DP FICTION #112B: “Hold the Sea Inside” by Erin Keating

edited by Chelle Parker

Content note (click for details) Content note: This story contains references to intimate partner violence and alcohol abuse.

Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals. The menfolk say it’s devilry to find salt water so far from the shore, but we know better. It’s no devil’s work but woman’s grief.

Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. From that distance, the rush of water is mistaken for a woman’s voice echoing through the hills, laughing and wailing in turn.


Once, Maribel knew no mountains. She knew only the ocean, rising to meet the cobbles before her father’s house, and then her husband’s. Maribel would open salt-streaked windows to feel the sea breeze, listen to the fishmongers hawk their wares, and pray to the waves.

Maribel would pray, “Please let today’s catch be good.”

The sea would reply, More, more, more, and her husband’s net would be the heaviest of his crew.

Maribel would pray, “Please let his ship be delayed.”

The sea would reply, Cease, cease, cease, and her husband’s ship would creak late into port against an unfriendly tide and a windless night.

Maribel would pray, “Please let him return home tired.”

The sea would reply, Sleep, sleep, sleep, and her husband would crawl to bed without so much as a glance at her.

The sea was a god to her, ever-present, holding her fate in its grabbing hands. She worshipped it, and it cared for her like no one ever had.

But then there was an accident, an accusation, a falling out. Her husband refused to speak of it. Instead, he said he tired of the sea, and they were moving inland. When Maribel took her last look over the waves, she prayed to the hungry tides that swallowed the land mouthful by mouthful.

“Keep me here. Let the undercurrent hold me fast.”

Her husband told her to hurry up, his hand heavy on the back of her neck. Even though the sea was right there, urging her to stay, stay, stay, Maribel left.


Maribel no longer cleaned salt-streaked windows. Now, they were streaked with silt and smoke. Her husband, who had once known the expanse of the open ocean, had become an iron miner in tunnels too narrow for his body. He came home after the last bell, stooped and wheezing. The sea breezes and fishmongers were memories; now, the only tides were of men shuffling to and from the mines.

She still prayed to the sea, though she was too distant now for it to answer. Its voice had followed her only so far west. Through the tidal basin, the humid air droning with dragonflies, the sea had demanded stay, stay, stay, in a voice like an incoming storm. Through the golden farmlands reeking of wet grass and manure, the sea had urged stay, stay, stay, in a voice like a sly current tugging at her ankles. Then they had reached the mountains, and the sea had punished her with its silence.

Maribel longed to cry for all she had lost, if only to feel the familiar sting of salt on her cheeks. But something in her had withered in her time among the silt and smoke. She couldn’t spare a single tear.


One night, when the first crocuses cracked through frozen earth, Maribel heard the sea again. It seeped into her dreams, buoying her to the surface of sleep.

Rise, rise, rise, it whispered.

Maribel rose groggily.

Look, look, look, it whispered.

Maribel went to the window.

In the utter darkness, lights bobbed in the distance. For a moment, she thought she was back in the salt-streaked house, watching ships blinking like stars on the horizon. But then acrid ash bit her tongue, and she was in that godforsaken mining town, looking out over the hills.

“It’s just like it was,” Maribel whispered.

Was, was, was, the sea echoed.

The lights drew closer and closer, until a gray dawn revealed they were not ships at all—but a circus.

The performers carried spring with them. Lavender and rose tents sprouted like fresh blooms, lanterns strung between them like fireflies. A moss-green banner proclaimed, “Phineas Fisk’s Fantasies and Phantasmagoria.” After months of bare trees, gray sky, and pale smoke, Maribel was nearly drunk on the colors alone.

The first night of the circus, Maribel wandered from her husband, who cared more for the beer than for the miracles hidden behind each tent flap: the fortune teller with her hunched shoulders shrouded in layers of gauzy silk, the contortionist who combed her long red hair with her toes, the scar-faced man who swallowed swords and fire.

Then, from outside one of the tents, rose a voice like rain.

“Ladies and gentlemen, come see the pearl of my collection. I, Phineas Fisk himself, bring you a wonder from the sea’s dark depths!”

A crowd gathered, surging like the tide. Maribel let herself get swept up in it, bobbing along in the current.

“Beware, faint of heart—this creature will seduce men and women alike to drag them down to watery graves. Please form a line—nice and orderly now. Have your admission fee ready.”

Phineas Fisk held out his gloved hand to collect Maribel’s money as she filed inside.

All of the noise from the circus ceased. Maribel was bathed in a pale green darkness. The air smelled vaguely of fish and brine. At the center of the tent, a boxy shape hid beneath a burlap cloth. A strongman stood beside it, keeping the crowd at bay.

Phineas Fisk swept into the tent, crushed-velvet coattails flapping behind him. “Ladies and gentlemen. I hope you are prepared for what you are about to see. You lucky few, who may look on this wonder and yet live to tell of it.” He stood beside the strongman, his fingers grazing the burlap. Maribel found herself holding her breath as she did in the moments before a storm.

“Behold, the mermaid,” he declared.

He whisked away the cloth.

A hurricane swept through Maribel’s chest as she strained to see. Before them stood a glass tank filled with murky green water—and something swimming.

Long silver tail. Feathery dorsal fin. Scaled skin, translucent as sea glass. Strands of kelp for hair.

And that face. Her face.

The creature in the tank pressed its webbed fingers to the glass. The sea roared in Maribel’s head, too loud to make out the words.

It was her. It was Maribel in that tank, if she had a tail instead of legs, if she had gills instead of lungs. If she had been born of the sea.

She pushed through the crowd like a storm surge. She needed to see; she needed to know. Maribel pressed her fingers to the glass, but the creature darted back into the murky swirl.

“Step back, ma’am.” The strongman braced his thick arm between Maribel and the tank.

And then Maribel was herself again. The face she saw was a reflection of her own in the glass.

But she had heard the sea, as loud as if she’d been standing with her feet in the coarse sand, letting the foam spray against her shins.

She had heard it, and it brought her home.


The second night of the circus, Maribel was the first person in line to see the mermaid. Clouds of dark dust streaked through the air, dimming the lights that bounced between the tents. Phineas Fisk wore the same crushed-velvet coattails and greedy gloves.

As soon as she was inside the tent, Maribel took a deep breath of the briny damp. She settled on a bench across from the burlap-covered tank, her eyes adjusting to the pale green light. Already, she could hear the sea, a low groan that she could understand if she tried hard enough.

You, you, you, it said. Maribel sighed—it remembered.

While Phineas Fisk pontificated about the perils of the mermaid, Maribel whispered under her breath, “What do you want me to do?”

Phineas Fisk whisked away the burlap cloth, and there was the mermaid again. Silver fins flicked through the swirling green water.

The sea replied, drowning out the awed gasps of the crowd, the tinny din of the circus, the constant grumble of the mines.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel glimpsed a face in the tank—her own, but not quite. Her face, but with urchin-black eyes. Her face, but with an extra row of teeth.

“I’ve missed you,” Maribel murmured, as quietly as she could.

The sea repeated, Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

A lump hardened in Maribel’s throat, too parched to swallow it down. She squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could press tears from them. No matter how much she willed it, not a single drop spilled down her dust-caked cheeks.

Instead, Maribel whispered, “I will do whatever you need. I will do whatever you want.”

Phineas Fisk leaned over from his place beside the tank. “Pardon, madam, are you quite well?”

“Quite,” Maribel said.

The sea whispered around her, its voice curling like inky tentacles over her skin. The mermaid swam before her, that other-self smiling with its many teeth.

Maribel could not recall a time she had been better.


On the circus’s final night, Maribel donned her nicest dress, one she hadn’t worn since they had arrived in the dust and silt. It shone a sea green, and among the grays and browns of her clapboard house, the color was almost too bright to look at.

“Where are you going?” her husband slurred. He rose from the table, the tension in the filmy air rippling around him.

Maribel didn’t dare respond. Both to answer and to ignore would provoke their own distinct angers. Outside, the night promised her shadows and smoke, and a chance to slip away unharmed.

“To the circus again, to spend my money?” her husband accused. But he fell to wheezing. Sharp breaths rattled in his chest, stuffed with silt. Already stooped, he doubled over on himself, smaller and smaller until Maribel thought he might disappear. He gasped, the hands that had been reaching for her now clawing at his own chest.

Maribel ran without stopping for her shoes.


At the mermaid’s tent, Phineas Fisk looked her up and down—her too-nice dress, her too-bare feet. He closed his gloved hand to her. “Perhaps you should see our other marvels this evening.”

Maribel held up twice the admission fee. Phineas Fisk’s thin eyebrows arched. She held up thrice the admission fee.

Finally, that gloved hand unclenched, and she placed the money firmly in it.

“Enjoy,” Phineas Fisk crooned in his voice like rain.

Maribel sagged into the first bench like a lifeless sail. The damp air of the tent soothed her burning lungs and cracked cheeks that had not known a single tear since she had left her home by the sea.

You, you, you, the sea greeted her.

“Me, me, me,” Maribel answered in kind.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home, the sea demanded.

“Soon, soon, soon,” she promised. As she had tossed sleeplessly the night before, as she had cleaned the dirt and silt from her windows, her thoughts had been consumed by nothing but how she would free the sea.

Phineas Fisk stood before the crowd. By now, Maribel had memorized his monologue. When he whisked away the burlap with that dramatic flair, a hurricane no longer swept through Maribel’s chest. Instead, there were only calm waters. The mermaid pressed her webbed hands to the glass before darting away. Maribel marveled at how like her own hands they were, too small to keep her safe.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home. The sea’s voice was so close now, its gentle breeze tickled the back of her neck. The smell of salt pressed closer.

And Maribel wondered what she could do.


Maribel stayed until rosy dawn shone through the tent’s pale green light. Peanut shells littered the packed earth floor, and the first warm breeze of spring swept under the canvas. All was silent, save for the shush of the water.

A gloved hand came down on Maribel’s shoulder. “It’s time for you to go home,” Phineas Fisk said.

But what did Phineas Fisk know of her home? Surely he didn’t mean for her to return to her clapboard house, with her husband stooped and wheezing, with smoke and dust burning her throat with every breath. Home was salt-streaked windows, fishmongers, and a sea breeze. Home was the pale green light of this tent.

The sea roared in her head, tossing her thoughts like a gyre.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

“Please, a few more minutes.” She needed more time. She did not know yet how she would save the sea from the glass tank that held it. After all it had done for her, she could not abandon it now.

“Have you fallen in love with her?”


And it was true, Maribel was not in love with the mermaid. She was the mermaid. She had left her soul with the sea, and it had returned to her in the form of this creature. She would not be parted from it again.

“Have you looked at it closely?” Phineas Fisk asked. “Tell me what you see.”

The sea echoed, See, see, see.

Maribel crossed the packed earth floor, feeling the warmth of sand beneath her bare feet. The early light rippled like the surface of the ocean.

Maribel stood so close that her breath fogged the tank glass. When the fog cleared, the mermaid blinked up at her, eyes black as the depths of Maribel’s beloved sea. Her pale lips parted in a jagged-toothed smile as though she too had been waiting.

The mermaid placed her fingers against the glass walls. Maribel mirrored the gesture, the cold glass sweating condensation between them. She pressed harder, as though the glass would give way, and she would find herself in the water.

“Bring me home, home, home.” Maribel whispered the words of waves and wind to the only being who shared her grief. The mermaid murmured them back.

“Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home,” Maribel pleaded.

The mermaid pushed herself up, breaking the surface to rest her forehead against Maribel’s.

Undulating waves rushed through Maribel’s ears. She tangled her fingers in the mermaid’s kelp hair, whispering her prayers against the mermaid’s jagged mouth.

The mermaid’s wet, scaly skin felt like the damp sand of home. Maribel gulped down the mermaid’s salty, fishy breath like a drowning woman come up for air. She was the sea, as ever-changing and unknowable. Maribel wanted to be wrapped in those arms and pulled down, down, down.

“That’s enough,” a voice like rain cautioned.

Maribel froze, one leg draped guiltily over the edge of the tank. The mermaid recoiled, pressing herself against the glass opposite Phineas Fisk. His gloved hand wrapped around Maribel’s bicep. Maribel flinched from the too-familiar gesture.

“I can’t have you drowning on me. They’d run us out of town.”

Drowning. Was that what was happening? The pull of the sea, the shiver of salt around her ankle. If that was drowning, Maribel would drown.

“Let us go, go, go,” Maribel begged.

“People will believe anything, you know, with a good story and poor lighting.” Maribel struggled against him, but Phineas Fisk tightened his grip. “There is no mermaid, only circus magic. You’re trying to drown yourself in a tank of seaweed and fish bones. This is not real.”

No. The mountains were not real. The smoke and the mines were not real. Her husband’s heavy hands and stale-beer mouth were not real. But the sea—the sea was the only real thing Maribel had ever known.

“You lie, lie, lie,” Maribel demanded.

“Look!” Phineas Fisk boomed, his rain voice becoming a storm.

Look, look, look, the sea echoed, gentle as a lover.

Maribel looked. The mermaid’s sea-glass tail flicked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“The show is over. I will have someone walk you home.”

Home—this was home. The swish of the mermaid’s tail and the rush of the sea in her head made demands that grew louder, louder, louder, until Maribel’s thoughts were the same as theirs.

Bring, bring, bring, me, me, me, home, home, home.

Maribel leapt into the tank.

She landed hard against the glass bottom, against sharp fishbones and tangled seaweed. Phineas Fisk’s muted cries gurgled from above the water. Maribel opened her mouth to pray to the sea.

Bring me home.

The salt water rushed down her throat. It said, Welcome home.

The water filled her up, quenching her parched lungs and skin. Maribel wept then, like she had been unable to weep for months. She held the sea inside her, an ocean of unshed tears. She let them go now in a torrent, until the tank overflowed with it. She gave herself to the water, drop by drop.

Just as the tides swallowed the shore, mouthful by mouthful, the salt water consumed Maribel.

Her dust-caked cheeks rippled beneath her touch. Her hands, too small to ever hit back, became tiny columns of sea spray. Her body, far from home, pressed hard against the glass.

Maribel became the sea in the shape of a woman. She pressed harder and harder against the glass, letting out the sea that she had held in her chest all this time.

The tank shattered.

Everywhere was glass and water, light and canvas, and Maribel took it all for herself. She would take it all home, wash the mountainside clean.

Phineas Fisk staggered back, desperately reaching for the tent flap. The pockets of his crushed-velvet coat bulged. Maribel hated him for what he’d done—for taking the sea and selling tickets to see it. The sea did not belong to him. The sea did not belong to anyone. And neither did Maribel.

Maribel surged, sweeping away Phineas Fisk and his crushed-velvet coattails, the lavender and rose tents, the lights like fireflies. Maribel swept away clapboard houses, and the dust and silt, and her husband stooped and wheezing. She swept away everything that wasn’t real, until there was only the sea.

When the sea whispered to Maribel, it spoke in her own voice.

Home, home, home, she urged.

And so Maribel went home, felling ancient trees. Maribel went home, dragging a tide of mud in her wake. Maribel went home, laughing, as she spilled over the cliff’s edge.


Among the crags of the mountains weeps a cascade of salt water. In the pool beneath, stiff-peaked foam drowns careless men and sickens parched animals.
Standing on the stony peaks across the valley, the falls look like a woman: her head tipped back, hair spilling over her shoulders, skirt swirling around her legs. When the first crocuses crack through the frozen earth and the first warm breeze of spring rustles the treetops, lonely folks listen for a woman’s voice, laughing, wailing, calling them home, home, home.

© 2024 by Erin Keating

3188 words

Author’s Note: I’ve been working on a series of fairytale-esque stories set in the same fictional mountain town, where each story is centered around a different landmark: a ravine, an abandoned house, a heather bald, etc. I saw a photo of a waterfall shaped like a bride and knew that I wanted that to be a landmark that opened and closed one of the stories. This story went through a few complete rewrites—in the earliest versions, Maribel’s husband captured a mermaid and started a traveling freak show—before finally arriving at the more psychological version that it is today. However, that central image of a woman turning into a waterfall never changed.

Erin Keating earned her B.A. in creative writing and literature at Roanoke College and her M.A. in history at Drew University, mostly so she could continue to surround herself with old books. She currently works as a grant writer at an arts education nonprofit. When she isn’t reading or writing, she is rock climbing, playing video games, or learning bass guitar. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Wyngraf, Tales to Terrify, and Cosmic Horror Monthly. Find her online at erinkeatingwrites.com or on Twitter @KeatingNotKeats.

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Diabolical Plots Lineup Announcement! (from July 2023 Window)

written by David Steffen

Hello! I am here to announce the original stories that were chosen from the general submission window that ran in July 2023.

First, some stats:
# of Stories Submitted: 1451
# Rejected (First Round): 1350
# Rejected (Final Round): 40
# Withdrawn: 32
# Disqualified: 2
# Rewrite Requests: 2
# Accepted: 25

This is not quite the most submissions we have ever received in a window (that was 1938 in January 2021), but it is the most authors we’ve received submissions from and the most submissions we’ve received since we reduced the number of allowed submissions per author from 2 to only 1.

This window did take longer than we usually like them to take to fully resolve–a little over 3 months after the end of submission window. I think we should ask for some additional volunteers to join the first reader team–we haven’t done a volunteer run for a few years and as people get busy some of them step down or scale back so we’ll probably need to build the group back up again periodically.

For this submission window we welcomed two new assistant editors: Chelle Parker and Hal Y. Zhang, who helped resolve submissions and helped make the final selections listed below. They join the assistant editor team of Ziv Wities and Kel Coleman.

This window marked a few changes:

1. This is the first window we’ve run since generative “AI” was available enough that people were routinely using it to write fiction. In response the guidelines were updated to ask writers not to submit fiction written using it, the submission form asked writers to affirm that they did not use these programs in writing their work, and for writers who received acceptances the contract required them to state that as well.
2. We had previously had a “Withdraw” status in the system, but the status could only be set by the editor so the writer would have to email the editors to ask to have it withdrawn. In this window we added the ability to “self-serve” a withdrawal. This was added partway through the window so not everyone saw it. When the confirmation email gets sent it includes a withdrawal link that the author can use to withdraw on their own without needing to contact the editor.
3. We added a “Rewrite Request” functionality in the last few days. We occasionally did rewrite requests before but they were done completely apart from the system by email. Now rewrite requests are supported in the system with an official status. When the email is sent for the rewrite request, it copies the requesting editor and assistant editor so the writer can reply to ask questions or discuss. It also provides the author with a one-time link they can use to submit the rewrite. This link can be used even when there is no open window. If a writer submits during an open window the rewrite using this link doesn’t count against their submission limit for the window.

We accepted 25 stories from this general submission window (one of which we announced separately and already published due to time constraints)

These stories will all be published in 2023-2024; I look forward to sharing them with you!

And here is the list, in alphabetical order by author name:

The Lineup

Level One: Blowtorch
by Jared Oliver Adams

St. Thomas Aquinas Administers the Turing Test
by Mary Berman

The Offer of Peace Between Two Worlds
by Renan Bernardo

The Lighthouse Keeper
by Melinda Brasher

It Clings
by Hammond Diehl

Ten Easy Steps To Destroying Your Enemies This Arbor Day
by Rachael K. Jones

Hold the Sea Inside
by Erin Keating

Batter and Pearl
by Steph Kwiatkowski

The Gaunt Strikes Again
by Rich Larson

Six-Month Assessment of Miracle-Fresh
by Anne Liberton

Phantom Heart
by Charlie B. Lorch

A Descending Arctic Excavation of Us
by Sara S. Messenger

Song for a Star-Whale’s Ghost
by Devin Miller

Eternal Recurrence
by Spencer Nitkey

Letters From Mt. Monroe Elementary, Third Grade
by Sarah Pauling

The Geist and/in/as the Boltzmann Brain
by M. J. Pettit

In Tandem
by Emilee Prado

Bone Talker, Bone Eater
by D. S. Ravenhurst

Dreamwright Street
by Mike Reeves-McMillan

This Week in Clinical Dance: Urgent Care at the Hastings Center
by Lauren Ring

by Gillian Secord

How to Kill the Giant Living Brain You Found In Your Mother’s Basement After She Died
by Alex Sobel

They Are Dancing
by John Stadelman

In the Shelter of Ghosts (already posted at the time this announcement is posted)
by Risa Wolf

by Mason Yeater