Most of the paint is gone, worn away through decades of cultural amnesia. There used to be a background of periwinkle blue with shades of pine and olive. There were mermaids and jeweled fish and, at the very bottom, the tips of the highest citadels. In case, somehow, you weren’t sure where you were going. But then, you wouldn’t be there.
The way it worked was this: You had to know where to look. You had to have a guide. At the blue gate, find the one with lavender scales. Touch the rim of her left eye. It was silver, I remember. After that, everything was easy. The bottom panel slid away.
Then you swam.
The first time I went through, I thought my lungs would burst until I took a breath of water. It had a smokey-sweet tang, like chipoltes and chocolate, but that was just for me. Angie said the water tasted like lavender lemonade and Jamie swore it was gingerbread with a whip of licorice. Black, not red. Everyone has a preference. I never understood the arguments over taste. What was the point? We weren’t there for the water. That was just the medium, the path we had to take. If there had been another way. . . . Well, who knows? There wasn’t, so we swam.
Back then, there were great white sharks thirty feet long with teeth the size of a lumberjack’s palm. They never ate the couriers, but we always had an escort, swimming at a distance, flitting through the shadows, the curvatures of light. I coveted a fallen mermaid scale, and scanned the distant seabed for a glimmer. By the end, I was wary of the razor edges, the blinding, iridescent patches.
I thought I needed pockets. I was that naive. You couldn’t tuck away anything they gave us. I guess you could say we were spies, paid in foreign currency. We sold them news and rumors from the world above the sea. They gave us bliss and fortitude and the grace of a switchback fin in heavy ocean currents.
No one believed in forever. Empires, even imaginary ones, last only as long as their borders. We were vulnerable to disbelief, to reason and to progress. Who could fathom all we’d seen?
It’s been centuries since the crumbling tides, but I still return to the gate. I sit with my back to the sun-baked stones, my ankles touching, neat, as if I had a tail instead of legs. I am a solitary memory. No one else believes. Fairy tales, they say. Aimless, misguided legends. All the work of fools.
But I was there when everything began, and again when everything ended. Those spires, all trimmed with fallen scales, were brilliant in the fading light, oblivious to shadows. The whole city spread out like a perpetual dream. Atlantis, my wonder. We entered as guests through the blue gate. And then, of course, we swam.
Learn more about Wing-Feather Fables here.