Photo by Taryn Elliott on

I was born in a sandy clearing in the middle of a kelp forest, where the light shone green from the wavy roof of the world all the way down to the floor below. The kelp was in constant motion, shifting and soothing, stroking and dancing. It is the first thing I saw. After the birth, my mother rested against a trunk, one arm hooked around it to hold her steady and the other arm cradling me. Her hair waved and swirled like the forest. The light shone through it. I remember.  

We would come back to the clearing, she and I, to gather seaweed and small fish, and to hide from seals. It was there that she taught me language, shaping my small hands with her own. Sometimes, when the light was deep blue and the weight of the world pressed down comfortingly upon us, we would sleep curled up together, resting in the sand that eddied and settled under our tails. We were always together, just the two of us. When I was older, I asked her if there were other people in the world, but she didn’t answer, just gave me that look she had, her hands clasped together in silence. Later I understood that it was grief, and I let it be. I imagined, though. I imagined a whole school of people. There would be small ones who would play games with me and never get tired; hide and seek amongst the rocks, catch-the-crab. There would be other adults, as well. My mother could talk to them and leave me to my own devices. I would be free to tease the octopus as much as I liked, and to work my tail faster and faster as I barrelled through the slow arcades of green light, stirring everything up with my energy and speed. But they were only fantasies. It was just the two of us, and we were always together. Always, until the day we weren’t. 

The day I woke alone, I waited for her to appear from behind a rock or to return with a fish for me, but she did not come. We had settled into a nook, close to a ledge where the seals lay around and barked at each other night and day. They were annoying but we chose the spot anyway because it led to a cave, where I liked to practise breathing outside the world. After some time waiting, I swam out tentatively and peered around. The seals seemed larger, the waves fiercer than they had before. I retreated like a hermit crab into my nook but presently I became curious again, and hungry. I dared myself to strike out alone. Perhaps I would catch a jellyfish. I had just mustered up my courage to launch out of the rocks when, with a flick of the tail, she appeared. She was flustered and flushed, and her hair had a life of its own. When she saw my desperate face, she flinched. She was sorry, she didn’t mean to stay so late. Stay where? She wouldn’t say. 

I took to sleuthing her. She would settle down with me and then, when she heard my relaxed breathing and saw me floating gently on the current, she would leave. I learned to feign sleep just long enough to feel her go, and to listen carefully with my eyes still closed to the disturbance in the water that told me which direction she was travelling, and how fast. Then, slow and sleek, I would slide after her, slipping seamlessly into the space she left behind. I never caught her.  I would return and close my eyes, and then she would return and close hers. We slept late on those days and woke when the light was yellow and high. 

Once, though, I found something amazing. We were in a shallow place in the world, where the roof was always close, and the ground was white and soft. There was nowhere to hide but we were as reckless as rays in those days, and we spun and twirled in the sparkling blue, flicking silver motes with our fins. In the shallowest, narrowest, part you can imagine, waves frothed and bubbled, obscuring the sand. Only the tiniest of fish lived there and they were so fast you could get beached just reaching for them. She warned me never to look above the roof, and never to chase the fish. There was danger everywhere. And yet there we stayed. After a few days, my curiosity mounted. I waited until she left and then, deliberately, I stuck my head up and through the roof of the world and I understood why she had warned me. The scent was intoxicating. Sun and salt and spray and some new, dry, soft, pink, smell I had never known before. I breathed and rolled and breathed and jumped and breathed and breathed. Then I saw the creatures. 

They were startlingly like people. Heads like us, arms like us, waists – but then no tail, just two more arms. I was entranced. She needn’t have worried about them seeing me; the creatures were absorbed in their own play. Some were riding the waves like dolphins, clinging to flat pieces of driftwood. Others were bouncing on their lower arms, noisy as seagulls. There were small ones and large ones. The smallest were carried by their parents. I was so moved to see them that I hung in place and stared, until one of them looked in my direction and I ducked my head and sped away. I understood, then, where my mother had been going. She was watching them like I was, foolish with longing, pretending they were our kin. I pretended too. 

For a season we watched and were never caught. We matched our sleep with theirs, missing out on moonlight hunting times to be alert in the yellow light. If we grew thinner, what did it matter? If we risked capture, we evaded it too. We never touched them and they never saw us, or so we told ourselves. Besides, our heads above the water looked no different from theirs.  

The child was our undoing. I found her on a rock, sitting alone on the deep side of an island where the kelp swished and danced all the way up to the surface and the rockpools held an abundance of crabs. She was staring into a pool, talking silently to herself with her hands. I had never seen a creature use language before. I approached amongst the kelp, holding on to keep myself steady. Her language was different from ours but I thought I could understand it. She was saying something to the crabs. ‘Come here. Don’t hide’. I had said the same to them when I was small. I ducked under and came up closer, propping myself on the edge of the rock so that I could be in the air like she was. When she saw me, she was not afraid; I had hidden my tail. I gestured to her and her face lit up. Maybe she was the only creature with language! How lonely she must be. My hands flew. There was so much to say. She laughed, moving her hands with speed like mine. We understood nothing from each other except that we understood everything. We slowed, pointing and gesturing and using our faces with deliberate care. She was here with her family. She had a mother – so did I! Another adult too. A little sibling. An animal with whiskers. I loved her sharply, with a tremor that rocked my whole body like a tide. We were kin.  

I had not seen the boat, until she drew attention to it. We were so absorbed in the discovery of each other. She made a boat with her hands and pointed. There it was. A small fishing vessel, so close it could catch me. I was such a fool. Any creature swimming could have seen my tail. She looked at my face, stricken by what she saw there. I looked into her eyes. Then, deliberately, I showed her who I was. I slid into the water, lifted my fin to the sunlight and sped as fast as I could, away into the deepest of the depths. I would never see her again. 

My mother found me in the clearing in the kelp forest. We had lost each other for days and yet I had not looked for her. I knew she would come to me. It was just the two of us, as it had always been. We clung together in the deep, where the weight of the world pressed down upon us, and the light shone green from the wavy roof of the world all the way down to the floor below.  

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