Mermaids on a Mountain
Part One - The Rig
Neith was an explorer. She lived in the great Atlantic metropolis just south of the Ascension Islands, at the foothills of the great mid-Atlantic ridge that formed the very spine of the world. The city had no true name, most people just called it Yarrow or Meltem. Two names that meant the same thing, a place of confluence, where the currents joined and the mountains crested upwards and the volcanic trenches opened up far below. Sometimes, if the residents had too much to drink, the two names would be smashed together and become Yartem.
Yartem was a great stronghold, nestled in the back depths, far away from even the most intrepid of human explorers. They did not dare venture so deep, to see how the residents had altered their environment to adapt to little light and air. Down in the deep, phosphorescence, the life-giver, employed thousands of jellies to drift over the city in a calm, slow wave, illuminating the world below them.
The great sea plains were desolate, but some farmers were able to scrape a minor living from the muck. The sea grass that grew despite all odds and lack of life-giving light, flourished at these depths. Great spider crabs scuttled across the dark expanse, catching any particles that floated past, tending to their crop. They were the fastest-moving beings around, but even they moved dreamily, swaying, their claws extended ever-upwards, into the blackness that would give way to clear blue water and light.
Light was a life-giver, that’s what the children of the sea were taught, but there were ways around everything. They were creatures of the deep. They did not need to be careful, as those who lived in the shallow seas did. They did not need to pretend to be overland beings; they could wear their fins with pride, rejoicing in the sluggish creep of life so far beneath the ocean waves.
When she was a child, Neith liked to sit out on the plain and watch the spider crabs as they went about their work. Her parents had a farm where they would cultivate the sea grass that was used to fashion the great cloaks of their people. They employed the crabs, as they employed many others to tend to their lands, and stayed far away from Yartem and its bright jelly sky and unfriendly people. Here the light was projected, eels that slithered through the mud snapping their tails and igniting great network of cables laid to a gridwork that illuminated the growing grass below. The city would not sink to such a primitive form of lighting, Neith’s parents always scoffed.
Neith was fascinated by the stories of the city as a child. She longed for light beyond the darkness of the farm. The grid could only reach so far and most of her childhood was spent out in the black. Neith wanted to hear tell of what happened in a world where things could be light all the time. It was not just the city, but rather the world higher still, where the light permeated the darkness and the sea was teaming with life
The spider crabs were great travelers, navigating the barren ocean plains when not working for Neith’s parents. They walked right up to the coasts, skittering through the shallows and looking upon the humans and the light above. “Dere be mountains dere, oh yes,” Ol’Markin told Neith one night long after the eels had gone home and the farm was dark. “Mountains dat reach high, high up in de sky. So high ya can’ see ‘em no mo’.”
“Not at all?”
Ol’Markin clicked his claw, snapping at a piece of filament as it drifted by. “Dat’s what I said, girlie. De birds off by India, dey got stories, stories of mountains even taller tha’n Hawai’i. Great, massive dings, dey are, like powerful gods standing guardian to a gate to de sky or somethin’.”
“Are they volcanos too?”
The crab shrugged as only crabs could, his eyes drooping and his claws relaxing. “Dey’re like here, dem places. Hard. Quiet. Full of a beauty that folk don’ ‘preciate no mo’.”
It was then that Neith resolved to see them one day. It didn’t matter that she was of the sea or of the deep, that her body was built to withstand the pressure miles of ocean above her, or that she was adapted to the dark. Neith had to see the mountains, she had to climb them.
She had to learn how to go up.
As a young girl, her tail not quite fully formed and her scales till molting into the bright green of her adult body, Neith climbed.
In the language of overland, she descended. The farm was in the foothills of the mountains, high enough up that the light, black though it was, was still enough for things to grow. The isolation of her childhood home allowed Neith to wander for hours, deep into the dark, through strange sea forests and places where great monsters lurked. The drills rattled, echoing across the empty plains that would give way to the African continent in time, searching for man’s inky lifeblood. She drew a deep breath and dove down, down until there was nothing but darkness and the pipe that rent the earth in two.
It would be some time before she was expected home, and Neith made a decision. She would climb this pipe, swim as high as she could go, and see what the sun looked like.
The line was fluid: it drifted like a stem of sea grass caught in the murk. Neith followed it up, touching it when she dared. It was cold, almost icy to the touch as it sucked nutrients from beneath the sea. The air around it was choked with oxygen, so much that Neith struggled to breathe as she pushed herself upwards.
The sea grew lighter.
She swam for what felt like hours, moving slowly, her pace deliberate. Her father’s business partner in the farm, a great sperm whale who spent half the year away from this place hunting for food, had told her that if she moved towards the surface too quickly that she could explode.
“Nitty,” he said, “Your body is of the sea, young one, even if you can strip off your fins and become human-like, you will always be of the sea. If you venture too close to the sun, you are sure to get burned.”
She kept her pace slow, deliberate. The sea around her was different than below. There was light above, it caught the silvery wires that held the pipes in place, rocking back and forth with the familiar lull of the sea.
All around Neith was silence; even the hum of the pipe gave way to nothingness here, in this vast, barren landscape of still water. It echoed against her head, filling her up with the ringing of emptiness.
The bleakness of the space was welcome to Neith, and as she peered through the gloom towards the blackness of home below, she felt at home for the first time. Here she could see her fingers, webbed though they were, in front of her face without having to ignite her fingertips. She could breathe easier her than she could ever breathe at home, and the water did not feel so heavy around her.
Neith swam upwards in a lazy circle, towards the water that grew lighter with every strong pump of her tail. Soon she would be too close, and her climb would be hampered by the rules. Humans, if there even were any humans up above the surface, were not allowed to see their kind. Neith grew up with those rules, she knew she could not change them.
This was about the climb. Perhaps she would not crown the surface. Perhaps that was not worth the risk.
A little bubble of laughter escaped Neith’s lips, the burning sensation of the oxygen that burrowed its way through her gills and into her lungs was refreshing, Her head felt light with all the air here. “There’s no way,” she said to herself, throwing one of the twists of hair that had fallen into her eyes over her shoulder. “There’s no way I won’t.”
The surface, when she finally saw it, was hazy and a blue so pure that Neith had to pause, some meters below and wait for her eyes to adjust. She was in the shadow of the rig, schools of fish swarming around her.
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you here?”
“Creatures from the deep do not belong at the surface.”
The schooling fish swarmed around her, a thousand black eyes staring at her. Their earnestness was endearing to Neith, and her smile was genuine when the smallest of the fish, a little creature no bigger than her thumb swam forward and set to work cleaning her ear. “I’m a climber,” Neith replied. She giggled and shooed the little fish away. “I want to climb this rig.”
“Will you shed your skin and walk as a human then?”
“Only humans can climb the ladder.”
“No one’s going to believe you if you don’t have legs.”
They drove Neith towards the surface and her head broke, bobbing black skin and a mess of hair around her head. She wiped her hair away from her eyes and started. The raised filaments on her arm had caught the breeze and she was instantly cold. So cold she shoved her arm back beneath the waves.
Neith spun, alarmed. Who here spoke the language of the deep?
“Can your kind even shed them?” The voice came from an unexpected creature. A human-like woman, a great cloak of feathers around her shoulders, who was sitting on the very edge of the rig, swaying in time of the great metal rig. Her hair was brown and caught up in a scarf painted in bright colors Neith had never seen before. They were lighter than the deep purple favored by her mother, and it was as though all the blue had been siphoned from them, and they’d been decorated with the same color as the sun above. “Your fins, I mean.”
“Of course I can,” Neith retorted. She closed her eyes and willed her body to split. She’d never done this, only ever read of it. They could turn fully into the monsters humans viewed them as if they were so inclined, but they could also shed everything that makes them alien to human. She concentrated, her sharp incisors biting into her cheek as her body shifted and tilted, becoming weak, alien, and uncomfortable. It felt as though every bone in her body was hardening, becoming denser, her movements became clumsy as she kicked her way over to the ladder and pulled herself up beside the woman.
“An impressive display of shape-shifting.” The woman’s smile was bewitching. “Especially for one such as yourself.”
“Thanks…I think.” Neith rubbed at the back of her head. Her body wasn’t cold now, just confused and naked-feeling. She’d never felt so exposed, staring out at the surface of the sea. “Who are you?”
“Shouldn’t your question be what am I?”
Neith shrugged. “Don’t suppose it matters, you understood the fish, you’re clearly not a human.”
An amused-sounding breath of air escaped the woman’s mouth. “Aren’t you the observant one?” She held out her hand, touching it to Neith’s forehead and then to her coils of hair. “My name is Amster.”
“I’m Neith.” Neith answered. “Are you a bird shifter?”
“What makes you say that?”
“The cloak. My father’s not much for books, but my mum’s a teacher. I know that our kind are not the only ones who change at will.”
“Perhaps I am.” Amster’s fingers sharpened in a heartbeat, talons formed in Neith’s hair and held her steady. “What are you doing up here, Neith?” You’re five kilometers, easily, maybe further, from home. Your kind doesn’t venture here.”
Neith jerked her head away from Amster. “I’m climbing.” She touched the scarf that covered Amster’s head. “What color is that?”
Amster’s lips pitched downwards. “What color?”
Nodding, Neith stared at her expectantly.
“Why, it’s red. Don’t you have giant tubers down there that are this color?”
“Maybe, I honestly don’t know. I’m not really allowed to go up to the tops of the ridges to where they grow. Most everything is dark down there.”
“Then why are you here? Climbing is something that humans do, Neith. Sea monsters? Not so much.”
“You say it like I can’t do it.”
“Your legs are weak. Your resolve is the only thing firm about you. You don’t know how to exist in this world above the waves.”
“I could,” Neith protested. “I could if I wanted to.”
“Then climb this rig, prove you really can scale something above the waves.” Amster tilted her head to one side, her eyes narrowing, her features hardening. “I’ll meet you at the top.” She stood, wrapping her cloak around her body tightly, and stepped off the edge of the rig. In mid-air she changed, and Neith’s mouth fell open, watching as the woman became a bird and took to the sky, soaring high, high above the rig before swooping back down to land on its peak.
This was it, this was Neith’s first true mountain. She got unsteadily to her feet. Her entire body ached from the exertion of her swim, from the climb. She was unaccustomed to this human form, her body did not move in a way she was accustomed to, and with each step, her body felt the herky-jerky motion of how humans moved across their overland domains. Neith had heard tell of this walking, and she felt newly born, her legs not quite working as her tail did, her body could no longer move with the water, slowly easing herself through the depths. No, now, contemplating the ladder and her way to the top of the gently swaying rig, Neith felt as though she’d let Amster dare her into something that she wasn’t ready to do.
Neith set her jaw, determined to see through. She took one step, and then another. Her feet stuck out wide, like the base of her tail, but she knew that she had to point her feet forward. She was not a fish in this world, she was just another person. She pointed her toes forward, admiring how they looked, black against the warm gray of the rig, and grasped the ladder.
With each step she pushed herself up, forward. Her arms, at least, moved how she expected them to. She understood how they worked, preferring the transitional phase between the great creature of the deep that was her true nature and the humanoid form she now inhabited.
Amster had not left her completely alone. There were gulls that sat perched on every available surface of the rig. They swayed with it as it rocked in the sea, a thousand pairs of black eyes on Neith as she stumbled, pushing herself to alien feet and taking one step, clinging to the railing. There were no humans around. Just the gulls, cawing their amusement, their encouragement, at her predicament.
Above her, the rig seemed to be a needle to the very sky above. Neith wanted to be closer, to see if the sun felt warmer on her cheeks there. She reached up, her fingers running over the raised bars that protruded from the sun-warm metal. It cut into her fin—her foot — as she pushed herself onto the first rung. There were many hundred more to go, and Neith pulled herself up to the next rung, her tongue caught between sharp teeth with the effort.
As she climbed, the gulls watched her with thoughtful expressions playing across their great beaks. Neith felt exposed, the wind was great here. She didn’t like it how she was battered about, like a piece of sea grass waving when the currents got particularly strong on the farm.
“Are you a human?” A young gull, still only partially through his malt, asked. He stared at her curiously before hopping forward, curiously.
Neith gripped the ladder rungs tightly and shook her head. Her hair, coiled though it was atop her head, slipped off to one side and she felt lopsided, off balance by the press of wind at her back and the burning, unpleasant feeling of the sun against her skin. “A human could not understand,” She answered.
“But only a human would want to climb just for the sake of climbing.” The gull was very young and Neith did not want to correct him, her legs, so unaccustomed to the pull-push of moving, ached with the effort. “Our kind don’t do such things for fun.”
“I don’t think I’m quite your kind, young one.”
“Still!” He hopped onto the rung above Neith and looked down at her. “You’re a deep one. This should kill you.”
“May that the sea take me and I never die.” The words were a custom for those from around Yartem. The gull nodded and moved aside.
Neith pressed on. High above still she could see Amster, her cloak fluttering around her shoulders and the scarf that covered her head whipping in the breeze. Neith bent her head and pressed on, her muscles screaming and her hands growing slippery with the effort to keep moving forward. She had to pause, to rest on a small platform that jutted out from the side of the rig. A latticework of cables, cords like the ones sunk deep under the ocean by humans long ago, looped around the scaffolding and made it look almost like home, a great jelly or a cephalopod all tangled up in itself.
Neith sat among the gulls and stared out at the endless horizon. The sky was a wash of wispy white clouds. Two long, white lines bisected the sky. Neith watched them, wondering what could have created such perfectly straight mark upon the sky. No bird could do that.
She had never felt alone in the universe, yet here, surrounded by gulls, Neith felt more alone than ever before. There was nothing, nothing for as far as the eye could see. Just waves that met clouds, perfectly flat, gray meeting blue. It filled Neith with a hollow ache, where she longed for the blank canvas of the darkness, where even the faintest light would attract more life than what was contained on this solitary rig, rocking back and forth as it sucked life from the sea bed.
Maybe her kind was never meant to see such heights. Perhaps the beauty was not meant for eyes like her own – a transitional creature caught between the deep horrors and the human world. Her mind was filled with the possibility that this was where she had to be in order to fully experience life. Even in Yartem deep below there was nothing like this place. There was no horizon under the sea, there was no light at all.
The gulls jostled beside her, taking to the sky and calling their alarm. In the distance, a black smear appeared, drawing ever-closer. Neith did not know what it was, but the gulls seemed overjoyed to see it. She leaned forward, peering over the railing, fingers gripping the sun-warm metal tightly.
“A ship! A ship!” The gulls sang. “We’ll eat well tonight!”
From high above, her voice arching like the song of a whale over the ruckus gulls, Amster shouted: “Are you coming?” She was leaning over the railing that spanned the entire top of the rig, its light blinking, even in the daytime. Her hands were cupped over her face and her sweeping brows were drawn low in an effort to make her voice carry.
There was still such a long way to go, but Neith raised her hand and waved at her new friend. She stepped unsteadily away from the railing and slid her fingers out over the rungs of the ladder once more. Her progress was quicker this time, her body more accustomed to how it was supposed to move in order to propel herself forward.
Soon, breathless, her skin slick with the exertion of the climb, Neith fell boneless onto the scaffolding at the top of the ring. Amster’s cloak tickled her cheek as she lay there, naked as an infant, staring up at the sky above.
“Well climbed.” Amster laughed. Her eyes were warm behind her scarf. “There’s hope for you yet.”
“Hope?” Neith was breathless.
“As a climber. You progressed so steadily after you stopped.” Amster held out her hand and Neith took it, letting the bird-woman pull her to her feet. “That’s an admirable quality.”
“I’ve always been told I’m persistent.” Neith smiled. Amster was standing very close to her. She smelled salty like the sea. Neith was unused to smelling anything at all. “Even if I’ve never walked before.”
“Everyone has to learn some time,” Amster replied. “And look, you’re just in time to see the ships come in.”
The breeze here was strong, and Neith gripped the railing. It was splattered with white, refuse from the gulls, and it smelled of fish and salt. She did not want Amster to know that she’d never been so close to a ship. They did not often sink in this part of the ocean, and even if they did, the currents would take them far away from the farm.
They were great ships. Great ships, the size of which she had never seen before, come to suck the inky black life from the ocean. As they drew closer, Amster’s hand warm on the small of her back, Neith was gripped by a fear that settled into the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t be seen by the ships, she didn’t want to be here when they drew up to the rig to do their dark purpose.
“I need to leave now.” The sun was high in the sky. “It will take hours for me to get home, and I cannot be late to dinner.”
“Dinner?” Amster was amused. “How old are you that you worry about such things?”
“I’m sixteen.” Neith’s cheeks burned. “And I don’t worry, but my parents do.”
Amster’s expression grew dark and she looked away, out towards the ships as they drew ever-closer. “At least you have parents to worry about you.”
“Do you not?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Amster’s jaw was set in a tight line.
Neith understood. She truly did. “I’m sorry,” she said. She leaned closer to Amster. Their shoulders touched, and when Amster turned, her face was open, full of a pain that Neith could not put into words.
There were tears, an ocean all her own, welling up at the corners of Amster’s eyes. “Will I ever see you again?”
“Of course.” Neith swore. “Meet me at the shallow bay, where the sharks play, in two years’ time. We’ll find a true mountain to climb.”
“Do you swear it?”
“Then I swear it too.” Their palms pressed together, they promised each other that they would meet again.
“I have to go now.”
“I’ll carry you down.” Amster’s body shifted as she spoke her wings growing from her cloak, but her form did not shrink. Her wings were mighty and Neith scrambled onto her back, her fingers sinking into warm reddish brown feathers and gripping tight. Amster let out a whoop and plunged straight down. Neith’s hair whipped back behind her like the black wires coiled around the rig, a bubble of hysterical laughter echoing behind them both. She was terrified, yet exhilarated. This was what she was meant to do.
They landed and Amster’s body shifted back to the girl Neith found to easy to smile at. She pulled a few feathers from Neith’s hair and stepped closer. “I promise I’ll see you again.”
“On this day, two years from now.” Neith agreed. She touched Amster’s cheek and thought better of anything else, stepping backwards, her body already shifting. Her legs pressed together, her fin formed and soon even her human body was gone. She dove off the rig and fell back into the loving arms of the sea.
Beneath the waves, the hum and echo of the ships growing ever closer hastened Neith’s retreat away from Amster. Man was a terrifying concept, and Neith was too young to feel as though she could do anything other than stick to the sea.
In two years’ time she would find Amster, and they would climb a mountain. A real mountain.
Neith swam down into the depth in a lazy circle. Her mind ached as the oxygen grew less and less, her eyes strained, looking everywhere for the brilliant light of the sun far above. Soon the gloom settled, and then the pressing blackness made the filaments on her arms and palms start to glow so Neith could see her path.
She arrived home just as her mother called her for dinner, sliding into her place and watching her parents with some trepidation. “I broke the surface today.” She’d done something taboo, and just looking at her parents as they floated before the dinner table, watching as the particles drifted by made her long for the thrill of the climb on the rig once more, the sun at her back. It felt so spectacularly dull down in this world of cold and dark.
Neith looked from her mother’s weary face to the barnacled mass of her father’s tail. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” Their silence was a judgment all on its own and Neith hated it.
Her father shook his head, his beard drifted in the water before them. “You should not shed your scales so lightly. They may never come back.”
“I wanted to climb, father.” The reply sounded petulant, she was, after all, just a child. “I want to go higher and higher. I want to see the sun and touch the sky.”
“You live under the ocean,” her mother answered. “You are not meant to touch the sky.”