The tide is coming in. The light is creeping through the heavy layer of clouds; it is dry, still, but for the sea mist that shrouds the beach in an ethereal purple shimmer. Amber is pulling her brother along impatiently by the hand. She is leading him over the expanse of rocks that separate land from sea, the stones jagged and sharp, the barnacles pricking at her feet through the soles of her red summer sandals.
“Come on Toby,” she shouts into the wind.
Her voice is carried away to sea.
They clamber over the last of the rocks and reach the wide stretch of sand, soggy already under their feet. The small impressions left by their shoes fill quickly with water as they step one foot after another, stomping on the squirmy black holes that the sand worms make.
Amber walks along the front, looking for the right place. She avoids the seaweed and the waterlogged branches that mark high tide, and as she walks she scans the ground for dead birds. She has seen them on the beach before and knows to look out for their feathers as warning signs. Feathers just like the ones that she collected when she was younger, before she realised what their presence really meant – before she realised that they came from the rotting birds, when she had stroked them against her face because they were soft on her skin.
Eventually she finds the perfect spot. Straight ahead, Ireland’s Eye rises out of the sea mist like a dreamland, circled by a haze of gulls. Their cries are distant, yet shrill.
“Wait here,” she instructs her brother. “I’m going over there,” she points further along the beach, “And then I’ll come galloping up to you on a white steed. Okay?”
Toby pulls his hand away from hers and picks up a stick that has been left by the last tide. His face is still as round as it was when he was a baby, and in the middle of it his lips are pressed into a pout. Amber runs along the sea towards Howth. The curve of the harbour is visible through the mist but it looks subdued, its hazy outline the blue-grey of distant countries.
When she looks back she sees her brother prodding at something with his stick. His shorts are puffing out as the wind fills them, and the sailor shirt that he has been insisting on wearing all summer is grubby and still not grown-into. Amber thinks he has probably found a jellyfish. Sometimes there are hundreds of them washed up with the tide, stranded on the beach in rippling lumps that wobble if you prod them. Amber doesn’t like the jellyfish. She straightens her pinafore and pulls her hair out of the elastic band that her mother tied it in that morning, ripping a few strands of hair out with it. It pinches at her scalp. Once free, she shakes her hair out to flow down her shoulders, and begins to gallop, on foot, towards her brother.
Toby does not look up when he hears her coming.
“What is your name, hunter?” Asks Amber in the serene voice of royalty, shaking her head from side to side so her hair blows about in the wind.
She hits him on the arm, hard.
They glare at each other.
Amber tosses her hair over her shoulder.
“What is your name, hunter?” she tries again, her voice louder and a touch less graceful than it was before.
“Oisin,” Toby mumbles, still prodding his stick at the ground.
Amber looks down.
There are no Jellyfish today. All he’s doing is poking a stick into the sand. It is pointless. Sometimes she feels that her brother has no imagination at all. His school report said: Grasping basic mathematics. Amber’s school report said: Amber has imagination.
“I am Niamh of the Golden Hair,” she says.
All along the shore, green-black seaweed has been deposited by the tide and is being picked up again as the sea lurches its way back over the sand. Tendrils are floating like matted curls of hair on the surface of the water and the occasional clump, half-buried under sand or stone, is trying to resist the pull of the tide. Behind Toby, an old shopping bag that has been dumped on the beach is being lifted and dropped by the lapping waves.
“Do you see how my dress is studded with stars?” she prompts him, although she knows that he already knows how the story is meant to go.
Toby is looking behind now, at the bag. It is a cheap plastic shopping bag with bold lettering that Amber can’t read. Each time the tide laps at the beach it’s almost carried away on the waves, but at the last minute it is deposited again on the tide line, along with the more stubborn seaweed and driftwood. It looks as though it doesn’t want to float, as though it’s anchored there, somehow, on their beach.
Toby starts towards it, his tennis shoes sinking into the sand where he walks, the sea licking hungrily at his ankles.
“Oisin,” Amber stamps. “You have to notice me.”
He does not appear to notice her.
Amber sighs loudly. Her brother is so annoying. Look at him now, waddling towards that stupid bag when he promised yesterday – swore, in fact – that today they’d play her game. Him and his podgy round-face.
Toby doesn’t turn. He is standing over the bag, his ankles disappearing under the sea.
Amber begins walking towards him, and he turns around and looks at her without moving the rest of his body, as if his feet are rooted under the sea. The waves are splashing up onto his bare legs. His mouth is open. Amber’s hair blows into her eyes, stinging with salt. She starts running towards him.
“What is it? Toby. What?”
There is something in the bag. She can see by the way it is half submerged. A deep coloured liquid is flowing out, staining the sea around it and spreading out like an oil slick. Toby takes a step back. He doesn’t take his eyes off it. The tide is carrying it towards him, the flow of the waves diluting the colour. He takes another step back.
“Give me the stick,” Amber says, taking it from him and reaching out to the bag, now more than an arms length away.
She takes a step forwards.
Concentrating hard on keeping her footing, she manages to hook the stick between the tied handles and lift the bag out of the water. She has to use both hands. It is heavy, all filled up with seawater. She stumbles and drops the bag onto the sand beyond the tide’s reach. It falls to its side and murky water slips out, carrying with it the sharp tip of a feather that juts out from the top of the bag to poke into the sand.
“Go and get mum,” Amber says. “I’ll watch it.”
Toby doesn’t move.
“Go and get mum,” she says again.
“I’m staying with you.”
The tide keeps coming in, the waves lashing angrily in the rising wind even as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. As if the colours have been turned on for the first time that day, the sand by their feet turns from grey to golden, and the blood-stain around the bag’s opening turns from brown to a raw, angry red. They both stare at it. Neither speaks. Above them seagulls are circling, their squawks rising above the crash and wane of the tide. Amber takes a step towards the bag, holding the stick in front of her like a weapon, as though it were possible the contents of the bag might yet leap out and attack them.
“Stop it,” Toby pleads.
Amber can’t stop. She reaches the stick into the opening of the bag.
A gust of wind, and another slosh of liquid gurgles out. Amber takes hold of Toby’s wrist and steps closer, pulling him with her. She understands that they have to see. She leans down and peers inside the bag to look at the dead thing inside.
Once, they were white feathers. Once, clean and soft. Now they are stained red and soaked in the brown of blood and dirty salt water. There is bone too, maybe once a bird’s head, crushed and broken, and seaweed that is the dark green of disease and a blue milk-bottle top, scooped up from the sea.
Amber looks up and sees that Toby is running away.
She watches him running until he is nothing more than a coloured speck on an empty beach, and then she drops her stick and runs after him.