I find Aleda’s scale, sticky with ichor, tucked between the tentacles of our pink anemone bed. I tweeze it out from the undulating appendages with my thumb and index finger and flounder against my escalating heart rate.
Aleda’s swishing back and forth, getting ready for work near the mouth of our cave. It’s time for her to catch the current to the school where she teaches merlets the whisper of the sea.
“I love those ‘mussel heads’,” she’ll say when she returns and rests her hands on my shoulder later tonight. I’ll swivel around and squeeze her so close a longing will bloom in my chest. Except this time, the need won’t fade with the dwindling evening. It will deepen like a cavern and devour me.
I should call out; show her the errant piece of her body that signals the end of our days together before she’s off to the currents.
Let’s have this last carefree day.
The thought crests and seals my mouth mollusk tight. When she’s gone, I pretend it’s the cold moment she’s left forever and let desolation creep over me like the shadow of a shark.
• • • •
“I found this on the bed.” The scale glints like nacre in my fingers.
“Whose is it?” Aleda asks. There’s a hook in her voice. She knows my scales are octagonal, not tear drop shaped like hers. I want it to be mine. I don’t want to be the one left behind.
She runs her hands over the curves of her chest and across her hips, searching. The remembrance of those intimate arcs under my own palms sends an electric wave through me.
“I can’t find where it’s from, Raya,” she says. Her eyes flood with uncertainty. She gulps a mouth full of water and filters it through her gills. I swim behind her, brush my hands across her knotted shoulder muscles and down the center of her back. How often have I ached to touch her like this, even after a night tangled in each other’s fins? I don’t want to find her bare flesh; acknowledge the change brewing within her and between us.
“It’s here.” I constrain the ripple in my voice and guide her hand above her left hip. She probes the soft outline of the missing scale with her fingertip. She flinches.
“Does it hurt?” I put my arms around her and bury my face in her neck. A scale dislodges from her shoulder and spirals to the sandy floor.
She presses against me. “No.”
• • • •
Bioluminescent dinoflagellates fill the cavern in Mother Mer’s cave where she and the Council of Aunties examine Aleda. The flagellates’ glow illuminates the places on Aleda’s body where her scales have sloughed off. She’s lost so many since we discovered the first. The Aunties twist and turn Aleda for some time before they send us out of the room so they can confer in private. Aleda floats next to me, hands clasped in front of her as we wait for them to speak to us. A coral sharp glint has replaced the dismay in her eyes.
Mother Mer comes to us. Miniature sea stars spangle her body in an intricate spiral pattern signifying her leadership of the complex. Her scales between them are lustrous in defiance of her wisdom and age. The expression in her eyes is fractured like a broken shell. She wastes no time.
“It’s Apolépisi, Aleda. We are sure of it.” She pauses, letting the gravity of her words settle.
“What’s going to happen?” Aleda unclasps her hands as if to embrace the answer she’s about to be given.
“You will lose all your scales. Your fins will detach and your tail will separate into appendages.” Mother Mer glances at me. “Slowly your gills will close. You will drown if you don’t leave the water.” I suck in sharply, cognizant of how effortless it is for me to breathe. Aleda doesn’t miss a beat. The last time a member of the complex went through the transformation, she and I were merlets.
“How long do I have?” The question, so precise and without a hint of fear, stings me.
“Until the cool currents arrive,” Mother Mer answers. “We can prolong your time with medicinal mixtures the Aunties can grind by hand, but it will be painful. You body is naturally-”
“I don’t want to prolong anything painful.” Aleda’s hands ball into fists. “I don’t want to fight who I am.”
No. No. You must do all you can to stay with me as long as possible, I want to cry. I strain against the desperation erupting inside me. But this is not about me. It’s about her and what she wants and needs. A bubble escapes my lips. It drifts away from us. I imagine it filled with the life I’d planned.
It bursts, leaving nothing behind.
• • • •
“How’d they take it?” Aleda’s home from telling the merlets she won’t be their regular teacher anymore.
“Well.” She smiles. “I told the mussel heads they’d see me again before I had to leave the water.” Her hands are swaddled with seaweed to hide the skin the school council deemed inappropriate to leave exposed. There are shallow ruts on her stomach and arms where new scales have loosened. They are the exact size and shape of tiny webbed fingers.
“You let them hug you?” I can’t quell the disapproval in my voice.
“Why wouldn’t I?” She reaches for my arm and I pull away. Hurt flickers in her eyes. “You don’t want me to touch you?”
I shake my head, unsure of whether I’m saying yes or no. She steadies my face in her hands and kisses me. My head spins in the rush of want and I forget that each time we touch, I lose a part of her.
Guilt surges back when she eases away to get ready for dinner. Two of her scales have come off on the inside of my bottom lip. I press them to the roof of my mouth with my tongue, savouring their sweetness. I want to hold all of her inside me: her laugh, her confidence, the mischievous look in her eye, her temper. I can’t contain her, nothing can, not even her current physical body. I let the scales pass through my gills and join her to eat.
• • • •
“I want to go to the Cayman Trench,” she says a few days later.
“Why?” I dam the word no inside my mouth.
“It’s the deepest place I know and it’s warm.”
“We should ask Mother Mer and the Aunties if it’s okay.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? We get separated and never see each other again?” There’s a dark smile on her lips beckoning me to laugh.
“We’ll go,” I say, ignoring it.
• • • •
We catch the circular stream down to the trench. Large patches of Aleda’s scales have flaked away, exposing growing islands of smooth brown skin. An archipelago of it delves below her hip line, revealing the base of a cleft where her tail is separating into limbs. I’ve covered the flesh the best I can with grasses but it isn’t enough to stop other Mer from twisting their faces at the scale-less stretches on her stomach and chest.
““What happened to you?” A merlet asks at a dive where we stop to eat.
“I’m ascending,” she says. A smile eases the bluntness of her confession.
“I’m sorry he’s bothering you.” The merlet’s mother intervenes before the child can respond.
“He isn’t,” Aleda says. “It’s a relief to have someone see me.” The merlet’s mother nods curtly and hurries her child out of the dive.
• • • •
The Cayman Trough looms below us, its jagged walls ripping the ocean floor in two. Each year the canyon widens. In time, these walls will drift so far apart that, visually, there will be nothing left to connect them. Tourists dot its length, exploring its arches and hidden caves. The mood here is light and inquisitive. The trench is a fun family outing. Aleda swims ahead of me. I straggle behind, running my fingers along the layered shelves that make up the walls. They’re covered with weeds, stars, and jewel toned creatures. It’s a trove of curiosities. Why didn’t we visit before our time was limited?
A hitch develops in Aleda’s tail as if she’s cramping. I catch up to her.
“I can’t hold myself together,” she whispers. I check underneath the grasses wrapped just below her hips. A fault mimicking the crevasse we’re in has split the top half of her tail. A sheet of now translucent scales has separated and glides on ichor between my fingers and her flesh underneath.
“We need to go back now.” I begin rewrapping her.
“No.” She grabs my hands and squeezes my wrists. “I’ll go down without you if I have to,” she says. Her stare lances through to the core of me.
I bite my lip and gather more grass to bind her together as tightly as I can. Other Mer make their way around us, grumbling about our blocking their way. How much time have we lost together because of her stubborn insistence on this trip? Would her tail have come apart so quickly if we’d avoided the currents? I douse my bitter thoughts and help her down. We find an alcove in one of the walls when we finally reach the bottom and look up at the dim light filtering down to us.
“I want to stay with you ’til the last moment,” she says.
“I don’t want to watch you drown.” I can’t break the flow of words sloshing up my throat. “I wish you’d slow down.” I look away, not wanting to let her see my lost composure. “Aren’t you afraid?” I add, trying to refocus on her.
“No,” she says. “I don’t think about what’s beyond the water.” She holds my hand. “Here, I’m the farthest away from the surface where I’ll leave you. I wanted to know what that felt like.”
I turn back to her and kiss her temple. Scales scatter in the wake of my lips. For the first time I don’t count them.
• • • •
“What happens above the water?” I ask Mother Mer when I visit her to collect a balm for Aleda’s raw skin. Her tail has disintegrated and the flesh between the new appendages is delicate and irritated. Two of her gills have closed making it difficult for her to breathe. She can’t remain below with us much longer.
“The surface is a skin between our world and another. No one has left and returned.” Mother Mer’s face is thoughtful. “We have seen ghosts of those who’ve ascended peering down at us in the place where they’ve left. They remember, Raya, just like we do.”
“Will it feel like a death? Will it be like when we put pearls on our deceased’s closed eyes and lay them with kelp laurels on the seabed? Will I dream of her?” Mother Mer places the balm in my hands.
“It’s a reincarnation,” she whispers.
• • • •
I rub the balm on Aleda’s appendages. There are parts of her I don’t understand or recognize. Hard joints bisect her lower limbs and bend like arms; smaller ones have formed at the extremities of what look like flat flippers.
“That tickles,” she says when I touch them. Then she holds my hand to the smooth folds where her new limbs join and gasps against the pressure. I don’t pull away. I move with her, trying to memorize this new-to-me body that has always been inside her.
“Do you want a traditional blessing and party before you leave?” I ask her while she’s resting.
“I’d like the food but not the ceremony.” She smiles at me and I let myself return it.
• • • •
Mother Mer, the Aunties, and I prepare a feast like the complex has never seen. Oysters, shrimp, and vent steamed octopus accompanied by seasoned kelp cover our tables. We invite everyone, even the merlets and their families from Aleda’s school. The little ones hug and kiss her endlessly. If she had any scales remaining, they would have rubbed them away climbing all over her. She laughs at the mussel heads, telling them how brilliant they are and how proud she is of them as they swirl and show her all they’ve learned since she’s been away from them.
After everyone leaves, her mood shifts.
“When we wake, it will be time.” Her labored breathing makes me want to curl in on myself.
• • • •
I accompany her to the place where Mother Mer and the Aunties have said those before her have ascended. It isn’t grand like the Cayman Trench or a vibrant reef. It is shallow and drenched in light; a clear pool surrounded by rocks where the barrier between our world and the one above blurs. Aleda pauses as we near the surface.
“Come with me as far as you can.” She barely chokes out the words.
The great ball of light hangs above us like the lure of an oversized angler fish. It’s so bright, it’s painful to look up through the water. Aleda hugs me. Her chest convulses as she draws water through what remains of her gills. Goodbye is in her eyes and in her touch that I want to feel forever. She can’t say the word and neither can I. She kisses my cheek. I nod at her before she turns her back to me. She levers her limbs to grip the rocks and climbs out of the water. I swim up as close as I can and squint. The Aunties have warned me that breaking the surface would be fatal.
She’s there, looking at me, her face distorted by the waves lapping between us, more radiant than the ball of light. Her hand plunges into the water toward me. I clutch it and kiss her palm one last time. She lets go and is gone.
I linger in the pool alone, staring at the spot where I last saw her, tracing the outline of her form in my memory. A tear-drop shaped scale floats above me. I leave it shimmering at the surface as I descend.