Neela sprang right up, spent minimal time getting ready, and hurried out the front door. She walked quickly up the street and around the corner. She stepped up onto the sidewalk and approached one of the vendors that lined the only busy street in the area. She purchased a small bushel of flowers at a reasonable price and continued walking on the sidewalk in the same direction. She walked until the sidewalk ended and then carefully crossed the intersecting road that was perpendicular to her path.
She became more thoughtful in her steps after she left the paved terrain. She climbed up a small hill made of sand and thinly distributed grass and weeds. At the top of the hill, there were a few trees that provided a decent amount of shade. She stood underneath one of them and enjoyed the one- or two-degree drop in temperature it provided. She knelt down and took a few deep breaths. She placed the flowers beside her and reached out her hands. Embedded in the ground in front of her was a metal plaque affixed to stone. She could feel that some of the nearby weeds had invaded its borders. She pulled back the weeds and swept the area clean with her hands. She traced part of the engravings on the plaque with the index and middle fingers of her right hand A..N..I..K..A. She traced beneath it another portion of the engraving, M..O..T..H..E..R.
“Happy birthday, Mom. These are for you,” she said as she moved the flowers forward and placed them over the right side of the plaque.
“I miss you still, even though I can’t remember you. I’ve always tried to imagine what you may have been like in life, but lately I’ve been thinking of what you would be like now. I try to think of what you might say or do or advice you might give me.” Neela started to cry softly.
“You wouldn’t at all believe my current situation. I barely believe it. I wish you were here to tell me what to do, but I understand that it wasn’t meant to be that way. I hope one day we can celebrate your birthday together and that you’ll be proud of me until then. Love you, Mom.” Neela kissed her hand and pressed it into the plaque.
She sat quietly for a moment and let her tears fall silently to the ground. She took a few more deep breaths, wiped the remaining tears from her cheeks, stood up slowly, and steadied herself with her cane. She walked back down the hill, across the street, and down the sidewalk. She did her best during the walk home to focus on the few positive memories Henry had shared of her mother over the years.
As she reached the cottage, she was overwhelmingly thankful that it was Sunday and that she wasn’t scheduled to work. She was always a little distracted after she made the trip to the cemetery, and it was nice not to have to worry about performing. She was also grateful for the extra time Sunday would allow her to spend with Cheveyo. She needed as much time as possible with him to help her understand who or what he was, exactly, and what this meant for their unique love.
She entered the cottage briefly, splashed some cold water on her face, and exited the back door hastily. She was in such a hurry to get to Cheveyo that she forgot her cane inside. Before she could turn around to get it, she was filled with excitement at the sound of a familiar voice.
“Neela!” Cheveyo called out to her from just a few feet away.
She walked quickly toward his voice.
“I could not wait any longer,” he explained.
When she was at his feet, he leaned in for a kiss.
She turned her face away just before he could connect. “I’m glad you’re here, but we need to talk first,” she said, somewhat sternly.
He was troubled by her rejection but could sense somewhat of a playful nature about it.
“I have a lot of questions for you, mister.”
“I will answer any questions you have and trust that you will keep my responses to yourself.”
“Cheveyo, I think telling people that my boyfriend is a ‘merman of sorts’ would only cement my weirdness in the village.” They shared a laugh. “Seriously, though, you don’t have to worry about that.”
“Okay, my pearl, what questions do you have for me today, then?”
Neela recommended that they walk to a nearby outdoor café for their question-and-answer session. Cheveyo explained that he typically did not sit in close quarters with humans during the day but would make an exception for her.
Neela decided not to go back in for her cane. She wrapped her hand around Cheveyo’s stiffened arm instead and gave very specific directions to a café that was in close proximity to her work. He was impressed with her ability to identify the precise location of everything they encountered in the village. She knew every shop, every mailbox, the voice of every person that greeted them, everything.
As they sat down to order, she realized that she may have known the name of every server that ever worked at the cafe, and everything they ever offered on their menu, but she had no idea what to order for an Ojigong. She took a chance and ordered a variety of things for the table.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think about it, but—do you eat… food?” she asked.
Cheveyo laughed. “Anything I eat would be food, right?”
Neela laughed. “Yes, I guess I meant, what do you eat?”
“Ojigong are omnivores. We can eat plants or animals, but we prefer to eat plants whenever possible and let everything more complex thrive. Has the questioning now officially commenced?”
“Will there be a limit on the amount of questions you’ll answer?”
“There might be.”
“Then no, that was just logistics.”
“Will it bother you if I eat shrimp?” she asked curiously.
“It will only bother me if you order it and do not eat it. I would not want them to have died only to be scraped into the garbage.”
“I think I ordered too much, then.”
“I will help you put everything to good use.”
Neela laughed. “Okay, now for the real questions. What exactly is an Ojigong?”
“We are beings of the sea, like sharks or whales.”
“But what are you? A type of merman?” she giggled.
“You laugh but merpeople do actually exsist.”
“So are you, like, a cousin to them?”
“No, we are entirely different creatures.”
“So you’re more like half-human, half-octopus, like a Cecaelia?”
“Humans love their labels and myths. We are not half of anything; we are wholly Ojigong and have never been anything else.”
“Okay, I’ll move on. How old are you?”
“We do not track time as you do.”
“What do you do with your time, anyway?”
“We do a few humanlike things: travel, spend time with loved ones, serve in the king’s army, things like that.”
“What is the king like?”
The server arrived with their smorgasbord of appetizers. Cheveyo delayed his response.
As soon as the server was back inside, Neela apologized for asking her questions within earshot of other humans and offered to return to the beach. But there was no way that Cheveyo was going to let the plates full of shrimp and clams get tossed without good enough reason. He started eating the appetizers and answered her question.
“He is an Ojigong, but much more powerful than any other.”
“Are you sure you’re okay with staying here?”
“It really is fine. We just need to be discreet, and I need to remember to act as much like a human as possible in the revealing light of the day. Next question, please.”
“Okay, why is the king so powerful?”
“He has an extremely powerful lineage.”
“Is he just the ruler of the Ojigong, or do merpeople fall under his rule too?”
“He is the ruler of everything that touches the sea.”
“Where do you live?”
“Wherever we find ourselves.”
“Do you live with merpeople?”
“I can understand that they intrigue you. They are designed to do so.”
“What do you mean?”
“Merpeople are beautiful and typically peaceful creatures, but they do have a tendency to play with humans.”
“They see humans like sort of clumsy pets, if you will. They love them but like to draw them in and mess them about. I believe it to be all in good fun, though.”
“Can they become human, like you?”
“No, and they probably would not want to transition to anything other than what they are. They love what they are and how they live.”
“Why do you do it then?”
“We are different creatures with different motivations.”
“So I have spent a great deal of time on land. Sometimes seeking entertainment, and other times it was to complete tasks for the king.”
“Is that what all the other girls were about, entertainment?”
“Sometimes, yes. As I have said, I like to dance.”
“I don’t like that, Cheveyo.”
“It was in the past, my pearl. I will dance with you alone for as long as you will let me.”
“What kind of tasks does the king ask you to do?”
“Oh, speaking of the king, I have to tell you something.”
“Okay…” he responded inquisitively.
“My grandpa noticed my arm last night.”
“Was he upset?”
“Yes, but not for the reason you may think. It reminded him of a scar King Azul gave him years ago.”
“How did he come in contact with the king?”
“He used to tell me this crazy story about an angry sea king. I always half thought that he made it up, or at least parts of it, but now maybe not so much.”
Neela told an abbreviated version of her grandfather’s tale.
“This might be problematic for us,” Cheveyo stated after her story concluded.
“It might, but for now, I told him it was a jellyfish that gave me this mark.”
“I hope he believed it.”
“Probably not, but he let it go for now.”
“I have heard that King Azul once protected his seas more directly and with more vigor than he does now.”
“So he doesn’t do things like that anymore?”
“If he wants to intervene now, he might alter the weather at a distance or send one of us in his stead.”
“Does he like humans more now?”
“I would definitely not say that. It is more like he has given up on them.”
“Well, okay then… Now, you said that he can alter the weather. Does he have magical powers or something?” she asked excitedly.
“No. It is difficult to explain, because humans tend to explain the unexplainable with science or magic, and sometimes it is somewhere in between, or beyond, the two.”
“So no magical powers, then?” she said, disappointed.
“Think of it like this: a lot of creatures in nature have special abilities that could look like magic. When a chameleon changes color to become camouflaged, it could seem like magic at play, but there are no spells or potions; it is just an ability they are given to help them survive in this world.”
“I guess, but to control the weather is a whole other level of ability.”
“That is true. The king is on a ‘whole other level,’ as you say.”
“What can you do?”
“Oh, my beautiful blue pearl, I can do anything you want me to.”
“I am incredibly strong, fast, and agile. I can control the elements at times, change color, light up… the list goes on and on. I am sure I have abilities that I, myself, am not even aware of yet.”
Neela laughed in response to his lengthy and slightly conceited description of himself.
“I was wondering when Mr. Arrogant would return.”
“You mistake confidence for arrogance again, my love. Are you not confident in all of your abilities?”
“Of course. Well, for the most part. Sometimes I do wish I could see certain things again.”
“You have so many abilities beyond sight, but if you would like to see certain things, I think I may have a way to make that happen.”
Cheveyo was excited to showcase his abilities but thought it best that they walk back to the beach to do so. They finished their brunch without leaving any complex life on the plate and made their way back to the beach. They took off their shoes when they reached the sand and carried them the rest of the way. They sat down on the wet sand, huddled together, with just the tips of their toes touching the water.
“Okay, what would you like to see first?” Cheveyo asked.
“My grandpa!” she said eagerly.
“I will try to see him tonight and show you tomorrow. What else would you like to see, something I may have already seen?”
“Delila. I would love to see what she looks like all grown up!”
“I can do that. Are you ready?”
Cheveyo put his arm around Neela and instructed her to lean into him as much as possible to hide her face from any passersby. He didn’t want anyone to see her reaction, even though he anticipated it would be less dramatic than it was during the first transference.
When her face was buried in his chest and his hand was firmly on her welts, he asked again, “Are you sure you are ready?”
Neela mumbled yes and welcomed the experience. Electrical energy entered through her arm and surged through the rest of her body.
He could feel her pulsating up against him. It was mild but palpable. He’d been right, the transference appeared less shocking to Neela’s system this time.
She smiled as the images flowed in much faster than before. In her mind’s eye, she could see a pale young woman standing at a tall table inside a large, open-air space. The woman seemed illuminated by an undefined light source. She was joined at the table by a woman of a similar age. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could tell that the women were conversing in a playful way. Neela studied the appearance of the woman she knew must have been Delila. She was absolutely gorgeous; she had skin like honey, curly cinnamon hair, and a brilliant smile. She was everything Neela thought she would be, and most importantly, she was no longer the child of her frozen memories.
The image quickly vanished, and darkness resumed.
“Are you okay?” Cheveyo asked.
Neela remained silent up against his chest and then wrapped her arms around his waist.
“It was not my intent to hurt you,” he explained.
“No, you didn’t hurt me. You have given me something that no one else could. I’ve been able to see myself, you, and now my beautiful friend. She looked more perfect than I imagined. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
He was proud to have been able to give her an experience she longed for, but it took its toll on him physically. He tried to keep his fatigue to himself and continued to hold Neela tightly against him.
“Yes, my pearl?”
“Do you have the ability to invade my dreams?”
“No, sadly, that is an ability I do not possess.”
“I keep thinking about a dream I had right after we met, and I thought maybe…”
“What was the dream about?”
“I feel silly about it now.”
“There was just a man swimming in the water. I couldn’t make out really anything about him, but he gave me the most peculiar feeling.”
“Did you speak to him?”
“I tried, but I woke up after just a few words.”
“The Boogolli says that dreams can connect us to the past or the future. I wonder which this dream was meant to connect you to.”
“I don’t know, but it’s interesting to wonder. So Ojigong do dream, then?”
“What do you dream about?”
“Moments like this.”
She squeezed him tighter.
“I wish we could stay like this forever.”
“Can’t we?” she asked.
“The longest I have ever stayed in human form are the days spent with you.”
“There’s no way to become human permanently?”
“Would you become a cuttlefish if you could?”
“Maybe for a day.”
“Then we will be together during the day and part of the night.”
“What will become of your life, Neela?”
“What do you mean?”
“Our lives are different. We Ojigong just live, but human life seems to have a lot of expectations. As much as it kills me to say this, I could never give you what a human could give you.”
“You’re right. You can give me more.”
He guided one of her hands to his face so she could feel his smile.
“That’s enough of that,” she said. “We’ll worry about those things when they matter.”
He agreed it was best to table the discussion for now.
“I do want to talk to you about taking care of yourself, though. Maybe we should be together every other day, so you can rest,” she suggested.
“Sick of me already?”
“Not a chance. I just hate to know you’re suffering all the time, and I guess I do miss my time with Delila and Mari too.”
“I understand, but I need to know you are safe.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“If you will agree to come to the pier to kiss me good night on the days we are apart, I will agree to rest.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Neela said cheerfully.
They spent the rest of the day and much of the evening in the same spot on the beach. They laughed and talked, with only small bouts of silence. When it was time to say good night, Neela asked if she could somehow walk him home, now that she knew his destination wasn’t another resort on the island. He discouraged it initially, but she was persistent. He explained that she couldn’t exactly walk him home. She could, however, walk with him to the pier if she wanted a set destination other than their current location. Once at the pier, Cheveyo seemed to catch a second wind. He could see that they were alone in the dark and decided it would be the perfect time to demonstrate another ability.
“Would you like to try something?”
She matched the level of excitement in his voice. “Yes, definitely!”
“Can you hold your breath?”
Cheveyo quickly scooped her up and jumped off the end of the pier with her in his arms. She was only fully under water for a second before he manipulated it to rise beneath her. It swiftly catapulted her high into the air and then placed her gently back onto the pier. The elevated seawater fell slowly all around her, as if it were raining just where she stood. He stayed just beyond the pier, supported by the sea.
“I love it!” she said through laughter as she twirled slowly.
Neither one of them wanted to part, but they both knew that goodbyes were something they were going to have to get used to if they were to live these separate lives together. He leaned over the rail, kissed her, and begged her to let him walk her back to the cottage. She refused and stressed that she knew her way, even without her cane.
“Would you like to try something else?”
“When you get to the pier entryway, step carefully onto the sand and then stand still for a moment.”
“Cheveyo, I have to get home.”
“I know. It will not take long, I promise.”
“Okay then. Good night.”
“Good night, Neela.”
She walked away more enamored of him than ever. There was a magic and adventure to life with him that she had never experienced and long desired. She strolled down the pier, thinking of all the things she knew and still wanted to know about Ojigong life under the sea. She tried to wring the water out from her hair by squeezing bunches of it within her hands gently and then tried the same technique with the skirt of her dress.
A warm breeze blew all around her that lifted her hair and dress alike. She smiled as she smelled a hint of sweetness about the warm stream of sea air that enveloped her. She had become very taken with this scent recently and was certain it was somehow created by Cheveyo. By the time she reached the entryway of the pier, she was mostly dry and highly impressed by yet another ability revealed.
She stepped down slowly onto the sand and stood very still, as instructed. The sand gathered together under her feet to form a dense object that felt to Neela like a thick sheet of smooth glass. She balanced herself on the object created by the hardened sand. It moved quickly beneath her, but not erratically, and seemed to counter any movements she made in order to keep her onboard as it propelled her forward. She laughed quietly to herself as she surfed above the sand. She was fascinated and amused that Cheveyo had found a way to manipulate the situation and the elements to make sure she arrived home safely.