Tidal Bones by Nicole Walsh

By night she dreamt: the tilt of his ship upon the cold steel bay, a tombstone against the waves. By day she walked the beach, lined first with wreckage from his boat and then at last, tossed above the line of the highest tide, his bones.

His bones returned.

Mary sat on cold stone, bare feet in the shallows. Brine soaked the rags of the wedding dress. Cold foam coiled her ankles. The sea swept patterns across the gravel in a language she could not read.

By night something circled the house, lost in the chatter of the approaching sea. Something vast and ancient, turning at the cold heart of the bay.

Mary trekked back along the stony beach to the vast wall of the cliff. Rain had flooded the creek. It flowed cloudy and grey. The stolen wedding dress, sodden with rain, pressed against her skin.

Was there a way back?

No. No.

Mary put her back to creek and cliff and faced the sea. Her bones could lie with Edward’s, settling across his in dark clefts and hollows beneath the bay.

As she walked to the waves, she found, tangled with seaweed, dead fish and twigs, a long white bone. His bones, returned. Returned clean and white and empty. Mary sank into the grit of sand and pebbles and hugged the bone to her breast.

A gift. A curse?

She lay the bone on the bed, unconsummated and barren. She set her hand upon it in the long hours of the night, imagining her lover limping from the waves, crabs grinding and turning in the cavern of his mouth.

Dawn brought more bones, set against the stones where the highest of high tides reached. Mary took these to the bed. She paced the beach. Gulls screeched. The vastness of the bay mocked her.

On the fifth morning, scrabbling between rocks, Mary sliced her hand. She bathed it in the surf. The sting of salt was like a kiss.

“Bring him back. Bring him back.”

The next day a tidy pile of bones lay stacked near her door. Mary sat in a doorway made of drowned curved wood and traced the bones. Her fingers found runnels and scars. Teeth, perhaps? Patterns swirled and whirled, like the outside of a shell, like the mark of the tide on sand. Something had stroked the flesh free. Something had carved the rot away.

Mary set the bones on the bed, laying them in place at her side in a house lined with boots and men’s clothing and leatherwork and expensive tools. She slept with her hand across the bone, dreaming of white veils dragged through ragged rocks, the endless heave and push of the waves, pounding the shoreline.

In the following days Mary pulled and rubbed at her cut hand to spill more blood through cold, soapy foam. She stood with her skirt hitched up, the cold gripping her thighs, sending tremors through her body.

“Come back,” she begged the waves. “Come back to me.”

When the wound healed she cut another, in the flesh of her thigh. She stood in the pull of icy waves. She felt the kiss of a cold and hungry mouth against her skin, drawing ribbons of warmth into the vast cold bay.

When next she woke more bones had been delivered, stacked in a neat pile.

She ran her hands along the smooth, weathered wood of the house. Edward had dragged the wood into place. I’ll not live in a cave, she had mocked, as he wooed her at the edge of her father’s land.

“The bay is haunted,” her brothers had warned.

“Cursed,” her sisters agreed.

“Scalders Bay,” her father had frowned. “A grim, dark place. No life lives there. None.”

Mary had walked the ruins with her lover. An old town dissolved into the hillside. Broken wreckage and pottery remained, along with the bones of sheep and dogs. Steps were cut in the stone, the marks of a harbour below.

“Did you live here?”


“Your family?”


Edward was a man of few words. He set for her a bed of weeds and withered flowers, beneath the shadow of a crumbling wall. Mary shook her head, disgusted: you’ll wed me first. And show your worth as father to my child.

He fed her pieces of fish, and things like fish, and hard berries that grew like weeds through the blighted village.

“You cannot live off seaweed and insects scraped from stone,” her mother had pouted.

Those words slid like a blade into Mary’s heart that first day, standing in Edward’s arms, stolen dress pulled by the wind.

“Show me your worth,” she insisted, pulling free. “You’ve lured me here. Show me you can keep me.”

Edward set out in his boat, warm and vital and smiling, fishhooks in hand. And returned as bones.

In the pitch fathomless leagues of the night, Mary imagined the bones moving, shifting and clattering about the sheets like crabs. Bones curled her wrist, a bracelet of cold against the feverish heat of her skin.

Salt leaked from her body. She shook in spasms of something. Illness? Madness? Her mind tore like the sea between sharp, black rocks.

Dawn came, seeping through holes and gaps like a fever. Mary’s body bled. She gave this to the sea, washing herself with cupped hand. Waves clamped like fingers around her thighs. A colder mouth closed across the core of her, licking and sucking, drawing the spoiled life from within her. Her trembling thighs failed. She sank lower, gasping.

“I cannot go back,” she whispered. “I cannot.”

The wedding dress lifted in the waves, worn to filth and rags.

That night she heard the creep and rattle of bones in her bed. Restless.

Mary shed the ruined dress. She hurled it into the waves. The sea swallowed it. Water surged and tore. It pulled and yanked as if it would take her as well.

Cold drove her out. She had given the sea the last remnants of her mother’s love. With it went the future Mary had day-dreamed through her girlhood, lazing in field and barn. Imagining that long walk back up over the hills to return the dress, sewn with fresh pearls, fine clothing on her body, a babe at her breast.

Mary went about her chores naked. The cold wind burned her flesh. She pulled things from the rocks to eat, as Edward had shown her as he wooed her along the shoreline. She tended the garden he had set at the back of the house.

She wandered the beach and found, at the far end, the cave in which Edward had lived as boy and man. The sea echoed and crashed. The vastness shocked her. She spotted ancient paintings high on the wall. Closer to the light was a childlike scrawl of a long-haired woman, hunched and weeping around a swollen belly. The figure crouched on a shoreline, storm-stacked waves filled with bodies.

Wooden shelves lined the walls. They were set with shells and carved wood and treasure. Items salvaged from the abandoned village, or cast from the sea. Mary’s trembling fingers found gold and beads and plates. What wealth! No wonder Edward wore fine boots and clothing. No wonder he’d had confidence he could keep her.

Why had he not shown her this?

No man needed to fish when he had wealth like this!

Mary froze. A second bed, long abandoned. Goosebumps roughened her skin as she approached. On the shelf above the bed lay a comb and broken hairpin. Mary carried the comb into the light and found, tangled through the teeth, an ancient thread of hair.

Grey, or blonde?

Lover, or mother?

Mary threw it into the sea.

That night she was wrung by feverish dreams, of the sea gripping Edward’s ankle as his ship went down. Mary tossed and turned. Salt burned her throat, choked her breath. She heard the clatter of crabs, imagined them dropping from Edward’s corpse as he lumbered from the waves.

When she woke the house smelled like Edward: salt and seaweed and leather. The bed was wet. The bones lay in a new pattern.

Mary paced the shoreline, pulling at her knotted hair. In a fit of fury she took a sharp new knife and sliced her hair with shaking fingers.

Gold. Edward had had gold.

Mary pressed into the grey waves, flinging earth-brown locks into the sea. They tickled her bare thighs. Cold circled her wrist, twisting the knife free. Something nudged the curls at the core of her body.

“Come back to me,” she begged. “Come back!”

Rage curled, a black and choking tide. Beneath the pulse of a stormy sky Mary screamed and howled and flung Edward’s treasures into the waves. She sliced her feet bloody on the rocks trekking back and forth. She screeched into the cold grey bay, hurling the contents of the cave, all of his secrets.

The sea took them.

Nothing was returned.

Storm raged. Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked and boomed. Mary curled in the bed, hands pressed to her eyes. She listened to the slap and splash of water against the door, flooding the house.

It was coming.

He was coming.

He did not.

Morning came, a sneak grey thief. Mary staggered onto the blade of the beach. The waves were high, topped with fierce white foam. The world was re-created: new logs tossed up, the vast old bones of ancient ships. The sea rolled and raged.

No bones. No treasure.

Mary screamed into the wind.

She staggered into the water, shocked by the surge and yank of the waves.

“Take me then!”

Waves sucked and pulled, nearly knocking her down. A huge wave curled. She was knocked over, tumbled this way and that. She crashed onto a rock and clung, blinded with salt, choking and gasping.

“Do it! Give him back or take me!”

She was torn free, half-drowned, tossed limp and blue against the shallows. Terror seized her. She clawed her across the gravel. Foam dragged at her legs.

“No,” she wheezed. “No!”

Her desperate hand closed across a smooth round stone. The weightlessness of the stone caught her attention. A skull.

That night Mary had no appetite. Her body shook and shuddered. She vomited anything she swallowed, as if the sea was within her, drowning her still. She coughed and choked endlessly, trying to clear the itch of salt from her lungs.

Mary studied the ruins of her body, the hollow between her thighs.

The house hung with clothing. She could alter his, or clean and sew the sheets. She could flee with any gold or treasure that had escaped her madness. There was no staying here. Not alone. Not with madness turning like the tide.

Mary drank a bottle Edward had hidden on a shelf. It had washed from the sea, she supposed. It had the feel of the bay about it and left her vomiting as fiercely as when the waves slopped her onto the shale.

Mary tumbled abed, and dreamt...

The cold clatter and creep of bones, restless as crabs. They moved, knocking and tumbling together, forming some pattern, some awful thing. What made her think the bones were Edward’s? A whole village had vanished, all the people gone, plates and belongings left in their wake.

Bone reached and stroked. Bone lifted, pulled. She obeyed. She had asked for this.

Bargained for this. She would endure.

In the pitch absolute darkness a presence cupped Mary’s body, the power of the sea spun like lace across cold, white bone.

“Yes,” she begged, eyes closed. “Yes.”

A hand caught the nape of her neck, winding the ghost of lost hair around a fist, shoving her head down. Mary did not resist.


The push of his body, the milking pull of hers. A long bar of bone within her, colder than the heart of the sea. Waves splashed and surged across the stones, against her door. The tide reached, turned.

Cold salt licked her womb.

When Mary woke the bones were gone. The door hung open. The bay stretched, vast and endless.

She staggered to the door, hands braced against sea-wormed wood. The beach was spotted with wreckage: wood and seaweed and dead fish, tossed up by the tide. No bones. No, the bones would be for another girl, thirty years hence. A girl drawn to this bay when stories of Mary were dust in the wind.

Mary padded out. Her hand cupped the swollen curve of her belly, heavy with brine. A grey-eyed child in her belly, set to become a grey-eyed man. Her gaze caught against pearl beads, tangled with seaweed. A gold disk, tilted like a tombstone against gravel.

The first of the treasures, returned.


Nicole Walsh is a cat enthusiast from the east coast of Australia who loves fern gardens and long dresses. She writes short stories and novel-length speculative fiction and urban fantasy that spans from a little bit dark, a little bit amusing through to a little bit steamy. Visit Nicole here and here.

Author's note

That line between sea and land has always fascinated me. There’s magic and secrets in those in-between places. "Tidal Bones" was inspired by the hours I spent as a child, exploring deserted beaches, pulling treasure from between rocks. What washed up on those lonely edges were the bones of our world: fishing line, plastic and glass. Each piece came with a story: where it came from. What it was used for. The marks of the sea and the sky and its journey. What does the sea tell us? What does it hide?