“Go to sleep,” he tells me, tired and irritable. He’s over-hot, pressed too close to the vent, but it’s hard for him to resist the warmth. His old bones call for it, he says.
“I’ve been asleep forever,” I tell him, because I am bored and restless and my bones are still strong. I feel that we’ve been in this place for a long time.
Just as he says, “You don’t know forever, girl,” the call finally reaches us. A shatteringly low sound that vibrates sediment up from the floor and stings at my nose and eyes. Come, it says. It’s time to move. It’s time to eat.
Around me, everyone stirs at once. Still limbs unstick themselves.
“Finally,” my father says, “one of you young things made yourselves useful.” I say nothing to this. We gather ourselves and we go.
• • •
Once there was a creature like us who lived on the surface of the sea, a bright and beautiful thing. He had warm skin and flat teeth that had never needed to tear hide because the bounties of the world dropped into his mouth almost before he could open it. He’d made a quick million in stocks and now he and his family were able to float along like oil and loose fat, surrounded by the water of the world but apart from it. He’d brought his father and mother along, too, to repay them for all their years of toil.
• • •
My father praises the cousin who found it, and she sways in place and says nothing.
I’m too young to go out in search of whales, but soon I will not be. I wonder if I should ask my cousin for advice. She looks, right now, like she wouldn’t give it.
“Eat, then,” my father says, and we set to.
It’s so strange! It’s been long and longer since I sank my teeth into something other than rock and mud, and to feel the skin break and clots of flesh spread along my tongue brings a rush of warmth to my head. I eat until my jaw tires and still I’m not full.
When I finally wrench my head back, pulling strings of skin from my teeth, my cousin is crouched next to me, watching. She does not eat.
“How did you find it?” I say.
She is silent for a time. Then she says, “I went mad from hunger. When I saw it settle, I thought at first that I had finally died.”
“Oh,” I say. On my other side, another cousin swats at an ambitious hagfish with the flat of her hand, hissing. Her mouth is full of meat.
• • •
“Tell me what I can do to help you,” the creature’s father said, and the creature said: nothing, nothing. There’s nothing more in the world than this.
• • •
“I see,” I say, though I don’t. I’ve known only my father and my cousins and the warmth of the vents, the press of bodies all around me.
My father is restless. It’s nearly time for us to go — for some to go to the ground and some of the younger cousins to go in search of other whalefalls. Maybe it’s time for me to go. For the first time, I feel a spark of fear.
“You’ll be all right,” my cousin says. “You’re fast and strong.” I think she’s lying, perhaps to comfort me, but it’s hard to say.
My father pets the back of my skull. “You’ll do us proud,” he says. “Find a beast big enough to sustain us for years, like I once did. It’s in your blood.”
That’s another one of his stories. I’ve heard it many times.
One day, the creature’s father confronts him, far away where the creature’s children cannot see. “You think you’re so much better than me,” the creature’s father says. “Like you had it so hard — like I was a thing you had to overcome.”
No, the creature starts to protest, but by then it’s too late. The creature’s father is pushing him, is shaking him by the shoulders. There’s some expression in his father’s face, but the creature can’t interpret it, because the creature’s foot slips on slick wood and then he is floundering, falling away. He’s falling forever, through the salt sea and into the abyssal dark. Somewhere in his fall, he forgets to breathe air. His heart grows hard and cold.
Never again, the creature vows.
• • •
Before I go, my father reaches out and squeezes my shoulder. “Do me proud,” he says. “A father’s greatest wish is to see his child surpass him.”
“I will,” I say, “I’ll find a treasure like no one’s ever seen befor—” but when I look into his eyes they seem cold.
I wish immediately that I had not said it.