The Ocean-Mother’s Lesson

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Alternatives to Dragons

Kanna first saw the Ocean-Mother when she was a small child. She was too young to be that close to the sea, but her mother had caught her sneaking out to the docks one time too many, and decided that if Kanna was going to sea-dream she was going to do it under her mother’s watchful eye.

Even if that meant bringing Kanna along to a sacred meeting she was far too small and careless to appreciate.

Kanna was just happy her mother hadn’t tried to ban her from the waves entirely. It wouldn’t really work—they lived on an archipelago—but it would be really annoying to try and work around. Besides, she’d heard a lot about her mother’s role as liaison to the Ocean-Mother: the riches she passed into the sea to keep their guardian content, the promises she swore to uphold, the secret wonders only she could learn of. All she’d ever seen her mother do was gather stories from the neighbours. If there was something she was missing, she wanted to know it.

“Remember,” her mother told her outside the harbour, “where we are going is secret. You can’t tell anyone.”

“But everyone knows where we’re going,” Kanna pointed out. “You can see the island of communion from here.”

Her mother rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t matter who knows. As long as it isn’t spoken out loud, a secret has power. Understand?”

Kanna thought for a moment. “I don’t think so.”

A deep, tired sigh. “At least you’re honest. She’ll probably like that.”

They crossed the water by boat. For the first couple metres, it was clear as glass, but soon the waves clouded over and the bottom vanished from sight.

Kanna looked over the edge. Sea-dreaming wasn’t quite the same thing as leaving your body, but it wasn’t that different. She chased fish through the reef and poked them with her mind. They poked back with clouded, formless thoughts.

While Kanna let her thoughts drift, her mother leaned back and went through their supplies: reed stylus, spare stylus, another spare stylus just in case, a string for cutting, and a damp cloth filled with slab upon slab of clay. It left grey smears on her brown fingers and woven skirt. On a hot day like this, the sun would bake clay quickly. That, Kanna learned, listening with one ear, was good—the faster the clay dried, the less risk of knowledge being lost.

“It would be easier if we could use quills or pens,” her mother said, “but it’s no good. You’d have better luck writing on your hands than parchment. And what if she tried to add something to your notes? The whole day’s work, ruined, just like that. No, we’ll be sticking with clay and reeds for a long time yet.”

Kanna nodded, her mind fixed on the softly-glowing jellyfish that drifted past far below. They pulsed softly with white light when they felt her looking. If she really focused, she could taste the misty clouds of their thoughts.

When she looked up, her mother was smiling. “Sea-dreaming again already?”

“Maybe,” Kanna muttered, still thinking into the waves. Water carried thought so much further than air.

“Don’t go too deep. There’s more down here than you can see.”

“I know.” She’d felt the thoughts of something bigger skim against her a few times as they rowed. Sparks of curiosity. Sometimes even sparks of interest. Nothing had come of it so far, though, so Kanna refused to worry about it no matter what her mother said.

“Jellyfish don’t have brains, anyway. I guarantee they’re not thinking of anything important.”

“I know, mom.”

The island of communion was actually an atoll, an almost-complete circle of sand and sparse, stubborn foliage rising out of the waves. They approached it from the curved back—the shallow end. As soon as the bottom was visible, Kanna jumped out of the boat and scampered up toward the beach.

Her mother took longer, gathering her bags, dragging the boat up, and tying it loosely to a thick, sturdy palm tree. Then they walked down to the shockingly deep lagoon together. Kanna held her mother’s skirt with one hand and the spare styluses in the other.

“What do you do?” her mother prompted as they made their approach.

“Stay quiet and don’t be a nuisance.”


“Answer any questions asked of me.”

That got her a quick smile. “Good girl. Last thing to remember?”

“I get a question for every question I answer?”

Her mother nodded, long braids swinging forward with the motion. “Got it. You’ll do just fine.”

The closer they got to the shore, the more Kanna began to doubt that. “What if I screw up?”

“You’re young. She’ll forgive you.”

That wasn’t very reassuring at all, but it was too late to make a fuss. They’d arrived. This side of the atoll was a sharp slide into the depths, white sand dotted with old, dead shells. Broken starfish and the corpses of sand dollars crunched under Kanna’s sandals. Before her, the ocean stretched out, serene, bottomless, forever.
Above her, there was a sharp intake of breath. Then her mother was calling out in rich, ringing tones, and things were already in motion. “Old Mother! Deep Mother! We beseech you to hear our tales!”

For a long moment, those words hung there, so heavy Kanna could feel them on her skin. All at once, the tide rolled out. The harsh slope stood revealed—cliff, leading into an endless mud flat, both of them dotted with bones, decaying timber, and the marks of vast arms on the sea floor. Kanna stopped breathing too late to keep the smell of rot and deep-sea mud out of her nose.

Her mother’s hand squeezed hers. Then the ocean itself breathed out.

The water rolled in on a thick, dark tide, up to her waist—huge, but gentle. Kanna clung tightly to her mother as the first tentacle oozed up onto the beach beside them. Sea-spray battered her face. Dead shells moved under her feet as an impossible weight ground them into powder. Piece by piece, the Ocean-Mother rose up out of the surf.

The bulk of her was mind-bogglingly enormous. Each arm was thicker around than Kanna’s mother was tall, and the top of the mantle was too high to make out. She was bigger than any house, any monument, any cliff. The whole atoll could fit snugly into the arc of a single arm and leave room to spare. The Ocean-Mother wrapped her four middle arms around it and left her back arms in the water. Her two front arms coiled in on themselves, miles of glistening, rubbery flesh, dripping seawater.

Finally, she sank down low enough for Kanna to make out one huge eye. A grown man could have comfortably stood inside its long, sideways pupil. Huge thoughts rippled over them, enormous and inscrutable, like waves passing far overhead. It was terrifying. What on earth could something like this want from them?

As soon as the Ocean-Mother was settled and the water began receding, Kanna’s mother began talking. She brought up everything that had happened in the last month, starting with the kid that had fallen into the bay when he was supposed to be in class, and got more serious from there. Equal attention was given to describing a community-wide feast and the rise in acid rain, the way hungry fox-wolves were beginning to push seaward and the increase in tariffs on imported goods.

Kanna listened, feeling detached from her body. She understood maybe half of the things her mother spoke about, but she could feel those enormous thoughts reacting to them, filing the information away in a labyrinthine memory and pulsing out responses in a voice that wasn’t for Kanna. It felt like floating on a boat, trying to go unnoticed, while the thoughts of giants circled below.

Finally, her mother brought up the last story she had to trade: a knight from the inland capital had arrived in town a few days ago, with a set of shiny armour already rusting in the sea air.

“He says he’s going to free us from your reign of terror,” she said with a pinched expression. “I don’t think he’ll be any problem to you, but I’m bringing the warning regardless. There’s a chance he has something unpleasant up his sleeve.”

The arm closest to them waved dismissively. Barbed, reddish suckers flexed. This time, the reply was so loud Kanna could make out the end of it:

“-won’t kill him unless he refuses to discuss things like a civilized creature. Regardless, no harm will come to your people. I will keep my promise, Rumin.”

Kanna’s mother smiled faintly. “Please try not to make too much mess. Harder to cover up that way. We will keep our promise, as well.”

There was weight to those words—a ritual Kanna wasn’t old enough to know all the steps of. She stood there, mute and ankle-deep in warm water, as her mother cut the first clay tablet, held up her stylus, and began asking rapid-fire questions. These, Kanna was more familiar with. She’d sat there, acting as a sounding board, while her mother had picked them out. That didn’t make them any less alien now.

What would the tides bring in over the next lunar cycle? How much cod could the village take without causing lasting harm? When would the summer storms come through, and where would windbreaks be most effective? The questions kept coming, but Kanna was no longer listening to them. Not when she could feel the answers pressing against her skin.

Damp clay pressed insistently against her arm. She blinked and took the first tablet from her mother. Harsh, angular letters blurred together in shorthand, clustered so thick that she could hardly tell where one ended and the next began. Soon there was a second tablet to juggle, and a third, and a fourth, and Kanna could hardly pick out more than an occasional word of the conversation happening above her.

“—have dragged a sunken galleon closer to the shoreline, you will find it at—”

“—conduct your holy days on higher ground this year, I expect nasty waves—”

“—tropical storms will not touch you, I swear it—”

“And what do we have here?”

Kanna jolted. Her arms tightened reflexively around her burden. That last thought—that had been aimed at her. The force of it nearly knocked her off her feet. She looked up slowly to find the huge, slippery form tilted toward her. Chromatophores blooming with colour and a single yellow eye peered down. The Ocean-Mother had noticed her.

“I-I’m sorry?” Kanna squeaked.

A ripple of reddish-purple swirled over the Ocean-Mother’s mottled skin. “It is traditional to answer before trading questions. But perhaps it is my fault for giving you no warning. I shall start over. What are you?”

Kanna glanced sideways, searching for her mother. It got her a quick smile and a gesture to hurry up. The stylus was still moving. Their words were being recorded.

“U-um, I’m Rumin’s—your emissary’s—daughter.”

The reds were replaced by blues. The next thought was less forceful, more spread-out. A blanket rather than a push. “Who are you?”

An easy one. “I’m Kanna.”

“Why have you come to me?” This question was positively gentle, weaving in with the tide that rushed over her toes.

Oh, this was going to be embarrassing. How did you say ‘I wanted to know what you actually want from us’ without sounding incredibly rude? “I wanted to meet you. The one our world revolves around.”

The nearest arm coiled in on itself, its very shape thinning until it was little more than a spiral. For a moment, Kanna had the distinct impression of a cat tucking its paws under itself to rest. “And what have you learned?”

“I didn’t think you’d be so big.”

What rippled over her next was laughter, or at least the impression of laughter. There was something very familiar about the way the Ocean-Mother talked. It wasn’t sound, though it could trick your brain into thinking it was. Not pressure, either. A connection of thought and feeling, sent across the space between them through a medium other than air. A medium like… water.

Was the Ocean-Mother sea-dreaming right now? Pressing her thoughts into Kanna’s head, the way Kanna had played with the jellyfish?

…why was the Ocean-Mother still looking at her? Why was her mother gesturing again—

A few seconds later, it finally clicked. Kanna straightened her back and shifted the clay in her arms to what she hoped was a more dignified position. “W-what are you?”

“There are people in the sea as there are on land. Of them, I am the oldest and greatest.”

Kanna remembered the other things she’d felt thinking in the deep and wasn’t sure she believed this. Even so, having an answer put her on steadier ground. “Who are you?” she asked, gaining confidence. “And why are you here?”

“I have no name but the one your ancestors gave me. And I am here to gather your stories, as I have for centuries. In exchange, I feed you, guard you, and bring you things lost beneath the waves.”

Here it was. “Things?”

A dismissive pulse of yellow. “Ships. Gold. Gemstones. Pretty, but useless things.”

“But those are important!” Kanna blurted out. “Why would you trade all that for just words?”

There was a sharp intake of breath a few feet away. Kanna could feel her mother staring at her, willing her to stop talking. She closed her mouth as her face began to grow hot. Oh dear. She’d broken the rules, hadn’t she?

“I’m so sorry,” her mother said hastily. One big hand settled on Kanna’s upper back, encouraging her to bow. “She is very young and has not yet learned all her manners. We truly apologize for the breach of tradition.”

“Larvae make mistakes. It is the duty of their elders to inform them.” Though the words were sharp, there was nothing but amusement behind them. The arm in front of them uncoiled. The very tip stretched down to brush Kann’s cheek. She flinched back and made a face. It felt like uncooked shellfish.

“Listen well, Kanna, daughter of Rumin. Sunken ships may be hidden in, gold may be shaped or looked at, and gemstones can be made into tools, but knowledge can be used for any purpose.” A note of solemnity entered the Ocean-Mother’s thoughts. “I gather the stories of humans because humans are terribly short-lived and prone to losing things they don’t consider important. If all the stories of the earth were lost because the wrong people died without passing them on, that would be too sad.”

A lump formed in Kanna’s throat. She bowed her head while her mother said thanks and wallowed in the Ocean-Mother’s lesson. ‘That would be too sad.’ Such a childish way to put it. But the truth of it made Kanna’s head spin.

It really was stories that had brought the Ocean-Mother to her people, wasn’t it? The stories Rumin gathered every month were traded with the Ocean-Mother for protection, help, and specific information they needed, and it worked, because the Ocean-Mother lived for stories. Hoarded them. Like a living library.

Kanna only roused from her thoughts when the Ocean-Mother departed. Miles of damp skin slithered back into the water, taking the tide with them. The exposed mud had fresh tracks carved into it.

“Well,” her mother said after a moment, “we should go.”

Kanna hummed in agreement, but she kept craning her head over her shoulder as they made their way back to the boat. She wasn’t quite sure why. There was nothing to see. She just couldn’t stop thinking about what had been there just moments ago.

Being back on the water made her feel steadier. The opacity of the waves did not. Kanna stared down regardless, trying to put her thoughts in order. “How did the Ocean-Mother find us?”

“Our ancestors sea-dreamed, too,” her mother said after a moment. “They were very good at it, and they ventured very deep. She followed the trail of their thoughts back to the surface.”

“Is that why you keep telling me not to dream too deep?”

A brisk nod. “We were lucky with the Ocean-Mother. She’s ancient and solitary, but she wants what we have, and we can know her well enough. Other residents of the deep might not be so kind.”

“How do you know?” Kanna asked. “Did you ask her?” She knew the answer as she spoke it. Goosebumps rose up on her arms. She jerked her thoughts up, out of the water, back under her own skin. Suddenly, home seemed very far away.

Her mother pressed her lips together and rowed them both back to shore. For once, Kanna was glad for secrets.

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