When the boy is thirteen, he nearly drowns. The storm-green waves pull him beneath with the force of a possessive lover, leaving a brackish taste in his mouth and an icy dagger in his lungs. When he wakes, he will only remember the story, not the woman who whispered the tale in his ear in the dark world beneath the foam.
In the years to follow, the boy becomes a man; the year he turns sixteen, and can man the riggings of his father’s fishing vessel, is the year he leaves his home for a life at sea. He does not return, although it is not tragedy that strikes him. The boy, now a man, falls in love.
Not with a woman, nor a man, nor any creature of mortal blood, but with that most cruel and jealous mistress herself. He is forever enchanted by the glittering spray, cold and refreshing on his face, and the warm glint of the summer sun. By the time he is twenty, the young man has weathered many storms.
He tells his tale with the skill of an old man, practiced in weaving fine, soft yarns and coarse, sturdy ones as well. Although it changes ever so slightly from port town to port town, the essence of the story remains the same.
The story he tells is old—too old, some say, for any shred of truth to remain, for who can know the tales of a god that does not want to be told of. But the boys that haunt the shadowy places in the rocky beaches come out at night to hear the young man’s version of the tale all the same.
This is the story he tells.
They say if you lie awake long after the moon has set and listen to the crash of the waves in the dark, it is not the sea that whispers to you. The sea, her song is soft and inviting—she invites you into her domain with warmth and promise, gentle kisses lapping at your feet. But only the strongest, the cleverest, the most resourceful survive in her domain, and it is said that mortal men are in these qualities quite poorly equipped.
But if you wait for a windless night when the moon has set and only the stars wait above you, glittering like gems in the blackness, you just might hear another sigh as it crashes into the waiting sand. This formless speaker whispers of a loneliness that mortals cannot know; where he speaks, the waves, like startled animals, will soon begin to thrash and surge.
I speak, of course, of the boy-god Nerites, who brings the hateful storm that drowns the weary sailor. And do you know why he does so?
The children are silent, and look to the dark sky and the soft midnight waves. They shift uncomfortably against one another, huddled together in old rags. The young man sighs, and his tale continues.
There are many tales of Nerites’ birth, but when I was a boy the sea whispered the truest of these tales in my ear, and it is that story I share with you today.
The boy-god Nerites, the sea whispered to me, was once a man, neither capricious nor cruel. A sailor, like myself, and a damn good one at that. Perhaps, in his days of youthful ignorance, he even laughed, although the old winds have lost the sound by now. Handsome, strong, and impeccably clever, the sea herself is said to have fallen in love with him. She pursued him relentlessly, but each time, the young sailor rebuked her advances. It wasn’t right, he said, for one man to claim the heart of the sea—although in truth perhaps Nerites realized what end her caprice might bring him.
The wisdom in his decision did him little good, however. Like many who sail, Nerites was called to the service of his state in the face of an enemy who would surely destroy their small fleet. With nowhere else to go, Nerites went to the sea, and asked her for only one thing—the strength to protect those who fought alongside him. Enamored of him, the sea granted his boon on a single condition; when the battle was done, Nerites would return to her, and live ever-after in her domain. Desperate, he accepted.
The day was won, but it mattered little. In her hurry to regain her prize, the sea sent forth waves that swallowed Nerites’ ship, drowning all aboard including his own brother. Immortal as he now was, only Nerites survived. Cheated and alone, Nerites vowed that the sea would never have him for a lover, and in return for her cruelty he would send to her depths unending hordes of unworthy sailors, all begging for the gift she had given him.
All gods, they say, are immortal, even those who begin their lives as mortal men. The most hateful will die a million deaths before they are finally overthrown or brought into line by their fellows. The boy-god Nerites keeps no counsel but his own; no just hand quells the hatred that he brews in his wanderings. When a god strikes down a man who has given him no insult, he is said to feel the pain of that death tenfold, to the last shuddering.
Nerites has drowned thousands of sailors, but he will never taste the sweet nectar of mortality for himself. And perhaps that is the tragedy carried in the whispers drowned out by the wind.
The tale finished, the man stands and dusts the rocky sand away from his knees. He leaves them with only a coin (it will feed them for weeks, if they spend it wisely) and the fading remnants of his story. The children sit in silence—this is not the tale they are expecting, but it leaves them contemplating the name they daren’t speak. When the wind begins to howl against the rocks, one boy cups a hand to his ear to in the hope of catching the ancient whisper. He hears nothing but the wind, howling like a wild animal or a mother in grief.
It shakes him to the bone.