve ever done is feed others, she said. Find food, cook food, become food — but I want to be fed for once. Would you do this for me?
Jamal, being a good man with a fair mind and romantic heart, readily agreed to the deal. Of course, this was before he’d recovered from his near-death experience (and likely head injuries) enough to remember that it was a starving island full of starving people he’d landed on.
Some claim they heard him offer to break the glass from around her feet, but she declined.
If you break the glass, she said, you may very well break my feet clear off my legs.
So, as we continued picking clean what remained of his ship, Jamal lifted Emmaline in his two arms and carried her away to a nearby, long-abandoned cabin. Maurice’s old place, it turned out.
. . .
What we know of their cabin life together is rather limited. Jamal was a private man even in the best of times, and though his sailing life had brought him to our island many times over the years, we never learned all that much about him. Some of us began recalling old times when Jamal had visited Rebecca’s shop while in port, lingering to try to catch glimpses of Emmaline. Hadn’t he and Emmaline once gotten coffee together at the Mt. ReadMore bookshop? Hadn’t they once shared a bottle of wine at the Thirsty Boatman?
This time, though, Jamal made an art of avoiding us. We were lucky to catch more than five minutes with him put together. And for a shipwrecked loner on a lonely island, he looked surprisingly … healthy. He looked so sickeningly well. He looked, we realized, well fed.
The mysteries of Jamal and his watery savior expanded in our imaginations hour by hour until it wasn’t just food we were hungry for anymore. We wanted their secrets as well.
As word spread that Emmaline had finally been well and truly sighted, some of us decided to go to Jamal’s cabin and see what was what for ourselves. Whether we intended to finish the job of sacrificing her or not, we weren’t sure. All we knew for certain was hunger and want and more want and endless wanting and wanting and wanting. There is nothing worse than wanting.
We decided to wait until we could be sure that Emmaline was alone. Jamal had been venturing out at random times for short bursts of errands, always returning home as quickly as possible.
While he was out, he searched for the oddest things: Does anyone have any salt? he would ask. Any pickle jars?
Pickle jars! Does it look like we have any pickles to spare?
No, not pickles, he’d say. All I need is the brine left in the jar. Just the brine. Even banana pepper or jalapeño brine would work.
And though he refused to tell us why he would ever want such things, we soon learned it was a lie — it was much, much more than brine he was looking for. He left Mt. ReadMore with armloads and armloads of books. He bought The Beat Farm out of all their best albums. He perused our local galleries for the finest paintings, drawings, and photographs.
As far as we knew, Jamal was pouring his entire life savings into these purchases. All to fill a dead fisherman’s shack on the edge of a starving island? We tried asking him about it, but all he ever did was smile and say, Isn’t it obvious?
We finally enlisted Martha Peters, proprietor of our local sculpture garden, to keep Jamal distracted while we went to investigate his cabin for ourselves. Most of us were fairly skilled at breaking and entering by then, so it was no trouble getting in. The cabin was thimble-sized compared to Rebecca’s grand mansions, but unlike her cavernous, wide-open rooms, Jamal’s were filled to bursting with colors, art, flowers, books, music — he’d turned the house itself into a feast. A feast for the senses, the mind, the soul. A feast for Emmaline.
We figured Emmaline likely couldn’t run or hide too well because of her crippled feet, but still we found ourselves creeping quiet as thieves down the busy, rainbowed halls. Fortunately, we didn’t have to creep far. We found her in the bathroom.
Jamal had placed her in the tub and filled it with a pungent broth of salts, brines, and seawater. Her glass-encased feet glinted beneath the brew like a massive, alien gem. We all crowded into the little pink-tiled room, ready for something, we didn’t know what. Whatever it was, though, it hadn’t been her. Nothing could’ve readied us for the way she looked then, so utterly open and unsurprised. As if she’d expected us. As if she remembered each and every one of our names and faces, though we’d aged and thinned and hunched grossly inward since she last saw us. She, by contrast, still shone brightly with youth. Her body looked tight as an apple; her skin looked soft as brie.
No wonder Jamal seemed so well and satisfied. No wonder he was never hungry. Our minds raced and we all blushed because we knew exactly what each other was thinking: What would it be like to taste her? To have her tender fingers melt salty-sweetly in your mouth? What would it be like to have her look at you with those dreamy, chewable eyes and offer you everything you’ve ever wanted?
Are you here to kill me? she asked, and her voice, so up close to our ears, made us all want to weep and reach out for one another — it was too lonely to bear and too delicious.
We don’t know why we’re here, we confessed, and felt suddenly that it was wrong we were all still wearing shoes. There was something about her consumable consuming presence that made the little bathroom seem hallowed.
Her chin trembled. My mother? she asked.
Dead, we told her and, for the first time, sincerely regretted the fact.
The news bit through her with a gasp and charged us all with a bolt of longing. There was something about her salt tears over her salt skin that was almost seductive.
None of us were quite sure of when we’d begun nibbling at her legs and slurping up her hair, but suddenly we were. Swallowing her down, we saw visions of her life beneath the sea. Visions of her swaying and sinking and swimming. Visions of her pulling Jamal ashore, accepting his gifts, accepting his kisses and hands and secrets. She tasted like everything we were never supposed to know about. She tasted rich. She tasted like the lives we’d had before she first left us all those years ago. Her body regenerated beneath our mouths and we felt the stolen pieces of her expand within us, making our stomachs stretch with the effort of fitting all our desires inside.
Please, she said, squeezing her eyes shut against the feel of our tongues and our teeth. Please don’t. Please stop. You’re taking too much —
But it was too late. Her entire life she’d given and given and given until she was someone from whom it was all too easy to take and take and take.
We worked our way up her hips, over her breasts, across her heart until our mouths were too stuffed to scream when she finally kicked up her glass-covered feet and slammed them against the base of the tub, shattering herself free. She snatched up a shard of the wild glass, cutting open her own palm in the process, and slashed the air before us.
We backed away, too stunned even to chew. Mr. Granger started choking a little but none of us were present enough to help him.
You keep away from me! she shouted. You keep the hell away!
We were all wondering the same thing: How badly could she cut us before we managed to subdue her again?
But then there were more weapons, this time pointed at our backs: the tip of Jamal’s knife, the barrel of his gun, the grave look in his dark, inedible eyes.
. . .
We returned the next day with knives and guns of our own, only to find them gone. There was no trace of them save for the shards of glass she’d left glittering in the tub.
Everyone racked their brains trying to think of where they might’ve stolen away to. We combed the entire island. We checked every cobwebbed room in Rebecca’s mansion and looked under every bed in the women’s shelter. We tore through Jamal’s art feast, stuffing book pages down our throats and scraping paint off canvases with our teeth like children digging out the centers of Oreos. We scooped up desperate handfuls of Emmaline’s tub brine, needing to taste her again. But it was no use.
I heard some weird splashes last night, one of the youngest of us finally admitted. But I figured it was just a dream because when I went out to see what it was, there was nothing there but the storm clouds coming in.
We all rushed out to the beach where the splashes had been heard.
The same beach where Jamal had first washed up. We waded deep into the water as if we might still find them somewhere amid the litter and broken shells. Was there an extra scent there in the water? A hint of banana pepper? A cut of jalapeño?
We threw back our heads and howled at the loss. At the flavors we would never experience again. At the light we’d struck out of our lives forever.
They’ll be back, we all said, we all keep saying. They’ll be back. They’ll never be enough to sustain each other. Because if there’s anything the gods have taught us, if there’s anything we know with absolute certainty, it’s that nothing is ever enough.