The Deep

Far out in the ocean, where the water is blue as spidering veins, it is deep. So very deep, indeed, that no skyscraper could fathom the vast space from the glittering surface waters to the mysterious ocean’s floor, that no array of steel and windows could compare to the flawless gradient of periwinkle, azure, cobalt and midnight.

It is here in the deepest crevice, amongst fish that glow like embers, and broken glass betwixt the sea-grass and shells, that the merfolk dwell.

There sits a mighty palace of coral and whale bone, windows yawning between ribs and ribbons of reef, inlayed with mother of pearl and aluminium cans. Upon twisting spires flag plastic bags of yellow, grey and green.[1]

In the centre of this palace the Merleader holds a concert to celebrate the fifth century of mers rule, audience twirling in a net of colours as they are captivated by the display. Merfolk with scales like jewels are the object, their rapid turns and dives and twists. The flurries of bubbles stern about them, lit by the anglers dazzling the in the depths for leagues.

They wear capes of fishing-net—torn from boatwrecks and the hands of hunters—and tangle themselves up in them.

Their fins jerk, they can no longer swim, they sink and then spin themselves free in an hydrogen oxide snatching performance.

All watch, except for one. One who instead finds merself lost in the knowable aquamarine waters of a lagoon, eyes captivated by a different display…

***

The young netters dally in the sweet, still shallows, ankles encased by the neap tide. They chase the dancing light refracting from the silver scales of the mer[2] they haven’t noticed studying them from behind the rocks, disguised by the coralline algae in mers inky hair and the school of guppies drifting by.

It was the vibrations shivering along the lengths of mers fins, softer, safer than the nearby port harbour, that drew Ondine to the small and quiet lagoon further along the shoreline.

The waters feel wild in their newness, even though the current is all but still. But the true wildness is the children before mer. Ondine has always been morbidly fascinated by the things that dwell outside the ocean: the jerking fish that swim in the nothingness above the ocean, with their odd wispy soft scales and sharp beaks; the bristly beasts that run on all fours across the sand, tongues lolling stupidly as they chase their own excuses for tails. But netters, with faces just like merfolk, are more curious—more disturbing—than any other in their almost familiarity. Instead of scales from hairline to tip, they have nothing but smooth, vulnerable skin wrapped in colours almost as vibrant as a healthy coral reef and soft unstable limbs on which they trip and blunder.

Ondine winds free from the shelter of weeds, curling beside the rock pools where the children now slam and snatch and shake, disturbing crabs and starfish with disregard as they try to pry barnacles from the pool walls.

They are loud and clumsy. Destructive. These ones are too young to be dangerous, not yet bringing their ships that spill oil and kill reef after reef, wielding spears and nets, pouring waste and tossing trash into the world beneath their feet.

But they will. The bloodlust is in their hungry eyes, their groping hands as they plunge them into the water with a violence that feels like a cannon fired from submarines. Guppies scatter and a hermit crab retreats into its shell, desperately clinging to the camouflage of its home, but not quick enough to avoid the attention of the netters. It’s in pers meaty hands, still as practiced death, and the netter begins to shake, to dig pers pudgy fingers into the opening of the shell. The hermit’s claws are not enough to save it and Ondine fights the burning in mers scaled chest as the crab is torn apart.

Mer inches closer, ignoring the hot summer air drying out mers skin.

Still the children do not notice—netters don’t seem to see much beyond what is convenient—and soon they tire themselves and lay back up on the sand. They rest only inches from the scattered corpses they so innocently created, mouths moving tirelessly—pointlessly to merfolk deafness—letting small waves wash over them and draw away.

As the sun sets Ondine slips beneath the water and begins to swim in figure eights. The mirror of those performers below, mer twists and turns, catching the light off those scales that still hold their mercury sheen, the number of which is slowly diminishing, giving way to those that are stained from the slimy black death that often coats the ocean’s surface.

A sudden splash tremors through the water and, with a smile tugging at the corner of mers lips, Ondine allows mers tail to break the surface in a lazy wave. The water trembles along mers scales once more as one of the children step back into the ocean, kicking and stomping in violent delight. Another flick of the tail and the child moves deeper, water to knee.

Ondine raises mers head, smiling close-mouthed to hide mers small pointed teeth.

Hands slapping together in glee, the child calls to the other who has pers hands buried in the sand, scraping a hole into the edge of the earth. The second child looks over with curiosity, eyes widening. Per clumsily pushes to pers feet, trips over the large pile of sand per created, and then sloshes into the water, gesturing wildly.

Ondine resumes mers dance, head above water, lips fixed in a soft, warm smile, eyes glittering.

Arms out and afloat for balance, the children wade after mer, deeper and deeper, until the water is at their chests. Mer pauses then curls mers long serpentine tail outwards, allowing the soft web of mers fins to tickle against the netters’ scaleless bodies, shivering at the texture.

Ondine doesn’t flinch when a child reaches forward to stroke mers tail, though mers sharp teeth bury in mers lip at the pressure against the large red welts that throb where scales have fallen away.

Mer reaches out mers hands, and the netter’s reach back. With a tug they come along, smooth and trusting. Deeper…

A violent ripple through the water has Ondine jerking back. Head snapping up, mers cold blood runs still when mer sees a fully-grown netter striding through the surf, face like a thunderstorm.

Ondine retreats in a flash, curling once more against the rocks, watching as the scolded children return to their parent’s side and are ushered away. But, even once the sun has set, mer does not leave.

Instead mer rests, watching the shore through the murk of the waters.

Patient.

***

In the first hours of the morning the harbour is still. The water barely ripples, shielded from the pull of the ocean, and the yachts and fishing boats look like jagged rocks silhouetted against the navy sky.

It is this stillness that allows Ondine to sense the toes that break the surf from knots along the shore. It takes barely any time at all for mers powerful tail to propel mer from the safety of the lagoon into the thick, brown waters of the harbour.

Plastic catches in mers hair, cans cutting at the exposed skin of mers tail where illness has touched, but mer is too impatient to brush them away when mer raises mers head from the water and sees a shadow alone on the thin strip of sand.

Ondine has spent many hours here and places like it. Spent many days watching the netters, and the dogs they keep enslaved on chains, upon the shore. Has tried to tally on mers scales the number of times litter was left and carried by the wind only to be guzzled up by the greedy, unconscious ocean. To be caught in the vacuum of the current and sent out to sea. To sink down into the depths. To be swallowed. To trap and deform. Has watched it build up like a second layer of seafoam, pressing against the tide. Watched it form toxic islands where gulls scavenge and die.

Now, a netter cringes from the seaweed left on the beach at low tide. Jumping and skittering per tries not to let the soft, slimy material wrap around pers ankles, balancing on the point where the ocean kisses the shore. At first, Ondine mistakes the bumbling for that of a child. But the longer mer watches mer realises that it is an in-between—not child, yet not adult—a gangly lurching creature, stumbling not from youth, but due to the contents of the brown bottles that litter mers home.

The bottle falls from pers mouth to the sand. Grasping at nothingness in a delayed response, per stumbles, catches their footing, and then kicks the bottle with a force that dents the sand and watches it be claimed by the ocean—a hollow message.

The netter gives up on pers wobbling legs, plunking into the soft wet sand and letting the tide tease around per. The bottle is replaced with the slender stem of a cigarette. Lighting up, the orange cherry glows through the darkness of the night like the warning stripes of a lionfish in the darkest waters of the ocean.

Flicking pers wrist, per sends the filter arching through the air and it lands in the water, its glowing ember sizzling out. Another toxic offering. Per lights up another and another until there is enough butts to fill the stomach of a turtle and slowly starve it to death.

Snatching each one from the current, mer clenches them in mers fist. Rage is a colour, a taste.

Enough.

Ondine surges forward, not caring about stealth, not caring about seduction. When the water becomes too shallow, mer drags merself on powerful arms. These splashes break through the haze the netter seems to be lost in, and the horror, the shock, only begins to register on pers face as Ondine grabs pers foot and pulls.

The netter’s mouth contorts, throat straining, veins bulging beneath the soft unprotected skin—the weaker evolution—and per struggles like a fish on a line, flopping grotesquely against the sand, resisting the pull of the ocean as it begins to claim per as well.

Pers struggle is admirable, shallow channels gouged into the sand as per tries to anchor perself to the beach with their hands, yet it is in vain against the broad shoulders, strong biceps and powerful tail of the merfolk.

Ondine shoves the cigarette butts still clenched in mers fist into the mouth of the netter, a savage grin splitting across mers face as the netter chokes and splutters on the indestructible litter, butts and ash dribbling down pers chin.

If, in pers fear, per makes any sound there is no one around to hear and, with a single cloud passing over the moon like a blink, the netter’s contorted face disappears beneath the water, bubbles filled with pers screams becoming one with the seafoam.

All evidence of the struggle is washed away with the next deep breath of the ocean.

***

Ondine holds the netter under just long enough to put per to sleep, then, aware of pers delicate lungs filling with water, allows the netter’s head to break the surface. With a firm arm wrapped around pers chest mer forces the liquid from the netter’s mouth. The gangly in-between stirs, breath harsh and sour, but does not wake.

Still alive.

For now.

And so Ondine begins to tow per further out to sea.

Mer travels slowly, held back by the dead weight in mers arms, and the dangers of the ocean’s surface. With netter’s ever-expanding technology—the sonars that shout across the leagues and set mers teeth on edge—the merfolk have only avoided detection by rebuilding their kingdoms in the depths—by hiding in the darkness. Travelling this shallow requires Ondine’s full attention, mers fins stretching out seeking the subtlest vibrations.

Ondine continues across the ocean until the first blush of dawn. With the scorching kiss of the sun the per begins to stir in mers arms. Mer feels the panic tighten in pers muscles. Feels the heat in the water as pers body ejects more waste.

The netter tries to jerk away, begins to struggle, head rolling on pers neck in confusion, in terror. Ondine tightens mers grip for a moment, then, with a grin, lets go.

Per flounders, head plunging below the water before per scrambles back to the surface in a desperate claw. Per twists wildly, spinning in circles, eyes hungry for the direction of land. Ondine can’t help the burning satisfaction in mers heart as mer watches the feverish light in pers eye dies as they realise there isn’t one.

Once again the netter’s face contorts, veins in pers throat straining—trying to communicate in pers motionless, redundant language.

Ondine bares mers sharp teeth, and pers face slackens, turning white, as they finally register the scales that cover mers body from neck to fin. The netter’s eyes flicker down, register the tail, mouth trembling. In a violent slash per cuts a hand through the water, sending an arch of water into mers eyes.

The water does nothing against the film coating Ondine’s eyes and mer just laughs low in mers chest watching the netter frantically claw through the water. Mer allows per to get three armlengths before plunging beneath and shooting ahead with one powerful flick of the tail, intercepting with bared teeth and a dark triumph gleaning in black eyes.

The netter jerks to a halt and stares.

Water wells in the lining of pers lashes. Spreading out like a starfish, per floats on pers back. Ondine can feel the vibrations of the sobs deep within per. The netter’s fear only fuels Ondine’s hatred and mer grabs per once more. Per doesn’t struggle, resigned to pers fate, and they continue their journey out to sea.

***

The island is nothing but a spec at first. To be easily mistaken for a gull resting on the gentle waves.

At the sight of it the netter goes rigid, heart pounding in pers chest so hard it may burst through, a fresh spill of tears rolling down pers sea-crusted cheeks. The netter begins to kick pers legs, as if per could speed up their progress.

When the island is only a knot away, Ondine lets go and per does not hesitate. Adrenaline rushes through pers lanky limbs, giving them the strength to churn towards land. Mer keeps pace.

The closer they get, the clearer the island becomes the slower the per moves, until they come to a complete stop.

Mer watches the netter’s face. Wants to see the realisation set in. To see per understand, to shatter like Ondine has over the sick and dying of her own kind, watching them grow around plastic rings and choke on oil gathering in their gills.

The decomposing bodies cover almost every inch of the island. Per tries to scramble away, but Ondine grasps the netter’s hair between webbed fingers, tangling at the nape to lock pers head forward. Forcing per to breathe in the harsh rot, the cloying bake of flesh beneath the sun. To watch birds peck at what were once eyes and mouths. To see that beneath the gravemound of pers species, the island is made not of earth but of plastic. Of chemical waste. Of trash.

Ondine lifts an arm.

The netter flinches, jerking free of mers grip, turning pers head to the right in a cower. When there is no contact pers eyes creep back open to follow the direction Ondine is pointing.

Per shakes pers head violently, sobbing once more.

Ondine bares mers teeth, shoving per forward, pers head submerging for a moment.

Spluttering, desperate to get away from Ondine, the netter moves toward the island. Per pushes up, water sopping from their soaked clothes, suddenly finding their feet beneath them on the micro-plastic that makes up the island’s beach. Per slips, landing face-first in the armpit of a corpse.

On pers hands and knees the netter looks back to Ondine, pleading. But the mer has already slipped beneath the water and into the deep…

***

Far out in the ocean, where the water is blue as spidering veins, it is deep. So very deep, indeed, that no submarine or drone could penetrate through the crushing pressure. That no human could know what awaits in its dark crevices.

It is here the merfolk bide their time, sharpen their spears of mother of pearl and shine their armour of aluminium cans.

There sits a mighty palace scarred and vandalised, plastic bags of yellow, grey and green caught in the ribs of a whale, choking the colour from the ribbons of reef.

In the centre of this palace an army holds a rally. After five centuries of rule, watching mers people suffer and deteriorate, the Merleader has had enough. Mer holds mers subjects as a captive audience, whirling and jerking through the water in an evocative rage. Mers audience mimics the language, their vicious war dance sterning bubbles that glitter like the sun on the trash on the surface that is slowly killing them.

Soon will come a day when the merfolk will rise from the bottom of the ocean in a violent gyre, through a flawless gradient of midnight, cobalt, azure and periwinkle.

All wait, except for one. One who draws the battle lines in trenches made of floating corpses. A warning as their bodies are left to be swallowed.

Left to become nothing but seafoam on the waves crashing against the shore.

 


Reference List

Anderson, H, C. [1837] “The Little Mermaid”, last accessed: 4/6/18,

< http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html>

Piercy, M. [1979] 2010, A Woman on the Edge of Time, The Women’s Press, London.

Footnotes

[1] Inspired by/paraphrased from the opening paragraphs of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (1837).

[2] Pronouns are broken into species not gender: mer/mers and per/pers. Term ‘per’ inspired by A Woman at the Edge of Time (1976) by Marge Piercy.


Image can be found here. Used with permission from the artist.


Samantha Mansell is a creative writing major who is currently mastering in publishing and editing at Unimelb. Passionate about intersectional feminism and gender politics Samantha loves to challenge the traditional ideas of the binary of gender and gender roles. She spends most of her free time procrastinating writing by watching trashy shows on Netflix.

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