The Mermaid's Tears Part 3
By Lauren Derrick
Part 3 of 3
The same panic that had overwhelmed Nauni the day she was exiled dove back into her. She sank to her knees, breathing heavily. I'm going to dissolve into nothing, she thought.
The injustices the day had brought seemed to stack atop one another without end. Chang engaged, her true status as an exile revealed, her blessing required at a marriage she did not support, her body turning to sea-foam. Everything had been going her way, and in a single morning, everything had come crashing down.
Current. I need to get to Current. Nauni thought desperately. There were guards at all the doors. There were guards everywhere. And she was a goddess that might decide to return to the sea at any minute. But perhaps…
There was one stone tower of the fort that came out directly above the ocean. Nauni used the wall to steady herself as she rose onto shaking legs. She breathed in heavily and began marching towards that southern tower. The stairs seemed to go on forever in a spiral upward, but she climbed. Nobody stopped her. A servant saw her pass but likely assumed she simply wanted fresh air and a view. Nauni stopped just inside the arched doorway that led into sunlight. She tried to clear her mind. South side of the fort. There was deep water, yes—but there were also rocks. Where are the rocks? She struggled to picture the scene from the ocean.
She thought she knew where she was—a cliff's height above the sea on the south part of the island. If she did this wrong, if she aimed poorly or hadn't remembered correctly—she could end up severely injured or even dead. A few of the rocks jutted out of the water. Those she could avoid. But the unseen rocks beneath the surface—those could kill her just as easily. She stared at her fingernails again. The foam on the very tips bubbled like a tiny, living thing—trying to consume her.
If I don't figure out how to stop this, I'm as good as dead anyway, Nauni thought.
She spotted the lookout at this tower, a burly man in uniform with a long straight beard and long black hair. He rested his arms on the wall, looking out across the sea. He had a telescope, but he wasn't using it at the moment. Nauni pulled air in through her nose, and then she ran.
As quietly as she could, she hoisted herself up onto the wall and took a quick look down at the waves. Her stomach lurched. Her blue silk robe fluttered in the wind.
The guard had turned at the faint noises she had made. He stared, wide-eyed. His hand flew out towards Nauni, and his mouth opened to warn her. She jumped.
The form of her dive was not her best, she thought. She was not used to diving into the water wearing such heavy clothing. As soon as her body hit the water, she knew she had made a mistake. Her body hit with force, and she only barely managed to keep straight. She missed the rocks, but powerful waves crashed against the fort here. One wave slammed into her, feet still pointed towards the sky, and crushed her into the rocks she had managed to miss. Her knee and head instantly stung, but she worked on righting herself and getting to the surface to take a breath. From above she could hear the guard shouting. She didn't have much time.
“Current!” She cried. “Current, where are you? I need help!”
There was a great silence before Nauni realized her second mistake. Current would not come. People were watching from above now, and all of this had been for nothing. Not knowing what else to do, Nauni swam towards some of the jagged protrusions poking up from the water to her left near the tower. Perhaps if she could just reach a more private location…
“Hello Nauni,” a familiar voice whispered. Nauni turned to see just the top of Current's watery head peeking out from beneath the waves.
“I'm turning into sea-foam,” Nauni cried, holding her hand out underneath the water.
Treading became difficult as another wave crashed into Nauni, pushing her further towards the fort. The force winded her, and Nauni gasped for air.
“That's too bad.” Current said sadly.
“I need to make it stop!” Nauni nearly shouted, spitting out some water that had gone in her mouth.
Current followed her a little but stayed low. “Mother said that you needed the beauty and love of the island to repair your heart.”
“How do I get that?!” Nauni demanded.
Current shook her head. “I don't know. I am of the ocean, not the island.”
Nauni growled as she fought the waves. More voices shouted from above, and she kicked her legs hard, propelling herself towards the rocks. She finally reached one and held to it tightly.
Nauni struggled to catch her breath. “Current—there was another way, right? She thought maybe if she had...”
“A human heart? Yes. But it has to be a very good one. If it's too damaged then it won't work.”
“What do I have to do?” She asked frantically.
Current came up a little more out of the water, hiding right next to the rock, barely visible even to Nauni. “I suppose you just get the heart out and bring it back to Mother. Here, you can use this.”
In Current's hands formed a twisted dagger of water. It froze, and when it had solidified, it was clear like melting ice. Hesitantly, Nauni took it.
“Thank you, Current.” She said, clutching the blade to her chest.
Current just giggled and then danced away with the next crashing wave.
Nauni began picking her way around the sea wall toward the beach. It was slow going, swimming from rock to rock and bracing herself against hard waves. She hadn't had the privilege of swimming every day as she once had, and her muscles ached. Her knee and forehead stung from the salt in the water. Still, her muscles knew what to do and that they could do it. They just didn't want to. It was difficult to hold on to the dagger. Eventually she found a resting place on a large, jagged rock that nearly reached the water's surface. She tore off a piece of her dress, and tied it to her leg before continuing.
Several minutes later, a search party of guards spotted her on the beach and ran towards her. They approached her with worried expressions.
“Why, Divine One? Why would you scare us like this?!” a guard called out to her as she marched, dripping wet, from the water.
“To swim.” Nauni called back, loud and clear.
The guards frowned, and some stumbled back. As Nauni approached, she heard one guard tell another that perhaps she had received power from the ocean to speak their language. Nauni sighed. If truth was the beauty of the island, then she had to stop letting these people believe a lie. Her life very much depended on it.
“I am not a goddess.” She announced to the guards.
At that declaration, the captain motioned for the guards. They bound her hands behind her back and marched her back to the fort. They marched her, wet, tired, and bleeding, to a prison cell.
Nauni hated the texture of wet silk, she decided. It clung to her skin and it did not dry easily. It had also been very heavy to swim in. Chang's people do NOT know how to dress, Nauni thought bitterly as she peered out into a dark hallway of the fort from between the bars of her cell.
As she clutched the metal bars, she noticed that the tips of her fingers continued to foam. Tears began to stream down Nauni's face.
The beauty of the island is truth. The love of the island is the love of its people. The beauty and love of the island grow in the hearts of the people, and the people are one.
Well, if truth wasn't the problem, then maybe her love of the people was. But hadn't she cared for these people? Didn't she care for Chang? Didn't she try to share any knowledge that might benefit or help them?
Maybe Chief Ariah was right about me. Maybe the truth and beauty of the island have never been in my heart. Nauni's head bowed at the thought. Perhaps I was always meant for the ocean.
A small squad of guards marched to her cell. Nauni saw that they were escorting the Island Lord, a man who looked very little like his son Chang. His mustache and beard were long, thin, and graying. There was a scar that cut through his eyebrow and extended down his cheek. The island lord folded his arms. Chen Wu followed him with a quickened pace, flustered. After some consideration, Nauni bowed to the island lord.
“You have dishonored me,” the Island Lord said.
Nauni held perfectly still.
“You deceived me and my people. You let us bow and scrape before you as though you were a goddess when really you were only a woman.”
The words stung, but Nauni raised her head. “I did not understand your language at first. Now I tell the truth.”
The Island Lord stiffened.
Chen Wu cut in. “My lord, this is perfectly consistent with what she told me earlier—...”
The Island Lord raised his voice to nearly a yell. “CHEN WU, I did not employ you here to put on firework displays or defend strange women who have landed on our shores! You are here to create MAPS! Leave here at once and tend to your work.”
Chen Wu grimaced. His eyes apologized to Nauni, but he bowed, turned, and left. The island lord took a moment to steady his breath and compose himself. He watched Chen Wu leave before turning back to Nauni.
“WHY did you jump from the tower?” He demanded.
Nauni sighed. “I did get upset. I need to swim. But I am trapped.”
The Island Lord took a step back, as if her words were some poisonous sea urchin that he did not want to touch. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Then, it would seem, the error is our own. We have held you captive and made a goddess of you when you had no capacity to explain yourself.”
He motioned for the guards to unlock the cell. Nauni lifted her head.
“It seems that Chen Wu knew how foolish we all were all along,” the Island lord admitted as Nauni stood. “This is poor timing. I cannot hear your story. I will arrange for Chen Wu to hear you in my stead. If he deems you trustworthy, then you will be released tomorrow evening to go your own way. ”
I'm being cast out again, Nauni thought, but I suppose at least it isn't prison. It doesn't matter. They would never let me be with Chang anyway—especially now.
Nauni was escorted to her room once more, where she was allowed to change. Two serving women stood out where she left the heap of wet silk and the dagger on a table in the room, but nobody noticed the transparent weapon. It was difficult to spot—just like Current herself. The serving women brought Nauni dry clothes—more practical ones this time. A simple and sturdy robe-like dress that tied in the front. The rough fabric felt good on her skin.
The conversation with Chen Wu was a difficult one. Nauni told him what happened in great detail, and he listened quietly. When she finished, he remarked that the story was fantastical and difficult to believe.
“I want to believe it,” he admitted to her, “because you seem so earnest. But there simply isn't precedent or evidence for it, and if I am wrong to trust you they will have my head. Do you have no evidence that the Current and the Ocean can manifest as personages—or that you actually had a tail?”
Nauni thought of the dagger, but she remained silent.
That night, Nauni slipped out of her chamber as quietly as she could. Most of the nicer rooms for important officers, the Island Lord, Lord Chang, and impostor goddesses were lumped together in a secure area. There were guards, but they stayed out of the main hallway. They mostly monitored people going in and out.
With all the excitement of jumping off of a tower into the ocean, confessing her true identity, and relating a story to Chen Wu that he had struggled to believe, Nauni had completely missed the wedding. She had heard the fireworks from deep within the fort, where she was speaking with Chen Wu, but she hadn't even been able to see them, which was a true pity. It was late enough now that she hoped the newlyweds—and everyone else—would be sound asleep.
She clutched the dagger in wet, salty palms. She could feel the salt of the sea eating at her fingertips now, and her hands ached. Her stomach lurched, but she knew what she needed to do in order to survive. The lie would finally become the truth and she would at last be worthy of her exile. She would give herself entirely to the sea and reign as a queen below the depths, where there was nothing to envy and where there were no tears to cry.
She needed a heart—a good one. A heart full of truth and love for the people. Chang, of course, was the first person who came to mind. To Nauni's surprise, however, she found herself at the door of Chen Wu. The one they called a scholar, who had been able to see the truth about her all along. The one who had listened so carefully to her story. It was fitting, she supposed. And it meant she would not have to stab someone who looked so much like Haui'no.
The door made a creaking sound that felt louder than an entire flock of seagulls. Nauni quickly flipped around the door and shut it slowly. The bed in the small room was barely visible in the moonlight shining through the small window. It sat empty and undisturbed. Nauni held her breath and glanced around frantically. At a wooden desk beside the window sat Chen Wu, slumped over several maps and scrolls. A burnt out candle told of a long night of study. Nauni tiptoed over. The man was snoring softly, his mouth ajar. An ink bottle had tipped over and a small puddle of black was slowly creeping towards his map. Nauni carefully tipped up the bottle with her aching hand and glanced around for a cloth to soak up the spill. Then she stopped.
He looked so human slumped over like that, his silly cap missing for once. Nauni raised the dagger uncertainly.
If I stab him, will he die right away or will he suffer? Does he have a family? Should I…
Nauni put the dagger back down and exhaled, grimacing. For a moment, she could remember the silvery fish Current had brought her so long ago. An easy kill. Quick, simple.
Chen Wu was jealous of me, and yet he never did me any harm. And here I am about to take his life to save my own? I am a coward. A loveless, lying coward.
She walked over and sat down on his bed. She stared at her hands and the dagger. Her fingernails were gone, she realized. Her curls didn't seem to extend as far down as they once had either. The bottom of one curly strand broke away in her fingertips, dissolving into a foam. She wasn't sure how much time she had left.
It's not fair. If I just had more time, if I just knew how much time I had, if I just knew how to reverse this…
She didn't. What would she do with more time if she had it? Mourn the loss of yet another man destined to marry a woman of high birth? Kill an innocent man to save her own skin? Run back to the ocean because she couldn't face the end of her own life?
I'm not sea-foam yet.
That thought warmed her. Perhaps it was time to stop lamenting lost time and start thinking of what she did have. She turned the dagger over in her fingers. This was not who she wanted to be. She couldn't change her past, but she could choose how she died. She had been jealous. She had said awful things about a young woman who had not deserved it. But she had never killed, or even wished death on anyone. Nauni would not change that now.
She had come here intending to take Chen Wu's life. It had seemed like the logical solution. But now that she knew she wouldn't do it, she wondered if maybe there was just a bit of the love of the island left in her after all.
She rose to her feet. There may not be time to figure out how to save herself, but there was time to share her story. If she was dying, she would at least make sure somebody knew what had become of her.
Nauni shook Chen Wu's shoulder. He stirred like a manta ray trying to shake off a pile of wet sand. Tired eyes turned to Nauni, then opened wide as they focused on the nearly invisible dagger. She offered it to him.
“You want proof of what I say—that I speak to Mother Ocean and Current.” Nauni said, putting the weapon in his hand. “This is all I have.”
Chen Wu inspected Nauni's disappearing fingers as he accepted the dagger.
“It's the middle of the night. Couldn't this wait until morning?” Chen Wu's tongue could barely work the words in between his shock and fatigue.
Nauni grimaced and forced herself to meet his eyes. “Current give this to me. I...I am dying. My heart is damaged. I give away all my tears—the hurt and the love. The lies and the truth. And I can't heal my heart, so I am turning into sea-foam.”
Chen Wu's eyes widened and he gently took one of her hands. The very tips of her fingers were melting away into a white froth. It felt like salt water on an open wound, but the sting persistently strengthened.
Nauni held her panic back with a breath. “I try to find truth and beauty of the island—the love of the people. Heart still damaged. I could save myself—with a human heart brought to the ocean. But...but I can't do it. I want you to know I'm sorry. I want to thank you for listening to me and caring to know my story.”
“Nauni...why are you turning to sea-foam?” Chen Wu's shaky voice demanded. “This makes no sense! Why sea-foam? You said you were part fish—if that is true, why do you not simply revert back to that form?”
Nauni shook her head. “I don't know. It doesn't matter. I'm sorry, Chen Wu. I'm sorry nobody believe you when you say I not a goddess. I'm sorry I take so long to tell the truth. And...and I'm sorry I come here to kill you.”
She winced with that last sentence. Chen Wu glanced from Nauni's fingers to her face, his eyes growing critical. “But you told me the truth.”
For all the good it had done.
“And you did not kill me even though it means you will die.”
“And it is love and truth that you need to heal your heart and save your life?”
Nauni paused. “I think it's too late.”
Chen Wu's eyes were gentle. He seemed fully awake now. “Perhaps not. Think, Nauni. Are there any lies you have told yourself, that you hold to? Are there any truths you need to face?”
Nauni looked Chen Wu in the eye. “I did say terrible things about Uliani.”
“You told me that already.”
Nauni nodded. She thought harder. “I spend a lot of time wishing I can have things I cannot have and thinking my life is unfair. But I have so much.”
She remembered diving into the ocean, paddling canoes, swimming through caves. Freedom, exploration, adventure, success. She remembered hauling loads of clams or fish back to shore, wide-eyed onlookers whispering about how skilled she was. She remembered her reluctance as she paid off the last of her father's debts with a pink conch shell that sported long spines, the wide-eyed recipient reverently taking her offering. Nauni began to feel warm. She smiled and continued.
“I pay off my father's debts after he break his leg. I have great skill. I go on so many adventures and have good friends. I have no reason to tear another woman down.” Nauni paused, turning her thoughts to the past three months.
“When I come here, I did feel afraid to remember. But if I did not go into exile, I not be here. I never meet you, see fireworks or weird gadgets.” She picked up Chen Wu's pen, the thing that the messy ink was used in.
Chen Wu nodded for Nauni to continue. She put the pen back down. “I forget. I think so much about lost love, lost dreams, that I forget about everything I did have. I have so many pearls and shells now, and so many islands to see and explore, so many people to meet.”
There was silence for a few minutes. It was strange to feel so grateful and so excited about what might have been as she faced her own demise. But a peace gently fell on her, like the gentle rays of sunlight creeping in from the window. Her exile had been emotionally excruciating—but she accepted that it had happened now. She accepted that Haui'no had not come to her rescue. She accepted that she had been treated unfairly. The memories were unpleasant, and they were a part of her. But they didn't have to define her now. She could choose what she would be—and it was that feeling of freedom that filled her heart.
For the first time since her exile, Nauni felt something hot and wet trickle down her cheek. Chen Wu gently wiped the tear away and smiled.
When the sun finally lifted its head to peer over the ocean, Nauni was gone. A tattered sack of pink conch pearls had been left at the dock where one of the fishing boats was missing.
By early afternoon, it became apparent that Chen Wu was also missing. His quarters had been cleaned out, but one oddity remained. A twisted dagger, hard and clear as ice, sat on Chen Wu's desk. No one could determine what it was made of.
The scholar had left a note for the Island Lord, but the contents had not been shared. Some whispered of the day the Island Lord had demanded Chen Wu depart and fix the maps. They said that the devoted man had taken the order to heart. Others whispered that Chen Wu had finally grown tired of the constant deluge of extraneous demands from his superiors and left.
Others still remembered his preoccupation with finding out the story of the young woman who had washed ashore months before. Nobody could say for sure what, if anything, had happened between the two. Anyone who had actually seen the woman said there was something quite strange about her. She had come in with the tide but then disappeared into the wind. Some thought perhaps the dagger belonged to her, and that perhaps it held magical properties. A maid swore she had seen the strange woman slip into Chen Wu’s chambers with it the night he disappeared. Those familiar with his character said this was nonsense. How could a learned man such as Chen Wu, a man who believed in science and denounced all superstition, be seduced by a siren of the sea?
All anyone really knew for certain was that both had left and, aside from the dagger, all that remained was a tattered bit of sail cloth filled with enough pink conch pearls to serve as a young woman's dowry.