Annabel crossed the bridge over the canal, narrowly avoiding the splash from a couple of merboys wrestling in the water.
Lacuboys, not merboys, she corrected herself. A life time of pop culture was hard to ignore, but she did her best. There was no difference between the two, appearance-wise, no matter what Kyo said.
Kyo, not bothered by the icy water, dipped his head under and veered towards the boys. The black spine of his tail cut a trail behind him.
She stopped to wait for him, looking at the shop displays to pass time. One was decorated with red hearts and a sign that said ‘50% OFF VALENTINE’S GIFTS.’ It wasn’t long before water sloshed onto the pavement behind her and she turned to see Kyo with his arms folded on the curb.
“That wasn’t there last time. What does it mean?”
She couldn’t help but chuckle that she, of all people, was explaining this.
“It’s to celebrate…” she struggled to describe it in Wopobi, “attentiveness. At this time of year, people buy gifts to show appreciation for their partner. It’s to do with human… propagation.”
She winced. Let’s face it. It isn’t possible to explain love in a language created to arrange fishing laws.
“I understand.” Kyo said, and she knew he did. The words between them were limited, but they managed to make it work most days. Droplets and ice shards rained onto the pavement as he gestured at the window. “That one has a lacumaid on it.”
The card in question was captioned ‘We mermaid for each other.’
Annabel wasn’t sure whether that was culturally insensitive or not, but she didn’t like leaving Kyo out, so she explained the pun as best she could.
Kyo wrinkled in nose. “Mer… Humans don’t know the difference.” he smiled at her, “You know the difference.”
He widened his eyes, “Merfolk are…”
“Salty.” she muttered in English.
Kyo squirmed, making the high-pitched trill she’d learnt was laughter. Sometimes she wondered if the sound of English amused him more than the pun.
“That’s a beauty.”
Kyo passed her the bluegill through the yacht railing – It’s near 10 inches! Show off! – and smiled teasingly, “Enough to pay my debt?”
Annabel smiled. She will always be glad Kyo decided to steal fish from her.
Retrieving her fish scaler and knife from below deck, she scrapped off the scales, removed the head and guts, and cut off the tail and fins. She tossed these to Kyo, and smiled as she watched him tear into the fish with pointed teeth.
It amazed her how they could be together, as different as they were, while there were people in the world who couldn’t get on with those just like them. She’d learnt from Kyo that it wasn’t just humans who did that; there was some kind of history between the mer and the lacu that Kyo couldn’t explain. He was a little biased, the silly man.
Kyo’s eyes lifted to meet hers. He’d gnawed through to the milky pink of the fish skull. “What is it?”
She realised she’d been staring too long – by human standards – and looked away. “I was just thinking how different we are.”
Kyo didn’t say anything, and Annabel continued to make her piece of fish suitable for eating. True, we’re different, but that makes what we have much stronger.
At the roar of water spilling, she spun round. Kyo hoisted himself over the stern, taking half the lake onto the deck with him. Annabel jumped as the cold spray hit her, but laughed as Kyo struggled to get onboard. He wriggled, his tail like an anchor, and bared his teeth with effort.
“I hope you’re not this terrible when you go to…” She wrinkled her nose once again at the ugliness of Wopobi. “To propagate.”
As part of her college’s Culture Awareness curriculum, she’d learnt that the lacu reproduce by broadcast spawning. Every season, they crawl onto the land to find pools to leave sperm and eggs. While she was amazed that this was the reason the lacu had arms, everyone else was horrified that they didn’t have sex.
“It’s easier…to negotiate…a river bank.” At last, he flopped onto the deck, “Although….I’ve never tried…”
Annabel finished prepping the fish and put it inside the fish smoker. She nudged his tail with her foot, “Make space for me.”
He shifted an inch.
She huffed and lay down next to him. The water on the deck and Kyo’s skin quickly soaked into her clothes and she shuddered. Kyo curled around her, placing his arm across her waist.
The late winter sun was struggling with the transition to spring. Yesterday’s ice had melted, the sunlight was warm, but the wind and winter stung. Still, she didn’t want to move.
Lulled by the swaying of the yacht, she drifted in and out of slumber. Her feet brushed Kyo’s tail. It was dry. She tapped his arm, “Move. You’re drying out.”
He clicked unhappily.
She stood and went below deck to fetch a pail. She crossed the deck again, stepping over Kyo, and scooped up water. She flung it at Kyo.
Kyo screeched, flailing like an unearthed worm.
Laughing, she put the pail down and climbed down the ladder. The cold sucked the air out of her and she hesitated before she pushed off the stern, swimming backwards. Kyo slid into the water and was next to her in a second, baring his teeth. She massaged water up and down his arms and scowled when she saw sunburn, “Why did you come onto the deck?”
Kyo watched her hands.
When Kyo didn’t say anything straight away, she looked at his face. He was watching her hands. “I can’t explain it.”
“We’re too different.”
She opened her mouth to demand a proper answer, when Kyo sharply raised his head.
“Do you smell that?”
She didn’t make it back onto the yacht in time to save the fish.
“I brought something for you.”
She reached down between the railing and Kyo pressed something hard into her hand. Whatever it was, she brought it safely back through the railing before she opened her fist. It was a stone. A brown, wet stone with a bit of mud on it.
Kyo beamed, “It belongs in the celebration display.”
It took her a moment to realise he was talking about Valentine’s decorations they saw two days ago. The stone did look a little like a heart.
“You’re right.” she handed it back to him, and went to check the cables on the mast before she undocked.
Kyo was oddly quiet as she sailed to their usual skerry. At first, she thought he’d left her and her heart jolted, but he emerged from the water when she finishing tying up her yacht, “Tell me more about the celebration.”
Here we go again. Like a certain famous mermaid, Kyo couldn’t be steered from something that caught his curiosity.
“I don’t think I’m the best person to explain this. I’ve never celebrated it.” At Kyo’s curious tilt, she added, “It’s not for me.” She realised there was a double-meaning if she said that phrase in English, but in Wobopi it could only be taken one way.
“You’re not supposed to celebrate it.”
“I don’t feel excluded, I’m just not interested.” she corrected quickly, “But I’m…” She wanted to say she was open to it, but the closest Wobopi equivalent was I am willing to negotiate.
Kyo’s eyes were piercing.
She sat, slotting her legs between the railing and resting her chin on the bar. She felt like she was sixteen again, before she found the word asexual, with no words to explain what she feels.
“I can’t explain it.” Her gut twisted at the familiarity of the words, and she gawped at Kyo. “Is that what you meant before?
Kyo reached up and brushed her knee with his thumb, “I’ve been trying to tell you something, but there aren’t words in this artificial language for what I want to say.” he bared his teeth, “If you were lacu, we’d talk with pulses and shape and smell. All things you can’t understand.”
“I’ve been searching for a way you can understand.” He looked at his palm, where the heart-shaped stone lay. His eyes met hers, “I am attentive of you.”
Annabel’s heart leapt. Was Kyo trying to say what she so desperately wanted him to?
He looked away, “Maybe you should be with someone more compatible.”
There was so much she couldn’t say, but suddenly she found the right words. Truthful, accurate, perfect words.
“We are compatible.”