I remembered the lone tree being much smaller. The calm sea reflected the cloudless sky in an endless expanse of blue and orange, save for the ocean’s natural tower. I hopped off the ship and waved farewell. It was polite, though they had already received my money. I’ll have to be careful about my spending habits.
The trunk, several yards thick, hummed at my touch. I kissed it and dove beneath the surface. The yellowing tree continued downward, its roots spreading into the blue-tinted reef below. It took a minute for the tree to adjust my lungs, but I soon was comfortable breathing the heavier liquid.
I hung by the tree for a while, admiring the surrounding vibrant life. Colorful fish swam almost carefree, anemone retracted at the slightest touch, and the sand and rock floor glittered with the refractions of the surface. It brought back memories of my friends from years ago. How we would hang out by the docks, them in the water and me and the others on land. Being friends with Saestel does provide challenges, but they were still friends. Time didn’t matter to me much then.
“What’s your business here,” the guard asked me. The saestel had swam up to me, fins slicing effortlessly through the water. It made me a bit jealous of their freedom of movement while I sank and struggled to move about.
“Hello. I’m Haot. I’ve come to see Lify,” I replied. I strained to do so, my lungs and vocal cords aren’t used to the thickness of water. They led me away, having to go slow as I clumsily crawled through the sea after them. It was unfortunate the town’s too small for vehicles. More unfortunate that I needed to relieve myself soon.
After following a road I hadn’t noticed before (roads are tunnels of clear rock and flora-free tubes), we came to the rural township. The buildings were built into the reef, covered in rocky coral. Some of them were just coral. My guide led me to a home on the outskirts. I supposed that, in a small enough town, everyone knew everyone.
Or maybe it was Lify’s pet abaia. Before we even got to the door the tiny yet long eel smothered me, talking simple nonsense of happiness for visitors. I tried, in vain, to push its slimy self off of me. It just meant a bit longer to get inside. I normally wouldn’t have minded, but I could feel my lungs and lower gut beginning to protest.
My guide left and Lify’s abaia pouted when I entered the decompression chamber.
“And they kicked you out because of it? Just like that?” Lify asked. It was dark outside, darker than I was used to on the surface. Luckily, Lify kept her home well lit by both electrical lights and bioluminescent plants. The plants couldn't be turned off, however pretty they were.
I took a sip of the pale liquid; I wasn’t intoxicated enough. “Yeah, lose your job and suddenly all your fairweather friends fly the coop.”
“Yon," she sighed. She leaned back into the sofa, staring out into the blackness. “I don’t think I’d call them friends.”
“No, I wouldn’t. But the price was right. Anyways, it’s not all gloom and doom, I already have another job lined up. And a new apartment.” I took another sip. I wondered how the other denizens of the town, out here in the water, drink.
“That’s good.” She drank. “So what are you going to do about your belongings?”
I hadn’t thought about that. I don’t think they would throw my stuff out, at least not right away. And if they use his speech enhancer- “I’ll get them soon enough.”
“And I suppose you plan on staying here the night?”
“I was hoping.”
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had company,” she said. I could imagine, a humi living beneath the waves must be a strain on her. She continued, “Not so easy having other company. At least not comfortable for everyone. Not to mention the attitudes down here. People here are so much more,” she tapped her cup, “they have smaller personal bubbles. I mean, don’t be surprised if you find a stranger in my home. That doesn’t happen too often, especially when my house is a little air pocket. But still, it’s been hard getting used to.”
“You miss home?”
She smiled, “no, not really. It’s only occasionally. Mostly it’s just me and Ozek.” Ozek is the name of her abaia, “and I really enjoy scribing for the local ministry. Believe it or not, writing underwater is at least twenty times easier.”
I couldn’t wait any longer. “Would you mind if I use your restroom?”
I awoke the next morning to congested silence, a far cry from really anywhere on the surface. I got up, got dressed, and pulled the note off the door. It wasn’t there last night, though I couldn’t have been sure. The ceiling, with its growth of colorful coral, was what I mostly paid attention to.
It was some instructions from Lify, she’d be at work for the day. I suppose having a guest doesn’t excuse someone from work. I wish I were in that boat. The first command, in thicker handwriting, told me not to open the door until the room was filled with water. And before I was to do that, I needed to eat the orb she left for me on the nightstand. On said nightstand, sure enough, was a small yellowing and porous orb next to some fish filets. How kind of her to leave breakfast for me. Before moving with my growling stomach, the note had more to say. I was to not defecate, the bluntness caught me a bit off guard, until I was stationed at her toilet. And a post statement: not to worry about Nama, she’s just cleaning the house.
The fish that tasted so fishy wasn’t the worst breakfast. I guess I’m not as used to unseasoned food as she is. After the fish came the orb, a lighter-than-it-looks thing that hummed at my touch. Shortly after, I found myself feeling short of breath. So, I pressed the big blue button next to the door and down poured water from previously unnoticed holes in the ceiling corners.
Now I was free to exit the room and enter the rest of the submerged house. It didn’t take long to meet this Nama character, with her thrumming musically as she picked up bits and barnacles. And it didn’t take long for her to come too close, excitedly complimenting my attire. My attire, might I add, was quite fetching with its free-floating in the water. I guess I couldn’t have blamed her.
I nearly pushed the elderly saestel away as I made for the exit. But from one fire to another, her attention became replaced with Ozek’s. The eel wrapped around me, again, and asked where I was heading. I hadn’t planned on heading anywhere at the time, but I had nothing else to do. Maybe a walk would have cleared my head some. Rather, a swim.
It was a bit of both, swimming and walking. My lungs, having filled with salted water, made me far less buoyant. I felt like a smoke creature drifting along so loosely attached to the earth but still called down eventually. When coming back down, I had to be sure where I was stepping. The reef is filled with sharp objects ready to cut my boots, some alive, some even poisonous. Ozek swam around me, seemingly proud at how much better at swimming it was.
Most of the walk into the wilderness was quiet. Quiet in the way that having so much din around you makes nothing distinguishable and therefore unneeding of attention.
The kelp forest just outside of town was neither inviting nor disenchanting. We were in the town, then we were in the forest, simple as that. However, it was much safer to navigate, with sand replacing rock for the most part. Of course, rocks were still everywhere, but most of them had kelp attachments, refusing tread.
Some distance away, I think an hour or two walk, Ozek begged for food. Now, I don’t know what Lify fed it, or if I should have been feeding it, but the nagging wouldn’t stop if I hadn’t. So I conjured a glass spear, the glass I could make from birth, and scouted for something without spines or large fangs. One, a plump grouper, shifted along the sand looking for its prey.
I lifted my arm, steadied my aim at the beast so used to minimal threats, and. “Hey, what in Yon are you doing here Haot!” The spear whizzed wildly out of control, a glint in the water as it spun and slowed way too soon. “Careful,” came the thrumming through the surf, shaking my very bones, “you might hurt someone.”
“Zjaver? Zjaver, how’ve you been!”
“Good, good. I’d heard rumors of a humi visiting,” the chunky saestel said. He’d gained noticeable weight, his gut bulging and his paddle-fins bloated. “And who else could it have been?”
I tried my best not to strain my voice yelling. My body was not built to create deep tones to travel the waves. “Sorry, wasn’t planning to stay long. And it was a bit short notice, me visiting. I would have said hi.”
“So you were trying to avoid me?” Zjaver swam to be close. I thought for so long it was because we were friends that he and the others would get close. Context helps a lot. “Of course I’m kidding, though we will have to get everyone else for a little get together before you’re off to the city again.”
“Dumb,” Ozek hissed, “dumb make food flee.”
Zjaver emanated playful worry, the kind meant for a small child. “Oh I’m sorry. Don’t worry, Haot here will catch you something good. ” He paused, “And then I’ll get something better.” With that challenge, we spent the better part of the afternoon stalking larger and larger fish. Nothing gigantic by the end, but larger than a grouper. Understandably, it was mostly just us swimming through the kelp catching up.
I didn’t know their customs on the matter, but mine are private. “Hey, I’m gonna go for a bit, I need to let loose the bombs.”
“But we’re in the middle of the kelp.” Zjaver had to explain to me what Lify had said in her note.
And it was then panic set in.
We needed to get back, back to Lify’s home as soon as possible. I was not about to drown from losing my job, not while I had another lined up at least. I tried first grabbing onto Zjaver’s back, but even my pruney fingers slipped from his scales. He tried pushing me, ramming his bony face-plate into my back. Friction was not on our side.
Neither was light. The nights here really are more drastic. The seascape before us enveloped in darkness, kelp shadows creating pitch-black lines with slight bioluminescent creatures hither and yon. I was sure if I didn’t die from defecating, I would step on an urchin or a fanged-mollusk would nibble my toes.
Back, back to Lify’s toilet I needed to get. Zjaver guided me while I was hopelessly lost. I felt panic on several fronts, all exacerbated by my lower groaning. It took all my effort to clench, effort that was taken away from our speed. Ozek didn’t help either, not letting me free from its coil. I get that it was worried, but then was not the time for a hug.
Back in town, within sight of our goal, the worst thing could have happened. “Haot, is that you?” Namel stopped us dead in our tracks. I emanated frustration at her, could she not see we were in a hurry. She’s always been oblivious. “It is you! Zjaver, why didn’t you tell me you had Haot visiting you. Oh how are things going, it’s been ages. So much has happened, just the other day-”
“Namel,” interrupted Zjaver, “move, we’re busy.” Curt, but we needed to be effective. And there was no way my feeble air-centric voice could have overpowered hers.
Effective, he was not. “You can’t possibly be busy enough to at least say hello.” She swam uncomfortably behind me, flicking the water with her tail. I get she was being playful, but I almost felt I lost everything then and there.
“We are busy. Haot, has… A sensitive matter he needs to take care of. Now." He moved between me and Namel, pushing me gently along.
This didn’t deter her. “What is it?” emanating worry, “what’s wrong Haot?”
Again, her attentiveness to the situation made things so much harder. The worry, how palpable it was, it sent Ozek into a tizzy. “To home. To home,” It repeated. And while it repeated, it squeezed me like a python to its prey.
I couldn’t take it, I shouted: “I need to take a dump, I’ll die if I don’t.” That was enough to have her stop and us to proceed.
When we arrived at Lify's house, I would have teared up if I were on land. It was dim inside, save for some faint always-present lights. They were brighter now with the darkness outside. And when I pushed the door, it didn’t budge. Locked.
Zjaver spun, creating a torrent. “Well now, what are we supposed to do? Nama must be gone, done cleaning hours ago.”
I didn’t want to respond, my attention was needed elsewhere. I merely emanated panic, something I knew I shouldn’t have done but couldn’t help. Squeezing came again.
“There must be way in. I can break down the door.”
Freedom. Ozek left me and slithered to Zjaver. “No.”
“Fine, but there must be a way in,” Zjaver said. “Lify’s still got a few hours of work.” [I]Why aren’t you at work, I thought. He turned to the abaia, “Ozek, how do you get inside when mom isn’t home?”
It paused in thought, however much I silently urged it to hurry up with an answer. “I’m not allowed inside.”
Great, we’re getting nowhere. But then I remembered: the previous night, when we were drinking, she’d come from some back door into the living room. “I think there’s a door in the back,” I braced and shouted.
We fumbled about for the door. While the front was inviting with lights, the back was as if I walked with my eyes shut. Zjaver found the door and my heart nearly gave when he said it was unlocked. Gave because my mind only heard the word ‘locked’ before I fully processed what he said.
From there we raced to the bathroom. Zjaver and Ozek waited for me outside, shouting for me to respond if I was alive from the other side of the door. I paid them no mind and found myself pouring out tension.
Then, panic renewed. Now I really was drowning, my lungs burned with the rage of the sky’s fire. I clawed at the dimly-lit walls, searching for that button to drain the room. The door, I remembered it was by the door. The button my fingers found, it turned the lights. On and off and back on. That wasn’t the right button. I was going to die.
“Of course I didn’t die, the button was to the right of the door, not the left.”
“When he came out, he was like a picked skeleton,” Zjaver says. “I didn’t think a Humi could look more tired.” The din of the bar couldn’t hope to overpower his voice, still.
Namel stirs nervously in her end of the bowl-booth. “I’m so sorry. If I had known-”
“Don’t worry.” Zjaver bites his drink, a pale globule surrounded by a membrane. “He’s here now and alive.”
Lify rammed her fist into the table, “You’re both idiots.”
I bite into my drink and relish the explosion of flavor before responding. “And why’s that?”
“You could have just gone up!”