The Mermaid and the Snail
Busia tossed her beloved pearl into the air and felt instant panic when it didn’t come down. A strange current went through her shell capped braids and whisked the pearl up toward the ocean’s surface.
“No!” Busia felt her chest clench as her dark, webbed fingers reached helplessly after the beloved treasure her late mother had left her.
She swam as fast as she could after it. Her tail of gem colored scales beat furiously, but the pearl was always just out of reach.
What a welcome the Indian Ocean was giving her. She hadn’t been there a full tide cycle and it was trying to steal her most valued possession and trying to get her lost.
This upset her so much that she didn’t notice the how the taste and feel of the water were off. There was also a change in temperature and the ocean floor grew closer to the surface. All Busia focused on was the pearl.
“Mermaid, stop!” A thundery, but gentle voice called to her.
She didn’t listen. Her pearl was getting away.
Tentacles wrapped around her furiously whipping tail. “If you keep swimming, you’ll swim right into the freshwater of the Mbezi River,” said the voice. “You’d die if you did that.” The owner of the voice had stopped her.
She watched her pearl become out of reach and gulped at her near death.
Busia stopped struggling against the tentacles and looked into the eyes at the end of them. It was a snail. Not a tiny creature, like the ones she was used to, but a snail that was nearly five-foot-tall. It had a spiral shell, striped in black that matched her hair and a white duller than her pearl.
“My pearl….” Busia began to cry.
The snail let her go. Its eyes swung in the direction of the pearl. “If you can wait until morning, I can get it.”
“But, won’t the freshwater kill you?” she asked.
“My poison is ocean water,” said the snail already heading after the pearl. “I can only come out this far.”
The thankful Busia watched the snail’s slow progress for an hour. But, she knew she had to get back to her father’s side and was forced to leave before she was ready.
The light was barely pierced the depths when the mermaid returned to the brackish waters. Eagerly, she looked until she found the snail.
Busia found it in the same exact spot they had met the day before. The pearl was also there, cuddled between the snail’s body and the sandy bottom of the estuary.
Without asking, she took the pearl and hugged it against her cheek. “Thank you! Oh, thank you very much. Would you tell me your name, so I can further thank you, dear snail?”
“They call me Kassaye, fair mermaid.”
“I’m Busia,” she replied. “Kassaye, your name reminds me of a legend. Do you know it, the legend of the mermaid princess Kasaya?”
The snail shifted in its spot. “I’ve never heard it.”
Busia got very excited. “Then I must tell it to you. It is my favorite legend of all.” Before the snail could say yes or no, she launched into the tale. “Once there was a princess of the Pacific named Kasaya. She had been promised in marriage to a prince of the Atlantic. The night before her wedding, she disappeared without leaving a note or any sign of her passing.
“They say she was so brokenhearted to marry a man she didn’t love that she prayed to the tides. The tides heard her prayers and swept her away to the shores and gave her legs.”
“Is that really the fate they say befell the missing princess?” asked Kassaye the snail with a dubious tone.
Busia started to nod, but stopped. “Yes and no. That one is the ending I like.”
“There’s more than one version?”
“There’s another version. The one my brother likes.” Busia scrunched up her face. “In that version, she killed herself and became a ghost that haunts the Atlantic palace.”
“I see,” said the snail.
Busia wondered what the snail was thinking or feeling after hearing the tale. It was very hard to read a snail’s face.
Before she could ask it about its thoughts, a voice rang out.
“Busia! Time to come back, Busia.”
“Speaking of my brother…” The mermaid sighed.
She turned to leave, but halted as Kasssaye spoke. “Your legend reminds me of a freshwater legend. If you have the time, please come back today or tomorrow. I’ll be here and I’ll gladly tell you it.”
A smile spread on Busia’s face. “I would be honored. Tomorrow, then!” And she swam to her waiting brother.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that Busia returned to Kassaye, whom was in exactly the same spot she had left it.
“Sorry that I’m so late,” said the mermaid, as she clutched her precious to her pounding chest.
“There is still a lot left in the day. No need to apologize,” said the kind Kassaye. “So, are you ready to hear the legend?”
Busia nodded and settled on the sandy ground.
“I warn you, it isn’t as happy your legend, but it isn’t as dark as your brother’s version,” said Kasssye. “Further up the Mbezi River, off one of its streams, there is a small lake divided in half by rocks and into two fish kingdoms. The cichlids, the type of fish that live there, found ways of getting from one side to the other. But, each king, the East King and the West King, wanted to be the one who controlled the passageways.”
“I’m guessing they didn’t take turns and work things out peacefully,” interrupted Busia.
“Kings are used to getting their own way, so there were decade long wars. Until finally, the both kings grew weary of it all. They wanted a truce. Part of the truce meant that the cichlid King of the East would have to marry his eldest, most beloved son to the princess of the west. However, as the time drew nearer, he couldn’t be parted from this beloved child.”
When Kassaye paused the tale, Busia sighed dreamily. “What a great daddy.”
“Erm. There’s still more to the tale,” said Kassaye. “The East King put his son into a deep, unbreakable sleep using fish magic. Then he sent a notice to the other king letting him know his eldest son could not marry. But, the truce had to go forward, so he offered his other, less-loved son.”
“Wait. What?” Busia couldn’t believe her ears.
Kassaye ignored her. “The West King accepted this change, and the less-loved son did not protest. The son hoped in doing this he would gain his father’s love. However, as the wedding grew closer, the son found his bride to be was intolerable and that his father loved him no more than before. Brokenhearted, the cichlid Prince ran away.”
“This is the part Kasaye’s legend reminded you of, isn’t it?” Busia asked the snail.
“Yes, but you keep interrupting. Don’t you want me to finish?” asked Kassaye.
After the mermaid nodded, the snail went on. “With no other sons to offer, the East King was forced to wake his beloved son and marry him to the West Princess.
“The story does not end there, for the East King could not forgive his less-loved son. The King swam the entire lake and the streams and rivers attached. He swam until he found the missing son. And, with his magic, he cursed his son to roam the world as an immortal turtle until he married one of the cichlids from the west.” Kassaye bowed his eye stalks.
“That’s how it ends?” asked Busia.
“How can it end when immortality is in the mix?” asked the snail mischievously.
Busia’s eyes grew wider. “You warned me there was no happy ending, but an eternity of unhappiness?”
“There would have some happiness, like meeting new creatures and getting along with them. But, that wouldn’t be enough.” There was a sad lilt to the snail’s words.
The mermaid looked at Kassaye. He seemed sad after telling the tale. Feeling responsible, she looked to her pearl.
Slowly, she let it drift from her grip and let it get caught in the current. The pearl floated from her hand and up the river.
“Oh dear,” said Busia thoughtfully. “Kassaye, my pearl has run off again. Could I ask you to get it for me? Could we meet again tomorrow?”
The snail looked up the river. “Why yes.” The sadness disappeared from Kassaye’s rumbling voice. “I can get it. It would be good to meet again.” Without a goodbye, the snail went after the pearl.
It didn’t take long for their meetings to become a daily habit without excuses. One day, it occurred to Busia that their meetings could have been keeping Kassaye from someone special. Though she feared the answer, before parting she asked, “Kassaye, do you have a wife?”
“Wife? Snails cannot have wives or husbands. Snails are snails, neither he’s or she’s. We’re both all at once.” The snail looked out to the mouth of the Mbezi River. “However, we can have mates. But, I do not have a one.”
“Do you have a husband?” asked Kassaye.
Busia’s smile disappeared in an instant. “No.” She gripped her pearl tightly. “No, but soon I will. That’s why I came to the Indian Ocean. I came here to get married. I’m like the legendary mermaid, Kasaya.
Only, I’m not as brave.”
Busia tried to stay away. She tried to ignore her feelings. But, she just couldn’t. Three days went by and she worried Kassaye would be gone. It warmed her heart when she found the snail at their usual place.
“Glad to see you today,” said Kassaye. Busia expected it to be awkward and became relieved once she found out it wasn’t.
But, things were different.
They avoided talking about her marriage. Instead, they shared legends. They told tales of things they’d seen. And they sat in silence, enjoying each other’s company. When they parted, there no longer was a promise of tomorrow.
Busia was quite busy preparing for her wedding, but when she found time, she’d go to that special spot. There she’d repeat the sad meetings with Kassaye. Over and over, until her heart ached and the day they avoided mentioning came very near.
“Tomorrow I marry.”
Kassaye didn’t hesitate. “Don’t. It is obvious you don’t want to.”
“I may have a heart like Kasaya, but I don’t have her bravery.” Busia looked back into the Indian Ocean. “And it isn’t so bad here. I can adjust.”
“Then, you’d be happy to stay here married to me?”
The mermaid looked back at Kassaye, eyes wide. “Marry you?”
“I think you care for me,” the snail murmured. “As for me, I have loved you since you first said my name. Be my bride. Be with someone who loves you and someone you love.”
“I can’t! I have to marry him! Why would you do this to me right before I marry?” Upset, Busia swam away.
Busia didn’t sleep that night. Full of regret, she stared out her bedroom window.
Into the night shaded waters, she swam out her window, not telling a soul where she was going or why. Had she only waited to follow her heart, she wouldn’t have swum right into that fishing cage set out by the land dwellers.
Trapped, fearing a fate far worse than marrying a merman she didn’t love, she cried herself into a fitful sleep.
The cage’s movements woke Busia. She opened her eyes, expecting the watery world to be peeled away from her.
The underwater world was just starting to light up. And, thankfully, no boat shaped shadow hung over her head. Still, the cage shook around her.
It didn’t take her long to find the source of the movement. By her tail was a broken black and white striped shell. Its owner, Kassaye, used the shards of its shell to pull and rub at the fishing cage’s ropes.
The snail gasped and moaned with each movement. With horror, it dawned on Busia that these weren’t safe brackish waters, but ocean waters. Even worse, the broken shell exposed its body to the poisonous salt waters.
“Go back,” she told it. As she listened to his struggling breath, she feared the worst. “Get out of here. Leave me! Go!”
But, the snail didn’t listen and kept trying to cut the ropes. As much as she wanted Kassaye to go, she understood. Had their positions been reversed, she would have done the same. So, all she could do was help it free her.
Together, they cut a hole big enough for her to get loose. Kassaye was barely conscious as Busia dragged it to the brackish waters.
Once in the safe waters, she stopped and looked at the snail. With a shuttering breath, the snail said, “I love you.” Then, it seemed to deflate and lose all life in her arms.
Busia felt her heart shatter. “No! You can’t die! You are my love. You are my everything. You are my husband and my wife. You are my water and my pearl. Don’t leave me.”
As the mermaid hugged the broken snail, her tears became bubbles. The bubbles grew and multiplied. Busia was forced to let it go as the bubbles engulfed the snail.
She slowly stopped crying and watched as the bubbles began to shimmer like the sunrise on the ocean’s surface. The bubbles swirled and she startled when they burst outward.
The snail was gone. In its place was a merman. His skin was whiter than the purest sand. His hair was blacker than a killer whale’s skin. This merman was from the Pacific and how he had gotten there and where Kassaye went was a mystery to Busia.
“Excuse me?” Busia approached the merman, looking around for signs of Kassaye.
The unknown merman awoke with a gasp. He looked around and when he saw Busia concern consumed his features. “Are you safe? Are you okay?”
The voice shocked Busia. It was gentle thunder that rumbled in her ears and made her heart beat fast. “Kassaye?”
The merman nodded with a confused look. But, as he reached out to her, he jolted at the sight of his hand.
Kassaye spun in circles inspecting himself. When he stopped, he bobbed in the water unsteadily and stared at Busia.
“Kassaye, what’s happen?” Busia asked.
“Busia, I told you once, ‘They call me Kassaye.’ That’s because the snails couldn’t say Kasaya. See, the cichlids never existed. Only my father, my brother, and I did. We existed and so did that curse.” Kasaya looked down at his hands. “I had given up hope centuries ago… ”
Busia hesitantly reached out and touched the back of Kasaya’s hand. “This is all so strange.”
“Do you still love me?” Anxiety filled the water between the two. “You must know, dearest Busia, be I a merman, a snail, or a turtle, I love you.”
Busia drew Kasays into her arms. “I love you and chose you, because you are you.”
In the brackish waters that had once been the only place they could be together the two kissed, knowing that nothing could stop them from being together from this point forward.
Gloria Weber lives in Ohio with her husband, son, daughter, and many pets. She has been writing for publication since March 2006. Over a dozen of her short stories have been published in zines and anthologies. Her previous short story released was “Rocking Christmas Wishes” for A WINTER HOLIDAY ANTHOLOGY 2017 published by Solstice Publishing.
A WINTER HOLIDAY ANTHOLOGY 2017: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1625266812
UNMASKING: LEMON’S THESIS: http://amzn.com/1530013305