io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Ocean That Fades into Sky” by Kathleen Kayembe. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
The Ocean That Fades into Sky
Although it takes constant effort for Coasts to mold herself into a human body when none live on her shores, and a far greater effort—even with her mother’s help—to sustain a flight of giant sea turtles across hundreds of miles, for once she is grateful; the focus required keeps her thoughts from the empty space beside her where Obsequies should be.
There are three women Coasts loves more than anyone on the whole of Uloh-la, and Obsequies, her lover, is one of them. Her mother, in the guise of the turtle beneath her, is another. Both of them are mad at her. Dwellings, the third, would be angry too, if Coasts told her the truth.
Obsequies is presumably angry because Coasts has lied about her identity all her life. Obsequies met Coasts as Ocean, the spirit of all waters on Uloh-la bearing that title. In fact, ever since Obsequies’s parents came in their false-moon ship of humans to colonize Uloh-la—ever since Cities and Ships shot light from the sky and massacred Coasts’s family along with the real Ocean—everyone has been led to believe Coasts is Ocean, the All-Mother.
Coasts is Ocean’s daughter. She is the last of the All-Parents’ children, comprising a piece Ocean carved from herself, one she stole from Land during his besieged distraction, and the last piece Sky willingly gave of themself before the atmosphere replacement machines stole the rest of their mind. Coasts is the youngest child of Uloh-la, barely a century old, and before Obsequies made it her mission to ensure Coasts survived the yearly summits, Coasts was murdered there every twenty years—the length of time it takes to re-form one’s consciousness and a new body. Until Obsequies, Coasts’s only relationship was with her mother, and all but a few hours of her life experience was from memories of their family Ocean shared with her before sending Coasts to her death. Coasts is too young, Ocean says, to be truly discerning, or an accurate judge of character. And if sharing Ocean’s secret existence with their family is untenable, telling a colonizer god like Obsequies is unthinkable.
Yesterday, Coasts did the unthinkable. Ocean’s been angry with her since. She constructed Coasts to live and die in her place while she hides and grows strong enough to save their family—a plan which requires absolute secrecy, especially from the colonizer gods. Coasts worked around her promise to tell no one by showing Obsequies the truth: Coasts is herself, and Ocean is herself, and they are not the same person. Ocean fears Obsequies will tell her parents the real Ocean eludes them, and Cities will send Ships to track her down and kill her—and any hope Coasts’s family has of liberation. The oceans cannot rise and swallow the planet, destroying the human settlements, drowning their pale, fleshy bodies, and the construct gods who immigrated with them, if Ocean does not live the decades, even centuries, needed to regain the power she once wielded over her domain. All-Mother Ocean’s flood is their family’s secret hope, and Cities’s greatest fear. It is why Cities kills Coasts, who he thinks is Ocean, whenever he has the chance. And every year, at the mandatory summit Coasts is flying to on her mother’s great shelled back, gives Cities a new wave of chances to kill her.
Dwellings, at least, is not angry with Coasts; she doesn’t know she’s being lied to. Coasts has long argued that Dwellings can be trusted to know the truth, just as she argued for Obsequies, but the All-Mother is adamant that her existence be kept secret. Now Coasts worries she was right.
Yesterday on the beach, Obsequies saw Coasts in her human guise speaking to Ocean, who’d taken the form of a great turtle in preparation for today. Obsequies had pushed her power across the sand in greeting, and Ocean sent hers back, in keeping with their charade. But Coasts had answered too, with all of herself, not just the sea portion of her domain, and Obsequies’s face had twisted with a betrayal that sent pain lancing through her chest. Instead of staying to let Coasts explain, to spend the night, to go to summit together in the morning, Obsequies turned around and left.
So Coasts stands alone on the broad green shell of her mother’s back, the red robes and black hair of her brown-skinned human form billowing behind her, and leads her entourage of turtles to the summit without Obsequies.
A mile out from the landing plateau, All-Mother Ocean raises her face to what is left of All-Parent Sky and pushes the power of the sea out before them, a herald: The ocean has arrived. The thrum of the deeps in her greeting, paired with the flight of oceanic beasts, verifies her identity. And since they are too far yet for the waiting gods and spirits to tell the ocean’s greeting came from the turtle and not the human, Coasts is assumed to be Ocean, as intended, and Ships marks that Ocean has answered their yearly summons and need not be hunted down and killed for delinquency.
The turtles Coasts brings because they inhabit both ocean and coast, and her performance requires mounts from Ocean’s domain that she can control. The small school of fish she brings is a more personal performance; while they’ll be eaten at the summit, she chose this species because Obsequies loves the green of their scales, and Coasts loves her and wants her to know that hasn’t changed.
Even though Coasts can’t afford to be anyone but Ocean—especially at these summits.
It’s time. Coasts bites back her anxiety and squares her shoulders, crafts her expression into one of benign pride—and embodies Ocean.
The All-Mother stops and bows her great head, and Coasts lines the other turtles in an inclined path to the plateau and descends like a queen. She sends her mother an apology laced with shame through their touching skin when she steps from her mother’s shell to her head, Coasts’s bridge to the next turtle’s back. She knows Ocean is still angry with her, but her mother sends none of that in response. Instead, Coasts feels a fleeting surge of affection and courage spiral back through her foot. The feeling cuts off as she steps away, but the warmth is in her heart now, and she feels a relieved smile on her face even as her skirt catches the wind of the real Ocean turning to fly back to the sea. Once Coasts has crossed them, each great turtle will do likewise, until she stands alone on the saffron desert rock, with her driftwood staff and her fish, and her hope that she will not soon be murdered.
For forty years, regardless of whether they arrived together, Obsequies has broken protocol and greeted Coasts first, taking her bare hand as lovers do the moment she steps foot onto the ground; and she has held tight to Coasts when Cities, her father, comes forward to touch Coasts’s neck and shoulders with his large, bare hands—pale, but not “white” as he claims, not like bone—so he will not kill her because she is Ocean, and he is afraid.
As Coasts descends, she scans the small crowd of spirits and gods waiting uncovered in the desert heat for the procession of arrivals to end. Dwellings has woven her long black curls around the crown of her head like the protective walls of a bird’s nest this year; it makes her look regal in a way Coasts is sure Homes will retaliate for. All-Father Land’s skin is lighter than it was last year, but still brown enough that Cities probably won’t penalize him. When he looks up at Coasts, however, his eyes have turned green. She looks away and squeezes the staff to feel the comfort of her domain. Her mother will be heartbroken when Coasts tells her what Land is becoming. It frightens Coasts to see Land’s body following Sky’s, changing under the strain of human machines and settlements. Instinctively, her eyes seek out the comfort of Obsequies, find her pale whipcord body and white-blonde thatch of hair buffeted by desert winds. When their eyes catch, so does Coasts’s breath and, for a moment, her focus.
Obsequies still looks so betrayed.
The turtle wobbles.
Coasts snaps her focus back to appearances, her task, control: of her shape, of her bearing, of the turtles beneath her. The turtle settles back into formation. Coasts doesn’t focus on anything else until her feet are on the ground. It is cool to the touch, and it shouldn’t be; she resolves to thank Deserts for his consideration, should she live through Cities’s greeting.
Without Obsequies, she might not.
Dying would be better for her family though.
It is easy for Cities to believe Coasts is Ocean, with powers diminished by recent death, when she dies before speaking to anyone who knew the All-Mother. Before Obsequies, Coasts feared the pain just before death, but did her duty willingly; the idea of pretending to be Ocean with those who’d known the real one was nerve-wracking, and what use had Coasts for life when most of hers was anxiety followed by pain? Her mother was distant in those days, Coasts’s happiest memories were not her own . . . she had no one and nothing to live for before Obsequies took her hand. She’d taken pride in doing her duty—masking her fear with impassivity, not fighting back or shrinking from the pain she knew was coming, protecting the family she hoped would become hers one day if she did well. She was relieved to most effectively do her duty while dead, however, because death freed her mother from scrutiny for twenty years, and the time passed for Coasts like the oblivion of sleep—a relief broken at the twenty-year mark when her consciousness coalesced and re-formed a body around itself that could be killed.
Forty years of continuous life experience has washed away her passive acceptance of death. Although colored by guilt, Coasts has her own happy memories, her own relationships and people that she loves. Not for the first time, she wonders if she’s selfish for wanting to live. For craving interaction when it puts her at risk of discovery. For wanting people to know her, love her, enough to want to tell them who she is.
She wonders if she’s foolish to believe she knows better than Ocean who to trust with their lives.
Obsequies doesn’t rush up to greet her for the first time in forty years. Coasts snaps her eyes from Obsequies, unmoving, to Obsequies’s father Cities. He is beginning to smile, the one she especially hates, the triumphant curl of his lips when he gets what he wants without lifting a finger.
Coasts’s grip on her staff tightens.
Cities steps away from his family and strides toward Coasts—a little faster, she thinks, than usual, just in case Obsequies—
Thank the Three. Coasts keeps the wave of relief from her expression as surely as her fear when Obsequies startles at her father’s movement and quickly outpaces him, her customary rush to greet Coasts sliding back into place. Cities’s smile folds into a frown, but Coasts barely notices because Obsequies has taken her hand, kissed the fragile skin of Coasts’s wrist, is whispering her fingers across Coasts’s cheek. As always, the soft touches of her greeting send a frisson of heat through Coasts—but Obsequies says, “Hello, love,” instead of “Hello, Ocean,” and her smile is rough and brittle.
Coasts feels scraped raw by its edges. She leans into the hand on her cheek, worries her smile bares her apology and hope for all to see, but Obsequies removes her hand and listlessly touches instead the green scales of the fish Coasts brought for her.
“Ocean!” booms Cities, stepping up behind his daughter with hands upturned in greeting and, Obsequies says, to show friendliness through being unarmed.
A god with bare skin is never unarmed.
A god can kill with a touch. Cities delights in killing Coasts with his.
Although Obsequies steps aside, her hand remains around Coasts’s wrist—barely. She is facing the desert with a semi-vacant expression on her face that Coasts recognizes and knows intellectually not to take personally; Obsequies is probably receiving another memory from the Obsequies of Earth, who they suspect is dying, his experiences scattering into those who share humans as a dominant species.
Cities’s eyes drop to his daughter’s hold before he cups Coasts’s dark cheeks in his large, bare hands, the pressure of his grip hard enough to be threatening, but light enough not to arouse suspicion. Her skin crawls as he slides his palms proprietarily down her neck to her shoulders, blue eyes cold with banked anger as he grudgingly removes his thumb from her fragile windpipe. “Ocean,” he says for the others to hear, “we welcome you to the summit.” With a final too-hard squeeze and glance at Obsequies’s hand still touching Coasts’s skin, he steps away. “You may go and join the others.”
Coasts shifts her staff and twists to hold Obsequies’s hand. Obsequies’s grip is loose, distracted, as is she when she falls into step behind Coasts to join the waiting crowd. Obsequies remains with Coasts instead of moving to stand with the humans’ gods, however. Coasts wonders if she misses the deference that place would afford her from Coasts’s family—a deference Obsequies’s parents demand.
Cities stands before the parched mouth of the intricate cave system Deserts carved into the crag and raises his hands. He is the head of his trinity, flanked by his fellow settler gods, Ships on his right, Homes on his left. He thanks everyone for coming and invites them into the caves so beautifully decorated and furnished by Homes.
And so another summit begins.
Attending meals is mandatory, but Coasts is not hungry tonight. Her stomach feels tense and acidic, and the idea of mastication feels like an interminable waste of energy. The new gods’ domains are so specific to humans, that is the only shape they have, and so maintaining a human shape for the duration of summits is mandatory too. Still, the spirits of Uloh-la have many creatures in their domains, and just as many shapes, and change in secret to circumvent bodily needs and functions—like refueling. As long as Coasts changes shape before bed, this human body won’t require feeding.
She thinks she might be hungry were Obsequies sitting beside her, but for the first time since they met, Obsequies isn’t. While Dwellings sits beside Coasts, as she usually does, Obsequies sits at the head table with her parents: Cities, Ships, Homes. They are pleased to have her there, Coasts can see that from her bench, and Obsequies seems more relaxed with them than she’s been since Coasts’s arrival. She doesn’t even look over.
“Trouble in paradise?” Land asks when he sits across from Coasts. Coasts wonders with renewed guilt whether he will ever forgive Ocean for Coasts’s decision to see Obsequies. The love between Ocean, Land, and Sky is the foundation upon which Uloh-la was built, and the memories of them Ocean has shared with Coasts are always colored with affection and the understanding that comes from truly knowing someone you love more than yourself. Coasts is glad Land did not pursue her when Obsequies took her hand the first summit she survived. He respects Ocean’s decisions, and respects Coasts who he thinks is Ocean—but he has never hidden his feelings about her choices.
Decades of practice keeps Coasts’s face ineffable as the ocean at his barb. She doesn’t want her feelings to turn her family against Obsequies. She shrugs at Land. “Obsequies needs to visit her family too,” she says. “I cannot monopolize all of her time.”
“But you’re still together, right?” Dwellings asks softly, thick fingers dropping to the tense hand on Coasts’s thigh and curving comfortingly around it. Through the connection, Dwellings presses the thought, Are you still safe?
Dwellings always sees to the heart of things. Coasts loves that about her, loves everything about her, despite the danger of her attention. “To the best of my knowledge, we are,” Coasts answers, but I don’t know is what she presses back.
Dwellings squeezes her hand before withdrawing. Coasts misses the warmth of her touch.
Opposite, Deserts says, “Good. That’s good.” Time seems to have warmed him to Coasts’s relationship. On the whole, the family does not seem to blame Obsequies for the actions of her parents. Some readily admit to liking her, despite her naivety, which they attribute to youth. Technically, Obsequies is even younger than Coasts.
“You’ll still be rooming together then?” Dwellings asks.
Coasts nods, hoping it’s true. “Come visit after dinner.”
Dwellings has transformed their bedding into something big enough for two humans since she found out Homes narrows Obsequies’s bed each year to only comfortably fit one. Homes shows her displeasure in small, pointed ways. The rooms she decorates for Coasts’s family—like everything she intends for them—are plainer, rougher, less comfortable than the ones she makes for her own. Obsequies has put up with fewer creature comforts since she began sharing her room with Coasts, and despite Obsequies’s reassurances, Coasts feels guilty about this. Until yesterday, their relationship had always made Obsequies happy enough to outweigh the strain of her parents’ disapproval and the weight of Coasts’s guilt. Now Coasts wonders if the balance has shifted.
Across the room, Obsequies lets out a peal of surprised laughter. Pretending to be Ocean doesn’t stop Coasts from feeling a sharp ache in her chest. She knows the expression on Obsequies’s face without needing to look.
She still looks.
Obsequies doesn’t, not even to meet Coasts’s eyes when she walks out of the dining hall behind her parents. Instead, she touches Coasts’s back, a wordless signal to accompany her to their room, as she passes by.
Obsequies widens the stone beneath the bed, just in case Homes asks, and Dwellings extends the bedding. “See you at breakfast,” she says to both—quite firmly, to Obsequies—then hugs them and leaves.
Coasts wishes she would stay tonight. She doesn’t want to be alone with Obsequies’s cold anger. Dwellings, at least, always knows what to say.
Normally, Coasts lets go of her clothing shapes now—they both do—and there is pleasure and conversation and thoughts passed through bared skin and cuddling before Obsequies falls asleep. But Obsequies transmutes her clothing into something casual, comfortable, something she would wear to the beach to visit “Ocean,” so Coasts follows suit with a sinking heart.
“We need to talk,” Obsequies says.
“Yes,” Coasts says. Although she is nervous, this, at least, is a chance to clear the air and bridge the unhappy distance between them. She sits on the bed and holds out her hand.
Obsequies frowns. Coasts feels the wave of her essence—death, rest, ritual, recycling matter—and answers with the lowest regions of the coastal shelves, as close to the ocean’s depths as she can manage.
It isn’t the same essence she shared on the beach.
Obsequies stiffens. “Out loud,” she bites out.
Coasts winces. “I can’t say what you want me to.” Obsequies’s parents have ears in unexpected places. It’s one reason her family prefers skin-sharing to verbal conversation: touch-thoughts cross only to the beings you touch and, unlike words, cannot be misunderstood.
“Try,” Obsequies snaps, and folds herself onto her side of the bed.
Coasts draws up her knees and shifts to face Obsequies. Obsequies remains facing the wall.
The room is quiet for some time.
“We could’ve spoken on the beach, if you’d stayed,” Coasts says, trying not to sound hurt.
Obsequies finally looks at her. “So this is my fault?” she says. “You’re still lying to me, and it’s my fault?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s what you said.”
“It isn’t.” . . . She doesn’t think. But English, spoken communication, human body language, she isn’t as good at them as Obsequies, who lives her whole life as a human among humans, so perhaps Obsequies is right? “If I did, I didn’t mean to.”
Despite Coasts conceding, Obsequies sounds no less combative. “So what did you mean?”
“Summit is not a good place to talk about this. You know that.” Coasts’s stomach roils with fear she will say the wrong thing, and Obsequies will say aloud that Coasts is not Ocean, and her parents will hear.
“No, what I know is that you lied to me.”
“I didn’t want to—”
“Forty years you’ve lied to me,” Obsequies says, drowning Coasts’s voice. “We’ve been together almost my whole life. I can’t even look at my father sometimes because of you—all for a lie! This whole time, you could’ve . . .” Some of the fight leaves Obsequies’s posture with a shaky breath, and Coasts watches her eyes soften into something lost, pleading, young. “Why lie when you could be safe? Why let him hurt you?”
Coasts twines her fingers into the fabric of her trousers to keep from reaching out. “I have to. I’m sorry, I can’t tell you any more than that while we’re here.”
Anger floods back into Obsequies’s voice, the hard lines of her posture. “Why not? This is neutral territory, it’s neither of our domains. This is the epitome of ideal.”
Coasts doesn’t know how Obsequies can say that. “Maybe for you. For me, this is a dangerous place. Summits aren’t safe for me and my family the way they are for you and yours.” The exhaustion of travel and staying human and her near-constant anxiety since yesterday are finally catching up to her; she is beginning to mirror Obsequies’s anger, feels too much passion and not enough temperance to police her words and tone or care that she isn’t. Coasts needs to make her understand her insistence on discussing this her way is dangerous. “How can you demand to have this conversation out loud when any of your parents could be listening—”
“Don’t turn this back on my parents!”
“—and they want to kill me and will use any excuse to do it—”
“But it’s not you they want, is it?”
Coasts heart seizes at the words so close to speaking Ocean’s truth aloud. “It will be,” she says harshly. “It will be all of us.” All that stands between her family and death is Ocean’s growing strength. All that stands between Ocean and death is Coasts.
Coasts needs to ensure her secrecy. “Take my hand? Please?”
“I really don’t want to touch you right now,” Obsequies snaps.
Years of playing Ocean are all that keeps the hurt off Coasts’s face. She turns away. “All right. Since I cannot tell you what you want to hear, and you won’t hear what I’m trying to say, then I think it best we discuss this another time.” Coasts pulls back the blankets and slides her legs under them, determined to sleep.
“Oh, you think it best, so that’s what we’re doing?”
“It takes both of us to have a conversation.” To have a relationship, she doesn’t say, afraid of Obsequies’s reaction. “Please. I am willing to tell you as much as I can, just as I have always done, but not out loud, and if that’s the only way you choose to hear me, then not here at summit either.”
“Summits would be plenty safe if you’d just tell my father—”
“Stop!” Ocean would not have yelled, but Coasts is not Ocean, and that is the root of this problem: The All-Mother does not trust Obsequies with Coasts, but Coasts did, disobeyed to do it, and is struggling now to believe she was right. “I trusted you to know, I told you the truth the only way I knew how—”
“You didn’t even know I’d be there.”
“Of course I did, Obsequies. Why do you think I asked you to come early? You wouldn’t know anything if I didn’t want you to.”
Obsequies pauses. There is hope in her expression when she pushes her power out to greet the woman she now knows isn’t Ocean.
Coasts’s face falls. “I love you,” she says, voice gentling as she meets Obsequies’s hopeful gaze, “but I can’t do that here. Not even for you.”
Obsequies’s gaze hardens. “Because of your family.”
Coasts’s voice comes out soft, an admission of guilt fraught with fear and apology: “Yes.”
“I chose you over my family, but you won’t do the same for me.”
“I don’t have a choice,” Coasts says.
“There’s always a choice.”
Exasperation crashes back into Coasts like a wave on a rocky shore. “I don’t have that luxury. You choose me and your bed gets smaller for two nights out of the year. I choose you, like I did, and one word from you means the deaths of all of us. All of us, because Cities will never believe no one else knew.”
“That’s a gross exaggeration of the truth.”
“No, it isn’t.” Coasts knows Obsequies loves her parents, knows they shelter her from the worst of their behavior, but surely she can see how they treat Coasts’s family. How can she not after forty years by Coasts’s side at these summits? “It’s what your parents did when they came to Uloh-la, before you were even born. They still do it, to anyone with a body who doesn’t show up at these summits.”
“That’s not how it happened.”
This, at least, is easily proven. “Ask for the memory,” Coasts says. “Anyone who was there can share it with you. Ask Ships to show you what he did to my family, to me. Ask for his last memory of Sky. Ask Cities to show you why he killed me the first summit you saw me, not just tell you.”
“We don’t skin-share the way you do.” Obsequies says.
“And why is that? Mouths can lie, memories can’t. Ask them.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
Obsequies fidgets, her restless movements shaking the bed. “They don’t like to talk about it. They don’t want me to know administrative things, they want me to focus on the colony’s burial practices.”
Coasts presses harder. Obsequies will see the truth whether she wants to or not. “Is that why? Or is it that when you watched Cities murder me—”
Obsequies reels, squeezes her eyes shut. “Don’t.”
“—in cold blood, when I’d not raised a hand against him, not even to defend myself—”
“—they realized if they told you what else they had done to me, to my family, when we hadn’t raised a hand against them—”
“—they would lose you, because you have empathy and a conscience, and they don’t!”
“Get out!” Obsequies shouts, shoving to her feet and gesturing wildly toward the hallway.
Coasts freezes. She feels like gravity has shifted, like her stomach is being pulled into the deeps and the rest of her is too cold to thrash back to the surface.
Obsequies’s harsh breaths are loud in the sudden silence, her eyes a little too wide.
“You don’t mean that,” Coasts tells them both.
“I do. You crossed a line, Ocean.” Obsequies shakes her head and begins to pace in fits and starts, never traveling far in any direction, keeping the bed always between herself and Coasts. “You don’t say things like that about my parents, you have no right to say things like that about my parents. You can lie to me about you, but you don’t get to lie about my parents. They would never do those things.”
Coasts shakes her head. She’s seen her mother’s memory of the night Obsequies’s parents came. She remembers the scent of ozone filling the air, and Cities and Ships shooting light from the sky that burned through so many bodies; remembers how her family’s corpses turned to mist and vanished, and how her mother thought they’d all become cloud creatures until she remembered: Their children were not made from Sky.
“And we weren’t even talking about my parents,” Obsequies says. “We were talking about how you lied to me, and betrayed my trust, and used me.”
“I didn’t use you,” Coasts says. She wears the guilt of the other two accusations like a shroud around her heart and always has, anticipating and fearing the day Ocean reveals herself and Coasts loses the loved ones she’s deceived all her life. She thought Obsequies, who claimed to love her, and knows her the best, would see Coasts’s show of faith for what it is. “I love you. You saved my life, Obsequies. Now I’ve given it to you, along with everyone else I care about, because I trust you. Was I wrong to do that?” Was she wrong to disobey Ocean?
Obsequies shies from Coasts’s intensity, her sincerity. “I need you to sleep in your room tonight.”
Coasts’s face crumples.
Obsequies looks away.
“I can sleep on the floor, if you’d prefer—”
“No,” Obsequies says, “I don’t want to be where you are right now. I . . . I need time to think. Just, for tonight, I need you to leave.”
Coasts closes her eyes against the fear she knows they contain. Ships patrols the halls during summit. Her family has a curfew; anyone caught outside their rooms before dawn will be killed on sight. Perhaps Obsequies has forgotten the curfew, but perhaps . . . perhaps she’s ceased to care. “All right,” Coasts says. She feels defeated. Betrayed. And afraid of Obsequies, not just for herself—although she has enjoyed living long enough after forty years of continuous life that she desperately clings to that life and wants to keep it—but for her mother, for her mother’s lovers, for her siblings who don’t know she’s one of them. Now that Obsequies knows, perhaps soon Coasts will no longer have to hide from her family. And they will never be free of Cities, of Ships, of Homes. Sky will remain scattered, Land will lighten until he becomes “white” and joins the colonizer gods’ caste—assuming they let him—and Ocean, the real Ocean . . . Coasts will watch her mother be murdered every twenty years at summit, the moment she has a body again to be killed, and know it’s her fault.
Coasts is afraid to say anything further, but she was born to do what she must, no matter the challenge or personal cost, and she sits easy with this smaller fear even as she compounds her disobedience: She was born to die, yet clings to life. “It’s after curfew,” she says with practiced calm. “Will you check for Ships before I go?”
Obsequies does so with visible annoyance. “He’s not out there.”
For a moment, Coasts doesn’t know whether to believe her. Obsequies’s parents murder those who anger them, and Obsequies, the product of all three, has never been angry like this before. Heart in her throat, Coasts changes into a sand lizard’s body—less effort than maintaining a human shape; her beaches have such lizards—and scuttles out of the room and into the hall. The bedroom door closes behind her. Coasts matches her wings to the wall, tastes the air for Ships’s metal scent, and, heat vision yielding no threats in their wide sphere, crawls along the seams of the walls to the room Homes made for her.
It’s empty. Completely bare. Of course it is.
Coasts leaves it that way. She finds Dwellings’s room and becomes a worm, flattens herself and slithers under the door, becomes a bird. Dwellings is alone, lying awake on her bed, still in human shape. Coasts flies to her and nestles against her soft breasts, pushes the coastal depths of her name into Dwellings’s chest in greeting. Dwellings pushes her name back, a comforting fusion of Ocean and Land and Sky—so like her own true name: a construct of three domains, like herself, like Obsequies, the unity of three always settling her in ways she can’t explain, making her crave their company in ways she’s never felt with anyone else.
What happened? Dwellings asks through her fingers.
I trusted her, is all Coasts will let herself say. She was wrong to trust Obsequies. She will not make the same mistake with Dwellings. The All-Mother was right.
Dwellings coos sympathetically and strokes Coasts’s back. It’ll be okay, she says, and shifts into the same species. The two huddle together in the nest of Dwellings’s pillow for the rest of the night, preening each other’s feathers to soothe, and sharing thoughts, pain and hope, plans to keep Ocean safe for the rest of a summit without Obsequies’s protection.
When Coasts enters the dining hall with Dwellings, Obsequies is sitting at the head table with her mother and second father, Ships, facing the entrance. Her eyes are sharp, accusatory.
Coasts feels pinned by that gaze, and unaccountably guilty. She has no choice but to keep her mother’s secret, but Obsequies doesn’t see it that way, and of course, she’s still angry at being lied to.
The All-Mother warned her: Gods like Cities and his family need control, to have and hoard knowledge, to be right, and their pride makes them monsters at the least imagined slight. That day on the beach, Coasts had insisted yet again that they could trust Obsequies. She’d been so sure their love would protect them, that Obsequies would understand. But when Obsequies saw them, felt the power of their two geographies flow towards her in greeting—All-Mother Ocean; secret daughter Coasts, who should not have answered—she’d left. Vanished until the summit, where she’d taken Coasts’s hand like she wanted to let it go. The look on Obsequies’s face now is not the anger, frustration, and sadness of last night. It is the betrayal from the beach. And Coasts finds herself frozen now, just as she was then, when Obsequies turns away.
Dwellings takes her hand and leads her to their customary table like she is feebleminded, the careful, respectful guidance with which they all treated Sky before their mind became so confused they missed a summit, and then the one twenty years after when they reformed, dying for the offense and reforming still more scattered only to miss their next summit and be killed by Ships again. Coasts is grateful for Dwellings’s help; she doesn’t think she’d have moved from the doorway otherwise, scattered by her own thoughts.
Dwellings seats her across from Land again and sits down on her left. The space on Coasts’s right is empty for the second meal in a row, and for the second meal in a row, Coasts isn’t hungry. Her stomach feels like a mess of eels have bedded there. Her family talks around her as much to catch up with each other as to give her space to drift while tethered in their safe harbor. When it becomes clear Obsequies will not leave her parents to join them, Deserts passes his plate across the table and takes the seat on Coasts’s right. Coasts’s acknowledging smile is distracted; her back is to the door, and Cities has not yet arrived.
Cities could walk up and put his hands on her neck, overwhelm her human brain with the frenetic crush of teeming cities, the corruption and cruelty of human mobs, leave her addled as Sky after the humans’ machines polluted the air, and she would not recover, her mind wouldn’t think to change her shape and escape, and he would snap her neck just as he’d always done before Obsequies wrapped her arms around Coasts forty years ago and told her they were lovers, only Ocean had not yet regained those memories.
Obsequies’s lie began their relationship.
Coasts’s lie, it seems, will end it.
“Give me your hand,” Land says, urgency disrupting the whirlpool of Coasts’s thoughts.
“What?” she asks, blinking back into the moment.
When she doesn’t comply quickly enough, Dwellings grabs her hand and thrusts it upon the table, curls her own around Coasts’s bare bicep as Land reaches across and takes her hand in both of his. She feels Deserts’s fingers interlock with her own, and he brings their joined hands onto the table as well. Still, Cities’s warm hands collaring the bend of her neck startle her.
“Good morning, Ocean,” he says. “I’m surprised my daughter’s not sitting with you again. You two are always thick as thieves at these summits.” His thumb strokes the back of her neck, and she feels the scuttling of crab feet freeze along her spine. Her muscles are rigid under her skin, from those under her cheeks to the arches of her feet. She is suddenly very conscious of her breath and the rumble of her heartbeat, conscious of the sweat beginning to cool her palms and the small of her back, conscious that she is afraid Cities will kill her in a way she never was before Obsequies.
She values her life now. Selfishly, she wants to keep it.
But if he scrambles her brain, she doesn’t want Dwellings, Land, and Deserts to be scrambled with her, the way they will be if they don’t let go. She shifts, wordlessly letting them know to release her, but they hold on more tightly. A guilty part of her is relieved. Cities wants Land and Deserts alive to help the human colony prosper, and to house the yearly summits; to go without their guidance for the next twenty years would be inconvenient for him at best, and would likely harm him and his cohort. With these two holding onto her, Cities is less likely to attack.
He bends over Coasts, tilts her face with his bare hand so she’ll be forced to look at him. “You haven’t upset her, have you?”
Coasts masks her fear and empties her mind of everything but the lapping of ocean waves on the sand. She forces her breath to mimic their calm rhythm and smiles indulgently at him. All-Mother Ocean is a benevolent queen, unflappable and ineffable, and that woman is she. Her body unlocks. “We have upset each other,” Coasts admits, and feels a dangerous thrill in his surprise, in the soft, indrawn breaths around her, so loud in the hush Cities’s presence has brought to their table. “But I’m told disagreements are normal in human marriages, and that there’s a special delight in making up with one’s lovers afterwards.”
Cities’s eyes narrow. He twists her head farther, until she can’t keep the wince from her face, then he smirks and returns his firm grip to her shoulders. “You’re not married,” he says. “Only a man and a woman can get married.”
“Ah, I misunderstood then,” Coasts says, willing to let it go if it gets him away from her. “Our relationships are different here.” She is sure he is bruising her. She is unsure what Obsequies will think when she sees the angry purple ring of his fingerprints so near to Coasts’s neck. She doesn’t plan to hide them by shifting forms—she wants Obsequies to see, and Coasts is learning hope is a painful, persistent thing.
“Maybe in the past,” Cities says with disgust, “but there are better ways of doing things. More natural ways.”
Coasts hums to acknowledge she heard him.
He opens his mouth to speak again, and then something over Coasts’s shoulder catches his eye. He smiles pleasantly, lets go of her, and steps away.
When Coasts turns back around—carefully, mindful of the strain in her neck from the angle at which Cities held her—she sees Obsequies glaring at Cities with the frustration she looks at Coasts with when she says Coasts is doing something that embarrasses her. The annoyance pinches her face into something young and toothless, cute enough that Coasts enjoys causing it, knows that if she is clever the expression will shift into laughter before long. The All-Mother showed Coasts a memory of hers where Coasts makes a similar face after a joke about Obsequies she thought in poor taste, and said it’s a face made only by the young and the grievously unwise. When you are old enough, the All-Mother said, you will know that you are vast, and the actions of others are their own, and that only you can make yourself feel small. Coasts’s mouth twists into a rueful grin. She and Obsequies are the youngest in this room next to Dwellings, and all three of them still make that face, still shake with the same incredulous laughter.
Dwellings jerks against her with a smothered snort of amusement. When Coasts follows her gaze, she knows Dwellings is seeing that face turned upon them both, and the way it can twist into joy.
Deserts sighs and pushes relief to all of them through Coasts’s skin before letting go of her; Cities has finally sat down at the head table, across from his daughter. Land answers Deserts’s relief, and Dwellings’s, and accepts Coasts’s gratefulness before releasing her hand. Dwellings merely squeezes her arm and leans closer. “Well, that was terrifying,” she mutters. The four of them titter, nerves finally finding an outlet. “Seriously, Ocean,” she says, “do I need to go yell at Obsequies? ’Cause this is ridiculous.”
“That’s the danger of taking up with someone so young,” Land says, like he’s unable to help himself. “She’s being dangerously irresponsible.”
Coasts’s answer is a frustrated sigh and shake of her head. “I can’t force her to act differently,” she says, when it’s clear Land awaits a response.
“Yes, well,” he says. “Her temper tantrum is going to get you killed, and then where will you be?”
Despairing amusement makes Coasts smile. “Right back where I started,” she says. She hopes that’s as far back as she’ll fall. If Obsequies tells her parents what she’s seen, they’ll all be far worse off than that.
Obsequies sits to the side of the judges’ bench while her parents interrogate Coasts’s family. Coasts watches from the stair-step spectator benches Deserts carved into the opposite wall.
The colonists’ gods sit on cushioned chairs that pull away from their stone bench. The stands have no added comforts, just as there is no chair in the center of the room for the unlucky interviewee to sit upon during their hearing. Dwellings could make cushions, Deserts could make a chair or even a stool, but Homes has allowed neither, and what Homes wants, Cities decrees, and what Cities decrees, Ships enforces with violent, apathetic efficiency.
The questions are always the same: They demand an accounting of the spirit’s actions since last year’s summit. How did they help the human colonists, what could they have done to help more, etc.
Attending the hearings is mandatory. The settler gods want to see the native spirits’ reactions to the answers their family members give during their accountings, hoping the human faces gods like them are accustomed to reading will give away the family’s secrets. Sometimes, however, they send everyone but the unfortunate being questioned out of the room. Obsequies is usually sent out with them to ensure no one listens in—and, Coasts thinks, to ensure her parents’ cruelty to Coasts’s family is kept hidden from her. On those days, Homes calls everyone back, and when the family files back into the gallery, the one on trial is shocked and afraid.
The hearings go on from just after breakfast to dinner at sunset, with a short break for lunch in between. After dinner Obsequies’s parents abscond to discuss their plans and new assignments for the native spirits for the coming year.
The gods compliment the green of Land’s eyes, note with approval the lighter brown shade of his human skin. They tell him he is doing well, that they are proud of his efforts to help the colonists, that he is assimilating. Cities says, “If your skin gets lighter before next summit, come join us. We’ll have some new instructions for you.” The way Cities says it implies Land will be worthy of moving above the rest of the family in the humans’ strange caste system, but Coasts doesn’t trust Cities to actually raise Land’s status.
Dwellings’s hair remains braided into a crown around her head, and just as Coasts expected, Homes is displeased. Before her hearing proper even begins, and over Obsequies’s swiftly quelled protest, Homes makes Dwellings take it out right where she’s standing, by hand, and leave her hair unkempt, halfway between its usual tight curls and the looser waves the braid pressed them into, leaning unevenly towards her right shoulder. Coasts can tell Dwellings feels humiliated and angry. She feels that way for Dwellings, and the way Obsequies is shifting in her seat and won’t look at her mother suggests she does too. Coasts wonders how long it will be before Homes comes to summit with her hair in a braided crown.
Cities all but accuses Land, Dwellings, and Deserts of sleeping with Ocean, citing their behavior at breakfast, and Obsequies looks progressively more upset. Coasts is afraid she believes her father. And why wouldn’t she, when Cities alone is allowed to speak freely, to spin what lies he wants without fear of the truth contradicting him? Coasts’s family cannot definitively refute his insinuations without explaining that they held Ocean to protect her from Cities’s murderous intentions. To even suggest Cities is less than a good, fair, and benevolent king is to risk his wrath, and death. Respecting the human gods is paramount, and an ugly truth, no matter how well or kindly spoken, would be deemed disrespectful.
The gods save Ocean for last. They always do.
Before now, Coasts was never afraid. Before now, seeing Obsequies facing her from the side of the bench was a source of courage, the restful calm of Obsequies’s presence lending her strength like always. Now . . .
Will Obsequies reveal Ocean’s secret? Will she confess on Coasts’s behalf, gain the approval of her three parents for what will be the massacre of Coasts’s family? When the All-Mother regains enough of her power, she will flood Uloh-la to free them, and the human colony will drown, diminishing the Earth gods’ power and, if all the humans have migrated to the planet from their floating ship, perhaps permanently killing Cities and Homes—and Ships, if they can trap him on the ground. If Obsequies keeps their secret, Coasts plans to work with the All-Mother and All-Father to guide creatures on Uloh-la towards burial practices of some kind without destabilizing the natural order. She and Dwellings have already begun. But she has not spoken to Obsequies yet about any of this. She has denied any plan to swallow the humans’ habitat, however far it extends—but what if Obsequies suspects this as well? Can she blame Obsequies for wanting to save her own life, the lives of her parents? Perhaps Obsequies has already told them what happened on the beach. Their faces seem more forbidding this year—but that could just be Coasts’s nerves playing tricks on her, making her afraid when really, nothing has changed. Obsequies is not shooting her surreptitious smiles this year. Is it because she is still angry, or because she knows Coasts will soon face punishment for a crime against the human gods’ well-being?
Obsequies doesn’t ask questions during these hearings . . . but today, Homes nudges her.
When Obsequies’s mouth opens, Coasts knows whose side she’s on. She braces herself for the betrayal her mother warned of, for the truth that will end in Ocean’s death—both of them. All of them.
Because the All-Mother was right: Coasts’s trust in Obsequies has only proven the god untrustworthy. Coasts should have been satisfied with what they had, not longed for Obsequies to want her, see her, and not merely the reflection of her mother Coasts was born to present to the world. She should have accepted the guilt tainting her happiness. She should have dealt with the ache in her chest whenever Obsequies said she loved Ocean, whenever she called Coasts “Ocean” and Coasts had to answer back, whenever she asked Coasts about the deeps because she wanted to know all about Ocean and her domain, and Coasts had to draw on her mother’s memories instead of her own to come up with an answer.
That pain was far, far kinder than feeling afraid of a woman she loves—a woman who loved a lie and has rejected Coasts now that she knows the truth. If even Obsequies would rather have Ocean than Coasts, perhaps it is better that no one else knows. Coasts couldn’t bear learning, definitively, that her family feels the same.
Obsequies looks at her and stills.
It feels like they’re on the beach again, but now Coasts is seeing Obsequies for who she really is—and unlike Obsequies, Coasts cannot run. She must face this, stand in this thick, quiet tension, and make her peace with reality as it is. With Obsequies as she is.
Coasts hopes she is still strong enough not to fight or run, strong enough to let Cities put his hands on her neck without flinching, to let him take the death he wants. She has always been most helpful to her loved ones when she dies. Perhaps Obsequies is enough like her father that Coasts’s death will appease her. Coasts hopes Obsequies hasn’t figured out Coasts’s favorite beach is the one to send Ships to when he hunts down her mother.
She makes herself look Obsequies in the eyes. She tries to be proud, even angry—not afraid. Not betrayed.
Whatever Obsequies sees on Coasts’s face makes her looks away. She folds an arm across her chest, leans into the bench with her mouth behind a trembling fist, and looks, unseeing, at Coasts’s feet.
When Homes nudges her again, Obsequies shakes her head.
Coasts doesn’t know what to think.
Exasperation sharpens Homes’s features for a heartbeat before she relaxes into a disarming smile. “A woman’s greatest joy and greatest achievement is her children,” she tells Coasts. “My life changed so much when Cities and I had Obsequies.”
You and Cities and Ships, Coasts doesn’t say. When Obsequies bristles, as she always does when Ships is left out of her parentage, Coasts knows she is once again paying attention to the proceedings.
“For both of us,” Cities cuts in with a genial nod. “Spending more time with Obsequies this summit made us realize your husband Land has many children, but you have none.”
Obsequies purses her lips and doesn’t correct him. Coasts’s face heats. A swarm of tiny wings begins rollicking through her chest. Obsequies hasn’t told them.
Obsequies hasn’t told them.
When Coasts offers no response, Cities clears his throat and continues. “On Earth, our oceans had the marine equivalents of forests and deserts and mountains, just to name a few, and I’m sure you have similar geographical features and flora yourself. Why have you not made your own children, or ceded control of those places to your fellow spirits? Surely Forests and Deserts and Mountains, for example, would be better equipped to maintain order in those arenas. And if they took care of them, you could relax. One of the joys of parenting is having a kid around to help out! So why is it that there is more ocean on this planet than dry land, and Land has made children, but you haven’t? You’re certainly capable,” he says, waving at her human body in a way that feels crass, “so what’s stopping you?”
Coasts sees in her periphery that her family is as offended as she is. She knows what her mother would say, and the knowledge anchors her. In a voice hard as the pressure in the deeps, she tells Cities, “I have children.” She nods at the bench, at the angry brown eyes of the All-Mother’s children there. “With the exception of Land, these are my children.” She returns her flinty gaze to the bench of gods before her. “Just because I have not given pieces of myself to form most of them does not make them any less mine.” I am the All-Mother, she does not say, because if she did, it would come out scathing, and Coasts still does not want to die today.
“What do you mean ‘most’?” Homes asks. “I thought all of them were Land’s.”
Obsequies half turns to face her mother and softly corrects, “Mom, Ocean’s had children, she had—”
Homes quells Obsequies with a look, but Cities waves at her to continue.
Because the gods are looking at Obsequies, and she at them, they do not see Coasts’s momentary rigidity, mindfully relaxed almost as quickly as it overtook her.
“Ocean has children,” Obsequies tells Cities. She glances quickly at Coasts.
Coasts’s heart sinks. “Children” is plural. Obsequies hasn’t told her parents, but she’s about to.
Coasts casts her eyes to All-Mother Ocean’s children lining the benches: her siblings whom her misplaced trust has in fact shackled with death. Dwellings alone looks afraid when their eyes meet, and in that moment Coasts realizes Dwellings knows she is not Ocean, and fears for her.
The All-Mother told Coasts to trust no one, that Dwellings was young and would give them away, and Coasts had listened—but she’d been right about Dwellings after all. It strikes her, suddenly, that Dwellings likes her, and not just her performance of Ocean. Now Coasts wishes she’d said something last night. She should’ve suspected Dwellings knew when she asked nothing about what Coasts trusted Obsequies with, or their argument, but still seemed to know exactly what to say. Despite how badly things have gone with Obsequies, Coasts decides: When she re-forms in twenty years, be it as Coasts or Ocean, she will tell Dwellings her name—with or without the All-Mother’s permission.
As one, Coasts and Dwellings turn their eyes upon Obsequies.
Obsequies licks her lips as she glances between them, then tucks a cornsilk lock of hair that didn’t require moving behind her ear. She addresses the recrimination in Dwellings’s gaze when she says, “She had Dwellings.” She points at Dwellings with a quick jut of her chin. “She’s like me: three parents. Ocean, Land, and Sky made her together.”
Ships is to Cities’s right, so in glaring at Obsequies for calling Ships her parent, Cities and Homes do not see his quick grin, the way he winks at his daughter before impassivity wipes his expression.
Coasts feels a cool wash of relief cascade from her forehead down to the human knees she has to lock in place to remain standing. “Dwellings is our youngest,” she says watching Obsequies, willing her to prove as trustworthy as Coasts cautiously hopes she is. When Obsequies nods her agreement and turns back to Coasts, her arms are still crossed but her posture is relaxing, and her thin lips are softly curled in apology. Although it does not erase the past two days, in that moment Coasts loves her fiercely and without guilt.
Cities’s hum of acknowledgment cuts through Coasts’s burgeoning dream of surviving this summit. “Then you know,” he says, “how rewarding having a child of your own can be. So why no more children? Surely your, uh, older ones would like some more younger siblings. Dwellings is such a great girl, why wouldn’t they?”
Finally loosed from the worst of her anxiety, Coasts takes a moment to breathe and think. Obsequies’s parents don’t want Ocean to have children for her own benefit, her own happiness. What do they gain by Ocean splitting pieces of herself to gain helpers? When Ocean made Coasts, her sway over coastal seas diminished.
By giving Coasts part of her domain, Ocean weakened herself.
Giving away so much of his domain made Land more vulnerable to the terraforming, is why his human skin is turning “white” so much more rapidly than anyone else’s—with, perhaps, the exception of Sky, whose conquering began much earlier and has been much more thorough.
If Ocean makes more children from herself, then others—younger, less powerful, more malleable—will have power over parts of her domain. They’ll be able to steward the ocean and its creatures should something happen to Ocean, like her death by Obsequies’s fathers.
That’s what happened to Land, when they all thought the human gods needed his cooperation to sustain their colony too much to risk killing him.
Killing Land proved the gods can use his children to control his domain. It’s more difficult without his help, and the layers of ground and crust and mantle underneath the jungles and forests and plains shifted and shook his children’s topography, and Mountains could only divert the volcanic eruptions, was not rooted deep enough to stop them . . . but Land’s children managed, and the human colony continued shakily on.
Coasts is certain now of what Cities wants. He wants All-Mother Ocean to give away her power and dominion so that, should she choose to raise the oceans against his humans and himself, she’ll need her children’s cooperation to do it. He wants the All-Mother to create new beings, children he can use to blackmail her into doing his bidding because she’ll protect and die for them as surely as the children she shares with Land. He wants her to bring children into the world who will know only his heel upon their necks, who might be convinced his family’s farce is the natural order, convinced the knife of fear he keeps twisting around inside them is what they deserve.
Cities wants the All-Mother to create more children like Coasts: ones who know fear more intimately than love, who know death but not freedom—more children whose hopes extend only to respite and the oblivion of death because, in their secret hearts, they don’t believe a better future is coming.
The only things Coasts wants to tell Cities now will get her killed, so she tries to focus on the All-Mother’s serenity and hedges in lieu of agreeing to what he has not technically requested. “You are right,” she says when she is Ocean enough, “the joys of children are many.”
When she doesn’t continue, Cities claps his hands and stands. “Well,” he says, “that’s settled then. We’ll expect to see you next summit with a few little Oceans toddling after you. That’ll be your assignment for the year, no need to wait till tomorrow to tell you.” He ignores the muted sounds of protest and continues, “Thank you, everyone, for coming. Now that we’re done for the day, let’s all go eat and—”
“No!” The word thunders out of Coasts once her shock gives way to outrage. A cloud of anger settles over her, distorting the world so the red of the desert rock seems to bleed onto the bodies around her.
Everything in the room stops.
“No?” Cities says dangerously. “Are you not hungry?”
Beside him, Ships stands in implicit threat, hand shifting to grip a machine hanging from his belt.
At this, Obsequies stands too. Coasts wonders if she realizes her palms are out, that she is edging toward Coasts and facing the wrong direction to stand with her parents.
Homes, standing almost as quickly, grabs Obsequies’s wrist and glares at her, tugs her ineffectually towards her parents’ side of the bench.
Coasts’s family shifts restlessly in the gallery.
“You know well what I meant,” Coasts tells Cities, her intonation low and sharp as it cuts through the fraught silence. “I am not the Ocean you left behind. I am not one of your human women who bear children because they are made to. You cannot force a child into me, and I will not carve one out of myself just because you will it—not this year or any other.”
Cities’s face reddens, and for a moment his mouth opens and closes like those of Obsequies’s favorite fish. The violence that burns across his face is familiar. He wore it with relish during every summit he greeted her with death, his hands always so impatient to touch her skin and pummel her mind into paste. But he glances at the gallery and contains himself. When Cities looks back at her, he is a showman, a king willing to be magnanimous. “Ocean,” he says, shaking his head, “Ocean, Ocean, Ocean. I strongly advise you to rethink that statement.”
The look of her name—her mother’s name—hollowing Cities’s lips disgusts her. She is so angry her fists are shaking. The only time she has ever felt this angry was in her mother’s memory of the evening Cities and Ships first came down from the sky. The All-Mother saw their bodies and realized they were why Sky was enfeebled, oddly shaped, and defenseless; they had wrenched Uloh-la’s ecosystem devastatingly off kilter; they didn’t care who they hurt; and they wouldn’t leave unless she made them.
Coasts is not nearly as strong as her mother, never will be, and she doesn’t know exactly how Ships killed her mother or Land or any of the others he hunts down between summits, but she is angry enough that the fear of her own death feels less consequential than unleashing her rage, than making her position so brutally clear that Cities cannot feign misunderstanding.
What stops her is a different recognition: Wrath did not save her mother at the height of her power—but Coasts has allies here, and if she is clever, and if she is lucky, maybe she can save herself.
If she fails, or they catch her when she runs, she’ll be no worse off than before. But if she succeeds, she could have her dream, be Coasts for the next twenty years, perhaps even with the women she loves. She and her mother can relax. All she has to do is look like Ocean and think like Coasts a little longer.
Amusement at her own audacity helps clear enough rage to think. “My apologies for losing my temper,” Coasts tells the gathering. “That did not come out the way I meant it to. English is still so difficult. If you’ll give me a moment, I would like to rethink what I said.”
The only people who seem pleased by this are Obsequies’s parents. “Of course,” Cities tells her, “take a moment. We’ll wait.” But not too long, Coasts knows.
She raises her hand in the wait gesture Obsequies uses, breathes, and thinks, makes her anger fuel instead of master. She lets herself take strength in Dwellings and Obsequies’s obvious desires to intervene, and chooses a creature to change into—Sky’s cloud hive creatures mimic death best, but Ocean would choose something from her domain to flee, so one of the tiny, scurrying crabs whose hard shells bounce instead of break against the rocks will have to do. It is a creature fast enough that Cities will have trouble catching her long enough to touch and push her out of her mind, and if he holds her, she’ll be too small for Dwellings and Obsequies to reach past his fingers to touch and doom themselves to her fate.
As Coasts slips more fully into the impassive mask she wears when she is Ocean, she lowers her hand and smiles blandly at the human trinity. “I will make more children,” she says.
Her family grumbles, and she quells them with a gesture. When Cities’s face smooths into an indulgent grin and he opens his mouth to speak, Coasts cuts him off with relish and drops her smile.
“I would like to make more children,” she tells Cities, “but I cannot do so in good conscience until you and your husband and wife have permanently left Uloh-la and taken your humans with you.” Her gaze hardens. “I will not make more children for you to terrorize and control than I already have.”
Despite his anger, Cities seems . . . pleased . . . by her answer.
He motions to Coasts and tells Ships, “Shoot her.”
Ships raises his machine. The smell of ozone emanates from it, so familiar from Coasts’s memories from Ocean, and from Deserts the day Land died. It is the scent that precedes death by scorching light.
Obsequies yanks from her mother’s grasp.
Land screams at Ocean to run.
Dwellings lunges to her feet.
Deserts flings an arm out, and the gods’ bench explodes and wraps them in a blinding billow of dust.
Coasts locks eyes with Dwellings and lets go of her human shape, reaches for—
A beam of sizzling light shoots out of the dust cloud and bursts through her vanishing heart.
Her human body falls and doesn’t move.
Ocean dies wearing a smile as placid the sea on the horizon.
Coasts lives. Concealed within her scorched human husk, she is already a cloud.
Obsequies reaches her dissipating body first. Her knees crash to the floor in a shock of air currents, and she cradles what’s left of Coasts’s human shell with vibrating hands. If Coasts had human eyes, she thinks Obsequies would look still, but her new body swims a spectrum of currents, and Coasts pulses in the eddies of Obsequies’s trembling. Her energy tastes of a grief so pure it can only belong to a god of death and mourning.
When the familiar essence of home—inclusive, wildly variant, dwellings across land and sea and sky—curls over Coasts’s chest, she shifts the last of her human skin into the thinnest of fogs. Dwellings’s grief is muddied by hope when Coasts spirals up her sleeve to hide against her covered skin. Coasts feels the alternating vibrations of speech, clings to the movement of Dwellings’s arm and chest as a wild, explosive burst skitters through the air, and the throb of concentrated power shifting to a drift of aimless energy reverberates like a shockwave through her senses.
They have murdered Land. Coasts aches with the need to sink into wisps of cold.
Dwellings proves her awareness of Coasts when she pushes the moments of Land’s death out through her skin. Coasts pulls herself into the gravity of her sudden heat of affection for her father. Knowledge of his impending death was etched into the furrow of his brow, and yet he stood, stalwart and noble, and claimed responsibility for Deserts’s dust cloud.
If Coasts had not fought her assignment, not escalated matters, Deserts wouldn’t have felt compelled to save her, and Land wouldn’t have needed to die to protect him. What must it be like to know your parent would die for you? Coasts doesn’t know. Perhaps Sky was willing when they helped make her, but All-Mother Ocean demands the opposite. Coasts wants to resent Ocean for this, for trapping her in the All-Mother’s shadow, but the familiar anger won’t come. She knows the anguish, now, of causing a loved one’s death. Dying is painful, but that pain is short, and for most of the decades it takes for one’s consciousness to reform into a being with thoughts and feelings, there is no self-awareness, no conception of passing time. Coasts is alive to feel both now, and the sluggishness of guilt slows her molecules, weighs her down.
Coasts has never felt so much like Ocean as she does now.
She has never before pitied her mother for sending her to die. For being the person left behind with only guilt and memories for company.
Dwellings spends the night with Obsequies, Deserts, and a few others in Obsequies’s room. They combine death rituals from Earth and Uloh-la to mourn Ocean and Land, and press affectionate memories and thoughts to the group through their chain of connected skin. No one speaks aloud, not every body is human, and the grief does not feel quite so heavy when it is shared.
Coasts is soothed by their shared mourning, as experienced through Dwellings’s skin. She thinks it would be more comforting if she could participate—but this, too, is practice for being Ocean when she is next expected at summit in twenty years.
Whenever Coasts dies, Ocean must suffer her grief alone. And each time Coasts dies, Ocean cannot soothe their family’s sorrows by telling them the real Ocean lives.
Coasts’s guilt at maintaining her silence as they mourn is heightened by their rule to share only memories of the All-Parents since their previous deaths. All the group’s warm remembrances of Ocean are of Coasts, not the All-Mother. They share memories of Coasts during the yearly summits, but also of visits with her in between. Obsequies shares teaching Coasts to build sandcastles, their hands buried in the damp, sucking sand, and of her anticipation when Coasts’s lips curled into a smirk, and Coasts closed her eyes and raised her hands and wielded the power of her domain, and sand all along the beach arced around them and formed a castle that rose high over their heads. Deserts’s long tongue lolls and he pushes a memory of sometime after, when Coasts showed him how to “build sandcastles,” and she and Deserts used their dominion over sand and heat to erect a sandcastle that became a glass house that Dwellings pushes the memory of climbing the walls and ceilings of with Coasts, two lizards renovating as they scuttled along.
Love suffuses every memory, even the sad ones. Without the weight of her guilt, Coasts thinks she would heat and expand with such joy and gratitude and affection for them all that Dwellings’s blouse would not be big enough to hide her. She knew her family liked her well enough, but never realized Dwellings is not the only one who loves and enjoys the Ocean who is Coasts, not just the memory of the All-Mother.
The last memory of the night comes from Obsequies—not a memory of hers, but one from the Obsequies of Earth that she hopes to give to Ocean. It is of the Great Flood that drives Cities’s desperate colonization, his hatred of Ocean, his fear of death that he returns to like a tongue worrying an empty cavity that recently housed a tooth.
Cities died in the flood, along with almost every life on Earth. He thinks only Ocean and Sky and a small boat of humans survived the purging of the earth—but he is wrong. There was a second boat: gods who’d lost their domains survived on the waves, protected by Ocean and Sky and Dwellings and Obsequies, whose powers grew to envelop the Earth.
Obsequies has shared this knowledge with no one else—will share it with no one else. Except Ocean, who she would have told had she not been cosseting her anger when the memory came to her shortly after Ocean landed.
Coasts is verklempt. Her siblings’ hope flutters the air.
In the privacy of Obsequies’s bathroom, Coasts wraps around Dwellings’s chest and thrums with gentle heat, and thanks, and excitement.
Where should I take you, when summit ends? Dwellings asks.
Coasts shows Dwellings the beach where she was born, the place she reports to her mother before and after every summit—the place Coasts showed Obsequies who she is. She wants both women she loves with her when she returns to the sea, assumed dead and triumphant, to show her mother what she’s done and what she’s learned.
Coasts buzzes with anticipation, hides her restlessness in the billow of Dwellings’s clothes as Dwellings’s flying mounts carry her and Obsequies to the ocean. Coasts can taste when they arrive—she knows this air, these vibrations, feels the rightness of her coast.
Dwellings’s arm moves, and then her skin pulses not only with her heartbeat, but Obsequies’s. We can never speak of this, Dwellings presses. Not out loud. When Obsequies swears her agreement, Dwellings tells Coasts, We’re here. It’s safe to come out now.
Obsequies’s gasp jags through the air as Coasts winnows her thrumming currents down Dwellings’s arm, dances around the curl of their fingers and frantic iron grip, swirls into a warm caress of pale white cloud that wraps around their hands.
Obsequies pushes the power of her domain through her trembling hand, a tentative greeting laced through with repentance. Dwellings does the same a moment later, her greeting vibrant with relief and glee.
Coasts is frenetic with giddiness as she stretches and curls and solidifies into the human mask they know. She forms her hands cradling theirs and answers them with all she truly is: the wide expanse of coastal shores and waters, the long sprawl of woods and rock and sand rolling into land shared with tides and ocean visitors, until giving way to ever-deepening waters—and above them both, an unbroken sky bowing low to embrace the ocean-filled horizon.
There are hugs and tears, kisses and promises, laughter and plans for a better future together as a triad like their parents, but unbroken. And finally, when they have calmed themselves, but have not yet let go, Coasts turns to the ocean. She is sure her mother is watching, sure that she’s seen at last what Coasts told her is true.
Coasts ripples her name out over the waters in greeting and waits for an answer.
She watches. She waits.
And smiles when the head of a giant turtle crests the waves—and the Ocean thunders back.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathleen Kayembe is the Octavia E. Butler Scholar from Clarion’s class of 2016, with stories in Lightspeed, Nightmare, and several Best of the Year anthologies; an essay in the Hugo-nominated anthology Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler; and previous queer romance publications with Less Than Three Press under the name Kaseka Nvita. You can find her in St. Louis, where she periodically runs Amherst Writers and Artists writing workshops, and is rarely without a book and a fountain pen.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Nancy Kress, Rati Mehrotra, Matthew Kressel, Adam-Troy Castro, Max Gladstone, Debbie Urbanski, Sofia Samatar, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.