the mating rituals of sea monsters
Humans, you’ve learned, are much more afraid of the ocean than they have any real reason to be.
Humans like words like that; words like fathomless, words that don’t mean anything, words that don’t excuse their ignorance so much as make it more palatable. They like to map things out. They like to apply their ideas of fragmented, unnatural order to places that have never needed them. The sea is dark, the sea is deep, the sea is fathomless. It isn’t a secret, though. It’s vast and it’s open and it’s volatile and it’s—
You cock your head and study the glistening, rainbow-tinted seafoam bubbling along the shore. The change is noticeable, even to your temporary human eyes; the rock-studded squiggle of the coastline is significantly farther back than it used to be, than your memory expects it to be, cutting into the reddish-beige dunes and the fluttering swathes of sand grass. Past that, perched directly above the narrow, neglected boat dock, is the pretty little town on the bluffs, the one with the pastel-colored buildings all pressed and jammed together in an uneven row, like a mouthful of disappointingly blunt, crooked teeth. You’re sure it has a name—humans name everything; their storms, their ships, their prey—but you’ve forgotten it.
Years pass like days on dry land, and it’s been at least a decade since your last visit.
You look around, the back of your neck prickling—your human neck, so frail and delicate, so appallingly easy to break, to snap, to twist—as you take in the deserted harbor, the clear blue sky and the hazy glare of the sun.
This, too, is different.
There are no umbrellas peppering the beach, no vibrantly striped towels spread across the sand, no children laughing as they run through the shallow water, the teeming tidepools. A white metal sign is posted at the end of the dock, rusted through in some spots, warped and dented in others. The air is laced with salt, with emptiness, with a silence that’s absolute, despite the crashing waves and the shrieking seagulls, the churning gurgle of the undertow and the whispering crinkle of the breeze.
Worry—distinctly, reluctantly human—begins to simmer in your gut.
You take a wobbly step forward, flexing your bare toes against the dock. The wood is soft, weathered, heat-bleached, more gray than brown. Frustration needles at you. These first human moments—having to remind yourself to breathe, having to re-learn the limitations of your new-old body, this tender, rickety jumble of warm blood and porous skin and ill-fitting bones—the novelty wore off centuries ago, when the buildings up on the cliffs were still thatched-roof huts and the stories about you were still legends, still myths, still hearsay.
A figure appears at the top of the ridge, where the grizzled dirt path that leads to the town snakes back down, vanishing into the brush.
Broad, tall, heavy-set—familiar.
The worry pinching and pulling at your insides, rumbling to life like a particularly impatient volcano; it intensifies, transforms into something worse. Something ugly and primal and jealously, viciously wistful. Your human jaw creaks. Your human gums itch. Your human heart jerks and skips, thrashes and writhes—a fish with wild eyes and a hook in its mouth, its skin gouged raw with scrapes and scratches and ancient silvered scars, like it’s been caught and thrown back a dozen times, a hundred times, like it’s survived far too much for far too long to meet its end like this.
Nikau is holding a fishing pole and a red plastic cooler and carefully navigating the steep, crumbling terrain as he makes his way to the dock. He’s humming under his breath, low and rhythmic, a drumbeat without an accompanying melody. The sound doesn’t falter until his footsteps do, until he rounds the last corner of the path and realizes he isn’t alone.
“Is that—Tani?” He calls out curiously, cautiously, like his instincts are at war, like his dull human senses are grating against his significantly more reliable animal ones. A knife with a chipped porcelain handle is tucked into the waistband of his shorts. His shoulders are drawn up towards his ears, his forearms taut, muscles cording, straining, entwining with the loops and vines and whorls of his tattoos. “Huh. Wow. It’s been . . . a while.”
He’s visibly older, you note with some consternation. There are wrinkles etched into the smooth russet brown of his skin, merciless and steadfast, bracketing his mouth and squinching around the slightly downturned slant of his eyes, somehow less visceral, less intimate, than the inky black lines tattooed across his cheeks, branching down the hinge of his jaw and the column of his throat.
“It has,” you agree, the words sticking to your tongue, awkward and cumbersome. “As you requested.”
His lips—thin, wide, flat-brimmed, not unlike the hat flipped backwards on his head—do something complicated, quirk or tick or flounder. Humans are so much more physically expressive than they seem to understand. Nikau is no exception. His discomfort, his dismay; it’s a strange, tangible thing, slithering between you and him, between your rubbery human legs and his salt-stained leather sandals, hissing and spitting and so despicably eager to trip you up, to topple you over.
“Right,” Nikau finally says. He turns to stare out at the water, dropping his cooler onto the dock and scrubbing the heel of his palm against his thigh. “As I requested.”
You follow his gaze and wonder what he sees. If he sees anything at all. The sea is deep, and the sea is dark, and the sea is fathomless—the sea is a craving, a yearning, a booming, thunderous ache that you’ve yet to discover how to treat, to heal, to fill.
“Right,” Nikau says again, shaking his head, coughing into his fist. He’s still clutching his fishing pole, his grip tight, his knuckles bulging. “So, uh, how have you . . . been? Yeah? Is that a weird question? It’s so hard to tell, you know, because you’re—you, and I’m, uh. I’m not. You. Obviously.”
“I’ve been fine.”
“Of course you have,” he mutters, cheeks puffed out, eyes rolled skyward. Heavenward. Another word that doesn’t mean anything. It’s bizarre, that telltale human belief in an afterlife that’s so disconnected from their actual world. “Listen, so, I know our, uh, our bargain was pretty specific, but there’ve been some changes? In my life? Since you were last—”
“Where is everyone?” you interrupt.
He furrows his brow. “Sorry, what?”
“Your people,” you say, lifting your arm, making a casual gesture—a human gesture—to the vacant beach, the quiet town. “There aren’t any.”
“Oh. Yeah. That.” Nikau sighs ruefully and tilts his head back, as if to drink in the sunlight, swallow it whole. “Well, between the mudslides, the rockslides, the rampant corruption of local government, and the, uh, dramatically rising sea levels—” He shrugs. Smiles, hard and helpless. “No more tourists.”
“I could fix th—”
“So, yeah, this place is dying,” he goes on, hurriedly, deliberately talking over you. “Not—not literally, I guess, but if people keep moving away?” He tosses his fishing pole down and shakes out his fingers. “Won’t be long until it’s just me and the fish.” His smile shifts, softens. “And Kauri.”
The ugly, vicious thing inside of you, it sharpens its claws, blooms and poisons. “Who?”
“My son,” Nikau says blithely, reaching into the pocket of his shorts, fumbling for a battered black wallet. The cradle of his hands is callused and shipwreck-rough, a disarming contrast to the photograph he pulls out, crisp-cornered and rectangular, its bright, glossy surface dingy with fingerprints, both past and present, like it’s been held up or passed around a lot. The human in the photograph—young, small, beaming; a child—has dark, curly hair and a gap between his two frontmost teeth, asymmetrical dimples in his cheeks and a pair of dazzling, almond-shaped brown eyes with a slight downward tilt.
“That’s Kauri,” Nikau murmurs proudly. “He’s six. His mom and I—well, that didn’t last, yikes, but it’s hard to say it didn’t work out, you know?”
“No,” you repeat, “I don’t know.”
“Oh,” Nikau says, his lips curving, a thunderclap ripple of laughter skittering out. “Right. Yeah. Sure.”
You look at the photograph again. Nikau was not a child when you first saw him. He was an abstraction, an impulse, a formless nonentity with hollow lungs and a heart that hadn’t yet learned to beat. You crawled out of the sea—so dark, so deep, so fathomless—with your fragile human skin dyed pink and orange from the rising sun, and you chose him. There was a constellation in your chest and a great, greedy, cavernous pit in your stomach, a compass for you to follow, a magnet for you to spin, to chase through the dirt and the dust and the dead, brittle earth, so alien to your puckered lips, to your slitted eyes—a ball of clay left out for you to mold, make perfect.
“I should go,” Nikau says abruptly, eventually, tucking the photograph back into his wallet and his wallet back into his shorts. He hesitates, teeth clacking together—molars grinding, incisors squeaking. “You make me feel like I’m running out of time.”
Your eyelashes unexpectedly flutter, like you’re blinking too fast, like your vision is blurry. It’s one of those odd, unpleasantly human affectations—inextricably tied to your emotions, to your reactions, whatever they may be—that you can’t quite control.
“When will I have to—” Nikau cuts himself off, a shadow passing over his face. “Will I see you again after today?”
“No,” you say before pausing. Reconsidering. Whether by luck or chance or happy, improbable accident, humans did get something right about you in their legends. Nikau is marked. Permanently, invisibly. By you, by the part of you that isn’t, that can’t be, that won’t ever be human. And you would regret it, if you could, but regret is for creatures with finite lifespans—for creatures who dig their own graves and write their own prayers.
Years pass like days on dry land.
Nikau won’t be on dry land forever, though, and you have a much firmer grasp of that concept than he does, than he can, than he ever will.
“Yes,” you correct yourself, your own kind of treacherous, your own kind of gentle, “you’ll see me again. Just not like this.”
Nikau leaves, then.
He doesn’t go far.
He stands at the top of the ridge, the shape of him so familiar, the silhouette of his fishing pole skewed and swaying, like he’s rested the corked handle of it on the red dirt path—he’s looking down at you, studying you, and you feel the weight of it in ways that aren’t so familiar. What has ever been heavy to you? There’s a grace, a balance, a freedom to how you live, to how you’ve always lived, to how you’re equal parts cushioned and carried by the sea, by its brine, its bluster, its brutal, ever-brewing currents. Human skulls aren’t designed for it, for the pressure, but you’re not human.
You steal one last glance at Nikau, at the steady rise and fall of his driftwood-sturdy shoulders.
You, too, can bide your time.
The ocean smells different at night, when there isn’t any sun to burn through the ozone, when there isn’t any lingering, residual warmth to sap from the rocks. It’s cold. Quiet. The unspooled stars and fragmented shards of moonlight glint off the water, serving to warn, not illuminate. Fog swirls, and mist hovers, either unwilling or unable to touch the surface, like an invisible barrier has been constructed, like the sea itself has realized, however late, that it does have something to hide.
In the distance, you can hear a breeze whistle through the cracks in the cliffs, rustling the trees growing thick and lustrous up above. Waves are lapping at the beach, pooling in the grooves between the rocks, splashing around the barnacled wooden posts wedged beneath the half-collapsed, weather-swollen boat dock—nibbling at the sand, eating up the shoreline.
Nikau isn’t there.
No one is.
The pretty little town on the bluffs seems to be long gone, long abandoned, a chalky, skeletal reef left to rot and wither, scabbed-over and picked-apart.
You skim a slick purple tentacle over a nearby tangle of kelp, drag the forked tip of your tongue across the two middle rows of your teeth, flicking out stray pin bones, ropy remnants of meat and gristle—and a single bloody fish scale.
Perhaps, you concede, the humans were right to be afraid of you.
originally published april, 2021