The obelisk that marked the fishermen's boundary was cold and ugly. Very well, thought the sea witch, it would do, and upon a scalloped ridge on the rock's surface she placed eight oysters, like a string of golem's eyes. There was no magic to animate them.
Her family was better at killing. Their ancestor had built a cunning contraption from flotsam and jetsam, human castoffs, and so brought their poisons to mix unholy with mermen's discord. The sea sung and sung of the dead. The witch had netted their finger bones and affixed them to the rafters of her cottage, one for every year of the war. In the morning, when the sun and wind and salt drifted in and buried the swamp's warmth under a layer of ocean air, she could hear the bones tinkling. Accompaniment.
She had been delighted to lack a soul's burden until the mermaid turned to foam.
This voice you must give to me. Light had sunk into the mermaid's skin like blood in water; the curve of her tail had made the witch yearn with hunger. The mermaid was curious and young. Others came to the witch for endings, not beginnings. She wanted the voice that said I have dreamed of fish among the trees and a throne without guards. My sisters say you can give me that life.
So the witch took her throat-voice. The land took from her others: the royal voice that men had listened to, the histories, the knives with which she had carved her people's language into coral and stone. "A girl like you shouldn't carry such things," the prince said when she entered his court in search of novelty, leaving her only the blades beneath her feet.
"I am here only because our contract is done. I must return your chords," the witch said, her claws quiet on the rock. "I did not care for you at all."
But she hung suspended for a minute in the air, and after some consideration stopped selling nightshade to the mermen in the hope it would speed their peace.
She had not expected to see the mermaid again. The woman who knocked on her door was—the witch dispatched a snake to look, busy curing oranges for a summer potion—not her, not with those stubby limbs instead of the legs the witch had given her, her thighs flushed like the first roses after frost. But the woman said, "I know this house," and that voice made the witch freeze. Light followed her when she kicked the door clean off its hinges; the roughness lurking under her alto was her apotheosis in the cottage, a pain, a testament. The witch sunk slowly into a chair.
"Who are you and why are you here?" she asked, already knowing.
"I am my mother's daughter," the woman murmured. "She dreamt of the water, but she could not come back."
"You think you can," the witch said, eyes closed. "You are w—I may allow you the run of my domain, if you can bear it. But you want to return to a sea where you have never lived. Let me help you now." She reached for her toad and stroked its warts, gently, if only to avoid clenching her fists and drawing blood from her own hands. "Blood does not tell. You have chosen the land for twenty years. You will not go to the sea as your mother's daughter, and you would not want to, not in the middle of a war she abandoned."
"But you will take me as such." Yes: there was only one—human, mermaid, that girl had always been on the cusp—whose daughter the witch might suffer, who she would let sort her black herbs and taste her soups on the tip of her tongue, who could lick her sweat off her belly. "I will learn. Once you give me the shape of a mermaid, I will plant myself in what love lives yet in the water."
"Well," said the witch, "here, enough rope to noose yourself," and began speaking of seven uses of ginger and amanita.
The woman never left for the sea. Oh, she dipped her feet, let salt crust over her ankles so she could stamp it into the cottage floor while dancing with the old witch, but like her mother before her it was the edge of the world she desired and not the King's halls, land or water. When Isidora died in her sleep Menna took her skin and set her bones in a circle on the roof until they shimmered the color of china, until they could not be seen at all. Sometime in her years in the swamp she had become the second witch. Between one day and the next of silent squatting, leaching magic from witches before her, she became The Sea Witch.
Perhaps she should change the name now that it was hers, she thought.
Years went. A girl came. Ruddy-cheeked, skin so dark Menna knew her for the daughter of a different court, with a nose like seagulls had pecked it, but as shameless in trampling the polypi as ever the girls who lured the witches.
"You are but just in time," said Menna, returning as much beauty to her voice as she dared. I will not be afraid to face myself. "Were you earlier, I would not know how to turn you into a mermaid. I would not know how to sluice the life of the sea through your veins and how to forget the land."
"I wish not," the girl said.
"Why, then?" she asked, knowing. Her fingers stilled over her cauldron. The only sounds were the crackles of the flame about her hearth and one set of breaths: she had given up both lungs and gills to live in the swamp, to breathe power instead of fire-air, to tempt and to enable.
"I have come," said the girl, "to become a witch."
A/N: All feedback is deeply appreciated.
Originally written for tricksterquinn as part of the Purimgifts exchange, February 2013. The title, complete with fishes [sic], comes from a translation of the original tale.