The young man aimed his crossbow at the water, ready to fire a bolt of solid iron at the first glimpse of flesh beneath the surface.
“Sir,” he said, “shouldn’t we have seen one by now?”
The captain turned his back to the salty wind, jaw tight. “They know we’re here.”
“So what are they doing?”
He followed the captain’s gaze. Blackness merged with the empty grey horizon in every direction. A long silence passed, filled only by gentle swells lapping against the ship.
The captain drew his own crossbow.
“Forming a plan.”
All twenty men aboard the ship readied their weapons, reacting in a chain until the last man at the stern took steady aim at the waves.
“Make ready your iron, men,” shouted the captain. “We have ripples approaching off the port side.”
A handful of places in the water puckered, as if something lingered just below the surface. The sea was too black to tell.
Then it happened. Fifty, maybe sixty sea demons burst from the water and slammed against the ship. The men wasted no time. They reacted with trained speed and agility as the demons thrust stones and jagged shells into the wood, both to break holes in the ship and to scale the sides. The men picked them off with bolts of iron and watched them fall one by one back into the sea.
But they were outnumbered. Soon the demons were upon the ship, pulling themselves across the deck with bony arms.
The young man had already shot a dozen and the water reddened with each passing second.
Slow scraping sounds threatened him from behind. He whirled around, crossbow ready. Burning eyes met his, and sharp teeth, bared to rip into his flesh. He gripped the trigger, felt the bow tighten—
And the demon was gone. The young man stared into the wide gaze of a girl his own age. With a startled cry, he jerked his aim so the bolt barely missed her.
She held a black shell in her hand, sharp at the edges and ready to use as a club. But she didn’t raise it. She just looked at him.
He lowered his crossbow.
Her blonde hair fell heavily over her shoulders, dripping beads of water down her naked chest and stomach, pooling where her torso joined her tail.
He blinked, but made no other motion—where her torso joined her tail. Scales faded into flesh like some sort of beautiful, green and tan sunset.
She pulled herself closer.
“Stay back,” said the young man, unsure what prompted him to hesitate.
He looked into her eyes—emeralds surrounded by pearl white—where moments ago they had burned red. Her sharp teeth had retracted behind rosy lips. The seaweed-coloured flesh of her upper body was now olive and raised with goose bumps from the icy wind.
“Hanu aii,” she whispered. Do not fear. She spoke his language.
He loosened his grip on the crossbow, studying her. She lifted a frail arm and pushed the hair from her eyes, then motioned him forwards.
His pulse quickened as he stared at the beautiful girl.
“Hanu aii,” she said again, her voice resonating sweetly, as if she sang without singing.
Suddenly, he was kneeling in front of her, level with her luminous eyes. The sounds around him faded but for the soft purr in the base of her throat.
She reached up and held an icy hand to his cheek, not for a moment breaking eye contact. The hand slid behind his head and pulled his face towards hers, slowly but firmly. He inhaled her sweet breath.
He flinched. He turned to see the captain racing towards them, aiming his crossbow at the maiden.
The young man grasped the scene around him. The ship was empty. A few stray weapons and barrels bobbed serenely in the water. Blood soaked the deck in places, and even the main mast had a splatter across the bottom.
The captain fired wide. Before he could reload and aim again, the sea demon put a hand on the young man’s chin and pulled his gaze back to hers.
Her eyes blazed red. Her skin rippled into the rotten colour of seaweed. Her ears grew pointed and long like sprouting coral. She opened her mouth to reveal a row of deadly teeth.
The young man screamed.
The demon pulled him against her with more strength than three men combined, and they dove headfirst off the side of the ship.
They disappeared into the blood-red water.
A mermaid hunter must be aggressive, bold, and, more importantly, nimble on her feet—because her feet are the only advantage she has over a mermaid.
That, and her iron crossbow.
“Again,” I said, wiping an arm across my sweaty forehead. I cranked the lever, dropped an iron bolt against the shaft, and hitched the crossbow up to my shoulder with practiced speed.
Annith braced herself against her knees, her frizzy hair plastered to her face. “Can we catch our breath for a second?”
I gritted my teeth. No, we could not catch our breath. Not when at this time the next day I could be taking my last one, sprawled on the red-stained deck of our ship and watching a demon eat my insides.
Annith must have read my expression, because she straightened up for another round.
Five years had passed since my training began. Along with nineteen other girls, they’d pulled me from my education before I had a chance to go to high school. I spent every day of those five years—days that should’ve consisted of math, science, and literature—learning to sail, survive, and murder.
For those five years, we’d mourned our losses as twenty men were sent out each spring and never came back. Now it was my turn. And things were going to be different.
It was our final day of the training program and I ran drills with Annith on The Enticer, a warship that’d been rotting in the forest for longer than anyone could remember. It was the most famous landmark on the island, if you could call any part of Eriana Kwai famous. Whoever built it put painstaking effort into the carvings on the helm, and it had obviously been a beautiful ship in its time. When the Massacres had begun nearly thirty years ago, they’d patched up the decaying parts and used the ship as a place dubbed the Safe Training Base.
Only fifth-year warriors, those who were eighteen, got to use The Enticer. The younger years trained on the rest of the old campground, which had been built around the landmark ship. Cabins had been converted to classrooms for first aid, survival skills, and sailing and combat theory. The dining hall had been cleared for hand-to-hand combat. A glade once used for campfires and games had been systematically destroyed for fitness drills. The archery pit proved convenient for dagger and crossbow practice. The pool was meant for swimming lessons, though that was optimistic, since if anyone was in the water she was probably about to become lunch.
Annith hurled beanbags at me as I shot the mermaid-shaped slats of wood erected across the deck. I hit five in the heart and dodged just as many beanbags when Anyo, the training master, called my name.
“Your report card, Meela.”
I heard Annith’s sigh of relief.
“You’re totally ready,” she said between breaths. “Don’t tire yourself out before tomorrow.”
My strained nerves wouldn’t let me agree as we hopped off the deck—a short drop to the spongy forest floor. I shook loose my sweaty ponytail, attempting to comb out the chocolate-brown mats before piling it back atop my head.
Anyo handed us each a flimsy piece of paper. The first year we’d gotten them, I thought they must have been a sick joke. How could they give us report cards? Wasn’t it enough to send us out to sea, knowing that if we failed to learn, we would fail to survive?
I skimmed the page. I’d achieved an A in nearly everything. My only B was in First Aid. B, for Barely Ready. Every time we talked about lacerations or broken bones, the thought of so much blood made me squeamish and light-headed.
“We’ll make a good team,” said Annith, peering at my report card. “I got an A in First Aid, but only a C in Rigging.”
C, for Clinging to Survival.
I glanced at the bottom of my card and saw an A+ next to Rigging. What did that tell me? I could work the ship, but so help me if I sliced myself open in the process.
A loud voice cut across the glade. “I got a hundred percent in Combat!”
I had no doubt Dani spoke extra loudly to ensure everyone heard. She flipped her sleek mane of hair over her shoulder and stood taller, as if ready to pose for a photo of her shining moment.
“Paper proof that you’re terrifying with sharp objects,” I said under my breath.
Annith turned away from Dani. “I’m so not surprised she got that mark. I hated being her partner. I thought she was going to finish me off for real.”
“Bet she would’ve if Anyo wasn’t watching.”
“What’d you get, Meela?” yelled Dani, fixing me with narrowed eyes. “For your parents’ sake, I hope you at least passed everything. I’d hate for them to lose another one.”
I shot her a glare. “Eat—”
“Meela!” said Annith. “Ignore her.”
“Does she not realise I’m holding a crossbow?” I looked down and noticed my knuckles had whitened over the grip.
Dani set her pouty lips, looking satisfied. She turned back to Shaena, Texas, and Akirra—the handful of toadies she liked to call friends—and gushed about how she couldn’t wait to apply combat to ‘real prey’.
Texas—nicknamed because her father tended the island cattle, and she was the only girl on the island who could rope a cow from the back of a horse—asked Dani if she’d practiced with the iron daggers.
“You have to stab forwards like this,” said Dani loudly, jabbing towards Shaena’s stomach. “My father taught me this years ago. He says if you can get it right into their gut ...” She mimicked gripping the invisible dagger in Shaena’s stomach with two fists. “... and twist it, it’ll split them right open.”
She rotated her hands as though grinding an actual dagger through bone, her teeth gritted. Annith and I exchanged looks of repulsion as Shaena tried the same thing on Texas.
“All right, girls,” said Anyo, breaking up the invisible carnage. “Line up for your badges.”
I was about to hang up my training crossbow for the last time when something caught my eye. A fat rabbit emerged from the bushes, sniffing the ground.
“Move,” I whispered to Annith.
I notched a bolt and raised the crossbow. The bow steadied as I exhaled. I squeezed the trigger slightly, but not enough to plunge the iron bolt into the rabbit’s furry ribcage.
Turn it off, I ordered myself, just as the training master had been telling me since I was thirteen.
I imagined black tar melting over my heart to seal in any emotion.
Jaw clenched, I pulled the trigger. The rabbit didn’t have time to spring forwards before it fell over dead, a bolt thick as its front leg buried in its side.
Lowering my crossbow, I turned to Annith and smiled. “Dinner.”
“Well done, Meela!” said Anyo, no doubt delighted with the girl who couldn’t so much as squish a spider five years prior.
Eyrin, a frail girl who hadn’t said more than a few words in all the years I’d known her, was standing in front of Anyo and looked like she couldn’t decide whether to be appalled or impressed by my kill.
The correct response would have been to feel excited and inspired. Turning my face away from the group, I picked the rabbit up by its back feet. I couldn’t look directly at it. The black tar over my heart started to drip away.
“Does your family need some?” I said to Annith, holding up the rabbit.
“No. My father caught a deer like, three days ago, so we’re good for a while.”
“Oh,” I said, impressed and slightly jealous. I much preferred deer meat to rabbit.
I hung my crossbow on the rack, hovering for a moment. I wondered how the brand new weapons would feel in comparison. I wondered, too, how it would feel to battle on the wooden slats of a new ship, rather than on the familiar but uneven model beached on the ancient forest floor.
We lined up to get our badges.
“I’ve never had this much confidence in a group of warriors,” said the training master. “I thank the gods every day for the privilege of training you.”
I knew the committee wanted to sack him after the strategy he’d tried a few years prior. But his stubbornness was the reason he survived his own Massacre, and he refused to back down.
“As women, you have an edge the opposition won’t expect,” he said. “Without the power of allure, a mermaid’s prowess is limited to her skill in combat. And from what you’ve shown me, your skill falls nothing short of remarkable.”
“Do you think they’ll send their men when they realise we’re girls?” said Annith.
Texas scoffed. “Obviously not. Demons don’t train their men for battle.”
Anyo nodded. “As far as we know, that’s correct. Mermen don’t possess the same allure—or the drive to hunt.”
“They’re like lions,” said Shaena. “The girls do all the work. All the guys do is eat and make babies.”
A wave of laughter passed over us.
Anyo flushed. “Right. Well, review your notes tonight before you go to sleep. Throw a knife against a target to make sure your motor skills are sharp. Don’t forget to wear your badge tomorrow over your uniform. And eat a big breakfast.”
“Then it’s time to spill some mermaid guts!” said Shaena.
I took a deep breath, my nerves and excitement in a full-blown fistfight in my stomach. I wanted to believe this Massacre would be different. Maybe twenty skinny teenage girls did stand a better chance than the men we’d sent out every year in recent history.
I scanned the warriors around me, the girls who’d become my family over the last five years. We were as ready as we’d ever be.
Maybe because of us, Eriana Kwai would finally taste freedom again. We’d be able to go fishing, maybe even catch enough to export some for a profit, like we did before I’d been born. We’d be a self-sufficient nation again, not a pathetic mass of rock relying on the dry and canned donations of the few Canadians and Americans who remembered we existed.
First in line, Dani pinned her badge to her jacket before whirling around to beam at Texas. She glanced down at the rabbit in my fist and wrinkled her nose. I expected a snarky comment, but she said nothing. I wondered what her family would be eating for dinner that night.
The training master presented me with a copper badge. I studied the handcrafted engraving of the northern saw-whet owl. My people had put so much time, effort, and faith into me. Too much. My throat tightened, like the butterflies in my stomach had tried to fly out and gotten lodged.
Anyo’s hand squeezed my shoulder and I lifted my gaze. His dark eyes were serious, and the lines on his face stood out in the dim light peeking through the trees. It made him look wise, and tough. Up close, I could follow the line on his scalp and ear where a mermaid had once torn his skin clean off.
“Remember to turn off your emotions and you’ll be unbeatable,” he said, voice low for my ears only. “I shouldn’t say this, but your skill surpasses your brother’s. Nilus would have been proud.”
The mention of Nilus—and the idea of someone being proud of me—made my stomach clench with guilt.
I managed a stiff nod. I waited for Annith to get her badge, and when she met up with me, nerves had turned her face a little green.
“I’d better get this rabbit home for dinner,” I said, then added hesitantly, “See you tomorrow.”
She looked afraid to open her mouth in case she vomited.
As I traipsed home, I thought of the Massacre in light of the privilege it brought and tried to suppress the feelings gnawing at my insides. I’d been given an opportunity to honour my family and my people, to slaughter the demons that took the lives of so many innocent men. I would get to bury iron bolts in their hearts like I did the rabbit dangling from my fist—only the demons, at least, deserved it.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the rabbit, still not looking at it.
The dirt road led to a dead end where my driveway sat. The house, modest compared to the greatness of the surrounding trees, greeted me with a soft blow of smoke from the chimney. My parents and I lived safely inland. All the beachfront homes had been abandoned after the mermaids came in from the Atlantic. In our mossy glade, the giant cedars rarely let the sunlight warm us. Sunlight wasn’t common, anyway, on Eriana Kwai, because the clouds always ran into the Queen Charlotte Mountains and emptied their rain on us.
I hesitated with one foot on the front step. Gaawhist, read the sign on the door. Home, sweet home. I turned and went around to the backyard, as though I could pause time if I moved slowly enough.
At the edge of the cliff, I flopped onto the grass and looked down the rocky slope to the beach. Two orcas glistened in the distance, and beyond that, the small protrusion of Haida Gwaii.
We were alone on Eriana Kwai. Few people came, few people left, and in my whole life, few ships had dared to cross this far north in the Pacific Ocean.
Watching a pair of seagulls float below, I felt nostalgic for the beach. I curled my toes. I wanted to feel the pebbles beneath them instead of the insoles of hard leather boots. I wanted to feel the crusty salt in my hair, and even the slimy seaweed as it wrapped around my legs. Something about those sensations was simple, and it calmed me.
Footsteps rustled behind me.
I pressed my face into the grass. Not now.
I didn’t turn, but seconds later, Tanuu flattened out next to me. From the corner of my eye, I saw him fold his arms and prop himself up so he could stare at the side of my face.
Reluctantly, I turned to him. The whites of his eyes popped against his dark skin and hair.
“It sure came up fast,” he said softly.
“No. I’ve been waiting for this since I was ten.”
And I don’t feel any better about going.
He must have misinterpreted the bitterness in my voice, because he said, “I know you’ll return home. You’re trained for this. You can kill a crow before I’d even be able to aim. I’ve seen it.”
I rested my chin on my arms and gazed at the darkening horizon.
“Look,” said Tanuu. “I’m not happy about you going. It should be me, and Haden, and all the other guys graduating next month. If the training program hadn’t made the change, I’d be the one going on the Massacre.”
He was right. If I weren’t going, it’d be him, and I knew I had a much better chance of surviving than he did. I pressed my lips together in an almost-smile.
“Here,” he said.
A clover was pinned between his fingers, and he held it out to me. I looked from the clover to his dark eyes, then took it. It had four leaves.
“Make a wish.”
I twirled it between my fingers. Wishing on the outcome of the Massacre would only jinx it.
“Meela,” he said in a low voice, as if trying to make himself sound romantic. “I want you to know I’ll be waiting right here when you get back.”
I sighed. “Where else would you be? Swimming to the mainland?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really.” I supposed I knew what he meant, but I thought he was being stupid.
“I’ll never be with another girl.”
I kept staring at the clover, wishing he would stop talking.
He placed his hand over mine and whispered, “I love you.”
I leapt up, as if I’d been stung by a wasp. “You what?”
“Don’t act oblivious.” He stood and took my hand again. “You know I love you. I think you love me, too, if you’d just admit it.”
I shook my head and stepped towards my house, breaking my hand from his grasp. “No you don’t, Tanuu. Don’t say that.”
He stepped forwards, but I backed away again.
“Meela, you don’t have to worry with me. I have a house, a job, even a savings account—you and I, we could have a family together.”
“Stop!” I turned away from him, and for a second I wished I was still holding a crossbow.
He did stop, and after a moment I turned to him again. He had his hands in his pockets. His eyebrows were pulled down so his face took on the helpless innocence of a big-eyed, baby seal.
I opened my mouth, but any words I might have said got stuck, so I closed it again.
“You should just leave,” I said, finally. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the Departure Ceremony.”
He nodded, a pitifully romantic expression still stuck to his face. “See you then.”
He walked away without glancing back. The second he rounded the house, I faced the water again.
I knew he loved me. When I stopped denying it, all the signs were there. There was nothing wrong with Tanuu. He was smart, and attractive, and probably right that I wouldn’t have to worry if I wanted to have a family with him. The proper thing would have been to love him back.
I looked at the four-leaf clover still pinched between my fingers and bit my lip. According to Annith, being in love was something you “just knew”, because your heart felt swollen and you never stopped thinking about him and you wondered how you were ever happy before.
Well, my heart felt no fatter than usual, and I found it a bit too easy to stop thinking about Tanuu. I loved him as a friend, but I “just knew” I didn’t love him the same way he loved me.
I held my palm flat, watching the clover’s frail leaves shudder in the breeze.
Darkness was falling. The water below had blackened, and the first star of the night twinkled above the horizon.
“I wish Eriana Kwai will be free again,” I said.
I took a deep breath and blew. The clover lifted from my hand and floated gently off the cliff, beginning its descent to the ocean. The wind carried it away, and I watched it rise and drop smoothly until the sky engulfed it. I wondered, fleetingly, if it would finish its journey in the water or if it would find its way back to land.
When I finally walked into the house, my mother threw her arms around me so abruptly I wondered if she’d been waiting on the other side of the door. She smelled like maple and bannock. We held on for longer than usual, and when she pulled away, her eyes were glassy and pink around the edges. I dropped my gaze when I felt mine start to look the same. I was glad my father wasn’t home yet.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said. Yet her eyes spoke differently. After tomorrow, I might never see you again.
“Do you need help making dinner?” My voice was weak.
She shook her head, taking the rabbit from me. “I’ll fix this up and it’ll be ready in no time. Why don’t you go change?”
She turned to the sink. The bones in her shoulders stuck out beneath her worn blouse, and her spine and ribs had been distinct beneath my arms when I hugged her.
For her, I was glad I’d killed that rabbit.
I couldn’t wait to slaughter the demons who’d made my mother look like this.
I hesitated, wondering if I should forget it. But this was my last chance to release what had been curdling inside me for so long.
“I shouldn’t be going on the Massacre,” I said.
My mother dropped the half-skinned rabbit in the sink. A second passed, but she didn’t look at me.
“You don’t think it right to send women,” she said finally, picking up the rabbit to continue her work.
“No. That’s not what I mean,” I said. My tone was angry. I took a breath. “The Massacre is the highest honour for our people. Everyone says so: Papa, the training master, the survivors. I don’t deserve that honour. Not after ... after ...”
My voice broke. I hadn’t brought it up in years.
She faced me. “Every warrior of Eriana Kwai deserves that honour.”
“I’m not a warrior,” I said. “I’m trained to be one, but I don’t feel like one.”
“Meela, I’ve known since you were a child that you were born with the blood of a warrior. Our people are blessed to have a woman as brave as you fighting for our freedom.”
“You mean the people I betrayed?” The words were sour on my tongue.
A crease appeared between her eyebrows. “You made a mistake as a child, but it was out of honesty and compassion. You risked everything to defend what you thought was right. That is the mark of bravery.”
I felt my face contort. How could she use the word ‘mistake’ so casually?
“Nilus would have been pr—”
“No,” I said. “Everyone keeps saying that, and it’s not true. Nilus would not be proud of me.”
Her eyes widened. “Honey ...”
Words flooded out before I could stop them. “What if it’s my fault he’s dead? What if she’s the reason so many warriors have disappeared in the last few years?”
My mother stared at me for a long time. My words hung over us, and I had to bite my lip to keep a hard face. Then she placed her hands on my shoulders and looked at me with a determination I’d never seen in her before.
“Meela, the training master told me your skill with a crossbow is as great as your father’s.”
“That type of skill is not learned. It’s gifted. You were born a warrior. The gods have given you the opportunity to amend your mistakes.”
Vengeance seemed to bleed into me through the hands squeezing my shoulders.
“Embrace your destiny,” she said. “Avenge your brother’s death.”
My breath caught in my chest. She was right. This was my fate. I was a warrior of Eriana Kwai, and my purpose was to fight this battle.
My people had put their faith in me. This was my chance to pay them back—to make up for my mistakes.
The success of my Massacre would determine whether the people of Eriana Kwai would suffer or prosper. For them—and for Nilus—I would get revenge. I would make the demons regret the day they invaded the Pacific Ocean.
Soft ripples spread out from where the mermaid’s head submerged. Her coppery blonde hair revealed her position, but only just. If I hadn’t seen her a moment ago, I would’ve mistaken it for a clump of seaweed floating in the murky waters.
Slowly, I pulled myself from the bush and crept down to the beach, crouching low into the grey sand and rocks. Black clouds masked the sun’s rays, making it easier for me to blend with my surroundings.
A mermaid hunter must be stealthy, nimble.
With a quiet lapping sound, her hair disappeared. I paused, balancing on two stones with my bare feet.
Steps away from where she’d been, another ripple, this time brushing the line between the sand and water.
I held my breath and focused. The water was shallow in the tide pool. Up to my waist, maybe. That was no reason to assume I was at an advantage.
The rocks under my feet didn’t budge as I stepped closer. After months of practice, I could move with the fluid silence of a puma.
Her forehead emerged. Her blue eyes glimmered like sapphires, inhumanly large and adapted for catching prey in the black waters.
My stealth was futile. She looked right at me.
With a war cry, I pounced. I landed on top of her with a great splash, soaking myself and the surrounding rocks.
She twisted beneath me and wriggled from my grasp with ease. I was left on my hands and knees at the edge of the shallow pool for only a moment, and then a pair of arms grabbed me around the middle and rolled me back onto land.
She pinned me on my back with her icy hands.
I thrashed beneath her arms, trying to free myself even a sliver so I could push her off me. “Not fair, Lysi! You’re stronger than me.”
She sat on my stomach and crossed her arms. Her tail waved in the pool, creating its own tide. “My brother says mermaids are stronger than humans.”
Grunting, I rolled onto my stomach and forced Lysi to slide onto the wet rocks.
“I know that.”
She smiled wryly and smoothed her knotted, seaweed-laced hair. “I bet I’m already stronger than your papa.”
I jumped back into a crouch. “A ten year old? Fat chance, slowpoke!”
I soared through the air and knocked her backwards. We splashed into the water in a fit of giggles, scrambling to pin one another down.
“I—made you—something,” she said amidst our scrapping.
Pinned beneath her again, I spared a minute to catch my breath. “What is it?”
Lysi pushed herself off me and reached to the bottom of the tide pool.
Before she could even tell me what it was, I knew it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She must have read my expression, because her face broke into an enormous smile.
“It’s meant for wearing around your neck. It protects you from the wrath of the sea god, or something. Also, it’s pretty.”
“A necklace,” I said, awed.
“Necklace.” She said the word to herself a few times, adding more of my language to her vocabulary. She had a funny accent when she talked, but I didn’t mind because her voice carried in a way that made everything like a song.
I took it gently. It was a string of seashells, beaded along a twisted rope of seaweed in the most beautiful array of colours I’d ever seen—pastel blues and greens and violets, all glistening in the dim light.
“It took me months to find all the colours. I made two.” She pulled another from beneath the water and slipped it over her seaweed-logged hair. “Now we can wear them and think of each other.”
I dropped mine over my head, hoping the necklace looked half as pretty on me as it did on her.
“Thanks, Lysi,” I said, rolling a soft shell in my palm.
She beamed at me with her even, white teeth, and the whole sky behind her seemed to brighten.
“What are the fish like underwater? Are they as pretty as the shells?”
I gazed into the tide pool by Lysi’s tail, where an abandoned starfish clung to a rock beneath the surface.
“I wish you could see them all,” she said. “By my house there’s this rock—no, not a rock—I don’t know how you say it in Eriana. It’s all sorts of colours and fish live in it and even the rock is alive. I like to float and watch it sometimes.”
“I think you’re talking about coral,” I said, still inspecting the shells around my neck.
“Coral. Coral. Coral,” she repeated, turning the word into a melody.
Goosebumps rippled over my body and I hugged my knees, envying the way Lysi never got cold.
“I want to see fish and coral up close. One day.”
I gazed out at the waves. The sea was calm, and not far from us, a pair of seagulls floated on their bellies.
Lysi stiffened and her deep blue eyes widened. “Maybe you can.”
“I can what?”
“See underneath the ocean.”
My eyes widened, too. “How?”
“You can become a mermaid with me.”
I gaped at her for a second, then giggled and lay down on the pebbled beach, looking up at the cloudy sky. Warm, fat drops of rain splashed my face. “That’d be fun.”
“You could live with me. We can be sisters!”
“Could I meet all your cousins?”
She nodded. “There’s a way to do it. I’ve seen it.”
My breath caught in my chest. “You’ve seen a human turn into a mermaid?”
“Well, I know mermen who used to be humans. I’ll ask my brother how they did it. He’ll tell me.”
“If I was a mermaid, I could meet your brother,” I said. She talked about him often, and it always made me miss my own big brother.
Lysi smiled. “You’d like him. I think he’s like Nilus used to be.”
“How Nilus is, not how he used to be,” I said, careful to correct her. “He could still come home.”
Lysi took my hand, her cold skin leeching what warmth was left in mine. “Of course he’ll come home.”
He would. I’d given him my onyx ring for good luck before he left on his Massacre. It was the same one he’d given me when he came back from training one day, claiming to have found it in a tree trunk. I was sure he had actually bought it from a store—but he and I liked to believe in magic sometimes.
I let go of Lysi’s hand and jumped up, looking over my shoulder towards home. Not far from here, Mama’s voice carried on the wind.
I turned to say goodbye to Lysi, but she was already gone. Ripples spread out from the point where she’d plunged back into the ocean. The rain swelled, making the rings fade and gentle droplets slide down my nose. I huffed in defeat as I stuffed my gumboots in my backpack.
Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I cut through the bush so it would look like I came from the road. I was old enough, now, to realise that pushing through the thorns of the blackberry vines was better than Mama and Papa knowing I was at the beach.
Smoke puffed gently from the chimney, and I picked up a run, excited to be near a warm fire.
The sticky front door popped open only once I’d leaned into it with all my weight.
“You’re like a rogue cat out there, honey,” said Mama. “Always sneaking around ... I never know where you are.”
“Oh, Mama. Where am I going to run off to?”
A strange smell met my nose, like a kind of vegetable soup. Mama looked up as I entered the kitchen and her eyes fell to the string of shells hanging around my neck. She dropped the soup ladle on the counter. “Where did you get that?”
I looked around her to the steaming pot on the stove. “What’s for dinner?”
“Stinging nettle soup. Where did you get that necklace, Meela?”
I cupped a shell and rubbed the soft underside, wondering if I should’ve tried to hide the necklace. “I found it.”
She wiped her hands on her dress and marched over to me. “Meela, you know you can’t go to the beach. I forbid you from going outside on your own if you’re—”
“I didn’t find it on the beach. It was lying in the rocks, by the grass. Don’t worry.”
She sighed and held one of the shells in her hand, turning it over. “It is beautiful. Make sure you hide it. Don’t let your papa see it.”
I smiled and hugged her, burying myself in her soft belly that she thought unattractive, but that I thought was perfect for hugging. She felt so warm compared to Lysi. “I won’t.”
Mama hugged me back, then held me at arm’s length, looking down at my feet. “Honestly, child, they invented shoes for a reason. Go clean up and then come eat.”
Before I’d made it two steps, she added, “And brush your hair. It looks like a seagull could lay eggs in it.”
I pushed a matted lock away from my face, wishing my hair was golden and shiny like Lysi’s, which was always pretty, even with seaweed stuck in it.
Running my fingers through my hair to untangle it, I ducked through the beaded curtains hanging across my bedroom door. Mama never liked them because they got in her way when she was trying to clean up, but the sea-blue beads made me feel like I lived in a grotto. I decorated the rest of my room to match, tying green ribbon in places and pretending it was seaweed. I never told Mama or Papa why, of course—they wouldn’t welcome such fantasies.
I tucked the necklace safely in the bottom of my closet, which had more clothes on the floor than on hangers.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I said to Charlotte, who watched me from the window. She stayed there, motionless and non-judgmental as always.
Charlotte hadn’t been a particularly welcome guest, but my window was a great spot for catching flies, so I let her stay and build her web. I didn’t want her to go hungry because of me. That was several weeks ago. When she didn’t leave, I’d picked her name out of an American story Mama once read to me. I liked that story because it made me think about friendship and loyalty, and how anyone can be friends—even if one of you likes to kill and eat bugs.
I watched her bob idly in the wind for a moment before realising I was hungry enough to eat stinging nettle.
The front door creaked. Papa was home. I rushed to scrub my feet clean in the tub and dried them by shuffling across the bathroom rug.
Papa was grumbling when I entered the kitchen, his wide back to me as he stood over Mama. He’d brought the smell of petroleum and wood shavings into the house with him, masking the warm smell of soup and bannock.
“... bad feeling in my bones about this one,” he said. I pulled a chair from the table and he turned, squinting down at me. “Nice of you to join us, Metlaa Gaela.”
I sat down quietly. Papa almost always called me by my full name. He and Mama had named me after the earth and a sort of matronly figure, a choice I always thought was terrible. I liked the sea better than the earth and I sooner would’ve taken care of a snail than a baby.
“How was your day, Papa?” I said, not looking up from my hands.
“No action down at the shop,” he said grumpily. “Nobody’s got a penny to spend.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I kept my eyes on my hands and nodded in an understanding sort of way.
Mama shuffled over with our largest bowl full of steaming soup and set it down in front of Papa.
“A man does miss having fish,” said Papa, frowning at the bowl.
“I know, dear.” Mama looked at the side of his dark face with concern.
“I’ll have milk with it.”
Mama hurried to the fridge to pour him a glass. Papa guzzled it and handed it back to her for a refill. I watched him take another sip, then put it down and start on his soup. Mama brought me a much smaller bowl and a glass of water.
“Did you finish your homework?” said Papa, raising his bushy eyebrows at my full backpack by the door.
I swirled my spoon around my bowl. “Not yet.”
I lifted one shoulder.
He looked pointedly at the old handmade clock on the wall. “It’s five o’clock. You should’ve done it straight after school. I won’t have a lazy—”
“I was at Annith’s house,” I said quietly, still swirling my spoon.
Mama cut in as she sat down with us. “She was at a friend’s house, dear.”
It was partly true. I was there for a whole hour after school before I’d gone to see Lysi.
“On a weeknight?” said Papa, sounding angry.
“She’s only ten years old. They don’t have much homework at that age.”
“Then give her chores, Hana. She’s growing up to be lazy.”
Mama said nothing, but I knew she didn’t think I was lazy. I always helped her when she asked.
Papa returned to his soup and I glanced at Mama. She pressed her lips together in a shadow of a reassuring smile, which made me feel better.
I lifted my spoon to my lips and slurped tentatively, expecting something grassy and bitter. But the soup was bursting with flavour, and I smiled at Mama, once again amazed at her ability to turn weeds and scraps into something tasty.
“It’s delicious!” I said, and lifted the bowl so I could drink it more quickly.
“It’d be better with some meat in it,” said Papa.
Mama made an indiscernible noise, maybe in agreement or pity, and we spent the rest of the meal in silence. I listened to the loudly ticking clock, then to a sudden downpour of rain against the kitchen window, then again to the ticking clock. I thought of the necklace sitting in my closet, colourful and shimmering. Annith would think it was pretty, too. I’d have to sneak it to school and show her.
“We heard some good news today,” said Mama, setting down her spoon in her empty bowl.
I looked up. “About the Massacre?”
She nodded. “It’s rumoured that the lighthouse reported a sighting.”
She placed her hand over mine. “No, honey. This year’s.”
She glanced at Papa, but he didn’t lift his eyes from his bowl.
My gaze darted from one to the other. “Well, it’s still a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Of course. Elaila will be happy to see her husband again.”
Elaila was our neighbour. She’d married her boyfriend at seventeen, just before he left on the Massacre.
Papa put down his spoon.
“If they’d had any success, we’d know,” he said. “We wouldn’t have so many mermaid sightings because the vermin would all be dead.”
Mama stared back pointedly, whispering, “Not in front of ...”
She nodded towards me.
I frowned. “I can handle it. You don’t think the sailors are gonna make it, do you?”
Neither of them said anything, but Papa raised his eyebrows at Mama.
I looked down at my empty bowl. Why did we have a Massacre every spring when they weren’t working? Every year, we grew shorter on fish to trade with the mainland, which meant no supplies coming into our port. Every year, we had to harbour more fishing boats because it was only a matter of time before the mermaids decided they’d had enough and another boat was lost to the bottom of the Gulf of Alaska. Every year, it kept getting worse, and even though we tried to fix it, all we had to show were more boys lost at sea.
“Whether or not they come back,” said Papa, “they’re heroes to this island. Eriana Kwai only chooses the most able-bodied boys to go on Massacres, and I don’t doubt for a moment they battled for our freedom with all their hearts and souls.”
“So listen for the Homecoming bell tomorrow, Meela,” said Mama.
I prodded at the dregs in my bowl. “I know.”
The Massacre was the only time we were allowed near the water—to watch the warriors depart on the first of May, and if we were lucky, to watch them return some weeks later when they’d driven away the sea demons. When the ship was about to dock, the boy on lookout rang a big rusty bell and everyone went to see it arrive.
Two years before, my brother had been sent out on a ship with nineteen other boys. The Homecoming bell had not rung in three years.