You gasp — air fills your lungs like glass, bringing you painful life and you cannot get enough of it. Once, twice, your lungs are filled most excruciatingly, but this pain is not allowed time to mellow into nothingness — darkness closes in again just as rapidly.
Again, you are thrusted up beyond the surface; the darkness remains, for you do not open your eyes. Air — how do you know what air is — fills your body, and you are forced to breathe in and out — how do you know how to breathe — and this is a luxury. You slip beneath the surface once more — how do you know there is a beyond above this surface — and you sink down, weak.
Your feet find purchase on something. It feels strange beneath the soles of your feet, grainy and rough. You have never felt anything like this before, but it is not unpleasant. Slowly, you feel your senses come back to you.
It is cool, but not oppressively so; this is water around you, and you feel safe in it — you have known only this for your whole life, after all. Your legs, as new as they are, find strength, and your hands push against hard rock. Your body follows the motion, going up, up, up, and — you push through the surface of the water, gasping.
Air is incredibly light and it burns, but you cannot stop breathing, lungs expanding painfully as you breathe. It smells salty, but also sweet, and when you open your eyes, you are greeted with shifting darkness. Slowly, as you calm down, you begin to parse out different shapes in the cloak of the night. There is what looks like shore just a few paces up from you, and the waves break around you gently; waist-deep in water, you are yet unwilling to leave the protection it affords you, but your feet begin their journey anyway, taking you up into shallower waters.
Here, the wind reaches you, curls softly into your hair and onto your skin, drying water in its wake. Faintly, you can see lights further inland, small huts and houses, and the sight is so much prettier when closer than you have ever been. The wind blows at you again, tangles your hair into your face, and you laugh up into the sky, reach your hands up to brush your hair away — and your laugh tapers off, breathless.
It is not often that you get to come to the surface at night, not this late, but now, standing here on new legs with dry sand under your feet and wind in your hair, you would not trade this for anything. It is unlike anything you have ever seen before.
The words come unbidden to your mouth, like someone has placed them there. This velvet carpet above your head, unlike anything that you have ever seen before, the myriads of lights sparkling in the sheen of this darkness, reflected in the rippling of the water where you have previously never left —
"Xingxing," You breathe, the words like diamonds on your tongue. Almost instinctively, you reach out towards the sky, as if you could ascend on stairs only your eyes can see and pluck the jewels from their hold in this sky.
Careless, you almost stumble; you are not used to having these limbs, and there is more weight on land than you could possibly have believed. All the stories you were told when you were a little fry could not have lived up to this, and all the pain you experienced is almost worth it.
"Hello, is someone there?"
A voice echoes behind you.
Even voices sound different here, you think to yourself, and you turn around on shaky legs. You feel awfully vulnerable, and everything feels dry. You had not thought that was a feeling that could exist, but there is something in the air that dries your hair strangely, and a crust forms on your skin.
"Hello?" You call back uncertainly, and reel at your own voice.
"Does someone need help?"
You pause. What... what do you need? The words are impossible to be pronounced, but that voice comes closer towards you, and you forget how to breathe, as new as it is to you.
"Are you alright?" The person who had approached you asks, a small smile graced over their features.
"I... I am not sure," You say carefully, but the way your eyes follow the spill of this person's hair over their shoulders is less so. It reminds you of the moon, silvered and silky, moving like ripples in water.
"Do you have a place to return to? It is quite late at night."
"... I do not think so."
"Would you like to come back with me then?" The person asks, their mouth curved like the wax of the moon. "You don't seem to be from around here."
"I - I am from the sea," You say, gesturing to the waves lapping at your feet.
"Ah — then you must come with me. I have been told to take care of you," The person says, stretching a hand out to you. "My name is Yue, and you are?"
You pause. "My name..."
"It's alright if you don't have one," Yue adds. "You can find one you like soon."
A name that I like?
You stumble after Yue, unbalanced and confused in the deepening night, but eventually a small hut comes into your vision. There are lanterns hanging outside the hut, giving it a warm, golden glow, and it reflects off the silver of Yue's hair, dazzling your eyes. Yue ushers you into their hut, hands soft and warm on your skin, and you wonder if your own skin will feel like this after living on land.
The seawater has long dried on you, so Yue offers you a damp cloth instead; unsure about it, you gently pass it over your face and arms so you no longer smell so strongly of salt. Yue asks you if you want to wash up more thoroughly, but you shake your head. The smell of the salt reminds you of home, and it is nice to have that token of familiarity with you as of yet. Yue leads you to sit at the table, and places a bowl of something hot in front of you.
"Fish porridge," Yue explains, moving around the hut busily. "You must be starving, no?"
The bowl of... what did Yue call it? Fish porridge — it is not something you have seen before. It is, however, hot, and you are indeed quite hungry. Yue teaches you how to hold the wooden utensil they give you — "This is called a spoon!" — and you start to eat the porridge, albeit a little awkwardly.
"How do you like it?" Yue asks, bringing over a few bottles as you devour the food.
You nod enthusiastically, despite having burned your tongue slightly with how hot the porridge is. "It is delicious! Is this normal human fare?"
"A staple, at least from where we are," Yue answers. They set the bottles down on the table, and come to stand behind you. "If you don't mind, I will sort your hair out for you. It does not seem to have withstood the change from sea to air very well."
"Oh! What will you do?"
"Just untangling the knots," Yue replies. "Do tell me if I pull too harshly."
For a few moments, the both of you form an almost still picture. You, spooning up the rest of the porridge in clumsy movements, and Yue, who combs through the ends of your hair softly, smoothing and untangling. Sitting in the chair with Yue's hands in your hair, it is warm and soothing; you find yourself becoming a little sleepy with the motion, like waves rocking past you.
"Your hair looks like the stars," Yue says softly, their hands brushing through your locks. There is something like oil on their hands, and it casts away the odd stiffness of your hair, bringing it back to something you are more familiar with.
"The stars?" You ask, coming out of your sleepy haze, wondering what that means.
Yue smiles, and pauses in combing your hair through momentarily. They point outside their house, through the window, where the myriad of jewels remain sparkling, even brighter as the night darkens into obsidian.
"Is that what they are called?" You murmur, enthralled.
"What do you call them?"
"Xingxing, but I don't know from where I got that name."
Yue goes back to untangling your hair. "I suppose you must have heard it from home. It also means star, in one of the languages that we speak. It is pretty, isn't it?"
"Xingxing..." You murmur, looking down at the ends of your hair, where Yue has already combed through so it is loose and soft. "The name is pretty."
"You seem to be of the stars, and not the sea," Yue remarks, with a little laugh in their voice. "Even the sea seemed to be made of stars when I saw you." They put the comb down, finally done with smoothing out your hair, and you look up at them.
"My name... I think I would like to be called Xing."
Yue smiles. “Of course, Xing."
In the days and weeks that follow after your arrival, you field many questions from the villagers. Most of them are from the curious children who bring you flower crowns and little jellies, because your hair still looks the starry night sky. The adults have more tact, but they too, press protective amulets upon you, and tell you to pray at the temples so you will have a way to return home.
Were you cursed to have legs by a witch?
Do you not want to return to the sea, where you grew up?
Why don't you find someone to help you break this spell?
You don't bother answering thse questions seriously.
There was never such a thing as the evil witch, after all, still trying to find balance on legs so new. There was only ever love, and you loved the mystery beyond the surface more than you loved staying beneath it, in safety. There was only ever a woman who knew some magic, and who had told you it would be painful, and who had given you a place to go to after you surfaced. There was only ever happiness when you agreed to it, and you chose a new life not for anyone but for yourself.
Xing came from the water, Yue had told everyone in the village you now call home. Named after the stars, and hair in their likeness. But now Xing belongs here.
The happiness you feel here is different from the one beneath the water, and dry sand feels so different on your palms. The sound of your voice echoes differently through light air, and when you sing, it sounds like freedom. The darkness of the deep waters is different from the darkness of the night sky, not sweeping and moving, but still and speckled.
Most of all, you have found a new home.
I wish they were here to see the stars, you think, as the waves ripple around your feet, foam curling at your ankles like they are welcoming you back. Mama, baba, do you know that I am happy now?
High above your head, out of your reach, the stars twinkle, as if they have heard your question. Like this, even though you are only so small compared to the sky, you reach your hands out anyway, and if you close your eyes, you can imagine that you have cupped a handful of stars. Your feet step further into the cold sea, but it isn't frigid to you.
You open your eyes. Here, wherever you look, down at your feet or up towards the heavens, are all stars. Thousands and millions of them, older than you can begin to understand, forming constellations with names passed down from old tongues and older minds. There is no boundary between the sea and the sky, and the edge is waxed over by this perfect darkness.
Live, the woman who knew magic had told you, the life you want to live. Live again and again and again, and learn how to live with happiness. That will be the only price you have to pay. You smile, and gaze up towards the heavens, grounded by the waves lapping at your feet.
The stars shine.