The moments when Nooka slipped through the grasp of the darkwater were becoming the most exhilarating, and terrifying, of her life. Just like every journey before, she could feel the insistent press of the water against her skin and scales fade as she coiled closer to the surface, the powerful muscles in her tail able to now propel her at speeds that shifted the blur of her world into something intoxicating. Nooka felt so powerful in that moment, it was as if she had become the strongest mermaid in all of the Blueshade.
When the warmth came, it brought with it vivid smudges that began to creep across the rocks and kelp and coral. The colours were strange and unnameable, and they made Nooka question the strength of her feelings for the murky part of the Blueshade she called home. The first time she had seen them she had been convinced for days that she was sick or going mad; even now, the gradual nature of their bloom was the only thing stopping her from being completely overwhelmed by their presence. She squinted weak eyes as she passed by at increasing speed. She wanted to enjoy the approaching spectacle, and that meant getting her eyes used to the vibrancy before she breached.
A small tang approached, drawn by the bioluminescent veins that pulsed across Nooka’s body. She slowed her ascent, eyes growing wide as she strained to study it. Unlike the fish she prayed on, the tang was awash with the same almost painfully bright blooms that only existed in the world above. For a moment the sight of it made Nooka feel as though she had dragged the empty void up with her, all tangled and knotted inside her chest.
Then she snapped her long, needle-like teeth around the fish. It struggled and thrashed, but was consumed in two quick gulps. Checking the scales on her tail left her disappointed; the first time she had eaten from these waters Nooka had feared that the colours would contaminate her body. It hadn’t taken long for that fear to become hope.
But her body remained translucent, save for the tiny glowing frills on her tail. With a swish of irritation Nooka continued her ascent.
It wasn’t long before she could hear the laughter, feel it rippling through the water towards her. Nooka tensed, her gaze moving to the darkening waters below. It was always the hardest part of her now daily pilgrimage, and the most painful—passing through the part of the Blueshade where the light-bathers lived.
She felt the merfolk drifting and lounging in groups around her, and fought to keep her head from turning in their directions. She had been fascinated to begin with, for the light-bathers were beautiful. Their stocky, curving bodies were adorned with mottled patterns of colours that mocked the water, and their hair, thick and curled, were threaded with shells and pieces of coral. After her first trip to the surface, Nooka had tried to copy them, but her silvery hair was thin and weak, and she ended up casting the coral and shells into the nearest trench in frustration.
Trench-dweller. She had heard them call her that, though it wasn’t true. Her kind lived deep in the darkwater, but Nooka knew there were things that lurked even further into the Blueshade—things that would terrify and appall her kin even more than she apparently did.
They kept their distance from her these days, but she could still hear their whispered questions, asking each other why she kept returning to this part of the Blueshade. As she swam past, Nooka couldn’t help but compare her own spindly and serpentine frame to theirs. Was this what it felt like for the fish she devoured? They were all so alluring, so real; Nooka’s translucent flesh refused to accept colours of its own, granting her instead a fleeting ownership of the ones around her. Every time she came to the lightwater Nooka felt more like a hideous creature than a mermaid.
By the time she breached the surface Nooka was jealous and lonely and scared. She hugged herself tightly, fighting the sensation of her body drifting apart in the reduced pressure of the lightwaters. Only when she began to feel a little better did she allow herself to look up.
The endless sky above was roiling, invisible currents had thrown colours together into vivid bands. Nooka’s throat tightened as she drank in the sight, thoughts of anger and comfort and frustration and hope momentarily flooding her senses. She squinted her eyes as she tried to follow the swirls. More than once she realised she had stopped breathing.
She felt the warmth of the sun caress her back, but forced herself not to turn around, and instead focussed on the echo of it rippling across the surface of the Blueshade. Her eyes burned, but she tried to ignore the pain. She raised an arm, marvelling as the vibrant colours pushed themselves through her flesh. For a moment, she felt beautiful.
Then she saw the other mermaid.
Even without squinting Nooka could tell she was a light-bather. Her frame was full, her strong arms wrapped around the rock beside her. A face that was round and decorated in scales mirroring the sky turned towards Nooka, framed by hair that hung in thick bunches.
She stared at Nooka, unblinking. Nooka flinched, wrapping her arms protectively around her body. She felt vulnerable, exposed, and tensed her body to dive back down to the obscurity of the darkwater. Then her eyes lowered, and she saw again the penetrating light of the sun passing through her body. It looked beautiful. She looked beautiful.
Emboldened, Nooka turned back to the other mermaid. She didn’t seem frightened or disgusted or amused, and a darker hue began to blossom across her cheeks as Nooka held her gaze. She chewed her lip, then smiled awkwardly.
For a moment, the sight of her made Nooka feel as though she had dragged the empty void up with her, tangled and knotted inside her stomach.
Then she snapped her long, needle-like teeth together and smiled back.
This short story was written to belatedly celebrate #MerMay. My drawing talents are… let’s just say limited, but thankfully I had words to fall back on.
Go now, and spread some mermaid and merman cheer.