I saved a merfolk, once, when I was very young.
I wouldn’t say that I saved her in the traditional sense of the word. I can guess what springs into your mind when I say it. Perhaps she was hurt, and I found her bleeding on the edge of the sea. Or, somehow, she wound up stranded on the land, and I helped her back to the water. Perhaps you picture her, not just stranded, but dragged up out of the water after the villagers caught her too near to our beaches, bleeding, near death.
All of those things have happened. During the war, the last happened more times than I ever want to remember. That’s not how I saved her.
I did find her on a beach. It was before the war had begun again in earnest, in one of the decades of tense peace before we truly reached accord with one another. I don’t remember why I was there. It was over seventy years ago, so there are spots missing from my memory. You’ll have to forgive me.
What I do remember is that she was weeping. Merfolk don’t cry like we do, with tears, because their homes are in the water. They only come to the land briefly. No, when a merfolk cries, it’s mostly vocal.It’s a mournful, minor hum that issues from their throats. Inhuman, but recognizable as sadness, because it sounds just like sad music.
I went to her. I was a brave child. My mother always called me stupid. Probably it was my bravery that had me wandering out at the edge of the corals anyway, exploring the mangrove roots. It was her keening that drew me to her. Among the trees, she couldn’t be seen from very far away.
When I did see her, her alien beauty was what drew me closer. I knew she was sad right away, but it was my curiosity that made me go to her. I had never seen a merfolk up close. In those days, trade with the folk was rare and hushed. Nowadays everyone has seen and interacted with them. Some humans can even say they have friends among the folk. Not then.
The scales of her tail shimmered in the morning light, a bold violet that blended in with the shades of the grasses that grew up around her resting place. The tips of her fins faded to blue that matched the hue of the tendrils growing from her head. From a distance, they looked like hair, but up close they could never be mistaken for it.
When she heard my approach, she turned, frightened. Her tilted, gemlike eyes opened wide on either side of the gills that split her face in place of a nose. For a moment, I, too, was frightened by the unfamiliarity of her visage. The art I had seen of the folk in school always made them look more human. Then her fear passed, and she smiled in a very human way. She raised her very human hand, with only the fins along her wrist transforming its shape, and gestured at me to approach.
I don’t remember what she said. I don’t remember what I said in return. I never thought to ask where she had learned to speak my language. I do remember that, years later, I pieced together her purpose: she had come there to die. Her family had ostracised her, and her community had followed suit. She didn’t belong anywhere. Nobody cared for her, now.
She didn’t die that day, or the next. We set a meeting time. I snuck away daily to see her. She was like an aunt to me; she was too old for my young mind to think of her as a friend. We laughed together. We played games. She helped me learn how to swim.
That was in the days before the raids made parents too nervous to allow their children near the shore. That was before the battles started. Before the merfolk sunk one of our floating capitals, and we poisoned their waters in return — or was it the other way around? You see, it doesn’t matter, because so much wrong was done on both sides.
She told me, on the last day I saw her, that I had saved her. That’s how I know that I did. She said that I made her realize that there were people worth knowing, and connections worth having, other than the ones she had lost.
She was the first person that I loved outside of my family. She taught me that there are different kinds of love, and different ways to show it.
I thought of her often, when I fought in the war. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I thought I had to do my duty. I feared what would happen if I didn’t. I had to do what my family, and my village, and my country expected of me. I couldn’t tell them, “Merfolk are people, too.” I couldn’t say, “They think and they love just like we do. They deserve to live, just like we do.”
I couldn’t say any of that, because nobody knew about her. She left, on that day, because the war had officially started. Acts of aggression had escalated on both sides. It was no longer safe for her to come so near to a human settlement.
When I killed her kindred, I thought of her. I thought of her every night in the barracks, and I cried. My squad mates called me weak. I felt like they were right.
So, now, I’m making a record of this. The war is done, for now. Both sides feel like they’ve killed enough. They trade. They claim to be allies. I hope it’s real, and permanent. I really do, because respecting people that are different from you is not weakness. Caring about the deaths of others is not weakness. Feeling love for people, even when you’re on opposite sides of a conflict, is not weakness. That’s strength.
Sometimes at night, I wish I could find her again. I wish I could locate her, tell her that I’m glad that I knew her. I don’t know if she’s alive. I can’t even remember her name. I want to thank her, because she taught me so much, and because, in a way, she saved me, too. It just took me longer to realize it.