Authors: Merrie Destefano
By Merrie Destefano
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
FATHOM. Copyright © 2012 by Merrie Destefano. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the author.
Cover design by Merrie Destefano. Image © iStockPhoto/elenaVizerskaya.
To my father, who made
the world a magical place.
The sea pronounces something, over and over,
in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out.
I never believed in ghosts.
Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.
It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep me away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.
Almost instantly a chill shiver ran down my arms.
I got out of bed, the wooden floor cool and welcome against my bare feet. I paused in the hallway, noticed the fragrance of freshly cut hawthorn in the air. I used to love that smell.
Then I saw something in a pool of moonlight—spots of water on the floor.
Like tiny lakes. Each one perfectly formed and separate.
Leading toward my father’s door.
I couldn’t breathe or move. Part of me wanted to disappear. Another part of me hoped that maybe the past could be erased and rewritten.
That was when I saw her. My mother.
I have her photo on my nightstand—me, my sister and her—all in a huddle of green leaves. Her dark hair twined with Katie’s and my own like the three of us were one person. We were up in our tree house. My father must have taken that picture. And here she was right in front of me, tall and slender and silver in the pale moonlight, her long dark hair swirling in the muggy summer breeze, looking like a mermaid, her skin glistening as if she had just risen from her briny home.
Dark lips parted and a small gasp came out when she saw me.
It only lasted a moment, but in that amount of time I saw too much.
Her fingers stained with fresh blood, her eyes the color of the ocean, her skin so pale it looked as if she hadn’t been in the sun for years.
“Mom,” a whisper cry came from my lips.
She came nearer then, this wraith from the past, until she could press a slender finger against my lips. She shook her head. We both knew the rules. I grew up on the Celtic legends; they were all my family talked about during the long winter nights, when the fire crackled and spit and our bellies were full.
But for now, silence filled the hallway, just long enough for me to hear the air coming in and out of my mother’s mouth, as if she had run a great distance to get here. Perhaps the gates to the Underworld were farther away than I thought. Or perhaps she had climbed the great cliff our house sat upon, all the way up from the ocean floor, to get here. Finally—when neither of us could bear the quiet any longer and I’m sure both of us would have started weeping, when words would have gushed like streams from our mouths and we would have broken every rule that protected the living from the dead—at that point, she brushed past me down the narrow hallway, toward the back door.
I turned and watched her run, across the yard through the thicket of trees and overgrown thorny bushes, toward the cliff. The same path she took seven years ago.
The night she killed my sister and then threw her tiny body in the ocean.
The very same night that my mother killed herself.
I didn’t see the hawthorn branches until the next morning, arcing across every window and lintel that led to the outside. Tiny drops of blood spattered the woodwork, stained the Irish lace curtains. My grandmother cursed beneath her breath as she made breakfast—a sizzle of bacon, the fragrance of burned toast—the Gaelic words
dropping like hot stones. My father sat at the table, his eyes downcast and his face the color of a rainy day. But it wasn’t anger in his heart, not like Gram; no, I could tell that sorrow kept his eyes from meeting mine that morning.
I longed to tell him that I had seen her. She’s alive! I wanted to say, but that just wasn’t true. She was haunting us. She had almost spoken to me last night. Almost broke all the rules of heaven and hell and earth, and if we had talked to each other—
I glanced up at Gram, hoping that she couldn’t read my mind—I wondered about that at times.
If my mother and I had talked to each other, well, then I would be damned to a watery grave too. Just like her.
And so on that morning we all sat in the same heavy silence as the evening before. The only sounds, the bright song of the purple finch in the willow tree and Gram’s Gaelic curses.
One strange thing I will always remember about that day.
None of us took any of those hawthorn branches down. Nor did we wipe away any of the blood.
Every year after that, on Midsummer’s Eve, my father put the hawthorn branches up himself. He draped every window and door with rugged greenery, while Gram watched him with her hands on her hips, grumbling. She’d shake her head and tsk, saying he was going to wreck all the trees in the yard with his terrible pruning. And then, when he’d had enough of her complaining, he’d go off in a sulk and spend the evening at the local tavern.
While he was gone, Gram would get out her Irish whiskey.
She’d start by pouring a draft into her cup of coffee, but soon enough, it would be whiskey in her cup and she’d be adding a drop or two of coffee for flavor.
Songs would ring throughout the house, from floor to rafter. And then the stories would come. That was when I would slip out of my room, when the yard was full of green trees and dusky sky and the fairy light of a full moon. I would curl on the sofa with our cat and a book on my lap, pretending to read, but really I was just waiting for the stories to begin.
When my grandmother’s voice rose and fell, her tongue thick from liquor, I imagined that I saw my sister and my mother standing just outside the circle of light cast by our windows onto the lawn. They couldn’t come too close, I knew, not when the hawthorn boughs protected us. I imagined that they danced to Gram’s songs and that they wept at her stories.
Unfortunately, all the Irish legends end poorly. Someone falls in love with a vampiric Leanan Sidhe, or a banshee comes singing tales of woe, or a fairy steals your child, leaving a changeling in its place. Whichever way you looked at it, a human could never win the battle against the legendary creatures from my homeland.
Sometimes, when I curled beneath a blanket and stared out at a star-drenched sky, I wondered if that was why my ancestors left Ireland and came here, this small town on the California coast.
Maybe they all wanted to escape the danger. But it didn’t matter. Because, in the end, dark magic and twisted fate can catch up with you, no matter how far you move away.
The ocean surged around me as I swam, a clamor of voices and currents. The fisherman had tethered their boats and now the beaches of Thorne Bay stood empty, beckoning us nearer. Already the rest of my clan had left the water to huddle around an evening fire, their faces glowing from the flickering light. The Elders spoke in hushed tones about a possible treaty with our distant kin—the Na Fir Ghorm, their words coming out in puffs in the chill ocean air.
“They say they want peace,” said Bran, one of the Elders.
My father shook his head. The leader of our militia, he often doubted Bran’s judgment. “I don’t believe it—”
“What about the tithe they sent in the spring?” someone else asked.
I left the comfort of the sea to shiver beside my cousins, pretending that I didn’t notice what the Elders were saying. Instead, I sought out a different fire, surrounded by people my own age, hoping to hear about the latest adventure. A group of my friends had gone south during the Burning and had stepped right into the land of legends.
Ethan found me then and pulled me aside. In an eager voice he told me where he had gone and what he had seen. His words mingled with the rest of my clan, the Elders speaking of our enemies and our unprotected cities, those my age talking about the only thing that mattered to us—the fire that could burn inside your skin, the need to journey to distant lands to find a mate, despite the many dangers along the way.
His eyes glistened as he told me about his trip, four days of swimming through the territory of our most dangerous predator—the Hinquememen, a nightmarish beast that hunts and eats our kind—all of it to reach Crescent Moon Bay. There, Ethan had seen the girl from my favorite legend for himself. At first, I didn’t believe him. He was prone to pulling pranks and had tricked me often with his easy smile.
I lowered my brow.
“Are you telling me the truth?” I asked.
“And she’s real? Just like the story claims?”
“Aye, she’s real. I told you. I saw her, myself,” he said and his grin widened with the remembering. “She stood atop a high cliff, her long black hair tossed like waves by a sea breeze. She’s more than a child now, but less than a woman.”
At that point, Lynn—my sister and Ethan’s betrothed—joined us. She plaited her blonde hair and listened, her eyes never leaving Ethan’s face. Even in the growing darkness I could see how they felt about each other. My sister had found her soul mate among her own tribe, something that almost never happened. The three of us crouched behind mossy rocks, away from the others.
“She still mourns the loss of her mother and sister,” he continued. “You can see it in her eyes—they’re the color of the ocean itself.”
“Do they truly love one another, just like we do?” I asked. I was never quite sure about our distant ancestors who lived on land. We had many reasons to doubt them.
“Aye, lad, they do,” Lynn said then, her eyes dancing in the firelight, her words spoken like someone who knew the real meaning of love. Ethan caught her hand and held it, both of them lost to me for a moment. Then he glanced back at me.
“We should go there,” he said. “Then you could see it for yourself.”
“It’s dangerous, Ethan,” Lynn said with a hesitancy in her eyes. “You’d be testing the gods if you made that journey more than once—”
Ethan laughed and pulled her closer. “Wouldn’t be dangerous with a beautiful warrior at my side.”
“Both of us would go again?” She paused, then grinned. “No one’s ever done that before.”
“That’s a good enough reason for me,” he answered. “Are you game, Caleb?”
I stared at him, part of me knowing and understanding the danger, part of me listening to my sister’s words—
we’d be testing the gods if we chose to do this
. But another part of me felt the Burning under my skin like fire, turning the word danger into adventure. Excitement coursed through me, electric, intoxicating.
I nodded. A heartbeat later the word, “Yes,” came out of my mouth.
Ethan set off immediately, looking for others to make the trip with us. Meanwhile, I could hear the voice of my grandmother in the background, carrying the lilt of our old language. She was telling a story about Droggal, our ancient underwater homeland, near the Great Island in the midst of the Atlantic. Ireland. That was where my people lived before the exodus, three hundred years ago. I knew from the countless tales that Droggal was nothing like our nearby underwater village of Duncarrig—the castle-city built from the remains of shipwrecks, with spires and masts that stretched toward the surface with wooden fingers.
Still, neither one of them was truly my home.
The myths were my home. Just like my ancestors, I hungered after tales of faraway lands and adventure. From that first moment, thousands of years ago—when my people heard humans talking on the shore—we’ve been enchanted by them. Hidden behind rocks, we learned their language, watching as their fishermen sat around a common fire in the evenings, telling stories. They told legends of the sea, of bravery and undying love. At first, we repeated their stories, telling them one to another. Then in time, we learned to tell our own stories and we too would leave the sea at night—just like they did—to gather around fires, creating our own legends.