Here There Be Monsters
Last year at Ad Astra we had a costumed launch for the DAW fantasy anthology, AGES OF WONDER edited by Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin. Lots of fun, fans and autographs.
This year it's up for an Aurora award (Canadian Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature – like the Hugo in the USA) and I am proud to announce that my short story "Here There Be Monsters" in the anthology has also made the list of finalists, under the BEST SHORT-FORM WORK IN ENGLISH category.
I am thrilled and humbled that my story about the slave trade, pirates and mermaids has sparked so many readers that it was nominated for such a prestigious award in the company of four other fine writers. It’s an auspicious start to 2010.
Votes can be cast at http://www.prixaurorawards.ca/English/home.htm or by attending Keycon, May 21-23 2010, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
See you there.
Here is "Here There Be Monsters"
Here There Be Monsters
by Brad Carson
We are Afhasi. The Waterwise.
Humans call us the Fin, the Meara or simply, Mer. My father is a Mer Man. My mother Mea, before succumbing to the lure of the Forbidden, was a Mer Wife.
I am Kya, a Mer Maid.
We are Afhasi.
Of the Sea.
The watersky that shrouds our hidden refuge grows warm again; another ship burns above us. The sea writhes with lost souls seeking guidance to the calm. I feel their pain, their fear, and their sin.
Having no inner light of their own, Surface dwellers banish fear of the dark by burning oil made from the rendered flesh of the Wise Watchers.
They think they own the sea. We left them the earth. Wasn't that enough?
Our Eld Ones tell us air is comprised of two parts obsession and one part disorder, while water is magic and calm. They say a storm is born when water meets air. They warn against contamination and order isolation.
But a heart has no ears.
My mother stole a man from the embrace of the sea and left us to follow her heart's command. Her rebellious spirit became a lesson of the Forbidden. My father retreated to the caves to overcome his anger and renew his calm. He abides there still.
Wreck falls on our white coral towers like droppings from a hungry fish. We gather our school of children, not to take them away from the horror, but to instruct them in the folly. The drifting dead are lessons to be learned.
Surface dwellers live to own things. To own each other. They call them slaves. When we were air breathers, the word sounded soiled to our ears; now we are constantly battered by great waves of sorrow and torment from each passing ship crammed to the breaking with sickness and misery. Our sand pillars tremble and shift with the cries of the forsaken.
We do not understand. How can you own another person's soul, when you don't even own your own?
But a heart is different. A heart can be owned.
It is Forbidden to seek the surface, Forbidden to know air breathers, Forbidden to interfere.
Too much is Forbidden.
I think the Eld Ones are wrong.
I am my mother's heir. The tide tugs at my heart from the watersky of our world as surely as it tugged at hers.
Tonight, I will follow.
Jonathon Diggs, bosun of the interceptor ship Fortitude, clung desperately to a narrow piece of powder-blasted deck. Blood still dripped from a gash in his forehead taken when a cannon shot had raked their barque from stem to stern, sending him and most of the fo'castle into the water. His right leg throbbed but he didn't think it was broken.
He had watched impotently as the renegades boarded the Fortitude, the clash of swords washing over him like the cold waves that lapped at his spine. For a long time screams had sounded but as night descended and he had drifted further from the sinking ship, the silence seemed eternal.
His ship had been lying off the coast of Africa waiting to intercept the Blackbird on her return from the Americas laden with rum, firearms and other trade goods preferred by the tribal leaders who in turn provided human cargo for work on sugar plantations. They were well hidden, yet somehow, Captain Edward Bane had slid out of a fogbank right across their bow in a classic maneuver called crossing the T. The sudden appearance of the bare-breasted, blue-haired mermaid that served as figurehead for the infamous slaver had preceded a heavy broadside that toppled their main mast and left them crippled, like an old man waiting to die. The same volley had blasted Jonathon into the sea.
He hated to see the end of the Fortitude, but even more, he hated to see the slaver win. Again.
Maybe the scuttle that Bane had sold his soul was true after all. It wasn't the first time the 'bird' had avoided them, almost as if Bane knew where the navy ships lay. Maybe, as some of the old salts swore, the notorious master's good fortune was bound into the ship's figurehead. Word was Bane used to be a simple merchant trader before adopting the mermaid icon.
Jonathon well knew from his fifteen years before the mast, that either tale could be true. The ocean is wide and full of mystery.
The wet cold dug deep into his bones, numbing him, luring him. He had heard that drowning was like falling into a lover's arms. Would that be so bad? The sea was his only love; it was only right she should claim him. Stars began to appear through gaps in the slowly spinning fog and he imagined a nice cup of hot grog in his warm hammock. He could almost hear the cabin boy's hushed soprano, drifting on the steady rhythm of the waves, lulling him, pulling him down.
His fingers slipped off the oakum smeared planks. He spit salt and frantically kicked trying to regain purchase, but his leg screamed protest and he sank.
He stroked upward with arms made powerful by years of hauling lines, but to little avail. The stars retreated. He dropped lower and lower. He heard the water sing.
A large fish brushed by him and an underwater swell like an errant current, bobbed him to the surface. His buoyed spirits fell when he realized his planks had drifted away but to his surprise, they reversed direction and returned to his grasping hands as sure as if he'd hauled them in. Sputtering and gasping, he threw himself onto the decking as if he clutched a long lost lover.
He barely noticed that the sea around him had calmed.
A burning ship as big as a Wise Watcher dangles halfway through our roof. Debris and charred broken bodies block the sparkle of stars. Fire stings my nose and makes me gag as if air went down the wrong way. Sharks roam, tidying.
Something snags me like the hooks that tear at my little brothers' mouths whenever they get too curious. But this hook pulls at my heart.
I follow it downwind in time to see a dark-haired man slip into the sea. The barbs of the hook dig deeper and, against all reason, I flick him to the surface and retrieve his floating refuge. Is this how my mother felt?
Later in the night, his strength fails again. I can not let him die. I grasp his hands across the wooden boards and use my tail to support his body. I sing a Healing to close the cut in his forehead and mend the bone in his leg. His bleary eyes find me.
"Who are you?" he mumbles.
"I am Kya. I am Afhasi."
"Afa ... Of the sea?" His head lolls, he drops further into the water, pulling me further out of it. "A vision," he murmurs. "A dream. The ocean is wide and full of mystery."
He drifts. Words begin to seep from his mouth. He tells me of his home, of his childhood. I listen, I learn. He rails against slavery. Justice fires his soul; he speaks revenge and regret with the same breath. He expresses his love of the sea. He gives me his name.
I hold him. He holds me. The night moves forward, the stars spin.
I am pulled too far out of the water. My mind tells me to let the Human go. It is Forbidden. But a heart has no ears.
Our faces are near enough that I can smell the salt on his cheeks. He leans in and touches lips to my hair. "You're real," he says in surprise. "A real mermaid."
I tickle him with my tail and say, "The ocean is wide and full of mystery."
He laughs and grasps my hands more firmly, but oh so gently. My heart thrums like a deep ocean current.
"My leg? It's better."
"I sang a Healing."
"A mermaid." He speaks the term with grace. "I always hoped the stories were true. Tell me of your people."
"My ancestors long wandered the water, seeking a perfect harmonious home until they found Atland Dies. Shore of the Gods. Beautiful, bountiful, calm, our island nurtured us for hundreds of years. Then your race appeared. I suppose you had been appearing for millennium, but we were so busy celebrating convergence that we missed the unquenchable curiosity that changed Apes into Humans. Lost in accord, we fell to discord. Your race grew hungrier and tried to learn the secret of peace through acts of war."
"Great cost for a greater good," he says with disdain.
"Our Eld Ones went into the deep caves seeking enlightenment and returned with the Sundering song. My own fore-family sang it. AtLand Dies, our island paradise sank. A great cost, for a greater good. We became of the sea. Afhasi. "
"Sad," he mumbles. "But beautiful. Like you."
He is what is missing from my ordered existence.
You saved my life," he says.
"You gave me mine," I reply.
We hold each other. The Eld Ones say the song of Sundering is still in our blood. So is the lure of the Forbidden. I sing him a Soothing. He sleeps, restfully, deeply. A tide of weakness and fatigue pull at me. I too must sleep. But I know I will never let go.
Morning sun parches my skin through the thick fog. I am stretched out. My upper body bathed by the madness of air, thirsts for the calm of water.
Jonathon stares at me. "Kya. My mermaiden," he whispers.
My heart crests, but the waves lap warning. "Someone comes!"
I hear the synchronized dip of oars, before he does. A low shadow bears down on us through the haze.
Jonathon tries to shake me loose. "Swim away," he urges.
I cannot. I will not.
"Well isn't this a pretty sight." A tall man wearing a long coat stands in the boat, aiming a weapon at me. "Avast, navy man," he said, "or your little friend will suffer for it. And you bilge rats," he turns on his oarsmen, "avert your eyes, or lose them." He takes off his coat and leans over, "If you would be so kind my dear, to remove your lower body from the water, you will find that onboard, legs are more the fashion than fins."
"You want to go through there?" Jonathon asked, incredulously.
He stood in Captain Bane's well-appointed quarters in the stern of the slaveship. A large ornate bookcase was filled with books and charts. Odd but interesting seashells ornamented shelves and drawers. A chess set carved from coral was laid out below a wide window that ran the full beam of the ship, where Kya sat listening to dolphins chatter while rubbing at her legs.
The spacious quarters far outmatched the utilitarian cabins of a navy ship and contrasted even more fiercely with the pens in the "tweendecks" of the Blackbird where slaves were usually wedged together in low cells only three feet high, shut out from light or air.
Those desolate spaces were barely big enough for twenty to sit with heads bowed to their knees, but Jonathon knew they often held as many as two hundred pressed shoulder to shoulder, giving each an average of twenty inches, breathing in each other's stink and vomit for months on end.
Captain Bane pointed at a chart lying on a polished rosewood table, touching a section to the southeast of their current position. "Your navy gives me little choice. They nip at my heels like hounds at a stag."
"A stag is a noble beast," Jonathon said. "You are not."
Bane grunted, "Ah, bo'sun, a man of high morals. I once spoke as you do, but found that words did not fill my stomach."
"True, but they do not turn it, either." Bane tapped the map. "My navigator says we can make it through."
"Then he is a fool."
The captain's light mood vanished like a squall rising on a calm sea. "Be careful what you call my navigator."
"To go where you propose is death for all. Here," Jonathon recited words on the map, "there be Monsters. No one goes there. The Kraken makes sure of that."
"Kraa'kken?" Kya asked, abandoning her view of the sea. Jonathon nodded and she shook her head slowly. "You must not disturb Kraa'kken."
A smug smile formed on Jonathon's lips. "There. You see. Who would know more about the Kraken than Kya."
"Indeed." Bane's own grin widened to show his teeth. "Kya is the reason I am going to succeed. She will calm the monster. After all, who would know more?"
Kya stumbled to an open porthole and put her face to the spray of the sea, breathing deeply. "Do you even know what you contain with the word monster?"
"It's some kind of giant octopus or squid," Jonathon explained, watching her carefully.
"No, she said, "Kraa'kken is the last dragon. He fell into the sea and his wrath tore the ocean floor and shifted continents until he finally fell asleep."
Bane wagged a headmaster's finger. "But you omitted something, my dear. He didn't just fall asleep, did he? The Afhasi calmed him, just like you will again, so we may pass in safety." He offered a slight bob of his head to Jonathon, "But, sadly, not your navy ships."
"You would wake this pitiful creature to use as a weapon?" Kya tottered away and almost fell.
Jonathon steadied her elbow. Her skin was cold and clammy.
"You are disordered," she said to Bane. "I will not help you."
Bane drew his sword. "I think you will."
Jonathon charged, but the point of the sword forced him to stop. Kya shivered, but replied. "Death is calm."
"Dear girl," Bane said, "You mistake my intent. I know Afhasi do not fear death. But I will kill the holder of your heart, carving him slowly like a fat whale, slice by slice, until he is barely alive. And if he manages to heal," Bane shrugged and smiled, "then I will begin anew."
Kya began to tremble, her mouth opened and closed, repeatedly.
Jonathon tried to ease her anxiety; he reached out overtop the sword. "He's bluffing," he said.
The blade flicked a hot sting below his arm. "There's the first one," Bain said as a sliver of flesh fell to the floor.
Jonathon reeled; Kya placed her hand on the bloody wound and began to sing.
"Ah, a Healing." Bane moved in close as if basking in the sound.
Jonathon's arm felt washed in cold water, the wound began to close, but then the song stopped abruptly. "You didn't finish," Bane said regretfully.
Pain distorted Kya's face, her pale skin turned translucent and she fell.
Bane caught her, but after a glance, dropped her to the carpet.
Jonathon scooped her in his arms where she gasped like a fish out of water, her legs jerking and fluttering. "Kya! Kya!" His heart pounded in fear.
"Jonathon." Her hand trailed across his brow, then dropped and she lay still.
"No!" He pressed his face against hers, trying to warm her flesh with his breath. "Don't leave me!"
"How touching," Bane said.
"You bastard!" Jonathon shouted, then sputtered and spit as a jug of water splashed down on them.
Kya gasped, breathing again, but shallow.
"That will hold her for now," Bane said, "but you need to get her in the deep. It's the Afhasi source and they sicken when deprived of it. Fear not, they get over it, eventually."
The sea speaks. Awake, daughter.
Hush my Kya. Let the water replenish.
You must go back where you belong. You are Afhasi.
As are you.
Once. No longer. I have drifted away from the sea.
Where are you?
Near, but...far away. So far. Go home, child. Leave air to others.
And what of you?
I am other. I can not go back.
Nor can I. My heart is my home. His name fills my soul.
Then I grieve for us both. I think you and I are the returning tide of the Eld One's decree of isolation. Prepare for pain and joy.
But that makes no sense. Joy is uplifting.
When heart rules over all, the price of joy is pain. I urge you to shut his name from your soul. He has too much power over you.
We have power over each other. The power of giving, of sharing. Of loving.
He will only hurt you. Go now, while the sea cradles you.
The water caresses my scales, calm, peaceful.
"Kya!" Jonathon's voice floods me.
I pull away from the deep.
My daughter, you are lost.
She is gone; Jonathon is here. I swim to him.
Jonathon stared over the side of the shallop, both hoping and fearing that Kya would swim away. It would mean his death, but should his love be the shackle that enslaves her to Bane's bidding? Is that love? Or is love setting free?
"Hail her again, bo'sun," the first mate said from the seat behind. "The signal is hoisted."
"She needs more time." He glanced over at the mizzenmast where a green banner flapped in the lee breeze. "Bane will have to wait until she's healed." The point of a dagger pricked his skin.
"If the Cap'n has to wait, we'll all need healing."
Jonathon instinctively pulled away, but then wondered if he had the courage to throw himself backwards onto the blade. Before he could decide, long, pale fingers grasped the gunnels of the boat. He wanted to grab them and kiss them, or smash them and drive her away. Her blue-black hair appeared, shiny and lustrous again, followed by her aqua eyes, sparkling like light on
the water. He reached to help her aboard but a flick of her powerful tail propelled her into his arms. He kissed her and then averted his eyes as her scales turned to flesh and her tail split into legs.
Bane's voice cut across the water. "I hate to interrupt your fun, but we needs be underway and smartly, too. Your navy is six leagues aft and coming on strong. You men," he pointed at the rigging "into the ratlines with you. The rest of you, hand over hand and give us a tune."
Kya quickly dressed as the crew struck up a lively shanty, hauling the scallop toward the ship.
Jonathon stared up at the empty crows nest. "Even with the best glass a man can not see six leagues away."
Kya tipped her head toward the northeast. "He's right. The waves whisper of three ships."
Jonathon nodded. "Yes. But how does he know?"
I am refreshed. The slave captain stands on the forecastle waiting for us. Jonathon immediately asks. "How do you know the interceptors approach? Do the waves whisper to you, too?"
"My navigator told me." Bane smiles, but not of happiness. "Helmsman!" he shouts, "south by southwest. Mr. Danby if you would." A noose drops over Jonathon's head and pulls tight, the other end tied to a rail above the deck. "Mr. Danby, the ship is yours. Keep a steady course, and make sure we're not disturbed."
"Aye, Cap'n. Steady as she goes." The first mate starts shouting orders as soon as he leaves.
"The rope is just a precaution, my dear," Bane says. "I wouldn't want bo'sun getting heroic when he sees his colors flying. And sinking."
My Jonathon lunges at him but the tether drags him to his knees, with a gasp. Distress floods me and I charge at Bane with fists and nails. He tries to avoid me, tries to contain me, but I am fin-slippery and draw blood on his cheek. He curses and his pistol lashes out, catching me hard on side of the head. Jonathon shouts, but his angry protest is overwhelmed by a wail that pours up from below deck.
A cloaked figure bursts among us, shrieking, "You said she wouldn't be hurt." Short-bitten fingernails run through shorn blue-grey hair.
I jerk as if gaffed. "Mother?"
"Don't interfere, Mea," Bane commands.
She places gnarled, fingers against my cut and begins to sing a Healing, but the notes are malformed and uttering a despondent cry, she pulls back. "I told you to swim away," she says, "I told you." Her aqua eyes are cloudy; her face lined and sallow bearing the ravages of soul sickness. She turns back to Bane; her hands tremble. "Please Edward, let her go, for the sake of the love we once had."
I am stunned, rudderless. His face changes from cold and hard, to a soft warm smile. "Mea," he whispers touching her hollow cheeks. "It's too late for that."
I spin her around. "Him?" I accuse. "You left us to go with him?"
She sobs, "He holds my heart!"
"How can your heart be so blind?"
"And yours isn't?" She points at my Jonathon. "What won't you do for him?"
Bane takes her in his arms. "I'm sorry I struck her, love. It was a craven act, done in haste. Once we lay on the other side of the monster, I will put about and she can stay with the bo'sun or return to her home. The same decision you made ten years ago. Remember?"
"Oh mother," I plead. "Leave this evil man."
Bane laughs. "And who do you think has aided me? Who warns me of your ships when my hold is crammed full of slaves?"
Horror fills me. "You are his navigator? How could you? Can not you feel those souls crying in agony?"
Bane grunts, "Slaves have no souls. They are little better than animals."
"At least they are better than animals," Jonathon says.
Mother pushes away from them. Tears streak her face. "Kya ... my Kya. I feel them all the time. They diminish me. I hear their cries, their horrible, endless cries. But he has my heart," she wails, "and a heart has no ears!"
"Oh mother, the sea is so far from you."
"As it will be from you. Beware child. Your magic will be your heart's undoing. It will change him." I shake my head in denial as she speaks. "One day, you calm the sea for favourable passage then before you know it you are reading it for ships in pursuit. You stir fog, raise waves, heal his wounds, anything to keep him safe." Tears roll down her hollow cheeks, her voice falters. "Anything."
Bane pats her shoulder. "Hush love, hush. My poor sick Mea. You should go below and have another tot of grog. Let me run my ship."
"Edward, let me try to control Kraa'kken. I know the old songs. I might---"
"No, love, your power has almost faded. Kya is young, still of the sea. She will do it or her heart will die."
Jonathon pulls toward me. "Kya! More than I will die! You can't do this--" He falls, his words cut off by a blow from Bane's pistol.
I drop to my knees and cradle his head. "Mother. Please! Help us!"
She shakes her head. "I can't. Don't ask. It's too late. Kya please!" she howls, "Please, my child if you have any love left for me, just calm the beast!" She turns away from us, moving slowly along the deck, her hand outstretched to the spray.
I watch and whisper, "May you find calm, mother."
She touches her wet hand to her lips then wipes it on her cloak. "I no longer know how. You and I, we are alike. Afhasi no more." She staggers away without once looking back.
Bane's shoulders slump with her every stumble, but once she is gone, he takes a deep breath, turns and lays his sword against the fleshy part of Jonathon's thigh. "Well?"
I hear cries of despair cresting on the surface of the sea from the agony of slaves. Those voices will be with me always, as they are with my mother, but even their constant torment can not compare to losing my heart. Piece by piece.
Jonathon will live, the rest I will learn to live with.
Mother's accusation echoes in my mind, like the rumble of undersea quakes in the caverns of my distant home. Afhasi no more.
Jonathon awoke to singing. Spray flew like white fire over the bulward rail, the fore-sails billowed and sheets snapped in the favouring wind. To the stern, the interceptors were coming on strong, Bane leading them to their doom. A high-pitched tune came from the direction of the bowsprit, one note flowing into another in endless waves, cresting and dropping, soothing... like a lullaby. He noticed a chain that wasn't a bobstay wrapping the capstan and peered toward the cutwater.
He recoiled at the sight of Kya bound face-forward to the ship's blue-haired figurehead, as if mother was whispering in daughter's ear. With each plunge of the hull, waves slammed her with a sound as dead as a falling sledge-hammer. Her lower body had transformed, seawater sluiced off golden scales. He shouted above the thunder. "Kya! Nothing is worth the cost."
The high song stopped, her eyes found his. "Love is."
"What kind of love is paid with the lives of slaves?" He leaned over as far as he could, trying to touch her, trying to bring her back. Or was he trying to free her? A large wave pushed him away. He made to return but a sharp tug on the rope around his neck jerked him to his knees.
"The monster rises," Bane said, his sword pointing at Jonathon's chest.
Ancient power swells the sea. Kraa'kken stirs. Rage flows. He burns.
I sing what little I know of the old song and merge it with a Soothing for children who awake in the night. I feel his pain. I see into his soul, his memories. He burns with shame. Born deformed. His wings are too small and though he tries mightily, he can not fly. Cast out. His brothers and sisters beat him with their wings. Burned. His father's fire drives him from the nest. Abandoned. His mother turns her face away. He can not fly; he can only tumble into the sea where he cries his shame.
The last of his kind, he does not belong in this world. But do I? He is only a tiny baby, lost, alone, searching for the mother who betrayed him. As am I.
Mother? Kraa'kken echoes the image. Curiosity peeks from under the rage. He sees me, I see him.
Poor wretched creature, his long undulating body, pale and transparent, burns from the inside. His dragon fire developed underwater but could only rage inward. He consumes himself.
I gather all my strength, my power, and start to sing a Healing to his fiery pain. I sing to his strength, to the beauty of his marred soul, even as my own sinks in the suffering my love will unleash. Shame swamps against me, pressing with a force greater than the weight of the sea. Kraa'kken's shame. Mine. Jonathon's.
I feel him above me. Our fragile, forbidden love will not survive his honor. I see him. I hear him talking to the captain. I fear his words.
"You won't ever let Kya go," he says. "You're going keep the Kraken awake so you have a place to run from the hounds. She will never be free."
Bane shrugs. "Who of us is?"
He stares at the blade inches from his chest. "My Kya will be," he whispers and lunges, impaling his heart on the steel point.
I scream. My heart is Sundered. Healing re-directs and wraps him in its embrace, holding, refusing to let him go. Love, dragon pain, power all flow through me. I scream again. Stays snap, sails shred, masts topple as soul magic powerful enough to sink an island is unleashed in fear and retribution.
My chains shatter and I rise to the deck in a fist of water. My mother charges through the quailing crew, distraught and fearful, shouting my name. Jonathon's wound glows, blurs and disappears. He gags on a breath he had never expected to feel again. Relief pushes aside power.
Kraa'kken rises, wailing piteously and tips the disabled ship beams-up. Bane wind-mills to keep his balance, but Jonathon jerks the tethering rope against his feet, toppling him into the angry sea where the dragon waits.
"Mea!" Bane shouts. "Calm the monster!"
She stares down at him, and then over at the baby burning with neglect. "We are all monsters," she murmurs.
She looks at me, and smiles. "Use your power to heal this world," she says. "The Eld Ones are wrong. We should have always belonged."
She dives over the side and surfaces singing, her scales gleam like diamonds.
I join her song, our voices pitched in a perfect, harmonious note of empathy and promise that sails the sea. The dragon's fire dims and he draws toward her. Our shared song ends and turns to tears in my mouth.
"Mother is taking Kraa'kken far away," I say, "where they will die."
Bane paddles toward my shining mother. "My love," he cries, "save me from the monster."
"Of course, Edward," she says. She wraps him in her arms, presses her lips to his and drags him under.
I watch the bubbles swirl and wonder if I will some day have to do the same with my love.
Jonathon puts his arm around my shoulders. "We will rename this ship the Afhasi and will honour your mother's memory through her figurehead. Let every slaver know, when they see her coming, that men will be free."
I return the embrace. It is enough.
We are Afhasi.
Of the sea.
published in AGES OF WONDER edited by Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin, DAW books, March 2009