This is a story I will never forget and generations of mermaids will sing about. My name is Calleyopa. I am a purple scaled daughter of the ocean. My skin is brown like the sand on the shores where our watery realm ends and my hair shines long and golden like the midday sun. So let my voice carry you through time and invite you to melodies and wonders of old.
All my life, I have lived in the blue waters of the ocean. My friends, my family and I live in wonderful stone palaces overgrowing with corals. Some of our homes are towers, standing proud like columns, almost touching the surface, with terraces where yellow and green seagrass move to the current of the sea. On other terraces there grow all sorts of corals, red and purple rising up like arms, stretching out for sunlight, and like you, listening to our voices. For we merfolk are the protectors of corals and the sea and our melodies make corals thrive.
With us live all sorts of fish and other sea creatures. Some of the smaller, yellow-scaled fish, keep our palaces and towers clean. They eat the algae that grows on the stones and when they are done cleaning, the walls of our homes shine white again. Green sea turtles educate the younger mermaids and mermen in all the things they need to know when they are grown. They are wise creatures of the ocean and hold knowledge of all the sea plants and sea creatures. Our best friends are the grey dolphins. We hear them laugh before we see them emerge from the blue. Whenever they visit our town, we forget about our duty to protect the corals for a time and join our friends and dance with them in the wide waters. Our coral town is called Mykowandon. In our language that means ancestral home of corals.
One day when the sun sparkled in golden colours into the sea, glittering upon our colourful realm, something strange rained from the surface. They were tiny particles, even smaller than the seeds of corals. My close friend Laryon, a blue-scaled coffer fish with bright green dots all over his body, swam with some other curious fish towards one of the little particles and sniffed at them. Disgusted, he moved back. He did not like the scent of it. Quickly, the other fish lost their interest as well. The dust smelled of something strange, something they had never smelled before, something bitter and unhealthy. And after a couple of hours the strange particles were gone, swallowed by the wide sea.
A day later, they reappeared but this time no one minded them. They didn’t appear to pose any danger and were of no nutritious worth. But I wanted to find out what they were. I looked up and saw the glittering surface above, that fragile border between the realm of mermaids and the kingdom beyond our understanding.
I have been up there before, sometimes talked to seagulls. Their bizarre scales, they called them feathers, were as white as shells. When I sung to them, songs about the deep wonders of the sea, they sometimes did not believe me. And I could never grasp their explanations of the world beyond the ocean, where they lived. Once, I decided to follow the seagulls. I saw the border where the blue waters ended. Soft sand took over and beyond there was a place I did not have words to describe.
This is what the birds had sung to me, what they described with their high voices swimming on the winds above as I swam in the waters below. When I followed the seagulls, I had seen it for myself. And now I wondered if these particles might come from the home of the birds, that place they call land.
Swishing my purple fin, I rose higher, past the coral columns and broke the surface. My golden hair no longer moved like the seagrass below, but suddenly clung to my head and a cold wind embraced me, a feeling that was strange to me. But this wind, this breeze carried something else as well. There was something in the air. There were the particles that had rained down into the sea but here they looked even smaller, not white but grey and brown, blowing here and there wherever the winds took them. It looked like a little grey cloud; not high above, beyond the reach of seagulls, but down here, stretching on and on over the ocean. It had a scent to it that I had smelled only once before when I swam close to the border of the sea where the great strange spaces beyond the waters commenced.
Suddenly, I heard a screeching sound above. It was a seagull, surprised to see me. I explained to her why I had risen to the surface and asked about the strange cloud. She told me her name was Aralea and this cloud was smoke, the product of fire. This was a word I had not heard in a long time.
Fire was a legend among my kind. Long ago, there were dark creatures who devoured mermaids. The most powerful mermaids summoned the heat of the sun and burnt the dark creatures, sending them fleeing into the dark canyons from which they never returned. This was the heat of the sun, fire, a magic not of the ocean but of the sky above. It was an ancient tale, and the magic of the sun was a secret long lost by the mermaids of other times. Fire was like a myth to me, an echo of the past. But here there was a seagull telling me about it, an old tale come to life.
I asked the seagull who was the master of this fire, and she answered that it was the strange walkers’ fire. These were creatures, which, she said, looked a lot like me. They lived on land and had hands like a mermaid but no tail. Instead, they had legs like the seagull, only longer and not as bony. I could not imagine such a being, but I wanted to see them. I wanted to know. I asked Aralea if she would lead me to them. She agreed and I followed the flapping of her white wings and a short time later I saw the border of the sea: the sandy, dry grounds, untouched by water; the waves breaking, unable to conquer the stones beyond.
And there from the land within rose the cloud of smoke. I could not see anything else because of the green seagrass that grew there. I was impressed by all the shades of green, almost as beautiful as the colours of the ocean. Aralea explained to me that this was no seagrass but trees and plants that grow beyond the sea on land. I asked her if there was any possibility of swimming closer, but she said no. She did not like to be close to the fire and close to the strange walkers. But then she told me about a secret. She had witnessed the strange walkers climbing into a cave by the beach and spending hours in there, only emerging when the tide would arrive and flood the cave overnight.
Aralea flew on and showed me the cave by the rocks on the border of sea and land. She said that, perhaps, I could swim in there that night and learn more about the strange walkers. But be careful, she warned me, they are not like you and me. They command fire like no one else.
I thanked her for her help and listened to her warning words. I would be careful, but I was not afraid. I was a daughter of the ocean and these strange walkers could not frighten me.
I waited until the sun spilled blood red into the ocean and kissed the horizon far away. The currents of the ocean began to flow more strongly towards the land, pulled by the magic of the moon above. The rocks by the cave were swallowed by the sea and the underwater world turned dark. But I was a mermaid and while the magic to summon the light of the sun was lost to us, we could still summon the cool light of the stars at night to guide us through a black ocean. Once again, I rose to the surface and sang an ancient melody, praising the stars in all their glory. Flattered by my song, their light rained down on me and followed me wherever I swam, my purple fin glittering silver in their light.
I headed for the cave. Now underwater, like the jaws of a predator it loomed in front of me. For a moment, I hesitated and was scared to find something horrible within. But the silver and blue starlight, surrounding me, glided fearlessly on towards the cave. The celestial light was not afraid. It was my friend and would protect me. I swam into the cave and I saw only rocks and stone walls around me, nothing special. For a moment, I was disappointed. There was nothing there. But then the starlight glided closer to the walls and lit up this ancient hall. And there it was! There were beautiful drawings, symbols and signs covering the entire wall. I swam closer and tried to make sense of them. They were clearly pictures, but not carved as we did it on our walls of stone in our palaces and towers. Those were made with colour, light brown and black. They were colours of nature.
They looked similar to something I had seen a long time before. My grandfather used to collect a special kind of white stone from the ocean floor. When he pressed these stones against the walls of our homes, they would leave white lines behind. He drew pictures of us, of dolphins and other sea creatures on the walls. What I was seeing here must be something similar.
But these drawings did not appear to be made with any tool. No, the lines looked thicker and with one of my brown fingers I traced the line of a picture I thought might be an animal of the land. The tip of my finger moved exactly along its dark brown outline and I realised that the strange walker, who drew this had fingers like my own. Maybe we were not as different as the seagull had said? I wondered how the strange walkers were able to create these images on the wall. The colours felt smooth on my skin unlike the coarseness of the mermaids’ carvings.
As the starlight moved along the walls, the darkness retreated and revealed more and more images of animals of the land. They looked so strange and funny. Some appeared to have big horns or big ears. Some had long tails and most of them appeared to have four legs. Then I saw images that fitted the descriptions of the seagull. The upper body of a strange walker looked similar to my own. They did not have a tail but two long thin legs as the seagull had described. In the hands of the strange walker was something that looked like a spear. Was this the warning the seagull had talked about? It could not be. We too had spears to protect ourselves from sharks and other big sea creatures of the deep. It would only make sense that the strange walkers had to protect themselves from other, bigger animals. The pictures clearly showed that there were a lot of different animals on land that might be dangerous.
Then the starlight moved further on, deeper into the cave and there I saw the most beautiful painting. There were over a hundred hands all over the wall. They almost appeared to glow on the surface of the stone. It looked as though the strange walkers had pressed their hands against the wall and somehow sprayed the paint around their hands, creating this grand image of fingers and hands stretching on like shadows on the stone.
I pressed my right hand against one of the hands on the wall and closed my eyes. I imagined a strange walker right here with me, wondering what they could tell me about their world. A glow flamed up and I felt something hot moving through my body, as if the wall in front of me had heated up. A vision appeared in front of my eyes and I could see great fires rising from the land, from the beaches, licking the waves that were covered with the grey particles that rained from the sky. The fires consumed all the wonderful green plants of the lands I had marvelled at earlier today. Grey clouds rising from the fires blocked out the sun and beneath the water I saw empty seas. There were no colourful fish, only white skeletons of broken corals all around. The palaces and towers of my family and friends had crumbled and collapsed and when I saw the skull of a mermaid among the rubble, I moved away frightened and let go of the wall. The vision ended immediately, I opened my eyes and there was just my guiding starlight and cool water around me.
I looked at the wall of hands again and wondered who these strange walkers really were. Did they use the spears, not to defend themselves, but to kill the animals on land? Was that the reason why the seagull preferred to stay away from them? How were they able to wield the magic of the fire, when we merfolk had lost that secret? Was my vision a true one? Would their fires burn all the lands beyond the ocean and then, when they were done, come for our realms as well? But what fire, what elemental force could destroy the world of the merpeople?
I left the cave and the starlight guided me back to my coral town. The light of the moon shone into the water and dipped the coral terraces and the stone palaces into a ghostly silver light. Some of my friends were still awake and asked me where I had been. I told them about my adventure, about the warning words of the seagull, the dark cave and the wonders inside. And I told them about my vision and the dangers the strange walkers might pose.
My family and friends doubted my words for a time but from then onwards we avoided the sandy shores, where the waves broke upon the stones of the land where the strange walkers lived. But soon, one by one they believed me as the grey clouds returned more often. And whenever we saw them appear above our surface, we called upon the winds of the sea to blow them far away. We hoped that my vision would never come to pass, that it was just a warning; that it was just a creation of my mind as the images in the dark cave were simply fabrications of the strange walkers’ minds.
I am an old mermaid now and I have sung my song many times. I have seen a thousand cycles of the moon pass by but I have never seen a strange walker in real life. I only remember the images in the cave and my vision, hoping it was just a nightmare. But it has slowly crept into my reality. It was not like a breaking wave that crushed over me and my merpeople. It was a slow change.
First the smoke of fires reappeared and after a while even our ocean winds could not blow them away. Many of my friends went missing. Fish, sea turtles, dolphins and whales, they simply vanished. We did not know what to do, how to fight. It was a power beyond our understanding so all mermaids went into hiding. A great predator was out there, always hungry. I knew who it was, for I have foreseen it. And now, my beloved corals crumble white without colour. I still sing to them, songs of old, songs filled with colour, songs of mermaids who once wielded fire, songs of times when the ocean was blue. But they can’t hear me anymore. Broken corpses don’t listen to songs of long ago.