The Message by Jennifer Walker

The Message
Jennifer Walker

In the great hall of the palace of Poseidon the merpeople of Atlantis waited for their Queen to speak. To her right floated her daughter Nerissa, an unusually thick mermaid the shape of a small orca. To her left her two lithe sons, as sinuous as eels, undulated expectantly. The games had been arduous. There’d been giant octopus wrestling, sailfish racing, and a scramble up Eratosthenes Seamount. To the victor would go the glory of being the first envoy to mankind in decades, the one entrusted with delivering the hybrid phytoplankton that generated more clean energy in one cell than an acre of solar panels. Only a handful of the original 474 competitors even finished. Nerissa and her brothers were among them.

The Queen cleared her throat.

By the power of Kymopoleia I now announce the winner of Triton’s crown.” She kept face pointed straight down the hall. She wasn’t able, however, to keep her eyes from shifting uncomfortably to her right. “Nerissa.”

What!” Her son’s cries drowned out the polite but anemic clapping of the gathered assembly. “How could she? No! That’s not fair! We’re older. We’re mermen. Mom!”

Silence,” the Queen shouted. “It is the will of the gods. Also, your sister beat you and everyone else by at least ten minutes on every challenge.”

Nerissa accepted it all in her quiet, unassuming way. Even as her mother explained to her brothers, again, that it wasn’t her fault their sister took after their father while all they’d inherited was beauty and an exceptionally piercing singing voice from her, Nerissa glided over to the dias where the precious vial of phytoplankton lay in its seal skin pouch. The strap was a little too small to wear across her brawny shoulders but if she wrapped it twice around her sturdy wrist it was a perfect fit.

#

Nerissa had never been farther than a few miles outside the boundaries of Atlantis so everything she encountered on her trans-ocean journey was wondrous and new. She traveled south and east, towards a place her mother’s advisers called Florida, where decades before, or so the story went, her father the King had ventured when it became clear the oceans were warming. Here she would deliver the spectacular plants the merfarmers developed to a place called The Whitney Laboratory For Marine Bioscience which had been working on the same technology since her father’s visit. There was not a second to waste, the shared future of homo aquatius and homo sapiens depended on it, but the urgency of the mission could not stop Nerissa from reveling in the ocean’s strangeness and surprise now finally free from her brothers’ taunts and her mother’s scowl.

In the first days Nerissa saw many vessels: huge, lumbering things groaning under their own bulk and blocking out the sun. But when she got close enough to see who might be aboard they appeared uninhabited, like abandoned cities made of multicolored boxes left on the ocean to drift and rust. Then came smaller vessels as she started to leave the continental shelf, but these had dangling hooks and fearsome nets and vicious cages she had to dive deep to avoid lest she become trapped like the scores of fish she saw lifted to their doom. Rarely she came across a boat that was smaller than the others with large white fins snapping in the wind. On these there were humans she could see up close, usually just one or two at a time, and she marveled at how graceless they were and how strangely their split tails bent. But she never revealed herself and flitted into the midnight depths at the merest suspicion of being spotted.

As the days went on she saw fewer and fewer boats. She passed the time darting among swordfish as they chased huge schools of herring who filled the sea with ever spiraling columns of light and dark. She ambled with sunfish and fought off a great white, leaving it a jagged tail wound to warn its peers. She drifted with jellyfish and rode a giant whale shark as it plowed through a cloud of plankton. And soon, way before she expected, the murky ridges of the new continental shelf rose below her.

But it wasn’t until she saw that first blur of green on the horizon, as she leapt with a pod of dolphins into the sun, that she knew all the times her brothers had laughed at her, and all the times her mother couldn’t hide her disappointment, had been worth it. She was the strongest of them all and she was going to save the world.

#

The family drove down to Florida from Michigan every year to bowfish off the coast. There were four boys, and only the youngest, at six, wasn’t old enough to have his own gear. His father would sometimes let him aim one of his brother’s bows at a dark, gliding shape in the water but he never let him shoot.

You’re still too little to hold onto the bow,” he’d explain as the boy pouted. “You’d end up pulled on out into the water.”

But the boy didn’t want to be so much smaller than his brothers, especially the next oldest who he knew still wet his bed. So he took that brother’s bow when no one was watching and scanned the turquoise water for something at which to aim.

Nerissa swam up slowly to the small boat, staying deep underwater and out of sight. They were so close to land now she could smell the sulfurous mangroves and hear the screeching gulls. She’d seen the children moving around on their stubby bifurcations and wanted to get a closer look at these distant, awkward cousins. She thought about how her brothers would mock the way the children moved and breathed, how they would swell their chests and jerk their tails in grotesque mimicry, and she filled with a sudden tenderness towards these curious creatures. She forgot her caution as this surge of feeling buoyed her to the surface just underneath the smallest child as he pointed something, like a greeting, over the water.

The arrow pierced Nerissa clean through the forehead so she was still smiling when she sank back underwater. The boy did let go of his brother’s bow immediately, almost at the same time as he let go of the arrow, so he didn’t fall overboard. Instead, the weapon fell into the water and followed mankind’s last chance to make amends.

The Message by Jennifer Walker 1

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