Rea trailed her clawed fingers through the silt of the ocean floor but there were only stones, bones and empty shells to be found. Her stomach twisted itself into a knot and squeezed mercilessly. Her whole body felt so heavy, despite being thinner and more malnourished than ever.
After spending her whole life fighting tooth and claw to protect her patch of water, Rea never expected to die of hunger. It was a slow, horrible weakening. Sharks, squids and other mer had failed to finish her off. But this… this emptiness was overwhelming. It had driven her to venture to the sea bed to look for scraps when usually her species hunted the open water. It had made her chase shadows in the water when usually mer waited for their prey to come to them.
Her lures weren’t working. Usually a multicoloured light-display unrivaled by any other creature in the ocean, female mer needed their bioluminescence to see, to hunt, and to mate. This deep, there was only black otherwise. Now the scar on her tail meant a large portion of her serpentine body didn’t glow at all. The small patches on her upper body – face, neck, shoulders, palms – would fizzle and spit like lightning. Lightening looked more like a warning to stay away than an invitation to come close. Not to mention how it hurt her own eyes. So she never activated them, choosing to live in perpetual darkness.
Normally there was no stopping. Sharks never ceased to swim and neither did Mer until their last breath. Now Rea’s tail cramped up and refused its usual graceful motions. She landed in the silt with a thump, thinking about how cruel nature was. If she had allowed that fish to hunt in her territory she would have starved. But because she fought and was injured, she was also condemned to death.
She closed her eyes, so tired. Lying still like this made it easy to imagine she was already dead. A gentle humming filtered into her ears to sooth the pains of her body. It was an ethereal melody yet she was sure she had heard it before. Was she really already weak enough to go where the finished fish went?
No, that wasn’t right. The voice was not a calling to rest or an invitation from God. It was the siren’s song, sung by another female Mer. Normally, her instinct would drive her to end it and replace it with her own notes. This would be more competition for food and mates after all. Yet now there was no chance of that. She was too weak. So instead she allowed herself to realise how beautiful it was. How breathtaking and soul-nourishing.
It felt like a stone was weighing on her chest to keep her on the floor. With nothing better to do, she opened her lips and added her own tune to the song above. She wasn’t competing to drown the other out or show her voice was better. She just wanted to add to it. She followed the other female’s lead. Together they were more beautiful than she ever would have imagined for members of a solitary and territorial race.
Then the lights came, softly glowing and changing hue, framing a huge silhouette that circled above her slowly, appraisingly. The other Mer was twice as long as her, with a tail that barely moved except for the occasional lazy flick of the tip. The light show along the length was mesmerising. Despite the fear locking up her limbs, Rea kept singing along. She might as well. The other mermaid would kill her and feast on her anyways, taking these waters to add to its territory.
Finally, the face was close enough to see and study in detail: The glowing cheeks and pitch dark eyes. A mouth full of teeth sharper than needles. She imagined it would go for the throat; a quick kill that would end her quickly and with minimal pain. But instead the round eyes only stared at her.
It felt like an eternity until the Mer swam away, its voice getting fainter and fainter until all Rea could hear was her own voice and the pain of her body again. Funnily enough, she was disappointed. She would have rather died to that beautiful song and beautiful sight than to wither away on the ocean floor. She closed her eyes and slept.
Upon waking, Rea felt movement in the water close-by. Her mind jumped to the possibility of possible prey; possible food. Snapping open her eyes, instead she saw the huge outline of another Mer again. It took a few seconds for her to remember what had happened before she fell asleep and another few for her to believe it wasn’t a dream.
The face full of teeth came close and grinned. Then two clawed hands laid a carcass across her chest. Rea couldn’t believe her circumstances. Was this female… really offering her food? Weren’t her race supposed to be eternally selfish in that way? The smaller Mer didn’t break eye contact as she meekly accepted, taking a bite with her own toothy jaws. Never had flesh tasted so good.
The larger Mer continued to watch. Rea thought there was something in her expression. Curiosity perhaps? She finished the fish hurriedly, unable to put into words how blissful the feeling of chewing and swallowing and filling the emptiness truly was. The Mer seemed satisfied once she had finished and retreated, humming gloriously.
Rea joined in with joyful notes until the other was too far away to hear.
After some time, Rea noticed her body hurt less. There was a slight sick feeling in her stomach, being so unused to being full. But she felt stronger. She lifted herself off of the silt and began to swim. She wasn’t sure where she would swim. She doubted she’d be able to find more food. But she was alive for now and might as well act like it.
In the deep ocean, there was no way to measure time. It was always black and always cold. But it felt like a long time before she finally heard the tune of her saviour again. She hadn’t found food in a long time. She was still weak. So there was everything to gain and nothing to lose by approaching.
As soon as Rea hummed back, she knew the female was approaching. There was a shift in the movement of the water wherever she went, given how huge and powerful her long form was. She was circled and the face came close enough to touch. The Mer made a noise of greeting, to which Rea replied. And then they swam together.
Stretching long or snapping short; time was changeable as a rubber band. Similarly, the two Mer swam side by side for an undetermined distance. There were no landmarks in the endless water, not even currents or tides. Rea felt tiny next to her companion.
“My name is Depth, by the way.” The long creature said, her voice as silky as her scales.
“Oh… Rea.” Her heart danced for a few beats and her fins quivered. There was a lot hanging there, like the sediment that fell so slowly at the bottom of the ocean that it seemed to be static. Feelings seemed like if she spoke them, they might break. If she asked questions, she worried the other Mer might realise how strange this was and the truce would be over. And somehow, Rea found the thought of their fragile peace ending worse than the inevitable death that would quickly follow if the larger female turned hostile.
After another unknown distance, she murmured, “thank you.”
Rea found herself saying thank you often. Every time Depth lured and slaughtered an unsuspecting fish, she shared it and Rea was full for the first time in months. She felt herself getting stronger for it too.
Being able to keep up with Depth’s natural pace counted for a lot. They covered fathoms of water in a single day, transmitting their joined melodies for miles of otherwise silent water. Not only did she feel stronger, she was able to forget her disability. The lures that didn’t work on her body were more than compensated for by Depth’s tail; several metres long, glowing like an aurora borealis of the deep. Sometimes Rea imagined that the glow came from her own tail to give a sense of normality. Then she would remember. There was a monster twice her size gliding alongside, miraculously having decided to keep her alive like a pet.
But the most terrifying moment was yet to come. Feeling healthy encouraged the smaller mer to attempt to light her lures again. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, just a feeling of being ready. Perhaps, they might have healed with all the food? Alas, not so.
There was a horrendous screech as the broken lights burst on and off like blinding shockwaves, followed by a flash of agony on the side of her torso. There was a spinning,sickening sensation followed by a rising scent of blood. When Rea finally managed to see, Depth was above her with clawed hands poised and teeth bared in a snarl. The unblinking black eyes said nothing but the body language told all.
Rea made herself as small as physically possible, shutting down her lures and squeezing her eyes closed to avoid the overwhelming territorial light display. “I’m sorry. It was a mistake.” She whimpered.
In hindsight, this was a terrible idea. What territorial creature wouldn’t react so poorly to blinding strobe lights out of nowhere. It hurt her own eyes, let alone the unsuspecting eyes of Depth. Even if she didn’t come to the conclusion that Rea was poisonous, electric or otherwise dangerous from the signals, then at the very least the lures solidified her as competition from another female of the same species.
Thankfully Depth backed down from the final blow just in time, instead circling her in agitation. Rea considered herself lucky to be alive after provoking a the Mer’s kill instinct so thouthtlessly. “So this is why you don’t glow?”
Rea nodded miserably. “I can’t.”
“And this is why you don’t hunt…”
“Yes, I can’t.”
“You know I wondered why… you’re damaged.” To emphasize her point, she trailed claws over the white scar tissue that ran like a seam right down the length of her tail. Coming from Depth, the comment hurt more than Rea was prepared for. Then the larger Mer placed her palm over the small stab wounds in her side. They were perhaps a centimetre deep. Finger shaped holes oozing slow red whisps which leaked through Depth’s fingers.
“My apologies Rea.” Depth amended.
“It’s fine.” Her side still throbbed, like there was a second heart beating with pain in the wound, but the greater hurt was the shame of causing all this.
They swam on, slower now, but still able to score an eel for dinner thanks to Depth’s light show. Rea ate slowly, then closed her mind to sleep. Her primal brain took care of the rhythmic motions of her tail while the mind rested and the body began to stitch up the new opening. Depth swam alongside in silence, content to keep watch.
Two days, three days, four days, more. Rea endured her pain without complaint, just as she had on previous occasions. Despite everything, she was tough. She had survived till maturity and secured a patch of water through her own violent means prior to becoming a dependant. She had attacked and survived attacks, killed to eat and killed to defend. This time with food to fuel her body and a wound much less severe, she had little cause to complain. Rea was no stranger to the ponderous process of recovery and weathered the discomfort with stoicism.
However, her outward coping in no way mirrored the process within. There was still shame, self-doubt, confusion and questioning. It was one thing to escape death by accepting help, it was another to exist as a subservient being constantly afraid to make the wrong move. Observing smaller scars that littered Depth’s length from inevitable battles, she wondered with jealousy how things could have been if her own injuries were just a little smaller, a little to the left, a little less deep… She couldn’t quite reconcile living as lesser; a parasite to a larger fish.
When these thoughts overwhelmed her and a thousand screams clawed at her throat for release, Rea didn’t want to disturb her ally, nor provoke her. So she caged her feelings within her ribs and waited until Depth started to sing the Siren’s song. Rea would gratefully add her voice, loud enough to hide the screams inside the notes. It made thoughts dissolved like salt.
A scent rose in the water. It first reached her nostrils a few hours before she saw the dark shape it belonged to. Approaching Depth’s lures and the joined song that they sang, the fish’s shape was familiar. Neither female lunged in for the kill, even as the form materialised right before their eyes.
Rea gasped. Never before had she seen a male of her species. Yet here was one close enough to touch. It had considerably less teeth than herself and Depth, no lures and a much thinner frame. He looked like he’s never eaten a meal in his life. Having no lures to speak of, she wondered if that was actually the case. There were a few extra fins on his tail that looked quite appealing. They waved prettily.
She stopped in the water, as did her companion, and the male clicked a greeting. Rea clicked back with momentary excitement, forgetting herself in a moment of giddiness.
However, it wasn’t long before the novelty of the situation died. Sinking like a heavy carcass, it settled heavily in her gut. She felt the rotten weight begin to peel as the male looked right past her to the lights that Depth emitted. Rea touched a hand to her churning stomach, needing the reassurance that she wasn’t a ghost. Of course she couldn’t hold a candle to Depth but to act like she wasn’t there at all? She could taste the bitterness of abandonment already. The knowledge of her failure and inadequacy would be reinforced stronger each day as she slowly starved again. Depth would replace her now. Would she even say goodbye?
There was a cold sensation as something touched her body and slid over the skin. All the way around it snaked, tightening. The dark, tough scales – almost leathery in texture – had encased her. Would Depth even kill her now that she was done? Rea looked back to her companion and noted the eyes staring at the male. Not a glance for her victim. Rea barely resisted; at least she wouldn’t die alone. She would die in a deadly embrace.
The male clicked again. “Allow me to swim for you, resplendent one. I would earn your favour.” He looped gracefully to serve his point and Rea thought the movement was exquisite. It was a pity that the display wasn’t meant for her.
“No,” Depth hissed quietly, “This one is mine.”
Rea began to feel lightheaded from the constriction of Depth’s tail. She couldn’t understand why the other female was taking so long to finish her. Or why she didn’t sound at all impressed by the male’s swimming. Confused and muddled with sorry thoughts and dying images, Rea imagined unhappily all that could have been if she was stronger like Depth. Her life flashed before her eyes and the forever blackness of the finished fishes stretched out eternally before her. So many possibilities and this was the result.
“But I can swim more gracefully than that can.” The male chattered, “Give me a chance so show you, resplendent one.”
Depth made a hellish noise, almost as hellish as her siren’s song was heaven. The male seemed to release his predicament just a little too late, swimming backwards too slowly to avoid Depth’s cobra strike. She caught his arm in her jaws, blood filling her mouth and a growl rolling past her lips.
The male yelped and squirmed. “Let go!” But his twisting couldn’t free him from the needles piercing right down to the bone in his limb. “I’m sorry, resplendent one.” With incredible strength, Rea heard crunching as the bone was crushed. This didn’t feel like the quick, practical kills that came before mealtimes. The expression of agony that wrote across the sentient male’s face was nightmare fuel, alone with his wails. With Depth distracted, the smaller Mer broke free from her coiled prison to swim up to Depth’s face.
“Depth!” She panted, confused, “Depth, he’s too skinny to be worth any meat…”
Depth seemed not to hear, shaking her head and the male like a rag doll. He seemed to be half unconscious now. Desperate, Rea clutched Depth’s face with both hands and pulled at the chin, trying to free the catch. Her claws dug at the larger Mer, breaking between the fine scales. Depth brought her great tail around to beat her away but Rea sunk the nails in deeper.
“Depth, no. He’s not worth the meat.” She reiterated as she finally forced the jaw to part. The male wasn’t even awake to swim to safety, instead drifting slowly back while Depth grabbed Rea’s wrists and yanked them down to her sides.
“But you’ll leave me.” Depth growled, “You’ll choose that worthless, lure-less male and starve without me to feed you. He has to die for your safety.”
“What? What? No. I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving.” There wasn’t enough time to think, only speak the first thing that came into her head, repetition and all.
“Not leaving?” Bubbles snuck out between the teeth, slipping up and out of sight. All was suddenly still without thrashing or cries of pain.
“Not leaving. I’ve nowhere to go.” Rea affirmed.
“But you like him.” Depth’s voice sounded almost as bitter as Rea had felt at the thought of being left. It was surreal to even consider that Depth could worry about such things when she appeared all-powerful.
Rea looked awkwardly to the side and shrugged. “I’ve got no future with him, only with you.”
Depth let go. “Fine. Fine.” The grip had been bruisingly tight.
Rea hugged herself and rubbed her own arms as she was returned her freedom, then turned her attention warily to the unconscious body of the male. She tapped his pale cheeks and watched his eyes flutter open.. Surprisingly, he didn’t flee immediately. It took him some seconds to collect himself, and when he did, he backed up several metres away until he was just an outline in the water.
“Sorry.” Rea apologised. There was no reply. She blinked and his shape was gone from the water. She and Depth were alone again. She turned to the larger Mer, “I hope his arm will heal.”
“Your tail did.” The female replied quietly.
“Not fully.” Rea pointed out. She could still hear the crunch his arm had make and wondered if that sort of damage would impact him like her injury had affected her.
He doesn’t have lures like us. He’ll be fine.”
Rea couldn’t argue with that. “Do males even eat?” Rea asked. Without lures, how did males find pray in the deep where life was so scarce. For a creature of the same species, it seemed they had entirely different life cycles.
Rea noticed that the commotion had disturbed the wound in her side again.The water was thick with blood from all three Mer. It was an overpowering smell. Hunter fish from miles around would be coming to the area to see what they could get. That meant more fighting and hunting. Normally her mouth would be watering from the aroma but right then Rea wasn’t hungry. She craved quiet instead.
She started swimming, for the first time taking the lead, and Depth followed, apparently happy for her to do so.
“Why don’t you want me to go?” Rea mumbled as the water began to smell more neutral and the adrenaline in her bloodstream subsided. Depth hummed in reply. Whether she was avoiding the question or giving an answer wasn’t clear, but Rea thought she understood. When they sang together, it was really special. With her mind smothered in the beautiful notes, her body kept moving with reserved flicks of the tail.
In the pitch dark, two Mer slid through the water like mighty dragons of the sea. Mystic to behold with the many colours of Depth to shrine them and mesmerising to hear with the song of each, few who witnessed them regretted the experience, even if they never lived to tell the tale.