“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”
-Homer’s The Odyssey
The boy stormed into the small house, his temper ignited into a fiery rage. He slammed the door and began to pace, his bare feet kicking dust into the air. “What is it, bubala?” his grandmother asked, her eyes watching him tiredly. “Did you bring us a rabbit?”
“No, Bubbeh,” the boy murmured, squatting on the floor and tracing his finger through the dirt absently. “It got away.”
“Is your Grandfather angry?” his Grandmother asked, her eyes returning to her work on the table. She chopped the cabbage thinly, her wrinkled, rough hands working quickly. The boy shrugged his shoulders with a dismissive grunt before slumping forward, resting his head on his bent knees. She continued working, letting out an impatient sigh. “Then it’s cabbage soup again tonight…”
The boy looked up at his grandmother with a scowl, his almond shaped eyes narrowing with cynicism. “I hate cabbage.” He stood up quickly and crossed his arms over his chest. His grandmother smiled at the young boy, acting so grown up before his time, and leaned forward, patting his curly hair. The boy stomped his foot and shook off her hand coolly. “I mean it, I hate cabbage and I hate soup.”
“You can hate it all you want, bubala, but you will eat it…” his grandmother said sternly, returning to her chores. The boy groaned, resuming a squat and hugging his knees in melodramatic despair. “You should have caught the rabbit…” his grandmother added, winking at the boy when he looked up.
“I’ll catch two rabbits next time.” The boy insisted. “I’ll never eat cabbage again.”
“I’m sixty-seven years old,” his grandmother spoke softly, the knife slapping against the cutting board rhythmically. “I’m rather sick of cabbage too.”
A terrible, agonized scream cut through the air. The hair on the boy’s arms prickled and he looked toward his grandmother fearfully. Another hoarse scream followed and then the shrieking of many people filled the air. The grandmother pushed herself away from the table, her knuckles whitening as she gripped the knife in her hand. “Ikkaku…”
“Grandma?” the boy whispered, his hands clutching at the worn fabric of her dress.
The boy’s stomach twisted painfully as his grandmother stepped toward the window. She peered out, her dark eyes scanning the scene with detachment. She mumbled to herself, a prayer Ikkaku could hardly make out, and spun on her heels hurriedly. “Boy…” she said suddenly, pushing him into the chair. She snatched the blanket from the sleeping mat and threw it onto the table. She scurried through the small house, gathering various supplies that she wrapped into a knapsack.
“Grandma?” Ikkaku repeated unsurely. “What is going on?”
“Take this, bubala,” his grandmother instructed, placing the knapsack in his lap before lacing sandals on his dirtied feet. “I need you to run.”
“Run? Where? Why?” Ikkaku asked in a small voice.
“Just run.” His grandmother instructed, her hands shaking uncontrollably. “Run and don’t stop. Don’t stop for anything.”
“No! Just listen!” his grandmother shouted, turning to check the door guardedly. “There are men outside. They’ve come to kill us…”
“Why?” the boy began to cry.
“Shhh… don’t cry. Men don’t cry. You must be a man now.” His grandmother said sternly before kissing the tear that trailed down his dusty cheek. “Run and don’t look back.”
“But you walk slow! How can you run?!” Ikkaku demanded, his throat constricting.
“I am not going.” His grandmother’s voice faltered. “They will be up the hill any moment now. You must go!”
“Enough! GO!” his grandmother shouted, yanking the boy from the chair by his arm. She dragged him to the back wall of the house and began to chip away at the wood. She found a weak spot of water damaged, rotting wood and the wall gave way in a section large enough for the child to escape. “Go!”
“Grandma…” the boy sputtered, the information unable to be processed.
“Ikkaku,” his grandmother whispered, the voices outside growing horrifyingly louder. “You have your father’s blood in you. He was a great, strong, brave man. Be strong now.” His grandmother kissed him on the forehead. “And live… live like my daughter, your mother, should have…” Ikkaku let out a surprised yelp as his grandmother pushed him through the hole roughly. He rolled across the sand for a few feet and then just lay there, staring at the sky.
The sky was grey and the air was choked with smoke. Ikkaku sat up silently, staring at the village down the hill. It was unbelievable. Just minutes ago the village was serene. His friends Isaia and Tovan had been playing tag, he had been too angry about the rabbit to join in. The rabbi had pinched his cheek and told him to cheer up. He had grumbled something and stalked up the hill to his house.
Men wearing black leather clothes and thick metal armor had infiltrated the peaceful village. With no soldiers to fight them, they began to annihilate the unarmed citizens. They razed the homes and ransacked the shops. They pulled young women, and even young girls, from their families, killing the families and ravaging the women in the streets. Ikkaku gagged, vomiting onto the ground.
Ikkaku couldn’t run. Ikkaku couldn’t even think. He sat there on top of the hill for several minutes. He was roused back into consciousness when there was a shout from inside his house. He crawled forward on his hands and knees, pressing his face against the wood of his home. His grandmother cursed the men, using words Ikkaku had only heard from the old town drunkards.
There was a loud crash and one of the men growled in agony. The smell of cabbage soup filled the air and then his grandmother screamed. Her scream died midway and Ikkaku bit down on his fist. A strange metallic scent filled the air, mingling with the cabbage soup sickly.
Ikkaku peered through the hole, gasping as his grandmother’s face came into view. She was prone on the dirt floor, her throat splayed grotesquely. Her eyes blinked and Ikkaku screamed. Was she alive? Was she angry he had not run away? Ikkaku jumped up and bolted toward the knapsack. Without stopping, he hooked his finger around the tie and ran.
“There!” he heard someone shout. “Catch him!”
Ikkaku ran as fast as he could, the warrior giving chase gaining on him with every step. Ikakku cursed, clutching the knapsack to his chest and increasing his speed. Ikkaku was the fastest boy in his village, but a mere boy could never outmatch a Mitannian warrior and within a minute the soldier had snatched the back of Ikkaku’s tunic.
Ikkaku dropped the knapsack to fumble with his rope belt, screaming as the man’s arms clutched at him. The rope cut into his abdomen and he groaned as the knot tightened. Ikkaku growled, scratching at the man furiously. The man laughed as he pulled a knife from his belt. Without hesitating he sliced upward, cutting Ikkaku from his belly to above his clavicle. Ikkaku shrieked in pain, his hands shooting to the bottom of his stomach, expecting his intestines to spill out onto the sand. The wound, although deep and painful, was not immediately life threatening.
The Mitannian warrior tossed Ikkaku into the air, laughing as the boy fell to the ground with a sickening thud a few feet away. Ikkaku felt his arm break and he snarled, spit foaming in his mouth. He staggered to his feet, something untapped inside of him willing him to survive. He stumbled back toward the warrior and picked up his bloodied knapsack.
The warrior replaced his knife, unsheathing his sword with the shake of his head. Ikkaku turned away from the man, walking calmly as he carried his knapsack. The warrior taunted him but Ikkaku ignored him, limping further away with each passing second. The warrior began to jog, intent on finally finishing the boy off, and that is when Ikkaku broke into a sprint.
Ikkaku couldn’t outrun the grown man. He was muscular and strong, with long legs and a wide reach. Ikkaku gritted his teeth as he bolted forward. He had only one advantage in this game of survival, he knew the terrain.
He took a deep breath and jumped, the cold water of the Tigris enveloping him. The warrior followed unsteadily, the water reaching his waist within a few steps. Ikkaku rolled onto his back, resting the knapsack on his stomach and letting himself float downstream. The warrior shook his head, calling back to his comrades. He gave a dismissive wave with his hand and Ikkaku released a heavy breath. Finally free of his pursuer, the boy let himself be carried away by the river.
The boy fell in and out of consciousness and the next time he awoke the stars were in the sky. The boy shuddered and let out a terrified groan. The river was black, the sky was black, and the creatures that moved on land and in the river were black. Ikkaku closed his eyes and began to pray. The breeze picked up, carrying the faint sound of music on the wind.
Something caught Ikkaku’s ankle and he dipped into the water momentarily. He spit the water from his mouth and tottered, straightening up and treading. He looked around, kicking his legs back and forth freely. It was too dark; it was impossible to see. Ikkaku saw a sand bar up ahead. He rolled onto his stomach, swimming one-handed toward the tree-filled bar. His broken arm ached from clutching the knapsack but he ignored it, paddling awkwardly.
Something wrapped around his other leg and he cursed. He kicked his foot back and forth, but he was stuck. He reached down, his fingertips brushing against what felt like a hand. He managed to let out a scream before he was dragged underwater. Bubbles escaped from his mouth and nose and he threw out his arms, tossing wildly.
Suddenly, a great golden light exploded in front of him. His eyes widened in wonder and he unconsciously stopped struggling. The beautiful golden light was warm, almost like sunshine, and it radiated from the skin of a beautiful woman. The woman’s tendrils spread around her like a halo and she smiled. She opened her mouth, golden light pouring out alongside enchanting music.
The last bit of Ikkaku’s air escaped his lips and he smiled. The woman was handsome, her skin exposed to the navel, including her shapely breasts. Ikkaku felt the blood rush to his cheeks. She smiled, one hand trailing up Ikkaku’s calf and the other brushing against her lower body. Where a woman would have legs, this water nymph had the body of a fish with a beautiful fan-like tail.
She sang to Ikkaku and even as his body began to choke he listened intently. His throat and lungs burned, his chest pumping with effort. His body ached and the pain sobered him. In the corner of his eye he realized his knapsack was caught in the reeds just ahead. He looked at the water nymph’s hand clutching his leg and he frowned, shaking his head.
She nodded her head and leaned forward, her lips touching the young boy’s softly. Ikkaku needed air. He would die without air. Without a plan, he struck the water nymph across the face, his dirty nails cutting her fair skin. She shrieked, her voice turning scratchy and terrifying.
She hissed, her beautiful face twisting horribly. Her mouth opened exposing several rows of sharp, needle-like fangs. She lunged forward and the whole river lit up. Ikkaku’s skin prickled and he began to shake as the entire Tigris, as far as he could see, began to glow different colors. Her shriek had alerted the other creatures…
Ikkaku’s arm burned in agony as he was lifted into the air. He gasped, breathing in and out rapidly. It was still night, but the light in the river made it bright as day. Ikkaku looked up at the hook that was gouged through his shoulder and then he looked down. The creature still had hold of his leg and as he was lifted from the water, the creature’s weight gored him on the hook. He roared in agony, kicking at the creature desperately.
“Stay still!” a man yelled. Ikkaku turned his head to the side, seeing the man standing on the sand bar for the first time. “Don’t wiggle so much!” the man knelt on the ground, directing the hook, and Ikkaku, back toward to sand bar. “And cover yer ears for God’s sake!”
As they approached land, the creature let go with a trill shriek and sank back into the water, her eyes the only thing above the surface of the water. Ikkaku was dropped unceremoniously onto the sand, the hook still impaling him.
“Well fuck.” The man blurted out, wiping his forehead with his hand. “Yer jus’ a kid.” The man kneeled next to him and placed his hand on Ikkaku’s chest. “This’s gonna hurt.” The man twisted the hook and then yanked it free. Ikkaku yelled, baring his teeth. “Yer tough. Good.”
“I lost my knapsack…” Ikkaku whispered, crawling toward the bank and staring into the river desolately. “It was…” Ikkaku paused and swallowed painfully. “I need it…”
“Hey,” the man said softly, his large hand lifting Ikkaku’s chin. “Yer alive. Ya did okay.” The man released the boy and cleared his throat. “How’d ya get out here anyway? You’ve got a funny dialect…”
Ikkaku saw the man’s lips moving but he couldn’t hear him. Ikkaku shook his head and cupped his hand over his ear. To his surprise he felt a thick copious liquid oozing from his left ear. He wiped at it, frightened as he discovered blood on his fingertips. The man stepped forward and brushed his hand over Ikkaku’s ear, his mouth moving as he spoke.
“I can’t hear you…” Ikkaku shouted. “I can’t hear you!”
The man’s name was Kenpachi. That wasn’t really his name, but that’s what the kids called him, so that’s what he went by. He was a twenty-something Babylonian who wished to escape a dark past. He lived on the Tigris River in a shack made of sticks and mud. He had no wife and never took one.
The women at the market called him a collector because, despite his continual protests of wishing to be alone, he was a magnet for orphaned and run away children. At any given time his tiny hut was home to ten or twelve children. He made his living selling fish and precious stones at the market. The children would weave intricate baskets, a skill he would teach each of them, and they would be allowed to keep their earnings. One look at his large, rough hands and you could guess where his skills truly lie. His past was a subject of great interest amongst the gossip mongers of the market.
His idyllic life was shattered the moment that he fished Ikkaku Madarame from the Tigris River. He mended the broken arm and tended to the large cut across the boy’s stomach and chest. He guiltily stitched up the hole left by the hook. And then all he could do was wait for the boy to wake up.
It took four days for Ikkaku to wake up. Eventually his eyes fluttered open and he found himself staring at a brown ceiling. He sat up with a groan, the hand of his uninjured arm shooting to his shoulder uncomfortably. “Damn it.”
Two little girls whispered to one another, their large brown eyes searching him curiously. “Don’t stare.” Ikkaku mumbled as he climbed to his feet. He felt his chest vibrate but he couldn’t hear his own voice. His hand went to his throat and he spoke slowly, testing. “It’s not nice.” Nothing. He heard nothing. His throat quivered beneath his hand but there was no sound.
The littlest girl stood up and held out her hand as if in introduction. Her lips moved rapidly but silently. Ikkaku shook his head, gesturing to his ear in confusion. “I can’t hear you…”
“Ah, good morning,” Kenpachi said as he stepped into the mud and stick hut. He was a large man and he had to bend over to stand in his own house. He pat Ikkaku on the back and smiled tightly. “Can you hear me?”
Ikkaku looked at the man cautiously. He was larger than any man Ikkaku had ever seen. His muscles were lean but well defined. His face was scarred, but handsome. His eyes, green like the treetops, were small and sharp. Ikkaku watched the man’s mouth move and groaned. “I can’t hear you.”
“Well fuck.” Kenpachi swore, kicking out at a bucket beside the wall. The kids in the hut scurried away and Ikkaku took a step back. Kenpachi smiled, exposing sharp, white teeth. He raised his hands peaceably and sat down with a thud. “Sorry, kid. Ah fuck. Ya can’t fuckin’ hear me…” Kenpachi began to gesture with his hands. “Are you hungry?”
“Food? Yes. I want food.” Ikkaku said empathically, nodding his head. “I’m so hungry… but I don’t have money…”
Kenpachi shook his head and frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t want yer money…” Kenpachi lifted his finger in pause. “Can ya read?” Kenpachi shook his head with a groan. “Never mind, I can barely fuckin’ read…” Kenpachi leaned out the door of the hut and bellowed. “Someone bring a bowl of soup for our little Selkie…” Kenpachi eyed the group of children impatiently. “Now… girls… someone…” Kenpachi bit down on his lip in aggravation. “If I have ta get up…”
Ikkaku was spooning soup into his mouth within the minute. He hadn’t realized how truly hungry he was until it was in front of him. He ate the soup, abandoning the spoon and swallowing it directly from the bowl. “Thanks…” Ikkaku said.
“We need ta talk.” Kenpachi whispered brushing his fingers over Ikkaku’s right ear. “This ear’s still alive. Wake it up…” Kenpachi grabbed a tool from his belt and without warning pushed it into Ikkaku’s right ear. Ikkaku struggled but Kenpachi held him down easily, lowering him to the floor. “Shhh. I won’t hurt ya…” Kenpachi nodded in relief as thick, pungent fluid began to funnel from Ikkaku’s ear. “Lay here, jus’ like this, until I tell ya you can move.”
The sun had set before Kenpachi allowed Ikkaku to move. The young man stepped into the hut and looked down at the boy with a mischievous smile. “Can ya hear me yet?”
“I can…” Ikkaku said with a nod. “It’s faint but…”
“Your left ear is useless.” Kenpachi interrupted. “Keep your right one safe from now on.”
“Okay…” Ikkaku answered unsurely.
“Now come on out.” Kenpachi instructed. “Come introduce yerself to the tribe.”
“Tribe?” Ikkaku repeated.
“Yeah.” Kenpachi said with a smirk. “You’ll see… hurry yer ass up.” Ikkaku climbed to his feet slowly, his left side plagued by stabbing pains. He stepped out of the hut and walked toward the fire. A girl patted an empty space on the log next to her and Ikkaku sat down obediently.
Kenpachi stood in the center of the circle, his back to the fire. His long, black hair fell into his face and as he smiled he look truly possessed. “My name is Kenpachi of Zaraki. Like everyone else here, I’m a Babylonian. I don’t like talkin’ about myself much, but for conversation sake, I’ll say that I used to travel for my work…” Kenpachi gestured to Ikkaku with a smile. “Who are you?”
“Me…” Ikkaku began slowly. “I’m Ikkaku Madarame and I’m an Assyrian.” Ikkaku looked around at the other children. “My village was destroyed… my family was killed… I escaped on the river… and then… and then… there was this bright golden light and…”
“And nothin’.” Kenpachi interjected firmly. “I thought ya were a grown man and I hooked ya rather cruelly. I do apologize. “ Kenpachi smiled at the circle of children. “Ikkaku, yer welcome ta stay here so’s long as ya do yer part.”
“And what is my part?” Ikkaku asked dubiously.
“We’ll discuss that later.” Kenpachi growled, his smile twisting into something much more sinister.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
“Ikkaku,” Kenpachi muttered, wiping his hands on his apron. “Hand me the cleaver.” Kenpachi slung a fat shaboot onto the wooden table and turned, extending his hand to the young man impatiently. “IKKAKU!”
The young man turned quickly and eyed the larger man attentively. “Yes?”
“Hand me the fuckin’ cleaver.” Kenpachi murmured, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Oh, okay, right.” Ikkaku said as he unrolled a thick scroll of cloth which held Kenpachi’s blades. He untied the cleaver and handed it to Kenpachi. Ikkaku’s attention returned to the bustling market. The morning was hot and dry and Ikkaku’s skin was already covered in a sheen of sweat.
“Can I have the filet knife?” Kenpachi asked, tossing the fish’s head into a waste bin. Ikkaku nodded and handed the knife to Kenpachi wordlessly.
“Hmm?” Kenpachi answered absently, his hands working quickly. He sliced the meat easily and discarded the bones. He eyed Ikkaku thoughtfully before clearing his throat.
“Aren’t you bored here?” Ikkaku asked, his dark eyes glittering.
“No, I like it here.” Kenpachi nodded toward a group of beautiful young women but Ikkaku shook his head, making a displeased face. “Ya know...” Kenpachi paused awkwardly. “Yer too old to hang around with me. Yer not little and cute anymore, you’ll scare customers away.”
Ikkaku arched a shaped brow and grinned. He shook his head in disagreement and hopped over the stall partitions loftily. “I’m not interested in that shit.”
“Huh?” Kenpachi asked in confusion, his brows knit. His face softened and he groaned irritably. “Oh.” Kenpachi turned around grabbing another shaboot from the pile and tossed it onto the bloodied work table.
Over the day, Kenpachi grew quieter and more introverted, a side that the younger children had never seen before. He barely spoke during the long walk back to his hut by the river. That night the group of children, numbering fifteen now, were huddled around the campfire, Ikkaku, now the eldest at 23, told stories until the children could no longer keep their eyes open.
“They missed you.” Ikkaku said softly, scooping the bottom of the pot for the last remnants of stew. “Your stories are better than mine.”
“I’ve been busy,” Kenpachi replied simply, taking the bowl from Ikkaku with a nod. “I’ve been thinkin’.”
“About the river?” Ikkaku pressed curiously.
“Of course, idiot…” Kenpachi snapped. “What the fuck else?” Kenpachi took a spoonful of stew into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Kenpachi eyed Ikkaku with concern. “I won’t be goin’ to the river anymore.”
“What? Why?” Ikkaku demanded, his voice tight with agitation.
“I’m gettin’ older…” Kenpachi began to explain.
“Bullshit.” Ikkaku growled. “You’re what…?”
“42.” Kenpachi answered with a dry laugh. “Give or take a few months.”
“You’re still in great shape.” Ikkaku insisted, looking Kenpachi up and down in disbelief at his statement. “You can’t quit! I thought you… I thought you knew what needed to be done!”
“Do you believe in witchcraft, sorcery, that sort of thing?” Kenpachi asked suddenly, his green eyes boring into Ikkaku.
“Well, I suppose I do…” Ikkaku answered thoughtfully. “I’ve seen some amazing things.”
“I can’t go back to the water.” Kenpachi replied cryptically. He placed his bowl on the ground and leaned forward, his knee knocking against Ikkaku’s. “And I need you to promise me something,” Kenpachi demanded, the urgency of his voice making Ikkaku’s skin prickle. “When I’m gone, I need you to protect this place. The kids come and go, and I’m happy for them, but this place is the only place for them when they’re here.”
“Kenpachi.” Ikkaku spoke softly, the name feeling heavy on his tongue. “Why are you saying this?”
“”Cause no one fuckin’ lives forever.” Kenpachi growled. “Swear it.” He stood up, towering over Ikkaku. “Swear to me that you’ll keep my home safe.”
“Okay,” Ikkaku said, raising his hands peaceably. “I swear.”
“Good.” Kenpachi said with a huff of breath. He sat back down on the log heavily, his knees jutting out in opposite directions. “Glad that’s settled.”
“Kenpachi…” Ikkaku asked. “Why do you stay here? Why do you do the things you do?”
After sixteen years together, Ikkaku knew many things about the other man. Kenpachi loved children, especially little girls, and he kept them close out of genuine kindness. He hated pickles but would take double cucumbers on his food. He was good at fishing, it was his livelihood, but he couldn’t stand to watch the fish suffocate. He would pretend to be busy collecting stones while he was really taking a nap. But none of those things accounted for much. Who was Kenpachi of Zaraki before he became Kenpachi of Zaraki?
“I’m waitin’.” Kenpachi answered. He looked over at Ikkaku and smiled tightly.
“To be useful again.”
“Yeah, yer not the first person I’ve fished outta the Tigris.”
“Other children?” Ikkaku asked curiously.
“Yes and no.” Kenpachi leaned his head back and stared up at the dark early morning sky. “I was probably eighteen or nineteen, they were younger but not too young… It was the first time I saw one of them.” Ikkaku shivered, the shrill screams of the creature filling his recollection. Kenpachi nodded and laughed, “I know what yer thinkin’, but ya gotta remember, they’re beautiful…”
“Until they try to eat you.” Ikkaku muttered bitterly.
“Exactly.” Kenpachi agreed with another laugh.
“So what happened?”
“Nothin’, really.” Kenpachi said with a shrug. “I untangled it from my line and never saw it again.”
“And?” Ikkaku pressed impatiently. “What else?”
“And nothin’. That chapter is over.” Kenpachi laughed at Ikkaku’s disappointed expression. “I spent a few days camped along the river, waitin’ for it to come back, but it didn’t. After that I met an old woman, she was fat and ugly as fuck. She said she’d read my palm in exchange for a meal. I fed ‘er and humored her a bit. She read my palm and told me I was wastin’ my time.”
“Waitin’ for it to come back.” Kenpachi explained. “She said she knew what I was thinkin’ and then she tol’ me exactly, as if it was right outta my own mouth. She said I needed to be lookin’ for somethin’ else, but wouldn’t tell me what…” Kenpachi eyed Ikkaku before continuing. “She tol’ me that my son would take over for me. Her words were ‘your son will finish your task’. Well… I’ve spent nearly the last twenty years thinkin’ to myself ‘I don’t have a fuckin’ son’.”
Kenpachi and Ikkaku sat in silence for a long stretch of time. Kenpachi leaned forward to place another log on the fire and Ikkaku took the opportunity to speak up. “So you want to find a woman and settle down? That’s why you can’t go to the river anymore?”
“Yer fuckin’ stupid,” Kenpachi leaned forward, resting his face in his hands. He sighed and then groaned, looking up at Ikkaku with disbelief.
“If I’m stupid it’s your fault, Kenpachi! You’re no teacher.” Ikkaku snapped, crossing his arms.
“You were stupid when I found ya,” Kenpachi insisted with a laugh. “Don’t make excuses.”
“When we first met you told me that you would help me kill those bastards. It’s been sixteen years and we have yet to catch one! Not a single one! And now you’re tellin’ me that yer gonna quit!?”
“Listen to me real good, Ikkaku,” Kenpachi said sternly. “You asked me why I was still here after so long… this is my home. I love my life. It ain’t exciting or adventurous but tha’s fine by me. The river already gave me what I wanted long ago. I don’t need anything else from it.”
“Those things are evil.” Ikkaku insisted angrily.
“Those things are just like you and me. They kill to eat.” Kenpachi shrugged and stood up. “After sixteen years, I think it’s time to give up the chase. You don’t need to be avenged, yer alive. Those things didn’t kill yer grandparents.”
“You’re okay with wastin’ yer life here? You aren’t disappointed? What about the witch? Didn’t she say the river would be important to you?”
“It is, it was.” Kenpachi paused, his back stiffening as he spoke. “That river gave me my son.”
“You shouldn’t go down there by yerself.” Kenpachi argued, folding his arms across his broad chest. He leaned against a tree lazily, as if the conversation wasn’t his idea in the first place. He clicked his tongue in irritation as Ikkaku laced his boots. “Yer too fuckin’ stubborn, idiot.”
“Then come with me.” Ikkaku barked. He eyed the older man inquisitively then cursed as he realized that Kenpachi was not going to give in. “I’ll be back.”
“Fine.” Kenpachi replied with a shrug.
“I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Great, I need yer help at market in the morning.” Kenpachi retorted.
“Yeah and I need your help tonight!”
Kenpachi shrugged and then grinned widely. “Ya know what? You be careful and make sure you don’t drink too much or y’u’ll end up pukin’ yer guts out…”
“I won’t.” Ikkaku snapped. “I can handle my fuckin’ liquor…”
Sometime after midnight, Ikkaku was sitting on the edge of the dock. The fire back at camp was low and dying and the whole earth was nearly pitch black. Ikkaku stared up at the silver blanket of stars and nursed a nearly empty bottle of ale. This was the kind of night that Kenpachi and he would spend talking. They would talk about the kids at camp, they would talk fish, of course, and they would somehow get to Ikkaku’s family.
Ikkaku sighed and downed the last mouthful of his bottle. He tossed the bottle onto the shore and laid back on the dock. The wood was hard beneath his smooth head and his muscles ached from physical exhaustion. His bare toes skimmed through the cold water and he closed his eyes. He loved the river. He shook his head in confusion and sat up, eyeing the river suspiciously. No, I hate this river, he reminded himself.
Ikkaku shivered and with a groan remembered that he had left his tunic under a tree along with his shoes. Ikkaku climbed to his feet and spun in a neat, methodical circle. He grinned from ear to ear, balancing on the thin outer beam of the dock with ease. Ikkaku may not be the smartest, funniest or handsomest man in the village but Ikkaku never doubted his own physical supremacy, especially when liquor was involved.
He hopped off the thin beam and onto the thin grass strewn sand. He jogged to the tree and pulled his tunic over his head. He pulled another bottle from his basket and took a quick swig. He walked slowly back toward the river, lost in thought. He took the easy route this time, walking down the center of the dock.
Ikkaku felt his stomach lurch as his leg slid out from under him. His eyes opened wide and he looked down too late, his foot had slipped on bit of algae that grew across the wood. He slammed down into the dock with a reverberating thud. His teeth slapped against each other and he let out a great “Hmpff!” as the breath was knocked out of him.
He let out a groan, staring up at the sky as he evaluated his condition. Once he realized that a bump on his head and a bruised tailbone was probably the worst of it, he let out a laugh. He sat up and brushed his thumb across the gash on the inside of his cheek. He peered out into the water and cursed, watching his white porcelain bottle of ale float downstream. “Well fuck.”
Ikkaku wiped his hands on his cotton pants and rolled to his feet agilely before shaking his head and looking around in embarrassment. He decided to call it a night, even though it was still early and he turned around, careful to mind the sore ankle. He took a cautious step forward and that is when the board broke. His leg smashed through the wood and with a panicked shout Ikkaku toppled into the river.
The first thing that coursed through Ikkaku’s mind was the immense and unbelievable pain. His hand shot downward and he growled in frustration as he realized a section of wood had pierced through his calf and into his upper thigh. And then, as the warm blood oozed into the icy water, he realized where he was.
Ikkaku splashed around in the placid water, his breath coming in and out in short, rattled bursts. He began to mutter to himself, prayers that he could only half remember from his childhood. He was paddling, fighting against the current when he saw it – a bright silver light. “Oh fuck no. Oh hell no…” Ikkaku screamed. He twisted too suddenly, knocking his head roughly against the thick post of the dock. His vision swam and he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open. A stream of blood trickled into his eye and Ikkaku lost his ability to tread in place. A warm silver light shot through the water and then enveloped him. In that moment the night was truly as bright as day and Ikkaku blocked his eyes with his hand. And then, as he was swept away, everything dissolved into silver and foam.
Ikkaku’s eyes blinked open tiredly, the corners of his eyes crusted thickly with salt. His hands gripped at the sandy earth beneath him and he turned his head from side to side confusedly. His head pounded, his skull feeling as if it might burst. There was a strange sensation burning down his leg and he groaned, sitting up.
Ikkaku yelped loudly, jumping in surprise. The man beside him yelped in response, sitting up and dropping the tool that he held in his hand. When the stranger shouted Ikkaku yelled again, injuring his leg further as he attempted to back up. “Who the hell are you?”
The strange young man eyed Ikkaku suspiciously, as if he might attack at any moment. He lifted a long, thin finger and gestured to Ikkaku’s bloodied leg. The man lifted the tossed needle from the sand and Ikkaku realized with a grimace that the man was giving him stitches. “Ah, fuck…” Ikkaku groaned, dropping back down against the sand and staring up at the sun rising into the sky. “Thanks for coming along… where’d ya find me anyway…?”
The young man pushed a strand of windblown black hair behind his ear and shrugged absently, pushing the needle through Ikkaku’s flesh without warning. Ikkaku scowled, tapping his unrestricted foot against the ground agitatedly. “Man, I think I fell into the water last night,” Ikkaku said suddenly as the night’s events came into mind. “Shit… I need to quit drinkin’.”
The raven haired young man smiled wordlessly and nodded. He looked up at Ikkaku with large violet eyes before returning his gaze to Ikkaku’s wound, a blush creeping across his pale cheeks. “Does it look bad?” Ikkaku questioned, biting down on his own hand as the man continued to stitch him. “I still can’t see clearly. I knocked my head pretty good last night…”
The stranger paused, surveying the injuries thoughtfully before waving his hands in gesture as if to say ‘This could be bad.’ Ikkaku nodded and began to watch the man’s hands working with curiosity. The needle was not made of metal, but instead was crafted from a strange blue stone that Ikkaku was unfamiliar with. Ikkaku frowned, studying the thick silver cord being used for the stitches. His eyes blurred and he blinked them rapidly to clear them.
“Say,” Ikkaku began unsurely, his eyes wandering from the handsome stranger’s face to his bare chest and navel. Ikkaku averted his eyes immediately, but then curiosity got the best of him and he returned his gaze to the other man’s body. The other man, of a nearly nondescript age, was sitting in the sand, his legs crossed beneath him, and he was completely naked. “Where’re yer clothes?”
The other man looked at him with sharp, violet eyes and then looked down at Ikkaku’s clothes, his hands gripping the fabric of Ikkaku’s torn pants. The man looked down at himself and tilted his head. He let out a great huff of breath and sat back on his heels, crossing his arms over his slender chest. His handsome face was twisted with disappointment and an unmistakable look of frustration.
“Ah, well, uh, I didn’t mean anything by it…” Ikkaku began to ramble. “I’m sure you were swimming and found me and decided to help and now I’m being really fuckin’ rude…” The young man nodded enthusiastically and leaned forward, his long black hair draping across his silvery shoulders. “You don’t talk much do ya?” The young man shook his head in response and Ikkaku nodded taking in their surroundings. “Do you live around here?”
The young man shrugged and then nodded slowly, noncommittally. “I live about three miles upstream,” Ikkaku said with a groan. “I was supposed to be home by now…” Ikkaku examined the stitches on his leg and attempted to stand. He wobbled uneasily and the other man’s hands shot up to steady him. “I might not be able to walk just yet.”
The other man looked up at Ikkaku crossly and gestured with a lithe arm toward the river. He made the motions as if swimming and Ikkaku shook his head quickly. “Nah, I don’t swim.” Ikkaku said firmly. “Not in that fuckin’ river.” Ikkaku looked down at the naked man and cleared his throat awkwardly. “You really shouldn’t either…” The longer Ikkaku looked at him, the surer Ikkaku became that his skin was as smooth as stone. He lifted his hand, reaching out to touch the skin before he came back to his senses and dropped his hand to his side.
The young man rolled his eyes, a smile twisting his lips. He opened his mouth to speak and then shut it quickly, simply smiling wider. “I’ve gotta go,” Ikkaku said. “But thank you. I mean, how can I thank you? Do you like fish? I’m only asking because we are fishermen and…” Ikkaku paused as the other’s man face came into view. The young man was smiling so radiantly that it caused Ikkaku’s heart to skip a beat. “Say, tell me yer name. My name’s Ikkaku Madarame. If you go to the market in Zaraki anyone there can tell ya how to find me…”
“Yu,” the young man began slowly, as if the speech pattern were foreign to him.
“IKKAKU!” someone began to shout his name from the river. “IKKAKU!!”
The young man jumped with a start, disturbing the sand on the shore. Ikkaku reached down and touched his shoulder, “It’s okay, it’s just my Dad.” A strange motion caught Ikkaku’s attention and he nearly collapsed as the ground beneath the other man began to churn, a broad, silver fanned tail emerging from beneath him. “What the fuck?!?”
“IKKAKU!” Kenpachi roared as his little fishing boat rounded the bend of the river. “I can fuckin’ see ya, answer me you fuckin’ idiot!” Kenpachi narrowed his eyes, squinting to see Ikkaku at the wide distance. “Can ya hear me?” Kenpachi’s voice softened somewhat. “Ikkaku?”
Ikkaku stammered, unable to speak as the man- no the creature- wound in a wide circle, spraying sand in every direction as it retreated toward the river. With a great splash the creature hit the surface of the water and Ikkaku was fully drenched. He stood there, unmoving and unthinking, as the creature erupted into a silver light before launching itself downstream.
It would be weeks before Ikkaku would agree to leave their hut. And even then he would only journey so far as the campfire, where he would help the smaller children weave their baskets. Ikkaku couldn’t admit that fear was holding him back and instead complained heavily of his wounded leg, drinking far more than he could manage.
“Listen, kid,” Kenpachi murmured, groaning internally. “Ya’ve gotta stop.” Kenpachi’s green eyes met Ikkaku’s and suddenly Kenpachi lost his patience. “Stop being a fuckin’ pussy.”
“A pussy?” Ikkaku demanded with a shriek. “I’m a pussy?!? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know those fuckin’ things could go on fuckin’ land!! Did you? Those things… those things that tried to fuckin’ eat me can come on fucking land!”
“It saved you.” Kenpachi pointed out with a sigh.
“They’re evil.” Ikkaku snapped, turning slowly and hobbling away from the campfire. “And I’m going to empty that fucking river.”
“Where’re you goin?” Kenpachi demanded.
“To the river.”
“You’re obsessed.” Kenpachi muttered, knowing for certain that Ikkaku couldn’t hear him from that distance. “Just be careful.”
Ikkaku limped down to the river, cursing as he walked across the dock that Kenpachi and one of the older boys had repaired. He sat at the edge of the dock and lowered the spear he carried into his lap. Ikkaku steeled his resolve and lowered himself into the chilled river, gasping as the water reached his bare chest. He hooked his uninjured leg around the post of the dock and sank down, his nose the only bit of him above the water.
There was a loud splash on the other bank and Ikkaku nearly screamed as a crocodile turtle swam past him. He shivered and then shook his head, he was resolved to kill at least one of those things tonight. There was a glimmer in the center of the river and Ikkaku’s eyes narrowed; it could’ve been the reflection of the moon or something much more sinister.
A soft silver light began to travel underwater and Ikkaku grinned from ear to ear maniacally. He pulled his arm up and out, stretching it taut to drive more power into the strike of his spear. “Closer…” Ikkaku whispered. “Closer…” His body began to tremble with anticipation. “Just a little more…”
The torso of a man emerged slowly from the water, droplets streaming down his hair and onto his prickled, glimmering flesh. He looked at Ikkaku inquisitively, his arm blocking the sudden attack of the spear with such grand finesse that Ikkaku couldn’t believe it. He looked up at the spear in his grip and then at Ikkaku, a frown curving his lips downward. The creature released the spear and lowered his arm, his violet eyes studying Ikkaku intently. “Michi-ka.”
“Huh?” Ikkaku breathed out, his voice betraying his calm exterior. “What?”
“My name.” the creature explained. His voice was pleasant and smooth even though the language seemed unfamiliar to him. He smiled and tilted his head to the side, his black hair falling over his shoulder.
“My name?” Ikkaku repeated, completely stunned.
“No, my name.” the creature corrected, hitching his thumb toward himself.
“What’s your name?” Ikkaku questioned, lowering the spear unconsciously. “Michika?”
“Yu-michi-ka,” He pronounced his name slowly and with great attention and Ikkaku found himself entranced by the movement of his mouth. The creature swam forward, his silver scaled tail waving back and forth rapidly. He stopped directly in front of Ikkaku, the warmth from his glowing belly and tail spreading to Ikkaku.
“You can talk.” Ikkaku blurted out in surprised realization. “You things can talk?”
“Things?” Yumichika questioned, his eyelids blinking vertically.
“You… mermaids or whatever.” Ikkaku clarified, sweeping his hand in gesture.
“I am not a maiden.” Yumichika said, his voice ringing through the air loudly. His tail appeared to spark with electricity and Ikkaku nearly lost his grip on the dock. “And yes, I can speak. Thank you.” He lifted his arm from the water and with a sigh pushed his hair out of his face.
“Thank you?” Ikkaku repeated interestedly. “For what?”
“Do they not have sarcasm on the land?” Yumichika asked dryly. “How then do you communicate?”
“But…” Ikkaku said with an irritated grunt. “Then why weren’t you speaking back there? When you stitched my leg? And why on Earth did ya fuckin’ do that anyway?! I mean how dare you!”
Yumichika looked at Ikkaku intently before turning to the side objectively, “Which question should I answer first? In the order they were asked or…?”
“I don’t like your kind.” Ikkaku spat suddenly as he bobbed out of the water and pulled himself onto the dock. He folded his legs under him and stared down at the creature with distrust. “This river should belong to men.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Yumichika said with a dry, humorless, and haughty chuckle. “I have seen you and the others… running up and down the river in boats or on flimsy wooden bridges. You are crippled on the water. Why should you get to keep it? It was ours first.”
“Why did you save me?” Ikkaku demanded, the veins at his throat and temples throbbing with anger.
“Why did you lower your spear?” Yumichika returned with a smile.
“I… that’s different…” Ikkaku began to explain uncomfortably. “I just realized you’re too strong to fight alone.”
“Ah, I see.” Yumichika replied with a simple nod. “You were afraid and I was curious.” Yumichika tilted his head to the side, pulling his upper body level with the dock. “We are both a slave to our race it seems.” Yumichika placed a warm hand on Ikkaku’s scarred chest. “Men are weak-willed and we…” Yumichika’s sweet-smelling breath fanned across Ikkaku’s skin. “Are slaves to beauty…”
“I see why you were quiet earlier, you’ve a terrible personality.” Ikkaku muttered, staring into Yumichika’s eyes.
“Humans have indulged in our songs for millennia,” Yumichika said suddenly. “But never have I spoken with one before.”
“You don’t play with yer food then?” Ikkaku taunted, his dark eyes burning into Yumichika’s.
“Ha!” Yumichika laughed good-naturedly. “I like you.”
“I said,” Yumichika repeated and this time his face was inches from Ikkaku’s. The warmth rolling off of the creature’s body was enough to make a strange heat pool in Ikkaku’s belly. “I…like…you…” And then Yumichika’s lips were against Ikkaku’s. Even with his eyes closed, the light that erupted between their two bodies was blinding. “Goodnight, Ikkaku Madarame.” Yumichika lowered himself into the river and smiled coyly, swimming backward so leisurely that the current seemed to have no effect on him. He gave a small wave and bobbed in place, his body slowly sinking into the water.
Ikkaku’s hand pressed to his lips slowly. He sat there in stunned silence until Yumichika was already gone. Ikkaku shook his head and clenched his fist. “Hey! Hey, you! Get your ass out here! What gave you the idea that you could do weird things?!”
“You sure are carefree.” Ikkaku chastised as he sat down beside the river. He opened up his pack and pulled out a sandwich, tearing it into pieces before shoving it into his mouth.
“Hmm.” Yumichika muttered, lifting the arm that covered his face to get a good look at Ikkaku. “Oh, hey, you…” Yumichika said in greeting. “You must be terribly jealous, I’m sure that basket weaving has exhausted you.” Yumichika rolled onto his stomach in the sand and propped himself up on his elbows. “You are early today.”
“I just happened to see you sunning yourself on my bank.” Ikkaku insisted. “I thought I might come and challenge you.”
“Challenge me?” Yumichika questioned, his violet eyes softening with curiosity. “To what end?” He decided to ignore the first part of Ikkaku’s comment.
“I never said I wasn’t going to kill you.” Ikkaku admitted.
“You are intolerably strange.” Yumichika complained, his tail swishing back and forth through the river absently.
“You think I won’t?” Ikkaku growled.
“No, I do not.” Yumichika answered with a frown. “Why would you? Have I harmed you?”
“Your kind…” Ikkaku muttered. “Nearly killed me once.”
“I got hit on the head with an oar once or twice, does that count as attempted murder?” Yumichika prosed.
“I hope it was me.” Ikkaku grumbled.
“Oh, you are so rude!” Yumichika admonished, using his tail to launch a scoop of ice cold water at Ikkaku’s face. “Your manners are attempted murder.”
“Yumichika.” Ikkaku said suddenly serious. “Why me? I never got it. I mean… was it simply bad luck?”
“I can’t answer that.” Yumichika said softly. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve gotta get back to work.” Ikkaku replied, swallowing the last mouthful of his sandwich with effort. “Those fish aren’t gonna just catch ‘emselves.” Ikkaku stood silently for a moment before speaking again. “Ya know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of yer kind out during the day before.”
“It’s because you choose not to see us.” Yumichika answered cryptically. “We are always there.” Yumichika combed his fingers through his hair absently. “I used to wonder if we actually existed in the same space.”
“But you don’t wonder anymore?”
“No,” Yumichika answered with a wide, happy grin. “Because now I can talk to you!”
Ikkaku ambled back toward the hut, his mind wandering. It wasn’t until he felt the tap on his shoulder that he realized someone was in front of him, speaking to him. He took a startled step back and peered down at the ugly, old woman expectantly. “Can I help you?”
“Perhaps…” the old woman said. Ikkaku eyed her silently, and acknowledged she was disgusting to behold. She had dark circles around her drooping, mismatched eyes. Her papery thin skin was creased and dry. Her hair, once a brilliant red, was a ruddy grey and in several hairless patches there was only flaking scalp showing. “I am very hungry…” The old woman rested her hand on her portly belly. “I beg of you, give me something to eat…”
“Sure,” Ikkaku answered without hesitation. “Hope you like fish.” He gestured toward camp and smiled politely. “I live there, follow me and I’ll get ya something to eat.”
“Such a sweet boy.” The woman murmured, following several paces behind Ikkaku. “Perhaps I could repay you in some way…” the woman suggested.
“No need,” Ikkaku called over his shoulder. Ikkaku peered around the empty camp and frowned, “Kenpachi…? Girls? Where’d ya go?” Ikkaku ducked into the hut and scratched his chin. “Hello? Guys? Kenpachi?” Ikkaku frowned, turning back to face the woman. “I’m not sure where everyone went, but I can cook alright…”
Ikkaku sat down on the log, and gestured to the old woman who sat down with a great plop beside him. Ikkaku stacked the unfinished baskets and set them aside. He assembled his tools and gutted a medium sized shaboot. He speared it above the spit and seasoned it. He was quick, it was second nature to him now.
“Where’re ya from?” Ikkaku asked, attempting to make small talk.
“I’m from a colony just inside the bend where the Euphrates meets the Tigris.” The woman answered. “I am travelling to visit family.”
“Well good travels,” Ikkaku replied with a friendly nod.
“Thank you.” The woman said simply. They sat in silence as the fish cooked. The delicious scent of cooked shaboot filled the air and Ikkaku cleared his throat. He removed the fish from the spit, placing the fish in a wooden bowl. He handed it to the woman and she dipped her head appreciatively. “Thank you.”
“It was delicious,” the woman complimented, her eyes gleaming with moisture. “And now, could I return a favor perhaps?” the old woman’s soft, wrinkled hand caressed Ikkaku’s. “Do you wish to know your future?”