by Alisha Bose
Art by Amanda Zhu
Issue: Nostos (Winter 2019)
They never lasted. Her humans died quickly, barely blooming before they wilted. It was strange at first, how fleeting and flimsy a life was. She was taught to disassociate, to let them drown and pretend that the bubbles of their last breaths were the silent echoes of underwater songs.
When she left, she only had one rule: no returning. Ever. She had been young then, headstrong and full of foolish fantasies of adventure. She thought she could tackle the world, burn it down bit by bit as she pleased. And for years, she had enjoyed it. She reveled in the mundane of human life, of simple tasks that were so new to her. She began to build a life for herself, one of red, flashing city lights, cool breezes, and loud, strong emotions.
It was a mistake. She made too many mistakes, hurt too many fragile lives in her own silent, destructive ways.
She is named calliope, meaning ‘beautiful voice.’ As a child, she cannot understand why it is so ironic. She only knows that she isn’t like the others. She can’t communicate with anyone else.
Every moment of every day she tears herself apart and scratches at her throat until it exposes raw skin to salty water as she tries to create a sound. Her family can’t afford treatment and she doesn’t understand why. She doesn’t understand money, those rusted coins made the waves crash against the shore and the world go round, but she wants it more than anything else in the world. She wants to drown in the money and be taken by the rusty currents to a treatment, to her voice.
But salt replaces rust as her fantasies fade away and she changes her name to Callie, trying to escape the legacy of a name that she can never live up to. And when she is old enough, she leaves.
She litters the sea floor with her ebony hair, desperately trying to forget herself, trades her tail for legs, and comes up with one rule.
Don’t return. Ever.
Despite her promise, there is something about the sea that keeps pulling her back in. The jade water is the only home she knows. Day after day, she comes back to stare longingly at it, wondering if she’s made the right choice after all. There are daisies on the shore growing wildly almost like they are reaching towards the water. She likes to take the flowers apart and let them blow into the wind. The petals would settle near each other in the sea, then wash back up on the next wave.
And then Kilorn arrives.
It is slow at first. He’s just a peasant fisherman who comes every day, hoping to get lucky. He tells her later that he believes this shore was a lucky spot, and she doesn’t have the heart or voice to tell him that it is her fault that the fish were so attracted to the spot. Dozens of fish, flashing their silver scales in the sunlight would surround her, bumping against her toes next to the shore. When Kilorn notices that, he tries to strike up a friendly conversation. She can’t respond, but she loves watching his golden hair bounce in the sunlight as his silky voice weaves intricate tales.
He sits with her, then, throwing out a line and pulling up fish after fish, all the innocent fish that had come to visit her. And Callie watches in morbid fascination as the fish gurgle and thrash around, stuck on the bloody hook as it cries for water. She finds it interesting that Kilorn has grown so indifferent to murder.
It’s never about her. Callie knew that. Kilorn never loved her wild black curls or wonder of all things beautiful; he was there for his own profit, for the murders and she made it so much easier for him. It is about those rusty coins again. He’s in love with them, not her, practically drooling with lust for money, more and more and more and more money.
But she doesn’t hate him. Despite the baby fish thrashing around in his red bucket, despite his false promises that he loves her and only her, she doesn’t hate him. He asks her to marry him and her answer is a silent nod. Their wedding is by the sea, on the very same beach where they’d met. She puts daisies in her hair, wears a simple white cloth and kisses his pink lips as the disapproving sea watches on.
She wonders what her parents were thinking.
But he is gentle at first. His touch is soothing and she finds herself thinking that she might really be in love with him. They would travel to the beach every day to watch the fish, her friends, die, and come back in the late evening and eat the very same ones.
The first time Kilorn catches her throwing away her fried fish, he screams at her and tells her that she was wasting his hard work, and that no wife of his was going to disrespect him like that. That night is the first time she has seen her own blood, and she marvels in the redness of it all.
She eats the fish after that.
But then the fish stop coming. She can hear the murmurs She feels empty without them, deserted, even though she knows that she’s the traitor. The beach becomes dark and gloomy, with no one but her and Kilorn to haunt it. The daisies on the shore wilt, turning brown. She takes them home every night to fruitlessly try and arrange them into patterns so the withered petals were less lonely. Kilorn and her would float around, desperately trying to find the fish, and when they don’t come, Kilorn blames her.
There’s just something about you, he murmurs. Something cursed.
Kilorn starts to drink. Callie thinks that the drink has to be a potion, because what else could change a person so drastically? There’s something in his pale liquid, something that riles Kilorn up and makes him hurt her. Night after night as she nurses her injuries, she wonders how the humans had found curses that could make a person evil.
It is the very same potion that kills him. Callie watches him thrash around, gurgling for help while his eyes roll back into his head. His lips turn blue and clammy and she thinks about how fitting it is for him to die like his victims.
And when he is done, she leaves.
She travels for decades around the world, determined to never forge connections again. Humans were too unpredictable, too frightening and beautiful and everything in between. But she can’t stay away from the sea and it’s magnetic pull, so she finds herself as an attendant in a castle by the sea.
She attends to the princess, Mei, dusting her white cheeks with powder and dressing her in rich gowns weighed down with precious jewels. Every day, Mei would sweep away in a cloud of perfume, to frolic and mingle with others like her.
Every night, though, they take a walk in the castle’s garden, dusted in soft moonlight and serenity of the stars. Callie never replies, but Mei still loves to talk about music, art, nature or anything else she can think of. Callie helps her plant daisy seeds and under Mei’s careful nurturing and love, the daisies begin to bloom.
Mei is like a faerie, sparkling and beautiful, and as the daisies continued to bloom, Callie finds that she seems to love Mei, the way her sisters used to care for her. But Mei is old in human years, too old to be unwed, and a date is quickly set for her to marry a man twice her age.
It was over the woven white daisies of her wedding veil and cold stew that Mei admits that she doesn’t want to marry the man. She tells her that she did not love her, and Callie is quietly shocked. How strange, she thinks, that one could even consider marrying someone they did not love?
She soon gets her answer, and it is those dreaded rusted coins again. Money, it seems is the cause of all problems, and Callie refuses to let Mei go through the same thing she had gone through.
They plan their escape for months, Callie hoarding food while Mei makes arrangements with people outside the castle. They plan out every strategy and escape plan, but on the day of the wedding, they are caught.
Of course, they blame it on her; the sneaky, mute maid who tricked princess Mei. So despite Mei’s protests and despite Callie’s pleading, the wedding goes on. The king orders the guards to throw Callie out of the castle and the last Callie sees of Mei’s face is when she walks down the aisle, weighed down by regret and her wilted veil of daisies.
She adds Mei’s name next to Kilorn’s.
She stays true for years upon years. Decades turn into centuries, and she has yet to make another mistake. She stays close enough to the humans to live a life, but makes sure that she never forms an intimate bond with any of them.
Phoenix is supposed to be another acquaintance, one she doesn’t care about at all. Somehow, though, he turns into something more. He announces proudly that he is an explorer who was going to find new, exotic lands. She humors him for a while, until he asks her to set sail with him.
She puts him off for as long as she can with simple excuses, but the truth is that she misses the water and the euphoric sensation swimming gives her. For the first time in a long time, she takes a risk and makes the bold decision.
She joins the crew of the Hydra II, still trying to stay disconnected, but with Phoenix, it is almost impossible. He takes her dancing on the deck and sings to her with a scratchy voice. He brings her a daisy every time they dock and fills the bowl next to her bed with petals. His kisses are short and honeyed, and his love is sweet but unemotional.
She doesn’t think she loved him either; or at least, doesn’t love him the way soulmates did. He’s playful and gentle, and she knows she loved him in some way. She never feels butterflies or giddiness when he kisses her, but he makes her happy.
That’s why it is so hard to let him drown when the storm hits.
She knows what she had to do as soon as the sailors started yelling, because she has made enough mistakes in her lifetime to make another one. The wind whips her hair into her face and dashes her tears away before they have the chance to roll down her cheeks. Tables, chairs and her little bowl of dead daisies tumble down the tilting deck and into the raging waters. She can dimly make out Phoenix screaming at her to take cover, but she knows it won’t make a difference. She has seen hundreds of storms like this one in her lifetime, and they would not survive it.
One by one, the sailors topple, like little dominoes. They scream and flail and thrash around in the water and Callie is inexplicably reminded of Kilorn and the fish. She wishes that the sailors would stop struggling and make it easier for themselves, but if there was one thing that she has learned about humans, it was that they are stubborn, so she has to hear every last scream and prayer.
When the last one of them is gone, she lets the storm overtake her.
She wakes up at the bottom of the ocean.
It has been centuries since she has last seen this cove, a little nook of hundreds upon hundreds of pure white daisies, all blooming with new strength. She threads a hand through the flowers and smiles.
She is home.