Iri’s foot slipped slightly as he jumped from a rock in the stream to the bank. Landing on the other side, he grinned smugly at his older brother.
“Okay,” Sem said, “so you can get across the river, but to become a real cliff scout–”
“Sem!” Iri scowled, I got across the river, I swung across the ravine on your stupid rope, and I climbed to the top of the bluff. Why won’t you let me join your friends’ club?”
“Well, you see,” Sem said, “you’re almost there.... uh, you just need to do one more thing - steal Ena’s book, outrun her, and–”
“Sem!” Iri stomped on the ground, “that’s not fair! That has nothing to do with being a cliff scout!”
Sem folded his arms, and made a snooty face. “Well, how do you know? You’re an outsider who has not been entrusted with our deep dark secrets.”
“Your secrets are dumb,” Iri said, “I’m going back home.”
Before Iri could react, Sem took off down through the trees.
Iri’s eyes narrowed in sudden determination, and he began running till his legs seemed to move on their own.
Iri got out of the forest, and onto the farmland. The fields covered the rolling hills around them, with the mountains bordering the hills.
Ahead, Iri saw that Sem had his hand placed on the frame of their house. Iri walked up to Sem with his most disapproving glare. Sem laughed, but as he was laughing, Iri rushed through the door.
“I got inside first Sem,” Iri argued, “so that means I got home first.”
Sem’s face twisted around.
“You never said what getting home meant,” Iri smiled.
“Why do you get to decide what that means though?”
“Why do you get to decide?” Iri argued back.
“Boys!” Papa shouted. “Be quiet! Just for... just for a few moments.”
Sem and Iri froze, and turned towards Papa. He was sitting next to the fireplace by the cook pot. He held an opened letter in his hands.
Iri and Sem watched in silence as tears began streaming down their father’s cheeks. Soon he began to sob more harshly, and the paper shook in his hands.
“Alt,” he cried, “no... it’s not true... Alt couldn’t have...” His tears stalled for a moment. Papa was reading something.
Then his distress erupted in full force, and he tossed the letter to the floor. Now Iri was beginning to tear up. Papa never acted like this.
Iri reached down, and picked up the letter. He looked at it a moment, and Sem realized Iri was having a hard time reading it. With their father sobbing unsettlingly in the background, Sem quietly whispered to Iri what the letter said.
And soon enough, Iri’s face was also drenched in tears.
Uncle Alt was dead. While riding a ship across the sea, his ship had sunk. Merpeople had done it, stealing the treasure on board.
Iri hunched over as he wept. Never again would he see his uncle Alt when he’d come in the winter. Never would he taste the candies Alt brought from far away places.
Sem had stopped reading, but Iri looked back to it and read a little more. He stopped when he read that they found his body, and his body wrenched in sadness.
Iri’s thoughts just wouldn’t work right. He couldn’t believe that uncle Alt was gone.
The door opened, lighting up the dark room. Ena came in, followed by Mama who carried little Nalrie in her arms. They saw the sadness in the room, and soon, all of them were grieving.
Despite the feeling of Sem’s strong arms around him, Iri had never felt so sad.
Irian pushed again the leather around his wrists again as he remembered the terrible memory. Night had come after another day of swimming, and he was once again sitting off from the others as they talked. The dark entrapment of the ocean at night felt too much like that dark room years ago.
His little nine year old self had been sad because he lost a friend and candy, but now Irian had come to maturity, and knew the pain that his father had felt over the death of his brother.
Altain had married two years earlier, and had not been able to have any children with his wife. He’d left Lanise a widow, and with the loss of his ship, and the money tied up in the enterprise, had forced her to go back and live with her siblings.
Altain had been a great man. He came up with the idea to disguise valuable shipping as mere fishing boats. This had worked at first, but then the gills began wising up to it.
Altain had been but one casualty. There were reports of unknowing fisherman falling to the “unnatural waves.”
Altain had lost his future due to the merfolk. And now, confined to the prison of the sea, so had Irian. A few more years, and Irian could’ve been married. Now, he was destined to be alone.
Irian no longer could really view the mers as animal-like. Honestly, that view hadn’t really held sway in his mind since he started scaling.
No, they were not animals, but they now had all the rage of another country going to war. Caring not for the lives and well being of innocents, but attacking every member of the enemy’s side.
Why couldn’t they keep to themselves, and stay away from shore? Maybe if they stayed away, less mers would be captured to put in farms.
“Are... are you alright?”
The dumb gill had interrupted his thoughts. Couldn’t they leave him alone to his torment?
“No.“He didn’t look up.
“Do you want to say why?”
“Does anything need to be said? You ruined my life.”
“I saved your life,” the mermaid forcefully said.
Irian finally craned his neck up. It was the last mermaid he’d scaled. Her tail was still bare from the scaling. She seemed to be competing for most annoyed glare.
“Your attitude is making all of us feel miserable,” she said. “We’ve escaped captivity and our joy is dampened by a big leeching barnacle on our backs.”
“Ah,” Irian said. “For a moment I thought you actually slunk over here because you wanted me to feel better.”
In truth, it appeared they just saw him as a rancid weed - poisoning the plants around it, sucking life out of them as quickly as it can just so it can die, and spread more rancid weed.
“Well I – augh,” the mermaid groaned. “It’s hard to want to care about someone like you.”
“Really?” Irian said, “It’s not like I was the one who took you from your home.”
“But you were the one who sheared pieces of my body off.”
“I would’ve done it regardless of which mer happened to be up to scale that day.”
“You could’ve stopped doing it,” the mermaid said. “Tarn did. You actually showed a glimmer of remorse when you scaled me.”
“The emotion I felt then belongs to my sister and none else,” Irian quickly said.
“Then why did you stop before you were finished? Surely the extra scales would’ve –”
“Stop it,” Irian said. “You’re trying to make me feel bad, like all of you are the ones in the right.”
The mermaid looked baffled. “What?! Of course we are! You can’t honestly believe that what you were doing was right!”
“But you’ve destroyed my life!” Irian said. “Even if my family can get by without my extra income, I still don’t have any future.”
“Now that sounds like a shortsighted view.”
“Well,” Irian said, “considering I’m stuck as a –ugh– merman for the rest of my life, I don’t think so.”
“Now that’s not true,” the mermaid said, “we can change you back, we’re just choosing not to. And what’s so terrible about the sea anyway?”
“Well mermaid,” Irian said, “seeing as every mer seems to hate me with a passion, I doubt my life will be very pleasant, even if I do adjust to my strange body and surroundings.”
“Well,” the mermaid said, “you can start by viewing as intelligent creatures, and calling us by our real names, and not the ones you use to pretend we’re beasts. My actual name that respectful people address me by is Cora.”
Irian ignored her suggestion. “If all of you dislike me so much, why do you need to keep me a mer?”
“You need to be taught a lesson,” the gill said. “Also, changing people back and forth between different forms becomes harder ever time, and I’m not in the mood for it.”
“Then why don’t you just let me go and swim off on my own?”
“I doubt you’d want to do that,” she said. “You’d probably try to eat something that will make your hair fall out.”
“I didn’t ask for advice,” Irian said. “I asked why the rest of you want to keep me around.”
“You know we’re taking you to justice,” one of the merboys called over. The others drew their attention to the conversation.
“But why lug me along with you so you can shove me in a cell,” Irian said “when you can just leave me to die out here?”
The other mers swam closer. “We wouldn’t get to see your face sour as we compel you to eat something,” one of the merboys joked.
“We’d miss out on watching you rot in a cell,” the other merboy said.
“Well Reef,” the purple tailed mermaid said to the merboy, “some of us might want to show some mercy, and be better to him than he has to us.”
“Well I’m sorry that I’ve mistaken your kindness for a kidnapping,” Irian said with sarcasm.
The mers stared at him in the dimming light, unamused by his words.
Cora grabbed something from the merboy – Reef. It appeared to be a makeshift knife. She quietly cut away at Irian’s bonds as the others watched.
At last, Irian felt the pressure on his wrists release, and the leather bands fell away, revealing red sores. Irian grasped at the welts. They’d pressed in harshly. He began to feel blood flow more readily in his hands.
He looked up at the mermaid. The others did not seem enthused about her sudden choice.
“So,” she asked, “you going to swim off?”
Irian felt at his hands again. He shifted his teeth against each other. “You said it yourself. I have nowhere to go. And I mean that in more ways than one.”
He watched as the other mers, satisfied that he wasn’t going to bolt, left him to find spots to sleep.
Cora stared at him, her face scarcely illuminated as the moon above them became the only source of light.
“I suppose... thank you.”
“Thanks for what in particular?”
“For cutting my bonds.... and saving my life.”
“Ah,” she said, “there’s the one I was looking for.”
Irian wanted to add the reminder that her saving had been caused by their escape, and remind her of the negative consequence of her saving.
But his desire to sleep was greater. He was not used to the bizarre motions he had to make to swim. They tired his whole body, not just his tail.
As Cora swam off to sleep by the others, Irian laid down on the sand. Despite the anguish of his mind and soul, his bodily desires won out.
Pressing his skin against the gritty sand, he soon fell asleep.