Scales

Long Short Story by Joti Bilkhu

Scales

“Four bronzes,” I say before the man can even ask.

He lifts up a large striped fish off my makeshift table, inspects it and asks, “You gut and clean this, boy?”

I nod once.

“It’s well done. You been doing this long?”

“My father says I could gut a fish before I could walk.”

The man chortles. “I gather your father’s a fisherman then.”

I nod again. “Four bronzes for the big ones. Two for any four of the small ones. One per medium. And a half copper for the day-old fish.” As I list the prices, I point my knife at each bucket on the table.

The man strokes his scruffy red beard. “Tell you what, boy. How about,” he pauses to dig into the worn leather sac slung across his body. I glance at the fine woolen jacket tied around his lean waist, the stiff off-white cotton pants. “Two bronzes and half a pack of cigarettes? For your old man?”

Father doesn’t smoke, but there’s a group of drunks who’ll pay a pretty penny for them. I calculate how much I can get out of them, and if I could make up two bronzes worth.

“Sold,” I say, plucking the pack from his fingers along with the two coins. I bite them, just to make sure, and the man grins.

As I bag the fish for him, he adds, “You know, I used to be a sailor. And I tell you, it’s a good business. The sea, she’s ever bountiful and generous.”

I hum, non-committal. Sure, the sea never tires of giving, but she’s a fickle thing. It has nothing to do with generosity.

“Know a place a man can spend the night?”

“Up the road, past the blacksmith’s. Hilda offers board and lodgings.”

With a mock salute, the man is off, whistling as he goes. I don’t feel bad for lying about the price of the large fish. He could afford little deceits.

And the only reason I could lie is because I know everyone in this village, and that man isn’t one of them.

* * * *

“Oy! Markus’s boy!” I turn, gritting my teeth at the bite of pain in my ankle, and squint against the molten sun pouring into the market. Mina calls, “Got anything left?”

At my nod, she hurries over, a child at her hip, one clutching her skirts. She peers into the buckets. “Give me two big ones.”

“Six bronzes.”

“Five.”

“Five and a copper.”

“Fine,” she huffs and hands over the coins. Deal done, I limp toward home.

Home is a wooden cabin atop a small rocky hill close to the shore. The cabin is huddled under a thin copse of evergreen trees and outside, I see my mother, a slight woman, stirring a pot over a fire, a shawl wrapped around her distended belly.

I glance shoreward. Father and his friend Zion will return before sunset. My grandfather was a fisherman, as is my father, and so I will be. It is a good life, father always says. Enough to eat—if you know how to find it. And as long as you don’t forget the sea is no one’s friend.

Indeed, I think to myself. The sea is no one’s friend, but one of those faithless things. Only foolish fishermen and sailors tell themselves they are favoured by her. The good ones know that is a lie.

I look at the calm waters then at the whitish-yellow sand strewn with gray pebbles. Nearly fifty feet behind the sand is a myriad of rock caves and overhangs hewn into walls of stone. I used to like climbing the rocky formations before my ankle was hurt.

“Sacha!” Mother’s voice spurs me into a hobble and I’m biting the inside of my cheek by the time I crest the small hill. She’s watching me carefully, but I don’t let anything show on my face—at least, not until a large stone shifts underfoot and the weight falls onto my bad ankle as I catch my balance.

Mother tries to take the buckets from me, but I carry them inside, biting my lip. There are days, especially in summer, when my ankle holds up rather well, but more often than not, it doesn’t.

* * * *

After a dinner of vegetable soup, bread and spit-roasted fish, I crawl into bed with a book my father gave me earlier this year for my birthday. I’ve read it, cover to cover, three times now, and had planned to start rereading it a fourth time.

I am at the part where Lucy has just gone through the wardrobe for the first time when Mother comes in with a bowl of oil. “I don’t need that.”

“You do. It’s hurting you.”

“It hurts more when you massage it.”

Mother swipes the book out of my hands and places it on the bedside table. “Sacha.”

I am silent as she tugs aside my blanket and takes my right foot in her calloused hands. A doctor had shown her how to massage it two years ago and she does it every third night with the same zeal with which the priest preached sermons.

She starts massaging with the warm oil and I flinch, tensing. It doesn’t take very long for me to bury my face into my pillow as sharp throbs ripple up through the side of my calf.

I’m so focused on my pain that I don’t hear my father’s heavy steps in the hallway and am startled when he runs his big rough hand through my hair. His brawny form towers over me, and light catches the gray-specked brown stubble on his chin.

“Inessa, I hear there’s a doctor visiting the next town over. Why don’t we take Sacha to see him?”

Mother nods, forehead creasing slightly. “Perhaps it is best you take him alone. The baby is due soon and I don’t feel up to making a trip.”

Father hums a sound of assent. “Can you stay with your brother while we’re gone?”

“Yes. I’ll speak to him tomorrow.”

Father crouches so he is eye-level with me. “It’ll get better, Sacha. Someone will be able to help.”

I doubt it, but I hold my tongue, not wanting to dash their hopes. As Mother wipes the oil, father strokes my hair. The motion makes my eyes heavy-lidded until I slip into dreams of wardrobes and half men and crippled boys.

* * * *

Something wakes me that night.

I lie in the dark, listening. Father is a restless sleeper—perhaps it’s him. Or Mother, craving an oddity. But I hear no steps – not her light ones, nor his heavy gait. Wrapping the blanket around myself, I hop over to the window on one foot and push aside the worn green curtain, hoping the sight of the swaying waves will induce drowsiness.

I haven’t even been staring at the churn and churl of the sea for five minutes when a faint glitter sparks to life among the rocky shore. The dull yellow thing bobs around, disappearing behind boulders and reappearing as it bounces along, alone. Perhaps it is a firefly. I’ve never seen one—only read of them in my books, but I imagine this soft yellow flittering thing must be what it looks like—but brighter up close. When the bouncing light fades, I return my gaze to the restless sea. Such caprice.

* * * *

The next day a storm is visible in the distance, so father and Zion don’t go fishing. For want of work, father takes yesterday’s fish to the market. Mother knits a pair of baby socks by the fireplace and I lie on the carpet, book in hand. I’m at the part with the Turkish delights.

And for some strange reason, it makes me want something pretty. “I’m going to find coloured glass on the shore.”

Mother glances up, face stern. “Stay away from the water today.”

Outside, I limp along the sand-pebbled shore, eyes fixed on the ground. The first piece of sailor’s glass I find is brown. The next blue. Two clear ones. A smooth white rock follows. My ankle starts to ache so I sit in the whitish sand and watch a pair of white-winged gulls shriek at each other.

Thunder lashes the sky and I start. I look in the direction of our house; it is a speck in the distance. I didn’t realize how far I’d come. I push myself up and haven’t even taken a step when the first lightning drops smatter my cheeks.

Mother hates our being out in thunderstorms—her sister had died after being struck by when they were young. So I scramble up a small escarpment of uneven stone, taking shelter in one of the many caves hewn by the ages.

The steady hum of rain and the waves is broken by the rumbling skies.

And a clatter of rocks in the cave.

I turn; perhaps someone else has also taken shelter. I limp deeper into the dampness, one hand on the rough wall so I don’t trip, the other holding my new-found treasures. Around a bend, I come to a tall alcove of sorts, whose ceiling is hollowed out so fractured beams of light seep in. There is a splash and my gaze drops to the shallow pool of water, at the…creature lying in it. I blink, staring at the tail, at the body of a man, merged into one.

It moves in the water and I stumble back, a tremor shuddering through me.

I halt. Whistling. Someone is whistling close to the cave. It’s a jolly tune, and I glance around wildly, a worm of panic twisting in my belly. Several large boulders are lined up against one side of the cave and I slip behind them, tucking my knees to my chest to make myself as small as possible.

Mere moments later, a long shadow appears at the cave’s mouth. I am utterly still, hardly daring to breathe as the whistling figure strolls in without pause, going straight to the alcove. My curiosity gets the better of me and I peek out.

It’s him. The man I cheated. This time, he wears starchy brown pants, a loose dark green shirt and the same leather sac slung across his body. Pulling out a bag of fish, he drops the sac to the ground and crouches beside the creature in the pool.

Distantly, I wonder if my father sold him the fish.

He grabs the creature by the arms ungently and yanks him half out of the water. I see its hands are tied behind its back in unforgiving knots. The creature gasps and raises a head of light whitish-blond hair.

“Eat up, little merman.”

Merman. I mouth the word. Merman.

The man holds out one of the fish and, at first, the merman doesn’t move, but then he murmurs, in a hoarse voice, “Damn you,” and leans in and takes a bite. I almost let out a gasp. It not only speaks, but it speaks our tongue. The man feeds the merman four fish before taking a sharp blade from his sac.

The merman flings his body back into the shallow water, as if trying to get away. The man grabs him by his tail this time and drags him out. I bite my tongue at the sight of the sleek purple limb; patches of scales have been cut off, the wounds raw and bloody.

The creature is gasping, whimpering, and I swear its eyes meet mine as the red-bearded man takes the knife to its tail again, carving another piece of scaly flesh.

I am transfixed. The merman thrashes, but he’s in pain, and weak. When the man’s done, he shoves the creature back into the shallow pool, and in those faint rays of light, I notice the water is pink.

He begins whistling the jovial tune again and leaves. I wait until his whistle fades, until I am sure he won’t return, before I slink out of my hiding place, approaching the alcove on timorous feet.

The merman is submerged—barely, and I reach out, fingertips grazing his shoulder. He whirls, pale lips pulled into a snarl and I lurch right into the wall, dropping my clenched treasures. I slide down into a sitting position on shaking legs, heart thudding so hard I can only gasp.

“I’m sorry,” I manage in a steady voice. The anger on his face is laced with agony, and the bluish veins in his neck are visible. His skin is like ivory, and cords of muscle stand out beneath his flesh in a jarring way. He looks too sharp. Then I realize he must be hungry. How long has that man kept him here? How long has he been hurt?

The furrow in the merman’s brow dissolves as the tension in his body seeps out. Awkwardly, he slumps back into the pool with his bound hands, white-blond hair plastered to his head and face. Up close, I see his eyes are the same purple as his tail, the purple of sea urchins. Could I ever find a shard of sailor’s glass to match?

“I’m Sacha,” I say softly into the quiet. The merman eyes me, gaze distrustful.

Thunder flogs the skies above, and the falling rain fills the silence. I hug my knees to my chest, rubbing my aching ankle.

“Andrei,” he finally murmurs in that hoarse voice. “My name…is Andrei.”

I bite my lower lip and plunge ahead. “Your hands. I will untie them.” His purple eyes narrow and he shifts away, leery. “Let me help you.”

“He said that, too. He tricked me.”

“Do you know his name?”

A pause, then a single shake of the head.

“How long?” I press.

“Fourth day.”

So that man had to have arrived here at least five days ago. Travellers of all sorts pass through our little town—unremarkable travellers. But he has coin. And coin always makes for a memorable man.

“If you don’t let me help, I’ll have to leave. And he’ll come back. Eventually.” Andrei flinches and, while I don’t intend to be cruel, it is the truth. He will come back. For more fin. At the thought, I glance at Andrei’s scraped raw tail. Those purple-toned eyes are conflicted.

Wordlessly, he shifts forward in the shallow pool.

I crawl forward on my hands and knees until I am behind Andrei and inspect the knot. It’s a sailor’s knot. So at least the man wasn’t lying about that. Several bindings loop and tangle with each other and I start to work on them. The man’s knots are tight and it takes me time to undo them, to unloop and unthread his hard work.

One of Andrei’s arms is nearly free. The bonds loosen and he inhales a sharp pained breath. “Are you okay?” Without thinking, I cup his cheek and turn his angular face toward mine, so he can see my sincerity. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

He nods once. Then he whispers, “Please hurry.” His breath is salt.

When I untie the last knot, Andrei flops forward into the water and I pull him back up, alarmed. “What is it?”

“My arms…I cannot feel them. Nor move them.”

“They must be numb.” I reach out, halting a beat before my hand touches his. Andrei moves his body closer so our fingers touch. It is the sign I am seeking, so I take his pale hand in both of mine and start to rub the wet flesh. I do that with both his hands, then work my way up his forearms, then upper arms. As I am rubbing some of the feeling back into his shoulders, I see his right hand twitch in the water. He closes his fingers in a fist and opens them. Again. And again. And again.

Unwilling to break the silence, I wonder how much Andrei will tell me. If he has friends who can help him. If he was alone when he was caught. If someone is waiting for him. If his people even care. “If I help you get into the sea, can you escape?”

Andrei is the one who grasps my face by the jaw this time, not gentle, not rough. His hand is quivering and I see how much it hurts him to lift it so suddenly after days of confinement. “What will you do if I cannot?”

His shoulder bones jut out a bit, and his ribcage isn’t entirely invisible. Hunger’s toll is steep. “I’ll bring you food. Some salve for your tail. And when you are strong enough, you can go. Back to your people.”

Andrei searches my ordinary brown gaze with his peculiar purple one. He must judge me truthful because he admits, softly, “I can’t swim with an injured tail.”

The words dangle between us, a fisherman’s hook, and I take the bait. “We have to move you to a cave with a bigger pool of water. Somewhere you could escape even if he finds you.”

Andrei nods. “Is there such a place on this shoreline?”

* * * *

Even though the uneven blend of sand and rocks on the shore hurts to walk on, I’ve never been more grateful because it masks my footprints and Andrei’s tail in a way sand can’t by itself.

The rain has made the sand wet and mushy beneath our limbs and the sharp tang of salt stings my eyes. But I glance at the tight-lipped look on Andrei’s face and don’t complain as he drags himself along the ground, first by putting his hands behind him, then heaving his body and tail backward. I helped tow him out of the pool and then the cave, our progress painstakingly slow since neither of us was strong enough.

We come to the water’s edge and I say, “There’s a large water cave around the bend of the shore. Can you use the rocks to get there?”

“Yes,” Andrei rasps, dunking his head underwater. “I shall meet you there.”

I nod and wait until he is nearly out of sight, then turn a slow circle to make sure no one is on the beach.

I reach the water cave first, but Andrei is not far behind. Even though his tail is injured, I’m awed by the merman’s limb floating listlessly in the water behind him. It would be a sight to see if he were well.

He will be well soon, I remind myself.

Andrei pulls himself up onto a rock and surveys the cavern. High rocky ceilings at some parts, low stalactites hanging at others, plenty of rock to sit on, shelter from the storm and lots of water should he need to hide.

“This is…much better,” murmurs Andrei, and the cave drinks the sound of his rough voice. “I will try to catch a fish or two later.”

“I’ll bring you food, too,” I say, wondering if Mother would believe me if I told her I wanted to eat with a friend. If not, I had some leftover coin from my birthday. “But I should go now. Otherwise, my mother will worry.”

At Andrei’s nod, I start to limp away but he calls out, “What happened to your right tail?”

Unbidden, laughter escapes my lips and I turn back, grinning. “Leg.”

“What?”

“My two tails. They’re called legs.”

“Le-egs,” he repeats slowly. “What happened to yours?”

My smile fades. “A wooden beam fell on my foot and shattered the bone. It didn’t heal properly.” I’d been helping my father repair one of his boats several years ago. Zion’s son and I had been holding up one of the beams. He’d let go by accident and I fell, beam striking my ankle.

“You would have been very small,” Andrei surmises, taking in my still-small stature.

I nod. “I’m eleven now. I was seven when I hurt it.”

Andrei starts and I resume walking, not wanting to see the look on his face. I hope it isn’t pitiful.

* * * *

The next time I see Andrei is that same day. I rush over just before sunset with a slice of shepherd’s pie I bought at the market when I ran an errand for Mother, an oatmeal cookie and two slices of bread, an even coat of strawberry jelly spread between them.

Periodic checks over my shoulder mark my trek and when I reach the cave, Andrei is nowhere in sight. For a horrible moment, I am certain he’s left without a word of goodbye and my stomach drops. But in the next moment, his pale head pops out of the water and the sick feeling lessens.

The thudding in my chest is still too fast as I sit on a flat stretch of rock and Andrei floats over. “I have been trying to regain full use of my arms.”

“How do they feel?”

“Terribly sore.” He winces as he pulls himself up next to me, water dripping down his long, lithe body,

“You’ll get your strength back.” I offer the pie. “Eat this. The bread and cookie you can have later. I’ll leave them hidden under that little overhang.”

He nods after a moment, and I pull a medium-sized jar out of my pocket. Andrei sets the pie down and lifts his tail out of the water. The sleek purple limb is married with blotches of flayed skin. A sharp sliver of anger rumbles low in my belly at the sight of what the man has done. “Will your scales grow back?”

“Yes.” Andrei’s gaze is heavy and I try to ignore its weight. Dipping my finger into the jar’s white cream, I halt just before I touch the first wound, several inches below his waist. I glance up at him. “It’ll sting.”

He nods, so I spread the cream over the injury, as gently as I can. Even then, his body tenses beneath my touch. “Do you want a moment?”

“Finish it,” he grits out. I nod and ignore his next two sharp gasps, making quick work of the medicine. To distract him, I almost ask why the man wanted his scales. But something about the harsh look of pain on his wan features gives me pause and I swallow the words.

“There. All done.” I lean forward and wash my hand in the water. “Try to keep your tail out of water for a while so the medicine can do its work.”

As Andrei inspects the smeared white cream, I start to climb the uneven shelves of rock forming a rugged staircase of sorts. “You will return tomorrow?” The merman’s words perch unsteadily between a statement and a question. I look back.

“Yes,” I say and the most tentative of smiles crosses Andrei’s face.

It isn’t that I forget I have a bad ankle, but the serrated bite of agony in my ankle is unexpected. I half cry out, half strangle it in my throat, gripping the ledge of gray-black rock, hopping on one foot.

“Sacha!” Andrei’s voice echoes in the cave.

I breathe slowly and place my foot back on the ground. “I’m fine,” I say without looking at Andrei. I don’t want him to see me like this—my face scrunched up, the unpleasant sting of tears in the corners of my eyes, teeth ground together.

It is only when I am nearly home that I hope no one heard him cry out my name.

* * * *

Soap-scented fingers caress my hair and I burrow closer to the touch. A palm cups my cheek and I blink bleary eyes at Mother. “Sacha.”

I mumble, incoherent.

“Your father wants to head out this afternoon.” Confusion must be plain on my face because she adds, “The doctor in the next town. Remember?”

“Oh.” I delve deeper into the blanket so she doesn’t see my panic. After she’s gone, I fling off the covers and lurch into a sitting position. I can’t leave now. Andrei needs me. What if that man comes back? Or finds him again? What if he…the thought is too awful to think.

“Sacha! Breakfast!”

I won’t leave him.

And that is how I find myself bent over the toilet, clutching at my belly, trying to convince myself I feel like vomiting.

“Sacha?” Mother’s voice comes from the first floor. The sweat dotting my forehead is real; I don’t think I’ve ever tried to trick my mother like this. Biting my lip, I dig my finger into the bone that juts from my ankle. I stifle a gasp, but the way my face scrunches up in pain is no act. And it seems I pick the perfect moment because that’s when Mother appears in the doorway, worry lines creasing her forehead. “What’s wrong?” She sits on the edge of the tub, one hand on the back of my damp shirt, the other on her protruding belly.

“My stomach hurts,” I blurt. It’s the only sickness I can lay claim to that they can’t check. “I feel like throwing up.”

“Did you eat anything odd while you were out yesterday?”

I shake my head. Mother presses her hand to my forehead, frowning in a way that has me holding my breath. “No fever. So it’s probably not a cold. Maybe it’s just a stomachache.”

Carefully, I ask, “Do you think it’ll be better by this afternoon?”

“I hope so.” Staring into the toilet bowl, I hunch over further, try to make myself appear smaller. “Go to your room. I’ll bring some ginger tea to help settle your stomach.” As she’s walking out, I hear her murmur, “He was out in the storm all day yesterday…”

While I’m drinking the ginger tea, I wonder how I’m going to get away to see Andrei. My ankle’s been injured for nearly five years, what difference will another week make? I won’t get another chance to help Andrei. But Mother won’t let me go out if I’m ill. She and Father will want me to go see that doctor. An hour trickles by like this, the dregs of ginger cold in my cup.

Perhaps it is a stroke of luck but when I venture out of my room, I discover mother fast asleep on the sofa. After draping a knitted shawl over her, I take half my remaining birthday coin and hurry across the beach to Andrei’s cave, medicine jar still in my pocket since yesterday.

This time, Andrei does not surface. Trying not to panic, I hobble down the craggy staircase and peer into the water.

He is there. Resting on the sandy cave floor, his body is curled in sleep.

This surprises me more than Andrei’s existence. I had assumed merman didn’t sleep. It’s not like fish sleep. Do they? Well, he is half human, so I suppose he must sleep some.

While I wait for Andrei to wake, I wonder what I’ll say to Mother and Father when I return home today. If they will be angry, if they will try to force me to go see the doctor. If they will wait. Like an unanchored sailboat, my thoughts drift. They drift to the man, to his red beard and crisp clothes. I wonder if there are other merman, other sea people he has hurt, and if that is why he reeks of so much coin.

Is this the kind of work he does? But his work…I don’t understand it. Do people actually buy the scales he cuts off of Andrei’s tail? What for? Decoration? Are scales collectibles? Or perhaps…I grimace at the thought. Perhaps he eats the scales. Seated on the edge of a ledge, I kick my feet in the water before lying back on the rock. What does it matter? I’m going to help Andrei heal and get free of him. That’s all. And in the best case, I’ll never see that man again after this is over.

My eyelids have grown heavier than winter blankets, and I might’ve dozed off—had I not been dragged into the cool water. Splashing sounds ring in my ears and I go under. Flailing and swallowing a mouthful of water, long hands pull upwards and I surface, hacking and coughing. “What…was…that for?” I’m heaving, breathless.

“I am sorry I surprised you.” Andrei looks sheepish. “I thought you knew how to swim.”

His hands hold me by the ribs and I reach for the rock ledge, thinking he will help me out. But he doesn’t. Andrei stares at me for several long moments, and says, “I will teach you to swim.”

“What?” I echo. “Why?”

He frowns. “You live by the shore, Sacha. You should know how to swim.”

Wisely, I decide not to mention that I’m the son of a fisher. He will use it against me, I’m sure. “There is no need. Besides, you’re injured.”

“Sacha,” he repeats. His fingers tighten slightly along my ribcage. “Water makes the body weightless.”

My brow furrows. “Yes?”

He leans closer. “Swimming will not hurt your ankle.”

“Oh.” There is a child-like earnestness in his face, a solemn keenness that I find myself unwilling to shatter. Still, I hesitate, trying to discern what he feels. I don’t want him to think of me as broken. As a pathetic invalid.

“Are you doing this out of pity?” I finally say.

Something unrecognizable flashes in that purple gaze and he lowers his head until his forehead touches mine. I hold utterly still, staring into those depthless eyes, not even daring to blink. A soft sigh escapes Andrei’s parted lips and the feel of his breath on my face sends a shiver down my spine.

“You remind me of my sister. Your mannerisms, the way you talk…” his hoarse voice trails off, and a look of sadness wells in his eyes. He cups my face with both hands and I grab onto his shoulders to stay afloat. His long fingers meet at my nape and he smiles, but it is unhappy. “She died at the turn of the year.”

“How?” The unkind word escapes me but Andrei doesn’t flinch as I thought he would.

“Song lets our people speak with sea animals. She’d been skipping her lessons. So when she was caught in a fisherman’s net, she couldn’t sing for help. She tried, and the sharks tore her to pieces.”

It is I who flinch. Beneath Andrei’s impassive gaze, his face like the chiseled statue my father once found in a shipwreck, I want to apologize. He must see it in my face because he places his fingers over my mouth, shaking his whitish-blond head once.

“Do not apologize for my loss. Let me repay your kindness by teaching you to swim.”

I nod.

A small smile, a real one, curves his lips.

* * * *

With my clothes wrung out and drying on a rock, I spend the day in the water with Andrei. I admit it is a strange thing to not expect pain in my ankle, to not worry about when it will start aching. And it is an even stranger thing to trust the water to keep me afloat, to learn how long I can go without needing air.

It is just past midday when we take a break. Andrei catches four fish and is about to eat his raw but I stop him and insist on cooking them first.

He applies the medicine to his tail while I gut the fish with my pocketknife and spear them with sticks. The fire is what fascinates Andrei as they cook.

“Is all of your food made like this?”

“Not all, but much of it is.”

“We do not have this fire in the sea.” He cautiously passes his hand over it. His whitish eyebrows lift in surprise at the heat. “I have seen it from afar, when the land people’s ships burn. It is as terrible as it is beautiful.”

“We cannot live without it,” I tell him. “We use it for light, to make our food and heat our homes. Some people even use it to burn their dead.”

Andrei shakes his head. “You are a daring people. We use glowing stones and creatures of the sea to light our caves.”

We lapse into silence, and I turn the sticks as the fire crackles, the scent of smoke filling my nose.

“Here.” Andrei holds out the medicine jar. I take it but he doesn’t let go. “Sacha. You have not asked me why that man stole my scales.”

Both our hands hold the jar. His fingers are long, his hand strong. Mine is small, dwarfed by his. I lift my eyes to his purple ones. “Do you want me to ask?”

“In all my dealings with landfolk, I have found your people are possessed of an insatiable curiosity.”

I half-smile. “And are you not asking out of curiosity right now, Andrei?”

After a moment, he laughs. It is musical and sweet, echoing of a lullaby. I wonder how his laugh sounds underwater. And whether my ‘land’ ears would be able to hear it. “How octopian of you.”

“Octopian?” I repeat.

“It means you are smart, like an octopus.”

Now it is my turn to laugh. Soon, the fish are ready and when Andrei bites into one, ink-like surprise clouds his face. Young as I am, I know that years from now, I will look back on this day with fondness.

* * * *

It is late in the afternoon when I leave Andrei with bread and cheese I bought at the market. I can float in water now, but that accomplishment withers when I remember I left home without telling Mother where I was going.

She will be furious. Father, too. Their anger must’ve been blooming all day, ripe like fruit by now. I should’ve just left a note for Mother.

At the front door, I press my ear to the thick wood and listen. No raised voices. Swallowing, I try the knob and nearly collapse in relief – it’s unlocked. Never have I been so grateful for Father’s forgetfulness.

But I don’t make it far. I’m still slinking up the stairs, wincing at the creaky floorboards when Mother appears at the foot of the bannister. “Sacha, dinner’s ready.”

I don’t detect anger in her tone. In fact, she sounds quite normal. Maybe they were busy with errands. Maybe Father wanted to rest so he didn’t mind my going off.

That fancy shatters when I see sternness mirrored on both their faces. Neither of them says anything but Mother heaps steamed vegetables and baked potatoes drizzled with butter onto our plates. I clench my fork in my lap as Father brings a plate of warmed bread over.

“Did you have a good nap?” I can’t tell if my voice is higher than usual.

For a moment, there is only the ticking of the clock on the wall across from me. Then, Mother cuts a carrot in half and puts it in her mouth before saying, “I did. And how was your gallivanting?”

“Good,” I mumble.

“How much more aggravated is your ankle because of it?”

“It’s not,” I say quickly.

“Sacha, please don’t take me for a fool—”

“It’s really not!” I cut in. “My…friend was teaching me how to swim,” I finish in a small voice.

“You can learn to swim after you see the doctor.”

“No! My friend’s passing through town! He’ll be gone by the time I get back!” It was the truth…minus some very big details.

“Are you lying to me?” demands Mother.

“What?” I echo. “Lying about what?”

“Sacha—” She clasps my shoulder and is about to say something when a knock rattles the front door.

To spare myself, I dash to the door and yank it open.

It’s him.

The red-bearded man.

He recognizes me at once and lets loose a belly laugh. “Well, look who it is! The boy who sold me fish on my first day here. Name’s Orel.” He extends a scarred hand, and the gold band around his little finger catches my eye. He hadn’t been wearing that when we first met.

Had Andrei’s scales fetched him a lot of coin?

“Sacha.” I shake his hand, though I want to wash it knowing he’s got all kinds of blood on it. Father comes down the hall and exchanges greetings with the man. Orel.

“Do come in. We’ve just started dinner. Will you join us?”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t impose. Besides, I just had dinner.”

“Well, what can I do for you?” Father leans against the doorframe and Orel replies,

“I lost something important to me on the beach.” A beat. “Scales.” I wince. “Shark scales that I collected in my days as a fisherman.”

Liar, I think, anger rumbling in my bones. You nasty liar.

“Ah, a fellow man of the sea!” Father rumbles before turning to me. “Weren’t you on the beach yesterday, Sacha?”

“Oh—yes.” I nod quickly. “I didn’t see anything. But I’ll keep an eye out. If I go again, that is.”

Father and Orel launch into a discussion about fishing grounds and fisheries, and I use the chance to slink away. Mother’s attention snaps between father and me, her fingers tapping on the tabletop. I practically inhale my food, half without chewing, not caring that my stomach might hurt afterwards.

As I gulp down a glass of water, Father and Orel are saying their goodbyes. And then I’m fleeing, my feet thumping on the stairs. “Sacha!” Mother yells but I slam my bedroom door shut and burrow under the blankets, shaking slightly.

Orel. What an eel. I have to be more careful when I’m going to see Andrei tomorrow.

A tiny part of me wonders if there’ll even be a tomorrow. But then I shake my head. I won’t go. Damn the doctor. I’ll help Andrei before I go anywhere.

When Father comes to check on me later, I pretend to be asleep.

* * * *

When I go down to breakfast, I’m ready for an interrogation—and rightfully so because Mother and Father are seated in the living room, a cup of tea in her hands, coffee in his.

“Sit.” She points to a butter-coloured armchair, and I sink into its cushioned depths, my feet several inches off the floor. “Why don’t you want to see the doctor?”

I lace my fingers together. “I really did make a friend. He really will be leaving in a few days. And he’s teaching me to swim.”

Mother and Father exchange a look and he sets down his coffee cup on a side table of dark brown wood. “Sacha, we believe you, but…are you scared to see the doctor?”

“What do you mean?” I ask after a moment.

“Are you scared your ankle won’t get better?”

“Well, it’s not up to me,” I start, faltering when I see concern cloud Mother’s face. “But I...”

“I can see how it hurts you, Sacha,” she says quietly. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

My laced fingers tighten. Father comes over and runs his big calloused hands through my hair. It’s a nice feeling. I blurt, “But maybe I’m a little scared that someone will make it worse.”

As soon as I say it, it’s as if I can feel the truth of the words ringing inside me like church bells. I am scared. I am scared of what could happen if I reinjure my ankle or if it gets worse. To be an invalid before I’m even fully grown. I hate that people would pity me—more than they do now.

“We have to try, Sacha,” says Mother gently.

I nod, biting my lip. “And we can, in a few days.”

Father sighs. “But the doctor, Sacha…”

“There’ll always be another doctor,” I say with a little more force. “Besides, you’re going to have the baby…” A thought occurs to me. “Even if the doctor can help, my ankle might need time to heal. Then I won’t be able to help you with the baby. It’s better to wait.” I stand and turn away, thinking it might end the discussion, but Mother’s next words make me halt.

“The baby will be a lot of work. I won’t have you walking around in pain, not if there’s something that can be done for it.” My fingers twitch at my sides. “You’re going to see that doctor. Three days.”

My hands clench into fists, and I mutter, “If you were just going to order me around, why bother with this family talk?”

“Sacha, it’s for your own good—”

I face the two of them and cry, “My own good? You don’t care about what I want!”

“It’s because we love you—” Mother tries again but I cut her off.

“Mother! You say you know how much my ankle hurts me! Then you must also know I don’t have any friends! Now that I’ve found one, you want to take that from me, too!”

I’m so angry. It’s not their fault, but I’m still so angry that I’m shaking. Shaking from my worry for my ankle, my fear for Andrei, my fury for Orel.

“That’s not true, Sacha!” Father tries to approach me but I stumble away. Out of nowhere, a sharp throb barks in my ankle and I fall, unable to stifle the pained cry that escapes my throat.

“Sacha!” Mother tries standing but can’t since her stomach is in the way.

My eyes are hot and Father reaches out to see my foot again. I yank my limb away and push myself up to a standing position, using the wall for balance. I’m nearly crying, but I manage to prevent my lips from wobbling long enough to say, “Leave me alone.”

With that, I dash outside, banging the front door shut behind me, tears streaming down my cheeks.

Every step hurts. The soles of my feet sting with scratches, courtesy of the stone-studded sand. I barely make it halfway across the beach before I collapse to my knees, the throb in my ankle unbearable. Gritting my teeth, I crawl forward, shivering in the early morning chill.

By the time I make it to Andrei’s cave, I’ve stopped crying, but my face is probably splotchy. Ankle aching and knees more than a little chafed, a heavy fatigue settles over me as I creep down the stairs of uneven rock. When I reach the bottom, I touch my ankle gingerly. It throbs in response. Biting my lower lip, I try to massage it the way mother does but the pain is so sharp that tears fill my eyes anew.

At that moment Andrei’s white-blond head surfaces. The smile on his face crumbles into concern and he cries, “Sacha! What has happened?”

Instead of answering, I blurt, “Orel!”

“Orel?”

“The man who hurt you. His name is Orel. He came to our house, saying he’d lost a collection of shark scales on the beach! That liar!”

Andrei blinks and, under his breath, repeats the name. “Orel.” He lets out a long sigh, a small shudder racking his lean frame. Then he reaches out and touches my bare knee, wincing at the angry red flesh. “So we know the man’s name. But that doesn’t answer what happened to you.”

I am silent and he prods, voice like the rustle of the sea, “You are in pain.” He places the wet fingers of his other hand on my cheek and turns my face so he can see it. “Is it your ankle?”

I flinch and the movement bumps my bad foot. A searing ache tears through it and I whimper. I sound so pathetic it’s laughable. Andrei’s fingers tighten on my cheek, then both his hands lower. I jerk my foot away, and his purple gaze, when it meets mine, is kind.

It strikes me then. This is like the first time I approached him when he was trapped in the cave. The same unease sours my mouth. And I realize how much faith he had placed in me, a stranger.

Andrei holds out his hands again, palms up. Ever so tentatively, I place my foot in them and, with a tenderness reserved for children, he lowers my foot into the water. The cold seeps through my limb, allaying the sharp pain.

“May I touch it?”

I look at the merman, the worry marring his statuesque face, and I wonder, years from now, if he will visit me on the surface.

How stupid, I think. To ask him to come to the surface where he was hurt, and could’ve been killed? I am sure it is a selfish thing to ask someone to risk their life again. Especially when there are men like Orel out there.

Somewhere behind me, rocks skitter in a mini-landslide. Beyond the cavern, the gulls wail to each other, screeching of sorrows with their un-pretty voices. The sea churns, incessant like man’s greed.

“Sacha?” Andrei’s voice stumbles into my thoughts and I nod once. With his thumb, he presses on my ankle, rubbing up and down along the bone. I bite back my gasp of pain and dig my nails into my palms. He rotates my ankle this way and that, feeling my good ankle to compare the two.

He glances up at me, lips pursed. “The bone did not heal properly, Sacha.”

“I know.”

“You must know what’s done with incorrectly healed bones.”

I start to shake my head then halt. “No.”

Andrei is still holding my foot. “They’re rebroken so they can heal properly.”

“No,” I repeat.

He frowns. “Are you saying your healers are different than ours? I imagine our bones heal the same way. If you’re willing, I can show one of your healers where to break yours again.”

“NO!” I repeat with much more force, shaking as panic breeds worms in my belly. “I—I can’t! What if it gets worse?”

“And what if it’s made better?” he counters.

“And what if it turns me into an invalid?” I half-sob, pressing my palms to my eyes in half-formed hopes that I can hold back my tears. I can’t. My voice shakes when I whisper, “I don’t want to be crippled.”

Silence sways between us and I continue. “I fought with my mother and father because they want me to go see a doctor—healer—in the next town. But I don’t want to leave you. Not with Orel still here,” I admit. “And if I go, I won’t get to say goodbye.”

I lower my palms and Andrei is looking at me but also not. He is looking through me. There is something in his eyes that I have never seen before and I can’t put my finger on it either. As if in a trance, he brushes a tear from my cheek, long fingers finding the side of my neck. Lightly, he presses the pulse point, leaning in.

“Andrei?” I breathe and he halts. Perhaps his mouth might’ve touched my neck, perhaps he would’ve stopped himself even if I hadn’t said anything. But the merman turns away, bobbing in the water, the image of his purple tail rippling and reforming.

I kick my foot in the water and the splash seems to bring Andrei back from his ruminations. He faces me again and smiles. “Let’s see how good of a swimmer you’ve become.”

* * * *

I am halfway across the beach, headed home, when faint cheery whistling reaches me. For several moments, I think nothing of it, but then I freeze.

Orel whistles.

It is as if thinking his name conjures him—I go around a large boulder and there he is, quite a ways off, walking towards me, red beard neat and trim, those off-white starchy pants unsuited for the beach. He lifts a hand in greeting but all I can wonder is if he saw from whence I came. I should’ve checked if anyone was on the beach before leaving Andrei.

Then I steel myself internally. Orel didn’t see anything. By chance, we have run into each other on the beach. And I come to the beach often, so it isn’t a strange occurrence.

I pretend I don’t see Orel and limp over to sit on a rock.

“Sacha!” he calls. I glance up, feign surprise and wave back. He reaches me in a matter of minutes, and says, “Beautiful day, ain’t it.”

“Yes.” I don’t make an attempt to say anything further. But then, “Did you find your shark scales?”

“Oh, not yet!” He laughs. “But I will. I certainly will. I can feel it.”

Does he mean he knows Andrei is nearby? Or that he has a hunch? Perhaps Andrei shouldn’t stay here—

“I just remembered! I saw your folks a short while ago. Your father told me, if I saw you, to tell you they’re heading to the doctor.”

“What? Why?”

“Your mother looked like she was in pain. Going into labour early maybe. I’m not quite sure.” He shrugs, adjusting the worn cross-body leather sac he always wears.

Guilt overwhelms me then. I shouldn’t have fought with her. And I said such mean things to her—to both of them—maybe it was the stress—

“Don’t worry so much. Women give birth every day, so she’ll be fine. But anyway, what happened to your ankle? Looks like it’s bothering you.”

“I—it’s an old injury. Didn’t heal right.” I need to go home.

He winces. “I’m real sorry about that. Especially for a kid like you.” The pitying tone of his voice makes my back straighten.

Not home. I need to go to the town doctor. That’s where Mother and Father are.

“It is what it is.” I stand and start limping, keeping my face blank despite the ache in my foot. Orel follows, keeping up easily, his long steps dwarfing my short ones.

“You sure you don’t want help, kid?” He reaches out, as if he’ll grasp my arm and I smack his hand away, none too gently.

“I’m fine,” I grit out.

“Pologies. Didn’t mean to overstep.” The cheer is gone from his voice and I nod.

“It’s fine.”

“Mind if I walk with you?”

I shrug and keep going. He doesn’t walk next to me, but lingers, a step or two behind. I refrain from glancing over my shoulder. Several minutes have passed in silence when Orel says, “You think my scales are still on the beach?”

I pause and shift my weight to my good foot, giving the other a chance to rest. “If you dropped them somewhere at high tide further inland I think they’re still here. But if you dropped them at low tide, the water might’ve gotten them.”

“The water or someone else.”

I don’t know what to say to that but to shrug again. This time, when I start walking, Orel doesn’t follow. So I glance back. A shadow seems to have clouded his face and he isn’t smiling.

“Do you believe in mermen, Sacha?”

The question is so unexpected that all I can do is blink. Once. Twice. Three times. Then I laugh, high and squallish, but it doesn’t sound quite right.

“You found him, didn’t you.” It’s not a question.

Hard and fast goes my heart, and I laugh again, but it’s laced with panic. “Found what?” I snort. “Orel, don’t tell me you really believe in those childish stories!” I limp toward him and make a show of sniffing. “You haven’t been drinking first thing in the morning, have you?”

With a chuckle, I lurch away, feeling the way his eyes stalk my every staggered step. Andrei has to leave. Tonight, if possible. He can’t stay—

Like paper, pain rips through my head, so sudden that I can’t even cry out. My body goes hot and cold, my legs jelly as I fall. I blink and the horizon is slanted, two different colours meeting. A rough hand clamps over my mouth and in my periphery lurks Orel’s red beard.

“Too smart for your own good, kid,” he says, tone conversational. The back of my head aches. It’ll leave an awful bruise.

At least he doesn’t know where Andrei is.

* * * *

The cold is what wakes me. The chill seeps through my thin clothes, and my skin prickles with the kind of numbness that makes one’s flesh feel foreign. I peel my eyes open to flames. A fire snaps and crackles a few feet away, but the sea’s breath swamps its heat.

I try to move—and can’t.

“My knots are half-hitches this time. Many of them.” Orel’s voice comes from behind and a different kind of chill crawls down my spine. “And you aren’t even half as strong as the merman, so don’t bother trying.”

Feeling spiteful, I struggle against the ropes binding my hands behind my back and my ankles. Sharp throbbing pulses through my head at the movement, and my struggles falter. I glance around the darkened beach, at the long twitching shadows, at the sea that squirms, akin to a mass of worms. If I scream, no one will come running. I am too far from home and I don’t even know if Mother and Father are home yet.

Then it hits me that I’ve been here with Orel all day. Mother must be worried. Father, too. And Andrei. He doesn’t know what’s happened. But he has to go. If he goes, Orel will have no use for me.

If Andrei goes home, everyone wins.

But I will miss him. I will miss him as a sunflower misses bumblebees, as the merfolk miss singing.

“I met him. I freed him,” I say softly. “But I don’t know where he is.”

Sand scrapes beneath boots and Orel is there, leaning over me. He sighs, as if in regret. “I admit I was a bit worried you didn’t wake up all day. Thought I mighta killed you, kid. If you hadn’t woken up, I planned to take a boat out tonight and dump your carcass far enough from the shore.”

My belly churns at the frigid words that fall so easily from Orel’s lips. There is an unholy stillness in his stone-gray eyes. He has done this before. Many times.

Orel’s next words are whispered. “I wouldn’t have made my coin if I believed silver-tongued boys like you, Sacha.”

He tosses me over his shoulder and starts walking. In the direction of the cavern I’ve been sharing with Andrei. At first, I’m sure he’s bluffing, that he doesn’t know where Andrei and I have spent sunny afternoons swimming together, but like a growing pile of rocks, the dread in my belly deepens.

He takes me right to our little safe haven and I scream, “Andrei! Swim away! Don’t come—”

Orel lets me go and I hit the ground on my tailbone, biting back a yelp of pain. I glare up at him and smile. “Hah! He’s gone! See! No one’s here anymore, you’re too late…” I falter at the sound of ripples in the water behind me. No.

Orel grins and fear wilts my tongue.

“Sacha?” Andrei’s hoarse voice, brimming with uncertainty.

I whirl. “Get away! It’s not safe—”

Orel drags me to the edge of the water and dunks my face underwater. It’s so unexpected that I choke, swallowing mouthfuls of the briny sea, thrashing beneath a grip of iron. And then he yanks me out and I heave, coughing and gasping.

“We humans can’t breathe underwater. But I’m sure you know that, merman.”

Only Andrei’s head and shoulders are visible and he seems to shrink into himself. I have come to know the flickers of feeling in his purple eyes and I see the kindling of panic.

“I want more fin,” Orel says, hand still fisted in my hair.

“For what? Your stupid collection!?” I snarl back and Orel laughs.

“Ah, so he didn’t tell you? Mer-people’s fin is a cure. It heals the strangest human illnesses,” he hisses into my ear. “Wonder if it’d do anything for that ankle of yours? Tell you what, if you don’t give me any more trouble, I’ll even give you a scale or two. How’s that?”

“I don’t want anything from you!” I squirm beneath his grip and the man shoves my face close to the water but doesn’t dunk me. Yet. “You’re a killer, Orel.”

“You think it’s different from what that sailor father of yours does? So he kills fish and I kill mermen. They’re bigger fish, is all.”

“They’re people, too!”

“They have tails, ya little brat. They’re fish.” He eyes Andrei over the top of my head. “It’s not natural.”

Not natural? But…I think Andrei’s tail is beautiful. The way the sleek purple limb glistens a dark pink under the sun’s smile. The way it matches his eyes.

“How much fin do you want?” They are the first words Andrei utters since he spoke my name. I shake my head. No.

“Don’t do it! Andrei—”

“Shut up, kid.” Orel clamps a hand over my mouth. Still, I shake my head. I will lose the only real friend I’ve ever had—

“If you promise to take only some, I will let you. And you mustn’t harm Sacha.” Andrei bobs up and down in the water.

“How much is some?”

No! I bite Orel’s hand. Hard.

He curses, releasing me. But then he grabs my bad ankle instead and I gasp. He squeezes hard and agony tears through the limb, sharper than shark teeth, and I can feel the bone that didn’t heal right scrape against another in a way it shouldn’t. I hate that Andrei can see my face when my tears spill over, and I hate that my fear is plain on my face, that Andrei knows I am scared Orel will worsen my injury and leave me crippled—I am sobbing—

“Aw, don’t cry, Sacha.” He stares at the merman, holding up a knife. “I’m running out of patience, Andrei. How much fin will it be?”

The merman’s eyes narrow, determined, and his face goes slack, the purple in his gaze dull and flat as if he has withdrawn into himself. He holds his hands two handspans apart and Orel considers. Drip, drip, drip goes a leak in the cave.

“Double it,” he says and I flinch. I shake my head, subtly this time. But Andrei isn’t even looking at me. Please, I want to say. You’re healed. Just go. I’ll get away somehow.

Andrei nods. And Orel drags me back from the water’s edge, leaving me facedown. Andrei places his hands on the rock ledge and his knuckles are white as he heaves himself up. As he maneuvers his tail out of the water, I use the uneven stone steps to push myself up into a sitting position.

Orel whips his head around to look at me. “Don’t try anything.”

I glare. “I’m not. The stupid rocks are hurting my face.”

A strange calm settles over me. Orel is a liar. He won’t stop with two handspans of fin. He’ll hurt Andrei and take more, if not all. His words to me on the beach are church bells in my head. How he’d planned to dispose of me…his eyes held the stillness of a corpse. He’d made his coin on blood.

Orel crouches by the merman and lifts the knife to his limber purple tail. I am behind them and, although I don’t see the blade cut into Andrei’s tail, the merman draws a sharp breath, and I know. Hardly daring to breathe, I inch forward on my hands and knees, gravel scraping my shins, until I am mere feet behind Orel, trying my hardest to ignore Andrei’s whimpers. Orel is so focused on cutting Andrei’s tail that he doesn’t hear me. Or doesn’t care.

Either way, I lunge, throwing all my body weight into the man’s. He curses, off-balance, and topples into the water. The bloody knife goes flying.

I face Andrei. “Untie my hands.”

The merman complies, hands shaking, and I don’t—can’t—look at his tail right now, so I don’t. In the time it takes Andrei to get my hands undone, Orel has resurfaced, fury mangling his face as he coughs.

“Do my feet next and then climb the steps, but stay near the edge,” I say and he grabs my arm.

“Wait! What about you, Sacha?”

“I’ll be fine!”

My ankle throbs but I ignore it, staring hard at Orel as he wades toward the ledge. “You stupid kid! I even told you I’d help you, but now, I’m gonna—”

I fling sand at the man’s face when he’s close enough and he sputters, cursing angrily while trying to rub the grit out of his eyes. This trick works twice, but as they say, the third time’s the charm, because Orel smartens up and covers his face. I don’t have enough time to grab more sand before he’s scrambled out of the water, hacking. On hands and rear end, I crawl up the uneven steps.

“Hurry, Sacha!” Andrei waits on the last step with his tail hanging over the edge, ready to jump in. We’ll be better off in the water. At least we can both move more freely there.

But Orel is advancing, and his long strides eat the distance between us with frightening speed. I clench a small, sharp rock, heart battering against my ribs like a fish trying to flee a net.

Even though I’ve braced myself, his snarled “Sacha” sends a shiver down my spine. When he grabs me by my shirtfront and backhands me across the face, I’m stunned at the pain that cracks across my cheek like clay.

“SACHA!” Andrei shouts. Orel lifts me up, holding me over the drop.

“You stupid boy,” he hisses. “Since your mother’s with child, I suppose she won’t miss you. Her little cripple.”

It is the last three words that make me furious.

I jab the sharp little rock into Orel’s right eye.

He howls and now it is my turn to cling to him tightly as he falls forward and we both plunge straight into the water. But I manage to get a breathful of air before going under.

Distantly, I hear a second splash and Andrei grabs Orel by the ankles, the lean muscles in his arms straining as he drags the man down every time he tries swimming to the surface. His powerful tail whips side to side underwater, creating ripples that I can feel on my skin. Air bubbles are slowing their escape from Orel’s lips. Not good. The blood leaking from his eye mixes with the colour of his red beard.

I go up for air then plunge back under, ready to smear more sand into Orel’s eyes when something glints. Ignoring Andrei and Orel’s thrashing, I squint.

It’s his blade. Strewn among the rocky sandbed and seaweed, sure to rot if left long enough.

It is hardly a matter of whim for me to swim down and retrieve the knife. Grip tight, I turn just in time to see Andrei lose his grasp on one of Orel’s ankles. The man’s foot strikes the merman’s forehead. And while Andrei doesn’t let go of his other ankle, I notice that Orel is closer to the surface than he was before. I will make him stop hurting people.

So I stop thinking.

The roar of my heart is blunt as I swim up to where man and merman are struggling, latching onto Orel’s backside. I am not thinking.

I am not thinking when I plunge the short blade into the side of Orel’s neck.

He goes stiff and, haltingly, turns his head to stare at me. The stillness in his gaze has been replaced with fear. Real, writhing fear. My small hand is still wrapped around the hilt. I am not thinking when I yank it out.

Like ink, blood gushes from the wound, swirling and clouding in the water. My chest tightens. Air. Arms wrap around me from behind and Andrei propels us to the surface easily.

I gasp, sucking in air. When I turn, the shadow of blood has darkened some of the water. Bubbles rise. Heaves and sobs escape me, and I suddenly feel like an old man, unspeakable feelings rattling around in my chest cavity. Andrei is gentle as he takes the blade from me and flings it into the cavern. It sinks with the faintest splash. Then his fingers are threading through my wet hair and he presses my face into the space between his neck and shoulder, using his other hand to caress my back.

We fall asleep by a fire I make with shaking hands, Andrei’s bigger body curved around my smaller one. I remember the soft touch of his lips on my forehead before sleep claims me.

* * * *

When I return home the next morning, I am more than a little stunned to find I am now a brother. Awe engulfs all my other feelings, burying even the pain in my ankle, as I stare at the small bundle nestled next to Mother in bed, the tiny face and tuft of hair peeking out of the green blanket. My little sister stirs and I inhale sharply.

I touch her little cheek, grinning.

Mother and Father are too tired to be angry about my disappearance last night but I’m sure they’ll remember tonight and badger me about it. Especially when they see my bruised face.

I slip into bed, but I can’t fall asleep. I pick up the book from my bedside table and read. I read until Lucy and her siblings leave the world in the wardrobe. And then I cry.

* * * *

Andrei leaves four days later.

I told him about my new sister the day after she was born and he’d swum off without a word. I’d been close to tears when I thought he wasn’t coming back. But he did come back. Nearly two hours later. With a smooth round stone of sea glass, cerulean blue in colour, that he’d presented to me.

I’d looked at him questioningly.

“When mer-children are born, we gift each other sea glass to decorate our homes,” he’d explained, smiling.

“Why

“Because it is hard to find. And we must come closer to the surface for it.” A tender sort of grief punctuated his purple eyes. “I’m happy for you, Sacha. A sister…”

I’d had no doubt he was remembering his own lost sister.

Now, three days after that, he is leaving. And I’m here in our cavern to say goodbye. When I arrive, Andrei is already there, curled up on a slanted sun-warmed rock, light glinting off his purple tail and setting his pale skin aglow. He must’ve been there awhile because his whitish-blond hair is dry.

“Andrei,” I call softly and he blinks, sleepily at first, but wide-awake when he sees me.

“Sacha!” He stretches and I limp over to him and hold out my closed fist. He offers his palm and I drop a rough-edged piece of red-orange sea glass onto it.

“It’s the only red one I’ve ever found. I want you to have it,” I say, swallowing past the tightness in my throat. “So you don’t forget me.”

“I will never forget you, Sacha,” he says in his hoarse voice, the words so earnest that I am embarrassed and laugh a little.

“I won’t forget you either.”

After a heartbeat, he asks, “Swim with me?” I nod.

That is how I find myself in the water, splashing him as he splashes back, trying not to think of the inevitable goodbyes we will say.

It is well-nigh noon when Andrei takes my hand, squeezes and says, “Don’t dwell on what happened with Orel.”

“I’m trying not to.” I bite my lip. “I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to ask…what you did with him.”

A beat of silence. He traces his thumb across my knuckles. “I took him out to sea. Far enough that he won’t come back.”

I sink a little lower into the water and Andrei releases my hand to splash water at me. “Don’t feel down. Remember, you’re octopian.”

I laugh and he grasps the back of my neck, holding up a purple scale between his fingers. “Orel wasn’t lying about our scales healing some human maladies,” he says softly. “It won’t heal your ankle but perhaps it’ll help with the pain. For it to heal properly, it’ll have to be rebroken. And I know that scares you, but you have to do it, Sacha.”

“Okay.” I open my mouth and he places the scale on my tongue and it’s smooth, slightly briny.

“Swallow.”

I comply. I reach out and hold his face between my palms. “Thank you.”

He shakes his head with a little smile. “One more thing. I want to mark you.”

“Mark me?” I repeat.

“It’s an enchanted bite mark. Should you ever need help, call for me by cutting through it and spilling three drops of your blood in the sea.” He strokes the spot right under my ear, voice softer than the rustle of water. “I will hear your call, and I will come.”

“Is this a favour?” I ask, frowning. “A debt you owe me?”

He shakes his head. “Favours are like gifts for us merfolk, Sacha. They aren’t given out of obligation, but friendship. And I consider you a trusted friend.”

Friend. The word makes me grin and I bare my neck to Andrei. Supporting my head with one hand and my neck with the other, he brings his face to the side of my throat. His hair tickles my face but I hold still as his teeth scrape my flesh.

He bites, and my skin breaks. It doesn’t really hurt but nevertheless my hands tighten on Andrei’s chest. His warm tongue presses against the bleeding bite and a strange numbness settles over me.

Several moments—or maybe minutes—pass before he lifts his mouth from my neck. He splashes water on the mark and it stings.

Relief scatters over me like debris. I am glad, beyond glad, that there is a way to call him, to see him again. At least once more.

Andrei and I are seated on the ledge of rock. He places his big, calloused hand over my small one. “I should go now.”

I nod, staring at him, trying to memorize the fire-pink glint of his purple eyes and tail under the sun. How the purple of his tail looks darker in water. The white blond of his hair, the porcelain of his skin. My eyes start burning and I press my sleeve against them as I start crying.

He chucks me under the chin, laughing gently. “I’ll visit.”

“Promise!?”

“Promise.” He presses his forehead to mine, purple eyes playful. “At the turn of every year.”

“You can meet my sister then, too.”

He grins smartly. “Careful, or I might become her new favourite person.”

“We’ll see about that,” I laugh.

His fingers linger on my cheek for a moment longer, purple gaze bright.

Then he is gone with a splash, that sleek purple limb cutting the water like a knife, the setting sun gilding his leave.

About the Author

Joti Bilkhu

Joti Bilkhu is a PhD student in English literature. She is interested in depictions of violence in children's literature. She has had a short story called "Omophagus" published in 'The Monsters We Forgot, Vol 1' anthology.