In her dream she is pinioned somewhere bright, brighter than the lure of any angler she’s ever seen. The light is warm and foreboding, but it washes over her in waves and in so doing lulls her to security. She squints against it but cannot make anything out; it is too bright for her dinner-plate eyes.
She floats there in the dream for a long time. She has no way of reckoning; she counts her seconds in heartbeats, her hours in shallow breaths drawn through gills, measured so as to not use too much energy, her days in the throb of hunger settling deeper into her gut, mind blank and stomach empty. She has not eaten in two days and the pain means to tear her in half. She pats her gut in her sleep; the arm is like a strand of midnight spun out of oilslick, slender and reticulated and vague.
black muscle / black sinew / black skin / black claws, needlepoint / black palms / wiry, wiry, wiry / midnight
She pats her stomach in her sleep and the display is precious, it takes so much energy!
One, energy to fire the neurons in the sleeping brain.
Two, energy to transmit the signal down the waiting arm.
Three, energy to move the arm there and back again –
She must be so very hungry.
The mermaid starves minutely, by finite degradations, exacerbated by her unconscious motion. Her stomach is devouring itself, slowly but surely. She needs to eat soon.
For the time being she still slumbers, but soon she will wake. In her dream, the warmth caresses her; anyone else would think it erotic. She has no concept like this; nothing stirs in her loins when the warmth touches her there. That feeling is gone, excised by millennia of laser-targeted evolution. She orgasms when she digests, that’s all. No other pleasures exist down here in the undivided night of the depths.
The warmth is turning to heat. It moves along her limbs, along her gills, along her tail. She twitches when it runs smoothly along a dulled photophore in her side and a sleep-dulled reaction blinks it swiftly to life. Red light blooms in the darkness, illuminating nothing but the dark water. Nothing could see it, even if something was there; only the mermaid and her kind and a kind of fish called a stoplight loosejaw can see red light down here. Red light is predator’s light; all those who emit it can see by it; none of those seen by it can see it; none of those seen by it are seen again.
The warmth moves inside her, to her belly. At first it feels nice; it feels like she’s just eaten, and the pleasant wriggling weight is settling into her gut; then it gets hot with such a speed and force that she barely has time to react. She feels herself burning from the inside out; she opens her mouth to scream and the superheated water jets out like one of the sulfur towers at the very very bottom. She feels her eyes burst with the heat of it, feels her ribs crack with the pressure of it –
a w a k e
She writhes to life, clutching at herself. Her wide, wide jaw opens, juts, gapes. A wail, ultrasonic. A mile or two upward a sperm whale, diving, hears and peers downward uneasily. His sides are scarred with suckermarks, clawmarks, beakmarks. The sperm whale is hungry too, but nowhere near as hungry as the mermaid. If their hungers were switched, even for a minute, she would be so high from bliss she would forget to breathe and asphyxiate, and the sperm whale would die from the shock.
She pirouettes, clutching her stomach, silencing herself, slow and looping and graceful. Her long tail sweeps back and forth, whipping the water to a frenzy, then her instincts take control and she locks up, freezes. It was just a dream, she thinks, just something her mind made up to terrify her. She trails her hand through the water around her; it doesn’t feel any warmer, and this reassures her. She packages the memory away somewhere in the back of her mind and resolves to forget it.
She drifts slowly downward, falling like the manna that surrounds her; for the basic component of the ecosystem here is marine snow, the shattered debris of all the living things miles above that have died and so fall into the deep. She rolls onto her back, opens her mouth. The snow is not enough for something complex like her to live on, but the soft oily taste blunts her hunger for a moment or two.
If she had language, she would pray thankfulness to the dark waters that she lives in such a bounteous land, where food falls from above and swims on all sides, if only one is crafty enough to catch it.
She runs through her systems one at a time. Lights flicker on, then off again. The two major ones, like floodlights embedded in her cheeks, she leaves off for the moment; they take too much power to run. She flicks on the one at the end of her tail and moves it in front of her mouth, then settles in to wait.
motionless / drifting / hours hours hours / pain in the gut / fins shaking / hungry hungry hungry hungry hungry
A gulper eel, entranced by the light, wanders near. Her jaw hinges forward; the swallower is swallowed. It squirms inside her and she grins. After a few moments the squirming stops and it lies still, a weight sinking into the pit of her stomach. She floats, content to drift in darkness.
Below her, beneath the crust of the brittle earth, a change is happening. The molten blood of the planet had reached a blockage it could not pass a thousand years ago, and instead it welled against the gap and built itself up in layer upon layer of boiling stone. The sulfur jets are so hot below that not even the albino crabs or the bacteria can live there; the water boils everything, sterilizes everything. The sea is bleached white for a mile radius near the wellpoint of this great subterranean contusion. The mermaid has never been down so deep; she does not know. The water is still chilly where she floats, a mile above the roiling chaos in the planet’s gut.
The stone could take a thousand years of slowly building pressure, but it could not take a thousand and one. With a noise like a gunshot its back breaks and buckles and crumbles into itself, and the sea melts together, a flood of red and orange pouring outwards and upwards. Even though it hisses and cools to glassy obsidian where it hits the water, more of the stuff is vomited forth from below until it bursts in a fuming gout of lava, floating in white-hot globs, slowly sinking back to the bottom.
The mermaid hears a strange noise and glances downward, in the direction it came. The water shudders around her, and a point of red, angry light blooms far below. She peers at it and the nervousness builds in her stomach before her nerves snapfire a decision and a judgment. Predator! She dives, circles around, up and away from it. It vanishes to a pinprick, and she stops, stares back at it. The light grows larger; whiter, brighter.
The mermaid stares. This is new. There has been nothing new in her entire life but this is new –
bright / molten metal / vomited by the deep / red then white / heat in the water / heat / hotter / HEAT
The dream bursts into her mind and the warmth from below rises and clutches at her. The water is getting warmer now, she can feel it. She cannot sweat; nothing down here can. She has no way of regulating her temperature. If she remains she’ll cook. She can feel her eyes bursting again, feel her stomach boiling again –
So she does the only thing a fish can do in distress and swims upward, against her instincts, away from the light.
Her tail, a whip. Her arms, spades. Her mouth, a gaping trawl-net, scooping great gulps of water and heaving them through her gills. Her eyes, saucers, wide and staring. She rises and rises until the light blooms ahead of her, too, but in this light there is no warmth, just a pale blueness filtering through the murky deep. She pauses here, at the threshold, and turns to look downward. She sees a darkness like oilslick lurking just a few feet beneath her; she could reach out and touch it. This is the furthest from home she has ever been. She looks and she can see herself, see her tail extending back toward the dark, part of the dark, so black and glossy she is, and the sight makes her jump.
She has never seen herself before. She raises an arm to her vision and peers at it; the light from above shines dully through her flesh, like through gelatin. She can see her bones, floating suspended inside her, and she twists her arm around to look at it better.
The pressure is lighter here and her body is starting to loosen. This will prove a problem in time, but not yet. She is still young and lean and fit; in the top one percent of her species, perhaps. She will hold herself together for now, but already there are niggles. The sockets of her teeth have started to ache, and she works her mouth worriedly, unsure of the pain. Is this a new form of hunger?
She spends so much time there staring at herself on the edge of the abyss that her stomach consumes the gulper eel entirely and smacks for more. Familiar pain. She ignores it, but it breaks her concentration. While she is admiring herself the sperm whale swims by, eyeing this strange black glistening creature. Their eyes meet. She cringes away from this massive thing; he gives her a wide berth and streams upward with a full belly and a few new suckermarks on his sides. Good hunting.
She looks around; the water is so clear up here that she can see for hundreds of meters in every direction but down. The space makes her feel nervous; for a moment she thinks it would be better to dive, hide herself in the deep. She looks down and there is a faint pinprick of burning light, somewhere in the depths. The memory of the heat is still too fresh to contradict. Lateral movement is an option; to her sides there is nothing but the open sea. She could move, circle back around the red light, go someplace it isn’t. She looks upward and there is the cool, welcoming light, the tinny blueness filtering down, diffused through hundreds of meters of water. She does an odd thing: she stops, glances back downwards, then kicks her tail and legs and begins her slow journey upwards. Where there was fear flowing through her like ice water, there is now just determination. She wants to see the cold blue light.
rise / slow and careful / getting lighter / more buoyant / strange colors / strange sounds / sounds / SOUNDS
Her ears hurt. There is so much noise clamoring for her attention; down below there was usually nothing but the faint rush of the current and occasionally high whines from her kin, signaling their territories. Here, though, everything makes noises, high-pitched ones like what she can make, but wrong, not her kin; low ones rumbling through her stomach and making her teeth shake; middle-pitched ones of all kinds, waves, surf, crash of rock and bone and rubble, dolphin calls and whalesong, none of which she has a name for, all of which hover on the edge of her comprehension. The noise so confuses her that she swims blindly, only notices the small silvery darting shapes around her when they scatter in a panic-
She has wandered into a school of still relatively deep-dwelling fish; they burst in all directions. She watches their silver bodies dart; she has never seen this kind before but fish are fish, no matter what depth, and to her fish are always food. She reaches out nimbly and seizes one. A scant morsel; barely enough to notice. The pain is reduced by a mere fraction.
Mouth open, billowing outward. She dives after them, scoops them up by the dozen. She doesn’t bother to chew; in fact, she can’t chew – her teeth are much too small and fragile. She simply swallows them whole and dares them to escape; none of them can. She eats and eats and eats until she works herself into a light daze, and with a fatlipped smile spreading over her face she rests and floats slowly upward, letting the current take her where it may.
She closes her eyes, sighs. A faint burble of bubbles spews from her lips, along with one of the fish, the luckiest, having navigated her gullet and mouth and caught her with her guard down. She frowns at it as it tries to flee; she spears it on one claw, letting a gush of red into the water, and swallows it down again.
Her eyes close and she allows herself to sleep.
dark / blank like the deep / flickers of light / swooping / circling / around / a nudge / a strike / A STRIKE
Her eyes pop open. She does not know how long she has slept, but her stomach twinges, even though the memory of her meal is fresh in her mind; too long, then.
Something is circling her lazily, and as she wakes she realizes the danger of the situation. She does not see it; she is floating on her back and all she can see is the dimming blue light.
She spins. An instinct, nothing more; she felt the pressure of advancing water, driven by a massive, killer weight, bearing down on her. She spins and the shark passes over her, just grazing the tip of her fins. Its skin is rough, like sandpaper. She hisses; a rattle burns through the water. The shark rounds again, circles. Eyes like black marbles. She watches it, watches this strange beast. She has never seen a shark.
Down in the deep there are few things brave enough to prey on her and her kind; the only things that do are large and strange and stay out of sight. This shark is different; it is confident. It circles and circles and she spins to track it. She weighs its size speculatively. Not so much larger than her. It rushes her again and she ducks it. Clumsy thing; she will have no pity if it misses again.
As it passes the next time she reaches out and rakes its side with her claws. Three red streaks along the shark’s side; three red gouts trailing behind it. She tastes the blood; different fare than what she’s used to - fattier. The shark rolls, retreats. In a moment it has disappeared; all that remains is the blood, trailing off behind the shark’s vanishing form.
Our heroine plays with it for a while, pushing at it with her hands, before she notices more sharks approaching, sniffing the blood back to the one who shed it. She shrinks away from the approaching sharks and pushes through the water, up toward the light. When she is far enough away she stops, clutches herself. Now her ribs have started to hurt, a dull ache where they connect back to her spine. She presses at them anxiously, not understanding where the pain comes from. Perhaps, she considers, she needs to eat more. Perhaps then the pain will go away.
As she ascends the water grows warmer, though not the killing kind of warmth she felt down in the deep. If she could think she might wonder what became of it, what became of her kin. Throughout her whole life she has seen four others of her species; one, a male, mated with her eight years ago. She killed him afterward, and swallowed the parts. The other three were females, and they fled mutually when they met, each jetting off in their chosen directions. It’s rare to meet another in the deep anyway, and these few encounters she barely remembered; they were not important enough to spend energy on storing.
She is not made to rise this high. She can feel herself loosening; her joints drift apart, her flesh billows out and gains volume, loses weight. She is a little more dissolute the higher she rises. She grabs at herself, feels the folds of flesh. The feeling is strange, like she has suddenly doubled in size; she is bewildered. What seals her fate is this: she does not associate this looseness with her change in altitude. Hunger pains spread to new parts of her body, perhaps. As she examines herself, looking for wounds and feeling for broken bones she knocks against something and springs back; ahead of her, she realizes, is a cliff, the wall of the trench in which she lives. She swims to it and lays a claw along the rock. Its roughness is pleasing to her touch and she trails her hand along it as she rises. As she goes the various cliff dwellers, eels and crabs and long darting fish, pop back into their holes, unsure of this inky nightmare ghosting upward along the cliff face. She sees the movement and peers into the holes but is not brave enough to stick a hand in and retrieve the inhabitants; the holes remind her of the sulfur-vents and she doesn’t want to scald herself. The male she mated with eight years ago had a white nerveless streak along his back and side from diving to close to one of the vents, and he moved strangely because of it. While they mated she ran her hand along it and he shivered, but did not dare to snap at her.
She still has a long way to go. Although the pinprick of light she was so afraid of has long since vanished, the promise of clear water ahead fills her with determination. She wants to see the blue light and she has come too far to go back now. She turns her mind off and works her fins and tail and arms; she moves upward slowly, a mote of darkness in an ocean of lightening water.
loosening / lighter / warmer / strands of kelp / what colors are these / darting silver fish / behemoth whales
As a shadow passes over her she comes to herself and cowers amid the thick kelp. She has come to a forest, and the greenery is unfamiliar to her. She grasps at one of the stalks and bends it, flexes it; she cannot tell what it is. She would try to eat it but it is too large, and she cannot break it into smaller chunks. Her arms have started aching as the muscle slowly separates itself from her bones. They feel fleshy and bloated, and she presses at herself gently, trying to understand. She equates all of her pain to hunger, but she does not know how to feed her arms. In her worry a few of her teeth break loose, and she swallows them all the same. Small morsels.
She passes through the forest as silently as she can, stilling her tail and pulling herself along with her long spindly arms, disregarding their ache. Up above a humpback breaches, sucks in giant lungfuls of air. The whale has not seen the ghost amid the kelp, and won’t; after this it will move off to the west, to rejoin her pod. The mermaid watches the whale go, wondering what it is; sperm whales she is vaguely familiar with, the big blocky murderous bricks that delve to the upper reaches of the deep in search of squid, but the humpback’s ridged bullet shape is unfamiliar; she cannot associate the two within her mind.
As the humpback recedes to the west the mermaid assigns it no threat and turns, pushes her way through the rest of the forest. She comes to the edge and peers out; the light is so bright up here that she must squint. Ahead is a coral reef; half the colors are ones she has never seen before. She stares at them, entranced, until a school of fish pass by. Her stomach drives her forward and she catches most of them; the rest are too fast for her, which is strange in its own right; she is used to being lightning-fast, and meeting something quicker than her is disconcerting, but perhaps she is slowing. The ache has spread to her legs and tail now and she cannot thrust as well as before.
She watches the fish go, satisfied with what she’s caught but still desiring more. She scours her way over the reef, picking at coral and anemones. Her skin is too thick and glossy for them to sting properly, and she plays with the anemones. Amusement lights in her brain as she feels how they wiggle and squish beneath her hands.
The light is giving her a headache. She picks her way to a shaded part of the reef and rests there. The warmth had started to be uncomfortable, but here in the shade it’s nice and cool. There is a small cave in the rock and she glances in cautiously; in the corner a long snakey golden eel cowers. It peers at her blearily and she reaches out for it; it twines around her arm and she draws it forth. Her first instinct is to raise it to her mouth, swallow it down, but she is still sated from all the fish and she stops herself just before; she and the eel are face-to-face; the eel has small, beady, nervous eyes and its prognathous jaw works slowly to itself as it coils against her arm, rubbing against her gently. They regard each other for a while before the eel swims off. She watches it go with bemusement; its touch was warm and rubbery and sweet, and she wished it might have lingered a little longer. It rounds the edge of the coral and is gone, its ribbony tail slipping out of sight.
She waits for a while but it doesn’t return; her stomach drives her onward, but she resists it, pauses, clutches her knees to her chest. She watches the mouth of the cave, waiting for the eel to come back. It was the first thing she’d met on her journey upward that hadn’t fled from her, and its snaky shape reminded her of her own tail. She wanted to let it coil around her arm and lay her fingers along its back, pet it, examine it.
She waits as long as she can, but her curiosity overpowers her. When she leaves the shade, the heat hits her like a brick wall across a highway. She nearly swoons but masters herself. The light is even brighter now and strikes from two angles, both filtering down from above and reflecting up from the milk-white sand.
The surface is right there – she reaches out and touches it, breaks through the water like a newborn and feels air for the first time. She can feel the water dripping from her claws and the dryness seeping through her hand; she pulls it back quickly. It felt so strange; not unpleasant, but strange.
removed / so light / dry / curious curious / my arm, so dark / pretty / like ink / squid / it shines / dissolving
As she rose, her body weakened; used to greater and greater pressures, its gelatinous components loosened. One of her ribs is loose in her chest now; one of her tailbones might break if she puts strain on it. She is not made for these heights and these lights. How could she have known?
She musters her bravery and raises her head above the water. It is so bright she must shield her eyes with her hand. The sun burns her skin, she can’t breathe; through narrow-slit eyes she makes out the shore. There are things like her on it, things walking on split tails, with a strange pink coloration to their skin, soft and fleshy. They caper and make strange noises; her gorge rises but instinct prevents her from vomiting.
It is too much, all of it; the sensations overload her, the heat scorches her, the sight of the creatures on the beach revolts her. She twists, dives, releases into the water, back to safety, but in her desperation she moves too greedily and too fast. This is the end. She feels something crack inside her back, she feels her flesh peel apart. One arm drifts off, coming apart at the shoulder like wet rope. Her tail unravels around her like a dress. There is pain, oh, there is pain. She cries out again and again but nothing can hear her; she is too high-pitched for anything around to notice, except for a few: on the beach, a dog barks and whines, cowers away from the water. Its owner pulls at the leash. Off in the ocean, the humpback pauses, circles round, looks back. It lets out a long questioning call but there is no response. A few moments later the whale is out of earshot entirely and the mermaid is more alone than she has ever been in the abyss.
pain / broken up / my arm / my arm / by the wrist / salt stings / dark dark dark / alone / afraid / AFRAID
She catches her arm, flailing blindly for it. She grabs it by the wrist and holds it tightly to her. She cannot understand why she can’t move it any more, and she clutches it like a doll. If she could cry, she would, but her eyes have burst too; she is blind now. She tries to flex her tail but a stabbing pain runs through her back and then she is completely numb. This scares her more than anything, and the fear is doubled simply from never having been afraid before. She cries out again but a dull resignation has already rose in her stomach. She has seen so many things die, been the cause of so many little deaths, either at the ends of her claws or in the pit of her stomach, but she had never considered her own death, whether it would be violent or whether she would live long enough to feel her body break down and fall apart.
On top of all of it, she is hungry.
The tide pushes her slowly out to sea. She bobs on the surface, her density having spent itself in the pool of inky blood billowing out around her. She floats now, and roasts in the sun. Somehow, she lives; shock is an alien concept to these creatures, no protection for when they are wounded beyond repair. She will float until she loses so much blood that her armored veins are empty.
She can still feel, though. There is something circling around her in the water. The sensation is the same as before, a deadly, killer weight pushing itself, sizing her up. The blindness frightens her; she wishes she could see the thing, could see the moment when it flicks its head towards her and darts in for the kill. She would turn her head and track it but the pain in her neck is so sharp that she dares not. She feels the minute pressures in the water shift around her again and again.
It gathers to a head, hesitates, surges forward –
A day or two later what is left of her rains down on the abyss.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Audrey Rhys is a veterinarian from Florida. She finds writing to be a good way to distract herself from work and is currently writing a novel.
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