Fiction: Different Creatures
By Oli Court
The sand blocks my route back home. My body’s free movement, stolen away. Stranded upon these tide-worn rocks in a smuggler’s cove, my ancestors may have been helpless. Many a droll has been bandied about of the inconvenient selkie, washed up ashore, and the kind man who will carry her back to sea. An eternal accord forged between man and woman, related through folklore, entrenched into our every action. My kind man must be on his way to finding me, ensnared by my charms,becoming spellbound. Yet still, he will end up cursing me when my longing for true connection leads him closer to something truly beautiful than he ever wanted to get. Three wishes and protection of the land, the permanence of what is already known and understood by man, that is all he desires. What lies beyond, what could ever be, is to be feared, damned, thrown back where it came from. Thrown back into the water, and my home.
That’s what I desire.
So, this is my song to escape the cycle. My death-marked song of seduction, to lure the male hero and save me, through his resistance, and my end. My destructive force, so dangerous, it must go unspoken. My song’s verses, stolen away. My ancestors’ stories told and retold, but never from below, or above. Only ever from land, from the perspective of those with two tails.
With this song, I leave that all behind. The past cannot take me back home. Only my body has that power now. With this song, I will fly.
For under the sea, we become different creatures. Our upright bodies, with their worn out, trudging patterns of movement - they transform. Jump into the nearest body of water to where you live, whether it be the height of summer or the bitterest winter morning, and you'll discover an energy dwelling inside of you, buzzing around, desperate to burst out, to guide you and your limbs in new movement. A released entity that shouts 'Freedom!' through your synapses, that charges the electric volts hurtling around inside of you, snapping into life the moment that splash engulfs your eardrums and takes you into this other world, where movement goes unrestricted, where you can dig down as deep as you like and keep discovering more and more, and there's no authority that can ever stop the march of your irreproachable curiosity.
It's under the sea where my body discovered flight. Where my limbs learned of their true potential. Where the axis of motion became unbound in my mind. Under the sea, there's all sorts of creatures that you believed could only ever exist in your dreams.
Off the coast of Tulum, lined by ancient Mayan ruins and sheer cliffs, that was where I first met them. From the top of a sheer cliff, I plunged into a secret little cove carved out by the surf, the natural sculptor.
I want to say I flew, but my wings were still restrained.
There, on the Yucatan Peninsula, my days could have been spent wrestling with kraken and megalodon against crashing waves and booming thunderstorms, returning ocean bounty to port ahead of nights filled by sea shanties and rum-infused revelry with gallant seafarers in tri-corner hats. But something was changing within me, those nights under the sea of stars above Quintana Roo. My body pulled in opposite directions, tornbetween conquering the waves and embracing whatever loomed beneath them.
That instinct for conquest came from my family. For my father, the captain, it was always about family. From the moment my brother, the angler, could walk upright without an adult's arms outstretched, prepared to catch his fall, the three of us were fishing together. No. They were fishing together, building their legacy, pre-ordained to subjugate the citizens of the sea and claim Mayan treasure in the form of competition trophies. Gaudy silver sculptures of leaping sharks, hooked to the end of a fishing line. If not for the voice I heard deep within me as a young child, that burgeoned as I grew and became my own, I could have ended up just like the captain and the angler.
Juliana Berners, my guide, my voice. A writer and hunter, who let no-one hold her back. Dame Juliana held my hand as I toddled down the banks of the River Itchen. The captain and the angler ignored me, but they never knew I had Berners’ voice engulfing my spirit, teaching my body the innate senses of the catch and the kill. Whispering her Treatise to me, Berners’ gave me the courage to chase adventure. Her assessment of my family’s business – ‘the sport and game of angling is the best means and cause that brings a man into a merry spirit’ – good for the mind, body, and soul. Berners gave me the words I needed to grow, but trailing in the wake of the captain and the angler limited me. Our family legacy had to become evergreater. Berners’ voice, as though my own, warned against it - 'you must not use this aforesaid artful sport for covetousness to increasing or saving of your money only, but principally for your solace and to promote the health of your body and specially of your soul’ - but back then, I never headed my own voice. My body only moved to the commands of the captain and the angler. They led me, from the shadows of Loch Leven Castle, to the grubby old boats departing Padstow Harbour and sailing out into the waters beyond the River Camel, to our family’s destiny aboard the championship fishing vessel, the Mother I never had, on which we won our Mayan treasure.
On the good ship Mother, I was but a humble mate, just a helping hand towards the inter-generational glory of the captain and the angler, mere witness, as they sped towards their destiny as champions of the world, together. But under the sea, we discover what makes us different.
The intoxicating pursuit of bigger, larger, heavier, another framed photo posing with the catch nailed up on the walls of our home. My family’s legacy. The treasure trove of past glories. It's time to discard it all. The future is where to find strength. My body flies free now. The sand banks and rocky shores between me and home pose no obstruction after meeting those creatures in the Caribbean Sea.
'For when you propose to go on your sports in fishing, you will not desire greatly many persons with you, which might hinder in letting you at your game.' Berners joined me on the cliff, right before I jumped. She knew not to hold my hand then. She knew not to stunt my growth. Embracing me just for a breath, Juliana shared one last gift of knowledge: 'if a man wishes ever more to have merry thoughts and be happy, he must avoid all quarrelsome company and all places of debate, where he might have any causes to be upset.' She had been there for me for as long as I knew the water’s surface, but it was the monster underneath that I needed to meet. The voice I needed to sing with was down below.
As difficult as it is, we must understand when to stand back and let someone fly.
It’s a different world down there, so breathe with me.
Here comes the plunge.
You’re in control now.
The water caresses our skin, a natural compass in conversation with our bodies, showing which way to dance within its embrace, which way to surge forward through the turbulence and end up exactly where we need to be. The best place to explore, to discover, to learn more about the alchemy that makes up every little bit of us. Do you hear it? That song. The water encourages me to dance. The water lets me know I'm okay. The quiet. The calm. The solitude. Under the sea, the creatures hear your true voice.
Their knowledge is boundless. Those different creatures have learned of every culture beyond their own, have overheard every folk tale, because they’re free to move as they wish, travel as wide as their bodies can take them. Understanding blooms in the deep waters, where curiosity cannot be contained. My song was written in the voice of these creatures. Creatures eager to share, me eager to listen.
My song was written by Mami Wata and her serpent. She told me of her worshippers, who judged the value of their lives by the favours she bestowed upon them. They praised her and spurned her in the same prayer. She was an evil spirit. She was a seductress. She was irresistible.
Mami Wata never got to tell her story to the land. Her song, as she experienced it. But among different creatures, she is free to speak her truth.
My song was written by Morvenna, washed up on the Cornish shore. She told me of the Man of Cury, rescuing her from low tide, carrying her back to the sea. A man who acted for nothing but the protection of his neighbours, his community. Who refused to become ensnared by her sultry charms, flashed his blade at her, forced her to flee.
Morvenna’s story is never told through her eyes. Her song never passes the lips of the droll tellers. But among different creatures, she realised she is not alone.
My song was written by The Lorelei, perched high above the Rhine. She told me of the boats she dashed upon the rocks beneath her. The boatmen, so entranced by her beauty, they could not help but gaze up and be swept away. The only man she ever let come close to her, now a skeleton in her lair.
The Lorelei was never asked how she felt. Her song never reached the ears that wanted to hear it. But among different creatures, she doesn’t have to blame herself.
Each thought they had found true connection with man, but each encounter led to nothing but a painful castigation, an exile from a realm which we could never belong in. But in our castles of pearl and coral, built on the seabed, we exchange gifts of worldly observations. We tell the stories we have collected. Under the sea, among the women who transformed me, I realised that my siren song was not a danger. My voice only hurt men seeking to bury their own past, to use me to rebuild themselves. Down at the bottom of the ocean, I learned how to celebrate my tail like a selkie and spread my wings like a siren. To transcend all expectations.
If you’re looking for an account of what happened that summeroff the Yucatan coast, you won’t find the truth above the waterline. You won’t find any evidence that I was ever even there. But consider the dark shadow, stalking around beneath the waterline. The monstrous, looming presence, unseen, but always known. Feel the sweat rolling down your skin as you shiver.
Once you've reached that point, when you're way out there, all at sea, with no land on the horizon in any direction, there is no escape. There is nothing to do but your job. There is no inspiration, no conversation, no matter which way you turn to dance. But there is still a choice. You can stay and do your familial duty, beneath the command of the angler and the captain. Or you can stand up, walk to the end of the deck, hold your breath, and reach out to the future, above and below. Throw yourself overboard, down under the sea, to find the creatures you never knew existed. Dive deeper, deeper, into the darkest corners of the ocean, and discover who you really are, what really inspires you, what kind of life you want to lead. Fly higher, higher, and move your body in undiscovered patterns, express the feelings that words cannot define.
Then, rise, the giant creeping shadow below the waterline. Become the monster they hoped they'd never have to face, the attacker that never arrived, because it was always you, you, with the most potential of anyone. With no expectations, no mould to fit into, no hierarchy, no patriarch to spend your whole life trying to impress. It was you, the witness, the tag-along, the good, willing shipmate, you were always the one who could truly change the world. While the angler and his captain conquered their prey, you learned how they swam. You saw those creatures curl up in fear of the world, and dance in celebration when they found protection in each other’s wisdom.While captain and angler gazed at their warped reflections in their prized silver shark trophy, you discovered the vibrant palette of sensations this world has to offer. Stand on the beach and feel the surf lapping against your skin. Hear those soft waves break, retreat, return, the lungs of the moon and the sun.Taste the earthy tones of the dark rum of Quintana Roo andglimpse those monstrous fins and tails breaking the waterline. Smell the same blood they do and paint the emotions your senses bring forth.
Paint that silver shark surfing a holy wave, cascading down upon the Mother against a mighty thunderstorm. You painted those leaders of men crashing overboard, into a nightmare black sea. You painted yourself, your mighty, naked body, riding that shark, commanding it to point its laser beam eyes straight into the captain's hull, the debris from the blast scattering into the storm.
You swam through harsher storms than those you painted, though. You rescued many a seafarer from being swallowed up by the sea. Your limbs grew ever more powerful. Your inspiration swelled. Aware of your true power, you morphed bodies between sea, land, and sky, unrestrained by any reality you were ever bound by.
Back on land, you met men and women with remarkable stories to tell. Whether under the sea, or in the RNLI lifeboat station at Lizard Point, the receiving of wisdom and guidance was always appreciated. You found the men and women eager to share, and you were eager to listen. When they said that you can be anything you want to be, they were right.
The woman who had lived as one with the sea, who knew the songs of the spurned creatures, she said, 'You've lived an astonishing life already, Pet. It's your gift to share with the world.'
The man, not trying to save me or claim my story, but hearing the potential of my song, he said: 'Go find where you belong. You can go as far as you want. There's no doubt about that.'
And Dame Juliana came back, not as a teacher, not as a hunter, but simply as a woman who found her own voice, too. Though we had been apart, we had each discovered so much about our world. So, we embraced, and became one again, as she cradled my head in her arms: 'a good spirit makes a flowering age, that is, a happy age and a long one.'
Just as Juliana and I share a voice, now I grant my song to you. You, who are stranded on this rock with me, the tide drawn out, the true potential of our bodies stolen from us. My song is your song, and with it, you can write your own future. You can find a place of your own in this world, where you never have to feel threatened or inferior ever again. You can transform. You can fly back to the sea, or to wherever your body needs to be. This is our truth and our power. This is the strength of our spirit.
Under the sea, we become different creatures. I just needed to meet the right people and receive their stories. Their gift to me was bravery. The bravery to dive in and swim. To use all my strength, knowledge, and inspiration to create something wonderful. That's why I moved to the seaside city. To share my life with the other brave souls who transformed under the sea, who became the creatures they needed to be.
Oli Court is a writer from Brighton, UK. His fiction is featured in Misery Tourism, The Cabinet of Heed, andPortmanteau.