Not the Brightest Starfish in the Sea

by Rod M. Santos

The war was over, but one last duty darkened the thoughts of Sir Hector de la Torre. On the list of things the knight wanted to do, it ranked somewhere between kissing a vulture and headbutting a unicorn.

The final battle by the Río Suspirando had been weeks ago, but he still dreamt of fellow soldier and friend, Antonello, floating away on the roaring waters, eyes closed and body skewered with arrows. The man had been recently betrothed, and therein lay Hector’s self-appointed burden: bearing the terrible news to a bride who would never be.

Antonello had said precious little about her, though Hector knew where to start looking. The tale went that the lovers met south of Artilles, where the Suspirando flowed by a rock cropping that resembled a fish doing a handstand.

Or would that be a fin-stand? Sir Hector wondered.

Travel had proved surprisingly pleasant: the road easy and the spring weather mild. The river ran more calmly the farther south he went. Hector followed the waterway to an odd rock formation that, with intense squinting, appeared to be an upside-down fish. Or perhaps a lopsided pineapple. An argument could even be made for a portly minotaur.

He’d barely been there a few seconds when a large form, red and sparkling, burst from the water. Hector’s hand flew to the hilt of his sword.

Water sluiced off the form’s powerful muscles and iridescent scales, and when it shook itself, the sunlight turned the droplets into sprays of diamonds. Hector gasped.

A mermaid!

No! A mer-man!

Regardless of gender, the creature was unlike anything Hector could have imagined. Since childhood, he’d heard many tales of sirenas and tritónes. He’d always pictured the merfolk’s’ lower halves as resembling the dun and dull silver of carps. How wrong he was! No flamenco dancer’s dress was ever more vibrant than the merman’s ruffled fins and tail. They glistened in passionate shades of orange and red, trimmed with a creamy white fringe speckled in black.

And the human half! The merman was so handsome he was beautiful. His sleek face tapered to an elegant chin, and his cheeks were bunched high by a beaming smile. His thick, dark hair shone like onyx with sapphire highlights.

There was one striking incongruity—his eyes. Though radiant, they held an odd…vacancy, like deep empty lakes longing for fish to play in them.

“Cheery greetings!” said the merman in a voice as rippling as his muscles.

Hector took a step back and exhaled, sensing this amazing creature was not capable of a harmful thought.

“Greetings, yes! I pray I have not disturbed you. I’m looking for a woman named Oninda.”

The merman’s jaw dropped. “My name is Oninda, too! Oh, please let me know if you find her! I’ve never met anyone with my name before. I mean besides myself!”

Thoughts tumbled in Hector’s mind. Were the gods playing some jest? “You…you wouldn’t, by chance, know a human by the name of Antonello?”

“I wouldn’t? But I do! And not by chance, but fate.” The merman—Oninda—clasped his hands. “He is my betrothed, and I love him more than clams.” His vacant gaze turned dreamy.  “He bid me to return here each day that I might find him waiting, and we would never be parted again.”

Hector tried to blink the world into some sense of alignment. He was unsure which half of this revelation surprised him more, the “mer-” or the “-man.” Antonello had given no inkling his proclivities leant toward…the piscine. Clearly, his references to his betrothed as “a magical creature” had not been hyperbole.

Oninda returned Hector’s blinks, though he did so in slow motion. A colorful yellow flower fell from a nearby tree, but before it could touch the surface of the river, the merman snatched it and shoved it into his mouth. He blinked some more, alternating with chews as if doing both simultaneously was too taxing.

Hector shook his head. As the initial shock of the situation wore off, he recalled his purpose.

“My name is Sir Hector de la Torre. I fear I have heartbreaking news.” He steeled himself. He had endured dreadful things during the war, but suffering pain was not the same as delivering it.

“Yes?” Oninda asked, his smile not fading in the least.

“I fought in the army with your betrothed—”

Oninda spat out chewed-up petals. “Oh, that is terrible news! What were you two fighting about? Was it his tiny beard? He’s very sensitive about it, as I guess you found out.”

Hector shook his head. “Uh, no. That is to say, I fought alongside your betrothed. There is no way for me to couch the sad tidings, so I’ll speak it plain. Antonello has fallen in battle.”

Oninda nodded. And waited. His eyes remained placid, fathomless, and as Hector stared into them, he swore he could hear the ocean.

“Um, perhaps I should repeat myself. He fell in combat, fighting bravely to the last.”

“And did you help him get back up?” Oninda asked.

“What?”

“After he fell. Or were you still mad because of your fight? He can be quite clumsy, but clever, too. Bright as a starfish!”

Hector was unsure what was so bright about starfish. All they did was laze the whole day away on the beach, which now that he thought about it was actually solid proof of intelligence.

The merman propped his elbows on the shore, his chin resting heavily in his hands. “I do so miss his sunny smile. And bulging muscles. And you should see his…but no, I’m sure that’s for my eyes only.” His sigh was a wistful breeze.

Whatever language barrier existed between them was starting to unsettle Hector. “Oninda, you don’t understand. Antonello has passed on. Gone to a better place.”

The merman scoffed. “Oh, my little butt-dimples wouldn’t leave without me.”

“No, he’s…he’s bit the dust—”

“Wow, he must have been hungry!”

“—put on a wooden overcoat,—”

“Splinters, ouch!”

“—he’s kicked the bucket!”

“What’s a bucket?”

“He’s sleeping with the fi—” Hector clapped a hand over his mouth, grateful he stopped himself in time.

This was more fatiguing than any battle he’d fought in. He took a steadying breath, then ventured forth once more. “He’s…he’s gone to meet his maker.”

“His dad? He told me his dad was pushing daisies—”

“Yes!” Hector shouted victoriously.

“—which is quite an odd hobby even if you like gardening.”

Hector moaned. He had never realized someone could be immune to euphemisms. He stepped forward and knelt so that he and the merman were eye to eye. “Antonello is dead. I saw his body, poked through with arrows, floating down the river. I am so very sorry.”

Oninda stared at him, the silence stretching as long as the river itself. As Hector watched, the merman’s smile started to melt, like snow under a merciless sun.

The merman glanced all around as if beset by invisible wasps. Or perhaps he just couldn’t look at the face of the one who’d brought the worst news possible in the world.

Hector’s heart welled in sympathy, and he felt tears come to his eyes.

The merman burst out laughing.

“You almost had me,” Oninda said, then splashed water playfully at Hector. “But if my love is dead, then who is that coming down the river?” He pointed.

Hector stood and squinted. He could just make out someone on a makeshift raft, someone who indeed looked like Antonello. Oninda vanished into the water, then appeared a distance away, ruby scales flashing as he skimmed upstream with powerful swishes of his tail. When he reached Antonello, he leapt into his arms sending them both into the waters with a loud ker-plash!

Hector waited ashore, rooted by disbelief. Had Oninda’s denial of reality resurrected the dead? Or rather, had it been the merman’s faith?

The merman eventually returned to the riverbed, Antonello clinging to his back in a tight embrace.

“But you died!” Hector shouted.

Antonello grinned. “A ruse is all. I’m sorry I had no time to tell you, but it came to me at the last instant, and by then, the fighting had started.”

Hector was unconvinced. “You were sprouting arrows!”

“They were my own. I’d stuck them through my clothing and clenched more under my armpits. Then I jumped into the river and floated away. You see, in the midst of all those ringing swords and roaring soldiers, I realized this was all rather silly, and that Oninda was the most important thing to me in the world. It was a sign from the gods that the fighting had taken me to the very river he called home. Please don’t judge me a coward. I merely obeyed what my heart commanded.”

A new silence fell. Hector pondered the happenings while the other two hugged, their foreheads pressed together as if they would never part again.  Just as Antonello had promised Oninda.

“If…I must judge, then I judge you wise,” Hector finally said. “When my life at last approaches its end, I would hope to look back and find I opted for love whenever the choice was mine. You pursued your own happy ending and caught it. Bright as a starfish, indeed.”

Antonello turned to him and blushed. With a sly wink, he replied, “All I know is I had to get out of that battle alive. I felt sorry for the poor wretch who tried to tell my beloved I was dead!”

© Copyright Rod M. Santos

Rod M. Santos (he/him) was born in Manila, raised in the Bronx, and is currently lost in Yonkers. His humor and stories have found kind, loving homes, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF, Unidentified Funny Objects 6, and The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy!  Sadly, he doesn’t know how to swim, but if he ever finds himself in the middle of the ocean, his plan is to be rescued by an adorable dolphin. A hunky merman would also be acceptable. Rod wishes you all a Happy Pride month.


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