Grace couldn’t sleep.
The usually comforting sound of waves lapping against the shore outside her window was too loud, the soft blanket covering her body was too heavy, and her sheer curtains did little to block the sunrise. Sick of spending the last few hours tossing and turning, she sat up.
Sleepless nights had been becoming more and more frequent. She either couldn’t sleep, or her dreams were plagued with monstrosities. She always forgot them shortly after waking up, but she could remember waking up in a cold sweat, gasping for air.
She got out of her bed, stepping into the sandals she kept neatly displayed next to her bedroom door. As quietly as she could, she made her way through the sleeping house to the front door. Which, in all honesty, was far from a difficult feat. All of the offerings of fish from the village had made her and her adoptive family pretty wealthy. Their house was pretty big, and Grace didn’t have to worry much about waking anyone up.
While she was thankful that she was able to live so comfortably, she felt guilty. There was nothing she was doing to make the fish around the village so plentiful. That’s just how it was - how it had been for as long as she could remember. Whenever she had first started to receive the offerings, she always tried to turn it down, but there was no point in trying nowadays. Besides, even if she was far from the goddess everyone thought she was, who was she to deny that security to the family who saved her life? She owed them everything.
Grace slowly closed the door behind her until she felt it click shut, and started towards the ocean. She tended to only go swimming in the evening and early in the morning, since it was impossible to come across anyone who didn’t already know who she was. They’d always try to strike up a (rather one-sided) conversation, or thank her profusely for what she had done for the village, which she never quite knew how to react to.
She definitely preferred visiting the ocean in the morning to the evening. It was a good way to wake up - or in this case, start her day, as she hadn’t slept. The birds were singing and she didn’t have to hear the sound of townspeople retreating to their homes after a long day of work or worry about running out of sunlight.
Discarding her sandals near the shore, she eased herself into the water. This was the one downside of swimming in the morning - the water hadn’t had much time to heat up. It didn’t help much that it was autumn, either. Hours upon hours in the ocean had gotten her used to all sorts of temperatures nobody else would dare to swim in, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a little challenging. She took a seat so that the water came up to about her shoulders, allowing herself some time to get used to it. Grace smiled and closed her eyes, feeling the breeze in her hair and the tension release from her body.
Being in the ocean had always been so therapeutic for the girl. Other than it being much more peaceful than life in the village, interacting with the fish had to be her favorite thing in the world. They never expected anything of her. They never worshiped her for things she didn’t deserve, or talk to her expecting a response out of her. Trying to communicate with people nonverbally got quite frustrating, but the fish seemed to speak her language. They never made a sound, and neither did she. All she had to do was be around, and that was enough for them. Having the fish trust her meant the world to Grace, especially considering their slaughter was the very thing that kept her village going.
She cringed at the thought, but shoved it to the back of her mind. No matter how much she loved the fish, there was no denying their vast difference in intelligence. There was no denying that they were prey, and Grace was considered one of their predators, and that’s just how the world worked. The most she could do to make it up to them was to give them her company.
Just as she was shoving the thought to the back of her mind, she felt a pair of hands cup her face. Startled, her eyes shot open.
In front of her, seemingly mere inches from her face, was a woman. No, not exactly a woman. While the creature resembled a woman, it was far from human. Its eyes were completely black, its ears were aquatic, and its fingers were webbed. For a second, she swore she saw purple gills on its neck, but it was gone too quickly for her to be able to examine it anymore. It squeaked and disappeared into the water. Apparently, it was just as startled as Grace was. She sat for a while, frozen in shock.
She reached up and felt the new wetness on her face from the creature's hands and stared out into the sea, seeing if there was any sign of the stranger. There was none. She sighed, rubbing her eyes.
Perhaps the lack of sleep was getting to her. She got up and started to head back towards the village, where several people had already gotten up and started working. Before she left the shore completely though, she looked over her shoulder, checking to see if the creature was there. Just as she expected, there was nothing. She shook her head, scolding herself for even looking, and continued walking - but she couldn’t shake the sensation of the creature's soft hands on her cheeks.
Despite her mutism, Grace was known for being fairly outgoing. She was always out helping the village somehow, whether that be watering plants, running errands - anything anyone needed really. Other than fishing. She refused to have anything to do with that, but nobody seemed to mind, as she had “already helped with that so much in the first place”.
Yet, today, nobody had seen her at all. When she got home, she changed into some dry clothes and tried to finally get some sleep, but to no avail. Visions of piercing black eyes and red lips plagued her thoughts, and she spent more time looking out her window to the sea than actually trying to sleep.
At one point, her father even had to ask her if she was okay, to which she only nodded. Her family knew she had been having trouble sleeping, but she wasn’t the type to waste the day away in bed. However, she wouldn’t have been able to focus on anything productive that day anyway. The creature had anchored itself in her mind. Grace felt like she was going crazy.
By sunset, she couldn’t take it anymore. She got up and headed to the ocean, looking for any sign of something out of the ordinary. Nothing. Defeated, she sat down near the shore as she had done that morning. Fish gathered around her as they always did. A comforting presence in her time of distress.
It was far from uncommon for them to brush up against her. It was a strange feeling, a fish brushing up against your skin, but she didn’t mind. They trusted her enough for her to even touch them from time to time, dragging her finger along their backs similar to petting a cat or a dog.
What was uncommon was the fish trying to signal her to something. They kept brushing against her right side, touching her leg over and over. Figuring out something was up, she started heading that way. The fish traveled in front of her, leading her away from the bustling section of her village.
After a while, the area she was sitting in before was just able to peek over the horizon. Grace was starting to give up. They were just fish, after all. How smart could they possibly be?
As she was about to turn around, she noticed a small structure made out of sand just above where the water met the sand. Curious, she investigated. Who was building things on the beach all the way out here? No child with a parent worth anything would allow them to build a sandcastle so far away from everyone.
She crouched down to get a closer look. What had been sculpted was far from some child’s sandcastle. It was undoubtedly her own face staring back at her. Her head had been sculpted out of sand, and showed every single detail, down to individual strands of hair and pores on her skin. Grace was in awe.
Nearby, a familiar face poked out of the water. At first, the creature was concerned, but quickly cheered up seeing how happy the woman was. Grace turned to it and she found herself smiling too. The creature drew closer, coming to rest on the sand next to her.
From this position, she was able to see so many more things about it. She wasn’t even sure if “it” was the right term anymore, as there was no denying that the creature was definitely female. Wet blonde hair laid against her shoulders, appearing soft and well taken care of. She had what looked like purple eyeshadow on, but Grace was unable to tell if it had been applied or if it was part of the mermaid’s skin. The top she wore was gorgeous. It had been made to resemble seashells, but was clearly made out of a shimmery, lilac colored fabric. It looked like a bra, but instead of straps, it rested just off of her shoulders. It went well with the silver jewelry adorning her neck and wrists. At her waist, her human-like skin faded into a fish tail. It was the same violet as her eyeshadow and Grace swore it sparkled like glitter
A deep flush came to her cheeks, unable to take her eyes off of her. Now, Grace was no stranger to the idea of mythical aquatic creatures. She learned everything about the ocean that she could, and that included myths and legends. Even beyond her own research, she had been warned about sirens ever since she was a child. “Stay away from any unfamiliar creatures you see, Grace. I’ve seen too many people go missing. No matter how beautiful or nice they may seem, their intentions are never good.”
But this being didn’t seem malicious at all. Her expression was full of warmth and innocence, and she seemed just as shocked by Grace being there as she was. If this creature was a siren, then consider Grace gone already.
After she had finally caught her breath, she pointed to the mermaid, then back to the sculpture, to which it nodded. Her smile grew, and the stranger chirped happily. She sounded like a dolphin. Grace found it adorable.
Apparently, the creature realized that the brunette’s silence was abnormal, gesturing to her own throat where her vocal cords would be, as to ask why aren’t you saying anything? Her smile faded, and she shook her head, although she doubted the mermaid’s vocal cords would allow her to say anything either. The stranger nodded her head in understanding.
Hesitantly, as if she was afraid she was doing something wrong, she fingerspelled something letter by letter. It was clear her sign language was not well practiced, but it was better than most people’s. Most people she tried to talk to knew nothing, which made communication rather difficult.
“That’s your name?”
Beautiful. “I’m Grace.”
They stayed by the shore signing to each other until it was pitch black outside. Grace had no trouble sleeping that night.
The next morning, she was back where they had met a day earlier before the sun even rose. Galatea was busy perfecting the sculpture she had made, since not all features had stayed intact overnight.
“It looks like it’s going to rain later today. There’s really no need to fix anything.”
“I don’t create things to stay forever,” she signed in return at a much slower pace. “Even when it washes away, my memory of it is still there.”
“Are you always so philosophical?” Grace teased.
She sat next to her new friend, watching as she worked. She had made a chisel out of a sharpened stick, although most of what she did was done with her hands. Watching her work was like watching someone dance. Every move she made was precisely calculated. No wonder she was so talented. Grace could tell she had been doing this for a long time.
When the structure had been perfected up to her liking, she put her makeshift chisel down and rested her head against the shoulder of the woman next to her, watching as the sun rose. Grace assumed that perhaps mermaids didn’t have the same social rules involving personal space, considering she was mere inches from Galatea’s face that morning, but it made her stomach do somersaults nevertheless.
“I think…” the mermaid began, continuing their earlier conversation. “... That memory is much more important than anything physical. Things wear down over time, but never in our memory. Don’t you think so?”
She thought for a moment. “I suppose. I’ve never had a great memory though. Things fade pretty quickly for humans.”
“Oh, that’s a shame! I remember things just like how they were. I wouldn’t be able to create art if I didn’t. I’m really grateful for it. Otherwise, my sculpture would’ve looked nothing like you.”
“Well, it doesn’t look just like me.” Galatea frowned as Grace continued. “You flatter me too much. You made me look much prettier than I am.”
The mermaid lifted herself off of her shoulder, looking at the sculpture and then back at its model. “Nonsense. You underestimate your own beauty.”
Grace laughed silently. “No, really! I’m an artist.” Galatea rolled her eyes playfully. “What kind of artist doesn’t know beauty when they see it? Do you think I’m a bad sculptor?”
“Not at all! No, you’re wonderful. What you’ve made is beautiful. Thank you.”
They stopped talking and what can only be described as a comfortable silence fell over them, watching the sky paint itself in beautiful hues of pink and orange. Galatea rested her head in Grace’s lap. The brunette’s fingers found their way into her hair, massaging her scalp and detangling any knots. It was far too intimate for Grace to consider it friendly, but neither of them seemed to mind.
As the world around her got brighter and brighter, she sighed. Galatea looked up at her worriedly.
“You can’t stay here much longer. People will be here to work. They can’t see you.”
The mermaid frowned. “You’ll come back here tonight?”
She nodded. Galatea sat up, and Grace helped her back into the water. Just as she was about to say her goodbyes, she felt the sensation of soft lips against her own. The mermaid was gone before she could react.
Once she had returned to the village, the people around her that once looked at her with excitement and gratefulness had expressions that were clouded with disgust. Nobody said anything, but their disapproval was clear. Grace had no clue what she could have possibly done to cause it. There was absolutely no way anyone had seen her and Galatea. Someone would have said something to her by now.
When she returned home, her parents noticed how upset she was immediately. They motioned for her to take a seat at their dining table, and she hesitantly followed their orders.
“Yesterday, they were barely able to catch anything. You know they’ve been having trouble lately, but if things keep up like this, they won’t be able to feed everyone.”
Her brows furrowed in concern. In her lifetime, it had never been like this.
“From what we’ve heard, you’re the one that they blame for it.”
“I’ve told you I don’t control them! Sometimes the fishing doesn’t go well, that’s just how it is -”
Her mother raised her hand, signaling for her to stop, and her hands stopped signing. She reluctantly lowered them into her lap.
“We know you would never do something like this on purpose.”
Grace grimaced. No matter how much she tried to explain things to her parents, it never got through to them. Everyone had decided she was more capable than she was when she was just a baby, and there was no changing their minds.
“However, stay home for the next few days, will you? Only for your safety. You’re barely a woman, after all. You can't properly defend yourself and we don’t want you to get hurt.”
She nodded, although the thought of leaving Galatea waiting pained her. Her parents hugged her, which she briefly returned, and disappeared into her room.
She sat down on her bed, holding a pillow against her stomach as she tried to calm the uneasy nausea bubbling up inside her. She would have to wait things out. As much as she hated it, her parents were right. The people of the village - especially the fishermen - were very serious about their worship and belief in her abilities. There was no telling what they would do in retaliation.
However, a much less rational thought was clouding her mind. She had to tell Galatea. She at least had to let her know she was okay. All she had to do was tell her what was going on, and she was free to keep herself safe until things had calmed down.
Besides, they were expecting a lot of rain. In fact, tiny raindrops were beginning to make themselves known outside. Whenever it was raining, the fish were always more plentiful. Everything would be fine.
Grace had waited until long after sundown to look for Galatea. It had to be at least one in the morning. She ran across the beach. It was pouring, making it even more difficult to see in the dark.
She ran for what felt like hours. Eventually, she slipped on the wet sand and let herself lie there, accepting defeat. Her chest heaved as she struggled to catch her breath.
She didn’t know when she would get another chance like this. The conditions were perfect. She could hardly see her own hand in front of her face - there was no way anyone could find her.
Just as she opened her eyes, Galatea’s head poked up out of the water. She sighed in relief, rushing to meet her and pulled her into an embrace. It wasn’t returned. The mermaid pushed Grace away from her.
“You said you’d be back.”
Grace raised her hands out of the water to defend herself, but Galatea didn’t give her a chance.
“Did I disgust you that much? I apologize for misinterpreting your feelings towards me, but you didn’t have to leave me here wondering where you were.”
It was then she realized how painful her absence must have been. Galatea acted on impulse, making a decision she had no doubt worried about all day, only for Grace to seemingly abandon her.
She grabbed Galatea’s hand and pulled her to the shore so they could communicate properly. As good of a swimmer she was, signing was still difficult in the ocean, and the winds were beginning to pick up, causing her to struggle to stay afloat.
“You didn’t misinterpret anything. Something came up. I could be in a lot of trouble.”
The mermaid’s expression softened as Grace continued, telling her everything. She had previously tried to avoid the topic, because first of all, there was no way Galatea would appreciate fish being the life force for her entire village. And secondly, how do you even begin to explain that you’re worshiped like a goddess because of pure coincidence?
The lack of response was painful. Grace wasn’t nervous about her reaction, per say. She had noticed Galatea had a tendency to make decisions with only her heart. She did it when she first met, when she had made a sculpture of her… she could think of plenty of instances. She realized it, she knew how Galatea felt about her from her actions alone, and she didn’t think much could change that.
Vulnerability was hard though. She had never gotten a chance to tell anybody how she truly felt about her situation - at least, nobody that would be able to understand her perspective. Without realizing it, her hands had begun trembling as she signed, and Galatea grabbed one of them, successfully prohibiting her from continuing her rambling. Grace avoided her gaze.
The mermaid squeezed her hand, getting no response. Grace felt a finger under her chin gently tilt her head up, and then cup her cheek. A few strands of hair had fallen out of her braid, and Galatea tucked them behind her ear lovingly.
“You’ll be okay,” she signed, letting her face go. “We’ll get through this together. Things could get better any minute right?” Grace nodded.
Galatea embraced her. Grace returned it, nuzzling into her neck. They stayed like that for longer than they should have, knowing that whenever they let go, it would likely be for the last time in a while.
Grace was the one to pull away. “As soon as things are better, I’ll come find you as soon as I can. I promise.”
She felt like her heart was physically being ripped in half. Her chest hurt and tears formed in her eyes. It was ridiculous. This whole situation was ridiculous. She had only met Galatea the day before, and yet she was in physical pain at the thought of not seeing her even if it was for the sake of the safety of them both.
However, the sculptor had become like a beacon of light in her life. She was genuinely the best thing that had ever happened to her. Among days littered with fascinated glances, undeserved worship, and ridiculous amounts of pressure, there was Galatea, someone only Grace was allowed to have. Galatea, who expected only what Grace was able to give. Galatea, a woman whose art belonged in a museum. Galatea, who had a laugh she wished she could record and listen to as if it were music. Galatea. Her Galatea.
Grace was the one to kiss her this time. It was much less impulsive than the last one they shared, lingering as Galatea rested her hands on the brunette’s shoulders. It was desperate, passionate - but nothing heated. It was a goodbye.
Before she could react, she was tackled to the ground, gasping as she struggled against her attacker.
“You’ll pay for doing this to us!”
“We have to use you as a sacrifice! There’s no other choice!”
Grace panicked. She thought she had planned everything out correctly.
“We’re starving because of you!”
She struggled. Multiple people were holding her down. Her eyes were squeezed shut in fear.
“Kill the bitch!”
Grace had almost reached her house. Even if she had come across someone, she never pictured it going like this.
“She deserves to die!”
She felt herself being hoisted up and thrown back down with a thud. Before she was even given a chance to think about the pain, she noticed the fishnet she had been captured in. The people holding her down had released her, and she fought against the net desperately.
“No mercy! No mercy!”
The fishnet moved and she slipped, falling to the ground. Something was dragging her. She never had a chance to readjust, and ended up with a sizable amount of cuts and scrapes from rocks on the ground.
She couldn’t hear what anyone was saying anymore. Despite her adrenaline, she knew there was no getting out of the net no matter how hard she tried.
The next thing she knew, a force threw her into the ocean, and down she went. She snapped back into reality, hearing the muffled noise of cheering from under the water.
Everything finally clicked as oxygen was deprived from her body, calming her down. Grace was about to drown.
She never thought she’d go like this. She always pictured herself surrounded by the people she loved in some hospital bed, saying her bittersweet final goodbyes. She’d tell them not to mourn her, but celebrate her instead, although nobody ever does that when someone they love is dying. At least, not at first. It would frustrate her, but she’d be able to say she was at peace, her biggest concern being the well-being of the people she left behind.
But instead, her lungs burned and her limbs ached, her scrapes becoming much more noticeable in the salty water. The burning sensation in her lungs was excruciating, unlike any other pain she had ever felt. Her vision clouded, beginning to fade away as her brain ceased to function.
Just before her eyes fell shut, she swore she saw an angel. The sight reassured her. Grace knew if there was an afterlife, she’d be going to some sort of heaven. It grabbed her hand as she slipped away, and she used the last bit of energy she had to squeeze it weakly.
And then she was gone.
Galatea lingered near the shore, unable to shake a feeling of concern. Something was wrong. Something awful was about to happen. She never should have let Grace leave.
She swam in circles, similar to how a human would pace around nervously. She couldn’t leave just yet. Maybe Grace would come back. Or maybe she wouldn’t - maybe she would never come back, and she had to stay around to make sure she could keep that from happening.
A muffled commotion caught her attention. She swam up to the surface, watching as a crowd of people rushed to a nearby boat. They sounded angry. Furious, even. She followed them, trying to see just what they were so upset over, but a gut feeling told her she already knew.
A few people boarded the boat. They were carrying something, but Galatea couldn’t tell what it was, especially from the water.
“You’ll pay for starving us!” A voice yelled. The next thing she knew, they threw something overboard with an anchor attached to it. Again, Galatea wasn’t able to get a good look at what it was, but she knew.
She flew through the water, searching desperately for her Grace. She’d be falling quickly, and if she wanted any chance at successfully rescuing her, she had to free her immediately.
A minute passed.
A minute and thirty seconds passed.
Galatea still had a chance. She had to try. There was no way she would let her die.
She just managed to see something below her and sped toward it. No, no, please, no -
Grace was lifeless. The anchor had slowed, but it was still pulling her down. If she had ever been struggling, she had completely given up. She just managed to grab her hand, and suddenly she was being pulled down with her. Even reaching her was a struggle. How was she ever going to free her?
Galatea felt Grace squeeze her hand weakly. Far too weakly. Thankfully, the anchor had reached the bottom of the ocean, so there would be no more sinking, but it took an idiot to not know it was too late.
For upwards of ten minutes, she struggled with the net. It was nearly impossible, but she kept telling herself she had to try. Being at the bottom of the ocean didn’t mean much so close to the shore, and maybe Grace could hold on for just a little longer, but Galatea wasn’t stupid. She had tried just about everything she could find, from sharp rocks, to sticks, to knives that had found their way to the bottom.
After way too long, she found her chisel and was finally able to cut Grace free. There was no doubt about it - any sign of life had completely disappeared. She cradled the woman in her arms, letting out broken sobs.
It was never supposed to end like this. Grace could have lived in a house on the shoreline and walk outside to see what Galatea had sculpted with the sand that night, and they could sit together and talk all day and watch the sun rise and set together. She would have given her beloved the world, expecting nothing in return if she could, but instead, she had been taken away from her.
Looking down at Grace was the most painful part. She looked peaceful, despite the painful death she went through. Her lips had turned purple, her cheek was scraped, and all sorts of twigs and dirt had made their way into her hair, but Galatea still found her beautiful.
Her hair had completely fallen out of its braid, so she pushed it out of her eyes, wanting one last good look at her. What she saw had Galatea in shock.
Black pools, similar to her own, were staring up right back at her. Grace’s eyes were wide open.