One day as I lay in bed I saw a picture in my mind’s eye – I was swimming alone in the depths of an unknown ocean. My hair floated around my head in long and unruly strands, swaying with the currents as I breast-stroked my way through the waters.
Before long, an area of deep darkness appeared out of the corner of my eye; it emanated a sense of loneliness and deep foreboding, like a gaping wound one would normally avert one’s eyes from. However, I was drawn to it; there was a familiarity about it, a sense of something I had always known, but never understood.
Without skipping a beat, I swam towards the darkness, half-expecting to be sucked into the black vacuum. The prospect of being completely obliterated entered my mind; fear was nipping at my heels, but I kicked it away with each frog stroke, and steadfastly pushed forward into the darkness.
Instead of a black hole, I found a cave with strange beings – for want of a better term, I shall call them “Merfolk.” Now you may be thinking of the Merfolk in “The Little Mermaid” comprising of lithe and spirited Aerial, her triton-wielding 80’s muscle-man father and her buxom sisters. That would be completely understandable.
But in this instance, the “Merfolk” as I knew them were a sickly and pallid lot – more akin to the “poor unfortunate souls” that Ursula housed in her dank cave. They appeared to be on the verge of extinction, something I was to learn more about later on, and inspired so much pity in me that I felt it was my mission to be an anthropologist of their culture, a lone advocate for their continued existence.
The resembled humans, or rather the animated and shrunken corpses of humans but with forlorn and pendulous fish tails instead of legs. Their bodies seemed to glow with a greenish cast as they moved about in hushed tones.
Their culture and mannerisms seemed fragile and solemn – I got the distinct impression that I should not seek to know more than what they offered up because it could offend their delicate sensibilities.
I took my time and reined in my curiosity so that they would not feel threatened by my questions. I suspended all judgment – I was here to be a student, not a judge, of their ancient civilization.
Time passed, I do not know how long, because there was no night nor day in their kingdom. These Merfolk were endlessly busy; there were a myriad of rituals and symbolic communications that took place continually. As far as social organization there seemed to be very little hierarchy other than the presence of a Mer-King who sat on his fishy throne but did little else that was different. There were no death rites or birth rituals as there were no deaths or births among them. They simply were. They seemed immortal.
I tried to learn about their going-ons, but they eluded me. What motivated these people? Did they have an economy to speak of? What were their resources and where did they come from? I looked around and found nothing. All the things they needed (they did not need much) seemed to appear out of thin air as soon as they thought of it. These were mostly green stones that they would exchange while talking, yet for what reason? I could not decipher.
They did not seem to eat or need to build or create anything, yet they were endlessly busy and communicating all the time. As I leaned in to listen to their whispers, I learned a bit of their language which consisted both of spoken word and specific hand signs. While the spoken word eluded me because of their garbled and confused tones (further dispersed by the eddies and currents) I was able to discern a clear pattern in their hand signaling over time.
With my limited understanding of their hand signals, I tried to communicate with them, “Why? What? How? When?” I would ask, concerning their daily habits and routines, concerning their words and gestures and endless exchanges of green stones. But the answers were only of two kinds: “You will find out.” or I would be met with a deafening silence as they went about their business – almost as if I were not there.
In spite of the coldness of the water and the harsh and unyielding environment they lived in, they did not seem to be in any state of want or lack. How did they survive the lack of basic needs of all life forms? What was their sustenance? What was their raison d’être?
It was hard to know and understand them, and this fascinated me endlessly. As soon as I was on the verge of grasping the logic of their hand signals, I found subtle shifts and nuances in the way their fins would move and realize that this changed the meaning and import of their communications. It was confusing and mesmerizing at the same time.
One day, I stumbled on a matchstick which seemed impervious to the damp and cold; I struck the match against a piece of white marble lying next to where I found it, and it caught fire. Immediately, a cacophony of the most blood-curdling screeches sent shivers up my spine and made my hair stand on its ends. I froze and saw the Mer-folk that had been no more than three feet away from me suddenly flee with a speed and urgency that I had never before witnessed in their community. It was bewildering. As I stood holding the match with the small flame shifting and flickering in the darkness, I realized that I was completely alone; it all happened so quickly.
I walked around with the match, trying to look for a single soul to talk to, but not one came near. I waited till the match burned out and it became completely dark. That is when a faint greenish glow appeared to reveal Maek, a young Merfish I had become close to, who came to me and said, “Don’t” in a plaintive wailing tone that I had never before heard among them. It was arresting: the depth of expression that I suddenly saw in his usually placid face and his deep round eyes – like two dark oval disks limpid with fear. I had thought the Merfolk incapable of deep emotion, but in that moment I saw something deeply reminiscent of existential terror in Maek’s countenance.
Maek was pleading with me.
I then realized that they were afraid of the fire from the match. Upon further communication with Maek, the only one among them who dared to show up, I learned that they were vulnerable to the light and their entire civilization would collapse if they were exposed to it. That is why they dwelt in deep darkness.
I was stunned. First of all, I realized that I had gotten so used to the darkness that it did not seem dark. The unfortuitous discovery of the match and my lighting of it had been a freak accident.
When more of the Merfolk showed up, they came to talk to me. They were all sad, some were furious, but most of them were fearful. They wanted to know if I had any more matches, where I had found the match, and why I had lit the match. I explained that I had no intention of lighting up another match again so long as they were vulnerable to the light – I begged their pardon and explained fully that I had no idea their existence hinged on avoiding the light.
It was at this point that more was revealed to me about their Kingdom – their civilization had been under attack for centuries, they were the first sea creatures and wanted for nothing and had no natural predators. But between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic periods, there evolved carnivorous sea monsters with insatiable appetites. They had no way to protect themselves from these creatures except to retreat further and further away from the source of life – light itself. They had evolved to cope without light, even to the point that light would now wipe out their entire civilization.
This was shocking to me; I was sad to hear that what had originally given them life was now a terrible threat to their very existence. But their ability to survive in spite of the insurmountable odds against them spoke to me of resilience. There was something admirable about it, and I wanted to find out how they were still alive in spite of all the threats they had faced.
More time passed, and my hair grew longer. There was no way for me to cut it as there were no sharp objects in the kingdom, so I left it. One day I saw a faint image of myself reflected in a particularly shiny green stone. To my deep shock and horror, I realized that I had developed a greenish hue and had shrunk in size till my body and visage appeared gaunt and hollow; my hair had become sparse, stringy and matted, if it were not for the fact that I was standing in front of the glossy green stone, I would have mistaken my image for one of the Merfolk.
It was in this moment that I looked down at my feet and I realised that my toes had begun to fuse together to form webbed feet. I was in disbelief, how and when did this happen? And how was I not aware of it? As those questions came into my head, I realised that since I had met the Merfolk, not a single morsel of food had passed through my mouth. I had never felt hungry and had completely forgotten the need to eat.
I still had so much more to learn about the Merfolk and their endless communications. While I had gotten a good handle of their hand signals, I had yet to master the intricacies of their spoken language. I felt compelled to continue my co-existence with them as they were, as yet, a mystery unsolved.
But it dawned on me, with the slow horror of innate knowing, that from the perspective of the Merfolk, I was their captive.
I had forgotten who I was because I had become so wrapped up in unraveling the spell-binding mystery of their culture; I had become invisible to myself. But what did they want with me? What did I offer to them?
I could not say.
But I realized that as long as they could keep me searching for answers about them with half-truths and myths embedded in their folklore, I would forever be stuck in their kingdom, learning but never understanding, seeing but never knowing.
Yet, I was loathe to bring the light into these dark places because the entire civilization, which I held so dear —which I perceived as my discovery, so unique and special, would collapse. I had grown to feel something akin to love and camaraderie with the Merfolk, as different and distant as they seemed as a species.
But if their civilization collapsed, where would that leave me?
As I considered their motivation and their raison d’être, I realised that these Merfolk were merely figments of my imagination, they were lies pretending to have a life force, dignity and an internal logic of their own. I kept them alive by listening to them, paying them attention and treating them like they were real.
These were not souls or beings, these were illusions, lies dressed up as sentient creatures to keep me trapped in darkness.
They stayed alive because of my decision to keep them alive, to avoid shining the light on them. It gave me a sense of meaning and purpose, it allowed me to feel special and think of myself as an intrepid explorer, when in actuality, I was just a captive of a Kingdom of Lies – a complicit partner of the darkness.
I realized that if I were to have any chance at reversing the physical changes that were happening to me and returning to the light ever again, I needed to have no part with them. I needed to sever ties completely. I had to disavow their very existence.
I felt a lump in my throat, and my heart, which had been silent for so long, suddenly felt present; it was beating very fast. What did this mean? What would become of Maek and the Merfolk – the community that I had grown so comfortable with? I had come to spend all of my waking moments with them, and barely knew who I would be apart from them.
How could something that felt so real be a lie?
At this moment my heart pounded so hard it felt like it was going to break; what was happening to me? I lifted my hand to my chest which my heart seemed determined to jump out off. To my deep consternation, my fingers had also started to become webbed. That is when I felt a salty tear roll down the corner of my right eye. (How I knew it was a tear when I was completely surrounded by water eludes me, but I just could feel it – tear ducts do not lie.)
As my webbed hand tried to still the heart that was pounding uncontrollably, I suddenly felt something small and thin and wooden materialise in my hand, I looked down; what I saw made my entire being shudder with a deep sense of knowing. There it was, a waterproof match – it had appeared in my hand, just like the green stones that the Merfolk exchanged, without any summoning or bidding, it just showed up. I shook violently… what was going on?More tears came forth from both my eyes, and I sank to my knees, webbed feet pointing out at odd angles and body crumpled into a sad ball as the crying came in violent floods.
When my crying ceased and I felt like a dry husk, but I knew but one thing – this was not reality, and I wanted to live in reality.
So I took the match that lay in my fist and struck it against the nearest piece of marble stone that lay near me. It burst into a steady flame. I looked around, what else could I light up?
Suddenly all around, dark forms came for me; the Merfolk seemed to know what I had in mind, webbed hands grabbed me around my neck and pushed me to the ground – they were trying to extinguish the flame but I guarded it with my body. Webbed fists pounded me again and again, till I curled in on myself in fetal form.
That did not stop them. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Maek glide over – the look of sheer hatred on his face startled me. Here was the one compatriot whom I thought would know and understand me best, but he seemed out to destroy me.
He came over and lifted me up by my neck and kept squeezing it till I choked and felt faint. I was still holding onto the match. Other Merfolk were trying to grab it out of my hands but with the feeble strength I had left in me, I tipped the matchstick onto Maek. He screamed with the keening peals of a banshee and tried to pull away, but it was too late – the flame lit his body up like a rag doused in kerosene – it engulfed him and started burning through his flesh. The fire did not stop there but surged out onto the other Merfolk, swallowing each and every one of them with the relentless rage of a hellish furnace. I stood transfixed as the entire civilisation blazed with an ethereal incandescence.
Eventually the fire came for me too.
I did not run away because I wanted to be rid of my webbed feet and hands; I did not want to live if I had to live like one of the Merfolk.
The sensation of burning was strange – excruciatingly painful, worse than any pain I had ever imagined. It was a pain that demanded all of you; it pervaded your mind and feelings and arrested your soul. I found myself crying out in utter anguish to my Maker for mercy, surrendering every last ounce of my will and my life into His hands, if only, if only He would just make the burning stop.
It was at this very moment when I realized that my flesh had been burned away to reveal new skin – supple, fresh, unmarred skin, like that of a child’s. My body seemed to stretch and pulse and it grew larger with each passing moment.
Over the next few seconds, I found my body pushing past the subterranean landscape of the Merfolk, breaking through the darkness into a layer of water where the sunlight reached. Soon I grew big enough to break through the surface of the water into light and air. I found myself gasping for air when I surfaced.
There were miles and miles of unchartered territory everywhere I gazed and the sheer immensity of life beckoned towards me. The sunlight bounced off the choppy azure blue waters, glinting like jewels studded between the waves.
My feet were still at the bottom of the ocean floor and I looked at how far above I was towering over the water. The sun was burning in the sky, but seemed like a golden coin that I could reach if only I stretched out my arms – I could not believe how long and sinewy my arms were! I was amazed: was this really me? Could this be real?
Suddenly, I understood what was happening to me.
Henceforth, my choices were not going to be dictated by others, or by the needs and logic of any other system or entity. Now there was a blank slate before me and it was completely up to me how I was going to fill that slate.
With my newfound power and strength, I had the ability to build, create and move, instead of merely communicating, adjusting to and trying to understand other beings. I had the ability to dictate what my reality would look like, and no one else would be responsible for it, no one else except me. This felt like a weight that was almost too much to bear, but my feet were still on the ground and my eyes were fixed heavenward.
Endless possibilities stretched out before me in the blank canvas of the sky and the laughing sea. My soul felt light and I burst out into a song of praise – “Amazing Grace”
The promise of hope lay before me, and as I committed myself to my Maker, I knew He was leading and guiding me towards new horizons, to take hold of the abundant life that is truly life.