The Mermaid's Tears Part 1
By Lauren Derrick
Part 1 of 3
Chief Ariah stood tall and pointed his finger right at Nauni. She balled her hands into fists and tried to stand firm.
The shells on the four judges' headdresses clinked against one another in the breeze. A few of the verdant feathers adorning Chief Ariah's neck fanned out as well. His outstretched arm trembled slightly.
Nauni braced herself against the steadily growing flow of panic.
“The beauty of the island is truth. The love of the island is the love of its people. This girl is to be cast out.” The firmness of the words eroded as if the chief was losing his voice. “The beauty and love of the island are not in her heart. Because of her, a member of our village is dead. She cannot stay.”
Nauni gasped for air. Her brown eyes widened, and she looked around frantically for Haui'no. He stood, jet black hair tied back, arms crossed over a well-toned chest, eyes hard. Nauni's hand flew to her mouth to stop a guttural wailing from within that she was sure would escape.
Her entire body trembled with the shock of it. She worked her mouth, but her voice drowned in her own panic. Screams reverberated within her but refused to sound. Her strength failed her as her arms were seized and her wrists bound with rough cords. Her curls were a curtain that blocked her from a village of silent onlookers, and she twisted frantically to liberate her view. The next few hours seemed an eternity held within the flutter of an eyelash.
Two of the chief's guards herded Nauni onto a small canoe. They paddled her to a remote island then lifted her onto the rocks overlooking a vast ocean. They cut her wrists free, and left.
The cold and the starlight shot through her like pinpricks. She wept into the ocean, and at last, the wails and screams escaped their prison. She held her aching stomach, relieved it of its contents, and wept some more. By morning she felt that she had cried every tear her body held.
The rhythmic crash of waves on rock and the thin layer of dried tears on her face made the air taste like salt. The rising sun began to warm her numbed body. As she looked down into the water, she saw a large silvery fish, flat, almost like a sand dollar. She frowned.
The monchong seemed to be trapped in a small corral of rocks.
“How did you get here?” Nauni whispered softly. “Your kind lives in deep waters. Are you an outcast like me?”
She stared at the sharpened stick the guards had left her with. Her stomach growled.
“I feel like I'm trapped too.” She told the fish. “It's not fair, is it?”
It simply hovered around the rocks in the clear water, as if waiting for them to move.
“Why don't you eat it?”
It was a little girl's voice. Nauni's face darted towards the voice, then back towards the island. She saw no one.
“Hello?” Nauni called out weakly.
The crashing of waves, birds peeping and whistling at one another, and Nauni's own sigh were the only immediate answer. She rubbed at the circles underneath her eyes and shook her head.
“I brought it here just for you,” the little girl said again.“Don’t you like it?”
The voice came from the direction of the ocean. Nauni turned and looked into the water. There, at the base of a rock, was a little girl made entirely from water. She had a frilly white foam skirt and hair that sprayed out from behind her head in a wide sprinkle.
Nauni's stammered. “I just...it seems wrong to kill it when it's trapped like that.”
Nauni bent further down from her own perch to see the girl better. Her skin seemed to be of a clear, glassy water. She was nearly invisible, since Nauni could see straight through her to the rocks.
“Wha--who are you?” Nauni asked.
“I'm Current.” The little girl said. “I've come for you. Your people don't want you anymore, but I do. Mother does. I came to offer you a trade.”
“A trade? But I don't have anything.” Nauni glanced over at her sharpened stick.
“Yes you do.”
Current had been absently drawing on the rocks below with her finger. She was only a few feet away. The water rose now, however, and soon Current was face-to-face with Nauni.
Current pointed to the side of Nauni's face. “We want those.”
“My jaw bones?” Nauni sniffed, a little panicked.
“No,” Current's voice filled with wonder. “You make bits of ocean with your eyes—but more special.”
Nauni scrubbed at the dark circles under her eyes. “You mean tears?”
“Yes! We want to trade for them.”
“And what will you give me for them?” Nauni asked skeptically.
Current gestured towards the wide expanse of water, glittering in the light of the rising sun. “The whole ocean will be your home, and Mother will welcome you. We'll take your legs and give you a tail like a fish so you can swim anywhere you'd like.”
Nauni raised her eyebrow at the little water girl, who was spinning in circles, supported by jets of water from below. “And what if I decide I want my tears back? What if I need to cry?”
“You won't want to cry anymore. We'll take away the things that make you hurt.”
Nauni's hands trembled. She turned her red eyes towards the west, towards a home she could no longer call her own.
Many years later
Nauni was a queen. The fish, the turtles, the crabs, and even the sharks were her subjects. She had once been the most skilled diver, the strongest swimmer, and had the most graceful stroke of anyone on her island. Now she was part of the water. She moved through it effortlessly, playing with Current and flying through a mysterious coral courtyard in her endless ocean palace.
She barely remembered the day she had traded her tears away for this freedom. The idea that she ever had reason to cry was bothersome to her. Who could cry when surrounded by nature’s bounty and beauty?
She stroked soft, silty sand and uncovered a large conch. She knew there was a time in her life that this would have brought her some wealth—but she couldn't really remember why. It seemed silly now, finding these was a trivial game. Far too easy for one like herself.
Nauni flipped around and her long, silvery tail reflected small streaks of sunlight. Yes, this was too easy now—clearly beneath her. Yet she still found herself drawn to the twisted shells with their creamy complexions and spotted patterns. She even kept a secret stash of pink conch pearls hidden away in a water cave.
Sometimes she could almost remember why she did that, and sadness flooded her heart.
Instead of crying those tears, she gave them away periodically. Current had a way of pulling them out with the memories, and Nauni let her do it as part of their agreement. Any time the memories began to creep back or the unpleasant weight of sorrow began to drag her down, she found Current, and Current pulled it out of her right away and delivered Nauni's tears to her mother. Why they would want her tears was a mystery that she didn't really care to know. Nauni was kept indefinitely alive and well in exchange for tears she didn't want to cry. It was a good arrangement.
Except—she was a little bothered by curiosity. Who had she been before? Why had she been so sad?
Once she thought of these questions, she found herself swimming off to check on her pearl stash. She kept them in the crevice of a dry rock deep within the underground river caves, and she had to hoist herself up to get to them. She had them wrapped in tattered cloth she had found. Ships' sails were thick and sturdy material, but she had been collecting these for a very long time. The cloth was no longer white and was thinning.
There were hundreds now, and though the only light in the cave streamed from small holes in the rock overhead, she could see a bit of variety in their hues. Hundreds of pink conch pearls she gathered over the years, some white oyster pearls scattered in. This was her treasury.
Evening was approaching, and Nauni knew she had to leave the caves before dark or she'd be swimming her head straight into rocks and stalagmites on her way out. She really wasn't in the mood for that sort of game today. She was nearly all the way out when she heard a loud, thundering sound.
It repeated over and over. Thunder didn't whistle and screech before it crashed. And where was the beat of rain drops against the water?
She swam to the surface of the ocean, well outside the river and caves. She was nearly blinded by great lights in the sky. It was like an explosion of stars that melted into smoke. Nauni had never seen anything quite like it before.
The great lights were far enough off that even she would have trouble swimming all that distance in one night. She noted where they were coming from by mapping the stars and determined to be nearer to the lights the next night for a better view. She hoped they would come again.
Nauni journeyed a good part of the night and all the next day to the spot where she had seen the great lights. She had been here before, near an island full of strange people. The excitement of witnessing the bright booming star lights so close erased any trepidation she felt about the humans, however.
Mother Ocean and Current had warned her to stay out of the sight of humans. Humans had no business in their trade and would only bring Nauni pain. But who would be looking for her down in the water with all those beautiful lights in the sky?
In the early afternoon she came upon a large ship unlike any she had ever seen. Men in baggy pants and long stiff robes that reached their calves were busy lining up what looked like perfectly cylindrical tubes. Nauni could barely see the pointed tips of the cylinders from the water. She knew she had been human once, but she didn't remember those.
She tried to be patient as the sun set, swimming the length of the strange ship, ogling its huge ribbed sails and curved top. It had odd holes all along the sides, just above the water. That seemed like a poor design—even though they didn't seem to be letting in a ton of water.
Finally, night arrived. To Nauni's delight, the show started. The men appeared to be setting the cylinders on fire somehow. Then they'd launch straight off into the sky and explode into a shower of light and smoke. It was truly a marvel to behold. After fIve or six explosions though, one of the cylindrical objects launched and the wind picked up at precisely the wrong moment, steering the wonderful thing straight into the ship’s sail.
Now that's a problem, Nauni thought with some disappointment, it'll be a shame if they have to stop the show to put out the fire.
Unfortunately, however, it was worse than that. Once one sail caught fire, two more soon joined in. The sailors were frantically grabbing at ropes to attempt to smother the flame by folding in the sail when a chunk of the burning cloth fell to the deck. Some of the cylinders had been knocked over in the confusion, and two more explosions went off in quick succession, right on board the ship.
Nauni cringed and slowly began to back away. Screams began to sound from the deck. She didn't understand the language, but she assumed that people had begun calling out “abandon ship” because men began diving into the water. With a morbid curiosity, she dove down to see what they would do. Many of them seemed to be swimming towards the island shore. They would make it.
One body caught her eye though. This one was too heavily dressed and could not swim—it was gently falling away to the sea bottom. Nauni cautiously swam over. He looked so familiar. The long dark hair, muscular build...Haui'no? The name filled Nauni with panic.
She was sure Haui'no had died long ago, but this man looked just like him—she couldn't just let him die. Nauni gritted her teeth and grabbed him underneath the shoulders. She moved her tail hard and fast. She helped pull his head above the surface of the water. He kicked frantically as he sucked in air. That jaw line, those eyes—even by the faint glow of the ship's fire, the resemblance was astounding. He began pulling off his side sword, his robe and boots, and as he did he sank. Nauni fought to help keep him close to the surface.
“Current!” Nauni cried. “Help me take him to safety!”
Current was never too far away, and Nauni could hear her faintly as she approached. “But why? Why save him?”
Nauni sunk with the man as he struggled against the weight of wet clothes. He went limp.
“Please, just help me.”
Current seemed annoyed, but a surge of water helped push Nauni and the man to the shore. There Nauni turned him on his side and slapped his back until he vomited sea water and began to breathe without coughing. He regarded Nauni with wide eyes and silence. Current obligingly moved up onto the beach to pull Nauni back into the water.
Nauni felt strange the next morning. She had found some soft mud to bed down in for the night, as was her custom, but sleep had been fleeting. It had been years since she had thought about Haui'no.
Mother Ocean, who rarely deigned to speak to Nauni in person, approached as soon as she was awake. “You saved a human.”
Nauni held her head high. “He looked like someone I used to care about—and I couldn't let him drown.”
Mother Ocean was like a grand adult version of Current. She was easier to see, however, with blue luminescent plankton decorating her great water gown like stars. Tiny fish swam through various parts of her form, as though she were made of glass and various life forms were contained within her. Tiny brine shrimp crowded into her cheeks, giving them a nearly rosy cast. “The terms of our agreement must change.”
Nauni's eyes darted upward to meet transparent eyes. “But why?”
“Part of you still loves and desires human life. I am forbidden from holding you in this form while you desire otherwise, even if it will cause you pain to return.” Jellyfish softly undulated through Mother Ocean's hair as she spoke, contrasting the hard, unyielding words.
“But what will I do? It has been a very long time. I don't even understand the language of the human I saved.” Nauni argued, gesturing towards the island.
“We will wash you ashore with treasures of the ocean for your support. Then, you will be at the mercies of the island's people.” Mother Ocean declared. “The beauty and love of the island is in their hearts. Most will not harm you.”
“But can I ever return?” Nauni pleaded. “I am free here...”
Current circled over to stand next to her mother, playfully spinning around her. Mother Ocean kept her poise. “You have given your sorrow to me once already and by doing so skirted the laws that govern the human heart. Your heart is now damaged. With your sorrow came the beauty and love of the island that was in it. If you cannot find this again, you will not be able to remain in your human form. You will return to the ocean, but you will return as sea-foam. The tears you never cried will consume you.”
“Is there no other way, Mother?” Current pleaded, ever on the move. “I like Nauni.”
“Perhaps,” A sliver of uncertainty edged the Ocean Mother's voice, and a single silver sardine crossed her lips. “Before I can create this form, I must have a pure, undamaged human heart capable of producing true tears. Nauni’s place is with her kind, Daughter. Her desires have made themselves manifest. This the path she must walk.”