By Priya Sridhar
Once, there was a sea creature that rescued a human baby. She would not tell you that she had decided to hide her fangs that day, or that the child lived into happy old age.
Her name was Cailleach, the old word for “witch.” The other creatures called her Callie. Her supple tail and flippers, cool grey like the sky, had no drop of magic in them; neither did her sharp, black eyes or tangled hair. On the days that she sought human men for dinner, she would coat herself in white paste to mimic their skin, to appear half-pasty and half-grey, to lure them. The water would not wash off the paste, and so the deception would hold.
This day, the human was no bigger than a sea cucumber. She heard his giggles carry over the water, saw the woven basket that bobbed up and down. It was a rough day at sea, the waves as large as Roman buildings and boisterous as unbroken stallions, and the basket threatened to tumble over and plummet to the ocean’s bottom.
Her clawed flipper, which had long extensions called “fingers,” reached into the basket. A small hand grasped it. She gasped and would have pulled away, but the hand had a strong grip. It was so small and pale, like a winter clam. The waves swirled around them.
This human surprised her. Cailleach’s sisters had often accused her of extreme curiosity, but one could not examine a baby in the middle of a storm. Nor could she bring the baby under to her cove below the Crown Volcano. Humans did not like water in their lungs; it made their skin turn an ugly white.
Only one thing to do. She pulled away from the small hand, not without regret, and hoisted the basket with both her flippers. It was not easy, for her flippers were so short, but it was the only way they could both ride the waves. The baby gave another giggle as she positioned herself. It was going to be a slippery ride. She told him so.
“Brace yourself,” she said.
The baby heard her warning as a series of clicks. He squealed as they sailed along the rough surface, Cailleach using her tail and rudder to surf. Her best friends would ride in storms if their mates dared them. Cailleach had not yet acquired a mate, and thus she had never performed such a dare. They skittered along and splashed.
Thank their mother that her friends were not out tonight. Most had caught the algae sickness from a bad slice of ocean yak.
The baby was not afraid. His squeals bubbled into laughter. Cailleach could feel his swaddling cloth poking between the basket’s woven squares, and his legs kicking in excitement. Each kick made her heart race
Her kind often disliked land, but she could not wait to get to shore.
Cailleach was used to these sorts of shallow places since her kind could easily beach themselves on more solid land. She found a large rock lodged in the sand and placed the basket upon it. Only then did she remove its occupant.
The human was smelly. Her nose wrinkled. He had the same smell that their babes did, only with the acrid stink of soiled skin, she could tell that he had wet himself. She’d have to wash him, before his waste caused rash. He was limp in her arms, dangling from them and tuckered out. He slept with his mouth open, breathing loudly. The breaths sounded like soft snores.
Fancy that. Cailleach smiled despite the smell. A human that snored in the cradle. This would be a story to tell the algae drunkards in Volcano’s Rim.
Her smile faded. Volcano’s Rim. If she went there, she’d be leaving the baby here, for days on end. He’d need catching cloths, for the mess. The babes with tails needed sarongs for their mess, if they were out of the wading water. And when he woke, the baby would need food. Milk, probably. She’d have to grab her favorite sea yak and bring it here. Surely she could cup milk in her palms and feed it to the little one. If not, they had sucking cloths for those water babes without mothers.
Cailleach propped the basket so that it was in the steadier position on the rocks. Then she placed the baby inside. He was so small, frail, and yet brave. So far he had not cried, but then he was in the midst of sleep.
“I’ll be back soon, little one,” she said. “I promise.”
Each stroke into the deep current was like a knife slashing through flesh. Cailleach swam quickly to where the nursery was. The currents were with her, as were streams of water.
Nanna Aoife was with her charges, feeding one as the others waited their turn in leathery cradles. Cailleach’s clan located sharp-toothed fish’s egg sacs, ate the roe inside, and used the leathery skins for their babes. They were effective cradles, and protective against would-be predators.
“Nanna!” Cailleach’s pants made bubbles stream against her mouth. She stopped, using her tail to kick back and forth so that she stayed in place. The cradles drifted, tethered by long, slimy strands. They would not be drifting anywhere.
“Wot is it, Callie?” Nanna Aoife asked. She was an old-timer, one of the creatures who had lost her teeth ages ago. She now ate already-chewed meat and drank the sea yak milk. Her skin was wrinkled around her wise black eyes, and her tail limped in the currents. Nevertheless, everyone respected her.
“I need a favor. May I borrow some of your catch cloths, and some milk?”
“Only if I know the reason why.” Nanna Aoife’s voice was bracing and blunt. “After all, th’ milk is fer my own consumption as well as fer th’ babes.”
The Nanna wasn’t a fool; no one who lived as long as she did had lost her wits. Still, Cailleach hesitated.
“Come now, ye little whiptail. I d’nae have all day. Spit it out as ye would a bad oyster.”
Cailleach told her in a few words. Nanna Aoife contemplated as she fed the next baby with a suckling cloth.
“’Tis a small human, ain’t it? And it needs care?”
“Someone let him drift to sea before he could swim. It wouldn’t have been a fair fight.”
“Ah, Callie. You’ve always been one about ‘onor and fair fighting. Sea’s ruthless, but if one little sea serpent can twist and meet each terrible wave, might as well give ‘em a sporting chance-”
She said nothing. Nanna Aoife reached over and twisted Cailleach’s hair into a knot, the way she had when Cailleach had once slept in those cradles. The struggling, flippered babe in Nanna’s arms squalled until the cloth was back in its mouth.
“They live on land fer a reason, Callie. Th’ sea is no place for their babbies.”
“Yet they set this hairless babe on the sea, to drown in the waves.”
“They are not like us. We hunt fer food, and we donnae leave our babes tae fend fer themselves. They are monsters, for they hunt fer th’ sport of it and leave their small bairns tae the sea’s mercy. This babe’s a runt, by th’ sound of it, a speck of a human.”
Cailleach gave a small shrug. Nanna wrapped the babe she was carrying in a cool, leathery wrap. She then tethered the wrap with a long kelp strand, before drifting to where the catch cloths were. They were also tied together, in neat bundles. Nanna Aoife untied a few cloths, as well as an egg sac cradle, and held them out to Cailleach.
“After th’ recent sea yak illness, we will prob’ly be migrating,” Nanna said. “Tae more peaceful waters, with humans that lack proper wars.”
Cailleach took the bundles, felt the kelp leave a trail of green slime on her arm. She wiped it off.
“Ye cannae keep him, Callie. He survived th’ waves, but he wonnae survive th’ migration. Th’ waters are too deep and cold fer runts like him.”
“I know,” Cailleach said. Her voice lacked emotion as she struggled with her drifting bundles.
“Stubborn little whiptail. Come tae me when ye need more supplies.”
“Yes, Nanna.” Cailleach bowed respectfully.
“And donnae forget tae feed yourself. Ye’re going tae need all yer strength fer mothering a babe. I speak from experience.”
Cailleach clutched the catching cloths and milk satchels tighter. She nodded, with pure obedience. Then she set off into the current. The babes started to cry, and her bundles banged against her chest.
The baby was awake and crying when she came back. He was thrashing and kicking in his small basket, making it rock forward and backward. Cailleach quickly tried to snatch him up, to shush him with her fake fingers. She left green slime and saltwater on his clothes, making him cry louder. The smell was worse.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” she clicked to him, taking him out of the basket. Some of the mess had leaked into it; she’s have to clean that out as well. Once she was done with him, that is.
First, Cailleach dug a hole in the wet sand with her tail, quickly, and set him in. The water reached his little, pale ankles. He kept crying as she found a rock and gently scrubbed the waste away. His bottom was red from irritation. Once that was done, she washed out the human catch cloth and left it to dry on a rock that was jutting out of the water. Then she fetched one of the yak milk bundles and forced the sucking tip into his demanding mouth. The leather from yaks kept the milk to a pleasant temperature, and that helped most of the babes with tails keep their daily meals down. He quieted as warm milk entered his skinny body, the first food he had probably eaten for days. She held him as tightly as she could, feeling dread if he slipped from her grasp once or twice.
When he was finished, he fell asleep against her slimy arms. He was so warm, and so light. Cailleach pressed her nostrils to the curls on his head, to inhale that clean baby smell. His hair was fuzzy, and soft, like a seal calf’s fur. She floated on her back, so that he could rest on top of her in the sun. None of the other babes she knew could do that, could float so easily. Not many were satisfied with one full belly of milk and a clean bottom, but this one was, and he was hers.
He wouldn’t be hers for long. Nanna was right about the migration. But she wouldn’t think about that. Her first concern was to feed him, and to clean him.
Later, she went to fetch his human catch cloth and shake the salt flakes off it. Whoever had set him in the little basket had thought to pack soft wrappings for the babe, and to weave his little ship tightly. Cailleach wondered if maybe his mother had done the weaving, to keep her babe safe.
Then why had the mother abandoned him to the perilous seas, for being too small?
She steamed. The baby was no harm to anything, except Cailleach’s heart. It pattered as she studied the weavings on the basket, and the embroidery on the catch-cloths. The mother had sewn little axes, and flying beasts that breathed orange flowers.
Cailleach wanted to feast on the people who had let the baby drift on the sea, alone, for predators to find. Even if the baby was a great joy to her, with his fuzzy head and chirping giggles.
Over the next couple of weeks, a pattern developed: Cailleach would tether herself to the sandbar using kelp, wake up to feed the baby when he cried, change him and wash out his catch cloths. After he got a terrible red rash, she was careful to take the waste out to the deep sea, so that it would not return to the sandbar and affect his bottom.
The baby grew as the days went by, gaining pudge in his small belly. His cries became stronger and more demanding, so she complied with attention and food. Sea yak milk was rumored to bestow the strength of ten sea yaks upon the drinker, and the baby soon had hands as large as fierce crabs. His legs remained skinny, and he could not walk, but he soon understood Cailleach’s faces, what she wanted him to understand. She did not name him.
Nanna Aoife provided milk, cloths, and advice. She passed on news from the rest of the clan to Cailleach, including the rumors. Several times, she had even managed the journey to the sandbar, while covering her tracks. That was what she had done now.
“They donnae understand ye, child. They think ye’re daft.”
“Maybe I am.” Cailleach’s voice was throaty and threatening to break into sobs. “How many more sunrises till we migrate?”
“A dozen more. I’ve been telling them it was my idea, and they donnae bother me when I have an idea. Have ye thought of were tae take him?”
Cailleach shook her head.
“Pointy puffer fish, why not? Ye cannae leave him here.”
“I don’t know-” Cailleach started, and then her clicks became squeakier. “I don’t know human settlements. Which ones will take him in? What if they set him out to sea again? Why if they can’t make him happy? What if-”
“What if, what if. Ye could have asked me, ye dolt-tail. I know these settlements.”
“Oh.” This click squeaked hard. Cailleach kept forgetting that Nanna was an old-timer and had migrated through these waters before.
“Th’ biggest concern isnae if they take him in. He’s so big and strong now that he will grow up tae be a fine warrior fer any settlement, thanks tae the yak milk. We have tae be able to leave him far enough inland so that they find him.”
“Where can we go inland?”
“I cannae tell ye that yet.”
“First, ye need tae say goodbye tae him. He will nae understand why ye are leaving him, and he will be angry before he learns tae forget. Babes never remember.”
Cailleach’s breath caught in her throat. That was another possibility she had never thought of, another poisonous barb of fear.
“Of course, ye may forget him, with time, and have babes with tail. Ye never gave him a name after all.”
“I never gave him anything,” Cailleach whispered. “I just fed him, I carried him in the water, I loved him-”
“Ye gave him a second chance, that’s what ye did, lass. Ye saved his life but now he has tae live, to grow up on land, not sea.”
“We might hunt him.”
“Then tell th’ world he’s yours, because he was yours fer a time. Mark him as a child o’ the sea, so that we know nae tae harm our own. Use your wits, and your teeth.” Nanna tapped the side of Cailleach’s head. “I will map out th’ route. We leave when th’ sun splashes beneath th’ waves. Make sure he’s dry, and comfortable.”
Nanna Aoife did not splash; she merely sunk into the deeper edge of the water.
The baby had not learned to crawl; he was trying, but he never got far on the few flat rocks that the island offered. He always reached for Cailleach and made a happy gurgling sound when she picked him up. He liked her black stomach best, for it was flat and smooth, a perfect place for lying in the sun.
She’d never hear his happy gurgles again. Cailleach, musing picked up the baby and let him rest on her stomach for hours on end. Perhaps he sensed what she was trying to tell him, for he grew quiet.
“You little tail-less babe, I have to say bye-bye- soon,” Cailleach told him. “I have to go somewhere warmer. You can’t come.”
The baby spat bubbles. He gurgled again, trying to click the way she did.
“I’m not giving you a name, for your kind will give you another one, but I will give you something they can never take away. Something that will keep you safe when I cannot come back.”
He managed a proper click this time. It sounded like “Go!”
Cailleach reached and grasped one of his legs. He was getting to be heavy now, with his huge feet and hands. His feet kicked, and she placed her teeth against his left sole.
“I love you.”
Then she started to nibble. She went slowly, so that he felt as little pain as possible. Her teeth were sharp, and she made the incision she wanted to make. The baby cried out but she held him firmly.
Then it was done. He pulled his foot away and made a questioning gurgle, noticing the new mark on his foot. He put his foot into his mouth and began to suck on it, crying as he sucked. Cailleach started to cry as well.
“I’m sorry. It has to be. The other ones like me, they won’t feed on you when they see that scar. They know that you’re mine, and not to be hurt. The humans, they will know that the sea spared you and made you one of her own.”
Then she cried with him, and the baby howled as loudly as he could. She hugged him and apologized, and kissed his salty brow and buried her nose in his hair. Her bite-mark clotted, leaving a red scab. Only then did she find his own human cloth, dried and cleaned in the sun, and wrapped him in it. The familiar blanket, as well as the temper tantrum, made the baby sleep.
It was a cold evening. Nanna Aoife and Cailleach didn’t speak. Cailleach had to keep the baby’s basket floating, and on a clear evening the hunting beasts were likely to come out. She had to be on her guard.
The island teemed with cliffs, but houses occupied those cliffs, houses with lights. They looked warm and inviting, and Cailleach imagined one of those doors opening and welcoming her baby in.
No, not her baby. He was never hers.
Nanna led her past the cliffs, all around the island. She could hear the sound of boats slumbering in the water, like great wooden whales. The baby woke up from the jolts and peered out, his eyes taking in the unfamiliar surroundings.
“It’s all right,” she clicked to him. “You’ll be safe here.”
Humans were on the boats; they were decked out in furs and armor, talking amongst themselves. Cailleach’s tail stiffened. She hadn’t seen other human beings since her last hunt, and that was ages ago. Would this man see himself as prey or her as the enemy?”
“Nae with them,” Nanna Aoife whispered. “Keep going.”
So they kept going. One of the men heard the sounds of the baby’s basket and turned to where they were, but Nanna urged Cailleach to pay no mind. The waters gave way to a shallow beach, eventually. It looked deserted, and devoid of any animal or man. Cailleach stared at it as she pushed the basket along.
“They won’t find him here,” she whispered. “It’s too far from the houses.”
“Nae fer long,” Nanna said. Then, before Cailleach could comprehend, the older female tossed her head back and gave out a shriek. A long, mournful, ear-piercing shriek.
The baby woke up and started crying. Men in the distance yelled from boats, and came forward. Cailleach suddenly understood.
“This is when we leave.” Nanna shouted. “Push him ontae th’ sand and swim fer your life.”
Cailleach did as Nanna said, but not before leaning in to smell the baby one last time. She vowed to keep that smell in her memory. That was how she said goodbye to him, her beautiful baby.
Once the basket was on firm ground, she turned tail and dove into the water. The humans never found them, only the crying basket and the fat baby with a strange marking on its foot. As Nanna had predicted, they took him in and wondered why the mermaids had left him.
Cailleach never saw the baby again, and he never knew that she had existed.
One day, a stout boy took a crumbling, tightly woven basket and strapped it to his back. He was strong enough to carry two sheep with one arm and three with the other, and often he’d assist with rounding up the stray flocks. He went for a walk on the beach, as he had done so many times before, and dipped his left foot in the water, humming a lullaby that his foster mother had taught him involving ugly wives and noble axes. The scar throbbed, like it had once been a beating heart.
“I don’t understand you,” he told the water, idly clicking his tongue. “Sailors say I’m good luck for them because I came from you, that it was a miracle that I survived, but you bit me and brought me here. Why did you save me? Am I destined to be a great sailor, or an explorer?”
The water answered by rippling around his feet, echoing the mermaids’ harsh clicks. Although the boy never understood, the clicks calmed his beating heart. He reached into his basket and pulled out a small seashell. It glistened with a mother-of-pearl coat, and he had added a waterproof coat of pitch to its underside so that the sand wouldn’t wear away the shell.
“One day I’ll find you,” he said, dropping the shell into the water. “So I can thank you, for saving my life.”
The lullaby returned to his lips, as he saw the shell sink under the surface and drift away. It swirled through a few waves and vanished into the deep blue. He started humming again, with pure contentment.