Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Daughter of the Rising Tide”

The sea calls to her, but she doesn’t know if she has the strength to answer.

She has never failed to answer before, but now most days her legs feel too heavy to lift, and her ancient body won’t bear the strain of trying to stand. At least the career they sent today has helped her prop herself up on pillows, briskly plumping them up and smoothing down the blankets so that Cordelia can look out at the rolling waves far below.  The tide is coming in now, and the call grows louder.


The first time she answered the sea’s call she was six years old. Her parents drove them up the cliff road, that final summer before the end of the second millennium. Thorns scratched at her legs as they scrambled through undergrowth to see the last cracked gravestone from a church long lost to the sea.

 Her father told her how a whole city had once stood there until it had crumbled bit by bit into the sea, how people claimed to hear the church bells ringing from beneath the brine, how the living had left but the sea took the dead. Her older sister had been repulsed by the thought of disarticulated bones dropping onto the beach below, but Cordelia found it strangely comforting. Better to rest in the soothing rhythm of the tide than the cold dark stillness of the earth.

That afternoon they played on the beach nearby, until Cordelia’s mother swam out and pulled her roughly from the sea, where she had waded in so far her chin floated on the water.

“How could you be so reckless?” Her mother’s arm wrapped the child’s waist and dragged her back to shore.

“I heard the bells.” Cordelia turned her head back towards the horizon. 

Her mother shook even after she had finished shivering, but Cordelia had always felt safe with the sea. It wouldn’t take her until it was time.


Bridget and Nasima have come to visit her today, and they have both brought their grandchildren. A flurry of small bodies moves through the house like a minnows rippling through the water. Bridget won’t let them go outside.

“The cliff edge is far too dangerous,” she says. “I do wish you’d move in with us, Mum. We could set you up in Harry’s old bedroom. ” Cordelia bats her away with a shrunken hand.

“All dried up like a smoked haddock? I don’t think so. Won’t be long now anyway.”


The house wasn’t always so close to the cliff. It had been two miles inland when she and Tom first moved in, when Dylan was two and Bridget was still in the womb. Somehow Cordelia had known that was just the right distance. 

 The sea had grown stronger, year on year, as it took more and more of the land. As it grew stronger its call grew louder. No longer the distant tinkling of bells, it became the swelling of a thousand voices, insistent and alluring.

When Bridget was thirteen, it had called so loudly one night that Cordelia had walked to the shore barefoot, the wind and rain whipping at her thin nightgown. She tiptoed across the wet sand under a full moon and gave the sea her answer.

 The wind and rain dropped away then, the clouds retreated, and Cordelia stood looking out to sea as the storm swept in the challenge she had accepted. Nasima was the first one she found,  her long black hair spread out like strands of seaweed on the beach and her brown eyes looking up at the newly-revealed stars. Cordelia had scooped her up and carried her beyond the tide line, then returned for her brother Ahmed. There were five more children and three adults, all exhausted but alive.

When the sun rose over the sea that morning Tom came, somehow knowing where Cordelia must have gone. They took the refugees back to the house and called for medical assistance. A few weeks later, Nasima and Ahmed moved in, the first of many refugee children who started the long process of healing in the salt air with Cordelia and Tom as their foster parents. The house was rarely quiet; it rang with the sound of children playing, of seagulls hooting, of Dylan practising guitar and Nasima singing lullabies to Ahmed. But sometimes, when the children were at school and the wind was blowing inland, Cordelia still heard the call of the sea.


Nasima makes sure Cordelia takes her pills before she leaves, and checks that the pillow nest is still secure. She is still working as a GP, one of many who trained in those first few years of rebuilding after the country had split itself apart and then come back together, like a shoal of fish splintered by the approach of a predator. The shoal became one again and as it mourned its losses Nasima learned to heal the very people who had once hated her.

“Goodnight, mama,” Nasima says, as she plants a kiss on Cordelia’s papery cheek. Bridget does the same, and the children —  all six of them — waving goodbye as they traipse out the door into the watercolour evening.

Harry’s youngest looks so like her Tom: fitting then that he’s named after him. He has his great-granddad’s dimples and his dark brown curls. He likes to run along with his arms out as if he’s hoping to take off, just the way Tom used to do when they came up here together as teenagers. The cliff top had always been the perfect spot for a marriage of air and water.

Tom always was a creature of the air rather than the sea. They never had the money for him to get his pilot’s license, so he made do by watching the sea birds from a hidden nook in the cliffs. He used to take the kids too. Cordelia remembers them all piling in one day in late summer, excited that they had seen a storm petrel on its way south. It had always been his favourite bird.

“It’s like you love,” he’d say. “So small, so rare and yet so strong.”


 They hid in the nook on the night when the country hit its lowest ebb and angry men had attacked their house for taking in the refugee children. The sea protected them then.  A squall blew in and sent the men running home with rods of horizontal rain. Cordelia and Tom wrapped their arms round small frightened bundles and calmly held them until the danger had passed. The little cave escaped the worst of it: the sea wanted to be a thoroughfare,  not a border.


Now Cordelia can see dark clouds once more,  looming on the horizon as the sun sets. The seagulls were loud earlier, but now they are gone, fleeing further inland in search of shelter from the coming storm. The wind picks up and the solar panels on the roof begin to rattle. Cordelia remains propped on her pillow throne, letting the voices of the sea rush in through her ears. She can see the waves below as they change from a landscape of rolling foothills to mountainous terrain, their white caps like the snow on treacherous peaks. They pound the cliffs below her like the voices pound now in her head.

“I have come for you, Cordelia. It is time.”


Ahmed calls her, his smiling face flickering in the air in front of her, projected by one of these new-fangled watches Dylan gave her.

“Are you alright, Mum?” he asks, hearing the howling of the wind at both ends of the call. “I can come and get you if you like?”

 He is a politician now, one of the many who voted to divert resources to health and housing rather than sea defences. Cordelia doesn’t blame him. He lives in the seaside town on the sheltered side of the bay with his husband and two labradors. The smell of wet dog and the aroma of curry cooking linger in the air as she speaks to him, another feature she’s never quite got used to. She supposes he can smell the stench of seaweed and salt that the storm is bringing in. A deep breath pulls it further into her nostrils.

“Storms make me feel alive,” she says. “I shall enjoy that while it lasts.”

“Love you, Mum,” he says, before he vanishes.


As the night falls a full moon rises, but it only shows its face in glimpses between the skittering clouds. Rain slaps the window. There is thunder in the distance. Above all this, the call of the sea roars yet louder, taking full control of Cordelia’s consciousness. She shuffles to the edge of the bed, and miraculously finds that her legs take her weight with little trouble. She walks outside, answering one more time.

Up above a tiny bird flies in the haze of raindrops. A storm petrel? But it can’t be, not at this time of year. It is not fighting the wind as it should be but rather seems unmoved by it, as if on another plane entirely.

Cordelia is the storm. The wind wraps the rain around her like a cloak. It cleanses her, sloughing off the marks and folds of age, sweeping the decay from her bones with a tide of youthful joy. Crinkled white skin is replaced with something sparkling, moving, rolling in waves from teal to violet to the deepest navy blue. Whether it is made of light or water she can’t tell, but she knows she is no longer solid.

When the wind retreats, she finds she is submerged beneath the breakers. Above, a beam of light from the moon cuts through the water. A city lies below. Bells chime. Shimmering shoals of fish, recently returned to these waters, spin around her in the deep.  She does not breath and yet she foams with life.

Her head breaks water at the top of a wave and she watches there, the storm petrel fluttering above her head,  as the old house creaks on the cliff top. With one final sigh the cliff crumbles and the house plummets readily into the open arms of the waiting sea. 

The sea sings a welcome and Cordelia sings with it;  no longer call-and-answer but a harmony.

* * *

BY @sarahwriteaway

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Beneath November Skies”

Song: Demons by Jacob Lee

Content Warning: contains mention of self-harm, which might be triggering for some

Rain kisses my face, soft and yearning, but cold to the touch. It bleeds onto the streets far below my perch, the water running down cracked asphalt, smearing the colors of traffic lights. Nature is skilled at watercolor, even when her materials are made by man. Black, red, green, and sometimes orange wash down the road, occupied by the occasional car. It’s long after midnight, and most people are in bed. The city is left to quiet thought and the whisper of rain. 

But I’m not here to admire the view. Or the silence. 

Song is out here, somewhere. And I’m supposed to stop her from whatever crazy plan she has next. 

I pull my arms tighter around myself, trying to find warmth. Late November doesn’t give me much of a chance, though it could be worse. 

I walk across the flat roof of this building, some four floors up from the street, and hope my shoes don’t slip. It’s a good thing I’ve never been afraid of heights. But then, Song had been. Never climbed trees, never went on anything that would take her far above ground. Even on swings at the playground, when we were young, she barely went up—terrified of falling. Since the accident, though, she’s not been the same. 

None of us have. 

I bite my lip, reassuring myself I’m not dreaming, before climbing halfway down a fire escape and jumping across the narrow alley to the building beside mine, catching the metal ladder running up the side. My arms groan in being yanked from their sockets, but at least I made it.

Song’s doing her rounds again. I need to catch up. 

No, she doesn’t fear anything now. Nothing except the voices in her mind and the memories of when she lost her brother. Wasn’t even her fault. Some psycho had got it into his mind to hire people who’d randomly drive into vehicles, a new sort of suicide missions. Song had been the one that day, her and her little brother. She made it out, hadn’t been hit on that side, but her brother was gone. 

I wasn’t there, but no one I knew could speak of it. Maybe it’s a good thing I wasn’t. I can’t handle the sight of blood, and this was much more than blood. Song never forgot it. We hear it in her screams, never mind how many months have passed. 

Yes, we put her in an asylum, more for the sake of her distraught parents. But she wasn’t crazy, not like that. She’d always find a way out—I’ve never figured out how, and I personally don’t think it’s that important. She never hurts anyone except those who deserve it. 

I pause at the edge of another building, looking at the deserted streets around me. Overhead, an airplane drones by, the rumble shaking the roof I’m standing on. I sniff, my cold nose starting to drip. 

I need to get moving. 

It’s time, Dev. I’m going to take him down. 

Song’s last text passes before my eyes as I crawl across the pipes connecting the buildings. She’s been hunting for him ever since she was allowed out of the hospital, five months ago. I can’t blame her. Our government and judicial systems are worthless ever since someone got it into their head to seize control and require everything pass through them. Sounds nice for whoever’s in power, but it makes life even worse for the rest of us. This man will not be brought to justice for years, and Song can’t wait that long. 

I wish she could. I wish I could somehow take her pain and her darkness away. But I can’t. Some things you can only do yourself. 

I see her, some hundred feet away, perched on the edge of a building. Who else could it be? Who else stalks the streets at night, running the risk of imprisonment for taking the law into one’s own hands? No one, except criminals, and the few who try to stop them. 

“Song,” I whisper, squatting down beside her, and laying a hand gently on her shoulder. I know better than to touch her there harder than a whisper of wind. Some people’s scars streak their wrists, but hers lie elsewhere.

Always a perfectionist, everything not exactly right drove her nearly insane until she fixed it. And sometimes, that meant tearing her skin over the slight blemish, scabs turning into scars, pain and grief and insecurity marring her arms and shoulders. No one knows—since the accident—what it’s doing to her mind, what it’s doing to her body. But I know. She had shown me, because she trusted me. And I would never dare to harm her, even by pressing on skin that’s bruised and torn. Like her heart. 

Oh, if I could mend that! Heal her heart and her mind! But I think she sees me only as a big brother, her protective shadow. Yet if that is how I can help her, I will bury my feelings and wait until the world ends before I tell her that I love her—even with her past.

She turns to me at last, her face damp with the misting rain. She shivers and edges closer to me, as if soothed by my aura of warmth. “You got my text?” she asks, her voice soft and light, as if asking when the rain would stop. 

“Yes.” There’s not much else to say. 

“You’re not trying to stop me.” It’s a question, even if she doesn’t lilt it like one. 

The wind gusts below us, a rising whoosh of rain across drowned streets. The traffic lights at the nearest intersection slowly fade from green to red, but no one is there to disturb the running rivulets of rain. The watercolor continues. 

“Song,” I say, a bitter smile on my lips. “There was never any stopping you once your mind was made up. And that hasn’t changed.” If anything, her will has become stronger, in all but silencing the voices that scream in her head. “But, tell me, what are you going to do?”

She looks away from me, the ghost of a smile playing on her lips vanishing into the mist. “I’m going to kill him.” 

My heart stops. She’s been wanting this for months, but how…how has she figured it out now? “Song, what—”

“He’s coming, driving home in his car below us. I’m going to kill him with this.” She reaches beside her and something glistens black against the dark grey of this roof, barely visible in the darkness. I see its shadows more than the thing itself. It looks like a sword in shape, but there the similarity ends. 

“How? What even is that?”

“It’s…hard to explain, Dev. It’s like a magnet. The other end is on the roof of his car. The pull is so strong nothing can separate it once it is felt. It’ll take me down with it, but he will die too, so it doesn’t matter. There’s not much else to live for anyway.” 

Each word she says is like a knife being thrust into my chest. The air chokes in my throat, and it’s a moment before I can gather my wits enough to respond. 

“Song, you know that’s not true. Your parents have already lost enough, haven’t they?” When she doesn’t reply, I continue. “And I would miss you. I know you’ve been through so much, but, please, is there no other way?”

She looks at me and a sad smile plays on her lips. “No. I need to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else like he’s hurt me. Besides, then maybe the voices will go away.”

“The voices.” My own is a whisper. I never hear them, but I see what they’ve done to her life, what they’re still doing to her mind and to her skin. 

“I made a deal with them.” She sighs, her shoulder blades rising and falling beneath her thin jacket. “If I do this, I’ll have peace. Isn’t that also worth it?”

A tear slips down my rain-washed face. Yes, peace, she wants it more than anything–and I want it for her too–but at that cost? At the cost of losing her, who is the brightness in my life? And will the voices give her peace, even at death? 

She turns away from me and faces the alley below us. In the dripping, nighttime quiet, I hear a vehicle start, an engine purring to life. And then it comes near, splashing puddles as it meanders down the tiny street, unaware that above it, death and love and longing and hopelessness and the ever-burning desire for revenge war against each other. 

But no war lasts forever. 

Song glances at me, and there is a lightness in her eyes that I haven’t seen since before her brother died. She kisses my cheek, warm against the cold of rain and tears. And then she jumps. 

I cry out, words lost to myself, and nearly throw myself after her when I remember that I actually don’t have a death wish. But I also don’t want to see my friend die. 

I scramble down the fire escape, the stair swinging beneath my rushing weight, but it’s already too late. 

I hear the dull thud of a body hitting something and the rip of metal–and perhaps something else I don’t want to know–and then the vehicle careers into the building and all goes still after crashing metal shakes the alley like thunder. The silence weighs heavily on my ears.

A sob tears through my body. I skid across a puddle as I reach the alley. The reek of hot metal and sweet blood greets my nostrils. The car hisses and smokes in the rain, but besides that, all is still. 

Hoisting myself onto the roof of the car, I kneel on the slippery surface, the rain soaking through my clothes. But I hardly notice. 

I take Song’s hand in mine. It’s still warm. I raise it to my lips and kiss it gently, my chest throbbing with emotion so thick, I’m afraid to let it break. Because if it does, a part of me might break with it. 

Song stirs, a slight motion, yet I notice it all the same. 

“Devin.” She never calls me that, except when she wants my full attention. 

“Yes, Song, I’m here.” I scoot in closer until I’m beside her face, trying to ignore her wheezing breaths and the blood that is staining the roof of this once-silver vehicle. My shoulders shake, but not from the cold.

“You have to let me go.” It’s the barest of whispers, but she’s almost smiling. 

“I can’t.” My words are scarcely louder than hers. 

“The deal is paid. I’m free.”

I lean in closer to catch her words. Despite all the evidence before my eyes, I’m still denying she’s dying. Some part of me is determined to think that somehow, after all this, she’s going to live. 

“Let me go.” 

No. But I can’t say that. I will not let her die knowing I disagreed with her. That’s not what friends do–that’s not what you do when you love someone more than life itself. “I love you,” I say at last. And I mean every word. 

“I’m sorry–” She’s about to say more when the breath catches in her throat. Her hand goes lax in mine. 

She’s gone. 

I bend and kiss her forehead–a kiss of protection. “Be at peace.” The words stick in my throat, but I say them anyway. A strangled sob escapes my lips as I kiss her mouth as softly and gently as I loved her.

And around me, the misting rain finally falls away and all is still. 

The traffic lights in the distance fade to green, the watercolor bleeding across the cracked asphalt. But no one goes, because no one is there. It’s just me, Song, and the man who killed her brother; two of us dead, one of us still living beneath November skies. 

The rain has stopped. My love is at peace. Morning is a few hours away.

But all I can do is weep. 

BY @dancing_bardess

On “Talented” Being (Unintended) Blanket Praise

When I was about 14-15 years old, my teacher told my class she believed talent was 50% natural and 50% work. She was talking about me. That year, I’d begun shooting off the grading scale in English, consistently scoring 13s. In the Danish grading system at the time, 13 was nearly impossible to get. And not in an A+ way, but in an A++++ way. It was meant to be that way. It was the ultimate grade you weren’t meant to achieve, but which was (almost begrudgingly) given to you in a “congratulations, you’ve beat the system” sorta way.

The point here is this: I believed my teacher back then.

I believed my “talent” was 50% natural and 50% hard work.

Now, however?

Now, fifteen years later, I view “natural talent” and “hard work” as synonymous—not dichotomous.

Being called “talented” feels a lot like your book being called “unique”. It doesn’t actually say a whole lot about your achievement beyond the fact that you’ve achieved. It’s like an umbrella term. It’s safe. It’s easy. It’s a blanket compliment, really. To me, calling someone “talented” feels like diminishing the time they’ve spent honing their skillset to this point. Not only that, but it makes their skill level sound unattainable to others. You put the emphasis on the result instead of the process—on what you have achieved instead of what you did to get there—which can be discouraging to other creatives. And the last thing we need in our creative industries is more discouragement among each other, am I right?

“Talent” is a work ethic, so praise the work ethic.

Praise the expertise.

Praise the niche knowledge.

Nurturing an ethic/expertise/niche knowledge sounds far less intimidating than nurturing a “talent”. It sounds accessible. Safe. Like this is something you could do, step by step, and not lose your way while doing it. It sounds like a hill to cross, not a mountain to climb.

Discourse is powerful like that.

Discourse can make us stumble—or push us along.

The once popular idea from Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) that 10,000 hours of work made you an expert has nowadays been debunked by the authors of the original study referenced in Gladwell’s books—yet I think the concept itself still holds true, even if the exact hours don’t.

Time equals expertise.

time = hard work = talent = hard work = time

And it’s different when people find this time. Some people are lucky their parents help them find it, so they get an early start, but this doesn’t mean their start is better or more valuable than someone who starts at age thirty or sixty. This brings me to my next point.

If parents recognize what their children love and help them nurture it, teaching them that spending time doing what they love is acceptable no matter what it is (and especially if that love is one the parents don’t understand themselves), then chances are the child will grow up to become an expert in what they grew up loving. What they grew up loving will become their field of expertise. Their livelihood.

Their “talent”.

Because they were encouraged to spent time on it.

Because they worked on it.

Because they loved it.

Let me end this self-indulgent blabber on the quick note that sometimes “talent” has a physical element that’s easily mistaken for natural ability. Such as a pianist having large hands, a basketball player being tall, and just being able-bodied in general. This physical elementhas nothing to do with hard work (hard work can’t give you bigger hands, or make you taller, cool as that’d be), so this element often ends up being perceived as natural ability. Which is then conflated with talent.

But I wouldn’t personally call this talent. I would call it having the upper hand. I would call it luck. Would call it recognizing your advantage.

 But that’s just me.

What about you?