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Nearer to You

J.S. Betula

Decorative Green Leaf with pink stem

The water’s surface is bright today—a good day for finding rarities at the small rock-pools near the sandy abyss where the sea ends. I catch a crab, but I am still searching for a more substantial meal when I spot something brand new by the cliffs. I have not seen anything new in a long while, so I swim a little closer.

     The creature is slightly smaller than I am, and oddly-proportioned. It has patternless, scaleless tan skin and four limbs with no fins or tail, and there are a colorful assortment of thin tendrils sprouting from its head. It has draped its body in seaweed or algae, but it is not very good at blending into the world around it. The creature is slinking among the pools, often removing a thin, hand-held, four-edged tool of some kind from its side and holding it close to the water—perhaps it is hunting as well? But I do not see it reaching its five stubby fingers toward a meal or bending to lick the rocks.

     The crab that I am still holding snips at my finger, so I dash it against the rocks. The crackling makes the creature turn its head. Its deep-sand brown eyes meet mine, and its body tightens into a defensive posture that makes me laugh aloud. The creature would not live to take another clumsy step if I found anything about its blunt form threatening—even its teeth are flat. When I clack my talons on the rocks, the creature falls onto its back, and I laugh again.

     A bubble of laughter escapes its pink lips in response, and then it tries to speak to me, I think. The creature cannot click and gurgle the way I do so beautifully, when above water; instead, it makes brief, nonsensical round sounds. Then it reaches into its ugly satchel and holds out a section of a fin-molt from one of my brood, gesturing enthusiastically at the shoreline, before it resigns itself to its incoherence and sits down on the rocks.

     I eat the crab, find and slurp an octopus, and the creature observes me in silence until the air grows dark, at which point it leaves the way it came. It raises its hand to me as it goes, and the corners of its mouth turn up.

     How interesting.


     The creature returns the very next day, bounding over to the edge of the pools and waving its arms.

     It has brought me a fish! A big fish that I haven’t eaten before, all mine! The others of my brood—most of whom don’t explore far outside our caves and don’t understand my interest in the above water pools at all—will see the great folly of their ways when I tell them about my special fish.

     While I make short work of the red-orange flesh and the thin bones, the creature sits with its flimsy little legs crossed and eats its own meal. It looks at me more often than at its food while using a thin, conical shell to scribble onto a set of sun-bleached leaves all bound together. The shapes remind me of the glyphs we strike into the cave wall, but they’re all wrong. Every now and again, the creature holds a tiny bite of fish between two sticks and dips it into dark liquid, and then eats it all at once.

     I am curious, so I haul myself up onto the rock where it’s eating. I lean on my elbows so that my tail remains in the water, and open my mouth. The creature laughs lightly and plops the bite onto my tongue, but there’s some sort of white plant matter beneath the fish. I hate it: I hack and spit, and the creature’s chest shakes with laughter. I hiss furiously at it, so it separates the fish from the mush and holds out the edible part. I reach with my mouth instead of my hands, to be polite, and my tongue twines partway up the creature’s fragile wrist as the fish tumbles back into my maw.

     The creature’s face splotches with pink, darkening as I pull my tongue back. The smell of blood mists out from its face and my jaw tenses in anticipation of unhinging and clamping around the creature’s head, but I restrain myself—this may be a prey animal, but it is by far the most interesting one I’ve ever encountered.

     It splays its short, un-webbed fingers on the side of my face, and I allow it. It says something softly, and even though I cannot understand the sounds it makes, I can discern the admiration in its tone. I open my mouth so that it may appreciate my strong and beautiful teeth—my second-best feature after my six shapely eyes.

     And then the creature surprises me. With a lone, trembling finger, it strokes the length of one of my fangs from the sharp tip to the wide base.

     I suddenly wonder what the creature looks like without the seaweed it winds around itself, and where its body ripples and parts to accommodate another latching inside. I do not know if it can bear young, deposit them, or if it is capable of both, like I am, but it does look like it would be good for rutting against when I am unfurled and rigid.

     My creature withdraws from me without warning, busies itself with packing away its meal, and leaves for the day with its face and throat still hazy with blood.

     Ravenous need throbs inside my stomachs and along the slit in front of my tail, and the extraneous frills on my back flare out in a display of my beauty and prowess. I imagine the fine, colorful un-seaweed sprouting from the top of my creature’s head wisping against my face; I can practically feel it twist around my tongue.


     Today my creature comes right to the water’s edge clad in a dark second skin, and it wades into the water. I trill delightedly and close the distance between us in a single burst, grasping the creature’s hips since it does not have a tail to join with mine in a traditional greeting. One of my talons catches on its seal-skin and tears slightly—ah, there is the creature’s true skin beneath. It reminds me of the texture of the octopus, and I am curious if that’s how my creature’s warm flesh would feel in the back of my throat.

     I am interested in showing my creature a few of my most favorite discoveries—the coral maze that glows in the blackwater and blisters away the flesh of anything that touches it, the ever-dwindling remains of that gigantic fish where all sorts of things gather, the pockets of surface in the crystal-cave…

     But my creature seems fearful: it will not submerge its head and it won’t venture beyond a certain point. Perhaps it thinks that one of the enormous gray-white fish will try to eat it, but I could show it a stash of teeth from the ones I have slain, so why is it afraid? Doesn’t it see the death-soaked spines on my tail and the breadth of my shoulders?

     Insulted by its reluctance, I place my palm atop its head and press down, trying to prove that there is nothing to fear underwater when I am near. But my creature panics, lashing out and trying to surface again. I seize its arm but it tugs away from me, only able to slip out of my mighty grasp because its second skin has ripped beneath my hand.

     As it scrambles up the shore like a crab missing a leg, it hunches, shudders and water sprays out from its mouth. A defensive display? A sickness? Eventually, my creature stands and looks back at me, water streaming down its face from its eyes, and it parts its lips to try and speak before shaking its head and rushing away.

     One of its head tendrils—a blue one—is caught on my finger, and I suck it into my mouth but find myself bitterly disappointed. It doesn’t taste like anything at all.


     The creature has not visited for eight moonrises. But I check each day, sometimes twice, even though the others mock me as they go about their dull, repetitive routines in our caves. They tread, they sharpen tools, they mock me, they eat stagnant clams and starfish, they tread…

     Why won’t my soft wonder return?


     Just once more, I float in the darkness and watch the white of the moon scatter along the surface of the water above me like a school of evading fish—too fast and too slow at once, half-real.

     The water begins to brighten, and just as I am about to dive down, my creature comes back to me. Today, it is wearing its seal-skin and a thin, translucent scale over its face, and it also bears another of its rudimentary tools on its back—this one long, shiny, and circular at the base. It waddles into the water and picks up a small, round stone connected to the thing on its back, and it puts the rock into its mouth. Then, it ducks its head underwater.

     At long last.

     What a sight it is, its brilliantly-hued tendrils all splayed out. I wonder if it can hear me better, now that we are beneath the waves and my voice rings out the way it is meant to. But as I speak—telling my creature of the seascapes I would like to explore with it and what I would like to do to its body—it goes still.

     It floats before me, no longer kicking its feet, its eyes wide and dark behind the clear scale. I can taste its desire in the water between us, and I tell it as much while it continues to bob in the current. I hook the stone out of its warm, slack mouth so it can answer, and it only replies with a stream of bubbles.

     But that is no matter, because it finally begins to paddle closer to me while I continue to elucidate the great beauties and terrors of my home. My creature is quite slow, so I pause my poetics and reach to unhook the heavy thing on its back.

     My creature startles, as if suddenly waking, and it begins to flail and heave. But as I speak again it calms, its body loosening like before. I explain that I am only trying to help, and it shrugs away its heavy thing and reaches out for me weakly, its mouth gaping but its eyes silverfish-bright. Ah, perhaps it is asking me to help it swim. That is smart of it: I am very fast, plenty fast enough for us both. I grab onto its hand with my own, darting us down through the water, and it takes no time at all when I am leading.

     But as I heft its body up into my special part of the cave, I realize that my creature is chilly and limp in my arms. It does not respond when I prod its belly and face.


     I must have been swimming too fast, or perhaps my creature simply went too long without hearing my voice and was seized by a fatal panic. I shall miss my creature’s waves of warm admiration, but perhaps one day, soon, another interesting thing just like it shall come to the shallows. That one, I will bring beneath the water sooner so that I can soothe it with my beautiful words, and I will make sure to speak to it the entire time. And for now, at least, I will finally know what my creature tastes like. It is different than I expected, but I do get to keep it all to myself.

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