I stare into the expanse of sea, turquoise and slate. The waters are warmer and calmer. When the plankton thrive, gentle giant whale sharks skim the surface with their enormous jaws open. They should be monsters like me if you consider their size. But they don’t offer any threat. We used to dance alone with them, until the humans came.
Many come now.
Which makes some merfolk hungrier for flesh.
The whale sharks feast on the plankton, and merfolk feast on the humans.
Humans don’t seem unintelligent, despite the stories. But even after the death of one of their own, they still return. They either haven’t learned, or don’t want to fight. They must be gentler than their reputation. They must want to learn about us.
Humans pull thick black skins on, and make relatively efficient fins that speed their clumsy movement in the water. Most impressively, they learned to put air in a hard silver shell and breathe in the water.
I can’t help feeling curious.
Why don’t they learn? They return despite the danger. I wish I could forget the one killed today. The boats slowly sped away, waiting a short time. Perhaps to see if their human had drifted too far rather than been torn apart. Humans can’t be monsters if they wait for their family.
One lost to a song.
I don’t have the heart to watch. I hide. I’m not curious about their deaths anymore.
“Niru, why didn’t you come to the feast?”
I look across from the rock I lay on. Kaya hovers in the slate water, and her expression says it’s not the first time she’d tried to grab my attention.
“Wasn’t hungry,” I lie. “My mind was running with the current, sorry.”
“I can see that. Well, you missed out. Barun barely did his share, no surprise, and it was my call that lured the human. It was particularly delicious.” Kaya shivers in delight and licks her fingers for effect. “Humans are more distractable, easier to lure these days. It’s kind of dull.”
I sigh. “I still think they’re fascinating.”
Kaya groans. She flicks the end of her tail, swimming towards me.
I wrap my arms around my tail. “How did you know I’d be here?”
She cocks her head to the side. “As if I don’t know… you come here for all the feasts.” She swims closer, placing her hand on my shoulder. “So lean now. And look at your tail! It’s lost it’s vibrancy. You used to be deep green.”
I assess my tail, although I already know. Mu scales have lost their emerald sheen.
Kaya lowers her voice. “Niru, sister, it’s not good for you to abstain from human flesh.”
I look away from her concerned gaze. “Periods of fasting can be healthy.”
She crosses her arms. “I’m not the only one who’s notices your lack of participation.”
I meet her glare. She would be a terrific last face to witness; her blue tinged skin and large stormy eyes like the rocks we rest on. My stomach turns when I see the new teeth braided into her hair. How can I explain that I'm haunted by pleading calls of humans as we tear into them? Maybe we could walk with humans on land, just as they visit the sea. Maybe they could show us how they touch the clouds.
Kaya will never understand. Her blessing is her contentment, and my hunger is my curse.
I lower my eyes. “I know.”
The only good thing after a luring is that humans delay their return. We get full access to the whale sharks at the surface. Their magnificent shadows are a beckoning, an irresistable luring of their own. We’ve had humanless days of dancing in their wakes, feeling like a true community, every merfolk feasting only on smaller fish. But humans are hungry to see, just as I am. Soon, more return than should be allowed.
But this is not in the old agreements. Still, I relax in them, as we cannot lure anyone else until the next moon. I watch the bright blue waters above.
I stare up from under the rays of sunlight piercing through the surface. The whale sharks glide above me, wide mouths open. Their tails slowly and gracefully push and pull the water. Because the boats have returned, I must wait until the sharks dive, and race them to the depths. But it’s nothing like weaving between the sharks with the sun on your back.
It wouldn’t hurt to change my fins to legs and dart to the surface, dancing with the humans and the whale sharks, integrating into each other's worlds. The agreements were made when humans barely came out here. When they stayed more on their ships. I doubt they even remembered that a mermaid with legs meant trouble.
They just want to observe my world, and I, theirs. The same as I wanted to follow every seahorse and manta as a merling. We are just two different worlds craving understanding of the other.
I sigh at the shadows above. When the sun is lower in the sky, the humans will leave on their noisy boats. I push down a thought.
Shouldn’t they be letting us have our time for these migrations?
A silvery tail flips towards my face.
“I know that look. You’re longing for a swim,” Kaya teases.
I gesture widely. “Too many humans.”
She nods. “Pretty greedy.”
I shrug. “Can’t you see why?”
“The sharks invited us. I doubt they asked your humans to come.”
I cross my arms. “They’re not my humans. And I want to dance, too, I’m just waiting for the boats to go.”
Kaya smiles deviously. “We could just go to the back of the flock–”
I hold a hand up. “There’s already been a luring this moon.”
Kaya’s shoulder slump and she lowers her eyes at me. “I’m not asking you to sing, Niru. Just get a closer look. You know you’re curious!”
I frown. “I don’t know about this.”
She grabs my hands. “The humans will never know.”
I look up again at the family. I consider suggesting using legs, not as a war declaration. Just in case the humans see us. But fins are so much faster. And if seen, the humans usually think we’re a dolphin.
“Do you promise? No singing?”
“I give my word,” Kaya says, straightening her torso and placing her hand over her heart.
The moment I nod, Kaya bursts towards the top. I give chase and let her think she’ll win. I speed past her like a shark after a seal, and turn to tease.
Her eyes are wide with surprise. I follow her gaze.
Now, the shadows are better defined. There are infinitely more humans than should be here.
Kaya hesitates, and changes direction.
She dives a bit lower and swims towards the front of the family. I follow, deeper, so the rays of sunlight don’t betray our silhouettes. From a safer distance, we look up.
“Gloat if you want to, I guess. Let’s come back closer to sunset–” Kaya starts.
Whatever makes her stop speaking also transforms her face. She has the frenzied look of a shark about to bite, her eyes full black, teeth bared.
The humans are running their hands along the whale sharks’ bodies. Feeding them something.
Kaya points towards the largest female of the family. Behind her dorsal fin, there are deep gashes across. Kaya points an accusing finger. When she speaks, her voice shakes with rage. “Those are from their boats. The boats that humans drive. Their place is the land, ours the sea.”
Her face darts back to me, eyes disbelieving, then fierce. She tenses, ready to charge.
I grab Kaya’s arm, but it’s no use. Kaya is not faster than me, but she is stronger. She pulls me effortlessly.
She thrashes me off, and blasts forward with such force I’m pulled into her tail’s wake.
I stop, mere fathoms from the surface. Kaya keeps going.
I am frozen.
She charges with her jaws open and sinks her pointed teeth into the leg of a human with its hand on the whale shark.
The effect is instantaneous. There is splashing, chaotic flapping of the human’s hard fins. I dart and grab Kaya’s arm. She hisses at me, her face showing no restraint or recognition. She struggles under my grip, and it’s all I can muster to keep her from tearing into the bleeding human again. One by one, humans flee as a trickle of blood paints the water. One by one, the boats speed away with a low hum.
There is no caution taken at their departure, and a loud thud reverberates into the water.
Another whale shark has been grazed by a propeller.
Kaya screams. With all this noise, splashing, and blood, we are sure to summon sharks, or barracuda. “We need to leave!” I shout, but Kaya is pointlessly chasing the boats.
I swim to the side of the freshly cut whale shark. The graze at her head is not deep, but looks painful. I look around in all directions. I know humans will come back. Come to her aide. I should descend. But I want to know how much time I have, so I peer over the top of the water.
No one remains.
“Can I help?” I ask the whale shark, reaching to assess the gash. She turns from my touch.
“Go. We do not dance with you today,” she says.
I sink under the enormity of the shadows passing overhead.
Kaya has left me. The humans have left me. The whale sharks have left me.
I dive alone into the deep.
Our merfolk gather together, waiting in the deep until the ominous dark fins of curious sharks lessen. Kaya is silent. I’d rather face a tiger shark than her right now. It’s hard to see in the dark waters, but everyone can feel her murderous mood.
“I vow to take one for every transgression I witness. I shouldn’t have stopped. I should have pulled it under.”
Heads are nodding. Some growl.
“Why didn’t you?” Arnab asks. His voice is curious rather than accusing, but I want to sink to the bottom.
All eyes land on me. Some are searching for a reason for my betrayal.
Some search for a reason to attack.
My eyes are glued to my tail.
Arnab sighs. “Let’s just hope they thought it was a shark. Between this and the luring a few days ago maybe they’ll stay out of the water for some time.”
“Or maybe they’ll send fishermen to hunt. We’ve seen this before. They’ll find a shark to sacrifice,” Barun says, eyes darting around him as if remembering what we’re hiding from.
“Not our concern,” Kaya says. “We can use the quiet time to repair the relationships with the whale sharks. They’ll no doubt be cautious after today’s mess.”
My eyes prickle. I can’t cry here. It would be one more reason for everyone not to take me seriously.
Arnab puts his hands to his greying braids. He remains silent uncomfortably long. “If humans seek whale sharks, they can seek us, too. All it takes is one sighting - and the stories seem to move among humans much quicker than when I was young.”
Heads of our older merfolk nod in agreement.
Barun poked me on my side. “You know better than to dance with the whale sharks when there are humans about.”
I open my mouth to protest, but Kaya’s nervous eyes stop me.
She hasn’t told anyone about my hunger to swim amongst the humans. I shoot her a look that says ‘we’re even.’ I put my head down. “I do.”
Barun seems satisfied, and withdraws. “I say watch them—no need to declare an all out war just yet.”
Some disagree, but most shout their favor to the suggestion. Kaya’s lips are curled in a sneer.
I turn to Arnab. As the eldest, everyone relies on his decision. I don’t make eye contact. He may be more likely to see reason in private council. But I won’t be able to get one of those for some time. Not after today.
Arnab swims a bit higher and lifts his chest . “They were the first to defy the agreement. If they continue to violate their agreement, we will remind them,” Arnab says, clawing in front of him in a tearing motion. He nods to Kaya. She beams. “We will watch. And we will wait. And even if we must lure them from the land, our ancestors will guide us.”
There is a suppressed cheer, and when it ends, I speak. “We must be careful not to judge all humans based on the behavior of one.”
All eyes are on me again.
Barun lifts his hands, disgruntled. “You and the humans. Have you ever even been to where the ocean embraces the land?”
He glides close to me, a little too close. Between his proximity and the eyes on me, I shrink down.
“No,” I admit, quietly.
His smile is devious.
“Go. See what your humans do there. Even to their own land.”
I pull a whisper of courage from deep within. “They want to know about the sea, right? That’s why they come. Maybe we need to learn more about the land.”
Barun laughs, and a few around are smirking.
“Back off, Barun,” Kaya sweeps between us. “She’s the youngest. She’ll learn in time.”
“Why should she wait?” He asks, appealing to Arnab. “She needs to see that humans take, and all they return is choking us. Niru hasn’t shared in flesh in months.”
I look at Kaya. She’s looking down. Arnab is the only merfolk looking at me, and it is with a look of concern. Everyone else seems angry and disappointed.
It all fills the ocean around me, which shrinks with each passing moment.
I need to get out of here.
If I can’t tell them, maybe I can show them.
My heartbeat quickens. “I’ll go. Alone. Tomorrow night. To observe.”
Kaya lifts her head. “I’ll accompany her.”
I frown. “No. I know I need to pull my own weight–”
“When’s the last time you participated in a luring? Hunted alone?” Kaya asks. “How will you respond if they try to hunt you? You’re weaker when you use legs, and if you won’t use your song, they’ll have a complete advantage. They could even capture you.”
“Maybe that’s what she wants.” Barun says, just loud enough for everyone to hear.
Arnab turns to him, displeased. “Barun–”
Kaya swims closer to me, places her hand on my shoulder and looks defiantly at Barun. “By going on this journey, she proves her loyalty. If we see any transgressions, we will lure together.” I only have a moment to relax under her defense. She squeezes my shoulder. Her expression is cold and stern as she bores her eyes into mine. “And if she does not, she’ll remain with the humans, if that’s where her loyalty lies.”
My eyes dart around the circle. None meet mine. Their eyes flick to fish, to rocks and shells.
Anything but me.
“Enough with this weak behavior, Niru. Choose your community,” Kaya whispers. I pray only I can hear her.
It stings like jellyfish, but I nod.
Kaya and I stand in the shallowest water I’ve ever experienced. It is the first time I have seen where the ocean embraces the land. Small waves glide over the sand, and the sand dances herself down into the tiny waves. There are so many new things to see I don’t know where to put my eyes. There are long rods with flames. Humans walk the shore in dry, brightly colored cloths. My vision is blurry and the moon is not very bright, but I can see enough.
Kaya is right, I’m not very good on these weak legs, and although she is stronger, our movements are just as clumsy as humans when they swim. The water is just over my knees. I’m trying to mimic the laughing clusters of humans on the shore, but I’m not nearly as graceful. A twinge of fear grows. I’m scared to approach the shore.
One human isn’t scared to approach us. He sloshes into the waves, although this one also seems pretty clumsy.
Kaya smiles at him, and I wonder if my face looks as different as hers does. She is almost fully human.
But I’m having trouble putting on a human face.
The garbage that chokes our water, our whale sharks, our turtles. It is all over this beach.
“They don’t want to learn the waters. They want to destroy them,” I say.
Kaya only nods. “You needed to see.”
The waves swallow the poison left on the shore.
My eyes prickle, and my chest grows hot. “I thought I wanted to help them - to be more like them.”
I am furious.
The human is now within full sight. I wonder if we should have worn clothes, because the way he is smiling and looking at us is hungry, and every bit as frightening as Kaya’s pre-bite appearance. He takes a long drink from his bottle, and hurls it into the ocean.
My mouth falls open.
“Hello,” he says.
Kaya smiles. “One transgression,” she says.
My throat tingles, and the urge to use it grows as he comes closer. Kaya giggles and splashes me. The human smiles as I splash Kaya back, still wobbling on my new legs. It smiles at us and then pounces, wrapping its arms around Kaya. It laughs. She laughs.
I lock eyes with it.
I want to understand them. But not tonight.
Tonight I am angry.
And so, so hungry.
He’s hungry for something too, because he follows us as we swim.
I call the mist.