Mama and I stay together in a cavern. It’s always wet. Bits of moss and sea kelp cling to the walls. Mama adds driftwood over the front most days. It doesn’t keep out the water, though. The ocean laps at the entrance, curling its frothy fingers in my direction.
Not today, I think.
Not ever again.
Not if I have anything to say about it.
I throw off my blanket and stretch my fingers up towards the moist ceiling. There’s a starfish lingering in the uppermost corner. Mama either hasn’t noticed it or has deigned to let it live with us. Little, lucky star.
It’s quiet today. Just the subtle purr of the ocean and me. Mama must have gone out early to get breakfast.
In the furthest corner of our camp, Mama has filled in the bland, wet walls with paintings. There’s all sorts of fish in every color. I run my fingers over the tails and their shiny fins and wonder what it must be like to like everyday stuck under the water. Mama says she used to live that way. Swimming forever, swimming and searching and swimming some more. She says she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, but she had to stop long enough to take care of me before she continues on her journey.
Amongst the fish are all sorts of plants. Mama loves everything green. Ferns and weeds and winding bits of ivy. She paints the fan-like leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree with a long brush. They grow in a place called China. She says the people there were nice to her until they learned the truth. Nobody may ever know the truth of what we are. It’s important. It’s imperative. It’s the only thing keeping us alive.
Since she’s still not back, I walk over to the chest where she keeps her makeup and take in the little round containers full of sparkling powder. Mama is always pretty. She says the colors help attract potential mates. Like a bird from the jungle or a fish from the Great Reef, sometimes we need special colors to attract the right people.
There’s a ton of other stuff littering the corner: clothes, shards of broken dishes that Mama uses to craft jewelry, a half of a yardstick she once salvaged just to show me how to measure shells, and several bottles of aloe for when we lay in the sun too long. Mama says she’s a bit of a clutter bug. She likes pretty things and useful things and doesn’t have the heart to let them go before their time.
She’s still not back. My stomach lets out a rumble loud enough to alert any nearby whales. It’s time to eat. I guess I’ll have to go out and get something. I’ll bring back extra for Mama. She’s probably just busy today.
Slipping on my green jacket, I creep out of the cavern. We don’t wear shoes. There’s no point. Everything we need is always somewhere along the beach.
I’m careful about making my way along the rocks near the front of our home. The world is dangerous and even more difficult to manage with hurt feet. It isn’t long before the slick, black rocks give way to the shifting sands of the nearby beach. Not many people are out right now. The moon is high in the sun. It’s the perfect time for creatures like Mama and me to be out on our own.
A salty smell drags me further up the beach away from home and safety and Mama’s return. Popcorn. One of my favorite snacks. It must be the weekend already. Hopefully, one of the moviegoers left some in their bag and I can save it from the sand. Popcorn is not very good with a crunchy texture.
I walk up the short dune to the marked off area that humans come to for their movie nights. It’s a big event. Lots of talking and laughter. I like to lay at the front of the cavern and listen to them when Mama is away. Sometimes, they even blow up huge balls of colors in the sky and I can see them without having to get close to the humans.
That’s rule number one. We don’t ever get close to humans.
Checking left and then right, I make sure the platform is clear before I sneak around the beach chairs. Humans always leave lots of trash. There’s blue cans all over the sand. I once found one with some liquid left in it and decided that it is not a very good drink at all.
Today is no different. I snag a candy wrapper from the cup holder of a chair and unwrap it. There’s still chocolate smeared in the corners. I hold it up to my face and lick it clean before putting it in my pocket to throw away. If I see trash, I should throw it away, so it doesn’t go into the ocean.
We always have to protect the ocean.
More cans. Some empty chip bags. There’s a crumpled movie poster caught under a chair leg.
I let my finger trail over the big “s” in the center. Maybe I’ll tell Mama that I want letters on my clothes. Something green with a big “L” for Lucy.
Lucy Lore. Mama says it’s the best name. The kind that won’t be forgotten.
A little further. I stuff more trash into my pockets. There’s a full water bottle stuffed into the sand. It’s warm, but the water is still good. I open it and take a big drink.
I hope Mama is having more luck than me. Usually, there’s more out here to pick through. The seagulls probably beat me to it.
I start on the next row of chairs, bending down and looking under them. A tiny, red crab wriggles away from me. He burrows further into the sand, clacking his large claw at me. Click, clack, click.
“Okay, Mr. Clicker. I won’t bother you anymore.”
Moving over to the next aisle, I finally catch sight of the red and white striped bag. Popcorn. The bag is bunched up and stuffed under one of the chairs, but I can reach it if I just lay on my stomach. There’s not much. I shove a couple pieces in my mouth. Still salty. A little chewy. I wonder what it must be like to have it fresh.
It must be hotter. Is it less chewy? Is there more butter? I really like butter. It’s good on fish and Mama mixed it into pasta for us once. Obviously, it’s great on popcorn, but I want to know what other foods it would be great on. Is it really something all humans like?
I’ll have to wait until I’m grown up to find out those kinds of questions. Mama hates talking about the humans. It’s my fault she left home so early this morning. I start on the next aisle of chairs as the memories from last night come back to me.
I just wanted to know if human girls spend as much time learning from their mamas as I do. I didn’t think it was a bad question. Mama has taught me how to build a fire and make a camp. She has walked with me along every beach and shown me how to catch our dinner. I listened very closely when she told me which animals are sacred and which can be sacrificed for the greater good of our species’ survival. There aren’t many of us left in the world and sometimes we have to kill in order to live.
I thought it was usual for girls to stay close to their mamas. Baby birds stay in nests and learn to fly with their mamas. We’ve sat together on a cliff and seen schools of fish. We once were further up north and had the chance to see a mama bear with her cub.
Yesterday, though, I stayed out late. I saw some human girls near the movie area. Their parents were nowhere near. I watched the three of them braid the others’ hair and share snacks and sit together on the edge of the crowd. They had bags of food they shared with each other and they never seemed worried about being away from their mamas for too long.
I just wanted to know that I was normal, that I was good, that Mama felt the same way about me.
Knees weak, I slump over into one of the chairs and hold my bag of popcorn to my chest. Mama wasn’t mad. She was more than that. I could see the fury in her dark eyes like it was a tempest over the sea.
Her lips pressed tight together, making the pink gloss she’d worn disappear as the lines in her face deepened. Eyebrows scrunched together, hands on her hips, she yelled. Mama yells a lot, but never directly at me. I felt as though a ship had slammed into me.
Even when I said sorry, she kept at it. She stepped towards me and I backed away. She wasn’t acting like Mama. She was someone else, someone scary and mean and angrier than a great white after it has lost its meal.
Somehow we made it outside. We were at the edge of the rocks. The ocean was icy under my heels, urging me to take another step back as it nipped at my bare skin.
“You have never appreciated everything I have done to raise you.”
My heart pounded in my ears. I do. I did. I just had questions.
Mama was in front of me, a looming force. She said more angry things. Her hands were on my arms and she squeezed hard enough to make me cry.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I don’t know if she could hear me. Snot trickled down my face. We stepped further back. The ocean was at my knees.
I didn’t ask for it to help me. I really didn’t, but Mama was yelling and I just wanted it to stop.
The water swelled up from my knees, to my thighs, and then to my waist. We hadn’t moved back. The water was rising, its surface bubbling along to my pleas for her to stop. When she shook me again, the ocean retaliated.
The wave that crashed between us flung me backward from her. I tumbled under the water, gasping for air, flinging my arms out to try to stop my continuous rolls. Nothing I did mattered. I had no control. Mama had told me not to touch the water until I was ready and I didn’t know what she meant until that moment.
Shaking the thoughts from my head, I push up from the chair. The water put me back onto land shortly after. I was fine. Mama didn’t say another word last night. She merely watched me, a thin line of blood running down from her lip. The water came between us, stopped the fight, and we went to bed.
She was fine. I was fine. We were fine.
I make a game of stepping back into my own footprints as I take my bag of popcorn home. Mama should be back by now. She’ll have found something else to eat. We can sit by the fire and share some food and I won’t ask questions and everything will be just like it was before last night.
The sand turns into rock which leads me to the front of our home. Everything seems fine until I step inside. Mama isn’t here. Her things from the corner are gone. Everything is gone besides the paintings on the wall and the starfish in the corner.
I stumble to the middle of the cavern. This is a game. Mama is going to jump out and surprise me. She’s trying to make up for last night. We’re okay. We’re supposed to be fine. It was a fight, not the end of the world.
It’s not fine.
I walk to where her things were and touch my fingers to the message written in red paint.
You’re officially a Syren
Her necklace is hung on a rock jutting out just above the words. A black pearl in a silver, crescent moon. The symbol of our people.
I sink down to the ground and let my eyes fall on the starfish. Maybe he’s not a lucky, little star. Maybe he’s just a problem Mama didn’t want to deal with.
I was invited on a weekly writing challenge with two brilliant writers, Bridgette White and Anna Loscotoff. This week I spent time working through the prompt by detailing a background to a character I’m using in a future novel.
Prompt: A young child makes a discovery
To see the work of the other writers, click the links below: