Spawning Day

by C. W. Johnson



Litha swam across the city, alone. It was early morning, very early for Litha. In the shadows cast by half-drowned buildings the sea was dark and cold. But she was happy, buoyed by the undulating waves and warmed by the fire in her belly. For today was her Spawning Day. Last night, just after dusk, she had leaned out a window and lifted her face to the rain that fell in silver threads. Today the sun would be out and would warm her. Today was her Spawning Day.

Litha swam past rows of buildings, some sullen and sagging. At intersections the sun shouldered between hulks to illumine the surface of the sea. The light tumbled deep, glittering off suspended particulates and shoals of fish, and Litha imagined she could see shadows moving on the bottom fifty yards below. But she knew Deep Dwellers never came into the city.

As she swam down Houston Litha wondered where Tomba was now. Tomba rose early each morning to swim the watery avenues of the city before dawn, to see what tides and wind had brought, to watch the orange dance of rooftop fires of High Dwellers. Sometimes, in the grey light before sunrise, he climbed perilously high; he liked to perch on a masonry ledge exposed to the wind and watch from above. The world didn't seem so flat from up there, he told her, as it did from the surface of the sea. Litha lifted her head to scan the stony faces of the buildings marching down Houston. Tomba might be watching her now. He had watched her for a long time, she knew, and he kept much in his heart.

She watched, too; for as Middle Dwellers both were watchers by nature, caught between air and land and the deep cold ocean, between two worlds, between two peoples As Litha crossed Lafayette, approaching the heart of the city, smoke from extinguished fires sculled lazily into the sky. Occasionally people scurried across the frayed rope bridges that spanned from rooftop to rooftop. High Dwellers. Litha even glimpsed some of their faces. Later, when the deadly eye of the sun had risen higher those outside would be swathed in canvas and oilcloth. The rest would hide inside, safe in shadows. Like her parents.

Litha slipped beneath the water, rolled on her back, and swam a dozen strokes submerged. She blew out her breath and watched the glassy bubbles glide to the surface. Where Tomba liked to watch from above, the wind caressing his fur, Litha watched from below, snug in water's blanketing embrace. She rose to the surface, filled her lungs with air, and submerged again. She tried one of her favorite games, to see how far she could swim before she had to take another breath, but she was too excited to concentrate. So Litha gave up and returned to the surface. She was at the meeting place anyway. The tide was low--when it rose she would spawn--and she had to clamber up the masonry to get through the open window into the room where she and her girlfriends loved to sit and gossip. For once she was the first to arrive. Sitting in a corner with her knees drawn up to her chest she closed her eyes and relished the solitude, dreaming of all that would happen soon. Her first Spawning Day. And with Tomba! Lean, handsome, and quiet, with fur so dark as to be almost black, his soft, vibrant voice thrilled her, especially the tender note meant specially for her. She imagined his long arms wrapped around her, making her made her feel a delirious, feverish happiness she had never felt before.

Litha's reverie was broken when Unna, a tall limber young woman whose dark fur was shot through with glints of orange, climbed through the window, grinning her broad grin that showed sharp white teeth. Litha herself had big brown eyes, and the sharpness of her nose and cheekbones were softened by downy golden-brown fur. Soon followed the rest of Litha's girlfriends. The room rang with their voices as they swarmed around Litha, kissing her and congratulating her on her Spawning Day. A couple of them gently brushed her belly with the back of their hands. They teased Litha for being so early and eager and made lewd jokes and laughed when Litha turned her head in embarrassment.

There were six in addition to Litha, and they made a circle with Litha in the center. As customary on the yearly Spawning Day they gave her small gifts, carved stones or pretty fragments of colored glass they might have found in a drowned church, and talked about their lovers and tales of their own Spawning Days in years past, and how their broods were faring. Sometimes Litha felt awkward among her girlfriends. Not only was she the youngest of them, she was also the only one of them to have been born of High Dweller parents and not spawned among the Middle Dwellers. Of course, all of them were only a few generations removed from High Dwellers--Unna's maternal grandparents, for example--and today her friends celebrated her, making Litha feel happy and at ease. "Where's Yara?" she asked. Yara was her best girlfriend.

"Oh, you know Yara," said Unna, "always flighty. I haven't seen her much the last few days."

"Last week I saw her jumping from the high ledges down on Wall Street," said one of the others, "and diving all the way down to the bottom, like she was a Deep Dweller. I don't like it down there, too cold and too much pressure. I hope she didn't hurt herself or something."

Litha turned her head away for a moment, a little needle in her heart that Yara wasn't here for her Spawning Day. When they had been little she and Yara had snuck into the Great Ruin to spy on Middle Dweller couples spawning or making love, bodies intertwined in rushing, confluent tides. They had invented elaborate fantasies of meeting with handsome, delphine Princes of the Deep and shedding their furry coats for the slick skin of a Deep Dweller and breathing water. And together they had dived to the bottom of the city avenues. The cold and dim light and high pressure made it both scary and thrilling. Once while exploring Yara had gotten stuck in the rusting hulk of a land vehicle and panicked and nearly hadn't been able to get free. The experience had so frightened her she hadn't gone bottom diving ever since. Litha was surprised to hear that Yara was doing it again.

"The tide is rising," Litha murmured, looking out the window.

"Oh, you have plenty of time, sweet one," said Unna, draping an arm around Litha's shoulder. "Tomba won't be there for at least another hour."

But restless anticipation had built to such a pitch inside Litha that she could barely pay attention to her friends. Putting the gifts in her leather carry-pouch, Litha stood up, kissed her girlfriends one by one and slipped over the windowsill into the water. "Goodbye!" they called after her. "Good luck!"

As she swam south Litha hoped Tomba would bring her a present, too. Even though part of her thought this a vain, girlish hope, she liked him to bring her presents, no matter how trifling. When he gave her a present he would grin his awkward, shy grin, and quickly put his hands back behind his back and look down and away from her, as if embarrassed giving her tokens of love. Then she would stretch our her arm, lift up his chin, and look into his strong, sculpted face, with its high cheeks and dark fur; she would look his wide brown eyes that burned with flecks of golden sunlight and looked back at her without blinking; and she would fall in love with him all over again. Remembering Yara and their romantic girlhood fantasies, Litha realized it wasn't the Spawn itself that was important to her, as it was for the others, but that it was with Tomba. In this world, where the land sank and the seas rose--where the sun raged furiously, Changing generation after generation--where her own parents, however much they loved her, could do little for their changeling child--in such a shifting world his love offered a fixed island for her life. Though Litha dreamed romantic dreams about the Deep, the anchor she felt in her love for him was better than all the fantasies in all the oceans.

Now while Litha and Yara watched Middle Dwellers, or dreamed of espying Deep Dwellers, Tomba watched High Dwellers. He knew all about their ancient history and great downfall and their scattered clans. Tomba liked to tease Litha, and scare her a little, with tales of tribes of renegade High Dwellers who lived on patches of dry coastline to the south: barbarians who considered Middle Dwellers and Deep Dwellers--though they might be their children--as nothing more than animals and thought nothing of murdering them. And he would laugh at her horrified expression, and then tell her about the old High Dweller couple he seen hobbling on a rooftop, hand in hand like sweethearts; or about the time a boy had fallen from a rope bridge--like all High Dwellers the boy had panicked in the water, and had fought Tomba even as Tomba rescued him. Tomba still spotted the boy from time to time, but the boy never looked at Tomba. Tomba never told anyone else of what he had seen, never boasted or even hinted. He only shared this secret side of him with Litha, and she felt close to him because of that. But even to her he never explained his fascination with High Dwellers, even though he was several generations removed. She paradoxically disdained Tomba's interest, probably because of her parents. Yesterday Litha had visited her parents. She had swam to a stone window sill where the tide lapped with a thick oily tongue, slipped over the sill into the flooded room, and waded across to the stairwell where her father and her mother, High Dwellers, sat on the steps in dim light, waiting for her. "Sorry I'm late," Litha murmured. Her parents stood and although they were not in direct sunlight their faces were slathered with opaque white paste and their heads covered by wide-brimmed canvas hats. Litha, like all Middle Dwellers, was protected by her sleek coat of fur and unafraid of sunlight falling on her wide, pretty face and broad shoulders. It had been a long time since she had seen her mother's own bare face.

Standing timidly on the stone step just above the water, Litha's parents had wished her well for her Spawning Day on the morrow. "Your children may be Deep Dwellers," her mother said, her voice crackling like old plastic. "The Changing runs rapidly in my family, even as little as two generations."

"I know," Litha said, shrugging. "I don't mind." She looked over her shoulder, through the window and towards the sea. "Sometimes I wish I were out there in the deep. I think it so romantic." Litha liked to imagine her children as Deep Dwellers, free of sun and wind and sky and rain, free of the city, free of land both dry and drowned. Her father sighed, while her mother said, "Please come see us tomorrow, afterwards, if you can. Or the next day."

"I'll see what I can do," Litha said, although her heart was already spinning full of plans with Tomba. Her mother's oilcloth cloak shifted and she stretched forward a hand, with plump fingers naked and pink. Litha reached out with her own webbed and furred hand and squeezed her mother's hand. Then Litha disentangled her hand, splashed across the room, and dove out the window into the water.

Litha decided to swim directly to the Great Ruin, the fallen skyscraper to the south where she and Tomba had agreed to spawn, as did many others because of the favorable tides. In anticipation of spawning they often made love there as the current rushed about them. Litha swam downtown with sure, powerful strokes; and the fire in her belly burned a little hotter. She thought of the rushing waters of the incoming tide; when she was in Tomba's arms she felt like that, love gushing in and out of her with inexorable force. He could be standoffish, out of shyness and arrogance all knotted together; he laughed at her romantic dreams of the Deep and her habit of bottom diving, but admitted in private, when they kissed and caressed each other's faces after making love and whispered their secrets to each other, that he found her romanticism tender and sweet and appealing. Thinking of him the fire in her burned all the brighter, and she almost swooned for love, as if tendrils of smoke were curling up into her brain. And she thought she would make to him a small gift of being early, of being there to greet him, a signal of her love for him.

As she approached the Great Ruin the tide was coming up. Rusting girders bristled from the sides of the Ruin, a hoary, hairy old giant with empty eyes. Litha dove a little below the surface and through an open window, then started weaving her way through the building. She knew the Ruin well, not only from her explorations with Tomba but from the hours spent here in play with Yara. Enough light leaked through fallen walls and cracked masonry that she could easily make her way in the dim shadows. But halfway across she heard voices, a man and a woman. Litha paused, not wanting to intrude. When she had been a child she might have spied, but now, today, as a woman----. From the splashing they made they appeared not to have heard her slipping through the water--even as full speed Litha was a very smooth and quiet swimmer--and the woman said, "I have to go, she'll be here soon," and just as the man was saying "No, not yet, don't go yet," with a shock Litha recognized the woman's voice as Yara's. "Just a few moments more, she's always late," pleaded the man, and Litha realized it was Tomba. Yara sighed and said, "I love you so much."

Litha floated there, treading the cold salt water, listening, her head and whole body numb except for the fire in her belly. "You are so beautiful, so beautiful," Tomba murmured; the words skittered clearly off the water, and from around a corner Litha caught a glimpse of two dark shapes intertwined, clinging to handholds on the wall as the bodies strained against each other. Litha dove under the water and swam furiously, making her way blindly through the maze of the ruin and bumping against walls and then suddenly finding herself out in the open. Floating to the surface she blinked in bright sunlight. She felt ill; a spasm came over her; high tide was approaching. Suddenly weak, Litha paddled to the next building and hauled herself half out of the water onto a narrow ledge. Her hands and feet were numb but the whole of her belly and hips and thighs were burning, fierce hot pins jabbing her. She moaned and cried aloud as fire tore through her belly and ice slashed at her heart.

Fortunately it was not long before Unna came by and discovered Litha on the ledge, unconscious, her lower half still in the water that bloomed bright red.




"It was only a spawn," Unna said the next day, cradling Litha in her arms. "You know they often don't go right the first time."

Litha said nothing, only looked away.

Unna stroked Litha's cheek. "I know you had your heart set on this first spawn, sweet one," she said. "I worried about you. I told you as gently as I could that it might go wrong." They lay side-by-side in the little nook in a crumbling masonry wall that was Unna's sleep-room. Litha had spent the night here, watched over by Unna. "You didn't warn me that Tomba would make love to Yara," Litha said with a flat voice. Unna said nothing to that. Litha started to get up; Unna put a hand on Litha's arm but Litha said, "I'm fine, I'm feeling fine."

"Where are you going?" Unna asked in a small voice.

Litha stood by the gaping hole that looked out over the water into the heart of the city. After a while she simply said, "Away," and dove into the sea.

With long, powerful strokes Litha swam across the city. She didn't even look at the buildings but kept her head down in the water, coming up only for quick breaths and then down again, staring at the murky depths. She swam southeast until she came to the open stretch of the East River; there she swam less vigorously, letting herself be carried by the current until it swept her out into the Upper Bay. The Bay was quite calm and she headed straight across it, passing the sagging, corroded head and arm of the Lady of the Bay. Litha paused to look at her, remembered how Yara like to clamber up on the spikes and dive from the outstretched arm. "Bitch," said Litha, and she swam on.

When she came to the vast, open emptiness of the Lower Bay she paused. Here she was truly in the open sea. But which way to turn? South, where high bluffs still peeked above the waterline? Or east, along the submerged reefs and shoals that pointed to the heart of the ocean?

She treaded water for a few minutes. The water here was choppier, with a few white crests, and the wind blew cold salt into her face. But still she felt free and her heart rode up on the currents of wind like the seagulls that mewed and cried all around her. To the south were Tomba's murderous--and most likely mythical-- renegade Middle Dwellers. And her heart and soul belonged to the sea. She might find mats of sargasso seaweed to sleep on under the bright stars. She might drown. She didn't much care which. She turned east.

After a few hours Litha began to feel exhausted. Yet when she turned she could still see the skyline of the city looming not far off. This was the farthest she had ever traveled from home and she had hardly gone any distance at all. The water here was cold, much colder than she had expected, and deep. She couldn't see the bottom, only felt a vast void lurk beneath her. Above her the sun burned furiously, and though it did not threaten her skin with gnawing black malignancies the way it did High Dwellers, her eyes were beginning to ache from its constant presence and for a moment she longed for a familiar building where she could shelter from its stare. To the north of her she could see some gray hills, a bit of land where she might rest. But she was reluctant to do so. She wanted to abjure the land and all things fixed, even if part of her knew she could not do that for long.

With a sigh and a heart that hung heavily in her chest she began to swim eastward, when something brushed against her feet.

Litha cried out and twisted herself around. She only saw a swift shadow and her heart raced. A shark, she thought, as the shadow under the waves swung around again. She pulled her legs up close to her body, to give the mouthful of tearing teeth less of a target, and floated there--swimming rapidly and splashing would only attract attention. Then she saw the head of the shadow was too narrow and refined to be a shark, and she caught a glimpse of limbs trailing along the side.

A Deep Dweller.

Litha froze, as shocked as if it had been a shark. And the Deep Dweller shot off, a pale streak under the water. "No, wait!" she called even though it couldn't possibly hear her beneath the waves, and she began swimming after it. But the Deep Dweller was so much stronger and swifter than she and she began to flail in anger and frustration, hitting the water. "No, wait," she said, as tears ran down her cheeks. "Wait." And she floated there, bobbing up and down on the waves miles from land and the city under the searing eye of the sun, watching the shadow of her dreams swim away from her. She sobbed aloud, thinking of her parents swathed in fear and canvas, thinking of the voices of Yara and Tomba that laughed with lust and echoed on the water in the ruins of the building and in the ruins of Litha's love. Wait. Hot tears flooded her eyes and dripped into the sea, salt water to salt water. The blue sea stretched from horizon to horizon, with only a small frill of the city visible in the distance now. Her only companion in all the world was a little puff of cloud scudding along to the southwest. She felt very, very alone. And then something brushed against her feet again.

Litha looked down. She saw the Deep Dweller, circling her slowly now. Litha let herself sink into the water and faced the Deep Dweller. She had seen a dead shark once and she had seen dolphins a few times, but she had never seen a Deep Dweller even though everyone knew of them. The Deep Dweller was long and sleek, like a dolphin, with no legs but a trunk that merged smoothly into a tail. He was hairless, looking utterly naked, even more naked than a High Dweller, with whitish skin. He--for it was a male, she caught a glimpse of his genitals tucked neatly underneath and smiled to herself--he was strongly delphine in design and yet quite distinct: he had no dorsal fin on his back; he had two long, slender arms trailing from his trunk that ended in thickly webbed hands; and though his face was pushed forward into a beaklike muzzle and eyes peered from either side of his head like a dolphin, it was still distinctly human. Especially the eyes, big black and gold orbs with delicate lashes which gazed at her with intense curiosity and intelligence. Litha reached forward with her hands. Startled, he backed off swiftly, then slowly came close again when he saw she meant no harm, his thick tail swishing back and forth in the water. Cautiously he extended his own hands until the tips of their fingers touched.

Eventually they learned to communicate. He spoke her language, more or less, and when she put her head underwater she could hear him, although he tended to slur many consonants, to stretch out sibilants and vowels, and to add clicks and whistles. For his part he could rise to the surface and roll to one side so that one of his earholes was exposed to the air; and so she could speak to him. She told him her name, and he his, a rapid chatter she could not imitate. She instead thought of him as Akak, which to her sounded like the beginning of his name.

"Wha-at are you doing out here in the open sssea," Akak asked.

"I left my home, the city," Litha said, gesturing in its direction. "There is nothing there for me. I came to look for you."

"For me?" Akak seemed surprised.

"Well, not you, personally. I mean the Deep Dwellers, I came looking for them. For you and the deep."

"Can you sssurvive out here?" he asked with suspicion.

"I'd rather die than go back."

Akak thought about this. "It is dangerousss," he said after a while.

"I know. At first I thought you might be a shark."

Akak clicked very loudly at this, and she realized he was laughing.

"Was your mother a Deep Dweller," Litha asked, "or a Middle Dweller, like me?" "My mother and her mother and her mother were a-all Deep Dwellers," said Akak. "The mother before tha-at was like you." He splashed her with his hand and began to circle her again. "I know a sssafe cove on a small island I ca-an take you to," he said. "It will be sssafer for you there."

Litha lifted up her head to look around them. "Which island?"

"I will take you," Akak said, and he slid very close to her and put his arms around her. After a moment she put her arms around him and interlaced the tips of her fingers. With a flick of Akak's powerful tail they shot through the water. He pulled her along a few feet under the surface, about fifty yards at a time, then sprang out of the water so that she could take a deep breath before plunging back under. Litha had never traveled so fast in all her life. She felt both frightened and exhilarated all at once. Akak's body was strong and powerful and she thrilled to feel its muscles move so close to her. She had seen dolphins leaping out of the water once before and now she understood their joy. In a very short while they came around a small spit of gray sand and into a little cove where the water was blue and calm. Akak let go of Litha and, reluctantly, she loosened her grip on him and swam free.

Immediately Akak darted off. "Wait!" called Litha, but he was gone. She stared after him, then slowly swam to the shore and waded onto the beach. Above the tidal line coarse grass grew sparsely in the soil. A thin wind whipped around her. Litha began to feel just how tired she was. With a heavy tread she walked to the low crest of the dune that rose behind the cove, barely ten yards high. From it Litha scanned the horizon. She saw no sign of Akak, nor of the city either. Without the guidance of the sun she might not have known from which direction she had come.

The top of the dune was lonely and exposed. Litha crept back down to the water's edge. With the waves lapping at her legs she lay down, exhausted to the marrow of her body. She felt very hollow inside, but was too tired to care. The leaden blanket of sleep settled down on her; and she dreamed she was sleeping on a mat of sargasso and floating over oceans unknown.

She woke to the sound of splashing and felt water falling on her face. She sat up with a start. There was Akak, splashing her with his tail. In his mouth was a big thick fish still flopping weakly. Deftly he tossed the fish to Litha. "Hu-ungry?" he asked. The stabbing pains in Litha's stomach told her she was. Quickly she devoured the fish, tearing out mouthfuls with her sharp teeth. When it was half gone she looked up. Akak was staring at her intently, his head half out of the water. Litha furrowed her brow. "What are you looking at?"

Akak tossed his head. Litha took a few steps into the water. "Tell me," she said, "are you a Prince of the Deep?" He clicked at her, and she looked down at the half-eaten fish, feeling foolish. But she took another step towards him and he watched her very intently. There was a sleek beauty in his angled face and the dark golden orbs of his eyes, and in the grace and power of his body. "You are a Prince to me," she said, tossing the fish behind her onto the beach. She slid into the water and came to a stop less than two feet from his face. Gingerly she reached out and touched his face, his strange delphine face, with the tips of her fingers. "I have dreamed of meeting you," she said hoarsely, "a lord of the deep, free of the tyranny of land and of air. Do your kind think us Middle Dwellers as ugly, clumsy air-breathers...or have you, in your sunless kingdoms far under the plains of the sea, ever dreamed of having a girl like me?"

And she would have kissed him, but didn't know how; instead she slipped under the surface and his lithe arms came up and around her and she put her arms around him and with a beat of his tail he began to move forward. Litha pressed her body against his and he moved forward a little faster, rolling every once in a while to bring her to the surface for a breath. Water rushed by her and she felt giddy, drunk on speed, and she dug her knees into his sides, and he went faster still, leaping clear of the surface and plunging back in. She clung to him, the current tearing at her, he carried her and yet she had never felt so free. She wrapped her legs around his body and he entered her, pierced her and her heart and when he brought her to the surface she cried, "I love you!" As they sped through the water he sang to her an eerie, whistling song, and the current and the wind and his love roared in her ears, and the leaping wildness in her heart overtook her brain as this moment of mad love became her whole life; she forgot the city and its falling spires, and she forgot Tomba and Yara, and Unna and her parents too, and she forgot to breath but she didn't need air anymore, and she even forgot the water that surrounded them from horizon to horizon. In her world there was no water, no air, no land, only herself and Akak, and even the overpowering strength of his body faded from the distant shores of her perception, and her body, too, leaving only a shimmer in her memory. All that remained was his love. Then they slowed; her body returned, then his, then the world; and Akak leisurely carried her back to the cove, swimming upside with her resting on his belly up in the air. Dreamily Litha noticed the orange ball of the sun descending towards the horizon. At the cove Litha slipped from Akak's belly. He circled around her, then paused to face her. "I mussst go," he said.

The words hit her like a blow. "Go?" she said.

"I'll be ba-ack, in the morrrning," he said, then turned and swam away. Litha floated in the water for a few minutes, then staggered onto the beach. A feeling of foolishness thudded down on her. He probably had a lover, a partner, a family. She was just a dalliance, a day's entertainment to him, a bizarre sexual liaison. She would probably never see him again.

Dully she sat in the shallows and watched the fire of the sun sizzle on the horizon and go out. The sky pulled on its cloak of darkness and in the moonless night stars swarmed across the heavens. But they look cold and cheerless to Litha, and she cried until she fell asleep.




When Litha woke the sun had already risen far above the horizon; the tide was out and she was lying on dry sand. Litha sat up and stared down at the hard blue-gray surface of the sea. When she stood a light wind curled around her and her body was hollow, an empty cavity, and she was utterly alone. It could have been years since she had seen another person. She walked down the edge of the water and waded up to the waist. She slapped the surface and called out for Akak, but her voice was small and thin and the wind whisked it away.

As noon approached Litha's heart hardened. Why wait for Akak? He wasn't coming. She was a fool to even imagine he might. She clenched her jaw and with determination dove into the sea, swimming swiftly out of the cove. The water lifted her up and she was comforted, glad to leave behind that desolate little spit of sand and stubborn grass. Only in the bosom of the sea could true freedom be found. Litha swam without stopping for a couple of hours. She caught herself looking around for Akak and then forced herself to stop. Forget him, she told herself: he is nothing now, hardly even a memory.

But beneath that thought lay another one: out here is death. Not necessarily sharks; a Middle Dweller simply could not live in the solitude of the open ocean, and she had left behind the little chain of shoals and sandy islands where she might sleep and find shelter at night. She looked around, the wind blowing steadily in her face. Although her deepest desire had been to abjure the land, she could not live without it. So which would she abandon: land, or life? She did not consciously know; but when she began swimming again it was out to sea.

Her loneliness and the coldness of the sea numbed her for many more hours. But as the sun began to arc towards the horizon Litha was exhausted and now there was nothing but water all around her. She could not even turn back, for she would never be able to reach the shoal she had left, she would not even be able to find it in the great expanse of the ocean, and she would not last the night.

It was then that she spotted a black dot of an island.

Only it wasn't an island at all, she discovered as she swam towards it, but a ship. It took her a moment to recognize it as she had only seen ships before in pictures in mildewed books. It bobbed up and down on the waves, its sails furled like a cat curled upon itself and sleeping. She treaded water for a few long minutes from about a hundred feet off the port side. The decks appeared empty, the ship abandoned.

Litha was about to swim closer when one of the bundles of canvas high in the rigging unfolded itself and gave a shout; a moment later hatches slammed open and High Dwellers boiled onto the deck, clothed in canvas and oilcloth. Litha watched, entranced, for a moment, startled as she was by the novelty of seagoing High Dwellers; for in the city High Dwellers panicked if they fell from their rope bridges into the water, even if rescued immediately.

But quickly the sails unfurled and caught the wind and the black hull of the ship began cutting through the water, straight for her. Alarmed by the movement and the shouts on the ship, Litha she began swimming away. When the ship drew close a net splashed into the water only a few scant feet behind her. Litha turned at right angles and began swimming faster, even though the muscles in her arms and legs burned with exhaustion. The ship turned--she could hear the creak of the wood and rope--and followed her. Litha was a swift swimmer but no Deep Dweller: the ship was faster. Again and again the High Dwellers cast nets after her. She dove to avoid them, and kept changing direction, sometimes even swimming under the ship. Soon the sun kissed the edge of the horizon, so that the surface of the sea looked like hammered copper, and Litha hoped that she would be able to elude her pursuers in the dark.

But then, as she came up for a breath, a net of knotted ropes fell on her. She was dragged, sputtering and coughing salt water, from the sea.

Litha hung upside down for a moment, her limbs tangled in the net, and watched the sun slip behind the horizon, before thunking down unceremoniously on the ship's deck. All around her torches were lit until the ship was ablaze with firelight. She lay still, breathing hard. She saw the grain of the wood next to her face and the unreachable railing of the ship beyond which lay the sea and freedom.

Three of the High Dwellers came near her, although just out of reach, as if afraid she might lash out with teeth or claws. With the sun down they shed their hoods and cloaks of canvas and oilcloth, like snakes shedding their skins, although their faces were still slathered with opaque white paste. They spoke with a queer accent, so thick she could barely understand it; but she understood they were talking about her. "Ne'er caught a phib this here far out 'fore," said one.

"Let me go!" Litha said sharply; but the High Dwellers went on talking as if she had said nothing.

"A good catch, a good 'un," said another, "a good eat it'll be," and Litha's heart froze.

The three of them started to drag at the net and Litha screamed with fury and struck at them. They stepped back, startled, but she could barely move in the net, and a moment later the High Dwellers were back, hauling her across the deck. As she was dragged she could see other men take buckets of salt water and pour it over the heads, rinsing away the white paste to reveal their true faces.

A final yank pulled her over an edge and for a moment she was falling. Then with a splash she landed in an open hold, knee-deep in water. The fall knocked the wind out of her and bruised her right arm and shoulder. The lashings of the net tumbled down after her. The hold was six feet by six feet and would have been barely high enough to stand in, if she were not tangled in the net. As she struggled in the net a grill of iron bars was laid over the top of the hold, sealing her in. Her fingers clutching the net, Litha lay there and wept.




After a few hours Litha worked herself free of the net. She took inventory of herself, running slim fingers over skin and limbs, and found nothing broken. Throughout the night the men worked, fishing by torch-light and filling the holds around Litha with flopping, gasping fish. She could see the stars above through the grill, which she tested with her hands. It was lashed down tight. The air stank of dead and dying fish, choking Litha. Occasionally someone poured cold salt water on her, as if they thought her like a Deep Dweller. It was a comfort to her, even so, and she lay down in it and let its motherly embrace cover all her body but her neck and head. A few fish were tossed her way as well; her pride would have refused them but her hunger was stronger, and she devoured them greedily.

When the sky began to lighten, signaling the onset of dawn, the men drew in their nets and pulled decking over the holds, leaving Litha in complete darkness. Eventually the sounds of activity faded away; the ship was going to sleep with the coming of the sun. Litha herself, soothed by the dark and the quiet rocking of the ship, had fallen asleep, when a light woke her. She opened her eyes and saw a lantern-light above her. A High Dweller, a boy, held the lantern, kneeling on the grill to peer down at her. He crouched close, as the underside of the deck was only a few feet above the iron bars. The light and shadow from the swinging lantern played eerily on his face.

She considered the boy for a moment and said, "What do you want?"

The boy didn't answer but continued staring at her. Litha took a handful of water and threw it at him. He ducked and looked shocked. "What are you looking at!" she demanded. "Why won't you answer me?"

The boy blinked and said slowly, "Cause you not speaking, not like a man does, you's only an animal learned to make sounds like a man."

Litha laughed bitterly. "And who told you that?"

"Pa. Pa's the master of the ship."

"And why do you stare at me?"

"Cause. Cause I never 'fore seen me a phib, 'fore."

"You've never been to the city?"

The boy scowled. "No. We steer clear. An evil place, that is."

"So says your Pa?"

"Aye."

"And you believe everything your Pa says."

"Aye."

Litha slowly stood, never taking her gaze away from him. "And yet here you are, talking with me, even though I don't speak like a man, says your Pa."

The boy scowled again, and asked, "What do you taste like?"

Litha caught her breath and said hoarsely, "What?"

"What do you taste like? Your meat?"

"What are you going to do to me?"

"Eat you, I guess, like any fish. I never ate me any phib afore. Taste like fish or like seal?"

"I never eat people!"

"Didn't ask that. What do you taste like?"

Litha opened her mouth and then closed it. She trembled inside but kept her body still. She said harshly, "I am a person."

"Pa says---"

"What do you say? What do you see?"

Litha held up her arms so that he might see all of her in the lantern light. The boy looked on her for a long while. Then he turned his head and muttered something. "What? What did you say?" He looked at her, hard, but said nothing. Litha's heart skipped faster. She asked, "Why are you going to eat me?"

The boy said nothing but withdrew, taking the lantern-light with him. And once more she was in darkness.




Litha could tell when dusk came by the stumping of feet on the deck above her. Soon the decking was lifted again and torches lit; the men fished all night as the stars wheeled above them. More fish were thrown to Litha. These she ate listlessly, more out of boredom than hunger. The men called to each other and made coarse jokes as they poured blue-silver streams of fish into the holds. Litha lay in her cage, listening to the slosh of water and the creaking of wood and the thump-thump of the men above. She thought about dying, and of many other things as well.

That night the boy appeared again with the lantern. His eyes ate up the strangeness of her. Looking up Litha asked him, "When will you kill me?"

"When we a-come to harbor."

"When will that be?"

"Two days."

The ship rocked on in silence.

"My name is Litha. What's yours?"

"Zem," he murmured.

"My parents are like you," Litha said. "High Dwellers. Don't any of your people have children like me?" He nodded. "What happens to them?"

"We throw 'em into the sea," he said. "They's the curse of the sun."

"No, no," said Litha, "the world is changing, the waters are rising, the light of the sun is causing the Change in us that we might live better..."

"No," said Zem. "That's not what my Pa says."

"You believe your Pa?"

Zem withdrew his arm. "Aye. I do." He turned his head sharply, as if startled by a sound; he doused the light of the lantern, plunging Litha into darkness. She did not hear him leave, but she could feel the void and knew he was gone.

But the next day he was back.

"Why do you keep coming to me?" she asked Zem. When he didn't reply, Litha said, "Do you like looking at me?"

He nodded.

"Do you think I'm pretty?"

He hesitated, then nodded again.

Litha looked away, closing her eyes. She had thought about this all day. She had thought of her parents, and she had thought of Tomba, and how he had failed her. She had lost her buoy, her island in this world of change. She thought of Akak and wished he could come with an Army of the Deep to rescue her, but she could easily see these people would kill and eat Akak as readily as her. They had all come into her life and out of it again; she was alone on the wide plains of the sea. She opened her eyes and looked up at the boy.

"Would you like to touch me?" she asked softly.

When the boy did not answer, but continued staring, she said, "You've never touched a...phib, before, have you?"

He shook his head.

She stroked the fur of her arm, her belly and her breasts. "My fur is very soft...would you like to feel it?"

Wordlessly set the lantern down on top of the iron grill, then lay down and reached his arm through the bars to her. Litha stood up as tall as she could, but hand to bend over to avoid hitting her head. The boy gingerly touched the top of her head. Litha held still, and he stroked her shoulder and her arm. Then, following her example, he reached down and touched her breast.

After a few minutes Litha thought to herself, Only one more day. She looked up at him and said, "I can't hurt you. You're much bigger than I am. And your Pa would hurt me badly if I hurt you."

For a long, long time he stared at her. Litha stood motionless, waiting. Finally, the boy pushed the lantern to one side and clambered around the edge of the hold, unlashing the grill. Then he lifted it up and slipped into the hold with Litha. In the dim light that spilled over the edge of the hold she could see he was naked, his skin a pale pink, and she could see he was really a young man. Cautiously he came forward. He reached and gingerly touched her on the arm, tensed as if to fly away if she grabbed him. Litha held still, and he stroked the fur on her arm. Then, following her example, he touched the fur on her belly; and then her breast.

His finger found the slit where her nipples lay retracted and Litha breathed in sharply. "Do you remember my name, Zem?" she asked.

"Litha," he whispered.

"Have you ever been with a girl before, Zem?" she asked. "One of your kind?" "Once," he said dreamily, then gave her a sharp look. "Don't you tell my Pa, now. He'd thrash me."

"He wouldn't listen to me, I'm only an animal that imitates true men, don't you remember?"

"Aye," Zem said.

He had both his hands on her breasts now. "Let me touch you," Litha said, closing her eyes. She put her hand on his body and as she moved her hand over his smooth, hairless skin she put aside all thought of the rocking ship and the slosh of water and creak of wood, thinking instead of Tomba's warm lustful laugh and the heat of his body pressed into hers, and the intoxicating power and speed she felt with Akak. She guided Zem's hands between her legs and they knelt down in the water and she thought of Unna holding her when she was sick and as the boy pressed himself against her she would only let herself envision the city, defiant against the centuries of rising waves, and how magnificent and how sad it looked.

When it was over, when Zem stood up and backed away from her Litha opened her eyes again. She saw him standing naked in the corner, looking abashed; she saw again that he was little more than a boy on the threshold of manhood.

"Will you let them kill me?" she whispered.

He put his hands on the grill and pushed it up. "I must go now."

"When will we come to harbor?" she asked.

He glanced over his shoulder at her. "To-night, just afore dawn, if the wind will." She took a step towards him as he climbed out. "Don't let them kill me, Zem. Zem, remember, my name is Litha! I am human like you."

He looked down at her as he let down the iron bars and began lashing it again. His face was shadowed from the lantern-light so that she could not see it. "Not like me," he said, but his voice was knotted. Then he left, taking the lantern with him.




That night Litha heard the crew overhead; but the hatches remained closed and the crew caught no fish. She only heard the slap of canvas in the wind and the stomp of feet on wood. They must be heading back to harbor, Litha thought. She felt very heavy: in her stomach was a stone, her hands and feet were stones, the eyes in her head stones, round and heavy. And where her heart had been, a stone.

Oh, Tomba.

She dozed off, then suddenly sat up, startled. It was still dark, but she sensed a presence overhead. "Zem?" she whispered.

"'s past dawn," he whispered back. "Wind was 'gainst us. An hour or more to harbor. Pa sent most everyone to bunk, 'cept him and a few mates sailing the last league." Her stone ventricles gave a little squeeze.

"I can't reach you," he said. Litha stood and felt his hand groping through the bars to touch her face. Then his hand withdrew and she thought he was gone, but then she heard him moving around the grill. Unlashing it. And the slow grind as he pushed it aside. Above her, where the crossed iron bars had been, was an empty void.

In the dark his voice asked her, "You take me away?"

"To a kingdom under the sea, you mean?"

"Aye."

The water around her ankles and calves was cold. "Help me up, Zem," Litha said. She felt for his hand and grasping it she pulled herself out of the hold and onto the underdeck.

His hand slid around the back of her head and a moment later his warm lips kissed hers, clumsily. "Must be quiet," Zem said. He held her hand. With agonizing slowness they inched through the hold. Litha could see nothing. Her entire world was compressed into a band of darkness between two decks of rough wood, a space four feet high and in width a void as wide as the sea. Each time she banged her foot or shin against an object, she thought it was her death.

Zem stopped, and a crack of light appeared as he cautiously opened a hatch. Zem pulled himself up and out and Litha started climbing after him. The light of day blinded her. Then she blinked and saw a thumbnail sliver of a moon in the blue sky and off on the horizon dark clouds that promised rain.

"Here now!" someone called. The words hammered Litha's heart. Zem looked over one shoulder, and on the outskirts of Litha's fear came the thought that Zem was unprotected, wearing only breeches as direct sunlight fell on his naked skin. Then suddenly a sailor draped with oilcloth loomed in front of her. Terror sluiced through her, draining her limbs of all energy; but just beyond was the railing and the sparkling surface of the sea. "The phib!" cried the sailor, and hands like pincers grabbed Litha. She willed herself to struggle but she couldn't. Her legs filled with ice.

A moment later Zem grabbed the sailor from behind. The sailor roared. As the two High Dwellers bucked and wrestled, Litha wriggled from the sailor's grasp and stumbled to her knees. Shouts of alarm floated down from the rigging; answers rumbled up from below deck. Litha scrambled to her feet. She knew she should run straight to the railing and dive into the water, but instead she watched the sailor, cursing, bend his back and throw off Zem's grip; the boy staggered backwards, tottered at the railing, and tumbled into the sea.

"Zem!" cried a deep voice, plaintive and muffled behind a veil of canvas. Litha ran and dove over the railing into the water. Of Zem all she could see was a silvery trail of bubbles leading into the depths. He had sunk like a stone.

Litha swam away.

Men swarmed over the deck of the ship and leaned over the railing to stare into the sea. None jumped after Zem. Litha swam very quickly until the ship was just a blot bobbing up and down. She swam across the sea, alone. The water buoyed her up and the sun warmed her broad, fur-covered back as she swam into the eye of the new day. Litha thought maybe ahead she might find land or maybe rain to refresh her face but it didn't matter: land or sky or sea, it was all one to her now.



Copyright 1998 Calvin W. Johnson. Do not reproduce or quote in any form.

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