Shveta’s inspirational image, La Dormeuse, by Alain Lacki.
Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
She Sleeps Beneath the Sea
by Shveta Thakrar
She sleeps beneath the sea. Shh, shh, plish, splash. The susurration brushes past her unresponsive ears as the surf tucks itself below her chin, a sleek coverlet of warm salt water in shades of blue and green and bordered with seed pearls of foam. Reclining on her side, her dark tresses matted against the damp sand and one brown hand supporting her head, she hints at secrets in the mysterious tongue of slumber: a slight gasp here, a soft sigh there.
When she dreams, she finds herself in a world of glass. It is aquamarine, it is teal, it is turquoise and balmy and wet, and it is the sea, oh, the blessed, blessed sea. It is home, her home.
As she looks around, she begins to wonder. It is like this every time, this bubble world beneath the sea that has somehow become glass and mountains and castles. Everything cut from jewels, everything radiant in the sunlight spilling from above.
She is bare but for the snake’s tail she wears from the waist down, the golden necklace about her throat, and the seaweed threaded through the whorls of black hair trailing behind her. She is, she realizes, suspended in a kind of liquid crystal. Inside a gem. She is serpentine, aquamarine. The two words circle her head like rainbow-scaled fish, wriggling away when she reaches for them.
So she follows the fish-words and swims, her powerful cobra muscles propelling her through the water until she sees another naga appear from a hole in the sea floor. He is handsome, with skin as dark as her own, but his face is crinkled with concern.
The worry falls away like so much sand when he lifts his head. “Kalyani!” he cries, his words swirling through the water in iridescent bubbles.
Recognition floods her snaky heart. It is only a dream, but she knows this man. “Baldev!”
Her brother embraces her with strong arms. “We thought something had eaten you.” Irritation tempers his delight, tinting the bubbles orange-red. “Well, come down where you belong.”
Down, she thinks. Down to the subterranean kingdom of the nagas, where her mother and father and fellow hatchlings wait. She knows this with the confidence of dream logic.
She has dreamed this dream many times before, but never has she followed Baldev down. Always, always, she has woken first.
This time, Kalyani-who-is-not-Kalyani moves to enter the hole, to step into the enchanted world she knows so well. Her home.
The moon shone down on Ajita’s face, painting odd images on the insides of her eyelids until she jerked awake. Just how long had she been lying here, alone on the dark beach and pickled in brine?
Images flickered in that ephemeral way of dreams that would not be caught, but she had pieced this one together from multiple viewings. The vision had begun about six months ago, always the same, always the ocean, always the nagas, except tonight, her alter ego had been ready to descend into the land below.
Something fragile uncurled in her and reached out for that land, ached for its endless, brilliant blues and greens.
A cool, salt-speckled breeze murmured in her ears, and Ajita could almost believe it was asking her to wake, to remember. Come home. The cresting waves’ whispers echoed the plea.
If only she could!
Half-hoping, she glanced down at her legs. In the moonlight, they were toned and shapely from all the running she did, but legs all the same. She was a runner, she told herself, not a shape-shifter, and definitely not a snake. The reminder made her heart contract.
Home, she chided herself, her hand scrabbling absently at her throat, is a house in North Brunswick. Not the sea.
Even as a child, she’d loved the ocean, climbing into the bathtub one night and sleeping with the faucet running until Mummy found her. “You could have drowned!” Mummy had cried, snatching her out of the tub.
But Ajita hadn’t been afraid.
In the distance, a whistle shrieked, harsh and piercing. Seconds later, the beam of a flashlight stabbed in her direction. The beach patrol. Ajita shook off the lingering haze of sleep and rose, her legs primed to flee.
Something glittered in the gloom, partially buried in the damp sand just beyond her foot. Ajita fumbled for it, her hand closing around a carved golden choker. It was set with three perfect pearls. She stared at it, tracing the patterns with her fingertip.
It must have washed ashore, but from where? And should she take it or leave it?
“Hey, you!” a deep voice called. “Beach’s closed!”
Ajita slid the choker around her neck, then propelled herself up and into motion, thighs and arms pumping. Her bare feet slapped the sand as she raced toward the deserted boardwalk. It was almost as good as flying—or swimming in imaginary underwater realms. The security guard wouldn’t be able to keep up. No one ever could.
Fifteen seconds later, she’d easily lost her pursuer. Still, she ran and ran and ran, passing the desolate arcade, its garishly painted games forsaken in the off-season. Skee-Ball, ring toss, the claw machine all flashed by in her vision. Even the carousel with the gilt-trimmed seahorses and blue-eyed sirens slept, shadows its only riders.
The beach was hers, all hers, just as she had belonged to it ever since she first visited as a toddler.
Ignoring the stitch in her chest, Ajita ran until she came to the silent ice cream and funnel cake kiosks at the end of the boardwalk, then a few blocks more to the little motel with the blinking red vacancy sign. She’d chosen it for its proximity to the sea.
She could feel it again, the wind’s salty caress on her cheeks, a swearing of sanctuary, and so she ran harder.
The ease of her escape made her laugh as she climbed the motel stairs and fumbled in her pockets for the room key. But it wasn’t there. Nor was her cell phone or her wallet. Instead, the door stood open. Barely, yet even barely was dangerous.
All at once, the euphoria drained out of her.
This. This was the kind of thing that always got her in trouble. No matter how much she tried, she just couldn’t bring herself to care about the details. It was like the time she’d neglected to wear shoes to the grocery store. They felt clumsy and strange, confining, and so were easy to forget, especially when the sun burned golden and the smaragdine grass beckoned like a lush carpet. But no one else had understood, and the manager had firmly escorted her back to the parking lot.
Inside, the acid-yellow room stank of ammonia and mildew, but as far as she could tell, nothing had been disturbed, not even her purse. Ajita let out a sigh of relief.
Her phone rang then, her boss’s number flashing in the caller ID field. As if that had set off a bomb, text message after unopened text message exploded onto the screen. Dismay saturated Ajita’s body, rendering it too heavy to hold up.
Her boss needed to speak to her immediately. Even though she’d taken a personal day. Could Ajita please call her back?
The last message was the simplest of all, and the most cutting. where are you?
Suddenly all Ajita wanted was her bed. She flopped onto it, all crusted salt and sand, uncaring of the comforter that had probably never seen a washing machine. Why, she asked the sliver of moon shining through the grimy window, why did being human fit so very badly?
The sliver stared back, unmoved.
Her lips pressed together, Ajita skimmed her fingernails along her thigh. She could almost see the scales rippling just beneath the surface of her moon-silvered skin, ready to burst free. If she sliced deep enough, what would she find?
Silly, the moon seemed to reply. Nagas didn’t exist. Didn’t she know this life was all she had?
She sleeps beneath a sleek coverlet of warm salt water. Shh, shh, plish, splash. The susurration slinks into her ears as the surf tucks itself below her chin, shades of blue and green bordered with seed pearls of foam, a bedspread finer than any silk. Her dark hair splayed out against the moist sand, her brown skin made golden in the light of the morning sun, she dreams.
She is serpentine, aquamarine. The sea flows in and out of her lungs, supple as air. She is a nagini, free to swim and to wander, unfettered by mortal troubles.
Kalyani stuffs a woven bag with the pearls and cowrie shells she collects from among the seaweed and coral, imagining them set into a golden circlet for her mother to sell at the market. Or perhaps to give to her aunt, the Princess Uloopi, as a holiday gift. Uloopi has been miserable ever since the human man, Arjun, married her yet left for the surface world. Kalyani wonders if anything so exciting will ever happen to her.
But she’ll never have the chance to find out, because her parents forbade her to have contact with humans. “See the trouble they cause!” her father roars. Her mother is softer in tone but just as steely of sentiment, speaking of foolish human drama, murder, and despair. Her daughters will be safe down here, as will her son. And Baldev, the firstborn, is only too happy to comply.
It is Kalyani who twitches, restless, teeming with curiosity and its inseparable cousin wanderlust.
Kalyani imagines putting the slender circlet on her own head and declaring herself princess or even queen. Surely then she could do as she pleases?
She envisions slipping away and sneaking into the human realm—into another life, another skin, another person. Into magic.
Her sack full, she propels herself through the jewellike waters to the portal where Baldev waits, his handsome face crinkled with concern at her absence. He embraces her with strong arms. “We thought something had eaten you.” Irritation tempers his delight, tinting the bubbles orange-red. “Well, come down where you belong.”
Down, she thinks. Down to the subterranean kingdom of the nagas, where her mother and father and fellow hatchlings wait. Down where her movements are carefully monitored. So like her aunt, the elders mutter, and try to scour the stars from her eyes, the dreams from her heart.
It is too much. It is the enormity of the ocean bearing down on her lungs. Trapped in her own skin, and she cannot molt.
Kalyani takes her brother’s strong hand and lets him lead her toward the entrance.
Soon, the coral says, the seaweed sighs, the bag of shells simpers, soon the time will come to choose her own path, just as Uloopi did. They whisper stories of a mythical blue sky, a blue unlike any she can imagine, filled with birds that swim through it on wings. They wonder what other marvels Arjun found there, marvels that could also be hers.
As she hastens down the portal into the subterranean realm, Kalyani averts her eyes. She knows already what choice she will make.
“I don’t even know what to say, Ajita,” her boss, Helen, exclaimed into the phone the next morning. “Your last round of copy wasn’t even close to meeting client expectations. If I’d handed it over as it was, we could have lost the deal!”
A warm breeze whooshed through the motel room window, carrying with it the scents of salt and seaweed. Come home, little one. Ajita inhaled as fully as she could, wishing she could hang up on Helen and plunge into the sea.
Outside her dreams, though, she couldn’t swim. Somehow she’d never learned, even though her brothers and sister had had lessons. She’d never been able to figure out what to do with her legs.
Yet her dream-self swam with all the litheness of a fish, and it was those uncanny dreams that drew her here to the Jersey shore. Had she remembered months ago to renew her passport, she could have flown to Mumbai and taken a nice, long nap on the sands of Juhu beach. If she wanted to run into a naga, India was the place to do it.
Years ago, her grandmother had told the family tales of the serpentine shifters who warred with their eagle-headed garuda cousins, who slithered and swayed and spiraled, who shed scales and sometimes loved humans. Ajita had immediately insisted on a pet snake of her own.
If she couldn’t be one, she’d reasoned, she might as well have one.
“I know you’re having a hard time; I get that,” Helen continued, her voice sympathetic. “But other people are depending on you. It’s lucky I was there to make the corrections. It was lucky I could cover for you.”
Ajita stared at the muted TV, which showed a judge yelling at a clueless defendant. She definitely didn’t feel lucky.
“But Ajita, you put the entire company-client relationship in serious jeopardy. By law, I’m not permitted to ask about your health, but I think we can both agree this isn’t a good situation for anyone.”
No, thought Ajita. No, it’s really not.
“And I’m not the only one who’s noticed you just don’t seem happy with us anymore. We’re worried about you, Ajita.”
Happy? To work on auto insurance ad campaigns? Ajita nearly hissed into the phone. As a teenager, she’d often pretended she had fangs and bitten people who’d annoyed her. If only she could do that now; she’d show Helen what there really was to worry about.
“And you took a personal day on top of it all?” Helen made a tsk-tsk sound that grated even through the phone. Outside the window, a seagull hopped along the balcony railing, then leapt into the air.
Ajita studied her bare leg from thigh to shin. By daylight, it was just that, human skin. Of course it was. She caught her lip between her blunt human teeth.
“So I’m sure you’ll understand that we have to let you go,” Helen finished smoothly. Ajita had been expecting the courteous dismissal, could picture the polite smile. Even Helen’s makeup would be tasteful. That was what made her such a good corporate drone.
Yet the pronouncement still jabbed Ajita in the gut. It was one thing to leave a job, another to be fired. Her chest tightened. What would Mummy and Papa say? She’d already disappointed them by not going to law school, and then by not getting married, but at least she’d had a job. Now what?
But she didn’t want the job! She didn’t want any of those things. She’d come here to seek something . . . else.
By the way, wondered Helen, could Ajita please go ahead and come in on Monday long enough to collect any personal effects from HR? Anything that remained unclaimed after a week would be discarded.
Enough. Ajita clicked the end call button and dropped the phone onto the bed.
Her breath came fast, too fast. The way her heart thudded, it might break through her rib cage at any second. She closed her eyes and, clutching her choker, curled into herself.
Minutes passed, Ajita’s breathing growing slower and more subdued.
If only she could scratch off her skin. It itched and chafed and choked—and it had never, ever fit. Not really, though they had all agreed to the lie, had all agreed to believe she could wear their rules and ridiculous demands like a suit.
But, she thought, stepping out the door and onto the balcony, what if—what if something lay dormant beneath? Something deeper, richer, more?
Her fingers found the choker again. Come home, sang the sea breeze, come home.
The words sent shivers up and down her arms and worked their way into her bones. Was it more than her imagination, then, that the ocean called, its chant audible only to her?
She thought of her parents, how the motivations of her adopted garden snake had always made more sense to her than theirs. How, when her pet had slunk out of its tank and undulated away into the backyard, she was the only one who’d grieved. Even now, her heart twinged, pulsing against the choker.
Ajita removed the choker from around her neck and studied it. How had it appeared just when she sought comfort?
How, in fact, had it appeared at all?
She stroked the still-warm metal. She rubbed harder. Her fingers knew its shape, each intricate pattern and design, each saltwater pearl. But how?
Trembling, she shut her eyes and imbibed huge draughts of fresh, ocean-infused air. Each gulp bore clues to the chronicle of her past. They settled within her, stinging like sea nettles as they supplanted her bones, her blood, her beliefs.
Kalyani. Come home to us.
And then she knew. Some part of her had always known.
When Ajita opened her eyes, she inverted the choker. It was no choker, of course, but a circlet.
A circlet she had forged once upon a time, in another life.
Her skin, her human skin, felt raw and blistered, as though someone had taken sandpaper to it. She doubled over, desperate not to graze anything, desperate not to retch. The sea, Ajita thought. She needed to soothe her skin in the sea.
She ran from the room and down the stairs, hope winding around her heart and the circlet winding into her hair.
She sleeps beneath the sea. Shh, shh, plish, splash. She is serpentine, aquamarine. She is home, here where the world is glass and blue and green. Seaweed plaits itself into her hair and slips around her belly, both a welcome and a shackle.
It reminds her of Baldev that morning, how his striking features had crinkled with concern at her absence, and how he’d enfolded her in strong arms. How, especially, he had scolded her before taking her below. “We thought something had eaten you.”
Yes, she thinks. Something had. An innocent and unwise yearning for mortality. But she is back now, her once-lively spirit dulled.
During the festival of lights, while merrymakers roll and ripple through the winding streets in full serpent form, their forked tongues flicking, Kalyani touches her torch to the golden diyas. Fangs shimmer in the miniature fires, mirroring the stars of the heavenly abode. So far above those sky-flames are, they might as well be a fish-wife’s tale. She will never see them sparkle again, here within the confines of her home, just as she will never again wear human legs, will never again smell the air after a thunderstorm. She will certainly never run, arched feet like shells pounding on hard soil.
Despite all advice, she has relived Uloopi’s folly. Uloopi loved the indifferent human Arjun, who left her for the human world, her only souvenir of their union a small son. Kalyani loved the indifferent human world, which devoured the meat of her dreams and sucked the marrow from their bones, her only souvenir a gray-hued isolation.
Always she muses: Can a sullied heart ever heal?
Other nagas may travel freely, may shift their shapes and hide among the humans, but she has given her word to the sea itself that she will remain here. It is not a difficult promise to make, not when she looks around her realm and spots the homes wrought of gold and silver, not when she sleeps on cushions on silk and seed pearl. It is an easier one still when, in moments of silence, she relives flashes of that sad former human life.
With each day that passes, they transform, now memory, now the tattered scraps of a long-ago dream, a half-remembered fable faded against the backdrop of life. Kalyani watches lovers entangle, their tails spiraled together as they croon confidences. She dances with her sisters draped in purple and garnet and green. She solicits counsel from her mother awash in sapphires and amethysts, sits at her father’s side in the royal court, and feasts on delicately spiced fish stew prepared by her brother. She chants, she whirls, she laughs to exhaustion, yet even so, a restiveness twists through her thoughts, making slumber elusive as an ancient squid.
One balmy evening, Kalyani finds herself slithering through the palace until she reaches her aunt’s rooms.
Uloopi is quiet of late. Once widowed, once abandoned, twice alone. Unable to forget Arjun as he forgot her, she grieves. And still he has never returned. Only Kalyani can see the ghosts in her aunt’s distant gaze. Only Kalyani can feel her heart’s fatigue.
“There is a time to nurture wishes and dreams,” Uloopi says, “and a time to let them die.” Turning to Kalyani, she adds, “Even dreams yield to the cycle of death and rebirth.”
Apart from the others, Kalyani plucks pearls and searches for sand dollars. She jests with jellyfish and frolics with fiddler crabs. Still, something is missing. She closes her eyes and breathes out, invisible tears sliding down her cheeks, then finally offers up the last, defiant wisps of her dreams.
The tide summoned Ajita the same way the moon tugged on the tide. Its gravitational pull lured her in with the assurance of a lover, and as she joyously plunged her bare toes into the pearly foam, she sighed. Sun streamed down in bright ribbons, warming her from the outside in. Her skin, now flushed, called out for the cool water, never mind that she couldn’t swim.
She’d known how once, long ago.
Memories knotted painfully in her mind: The messy piles of bills sitting on her kitchen table. The eerie, empty chatter around Helen’s water cooler. The futile attempts to fathom her parents and their mysterious values.
And underlying it all, her veins that ran with seawater, her flesh that shrouded scales. How did either of those belong in the human world? How did she?
But once Ajita reached the surf, the knot began to unravel. With each step she took, the smaller it became, until it no longer mattered.
Her heart thumped eagerly against her breastbone. At long last, her self-imposed exile aboveground was done, and now she could go home.
She waded farther out, where the blue-green waves deepened into teal, glinting like a million melted jewels from a mermaid’s crown. They washed away the old hurts, the ones that had belonged to a nagini playing at being mortal, and severed the old ties to that existence like slicing through ropes of seaweed.
She leaned back, her head buoyed on the bouncing waves. Up, down, up, down. Sea spray sprinkled her cheeks, tiny, frothy kisses, and her fear grew as distant and pale as puffer fish. The ocean would deliver her home safely. It had promised.
Strains of music, far, faint, like something one might hear within a conch shell, drifted toward her, an invitation. Like water rushing over sunlit pebbles, she heard snatches of people from her past, friends who had found their joy, rivals who had moved on, family who called for her each and every day.
The recollection of their voices blended with the music into something like a lullaby. Ajita blinked drowsily. When had she ventured so far out the sand had disappeared under her feet? But she couldn’t be alarmed, not with the waves cradling her, rocking and soothing, maternal arms encouraging her to rest.
Ajita closed her eyes. The ocean’s palette swept over her, into her, staining her thoughts. A memory unfolded around her, of a familiar kingdom under the sea floor, where legs smeared and smudged until they were one, powerful coils of thick muscles and fine scales gleaming below human torsos.
Come home, Kalyani. It’s time.
Overhead, a seagull cried. A seagull, thought Ajita, might fly in heavens formed of cerulean and cloud. But she had no more use for wings than for legs.
Her face dipped briefly under the waves. She fought the human urge to rise again, to breathe. To flee.
Indeed, hummed the lullaby, calming her frenzied body, quieting her frantic breath, there was nothing left to flee. Instead, she could roll her hips and sidle across the sea floor. She could even sink through it and leave all this behind. As a nagini, she could breathe water as easily as air. All she had to do was choose it.
Ajita inhaled and felt her legs joining, the muscles weaving together, black scales enveloping them. Her heart swelled with wonder as she sloughed off her mortal name, her mortal skin, as her curving tail whipped through the wetness. It was time, time to molt a tattered dream and reveal the new one glistening beneath.
Shh, shh, plish, splash.
She floated in a world of glass. It was aquamarine, it was teal, it was turquoise and balmy and wet, and it was the sea, oh, the blessed, blessed sea. It was home, her home.
In the subterranean kingdom, her family waited. Her past, her future.
Her golden circlet still entwined in her locks like a talisman, Kalyani surrendered to the call of her kin below and followed the music home.
About the Author
Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. She draws on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her love of myth to spin stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames. When not hard at work on her second novel, a young adult fantasy about stars, Shveta makes things out of glitter and paper and felt, devours books, daydreams, draws, bakes sweet treats, travels, and occasionally even practices her harp. You can find more of her work in Uncanny and the excellent Kaleidoscope anthology, and her poems have appears in Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons.