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. Anyway, it was impossible to tell the difference between a mer and a lacu just by looking, no matter what Kyo said.
Kyo, not bothered by the icy water, dipped his head under and veered towards the boys. His spiny dorsal fin cut a trail behind him. Kyo wasn’t his real name but it suited him.
Annabel looked at the shops while she waited for him. In one of the windows, a sign said ‘50% OFF VALENTINE’S GIFTS’ above a display of red hearts and cards.
Water sloshed onto the pavement and she turned as Kyo folded his arms on the curb, “That wasn’t there last time we came through here. 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.
Droplets and ice shards rained onto the pavement as Kyo gestured at the window. “That one has a lacumaid on it.”
The card he was pointing at said ‘We mermaid for each other.’ She wasn’t sure if that was racist, but she didn’t want Kyo to feel left out and explained the pun the best she could.
Kyo wrinkled in nose. “Mermaid… Humans don’t know the difference.” he widened his eyes,”You know the difference. Merfolk are…”
Annabel sighed. They wouldn’t move until she said it.
“Salty.” she muttered in English, “Merfolk are salty.”
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, though she missed having an excuse to buy new barbed hooks.
She prepped the fish, scrapping off the scales and removing the head, guts, the tail and fins. She tossed these to Kyo, and smiled as she watched him tear into them with his 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. There was too much tension in the world for her liking. Mer sank ships hundreds of years ago and the lacu were responsible for every story about monsters in lakes, but she wasn’t losing sleep over it.
Kyo’s eyes lifted to meet hers, white flesh hanging from between his teeth, “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 prepping the fish. True, we’re different, but that makes what we have stronger.
A sudden roar broke the peaceful silence. 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 on board. He wriggled, his tail anchoring him, 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 like an overgrown slug.
Annabel put the fish inside the smoker and nudged Kyo’s tail with her sandal, “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 stung. Still, she didn’t want to move.
Lulled by the swaying of the yacht, she drifted in and out of slumber. Dry scales scratched her as her feet brushed Kyo’s tail. She tapped his arm, “You’re drying out.”
He clicked unhappily and pressed his nose against the back of her neck.
She untangled his arms from her waist and went below deck to fetch a pail. Stepping over him, she climbed down the steps at the stern. The cold water sucked the air out of her and she shuddered.
Kyo had his eyes closed, “Perhaps I should move this vehicle and you swim to land?”
“I cannot accept that arrangement.” She filled the pail and flung the contents at him.
Kyo screeched, flailing like an unearthed worm.
Laughing, she put the pail down and 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?”
He watched her hands. “I can’t explain it.”
She tried not to show her frustration at such a dismissive answer. Wopobi was a limited language, based on the few sounds both of their species could make. This wasn’t the time time either of them had struggled to communicate, and she didn’t want him to clamp up completely.
“Is there some way you can phrase it -?”
“We’re too different.”
Her heart stung, but before she could say anything Kyo sharply raised his head, “Do you smell that?”
She spent the next thirty minutes scraping black and hardened lumps off her fish.
“I brought something for you.” Kyo pressed something hard into her hand. Whatever it was, she brought it through the railing onto the safety of the deck before she risked opening her fist. It was a stone, slick with algae and smelling far from pleasant.
Kyo beamed, “It belongs in the celebration display.”
It took her a second to realise he was talking about Valentine 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.
She sailed to their usual skerry. Her scarf wrapped around her nose and mouth barely protected against the wind’s bite.
Kyo usually raced her, but she couldn’t see him. Had he bumped into another lacu? She couldn’t hear his trilling. Her heart felt tight and she considered turning off the engine and looking for him when she spotted his spiny fin slicing the water ahead of her.
She was tying her yacht at the skerry when he drifted next to her. “Tell me more about the celebration.”
“I’m not the best person to explain it. 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.
“It’s not meant for you.” he scowled, “You’re not supposed to celebrate it.”
“I’m not 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, wondering why all her friends had thoughts and feelings she didn’t, with no words to explain herself.
“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.”
Her 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.”