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A Thousand Times Over

Tamoha Sengupta lives in India, but is happy to have visited many places on Earth and beyond at the expense of words. Although working in an IT company, she adamantly refuses to grow up until she receives her Hogwarts letter. She wishes she could spend each second reading and writing stories or watching anime. Her fiction has appeared in Zetetic:A Record of Unusual Inquiry, Mad Scientist Journal, T Gene Davis's Speculative Blog and a few others. This is her second appearance in Daily Science Fiction. She tweets @sengupta_tamoha.

Once a year, the merfolks arrive.
They come from the ocean, their tails rippling silver, their bodies glistening chestnut-brown in the moonlight. For one night, the magic wears off. They reach the shores, and transform into human form. They mix among us, and roam the streets.
They are the mirage of one moonlit night. They disappear as the sun comes up, vanishing again for a whole year.
Once every year, I met my father. He was strong and silent, with green eyes that I'd inherited. He smelled like the ocean. Ma and I sat with him for that one night, and he told us tales of the places he'd visited, the worlds he'd seen.
His words gave rise to a longing in me, a longing to belong to the oceans.
"When you turn thirteen, you'll be strong enough to withstand the magic, Zafiya. I can turn you then. You can come with me, if you want." He said.
For that one night, the three of us were like a family. Almost.
Ma's eyes were always sad when he left. I wished he didn't have to leave.
But he couldn't always be there.
He couldn't be there when Ma caught fish for our livelihood, and he couldn't be there when Ma broke her leg and I had to go to work instead, so that she could rest.
It was Raghaav, another fisherman, who helped us during those times. He brought Ma a part of the money he got from selling fish, and he was the one who took Ma to a doctor. He was the one who made Ma laugh during those bleak days when the nets stayed mostly empty.
He was the one Ma married the year I turned ten.
"How could you marry him?" I said to her, my voice thick with tears.
"I love him." She said.
"You're lying. You love Papa."
"It's too painful, seeing him every year, and knowing we can never be together, Zafiya. Raghaav makes me happy." She said, and the look in her eyes made my heart ache, but I didn't want to understand it. My own heart was bleeding.
I ran away from her, ignoring her voice calling me back. I'd wanted us to be a family--me, Ma, and Papa.
I felt betrayed that Ma had chosen Raghaav.
A year later, on the night my father came, Ma gave birth to my sister, Ziya. I didn't look at her even once.
I went out to meet my father alone, angry and bitter.
"Ma's married and now I have a sister." I said to him, breaking into tears in front of him.
He held me for a moment, and kissed my hair.
"It's okay, Zafiya. She needs someone to be with her. I can't give her that." He said, his voice quiet.
I wondered how he accepted it so easily, the fact that we could never be family.
Maybe I'd never understood how they'd loved each other.
"You've grown up so fast. My little girl, almost thirteen. What do you want as your birthday gift?" Ma said to me, as she held a sleeping Ziya in her arms, gently rocking her.
I turned away. We hardly spoke nowadays. She smiled a lot more than she used to, and that made me happy. But I couldn't give Raghaav my father's place, and that was what divided us.
"I want to get away from this place. I want to go with Papa." The words came out harsher than I intended, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ma flinch. But I didn't apologize. I fisted my arms at my sides, and stood there.
"If that's what you want, Zafiya, it will be yours. I love you and will always be with you, you know that." Her voice had a slight quiver in it.
It was the last time we talked.
Two days later, a storm capsized their boats while they were fishing.
The other fishermen brought their bodies to our home. I stood frozen, staring at them lying on the floor, unable to believe my eyes.
Ziya came up to them in tottering steps. "Mama," she said, giggling, squatting near Ma's body. She touched Ma's closed eyes, and poked her shoulder. Her giggles disappeared when Ma didn't move, and she looked up at me. Her lower lip jutted out and tears pooled in her eyes. "Mama's not listening." She said.
I didn't know what to say to her, what explanation to give for Ma and Raghaav lying there, cold and unmoving.
So I said nothing.
I lifted my sister into my arms for the first time in my life. She felt warm and alive, and I cried along with her, my heart breaking all over again.
Papa came a day after my thirteenth birthday.
I choked out the news to him, and his own eyes filled up.
"I'm sorry." He whispered.
He held me tight. "I'll take care of you." He said. "You can come with me now."
I knew I could. I'd dreamed of this day ever since I'd known about it.
But Ziya was a human child. She couldn't be turned, even if she was the right age.
She was my sister and I loved her. I couldn't leave her. I'd understood it from the moment I'd held her.
"I can't." I said. I hadn't ever thought that I'd say the words to him, but as I spoke them, I knew I meant them.
He still comes every year to meet me. Always his unspoken question lingers between us, though my answer remains the same.
I'd once dreamed of living in the ocean and swimming through the waves. I dream of it still. But when my sister comes running to hug me when I come back home from fishing, and I hold her, I feel no regret.
I'd make the same choice, a thousand times over.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Author Comments

I wanted to write about a girl who was half-merfolk, half-human, and that is how Zafiya came to be. The rest of the events in the story followed naturally.

- Tamoha Sengupta
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