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Spring 2022: The Inaugural Issue

Nereus

A mythological short story by Mike Mayak


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It can be dangerous when a god takes a liking to you, but you usually have no choice in the matter. For me, it happened fast. The storm appeared out of nowhere, the sky darkened and the wind whipped up and thunder began to roar.

“Zeus must be angry,” a young slave said as he rushed past me to secure some of the cargo on our merchant ship, nearly tripping over an oarsman. It turned out his supposition about Zeus was not far from the truth.

I looked around for the Captain to ask him something when the first huge wave hit, nearly tipping the ship and knocking us off our feet. Months earlier I would have thought that being sprawled on a deck was an undignified position for the soon-to-be-prosperous son of a prosperous merchant, but not after the time I had spent working alongside the others.

“Master, you are the best-dressed slave on the ship,” one of the slaves had joked. We had both laughed at that.

I was not laughing as I looked up from the deck and saw the second wave towering over the ship. It was unlike any wave I had ever seen; dark and green and thin, almost like a waterspout. Then it slapped the deck, striking like a snake knocking me into the sea!

I flailed in the water and remembered not to make the mistake of opening my mouth and gulping in water. I swam upward and broke the surface, gasped a lungful of air and was about to call for help when something grabbed me and pulled me back underwater. But in that instant I beheld a startling sight; the dark clouds were gone, the surface was nearly calm and the sky was sunny and blue. I caught what was to be a last glimpse of the ship, still rocking from the vanished storm when I was pulled under.

There were no hands, no creatures pulling me. Instead, I was in the powerful grip of what seemed to be an underwater whirlpool or waterspout, spinning and pulling me through the green ocean, further from the surface. My lungs were bursting and I finally let out a large series of bubbles, all the air I had in my lungs. An instant later I sobbed and let the water rush into my mouth, expecting it to be my last action before my death. I found to my amazement that I reacted to the water as I had to the air on the surface and was now seemingly breathing water. I believed, however, that this was a delusion caused by lack of air and being swirled through the depths.

After an indeterminate amount of time and distance the whirling current deposited me on the ocean floor in front of the entrance to a huge cave which glowed with a strange light. I half walked, half floated into the cave and beheld a huge man, tinted greenish by the light, seated on a throne carved out of coral. He had a long beard, streaked with white and green which matched his long hair which trailed off and blended with the dark water and his eyes seemed to flash with lightning. I couldn’t tear my eyes off his muscular arms and chest. The chair or throne he was seated on was made of what first looked like seashells. Then I looked again. All the crustaceans the chair was made of were alive and moving slightly.

“I am Nereus, Lord of the Sea,” the bearded man said, in a voice that sounded both old and powerful. “What are you called?”

I managed to find my voice.

“I am Akamas, son of Akadios, the merchant.” I said. “How can I speak and breathe under the ocean?”

“Because the things that are mine are the things of the sea bottom and you are now mine,” said Nereus. He moved forward, shifting like a river current surrounding me like a fog and his kiss was like a breeze on the shore just after a storm. “You will be with me for the night and then you will join my followers.”

The man kissed me again, and his hair seemed to flow and surround us both.

In the morning, and I could only guess it was morning by the brighter light streaming down from the surface, I was greeted by several astonishing figures. Five young men, four of them with streaming green hair and the same wide eyes I would see on a fish. The fifth looked barely older than myself, sandy haired and lean. In contrast to the others he seemed human, except he was breathing and speaking underwater. He introduced himself as Zotikos and explained that I, like they, served Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea.

“You coming here was no accident,” Zotikos said. “Nereus saw you and wanted you.”

I remembered the sea god’s strong arms around me the night before.

“You, like I, once lived on land, but you are now a sea-dweller by the will of Nereus,” he said. “You will live forever in the world of the oceans.”

I glanced upward at the surface and thought of my father, my home and my life. Was I doomed to be a sea-dweller forever?
Zotikos seemed to read my mind.

“It is not a bad life,” he said. “Serving Nereus, I mean. I should know. I served a master on land before I fell off the ship and was brought here.”

“You fell off a ship?” I asked, assuming that he had been swept into the sea the same way I had.

“Well, maybe I jumped,” Zotikos admitted with a grin. “Anything to get away from…well, I expected to wind up at the bottom of the sea, but not like this!” He did a backflip which was as slow and graceful as a falling leaf. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

I realized how used to being underwater I was becoming. Without thinking I was correcting for a current that was causing me to drift.

“How long have you been here?” I asked, thinking Zotikos could barely be older than my own twenty-three summers.

“I am not sure,” he said with a laugh. “In my last days as a land-dweller I remember my Master talking about the new emperor, Oxyntes.”

Emperor Oxyntes! I remembered my Grandfather telling me that his Grandfather had seen Oxyntes when he had been a young man, nearly a hundred years ago! When I recovered from my surprise I mentioned to Zotikos that I was feeling hungry and asked if we had to grow or forage for our own food or did Nereus provide it?

“The fish which are our sustenance come to us,” he said. “This is the bidding of Nereus.”

“I thought,” and here I lowered my voice, “I thought that Posideon was lord of all the oceans and seas, even though I have heard the name Nereus.”

Zotikos laughed again.

“No need to fear retribution for your curiosity! Yes, Posideon is now ruler of the sea, a position long held by Nereus, who vacated his high office upon the ascent of Posideon.”

I settled into my new life. Days were spent tilling the soil. I had not realized that there was soil at the sea bottom. We spent some of our mornings catching obliging fish. We were always at the beck and call of Nereus. Our afternoons were more leisurely and I spent some of that time in the company of Zotikos who, as a former surface dweller like myself, was a much-appreciated companion. Other times I was able to explore the wonders of the sea bottom by myself and I spent less time looking longingly up towards the surface.

My transformation into a sea-dweller was nothing short of remarkable. I found I was now able to swim great distances swiftly and my senses had been greatly expanded. I could not only see in all but the darkest, murkiest of waters, but I could clearly hear noises from the speech of my fellows to the clicking of distant sea creatures. Of the ocean’s great pressure I felt no discomfort, but I could feel differences in currents in the same space of water, far different than the winds on land.

It was while I was exploring a grotto that I was surprised to see the now-familiar form of Zotikos swimming towards me. We both stared at the ancient walls but when I turned to leave, he put his hand on my shoulder to entreat me to stay. We began by kissing and then stayed in the grotto for what must have been much of the afternoon. Then, Zotikos rose and smiled and his smile grew broader and his face expanded and rippled like a wave and in another instant Nereus was standing over me.

“You perform very well, my plaything from the surface,” he said, still smiling. I just lay there and stared. I remembered something I’d heard about the sea god being able to change shape. I had never expected to actually see it.

I swam out of the grotto following Nereus, and as we approached Nereus’ cave I saw Zotikos, the real Zotikos grabbing at a passing fish, and I smiled to myself.

One day, not long after, the bright afternoon suddenly darkened and there was a feel to the water, a sense that this was not just another storm on the surface. My ears were accustomed to the sounds of the ocean but this was different, a kind of roar that bespoke of power and authority. The merfolk darted like minnows ahead of a shark and Zotikos swam to my side, an anxious look on his face.

“The cave,” he said. “Quickly.”

Nereus’ cave was full of activity. Merfolk were swimming around, streams of bubbles in their wake. Only Nereus, seated on his throne, appeared calm. He did not even bother to look upward.

A huge, dark bulk filled the entrance of the cave, surrounded by merfolk I didn’t recognize.

“On your knees! Now!” Zotikos hissed.

I quickly did as he asked but was able to glance upward to observe our visitor. He was tall, almost as tall as the roof of the cave, bare chested with flesh toned as blue as the sea. His beard was short and dark and appeared to be interwoven with strands of seaweed. There was a crown on his head which I first took to be made of some polished metal but was an immense seashell, seemingly turned inside-out with crown-like points sticking outward. He resembled Nereus superficially, but where Nereus gave an impression of great age, this figure had a look and demeanor which spoke of impetuous youth.

“Ho, Posideon!” Nereus said, confirming my suspicion as to the visitor’s identity.

As befitted the ruler of the sea he was followed by attendants, merfolk and sea creatures as well as a few sea-dwellers like myself. He was attired in a loincloth made of seaweed and decorated with shells and fastened by a golden belt. This and the crown were the only clothing that hung on his muscular frame.

“Ho, Nereus!” Posideon said as Nereus gestured for us to rise from our kneeling positions.

“To what do I owe the presence of the Lord of the Oceans?” Nereus asked our visitor.

“The eyes and ears of the Ocean tell me of your new acquisition,” Posideon said. “A surface dweller whom you have transformed and taken for yourself.”

I suddenly felt chilled as if by a current from the far north. Posideon continued.

“This lad has the muscular looks of Perseus, who I always fancied,” Posideon said. “Of course, his destiny lay elsewhere.”

Posideon turned to stare at me with a huge smile as he gestured for one of his attendants to bring him a conch shell from which he took a drink of some liquid which, I gathered, was not water.

“In other words, I want him,” Posideon said giving me a nod. Something in his stance spoke of cruelty and I remembered how Athens, at its founding, had sought out Athena’s patronage when Posideon had offered his if they were to name their new city after him. The sea god was known for sweeping in and taking the young men and women he took a liking to. I wanted to run.

“Stand there, Akamas,” Nereus said, reading my mind.

“What are you willing to trade for your new toy?” Posideon asked.

“My existence is fairly simple,” Nereus said. “I have no needs I cannot supply.”

“I could provide you with an army of men such as this, all of them at your beck and call,” Posideon said.

“A flattering offer, but I have no interest in any others at the moment,” said Nereus.

My skin began to prickle. The two of them were discussing my ownership as if I were a pig or a sheep.

“I am fully within my rights as Lord of the Sea to order those in my domain to do my bidding,” Posideon said. His face was grim and the light from the surface above darkened.

“But I have full authority!” Nereus said calmly. “This was our bargain eons ago when I vacated the Throne of the Oceans.”
Posideon’s eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. “Do you wish the throne again?”

“I have no wish to return to the cumbersome ways of a monarch,” Nereus said.

“I will summon the waves!” Posideon thundered raising his trident. “The whales! All the creatures of the sea!”

Nereus simply stared at Posideon and yawned. Posideon shook the trident and the waters began to swirl around the cave. I looked across the cave. Zotikos was visibly shaking and probably so was I.

Posideon shook his trident again. Instantly there was a low rumble and the cave shook. I heard a high squealing sound from the merfolk and I glanced upward expecting the cave roof to fall on us.

Nereus, however, just yawned again. Deliberately. He was, I finally realized, doing it for show. Another moment and the shaking and swirling water ceased. Posideon bellowed again and rushed out of the cave. A moment later there was a low rumble from outside, a rumble which faded into the distance.

“The Lord of the Sea is taking his leave,” Nereus said slyly.

“Will…will he be back?” I asked.

“Of course!” Nereus said with a laugh. “Probably wanting something else, after fortifying himself with a few conch shells of his favorite liquid. He does this every few centuries, so get used to it!” Nereus smiled at me. “You need not fear, little fish; you are under my protection always.”

And that was how it stayed. From then on I sought out Nereus’ embraces instead of taking them as I was commanded to. The seasons and the years blended like the shifting currents and I barely noted their passage.

I saw the surface again, several times. Once, when we retrieved men from a capsized vessel, and deposited them safely on shore, I walked on the surface, but I had no desire to stay. I had found my home.

Even gods do not last forever. There came a day when Nereus fell asleep and suddenly became an undersea mountain which grumbled and shook with an inner fire. I, Zotikos and several of the merfolk gathered around the mountain, our transformed master, wondering what we were going to do when suddenly the mountain, the sea bottom, the water and even the attending fish dissolved away into a deep blue blackness which I recognized as the vault of sky. We had been placed among the stars like the mighty Orion or the vain Andromeda.

The sky is a calm and pleasant place to be with no needs or worries. From my position, I can now look upward and outward to the starry infinity or look downward to the Earth’s surface, seas and people. Even from this distance I can hear their talk as plainly as I can see vacant Mount Olympus. The people who watch the stars refer to our grouping as the Seven Sisters.

But we are not sisters, we are brothers.

If I turn my head slightly I can see Zotikos floating beside me. His eyes twinkle brilliantly as he smiles.


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Mike Mayak writes full-time, sometimes under the name “Jeff Baker.” Mike’s fiction has appeared (among other places) in Werewolves Versus Fascism and The Necronomicon of Solar Pons, among other places and his story “Something In the Dark” was read (as by “Jeff Baker”) on the podcast "Monsters out of the Closet,” 2018.
In addition, he writes (again as “Jeff Baker”) a monthly column for Queer Sci-Fi,
Under either name, Mike is happily married to Darryl Thompson, and regularly posts fiction on his blog: https://authorjeffbaker.com
He can be found on twitter here.

Copyright © 2022 by Mike Mayak
Published by Orion's Beau