Syaz harassed me into this.
I asked her what her thoughts were on a piece for ‘X’ and we realised we both had no clue. We started talking about other ideas, and a few days later she asked if I had any artwork I wanted words for. I was curious to see which she’d choose so I let her decide and she chose two, both with solitary figures out in the open sea.
I suggested she focus on (a hint of) stillness and gave her the background story to it. The next time I heard from her she had produced this wonderfully written story, which I’m absolute crazy about. Honestly. It’s my favourite thing right now.
– Dhiyanah H
– – –
The moon was about to swallow the sun, they said. It had grown lonely, and the loneliness had driven it to envy, and the only way to quell such virulent envy would be to consume its source.
It’s fairly suicidal, Mat thought, but understandable. The sun can be a bit too much at times. Too hot, too bright, too shy, too soon.
The mermaids were all aflutter at the thought of disaster. What will happen to the seas? they wondered, the scales of their fingers brushing his ankles. When there is no sun to warm us, and no moon to call us, how will we be?
As he held their hands tight, blood from his scratched fingers weeping gently into their skin, Mat didn’t have the heart to tell them that they will all die, all of them little aftershocks laid to rest in the black hole born of a hungry satellite. Instead, he told them stories about human children and the silly games they played, like ‘House’ and ‘Marriage’ and ‘School’.
When they finally left him, the algae in their hair and their laughter glinting in the sun, it occurred to him that he forgot to ask them where he was. The first few weeks after he set sail, he had found them waving to him, and he asked for directions. They had told him that he was eleven orcas above their flock, sleeping in the slow rumble of the warm current below, but they had no conception of where or when.
You are in the new seas, they had said. The seas had come quietly, but we heard them come towards us like noise in the night, slowly, slowly, like the flushing of the whale graves far below. And then they were there in the daylight.
Really? he asked.
Really, they nodded. We used to swim beneath you, five, maybe six orcas beneath. Now eleven orcas altogether. Your land is strange now, person. All swallowed in the new seas. Trapped.
Trapped? He swallowed the bitter dread lodged in his throat.
There are people floating. We tried to play with them, but their eyes are open and their mouths are agape. Were they surprised, person? All of them?
Yes, he said, sighing instead of breathing. Yes, it was a surprise.
That was a lie, of course. There were years of murmurs, of worries, of theories whispered ferociously. Ominous tales of What-Was-To-Come. Everybody listened, but nobody truly cared.
Ah, be honest, Mat. You were angry at them because they didn’t care about you.
Not true. I stopped caring first.
If you stopped caring first, you would not have left them, left her, left everything, and set sail alone.
I had nothing.
You had more than you do now.
He wished he’d brought his brother’s old telescope. Din would have left the telescope to him, if he had any say in his death. But nobody had glanced at him as he lay on the side of the road, his feet folded at wrong angles, his head half-broken. Nobody had kneeled by Din and held his hand as he gave his final sermon to the world, his skullcap soaked deep red, his beard flecked with flesh and tears. So Din’s telescope never went to Mat.
Perhaps the death of a star would be visible to the naked eye. It only makes sense. Great ends to great beginnings, yes? As if the sun would go without a blaze of glory. As if the moon would not make this into a show for everyone to see.
The day the sky grew dark in the middle of the afternoon, his raft rocked too much, shaking him awake. The mermaids had brought their flock with them, thousands of heads of hair, woven with seaweed and coloured with coral, bobbing along the surface. It had been so long since he had been with more than three beings at a time. He could hear the sound of their heartbeats, messy, uncoordinated, too close to their gills to hide their tender rhythm. It thundered in his ear until he could hear his own, too loud, too loud, too loud.
As the moon approached the sun, its movement slowed in space like a long-ago dance it had forgotten, the merpeople held hands, their arms linking closely, their bodies coming together and dragging below, until their heads were nothing but a simmering cloak at the edges of the water. They shook Mat’s raft violently, and he was too scared to look beyond the aching planks under his feet to see what they were doing.
The sky turned a fantastical pink when they moaned, their voices lifting up, too strong to gurgle. His raft shook harder, his sail hanging limply as the wind disappeared completely. The air was beginning to harden. He could not breathe.
The chant rose and ebbed like a whisper.
And as colours he had never seen before swept across the sky – as the sun and moon pulled to each other in a kiss they had been deprived of for so long – he bent his head and prayed.
Syazwina would like to thank Dhi for allowing her to play with the Lonely Man and sharing his story of solitude and mermaids in borrowed thoughts and new words. It’s been an honour and a learning process.
Dhiyanah Hassan doesn’t know how to behave. We predict one day she’ll get lost at sea.