Zita knew she was going too far this time, but for her it was never far enough. Her father would be livid. She could see him now, his face turning red, the white hair that burst around him like a lion’s mane shaking, his hand clutching the King’s Trident. He’d call her reckless and cruel and stupid, and worst he’d call her a child. Her sisters, who’d all tittered at her for her fanciful thoughts, would be stricken now. They all liked to gossip and chatter and act like nothing mattered, but what she was doing was forbidden. All of the things she was about to do were forbidden.
The current snagged at her long, purple tail, and for a moment she thought she’d let it take her away. It’d be easier to go back home, to the castle they’d carved out of the rocks and coral. To see the faces of her six sisters as she told them what she’d almost done. To never look her father in the eyes again without knowing she’d nearly broken every covenant they had. They all looked so much like him. The purple tail shone even this deep into the ocean, and she had the same bright red hair that he’d had as a younger man. He had strong features with the thick chin and tall cheekbones, and even with their brown skin slick and seal-like, they passed for human easily when holding their heads above water.
It was hard to do for long. Zita was the only one who tested it. She would lift herself onto the rocks and feel her gills close up while her lungs tried to take in air through her mouth and nose. The feeling was disorienting, and most felt as though they were choking. Zita could last at least an hour before having to dive again and wait for it to pass. It was easy enough to climb to the top of the stones and watch the fireworks explode from the castle on the cliffside above, or spy the ships as they left from here to the Eastern Isle. Each winter their tribe would leave their fortress here and return to their one on the east of the ocean. She knew the smells and sounds there as well as here, and sometimes she would reach a hand up and scrape it along the bottom of the boat, wishing it luck on its journey.
In the east the boats would throw down spears or try and hook the mermaids. Their king had declared them dangerous a hundred years ago, and though the war had never happened, there was still a wariness there. In the west they thought the mermaids were good luck, though some would try and capture them all the same to keep aboard the ship. If the men caught a glimpse of tail they would hoot and holler until they passed. Zita was not allowed to go to the surface, but there was no way to stop her. Her sisters would go with her as well if handsome enough men were going past, but they never shared her fascination. They would flash their tails at the sailors and then dive below before the boat could come near, laughing all the while.
She was not allowed to go to the surface. She was not allowed to speak to humans. She was not allowed to go to the dark parts of the ocean without a guard. No one was allowed to go to the sea cave in the sunken bottom almost too far for light to reach. It was forbidden to even speak the sea witch’s name.
No one ever told her why. She’d done something, a long time ago, something so unheard of that she’d been cast out of the pod. Some said she’d tried to slaughter the king as a babe and use his blood for magic. Some said she’d raised a sea beast from its deep dark home and tried to start a war with the humans. Some said it was the magic she did. Dark things, they would whisper. Too horrible to even comprehend.
Zita surged forward, wishing for a glow light. She was too scared to sing a spell, uncertain if the sea witch would hear her, uncertain if it would spark some other magic. She held out a hand, feeling the currents. The darkness was a well beneath her, the sunlight so far away. Again and again she told herself to turn back, but she kept moving forward.
The cave was a great open maw in the ocean floor. She could see the rocks rise around it, and a few miles back it would make up the cliffs of the country. It sloped forward like a sleeping giant, and she hesitated at is threshold. Lights glittered in the gloom. Glow orbs hung on kelp rope, and something slithered in the darkness. She could not quite see. Thick strands of seaweed grew up in tangles on the floor, and purple coral made jagged edges to the cave wall.
A song weaved its way into the water. Mermaids didn’t have words. The orators had trained themselves to mimic human vocal chords, but words were useless underwater. Songs carried. But like magicians who found power in words, there was power in songs as well.
Zita felt it pull her in. The song wasn’t like anything she’d ever heard. It was low and slithered like an eel. She followed it, catching glimpses of little creatures that moved in the coral, feeling something watching her. The cave opened its belly, and warm water washed over her as she came to a glowing hearth.
The song came louder, and she saw the shape of the sea witch. Her brown skin had cracks of purple and black, and her black eyes sunk into the darkness. Her tail had once been purple as well, but it had lost its shine and was now an ugly grey-black. Her fingers had nails that were bright red, and she moved through the water easier than any creature. Her song turned to curiosity, and she reached her hand to Zita’s face. Zita moved away, but she felt herself caught there, as if it had a current all its own.
The sea witch smiled. Her fingers twisted in Zita’s red hair, and she gestured to the hearth, which flared up, spreading light into the cave. The coral was shriveled here, and thin polyps squirmed on the walls. On the hearth was a cauldron that bubbled with something strange and orange. The sea witch sang a greeting, and Zita settled away from her. The question was obvious. What was her purpose here?
Zita looked at the walls hung with knives and jars and skeletons and sea plants that swayed slightly in the water. The place brimmed with magic, so much that she could feel it, and she closed her eyes and sang her song.
Mermaids don’t have words, but that does not mean they don’t have a language. A human listening to Zita would have broken down in tears, but they might not know why. The sea witch understood perfectly.
There is a man, drowning. The sea reclaiming. It pulls him down and nestles him in its embrace. The man cannot breathe, cannot see, cannot hear, except for Zita, who calls out to him. She wraps her arms around him and brings him to the shore. She stays with him, coaxing the water from his lungs. Singing all the while. She runs her hands over his face and feels the warmth of the skin. Like the sun. The temple on the sea opens its doors to help the sailors. She turns back to the sea and waits among the rocks. He is carried back to land, to safety.
Zita dreams of him. His face is the only thing she can imagine. His eyes are blue like the horizon, his hair is black like the endless bottom of the ocean, his skin tanned like beach stones. The dreams leave her flushed and drifting. She’s desperate to see him again. Her sisters see her fancy in her song, in her scent, in her eyes. Zita tells them, and they gush over her. It’s just a game at that point. A handsome man, a wrecked ship, a love across the sea. In the winter they will leave, and she will let her fancy go. That is what they all tell her.
Zita swims to the surface every day now. She lays out on the rocks and watches the beach and the temple and the ships. She sits up at every dark haired man and is always disappointed. The sailors drink at the port bars. She swims beneath the piers and listens to them. At night she sings in the water, hoping he will hear.
Then one day he is there! She sees him coming to the temple to bring an offering. She swims as close as she dares. He talks to the people there. His voice carries. It is bold and deep and it sends shivers through her body. Once he’s done, he walks down the beach, and she follows. She finds herself singing into the water, and he looks up. She ducks beneath the waves.
She is consumed with thoughts of him. She cannot tell her father, she cannot listen to her sisters. She wants to go to him. She wants to walk on two legs and dance with him. She wants him to take her hand and lead her down the beach. She wants to kiss him. The wanting of it seizes up inside her, twists at her heart, makes her dull and leaden until she thinks she will die. She is sick with wanting. But legends whisper of a sea witch who may have a cure.
The sea witch watched her as she finished the song. Zita closed her fists, feeling like a fool. She half expected the sea witch to call her silly and send her on her way. But the sea witch turned back to her materials and began pulling things off the wall.
Her song was warning now. There was a price to magic, always a price. And to permanently change between states, that was next to impossible. The man she sought was no ordinary man. He was a prince. He lived in the castle on the cliffside.
Zita didn’t care. He could’ve been a beggar and she would love him. He could’ve been anything.
The sea witch pulled down a knife. Its handle was black, tied with three long strands of hair, and its blade was old and ancient, marred with blood. She held it out to Zita. She told her the price.
Zita stared at the knife. It was too much. Anyone else would say it was too much. Anyone else would’ve turned away. Anyone else wouldn’t have even come here. But to back down now, that would lose her everything.
She opened her mouth, let out one final song. Before the sea witch took the knife and cut out her tongue.
The sea witch dropped it in the cauldron. She took a bottle from the shelf and dipped it into the concoction. She gave it to Zita and told her to swim. To climb onto the surf. To drink the potion there. But there was no coming back. The potion was built on her love and desire. If she couldn’t claim her object of desire, she would be trapped forever on the surface world. She could never come back.
Zita took the potion and swam away as quickly as she could.
All the way up to the surface world, climbing through the water. It weighed down on her as if begging her not to. There’s no turning back, it told her. No singing with her sisters or hugging her father or swimming along the currents. She wouldn’t even have her voice. She wouldn’t have anything at all, except the man she loved. If he loved her back. If she could even find him.
Her head broke the surface of the water. She was on the beach where she’d taken him, the man she dreamed about. The temple sat down the beach, gleaming in the sun, its workers moving in and out. The ships passed away from the harbor. She thought she caught a glimpse of her sister’s tail hit the sunlight, or it could have been her imagination. She dragged herself onto the shore, letting the surf run over her long tail. She gave it one last flap, splashing the incoming tide. Her hands ran across the scales, and she closed her eyes.
She uncorked the bottle and held it to her lips. It smelled like boiled tar and dead things. She downed it anyway. She’d come this far, after all. There was no turning back.
It was the temple workers that found her. She hadn’t even screamed as her tail had split and the scales had shed, leaving blood and fresh new skin. She couldn’t scream. Her pain was soundless, but it was there in the needle prick against every inch of her skin, in the tear of her skin as it became more human-like, in the blood that welled in her throat as the gills disappeared and her lungs tried desperately to breathe with just her nose and her mouth. The sun felt white hot on her, the salt of the ocean scraped against her skin, and she lay exhausted as the magic finished it work, unable to breath or move or talk. A temple worker had seen her, wrapped her in their purple robe. She was carried in like a newborn, fresh from the sea. No words to explain herself. No turning back.