Chapter Eighteen: And then the medium-sized girl got her hair brushed and it didn’t feel half bad, all things considered
Rain thought the medium-sized girl was the first right thing he’d seen since he’d been disappeared from the garden. Not that everything else had been wrong—he rather liked Hadal, after all, and thought this Tear thing was quite interesting—but they hadn’t been right. Not like her, anyway. She felt like the garden. She felt like baby Silas and Short Mother and Tall Mother and Jeanine and all the rest of the them. She felt like the memories he didn’t seem to have, from a place he knew he’d been but couldn’t, for the life of him, recall. She felt familiar. She felt like family.
She was also incredibly confused and a tad bit rude. But then, so was Rain. Well, the confused part. He liked to think he was properly not rude. Hadal had never said otherwise, anyway, and she was calling out this medium-sized girl right, left, and center. Which, to be fair, was the only reason Rain knew she was rude in the first place, as “rudeness” was not a thing they had had in the garden. But Hadal liked the medium-sized girl, despite—or, perhaps, because of—her seeming frigidity. Rain did, too, and knew that the medium-sized girl’s inability to keep up with Hadal had less to do with any innate “personality” she might have and more to do with the her getting inexplicably dumped into a strange new world without warning or reason. Except, apparently she had been snatched, not dumped. Rain couldn’t quite wrap his head around that one. Even worse, the girl had been traveling with the very monster who had snatched her, and who didn’t seem to be half as helpful as Hadal had been. And then there was this whole bit about knives and stabbing and disappearing mothers. And some jerky she really just couldn’t get over. It made Rain wonder whether a monster had snuck into their garden as well. Whether one of his siblings was out here, too, traveling around with some mother-disappearing douchebag. Was what Hadal was calling him, anyway.
“I think I’m going to keep you,” Hadal said, grinning down at the girl. Hadal was holding her hand—holding both her and Rain’s hands, as neither of them could stay as still in the water as she could—and the girl kept playing with Hadal’s bracelet, eyes fixed on the glinting obsidian.
“That’s probably fine,” the girl bubbled, her voice soft and flat under the sea. “You sing much better than OTC.” Hadal was all smiles. Rain decided OTC couldn’t be anything less than tone deaf.
Rain watched the medium-sized girl float, thinking. She looked strange, as he did. Her eyes were all silvery-grey, with no black or white, unlike the humans he’d met on land. They were flat in her face though, like his, like the humans. Unlike Hadal’s. The merpeoples’ were bright neon colors, bulged a little, and never blinked. Though, the medium-sized girl never seemed to blink, either. She was terribly scrawny, all angles and bones. She said she’d been much smaller, and that this wasn’t her body at all, and Rain couldn’t quite understand what she meant. He was in his same body, after all. He hadn’t changed a bit, from the garden to this world. Her hair was long and white, which Hadal thought was very portentous, though she couldn’t tell him what, exactly, it portended.
“It just portends,” she assured him, using her “I’m definitely the adult here” voice. The girl didn’t pay attention to any of these exchanges, he noticed. She had a wandering eye. A wandering body, actually. She just sort of flounced off to wherever she fancied. Which was why, on top of holding her hand, Hadal had tied a kelp cord around both their waists.
“And you’re sure you’ve never actually met each other,” Hadal asked Rain, watching the girl run her fingers up and down the bracelet. Rain shrugged.
“I never would have thought it before, but, on this side of things, I don’t think I know how I got to the garden,” he said. Hadal nodded to herself, thinking. She let go of both of his and the girl’s hands long enough to unclasp the bracelet and give it to the girl, who barely even noticed the bracelet had lost its arm. It reminded Rain of his little sister, Mue. She would stare at flowers for as long as Tall Mother and Short Mother would let her. So long as there wasn’t a skipping game or a dance going on, anyway.
“Most people don’t, Rain,” she said, “Not if they were as young as you’d have been. Memory doesn’t start till you’re four or five, you know.” Rain said nothing, knowing he was more right than her, but not knowing how to say it any better.
They were sitting on a ledge overlooking the Tear, their backs to the drowned city, their eyes taking in the festival below. Rain had been inside the Tear with the other mermaids. It was a song, he realized, and many of the merpeople nodded knowingly when he said as much to them.
“It is many things to many people,” an elderly merman had squawked, “and what they most need it to be.”
“It is the in-between of everything,” another elderly merman had echoed. He was less squawky, more giggly, “the embryonic materials of creation itself.” Hadal had thanked them for their wise words and pushed Rain along, whispering to him about not accepting anything—“treats, pipes, drinks, did I mention pipes”—from anybody except her. Or Ronda, if she ever bothered to show up. Except, on second thought, Hadal decided he should probably still run anything Ronda gave him by her, first.
“Where do you think she came from? Another garden?” Hadal asked, watching the girl.
“A wood, actually,” the girl said, “a wood with a pool and a little room in a tree. And a very wonderful mother who pulled all of the smoky weeds.”
“Oh?” Hadal asked, dropping Rain’s hand again and pulling some stray bit of debris from the girl’s white hair. Her fingers got stuck, though, knotted as the girl’s hair was. Hadal began to use her fingers as combs. She started at the bottoms, gingerly, and made her way up. It was a slow ascent, and Rain took hold of the kelp cord tied around her waist. He didn’t really feel like floating away.
“And you say your mother disappeared? And you saw her go?”
“Rain, she’s already told you as much. Stop making her relive it,” Hadal said, trying to communicate something to him over the medium-sized girl’s head. He wasn’t quite sure what she was miming, but he got the impression she thought the medium-sized girl’s explanation of her mother’s disappearance was less than reliable. Something about trauma’s affect on memory.
“She vanished into the air,” the medium-sized girl bubbled. “She barely even had time to finish her song.”
Hadal actually snorted.
“What?” Rain asked, frowning at the mermaid.
“Oh, nothing. Just, I really hope it was also a lullaby telling her to trek across the world looking for a generic father she’s never met.”
“That about sums it up,” the medium-sized girl agreed, her unblinking eyes not budging from the obsidian. Hadal froze, fingers mid-comb, frowning at the back of the medium-sized girl’s head. Rain decided he was probably thinking the same thing as the mermaid.
“Was that… a joke?” He asked. You really never could know, he knew. He had only just learned sarcasm last week.
“Was it funny?” The medium-sized girl asked, breaking her staring contest with the jewelry. She looked at him, face as toneless as her water-muffled words.
“Sorry… I just… I have to know. Are you actually oblivious, or just extremely good at deadpan?” The medium-sized girl ignored the question. She handed what remained of the bracelet back to Hadal.
“No, you can—what the,” Hadal didn’t finish the thought, distracted as she was by the re-formed rock sitting in the palm of her hand. “What did you do?”
Rain took what had been the bracelet out of Hadal’s hand, curious. A small, shining sphere sat suspended in a larger sphere. The outer sphere was made of rows of tiny obsidian rods bent into shape and connected at two ends. The little obsidian core was visible through the gaps in the bent rods. Four smaller circles had been pressed into the rods of the outer sphere. Two pairs of points, each equidistant from the other, each on the opposite side of the sphere from its match. This description might sound vaguely familiar to the reader, though, perhaps not. It has been a while, since last you saw it. If you picture it in silver and imagine a mother singing tearfully over a daughter, a wood in collapse, you might tug at the right memory.
“But,” Hadal said, turning it over, failing to understand what had happened. Rain couldn’t blame her. It didn’t make sense, after all. But he also wasn’t trying to understand. He knew he didn’t have the requisite tools to make understanding happen, where the medium-sized girl was concerned. Not yet, anyway.
“How did you change the rock?” Rain asked, running his thumbs over the ridges of the outer sphere.
“Change it? I didn’t change…” she paused, thinking about the question, thinking about her answer. Realizing she did, actually, know what he was asking. “The stone isn’t always hard,” she said. “I looked back until it was soft enough to play with. It was pretty far back, if you want to know.”
Rain thought maybe he almost understood what she was saying.
“I wanted to show you this because you keep asking about the wood from right before I was sucked into the pool. Well, this was part of it, too. Not this exact thing,” she said, tapping the bauble, “but it looked like this. Only, silver. My mother wore it around her neck. She sang the song at it and me, and it flaked away. And my chest hurt. And now I have these markings on my chest.” She pulled the collar of her shirt down, showing them the knotted white lines spreading over her skin. It did indeed look like the flattened version of the spheres Rain was holding.
“I’m beginning to think there was a connection between the necklace and these scars.”
“No, really? What gave you that ide—“ but Hadal cut off, remembering herself. “Sorry. It’s just, you sound way older than you look. That was unnecessarily snarky of me.”
“Um… it’s okay?” the medium-sized girl said slowly, clearly never having been apologized to in her life. Rain rolled his eyes. She clearly had no siblings.
“I just wanted to show you what it had looked like. In case you had ever seen one before.” She was looking from Hadal to Rain, curious, her grey, colorless eyes wide.
Hadal took the reformed rock from Rain. She turned it over in her hands, her wonderfully striking eyebrows climbing up and down her brow as she thought through everything she knew that might be relevant to the situation.
“No, never,” she said finally, giving the stone back to Rain. She finished combing the medium-sized girl’s hair. She started to pull it into a tight braid. “But the song sounds familiar,” she went on.
“You can hear it, too?” Rain asked. He’d thought he’d heard a faint humming from the little globs of obsidian. But he also was usually hearing faint humming, in this place, and Hadal hadn’t heard many of those other songs.
The medium-sized girl grinned at them.
“It’s the butterfly’s song. OTC couldn’t hear it. At least, he said he couldn’t. But it is here, after all? And you can hear it, too. Ha.” Rain assumed the “ha” wasn’t directed at him.
“Sounds like… it sounds like the Tear, now that I’m thinking about it,” Hadal said. “But I can’t be sure. I can barely make it out over this mouth-breather. Which reminds me.” She grabbed a little pipe out of one of the ten pockets she wore around her waist. She handed it to Rain, who breathed in some of the dry air it produced before passing it on to the girl, who did likewise. They didn’t need the oxygen from the pipe, for reasons Hadal couldn’t quite grasp, but they also couldn’t bubble-speak without some air in their lungs.
“I’d say you should go find one of the Mistics. They’re old and knowing and stuff like that. They wander, though, which makes it hard to find them. They tend to stay in the shallows, and surface quite a bit. They gaze into the sea mists—the ones whipped up by the breeze and colored by the sun—and watch for visions.”
“What sort of visions?” The medium-sized girl asked.
“The sort most probably caused by pressure-induced vertigo. Or so Ronda says. I’m less invested in skepticism than her, though. Anyway. They’ve got a longer memory, for these sorts of things, than anyone here would,” she said, finishing the girl’s braid and tying it with a thinner cord of rope. This one didn’t seem to be made of kelp. Rain wondered what it was. Hadal got some more of the rope out of another one of her pockets and strung the bauble on it. She then tied it around the medium-sized girl’s neck.
“There. Your odds of losing it just got cut by half.” She looked from the medium-sized girl to Rain. “I suppose you could go looking for the Mistics. If you’re set on searching for reasons, answers, clues, whatever it is you want to call it. I’d like to remind you that you can also just stay with us. Explore this new world as it unfolds.”
“I do like the sound of that,” the medium-sized girl said, “you’re very lovely, and you look like a mother.” Rain rather thought she looked more like an “older sister.” But then, the medium-sized girl didn’t have an older sister.
“Excuse me?” Hadal spluttered. Rain thought maybe she didn’t understand. “How old do you think I am??”
“Old enough to be a mother. By like a decade.” Hadal jumped, not having heard the other mermaid approach. She huffed loudly. And then more loudly, when the new mermaid wedged herself between Hadal and Rain on the ledge.
“About time you showed up. I was beginning to think you’d been eaten by something nasty and particularly large. Tentacles were involved.”
“Good to see you too,” the new mermaid said. “And these adorable children, too, though I must say their presence makes absolutely no sense and I’m surprised I’m able to take them in as level-headedly as I am. What are they?” She looked from Rain to the medium-sized girl and back again. And back. And again.
“This one’s Rain,” Hadal said, gesturing towards Rain, “and this one’s new. I don’t think she has a name, yet. Do you?” She asked, as an afterthought. But the medium-sized girl shook her head.
“Mother called me ‘Darling’ and ‘Dearest’ and OTC called me Manny. But those aren’t my name, so, no. Though, I suppose they might be. I can’t remember.”
“Do you want a name?” Rain asked. “You can pick one. I did.”
“I vote ‘Darling,’ Hadal said, smiling down at the medium-sized girl. Fawning, more like. She began to weave some flowery-type things into the the medium-sized girl’s hair.
“I’ll think about it,” the medium-sized girl said.
“I hear ‘Ronda’ is a beautiful, wonderful name,” the new mermaid said, “I hear all the best people are called ‘Ronda.”
“Children, this is Ronda,” Hadal said. She turned to face the other mermaid. “What took you so long?”
“We got caught up with a boat,’ Ronda said, fishing through one of Hadal’s pockets and coming away with a few balls of what might have been fruit. Something edible, anyway. She started chewing on one.
“No, not like that,” Ronda said, dismissing Hadal’s worry with a wave of her hand. “Not literally caught. No fishermen were involved in the making of this tardiness, Hadal, deep breaths. Lamina and I were swimming here with the rest of everyone and we noticed a boat, and the people in it were Older. Like, capital “o” Older. We helped them through a hurricane, and then to shore. Not all of them could swim. I thought they’d know something about the weather. You know,” she gestured around noncommittally.
“Because they’re Older,” Hadal supplied.
“Exactly. But they didn’t say anything. I mean, they said plenty. Very funny people. But they didn’t know anything more about the weather than we did. They’re on their way up the mountain, now. I’m even kind of sad about it. Some of them were cuter than this lot—no offense,” she looked apologetically from Rain to the medium-sized girl and back.
“Offense taken,” the medium-sized girl said, pulling herself into Hadal’s fishtail lap, her body slightly too big. She leaned into the mermaid and Rain was again remembering that she was, according to her account, a much smaller person.
“Hey, you ever seen anything like this?” Hadal asked, holding the bauble up for Ronda to look at. Ronda stared at it, frowning.
“I actually think I have, yes,” she said, scratching at her head. “On a cave wall, about a decade ago. That summer Lamina and I went looking for penguins. Must’ve been near the south pole. Do you remember?”
“That you all couldn’t wait a week for me to finish my architectural qualifying exams before going on a cross-ocean vacation? Yes, I rather think I do.” Lamina winced a little as the full memory came back to her. But she put a brave face on and pushed through.
“Ah… right, yes. That one. We found this cave in one of those deep, dark places. There was an etching on the wall that looked like that. It was flatter, obviously.”
“Obviously.” There was a beat. “Can’t say an etching on a cave wall in the deeps near the south pole is exactly helpful.”
“Ya. I guess not. Just another old, forgotten thing.” Ronda and Hadal sighed together.
“I told them they should go ask a Mistic,” Hadal said.
“Of course you did,” Ronda said, laughing in a not-quite-funny way. “And after that, they could start searching for the east-setting sun. Also a super useful way to spend time, don’t you think?”
“What. Ever.” Hadal muttered, rolling her eyes. She turned to face Rain. “Guess you can just stay with me, little brother.”
“Why do they need to know about the necklace, anyway?” Ronda asked.
“Well. They’re lost, for starters. And can’t think of any better ways to un-lose themselves. She’s got a bauble and he’s got a father to find. A father from a lullaby, mind you. Not like an actual, ‘I’ve met him before’ father.”
Ronda was nodding as if she understood, but her eyebrows were too far up her forehead for Rain to think she was actually following.
“How do you find these people?” She finally asked.
“You’re one to talk,” Hadal fired back. “You can’t go five minutes without finding some boat full of peo—“ And then both mermaids were sitting up straighter, eyes bright.
“The Fisherman!’ They both said. “Well, Fisherperson,” Hadal corrected. “They’re not really feeling too binary, these days.”
“Who?” Rain asked. The mermaids turned on him.
“He’s—they’re—some mystical fisher from lore that pops up on grey mornings, when the mist is still heavy and low. They’re always bringing their boat in, or out, and they usually have some pretty good stories. And news updates. Hey, maybe we should be looking for the Fisher.” Ronda was nodding, already seeing the wisdom in Hadal’s words.
“Don’t see why not. Especially while we have some nice bipeds, capable of coastal strolls.”
“Bipeds?” The medium-sized girl asked. Ronda tugged on her toes, smiling down at her.
“What do you say, Rain?” Hadal asked, “you want to brave the land, again?”
“Why not?” He asked, looking up towards the waterline. He hadn’t surfaced in a while. He wouldn’t mind the color.