by Justine Bothwick

The receding tide has stippled the cold, brown sand. Barefoot, she splashes through the ripples towards the rocks. Coiled guts of lugworm casts (five points) squish between her toes. In one hand she clutches a stick of bamboo, its little net waving like a flag. Da bought it for her last year—the year of heat and endless sun, and holidays in the caravan, and barbecues and hide and seek, and love. So much love.

Not like this year, when whispered arguments ooze from under closed doors, and anger freezes in the air if she enters unannounced.

In the other hand she carries a jam jar, string looped around her wrist.

To get to the pools she has to wade through the weed: bladderwrack. A measly five points in the book. Slippery, rubbery, the blisters burst under her feet. Pleasure or disgust, she is not sure.

Wind blows her wet hair. It straggles her eyes as she clambers over the jagged rocks. For a moment, she stops, looks away up the beach, sees them there. Near the swing boats and the stinky row of sad donkeys. Two bookends on a towel. And all she can hear is screeches and screams of gulls and children, but she knows where they sit is silence. Dark as the mussel shells that slice her soles; sharp as the barnacles that spot the slimy stones.

She crouches to peer at a blob of pink jelly. I spy an anemone. Ten points. When the sea returns it will open, reach out, stir the tide with gentle fronds. She prods and pushes, drags her net through the water. Continues her journey across the pricking, slitting rock.

Blood seeps from tiny cuts.

Then, a real treasure. She hooks it towards her, lifts it high. A mermaid’s purse. Twenty points. Strange, like a peapod, with curling fronds at its flattened ends. Not really a mermaid’s, of course, but a dogfish. Or even a shark! Unscrews the lid of the jar, lowers it in. Water slops over the top. She adds razor shells, springing open on their hinges (ten points), whorls of periwinkle and whelk (five points for each), and sea glass and tiny stones and shiny ribbons of weed. She holds it aloft. A miniature garden, a tableau, a living diorama in her hands. But instead all is dead inside. Still. Silent. It is her duty to give it life.

Ever further along the ragged rocks and then she spots a scuttle, a sidewards, a belligerence of claws. She is a kingfisher, ready to strike. The net dives, she scoops. Topples it into the jar. It floats to the bottom. She brings it close. Eyeball to stalk-eyeball, the creature waves. Tiny pincers of rage. It advances, right angles of fury up against the glass. Its shell is the surface of the moon.

She smiles, the first time in days, yet unaware of her happiness in that moment. A thousand points, at least. The tide turns.

Justine Bothwick has stories published in Virtual Zine (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Confingo Magazine (with an honourable mention in Best of British Fantasy list 2019), and forthcoming in The Lonely Crowd, and with Nightjar Press. Her novel was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize for Fiction 2018, and longlisted for The Exeter Novel Prize 2019. She is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s Creative Writing MA programme. She lives and teaches in Rome, Italy.

Twitter @Bothwick_Cro