Thirsty are the lips that taste the ocean. Sick is the belly that braves the stream. Dirty are the hands that bathe in bloodwater.
It had been one of his mother’s favorite things to say. What it meant would depend on the occasion. It could mean: you shouldn’t have drunk that, it’ll make you sick. Or: whatever trouble it is you’re in, you have only yourself to blame. She also could mean it literally. As in: don’t touch the bloodwater, it’ll dirty your hands.
But Nisean had weak arms, which meant he was no good for the mines. His sight was too poor for the rangers. He couldn’t read or write, and in any case, the shopkeepers had never liked the looks of him, with his filthy black hair and that scar from lip to chin where a horse had once kicked him. He looked like the sort that would rob them blind. And he might have, if it came down to it.
But there was money in bloodwater. Even for a boy with no skills.
It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ignored his mother’s advice.
The old man sniffed suspiciously at the day’s catch, which Nisean carefully laid out across his counter. He had wrapped them in his own undershirts, since he had no paper.
“What did you bring me?” the merchant demanded, though the answer was plain. They were fish, but not ordinary fish. Their scales sparkled green, with flashes of red when they caught the sun at the right angle.
“If you can name them,” the boy answered, “then you know your fish better than me. I’ve never seen the like.”
Nisean was thirteen. He was tall for his age, but his voice was still high and thin.
“Three coppers?” the man demanded skeptically, his eyes directed to the scales, as if the fish themselves might name their price.
“Six,” Nisean countered.
“Six!” the man repeated, “Six if they swallowed your mother’s pearls. What would you say to four?”
Nisean nodded hesitantly.
“You’ve robbed me!” the man cried with feigned bitterness. Then he dropped the coins onto the counter one at a time. They clattered noisily against the wood.
The boy smiled. He had no way of knowing the fish were worth five times that sum. He was on his own now, and he had to make do with what wits were left to him.
His mother had succumbed to the Nuisance. That’s what people were calling it now, but when she had been struck with it, it had no name. She just started bleeding for no reason—a little at first, dabbing her nose from time to time, but then in a steady, gushing stream.
They said you should steer clear of the houses where the illness had taken hold.
Nisean hadn’t left. He had washed her linens, made her soup, and wiped the blood from her nose, her eyes, and her ears. He had tended to her until her last day. He’d loved her, but he also hadn’t known what else to do.
There was a hole dug by a dire rat just beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. The burrow was nearly tall enough to stand in, and the rat died or moved on, so Nisean claimed it as his own.
He could get a room at the inn for six coppers, or he could eat for the next six days—soup and hard cheese even, not just bread. He was smart enough, at least, to prefer a full belly to a soft pillow. So he cozied into the rat’s nest, letting the sound of the rain pouring down over Tarogan’s cornfields lull him to sleep.
Some said the bloodwater came from the other side of the ocean, where the men lived wild and free. Some argued it was the water from the land of the dead. Others still claimed it came from the ancient past, when men, apes, and wolves all traveled in the same pack, and giants roamed the hills. One thing everyone agreed on was that if you went under the bloodwater, you never came back again.
It cropped up everywhere, like a weed. You could find bloodwater sometimes in puddles or in the middle of the ocean. If you poured a pitcher of water into a bowl, it might take on the same reddish hue.
It was never hard to find in the marshes. Beyond a thicket of reeds, Nisean found a patch large enough to wade in. He shuffled over to its outer edge. Then he rolled his sleeve up all the way to his shoulder, knelt down in the swamp where it was muddy but still somewhat clear, and plunged his arm into the opaque crimson depths.
Nisean stretched his arm as far as he could, until he thought his bones might pop from his joint, but he felt only water at the tips of his fingers. Then, without warning, something slimy brushed up against him, and he yanked his hand out of the water.
It’s just a fish, he reminded himself, Just a fish.
He dunked his arm back in to see if it would bite. He felt a nibble at his fingers. Whatever it was, it was big.
Nisean felt a sharp sting between his wrist and his elbow, as though a hundred tiny hooks had clung to his flesh. He pulled up, but it hurt worse when he did, and his arm didn’t budge. The fish yanked hard and pulled him in, all but his legs. He screamed, the air bubbles spitting out from his mouth and tickling his cheek. He pulled back again, but this only made the fish tug down harder, until he was fully submerged.
What surprised him the most was that the water was not entirely dark. There were bursts of light all around him, like fireworks seen through a murky red glass. He heard a creaking sound, like a ship capsizing, and voices singing without words. The melody was alarming in its simplicity: two notes, one high and one low.
Nisean kicked and kicked until he had set himself free, breaking to the surface. He pulled himself back up into the swamp, grasping at reeds. The bloodwater shrank behind him, until the black patch was gone. He began spitting into the air and dry heaving in case any of it had gotten down his throat. Three teaspoons of bloodwater was said to be enough to cripple a man, and four to kill him.
There was a chill that didn’t leave him, even after he had spent several hours drying in the sun.
Walking back to town, it began to rain again. A kindly looking woman herded her cattle back into the barn near the road, and Nisean had half a mind to ask her if he could join them, but her face curdled like old milk when she saw the question forming on his lips. He cast his eyes silently back down to the road in front of him.
He felt the copper coins in his pocket, tracing his finger around the face of the Emperor. As precious as they were to him, they were of no greater worth now than a bed, or a piping hot bath. He headed to the inn.
When he woke the next morning, the pillow beneath him had turned mostly red. He dabbed his nose and his finger returned with blood on it. He felt no pain.
His mother had lived six months from the time of her first symptoms, he reminded himself, but for some reason, this seemed only to add to his burden. Six months of scraping by. Sleeping in the open air. Eating stale bread. He would work and struggle right up to the end.
Yesterday’s discovery weighed suddenly heavy on his mind. It was a lie that one could not enter the bloodwater and return. A lie is an opportunity to tell the truth had been another one of his mother’s favorite sayings. But it seemed to him now more like an opportunity for profit.
He returned to the swamp in earnest. It was hot and the water steamed, creating a thick, soupy fog. The air cleared when he hit upon a small island of mud and brambles. He could see a bit of bloodwater a little further. The opening was just wide enough for him to slip through.
He placed his hands at his sides and dove in feet first. His head dipped beneath the water but then bobbed up again. He grabbed at the muddy soil and attempted to push himself back down again, kicking frantically to dig deeper into the water.
He saw a flash of yellow light. Then one of blue and green. The lights were everywhere, like fireflies on a warm summer night. He pushed himself deeper and deeper into the water, keeping his eyes wide open and alert.
He heard the creaking again, the sound of wood under pressure, no different really than the way the stairs at the inn had buckled beneath his weight. With it, came the two notes, high and low.
As he burrowed deeper into the water, he could see the ship. The quick flashes of light seemed to be concentrated there, as if they were feeding off the wreckage. When they lit up, many at a time, he could see it dimly. Otherwise, it blended in with the dark.
He hit the bottom, sand kicking up beneath him from an eel that zigzagged out from its hiding place between two large stones. There was no gold and no jewels there, as far as he could see.
The ship was tilted toward him. There was an enormous crack in the hull and he swam through it. He knew he would either find something to scavenge immediately or return to the surface empty handed. He was running out of air.
The flashes of light here had gathered around a door. He could see the bodies now of these fish, if that’s what one would call them. They had bubbly, transparent skin, revealing intricate pink organs within. They were the source of the sounds—some sang high, some low, each attracting the other.
Nisean tugged at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He leveraged his foot against the wall and tried again, with the full weight of his body. The door cracked open. The boat creaked and the bubbles of light made circles around the door, trying to push their way in. Three bodies poured out, pressing into Nisean. They were mostly bone by now, with patches of flesh and fabric here and there oddly preserved, sticking to the bone like egg sticks to a pan.
He frantically kicked them off, as if the corpses were attempting to devour him. Then he felt a sting on his shoulder. One of the fish, the bubbles of light, had bitten him.
He pushed his way out of the boat, and launched himself towards the surface, realizing only now how difficult it might be to find his way back to the opening through which he had come.
He felt a bite on his cheek and another on his abdomen. Then, just above, he caught a glimpse of natural light.
He broke to the surface, gasping for breath, and then he pulled himself up out of the bloodwater and into the swamp.
He crawled to the small island of mud and brambles, nursing his wounds. Then he cried.
Nisean spent the night in the hole beneath Master Tarogan’s barn. In the morning, he could hear boots crunching their way through the corn stalks.
“Get out,” Master Tarogan shouted. He stood many feet away from the burrow and peered into the dark uncertainly, from a distance.
Nisean crawled out of his hole. The man immediately began to cough. Blood gushed out from his throat onto his chin, drenching his beard. He fell to the ground, heaving.
Nisean started to rush to his side, but the man held up his hand to stop him.
“Stay away boy,” he growled irritably. Then he stomped up the cobbled path to his house.
“I’ve got it!” the boy cried.
The man turned. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. When he saw that Nisean was serious, they softened. Then he cast them like stones to the ground, avoiding his gaze. He seemed saddened or ashamed.
“Same as you,” Nisean said, “I’ve got the Nuisance. But it’s early for me yet. I could take care of things for a time. Make you comfortable. Like I did for my Ma.”
The man looked up, his face no less ashen, but his curiosity piqued.
“How was she,” he asked, “At the end?”
“Brave,” the boy lied, “To the last.”
They hung the kettle above an enormous fire in the hearth. Nisean and the man sat together in ornately carved wooden chairs, cushioned with red pillows stuffed with feathers. It was cozy, and it was warm. But when Nisean checked the water to see how it was coming along, it had turned crimson.
“Bloodwater,” the boy groaned.
“Pour it out,” Master Tarogan instructed, “Start again.”
Nisean took the kettle outside and dumped it into the grass. He refilled it from a jug and placed it again over the fire.
“Death comes to tea,” the man called out, “when bloodwater boils.”
Nisean returned to his seat.
“My mother always used to say that,” he explained.
He sat in silence for awhile. The dead quiet held the room for so long that Nisean came to think that the man had fallen asleep.
“What would you do,” Master Tarogan asked abruptly, perking up in his chair, “If you could do anything?”
Nisean considered. “Live a good, long life.”
“I mean,” he said, “In the time that you had. If you had all the money you needed to do whatever you want.”
Nisean furrowed his brow in concentration.
“Dunno,” he said, “I’d like to sail the sea.”
The man laughed.
“No offense,” he said, “I was a seaman for many years. You don’t have the arms.”
Nisean nodded and stared at the fire. They were quiet for a time.
“I have a small boat,” Master Tarogan added, “I’ll take you on the water tomorrow in the morning, should God grant me the strength.”
The boy smiled appreciatively, but he knew that when morning came, the odds of the man feeling up to this were slim.
“It is important to see all the good things in this world,” the man concluded, “before they are gone.”
The logs cracked in the fire, splitting in two. Master Tarogan was asleep in his chair long before the water was ready. Nisean set the kettle aside and brought the man a blanket, covering him lap to chin.
He turned his thoughts to the ocean. To ships and sails. Islands with clear blue water and beaches of white sand. Endless days drifting and the yearning for the shore.
If not tomorrow, then soon, he promised himself, he would set sail. The winds would take him wherever they willed. And for a short while, he would be content.
It seemed like an eternity before the kettle whistled with steam.
Peter Ryan has only recently started writing fiction for publication, but already his short story “The Sequence” was published in the September 2016 issue of Abstract Jam, a UK literary magazine, and his story “Baradore” appeared in the January 2017 issue of Chantwood Magazine. Ryan is currently a PhD student in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.