What to Ask a Sea Witch – Marina Cooper

If it weren’t for the rack of King Arthur keychains, and the pyramid of mugs with the faces of actors from that doctor show Mom and Cat watched, the Tintagel corner shop would have perfectly fit Lila’s vision of a village witch’s café. She couldn’t believe they’d gone practically the whole week without coming in here. In addition to grocery items, there were big rectangular tables at which you could sit and order a meal, and the rough wooden floors and dried heather hanging from the rafters added to the air of magic. Still, the charm was beginning to dull the longer Lila had to wait. Apparently the cashier knew the owners of the rental house they were staying in and wanted to know all about how vacation was going — the house, the weather, the beach, the restaurants. Mom could talk to people forever.

Cat had been smart enough to download her podcast episode before they left the rental house and its bubble of free Wi-Fi. Endless shopping lines, long car rides — they could all be tolerated with the help of NPR’s “Planet Money” or the “Asian Boss Girl” squad.

Lila had neglected to think so far ahead, so she occupied herself by examining one of the keychains — a knight on horseback. She’d been excited for Cornwall because she liked BBC’s Merlin and Tintagel was known for its connection to the Arthurian legends. But once they had arrived, she discovered its beauty outshone even its history. Crisp sea air, luscious hills, a vast, temperamental ocean — it was nothing at all like the ticks and mosquitos of the woods at home. When they went on walks along the well-trod dirt path on the cliffs, when the wind blew her hair back and she could hear the waves crashing below, Lila felt like a heroine on the brink of a great adventure. She’d had a sudden yearning for horse riding lessons, if only so she could gallop across the verdant fields, silhouetted against the sunrise, cloak rippling behind her in the wind. Or maybe she would use her birthday money to buy a suit of armor — or at least a helmet — so she could close her eyes and pretend she was leading an army to victory.

Who was she kidding? It would take her sixty years to save up enough birthday money for something like that, and her family didn’t even do birthday money for grownups. The knight keychain would be more realistic, except that Lila didn’t have any keys.

She glanced back at the counter where Mom was still talking to the cashier (named Flora, according to her apron). Doing the crossword at home with Dad was sounding better and better.

Today was July 28, and Lila’s family had two days left in Tintagel. Two more days of relative equality before Cat took over the show. Once back in the States, Lila would only have eighteen hours at home before being whisked along on Cat’s college tours: Trinity, Brown, Wellesley, Smith, Tufts, Harvard, and Northeastern all in under one week. Mom and Dad said they wouldn’t let Lila stay home alone.

Lila looked at the tag on the keychain and saw that it was, disappointingly, made in China and worth four pounds. She unlocked her phone, remembered it was useless without cellular data, and put it back in her pocket. She picked up one of the mugs and looked at the label. She unlocked her phone again out of habit.

Finally, since no one was eating lunch, Lila pulled out a chair and sat down. From this new vantage she now noticed the bulletin board by the door, to the left of the Cornwall mug pyramid. Though there were glossy, bright papers tacked to it — tourist brochures and a flower competition announcement — what drew Lila’s eye was the picture of the boy.

He had floppy dark hair and vampiric-pale skin, though that might have been an effect of sun fade or cheap printer ink. Something about his face was sort of dorky, like he might be one of those kids who read comics and listened to indie music through over-the-ear headphones. He also looked like the protagonist of the fantasy adventure novels Lila had liked before Cat tore them apart for their lack of diversity. Sad-eyed, round faced, innocent without being babyish. 

Missing. Have you seen this boy? Ross Carne. 13. Last seen by cliffs in Treligga on July 19.

Although Lila had once read a book in school called The Face on the Milk Carton, she had never encountered any missing persons notices in her everyday life aside from the odd amber alert. Nor did her family buy milk cartons with faces on them, if that was even still a thing.

She glanced at Cat, wanting to ask her whether she thought there might be a detective on the case, and if that detective would be a professional or an amateur. Cat still had her headphones in though, and was staring pointedly at Mom as if trying to telepathically communicate her impatience.

As Lila tried to answer her own question (an English village like this would have an amateur detective, definitely), she remembered that mysteries nearly always meant there was foul play.  She felt a little guilty for her previous excitement. What if the boy had been kidnapped? Or murdered? But if that were the case, wouldn’t someone have said something? Maybe a notice in the newspapers, or some police on the beach? At the very least, if there were really something to fear, Mom and Dad would have brought it up.

“Sad, isn’t it?”

Flora-the-cashier was talking to her. Nodding at the bulletin board.

“Yeah,” said Lila. “I’m surprised we hadn’t heard anything about it.”

Flora shrugged. “Treligga’s a bit of a ways, though, especially if you follow the coast. It’s unlikely he’d have made it all the way down here, but it can’t hurt to have people on the lookout.”

“Are the waves particularly dangerous here?” Mom asked, as if she hadn’t spent a good half hour reading up on that very subject when they planned the trip.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Flora said. “But those caves, those little rock formations — those can be dangerous when the tide comes in if you get surrounded by the water. If your children can swim, though, I wouldn’t be concerned.”

Mom thanked Flora for the deli meats and the bread, or perhaps for the reassurance, and then it was finally time to leave the shop.

As they walked back to the rental house, Lila noticed Ross Carne’s photograph in other places — the drug store window, the bus shelter. There was a word Cat had told her for that phenomenon, for seeing things you’d just learned about. Lila couldn’t remember the term, but she felt a little special in her noticing. Like these posters were a prophecy, or a sign, or the beginning of a story.

She wondered if people had been talking about Ross and she had simply missed it. But it  wasn’t like they talked to any locals aside from placing orders at restaurants or buying those witchcraft museum tickets in Boscastle. And Flora had said Treligga was a ways.

Back at the house, it was a fast lunch of pita, ham, and cucumber sandwiches, and then everyone was getting ready for the beach.

Lila and her family trekked down the winding path that was muddy and brambly but still safer than the one lane road with its careening cars. They lugged their beach chairs and the big rainbow umbrella and Cat’s surfboard and Lila’s sand toys and Mom’s New Yorkers and Dad’s crosswords and everyone’s towels and just-in-case raincoats. Lila had debated bringing Maz Evans’ new book, but decided against it because it was from the library and its pages were perfectly pristine. She’d seen the way sea sprays and inattentiveness left Cat’s books with pages like their grandmother’s skin and felt no book should suffer such abuse.

“…if their parliament backs a snap election…” Mom was saying.

“The Times had a really good explanation of the backstop…”

“I don’t think they’ll really go with no deal…”

Lila tuned her family out since they’d been recycling the same points the entire week. She kept her eyes on the faraway storm clouds, imagining something might happen. Not a political sort of something, but something closer, more intimate. More magical.

The family claimed a spot on the beach about twenty feet from the lapping waves. Cat announced that, according to her phone, the tide would be going out until two forty-seven. This was not reassuring given that it was already two fifteen.

“Do you want to go exploring?” Lila asked Cat hopefully, after they’d spread out their stuff.

“Maybe in a few,” Cat said. “Let me get through this chapter.”

Cat was reading The Devil in the White City for school, which meant it couldn’t be that engrossing. Yet even after Lila waited patiently, she saw her sister reach the next chapter and then turn another page.

“What about now?”

“Hold on,” Cat said. “They’re trying to build something that will outshine the Eiffel tower.”

“I thought you said it was about murder?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the suspenseful bit. As a killer, this Holmes guy is totally textbook.”

Lila didn’t want to wait for another chapter that might turn into the rest of the book. So she asked her parents if she could go walking alone.

“Sure,” Mom said. “But you heard the lady earlier — don’t go too far. Also, if you’re going to go swimming, come back where we can see you.”

So Lila went on her way down the beach, humming tunes from a YouTube singer she liked. The melodies were medieval and fitting for the scenery, which was different from the normal postcard beaches. The sky had been bright gray the whole week, the sea a deep, desaturated green. Far out there was a great craggy rock that Lila saw people dive off of in their half-wetsuits.

She had walked about fifteen verse repetitions when she reached the little tide pool. It was on higher ground, amidst slick, sloping black rocks, and partially hidden by a larger rock arch. As Lila climbed up the rocks, she imagined herself as a sea witch, looking for a perch in the moonlight. She imagined the visitors she might have, the favors she might ask.

Carefully placing her flip-flops in a crevice, Lila sat down with her feet in the tidepool. She wiggled her toes, laughing at the clear water. Then she saw it — a sand dollar, white and perfectly whole.  She picked it up and turned it over in her hands. Mom had a nice collection of shells in their powder room at home — she might like it.

“Can I have that back?”

Lila saw his reflection first; the boy was standing behind her. He must have climbed up the backside of the rock. She was surprised she hadn’t heard him.

“I just found this,” she said.

“Yes, but it’s mine. I dropped it earlier.”

“Why didn’t you pick it up, then?”

“Well I didn’t know I’d dropped it. It fell out of my pocket.”

He had a British accent, though Lila could not tell if it was native to Cornwall or not. He had a very soft voice for a boy; most of the boys in Lila’s class spoke as if every word was a proclamation.

“I’m giving it to my mom,” Lila said. “Sorry, but finder’s keepers.” She almost told him about how some people believed sand dollars were really mermaid coins, but she’d learned that other people didn’t always share her excitement for these facts. He might look a little dorky, but a sneering debate kid could be hiding underneath that act.

The boy seemed like he wanted to argue, but instead said, “Whatever. Can I sit?”

Cat would say this would be the time to tell a boy to mind his own business. Cat had a very low opinion of boys who approached her, which Lila figured was fair judging by their behavior on teen shows, but probably also why Cat did not have a boyfriend.


 The boy sat. Lila found craning her neck to look at him uncomfortable, so she turned back to the tidepool where she could almost watch him in the reflection if she did not move her feet. It wasn’t a perfect image — some algae got in the way around the nose area — but it was less awkward than staring.

“Is your family at the beach?”

“I don’t think so,” the boy said. “I swam here. They probably haven’t noticed that I’m gone.”

“Do you have an older sibling too?”

“How did you guess?”

Lila laughed. “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. Just had my birthday.”

“Me too.”

Lila was not thirteen, she was twelve and seven months, but that was practically the same thing. She was trying to decide if it was too nosy to ask him if he’d had a nice birthday, or if he liked Cornwall, but then she saw Mom walking down the beach.

“I’d better go,” Lila said. She grabbed her flip-flops and scrambled down the rock, feet sinking into the wet sand. 

“Find anything in the tidepool?” Mom asked as Lila jogged to meet her.

“I was just-” She looked behind her but the boy was already gone. He must be good at climbing those rocks. He probably came to the beach all the time.

Lila almost showed her mom the sand dollar right then, but decided she’d save it for the last day, to make it special. They walked back to their towels (which Cat and Dad had moved a good thirty feet back from the waterline), and Lila put her cargo pants back on since it was getting kind of chilly. She put the sand dollar in her pocket.

Since Cat was still reading, Lila badgered Dad into helping her build a sand rendition of Minas Tirith. It was tricky, with all its layers, but the drip technique worked pretty well for an impressionistic — if not accurate — model.

“Nice castle,” said a voice. “I only read the first one, but I saw all the movies.” It was the boy — he was crouching next to the outer wall and leaning over it precariously. He seemed small. Short for a thirteen-year-old, though the kids in Lila’s year were unusually tall.

“Careful,” Lila snapped.

“I didn’t do anything,” Dad said.

Lila blinked, and looked from the boy to her dad. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I thought that tower was going to fall.”

“Can I have the sand dollar back now?” The boy asked. “Since you didn’t give it to your mom?”

It didn’t occur to Lila to ask him how he knew she still had it; she just shook her head.

She picked up a handful of wet sand and moved it to the quadrant where the boy’s hand was. She wiggled her fingers so that a small amount trickled out, solidifying quickly as it fell and creating a new turret. Then, without warning, she flung the rest of the sand at the boy. It passed right through him and landed on the ground.

“Hmm,” Lila said.

“Hmm indeed,” her dad agreed. “The center tower could use more sculpting, right?”

“Whatever you think.” She looked back at the boy.

“I told you no one notices me.”

He didn’t sound as mournful about it as Lila would have felt. She stared at him hard, trying to detect any sort of translucence or otherworldliness about him, but there really wasn’t anything obvious. He wasn’t glowing blue like a Star Wars force ghost, and he wasn’t faded or monochromatic. He looked quite normal. He was wearing a red T-shirt and navy swim trunks and ugly boy sandals.

She wondered if she would be in some sort of trouble if she didn’t give him back the sand dollar. But he hadn’t insisted yet, and besides, if sand went through him how would he even hold it? 

Lila wanted to ask him something, whether about the sand dollar or why he hadn’t read the rest of the Lord of the Rings, but her dad was right there. So she just kept looking at him until he walked away. His feet made no prints in the sand, even in the wettest parts.

After another few minutes, Cat finally put her book down and announced it was “ice cream time.” While she and Lila stood in line at Flo’s Creamery, Lila looked around for any sign of the boy, or for the poster of Ross Carne. She saw neither.

She ordered two scoops of “shipwreck” (honeycomb with vanilla), and just as she was finishing her cone in one big crunch, the cloud that had been steadily advancing from the horizon reached the beach. Most of the English stayed right where they were as it began to drizzle, but Mom and Dad said it was time to go.

While Cat went upstairs to take a shower and finish a practice ACT, Lila made hot chocolate and tried to read her book. Even though she’d just reached a hilarious battle, her mind kept wandering back to the boy. She hadn’t spent long looking at his face, or at the photograph on the poster, but they did both have dark hair. Then again, maybe she’d imagined the part with the sand. Maybe it had fallen in front of him, and her toss had been weak, her judgment off. Maybe she just wanted it to be true too badly. 

By dinnertime, the drizzle outside had turned into a pour. Lila pushed her string beans around her plate and wished she could think of something interesting to say — not that she could get any words in. While she was setting the table, Mom had asked her how her library book was, but then Cat had come downstairs and Dad asked her what score she got on the ACT practice, and then Mom wanted Dad to make sure he had entered the right dates for the Tufts visit in his Google Calendar, and then the moment was gone.

“…and there’s no way they’re going to pull out by the 31st, I mean, it’s like a professor who keeps giving you extensions…”

“…at least we only have another year — maybe four more if we’re unlucky. But over here they’re going to be dealing with the fallout for who knows how long…”

Because Lila sat facing the window, she had an excellent view of the red and blue flashes that appeared far away in the dark.

“What’s going on?” She asked, pointing with her fork.

Dad was not looking at her so he said,“Well, see, with Northern Ireland—”

“No, not that.” She gestured again at the window but the lights had already dipped below the hill. “Like an ambulance or something.”

“I don’t know,” Dad said. “Maybe they’re going to the beach.”


It was now the last day of their vacation, and also Sunday. Sundays meant Special Breakfast, whether in Cornwall or back home in Maryland. Things were moving slower than normal; Dad was walking around in his undershirt complaining that his tee had dried stiff and salty on the washing line. Mom was burning pancakes on the skillet because she had not been paying attention, and burning her sheet pan hash browns in the oven because she had not understood the conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Cat was still in bed.

“Oh, that’s sad,” Mom said, picking up the local newspaper. “They closed the case on that boy.”

“Ross?” Lila said.

“They think he drowned a few days ago. Accidental, it seems.”

“Isn’t that kind of early to stop looking? Did they find a body?”

“The article doesn’t say. I guess they must have found something of his on the beach.”

“But how would they verify that? Why would that mean—”

“I don’t know, here, you can read the story.” Mom handed over the paper, but the article was disappointing. It mentioned only that Ross had snuck out one night, after a “minor argument with his brother.” The policewoman interviewed said that accidents happen and that the undertow could be strong if you went too far out. If he’d gone swimming, it could have pulled him down the shore, towards Tintagel. The family — a mother, brother, and step father — had requested privacy and declined to comment for the paper. Lila supposed this made sense, but she still wished they’d at least had the photograph from the poster reprinted, something to remind her what he looked like.

Cat came downstairs, rubbing her eyes, and went to scrape some hash browns onto her plate.

“Are we going to the beach today?” she asked.

“Maybe,” Mom replied. “We’ve got to pack first, though. And didn’t you want to check your AP scores?”

“I already tried,” Cat said. “They’re not up yet.”

“Do you want to come take a walk with me, then?” Lila asked her sister.

“You can go alone, can’t you?” Cat looked to their parents.  “I mean, I’ll take her if you want me to but I haven’t even eaten yet.”

“You can go,” Dad told Lila. “But stay up here, all right? Don’t go down to the beach without us.”

“Okay,” Lila said. “Do we need anything from the corner store?”

“I don’t think so,” Mom said. “But thanks.”

Lila headed for the cliff path where she could look at sheep from a distance or maybe pick some flowers. The rain had stopped and the grass was damp and dewy, soaking her sandals. When she reached one of the paths down the cliffs, she hesitated. But the water was so blue and clear, and the cove had been so pretty on their last walk. Lila was almost thirteen, anyway — wasn’t a little teen rebellion good for her? Besides, she could swim. And the tide was out.

Lila walked down the steep path to the cove, wishing she had a better camera than her phone. She checked her watch — she could just sit here a few minutes then go back to the house. Mom and Dad wouldn’t know.

When the boy came around the corner of the big rock, hair wet but shirt dry, Lila was hardly surprised. It was clearly the same boy as last time, red shirt, pale skin, bad sandals. He looked a little brighter today, maybe because of the sunlight.

“Ross?” Lila said.

He didn’t correct her, and she took this as a positive sign. 

“Are you…a ghost?” She’d meant to say it casually, but her voice squeaked up at the end. She wondered, too late, if this might be an insensitive question.


“The papers say you drowned by accident. In Treligga.”

“I didn’t drown.”

“So, you’re not Ross Carne then?”

“I’m just Ross now.”

“But people can’t see you, can they?”

“Yes, they can.”

Lila frowned for a moment, thinking about Peter Pan and The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Lauren Oliver’s Liesel and Po. Children were always special in middle grade stories, Cat had said. Children protagonists tried to be special while teen protagonists spent all their time trying to fit in. Lila thought Cat needed to find better books.

“Can any grown ups see you?”


“That just proves my point. Anyway, they found your body, didn’t they?”

“No,” Ross said again. “They only closed the case. But I went through a portal, and the sea witch warned me that might change things. Anyway, if I’m dead, how do you explain that I’m talking to you?”

“I don’t know,” Lila said. “Maybe it’s quantum mechanics.” Lila did not know anything about quantum mechanics, except it sounded kind of magical. 

Ross said, “Since you’re here, can I have my sand dollar back?”

Lila felt her pocket and realized it was still there. “Why do you want it so bad? Can’t you find another?”

“It’s my passage. To get back into the merpeople’s kingdom.”

“It’s a key?”

“More like a coin.”

Lila scowled. “You’re making fun of me.”

“No, really.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“But you’re willing to believe I’m dead?”

Lila spread her hands palm up, like she’d seen Dad do when making concessions. “Let’s say I’m agnostic about it.”

“I don’t think agnostic is a verb.”

“I’m not using it like a verb. But, if just for the sake of argument, you are hanging out with mermaids—”

“Merpeople,” he corrected.

Lila sighed. “Sorry, merpeople, then why did you leave their kingdom in the first place?”

“I’m looking for help,” he said. “It’s part of a prophecy.”

There was always a prophecy.

“Let me guess,” Lila said. “You’re the chosen one?”

He copied Lila’s palms up gesture. “That’s what the sea witch told me. I found the sand dollar, after all.”

Lila pulled out the sand dollar and looked at it more closely. It seemed perfectly normal to her: rough, thin, with five sections. “I mean, I found it too.”

“I know, that’s why I think you could help me.”

“Me?” Lila said. “What could I do?”

“I mean, you can see me,” Ross said. “That’s something. And if you don’t want to give the coin back, then you could at least come with me since I need to get back to help the kingdom.”

“Is this like a one ring situation?” She giggled, and adopted a deep voice. “One Sand Dollar to Rule Them All!”

“Now you’re making fun of me.”

“Maybe a little. But are you telling me that if I keep this sand dollar, I can find the merpeople kingdom too?”

“I don’t know,” Ross said. “That wasn’t really in the prophecy.”

Maybe Cat was right about the books Lila read.

If Ross were the chosen one, then this couldn’t be Lila’s adventure. She’d be relegated to being the sidekick or the love interest — if that. Lila had never actually seen someone who looked like her in a heroic trio, not in all the movies she and Cat binged. She wondered who the third person in this group might be, and if she’d have to argue over her status with them.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Lila said. “I can’t come with you. Anyway, don’t you miss the normal world?”

“No,” said Ross. “I told you, people don’t notice me. In the kingdom, I can actually make a difference.”

“My sister says voting is how you make a difference.” Saying this made Lila feel strangely grown-up.

“But you can’t vote, can you?”

“Well, no. But what are you saving the world from? Wait — is it sea monsters? Have you seen any? Like in Pacific Rim—”

“There aren’t any sea monsters,” Ross said.

“Oh.” Lila felt a little deflated. “Doesn’t it bother you that people think you’re dead? That you can’t see your family?”

Ross only shrugged.

Lila still didn’t know what he was saving the world from, or whose world needed it. But she did know about the hero’s journey, and the sacrifices her favorite characters made. All those boys who didn’t have regular friends, who didn’t get to spend time with their parents. Boys who didn’t have to sit through math class, who got to learn how to wield actual swords, but who also would never get to go places like Tufts or Harvard or wherever Cat would end up because they hadn’t finished normal high school. Boys who didn’t have time to sit around rereading the Silmarillion or playing Town of Salem or Lego: The Lord of the Rings, or eating Twizzlers in line for the next big midnight Marvel premier.

Lila liked to think of herself as tough, but the closest she had ever come to death was nearly choking on grapes when she was three, or that time when her family jaywalked in Manhattan. The idea of magic, real fantasy, merpeople, sounded like so much fun.

But if the world needed saving from something that wasn’t politics or climate change or natural disasters, then that also meant there would be danger. Unknown factors.

Lila had her known factors, and she liked them. Mom, Dad, Cat. Her friends at school. Reading, baking, having sleepovers. All the little injustices she’d been feeling the whole trip, being sidelined and talked over and ignored — those didn’t really add up to anything. Even having to hear about Brexit was okay, if it also meant playing late night scrabble games, eating burnt hash browns, and building sandcastles. Had Ross not had any of that?

“Sorry,” Lila said again. “I can’t go. Here’s your sand dollar, though, if it really matters.” She put it on the sand beside her, suddenly not wanting to try to touch Ross, not wanting to verify if her hand would pass through his form. If he really was like a book character, and not a weird vision or something, he’d figure it out. The heroes always did.

A gull squawked just as Ross spoke so Lila couldn’t hear, though she hoped he had said thanks. He didn’t move as she began the climb back up the rocky path. When she looked over her shoulder, she saw him crouching with the sand dollar in his palm.

Lila didn’t think that she would see him again, and not only because she was going back to the States. But that, she thought, was all right.

She hummed her medieval ballad as she walked back between the sheep pastures, and looked at the light shining on the heather. She closed her eyes and imagined that horse, or the suit of armor. Vacation might be over, but she could always take a plane back to England, in theory. And Cornwall was still a magical place.