There are lights at the surface.
Lights so unlike the sun, that can’t reach down into the depths of the ocean. Lights we can see only when we look outside the water. She turned the thought over and over in her mind, imagining the lights as best she could until she had to ask her sisters for help again.
“What about the carnival? Are the lights on the rides? What are the rides?” she asked one of the oldest, who just turned away—that sister rarely spoke anymore. Lo sighed, turning back to one of the younger ones, whose first trip to the surface was more recent. “Tell me, Ry?”
“Lights. Lights everywhere, I think on the rides. I don’t know what the rides are called anymore,” Ry said, sounding irritated at the notion of lights. “And noise. Really, Lo, it’s nothing to be excited about. It’s not the way you remember it.”
That was what they kept telling her—it wouldn’t be the way she remembered it. Because the last time she saw the human world, she was human.
She walked on land and sat in the sun and sometimes went so far inland, she couldn’t even see the ocean. These were things she barely remembered, things that felt like dreams and grew fainter and fainter each day she spent underwater with her new sisters.
The girls here weren’t her real sisters, but sometimes she convinced herself they were. When they streaked through the water, laughing, minds linked by some sort of electric current that skipped through the ocean, when they’d been under so long that they forgot a human world existed… then they were her real sisters, her real family, and this was her real home.
But even as she forgot her old life—first the strongest memories, then the moments between, and then the smallest details of who she was—there was one thought, one memory that never left the recesses of her mind: She’d been happy as a human, happier than she was now underwater. And that tiny thought refused to let Lo fully embrace a lifetime under the waves. She had to at least look back to the human world.
Once every deep tide—every fifteen months—the sisters surfaced together. Some to remember, most to remember why they forgot. Why the ocean took the memories of their old lives one grain at a time, the same way the tide pulled the shore out to sea. Why the ocean took their souls. Turned them from humans into… this.
There are lights at the surface. I just need to see them, and I’ll never forget what they look like again, Lo told herself. She still felt it was better to remember, to know what she was missing. Most of her sisters had long decided that it was easier to forget.
“Ready?” one of the oldest sisters asked. Her voice was bell-like, musical. All the old ones were beautiful, from their voices to the palms of their hands. They would grow more so every day, until the day they’d float away with the low tide, or maybe in a storm, and never be seen again. They became angels, according to the stories. Most of her sisters believed the angel tale, that old ones went to the surface and were greeted by beautiful men, beautiful women who welcomed them into the sky. Lo had her doubts—most of the girls her age still did, but as they grew old, their doubts faded until they believed steadfastly. She wondered how many days, months, tides this sister had left.
“Is it time?” Lo asked.
“As soon as you feel the tide coming in. Any moment now…”
The old sister paused, waited for the tiniest shift in the ocean, in herself. Changes Lo hadn’t noticed when she first arrived, changes she suspected only creatures of the water could appreciate. Lo found the water more marvelous every day, found living in it to be more perfect, more wonderful….
But she still wanted to remember.
The ocean shifted; her sisters rose and slipped upward like a single creature. She followed, the old sister just behind her, waiting for them to call her back, to hold her down to the seafloor like they’d done when she first arrived and fought to break the water’s surface for weeks and weeks. But no, it was time. She was several months into her new life; she could be trusted to glimpse the old one. The weight of the water above them grew less and less until…
Lo gasped, dry air filling her lungs. It hurt, but she grinned and forced her eyes open despite the wind. Wind—she remembered wind. Standing in a field near a tiny house, people behind her, her family. When she first arrived at the ocean, she would pick out the most beautiful shells from the ocean floor, send them away in the waves, and hope her family would find them. She would imagine they’d see them, know they were from her, know she was alive… and now, she couldn’t remember their faces. She couldn’t even remember how many family members she had.
The lights. I need to see the lights, she thought firmly—maybe they’d remind her of her family. She looked up at the stars, the moon, and finally the shore. Two bright lights shone from a spot in the sand, moving along slowly, waving back and forth—
Hands—they were handheld lights, grasped in the palms of humans walking side by side. Walking. I used to walk, she thought, but she couldn’t stop herself from thinking how ungainly it looked compared with being in the water. She swam forward a little, silent, to get a better look.
A boy and a girl, laughing, talking, the sounds barely audible over the crashing waves. Brilliant-colored lights in pinks, reds, greens, yellows, from the carnival beyond the pier, bounced off their faces—all that light, and yet the two of them somehow looked brighter in comparison. They looked warm. They shone. They looked happy.
“Are you going to try?” one of the sisters asked.
“Him?” Lo answered. “How would I get to him?” The two crossed in front of several houses, then a white building with glowing porch lights, making the couple appear in perfect silhouette.
“You can sing. It works sometimes. And they think we’re beautiful. That helps.”
“But he has her. He’s already in love.”
“Maybe you can break it,” another sister suggested.
“Don’t you want to?” Lo answered, looking back at them. This boy’s soul, why weren’t they fighting over it? They were all older than her, more beautiful, more practiced. Make him love you, kiss him, drown him. Earn his soul, and you get your humanity back—the escape from the ocean that the older girls told her about on her very first day. Yet they were letting her have him, if she wanted.
“Go ahead, Lo,” Ry said.
Lo swallowed. She loved her sisters, but she knew—they all knew—they weren’t originally meant for the sea. And she wanted to remember her former life completely, return to it, before she became old and beautiful and had forgotten her humanity entirely. It won’t be fair, what will happen to the boy, but it wasn’t fair what happened to me, either. That makes it all right, doesn’t it?