PEARL DIVER by J.S. Rogers

Sensible girls did not go out to the merfolk.
It wasn’t safe. Everyone knew that.
But Mai watched them and wondered...
Mai dove for pearls with her sisters and the other girls from the village, though she did not want to. Every morning the boats took them out to the reefs and they slid beneath the waves, breathing deep the precious air and then kicking down and down and down.

The world beneath the waves was quiet. The salt water stung Mai’s eyes and pushed in against her nostrils. Fish scattered as she kicked by, flitting away. The coral grew in strange shapes, and brilliantly colored anemones waved stinging tentacles at them. The oysters nestled among them, and Mai pried them loose with her knife, shoving them, one after another, into the bag at her waist.

She worked without paying attention, her eyes ever on the deeper water, where the reef dropped away and the water grew murkier and, sometimes, they saw the merfolk.
Mai grew up hearing about the merfolk; all the pearl divers saw them, sooner or later, it was the one benefit of the work. They were strange creatures, almost human, save for their long, beautiful tails. Mai loved to watch them, swimming through the deeper waters, always staying far from the divers. She loved to imagine the freedom of diving deeper, finding out what existed in the depths.
She had swum out towards one, only once, after the creature lingered and lingered. She had not gotten very close at all before one of her sisters grabbed her and pulled her back up to the water’s surface. Ayumi had told Father that night, and Mai still remembered his thunderous disapproval.
Sensible girls did not go out to the merfolk.
It wasn’t safe.
Everyone knew that.
But Mai watched them and wondered.
Haruna lived alone far along the beach, where the trees grew down into the water, in her own little hut, without a man or any sisters. Pieces of bone, all knotted together, hung in the trees around her home, making soft music when the wind blew. She did not dive for pearls like the other women, or fish like the men. She made her living through other means, through the payments of villagers who snuck out to her hut when the moon was dark, and the night was quiet.
She had the longest hair of anyone Mai had ever seen, dark and black against her pale skin, though all the other women wore their hair short. She had small, thin fingers and a small, thin smile. They said she had swam out to the merfolk, once, her hair fanning out across the surface of the water.
Mai stared at her hut, far away on the horizon, sometimes.

Sensible girls did not visit Haruna.
It wasn’t safe.
Everyone knew that.
But.
The men fished, catching up the fish disturbed by the pearl divers. Mai used to beg to go with them, before her father told her, calm and cold, that he had no sons; there would be no place in the boats for Mai, no matter how much she wished for the kiss of sun on her shoulders, or to wear her hair long and free.
The men dragged their nets through the water and sometimes they hauled up strange things, monsters out of the deep. It was always exciting to return to shore to find them gathered around a boat, yelling at one another and calling to the others in the village.
Mai hurried over to the boats, memories of half-glimpsed merfolk temporarily forgotten. Half the village huddled around the boats, but at a distance. Mai found a place at the edge of the crowd, peering around shoulders, wondering what fascinated them so, and freezing.
One of the merfolk lay tangled in fishing net in the bottom of a boat. He—for it had to be a boy—lay limp, his eyes closed. He was bigger than Mai had imagined, his tail alone longer than she was tall. Scales of orange and white and black covered his tail and stretched up his stomach. Gills, pale slits, curved under his arms and around to his back. Bloody wounds, punctures that Mai recognized from pearl divers who were unlucky enough to attract the attention of a shark, marred his side and one of his arms. The boat was half full of water. He laid in it.
“He was tangled in the nets,” Kaito said, standing at the head of the boat. “We didn’t know what to do with him.”
“Is he alive?” Mai asked, creeping forward, leaning over the boat. As though to answer her, he moved, his tail twitching and rocking the boat. The others drew back; someone cried out. Mai drank in the sight of him. She said, “We have to help him.”
We have to do nothing,” her father said, the crowd parting to allow him past. He surveyed the scene, his eyes narrowing on Mai. “Come here, daughter.”
Mai lowered her eyes, moving around the boat. But the man groaned, slightly, as she did, and she said, “We can’t just let him die, father. Please.”
Her father stared down at her, and she had never been able to read his dark eyes. But then he sighed and nodded. “Very well,” he said, and continued, before she could smile, “take him to Haruna.”
Haruna waited for them as they pulled the boat along the shore, her hands hidden in her sleeves, her hair long and black. She gazed across them as they explained and then said, “I will require aid. From you.” She pointed a sleeve at Mai.
“No,” Father said, his hand closing on Mai’s shoulder.
Haruna stared back. She said, “Then he will die.”
Father said nothing, and then he turned Mai aside. “That is unfortunate,” he said, and when Mai opened her mouth to protest he said, preemptively, “No.”
Sensible girls did not go to the merfolk or Haruna.
It wasn’t safe.
Everyone knew that.
But Mai slipped from her room that night and stole on silent feet to Haruna’s hut. Haruna waited outside and said, “Come.”
The man looked worse. The water in the boat had turned red. His flesh felt cold when Mai pressed a foul-smelling mixture into his wounds under Haruna’s direction. But his eyes cracked open when Mai lifted his head and poured tea mixed with strange herbs between his lips. He raised a hand, as the sun started to rise, and his fingertips against her cheek sent shivers down Mai’s spine.
“Good,” Haruna said. “Return tonight.”
Mai’s thoughts wandered throughout the day. She stared into the deep water, careless with her knife, staying beneath the waves for so long that her lungs felt near to bursting each time she rose. She gulped at the air when she broke the surface, ran her fingers over her ribs, and imagined the feel of gills the way she used to image hair heavy down her back.
She shivered and shivered again her father frowned at her over dinner and said, “It is time that you married.”
Mai stared at him, her thoughts suddenly floundering. She said, “No.” Father’s head snapped up, fire in his eyes, and she said, “I mean, Niko and Himari are still young, they—”
“They are old enough to care for themselves,” Father said. Mai’s mouth filled with bitter spit. She thought of the boys in the village, with their dark eyes and rough hands. She wanted to work beside them in the boats. She had never wanted to lie beside one at night. “I need a son,” he said. “I am growing old. I will arrange a match for the spring.”
“Of course,” Mai said, staring at nothing, and that night she ran to Haruna’s hut, heedless of all sensibility.
The merman looked worse. He barely stirred under Mai’s hands. Heat radiated out from his flesh. Mai treated his wounds and poured water in his mouth, and he grabbed her, then, his smooth fingers closing around her wrist. Patterns of scales ran down the back of his arms.
Mai cried out, tried to pull back, and images flooded her mind. She saw other merfolk, ranks and ranks of them, wrapped in the skins of seals. Their fins were pierced with barbed hooks and they carried long, thin weapons with sharp edges. Beside and around them swarmed sharks, great beasts. She felt a wash of pain in her side. She saw a construction of coral and kelp, other merfolk swimming through it, eating, caring for their young.
The merman’s hand fell away from Mai’s wrist, leaving behind understanding. She stared down at him; his eyes rolled back in his head. His chest no longer rose or fell. “Well,” said Haruna. “Go home.”
Mai shivered. She said, “I saw something. He showed me something. With his thoughts.”
She expected Haruna to laugh, but Haruna, with her long hair and her hidden hands, only said, “Did he?”
“I think it was a warning,” Mai said. “A warning for his people.”
Haruna said, “They will not get it now. Not from him.”
Mai listened to the waves beating against the shore. She dipped her fingers into the salt water in the boat. She said, “Someone has to carry it to them.” Haruna looked at her, then. Looked at her slow and long. Mai said, “I can’t.”
“But if you could,” Haruna said, like a question. “If you had the ability. Would you?”
Sensible girls did not come to Haruna’s hut.
It was not safe.
Mai thought of the ocean and marriage. She licked her lips. She stood and looked out across the endless waves, dark and deep. She said, “I would.”
“There will be a price,” Haruna warned. Mai looked back and found her holding a ball of green-blue light, the same color as water in the ocean at midday. In the boat, half-submerged in the water, the merman’s body changed, turning soft and small, his tail splitting into legs, until Mai’s face looked back up at her.
Sensible girls did not visit Haruna, much less make deals with her. Perhaps Mai had never been a sensible girl.
Mai looked away from the body that had been hers, that had never fitted properly. The waves pulled at Mai’s ankles, calling her into the ocean, into the form she’d always craved. Madness and adventure awaited, and a world she did not understand. But all of that would be worth it. Any cost would be worth it. She let out a shivery breath and said, “I will pay it.”
J.S. Rogers has been writing since she could get her hands on a pencil and paper. These days, she writes as a freelancer for her day job and pens fiction by night. Her fiction has previously appeared in “Untethered: A Magic iPhone Anthology.”

Cover: Amanda Bergloff
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Comments

  1. Quite the story! I love Mai and her curiosity and her defiance of her father - not defiant to rebel, but because she needs find things out on her own, to know things for her self. Her independent spirit and curious nature take her places her father forbids, but she comes to realize that life with him, on the surface, isn’t really her destiny. I love how she accepts the responsibility she was given, and turns her back on her old life, and her father, and truly comes of age. Great story!

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