Chapter Fourteen: And then Hamilton gets stuck in your head for the better part of a week because your people sought refuge in the eye of a hurricane and there was indeed quiet for just a moment and the tinsiest hint of a yellow sound but also more mermaids so like
“Literally can you not what the h-e-double hockeysticks.” It wasn’t the most brilliant linguistic construction Faye had ever come up with. Wasn’t the least brilliant, though. Somewhere in the middle.
“Oh my word WHAT,” Tarin shot back. He wasn’t at his most brilliant, either. Faye thought that the small hurricane they had just barely managed to sail through probably had something to do with their mutually substandard moods. Tarin stood, body taut, one arm straining to keep the slack out of one of the thousand ropes aboard the ship, the other arm holding Baby awkwardly, trying not to crush it. And barely succeeding. Thus the referencing of the double hockeysticks.
They had just skimmed into the eye of a hurricane. Faye used the brief and sudden calm to find her feet, wobble over to Tarin, and peel the screaming child from his arms. He didn’t immediately let go. Not because he didn’t want her to take the baby—his eyes said rather the opposite, actually—but because, by this point in the sailing voyage and on the other side of a four-hour adrenaline rush, every muscle in his upper body had more or less locked up.
“Have you never held a baby? Geez, mister,” Faye muttered, checking Baby over and making sure it had weathered the hurricane more or less intact.
Tarin’s mouth was open but he couldn’t quite manage to say anything. His arm was still sticking out at an awkward, there-used-to-be-a-baby-in-here angle. His eyes, slightly unfocused, seemed to be staring through Faye.
“What?” Faye asked, feeling defensive and uncomfortable. Mostly uncomfortable. He wasn’t even blinking.
“Thank you, Tarin, for keeping the ship afloat, us on the ship, and the baby with us,” Joss said, walking past Faye to pat Tarin on the shoulder, something which she tried and failed to do. His arm was still stuck at such an odd angle, and she couldn’t reach past the bent bits to get to his upper body. She pulled his hand down and out instead, straightening his arm as best she could.
“Yes, thank you, Tarin, for keeping the ship afloat,” Tarin muttered belatedly, “for keeping us on the ship, and Baby with us.” He seemed a little pouty, Faye thought. Well, poutier. She was about to say as much, but stopped when she saw the look Joss was giving her.
“Yes, thank you, Tarin,” she said quickly, bouncing Baby back and forth. It was only just beginning to calm down. Faye had never heard it cry this hard, which was both unsurprising, considering the circumstances, and a little bit relieving. It was nice to know the child wasn’t completely broken. All it needed was a good storm, every now and then.
“Well, mates, I must say,” the captain hollered from the aft, “you did better than I thought you would have. Worse than I would have liked, but still. What’s the damage, Tarin?”
“His ego’s taken a few hits,” Faye called back, “and his funny bone broke ages ago, but otherwise.” Tarin looked like he might have thrown her overboard if she hadn’t been holding an infant child. She shifted Baby to the hip between her and Tarin, for good measure.
“Where are we?” Joss asked, staring up at the yellow-green sky. They were in the eye of the hurricane. It was quiet and calm. Dark clouds swirled around them on every side, swaddling their little sailboat, threatening more noise and chaos. But in this moment they drifted, suspended in the space between storms.
“That is an excellent question,” the captain replied, leaning against the rudder. “I know where we would have been, had we been here a year ago. But I don’t think that’s where we are now. It’s been made into a new place, this place, and won’t remember what it use to be.”
“Where… did it use to be?” Joss tried, not quite getting it right. She was wringing the excess water out of her clothes and hair. Well, trying to. She seemed a little too tired to accomplish much of anything, at present.
“What did where we are use to be,” Faye offered, leaning against the deck and squinting out over the waves. Faye hoped the captain could keep them inside the eye. She really didn’t want to have to do the whole “sailing through a hurricane” bit again.
“Well, this used to be Chinca, I think,” the captain shouted. Faye thought maybe she had some water stuck in her ears.
“Chinca? Where’s that?” Joss asked, looking over the side of the boat. The wind had whipped the water into too much of a frenzy for much of anything to be visible, below the surface.
“Well, it used to be a city in Ecuador. A nice stop along the river. I’ve seen several football games in the Chinca stadium. Not a bad time.”
“I once knew an Ecuadoran footballer,” Tarin said from across the boat. He had been walking around, checking ropes, tightening the ones that had come loose and re-tying the ones that had come undone. “Cool guy.”
“Oh?” Joss asked, taking Baby from Faye. It wasn’t quite falling asleep, and Joss was pretty sure it was Faye’s fault. At least, that’s what Faye assumed Joss thought. She couldn’t be sure, of course. It’s not like she was omniscient.
“Ya. He could run a three and a half minute mile. Well, half, and some. Fastest I ever clocked him in at was three forty-one.”
Faye whistled, impressed.
“Reckon that’s a minute faster than your fastest, Tarin?” Faye asked. “When you’re in your people body, anyway.”
“Forty seconds, but yes.”
“People body?” Joss asked, eyebrow raised. Faye frowned. She hadn’t thought about it in a while, but, no, she hadn’t always had to use a people body.
“It comes and goes,” Tarin said, shrugging. “Honestly, I’d mostly forgotten about that. That… happens, with some of the memories.” Faye nodded. Some things just sort of vanished from their minds. From their bodies. Their abilities had changed, over the centuries. They developed new ones, lost old ones. Faye never had decided which way the loss went: whether they lost the memories of a thing, and thus lost the ability to do the thing, or whether they lost the ability to do a thing and subsequently forgot that they had been able to do it in the first place. All the couriers she knew experienced similar lapses in their memories. Though, not the same lapses—thus their ability to notice the lapses at all.
“People body?” Joss repeated. She was far less skeptical of Tarin’s and Faye’s eccentricities now than she had been a month ago, back in the mountains. “What’s your ‘not in your people body’ body?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Tarin said, scratching at a spot behind his ear. “We could just kind of… oh, you know. Move about. In a less bounded way.”
“Ah, yes. I see,” Joss said, rolling her eyes.
“Huh,” Tarin said, frowning, still scratching. “You know, I really have almost forgotten. Faye?”
“Ya, it’s barely there,” she said. She could remember running, leaping, swimming far below the world. Flying. And she was pretty sure that was magma, there in the background of one of the vague impressions currently dancing through her brain.
“But I haven’t lost the strength, or stamina,” Tarin said, “or the speed. But… ya, well. Well, Joss. It is what it is. You live a few millennia. Your brain can’t hold every moment of it. Even if it is immortal.”
“Ish,” Faye corrected, “Immortal-ish.”
“Ya. Immortal-ish,” Tarin agreed. He walked over to where Joss and Faye were standing. The three of them looked out over the bow and watched the storm twist around them.
“How much longer?” Joss asked.
“We would’ve been there this evening. If we hadn’t run into the hurricane, we would’ve been there this evening.”
“Well, it depends on how far off course this blows us, and how long we end up sailing with it. But I’d say, once this has blown over, we’ve got about another day.”
“Oh.” Joss looked less than thrilled about that. Which was rather interesting to Faye, who had not seen much of any expression on the other woman’s face.
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Faye said, patting Joss on the shoulder, “there’s plenty left to do aboard. We can mop, sort the recycling. I bet there are a few square inches of space, somewhere, where we haven’t yet lounged. And Tarin’s got a whole entire beard, just begging to be braided.”
Joss groaned and Faye grinned. Tarin glanced from one woman to the other, eyes tight.
“May I?” He asked Joss. She nodded.
“Please do,” she said, bouncing Baby up and down on her hip.
“May you wha—“ but Faye didn’t have time to finish the question, busy as she was being pushed overboard. She hit the water shortly and suddenly, eyes wide open, mouth fully ajar. Cold ocean flooded her senses.
Well. Could have seen that coming, she thought to herself. She blinked a few times, waited for the dark world to stop spinning, and then looked around for “up.” She found it and began kicking, somewhat surprised by how far she had sunk.
“Pure muscle,” she bubbled, grinning to herself.
She stopped kicking and grinning very suddenly. Almost as suddenly as she had begun, actually. She had been underwater a total of forty-eight seconds, had swum a little, floated a lot, and had time for a few funny thoughts. But she had to stop, once she saw what she saw. That being, a procession of glittering merpeople, flittering about some thirty feet below her. It had been a while since she had seen the creatures. Ten years, probably. The last encounter hadn’t ended well. Hadn’t begun too well, either, though the beginning hadn’t been her fault.
Faye watched them, curious, wondering where they were going, wondering if they had seen her. She couldn’t be certain, but she was sure merpeople didn’t usually process about in the wilderness together.
Two mermaids looked up, and Faye decided she was tired of being in the ocean after all. She began to kick again, thinking that swimming wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. She needn’t have bothered, though. The pair of mermaids had reached her before she had even risen a yard.
“Is it alive?”
“Yes it’s alive. Look at the eyes.”
“Well, that’s refreshing.”
“Tell me about it,” Faye agreed, her words mostly discernible. As they should be—she had once spent an entire summer couriering messages for the Fisher King. She wasn’t fluent in merwerds, per se, but her speech was definitely passable.
“Oh? It has known us, then? What’s your name?” One was older, the other, younger. Their skin shimmered in the darkness, somewhere between the purple of twilight and the black of midnight.
“Faye,” Faye said, paddling her feet, trying to stay floating at their level. “Where are you going?” She asked, glancing back down at the stream of merpeople.
“East,” the older one said.
“Why?” Faye asked, running out of oxygen. She paddled towards the surface, beckoning for the mermaids to follow. They did. They must not have been in any particular hurry to get east, then.
Faye surfaced inside of the hurricane. A most unfortunate turn of events, and quite loud. There had been a half second before she surfaced when she could feel the turbulence, see the violent meeting of the sky and sea. But she noticed too late to change course, and she needed air. She broke through the waterline, gasping, barely able to catch a breath before a wave whipped across her back, knocking the wind out of her and pushing her back down into the water. She clawed her way back to the surface, fighting the disorientation.
She must’ve swum more horizontally than she had thought. That, or the eye had been moving more quickly than she had thought. Regardless, she couldn’t see the boat. She couldn’t see much of anything. Water and thunder and wind was all there was. All there ever would be, it seemed. She gulped in some air and algae and dove back underwater.
“Could’ve told you,” the older mermaid said, taking her hand. “Could’ve told you there’s no air for you. Not there.”
“Why didn’t you?” Faye gasped, dazed, lungs already burning again. The younger mermaid took her other hand. Together, they pulled her down and away. Faye let it happen. Worse case scenario, she drowned. She had already been prepping for that for a month, and this seemed as a good a way to drown as any.
“Didn’t think to,” the younger mermaid said. “Didn’t think you were going to swim into a storm. But then you did.”
“She’s probably not all there,” the older mermaid mused. The younger creature nodded.
“That makes sense.”
Faye would have objected, but she thought it was wiser to save her oxygen.
“A lot of them aren’t, you know? It’s a wonder they’ve survived this long, as a species, when so many of them can’t even find up from down.”
“i think most of the people you meet are experiencing a unique set of circumstances,” Faye said, ignoring her own decision to conserve air, “people, in general, aren’t usually so turned around as a person ‘lost at sea’ is. People, in general, aren’t usually in the middle of drowning. Or getting shipwrecked.” Faye wasn’t sure if that last bit was true, anymore.
“Yes, of course,” the older mermaid said, squeezing her hand in a comforting, “whatever you say, crazy lady” sort of a way. Faye rolled her eyes, but was out of air again and could say nothing more.
“Well, initially we were going east,” the younger mermaid said, “because we were checking out the new deeps. But now we’re going east because Hadal kept finding merkids with legs.”
They surfaced into the hurricane long enough for Faye to catch a breath and a faceful of seaweed. Back underwater, the older mermaid continued.
“I guess they probably aren’t actual merkids. They’re are children, with legs, who can live underwater. What would you call that?” Faye shrugged, at a loss.
“But that’s not even why we’re going, really,” the younger mermaid cut in. “The legs were interesting, sure, but not unprecedented. All sorts of reasons a person could live underwater. And a rather useful trait to have, these days, don’t you think? Anyway. No, Hadal—she wasn’t even supposed to be there, funnily enough, not by about thirty miles, but she really is terrible with directions—Hadal was swimming east and north when she felt the water tear. She wasn’t specific. Not in the sense that we couldn’t understand exactly what she was saying, though. Just in the sense that it’s hard to communicate it in any specific sort of way to you, an outsider. A tear is sort of a big deal, down here. Lot’s of stories about it, and whatnot.”
“What?” Faye asked, following and not following, all at the same time.
“The River tore, somewhere east and south of here. I could point right to it, but I probably couldn’t give you directions there without going myself. Not that you asked for directions, I guess.”
“What?” Faye asked again. It was quicker than giving words to all of the more specific questions currently bottlenecking in her throat.
“The Aurora Borealis,” the older mermaid said suddenly. “It’s like how you people travel from all over to see the Aurora Borealis. It’s like that. Well, it’s like that, only way rarer, and conveniently happening over a holiday weekend. Thus the crowds.” She looked back down at the stream of merpeople swimming east. Faye followed her gaze, beginning to think that there was indeed something of a festival vibe to their procession.
“Huh. Okay. What is a tear, exactly?” The mermaids glanced at each other, then Faye, then back again. The younger one shrugged.
“I don’t know,” she said, “it’s a tear. Like a solar eclipse. Only it has nothing to do with the sun. It’s just an environmental anomaly that looks cool and probably won’t kill you.”
“Oh my Lanta, seriously, child? Did you attend any of your history classes?”
“None at all, no,” the younger mermaid replied. Faye couldn’t tell if it was a sincere answer or a magnificently executed deadpan.
“A tear is a tear in the River. That’s capital-R “River,” mind you. And it’s not always a tear. Sometimes it’s a wrinkle. Sometimes it’s a folding. A skip, a trip, a fray. Regardless, when somebody or something messes with the River—which happens every few centuries, tops—the space within which it was messed changes. Subtly, of course. But beautifully. It’s filled with music, vibrations, prisms, the works. A lot of merpeople say it becomes a space of healing. Like, if you’ve got a bad back and you go sit in a tear, you get better. That sort of thing. Some couples try to hatch their babies there. Think it’ll give them perfect pitch. You following?”
Faye was actually seeing spots.
“You might have been speaking too fast,” the younger mermaid said, “she looks a little confused. You’re accent is a little thick.”
“Acce—I don’t have an accent?”
“Sure you do. To her you do, anyway.”
“If I have an accent, you have an accent, you nonsensical—oh, shoot.” Faye was passing out, and really couldn’t muster the wherewithal to tell them she wasn’t having any problems with their accents. Luckily, the older mermaid noticed Faye’s deoxygenated state before she had completely blacked out. The two mermaids jetted towards the surface. In no time Faye was drinking in air, then water, then more air.
“What’s the River?” Faye asked. She thought that she probably already knew. Or had once known, anyway. It sounded almost familiar, and she was pretty sure it had something to do with time.
“Oh, I don’t know,” the older mermaid said, changing her voice, clearly still upset about the whole “accent” thing. She spoke slowly and sharply. And a little nasally, which Faye thought was funny. She wondered if that’s how humans sounded, to them. She supposed humans probably spoke through their noses more than mermaids did. Made sense—mermaids didn’t really have noses. Flat slits, more like, stretched over a little bit of raised bone.
“It is what it is. It flows through everything, is in everything. It is always, it is everywhere. I’ve been told there are some nowheres, interestingly enough, but I haven’t read enough books to even begin to hold a conversation about that.”
Faye had finally sucked in enough air to begin to notice other things. Like how they weren’t in the middle of an active hurricane. She blinked, looked around, and saw that she was again within the eye of the storm. The sailboat was bobbing along on the other side of the oceanic clearing. Somebody aboard had spotted them, too, because the little boat had begun to bob towards them.
“It’s a god?” Faye asked, pulling kelp out of her hair.
“No, probably not,” the older mermaid said. “Not like your gods, anyway. We don’t have anything like your gods, I’ve been told. I think we do the thing you call “religion” different, under the sea.”
“Makes sense,” Faye said. Most people did religion differently. Most people didn’t even call it “religion.”
“Are those your people?” The younger mermaid asked, nodding towards the boat.
“Indeed they are.”
“Why aren’t you with them? Did you fall off in the storm? Happens plenty, I suppose.”
“No. That doofus pushed me off.”
“Oh…” the younger mermaid followed Faye’s gaze, noticed Tarin, then ducked behind Faye to aggressively mime something at her older companion, who mimed just as aggressively in response. She then came back into Faye’s line of sight, leaned in, and whispered,
“If you’re not safe, you can just stay with us. Really, you don’t have to go back.”
“Please, do stay. I know I’m going to sound like a stereotypical mermaid when I say this, but, like, we know how awful your men can be. We’re all about crushing your patriarchy.” The older mermaid smiled. It was an innocent, knowing smile, and it gave Faye a few dozen goosebumps. She wanted to say yes, Tarin was very bad indeed and definitely needed to be crushed. She wanted to say it, wanted to see what would happen. But then, Joss probably wouldn’t take it very well. And she’d probably make them wait for him to come back. And then it’d be a whole thing.
“No, I’m fine,” Faye said, sighing. “He’s like a brother. Annoying, but useful. We can’t sail the boat without him.”
“Very well,” the older mermaid said. She looked disappointed. “If you change your mind, just jump overboard. There are plenty of mermaids around, these days. What with the strange weather and the rising tides.”
“Thank you,” Faye said, smiling from one to the other. “I really appreciate it. And maybe I will—you are certainly better company than those lumps.” She looked up at the sailboat, which was now within shouting distance. Though, nobody was shouting. Watching intently, and wondering what in the world was going on.
“What’re your names?” Faye asked.
“I’m Ronda,” the younger one said, “and this is Lamina.”
“I’m Faye,” Faye said. “Do you mind if I introduce you to my friend? She’s never met a mermaid before.”
“Oh? But you have?” Lamina asked, raising one beautifully striking eyebrow. “When have you met another mermaid?”
“Oh, that’s really not important,” Faye said, mouth suddenly—and despite all odds—going very dry. “Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” Ronda cut in, swimming past both Faye and Lamina. She reached the side of the boat, craned her neck, and waved.
“Hello, friends of Faye,” she said. She also did the slow-speaking, flat, nasally thing that Lamina had done. “I am Ronda. This is Lamina. We are mermaids. Isn’t that fun? Now, please be nice to the women, Man, or you won’t have very good luck, in future oceanic ventures. Which, at this rate, will be all of the future ventures.” Tarin’s mouth dropped wide open. Like, “wide enough to catch a fish” open. Like, a tuna fish.
“B—but, I didn’t—but—Faye,” Tarin hissed.
“Oh, don’t worry, Tarin, I didn’t drown too bad. Thanks to these lovely ladies.”
“What do you mean, ‘mermaid?’” Joss asked, leaning over the boat, holding tight to Baby. Ronda pulled her glittering violet tail up and out of the water. She splashed it around, for good measure, just to be sure Joss didn’t miss anything. Baby started giggling, which made Ronda laugh and clap her hands together.
“Oh my, my, my, precious,” Ronda said, glancing back at Faye and Lamina. “I want one, Lamina.”
“You say that now. Go two weeks without sleep or quiet. Then we can talk.”
“Oh, whatever,” Ronda said, still smiling at Baby. Joss looked like she was about to faint.
“I don’t know, Lamina,” Faye said, reaching the side of the boat. “This one’s pretty adorable. Almost never cries.” Faye reached up, but wasn’t quite sure what she was reaching for. There was nothing to grab onto, and the boat’s railing was about a foot too high for her. She didn’t have to think about it for too long, though. Tarin grabbed her hands and pulled her up, and that was that.
“Thanks,” she said, wobbling a little.
“Ya, well, apparently I’ve a misogynistic reputation to undo, lest I face the wrath of the mermaids.”
“Trust me, you don’t want that. If ever there was a wrathful creature, it’s a merperson. Nope, you don’t want that.” She whistled a little, again remembering her last encounter with merpeople. Tarin was, yet again, stumped for words. He simply stared, eyes tight, mouth tight. His whole body was just tight.
“You should really do some more yoga,” Faye said, turning back towards Lamina and Ronda.
“Again, thank you so much,” she called over the rail.
“No problem,” Lamina said, waving.
“Have fun at the tear,” Faye said, “I reckon we’ll be traveling together for a while more, though. We’re also going east.”
“Oh?” Ronda asked. “Where are you going?”
“Quito? Have you heard of it?” Faye asked, sidling up alongside Joss and Baby, one of whom was having the time of their lives, the other of whom seemed on the brink of a total blackout.
“No,” Lamina said, “but we’ll keep swimming with you, while we’re still going the same way. Keep you on course and out of the hurricane, if you know what I mean.” Lamina was making eyes at Tarin when she said “hurricane,” so, yes, Faye rather thought she knew what the older mermaid meant.
“That would be wonderful,” the Captain said, taking them all by surprise. Mostly because they had all forgotten that the Captain was capable of dialogue.
“Never sailed with mermaids. That I know of, anyway,” the Captain went on, “but I am two degrees of effort away from pulling every muscle in my body, and, at this point, I’d rather drown than push through another square foot of storm. If that’s okay with the crew, anyway?” She asked it as an afterthought, though Faye couldn’t imagine a world where this crew, in this moment, would have objected.
“How…wonderful,” Joss breathed, finally managing to break her silence. Faye grinned, struck by how lovely Joss’s voice sounded, right then. Sincerity really could be such a beautiful thing.
“Yes, how wonderful,” Tarin muttered, turning on his heel and trudging towards the sail, off to tie another rope, no doubt.
“Wonderful,” the Captain agreed, sitting where she stood, then laying down from there. She was asleep in less than a minute.
Faye smiled down at the mermaids, feeling rather light. Rather light, indeed.