Originally posted here: Attack of the paranormal mermaid romance novel: Why you should never, ever lose a bet to David Shiffman, the mermaid novel has taken some surprising turns in the last few months. I recognition, I’ve decided to repost the significantly revised first chapter to entertain. Happy Labor Day, US readers!
They drifted, mindlessly, in an eternal, ocean-spanning arc, bare particles of life, unassuming among the myriad. They drifted, wordlessly, no mouths to speak nor eyes to see. No hands to grasp, not that there was anything to grasp in the great circling gyre. They drifted, aimlessly, their purpose obscured by the haze of their own perception, brains unformed, uninformed ganglia pressing against a translucent carapace. They drifted, ruthlessly, the indomitable walls of baleen sheets, the brutal rasp of gill rakers, the insatiable grasp of dangling tentacles, winnowing their numbers. They drifted, together, a cohort growing stronger even as their siblings fell to the inevitable fate of prey among the flotsam. They drifted until they could drift no more, until their bodies, no longer mindless particles, but tiny facsimiles of their future selves, could challenge the current, assert their dominance over the drift.
No longer drifting, they sought refuge.
The reef was old. It rose from the seamount, a honeycomb of chambers stacked one on top of the other. They swam around the perimeter, cautiously. The Ocean was a dangerous place. Who knew what strange predators lurked inside the labyrinthine palace? Janthina went first. She squeezed through a small opening, close to the sea floor. The once generous entrance was overgrown with corals, generation stacked upon generation, each polyp building upon the skeletal remains of its ancestors. Whatever creatures carved this chamber, they abandoned it long ago.
Janthina squeezed her pelvic fins tight against her body and shimmied through the narrow, improbably round entrance. The hole was too small and her wide, muscled hips scraped against the jagged coral, sending a tremor down her lateral line. She reached back with her long, delicate arms and pushed against the inner wall, knocking bits of coral loose as she forced her way in. She braced herself and, with one confident flick of her powerful tail, she was inside.
Janthina waited as the cloud of silt, stirred up by her graceless entrance, settled to the floor. The cavern was snug, just large enough for her to stretch out to her full length. She turned in lazy circles, studying the walls and crevices, searching for hints of danger. Tiny banded shrimp fled as she passed above them, but the cavern was otherwise unoccupied. She scanned the walls.
The growth was thickest on the furthest wall. Heavy filamentous mats, iridescent as they wafted in the gentle current, clung to oddly shaped divots, casting light and shadow as they pulsed. She brushed them aside, revealing deep scars beneath.
As she cleared the thick mats, the scars took form. They began as long, straight lines, four in parallel, cut deep into the chamber wall. She held her hand up to the markings, a perfect fit. She rubbed the fine tips of her clawed fingers against the rock, following the path of the parallel lines. The rock wrapped around her claws, grinding them into sharp points as the limestone wall crumbled away. She smiled. If she wanted to sharpen her talons, this was exactly how she would do it.
She brushed away more of the matting. The heavy, utilitarian scratch marks gave way to carefully carved figures. Drawings on the walls of an ancient reef. She puzzled over the etchings as she exposed a magnificent mural embedded in the heart of the reef. The figures were familiar. Tails, thick with muscle ended in a powerful, aggressive fluke, perfect for propelling a large, awkwardly shaped body through the water. At the waist, the heavily armored tail gave way to a more delicate form, wide scales faded into fine, nearly invisible denticles, the same denticles that covered her own torso. Two arms sprouted from a pair of broad, powerful shoulders, terminating not in the eminently practical pectoral fins of a graceful swimmer, but clumsy, five-fingered hands, nearly useless in the open sea.
There was no doubt, whoever once lived in this chamber was of Janthina’s kin. She smiled, again. She and her sisters had finally found their way home.
Janthina scoured the walls, searching for a message from their former occupants. She plunged her freshly sharpened claws into the silt, digging for traces buried in the sediment. There was nothing.
She squeezed back out through the coral encrusted entrance and joined her sisters in the open water. She wasn’t the only one who plunged into the mysterious reef. Clymene, in her excitement, managed to get herself wedged, head first into one of the many crevices. Simnia had taken a firm grasp of her tail and was trying, apparently in vain, to free her sister. Amphisamytha laughed as she watched the ordeal, until Simnia caught her eye. Guiltily, she swam down to assist Simnia with the delicate extraction. With one great pulled, Clymene came free and the three of them tumbled out onto the seabed.
They collided with Luidia, who had, until that moment, been patrolling the edge of the reef, alert for any potential predators. She had just begun interrogating an ambivalent octopus that she found nestled in a small crevice, when the three mermaids landed on top of her. Simnia brushed the mud from her tail, rolled her eyes in exasperation at Amphisamytha and Clymene, who were still laughing, and swam away. Luidia returned to her investigation, but the octopus was gone.
Freyella watched the entire exchange from her vantage point behind a tall cluster of algae. She had been practicing her camouflage and was prepared to sneak up on Luidia when Amphisamytha and Simnia ruined her plan. Janthina caught her eye through the waving blades. Freyella winked as she swam off, in search of more trouble to cause.
Janthina had been overwhelmed by a sense of security within the dark cavern, but, now out in the open, the fear returned. She swam low and deep, out of reach of the sun’s rays. Until this day, she and her sisters spent their lives drifting just below the sunbreak. The drift, she thought, why can I barely remember it? We were out there for so long, why does it feel so distant, so small?
Tornus, the strongest of her sisters, waited t the edge of the sunbreak, keeping a careful watch above for any wandering foe while her sisters froliced among the sand and seagrass. During their long drift, they faced enemies large and small. As they outgrew one predator they found themselves the target of another. Only nights before they escaped the attack of a bull orca, but not without losses. For the first time, Tornus looked down and counted her sisters. They numbered sixty-two. She felt the great stabbing pain of loss. Her memories were vague, but she felt, deep within herself, that they once numbered in the millions.
From her position, Tornus admired the whole of the reef. The enormous structure reached across a fifth of the seamount, with enough caverns and tunnels to house all of her sisters. Coral grew from the walls, painting the reef in vibrant colors. Massive clams basked just above the sunbreak, absorbing light to feed their algal coconspirators. Fish of every stripe, from radiant blue rockfish to to regal angelfish danced through the coral columns. Flatfish skimmed across the seabed. Sharks circled the perimeter, prowling for their next meal.
Janthina swam up to her diligent sister and cradled her head, drawing their brows together. She wished to speak to Tornus but she did not want to be overheard.
“This is a good place. The caverns are safe. We can grow strong here.” Janthina whispered.
“Yes,” Tornus agreed, “but what is this place? Why is it here? How did it come to be?”
“Isn’t it obvious, my sister? This is a place for our kind. Others like us built it long ago. It is a fortress where we can live, hidden from the watchful eyes of our enemies. Safe from the hunters. This is a mermaid reef.”
“If our kin built it, then where are they now? We have floated or swum the greater breadth of this ocean, riding the currents, accepting their guidance, and yet, we have never seen another cohort like ours. There are no mermaids that aren’t among our sisters.”
“And yet there must be.” Janthina felt this truth deep in her chest. “Who else could build such a reef? Who else would carve our images into the wall? Who else could? Perhaps they have travelled on. Perhaps they built it for us, knowing that we would come to it. Does it matter? We have swum so far and our sisters are tired. This is a good place.”
“We will stay, for the moment. We need to rebuild our strength and, as you say, we are all tired. But we must not become complacent. I need to know more about this reef and its builders. The lower caverns are ancient, but the summit is young. If mermaids built it, why did they let is rise above the sunbreak? Perhaps they were too rash. Perhaps they built too high and drew the predators in. Perhaps this reef is a hunting ground and we are the prey.”
“You are cautious, sister, and for that we should all be thankful. Let us rest here awhile and explore the caverns. Perhaps that will yield some answers.”
“Very well. You should tell the others.”
Janthina separated herself from Tornus and turned to seek out her sisters. Most of them were assembled in a small circle, playing with a halibut that had been scared from the sea floor. She descended into the circle, startling her sisters and allowing the halibut to escape. Janthina began the low, lilting song that is mermaid speech when they choose not to vibrate their words directly into their sisters’ skulls.
“Sisters, Tornus and I have consulted, and we agree that this reef is a good reef. We will stay here, rest, and hunt.”
She felt their cheers resonate through her jaw.
“But,” she continued, “we must take heed. This reef is a good reef but we do not yet know if it is a safe reef. Tornus is worried. We must be careful. We must be aware. We must not become distracted,” she looked at Amphisamytha, who had left the circle to give chase to the escaping fish, “and we must find out all we can about this place.”
“But we know this is a mermaid reef.” Clymene responded, “I saw, in the caverns, many carvings on the wall, carvings that could only be made by others of our kind.” She stretched out her arms, held her hands wide, “carvings that could only be made with these!”
“I did as well,” Simnia interjected. “And I found marks meant for sharpening our claws.”
“And the openings,” Amphisamytha began as she returned to the group, “They are the perfect size for us. The chambers are just right for us to fold our tails and sleep. And I found this!” She held up a limestone plate, just large enough to fit in one of the cavern entrances and tapered, with handholds along the edges. “It is a perfect fit. With this we can seal the entrances and sleep safely. Nothing from the outside can move it.”
“Sisters, I do not disagree. There is no doubt that our kinfolk built this reef. But if that is so, then where have they gone? Have they been hunted? Did they flee? Did they build it for us and move on? And why does it rise above the sunbreak? These are questions we must answer if we are to stay here.”
Her sisters sung in agreement. Above, Tornus looked down, admiring her sister. Janthina felt a warm glow in her chest. Tornus led them through the great drift. Now it was Janthina’s turn to lead.
If you can’t wait until the next novel is finished, check out some of my other maritime science fiction adventures.