She lost the first one and then the second soon after and at the tail end of an Indian summer lost the third, this one far along so it was particularly brutal. He left her and she moved back to the island where she was raised, settling in an old lighthouse atop a lonely cliff overlooking the empty bay. At first she fell prey to the darkness, then tamed it, then digested it. And then she began again.
The sailors soon knew of her and her seemingly insatiable appetite, seeking her when they visited the island, knowing she only accepted visitors late at night, and knowing they had to part ways before sunrise. She never told them of the losses, that she had and lost and had and lost and kept wanting to have and needing to lose. They never questioned her intentions or fathomed her desire.
The island began emptying out over the years, and no one could explain exactly why they left or what brought them elsewhere but she remained and kept acquiring properties adjacent to hers until she owned nearly half the island. The sailors who visited her regularly built her house after house across the hill and down to the bay, doing whatever she asked, laboring winters and summers to bring her dream of a fourth house or seventh to fruition. They assumed she would rent the others or else sell them or somehow make use of them, but they knew never to ask.
One sailor had heard tell of her for years before finally he was sent in that direction. Docked in a neighboring isle with his crew, he stole a rowboat late into the evening and made his way to her island. Asking about her at the dockside pub, one regular described her as a fury, another as a siren and a third as a harlot. After being pointed in the general direction he made his way to her lighthouse, met her, knew her, and assured her he would leave before dawn. Instead he stole into the night after she had fallen asleep and explored her lighthouse, and the row of houses she’d built down the hill.
The lights were on in each house, and sneaking into one, he noticed bedrooms full of cots, tables set for a dozen or more and kitchens that took up entire floors. He would have assumed them dormitories if someone at the pub hadn’t mentioned their history. Intrigued, he found a good vantage point close to the lighthouse and spent the day observing her from a distance.
What he told the regulars at the bar the night he ventured back has been whispered forward countless times. Only one fact remains undisputed: that he found she lived with dozens and dozens of daughters of every age in her compound on the hill. In some accounts the daughters are misshapen demons, bloody, malformed and barely human. In others they are invisible: potential energy spelled out in voices and light. A few accounts describe them as nearly human, but twice as tall and hovering a few feet from the ground, umbilical cords dragging. After telling the bar men his story, he made his way back to her lighthouse and was never seen again.
The men of the island must have shunned her, must have made their way to her compound to rid themselves of the newfound witch, must have cast judgement on her publicly and perhaps attempted to burn her at the stake. None of this is known, only that some catalyst must have sparked the fire that she lit, the one that enveloped the island one night and turned the entire thing into smoldering waste. On dark nights a ship passing can still see the embers burning – somehow they never completely extinguish. The fine smoke that rises from them isn’t still either. Sailors say they see the forms of dancing children twist and spin on the burnt island. And circling it is a vicious mermaid that drowns men who get too close.
Illustration by Leslie Ann O'Dell