by Aliette de Bodard
Mother never spoke about the sea.
She'd been very young at the time of the exodus, Aunt Albane said: a mere smolt,
able to swim on her own but not yet ready to mate or bear offspring. Father had
dragged her from the depths as the Dark King raged, and they fled together, ahead
of twisted, shadowy shapes with harpoons and tridents -- never stopping till they
reached the safety of the seashore.
"But how did he swim?" I asked. I couldn't imagine Father -- small and portly
with a shock of pale white skin, out of breath when he climbed the stairs -- as
someone who had ever been at ease in the sea-depths.
Aunt Albane laughed, a sound like breakers on the shore. "He had an armour. Grey
and green like a lobster's shell." Her eyes had that distant look that suggested she
wasn't there anymore, but somewhere underwater, amidst algae and fish and the
familiar currents of her childhood.
"And a sword?" I asked.
She looked startled. "Yes. I guess you could call it a sword."
I pictured Father as some kind of knight: like Sir Roland in the Pyrénées, holding
back the Saracens with his blade Durandal -- a palpable halo of light around him
as he swam with my mother in his arms, away from the spreading, choking
I imagined it was only later, when they'd touched the shore, after my mother and
her people had been resettled, that the glow had died.
There were words for what we were, not all of them kind: fish-heads, brine-breaths, dead-skins. The boys whispered them to me at recess when I walked past,
my skin too grey and opalescent to be ever mistaken for human. They laughed and
swaggered and said the country was all going to waste if they let my kind settle
Jamila told me they were blockheads, the lot of them, and that I shouldn't pay any
attention to their babbling. That it was the Republic, and that we were all equals,
Muslims and Asians and mermen. That I was no merwoman, but born on French
soil, and as much of a Frenchwoman as Jamila was.
The boys teased Jamila, too, about her dark skin colour; but never for very long,
for Jamila had an acid tongue -- and an older brother, Toufiq, who was quick to
come to her defence, showing off his muscles and his willingness to use them to
preserve her purity.
Jamila was curious about us. She'd ask me all sorts of questions about a country
I'd never known, about what it had been like to swim in the depths, if we'd had
clothes or toys or books.
"I don't know," I said, shrugging. My toys were a battered red teddy bear, and a
small piano that made crystalline sounds when you hit the coloured keys; and all
the other things you could find, going into any toy shop in Paris. "We have them
"Silly, I wasn't asking about now."
No, she was asking about back then -- the times we'd been blessed and chosen by
the sea, before the exile, before the Dark King and the exodus that had reduced us
to those small, awkward beings who just couldn't seem to fit in anywhere on dry
land. But I didn't feel up to voicing the shame of that.
"Did you have books, back in Morocco?" I asked.
Jamila shrugged. "Mom had some. But not many. Just the Qur'an and some cheap
paperbacks. She carried them with her when she crossed the Mediterranean." She
twisted one finger in the hem of her veil, in a thoughtful grimace. "Gave them all
to Toufiq, who never reads them anyway."
In the sea it had been the women who ruled, Aunt Albane had said, because the
males, seized with the mating frenzy, couldn't remember who they were half the
time. And, when the currents kept changing, altering the feel and smell of places,
you needed some anchor. The women provided it, until it all changed.
I liked Uncle Hervé because he brought me trinkets every time he visited: polished
sea-shells and boxes overlaid with mother-of-pearl. His packages smelled of raw
fish and iodine: a weak, quivering smell always on the edge of vanishing, which
always made me hunger for more. I'd open them, alone in my room, hardly daring
to breathe for fear I'd break something beyond repair.
My parents didn't like him. Whenever Uncle Hervé came, there would be that
particular edge around the dinner table, as we dug into the veal blanquette and the
mashed potatoes. Uncle Hervé himself, who had refused to have even the simplest
of reconstructive surgeries, always wore a mask over his face and a flask at his hip,
connected to the mask via translucent tubing: the mask sprayed water into his
throat at regular intervals, to keep his gills moist. He seldom ate; and spoke little.
At least, when I was there.
After dinner was over, the adults would send me to bed, and speak in the living
room around coffee and biscuits. Some evenings, I managed to creep back in and
crouch in the kitchen, lapping up what words I could hear.
"You shouldn't bring her gifts," Father said. "You fill her head with nonsense."
"That's rich, coming from you," Uncle Hervé said. "Do you really think you can
turn her into a human?"
"She's human, Hervé," Mother said, quietly. "As much as she'll ever be."
"My name's not Hervé." His voice was low and fierce. "Neither is yours
Bénédicte. You should know this."
"We said --"
"I know what you said. I know what little bargains and pacts you made. You're
swaddling her in baby-clothes and hoping she never wakes up to half her
inheritance. Do you think she'll thank you later?" He stopped; there was a wet,
squelching sound as he put the mask back on his face and inhaled -- and another
squelching sound as he took it off.
"She'll have fitted in." Father spoke as if he were still wielding a sword. "Become
a true Frenchwoman. We all know there's no future left in the sea."
Uncle Hervé laughed, sharp and bitter. "You're one to talk."
"We both know what you did, all of it. What you humans did." He spat the word
"human" like a rotten shrimp. "Anyway, you only have to look at her to know she
won't ever be French. Grey skin and gills." He snorted. "She takes after us, not
"You're the one who doesn't understand," Mother said. Her voice was taut with
fear -- as if she'd stretch in one fluid, easy kick, and run to the door before anyone
could stop her. "If she doesn't belong, they'll just send her away. They'll send us
all away, back to the sea and what's waiting for us there. Do you want to go back,
He was silent, then. "No," he said; but it didn't sound like a "no."
The first time I was in the water, it was a revelation.
I'd never liked sports: racing or basketball seemed needlessly tiring, with my lungs
contracting to take in searing, dry air that didn't sustain me. Always out of breath, I
was always last -- the last runner on the track, the last one to be picked up for the
But swimming was different.
The school took us to sports at the local swimming pool. We lined up, twenty
awkward girls in swimsuits and bathing caps, feeling as flat as flounders. I felt
encased in stretched cloth, hardly able to draw in breath; and the others were
looking at me oddly. They had never seen so much of me -- without the turtleneck
sweater I used to hide my gills, and the long sleeves I wore in every season,
covering the patches of shimmering, iridescent skin above my wrists.
"Come on, sleepyhead," Jamila said. She leapt into the water with her legs drawn
under her, making a splash big enough to drench every lane.
I leapt after her, eager to dispel the others' gazes. The water rose up to meet me,
shimmering in the winter sunlight; and then it swallowed me. It kissed my skin and
blessed it, and the dry itch I always felt receded. The water pressed against me,
warm and comforting, an embrace I had always longed for. I breathed in -- in and
out, and my gills distended, taking in the grace being offered -- my legs stretched
in an expansive kick that felt instinctive, and I dived deeper. The pressure grew
greater; it took me and shaped me and made me whole as I swooped and swam,
turning lithely above the blue tiles at the bottom of the pool. There was a faint
aftertaste of chlorine, not salt; but I didn't care. I felt . . . at peace, at home, finally
back where I belonged.
When I emerged, everyone was staring at me -- including Jamila, though her gaze
"What the matter?" I hissed, swimming closer to her.
"Do you know how long you were in there?" She maintained herself afloat with
awkward kicks of her legs.
"No." I said. It had barely been a moment; and already I craved diving again.
She rolled her eyes upwards. "I didn't count, but it's got to be minutes, Em.
I tried to shrug, but it was harder in the water. "I am what I am."
"Sure." Jamila nodded, but I could tell I'd somehow breached the boundaries of
what she considered normal.
When Mother came to pick me up later, and asked me how my day had been, I
almost told her. But she stood there waiting for me, her grey skin shimmering in
the sunlight: prim and correct, with a green cashmere cardigan and a pair of silk
trousers around her surgically reconstructed legs -- the epitome of French chic,
from her Lancel handbag to the discreet gold pendant around her neck. And,
somehow, I couldn't find the heart to share any of this.
Aunt Albane wouldn't speak much about the sea, either; but she did tell me a few
things whenever I went to her house.
Unlike my parents, Uncle Hervé and Aunt Albane had never settled in a city; but
had instead chosen some god-forsaken place in the middle of the countryside, in a
commune of other merpeople. Small houses, so far away from each other that you
could barely guess at their presence. They were spread out in a circle around a
field, with trampled grass and a few bits of coloured cloth tied to the trunks of
trees: it might have been a shrine, it might have been a meeting place. I didn't
know enough to tell.
I could see Mother relax every time we drove there, when the wide expanse under
the sky replaced the narrow, high streets of the cities -- when everything became
wide and limitless, as it had been before.
Their house wasn't exactly French: they'd used their resettlement money to knock
down all the walls they could in order to make a single, wide room with barely any
furniture -- not even a TV or a computer. Everything had the same smell as Uncle
Hervé's packages; but here it was strong enough to permeate everything. My gills
breathed in brine and algae; and the pores of my skin opened wide, trying to store
enough water before we went back to the dry, polluted streets of the city. This was
the true thing, or as true as it could be -- not like the spray I kept in a drawer of my
bedside table for those days when I couldn't sneak off to the swimming pool.
My parents always seemed drawn into arguments with Uncle Hervé, so I took
refuge in the kitchen, helping Aunt Albane cook. She walked in slow, tottering
steps -- she'd had the surgery for her lungs, not for her legs, and those were weak
and stunted within her walker. I helped her fetch garlic and fish-sauce, and spread
it into a cooking pan -- she only cooked for our benefit, since the pan always
looked brand-new, and I could see the jars of salted fish above the stove. I didn't
think they ate any cooked food; just fish, as we had done under the sea. Their
friends, I guessed, did likewise.
"It used to be different," Aunt Albane told me. "We followed the currents and the
shoals, and took our sustenance where we could."
"You never had cities?"
Aunt Albane snorted. "Buildings, sometimes, for one ceremony or another. But not
so many as here. Buildings are a human thing." She didn't sound as though she
approved. "We don't need roofs over our heads, or walls to protect us from the
"Predators," I said, leaving the question half-asked.
"Sharks and barracudas, sometimes. The weak died; the strong survived. That's
how it had always been."
"But it changed," I said, cautiously. She was quick to share her stories of the time
before; but she almost never told me about the exodus that had sent hundreds of
them staggering onto the shores of France.
Aunt Albane's eyes flicked to the stove. "Salmon, please."
I took two chunks of salmon from the freezer, and handed them to her to put into
the pan. Oil sizzled and sang where the flesh touched the hot metal.
Aunt Albane nodded, not moving from her place at the stove. "It wasn't much, at
first. We ignored the signs. Babies born with deformed limbs -- without eyes,
without gills --"
"The Twisted Ones," I said. The Dark King's servants, the ones that had chased
Mother and Father all the way to the shore.
"Yes," Aunt Albane looked stubbornly at the salmon, turning pink in the pan.
"And the King," I said.
"Yes." Aunt Albane's gaze was distant. "If not for your father and his companions,
we wouldn't be alive today."
"Companions?" I asked. In my mind's eye, Father was always alone -- battling
monsters with his sword, dragging Mother and Aunt Albane out of the sea. "Like
the Knights of the Round Table?"
Aunt Albane shook her head. "They were cleverer than your knights. Not strong or
tough, but smart. Has he never shown you his papers? He and his colleagues saw
the end coming long before we did, and planned for it."
"Papers? What was in them?" It didn't sound like something Father would do.
Then again, swimming underwater with a sword didn't sound like him either.
"Mathematical formulas and charts -- their plans to rescue us, laid out so
meticulously." Her lips twisted. "Scientists. And it all worked."
"Why shouldn't it have worked?" I asked, slowly. I couldn't understand. I'd
always thought Father had been a knight; a lone hero. Companions were one thing;
but scientists in a research laboratory, with flasks and white coats, and the smell of
ammonium and bleach?
"Take all the mermen out of the sea, bring them all onto the shore?" Aunt Albane
shook the pan as if it had offended her. "It's not an easy thing, or a simple one."
"Then . . ." Then it was all right; and Father was just another kind of hero. Not a
knight; not a scientist who paved the way to the stars; but our saviour all the same.
Aunt Albane made a dismissive gesture. "You worry too much, Emilie."
How could I worry too much, when I understood nothing? I wanted to tell her that,
but in that moment Mother came over, a frown on her face. "Albane," she said.
"Do you know where the forks are?" She saw me crouching by the stove and threw
Aunt Albane a look that said they'd talk about this later. "Émilie, come on, help me
lay the table."
I rose and left, bursting with a thousand unanswered questions.
We went to Brittany once, when I was ten -- because that was what the French did
-- left for two weeks in July and drove hours through traffic jams to some sleepy
little town smelling of brine and pine needles. I walked among the market stalls,
my mouth watering every time I passed the fishmongers' displays with the fresh,
raw fish lined up on ice, their open eyes glistening in the sunlight. The lobsters and
crabs were still alive, their shells a healthy, tantalising brown -- a food fit for the
nobles of the sea. I could imagine how they'd taste -- how it would feel to have
their legs kicking feebly against my palate in that brief moment before my teeth
closed down on them. But then I remembered that we didn't eat raw flesh, not in
Mother retreated into the backyard of the house where she cooked shellfish and
haddocks and salmons with a vengeance: the rooms filled with the smell of oil and
the curiously bland odor of cooked fish-flesh.
I went to the seaside.
They'd forbidden me, of course, but I slipped away early one morning while they
were all sleeping. I crept along the fir-scented paths, past the bunched-up houses
with their white paints and grey slate roofs stained with greenish moss. The sky
overhead was unbearably blue, the light sharp and unforgiving; not the gentle,
shimmering veils I'd seen underwater.
The beach was deserted: I climbed down the stairs from the road, and took off my
shoes and socks to stand in warm sand. I stood for a while, where the sea met the
shore -- breathing in the wetness of the air, my pores expanding to take it all in.
There were algae and fragments of broken seashells by my feet, crunching when I
stepped over them, and the sand was wet and clinging to my skin. I don't know
what I'd expected -- the Dark King, looming out of the deserted surf to snatch me,
laughing manically all the while; some squad of twisted, leering merpeople with
harpoons, unfolding from Aunt Albane's nightmarish accounts.
Or perhaps the sea itself, the blessed Abyss gaping out between the waves, its
shimmering depths reminding me of my purpose in life, of the past that must not be
forgotten, that would be restored someday.
But the sea remained silent. A few families had spread their bags and towels on the
sand, and their children were busy digging holes in the dry sand, daring each other
to breach their fortresses and castles. No one swam: the water had ceased to be a
friendly place, with the rise of the Dark King -- what the French had called the
Black Catastrophe, spouting excuses about global warming and greedy
corporations, as if they knew anything about what had really happened under the
I wanted, more than anything, to immerse myself in the water, to be cleansed by
salt and iodine; but there was no telling what might happen.
I walked back home feeling as though a piece of me were missing.
Uncle Hervé knocked at the door of our flat late one night. He stood framed in the
doorway with a plain white parcel bearing the logo of the local bakery, his skin
glowing a faint blue under the corridor's lights. He held his mask in one hand, and
his mouth was full of small, sharp teeth: he looked both terribly familiar and
He didn't bother with greetings. "Em, are your parents home?"
I was about to show him into the kitchen, but he looked so . . . changed, so feral,
that the words were out of my mouth before I could think. "Is this -- about the
He looked at me for a while, his eyes shining with the grey-green of storms. He
smelled of brine, and of wet sand; and of a thousand things that didn't belong in
small, cramped flats locked within Parisian suburbs. At length he shook his head.
"I always told your parents they sheltered you too much." He snorted, water
gurgling up through his gills. "Your father was always so good at making decisions
for other people."
"I don't understand," I said slowly -- with the feeling that I was dancing on the
edge of the blessed Abyss, that the right words, the rights gestures would finally
cause the Abyss to open and show me the treasures in its depths. "Did Father do
something wrong?" Father was a hero, a knight in armour; Mother's rescuer, no
matter how or with whom he had done it. Surely . . .
Uncle Hervé's face had gone flat -- with the particular edge of a merman's anger.
"Your father is a fool."
"He rescued the mermen . . ." I started, but Uncle Hervé cut me with a dismissive
"Do you think we came willingly, Em? Ask yourself what he did."
He walked past me, into the kitchen; I trailed after him, hoping for more. It was
more than the glow; he seemed transfigured altogether, his gestures more fluid and
more expansive than I'd ever seen, as if some great energy moved beneath the
They sent me to my room; but I listened in, just the same.
"It's late for a courtesy visit," Mother said.
Uncle Hervé didn't jest or protest, as he might have. "The way is open again."
Silence spread outward from those few words, as if we had all moved underwater
where sound took more time to travel. "It can't be true . . ." Mother started.
Uncle Hervé inhaled noisily through the mask -- letting the moment stretch, I
guessed. "They say they've cleansed the waters. That the pollutants are gone."
"That's not possible. Scientifically speaking --" Father sounded . . . thoughtful,
angry? I couldn't tell; couldn't understand half of what they were talking about.
"Impossible?" Uncle Hervé growled. "You destroyed our homeland, Erwan. And
when that was finished, when nothing was left to salvage, you lured us out of it.
You called it saving us, but the fact remains: you took us out of the sea. You sang
to us and called us, and you marooned us on dry land. You gave us money, later
on. You helped us resettle. But you can't change what you did, and you can't
"Hervé --" Father said, pleading; and the world twisted and died a little, for Father
"I've heard it from reliable sources. I'm going back to the sea."
"For all you know --"
"Oh, please. For the Abyss' sake, spare me your childish fears." He sounded
enraged, as if he'd been holding everything back for too long. "What wouldn't you
give to go back home?" He made a sound in the back of his throat; it was only later
I realised he was speaking Mother's name -- not the French one she'd taken, but
her true one, the one from the sea.
"There's no going back," Mother said, and it seemed to be the end of the
When Uncle Hervé was gone my parents looked at each other.
"Do you think --" Father asked, but Mother shook her head.
"I've seen it, Erwan. The sea that became black and stuck to our bodies, the
buildings crumbling under the weight of tar. You know it can't be reversed." Her
voice was taut again, with the same fear I'd heard in Aunt Albane when she spoke
of the dark times.
"I guess it can't be," Father said. But afterwards I heard him pace in the bedroom;
and I crept and stood hidden in the carpeted corridor. He pulled something from
under their bed: a long, weather-beaten chest that might have belonged to any
sailor. When he opened it, the smell of the sea wafted so strong I had to stifle a
moan of pleasure. I stood on tiptoe as he lifted the lid higher, but saw nothing but
pieces of yellowed papers, and cross-hatched maps. Father meticulously set those
aside until at last he lifted something that had rested at the bottom of the box, like
an unfathomable treasure.
The sword, I thought, as he laid it across his knees -- but it wasn't shaped like one.
It was short and oblong at one end, with a single piece of string stretching over all
its length. I had seen something like this -- not a sword, but something else . . .
A guitar, with a narrower resonance box.
It didn't look beautiful or sleek: rather, it looked like someone had tried to copy a
design from under the sea, perhaps one of the age-old instruments Aunt Albane had
once described to me; and that they'd got all the proportions wrong. It was green
-- not like live lobsters, but like military fatigues -- and at the end of the handle
was a white square of paper with a barcode and serial number.
Father ran his fingers over it; it made no sound, but there was a smell like a salt-charged breeze; and for a split, endless moment I heard in my mind the song of
mermen, the desperate calls of lone men under the sea, the rich, inviting chant of
women in the mating season.
Do you think we came willingly, Em? Ask yourself what he did.
I saw men in grey-green armour, swimming at the bottom of the sea -- dozens of
them, wielding the swords in front of them, and the mermen hearing the song,
following it out of their tainted hunting grounds -- until the sea ran out, and they
took their first stumbling steps on dry land, in air so devoid of humidity it burnt in
the gills and crinkled the skins, like fire.
I thought of knights; and how easily they could become raiders, and invaders, and
cattle-drivers; and how the world seemed to have altered, and I no longer knew
where I stood -- the Abyss yawning under me, revealing nothing but utter
darkness -- and I with nowhere to go, no seawater to uphold and sustain me, or
show me any path I could take.
Mother had always said the sea wasn't a safe place; and it wasn't something that
would ever be cleaned. The Dark King had destroyed everything, until all that
remained to us was this shabby exile. Clearly not a good thing, but was there ever
really a better course?
We would have died if they hadn't come -- if it hadn't been planned, that rescue.
Mother wouldn't be here; Uncle Hervé wouldn't be here . . . I wouldn't be here.
I didn't know what to think, not any more.
At length, Father put the instrument back into the box and piled the papers on top
of it. He looked old and grey and fragile; infinitely more tired than I'd ever seen
him. He stared inside the box as if it held the answers to everything he'd ever
longed for, and there was such pain in his face that I wanted to run to him, to kiss
him and tell him everything was going to be all right.
I did none of this; like a dutiful daughter, I crept back into bed and lay for a long
while, trying to lull myself to sleep.
Uncle Hervé never came back home.
After a few days, Aunt Albane came to our flat, tall and unbending -- but
somehow walking even more slowly, even more painfully than usual. She spoke in
a low voice with my parents; and they all left. When they came back, it was with a
soft-spoken man who said he was a policeman, and who asked me dozens of
questions about Uncle Hervé and what he'd said. He was ill at ease during the
whole interview, I could tell; and when I spoke of our home, he turned away, as if I
were still a child who had to be managed.
He never came back; and neither did Uncle Hervé.
Jamila wasn't surprised. "Men will be men. Always ready to do the stupidest
"Uncle Hervé isn't like that," I said, horrified.
"Toufiq isn't like that either," Jamila snapped. "And yet here he is, bringing us this
tosh about proper women remaining inside -- about how it's all in the Qur'an, and
we've been living like heathens here." She brought her dark hands together
forcefully. "Sorry, Em. That idiot boy's been driving me crazy."
"Don't worry. It doesn't matter," I said. But Toufiq wasn't Uncle Hervé, who had
lived there under the sea; who knew all the ways to snatch fish from shoals, all the
hiding places under the rocks, the ways to forage, away from the cargo ships and
super tankers that had claimed the sea's surface. Surely he wouldn't go back, just
But then, if he hadn't died, what was I still doing here?
The first hint we had that something was wrong with Father was when he fainted in
the kitchen. He'd never been quite himself since Uncle Hervé's departure, but I'd
thought it was grief, or anger, or a mixture of both. We tiptoed around him, sister-in-law and mother and daughter; but when he swayed, and fell in the midst of a
conversation with Mother on a bright Sunday afternoon, we knew it wasn't grief.
The SAMU ambulance was quick to arrive, and Mother and I rode the metro to the
hospital. She was silent by my side, her head bent, her long, tapered fingers joined
together in what seemed to be a prayer. She smelled of sour fear, of water
imprisoned in some lake or pond, stale and unmoving. I'd have prayed, too, if I'd
know which gods were mine anymore.
At the hospital, they took Mother aside to give her the diagnosis. I only caught
snatches of their conversation, with words like "tumour" and "operation" wafting
up to me, freezing my heart in my chest; but when Mother came to sit by my side
she was as much as she'd always been, her eyes remote, the same pearly-white as
"He isn't well," she said.
"I -- I don't know. There --" She inhaled; the gills on her neck distended, sharply.
"You know your father was in the sea, when he was very young."
"When he saved you."
Mother grimaced, but nodded her head in a jumble of iridescence, and went on.
"He caught something then. It lay low all those years, like a slowly-festering
wound. It . . . it's spread."
"Can they do anything?" I asked.
"They'll open him up and cut it out," Mother said. "But there's so much of it --"
Her voice drifted away -- focused again, and her eyes shifted from dead-white to
grey. "He'll be fine. You'll see." She didn't sound like she believed any of it.
It was the Dark King again, reaching out, spreading his shadow over our family,
even from the past. "In the sea --"
She raised a hand. "Don't. I know what your aunt and uncle have been telling you,
the wild tales they've filled your head with. It's past time for those."
"Then what time is it?" I asked, almost screaming. "You've never told me
anything, anything at all!"
"Émilie." Her voice was firm. "The time for being a child is past. Now, will you be
a good girl and fetch me some things from home?"
Alone at home, I crept into my parents' room, expecting at any moment that
someone -- Father, Mother, Uncle Hervé -- would stop me, grab me by the
shoulders and turn me around and ask me what in the name of the Abyss I thought
I was doing.
But there was only silence; and the sound of my breath, stretching the gills in my
neck. Carefully, I wedged myself under the bed and pulled out Father's box.
It had no lock and opened easily, as if eager to disgorge its secrets. Inside were all
the papers Father had pulled out, with diagrams and crosshatched maps, and
formulas that swam under my eyes. There was a diagram of the instrument, too,
and meticulous explanations on its making and mass production -- talk of
pheromones and mating season, and other words that made no sense.
I read a few more of the papers: the language was equally archaic, like that of old
romances, and speaking of things like the spread of pollutants and the growing rate
of mutations and the number of years left before the seas became unviable for
plankton, for fish -- for mermen.
Aunt Albane had called them clever; but all I saw, in those words and sentences I
could barely understand, were yet more explanations from a foreigner's eye, from
someone who hadn't understood a thing about the sea or the blessed Abyss; of
what it meant to be a merman. From someone who had married a merwoman and
done his best to turn her human -- and done the same to her child in turn, telling
her nothing of the past or the lost country.
At the bottom of the chest were two things: Father's armour, a green-and-grey suit
cut for a much thinner man than the one he'd become over the years. It clung to my
skin when I unfolded it; and the hood had a small mask inside, which released
oxygen when I pressed it against my skin.
And the sword.
It sang when I lifted it -- a sound without sound that vibrated in my bones like the
sea's embrace, as if I had become the instrument's resonance box myself. Slowly,
carefully, I ran my fingers over the handle, seeing reflections form under my
fingertips, memories of mother-of-pearl and fish-scales -- and all the while the
sound grew, until it seemed to fill me from end to end.
With this, Father and his companions had sung the mermen out of the sea, and tied
Mother to the shore. With this, our exile had started; and I was nothing but the
product of it -- someone who would never be at ease on dry land, in choking air. I
could live out the rest of my life like Mother, dwindling further and further away
from the sea and what she had been, or . . .
Or, like Uncle Hervé, I could have faith in the blessed Abyss, and follow the way
In my mind I heard Mother's words: the time for being a child is past.
And she was right. I had been sheltered; I had been frightened; I had been lost.
But no longer.
I thought to call Jamila, but it was past the point when she'd have understood any
Instead, I dialled Aunt Albane's number -- it seemed to ring for hours while she
dragged herself to the living room to pick it up. "Em?" she finally asked.
I didn't leave her time to think. "You know where he went."
"I don't approve," Aunt Albane said.
When she didn't answer, I said, "He went home, didn't he? Back to Brittany."
There was silence on the other end of the line, and it told me all I needed to know.
"You know home is here," Aunt Albane said.
"I know I should have a choice. No one gave me any."
She made a sound in her throat, like the whistle of a fish, but by then I was already
Home. He'd gone home -- to wind and surf, to brine and fish -- to the familiar
currents and the never-ending pull of the tides.
I would find him, and everything would be right again with the world.
I gathered Father's maps, my heart hammering against my chest -- and went to
look up the train timetable to Brittany.
I left the small duffel bag with Father's armour and sword in a locker at the
Montparnasse train station, and made my way back to the hospital with the things
Mother had asked of me.
They'd moved Father into a large room where other people lay sedated, moaning
quietly in their sleep. Partitions of cloth were all that gave the illusion of privacy.
I found them by the smell, which I could find even through the sour ones of
sickness and rotting bodies -- a hint of sea-salt, of brine-laden wind, like a caress;
like a promise, once broken, now made whole again.
Mother sat in a plastic chair, half-turned away from me. I walked noiselessly and
she didn't turn when I arrived. I slid the bag down to the floor in silence, groping
for words I could say -- for excuses, but there was nothing left.
She was watching Father's still form, her whole body taut with a terrible intensity.
In that moment she looked like a princess from the depths, wild and terrible and
elemental, with the fury of the sea in her grey gaze -- and then the moment was
gone, and she was only a frail old woman in a hospital room, waiting for death's
I turned, without a word, and left -- running towards my train, and the waiting sea.