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Aquaria

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Maris is born in the shallows, welcomed by the hum of clownfish and anemones before she can loose her first wail. She is the second daughter of a third daughter and only son, and her parents are midwives to dolphins. They hope she will follow in their footsteps, respectable healers with a comfortable living, and send her to schools and pods that encourage the scientific pursuits. However, when she comes home with drawings of poetry and stories about the quest of Amaris Quickfin, they laugh, their amusement cradling her and making the grumpy eel come out to see what was passing. It is plain to all, they say, that she will be a sharer of tales, and they encourage her when she seeks to learn the languages of the sea brethren.

Time passes, and Maris ventures closer inland, where river meets sea and the brackish water makes breathing difficult. She learns the peculiar syntax of salamanders, coaxes the catfish into telling her the tales of their mothers, and giggles when the guppies play hide and seek in her hair and nibble her toes. Sometimes she plays with the drylander children, thinking they look awkward and sad in their safety bubbles with three tankfish keeping them company always. She is surprised, when they become bold enough to touch and share speech, to learn that they think her naked and are shocked she's not frightened without the buffer of a familiar tank and known water.

When Maris stops growing and settles into her final shape, the sea witch, her queen, comes to her. Maris shivers at her speech, the dark cold of power and determination limning her words, but listens when her queen offers her the chance to live amongst the drylanders. It is not forever, she says, for it is a duty you bind yourself to. You would live with them and speak with them, telling them of the brethren and learning their stories, their histories.

But the tank, Maris says, what about the tank?

I would spell you like them, her queen replies, bind you to fresh water as you walk the dry land, that you may listen and hear and love as they do.

Oh, Maris says. I didn't know that was possible.

The queen laughs, How did you think we talked with our cousins? It is not a hard magic, just a tedious one, and not one commonly sought. I will call on you again in a time, and I pray you tell me then what you wish.

The sea witch, her queen, leaves, letting Maris to take in the offer. She dips and dives and twists, flirts with sun and shade and finally floats, letting the great turtles carry her along as her thoughts spin.

Maris sleeps thrice before the sea witch comes back to her. Yes, she says, I'll do it.

-- divider: ocean --

When she's fitted for the tank, she panics. The transition is hard, they all tell her, the flutter of worried thoughts and fretting pinging at her mind. But you can do it, they say, and you'll learn ever so much. She gulps deep as they measure her neck and her shoulders and her crown, slowing her heaving chest so that she doesn't faint. She tries on round tanks and square tanks and geodesic tanks, testing them for fit and comfort as she walks the beach and learns the art of balance where sand meets sea.

Finally, it's done. She has selected a tank and practiced walking in the embrace of air. If the thought of the same three-six-nine fish as company disquiets her, she shoves it down under the excitement of walking dryland, and if the thought of moving on only one plane bothers her, she thinks of the wonders of aeroplanes and something called a cart-wheel.

-- divider: ocean --

She says her goodbyes. Her parents embrace her, and her friends of flesh and fin wish her joy in her adventure. The sea witch tells her that it will be as a rebirth, that she must go naked onto the sands and that she'll be met there by those who will protect her.

Maris takes one last breath of familiar salt sea and nods. Then she walks out of the waves.

She is met by two women and a man, strangers who have volunteered to be her guides. They gather her close, petting and soothing and murmuring encouragement as they fasten the tank - her tank - around her neck and she tastes freshwater for the first time.

She panics, chokes and sputters.

Calm down, they say. You musn't panic, they say. You're very brave, they say. Take steady breaths, they say. We hope to see you again, they say. We've never helped anyone transition before, they say. Underneath, they murmur hello hello hello sister of the sea hello, and she relaxes into their capable hands. They lay cloth – a robe, one of them calls it – around her shoulders and take her to the apartment which has been arranged for her, ebbing and flowing around her and supporting her when she stumbles or hisses in shock after stepping on a pebble. The one named Delinea holds her hand the whole time, telling her about this waterbar and that bookstore and the plants that line the boulevard. Her touch, so vital and grounding and necessary for conveying her thoughts in this arid world where water cannot carry them, never slips, and she never complains, even when Maris squeezes her hand so hard that her fingers turn white.

They enter a small building with a white facade. Stairs or elevator? Delinea asks. When Maris queries her, she projects contrasting images of movement-stairs-legsstretching and movement-elevator-standingstill.

Maris is achy and tired and sore, so she says, Elevator. They crowd into the tiny room, and she jerks when it starts to move, the floor vibrating on her feet and the walls juddering. Delinea squeezes her hand reassuringly, and Maris takes deep breaths. She wishes she had a fish to keep her company.

They show her where she will live, aquamarine walls and a reef mural that one of her guides had painted, the corals and anemones and darting fish lifelike and vivid. When Maris leans over to look more closely at the clownfish playing in the anemone, the second woman puts her hand on Maris' shoulder. Hi, I'm Aysel, she says. I'm so very glad you like it! I was so nervous!

Maris reaches up and squeezes her hand, projecting gratitude that she can see her home in this way and joy that they are welcoming her. They should go to a waterbar sometime, Maris suggests, and Aysel smiles in agreement, her rainbow fish creating excited patterns, while Delinea looks upon them as a benevolent goddess surveying her charges.

Delinea takes charge, showing Maris the apartment and the clothes they've assembled for her to try. Maris runs her fingers over the different fabrics, intrigued by the different sensations – this one rough and that one smooth and this one slick like oil. They've left her pamphlets about how all of the ties and buckles and buttons work, and the man, who looks like Aysel, demonstrates how to work the different types of fastenings and helps her until she gets the trick of it.

She's tired, and they drift off one at a time, brushing her hair and shoulder and saying farewell. Delinea leaves last of all, pressing their hands together palm to palm until Maris stops shaking. She wants to stay, Maris knows, but Maris refuses when she offers, desiring solitude so that she might find her equilibrium.

She leaves, and Maris is alone.

-- divider: ocean --

The next day, a knocking sound rouses Maris, and she stumbles to the door. She opens it, and she's surprised to see Aysel and the man who looks like Aysel before her. She reaches out her hands automatically, and they grasp them between theirs.

We're so sorry, Aysel says. We didn't realize you'd still be asleep – it's so late!

Maris blinks, and the man speaks up. I'm Aydin, he says, her sibling. We really did think you'd be up by now.

I... why? Maris asks.

Because it's one o'clock! Aysel says. At Maris' sense of puzzlement, Aysel leads her back into her apartment, pointing out the round device on the wall. Aydin, teaching once again, explains to her how they divide the day and, when she discovers the image of gears and ticks underlying his thoughts, promises her he'll find an old clock for them to take apart and learn.

They let her get dressed, Aysel showing her how the pieces of her clothing go together but letting her choose her own outfit. Maris pulls on a bright pink skirt and shirt of the deepest black she's ever seen, but she leaves her feet bare, unable to abide the thought of encasing them. Aysel shrugs, unconcerned, telling her that she'll have to wear shoes if she goes to imbibe food or drink, and that she might look into sandals, but for today's errands she'll be fine.

They go out, Maris buoyed by Aysel's ebullient chatter and Aydin's steady explanations. She enjoys seeing the streets and buildings and objects that she's only seen secondhand through the stories and tales of those who met her in the brackish shallows, and she laughs when she realizes how much more sense the story of the prince's confusion about his beloved's footwear makes now that she sees the bewildering array of shoes on the feet of every person.

They take her to a fish farm, and she drops her hands into the tanks, feeling the differences between minnows and guppies and cichlids and the infinite variations between one fish and the next. They tell the caretaker that she's from the sea, and he accepts it without a burble, just lets her commune with the fish as long as she likes and steers others away when they look like they might intrude.

She is surprised to see the saltwater tanks, and she's taken aback by the circumscribed existence of their inhabitants, who don't know the moon and tide. She looks at the caretaker in puzzlement, and he lays one scrupulously polite fingertip on the back of her hand to convey his speech. Some people, he says, they think they can go saltwater, that they can become a seaswimmer if they just wish hard enough. So they get a tank and add some salt and pick up a damselfish or two, only to give the whole thing up when wishing don't make it so. The fish come back and the tanks get scrubbed and they're done with the entire affair. Idiots.

But it has to be possible, she says, magic can't be one way, that's not how it's supposed to work.

Of course it's possible, he says, it just ain't easy. You coming here was hard, wasn't it?

She agrees.

Well, then, the other way, that's hard, too. It's a shock to the system, and it ain't for everyone. Some people can't deal with the vastness of the ocean even if they can breathe it. Others can never make the jump to handling the constant bombardment of other folks' thoughts through the waves. And some just can't do it, even if they do all the right spells and medical mumbo jumbo and follow every damn letter of the guidelines, and the spells fade back to nothingness instead of taking hold. Bitterness washes through him before he shakes it off, and she knows that someday she's going to come back, see if he won't tell her what happened. So, he continues, I keep a few saltwater fish around, usually rescues from when damnfool kids go exploring the tidepools and bring back captives, scaring their parents half to death about contraband and dead fish. Some stay out of curiosity and some ask to go back, and we rub along okay.

She nods, feeling the truth of his words, and withdraws from the yearning underneath. She settles on goldfish, their coppery scales making her smile as they dart amongst the plants, and asks the smaller sucker fish if some of them wish to come with her. She warns them that they'll be in a tank alone most of the day, keeping her company only at night when she changes her bulky day tank for the small one in which she will sleep. Most flick their tails and decline, but one, a sleepy lady with a lazy curiosity, accepts.

And so Maris leaves the fish farm with companions in her tank and cradled in her hands, hints of one person's story settling in her head, and her guides linking their arms with hers and teaching her to skip across the street and laugh when people double-take.

-- divider: ocean --

Maris explores her new world, discovering that she loves the taste of waterlilies and enjoys the whisper of silk against her legs. She thinks waterbars are silly – oh, she can taste the difference between different springs and rivers, but, really, a slightly new taste isn't worth leaving her fish at home to protect them from the shock of new water – but she goes out with Aysel anyway, dragging along Aydin and his boyfriend, Alissar, who sculpts and is always threatening to enshrine Maris in bronze. She laughs and flicks water at him, poking Aysel in the side when she is mock-horrified by the waste of water, and they all talk of nonsense and jabberwocks throughout the night.

She talks to Strom, the fish caretaker, and he tells her of sailing and riding whales and never ever mentions trying to become a seaswimmer. He lets her help around the fish farm, and she never tires of witnessing the excitement and wonder of children who are choosing their fish for the first time. She listens to the fish as they dream about who they might live with some day, and she tells them stories of their ocean brethren.

She watches gymnasts compete, and they eventually all collapse in laughter after Perle and Kora spend an hour trying to help her coax her flailing limbs into a cartwheel. They freely tell her how they came to their sport, describing what it's like to dive through the air and to live in a claustrophobically small tank, sculpted to fit them exactly and inhabited by a single betta fish. She listens and writes and speaks in turn, sharing tales of her life and the stories of the seaswimmers and their allies.

She falls in love with paper, how it can hold impressions and words and remind her of the stories that she's forgotten. She spends hours and hours in the stationer's shop, running her fingers across the different sheets made from rags and weeds and trees, enjoying their textures and the information they can hold. Rana, the clerk, chats with her about fibers and acidity and preservation, his fish shyly peeking out at her from behind waving plants.

She asks him to join her for a tidepool picnic, and his feelings of surprise and happiness and assent reverberate through their clasped hands. He shows her the city from above, taking her out onto rooftops and helping her climb trees. She introduces him to tiny museums and ephemeral galleries, showing off Alissar's exquisite statues and her own ridiculous attempts at papier-mâché sculpture with equal enthusiasm. He invites her into his bed, and they laugh and play and explore each other's bodies. She discovers the frustrations of making love as a drylander – no matter what one does, the tanks are awkward – as well as the delights of the endeavor – sharing water is so much more deliciously intimate in air than in sea.

They lay together, and he strokes her arm. He tells her about growing up as the only son of two only daughters, about how he lived with every type of fish he could find before admitting to himself that he was happiest with minnows, about how he took acting classes when he was young. She caresses his stomach and tells him about how her parents taught her elaborate braids to keep her hair back, about finding a pearl for the first time, and about the differences between swimming under the light of the sun and the moon and the stars and what happens when you go so deep that there is no light at all.

They speak and listen and ask in turn, following the threads of their curiosity and wonder amidst their growing intimacy and knowledge, and she begins to wonder if, perhaps, he would like to see her home as she has seen his.

-- divider: ocean --

Maris stretches, taking deep gulps as she tries to convince her body to wake up. She has always been slow to rouse from slumber, and it has become even worse since she had joined the drylanders, life dictated by the tick tick tick of the clock and the never-ending cycle of the sun. She had known the sun in the deep, but there her life had been ruled by the now instead of by the progression of hours dictating when one should earn money, when one could shop for necessities, when one might venture into the street with others and dance for joy.

She looks over at the sprawl of Rana on their bed and runs a finger down his leg. He twitches but doesn't stir, and she grins. She goes to the dresser and takes a deep gulp before taking off her sleep tank. The sucker fish inside glugs at her, and she reaches in to give it a quick stroke. She leans over and lets her hair drip onto Rana's stomach, and she smiles as he jerks up, flailing and water sloshing against his tankwalls. He registers her tankless state and sighs, dramatic bubbles easing to the surface, and points to the dresser. She sticks her tongue out at him before shrugging on the day tank, thinking hello to the goldfish who keep her company, adjusting to their darting after the quiet susurrations of the sucker fish.

She asks them, Who wants to swim with Rana today, and one of them darts through the door of the castle. She smiles, and when Rana brings their hands together in morning caress she asks him if he minds company, a witness to the beginning of his transformation to seaswimmer and one who could tell him her stories through the day as she writes and thinks and dreams and listens. He brings her hand to his throat, let her feel where tank touches flesh, and whispers, Yes. She rejoices in the intimacy of it, physical manifestation of trust and vulnerability, happy that she had found one who would listen when she came to the dryland to hear their tales.

He gets out of bed, and they both attend to their morning ablutions, moisturizer slathered, clothes pulled on with zips and buttons fastened, and breakfast - brine shrimp for her this day, duckweed for him - enjoyed. She lowers a small bowl into her tank, and today's adventurer swims into it. She pulls it out and then pours fish and water into Rana's tank. He blinks as the small fish starts swimming around and burbling at him, undoubtedly drowning out the murmurs of the minnows he prefers. She smiles again and gives his hand one last caress. Be good, she says, speaking to both fish and man, and I shall see you later today.

-- divider: ocean --

Today she goes to the library, her weekly turn as storyteller arranged by Delinea as part of the price of walking on dryland. She walks, still marveling at the sensation of balancing on two limbs-legs-feet. She's almost captured the knack of high heels, although some days are better than others. Rana laughs and strokes her knees when she skins them, and Aysel gives her increasingly ridiculous stilettos with straps and buckles and strange attachments.

Elissa, her boss, nods in greeting from behind the circulation desk, and Maris waves at her. She hopes they have time to catch up at lunch, sprawling foot to foot and basking in the sun as they eat, although the annual budget meeting is coming up and Elissa has been preoccupied with it as of late.

Maris makes her way to the atrium, brushing shoulders and sharing greetings as she goes. When she gets there, she grabs her preferred pillow from the pile by the door, drops it onto carpet, and lowers herself down onto the blue and yellow paisley. Gradually, as ten o'clock approaches, the children start to settle down, herded by their parents and their own curiosity into position. Some them choose pillows, some of them don't, but they all sit, ranging themselves into a circle surrounding her. She holds her hands out, and the two nearest to her take them and then hold their hands out, a wave of clasping hands until they're all joined and receptive.

Hello, she says.

Hello, they echo back, a disjointed but welcoming current.

Once upon a time, she says, there were for tiny octopodes: Jessie, Bessie, Silversheen, and Petra. They lived in a reef in the great wide ocean, and their caretaker loved them very much. 'Now my dears,' Sister Octopus said, 'you may explore the reef or venture to the shallows, but stay away from the dark ship. The sharks hunt there, and many of our people have ended up in their bellies. Now go swim, and mind the currents. I am going out.'

As she relates the misadventures of little Petra the octopus in the dark ship, she embellishes her storytelling with effects, the whoosh of the shark passing by and the claustrophobia of being enclosed in a ship's walls and the crunch of tiny crustacean snacks. These children and their families may never dive into the depths, but they'll know, at least a little, how the ocean can sing and swell and call her people home.

-- divider: ocean --

There's a small stream of water, freshwater, on the ground. It hasn't come from the sky, and she begins to fret. Drylanders are always worried about water, about suffocating and their fish desiccating, and they don't waste it. She's never seen it trickling down the street before.

When she sees her tiny adventuring goldfish on the ground, she panics. He must have been trying to find her, swimming in the puddle as far as he could, but, oh, his scales are scratched and why isn't he with Rana and what could have passed? She picks him up, gently, and slips him back into her tank. His companions broadcast hope and healing and calm, but he can tell her nothing, radiating pain and determination without image or intelligibility.

She moves as quickly as she can, taking the risk that her water will slosh over the walls of her tank and telling her companions to stay low and stay steady and stay calm. Yes yes yes, they say, and if her shoulders get wet they will never tell.

And then she sees people huddled and looking down, unmoving.

And then she sees Rana.

Rana is on the ground. Rana's tank is shattered, his fish scattered and no longer struggling, and, oh, the minnows, the poor minnows, and Rana's tank is no more.

And they had both known that the treatments could go awry, that this could happen. But how could this happen to him, how could the world do this when they had taken every precaution and researched everything and found the best care possible?

She hears the sirens, knows the medical team is coming to move Rana to the ocean, which will either embrace him or strangle him.

She knows she has to stop hyperventilating, that her body can't handle the constant influx of water without time to filter, but her goldfish are babbling and Rana is on the ground and she knew his first treatment was today but this happened without her and will he be okay and why —

She faints.

-- divider: ocean --

She's in the sea, home cradling her and the sighs of whales and screams of the eels comforting her. Maris breathes deep, salty water on the back of her tongue and in her throat, and she grasps Rana.

Rana, she shouts, Rana wake up!

He jerks, and she looks into his eyes. Rana, she says, are you okay? What happened? What went wrong?

He hugs her, and they shake together. If they cry, the ocean doesn't notice a few more drops of water. It's done now, the water is spilled, he says. I'm okay, and it's over.

It's not over, and they'll talk about this later. She wants, needs, to know what happened to him, and they're going to need to make contact, somehow, with their friends and, oh, she hopes that Delinea will be able to close her apartment as efficiently as she opened it and that Aysel's mural doesn't get painted over.

But.

But right now he's still alive and breathing sea. It's new and wondrous, and she has so much to show him.

She twines her fingers into his hair, and they share their first kiss.

-- divider: ocean --

Come now all ye folk at sea
Let us share our legacy
Nymph and naiad, whale and fins
Now we speak, our tale begins
Brethren new and brethren old
One more comes into the fold