This story is by Susana Hernandez Stengele and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The bay window creaked softly as Nessie opened it, just before the day began. The pearlescent, multicolored city, unfolding below, shimmered under the rise of Helios. Beyond the Golden Gates, the tinted ocean in hues of blue and green and white, was magnificent. Fresh wind rushed in, flowing through the sheer light cream curtains on her face; whipping her hair into a messy cloud. The enveloping smell made her feel weightless. She could never get tired of this freedom. The maids were already busy in her bedroom. If she was going to do something today, she had to shake off the feeling.
Of all the plans for the day, what she looked forward to the most was the braiding. She could finally wear her hair in the special fashion of the chosen ones. The ones that the Gods favored. Although, for her, it was more about the way the untamed hair turned into a beautiful rose garden.
“My little fish is growing up,” said her mother. Her warm-milk-and-honey voice came from behind. Her mother’s delicate fingers braided her hair so expertly she could hardly feel it. In the mirror, Nessie could see the black birthmark below her left eye clearly. To her, it was more like a heart than a fish, but the big smile on her mother’s face made it worthwhile. She closed her eyes to enjoy the moment. Her mother hummed lightly, and the world seemed right.
A hair pin fell out of the maid’s trembling hands and made an awful sound on the floor. It wasn’t a big deal. Nessie had lots of hairpins just like that one.
“Pick it up,” said her mother.
The maid swiftly gathered the ivory pieces and handed them to her.
“Leave, you useless idiot.” Her mother grabbed the maid by the arm, dragged her out of the room and left, closing the door behind them.
Nessie sat there, frozen. The way her mother spoke to the maid made her stomach clench. She knew she had to get used to it if she wanted to succeed. That’s what she’d heard over and over again since the day she was born.
She felt a jolt rising from her core. The sudden sinking thought that, after today, she would have to carry the family’s name and the world on her shoulders. Just like her brothers and sisters before her. The freedom was gone. Staring at the girl in the mirror, she wondered if she would be up to it.
A faint wail came from below. Standing on her tiptoes, Nessie watched the maid emerge from the tower into the streets, holding her teary face. Her stomach clenched again. It really hadn’t been a big deal. Her eyes followed the maid as she ran down the street and got lost between the curved walls.
Stretching a little more to the right, Nessie could barely see the small cove where she used to play. Collecting shells was the only thing she could think of at the time.
“A chosen one does not play in the sand,” she scoffed, imitating her father’s voice.
The day he threw away her shells, she’d cried for hours. What was the point in being chosen if you couldn’t do what made you happy?
“Power is happiness,” said her father.
For what she’d seen over the years, he hardly smiled anymore. Not only that. She could almost see the growing gloom that followed him around; always asking for more.
There had to be another way.
Still docked in the cove was the blue boat she saw every day through the study window during her lessons. Countless times, instead of listening, she’d dream about leaving. Becoming someone else. Someone no one knew; a mortal. She drifted gazing at the waves and tried to picture the world on the other side of the ocean. She wondered how many steps there were between her room and the cove. How many times would she have to row to cross the ocean? Would Poseidon let her leave? She was sure He liked shells too.
A far away shimmer caught her attention. The Golden Gates opened heavily while the horns blasted to let everyone know her father’s ships were back.
“It’s time,” said her mother, holding the door open.
Nessie felt so small standing in the middle of the temple beside the huge golden chariot where Poseidon sat commanding his winged horses. Not one of her siblings had come; they were all busy conquering the world.
Towards the end of the ceremony, the priest gave her a golden cup to drink from. “…and she shall remain alongside the Masters of Wisdom to continue guiding humanity into its glorious destiny.” His voice echoed, spiraling upward along the columns of the temple. High above, the small round skylight let in a veil of white light directly on top of them. The bitter sweet taste lingered.
“No!” roared her father. She felt sick. Could he read her thoughts?
One of his officers whispered next to him.
“They cannot stand against the Great City.” He rose, straightened his cloak, and left the room abruptly. The officer followed like a shadow. Poseidon’s sculpture remained imperturbable. Her mother disappeared after them without saying a word. So much for a celebration.
Nessie made her way back, out through the garden overlooking the city. The realm, beautiful and expectant.
She felt a jolt again. This time, a vase on the corner of the veranda fell, spilling yellow flowers in all directions. A blanket of silence fell heavily over the city. The light dimmed and a growing gray fog clouded the entire view surrounding the island. What was happening? She had barely lifted the vase when the earth began to shake. The ground growled and creaked so loudly that she had to cover her ears for a moment. She held on to the veranda and glanced back.
An enormous crack in the ground moved and expanded, engulfing everything in its path. Flames and black smoke emerged from there.
“Mama?” Her voice got lost in the rumble. She thought about her family and the name. A name that would disappear forever. Her name.
The maid’s tearful face appeared in her mind. It wasn’t fair.
“No! You can’t do this.” Nessie shook her fists at the sky. Tears covering her eyes made it difficult to see.
“I’ll do it differently. I know I can.” She thought about the ceremony, standing in the divine light with her braided hair and the priest’s words floating around, she had felt the power. Little fish grew bigger than the chariot, grander than the temple. And from up there, she’d seen the other way. The power to change.
She turned towards the ocean. “Do something, you useless idiot!” Her mother’s words came to her in a last attempt to save them all.
The city reverberated with explosions in multiple places, accompanied by the increasing heat of the flames. For a moment, there was hope. Water seeped through the cracks alongside the flames, making them sizzle. Then the city began to sink.
The blue boat. Maybe there was still time.
* * *
“So, do you have it?” Agnes wasn’t sure where to look.
‘And that concludes today’s episode in Mysteries of the World. Tomorrow a special dive into the thousand-year mystery of the Sunken City of…’ the voice on the radio died with a click. A man grunted somewhere behind the stacks of papers and boxes on top of the desk and all over the small public registry office.
“Yeah…It should be lost somewhere in the sea…” his head popped up, “…of documents.”
Agnes couldn’t help her nose from twitching, which happened whenever she felt uncomfortable.
“I’m so sorry. They dumped these yesterday. Apparently, there was a flood in the storage room. Super random.” He came up to her and glanced once more at the request format she held. Then swiveled on his heels and disappeared in the back of the room.
“Here,” he said triumphantly and came back holding a box in his hands. He made a spot for Agnes to sit on the floor and left her to it.
“It looks like a fish,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“What?” Agnes had almost pulled every document out of the damp box.
“Your birthmark. Left eye?”
Agnes wasn’t listening. She found it.
She delicately took the paper between her fingers, held it up to the light, and gently placed it down on top of the document pile. Inside the gloves, her hands were sweating. Agnes expected the Immigration Card to be old, but this appeared to be from ancient times. She exhaled. She’d been holding her breath for the past years. It had begun with a harmless Find Your Ancestry ad, and turned into a frustrating and exhausting search for information about her roots.
The missing link was finally here.
Name: Agnes. First of her name.
Place of birth: Atlantis