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Free Fiction Friday: “The Shallows”

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As with anyone who has the compulsion to write, I have heaps of stories in notebooks and on my computer that don’t quite fit in with any commercial market, not even token ones. And yet it seems wrong to let them molder in the dusty corners of my hard drive.  For Free Fiction Fridays, I’ll be salvaging some of my trunk stories plus current results of some of my more successful writing exercises.  

Mostly, it’ll be raw and rough.

This one got generated on day 25 of the May Story-A-Day challenge over in the forums of Absolute Write.  As my prompt, I used a call for submissions to an ocean-themed anthology and “The Shallows” was the result.

The Shallows

The day her gill slits opened, you couldn’t get her out of the water.  Shelis cavorted in the shallows like a chippi whelp, the last of her clutch to get them.  She spent hours lurking, seagator-like eyes at the surface.  Cool liquid shuddered through her, bypassing her juvenile air sack.  To finally be sucking seawater—she shivered with joy.  

She teased the depths, but her skin was yet too thin and eye-film yet to develop for at-depth pressures.  Her clutch-mates taunted that she wouldn’t mature in time for the Dive.  The sun glittered the sea to turquoise.  The shallows swirled with summer life: rainbows banner eels, metallic ripple rays, glassy-finned fish.  Warm-blooded sapas cavorted with the clutch-mates, their yelps entwined with the youth’s laughter.  Shelis played seagator, just happy to watch.  The storms seemed a million years away.      

Yet, the surface storms were coming, seasonal storms that gouged great canyons in the sea.  The only safety could be found in the depths, the vast trenches.  The elders fretted that Shelis wouldn’t make it.  They steeled themselves against it as they had every Dive and every time they crossed the Chasm of Lamentations.  They smiled at the antics of the recent clutch, stayed quiet when the youngsters queried about their stunted sibling.

When the tides turned and the Pod embarked with the new generation, Shelis tried to follow.  But the depths chilled her immature skin.  She labored to close her lung-like air bladder and let the gills do all the work.  The film over her eyes had not congealed enough for depth.  So many signals of not ready, not matured, not of the Pod.

There was nothing that could be done for her.  The Pod kept swimming, kept diving.  Her clutch-mates might have spared a worried thought for her, but they had their own struggles, pushing past their endurance to keep up with the rest of the Pod.

Shelis twisted, kicked her webbed feet, kicked against the agony.  Her head throbbed.  Her torso cramped.  She pinged out to the Pod, but couldn’t fix a direction or focus coherence though all the pain.  The current dissolved her cries.

The Chasm of Lamentations, the chasm of the dead, the limit for the undeveloped.  It wasn’t exactly a chasm.  It was an underwater gradient that preserved the ones who couldn’t make it.  There they stayed, petrified by cold and pressure with the remains of the summer creatures blasted by the storms.  The Pod lost at least one per Dive.

An instinct stronger than self-preservation drove Shelis into the Dive.  All she knew was that she had to stay with the Pod.  She had to Dive.  She couldn’t exist as a single entity.  The storms were worse than death.  She pushed and she would keep pushing until the Chasm would swallow her too.

Up ahead, the silhouettes of her people.  Were they waiting for her?  Hope slipped through the pain.  No, not waiting.  She didn’t recognize the shapes: long torsos coiled in agony, webbing shredded like battered sails.  Even in the murk, she could see the glint of their bubble eyes staring death in the throat.  A field of watery death.  Her place among them awaited, part of her knew she couldn’t go deeper, but she couldn’t tell her muscles to stop.  

Then she was swept into a nautilus swarm.  Swollen sunburst shells battered her, shells big enough to house her were they empty.  Disgruntled yellow eyes glared out at her through the mantled fringes.  Their furious siphoning propelled her upward through their numbers.

Breaking the surface broke her drive.  The sun danced on the waters in deceptive shimmers.  Even in her juvenile state, she could feel danger thrumming in the air.  The storms are coming, it hummed.  

The storms are coming.  Every sea creature sensed the silent siren, it reverberated in her blood.  A primal fear older than death quickened her blood.  But Shelis bobbed on the surface.  Her limbs as useless as seaweed. The current pulled her back to the shallows of her birth.

The patter on her face awakened Shelis.  Black clouds brewed from the sky.  Azure peace fled, retreated to the depths.  The shallows had become a treacherous place.  The waves reared up and pounded into the once protective shoals, the rocky barrier now grinding teeth.  She knew the remaining scraps of land offered no safety, even could she strip the webbing and run.  In the storms, the islands were anvils for the dual hammer of wave and wind.  Any creature scrambling across the flat of it shattered.  The fragments of bones of such animals adorned her hair and draped around her neck.

Shelis willed her shredded muscles to carry her out to the open sea if not to the depths, but it seemed every tide and current sought to wreck her upon the atolls and reefs of the shallows.  The summer fauna fared no better.  Bright slips of dead fish tumbled like autumn leaves in a hurricane.  

Whose necklace would her bones make?

Thunder assaulted the air.  Wind howled, waves roared.  

The flow dragged her past ancient reefs, sheared skin at the slightest brush.  She tore her hands trying to push past them.  The ebb never came.  Lightning singed the clouds, purple nets of electricity that descended upon the hilly surge.  Wind slashed the sea to the bottom and the surge collapsed back in on itself.  For every gain Shelis made, the walls of water slammed her back.  Reefs cracked in the onslaught.  

Shelis couldn’t find her way.  No stillness, not even close to the ground with the cleaving gusts and the collapsing walls tumbling her.  She flailed in the foam and churning gravel.  Her hands found a flat smooth stone, her fingers curled around its ridge.  An anchor in the maelstrom.  Her gills labored around the sand alternating with gasping of her unclosed lungs.

The stone shifted and swam, carried by the clawing currents.  The stone maneuvered against the pull, and dropped into a slow gyre while the waters raged around her.  Shelis dropped with it.

Not a stone.  The huge sea turtle sank under the slam of water walls, a slow persistence that moved out of the teeth of the land.  Out to the wilderness of the open sea.  Together they rode the collapsing canyons.  She learned by touch how to navigate the chaos, the cues in the water that told her when to swim and when to drift, when to be a seagator and when to duck under.  How to live in a world of constant change. Like a sea turtle.

When the Pod returned to the shallows for the new breeding cycle, Shelis was there to welcome them back.  And when the tides voided and they headed for the trenches, Shelis watched them go.  It didn’t bother her that she was no longer part of the Pod.  She had passed through the Chasm and out the other side, shedding the instinct to Dive.  She trailed them with her new sisters, ready to intervene in case one of the Pod juveniles couldn’t make it.

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