Chapter Twelve: When Rain meets a friend with incredibly striking eyebrows
It took him a few tries, but Rain eventually got the hang of swimming. He decided he rather enjoyed it. He never would have known that about himself, had the garden not abandoned him. He knew it now. And it was very, very true. He enjoyed floating on his back, the waves rocking him side to side. He enjoyed diving. He would swim down deep, until the light ran out and it was too dark to see anything. But, most of all, he enjoyed the companionship. The creatures he encountered in the water were far happier than those he had met on land. They were giggly, bubbly things, flittering about, flying above and below the waterline. They gurgled and warbled and sang all sorts of songs. And, most importantly, their eyes had none of that glazed-over despondence that Rain had come to expect from land creatures. His new companions’ eyes were clear and focused. Their scales were bright. Their laughter was not forced. Rain didn’t have the language for feelings like “stress” or “angst;” if he had, he might also have known that their sudden lifting left one feeling “relieved.” With such knowledge, he would have been able to tell the dolphins and the gulls that he was, perhaps, the most relieved person he’d ever known. Not a high bar, of course. But it was the highest he knew.
And so, there he was, swimming and relieved, somewhere in the middle of an expanding ocean. Rain even had a song stuck in his head. It was one Tall Mother had sung to them, back in the garden.
Round and round the river goes. It was one of those dancing songs. All the children knew the motions. They knew the words, too, but they never joined in with the singing. Rain didn’t know why. Tall Mother wasn’t that great of a singer.
Where it’s going, no one knows. Short Mother had much better pitch, now that Rain thought about it. But Tall Mother was definitely the better dancer.
Swim, dear one, against the tow
when your world begins to grow.
“What does it mean to swim?” they would ask their mothers, who would, for their part, simply shrug. “You tell me,” Short Mother would say.
And when your father bends and groans
Find him, child, and bring him home.
And so it went. Rain hummed and sang and swam. Rain had been humming and singing and swimming for several days and nights, though he hadn’t thought to keep count. He didn’t really care, when it came down to it. Time had never really been a part of his upbringing.
The sky was shockingly clear, on this particular morning. Sunlight shattered against the water, brilliant and blue. The glittering fractures shot through the waves, glinting, twisting, trying to find their way back to the sky. Rain thought it was rather pleasant, and certainly the brightest this place had been since he’d arrived. It didn’t come close to the garden’s colors, but Rain suspected nothing here would. He could accept that. Eventually. Maybe.
Rain floated on his back, spitting salt and sea out of his mouth. He kicked with his feet, when he felt like it. Sometimes he would throw in a backstroke or two. Birds would land on his stomach, every now and then. One particular gull kept bringing him presents. Flowers, mostly, and a few fish.
“Where are you going?” Something asked.
“I can’t say that I know,” Rain responded, staring up into the sun, trying to see how long he could go without blinking.
“I suppose that much is obvious,” the voice laughed. It was a tinkling laugh, light, delicate like crystal. Rain was reminded of one of the waterfalls he and his sisters would play in. “I’ll ask you a different question, then. Why are you here?”
Rain shrugged. It was a funny gesture, laying as he was atop a less-than-solid surface.
“I could have gone forwards or backwards. And I didn’t really like what was behind me. So here we are.”
“Oh. I see. Mmmhmm.” If Rain had been expelled from the garden at a happier, more secure moment of human history, he would most certainly have encountered sarcasm before this particular “Oh. I See. Mmmhmm.” He likely would have experienced it during his first day on earth, if not his first hour. He might even have tried it on for size, once or twice. He could have started with a “yes, yes you CAN wear whites after Labor Day,” or a “wow, I LOVE being utterly and completely and irrevocably alone in this strange new world,” or even a “no, cilantro’s not at all offensive, please, put it on everything.” He wouldn’t have worn sarcasm for too long, though. He’s got quite the earnest streak, if we’re being honest, and isn’t much into mockery. But, no matter. This was not such a period of happiness or security for the humans—though it might be mentioned that the jellyfish were living their best life—and Rain was left knowing nothing of sarcasm. As such, the layered meaning of “Oh. I see. Mmhmm” was completely lost on him.
“Yes, well,” Rain said. He blinked. Not because the sun had won out against his eyes, but because it had only just begun to occur to him that the voice was not in his head. He sat up—a mistake, when one is floating on one’s back—and immediately began to flounder.
“What’s this? All the way out here, and you can’t swim?” The tinkling voice laughed a little, and didn’t help at all. But Rain eventually remembered how to tread water. He settled into a rhythm and the water settled in around him. It was at that point that he noticed the head bobbing in the waves.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” the head said back.
“Umm…” Rain began, blinking some more, trying to figure out how he felt about a bobbing head.
“Since when does your sort swim all the way out here?” The head asked again. It floated closer, and Rain realized that the head was, indeed, attached to a neck. Rain ducked underwater, checking to see if there were any other parts. There were. He’d even seen most of them before. Just, never on the same body. Rain wondered if this, too, was supposed to make sense. He didn’t see why not.
Round and round the river goes. He could almost hear Tall Mother singing it.
Rain sighed. Well, blew bubbles, really. But he meant it as a sigh. The head joined him under the surface, watching him curiously.
“What, never seen a mermaid?” The head—well, the mermaid—asked. “Though, I suppose you wouldn’t have. We only live in the very deeps, you know. But there’s a lot more deeps, these days, what with this whole “ocean sprawl” thing taking over the globe.”
“Fascinating,” Rain tried to say. Only bubbles came out. The mermaid seemed to understand what he said, though. At least, she nodded as if she did.
“Anyway, the housing market is booming, and everybody’s out scouting for real estate. I, personally, have only ever rented. The city’s just so expensive, you know? But my cousin—she’s in finance—says if I buy in this market, I could afford a house. Like, an entire house. With multiple rooms. And working utilities. No more freezing in the winter because the sandlord can’t be bothered to fix the boiler. What is that even like? I said to Juney—my cousin—that I just absolutely loved the idea of not freezing in the winter, and she said to me that I needed to start scoping out the new deeps, which is what I’m doing now. Well, sort of. I got a little turned around, back at that flyover—honestly, none of your roads make any sense—so now I’m half scoping, half trying to remember where I am. Anyway, that’s why I’m all the way out here. See what I did there? I shared information in a trusting, carefree manner. So, let’s try again. Hello, strange human. Why are you all the way out here?”
Rain floated there. He stared quite a bit. At the mermaid, yes. And the surface above. Past that, the sky. He listened to her words, and re-listened to them. First, as she had said them. And then, in a way that made more sense.
“Can you hear me?” She asked, floating closer. “Was I going too fast? Ronda says I go too fast, sometimes.”
Where it’s going, no one knows.
Rain shrugged. He was getting tired of shrugging, but he didn’t know what else to do.
“I can hear you,” Rain bubbled. The mermaid must not have been able to understand his bubble-speech, though, because she pointed skyward. Rain nodded, paddling up to the surface, the mermaid following.
“I can hear you,” he said again. “I just don’t know how to answer you.”
“Like… it’s not a trick question, or anything. This isn’t a test.” Her skin glittered in the sun, golden and shifting. Rain couldn’t tell whether her hair was green or blue. He supposed it could be both.
“I was in a garden, and then I wasn’t. My mothers and sisters and brothers were with me, then they weren’t. I came out on a mountain, and walked down. I got to the water and decided to swim. And here I am.”
The mermaid was trying her very best to not look skeptical. A look Rain was a little more familiar with, as it so happened. Short Mother never would believe that they “hadn’t been close enough to hear” when she called for them to come help her with the weaving.
“I don’t think I’m from this place,” he went on. “It feels different, is different. But I don’t know how. I’m sorry I can’t tell you a better story.”
“Mmhmm. Okay… well. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Though, I one hundred percent guarantee you that you will get crazier and more idiosyncratic each time I retell this story. I hope that’s okay. Do you have a name?”
“Rain? Really? You don’t think that’s… oh, I don’t know? A bit on the nose?”
“It was that or ‘Garden.’”
“Do you have a name?”
“What kind of a question is that?”
“That was a joke.” The mermaid rolled her eyes. “My name is Hadal. Because my mother also thinks she is quite funny.”
“Why is that funny?”
The mermaid—Hadal—waggled her eyebrows, which were also that in-between of green and blue. And a little bit of silver, perhaps? Whatever the colors, they were quite pretty.
“Mother named me after the trench she and dad were doing the dirty in around the time I was conceived.”
“Why is that funny?”
“Because that trench is simultaneously a respectable piece of geography and an infamous hookup spot. And in neither of those iterations is it a proper mermaid name.”
“Oh. I get it.” It almost wasn’t a lie. He felt like he could get it, if he tried just a little harder.
“Well, Rain. You have the entire ocean before you. And behind you, I guess, but we’ve already established your opinion regarding places you’ve been. Where are you going?”
Rain almost said it again. The “I don’t know, just swimming around” bit. But he couldn’t quite manage it.
Swim, dear one, against the tow
when your world begins to grow.
“I need to find my father,” he said. Because, why not? He couldn’t think of anything better to do.
“See, now, why didn’t you lead with that? That’s a perfectly reasonable predicament. Minus the part where you’re out in the middle of the ocean, which still beggars an explanation. Anyway. Do you know where he is? When was the last time you saw him?”
Rain did not understand how one person could make so many words with so little meaning. He wanted it to stop, but he hadn’t yet learned how to extricate himself from unwanted social engagements.
“Last time I saw who? Father?” Rain shrugged yet again. “I haven’t ever seen Father. I haven’t ever known him, either. It’s from a song Tall Mother used to sing.”
Hadal simply stared, mouth slightly open.
“It’ll be fine, Hadal. We can’t know everything.”
She eventually got the use of her jaw back.
“From a… song… you’re… oh, whatever. I tried.” Her beautiful eyebrows were furrowing down her brow. Rain found it difficult to look away. They were such a striking feature, and intricate, and—
But Hadal was talking again, and he had to focus.
“…can’t see how using a nursery rhyme as a roadmap could possibly go wrong. I mean, it brought you all the way out here, didn’t it? I, for one, can’t think of a better place to be.”
“See? Exactly,” Rain agreed. He smiled at his words, rather liking the way he had just said one thing but meant another thing entirely. He thought this little subversion of meaning could be quite fun—even funny—in the right context. So much for his earnestness.
“What is that?” He asked, tapping his fingers against the water’s surface.
“What is what?” Hadal asked, following his gaze but not seeing anything in particular. Which only made sense. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular. He was too busy discovering the meaning of sarcasm.
“That… that tone? What is it?”
“…you’re going to have to help me out, little brother.”
“Oh?” Rain’s smile deepened as he snapped out of his thoughts and turned to face the mermaid. “What’s this? ‘Little brother?’” Hadal raised one lovely brow.
“Don’t get carried away, Rain. It’s just the way we address little boys stranded at sea.” She frowned suddenly, thoughtfully. “Though, you are practically begging to be adopted. Hmmm. I bet mom and dad could make some space. They’re always one yelling match away from kicking Tonga out, and her room is pretty sweet. How do you feel about your eardrums?”
Rain pulled at his ears, considering.
“Quite fond, I think.”
“Hmm. Any wiggle room on that?”
“Nothing, never mind.” She ducked her head back underwater, wetting her hair. “So, where do you think you’ll find him? Your father, I mean?”
Rain didn’t answer her immediately. Instead, he hummed. He sang through the song in his head, thinking about the words, hoping that some of them were directional in nature. Hadal groaned.
“So you were being completely serious when you said you were taking life advice from a lullaby.”
Rain ignored her, singing on.