I Swim Up From Below

by Sarah Gailey

Blood was falling out of the boy as fast as the ocean could drink it in. That’s why I came and I won’t pretend otherwise. I smelled it in the water, blood thick as a ribbon of kelp, blood reaching out like a tentacle to grab me by the teeth and pull me close.

I came to eat the boy and that’s just how it is. I know I promised I wouldn’t anymore. But that was a promise I made when there wasn’t the sharp sweet yank of blood tugging at me with the relentlessness of a powerful current. When I made the promise I whined about how I was hungry, but that wasn’t the whole of it, that wasn’t the true shape of why I needed to do the things that led to me needing to make the promise. 

It wasn’t quite hunger. 

I’d eaten more than my fair share of the unchecked swarms of urchins that dominated the seafloor in the absence of the long-vanished otters, me and the wolf-eels hunting together. But while urchin innards are rich, they are also soft and bloodless. 

I’d wrestled a few squids, not very large but strong and vicious, and I’d exhausted them into submission and stained my teeth black with their fear — but that was more about the fight than about the meal I got out of it. And technically that was a chore, part of our attempt to keep the population trim even as it exploded in the warming waters of our sea. So it was even less satisfying because it was an obligation, squeaking rubbery between my teeth.

I even got a bird once, in the time after the promise and before the boy. I never told anyone about the bird because birds aren’t technically protected but they’re protected enough and I of all people know that the spirit of the law means more than the letter of it these days. The bird struggled less than I thought it would and the crunch-snap of it was rewarding, the heavy heat of it blooming in the water around me like an anemone opening to feed. But the bones were light and the meat was scant and the blood came off me so easy, and before I knew it, I was in the middle of a shoal of feathers, breathless, a rain of small bones littering the sand far below. I was already clean by the time the last feather fell out of my sight, into the darkness.

So when I say I was hungry, I am not quite telling the truth. I’m not lying either. I was just a different kind of hungry. I was plump and glossy and sleek and happy and the thing that gnawed at me was not an emptiness so much as a memory. A memory of the velvet weight of a certain kind of blood on my tongue, the slip of slick meat through my fingers, the soft keen of an abovewater scream. I had licked all the marrow out of that memory and sucked on the bones of it until they were smooth as glass, and revisiting it was more and more like telling myself the story of a meal and expecting to feel my belly swell with it.

So I came to eat the boy. It was delicious, the abandon, the way it engulfed me, the warm dark mouth of the hunger swallowing me whole. I didn’t even try to fight it. I caught the scent and I chased it all the way to the old wind farm, the half-sunk columns of the turbines rising up out of the water like the drowned redwoods a handful of miles farther out to sea. 

I wove my way between them, my tail whipping back and forth, churning, skimming the razor lips of the barnacles that crusted the submerged turbines. Loose scales fell free and sparked bright in my wake, marking my careless trail.

The boy clung to the base of a broken turbine blade, his arms wrapped around it, his feet braced against the hub at the center of the blades. He was stretched out along the length of the blade, hugging it tight enough to keep from slipping down the length of it and into the water. His grip must have been strong because the tip of the blade pointed down and I know how slippery the metal is. Every time a fresh storm rips through, a few of them fall into the water, and they’re slick as jellies until the salt corrodes them rough enough for things to grow on them. 

By the time I found him there, clinging to the turbine with those strong arms, he was bleeding freely and his blood was still hot and he was not alone. 

A rival had beat me to him. 

The eel circled in the water below the boy, a long mottle of brown and yellow, eyes bright with anticipation. She was big the way they’re big now, one long stripe of muscle the size of my entire tail. She arced up out of the water now and again, not high enough to catch the boy but high enough to elicit a shivery yell from him each time, and when he yelled the blood that streamed out of him and into the water seemed a little sweeter.

I understood her game. I respected her speed and her strength and her right to the boy. She’d beaten me fair and square, and I’m sure she was hungry the same way I was hungry.

But I did not want to share him.

The eel didn’t see me coming. I swam up from below and I seized her in my arms, squeezed tight like I’d chosen a lover and then tighter, too tight for anything but death. The top of my skull pressed hard under her jaw and my arms locked me in place so those knifeblade teeth couldn’t reach me to bite no matter how she thrashed, and oh, how she thrashed. Her tail whipped in a frenzy and the undulating muscle beneath her skin flexed like living stone. She could have gotten free from anyone else but I am not anyone else, and my tail, long and lithe and just as strong as the rest of me, corkscrewed around and around her until we were one long rope of fury.

After that it was simply a matter of arms. I have them and the eel did not, and so I won, and she fell to the seafloor limp, an army of crabs and long-reaching sea stars on their way to her even before she settled fully to the sand.

And then it was just me and the boy. Just me and the boy and his blood and the sea. 

He stared down at me gape-mouthed and his mouth was where the blood was coming from. He’d bitten clean through his lower lip — I could see the dark crease there. Blood was running down his chin and dripping into the water. There was blood from his arms, too, from where he was gripping the broken blade of the old turbine. He was holding it tight so as not to fall and the jagged metal was digging into the soft pink meat of him, and the angle of the blade made his blood run along the length of it and sluice off the tip and into the water. 

He was losing blood. I didn’t know how fast, and I didn’t know how much he had left, but I worried that if I didn’t get to him soon, he would lose all of it before I could have any. 

I dove down deep, deep enough to see the distant shadow of the eel on the sand. Before I could make out the contours of her corpse too crisply, I whipped myself around to charge toward the surface, my tail churning below me, my arms tucked tight to my sides. 

I burst out of the water and into cold thin air and I reached up, stretching my fingers toward him, stretching with all my might to try to grab the hanging handle of his small curl-toed foot. I could have had him, I know I could, except that it’s hard to see out of the water and I had to squint against the bright chill of the air and I was tired from killing that eel so I didn’t get quite the height I needed.

Anyway, I didn’t get the boy. I caught myself on the way down, snagging a ladder rung far below him. Pain arced through my shoulder when I caught myself. 

I hung there, halfway out of the water, panting raggedly. Below the surface my tail coiled and thrashed, an involuntary tantrum, the spillage from my impatience and frustration. Above the water, my flesh crawled with creeping cold.

“You saved me.”

I looked up to see the boy staring down at me with his small strange eyes. He was blurry still but close enough that I could mostly see him, even with my whole head out of the water like this. He was a juvenile, with a thatch of thick fur on his head and clothes hiding the quality of his muscle tone. I don’t prefer having to peel them before I eat them but it’s not like I was spoiled for choice. Besides, even if those details might have deterred me, his voice was thick with blood and pain and shaky with fear. My mouth flooded with saliva at the delicious, familiar sound. 

I was so close to having him.

Except that my arms trembled with the effort of hanging on to the ladder. It was that fucking eel. I’m strong — I’m very, very strong, everyone says so — but the work of wrestling and killing the eel had tired me out. I told my muscles to lift me higher and they simply refused.

I needed to feed and I needed to rest. But in order to feed, I would have needed to either get the boy or leave the boy, and neither one was an option. Getting the boy was too hard. And leaving the boy would mean ceding him to whoever else came along with an appetite, or worse, leaving him to be rescued by the others. 

I decided to rest and then try again. That would be best. Resting my weary body until it was ready to work a little more. It would, I promised my trembling muscles, be worth it.

He spoke again. “How can I ever thank you?”

Come on down into the water, I thought. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. The humans fear the water because it keeps rising up to kill them. They fear it because it washes into their settlements in sudden waves, because it whips up into the sky to rain down and flood them, because it devours their structures and sucks their ships to deep dark places where their only chance of survival is rescue by those who have decided, for some reason, not to eat them anymore.

I’ve tried coaxing humans into the water. They won’t do it. They won’t come in.

I made an attempt anyway. It was worth trying.

“Come into the water,” I said, my voice low and rumbling in the open air. “It’s hard for me to be up here, in the air. Come into the water and we can talk more.”

He shook his head, blood flicking from his mouth and through the air. “I can’t. I don’t know how to swim.”

“You don’t have to swim,” I promised, and I meant it. “I’ll take care of everything.”

He shook his head again and this time a drop of blood landed on my lower lip. “I can’t,” he repeated. “I’ll drown.”

Well, I couldn’t argue with that. He would drown. I pressed my lips together so I could suck the blood off without him seeing. It was sweet. Oh, it was sweet. It made me patient, that drop. “Well,” I said, “then…” the sands inside my skull shifted at last to reveal an idea. “You can thank me by telling me your name.”

“My name?”

“Sure. I need to know what to call you if we’re going to be friends.”

“F-friends?” He looked hesitant. 

The sands inside my skull shifted again and I couldn’t tell anymore if my idea was a good one. “Of course,” I said. “Friends. Don’t you all still… do that? Friendship? Family?” Maybe the culture had shifted since the last time I took one alive. It had been a while.

He made a wet noise. “Of course we do. It’s just… it’s a long story.”

I shifted experimentally on the ladder rung. I didn’t have my strength back, not quite. I needed more time, and I needed to stop spending my energy on holding myself up. I lowered myself a rung and the boy cried out.

“Wait! Don’t go!”

I paused, squinting up at him. “I’m just getting back into the water,” I said. “It’s cold up here and I’m tired. But I’ll stay. I want to hear this long story of yours.”

“Please,” he said. “Please.”

I smiled a little as I made my way down the ladder, dropping carefully, rung by rung until I was in the water up to my shoulders. I could hear the little sigh of relief he let out when I didn’t disappear. “There,” I said, just to make sure he knew I was staying. “Now I don’t have to hold myself up. My arms were getting so tired,” I added, inspiration washing through me. “I don’t know how you’ve stayed up there for so long. I was ready to drop into the water after just a few minutes, and I’m not even injured.”

It worked. The turbine blade rattled with his trembling. He must have been exhausted and at some point that kind of fatigue becomes less a matter of physical fortitude and more a matter of mental fortitude. Everyone gives up eventually.

Maybe, I thought, I didn’t have to get my strength back enough to leap out of the water at all. Maybe I could get him to give up. Maybe I could get him to fall before anyone else arrived to compete for the meal.

“How did you get up there, anyway? It must have been awful, whatever happened to you. Your arms must be so tired.”

He told me his story and of course it was terribly boring. It was all the usual problems they deal with out there — he had a family and friends and they lived in a big tower on high ground, where they thought the water couldn’t get them even during the inevitable storm surges and floods that come with living on land. Then they got word about an incoming hurricane that was going to reach further inland than ever before. He named a city that I didn’t recognize but the way he said it made me think that it was really very landlocked, so I made an impressed sound.

“We tried to get out of the tower,” he said, “but the company locked us in. They said that we had to finish our shifts before we could leave. And the building…”

“Right, the building,” I said, only half paying attention. If I sucked on my lower lip hard enough I could still taste his blood a little. “The one your family lived in. What a building.”

That wet noise again from him. “I managed to get my brother out by sneaking us both through the trash chute, but nobody else could fit,” he said. “And we only barely managed to get to a storm shelter in time, and when the storm was over and we came outside again… everything was gone.”

Something caught my attention there. “Brother?”

“My baby brother,” he confirmed. 

“A baby?” I’d never seen a baby before. In fact, this boy was only my second juvenile. In my limited experience, the juveniles were leaner than the adults, stringier. Would the infant be even worse? All sinew and tendons? Or would it be more like a young seal, fatty and tender? 

I was curious, sure. But I wasn’t happy at the idea of a baby, not right then. One human at a time is much easier to handle than two. Depending on how fast and muscular human infants are, it could have been a serious complication for me.

“I left him with a family at the shelter so I could come to the coast to try to find. Well. You.” He laughed and the turbine blade rattled again. “They told me I was being foolish, chasing down a rumor, but here you are. It was worth it. I knew it would be worth it.”

“And now you’re stuck on a turbine,” I said, relieved that he was the only human I was dealing with, renewing my efforts to make him fall. “Your poor tired arms. You’ve lost a lot of blood, too,” I added, the worry in my voice real. I didn’t want him to keep bleeding a little at a time, going cold and tacky, congealing in the open air. “It must be so hard to hang on.” And then what he’d said caught up with me. “Wait, you came to find me?”

“Not you, personally,” he said. His voice was clear and steady, as if the thing I’d said about him being tired hadn’t affected him at all. “No offense. I just came to see you, as in, your kind. Mermaids.”

“You left your infant brother in a storm shelter so you could come and see mermaids,” I repeated flatly. 

He slipped for a moment, sliding toward the end of the turbine blade. But then he caught himself and held on tighter than ever, his breath coming fast and frightened. “Yes? I mean, everyone knows mermaids help people. Right? You help when a human is in trouble. And I’m in trouble, so I thought…” 

He didn’t trail off. I just stopped listening for a little while.

I couldn’t decide whether this was obnoxious or exciting. On the one hand, everyone was going to be insufferable when they learned that the decision to stop eating humans had gotten us a reputation as helpful and kind. I would have to hear a lot of aren’t you glad you finally agreed to respect the new rules and it’s more satisfying to help someone in need than it is to feed

On the other hand, if that reputation brought more humans to the water — more humans like this one, weak and vulnerable — then maybe my encounters with them wouldn’t have to be so few and far between. Maybe nobody would notice if a few went missing here and there. 

“…and everyone says that the best place to find you is in the old wind farms. So I gave my dad’s watch to a man in town so he’d rent me a boat, and then I rowed out here, and I pricked my finger and let a drop of blood fall in the water like he told me I had to do to summon you. And it worked!”

I looked around but didn’t see a boat. There was, however, a good amount of splintery wood floating on top of the water, spread out among the columns of the turbines. “But I’m not the only one you… ‘summoned’,” I guessed. 

He shook his head. “The eel. It came up out of nowhere and knocked the boat over and I fell into the water.”

I felt a little bad, then, for killing the eel. She’d really earned this boy. In a way, I was earning him more, having gone to the trouble of killing her and now listening to his endless tedious story. But still, it wasn’t quite fair of me. I can admit that. I’m not made of stone.

Maybe we could have shared him.

“So you climbed up there and she smashed the boat up, what? Looking for you? That must have been frightening.” Who knows why the eel smashed the boat up, maybe she was just mad. They get mad sometimes. But it made the danger he’d been in seem worse, implying that the eel was hunting him instead of just following the scent of his blood. 

My instincts were good. They usually are. “Oh, I didn’t realize it was looking for me,” he said softly, his voice quavering. “Is it — um, when you fought it off, did you, you know. Did you hurt it enough that it might not come back? Or will it come back? Do you think?”

He was so scared that he could barely put a sentence together. Oh, it was perfect. He didn’t realize that I’d killed her, it had all happened in the dark water and he couldn’t know that she was dead on the seafloor, feeding all the crawling things that live down there. 

I looked at the darkening sky. “I didn’t hurt her at all, really,” I said slowly, as if I was weighing how to tell him. “I just scared her off. She probably won’t come back until nightfall.”

“Nightfall?” He slipped on the turbine blade again, ended up swinging from it upside-down, clinging desperately, breathless. “But it’s almost dark already!”  

“Is it? Oh, my, I hadn’t realized, I was too wrapped up in your story,” I drawled, letting go of the ladder and swimming until I was right under him. My tail undulated in the water, keeping my chin above the surface. “She’ll be on her way, then. We should get you out of here.”

“Please, yes, get me out of here, I can’t hang on much longer and the eel, it’s so, it’s just, I think it’ll eat me!” He wrapped his legs around the blade. He looked like a young octopus trying to suffocate a sea cucumber, all clumsy limbs and flailing effort. “Call the CPC!”

I dipped below the surface of the water and resurfaced a moment later. “The who?”

“The Coastline Protection Corps! Call them! You can call them, right? That’s what everyone said!” The turbine groaned, his flailing stressing the metal. The blade he was on jolted, slipping just the tiniest bit closer to the water. His screaming and panting bought me a moment to think.

The CPC were an irritant. They lived on huge barges, loud ones with churning propellers. They built the barges on a different coast so I’d never seen them do it, but I’d seen the results plenty of times and I’d heard stories of entire coastlines slicked with dark grease from their operation. Their goal, as far as I could tell, was to get humans off the land. 

I don’t care very much about this project but lots of others do. There’s heated debate about the noise and the pollution and whether or not it’s a good idea to let the humans consider the sea their home. Some feel that it’s our responsibility to work with the CPC to help as many humans as possible safely get off land. Others feel that we should work with them to keep land safe so they can stay put.

I don’t participate in debate on account of my opinion being ignored during the last big one. While that is nice for me because it means I don’t have to deal with arguments about things that don’t concern me, it also means I don’t know where we landed on that particular issue.

Which is tricky, because that means I don’t know if we can call the CPC or not. 

But that’s okay because I can just lie.

“Of course we can call them,” I told the boy. “Just drop into the water and I’ll take you to them. They’re nearby.”

He twisted his head around to look down at me. “What?”

“Yeah, they’re just past the edge of the windfarm,” I said easily. “Big barge. Lots of food on there. Fresh vegetables, even. Grapes and everything.” Humans love grapes. 

He was quiet for a long moment and when he spoke again his voice was soft with doubt. “But why would they be so close to shore?”

I dipped below the surface again for a moment before answering him. “Protecting it,” I ventured. “The coastline, I mean. That’s what they do. It’s in the name.”

I could feel it. He was about to do it. He was about to drop into the water and then I’d have him, and he couldn’t even swim so there wouldn’t be a fight, mine, all mine, slippery and sweet and hot between my teeth, and nobody would ever know — 

A splash beside me as a gleaming head emerged from the water. 

“Hey, did you see a big eel died?” It was my cousin. My softhearted, short-tailed cousin, who had always had the timing of a jellyfish bloom. I bit back a swear. “It’s right below you, did you see what happened to — oh! There’s a human up there!” She pointed at him, just a little ways above my head, as if I might not have seen.

“Yeah,” I replied through clenched teeth. “I’d noticed.”

“…What were you doing with him?” Her voice carried a suspicion that I really couldn’t blame her for. 

“They saved me,” the boy called down. “They saved my life.”

Cousin turned to me with wide, skeptical eyes. “Really?” 

“Really,” the boy replied, even though it wasn’t him she’d been asking. “The eel was going to eat me and they fought it off! They were just about to take me to the CPC. They saved my life,” he said again. Rubbing it in my face.

A wide grin spread across Cousin’s face. “I’m so proud of you,” she whispered to me. “This is real growth!”

I gave her a grim nod in return. “It was easy. I made a promise,” I whispered back. “You know I keep my promises.”

“I guess you really do,” she said. She sounded impressed. “You stay up there,” she called to the boy, loud and strident. “We’ll go and get the call button so the CPC can send a team out here to get you. Can you hold on for five more minutes?”

“I think so,” he said. That meant that if Cousin had just been ten minutes later — but no. There’s no use focusing on what could have been.

I wrapped my tail around Cousin’s, stopping her from diving. “I’ll stay here,” I murmured. “The boy can’t swim. Someone should be here in case he falls while you’re gone.”

She nodded, still grinning at me. “That’s smart,” she said. “I’m so impressed. The old you would never have thought to protect him like that. You’ve come such a long way.”

I let her go and tried not to seethe as she vanished into the water, off to find a call button I’d never heard of before.

“I knew you’d help,” the boy said. Then, slowly, softly, “I’m Nicholas, by the way. Nick.”

“You’re a what?” I snapped, irritated. I didn’t want to talk to him anymore. “What’s that?” 

“Nicholas,” he replied. “That’s my name. You asked before, and I figured I should tell you. You know, now that we’re… now that we’re friends.”

“Oh.” Friends. “Well. It’s nice to meet you, Nicholas.”

He was quiet for a long time, and then spoke so softly that I almost didn’t catch the words. “Can I come back sometimes?”

“What, here?”

“Yeah,” he said. “To visit you. I haven’t had a friend since… since everyone died. And I know I’ll probably meet people on the barge, but none of them saved my life today. Maybe I could come back here and visit you sometime.”

The hunger yawned wide in me, a jaw-cracking gapemouthed thing. The boy wanted to come back. He wanted to come back.

Who was I to stop him from coming back?

“Oh, yes, Nicholas,” I said, swimming in a lazy circle below his dangling form. “You should definitely come back to visit. I would like that very, very much.”

© Copyright Sarah Gailey

Hugo Award Winner and Bestselling author Sarah Gailey is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe. Their short fiction credits include Vice and The Atlantic. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, was a 2018 Hugo and Nebula award finalist. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic For Liars, was published in 2019. Their most recent novel, The Echo Wife, is available now. You can find links to their work at sarahgailey.com and on social media at @gaileyfrey.

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