Ben watched as his fiancee let loose her luxurious mass of black hair, wondering how it would look underwater. She caught him staring and smiled.
"Are you sure you're ready to do this? It's not too late to cancel."
"No, I'm fine. I'm ready." Ben exhaled.
"Okay, Armstrong." His friend, Joey called, "it's time to suit up! And walk the moon."
Ben got to his feet and moved over to allow Joey help him into the suit. As they went ahead with the careful operation of donning the diver suit, it was Tara's turn to watch. Ben smiled nervously at her and she responded with a confident one. Everything had been properly planned and rehearsed. Joey had built this shed as close to the water's edge as possible and fitted it with lights and the necessary equipment. A suitable date had been chosen to coincide with when there'd be as few other occupants in the building as possible. The last thing they needed was suspicion from others. For the past few nights, they had been rehearsing and testing everything, from the suit to the boat. In such matters, Joey sought nothing short of perfection and he put every effort into making sure that preparations were top notch. Tonight was the D-night, it was almost dawn, by the way and everything and everyone was in good shape. Just before he had his head covered, Tara held Ben's face and looked him in the eye.
"Remember, this is the last time you'll hear my voice, until I return. Hope you haven't forgotten any of the things I told you?"
Ben nodded and then shook his head immediately after. Tara could see that he was giddy and nervous at the same time, though the entire thing was his idea. She smiled again to reassure him, "Don't worry, we'll be fine."
Then she nodded at Joey - his cue to put up finishing touches.
Soon, they were all ready. With one last glance at the men, Tara took a dive straight into the water. There was no splash, just a loud gulp, like the sound of lead dropping in water. Ben looked, but he couldn't see much. It was just too dark. Joey had the stopwatch in his hand and few minutes later, Ben felt his friend's hand on his shoulder. That was his cue. Turning on the waterproof watch on his wrist, he took his own dive.
He feared he would land on Tara, but fortunately, he didn't. As he hit the water, he felt her hand grab his and he was relieved. It was too dark for him to see, so he would have to follow her lead. She had earlier warned him that she would swim a little fast, so he was prepared when he felt her shoot forward. The journey had just begun.
Tara had estimated that it would take an hour to get to their destination and since they were only a few feet from the surface, movement was easier for Ben. He had been an enthusiastic scuba diver in times past, but it had been a long time since he went on a daring dive. This one wasn't going to be very daring though. All that needed to be done was to see and be seen, though never at the same time. He was going to visit Tara's family for the first time in their home turf, but even though she had told him about so many things, from the description of their home to the looks of her siblings, he still wasn't sure what to expect. He tried to paint a picture in his head, but he had to remind himself that he would not have the chance to see or hear much.
Soon, it was time to go a little deeper, deep enough to be safe for both parties. The hosts would not come too close to the surface and the visitor would not go too deep. When they had attained the desired depth, Tara jerked his hand - the signal for lights on. Ben turned on his bright flashlight and focused straight down, just like he had been told to do before the dive. He scanned the area, his eyes keenly following the glare of the light. At first, he could see only small fishes swimming about and then a red anemone, before he noticed the presence of the enclave. It was quite a sight, looking at it from the top. He tried to move further right, so he could get a better view of the entrance, but Tara didn't let him. She tightened her grip on his arm, preventing him from moving an inch. So he had to be contented with scanning the tunnel-like top of the place.
With his light, he followed its steep incline all the way to a rocky part, which Tara had earlier told him covered the sleeping chambers. Ahead of the rocky place was an underwater bush of some sort, with soft, wavy green grasses. Everything was exactly as she had described it. If only he could see the interior... He brought his light back directly on top of the entrance and just then, a slender arm shot out of the enclave! Ben's heart skipped a beat and he focused intently on the arm, which was now joined by another. He felt like an archaeologist on the verge of making a very important discovery, but Tara suddenly jerked him hard to bring him back to his senses. He had forgotten that the mermaids' eyes could not tolerate direct bright lights, especially in the dark. Quickly, he turned off his torch, just as he saw a head begin to appear from the enclave.
Ben waited in the silence, wondering what exactly was going on around him. It felt weird to be unable to see or hear them, though they could see and hear him perfectly. He imagined they must be communicating now. Suddenly, he felt something swish against his leg. It happened one more time, and he imagined it was one of their caudal fins brushing against him. Just how many of them were here now? Tara was still holding his hand. He would have loved to visit during the day, so he could see and be seen, but she had told him that most of her younger siblings slept throughout the day and for the few who were not so nocturnal, it was not very safe to come that close to the surface in the daytime. He felt a hand brush his arm and then grab hold of one of his fingers. Judging by the size of the hand holding him, he imagined it must be the youngest mermaid, Braana. He extricated his other hand from Tara's and waved at the young girl as if he could see her. He felt her response immediately: she held on to his arm with both hands and swung it about, like a child would. Well, it seems mermaids like waves. So he waved all around him, smiling benignly at the invisible crowd, like a politician who had just won a keenly contested election.
There was increased activity all around him now, the water gurgling as they moved about and caudal fin swishes on every part of his body, especially his legs and buttocks. Perhaps they were envious? It lasted only a few minutes, though it felt like many beautiful hours, before Tara's unmistakable grip took control of his hand again. Just before then, he had been holding and feeling a broad caudal fin that was suddenly placed in his hand. It was a big surprise and he had taken the opportunity to run his hand along the length and breadth of the soft but firm surface. If only he wasn't wearing gloves... and if only he could see the fin and its owner!
Now that Tara had grabbed his hand, the party was over. He would have loved to check his timer with the torch, but the mermaids were still around. He could feel Braana reluctantly let go of his arm and as it dropped to his side, it touched her caudal fin as she swam away. Ben waved again to the retreating crowd and he was rewarded with some water gurgling. Then a jerk from Tara signalized that it was time to head to the rendezvous. His experience had been a beautiful one and he swam with renewed vigor as Tara led the way to the point where Joey would be waiting with the boat.
It was a babel of opinions and counter opinions as everyone sought to express their thoughts on the visit of their sister's prospective husband. Their mother and eldest sister sat aside, watching them argue. Rana wondered how they could hear one another well enough to offer the retorts and insults they were shouting at themselves. Some, like Lisha, were even whipping others with their tail, to further press home their point.
"Rana dear, let's leave this market and have a little talk outside." Maana said, leading the way out of the enclave.
They swam to the grassy rocks above the sleeping chambers. This was where they'd been having their mother-daughter talks for as long as Rana could remember. Maana swept her tail over the grasses to drive away the little fishes that were feeding there before tucking her tail under her and sitting down with a sigh.
"So you're sure about this young man, eh?" She questioned, glancing at her daughter.
"Very sure, Mother. He came all the way here to see us, isn't that convincing enough?"
"Well well, don't mind me. I guess I'm just a little bit nervous." Maana sighed again, nervously tapping her tail against the rocks.
"Nervous about what?"
"I have to visit Manis to tell him and his people that you're no longer available for his son. I can almost feel their anger already." She shook her head slowly, staring absently ahead, as if she could see them.
"But you don't have to go alone. I can come with you. I can even show them my ring, just in case they're in a doubting mood." Rana replied, happily flaunting her new engagement ring.
"I don't think that would be a good idea, unless you don't mind losing both the ring and your finger."
The smile swiftly vanished from her daughter's face.
"Let me go before it's too late to catch them at home." She said and got off the rocks.
"Are you sure you'll be fine... going there alone?" Rana called after her.
"I'll be okay, dear. I've been in worse situations." She called back.
The girl mermaid watched as her mother swam off, pondering whether she should secretly follow her to make sure that she would be safe. But if her mother were to catch her, she would be one unhappy woman. Rana knew from experience that Maana loved to be taken at her word and any attempt to do otherwise would invite fury from the no-nonsense mother of twelve. She sighed as her mother turned a corner and disappeared from view. She would have to wait for her return, rather than follow her.
Rana left the grassy rocks and swam into the enclave, but she was startled by Braana, who shot forward and grabbed her tight, sobbing bitterly.
"What's wrong, Braana? Why're you crying?"
"Lisha... she slapped me!" Braana spat, pointing at the accused, who was scowling defiantly in a corner.
"Why would she hit you, dear? Did you do anything wrong?"
"No! She said your ring was fake and I told her it was real gold, but she wouldn't listen. She kept saying it was plastic and I kept saying it was real gold, then she slapped me!"
"Oh sorry, dear. Don't mind her. turning to Lisha Why would you hit your little sister over an argument? Have you no shame?"
"And why would I answer such a stupid question?" Lisha shot back.
Rana didn't bother to respond. She knew the girl was looking for a quarrel and she would never satisfy her by getting into one with her.
"Come on, dear." She said to Braana as she made her way to their mother's chambers.
The little mermaid turned around and made a face at Lisha, but before she could return to catch up with Rana, she received a small rock on her forehead and the pain made her burst into tears again.
"What is it?" Rana asked, rushing back to her. "Did you hit your head?"
"No! It's Lisha. She stoned me!"
"Aaanlisha, I'm warning you! If you do anything to the poor child again, you will see the other side of me!"
Lisha simply sneered and swam away.
"Come on, Braana. Don't mind her. Does it still hurt?"
"A little." She pouted, making herself comfortable by holding on to her sister's back.
When they reached their mother's bed, Rana sat on it and allowed Braana to lie down with her head on her lap.
"Braid my hair, Sister Rana. And tell me a story." The little mermaid demanded, sending bubbles through her mouth to the roof of the enclave.
"You're no longer a baby, Braana." Rana sighed as she prepared to oblige her. "So what story would you like to hear?"
"The King and the three princesses!" She piped excitedly.
"Okay. Once upon a time, there was a king named Misto, who lived in a very grand castle. He had three beautiful daughters. The names of the princesses were Lena, Tena and Sena."
"They sound like rocks." Braana grumbled in disapproval.
"That's what you always say every time I tell you this story. Don't you have another line, hmm?" Rana teased as she pulled her lips, causing the younger mermaid to smile.
"Excuse me, Rana."
The eldest mermaid looked up to find her mother's tenth child before her.
"What is it, Reena?"
"I'm hungry. I..."
"Lina caught some lobsters during the night. Ask her to give you some, just say I sent you."
"What can a few tiny lobsters do for me?" Reena scoffed, swishing her tail dismissively, as if to sweep the whole race of lobsters from existence. "I'd like to go to those rocks near Podeo Island. There are a lot of clams and vegetables over there."
"No. Never. We'll wait for Mother's return and then we'll have breakfast. Nobody is getting scallops or clams or whatever."
"No, no and no. Wait for breakfast or eat Lina's lobsters, those are the only two options available."
Reena flung her tail around and swam off in anger.
"She wants to see her boyfriend." Braana whispered, grinning at her sister.
"What! How do you even know about these things, you this incorrigible little thing?"
Her only response was a giggle. Rana sighed and shook her head in bewilderment.
"Aaantaareena!" She called after a while.
The girl returned to the entrance of their mother's chambers and frowned at her elder sister, her arms across her chest.
"Where did you say you wanted to go?" Rana asked.
"Um... near Podeo Island. Will you let me go?"
"Yes, you can go. Just make sure not to stay long."
"Okay. Thank you, Rana!" The girl grinned as she darted out of the chambers.
"Hey Braana, excuse me for some minutes. I'll be back soon."
Rana left the young mermaid in her mother's chambers and swam off in search of Lina. She found her always-busy sister categorizing her myriad of weighted bottles.
"Hey Lina, I need you for a few minutes."
"Okay. Give me a second."
Lina packed all her bottles out of the way and put them as close to her bed as possible Lisha had a habit of sweeping her tail along the ground, 'mistakenly' smashing the bottles in the process. When she was done, she sighed and swam over to her sister.
"Are you done?" Rana asked, arms akimbo and far from happy.
"Come on, don't be like that. You know how Lisha hates me and my bottles."
"Whatever. Let's go."
"Go where?" The younger mermaid asked as she swam out of the enclave with her.
"We're keeping someone in sight." Was Rana's only answer.
The girls kept an unsteady pace as they tried as hard as they could to stay out of the line of sight of their younger sister, who was constantly looking behind her as she swam. They quietly tailed her all the way to the reefs around Podeo. There, they watched as she leaned into the welcome embrace of a waiting young merman. The couple remained in each other's arms for a while before the merman broke the embrace and kissed Reena on the lips. Rana watched in disgust as the inexperienced lovers fumbled around with their lips and tongues. Suddenly, Maalina began to giggle.
"What's funny?" Rana demanded.
"Look who's kissing. Barely older than a child!"
"She's so lucky that mother's not the one seeing this. Let's go back. She'll come meet me at home to explain her activities."
When Reena returned over an hour later, she had only a tiny bundle of vegetables with her and no clam.
"Reena, come over her." Rana ordered.
The clearly happy mermaid swam over, swishing her tail about.
"What is it, Rana?"
"Is that all the vegetables and clams you got, those few strands?"
"Um... well, I..."
"What did you do apart from getting vegetables?"
"Do?" Reena asked, feigning ignorance. "I told you I was going to get vegetables and that's all I did, nothing else."
"Okay then. Mother will have to know all I've heard about what you did."
The pretence was dropped immediately.
"Oh Rana. You know just what Mother would do to me! She'll make sure I never go out for a year!"
"And you think you deserve anything less? Anyway, if you don't want me to tell Mother, then you'll have to do your chores without me reminding..."
"That's not all. You'll be the only one getting vegetables for the family from now on."
There was complete silence from Reena. Her only response was a sour face.
"Won't you agree to that too?" Rana asked.
"But picking vegetables is not as easy as you think."
"But you seem to like doing it. By the way, your boyfriend can always help you with it. That way, you'll have more profitable things to do than to kiss like birds."
Reena covered her face in shame and darted off to the sleeping chambers.
When the mother mermaid returned home, she found all her daughters fast asleep, with the exception of Rana and Lina.
"How did it go?" Was the first thing Rana said to her mother as she saw her swim into her chambers.
"Quite well." Maana shrugged.
"Come on, Mother. Tell me all the details. You know how much I hate all this suspense. What exactly went on there?"
"Well, since it's about you, I guess you have the right to ask for details. Am I right?"
The woman laughed at her eldest daughter's anxiety, eliciting an angry pout from her.
"Okay, okay. Seriously, it went well. Thansa was not at home. I met Maanis instead and the man was not very comfortable with the news. I guess he thought I hate him or something like that, so he tried to convince me of all we could gain from your marriage to his son. But I kept trying to tell him that it was your choice and not mine. At that point, he switched to how unbreakable and sacred your father's promise to him is in our realm. In fact, he countered everything I had to say. But guess who asked him to let it go and take it as fate?"
"Our unfriendly friend, Minusa."
"What!" Rana was shocked.
"I was surprised too, my dear. I thought he was going to further complicate things for me, but instead, he employed a level of diplomacy I never thought he was capable of."
"Wow. It seems people really do change."
Maana scoffed. "I doubt that. I think he's just bent on making sure that you never marry his nephew."
"But what's in it for him?" Rana asked, puzzled.
"I have no idea, my dear." Her mother shrugged. "Even the god of the sea has no idea what goes on in that man's head. Anyway, I'm so hungry and I'm sure everyone must be starving by now. Let's go start working on breakfast."