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Monday 10 May 2021

The Hagfish

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

    The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted.

     The songs of whales and a thousand dead voices were the girl's only company beneath the waves. She was young when it happened, a wee merbairn, and the memories she carried from that hazy time didn't make very much sense. But, young as she was, she didn't try to understand their shapes, shadows or colours, and instead she grew, played and thrived as any other merbairn would have, making do with the whale calves, the shoals, the turtles and the kelp in the absence of anyone else, and wove her young magic into the currents to better their games. She was adored and cared for by every creature in the sea, and none more so than the elder whales. When they knocked and drummed their warnings, they were as much for her as for each other, and they dove as one into the depths while the long, sleek shadows cut rigidly across the waves far above.
     But as much as they loved her, she learned quickly that she was different. The calves weren't as small or as agile, they ate more than she did, and they didn't have to carry a drum to communicate. They also slept more than she did, which often left her alone in the cold, quiet dark of the sea, with voices and memories that she knew in her heart were not really her own. It was in those lonely moments that she would lift the small box that hung around her neck, open up its lid, and peer inside at the never-ending darkness with a curiosity that hurt her soul. And when the voices inside began to sing, she would bang the small drum at her side in tandem, and her own voice would lift with them, the most bleak and heartbroken of them all. Because it was then, with the music box open in the palm of her webbed hand, that those tangled memories started to take on some kind of shape.
     But the darkness never held her for long. An elder would always soon appear, drawn by the solemn call of her drum, and gently nudge her stumpy horns before luring her away to brighter waters with a playful jet of bubbles. Then, the calves would wake, and the wonderful games would distract her all over again.

     Over the years, the merbairn grew into a kind and cheerful young maiden, with fins and a tail of deep-ocean indigo, horns that rivalled the sea dragons', and a beauty that outshone the moon. She'd also become an agile hunter, a fast thinker, and her magic could spin hordes of the whales' shrimp into a feeding whirlpool.
     But a compulsion had grown with her. She still followed the whales' commands when the shadows cut through the surface, she still braided the kelp and teased the calves with her spells, she still played in the elders' jets of bubbles. But the voices in her music box had begun to speak to her in the quiet, even when the lid was closed. Not even her dreams were an escape. And when they grew too loud, she lifted the lid despite herself, and her voice rose with their keening song while her heart sank only deeper.
     And so it was that on one warm spring day, when the box was open in her hand and those shadows passed overhead, trailing their great nets and streaming their colours through the dry azure far above, all reason fled her. The whales dove, they drummed their call, but she wouldn't hear them. With a sharp flick of her tail and an understanding that lay out of her reach, she abandoned her kelp-tangled home and darted after those colossal shadows instead.
     Miles she swam, until her fins were ragged, her heart pulsed in her throat, and the voices fell strangely silent. Here, at the sudden edge of the sea, the shadows numbered in the dozens. The water, too, had changed, its life diminished, and the taste of something familiar yet forgotten laced the funnelling current.
     But it wasn't that which consumed her attention, nor the huge, impossibly smooth and straight-sided rock interrupting the waves that turned her blood cold, nor the nets of fish being dragged out of the water that stoked her horror.
     As if snared on a hook themselves, her black eyes followed the slow, downward drift of the glittering fish scales as they sank to settle among the broken corals, shattered stone, and strange, smooth, grinning rocks.
     The moment her gaze touched them, the voices erupted inside the box, and the shapes, shadows and colours crashed into place.
     Water rushed from her gills.

     A sea teeming with fish, whales, seals and gannets.
     People like herself, and people with two rigid fins, smiling and trading through the water, exchanging silks and metals and fish.
     The people like her guiding those long, sleek shadows safely around reefs, saving the homes inside them.
     Her people leaving the waters, swimming through a narrow inlet to a greater, warmer place, to return home later by tradition.
     Smiles fade when the Mer return, with more twin-finned people trading for fish. Concern among the Mer, they can't keep up with their needs.
     Nets full of fish, many shadows, no smiles between Mer and Landfolk.
     Reefs destroyed, homes lost to careless clumsy shadows.
     The Mer migrate again, reluctantly.
     They return to more growth of Landfolk.
     Scowls and mistrust, Mer in seclusion, Mer in fear. Would their world last much longer? Would it still stand after the next migration?
     Talk along the currents: perhaps, this time, they wouldn't return at all.
     They gather. They leave.
     Landfolk waiting at the straits. The Mer taken by surprise.
     Harpoons. Blood. Pain.
     The Mer's magic was too late.
     All dead, or fled. None would ever return to the Kazimiri Sea.

     But one had been left behind.

     Her body shook. Her fins tremored. Her fists and jaw clenched. Her fury threatened to boil the water around her as she stared, unblinking, at those many skulls. But the voices still shrieked. And they had grown; voices she'd never heard before chimed now through the clamour. Voices that had never spoken - or voices that had never been with her to begin with.
     And more voices from above.
     Her black, seething eyes flashed towards the surface, where shapes and shadows darted around, and she watched them, impotent, while they multiplied. A tell-tale click; instinct lurched her to the side as a harpoon cut through the water.
     A wretched roar tore just as readily from her throat, throbbing through the straits, just as another harpoon broke through, and another, and another. None hit her; she was far too fast. But she didn't wait for them to get a lucky shot. Her magic whipped the water up into a clumsy spout and scattered the gathering figures. She fled in the chaos. Fury carried her away.
     Her muscles shook as she swam, her jaw knotted, her sharp teeth were grit. Her black eyes stared ahead, blinded and stained by hatred.
     Her compulsion was satisfied; she had her answers, and she had her memories - and others'. The Mer were the Keepers of Memory. Of time, truth and understanding. Of heart and story. Of forgiveness and repair. Of grudges and vengeance.
     Her future was decided for her in that moment. And she would bide her time over years to achieve it.

     A thick mist hung over the water as the fishermen hauled in their nets, and low hearts only sank deeper at the sight of them. The catches were failing, and superstitions were already being muttered on the wind: old tales, old mistakes, and old fortunes being repaid. Not everyone believed it; 'a turn in the currents', or 'a shift in the wind.' "All will be well next season."
     But it was not these who suffered the correction. Nor was it the superstitious who suffered their imagination. The strike was as real and indiscriminate as the waves.
     Every soul on board heard the knock and drum of gray whales while the sea fell eerily still. Every eye watched the fog dissipate and a fine rain fall upwards. Every hand gripped the rails while they watched the kelp twist and spin far below, as if in the grip of a rising maelstrom.
     And every heart froze at the black eyes set in a beautifully fearsome face staring back at them from the centre, while the crying song of a charnel choir spiked and trembled the water.
     Fear crashed over them like a wave. Orders were barked, the harpoons were manned, the sails unfurled, and every free hand was put to the oars. But not one soul survived the crushing descent of the boat. And no stories or warnings returned for the rest.
     When the ship failed to return, the superstitions grew; tales of kraken, of whale gods, of serpents and drowned spirits circulated while more ships set out, only to vanish to those unnatural clutches. It took time before they learned and finally sailed out in groups of three. The carnage didn't stop, but at least now there were witnesses, all baring matching stories of whale song summoning a multi-headed guardian, at whose hands the sea came to life, and from whose many mouths sang a saline lullaby of death.
     Hungrier than they were fearful, the people gathered, they organised, and they set out in search of the drumming of whales to lay their cunning traps.

     The mermaid found and destroyed the clumsy traps with ease, tripping them without a catch and freeing whatever wasn't so lucky, right beneath the ships' very hulls. With water itself as her cloak, she was as good as invisible; it perfectly hid the long, flowing drape of her midnight-blue tail and mane, the moonlight shine of her skin, and the strong, black, curling horns that crowned her regal head. And when she let herself be seen, with the music box about her neck, drum on her hip, corset of bones and string of jaws along her waist, the open mouths of her own crying people, she was a vision of terror.
     But that vision wasn't enough. She continued to hunt the Landfolk, she continued to follow in their shadows as they moved, blind in their own arrogance. And the sea became violent. Before long, death tainted the water. For every ship she destroyed, more creatures were killed in response - anything that could have been her. As she hunted through the reefs, she found squid and octopus dismembered and discarded. Tracking through open water, she found jellyfish harpooned or tangled. Recovering in the shallows, she found sharks and dolphins gutted. And in the sanctuary of the kelp-tangled waters she'd grown up in, while her people lay dead leagues away, she found the whales who had adopted her floating belly-up, mouths agape, and the currents deathly silent.
     The sound of blood rushing furiously through her veins granted only a thin trickle of mercy, and rage rose fast enough to obliterate paralysis.
     The water thickened around her, it tremored and boiled, then compressed and twisted in her wake as she spun from the massacre and sped like a wretched harpoon through the water, while a cataclysmic bellow tore from her fair mouth, and every voice of memory in her care roared along with her.

     The people gathered in silence along the coast, staring out to the horizon. The screaming - they'd each heard it, or heard of it, but never within range of the shore. Looks were exchanged, between fishermen and wives, apprentices and merchants. Then came the drumming. The knock and bellow of whales. But they'd killed all the whales, just like their fathers had killed all the Mer. It couldn't be...
     The docks burst to life, and panic spread to the town. All scrambled for nets, leapt onto ships and loaded the harpoons, reached for their spears. Then a call rose up: "a swell in the water!" and all wide eyes tore back out to sea.
     The bulge was surging towards them. The ships rocked with the draw of the water, and the shore shrank away from the coast. Harpoons were turned and aimed; knuckles over spears turned white. Lumps formed in throats. They readied themselves, even as they watched the wave rise higher than the highest mast, and stop against its own momentum.
     They stared aghast into that waiting wall of water, watching mindlessly while kelp like a hundred tentacles shook and knotted inside it, enchanted by fear as the giant, fish-tailed woman of black and white, surrounded by bones and a tempest of dark hair, howled and bellowed with every spirit lost to the sea, each crying out in their own pain and blame.
     And they wept as the edge of their senses returned, and the hagfish smiled a sharp-toothed grin, one twisted by rage, heartache and madness.
     The people could do nothing but stare and sob as she spread her arms and crashed the sea upon them.

     The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted, by distant rain over open water, the knocks of gray whales, and the songs of a thousand dead voices. 

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Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock