Translated from Finnish by the author.
I will tell you a story I heard from no one. No one has heard it. I will give it words because it wants to be told, here at the far end of the sea, so close to the beginning.
The sun does not shine often. When it does, I spread my fins, and the iridescent webbing between my fingers glitters like pearls.
Shonra laughs at me as she dives into the water, the light picking up on the smattering of scales on her back. Show-off. Such a Change has no use. Of course, neither has mine. We are the in-between folk, balancing between the old world and the next.
Our dream-teller says that a long time ago, beyond her string of dreams, the world was dry and brittle like seaweed forgotten in the sun. Then the waters fell and the great floods claimed man and beast alike. Cities shattered like shell. But some of us survived. Changed. Learned to live on the waves. The world did not end for us. That was only the beginning.
Fish and birds and stranger creatures once again rule the sea. Dark shapes pass below our castle of rafts and tents. Sometimes the sea-dragon blesses us with her great shadow. It is said that the writhing of her enormous body raised the waves which swallowed the world. She gave us the sea and she gave us life. With every Change, we descend ever closer to her.
I peer over the edge of the raft. On bright days, one can see the city under the waves. We have grown up, me and my brethren, wondering at its spires and domes through the green glass of water. Though we are good swimmers, it is too deep for us to dive. And there are always unknown creatures circling the green towers.
Shonra pops back up and rests her elbows on the edge of the raft. Her hair is light and reddish like mine and most people’s here. Aside from the Changes, we all look quite alike.
“What would you bring back?” she says, smirking at me. It is an old children’s game. What would you bring up from the drowned magic kingdom, tantalisingly out of reach? The answers get wilder by every turn of the sun.
“A handful of jewels for a cloak,” I say, “for scales even finer than yours, sister.”
She sticks out her tongue and dives back in. Shonra spends most of her time in the water. The sunlit layers are not very dangerous, but I think she has been venturing beyond. The sea is poisonous, of course. We stand it better than most. Our skin becomes tough like bark; old folk have odd growths under the skin. I think we do not live very long. Few have white hair or wrinkles. Only the dream-teller has a curling pile of gull-white tangles atop her head, her skin all crumpled and used.
There is no dry land anywhere in sight. This is how we live.
We move about with the seasons and see and hear things. There are the stone citadels perching high above the sea. The inhabitants say we live on poor, borrowed time. There are the people of the reefs and island chains. They scrabble and fight for land and good soil. There are the whalers and the scavengers. They come hunting on our waters like they own the sea. Sometimes they hunt us. Then there are the Right People. We spit on their name.
The water prickles at my grease-covered skin as I slip in. A gale is picking up. It would be a fine day to practice with my newest wind-raft. Instead I should be cleaning the undersides of the rafts of plants and living things which cling to the wood. The thought is lost as I glimpse a square of salmon-red at the horizon. I spring back up and sprint towards the dwelling-house, weaving from raft to raft.
“The whalers,” I shout on every flock of rafts, my wet feet skidding. “The butchers. The thieves.” As my message spreads, a din begins: the hollow sound of bone-sticks hitting fish-skin drums. I repeat the news when I reach the big dwelling-house where our clan mother and dream-teller reside.
Not many whaling crews used to venture to our waters. They have grown bold lately. We can smell the whalers when they get close enough or the wind is right. Their great ships reek of blood. They come to our waters. They hunt our fish. The dream-teller fears they are after the sea-dragon and its kin.
The whalers would kill us and string us up like they do to the carcasses of beasts. We are hunters, not fighters. But a dozen skilled divers with sharp tools can prick a boat like the belly of a fish. Spears and hooks of bone and wood clatter against the floor of the dwelling-house as the clan-mother tells us what to do in precise, clipped tones.
The whalers must have crossed the Poison Wastes in their search for bigger prey. Their ship is rotting under them, the protective paint long since eaten away. They do not know these waters. And if they have heard of us, they are right to be afraid.
In the middle of the commotion, a spear is placed in my hand. My hand grips the bone handle instinctively. I glance up at Mirechi, one of the best hunters in our clan. He smiles at me, showing sharpened teeth. Mine are yet blunt.
“It’s time, little fish,” he says. Though the situation is grave, excitement curls in my gut. I wish Shonra could see me.
“You know what to do,” clan mother Ainara says. She is a hunter of many legends. Now she watches over us with her clouding eyes. The water spoils eyesight in time. “The Great Dragon will see you.”
Always the same words. No one has ever seen the dragon, only her coiling shadow. But she sees all.
We take position and wait. This same hunt has taken place countless times. It rolls across our path like the seasons. And like the seasons, we will weather it. The ship seems slow and cumbersome. Its sails flap in the wind like huge flat birds. Mirechi lays a hand on my shoulder.
“Now,” he says, and I dive.
I have been taught that hunting them is like hunting beasts. The whalers and scavengers provide us with wood and cloth and meat. Plum wine from across the Wastes, fine silks spoiled by water. Whaler meat will go into the feast-stew with bits of fish and bird. But their bones will not be used for divination. It would bring ill luck.
We know what to do. It is no great dive at all to reach the ship unnoticed. The rotten wood of its belly cracks easily open under our hooks. And when the men and women are running aboard and shouting in confusion, we slip on the ship and begin our hunt.
I don’t remember much. The stink of old and new blood. The beasts spread out for cutting, rib cages on display. Great dead eyes staring at me, like they know something I don’t as I sink my spear in a man’s thigh.
I remember something else. A pale back speckled with red scales, strung up among the sea creatures. The shallow rising and falling of her sides. Metal hooks pierce her skin at the shoulders. Pieces of her flesh are missing. Shonra.
We get her down afterwards, when all the whalers are dead.
She must have dived too far, got caught in their nets. They have treated her badly. I stare at her mangled back. We lay her on her side on the raft along with the spoils and the corpses.
I cradle her carefully as we are towed back to the village, to stop her from sliding into the water. Her skin is clammy, her eyes red. “Will you kill me?” she asks. I don’t think she sees me.
Behind us, the ship takes one last gurgling breath.
I’m glad when I get to leave her at the dwelling-house with the rest of the wounded. There are very few. The hunt was a success. There is a celebration that night as we sort through our haul. But the meat of the whalers tastes bitter in my mouth. The thick wine is sickeningly sweet. I throw up before the feast is over.
Shonra was always a proud one. I remind her of the blunder that nearly cost her life. The ocean does not chill her fury against the whalers. She takes to longer dives, first alone and then with a group of others. I am not invited. Redscales, they call themselves. They patrol the waters and alert us to nearby ships. Even those which before would have passed us by unnoticed.
Sometimes their best divers manage to scavenge scraps from the underwater kingdom. It is forbidden, but the lure of the lost city is stronger than any warnings. Afterwards they lay on the weather-beaten rafts, pant for breath like fish out of water, and clutch some glittering trinket to their breast. A fight won, a scrap of respect earned, all to impress their war-loving leader.
I go on longer voyages with my wind-raft. Take to covering my eyes with shell-glass found in the raids. I can’t deny we have more possessions now — preserved fruit, foreign medicines, metal tools. All these things come from somewhere. I dream of secrets beyond the horizon. Not of this place, not of the dragon. It is as if the village is dead in my dreams. I feel guilty. I run.
One day, I’m summoned by the dream-teller. Nobody calls her by her name. She was Inra when she was a girl.
“Arnau,” she greets me from her pillow. It is filled with crackling seaweed and dead people’s hair. “Sit down.”
I obey, fidget, feel my newly filed teeth with my tongue.
“I’ve not called you here for a scolding,” she says, humour blinking in her black eyes. “Your dreams trouble you.”
“You don’t dream of the fish or the hunt of whalers. It is not wrong.”
“My dreams are constantly in motion like the waves. All things must pass. All things must change. Are we not proof of that?”
I smile, a weight lifted off. “Yes. Of course.”
I believe she is consoling me. But though I don’t yet understand it, what she is telling me is this: change always means loss.
“I can hear the wind singing in your bones. You have my leave to come and go as you please. Find us something new and strange and wonderful. But come back to us. Always come back.”
I have a feeling she thought I might follow in her footsteps, become one more pearl in the string of dreamers. I’ll never know.
When disaster strikes us, it is not the whalers or the winter storms. It is the sea dragon, our protector, the one whose long dark shadow so often curled around our village like a blessing.
The beast swallows my people whole. Perhaps someone dove too deep and caught its hungry eye. No one can know. The great maelstrom of its wrath destroys everything in its path. Rafts and tents and boats, men and women and others disappear in a great inhale. One moment, and it is all gone. All the Changed, glimmering, beautiful people. The beast does not care.
Perhaps I am wrong in my lack of faith. Maybe my people have cast off their human skin and descended. United with the sea like lovers. Maybe they now live in a golden city beneath the waves. It is what we tell each other, Shonra and I, much later in a dryland place surrounded by cold stone. We tell the story over and over, like that would make it true. But I saw the blood and bones in the churning water. I saw no cleverness in the beast’s huge, moon-bright eyes.
Few of us survive. We are found by the Right People. Even fewer survive that. Some call them pirates, stealers of children. But they do not want to rob us. The Right People want to destroy us. They find me and my sister clinging to my crippled wind-raft and take us with them.
The Right People have their big stone house up in the hills, far away from the sea. They hate everything changed. The world full of water and all things in it. They believe the world has ended and they have been left behind by a forgetful god. The only illumination in a world cast into darkness. That is what they tell me when they cut off the webbing between my fingers and toes. They are making us pure, not the filthy half-things that we are. That is what they tell Shonra when they shear her back. Red scales rain on the floor tiles like rice.
I know she will not live. The first knife she finds, blood is going to be spilled. I will not stop her.
They try to make us bow to this low god who despises the whole world and us. For a while his hate makes me tremble. But he does not find me in my dreams. I realise he is not even a shadow or a draft bending the candle-flames.
God or no, Shonra does not care. I see her take five men down. She hacks them open with a sharpened stone. Blood stains her mouth as she shouts at me to go. A Redscale to the last. I don’t stay to watch the ending. In the chaos, I slip out of the house and down the hill, towards the sea.
I stop trembling and start hating too. Hating all the beasts in this world who will swallow you up if you haven’t got a spear at the ready and the wind at your back. You wonder why I run? Once I got away from the Right People, I never stopped.
The ocean is full of beasts. I have made my name killing what I once thought of as my kind. I am good at it. Thought I might as well be the best. I am still on the voyage a dream-teller once predicted, caught between one place and the next. This world and the dream where my people exist – whole, radiant, descended.
This is not a good story. But it was mine, only told once in the living of it. And then you came along and made me do it all over again, here where the old shadows linger. Pass me the rotgut? Tomorrow we dive.