Once upon a time, when men and women stamped footprints in the sky,
when they broke their noses and built them again for beauty,
when the average person spent nine years sitting in front of a small black box with brightly moving images,
there lived a poor fisherman and his wife by the sea.
They had three squalling, scrawny children with sticky fingers and spiky hair,
and when the fifth was born, the fisherman and his wife were exhausted.
“Oh, it’s another girl,” his wife sighed, pushing herself up to stare sadly at her baby.
Weariness rippled across her face like sand wrinkling on the shore. “One more mouth to feed.”
“She has very little other than a mouth,” the fisherman snapped, tipping a glass of cheap drink into his mouth.
“Look at her! Useless from the day she is born!”
The baby hiccuped, quietly. She had neither arms nor legs,
but her eyes were steady and heavy with sadness,
as if she knew she was not wanted by her parents.
His wife laid her finger gently on the little one’s cheek. “Ah! She has a pretty smile, though.”
“Pah!” The fisherman spat on the floor contemptuously.
“Who has ever seen a pretty smile raise money to pay our debts?
Without arms to work or feet to carry her around, a pretty smile is useless.
It will not even tempt a very foolish man to marry her.”
“Marriage is not everything,” said his wife.
“Yes, it is,” the fisherman shouted. “Look what it has done to you.”
He sneaked a quick look at the baby, then pushed himself away with disgust. “Look at it! It is ugly as sin.”
His wife closed her eyes. She felt very sick at heart. “Then what do you want to do?”
“Why, throw her away,” he growled. He knew he was being cruel, and so he spoke very roughly.
“Are we millionaires and philanthropists, to take care of a useless thing like that?”
“But she is our baby,” said his wife, “and besides, the neighbors will talk.”
“Tell them she died as soon as she was born,” he said.
“I don’t want to throw her away,” said his wife, sadly.
“Better die right now before she grows up to a life she will hate,” said the fisherman.
“When she finds herself sitting in a chair for ten, twenty years,
without a single person who wants her, and a heap of debts at our door,
and both of us grudging every bite she eats, she will want to die anyway.
Now stop arguing, and hand me my key.”
“You are a very drunk and selfish man,” said his wife.
“Shut up and hand them over!” he barked,
slamming his fist down on the table.
“Perhaps you are right,” said his wife bitterly.
“Perhaps it is better that the child will never grow up with a father like you.”
And so that evening, the fisherman rigged up his puttering boat
with its oil-splattered sides and sand-speckled boards, and rode away from the house.
Then he took another swig of drink to steel himself,
tied the baby in a sack with some stones, and hurled her into the ocean.
“It is better for everyone this way,” he said, and rode home quickly without looking back.
Down, down, down the baby went,
from the waters where plankton drifted in emerald green,
and cloudy jellyfish bloomed like transparent flowers,
and bloated fish swam lazily by like drowned islands,
and a graceful manta ray who circled the sack curiously once or twice before catching it on her back.
“This looks interesting,” she said to herself. “Perhaps I shall take it to the other mantas. They will know what to do.”
Manta rays are docile, gentle, graceful creatures.
When they opened the sack and found the baby girl without arms or legs, they were deeply saddened.
“We would never throw away our own young,” said the mother mantas, shaking their heads.
“We would protect our family with our life, fins or no fins, tail or no tail,” said the brave male mantas.
“And why not protect her?” asked a voice –
quiet enough to leave the sand undisturbed,
but with an echo that made the caverns and coral reefs tremble.
The other manta rays hushed and drew together as the oldest of the manta rays swam forward slowly.
He was a healer, one who knew the secrets of sunlit ocean magic and the deep wisdom of the dark trenches.
“Why not accept her as part of our family, since she has no other?”
And placing his fins on her, he whispered a secret spell,
woven of melted pearls and broken sand and the cries of newborn beluga whales.
And when he drew his fins away, the other manta rays were silent.
Then one by one, they drew forth and touched the baby gently.
The baby’s eyes had opened again, and she drew in a shuddering breath.
Her body was clothed in black and white,
and from the place where her arms and legs should have been
were long, graceful, glossy black fins and a small, shining tail.
Thus was the little mantamaid born.
The little mantamaid grew swiftly amid the love and care of her elegant, black-and-white family.
The manta rays adored her. They thought her a little strange at first,
for they could never quite get used to her startling eyes,
her way of smiling, or crying, or playing games, or drawing in the sand,
or doing unfamiliar human things they had never imagined doing before.
But they loved her very much all the same, and treasured her as tenderly as a beautiful jewel.
And her questions! She would never stop asking questions.
“Mamma, why do dolphins never sleep?”
There were so many kind female manta rays that the little mantamaid had many mammas.
“They do sleep, dear, only with one brain at a time. They have to be ready for any danger.”
“Dangerous to dolphins! But dolphins are so clever! What could hurt them?”
“Many things, my dear. Cleverness does not always mean safety.”
“Well, then, Mamma, why do flatworms fight each other before they have babies?”
“Because both of them do not want to be the mother.
The one who wins the fight is the father, who swims away,
while the mother has to take care of their young. Being a mother comes with a lot of chores to do.”
“That is funny!” And the mantamaid laughed merrily,
clear, happy laughter that rang through the ocean five times as quickly as up in the air and tinkled like silver bells.
“It is funny, but it is also stupid,” she added, suddenly frowning.
“Fathers should be just as responsible as mothers. Being a father doesn’t mean you can run away.”
The manta rays looked at each other, remembering how they had found the little mantamaid.
“Oh, yes,” they agreed. “But my dear, flatworms are very primitive.
And we all have different ways of keeping alive. We do not expect much of them,”
and they gave small, delicate sniffs.
Manta rays do not have a high opinion of flatworms.
So the little mantamaid grew, asking questions and pondering answers,
weaving scarves plucked from kelp forests and darting through corals,
a drop of quicksilver swirling through the ocean.
She explored the sea, swimming and gliding and occasionally jumping into the air with the other manta rays.
They flapped their wings together for a few seconds of pure air before hitting the surface with a bang of water.
And the little mantamaid, who could never resist a trick,
taught the others how to somersault before landing, for a little extra fun.
“We are slow gliders,” said the older manta rays sometimes, gently.
“Slow down a little, my little mantamaid. Life is not all about jumping and flying.”
So the little mantamaid lived on, bright and lively, but a little lonely.
She loved the manta rays, but she did not have anyone she could really talk to.
The ocean is a large place, and most fishes do not have much to say.
Then she reached her thirteenth birthday.
On her thirteenth birthday, the manta rays rose to the surface of the ocean to feed, like any other night.
Manta rays love eating zooplankton, and because zooplankton rise to the surface of the ocean at night,
the mantas also feed beneath the moon.
While the older manta rays glided in circles to swirl the plankton into one spot,
the little mantamaid spotted a faint light gleaming on the nearby shore.
“Plankton always float around light,” she said. “Maybe there is more for the other mantas to eat over there.”
“Come back soon, and be careful,” said the other manta rays gently. “Humans are always on the shore, my dear.”
“Yes. Meaty creatures that walk like crabs and have skin as soft as jellyfish. You used to be a human once, remember?”
“Oh! Then, please, I must take a look at a human,” cried the little mantamaid eagerly.
Flapping her fins, she circled nearer and nearer to the light,
until the water grew so shallow that sand scratched at her white belly and cold night air flowed over her hair.
When she drew closer, she realized the light was coming from a thin, dark-haired boy,
who was holding a small star in his hands.
He had hair like her hair.
He had a mouth like her mouth, one that frowned and smiled and laughed.
And he had eyes, bright with ambition, dreamy and black as the ocean trenches.
Eyes that turned suddenly and looked at her.
They looked at each other for a long moment,
the boy and little mantamaid,
the little mantamaid and boy,
silently, fearfully, wonderfully.
Then, slowly and hesitantly, the boy jerked his hand upward – and waved.
“Hello,” he said in a hushed voice.
The little mantamaid opened her eyes wide.
“Hello,” she replied, simply.
“Are you going to drag me down to the ocean and eat me?” asked the boy, rather hopefully.
The little mantamaid broke into laughter. “Why would I do that?”
“Aren’t you a mermaid?”
“No. I’m a mantamaid.”
“Too bad. It would be kind of cool getting attacked by a mythical creature.
Are you sure you don’t attack humans?” He smiled.
“I’m very sure,” said the little mantamaid firmly. “Are you going to tear out my gills?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Aren’t you a human?”
“Yes. But I don’t want to hurt you.” He held up his hands in peace,
and the brightly glowing star in his hands dropped down to the ground and rolled into the sea.
“Oops, there goes my waterproof flashlight. Hey, you can have it, if you want.”
“You’re giving it to me?” The little mantamaid was very surprised. “Why?”
“It’s a present.”
“What does that mean,” she asked, “a present?”
He smiled again. “Something you give for free when you become friends,” he said.
“Although I’m not sure what you would do with a flashlight. I use it to hunt for shells.”
“You eat shells?”
“No. I like to collect them.” He spread his fingers and showed her his findings:
clumps of seaweed, pebbles worn smooth by the waves, and broken molluscs gritty with sand.
Struck with inspiration, he added, “It’s like the ocean is giving presents to the shore.”
The little mantamaid dimpled – suddenly, and radiantly.
“Oh, I see,” she said.
She snapped her teeth around the handle of the flashlight and slid back into the sumptuous coldness of the ocean.
Her hair bloomed around her like sea anenomes. “Would you like to swim with me?”
“No, thanks. It looks really cold.” He waved. “Goodbye, mantamaid.”
The next evening, when the little mantamaid returned to the shore,
the boy was waiting on top of a craggy gray rock nearest to the ocean.
His eyes lit up when she swam forward.
He leaped into the water and waded forward, waves slamming into his chest.
“You’re back,” he mumbled, happily. “I was hoping you’d come back.”
“I have presents,” said the little mantamaid, sweetly.
On the wet silk of the sand she laid out her gifts.
Cone shells and conch shells, pink-lipped and ridged and dotted and smooth.
“Just like the ocean to the shore.”
During that summer, the little mantamaid and the boy grew into very close friends.
She brought him shells and seaweed,
and he brought her different things every time, fascinating things:
luscious peaches that tasted like sunlight and love,
coffee that stung and made her blink in dazzled confusion,
paper boats that floated on the water,
He told her little about his family, but he did tell her this:
his parents were moving away from each other,
not because of plankton blooms or migration or mating patterns
but simply because being with each other made them feel sick and ugly.
That his grandparents ran a restaurant near the sea where they sold sushi and fish and ate squids live.
That he came here every summer, just to escape his parents fighting.
That he was lonely and bored, that the world seemed as dark and murky as an abyssal plain,
and when he had hoped for her to be a mermaid and eat him,
it was partly because he felt there was nobody who would miss him when he was gone.
They played hide-and-seek.
He closed his eyes and counted to ten, and then he would search for her in the shallow waters along the shore,
shifting the thin layers of sand, shoving aside rocks.
She usually won, and then he would fall back onto the sand, laughing,
while she jumped triumphantly in the air and landed with a loud splash.
When summer ended, they were both very sad.
“Will you still be here next year?” he asked, perching on the rock.
The little mantamaid nodded. “I’ll try.”
“Don’t forget me!” he said. He smiled shyly. “You’re the best friend I ever had.”
Next summer, when the little mantamaid swam slowly back to the shore for the first time in months,
the boy was waiting for her.
A light broke onto his face when their eyes met.
“Mantamaid!” he shouted. “You’re here!”
The little mantamaid tilted her head to the side.
“You’ve grown taller,” she said softly.
“Yeah. I’m almost a man now.” He grinned.
“You look a little like the fishermen in the boats now.”
“Don’t worry. I’m never going to cut out your gills.”
She tinkled with laughter. “I know you aren’t. Now let’s swim.”
They spent their days peacefully, glowingly.
The little mantamaid still brought him seashells.
And he still brought her human presents:
dandelions, a pinch of glitter he sprinkled on her shoulders,
and a little jar of half-used perfume he rubbed into her hair.
She laughed and sniffed her hair,
sneezing playfully at him before diving back down into the ocean to wash it out.
They solved puzzles together.
He brought puzzles that showed her Parisian landscapes, Chinese temples,
paintings of pianos and princesses wearing pearls.
She imitated the songs of humpback whales for him, making him laugh.
He read stories about the ocean to her, and she corrected him when the stories got their information wrong.
And then she told him stories about the ocean:
the deep, crisscrossing lines ploughed into the sea bottom by dragging icebergs,
the Brittle Star City where the stars could break off their arms and grow them again,
the sea mountains cloaked in darkness,
and the way humpback whale babies slept underneath their mother’s bellies
to keep from floating up to the surface of the water.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked. “How the weight of parents can keep children from floating away into danger?”
“Yes,” he replied, darkly, “but sometimes parents can be so heavy their weight crushes the children they try to protect.”
“Humans are not humpback whales,” she retorted, before splashing back into the water.
One night, he brought something that looked like a long white rope
and plugged one end into her ear before plugging one into his.
“Is this a fishing line at last?” she asked playfully.
“Don’t joke about stuff like that. Now listen,” he said,
and all the oceans rushed together,
and the moon and stars spilled into the sea,
and everything beautiful and sunlit in the world came together
into the notes of the lovely, heartbreaking, beautiful sound that flowed into her ears.
Listen, he said.
This is called music, he said.
It was the most wonderful present he had ever given her.
The summer they both turned fifteen, he was lazy and sad.
There were no more puzzles. No more hide-and-seek. No more stories.
“What’s the use?” he asked, lying down on the rocks and staring at the sky.
“Life is meaningless. It’s full of ugliness.
Everyone is trying to kill each other with lying and hate and selfishness and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Manta rays are filter feeders,” said the little mantamaid.
“We drink in the debris of the ocean and let clean water out.
You should do that, too.
Accept the bad and the good,
and try to make sure that what you let out into the world is good.”
“It’s useless, I tell you,” he said, angrily.
“What’s the use of being a filter feeder in a world of filth?”
“It’s not all filth.”
“Yes it is. There’s not a spot of cleanness or love anywhere.”
“I love you,” said the little mantamaid, hesitantly.
The boy looked at her for a moment, surprised.
“Ah, you’re lying, just to make me feel better. Don’t be sentimental,” he said.
“I’m not,” she said. “Manta rays are not sentimental.”
“You’re not a manta ray,” he said. “You’re not even a human.”
“Whatever I am, I love you,” she said simply.
“What does love even mean to you?” he asked, sitting up.
“It means that the person you love is more important to you than all the oceans in the world,” she said.
“It means that you could swim down to the midnight zone and still feel a flashlight star shining in your heart.
It means that you could swim to the Arctic to find plankton and still feel summer in the tips of your fins.
It means that the person himself is a present in your life.
Not the things that he brings or the words that he says.”
The boy was silent for a long time, and when she looked at him again, she saw that he was crying.
“Life isn’t as easy as that,” he said.
“But that’s what makes it so exciting,” she said.
He looked at her. “Thank you,” he said. “Being with you every summer is the only present I have left in my life.
I’m sorry for everything I said. Now, let’s listen to music.”
At least they still had that. For hours at a time the boy turned on music and lay there,
eyes squeezed shut tightly, barely breathing.
The little mantamaid was worried.
He was clamming up. He was shriveling inside.
He was stung, he was paralyzed, by the venom in his life.
But there was nothing she could do about it.
he was back.
“You’re back,” the little mantamaid said softly. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
“I missed you.” He smiled and took off his jacket. “See, this is my school uniform.”
The mantamaid laughed. “Now you have a white belly and a black back like me,” she said.
“Yes. I’m going to high school now. I’m studying marine biology and physics.
I’m learning how to build essays and correct equations and memorize hard words.
But I still wanted to see you this summer.”
“And do you still think life is ugly?” she asked, laying a smooth pebble onto his lap.
His eyes clouded over. But he shook his head, turning the pebble over in his hands.
“If there is even a little piece of love to hold onto in my life – even if it is as small as this pebble – that is worth living for.”
“I will bring you all the stones in the sea,” she said.
“I will bring you all the pearls that have been hidden and all the songs that have been sung.
And you will see that there is more beauty in the world than you can ever imagine.”
“But we’re destroying it,” he said.
“Humans are destroying it even as we speak.”
“Fight it,” she said, bringing her face close to his and her voice to a fierce whisper.
“We’ll fight to keep the world beautiful, and we will succeed. You will see. But first, come swim with me.”
He took a running leap and dove into the ocean. They went down, down, down into the darkness together.
They had fireworks, that summer. The boy asked the little mantamaid to go see them.
“Ah, you know I can’t come out of the ocean!” she said with a smile.
“But they have the fireworks on this tourist boat. I’ll tell you where it is.”
“No, don’t tell me,” she said. “Show me.”
And so they swam,
through light-dappled emerald waters,
through melted topaz and clumps of seaweed,
through spindrift and sprays of silver,
until they reached the boat.
“It’ll start any minute now,” he whispered.
“Is this another present?” she asked.
He thought about it. “I guess it’s a thank you,” he said, “and a farewell.”
“What is that,” she asked, “a farewell?”
But before he had time to reply, the fireworks exploded.
Circles of fire exploded in starbursts of color.
Red streaks hissed through the air like bubble nets, white streaks sizzled through them,
and then, just as they fizzed out, fireflies of gold and purple flames.
Then a volcano eruption of bright pink.
Then a school of white-hot silver fish flying through the air.
Finally, a confetti spray of magnificent greens:
bottle-green and lime and olive,
jade and emerald and turquoise and pale pale opal,
flecking the air like snowflakes.
“They are beautiful,” the little mantamaid said softly. “They are like music in the sky.”
The boy leaned over and pressed his lips to her hair.
The mantamaid turned and looked at him, eyes shining.
They are like you, he whispered.
I’m sorry, he whispered.
I love you, too.
The next summer, the little mantamaid came back to the shore,
but the boy was no longer there.
“Where are you?” she called.
There was no answer.
“I have brought you presents,” she whispered.
But the waves drowned out her voice.
The summer after that,
and the summer after that,
the little mantamaid returned,
her fingers full of pebbles and pearls,
moon snail shells and queen conch lips,
periwinkle shells and bright, pointy whelks.
But there was no one to take them.
And the little mantamaid finally understood how the ocean must feel to kiss the shoreline
year after year, century after century, no matter how many times it is sent away.
Years passed. The little mantamaid stopped going to the shore.
She leaped and glided, soared and flapped through the ocean.
There were times when she felt as full of venom as a box jellyfish,
but then she would look down and see the flaring colors of a tiger cowry,
the pearly spiral of a moon snail shell,
or hear a snatch of music drifting sweetly across the waves,
and then her anger and sadness melted away.
“I was wrong,” she told herself. “His presence was not the only present he gave me. His memories have made the whole ocean a new present to me.”
One night, years later, she was swimming across the ocean when she saw a ship roaring into her sight.
Wine-glasses tinkled like hundreds of silver bells.
Laughter sparkled in the air, and honey-gold furs and rich dresses
swept the floor of the deck in smooth waves.
Then she caught a glimpse of a man sitting near the rails, books piled near his feet.
His eyes were clouded with sadness, and in his lap was a pile of pebbles and rainbow-colored shells.
“I have given him the ocean as a present as well,” the little mantamaid thought, gliding away from the boat.
“That is where he belongs. But every time he looks at the ocean, or at the pebbles and shells in his lap,
he will remember me, if only for a moment. And perhaps he will remember the music, the laughter –
perhaps he will remember what it felt like to be loved.
That is almost enough to keep living.”
And when she thought this, the little mantamaid was happy.