The Glowing Girls

The dulse lay dry and ample on the flats beside the sea, and the tall girl’s mother had caught a tenday’s worth of mackerel, but the tall girl was still sad.

“What’s wrong?” asked the tall girl’s mother, holding a steaming clay mug by the tall girl’s cot. The tall girl could get out of bed, most mornings, but only when scolded would she trudge out the wicker door. Usually she was late to the woodcarver’s. On cloudy days she might just stay in bed.

“You ask the same question,” said the tall girl, “over and over. You know the answer.”

The answer was that the tan girl had gone away. Almost every day the tall girl and the tan girl had held hands and sat together and shared midday meals, the tan girl’s strong arms and shoulders beside the tall girl’s longer limbs. Sometimes the tall girl showed the tan girl her carvings—wooden curls and leaves and shapes like shells—and the tan girl showed the tall girl how far she could shoot an arrow with her new bow. The other village girls had made one new name from both their names, and said they were two ground cherries in one husk. Lately the tall girl and the tan girl had begun to press together their lips, and place their hands on each other’s knees and hips, and moved toward—

But this is not the kind of story that can go into detail about such things. At the end of each day the tall girl looked for the tan girl (who had been practicing with nets and tridents: she had some skill with a fishing trident) to come to their oval rock, and they delighted in each other until the sun sank.

The tall girl began to speak with her mother about whether she could keep her own cottage someday, so that the tan girl might live there too. And the tall girl’s mother listened, not unkindly. But the tan girl’s mother disapproved. The tan girl had to sneak out, and then she defied her mother, so that they almost came to blows. 

Then one autumn day the tan girl did not come. The sun set over the tides’ foam and the last beach roses nodded over the shadows, and the tall girl looked to the path from the beach to the village, but the tan girl did not come.

The next day, again, the tan girl never arrived. 

The day after that the tan girl came. Her walk was stooped, not mast-upright as usual, and in her arms she brought not a small sack for supper, but a great one, large enough to hold her winter cloak and her net, and she wore thick boots.

“Why,” said the tall girl, “a great sack? and thick boots?”

And the tan girl kissed the tall girl slowly, sadly, so that their lips just touched. The tan girl said, “I am going away tomorrow, with the last longboat before winter, to the port across the crescent sea.”

The tall girl looked back at the tan girl and said, “Why?” And she thought about kisses and handholding and flatbread, and about the tan girl’s way with the trident and the great curved knife, and the tan girl’s strength, and the tan girl’s mother.

The tan girl said, “I do not know who I want to be. If I stay here I will never know.”

The tall girl said, “If you stay here we will have our own cottage, and I will carve and make things, and you will be the bravest captain of the strongest boat. And when the great toothed fish come from the south in spring, you will lead the boats that bring them to shore, and carve the toothfish flesh at the head of the feast.”

The tan girl said, “Maybe. But I cannot learn to do even those things better, if I stay here. At best I will do them as they have always been done. Nor can I learn how to fight as I wish to fight, for there is anger in me. Nor how to speak to strangers in their tongues. I will go at least to the port, and stay until I have learned enough new things. And then, perhaps, if you will have me, I can return.”

When the tall girl heard “Perhaps,” she let go of the tan girl’s hand, and she let her flatbread drop in the swordgrass. And the tall girl walked all the way home, in the final light, letting the broken shells and then the sharp little stones on the path cut her bare feet.

Two months had passed since then. Still the tall girl was sad. 

One morning the tall girl lay on her cot, unmoving except for her left hand, where she held, limply, a breakfast roll made of dulse and barley.

“Leave our house,” said her mother, slowly, but clearly.

“Forever?” asked the tall girl, horrified.

“No! Leave our house for an hour. Go do something. Go do anything you like, since the woodcarver has no need of you today.”

“I will go,” the tall girl said to her mother, and then she added, to herself, “down to our rock,” slowly, and she took her dulse roll and a slip of wood and a tiny carving tool, its blade no longer than a boot-nail, and she walked, until she reached their oval rock.

Now from the oval rock you could look across the inlet to the great flat offshore rock, or else look out all the way to the crescent sea. The tall girl and the tan girl used to watch sunsets there, but they would never stay late into the night.

No one would, because of the glowing girls. The glowing girls came, late at night, from the sea. Sometimes you could hear their liquid speech, nothing like the speech of the villages, mixed with the nightjars’ calls and the swallow-tail gulls, or raised and blended in their long song.

You could see the glowing girls in passing if you woke soon after dawn, even—occasionally—at midday. Most people had seen them.

What you could not do, what you should not do, was to fix your attention on the glowing girls, or watch them closely, late at night. Between their lit-up beauty and their soft song, they would persuade you to leave the land to join them, so that you would die amid the waves.

Yet the tall girl walked down to the rock, and stayed late there, and she watched the glowing girls for hours. The next day and the next, she did it again. She would walk from the woodcarver’s to her mother’s cottage for a supper of flatbread and new cheese, or flatbread and sea lettuce and mackerel, and then she would walk back out to watch the glowing girls and hear their tuneful speech.

Some of the girls glowed amber, and some a pale green, like new rose-leaves, and some a soft pink, like the beach roses themselves. Some glowed bright silver, like fish scales. Some had webbing between their arms and their ribs, like frogs. Some had fine clusters of fins that flared between their shoulder blades, and some had great stubs instead, like tilapia. A few had spines along their backs, like lionfish. There was a silvery girl with a low voice and a body round and solid like conch shells, and a coppery girl with strong shoulders and spines on her back that pitched forward when she sang, and a ruby girl who never took her eyes off the stars.

The tall girl would watch the glowing girls all night. She would grow so tired in the day that the woodcarver sent her home to her mother and told her not to come back until she could stay awake.

After that the tall girl slept all day every day and sat on the oval rock all night, watching the amber girls and the pale green girls and, especially, that silvery girl who had shorter hair than the rest, who sang the low harmonies, whose fins fluttered behind her like moths’ wings. The tall girl fancied she could guess what the silvery girl’s loudest songs were about: the pleasures of making new things, and the far stars, and the feel of long hair on short hair, and two girls’ lips, together.

But the tall girl’s mother told her that she could no longer stay in her mother’s house if she would not return to the woodcarver, for someday the tall girl would need a trade.

So the tall girl learned to take naps, at dusk, after supper, and again near dawn, so that she could sit on the oval rock at midnight and watch for the silvery girl. Often she wondered what the silvery girl would say if they ever met, and what the syllables she overheard meant, for either the glowing girls spoke an unknown language, or their language faded as it crossed the water, like a tune without words.

The darkest time of the year had passed and the nights had begun to grow warmer. Still, it was a chilly night and a misty one when the silvery girl, smooth like conch shells, finally came to the beach. Her feet—no, her flat fins—shimmered along the wet sand.

“You have—you have—been watching,” she said, and her cool voice struggled to form the consonants. “You have been watching me.”

“I have,” said the tall girl.

“You come here every night and you watch me.”

“I like to see and hear you,” the tall girl replied.

“Does nothing else bring you joy, at night or by day?”

“Nothing better than hearing your song. I am doomed,” the tall girl admitted. “You have come to take me into the sea and drown me, so that I will never return.”

“Who told you that?” the silvery girl asked, concerned.

“Everyone told me that.”

“Everyone who lives on the land, I suppose. What else did they tell you?”

“They say that if I listen to you I will lose my taste for anything else and finally lose my life in the sea. That you and your sisters sing out of malice, or for revenge on humankind.”

“The storytellers are silly. And only some of us are sisters. The rest are friends.”

“Why do you gather on the rocks and sing, if not to attract us—to lure us—to take us away?” said the tall girl, thinking how much her mother would miss her, how even the woodcarver would miss her, if the silvery girl enticed her beyond the waves. (She thought of the tan girl, then. Would the tan girl miss her?)

“What do you do with the slip of wood you hold in your left hand? Or with the other slips of wood you carry in your cloak?” the silvery girl asked, by way of answer.

“I carve them. See, here is a rose I made today. Last tenday I made a snail.” And the tall girl reached into her cloak to show.

“We sing on the rocks,” the silvery girl said, “for the same reasons you carve. And we live—but we cannot sing—under the waves.”

“I listen,” the tall girl replied, “for the same reasons you sing.” And she looked at the silvery girl’s short, wild, wet hair.

“You have heard us,” the silvery girl said, “through all the songs we know, until we learn new ones. But I have seen only a few of the things you make.” Here the silvery girl drew breath, the dry breath of the air above land, until she seemed to strain her gills and lungs (for the tall girl could see she had ribs, and a chest that moved in and out as she breathed, alongside her gills). And the silvery girl continued, “May I see more?”

“They are at my . . . home.” The tall girl hesitated. “Where I stay. Where my mother would see you.” And then she hesitated again. “I have made others, at the woodcarver’s workshop. No one lives there. I can take you there instead.”

And something changed below the ankles of the silvery girl, so that she no longer rocked back and forth: she had proper feet now, with proper toes, and if she had only three rather than five on each silvery foot, at least they were toes. 

“I can go there,” the silvery girl said, as if she had surprised herself.

That night the tall girl showed her new friend another carved rose, and a cloud and a pair of conch shells, and cherries carved from pine knots, and larger things she was learning to make: the ends of beams, and the knobs on drawers, and the finials and niceties on the benches the woodcarver put up for sale. 

The silvery girl made up a song about wood. But she was sleepy, and dry, and the sunrise was near. And so the tall girl walked her new friend back to the sea, and saw her new friend dive and shimmy back to join the last of her glowing friends.

There followed, that spring, blissful tendays when the silvery girl would sing to the tall girl, and the tall girl would answer, and then the silvery girl would swim to land, and grow proper toes. Then they would slip into the woodcarver’s shop, and stay up late together, and fall asleep there, and in the morning both girls slipped back to their homes, in the village and under the waves. The tall girl’s mother wondered at the change in routine, but she saw her daughter healthy, and home for meals: there was some girl, surely, on land, somewhere. Her daughter had reached that age.

The tall girl tried to sing, a few times. The effort to shape the notes proved so uncongenial that she preferred to carve, and listen, and sometimes put her bare human legs in the lap of the silvery girl, while the silvery girl, still seated, would sing. And then the silvery girl, overcome with the melody she pursued, would rub her friend’s feet, very gently, and lift them off herself, and stand, and finish the song.

The silvery girl, for her part, tried to carve, first driftwood and then soapstone. The blade always fell in the sawdust, injuring no one. “Some of us are strong,” the silvery girl said, flexing her fins behind her head, “and can hold hard things. But I am made for swimming, and speech, and song.”

When the silvery girl and the tall girl began to kiss, it seemed to both of them that they had always been this way: she sang, and she carved, and they fell asleep together, and they woke up with their limbs around each other’s limbs, before they returned to another house, and to the water.

One morning the carver arrived so close to sunrise that he saw them. “Heigh-ho,” the woodcarver said to the tall girl. “You have a new friend.”

“She has nowhere else to stay on all the land,” the tall girl said, which was strictly true.

“She looks familiar,” said the carver, and he gestured to a half-finished piece that the tall girl had made from a birch branch: a girl, on her elbows, mouth open, with short hair and hints of fins.

“Can she stay?” asked the tall girl, meaning: stay for the morning.

“She can,” said the woodcarver, meaning: for one night. But when the tall girl asked the carver the question again, the next day, the woodcarver said, “She can stay, for as long as she wants to stay, so long as she is a neat and respectful guest.”

So the silvery girl lived at the woodcarver’s, not every day but many days; and the tall girl visited the silvery girl each night, before going back to her home, where her mother fed her and sent her off to her trade, which is to say, back to the woodcarver’s. 

The tall girl learned to eat cut-up raw fish, and the silvery girl to eat the same fish broiled. Good, each said, but not as good as what I’m used to. The tall girl introduced the silvery girl to ground cherries before she realized she no longer enjoyed them herself: they were shaped like tears, and like the past. The silvery girl taught the tall girl how to dig clams. And the silvery girl tried—but she did not like them at all—boots, and sandals, and shoes. 

Many nights the pair would return to the shore, so that the silvery girl could sing alongside her friends on the offshore rock and exchange melodious gossip in their language. The coppery girl would dance with the strength in her legs, and the tall girl could see the strength in her arms and wondered how it would feel if the coppery girl would lift her up in those arms, and the ruby girl would watch the stars and the moon. And the tall girl would sit with a smile as deep and broad as any smile you’ve ever seen, on the lowest patch of dry sand, simply listening.

Then summer arrived, and with it something awful: the emerald girl fell. One evening she simply fell. She toppled back into the shallows while she was singing, making a popping sound as she broke the surface of the waves. Two others, a bronze girl and the coppery girl, dragged her out and set her upright between them, but she toppled over again, and there was dark red on her green flank.

Something long and thin and shiny nearly hit the bronze girl. Then another thing of the same sort grazed her before gliding into the water, like a needle into muslin. 

The other glowing girls, seeing their danger, dove under the waves, one after another. Was the silvery girl among them? They dove so fast that the tall girl could not see for sure. 

The tall girl saw a boat with four women in leather, wearing ragged scarves, and two lean creatures—perhaps human, perhaps not—at the oars. Three boat-women knelt, one stood, and all but one held sharp things in their hands: harpoons, poised for a throw.

The tall girl ran until she could squat, concealed, beside a beach-rose bush in the dunes. Her heart beat so fast she thought it would lose its rhythm and she would fall dead from fear. Hour after hour the tall girl saw and heard nothing, till she fell asleep by the beach-rose bush.

When she woke, sand on her face and thorns in her skirts, the silvery girl stood over her, hard toes making circles in the white sand.

“You and I are safe,” the silvery girl said. “But my friends and my sisters, my playmates and singing partners who only live under the sea—when they come back they will not be safe.”

For a hard tenday both girls stayed on the land. But on the tenth night the silvery girl swam out to the rest of her friends. Not singing at all, for so many days in a row, would be not eating, not sleeping, not breathing the water or air.

For an hour the tall girl sat on the beach and listened. Fewer glowing girls sang together than before: there was no ruby girl, and no coppery girl, and of course no emerald girl. The harmonies were thinner, and not so full.

Then a small boat, a kayak, ran its prow up onto the offshore rock. In it sat a short woman in sewn-together scraps of tough weedcloth, like overlapping leaves. Her weedcloth ran all the way up to her face, for she wore a full mask in the Southeastern style. Her kayak’s paddle had a shape and a sharp edge like no paddle the tall girl had seen: blades, she realized.   

The marauders’ boat came. But the masked woman was ready. The first harpoon she turned aside with the flat of her paddle, and when the second harpooner came close enough the masked woman knocked her on the head, so that her harpoon fell harmlessly in the water. The battle went fast: the women in the harpooner’s boats would approach, and the masked woman would knock them sideways into the water, or parry them when they used their harpoons like spears, until the marauders retreated in their oared boat.

The next evening went the same way, with fewer voices singing the same songs, but the silvery girl—she said she had no choice—still sang among them. 

On the third evening the night was calm, with no mists and half a moon. The harpooners came with two boats, and the tall girl, at the oval rock on the shore, trembled.

Then the masked woman’s kayak emerged from between the harpooners’ boats, and shifting back and forth to keep herself upright, the masked woman clouted harpooners in the head, one after another, with her bladed paddle, until they had no one to guide their boat. The hairy figures at their oars stopped rowing.

The other boat turned to face the masked woman, and one of the women in that larger boat lifted up her own harpoon.

But the masked woman in her kayak drew alongside that other boat and swung her paddle sideways, and the boat lurched, and the pilot with her harpoon nearly fell, but tilted herself to grip the wale of her boat.

Then the masked woman used her paddle like an axe, to make a rift in the side of the harpooners’ boat, so that it took on water and lurched to one side. The harpooners cast overboard their weapons and made for the other side of the boat as it overturned, and they clung to the hull of the upside-down boat as it drifted to the edge of the bay.

Then the masked woman in her kayak rowed away until she had reached, once again, the glowing girls, and sat among them, and heard their song. She looked, the tall girl thought, not just strong and confident—and shorter than other girls—but also familiar . . .

That night the tall girl woke distraught. “You could have been killed! You all could have been killed!” the tall girl said to the silvery girl, who held her in long, smooth arms.

“I must sing,” the silvery girl said. “Telling me not to sing with my sisters would be like—would be like—telling me I could not be here with you.”

The tall girl shook her head, meaning neither yes nor no but something like “I understand,” and she stood up to bring her friend cracked dulse, and dried anchovies, and snail paste, and her own morning tea.

The tall girl asked her mother about the marauders. “They come from beyond the bay,” her mother exclaimed, “for living trophies. Their nation hunts magical creatures for sport. They have not been seen here since before you were born.” Her mother added that the glowing girls were also, themselves, a danger: they would entice you into the sea. So the tall girl stopped asking her mother.

That night the tall girl saw the marauders’ boat first: she saw it on land, where the harpooners had beached it, leaving their rowers inside their boat. The rowers were creatures very far from human, with dense fur and round sticking-up ears, like overgrown otters, or small, elongated bears. (The silvery girl was already offshore with her friends.)

Down the beach from the tall girl, and from their boat, the harpooners stood at the high tide line, facing the bay: they carried not only their sharp weapons, but also nets.

The tall girl had no idea what she could do. She had only her carving tool and her own two legs, long but not strong. If she ran up and tackled the harpooners they would surely catch her and break her neck. She began to stand up. She meant to shout, so that someone might come and do something. But what?

Before the words could leave the tall girl’s throat, the masked woman in her weedcloth emerged from the sea, arms and legs moving as if she had just been swimming, changing her swim-strokes into a run. She head-butted one woman who held a net, until they both went down into the sand. Then the net carrier grabbed the masked woman’s hair, ear, mask—

Before she knew she would do it, the tall girl was out on the open sand, tackling the harpooner, for the sake of the silvery girl. And then another harpooner was on them both, separating the tall girl from her comrade, and the masked woman’s mask was off, and her cloak of weedcloth off both her shoulders, and her coppery skin shone between her spines and fins.

And then the coppery woman, strong but not strong enough, lay on the sand, on her back, her fins flat, with a harpooner pinning her down. 

From behind a great stand of swordgrass the tall girl heard a familiar voice. “Knee to chest! then heel to hip!” And the coppery woman leaned up from the sand and put a knee into her captor’s chest, and then a foot into her hip, and she rose as her would-be captor fell.

“I thought you were—” the tall girl made out, but she never finished the sentence, because the other marauders were upon her.

The coppery woman kicked at one of them, with her sharp feet that were not quite feet—they ended in spines, like the spines of lionfish. Then all the women from the harpooners’ boat fell to the ground, one after another, struck in the chest or between the shoulder blades by arrows. The tall girl had not seen arrows for almost a year. 

There were no harpooners left standing. 

The coppery woman, her mask still down, used her strong arms to load her would-be captors into the boat, where the otter-bears waited. Then she spoke to the otter-bears in another language, and the otter-bears belched and nodded, and pushed their boat into the water, and rowed away.

And then, from behind the swordgrass, the tan girl came. She looked taller and stronger, and her hair had grown darker and straighter. “You learned it all!” the tan girl said to the coppery woman, who rustled her gold-and-white spines, which were like the spines of lionfish.

The tan girl began to turn toward the tall girl, and the beach-rose bush, and toward the path to the village. Then the silvery girl emerged, covered in foam.

“You saved us,” she said to the coppery woman’s face, and she shook droplets off her wet hands and her hair. 

Then the silvery girl, her gills shaking, saw the tan girl. “Who are you?” she asked.

“I’m no one,” said the tan girl, and she turned her back to return behind the swordgrass, and then started to run away. 

But the tall girl chased her. She was bad at chasing. “This isn’t fair,” the tall girl shouted after a dozen yards. “I can’t keep up with you.” For the tall girl, though her legs were longer, had barely any practice running: she spent her time carving, and cooking, and talking, and listening, and in bed with the silvery girl. “Don’t—huff—don’t go away again.”

The tan girl put her arm out against a low pine tree, and she stopped running, and she turned around. “Where have you been?” the tall girl asked, huffing and bending to catch her breath, and leaning her own arm on the same low pine.

“I had so much anger in me that I had to learn to fight, and to fight for good cause,” the tan girl said. “I learned of the trophy hunters and I wanted to defend the glowing girls, even before—before I saw you with one of them. But I knew that I could not live under the water, and I could not defend them forever. So I found the strongest one of them, and I became a teacher. And we created the mask so that there would always be one, to scare the trophy hunters away, even if our coppery friend with the strong arms grew tired, or hurt, or moved far away. That is all you need to know. And now I will go.”

“I want to know everything,” said the tall girl. “I miss you every day. Why would you go?”

“I miss you every day,” said the tan girl. “But you have taken up with a girl from the bay. A girl who sings, and shines. You have—” The tan girl looked at the pebbled ground, then, and no longer at the tall girl, and she blinked and blinked so she would not cry—“you have found another.”

“I found her,” said the silvery girl, who had come up to them near-silently from the shore. The silvery girl put her flat hand, with its long fingers, almost like another fin, on the hip of the tall girl, and reached out with her other hand to the tan girl, who winced and moved slightly away. “I think you are nearly crying,” the silvery girl said. “Why are you crying?”

“Because,” the tan girl said, “she has found another.” And the tan girl waved at the tall girl who once shared evenings and mornings with her alone. “So I will go away again.”

“Perhaps in the towns beyond the sea,” said the silvery girl, “only two can stay together at one time. Perhaps that is true in this village.” And the silvery girl looked around at the swordgrass and beach roses, and at both the girls with no fins and no scales. “But under the waves it has never been true. It makes no sense to me.”

“It makes no sense to me either,” the tall girl said slowly, fingering a grass-stem. “It never made sense to me.”

“You and your masks and your fight lessons taught my friend,” the silvery girl added, “to do what I could not, and what you could not. I know that you can do, for my land friend, what I could not. But I . . . I can do what you could not.” And she looked at one human girl, and then at the other, and waited for either girl to speak.

And the tan girl, who grew up in the village and lived in the towns and had never lived under the waves, nor kissed a girl who had, looked back and forth between the other two. “What would I do if I stayed here?”

“You would live with us, at least for now,” the silvery girl nodded. “You would sleep in our room, at the carver’s, if you wished, and you would teach my sisters to defend themselves, for when you go away again. Not just one of my sisters, in a weedcloth mask, but all who chose to learn.”

“I would like that,” said the tall girl. And she bent down, below the swordgrass, and found a bush of ground cherries, and shook the bush into her hand until she had a handful of husks, and she offered some to the tan girl, and some to the silvery girl, and took the last few for herself.

Then the tan girl approached the tall girl, and the two held hands, and the silvery girl took her friend’s other hand, and all three walked the path back to the village.


Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. Her most recent book of poems is We Are Mermaids (Graywolf, 2022); her essays, poems, and book reviews have appeared in American Literary History, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, Rain Taxi, and other journals in the U.S. and abroad. Her podcast is Team-Up Moves.

Mara Hampson is a queer artist living in the Boston area. They dabble in various mediums, such as podcasting, polymer clay, and watercolors. This is their first publishing credit.