I don’t realize how far apart I have grown from my mother until, upon meeting her again, I have to force myself to hug her.
When I heard the news, I packed a few things from my personnel apartment at the Omega hospital and booked a ticket on the next train to Tafros. It took two empty days and two sleepless nights by train to cross the vast expanse of rocky plains from Omega all the way to Tafros but it all seemed like a dream. As if time was frozen and only I was moving.
But now, in front of this tight-lipped woman, covered in tattoos of the heavenly waters and its beasts, the haze has scattered. I am left alone with her.
She greets me with a mute smile and a small nod. Like a stranger.
She is a small woman, no taller than a twelve-year-old child. I am not much bigger myself but hunched as she is by age and sickness, I tower over her like the enormous blue-striped grapevine that engulfs her house. When I hug her she feels so fragile in my arms, like she will shatter in pieces. Yet, she has done things that I don’t know if I can forgive. Still, I hug her and let the sea breeze wash over us.
“I am glad to see you, daughter,” she whispers in my ear. Her tone is even and unemotional.
I am not sure I believe her. Glancing at my wrist, my BioChip stays silent.
She takes me to the back of the house where a linen curtain separates her workshop. I don’t dare pull the curtain aside yet. I can’t face what lies on the other side of the room. Nobody from the hospital has pinged me on the BioChip yet, so I can’t excuse myself and go to the beach.
I leave my suitcase next to the makeshift bed she has made for me and take a look around, avoiding the curtain’s gentle sway.
Vases of inks, yellow, red, and purple, are placed on shelves high and low, a wooden ladder propped against the wall so she can reach them all.
“Why is all this stuff here?” I gesture at the crammed space. “Why not in the shed? You know…my room.” My voice catches. It hasn’t been my room for some time now.
“We tore down the shed a while back. More room for my herbs to grow. Besides—” she draws a long breath, avoiding my stare “—we didn’t think you’d come back.”
I look out the back window. There’s nothing there but herbs and the grapevine twisting and climbing the façade and, a bit further down, the slate-gray beach. I don’t know which hurts more, that she guessed my intentions right, or that she keeps saying we?
I throw myself on one of the two chairs in the room and stare as my mother toasts bread crust-thin on the wooden stove and cooks coffee. Her arms move fast for her age, the waves drawn on them like a storm.
The curtain is behind me. Even though I can’t see it, its shadow looms over me. My knees feel weak even thought I am sitting.
The smells creep up on me, and with them a sense of anguish, of inevitability. The scents by themselves are not nearly as unpleasant as they could have been. I know all of them by heart. It smells of incense and rosewater, maybe of honey and burned coal. All the perfumes and the oils my mother uses to cover the heavy smell of death. But above all I smell the inks. The scent of the violet sea, it’s the same scent that chased me away from home, only ten times stronger.
But this time is different.
The inks and the metal needles of various sizes feel as familiar as my own two hands. I was an apprentice for my mother once, just as I am now in the hospital. To pick up the tradition when she passed. But I can’t bring myself to follow in her footsteps. I never had it in me and she had always known.
That’s why she started marking her life’s journey on her own body while still alive. Because she knows there will be nobody there to do it for her.
My mother serves the coffee and the browned bread on the table next to the stove. She takes out a piece of sour goat cheese from the barrel, white clumps falling back into the brine, adds it to my plate and sits next to me. If someone hadn’t known my mother they would think she looks content to see me. But that’s just her expression, pious and serene.
When I finish my last sip of coffee, the tanginess of anguish returns in my mouth. I look at the linen curtain one more time and feel my mother’s stare piercing me. Spit burns in the back of my throat. Maybe she doesn’t even look at me but I feel it. Maybe I just wish she did. I wish she cared for me as she does for him. Even now.
I should not think ill of the dead.
Instead I take a deep breath and get up. The curtain hangs heavy as I touch the fabric with my fingertips. Softly at first, like caressing a loved familiar face. It is time.
Shit, here we go.
I steady my hand, grab the curtain with my fist and pull it to the side hard, before I change my mind.
My brother’s body lies on the long wooden bench. Melas is thinner than I remember and hairs cover more parts of him than before, but I can’t deny that this is really him, stone cold and dead.
Not all deaths are equal.
There are deaths like heavy sleep. Quiet, unassuming.
There are deaths where illness chips away at you for years, and you might wish for more time still, or accept the ending.
There are deaths where your body twists in agony and you’re choking in your own spit, blood oozing from the crevices of your body.
It’s the last kind that haunts me.
That’s how my brother died. Screaming, trapped, and alone, with nobody around to reach out to. Not even his own sister.
But that’s not what makes a death worse or better. Not in our culture.
In this place there are only two kinds of death: one where your spirit reaches the calm waters of heaven, and one where it doesn’t.
I trace my fingers over my brother’s face. His expression is serene but I know better. I know the pain of his death. I know Melas has been cleaned from his own shit and vomit and his body is perfumed and massaged with oils to make the skin ready for the tattooing. Nothing smells like death anymore. Or like the ink-venom that his body drank.
His flesh has a lilac hue that turns dark purple around his big eyes and his sealed lips. The shade of the sea. He was poisoned by the creatures he watched over all his life, the venedolphins.
I lean over to kiss him, my hands balled into fists.
“I am finally here,” I whisper, even though he can’t hear me.
The perfumed oil sticks to my cheeks, seeps into my clothes and burrows in my mind. In turn, my tears wash his face of the excess pomade my mother used to cover the smell. I imagine my brother swimming with the beasts and I am floating at the bottom of the ocean all over again.
Death by venomous ink is terrible. The lightest contact with the skin results in agonizing pain and collapsing of the lungs or a heart attack, whichever comes first.
This isn’t the first time they have killed people. But not tamers like Melas. Never tamers. Some poachers in the past, and rightfully so. A couple of stupid kids a long time ago, who did not have the gift my brother had. Me, almost, another time. But I prefer not to think about that.
Maybe they panicked trying to escape the poachers’ nets. It’s so tempting to blame them for everything. But you can’t be mad at animals. No, when it’s about blame, others come first.
My mother’s voice brings me back. She stands right behind me when she says with her rusty voice, “You brother had promised me a ripened ink sac before he passed.”
My shoulders slump with the weight of it all. I know what she will say next, in her careful but firm manner.
“I want you to get it for me.”
For one to find their way to the promised waters, one must have a tattoo etched on their skin after death.
No two tattoos are the same. Their pattern is unique for each person and for the life they’ve lived. The tattoo is also the seal of a worthy soul. Phorcys, The Eternal Fisherman that guards the grotto of the heavenly waters will recognize the soul and let it pass. Otherwise body and soul will sink down to the bottom of the ocean and will be eaten by the creatures that lurk in the darkness under the sand.
She tattoos the dead, my mother. That’s why her words are sparse and calculated. She spends too much time with the dead and the living wear her out fast.
As do I.
In the morning she is not lying next to me. She is hiding behind her linen cloth, working on my brother’s body.
It is an intricate thing, the tattooing of the dead. The body doesn’t heal. So it must be done with the utmost precision. And the shape and the color must be in perfect harmony for the soul to move on.
I try to ignore the sound the beast’s bone is making as it’s marking its way inside my brother’s skin. By my mother’s hands. I can’t.
I stare at the BioChip, daring it to call me. A useless habit now. I can’t leave until after the funeral. I would not leave, out of respect for him. But I need the distraction. This small reminder that there is a world outside from here.
Back in Omega there was always something to do. Even when it was my day off, there might have been a need for a back-up nurse or paperwork to fill. But the BioChip stays silent. Not one line, not even from someone who doesn’t know I am away. Perhaps they all know. Or the signal here is weak. Everything is too far from Tafros anyway.
I get off the bed to find milk and bread waiting for me on the table. I don’t touch them. My stomach is scraped raw since yesterday and all I need is to be outside.
I slip through the front door barely dressed and walk by the beach barefoot, the cold pebbles digging into my soles. The glistening obsidian formations take up all the view. They are scattered around the gulf, peering out of the water, in various shapes and sizes, like gigantic spearheads. People used to believe they were the tips of the Gods’ lances.
When my people came to this world, the landscape was unfamiliar and all sorts of deadly creatures roamed sea and land. There was mystery in the new world that birthed all sorts of superstition. And that’s where this village remains, while others have moved on. There aren’t many places so stubbornly stuck to the past.
There is a narrow passage on the other side of the gulf that connects it to the ocean. That’s where they usually gather, the venedolphins, when they come to the bay to feed on the purple, red, and yellow algae that is so rich in these waters.
“They don’t just come for the food, they come for us too,” my brother—who had no idea of the species’ biogeography—used to say.
He would see them approaching from afar, the first day they arrived, and his wiry body would tense. He would release the energy by jumping to the water and swimming at full speed towards them.
Nobody knows where they come from. Their secret hibernation place. My people believe they come from the heavenly waters, as a reminder of the afterlife and to gift us their venomous ink.
They gift us death.
There is movement on the beach today. It’s mostly children diving in and out of the water and grownups in their black caps, scanning the sea and poking at every suspicious bulge with dry vine branches. Alimniots. It’s been some time since I was here but I don’t remember them being so comfortable with us. They usually stay out of sight on their island, right outside of the gulf. But now they roam around our stretch of land. Strange. I bet another group is rowing around the gulf trying to find dead but fresh venedolphin meat to fish out. Muscle still attached to bone and bones stuffed with marrow to boil into thick soup without respecting their sanctity.
Their sanctity. I sound just like my mother sometimes.
It was because of that sanctity that our common ancestors parted ways. They brought the venedolphins with them from the old world. But where some of them saw a sacred creature to be worshiped, others saw a source of food. And now it’s us and them.
One of the kids has his eyes pinned on me. A boy. If he was more gaunt he would be mistaken for a vine pole.
He leaves his post at the top of the rock and follows me from a distance. Hesitantly at first, a step or two, as if testing my reaction while stealing glances at a group of women hovering over a clump of nets.
I don’t know what the kid wants of me but I am not in the mood for games. I keep my pace even and only glance at him with the corner of my eye.
My steps take me to the dock, scoundrel on my tail, where the iron statue of the Eternal Fisherman stands watching the rocking boats. His body pockmarked by rust brought by the briny air, purple lichen climbing all the way to his thighs. I used to love sitting on the statue’s lap as a kid, but now something in his expression reminds me too much of my mother. Just a sitting man weaving his nets patiently. He looks at the sea, complacent, unmoved by the great storms approaching. Anticipating but never fighting back. He is the gift.
On the other side of the statue, sprouting off the man’s back, are his second face and second body, a creature with a fish tail, crab-claws for arms, and a seething rage. He is the poison. A long beard tangled with seaweed leads from one face to the other.
I turn around to see a man balancing precariously on the bow of his fishing boat. His bare feet are covered in kelp, sand sticks in patches to his body. He is naked from the waist up. Under the glare I almost mistake him for Melas.
I squint against the blazing sun just to make sure. It’s Pirros, my brother’s best friend.
He shakes his head as if he doesn’t believe I am standing right in front of him. “When did you come?”
“I… last night.”
The faintest of smiles appears on his face but also something else, a sadness maybe. He stretches out his hand and grabs my forearm. Before I have the chance to speak I am on the boat with him, the hull bobbing with the waves and we are rocking with it.
I steady myself and try to find my footing. It has been a long time since I was on this boat. My balance is not what it used to be. The first thing that catches my eye is the motor. It looks brand new and it stands in stark contrast with the patchwork that’s the wooden boat. The red dye of the boards has almost completely peeled off. Not many fishermen can afford a new motor around here.
He sees my gaze and smiles wider. He pats the motor like a proud parent.
“It’s been a good year for me,” he says. But then his face drops. “Up until now.”
I hesitate and swallow hard trying to unstick my tongue from my palate. I scour the dock for the boy, around the statue and between the clusters of locals resting in its shade, there are other naked children running around but not him. I peer at the taverns on the other side of the pier bursting with people and in the water between the rows of hulls floating like empty husks. Nothing. My eyes swing back at Pirros.
“Show me where they found him,” I let out at last.
Pirros shakes his head and looks at me like I am a lost child.
“You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“Look, you brought me to this boat. If you have some other business I can find someone…” I gesture at the fishermen sitting by the dock playing cards and shooing the nosy children away. But do I really remember how to talk to these people?
“No, no I can take you there now,” he relents.
We undock and sail in silence for a while. Pirros steers the boat in smooth, certain moves. It mustn’t be easy navigating around the obsidians at this engine’s speed but he manages just fine. The scrawny kid I knew growing up has turned into a burly man with ruffled hair and purple fingernails. It’s the mark of all local fishermen since all the fish around here eat the algae. But his have taken in deeper hue, they are almost black. Like my brother’s after he would get his hands on an ink sac.
The little boy springs to mind.
“What’s with the Alimniots?” I start.
“They are stocking up on food supplies,” he says. He stays calm but something flares in his eyes. “The poachers are leaving behind a lot more venedolphin corpses lately.”
A shiver crawls up my backbone. I manage to shake the feeling off but a foul taste stays in my mouth. It’s true these people would eat anything. The question is how far they would go for their prey.
“Are they the ones poaching?”
He shrugs and looks away. “I don’t know, Themis,” he says. “Maybe.” But there is something in the way his voice suddenly softens. I am sure there is more.
The sky is cloudless and the waters reflect the seabed at its clearest. There is deep violet as far as my eye can see speckled with gushes of yellow and red. The obsidian stones sparkle silver with salt crystals.
Soon I can make out dark glistening bodies emerging from the water, floating. Bulky, thick, and slow. They dive over and over again to graze on the algae at the bottom of the sea. After they gather an ample amount they return to the surface to chew and keep an eye on their most tenacious predators. The humans.
Their size scares me, it always has. The females are the larger of the species. Five times the size of a human. I feel microscopic near them, a bug about to be squashed. Yet my brother swam next to them fearless. He clung to their massive torsos and petted their heads. He let himself be carried away by them, against the underwater streams, unafraid of their venomous ink sac ready to spill toxins and ink to anyone who threatened them.
Melas would read the hesitation on my face.
“They won’t hurt you if they feel safe,” he would say. He was taught how to tame the venedolphins by our father. When our father passed away, he took it upon himself to provide our mother with her much needed ink. And left me behind instead of taking me with him.
When it was my time to swim with him and the beasts I would freeze in terror. Their faces reminded me of grumpy old men, even their young ones. With their gaping open mouth, brimming with teeth and their ink sacs hanging in the middle of their face like a deflated nose. I told Melas once and he laughed so hard he had to climb on a reef to keep from drowning.
I was too afraid and my fear was weighing me down and him with me. And he liked to be fast and free.
Pirros stops the boat and drops anchor near the passage of the gulf. The pier and the beach are far behind us and hidden by rows of rocks, even sound has died out. No wonder nobody heard Melas’s calls for help.
“That’s the spot.”
Very slowly, I peel my eyes away from Pirros and look where he gestures.
Just where the gulf currents meet the oceanic water I can see what’s left of a destroyed poaching net, caught in the jagged rocks. The bobbers, still attached to it, sway with the current. There might be blood tainting the nets or it might be my mind playing tricks on me. If there’s blood it’s probably of the dead venedolphin Melas tried to save and not his own. For the first time I feel the chill of the sea and I get closer to Pirros as if he is the only source of heat in the world. He smells of the sea like all the fishermen here but there is something else too; something sweet and slightly acidic.
There was a time when Pirros was a little kid himself. A lonely kid. Melas and I had found him hiding on the beach from a gang of kids because he was so small and an orphan. There was no one to protect him. Melas didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just started playing with him every single day. And because Melas was his friend, nobody would touch him.
The guttural voices of the venedolphins make me leave Pirros’s side. My cheeks feel wet all of a sudden. They are approaching us now, slowly, very slowly. Their beady black eyes poke out of the water, their ink sacs too. Their mouths tirelessly working on the algae. Voracious beasts.
Would it be so bad if we let the poachers finish what they started? Would it be so horrible if they picked and killed each and every one of them? I shiver because of my own horrible thoughts.
“Why did they kill him, Pirros? Why did they do it?” I ask. A stupid question, I know.
He lowers his head and shrugs.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here when it happened,” he admits. “Oh, you should have seen him. He was practically one of them.”
I know. I had seen him, many times. From the beach or sitting on a rock. Always on the sidelines. Especially since he and my brother bonded. Always together, but also alone.
Pirros sits slumped in the boat and avoids eye contact. “We started swimming together. Did he ever tell you?”
“Yes.” His voice is but a whisper now. “He was trying to get the venedolphins to trust me. But then I got a job at a fishing company in Petra’s port for the season. The money was too good to turn it down.”
Petra is not too far from Omega. Yet, Pirros stayed close to my brother and I didn’t. They kept in contact with each other. A lump climbs up my throat. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Melas chose Pirros over me a long time ago. Someone who was not afraid of them and was more like him.
“He wanted you to gather the ink sacs?”
“I’m sorry, Themis. I really am. But someone had to help Melas watch over the colony.”
Melas was childless and maybe he wanted to stay that way. I was unfit for a tamer and my fear was at the bottom of the list of reasons. So he turned to the closest person he knew.
The venedolphins have come very close to our vessel now. Too close, one would think, for people who are not tamers. I guess now I know why.
Pirros lets his hand dangle over the side of the boat. The water ripples gently. The colony watches, with one of the older females having the lead. An inflated ink sac hangs above her nose. It’s certainly ripe. My mom might get her sac after all. Only not by my hand.
I almost hide behind Pirros now. Trying not to look at them, or maybe hiding from their stare. There is a tangle of anger and shame in the pit of my stomach.
They watch Pirros’s calloused fingers dangle out of the boat but don’t approach further.
I swallow the lump in my throat and my pride enough to ask, “Did you manage to make them give you a sac?”
He shakes his head that no, he hadn’t.
The sac is an appendage connected to their central nervous system. Once every ten years a new sac forms inside their nose cavity and the old one has to go. But venedolphin tamers can pluck it peacefully and use it for the tattoos or sell it—illegally—for loads of money. The neurotoxins of this particular venom produce one of the most sought-after stimulant drugs in all the planetary colonies.
Not my brother of course. Or any of the people in Tafros. Most of them are too reverent to do it. We don’t even eat the beasts’ meat. The only use we have for the venom is tattooing the dead.
But a few people is all it takes. The interplanetary smuggling is out of control lately. And the populations of venedolphins are decreasing dangerously.
“I bet you could make them give you one,” he says.
The female disappears underwater. A few moments pass and she re-emerges next to the destroyed netting. The rest of the pack stands perfectly still, keeping an eye on us. The venedolphin paddles around the rocks, dips her head then comes up again. Sometimes she goes to the bobbers and dabs them with her nostrils and ink sac, smelling them.
“Is she looking for him?” I ask.
Pirros doesn’t answer but his body language tells me what I need to know.
“You know they offered him a job too. At the fishing company. But he didn’t take it. If he did, he might still be alive now.”
Of course he didn’t. There was no way my brother would have lived a day away from Tafros. Away from the gulf.
A sudden keening breaks the calm of the waters. It startles me but not Pirros. He looks like he has done this before. It starts from the female but it spreads to the colony. I didn’t know they could make a sound like that but Pirros doesn’t flinch.
“Are they mourning him?”
“Let’s go,” Pirros says.
I nod, I see it in his eyes he can’t stay a moment longer.
As we put distance between ourselves and the venedolphins, I can’t shake the feeling that I am leaving my brother’s ghost tangled somewhere in those nets, where only the beasts can see him.
There is a strange man at the pier. As we approach land, it becomes clear that this guy fits with his surroundings even less than I do. He wears an anti-flare suit and has more technology in one ear than the entire village. His whole existence screams alien from miles away.
“That’s the envoy,” Pirros says from the other side of the boat.
“Yeah, he is from the Alien Resources Council. All the way from the Central Colony.” Worry creases his face. “He might want to talk to you, Themis.”
“He was here when Melas died. He landed two months ago. They were working together to find who was wiping out the venedolphin colony.”
My brother relied on so many people. Maybe he really needed help. My help.
The man is looking straight at us. He stands cross-armed in the middle of the pier next to the Eternal Fisherman’s statue. The locals are exchanging glances around him. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Do you trust him?” I ask Pirros.
“He is only trying to help.”
“Yes, but do you trust him?
“He is from the Council. It doesn’t matter if I trust him.”
I jump out of the boat the minute we get close enough. The man is taken aback.
“You must be Themis, the tattooist’s daughter,” he says, and offers his hand.
When he says my name and my mother’s craft I wince. I haven’t thought of myself that way as ever since I left Tafros.
I learn that his name is Clem and he is here to uncover the smuggling business and record the colony’s population and migration habits, and, and… He has a lot of dreams and plans, this one. But without my brother’s help I am afraid he is quite lost. He seems genuinely sad about Melas’s death but everything he says is too bureaucratic. Every now and then he interrupts me to talk to a BioChip Interface so advanced it makes mine look like a rusty can.
Everything we say goes into that BioChip so it can later be analyzed and scrutinized by his team. I ask him where that team is, since he looks so deserted, so out of place.
“Back home of course. At Freyja.” He smiles awkwardly like that’s some kind of common knowledge. Like I am some kind of an idiot.
I know a few things about Freyja. All of us here do. The aliens who talk about the Central Colony say it’s falling apart. Clem and his team might have more important things to deal with.
“So they left you here?” I prod him.
“I didn’t come here alone,” he says. He looks a little annoyed, probably thinks I don’t understand how intersystem travel works. “These journeys are too costly to send just one person.”
His suit reflects the light kaleidoscopically. It makes him look like a human-sized oil slick.
“So…where are the others?”
“They have come to collect data from different habitats.” He looks around nervously. “We are, um, distributed.”
“So you are all alone here.”
“Yes.” The smile completely wiped from his face. “Listen,” he leans towards me, his eyes shifting back and forth. “I’ve got nobody to help me out with these people, you know?”
Oh, I know. He looks more desperate by the minute. But being Melas’ sister doesn’t mean I have to pick up where he left.
“Believe me,” and this I say without a hint of irony. “I am as much a stranger to them as you are.”
His shoulders slump imperceptibly but he tries to hide his disappointment.
Before I leave the dock I whisper to Pirros, “Nobody is going to trust this guy enough to tell him anything.”
The envoy is not my problem. I won’t be staying around long enough to be of any help even if I wanted to offer. But there is a feeling that my brother died in vain. It hits me like a wave.
If the colony is lost, his legacy will be lost too.
When I return home I can tell something has changed almost immediately. My mother is not in her workshop anymore, she just sits outside our house like she does when she drinks her morning coffee and talks to her plants.
Only this time she sits very still and one hand cups her face, while the other holds her pipe; she does that sometimes when she wants to think. When she wants to withdraw even more within herself. Her eyes look straight ahead, cut right through me.
I come closer, a weird feeling numbing my limbs. I stand over her and touch her on the shoulder.
She lifts her gaze and looks at me with wild eyes.
“Themis,” she says, her voice cracking. “Why would the venedolphins kill him? They loved him and he loved them.”
I sigh. “Mom—”
She grabs my wrist with her free hand. I stop breathing. I almost don’t recognize this woman. She looks about to burst open.
“Come inside. I have something I meant to show you.”
She jerks herself up and goes into the house without letting go of my hand. I feel the unsteadiness of her pace, her shaking spreads onto my arm, making me dizzy. She pushes the curtain aside and all I see is a mess. There are upturned objects everywhere and the myrrh odor is choking me.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I searched.” She smiles at me, wider than I’ve seen her in years. It’s a desperate smile, the smile of someone who has just had a small victory after everything has been taken from them.
“This is why I sent for you,” she says. “You work at the hospital and…” she stutters before she goes on, “You are the only one I trust.”
I start picking up the empty bottles—the ones that are not cracked—but she stops me.
“You’ll have time for that later. There’s something important you need to see.”
“What do you mean, Mom?” I let her lead my hand high up on my brother’s back. And she shows me. She leads my hand down my brother’s cold neck, near the base of his skull. There is something there, a swelling of the flesh. Could be nothing. Could be just an old wound.
“It’s only one. I looked for more but there are none,” she says almost apologetically.
I look down. There is a miniscule puncture high up on the nape, hidden under his thick hair. Where my mother’s tattoos would not reach. The skin around the hole is purple and web-like. A needle mark.
I feel like I need to sit down. The smoke of my mother’s pipe blends with the myrrh and clouds my mind and right now I need clear thoughts.
My mother is right. Venedolphins wouldn’t kill him. Of course they loved him. I was wrong.
My eyes water. A new image of my brother’s last moments assembles. Melas, trapped in the nets, struggling for breath. Only now there’s someone over him, keeping his body underwater. Keeping him from breaking free. Perhaps more than one person. Only one thing stands out from their blurry forms: a long needle full of poison.
The bottles slip from my hands and shatter at my feet.
My mother slowly settles in her skin again. My grief proves her right and that’s another small victory, an empty victory. But for her, it is enough. She rests both hands on my shoulders. Her face slowly returns to the reverent piety she naturally carries.
“Someone killed your brother,” she says. “The Sea Gods are innocent.”
Clem twists his face in a way that implies reflection, but I don’t believe he really knows what he is doing. He examines my brother with an equal mixture of dread and curiosity. He moves Melas’s flesh around, nods, then whispers something to his BioChip, then moves it around some more. How this man studies species all around the planetary system escapes me.
“I have no problem with the beasts, but humans…that’s another story,” he says. Maybe he is more self-aware than I give him credit for. “You know, uncanny valley, etc.”
“Flesh is flesh,” I say. His grimace tells me I made things worse.
I glance at the door where my mother paces nervously up and down out in the front yard, still smoking her pipe. When the police came earlier she objected but now she was more permissive. They are locals, she knows their faces. But as such their resources are limited. They took some samples and examined Melas as best as they could, asked my mother and I some questions. Perhaps they still didn’t believe that someone could have killed my brother. He was so loved and respected. And it’s not like murders like this one turn up left and right here. Or at all. So I don’t blame them. But the evidence is there.
Then the cops’ attention shifted to the alien. I explained to them about Clem but they weren’t convinced, mostly because he is the only outsider. Well, apart from me, that is. We are like an extended family in this place. It’s a good thing I wasn’t here when Melas died because I have the feeling I would be a prime suspect.
But when my mother saw me and Clem she erupted. I almost had to drag her out of the house to let him come in. She looked at me like the first time I told her I wasn’t cut out for her job. In her mind I had betrayed her again.
Clem looked so scared of such a small woman.
“Your mother is not doing well,” he said under his breath before he stepped inside and as much as I don’t want to admit this he is right.
At last Clem sighs and takes out what looks like a small piece of square glass with green readouts and passes it over Melas’s body. Clem is not police, but he has technology and people to analyze data for him. Just for that, he is valuable.
After he is done I walk with him on the beach. He doesn’t want to face my mother by himself on his way out, but I also get the feeling he doesn’t want to be left alone after what he saw. I don’t either. We both move silently by the water as the sun starts to set behind red clouds. Under that light his suit looks almost wine dark, glistening.
The last of the Alimniots return to their island with their small fishing boats. Some of those boats are our own fishermen pulling the nets for the day. They make sure no young venedolphin got caught in them. But it’s not the nets that do the damage. As far as I know at least. This gulf has so many hidden nooks, passages, and underwater caves that if the poachers know only a few of these places they are near invisible.
I look at Clem slouching his way to the inn, hands buried deep in his pockets. I am teasing with the idea of offering to help him for a few days, as long as I am here. But what good would that do?
He takes one look at the last sun rays and takes a hand out of his pocket. A small metallic box is wedged between index and thumb and he tosses a tiny pill in his mouth.
“What’s that for?”
“Nutrients and supplements. So I won’t die in this atmosphere.” He smiles a little. “I am not as tough as I look.”
The alien visitors have issues with our atmosphere, our magnetic field. I’ve even seen a few of them in the hospital, when I happened to be near the quarantined area. Patients or staff, the aliens become feebler the longer they stayed here. But they are usually a rare sight. I was lucky to have seen a few of them.
But then again, they—or more accurately, their ancestors—sent us to this shitty planet long ago, while they kept the good stuff for themselves. First come, first survived. That’s the rule. Only, our ancestors have always been at the tail end of things. This expedition was no different. We got Lethe: rocks, salt water, and poison. They got Freyja: perfectly compatible atmosphere, sweet water and fertile soil. And then we were each left to our own devices for a while and evolved accordingly. It took a while for the colonies to establish communication again. Let alone a Council.
No wonder they have a hard time surviving here. Although if the news is true, they might have a hard time surviving in Freyja soon as well.
The question I am avoiding is eating away at me. And I don’t trust him, not fully. My mother is right this time. If I ask him now, Clem will know I need the answer. That I need him. But he has probably figured this out already.
“How long will it take for them to get back to us?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. Could be half a day, could be two. It depends on how fast the transmission will reach them.”
“Do you think it was the poachers?”
“It seems like it,” he says, thoughtful. He suddenly stops, faces away from me, to the sea. “If that’s the case it might have been my fault in a way.” He sounds different, his breathing labored from the walking. Our air is another thing he can’t adjust to. His suit is probably helping with that as well. “I might have pressured him. I have specific instructions to stop the population from going extinct as soon as possible. He took it upon him to find who they were.”
I want to say that yes, it was his fault. But Melas did what he would do every year when he found the venedolphins caught in poachers’ nets. The only difference is that Clem made him feel he was part of something bigger, a desire instilled in him by our mother.
“Then you should do just that. Save them.” I can hardly believe I am saying this. Even Clem looks at me confused. A whimper escapes from me and I hate it. “I want people to remember him. I want them to know he made a difference.”
I walk away from Clem fast, ashamed for letting the alien see me like this. “I’ll help you do this!” I scream at him.
He just stands on the sand and watches me leave.
Sand is my first thought when I wake up. It’s in my mouth, I chew it, I probably have swallowed enough to build a small castle. It has burrowed in my clothes and it grates against my skin.
I try to get on my feet coughing and spitting. The briny air stings my eyes. Still, I don’t regret sleeping on the beach tonight. Even with the pebbles digging into my skin and the bug bites it felt more welcoming than my mother’s house.
But what about my mother? Any other time I wouldn’t think she would be worried, or if she were that she would show it. But this isn’t any other time. I scramble on my hands and feet. My head spins for a moment to the sudden burst of energy. This place seems too familiar, this part of the beach on the East. The waves lick sand off my shoes. High tide. I am sure there is a system of underwater caves around here. Or semi-underwater. Depends on which part of day you visit. Everything around is too familiar, even for an ex-local like myself. Perhaps I used to spend a lot of time here. There is a sharp pain behind my left eye so I give up on remembering for now and take the long way back.
The sea spews all kinds of things at my feet, seaweed, fishbones with shreds of meat and skin still clinging to them like garlands, feathers and flotsam. Who knows what else it will leave behind when it withdraws. The water is murky today, the purpleness has taken a sickly brown shade. I try to peer through the water to see how close to the land the beasts are feeding. Their torsos pick up so much sand when they graze, they can cloud the waters for days. Sure enough a couple of slick venedolphin backs bake under the sun, like upturned hulls. They are not too far from the coast. I can’t see their heads though, only a few backs and a tail.
I hasten my steps and reach the part of the beach closest to them. What’s happening under there? It looks like they are circling something. I look around for any boats but if there are any, they are probably further away, where the water might still be clear and the fish less scattered. I pace up and down my stretch of land and wait until the passing clouds have reached overhead, until the water doesn’t deflect any sun rays at all. It’s as a clear view as I’ll ever get today.
Then I see a small arm poking out of the sea, very close to the bulk of a venedolphin. Then another arm and the head of a child coming up for a precious breath.
This can’t be. The kid is too close to the pack. The beasts are not pets even if they didn’t kill Melas.
The stupid kid will die right in front of me.
“Get out of there now!”
I try to summon my mother’s voice. Or what my mother might have sounded like if she ever needed to raise her voice to make me feel like dirt. The child doesn’t seem to care, instead he dives back into the mucky darkness and before I realize it, I am waist deep in the water, paddling my way through flotsam. The guttural noise of the venedolphins rises up. Like an underwater storm. I can’t find the kid anywhere.
My mind has already come up with a couple of variations this could go. The beasts tear the kid in pieces with their maws and graze on its flesh. Unlikely. The beasts don’t even notice there is a stupid kid swimming among them and crush it between their bodies like a small fish, with too much bone and too little meat. More likely. The beasts, fed up with the kid, release an ample amount of poison to kill a shoal of fish.
I dive in the blackness and kick water in the direction I am guessing the child must be. Things touch me as I make my way under the surface, sharp things and slimy things, things so soft I shiver as they brush my face. In those few moments I block thoughts of their immense bodies that could toss me to the rocks like an annoying insect, to the wideness of their mouths and the effectiveness of their jaws, to their poison, permeating cavities and wounds before the sea dilutes it.
My fingers brush over delicate flesh. And I miss the kid. I miss the small human amidst the turmoil. I turn around and fumble some more. Tendrils of panic stroke my neck. I grab a twig of an arm and push up, even when the twig jerks and twists and tries to set itself free.
When I gulp in air again it’s not without water. More sand in my mouth. I turn to take a blurry look at the child. It’s the Alimniot kid, I am sure of it, even though his hair falls like black seaweed on his face. His eyes are curtained behind it but he sees me, he whispers my name. I drag him to the shore and he is not fighting anymore, he paddles along with his free arm. Behind us the sound of venedolphins calms down.
I drop on my hands and knees coughing out part salt water and part dirt. My clothes pull me to the ground. The boy lies on his back a few feet behind me. A smile plastered on his face.
“What were you thinking?” I bark at him. “They could crush you, or poison you, or—”
I stop because there is no point or enough air in my lungs. Because my heart is pounding so loudly it echoes inside my jowls. And because the boy doesn’t give a damn, just stretches out his small body, taking in all the sun.
“How do you know my name?” I ask, hoping to get anything out of him. Any reaction would do right now.
“From my friend,” he says. Then his face darkens. “He is dead now.”
“Melas? That’s your friend?”
I am not the kind who likes children. I am not the kind that talks to them either. So I breathe in.
“He was showing me how to be friends with them.” He gestures over at the venedolphins.
My head spins. I just woke up and I already feel exhausted.
“You don’t have to be afraid. They like you.”
That’s how I know this kid has no clue.
He gets up and turns around.
“Come!” he says. “I have something to show you.”
I make an effort to push myself up and drag my feet behind his agile frame.
Then I noticed a pile of flesh I haven’t seen before. It lies on the pebbles, cooking under the morning sun.
The dead pup’s eyes stare at me pearl white.
Its ink sac is missing. Of course. In its place there is a hollow cavity of flesh and dried blood, the meat shrinking around the lip like a dried fruit.
The pup is about a third of my body in size and it must have been dead for at least two days. It might even be the one my brother tried to save when he got himself tangled in those nets.
I stand above its swollen corpse and draw long, slow breaths. It can’t have been more than one year old. Its fatty tissue takes up more than half of its body weight. Now it is pouring out of its open sores. The poacher probably dragged it by the tail and used a knife to remove the sac while it was still alive.
They didn’t even wait for it to reach its first decade. The sac would’ve been full of venomous ink by then and it might have dropped on its own.
Someone was in a hurry to make money.
I look away. I start to shake.
This time it’s hatred. Hatred for whoever did this.
The sac’s nerves are part of the central nervous system. Cutting it out like that is like removing part of the brain. A heavy-handed lobotomy. The venedolphins are thrown back to the sea, where they are little more conscious than the algae, they can’t even swim or feed themselves anymore. They die a slow death while the rest of the colony watches, unable to help.
This is just wrong.
“The meat has gone bad,” says the boy next to me. His mouth makes a wet sound. I shiver. I had almost forgotten about him.
“Did you do that?”
“…n-no, I found it that way,” he takes a step back and angles his body away from me, hurt. His green eyes misty.
“Where is your family?” I fling my arms around. “How did you even come here?”
“I swam.” He shrugs.
“All the way from Alimnia?”
He nods. I run a hand through my hair, trying to calculate the distance from the island and suddenly I feel too old and out of shape. When I turn to speak to him again, he is already far away. I see him run across the beach, his hands on his face and it just dawns on me that I don’t know his name. And that I might have hurt his feelings. It’s too late to call him back now. He doesn’t look like he wants to see any more of me anyway.
I shift my attention back to the venedolphin. Without thinking too much about it I take off my shirt and wrap it around the pup. I just can’t leave the dead creature tossed on the beach like that. Nor can I let the Alimniots have it. Clem might be interested too. He will jot down the age and analyze the method of extraction or whatever it is he does on his paid-for time on my planet.
It’s not a long way to my mother’s house but the venedolphin is heavy. The stench from the rotting body is so acidic it burns the inside of my nose. My arms are not as strong as they used to be. Too much time in the city will do that to you. I struggle and my back is punishing me, but slowly I make it home.
Mother’s reaction to the dead pup surprises me even more than my own. She doesn’t say a word about me not sleeping there last night. But when I leave the pup on our small dining table she approaches it with dread. She peels off the fabric and clutches her mouth with both her hands. I have to look twice to make sure, but one fat tear runs down each cheek.
She never cried for my father, a venedolphin tamer who swam with the colony every season to provide her with an endless supply of venom-ink. I haven’t seen her cry for my brother either, who had yet to start a life of his own and leave this house to assist her in her divine duty.
She probably wouldn’t cry for me either.
“We have to let the envoy know,” I say. I go to the bed to give her space to mourn.
She shakes her head with force as I lay on my place, observing her. “We cannot let them have it. The pup must travel with your brother in two days.”
Two days? Is she really that close to finishing the tattoo already? But she knew my brother so well. Marking his chest must feel like marking her own.
But will that be enough time for Clem to find anything?
“It might be a clue to—”
“No,” she says. “Your brother would understand this. But you can’t.”
Out of the window the vine leaves flutter in the breeze and a surge of the grapes’ acidity wafts around the house. My arms hurt, my back hurts, everything hurts. I keep my eyes glued to the curtain swaying slightly in the wind.
Hey brother. I wish you were here instead of me.
I go to my mother and guide her to a chair gently. She looks so worn out. Not even she can hide how hard the last few days have been.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I tell her, my hand softly squeezing her shoulder. “We’ll find who did this.”
She stays silent for a while. Then she pats my hands and nods. “I know,” she says. “I know you are good, my daughter. You have always been good for putting up with an old lady like me.”
I freeze, half from surprise and half because I want to see where she is going with this.
“…but don’t wear yourself out. You’ve done enough.”
“The beasts are innocent and that’s enough for me.”
So that’s it? That’s what she needed me for? To be a witness? Another set of eyes to my brother’s death? The beasts’ innocence is enough for her, but it’s not for me.
A ringing rises inside my head. I am not like her. I need to know what happened. This need pulls me like an anchor to the deep. But I know better than to try and argue with her. Especially now. She doesn’t need to know what I do in my spare time here, like she has never asked how my life in the city is.
This is how it’s going to be now as well.
So I swallow my words and just hold her.
There has been a silent agreement between my mother and me. An understanding that when she asked me to stop looking, I’d listen to her. This has always been the way here, in my village and in my family. I am going to use that silence, the expectations she takes for a fact and work my way to the killer. She will know when it’s time. Not a moment sooner.
I find Clem in a tavern, sitting on a stonebark chair, drinking warm salep and preparing a chart on an OmniScreen. The contrast is so stark it makes me snort. He shifts his weight every minute or so, trying to get comfortable. His behind must not have been prepared for such hard materials.
The news of how Melas died must have reached every nook and cranny in Tafros by now. People’s stares are burning into my back, when they think I don’t notice. There is a chill in the air too. People are less chatty, more sluggish. Melas was so loved nobody could have done it. And because of that, anyone could.
I look around the pier for Pirros’s boat but it seems he hasn’t returned yet. I explain to Clem about the pup and he almost chokes on his salep. Curiosity and something like excitement shine in his eyes.
“It’s the youngest one I’ve heard about,” he says, wiping the drops from his damp chin.
Then he becomes more careful.
“Listen,” he says. He leans closer to me to avoid prying ears. “There must be some place right here on this beach where the poachers hide while they extract the sacs.”
“I thought they were doing the extraction mostly in the water,” I say confused. The venedolphins are much too heavy. It’s virtually impossible to drag them out of the water without being noticed.
He shakes his head.
“It seems faster in the water but it’s dangerous, really.” He drags his chair closer to mine. “What if a fisherman sees them or the colony gets to them and attacks the boat?”
I haven’t thought about it that way, but an uneasy feeling I can’t place is creeping up my backbone.
“That’s why the younger ones go first,” he says. He fails to hide the pride he feels for figuring this out. It isn’t something to gloat about.
“My brother died trying to save them,” I say. “This is no happy news.”
His expression turns serious again and somewhat embarrassed.
“I got back the results.”
I hold my breath at what he is about to say.
“The poachers are hunting with fishing toxins. Not venomous like the ink. Plain plant toxins, enough to paralyze the venedolphins so they are easy to manipulate.”
I know about the fishing toxins. Some locals used them in the past to paralyze whole swarms of fishes and collect them. It’s mostly prohibited now because of overfishing. These toxins are everywhere here, even in the grape vine canes in our back yard. But for such big animals it would take a lot of it.
“So the venedolphins are paralyzed through the extraction and won’t put up a fight,” I say. “What does that have to do with Melas?”
“My team found the same toxins under Melas’s skin.”
I stare at him and nod but my mind races. The net my brother was struggling under was probably drenched in paralyzing toxins. Otherwise he might have escaped. If that’s true then it could have been just one person there. Easier to kill Melas, easier to hide.
Clem watches me and waits. He slowly slides the salep cup to my side. Steam strokes my chin and licks its way to my cheeks. He feels sorry for me but that’s the last thing that worries me.
“Have some,” he says.
I wrap my hands around the cup and take a sip. Let the smell burrow in my nostrils. I burn the tip of my tongue. It helps pull me out of the stupor my thoughts sent me in.
“So it was the poachers,” I settle in this thought. I need the certainty of this thought, the certainty of the cup in my hands, of the sting of pain in my mouth.
He nods. The way he looks at me is sad, almost resigned.
I wonder if Melas got trapped in the nets by himself and the poachers found the best gift when they came to check their harvest or if it was an ambush. If they used enough toxins on the nets to paralyze a venedolphin, even a small one, my brother didn’t stand a chance. It’s a miracle he didn’t drown, unable to move an inch. But knowing my brother, we would have known something was wrong in an instant. He would have known the nets had toxins from all the other times he had destroyed them. He must have approached them with caution or with tools of some sort.
So why was he tricked into the toxins this time?
I squeeze the mug inside my palms, considering Clem and his wistful expression.
“Hey.” I put the cup on the table with more force than I meant to. He cocks his head up. “How far are you willing to go?”
He doesn’t understand: I can see it in his lens-coated eyes.
“Do you want to find the poachers?”
He suddenly sits up and looks at me dead serious. “That’s why I am here.”
“Good. Because I know a place where there’s plenty of toxin.” I stroke the rim of the mug with my thumb. There is a new crack coating its side. Forever changed. If I let it go now, it will come apart.
“But we’ll need a ride to get there.”
Pirros’s aunt examines my face and pretends she hardly remembers who I am. She makes me repeat my name again and asks me all these questions about my mother and Melas, as if I am lying to her.
It hasn’t been that long. Granted I left this place pretty young and heartbroken by both my closest relatives, but I haven’t changed that much, not on the outside. Also, I am the spitting image of my mother minus tattoos and wrinkles. But that’s how we are in this place. Suspicious of outsiders. And I am one now.
The woman wears a half-buttoned shirt and wide-brimmed hat, her white hair falls in a braid on the side of her face. A cigarette burns in her lips.
“Alright,” she spits pretty close to where I am standing. “And how should I know where he is? He didn’t even say goodbye when he left for Petra.”
Her boat has a motor too, not brand new, but good enough. Pirros probably gave her his old one to appease her for leaving. He takes care of her still. She was the only one who took care of him after his mother ran away and his father died.
“You are still his aunt, right?” I say. I tap my foot on the wood impatiently.
She chuckles at that.
“Boy didn’t say squat to me when he was half my size.” She takes a long drag on her smoke. “He took off with your brother when he should be learning how to cast the nets.”
I glance at her nets. They look pretty heavy with fish for one person. She turns her back on me and starts freeing the fishes and tossing them in a bucket wedged between her legs. She is too stubborn for me to handle. I know when I’ve hit a wall. It’s like Mother all over again. It has always been that way.
I turn around to leave only to bump shoulders with Pirros who startles at first and when he recognizes me, presses his lips together.
“Ah, here you are. I was looking everywhere for you.” I try to squeeze an awkward smile and feel worse for it.
“I bet you did,” he says, crossing his arms in front of him.
I look around at the dozen of boats at the dock. The water still hasn’t cleared out completely and it probably won’t until the venedolphins migrate back to wherever they came from. But Pirros’s boat is not with them.
“Where’s your boat?”
“I am getting the side fixed. It met the tail of a venedolphin on its way back to the gulf.”
I stare at him, confused.
“They aren’t hostile without good reason.”
“Perhaps they see every boat as a threat now,” he says. His jaw clenching.
I nod and look out to the sea.
“They didn’t hurt Melas.”
He glares at me. “I know.”
Sometimes I forget how small this place is, how fast the news travels.
“You didn’t come to me.” He scowls. “You went straight for the alien.”
Ah! There it is.
“You are right. I am sorry,” I say. I try to sound remorseful. He was Melas’s closest friend and I left him out. “But I needed Clem.”
“Melas was my brother. You could have asked me before you went to him.”
His attitude is getting on my nerves. I know Pirros does not trust the alien but he didn’t steer me away from him either.
“No he wasn’t.” I square my shoulders because I’ve had enough. “He was my brother.”
He looks at me insulted but I am not going to let it go. I jab him on the chest with my finger. The old woman has abandoned the fish bucket and stares at us.
“I need to know who killed him,” I say. “And I need you and Clem and whoever the hell knows something to help me.”
I grind my teeth. A knot comes undone inside my stomach and if I let it crawl high up my mouth I might say things I can’t take back.
Pirros must feel this because he is clenching his jaw, holding back whatever he wants to say. Finally he lets a deep breath out and loosens up. He looks down.
“How can I help?” he mumbles.
“Take me to the island.”
I can see him twisting his brain, trying to figure out why the hell I would want to go to the Alimniots’ island. He shoots glances at the old woman as if hoping she would object for him. But she just scoffs and goes back to her fish.
“Alright,” he says at last. “Alright. Meet me here in the afternoon and I’ll take you.”
“Oh, and something else,” I say before I leave. “We are taking Clem with us.”
The mended part of the hull has a slightly different tint than the rest of the boat. I noticed it right before we got in. Pirros palmed it as if checking if the job was good enough for us to sail, not even bothering talking to Clem. So I sat between them.
Clem doesn’t even try to make conversation. He sits on the bow taking notes on his OmniScreen and whispering to his BioChip so softly, that not even here, in the middle of the sea, can I hear what he says. I stare at mine for a while. It feels more foreign each day I spend here, as does Omega.
I leant towards Pirros who keeps his eyes focused on the horizon the whole time of the journey.
“So what happened?” I ask nodding at the hull.
“They are restless.” He squints against the sun, keeps a straight face. “Ever since your brother died. And these people don’t help.”
“The poachers?” I ask.
“The Alimniots,” he says, catching me off-guard.
“I know the islanders. They keep to themselves.”
“That’s right,” he says. “They did.” He stresses the words. “Now we have gotten into a dispute over the fishing territories.”
“I can confirm that.”
I start at Clem’s voice. I didn’t expect him to talk until we reached the island. It turns out he can multitask.
“How would you know that?”
He stares at me wide-eyed. Then looks down to his OmniScreen. “W-we have been collecting data about the area for some time now. I am not allowed to say more.”
Something feels off, but I don’t know enough to place it. Pirros’s aversion for the Alimniots is no surprise. Their customs seem ungodly to my people.
But Clem’s reluctance throws me off. Maybe that’s another reason he has been mouse-quiet all this time. It just occurs to me that I haven’t asked him why the Council is so intent with saving the venedolphin populations from extinction. Besides the obvious fact that the drug is worth its weight in gold.
“Well,” I say to both of them. “We might get lucky then. If they are fishing in these waters they might have seen something or someone.” If my own people won’t trust me, there’s even less chance for the Alimniots to confide anything to me. Let alone betray their own. But neither of the two attempts to argue with me.
So I get to keep my hopes up for a while longer, and count on my brother’s good name with the islanders to help me navigate this.
Alimnia lays a couple of miles northeast of the gulf. Its shape is arched, like the foot of a predatory bird, grasping invisible prey. Its one long claw is orange lava rock, the toe is black igneous stone—a cinder cone like a neglected wound blooms in its midst—and a thick purple forest sprouts in the tarsus.
Pirros dexterously avoids the venedolphins and their usual underwater pastures and after a while we reach the passage onto the ocean. The water beyond the gulf changes from purple to crystal blue. Used as I am to facing the purple sea, the switch confuses me at first. But not all things are purple in this world and my life doesn’t have to be purple either.
The forest is in the South and the first place we reach after we leave the gulf behind us. The shadows from the gigantic pavofig trees quiver on the waves like ribbons, darkening the sea.
When my people came to Lethe from a place called the Mediterranean, they brought with them the three sacred plants: the grape-vine, the fig tree and the olive. This new planet, they were told, was very much like the Mediterranean; an endless basin of water surrounded by land and strewn with small but fertile islands. What they didn’t know was that nothing in this basin was as mild and safe as back home. And if something by chance survived here it would probably become poisonous. But there was no home. No going back. So they learned to take some of the poison in their system and cook it out of their dishes when they could.
We sail past the fig trees and just when the black peaks of the volcano peer out from between the clusters of trees, Pirros slows down the engine and turns the handle towards the coast, a couple hundred yards before the forest gives way to the cave houses.
“What are you doing?” I hiss at him.
“This is as far as I go,” he says. He kills the motor the moment the bow touches the white sand.
“What—we can’t walk through here.” My voice has gone up a few octaves. “These trees are toxic, and who knows what else might be in there.”
“They fish in our waters.” He jumps on the white sand pulls the rope towards the land. “Don’t want them to see me here.”
Clem has already started getting off the boat, his head cocked up, mesmerized by the large trees and the speckled fruit. I scowl at Pirros. It is ridiculous to be angry because they cast nets in the same waters as we do but I am done arguing with him.
“Look, I’ll be here for you.” His feet are firmly planted in the sand.
“You better,” I threaten him. With what I am not sure. It’s not like I have any power over him and the truth is he is doing us a favor.
“Let’s go.” I pull Clem away from the trees and closer to the water. There might be things in there that not even his suit can protect him from.
We walk across the beach with Clem slowing down and scanning with his glass anything that catches his eye and isn’t not too far out of reach. The pavofigs hang heavy above our heads. Ripe and juicy. If I could reach that high I would probably reach for one.
“It doesn’t feel right. Maybe we should head back,” Clem mumbles to my left.
I fix my gaze to the highest ashen peak. I am beyond going back.
“It’s too late now. Let’s try to make the most out of this.” I search for his eyes. They are glued to the ground. “If you want to find the poachers, you’ll have to work for it.”
“What about the police?” he asks.
Sometimes I think he knows nothing about the ways of this world.
“They won’t be coming here, Clem. They wouldn’t know how to talk to them.”
“And you do?”
“…you got me there.”
I think of the boy, the way he left the beach.
“But I’ll give it a try. It’s all I can do.”
The first people we meet are children. They have pavofigs in their laps, the wine-red juice stains their white shirts. We lock eyes and they freeze in place, stop their yelling and splashing. Then they get up and run away, to the maze of stairs carved into the mountain.
The settlement is almost entirely dug into the volcanic rock, one level upon another, using more volcanic materials to build walls, domes and arches and create a dizzying result that would leave me totally lost if I were to try and walk through it alone. The clusters of homes are built so close together it’s impossible to tell when one starts and where it ends. The maze does not end on the outside. The houses are connected by tunnels that go deep, all the way to the volcano. This whole place is as hollow as an eggshell.
Smoke twists and soars over every other cluster and with it a smell that burns in my lungs, like strong alcohol.
I had seen the settlement in the past if only from afar, huddled with Melas inside father’s boat, but both I and Clem can’t stop staring at it until an old man in a blue cap and a cane approaches. He looks straight at me and avoids glancing at Clem.
“It was about time somebody came,” he mumbles. He searches around us, beyond the trees. “Where’s your boat?”
I gesture at the forest. “We left it back there,” I say and bite my lips right after.
“I see.” His chuckle comes out forced. “Don’t worry about it. We are not boat thieves. Follow me.”
I follow the man, who has a slight limp on his right side. His hair glows milk white against the smoky background of the mountains. Clem fiddles with his glass with the green readouts, biting on his lip.
“Put that away, son,” the man punctuates the words carefully and Clem obliges immediately. He gives me an anxious look and shoves his hands in his pockets. The man’s annoyance makes him retreat into himself even more.
We climb the first flight of stairs. On the first landing the stairs twist around and fork, going two separate ways. I look behind me and try to map the way we came to know how to return to the beach.
The houses are not too tall, barely higher than the size of a tall adult person, I bet it’s pretty cramped inside there. And yet it doesn’t feel stifled, it feels more like a community than the hospital apartment I live in—one room and a toilet. The calmness isn’t choking me like back in my mother’s house. There are people everywhere. Every now and then there is an open space of sorts. A terrace or a balcony, where people sit, doing chores or just talking.
“Where are we going?” I ask, catching Clem’s nervousness.
“Damara wants to talk to you.”
We stop on the third level. There is a wide open terrace and a house with a dome. The walls are not ashen like most of the construction, but painted a dusty shade of violet. There is a fire in the middle of the terrace and from speakers comes one of our ancestral songs. One of those folk songs that talk about the death of a newcomer long ago on a planet unwelcome and strange.
The God of Good Death. Where is He now?
You have better not angered the God of Good Death.
Stranded so far away from home.
Sinister beasts will steal your soul.
You have better not angered the God of Good Death.
It has this sorrowful tune that makes it difficult not to think it’s all about you. And it is. About all of us. We all came from the same original colonists. But they adjusted to this place differently. They fit right into the cracks of this island as if they were made for it all along.
And then of course it’s the venedolphin meat.
There are pots on the fire with boiling pavofig leaves. The Alimniots turn the juice into a gel and use it to fish in the ocean, where the fishes are bigger and more slippery. The forbidden fishing toxins.
The man leads us to a company of people around a table. They all chew on pieces of jerky and at first it looks like it’s veal because of the deep, deep red color. But it can’t be. Alimniots don’t have calves, only skinny goats, and they trade very little with us. When I realize what it is I am already too close and everyone is staring at us.
It’s just meat. Just meat.
I’ve been away for more than a decade but some things are too rooted inside of me to just get over them. This taboo is definitely one of them. I try to hide a gag reflex but I must look sick. A young woman in a black t-shirt and cargo pants gets up and ushers me away.
“Are you okay?” she asks. She has sleek black pools for eyes and hair cropped short.
“I am fine. It’s just—” I try to speak but the words get strangled in my mouth.
“It’s the meat, isn’t it?” she knits her brows together.
I nod and cover my mouth with the back of my hand, trying not to gag.
“Wait here,” she says and disappears inside the purple house.
Not a minute later she comes back with a large pavofig sliced in half and a glass of water. I take the water and we sit on the terrace, away from clamor of adults and children and even Clem who sits in a corner of a table alone, the rest of the company has moved to the other side.
“Are you Damara?” I glance at a pavofig slice, violet blotchy skin around blue flesh.
“Yes.” She smiles and nudges me to take a slice. “And you are Themis.”
I bite into the moisture right in the center. Juice and seeds spatter on my shirt. It tastes so impossibly sweet that only the tangy aftertaste on the back of my tongue will balance the sugary shock.
Before I have the chance to ask how she knows me, she surprises me again.
“Did Melas ever talk about me?”
The tanginess spreads in my mouth. My tongue feels so tender I can barely speak.
“No.” I swallow a huge gulp of water. “We didn’t talk lately.”
“Ah.” She looks at her hands holding the pavofig.
“How did you know him?” I ask. My mouth still raw.
She points to the old man who brought us up here. He is sitting with the others and takes sips of arache but doesn’t take his eyes off Clem.
“My father and Melas were friends. And he was teaching my son, Selinos, how to tame the venedolphins. I was never really interested in this art.” She gestures towards the beach where the children are still playing, this time climbing rocks. I look over. The sun is half-plunged in the sea now. I can barely see their forms, their languid bodies have merged into one great shadow on top of a flat stone. But I know who she means without searching for him. It’s the scoundrel, no question about it. The boy was telling the truth. I didn’t see him at the beach. He might have been hiding from me. I wouldn’t blame him.
“Where did your father meet Melas?” I ask.
She looks at me confused. As if I ought to have known this. “Well, my father used to dive with Melas.” She leaves the pavofig aside. “Until the accident happened. And with your father long before we were all born.”
I let the words hang in the air. Pull them apart and try to pair them with memories. Yes, I remember Father telling us about an Alimniot diver and I know they have death tattoos too. But that memory is so slim and fragile it feels as if I just made it up. Our people are so narrow-minded when it comes to the Alimniots, a friendship feels impossible. I didn’t know they were diving together, let alone being friendly. My brother never brought this up. Probably to not upset our mother. “Accident?” I manage to ask.
“It wasn’t the venedolphin’s fault,” she rushes to say. I can see so much of my mother in this one. “It was a female and had just had a young one. My father did not know and approached uninvited. She got scared, she smacked some rocks with her tail and they broke free. Father’s leg got wedged under them.”
I can’t imagine how terrifying a creature like that would look if threatened like that. For a moment I am back underwater, kicking water blindly, praying for someone to come and get me.
“Now the colony is distant when Father swims close. It’s a delicate balance and he has to respect the venedolphins’ wishes.”
She talks about the creatures with the affection someone would save for pets. These are the same people who consume their dead flesh.
“But your brother helped us. He dove for us until my father could build the broken trust again. Melas brought us ink sacks when he could. My father couldn’t finish his tattoos otherwise. But it seems the colony was more hostile than we thought.”
A sob leaves her chest. She is upset so I try to distract her.
“Your father does the death tattoos?”
“Well, yes.” She looks at her father and then back at me. “Now it’s finally my turn.” There is pride in her eyes when she says this.
I realize I know close to nothing about their traditions. They are another version of us, meat eating aside. But their death-marking tradition can pass from a man to a woman, and while they are both still alive. The taming too. They can choose which art will be the one for them. Perhaps even both. I start feeling like I was born on the wrong side of the gulf.
They are less rigid than us. No wonder they eat the beasts. It’s a very thin line though, between this and poaching, maybe they have already crossed it. Or perhaps it was never there but we didn’t know.
“How do you get all this venedolphin meat?” I lean closer to Damara. Somehow this feels intimate to ask out loud.
Her jaw clenches, her eyes read my thoughts.
“We look for it,” she says, slowly, like a warning. Her black fringe falls to her eyes but she doesn’t brush it away. “The poachers have made sure we have plenty of corpses to pick up. More meat than we can eat fresh.”
That’s not what I would call fresh.
“Yes, but.” Her expression begs me not to take it there but I do. “Do you hunt them?”
“We don’t kill the sacred beasts.”
She gives me a hard look and I feel almost obligated to apologize. I fix my gaze on the fire just to avoid her uncomfortable stare while she keeps talking. “We only eat their dead flesh. It is the way we honor them.”
She shifts in her place ready to stand, her hand fidgets, and accidentally she nudges the fig that splatters on the ground.
“Oh, and to make it clear for you, we don’t know the poachers. There was…” At this she stops moving. Her voice lowers to a whisper. “One of ours has killed beasts in the past. But we did punish him in our own way. And he lost everything.”
I would like to ask if that man might have come back and lie hidden in the island somewhere or if there is a slim possibility for another such apostate to have followed in his footsteps but I have already insulted her enough for one time. She is telling me the truth. Melas trusted her and her father and so must I.
“I am sorry,” I mumble. My face is flushed and it’s all because of my own stubbornness and yet I feel there is perhaps hope in her words. The beginning of a thread that I might follow.
I suck my breath and steel myself for what might come.
“The venedolphins didn’t kill Melas,” I say, “a person did.” She would find out herself sooner or later.
She grabs my arm so hard I am afraid she’ll take it with her. “Are you sure?” Her voice cracks a little. “Are you absolutely sure?”
I nod. “That’s why I am here. Could have been that man? The one who killed my brother?”
Damara is not angry at me anymore. Her face has softened. The last thing I need is people pitying me.
“No,” she says at last. “He was banished years ago. Last time we heard news of him he had died. I am sorry I can’t say more. We keep some things to ourselves. But believe me when I say, it couldn’t have been him.”
I look around lost, deflated. I rub my face, let the disappointment sink in. “That can’t be.” My voice comes out weary. “They use fish toxins, they must be your people.”
On the other side of the porch Damara’s father gets up, glass in hand and hobbles to the boiling leaves. His face flushed as he takes a large spoon and stirs the pot. He stokes the fire. He passes the place where Clem sits, hunkered. He leans over and says something to Clem. The words drown under the music and the voices. The others watch them. Or maybe they just watch Clem, expecting something, a reaction—an answer? I am not sure. But Clem doesn’t say anything, doesn’t protest. He just gets up and slips quietly down the stairs and into the night.
Damara leans close to me, she doesn’t send me away even thought I must have insulted her countless times by now.
“I understand,” she says. “But you must know: if we ever discovered our own doing something like that, we would be the first to punish them.”
“Then there’s nothing else to do here.” I make myself stand, but I am lost and defeated.
Damara grabs my hand before I peel away from her company and meet Clem down the beach.
“Just one more thing.” Her voice quivers and I have no choice but to linger. “Melas told me you used to swim with them too. Please—” She stops takes a short breath. “Please help Selinos. Finish what your brother started.”
I want to tell her that she doesn’t know how it is. How it feels to be a skinny child swimming next to a titan, a wall of flesh, to fight the soaring waves threatening to break you, to hold your breath for as long as you can and not be able to keep your wits together no matter how hard you try. Eventually you scream for help, until your throat hurts, but your brother is far away with his new best friend. And so you cry for a long time until he remembers you were there too and comes for you.
“I am not a tamer,” I say. And before I change my mind, “But I will try.”
She lets me go but she squeezes my hand one last time.
“Don’t forget. You are welcome here.”
The flashlight flickers on and off a couple of times, the beam cuts a narrow path through rocks and sand. Clem doesn’t need any primitive light source. He has night vision, he took off before us. The old man follows me down the path in spite of my protests. I let him guide me with his flashlight blinking on and off into the blackness, worried with every step that I will stumble down the stairs. His breath reeks of arache even with my back turned.
In this hour the dark sand looks like soot, the remnants of a lost civilization burned to the ground. Icy cold wind comes from the sea, and the forest looks webby and lanky, and—if that’s even possible—more intimidating than before. There is no sound other than the splashing of the waves and our damp steps.
In the distance there is the outline of a man, a slick figure veiled in a phosphorescent suit, hunched over the waves, just where the forest touches the dark beach. Clem. He didn’t dare cross it by himself so he is waiting for me to catch up.
I stop and within a couple of steps the old man stands next to me.
“What’s wrong?” His voice is groggy.
“I can take it from here,” I say. I try to sound firm about it.
I can almost feel him shrug and turn around. But then he stops cold and turns around.
“You know, that brother of yours…”
I meet the chiaroscuro of his face, his eyes are hidden under a pool of shadows, his mouth lit up. The words and his moist breath travel in the wind.
“He should have kept away from the outlander.”
He shifts his weight around, measuring his words.
“I tried to tell him. But that friend of yours spilled his poison.” He shakes his head, light and darkness diffusing in motley patterns on his skin.
Now I get it.
“You fought over Clem.” My voice wavers. I clench my fists.
“Now now,” he says. There is a hint of sadness that I couldn’t trace before. “I didn’t do anything to Melas. He was a good boy.”
“Who then? Clem? Why?” I feel all the muscles of my face tighten.
“Ask him yourself,” he says. He sounds annoyed, angry. He starts leaving again.
“What? Ask him what?” I flail my arms as if that’s going to make him stop and turn around.
I don’t know if he takes pity on me or if he just needs to get whatever he has to say out of his chest. But he comes back. This time much closer than before. My face is inches away from his, his breathe permeates my skin, becomes mine.
“Ask him why he is really here. Ask him what happened to Obelia, Koridon, Faroma and the others. And ask him what Melas did when he found out. From me.” The last words come out slurred. Then he stops and stares at me, his lips squeezed shut. The flashlight paints a drained, exhausted portrait of him. He shrugs and gestures for me to leave.
Is that why Clem was acting so restless? Was he afraid of what I’d find out?
I turn and walk away, faltering towards the illuminated shape of Clem in the distance, the faint light of an alien that I half-trusted.
Joke’s on me.
“What is this?” Mother asks, back-broken and sleep deprived. She must have spent the whole night crying over my brother’s body. In the past few days, I’ve tried to care for her as best as I could. I’ve cooked for her and kept her company as she smoked her pipe on the porch. Tried to be the daughter she wished she had, but nothing soothes her. Today she barely touches her bread. Takes a small sip from her cup and stares at Selinos with dead eyes. Probably trying to remember whose kid this is.
The boy looks up from the table, still gorging himself on the food I have laid. It is everything we have at home and everything he brought as a gift for a hearty morning meal before we leave for the beach. There is freshly baked bread, goat cheese, mint pies, but also pavofigs and sun-dried squid. And of course grape juice.
I sigh, grateful he has not brought any cured venedolphin meat. My mother would not have been able to cope.
I don’t eat, but I keep him company at the table. I have been preparing for our lesson all morning while chewing on what the old man had said. On our way back, all three of us had been silent. My mind feels bogged down from trying to come up with the right questions to ask Clem. The right tone to ask them in. I still don’t know what these questions will be. So, I just sip my bitter tea and try to look as calm as possible.
“She doesn’t mean you,” I assure Selinos, who doesn’t seem to notice anyway and licks the last cheese crumbs off his fingers. He flashes a smile to my mother but I don’t think this is what he was going for. An indigo stream of juice dribbles down his chin and onto his yellow shirt. It ends up on the floorboards. That’s never a good sign.
Nevertheless I cup his small calloused hand in mine and say as confidently as I can manage, “Mother, this is Selinos, my friend.”
She laughs. It’s the first time I’ve seen Mother do that in a long time. She laughs and then coughs. She bends over and grabs her bony knees and then laughs some more. It is a strange kind of laughter, or maybe it’s me who finds it strange. It’s not a mean laughter, no. My mother would never be mean to me. On purpose.
But then Selinos starts to laugh with her, his laughter is more like a gurgle, it comes from a place deep inside his chest and slowly raises. More juice is dripping down the floorboards.
Soon the laughter dies down and we all look at each other deflated. “That’s good,” Mother says at last. “I will make you two some egg-honey.”
I stare at her as she quickly goes to the small corner that is our kitchen and heats up a pan. Soon the smell of egg-honey wafts around the house. Last time I had some I was half the size I am now and Melas was sitting right next to me. Then something changed. I wasn’t just sitting next to Melas anymore. I wasn’t one part of a pair. I was one of the sides. Melas was the central person of course, he always was. And on the other side was Pirros occupying that space at the table Selinos is sitting at now.
I shake my head slightly, chasing the memory away. The boy rests his elbows on the table and looks at Mother expectantly.
My mother acts strange. She knows this is a meat-eater boy. She knows all of our children and she has probably figured this out by now.
Most of all she was the one who said that venedolphin taming was not for me, the day Melas and Pirros carried me home drenched in sea water but shivering with fear. But not because of my fear, no. That, she could have made me push through if I she thought I was the right person for the job. And the right person is always a son. Melas. I was the one that had to follow in my mother’s footsteps. She made that clear. So after I made a half-hearted effort and beat myself up for failing there too, I picked up and left. And she let me leave even though she needed me. I must have been the worst apprentice.
Something in my stomach stirs. Is there more she isn’t telling me?
I glance at the boy who looks over at the pot, making himself more comfortable, and I approach Mother. Her attention is focused on stirring fiercely before the egg has a chance to overcook.
“Boy’s meant to be a fine tamer,” Mother says. A small smile still lingers on her face. “His grandpa can practically speak to them.”
She knows exactly who this boy is, and yet she doesn’t care.
“Spoke,” I correct her.
Mother nods and waves her arm around. “Yes, the incident. I forget.”
The egg-honey is almost done. I can tell by my watering mouth.
“Did you forget to tell me you and Melas are friendly with the Alimniots too?”
She shoots a look at me while she finishes up with the stirring. A look that would be more fitting if I were eleven years old again. Chiding and displeased.
“It’s you who forgets.” She lowers her voice for that bit. “That we and them have mixed our breaths quite a few times. It’s only natural.” She lifts the pot from the fire and looks around the old wooden cupboards and adds, “Since when did you become such a purist?”
Yes, I did know that. There have always been people who came close to each other despite the differences and the distrust between us. We came, after all, from the same group of colonists. But distrust is like a weed: it’s pretty damn hard to uproot. Especially when it’s been blooming for such a long time.
My mother takes a cup and pours the egg-honey inside, crushes some rusk and sesame on top, and sets it in front of the boy. Selinos takes the hot cup inside his hands and tries to sip the whole thing like juice.
“Easy,” she says. Then she comes back to me. I have not moved an inch.
“If you go an hour after the grazing the beasts will be full and easier to handle,” she advises.
I nod and shake a little for what’s about to come. It is all too much. My fear, her laughter, what my mother knows, what I don’t. I am suddenly more of an outsider than I ever thought I could be. But then she turns, takes my hand and squeezes hard enough to get my attention.
“Remember what you know,” she says. “Out there.”
Only, remembering what I know after making a years-long effort to forget seems almost impossible.
“Are you coming?”
Selinos stands in the water knee-deep and looks at me expectantly. I am a good ten feet behind him, taking a long, good look at the beasts in the distance. My muscles ache just at the thought of swimming that far, but the kid doesn’t share my limitations. His legs jitter, even underwater, spreading ripples all around him.
“I am old, kid,” I whisper to myself. But I think he hears me because he stops moving and relaxes, even slumps a little. “That’s better,” I say, trying to sound like I remember how to do this. “The venedolphins don’t like the shaky ones. You have to be calm but commanding like them. Otherwise they will squish you.”
He nods, turns around and looks at the sky. Even now in broad daylight a few stars are flickering, shy.
“I know,” he says. “Your brother told me, but I am slower now.”
From where I stand he is anything but slow, but my mind is wrapped around our imminent meeting with the venedolphins.
I take a few steps in the water, now waist deep in purple. We are still far away from them, still safe, but not for long.
“How did he pick you, my brother?” I ask, distracted by the coolness of the sea, the sun prickling my nape, the gentle bobbing of the beasts approaching us. That question lingered in my lips from another lifetime. But back then it would have been followed by, Why didn’t you pick me, you own sister.
“My grandfather asked him to,” he says casually.
I finally dive, not frantically like last time, penetrating the surface like a cannon ball, but slithering lightly underwater like a sea snake. I let the water carry me with its buoyancy, floating within and without. I circle the boy and emerge a few feet away from of him. He is still there staring up at the sky as if my brother is hiding somewhere between the sun and the stars.
“I didn’t care about the venedolphins,” he says to me. “Not until we became friends with Melas. All I wanted was to go up there.”
He points vaguely at the sky, at nothing in particular. His eyes gleam, dreamily.
“But if we all leave. What will happen to them?” He lowers his stare and looks at me, resolute. “So I decided I won’t go.”
I don’t want to spoil his fantasy. A very select few can afford leaving this place for another colony. The most rich or important. And that’s definitely not a woman who sleeps in a bunk bed in a hospital apartment and a boy from Nowhere Island.
“Perhaps one day, kid,” I say. “But you might want leave this place first.”
Selinos looks at me, bothered. His eyebrows kneaded together.
“I said I don’t want to go anymore.” He splashes the water with his arms. He looks offended at my persistence. “I am not like the others. If I asked to go I bet the alien would take me there.”
Clem. The others. These words have sharp edges and I’ve been cutting my mind on them ever since the old man spoke to me. I don’t recognize the names the man said but that doesn’t matter. I know almost none of the Alimniots—the ones I can recognize as Alimniots. My mother is right; we are them and they are us—and I half-remember many of our own on a good day. But I do know this: the old man really mourned for them, which means their fate couldn’t have been a good one at all. Which also means I am a terrible judge of character and a coward for not confronting Clem on the beach.
I remember what we are here for and a chill stretches in my bones. There is no rest for the wicked whichever way you see it. Selinos takes one look behind my back and smiles. I know what he is going to say. I recognize that smile from another face and another time.
“They are coming!”
Of course they are.
I turn around.
Slowly, they dance their way to us. Their moves are deliberate but calm. This is how they look from afar. Up close is another matter. They dig down the bottom of the sea and graze on algae, then return to the surface a few yards closer. My brother didn’t bother with a slow approach ritual, he just charged forward, because they knew him well, better than they did their own pups.
There was a time when I stood at the edge of the beach while our father took Melas to the colony for the first time, thinking it would be my turn soon. There was no fear in me then, just a kind of eagerness to be the next one. But then the days would go by and my father would never bring me to the colony, only Melas. I would get in his boat of course, but it would be to help him free the fish from the nets and toss them in the buckets or to take a boat ride close enough to see the Alimniot island, but no closer than that. Some bonding experience.
Perhaps it was then that something was seeded inside of me. Seeing Melas’s face glowing more every day from the progress he had made and me being stuck on the shore. The memory has the fraying edges of a dream now. But I remember the seed of doubt growing into the belief that maybe there was something they were protecting me from. Maybe only I was in danger from the venedolphins. After my accident, even though father had already died, I let Mother teach me for her own purposes. Because even though I knew everything Melas did—being so close to him and watching—I was already prepared for failure.
I dive in and take a handful of algae. The magenta blades slither in my hand, their suckers glue themselves on my fingers, searching for water on my skin. When they don’t find any they loosen and twitch one last time before they die. I clutch that handful of death and offer it to the boy.
“Stay calm,” I tell him. “Let them come to you.”
He nods. His body stiffens as if he shares my agitation. Perhaps I am the one making him nervous.
As he reaches to take the kelp, I take his hand and hold it. He looks at me surprised but doesn’t protest, doesn’t say a thing. We stay planted at that spot and let them approach. My skin feels clammy even underwater.
At last the matriarch reaches us first, and with her a wave that throws us back and threatens to tear us apart. I manage to hold on to him and keep perfectly still as two inky eyes scrutinize me and a muzzle sniffs and prods at my belly. The same female me and Pirros saw before. A warm mouth seizes the dead kelp from my shaking hand. I could reach out my hand and touch her ripe sac, perhaps it would fall off her face and into the water. I could catch it and bring it to Mother. But just as the thought comes to me I freeze, and then the moment is gone.
Above and beyond that, creatures with stone-hard skin quiver and float, expecting to be stroked a certain way. They flock around us like predatory animals that have just spotted their prey.
Selinos takes a look around and all the energy leaves his body. There is just too many of them around us. Soon there is that thick wall of mud and kelp and who-knows-what-else again. Just like two days ago. Only now it’s ten times thicker and nastier and he and I know exactly what’s hidden in it and how much of it there is. His arm clutches mine hard. The small body clings closer to me. I try to find his eyes but I can’t see him at all. I feel his fingers twitching and then his whole arm. Soon we’ll have to rise for a breath and I can’t risk the boy panicking and breaking free from me. Not now with the whole herd all around us. I understand him. His fear. I was him. I taught myself by observing and orbiting Melas, and then I underestimated my fear of them and almost died. I am still him. But that’s the good thing about being older. I can push against how unnerved I am, against my own panic.
The beasts keep coming. They approach us ever so slightly. The ripples of the water don’t lie. Neither does my instinct. Remember what you know, I tell myself. For some reason these words help. There is so much that I have forgotten leaving here, that I might never get back. Maybe some for the best. But remembering to remember is important. I realize the beasts want to be soothed by me. Maybe some of them do remember me after all these years, even when I don’t. Perhaps they can smell something of my brother on my skin. In any case I can lure them in one direction while I send the boy to another. He has had his share of underwater terror now. I doubt he’ll be careless again when he swims around them.
The boy’s hand is soft inside mine. Too soft. The panic settles on my neck and chest. My pulse booms in my ears. This time it’s not about me, but about him. I flail and pull and find his other hand to grab and propel both of us to the surface. I do it deliberately but gently, so they will let us pass. We brush against several of them on our way up and I hold Selinos close enough to know that he is pushing too. I feel my heartbeat slowing down.
We both gulp in air. The boy’s eyes are glassy with tears.
“Let them follow me,” I say when I can speak without panting again. “They are coming for me now.”
Selinos presses his lips together. Perhaps he feels a little ashamed for his fear but I don’t dare tell him it’s okay to be scared. The boy is so stubborn he might go the other way just to prove a point. I know I would.
“It’s okay,” he says at last, a tint of sadness in his voice. “You need to be alone with them to become a family. Melas would like that.”
Would he really? The sound of his name sits on my shoulders and pushes me downward. I remember Melas secretly enjoying being the only one in the family who could really talk to them. After Father died, that is. I remember Pirros being the next in an invisible line with me at its very end. Melas was never cruel to me, though, neither was Pirros. So maybe I don’t remember very well after all.
“Okay,” I say. “Listen.”
I feel them swimming underneath and I know I could put the soles of my feet on the back of one if I really wanted to. Perhaps it would let me ride it, wrap my arms around it like they did with Melas. But if it doesn’t, well. Then the boy will run out of teachers.
I don’t have much time left in Tafros. The funeral is tomorrow and soon I’ll have to go back. I can’t remember when I glanced at my BioChip last but even though it’s been quiet, I know it will start calling me again. And I’ll have to decide what to do.
“We will try again,” I say. “And this time you’ll feed them while I stroke them.” I can’t believe I am about to say this but I am still not very smart. “This time you can hide behind me. I’ll protect you.”
The boy starts beaming again, becoming his old animated self, and takes my hand. When we dive, for the first time in my life, there are no surprises. Soon, there is no fear either.
For the first time, I am in control.
Clem looks like he is struggling as he stirs the water with a dry vine. His back is turned to me and all I see as I come closer is a reflective rainbow. The sun is high up the sky which makes his back a headlight shooting straight for my eyes. But I know what I saw from afar. Here in the low tide, close to Mother’s house, is where I found the dead venedolphin two days ago.
“What the hell it is that you’re doing over there?” I yell. I want to shake him out of this. With my voice, with my fists.
The rainbow bounces up and down my eyes, and I raise a hand to shade them. I know exactly what he is looking for. And now I’ll find out why. I’ll find out all the whys I’ve been storing for him.
He finally turns around and his angle changes just enough for me to see him stumbling backwards, plunging his feet in the shallow water.
“Research,” he stammers.
“Research?” I take a few steps towards him. He takes a couple more back, leaning against his rod in the mud. “Is this what you’re telling yourself? Stealing venedolphin corpses and—where did you get that rod?”
“I paid for it,” he says, defensively. “I bought it from a Alimniot.”
“As if an Alimniot would sell you anything. I saw how they welcomed you last night.”
At that he falls silent. Then he takes the rod and tosses it in the water, as far as his leftover strength lets him. The rod is not light but it doesn’t sink and it doesn’t drift deeper in the gulf by the waves. It just gets carried away by some current and disappears behind an obsidian rock in the distance. Soon, I lose track of it.
“It’s useless anyway,” he says.
I can see the disappointment in his eyes, in the bent of his shoulders. I can’t feel sorry for him.
“You don’t get to do this here,” I say.
As if something has let loose inside of me. A knowledge that this man has the means to kill someone and make it look like an accident. I am furious at myself for never considering him enough of a threat for that. He has a way to find ink-poison, he has the money for it. So many of his kind are using it up there for their own purposes. Without care or respect.
He flinches. “Do what?”
“This body you’re looking for isn’t yours to take.”
I expect him to object; to use our own rituals against me. Because sure enough, a man like him, a scientist sent from the Council, sees us and our traditions as banal, outdated. Clem can easily point to the sea and say, What’s the difference? One body less for eating? That’s not much.
But he does not say that. Instead his face takes the saddest expression I have ever seen on him, even when he talks about my dead brother. He lets himself plop down onto the water and the sand.
“It’s all hopeless anyway,” he says again. And this time I don’t think he means the rod.
In a moment, the rainbow shine disappears completely. In its place there is a suit in an off-white color. It’s as if something sucked in all the air. You don’t really notice it until it’s not there anymore. But the only air that’s missing is around Clem. His breathing turns into a slow rasping and that’s when I realize he has turned off his suit.
“What are you doing?” I grab his shoulder to shake him out of it. “Turn that thing back on.” Whatever guilt he is carrying, I won’t let him pass it on to me.
He fixes his gaze on the sky.
“There isn’t much time. Perhaps a couple of hundred years or so. We are trying to make Freyja livable again, but the damage that has been done is just too much. We might have to move on.” He takes one long, unsteady breath. “The air here is so sweet.”
Freyja was always the dream for many of us, but there were rumors at the hospital. Whatever the Freyjans did to their world, it is said to have caused a major environmental catastrophe. The city of Alpha was completely industrialized. Factories built on top of factories. Manufacturing superstructures to make sure not an inch of space goes wasted. The climate had turned from temperate to subzero temperatures most of the year for the past fifty or so years.
Most of us don’t want to hear what’s happening in Freyja. To really listen. Because for many, that’s still the dream, even if we never get a chance to see it. And if their world is no longer perfect, what is there to look up to?
“Why did you really come here?” I finally say. And even though in my stomach there is this knot, this terrible feeling for what I am about to find out, it helps me feel lighter.
“I told you the truth,” he says without breaking eye contact with the sky, or perhaps a vision of Freyja in his own mind. “But there’s more.”
There’s sweat gathering on his brow. He is struggling with this world and with himself.
“Heavenly waters, can’t you turn your suit on first?”
“Whether we are to stay in Freyja or move on, we have to be made more resilient for whatever comes. Both our people barely survived this colonization. Imagine how impossible the next one will be.”
Both our people? He conveniently talks around the fact that’s my people that needed to adapt the most. We drew the short straw in this and it almost killed us. Almost.
As if reading my thoughts Clem glances at me. There’s a faint nod and a smile of acknowledgment on his face. His eyes are unfocused.
“You had it the worst of all the colonists. What you did here, how you survived this toxic planet, is what we are trying to study. Not just a bunch of sea beasts. Although they do play a big part in this. A very big part.”
More droplets on his brow. His forehead is a wet pin cushion.
“Turn the damn suit on.”
“But it wasn’t always that way,” Clem keeps talking as if he can’t hear me. Can he hear me? “There were people, researchers, who came here decades ago, when we could see this happening but it was too early. It wasn’t an official thing yet. And they took people.”
The others. The knot in my stomach twists tighter. All the lightness has left me.
“What for?” My voice comes out weak.
He takes one last long breath and turns on his suit. Perhaps to hide from me. Perhaps because he has reached the limits of his lungs with this pointless demonstration.
“Tests,” he says softly, the words almost swallowed up by his labored breathing. “They needed samples to study survival in extreme conditions.
There is a cold that’s drilling in my bones even though I feel the sunbeams at the crown of my head. What kinds of tests I want to ask, but this is a question I might never be ready for. What is say instead is this:
“How have I not heard of this?”
“They were Alimniots, a small group. They came willingly with what they knew at the time, so no authorities were involved. They even seemed happy to come and they live their life up there now. Or at least that’s what the scientists told us. I was just a kid back then.”
Of course they chose the most isolated of us to take. I guess the other Alimniots were not as happy to see their own leave, never to be seen again, even if they didn’t know the whole truth.
“You lied to them.”
I give in and sit down in the mud. Clem couldn’t have killed Melas. He couldn’t have taken the boat by himself all the way to the venedolphin colony, he wouldn’t know how to steer it around the rocks and the beasts, and I doubt any Alimniot would help him. They do remember and if they don’t, they talk to each other. Which brings me back to the beginning.
“When the Council found out it was a huge scandal back home. They had never asked for permission. They were questioned and discharged. It’s been two decades since anyone has heard a word from them. The Council itself was replaced and imposed new regulations. But we still need to find a way to help the people.”
He means his people of course. Because they are the only ones that matter to him.
“What about our people? What happened to them?”
He shakes his head that no, he doesn’t know.
“I was just a kid back then,” he repeats. As if this justifies everything. “And the Council is too powerful.”
So they probably wouldn’t want their own to know the whole story. So much for change. They still sent people here to study our world, so they can save themselves with some miracle biological shield. But no thought to spare on the people whose lives they stole. Their loved ones who got left behind. And of course not a word on taking anybody from Lethe to that new expedition.
Clem turns to look at me. His eyes are on fire with some idea inside his head. One that he can’t wait to share with me. He has left the shame behind him already.
“My team discovered some of their old files and came up with the hypothesis that it’s the venedolphins that adapted the fastest to this planet. Their bodies have learned how to repair themselves at double the speed. Even faster than humans.”
I can understand what he says even when he thinks he is too smart for me. The hospital’s library can provide plenty of company to a lonely woman from a far-off village. Except. I don’t want to. I don’t care what his hypothesis means and what he has to do to prove his worth to his bosses. I don’t care about the Council and their promises to fix everything the Freyjans have broken. And if they end up taking the long journey to another world and leave us behind? Well, good riddance.
I am sure that’s what my brother said too when he figured out what kind of research Clem was really doing. For once, I feel I am walking in Melas’s footsteps without missing a single beat, but I still can’t trace his killer.
I slowly get up without steadying myself on Clem. But, after I find my footing, I do touch him on the shoulder one last time. I do it with all the weight of my body and all the weight of the things I know. It’s a steady grip that tells him I am not bluffing. Tells him I am dead serious.
“If you steal any of the venedolphins, dead or alive, no Council will save you from us.”
My brother’s funeral tattoo is beautiful. On his shaved chest a perfect circle shows the beginning and the end of his life. In the first quadrant motifs that represent waves and fishes begin with his birth. A toddler splashes water by the seashore. These are made in yellow ink, made from venedolphins feeding off yellow algae.
Yellow is the color of birth. Of the sun climbing the filament of the sky in the dawn.
Further down, in the second quadrant, the waves become rough and bigger. A boat with sails that billow pushes trough the strong winds. That’s when a single venedolphin emerges from the depth of the sea, to guide the lonely fisherman. Deep red ink covers that part of the circle, the venedolphins that eat red algae and make the crimson ink-venom.
Red, the color of blood, the color of struggle and life.
The other half of the circle is devoted to my brother’s entrance to the sea heaven in his funeral boat. I see my father on the other side of the waters. He is swimming with the venedolphins and waving his arms at my brother. The venedolphins swim on both sides, our world and the heavenly world. I can’t tell if they are dead or alive, but they say venedolphins are the only creatures that know the way to the heavenly waters. On the other side, two figures cling tightly to each other, one is small and frail and old and the other one…the other one is me.
The tall figure towers above the smaller one like a giant and hugs her protectively. Just like I did the day I came. Even though I am not that tall. All four people are connected by a long line. This part of the circle is done with purple ink, from the depths of the purple sea.
Purple is the color of death but also the color of hope that lies hidden.
I focus on the task as I and Mother drape Melas’s body in shrouds. In the afternoon the villagers will come and take him away, lay his body inside his boat, and his journey will begin.
Both windows and the door of the house are agape to relieve some of the highly acidic smell that comes off the pup’s body. The blue-striped grapevine peers from the east window, it twists and turns all the way to the roof. Its thick arms are heavy with juice.
I don’t remember any of the other dead venedolphins smelling like that. The smell is spreading so fast in the little room it seems to be clinging to Melas’s body despite the heavily scented oils we massaged him with.
I try to convince my mother to bury the pup and even though she understands she wants to hear none of it. It is a sign, she says. She has never heard of anyone having a venedolphin as a companion in death. It is a good sign.
There is calmness all around the house. Mother and I have found a rhythm around and with each other and even enjoy each other’s company. Almost like we did so many years ago. Before my failed attempts to be her successor.
I take a seat outside on the porch, right next to Mother, as we wait for the people to come. The sun starts to climb down from the horizon and the world looks like a bright purple bruise. Purple seeps into everything. Especially into the shadows.
Mother is dressed in the best clothes she owns. Usually her clothes are bare and practical. Not this. This is a red, lace-trimmed dress she has had since forever. Her best black silk scarf is wrapped around her hair. All the jewelry she owns, she carries on her neck, ears, and wrists. She looks as if she is going to attend her wedding all over again. I look almost insulting in my linen pants and dress shirt. These are the best clothes I own. I should have bought something better before I left Omega, but I wasn’t thinking straight.
I try to remember what she wore to my father’s funeral and I am certain it wasn’t this. She was much younger then and the last death-tattooist this village had. Sometimes a village’s whispers can be a very powerful thing, even for someone like my mother. But nobody can stop her now from bidding goodbye to her son and celebrating his afterlife. The older one gets, the less they care about what others think.
A faint smile appears on her lips when I sit by her, but under all the finery I can see how much older she has gotten in the few days since I came.
She takes a sip of her grape tea and glances at me.
“When are you leaving?” she asks. Her voice is relaxed, casual. Like nothing has changed between us this time. But I can feel that it has.
Then I remember the message flashing on my BioChip as we were preparing Melas for his journey. A message asking me when I will be coming back. I tried to hide my wrist but my mother always sees more than she lets on.
Is she really so keen on me leaving?
“You know, you could take another apprentice,” I say, carefully. “One of my younger cousins. I’ll help you pick.”
My mother had always been convinced that I was the only person fit for this job. And when she drove me away to Omega, that was a kind of death for her. The death of her craft.
She considers my words for a few moments. If she is happy or upset I can’t tell. She is back again, that version of my mother that’s a riddle even for me.
“I don’t see why that Alimniot woman can’t do it.”
She is talking about Damara. This throws me off balance. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. It’s clear she doesn’t share the same hang-ups as some of the villagers.
But this one; this hurts a lot. Damara doesn’t fit my mother’s idea of how a tattooist should be. So why should I?
“This will give you time to train your apprentice and yourself for the taming. If you choose to stay and do so.”
I must look stunned because she takes my hand in hers. Her fingers are short but delicate. The skin of her palm is cracked.
“Stay with me,” she says.
Her eyes take on a strange glimmer. Tears too shy to come out? Or perhaps her eyes have gone dry with time like her hands, and it’s difficult for them to do as she commands.
“I thought you wanted me gone,” I jab at her. “You practically sent me away.”
As the purple shadows slowly grow into black, little lights appear in the distance, on the far side of the beach. It’s the procession of people, coming to take my brother away. The lights are torches showing the path through the night on land, like the venedolphins show the path in the water. They bob in the half-darkness with the movement of the bodies and their shadows stretch so far into the sea as if to reach Alimnia.
Mother rests her tea on the coffee table and turns to me.
“You see the shadows growing bigger and bigger until the night falls? Without the moon and the stars, or these lights over there, we would not see anything. Not even each other, even though we sit so close.”
I tilt my head trying to understand what she means. If this is supposed to be some kind of analogy I am completely lost.
“Am I the moon or—?”
“No. You are you. And you cast a shadow. When you were little you cast such a small and frightened shadow I was worried I would lose you and never find you again.”
The glimmer in my mother’s eyes grows brighter even as the light dwindles. Then some of it falls on her right cheek and she touches it with her small fingers as if she doesn’t believe it’s there. It’s the second time I’ve seen tears on her face since we met again. And this time I know it’s for me.
“I made you help me take you away from the bigger shadow that could swallow you with its stubbornness,” she continues. “But it wasn’t enough. It was still too strong, too long. I could still reach you. You had to go farther.”
She smiles that faint smile again. There is a hint of mischief in there that I haven’t noticed before.
“Was Melas’s shadow that big? He was a kid himself.”
“No, not Melas,” she corrects me. “Your father.”
It’s almost dark now. The small lights have come closer but there is still a long way until they reach us. For now I am suspended between the world I thought I knew and a new one. A world where my mother has always had a plan for me but also a duty and for her to do both, she had to hide a lot of herself. A world of quiet love.
I stretch my arm and wrap it around her bony shoulders, just like the first day. Just as she drew it herself on my brother’s body. The wetness on her cheek is gone now, but the smile lingers.
“Tell me,” she says. “Tell me about life outside of Tafros.”
And I tell her everything. I tell her about the city of Omega and its people, about the small narrow bunk beds of the hospital and the big library perched on the rooftop. She listens and she asks questions, she jokes about my co-workers and even the aliens. She tells me her own stories from the time I was away. Who died and who almost died. Who was born and what path their lives will take.
This is a version of my mother I didn’t know existed until now. It’s one I want to keep with me forever. And my mind’s eye leaves my body for a little while and hovers above us and in the distance. It takes in the image of two women, a mother and a daughter, sitting on their porch on a hot afternoon dressed in all their splendor. Chatting and laughing as if the people approaching their house from afar, men and women, are not there to take away the body of a loved one, but to celebrate with them this perfectly ordinary day that the two of them finally found each other.
Pirros is the first to emerge from the darkness. He holds the leading torch and guides the others. He also is the first one to go inside the house and the first one to come out; my brother’s upper body hoisted over his right shoulder. But he always stays behind my mother and me, bowing his head and crouching to make himself small, like he did a long time ago. This is our day more than it is his and he knows this. Yet his sadness is clear. There is a darkness over his face, like a lingering shadow. My mother pats his head, kisses his forehead, and lets him and the others lift Melas on their shoulders and share the weight. The last of them takes the venedolphin’s body.
Now it’s my turn to choose where I will join them. Which part will be my burden tonight? I chose the legs because being last feels like being hidden in plain view and on a day like this everyone is watching us.
When we reach the beach—after a long and tenuous barefoot walk on sharp and round pebbles—we lay his body on the hull. We put the venedolphin’s corpse at the bow so it will lead the way and unfurl the sails.
There are many familiar faces on the beach tonight.
My brother’s last journey has brought together people whose faces I can barely trace in some distant past. And when I do trace them I am certain many of them don’t speak to each other. Yet, they close together on this beach drinking and eating from the longest funeral table I have ever seen in our village. Like old friends. Everyone has brought something. A plate of seasoned nuts, or cured jellyfish, spicy wine or pavofig juice.
That’s how loved Melas was across the gulf.
Mother sits on a stonebark chair set on the beach just for her. There is another one for me but I am not ready yet to face the crowd sharing stories with my mother, laughing and crying.
Between the mismatched crowds of people I spy Clem, keeping to himself and standing as far away as possible.
A song picks up from somewhere behind me. Someone is strumming a guitar softly.
I walk to Clem, my cheeks flushing. I don’t want him here. Not because I am angry—I am way past anger now. But I have trusted him, even if for a little while, even if not fully. I was about to give him the venedolphin. I brought him to my mother’s house and let him see my dead brother’s body. What if the others find out everything? Although the Alimniots already know all of it. I will be the fool.
For a moment I am a little girl again, full of fear and doubt. I know more now but I remember how it feels when your voice is not heard by your own people. I can’t let this happen again. Especially not here and not now.
“I am sorry,” Clem says the moment I approach. I haven’t said anything yet, but he is already turning around. As if my presence scares him. “I was about to leave.”
He lifts a small basket made from pavofig tree fronds. He has brought me a gift. Inside, wrapped in dried leaves, is a glass bottle of bubbling purple juice. It’s what the Alimniots drink.
“Take it,” he says. “Your brother gave it to me but I couldn’t drink it for obvious reasons.” He gives me a half-smile. “I shouldn’t have it.”
“Can’t,” I say, reaching out my hand to stop him. He looks confused. “My mother would notice. Why have you come here?”
Did he really care for my brother? After his lies, I can’t stop doubting everything.
“Just to say goodbye.” He keeps his head down, not meeting my eyes. “I leave for Omega tomorrow and at the end of the month we journey back to Freyja. It was always a time-sensitive operation.”
Of course it was. I wonder how much worth the Council, or whoever else was sponsoring this, put on this research expedition. Interplanetary journey is impossible for us but it’s not cheap for Freyjans either.
“When you go back home you should look for answers.” I barely say the words but he hears me. He knows what kind of answers I mean even if he doesn’t say anything back as he leaves.
Like a cloud scattering, I notice things around me again.
Music. Crying. Laughing. Someone’s speaking in a low voice.
I turn around, afraid that she might have seen us, but she is absorbed talking to Pirros. He is the one whispering something to her and she nods and sends him away. The people around them are all different degrees of drunk. Pirros leaves my mother’s side before I get there.
There is another sound echoing in the distance, trapped between the water and the obsidian stones. Guttural and booming. The sound of venedolphins mourning and approaching the beach.
It will be time soon.
There is a baglama now too playing alongside the guitar, and a few people sing. One of them is my mother. When I finally sit next to her she is still humming, letting her voice trail at the last few notes.
The people who were carrying Melas’s body are gathering around the boat now. Those who wear dresses have taken them off or wrapped them high around their waist. A heavy cloth like that is hard to carry when it’s soaked. The ones who wear pants or shorts just jump in the water without a second thought.
It’s time for my brother to leave and they are all getting ready to push the vessel away, with just the strength of their arms. Then the main current of the gulf will pick up from there like it always does. It’s a kind of magic thing. A fisher has to watch their route when they are out tossing their nets, else their boat might hit a rock or anger a venedolphin and then things don’t end well.
But when a funeral boat is pushed in the waters it follows a certain kind of course or current that a boat with a live person inside can’t trace. It moves as if it has a will on its own or, as the people here say, the venedolphins guide it around the stones in the course to the divine waters. The problem with this theory is that the venedolphins are not always in the gulf. They only come for the season and then they disappear to whatever their hibernation place is. People die year-round. Yet, people here still believe they lead every boat, whether they are seen or unseen.
Pirros stands thigh-deep in the water behind the stern. His arms outstretched, steadying the untethered boat and himself. He glances at my mother, waiting for her signal to free it in the deep water, and everyone else around the vessel glances at him. Once my mother nods they will act as one, perfectly synchronized. Most of them have done this more than once before.
There is something else in there. It swims in the water but further away. A small head is bobbing where venedolphins wait, although it’s moving closer slowly and discreetly. I don’t need much more to know it is Selinos. He probably swam all the way here, which explains why Damara and her father are not among the people on this beach. They wanted to mourn my brother in their own way. But the boy is too stubborn to be told what to do or even how to mourn. So, here he is.
My mother, still half-lost in her own thoughts, is not ready to part ways with my brother. Not just yet. She looks at me through glassy eyes, lowers her head close and whispers, “Are you still looking for the killer, Themis?”
So that’s what Pirros was doing before. He warned my mother about my search. But even if I asked him to keep it quiet would he listen to me? When he was in need of a family and a mother, she provided for him. He feels as much her son as me and my brother.
“I cast my own shadow now,” I tell her, hoping that after our talk she will understand. Or at least she won’t feel too betrayed.
“I am sorry,” she says. She barely says the words, more like breathes them out. “I shouldn’t have tried to stop you. He is your brother. You did the right thing.”
My whole body deflates. I didn’t expect those words to come out of her mouth, but now that they did I know I’ve needed them.
“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you.” It’s the closest I can get to I love you.
She turns her head abruptly and waves at Pirros.
“Now!” She yells. Her voices comes out coarse and tired.
Pirros nods and grabs the boat with a different grip. The others do the same.
“Wait!” I say. “I want to do it.”
My mother frowns at me.
We are not supposed to be in the water. As blood relatives, me and Mother, we are supposed to sit on the beach and look at the boat follow its course. It’s both an honorific position and a superstition deeply rooted in the ways of my people. If you share the same blood with the dead and touch the heavenly waters during the funeral there is a chance that Phorcys will not be able to tell who is meant for the great journey and take both of you.
It’s very bad luck.
I get up and run in the water anyway. Pirros has let his grip of the boat and stares at me confused.
“Do you want to die?” he asks.
There have been people who have done this transgression before. It was because they wanted to follow the loved one to the other side. Their grief seemed too unbearable at the time. But I don’t. I want to see my brother off and not doing so seems unthinkable. No matter all the bad luck in the world.
I turn and look at my mother. She looks displeased and alert. What I did made her snap back from her own grief. But she nods and lifts a glass of wine at us.
Pirros looks at me a moment longer, as if to make sure I know what I am doing.
“Headstrong family, the lot of you.” He shakes his head but grabs the boat the same way he had before I interrupted him and shows me how to do it. When every one of us is ready Pirros gives the signal. What comes out of my chest when I push sounds like a howl, my last goodbye to Melas. A feeling that can’t fit in words.
The boat appears to drift for a moment, aimless. But after it glides over the first few waves it finds its way. The current draws the vessel like a vortex, an invisible captain stirring it left and right, slow and fast, over calm and rough waves.
The water and the sky become one, the border that made them separate gone. They are now a mirror of each other. My brother doesn’t seem to float anymore, he levitates. As if he and the pup are leaving our world towards Freyja or one of the other worlds. But I know if my brother were to travel outside from here, in another place and another time, that would be the old world: Genesis. In the Mediterranean he would meet the ancestors of the venedolphins, the primal creatures our own ancestors loved enough to carry all this way, even if they were no livestock to them.
The venedolphins silently follow behind the boat. Immune to the tricks of light and shadow, the way out of the gulf feels as natural to them as their own skin.
Once the boat vanishes behind immense rocks and just as big bodies the spell loses its grip on me and I remember Mother. I turn around to see her sitting as still as the Fisher’s statue, the force she always carries around herself gone. I return to my seat and drop like lead next to my mother. I let her for once be frail and show it.
“It’s okay.” I pat her hand. She doesn’t listen, just stares at the vastness of the water that might also be the sky.
The people from the boat ritual have returned to their eating and drinking and low conversations. Everyone hovers around us but not too close anymore. They leave us mercifully alone.
I peer in the water for the boy, hoping he didn’t do anything stupid, like follow the venedolphins to wherever they were going. For a moment I think he is gone. I shiver at the thought of finding his body crashed somewhere between Alimnia and the gulf, and then having to tell Damara and her father about it.
But he is here, in fact more here than before. He has approached the shore, not minding all the people who might send him away. He hasn’t come to me. Instead, his little body, half out of the water is turned to Pirros.
The boy is trying to say something but Pirros turns his back at him, ignores the boy. I tell myself that the boy is not my problem right now, not tonight, but Pirros tries to get as far away from him as possible.
That nagging feeling comes back again. Pirros and the boy must have known each other well since Melas was training them both as venedolphin tamers, yet I haven’t seen them close to each other. In fact never heard the one mention the other at all. And why would Pirros agree to be trained alongside Selinos? He hates Alimniots. But the boy doesn’t seem to hate him back. Or even fear him. Quite the opposite.
When Pirros is far away, I go and stand close to the boy who is knee deep in the water now. I need to know something.
Selinos came here for the funeral, for that I am sure. But there was another reason too. Because when he sees me he does a double take, as if he has forgotten why I am here.
I smile a tired smile to calm the boy. It’s okay, my smile says. You can tell me things. You’ve been telling me things all week. What’s one more thing to tell?
The boy relaxes. I crouch in front of him, making sure Pirros is not around. Then I look him in the eyes and ask in the calmest way I can muster.
“Is Pirros your friend?”
The boy blinks a few times, as if I asked the weirdest thing. Then he shakes his head.
“He is my uncle,” he says. “I came to say goodbye.”
“How?” My heart beats so loudly, I can’t hear anything other than my pulse and the boy.
Selinos looks at me confused, as if I ought to know this. “My great-aunt, Faroma, was his mom.”
We are them and they are us.
There was a time where I stood at the edge of a beach. This beach. Left to wait while father turned Melas into a tamer. Then waited some more while Melas and Pirros swam together without the kind of fear that made people like me too cautious to be fun. This is the dream of a childhood memory, a little bit more than a smudge now. But I am sure this is the right spot. Here, in the low tide. The sun is blazing hot.
I stop on the same spot I found the pup, winded. This time there’s no sand in my mouth. I took Mother home and stayed with her until the morning hours. Remembering what I know. I left at first light, hoping Mother was sleeping deep enough.
I didn’t always wait for them here. We also played together on the beach, away from the beasts that haunted my dreams. Melas and Pirros were never cruel to me. They were just kids. But this wasn’t exactly the place where we used to play. It was close by but not here. This place is full of sand and seaweed.
I concentrate harder.
There were pools, small water puddles. That’s where we played. Water and sand got trapped in the holes after the high tide. But they weren’t on the beach. There was a cave around here, hidden behind rocks. We had to get in the water to reach it.
I look around; try to find the small current that pulled Clem’s rod away. There is a path between a cluster of gleaming black rocks, a strip of shore that is cut and then resumes beyond the water. If you didn’t look for it, there was no way to see it. There were other children playing around here too. But we went deep, deep enough that Pirros’s tormentors could not reach us. Before I even squeeze myself between the rocks, the acidity taints the air around me.
I make the rest of my way sidestepping, trying not to be heard, no pebbles creaking underfoot, no water splashing. The whole time I pray to the Eternal Fisherman that what I expect to see isn’t there. There are multiple caves here and more showing when the tide is low, like it is now. Caves within caves and slopes leading to more holes in the porous rocks of the beach in a similar fashion as Alimnia but not as safe. Maybe a couple of children died here a long time ago. Too long to remember.
The ingress is on ground level and around a meter and a half wide. When the tide is high the cave becomes invisible and even more dangerous. The cavity I remember isn’t very big to my adult eyes. It mustn’t be more than eight meters long.
I peer though one of the smaller holes to the other side of the beach. The most hidden side. A boat with chipped red paint and a motor is anchored at the end of the land strip.
I need to keep moving. I need to see this for myself.
There is a small tunnel-like dent in one of the walls. Large enough to fit me if I hunch but I don’t think I have been in here before. But then again you can never be sure with the past.
In the back of the cave a dozen of the ink sacs are stored inside a fish trap that’s itself chained directly on the wall. So that the tide can’t carry it away. Most of the ink sacs are small, annual or biannual. So many young ones killed.
A grunt. A stabbing sound. Then another grunt.
There is a gaping hole in the roof from which defused light comes in. Below it, Pirros toils over a dark bulk. He has only a worn pair of pants on and neon-green polymer gloves to protect him from the venom as he tries to slice a sac from a pup not much bigger than the one I found. Its webbed hands hang limp from the sides of its torso but it must be still conscious.
His back muscles bulge as he hauls the heavy body of the venedolphin.
I want to step back and run away but I am as paralyzed as the pup under the poacher’s knife.
The stench that permeates everything is the fishing toxin. It comes from the blue-striped grapevine. I should have known instantly what was that smell on him, but I didn’t. Too preoccupied with the venedolphins and Mother to think.
When my brother was paralyzed by the toxin, unable to stop Pirros from injecting the ink-venom, did he watch as his best friend was killing him?
There are a few moments of agonizing silence where I try to convince my feet to move. There is a gurgling sound and the wounded animal writhes, as the blade starts cutting, and then a shrill. Pirros becomes stone still and it isn’t until too late that I realize the shrill came from me. It echoes in the gullies and the walls of the cave and comes back to me ten times louder.
He turns around and for a moment my heart stops but he just smiles at me and something inside of me shrinks. His feet are covered in seaweed and blotches of dark blood.
He looks serene, sad to see me. But I am not sure he is sad on his behalf.
“Such a headstrong family,” he sighs.
“The acidity,” I say, because my mind goes empty. “You stink of grapevine juice.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “You understand, right?”
I do understand.
We came from the same line of colonists. The Alimniots and we. We are no different. Both of us got the short end of the stick and still survived here, where everything tries to kill you. We changed, and our food changed, and our animals changed. But it was still not enough.
He nods, sure of it. He drops the venedolphin with a thud and takes a few steps towards me. I glance around. If I run he is going to catch me. There is nowhere to go.
“Look at this,” he gestures at the cave, at the walls, at the pup. “It’s all so crude, Themis. No wonder Faroma left.”
He can’t even call her “mother.”
We and the Alimniots split. But our breaths are still weaved together. If you marry an Alimniot, what does that make you? We become them and they become us. Pirros’s father, a villager, became the islander who was banished for poaching and his mother… well. She was the reason he became one in the first place.
And Pirros? Nobody asked what will become of him.
“I have a lot of money now.” He kicks at the fish trap. The wounded pup whimpers in the back. “We can leave together.”
“There’s a ship leaving for Freyja in a month,” he says. “The researchers will be in it. My friends in Petra can help us. We can hide there until it’s time.”
This was his real fishing job then.
He must have been doing this for a while. He really is rich. That is if he finds the right people at Omega. But Clem’s arrival must have made him hurry up. It was a time-sensitive operation after all. Another ship would leave again soon. No time to be trained as a tamer anymore.
I wonder how long it took my brother to realize what made Pirros so busy before he confronted him. Or perhaps he was too distracted with Selinos and Clem to notice and Pirros just took him out as a safety precaution.
Pirros bares his teeth in joy and stares through the hole in the roof.
“Up there,” he points his knife at the sky. “We can live better than this.”
I don’t know what he wants with me. Does he want me to let my guard down or is this a bribe for killing Melas?
Pirros lowers his eyes and looks straight at me. Dead serious.
“We can still find her.”
I shudder, trying to shake the feeling that somehow I am complicit in all of this.
He leaps towards me and I run through the low opening into the sea. When water reaches up to my thighs I take a last look at him. He is already outside from another opening, climbing in his boat. I take a deep breath and dive. The colony is too far away from here but I have no choice than to swim and to hope.
I hear Pirros splitting the water with his old boat and his new motor, catching up to me. I close my eyes and swim as hard as I can, like my brother did when the venedolphins arrived in our gulf.
The spot where the venedolphins gather is barely visible. Their massive bodies hide underwater but their snouts poke out from time to time. They are still too far away. If I could reach them, it would be harder for Pirros to follow me.
I clench my teeth and try harder. Pain like gravel grinds my lungs.
I am not as fast as I used to be.
A net encases me with the weight of its bobbers. It pushes me underwater. Sweet and acidic smells burrow into my nostrils. I struggle to keep my nose and mouth above water but my body is numbing. Water and seaweed force themselves down my throat.
The hull of the boat sails right past my head. It stops between me and the sea. As I fight with the one arm I can still use, I see Pirros’s outline, dark against the sun. He is balancing on the bow brandishing something that looks like an oar.
No needle this time.
A shadow emerges behind the boat and the sky goes dark.
Everything from my neck down is paralyzed, I can barely lift my chest to breathe. Is it really the toxin or is part of it my panic? I latch onto the edge of the bow with the arm I can still feel and drag the rest of my netted body closer to the boat. My only chance, my dinghy.
I search around, against the sun, frantic. Nothing. Why isn’t he hitting me? He must think I am already sinking.
But when I lift my head, as much as the toxin lets me, I see him grapple with the oar. No, not the oar. Something else. He swings back and forth and the boat rocks and as I lose my grip, I gasp for breath again.
The world buzzes through me. Hot coals in my lungs.
With what’s left of my strength I try to grasp the bow again and I manage it. But what I’m feeling is not wood. It is tough, leathery skin and bumps like bones underneath.
It’s a foot and I know who it belongs too.
My body feels heavier than gravity and my neck and arm are not enough to keep me afloat. It feels like my lungs are being crushed under the weight of a venedolphin. I will sink soon along with this net and become fish food. Follow my brother’s footsteps. But before this happens I snake my arm around Pirros’s foot as best as I can and keep my grip firm.
He is fighting me but he is not fighting hard. He is distracted, fighting something else too.
I look down at the purple depths fading to black and take a last long breath.
And then I pull him.
And I sink.
I spew seaweed and water and sand and everything I ate in the last few days. Then I breathe in hungrily all the air my mouth can swallow.
For a while all I can see is red. Then just shapes, and although I am still dizzy and my guts want to spill out, I know that the great dark shape that sloshes in the water in front of me isn’t a rock.
I fight the urge to crawl into a tight ball. I reach out a hand to her.
Her snout is warm and lumpy and it quivers under my touch.
“Thank you,” I croak.
She replies with a whimper. I can make out her eyes now, her face. She is the size of three fishing boats put together. But under my hands she is calm and kind. Like meeting an old friend.
Suddenly, she pulls her torso upright and I recoil. She twists her neck and shakes her whole upper body until her fat ripe ink sac flies off her face and plops on the wet sand.
A gift. For me. For Melas. For my mother’s promise.
She turns her body around swiftly and disappears under the violet, leaving but gentle ripples behind her.
The sun is high on the horizon when she dives in the purple waves. People will gather on the beach, push the boats in the waters, and start another day.
My body is a rubber doll, slowly coming back to life. I stretch and do my best to stand on my own. Mother needs me and I plan to be there for her.
And perhaps, much later, tattoo the rest of her small, wrinkled body, with my needles and inks.
I scan the beach; there is no sign of Pirros’s body. The caves are quiet now, full of sacs and dead bodies. I will have to show to the village what Pirros, one of our own, has done. To Mother too.
I take the sac in my hands and drag my legs on the lumpy sand. I silently thank the beasts. Thank them with each new breath.
Their dark shapes are restless under the afternoon sky. They swim closer than I’ve ever seen them before. Soon, they will begin their journey and leave our gulf for the season.
But I’ll be here next year.
(Editors’ Note: Eugenia Triantafyllou is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Eugenia Triantafyllou