The ocean is beautiful at night.
Its waves are more persistent than hungry babies, clashing against the stubborn sand to lap and lick at the shore. It merges with the sky as one in a single glorious shape.
I stand on our balcony at the beach resort. The stars are feverishly bright, the moon sweet and high, shedding pale light that encompasses the whole of the sea The sky is black and clear, with no gray clouds to mar its magnificence. My parents told me to go to bed hours ago, but I can’t sleep. My fingers tingle against the smooth cold metal of the balcony railing. I need to swim. I need to be free. The ocean is calling me with the gentle whispering of its waves.
I glance back at our resort room. My brothers slumber peacefully as my parents snore. They would never know. They don’t need to know. This is my wild streak, the part that had made them call me Lionfish, even if my name is just Layla. I turn again to the black ocean.
My breath hitches. I blink twice, but it’s still there— a gleaming, sparkling fish tail, stark against the black outline of the ocean. And connected to this tail is a woman’s torso, midnight hair pulled back to expose playful sea-green eyes. She’s resting in the shallows, and she’s looking straight at me.
Breathless, I stare at the mermaid on the beach.
Then, with a movement of her slim hand, she beckons to me. There’s a fierce pull in my gut and suddenly I’m taking a running leap off the balcony that will surely plunge me to my death, but instead I dive into cold ocean water. Shivering, shocked, I look back at the hotel— my balcony, with my brothers’ bright towels against the railing, is thirty yards away and five floors up from where I am now.
The mermaid is beside me, but I don’t notice her until she touches my arm. I shriek and jump away, but the water is too deep for me to run. I begin treading it, desperately hoping there’s not some hidden shark down there somewhere. Gulping air, my legs beat frantically, kicking at cold, unforgiving liquid. The ocean squeezes the air from my lungs, and for a split-second, I see the sea as most people see it— a vicious man-killer. I’m certain I’m going to drown, but the mermaid grabs my arm. Her body glows with an ethereal light. Her hair is thick and long, her pretty nose upturned and sleek. Her eyes are green, and her rose-red lips are turned up in a smile.
She touches my chest. Air floods into my throat. I can breathe. Whirling, I turn to thank her, but then I realize I’m underwater.
I can’t see anything in front of me. Everything is dark. I don’t know where the seafloor. But I’m breathing, and I’m underwater. The salt that normally would’ve made me choke only tickles my mouth.
Then the mermaid slides through the water in front of me. She’s the only thing I can see in all this blackness. Her tail, cobalt blue with brilliant splashes of green scales, flashes and dances as she twirls. Her top is flecked with glittering sea glass. There’s a seashell pinning back the long hair billowing around her face.
She waves her arm, and the darkness of the ocean disappears. A bright light replaces it, and I see the ocean finally, miraculously, underwater with my eyes and mouth open. The floor is teeming with life— seahorses and tiny fish like multi-colored diamonds darting here and there among the vibrant coral.
Everything is so clear. The ocean at night is dazzling. The creatures here are every hue in the rainbow and more, colors that seem to change with the angle of the light, colors humans never knew existed. Yellow and purple tangs swim serenely by me, fish with strange fins sticking out of their heads glide through the water, blue and green dotted fish with magenta patterns swirl around my feet. . . . this is everything I’d ever dreamed of.
The mermaid takes my hand and guides me back up to the surface of the water. Spluttering, I begin asking questions. “Who are you? Why am I out in the middle of the ocean? Are you a mermaid?”
She only dips her head in answer to these inquiries, her hair flat and slick against her heart-shaped face. Then she points at herself and laughs, a clear silvery laugh like moonlight.
I frown. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
She laughs again, the laugh like silver bells, and gestures at herself once more. I furrow my brow. Then, finally, she begins to speak.
“My apologies. For a moment, I forgot humans did not understand merfolk tongue.” Her voice is like silver satin. “My name is Nerissa. I am your mermaid, Layla.”
“You feel the call of the ocean, do you not? Come, swim with me. I grant you the ability to breathe in water so we may enjoy the most of our time together,” Nerissa says before diving back under the waves again.
I follow, legs kicking next to her powerful tail. She points at a fish, a spindly one that’s shaped like a stick, and looks at me. When I nod to say I see it, she takes the fish in her hands and strokes it. We swim on. A long and fat burgundy stripe decorates the floor. Nerissa guides me down to it. It looks like a slug. I recoil.
Nerissa shakes her head and takes my hand between her fingers. I notice she has a pearl ring on her index finger as she brings my hand down to the slug. I don’t get what she’s doing. When I do, bubbles burst from my mouth in a cry, but my fingers are already petting the weird squishy thing.
Nerissa laughs in her language. I think the squishy slug thing is a sea-cucumber. I want to see fish, not cucumbers. Instead, Nerissa gently picks the sea-cucumber from its perch and caresses it, cupping it in her hands. Why is she paying attention to this ugly thing and not the beautiful fish out there? The mermaid seems to understand my confusion. She turns to me and kisses the sea-cucumber. I hesitantly press my own lips to the creature. Then Nerissa sets the burgundy animal back down and swims away with a flick of her tail.
I follow. In that night, that one, glorious night, we find so many fish, I can’t count them. Some are simple gray ones, meek and fleeting in huge schools. Some are bold and patterned, swimming right to us and nuzzling Nerissa’s tail as if she were a lost family member.
It could’ve been minutes or hours or days there in the ocean. Soon I see dark gray shapes splashing around above us. Cowering, I huddle down by the bottom of the sea, wondering if the shapes are sharks come to eat us. Nerissa takes my hand and guides me to the surface. I struggle. She squeezes my hand. We burst above the water. The dark gray shapes are bottlenose dolphins, not sharks. They’re graceful and sleek and gorgeous. One of them trills and squeals at Nerissa. She slides onto its back and takes hold of its fin.
With an eyeroll, Nerissa grabs me and puts me on the closest dolphin. I cry out as the pod of dolphins bursts forward. The dolphin underneath me arcs nimbly through the water, leaping over waves. I hold on for my life as strong muscles flex underneath me. Nerissa is laughing, laughing, and the dolphins laugh back. She finds a current and slips into it, pushing me in as well, and then we’re rocketing along the coast. I’m shrieking, but only bubbles emerge from my mouth. Nerissa exits the current and takes my hand to move me farther into the depths of the ocean.
I kick and struggle. I don’t want to go down there. I only want to see the nice things, the pretty things, not the dark strange creatures lurking in the deep. Nerissa tugs me deeper to the murky bottom of the sea. My bare feet touch sand. There’s no coral here. Everything’s dull, bland, and monotone.
Nerissa pulls me forward, into the face of a cliff. We go through a crack and enter a moonlit grove. We pop above the water. There are trees around me that glitter amber, gold, silver, and copper leaves, bearing sparkling jewel fruits cut over in facets.
Nerissa glances at me. “This, Layla, is my home. We mermaids gather here every full moon to discuss matters.”
She dips back underneath the smooth water. I follow.
Here, the water is bright and sea-green. The ground is soft with fine sand, and there are smooth spots in the rock around it, as if mermaids had worn away the stone by sitting upon it with their gleaming tails. Nerissa swims to the bottom and settles on the sand. I sit next to her, feeling out of place and crummy in my monkey pajamas. Nerissa doesn’t seem to mind as she digs her hands into the sand and pulls up a huge oyster.
This oyster is bigger than a dinner plate, but other than that, it carries no special adornment. It’s just black and dull. Why don’t the mermaids decorate it more? It looks so plain compared to the rest of the grove.
A ray of aqua light peeks out of the opening of the oyster. Nerissa slowly uses her fingers to pry the lips of the oyster apart. After a few moments, the top lid flings wide open to reveal pure white cushioning. I gasp. The inside of this oyster is beautiful.
Nerissa swims above the water and sits upon a rock next to a copper tree. I follow and sit beside her, shivering and wet. She hands me the oyster.
“Look inside,” she whispers.
There, nestled in their fleshy white home, is a gleaming black pearl as big as my thumbnail. Beside it is a pink one, and next to that, a white one. Snug in the oyster, the three pearls shine up at me in a ring of aqua light.
“This is the Ocean’s Oyster,” Nerissa says. “These pearls represent everything the ocean stands for.” She points at the white one. “This stands for the plain life in the ocean. The corals and jellyfish, the simple things.” She points to the pink one. “This stands for the beautiful things humans come to love, such as the dolphins and colorful fish.” At last, she points to the black one. “This pearl is most often forgotten. Even you, Layla, were repulsed by the things here in this blackness. The sea-cucumber, the sharks, the misshapen animals that lie at the murky depths of the sea where humans have yet to explore. . . . these animals are the most precious.
“Underneath the playful otters and whales, these creatures are strong, patient, tranquil, and serene. The ocean draws its peace from them. Without them, the sea is wild and uncontrolled. Do you see, Layla? These are the animals we need to cherish and protect. They are content being ignored and unknown, but they deserve more. Do you understand, Layla?”
I nod slowly. “So that’s why we kissed the sea-cucumber.”
Nerissa turns to stare out of the crack in the cliff face. “Humans are meddling and impatient creatures, but us mermaids love all,” she says softly. “Even if they pollute our waters.” She glances back at me and takes the oyster from my hands, closing it and letting it fall back into the sand. “Even if they do not understand the beauty of everything. You, Layla, find beauty in the night, unlike many other humans. You are different.” She gazes at me, then seems to come to a decision. “Which is why you will hear me sing.”
“Few have heard a mermaid sing.” Nerissa sighs. “Though song is best with humpback whales, a mermaid’s voice is indescribable by itself.” She opens her mouth, then closes it. “This will send you back home.”
“Home?” My voice breaks. “I don’t want to go back home. I want to stay! I want to be a mermaid with you!”
She smiles sadly. “You can’t. I am immortal, and you are not.”
“Then make me immortal.”
“You do not want to be immortal, Layla. . . . You think you do, but you do not.” She pauses, then opens her mouth again.
What comes out of her lips is the most gorgeous sound I have ever heard. Her voice is sweet and high, silky like the moon, strong like the sea, silvery like the stars. Something is pressed into my palm. I hold up the seashell that had pinned back Nerissa’s hair and stare at her in confusion as she continues to sing. Then she slips her pearl ring from her finger and onto mine. She’s still singing. Why do I need a ring and hairpin?
“Don’t forget.” Nerissa puts the phrase into the song, until she’s singing it over and over again. “Don’t forget, Layla, don’t forget. . . .”
Everything begins to dissolve around me, melting into a fuzzy blur. The amber, gold, silver, and copper trees are swaying. Sand is clouding the churning water. The grove falls away into nothingness.
“Wait! Wait, Nerissa, what’s happening?” I cry. “Nerissa!”
“Don’t forget,” she sings. “Don’t, don’t, don’t forget. . . .”
“Wait!” I shout into the swirling water around me, clutching the seashell pin she’d given me.
Everything goes black.
My eyes eventually peel open, and I realize I’m safe and warm. A creamy white blanket is wrapped around me, and the softest pillow is tucked underneath my head. I pull myself up, blinking and disoriented. Where did Nerissa go? Why am I back at the resort?
I swing my legs down from the bed. The beige carpet feels real. “Must’ve been a dream,” I mumble. “It was all a dream.”
“We’re going down to the pool today, Lionfish,” my dad says. “Go on, get ready.”
I walk to the balcony. The sea is bright and cheerful, white sea foam crashing onto the sand. Then I realize I still have a seashell in my fist. A pink and ivory seashell with tiny white jewels strung on the clip made for pinning back hair. And there, winking back at me from my index finger, is a priceless pearl ring.
As I stare down at it, echoes and memories start coming back to me. A beautiful mermaid singing silver notes. A grove of amber, gold, silver, and copper trees. An oyster with three pearls: black, white, and pink.
By the ocean, by the sea, I throw back my head and laugh.