Arilya burst through the surface of the water and flung her hair over her shoulder. Her pink skin shone as it absorbed sunlight for the first time, and she propelled herself into the air, performing a perfect back flip and dive. Her fins slipped back into the water effortlessly and without a splash. She felt completely alive.
The dream of emerging from the ocean’s icy depths and feeling warmth caress her skin recurred every night. Arilya had been waiting for this rite of passage since she was three years old. Since her mother told her about her own first out-of-water experience, and every day since had just been one wave closer to her seventeenth birthday.
It is amazing above the water. Sounds are clearer and colors are vibrant. But I must warn you, Arilya, you may never touch land. Death awaits the merperson who leaves the water and feels the earth.
When Arilya woke up on this fateful morning, she could barely stop her fins from swimming her straight to the surface, but she knew she must wait for the ceremony that would announce to all she was no longer a merphin, but instead, a full grown mermaid. No one had told her the ceremony would be a wedding. That part of the fairy tale told to merchildren had been conveniently left out.
You’ll just have to wait and see, Arilya. The traditions of the Ceremony cannot be known until you are old enough for your own.
“Arilya, are you ready to go?” Dalphen cried out. Her father was insistent she be on time for the Maidening Ceremony, but Arilya never liked to follow the rules. While he swam impatiently back and forth outside her cove, she and Finley stole away and made love on a bed of kelp.
“Oh Finley, will life still be this perfect tomorrow when I’m a mermaid?”
“Your life will always be perfect, because you are perfect, Arilya.” He twitched his long yellow fin towards her, and her pink cheeks blushed a brilliant shade of violet.
“Will the world still be this colorful tomorrow when I’m a mermaid?”
“The world around you will always be colorful, Arilya, because you are like a rainbow among the storm clouds.”
“What is a rainbow, Finley?”
“Ah, you will see, Arilya, when you go to the surface.”
“Will I see storm clouds, too?”
“No, they will depart from the sky as soon as you appear, your loveliness will scare them away. They only like dark and dreary things. And you, Arilya, can never be dark and dreary.”
“Will you still love me tomorrow when I am a mermaid, Finley?”
“I will still love you tomorrow, and the day after that, and every day for eternity.” He took her hands and wrapped them around his neck, smothering her lips with his mouth and caressing her blue tailfin with his own yellow one. Finley knew if Dalphen knew about his love for the merman’s daughter, the safest place for him to swim would be in a monsoon, but he didn’t care. He’d face hurricanes and sharks and piranhas before he gave up Arilya.
“I suppose I HAVE to go to the ceremony, now.” Arilya sighed as she disentangled her fin from his.
“If you ever want to see the surface you do.”
“I definitely want to see the surface.”
“Well, then you must go. But come find me here, after you taste the air.”
“What is air, Finley?”
“Ah, you will know it when you taste it.”
“But how will I know what to put in my mouth to taste if I don’t know what it is?”
“Ah, you won’t have to put it in your mouth, it will enter without your permission.”
“I don’t know if I like that. The only thing I want entering my mouth without my permission is you!” Giggling, she tapped her fin on his chest as she abruptly turned and swam away. He allowed a reasonable distance between them before swimming after her and making his way to the ceremony.
The curse inflicted on him at his own Maning Ceremony last year prevented him from warning her. But it wouldn’t prevent him from trying to stop the wedding. And if he failed, it wouldn’t prevent him from trying to swim away with her tonight after she returned from the surface and met him on their bed of kelp. He knew the penalty, knew he wouldn’t succeed in either endeavor, but again, he didn’t care, he would try anything for her.
As Arilya arrived at the preparation cove, her mother Chaslie, and sisters rushed out to greet her. Chaslie enveloped her youngest daughter in a cold embrace, and when Arilya pulled away she found a necklace of shimmering black pearls encircling her throat.
“A tradition of the Maidening Ceremony. The pearls will keep you young and beautiful for as long as you wear them,” Chaslie crooned.
“Is that why you forever have looked seventeen, mother?” Arilya asked, touching the beads around her neck. As her fingers brushed across their smooth surface, an electric jolt pulsed through her hands and down her arms, moving into chest and fin.
“Yes, I have worn my pearls ever since my own Maidening Ceremony, many, many years ago. Should I ever remove them, I would shrivel up and die!” Chaslie and her daughters laughed at the joke, knowing she would NEVER remove her strand. But her mother grew serious soon, and continued, “The jolt you felt when you touched the necklace was the power of the pearls being transferred to you.” Chaslie ended her explanation, unable to inform her daughter of the full extent of the pearls’ power. Arilya could not learn of the curse of the merpeople until after her Maidening Ceremony.
Arilya again touched the precious jewelry, but her admiration was cut short as her gaggle of sisters flew at her and stripped off the blue seashells covering her breasts. She protested, but her mother placed a firm hand on her shoulder, ending her cries.
“All merphin wear white seashells on the day of their Maidening Ceremony. ‘Tis another tradition.” Producing a pair swathed in seaweed, Chaslie handed them to her daughter, who eagerly unwrapped and held them up. The whiteness of the shells stood in sharp contrast to her pink skin and blue fin and her hands trembled as she traced her fingers along the outer edges.
“I do not believe I have ever seen anything so white before. I did not know color could shine like this,” she said with reverence. “I wish I became a mermaid everyday so I could always wear shells as beautiful as these.” With all around her watching, she pressed the shells firmly around her breasts and floated back to admire the effect in a mirror. No sooner had she confirmed her belief that these shells would make her the most gorgeous mermaid who ever treaded these waters, than the shells began to melt into her skin.
“What is happening? Owww! Owwwww! What is going on? Someone take them off! Take them off! They are burning me!” Her fingers scratched and clawed at the shells while the harem looked on horrified, but to no avail. The shells would not release her.
Chaslie grabbed her daughter’s fin and bellowed, “Arilya! You are a filthy whore! The purity shells have exposed your misdeed. With whom did you have sex?”
“Whaaat?” she sobbed back, still desperately trying to peel the shells off.
“No matter,” Chaslie regained her composure. “The burning will only last a few moments longer, and then it will not be visible to your husband until after he removes the shells. He can punish you as he deems fit.”
“My husband? What do you mean?” Fear replaced the pain around Arilya’s heart and her hands fell away from the evil shells. “Finley and I wish to get married, but we have not told anyone yet.”
“Finley? Oh, so he is your wicked merman. It is a good thing the tradition prevents him from warning you.”
“Warning me? Mother what is going on?” Tears flowed out of Arilya’s eyes and mingled with the ocean around them. Chaslie did not answer, but grabbed her daughter’s arm and jerked her away from the preparation cove. They swam to the entrance of the cavern where all Maidening and Maning ceremonies took place. Arilya had never been permitted inside before. Merchildren weren’t allowed to come to the ceremonies.
Chaslie dropped her arm as Dalphen approached them. He frowned at Arilya and turned to Chaslie. “She is late. Did all go well with the preparations?” He glanced from the pearls around his daughter’s throat to the pure white shells covering her chest. He seemed satisfied, for he did not require an answer of his wife.
“Come. The ceremony needs to begin.” This time he gripped his daughter’s arm and pushed her in front of him into the cavern. Arilya gasped in terror as she saw her friends and family chained by a thick gold coil wrapped around each individual’s wrists and connecting each member of the merpeople community together. No one looked up as she entered, save Finley. Catching his eyes as she was pushed past him, she saw anger mingled with pity and sorrow.
“I’m sorry,” he mouthed.
Suddenly, she was thrust forward into the center of a smaller circle of merpeople she didn’t recognize. They did not belong to her community. Opposite her, a merphan unfamiliar to her was thrust into the circle as well. His eyes widened as they fell on hers and she knew he shared her fear. The circle closed in around them and a bright red coil ensnared the wrists of each member. Arilya cried out in pain as a blazing white coil appeared in the water and began wrapping tightly around her fin and wrists.
“NO!” Finley shouted from the back of the cavern. He struggled against his bindings, flapping and twitching like a fish caught in a net. “No! Leave her alone!” The community ignored his distress.
“Finley, what is happening? Finley, please stop this, please get me out of here!” Arilya shouted out. The red circle around her grew tighter and she realized the merphan’s fin and arms were bound in the same white trap. Dalphen and Chaslie suddenly swam above her head, along with another couple she didn’t know. Finley screamed, attempting to drown out the beginning of the end.
Dalphen addressed the crowd, “Today, my daughter Arilya becomes a mermaid.”
The unknown merman spoke next, “Today my son Japhet becomes a merman.”
Chaslie and the unknown mermaid spoke together, “The merphin becomes a mermaid, the merphan becomes a merman, only when wed together. This is the joy of the merpeople. Only when two becomes one can the other world be known, only when the mermaid and the merman are joined together can their heads break the surface of the water.”
The inner circle began to chant, “Marriage is right. Love is wrong. Marriage between two young souls brings peace to the merpeople. Love between two young souls brings death to the merpeople. Marriage is right. Love is wrong.”
Arilya choked on the vomit rising in her throat and struggled fruitlessly against the hot coil burning her pink skin. “Why are you doing this to me? I do not wish to marry this stranger! I am in love with Finley.” The words tumbled from her mouth, silenced the chant, and carried to Finley. A sword appeared in front of him and he braced himself against the golden coil restraining his arms, staring death in the face.
Arilya twisted and turned, desperate to see her beloved Finley, but the circle continued to grow tighter around her. His piercing cry as the sword plunged into his heart was the last sound she heard before the white snake around her cut into her wrist and dragged her into the arms of Japhet. The coil grew longer and thicker and fused their bodies together.
His fin slipped around hers and she screamed, “NOOO! I don’t want this, please.” But there was no escaping the white prison. The community watched as Japhet plunged his fin into hers. She sobbed uncontrollably as the rape continued and pleaded with her parents to end the torture. They merely smirked at her.
When he was finished, Japhet floated backwards, the white coil around his fin and wrists dissolving. “I’m sorry, Arilya, I did not want to do that to you, the coil made me.” The guilt smeared across his face told her he was not lying, but she could not look at him for long. The cords around her disappeared, too, and she tore through the circle back to Finley. The golden chains holding the community together had fallen away, and Finley lay face up on the cold floor of the cavern, a gaping wound in his chest the only indication a sword took his life.
“Tis the curse of the merpeople, Arilya. We were given a choice between a life underwater and a life with love.” Chaslie floated above Finley’s lifeless body, “We chose life underwater. We are given the opportunity to go above the surface once we have sealed the commitment to our choice with an unloving marriage. Finley himself was married in his Maning ceremony last year. His wife’s name is Gorschen. He would have left you in a few years anyways. When a merperson turns 21, they must go and live with their spouse. He wouldn’t have a choice.”
Arilya did not respond. She gathered Finley’s head in her hands and cradled it to her scorched bosom.
“The pearls you wear seek out love and destroy it. Mermen do not have such a precaution bound to them, thus your life was spared. Finley knew to love you meant death for him. He was foolish.” Arilya still did not respond in voice to her mother’s words. Rather she ripped the pearls from her neck and the broken strand flung the beads in all directions.
“It makes no difference whether you wear the necklace now or not, save that you will not have eternal youth, for the power of the beads already lives in you. From the first touch, they destroyed your ability to love.”
“No, I still love Finley. They destroyed my ability to live.” Arilya shot upwards through the water, sending currents into the cavern. She kicked her fin ferociously, striving to get to the surface before her mother or father attempted to stop her.
After swimming a few leagues she glanced behind her, only to discover she wasn’t being followed. They didn’t care if she left. They didn’t love her. She pushed on, her heart both broken and numb to the pain caused by this realization.
The water around her became clearer, bluer. Her fin appeared darker than ever before and she thought she could see a golden orb ahead. She changed direction slightly and sped along just below the surface. Every few seconds she would glance upwards, looking for an indication her destination was approaching. Finally, she saw it. Finley had described it to her.
Boldly, she thrust her head out of the water and used her arms to propel herself closer. The waves offered their assistance, and soon she was only a breaststroke away. Her fingers closed around the grainy sand and she heard Finley’s voice, “I love you, Arilya,” before darkness closed around her.