Deep below the ocean’s surface, there is a kingdom only seen to a few. This is the place humans call Atlantis, the place long revered by humans. This is where the sea creatures can talk, the coral thrives brightly without a single disease to trouble them, and everything lives in harmony with each other.
No human has ever seen this place. But back in the ancient days of humanity, they believed in it. They believed in merfolk and sea serpents, and the like.
It has long since regressed from their imagination. They are clouded by the ideas of science. Their Atlantis has laid hidden since it faded from people’s minds.
Act 1: Pacific
Ever since she could remember, Jess loved the sea. It was the only thing she ever understood. Every night, she would leave her Malibu home to stare lazily at the waves. It was the only thing that could make her forget about all the bad things. About her parents’ divorce. About the death of her good friend, Garno. About everything.
She would bury herself in the sand and let the waves wash over her. It was like she was wrapped in a blanket of sand and water, being slowly rocked to sleep. Sometimes she would look for whales, out in the great, shimmering waters. If any tears came, she would cry them into the sea, where they would be one with the salt water. Would anyone hear her crying?
Deep beneath, someone was listening. His name was Ronin, and he was a troubled soul himself. He was just lost from the world. He didn’t pay attention to the world around him. Everything just faded away, into a muted swirl of color and white noise.
He didn’t understand anything in the real world. All he remembered were his dreams. In his dreams, he was surrounded by stars. There was someone holding him, but he didn’t know who. He could make out a few details, like the fact that she was a female. But when he tried to recollect them, they became blurry.
“Ronin! Come on! Do you want to die?” Someone tugged on Ronin’s arm. It was his sister, Masaki. Unlike Ronin, Masaki was more responsible, more focused. She knew when the Hunters were coming.
As the harpoons and nets fell into the sea, Masaki dragged Ronin to safety.
“You could have been killed out there!” she scolded. “All you do is stare into space and not do anything!”
“But...but…” Ronin began.
“No buts! They are out for blood, and here you are with your head in the foam!”
Ronin started to cry. “Leave me alone! You’re making it worse!” With that, he swam away behind a nearby rock.
Why did the Hunters want him anyway? From the waist up, he was just like them, with long black hair and a constantly vacant expression in his eyes. But his bottom half—oh, right—was an orca’s tail. The rest of his pod were half-orcas too. He was so used to it that sometimes he forgot.
Darn you, Ronin, he thought to himself. Darn you and your ADHD, always getting you into these situations.
The girl from his dreams would understand…
Jess awoke to her cat, James, sitting on her and meowing loudly.
“Have you ever had a dream, James?” she asked him.
James c***ed his head, as if to understand.
“Do you know what dreams mean?”
James made a sound that was halfway between a meow and a purr.
“Last night, I dreamt that I was on the beach at night. I think I was holding a dead merman in my arms. What could this mean?”
The fat calico whisked his tail twice, and then jumped off of Jess’s bed, allowing her to get up. He would never understand. He was just a cat.
Jess rolled out of bed, got dressed and started packing up to study abroad. She was headed to Japan, where she would stay in a nice little seaside town. Yup, she had it figured out.
There were whales there. Orca whales.
Like the one in her dreams.
What could this mean?
Ronin floated on his back, staring up at the sky. There was a strange bird up there. Why didn’t it flap its wings when it flew? It was so strange, so mysterious.
“Hey, Ronin!” came a voice from behind. “Wanna come explore this cool volcano I found?”
Ronin ignored the voice, although it was that of his good friend Toru.
The weird bird was still there, still gliding on the wind.
“What is it doing? Why does it stay up there?” Ronin muttered to himself.
“I heard it’s called an airplane,” said Toru, “and it contains humans.”
“Cool? Humans kill, Ronin! Don’t you get it?”
“There was a human in my dream. I don’t think she meant me any harm.”
“HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU, RO? Humans are monstrous killing machines!”
Ronin paid no mind to these words. His dream would come true someday.
Act 2: Atlantic
Jess left her bags on the floor of her rental home, still packed, and headed for the ocean.
She had touched down successfully in her new country. The town she landed in was all she had hoped for. No wifi, no internet, no distractions...this was the life.
The sun was just beginning to set. She wiggled her toes into the sand, feeling each little grain as it rubbed against her feet, and closed her eyes…
When she awoke, she was surrounded by deep, inky blue. Fish swam around her, at her feet and around her arms. She was underwater, but she was still breathing. And from behind her, there came a voice.
“Hi. How’s it going?”
This is it, Roni, he thought as he approached her. Now’s your chance to meet her. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, with eyes that sparkled like the sea and a smile that shone almost as bright as the moon.
He had seen her lying there on the beach, sand and saltwater tangled in her auburn braid. He had taken her under, just to say hello.
She turned around, surprised. “Who...who are you?” she asked. She stared, confused, at the young man who had greeted her. Number one, who was this man? And why was he wearing a bent fishhook around his neck? More importantly, why was she here? What was he doing here? There were so many questions, but she asked the first one that came to mind:
“What happened to your shirt?”
Ronin blushed. Mermen, of course, didn’t wear shirts. But he couldn’t tell her right away. She would alert the media about him! He would probably be shipped off to some freak show while his friends and family were slaughtered! Intimidated by the thought, he struggled to keep his tail hidden behind a conveniently placed piece of kelp.
“I...It’s nothing,” he stammered. “Can we change the subject?”
“Why am I here?”
“Oh, uh, I just wanted to show you something.”
He took her by the wrist, and jetted off into the sea.
At first, it was only the endless indigo-black of the sea and the night. But then, something lit up. Then another. Then another.
“What are those?” asked Jess.
“Firefly squid,” Ronin replied. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
One after another, the bioluminescent squid lit up the sea like hundreds of tiny, arctic-blue lanterns. They parted as the two swam through, creating a gorgeous display of luminous acrobatics. And so Ronin and Jess stopped awhile, to enjoy the shimmering cloud of magic and mystery. They surfaced, giving each other a view of the stars and the full moon. Between the sky and sea, the whole effect made the world seem so magical.
Go ahead, Ronin, he thought. It’s time for that first kiss. He reached over to Jess’s face, leaned in closer, and…
SPLAT! Before he knew it, a squid had surfaced and splattered onto his face, and now it was sticking to his chest. “Darn it! I had one chance, and I blew it! I BLEW IT!”
“I think you’re funny,” Jess reassured him, gently pulling the squid off his right pectoral. “Now you’re making ME want to be that attractive to cephalopods.”
They laughed and laughed until Jess eventually grew tired. As she closed her eyes and began to nod off, Ronin picked her up and made his way back to shore, making sure she didn’t drown. When he got there, he laid her down gently on the sand. “Good night, my sweet,” he whispered as he caressed her hand. “Pleasant dreams.”
Yeah, that had been a fun night. If only he could enjoy it longer.
He was a merman, and she a human girl. One of them had to become the other’s species. But Jess would probably die out there as a mermaid, what with the hunters out for blood. She would be inexperienced as one of his kind, and would probably not be fast enough to swim away from certain death. He shed a tear at the thought.
On the other hand, if he were to become human, he would be subject to human diseases. He would probably die too, but better himself than her.
“That’s it!” he said. “I’m gonna be a human!” And with that, he dove back under.
Act 3: Indian
As he looked back on that one night, Ronin noticed that everything had gone so fast. Was it his ADHD talking, or was it that time had just flown? Or was it that he was living in a story and the author was trying to keep the pages short? It was probably his ADHD talking. But there were so many more questions he wanted to ask. Who was that girl? What was her name? And how was he supposed to become a human? That was the big one.
He stuck his tongue out in thought, but then retracted it. Blood! There was blood in the water! It was whaling season again! He looked to see who died. It was no one he had ever talked to before, but he could tell it was one of his pod. Same orca tail, same hair, same skin. But there was no time to mourn lis lost podmate. A few seconds later a harpoon fell inches from his side. There was no choice but to swim away.
When he stopped, he couldn’t help but stare in awe at where he had reached. He was in a cave, sparkling with crystals. Big-eyed fish swam in and out of the crevasses, their scales glowing rainbow colors in the dark. He went further into the cave. There seemed to be strings of lights hanging from the roof of the cave. As the atmosphere grew darker, the lights grew brighter. And a pair of glowing green eyes began to stick out…
And then a voice…
“Five more minutes, okay?”
Huh? Who was this?
“Wh-who are you?” he asked.
“Leave me alone, ya hear?” the voice groaned.
He moved in closer. The voice apparently belonged to a leafy sea dragon. No, it was another mermaid, 15 feet tall and blanketed in sea dragon fins. Her face looked vaguely like Masaki’s, but it was inexplicably pallid and painted with ground seaweed.
“Pardon me, but are you some kind of sea witch?”
“Yup. Two more questions until you leave me alone for good.”
“Were you the one who allowed my girlfriend to breathe underwater?”
“Not gonna tell you. One more question.”
“WHY DO YOU HAVE A HUMAN BRAIN FLOATING IN A JAR, AND WHY IS IT GREEN?”
“It’s covered in bioluminescent algae. That’s your last answer, kid. Get out”
“Sorry. If you’re a witch, I was hoping you could fulfill a request I have here.”
The witch looked up for painting her nails neon purple. “Oh really? What’cha got?”
Ronin hated how gosh-darn sassy she was. But he answered anyway. “I want to be human.”
“Human, eh? Well, it’s gonna cost ya.”
“What? My tongue? My soul? Please don’t hurt me!”
“Five sand dollars, please.”
“But I’m broke!”
“That’s for the easy way. The hard way is free. Also, I need to pay for another kelpuccino.”
“O...kay?” Ronin picked a couple of sand dollars off the cave floor. For good measure, he added a barnacle covered in bioluminescent algae. (Pardon the blatant Moana reference). “That ought to help you start the...day? I don’t really know, because it’s dark down here.”
She took the sand dollars and the barnacle, then disappeared and reappeared with a coffee cup from Starfishbucks. After a sip, she got back to work with Ronin.
“Alright, let’s do this,” she sighed, brushing a lock of shocking-green hair out of her face. She took the brain from a shelf and kneaded it until it began to glow pink and smoke. Eventually it became a thick pink goop. “Now stick your hands in there and rub it on your tail.”
Ronin reached his hands into the sticky liquid, unsure of how its physics worked under the sea. He did as the witch had told him, massaging the stuff into his tail.
“Now let’s bring you up to the surface for your dramatic reveal!” said the witch. She pushed him up through a hole in the top of the cave. The light shone on him in a beautiful, although cliched and Disney-esque way. Warmth pulsed through his body. Then came a slight cutting pain starting at the tip of his tailbone. It got worse, but the way the surface sparkled above him was so lovely that it shifted his attention from the pain. But when it reached the halfway point and his bones began to shift, it grew unbearable.
“It hurts!” he screamed. “Make it stop! Make it stop!”
“Just take a deep breath or something!”
“TAKE A DEEP BREATH? ARE YOU CRAZY, WOMAN? IT FEELS LIKE MY INSIDES ARE BEING RIPPED OUT!”
“Well, the hard way would have involved me ripping out your tongue and your heart. I guess you should be thankful.”
By now Ronin was gasping frantically at the surface. He couldn’t hear the witch now, because she was so far underwater. He managed to sidestroke to shore before the pain became too horrible. He looked down at his newly acquired legs. They were beautifully toned and sleek, but sore all over. He was pretty sure his inner thigh was bleeding internally.
But it was worth it.
It was worth it. For her.
Act 4: Southern
When Jess awoke, she felt cramps in her back from sleeping on a woven mat instead of a bed. She unwrapped a protein bar and slowly and painstakingly ate it, still trying to suppress the pain. James rubbed against her, almost sympathetically.
The bus ride to the local school was no better. Her back still hurt, and it was beyond description by this point.
As she got off the bus, she spotted a guy who looked just like the one she had met that night, the one who had showed her the cool squids.
“Excuse me,” she said, “but I never quite got your name.”
This is it, Ronin thought. Now you’re on her level, and now you can finally talk to her. He opened his mouth...and descended into a coughing fit. That darn witch gave him asthma! He had heard about this accursed thing from Toru, who claimed that he knew everything about humans. And now he had it himself.
“Do you need an inhaler?” she asked. “I have an unused one in my bag.”
He nodded, and she fumbled through her tote bag, eventually pulling out a blue inhaler. He breathed deeply, and almost got the chance to speak before the bell rang.
Classes seemed to drag by as Jess and Ronin daydreamed of each other. Nothing mattered but the other. When noon rolled around, they found each other again. And for the first time, the now-human Ronin actually said something to Jess:
“I know somewhere we can run away to.”
“Huh?” Jess stared at him in surprise.
“You know, somewhere we can get away from this boring school.”
“Shouldn’t we be…”
“Just trust me.”
He blindfolded her with the tie from his uniform and walked her to a certain place she couldn’t see. After a while he lifted it from her eyes. They were standing on a pier. A small sailboat was waiting for them.
“Hop in,” he told her.”
“I’ve never been in a sailboat before.”
“Well, today’s your lucky day.”
Jess slowly lowered herself into the boat, and then Ronin. The wind picked up, and they were off. Nothing but them and the clear blue waters for miles. Jess loved the whole experience, the salty sea breeze in her face, Ronin’s hand holding hers. Suddenly, she spotted something.
“Is that a whale?” she asked her companion.
“No,” he answered.
As she looked closer, she discovered they were all mermaids and mermen, each one with a killer whale tail, swimming beside her, cheering her on.
“They’re my family,” said Ronin.
“Your family?” Jess was very confused.
“You’ll see why later.”
At that moment, a dark gray metal ship sailed into view. The merfolk scattered. Ronin knew who they were. The hunters.
As they came in closer Jess saw that the boat was inhabited by a group of dangerous-looking men with scars and harpoons. The water slowly turned reddish. Jess jumped off the boat and into the sea, with hopes that she could save them.
“What are you doing?” Ronin tried to pull her out of the water.
“I’m saving your family.”
The water was slightly warm with blood. Jess dragged one mermaid, a small child, to a safe part of the shore. Ronin was sure she would die out there. He dove headfirst into the water, hoping he could save her. More harpoons fell. They dodged in and out of the spikes, hoping that they would make it.
A wave washed them ashore, but they didn’t know it. Everything had faded to black.
Act 5: Arctic
With every heartbeat, a memory flooded back into Jess’s conscious.
Thump-thump. She could see as one merman fell to a stab through the chest.
Thump-thump. The frightened eyes of a small child.
Thump-thump. Ronin, bleeding from a wound on his arm.
Slowly she phased back into consciousness. There he was, still bleeding, uniform torn, now with a scraped-up tail instead of legs.
One by one the survivors sent out luminarias for those they lost, in green and blue and yellow and orange. Jess got to her feet and picked up the dying Ronin. The sun was now setting, and the luminarias now looked brighter. Just like stars. Just like in her dream.
“You know…” said the dying merman, his voice barely a whisper, “I never quite got your name.” He wasn’t sure he would survive. She wasn’t either.
“It’s Jess,” she answered. “Sorry if I didn’t tell you the first time.”
“Mine’s Ronin,” he whispered, taking one more ragged breath. “Jess, did I ever tell you how much I love you?”
“My love for you...is as big as the sky...endless as the sea…”
“Me too, Ronin. Me too.”
“And it will always come back...like the waves of the ocean.”
“But what if you die?”
“I will stay with you in spirit.” And with that, he closed his eyes. Jess lay him down in the shallow waves as the other merfolk began to sing of their losses, their voices haunting and touching. Even that mysterious witch came to the surface, smaller in reality than she appeared. She wiped off the neon makeup, revealing herself to be Masaki. She shed a tear for her brother.
“I’m so proud of you,” she said, swimming up close to him. “I knew how much you loved her. I gave you all these obstacles to see if you would stay strong. Now, be strong for me one last time.” She lay a sprig of a strange herb in his hands. Slowly, his eyes opened.
He sat up gradually, drawing Jess in for an embrace.
“Ronin, you came back!” Jess exclaimed, crying tears of joy.
“It was all for you,” Ronin replied.
“Well, I can’t be here forever. I don’t feel like I’m going to stay much longer.”
“But you’ve only been here a month!”
“I know, but I’m getting kind of homesick. And besides, I can’t live on fish forever.”
“I’ll see you around then. Maybe I’ll come by during my migration!”
She waved goodbye to him. Maybe they would see each other again. Maybe they wouldn’t. But wherever they went, their memories would surround them like the waves, lapping at their minds as the tide would the shore.