(3200 Words)

Carmen had come back from shore leave, come back from weaning her child, and she’d missed the feel of salt crusting on her lips, the dry wind sucking moisture from her eyes. Missed wood under her heels and being rocked instead of rocking. The shadow of her body against the sails was different than it was before: round like a sunfish and the memory of anchors. Her feet on the deck echoed deeper than they had done, just slightly, and she walked with her weight in front of her—not just the new milk-heaviness, but the ghost weight of belly and baby, the child held before her in its canvas sling, mouth pursed and working, and waking, at times, to see its mother staring at waves, at horizons past a cradle.

“Do you miss the little one yet?” said Lydia, her fingers twisting deftly in Carmen’s shirt, unlacing, helping her out of the cumbersome underclothing until she was half naked on deck with the other women around her, watching from the rigging and the foredeck.

“It’s only been a day,” said Carmen, her eyes closed and head tilted up to the sun. It prickled her skin already—she’d spent too much time indoors and her tan had melted, leaving her the colour of untreated pine, and pasty. “We’re still in sight of land.”

Without clothes her breasts moved in time with the waves. She cupped them, squeezed, leant over the railing, and worked at the nipples until the milk came forth and sprayed into salt water and sea foam.

There was a sigh, almost, when the first drops hit the water, a sigh from every throat but two. Carmen had her head back still, her face following the sun, and up in the nest the Crow stood, iron feet and iron hands and iron eyes to watch for fish, with no care for what was happening beneath.

“Be as full of fish as I am of milk,” said Carmen to the ocean, heavy breasts resting in her palms and her fingertips wet with her own fluids, building with her body a sympathy between water and womb, between oceans and the hold to be filled by them.

“Feed your children as we have fed ours,” came the ritual response from the deck, and the ropes, and the netting—and then the ritual was over and the women were moving again, trimming sails and chattering. When she had pumped herself into the ocean and the thin trails of milk were lost to the waves, her breasts wrung out and empty, Carmen wrapped herself with leather, bound herself up. Lydia was there to help her with her shirt.

“You are lucky for us,” she said, lacing the bodice. “My cousin’s ship sets out again next moon, and her tiller’s milk has dried up early. They’ve had to hire another, some young slip of a thing who’s never sailed before, a stranger to their boat.”

“Better to sail with a stranger than not sail at all,” said Carmen. “Or to spend a season on the water with no milk to call the fish.” She had done that once herself, a flat-chested adolescent on her first voyage—a voyage of salt and starvation and silence, and even now the memory made her shudder. “Nothing’s worth that.”

Nursing had always made her thirsty. She accepted a cup of sweet water from Lydia, raised it to the waves first and friend second before drinking. “Here’s to good luck,” she said. “To fortune and fish and coming back with a hold so stuffed that we’re swimming in scales and oil.”

*

The iron shone brighter than water, brighter than waves. Carefully, Lydia oiled the screws of the skullcap and jaw, working the oil into every crack and crevice of metal, pressing her fingertips into the heads and examining them for any trace of red. The hold was not yet half-full, and they could not afford to be sent home for rust.

The Crow stood silent as she oiled it, unblinking, and if she placed her palm flat against the metal she could feel the faint thrum of its workings, sealed up inside and kept safe from salt and sea by iron, by oil. It did not move unless she required it to do so, but Lydia imagined she could feel it tense when she ran her fingertips over the screws.

“You don’t need to worry, Crow,” she said. “I’d never try to alter you.”

“You’d never ride salt again if you did,” said the Crow. “You know I am not tamper-proof.”

They all knew it, and the knowledge removed temptationmost of the time. If it were possible to open up the skull of Crows all undetected, to change the logs and day’s catch upon the water, then all boats would come back late and full of fish, and all the fish would soon be gone. It could be done, and Lydia had heard it done, and she had also seen the results, the boat hauled up on the beach at Akaroa and made ready for burning. Easy enough to tamper, and impossible to hide the tampering.

“Do you never worry that someone would try?” said Lydia.

“My concerns are wind and water and all the little fish,” said the Crow. “My concerns are iron and salt and rust.”

“You wouldn’t try to stop them?” said Lydia. “You’re strong enough, you could do it. Even if you only cried out. Surely a whole crew would not take the risk.”

“They might,” said the Crow. “It has happened before.”

“And you never worry, not even a little bit?” said Lydia.

“What would be the point?” said the Crow. “It would be the end of my boat and myself, but does that matter, compared to the alternative?” The quiet seas, the empty depths, the deliberate dismantling of an ecosystem stretched close enough to silence.

“I would be afraid if it were me,” said Lydia. She paused for an instant, her hands clenched about the oiling rag and still. “I was at Akaroa, when it happened.”

“So was I,” said the Crow. “Should that change anything?”

Lydia shuddered. “I forget sometimes that you are iron,” she said. “Iron all through.”

*

“There they are,” said the Crow, when Carmen was crouched at its feet, oiling ankles and the sun-heated, metal calves. “South by southwest. Hoki.” Carmen called the compass and stayed with the Crow until it was close enough to assess school size and strength. Iron caught at her arm. “You may take ninety kilos,” it said. “No more. Tell them.”

“I will,” said Carmen, although she had hoped for a catch that would fill more than a corner of their hold. But a Crow could not be swayed: they had the responsibility of care and quotas, of ecological protection, and disobedience meant the Brizo being given over to the beach for blazing.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Lydia, as they saw to the nets. “There’ll be other fish. Tomorrow, perhaps, or next week even. Boats can be out for months if they’re lucky.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” said Carmen, her arms strained about wet rope and the skin on her palms raw and stinging with salt. “I’d forgotten how hard it is.” Her muscles ached in the half-pleasurable strain of exertion that spoke of a restless night with knots in her back and her shoulders too heavy to lift. “My hands have gotten soft.”

“Nothing like looking after a baby to take away the calluses,” Lydia grunted, as they hauled in nets not full enough of fish, the quicksilver bodies shaded to blue about the spine and convulsive in the netting. “Half of these will have to go back, besides.”

“I’d trade a few more blisters for a heavier catch,” said Carmen. And then the net was aboard, and she was bent over in the wet sprawl of it, snatching up fish too small for the catching and throwing them back over the side. “Go back to your mother, little ones,” she said, and worked more quickly, lest they suffocate in their smallness, in the unfamiliar currents of the air. Other women were on their knees next to her, working, sorting, and any fish that was on the cusp was brought to her for decisions. Her milk gave her authority, and she threw them all over. “Best not make her angry,” she said of the ocean. “If we are generous with her babies, then she will be generous with ours.”

“There’s a lot of empty hold for her to be generous with,” the captain commented, her mouth pursed, but she did not argue further.

Above them, the Crow watched, the heavy square shadow of its body stretched large upon the deck, dimming the glinting scales and the flopping, flippery bodies.

The fish were gutted immediately after sorting; their heads cut off and discarded. About the boat, gulls and mollymawks squabbled over the scraps, picked intestines off the deck, and flew off with fish-heads. One mollymawk squatted on the wood, lurching from head to discarded head, picking out the eyes, its pale feet and smoke-tinged beak warning off all intruders. Carmen gave it a wide berth—it was large enough to wound if it took fright, and there was no need to deprive it. Each part of the fish was useful, and whether it went to the fisherwomen or the birds—or even back to the ocean to be eaten by other creatures less competent in daylight—she would not begrudge any their share.

Carmen was better at sorting than gutting, but she was not the worst with a knife. The newest apprentice, a black-haired girl with cheeks flushed dark by the sun, cut clumsily, her fillets ragged and torn. The worst of these were kept to one side, for a successful catch, however small, was to be celebrated by more than birds. They were cooked over coals, after the rest had been packed in salt, stowed deep in the belly of the boat, and when the work was done the women ate the pale flesh and swam to rid themselves of scales.

*

The boats were all in the harbour, dark shapes in dark water, a shadowed mirror of Carnival, when vessels would set out with lights and fireworks and the fires were lit for cooking rather than burning. Lydia could see the heavy figures atop the masts, their silhouettes still against sails, iron hands clamped around the edge of their nests.

“It’s a murder of Crows, isn’t it?” she said, not to anyone in particular, but the man next to her caught her eye and then looked away again.

“It’s not really murder,” he said. “They’re not really alive, are they.”

“How would you know?” she replied, bitter, with salt on her lips and her hands from the driftwood, gathered that afternoon for a pyre. “You’ve never sailed with one.”

“Sorry then, miss,” he said. “Sorry.” And Lydia, ashamed, looked down to see the small child folded into his legs, muffled against the night with scarf and mittens and a solemn, scared face.

And then the Crow was there, the Crow of the disgraced ship, with a shining dome of skull in its hands and a body like the iron of the lighthouse at Reinga, with its tampered brain flashing and its slow steady steps into the fire.

The child sobbed once, convulsively, and turned to hide its face in its father’s knees, and Lydia crouched down for comfort. “It’s alright,” she said. “It can’t feel anything. The fire isn’t hurting it.” She reached towards the child, her hand hovering over the little head before coming to rest on the brightly patterned hat. Wool tickled her palm. “It’s alright,” she said again, sharing a helpless look with the child’s father. His mouth was set in a grim line.

“I should have kept her at home,” he said. “But I thought she needed to see it.”

“She did,” said Lydia, straightening. “We all need to see it.” To see the smouldering hull of the boat, the keel and the ribs burnt down to a black skeleton for overfishing, to see the Crow stand amidst the wreckage on Akaroa beach, the skull forced open for a second time and the metal glowing, melting at the edges, destroying the smooth lines, the perfect gleaming surface wet with oil. To see the captain with the remains of a torch in her hand, forced to fire her own boat, and the new brand on her forehead to keep her off the ocean for life, the brand that meant she would neither fish nor taste their flesh again, save that which washed up on the beaches for scavenging.

Beside her, the father held his child close. “She’s going to have nightmares about this.” And Lydia, who could only tear her eyes away from the burning Crow if it were to see the face of the captain, a face which showed all the anguish the Crow did not, was forced to agree.

“She’s not the only one,” she said.

*

Lydia had always had a head for heights. High above the deck and ropeless in the Crow’s nest, she oiled and polished and scrubbed, braced her feet against the small round floor and rocked in time with the waves. Even when the wind was high and wet, the wood swollen and slippery, she fell into rhythm with no more difficulty than breathing.

“I don’t understand how you can do it,” said her husband, his voice skittering out of the Crow’s stern mouth, out of the hard iron body that acted as antenna as well as accountant. “Aren’t you afraid of falling, sprawled out like that?”

Lydia’s hips were braced atop the railing, half unbalanced over the long drop towards the deck, and her legs were wrapped around metal. She let her head fall back, felt the shift and thump of the boat against the water, felt the shadow of seabirds on her upturned face and the exposed skin of an open bodice. “The Crow won’t let me drop,” she said. “Will you, Crow?”

“I will not let you fall,” said the Crow, in its own voice, breaking into communication to answer, as always, a direct question. “It is not my function to allow unnecessary damage.” Drops of oil glistened on its metal skin, gleaming over the rounded breasts so bright in sunlight that Lydia could hardly stand to look at them but did regardless, for the droplets could have been sweat on another body, in a bed more comfortable than boats.

“There,” she said, lazy in the warmth and swoop of it. “You see? I’m quite safe.”

The Crow had one giant hand wrapped loosely around her left arm, in case Lydia’s balance failed her, and the iron creature was stronger and faster than Lydia would ever be. Sometimes, during these calls with her husband, calls made over the wide seas through the communication device embedded within the Crow’s skull, Lydia was tempted to topple over. To lean back and let herself fall in the moment of orgasm, to feel the brief second of weightlessness before she would be hauled back into the nest—hauled back if the Crow were fast enough, strong enough.

Lydia was almost sure that it was, and the almost was excitement.

The Crow has its other hand between her legs, the movement gentle, implacable, the fingers well-oiled as they would be again when Lydia was done, when her call home was finished and she returned her polishing, returned to a deck so much closer to the water than to the wind.

Her hair streamed beneath her, unbound, stripped down towards the belly of the boat and catching in rope, tangling in the warmth of summer wind, high and sweet and smelling of salt. She let her head fall back, just a little further, opened up her throat to the sky.

“Darling,” she said to her husband, speaking to him over oceans and iron, hips canting against the boat and the taste of sea on her lips. “Tell me how much you miss me.”

*

“Boat,” the Crow called, its voice deep and stentorious, and all work stilled. “Boat!”

“Not yet, damn it,” Carmen whispered. “We’re not half full yet.”

Lydia was beside her, hair plastered to her forehead with sun and sweat. “Maybe we’ve done enough,” she said. “It depends on how long they’ve been out here.”

“Crow!” called Carmen. “Which boat is it?”

“The Gloria, out of Gisborne.”

“Left port three days before we did,” Carmen hissed. “Near enough as to make no difference. If only they’d give us hints, tell us where the rust was.”

“That would be cheating,” said Lydia. “They don’t like to cheat. It’s all need with them.” Need, and not want. Need and the destruction of the fishing grounds, how they had been brought back and charged to the independence of iron, to the Crows who watched over catch and currents, over waste and a too-efficient predation.

“You will take what you need only,” said the Crows, each aboard their own boat, and each working against that boat’s interest. “The ecosystem will not abide all your desires. There are too many boats and too few fish.”

“How do you know who needs it most?” Carmen had asked, on her first voyage. She had scrambled up the mast, her palms sweating and her hands shaking, the oil-can held steady between her knees, ready for her first polishing.

“It is easier to take care of one than of all,” said the Crow. “Easier to channel need in one direction. Those who do not need take less care,” and that was all it had said.

The boats were beside each other, their crews silent and stiff at their posts. Neither floated deep enough in the water to indicate a full hold.

“Brizo-Crow,” said the other, calm from its perch above the deck. Out longer, it had the privilege of speaking first. “I have rust.” An ill-muffled sigh came from the mouths of the women opposite, and their captain turned her face away.

“Gloria-Crow,” said their own. “I also have rust.” And Carmen felt her stomach sink within her, hugged herself with hands that ached from polishing, from rubbing oil into metal constantly corroded in salt air.

“I didn’t see a single speck of rust,” Lydia hissed, under her breath, and Carmen shook her head. It could have been anywhere—the tiniest fleck between the iron fingers, the faintest trace of red in the head of the smallest screw.

“I will tell you how much I have,” said the Gloria-Crow, “if you will tell me yours, and we will see who shall be sent home for sanding, and all fishing cease.”

“I will tell you mine,” said the Brizo-Crow, “and all fishing cease.”

Carmen’s breasts itched beneath her shirt, the place where her baby used to lie warm and beating, and her mouth tasted of salt fish. She could not decide whether she wished the Crow to score high or low, whether she wanted the season over so soon or to spend more time on the water, with nets and hooks, with oil and absence.

Above, the Crows began their comparisons.

Octavia Cade is just finishing up her PhD in science communication. Her short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos, Aurealis, and The Book Smugglers, among other places. Her first novella, “Trading Rosemary”, was published last year by Masque Books and she has a sci-fi poetry collection, Chemical Letters, currently in press.

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