by Saru no Neko
Though for him there was no escape from the heavy brand of geekery, Brian “Brain” Jackson considered himself, despite his alphabetically organized music and societally abnormal fascination in fish, to be nearer to the “cool” side of the spectrum than not. For one, he wore his sweater-vests ironically. For two, more than once had an undergrad’s fragile freshman eyes gone wide and round and wet as she or he tried to pull him from the path of propriety, to win his love, his lust, his body, and perhaps a good grade in the lectures he TA’ed. Yet it’s pretty common knowledge that a GPA romance only will carry flirtation so far. There’s got to be a chemical component as well — a bodily attraction that outdistances the scholastic for most college-age youth to try and make bodies hit bed, and to sulk when all goes wrong. What this means is that it was not just for the grades semi-subtle seduction was attempted. Brain, despite it all, was a good looking guy.
This is the truth of it. Maybe you’ve heard some folks say that humans begin to resemble what they work with, just like people begin to look like their spouses, their dogs, or their favorite pair of pants. Yet Brain had loved fish since his first county-fair guppy and he looked no more like a fish than the average proctologist resembles an anus. Sure, he had a swimmer’s build, but a human swimmer’s build, with broad shoulders and thin waist. His complexion was just a few shades past creamy coffee, just a bit darker than his great-grandma Jolissa, who had passed for white, become a Harvey girl and moved the family out West. She had been beautiful, and honestly, so was he, though sometimes that’s not considered a compliment for a modern male. Still, while his looks cemented his popularity in the undergraduate sphere, he’d yet to give his heart to anyone.
The problem with people, he often saw, was that they lacked the proper lateral lines, gills, scales and swim bladders that put fascination in fish. The minds of men may be mystifying; the heads of women, closed books; yet fish are the final frontier of mystery. Fish are a glimpse of a different reality.
What secrets might scientists reveal with a closer inspection of fish lives? It was possible Utopia existed, but that humanity was just moving through the wrong element to discover it. Yet here was Man, the great upright ape, wrecking both land and sea — crushing the opportunity to discover truths humankind’s greatest dreamers could not even begin to form. Yet it was not the destiny of mankind to play Azrael to the planet. The fish would not remain passive to the bitter, bitter end. Someday soon, in a last-ditch effort to spread their perfect politics to the land-swimmers, the fish were going to come to shore.
Brain mentioned this idea to a bonfire circle of friends, though only a few were listening — tawny Bianca, and crazy-eyed Jeff, and a guy he’d not been introduced to yet, who strummed a steel stringed guitar and pulled from its neck blues-soulful sounds. Bianca and Jeff laughed at him, in the nicest possible of ways. The guitar guy created a sorrowful, bluesy little tune that Brain soon realized was a jazzed up version of The Twilight Zone theme.
They were talking about mysteries, myths and legends, mostly of the sort that makes skin creep and goose pimples rise — perfect stories for a camping trip on the Oregon coast. The night was cool and damp around them, the fire full of the heat of life. With the ocean to one side and the mossy old forest of the Pacific Northwest on the other it was like being surrounded by possibilities. Possibilities with eyeballs.
Now, there was a third reason that Brain had not yet broken the proverbial whale shark’s back and fallen into the realm of dorkitude: he did have friends — and friends with interests other than fish. Friends who pulled him out of his small roommate infested apartment for things other than “Biology Club Frog Finds” and the occasional swing-dance event at Mo’s Diner. Friends who brought him to parties to be the necessary more-sober-than-the-majority attendee who organized crazy games of Strip-Scrabble (‘More Fun When You’re Drunk’ ™) and commenced in slaughtering all on-comers. Friends who actually cared whether he spent his summer weekends in the lab analyzing the fishy grunts of Onchorhynchus mykiss, or not. Friends who particularly cared if that forty-eight hour weekend was spent without eating, sleeping, and, especially, bathing. Friends who, when seeing young Brain prepared to settle down for a couple of days of exhausting fishy bliss, were friendly enough to forcibly kidnap him–camping supplies, a change of underwear, and fishing rod in tow — and bring him to a cold, damp Oregon beach, to ply him with beer and fire-baked potatoes until happiness and contentment were impossible to ignore. In other words, friends like Bianca, Jeff, and Jim.
Jim sat across the campfire, commanding the attention of the three other ladies present with the tale of his epic adventure on the 215-mile John Muir Trail, leaving out the part where, back in the city, he burned his boots and swore never to eat dehydrated, freeze-dried food again. He was of the sort that likes the title of ‘outdoorsman’ more than the actual outdoors, but his collection of the latest gear meant that for these under-sky soirees he enjoyed arranging, little had to be borrowed from the university’s recreation department.
Grinning at Jim across the campfire, Brain settled back into his low camp chair, and continued his exposition. “Now listen here: so, I’m talking over-the-top. So I’m talking the stuff of the craziest science-fiction. So I’m making the SciFi Channel look like Jim’s cute old granduncle, instead of the Cape Pleasant Moth Man. But seriously, we do not know! Can we really deny that there is culture below the sea? There is more, Horatio, Doubters and Mockers, between Heaven and Earth, and even Sea, than is in your philosophy!”
Bianca’s fist collided with Brain’s arm, sloshing his beer. “Pretension Punch! Danger, Will Robinson!”
Crazy-eyed Jeff leaned across his girlfriend’s lap towards Brain, a sort of coyote grin on his face, mismatched eyes dancing in the firelight. “Hey, you’re a fish-man, man! Someday you’ll just vanish into the sea, right, and it’ll be like, that’s it. Bloop — you’re a fish!”
“And you’re shit-faced.” Bianca righted the man drooping across her lap and handed him a buttered spud. “Here, eat another potato, and give me that beer.”
“No, seriously!” As half of Jeff’s beer spilled in the exchange, he gestured wildly with his potato. “You’ll be like Aquaman, but real!” He leaned over Bianca again, getting into Brain’s face. “Bray-Bray… Dude… You could, like, talk to fish…”
“Dude,” the guitar guy interjected, speaking for the first time of the evening, for the first time that Brain remembered. His light, friendly voice had a sandpaper edge to it, “Sorry to break it to you, but Aquaman is lame.”
Eyes still cast down to the strings of his guitar, the song he now pulled out may have been “The Walking Blues”, but it clung more at memory, pulled more at the heart than Brain had ever heard “The Walking Blues” do before, and echoed the roar and hush of the sea. The guitarist’s hair was gold-ruddy in the fire’s cast, his nose quite long. When he looked up, flames flickered in eyes too dark to determine the color of. Meeting those eyes — black, black, like city night — Brain looked away. He’d been surprised — the guy was more hawkish than handsome, and still something about him stirred in Brain like the shadow of a memory, making him feel as warm and melty as a s’more’s marshmallow.
“Hey man!” said Jeff, leaning even further across Bianca, and gesturing with his potato. “You just, like, dissed my best friend!”
“Yeah!” When Bianca chimed in, Brain rolled his eyes to the sky. “You just, like, insulted Bray-Bray’s very existence! Do you not know that right down to his super-hero undies, Brian, Brain, “Bray-Bray” Jackson, desires, nay, conspires to be the next, the greatest, Aquaman that has ever doggy-paddled the Seven Seas?”
“I’ve never, in my entire existence, ever, wanted to be Aquaman.”
Jeff whooped. “Denial is not just a river in Egypt! Jim, man, listen! Bray-Bray says he doesn’t want to be Aquaman!”
Jim looked over the fire, putting on a look of mocking shock. “My god, Brain! Wake up and smell the coffee! You do realize that for the past few years you’ve spent the grand majority of your time trying to discover a way to communicate with fish? In their native tongue?”
“That’s Aquaman, Bray-Bray.”
Bianca joined in, “And that your dreams, once that project has been completed, focus on creating some sort of apparatus that may allow people to process water-oxygen into breathable air?”
“Aquaman!” Jeff crowed.
“It doesn’t that when you’re not deciphering your average rainbow trout’s grunts, eating, sleeping, grading, or teaching, you swim. Perhaps it cannot be said that you possess ‘tremendous swimming prowess,’ but…” Jim turned to the blank faces of those not used to the group’s antics– the three girls he had been wooing with his tales of Wildman lore, and the guitar guy whose irrepressible grin was turned on his steel strings. “Folks, if you couldn’t tell, Brain here is an undeniable geek.”
Extending a middle finger, Brain said, “To which the only proper reply is, ‘fuck you’.”
Jim grinned, “Thanks for the offer, but I prefer women.”
Bianca patted Brain’s shoulder, “Brain, you walked into that one.”
“Swam into it. Swam into it like a fish.” Concluded Jeff.
“Bad. No biscuit.” Bianca was still giggly, though winding down at last. “But really, you know, about fish people…” incessant chortle completed, the laugh remained in her voice, “There’s this story I really like, and this is the right part of the world for it too. Bray-Bray, have you ever heard that your fish might actually have been human once?”
“Fairytale.” said Brain, somewhat dismissively.
“Not a ‘fairytale’. Boy, you’ve known me for five years. I study folklore, not fairytales, and not common-tongue cures for the equally common cold!”
“Mmmhm,” said Brain. Brain and Jeff’s eyes met, and Jeff pulled a face.
“Alright, so, I do sometimes find myself studying the folk-cures of folklore, but this story isn’t about all that. It’s an origin myth. C’mon guys, I don’t need to tell it.”
“I’d like to hear your story, Bianca.” said the blond girl to Jim’s left, saccharine–but by then everyone was listening, their eyes all resting on Bianca.
“Okay… The way I know it makes it a short story to tell.” With no more prompting, Bianca’s tawny voice settled into its storyteller cant. “Back in a time, a long age ago, there came a famine period for the people that lived on the breast of the sea. They were a people that lived on the salt-water lives of the mussels and the fish, and the different types of sea vegetable. But suddenly, one day, it was all gone. The sea which had always been so plentiful was as empty as the women’s collecting baskets. The people were at a loss for what to do. So they gathered together, they consulted, they considered. At last it was clear, there was no other option; half of the people were to give themselves so that the others may live.
“So one by one the men and women and children of the people were divided in half, and when it was decided who would go, who would stay, there were no goodbyes. Those that were to leave turned away from the village and walked straight into the ocean brine. All was silent, but for the waves sucking at the feet of the people, then lapping at the knees of the people, then rocking against the waists of the people, then closing, quietly over their heads. The world was silent.
“Then suddenly, like a symphony of silver, scaled backs churned the water! Huge fish practically beached themselves on the land! The people that remained rushed to get their fishing gear. There were fish everywhere! Enough fish that the people that remained would have to be crazy not to have enough to survive! For days they smoked and salted and saved the rich pink flesh of the silver-backed fish, until at last the flurry subsided, the spawning was done.
“I will tell you now, though; the people that remained had thought that once was it. Even though the initial sacrifice was great, they believed that only once would the people that went into the sea be able to help them. So imagine their surprise the next year seeing the silver backs of the ones who left, returning to the spot they had first come to be, as they would for all the years then on, on into the future, on into lore.”
Bianca story was short–couldn’t have taken more than a couple of minutes to tell, artistic pauses and all–but she had a beautiful voice. With her voice storytelling it didn’t always matter what she was saying, more just that she was saying it. Sure enough this time, when the last words of her story vanished into the night, swallowed by the forest, dispelled by the sea’s changing waves, even the guitar’s strings were silent. Mostly. Another little tune was soon pulled out following the echoes of her words. The guitar guy was grinning again.
“Oh, Bianca!” cried the pixie-faced girl sitting next to the guitar guy at Jim’s right, “Do you do that professionally?”
“Get strong men and tough women to shut up for minutes at a time? Oh yes. It’s a hard job in this day and age, but someone’s got to do it.”
“No, you tell stories, right?”
“Nah, I bartend and listen to other people talk.” Bianca laughed.
A chuckle spread around the circle and then, again, silence stretched a few moments thin as people lost themselves in their own considerations. Brain wondered at what the sight of sky from the ocean floor might feel like unhampered by the weights of underwater humanity–the scuba gear, the wetsuits, and the ever-present caution that comes from being outside your natural element. He longed for it.
Conversations, erupting as if by consensus– all at once and all too complicated– broke the circle’s silence. The dark-haired girl talked eagerly, albeit quietly, with Bianca and Jeff. Bianca leaned over Jeff to catch the girl’s words, and laughed at what she said. The two women to the right and left of Jim chattered away, Jim leaning back like a lion and interjecting an occasional thought.
Brain might normally have enjoyed watching the interactions around the fire, but now his mind was far away and deep in the Pacific Ocean, considering the creatures still unknown to mankind and bioluminescence like stars in the dark–the act of seeing without the isolation of an ROV, a submarine or scuba gear. Lost in thought, feeling low, wistful, Brain’s mind drifted among the fragile creatures of the deep, thinking about how easily humans can upset an ecosystem’s balance, wondering what role a sudden influx of Bianca’s fish-people could play in the delicate schemes and systems of the intertidal zone. The only other person silent in the rich, cool night was the guitar guy. At the moment even the guitar’s steel strings were still.
Jim interrupted Brain’s thoughts. “Karol!” he shouted, “Karol!” It took Brain a moment to realize the one Jim was talking to was not one of the unnamed ladies, but the guitar player at his side.
“Hello!” Karol’s head jerked up, and he smiled at Jim.
“Tell us that story your mom would tell. That one about the Polish mermaid.”
“But Jim, you’re so much wordier. You tell it so much better.”
“It’s your mom’s story.”
“It’s Poland’s story, but hey, you can tell it.”
Jim didn’t need much more convincing than that, his brash voice booming, “My aunt tells this the best,” as he broke into the tale, speaking to the girls on either side.
The guy named Karol turned his shaggy golden head to Brain. “So, I didn’t mean to insult your very existence there earlier.”
“Whuh?” asked Brain eloquently, now too busy considering the play of fire and shadow on tanned skin to notice that the comment was directed at him.
Karol’s teeth flashed in the ruddy light. “I’d no clue you were aspiring to wear the scaled undies of Aquaman. I’d not said anything if I’d known.”
“Oh. I’m not.” Brain ducked his head, “Well, I mean, not really. No desire to try on the ‘undies’, you know. But I’m an easy enough target for this group, so… Um… Karol, right?”
“Yeah. You missed the introductions earlier, yeah? That one, Bianca, said something about a ‘bathroom emergency’.”
“She’d sat on me for two hours straight! I think just fifteen minutes would have been enough, you know, to bring the car up to speed where I’d not tried to jump, but no. Two hours straight!” And Brain knew it sounded awkward, knew it’s a “geek-boy and friends” thing to have said, but the guitar guy smoothed it over.
“Ha! You might have to tell that one some time. So… Brian, right?”
“Yeah, that or Brain. Not to seem pretentious…” he cast a nervous eye to his right, where Bianca was talking with an intense expression on her face and made a face, “Bianca came up with it back when we met, and it’s what most people call me now.”
“What about ‘Bray-Bray’?” asked the grinning Karol.
“Augh. That’s just the devolution of a name. Jeff did it. I tell you, you introduce your engineer friend to your linguist-slash-anthropologist buddy, they start dating, and then they spend the rest of their time trying to ruin your reputation in revenge. You know.”
“Can’t say I do, really. Sorry.”
“Yeah, um… It’s probably sort of a unique situation. Typically introducing an engineer to an anthropologist is like introducing oil to fire. Or putting two male betta fish in the same tank. You know, not a good idea.”
“How about introducing a fish studier to a former fish fillet-er? Is that a better combo?”
“Um.” Brain shook his head and smiled. “So have you worked as a fish fillet-er?”
“As a fish gutter at least. When I was living up in Alaska I did.” And he changed the topic again. “So, are you really trying to learn the languages of fish?”
Brain grinning, looked down and ran a hand through his short, curly hair. “Yeah, well, sort of. My elevator speech has it that I’m studying the communication styles of saltwater/freshwater bony fish–specifically, at the moment, rainbow trout– and their responses to environmental stimuli. I’m hopeful that this research will offer insight into how both communication systems–and methods of learning–evolved below water.
“But here… Now, with fish, we won’t be able to communicate like Aquaman. Our words won’t directly, smoothly translate from one language to another, but hell, we’ve got to remember that more than communicating outside of our species, we would be talking to something with a different genus, family, order, even class, for heaven’s sake! Communication happens in a lot of different ways. And even human languages are not smoothly translatable from one to the other, as Bianca keeps reminding me.
“And here’s one more benefit: we’ve got wealth beneath the seas– not just like minerals and oil and all that stuff we generally put a dollar sign on, but in diversity itself. With something like thirty million creatures out there, left to be described, and only something point four million creatures already known, we’ve got to find some way to enumerate their value– this delicate life, this great, undiscovered ocean of potential. How else can we protect it?”
Then he caught sight of Karol’s face, and he settled down sheepishly. Karol didn’t look bored, not in the least, but as he rested forearms on the drum belly of his instrument, lips curled into a little smile, leaning slightly towards Brain and his enthusiasm, it was clear that Brain’s words were not all that he was interested in. Brain blushed again, though that was probably lost to the night, to the firelight and his own dark skin.
“Hey, man,” Said Karol, rocking forward, smiling. “Don’t settle down yet. How much have you been working on this other thing? The ‘apparatus’ that Bianca mentioned?”
“Ah, um, well… That’s not really anything. It’s a day-dream, a pipe-dream.”
“Yeah? Try me.”
“I’d like to find a way to let humans process oxygen like fish do, maybe. But mostly that’s just me, being ridiculous. I’d like a way to live underwater.”
Karol was staring at the fire, his face pensive. Brain worried. He knew he was a bit weird. Some people thought him rather hugely weird. However, he did not want Karol to be among those people that did. So instead, in the silence between them he opened his ears to Bianca’s conversation and tried to find a moment to add a comment that might cover his social slip. However Karol spoke before Brain could find his moment.
“What’d you think of Bianca’s story?” Karol asked.
Brain snorted in derision and relief. “If only.”
“If only what?” Prompted Karol. “If only you had her large hair and way of speaking?”
“I’ve got to say, if I had hair like hers I’d be hard-pressed to use it for the powers of good. . No, what I really mean is, if only there was truth in her stories. Instead it’s like as we listen we delude ourselves with their reality. She’s too good a story-teller. I want, really too much, to believe in stories, in magic, that might have me laughed out of the scientific community.”
“And this from the guy who quotes Hamlet.”
Brain grinned at Karol’s tone. “Then what do you believe? Is there some sort of validity in it? How far should I allow my credulity to carry me?”
Karol was silent, pensive. His fingers strummed across his strings once, a chord, and then struck up a jazzy little composition. “I agree with you. Not about what you just said, but what you were talking about earlier. It seems to me you do consider that there are a lot of black boxes that still ought to be searched before science can claim it knows everything there is to know. I think you believe there’s room for the unlikely to happen, yeah?”
“Sure,” said Brain.
“So with trenches going down into dark infinity, and ocean peaks larger than Everest, and thousands of miles of caves yet to be explored, and rainforests with hundreds of thousands of mostly unknown insectoid-lives, do we have all we need to know to deny the existence of magic?”
“Comparing myth and legend to the laws of physics and the theory of evolution, to testable, repeatable processes and science, yeah.”
“Hey man,” Karol reached over and ran calloused fingertips down Brain’s wrist. “Some laws are made to be broken, yeah?” And he plucked the half-empty beer bottle from Brain’s hands, downing it in one long swig.
“Wait, you’re not underage are you?” Brain asked dubiously as the meaning of Karol’s words struck him.
“Ha! That’d be funny.” Karol carelessly plunked the bottle down in the sand by Brain’s feet and looked up through his eyelashes.
As Brain’s brain back-pedaled furiously, Karol laughed open-mouthed. “All I meant,” he continued, leaning over his guitar strings once more, “is that you know that Polish mermaid story Jim was going on about?”
“My family’s said to be descended from her.”
Brain stared at the guy next to him, and laughed. “But you can’t believe that!”
Karol gave an expansive shrug, a smile tugging on the corners of his mouth as he tried and failed to keep his face stony. “That’s the story. Great-great-great-grandma Syrenka met great-great-great-grandpa Fisherman, and my family is the end result.”
“This character has a name?”
“Yeah, but it’s Polish for ‘mermaid’.”
“Wait, your, I can’t say what, great-grandfather was human, though?”
“So the story goes.”
“How does that even work?”
Karol rocked back, his expression wide and shocked, “Gross, man! How often do you think about your ancestors getting it on?”
Brain laughed again, deeply. “I get it. But the black sheep of your family is half fish, and Jim’s not crowing it from the rooftops? Whose neck did you stick a knife to for that?”
“It helps that it’s not a story he knows. Jim’s not half the Pole I am, literally. We’re cousins on my dad’s side, and the old stories Mom’s shared with him are a bit more traditional.”
“And so you pass the less traditional ones on to me. Share a beer,” Brain raised the empty bottle from the sand, “and a campfire with a guy and you’re closer than cousins.”
“Hey dude, it’s easy to see your mouth is narrower than Jim’s. I’m guessing you’ve not had nearly as much practice with putting your foot in it. Besides, it’s not like you believe what I’m saying; I’m guessing these old family secrets,” he chuckled, “will be safe with you.”
Karol continued, looking up at the night sky above them, “And yeah, and maybe, despite how little I know you, I guessed you’d not judge. I’ve got the feeling that you might actually like me better for being part fish.”
They sat in companionable silence for some long minutes, staring at the ember-jeweled logs that remained of the bonfire. Around them the conversation began to die off, yawns taking its place. It was well past midnight. Brain shifted in his beach chair, missing the fire’s size as the cold of the night began creeping towards his front. He gave a jerk towards Karol as, on his other side, Bianca stood suddenly. “Whelp, kiddos,” she said, pulling on Jeff’s hand, “We’re off to bed. We’ll take the blue tent, the girls will get the grey one, and you guys,” she nodded at Brain, Karol and Jim, “can take the orange one.”
“Oh, like that’s fair! Why do the girls get the biggest tent? We’re the ones with longer legs.” asked Jim. The blonde threw sand at him and grinned, eyes squinting through thick eyelashes.
Bianca replied over her shoulder as she and Jeff walked off, Jeff’s arm looped around her waist, “I’m no mom. If it bothers you so much, arm-wrestle for it.”
“I sort of doubt Jim will be sharing a tent with us tonight,,” whispered Brain, leaning over to Karol.
Soon Jim departed, a girl under each arm, and then the quiet dark-haired girl pulled from her backpack a bivy shelter, which she set up out of the circle of light cast by the dying fire, away from the other tents. Still Brain and Karol sat at the fireside.
“You asked me what I thought about Bianca’s stories.” Brain broke the silence at last, voicing long-unspoken thoughts in a rough-edged voice. He was a bit tipsy, having drunk two and a half beers, which was a beer and a half more than normal. It was nothing extreme but it softened the edges of the night, made him want to smudge his aura on someone else’s. “I’d like to see the world as a fish, brought beneath the waves. I’d like to look up and see ocean so far overhead it created a dome, like the sky. I’d like to explore the great kelp beds. It might be cool to be a fish.
“I understand your great-whatever grandfather. He was a fisherman, yeah, but I imagine that fishing wasn’t just a job for him. He gave his life to the sea, and so it was only right that he give his heart to the physical embodiment of the waves–the mermaid, right. And all along he knew that he could not share her world, couldn’t see all the wonders below the water, wouldn’t know that world of unknown dimension and depth, where light is… protoplasmic, and there are monsters still in the living world… But…”
Karol pulled his battered black cardboard guitar case out from behind himself, and clicked open the clasps to put his instrument away, grinning. Then, closing the case, he spoke, “You know dude, nothing but, like, unicorns and dragons are more mystical and woo-woo than mermaids. They’ve got magic, man! If great-great-great-grandpa wanted to see that shit, I doubt Grandma Syrenka would’ve let something like him not being able to breathe underwater get in the way. She’d have figured it out. And he would have seen what you’re talking about.” Karol stood and stretched before picking up the guitar case and heading to the tent. “Mermaids are awesome, man.” he called back to the seated Brain, “Have some faith in their abilities!”
He went outside without doing more than pulling on his Uni hoodie and goose bumps immediately pimpled his bare, pale legs sticking out below red plaid boxers. The night was preternaturally clear, the three-quarters full moon somehow lighting up the campsite like silver day. A slight breeze had struck up, blowing in warmer air from the sea, but still he shivered. There was more than waves on the wind; in every in-drawn breath of the sea, Brain could hear the tones of a steel-stringed guitar.
Trying to convince himself he wasn’t stalking anyone, Brain wandered down from the campground, towards the music. He couldn’t have stopped even if he’d wanted to; especially not once he heard the husky voice singing longingly over the chords in a language he couldn’t quite place–maybe Polish, he thought.
Small crabs skittered out of the way as land met beach. His feet created first small craters, and then real footprints as the sand became wet. He could see Karol, somehow silver-edged in the night, seated on a huge chunk of driftwood and bent over his guitar. “I would have called you sooner had I known your name…” sang Karol, changing the tune; it was the first phrase in English that Brain could recognize. Then Karol looked up to where Brain stood, just a bit uphill of that huge chunk of driftwood, and his fingers stilled and his eyes caught Brain’s and his teeth flashed the moonlight as he smiled.
“Hey.” he said, as though this encounter in the heart of the night was par-for-course.
“Hey.” Brain replied, but it came out slightly croaky, so he cleared his throat and tried again, “Hey. Didn’t mean to make you stop there.”
“Oh, you didn’t.” said Karol, and his fingers again picked up the tune.
Brain found himself wandering closer, but stopped before he could climb up next to Karol, sagging down on the wet sand in front of the log instead, using damp wood for a backrest. They sat there in the night, and despite their distance it seemed to Brain like they were touching. Karol’s voice was like gold in the silver of the moonlight. The dark and the breeze were almost chilly, and still Brain felt warm, wrapped in the music.
A couple of songs later and the tune faded. The notes emanating from the guitar’s belly were wandering and wordless. Karol spoke: “It’s not just some story, you know.”
“Hmm?” Brain was so far away that the sound of Karol’s voice took a while to get to him. “What’s not?”
“I’ve got a bit of mermaid blood in me.”
“Oh yeah. Just a bit…” there was hollow noise as the guitar was set down against the log, “But it’s the bit that counts, I’d say.” Karol’s feet landed next to him, and Brain looked up to see a flat, pale stomach as Karol stretched his arms over his head and his t-shirt rose up. “Come on.” In the next moment Karol was leaning over Brain, hand out-stretched to pull him to his feet.
Obediently, Brain got up, standing next to Karol who was, in one swift movement, removing his t-shirt, suddenly bare-chested in the moonlight and the chill. He had a nice chest, Brain noted, before his mind caught up with his eyes.
“Whoa!” he said, less than eloquent, eyes round.
“Come on.” Said Karol again, taking up Brain’s hand in his own, and pulling him along. They were heading towards the water, towards where the endless miles of sea stood black, low, and heavy.
“Where’re we going, Karol?” asked Brain. The waves were strong here, he knew, and the water cold even in the middle of summer. He wasn’t too worried, just curious.
“For a night-time swim, I’d say.” Karol didn’t stop pulling on him, and their hands were locked tight together in Karol’s strong grip. Brain was hesitating a few steps behind, but already the water of the steep beach was past his ankles.
“The undertow…” he tried.
“It’s not that bad here. Come on, as soon as you get cold you can get out. I just want to show you something.”
“As soon as I get cold? That’ll be as soon as I’m in in, with water like this.” He was half laughing; Karol’s excitement was infectious.
“You feeling cold now?” asked Karol with a glance over his shoulder, and Brain realized that he was up to his waist and they were going deeper, but no, he wasn’t cold. He shook his head but Karol had turned his face back towards the deep sea. And they were so small at the edge-water of the sea in the night. Waves, though calm for this beach, lapped up over the shoulders of his hoodie threatening to knock him over but for Karol’s tight, tight grasp. The sweatshirt was heavy, clinging to him. The next wave brought him off his feet and he bobbed a moment before the receding water set him back down. The next wave lapped up and over his head.
Terror gripped him. Karol’s hand, clutching hard on his finger bones, pulled him down, evermore down. Frantically he tried to kick up, his lips brushing the surface a moment as he gasped half a lungful of air, and then the water crashed closed over his head. Then he couldn’t move. Karol’s limbs surrounded his own, pinning flailing arms and legs. Together they drifted deeper, swayed by the pull and push of the ocean. Brain imagined he could see the large, mirrored bubbles he knew he was making breaking out from his lips. Absolute darkness wrapped around them, like Karol’s body about his own. Coldness crept into Brain’s bones. He fought against Karol, he fought against the entire sea, but everything was so much stronger than him and weakness was creeping in. He was weighed down by the weakness of humanity, the cruelty of the alien element. He gave up. Sand moved against their toes.
Dizzy, fading, he swore he’d hold his air until unconscious. He was going to die but to die with lungs burning full of saltwater — that was too much. Karol’s limbs loosened around his own and Brain thought, “He knows I can’t escape now, I can’t even know which way is up,” as the ocean’s waves rocked them on to sleep.
And then Karol poked him hard in the stomach, where Brain’s sweatshirt had drifted up, and a gasp of bubbles escaped Brain’s mouth and nose. He opened his eyes and saw Karol, beautiful and luminescent, glowing with some sort of inner candle light. Karol’s golden hair was flowing, floating about his head with the currents of the ocean as they were slowly pulled deeper into the terrible sea; his eyes, their color had changed to a starlit midnight blue; his mouth; his teeth; he was laughing. He was laughing and Brain could hear it, despite the saltwater between them. Karol’s hands were still tight around his own, Brain noticed, as Karol towed him close. Again he was in Karol’s arms but this time the arms were gentle; gentle was the touch of their foreheads together, gentle were the words spoken against his lips: “Breath, Brain.”
His chest contracted almost against his will and then as it expanded he drew into his lungs sweet air. He gasped, driving away black edges from his vision, clutching tightly at Karol’s shaking back. Karol was still laughing but holding Brain snugly against him, his arms tight, his hands soft.
Air drove away Brain’s fear and brought anger to replace it. “You bastard! You absolute, fucking bastard! Did that seem funny? ‘Let’s fuck with Brian, he’s such a fucking nerd, he won’t notice the fucking set up’? Well, you’ve had your laugh, you ignominious asshole!” Shouted Brain swinging his fist forward to collide with Karol’s diaphragm, but the water deadened the punch and his hand thumped meaninglessly against Karol’s stomach.
“Hey… Hey…” Karol looked surprised despite the softness of his words.
But the anger had gone out of Brain’s face. Brain’s eyebrows were up, his mouth was forming an “o,” and as Karol’s eyes turned guilty and he started a refrain of, “Sorry, God, I’m sorry,” Brain began to laugh in deep bellyfuls. Brain was gripping Karol’s shoulders so hard his fingernails dug in, then he slid his palms up, up Karol’s neck, up to cup his chin, to stroke his cheeks, to brush fingertips against the curve of his ears. Karol was laughing again too, now, holding lightly the wrists of the hands that were cradling his face.
“That was quite the panorama of emotions there, dude,” Karol said once the hysteria had settled. His eyes were half closed, and he smiled at Brain’s thumbs brushing his cheekbones. .
Brain leaned forward to put forehead to forehead and whispered, “I was so fucking scared! I was so fucking scared! I thought I was going to die but that doesn’t matter now! I’m fucking breathing! I’m here! But god dammit, I was so fucking scared!”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” whispered Karol back.
He was still glowing, Brain noticed, still ethereally beautiful. Even just the movement of Brain’s thumbs against Karol’s cheeks made Karol’s hair dance. Brain watched a moment, enchanted. “Are you really part fucking mermaid?”
“Brain,” said Karol as seriously as possible, only his eyes still laughing “I’m honest to god ‘part fucking mermaid’.”
“How does that work?”
“Does it really matter?”
“It doesn’t matter does it? We are here. This is now.” Brain laughed and crushed Karol in a hug before releasing him just as quickly. Their bodies swayed, slowly rotating in this buoyant world. Brain’s heart was thrumming in his chest and he craned his neck upward, looking at the sea around them. Already glints and glimmers of bioluminescence were visible — star-glow from the midlevel, epipelagic, ocean life-forms in their great nightly migration up the water column toward the air–up to the realm of plenty and of danger. Karol, parallel to him, holding Brain’s hands, let him look, mouth soft and pleased.
Brain could now see they’d gone off an underwater bluff to get here — that’s how they’d gotten into deep water so fast. The sandy slope rose steeply to his right. For a moment his mind was caught in the shift, the sway of the sands, and the sea floor’s gravitational impotence over them. He’d craved this unbound, unfettered, moving ecosystem. Brain couldn’t help but beam his loony grin.
“You wanna go deeper?” Karol asked at last and Brain whipped around to look at him.
“You mean, this isn’t it? What are you gonna show me? What is there to see?”
Karol leaned back into the water, still holding Brain’s hands, and gave a push towards the open ocean.
“Well now,” he said, “You wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise would you?”
Swimming one-handed is a difficult endeavor; swimming hands-clasped with another body can be nigh on impossible. Brain knew this from many long pool rat summers, but again this night proved different. Hand-in-hand with Karol, water moved swift around them, an invisible force pushing them forward with fish-like ease.
They descended, swimming steadily a few meters above the sea floor. Lit by Karol’s fire-like glow, Brain could see the oceanic plain below them, rolling out flat and broad. Occasionally they’d get a birds’-eye-view of some narrow black basalt ridge or mound, sometimes capped with huge sponges, brain shaped, vase-like, or rising up in layered fans — oases in the desert of the ocean floor. Brain could just barely make out a fin, fang, or claw of these sanctuaries’ sleepy diurnal inhabitants before Karol and he had passed on by. It was impossible to say how fast they were going; twinkling lights blinked and flashed all about, shining and disappearing in patterns that gave no reference point for distance or speed.
Still any count of knots or nautical miles paled in comparison to the light-years Brain’s awareness of world and self had traveled. A kind of cold shock trembled in him — he was so small, in such a big world. Holding Karol’s hand seemed his only life-line. Confronting this new, revised, existential awareness didn’t dull the awe; it just added a bittersweet spice to the marvel of the night; a touch of grit in his dream-like wonderment.
A school of tiny, bright, shrimp-like euphausiids glimmered past, swirling around Karol and Brain like leaves in the wind, before dispersing wildly into the dark. Another moment and five squid followed in mad pursuit. Under the orange glow from Karol, the squid looked orange, but blue photophores lit blue lines along their bodies, and made the chase of prey and predator visible even after they’d left the sphere of Karol’s light.
Further on and they passed a huge, silent, fireworks display — a siphonophore reaching out with long bioluminescent tentacles to feed the great, fifteen meters, colony of its body. A thought gave Brain pause. The euphausiids they’d seen, each more than a couple centimeters long, and now this huge siphonophore, indicated they were more than 200 meters below the surface of the ocean. With more than 400 pounds per inch of pressure on Karol and him, all Brain felt was a tingling against his skin, not unpleasant, but like exercising shirtless in the cold.
Even in his wildest dreams, Brain never imagined going unarmored into these depths. Maybe, someday, if he was a good boy and very very lucky, he thought he might be chosen as part of the crew for a research submersible. But in this reality, this now, Brain was having a difficult time finding some simile or comparison to express the miracle of this moment. Maybe it was like dashing off a paper and winning the Nobel for it. Maybe it was like randomly dumping two chemicals together and finding the cure for cancer. Part of him was protesting — because he’d done nothing to earn this! — and still most of him couldn’t give a flying fuck whether he’d earned it or not. This was here. This was now.
Their measureless speed had brought them to a canyon. Karol’s glow couldn’t reach all the way down it, and Brain stopped at the edge of it, tugging on Karol’s hand. “Are we going down?” he asked, face sore with the wideness of his smile, peering into the gloom below, to the bioluminescent sparks of abyssal life.
“You’ll see,” Karol gave Brain a tug forward.
Craning his head to try to see the mysteries hidden below, he asked, “Can we go down?”
Karol met Brain’s hopefulness with a quirked eyebrow and a rueful smile, “Yeah… we could. But there’s something I’d like to show you ahead. Is that okay? Sorry, I won’t be an asshole again.”
Brain nodded, and they went on instead. Faced with Karol’s earnestness he couldn’t rightfully respond with anything less than yes. Still he felt a little disappointed as they crossed over the wide canyon and came upon more oceanic plain on the other side — more of the same gray-brown monotony with only occasional interruptions by spiky, migrating sea urchins and small clouds of sleepy fish.
Then, disappointment no more! An escarpment rose before them, sudden, steep, and covered in a rainforest’s profusion of life that at this distance gave the abrupt ridge a colorfully mottled appearance. As they drew closer the colors resolved themselves into sponges and deep, cold-water corals. Living, sparkling stars — fish of a bioluminescent bent — moved along the escarpment, darting in and out of view, through their coral and sponge homes. Star fish and other echinoderms hunted through the rocks, not equipped with photophores, but featuring every color known to nature. Orange crinoids gave a white lacey sponge animated, grasping flowers. Crabs and shrimp circled delicate, pale pink branches of coral. And high, high above, a kelp forest grew in tissue-thin layers of green barely touched by the glow Karol was somehow making brighter, bigger, like he could use it to light the whole ocean.
“Can anything exist like this in the world?” asked Brain in awe.
Karol’s hand holding his gave a squeeze. “Hey, Brain, forgot to tell you. You’ve now entered the Twilight Zone.”
“I’d believe it too, it seems probable with all I’ve seen tonight.”
“But you’d not believe you’re dreaming?” Karol looked at him, and Brain felt his unstoppable smile stretching wider, and the seed of pure happiness growing in his belly, branching down his limbs.
“I might. I’d believe anything about now. Am I?”
“Nah, you’re awake. You’re really and honestly awake. ‘Cause if you weren’t, I’d have to be dreaming too.”
Brain then remembered the first time he’d seen the sequoias — he was feeling the same echo of blooming joy. The day had been blue and gold, and the deep green of the forest both sharply delineated and somehow blurred with the solid intensity of the sunlight. Looking at the strong red-barked trunks of the world’s largest trees, he’d laughed out loud, hanging his head out the car window, as his uncle drove him up the California coast to his Oregon undergrad university, away from the small town in northern Arizona that had been his home his whole life.
“Careful, Brian,” his uncle had said, smoothly handling the curves of the road. But Brain’s joy was effervescent, and something that could not be held back, something that had to be experienced out and among the giants. He felt his throat tighten and pressure in his nose and kept his face turned away so his uncle couldn’t see the sideways, wind-forced journey of his unstoppable tears. In that moment he’d almost given up on marine biology, given up on fish. This world was so great, overpowering, huge, and he’d craved nothing more than to get lost in it, learn it down to the cellular level. Brain had always had a thing for the otherwordly.
Now alongside the ridge, among this amazing eruption of biodiversity, feeling the echoes of something similar, a giddy bubble in his chest was just threatening to burst. He had to put this strange energy somewhere or it might make him explode — and here surrounded by the wet there were no tears in him to cry. Instead he turned to the man next to him – smiling and golden — and kissed his grinning face.
Karol’s surprise came out in a bubble of air, before his smile stretched wider a moment, and then his lips softened into Brain’s kiss. They were sideways to each other — Karol’s hand fisted in Brain’s sweatshirt, Brain’s hand around Karol’s waist, necks straining. It was awkward, unbeautiful, and Karol seemed to find that unacceptable as he spun Brian, bringing them chest to chest. Brain was a bit shorter than Karol but the water made up the height difference and they cradled together, Karol’s hipbones a scant inch below Brian’s as Karol held him, hands sliding down to the back of Brain’s thighs.
Brain, underneath the hands, vibrated in the grip and tightly twined their legs together. Karol smiled against his mouth, and Brain could only chuckle. It was all too much. They were drifting downward together, toward the seafloor, their legs too entangled to kick.
“God,” said Karol, breaking the kiss, “slow down. You gotta slow down…” before returning to Brain’s lips, sliding Brain up his body and biting his way down Brain’s neck.
Brain laughed, head falling back for greater access, and opened heavy-lidded eyes, only to laugh again; they had an audience. Rat-tailed grenadiers circled close, squids and an octopus danced away and returned, probably drawn in by Karol’s uncanny glow. “Shit, this is creepy,” Brain said breathlessly while Karol’s lips searched earlobes and throat, “This is a bad idea of epic proportions.”
“I’ll stop…” Karol was pulling down the neckline of Brain’s sweatshirt to nip at his collarbone, “Let me know… I’ll stop…”
“No.” Brain leaned back from Karol, into the palms clutching his ass, to pull off sweatshirt and tee, “don’t do that. That’d be an even worse idea.”
Brain’s motion backwards rocked them together, and Karol sucked in through his teeth. Then he ran his hands up, over Brain’s torso, over the skin, apparently enjoying the newly offered expanse. He leaned down again to bite at one of Brain’s brown nipples, and Brian’s arms came around to cradle Karol’s head. “You don’t have any tan lines–why is that?” whispered Karol to Brain’s breast bone.
It was Brain’s turn to suck in air through his teeth, “I swim a lot, yeah. Just look lower, tan lines there. Shit.” Karol nipped at his chest again. “What’s going on here, really?” His voice was strained, almost a groan.
“Magic,” Karol whispered, leaning up from Brain’s navel, where his tongue had been sliding, dipping in and out, before he bit the patch of small tight curls arrowing down Brain’s abdomen from just below his belly button.
Then Brain’s boxers were gone — pushed away by callused hands sliding down, water softened nails scoring the outsides of his thighs as his favorite, old plaid boxers were sacrificed to the ocean. He didn’t give a damn. His attention was focused tight on the underside of his eyelids, and on the lips that kissed his glans once, almost shy, and then the tongue that licked out so strangely tentative. And spit had a different texture than the saltwater and a lightning white fizzle ran up his spinal column. “Shit,” he breathed out again, hands still cradling Karol’s head.
Things moved fast then — well, faster. Faster as Karol sucked him down. Faster in the rhythm of tongue, lips, and up-down hands, cradling his balls, and running along his length. Faster in the way of “just right,” when objectivity was lost, and in the swirl of his head, as all thoughts fleeing but the single fact of ‘YES’ — then Brain’s toes curled compulsively, once, twice, and he pulled Karol’s head away. He jerked and his come made a small cloud in the water. He noticed this as he looked down toward where Karol stood, feet planted in the silt next to the black basalt of the ridge, long nose nestled in the crook of Brain’s hip, mouth open and gasping.
Karol held Brain up easily, even while blowing air bubbles at the crease of Brain’s groin. Somehow he had wound up entwined in Brain’s legs, one of Brain’s heels caught in his armpit, the other between Karol’s thighs. Karol was jerking himself, desperation twisting his face, beautiful in his intent. A gasp, a sigh, and a vibration — Brain clutching Karol’s head tight to him–and it was over, over so quickly, but for the laughter that bubbled up between them like a living thing.
“You up for trying that again sometime?” asked Karol, pulling Brain back down to the silt, wrapping his arms around Brain’s shoulders. Karol’s glow had diminished to give them a little, private egg of togetherness in the dark, though Brain was still positive they had some sort of audience at the edge of their light.
Brain’s laugh turned breathless — was he even breathing air? Down here, like this, he couldn’t find the words to say.
Karol bumped his forehead against Brain’s. His unsure smile was out of place on someone glowing like Tinkerbell and magically making somewhat sensible scientists do the impossible: breathe underwater, have too-fast first-time sex. Karol’s arms tightened a bit more and he spoke his next words against Brain’s neck. “I shoulda told you this before, I know, but I like you. Haven’t known you long but I really like you. You’re different and interesting. Didn’t mean for this to happen but I’d like to do this with you. Again. If you want.”
With all the awkwardness of a prom-night nerd,Brain mirrored Karol’s gesture, laying his head on Karol’s shoulder, returning the embrace, and cleared his throat twice to get out the words, “I want.”
Then Karol was laughing again–or chortling more like, with a bubbly effervescence that carried up along the tall strands of the kelp as though it could, with just a bit more intent, bring sun to the entire dark ocean. “Yes!” yelled Karol, small jubilation in the greatness around them, pushing off the silt floor towards the night above them, scaring a sand-colored sole out of hiding.
“You wanna go see that canyon now?” asked Karol as they rose, hand in hand once more. It was a question that took Brain a moment to answer, not just because his eyes had caught on the red, fleshy body of a Tiburonia granrojo jellyfish (who’d ever suppose he’d get to see one of those from below?), but because it was a question he found hard to answer. Each new height revealed a fresh perspective of the rock and the life living on it, leaving Brain stupid with awe. He wondered how much more he could soak in.
They were almost as high as the towering kelp forest when Brain at last found words. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, and Karol slowed them down until they were just floating there, kelp forest rising as tall as redwoods on the slope of the ridge.
Karol let Brain’s words hang a moment, then said, “You know, Jim told me about you. Told me he’d a friend almost as nutty about the sea as I am. I’d wanted to meet you, but I didn’t know you’d be so… you. In a good way.”
Brain pulled Karol’s hand, joined with his, to his chest, and bumped their shoulders together. “We going to do this again, sometime?” he asked, looking into Karol’s midnight-blue eyes, feeling painfully hopeful.
“I’d like it.” Karol said quietly.
Brain saw truth in that statement, in the earnestness of Karol’s face, and he grinned skyward, toward the stars far beyond the reach of the kelp above them. “Well, we’d best leave some things unseen, then.”
They broke the surface of the water and lounged out against the waves like a couple of sea otters, still holding hands. Brain had no real clue of how long they’d been down there, or how far they’d come. In the east, the faint green of early dawn faded stars from view. Brain knew land was in that direction, but couldn’t see it over the dark water and the curve of the Earth.
Karol’s glow didn’t extend beyond the water, but the warmth he lent the night stayed with them. Brain pulled Karol close and brushed a kiss over the back of his hand, so perfectly happy in the moment. Karol let out a small, pleased chuckle.
With the rock of the waves and the occasional kick of Karol’s feet, Brain knew they were headed somewhere and hoped it was toward their beach, their campsite, and their friends. Still he couldn’t bring himself to care enough to navigate, topped out as he was in a state of exquisite exhaustion. Eyes weighed down by the whole of the day, his mind began to mirror the drift of his body. Even when Karol began to speak he couldn’t wake up enough to give true mind to the words.
“The thing that gets me,” said Karol softly, like he didn’t care if anyone was listening or not, “Is that people care what goes on beyond our planet — like on the moon, and Mars, and stuff. But what about what’s below the sea? We’ve got mysteries aimed out in two directions — one’s towards the sky, but the other is below our feet, below our boats. There are beautiful things, magical things, below the sea, so why is only space getting the attention here? I just want other people to think about what we’ve already got. That’s what I want.”
“You do have a way with words.” Brain said, but it’s all he said, even though he agreed, because then sleep claimed him entirely, rocked alongside Karol, in the arms of the breaking day.
“Eurgh,” said the hairy weight on Brain’s shoulder. Then Bianca’s head was filling Brain’s entire field of vision, concern, then anger, then heavy amusement crossing her face until she burst out laughing, reached over him and rolled the mass off of Brain’s left side. “Eurgh,” groaned the thing again.
A few facts reached the brain of Brain at once. First, the tide had left them high and dry on the beach. Second, he was naked and the seaweed wrapped around him did not make this reality PG. Third, there was sand in places evolution had never intended sand to go. Fourth, Karol was also naked and the way they’d been curled together when Bianca had arrived almost certainly left no doubts to certain aspects of last night’s activities. He opened his mouth to talk and found it too dry.
“Water,” he croaked, and Bianca, crouching beside his prone form, handed him a bottle, the amused smirk never leaving her lips. After a couple of welcome gulps he spoke again: “I don’t suppose I could convince you I had to save him from drowning and we somehow lost our clothes in the process?”
“Only works in bad pornos,” she said flatly.
“Maybe we got abducted by aliens,” offered Karol on Brain’s other side. He was lying on his stomach, his head on his arms, looking at Brain. Brain liked the shape of his face in the daylight. It was bony and distinctive in a way that gets better with age, beautifully unbeautiful and Brain wished he was a better poet to describe it.
“Slightly more believable. But really?”
“Oh god,” said Brain, realizing how much he could see as he lay on his back. “Blanket?” he asked. “Towel?”
“Nothing.” She replied, her teeth showing and her smile positively wicked. “Absolutely nothing. This is revenge for me thinking my best friend was dead. Scariest minutes of my life. You’ll give me grey hairs before my time and that I do not appreciate.” She’d stood up and was now offering Brain a hand.
“It amazes me that your ass is almost as white as Jeff’s,” she said, pulling him to his feet, and beginning to dust him off. Karol had made his own way vertical, grinning like a sand-monster as Brain began protesting and Bianca’s brushing hands arrived in places friends’ hands shouldn’t go. Then Karol darted forward and grabbed Brain, bodily hauling him away from Bianca. They ran down the wet sand together, tipping over into icy waves as soon as they hit the water, laughing madly all the while.
The morning was amazingly bright, the light cutting through the fog in golden slants from the forest down on the two figures spluttering in the surf, Bianca laughing at them from the shore. They struggled to their feet, and Karol began to splash Brain, pushing water at him, chuckling as Brain stumbled forward in blind pursuit. Finally Brain caught Karol about the waist, and they tumbled back into the sea together, a mess of limbs and elbows. Shivering in the water and way too aware of Bianca’s watching eyes, her faraway laughter, Brain still held Karol to him. “Dude,” he whispered a little breathlessly as the cold of the water seeped into his bones, his lips almost touching Karol’s, “it wasn’t a dream? Are you really?”