The tree stands away from the shore, amid wild grasses and abandoned sand-burrows. Untouched by water, the sand here is white and hot. I have to wear shoes simply to stand on it.
The tree gives me things. Clothing, food, jewelry, books. It gave me these shoes. It doesn’t ask what I need or what I want; it assumes. If I don’t visit for a while, I’ll come back to find crumpled silks around the roots and the remains of fruits and cakes scavenged by birds. Sometimes, rarely, a bird comes to sit in the tree and looks at me with my father’s eyes.
When I was born my father built a house, not with magic but with his hands. He made it from bags of sand, stuck together and insulated with mud, then covered with sealskin. At high tide the sea came right up to the door; sometimes it brought my mother with it. She was still female, then, Eiryn of the Mergyndr.
My father, Idris, came from a line of enchanters in which all the firstborn were sons. I was not a son: I broke the line. The magic would be lost. Still, my parents loved me. They called me Lotl, a name not Mer or human, and raised me between worlds on the border of the sea.
I used to play knee-deep in the freezing gray water while my father sat on the rocks reading. His feet were bare and his long beard rippled in the wind. Sometimes I’d stop splashing and shrieking long enough to hear one of the spells he muttered to himself compulsively. My mother would surface in the distance, wave to me, and at sunset her shoal would lie in the strange light on a nearby island and sing. We’d listen to them, my father and I. Once when I was about five, I said, “They’re singing to me!” He shook his head. “The mergyndr sing for each other, no one else.”
“But I’m half mergynd,” I said. He only shook his head again.
When I was eleven, fish started dying. No one knew why. Perhaps it had something to do with the huge metal ships that sailed past, dumping trash and spilling oil into the water. In any case, it caused a famine, and some desperate sharks attacked the mergyndr. Several males in my mother’s shoal were killed, so she, along with three or four other mature females, filled the void. Her tail turned from white to black and silver, her shoulders broadened, and she became Eirynd.
My father was angry, but most of all he was embarrassed. “How could you?” he demanded. “How could you do it?”
“You knew this would happen,” said Eirynd. “It’s our way.”
“There are other females,” said Idris. “You could have stayed a woman, for my sake.”
“I’ve never been a woman,” said Eirynd sharply, “any more than I’m a man now. If you thought otherwise, then you deceived yourself.”
“And what about Lotl? She’s to have two fathers and no mother?”
“Like every mergynd that ever lived,” retorted Eirynd. “I’m still her mother in every way that matters. She had my milk when she was young. She doesn’t need it now.”
Idris looked at me. It was night, and the moon shone on his hair, leaving his face dark. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me with love or disgust. “I guess she doesn’t need me either,” he said. Early in the morning, he packed his books and left.
Eirynd was furious. “This is a human practice,” he said, “to abandon one’s offspring. A mergynd who did this would be abandoned in turn by the shoal, given up to sharks. But human men don’t think they need shoals to protect them … that’s the problem.”
At Eirynd’s request, the mergynd enchanter sent gulls inland as spies. Idris, we learned, had consulted with a mage. The question? Whether a half-breed daughter really counted as a firstborn. The mage said that it didn’t. If Idris married a human woman, he would have a son to carry on the magic. I might as well not exist.
I asked Eirynd if that was true. “I don’t know,” he said. “I know very little about human magic. Possibly it molds to human prejudice.”
One month after his departure, my father came back. I hugged him, crying, but he hadn’t come to stay. He’d come to plant a seedling.
Silent, numb, I watched him dig up the soft white sand. “Come on, Lotl,” he said with a smile, “help me.” I shook my head. He unbound the seedling’s roots and lowered it gently into the hole. “This tree carries an enchantment,” he said. “It will look after you, provide whatever you need.”
“Have you found a new family yet?” I said.
Idris sighed and looked so pitiable that I wanted to forgive him. But by the time I located the seed of forgiveness, he was gone.
“Papa, how many people can have the magic at one time?”
“Only one. When the son, the eldest, understands how to use it, his father simply forgets.”
“How old were you when you got it?”
“About seventeen. My father was younger.”
“How do you learn to use it?” I was at the age when one can’t stop asking questions.
“A need arises,” said Idris, “for which no one can provide.”
I kept asking, but that’s all he would say.
It’s said that the progeny of a human and a mergynd are sterile, but apparently that’s only true when they pair with humans. When I was nineteen, I paired with a mergynd and gave birth to his daughter. The sea owned three quarters of her; we gave her the mername Aniryn. Eirynd’s shoal raised her in the water, bringing her to me every two hours at first so that I could nurse her. I’d watch her white pearlescent tail twitch rhythmically as she suckled to sleep, and envy tinged the joy I took in the simplicity of her belonging. Motherhood had not blotted out my need to be someone’s child.
By that time, my father had remarried. The gulls reported that he had two children with his new wife: first a son, as the mage had promised, then a girl a little older than Aniryn. He knew about Aniryn’s birth, because when I went to the tree I’d find a ball, a teething ring made of wood and leather, a miniature silver spoon. Sometimes I passed the things on to her. Sometimes I just threw them in the sea.
One noon while I was gathering foodstuffs from the tree – bread, apples, cheese, a bottle of port, a ham – a skua settled on one of the branches. It looked straight down at me, as animals do when they’re under an enchantment. I looked straight back.
“Why haven’t you come to see Aniryn?” I demanded.
“I’ve been watching her,” said the bird.
“But not in person,” I said. “You haven’t held her, played with her …. She doesn’t even know who you are.”
“Do you want me to come?”
“Very well,” said the bird and flew away.
Not long after that he trudged alone down the bleak hillside, aided by a staff. “Arthritis,” he said when he saw me looking at it. He slept in his old bed in the sealskin house; I’d never had a reason to move it. At dawn we went down to the water. I called and Aniryn came on her own, a strong swimmer already.
She showed Idris how she could dive and somersault and hold her breath for long periods underwater. She flopped down on the sand and he ran my old abalone comb through her short, frizzy hair as it dried. I saw how taken he was with her, with her amber eyes and her laugh. But sometimes his look lingered on the little slits and arches at the sides of her neck. Vestigial of course – like dolphins, mergyndr use lungs to breathe – but a reminder of her otherness. I touched the gills on my own neck nervously.
Before he left he sat in the kitchen he’d built, drank the port he’d sent me, and told me about his new children. The boy was nearly seven, funny, good at sports. The girl was blond and given to charming mispronunciations. Although he described them in great detail, it didn’t seem to me that either of them were particularly unusual; later, I realized that was the point.
I listened quietly, waiting for him to mention Aniryn. It seemed as if he’d already forgotten her. His body was in my kitchen, but he was less present than when he borrowed a skua’s body to watch me. His thoughts had already returned to his other life where things were simple, comfortable, human.
At daybreak I lie in the dark, unable to go back to sleep. My legs itch badly; the scales are starting to peel. I walk down to the water, wade into rose-colored light up to my waist. The first sting of saltwater on flaking skin is quickly followed by relief.
A jellyfish’s luminous transparency drifts by beneath a reflected cloud. Seal heads silently appear and disappear on the water’s surface. The morning is quiet but not still. I know they’re out there: Eirynd, Neruynd, Aniryn. I start swimming … but before I’m halfway to the island, my legs are jelly, my lungs ache. My whole body is weak, inefficient, human. I have just enough strength to get back to the shore.
I sprawl face down on the wet sand, panting in a familiar puddle of loneliness and disappointment.
My father came back without my asking, but this time he wasn’t alone. His wife wanted to meet me. When I saw her coming, I hunted in my clothes-chest for a scarf to wrap around my neck.
Blodwen was not what I’d expected. She was plump and pretty, with callused hands and muscular arms from working on farms all her life. She was knowledgeable about weather patterns and livestock; she was also an encyclopedia of human social norms and customs, most of which seemed to me completely arbitrary. She insisted on sleeping with me instead of in Idris’s bed. I appealed to him with a look, but he only shrugged.
The children had never seen an ocean before. It was low tide, and they were fascinated by the exposed tidepools. Gwilym was seven, Fflur was four. I watched them play together, their fine hair rippling in the wind, blinking spray out of their sea-colored eyes. Nearby Aniryn played with Idris, and I saw the human children throwing glances at her, suspicious and curious.
Blodwen asked me questions. How old was I? Did I see much of my mother’s family? (She hesitated over the word “mother.”) Was I good at swimming? What did I do all day? Could I read and write? Was I married to Aniryn’s father? Evidently Idris hadn’t told her much.
“Neruynd was my best friend growing up,” I told her.
“Ah,” she said. “But … he would have been a girl back then, isn’t that right?”
“And now you have a child together. But you’re not married?”
I tried to explain that mergyndr pair monogamously but don’t have an additional ceremony for marriage. I could tell that she was trying not to let her feelings on the matter show.
“I’m the village matchmaker,” said Blodwen. “Did Idris tell you that? Making marriages is my true passion.” She smiled broadly. “I could set you up with a nice young man from our village.”
“I’m not like Idris,” I said coldly. “I honor my pairing. I won’t go running off to some inlander just because Neruynd is tethered to the sea.”
I could see that I’d hurt her, and I regretted my words. To soften them, I pulled my skirt up a little. “Besides,” I said, “I’m tethered, too. If my legs aren’t in saltwater for half the day, they dry out, the scales shed and bleed …”
I stopped abruptly. She was staring in horror at the pearly enamel on my leg, at the small gaps where skin showed through. Her horror gave me an unfamiliar, perverse pleasure. I pulled off my scarf to show my slitted neck. “You see?” I whispered. “I’m as much like them as like you. My heart has two chambers like a fish. We cold-blooded creatures don’t have room to hold all your customs and morals, down there in the deep.”
Blodwen shuddered. She stood up, gathered her skirts, and ran away across the sand.
When Neruynd came to collect Aniryn, I told him what I’d said. He laughed. “Your dishonesty’s all human.”
“You should meet her,” I snapped, “so certain she’s right about everything, determined to fit our lives and experiences into the mold she’s made from hers. She thinks I’m some kind of pervert or fallen woman. I just told her what she wanted to believe.”
“And she believed that about the two-chambered heart?” He couldn’t stop laughing.
My father didn’t find it funny. “What are you doing?” he hissed at me. We were alone on the shore. The others had gone either to the island or the sealskin house. “Why are you playing with her?”
“You’re the one playing, not me,” I said.
He sighed. “You could come with us, you know. There’s a pool near our farm. I could enchant it, make it saltwater. Of course I’d have to move the fish somewhere else …”
“But this is my home.”
Idris studied me. “You’ll never fully be one of them, Lotl,” he said. “As long as you stay here, you’ll be alone.”
“I’ll be alone anywhere,” I told him.
The night was advanced when we went into the house, feeling our way with fingertips along the walls’ soft inner curve. Blodwen was sleeping in Idris’s bed with both children. I could just make out Gwilym, his hand curled against his cheek in sleep. He had eight, perhaps ten years before the magic would come to him. For the first time I wondered – what if he received it not from Idris, but from me?
I didn’t ask myself, then, whether I’d be able to give up the magic voluntarily once I’d grown accustomed to it. I didn’t ask whether Gwilym could receive the magic, since that had always been assumed. I could only see the possibility. It was like looking at the whole world upside down, or looking at myself turned inside out. What if my mother was right – what if it was only human prejudice that made the magic go from father to son?
After all, I was the firstborn.
The evening star is out together with the sun. Murmuring fragments of remembered spells for comfort, I climb over rocks to reach the tree.
I haven’t come here in at least a month. I’ve been living on fish and eel, crab and kelp and bitter tea. Gulls must have eaten most of the food Idris sent; there are several of them around now, on the ground and in the branches. Among the scattered clothes on the ground are some leggings and silk scarves which must have been Blodwen’s idea. One scarf hangs from a branch, caught. I pull it down roughly, and the silk tears with a brusque hiss.
One of the gulls is watching me. I turn to face it. “You’re not coming back, are you?”
“No,” says the gull.
“When the magic goes to Gwilym, then will you come?”
A long silence, ruffled feathers. “I’ll make sure that Gwilym knows your needs are to be provided …”
A surge of anger makes it unexpectedly easy to cut him off. “A need has arisen,” I tell him, “for which you can’t provide.”
Too suddenly for my father to react, the enchantment breaks, leaving everything around me ordinary. The gull flies away, startled. The tree is just a tree. But deep inside me is the tingle of magic, and it sends small shoots like nerve pain into my eyes, my lips, my fingertips, my feet. Magic pools in my lungs, and when I breathe in I can feel them stretch and hold the air like iron.
I walk down to the water. For the first time, there’s nothing to hold me back. I keep walking and it rises to my waist, to my chest, to my chin. The water is so cold, I can’t tell whether I’m breathing, but it doesn’t matter. The air is mine, the water is mine. I can finally disown the land.
The sun, disappearing, makes the wind-scraped waves half black, half bright. Far across them the mergyndr are singing to each other, and to me.