The Miracle of Breathing

Image of Short Story
My grandfather, despite living in landlocked Belarus, managed to meet and marry a mermaid. A selkie, to be more precise. He never managed to see the sea, but she told him enough for him to be satisfied he knew all about currents and tides and the taste of salt-sand on the tongue. When they took him to the camps he went smiling, his head full of ocean sound and his heart satisfied in the fact that grandma and dad were safely on the way to Japan. There my father repeated the cycle, and though he could actually swim with his ama-wife, selkies apparently avoid Japan’s waters for good reasons. Now we get to me, who genetically speaking should belong three-fourths to the sea, but the hydrophobia prevents that. Well, that’s a lie—I’m not scared of water itself, I’m scared of how much I love it and how much I hate the air.
It’s ridiculous, a mermaid with asthma. My lungs are built to handle the depths, so they can’t handle the comparatively arid desert atmosphere in New England. When others complain about the rain, I feel like crying or laughing, because it still isn’t enough for me. I need the pressure, the constant press of the water on my skin, the flowing motions similar to the breeze but different for its presence, its weight. I might as well be flying for the constant sense of vertigo, of absence, of loss. I might as well be dying. I probably am (we all are). Mom doesn’t know what to do, and Dad’s still got another four years before he can be on land again since Mom gave him back his skin three years ago. She and I can swim out to him, but charades don’t work so well when one party has flippers, and I don’t have a seal skin to don. I don’t know if Mom hid it or if I just wasn’t born with one—I don’t know where I was born at all, whether it was in a hospital in Japan or on the coast of one of the islands.
Trying to join the swim team only made my difficulties worse—chlorinated water dried me out faster and made me choke like I was swallowing poison. Luckily, we passed it off as an allergy attack, but Dad almost gave himself away in his distress. Wasn’t able to talk. We had to keep him in the house for days when he couldn’t stop barking: too worried about his pup. Used up all his sick days for the year and then some, which is what lost him his job at the aquarium (he liked the irony. Them in cages of glass and iron, and him in his human skin). That was what convinced Mom to set him free, that and the fact that by the end he still wasn’t speaking. Whether by choice or lack of ability I don’t know and I don’t care. He got to leave, and I’m still stuck on the shore, drowning on dry land.
So I decided to leave too.
If you’re strange enough, you hear whispers, secrets, hints. There’s always a way to get what you want. What you need. You just need to be able to pay the price. You don’t necessarily have to be willing—magic’s not big on consent, unless it’s a willing life sacrifice. We’ll get into that later. The whispers—a possibility from a sea bass, a confirmation from a gull, a location from a siren and a name on the wind. Ur-su-la. The name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but it does slide and slip, twist and lilt like foam on the wave caps. I know what I’m getting into: Disney was very wrong, but that’s not a surprise. Ursula is a title—she who has lost much and so gained wisdom. She is not fair, but neither is the ocean. Those who know the sea should not expect righteousness: she doth giveth and she doth taketh away, but you’ll never see either coming and you’ll never be worthy of both.
The water this deep is cold— worse than cold, really—and the pressure would probably kill anyone else but we’ve already discussed how I’m not normal. It’s funny, ‘cause I look just like every other person dying of some invisible disease, and yet for all the mythological strength I’m weaker than even normal humans. They can bear chemo, surgery, electric shock therapy, and I can’t bear to walk around knowing I can’t breathe. But here, here I’m better than normal: here my hybrid physiology makes me thrive rather than barely survive. Even Mom and her kind can’t make it down this far, or if they have they’ve never told anyone. If they did, they probably never made it down to the massive cave I’m swimming into: it’d be pitch black but for the presence of bioluminescent worms clinging to the algae-covered walls.
She sits on what is too large to be a throne—verdant kelp, fashioned pale drift wood and bones arching towards the bare ceiling. A proper welcome: the thick bitter tea that sticks in the cup made of melted sand, the small fish and kelp crackers. Hospitality is important. We haven’t moved much past the Greeks in regards to that—take the bread and salt and be welcomed and bound. Neither she nor I speak until we are done. Until we are assured of each other’s intentions (what you do to the message is what you’d do to the messenger: what you do to the house is what you’d do to the host).
Her voice is soft but strong:
“I am going to have to ask, you know.” Ursula rubs her knuckles like mom does, when the longing for the depths is too strong and she’ll disappear for the weekend. She leaves too. That reminder gives me the courage to say my piece.
“I want the human part gone.” My voice doesn’t shake—a blessing. Weakness would be a death sentence here, the ocean’s strength pouncing on it like a lioness on the lamed antelope. Her smile is a white slash in her dark face: I count twenty fangs before she speaks again, gesturing elegantly with her orca’s tail towards my all-too human self.
“Difficult, since you are truly only a quarter of the ocean.” My face must reveal my dismay—amas are so able I’d almost believed they were truly the mermaids they inspired—for she tuts and says chidingly, “Manageable. I’ve done more with less.”
“But is the price so convenient?” I know the laws. The ocean is chaos—what it takes from some it leaves for others. It never offers the same fee twice, changing as the tides.
“For you, so rare and precious, I’ll make a bargain. I’m in need.” Her smile now is the gentle lap of waves on the beach, meant to soothe so you miss the crocodile waiting just beneath the surface. This is suspicious.
“You?” Be respectful, don’t offend.
“Indeed.” Her grin stretches to a smirk now, as her tail waves lazily, almost knocking me over with its undertow. “Apprenticeship.”
I do not have words. Ursula is a title, and a precaution. Names have power, and influence, just as blood and body do. She who inherits the position is formidable but also weak to her predecessor. That’s why there’s always only one. It’s dangerous, but it’s also the best offer I’ll ever get. I get to breathe easy, and she gets to die, finally. Peace for both of us.
Wordlessly I offer my left hand, wrist bared. Normally, we’d use our teeth for this, but one of hers is the size of me, and mine are as dull as a humans’. She carefully slices her wrist and then mine with the point of her black nail instead. Bound now, for more than a mortal’s forever, we are safe from each other and from the surface until we take what was promised and we have become our new selves. Ursula turns and lets me slip into her wake as we go further into the cavern, the water already feeling warmer to me as black crawls up my arms like squid ink in water. I wonder what I’ll be by the end: I’ve heard of crabs, six-gilled sharks and vampire squid, but this Ursula is strange in the fact that she’s a surface creature. Like me. Like seals. I grin a bit, and hope I don’t imagine that my teeth feel as sharp as my smile. I think I’ll like what I become.
A life sacrifice is the sacrifice of a life. No one said anything about that life ending.