We had a lot of things that we wanted to accomplish with Project Unicorn–the first being that we wanted to create stories and make them accessible for ALL queer girls who love girls, that means *everyone* who identifies as a girl and on the cusp of that gender and femme girls and butch girls and bois and trans* girls and gender fucking people who don’t give a flip about gender…anyone and everyone.
And today, we include our first trans* story into the mix.
Wonderfully, a *lot* of people email us to tell us they enjoy our stories, and to tell us theirs, becoming so vulnerable in that telling–it is magnificent to see and so humbling to read and receive these stories. Amazingly, about ONE THIRD of the emails we receive are from people who are trans* girls and women who are transitioning from male to female. We have fans across all spectrums of gender and sexual orientation, but the vocalist of our supporters are our trans* fans. They are *deeply* supportive and fucking amazing and as is quite obvious–they hardly have any stories of their own. I’ve talked before about how it is SO ESSENTIAL to see people like ourselves in narrative, and I knew when we first came up with Project Unicorn that the narratives needed to included all girls. Every. Last. One.
Though this is our first trans* story, it won’t be our last. This is for you–you know who you are. Thank you for your support, your great courage and for trusting us with your stories.
(photo by Sophie Beatrice)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“True if by Sea”
by Sarah Diemer
I’m born with a tail. Long, blue, sleek. It shimmers when the weak sunlight through the water hits it just so, the fish scales as wide as two fingers, and iridescent. I’m blessed by the sea priestess—of course—I’m the child of my father, the mer-king, and someday I’ll have his throne. I must be blessed. But when she looks in my eyes, deeply, unblinking, I know that she knows, and she nods.
For we two, now, share a secret.
I make the journey to her grotto the first time when I’m ten winters old.
“He thinks I’m someone I’m not,” I tell her, spreading my hands with their see-through webs, staring down at my too-pale skin, the familiar knuckles there. That cut on the second one is healing because I tried to tease a rather grumpy eel. “He doesn’t know,” I tell her, whispered, hushed, and she watches me with calculating eyes, tapping her fingers in a complicated pattern upon her own tail, this one marred by scars and thin, translucent lines, like she was dragged over coral and rock. The tip of one fluke is gone, but when she sinks lower, putting her face on the level of mine, her movements are just as graceful as my father’s, as my mother’s.
“What will you do about it, little prince?” she asks then, voice not unkind.
“I’m not a prince,” I tell her, words coming out so fast that they crumble the stillness between us. Anger rises in me, I ball my hands into fists, tail thrashing behind me. “You know that.”
“As do you,” she says, head to the side, watching me. “And I ask you again: what will you do about it?”
I’ve let my hair grow long, like my sisters’. My father doesn’t like it, wants it cut in the fashion he wore his when he was a boy. I hide behind it, sometimes, when he talks about bringing the court fashiona to my room, having her “fix me up.” I want it long, flowing. It doesn’t feel right to cut it.
But nothing really ever feels right.
“I don’t know what to do,” I tell the priestess, holding out my hands to her, the familiar knuckles, the traced palms that I upraise to her, beseeching.
“I can help you,” says the priestess then, surprising us both, I think. “But you must think about what you’re willing to give up so that you can obtain that which you wish for. The change. It doesn’t come easy. What is your price, Meloa?”
I breathe out, tail twitching. How does she know that name? The name that only I and Nerine, my sister, use when we’re together, playing, where no one else can hear us or see us, when I move in front of the mirrors just so, so that it looks like…so that it looks like I’m a girl.
“Come to me again when you’re ready,” says the sea priestess. And I leave her grotto weightless. Unsure. Terrified.
Only Nerine knew where I went. When I return, darting down the darkened halls, trying not to make too many swirls and eddies—these are noticed by the guards—I arrive in her room, rolling the door shut behind me.
“What did she say?” she asks, turning me this way and that, looking me up and down so that I blush. “You don’t look any different, but then, I didn’t start until I was eleven.” She points to her breasts and we both laugh at that, though it’s a nervous laughter. She knows something’s wrong. It couldn’t have been that easy, and she tried to tell me that before I left…
“She says she can help me,” I stutter out, swallowing, looking up into the eyes of my big sister. My hands and tail are shaking. “But she says that I have to think about what I’m willing to give up. That it comes at a high price.”
Nerine’s eyes are wide in the blue dark. She sinks a little closer to me. I can feel her heartbeat where I grip her wrist—it flutters like a dying fish.
“Telles went to her, once, because she’d fallen in love with a merman who didn’t notice her…” she begins, as she always begins when I bring up the sea priestess. I shake my head, agitated, push away from her and drift toward her collection of mirrors. “Telles sold the sea priestess her fins, Meloa,” Nerine whispers, following me. “And now the merman she wishes for dotes on her, carrying her from place to place because she can’t swim anymore.”
The change. It doesn’t come easy. I stare at myself in the mirror, turn as I always do, shrug my shoulders together, cover my chest with my arms, so that it looks like for a moment, just for a moment, like I’m myself.
I’ve never felt right. Nothing’s ever felt right, my whole life—the only snatches of time where it was better, even close to being better, has been here, in front of the mirror, playing with my sister’s things, putting that coral flower in my hair, wrapping myself in the gauzy fabrics the women wear, that Nerine has finally started a collection of. These are tiny, meaningless moments, but they’ve meant everything to me. When Nerine calls me Meloa. When she tries to make it better.
But she can’t.
Only I can.
“Meloa, please,” Nerine whispers, hands out to me, beseeching, just like I begged the sea priestess. “Think about what you might be asked to give up…”
It’s at this moment as the words pour out that I realize they’re true. Only at this moment. But it’s the beginning:
“I’d give up anything to be myself,” I whisper.
The mirrors shimmer in the darkness, reflecting my body’s lie.
I am fifteen winters old when I kiss her.
Una’s tail is green, her hair short, like a boy’s—her eyes flash like sapphires when anyone says it, though.
Una knows me. She knows who I am.
She became my friend two seasons ago. She’s beautiful and fierce and willful. She came from several cities away just to see what our kingdom looks like. I don’t think she has any parents, but we’ve never really talked about that. We only talk about what the future looks like, shimmery and far distant and impossibly beautiful.
“I thought Una only liked girls,” the others whisper behind their webbed hands. I can hear them when they say it, but it makes my heart beat faster, makes me feel lighter when she threads her fingers through mine, presses her palm to mine, flashes a smile at me that lights up the world.
Yes, she only likes girls.
And I’m a girl.
It makes me dizzy with relief when they say that, though they don’t know it.
Nerine’s room is still a refuge. I take Una there when I can, and among the gauzy fabrics (that Una doesn’t much care for for herself), and the pots of paint and coral flowers in my hair, I turn in the mirror and hold out my hands to her and she smiles at me, that bright, shining smile.
Una sees nothing but what I really am. She sees the truth of me.
Our first kiss is in front of those mirrors, those mirrors that showed me what I could be when I was smaller, the mirrors that help me, for a moment, feel like myself now. She puts her arms about my waist and pulls me to her, but I’m the one who does the kissing. She’s soft and warm against my mouth—she makes me breathless. Her hands at my hips, our reflection together in the mirror.
“You’re beautiful,” she whispers in my ear with her smiling mouth. And I believe her.
That night, it shatters.
All of it.
“Melo,” says my father, catching me in the hall. My heart thunders against my bones, because we just came from Nerine’s room, Una just left…could there still be a spot of paint somewhere on my face, maybe? Can he tell what I’ve been doing in front of the mirrors? I rub at my mouth with my hands, breathe out as my father swims closer.
He’s an imposing man, one of the tallest mermen I’ve ever seen, with jet black hair that he keeps short, cropped close around his ears, and gray metal-colored eyes that flash whenever he spots me.
“Melo, tomorrow we go,” he says, pointing over my shoulder to some distant place. “You’re fifteen. It’s time.”
“Time for what?” I murmur, my heart beating out a rhythm that whispers it to me. I already know. I just thought I’d have more time.
“To get the king’s crown. To assure your inheritance and crown you as the royal prince, the successor to my throne,” says my father heavily, as if I should surely know this by now.
I thought I’d have more time.
“Father…” I begin, but he’s already turning, already swimming away.
“At dawn,” he intones over his shoulder, back to me. And then he’s around a corner and gone.
In the darkness of the hall, I sag against a pillar, trying to make the water move through my gills seamlessly, even though it’s impossible, even though my heart beats so quickly, it’ll spill out of my chest, tear its way from beneath my skin.
I’m not this. I never was this, what he wants me to be, what’s expected of me, my inheritance, my birthright.
I am no prince, and only a prince can inherit the throne.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.
And then…I do.
Nerine is off with my other sisters. I go back to her doorway for a heartbeat, linger in front of the mirrors, wishing she were here. Wishing I could talk to her, tell her what I’m about to do. It’s time. I’m ready.
I journey to the sea priestess’s grotto afraid, determined.
“Hello,” she says from her monstrous stone throne, carved over with tentacles and jellyfish and large-eyed, sharp-toothed things I’ve never seen in the sea, but know exist…somewhere. I swallow as I stare up at her, her scarred and broken fins, her eyes that hold mine, that see the truth of me as she taps her fingers in a complicated pattern on the stone. “Why have you come, Meloa?” she asks then, and she descends from the throne and puts her hands upon my shoulders. She holds my gaze.
And I hold hers.
“Please help me be what I really am. Please help me change my body…” I run out of words. She knows, anyway. I’m shaking as she gazes at me, but I keep her gaze locked with mine.
I’m afraid, and yet—I am still here.
“What would you give up, for your body to reflect the truth of you?” she whispers in a hiss, beginning to circle me, examining me from every angle. “What would you give me for the truth?”
And I tell her the truth, the truth I’ve known since she first asked me that question: “Anything.”
When I catch her gaze now, she’s looking at me sadly, mouth downturned, eyes wide. But it passes in a heartbeat when she turns from me.
“Bring me the crown you and your father obtain tomorrow. And I will change you.”
“The crown?” whispers Una. Her fingers are threaded through mine so tightly, it almost hurts—but it’s the only thing holding me here, now.
My last night before I’m crowned prince.
My last night before I become myself.
“My inheritance,” I whisper, shaking my head. “I’ve never wanted it. She knows that, I think. But…Father…” I trail off, let go of her hands, put my face against my palms.
I’ve played it out a thousand times. A thousand times a thousand. When I tell my father that I’m not his son, but his daughter, that I love him, that I wish I could make him prouder, that he was always so proud to have finally had a son, someone to carry on the line of the kingdom…all gone, all destroyed.
I never wanted it, any of it. In my fantasies, my father tells me that he still loves me, that I still have a place here. But he’s Byrr the mer-king. He’s never shown mercy to a petty thief let alone the dashing of all of his dreams for me.
Tomorrow I won’t just lose my inheritance. I’ll lose my home. My place in the world that has been kept safe for me.
I’ll lose my family.
“Don’t think about that,” whispers Una, holding me close. But I can hear her heartbeat thunder, beneath her bones.
I close my eyes, water moving through my gills, our hearts beating, our bodies entwined.
But when I close my eyes, my father’s face is there. Terrible and angry.
And bearing the deepest mask of sadness I can imagine as I turn and leave him forever.
“Melo!” my father calls to me, jubilant and joyous as he swings open the door to my little room, as he swims through, his flukes fairly vibrating with excitement. “We go today, my son, and we crown you as prince,” he says, unfurling his arms and embracing me tightly.
Together, we move through the castle and down the main causeway out of the city, drifting higher in the water as the merpeople cheer for us. Father raises my hand, beams triumphantly down at his subjects, and I take great gulps of water, hoping he doesn’t notice how cold my hand is. How I don’t grip him back.
Una’s face is down in the crowd, upturned toward me. I catch her glance. She’s smiling at me, nodding. She blows me a kiss.
We journey out of the city, out into the seaweed and the coral, down deeper where the water turns from blue to black.
“Are you afraid?” he asks me just once, hefting his spear in his muscled arm, flashing me a grin. I shake my head, grip my own spear tightly, too.
No. I’m not afraid.
We reach the sea serpent’s cave, then.
For as long as there have been merpeople in the sea, our kingdom has been run this way: father to son, the crown is passed, and the crown must be passed like this. The son bests a sea serpent to obtain the crown, and when the son is grown and is king and has his own son, he returns the crown to the sea serpent’s cave and waits to crown his child with it, for they’ll seek the crown together when the child is of age.
My hands are cold along my spear as sparking eyes open in the absolute blackness of the cave. Massive eyes, slitted eyes, angry eyes that drift closer to us as a yawning mouth of teeth as long as I am tall come barreling toward us through the water. My father and I scatter, as I feel the weft and weight of the current the sea serpent brings with it pushing me down, down into the blackness of the sea.
My father yells something unintelligible, I grip the spear in my slick hands, but then I’m darting past the monstrous bulk of the thing, swimming quickly into the blackness of the cave. I know the story, I know where the crown should be.
The serpent hisses angrily, turning in upon itself, coming into the cave after me. There won’t be enough room with itself twisted together, and me—I’ll be blocked in. It could swallow me whole, devour me. But then, as my hands seek along the upper ledge, the upper ledge that was in all of the stories, I feel the cold metal of the crown, my fingers curling over it, snatching it up as I turn and meet the mouth of the sea serpent.
I hurl the spear as hard as I can, the force of it carrying the spear down and into the mouth. The sea serpent begins to choke, thrashing, turning, as my father calls outside of the cave for me, his voice shaking with fear. Fear that I am devoured.
I slip beneath the coils of the serpent, even as it thrashes, as I feel its tail bear down upon my back, and then somehow, impossibly, I am out of the cave of the sea serpent, and my father and I swim quickly away as its roar fills the water around us.
The serpent is as old as time. The spear will not harm it.
And I am away.
When we are far enough removed that we think it will not stalk us through the waters, we slump down among a bed of seaweed, laughing a little, the both of us, my father’s head in his hands.
“I was so afraid…” he begins, but then he’s shaking his head. “You are so brave,” he says, and I can’t swallow, can’t breathe, for his eyes are filled with tears. “I have never been prouder to call you my son.”
And that’s when everything stops. When everything else fades away, when the fear and courage both that had moved through me drain down to nothingness.
I hold the crown in my hands, the cold metal, the flashing jewels of it. It’s beautiful, dazzling.
And it’s not mine.
“I love you so much…” I begin, which is how I’ve always begun, in my head, when I tell him. But this is here. And now.
And I’m doing it.
“…but I’m not your son,” I whisper as several things pass over his face. Confusion, anger. “I’m your daughter,” I tell him, and it’s not in a whisper. It’s true and clear.
He stares at me, mouth open. He doesn’t know what to say, and I gulp, shake my head. “Nothing’s ever been right…” I try, but it doesn’t sound right, even to my ears. “This body…” I wave my hand down at it, bite my lip. “It’s not right. It’s never been right. But I know how to make it right. The sea priestess is going to change it for me, so that it reflects me. So that it is me.”
He’s still not said anything, and I can’t bear to look at him. “I love you so much…” I finish. And I turn, and I swim, fast, faster, gripping the crown in my hands, leaving my father beneath the blue of the sea.
Una is at the grotto of the sea priestess, at the entrance, leaning against the stone, her flukes keeping time with an imaginary rhythm in her head. And Nerine is there, too, impossibly. She gazes at me with flashing eyes, smiling, head high.
“This is right,” she tells me when I get close enough, when she can embrace me tightly. “I love you,” she whispers, my oldest confidant, my fierce sister, the one who’s loved me always.
We three enter the grotto together. And the sea priestess is there, but not on her throne. She drifts to us, eyes wide, and she snatches up my hands, gazes into me with such energy that I feel bared by her. But I stay firm, and I return her gaze, unflinching.
“Are you ready to give up everything?” she asks. “You know what you will give up, better than I, better than your sister, your sweetheart. You know.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I give up what everyone else thought I’d do and be. I never wanted any of it. I give up my family, my home. I’ve loved them so much…” I trail off, falter, but keep going. “And I give up my inheritance. Which was never mine to begin with.”
I give the sea priestess the crown, press the metal into her palms.
There is a current at the door, a figure that blocks out the light. My heart thunders as I turn, and there is my father.
Silence, absolute and black, comes between us, but his eyes are large and wide as he shakes his head, as he darts forward, palms up to me.
“No, no…I’m not here for…” He swallows, gazes from me to the sea priestess to Nerine to Una. “I’m not here to stop you,” he says, then, his voice gruff. “This is all…this is all very new, and…but…” I’ve never seen my father at a loss for words, and my body moves of its own accord. I move forward, and I embrace him tightly. No matter what he says after this, I needed that.
Just one last time.
But then he says: “I needed to see my daughter be born.”
The words are broken. He says them haltingly, unsure.
I back away from him, and we gaze at one another, speechless, uncertain.
But he’s here.
“Let’s begin,” says the sea priestess, gently as my father squeezes my hand, as my sister gazes at me with pride, as Una’s smile brightens the world.
The magic descends, and my body shifts and moves, an inheritance traded for the truth.
And I become myself.
If you liked “True if by Sea,” you can now enjoy entire months’ worth of stories in the Project Unicorn short story collections on your eReader, and support the project at the same time!
Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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